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CHAPTER XX.

THE CONSPIRACY.


Like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out.

Shakespeare.


In the days of our earlier history, our commerce led us to have more intercourse with Flanders than with France. That which journeyed slowly and doubtfully from Paris came in all the heat of a first impression from the Low Countries. A train had been laid before, which now took light and blazed through the kingdom. The duchess of Burgundy's reception of the duke of York, the honours rendered him at her court, the glad gathering together of the fugitive English, gave pledge of his truth, and promise of glorious results. Sedition began to spring up in England on every side; even as, after a mild rain in the birth of the year, a black, ploughed field is suddenly verdant with the young blades of wheat. All who had, since the battles of Bosworth and of Stoke, lived in seclusion or fear; all who from whatever reason had taken sanctuary; men of ruined fortunes, who desired to escape bondage; came singly or in small companies to the coast, embarked for the continent, and hastened to the court of the dowager of Burgundy. All discontented men, who felt themselves looked coldly on by Tudor, to whom they had yielded the throne of their native land; many, whom it grieved and vexed to see the world stagnate in changeless peace, desirous of novelty and glad of any pretence that called them into activity, dashed headlong into revolt; nor were there few, chiefly indeed among the nobility, who had lamented the fall of the House of York, and hailed gladly this promise of its resuscitation. The common adventurers and soldiers of fortune acted on their single separate resolves; the noble adherents of the White Rose drew together, that there might be plan and strength in their schemes. They were cautious, for their enemy was crafty and powerful; they were resolute, for they hated him.

Out, far in the low flats bordering the river Lea, there stood, in a marshy hollow, a straggling village, now effaced from the landscape. At its extremity was a solid, but gloomy, square brick house, surrounded by a moat, which the low watery soil easily filled, even to overflow; and the superfluity was received in a deep stagnant pool at the back of the mansion. The damp atmosphere had darkened the structure, and thrown a mantle of green moss and speckled lichen over the bricks. Its fantastically carved and heavy portal yawned like a black cavern's mouth, and added to the singularly desolate appearance of the mansion. The village was but half inhabited, and looked as struck by poverty and discomfort. The house belonged to the Clifford family. It had been built, it was said, in Henry the Fifth's time, when Sir Roger Clifford, a stern old man, following his sovereign to the wars, shut up here his beautiful young wife, so to insure her fidelity during his absence. Among her peers and gentle companions, the Lady Clifford had doubtless been true to the bond that linked her to her lord; but, alone in this solitary mansion, surrounded by ill-natured peasants, pining for her father's pleasant halls, and her girlish enjoyments, no wonder that she found her state intolerable. Age and jealousy are ill mates for youth and sprightliness, and suspicion easily begets that which it abhors even to imagine. One who had loved her in her virgin days introduced himself into her suite; the brief months of stolen happiness passed by, and the green stagnant pool was, they said, the cold sepulchre of the betrayed lovers. Since then, during the wars of York and Lancaster, this house had been the resort of Clifford's followers: and, when the White Rose became supreme, that alone of the family possessions had not been forfeited to the crown: it was the last relic of Sir Robert's fortunes. His few tenantry, hard pressed for rent to satisfy his necessities, had deserted their abodes; the green acres had passed into other hands; a band of poor cotters alone remained, and this old house haunted by the ghosts of those who slept beneath the waveless pool, dilapidated, disfurnished. Yet here the wild knight had held lawless carousals; hither he sometimes fled to hide after some ruinous loss, or when he was pursued by those who sought to avenge insults committed during drunken brawls.

Now it would seem some orgie was meditated: liveried servants, one or two only bearing Clifford's coat, the rest wearing different badges, as belonging to different masters, had arrived during the previous day. Some of the ruined huts were pulled down to supply firewood, and the old chimnies sent out volumes of smoke; various carts, laden, some with eatables, fat bucks, young calves, pheasants, hares, and partridges, piles of bread, seven hooped casks of wine, were unladen in the mildew-stained hall. Other carts followed the first, bearing bedding, apparel, furniture, and, it was whispered by the idling villagers, arms. Several apartments were strewed thick with rushes, and the blazing fires, in spite of the tattered plaster and stained ceilings, imparted cheerfulness to the rooms. There was need of internal warmth; a thick snow-storm fell, sheeting the low fields, which, uninterspersed by trees, now looked doubly wild and drear. The waters of the moat and pool were frozen; a sharp north wind whistled round the house. For the first time for many years its poor dependents were cheered during the severe season by the crumbs, or rather large portions of superfluous food, from the mansion of their landlord.

The first guest that arrived came in a close litter, attended by a Moorish servant, and Clifford himself on horseback. Monina had forgotten her Flemish home: bright Andalusia—its orange groves, myrtle and geranium hedges, the evergreen forests which embowered Alcala, and the fertile laughing Vega of Granada, formed her image of such portions of fair earth, as, unencumbered by houses, afforded on its green and various surface sustenance to his inhabitants. She shivered before the northern blast, and gazed appalled on the white plain, where the drifting snow shifted in whole showers as the wind passed over it. The looks of the people, sallow, ill-clothed, and stupid, made her turn from contemplating them, as she yet answered the contemptuous and plaintive remarks of her Spanish attendant in a cheerful, deprecating voice.

For two successive days other guests continued to arrive. They were chiefly men of note, yet came attended by few domestics. There was Lord Fitzwater, dissatisfied at the part of rebel he was forced, he thought, to play; and on that account he was louder than any against King Henry. Sir Simon Mountford was a Yorkist of the days of Edward the Fourth; he personally bated Richmond, and looked on Richard's as a sacred cause. Sir Thomas Thwaites had been a friend of the earl of Rivers, and gladly seized this occasion to avenge his death, attributable to the dastardly policy of Henry. William Daubeny was attached to the earl of Warwick, and entered warmly into projects whose success crowned his freedom. Sir Robert Ratcliffe, cousin of Lord Fitzwater, had lived in poor disguise since the battle of Stoke, and gladly threw off his peasant's attire to act the soldier again in a new war of the Roses. Sir Richard Lessey had been chaplain to the household of Edward the Fourth. Sir William Worseley, dean of St. Paul's, was a rare instance of gratitude outliving the period of receiving benefits; he had been a creature, and was a sincere mourner, of the late queen. Many others, clergy and laity, entered the plot; a thousand different motives impelled them to one line of conduct, and brought them to Clifford's moated house, to conspire the overthrow of Tudor, and the exaltation of the duke of York to the throne. One only person invited to this assembly failed. Sir William Stanley; each voice was loud against his tergiversation, and Clifford's whispered sarcasm cut deeper than all.

The debates and consultations lasted three days. After infinite confusion and uncertainty, the deliberations brought forth conclusions that were resolved upon unanimously. First, the house they then occupied, and the village, was to be a repository for arms, a rendezvous for the recruits of the cause. The conspirators levied a tax on themselves, and collected some thousand pounds to be remitted to the prince. They regulated a system, whose object was to re-awaken party-spirit in England, and to quicken into speedy growth the seeds of discontent and sedition, which Henry's avarice and extortion had sown throughout the land. Those who possessed estates and followers were to organize troops. At last, they deputed two of their number to go over to the duchess of Burgundy, and to carry their offers of service to her royal nephew. The two selected for this purpose were, first, Sir Robert Clifford, who had known the duke formerly, and who, it was supposed, would be peculiarly welcome to him; and secondly. Master William Barley, a man advanced in years; he had combated in nearly all the twelve pitched and sanguinary battles that were fought between York and Lancaster. He had been a boy-servitor to the old duke of York, a yeoman of Edward's guard, a halberdier in Richard the Third's time. He had been left for dead on the field of Bosworth, but came to life again to appear at the battle of Stoke. He had risen in the world, and was a man of substance and reputation: he was not noble; but he was rich, zealous, and honest.

The meeting lasted three days, and then gradually dispersed. All had gone well. An assembly, whose individuals were noble, wealthy, or influential, united to acknowledge Richard as their liege. Foreign potentates declared for him; and hope was high in every bosom at all these forerunners of success. Monina'a enthusiastic heart beat with ecstasy. Young, the innocent child of unsophisticated impulse, her gladness showed itself in wild spirits and unconstrained expressions of exultation. She and Clifford returned to London together, for he contrived tacitly and unsuspected by her, to install himself as her habitual escort. Happy in expectation of her beloved friend's success, she talked without reserve; and the genius, which was her soul's essence, gave power and fascination to everything she said. She spoke of Spain, of Richard's adventures there, of her father and his voyages. The name of Columbus was mentioned; and the New World—source of wondrous conjecture. They spoke of the desolate waste of waters that hems in the stable earth—of the golden isles beyond: to all these subjects Monina brought vivid imagery, and bright painting, creations of her own quick fancy. Clifford had never before held such discourse. In hours of sickness or distaste, at moments of wild exhilaration, when careering on a high-mettled horse beneath the stars of night, fanned by a strong but balmy wind, he had conceived ideas allied to the lofty aspirations of our nature; but he cast them off as dreams, unworthy of a wise man's attention. The melodious voice of Monina, attuned by the divine impulses of her spirit, as the harp of the winds by celestial breezes, raised a commotion in his mind, such as a prophetess of Delphi felt when the oracular vapour rose up to fill her with sacred fury. A word, a single word, was a potent northern blast to dash aside the mist, and to re-apparel the world in its, to him, naked, barren truth. So fervently, and so sweetly did she speak of Richard, that Clifford's burning heart was in a moment alight with jealousy; and the love he despised, and thought he mastered, became his tyrant, when it allied itself to his evil passions. He looked angry, he spoke sharply—Monina was astonished; but his libellous insinuations fell innocuous on her pure mind: she only felt that she feared him, half-disliked him, and, trembling and laughing as she spoke, said, "Well, well; I will not care for your angry mood. You are going soon: ere you return, our prince will, by his own bright example, have taught you better things. Learn from him diligently, sir knight, for he is all courtesy and nobleness."

Clifford laughed bitterly, and a base resolve of lowering the high-hearted York to his own degrading level arose in his breast: it was all chaos there as yet; but the element, which so lately yielded to a regular master-wind of ambition, was tossed in wild and hideous waves by—we will not call the passion love—by jealousy, envy, and growing hate. Short interval was allowed for the gathering of the storm; lie was soon called upon to fulfil his commission, and to accompany Master William Barley on their important embassy to Brussels.

The scene here presented, operated a considerable change on these personages; arriving from England, where the name of the White Rose was whispered, and every act in his favour was hid in the darkness of skulking conspiracy, to his court at Brussels, where noble followers clustered round him, and the duchess, with a woman's tact and a woman's zeal, studied how best to give importance and splendour to his person and pretensions. The spirit of the Yorkist party, in spite of her natural mildness, still glowed in the bosom of this daughter of Henry the Sixth's unhappy rival,—the child of disaster, and bride of frantic turbulence. Opposed to the remorseless Louis the Eleventh, struggling with the contentious insolence of the free towns of Flanders, war appeared to her the natural destiny of man, and she yielded to its necessity, while her gentle heart sorrowed over the misery which it occasioned.

She first received Clifford and Barley; and with the winning grace of a sovereign, solicited for her nephew their affection and support: then she presented them to him—this was the fair-haired, blue-eyed boy, whom Clifford saved, the gentle, noble-looking being, whose simplicity awed him; whose bright smile said, "I reign over every heart." The knight shrunk into himself: how had he dyed his soul in a worldliness which painted his countenance in far other colours.—He was not deficient in grace: his dark-grey eyes, veiled by long lashes, were in themselves exceedingly handsome: the variableness of his face, traced with many unseasonable lines, yet gave him the power of assuming a pleasing expression; and his person, though diminutive, was eminently elegant, while his self-possession and easy address, covered a multitude of faults. Now, his first resolve was to insinuate himself into Richard's affections; to become a favourite; and consequently to lead him blindly on the path he desired he should tread.

The prince's spirits were high; his soul exulted in the attachment of others, in the gratitude that animated him. Until Clifford's arrival (Edmund was for the time in England), Sir George Neville, among his new friends, held the first place. He was proud and reserved; but his aristocracy was so blended with honour, his reserve with perfect attention and deference to the feeling of others, that it was impossible not to esteem him, and find pleasure in his society. Clifford and Neville made harsh discord together. Richard, inexperienced in the world, sought to harmonize that which never could accord: Neville drew back; and Clifford's good humour, and apparent forbearance, made him appear to advantage.

At this period ambassadors from Henry arrived at Brussels: they had been expected; and as a measure of precaution, Richard left that place before their arrival, and took up his temporary abode at Audenarde, a town which made part of the dowry of the Duchess Margaret. All the English, save Lady Brampton, attended him to his retreat. The ambassadors, in their audience with the archduke, demanded the expulsion of Richard from the Low Countries, taunting the duchess with her support of the notorious impostor, Lambert Simnel, and speaking of the duke of York as a fresh puppet of her own making. They received the concise reply—that the gentleman she recognized as her nephew, inhabited the territory of her dowry, of which she was sovereign, and over which the archduke had no jurisdiction: however, that no disturbance might occur in their commercial relations, which would have roused all Flanders to rebellion, Maximilian was obliged to temporize, and to promise to afford no aid to the illustrious exile.

Their audience accomplished, the ambassadors had only to return. They remained but one night at Brussels: on this night. Sir Edward Poynings and Doctor Wattam, who fulfilled this mission, were seated over a cup of spiced wine, in discourse concerning these strange events, the Lady Margaret's majestic demeanour, and the strangeness of her supporting this young man, if indeed he were an impostor; when a cavalier, whose soiled dress and heated appearance bespoke fatigue and haste, entered the room. It was Sir Robert Clifford: they received him as liege subjects may receive a traitor, with darkened brows and serious looks. Clifford addressed them in his usual careless style:—"Saint Thomas shield me, my masters; can you not afford one benison to your gossip! Good Sir Edward, we have ruffled together, when we wore both white and red in our caps; and does the loss of a blood-stained rag degrade me from your friendship?"

The bitter accusations of the knight, and the doctor's sarcasms, which were urged in reply, awoke a haughty smile. "Oh, yes!" he cried, "ye are true men, faithful liege subjects! I, an inheritance of the block, already marked for quartering, because I am for the weak right, you for the strong might. Right, I say—start not—the mother of God be my witness! Duke Richard is Duke Richard—is lord of us all—true son of the true king, Ned of the White Rose, whom you swore to protect, cherish, and exalt; you, yes, even you, sir knight. Where is now your oath? cast from heaven, to pave the hell where you will reap the meed of your lying treachery!"

Clifford, always insolent, was doubly so now that he felt accused of crimes of which he did not deem himself guilty; but which would (so an obscure presentiment told him) hereafter stain his soul. Doctor Wattam interposed before Poyning's rising indignation: "Wherefore come you here, Sir Robert?" he asked. "Though we are envoys of the king you have betrayed, we may claim respect: Sir Edward, as a gentleman and a cavalier—I as an humble servitor of the Lord Jesus, in whose name I command you not to provoke to a bloody deed the messengers of peace."

"Cease to taunt me with a traitor's name," replied Sir Robert, "and I will chafe no further the kindling blood of my sometime friend. Let us rather leave all idle recrimination. I came hither to learn how wagged the world in London town, and, as a piece of secret intelligence, to assure you that you wrongfully brand this stripling for an impostor. Be he sovereign of our land or not—be it right or wrong to side with York against Lancaster—York he is, the son of Edward and Elizabeth, so never fail me my good sword or my ready wits!"

The best of us are inclined to curiosity. A little fearful of each other, the ambassadors exchanged looks, to know whether either would accuse the other of treachery if they heard further. "Good sir," said the doctor, gravely, "methinks we do our liege service in listening to this gentleman. We can the better report to his majesty on what grounds the diabolic machination is founded."

So, over another goblet, Clifford sat telling them how Richard had long lived as Perkin Warbeck in the neighbourhood of Tournay, under the guardianship of Madeline de Faro; and he recounted the history of his escape from the hands of Frion. Doctor Wattam carefully conned these names; and then, in reply, he set forth how unworthy it was of a Clifford to desert from Lancaster; how unlikely, even if it were true, which, after all his tale hardly proved it was, that the outcast boy could compete with success with the sage possessor of England's throne. Poynings asked him how it pleased him to find himself at the same board with a Nevill and a Taylor, and hinted that an exile from his country and a traitor to his sovereign, this was hardly the way to replenish his purse, or to gain anew the broad lands he had lost. The service he might do Henry by a return to his duty, gratitude and reward, were then urged by the priest, while Clifford listened in dodged silence. His brow became flushed; his lips worked with internal commotion. He felt, he knew, that he hated the very man hose cause he espoused; but he was pledged to so many, a whole array of noble and respected names came before him.—Could he, in the eyes of these, become a false foul traitor? He refilled, and quaffed again and again his cup; and at last so wound himself up, as to begin, "My friends, you speak sooth, though I may not listen; yet, if you name one so humble and distasteful, say to my liege—"

A page in green and white—the colours of Lady Brampton—entered, announcing her speedy arrival. Clifford's wits were already disturbed by wine; instinct made him fear in such a state to come in contact with the subtle lady; he drew his cap over his eyes, his cloak around his person, and vanished from the hall, ere his friends were aware of his intention.

The interview between Lady Brampton and the gentlemen was of another sort. Sir Edward had in her younger days worn her colours. She was changed in person since then: but, when, after a short interval, he got over the shock consequent on the first perception of the sad traces of time on the cheek of beauty, he found that her eyes possessed the same fire, her voice the same thrilling tone, her smile the same enchantment. While the doctor, who had loved her as a daughter, and she regarded him with filial reverence, rebuked her for what he termed her misdeeds; she replied with vivacity, and such true and zealous love for him whose cause she upheld, that they were both moved to listen with respect, if not conviction, to her asseverations. She could not gain her point, nor win them over to her side; but, when she departed, neither spoke of young Richard's rights, unwilling to confess to one another that they were converts to his truth. She went. The next day they departed from Brussels, and it became subject of discussion, what step Henry would now take, and whether, by any new measure, he could disturb the ripening conspiracy against his throne.