RICHARD. A horse!--A horse!--my kingdom for a horse! CATESBY......My lord, I'll help you to a horse. --RICHARD III.
Our travellers were in the act of passing a small thicket of trees close by the roadside, when the first living being presented himself whom they had seen since their departure from Cumnor Place. This was a stupid lout, seemingly a farmer's boy, in a grey jerkin, with his head bare, his hose about his heels, and huge startups upon his feet. He held by the bridle what of all things they most wanted--a palfrey, namely, with a side-saddle, and all other garniture for a woman's mounting; and he hailed Wayland Smith with, "Zur, be ye zure the party?"
"Ay, that I be, my lad," answered Wayland, without an instant's hesitation; and it must be owned that consciences trained in a stricter school of morality might have given way to an occasion so tempting. While he spoke, he caught the rein out of the boy's hand, and almost at the same time helped down the Countess from his own horse, and aided her to mount on that which chance had thus presented for her acceptance. Indeed, so naturally did the whole take place, that the Countess, as it afterwards appeared, never suspected but that the horse had been placed there to meet them by the precaution of the guide or some of his friends.
The lad, however, who was thus hastily dispossessed of his charge, began to stare hard, and scratch his head, as if seized with some qualms of conscience for delivering up the animal on such brief explanation. "I be right zure thou be'st the party," said he, muttering to himself, "but thou shouldst ha zaid BEANS, thou knawest."
"Ay, ay," said Wayland, speaking at a venture; "and thou BACON, thou knowest."
"Noa, noa," said the lad; "bide ye--bide ye--it was PEAS a should ha said."
"Well, well," answered Wayland, "Peas be it, a God's name! though Bacon were the better password."
And being by this time mounted on his own horse, he caught the rein of the palfrey from the uncertain hold of the hesitating young boor, flung him a small piece of money, and made amends for lost time by riding briskly off without further parley. The lad was still visible from the hill up which they were riding, and Wayland, as he looked back, beheld him standing with his fingers in his hair as immovable as a guide-post, and his head turned in the direction in which they were escaping from him. At length, just as they topped the hill, he saw the clown stoop to lift up the silver groat which his benevolence had imparted. "Now this is what I call a Godsend," said Wayland; "this is a bonny, well-ridden bit of a going thing, and it will carry us so far till we get you as well mounted, and then we will send it back time enough to satisfy the Hue and Cry."
But he was deceived in his expectations; and fate, which seemed at first to promise so fairly, soon threatened to turn the incident which he thus gloried in into the cause of their utter ruin.
They had not ridden a short mile from the place where they left the lad before they heard a man's voice shouting on the wind behind them, "Robbery! robbery!--Stop thief!" and similar exclamations, which Wayland's conscience readily assured him must arise out of the transaction to which he had been just accessory.
"I had better have gone barefoot all my life," he said; "it is the Hue and Cry, and I am a lost man. Ah! Wayland, Wayland, many a time thy father said horse-flesh would be the death of thee. Were I once safe among the horse-coursers in Smithfield, or Turnbull Street, they should have leave to hang me as high as St. Paul's if I e'er meddled more with nobles, knights, or gentlewomen."
Amidst these dismal reflections, he turned his head repeatedly to see by whom he was chased, and was much comforted when he could only discover a single rider, who was, however, well mounted, and came after them at a speed which left them no chance of escaping, even had the lady's strength permitted her to ride as fast as her palfrey might have been able to gallop.
"There may be fair play betwixt us, sure," thought Wayland, "where there is but one man on each side, and yonder fellow sits on his horse more like a monkey than a cavalier. Pshaw! if it come to the worse, it will be easy unhorsing him. Nay, 'snails! I think his horse will take the matter in his own hand, for he has the bridle betwixt his teeth. Oons, what care I for him?" said he, as the pursuer drew yet nearer; "it is but the little animal of a mercer from Abingdon, when all is over."
Even so it was, as the experienced eye of Wayland had descried at a distance. For the valiant mercer's horse, which was a beast of mettle, feeling himself put to his speed, and discerning a couple of horses riding fast at some hundred yards' distance before him, betook himself to the road with such alacrity as totally deranged the seat of his rider, who not only came up with, but passed at full gallop, those whom he had been pursuing, pulling the reins with all his might, and ejaculating, "Stop! stop!" an interjection which seemed rather to regard his own palfrey than what seamen call "the chase." With the same involuntary speed, he shot ahead (to use another nautical phrase) about a furlong ere he was able to stop and turn his horse, and then rode back towards our travellers, adjusting, as well as he could, his disordered dress, resettling himself in the saddle, and endeavouring to substitute a bold and martial frown for the confusion and dismay which sat upon his visage during his involuntary career.
Wayland had just time to caution the lady not to be alarmed, adding, "This fellow is a gull, and I will use him as such."
When the mercer had recovered breath and audacity enough to confront them, he ordered Wayland, in a menacing tone, to deliver up his palfrey.
"How?" said the smith, in King Cambyses' vein, "are we commanded to stand and deliver on the king's highway? Then out, Excalibur, and tell this knight of prowess that dire blows must decide between us!"
"Haro and help, and hue and cry, every true man!" said the mercer. "I am withstood in seeking to recover mine own."
"Thou swearest thy gods in vain, foul paynim," said Wayland, "for I will through with mine purpose were death at the end on't. Nevertheless, know, thou false man of frail cambric and ferrateen, that I am he, even the pedlar, whom thou didst boast to meet on Maiden Castle moor, and despoil of his pack; wherefore betake thee to thy weapons presently."
"I spoke but in jest, man," said Goldthred; "I am an honest shopkeeper and citizen, who scorns to leap forth on any man from behind a hedge."
"Then, by my faith, most puissant mercer," answered Wayland, "I am sorry for my vow, which was, that wherever I met thee I would despoil thee of thy palfrey, and bestow it upon my leman, unless thou couldst defend it by blows of force. But the vow is passed and registered, and all I can do for thee is to leave the horse at Donnington, in the nearest hostelry."
"But I tell thee, friend," said the mercer, "it is the very horse on which I was this day to carry Jane Thackham, of Shottesbrok, as far as the parish church yonder, to become Dame Goldthred. She hath jumped out of the shot-window of old Gaffer Thackham's grange; and lo ye, yonder she stands at the place where she should have met the palfrey, with her camlet riding-cloak and ivory-handled whip, like a picture of Lot's wife. I pray you, in good terms, let me have back the palfrey."
"Grieved am I," said Wayland, "as much for the fair damsel as for thee, most noble imp of muslin. But vows must have their course; thou wilt find the palfrey at the Angel yonder at Donnington. It is all I may do for thee with a safe conscience."
"To the devil with thy conscience!" said the dismayed mercer. "Wouldst thou have a bride walk to church on foot?"
"Thou mayest take her on thy crupper, Sir Goldthred," answered Wayland; "it will take down thy steed's mettle."
"And how if you--if you forget to leave my horse, as you propose?" said Goldthred, not without hesitation, for his soul was afraid within him.
"My pack shall be pledged for it--yonder it lies with Giles Gosling, in his chamber with the damasked leathern hangings, stuffed full with velvet, single, double, treble-piled--rash-taffeta, and parapa--shag, damask, and mocado, plush, and grogram--"
"Hold! hold!" exclaimed the mercer; "nay, if there be, in truth and sincerity, but the half of these wares--but if ever I trust bumpkin with bonny Bayard again!"
"As you list for that, good Master Goldthred, and so good morrow to you--and well parted," he added, riding on cheerfully with the lady, while the discountenanced mercer rode back much slower than he came, pondering what excuse he should make to the disappointed bride, who stood waiting for her gallant groom in the midst of the king's highway.
"Methought," said the lady, as they rode on, "yonder fool stared at me as if he had some remembrance of me; yet I kept my muffler as high as I might."
"If I thought so," said Wayland, "I would ride back and cut him over the pate; there would be no fear of harming his brains, for he never had so much as would make pap to a sucking gosling. We must now push on, however, and at Donnington we will leave the oaf's horse, that he may have no further temptation to pursue us, and endeavour to assume such a change of shape as may baffle his pursuit if he should persevere in it."
The travellers reached Donnington without further alarm, where it became matter of necessity that the Countess should enjoy two or three hours' repose, during which Wayland disposed himself, with equal address and alacrity, to carry through those measures on which the safety of their future journey seemed to depend.
Exchanging his pedlar's gaberdine for a smock-frock, he carried the palfrey of Goldthred to the Angel Inn, which was at the other end of the village from that where our travellers had taken up their quarters. In the progress of the morning, as he travelled about his other business, he saw the steed brought forth and delivered to the cutting mercer himself, who, at the head of a valorous posse of the Hue and Cry, came to rescue, by force of arms, what was delivered to him without any other ransom than the price of a huge quantity of ale, drunk out by his assistants, thirsty, it would seem, with their walk, and concerning the price of which Master Goldthred had a fierce dispute with the headborough, whom he had summoned to aid him in raising the country.
Having made this act of prudent as well as just restitution, Wayland procured such change of apparel for the lady, as well as himself, as gave them both the appearance of country people of the better class; it being further resolved, that in order to attract the less observation, she should pass upon the road for the sister of her guide. A good but not a gay horse, fit to keep pace with his own, and gentle enough for a lady's use, completed the preparations for the journey; for making which, and for other expenses, he had been furnished with sufficient funds by Tressilian. And thus, about noon, after the Countess had been refreshed by the sound repose of several hours, they resumed their journey, with the purpose of making the best of their way to Kenilworth, by Coventry and Warwick. They were not, however, destined to travel far without meeting some cause of apprehension.
It is necessary to premise that the landlord of the inn had informed them that a jovial party, intended, as he understood, to present some of the masques or mummeries which made a part of the entertainment with which the Queen was usually welcomed on the royal Progresses, had left the village of Donnington an hour or two before them in order to proceed to Kenilworth. Now it had occurred to Wayland that, by attaching themselves in some sort to this group as soon as they should overtake them on the road, they would be less likely to attract notice than if they continued to travel entirely by themselves. He communicated his idea to the Countess, who, only anxious to arrive at Kenilworth without interruption, left him free to choose the manner in which this was to be accomplished. They pressed forward their horses, therefore, with the purpose of overtaking the party of intended revellers, and making the journey in their company; and had just seen the little party, consisting partly of riders, partly of people on foot, crossing the summit of a gentle hill, at about half a mile's distance, and disappearing on the other side, when Wayland, who maintained the most circumspect observation of all that met his eye in every direction, was aware that a rider was coming up behind them on a horse of uncommon action, accompanied by a serving-man, whose utmost efforts were unable to keep up with his master's trotting hackney, and who, therefore, was fain to follow him at a hand gallop. Wayland looked anxiously back at these horsemen, became considerably disturbed in his manner, looked back again, and became pale, as he said to the lady, "That is Richard Varney's trotting gelding; I would know him among a thousand nags. This is a worse business than meeting the mercer."
"Draw your sword," answered the lady, "and pierce my bosom with it, rather than I should fall into his hands!"
"I would rather by a thousand times," answered Wayland, "pass it through his body, or even mine own. But to say truth, fighting is not my best point, though I can look on cold iron like another when needs must be. And indeed, as for my sword--(put on, I pray you)--it is a poor Provant rapier, and I warrant you he has a special Toledo. He has a serving-man, too, and I think it is the drunken ruffian Lambourne! upon the horse on which men say--(I pray you heartily to put on)--he did the great robbery of the west country grazier. It is not that I fear either Varney or Lambourne in a good cause--(your palfrey will go yet faster if you urge him)--but yet--(nay, I pray you let him not break off into a gallop, lest they should see we fear them, and give chase--keep him only at the full trot)--but yet, though I fear them not, I would we were well rid of them, and that rather by policy than by violence. Could we once reach the party before us, we may herd among them, and pass unobserved, unless Varney be really come in express pursuit of us, and then, happy man be his dole!"
While he thus spoke, he alternately urged and restrained his horse, desirous to maintain the fleetest pace that was consistent with the idea of an ordinary journey on the road, but to avoid such rapidity of movement as might give rise to suspicion that they were flying.
At such a pace they ascended the gentle hill we have mentioned, and looking from the top, had the pleasure to see that the party which had left Donnington before them were in the little valley or bottom on the other side, where the road was traversed by a rivulet, beside which was a cottage or two. In this place they seemed to have made a pause, which gave Wayland the hope of joining them, and becoming a part of their company, ere Varney should overtake them. He was the more anxious, as his companion, though she made no complaints, and expressed no fear, began to look so deadly pale that he was afraid she might drop from her horse. Notwithstanding this symptom of decaying strength, she pushed on her palfrey so briskly that they joined the party in the bottom of the valley ere Varney appeared on the top of the gentle eminence which they had descended.
They found the company to which they meant to associate themselves in great disorder. The women with dishevelled locks, and looks of great importance, ran in and out of one of the cottages, and the men stood around holding the horses, and looking silly enough, as is usual in cases where their assistance is not wanted.
Wayland and his charge paused, as if out of curiosity, and then gradually, without making any inquiries, or being asked any questions, they mingled with the group, as if they had always made part of it.
They had not stood there above five minutes, anxiously keeping as much to the side of the road as possible, so as to place the other travellers betwixt them and Varney, when Lord Leicester's master of the horse, followed by Lambourne, came riding fiercely down the hill, their horses' flanks and the rowels of their spurs showing bloody tokens of the rate at which they travelled. The appearance of the stationary group around the cottages, wearing their buckram suits in order to protect their masking dresses, having their light cart for transporting their scenery, and carrying various fantastic properties in their hands for the more easy conveyance, let the riders at once into the character and purpose of the company.
"You are revellers," said Varney, "designing for Kenilworth?"
"RECTE QUIDEM, DOMINE SPECTATISSIME," answered one of the party.
"And why the devil stand you here?" said Varney, "when your utmost dispatch will but bring you to Kenilworth in time? The Queen dines at Warwick to-morrow, and you loiter here, ye knaves."
"I very truth, sir," said a little, diminutive urchin, wearing a vizard with a couple of sprouting horns of an elegant scarlet hue, having, moreover, a black serge jerkin drawn close to his body by lacing, garnished with red stockings, and shoes so shaped as to resemble cloven feet--"in very truth, sir, and you are in the right on't. It is my father the Devil, who, being taken in labour, has delayed our present purpose, by increasing our company with an imp too many."
"The devil he has!" answered Varney, whose laugh, however, never exceeded a sarcastic smile.
"It is even as the juvenal hath said," added the masker who spoke first; "Our major devil--for this is but our minor one--is even now at LUCINA, FER OPEM, within that very TUGURIUM."
"By Saint George, or rather by the Dragon, who may be a kinsman of the fiend in the straw, a most comical chance!" said Varney. "How sayest thou, Lambourne, wilt thou stand godfather for the nonce? If the devil were to choose a gossip, I know no one more fit for the office."
"Saving always when my betters are in presence," said Lambourne, with the civil impudence of a servant who knows his services to be so indispensable that his jest will be permitted to pass muster.
"And what is the name of this devil, or devil's dam, who has timed her turns so strangely?" said Varney. "We can ill afford to spare any of our actors."
"GAUDET NOMINE SIBYLLAE," said the first speaker; "she is called Sibyl Laneham, wife of Master Robert Laneham--"
"Clerk to the Council-chamber door," said Varney; "why, she is inexcusable, having had experience how to have ordered her matters better. But who were those, a man and a woman, I think, who rode so hastily up the hill before me even now? Do they belong to your company?"
Wayland was about to hazard a reply to this alarming inquiry, when the little diablotin again thrust in his oar.
"So please you," he said, coming close up to Varney, and speaking so as not to be overheard by his companions, "the man was our devil major, who has tricks enough to supply the lack of a hundred such as Dame Laneham; and the woman, if you please, is the sage person whose assistance is most particularly necessary to our distressed comrade."
"Oh, what! you have got the wise woman, then?" said Varney. "Why, truly, she rode like one bound to a place where she was needed. And you have a spare limb of Satan, besides, to supply the place of Mistress Laneham?"
"Ay, sir," said the boy; "they are not so scarce in this world as your honour's virtuous eminence would suppose. This master-fiend shall spit a few flashes of fire, and eruct a volume or two of smoke on the spot, if it will do you pleasure--you would think he had AEtna in his abdomen."
"I lack time just now, most hopeful imp of darkness, to witness his performance," said Varney; "but here is something for you all to drink the lucky hour--and so, as the play says, 'God be with Your labour!'"
Thus speaking, he struck his horse with the spurs, and rode on his way.
Lambourne tarried a moment or two behind his master, and rummaged his pouch for a piece of silver, which he bestowed on the communicative imp, as he said, for his encouragement on his path to the infernal regions, some sparks of whose fire, he said, he could discover flashing from him already. Then having received the boy's thanks for his generosity he also spurred his horse, and rode after his master as fast as the fire flashes from flint.
"And now," said the wily imp, sidling close up to Wayland's horse, and cutting a gambol in the air which seemed to vindicate his title to relationship with the prince of that element, "I have told them who YOU are, do you in return tell me who I am?"
"Either Flibbertigibbet," answered Wayland Smith, "or else an imp of the devil in good earnest."
"Thou hast hit it," answered Dickie Sludge. "I am thine own Flibbertigibbet, man; and I have broken forth of bounds, along with my learned preceptor, as I told thee I would do, whether he would or not. But what lady hast thou got with thee? I saw thou wert at fault the first question was asked, and so I drew up for thy assistance. But I must know all who she is, dear Wayland."
"Thou shalt know fifty finer things, my dear ingle," said Wayland; "but a truce to thine inquiries just now. And since you are bound for Kenilworth, thither will I too, even for the love of thy sweet face and waggish company."
"Thou shouldst have said my waggish face and sweet company," said Dickie; "but how wilt thou travel with us--I mean in what character?"
"E'en in that thou hast assigned me, to be sure--as a juggler; thou knowest I am used to the craft," answered Wayland.
"Ay, but the lady?" answered Flibbertigibbet. "Credit me, I think she IS one and thou art in a sea of troubles about her at this moment, as I can perceive by thy fidgeting."
"Oh, she, man!--she is a poor sister of mine," said Wayland; "she can sing and play o' the lute would win the fish out o' the stream."
"Let me hear her instantly," said the boy, "I love the lute rarely; I love it of all things, though I never heard it."
"Then how canst thou love it, Flibbertigibbet?" said Wayland.
"As knights love ladies in old tales," answered Dickie--"on hearsay."
"Then love it on hearsay a little longer, till my sister is recovered from the fatigue of her journey," said Wayland; muttering afterwards betwixt his teeth, "The devil take the imp's curiosity! I must keep fair weather with him, or we shall fare the worse."
He then proceeded to state to Master Holiday his own talents as a juggler, with those of his sister as a musician. Some proof of his dexterity was demanded, which he gave in such a style of excellence, that, delighted at obtaining such an accession to their party, they readily acquiesced in the apology which he offered when a display of his sister's talents was required. The new-comers were invited to partake of the refreshments with which the party were provided; and it was with some difficulty that Wayland Smith obtained an opportunity of being apart with his supposed sister during the meal, of which interval he availed himself to entreat her to forget for the present both her rank and her sorrows, and condescend, as the most probable chance of remaining concealed, to mix in the society of those with whom she was to travel.
The Countess allowed the necessity of the case, and when they resumed their journey, endeavoured to comply with her guide's advice, by addressing herself to a female near her, and expressing her concern for the woman whom they were thus obliged to leave behind them.
"Oh, she is well attended, madam," replied the dame whom she addressed, who, from her jolly and laughter-loving demeanour, might have been the very emblem of the Wife of Bath; "and my gossip Laneham thinks as little of these matters as any one. By the ninth day, an the revels last so long, we shall have her with us at Kenilworth, even if she should travel with her bantling on her back."
There was something in this speech which took away all desire on the Countess of Leicester's part to continue the conversation. But having broken the charm by speaking to her fellow-traveller first, the good dame, who was to play Rare Gillian of Croydon in one of the interludes, took care that silence did not again settle on the journey, but entertained her mute companion with a thousand anecdotes of revels, from the days of King Harry downwards, with the reception given them by the great folk, and all the names of those who played the principal characters; but ever concluding with "they would be nothing to the princely pleasures of Kenilworth."
"And when shall we reach Kenilworth? said the Countess, with an agitation which she in vain attempted to conceal.
"We that have horses may, with late riding, get to Warwick to-night, and Kenilworth may be distant some four or five miles. But then we must wait till the foot-people come up; although it is like my good Lord of Leicester will have horses or light carriages to meet them, and bring them up without being travel-toiled, which last is no good preparation, as you may suppose, for dancing before your betters. And yet, Lord help me, I have seen the day I would have tramped five leagues of lea-land, and turned an my toe the whole evening after, as a juggler spins a pewter platter on the point of a needle. But age has clawed me somewhat in his clutch, as the song says; though, if I like the tune and like my partner, I'll dance the hays yet with any merry lass in Warwickshire that writes that unhappy figure four with a round O after it."
If the Countess was overwhelmed with the garrulity of this good dame, Wayland Smith, on his part, had enough to do to sustain and parry the constant attacks made upon him by the indefatigable curiosity of his old acquaintance Richard Sludge. Nature had given that arch youngster a prying cast of disposition, which matched admirably with his sharp wit; the former inducing him to plant himself as a spy on other people's affairs, and the latter quality leading him perpetually to interfere, after he had made himself master of that which concerned him not. He spent the livelong day in attempting to peer under the Countess's muffler, and apparently what he could there discern greatly sharpened his curiosity.
"That sister of thine, Wayland," he said, "has a fair neck to have been born in a smithy, and a pretty taper hand to have been used for twirling a spindle--faith, I'll believe in your relationship when the crow's egg is hatched into a cygnet."
"Go to," said Wayland, "thou art a prating boy, and should be breeched for thine assurance."
"Well," said the imp, drawing off, "all I say is--remember you have kept a secret from me, and if I give thee not a Roland for thine Oliver, my name is not Dickon Sludge!"
This threat, and the distance at which Hobgoblin kept from him for the rest of the way, alarmed Wayland very much, and he suggested to his pretended sister that, on pretext of weariness, she should express a desire to stop two or three miles short of the fair town of Warwick, promising to rejoin the troop in the morning. A small village inn afforded them a resting-place, and it was with secret pleasure that Wayland saw the whole party, including Dickon, pass on, after a courteous farewell, and leave them behind.
"To-morrow, madam," he said to his charge, "we will, with your leave, again start early, and reach Kenilworth before the rout which are to assemble there."
The Countess gave assent to the proposal of her faithful guide; but, somewhat to his surprise, said nothing further on the subject, which left Wayland under the disagreeable uncertainty whether or no she had formed any plan for her own future proceedings, as he knew her situation demanded circumspection, although he was but imperfectly acquainted with all its peculiarities. Concluding, however, that she must have friends within the castle, whose advice and assistance she could safely trust, he supposed his task would be best accomplished by conducting her thither in safety, agreeably to her repeated commands.
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