Woodstock, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Twenty-Seventh.

Benedict. Shall I speak a word in your ear?

Claudio. God bless me from a challenge.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.

As Charles was about to leave the apartment, he was prevented by the appearance of Wildrake, who entered with an unusual degree of swagger in his gait, and of fantastic importance on his brow. “I crave your pardon, fair sir,” he said; “but, as they say in my country, when doors are open dogs enter. I have knocked and called in the hall to no purpose; so, knowing the way to this parlour, sir — for I am a light partisan, and the road I once travel I never forget — I ventured to present myself unannounced.”

“Sir Henry Lee is abroad, sir, I believe, in the Chase,” said Charles, coldly, for the appearance of this somewhat vulgar debauchee was not agreeable to him at the moment, “and Master Albert Lee has left the Lodge for two or three days.”

“I am aware of it, sir,” said Wildrake; “but I have no business at present with either.”

“And with whom is your business?” said Charles; “that is, if I may be permitted to ask — since I think it cannot in possibility be with me.”

“Pardon me in turn, sir,” answered the cavalier; “in no possibility can it be imparted to any other but yourself, if you be, as I think you are, though in something better habit, Master Louis Girnigo, the Scottish gentleman who waits upon Master Albert Lee.”

“I am all you are like to find for him,” answered Charles.

“In truth,” said the cavalier, “I do perceive a difference, but rest, and better clothing, will do much; and I am glad of it, since I would be sorry to have brought a message, such as I am charged with, to a tatterdemalion.”

“Let us get to the business, sir, if you please,” said the King —“you have a message for me, you say?”

“True, sir,” replied Wildrake; “I am the friend of Colonel Markham Everard, sir, a tall man, and a worthy person in the field, although I could wish him a better cause — A message I have to you, it is certain, in a slight note, which I take the liberty of presenting with the usual formalities.” So saying, he drew his sword, put the billet he mentioned upon the point, and making a profound bow, presented it to Charles.

The disguised Monarch accepted of it, with a grave return of the salute, and said, as he was about to open the letter, “I am not, I presume, to expect friendly contents in an epistle presented in so hostile a manner?”

“A-hem, sir,” replied the ambassador, clearing his voice, while he arranged a suitable answer, in which the mild strain of diplomacy might be properly maintained; “not utterly hostile, I suppose, sir, is the invitation, though it be such as must be construed in the commencement rather bellicose and pugnacious. I trust, sir, we shall find that a few thrusts will make a handsome conclusion of the business; and so, as my old master used to say, Pax mascitur ex bello. For my own poor share, I am truly glad to have been graced by my friend, Markham Everard, in this matter — the rather as I feared the puritan principles with which he is imbued, (I will confess the truth to you, worthy sir,) might have rendered him unwilling, from certain scruples, to have taken the gentlemanlike and honourable mode of righting himself in such a case as the present. And as I render a friend’s duty to my friend, so I humbly hope, Master Louis Girnigo, that I do no injustice to you, in preparing the way for the proposed meeting, where, give me leave to say, I trust, that if no fatal accident occur, we shall be all better friends when the skirmish is over than we were before it began.”

“I should suppose so, sir, in any case,” said Charles, looking at the letter; “worse than mortal enemies we can scarce be, and it is that footing upon which this billet places us.”

“You say true, sir,” said Wildrake; “it is, sir, a cartel, introducing to a single combat, for the pacific object of restoring a perfect good understanding betwixt the survivors — in case that fortunately that word can be used in the plural after the event of the meeting.”

“In short, we only fight, I suppose,” replied the King, “that we may come to a perfectly good and amicable understanding?”

“You are right again, sir; and I thank you for the clearness of your apprehension,” said Wildrake. —“Ah, sir, it is easy to do with a person of honour and of intellect in such a case as this. And I beseech you, sir, as a personal kindness to myself, that, as the morning is like to be frosty, and myself am in some sort rheumatic — as war will leave its scars behind, sir — I say, I will entreat of you to bring with you some gentleman of honour, who will not disdain to take part in what is going forward — a sort of pot-luck, sir — with a poor old soldier like myself — that we may take no harm by standing unoccupied during such cold weather.”

“I understand, sir,” replied Charles; “if this matter goes forward, be assured I will endeavour to provide you with a suitable opponent.”

“I shall remain greatly indebted to you, sir,” said Wildrake; “and I am by no means curious about the quality of my antagonist. It is true I write myself esquire and gentleman, and should account myself especially honoured by crossing my sword with that of Sir Henry or Master Albert Lee; but, should that not be convenient, I will not refuse to present my poor person in opposition to any gentleman who has served the King — which I always hold as a sort of letters of nobility in itself, and, therefore, would on no account decline the duello with such a person.”

“The King is much obliged to you, sir,” said Charles, “for the honour you do his faithful subjects.”

“O, sir, I am scrupulous on that point — very scrupulous. — When there is a roundhead in question, I consult the Herald’s books, to see that he is entitled to bear arms, as is Master Markham Everard, without which, I promise you, I had borne none of his cartel. But a cavalier is with me a gentleman, of course — Be his birth ever so low, his loyalty has ennobled his condition.”

“It is well, sir,” said the King. “This paper requests me to meet Master Everard at six tomorrow morning, at the tree called the King’s Oak — I object neither to place nor time. He proffers the sword, at which, he says, we possess some equality — I do not decline the weapon; for company, two gentlemen — I shall endeavour to procure myself an associate, and a suitable partner for you, sir, if you incline to join in the dance.”

“I kiss your hand, sir, and rest yours, under a sense of obligation,” answered the envoy.

“I thank you, sir,” continued the King; “I will therefore be ready at place and time, and suitably furnished; and I will either give your friend such satisfaction with my sword as he requires, or will render him such cause for not doing so as he will be contented with.”

“You will excuse me, sir,” said Wildrake, “if my mind is too dull, under the circumstances, to conceive any alternative that can remain betwixt two men of honour in such a case, excepting — sa — sa —.” He threw himself into a fencing position, and made a pass with his sheathed rapier, but not directed towards the person of the King, whom he addressed.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Charles, “if I do not trouble your intellects with the consideration of a case which may not occur. — But, for example, I may plead urgent employment on the part of the public.” This he spoke in a low and mysterious tone of voice, which Wildrake appeared perfectly to comprehend; for he laid his forefinger on his nose with what he meant for a very intelligent and apprehensive nod.

“Sir,” said he, “if you be engaged in any affair for the King, my friend shall have every reasonable degree of patience — Nay, I will fight him myself in your stead, merely to stay his stomach, rather than you should be interrupted. — And, sir, if you can find room in your enterprise for a poor gentleman that has followed Lunsford and Goring, you have but to name day, time, and place of rendezvous; for truly, sir, I am tired of the scald hat, cropped hair, and undertaker’s cloak, with which my friend has bedizened me, and would willingly ruffle it out once more in the King’s cause, when whether I be banged or hanged, I care not.”

“I shall remember what you say, sir, should an opportunity occur,” said the King; “and I wish his Majesty had many such subjects — I presume our business is now settled?”

“When you shall have been pleased, sir, to give me a trifling scrap of writing, to serve for my credentials — for such, you know, is the custom — your written cartel hath its written answer.”

“That, sir, will I presently do,” said Charles, “and in good time, here are the materials.”

“And, sir,” continued the envoy —“Ah! — ahem! — if you have interest in the household for a cup of sack — I am a man of few words, and am somewhat hoarse with much speaking — moreover, a serious business of this kind always makes one thirsty. — Besides, sir, to part with dry lips argues malice, which God forbid should exist in such an honourable conjuncture.”

“I do not boast much influence in the house, sir,” said the King; “but if you would have the condescension to accept of this broad piece towards quenching your thirst at the George”—

“Sir,” said the cavalier, (for the times admitted of this strange species of courtesy, nor was Wildrake a man of such peculiar delicacy as keenly to dispute the matter,)—“I am once again beholden to you. But I see not how it consists with my honour to accept of such accommodation, unless you were to accompany and partake?”

“Pardon me, sir,” replied Charles, “my safety recommends that I remain rather private at present.”

“Enough said,” Wildrake observed; “poor cavaliers must not stand on ceremony. I see, sir, you understand cutter’s law — when one tall fellow has coin, another must not be thirsty. I wish you, sir, a continuance of health and happiness until tomorrow, at the King’s Oak, at six o’clock.”

“Farewell, sir,” said the King, and added, as Wildrake went down the stair whistling, “Hey for cavaliers,” to which air his long rapier, jarring against the steps and banisters, bore no unsuitable burden — “Farewell, thou too just emblem of the state, to which war, and defeat, and despair, have reduced many a gallant gentleman.”

During the rest of the day, there occurred nothing peculiarly deserving of notice. Alice sedulously avoided showing towards the disguised Prince any degree of estrangement or shyness, which could be discovered by her father, or by any one else. To all appearance, the two young persons continued on the same footing in every respect. Yet she made the gallant himself sensible, that this apparent intimacy was assumed merely to save appearances, and in no way designed as retracting from the severity with which she had rejected his suit. The sense that this was the case, joined to his injured self-love, and his enmity against a successful rival, induced Charles early to withdraw himself to a solitary walk in the wilderness, where, like Hercules in the Emblem of Cebes, divided betwixt the personifications of Virtue and of Pleasure, he listened alternately to the voice of Wisdom and of passionate Folly.

Prudence urged to him the importance of his own life to the future prosecution of the great object in which he had for the present miscarried — the restoration of monarchy in England, the rebuilding of the throne, the regaining the crown of his father, the avenging his death, and restoring to their fortunes and their country the numerous exiles, who were suffering poverty and banishment on account of their attachment to his cause. Pride too, or rather a just and natural sense of dignity, displayed the unworthiness of a Prince descending to actual personal conflict with a subject of any degree, and the ridicule which would be thrown on his memory, should he lose his life for an obscure intrigue by the hand of a private gentleman. What would his sage counsellors, Nicholas and Hyde — what would his kind and wise governor, the Marquis of Hertford, say to such an act of rashness and folly? Would it not be likely to shake the allegiance of the staid and prudent persons of the royalist party, since wherefore should they expose their lives and estates to raise to the government of a kingdom a young man who could not command his own temper? To this was to be added, the consideration that even his success would add double difficulties to his escape, which already seemed sufficiently precarious. If, stopping short of death, he merely had the better of his antagonist, how did he know that he might not seek revenge by delivering up to government the malignant Louis Kerneguy, whose real character could not in that case fail to be discovered?

These considerations strongly recommended to Charles that he should clear himself of the challenge without fighting; and the reservation under which he had accepted it, afforded him some opportunity of doing so.

But Passion also had her arguments, which she addressed to a temper rendered irritable by recent distress and mortification. In the first place, if he was a prince, he was also a gentleman, entitled to resent as such, and obliged to give or claim the satisfaction expected on occasion of differences among gentlemen. With Englishmen, she urged, he could never lose interest by showing himself ready, instead of sheltering himself under his royal birth and pretensions, to come frankly forward and maintain what he had done or said on his own responsibility. In a free nation, it seemed as if he would rather gain than lose in the public estimation by a conduct which could not but seem gallant and generous. Then a character for courage was far more necessary to support his pretensions than any other kind of reputation; and the lying under a challenge, without replying to it, might bring his spirit into question. What would Villiers and Wilmot say of an intrigue, in which he had allowed himself to be shamefully baffled by a country girl, and had failed to revenge himself on his rival? The pasquinades which they would compose, the witty sarcasms which they would circulate on the occasion, would be harder to endure than the grave rebukes of Hertford, Hyde, and Nicholas. This reflection, added to the stings of youthful and awakened courage, at length fixed his resolution, and he returned to Woodstock determined to keep his appointment, come of it what might.

Perhaps there mingled with his resolution a secret belief that such a rencontre would not prove fatal. He was in the flower of his youth, active in all his exercises, and no way inferior to Colonel Everard, as far as the morning’s experiment had gone, in that of self-defence. At least, such recollection might pass through his royal mind, as he hummed to himself a well-known ditty, which he had picked up during his residence in Scotland —

“A man may drink and not be drunk;

A man may fight and not be slain;

A man may kiss a bonnie lass,

And yet be welcome back again.”

Meanwhile the busy and all-directing Dr. Rochecliffe had contrived to intimate to Alice that she must give him a private audience, and she found him by appointment in what was called the study, once filled with ancient books, which, long since converted into cartridges, had made more noise in the world at their final exit, than during the space which had intervened betwixt that and their first publication. The Doctor seated himself in a high-backed leathern easy-chair, and signed to Alice to fetch a stool and sit down beside him.

“Alice,” said the old man, taking her hand affectionately, “thou art a good girl, a wise girl, a virtuous girl, one of those whose price is above rubies — not that rubies is the proper translation — but remind me to tell you of that another time. Alice, thou knowest who this Louis Kerneguy is — nay, hesitate not to me — I know every thing — I am well aware of the whole matter. Thou knowest this honoured house holds the Fortunes of England.” Alice was about to answer. “Nay, speak not, but listen to me, Alice — How does he bear himself towards you?”

Alice coloured with the deepest crimson. “I am a country-bred girl,” she said, “and his manners are too courtlike for me.”

“Enough said — I know it all. Alice, he is exposed to a great danger tomorrow, and you must be the happy means to prevent him.”

“I prevent him! — how, and in what manner?” said Alice, in surprise. “It is my duty, as a subject, to do anything — anything that may become my father’s daughter”—

Here she stopped, considerably embarrassed.

“Yes,” continued the Doctor, “tomorrow he hath made an appointment — an appointment with Markham Everard; the hour and place are set — six in the morning, by the King’s Oak. If they meet, one will probably fall.”

“Now, may God forefend they should meet,” said Alice, turning as suddenly pale as she had previously reddened. “But harm cannot come of it; Everard will never lift his sword against the King.”

“For that,” said Dr. Rochecliffe, “I would not warrant. But if that unhappy young gentleman shall have still some reserve of the loyalty which his general conduct entirely disavows, it would not serve us here; for he knows not the King, but considers him merely as a cavalier, from whom he has received injury.”

“Let him know the truth, Doctor Rochecliffe, let him know it instantly,” said Alice; “he lift hand against the King, a fugitive and defenceless! He is incapable of it. My life on the issue, he becomes most active in his preservation.”

“That is the thought of a maiden, Alice,” answered the Doctor; “and, as I fear, of a maiden whose wisdom is misled by her affections. It were worse than treason to admit a rebel officer, the friend of the arch-traitor Cromwell, into so great a secret. I dare not answer for such rashness. Hammond was trusted by his father, and you know what came of it.”

“Then let my father know. He will meet Markham, or send to him, representing the indignity done to him by attacking his guest.”

“We dare not let your father into the secret who Louis Kerneguy really is. I did but hint the possibility of Charles taking refuge at Woodstock, and the rapture into which Sir Henry broke out, the preparations for accommodation and the defence which he began to talk of, plainly showed that the mere enthusiasm of his loyalty would have led to a risk of discovery. It is you, Alice, who must save the hopes of every true royalist.”

“I!” answered Alice; “it is impossible. — Why cannot my father be induced to interfere, as in behalf of his friend and guest, though he know him as no other than Louis Kerneguy?”

“You have forgot your father’s character, my young friend,” said the Doctor; “an excellent man, and the best of Christians, till there is a clashing of swords, and then he starts up the complete martialist, as deaf to every pacific reasoning as if he were a game-cock.”

“You forget, Doctor Rochecliffe,” said Alice, “that this very morning, if I understand the thing aright, my father prevented them from fighting.”

“Ay,” answered the Doctor, “because he deemed himself bound to keep the peace in the Royal-Park; but it was done with such regret, Alice, that, should he find them at it again, I am clear to foretell he will only so far postpone the combat as to conduct them to some unprivileged ground, and there bid them tilt and welcome, while he regaled his eyes with a scene so pleasing. No, Alice, it is you, and you only, who can help us in this extremity.”

“I see no possibility,” said she, again colouring, “how I can be of the least use.”

“You must send a note,” answered Dr. Rochecliffe, “to the King — a note such as all women know how to write better than any man can teach them — to meet you at the precise hour of the rendezvous. He will not fail you, for I know his unhappy foible.”

“Doctor Rochecliffe,” said Alice gravely — “you have known me from infancy — What have you seen in me to induce you to believe that I should ever follow such unbecoming counsel?”

“And if you have known me from infancy,” retorted the Doctor, “what have you seen of me that you should suspect me of giving counsel to my friend’s daughter, which it would be misbecoming in her to follow? You cannot be fool enough, I think, to suppose, that I mean you should carry your complaisance farther than to keep him in discourse for an hour or two, till I have all in readiness for his leaving this place, from which I can frighten him by the terrors of an alleged search? — So, C. S. mounts his horse and rides off, and Mistress Alice Lee has the honour of saving him.”

“Yes, at the expense of my own reputation,” said Alice, “and the risk of an eternal stain on my family. You say you know all. What can the King think of my appointing an assignation with him after what has passed, and how will it be possible to disabuse him respecting the purpose of my doing so?”

“I will disabuse him, Alice; I will explain the whole.”

“Doctor Rochecliffe,” said Alice, “you propose what is impossible. You can do much by your ready wit and great wisdom; but if new-fallen snow were once sullied, not all your art could wash it clean again; and it is altogether the same with a maiden’s reputation.”

“Alice, my dearest child,” said the Doctor, “bethink you that if I recommended this means of saving the life of the King, at least rescuing him from instant peril, it is because I see no other of which to avail myself. If I bid you assume, even for a moment, the semblance of what is wrong, it is but in the last extremity, and under circumstances which cannot return — I will take the surest means to prevent all evil report which can arise from what I recommend.”

“Say not so, Doctor,” said Alice; “better undertake to turn back the Isis than to stop the course of calumny. The King will make boast to his whole licentious court, of the ease with which, but for a sudden alarm, he could have brought off Alice Lee as a paramour — the mouth which confers honour on others, will then be the means to deprive me of mine. Take a fitter course, one more becoming your own character and profession. Do not lead him to fail in an engagement of honour, by holding out the prospect of another engagement equally dishonourable, whether false or true. Go to the King himself, speak to him, as the servants of God have a right to speak, even to earthly sovereigns. Point out to him the folly and the wickedness of the course he is about to pursue — urge upon him, that he fear the sword, since wrath bringeth the punishment of the sword. Tell him, that the friends who died for him in the field at Worcester, on the scaffolds, and on the gibbets, since that bloody day — that the remnant who are in prison, scattered, fled, and ruined on his account, deserve better of him and his father’s race, than that he should throw away his life in an idle brawl — Tell him, that it is dishonest to venture that which is not his own, dishonourable to betray the trust which brave men have reposed in his virtue and in his courage.”

Dr. Rochecliffe looked on her with a melancholy smile, his eyes glistening as he said, “Alas! Alice, even I could not plead that just cause to him so eloquently or so impressively as thou dost. But, alack! Charles would listen to neither. It is not from priests or women, he would say, that men should receive counsel in affairs of honour.”

“Then, hear me, Doctor Rochecliffe — I will appear at the place of rendezvous, and I will prevent the combat — do not fear that I can do what I say — at a sacrifice, indeed, but not that of my reputation. My heart may be broken”— she endeavoured to stifle her sobs with difficulty —“for the consequence; but not in the imagination of a man, and far less that man her sovereign, shall a thought of Alice Lee be associated with dishonour.” She hid her face in her handkerchief, and burst out into unrestrained tears.

“What means this hysterical passion?” said Dr. Rochecliffe, surprised and somewhat alarmed by the vehemence of her grief —“Maiden, I must have no concealments; I must know.”

“Exert your ingenuity, then, and discover it,” said Alice — for a moment put out of temper at the Doctor’s pertinacious self-importance —“Guess my purpose, as you can guess at every thing else. It is enough to have to go through my task, I will not endure the distress of telling it over, and that to one who — forgive me, dear Doctor — might not think my agitation on this occasion fully warranted.”

“Nay, then, my young mistress, you must be ruled,” said Rochecliffe; “and if I cannot make you explain yourself, I must see whether your father can gain so far on you.” So saying, he arose somewhat displeased, and walked towards the door.

“You forget what you yourself told me, Doctor Rochecliffe,” said Alice, “of the risk of communicating this great secret to my father.”

“It is too true,” he said, stopping short and turning round; “and I think, wench, thou art too smart for me, and I have not met many such. But thou art a good girl, and wilt tell me thy device of free-will — it concerns my character and influence with the King, that I should be fully acquainted with whatever is actum atque tractatum, done and treated of in this matter.”

“Trust your character to me, good Doctor,” said Alice, attempting to smile; “it is of firmer stuff than those of women, and will be safer in my custody than mine could have been in yours. And thus much I condescend — you shall see the whole scene — you shall go with me yourself, and much will I feel emboldened and heartened by your company.”

“That is something,” said the Doctor, though not altogether satisfied with this limited confidence. “Thou wert ever a clever wench, and I will trust thee; indeed, trust thee I find I must, whether voluntarily or no.”

“Meet me, then,” said Alice, “in the wilderness tomorrow. But first tell me, are you well assured of time and place? — a mistake were fatal.”

“Assure yourself my information is entirely accurate,” said the Doctor, resuming his air of consequence, which had been a little diminished during the latter part of their conference.

“May I ask,” said Alice, “through what channel you acquired such important information?”

“You may ask, unquestionably,” he answered, now completely restored to his supremacy; “but whether I will answer or not, is a very different question. I conceive neither your reputation nor my own is interested in your remaining in ignorance on that subject. So I have my secrets as well as you, mistress; and some of them, I fancy, are a good deal more worth knowing.”

“Be it so,” said Alice, quietly; “if you will meet me in the wilderness by the broken dial at half-past five exactly, we will go together tomorrow, and watch them as they come to the rendezvous. I will on the way get the better of my present timidity, and explain to you the means I design to employ to prevent mischief. You can perhaps think of making some effort which may render my interference, unbecoming and painful as it must be, altogether unnecessary.”

“Nay, my child,” said the Doctor, “if you place yourself in my hands, you will be the first that ever had reason to complain of my want of conduct, and you may well judge you are the very last (one excepted) whom I would see suffer for want of counsel. At half-past five, then, at the dial in the wilderness — and God bless our undertaking!”

Here their interview was interrupted by the sonorous voice of Sir Henry Lee, which shouted their names, “Daughter Alice — Doctor Rochecliffe,” through passage and gallery.

“What do you here,” said he, entering, “sitting like two crows in a mist, when we have such rare sport below? Here is this wild crack-brained boy Louis Kerneguy, now making me laugh till my sides are fit to split, and now playing on his guitar sweetly enough to win a lark from the heavens. — Come away with you, come away. It is hard work to laugh alone.”

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