High o'er the eastern steep the sun is beaming, And darkness flies with her deceitful shadows;-- So truth prevails o'er falsehood. --OLD PLAY.
As Tressilian rode along the bridge, lately the scene of so much riotous sport, he could not but observe that men's countenances had singularly changed during the space of his brief absence. The mock fight was over, but the men, still habited in their masking suits, stood together in groups, like the inhabitants of a city who have been just startled by some strange and alarming news.
When he reached the base-court, appearances were the same--domestics, retainers, and under-officers stood together and whispered, bending their eyes towards the windows of the Great Hall, with looks which seemed at once alarmed and mysterious.
Sir Nicholas Blount was the first person of his own particular acquaintance Tressilian saw, who left him no time to make inquiries, but greeted him with, "God help thy heart, Tressilian! thou art fitter for a clown than a courtier thou canst not attend, as becomes one who follows her Majesty. Here you are called for, wished for, waited for--no man but you will serve the turn; and hither you come with a misbegotten brat on thy horse's neck, as if thou wert dry nurse to some sucking devil, and wert just returned from airing."
"Why, what is the matter?" said Tressilian, letting go the boy, who sprung to ground like a feather, and himself dismounting at the same time.
"Why, no one knows the matter," replied Blount; "I cannot smell it out myself, though I have a nose like other courtiers. Only, my Lord of Leicester has galloped along the bridge as if he would have rode over all in his passage, demanded an audience of the Queen, and is closeted even now with her, and Burleigh and Walsingham--and you are called for; but whether the matter be treason or worse, no one knows."
"He speaks true, by Heaven!" said Raleigh, who that instant appeared; "you must immediately to the Queen's presence."
"Be not rash, Raleigh," said Blount, "remember his boots.--For Heaven's sake, go to my chamber, dear Tressilian, and don my new bloom-coloured silken hose; I have worn them but twice."
"Pshaw!" answered Tressilian; "do thou take care of this boy, Blount; be kind to him, and look he escapes you not--much depends on him."
So saying, he followed Raleigh hastily, leaving honest Blount with the bridle of his horse in one hand, and the boy in the other. Blount gave a long look after him.
"Nobody," he said, "calls me to these mysteries--and he leaves me here to play horse-keeper and child-keeper at once. I could excuse the one, for I love a good horse naturally; but to be plagued with a bratchet whelp.--Whence come ye, my fair-favoured little gossip?"
"From the Fens," answered the boy.
"And what didst thou learn there, forward imp?"
"To catch gulls, with their webbed feet and yellow stockings," said the boy.
"Umph!" said Blount, looking down on his own immense roses. "Nay, then, the devil take him asks thee more questions."
Meantime Tressilian traversed the full length of the Great Hall, in which the astonished courtiers formed various groups, and were whispering mysteriously together, while all kept their eyes fixed on the door which led from the upper end of the hall into the Queen's withdrawing apartment. Raleigh pointed to the door. Tressilian knocked, and was instantly admitted. Many a neck was stretched to gain a view into the interior of the apartment; but the tapestry which covered the door on the inside was dropped too suddenly to admit the slightest gratification of curiosity.
Upon entrance, Tressilian found himself, not without a strong palpitation of heart, in the presence of Elizabeth, who was walking to and fro in a violent agitation, which she seemed to scorn to conceal, while two or three of her most sage and confidential counsellors exchanged anxious looks with each other, but delayed speaking till her wrath abated. Before the empty chair of state in which she had been seated, and which was half pushed aside by the violence with which she had started from it, knelt Leicester, his arms crossed, and his brows bent on the ground, still and motionless as the effigies upon a sepulchre. Beside him stood the Lord Shrewsbury, then Earl Marshal of England, holding his baton of office. The Earl's sword was unbuckled, and lay before him on the floor.
"Ho, sir!" said the Queen, coming close up to Tressilian, and stamping on the floor with the action and manner of Henry himself; "you knew of this fair work--you are an accomplice in this deception which has been practised on us--you have been a main cause of our doing injustice?" Tressilian dropped on his knee before the Queen, his good sense showing him the risk of attempting any defence at that moment of irritation. "Art dumb, sirrah?" she continued; "thou knowest of this affair dost thou not?"
"Not, gracious madam, that this poor lady was Countess of Leicester."
"Nor shall any one know her for such," said Elizabeth. "Death of my life! Countess of Leicester!--I say Dame Amy Dudley; and well if she have not cause to write herself widow of the traitor Robert Dudley."
"Madam," said Leicester, "do with me what it may be your will to do, but work no injury on this gentleman; he hath in no way deserved it."
"And will he be the better for thy intercession," said the Queen, leaving Tressilian, who slowly arose, and rushing to Leicester, who continued kneeling--"the better for thy intercession, thou doubly false--thou doubly forsworn;--of thy intercession, whose villainy hath made me ridiculous to my subjects and odious to myself? I could tear out mine eyes for their blindness!"
Burleigh here ventured to interpose.
"Madam," he said, "remember that you are a Queen--Queen of England--mother of your people. Give not way to this wild storm of passion."
Elizabeth turned round to him, while a tear actually twinkled in her proud and angry eye. "Burleigh," she said, "thou art a statesman--thou dost not, thou canst not, comprehend half the scorn, half the misery, that man has poured on me!"
With the utmost caution--with the deepest reverence--Burleigh took her hand at the moment he saw her heart was at the fullest, and led her aside to an oriel window, apart from the others.
"Madam," he said, "I am a statesman, but I am also a man--a man already grown old in your councils--who have not and cannot have a wish on earth but your glory and happiness; I pray you to be composed."
"Ah! Burleigh," said Elizabeth, "thou little knowest--" here her tears fell over her cheeks in despite of her.
"I do--I do know, my honoured sovereign. Oh, beware that you lead not others to guess that which they know not!"
"Ha!" said Elizabeth, pausing as if a new train of thought had suddenly shot across her brain. "Burleigh, thou art right--thou art right--anything but disgrace--anything but a confession of weakness--anything rather than seem the cheated, slighted--'sdeath! to think on it is distraction!"
"Be but yourself, my Queen," said Burleigh; "and soar far above a weakness which no Englishman will ever believe his Elizabeth could have entertained, unless the violence of her disappointment carries a sad conviction to his bosom."
"What weakness, my lord?" said Elizabeth haughtily; "would you too insinuate that the favour in which I held yonder proud traitor derived its source from aught--" But here she could no longer sustain the proud tone which she had assumed, and again softened as she said, "But why should I strive to deceive even thee, my good and wise servant?"
Burleigh stooped to kiss her hand with affection, and--rare in the annals of courts--a tear of true sympathy dropped from the eye of the minister on the hand of his Sovereign.
It is probable that the consciousness of possessing this sympathy aided Elizabeth in supporting her mortification, and suppressing her extreme resentment; but she was still more moved by fear that her passion should betray to the public the affront and the disappointment, which, alike as a woman and a Queen, she was so anxious to conceal. She turned from Burleigh, and sternly paced the hall till her features had recovered their usual dignity, and her mien its wonted stateliness of regular motion.
"Our Sovereign is her noble self once more," whispered Burleigh to Walsingham; "mark what she does, and take heed you thwart her not."
She then approached Leicester, and said with calmness, "My Lord Shrewsbury, we discharge you of your prisoner.--My Lord of Leicester, rise and take up your sword; a quarter of an hour's restraint under the custody of our Marshal, my lord, is, we think, no high penance for months of falsehood practised upon us. We will now hear the progress of this affair." She then seated herself in her chair, and said, "You, Tressilian, step forward, and say what you know."
Tressilian told his story generously, suppressing as much as he could what affected Leicester, and saying nothing of their having twice actually fought together. It is very probable that, in doing so, he did the Earl good service; for had the Queen at that instant found anything on account of which she could vent her wrath upon him, without laying open sentiments of which she was ashamed, it might have fared hard with him. She paused when Tressilian had finished his tale.
"We will take that Wayland," she said, "into our own service, and place the boy in our Secretary office for instruction, that he may in future use discretion towards letters. For you, Tressilian, you did wrong in not communicating the whole truth to us, and your promise not to do so was both imprudent and undutiful. Yet, having given your word to this unhappy lady, it was the part of a man and a gentleman to keep it; and on the whole, we esteem you for the character you have sustained in this matter.--My Lord of Leicester, it is now your turn to tell us the truth, an exercise to which you seem of late to have been too much a stranger."
Accordingly, she extorted, by successive questions, the whole history of his first acquaintance with Amy Robsart--their marriage--his jealousy--the causes on which it was founded, and many particulars besides. Leicester's confession, for such it might be called, was wrenched from him piecemeal, yet was upon the whole accurate, excepting that he totally omitted to mention that he had, by implication or otherwise, assented to Varney's designs upon the life of his Countess. Yet the consciousness of this was what at that moment lay nearest to his heart; and although he trusted in great measure to the very positive counter-orders which he had sent by Lambourne, it was his purpose to set out for Cumnor Place in person as soon as he should be dismissed from the presence of the Queen, who, he concluded, would presently leave Kenilworth.
But the Earl reckoned without his host. It is true his presence and his communications were gall and wormwood to his once partial mistress. But barred from every other and more direct mode of revenge, the Queen perceived that she gave her false suitor torture by these inquiries, and dwelt on them for that reason, no more regarding the pain which she herself experienced, than the savage cares for the searing of his own hands by grasping the hot pincers with which he tears the flesh of his captive enemy.
At length, however, the haughty lord, like a deer that turns to bay, gave intimation that his patience was failing. "Madam," he said, "I have been much to blame--more than even your just resentment has expressed. Yet, madam, let me say that my guilt, if it be unpardonable, was not unprovoked, and that if beauty and condescending dignity could seduce the frail heart of a human being, I might plead both as the causes of my concealing this secret from your Majesty."
The Queen was so much struck with this reply, which Leicester took care should be heard by no one but herself, that she was for the moment silenced, and the Earl had the temerity to pursue his advantage. "Your Grace, who has pardoned so much, will excuse my throwing myself on your royal mercy for those expressions which were yester-morning accounted but a light offence."
The Queen fixed her eyes on him while she replied, "Now, by Heaven, my lord, thy effrontery passes the bounds of belief, as well as patience! But it shall avail thee nothing.--What ho! my lords, come all and hear the news-my Lord of Leicester's stolen marriage has cost me a husband, and England a king. His lordship is patriarchal in his tastes--one wife at a time was insufficient, and he designed US the honour of his left hand. Now, is not this too insolent--that I could not grace him with a few marks of court-favour, but he must presume to think my hand and crown at his disposal? You, however, think better of me; and I can pity this ambitious man, as I could a child, whose bubble of soap has burst between his hands. We go to the presence-chamber.--My Lord of Leicester, we command your close attendance on us."
All was eager expectation in the hall, and what was the universal astonishment when the Queen said to those next her, "The revels of Kenilworth are not yet exhausted, my lords and ladies--we are to solemnize the noble owner's marriage."
There was an universal expression of surprise.
"It is true, on our royal word," said the Queen; "he hath kept this a secret even from us, that he might surprise us with it at this very place and time. I see you are dying of curiosity to know the happy bride. It is Amy Robsart, the same who, to make up the May-game yesterday, figured in the pageant as the wife of his servant Varney."
"For God's sake, madam," said the Earl, approaching her with a mixture of humility, vexation, and shame in his countenance, and speaking so low as to be heard by no one else, "take my head, as you threatened in your anger, and spare me these taunts! Urge not a falling man--tread not on a crushed worm."
"A worm, my lord?" said the Queen, in the same tone; "nay, a snake is the nobler reptile, and the more exact similitude--the frozen snake you wot of, which was warmed in a certain bosom--"
"For your own sake--for mine, madam," said the Earl--"while there is yet some reason left in me--"
"Speak aloud, my lord," said Elizabeth, "and at farther distance, so please you--your breath thaws our ruff. What have you to ask of us?"
"Permission," said the unfortunate Earl humbly, "to travel to Cumnor Place."
"To fetch home your bride belike?--Why, ay--that is but right, for, as we have heard, she is indifferently cared for there. But, my lord, you go not in person; we have counted upon passing certain days in this Castle of Kenilworth, and it were slight courtesy to leave us without a landlord during our residence here. Under your favour, we cannot think to incur such disgrace in the eyes of our subjects. Tressilian shall go to Cumnor Place instead of you, and with him some gentleman who hath been sworn of our chamber, lest my Lord of Leicester should be again jealous of his old rival.--Whom wouldst thou have to be in commission with thee, Tressilian?"
Tressilian, with humble deference, suggested the name of Raleigh.
"Why, ay," said the Queen; "so God ha' me, thou hast made a good choice. He is a young knight besides, and to deliver a lady from prison is an appropriate first adventure.--Cumnor Place is little better than a prison, you are to know, my lords and ladies. Besides, there are certain faitours there whom we would willingly have in safe keeping. You will furnish them, Master Secretary, with the warrant necessary to secure the bodies of Richard Varney and the foreign Alasco, dead or alive. Take a sufficient force with you, gentlemen--bring the lady here in all honour--lose no time, and God be with you!"
They bowed, and left the presence,
Who shall describe how the rest of that day was spent at Kenilworth? The Queen, who seemed to have remained there for the sole purpose of mortifying and taunting the Earl of Leicester, showed herself as skilful in that female art of vengeance, as she was in the science of wisely governing her people. The train of state soon caught the signal, and as he walked among his own splendid preparations, the Lord of Kenilworth, in his own Castle, already experienced the lot of a disgraced courtier, in the slight regard and cold manners of alienated friends, and the ill-concealed triumph of avowed and open enemies. Sussex, from his natural military frankness of disposition, Burleigh and Walsingham, from their penetrating and prospective sagacity, and some of the ladies, from the compassion of their sex, were the only persons in the crowded court who retained towards him the countenance they had borne in the morning.
So much had Leicester been accustomed to consider court favour as the principal object of his life, that all other sensations were, for the time, lost in the agony which his haughty spirit felt at the succession of petty insults and studied neglects to which he had been subjected; but when he retired to his own chamber for the night, that long, fair tress of hair which had once secured Amy's letter fell under his observation, and, with the influence of a counter-charm, awakened his heart to nobler and more natural feelings. He kissed it a thousand times; and while he recollected that he had it always in his power to shun the mortifications which he had that day undergone, by retiring into a dignified and even prince-like seclusion with the beautiful and beloved partner of his future life, he felt that he could rise above the revenge which Elizabeth had condescended to take.
Accordingly, on the following day the whole conduct of the Earl displayed so much dignified equanimity--he seemed so solicitous about the accommodations and amusements of his guests, yet so indifferent to their personal demeanour towards him--so respectfully distant to the Queen, yet so patient of her harassing displeasure--that Elizabeth changed her manner to him, and, though cold and distant, ceased to offer him any direct affront. She intimated also with some sharpness to others around her, who thought they were consulting her pleasure in showing a neglectful conduct to the Earl, that while they remained at Kenilworth they ought to show the civility due from guests to the Lord of the Castle. In short, matters were so far changed in twenty-four hours that some of the more experienced and sagacious courtiers foresaw a strong possibility of Leicester's restoration to favour, and regulated their demeanour towards him, as those who might one day claim merit for not having deserted him in adversity. It is time, however, to leave these intrigues, and follow Tressilian and Raleigh on their journey.
The troop consisted of six persons; for, besides Wayland, they had in company a royal pursuivant and two stout serving-men. All were well-armed, and travelled as fast as it was possible with justice to their horses, which had a long journey before them. They endeavoured to procure some tidings as they rode along of Varney and his party, but could hear none, as they had travelled in the dark. At a small village about twelve miles from Kenilworth, where they gave some refreshment to their horses, a poor clergyman, the curate of the place, came out of a small cottage, and entreated any of the company who might know aught of surgery to look in for an instant on a dying man.
The empiric Wayland undertook to do his best, and as the curate conducted him to the spot, he learned that the man had been found on the highroad, about a mile from the village, by labourers, as they were going to their work on the preceding morning, and the curate had given him shelter in his house. He had received a gun-shot wound, which seemed to be obviously mortal; but whether in a brawl or from robbers they could not learn, as he was in a fever, and spoke nothing connectedly. Wayland entered the dark and lowly apartment, and no sooner had the curate drawn aside the curtain than he knew, in the distorted features of the patient, the countenance of Michael Lambourne. Under pretence of seeking something which he wanted, Wayland hastily apprised his fellow-travellers of this extraordinary circumstance; and both Tressilian and Raleigh, full of boding apprehensions, hastened to the curate's house to see the dying man.
The wretch was by this time in the agonies of death, from which a much better surgeon than Wayland could not have rescued him, for the bullet had passed clear through his body. He was sensible, however, at least in part, for he knew Tressilian, and made signs that he wished him to stoop over his bed. Tressilian did so, and after some inarticulate murmurs, in which the names of Varney and Lady Leicester were alone distinguishable, Lambourne bade him "make haste, or he would come too late." It was in vain Tressilian urged the patient for further information; he seemed to become in some degree delirious, and when he again made a signal to attract Tressilian's attention, it was only for the purpose of desiring him to inform his uncle, Giles Gosling of the Black Bear, that "he had died without his shoes after all." A convulsion verified his words a few minutes after, and the travellers derived nothing from having met with him, saving the obscure fears concerning the fate of the Countess, which his dying words were calculated to convey, and which induced them to urge their journey with the utmost speed, pressing horses in the Queen's name when those which they rode became unfit for service.
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