Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XXI.

Vaulting ambition, that o’erleaps itself,

And falls on t’other side.


The splendour of the approaching revels at Kenilworth was now the conversation through all England; and everything was collected at home, or from abroad, which could add to the gaiety or glory of the prepared reception of Elizabeth at the house of her most distinguished favourite, Meantime Leicester appeared daily to advance in the Queen’s favour. He was perpetually by her side in council — willingly listened to in the moments of courtly recreation — favoured with approaches even to familiar intimacy — looked up to by all who had aught to hope at court — courted by foreign ministers with the most flattering testimonies of respect from their sovereigns — the alter ego, as it seemed, of the stately Elizabeth, who was now very generally supposed to be studying the time and opportunity for associating him, by marriage, into her sovereign power.

Amid such a tide of prosperity, this minion of fortune and of the Queen’s favour was probably the most unhappy man in the realm which seemed at his devotion. He had the Fairy King’s superiority over his friends and dependants, and saw much which they could not. The character of his mistress was intimately known to him. It was his minute and studied acquaintance with her humours, as well as her noble faculties, which, joined to his powerful mental qualities, and his eminent external accomplishments, had raised him so high in her favour; and it was that very knowledge of her disposition which led him to apprehend at every turn some sudden and overwhelming disgrace. Leicester was like a pilot possessed of a chart which points out to him all the peculiarities of his navigation, but which exhibits so many shoals, breakers, and reefs of rocks, that his anxious eye reaps little more from observing them than to be convinced that his final escape can be little else than miraculous.

In fact, Queen Elizabeth had a character strangely compounded of the strongest masculine sense, with those foibles which are chiefly supposed proper to the female sex. Her subjects had the full benefit of her virtues, which far predominated over her weaknesses; but her courtiers, and those about her person, had often to sustain sudden and embarrassing turns of caprice, and the sallies of a temper which was both jealous and despotic. She was the nursing-mother of her people, but she was also the true daughter of Henry VIII.; and though early sufferings and an excellent education had repressed and modified, they had not altogether destroyed, the hereditary temper of that “hard-ruled king.” “Her mind,” says her witty godson, Sir John Harrington, who had experienced both the smiles and the frowns which he describes, “was ofttime like the gentle air that cometh from the western point in a summer’s morn —’twas sweet and refreshing to all around her. Her speech did win all affections. And again, she could put forth such alterations, when obedience was lacking, as left no doubting whose daughter she was. When she smiled, it was a pure sunshine, that every one did choose to bask in, if they could; but anon came a storm from a sudden gathering of clouds, and the thunder fell in a wondrous manner on all alike.”18

This variability of disposition, as Leicester well knew, was chiefly formidable to those who had a share in the Queen’s affections, and who depended rather on her personal regard than on the indispensable services which they could render to her councils and her crown. The favour of Burleigh or of Walsingham, of a description far less striking than that by which he was himself upheld, was founded, as Leicester was well aware, on Elizabeth’s solid judgment, not on her partiality, and was, therefore, free from all those principles of change and decay necessarily incident to that which chiefly arose from personal accomplishments and female predilection. These great and sage statesmen were judged of by the Queen only with reference to the measures they suggested, and the reasons by which they supported their opinions in council; whereas the success of Leicester’s course depended on all those light and changeable gales of caprice and humour which thwart or favour the progress of a lover in the favour of his mistress, and she, too, a mistress who was ever and anon becoming fearful lest she should forget the dignity, or compromise the authority, of the Queen, while she indulged the affections of the woman. Of the difficulties which surrounded his power, “too great to keep or to resign,” Leicester was fully sensible; and as he looked anxiously round for the means of maintaining himself in his precarious situation, and sometimes contemplated those of descending from it in safety, he saw but little hope of either. At such moments his thoughts turned to dwell upon his secret marriage and its consequences; and it was in bitterness against himself, if not against his unfortunate Countess, that he ascribed to that hasty measure, adopted in the ardour of what he now called inconsiderate passion, at once the impossibility of placing his power on a solid basis, and the immediate prospect of its precipitate downfall.

“Men say,” thus ran his thoughts, in these anxious and repentant moments, “that I might marry Elizabeth, and become King of England. All things suggest this. The match is carolled in ballads, while the rabble throw their caps up. It has been touched upon in the schools — whispered in the presence-chamber — recommended from the pulpit — prayed for in the Calvinistic churches abroad — touched on by statists in the very council at home. These bold insinuations have been rebutted by no rebuke, no resentment, no chiding, scarce even by the usual female protestation that she would live and die a virgin princess. Her words have been more courteous than ever, though she knows such rumours are abroad — her actions more gracious, her looks more kind — nought seems wanting to make me King of England, and place me beyond the storms of court-favour, excepting the putting forth of mine own hand to take that crown imperial which is the glory of the universe! And when I might stretch that hand out most boldly, it is fettered down by a secret and inextricable bond! And here I have letters from Amy,” he would say, catching them up with a movement of peevishness, “persecuting me to acknowledge her openly — to do justice to her and to myself — and I wot not what. Methinks I have done less than justice to myself already. And she speaks as if Elizabeth were to receive the knowledge of this matter with the glee of a mother hearing of the happy marriage of a hopeful son! She, the daughter of Henry, who spared neither man in his anger nor woman in his desire — she to find herself tricked, drawn on with toys of passion to the verge of acknowledging her love to a subject, and he discovered to be a married man! — Elizabeth to learn that she had been dallied with in such fashion, as a gay courtier might trifle with a country wench — we should then see, to our ruin, furens quid faemina!”

He would then pause, and call for Varney, whose advice was now more frequently resorted to than ever, because the Earl remembered the remonstrances which he had made against his secret contract. And their consultation usually terminated in anxious deliberation how, or in what manner, the Countess was to be produced at Kenilworth. These communings had for some time ended always in a resolution to delay the Progress from day to day. But at length a peremptory decision became necessary.

“Elizabeth will not be satisfied without her presence,” said the Earl. “Whether any suspicion hath entered her mind, as my own apprehensions suggest, or whether the petition of Tressilian is kept in her memory by Sussex or some other secret enemy, I know not; but amongst all the favourable expressions which she uses to me, she often recurs to the story of Amy Robsart. I think that Amy is the slave in the chariot, who is placed there by my evil fortune to dash and to confound my triumph, even when at the highest. Show me thy device, Varney, for solving the inextricable difficulty. I have thrown every such impediment in the way of these accursed revels as I could propound even with a shade of decency, but today’s interview has put all to a hazard. She said to me kindly, but peremptorily, ‘We will give you no further time for preparations, my lord, lest you should altogether ruin yourself. On Saturday, the 9th of July, we will be with you at Kenilworth. We pray you to forget none of our appointed guests and suitors, and in especial this light-o’-love, Amy Robsart. We would wish to see the woman who could postpone yonder poetical gentleman, Master Tressilian, to your man, Richard Varney.’— Now, Varney, ply thine invention, whose forge hath availed us so often for sure as my name is Dudley, the danger menaced by my horoscope is now darkening around me.”

“Can my lady be by no means persuaded to bear for a brief space the obscure character which circumstances impose on her?” Said Varney after some hesitation.

“How, sirrah? my Countess term herself thy wife! — that may neither stand with my honour nor with hers.”

“Alas! my lord,” answered Varney, “and yet such is the quality in which Elizabeth now holds her; and to contradict this opinion is to discover all.”

“Think of something else, Varney,” said the Earl, in great agitation; “this invention is nought. If I could give way to it, she would not; for I tell thee, Varney, if thou knowest it not, that not Elizabeth on the throne has more pride than the daughter of this obscure gentleman of Devon. She is flexible in many things, but where she holds her honour brought in question she hath a spirit and temper as apprehensive as lightning, and as swift in execution.”

“We have experienced that, my lord, else had we not been thus circumstanced,” said Varney. “But what else to suggest I know not. Methinks she whose good fortune in becoming your lordship’s bride, and who gives rise to the danger, should do somewhat towards parrying it.”

“It is impossible,” said the Earl, waving his hand; “I know neither authority nor entreaties would make her endure thy name for an hour.

“It is somewhat hard, though,” said Varney, in a dry tone; and, without pausing on that topic, he added, “Suppose some one were found to represent her? Such feats have been performed in the courts of as sharp-eyed monarchs as Queen Elizabeth.”

“Utter madness, Varney,” answered the Earl; “the counterfeit would be confronted with Tressilian, and discovery become inevitable,”

“Tressilian might be removed from court,” said the unhesitating Varney.

“And by what means?”

“There are many,” said Varney, “by which a statesman in your situation, my lord, may remove from the scene one who pries into your affairs, and places himself in perilous opposition to you.”

“Speak not to me of such policy, Varney,” said the Earl hastily, “which, besides, would avail nothing in the present case. Many others there be at court to whom Amy may be known; and besides, on the absence of Tressilian, her father or some of her friends would be instantly summoned hither. Urge thine invention once more.”

“My lord, I know not what to say,” answered Varney; “but were I myself in such perplexity, I would ride post down to Cumnor Place, and compel my wife to give her consent to such measures as her safety and mine required.”

“Varney,” said Leicester, “I cannot urge her to aught so repugnant to her noble nature as a share in this stratagem; it would be a base requital to the love she bears me.”

“Well, my lord,” said Varney, “your lordship is a wise and an honourable man, and skilled in those high points of romantic scruple which are current in Arcadia perhaps, as your nephew, Philip Sidney, writes. I am your humble servitor — a man of this world, and only happy that my knowledge of it, and its ways, is such as your lordship has not scorned to avail yourself of. Now I would fain know whether the obligation lies on my lady or on you in this fortunate union, and which has most reason to show complaisance to the other, and to consider that other’s wishes, conveniences, and safety?”

“I tell thee, Varney,” said the Earl, “that all it was in my power to bestow upon her was not merely deserved, but a thousand times overpaid, by her own virtue and beauty; for never did greatness descend upon a creature so formed by nature to grace and adorn it.”

“It is well, my lord, you are so satisfied,” answered Varney, with his usual sardonic smile, which even respect to his patron could not at all times subdue; “you will have time enough to enjoy undisturbed the society of one so gracious and beautiful — that is, so soon as such confinement in the Tower be over as may correspond to the crime of deceiving the affections of Elizabeth Tudor. A cheaper penalty, I presume, you do not expect.”

“Malicious fiend!” answered Leicester, “do you mock me in my misfortune? — Manage it as thou wilt.”

“If you are serious, my lord,” said Varney, “you must set forth instantly and post for Cumnor Place.”

“Do thou go thyself, Varney; the devil has given thee that sort of eloquence which is most powerful in the worst cause. I should stand self-convicted of villainy, were I to urge such a deceit. Begone, I tell thee; must I entreat thee to mine own dishonour?”

“No, my lord,” said Varney; “but if you are serious in entrusting me with the task of urging this most necessary measure, you must give me a letter to my lady, as my credentials, and trust to me for backing the advice it contains with all the force in my power. And such is my opinion of my lady’s love for your lordship, and of her willingness to do that which is at once to contribute to your pleasure and your safety, that I am sure she will condescend to bear for a few brief days the name of so humble a man as myself, especially since it is not inferior in antiquity to that of her own paternal house.”

Leicester seized on writing materials, and twice or thrice commenced a letter to the Countess, which he afterwards tore into fragments. At length he finished a few distracted lines, in which he conjured her, for reasons nearly concerning his life and honour, to consent to bear the name of Varney for a few days, during the revels at Kenilworth. He added that Varney would communicate all the reasons which rendered this deception indispensable; and having signed and sealed these credentials, he flung them over the table to Varney with a motion that he should depart, which his adviser was not slow to comprehend and to obey.

Leicester remained like one stupefied, till he heard the trampling of the horses, as Varney, who took no time even to change his dress, threw himself into the saddle, and, followed by a single servant, set off for Berkshire. At the sound the Earl started from his seat, and ran to the window, with the momentary purpose of recalling the unworthy commission with which he had entrusted one of whom he used to say he knew no virtuous property save affection to his patron. But Varney was already beyond call; and the bright, starry firmament, which the age considered as the Book of Fate, lying spread before Leicester when he opened the casement, diverted him from his better and more manly purpose.

“There they roll, on their silent but potential course,” said the Earl, looking around him, “without a voice which speaks to our ear, but not without influences which affect, at every change, the indwellers of this vile, earthly planet. This, if astrologers fable not, is the very crisis of my fate! The hour approaches of which I was taught to beware — the hour, too, which I was encouraged to hope for. A King was the word — but how? — the crown matrimonial. All hopes of that are gone — let them go. The rich Netherlands have demanded me for their leader, and, would Elizabeth consent, would yield to me their crown. And have I not such a claim even in this kingdom? That of York, descending from George of Clarence to the House of Huntingdon, which, this lady failing, may have a fair chance — Huntingdon is of my house. — But I will plunge no deeper in these high mysteries. Let me hold my course in silence for a while, and in obscurity, like a subterranean river; the time shall come that I will burst forth in my strength, and bear all opposition before me.”

While Leicester was thus stupefying the remonstrances of his own conscience, by appealing to political necessity for his apology, or losing himself amidst the wild dreams of ambition, his agent left town and tower behind him on his hasty journey to Berkshire. he also nourished high hope. He had brought Lord Leicester to the point which he had desired, of committing to him the most intimate recesses of his breast, and of using him as the channel of his most confidential intercourse with his lady. Henceforward it would, he foresaw, be difficult for his patron either to dispense with his services, or refuse his requests, however unreasonable. And if this disdainful dame, as he termed the Countess, should comply with the request of her husband, Varney, her pretended husband, must needs become so situated with respect to her, that there was no knowing where his audacity might be bounded perhaps not till circumstances enabled him to obtain a triumph, which he thought of with a mixture of fiendish feelings, in which revenge for her previous scorn was foremost and predominant. Again he contemplated the possibility of her being totally intractable, and refusing obstinately to play the part assigned to her in the drama at Kenilworth.

“Alasco must then do his part,” he said. “Sickness must serve her Majesty as an excuse for not receiving the homage of Mrs. Varney — ay, and a sore and wasting sickness it may prove, should Elizabeth continue to cast so favourable an eye on my Lord of Leicester. I will not forego the chance of being favourite of a monarch for want of determined measures, should these be necessary. Forward, good horse, forward — ambition and haughty hope of power, pleasure, and revenge strike their stings as deep through my bosom as I plunge the rowels in thy flanks. On, good horse, on — the devil urges us both forward!”

18 Nugae Antiquae, vol.i., pp.355, 356-362.

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