A barren title hast thou bought too dear,
Why didst thou tell me that thou wert a king?
HENRY IV. PART I.
Oliver Cromwell arose from his seat as the two veteran soldiers, Zerubbabel Robins and Merciful Strickalthrow, introduced into the apartment the prisoner, whom they held by the arms, and fixed his stern hazel eye on Albert long before he could give vent to the ideas which were swelling in his bosom. Exultation was the most predominant.
“Art not thou,” he at length said, “that Egyptian which, before these days, madest an uproar, and leddest out into the wilderness many thousand men, who were murderers! — Ha, youth, I have hunted thee from Stirling to Worcester, from Worcester to Woodstock, and we have met at last!”
“I would,” replied Albert, speaking in the character which he had assumed, “that we had met where I could have shown thee the difference betwixt a rightful King and an ambitious Usurper!”
“Go to, young man,” said Cromwell; “say rather the difference between a judge raised up for the redemption of England, and the son of those Kings whom the Lord in his anger permitted to reign over her. But we will not waste useless words. God knows that it is not of our will that we are called to such high matters, being as humble in our thoughts as we are of ourselves; and in our unassisted nature frail and foolish; and unable to render a reason but for the better spirit within us, which is not of us. — Thou art weary, young man, and thy nature requires rest and refection, being doubtless dealt with delicately, as one who hath fed on the fat, and drunk of the sweet, and who hath been clothed in purple and fine linen.”
Here the General suddenly stopt, and then abruptly exclaimed —“But is this — Ay! whom have we here? These are not the locks of the swarthy lad Charles Stewart? — A cheat! a cheat!”
Albert hastily cast his eyes on a mirror which stood in the room, and perceived that a dark peruke, found among Dr. Rochecliffe’s miscellaneous wardrobe, had been disordered in the scuffle with the soldiery, and that his own light-brown hair was escaping from beneath it.
“Who is this?” said Cromwell, stamping with fury —“Pluck the disguise from him.”
The soldiers did so; and bringing him at the same time towards the light, the deception could not be maintained for a moment longer with any possibility of success. Cromwell came up to him with his teeth set, and grinding against each other as he spoke, his hands clenched, and trembling with emotion, and speaking with a voice low-pitched, bitterly and deeply emphatic, such as might have preceded a stab with his dagger. “Thy name, young man?”
He was answered calmly and firmly, while the countenance of the speaker wore a cast of triumph, and even contempt.
“Albert Lee of Ditchley, a faithful subject of King Charles.”
“I might have guessed it,” said Cromwell. —“Ay, and to King Charles shalt thou go as soon as it is noon on the dial. — Pearson,” he continued, “let him be carried to the others; and let them be executed at twelve exactly.”
“All, sir?” said Pearson, surprised; for Cromwell, though he at times made formidable examples, was, in general, by no means sanguinary.
“All”— repeated Cromwell, fixing his eye on young Lee. “Yes, young sir, your conduct has devoted to death thy father, thy kinsman, and the stranger that was in thine household. Such wreck hast thou brought on thy father’s house.”
“My father, too — my aged father!” said Albert, looking upward, and endeavouring to raise his hands in the same direction, which was prevented by his bonds. “The Lord’s will be done!”
“All this havoc can be saved, if,” said the General, “thou wilt answer one question — Where is the young Charles Stewart, who was called King of Scotland?”
“Under Heaven’s protection, and safe from thy power,” was the firm and unhesitating answer of the young royalist.
“Away with him to prison!” said Cromwell; “and from thence to execution with the rest of them, as malignants taken in the fact. Let a courtmartial sit on them presently.”
“One word,” said young Lee, as they led him from the room. “Stop, stop,” said Cromwell, with the agitation of renewed hope —“let him be heard.”
“You love texts of Scripture,” said Albert —“Let this be the subject of your next homily —‘Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?’”
“Away with him,” said the General; “let him die the death. — I have said it.”
As Cromwell spoke these words, his aide-decamp observed that he became unwontedly pale.
“Your Excellency is overtoiled in the public service,” said Pearson; “a course of the stag in the evening will refresh you. The old knight hath a noble hound here, if we can but get him to hunt without his master, which may be hard, as he is faithful, and”—
“Hang him up!” said Cromwell.
“What — whom — hang the noble dog? Your Excellency was wont to love a good hound?”
“It matters not,” said Cromwell; “let him be killed. Is it not written, that they slew in the valley of Achor, not only the accursed Achan, with his sons and his daughters, but also his oxen and asses, and his sheep, and every live thing belonging unto him? And even thus shall we do to the malignant family of Lee, who have aided Sisera in his flight, when Israel might have been delivered of his trouble for ever. But send out couriers and patrols — Follow, pursue, watch in every direction — Let my horse be ready at the door in five minutes, or bring me the first thou canst find.”
It seemed to Pearson that this was something wildly spoken, and that the cold perspiration was standing upon the General’s brow as he said it. He therefore again pressed the necessity of repose, and it would appear that nature seconded strongly the representation. Cromwell arose, and made a step or two towards the door of the apartment; but stopped, staggered, and, after a pause, sate down in a chair. “Truly, friend Pearson,” he said, “this weary carcass of ours is an impediment to us, even in our most necessary business, and I am fitter to sleep than to watch, which is not my wont. Place guards, therefore, till we repose ourselves for an hour or two. Send out in every direction, and spare not for horses’ flesh. Wake me if the court-martial require instruction, and forget not to see the sentence punctually executed on the Lees, and those who were arrested with them.”
As Cromwell spoke thus, he arose and half-opened a bedroom door, when Pearson again craved pardon for asking if he had rightly understood his Excellency, that all the prisoners were to be executed.
“Have I not said it?” answered Cromwell, displeasedly. “Is it because thou art a man of blood, and hast ever been, that thou dost affect these scruples to show thyself tenderhearted at my expense? I tell thee, that if there lack one in the full tale of execution, thine own life shall pay the forfeit.”
So saying, he entered the apartment, followed by the groom of his chamber, who attended upon Pearson’s summons.
When his General had retired, Pearson remained in great perplexity what he ought to do; and that from no scruples of conscience, but from uncertainty whether he might not err either in postponing, or in too hastily and too literally executing, the instructions he had received.
In the meantime, Strickalthrow and Robins had returned, after lodging Albert in prison, to the room where Pearson was still musing on his General’s commands. Both these men were adjutators in their army, and old soldiers, whom Cromwell was accustomed to treat with great familiarity; so that Robins had no hesitation to ask Captain Pearson, “Whether he meant to execute the commands of the General, even to the letter?”
Pearson shook his head with an air of doubt, but added, “There was no choice left.”
“Be assured,” said the old man, “that if thou dost this folly, thou wilt cause Israel to sin, and that the General will not be pleased with your service. Thou knowest, and none better than thou, that Oliver, although he be like unto David the son of Jesse, in faith, and wisdom, and courage, yet there are times when the evil spirit cometh upon him as it did upon Saul, and he uttereth commands which he will not thank any one for executing.”
Pearson was too good a politician to assent directly to a proposition which he could not deny — he only shook his head once more, and said that it was easy for those to talk who were not responsible, but the soldier’s duty was to obey his orders, and not to judge of them.
“Very righteous truth,” said Merciful Strickalthrow, a grim old Scotchman; “I marvel where our brother Zerubbabel caught up this softness of heart?”
“Why, I do but wish,” said Zerubbabel, “that four or five human creatures may draw the breath of God’s air for a few hours more; there can be small harm done by delaying the execution — and the General will have some time for reflection.”
“Ay,” said Captain Pearson, “but I in my service must be more pointedly obsequious, than thou in thy plainness art bound to be, friend Zerubbabel.”
“Then shall the coarse frieze cassock of the private soldier help the golden gaberdine of the captain to bear out the blast,” said Zerubbabel. “Ay, indeed, I can show you warrant why we be aidful to each other in doing acts of kindness and long-suffering, seeing the best of us are poor sinful creatures, who might suffer, being called to a brief accounting.”
“Of a verity you surprise me, brother Zerubbabel,” said Strickalthrow; “that thou, being an old and experienced soldier, whose head hath grown grey in battle, shouldst give such advice to a young officer. Is not the General’s commission to take away the wicked from the land, and to root out the Amalekite, and the Jebusite, and the Perizzite, and the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite? and are not these men justly to be compared to the five kings, who took shelter in the cave of Makedah, who were delivered into the hands of Joshua the son of Nun? and he caused his captains and his soldiers to come near and tread on their necks — and then he smote them, and he slew them, and then he hanged them on five trees, even till evening — And thou, Gilbert Pearson by name, be not withheld from the duty which is appointed to thee, but do even as has been commanded by him who is raised up to judge and to deliver Israel; for it is written, ‘cursed is he who holdeth back his sword from the slaughter.’”
Thus wrangled the two military theologians, while Pearson, much more solicitous to anticipate the wishes of Oliver than to know the will of Heaven, listened to them with great indecision and perplexity.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00