I have said This is an adulteress--I have said with whom: More, she's a traitor, and Camillo is A federary with her, and one that knows What she should shame to know herself. --WINTER'S TALE.
They were no sooner in the Earl's cabinet than, taking his tablets from his pocket, he began to write, speaking partly to Varney, and partly to himself--"There are many of them close bounden to me, and especially those in good estate and high office--many who, if they look back towards my benefits, or forward towards the perils which may befall themselves, will not, I think, be disposed to see me stagger unsupported. Let me see--Knollis is sure, and through his means Guernsey and Jersey. Horsey commands in the Isle of Wight. My brother-in-law, Huntingdon, and Pembroke, have authority in Wales. Through Bedford I lead the Puritans, with their interest, so powerful in all the boroughs. My brother of Warwick is equal, well-nigh, to myself, in wealth, followers, and dependencies. Sir Owen Hopton is at my devotion; he commands the Tower of London, and the national treasure deposited there. My father and grand-father needed never to have stooped their heads to the block had they thus forecast their enterprises.--Why look you so sad, Varney? I tell thee, a tree so deep-rooted is not so easily to be torn up by the tempest."
"Alas! my lord," said Varney, with well-acted passion, and then resumed the same look of despondency which Leicester had before noted.
"Alas!" repeated Leicester; "and wherefore alas, Sir Richard? Doth your new spirit of chivalry supply no more vigorous ejaculation when a noble struggle is impending? Or, if ALAS means thou wilt flinch from the conflict, thou mayest leave the Castle, or go join mine enemies, whichever thou thinkest best."
"Not so, my lord," answered his confidant; "Varney will be found fighting or dying by your side. Forgive me, if, in love to you, I see more fully than your noble heart permits you to do, the inextricable difficulties with which you are surrounded. You are strong, my lord, and powerful; yet, let me say it without offence, you are so only by the reflected light of the Queen's favour. While you are Elizabeth's favourite, you are all, save in name, like an actual sovereign. But let her call back the honours she has bestowed, and the prophet's gourd did not wither more suddenly. Declare against the Queen, and I do not say that in the wide nation, or in this province alone, you would find yourself instantly deserted and outnumbered; but I will say, that even in this very Castle, and in the midst of your vassals, kinsmen, and dependants, you would be a captive, nay, a sentenced captive, should she please to say the word. Think upon Norfolk, my lord--upon the powerful Northumberland--the splendid Westmoreland;--think on all who have made head against this sage Princess. They are dead, captive, or fugitive. This is not like other thrones, which can be overturned by a combination of powerful nobles; the broad foundations which support it are in the extended love and affections of the people. You might share it with Elizabeth if you would; but neither yours, nor any other power, foreign or domestic, will avail to overthrow, or even to shake it."
He paused, and Leicester threw his tablets from him with an air of reckless despite. "It may be as thou sayest," he said? "and, in sooth, I care not whether truth or cowardice dictate thy forebodings. But it shall not be said I fell without a struggle. Give orders that those of my retainers who served under me in Ireland be gradually drawn into the main Keep, and let our gentlemen and friends stand on their guard, and go armed, as if they expected arm onset from the followers of Sussex. Possess the townspeople with some apprehension; let them take arms, and be ready, at a given signal, to overpower the Pensioners and Yeomen of the Guard."
"Let me remind you, my lord," said Varney, with the same appearance of deep and melancholy interest, "that you have given me orders to prepare for disarming the Queen's guard. It is an act of high treason, but you shall nevertheless be obeyed."
"I care not," said Leicester desperately--"I care not. Shame is behind me, ruin before me; I must on."
Here there was another pause, which Varney at length broke with the following words: "It is come to the point I have long dreaded. I must either witness, like an ungrateful beast, the downfall of the best and kindest of masters, or I must speak what I would have buried in the deepest oblivion, or told by any other mouth than mine."
"What is that thou sayest, or wouldst say?" replied the Earl; "we have no time to waste on words when the times call us to action."
"My speech is soon made, my lord--would to God it were as soon answered! Your marriage is the sole cause of the threatened breach with your Sovereign, my lord, is it not?"
"Thou knowest it is!" replied Leicester. "What needs so fruitless a question?"
"Pardon me, my lord," said Varney; "the use lies here. Men will wager their lands and lives in defence of a rich diamond, my lord; but were it not first prudent to look if there is no flaw in it?"
"What means this?" said Leicester, with eyes sternly fixed on his dependant; "of whom dost thou dare to speak?"
"It is--of the Countess Amy, my lord, of whom I am unhappily bound to speak; and of whom I WILL speak, were your lordship to kill me for my zeal."
"Thou mayest happen to deserve it at my hand," said the Earl; "but speak on, I will hear thee."
"Nay, then, my lord, I will be bold. I speak for my own life as well as for your lordship's. I like not this lady's tampering and trickstering with this same Edmund Tressilian. You know him, my lord. You know he had formerly an interest in her, which it cost your lordship some pains to supersede. You know the eagerness with which he has pressed on the suit against me in behalf of this lady, the open object of which is to drive your lordship to an avowal of what I must ever call your most unhappy marriage, the point to which my lady also is willing, at any risk, to urge you."
Leicester smiled constrainedly. "Thou meanest well, good Sir Richard, and wouldst, I think, sacrifice thine own honour, as well as that of any other person, to save me from what thou thinkest a step so terrible. But remember"--he spoke these words with the most stern decision--"you speak of the Countess of Leicester."
"I do, my lord," said Varney; "but it is for the welfare of the Earl of Leicester. My tale is but begun. I do most strongly believe that this Tressilian has, from the beginning of his moving in her cause, been in connivance with her ladyship the Countess."
"Thou speakest wild madness, Varney, with the sober face of a preacher. Where, or how, could they communicate together?"
"My lord," said Varney, "unfortunately I can show that but too well. It was just before the supplication was presented to the Queen, in Tressilian's name, that I met him, to my utter astonishment, at the postern gate which leads from the demesne at Cumnor Place."
"Thou met'st him, villain! and why didst thou not strike him dead?" exclaimed Leicester.
"I drew on him, my lord, and he on me; and had not my foot slipped, he would not, perhaps, have been again a stumbling-block in your lordship's path."
Leicester seemed struck dumb with surprise. At length he answered, "What other evidence hast thou of this, Varney, save thine own assertion?--for, as I will punish deeply, I will examine coolly and warily. Sacred Heaven!--but no--I will examine coldly and warily--coldly and warily." He repeated these words more than once to himself, as if in the very sound there was a sedative quality; and again compressing his lips, as if he feared some violent expression might escape from them, he asked again, "What further proof?"
"Enough, my lord," said Varney, "and to spare. I would it rested with me alone, for with me it might have been silenced for ever. But my servant, Michael Lambourne, witnessed the whole, and was, indeed, the means of first introducing Tressilian into Cumnor Place; and therefore I took him into my service, and retained him in it, though something of a debauched fellow, that I might have his tongue always under my own command." He then acquainted Lord Leicester how easy it was to prove the circumstance of their interview true, by evidence of Anthony Foster, with the corroborative testimonies of the various persons at Cumnor, who had heard the wager laid, and had seen Lambourne and Tressilian set off together. In the whole narrative, Varney hazarded nothing fabulous, excepting that, not indeed by direct assertion, but by inference, he led his patron to suppose that the interview betwixt Amy and Tressilian at Cumnor Place had been longer than the few minutes to which it was in reality limited.
"And wherefore was I not told of all this?" said Leicester sternly. "Why did all of ye--and in particular thou, Varney--keep back from me such material information?"
"Because, my lord," replied Varney, "the Countess pretended to Foster and to me that Tressilian had intruded himself upon her; and I concluded their interview had been in all honour, and that she would at her own time tell it to your lordship. Your lordship knows with what unwilling ears we listen to evil surmises against those whom we love; and I thank Heaven I am no makebate or informer, to be the first to sow them."
"You are but too ready to receive them, however, Sir Richard," replied his patron. "How knowest thou that this interview was not in all honour, as thou hast said? Methinks the wife of the Earl of Leicester might speak for a short time with such a person as Tressilian without injury to me or suspicion to herself."
"Questionless, my lord," answered Varney, "Had I thought otherwise, I had been no keeper of the secret. But here lies the rub--Tressilian leaves not the place without establishing a correspondence with a poor man, the landlord of an inn in Cumnor, for the purpose of carrying off the lady. He sent down an emissary of his, whom I trust soon to have in right sure keeping under Mervyn's Tower--Killigrew and Lambsbey are scouring the country in quest of him. The host is rewarded with a ring for keeping counsel--your lordship may have noted it on Tressilian's hand--here it is. This fellow, this agent, makes his way to the place as a pedlar; holds conferences with the lady, and they make their escape together by night; rob a poor fellow of a horse by the way, such was their guilty haste, and at length reach this Castle, where the Countess of Leicester finds refuge--I dare not say in what place."
"Speak, I command thee," said Leicester--"speak, while I retain sense enough to hear thee."
"Since it must be so," answered Varney, "the lady resorted immediately to the apartment of Tressilian, where she remained many hours, partly in company with him, and partly alone. I told you Tressilian had a paramour in his chamber; I little dreamed that paramour was--"
"Amy, thou wouldst say," answered Leicester; "but it is false, false as the smoke of hell! Ambitious she may be--fickle and impatient--'tis a woman's fault; but false to me!--never, never. The proof--the proof of this!" he exclaimed hastily.
"Carrol, the Deputy Marshal, ushered her thither by her own desire, on yesterday afternoon; Lambourne and the Warder both found her there at an early hour this morning."
"Was Tressilian there with her?" said Leicester, in the same hurried tone.
"No, my lord. You may remember," answered Varney, "that he was that night placed with Sir Nicholas Blount, under a species of arrest."
"Did Carrol, or the other fellows, know who she was?" demanded Leicester.
"No, my lord," replied Varney; "Carrol and the Warder had never seen the Countess, and Lambourne knew her not in her disguise. But in seeking to prevent her leaving the cell, he obtained possession of one of her gloves, which, I think, your lordship may know."
He gave the glove, which had the Bear and Ragged Staff, the Earl's impress, embroidered upon it in seed-pearls.
"I do--I do recognize it," said Leicester. "They were my own gift. The fellow of it was on the arm which she threw this very day around my neck!" He spoke this with violent agitation.
"Your lordship," said Varney, "might yet further inquire of the lady herself respecting the truth of these passages."
"It needs not--it needs not," said the tortured Earl; "it is written in characters of burning light, as if they were branded on my very eyeballs! I see her infamy-I can see nought else; and--gracious Heaven!--for this vile woman was I about to commit to danger the lives of so many noble friends, shake the foundation of a lawful throne, carry the sword and torch through the bosom of a peaceful land, wrong the kind mistress who made me what I am, and would, but for that hell-framed marriage, have made me all that man can be! All this I was ready to do for a woman who trinkets and traffics with my worst foes!--And thou, villain, why didst thou not speak sooner?"
"My lord," said Varney, "a tear from my lady would have blotted out all I could have said. Besides, I had not these proofs until this very morning, when Anthony Foster's sudden arrival with the examinations and declarations, which he had extorted from the innkeeper Gosling and others, explained the manner of her flight from Cumnor Place, and my own researches discovered the steps which she had taken here."
"Now, may God be praised for the light He has given! so full, so satisfactory, that there breathes not a man in England who shall call my proceeding rash, or my revenge unjust.--And yet, Varney, so young, so fair, so fawning, and so false! Hence, then, her hatred to thee, my trusty, my well-beloved servant, because you withstood her plots, and endangered her paramour's life!"
"I never gave her any other cause of dislike, my lord," replied Varney. "But she knew that my counsels went directly to diminish her influence with your lordship; and that I was, and have been, ever ready to peril my life against your enemies."
"It is too, too apparent," replied Leicester "yet with what an air of magnanimity she exhorted me to commit my head to the Queen's mercy, rather than wear the veil of falsehood a moment longer! Methinks the angel of truth himself can have no such tones of high-souled impulse. Can it be so, Varney?--can falsehood use thus boldly the language of truth?--can infamy thus assume the guise of purity? Varney, thou hast been my servant from a child. I have raised thee high--can raise thee higher. Think, think for me!--thy brain was ever shrewd and piercing--may she not be innocent? Prove her so, and all I have yet done for thee shall be as nothing--nothing, in comparison of thy recompense!"
The agony with which his master spoke had some effect even on the hardened Varney, who, in the midst of his own wicked and ambitious designs, really loved his patron as well as such a wretch was capable of loving anything. But he comforted himself, and subdued his self-reproaches, with the reflection that if he inflicted upon the Earl some immediate and transitory pain, it was in order to pave his way to the throne, which, were this marriage dissolved by death or otherwise, he deemed Elizabeth would willingly share with his benefactor. He therefore persevered in his diabolical policy; and after a moment's consideration, answered the anxious queries of the Earl with a melancholy look, as if he had in vain sought some exculpation for the Countess; then suddenly raising his head, he said, with an expression of hope, which instantly communicated itself to the countenance of his patron--"Yet wherefore, if guilty, should she have perilled herself by coming hither? Why not rather have fled to her father's, or elsewhere?--though that, indeed, might have interfered with her desire to be acknowledged as Countess of Leicester."
"True, true, true!" exclaimed Leicester, his transient gleam of hope giving way to the utmost bitterness of feeling and expression; "thou art not fit to fathom a woman's depth of wit, Varney. I see it all. She would not quit the estate and title of the wittol who had wedded her. Ay, and if in my madness I had started into rebellion, or if the angry Queen had taken my head, as she this morning threatened, the wealthy dower which law would have assigned to the Countess Dowager of Leicester had been no bad windfall to the beggarly Tressilian. Well might she goad me on to danger, which could not end otherwise than profitably to her,--Speak not for her, Varney! I will have her blood!"
"My lord," replied Varney, "the wildness of your distress breaks forth in the wildness of your language."
"I say, speak not for her!" replied Leicester; "she has dishonoured me--she would have murdered me--all ties are burst between us. She shall die the death of a traitress and adulteress, well merited both by the laws of God and man! And--what is this casket," he said, "which was even now thrust into my hand by a boy, with the desire I would convey it to Tressilian, as he could not give it to the Countess? By Heaven! the words surprised me as he spoke them, though other matters chased them from my brain; but now they return with double force. It is her casket of jewels!--Force it open, Varney--force the hinges open with thy poniard!"
"She refused the aid of my dagger once," thought Varney, as he unsheathed the weapon, "to cut the string which bound a letter, but now it shall work a mightier ministry in her fortunes."
With this reflection, by using the three-cornered stiletto-blade as a wedge, he forced open the slender silver hinges of the casket. The Earl no sooner saw them give way than he snatched the casket from Sir Richard's hand, wrenched off the cover, and tearing out the splendid contents, flung them on the floor in a transport of rage, while he eagerly searched for some letter or billet which should make the fancied guilt of his innocent Countess yet more apparent. Then stamping furiously on the gems, he exclaimed, "Thus I annihilate the miserable toys for which thou hast sold thyself, body and soul--consigned thyself to an early and timeless death, and me to misery and remorse for ever!--Tell me not of forgiveness, Varney--she is doomed!"
So saying, he left the room, and rushed into an adjacent closet, the door of which he locked and bolted.
Varney looked after him, while something of a more human feeling seemed to contend with his habitual sneer. "I am sorry for his weakness," he said, "but love has made him a child. He throws down and treads on these costly toys-with the same vehemence would he dash to pieces this frailest toy of all, of which he used to rave so fondly. But that taste also will be forgotten when its object is no more. Well, he has no eye to value things as they deserve, and that nature has given to Varney. When Leicester shall be a sovereign, he will think as little of the gales of passion through which he gained that royal port, as ever did sailor in harbour of the perils of a voyage. But these tell-tale articles must not remain here--they are rather too rich vails for the drudges who dress the chamber."
While Varney was employed in gathering together and putting them into a secret drawer of a cabinet that chanced to be open, he saw the door of Leicester's closet open, the tapestry pushed aside, and the Earl's face thrust out, but with eyes so dead, and lips and cheeks so bloodless and pale, that he started at the sudden change. No sooner did his eyes encounter the Earl's, than the latter withdrew his head and shut the door of the closet. This manoeuvre Leicester repeated twice, without speaking a word, so that Varney began to doubt whether his brain was not actually affected by his mental agony. The third time, however, he beckoned, and Varney obeyed the signal. When he entered, he soon found his patron's perturbation was not caused by insanity, but by the fullness of purpose which he entertained contending with various contrary passions. They passed a full hour in close consultation; after which the Earl of Leicester, with an incredible exertion, dressed himself, and went to attend his royal guest.
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