Sincerity, Thou first of virtues! let no mortal leave Thy onward path, although the earth should gape, And from the gulf of hell destruction cry, To take dissimulation's winding way. --DOUGLAS.
It was not till after a long and successful morning's sport, and a prolonged repast which followed the return of the Queen to the Castle, that Leicester at length found himself alone with Varney, from whom he now learned the whole particulars of the Countess's escape, as they had been brought to Kenilworth by Foster, who, in his terror for the consequences, had himself posted thither with the tidings. As Varney, in his narrative, took especial care to be silent concerning those practices on the Countess's health which had driven her to so desperate a resolution, Leicester, who could only suppose that she had adopted it out of jealous impatience to attain the avowed state and appearance belonging to her rank, was not a little offended at the levity with which his wife had broken his strict commands, and exposed him to the resentment of Elizabeth.
"I have given," he said, "to this daughter of an obscure Devonshire gentleman the proudest name in England. I have made her sharer of my bed and of my fortunes. I ask but of her a little patience, ere she launches forth upon the full current of her grandeur; and the infatuated woman will rather hazard her own shipwreck and mine--will rather involve me in a thousand whirlpools, shoals, and quicksands, and compel me to a thousand devices which shame me in mine own eyes--than tarry for a little space longer in the obscurity to which she was born. So lovely, so delicate, so fond, so faithful, yet to lack in so grave a matter the prudence which one might hope from the veriest fool--it puts me beyond my patience."
"We may post it over yet well enough," said Varney, "if my lady will be but ruled, and take on her the character which the time commands."
"It is but too true, Sir Richard," said Leicester; "there is indeed no other remedy. I have heard her termed thy wife in my presence, without contradiction. She must bear the title until she is far from Kenilworth."
"And long afterwards, I trust," said Varney; then instantly added, "For I cannot but hope it will be long after ere she bear the title of Lady Leicester--I fear me it may scarce be with safety during the life of this Queen. But your lordship is best judge, you alone knowing what passages have taken place betwixt Elizabeth and you."
"You are right, Varney," said Leicester. "I have this morning been both fool and villain; and when Elizabeth hears of my unhappy marriage, she cannot but think herself treated with that premeditated slight which women never forgive. We have once this day stood upon terms little short of defiance; and to those, I fear, we must again return."
"Is her resentment, then, so implacable?" said Varney.
"Far from it," replied the Earl; "for, being what she is in spirit and in station, she has even this day been but too condescending, in giving me opportunities to repair what she thinks my faulty heat of temper."
"Ay," answered Varney; "the Italians say right--in lovers' quarrels, the party that loves most is always most willing to acknowledge the greater fault. So then, my lord, if this union with the lady could be concealed, you stand with Elizabeth as you did?"
Leicester sighed, and was silent for a moment, ere he replied.
"Varney, I think thou art true to me, and I will tell thee all. I do NOT stand where I did. I have spoken to Elizabeth--under what mad impulse I know not--on a theme which cannot be abandoned without touching every female feeling to the quick, and which yet I dare not and cannot prosecute. She can never, never forgive me for having caused and witnessed those yieldings to human passion."
"We must do something, my lord," said Varney, "and that speedily."
"There is nought to be done," answered Leicester, despondingly. "I am like one that has long toiled up a dangerous precipice, and when he is within one perilous stride of the top, finds his progress arrested when retreat has become impossible. I see above me the pinnacle which I cannot reach--beneath me the abyss into which I must fall, as soon as my relaxing grasp and dizzy brain join to hurl me from my present precarious stance."
"Think better of your situation, my lord," said Varney; "let us try the experiment in which you have but now acquiesced. Keep we your marriage from Elizabeth's knowledge, and all may yet be well. I will instantly go to the lady myself. She hates me, because I have been earnest with your lordship, as she truly suspects, in opposition to what she terms her rights. I care not for her prejudices--she SHALL listen to me; and I will show her such reasons for yielding to the pressure of the times that I doubt not to bring back her consent to whatever measures these exigencies may require."
"No, Varney," said Leicester; "I have thought upon what is to be done, and I will myself speak with Amy."
It was now Varney's turn to feel upon his own account the terrors which he affected to participate solely on account of his patron. "Your lordship will not yourself speak with the lady?"
"It is my fixed purpose," said Leicester. "Fetch me one of the livery-cloaks; I will pass the sentinel as thy servant. Thou art to have free access to her."
"But, my lord--"
"I will have no BUTS," replied Leicester; "it shall be even thus, and not otherwise. Hunsdon sleeps, I think, in Saintlowe's Tower. We can go thither from these apartments by the private passage, without risk of meeting any one. Or what if I do meet Hunsdon? he is more my friend than enemy, and thick-witted enough to adopt any belief that is thrust on him. Fetch me the cloak instantly."
Varney had no alternative save obedience. In a few minutes Leicester was muffled in the mantle, pulled his bonnet over his brows, and followed Varney along the secret passage of the Castle which communicated with Hunsdon's apartments, in which there was scarce a chance of meeting any inquisitive person, and hardly light enough for any such to have satisfied their curiosity. They emerged at a door where Lord Hunsdon had, with military precaution, placed a sentinel, one of his own northern retainers as it fortuned, who readily admitted Sir Richard Varney and his attendant, saying only, in his northern dialect, "I would, man, thou couldst make the mad lady be still yonder; for her moans do sae dirl through my head that I would rather keep watch on a snowdrift, in the wastes of Catlowdie."
They hastily entered, and shut the door behind them.
"Now, good devil, if there be one," said Varney, within himself, "for once help a votary at a dead pinch, for my boat is amongst the breakers!"
The Countess Amy, with her hair and her garments dishevelled, was seated upon a sort of couch, in an attitude of the deepest affliction, out of which she was startled by the opening of the door. Size turned hastily round, and fixing her eye on Varney, exclaimed, "Wretch! art thou come to frame some new plan of villainy?"
Leicester cut short her reproaches by stepping forward and dropping his cloak, while he said, in a voice rather of authority than of affection, "It is with me, madam, you have to commune, not with Sir Richard Varney."
The change effected on the Countess's look and manner was like magic. "Dudley!" she exclaimed, "Dudley! and art thou come at last?" And with the speed of lightning she flew to her husband, clung round his neck, and unheeding the presence of Varney, overwhelmed him with caresses, while she bathed his face in a flood of tears, muttering, at the same time, but in broken and disjointed monosyllables, the fondest expressions which Love teaches his votaries.
Leicester, as it seemed to him, had reason to be angry with his lady for transgressing his commands, and thus placing him in the perilous situation in which he had that morning stood. But what displeasure could keep its ground before these testimonies of affection from a being so lovely, that even the negligence of dress, and the withering effects of fear, grief, and fatigue, which would have impaired the beauty of others, rendered hers but the more interesting. He received and repaid her caresses with fondness mingled with melancholy, the last of which she seemed scarcely to observe, until the first transport of her own joy was over, when, looking anxiously in his face, she asked if he was ill.
"Not in my body, Amy," was his answer.
"Then I will be well too. O Dudley! I have been ill!--very ill, since we last met!--for I call not this morning's horrible vision a meeting. I have been in sickness, in grief, and in danger. But thou art come, and all is joy, and health, and safety!"
"Alas, Amy," said Leicester, "thou hast undone me!"
"I, my lord?" said Amy, her cheek at once losing its transient flush of joy--"how could I injure that which I love better than myself?"
"I would not upbraid you, Amy," replied the Earl; "but are you not here contrary to my express commands--and does not your presence here endanger both yourself and me?"
"Does it, does it indeed?" she exclaimed eagerly; "then why am I here a moment longer? Oh, if you knew by what fears I was urged to quit Cumnor Place! But I will say nothing of myself--only that if it might be otherwise, I would not willingly return THITHER; yet if it concern your safety--"
"We will think, Amy, of some other retreat," said Leicester; "and you shall go to one of my northern castles, under the personage--it will be but needful, I trust, for a very few days--of Varney's wife."
"How, my Lord of Leicester!" said the lady, disengaging herself from his embraces; "is it to your wife you give the dishonourable counsel to acknowledge herself the bride of another--and of all men, the bride of that Varney?"
"Madam, I speak it in earnest--Varney is my true and faithful servant, trusted in my deepest secrets. I had better lose my right hand than his service at this moment. You have no cause to scorn him as you do."
"I could assign one, my lord," replied the Countess; "and I see he shakes even under that assured look of his. But he that is necessary as your right hand to your safety is free from any accusation of mine. May he be true to you; and that he may be true, trust him not too much or too far. But it is enough to say that I will not go with him unless by violence, nor would I acknowledge him as my husband were all--"
"It is a temporary deception, madam," said Leicester, irritated by her opposition, "necessary for both our safeties, endangered by you through female caprice, or the premature desire to seize on a rank to which I gave you title only under condition that our marriage, for a time, should continue secret. If my proposal disgust you, it is yourself has brought it on both of us. There is no other remedy--you must do what your own impatient folly hath rendered necessary--I command you."
"I cannot put your commands, my lord," said Amy, "in balance with those of honour and conscience. I will NOT, in this instance, obey you. You may achieve your own dishonour, to which these crooked policies naturally tend, but I will do nought that can blemish mine. How could you again, my lord, acknowledge me as a pure and chaste matron, worthy to share your fortunes, when, holding that high character, I had strolled the country the acknowledged wife of such a profligate fellow as your servant Varney?"
"My lord," said Varney interposing, "my lady is too much prejudiced against me, unhappily, to listen to what I can offer, yet it may please her better than what she proposes. She has good interest with Master Edmund Tressilian, and could doubtless prevail on him to consent to be her companion to Lidcote Hall, and there she might remain in safety until time permitted the development of this mystery."
Leicester was silent, but stood looking eagerly on Amy, with eyes which seemed suddenly to glow as much with suspicion as displeasure.
The Countess only said, "Would to God I were in my father's house! When I left it, I little thought I was leaving peace of mind and honour behind me."
Varney proceeded with a tone of deliberation. "Doubtless this will make it necessary to take strangers into my lord's counsels; but surely the Countess will be warrant for the honour of Master Tressilian, and such of her father's family--"
"Peace, Varney," said Leicester; "by Heaven I will strike my dagger into thee if again thou namest Tressilian as a partner of my counsels!"
"And wherefore not!" said the Countess; "unless they be counsels fitter for such as Varney, than for a man of stainless honour and integrity. My lord, my lord, bend no angry brows on me; it is the truth, and it is I who speak it. I once did Tressilian wrong for your sake; I will not do him the further injustice of being silent when his honour is brought in question. I can forbear," she said, looking at Varney, "to pull the mask off hypocrisy, but I will not permit virtue to be slandered in my hearing."
There was a dead pause. Leicester stood displeased, yet undetermined, and too conscious of the weakness of his cause; while Varney, with a deep and hypocritical affectation of sorrow, mingled with humility, bent his eyes on the ground.
It was then that the Countess Amy displayed, in the midst of distress and difficulty, the natural energy of character which would have rendered her, had fate allowed, a distinguished ornament of the rank which she held. She walked up to Leicester with a composed step, a dignified air, and looks in which strong affection essayed in vain to shake the firmness of conscious, truth and rectitude of principle. "You have spoken your mind, my lord," she said, "in these difficulties, with which, unhappily, I have found myself unable to comply. This gentleman--this person I would say--has hinted at another scheme, to which I object not but as it displeases you. Will your lordship be pleased to hear what a young and timid woman, but your most affectionate wife, can suggest in the present extremity?"
Leicester was silent, but bent his head towards the Countess, as an intimation that she was at liberty to proceed.
"There hath been but one cause for all these evils, my lord," she proceeded, "and it resolves itself into the mysterious duplicity with which you, have been induced to surround yourself. Extricate yourself at once, my lord, from the tyranny of these disgraceful trammels. Be like a true English gentleman, knight, and earl, who holds that truth is the foundation of honour, and that honour is dear to him as the breath of his nostrils. Take your ill-fated wife by the hand, lead her to the footstool of Elizabeth's throne--say that in a moment of infatuation, moved by supposed beauty, of which none perhaps can now trace even the remains, I gave my hand to this Amy Robsart. You will then have done justice to me, my lord, and to your own honour and should law or power require you to part from me, I will oppose no objection, since I may then with honour hide a grieved and broken heart in those shades from which your love withdrew me. Then--have but a little patience, and Amy's life will not long darken your brighter prospects."
There was so much of dignity, so much of tenderness, in the Countess's remonstrance, that it moved all that was noble and generous in the soul of her husband. The scales seemed to fall from his eyes, and the duplicity and tergiversation of which he had been guilty stung him at once with remorse and shame.
"I am not worthy of you, Amy," he said, "that could weigh aught which ambition has to give against such a heart as thine. I have a bitter penance to perform, in disentangling, before sneering foes and astounded friends, all the meshes of my own deceitful policy. And the Queen--but let her take my head, as she has threatened."
"Take your head, my lord!" said the Countess, "because you used the freedom and liberty of an English subject in choosing a wife? For shame! it is this distrust of the Queen's justice, this apprehension of danger, which cannot but be imaginary, that, like scarecrows, have induced you to forsake the straightforward path, which, as it is the best, is also the safest."
"Ah, Amy, thou little knowest!" said Dudley but instantly checking himself, he added, "Yet she shall not find in me a safe or easy victim of arbitrary vengeance. I have friends--I have allies--I will not, like Norfolk, be dragged to the block as a victim to sacrifice. Fear not, Amy; thou shalt see Dudley bear himself worthy of his name. I must instantly communicate with some of those friends on whom I can best rely; for, as things stand, I may be made prisoner in my own Castle."
"Oh, my good lord," said Amy, "make no faction in a peaceful state! There is no friend can help us so well as our own candid truth and honour. Bring but these to our assistance, and you are safe amidst a whole army of the envious and malignant. Leave these behind you, and all other defence will be fruitless. Truth, my noble lord, is well painted unarmed."
"But Wisdom, Amy," answered Leicester, "is arrayed in panoply of proof. Argue not with me on the means I shall use to render my confession--since it must be called so--as safe as may be; it will be fraught with enough of danger, do what we will.--Varney, we must hence.--Farewell, Amy, whom I am to vindicate as mine own, at an expense and risk of which thou alone couldst be worthy. You shall soon hear further from me."
He embraced her fervently, muffled himself as before, and accompanied Varney from the apartment. The latter, as he left the room, bowed low, and as he raised his body, regarded Amy with a peculiar expression, as if he desired to know how far his own pardon was included in the reconciliation which had taken place betwixt her and her lord. The Countess looked upon him with a fixed eye, but seemed no more conscious of his presence than if there had been nothing but vacant air on the spot where he stood.
"She has brought me to the crisis," he muttered--"she or I am lost. There was something--I wot not if it was fear or pity--that prompted me to avoid this fatal crisis. It is now decided--she or I must PERISH."
While he thus spoke, he observed, with surprise, that a boy, repulsed by the sentinel, made up to Leicester, and spoke with him. Varney was one of those politicians whom not the slightest appearances escape without inquiry. He asked the sentinel what the lad wanted with him, and received for answer that the boy had wished him to transmit a parcel to the mad lady; but that he cared not to take charge of it, such communication being beyond his commission, His curiosity satisfied in that particular, he approached his patron, and heard him say, "Well, boy, the packet shall be delivered."
"Thanks, good Master Serving-man," said the boy, and was out of sight in an instant.
Leicester and Varney returned with hasty steps to the Earl's private apartment, by the same passage which had conducted them to Saintlowe's Tower.
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