The wisest Sovereigns err like private men, And royal hand has sometimes laid the sword Of chivalry upon a worthless shoulder, Which better had been branded by the hangman. What then?--Kings do their best; and they and we Must answer for the intent, and not the event.--OLD PLAY.
"It is a melancholy matter," said the Queen, when Tressilian was withdrawn, "to see a wise and learned man's wit thus pitifully unsettled. Yet this public display of his imperfection of brain plainly shows us that his supposed injury and accusation were fruitless; and therefore, my Lord of Leicester, we remember your suit formerly made to us in behalf of your faithful servant Varney, whose good gifts and fidelity, as they are useful to you, ought to have due reward from us, knowing well that your lordship, and all you have, are so earnestly devoted to our service. And we render Varney the honour more especially that we are a guest, and, we fear, a chargeable and troublesome one, under your lordship's roof; and also for the satisfaction of the good old Knight of Devon, Sir Hugh Robsart, whose daughter he hath married, and we trust the especial mark of grace which we are about to confer may reconcile him to his son-in-law.--Your sword, my Lord of Leicester."
The Earl unbuckled his sword, and taking it by the point, presented on bended knee the hilt to Elizabeth.
She took it slowly drew it from the scabbard, and while the ladies who stood around turned away their eyes with real or affected shuddering, she noted with a curious eye the high polish and rich, damasked ornaments upon the glittering blade.
"Had I been a man," she said, "methinks none of my ancestors would have loved a good sword better. As it is with me, I like to look on one, and could, like the Fairy of whom I have read in some Italian rhymes--were my godson Harrington here, he could tell me the passage--even trim my hair, and arrange my head-gear, in such a steel mirror as this is.--Richard Varney, come forth, and kneel down. In the name of God and Saint George, we dub thee knight! Be Faithful, Brave, and Fortunate. Arise, Sir Richard Varney."
[The incident alluded to occurs in the poem of Orlando Innamorato of Boiardo, libro ii. canto 4, stanza 25.It may be rendered thus:--
"Non era per ventura," etc.
As then, perchance, unguarded was the tower, So enter'd free Anglante's dauntless knight. No monster and no giant guard the bower In whose recess reclined the fairy light, Robed in a loose cymar of lily white, And on her lap a sword of breadth and might, In whose broad blade, as in a mirror bright, Like maid that trims her for a festal night, The fairy deck'd her hair, and placed her coronet aright.Elizabeth's attachment to the Italian school of poetry was singularly manifested on a well-known occasion. Her godson, Sir John Harrington, having offended her delicacy by translating some of the licentious passages of the Orlando Furioso, she imposed on him, as a penance, the task of rendering the WHOLE poem into English.]
Varney arose and retired, making a deep obeisance to the Sovereign who had done him so much honour.
"The buckling of the spur, and what other rites remain," said the Queen, "may be finished to-morrow in the chapel; for we intend Sir Richard Varney a companion in his honours. And as we must not be partial in conferring such distinction, we mean on this matter to confer with our cousin of Sussex."
That noble Earl, who since his arrival at Kenilworth, and indeed since the commencement of this Progress, had found himself in a subordinate situation to Leicester, was now wearing a heavy cloud on his brow; a circumstance which had not escaped the Queen, who hoped to appease his discontent, and to follow out her system of balancing policy by a mark of peculiar favour, the more gratifying as it was tendered at a moment when his rival's triumph appeared to be complete.
At the summons of Queen Elizabeth, Sussex hastily approached her person; and being asked on which of his followers, being a gentleman and of merit, he would wish the honour of knighthood to be conferred, he answered, with more sincerity than policy, that he would have ventured to speak for Tressilian, to whom he conceived he owed his own life, and who was a distinguished soldier and scholar, besides a man of unstained lineage, "only," he said, "he feared the events of that night--" And then he stopped.
"I am glad your lordship is thus considerate," said Elizabeth. "The events of this night would make us, in the eyes of our subjects, as mad as this poor brain-sick gentleman himself--for we ascribe his conduct to no malice--should we choose this moment to do him grace."
"In that case," said the Earl of Sussex, somewhat discountenanced, "your Majesty will allow me to name my master of the horse, Master Nicholas Blount, a gentleman of fair estate and ancient name, who has served your Majesty both in Scotland and Ireland, and brought away bloody marks on his person, all honourably taken and requited."
The Queen could not help shrugging her shoulders slightly even at this second suggestion; and the Duchess of Rutland, who read in the Queen's manner that she had expected that Sussex would have named Raleigh, and thus would have enabled her to gratify her own wish while she honoured his recommendation, only waited the Queen's assent to what he had proposed, and then said that she hoped, since these two high nobles had been each permitted to suggest a candidate for the honours of chivalry, she, in behalf of the ladies in presence, might have a similar indulgence.
"I were no woman to refuse you such a boon," said the Queen, smiling.
"Then," pursued the Duchess, "in the name of these fair ladies present, I request your Majesty to confer the rank of knighthood on Walter Raleigh, whose birth, deeds of arms, and promptitude to serve our sex with sword or pen, deserve such distinction from us all."
"Gramercy, fair ladies," said Elizabeth, smiling, "your boon is granted, and the gentle squire Lack-Cloak shall become the good knight Lack-Cloak, at your desire. Let the two aspirants for the honour of chivalry step forward."
Blount was not as yet returned from seeing Tressilian, as he conceived, safely disposed of; but Raleigh came forth, and kneeling down, received at the hand of the Virgin Queen that title of honour, which was never conferred on a more distinguished or more illustrious object.
Shortly afterwards Nicholas Blount entered, and hastily apprised by Sussex, who met him at the door of the hall, of the Queen's gracious purpose regarding him, he was desired to advance towards the throne. It is a sight sometimes seen, and it is both ludicrous and pitiable; when an honest man of plain common sense is surprised, by the coquetry of a pretty woman, or any other cause, into those frivolous fopperies which only sit well upon the youthful, the gay, and those to whom long practice has rendered them a second nature. Poor Blount was in this situation. His head was already giddy from a consciousness of unusual finery, and the supposed necessity of suiting his manners to the gaiety of his dress; and now this sudden view of promotion altogether completed the conquest of the newly inhaled spirit of foppery over his natural disposition, and converted a plain, honest, awkward man into a coxcomb of a new and most ridiculous kind.
The knight-expectant advanced up the hall, the whole length of which he had unfortunately to traverse, turning out his toes with so much zeal that he presented his leg at every step with its broadside foremost, so that it greatly resembled an old-fashioned table-knife with a curved point, when seen sideways. The rest of his gait was in proportion to this unhappy amble; and the implied mixture of bashful rear and self-satisfaction was so unutterably ridiculous that Leicester's friends did not suppress a titter, in which many of Sussex's partisans were unable to resist joining, though ready to eat their nails with mortification. Sussex himself lost all patience, and could not forbear whispering into the ear of his friend, "Curse thee! canst thou not walk like a man and a soldier?" an interjection which only made honest Blount start and stop, until a glance at his yellow roses and crimson stockings restored his self-confidence, when on he went at the same pace as before.
The Queen conferred on poor Blount the honour of knighthood with a marked sense of reluctance. That wise Princess was fully aware of the propriety of using great circumspection and economy in bestowing those titles of honour, which the Stewarts, who succeeded to her throne, distributed with an imprudent liberality which greatly diminished their value. Blount had no sooner arisen and retired than she turned to the Duchess of Rutland. "Our woman wit," she said, "dear Rutland, is sharper than that of those proud things in doublet and hose. Seest thou, out of these three knights, thine is the only true metal to stamp chivalry's imprint upon?"
"Sir Richard Varney, surely--the friend of my Lord of Leicester--surely he has merit," replied the Duchess.
"Varney has a sly countenance and a smooth tongue," replied the Queen; "I fear me he will prove a knave. But the promise was of ancient standing. My Lord of Sussex must have lost his own wits, I think, to recommend to us first a madman like Tressilian, and then a clownish fool like this other fellow. I protest, Rutland, that while he sat on his knees before me, mopping and mowing as if he had scalding porridge in his mouth, I had much ado to forbear cutting him over the pate, instead of striking his shoulder."
"Your Majesty gave him a smart ACCOLADE," said the Duchess; "we who stood behind heard the blade clatter on his collar-bone, and the poor man fidgeted too as if he felt it."
"I could not help it, wench," said the Queen, laughing. "But we will have this same Sir Nicholas sent to Ireland or Scotland, or somewhere, to rid our court of so antic a chevalier; he may be a good soldier in the field, though a preposterous ass in a banqueting-hall."
The discourse became then more general, and soon after there was a summons to the banquet.
In order to obey this signal, the company were under the necessity of crossing the inner court of the Castle, that they might reach the new buildings containing the large banqueting-room, in which preparations for supper were made upon a scale of profuse magnificence, corresponding to the occasion.
The livery cupboards were loaded with plate of the richest description, and the most varied--some articles tasteful, some perhaps grotesque, in the invention and decoration, but all gorgeously magnificent, both from the richness of the work and value of the materials. Thus the chief table was adorned by a salt, ship-fashion, made of mother-of-pearl, garnished with silver and divers warlike ensigns and other ornaments, anchors, sails, and sixteen pieces of ordnance. It bore a figure of Fortune, placed on a globe, with a flag in her hand. Another salt was fashioned of silver, in form of a swan in full sail. That chivalry might not be omitted amid this splendour, a silver Saint George was presented, mounted and equipped in the usual fashion in which he bestrides the dragon. The figures were moulded to be in some sort useful. The horse's tail was managed to hold a case of knives, while the breast of the dragon presented a similar accommodation for oyster knives.
In the course of the passage from the hall of reception to the banqueting-room, and especially in the courtyard, the new-made knights were assailed by the heralds, pursuivants, minstrels, etc., with the usual cry of LARGESSE, LARGESSE, CHEVALIERS TRES HARDIS! an ancient invocation, intended to awaken the bounty of the acolytes of chivalry towards those whose business it was to register their armorial bearings, and celebrate the deeds by which they were illustrated. The call was, of course, liberally and courteously answered by those to whom it was addressed. Varney gave his largesse with an affectation of complaisance and humility. Raleigh bestowed his with the graceful ease peculiar to one who has attained his own place, and is familiar with its dignity. Honest Blount gave what his tailor had left him of his half-year's rent, dropping some pieces in his hurry, then stooping down to look for them, and then distributing them amongst the various claimants, with the anxious face and mien of the parish beadle dividing a dole among paupers.
The donations were accepted with the usual clamour and VIVATS of applause common on such occasions; but as the parties gratified were chiefly dependants of Lord Leicester, it was Varney whose name was repeated with the loudest acclamations. Lambourne, especially, distinguished himself by his vociferations of "Long life to Sir Richard Varney!--Health and honour to Sir Richard!--Never was a more worthy knight dubbed!"--then, suddenly sinking his voice, he added--"since the valiant Sir Pandarus of Troy,"--a winding-up of his clamorous applause which set all men a-laughing who were within hearing of it.
It is unnecessary to say anything further of the festivities of the evening, which were so brilliant in themselves, and received with such obvious and willing satisfaction by the Queen, that Leicester retired to his own apartment with all the giddy raptures of successful ambition. Varney, who had changed his splendid attire, and now waited on his patron in a very modest and plain undress, attended to do the honours of the Earl's COUCHER.
"How! Sir Richard," said Leicester, smiling, "your new rank scarce suits the humility of this attendance."
"I would disown that rank, my Lord," said Varney, "could I think it was to remove me to a distance from your lordship's person."
"Thou art a grateful fellow," said Leicester; "but I must not allow you to do what would abate you in the opinion of others."
While thus speaking, he still accepted without hesitation the offices about his person, which the new-made knight seemed to render as eagerly as if he had really felt, in discharging the task, that pleasure which his words expressed.
"I am not afraid of men's misconstruction," he said, in answer to Leicester's remark, "since there is not--(permit me to undo the collar)--a man within the Castle who does not expect very soon to see persons of a rank far superior to that which, by your goodness, I now hold, rendering the duties of the bedchamber to you, and accounting it an honour."
"It might, indeed, so have been"--said the Earl, with an involuntary sigh; and then presently added, "My gown, Varney; I will look out on the night. Is not the moon near to the full?"
"I think so, my lord, according to the calendar," answered Varney.
There was an abutting window, which opened on a small projecting balcony of stone, battlemented as is usual in Gothic castles. The Earl undid the lattice, and stepped out into the open air. The station he had chosen commanded an extensive view of the lake and woodlands beyond, where the bright moonlight rested on the clear blue waters and the distant masses of oak and elm trees. The moon rode high in the heavens, attended by thousands and thousands of inferior luminaries. All seemed already to be hushed in the nether world, excepting occasionally the voice of the watch (for the yeomen of the guard performed that duty wherever the Queen was present in person) and the distant baying of the hounds, disturbed by the preparations amongst the grooms and prickers for a magnificent hunt, which was to be the amusement of the next day.
Leicester looked out on the blue arch of heaven, with gestures and a countenance expressive of anxious exultation, while Varney, who remained within the darkened apartment, could (himself unnoticed), with a secret satisfaction, see his patron stretch his hands with earnest gesticulation towards the heavenly bodies.
"Ye distant orbs of living fire," so ran the muttered invocation of the ambitious Earl, "ye are silent while you wheel your mystic rounds; but Wisdom has given to you a voice. Tell me, then, to what end is my high course destined? Shall the greatness to which I have aspired be bright, pre-eminent, and stable as your own; or am I but doomed to draw a brief and glittering train along the nightly darkness, and then to sink down to earth, like the base refuse of those artificial fires with which men emulate your rays?"
He looked on the heavens in profound silence for a minute or two longer, and then again stepped into the apartment, where Varney seemed to have been engaged in putting the Earl's jewels into a casket.
"What said Alasco of my horoscope?" demanded Leicester. "You already told me; but it has escaped me, for I think but lightly of that art."
"Many learned and great men have thought otherwise," said Varney; "and, not to flatter your lordship, my own opinion leans that way."
"Ay, Saul among the prophets?" said Leicester. "I thought thou wert sceptical in all such matters as thou couldst neither see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, and that thy belief was limited by thy senses."
"Perhaps, my lord," said Varney, "I may be misled on the present occasion by my wish to find the predictions of astrology true. Alasco says that your favourite planet is culminating, and that the adverse influence--he would not use a plainer term--though not overcome, was evidently combust, I think he said, or retrograde."
"It is even so," said Leicester, looking at an abstract of astrological calculations which he had in his hand; "the stronger influence will prevail, and, as I think, the evil hour pass away. Lend me your hand, Sir Richard, to doff my gown; and remain an instant, if it is not too burdensome to your knighthood, while I compose myself to sleep. I believe the bustle of this day has fevered my blood, for it streams through my veins like a current of molten lead. Remain an instant, I pray you--I would fain feel my eyes heavy ere I closed them."
Varney officiously assisted his lord to bed, and placed a massive silver night-lamp, with a short sword, on a marble table which stood close by the head of the couch. Either in order to avoid the light of the lamp, or to hide his countenance from Varney, Leicester drew the curtain, heavy with entwined silk and gold, so as completely to shade his face. Varney took a seat near the bed, but with his back towards his master, as if to intimate that he was not watching him, and quietly waited till Leicester himself led the way to the topic by which his mind was engrossed.
"And so, Varney," said the Earl, after waiting in vain till his dependant should commence the conversation, "men talk of the Queen's favour towards me?"
"Ay, my good lord," said Varney; "of what can they else, since it is so strongly manifested?"
"She is indeed my good and gracious mistress," said Leicester, after another pause; "but it is written, 'Put not thy trust in princes.'"
"A good sentence and a true," said Varney, "unless you can unite their interest with yours so absolutely that they must needs sit on your wrist like hooded hawks."
"I know what thou meanest," said Leicester impatiently, "though thou art to-night so prudentially careful of what thou sayest to me. Thou wouldst intimate I might marry the Queen if I would?"
"It is your speech, my lord, not mine," answered Varney; "but whosesoever be the speech, it is the thought of ninety-nine out of an hundred men throughout broad England."
"Ay, but," said Leicester, turning himself in his bed, "the hundredth man knows better. Thou, for example, knowest the obstacle that cannot be overleaped."
"It must, my lord, if the stars speak true," said Varney composedly.
"What, talkest thou of them," said Leicester, "that believest not in them or in aught else?"
"You mistake, my lord, under your gracious pardon," said Varney; "I believe in many things that predict the future. I believe, if showers fall in April, that we shall have flowers in May; that if the sun shines, grain will ripen; and I believe in much natural philosophy to the same effect, which, if the stars swear to me, I will say the stars speak the truth. And in like manner, I will not disbelieve that which I see wished for and expected on earth, solely because the astrologers have read it in the heavens."
"Thou art right," said Leicester, again tossing himself on his couch "Earth does wish for it. I have had advices from the reformed churches of Germany--from the Low Countries--from Switzerland--urging this as a point on which Europe's safety depends. France will not oppose it. The ruling party in Scotland look to it as their best security. Spain fears it, but cannot prevent it. And yet thou knowest it is impossible."
"I know not that, my lord," said Varney; "the Countess is indisposed."
"Villain!" said Leicester, starting up on his couch, and seizing the sword which lay on the table beside him, "go thy thoughts that way?--thou wouldst not do murder?"
"For whom, or what, do you hold me, my lord?" said Varney, assuming the superiority of an innocent man subjected to unjust suspicion. "I said nothing to deserve such a horrid imputation as your violence infers. I said but that the Countess was ill. And Countess though she be--lovely and beloved as she is--surely your lordship must hold her to be mortal? She may die, and your lordship's hand become once more your own."
"Away! away!" said Leicester; "let me have no more of this."
"Good night, my lord," said Varney, seeming to understand this as a command to depart; but Leicester's voice interrupted his purpose.
"Thou 'scapest me not thus, Sir Fool," said he; "I think thy knighthood has addled thy brains. Confess thou hast talked of impossibilities as of things which may come to pass."
"My lord, long live your fair Countess," said Varney; "but neither your love nor my good wishes can make her immortal. But God grant she live long to be happy herself, and to render you so! I see not but you may be King of England notwithstanding."
"Nay, now, Varney, thou art stark mad," said Leicester.
"I would I were myself within the same nearness to a good estate of freehold," said Varney. "Have we not known in other countries how a left-handed marriage might subsist betwixt persons of differing degree?--ay, and be no hindrance to prevent the husband from conjoining himself afterwards with a more suitable partner?"
"I have heard of such things in Germany," said Leicester.
"Ay, and the most learned doctors in foreign universities justify the practice from the Old Testament," said Varney. "And after all, where is the harm? The beautiful partner whom you have chosen for true love has your secret hours of relaxation and affection. Her fame is safe her conscience may slumber securely. You have wealth to provide royally for your issue, should Heaven bless you with offspring. Meanwhile you may give to Elizabeth ten times the leisure, and ten thousand times the affection, that ever Don Philip of Spain spared to her sister Mary; yet you know how she doted on him though so cold and neglectful. It requires but a close mouth and an open brow, and you keep your Eleanor and your fair Rosamond far enough separate. Leave me to build you a bower to which no jealous Queen shall find a clew."
Leicester was silent for a moment, then sighed, and said, "It is impossible. Good night, Sir Richard Varney--yet stay. Can you guess what meant Tressilian by showing himself in such careless guise before the Queen to-day?--to strike her tender heart, I should guess, with all the sympathies due to a lover abandoned by his mistress and abandoning himself."
Varney, smothering a sneering laugh, answered, "He believed Master Tressilian had no such matter in his head."
"How!" said Leicester; "what meanest thou? There is ever knavery in that laugh of thine, Varney."
"I only meant, my lord," said Varney, "that Tressilian has taken the sure way to avoid heart-breaking. He hath had a companion--a female companion--a mistress--a sort of player's wife or sister, as I believe--with him in Mervyn's Bower, where I quartered him for certain reasons of my own."
"A mistress!--meanest thou a paramour?"
"Ay, my lord; what female else waits for hours in a gentleman's chamber?"
"By my faith, time and space fitting, this were a good tale to tell," said Leicester. "I ever distrusted those bookish, hypocritical, seeming-virtuous scholars. Well--Master Tressilian makes somewhat familiar with my house; if I look it over, he is indebted to it for certain recollections. I would not harm him more than I can help. Keep eye on him, however, Varney."
"I lodged him for that reason," said Varney, "in Mervyn's Tower, where he is under the eye of my very vigilant, if he were not also my very drunken, servant, Michael Lambourne, whom I have told your Grace of."
"Grace!" said Leicester; "what meanest thou by that epithet?"
"It came unawares, my lord; and yet it sounds so very natural that I cannot recall it."
"It is thine own preferment that hath turned thy brain," said Leicester, laughing; "new honours are as heady as new wine."
"May your lordship soon have cause to say so from experience," said Varney; and wishing his patron good night, he withdrew. [See Note 8. Furniture of Kenilworth.]
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