Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XXXIV.

Have you not seen the partridge quake,

Viewing the hawk approaching nigh?

She cuddles close beneath the brake,

Afraid to sit, afraid to fly,

Prior.

It chanced, upon that memorable morning, that one of the earliest of the huntress train, who appeared from her chamber in full array for the chase, was the Princess for whom all these pleasures were instituted, England’s Maiden Queen. I know not if it were by chance, or out of the befitting courtesy due to a mistress by whom he was so much honoured, that she had scarcely made one step beyond the threshold of her chamber ere Leicester was by her side, and proposed to her, until the preparations for the chase had been completed, to view the Pleasance, and the gardens which it connected with the Castle yard.

To this new scene of pleasures they walked, the Earl’s arm affording his Sovereign the occasional support which she required, where flights of steps, then a favourite ornament in a garden, conducted them from terrace to terrace, and from parterre to parterre. The ladies in attendance, gifted with prudence, or endowed perhaps with the amiable desire of acting as they would be done by, did not conceive their duty to the Queen’s person required them, though they lost not sight of her, to approach so near as to share, or perhaps disturb, the conversation betwixt the Queen and the Earl, who was not only her host, but also her most trusted, esteemed, and favoured servant. They contented themselves with admiring the grace of this illustrious couple, whose robes of state were now exchanged for hunting suits, almost equally magnificent.

Elizabeth’s silvan dress, which was of a pale blue silk, with silver lace and aiguillettes, approached in form to that of the ancient Amazons, and was therefore well suited at once to her height and to the dignity of her mien, which her conscious rank and long habits of authority had rendered in some degree too masculine to be seen to the best advantage in ordinary female weeds. Leicester’s hunting suit of Lincoln green, richly embroidered with gold, and crossed by the gay baldric which sustained a bugle-horn, and a wood-knife instead of a sword, became its master, as did his other vestments of court or of war. For such were the perfections of his form and mien, that Leicester was always supposed to be seen to the greatest advantage in the character and dress which for the time he represented or wore.

The conversation of Elizabeth and the favourite Earl has not reached us in detail. But those who watched at some distance (and the eyes of courtiers and court ladies are right sharp) were of opinion that on no occasion did the dignity of Elizabeth, in gesture and motion, seem so decidedly to soften away into a mien expressive of indecision and tenderness. Her step was not only slow, but even unequal, a thing most unwonted in her carriage; her looks seemed bent on the ground; and there was a timid disposition to withdraw from her companion, which external gesture in females often indicates exactly the opposite tendency in the secret mind. The Duchess of Rutland, who ventured nearest, was even heard to aver that she discerned a tear in Elizabeth’s eye and a blush on her cheek; and still further, “She bent her looks on the ground to avoid mine,” said the Duchess, “she who, in her ordinary mood, could look down a lion.” To what conclusion these symptoms led is sufficiently evident; nor were they probably entirely groundless. The progress of a private conversation betwixt two persons of different sexes is often decisive of their fate, and gives it a turn very different perhaps from what they themselves anticipated. Gallantry becomes mingled with conversation, and affection and passion come gradually to mix with gallantry. Nobles, as well as shepherd swains, will, in such a trying moment, say more than they intended; and Queens, like village maidens, will listen longer than they should.

Horses in the meanwhile neighed and champed the bits with impatience in the base-court; hounds yelled in their couples; and yeomen, rangers, and prickers lamented the exhaling of the dew, which would prevent the scent from lying. But Leicester had another chase in view — or, to speak more justly towards him, had become engaged in it without premeditation, as the high-spirited hunter which follows the cry of the hounds that have crossed his path by accident. The Queen, an accomplished and handsome woman, the pride of England, the hope of France and Holland, and the dread of Spain, had probably listened with more than usual favour to that mixture of romantic gallantry with which she always loved to be addressed; and the Earl had, in vanity, in ambition, or in both, thrown in more and more of that delicious ingredient, until his importunity became the language of love itself.

“No, Dudley,” said Elizabeth, yet it was with broken accents — “no, I must be the mother of my people. Other ties, that make the lowly maiden happy, are denied to her Sovereign. No, Leicester, urge it no more. Were I as others, free to seek my own happiness, then, indeed — but it cannot — cannot be. Delay the chase — delay it for half an hour — and leave me, my lord.”

“How! leave you, madam?” said Leicester — “has my madness offended you?”

“No, Leicester, not so!” answered the Queen hastily; “but it is madness, and must not be repeated. Go — but go not far from hence; and meantime let no one intrude on my privacy.”

While she spoke thus, Dudley bowed deeply, and retired with a slow and melancholy air. The Queen stood gazing after him, and murmured to herself, “Were it possible — were it but possible! — but no — no; Elizabeth must be the wife and mother of England alone.”

As she spoke thus, and in order to avoid some one whose step she heard approaching, the Queen turned into the grotto in which her hapless, and yet but too successful, rival lay concealed.

The mind of England’s Elizabeth, if somewhat shaken by the agitating interview to which she had just put a period, was of that firm and decided character which soon recovers its natural tone. It was like one of those ancient Druidical monuments called Rocking-stones. The finger of Cupid, boy as he is painted, could put her feelings in motion; but the power of Hercules could not have destroyed their equilibrium. As she advanced with a slow pace towards the inmost extremity of the grotto, her countenance, ere she had proceeded half the length, had recovered its dignity of look, and her mien its air of command.

It was then the Queen became aware that a female figure was placed beside, or rather partly behind, an alabaster column, at the foot of which arose the pellucid fountain which occupied the inmost recess of the twilight grotto. The classical mind of Elizabeth suggested the story of Numa and Egeria, and she doubted not that some Italian sculptor had here represented the Naiad whose inspirations gave laws to Rome. As she advanced, she became doubtful whether she beheld a statue, or a form of flesh and blood. The unfortunate Amy, indeed, remained motionless, betwixt the desire which she had to make her condition known to one of her own sex, and her awe for the stately form which approached her, and which, though her eyes had never before beheld, her fears instantly suspected to be the personage she really was. Amy had arisen from her seat with the purpose of addressing the lady who entered the grotto alone, and, as she at first thought, so opportunely. But when she recollected the alarm which Leicester had expressed at the Queen’s knowing aught of their union, and became more and more satisfied that the person whom she now beheld was Elizabeth herself, she stood with one foot advanced and one withdrawn, her arms, head, and hands perfectly motionless, and her cheek as pallid as the alabaster pedestal against which she leaned. Her dress was of pale sea-green silk, little distinguished in that imperfect light, and somewhat resembled the drapery of a Grecian Nymph, such an antique disguise having been thought the most secure, where so many maskers and revellers were assembled; so that the Queen’s doubt of her being a living form was well justified by all contingent circumstances, as well as by the bloodless cheek and the fixed eye.

Elizabeth remained in doubt, even after she had approached within a few paces, whether she did not gaze on a statue so cunningly fashioned that by the doubtful light it could not be distinguished from reality. She stopped, therefore, and fixed upon this interesting object her princely look with so much keenness that the astonishment which had kept Amy immovable gave way to awe, and she gradually cast down her eyes, and drooped her head under the commanding gaze of the Sovereign. Still, however, she remained in all respects, saving this slow and profound inclination of the head, motionless and silent.

From her dress, and the casket which she instinctively held in her hand, Elizabeth naturally conjectured that the beautiful but mute figure which she beheld was a performer in one of the various theatrical pageants which had been placed in different situations to surprise her with their homage; and that the poor player, overcome with awe at her presence, had either forgot the part assigned her, or lacked courage to go through it. It was natural and courteous to give her some encouragement; and Elizabeth accordingly said, in a, tone of condescending kindness, “How now, fair Nymph of this lovely grotto, art thou spell-bound and struck with dumbness by the charms of the wicked enchanter whom men term Fear? We are his sworn enemy, maiden, and can reverse his charm. Speak, we command thee.”

Instead of answering her by speech, the unfortunate Countess dropped on her knee before the Queen, let her casket fall from her hand, and clasping her palms together, looked up in the Queen’s face with such a mixed agony of fear and supplication, that Elizabeth was considerably affected.

“What may this mean?” she said; “this is a stronger passion than befits the occasion. Stand up, damsel — what wouldst thou have with us?”

“Your protection, madam,” faltered forth the unhappy petitioner.

“Each daughter of England has it while she is worthy of it,” replied the Queen; “but your distress seems to have a deeper root than a forgotten task. Why, and in what, do you crave our protection?”

Amy hastily endeavoured to recall what she were best to say, which might secure herself from the imminent dangers that surrounded her, without endangering her husband; and plunging from one thought to another, amidst the chaos which filled her mind, she could at length, in answer to the Queen’s repeated inquiries in what she sought protection, only falter out, “Alas! I know not.”

“This is folly, maiden,” said Elizabeth impatiently; for there was something in the extreme confusion of the suppliant which irritated her curiosity, as well as interested her feelings. “The sick man must tell his malady to the physician; nor are we accustomed to ask questions so oft without receiving an answer.”

“I request — I implore,” stammered forth the unfortunate Countess —“I beseech your gracious protection — against — against one Varney.” She choked well-nigh as she uttered the fatal word, which was instantly caught up by the Queen.

“What, Varney — Sir Richard Varney — the servant of Lord Leicester! what, damsel, are you to him, or he to you?”

“I— I— was his prisoner — and he practised on my life — and I broke forth to — to —”

“To throw thyself on my protection, doubtless,” said Elizabeth. “Thou shalt have it — that is, if thou art worthy; for we will sift this matter to the uttermost. Thou art,” she said, bending on the Countess an eye which seemed designed to pierce her very inmost soul —“thou art Amy, daughter of Sir Hugh Robsart of Lidcote Hall?”

“Forgive me — forgive me, most gracious Princess!” said Amy, dropping once more on her knee, from which she had arisen.

“For what should I forgive thee, silly wench?” said Elizabeth; “for being the daughter of thine own father? Thou art brain-sick, surely. Well I see I must wring the story from thee by inches. Thou didst deceive thine old and honoured father — thy look confesses it — cheated Master Tressilian — thy blush avouches it — and married this same Varney.”

Amy sprung on her feet, and interrupted the Queen eagerly with, “No, madam, no! as there is a God above us, I am not the sordid wretch you would make me! I am not the wife of that contemptible slave — of that most deliberate villain! I am not the wife of Varney! I would rather be the bride of Destruction!”

The Queen, overwhelmed in her turn by Amy’s vehemence, stood silent for an instant, and then replied, “Why, God ha’ mercy, woman! I see thou canst talk fast enough when the theme likes thee. Nay, tell me, woman,” she continued, for to the impulse of curiosity was now added that of an undefined jealousy that some deception had been practised on her —“tell me, woman — for, by God’s day, I will know — whose wife, or whose paramour, art thou! Speak out, and be speedy. Thou wert better daily with a lioness than with Elizabeth.”

Urged to this extremity, dragged as it were by irresistible force to the verge of the precipice which she saw, but could not avoid — permitted not a moment’s respite by the eager words and menacing gestures of the offended Queen, Amy at length uttered in despair, “The Earl of Leicester knows it all.”

“The Earl of Leicester!” said Elizabeth, in utter astonishment. “The Earl of Leicester!” she repeated with kindling anger. “Woman, thou art set on to this — thou dost belie him — he takes no keep of such things as thou art. Thou art suborned to slander the noblest lord and the truest-hearted gentleman in England! But were he the right hand of our trust, or something yet dearer to us, thou shalt have thy hearing, and that in his presence. Come with me — come with me instantly!”

As Amy shrunk back with terror, which the incensed Queen interpreted as that of conscious guilt, Elizabeth rapidly advanced, seized on her arm, and hastened with swift and long steps out of the grotto, and along the principal alley of the Pleasance, dragging with her the terrified Countess, whom she still held by the arm, and whose utmost exertions could but just keep pace with those of the indignant Queen.

Leicester was at this moment the centre of a splendid group of lords and ladies, assembled together under an arcade, or portico, which closed the alley. The company had drawn together in that place, to attend the commands of her Majesty when the hunting-party should go forward, and their astonishment may be imagined when, instead of seeing Elizabeth advance towards them with her usual measured dignity of motion, they beheld her walking so rapidly that she was in the midst of them ere they were aware; and then observed, with fear and surprise, that her features were flushed betwixt anger and agitation, that her hair was loosened by her haste of motion, and that her eyes sparkled as they were wont when the spirit of Henry VIII. mounted highest in his daughter. Nor were they less astonished at the appearance of the pale, attenuated, half-dead, yet still lovely female, whom the Queen upheld by main strength with one hand, while with the other she waved aside the ladies and nobles who pressed towards her, under the idea that she was taken suddenly ill. “Where is my Lord of Leicester?” she said, in a tone that thrilled with astonishment all the courtiers who stood around. “Stand forth, my Lord of Leicester!”

If, in the midst of the most serene day of summer, when all is light and laughing around, a thunderbolt were to fall from the clear blue vault of heaven, and rend the earth at the very feet of some careless traveller, he could not gaze upon the smouldering chasm, which so unexpectedly yawned before him, with half the astonishment and fear which Leicester felt at the sight that so suddenly presented itself. He had that instant been receiving, with a political affectation of disavowing and misunderstanding their meaning, the half-uttered, half-intimated congratulations of the courtiers upon the favour of the Queen, carried apparently to its highest pitch during the interview of that morning, from which most of them seemed to augur that he might soon arise from their equal in rank to become their master. And now, while the subdued yet proud smile with which he disclaimed those inferences was yet curling his cheek, the Queen shot into the circle, her passions excited to the uttermost; and supporting with one hand, and apparently without an effort, the pale and sinking form of his almost expiring wife, and pointing with the finger of the other to her half-dead features, demanded in a voice that sounded to the ears of the astounded statesman like the last dread trumpet-call that is to summon body and spirit to the judgment-seat, “Knowest thou this woman?”

As, at the blast of that last trumpet, the guilty shall call upon the mountains to cover them, Leicester’s inward thoughts invoked the stately arch which he had built in his pride to burst its strong conjunction, and overwhelm them in its ruins. But the cemented stones, architrave and battlement, stood fast; and it was the proud master himself who, as if some actual pressure had bent him to the earth, kneeled down before Elizabeth, and prostrated his brow to the marble flag-stones on which she stood.

“Leicester,” said Elizabeth, in a voice which trembled with passion, “could I think thou hast practised on me — on me thy Sovereign — on me thy confiding, thy too partial mistress, the base and ungrateful deception which thy present confusion surmises — by all that is holy, false lord, that head of thine were in as great peril as ever was thy father’s!”

Leicester had not conscious innocence, but he had pride to support him. He raised slowly his brow and features, which were black and swoln with contending emotions, and only replied, “My head cannot fall but by the sentence of my peers. To them I will plead, and not to a princess who thus requites my faithful service.”

“What! my lords,” said Elizabeth, looking around, “we are defied, I think — defied in the Castle we have ourselves bestowed on this proud man! — My Lord Shrewsbury, you are Marshal of England, attach him of high treason.”

“Whom does your Grace mean?” said Shrewsbury, much surprised, for he had that instant joined the astonished circle.

“Whom should I mean, but that traitor Dudley, Earl of Leicester! — Cousin of Hunsdon, order out your band of gentlemen pensioners, and take him into instant custody. I say, villain, make haste!”

Hunsdon, a rough old noble, who, from his relationship to the Boleyns, was accustomed to use more freedom with the Queen than almost any other dared to do, replied bluntly, “And it is like your Grace might order me to the Tower tomorrow for making too much haste. I do beseech you to be patient.”

“Patient — God’s life!” exclaimed the Queen —“name not the word to me; thou knowest not of what he is guilty!”

Amy, who had by this time in some degree recovered herself, and who saw her husband, as she conceived, in the utmost danger from the rage of an offended Sovereign, instantly (and alas! how many women have done the same) forgot her own wrongs and her own danger in her apprehensions for him, and throwing herself before the Queen, embraced her knees, while she exclaimed, “He is guiltless, madam — he is guiltless; no one can lay aught to the charge of the noble Leicester!”

“Why, minion,” answered the Queen, “didst not thou thyself say that the Earl of Leicester was privy to thy whole history?”

“Did I say so?” repeated the unhappy Amy, laying aside every consideration of consistency and of self-interest. “Oh, if I did, I foully belied him. May God so judge me, as I believe he was never privy to a thought that would harm me!”

“Woman!” said Elizabeth, “I will know who has moved thee to this; or my wrath — and the wrath of kings is a flaming fire — shall wither and consume thee like a weed in the furnace!”

As the Queen uttered this threat, Leicester’s better angel called his pride to his aid, and reproached him with the utter extremity of meanness which would overwhelm him for ever if he stooped to take shelter under the generous interposition of his wife, and abandoned her, in return for her kindness, to the resentment of the Queen. He had already raised his head with the dignity of a man of honour to avow his marriage, and proclaim himself the protector of his Countess, when Varney, born, as it appeared, to be his master’s evil genius, rushed into the presence with every mark of disorder on his face and apparel.

“What means this saucy intrusion?” said Elizabeth.

Varney, with the air of a man altogether overwhelmed with grief and confusion, prostrated himself before her feet, exclaiming, “Pardon, my Liege, pardon! — or at least let your justice avenge itself on me, where it is due; but spare my noble, my generous, my innocent patron and master!”

Amy, who was yet kneeling, started up as she saw the man whom she deemed most odious place himself so near her, and was about to fly towards Leicester, when, checked at once by the uncertainty and even timidity which his looks had reassumed as soon as the appearance of his confidant seemed to open a new scene, she hung back, and uttering a faint scream, besought of her Majesty to cause her to be imprisoned in the lowest dungeon of the Castle — to deal with her as the worst of criminals —“but spare,” she exclaimed, “my sight and hearing what will destroy the little judgment I have left — the sight of that unutterable and most shameless villain!”

“And why, sweetheart?” said the Queen, moved by a new impulse; “what hath he, this false knight, since such thou accountest him, done to thee?”

“Oh, worse than sorrow, madam, and worse than injury — he has sown dissension where most there should be peace. I shall go mad if I look longer on him!”

“Beshrew me, but I think thou art distraught already,” answered the Queen. —“My Lord Hunsdon, look to this poor distressed young woman, and let her be safely bestowed, and in honest keeping, till we require her to be forthcoming.”

Two or three of the ladies in attendance, either moved by compassion for a creature so interesting, or by some other motive, offered their services to look after her; but the Queen briefly answered, “Ladies, under favour, no. You have all (give God thanks) sharp ears and nimble tongues; our kinsman Hunsdon has ears of the dullest, and a tongue somewhat rough, but yet of the slowest. — Hunsdon, look to it that none have speech of her.”

“By Our Lady,” said Hunsdon, taking in his strong, sinewy arms the fading and almost swooning form of Amy, “she is a lovely child! and though a rough nurse, your Grace hath given her a kind one. She is safe with me as one of my own ladybirds of daughters.”

So saying, he carried her off; unresistingly and almost unconsciously, his war-worn locks and long, grey beard mingling with her light-brown tresses, as her head reclined on his strong, square shoulder. The Queen followed him with her eye. She had already, with that self-command which forms so necessary a part of a Sovereign’s accomplishments, suppressed every appearance of agitation, and seemed as if she desired to banish all traces of her burst of passion from the recollection of those who had witnessed it. “My Lord of Hunsdon says well,” she observed, “he is indeed but a rough nurse for so tender a babe.”

“My Lord of Hunsdon,” said the Dean of St. Asaph —“I speak it not in defamation of his more noble qualities — hath a broad license in speech, and garnishes his discourse somewhat too freely with the cruel and superstitious oaths which savour both of profaneness and of old Papistrie.”

“It is the fault of his blood, Mr. Dean,” said the Queen, turning sharply round upon the reverend dignitary as she spoke; “and you may blame mine for the same distemperature. The Boleyns were ever a hot and plain-spoken race, more hasty to speak their mind than careful to choose their expressions. And by my word — I hope there is no sin in that affirmation — I question if it were much cooled by mixing with that of Tudor.”

As she made this last observation she smiled graciously, and stole her eyes almost insensibly round to seek those of the Earl of Leicester, to whom she now began to think she had spoken with hasty harshness upon the unfounded suspicion of a moment.

The Queen’s eye found the Earl in no mood to accept the implied offer of conciliation. His own looks had followed, with late and rueful repentance, the faded form which Hunsdon had just borne from the presence. They now reposed gloomily on the ground, but more — so at least it seemed to Elizabeth — with the expression of one who has received an unjust affront, than of him who is conscious of guilt. She turned her face angrily from him, and said to Varney, “Speak, Sir Richard, and explain these riddles — thou hast sense and the use of speech, at least, which elsewhere we look for in vain.”

As she said this, she darted another resentful glance towards Leicester, while the wily Varney hastened to tell his own story.

“Your Majesty’s piercing eye,” he said, “has already detected the cruel malady of my beloved lady, which, unhappy that I am, I would not suffer to be expressed in the certificate of her physician, seeking to conceal what has now broken out with so much the more scandal.”

“She is then distraught?” said the Queen. “Indeed we doubted not of it; her whole demeanour bears it out. I found her moping in a corner of yonder grotto; and every word she spoke — which indeed I dragged from her as by the rack — she instantly recalled and forswore. But how came she hither? Why had you her not in safe-keeping?”

“My gracious Liege,” said Varney, “the worthy gentleman under whose charge I left her, Master Anthony Foster, has come hither but now, as fast as man and horse can travel, to show me of her escape, which she managed with the art peculiar to many who are afflicted with this malady. He is at hand for examination.”

“Let it be for another time,” said the Queen. “But, Sir Richard, we envy you not your domestic felicity; your lady railed on you bitterly, and seemed ready to swoon at beholding you.”

“It is the nature of persons in her disorder, so please your Grace,” answered Varney, “to be ever most inveterate in their spleen against those whom, in their better moments, they hold nearest and dearest.”

“We have heard so, indeed,” said Elizabeth, “and give faith to the saying.”

“May your Grace then be pleased,” said Varney, “ to command my unfortunate wife to be delivered into the custody of her friends?”

Leicester partly started; but making a strong effort, he subdued his emotion, while Elizabeth answered sharply, “You are something too hasty, Master Varney. We will have first a report of the lady’s health and state of mind from Masters, our own physician, and then determine what shall be thought just. You shall have license, however, to see her, that if there be any matrimonial quarrel betwixt you — such things we have heard do occur, even betwixt a loving couple — you may make it up, without further scandal to our court or trouble to ourselves.”

Varney bowed low, and made no other answer.

Elizabeth again looked towards Leicester, and said, with a degree of condescension which could only arise out of the most heartfelt interest, “Discord, as the Italian poet says, will find her way into peaceful convents, as well as into the privacy of families; and we fear our own guards and ushers will hardly exclude her from courts. My Lord of Leicester, you are offended with us, and we have right to be offended with you. We will take the lion’s part upon us, and be the first to forgive.”

Leicester smoothed his brow, as by an effort; but the trouble was too deep-seated that its placidity should at once return. He said, however, that which fitted the occasion, “That he could not have the happiness of forgiving, because she who commanded him to do so could commit no injury towards him.”

Elizabeth seemed content with this reply, and intimated her pleasure that the sports of the morning should proceed. The bugles sounded, the hounds bayed, the horses pranced — but the courtiers and ladies sought the amusement to which they were summoned with hearts very different from those which had leaped to the morning’s revielle. There was doubt, and fear, and expectation on every brow, and surmise and intrigue in every whisper.

Blount took an opportunity to whisper into Raleigh’s ear, “This storm came like a levanter in the Mediterranean.”

Varium et mutabile,” answered Raleigh, in a similar tone.

“Nay, I know nought of your Latin,” said Blount; “but I thank God Tressilian took not the sea during that hurricane. He could scarce have missed shipwreck, knowing as he does so little how to trim his sails to a court gale.”

“Thou wouldst have instructed him!” said Raleigh.

“Why, I have profited by my time as well as thou, Sir Walter,” replied honest Blount. “I am knight as well as thou, and of the earlier creation.”

“Now, God further thy wit,” said Raleigh. “But for Tressilian, I would I knew what were the matter with him. He told me this morning he would not leave his chamber for the space of twelve hours or thereby, being bound by a promise. This lady’s madness, when he shall learn it, will not, I fear, cure his infirmity. The moon is at the fullest, and men’s brains are working like yeast. But hark! they sound to mount. Let us to horse, Blount; we young knights must deserve our spurs.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29