The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XII.

A Great Scheme, and Who Balked It.

As characters written with a secret ink come out with the application of fire, and disappear again and leave the paper white, as soon as it is cool; a hundred names of men, high in repute and favoring the Prince’s cause, that were writ in our private lists, would have been visible enough on the great roll of the conspiracy, had it ever been laid open under the sun. What crowds would have pressed forward, and subscribed their names and protested their loyalty, when the danger was over! What a number of Whigs, now high in place and creatures of the all-powerful Minister, scorned Mr. Walpole then! If ever a match was gained by the manliness and decision of a few at a moment of danger; if ever one was lost by the treachery and imbecility of those that had the cards in their hands, and might have played them, it was in that momentous game which was enacted in the next three days, and of which the noblest crown in the world was the stake.

From the conduct of my Lord Bolingbroke, those who were interested in the scheme we had in hand, saw pretty well that he was not to be trusted. Should the Prince prevail, it was his lordship’s gracious intention to declare for him: should the Hanoverian party bring in their sovereign, who more ready to go on his knee, and cry, “God Save King George?” And he betrayed the one Prince and the other; but exactly at the wrong time. When he should have struck for King James, he faltered and coquetted with the Whigs; and having committed himself by the most monstrous professions of devotion, which the Elector rightly scorned, he proved the justness of their contempt for him by flying and taking renegade service with St. Germains, just when he should have kept aloof: and that Court despised him, as the manly and resolute men who established the Elector in England had before done. He signed his own name to every accusation of insincerity his enemies made against him; and the King and the Pretender alike could show proofs of St. John’s treachery under his own hand and seal.

Our friends kept a pretty close watch upon his motions, as on those of the brave and hearty Whig party, that made little concealment of theirs. They would have in the Elector, and used every means in their power to effect their end. My Lord Marlborough was now with them. His expulsion from power by the Tories had thrown that great captain at once on the Whig side. We heard he was coming from Antwerp; and, in fact, on the day of the Queen’s death, he once more landed on English shore. A great part of the army was always with their illustrious leader; even the Tories in it were indignant at the injustice of the persecution which the Whig officers were made to undergo. The chiefs of these were in London, and at the head of them one of the most intrepid men in the world, the Scots Duke of Argyle, whose conduct on the second day after that to which I have now brought down my history, ended, as such honesty and bravery deserved to end, by establishing the present Royal race on the English throne.

Meanwhile there was no slight difference of opinion amongst the councillors surrounding the Prince, as to the plan his Highness should pursue. His female Minister at Court, fancying she saw some amelioration in the Queen, was for waiting a few days, or hours it might be, until he could be brought to her bedside, and acknowledged as her heir. Mr. Esmond was for having him march thither, escorted by a couple of troops of Horse Guards, and openly presenting himself to the Council. During the whole of the night of the 29th-30th July, the Colonel was engaged with gentlemen of the military profession, whom ’tis needless here to name; suffice it to say that several of them had exceeding high rank in the army, and one of them in especial was a General, who, when he heard the Duke of Marlborough was coming on the other side, waved his crutch over his head with a huzzah, at the idea that he should march out and engage him. Of the three Secretaries of State, we knew that one was devoted to us. The Governor of the Tower was ours; the two companies on duty at Kensington barrack were safe; and we had intelligence, very speedy and accurate, of all that took place at the Palace within.

At noon, on the 30th of July, a message came to the Prince’s friends that the Committee of Council was sitting at Kensington Palace, their Graces of Ormonde and Shrewsbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the three Secretaries of State, being there assembled. In an hour afterwards, hurried news was brought that the two great Whig Dukes, Argyle and Somerset, had broke into the Council-chamber without a summons, and taken their seat at table. After holding a debate there, the whole party proceeded to the chamber of the Queen, who was lying in great weakness, but still sensible, and the Lords recommended his Grace of Shrewsbury as the fittest person to take the vacant place of Lord Treasurer; her Majesty gave him the staff, as all know. “And now,” writ my messenger from Court, “NOW OR NEVER IS THE TIME.”

Now or never was the time indeed. In spite of the Whig Dukes, our side had still the majority in the Council, and Esmond, to whom the message had been brought, (the personage at Court not being aware that the Prince had quitted his lodging in Kensington Square,) and Esmond’s gallant young aide-de-camp, Frank Castlewood, putting on sword and uniform, took a brief leave of their dear lady, who embraced and blessed them both, and went to her chamber to pray for the issue of the great event which was then pending.

Castlewood sped to the barrack to give warning to the captain of the Guard there; and then went to the “King’s Arms” tavern at Kensington, where our friends were assembled, having come by parties of twos and threes, riding or in coaches, and were got together in the upper chamber, fifty-three of them; their servants, who had been instructed to bring arms likewise, being below in the garden of the tavern, where they were served with drink. Out of this garden is a little door that leads into the road of the Palace, and through this it was arranged that masters and servants were to march; when that signal was given, and that Personage appeared, for whom all were waiting. There was in our company the famous officer next in command to the Captain-General of the Forces, his Grace the Duke of Ormonde, who was within at the Council. There were with him two more lieutenant-generals, nine major-generals and brigadiers, seven colonels, eleven Peers of Parliament, and twenty-one members of the House of Commons. The Guard was with us within and without the Palace: the Queen was with us; the Council (save the two Whig Dukes, that must have succumbed); the day was our own, and with a beating heart Esmond walked rapidly to the Mall of Kensington, where he had parted with the Prince on the night before. For three nights the Colonel had not been to bed: the last had been passed summoning the Prince’s friends together, of whom the great majority had no sort of inkling of the transaction pending until they were told that he was actually on the spot, and were summoned to strike the blow. The night before and after the altercation with the Prince, my gentleman, having suspicions of his Royal Highness, and fearing lest he should be minded to give us the slip, and fly off after his fugitive beauty, had spent, if the truth must be told, at the “Greyhound” tavern, over against my Lady Castlewood’s house in Kensington Square, with an eye on the door, lest the Prince should escape from it. The night before that he had passed in his boots at the “Crown” at Hounslow, where he must watch forsooth all night, in order to get one moment’s glimpse of Beatrix in the morning. And fate had decreed that he was to have a fourth night’s ride and wakefulness before his business was ended.

He ran to the curate’s house in Kensington Mall, and asked for Mr. Bates, the name the Prince went by. The curate’s wife said Mr. Bates had gone abroad very early in the morning in his boots, saying he was going to the Bishop of Rochester’s house at Chelsey. But the Bishop had been at Kensington himself two hours ago to seek for Mr. Bates, and had returned in his coach to his own house, when he heard that the gentleman was gone thither to seek him.

This absence was most unpropitious, for an hour’s delay might cost a kingdom; Esmond had nothing for it but to hasten to the “King’s Arms,” and tell the gentlemen there assembled that Mr. George (as we called the Prince there) was not at home, but that Esmond would go fetch him; and taking a General’s coach that happened to be there, Esmond drove across the country to Chelsey, to the Bishop’s house there.

The porter said two gentlemen were with his lordship, and Esmond ran past this sentry up to the locked door of the Bishop’s study, at which he rattled, and was admitted presently. Of the Bishop’s guests one was a brother prelate, and the other the Abbe G——.

“Where is Mr. George?” says Mr. Esmond; “now is the time.” The Bishop looked scared: “I went to his lodging,” he said, “and they told me he was come hither. I returned as quick as coach would carry me; and he hath not been here.”

The Colonel burst out with an oath; that was all he could say to their reverences; ran down the stairs again, and bidding the coachman, an old friend and fellow-campaigner, drive as if he was charging the French with his master at Wynendael — they were back at Kensington in half an hour.

Again Esmond went to the curate’s house. Mr. Bates had not returned. The Colonel had to go with this blank errand to the gentlemen at the “King’s Arms,” that were grown very impatient by this time.

Out of the window of the tavern, and looking over the garden wall, you can see the green before Kensington Palace, the Palace gate (round which the Ministers’ coaches were standing), and the barrack building. As we were looking out from this window in gloomy discourse, we heard presently trumpets blowing, and some of us ran to the window of the front-room, looking into the High Street of Kensington, and saw a regiment of Horse coming.

“It’s Ormonde’s Guards,” says one.

“No, by God, it’s Argyle’s old regiment!” says my General, clapping down his crutch.

It was, indeed, Argyle’s regiment that was brought from Westminster, and that took the place of the regiment at Kensington on which we could rely.

“Oh, Harry!” says one of the generals there present, “you were born under an unlucky star; I begin to think that there’s no Mr. George, nor Mr. Dragon either. ’Tis not the peerage I care for, for our name is so ancient and famous, that merely to be called Lord Lydiard would do me no good; but ’tis the chance you promised me of fighting Marlborough.”

As we were talking, Castlewood entered the room with a disturbed air.

“What news, Frank?” says the Colonel. “Is Mr. George coming at last?”

“Damn him, look here!” says Castlewood, holding out a paper. “I found it in the book — the what you call it, ‘Eikum Basilikum,’— that villain Martin put it there — he said his young mistress bade him. It was directed to me, but it was meant for him I know, and I broke the seal and read it.”

The whole assembly of officers seemed to swim away before Esmond’s eyes as he read the paper; all that was written on it was:—“Beatrix Esmond is sent away to prison, to Castlewood, where she will pray for happier days.”

“Can you guess where he is?” says Castlewood.

“Yes,” says Colonel Esmond. He knew full well, Frank knew full well: our instinct told whither that traitor had fled.

He had courage to turn to the company and say, “Gentlemen, I fear very much that Mr. George will not be here today; something hath happened — and — and — I very much fear some accident may befall him, which must keep him out of the way. Having had your noon’s draught, you had best pay the reckoning and go home; there can be no game where there is no one to play it.”

Some of the gentlemen went away without a word, others called to pay their duty to her Majesty and ask for her health. The little army disappeared into the darkness out of which it had been called; there had been no writings, no paper to implicate any man. Some few officers and Members of Parliament had been invited over night to breakfast at the “King’s Arms,” at Kensington; and they had called for their bill and gone home.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07