Kenilworth, by Sir Walter Scott

Chapter XXXIII.

Here stands the victim — there the proud betrayer,

E’en as the hind pull’d down by strangling dogs

Lies at the hunter’s feet — who courteous proffers

To some high dame, the Dian of the chase,

To whom he looks for guerdon, his sharp blade,

To gash the sobbing throat.

The Woodsman.

We are now to return to Mervyn’s Bower, the apartment, or rather the prison, of the unfortunate Countess of Leicester, who for some time kept within bounds her uncertainty and her impatience. She was aware that, in the tumult of the day, there might be some delay ere her letter could be safely conveyed to the hands of Leicester, and that some time more might elapse ere he could extricate himself from the necessary attendance on Elizabeth, to come and visit her in her secret bower. “I will not expect him,” she said, “till night; he cannot be absent from his royal guest, even to see me. He will, I know, come earlier if it be possible, but I will not expect him before night.” And yet all the while she did expect him; and while she tried to argue herself into a contrary belief, each hasty noise of the hundred which she heard sounded like the hurried step of Leicester on the staircase, hasting to fold her in his arms.

The fatigue of body which Amy had lately undergone, with the agitation of mind natural to so cruel a state of uncertainty, began by degrees strongly to affect her nerves, and she almost feared her total inability to maintain the necessary self-command through the scenes which might lie before her. But although spoiled by an over-indulgent system of education, Amy had naturally a mind of great power, united with a frame which her share in her father’s woodland exercises had rendered uncommonly healthy. She summoned to her aid such mental and bodily resources; and not unconscious how much the issue of her fate might depend on her own self-possession, she prayed internally for strength of body and for mental fortitude, and resolved at the same time to yield to no nervous impulse which might weaken either.

Yet when the great bell of the Castle, which was placed in Caesar’s Tower, at no great distance from that called Mervyn’s, began to send its pealing clamour abroad, in signal of the arrival of the royal procession, the din was so painfully acute to ears rendered nervously sensitive by anxiety, that she could hardly forbear shrieking with anguish, in answer to every stunning clash of the relentless peal.

Shortly afterwards, when the small apartment was at once enlightened by the shower of artificial fires with which the air was suddenly filled, and which crossed each other like fiery spirits, each bent on his own separate mission, or like salamanders executing a frolic dance in the region of the Sylphs, the Countess felt at first as if each rocket shot close by her eyes, and discharged its sparks and flashes so nigh that she could feel a sense of the heat. But she struggled against these fantastic terrors, and compelled herself to arise, stand by the window, look out, and gaze upon a sight which at another time would have appeared to her at once captivating and fearful. The magnificent towers of the Castle were enveloped in garlands of artificial fire, or shrouded with tiaras of pale smoke. The surface of the lake glowed like molten iron, while many fireworks (then thought extremely wonderful, though now common), whose flame continued to exist in the opposing element, dived and rose, hissed and roared, and spouted fire, like so many dragons of enchantment sporting upon a burning lake.

Even Amy was for a moment interested by what was to her so new a scene. “I had thought it magical art,” she said, “but poor Tressilian taught me to judge of such things as they are. Great God! and may not these idle splendours resemble my own hoped-for happiness — a single spark, which is instantly swallowed up by surrounding darkness — a precarious glow, which rises but for a brief space into the air, that its fall may be the lower? O Leicester! after all — all that thou hast said — hast sworn — that Amy was thy love, thy life, can it be that thou art the magician at whose nod these enchantments arise, and that she sees them as an outcast, if not a captive?”

The sustained, prolonged, and repeated bursts of music, from so many different quarters, and at so many varying points of distance, which sounded as if not the Castle of Kenilworth only, but the whole country around, had been at once the scene of solemnizing some high national festival, carried the same oppressive thought still closer to her heart, while some notes would melt in distant and falling tones, as if in compassion for her sorrows, and some burst close and near upon her, as if mocking her misery, with all the insolence of unlimited mirth. “These sounds,” she said, “are mine — mine, because they are his; but I cannot say, Be still, these loud strains suit me not; and the voice of the meanest peasant that mingles in the dance would have more power to modulate the music than the command of her who is mistress of all.”

By degrees the sounds of revelry died away, and the Countess withdrew from the window at which she had sat listening to them. It was night, but the moon afforded considerable light in the room, so that Amy was able to make the arrangement which she judged necessary. There was hope that Leicester might come to her apartment as soon as the revel in the Castle had subsided; but there was also risk she might be disturbed by some unauthorized intruder. She had lost confidence in the key since Tressilian had entered so easily, though the door was locked on the inside; yet all the additional security she could think of was to place the table across the door, that she might be warned by the noise should any one attempt to enter. Having taken these necessary precautions, the unfortunate lady withdrew to her couch, stretched herself down on it, mused in anxious expectation, and counted more than one hour after midnight, till exhausted nature proved too strong for love, for grief, for fear, nay, even for uncertainty, and she slept.

Yes, she slept. The Indian sleeps at the stake in the intervals between his tortures; and mental torments, in like manner, exhaust by long continuance the sensibility of the sufferer, so that an interval of lethargic repose must necessarily ensue, ere the pangs which they inflict can again be renewed.

The Countess slept, then, for several hours, and dreamed that she was in the ancient house at Cumnor Place, listening for the low whistle with which Leicester often used to announce his presence in the courtyard when arriving suddenly on one of his stolen visits. But on this occasion, instead of a whistle, she heard the peculiar blast of a bugle-horn, such as her father used to wind on the fall of the stag, and which huntsmen then called a mort. She ran, as she thought, to a window that looked into the courtyard, which she saw filled with men in mourning garments. The old Curate seemed about to read the funeral service. Mumblazen, tricked out in an antique dress, like an ancient herald, held aloft a scutcheon, with its usual decorations of skulls, cross-bones, and hour-glasses, surrounding a coat-of-arms, of which she could only distinguish that it was surmounted with an Earl’s coronet. The old man looked at her with a ghastly smile, and said, “Amy, are they not rightly quartered?” Just as he spoke, the horns again poured on her ear the melancholy yet wild strain of the mort, or death-note, and she awoke.

The Countess awoke to hear a real bugle-note, or rather the combined breath of many bugles, sounding not the mort. but the jolly reveille, to remind the inmates of the Castle of Kenilworth that the pleasures of the day were to commence with a magnificent stag-hunting in the neighbouring Chase. Amy started up from her couch, listened to the sound, saw the first beams of the summer morning already twinkle through the lattice of her window, and recollected, with feelings of giddy agony, where she was, and how circumstanced.

“He thinks not of me,” she said; “he will not come nigh me! A Queen is his guest, and what cares he in what corner of his huge Castle a wretch like me pines in doubt, which is fast fading into despair?” At once a sound at the door, as of some one attempting to open it softly, filled her with an ineffable mixture of joy and fear; and hastening to remove the obstacle she had placed against the door, and to unlock it, she had the precaution to ask! “Is it thou, my love?”

“Yes, my Countess,” murmured a whisper in reply.

She threw open the door, and exclaiming, “Leicester!” flung her arms around the neck of the man who stood without, muffled in his cloak.

“No — not quite Leicester,” answered Michael Lambourne, for he it was, returning the caress with vehemence —“not quite Leicester, my lovely and most loving duchess, but as good a man.”

With an exertion of force, of which she would at another time have thought herself incapable, the Countess freed herself from the profane and profaning grasp of the drunken debauchee, and retreated into the midst of her apartment. where despair gave her courage to make a stand.

As Lambourne, on entering, dropped the lap of his cloak from his face, she knew Varney’s profligate servant, the very last person, excepting his detested master, by whom she would have wished to be discovered. But she was still closely muffled in her travelling dress, and as Lambourne had scarce ever been admitted to her presence at Cumnor Place, her person, she hoped, might not be so well known to him as his was to her, owing to Janet’s pointing him frequently out as he crossed the court, and telling stories of his wickedness. She might have had still greater confidence in her disguise had her experience enabled her to discover that he was much intoxicated; but this could scarce have consoled her for the risk which she might incur from such a character in such a time, place, and circumstances.

Lambourne flung the door behind him as he entered, and folding his arms, as if in mockery of the attitude of distraction into which Amy had thrown herself, he proceeded thus: “Hark ye, most fair Calipolis — or most lovely Countess of clouts, and divine Duchess of dark corners — if thou takest all that trouble of skewering thyself together, like a trussed fowl, that there may be more pleasure in the carving, even save thyself the labour. I love thy first frank manner the best —-like thy present as little”—(he made a step towards her, and staggered)—“as little as — such a damned uneven floor as this, where a gentleman may break his neck if he does not walk as upright as a posture-master on the tight-rope.”

“Stand back!” said the Countess; “do not approach nearer to me on thy peril!”

“My peril! — and stand back! Why, how now, madam? Must you have a better mate than honest Mike Lambourne? I have been in America, girl, where the gold grows, and have brought off such a load on’t —”

“Good friend,” said the Countess, in great terror at the ruffian’s determined and audacious manner, “I prithee begone, and leave me.”

“And so I will, pretty one, when we are tired of each other’s company — not a jot sooner.” He seized her by the arm, while, incapable of further defence, she uttered shriek upon shriek. “Nay, scream away if you like it,” said he, still holding her fast; “I have heard the sea at the loudest, and I mind a squalling woman no more than a miauling kitten. Damn me! I have heard fifty or a hundred screaming at once, when there was a town stormed.”

The cries of the Countess, however, brought unexpected aid in the person of Lawrence Staples, who had heard her exclamations from his apartment below, and entered in good time to save her from being discovered, if not from more atrocious violence. Lawrence was drunk also from the debauch of the preceding night, but fortunately his intoxication had taken a different turn from that of Lambourne.

“What the devil’s noise is this in the ward?” he said. “What! man and woman together in the same cell? — that is against rule. I will have decency under my rule, by Saint Peter of the Fetters!”

“Get thee downstairs, thou drunken beast,” said Lambourne; “seest thou not the lady and I would be private?”

“Good sir, worthy sir!” said the Countess, addressing the jailer, “do but save me from him, for the sake of mercy!”

“She speaks fairly,” said the jailer, “and I will take her part. I love my prisoners; and I have had as good prisoners under my key as they have had in Newgate or the Compter. And so, being one of my lambkins, as I say, no one shall disturb her in her pen-fold. So let go the woman: or I’ll knock your brains out with my keys.”

“I’ll make a blood-pudding of thy midriff first,” answered Lambourne, laying his left hand on his dagger, but still detaining the Countess by the arm with his right. “So have at thee, thou old ostrich, whose only living is upon a bunch of iron keys.”

Lawrence raised the arm of Michael, and prevented him from drawing his dagger; and as Lambourne struggled and strove to shake him off; the Countess made a sudden exertion on her side, and slipping her hand out of the glove on which the ruffian still kept hold, she gained her liberty, and escaping from the apartment, ran downstairs; while at the same moment she heard the two combatants fall on the floor with a noise which increased her terror. The outer wicket offered no impediment to her flight, having been opened for Lambourne’s admittance; so that she succeeded in escaping down the stair, and fled into the Pleasance, which seemed to her hasty glance the direction in which she was most likely to avoid pursuit.

Meanwhile, Lawrence and Lambourne rolled on the floor of the apartment, closely grappled together. Neither had, happily, opportunity to draw their daggers; but Lawrence found space enough to clash his heavy keys across Michael’s face, and Michael in return grasped the turnkey so felly by the throat that the blood gushed from nose and mouth, so that they were both gory and filthy spectacles when one of the other officers of the household, attracted by the noise of the fray, entered the room, and with some difficulty effected the separation of the combatants.

“A murrain on you both,” said the charitable mediator, “and especially on you, Master Lambourne! What the fiend lie you here for, fighting on the floor like two butchers’ curs in the kennel of the shambles?”

Lambourne arose, and somewhat sobered by the interposition of a third party, looked with something less than his usual brazen impudence of visage. “We fought for a wench, an thou must know,” was his reply.

“A wench! Where is she?” said the officer.

“Why, vanished, I think,” said Lambourne, looking around him, “unless Lawrence hath swallowed her, That filthy paunch of his devours as many distressed damsels and oppressed orphans as e’er a giant in King Arthur’s history. They are his prime food; he worries them body, soul, and substance.”

“Ay, ay! It’s no matter,” said Lawrence, gathering up his huge, ungainly form from the floor; “but I have had your betters, Master Michael Lambourne, under the little turn of my forefinger and thumb, and I shall have thee, before all’s done, under my hatches. The impudence of thy brow will not always save thy shin-bones from iron, and thy foul, thirsty gullet from a hempen cord.” The words were no sooner out of his mouth, when Lambourne again made at him.

“Nay, go not to it again,” said the sewer, “or I will call for him shall tame you both, and that is Master Varney — Sir Richard, I mean. He is stirring, I promise you; I saw him cross the court just now.”

“Didst thou, by G—!” said Lambourne, seizing on the basin and ewer which stood in the apartment. “Nay, then, element, do thy work. I thought I had enough of thee last night, when I floated about for Orion, like a cork on a fermenting cask of ale.”

So saying, he fell to work to cleanse from his face and hands the signs of the fray, and get his apparel into some order.

“What hast thou done to him?” said the sewer, speaking aside to the jailer; “his face is fearfully swelled.”

“It is but the imprint of the key of my cabinet — too good a mark for his gallows-face. No man shall abuse or insult my prisoners; they are my jewels, and I lock them in safe casket accordingly. — And so, mistress, leave off your wailing. — Why! why, surely, there was a woman here!”

“I think you are all mad this morning,” said the sewer. “I saw no woman here, nor no man neither in a proper sense, but only two beasts rolling on the floor.”

“Nay, then I am undone,” said the jailer; “the prison’s broken, that is all. Kenilworth prison is broken,” he continued, in a tone of maudlin lamentation, “which was the strongest jail betwixt this and the Welsh Marches — ay, and a house that has had knights, and earls, and kings sleeping in it, as secure as if they had been in the Tower of London. It is broken, the prisoners fled, and the jailer in much danger of being hanged!”

So saying, he retreated down to his own den to conclude his lamentations, or to sleep himself sober. Lambourne and the sewer followed him close; and it was well for them, since the jailer, out of mere habit, was about to lock the wicket after him, and had they not been within the reach of interfering, they would have had the pleasure of being shut up in the turret-chamber, from which the Countess had been just delivered.

That unhappy lady, as soon as she found herself at liberty, fled, as we have already mentioned, into the Pleasance. She had seen this richly-ornamented space of ground from the window of Mervyn’s Tower; and it occurred to her, at the moment of her escape, that among its numerous arbours, bowers, fountains, statues, and grottoes, she might find some recess in which she could lie concealed until she had an opportunity of addressing herself to a protector, to whom she might communicate as much as she dared of her forlorn situation, and through whose means she might supplicate an interview with her husband.

“If I could see my guide,” she thought, “I would learn if he had delivered my letter. Even did I but see Tressilian, it were better to risk Dudley’s anger, by confiding my whole situation to one who is the very soul of honour, than to run the hazard of further insult among the insolent menials of this ill-ruled place. I will not again venture into an enclosed apartment. I will wait, I will watch; amidst so many human beings there must be some kind heart which can judge and compassionate what mine endures.”

In truth, more than one party entered and traversed the Pleasance. But they were in joyous groups of four or five persons together, laughing and jesting in their own fullness of mirth and lightness of heart.

The retreat which she had chosen gave her the easy alternative of avoiding observation. It was but stepping back to the farthest recess of a grotto, ornamented with rustic work and moss-seats, and terminated by a fountain, and she might easily remain concealed, or at her pleasure discover herself to any solitary wanderer whose curiosity might lead him to that romantic retirement. Anticipating such an opportunity, she looked into the clear basin which the silent fountain held up to her like a mirror, and felt shocked at her own appearance, and doubtful at; the same time, muffled and disfigured as her disguise made her seem to herself, whether any female (and it was from the compassion of her own sex that she chiefly expected sympathy) would engage in conference with so suspicious an object. Reasoning thus like a woman, to whom external appearance is scarcely in any circumstances a matter of unimportance, and like a beauty, who had some confidence in the power of her own charms, she laid aside her travelling cloak and capotaine hat, and placed them beside her, so that she could assume them in an instant, ere one could penetrate from the entrance of the grotto to its extremity, in case the intrusion of Varney or of Lambourne should render such disguise necessary. The dress which she wore under these vestments was somewhat of a theatrical cast, so as to suit the assumed personage of one of the females who was to act in the pageant, Wayland had found the means of arranging it thus upon the second day of their journey, having experienced the service arising from the assumption of such a character on the preceding day. The fountain, acting both as a mirror and ewer, afforded Amy the means of a brief toilette, of which she availed herself as hastily as possible; then took in her hand her small casket of jewels, in case she might find them useful intercessors, and retiring to the darkest and most sequestered nook, sat down on a seat of moss, and awaited till fate should give her some chance of rescue, or of propitiating an intercessor.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00