Peveril of the Peak, by Walter Scott

Chapter 45

High feasting was there there — the gilded roofs

Rung to the wassail-health — the dancer’s step

Sprung to the chord responsive — the gay gamester

To fate’s disposal flung his heap of gold,

And laugh’d alike when it increased or lessen’d:

Such virtue hath court-air to teach us patience

Which schoolmen preach in vain.

WHY COME YE NOT TO COURT?

Upon the afternoon of this eventful day, Charles held his Court in the Queen’s apartments, which were opened at a particular hour to invited guests of a certain lower degree, but accessible without restriction to the higher classes of nobility who had from birth, and to the courtiers who held by office the privilege of the entrée.

It was one part of Charles’s character, which unquestionably rendered him personally popular, and postponed to a subsequent reign the precipitation of his family from the throne, that he banished from his Court many of the formal restrictions with which it was in other reigns surrounded. He was conscious of the good-natured grace of his manners, and trusted to it, often not in vain, to remove evil impressions arising from actions, which he was sensible could not be justified on the grounds of liberal or national policy.

In the daytime the King was commonly seen in the public walks alone, or only attended by one or two persons; and his answer to the remonstrance of his brother, on the risk of thus exposing his person, is well known:—“Believe me, James,” he said, “no one will murder me, to make you King.”

In the same manner, Charles’s evenings, unless such as were destined to more secret pleasures, were frequently spent amongst all who had any pretence to approach a courtly circle; and thus it was upon the night which we are treating of. Queen Catherine, reconciled or humbled to her fate, had long ceased to express any feelings of jealousy, nay, seemed so absolutely dead to such a passion, that she received at her drawing-room, without scruple, and even with encouragement, the Duchesses of Portsmouth and Cleveland, and others, who enjoyed, though in a less avowed character, the credit of having been royal favourites. Constraint of every kind was banished from a circle so composed, and which was frequented at the same time, if not by the wisest, at least by the wittiest courtiers, who ever assembled round a monarch, and who, as many of them had shared the wants, and shifts, and frolics of his exile, had then acquired a sort of prescriptive licence, which the good-natured prince, when he attained his period of prosperity, could hardly have restrained had it suited his temper to do so. This, however, was the least of Charles’s thoughts. His manners were such as secured him from indelicate obtrusion; and he sought no other protection from over-familiarity, than what these and his ready wit afforded him.

On the present occasion, he was peculiarly disposed to enjoy the scene of pleasure which had been prepared. The singular death of Major Coleby, which, taking place in his own presence, had proclaimed, with the voice of a passing bell, the ungrateful neglect of the Prince for whom he had sacrificed everything, had given Charles much pain. But, in his own opinion at least, he had completely atoned for this negligence by the trouble which he had taken for Sir Geoffrey Peveril and his son, whose liberation he looked upon not only as an excellent good deed in itself, but, in spite of the grave rebuke of Ormond, as achieved in a very pardonable manner, considering the difficulties with which he was surrounded. He even felt a degree of satisfaction on receiving intelligence from the city that there had been disturbances in the streets, and that some of the more violent fanatics had betaken themselves to their meeting-houses, upon sudden summons, to inquire, as their preachers phrased it, into the causes of Heaven’s wrath, and into the backsliding of the Court, lawyers, and jury, by whom the false and bloody favourers of the Popish Plot were screened and cloaked from deserved punishment.

The King, we repeat, seemed to hear these accounts with pleasure, even when he was reminded of the dangerous and susceptible character of those with whom such suspicions originated. “Will any one now assert,” he said, with self-complacence, “that I am so utterly negligent of the interest of friends? — You see the peril in which I place myself, and even the risk to which I have exposed the public peace, to rescue a man whom I have scarce seen for twenty years, and then only in his buff-coat and bandoleers, with other Train-Band officers who kissed hands upon the Restoration. They say Kings have long hands — I think they have as much occasion for long memories, since they are expected to watch over and reward every man in England, who hath but shown his goodwill by crying ‘God save the King!’”

“Nay, the rogues are even more unreasonable still,” said Sedley; “for every knave of them thinks himself entitled to your Majesty’s protection in a good cause, whether he has cried God save the King or no.”

The King smiled, and turned to another part of the stately hall, where everything was assembled which could, according to the taste of the age, make the time glide pleasantly away.

In one place, a group of the young nobility, and of the ladies of the Court, listened to the reader’s acquaintance Empson, who was accompanying with his unrivalled breathings on the flute, a young siren, who, while her bosom palpitated with pride and with fear, warbled to the courtly and august presence the beautiful air beginning —

“Young I am, and yet unskill’d,

How to make a lover yield,” &c.

She performed her task in a manner so corresponding with the strains of the amatory poet, and the voluptuous air with which the words had been invested by the celebrated Purcel, that the men crowded around in ecstasies, while most of the ladies thought it proper either to look extremely indifferent to the words she sung, or to withdraw from the circle as quietly as possible. To the song succeeded a concerto, performed by a select band of most admirable musicians, which the King, whose taste was indisputable, had himself selected.

At other tables in the apartment, the elder courtiers worshipped Fortune, at the various fashionable games of ombre, quadrille, hazard, and the like; while heaps of gold which lay before the players, augmented or dwindled with every turn of a card or cast of a die. Many a year’s rent of fair estates was ventured upon the main or the odds; which, spent in the old deserted manor-house, had repaired the ravages of Cromwell upon its walls, and replaced the sources of good housekeeping and hospitality, that, exhausted in the last age by fine and sequestration, were now in a fair way of being annihilated by careless prodigality. Elsewhere, under cover of observing the gamester, or listening to the music, the gallantries of that all-licensed age were practised among the gay and fair, closely watched the whilst by the ugly or the old, who promised themselves at least the pleasure of observing, and it may be that of proclaiming, intrigues in which they could not be sharers.

From one table to another glided the merry Monarch, exchanging now a glance with a Court beauty, now a jest with a Court wit, now beating time to the music, and anon losing or winning a few pieces of gold on the chance of the game to which he stood nearest; — the most amiable of voluptuaries — the gayest and best-natured of companions — the man that would, of all others, have best sustained his character, had life been a continued banquet, and its only end to enjoy the passing hour, and send it away as pleasantly as might be.

But Kings are least of all exempted from the ordinary lot of humanity; and Seged of Ethiopia is, amongst monarchs, no solitary example of the vanity of reckoning on a day or an hour of undisturbed serenity. An attendant on the Court announced suddenly to their Majesties that a lady, who would only announce herself as a Peeress of England, desired to be admitted into the presence.

The Queen said, hastily, it was impossible. No peeress, without announcing her title, was entitled to the privilege of her rank.

“I could be sworn,” said a nobleman in attendance, “that it is some whim of the Duchess of Newcastle.”

The attendant who brought the message, said that he did indeed believe it to be the Duchess, both from the singularity of the message, and that the lady spoke with somewhat a foreign accent.

“In the name of madness, then,” said the King, “let us admit her. Her Grace is an entire raree-show in her own person — a universal masquerade — indeed a sort of private Bedlam-hospital, her whole ideas being like so many patients crazed upon the subjects of love and literature, who act nothing in their vagaries, save Minerva, Venus, and the nine Muses.”

“Your Majesty’s pleasure must always supersede mine,” said the Queen. “I only hope I shall not be expected to entertain so fantastic a personage. The last time she came to Court, Isabella”—(she spoke to one of her Portuguese ladies of honour)—“you had not returned from our lovely Lisbon! — her Grace had the assurance to assume a right to bring a train-bearer into my apartment; and when this was not allowed, what then, think you, she did? — even caused her train to be made so long, that three mortal yards of satin and silver remained in the antechamber, supported by four wenches, while the other end was attached to her Grace’s person, as she paid her duty at the upper end of the presence-room. Full thirty yards of the most beautiful silk did her Grace’s madness employ in this manner.”

“And most beautiful damsels they were who bore this portentous train,” said the King —“a train never equalled save by that of the great comet in sixty-six. Sedley and Etherege told us wonders of them; for it is one advantage of this new fashion brought up by the Duchess, that a matron may be totally unconscious of the coquetry of her train and its attendants.”

“Am I to understand, then, your Majesty’s pleasure is, that the lady is to be admitted?” said the usher.

“Certainly,” said the King; “that is, if the incognita be really entitled to the honour. — It may be as well to inquire her title — there are more madwomen abroad than the Duchess of Newcastle. I will walk into the anteroom myself, and receive your answer.”

But ere Charles had reached the lower end of the apartment in his progress to the anteroom, the usher surprised the assembly by announcing a name which had not for many a year been heard in these courtly halls —“the Countess of Derby!”

Stately and tall, and still, at an advanced period of life, having a person unbroken by years, the noble lady advanced towards her Sovereign, with a step resembling that with which she might have met an equal. There was indeed nothing in her manner that indicated either haughtiness or assumption unbecoming that presence; but her consciousness of wrongs, sustained from the administration of Charles, and of the superiority of the injured party over those from whom, or in whose name, the injury had been offered, gave her look dignity, and her step firmness. She was dressed in widow’s weeds, of the same fashion which were worn at the time her husband was brought to the scaffold; and which, in the thirty years subsequent to that event, she had never permitted her tirewoman to alter.

The surprise was no pleasing one to the King; and cursing in his heart the rashness which had allowed the lady entrance on the gay scene in which they were engaged, he saw at the same time the necessity of receiving her in a manner suitable to his own character, and her rank in the British Court. He approached her with an air of welcome, into which he threw all his natural grace, while he began, “Chère Comtesse de Derby, puissante Reine de Man, notre très auguste sœur ——

“Speak English, sire, if I may presume to ask such a favour,” said the Countess. “I am a Peeress of this nation — mother to one English Earl, and widow, alas, to another! In England I have spent my brief days of happiness, my long years of widowhood and sorrow. France and its language are but to me the dreams of an uninteresting childhood. I know no tongue save that of my husband and my son. Permit me, as the widow and mother of Derby, thus to render my homage.”

She would have kneeled, but the King gracefully prevented her, and, saluting her cheek, according to the form, led her towards the Queen, and himself performed the ceremony of introduction. “Your Majesty,” he said, “must be informed that the Countess has imposed a restriction on French — the language of gallantry and compliment. I trust your Majesty will, though a foreigner, like herself, find enough of honest English to assure the Countess of Derby with what pleasure we see her at Court, after the absence of so many years.”

“I will endeavour to do so, at least,” said the Queen, on whom the appearance of the Countess of Derby made a more favourable impression than that of many strangers, whom, at the King’s request, she was in the habit of receiving with courtesy.

Charles himself again spoke. “To any other lady of the same rank I might put the question, why she was so long absent from the circle? I fear I can only ask the Countess of Derby, what fortunate cause produces the pleasure of seeing her here?”

“No fortunate cause, my liege, though one most strong and urgent.”

The King augured nothing agreeable from this commencement; and in truth, from the Countess’s first entrance, he had anticipated some unpleasant explanation, which he therefore hastened to parry, having first composed his features into an expression of sympathy and interest.

“If,” said he, “the cause is of a nature in which we can render assistance, we cannot expect your ladyship should enter upon it at the present time; but a memorial addressed to our secretary, or, if it is more satisfactory, to ourselves directly, will receive our immediate, and I trust I need not add, our favourable construction.”

The Countess bowed with some state, and answered, “My business, sire, is indeed important; but so brief, that it need not for more than a few minutes withdraw your ear from what is more pleasing; — yet it is so urgent, that I am afraid to postpone it even for a moment.”

“This is unusual,” said Charles. “But you, Countess of Derby, are an unwonted guest, and must command my time. Does the matter require my private ear?”

“For my part,” said the Countess, “the whole Court might listen; but you Majesty may prefer hearing me in the presence of one or two of your counsellors.”

“Ormond,” said the King, looking around, “attend us for an instant — and do you, Arlington, do the same.”

The King led the way into an adjoining cabinet, and, seating himself, requested the Countess would also take a chair. “It needs not, sire,” she replied; then pausing for a moment, as if to collect her spirits, she proceeded with firmness.

“Your Majesty well said that no light cause had drawn me from my lonely habitation. I came not hither when the property of my son — that property which descended to him from a father who died for your Majesty’s rights — was conjured away from him under pretext of justice, that it might first feed the avarice of the rebel Fairfax, and then supply the prodigality of his son-inlaw, Buckingham.”

“These are over harsh terms, lady,” said the King. “A legal penalty was, as we remember, incurred by an act of irregular violence — so our courts and our laws term it, though personally I have no objection to call it, with you, an honourable revenge. But admit it were such, in prosecution of the laws of honour, bitter legal consequences are often necessarily incurred.”

“I come not to argue for my son’s wasted and forfeited inheritance, sire,” said the Countess; “I only take credit for my patience, under that afflicting dispensation. I now come to redeem the honour of the House of Derby, more dear to me than all the treasures and lands which ever belonged to it.”

“And by whom is the honour of the House of Derby impeached?” said the King; “for on my word you bring me the first news of it.”

“Has there one Narrative, as these wild fictions are termed, been printed with regard to the Popish Plot — this pretended Plot as I will call it — in which the honour of our house has not been touched and tainted? And are there not two noble gentlemen, father and son, allies of the House of Stanley, about to be placed in jeopardy of their lives, on account of matters in which we are the parties first impeached?”

The King looked around, and smiled to Arlington and Ormond. “The Countess’s courage, methinks, shames ours. What lips dared have called the immaculate Plot pretended, or the Narrative of the witnesses, our preservers from Popish knives, a wild fiction? — But, madam,” he said, “though I admire the generosity of your interference in behalf of the two Peverils, I must acquaint you, that your interference is unnecessary — they are this morning acquitted.”

“Now may God be praised!” said the Countess, folding her hands. “I have scarce slept since I heard the news of their impeachment; and have arrived here to surrender myself to your Majesty’s justice, or to the prejudices of the nation, in hopes, by so doing, I might at least save the lives of my noble and generous friends, enveloped in suspicion only, or chiefly, by their connection with us. — Are they indeed acquitted?”

“They are, by my honour,” said the King. “I marvel you heard it not.”

“I arrived but last night, and remained in the strictest seclusion,” said the Countess, “afraid to make any inquiries that might occasion discovery ere I saw your Majesty.”

“And now that we have met,” said the King, taking her hand kindly — “a meeting which gives me the greatest pleasure — may I recommend to you speedily to return to your royal island with as little éclat as you came thither? The world, my dear Countess, has changed since we were young. Men fought in the Civil War with good swords and muskets; but now we fight with indictments and oaths, and such like legal weapons. You are no adept in such warfare; and though I am well aware you know how to hold out a castle, I doubt much if you have the art to parry off an impeachment. This Plot has come upon us like a land storm — there is no steering the vessel in the teeth of the tempest — we must run for the nearest haven, and happy if we can reach one.”

“This is cowardice, my liege,” said the Countess —“Forgive the word! — it is but a woman who speaks it. Call your noble friends around you, and make a stand like your royal father. There is but one right and one wrong — one honourable and forward course; and all others which deviate are oblique and unworthy.”

“Your language, my venerated friend,” said Ormond, who saw the necessity of interfering betwixt the dignity of the actual Sovereign and the freedom of the Countess, who was generally accustomed to receive, not to pay observance — “your language is strong and decided, but it applies not to the times. It might occasion a renewal of the Civil War, and of all its miseries, but could hardly be attended with the effects you sanguinely anticipate.”

“You are too rash, my Lady Countess,” said Arlington, “not only to rush upon this danger yourself, but to desire to involve his Majesty. Let me say plainly, that, in this jealous time, you have done but ill to exchange the security of Castle Rushin for the chance of a lodging in the Tower of London.”

“And were I to kiss the block there,” said the Countess, “as did my husband at Bolton-on-the-Moors, I would do so willingly, rather than forsake a friend! — and one, too, whom, as in the case of the younger Peveril, I have thrust upon danger.”

“But have I not assured you that both of the Peverils, elder and younger, are freed from peril?” said the King; “and, my dear Countess, what can else tempt you to thrust yourself on danger, from which, doubtless, you expect to be relieved by my intervention? Methinks a lady of your judgment should not voluntarily throw herself into a river, merely that her friends might have the risk and merit of dragging her out.”

The Countess reiterated her intention to claim a fair trial. — The two counsellors again pressed their advice that she should withdraw, though under the charge of absconding from justice, and remain in her own feudal kingdom.

The King, seeing no termination to the debate, gently reminded the Countess that her Majesty would be jealous if he detained her ladyship longer, and offered her his hand to conduct her back to the company. This she was under the necessity of accepting, and returned accordingly to the apartments of state, where an event occurred immediately afterwards, which must be transferred to the next chapter.

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