How is't with me, when every noise appals me? --MACBETH.
"I desire some conference with you." The words were simple in themselves, but Lord Leicester was in that alarmed and feverish state of mind when the most ordinary occurrences seem fraught with alarming import; and he turned hastily round to survey the person by whom they had been spoken. There was nothing remarkable in the speaker's appearance, which consisted of a black silk doublet and short mantle, with a black vizard on his face; for it appeared he had been among the crowd of masks who had thronged into the hall in the retinue of Merlin, though he did not wear any of the extravagant disguises by which most of them were distinguished.
"Who are you, or what do you want with me?" said Leicester, not without betraying, by his accents, the hurried state of his spirits.
"No evil, my lord," answered the mask, "but much good and honour, if you will rightly understand my purpose. But I must speak with you more privately."
"I can speak with no nameless stranger," answered Leicester, dreading he knew not precisely what from the request of the stranger; "and those who are known to me must seek another and a fitter time to ask an interview."
He would have hurried away, but the mask still detained him.
"Those who talk to your lordship of what your own honour demands have a right over your time, whatever occupations you may lay aside in order to indulge them."
"How! my honour? Who dare impeach it?" said Leicester.
"Your own conduct alone can furnish grounds for accusing it, my lord, and it is that topic on which I would speak with you."
"You are insolent," said Leicester, "and abuse the hospitable license of the time, which prevents me from having you punished. I demand your name!"
"Edmund Tressilian of Cornwall," answered the mask. "My tongue has been bound by a promise for four-and-twenty hours. The space is passed,--I now speak, and do your lordship the justice to address myself first to you."
The thrill of astonishment which had penetrated to Leicester's very heart at hearing that name pronounced by the voice of the man he most detested, and by whom he conceived himself so deeply injured, at first rendered him immovable, but instantly gave way to such a thirst for revenge as the pilgrim in the desert feels for the water-brooks. He had but sense and self-government enough left to prevent his stabbing to the heart the audacious villain, who, after the ruin he had brought upon him, dared, with such unmoved assurance, thus to practise upon him further. Determined to suppress for the moment every symptom of agitation, in order to perceive the full scope of Tressilian's purpose, as well as to secure his own vengeance, he answered in a tone so altered by restrained passion as scarce to be intelligible, "And what does Master Edmund Tressilian require at my hand?"
"Justice, my lord," answered Tressilian, calmly but firmly.
"Justice," said Leicester, "all men are entitled to. YOU, Master Tressilian, are peculiarly so, and be assured you shall have it."
"I expect nothing less from your nobleness," answered Tressilian; "but time presses, and I must speak with you to-night. May I wait on you in your chamber?"
"No," answered Leicester sternly, "not under a roof, and that roof mine own. We will meet under the free cope of heaven."
"You are discomposed or displeased, my lord," replied Tressilian; "yet there is no occasion for distemperature. The place is equal to me, so you allow me one half-hour of your time uninterrupted."
"A shorter time will, I trust, suffice," answered Leicester. "Meet me in the Pleasance when the Queen has retired to her chamber."
"Enough," said Tressilian, and withdrew; while a sort of rapture seemed for the moment to occupy the mind of Leicester.
"Heaven," he said, "is at last favourable to me, and has put within my reach the wretch who has branded me with this deep ignominy--who has inflicted on me this cruel agony. I will blame fate no more, since I am afforded the means of tracing the wiles by which he means still further to practise on me, and then of at once convicting and punishing his villainy. To my task--to my task! I will not sink under it now, since midnight, at farthest, will bring me vengeance."
While these reflections thronged through Leicester's mind, he again made his way amid the obsequious crowd, which divided to give him passage, and resumed his place, envied and admired, beside the person of his Sovereign. But could the bosom of him thus admired and envied have been laid open before the inhabitants of that crowded hall, with all its dark thoughts of guilty ambition, blighted affection, deep vengeance, and conscious sense of meditated cruelty, crossing each other like spectres in the circle of some foul enchantress, which of them, from the most ambitious noble in the courtly circle down to the most wretched menial who lived by shifting of trenchers, would have desired to change characters with the favourite of Elizabeth, and the Lord of Kenilworth?
New tortures awaited him as soon as he had rejoined Elizabeth.
"You come in time, my lord," she said, "to decide a dispute between us ladies. Here has Sir Richard Varney asked our permission to depart from the Castle with his infirm lady, having, as he tells us, your lordship's consent to his absence, so he can obtain ours. Certes, we have no will to withhold him from the affectionate charge of this poor young person; but you are to know that Sir Richard Varney hath this day shown himself so much captivated with these ladies of ours, that here is our Duchess of Rutland says he will carry his poor insane wife no farther than the lake, plunge her in to tenant the crystal palaces that the enchanted nymph told us of, and return a jolly widower, to dry his tears and to make up the loss among our train. How say you, my lord? We have seen Varney under two or three different guises--you know what are his proper attributes--think you he is capable of playing his lady such a knave's trick?"
Leicester was confounded, but the danger was urgent, and a reply absolutely necessary. "The ladies," he said, "think too lightly of one of their own sex, in supposing she could deserve such a fate; or too ill of ours, to think it could be inflicted upon an innocent female."
"Hear him, my ladies," said Elizabeth; "like all his sex, he would excuse their cruelty by imputing fickleness to us."
"Say not US, madam," replied the Earl. "We say that meaner women, like the lesser lights of heaven, have revolutions and phases; but who shall impute mutability to the sun, or to Elizabeth?"
The discourse presently afterwards assumed a less perilous tendency, and Leicester continued to support his part in it with spirit, at whatever expense of mental agony. So pleasing did it seem to Elizabeth, that the Castle bell had sounded midnight ere she retired from the company, a circumstance unusual in her quiet and regular habits of disposing of time. Her departure was, of course, the signal for breaking up the company, who dispersed to their several places of repose, to dream over the pastimes of the day, or to anticipate those of the morrow.
The unfortunate Lord of the Castle, and founder of the proud festival, retired to far different thoughts. His direction to the valet who attended him was to send Varney instantly to his apartment. The messenger returned after some delay, and informed him that an hour had elapsed since Sir Richard Varney had left the Castle by the postern gate with three other persons, one of whom was transported in a horse-litter.
"How came he to leave the Castle after the watch was set?" said Leicester. "I thought he went not till daybreak."
"He gave satisfactory reasons, as I understand," said the domestic, "to the guard, and, as I hear, showed your lordship's signet--"
"True--true," said the Earl; "yet he has been hasty. Do any of his attendants remain behind?"
"Michael Lambourne, my lord," said the valet, "was not to be found when Sir Richard Varney departed, and his master was much incensed at his absence. I saw him but now saddling his horse to gallop after his master."
"Bid him come hither instantly," said Leicester; "I have a message to his master."
The servant left the apartment, and Leicester traversed it for some time in deep meditation. "Varney is over-zealous," he said, "over-pressing. He loves me, I think; but he hath his own ends to serve, and he is inexorable in pursuit of them. If I rise, he rises; and he hath shown himself already but too, eager to rid me of this obstacle which seems to stand betwixt me and sovereignty. Yet I will not stoop to bear this disgrace. She shall be punished, but it shall be more advisedly. I already feel, even in anticipation, that over-haste would light the flames of hell in my bosom. No--one victim is enough at once, and that victim already waits me."
He seized upon writing materials, and hastily traced these words:--
"Sir Richard Varney, we have resolved to defer the matter entrusted to your care, and strictly command you to proceed no further in relation to our Countess until our further order. We also command your instant return to Kenilworth as soon as you have safely bestowed that with which you are entrusted. But if the safe-placing of your present charge shall detain you longer than we think for, we command you in that case to send back our signet-ring by a trusty and speedy messenger, we having present need of the same. And requiring your strict obedience in these things, and commending you to God's keeping, we rest your assured good friend and master,
"Given at our Castle of Kenilworth, the tenth of July, in the year of Salvation one thousand five hundred and seventy-five."
As Leicester had finished and sealed this mandate, Michael Lambourne, booted up to mid-thigh, having his riding-cloak girthed around him with a broad belt, and a felt cap on his head, like that of a courier, entered his apartment, ushered in by the valet.
"What is thy capacity of service?" said the Earl.
"Equerry to your lordship's master of the horse," answered Lambourne, with his customary assurance.
"Tie up thy saucy tongue, sir," said Leicester; "the jests that may suit Sir Richard Varney's presence suit not mine. How soon wilt thou overtake thy master?"
"In one hour's riding, my lord, if man and horse hold good," said Lambourne, with an instant alteration of demeanour, from an approach to familiarity to the deepest respect. The Earl measured him with his eye from top to toe.
"I have heard of thee," he said "men say thou art a prompt fellow in thy service, but too much given to brawling and to wassail to be trusted with things of moment."
"My lord," said Lambourne, "I have been soldier, sailor, traveller, and adventurer; and these are all trades in which men enjoy to-day, because they have no surety of to-morrow. But though I may misuse mine own leisure, I have never neglected the duty I owe my master."
"See that it be so in this instance," said Leicester, "and it shall do thee good. Deliver this letter speedily and carefully into Sir Richard Varney's hands."
"Does my commission reach no further?" said Lambourne.
"No," answered Leicester; "but it deeply concerns me that it be carefully as well as hastily executed."
"I will spare neither care nor horse-flesh," answered Lambourne, and immediately took his leave.
"So, this is the end of my private audience, from which I hoped so much!" he muttered to himself, as he went through the long gallery, and down the back staircase. "Cogs bones! I thought the Earl had wanted a cast of mine office in some secret intrigue, and it all ends in carrying a letter! Well, his pleasure shall be done, however; and as his lordship well says, it may do me good another time. The child must creep ere he walk, and so must your infant courtier. I will have a look into this letter, however, which he hath sealed so sloven-like." Having accomplished this, he clapped his hands together in ecstasy, exclaiming, "The Countess the Countess! I have the secret that shall make or mar me.--But come forth, Bayard," he added, leading his horse into the courtyard, "for your flanks and my spurs must be presently acquainted."
Lambourne mounted, accordingly, and left the Castle by the postern gate, where his free passage was permitted, in consequence of a message to that effect left by Sir Richard Varney.
As soon as Lambourne and the valet had left the apartment, Leicester proceeded to change his dress for a very plain one, threw his mantle around him, and taking a lamp in his hand, went by the private passage of communication to a small secret postern door which opened into the courtyard, near to the entrance of the Pleasance. His reflections were of a more calm and determined character than they had been at any late period, and he endeavoured to claim, even in his own eyes, the character of a man more sinned against than sinning.
"I have suffered the deepest injury," such was the tenor of his meditations, "yet I have restricted the instant revenge which was in my power, and have limited it to that which is manly and noble. But shall the union which this false woman has this day disgraced remain an abiding fetter on me, to check me in the noble career to which my destinies invite me? No; there are other means of disengaging such ties, without unloosing the cords of life. In the sight of God, I am no longer bound by the union she has broken. Kingdoms shall divide us, oceans roll betwixt us, and their waves, whose abysses have swallowed whole navies, shall be the sole depositories of the deadly mystery."
By such a train of argument did Leicester labour to reconcile his conscience to the prosecution of plans of vengeance, so hastily adopted, and of schemes of ambition, which had become so woven in with every purpose and action of his life that he was incapable of the effort of relinquishing them, until his revenge appeared to him to wear a face of justice, and even of generous moderation.
In this mood the vindictive and ambitious Earl entered the superb precincts of the Pleasance, then illumined by the full moon. The broad, yellow light was reflected on all sides from the white freestone, of which the pavement, balustrades, and architectural ornaments of the place were constructed; and not a single fleecy cloud was visible in the azure sky, so that the scene was nearly as light as if the sun had but just left the horizon. The numerous statues of white marble glimmered in the pale light like so many sheeted ghosts just arisen from their sepulchres, and the fountains threw their jets into the air as if they sought that their waters should be brightened by the moonbeams ere they fell down again upon their basins in showers of sparkling silver. The day had been sultry, and the gentle night-breeze which sighed along the terrace of the Pleasance raised not a deeper breath than the fan in the hand of youthful beauty. The bird of summer night had built many a nest in the bowers of the adjacent garden, and the tenants now indemnified themselves for silence during the day by a full chorus of their own unrivalled warblings, now joyous, now pathetic, now united, now responsive to each other, as if to express their delight in the placid and delicious scene to which they poured their melody.
Musing on matters far different from the fall of waters, the gleam of moonlight, or the song of the nightingale, the stately Leicester walked slowly from the one end of the terrace to the other, his cloak wrapped around him, and his sword under his arm, without seeing anything resembling the human form.
"I have been fooled by my own generosity," he said, "if I have suffered the villain to escape me--ay, and perhaps to go to the rescue of the adulteress, who is so poorly guarded."
These were his thoughts, which were instantly dispelled when, turning to look back towards the entrance, he saw a human form advancing slowly from the portico, and darkening the various objects with its shadow, as passing them successively, in its approach towards him.
"Shall I strike ere I again hear his detested voice?" was Leicester's thought, as he grasped the hilt of the sword. "But no! I will see which way his vile practice tends. I will watch, disgusting as it is, the coils and mazes of the loathsome snake, ere I put forth my strength and crush him."
His hand quitted the sword-hilt, and he advanced slowly towards Tressilian, collecting, for their meeting, all the self-possession he could command, until they came front to front with each other.
Tressilian made a profound reverence, to which the Earl replied with a haughty inclination of the head, and the words, "You sought secret conference with me, sir; I am here, and attentive."
"My lord," said Tressilian, "I am so earnest in that which I have to say, and so desirous to find a patient, nay, a favourable hearing, that I will stoop to exculpate myself from whatever might prejudice your lordship against me. You think me your enemy?"
"Have I not some apparent cause?" answered Leicester, perceiving that Tressilian paused for a reply.
"You do me wrong, my lord. I am a friend, but neither a dependant nor partisan, of the Earl of Sussex, whom courtiers call your rival; and it is some considerable time since I ceased to consider either courts or court intrigues as suited to my temper or genius."
"No doubt, sir," answered Leicester "there are other occupations more worthy a scholar, and for such the world holds Master Tressilian. Love has his intrigues as well as ambition."
"I perceive, my lord," replied Tressilian, "you give much weight to my early attachment for the unfortunate young person of whom I am about to speak, and perhaps think I am prosecuting her cause out of rivalry, more than a sense of justice."
"No matter for my thoughts, sir," said the Earl; "proceed. You have as yet spoken of yourself only--an important and worthy subject doubtless, but which, perhaps, does not altogether so deeply concern me that I should postpone my repose to hear it. Spare me further prelude, sir, and speak to the purpose if indeed you have aught to say that concerns me. When you have done, I, in my turn, have something to communicate."
"I will speak, then, without further prelude, my lord," answered Tressilian, "having to say that which, as it concerns your lordship's honour, I am confident you will not think your time wasted in listening to. I have to request an account from your lordship of the unhappy Amy Robsart, whose history is too well known to you. I regret deeply that I did not at once take this course, and make yourself judge between me and the villain by whom she is injured. My lord, she extricated herself from an unlawful and most perilous state of confinement, trusting to the effects of her own remonstrance upon her unworthy husband, and extorted from me a promise that I would not interfere in her behalf until she had used her own efforts to have her rights acknowledged by him."
"Ha," said Leicester, "remember you to whom you speak?"
"I speak of her unworthy husband, my lord," repeated Tressilian, "and my respect can find no softer language. The unhappy young woman is withdrawn from my knowledge, and sequestered in some secret place of this Castle--if she be not transferred to some place of seclusion better fitted for bad designs. This must be reformed, my lord--I speak it as authorized by her father--and this ill-fated marriage must be avouched and proved in the Queen's presence, and the lady placed without restraint and at her own free disposal. And permit me to say it concerns no one's honour that these most just demands of mine should be complied with so much as it does that of your lordship."
The Earl stood as if he had been petrified at the extreme coolness with which the man, whom he considered as having injured him so deeply, pleaded the cause of his criminal paramour, as if she had been an innocent woman and he a disinterested advocate; nor was his wonder lessened by the warmth with which Tressilian seemed to demand for her the rank and situation which she had disgraced, and the advantages of which she was doubtless to share with the lover who advocated her cause with such effrontery. Tressilian had been silent for more than a minute ere the Earl recovered from the excess of his astonishment; and considering the prepossessions with which his mind was occupied, there is little wonder that his passion gained the mastery of every other consideration. "I have heard you, Master Tressilian," said he, "without interruption, and I bless God that my ears were never before made to tingle by the words of so frontless a villain. The task of chastising you is fitter for the hangman's scourge than the sword of a nobleman, but yet--Villain, draw and defend thyself!"
As he spoke the last words, he dropped his mantle on the ground, struck Tressilian smartly with his sheathed sword, and instantly drawing his rapier, put himself into a posture of assault. The vehement fury of his language at first filled Tressilian, in his turn, with surprise equal to what Leicester had felt when he addressed him. But astonishment gave place to resentment when the unmerited insults of his language were followed by a blow which immediately put to flight every thought save that of instant combat. Tressilian's sword was instantly drawn; and though perhaps somewhat inferior to Leicester in the use of the weapon, he understood it well enough to maintain the contest with great spirit, the rather that of the two he was for the time the more cool, since he could not help imputing Leicester's conduct either to actual frenzy or to the influence of some strong delusion.
The rencontre had continued for several minutes, without either party receiving a wound, when of a sudden voices were heard beneath the portico which formed the entrance of the terrace, mingled with the steps of men advancing hastily. "We are interrupted," said Leicester to his antagonist; "follow me."
At the same time a voice from the portico said, "The jackanape is right--they are tilting here."
Leicester, meanwhile, drew off Tressilian into a sort of recess behind one of the fountains, which served to conceal them, while six of the yeomen of the Queen's guard passed along the middle walk of the Pleasance, and they could hear one say to the rest, "We shall never find them to-night among all these squirting funnels, squirrel cages, and rabbit-holes; but if we light not on them before we reach the farther end, we will return, and mount a guard at the entrance, and so secure them till morning."
"A proper matter," said another, "the drawing of swords so near the Queen's presence, ay, and in her very palace as 'twere! Hang it, they must be some poor drunken game-cocks fallen to sparring--'twere pity almost we should find them--the penalty is chopping off a hand, is it not?--'twere hard to lose hand for handling a bit of steel, that comes so natural to one's gripe."
"Thou art a brawler thyself, George," said another; "but take heed, for the law stands as thou sayest."
"Ay," said the first, "an the act be not mildly construed; for thou knowest 'tis not the Queen's palace, but my Lord of Leicester's."
"Why, for that matter, the penalty may be as severe," said another "for an our gracious Mistress be Queen, as she is, God save her, my Lord of Leicester is as good as King."
"Hush, thou knave!" said a third; "how knowest thou who may be within hearing?"
They passed on, making a kind of careless search, but seemingly more intent on their own conversation than bent on discovering the persons who had created the nocturnal disturbance.
They had no sooner passed forward along the terrace, than Leicester, making a sign to Tressilian to follow him, glided away in an opposite direction, and escaped through the portico undiscovered. He conducted Tressilian to Mervyn's Tower, in which he was now again lodged; and then, ere parting with him, said these words, "If thou hast courage to continue and bring to an end what is thus broken off, be near me when the court goes forth to-morrow; we shall find a time, and I will give you a signal when it is fitting."
"My lord," said Tressilian, "at another time I might have inquired the meaning of this strange and furious inveteracy against me. But you have laid that on my shoulder which only blood can wash away; and were you as high as your proudest wishes ever carried you, I would have from you satisfaction for my wounded honour."
On these terms they parted, but the adventures of the night were not yet ended with Leicester. He was compelled to pass by Saintlowe's Tower, in order to gain the private passage which led to his own chamber; and in the entrance thereof he met Lord Hunsdon half clothed, and with a naked sword under his arm.
"Are you awakened, too, with this 'larum, my Lord of Leicester?" said the old soldier. "'Tis well. By gog's nails, the nights are as noisy as the day in this Castle of yours. Some two hours since I was waked by the screams of that poor brain-sick Lady Varney, whom her husband was forcing away. I promise you it required both your warrant and the Queen's to keep me from entering into the game, and cutting that Varney of yours over the head. And now there is a brawl down in the Pleasance, or what call you the stone terrace-walk where all yonder gimcracks stand?"
The first part of the old man's speech went through the Earl's heart like a knife; to the last he answered that he himself had heard the clash of swords, and had come down to take order with those who had been so insolent so near the Queen's presence.
"Nay, then," said Hunsdon, "I will be glad of your lordship's company."
Leicester was thus compelled to turn back with the rough old Lord to the Pleasance, where Hunsdon heard from the yeomen of the guard, who were under his immediate command, the unsuccessful search they had made for the authors of the disturbance; and bestowed for their pains some round dozen of curses on them, as lazy knaves and blind whoresons. Leicester also thought it necessary to seem angry that no discovery had been effected; but at length suggested to Lord Hunsdon, that after all it could only be some foolish young men who had been drinking healths pottle-deep, and who should be sufficiently scared by the search which had taken place after them. Hunsdon, who was himself attached to his cup, allowed that a pint-flagon might cover many of the follies which it had caused, "But," added he, "unless your lordship will be less liberal in your housekeeping, and restrain the overflow of ale, and wine, and wassail, I foresee it will end in my having some of these good fellows into the guard-house, and treating them to a dose of the strappado. And with this warning, good night to you."
Joyful at being rid of his company, Leicester took leave of him at the entrance of his lodging, where they had first met, and entering the private passage, took up the lamp which he had left there, and by its expiring light found the way to his own apartment.
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