Woodstock, by Walter Scott

Chapter the Thirty-Fourth.

The King, therefore, for his defence

Against the furious Queen,

At Woodstock builded such a bower,

As never yet was seen.

Most curiously that bower was built,

Of stone and timber strong;

An hundred and fifty doors

Did to this bower belong;

And they so cunningly contrived,

With turnings round about,

That none but with a clew of thread

Could enter in or out.

BALLAD OF FAIR ROSAMOND.

The tradition of the country, as well as some historical evidence, confirmed the opinion that there existed, within the old Royal Lodge at Woodstock, a labyrinth, or connected series of subterranean passages, built chiefly by Henry II., for the security of his mistress, Rosamond Clifford, from the jealousy of his Queen, the celebrated Eleanor. Dr. Rochecliffe, indeed, in one of those fits of contradiction with which antiquaries are sometimes seized, was bold enough to dispute the alleged purpose of the perplexed maze of rooms and passages, with which the walls of the ancient palace were perforated; but the fact was undeniable, that in raising the fabric some Norman architect had exerted the utmost of the complicated art, which they have often shown elsewhere, in creating secret passages, and chambers of retreat and concealment. There were stairs, which were ascended merely, as it seemed, for the purpose of descending again — passages, which, after turning and winding for a considerable way, returned to the place where they set out — there were trapdoors and hatchways, panels and portcullises. Although Oliver was assisted by a sort of ground-plan, made out and transmitted by Joseph Tomkins, whose former employment in Dr. Rochecliffe’s service had made him fully acquainted with the place, it was found imperfect; and, moreover, the most serious obstacles to their progress occurred in the shape of strong doors, party-walls, and iron-grates — so that the party blundered on in the dark, uncertain whether they were not going farther from, rather than approaching, the extremity of the labyrinth. They were obliged to send for mechanics, with sledge-hammers and other instruments, to force one or two of those doors, which resisted all other means of undoing them. Labouring along in these dusky passages, where, from time to time, they were like to be choked by the dust which their acts of violence excited, the soldiers were obliged to be relieved oftener than once, and the bulky Corporal Grace-be-here himself puffed and blew like a grampus that has got into shoal water. Cromwell alone continued, with unabated zeal, to push on his researches — to encourage the soldiers, by the exhortations which they best understood, against fainting for lack of faith — and to secure, by sentinels at proper places, possession of the ground which they had already explored. His acute and observing eye detected, with a sneering smile, the cordage and machinery by which the bed of poor Desborough had been inverted, and several remains of the various disguises, as well as private modes of access, by which Desborough, Bletson, and Harrison, had been previously imposed upon. He pointed them out to Pearson, with no farther comment than was implied in the exclamation, “The simple fools!”

But his assistants began to lose heart and be discouraged, and required all his spirit to raise theirs. He then called their attention to voices which they seemed to hear before them, and urged these as evidence that they were moving on the track of some enemy of the Commonwealth, who, for the execution of his malignant plots, had retreated into these extraordinary fastnesses.

The spirits of the men became at last downcast, notwithstanding all this encouragement. They spoke to each other in whispers, of the devils of Woodstock, who might be all the while decoying them forward to a room said to exist in the Palace, where the floor, revolving on an axis, precipitated those who entered into a bottomless abyss. Humgudgeon hinted, that he had consulted the Scripture that morning by way of lot, and his fortune had been to alight on the passage, “Eutychus fell down from the third loft.” The energy and authority of Cromwell, however, and the refreshment of some food and strong waters, reconciled them to pursuing their task.

Nevertheless, with all their unwearied exertions, morning dawned on the search before they had reached Dr. Rochecliffe’s sitting apartment, into which, after all, they obtained entrance by a mode much more difficult than that which the Doctor himself employed. But here their ingenuity was long at fault. From the miscellaneous articles that were strewed around, and the preparations made for food and lodging, it seemed they had gained the very citadel of the labyrinth; but though various passages opened from it, they all terminated in places with which they were already acquainted, or communicated with the other parts of the house, where their own sentinels assured them none had passed. Cromwell remained long in deep uncertainty. Meantime he directed Pearson to take charge of the ciphers, and more important papers which lay on the table. “Though there is little there,” he said, “that I have not already known, by means of Trusty Tomkins — Honest Joseph — for an artful and thorough-paced agent, the like of thee is not left in England.”

After a considerable pause, during which he sounded with the pommel of his sword almost every stone in the building, and every plank on the floor, the General gave orders to bring the old knight and Dr. Rochecliffe to the spot, trusting that he might work out of them some explanation of the secrets of this apartment.

“So please your Excellency, to let me deal with him,” said Pearson, who was a true soldier of fortune, and had been a buccaneer in the West Indies, “I think that, by a whipcord twitched tight round their forehead, and twisted about with a pistol-but, I could make either the truth start from their lips, or the eyes from their head.”

“Out upon thee, Pearson!” said Cromwell, with abhorrence; “we have no warrant for such cruelty, neither as Englishmen nor Christians. We may slay malignants as we crush noxious animals, but to torture them is a deadly sin; for it is written, ‘He made them to be pitied of those who carried them captive.’ Nay, I recall the order even for their examination, trusting that wisdom will be granted us without it, to discover their most secret devices.”

There was a pause accordingly, during which an idea seized upon Cromwell’s imagination —“Bring me hither,” he said, “yonder stool;” and placing it beneath one of the windows, of which there were two so high in the wall as not to be accessible from the floor, he clambered up into the entrance of the window, which was six or seven feet deep, corresponding with the thickness of the wall. “Come up hither, Pearson,” said the General; “but ere thou comest, double the guard at the foot of the turret called Love’s Ladder, and bid them bring up the other petard — So now, come thou hither.”

The inferior officer, however brave in the field, was one of those whom a great height strikes with giddiness and sickness. He shrunk back from the view of the precipice, on the verge of which Cromwell was standing with complete indifference, till the General, catching the hand of his follower, pulled him forward as far as he would advance. “I think,” said the General, “I have found the clew, but by this light it is no easy one! See you, we stand in the portal near the top of Rosamond’s Tower; and yon turret, which rises opposite to our feet, is that which is called Love’s Ladder, from which the drawbridge reached that admitted the profligate Norman tyrant to the bower of his mistress.”

“True, my lord, but the drawbridge is gone,” said Pearson.

“Ay, Pearson,” replied the General; “but an active man might spring from the spot we stand upon to the battlements of yonder turret.”

“I do not think so, my lord,” said Pearson.

“What?” said Cromwell; “not if the avenger of blood were behind you, with his slaughter-weapon in his hand?”

“The fear of instant death might do much,” answered Pearson; “but when I look at that sheer depth on either side, and at the empty chasm between us and yonder turret, which is, I warrant you, twelve feet distant, I confess the truth, nothing short of the most imminent danger should induce me to try. Pah — the thought makes my head grow giddy! — I tremble to see your Highness stand there, balancing yourself as if you meditated a spring into the empty air. I repeat, I would scarce stand so near the verge as does your Highness, for the rescue of my life.”

“Ah, base and degenerate spirit!” said the General; “soul of mud and clay, wouldst thou not do it, and much more, for the possession of empire! — that is, peradventure,” continued he, changing his tone as one who has said too much, “shouldst thou be called on to do this, that thereby becoming a great man in the tribes of Israel, thou mightest redeem the captivity of Jerusalem — ay, and it may be, work some great work for the afflicted people of this land?”

“Your Highness may feel such calls,” said the officer; “but they are not for poor Gilbert Pearson, your faithful follower. You made a jest of me yesterday, when I tried to speak your language; and I am no more able to fulfil your designs than to use your mode of speech.”

“But, Pearson,” said Cromwell, “thou hast thrice, yea, four times, called me your Highness.”

“Did I, my lord? I was not sensible of it. I crave your pardon,” said the officer.

“Nay,” said Oliver, “there was no offence. I do indeed stand high, and I may perchance stand higher — though, alas, it were fitter for a simple soul like me to return to my plough and my husbandry. Nevertheless, I will not wrestle against the Supreme will, should I be called on to do yet more in that worthy cause. For surely he who hath been to our British Israel as a shield of help, and a sword of excellency, making her enemies be found liars unto her, will not give over the flock to those foolish shepherds of Westminster, who shear the sheep and feed them not, and who are in very deed hirelings, not shepherds.”

“I trust to see your lordship quoit them all down stairs,” answered Pearson. “But may I ask why we pursue this discourse even now, until we have secured the common enemy?”

“I will tarry no jot of time,” said the General; “fence the communication of Love’s Ladder, as it is called, below, as I take it for almost certain, that the party whom we have driven from fastness to fastness during the night, has at length sprung to the top of yonder battlements from the place where we now stand. Finding the turret is guarded below, the place he has chosen for his security will prove a rat-trap, from whence there is no returning.”

“There is a cask of gunpowder in this cabinet,” said Pearson; “were it not better, my lord, to mine the tower, if he will not render himself, and send the whole turret with its contents one hundred feet in the air?”

“Ah, silly man,” said Cromwell, striking him familiarly on the shoulder; “if thou hadst done this without telling me, it had been good service. But we will first summon the turret, and then think whether the petard will serve our turn — it is but mining at last. — Blow a summons there, down below.”

The trumpets rang at his bidding, till the old walls echoed from every recess and vaulted archway. Cromwell, as if he cared not to look upon the person whom he expected to appear, drew back, like a necromancer afraid of the spectre which he has evoked.

“He has come to the battlement,” said Pearson to his General.

“In what dress or appearance?” answered Cromwell, from within the chamber.

“A grey riding-suit, passmented with silver, russet walking-boots, a cut band, a grey hat and plume, black hair.”

“It is he, it is he!” said Cromwell; “and another crowning mercy is vouchsafed!”

Meantime, Pearson and young Lee exchanged defiance from their respective posts.

“Surrender,” said the former, “or we blow you up in your fastness.”

“I am come of too high a race to surrender to rebels,” said Albert, assuming the air with which, in such a condition, a king might have spoken. “I bear you to witness,” cried Cromwell, exultingly, “he hath refused quarter. Of a surety, his blood be on his head. — One of you bring down the barrel of powder. As he loves to soar high, we will add what can be taken from the soldiers’ bandoliers. — Come with me, Pearson; thou understandest this gear. — Corporal Grace-be-here, stand thou fast on the platform of the window where Captain Pearson and I stood but even now, and bend the point of thy partisan against any who shall attempt to pass. Thou art as strong as a bull; and I will back thee against despair itself.”

“But,” said the corporal, mounting reluctantly, “the place is as the pinnacle of the Temple; and it is written, that Eutychus fell down from the third loft and was taken up dead.”

“Because he slept upon his post,” answered Cromwell readily. “Beware thou of carelessness, and thus thy feet shall be kept from stumbling. — You four soldiers, remain here to support the corporal, if it be necessary; and you, as well as the corporal, will draw into the vaulted passage the minute the trumpets sound a retreat. It is as strong as a casemate, and you may lie there safe from the effects of the mine. Thou, Zerubbabel Robins, I know wilt be their lance-prisade.” 8

Robins bowed, and the General departed to join those who were without.

As he reached the door of the hall, the petard was heard to explode, and he saw that it had succeeded; for the soldiers rushed, brandishing their swords and pistols, in at the postern of the turret, whose gate had been successfully forced. A thrill of exultation, but not unmingled with horror shot across the veins of the ambitious soldier.

“Now — now!” he cried; “they are dealing with him!”

His expectations were deceived. Pearson and the others returned disappointed, and reported they had been stopt by a strong trap-door of grated iron, extended over the narrow stair; and they could see there was an obstacle of the same kind some ten feet higher. To remove it by force, while a desperate and well armed man had the advantage of the steps above them, might cost many lives. “Which, lack-a-day,” said the General, “it is our duty to be tender of. What dost thou advise, Gilbert Pearson?”

“We must use powder, my lord,” answered Pearson, who saw his master was too modest to reserve to himself the whole merit of the proceeding — “There may be a chamber easily and conveniently formed under the foot of the stair. We have a sausage, by good luck, to form the train — and so”—

“Ah!” said Cromwell, “I know thou canst manage such gear well — But, Gilbert, I go to visit the posts, and give them orders to retire to a safe distance when the retreat is sounded. You will allow them five minutes for this purpose.”

“Three is enough for any knave of them all,” said Pearson. “They will be lame indeed, that require more on such a service. — I ask but one, though I fire the train myself.”

“Take heed,” said Cromwell, “that the poor soul be listened to, if he asks quarter. It may be, he may repent him of his hard-heartedness and call for mercy.”

“And mercy he shall have,” answered Pearson, “provided he calls loud enough to make me hear him; for the explosion of that damned petard has made me as deaf as the devil’s dam.”

“Hush, Gilbert, hush!” said Cromwell; “you offend in your language.”

“Zooks, sir, I must speak either in your way, or in my own,” said Pearson, “unless I am to be dumb as well as deaf! — Away with you, my lord, to visit the posts; and you will presently hear me make some noise in the world.”

Cromwell smiled gently at his aide-decamp’s petulance, patted him on the shoulder, and called him a mad fellow, walked a little way, then turned back to whisper, “What thou dost, do quickly;” then returned again towards the outer circle of guards, turning his head from time to time, as if to assure himself that the corporal, to whom he had intrusted the duty, still kept guard with his advanced weapon upon the terrific chasm between Rosamond’s Tower and the corresponding turret. Seeing him standing on his post, the General muttered between his mustaches, “The fellow hath the strength and courage of a bear; and yonder is a post where one shall do more to keep back than an hundred in making way.” He cast a last look on the gigantic figure, who stood in that airy position, like some Gothic statue, the weapon half levelled against the opposite turret, with the but rested against his right foot, his steel cap and burnished corslet glittering in the rising sun.

Cromwell then passed on to give the necessary orders, that such sentinels as might be endangered at their present posts by the effect of the mine, should withdraw at the sound of the trumpet to the places which he pointed out to them. Never, on any occasion of his life, did he display more calmness and presence of mind. He was kind, nay, facetious, with the soldiers, who adored him; and yet he resembled the volcano before the eruption commences — all peaceful and quiet without, while an hundred contradictory passions were raging in his bosom.

Corporal Humgudgeon, meanwhile, remained steady upon his post; yet, though as determined a soldier as ever fought among the redoubted regiment of Ironsides, and possessed of no small share of that exalted fanaticism which lent so keen an edge to the natural courage of those stern religionists, the veteran felt his present situation to be highly uncomfortable. Within a pike’s length of him arose a turret, which was about to be dispersed in massive fragments through the air; and he felt small confidence in the length of time which might be allowed for his escape from such a dangerous vicinity. The duty of constant vigilance upon his post, was partly divided by this natural feeling, which induced him from time to time to bend his eyes on the miners below, instead of keeping them riveted on the opposite turret.

At length the interest of the scene arose to the uttermost. After entering and returning from the turret, and coming out again more than once, in the course of about twenty minutes Pearson issued, as it might be supposed, for the last time, carrying in his hand, and uncoiling, as he went along, the sausage, or linen bag, (so called from its appearance,) which, strongly sewed together, and crammed with gunpowder, was to serve as a train betwixt the mine to be sprung, and the point occupied by the engineer who was to give fire. He was in the act of finally adjusting it, when the attention of the corporal on the tower became irresistibly and exclusively riveted upon the preparations for the explosion. But while he watched the aide-decamp drawing his pistol to give fire, and the trumpeter handling his instrument as waiting the order to sound the retreat, fate rushed on the unhappy sentinel in a way he least expected.

Young, active, bold, and completely possessed of his presence of mind, Albert Lee, who had been from the loopholes a watchful observer of every measure which had been taken by his besiegers, had resolved to make one desperate effort for self-preservation. While the head of the sentinel on the opposite platform was turned from him, and bent rather downwards, he suddenly sprung across the chasm, though the space on which he lighted was scarce wide enough for two persons, threw the surprised soldier from his precarious stand, and jumped himself down into the chamber. The gigantic trooper went sheer down twenty feet, struck against a projecting battlement, which launched the wretched man outwards, and then fell on the earth with such tremendous force, that the head, which first touched the ground, dinted a hole in the soil of six inches in depth, and was crushed like an eggshell. Scarce knowing what had happened, yet startled and confounded at the descent of this heavy body, which fell at no great distance from him, Pearson snapt his pistol at the train, no previous warning given; the powder caught, and the mine exploded. Had it been strongly charged with powder, many of those without might have suffered; but the explosion was only powerful enough to blow out, in a lateral direction, a part of the wall just above the foundation, sufficient, however, to destroy the equipoise of the building. Then, amid a cloud of smoke, which began gradually to encircle the turret like a shroud, arising slowly from its base to its summit, it was seen to stagger and shake by all who had courage to look steadily at a sight so dreadful. Slowly, at first, the building inclined outwards, then rushed precipitately to its base, and fell to the ground in huge fragments, the strength of its resistance showing the excellence of the mason-work. The engineer, so soon as he had fired the train, fled in such alarm that he wellnigh ran against his General, who was advancing towards him, while a huge stone from the summit of the building, flying farther than the rest, lighted within a yard of them.

“Thou hast been over hasty, Pearson,” said Cromwell, with the greatest composure possible —“hath no one fallen in that same tower of Siloe?”

“Some one fell,” said Pearson, still in great agitation, “and yonder lies his body half-buried in the rubbish.”

With a quick and resolute step Cromwell approached the spot, and exclaimed, “Pearson, thou hast ruined me — the young Man hath escaped. — This is our own sentinel — plague on the idiot! Let him rot beneath the ruins which crushed him!”

A cry now resounded from the platform of Rosamond’s Tower, which appeared yet taller than formerly, deprived of the neighbouring turret, which emulated though it did not attain to its height — “A prisoner, noble General — a prisoner — the fox whom we have chased all night is now in the snare — the Lord hath delivered him into the hand of his servants.”

“Look you keep him in safe custody,” exclaimed Cromwell, “and bring him presently down to the apartment from which the secret passages have their principal entrance.”

“Your Excellency shall be obeyed.”

The proceedings of Albert Lee, to which these exclamations related, had been unfortunate. He had dashed from the platform, as we have related, the gigantic strength of the soldier opposed to him, and had instantly jumped down into Rochecliffe’s chamber. But the soldiers stationed there threw themselves upon him, and after a struggle, which was hopelessly maintained against such advantage of numbers, had thrown the young cavalier to the ground, two of them, drawn down by his strenuous exertions, falling across him. At the same moment a sharp and severe report was heard, which, like a clap of thunder in the immediate vicinity, shook all around them, till the strong and solid tower tottered like the masts of a stately vessel when about to part by the board. In a few seconds, this was followed by another sullen sound, at first low, and deep, but augmenting like the roar of a cataract, as it descends, reeling, bellowing, and rushing, as if to astound both heaven and earth. So awful, indeed, was the sound of the neighbour tower as it fell, that both the captive, and those who struggled with him, continued for a minute or two passive in each other’s grasp.

Albert was the first who recovered consciousness and activity. He shook off those who lay above him, and made a desperate effort to gain his feet, in which he partly succeeded. But as he had to deal with men accustomed to every species of danger, and whose energies were recovered nearly as soon as his own, he was completely secured, and his arms held down. Loyal and faithful to his trust, and resolved to sustain to the last the character which he had assumed, he exclaimed, as his struggles were finally overpowered, “Rebel villains! would you slay your king?”

“Ha, heard you that?” cried one of the soldiers to the lance-prisade, who commanded the party. “Shall I not strike this son of a wicked father under the fifth rib, even as the tyrant of Moab was smitten by Ehud with a dagger of a cubit’s length?”

But Robins answered, “Be it far from us, Merciful Strickalthrow, to slay in cold blood the captive of our bow and of our spear. Me thinks, since the storm of Tredagh 9 we have shed enough of blood — therefore, on your lives do him no evil; but take from him his arms, and let us bring him before the chosen Instrument, even our General, that he may do with him what is meet in his eyes.”

By this time the soldier, whose exultation had made him the first to communicate the intelligence from the battlements to Cromwell, returned, and brought commands corresponding to the orders of their temporary officer; and Albert Lee, disarmed and bound, was conducted as a captive into the apartment which derived its name from the victories of his ancestor, and placed in the presence of General Cromwell.

Running over in his mind the time which had elapsed since the departure Charles till the siege, if it may be termed so, had terminated in his own capture, Albert had every reason to hope that his Royal Master must have had time to accomplish his escape. Yet he determined to maintain to the last a deceit which might for a time insure the King’s safety. The difference betwixt them could not, he thought, be instantly discovered, begrimed as he was with dust and smoke, and with blood issuing from some scratches received in the scuffle.

In this evil plight, but bearing himself with such dignity as was adapted to the princely character, Albert was ushered into the apartment of Victor Lee, where, in his father’s own chair, reclined the triumphant enemy of the cause to which the house of Lee had been hereditarily faithful.

8 “Lance-prisade,” or “lance-brisade,” a private appointed to a small command — a sort of temporary corporal.

9 Tredagh, or Drogheda, was taken by Cromwell in 1649, by storm, and the governor and the whole garrison put to the sword.

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