The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck/Chapter 25
Let all the dukes and all the devils roar,
He is at liberty! I've ventured for him;
And out I've brought him to a little wood
A mile hence.
Two Noble Kinsmen.
Morning, cold and wintry, dawned upon the gloomy chambers of the Tower. York became eager to put in execution some plan of escape in which Warwick should share; but Warwick was full of timidity and fear. His prison was a frightful den; yet all without was a wide, pathless, tiger-infested jungle. He besought his cousin to regard his own safety only. Richard refused; yet the more he meditated, the more did obstacles crowd upon him. After the lapse of an hour, Warwick was called upon to attend early mass, as usual, in the chapel of the fortress. Here he saw Stanley and the disguised shrinking Monina; and, the service ended, attended them to the prison-chamber of the chamberlain, relating as he went, in quick low whispers, the history of the preceding night. Both his hearers grew pale: one feared for her friend, the other for himself; though on that score all cause of dread was well nigh at an end. All three entered Stanley's cell, and found there Prince Richard himself, whose active mind had led him to watch his opportunity to pass hither unseen from Warwick's apartment.
The young earl of March, arming for the battle of Northampton, looked not so young, so blooming, and so frankly erect, as his uncrowned son. Stanley saw at once who was before him, and, never forgetting the courtier, addressed his prince with a subject's respect. York was struck by the placid, though somewhat worldly physiognomy of the man, devoted to die, at the age when human beings are most apt to cling to life; when, having weathered the storms and passions of youth, they desire to repose awhile on the sun-enlightened earth, before they enter the gloomy gates of the tomb.
The prince spoke eagerly of escape—of safety—of life: Warwick, even timid Warwick, urged an attempt at flight; while Monina kissed her aged friend's hand, and turned her sweet eyes on him, saying: "You will listen to him, though you were deaf to me."
Stanley alone was unmoved—"A thousand heartfelt, useless thanks, my dear and honoured Lord, your poor servant renders; and even when prayer for himself is most needed, earnestly he prays that harm to you arise not from your unexampled generosity. I cannot fly; I do believe that I would not, if I could: and I will spare myself the disgrace of further endangering you, and of being seized myself in the coward's act. Ask me not, with your beseeching eyes, my gentle, venturous child, for it must not be. I die to-morrow; and this fate you would have me avoid. Whither would you drag me from the block? To poverty? to an unhonoured old age? a traitor's reputation, and miserable dependence? I am a sinful man; but I trust in God's mercy, and he holds out better hopes after the brief spasm of death, than you after the torture of difficult escape."
More he would have said; but they were interrupted. They had not been aware of any one's approach; and suddenly Sir John Digby, lieutenant of the Tower, entered. He was aghast to see one more than he expected—one whose demeanour spoke nobility. Silence followed his entrance; nor did words readily present themselves to the blunt soldier. At length, addressing the cause of this wonder, he, in an ironical tone of voice, asked, "May I, lieutenant of this fortress, delegated by his majesty to its keeping, be permitted to ask, fair sir, the name, station, and designs of my unbidden guest?"
"My answer to your two first questions," replied York, "would little satisfy you. My design was to facilitate the escape of this virtuous and unhappy gentleman."
"The king is infinitely your debtor; and I shall prove unmannered in marring your intent."
"You do not mar it. Sir John," said the prince. "My Lord Chamberlain is a true man, and would rather lay his head on the block, at his liege's bidding, than carry it in security at the prayer of any other. Sir William has refused to fly; and, my mission ended, I was about to take my leave."
"Do so, young man; take leave—an eternal one—of Sir William, and follow me. My lord of Warwick, this is an unmeet scene for you to be present at. This holy man comes to bestow the last words of pious comfort my noble prisoner can receive in this world: please your lordship to leave them together uninterrupted. I am sorry," continued the lieutenant, addressing Monina, "to retract the permission I gave you yesterday; but this strange incident must be my excuse. Say a last farewell to him you have named your father."
Monina dreaded too much the fate that might befall her friend to entreat for any change in this decree. Soon poor Sir William found himself separated from the busy scene of life, shut up with the chaplain. He was bid to remember and repent, and to prepare to die. A dark veil fell before the vista of coming years, which was apparent to the eyes of his late companions. He saw in the present hour—one only, almost superfluous, added to the closing account. They beheld in it the arbiter of their undivined destinies.
It is an awful emotion when we feel that the "very shoal of time" on which we stand is freighted with the good and ill of futurity—that the instant birth of the hour inherits our entire fortunes. Yet Richard was proof against this rough testimony of our powerless mortality. The ill had not yet arrived with which he did not believe he could cope; and more—now he was bent upon endeavouring to save Stanley; for his own fate, though about to expose it to the most unquestioned shape of peril, he had no fears.
Sir John Digby, followed by his new prisoners, paced back to his own chamber, and then addressed his uninvited guest. "Fair gentleman," he said, "again I crave to be informed of your name and degree, that his majesty may be duly made acquainted on whom to bestow his thanks. Your speech and appearance are English?"
"Whoever I may be," replied York, "I will reveal nothing except to your king. If he is willing to listen to disclosures nearly touching his throne and safety, I will rouse him by a tale to shake sleep from one who has steeped his eyes in poppy-juice. To no other will I vouchsafe a word."
Monina listened in terror. She would have given her life to beseech her friend to retract that foolish word: but it was too late; while his questioner, startled by his unforeseen reply, said, "You make a bold demand. Think you that his grace is of such common use, that it is an easy matter to attain his presence?"
"I have said it, Sir John," answered York. "Your liege may hereafter visit with poor thanks the denial you give me."
The lieutenant fixed his eyes on him: his youth and dignity impressed him favourably; but he hesitated, confused by doubts of who and what he might be. At last he said, "His majesty is at present at his palace of Shene, ten miles hence.
"The less reason, Sir Lieutenant," replied Richard, "that you should dally in the execution of your duty. The life of your prisoner, the fortunes of your king, depend upon this interview."
This was a riddle difficult for Sir John to solve; and he was about to order his enigmatical visitant to the guard-room, while he should consult upon the fitting conduct to pursue; when a beating at the gates, the letting down of the drawbridge, and the clatter of hoofs announced fresh arrivals at the fortress.
The attention of every one was suspended, till, the usher announcing the excellent prince, the earl of Desmond, that noble, attended by followers, almost with regal pomp, entered. He cast his penetrating glance around, and then unbonnetting to the duke, he said respectfully, "Your highness will believe that as soon as I heard of the position into which, pardon me, your generous rashness has betrayed you, I hastened hither to vouch for you, and deliver you from it."
To such a speech, so unexpected, so portentous, what answer? Richard felt inclined to laugh, as he heard himself spoken to, in terms which seemed to say that the discovery of who he really was, would occasion his release; but he quickly discerned a hidden meaning beneath this incomprehensible language, and he contented himself with graciously thanking the earl for his interference, while this noble turned to address the wondering Sir John.
"Sir Lieutenant," said he, "I have a strange story to tell, fitter for his majesty's ears than those of a subject; but his grace is absent, and it were not well that this noble gentleman should be kept in durance while messengers go to and fro. Rather dismiss your followers, and I will confide a weighty secret to you, and bring such arguments as will induce you to intrust the high-born youth to my care and escort."
Digby was not much of a statesman; he had a simple heart, and considerable veneration for rank. He knew that the earl of Desmond had been well received at court, and complied with his desire. The noble then began a long explanation of parties and tumults in Scotland; of the frightful death of James the Third; the accession of James the Fourth; the discontent of several chief nobles, who wished to set up the younger brother of the new king in opposition to him. "Your highness," continued Desmond, addressing Richard, "will pardon me for thus introducing your name—this, Sir Lieutenant, is the duke of Rosse, who has come, and not vainly, to seek the assistance of our liege."
Sir John bowed low and looked puzzled, while Desmond continued to speak of disguise and secresy, of friendship for Stanley, and of the rash design of Lord Barry of Buttevant and the young duke to liberate him, chiefly under the idea that thus they should best serve King Henry, who must in his heart be loth to have his zealous friend put to death through the falsehood of faction. "And now, gentle sir," he continued, "be guided by me; the king loves peace; he loves state privacy; the very presence of the duke in this country is a mystery; you will do agreeable service by hushing up this youthful frolic. Permit his highness to accompany me; I will make fitting report to his majesty, who will be grateful withal."
There was a kind of confused tallying in the story; for Richard's mysterious words were at no discord with Desmond's explanations; and his excessively youthful and perfectly noble appearance were further corroboration. Digby liked not the responsibility of keeping him: he spoke of sending for the bishop of Durham. Desmond exclaimed, "A soldier have recourse to a priest—this England is a strange country! Do as you will; only until the thumber of missals arrive, this is no place of entertainment fur the prince. We will receive you and your clericus at Walbrook; and I will entertain the royal gentleman till you come."
Digby still looked blank and uncertain. Richard, who had remained silent, now spoke: "Farewell, good sir: in truth, I need your excuse for my impertinent visit; but here it ends. When I travel to Scotland, I will report the favour I met at your hands."
This sufficed. Sir John sullenly yielded: with a mixture of fear and deference, he attended his visitors to the court; they crossed the drawbridge; and ere the Tower-gates closed behind them, they heard the lieutenant order out a guard and his own horse, that without loss of time he might communicate with the bishop.
The duke and his preserver rode gently enough down Tower Hill: scarce had they reached the foot, before the earl gave a sudden command to his followers, who turned one way, as he, York, and Monina, who had left the Tower at the same time, and was mounted on one of Desmond's attendant's horses, went another. "Au galoppe, dear my lord!" cried the earl, "we have but a short hour's grace—this way—still the river to our left."
They galloped along with loosened reins. Arriving at the Vale of Holborn, they followed the upward course of the Fleet, so as to reach the open country; and many a wild field they crossed, and briary lane they threaded—the country was flat, marshy, wild; skirted in various directions by brown wintry woods, rarely interspersed by hamlets. The river was their only guide; they followed its course for several miles, till they reached the shelter of Caen Wood. "Thank St. Patrick for this cover!" cried the Irish chieftain; "may my cousin Barry find no let nor hindrance—yon troubled stream will guide him well. We have done a daring deed: for me, I have not ridden so far, since my father, God sain him! died—I am well nigh hors de combat."
The prince assisted both his companions to dismount. Lord Desmond's tale was soon told, of how Lord Barry had sought him and suggested this mode of effecting York's escape. "With the help of your Moorish friend," said the earl, "no ill wind betide me—I shall be in Munster before the riddle be half told; that is, if ever we reach the vessel. By my faith! I would rather be knee-deep in a bog in Thomond, than dry-shod where I am!"
As day advanced, the situation of the fugitives became still more disquieting. All was tranquil in the leafless wood; but, in spite of the sun, it was very cold. Besides, they were in an unknown spot, without guide; their sole hope being, that each passing minute would bring Lord Barry to their assistance. Earl Maurice was thoroughly disabled; he grumbled at first, and at last, wearied out, lay on the cold ground, and fell into a slumber. Monina, serious, timid, and yet, in spite of herself, happy in her friend's safety, and in her own being near him, was silent; while Richard, to escape from his own thoughts, talked to her. When, for a moment, his conversation languished, his eyes were fondly fixed upon her downcast face, and a strife of sentiment, of ardent, long-restrained love, and a tortuous, but severe resolve to protect her, even from himself, battled in his heart; so that, in all-engrossing love, every sense of danger was lost.
Desmond at last roused himself: "The shadows grow long; herbage there is little for our horses, pasture for ourselves there is none—if we stay, we starve; if we stir, we——"
He was interrupted; strange voices came upon the wind; then the cracking of boughs, and the sound of steps. Through the vista of bare trees the intruders at length appeared, in strange array. There was a band of ill-attired, ruffian-looking men, followed by women and children; their swart visages, their picturesque, but scant and ragged garb, their black hair, and dark flashing eyes, were not English. Some were on foot, some on asses, some in a cart drawn by two rough ill-assorted colts—their very language was foreign. Richard and Monina recognized a horde of Gitani, Bohemians, or Gipsies; while Desmond looked in wonder on something almost wilder than the Irish kern.
The savage wanderers were surprised to perceive the previous guests the barren woods had received—they paused and looked round in some fear; for the noble appearance of the gentlemen made them imagine that they must be accompanied by numerous attendants. York's quick wit suggested to him in a moment of what good use such humble friends might be. He addressed them; told them that they were travellers who had lost their way, "And so we have encroached on your rightful domain; but, like courteous hosts, I beseech you, gentlemen, welcome us to your greenwood palace, and make happy as you will grateful guests of us."
Thus invited, the whole horde gathered round—the women, fancying all three of an opposite sex, were forward with their prophetic art.
"My fortune," cries Desmond, "shall not be told before supper; it is an ill one, by the rood! at this hour. I have fasted since yesternight."
Preparations were speedily made for a repast, while Richard, alive to his situation, looked around for the most fitting object to address; whose charity and aid he could hope to solicit with the greatest success. One laughing-eyed girl glanced at him with peculiar favour; but near her stood and scowled a tall handsome countryman of her own. York turned to another, fairer, who sat retired apart; she looked more gentle and even refined than the rest. He addressed her in courtly phrase, and her reply, though ready, was modest. The acquaintance was a little in progress, when one of the oldest among the sibyls, with white hair, and a face of wrinkled parchment, hobbled up, muttering, "Ay, ay, the fairest flower is aye the dearest to pluck; any of those gaudy weeds might serve his turn; but no, my young master must needs handle the daintiest bloom of the garden." Notwithstanding this interruption, Richard still stood his ground, bandying pretty speeches with one not the less pleased, because, strictly guarded by her duenna, she was unaccustomed to the language of flattery.
"Hast never a word for me, fair sir," said the crone, at last; "no comparison of star and gems for one, who in her day has flaunted with silk-clad dames—whose lips have been pressed even by a king?"
His father's reputation for gallantry, thus alluded to, brought the blood into York's cheeks; forgetful of what import his words bore, he replied lastly, "Sleep King Edward's faults with him, mother; it is neither wise nor well to speak irreverently of those gone to their doom—may God assoilzie him!"
"What voice is that?" cried the old woman; "if I boast, Heaven forgive me, of his grace's slight favour, your mother may take shame——"
"Your words are naught," cried York, interrupting her, "my mother's is a sacred name—yet, tell me in very truth, and give me some sign that, indeed, you knew my father."
The word passed his lips before he was aware, but being spoken, he felt that it were best not to recede. Seizing the old woman's shrivelled hand, he said, "Look—use thy art—read my palm: read rather my features, and learn indeed who I am: I am in danger; you may betray, or you may save me: choose which you will—I am the duke of York."
An exclamation checked, a look of boundless surprise changed into a cautious glance around, attested the gipsy's wish to serve the venturous youth. "Rash boy," she answered, in a low voice, "what idle, or what mortal words are these! How art thou here? "With what hope—what aid?"
"Frankly, none but what I derive from your bounty. I have escaped worse peril, so do not fear but that God will protect me, and even turn to profit my parent's sin, if his kiss purchase his son's life."
"Young sir," said the gipsy, with great seriousness, "the flower of love is gay—its fruit too often bitter. So does she know on whose account I wickedly and shamelessly did the foul fiend's bidding, and ruined a sinless soul to gratify the pleasure-loving king. But thou hast paid the penalty: thou and thine, who have been called by the ill-word, thrust from thy place by thy crook-back uncle; and now art nearer a dungeon than a throne through thy father's fault. I will serve and save thee; tell me quickly, who are thy companions—whither thou wouldst go—that I may judge the best to be done."
It is to be observed, that at the very beginning of this colloquy, the young girl, whom York had first addressed, had stolen away. Now he replied by mentioning the lameness of his elder friend, and his resolve not to be divided from the other. He spoke of the Adalid, and of his further wish to be awhile concealed in England. The old woman continued silent, wrapped in thought. At length she raised her head—"It can be done, and it shall," she said, half to herself. "Come now, they are serving our homely fare. You, who are young, and ill-apt for penance, must eat before you go."
The savoury steams of the well-filled and rustic marmite, gave force to her words, and to Richard's appetite. The repast was plentiful and gay, and even too long. Evening was far advanced, the fire grew light in the dusk, and threw its fitful rays upon the strange and incongruous feasters. Monina had cowered close to Richard; the cup went round; scarcely did she put it to her lips; a rude companion of the crew made some rough jest on her sobriety. Richard's face lighted up with anger: his watchful old friend stepped forward, in her own jargon she made some communication to her associates, which caused a universal pause, and then a stir: it was evident some movement was intended. She meanwhile drew the three fugitives aside:
"In a few minutes," she said, "we shall all be on our way hence; listen how I would provide for your safeties." She then proposed that Desmond should assume the disguise of one of the horde, and so be conveyed in safety to the banks of the Thames, and on board the Adalid. She promised herself to conduct the prince and his young friend to a secure refuge. The earl, accustomed to find fidelity and rags near mates, readily acceded to this proposal. In the solitary unknown spot to which, chance had directed them, environed by every danger, no step was more perilous than the remaining where they were. York and Monina were familiar with the reports of the gipsy character—its savage honour and untractable constancy. The season was such, though the day had been unusally sunny and warm, as to make a night in the open air no agreeable anticipation; and Richard had a thousand fears on his lovely friend's account. They all readily acceded to the old woman's plan. Desmond was quickly disguised, his visage stained deep brown, his whole person transformed; he was placed in the caravan, and the horde was speedily in movement; the sound of their departing steps died away. They had left a rude cart, to which York's horse, a strong hack, was harnessed. The sibyl undertook to guide it. Richard and Monina ascended the jumbling fabric. Soon they were on their journey, none but their conductress knew in what direction; but they submitted to her, and through copse and over field they wound their darkling way.