"'Tis nothing," replied Doll, as she sank down into a chair. "I am a trifle faint; give me some water, Lettice."
"Nay, but it is something," returned the other, as she speedily complied with her mistress's behest. "Thou canst not throw me off like that. Come, my good lady, tell me what it is; there are few things you hide from me."
"There is nothing to tell you, Lettice," she replied, "but prithee go on; what did Sir Henry de la Zouch make answer?"
"He said he had a witness, but I had to hasten away, for I heard footsteps approaching; but come, I can read your secret; Master Manners will make a worthy knight."
"Keep such thoughts to thyself, Lettice," Dorothy blushingly replied.
"Trust me," said the maid, with a toss of her pretty head. "I will do thy bidding; but faith! you will be a comely pair."
"Hush, or I shall be angry with thee. I tell thee he has said naught yet."
"And I tell thee, Mistress Dorothy," returned Lettice, "he is head and ears in love with thee. I would stake my troth on it; there!"
"I wish it were so," sighed Dorothy, "for I love him dearly."
"It is so, assuredly it is," replied her companion, decisively. "Let me give him a hint, my lady."
"No, Lettice, not another word; don't breathe it to a soul unless I bid thee."
"My Will could do it," continued the other, "an you would but let him try. He can do anything that way, Will can."
"Be quiet, Lettice; and mind you take care of your tongue. No one must even so much as guess at the truth; there, begone."
"Happen you would like to see if they have settled the matter?" suggested the tire-maid; "let us go and see."
Dorothy willingly agreed, and away they went through room after room, until at last Lettice stopped.
"Let me open the window," she said; "we shall hear better here than anywhere else," and she stepped upon a chair and silently pushed the latticed window open. The balmy breeze came pouring into the room, bringing in with it the sound of the conversation from outside.
"That's splendid," she said. "Now, my lady, listen."
"I tell you it's of no use, Sir Henry. I don't believe a word of it."
"Nevertheless, Sir George, it's perfectly true."
"Well, I cannot believe it," returned the baron, sharply, "but all the same, you will have to fight him now. We shall make quite a grand affair of it; 'tis a rare long time since there was a tournament at Haddon."
"I had rather it passed off quietly," suggested De la Zouch, who was by no means confident of his own prowess in a stern contest with naked weapons. "It is only by thy direct command that I have consented to enter the lists to fight him. 'Tis more a case for the assize than for thee. Sir George, and I have my honour to maintain."
"You must let that remain with me," replied the baron. "Eustace is but a page, and as Manners rightly enough pointed out, his word would count for little in such a circumstance. But apart from all such considerations, I flatly tell you, Sir Henry, that I don't for a minute think him guilty. The ordeal—"
"Tut, bother the ordeal," broke in De la Zouch, who was rapidly losing control of his temper. "Then you doubt me?"
"You are rash, sir knight," interrupted Lady Maude. "You do not do proper justice to the baron."
"Hark! what's that?" whispered Lettice, "There's someone coming."
"No, don't you hear them coming on the gravel?"
"Listen," exclaimed Doll, nervously, "'twas but Eustace, the page, stealing away; he's been playing eavesdropper."
"Like us," laughed the maid.
"Hush! Sir Henry is talking. How excited he is. Listen."
"I humbly crave his pardon then, fair lady. When shall I learn what fate you have in store for me?"
"Not till after the tournament, at least," promptly replied Lady Vernon.
"And that will be—prithee when?"
"This day week, and in the meantime I would advise you as a friend to practise well with your arms," and, added the baron with grim humour, "say your prayers day by day, Sir Henry, for Manners has not fought in the Netherlands for naught."
"Then I shall present myself before you, Lady Vernon, at the conclusion of the tourney," he loftily replied, "and I will have my answer then."
"If so be, that is, that there be aught left of thee to come," supplemented Sir George, considerably nettled at the other's tone, "for I hear that Manners is terrible with the sword."
"Thank you, sir baron," was the proud retort, "but I have learnt ere now how to hold the lance, and can wield the mace;" and without deigning to cast a look behind him he strode away in an ill humour with himself and everybody else, to scowl in silence at the group of merrymakers on the green.
"There, a pretty lover!" exclaimed Dorothy, as her suitor walked away, "but I have given him his answer."
"Hush, my lady," whispered the maid.
"We shall be able to get it all arranged for a week to-day, and you shall be queen of the tourney, Maude, if it so please you."
"I, Sir George? I indeed!" replied the dame. "Pooh! my queening days are gone. It must be either Margaret or Dorothy."
"Fancy," whispered Lattice, "you the queen of the tournament!"
"But I hear he is likely to lose the Ashby estates. Think of that, Sir George; think of that. He would be a poor man directly."
"The Ashby estates were forfeited to the De la Zouches, but King Henry granted them back before he died, and I hear they are like to go at last."
"It were a pity for Sir Henry, but in truth, Maude, I like him not."
"Pooh, nonsense! He wants none of our pity, but I tell thee Dorothy is too good a match to throw away upon him."
"Perhaps so, Maude," replied the baron; "it may be so, but I shall be much mistaken if, after the tournament, he is able to ask for her again, but if he does I will refer him to you."
"That will do, Lettice," said Dorothy. "I have heard quite sufficient. Shut the window; I will go now and see how they are faring on the bowling green. I have a lighter heart now." And followed by a "God speed you" from her maid, she opened the door and passed out of the room.
A TOURNAMENT. THE COMBAT.
At this the challenger, with fierce defy, His trumpet sounds; the challenged makes reply.
Grass did not grow beneath the feet of the good people of Haddon during the week which ensued. Inside the Hall everything was in confusion and disorder. Rooms were being emptied of hangings which had lain undisturbed repose for many a long year, and everybody was eager to bring to light such old relics of previous tourneys which had ever taken place there as could be discovered outside, and the stir was not one whit less. The level sward through which the Wye rippled on its way to join the Derwent, having once been selected as the battle ground, was immediately transformed from a scene of lovely rustic peacefulness to a very pandemonium of noisy workmen, out of which slowly evolved tents and pavilions for the accommodation of the numerous visitors who were expected to witness the struggle.
The news had spread far and wide, and a large number of persons, attracted by the well-known splendour and hospitality of the King of the Peak, as well as by the desire to witness the rare exhibition of a tournament, which was now about extinct, assembled at Haddon as the time appointed for the fray drew nigh.
At length the eventful morning dawned. Everything was fully prepared. The white tents, with their fluttering pennons of many lines, occupied one side of the ground; the balconies, decked with their brightly coloured hangings, faced them from the other side, and a slightly elevated platform, upon which was the throne for the queen of the tourney, filled one end, while the other was left open for such of the neighbouring villagers as liked to come.
Long before the appointed hour the space had been filled up by eager sightseers. Men and women, lads and lasses, old folk and young, all alike were there, tricked out in holiday attire. Not a coign of vantage was lost sight of, and every tree which might reasonably have been expected to yield a glimpse of the scene was crowded by rustics, eager to gaze upon so rare an exhibition. Behind all rose the grey old towers of the Hall, which presented a very picturesque appearance as the sun flashed upon its turrets, and its flags waved to and fro in the gentle breeze. Haddon had witnessed many stirring scenes before, but surely never a more brilliant one than was about to be enacted.
Jousts were divided into two classes. The "joust a plaisir" was a mere knightly display of skill, and was fought with weapons, the edges of which were dulled; but the other, the "joust a l'outrance," was of a far more dangerous kind. Lances, swords, and even, occasionally, mace-like weapons with sharp spikes were used, and it rarely happened that serious injuries did not result, while not unfrequently it was accompanied by a fatal termination.
Additional interest was attached to this tournament, inasmuch as it was of the latter class, and when the sound of the herald's trumpets was heard, a shout of admiration went up from the assemblage, as the gates swung open and the party descended from the Hall; and round after round of praise was accorded by the crowd as the cavalcade wended its way through it, and took up its allotted position in the tents and on the balconies.
Without waiting any time Dorothy seated herself upon the throne, and giving the signal to commence by waving a dainty little flag, the trumpeters took it up and blew a loud blast upon their instruments.
This was the summons for the combatants to appear, and amid the tumultuous greetings of the whole assembly, Manners and De la Zouch came forward from either side of the balcony, and each, well protected with armour, stood leaning upon his charger while the herald read aloud the order of the King of the Peak, by whose command the tourney was held.
Having read it out, this functionary retired with all the grace and speed at his command; the trumpet sounded again, and the two assailants leapt simultaneously into the saddle. A minute later the galloping rush, the sound of contending horsemen, and the noise of shivering lances told the outsiders that the conflict had begun.
So terrible was the shock as the two met together in the centre of the ring that it seemed utterly impossible that either of them could recover from it, but after the first thrust and parry they each passed on, apparently uninjured, and wheeling their horses around, with lances couched they paused to spy out a weak point in the other's defence.
Every breath was hushed, and every eye was strained, to the uttermost as the anxious onlookers stood on tiptoe to follow every movement of the competitors.
But neither the knight nor the esquire appeared to be particularly eager to commence the struggle. Each waited for the other to advance, and for a moment or two they stood perfectly still, keenly regarding each other through the bars of their visors.
"They are not going to fight, Sir George," exclaimed De Lacey, in piteous, tones, "and I've come all this weary way to see the sport."
"Never fear, Sir John," replied the baron cheerily, "you'll see sport enough soon; they will begin directly, but they don't know each other's mettle yet."
Even as he spoke Manners rode forward and the conflict was renewed.
Sir Henry de la Zouch was famous at the London schools for his brilliant lance play, and many of his friends had accepted his invitation to witness his triumph; but, although it was anticipated that he would win easily enough with that weapon, it was feared by his well-wishers that unless he succeeded in placing his combatant hors de combat then, his chance of doing so with the sword would be considerably less.
De la Zouch himself knew this, although he would not own it, and it made him cautious. For a long time he stood carefully upon his guard, but at last, espying a favourable opportunity, he darted a fierce blow at the vizor of his opponent, hoping it would pierce the bars and transfix itself there. It was a well-aimed thrust, and almost proved successful, but, unfortunately for De la Zouch, Manners unwittingly foiled him by rising in his saddle at the same time to deliver a similar blow at him, and instead of receiving the lance upon his helmet, he caught it in the very centre of his breast-plate. Still the blow was delivered with so powerful a stroke that, standing in the stirrups as Manners was, it completely upset his balance, and he fell over.
A great shout rose up at this feat, but Dorothy turned her face aside, fearing that he whom she loved was stricken down never to rise again, and wishing, for the fiftieth time, that she was in her own chamber, peacefully occupied in stitching at her tapestry.
But the shout was broken off suddenly—to be succeeded the next moment by another, louder and more prolonged, for, although taken unawares and overturned, Manners put into execution a trick he had learned in Holland, and sliding under the belly of the horse, he nimbly swung himself up by the girths on the other side, and reseated himself in the saddle, much to the astonishment of De la Zouch, who imagined he had unhorsed him, and much to the delight of the audience, which greeted him with plaudits again and again renewed.
"See!" exclaimed De Lacey, with eyes wide open with astonishment, "where's he come from?"
"Never saw a neater thing in my life," replied Sir George, enraptured at the trick. "Look now!"
Sir John looked as he was bidden, and saw the astounded De la Zouch receive a stinging blow on his arm from his opponent ere he had recovered from his surprise.
As the lances of both were now broken, the trumpet sounded, and the combatants, nothing loth, rode off for a few minutes' rest, and a fresh supply of weapons.
The latter having been procured, they very quickly renewed the struggle, and this time De la Zouch had better fortune, for just as the bugles were sounding for them to cease he pierced the joint of Manners' armour, and inflicted a nasty flesh wound upon his elbow.
As the latter would not own himself vanquished, even at Dorothy's request, the conflict was resumed, and this time with swords, and here the inferiority of De la Zouch was soon apparent. Though he was no mean swordsman, yet his opponent was far more than a match for him, and blow after blow was rained down upon him, whilst on his own part Sir Henry was too busily engaged in defending himself to attempt to act on the offensive. He was hard pressed, and it was fortunate indeed for him when the signal was given which called upon them both to desist awhile, in order to gain fresh breath, and to put to rights, as far as they were able, the damages they had already received.
The interval was filled up by the shouts of the onlookers, who now made up for their previous silence by loudly criticising the deeds of their respective champion, and vociferously calling out their particular favourite worthless instructions how to proceed when the conflict was continued.
Eustace stood ready to receive his master, and give him cordials wherein to reinvigorate his nerves, while Crowleigh was in waiting in lieu of a page, to bathe his friend's wounds with water.
The sight of blood, which slowly trickled from Manners' arm, reminded a Woode that he was a doctor, and, leaping from his seat, he clambered over the balcony and rushed across the arena to where the wounded esquire was standing.
"Let me see it," he cried. "This must be stopped at once. Sir Henry, I declare you the winner of the——"
"Hold there," cried Manners, "I have not yielded yet."
"Leave him alone, Sir Benedict," added Crowleigh. "He will make a sorry example of De la Zouch even yet."
"But," persisted the old knight, "I declare——"
His speech was rudely cut short, for with a yell of pain he darted off across the arena, closely followed by a huge mastiff, whose tail he had been unfortunate enough to tread upon.
With the doctor out of the way the conflict was speedily renewed. It was a terrible combat. De la Zouch, intent on ridding himself of his adversary, declared he would give no quarter, and, altering his tactics, he hewed and lunged away with all the temerity of a man who fights for death or victory.
Manners' superiority with the sword, however, was so apparent that after the restarting of the contest the final issue of it was never for a moment doubted, not even by the veriest tyro present. Sir Henry's wild thrusts were parried with consummate ease, and while the knight's sword moved hither and thither with lightning-like rapidity, the trusty blade of the other moved equally quick, but with far more certainty.
He waited until De la Zouch began to tire before he exerted himself. The time came at last, and then with a few quick strokes he laid his foeman before him on the ground.
"Strike!" shouted a score of voices. "Strike!"
The victor uplifted his sword, and poised it high above his head to bring it down with all his might. The people waited with throbbing hearts to witness the stroke which should finish the combat, but instead of striking Manners paused and turned round.
"Strike, man, strike!" yelled a chorus of onlookers.
Humbly bowing before Dorothy, he magnanimously declared that the fate of his rival rested with her.
"'Tis a tournament, not a murder," decided Doll promptly; "you have proved your cause, and if your foe will yield we are ready to spare him."
Amid the plaudits of the crowd, Manners bowed low upon his knee, kissed the hand held graciously out towards him. He murmured his perfect acquiescence to her will, and was about to pass out of the ring, an easy victor, when a horseman rode in, and without in anyway announcing himself, he sprang off his horse and scanned the company.
"What does this fellow want?" growled Sir George, as with knitted eyebrows he scrutinised the intruder. "Thou art a Royal messenger," he added, turning to the man, who had advanced until he stood before the baron.
There was little sympathy between the Court at London and the King of the Peak, and the baron surmised little good from the arrival of the courtier. As the latter urged his horse through the crowd, and entered the arena, Sir George anticipated trouble.
"I want the King of the Peak," replied the new comer.
"I am Sir George Vernon."
"Then," replied the other, "I deliver into thine hand this summons, which cites thee to appear at Westminster to answer the charge of slaying Mary Durden."
The baron started with surprise, and thought for a moment of laying violent hands upon the man, but a moment's reflection convinced him of the unwisdom of such an act.
"And if I refuse to come," he doggedly said, "what then?"
"Then you do so at your peril," he replied, and leaping again upon his horse, he departed as suddenly as he had appeared, leaving the awe-stricken assembly to disperse with much less pleasure than they had anticipated from the scene of such an exciting exhibition of manly prowess.
AT THE COCK TAVERN, LONDON.
London! the needy villain's general home, The common sewer of Paris and of Rome. Here malice, rapine, accident conspire, And now a rabble rages, now a fire; Their ambush mere relentless villains lay, And here the fell attorney prowls for prey.
Five days after the tournament had taken place, two travellers reined in their steeds at the gates of the Cock Hostelry, just within the Temple Bar. They were dusty with hard riding, and evidently in no good humour with themselves nor with anyone with whom they were brought into contact—a result doubtless attributable to the discomforts of a long journey on roads rough enough to try the patience of any man.
The elder of the two, throwing the reins upon his horse's neck, alighted, and leaving the ostler to take the steed away, he strode quickly into the inn without uttering a word. The young man, however, got off his saddle in a more leisurely fashion, and before he followed his companion he proceeded to the stable to see that the horses were properly attended to.
"The old man is a trifle out of sorts," the ostler ventured to remark, as they entered the yard together.
"Perchance so," returned the other, "but that is no affair of thine; but an you keep good care of his horse he will think well of thee."
"Yes, yes; certainly!" replied the man, grinning. "I always look well after gentlemen's horses, I do. You'll not be wanting them in the morning, I suppose?
"Yes, no; that is—I don't think we shall, but anyway you had better have them in readiness, we may possibly want them for the return journey to-morrow: tend them well;" and leaving a few final instructions, Sir Thomas Stanley, for he it was, passed out of the stables and entered the parlour of the inn.
Sir George Vernon was so engrossed in poring over a document which lay stretched out on the table before him that he did not notice the approach of his friend, and it was not until the latter inquired whether the meal was already ordered that the baron looked up and saw him.
"Oh, it's you," he exclaimed; "yes, we shall fall to directly; but I want you just to look at this first."
"What is it," inquired Stanley, "the summons again?"
"The summons, of course," replied Sir George, as he thrust it into the other's hands.
"What did the attorney say?"
"He said it was a bad case; a very bad case. He said, in fact, that he never came across a more unpromising case for a client of his since he set himself up as a lawyer."
"Humph!" returned Sir Thomas, "they always do say so. I tell you it will come out all right in the end."
"Happen so; but he says the ordeal would go for nothing, they don't count now in courts of law here. They would do if the trial came off at Derby, I know."
"Aye," assented his friend, "I'll warrant it would count there, for no one would dare to resist thee; but you see, Sir George, it's at London, and that makes all the difference."
"Warder, read the summons through," pursued the baron. "I could not understand it, of course, I'm not much of a lawyer; but he says 'tis the work of that villainous locksmith. I wish I had hanged him at the same time, and then—"
"Well, what then?"
"It's too late, now," said Sir George, bitterly. "If they do condemn me I shall claim the benefit of clergy. I know some of the prayers, and if I can only find the right page I shall get on well enough. They will only fine me, though, at worst."
"But you have enemies at Court, remember."
"Well, let them do their worst. I shall not disgrace myself when the time comes, and in the meantime I will address myself to Lord Burleigh; he is all-powerful now."
"And if he fail us," added Sir Thomas, "I will take thee to Sir Nicholas Bacon."
"The Lord Keeper?"
"Yes, why not?"
"He is a hard man."
"He is honest, and will take no bribe, if that is what you mean, Sir George; but if there is a flaw in the proceedings he will point it out for us, and that will be better than naught. We shall have the satisfaction of knowing that everything was properly done, at least."
"We will try my Lord Burleigh first," sighed the knight.
"Sir Nicholas might intercede for thee with the Queen," Stanley went on. "He owes me some service, and is not ungrateful."
"Hush! there is someone coming," interposed the baron. "Let us say no more at present."
It was the maid bringing in the dinner; and, folding up the paper, Sir George carefully deposited it within his breast pocket, and relapsed into a moody silence as they began and continued the meal.
Meanwhile, outside the inn a very different scene was being enacted.
No sooner had Sir Thomas Stanley entered the house than the ostler, having quickly stabled the horses, emerged into the yard again, and putting his fingers into his mouth he blew a soft peculiar whistling note, and reared himself up beside the wall to await the answer.
It was not long in coming, for almost directly the door of the stable loft above him opened, and the head of the locksmith of Haddon cautiously peeped out.
"Is all clear?" he inquired.
"Yes, they have both gone in to dine. I didn't know you were there. I will come up and join you."
In another minute the ostler stood beside the once more disguised Edmund Wynne, and the two, secure from intrusion, began to converse with unrestrained freedom.
"Well, are they the right ones?" he asked, as he fastened the trap-door down.
"Yes," replied Edmund; "what did Sir Thomas say to you; I could hear him speaking?"
"Who's Sir Thomas?"
"Sir Thomas Stanley, of course."
"Oh! He didn't mention the affair at all."
"H'm! Did he say aught about me?"
"How should I know even if he had?" returned the ostler, "for I don't know your name yet. He did not mention anybody, only to say how that the old man, the baron would think well of me when parting time came if I took good care of his horse."
"Call me James," quickly replied Edmund.
"Very well," returned the other, "it shall be so; but I don't believe your name is James, nor do I think you are a broken-down wool merchant either; but so long as you pay me what we have bargained for, I don't care a straw what you are or what you call yourself."
"Just so, that will do exactly," Edmund promptly replied. "That is just what I require."
"I'll call you James, then, and if anybody asks about you I don't know aught of any such person."
"And I will get to know as much as I can from the maids, and will keep you well informed of the movements of your friends. Their trial comes off, you say, to-morrow?"
"I think it does."
"They will not go far to-day, then?"
"I cannot say, but they will be well watched. What accommodation have you here for half-a-dozen stalwart fellows?"
"Plenty in the inn."
"I don't need telling that: but here—-in the yard. I am expecting some guests for the night."
"Let me see. It means money."
"Of course it does."
"And I shall run great risks."
"You will be well repaid, though," said Edmund, "and they might as well be here, I trow, as elsewhere; only see that they don't have too much drink, and be careful that they are not seen lounging together about in the yard."
"Trust me," laughed the ostler, "I shall manage that easily enough. I shall bolt the doors and fasten them in, and nothing except a rat could get out then."
"Nay, you misunderstand me. They are not prisoners, but men who have been hired for the journey."
"I see now; ah, I see," returned his companion in the most unconcerned manner possible. "In that case they only want a little watching."
"And, mayhap, a little restraining, yes. Here is a shilling for some ale, which they will be expecting. You will meet them for me, and take charge of them?"
"Very well, James, so be it; where shall I meet though? It would never do for them to hang about here that's very certain, for our landlord would have his eyes upon them in a minute. He is awfully sharp on tramps and beggars and such."
"No, certainly not," agreed Edmund; "meet them at the Temple Gates at six."
"It shall be done; and in the meanwhile you will have a first-rate view of the entertainment from here."
"The players are here to-day. See, there is the stage and everything. 'Tis the Earl of Leicester's company, too," and pushing the door still farther open, he pointed out to Edmund Wynne's astonished eyes one of the rudely extemporised platforms which passed in those days for stages.
Those who have witnessed the splendid scenic triumphs which have been achieved by managers of late years would be astonished indeed were they confronted by one of the theatres of the earliest dramatic times. Nothing could present a much greater contrast than the elaborate drapery and the ingenious trap-doors, side wings, and numerous other mechanical contrivances which are now a necessary complement of the modern stage, and the superlative simplicity which characterised the theatres of three hundred years ago.
Theatres, indeed, there were none, and the troupes of players wandered about from city to town, and from village to hamlet, giving their performances in open-air; or, if they were fortunate, in the courtyards of inns.
It was a scene such as this that the two men gazed upon.
A slight wooden shed afforded protection to the actors from the burning rays of the sun or the more uncomfortable showers of rain. The stage, which was a movable wooden platform, was supported at a little distance from the ground by a number of empty boxes—which a torn piece of faded tapestry vainly endeavoured to hide from view. A small gallery ran along the wall at the rear of the stage, which was ready to do duty as the wall of a castle, a fort, a mountain, an upper room, or a window, or anything else, just as the necessity might be; while a flag, which floated in the breeze from the summit of a stunted pole, announced to the general public that the play was about to commence.
Edmund Wynne had never witnessed such an elaborate display before, and for a time he watched in silent wonder as the people congregated below.
"There will be a goodly company to-day, my lord," exclaimed the ostler, as he drew his head in after a prolonged look round the yard. "'Twill be a notable day, will this."
"I tell you I am not a lord," angrily interrupted Edmund Wynne. "I only wish I were."
"So do I, James, with all my heart, but look here; here is a proper lord for you, a great lord, too. See, do you know him?"
"No, where?" he quickly replied.
"Do you see that little platform there?"
"With a lamp hanging from the roof?"
"No, that's the moon for the players. They will light it soon, and we shall know that it is night then, and folks can't see each other without the moon. Look there;" and he pointed to where two or three gaily-bedecked ladies and some equally gaily-attired gallants were conversing together in a part of the courtyard which was separated from the rest by a rope which stretched from end to end.
"Well, I see them," he said. "Who might they be, prithee?"
"They might be Pope Joan and the cardinals, but they are not."
"Then who are they?"
"That thin man, with the big buckles on his shoes, is Sir Henry Sidney."
"Never!" ejaculated Edmund, "he is too gray haired."
"Even so, James. He is the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and that light-haired boy beside him is little Philip. He is the pet of the Court already, but heigho! whom have we here? Why, it is, yes—it is the Lord High Treasurer himself!"
"So it is," murmured Edmund, as he carefully retreated well into the shade. "This door won't attract attention, eh?"
"No, thank goodness, for I can't very well get out now. You see, 'tis only a loft door, and it is as often open as shut. They will think I have been pitching some hay in."
Nevertheless, Edmund was by no means satisfied. There was only the distance now of a few yards which separated him from his persecutor, and he feared, in spite of his disguise, lest he should be discovered. He upbraided himself a thousand times for his foolhardiness in exposing himself to the perils which he knew beforehand would beset him in the capital; and in the extremity of his fear he absolutely shook with terror. Fortunately, however, for him, his companion was too engrossed in watching the new arrivals, as they rapidly flocked in, to notice his agitation, and for some time he was left to his own uncomfortable reflections. In vain he wished himself safe within the walls of Nottingham Castle. Even Haddon would have been preferable, but even that sorry refuge was denied him too. However much he wished it, he could not break away from the fact that he was at London, almost within arm's length of his persecutor, and he already began to look upon himself as lost.
IN DIRE STRAITS.
And if the worst had fall'n which could befall, He stood, a stranger in this breathing world, An erring spirit from another hurled; A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped By choice the perils he by chance escaped; But 'scaped in vain.
Edmund Wynne was rudely awakened from the train of thought into which he had fallen by the rough hand of the ostler, which alighted upon his shoulders with a smack which was re-echoed in the farthest corner of the yard.
"Now, James," said his companion, whose ready familiarity was becoming exceedingly distasteful, "they are about to begin, see!"
The courtyard was, in fact, already more than comfortably filled. Those of the audience who formed the pit squatted unceremoniously down in groups upon the ground, and having brought with them a plentiful supply of fruit and provisions, they were already busily engaged in discussing them; whilst the more select company, which paid a higher price and represented the modern gallery, occupied the reserved part on the other side of the rope, and was amusing itself in a general way, by looking down with supercilious contempt upon the common folk below.
Edmund stretched himself slightly forward, and peering out of the darkness of his retreat, was just in time to witness the appearance of the musicians, who, after making their bow to the audience, passed along the stage and made their exit through a doorway at the other end. A profound silence fell upon the company, and as the music of the violins floated gently on the breeze, the players made their appearance on the stage.
"What grotesque figures," he exclaimed, as an involuntary smile stole across his face; "why, they are covered with ivy leaves."
"See how Lord Burleigh cheers," interrupted the delighted ostler, as the play commenced, "and Sir Henry, too; see! Hang him, that's old Boniface rooting about; what can he want, I wonder? I believe he is looking for me."
"Who is Boniface?" meekly asked Edmund.
"The landlord, of course; and your friends are with him, too," was the curt reply.
Edmund shrank back still further into the shadow of the room. "It would never do for them to see me here," he explained; "it would upset all our plans. You must screen me somehow, won't you?"
"Take care of yourself, sir," returned the ostler as he snatched up the pitchfork and began to toss the hay about. "Take care of yourself, sir, for he's coming up here, upon my faith he is. Here's luck!" and the hay flew about in all directions.
No second bidding was required. Edmund scrambled over the heaps of hay and straw which lay upon the floor and never slackened his haste until he found himself hidden from view behind the stack in the further-most corner of the loft. Barely had he succeeded in ensconcing himself there, when footsteps were heard ascending the ladder, and a moment later a sharp knocking at the door announced to the only too conscious conspirators that the landlord was waiting to enter.
"Halloa," shouted the ostler, as he stamped upon the floor with his fork, to convey the impression that he was busily engaged, at work. "You can't get in here, I've got my work to do."
Edmund was astonished at the cool impudence of his friend, and he lifted his head to accord him a nod of approval, but a bundle of straw which the ostler purposely tossed at him from the other side of the room made him quickly withdraw his cranium again into the shelter.
"Let me in, I say," shouted a voice from below. "You knave, let me in, I tell you."
The ostler had played his little game, and, having sheltered his companion, he now anxiously awaited the result. Glancing round to see that Edmund was completely buried from sight, he dropped upon his knees, and moving the catch on one side he slowly raised the door.
"You knave! you villain!" exclaimed his irate master, as he stepped into the room. "Wasting your time in looking at puppet-shows. How dare you, sir; how dare you? Get you gone, sirrah!" and he gave him a kick which considerably accelerated the speed with which he disappeared below.
Having thus satisfactorily vented his displeasure, his brow relaxed and he turned to the baron and Sir Thomas and conducted them to a seat so lately vacated by the guilty pair, with an urbanity which looked positively impossible to ruffle.
"You see, my lord, there is a seat ready provided," he exclaimed, as he pointed to the bale of hay which stood beside the wall. "Perhaps your lordships will be pleased to seat yourself on that? I'll warrant me 'tis clean enough, for I espied the rogue sitting on it."
Sir George Vernon, nothing loth, accepted the proffered seat.
"I will reach another bundle down for you," continued the loquacious innkeeper, turning to the younger knight. "I will get you one of a convenient size; most of them are far too big to be comfortable, I fear, but I have them in all shapes and sizes; you shall be made comfortable in a trice, my lord."
He cast his eyes about in search of the bundle "of convenient size," and his choice fell upon the one which covered the gap where Edmund Wynne lay hidden. Having once selected this he proceeded straightway to climb over the impeding bundles to reach it from the corner where the ostler had tossed it just before.
This, however, proved no slight task. He was burly and heavy, while the bundles were frail and loosely stacked and failed to yield to his feet that amount of support which, of all men, the stouter ones are supposed most to require. This being so, it was not surprising to find that ere he reached it he stumbled and fell several times, until at last Sir Thomas took pity upon him and told him to desist.
"I would stand, my good man," he said, "rather than thou should'st break thy neck, or I might lay upon some of this soft straw for the nonce."
"A prison bed," chimed in Sir George. "Well, some folks like one thing and some another, there's no accounting for tastes."
The landlord scouted the proposal at once. He felt that somehow he was on his mettle, and it was incumbent upon him to vindicate the honour of his house. "Had the kind nobleman been possessed of a better acquaintance with him," he said, "he would have known that it was not in his nature to be overcome by trifles. Things, thank goodness, were managed better than that at the Cock hostelry," and to support his statement he wiped away the perspiration from his brow, and made a further attempt to reach it down.
Edmund's feelings during these critical moments would be easier to imagine than describe. Every moment he expected that the bundle would be lifted off, and he anticipated the mortification of being dragged out and being brought face to face with the man whom he now most dreaded. As the other advanced and the unstable walls of his shelter quivered until they threatened to fall upon him, he crouched down further and further into the corner, preferring rather to be buried under the solid squares of hay than to be discovered in such a position. Sir Thomas' words inspired him with a ray of hope, but his expectations were dashed as suddenly as they had arisen by the words of the baron and the action of the busy landlord, who, all unconscious of the torture he was inflicting, struggled valiantly on towards his quarry.
At last his perseverance was rewarded, and he found himself able to grasp the object of his toil; but Edmund as he felt the protecting roof of hay departing, snatched at the withes which bound it round, and dragged it down with all his might.
In vain did the furious landlord pull and tug. Try as he would, it would not move an inch, and he was about to give it up in disgust and offer some reason for his lack of success, when Stanley again came to his aid.
"Stand aside, man; thou art too old for such a task, and too fat, too, perchance. Let me get it out. Odd's fish, my good fellow, but there's been much to do about a little thing. Here it is, see."
Edmund had, for the moment relaxed his hold, and it was at precisely that same moment that Sir Thomas Staley took hold of the top of the bundle to pull it up. There was but one chance left, and although it promised a little hope of success, he deemed his position desperate enough to warrant him in attempting it. He decided to leap out simultaneously with the withdrawal of the bundle, and, trusting to the confusion his unexpected appearance would create, to escape through the trap-door, and race away for his life.
However, when he saw the sole protection which had hidden him from his enemies begin to move away his courage failed him, and he had not sufficient boldness to carry out the plan he had so neatly arranged. Instinctively he threw his arms up to clutch the rope again, but it was too late, it had already passed beyond his reach; there was nothing left to save him. Another moment and his hiding place would be discovered, when——, Sir Thomas missed his footing, and with a gesture of impatience he let the bundle fall again, and turned his back upon it in disgust.
It alighted heavily upon the luckless Edmund's shoulders, and it struck him with so much force that almost before he was aware of it, he found himself most uncomfortably doubled up, and tight pinned beneath its weight upon the floor. He could neither free himself nor ease his position without attracting attention, for his arms were tightly wedged underneath him, while his legs had found a resting place between two lots of hay, at a height somewhat above the level of his head. One thing, and one alone, was at his command. He could at least, he thought, remain quietly there, an unwilling eavesdropper, until his persecutors had gone. This he resolved to do; meanwhile he could only submit to the conditions which a series of unfortunate incidents had brought upon him, and listen to the conversation in the hope that some of it, at least, might at some time or other prove profitable to him in the accomplishment of the object he had in view.
"How long will they be, mine host?" inquired Sir George, to whom the circumlocution of the stage proved uninteresting indeed.
"About two hours, my lord," suavely replied that individual, as he gazed proudly at the brilliant company assembled in the yard below, wondering the while how much they would expend at the inn when the play was over.
"Two hours!" Edmund groaned inwardly, but the groan was none the less sincere because it was inaudible.
"Two hours!" exclaimed the astonished baron, "then I'm off."
Hope again revived within the heart of the prisoner.
"Nay, stop, Sir George," interrupted the younger knight; "you cannot see a play like this at any time you choose. Stay awhile and bid me company, and forget your troubles in a stoup of ale."
"Aye, I have the best in the town," added the host; "there is nothing like it in all London."
This was quite a new idea, and Sir George scratched his head, as if by so doing he might facilitate his judgment, and then he did what so many other troubled ones have done, both before his time and since, he sought to drown his troubles by gorging himself with his favourite liquor.
"Ha! well," he muttered, "the ale is good, as London ale goes, I trow, but——"
"It is indeed," added the tavern-keeper promptly. "There's none better, though I say it."
"But I think I will have cider," continued the baron, not heeding the interruption.
"I will fetch it myself," exclaimed the proprietor of the Cock; "and sure I am, 'twill be the best that ever you have tasted."
"Nay, hold," interrupted Sir George, "I will go with thee. I will trust none to spice my drink except it be Lady Maude, or Dorothy. I will go with thee and spice it myself."
"And I will have some simple sack," said Sir Thomas.
Sir George Vernon and the landlord descended the ladder, and threaded their way through the crowd into the tavern, while Sir Thomas Stanley, left to his own devices, continued to lie quietly down upon his couch of straw, watching with intense interest the progress of the play.
Edmund, meanwhile, hearing no one stirring, and not being in a position to see, concluded that all three had descended together, and that he was the sole occupant of the room. He waited for a moment or two, and then, as the silence confirmed him in his opinion, he began to make strenuous efforts to free himself. There was no sign made in response to the noise he made in the attempt, and, without any interruption, he released himself from his uncomfortable position.
Slowly and painfully he raised himself up, but as he reached the top, the thrill of triumph to which his new-born hopes of liberty had given birth, died away, and a sigh of dismay escaped him as he discovered that he was not alone.
For a time he stood perfectly motionless, too terrified to advance, and too paralysed by fear to regain his hiding-place. Fortunately, however, for him, Sir Thomas Stanley's back was turned towards him, and so intently had he fixed his attention upon the scene which was being acted on the stage before him, that he was in complete ignorance of the events which were transpiring in his rear. Edmund wistfully cast a look at the ladder which protruded temptingly through the trap-door, but the look more than satisfied him that he could not hope to gain it without attracting the attention of his most unwelcome companion.
There was only one idea which presented itself to the unlucky man's mind which promised any fair successes, and that left no alternative. He must put Sir Thomas out of the way!
However repugnant this plan might be, and Edmund felt all its hideousness, he felt every moment more and more convinced that it was the only safe way. He had suffered too much already to venture willingly back into the torture-chamber from which he had just escaped, even if he could safely have regained its shelter—in itself no mean feat; and at the bare idea of spending two more hours of like agony he trembled. He resolved that rather than he would be driven to that uncertain refuge again, Sir Thomas should pay the penalty of death.
At this stage of his reflections he was rudely stopped, for the young knight, as if conscious of some impending danger, withdrew his head into the room and rolled over upon his back, leaving Edmund so little time in which to screen himself from view, that in attempting to secure a cover he toppled right over and fell back upon a thin scattering of straw.
Sir Thomas stopped the yawn with which he was indulging himself, and got upon his feet, surprised in no small degree to find that no one had entered the room. He went to the ladder to satisfy himself, but meeting with a like measure of ill-success there, he came away in a discontented mood; not perceiving Edmund, who lay, holding his breath, behind a heap of hay.
"I thought it was my sack coming," he muttered; "but it was only those confounded rats. What a time they are gone, to be sure," and as a last resource he sat himself down upon Sir George's seat and watched the play afresh.
Edmund during all this time was slowly making up his wavering mind. The memory of Dame Durden was still fresh within him, and it was in fulfilment of his scheme of revenge for that that he had united with Sir Ronald Bury to bring the baron to book for his misdeeds, and was now in London. Why should he not wreak his vengeance upon Sir Thomas Stanley, and then at once accomplish the work on which his heart was set? In the intensity of his passion he could find no satisfactory answer to the question. There were powerful reasons both for and against such a plan. Sir Thomas was seriously jeopardising his present safety; but would his death at all affect the baron? Margaret would feel it, mayhap, and so might Sir George to some extent, but he was fully aware that Sir Ronald's aim would be by no means compassed by such a termination; nor was he at all certain his own desire would be accomplished even then. The danger of his present position, however, was too apparent to be lightly put aside, and it proved too much for him. Were the others to return now his ruin would be assured; and realising this, he cautiously raised his head, and finding the young nobleman again deeply interested in the progress of the scene before him, he quickly drew out his knife and crept silently on towards his unsuspicious prey.
AN UNFORTUNATE DENOUEMENT.
But In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes o' mice and men Gang aft a-gley.
As Edmund drew nearer to Sir Thomas Stanley his heart began to fail him, and when at last he was sufficiently near the knight to have carried out his design, his courage oozed out at his finger ends and he felt powerless to strike.
Finally he relinquished the attempt altogether, and a new idea flashing upon him, he tossed the knife into the furthest corner of the room, and rising to his feet, he tapped the still unconscious nobleman upon the shoulder, trusting that his careful disguise would preserve him from being recognised by Sir Thomas at least, for circumstances at Haddon had brought them into connection with each other but a few times at most.
"Come at last, eh! and time, too," exclaimed the young knight, as he listlessly held out his hand for his potion of sack. "What, not brought it yet?" he added, as he saw the other's empty hands; "I have been kept waiting for it more than a quarter of an hour."
"Will you have it cool or spiced, my lord?" meekly asked Edmund, following up the idea thus thrown out. "I have but just received the order for it."
"Spiced, indeed!" replied the knight contemptuously; "not I, let me have it fresh from the cellar, and that quickly. No, here, stay," he added by the way of afterthought, "where is Sir George?"
"Sir George! Is that the oldish gentleman with the master?"
"That is Sir George Vernon, yes."
"He is lying down in the parlour," was the ready reply.
"Humph, that's queer, poring over that confounded document again, I'll warrant me. I will go back with you," returned Sir Thomas.
"I will bring it to you in half a minute," gasped Edmund.
"Nay," returned the other, "I will accompany thee. Ha! here he is, coming up again. He's crossing the yard now, and Sir Nicholas Bacon is with him, I perceive."
Edmund had played his last card, and the game was lost. Fortune had forsaken him at every turn; not one of his efforts had met with any success, and after all his endeavours he found himself as securely caught as the rat which was even then writhing within a few inches of his feet, in its last vain endeavour to free itself from the trap in which it was held.
For a moment or two he stood irresolute, but then, quickly gaining a mastery over the feeling of despair which had at first stolen over him, he made for the ladder, only to find, as he put his foot on the topmost step, that Sir George had set his foot upon the one at the bottom.
There was no help for it. He could neither advance nor retreat, so he stood at the top, carefully selecting the darker side, to await the course of events which could bring him no good fortune, but only evil in a greater or lesser degree. The completeness of his disguise, which had so completely deceived Sir Thomas, encouraged him to hope, for the moment, that he might also pass unrecognised even before the eagle eyes of the King of the Peak, and he solaced himself by trusting that if he were discovered the landlord might dismiss him in as summary a manner as he had done the ostler before him.
As Sir George passed him by, deep in conversation with Sir Nicholas Bacon, Edmund's hopes were considerably augmented, but the same ill-luck which had followed him heretofore did not desert him now. His hopes were dashed as soon as they had arisen, for the eye of the worthy Boniface was fixed upon him ere that person had fully entered the room.
Had he been attired in a manner more befitting his station, Edmund would undoubtedly have received a more befitting reception; but clothed as he was in shabby knee-breeches, loosely tied at the knees, a coat which was out at the elbows, a hat minus a portion of its brim, and with a dilapidated ruffle round his neck, which had been in its prime years ago, he presented a striking similarity in appearance to the ordinary marauding beggar of the period, such as were then so exceedingly common, and for one of whom, indeed, the landlord took him to be.
As soon as this worthy had ascended, Edmund coolly made for the ladder, but he was motioned back by a sweep of the arm, as the landlord loosely fastened down the door.
"Who might you be, pray?" he asked, turning to the terror-stricken captive; "and what are you doing here, eh?"
At this sally Sir Thomas Stanley, who had just been exchanging compliments with the Lord Keeper, turned round.
"Who might he be," he laughed, repeating the words he had just overheard; "well, by my troth, Sir George, he does not remember his own servant, even the one he sent about my sack. You have been priming him with his own ale and this is the result.
"Not a drop," interrupted the baron.
"What do you say?" gasped out the astonished innkeeper. "This rascally knave a servant of mine! Pooh, does he look like it, I ask you? You impudent jackanapes," he pursued, as he clutched the unfortunate Edmund by the collar. "What are you here for, eh? What are you here for? Speak."
So far was Edmund from complying with this command that he remained absolutely silent. He dare not open his mouth for fear that Sir George would recognise his voice.
"Prowling about for as much as he can lay hold of, I'll warrant me," continued his captor, addressing Sir Thomas Stanley, who had advanced towards them. "How long has he been here, my lord?"
"Nay, I know not," said Sir Thomas. "I saw him but just before you came up."
"Then you may satisfy yourself that he had watched us out," replied the other sharply, "and was surprised enough to find anyone left up here."
"Like enough," assented the baron.
"He was pretty smart with his tricks, then," said Sir Thomas. "How was he to know I wanted any sack, I should like to know?"
The question was unanswerable, and no one attempted to reply.
"How did you know that, eh?" asked the proprietor, emphasising the question by a series of hearty shakings.
Still there was no answer; Edmund would not speak.
"Did you see him enter?" asked Sir Nicholas.
"I did not know he was in the room until he tapped me on the shoulder. I was watching the play."
"These rogues are wonderfully sharp," muttered Sir George.
"Then probably he was in the room all the time," suggested the Lord Keeper.
"What did the rascal say to you, my lord?" went on the tavern keeper.
"He asked me whether I would have my sack spiced or no."
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Sir George; "that was cool enough, at any rate. I think we ought to let the knave free this time for his wit."
"And let him prey on somebody else?" added Sir Nicholas.
"Bad policy, Sir George, bad policy. He might try his hand on you next time."
"I wonder how much property of mine he has taken already?" continued the host. "I will have him thoroughly searched. I know the rascal well enough, he's been here before now many a time. There's a whole lot of them prowling around the neighbourhood; a regular gang. I'll make an example of this one, I will. You might as well give me what you have taken," he added, turning to his captive, "and save me the labour of taking it from you."
"I have nothing of yours," replied Edmund, in a strangely foreign voice.
"Not been through the house yet, maybe, eh!"
"Humph, I don't believe you. Here, Hugh," he cried, hearing the ostler moving about below, "come up here."
Edmund's quondam friend and fellow conspirator came up in answer to the summons in no very enviable frame of mind, anticipating very correctly what was about to take place, and debating within himself what course of action to pursue. He quickly decided, however, that inasmuch as he had not yet possessed himself of the money due to him from the captive, that he would screen him as far as he was able—compatibly with his own safety.
"What's this fellow doing here?" demanded his master, as soon as Hugh stepped into the room.
"Can't say, sir," replied Hugh, gazing at Edmund with well-simulated surprise, "maybe he's in drink."
"A likely story, that. Do drunken folk climb up ladders, eh?"
"Not always, sir."
"How long has he been up here, now?"
"Never seen him afore, sir," returned the unabashed ostler, with an air of perfect candour.
"You will be getting into serious trouble some day if you don't be careful to speak the truth," exclaimed his master, "so I warn you, sir. Now, out with it; he was here when you went down."
"I had not seen him then, by the blessed Virgin I had not. I have never clap't eyes on the knave before!"
"Now, mind, I warn you, so be careful."
"I had only just got up, master; upon my word I had. I had not sufficient time to see anybody before you came and sent me down," and at the remembrance of that event he stepped back a pace or two in order that his previous experience might not be repeated.
"You good-for-nothing rascal you!" broke out the landlord. "I stood and watched you myself, you were looking at the play. Get you gone, you idle vagabond," he added, in high dudgeon, "get you gone, and bring me up some stout cord."
Glad to escape, Hugh quickly made his exit, having come off far more easily than at one time he feared. He reappeared in a short time, but with empty hands.
"Well, where's the cord?" angrily enquired his master.
"An it please you, sir," he replied, with a sly wink at Edmund, "I cannot find one strong enough to bear him."
"You can't hang him yet; let him have a proper trial. There has been naught proved against him as yet," eagerly interrupted the baron, upon whom the lesson of his own trouble had not been lost.
"He shall have a proper trial, my lord," exclaimed the landlord, "and to-morrow we shall have him in the pillory. The proprietor of the Cock Tavern is no hangman; I only wanted to bind him. Fetch me a piece of cord, you knave, and be quick, or I'll lay it about your back when it does come. Nay, you don't do that," he added, turning to Edmund, who was struggling to free himself; "not yet, my fine fellow. I have not done with thee yet," and by Sir Nicholas' timely help the prisoner was laid upon his back and then firmly secured with the cords which the ostler brought up a minute later.
Leaving Edmund to bemoan his fate to himself, the party drew nigh to the window to witness the play afresh. They were just in time to witness the advent of another "silent scene."
"Let me explain it to you," proffered the once more equable Boniface. "I know all about these things, they oft-times visit us here. I know every bit of this play as well as I know my creed."
"Happen you may not be very familiar with the creed, though," laughed Sir Thomas.
"Don't I know it, though?" he replied. "Sir Nicholas, if I might be pardoned for mentioning it, knows full well that every citizen of London knows the creed by heart."
"Yes," assented the Lord Keeper, "everyone is compelled to attend some church at least once a Sabbath."
"Or else they are smartly fined for staying away, as I was," ruefully added the landlord. "Yes, my lords, I know my creed full well."
"Well, what's that fellow drinking now?" asked Sir George.
"He's fainting, poor fellow," replied Sir Thomas.
"Fainting," laughed the host, "fainting! not a bit of it. He is drinking some of my best Malmesey wine, that's what he is doing; only you must think he is taking poison. He is Gorboduc, the king."
"Oh, I forgot, you know naught of him as yet. Well, he, a king of Britain years ago, has just told everybody that the kingdom is to be divided between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex. Some of his councillors advised 'Yes,' and some said 'No,' but the old king was decided upon having his own way, and the land had just been divided between them."
"Get on," said the baron impatiently, as the other paused and finally came to a dead stop. "They are beginning to act again."
"And one of the old councillors strongly advised the king to keep his realm entire," continued the man, "I remember his very words. He told the king how bad any division would be, not only for himself, but also for his sons. He says:—
But worst of all for this our native land. Within one land one single rule is best, Divided reigns do make divided hearts, But peace preserves the country and the prince."
"As correct as the creed itself," whispered Sir Nicholas.
"It may be so," exclaimed the young knight, "but we will let the poetry go. For my part I can't understand that new-fashioned poetry, and I don't want to either. I only like it when it rhymes, like Chaucer."
"That all means," resumed the landlord, "that Queen Mary of Scotland had far better leave our gracious Queen Elizabeth (God bless her) to herself. We don't want Roman Catholic princesses here again, Sir Nicholas."
"No, indeed not. Mary was enough."
Sir George Vernon frowned heavily. He was too sincere a Papist himself to relish such remarks, but he dared not show his displeasure in the face of the Queen's minister.
"And I don't care for poetry anyhow," he gruffly said, "so finish without any more of it if you can."
"I will then. You saw those two mugs offered to the king?"
"Both made of common horn, yes."
"They both came from my bar. One was full of wine, but the other held water."
"Then when my sack comes I would prefer it without the water," Sir Thomas replied, amid a chorus of laughter.
"You exercise your wit upon me, my lord," replied the landlord with some asperity, "but I have not the means wherewith to retort. I am a man of business, not a Court fool." Here he paused, astonished at his own trepidity, and also in fear lest his aristocratic customers should be offended. As he stopped his virtuous indignation passed away, and when he resumed again it was in a tone at once apologetic and placid.
"The water," he continued, "was offered by the good councillors, but Gorboduc took the poison, and now he has drunk it off, so——"
"Look at your prisoner," interrupted Sir Nicholas, "or very soon you will not have one to look after."
Edmund had, in fact, been thrown down just over his knife, and very soon finding this out he had, by dint of considerable trouble, succeeded in cutting the cord which bound his wrists, and was busily engaged in freeing his legs by a similar process when he unfortunately attracted the attention of the Queen's Councillor.
No time was lost in securing him afresh. In spite of his strenuous efforts he was quickly overpowered, and after all his labour he only found himself more hopelessly a prisoner than he had been before.
"Why, the fellow must be bewitched," exclaimed Sir George, "I never saw his like before. Take him away before he does us any injury. Take him away, we don't want him here."
"He is safe enough now, my lord."
"Take him away, I say," repeated the baron. "We want him here no longer. Do you hear me, sirrah! Take him away I say, and lock him up in safety," and amid the oft-continued reiteration of the baron's order, Edmund Wynne was carried below and consigned to the care of the ostler until such time as the gaol officials could be conveniently communicated with.
A CONFESSION OF LOVE.
It was my fortune, common to that age, To love a lady fair, of great degree, The which was born of noble parentage. And set in highest seat of dignity.
The sun was declining, after a gorgeous display of its fiery hues; gilding with a translucent light the grey walls of Haddon, and casting weird shadows on the closely-cropped bowling green, when two figures emerged from the shades of the neighbouring wood and passed into the meadow which lies below the Hall.
Sir George Vernon had not yet returned from London; indeed, nothing but a note from Margaret's lover had given them any information about the two travellers since they had departed, six days ago, and although news of them was now considered overdue, yet, in those days of bad roads and slow travelling, communications from distant places were never, or seldom at best, rapidly transmitted, and, bearing this in mind, no concern was felt on that account.
Haddon, usually so gay, wore for the time being a sombre aspect. Sir George was its life and soul, and now that he was away and exposed to the machinations of enemies who were hungering and thirsting after a share of his riches, a gloom settled down upon the place and enveloped it in an ill-befitting aspect of dreariness. Baits and hunting parties were alike abandoned; no one felt in the humour to participate in gaieties, of whatever kind, so long as the baron was away; and the guests who had assembled to witness the tournament had, with few exceptions, returned to their homes feeling deprived, in a large measure, of that succession of festivities and enjoyments to which they had looked forward with so much expectancy.
Sir Henry was still confined to his room from the injuries which he had received in his encounter with Manners; and Cousin Benedict, who had stayed to take the baron's place during his enforced absence, had found his position so intolerably lonely that he at last took refuge in such copious libations of wine that henceforward his interest in contemporary events entirely ceased.
This air of desolation had infected Lady Vernon, too. Her temper, never of the mildest disposition, now became exceedingly irritable, and finding little consolation forthcoming from Sir Benedict, she vented her spleen with all those with whom she came into contact, and finally shut herself up within her own room and added to the misery of the household by obstinately refusing to hold any intercourse with the family.
Margaret and Dorothy were thus thrown much upon their own resources, and they managed to spend the time wearily enough at the tapestry frame until Manners and Crowleigh paid a visit to the Hall—ostensibly to inquire after the health of the wounded knight. Their arrival, as might be readily imagined, was cordially welcomed by the girls, and nothing beyond a first request was required to induce the two gentlemen to stay; and, so once again, Manners found himself, to his heart's great contentment, housed under the same roof as the lady of his love.
This time, however, he had come with the firm determination to bring matters to a crisis. He felt that his passion for Dorothy could be no longer controlled. Her bearing towards him had fired him with hope, but her position and her surpassing beauty had brought so many suitors to worship at her shrine that he was driven to despair between the conflicting emotions of hope and fear.
For a whole day he waited a favourable opportunity to carry out his purpose, and in vain. The two sisters seemed to be inseparable in this time of trouble, and try as he might he could not get the interview for which he so ardently longed. The fates were unpropitious, and one after another his artifices were defeated until at last he was obliged to fall back upon the assistance of his friend, and ask him, as a last resource, to help him out of his difficulty.
As the shades of evening crept silently on, and the cooler air began to assert itself over the torrid atmosphere of the day, Sir Everard Crowleigh opened the campaign on behalf of his companion by suggesting that a walk would not only be refreshing to the two maidens, but also positively beneficial. "I don't pretend to know much of the skill of the leech," he added, "but I think that fresh country air is the finest physic out for young ladies, both for health and beauty too."
"And maybe 'tis good for gentlemen as well," laughed Dorothy.
"It is the true elixir of life, for which the alchemysts labour in vain to find," exclaimed Manners. "Sir Benedict knows leechcraft, let us take his opinion upon its merits.
"Nay," laughingly responded Margaret, "Cousin Benedict, I fear, is too much engaged in other affairs to attend to us just now."
"Why, how?" asked Crowleigh in surprise, "surely no one would be ungallant enough not to lend their services to two such fair maidens. Never! I cannot conceive it."
"Margaret means," interposed Dorothy, "that he has been taking too much wine again, and then he goes wandering about the cellars and passages until he falls down and goes to sleep. Nobody takes any notice of him now, though, we have all got too familiar with his ways."
"Well, we will go," decided the elder sister, "but which way—north, south, east, or west? Bakewell, Rowsley, or where? Let us determine quickly, for it will soon be dark."
"We are at your service," gallantly responded John Manners. "Any way will suit us equally well." Certainly, provided that the walk was long enough, the direction they should take was of little importance to him. He had a more important matter on his mind.
"Let it be Rowsley way, Margaret," asked Dorothy.
"Well, then," she agreed, "we will say Rowsley, 'tis a pretty walk; but we might first see our venerable protector in safety, then nothing could be nicer. Follow me, brave gentlemen," said Margaret, and the two girls led the way through the banqueting-room and down the stone-flagged passage into the capacious wine cellar below.
Benedict was not there, but it was evident, from signs which could not be mistaken, that he had been there shortly before. All the neighbouring cellars were thoroughly explored, but to no purpose; he could not be discovered, and, finding that he had just been seen in the vicinity of the old archer's room, they turned their feet in that direction, only to find themselves once more baffled when they arrived there.
"No, your ladyships," replied the serving-maid, in answer to their inquiry, "he has gone again just now; you will be sure to find him in the kitchen, though."
"'Tis as good as a badger hunt," laughed Crowleigh, as they trailed into the kitchen again, "but prithee, fair mistress, what shall we gain by discovering the august knight?"
"In truth I cannot tell," replied Dorothy; "but, trust me, Margaret has some plan or other in her head.
"Yes," said Margaret, "but see him, here he is; the master of the house, our guardian, our protector; behold him where he lies," and she pointed to where the too festive knight lay doubled uncomfortably up in the salting trough.
"I expected about as much," she went on, "and I want to cure him; what shall we do?"
"Salt him," slyly suggested Dorothy, "that is the usual way."
"Fasten him down in the box for the night," suggested Crowleigh.
"We will," she said; "here is the lid, we can easily fasten it down so that he cannot undo it, and we will have a peep at him to see that he is not smothered when we come back."
In accordance with this decision Sir Benedict was unconsciously made a prisoner, as securely as any culprit in Derby gaol, and leaving him in this position the merry quartette started off upon their evening stroll.
Disdaining the highway, they followed the beaten path which led through the wood to Rowsley, Crowleigh doing his part to aid his friend by walking on with Margaret in front, and so deeply engaged her interest by recounting some of his adventures in badger hunting that she entirely forgot her sister, who followed behind her in a more leisurely fashion with Master Manners.
In vain the anxious esquire sought to broach the topic which lay so near to his heart; the words would not come, and beyond a few gallant and courtier-like remarks—to the like of which Dorothy had often listened beforetimes with impatience—he could not succeed; and when at last he began to give expression to his feelings, it was in a wild and almost incoherent manner.
As for the maiden who lightly tripped by his side, although she wore a sober, pensive look, yet she was filled with a silent joy, and the great fire of love which was burning in her breast she found difficult to control. With that quick and subtle faculty which belongs to womankind alone she had intuitively guessed his mission at the outset, and with perceptions rendered keener by the intensity of her passion, she was on the alert to detect his advances and respond to them with a due amount of proper maidenly reserve. Finding, however, that he was slow to approach the subject, yet feeling sure of his intentions and fearing lest the opportunity should slip by, she sought to precipitate his movements by a few, delicate hints.
"Why, we are all alone," she exclaimed, "Wherever can my sister be? Let us hasten on."
"She is in safe hands, fair Dorothy," he replied, "and you will not be missed awhile."
Dorothy noted with satisfaction that he had dropped the "Mistress" from before her name, and this, she argued, denoted that he was awakening at last, and encouraged her to venture again with another remark.
"Margaret is such a scold," she teasingly said; "I fear we must really hasten forward."
"Nay, we will not hurry, we should not catch her now were we to try."
"Why not, prithee?"
"Because—because: well, do not let us try," he responded. He had fully meant to have declared his love to her then, but that "because" stuck in his throat and blocked up all the other words he would have said. The very intensity of his love hindered him from declaring his passion.
"What would Sir Thomas Stanley say if he knew Sir Everard were out courting with Meg?" wickedly suggested Dorothy. "Would he not be in a towering rage?"
"There would be another tournament, maybe," laughed Manners, not noticing the tender tone in which his fair companion had addressed him.
"Poor De la Zouch will remember his attempt to provide amusement for us for some time yet, I fear," she continued coquettishly. As her previous efforts had led to nothing, she had started afresh in another vein, mentally resolving that her companion was wretchedly slow in responding to her advances.
"I fear he will," he replied; "but he is improving, I hear. Sir Benedict seems to understand his case."
"He is like to be scarred for life, though," Dorothy returned. "Poor Sir Henry."
"You are sorry for him," exclaimed Manners, who felt a little piqued at the tone of Dorothy's reply, as, indeed, she intended he should be.
"Yes," she said, "I am; very sorry."
Manners bit his lip with annoyance, and made a foolish remark.
"Ha, he was your lover, perchance?" he said.
Dorothy flushed up hotly at the taunt. Manners saw it, and would have done much to have recalled his hasty words, but they were gone.
"Master Manners!" Doll exclaimed, turning quickly round upon him; "I have spurned him; I have told him what I think. Once and for ever have I refused him, and he knows I shall not change."
"Fair Dorothy, sweet Dorothy," Manners penitently exclaimed, dropping hurriedly upon his knees; "you shall be my queen. Forgive me—or condemn. I sue you for your pardon, nor will I rise until I have gained it."
"I will visit you to-morrow, then," she said, turning to go. "Farewell."
Her voice was sweet again, and her brow was once more clear.
"You have forgiven me?" he cried, rising up and following her.
"What, sir knight?" she exclaimed, in feigned surprise, "risen, eh? Upon my word, you are a fickle cavalier. Well, I suppose I must extend my clemency to you. At what price will you be willing to purchase my forgiveness?"
Manners was just going to tell her he would give himself and all he had to her if she would take it, but a sudden bend in the path brought them face to face with Margaret and Crowleigh, and the words were left unspoken.
It needed no question to inform Sir Everard that his friend's mission was not accomplished yet. He looked to see the sparkling eyes and a countenance beaming with delight, but was met by a face the very picture of disappointment; and shrewdly seeing that their company would be in no wise acceptable at such a juncture, he adroitly led Margaret on, still an interested listener to his wonderful tales, and intimating that they were returning to Haddon, they passed the lovers by.
For a time Dorothy and Manners walked on in perfect silence, the one preparing to pour out the story of his love, and the other waiting and expecting the declaration.
"We had better retrace our steps now," exclaimed Dorothy at length.
They turned round and began to wend their way again towards the Hall, in a silence that was positively painful to both.
"You are dreaming, Master Manners," she exclaimed, as they neared the narrow bridge which spans the Wye just outside the gates of Haddon.
"Come, sir, declare your thoughts; let me be your confessor, for I will shrive thee right easily, and the penance shall be pleasant enough, I assure thee. Now confess!"
"I was thinking of—of love," he stammered out.
"Love! then I forgive thee," she exclaimed with a beating heart, "'tis a common sin. Proceed, my son."
"I was thinking of a little poem."
"Oh!" That was a disappointing continuation.
"'Twas a verse of Sir Thomas Wyatt's. Shall I tell it thee?"
"'Hide nothing from me,' as Father Philip says," replied Doll, brightening up again, for she was well acquainted with the verse of that unfortunate nobleman, which was almost all on the subject of love. She thought she knew the verse which he would tell her, nor was she mistaken. Almost everyone knew that verse, even if they knew none other.
The young esquire fixed his eyes upon her, and began—
A face that should content me wondrous well. Should not be fair, but lovely to behold; Of lively look, all grief for to repel, With right good grace as would I that it should Speak, without words, such words as none can tell, Her tress also should be of crisped gold; With wit, and these, I might perchance be tried, And knit again with knot that should not slide.
"Then I perceive you are difficult to please, my son," she replied.
"Listen, stay Dorothy," he said, quickly, as she stepped upon the footbridge, "surely that means you. Oh, Dorothy, let me speak. I must tell you. I cannot let you depart yet. I love you. I have loved you ever since I saw you first."
He paused, but as the maiden did not speak, he continued.
"Ever since the hawking party I have loved you. Do you remember that?"
"I do," she demurely replied.
"Nay, stay, leave me not thus," he cried, as Dorothy unconsciously moved. "You must stay, you must listen. Dorothy, I cannot flatter you like some; I speak the truth. I cannot live without you make me happy. Will you be mine?"
"But, sir knight—"
"Nay," he interrupted, "say it is so. I am no knight, I am but a simple esquire, but though you be the daughter of the rich King of the Peak—"
"Nay, do not talk like that," she interrupted quickly.
"Let me do something to show the vastness of my love," he went on. "What shall it be? Bid me do aught, or go anywhere; command me what you will, but say you love me."
"And if I do, what then?"
"What then?" he echoed; "I would live or die for you—for you alone."
"I do love you, then," she replied, with downcast eyes and blushing face.
Manners stood up erect, and glanced straight into the honest eyes of the beautiful girl as she stood on the bridge beside him.
"You do?" he exclaimed; "say it again."
"I do love you." she repeated; "and will be yours for ever if you love me as you say."
"What!" he cried, "you, the fair Dorothy Vernon, the Princess of the Peak, the fairest jewel in the land, you give yourself to me—John Manners, a simple esquire? I can scarce believe my ears."
"I will show you. John," she replied; "my life shall prove it. I have loved you dearly ever since that self-same hunt"; and permitting her love-troth to be sealed by a kiss, she buried her fair face in his bosom and quietly wept in the excess of her joy.
FATHER PHILIP'S ACCIDENT.
And thou hast loved him! Faith, what next? It had been better far for thee That thou had'st ne'er been born, than this. Brood on thy folly, and return, But when thou hast repented on't.
A WOMAN'S WHIM.
As the two lovers, happy in their newly-pledged love-troth, entered the gateway of the Hall they were encountered by the news that Father Philip had met with an accident. Margaret and Sir Everard Crowleigh had not yet returned, and messengers were even then, by the chamberlain's commands, preparing to go out to secure aid.
"'Tis a sad mishap, my lady," said that functionary, as Dorothy entered. "That stupid old horse of his threw him against a tree, and we cannot find Sir Benedict anywhere; the poor father is bleeding to death. He's dying, my lady, dying; what will the baron do if he return?"
"Hush! Thomas, of course he will return."
"May the blessed Virgin take pity on us," pursued the wretched man, "there is an evil spirit o'er the place. Someone is working a spell against us."
"Where is the father?" asked Manners abruptly.
"He lies in the chaplain's room; I can hear him groaning now. The saints look down in——"
Dorothy passed on, heeding not the continued invocations which the old man made to all the saints in the calendar, and led her lover into the little room in which the unfortunate priest lay.
The portly form of Father Philip lay stretched at full length upon a wooden bench, and the room resounded with his painful groans. As they approached nearer to him they could see the fearful injuries he had received; and the continued reiteration of the sufferer that he was about to die needed no other confirmation than a glance at his pale face, upon which the mark of death was plainly written.
Father Philip, despite his faults, was universally beloved in the neighbourhood—by the poor for the bounty he dispensed at the gates from the well-stocked larder of the knight; by the rich because he was by far the best tale-teller of the district, and the success of a feast at which he was present was at once assured; and by the children generally, for the confections and little silver pence he bestowed upon them, along with his kind word and cheery smile, in a most liberal manner.
At Haddon he was a prime favourite with all alike. He had entered the service of the Vernons soon after the monasteries were dissolved, in the time of Henry VIII., and had grown old in his office. Throughout the critical and changeful reigns of Edward and Mary, as well as the early years of Elizabeth's time, he had, in spite of all the attempts made to oust him, retained his position as confessor to the family and priest of the chapel at Haddon, and, as he had christened Margaret, he was looking forward with pleasurable expectancy to the occasion when he would be called upon to marry her also.
Leaving Dorothy standing on the threshold of the doorway, Manners advanced to the injured man's side, and endeavoured to sooth him by instilling into his mind a ray of hope.
"O, Dorothy," gasped the priest, disregarding the words of his would-be comforter, "I am dying, dying like a dog. O, for some of Dame Durden's simples now. For the blessed Virgin's sake fetch Sir Benedict. O, dear! O, dear!" and he sank back with a groan.
Dorothy turned, and with a fast-beating heart hastened to deliver the captive knight, while her lover endeavoured to staunch the flow of blood by binding the wound tightly up in strips of cloth.
By dint of much shaking and shouting cousin Benedict was at last roused from his drunken sleep, and also at last was made to understand somewhat of the exigencies of the case for which his aid was needed.
"I will come soon," he exclaimed, in answer to Dorothy's entreaties.
"You must come now!" she replied, in a peremptory tone, which admitted of no prevarication.
"Where is the wine?" he asked, as he rubbed his eyes and glanced around; "why, this is the kitchen."
"Come along, Benedict; Father Philip is dying, I tell you. Do you understand?"
Benedict a Woode stood up as still as he was able, and rubbed off a quantity of the salt which tenaciously adhered to his garments, then, noticing for the first time that he was in the great salt trough, he exclaimed in a tone of great surprise, "What! have I been here?"
"You have," she answered severely, "but why do you not come and succour Father Philip? He is bleeding to death, while you, who are staying here, might help him."
As the knight rapidly collected his scattered senses, he became more and more ashamed of himself; and now, clambering out of his ignominious confinement, with bowed head and tottering feet he humbly followed his fair companion across the yard. Not even the gigantic vat, which was still steaming from a recent brew, the pungent odour of which could be plainly scented, induced him to alter his course; he meekly entered the room at Dorothy's heels.
Whatever effects of his recent indulgence remained with him before he entered the room, they were quickly dispelled as he beheld the pallid countenance of his friend, and falling down upon his knees, he scrutinised the injuries the venerable father had received.
A brief examination satisfied Benedict that, unskilled as he was, the case was entirely beyond his power, and he knew not what to do. He unloosened the bandages which Manners had made, and let the already over-bled man bleed still more; and then, bethinking himself of summoning superior aid, he hastily concocted a dose of simples, which the sufferer could with difficulty be prevailed upon to take, despatched a mounted messenger to Derby, and sat himself down at the foot of the bench to await the course of events.
The effect produced by the dose was evidently what Benedict had wished, and for a long time the sufferer was far more quiet.
"O, Benedict," he feebly exclaimed, "my head, my head!"
"Well, it will be better soon."
"Nay, I know I'm dying; 'twas a fatal fall, and I cannot shrive myself."
Benedict saw that his patient was getting excited, and he mixed another draught, which the father absolutely refused to take.
"Oh, dear, I'm dying, dying," he gasped.
"Tut, man! rubbish. There's life enough left yet in you. We shall be out together again in a day or two."
"Send for another brother," pursued the unfortunate man. "I am dying; my end has come, and I know it."
"Tut, man!" returned the knight, "I tell you you will be better soon."
"A witch told me I should die like this," continued the father obstinately, "and the time has come. I am too old to survive it now."
"Go to sleep, father," interrupted Manners, "you ought not to talk now; you want rest."
"Yes, sleep," assented a Woode.
"I cannot, I am dying," he gasped; and he groaned in agony again and again.
"Father Philip," interposed Dorothy, "you must rest yourself. Master Manners is a soldier and has seen many hurt like you, and even worse; you must do his bidding an you would get well again."
"What in the name of faith does all this mean?" asked Margaret, as she stepped into the room. "What is all this stir and commotion about?"
"I am dying, Margaret," repeated the confessor, as he gasped for very breath. "I thought to marry thee, my daughter, but now it is denied me. You will pray for the repose of the soul of Father Philip, will you not?" he inquired, looking up into her face as she bent over him.
"When you are dead, yes," she replied, "but not until."
"Don't talk to him, Mistress Margaret," said Manners; "he will only injure himself by talking in return. I have enjoined quietness, but he will take no heed. He ought to refresh himself by quietness, and sleep if possible, does he not; is not that correct, Everard?"
"Aye, it is indeed,"
"I shall be dead soon, Margaret, and—"
"Go to sleep, man, or at least lie still," growled a Woode. "What is the use of all my care and simples if you won't do as I order you?"
"And you will ask the baron to forgive an old man's follies, Margaret?" slowly pursued the father, between the gasps, quite heedless of the counsel given him to remain silent.
"I'll stop this," Sir Benedict broke in savagely, as he proceeded to tie the bandages on afresh. "Father Philip, you shall be silent, or die you must. That's better," he exclaimed, as his patient fell back unconscious. "He will, perforce, be quiet now awhile, and we may safely remove him to his room."
"Is he badly hurt, think you?" asked Margaret.
"I don't think he will ever get better again," Benedict gravely replied; "he is old, and it is a terrible wound."
"Neither do I think he will weather it," added Crowleigh; "I have seen men hurt like that before, fair Mistress Margaret, and we soldiers soon recognise the mark of death."
Slowly and with great care the poor father was carried into the hall, and as soon as he was laid upon his bed, seeing that there were no signs of returning consciousness, Margaret and Dorothy quietly retired.
"Meg," exclaimed the younger sister, with glistening eyes, as they sat in cheerless solitude before the blazing logs in their own room, "I have something to tell thee, and I shall mayhap want your aid ere I have done."
She stopped short, to see if her sister had guessed her secret, but it was apparently undiscovered, so she went on.
"I don't expect Lady Maude will be very willing; she always opposes us, does she not?"
"Sometimes," said Margaret drily.
"He is not so rich as De la Zouch," pursued Dorothy, "so I don't think she will agree to it at first."
"To what? What do you mean? Father Philip's accident has turned your head, I verily believe," replied her sister, as a terrible suspicion of the truth flashed into her imagination.
"Nay, Meg, dear, listen. I have plighted my troth to-night."
Margaret jumped from her seat as if stung, and her face turned livid with anger.
"What!" she exclaimed, "you have dared to plight your troth to Master Manners?"
"To John Manners, yes."
Her voice was quiet and her bearing firm, nor was she half so agitated as her sister, a fact which Margaret was slow to understand.
"Speak fair, Dorothy," she said, as she tried to persuade herself that she had misunderstood her meaning. "None of your riddles for me. You are joking, surely."
"Nay, I am in earnest, Meg. Ask him yourself; he will tell you whether I was joking an hour ago. De la Zouch knows I would perish rather than be his countess. I told him so myself. And oh! Meg, dear, I am so happy now, for I love John Manners so very, very much."
"'Tis a sad night's work for you", burst out Margaret. "What right have you, prithee, to make arrangements such as these? You are to be betrothed to a brother of Sir Thomas Stanley. Edward is coming from the Isle of Man within a month to arrange it all, and a nice affair have you made it with your forwardness."
"Edward Stanley?" echoed Doll, in blank dismay.
"Never," she replied, decisively; "I will have none of him, nor could I if I would. I am betrothed already."
"You foolish child," returned Margaret. I must rate this Master Manners for his presumption. Sir Thomas will have talked the matter over with your father ere now, as they journeyed up to London."
"It will be of no use even if he has. John Manners has my pledge, and I shall keep it with him, too."