Three nights and days had gone since Angela first set her foot upon the threshold of Fareham House, and in all that time she had not once gone out into the great city, where dismal silence reigned by day and night, save for the hideous cries of the men with the dead-carts, calling to the inhabitants of the infected houses to bring out their dead, and roaring their awful summons with as automatic a monotony as if they had been hawking some common necessary of life — a dismal cry that was but occasionally varied by the hollow tones of a Puritan fanatic, stalking, gaunt and half clad, along the Strand, and shouting some sentence of fatal bodement from the Hebrew prophets; just as before the siege of Titus there walked through the streets of Jerusalem one who cried, “Woe to the wicked city!” and whose voice could not be stopped but by death.
In those three days and nights the worst symptoms of the contagion were subjugated. But the ravages of the disease had left the patient in a state of weakness which bordered on death; and his nurses were full of apprehension lest the shattered forces of his constitution should fail even in the hour of recovery. The violence of the fever was abated, and the delirium had become intermittent, while there were hours in which the sufferer was conscious and reasonable, in which calmer intervals he would fain have talked with Angela more than her anxiety would allow.
He was full of wonder at her presence in that house; and when he had been told who she was, he wanted to know how and why she had come there. By what happy accident, by what interposition of Providence, had she been sent to save him from a hideous death?
“I should have died but for you,” he said. “I should have lain here till the cart fetched my putrid carcase. I should be rotting in one of their plague-pits yonder, behind the old Abbey.”
“Nay, indeed, my lord, your good doctor would have discovered your desolate condition, and would have brought Mrs. Basset to nurse you.”
“He would have been too late. I was drifting out to the dark sea of death. I felt as if the river were bearing me so much nearer to that unknown sea with every ripple of the hurrying tide. ’Twas your draught of strong wine snatched me back from the cruel river, drew me on to terra firma again, renewed my consciousness of manhood, and that I was not a weed to be washed away. Oh, that wine! Ye gods! what elixir to this parched, burning throat! Did ever drunkard in all Alsatia snatch such fierce joy from a brimmer?”
Angela put her finger on her lip, and with the other hand drew the silken coverlet over the sick man’s shoulders.
“You are not to talk,” she said, “you are to sleep. Slumber is to be your diet and medicine after that good soup at which you make such a wry face.”
“I would swallow the stuff were it Locusta’s hell-broth, for your sake.”
“You will take it for wisdom’s sake, that you may mend speedily, and go home to my sister,” said Angela.
“Home, yes! It will be bliss ineffable to see flowery pastures and wooded hills after this pest-haunted town; but oh, Angela, mine angel, why dost thou linger in this poisonous chamber where every breath of mine exhales infection? Why do you not fly while you are still unstricken? Truly the plague-fiend cometh as a thief in the night. To-day you are safe. To-night you may be doomed.”
“I have no fear, sir. You are not the first plague-patient I have nursed.”
“And thou fanciest thyself pestilence-proof! Sweet girl, it may be that the divine lymph which fills those azure veins has no affinity with poisons that slay rude mortals like myself.”
“Will you ever be talking?” she said with grave reproach, and left him to the care of Mrs. Basset, whose comfortable and stolid personality did not stimulate his imagination.
She had a strong desire to explore that city of which she had yet seen so little, and her patient being now arrived at a state of his disorder when it was best for him to be tempted to prolonged slumbers by silence and solitude, she put on her hood and gloves and went out alone to see the horrors of the deserted streets, of which nurse Basset had given her so appalling a picture.
It was four o’clock, and the afternoon was at its hottest; the blue of a cloudless sky was reflected in the blue of the silent river, where, instead of the flotilla of gaily painted wherries, the procession of gilded barges, the music and song, the ceaseless traffic of Court and City, there was only the faint ripple of the stream, or here and there a solitary barge creeping slowly down the tide with ineffectual sail napping in the sultry atmosphere.
That unusual calm which had marked this never-to-be-forgotten year, from the beginning of spring, was yet unbroken, and the silent city lay like a great ship becalmed on a tropical ocean; the same dead silence; the same cruel, smiling sky above; the same hopeless submission to fate in every soul on board that death-ship. How would those poor dying creatures, panting out their latest breath in sultry, airless chambers, have welcomed the rush of rain, the cool freshness of a strong wind blowing along those sun-baked streets, sweeping away the polluted dust, dispersing noxious odours, bringing the pure scents of far-off woodlands, of hillside heather and autumn gorse, the sweetness of the country across the corruption of the town. But at this dreadful season, when storm and rain would have been welcomed with passionate thanksgiving, the skies were brass, and the ground was arid and fiery as the sands of the Arabian desert, while even the grass that grew in the streets, where last year multitudinous feet had trodden, sickened as it grew, and faded speedily from green to yellow.
Pausing on the garden terrace to survey the prospect before she descended to the street, Angela thought of that river as her imagination had depicted it, after reading a letter of Hyacinth’s, written so late as last May; the gay processions, the gaudy liveries of watermen and servants, the gilded barges, the sound of viol and guitar, the harmony of voices in part songs, “Go, lovely rose,” or “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” the beauty and the splendour; fair faces under vast plumed hats, those picturesque hats which the maids of honour snatched from each other’s heads with giddy laughter, exchanging head-gear here on the royal barge, as they did sometimes walking about the great rooms at Whitehall; the King with his boon companions clustered round him on the richly carpeted daïs in the stern, his courtiers and his favoured mistresses; haughty Castlemaine, empres, regnant over the royal heart, false, dissolute, impudent, glorious as Cleopatra when her purple sails bore her down the swift-flowing Cydnus; the wit and folly and gladness. All had vanished like the visions of a dreamer; and there remained but this mourning city, with its closed windows and doors, its watchmen guarding the marked houses, lest disease and death should hold communion with that poor remnant of health and life left in the infected town. Would that fantastic vision of careless, pleasure-loving monarch and butterfly Court ever be realised again? Angela thought not. It seemed to her serious mind that the glory of those wild years since his Majesty’s restoration was a delusive and pernicious brightness which could never shine again. That extravagant splendour, that reckless gaiety had borne beneath their glittering surface the seeds of ruin and death. An angry God had stretched out His hand against the wicked city where sin and profaneness sat in the high places. If Charles Stuart and his courtiers ever came back to London they would return sobered and chastened, taught wisdom by adversity. The Puritan spirit would reign once more in the land, and an age of penitence and Lenten self-abasement would succeed the orgies of the Restoration; while the light loves of Whitehall, the noble ladies, the impudent actresses, would vanish into obscurity. Angela’s loyal young heart was full of faith in the King. She was ready to believe that his sins were the sins of a man whose head had been turned by the sudden change from exile to a throne, from poverty to wealth, from dependence upon his Bourbon cousin and his friends in Holland to the lavish subsidies of a too-indulgent Commons.
No words could paint the desolation which reigned between the Strand and the City in that fatal summer, now drawing to its melancholy close. More than once in her brief pilgrimage Angela drew back, shuddering, from the embrasure of a door, or the inlet to some narrow alley, at sight of death lying on the threshold, stiff, stark, unheeded; more than once in her progress from the New Exchange to St Paul’s she heard the shrill wail of women lamenting for a soul just departed. Death was about and around her. The great bell of the cathedral tolled with an inexorable stroke in the summer stillness, as it had tolled every day through those long months of heat, and drought, and ever-growing fear, and ever-thickening graves.
Eastward there rose the red glare of a great fire, and she feared that some of those old wooden houses in the narrower streets were blazing, but on inquiry of a solitary foot passenger, she learnt that this fire was one of many which had been burning for three days, at street corners and in open spaces, at a great expense of sea-coal, with the hope of purifying the atmosphere and dispersing poisonous gases — but that so far no amelioration had followed upon this outlay and labour. She came presently to a junction of roads near the Fleet ditch, and saw the huge coal-fire flaming with a sickly glare in the sunshine, tended by a spectral figure, half-clad and hungry-looking, to whom she gave an alms; and at this juncture of ways a great peril awaited her, for there sprang, as it were, out of the very ground, so quickly did they assemble from neighbouring courts and alleys, a throng of mendicants, who clustered round her, with filthy hands outstretched, and shrill voices imploring charity. So wasted were their half-naked limbs, so ghastly and livid their countenances, that they might have all been plague-patients, and Angela recoiled from them in horror.
“Keep your distance, for pity’s sake, good friends, and I will give you all the money I carry,” she exclaimed, and there was something of command in her voice and aspect, as she stood before them, straight and tall, with pale, earnest face.
They fell off a little way, and waited till she scattered the contents of her purse — small Flemish coin — upon the ground in front of her, where they scrambled for it, snarling and scuffling with each other like dogs fighting for a bone.
Hastening her footsteps after the horror of that encounter, she went by Ludgate Hill to the great cathedral, keeping carefully to the middle of the street, and glancing at the walls and shuttered casements on either side of her, recalling that appalling story which the Italian choir-mistress at the Ursulines had told her of the great plague in Milan — how one morning the walls and doors of many houses in the city had been found smeared with some foul substance, in broad streaks of white and yellow, which was believed to be a poisonous compost carrying contagion to every creature who touched or went within the influence of its mephitic odour; how this thing had happened not once, but many times; until the Milanese believed that Satan himself was the prime mover in this horror, and that there were a company of wretches who had sold themselves to the devil, and were his servants and agents, spreading disease and death through the city. Strange tales were told of those who had seen the foul fiend face to face, and had refused his proffered gold. Innocent men were denounced, and but narrowly escaped being torn limb from limb, or trampled to death, under the suspicion of being concerned in this anointing of the walls, and even the cathedral benches, with plague-poison; yet no death, that the nun could remember, had ever been traced directly to the compost. It was a mysterious terror which struck deep into the hearts of a frightened people, so that at last, against his better reason, and at the repeated prayer of his flock, the good Archbishop allowed the crystal coffin of St. Carlo Borromeo to be carried in solemn procession, upon the shoulders of Cardinals, from end to end of the city — on which occasion all Milan crowded into the streets, and clustered thick on either side of the pompous train of monks and incense-bearers, priests and acolytes. But soon there fell a deeper despair upon the inhabitants of the doomed city; for within two days after this solemn carrying of the saintly remains the death-rate had tripled and there was scarce a house in which the contagion had not entered. Then it was said that the anointers had been in active work in the midst of the crowd, and had been busiest in the public squares where the bearers of the crystal coffin halted for a space with their sacred load, and where the people clustered thickest. The Archbishop had foreseen the danger of this gathering of the people, many but just recovering from the disease, many infected and unconscious of their state; but his flock saw only the handiwork of the fiend in this increase of evil.
In Protestant London there had been less inclination to superstition; yet even here a comet which, under ordinary circumstances, would have appeared but as other comets, was thought to wear the shape of a fiery sword stretched over the city in awful threatening.
Full of pity and of gravest, saddest thoughts, the lonely girl walked through the lonely town to that part of the city where the streets were narrowest, a labyrinth of lanes and alleys, with a church-tower or steeple rising up amidst the crowded dwellings at almost every point to which the eye looked. Angela wondered at the sight of so many fine churches in this heretical land. Many of these city churches were left open in this day of wrath, so that unhappy souls who had a mind to pray might go in at will, and kneel there. Angela peered in at an old church in a narrow court, holding the door a little way ajar, and looking along the cold grey nave. All was gloom and silence, save for a monotonous and suppressed murmur of one invisible worshipper in a pew near the altar, who varied his supplicatory mutterings with long-drawn sighs.
Angela turned with a shudder from the cold emptiness of the great grey church, with its sombre woodwork, and lack of all those beautiful forms which appeal to the heart and imagination in a Romanist temple. She thought how in Flanders there would have been tapers burning, and censors swinging, and the rolling thunder of the organ pealing along the vaulted roof in the solemn strains of a Dies Irae, lifting the soul of the worshipper into the far-off heaven of the world beyond death, soothing the sorrowful heart with visions of eternal bliss.
She wandered through the maze of streets and lanes, sometimes coming back unawares to a street she had lately traversed, till at last she came to a church that was not silent, for through the open door she heard a voice within, preaching or praying. She hesitated for a few minutes on the threshold, having been taught that it was a sin to enter a Protestant church; and then something within her, some new sense of independence and revolt against old traditions, moved her to enter, and take her place quietly in one of the curious wooden boxes where the sparse congregation were seated, listening to a man in a Geneva gown, who was preaching in a tall oaken pulpit, surmounted by a massive sounding-board, and furnished with a crimson velvet cushion, which the preacher used with great effect during his discourse, now folding his arms upon it and leaning forward to argue familiarly with his flock, now stretching a long, lean arm above it to point a denouncing finger at the sinners below, anon belabouring it severely in the passion of his eloquence.
The flock was small, but devout, consisting for the most part of middle-aged and elderly persons in sombre attire and of Puritanical aspect; for the preacher was one of those Calvinistic clergy of Cromwell’s time who had been lately evicted from their pulpits, and prosecuted for assembling congregations under the roofs of private citizens, and had shown a noble perseverance in serving God in circumstances of peculiar difficulty. And now, though the Primate had remained at his post, unfaltering and unafraid, many of the orthodox shepherds had fled and left their sheep, being too careful of their own tender persons to remain in the plague-stricken town and minister to the sick and dying; whereupon the evicted clergy had in some cases taken possession of the deserted pulpits and the silent churches, and were preaching Christ’s Gospel to that remnant of the faithful which feared not to assemble in the House of God.
Angela listened to a sermon marked by a rough eloquence which enchained her attention and moved her heart. It was not difficult to utter heart-stirring words or move the tender breast to pity when the Preacher’s theme was death; with all its train of attendant agonies; its partings and farewells; its awful suddenness, as shown in this pestilence, where a young man rejoicing in his health and strength at noontide sees, as the sun slopes westward, the death-tokens on his bosom, and is lying dumb and stark at night-fall; where the joyous maiden is surprised in the midst of her mirth by the apparition of the plague-spot, and in a few hours is lifeless clay. The Preacher dwelt upon the sins and follies and vanities of the inhabitants of that great city; their alacrity in the pursuit of pleasure; their slackness in the service of God.
“A man who will give twenty shillings for a pair of laced gloves to a pretty shopwoman at the New Exchange, will grudge a crown for the maintenance of God’s people that are in distress; and one who is not hardy enough to walk half a mile to church, will stand for a whole afternoon in the pit of a theatre, to see painted women-actors defile a stage that was evil enough in the late King’s time, but which has in these latter days sunk to a depth of infamy that it befits not me to speak of in this holy place. Oh, my Brethren, out of that glittering dream which you have dreamt since his Majesty’s return, out of the groves of Baal, where you have sung and danced, and feasted, worshipping false gods, steeping your benighted souls in the vices of pagans and image-worshippers, it has pleased the God of Israel to give you a rough waking. Can you doubt that this plague, which has desolated a city, and filled many a yawning pit with the promiscuous dead, has been God’s way of chastening a profligate people, a people caring only for fleshly pleasures, for rich meats and strong wines, for fine clothing and jovial company, and despising the spiritual blessings that the Almighty Father has reserved for them that love Him? Oh, my afflicted Brethren, bethink you that this pestilence is a chastisement upon a blind and foolish people; and if it strikes the innocent as well as the guilty, if it falls as heavily upon the spotless virgin as upon the hoary sinner, remember that it is not for us to measure the workings of Omnipotence with the fathom-line of our earthly intellects; or to say this fair girl should be spared, and that hoary sinner taken. Has not the Angel of Death ever chosen the fairest blossoms? His business is to people the skies rather than to depopulate the earth. The innocent are taken, but the warning is for the guilty; for the sinners whose debaucheries have made this world so polluted a place that God’s greatest mercy to the pure is an early death. The call is loud and instant, a call to repentance and sacrifice. Let each bear his portion of suffering with patience, as under that wise rule of a score years past each family forewent a weekly meal to help those who needed bread. Let each acknowledge his debt to God, and be content to have paid it in a season of universal sorrow.”
And then the Preacher turned from that awful image of an angry and avenging God to contemplate Divine compassion in the Redeemer of mankind — godlike power joined with human love. He preached of Christ the Saviour with a fulness and a force which were new to Angela. He held up that commanding, that touching image, unobscured by any other personality. All those surrounding figures which Angela had seen crowded around the godlike form, all those sufferings and virtues of the spotless Mother of God were ignored in that impassioned oration. The preacher held up Christ crucified, Him only, as the fountain of pity and pardon. He reduced Christianity to its simplest elements, primitive as when the memory of the God-man was yet fresh in the minds of those who had seen the Divine countenance and listened to the Divine voice; and Angela felt as she had never felt before the singleness and purity of the Christian’s faith.
It was the day of long sermons, when a preacher who measured his discourse by the sands of an hour-glass was deemed moderate. Among the Nonconformists there were those who turned the glass, and let the flood of eloquence flow on far into the second hour. The old man had been preaching a long time when Angela awoke as from a dream, and remembered that sick-chamber where duty called her. She left the church quietly and hurried westward, guided chiefly by the sun, till she found herself once more in the Strand; and very soon afterwards she was ringing the bell at the chief entrance of Fareham House. She returned far more depressed in spirits than she went out, for all the horror of the plague-stricken city was upon her; and, fresh from the spectacle of death, she felt less hopeful of Lord Fareham’s recovery.
Thomas Stokes opened the great door to admit that one modest figure, a door which looked as if it should open only to noble visitors, to a procession of courtiers and court beauties, in the fitful light of wind-blown torches. Thomas, when interrogated, was not cheerful in his account of the patient’s health during Angela’s absence. My lord had been strangely disordered; Mrs. Basset had found the fever increasing, and was “afeared the gentleman was relapsing.”
Angela’s heart sickened at the thought. The Preacher had dwelt on the sudden alternations of the disease, how apparent recovery was sometimes the precursor of death. She hurried up the stairs, and through the seemingly endless suite of rooms which nobody wanted, which never might be inhabited again perhaps, except by bats and owls, to his lordship’s chamber, and found him sitting up in bed, with his eyes fixed on the door by which she entered.
“At last!” he cried. “Why did you inflict such torturing apprehensions upon me? This woman has been telling me of the horrors of the streets where you have been; and I figured you stricken suddenly with this foul malady, creeping into some deserted alley to expire uncared for, dying with your head upon a stone, lying there to be carried off by the dead-cart. You must not leave this house again, save for the coach that shall fetch you to Oxfordshire to join Hyacinth and her children — and that coach shall start to-morrow. I am a madman to have let you stay so long in this infected house.”
“You forget that I am plague-proof,” she answered, throwing off hood and cloak, and going to his bedside, to the chair in which she had spent many hours watching by him and praying for him.
No, there was no relapse. He had only been restless and uneasy because of her absence. The disease was conquered, the pest-spots were healing fairly, and his nurses had only to contend against the weakness and depression which seemed but the natural sequence of the malady.
Dr. Hodgkin was satisfied with his patient’s progress. He had written to Lady Fareham, advising her to send some of her servants with horses for his lordship’s coach, and to provide for relays of post-horses between London and Oxfordshire, a matter of easier accomplishment than it would have been in the earlier summer, when the quality were flying to the country, and post-horses were at a premium. Now there were but few people of rank or standing who had the courage to stay in town, like the Archbishop, who had not left Lambeth, or the stout old Duke of Albemarle, at the Cockpit, who feared the pestilence no more than he feared sword or cannon.
Two of his lordship’s lackeys, and his Oxfordshire major-domo and clerk of the kitchen, arrived a week after Angela’s landing, bringing loving letters from Hyacinth to her husband and sister. The physician had so written as not to scare the wife. She had been told that her husband had been ill, but was in a fair way to recovery, and would post to Oxfordshire as soon as he was strong enough for the journey, carrying his sister-in-law with him, and lying at the accustomed inn at High Wycombe, or perchance resting two nights and spending three days upon the road.
That was a happy day for Angela when her patient was well enough to start on his journey. She had been longing to see her sister and the children, longing still more intensely to escape from the horror of that house, where death had seemed to lie in ambush behind the tapestry hangings, and where few of her hours had been free from a great fear. Even while Fareham was on the high-road to recovery there had been in her mind the ever-present dread of a relapse. She rejoiced with fear and trembling, and was almost afraid to believe physician and nurse when they assured her that all danger was over.
The pestilence had passed by, and they went out in the sunshine, in the freshness of a September morning, balmy, yet cool, with a scent of flowers from the gardens of Lambeth and Bankside blowing across the river. Even this terrible London, the forsaken city, looked fair in the morning light; her palaces and churches, her streets of heavily timbered houses, their projecting windows enriched with carved wood and wrought iron — streets that recalled the days of the Tudors and even suggested an earlier and rougher age, when the French King rode in all honour, albeit a prisoner, at his conqueror’s side; or later, when fallen Richard, shorn of all royal dignity, rode abject and forlorn through the city, and caps were flung up for his usurping cousin. But oh, the horror of closed shops and deserted houses, and pestiferous wretches running by the coach door in their poisonous rags, begging alms, whenever the horses went slowly, in those narrow streets that lay between Fareham House and Westminster!
To Angela’s wondering eyes Westminster Hall and the Abbey offered a new idea of magnificence, so grandly placed, so dignified in their antiquity. Fareham watched her eager countenance as the great family coach, which had been sent up from Oxfordshire for his accommodation, moved ponderously westward, past the Chancellor’s new palace, and other new mansions, to the Hercules Pillars Inn, past Knightsbridge and Kensington, and then northward by rustic lanes, and through the village of Ealing to the Oxford road.
The family coach was as big as a small parlour, and afforded ample room for the convalescent to recline at his ease on one seat, while Angela and the steward, a confidential servant with the manners of a courtier, sat side by side upon the other.
They had the two spaniels with them, Puck and Ganymede, silky-haired little beasts, black and tan, with bulging foreheads, crowded with intellect, pug noses so short as hardly to count for noses, goggle eyes that expressed shrewdness, greediness, and affection. Puck snuggled cosily in the soft lace of his lordship’s shirt; Ganymede sat and blinked at the sunshine from Angela’s lap. Both snarled at Mr. Manningtree, the steward, and resented the slightest familiarity on his part.
Lord Fareham’s thoughtful face brightened with its rare smile — half amused, half cynical — as he watched Angela’s eager looks, devouring every object on the road.
“Those grave eyes look at our London grandeurs with a meek wonder, something as thy namesake an angel might look upon the splendours of Babylon. You can remember nothing of yonder palace, or senate house, or Abbey, I think, child?”
“Yes, I remember the Abbey, though it looked different then. I saw it through a cloud of falling snow. It was all faint and dim there. There were soldiers in the streets, and it was bitter cold; and my father sat in the coach with his elbows on his knees and his face hidden in his hands. And when I spoke to him, and tried to pull his hands away — for I was afraid of that hidden face — he shook me off and groaned aloud. Oh, such a harrowing groan! I should have thought him mad had I known what madness meant; but I know not what I thought. I remember only that I was frightened. And later, when I asked him why he was sorry, he said it was for the King.”
“Ay, poor King! We have all supped full of sorrow for his sake. We have cursed and hated his enemies, and drawn and quartered their vile carcases, and have dug them out of the darkness where the worms were eating them. We have been distraught with indignation, cruel in our fury; and I look back to-day, after fifteen years, and see but too clearly now that Charles Stuart’s death lies at one man’s door.”
“At Cromwell’s? At Bradshaw’s?”
“No, child; at his own. Cromwell would have never been heard of, save in Huntingdon Market-place, as a God-fearing yeoman, had Charles been strong and true. The King’s weakness was Cromwell’s opportunity. He dug his own grave with false promises, with shilly-shally, with an inimitable talent for always doing the wrong thing and choosing the wrong road. Open not so wide those reproachful eyes. Oh, I grant you, he was a noble king, a king of kings to walk in a royal procession, to sit upon a daïs under a velvet and gold canopy, to receive ambassadors, and patronise foreign painters, and fulfil all that is splendid and stately in ideal kingship. He was an adoring husband — confiding to simplicity — a kind father, a fond friend, though never a firm one.”
“Oh, surely, surely you loved him?”
“Not as your father loved him, for I never suffered with him. It was those who sacrificed the most who loved him best, those who were with him to the end, long after common sense told them his cause was hopeless; indeed, I believe my father knew as much at Nottingham, when that luckless standard was blown down in the tempest. Those who starved for him, and lay out on barren moors through the cold English nights for him, and wore their clothes threadbare and their shoes into holes for him, and left wife and children, and melted their silver and squandered their gold for him — those are the men who love his memory dearest, and for whose poor sakes we of the younger generation must make believe to think him a saint and a martyr.”
“Oh, my lord, say not that you think him a bad man!”
“Bad! Nay, I believe that all his instincts were virtuous and honourable, and that — until the whirlwind of those latter days in which he scarce knew what he was doing — he meant fairly by his people, and had their welfare at heart. He might have done far better for himself and others had he been a brave bad man like Wentworth — audacious, unscrupulous, driving straight to a fixed goal. No, Angela, he was that which is worse for mankind — an obstinate, weak man. A bundle of impulses, some good and some evil; a man who had many chances, and lost them all; who loved foolishly and too well, and let himself be ruled by a wife who could not rule herself. Blind impulse, passionate folly were sailing the State ship through that sea of troubles which could be crossed but by a navigator as politic, profound, and crafty as Richelieu or Mazarin. Who can wonder that the Royal Charles went down?”
“It must seem strange to you, looking back from the Court, as Hyacinth’s letters have painted it — to that time of trouble?”
“Strange! I stand in the crowd at Whitehall sometimes, amidst their masking and folly, their frolic schemes, their malice, their jeering wit and riotous merriment, and wonder whether it is all a dream, and I shall wake and see the England of ‘44, the year Henrietta Maria vanished — a discrowned fugitive, from the scene where she had lived to do harm. I look along the perspective of painted faces and flowing hair, jewels, and gay colours, towards that window through which Charles I. walked to his bloody death, suffered with a kingly grandeur that made the world forget all that was poor and petty in his life; and I wonder does anyone else recall that suffering or reflect upon that doom. Not one! Each has his jest, and his mistress — the eyes he worships, the lips he adores. It is only the rural Put that feels himself lost in the crowd whose thoughts turn sadly to the sad past.”
“Yet whatever your lordship may say ——”
“Tush, child, I am no lordship to you! Call me brother, or Fareham; and never talk to me as if I were anything else than your brother in affection.”
“It is sweet to hear you say so much, sir,” she answered gently. “I have often envied my companions at the Ursulines when they talked of their brothers. It was so strange to hear them tell of bickering and ill-will between brother and sister. Had God given me a brother, I would not quarrel with him.”
“Nor shall thou quarrel with me, sweetheart; but we will be fast friends always. Do I not owe thee my life?”
“I will not hear you say so; it is blasphemy against your Creator, who relented and spared you.”
“What! you think that Omnipotence, in the inaccessible mystery of Heaven, keeps the muster-roll of earth open before Him, and reckons each little life as it drops off the list? That is hardly my notion of Divinity. I see the Almighty rather as the Roman poet saw Him — an inexorable Father, hurling the thunderbolt our folly has deserved from His red right hand, yet merciful to stay that hand when we have taken our punishment meekly. That, Angela, is the nearest my mind can reach to the idea of a personal God. But do not bend those pencilled brows with such a sad perplexity. You know, doubtless, that I come of a Catholic family, and was bred in the old faith. Alas! I have conformed ill to Church discipline. I am no theologian, nor quite an infidel, and should be as much at sea in an argument with Hobbes as with Bossuet. Trouble not thy gentle spirit for my sins of thought or deed. Your tender care has given me time to repent all my errors. You were going to tell my lordship something, when I chid you for excess of ceremony —”
“Nay, sir — brother, I had but to say that this wicked Court, of which my father and you have spoken so ill, can scarcely fail to be turned from its sins by so terrible a visitation. Those who have looked upon the city as I saw it a week ago can scarce return with unchastened hearts to feasting and dancing and idle company.”
“But the beaux and belles of Whitehall have not seen the city as my brave girl saw it,” cried Fareham.
“They have not met the dead-cart, nor heard the groans of the dying, nor seen the red cross upon the doors. They made off with the first rumour of peril. The roads were crowded with their coaches, their saddle-horses, their furniture and finery; one could scarce command a post-horse for love or money. ‘A thousand less this week,’ says one. ‘We may be going back to town and have the theatres open again in the cold weather.’”
They dined at the Crown, at Uxbridge, which was that “fair house at the end of the town” provided for the meeting of the late King’s Commissioners with the representatives of the Parliament in the year ‘44. Fareham showed his sister-in-law a spacious panelled parlour, which was that “fair room in the middle of the house” that had been handsomely dressed up for the Commissioners to sit in.
They pushed on to High Wycombe before night-fall, and supped tête-à-tête in the best room of the inn, with Fareham’s faithful Manningtree to bring in the chief dish, and the people of the house to wait upon them. They were very friendly and happy together, Fareham telling his companion much of his adventurous life in France, and how in the first Fronde war he had been on the side of Queen and Minister, and afterwards, for love and admiration of Condé, had joined the party of the Princes.
“Well, it was a time worth living in — a good education for the boy-king, Louis, for it showed him that the hereditary ruler of a great nation has something more to do than to be born, and to exist, and to spend money.”
Lord Fareham described the shining lights of that brilliant court with a caustic tongue; but he was more indulgent to the follies of the Palais Royal and the Louvre than he had been to the debaucheries of Whitehall.
“There is a grace even in their vices,” he said. “Their wit is lighter, and there is more mind in their follies. Our mirth is vulgar even when it is not bestial. I know of no Parisian adventure so degrading as certain pranks of Buckhurst’s, which I would not dare mention in your hearing. We imitate them, and out-herod Herod, but we are never like them. We send to Paris for our clothes, and borrow their newest words — for they are ever inventing some cant phrase to startle dulness — and we make our language a foreign farrago. Why, here is even plain John Evelyn, that most pious of pedants, pleading for the enlistment of a troop of Gallic substantives and adjectives to eke out our native English!”
Fareham told Angela much of his past life during the freedom of that long tête-à-tête, talking to her as if she had indeed been a young sister from whom he had been separated since her childhood. That mild, pensive manner promised sympathy and understanding, and he unconsciously inclined to confide his thoughts and opinions to her, as well as the history of his youth.
He had fought at Edgehill as a lad of thirteen, had been with the King at Beverley, York, and Nottingham, and had only left the Court to accompany the Prince of Wales to Jersey, and afterwards to Paris.
“I soon sickened of a Court life and its petty plots and parlour intrigues,” he told Angela, “and was glad to join Condé‘s army, where my father’s influence got me a captaincy before I was eighteen. To fight under such a leader as that was to serve under the god of war. I can imagine Mars himself no grander soldier. Oh, my dear, what a man! Nay, I will not call him by that common name. He was something more or less than man — of another species. In the thick of the fight a lion; in his dominion over armies, in his calmness amidst danger, a god. Shall I ever see it again, I wonder — that vulture face, those eyes that flashed Jove’s red lightning?”
“Your own face changes when you speak of him,” said Angela, awe-stricken at that fierce energy which heroic memories evoked in Fareham’s wasted countenance.
“Nay, you should have seen the change in his face when he flung off the courtier for the captain. His whole being was transformed. Those who knew Condé at St. Germain, at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, at the Palais Royal, knew not the measure or the might of that great nature. He was born to conquer. But you must not think that with him victory meant brute force. It meant thought and patience, the power to foresee and to combine, the rapid apprehension of opposing circumstances, the just measure of his own materials. A strict disciplinarian, a severe master, but willing to work at the lowest details, the humblest offices of war. A soldier, did I say? He was the Genius of modern warfare.”
“You talk as if you loved him dearly.”
“I loved him as I shall never love any other man. He was my friend as well as my General. But I claim no merit in loving one whom all the world honoured. Could you have seen princes and nobles, as I saw them when I was a boy at Paris, standing on chairs, on tables, kneeling, to drink his health! A demi-god could have received no more fervent adulation. Alas! sister, I look back at those years of foreign service and know they were the best of my life!”
They started early next morning, and were within half a dozen miles of Oxford before the sun was low. They drove by a level road that skirted the river; and now, for the first time, Angela saw that river flowing placidly through a rural landscape, the rich green of marshy meadows in the foreground, and low wooded hills on the opposite bank, while midway across the stream an islet covered with reed and willow cast a shadow over the rosy water painted by the western sun.
“Are we near them now?” she asked eagerly, knowing that her brother-in-law’s mansion lay within a few miles of Oxford.
“We are very near,” answered Fareham; “I can see the chimneys, and the white stone pillars of the great gate.”
He had his head out of the carriage, looking sunward, shading his eyes with his big doe-skin gauntlet as he looked. Those two days on the road, the fresh autumn air, the generous diet, the variety and movement of the journey, had made a new man of him. Lean and gaunt he must needs be for some time to come; but the dark face was no longer bloodless; the eyes had the fire of health.
“I see the gate — and there is more than that in view!” he cried excitedly. “Your sister is coming in a troop to meet us, with her children, and visitors, and servants. Stop the coach, Manningtree, and let us out.”
The post-boys pulled up their horses, and the steward opened the coach door and assisted his master to alight. Fareham’s footsteps were somewhat uncertain as he walked slowly along the waste grass by the roadside, leaning a little upon Angela’s shoulder.
Lady Fareham came running towards them in advance of children and friends, an airy figure in blue and white, her fair hair flying in the wind, her arms stretched out as if to greet them from afar. She clasped her sister to her breast even before she saluted her husband, clasped her and kissed her, laughing between the kisses.
“Welcome, my escaped nun!” she cried. “I never thought they would let thee out of thy prison, or that thou wouldst muster courage to break thy bonds. Welcome, and a hundred times, welcome. And that thou shouldst have nursed and tended my ailing lord! Oh, the wonder of it! While I, within a hundred miles of him, knew not that he was ill, here didst thou come across seas to save him! Why, ’tis a modern fairy tale.”
“And she is the good fairy,” said Fareham, taking his wife’s face between his two hands and bending down to kiss the white forehead under its cloud of pale golden curls, “and you must cherish her for all the rest of your life. But for her I should have died alone in that great gaudy house, and the rats would have eaten me, and then perhaps you would have cared no longer for the mansion, and would have had to build another further west, by my Lord Clarendon’s, where all the fine folks are going — and that would have been a pity.”
“Oh, Fareham, do not begin with thy irony-stop! I know all your organ tones, from the tenor of your kindness to the bourdon of your displeasure. Do you think I am not glad to have you here safe and sound? Do you think I have not been miserable about you since I knew of your sickness? Monsieur de Malfort will tell you whether I have been unhappy or not.”
“Why, Malfort! What wind blew you hither at this perilous season, when Englishmen are going abroad for fear of the pestilence, and when your friend St Evremond has fled from the beauties of Oxford to the malodorous sewers and fusty fraus of the Netherlands?”
“I had no fear of the contagion, and I wanted to see my friends. I am in lodgings in Oxford, where there is almost as much good company as there ever was at Whitehall.”
The Comte de Malfort and Fareham clasped hands with a cordiality which bespoke old friendship; and it was only an instinctive recoil on the part of the Englishman which spared him his friend’s kisses. They had lived in camps and in courts together, these two, and had much in common, and much that was antagonistic, in temperament and habits, Malfort being lazy and luxurious, when no fighting was on hand; a man whose one business, when not under canvas, was to surpass everybody else in the fashion and folly of the hour, to be quite the finest gentleman in whatever company he found himself.
He was a godson and favourite of Madame de Montrond, who had numbered his father among the army of her devoted admirers. He had been Hyacinth’s playfellow and slave in her early girlhood, and had been l’ami de la maison in those brilliant years of the young King’s reign, when the Farehams were living in the Marais. To him had been permitted all privileges that a being as harmless and innocent as he was polished and elegant might be allowed, by a husband who had too much confidence in his wife’s virtue, and too good an opinion of his own merits to be easily jealous. Nor was Henri de Malfort a man to provoke jealousy by any superior gifts of mind or person. Nature had not been especially kind to him. His features were insignificant, his eyes pale, and he had not escaped that scourge of the seventeenth century, the small-pox. His pale and clear complexion was but slightly pitted, however, and his eyelids had not suffered. Men were inclined to call him ugly; women thought him interesting. His frame was badly built from the athlete’s point of view; but it had the suppleness which makes the graceful dancer, and was an elegant scaffolding on which to hang the picturesque costume of the day. For the rest, all that he was he had made himself, during those eighteen years of intelligent self-culture, which had been his engrossing occupation since his fifteenth birthday, when he determined to be one of the finest gentlemen of his epoch.
A fine gentleman at the Court of Louis had to be something more than a figure steeped in perfumes and hung with ribbons. His red-heeled shoes, his periwig and cannon sleeves, were indispensable to fashion, but not enough for fame. The favoured guest of the Hotel de Rambouillet, and of Mademoiselle de Scudèry’s “Saturdays,” must have wit and learning, or at least that capacity for smart speech and pedantic allusion which might pass current for both in a society where the critics were chiefly feminine. Henri de Malfort had graduated in a college of blue-stockings. He had grown up in an atmosphere of gunpowder and bouts rimés. He had stormed the breach at sieges where the assault was led off by a company of violins, in the Spanish fashion. He had fought with distinction under the finest soldiers in Europe, and had seen some of his dearest friends expire at his side.
Unlike Gramont and St. Évremond, he was still in the floodtide of royal favour in his own country; and it seemed a curious caprice that had led him to follow those gentlemen to England, to shine in a duller society, and sparkle at a less magnificent court.
The children hung upon their father, Papillon on one side, Cupid on the other, and it was in them rather than in her sister’s friend that Angela was interested. The girl resembled her mother only in the grace and flexibility of her slender form, the quickness of her movements, and the vivacity of her speech. Her hair and eyes were dark, like her father’s, and her colouring was that of a brunette, with something of a pale bronze under the delicate carmine of her cheeks. The boy favoured his mother, and was worthy of the sobriquet Rochester had bestowed upon him. His blue eyes, chubby cheeks, cherry lips, and golden hair were like the typical Cupid of Rubens, and might be seen repeated ad libitum on the ceiling of the Banqueting House.
“I’ll warrant this is all flummery,” said Fareham, looking down at the girl as she hung upon him. “Thou art not glad to see me.”
“I am so glad that I could eat you, as the Giant would have eaten Jack,” answered the girl, leaping up to kiss him, her hair flying back like a dark cloud, her nimble legs struggling for freedom in her long brocade petticoat.
“And you are not afraid of the contagion?”
“Afraid! Why, I wanted mother to take me to you as soon as I heard you were ill.”
“Well, I have been smoke-dried and pickled in strong waters, until Dr. Hodgkin accounts me safe, or I would not come nigh thee. See, sweetheart, this is your aunt, whom you are to love next best to your mother.”
“But not so well as you, sir. You are first,” said the child, and then turned to Angela and held up her rosebud mouth to be kissed. “You saved my father’s life,” she said. “If you ever want anybody to die for you let it be me.”
“Gud! what a delicate wit! The sweet child is positively tuant,” exclaimed a young lady, who was strolling beside them, and whom Lady Fareham had not taken the trouble to introduce by name to any one, but who was now accounted for as a country neighbour, Mrs. Dorothy Lettsome.
Angela was watching her brother-in-law as they sauntered along, and she saw that the fatigue and agitation of this meeting were beginning to affect him. He was carrying his hat in one hand, while the other caressed Papillon. There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and his footsteps began to drag a little. Happily the coach had kept a few paces in their rear, and Manningtree was walking beside it; so Angela proposed that his lordship should resume his seat in the vehicle and drive on to his house, while she went on foot with her sister.
“I must go with his lordship,” cried Papillon, and leapt into the coach before her father.
Hyacinth put her arm through Angela’s, and led her slowly along the grassy walk to the great gates, the Frenchman and Mrs. Lettsome following; and unversed as the convent-bred girl was in the ways of this particular world, she could nevertheless perceive that in the conversation between these two, M. de Malfort was amusing himself at the expense of his fair companion. His own English was by no means despicable, as he had spent more than a year, at the Embassy immediately after the Restoration, to say nothing of his constant intercourse with the Farehams and other English exiles in France; but he was encouraging the young lady to talk to him in French, which was spoken with an affected drawl, that was even more ridiculous than its errors in grammar.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50