Traitor, what hast thou done? how ever may
Thy cursed hand so cruelly have swayed
Against that knight? Harrow and weal-away?
After so wicked deed, why liv'st thou longer day!
When he had been dismissed by his royal master, Frion called aside the esquire, and sent him on an errand, it would seem of some import and distance; for the youth uttered a few forcible interjections, and with a lowering brow drew on the riding-boots lie had just doffed, muttering, "I must treat my horse better than my lord treats me; so, master, seek a fresh steed. By my fay! this is to become a squire of dames—a love-token to the duchess, in good hour!"
Having got rid of this young gentleman, Frion's next care was to give distant employment to the pages, saying he would wait their return. But scarcely had they entered the most crowded part of the camp, before with quick cautious steps the secretary took the same path which the prince trod half an hour later—he crossed the dell, and arriving at the little wood of larches, instead of traversing, he skirted it, till the gentle eminence on which the English camp was pitched, grew higher and more abrupt, the murmuring brook took the guise of a brawling torrent, grey rocks peeped out from the soil, and the scene became wilder and more mountainous: he walked on, till he arrived where a rustic bridge spanned the stream; under its shadow were three horsemen, two of whom dismounted, and a tall servitor held the bridles. One of these men Frion knew at once to be him who called himself Lord Bothwell, King Henry's spy, and Richard's fierce, motiveless, but ruthless enemy; the other—his bonnet was drawn over his brow—a cloak obscured his person. Frion's quick eyes scrutinized it vainly, for the moon, cloudy at intervals, gave uncertain light; besides, the man had stationed himself within the deepest shadow of the bridge.
"Good befall your watch," said Frion; "your worship is before your time."
"Is not all ready?" asked Balmayne.
"That question is mine," replied the other. "You know our treaty—not a hair of my lord's head must be injured."
"Tush! tush! fear not, good conscience-stickier," replied Bothwell, with a contemptuous laugh; "no ill will befall the boy; we but ferry him over the Tweed a few hours earlier than. he dreamed of, and land him all gently on the shore he seeks. As for thy reward, I have said, name it thyself."
"Fair words are these, Sir John Ramsay," said Frion; "but I said before, I must have surer pledge, both for my reward and my lord's safety. King Henry will haggle about payment when the work is done, and the steel you wear is a toper in its way."
"How now, sir knave?" cried Balmayne; "thinkest thou that I will turn midnight stabber?"
The man in the cloak started at these words. He uttered some sound, but again drew back; while the person who continued on horseback said, and his voice was that of the bishop of Moray, King James's uncle, "A truce to this contention, Master Good-fellow—whatever thy name be: I will answer for thy pay, and here is earnest of my truth." He threw a purse at Frion's feet. "The peace of two kingdoms—the honour of a royal, too long dishonoured house are at stake. No time is this to squabble for marks, or the paltry life of a base impostor. I, a prince of Scotland, avouch the deed. It were more friendly, methinks; to unlock his life with the steel key of our friend Wiatt, than to devote him to the gallows. Let Scotland be rid of him, I reck not how."
Again Frion fixed his eyes on the other;—the clouds had fallen low in the sky; the moon was clear; the western breeze murmured among the bushes and the trees, and the beams of the silvery planet played upon the unquiet waters. "We have no time for delay. Sir John," said Frion, "prithee introduce me to our fellow-labourer—this is the king's emissary? You call yourself Wiatt, Master Black Cloak?"
The other made a gesture of impatience as he stepped aside. Balmayne and Moray discoursed aside, till the former bade the secretary lead on; as they went, the Scotchman and Frion conversed in whispers concerning their plans, while their companion followed as if doggedly. Once he cast an impatient glance at the moon—Frion caught that look. "Have I found you, good friend," he thought; "then by our lady of Embrun, you shall acquit you of the debt I claim this night."
With quicker steps the Provençal proceeded, till they readied the opening of the valley, and came opposite the slope on which the English camp was pitched. Furthest off and far apart was the royal pavilion, the banner of England flapping in the breeze, and this the only sign of life; but for this, the white silent tents looked like vast Druidical stones piled upon a wild moor. They paused. "I must go first," said Frion; "we have wasted more time than I counted for—you will await me here."
"Listen, Master Frion," said Balmayne. "I would hardly trust you, but that I think you are a wise man; silver angels and golden marks, as a wise man, you will love: one thing you will hardly seek, a shroud of moonbeams, a grave in the vulture's maw. Look ye, one soars above even now; he scents dainty fare: twenty true men are vowed that he shall sup on thee, if thou art foresworn: thou wilt give some signal, when all is ready."
"That were difficult," said Frion; "I will return anon if there be any let to your enterprise; else, when the shadow of that tall larch blackens the white stone at your feet, come up without fear: have ye bonds ready for your prisoner?"
"An adamantine chain—away!" Frion cast one more glance at him called Wiatt. "It is even he, I know him, by that trick of his neck; his face was ever looking sideways:" thus assured, the Frenchman ascended the hill. Balmayne watched him, now visible, and now half-hid by the deceptive light, till he entered the folds of the pavilion; and then he glanced his eyes upon the shadow of the tree, yet far from the white stone; and then paced the sward, as if disdaining to hold commune with Wiatt. Whatever thoughts possessed this hireling's breast he made no sign, but stood motionless as a statue; his arms folded, his head declined upon his breast. He was short, even slight in make, his motionless, half-shrinking attitude contrasted with the striding pace and the huge, erect form of the borderer. Who that had looked down upon these two figures, sole animations visible on the green earth beneath the moon's bright eye, would have read villany and murder in their appearance; the soft sweet night seemed an antidote to savageness, yet neither moon nor the sleeping face of beauteous earth imparted any gentleness to the Scot; he saw neither, except when impatiently he glanced at the slow-crawling shadow, and the moonlight sleeping on the signal-stone. Many minutes passed—Bothwell gave one impatient look more—how slowly the dusky line proceeded! He walked to the edge of the brook; there was no movement about the pavilion: tranquil as an infant's sleep was the whole encampment. Suddenly a cry made him start, it was from Wiatt; the man, heretofore so statue-like, had thrown his arms upward with a passionate gesture, and then recalled by Bothwell's imprecation, shrunk back into his former quiet, pointing only with a trembling finger to the stone, now deep imbedded in the black shadow of the larch. The Scot gave a short shrill laugh, and crying "Follow!" began the ascent, taking advantage of such broken ground and shrubs, as blotted the brightness of the rays that lit up the acclivity. Bothwell strode on with the activity of a mosstrooper; Wiatt was scarce able to walk; he stumbled several times. At length they reached the pavilion; the Frenchman stood just within, lifting the heavy cloth; they entered. Frion whispered, "I have cleared the coast; my lord sleeps; we need but cast a cloak around him, to blind him, and so bear him off without more ado on his forced journey."
"There is wisdom in your speech," said Balmayne, with something of a grin. "My friend Wiatt has a cloak large and dark enough for the nonce."
Frion drew back the silken lining of the inner tent, saying, "Tread soft, my lord ever sleeps lightly; he must not be waked too soon,"
"Never were the better word," muttered Bothwell: the dimmest twilight reigned in the tent. The prince's couch was in shadow; the men drew near; the sleeper was wrapt in his silken coverlid, with his face buried in his pillow: his light-brown hair, lying in large clusters on his cheek, veiled him completely. Ramsay bent over him; his breathing was heavy and regular; he put out his large bony hand, and, as gently as he might, removed the quilt, uncovering the sleeper's right side; then turning to Wiatt, who had not yet advanced, he pointed to the heaving heart of his victim with such a glance of murderous callousness, that the very assassin shrunk beneath it; yet he approached; his hand held an unsheathed dagger, but it shook even to impotence; he raised it over his prey, but had no power to strike. Frion had crept round behind; a sound just then, and tramp of feet was heard in the outer tent; as by magic, in one brief second of time the mute dread scene changed its every characteristic. The assassin cried aloud, "It is not he!" Frion had seized his arm—the dagger fell—the pretended sleeper (one of York's pages) leaped from the couch; and the muffling cloak, dropping from the murderer's shoulders, disclosed the wretched, degraded Clifford. Ramsay drew his sword, and rushed towards the outer tent, when at the same moment Richard of York and Sir Patrick Hamilton showed themselves from beneath the hangings, which their attendants had raised. This sight startled Frion, and Clifford, restored to life and energy, tore himself from his grasp, and in a moment had rushed from beneath the pavilion; he was forgotten; all eyes were turned on Bothwell; the dagger at his feet, his drawn sword, his appearance in the retirement of the prince of England, all accused him. He saw at once his danger, drew himself proudly up, and returned Hamilton's look with a fierce, haughty glare.
"Thy act is worse than thy enemies' speech," said Sir Patrick, sternly; "thou wilt answer this, recreant, to thy royal master."
"To him, to any, to you," said Balmayne; "there is my glove. Now, on the hill's side, or in the lists anon, I will avouch my deed."
Hamilton answered with a look of sovereign contempt; he bade his men seize the traitor. "Before I sleep," he cried, "the king hears this treason."
Richard had looked on in silence and wonder; he placed his hand on Hamilton's arm, stopping him, "Pardon me, valiant knight," he said; "but, I do beseech you, disturb not the king to-night, nor ever, with this ill tale. Too roughly already has the English prince broken Scotland's rest. No blood is shed; and, strange as appearances are, I take Sir John Ramsay's word, and believe that, as a cavalier, he may maintain his cause, nor stain by it his knightly cognizance. I take up your glove, fair sir, but only to restore it; without one slightest accusation attaching itself to you therewith. Nay, myself will take up the quarrel, if any blame you. Sir Patrick will not call me to the trial, I am sure. Frion, conduct the gallant gentleman beyond our lines."
Shame for the first time flushed Ramsay's brow as he left the tent. The prince drew up to let him pass, with a mien so dignified and yet so tranquil, with a smile so bland, that thus it seemed an angelic essence, incapable of wound, might have gazed on a mere mortal, armed to injure him.
"Is this recklessness or nobility of soul?" Sir Patrick thought. He did not doubt, when Richard, changing his look to one of anxious appeal, besought him to omit utterly to report this strange scene. "I much fear," he said, "my wily secretary to be most in fault; and I caught a glance of one, whose appearance here proves that Ramsay is not alone guilty. Let me inquire, let me learn—punish, if need be. English gold and English steel were the weapons here, and I alone have power over England. You will pledge me your word. Sir Patrick, not to disquiet our royal cousin by our domestic brawls. We must not put in opposing scales our paltry anger against ruffians like these, and the disquiet of the generous-hearted James. Ramsay was his father's favourite; for his sake he bears with him; and more easily may I. I indeed, who am most in fault, for spending the precious minutes wandering, like a shepherd of Arcadia, in a listless foolishness, instead of acting the general, and guarding my tents from such visitors. The brawl last night might have forewarned me."
"Does it not shame Scotland," cried Hamilton, warmly, "that you should need any guard but our true hearts, while you tread our soil?"
"Were this true," answered York, yet more earnestly, "remember, what shames Scotland, shames her king. Be assured, dear cousin, I speak advisedly. Were this examined, worse might appear; and I and your liege must be the sufferers: I to excite this treason in his subjects' hearts; he to prove that some near him are not true as they seem."
Hamilton yielded to these many pleas; but his heart warmed with admiration and love for the noble being who urged the cause of pardon for his enemies. "Be it as your highness pleases," he exclaimed. "This I the more readily yield, since any new attempt kills Hamilton ere it reach you. I will be your guard, your sentinel, your wide, invulnerable shield; you will not refuse me this post of honour."
"Or let us both fulfil it," cried York, "one to the other; let us be brothers in arms, noble Hamilton. And yet, how can I, a fugitive, almost a tainted man, seek the alliance of one who stands as you do, fair and free in all men's eyes?"
As he spoke, the prince held out his hand; the Scottish knight raised it respectfully to his lips. But now Frion returned; and the clash of arms and trumpets' sound spoke of the advance of night, and change of guard: the noble friends took leave of each other, and Sir Patrick departed. As soon as they were private, the prince questioned his secretary closely and sternly as to the events of the night. Frion had a plausible and ready tale, of artifice and guile, of how he had a pledge even from the king's uncle that York's life was not to be attempted; and that he had but wished to balk and vex them, by causing the page to be carried off: the discovery of their mistake would shame them from any second enterprize against the prince of England.
York was but half satisfied; he had caught a transient glimpse of the fugitive. Was it indeed Clifford, who came a hired murderer to his bedside? A man who had partaken his heart's counsels, long his companion, once his friend? It was frightful, it was humiliating but to imagine how deep the man may fall, who once gives himself over to evil thoughts, and unlawful deeds. Frion here protested his ignorance and surprise. It was almost day before his master dismissed him: and even then, how could Richard repose? That couch, Clifford had marked as his bier—it were a bed of thorns; lie threw himself on the bare hard ground, and innocence had more power than his angelic pity for the vice of others; it shed poppy influence on his lids; and the beams of the morning sun stole softly over, but did not disturb his slumbers.