Peveril of the Peak, by Walter Scott

Chapter 39

Ah! changeful head, and fickle heart!

PROGRESS OF DISCONTENT.

No event is more ordinary in narratives of this nature, than the abduction of the female on whose fate the interest is supposed to turn; but that of Alice Bridgenorth was thus far particular, that she was spirited away by the Duke of Buckingham, more in contradiction than in the rivalry of passion; and that, as he made his first addresses to her at Chiffinch’s, rather in the spirit of rivalry to this Sovereign, than from any strong impression which her beauty had made on his affections, so he had formed the sudden plan of spiriting her away by means of his dependents, rather to perplex Christian, the King, Chiffinch, and all concerned, than because he had any particular desire for her society at his own mansion. Indeed, so far was this from being the case, that his Grace was rather surprised than delighted with the success of the enterprise which had made her an inmate there, although it is probable he might have thrown himself into an uncontrollable passion, had he learned its miscarriage instead of its success.

Twenty-four hours had passed over since he had returned to his own roof, before, notwithstanding sundry hints from Jerningham, he could even determine on the exertion necessary to pay his fair captive a visit; and then it was with the internal reluctance of one who can only be stirred from indolence by novelty.

“I wonder what made me plague myself about this wench,” said he, “and doom myself to encounter all the hysterical rhapsodies of a country Phillis, with her head stuffed with her grandmother’s lessons about virtue and the Bible-book, when the finest and best-bred women in town may be had upon more easy terms. It is a pity one cannot mount the victor’s car of triumph without having a victory to boast of; yet, faith, it is what most of our modern gallants do, though it would not become Buckingham. — Well, I must see her,” he concluded, “though it were but to rid the house of her. The Portsmouth will not hear of her being set at liberty near Charles, so much is she afraid of a new fair seducing the old sinner from his allegiance. So how the girl is to be disposed of — for I shall have little fancy to keep her here, and she is too wealthy to be sent down to Cliefden as a housekeeper — is a matter to be thought on.”

He then called for such a dress as might set off his natural good mien — a compliment which he considered as due to his own merit; for as to anything farther, he went to pay his respects to his fair prisoner with almost as little zeal in the cause, as a gallant to fight a duel in which he has no warmer interest than the maintenance of his reputation as man of honour.

The set of apartments consecrated to the use of those favourites who occasionally made Buckingham’s mansion their place of abode, and who were, so far as liberty was concerned, often required to observe the regulations of a convent, were separated from the rest of the Duke’s extensive mansion. He lived in the age when what was called gallantry warranted the most atrocious actions of deceit and violence; as may be best illustrated by the catastrophe of an unfortunate actress, whose beauty attracted the attention of the last De Vere, Earl of Oxford. While her virtue defied his seductions, he ruined her under colour of a mock marriage, and was rewarded for a success which occasioned the death of his victim, by the general applause of the men of wit and gallantry who filled the drawing-room of Charles.

Buckingham had made provision in the interior of his ducal mansion for exploits of a similar nature; and the set of apartments which he now visited were alternately used to confine the reluctant, and to accommodate the willing.

Being now destined for the former purpose, the key was delivered to the Duke by a hooded and spectacled old lady, who sat reading a devout book in the outer hall which divided these apartments (usually called the Nunnery) from the rest of the house. This experienced dowager acted as mistress of the ceremonies on such occasions, and was the trusty depositary of more intrigues than were known to any dozen of her worshipful calling besides.

“As sweet a linnet,” she said, as she undid the outward door, “as ever sung in a cage.”

“I was afraid she might have been more for moping than for singing, Dowlas,” said the Duke.

“Till yesterday she was so, please your Grace,” answered Dowlas; “or, to speak sooth, till early this morning, we heard of nothing but Lachrymæ. But the air of your noble Grace’s house is favourable to singing-birds; and today matters have been a-much mended.”

“Tis sudden, dame,” said the Duke; “and ’tis something strange, considering that I have never visited her, that the pretty trembler should have been so soon reconciled to her fate.”

“Ah, your Grace has such magic, that it communicates itself to your very walls; as wholesome Scripture says, Exodus, first and seventh, ‘It cleaveth to the walls and the doorposts.’”

“You are too partial, Dame Dowlas,” said the Duke of Buckingham.

“Not a word but truth,” said the dame; “and I wish I may be an outcast from the fold of the lambs, but I think this damsel’s very frame has changed since she was under your Grace’s roof. Methinks she hath a lighter form, a finer step, a more displayed ankle — I cannot tell, but I think there is a change. But, lack-a-day, your Grace knows I am as old as I am trusty, and that my eyes wax something uncertain.”

“Especially when you wash them with a cup of canary, Dame Dowlas,” answered the Duke, who was aware that temperance was not amongst the cardinal virtues which were most familiar to the old lady’s practice.

“Was it canary, your Grace said? — Was it indeed with canary, that your Grace should have supposed me to have washed my eyes?” said the offended matron. “I am sorry that your Grace should know me no better.”

“I crave your pardon, dame,” said the Duke, shaking aside, fastidiously, the grasp which, in the earnestness of her exculpation, Madam Dowlas had clutched upon his sleeve. “I crave your pardon. Your nearer approach has convinced me of my erroneous imputation — I should have said nantz — not canary.”

So saying, he walked forward into the inner apartments, which were fitted up with an air of voluptuous magnificence.

“The dame said true, however,” said the proud deviser and proprietor of the splendid mansion —“A country Phillis might well reconcile herself to such a prison as this, even without a skilful bird-fancier to touch a bird-call. But I wonder where she can be, this rural Phidele. Is it possible she can have retreated, like a despairing commandant, into her bedchamber, the very citadel of the place, without even an attempt to defend the outworks?”

As he made this reflection, he passed through an antechamber and little eating parlour, exquisitely furnished, and hung with excellent paintings of the Venetian school.

Beyond these lay a withdrawing-room, fitted up in a style of still more studied elegance. The windows were darkened with painted glass, of such a deep and rich colour, as made the midday beams, which found their way into the apartment, imitate the rich colours of sunset; and, in the celebrated expression of the poet, “taught light to counterfeit a gloom.”

Buckingham’s feelings and taste had been too much, and too often, and too readily gratified, to permit him, in the general case, to be easily accessible, even to those pleasures which it had been the business of his life to pursue. The hackneyed voluptuary is like the jaded epicure, the mere listlessness of whose appetite becomes at length a sufficient penalty for having made it the principal object of his enjoyment and cultivation. Yet novelty has always some charms, and uncertainty has more.

The doubt how he was to be received — the change of mood which his prisoner was said to have evinced — the curiosity to know how such a creature as Alice Bridgenorth had been described, was likely to bear herself under the circumstances in which she was so unexpectedly placed, had upon Buckingham the effect of exciting unusual interest. On his own part, he had none of those feelings of anxiety with which a man, even of the most vulgar mind, comes to the presence of the female whom he wishes to please, far less the more refined sentiments of love, respect, desire, and awe, with which the more refined lover approaches the beloved object. He had been, to use an expressive French phrase, too completely blasé even from his earliest youth, to permit him now to experience the animal eagerness of the one, far less the more sentimental pleasure of the other. It is no small aggravation of this jaded and uncomfortable state of mind, that the voluptuary cannot renounce the pursuits with which he is satiated, but must continue, for his character’s sake, or from the mere force of habit, to take all the toil, fatigue, and danger of the chase, while he has so little real interest in the termination.

Buckingham, therefore, felt it due to his reputation as a successful hero of intrigue, to pay his addresses to Alice Bridgenorth with dissembled eagerness; and, as he opened the door of the inner apartment, he paused to consider, whether the tone of gallantry, or that of passion, was fittest to use on the occasion. This delay enabled him to hear a few notes of a lute touched with exquisite skill, and accompanied by the still sweeter strains of a female voice, which, without executing any complete melody, seemed to sport itself in rivalship of the silver sound of the instrument.

“A creature so well educated,” said the Duke, “with the sense she is said to possess, would, rustic as she is, laugh at the assumed rants of Oroondates. It is the vein of Dorimont — once, Buckingham, thine own — that must here do the feat, besides that the part is easier.”

So thinking, he entered the room with that easy grace which characterised the gay courtiers among whom he flourished, and approached the fair tenant, whom he found seated near a table covered with books and music, and having on her left hand the large half-open casement, dim with stained glass, admitting only a doubtful light into this lordly retiring-room, which, hung with the richest tapestry of the Gobelines, and ornamented with piles if china and splendid mirrors, seemed like a bower built for a prince to receive his bride.

The splendid dress of the inmate corresponded with the taste of the apartment which she occupied and partook of the Oriental costume which the much-admired Roxalana had the brought into fashion. A slender foot and ankle, which escaped from the wide trowser of richly ornamented and embroidered blue satin, was the only part of her person distinctly seen; the rest was enveloped, from head to foot, in a long veil of silver gauze, which, like a feathery and light mist on a beautiful landscape, suffered you to perceive that what it concealed was rarely lovely, yet induced the imagination even to enhance the charms it shaded. Such part of the dress as could be discovered was, like the veil and the trowsers, in the Oriental taste; a rich turban, and splendid caftan, were rather indicated than distinguished through the folds of the former. The whole attire argued at least coquetry on the part of the fair one, who must have expected, from her situation, a visitor of some pretension; and induced Buckingham to smile internally at Christian’s account of the extreme simplicity and purity of his niece.

He approached the lady en cavalier, and addressed her with the air of being conscious, while he acknowledged his offences, that his condescending to do so formed a sufficient apology for them. “Fair Mistress Alice,” he said, “I am sensible how deeply I ought to sue for pardon for the mistaken zeal of my servants, who, seeing you deserted and exposed without protection during an unlucky affray, took it upon them to bring you under the roof of one who would expose his life rather than suffer you to sustain a moment’s anxiety. Was it my fault that those around me should have judged it necessary to interfere for your preservation; or that, aware of the interest I must take in you, they have detained you till I could myself, in personal attendance, receive your commands?”

“That attendance has not been speedily rendered, my lord,” answered the lady. “I have been a prisoner for two days — neglected, and left to the charge of menials.”

“How say you, lady? — Neglected!” exclaimed the Duke. “By Heaven, if the best in my household has failed in his duty, I will discard him on the instant!”

“I complain of no lack of courtesy from your servants, my lord,” she replied; “but methinks it had been but complaisant in the Duke himself to explain to me earlier wherefore he has had the boldness to detain me as a state prisoner.”

“And can the divine Alice doubt,” said Buckingham, “that, had time and space, those cruel enemies to the flight of passion, given permission, the instant in which you crossed your vassal’s threshold had seen its devoted master at your feet, who hath thought, since he saw you, of nothing but the charms which that fatal morning placed before him at Chiffinch’s?”

“I understand, then, my lord,” said the lady, “that you have been absent, and have had no part in the restraint which has been exercised upon me?”

“Absent on the King’s command, lady, and employed in the discharge of his duty,” answered Buckingham without hesitation. “What could I do? — The moment you left Chiffinch’s, his Majesty commanded me to the saddle in such haste, that I had no time to change my satin buskins for riding-boots.* If my absence has occasioned you a moment of inconvenience, blame the inconsiderate zeal of those who, seeing me depart from London, half distracted at my separation from you, were willing to contribute their unmannered, though well-meant exertions, to preserve their master from despair, by retaining the fair Alice within his reach. To whom, indeed, could they have restored you? He whom you selected as your champion is in prison, or fled — your father absent from town — your uncle in the north. To Chiffinch’s house you had expressed your well-founded aversion; and what fitter asylum remained than that of your devoted slave, where you must ever reign a queen?”

* This case is not without precedent. Among the jealousies and fears expressed by the Long Parliament, they insisted much upon an agent for the King departing for the continent so abruptly, that he had not time to change his court dress — white buskins, to wit, and black silk pantaloons — for an equipment more suitable to travel with.

“An imprisoned one,” said the lady. “I desire not royalty.”

“Alas! how wilfully you misconstrue me!” said the Duke, kneeling on one knee; “and what right can you have to complain of a few hours’ gentle restraint — you, who destine so many to hopeless captivity? Be merciful for once, and withdraw that envious veil; for the divinities are ever most cruel when they deliver their oracles from such clouded recesses. Suffer at least my rash hand ——”

“I will save your Grace that unworthy trouble,” said the lady haughtily; and rising up, she flung back over her shoulders the veil which shrouded her, saying, at the same time, “Look on me, my Lord Duke, and see if these be indeed the charms which have made on your Grace an impression so powerful.”

Buckingham did look; and the effect produced on him by surprise was so strong, that he rose hastily from his knee, and remained for a few seconds as if he had been petrified. The figure that stood before him had neither the height nor the rich shape of Alice Bridgenorth; and, though perfectly well made, was so slightly formed, as to seem almost infantine. Her dress was three or four short vests of embroidered satin, disposed one over the other, of different colours, or rather different shades of similar colours; for strong contrast was carefully avoided. These opened in front, so as to show part of the throat and neck, partially obscured by an inner covering of the finest lace; over the uppermost vest was worn a sort of mantle, or coat of rich fur. A small but magnificent turban was carelessly placed on her head, from under which flowed a profusion of coal-black tresses, which Cleopatra might have envied. The taste and splendour of the Eastern dress corresponded with the complexion of the lady’s face, which was brunette, of a shade so dark as might almost have served an Indian.

Amidst a set of features, in which rapid and keen expression made amends for the want of regular beauty, the essential points of eyes as bright as diamonds, and teeth as white as pearls, did not escape the Duke of Buckingham, a professed connoisseur in female charms. In a word, the fanciful and singular female who thus unexpectedly produced herself before him, had one of those faces which are never seen without making an impression; which, when removed, are long after remembered; and for which, in our idleness, we are tempted to invent a hundred histories, that we may please our fancy by supposing the features under the influence of different kinds of emotion. Every one must have in recollection countenances of this kind, which, from a captivating and stimulating originality of expression, abide longer in the memory, and are more seductive to the imagination, than ever regular beauty.

“My Lord Duke,” said the lady, “it seems the lifting of my veil has done the work of magic upon your Grace. Alas, for the captive princess, whose nod was to command a vassal so costly as your Grace! She runs, methinks, no slight chance of being turned out of doors, like a second Cinderella, to seek her fortune among lackeys and lightermen.”

“I am astonished!” said the Duke. “That villain, Jerningham — I will have the scoundrel’s blood!”

“Nay, never abuse Jerningham for the matter,” said the Unknown; “but lament your own unhappy engagements. While you, my Lord Duke, were posting northward, in white satin buskins, to toil in the King’s affairs, the right and lawful princess sat weeping in sables in the uncheered solitude to which your absence condemned her. Two days she was disconsolate in vain; on the third came an African enchantress to change the scene for her, and the person for your Grace. Methinks, my lord, this adventure will tell but ill, when some faithful squire shall recount or record the gallant adventures of the second Duke of Buckingham.”

“Fairly bit and bantered to boot,” said the Duke —“the monkey has a turn for satire, too, by all that is piquante. — Hark ye, fair Princess, how dared you adventure on such a trick as you have been accomplice to?”

“Dare, my lord,” answered the stranger; “put the question to others, not to one who fears nothing.”

“By my faith, I believe so; for thy front is bronzed by nature. — Hark ye, once more, mistress — What is your name and condition?”

“My condition I have told you — I am a Mauritanian sorceress by profession, and my name is Zarah,” replied the Eastern maiden.

“But methinks that face, shape, and eyes”— said the Duke —“when didst thou pass for a dancing fairy? — Some such imp thou wert not many days since.”

“My sister you may have seen — my twin sister; but not me, my lord,” answered Zarah.

“Indeed,” said the Duke, “that duplicate of thine, if it was not thy very self, was possessed with a dumb spirit, as thou with a talking one. I am still in the mind that you are the same; and that Satan, always so powerful with your sex, had art enough on our former meeting, to make thee hold thy tongue.”

“Believe what you will of it, my lord,” replied Zarah, “it cannot change the truth. — And now, my lord, I bid you farewell. Have you any commands to Mauritania?”

“Tarry a little, my Princess,” said the Duke; “and remember, that you have voluntarily entered yourself as pledge for another; and are justly subjected to any penalty which it is my pleasure to exact. None must brave Buckingham with impunity.”

“I am in no hurry to depart, if your Grace hath any commands for me.”

“What! are you neither afraid of my resentment, nor of my love, fair Zarah?” said the Duke.

“Of neither, by this glove,” answered the lady. “Your resentment must be a pretty passion indeed, if it could stoop to such a helpless object as I am; and for your love — good lack! good lack!”

“And why good lack with such a tone of contempt, lady?” said the Duke, piqued in spite of himself. “Think you Buckingham cannot love, or has never been beloved in return?”

“He may have thought himself beloved,” said the maiden; “but by what slight creatures! — things whose heads could be rendered giddy by a playhouse rant — whose brains were only filled with red-heeled shoes and satin buskins — and who run altogether mad on the argument of a George and a star.”

“And are there no such frail fair ones in your climate, most scornful Princess?” said the Duke.

“There are,” said the lady; “but men rate them as parrots and monkeys — things without either sense or soul, head or heart. The nearness we bear to the sun has purified, while it strengthens, our passions. The icicles of your frozen climate shall as soon hammer hot bars into ploughshares, as shall the foppery and folly of your pretended gallantry make an instant’s impression on a breast like mine.”

“You speak like one who knows what passion is,” said the Duke. “Sit down, fair lady, and grieve not that I detain you. Who can consent to part with a tongue of so much melody, or an eye of such expressive eloquence! — You have known then what it is to love?”

“I know — no matter if by experience, or through the report of others — but I do know, that to love, as I would love, would be to yield not an iota to avarice, not one inch to vanity, not to sacrifice the slightest feeling to interest or to ambition; but to give up all to fidelity of heart and reciprocal affection.”

“And how many women, think you, are capable of feeling such disinterested passion?”

“More, by thousands, than there are men who merit it,” answered Zarah. “Alas! how often do you see the female, pale, and wretched, and degraded, still following with patient constancy the footsteps of some predominating tyrant, and submitting to all his injustice with the endurance of a faithful and misused spaniel, which prizes a look from his master, though the surliest groom that ever disgraced humanity, more than all the pleasure which the world besides can furnish him? Think what such would be to one who merited and repaid her devotion.”

“Perhaps the very reverse,” said the Duke; “and for your simile, I can see little resemblance. I cannot charge my spaniel with any perfidy; but for my mistresses — to confess truth, I must always be in a cursed hurry if I would have the credit of changing them before they leave me.”

“And they serve you but rightly, my lord,” answered the lady; “for what are you? — Nay, frown not; for you must hear the truth for once. Nature has done its part, and made a fair outside, and courtly education hath added its share. You are noble, it is the accident of birth — handsome, it is the caprice of Nature — generous, because to give is more easy than to refuse — well-apparelled, it is to the credit of your tailor — well-natured in the main, because you have youth and health — brave, because to be otherwise were to be degraded — and witty, because you cannot help it.”

The Duke darted a glance on one of the large mirrors. “Noble, and handsome, and court-like, generous, well-attired, good-humoured, brave, and witty! — You allow me more, madam, than I have the slightest pretension to, and surely enough to make my way, at some point at least, to female favour.”

“I have neither allowed you a heart nor a head,” said Zarah calmly. — “Nay, never redden as if you would fly at me. I say not but nature may have given you both; but folly has confounded the one, and selfishness perverted the other. The man whom I call deserving the name is one whose thoughts and exertions are for others, rather than himself — whose high purpose is adopted on just principles, and never abandoned while heaven or earth affords means of accomplishing it. He is one who will neither seek an indirect advantage by a specious road, nor take an evil path to gain a real good purpose. Such a man were one for whom a woman’s heart should beat constant while he breathes, and break when he dies.”

She spoke with so much energy that the water sparkled in her eyes, and her cheek coloured with the vehemence of her feelings.

“You speak,” said the Duke, “as if you had yourself a heart which could pay the full tribute to the merit which you describe so warmly.”

“And have I not?” said she, laying her hand on her bosom. “Here beats one that would bear me out in what I have said, whether in life or in death.”

“Were it in my power,” said the Duke, who began to get farther interested in his visitor than he could at first have thought possible —“Were it in my power to deserve such faithful attachment, methinks it should be my care to requite it.”

“Your wealth, your titles, your reputation as a gallant — all you possess, were too little to merit such sincere affection.”

“Come, fair lady,” said the Duke, a good deal piqued, “do not be quite so disdainful. Bethink you, that if your love be as pure as coined gold, still a poor fellow like myself may offer you an equivalent in silver — The quantity of my affection must make up for its quality.”

“But I am not carrying my affection to market, my lord; and therefore I need none of the base coin you offer in change for it.”

“How do I know that, my fairest?” said the Duke. “This is the realm of Paphos — You have invaded it, with what purpose you best know; but I think with none consistent with your present assumption of cruelty. Come, come — eyes that are so intelligent can laugh with delight, as well as gleam with scorn and anger. You are here a waif on Cupid’s manor, and I must seize on you in name of the deity.”

“Do not think of touching me, my lord,” said the lady. “Approach me not, if you would hope to learn the purpose of my being here. Your Grace may suppose yourself a Solomon if you please, but I am no travelling princess, come from distant climes, either to flatter your pride, or wonder at your glory.”

“A defiance, by Jupiter!” said the Duke.

“You mistake the signal,” said the ‘dark ladye’; “I came not here without taking sufficient precautions for my retreat.”

“You mouth it bravely,” said the Duke; “but never fortress so boasted its resources but the garrison had some thoughts of surrender. Thus I open the first parallel.”

They had been hitherto divided from each other by a long narrow table, which, placed in the recess of the large casement we have mentioned, had formed a sort of barrier on the lady’s side, against the adventurous gallant. The Duke went hastily to remove it as he spoke; but, attentive to all his motions, his visitor instantly darted through the half-open window. Buckingham uttered a cry of horror and surprise, having no doubt, at first, that she had precipitated herself from a height of at least fourteen feet; for so far the window was distant from the ground. But when he sprung to the spot, he perceived, to his astonishment, that she had effected her descent with equal agility and safety.

The outside of this stately mansion was decorated with a quantity of carving, in the mixed state, betwixt the Gothic and Grecian styles, which marks the age of Elizabeth and her successor; and though the feat seemed a surprising one, the projections of these ornaments were sufficient to afford footing to a creature so light and active, even in her hasty descent.

Inflamed alike by mortification and curiosity, Buckingham at first entertained some thought of following her by the same dangerous route, and had actually got upon the sill of the window for that purpose; and was contemplating what might be his next safe movement, when, from a neighbouring thicket of shrubs, amongst which his visitor had disappeared, he heard her chant a verse of a comic song, then much in fashion, concerning a despairing lover who had recourse to a precipice —

“But when he came near,

Beholding how steep

The sides did appear,

And the bottom how deep;

Though his suit was rejected,

He sadly reflected,

That a lover forsaken

A new love may get;

But a neck that’s once broken

Can never be set.”

The Duke could not help laughing, though much against his will, at the resemblance which the verses bore to his own absurd situation, and, stepping back into the apartment, desisted from an attempt which might have proved dangerous as well as ridiculous. He called his attendants, and contented himself with watching the little thicket, unwilling to think that a female, who had thrown herself in a great measure into his way, meant absolutely to mortify him by a retreat.

That question was determined in an instant. A form, wrapped in a mantle, with a slouched hat and shadowy plume, issued from the bushes, and was lost in a moment amongst the ruins of ancient and of modern buildings, with which, as we have already stated, the demesne formerly termed York House, was now encumbered in all directions.

The Duke’s servants, who had obeyed his impatient summons, were hastily directed to search for this tantalising siren in every direction. Their master, in the meantime, eager and vehement in every new pursuit, but especially when his vanity was piqued, encouraged their diligence by bribes, and threats, and commands. All was in vain. They found nothing of the Mauritanian Princess, as she called herself, but the turban and the veil; both of which she had left in the thicket, together with her satin slippers; which articles, doubtless, she had thrown aside as she exchanged them for others less remarkable.

Finding all his search in vain, the Duke of Buckingham, after the example of spoiled children of all ages and stations, gave a loose to the frantic vehemence of passion; and fiercely he swore vengeance on his late visitor, whom he termed by a thousand opprobrious epithets, of which the elegant phrase “Jilt” was most frequently repeated.

Even Jerningham, who knew the depths and the shallows of his master’s mood, and was bold to fathom them at almost every state of his passions, kept out of his way on the present occasion; and, cabineted with the pious old housekeeper, declared to her, over a bottle of ratafia, that, in his apprehension, if his Grace did not learn to put some control on his temper, chains, darkness, straw, and Bedlam, would be the final doom of the gifted and admired Duke of Buckingham.

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