The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck/Chapter 24
I do not like the Tower of any place.
At nine o'clock in the evening, York and Lord Barry took their station on the Thames, at the appointed place. The boat was tethered to the shore; and the rising tide brought them nearer to the banks. All was dark during the cold night of early February; to the right and left, nothing was apparent save the glimmering water, and the only sound was the rushing and rippling of the Thames, as it sped downward in its course.
"My mother greets me with a cold kiss," said the prince; "in truth she has wedded mine enemy, and cast me out from my inheritance."
A brief pause ensued—a few minutes, which were freighted with the cares and sorrows of years. Back, back, young Richard threw his eye over the skeleton shapes of the dead years; and again he sought to penetrate the future. Dark as the starless sky, not one gleam of comfort presented itself to the outcast's hope. But such state of mind was unnatural to the ardent boy, and he sprang from it;
"Like to a lark at break of day, uprising
From sullen earth, to sing at heaven's gate,"
he soared from grovelling despondency into recollections of the labour and love that had been expended on him. His harvest might never be the crown at which he aimed; but, better still, the ambrosial food of affection and devoted attachment, that filled him even to sweet satiety.
"A light! our beacon!" cried Lord Barry.
A small gleam appeared on the opposite bank. It moved; then returned to its former place, and was stationary. They watched it, till they became satisfied that it was the guide for which they were waiting. The early matin service rung from several convents, and came pealing faintly across the water. It was the dead of night, and the gentlemen gladly exchanged their inert watch for the labour of contending with the tide and floating ice, which impeded their way as they rowed across the Thames to where the light was now fixed.
The drear bank of the Tower-moat rose abruptly from the water-side, and the waves lay murky dark beneath the arch of the Traitor's Gate. The tide, which was setting in, carried them above the point were the light was, to this spot. Their beacon indeed had disappeared; and, as they waited its return, they floated idly on the river, merely giving now and then a few strokes, to keep the wherry stationary. They did not perceive that, while they thus curbed the tide, they had drifted into an eddy which carried them fast down, till jamming them between the wall of the Tower and a near pile, their boat lurched, partly filled with water, and resisted every attempt they made to extricate it. The clouds were getting thinner before the pale waning moon; but their fancied beacon-light had vanished.
Their situation was sufficiently dreary. The cold was piercing. They had difficulty in keeping themselves out of the water that lay at the bottom of the boat. Lord Barry was a soldier, accustomed to hair-breadth escapes and dangerous attempts; Richard a bold youth, who thought that his best safety depended on his own exertions. They were neither of them inclined to linger tamely in their present situation.
"Before our limbs get numbed with this biting breeze, we must use them to our own benefit. Your highness can swim?"
"So say the streams of the Vega," replied Richard: "but the very remembrance of those sweet brooks makes me shudder at the chilly bath this ice-nourished river affords. I will reconnoitre the land before I attempt the freezing wave." With lithe, sinuous limbs he coiled about the pile, and continued to raise himself to where a beam rested on the upright post, and again was fixed in the turret, which spans and guards the entrance to the Tower by water. He had hardly gained this place, and he felt little cold as with nervous fingers he kept fast in the position he had attained, when a ray of light fell upon the water, streaming from out a window of the turret. It was but for a moment, and it disappeared; but Richard's eyes had glanced keenly on the illuminated spot. The transverse beam he had attained was but little below the window; it had been grated, but two of the stancheons were broken. This, to our adventurer, suspended between the unattainable sky and the icy wave, seemed a place of refuge. Carefully and slowly, he with clinging knees and hands contrived to get along the beam, to raise himself on his feet on it, and then to clutch the broken iron bar, and hoist himself into a chamber of the Tower of London.
The immediate physical dangers that beset our adventurers were so great (the least horrific of which was spending the night exposed to freezing blasts, which Barry already felt chilling his very heart's blood), that they both forgot the dangerous nature of the asylum they were seeking. The Irish noble had, as well as darkness permitted, followed the movements of his young companion; the same ray which guided Richard to temporary safety, had showed to Barry the mode of following him. He made the attempt; but, though stronger, he was not so agile as his friend; besides, the minutes which had elapsed during Richard's exertions, had enfeebled by numbing the other's powers; he got nearly to the top of the pile—he felt his fingers slip, and that he could hold on no longer. One desperate struggle he made to cling closer; his grasp seemed rather to relax, than tighten, in the attempt; and Richard, after a second, heard with horror his heavy fall into the water. But Barry was more at his ease in the yielding wave; and the very intensity of the cold, burning his skin, set his blood in motion; the tide also had arrived at its height during this interval, and had turned: without great difficulty the noble cleared, after a few strokes, the abrupt banks that fence the Tower, and landed on a quay below.
Richard heard the waters splash from under his strokes. The silence was so entire, that he thought he could distinguish the change of sound when the swimmer emerged, and plainly heard Lord Barry's shout, in his own native Irish, of thanksgiving and good cheer. For a moment, like lightning, it flashed into his mind, the thought of the ominous refuge he had found; and he was tempted to leap into the water, and to rejoin his friend. But by this time the alarm of some one having plunged into the river had been spread by the sentinels. The court became thronged; some hastened to the wall, others loosened the boats tethered beneath the gate, and issued in them from under the dark arch, over which Duke Richard had found refuge. By the glare of many torches, they discovered the wherry wedged in, as has been described. The splash attested that some one had fallen into the water: that some one should escape from the fortress, was more readily present to their imaginations than that any should enter. They called to each other, communicating their surmises and intentions: then one boat remained in guard close at the gate, while the other rowed down the stream. Their exertions must end in nothing, for Lord Barry had had full time to insure his escape.
Richard attended to all their motions: several of the men in pursuit had issued from the lower chambers of the turret in which he was: it was not thus cooped up that he chose to be found; all seemed still; the only sounds came from the men in the boat; he descended the stairs; he came out upon the court of the Tower; the dark fortress frowned above, casting, in spite of the dull moon, a shadow dark enough to hide him. Steps were heard approaching; he turned under a dim archway; he ascended a narrow, steep staircase; the steps still followed; hurriedly he opened a door, and entered a chamber; the men, whoever they might be, were unaware of his presence; they passed the door, turned down another gallery; the very echo of their steps died away.
Did he recognize the spot where he then stood? Well!—far too well!—with a sickening feeling, an irresistible impulse to penetrate into the very heart of the horror that made his pulses faint, he gazed on the walls around. Was he then alone changed? Had he sprung up into manhood, thought, experienced, suffered; and had the material universe stood still the while? He saw before him a small chamber, enlightened by one deep-set window, half blocked up by projecting buttresses outside: there was the pallet-bed, the prie-Dieu, the little crucifix; his infant limbs had reposed there; on that couch his brother had died.
This was the Tower! Ten years before he had escaped from its gloomy walls; and had he done this only to return again, when maturer years gave him a bitterer feeling of the ills he must endure? He had visited England, guided by the traitor-spirit of Clifford, it seemed; for he had returned but to render himself a prisoner; yet at first these thoughts were hardly so painful as the memory of his childhood. The superstitious fears of the Tower, which haunted poor Edward, had made it an abode of terror for both: how often had they lain in that bed, curdling each other's young blood with frightful tales! His brother had pined, and died. Now, true to the pious usages of the times, he knelt to say a paternoster for his soul; he said another for his own perilous state; and then, having, with entire faith committed himself to the protection of his Father in Heaven, he rose with a cheered heart and sustained courage.
What was he to do? He was in the Tower; a fortress so well guarded, that of the unhappy beings confined there for life, none had ever made their escape; high walls, numerous courts, and grated windows, opposed his egress. The clock chimed one. It were as well to remain where he was, as to go on. But it were better still to turn back; quiet would soon be restored; he might attain the same room, the same window, and leap thence into the waters below. He remembered wherefore he had come; the hazardous enterprise of Monina, and the imprisonment of Stanley. Now that he had attained this chamber, the whole Tower presented itself, as in a map, to his memory: he knew where the rooms allotted to state prisoners were situated: confident in his knowledge, his feelings underwent an entire change; instead of considering himself a prisoner in the Tower, he felt lord of its labyrinths. Darkness was his wand of office; the ignorance of all that he was there, was his guard; and his knowledge of the place, better than the jailor's key, might aid him to liberate the victims of his enemy.
In this temper of mind he rejoiced that he had been unable to follow his first impulse in leaping from the window; and he resolved on making his way immediately to the part of the fortress inhabited by the state prisoners. Blindfold, setting out from the point where he was, he could have found his way; yet several images of barred and locked doors presented themselves to his recollection, as intervening between the spot where he then was, and that which he desired to visit. He descended again into the court—he skirted the edifice, keeping close to the shadowy wall—he saw the door but a few paces distant, which led to the prison-chambers. At dead of night it must be locked and barred, guarded by a sentinel, quite inaccessible to him. He paused—he saw no soldier near—he walked on a few steps quickly; the door was wide open—this looked like success—he sprang up the steps; a man below cried, "Who goes there?" adding, "Is it you, sir? My light is puffed out; I will bring one anon." Above he heard another voice—there was no retreat—he went on, relying on some chance that might afford him a refuge under cover of murky night from the twofold danger that beset him. A man stood at the doorway of the nearest chamber: it was not possible to pass him—as he hesitated he heard the words, "Good rest visit your lordship—I grieve to have disturbed you." Richard retired a few steps—the man closed, locked the door—"A light, ho!" he exclaimed, and the prince feared to see the servitor ascend the stairs. The moon, just beginning to show its clouded rays, threw a brief ray upon the landing where Richard stood, and he moved out of the partial radiance; the slight movement he made attracted notice, which was announced by a challenge of "Who goes there? is it you, Fitzwilliam? How is this? the word, sir!"
The duke knew that, among the numerous and various inhabitants of the Tower, many were personally unknown to each other; and that any stranger visitor was not intrusted with the word—so he replied immediately, as his best safeguard: "I was roused by the calling of the guard. I knew not that such, reveilles were usual; good night, sir."
Those pay little attention to the impression of their senses, who are not aware that family resemblance develops itself in nothing so much as the voice; and that it is difficult in the dark to distinguish relatives. In confirmation of this I heard a sagacious observer remark, and have proved the observation true, that the formation of the jaw, and setting of the teeth is peculiar, and the same in families. But this is foreign—enough that, caught by the voice, hardly able to distinguish the obscure outline of the speaker in the almost blackness of night—the man replied, "I crave pardon, my good lord, you forget yourself; this way is your chamber. What, ho! a light!"
"It needs not," said the prince; "the glare would offend mine eyes—I shall find the door."
"Permit me," said the other, going forward, "I will wait on your lordship so far. I wonder not you were roused; there was an alarm at the river postern, and the whole guard roused. Sir John thought it might concern poor Sir William; and I was fain to see all right with him. It irked me truly to break in on his repose; the last he may ever have."
They approached a door; the man's hand was on the lock—Richard's heart beat so loud and fast, that it seemed to him that that alone must be perceived and excite suspicion—if the door were fastened on the inside he were lost; but the man was in no hurry to try—he talked on:—
"The lieutenant was the more suspicious, because he gave credit and easy entrance to his pretended stripling son, who craved for it even with tears: yet when they met, we all thought that the Lord Chamberlain did not greet him as a parent would a child at such a time; the truth, indeed, we saw with half an eye, be she his daughter, or his light of love; yet not the last, methinks, for she seemed right glad to be accommodated for the night in a separate chamber—she is a mere girl beside, and in spite of her unmeet garb, modest withal."
"When goes she? With the dawn?" Richard hazarded these questions, for his silence might be more suspected than his speech; and the information he sought, imported to him.
"Nay, she will stay to the end for me," said the man: "Sir William was a kind gentleman, as I can testify, in his prosperity; and it is little to let him have the comfort of this poor child's company for a day longer: he dies on the morrow."
"Could I see this fair one?"
"By my troth, fair she is not, though lovely to look on, but somewhat burnt, as if her mother had been a dweller in the south. If you visit and take leave of Sir Stanley to-morrow, you may chance to behold her: but I detain you, my Lord; a good night, rather, a good morning to your lordship."
He unclosed the door; all was dark within, save that the chamber opened into another at the further end, in which evidently a lamp was burning. Kind thanks and a benison passed; Richard stepped within the apartment, and the door shut on him.
What could this mean? Glad, confused, yet still fearful, the prince was almost deprived of the power of motion. Recovering himself with a strong effort, he passed on to the inner chamber: it was a bedroom, tapestried, strewed thick with rushes, a silver lamp suspended by a silver chain to the grim claws of a gilt eagle, which was fixed in the ceiling, gave token of rank, as well as the rich damask of the bed-furniture and the curious carving of the couch and seats; the articles of dress also strewed about belonged to the noble born: strange, as yet Richard had not conjectured for whom he had been mistaken! He drew near the bed, and gazed fixedly on its occupier. The short, clustering, auburn curls were tinged with grey, yet the sleeper was young, though made untimely old by suffering; his cheeks were wasted and fallen in; the blue veins on his brow were conspicuous, lifting the clear skin which clung almost to the bones; he was as pale as marble, and the heavy eyelids were partly raised even in sleep by the large blue ball that showed itself beneath; one hand lay on the coverlid, thin to emaciation. What manner of victim was this to Henry's tyranny? nay, the enigma was easily solved: it must be the earl of Warwick. "And such, but for my cousin Lincoln, would have been my fate," thought Richard. He remembered his childhood's imprisonment; he thought of the long days and nights of confinement, the utter hopelessness, the freezing despair, blighting the budding hopes of youth, the throes of intolerable, struggling agony, which had reduced poor Warwick to this shadow of humanity; he felt a choking sensation in his throat as he bent over him; large drops gathered in his eyes; they fell, ere he was aware, on the sleeper's wan check.
Warwick turned uneasily, opened his eyes, and half-started up: "Whom have we here?" he cried: "why am I disturbed?"
"Your pardon, fair gentleman," Richard began——
"My pardon!" repeated Warwick, bitterly; "were that needed, you were not here. What means this intrusion—tell me, and be gone?"
"I am not what you take me for, cousin Edward," said the prince.
Now, indeed, did Warwick start; shading his eyes from the lamp, he gazed earnestly on the speaker, murmuring, "That voice, that name—it cannot be! In the name of sweet charity speak again; tell me what this means, and if you are—why this visit, why that garb?"
"My dear lord of Warwick," said the prince, "dismiss this inquietude, and if you will listen with patience to the story of an unhappy kinsman, you shall know all. I am Richard of York; those whose blood is akin to yours as well as mine, have ycleped me the White Rose of England."
The earl of Warwick had heard of the Pretender set up by his aunt, the duchess of Burgundy; he had often pondered over the likelihood of his really being his cousin, and the alteration it would occasion in his fortunes, if he were to succeed. Shut out from the world, as he had been so long, the victim of mere despair, he could not even imagine that good could betide to any one, save to the oppressor of his race; to see Perkin, for so he had been taught to call him, within the walls of the ill-fated Tower, appeared to disclose at once his defeat. Even when the duke rapidly and briefly narrated the accidents that had brought him thither, and his strange position. Prince Edward believed only that he had been decoyed into the trap, which had closed on him for ever.
Still Richard talked on; his ardour, his confidence in his own measures, his vivacious anxiety already to put them into practice, his utter fearlessness, were not lost upon one who had been dead to outward impressions, not from want of sensibility, but from the annihilation of hope. Some of his cousin's spirit overflowed into Warwick's heart; and, in conclusion, he assented to all he said, promising to do whatever was required of him, though after ten years of lone imprisonment he almost shrunk from emerging from his listless state.