The dews of summer night did fall,
The moon, sweet regent of the sky,
Silver’d the walls of Cumnor Hall,
And many an oak that grew thereby.
Four apartments; which, occupied the western side of the old quadrangle at Cumnor Place, had been fitted up with extraordinary splendour. This had been the work of several days prior to that on which our story opened. Workmen sent from London, and not permitted to leave the premises until the work was finished, had converted the apartments in that side of the building from the dilapidated appearance of a dissolved monastic house into the semblance of a royal palace. A mystery was observed in all these arrangements: the workmen came thither and returned by night, and all measures were taken to prevent the prying curiosity of the villagers from observing or speculating upon the changes which were taking place in the mansion of their once indigent but now wealthy neighbour, Anthony Foster. Accordingly, the secrecy desired was so far preserved, that nothing got abroad but vague and uncertain reports, which were received and repeated, but without much credit being attached to them.
On the evening of which we treat, the new and highly-decorated suite of rooms were, for the first time, illuminated, and that with a brilliancy which might have been visible half-a-dozen miles off, had not oaken shutters, carefully secured with bolt and padlock, and mantled with long curtains of silk and of velvet, deeply fringed with gold, prevented the slightest gleam of radiance front being seen without.
The principal apartments, as we have seen, were four in number, each opening into the other. Access was given to them by a large scale staircase, as they were then called, of unusual length and height, which had its landing-place at the door of an antechamber, shaped somewhat like a gallery. This apartment the abbot had used as an occasional council-room, but it was now beautifully wainscoted with dark, foreign wood of a brown colour, and bearing a high polish, said to have been brought from the Western Indies, and to have been wrought in London with infinite difficulty and much damage to the tools of the workmen. The dark colour of this finishing was relieved by the number of lights in silver sconces which hung against the walls, and by six large and richly-framed pictures, by the first masters of the age. A massy oaken table, placed at the lower end of the apartment, served to accommodate such as chose to play at the then fashionable game of shovel-board; and there was at the other end an elevated gallery for the musicians or minstrels, who might be summoned to increase the festivity of the evening.
From this antechamber opened a banqueting-room of moderate size, but brilliant enough to dazzle the eyes of the spectator with the richness of its furniture. The walls, lately so bare and ghastly, were now clothed with hangings of sky-blue velvet and silver; the chairs were of ebony, richly carved, with cushions corresponding to the hangings; and the place of the silver sconces which enlightened the ante-chamber was supplied by a huge chandelier of the same precious metal. The floor was covered with a Spanish foot-cloth, or carpet, on which flowers and fruits were represented in such glowing and natural colours, that you hesitated to place the foot on such exquisite workmanship. The table, of old English oak, stood ready covered with the finest linen; and a large portable court-cupboard was placed with the leaves of its embossed folding-doors displayed, showing the shelves within, decorated with a full display of plate and porcelain. In the midst of the table stood a salt-cellar of Italian workmanship — a beautiful and splendid piece of plate about two feet high, moulded into a representation of the giant Briareus, whose hundred hands of silver presented to the guests various sorts of spices, or condiments, to season their food withal.
The third apartment was called the withdrawing-room. It was hung with the finest tapestry, representing the fall of Phaeton; for the looms of Flanders were now much occupied on classical subjects. The principal seat of this apartment was a chair of state, raised a step or two from the floor, and large enough to contain two persons. It was surmounted by a canopy, which, as well as the cushions, side-curtains, and the very footcloth, was composed of crimson velvet, embroidered with seed-pearl. On the top of the canopy were two coronets, resembling those of an earl and countess. Stools covered with velvet, and some cushions disposed in the Moorish fashion, and ornamented with Arabesque needle-work, supplied the place of chairs in this apartment, which contained musical instruments, embroidery frames, and other articles for ladies’ pastime. Besides lesser lights, the withdrawing-room was illuminated by four tall torches of virgin wax, each of which was placed in the grasp of a statue, representing an armed Moor, who held in his left arm a round buckler of silver, highly polished, interposed betwixt his breast and the light, which was thus brilliantly reflected as from a crystal mirror.
The sleeping chamber belonging to this splendid suite of apartments was decorated in a taste less showy, but not less rich, than had been displayed in the others. Two silver lamps, fed with perfumed oil, diffused at once a delicious odour and a trembling twilight-seeming shimmer through the quiet apartment. It was carpeted so thick that the heaviest step could not have been heard, and the bed, richly heaped with down, was spread with an ample coverlet of silk and gold; from under which peeped forth cambric sheets and blankets as white as the lambs which yielded the fleece that made them. The curtains were of blue velvet, lined with crimson silk, deeply festooned with gold, and embroidered with the loves of Cupid and Psyche. On the toilet was a beautiful Venetian mirror, in a frame of silver filigree, and beside it stood a gold posset-dish to contain the night-draught. A pair of pistols and a dagger, mounted with gold, were displayed near the head of the bed, being the arms for the night, which were presented to honoured guests, rather, it may be supposed, in the way of ceremony than from any apprehension of danger. We must not omit to mention, what was more to the credit of the manners of the time, that in a small recess, illuminated by a taper, were disposed two hassocks of velvet and gold, corresponding with the bed furniture, before a desk of carved ebony. This recess had formerly been the private oratory of the abbot; but the crucifix was removed, and instead there were placed on the desk, two Books of Common Prayer, richly bound, and embossed with silver. With this enviable sleeping apartment, which was so far removed from every sound save that of the wind sighing among the oaks of the park, that Morpheus might have coveted it for his own proper repose, corresponded two wardrobes, or dressing-rooms as they are now termed, suitably furnished, and in a style of the same magnificence which we have already described. It ought to be added, that a part of the building in the adjoining wing was occupied by the kitchen and its offices, and served to accommodate the personal attendants of the great and wealthy nobleman, for whose use these magnificent preparations had been made.
The divinity for whose sake this temple had been decorated was well worthy the cost and pains which had been bestowed. She was seated in the withdrawing-room which we have described, surveying with the pleased eye of natural and innocent vanity the splendour which had been so suddenly created, as it were, in her honour. For, as her own residence at Cumnor Place formed the cause of the mystery observed in all the preparations for opening these apartments, it was sedulously arranged that, until she took possession of them, she should have no means of knowing what was going forward in that part of the ancient building, or of exposing herself to be seen by the workmen engaged in the decorations. She had been, therefore, introduced on that evening to a part of the mansion which she had never yet seen, so different from all the rest that it appeared, in comparison, like an enchanted palace. And when she first examined and occupied these splendid rooms, it was with the wild and unrestrained joy of a rustic beauty who finds herself suddenly invested with a splendour which her most extravagant wishes had never imagined, and at the same time with the keen feeling of an affectionate heart, which knows that all the enchantment that surrounds her is the work of the great magician Love.
The Countess Amy, therefore — for to that rank she was exalted by her private but solemn union with England’s proudest Earl — had for a time flitted hastily from room to room, admiring each new proof of her lover and her bridegroom’s taste, and feeling that admiration enhanced as she recollected that all she gazed upon was one continued proof of his ardent and devoted affection. “How beautiful are these hangings! How natural these paintings, which seem to contend with life! How richly wrought is that plate, which looks as if all the galleons of Spain had been intercepted on the broad seas to furnish it forth! And oh, Janet!” she exclaimed repeatedly to the daughter of Anthony Foster, the close attendant, who, with equal curiosity, but somewhat less ecstatic joy, followed on her mistress’s footsteps —“oh, Janet! how much more delightful to think that all these fair things have been assembled by his love, for the love of me! and that this evening — this very evening, which grows darker every instant, I shall thank him more for the love that has created such an unimaginable paradise, than for all the wonders it contains.”
“The Lord is to be thanked first,” said the pretty Puritan, “who gave thee, lady, the kind and courteous husband whose love has done so much for thee. I, too, have done my poor share. But if you thus run wildly from room to room, the toil of my crisping and my curling pins will vanish like the frost-work on the window when the sun is high.”
“Thou sayest true, Janet,” said the young and beautiful Countess, stopping suddenly from her tripping race of enraptured delight, and looking at herself from head to foot in a large mirror, such as she had never before seen, and which, indeed, had few to match it even in the Queen’s palace —“thou sayest true, Janet!” she answered, as she saw, with pardonable self-applause, the noble mirror reflect such charms as were seldom presented to its fair and polished surface; “I have more of the milk-maid than the countess, with these cheeks flushed with haste, and all these brown curls, which you laboured to bring to order, straying as wild as the tendrils of an unpruned vine. My falling ruff is chafed too, and shows the neck and bosom more than is modest and seemly. Come, Janet; we will practise state — we will go to the withdrawing-room, my good girl, and thou shalt put these rebel locks in order, and imprison within lace and cambric the bosom that beats too high.”
They went to the withdrawing apartment accordingly, where the Countess playfully stretched herself upon the pile of Moorish cushions, half sitting, half reclining, half wrapt in her own thoughts, half listening to the prattle of her attendant.
While she was in this attitude, and with a corresponding expression betwixt listlessness and expectation on her fine and intelligent features, you might have searched sea and land without finding anything half so expressive or half so lovely. The wreath of brilliants which mixed with her dark-brown hair did not match in lustre the hazel eye which a light-brown eyebrow, pencilled with exquisite delicacy, and long eyelashes of the same colour, relieved and shaded. The exercise she had just taken, her excited expectation and gratified vanity, spread a glow over her fine features, which had been sometimes censured (as beauty as well as art has her minute critics) for being rather too pale. The milk-white pearls of the necklace which she wore, the same which she had just received as a true-love token from her husband, were excelled in purity by her teeth, and by the colour of her skin, saving where the blush of pleasure and self-satisfaction had somewhat stained the neck with a shade of light crimson. —“Now, have done with these busy fingers, Janet,” she said to her handmaiden, who was still officiously employed in bringing her hair and her dress into order —“have done, I say. I must see your father ere my lord arrives, and also Master Richard Varney, whom my lord has highly in his esteem — but I could tell that of him would lose him favour.”
“Oh, do not do so, good my lady!” replied Janet; “leave him to God, who punishes the wicked in His own time; but do not you cross Varney’s path, for so thoroughly hath he my lord’s ear, that few have thriven who have thwarted his courses.”
“And from whom had you this, my most righteous Janet?” said the Countess; “or why should I keep terms with so mean a gentleman as Varney, being as I am, wife to his master and patron?”
“Nay, madam,” replied Janet Foster, “your ladyship knows better than I; but I have heard my father say he would rather cross a hungry wolf than thwart Richard Varney in his projects. And he has often charged me to have a care of holding commerce with him.”
“Thy father said well, girl, for thee,” replied the lady, “and I dare swear meant well. It is a pity, though, his face and manner do little match his true purpose — for I think his purpose may be true.”
“Doubt it not, my lady,” answered Janet —“doubt not that my father purposes well, though he is a plain man, and his blunt looks may belie his heart.”
“I will not doubt it, girl, were it only for thy sake; and yet he has one of those faces which men tremble when they look on. I think even thy mother, Janet — nay, have done with that poking-iron — could hardly look upon him without quaking.”
“If it were so, madam,” answered Janet Foster, “my mother had those who could keep her in honourable countenance. Why, even you, my lady, both trembled and blushed when Varney brought the letter from my lord.”
“You are bold, damsel,” said the Countess, rising from the cushions on which she sat half reclined in the arms of her attendant. “Know that there are causes of trembling which have nothing to do with fear. — But, Janet,” she added, immediately relapsing into the good-natured and familiar tone which was natural to her, “believe me, I will do what credit I can to your father, and the rather that you, sweetheart, are his child. Alas! alas!” she added, a sudden sadness passing over her fine features, and her eyes filling with tears, “I ought the rather to hold sympathy with thy kind heart, that my own poor father is uncertain of my fate, and they say lies sick and sorrowful for my worthless sake! But I will soon cheer him — the news of my happiness and advancement will make him young again. And that I may cheer him the sooner”— she wiped her eyes as she spoke —“I must be cheerful myself. My lord must not find me insensible to his kindness, or sorrowful, when he snatches a visit to his recluse, after so long an absence. Be merry, Janet; the night wears on, and my lord must soon arrive. Call thy father hither, and call Varney also. I cherish resentment against neither; and though I may have some room to be displeased with both, it shall be their own fault if ever a complaint against them reaches the Earl through my means. Call them hither, Janet.”
Janet Foster obeyed her mistress; and in a few minutes after, Varney entered the withdrawing-room with the graceful ease and unclouded front of an accomplished courtier, skilled, under the veil of external politeness, to disguise his own feelings and to penetrate those of others. Anthony Foster plodded into the apartment after him, his natural gloomy vulgarity of aspect seeming to become yet more remarkable, from his clumsy attempt to conceal the mixture of anxiety and dislike with which he looked on her, over whom he had hitherto exercised so severe a control, now so splendidly attired, and decked with so many pledges of the interest which she possessed in her husband’s affections. The blundering reverence which he made, rather at than to the Countess, had confession in it. It was like the reverence which the criminal makes to the judge, when he at once owns his guilt and implores mercy — which is at the same time an impudent and embarrassed attempt at defence or extenuation, a confession of a fault, and an entreaty for lenity.
Varney, who, in right of his gentle blood, had pressed into the room before Anthony Foster, knew better what to say than he, and said it with more assurance and a better grace.
The Countess greeted him indeed with an appearance of cordiality, which seemed a complete amnesty for whatever she might have to complain of. She rose from her seat, and advanced two steps towards him, holding forth her hand as she said, “Master Richard Varney, you brought me this morning such welcome tidings, that I fear surprise and joy made me neglect my lord and husband’s charge to receive you with distinction. We offer you our hand, sir, in reconciliation.”
“I am unworthy to touch it,” said Varney, dropping on one knee, “save as a subject honours that of a prince.”
He touched with his lips those fair and slender fingers, so richly loaded with rings and jewels; then rising, with graceful gallantry, was about to hand her to the chair of state, when she said, “No, good Master Richard Varney, I take not my place there until my lord himself conducts me. I am for the present but a disguised Countess, and will not take dignity on me until authorized by him whom I derive it from.”
“I trust, my lady,” said Foster, “that in doing the commands of my lord your husband, in your restraint and so forth, I have not incurred your displeasure, seeing that I did but my duty towards your lord and mine; for Heaven, as holy writ saith, hath given the husband supremacy and dominion over the wife — I think it runs so, or something like it.”
“I receive at this moment so pleasant a surprise, Master Foster,” answered the Countess, “that I cannot but excuse the rigid fidelity which secluded me from these apartments, until they had assumed an appearance so new and so splendid.”
“Ay lady,” said Foster, “it hath cost many a fair crown; and that more need not be wasted than is absolutely necessary, I leave you till my lord’s arrival with good Master Richard Varney, who, as I think, hath somewhat to say to you from your most noble lord and husband. — Janet, follow me, to see that all be in order.”
“No, Master Foster,” said the Countess, “we will your daughter remains here in our apartment — out of ear-shot, however, in case Varney bath ought to say to me from my lord.”
Foster made his clumsy reverence, and departed, with an aspect which seemed to grudge the profuse expense which had been wasted upon changing his house from a bare and ruinous grange to an Asiastic palace. When he was gone, his daughter took her embroidery frame, and went to establish herself at the bottom of the apartment; while Richard Varney, with a profoundly humble courtesy, took the lowest stool he could find, and placing it by the side of the pile of cushions on which the Countess had now again seated herself, sat with his eyes for a time fixed on the ground, and in pro-found silence
“I thought, Master Varney,” said the Countess, when she saw he was not likely to open the conversation, “that you had something to communicate from my lord and husband; so at least I understood Master Foster, and therefore I removed my waiting-maid. If I am mistaken, I will recall her to my side; for her needle is not so absolutely perfect in tent and cross-stitch, but that my superintendence is advisable.”
“Lady,” said Varney, “Foster was partly mistaken in my purpose. It was not from but of your noble husband, and my approved and most noble patron, that I am led, and indeed bound, to speak.”
“The theme is most welcome, sir,” said the Countess, “whether it be of or from my noble husband. But be brief, for I expect his hasty approach.”
“Briefly then, madam,” replied Varney, “and boldly, for my argument requires both haste and courage — you have this day seen Tressilian?”
“I have, sir and what of that?” answered the lady somewhat sharply.
“Nothing that concerns me, lady,” Varney replied with humility. “But, think you, honoured madam, that your lord will hear it with equal equanimity?”
“And wherefore should he not? To me alone was Tressilian’s visit embarrassing and painful, for he brought news of my good father’s illness.”
“Of your father’s illness, madam!” answered Varney. “It must have been sudden then — very sudden; for the messenger whom I dispatched, at my lord’s instance, found the good knight on the hunting field, cheering his beagles with his wonted jovial field-cry. I trust Tressilian has but forged this news. He hath his reasons, madam, as you well know, for disquieting your present happiness.”
“You do him injustice, Master Varney,” replied the Countess, with animation —“you do him much injustice. He is the freest, the most open, the most gentle heart that breathes. My honourable lord ever excepted, I know not one to whom falsehood is more odious than to Tressilian.”
“I crave your pardon, madam,” said Varney, “I meant the gentleman no injustice — I knew not how nearly his cause affected you. A man may, in some circumstances, disguise the truth for fair and honest purpose; for were it to be always spoken, and upon all occasions, this were no world to live in.”
“You have a courtly conscience, Master Varney,” said the Countess, “and your veracity will not, I think, interrupt your preferment in the world, such as it is. But touching Tressilian — I must do him justice, for I have done him wrong, as none knows better than thou. Tressilian’s conscience is of other mould — the world thou speakest of has not that which could bribe him from the way of truth and honour; and for living in it with a soiled fame, the ermine would as soon seek to lodge in the den of the foul polecat. For this my father loved him; for this I would have loved him — if I could. And yet in this case he had what seemed to him, unknowing alike of my marriage and to whom I was united, such powerful reasons to withdraw me from this place, that I well trust he exaggerated much of my father’s indisposition, and that thy better news may be the truer.”
“Believe me they are, madam,” answered Varney. “I pretend not to be a champion of that same naked virtue called truth, to the very outrance. I can consent that her charms be hidden with a veil, were it but for decency’s sake. But you must think lower of my head and heart than is due to one whom my noble lord deigns to call his friend, if you suppose I could wilfully and unnecessarily palm upon your ladyship a falsehood, so soon to be detected, in a matter which concerns your happiness.”
“Master Varney,” said the Countess, “I know that my lord esteems you, and holds you a faithful and a good pilot in those seas in which he has spread so high and so venturous a sail. Do not suppose, therefore, I meant hardly by you, when I spoke the truth in Tressilian’s vindication. I am as you well know, country-bred, and like plain rustic truth better than courtly compliment; but I must change my fashions with my sphere, I presume.”
“True, madam,” said Varney, smiling; “and though you speak now in jest, it will not be amiss that in earnest your present speech had some connection with your real purpose. A court-dame — take the most noble, the most virtuous, the most unimpeachable that stands around our Queen’s throne — would, for example, have shunned to speak the truth, or what she thought such, in praise of a discarded suitor, before the dependant and confidant of her noble husband.”
“And wherefore,” said the Countess, colouring impatiently, “should I not do justice to Tressilian’s worth, before my husband’s friend — before my husband himself — before the whole world?”
“And with the same openness,” said Varney, “your ladyship will this night tell my noble lord your husband that Tressilian has discovered your place of residence, so anxiously concealed from the world, and that he has had an interview with you?”
“Unquestionably,” said the Countess. “It will be the first thing I tell him, together with every word that Tressilian said and that I answered. I shall speak my own shame in this, for Tressilian’s reproaches, less just than he esteemed them, were not altogether unmerited. I will speak, therefore, with pain, but I will speak, and speak all.”
“Your ladyship will do your pleasure,” answered Varney; “but methinks it were as well, since nothing calls for so frank a disclosure, to spare yourself this pain, and my noble lord the disquiet, and Master Tressilian, since belike he must be thought of in the matter, the danger which is like to ensue.”
“I can see nought of all these terrible consequences,” said the lady composedly, “unless by imputing to my noble lord unworthy thoughts, which I am sure never harboured in his generous heart.”
“Far be it from me to do so,” said Varney. And then, after a moment’s silence, he added, with a real or affected plainness of manner, very different from his usual smooth courtesy, “Come, madam, I will show you that a courtier dare speak truth as well as another, when it concerns the weal of those whom he honours and regards, ay, and although it may infer his own danger.” He waited as if to receive commands, or at least permission, to go on; but as the lady remained silent, he proceeded, but obviously with caution. “Look around you,” he said, “noble lady, and observe the barriers with which this place is surrounded, the studious mystery with which the brightest jewel that England possesses is secluded from the admiring gaze. See with what rigour your walks are circumscribed. and your movement restrained at the beck of yonder churlish Foster. Consider all this, and judge for yourself what can be the cause.
“My lord’s pleasure,” answered the Countess; “and I am bound to seek no other motive.”
“His pleasure it is indeed,” said Varney; “and his pleasure arises out of a love worthy of the object which inspires it. But he who possesses a treasure, and who values it, is oft anxious, in proportion to the value he puts upon it, to secure it from the depredations of others.”
“What needs all this talk, Master Varney?” said the lady, in reply. “You would have me believe that my noble lord is jealous. Suppose it true, I know a cure for jealousy.”
“Indeed, madam?” said Varney.
“It is,” replied the lady, “to speak the truth to my lord at all times — to hold up my mind and my thoughts before him as pure as that polished mirror — so that when he looks into my heart, he shall only see his own features reflected there.”
“I am mute, madam answered Varney; “and as I have no reason to grieve for Tressilian, who would have my heart’s blood were he able, I shall reconcile myself easily to what may befall the gentleman in consequence of your frank disclosure of his having presumed to intrude upon your solitude. You, who know my lord so much better than I, will judge if he be likely to bear the insult unavenged.”
“Nay, if I could think myself the cause of Tressilian’s ruin,” said the Countess, “I who have already occasioned him so much distress, I might be brought to be silent. And yet what will it avail, since he was seen by Foster, and I think by some one else? No, no, Varney, urge it no more. I will tell the whole matter to my lord; and with such pleading for Tressilian’s folly, as shall dispose my lord’s generous heart rather to serve than to punish him.”
“Your judgment, madam,” said Varney, “is far superior to mine, especially as you may, if you will, prove the ice before you step on it, by mentioning Tressilian’s name to my lord, and observing how he endures it. For Foster and his attendant, they know not Tressilian by sight, and I can easily give them some reasonable excuse for the appearance of an unknown stranger.”
The lady paused for an instant, and then replied, “If, Varney, it be indeed true that Foster knows not as yet that the man he saw was Tressilian, I own I were unwilling he should learn what nowise concerns him. He bears himself already with austerity enough, and I wish him not to be judge or privy-councillor in my affairs.”
“Tush,” said Varney, “what has the surly groom to do with your ladyship’s concerns? — no more, surely, than the ban-dog which watches his courtyard. If he is in aught distasteful to your ladyship, I have interest enough to have him exchanged for a seneschal that shall be more agreeable to you.”
“Master Varney,” said the Countess, “let us drop this theme. When I complain of the attendants whom my lord has placed around me, it must be to my lord himself. — Hark! I hear the trampling of horse. He comes! he comes!” she exclaimed, jumping up in ecstasy.
“I cannot think it is he,” said Varney; “or that you can hear the tread of his horse through the closely-mantled casements.”
“Stop me not, Varney — my ears are keener than thine. It is he!”
“But, madam! — but, madam!” exclaimed Varney anxiously, and still placing himself in her way, “I trust that what I have spoken in humble duty and service will not be turned to my ruin? I hope that my faithful advice will not be bewrayed to my prejudice? I implore that —”
“Content thee, man — content thee!” said the Countess, “and quit my skirt — you are too bold to detain me. Content thyself, I think not of thee.”
At this moment the folding-doors flew wide open, and a man of majestic mien, muffled in the folds of a long dark riding-cloak, entered the apartment.
4 This verse is the commencement of the ballad already quoted, as what suggested the novel.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00