Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxiii.

In the Town.

By this time all the friends of the prisoners had hurried up to the town. Lady Derwentwater, poor creature, with her two children, was staying with the Duchess of Cleveland; the Dowager Countess, with her third husband, Mr. Rooke, was come to save her son, if that was possible: already the Court, and everybody about the Court, the Ministers, and all who were thought to have any influence with them, were besieged with petitions and entreaties for pardon. What bribes were offered and taken, I know not; but a good many who were no worse than those executed got free pardons. Lady Cowper told me afterwards that her husband was offered £60,000 to procure the pardon of Lord Derwenwater. They tried to bribe the wrong man; the hands of those far lower in rank should have been touched with gold. But you shall see. It made my heart bleed, sad as I was on my own account, to hear Lady Cowper’s tales of the poor women who came to her daily, because she was of the North Country, to beg her influence, and fell at her feet and wept. She was so tender and compassionate a woman, that I am sure she used her influence as she could, and perhaps got off many more besides her cousins, Mr. Clavering and his son.

The Countess placed her whole hope in her husband’s powerful friends and connections. The Dukes of Richmond and St. Albans, his cousins, were on the other side; would they allow their kinsman’s head to fall without an effort? Alas! her hope proved a broken reed; these noble lords begged for a pardon, but they begged in vain, and I doubt whether they begged in the only way which was able to touch the King’s heart, namely, by threats. Lord Derwentwater was their kinsman, true; but unfortunately he was not their friend. Among the Peers he had no friends. Why, Lord Nairn got off because he had an old schoolfellow among the Ministers; but there was no one who had known Lord Derwentwater as a boy. Truly, to be a Roman Catholic in this realm of England is to be placed at a great disadvantage. One would not, surely, wish it otherwise; but for my lord’s sake it must needs be lamented. There were seven lords in the Tower; in the end five got off. Why did they execute the other two? Were they more criminal than the rest? Alas! no; but they were more friendless, and one of them was near by blood to the Prince.

I sought the Countess as soon as I learned where she was. She seemed, at first, full of hope —— even of confidence. The King would not dare to displeasure so many great lords who would implore his pardon for her husband; his own seat was not so secure as to warrant the throwing away of powerful friends; his cause would be best served by clemency. She repeated these arguments so often, and with so many interjections, pauses, catching of her babes to her breast, that I could very well perceive the secret terror in her heart. Her cheeks were wan; her eyes were hollow; she was consumed by her anxiety as by a fever. She owned to me presently that at night she could not sleep, but passed the hours on her knees, offering herself, her children, her all to the Virgin, in return for the life —— only the life —— of her husband.

‘Alas!’ she cried, ‘Heaven is not deaf; the Lord is very merciful. I have by letters asked the Augustine Sisters in Paris to pray for me; day and night there is a taper burning before the Virgin in their chapel; the good Sisters pray for me without ceasing. Or when I am not praying I importune some great man or some great lady to do something for my lord. They tell me the law must have its course; there must be a trial —— I care not what they say or do at the trial, if he be pardoned after it; I must expect —— yes, I look —— to hear that he is sentenced to execution —— but that matters nothing if they mean to let him go. Why, if he be but suffered to live, I promise that not he only, but his son after him, shall sit quiet at home even if the Prince with his forces be marching through England from victory to victory.’

Then she went on, now assuring herself of his safety, and now confessing her fears, and it was dreadful sorrow and pain only to hear her. She saw her husband almost daily, and in his presence, I am told, she controlled herself and was calm, as both the brave souls were, for fear of making each other more unhappy. Sometimes I asked myself whether she ever repented of throwing down her fan on the day of the meeting. I think she did not, because I, who was as vehement as herself, have not and never shall repent of my earnestness. For if the cause was just, and the time was ripe, why should we delay the blow? Let the blame lie on those wicked and mischievous men who persuaded us that the time was really ripe for action and the hour come, not on those who believed and were deceived to their own destruction.

In the midst of his own trouble my lord found time to think of me. One day about the New Year the Countess gave me a letter from him.

‘My dear Cousin Dorothy,’ it said,

‘I hear that you are in London about Tom’s unhappy business. It would comfort me greatly if I could see you, and I doubt not, if you can come here, they will admit you to see me. God send us all a happy deliverance! Though for myself I dare not hope, yet as for Tom, whose only fault was his easy temper, by which designing persons led him (and us) to confusion, I hope and believe that he will escape. Comfort my dear wife, and keep up your own heart.

‘Your loving Cousin and Friend,

‘Derwentwater.’

‘Go to see him, Dorothy,’ said the Countess; ‘if only because he hath always loved you well and taken pleasure in your conversation. Besides, he desires to send some message to your brother about I know not what.’

I rejoice now, though then it seemed a terrible thing to do, that I had courage to visit my lord in that gloomy place, the Tower, the very name of which fills the heart with terror. I have him always in my mind with that proud bearing and steadfast eye with which he encountered the insults of the mob. It is well also to think of him as he was when he sat in his prison, endeavouring to be resigned to his untimely fate, yet not without hope; cheerful, as becomes a Christian; and brave, as becomes a gentleman.

I rode to the Tower through the City in a hackney-coach, having my landlady, Purdy’s wife, with me for guide or protector. The day was so cold and the streets so frozen, that our coachman went but slowly, and the good woman with me had time to point out all the places along which we passed. First, St. Sepulchre’s Church; then Newgate Prison (which I already knew so well); then through the gate with the effigy of Dick Whittington and his cat upon it; the narrow and evil-smelling Newgate Street, its bulkheads covered with meat, the gutters running blood, and greasy butchers carrying carcases upon their shoulders; and after Newgate Street St. Paul’s Cathedral (truly a great and wonderful building), and then crowded streets without number (but among them the tall Monument); and presently a wide, open space, with, on the right hand, a broad river and a forest of masts, and before me a great white castle, which is none other than the Tower of London, where so many unfortunate lords have been confined.

When our coachman drew up before a kind of wicket, I observed first that the gate was guarded by a dozen or twenty men, in scarlet jerkins, and caps of some old fashion; these are the buffetiers. Beyond them, in a courtyard, was a troop of foot-soldiers, some on guard, some standing about in the door, some within the guard-room, sitting beside a great fire. Outside the gate there was a little crowd of men and women, some of them belonging to the better sort. As I stood and looked at them, one stepped forward and flourished his hat.

‘We hope,’ he said, ‘that your ladyship is on the right side —— that is to say, the side for which the lords within are prisoners.’

Thus bold with their opinions were the Jacobites of London. Alas! had they been as bold with their swords!

And the rest of the crowd murmured approval, and the women cried, ‘God help the poor prisoners!’ and the men said, ‘Lord bless the lady’s pretty face, whoever she is.’

‘My friends,’ I said, ‘I am going to see my cousin, Lord Derwentwater; and I am the sister of General Forster, now in Newgate.’

Then they all bowed, and made way for me with great respect.

When I came out, they were waiting for me; and after I got into my coach, they walked beside me in a kind of procession as far as Tower Street, where they cheered me loudly and left me.

Two of the prisoners, namely, Lords Derwentwater and Nithsdale, were confined in what they call the Bell Tower. It is close to the entrance, and is the only part of the great gloomy building which I saw. They were placed in two chambers on the second story which lead out of a large room called the Council Chamber, the same in which Guy Fawkes was tortured and examined. When I was conducted to this room I found it filled not only with guards and wardens on duty, but also with people, chiefly women, who had been suffered to come here by these men, or paid for admission, in order to look upon those who visited the prisoners. This, because they gazed so earnestly upon me, and asked each other aloud who I might be, I thought at the time was cruel and unfeeling; but now one blesses the happy chance, because it was the presence of such a crowd which enabled Lady Nithsdale to get off her husband. However, they kept me waiting for a few moments, and then admitted me to his lordship.

It was a small chamber, but decently furnished. My lord, who was writing at the table, rose to welcome me with his ready smile.

‘Why, Cousin Dorothy,’ he said, ‘it is kind to brave the mob on so cold a day as this in order to visit a poor prisoner. Oh! as to my health, that matters nothing now, and my comfort very little. As I have made my bed, so must I lie upon it. Nay, Dorothy, do not cry. If a man stakes his all upon a hopeless chance, he must look to lose. Perhaps, before I die, I may bring myself to forgive those whose lies and treacheries brought us to this pass. Were it not, indeed, for my wife and hapless babies ——’

He turned his head and was silent.

‘My lord,’ I said, trying to bring him hope, ‘you do yourself an injustice. You are not yet even tried; you have many friends —— more than you know of. Great ladies and gentlemen, men of exalted rank there are, who will leave no stone unturned for you.’

‘If all England were my friend, Dorothy, it would avail me nothing so long as I have one enemy —— and he the King.’

And to this he returned again presently, declaring always that the King himself was resolved upon his destruction. And that he knew for certain that the King regarded the Prince and all his personal friends with peculiar hatred and malice.

‘Besides,’ he said, ‘if any are to be sentenced, shall the leaders escape and the followers suffer? Would that be justice?’

‘Since the power of this new King,’ I said, ‘is now proved by the failure of the Rebellion, which has established him on a firmer footing and therefore done him all the good possible, why can he not pardon all?’

‘Because history is not made up of pardons, but of sentences and executions. However, in this place,’ he said, ‘we have, at least, time for meditation; and if I were to write a narrative of the Rebellion I should call it “The History of a Hundred Fools and Half-a-dozen Knaves.” The knaves, I trust, will at least receive the same punishment as the fools. As for us, I know not which should be considered the greatest fool of any, but I think it must be myself, unless it were Tom Forster.’

He then told me that he had strong reason to believe there would be found among the prisoners one or two to give King’s evidence in order to save themselves. This was what Lady Cowper hinted.

‘I trust,’ he said, ‘that among my own friends there is not one who would play so base a part; and I think, nay, I am sure, that there is plenty of evidence to hang most of us without such assistance. Go to Tom, however, and tell him so much from me, that he and his friends may be warned against traitors in the camp.’

He put aside this matter, and began first calmly and reasonably to consider the mistakes which had been made in their short campaign; especially their neglect in not enlisting as many as offered; in not providing ammunition and provisions; and in entering England so ill prepared. And next he told me he was already thinking of his defence, and that he was careful not to say aught that might implicate my brother any deeper in the business.

‘I am told,’ he added, ‘that an attempt will be made to prove my cousin, Tom Forster, the author of the whole design —— whereas he was but an instrument —— and as the man who drew us all in. Therefore I shall maintain the clean contrary. I rose for my lawful Sovereign, first, because it was my duty when the time came; next, because I was assured, being myself ignorant of the feeling of the people, that every gentleman in the country would rise with us. Tell Tom this also, from me, cousin. And tell him, moreover, that though many blame him for the Preston surrender, I do not. The case was hopeless; more would have been killed trying to cut their way through than will now, probably, be beheaded or hanged. Yet I still wish we had run the chance. So let us think kindly of each other; if both die, let us meet in heaven as brothers; and if I only, let him remember me with sorrow and kindness.’

‘And if neither, my lord?’

‘Why, then ——’ he laughed, gently. ‘But ’tis impossible, the King being such as he is. Yet if neither, then, Dorothy, I promise to oblige Tom by sitting with him as far as t’other bottle.’

Then he was silent awhile, gazing before him as one who sees in fancy a pageant of the past.

‘Dorothy,’ he said, softly, ‘you remember the time, five years ago, when I used to ride across the moor to Blanchland to walk and talk with the sweetest girl in Northumberland.’

‘Oh! my lord, you must not say that any more; you must not even think such a thing. But as for me, can I ever forget that season?’

‘Why, I am married since then, and have a wife whom I dearly love, and she hath made me the happiest of men; yet withal, by your leave, Dorothy, fair cousin, I do still remember that time, and the sweet looks and gentle smiles of her who refused me for conscience’ sake. I say it in all honesty, my cousin.’

‘My lord, you can say nothing but in honesty.’

‘It was from your lips, cousin, that I learned what in St. Germain’s I could not learn, what should be the conduct of a true English gentleman, and what his duty to those who depend upon him. Why, I was not half an Englishman. How ignorant I was in those days no one but yourself has ever known. It was your kind heart that taught me to desire the love of the people. In France we regard them not, and care neither for their affection nor their hatred. It comforts me, now, to think that, thanks to your noble teaching, my people will grieve for me when I am dead. Well, it is over; you and I will never walk and talk together any more; yet we have been happy. And now I am tied up in the slaughter-house, waiting for the man with the knife. And Charles, poor lad! is in Newgate. And Frank —— where is Frank?’

‘Frank is in London, but he is grievously sick with a cough which leaves him not day or night, so that he cannot quit his chamber. And much I fear that he will never go abroad again.’

I did not tell him —— because why should he be vexed? —— that Frank was also held in bondage by his strange and vehement passion.

‘Poor Frank!’ he sighed. ‘This it is to inherit the unlucky blood of the Stuarts. The Radcliffes did very well until —— poor Frank! Charles told me something of an actress —— but I forget what. Tell him if you see him, Dorothy, that I can give him my prayers for the short time left me in life, but nothing more. Two of us in grievous jeopardy of the scaffold, and one like to die of a cough. ’Tis an excellent and a hopeful beginning of the New Year!’

It was growing dark, and time for me to go. So in the twilight of that too dismal New Year’s Day, and in that gloomy place, we stood to say farewell, face to face. He held both my hands in his.

‘Farewell, sweet cousin —— dear sister, whom I have always loved. If we meet no more, farewell.’

He kissed me on the forehead and lips, and so I left him, and —— alas! alas! —— I looked upon his noble face no more.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32