Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxvii.

Frank’s Attempt.

And now, indeed, if anything was to be done, it was the time. As for my lord, he was already making his preparations for leaving the world, having little hope left of reprieve or pardon. Terrible as it is at any age, even when one is old and spent, to leave the light of the sun, the solace of friends and children, and those joys which belong alike to every time of life and to every condition, most terrible of all must it be to give up the world, which is full of every kind of joy and delight, to those who can command them, when one is young, a husband and a father, rich, beloved, and happy. Yet to this Lord Derwentwater cheerfully resigned himself.

I suppose that never in the history of this country have condemned prisoners found so many friends as these six lords. Nothing more clearly proves that England doth steadfastly refuse (whatever the Whigs may say) to confound adherence to the ancient House with high treason, a crime against which the English blood naturally shudders. Many have been executed for this crime, especially under Henry VIII. and the three Princes who came after him. But never once did any great lords exert themselves to save these criminals. Yet here were great lords and noblemen, Whigs all —— that is to say, of the offended side —— besieging the throne (occupied by a German Duke) for mercy, while even their public journals, and those red-hot pulpits which had bawled so loudly for revenge, now considered with horror the prospect of spilling this noble blood. The Princess of Wales herself, moved with womanly compassion, resolved to do her best, difficult though it was, to save one of the six, and chose Lord Carnwath for the object of her mercy. He was at this time but thirty years of age, said to be of great virtue and excellent parts, educated at Oxford. Nor was she deterred one whit from her purpose by the fact that his lordship’s mother was a most violent and indiscreet woman, who went about declaring everywhere that her son would fall in a noble cause. She, therefore, sent Sir David Hamilton to him, telling him that his only hope lay in confession. Upon this the Earl wrote a letter, in which he confessed that he had gone to Lorraine and conversed with the Prince, and urged him to make very sure of his friends in England before he went to Scotland (which was sound advice, and, if the Prince had followed it, we had all been saved). He also said that he learned, from some of the Prince’s company, that it was debated whether the King of Sweden should not be invited into Scotland, there to establish King James by force of arms. The revelation of this design, as nothing could do the Prince more harm, was, perhaps, of itself sufficient service to warrant the release of the prisoner. Alas! that a righteous cause should be ruined by foolish counsellors! It is now by French arms, now by Swedish, that the King is to be restored! As if the proud English nation will ever receive a Prince thus imposed upon them! In the end, Lord Carnwath was suffered to go free, but his honours were attainted, and he became a simple Scottish gentleman. As for the Countess of Nithsdale, the recollection of her gallant rescue of her husband always makes my blood to boil, because our own scheme, which was so safe and easy, was put out of our power by the act of Providence, as you shall learn presently. Lady Nithsdale did not, however, resort to this stratagem until she had first tried every method. She even waylaid the King on his passage to the Drawing Room from his own apartments. She held in her hands a petition, drawn up by her husband; and as he passed she threw herself at his feet, crying out in French, so that he could not pretend not to understand, that she was the unfortunate Countess of Nithsdale. He made as if he would pass without attending, but she caught at the skirt of his coat; he tried to tear it from her hand, and actually dragged her on her knees (was not this an act of Kingly clemency?) to the very door of the Drawing Room, where two of the officers seized her, one by the waist and the other by the hands, and so tore her from the King’s presence.

Lady Derwentwater fared no better, except that, with a cruelty only equalled by James II. when he saw the Duke of Monmouth after trial, the King consented to receive her. The unhappy woman, who was accompanied by the Duchesses of Cleveland and Bolton and by many other great ladies, was presented to the King by the Dukes of St. Albans and Richmond, sons of Charles II., and therefore half-uncles to Lord Derwentwater.

The Countess fell upon her knees (it was on Sunday, after Divine Service, when the heart should be naturally open to compassion, as being just absolved from sin and still repentant), and thereupon, in a kind of rapture, implored the King for mercy. Those who were present and heard her prayer have declared that never could they believe a woman able to speak so movingly, with such eloquence, such art (as it seemed, but it was only the art of great love and great misery), such passion. Those who were with her wept aloud, and even among the gentlemen there was not a dry eye or a face unmoved —— excepting only the King’s. While every heart was bleeding, he alone stood listening with hard eyes and fixed lips, and presently suffered her to be led away without a word of hope. Her husband, he was resolved, should die. He was the youngest, the noblest, and the best of all; he was no more deeply involved than the rest, but he was the friend and companion of the Prince; therefore, he must be sent to his doom. Is it not wonderful that any man, much more wonderful a Prince, should be found not only so vindictive, but so lost to honour and to shame, as thus to sport with the misery and despair of a woman, and take pleasure in seeing his victim’s wife lying humbled at his feet?

Yet, I suppose to show some pretence of clemency, on the following day —— namely, Monday, the 20th of February, four days before the execution —— two noblemen went to the Tower, and offered my lord his life if he would acknowledge the title of King George and adopt the Protestant religion. The Earl refused (could a man of honour accept these conditions?), declaring that he would sooner lose his life than give up his faith. I heard these things, day by day, from Lady Cowper, and I believe no secret was made of them, for Mr. Hilyard heard them at the coffee-houses and in Newgate, whether he went daily, and where, you may suppose, the fate of the lords was watched with alternate hope and fear; for, as those noble heads were brought nearer the block, every man felt his own neck tightened.

The next day, being Tuesday, they sent two Protestant ministers to the Earl, begging that he would only send for some learned Divine of the Church of England, as if to consult on religious doubts. But my lord had no doubts, and would not pretend to any, even if thereby he might save his life. I could have wished, so that I could feel his future lot assured, that he had become a Protestant; but to pretend religious doubts, to sell his faith for a few transitory years, this would have destroyed for ever the noble image that lived in my heart, and put in its place a poor and contemptible creature indeed.

Whilst the Countess and her great friends were vainly endeavouring the release of Lord Derwentwater, others were resolved to attempt it, and would have carried it out in much simpler fashion, but for fate, or rather Providence, which willed otherwise. Frank Radcliffe, like all persons in his sad condition, one day contemplated death with resignation, and the next looked forward with confidence to getting better in a few days. In one of the latter periods Jenny communicated to him her design, which we had hitherto hidden from him. Immediately he fell into a kind of fever in his anxiety to be the means of liberating his brother. He would go that very day —— the next day, then. There must not be a moment lost. What did it matter if he were imprisoned, if only the Earl could be saved? If he could not walk, he must be carried.

‘Cousin Dorothy,’ the poor lad whispered, ‘my life has been of very little account. What can a poor Catholic gentleman do in this country, which denies him everything? I might have been a scholar, but you will not admit me to your Universities; or a statesman, but I may not enter Parliament; or a soldier, but you will not suffer me so much as to carry the colours. Yet, am I not an Englishman? Let me do one thing, at least, before I die. Do not tell Jenny, because I think she loves me; but I believe that I am dying.’

I told him (though I knew it was untrue) that he should not die, but recover and live; yea, that he should do this brave thing. But my heart sank within me, for he was now so weak that he could not stand upon his feet or hold up his head, and his cough was so violent that it seemed to tear him asunder. He had no ease except when Jenny was with him, which could not be in the evenings. She charmed away his cough, and laid him, by that magic skill of hers, in a quiet slumber, during which, at least, he did not cough. I met the girl now without the repugnance which first I felt towards her, forgiving her deception in the matter of the sorcery at Dilston, and even forgetting that she was an actress, and seeing in her the only woman who was able to alleviate his sufferings for this poor dying lad. What matter, now, that he was in love with her, or she so ambitious as to look for him to marry her?

In these days, when each hour was of importance, Mr. Hilyard and I looked at each other with sad and despairing eyes, but dared not say what was in our hearts. Frank was dying; the hopes that he built upon his likeness to his brother were fast fading. If ever he rose again from his bed, it would be after his unhappy brother was executed and buried. Yet Jenny, for one, could not believe it.

‘He is better,’ she said every morning; ‘he is better and stronger than yesterday. Last night he slept. His physicians assure me he is easier. With one more good night’s rest he will be strong again.’

‘Oh, Jenny!’ I whispered, ‘he will never be strong again!’ But she shook her head impatiently, and would not listen.

One morning, beside his bedside, while he slept, she told me, with many tears, how the poor lovesick boy followed her, without any encouragement from herself, from place to place when she first began to play, so that it became a subject of ridicule and mirth for the company; how it was he who first gave her dresses in which to make a brave show upon the stage; how he encouraged and exhorted her to study and practise and not to lose heart, but even before an audience of bumpkins and upon the boards of a barn to do her best and to speak out as if for a London audience, how he took her from her strolling company and brought her to London and paid for her lodging, treating her with such honour as one doth not, alas! always expect or often observe in a gentleman towards an actress, or a woman of her lowly origin; how, at length, but not until her efforts were crowned with success, and she became almost at a leap a favourite of the great city and one of his Majesty’s servants at Drury Lane, he asked her to marry him.

‘Oh, Miss Dorothy!’ she said, ‘you know me, what I am. Why, my father was a gipsy; and as for me, I can conjure, tell fortunes, read the future, lie, steal, cozen, and cheat the eyes with any of them; or better, because some are foolish and clumsy. Yet he would marry me —— a gentleman would marry me! I have plenty of lovers at my choice. But for marriage —— no, indeed. It was I who kept him from going off with Mr. Charles last summer. What! Let my man go fighting on other people’s business? Not I. What do I care for Prince or Pretender, this King and that? He will marry me, as soon as he gets well; and then I will leave the stage, and we will live somewhere retired, where no one will ask if I was once Jenny Lee, the actress. For, look you, Miss Dorothy, I would not shame him.’

‘But he is a Catholic, Jenny. Would you, too, become a Catholic?’

She laughed. All the gipsy came into her face.

‘Why,’ she said, ‘for that matter I am a Protestant with you; if I go to the tents of my people, what are they, and what am I, with them? They lie in the sun; they love the open air; they whistle to the birds; like the birds, they live to-day, and to-morrow they die, and are buried in the ditch, and so forgotten. But to live is enough for them. Oh that I were out of this town and in the open country, with Frank well and strong beside me! What matter what he believes and calls his religion? As soon as he gets well it shall be mine.’ She spread her arms abroad and repeated, with a strange yearning look in her black eyes —— poor Jenny! ——‘As soon as he gets well.’

Now, all this time, Frank was lying in the sleep into which Jenny had thrown him. When she went away, at last, she made those motions with her hands which always awakened him. He was easier, it seemed, but his voice was low. She kissed him on the forehead, bade him keep quiet and sleep if he could, and left us. I was to stay with him all the evening.

‘Tell me again,’ he whispered, ‘what I am to do in order to rescue my brother James.’

Alas! It was already Saturday; the fatal day was fixed for the following Thursday; though that we knew not. But I knew very well that the day was now very near.

‘Do not speak, then, Frank, but listen.’ So I told him all over again, just as one tells a child the same story till he knows it by heart, and yet must have it told over again, that he was to be disguised with false eyebrows and paint, and so, with Jenny, gain admittance to his brother’s cell, and then —— but I have already told the scheme, which was as simple as it was clever. He felt so easy this evening, though weak, that it pleased him to imagine himself carrying out this brave project.

In the evening, when he had taken some broth, he felt, he said, his strength returning fast, and tried to sit up, but with no great success.

‘Sometimes,’ he told me, ‘I wake in the night cold and shivering, and feel as if the dews of death were already upon my forehead; sometimes I awake full of courage, and, though in the darkness, think to see my life stretching far before me, with Jenny in my arms. I am resolved what I shall do when I recover. I shall marry her without delay, and take her from the theatre (where her ambition has been sufficiently gratified), and so away to the country; or, perhaps, to France, where we will live retired, and meditate.’ Then he spoke of the joys of a country life, and how among such simple pleasures as books, a garden, and the open air, the years would peacefully slip away. ‘I want no more,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I formerly asked too much of Heaven. Who am I that I should sigh for distinction and honour? What profit would they be to me beside a calm and peaceful life with the woman I love? Let others care for these things.’

I asked him, seeing that it gave him no pain to speak, how it was that he fell in love with Jenny.

‘I know not how,’ he replied. ‘Perhaps it was because I found with her, from the very first, a strange rest; she seems to know beforehand what are my very thoughts and what I wish. Besides, she is, as everybody confesses, the most beautiful of women as well as the most sprightly, the most bewitching, and the most witty. How do I know why I love her?’

All this he said, and more, in broken discourse, as he felt able to talk. In the intervals I read to him or talked to him; nor did I leave him until it was time for him to go to bed, whither his landlady’s two strapping sons carried him first, and then guarded me, armed with stout sticks —— for the streets were full of rough and desperate men —— to my own lodging.

I knew not that I had talked with a dying man. Yet in the morning, when they took him his cup of broth, they found him lying cold and dead. His soul had passed away in sleep, and he lay, his head upon his hand, calm, peaceful, and with a smile upon his thin and wasted lips. As for his face, when we looked upon it, it was so like his brother’s, that one trembled and felt cold, knowing that before many days, as poor Frank’s face looked now, so would look that other, cold in death.

Mr. Hilyard brought me the dreadful news. Poor Frank! We wept not so much for him as for the ruin of our hopes; for now our last chance was gone. Yet one might well have wept for the shortness of a life which seemed born for happiness. The curse of the Stuarts had fallen also upon the Radcliffes; better had it been for them, a thousand times better, had they married with their own people, and remained plain country knights.

In the chamber where lay the dead man upon the bed (was it possible that the cold face, so white and still, was but last night full of hope and life, and the fixed eyes full of light?) sat Jenny Lee, her hands clasped, not crying or sobbing, but as one in a trance. I tried such words of comfort as one attempts in the hour of sorrow; but they were vain. Mr. Hilyard addressed her, ordering her to seek relief in prayer and resignation; but the shook her head. Who shall comfort a woman in the first moments of her bereavement? Frank was dead. Why, then, leave poor Jenny awhile alone with her senseless corpse. Come out and shut the door.

Frank was dead; and with him died the last of our hopes.

‘Mine,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘have been dead since I saw that he could never more leave his chamber. Had that poor lad been strong, we had made such a gallant rescue as would have made all England to ring with the story. But he is dead. Poor Jenny! It was for his sake that she took care of her reputation and is blameless. Now he is gone —— why —— poor Jenny!’

Presently she came forth, still with dry eyes.

‘He was a Catholic,’ she said. ‘Let us remember that when he is buried. Will you look to his funeral, Mr. Hilyard? His religion did not, you see, prevent him from dying so young any more than if he had been a gipsy lying in a ditch. No matter; I am henceforth of his religion.’

We made no reply. She looked about the room, and gathered together two or three books.

‘These,’ she said, ‘I will take, because they are mine, with my own name in them; and if any of his friends care to see where and how he died, it will be well not to let them feel ashamed because he loved an actress. Oh, Miss Dorothy!’ she burst into tears and fell to kissing my hands; ‘it is for you I am crying, not for myself; for Frank is dead, and there is no one now to rescue my lord, who will surely die.’

It was Sunday morning; at that very moment the Countess was pouring out her passionate prayer for mercy, and the King was listening with stony eyes and hardened heart. There was now no room for help or hope; but he must die.

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