Dorothy Forster, by Walter Besant

Chapter xxxviii.

My Lord’s Last Days.

Let me return to the last days of Lord Derwentwater, who, perhaps (but of this I am not sure), never heard of his brother’s death.

The chief clergyman, or priest, of the Roman Catholic Church in London was then the Reverend Bonaventura Gifford, commonly called in their ecclesiastical manner the Vicar Apostolic. Immediately after sentence had been pronounced, this learned Father applied for permission to administer spiritual consolation and the offices of the Church to this man about to die. For some reason which I know not, this permission was refused, and Dr. Gifford denied admission to the prisoner. The Government, however, consented that a certain Father Pippard, a simple priest, should attend him during the fortnight between sentence and execution.

I have seen and have copied out with my own hand a letter in which this pious man set down all that he remembered concerning my lord’s last days upon the earth. From the beginning, though not without hope (even the meanest and vilest criminal never, I suppose, abandons hope till the cart moves from under his feet, much more this innocent victim), he resigned himself to the steady and fearless contemplation of death, and gave himself over altogether to those religious exercises that were ordered by his spiritual advisers, together with the reading of such books as were most proper for a man so soon about to be summoned before his Judge. Thus, each morning he read, as directed, a chapter or two of the New Testament, and especially those of our Lord’s Passion, with some portion of the ‘Following of Christ,’ ‘The Confessions of Saint Austin,’ and other good books chosen for him by his adviser. Methinks nothing in the world can so smooth a death-bed and console a dying man as the memory of having written a good book for the consolation of sorrowful and stricken souls and the strengthening of faith for those about to die. (Poor Frank had no such interval of meditation and prayer.) Chiefly my lord read with wonderful satisfaction, the good priest said, the edifying history of a certain Italian youth, who for some crime —— I know not of what nature, or perhaps unjustly, like Lord Derwentwater —— was condemned to death, but fell into so beautiful a repentance, and so heartily prayed, meditated, and fasted, that he made of the death which he could not avoid a voluntary sacrifice of himself, his life, and affections, before the throne of God, thereby imitating the blessed example of Him who, though it was ordained by His Heavenly Father that He should drink the chalice, yet did it voluntarily and of His own free will and consent. This example my lord proposed to follow.

Further, when they came —— not once, but several times —— to offer him his life if he would change his religion, which was a most wicked and a most diabolical temptation to lay before so young and so fortunate a man, with all earth’s pleasures before him, he refused without the least hesitation or doubt. ‘And this,’ said Father Pippard’s letter, ‘he told me with the greatest transport of joy, that having refused his life on such terms, he hoped it was not now making a virtue of necessity; that, had he a thousand lives, he would sooner part with them than renounce his faith; and, with tears of joy in his eyes, he humbly thanked God for giving him this opportunity of testifying his love for Him.’ Not once, but twice, they troubled him with this offer, which was as insulting to the honour of the Earl as it was disgraceful to the humanity of those who proposed this temptation. Whoever they were, they entreated him earnestly, even on the day before his execution, that he would make some sign, as it were, of doubt concerning the Articles of the Roman Catholic Faith, if only to borrow a book of Protestant controversy. But he steadfastly refused to beg his life on these terms. I have sometimes thought that possibly it was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was thus anxious to find an excuse for begging a reprieve. Everybody knows well that there were some, even among the Ministers and in the Privy Council, who would gladly have seen him pardoned, if only a show of reason could be arrived at with which to move the King. But without such excuse there was no possibility of further interference, and so the law must take its course.

One more chance remained, and it was the last. The Countess had appealed in person to the King, but without avail; she would now appeal to the Houses of Parliament. On Tuesday this noble and courageous woman, accompanied by a large number of ladies, her friends, went to the House of Lords with a petition, which was presented by the Duke of Richmond. The petition was supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, which was thought a most remarkable thing, by the Earl of Nottingham, one of the Ministers. In the end, the House moved that an address be presented to the King, that he should reprieve such of the condemned lords as should deserve his mercy. A motion to the same effect was made in the House of Commons, but was rejected by a majority of seven, some of the speakers against it being very violent.

The interference of the lords did no good, except to anger and harden the King so far as Lord Derwentwater’s case was concerned; but on Wednesday, Lord Widdrington and Lord Carnwath were reprieved. Lord Nairn had already been reprieved through the instance of Lord Stanhope, who declared that he would resign his office if his old school-fellow at Eton was not pardoned. On Thursday, though he knew it not, and escaped on that same day, Lord Nithsdale was also reprieved. It is therefore clear that from the beginning it was resolved to make an example in the person of the youngest and the least guilty (supposing there is any guilt in taking up arms for your lawful Sovereign).

On Thursday, when three out of the seven lords were already reprieved, the Countess made another effort to see the King. She was, as before, accompanied by her friends. But the King this time obstinately refused to see her, and gave her to understand that her husband’s execution would take place the next morning.

Then at last she ceased her exertions, and went to the Tower for her last most sad and sorrowful parting with her husband, the thing dreaded by him far more than the executioner’s axe, insomuch that he had begged her, through Lord Widdrington, to take her last farewell a week before, in order that his last moments might be wholly given up to God. But this was too hard for her to bear, and he was overruled. Father Pippard wrote in that letter of his, ‘No man could have a greater regard and tenderness for his wife than he had for you, and I think there could not be a greater argument of it than this, that when he seemed to be raised above the sentiments of the world in everything else, he had not quite got the better of himself in regard to your ladyship, though even here he appeared wonderful to me. For the last morning your ladyship parted from him I was surprised to find him so composed; and, congratulating his lordship upon the victory he had gained over his affections, he answered that you had been, both of you, upon your knees begging that favour of God, for nigh a quarter of an hour before you took leave of each other.’

Nothing more sorrowful can be thought of than the picture of that unhappy pair kneeling side by side to pray that they might so gain the victory over their affections as to part with each other with resignation. It cannot be a part of religion —— I cannot bring myself to think that it is —— for a man thus on the point of death to tear his wife out of his heart, or for her to let him go out of hers. Rather should they thank Heaven for the earthly love they have enjoyed together, and pray that it may be continued and glorified in the heavenly world, so that they may together experience the joys of that blessed abode, and be the more happy in knowing of each other’s bliss. But perhaps Catholics think differently, and although they have made marriage into a sacrament (without Scriptural warrant), they have ever been harsh as regards their opinion of women.

Every year, once, on the day of my lord’s execution, I read this letter of Father Pippard with tears, and I make no doubt that his widow did the same; for she never smiled after her husband’s death, but slowly wasted away, and some years later died, being then not yet thirty, poor soul! (It was in Louvain that she died, and lies buried in the English convent there, having been a most pious woman, and strict in the practice of all the duties enjoined by her Church.)

During that last fortnight the Earl talked continually, while the Countess was with him (this she told me herself), of his early days and the few events of his short life, just as old men soon about to die love to think of the days when they were young and strong. He spoke of his education at St. Germain’s, of his return to his native country and the greetings of his friends and cousins, of the summer he spent chiefly in my society, speaking of me, even at such a time, in words of kindness which I can never forget, and recall with a kind of pride that so great and noble a heart should deceive himself into imagining that I possessed those great qualities which he ascribed to me. It is only a good heart which thinks others good. He even sent me a last gift in token of his regard and affection for me, and in memory of our former friendship. ‘Give Dorothy for me,’ he said, ‘with my love and prayer for her welfare —— something —— whatever thou wilt. But let it be something which I have given to thee, sweetheart, since we married. This she will value most.’

Surely never was there a more loyal and generous man. He wished me to feel that he had never forgotten me; but, withal, I must learn that he loved me with an affection pure and free from earthly passion, as he desired my affection to be towards him; and this he would show by giving me something which he had given to his wife; this I need not be ashamed as a virtuous woman to receive, nor he as a Christian man to offer; nor she, as one who wholly possessed his heart, to give.

In this spirit I accepted the ring of topaz and amethyst which the Countess drew from her finger and put upon mine, kissing me with abundance of tears, and saying:

‘Did you ever hear the like, Dorothy, that one woman should give to another a gift from her husband and yet not be jealous! Yet dear Dorothy, I have known all along how much he continued to love you and esteem you, and that without the least suspicion or touch of jealousy, so true he was, and open in all that he did and said, and so sure was I that I owned all his heart.’

She did indeed, and I could now think of it without bitterness, though there was once a time when I wondered how men could so change their heart as to be all for one woman in the spring, so to speak, and all for another in the summer. For sure and certain my lord had no eyes for any other woman, save in the way of honest and friendly affection, after he was married; and to him she was a good and loyal wife, though (because she was human) not wholly free from certain small imperfections which sometimes caused rubs, due to quickness of temper and the like, of which we know.

But oh! to think that in this, his last mortal agony, being at the very threshold of death, in the anteroom of the Great Judgment Hall, a soul trembling in the presence of his Maker, engaged in earnest repentance, and anxiously seeking assurance of forgiveness, he should have thought of me! I have desired in my will that this ring, with one other thing, be buried with me in my coffin.

I asked the Countess how he looked on this his last day. She told me that for want of the fresh air and riding exercises, to which he was accustomed, he was pale of cheek; but that, owing to the fasting diet which he thought becoming to one in his position, he was grown thin, and his eyes were brighter than of ordinary. For the rest, he was grave, and smiled no longer (could one ever forget the sweet smile that always played upon his lips and the kind light that lay in his eyes?). He shed few tears (save that at parting with his wife he gave one sob), because he was so brave and resolute by nature, and because, by special grace of Heaven, he was enabled to look upon the separation as for a brief space only. But he wept bitterly when he parted from his infant children, praying Heaven to protect his boy —— then two years old, and like an angel for beauty —— and his infant daughter. (The boy is since dead, being killed by an accident at nineteen years; but the girl, Lady Anna, is not long since married to a Catholic Peer, the Lord Petre, whose uncle married her aunt, my lord’s sister. May she be blessed with a long life and many children!)

On Thursday morning my lord received a letter from the Vicar Apostolic, which afforded him great consolation, although, to hear some men talk and to read some things written, there is nothing in all that religion but hypocrisy and deceits. As if we are not all men and women —— that is to say, mortal and doomed to die, and after death the next world; wherefore, though I doubt not the exceeding wickedness and cruelty of many Popes, Inquisitors, and Cardinals, needs must that they, as well as we ourselves, sometimes contemplate soberly and with prayer the condition of their souls, and especially at the awful time when death is appointed and now nigh at hand. The Vicar’s letter, therefore, which I have seen —— and a most beautiful and truly religious letter it is —— gave my lord great support, and even happiness. On that day he confessed, communicated, and heard Mass, together with Lord Widdrington; for several days before his death he steadfastly fasted, and refused to take any wine, although he suffered from a grievous cough. As for fasting, that is no doubt a help to most of us in spiritual things, as it leaves the brain free from the gross humours generated by strong meat, and in a manner clears away from the eyes the mists which obscure our sight and sense of heavenly things.

‘But,’ said Father Pippard, in that memorandum of his, ‘he wanted none of these helps, for he was visibly helped with an extraordinary grace, which appeared in his countenance and in all his behaviour, to the admiration of all that beheld him.’

In the evening before his execution he sat up writing letters of farewell to his wife, his mother, his brother Charles, and others. In the first, which the poor soul showed to me, he said that Lord Nithsdale had escaped. Alas! the news of that escape fell upon our hearts (I mean on mine especially) as a reproach. For we should have used something of the same way with Lord Derwentwater had it not been ordered otherwise. As regards his brother Charles, it is sad to relate that Lord Townshend, Secretary of State, forbade his taking leave of his brother, so great was the rancour with which these young men were regarded. (It is very well known how Charles afterwards escaped from Newgate while under sentence of death. A few years later he married the Countess of Newburgh in her own right, and hath children, so that the noble line of Radcliffe will be continued, with another title and rank equal to that which has been lost.)

As for what passed in the Tower on the morning of the execution, it was related in the conclusion of Father Pippard’s letter. He said that he went early to the Tower, not expecting to be admitted, but, contrary to his expectation, being permitted to pass into the Earl’s room, he found Lord Widdrington with him, and both on their knees at prayers; but with this difference, that Lord Widdrington could not read his for the weeping and tears which choked his voice, while Lord Derwentwater was reading his aloud, and with a sedate and audible voice. Whereupon Father Pippard at first, and hastily, concluded that the latter had been reprieved and the former sentenced. But it was the contrary: for Lord Widdrington had come to tell his brother prisoner that he himself had received a reprieve (the news was not brought to him until eight o’clock that morning), and he was weeping to see the constancy, resignation, and Christian grace displayed by his brother-in-arms who was to suffer what he himself escaped.

Presently word was brought that the coaches were come for the two who were to be executed. Wherefore Father Pippard begged Lord Widdrington to say anything he had to say as quickly as he could. But all he had to say was, with many tears, that if he were to live a thousand years he should never forget the courage and resignation which he that day witnessed. So he went away, and Lord Derwentwater betook himself to confession and prayers; which done, he walked down to the coach, even the keepers, buffetiers, and guards —— yea, and the common soldiers, being dissolved in tears, and he alone preserving a calm and composed countenance.

My lord was dressed becomingly in black velvet, wearing a beaver that with a black plume, black hose, and black leather shoes with silver buckles. Round his neck was hanging a gold crucifix, and in his hand he carried a book of devotion. Before reaching the scaffold he was joined by the Vicar Apostolic. Then, I suppose for form’s sake, he was again offered his life if he would renounce his faith and his loyalty; but he put the offer by gravely, saying that it would be too dear a purchase.

When they came to the City Bars the sheriffs informed him that they had prepared a room for him near the scaffold, in case he desired to retire for a time. He thanked them, and accepted their offer, spending half an hour with the priests in prayer. Lord Kenmure, who was accompanied by his eldest son, joined him in this dismal chamber.

Then came the last scene —— the shedding of that noble blood and the flight of that sweet soul to heaven. Even if the Romish doctrine of Purgatory were true, of which we have no Scriptural warrant (though the thought must be consoling to many a poor mother whose son has been cut off in open sin), I cannot but believe that the sacrifice of a life thus laid down as a voluntary offering, according to the teaching of the priests, and with many heartfelt prayers, must have been received, and that Lord Derwentwater’s soul is now at peace and in happiness among the blessed.

Mr. Hilyard was among those who stood on Tower Hill to see the sad sight. I believe that the people of London take a peculiar pleasure in witnessing spectacles the thought of which fills one’s heart with horror, so that whether it be a wretch in a pillory, or a hussy being whipped before an alderman, or a rogue flogged at a cart-tail, or a hanging at Tyburn, or a beheading on Tower Hill, they cannot choose but sally forth and stand in thousands —— yea, and for hours together, so eager are they to behold the deportment and carriage of the sufferer, comparing him with others, his predecessors, applauding or reproving, according to his courage or his cowardice. Mr. Hilyard, whatever else he might be, was always a Londoner. Something of the same temper, I suppose, was possessed by the Athenians, who were always running after some new thing.

‘There was never,’ said Mr. Hilyard, ‘so great a crowd of people gathered together on Tower Hill; men there were of every condition, with fine ladies in the windows; and though many thought that the punishment was just, there were none (of those who stood around me) but thought it excessive. For why, all men asked, were Lord Derwentwater and Lord Kenmure condemned, and the rest reprieved? What had these two done worse than those who were with them? Why was not Lord Widdrington, who was older, and should have been wiser, with them? Such questions passed from one to the other, not in whispers, but loudly, so that I think the character of the King will hardly gain, whatever may be the effect of these punishments in the north. Truly, as is said by Solomon, “Mercy and truth preserve the king: and his throne is upholden by mercy.”

‘The crowd began at daybreak, even before; nay, there were persons who came on the night before, and made fires on Tower Hill to warm them by, for the night was very cold. There was some idle talk about a rescue, and of destroying the scaffold; but that passed away, and, indeed, the Jacobites in these days have to keep snug. Yet they were on Tower Hill by hundreds, and were cursing the Hanoverian in whispers, and shedding tears for the two lords long before the time for the execution.

‘I first saw my lord when he came forth from the chamber which the sheriffs caused to be made for him. Sir John Fryer went before him. After him came two Popish priests and a great company, though who they were I know not. When he mounted the steps and stood upon the black scaffold before all the people, his face was pale, but his eye was steady. To my thinking he looked upon the great multitude much as, in the persecution of Diocletian, a Christian martyr may have looked upon the gaping crowds assembled to see him die, and to wonder why he could not save his life by a pinch of incense. Then a silence fell upon all, save for the sobs of some and the muttered prayers of others, so that you would have thought yourself in some great church ——’

A church, indeed! For such an occasion the Tower Hill was nothing but the temple of the living God, and the scaffold was an altar of sacrifice, and my lord a true martyr and confessor of his faith and loyalty.

‘He spoke a few words to Sir John Fryer, and then, kneeling down before us all, prayed for a good while. But none of the crowd spake or moved, and I saw the tears running down all cheeks. This done, he rose and spoke earnestly for a minute or two with one of the sheriffs, and taking a paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and read in a steady, loud voice, so that all might hear his last dying speech and confession. Confession, I call it, because he confessed and declared manfully that he owned allegiance to none but the Prince, his lawful King; and if it seemed otherwise by his plea of guilty, he begged that he might be understood as not intending to acknowledge King George as his lawful Sovereign. Why, it seems to me, so noble and so manful was his speech, that were there in this realm but half-a-dozen like into him, so noble and so generous, the Protestant Succession would be ruined.

‘This done, he repeated a penitential Psalm, and uttered audibly (many of the people saying “Amen!” after him, as if they were in church) certain ejaculations. After this he knelt in prayer once more, and this time many of the company on the scaffold —— even the executioner himself —— knelt and prayed with him, weeping. He then rose and removed his wig and coat, which the keeper should have had, but the executioner claimed as his own; and there was an unseemly dispute, during which my lord stood quiet, only whispering a few words to one of the priests. This settled, he examined the block, and pointed out very calmly a rough place which might hurt his neck. That roughness the executioner made smooth with his axe.

‘After this, he said in a loud voice, so that all should hear: “I forgive all that are concerned in my execution, and I forgive all the world.”

‘According to custom, the executioner asked his forgiveness. Then, all being done, he knelt and laid his head upon the block. I suppose that he gave certain instructions to the headsman. One of the priests bent over him and gave him, as I understood the gesture, the last absolution as to one in articulo mortis. Then he said in a loud voice: “Dear Jesus, be merciful to me. Dear Jesus, be merciful to me. Dear Jesus ——” Then fell the axe, and at a single blow the head was severed from the body.’

Here Mr. Hilyard stopped in his narrative, and we wept together.

What have any, of all those who knew and loved that gallant youth, done since but weep and cry at the mere thought of his noble death, and the cruel loss to all? Yet weeping will not bring him back. Oh! if every tear shed that day had been a drop of molten lead, there was one woman who would have rejoiced to pour all upon the head of the hard and revengeful George, then called King of this realm! George hath now gone to his account, and I hope that this woman was Christian enough before he died to pray that this heavy sin might be forgiven him.

The Earl’s servant, Francis Wilson, received the head in a red velvet cloth, and carried it away with him, no one molesting him. The body, no coffin or hearse having been provided, was laid in a hackney-coach, and so taken to the Tower, where it lay for three days, when it was taken away by night to a surgeon, who enbalmed it and laid it in a coffin with the head. The coffin was carried first to Dagenham Park, near Romford, where the widowed Countess was residing for a time, and thence, travelling by night, it was taken to Dilston, and buried in his own chapel. His heart was placed in a casket and sent to Angers, where it was given to a convent of English nuns.

As for the Prince, for whose sake this and so many other lives were laid down, he had already fled from Scotland and landed at Gravelines two days before Lord Derwentwater’s death, and I know not what were his emotions on hearing of his early friend’s tragic end. But the Queen-mother was deeply affected. I saw the Countess once more before I left London; she was then staying at a house in the country, not far from London, called Kensington Gravel Pits. She was composed and resigned, but the old vivacity was gone, and her once bright eyes were dull. She confessed that it was her duty to live for the children, but: for whom she would have prayed for death. Sad it was to see the sweet, fair-haired boy, not yet four years old, clinging to his mother’s knee, wondering why her eyes were always full of tears. They could not take away the child’s estates, because in them the Earl had only a lifeinterest; but he had lost his title, though everyone always called him the Earl. What mattered title or estate if he had not also lost his father? We talked very movingly together for some hours, confessing to each other that we had done foolishly and ignorantly (yet we believed what we were told, and what can women do more?) in urging on men who were so full of loyalty, and yet hesitated to strike, being better acquainted than we were with the dangers and the consequences. Yet we agreed that the cause was most just and righteous, and must prosper in the end if England is to look for peace and Heaven’s blessing. But for a long time there could be no hope of success unless in the changed temper of the people.

It was on this, the last time I saw her, that she gave me the precious gift of her dead husband, with the words which he wished her to use. I have already spoken of this gift. So we parted, with kisses and more tears, and I saw the poor distracted creature no more.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51