ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE.
If you be seen, you perish instantly
For breaking prison.
No, no, cousin,
I will no more be hidden, nor put off
This great adventure to a second trial.
Two Noble Kinsmen.
Quick on the first greeting followed "Warwick's question. "And, noble cousin, what have you projected? when shall we escape?"
Richard's being in durance with him, seemed sufficient pledge, that without delay they should both be free. While York, wearied by opposition to his mighty foe, just foiled in his endeavours to preserve his freedom, even when he had attained it, saw giant obstacles in his path; and, although resolved to endeavour all, was fully conscious of the fatal end that must wait upon his too probable failure. His reply was dictated by these feelings; he was averse to drag one so inexperienced, and so unhappy, into the pit he believed that he was digging for himself. He besought the earl well to weigh the value he set upon life; to place the fatal scaffold in prospect; to teach himself to know what death was, and to be ready to meet it, before he planned escape from the wily Tudor. Warwick listened with impatient wonder; but when Richard concluded with affirming, that he himself, in sober sadness, preferred hazarding all to the remaining in prison, and that he would be free, the earl's countenance again grew light and gladsome. "But when, coz—when?" was still his eager question.
Thus they had changed characters. Warwick, so many years secluded from the world, was in total ignorance of its ways. Had the Tower-gates been opened to him, he had trembled to walk forth alone; but restraint had made him feminine; and with his cousin he would have rushed upon an army of spears, in sure belief that some unseen aegis would protect him. His position rendered him timid, indolent, and dependent; but he relied on Richard, as a woman on her lover. York beheld all things in their clear, true light; he was aware of every difficulty; of the means he possessed for overcoming them, and of the hazards he ran in using these means. A sentiment, born of the highest generosity made him hesitate before he concerted any plan with Warwick. It was not alone that he was averse to risking another life; but he felt that his cause would receive advantage from this link with an undoubted Plantagenet; nay, that, in the prison itself, the attachment and respect felt towards the son of Clarence, by some of the very men he meant to use, would serve him. That he should reap benefit from exposing the ill-fated prince to untried dangers, revolted his high and independent nature. Warwick had recourse to many an entreaty and persuasion, ere he brought Richard to consent that their fortunes should be joined, and that, last of the White Rose, they would rise or fall together. Still York was obliged to check his cousin's impatience, and to show that they must slowly work out the end they had in view.
To gratify the earl's greedy curiosity, York related his adventures; they afforded him an inexhaustible fund of surprise and delight. He sighed over his tale of wedded happiness; and half wondered that angelic woman, seated high on the throne of loveliness and love, should deign to devote herself for man. A pang, not of envy, but of regret, on comparing their fates, shot across him; soon the usual current of feeling returned; and when he heard that his idolized, lost Elizabeth, was the friend and companion of the devoted wife of York, his affection for Richard was increased. Night was far advanced before they separated, and then only in certain expectation of meeting again.
York's hopes grew brighter, and he indulged in visions of the future, which lately had been so blank. He verily believed that he might escape, though still he doubted whether he should. He remembered the fondness of the duchess of Burgundy for her brother Clarence, and how she had deplored the hard destiny of his offspring; he would present that son, liberated by him, to her. His junction with the prince must revive the old Yorkists in his favour; this worst blast of fortune might be the gale to speed him to the harbour of his hopes. The royal cousins met again and again; nor was it long before their own desires, and Henry's craft, began to weave that fatal web which entangled them even in the very mode the hard-hearted king devised.
Summer was gone: quicker than he was wont, the sun withdrew his embattled array of light and heat; and cold and tempest, erewhile driven to mountain fastnesses, or to their own frozen kingdoms in the north, took courage and force, and broke with wild fury upon the defenceless world: the bleak winds were their coursers; savagely they yelled and howled over the land they desolated. First, the growth of flowers was their prey; the fruits, and then the verdure of the earth, while the sun, each day retreating, afforded further scope to their inroads. York resolved not to pass another winter in prison. He had quickly perceived that his purpose could only be effected by corrupting their guards, and then all would depend upon the fidelity of these men. His first attempts were followed by an almost too easy success: good-hearted, dull-headed Long Roger heard with unreplying credulity the assertions of Warwick, that Richard must succeed in all he undertook, and readily promised his aid. Abel Blewet, in spite of his dogged, sinister aspects yielded at once to the seduction of a promised bribe. Two others, by his advice, were associated as necessary to their success. Strangeways, a ruffling drunken fellow, who had been thrice dismissed, but whose pretty wife each time procured his reappointment; and Astwood, a saving miser, who lent money to his fellow-servitors on usury. With these instruments the cousins went to work. Warwick in full belief of success: York, perceiving treason and discovery close to them, but ready to defy these bloodhounds to their worst.
"And now, coz," said Warwick, "in very truth there needs no further delay. Methinks were the drawbridge down, you would mistrust some gin, and wait to throw an arch of your own across the moat. Sooth, my lord, I am a weary of your sloth."
There was a caressing sweetness in Warwick's voice and manner: an ignorant, indolent, confiding enthusiasm, so unlike quick-witted Clifford, or auy of Duke Richard's former friends, that he felt a new emotion towards him—hitherto he had been the protected, served, and waited on, of his associates, now he played the protector and the guardian,
"My gentle cousin," he replied, "even as you trust, so you shall find me—wait but a little, and all will be past. Yet I grieve to say, where you see escape, I perceive an ambushment of death; and, though ready to face the grim skeleton, we must arm ourselves against him. I wish I could show you even as I see, the dangers that environ us—perhaps you would shrink; and it is yet time. What do you do? Not only plan escape, but ally yourself, and give the sanction of your untarnished name, to one whom Tudor brands as an impostor, and abhors as a rival. His vengeance will fall heavily for this deed, if he reach you. While a few years, like the many already gone by, may lead him to his grave, and you to liberty. I have too often met danger to be frightened by him: and I endure worse than death, each day I pass of youth, apart my sweet White Rose. You have no lady-love to beckon you across the path of peril. Bethink you well, my ever dear lord, will you not regret this prison, when the cruel axe glitters before your eyes?"
"Do you refuse then to take me with you?" said Warwick, mournfully.
"Be the choice yours; to go with me is fraught with danger—to stay—"
"Hush, cousin!" cried the earl, eagerly, "speak not the ill-omened word. Stay,—to endure days and nights of guarded doors; to eat viands served up poisoned by the jailor's touch; to see the sky but through those iron bars; alas! in my dreams, when heaven and its stars are before me, they are crossed and paled by those accursed lines. Give me but an hour to tread earth a free man—or, mark, cousin; sometimes I win good Roger to lead me to the roof of the White Tower; it is high, and overhangs the deep, dangerous river—the day you quit my side, I seek that tower, I leap from its height, and the cold waters shall drink up my being, rather than I endure another hour my prison-life."
"My dear, dear cousin," said York, "it is written by the Fates, and I yield—our fortunes shall be one. A few days now brings the hour; it will move along the dial; it will become a portion of past time—what it will leave us, is in the hands of God."
That hour came—full soon it came—the evening hour which preceded their escape. Long Roger served supper to the kinsmen, the last they were to partake within the fated walls. The poor fellow heaved a bitter sigh, as he waited by his lord's chair. "Thou art downcast, good Roger," said the earl, "pledge me, my man, in this ruby wine of Burgundy—think of to-morrow, not of to-night—to-morrow the deed will be done."
Roger quaffed the proffered bowl—he set it down with another sigh, almost a groan, adding, "Better drown reason than life in the vat!" Then recollecting to what he alluded, and before whom, he blushed scarlet to his very ears, and like a bashful man he made it worse by going on blunderingly, "I was never handy at these sort of things; it is for all the world like turning out of a warm bed on a cold snowy morning, only to think of them—and when they are about,—by the Cross, I thought no hole far enough or dark enough, when my lord your father—"
"Roger!" exclaimed Warwick.
The wine had not decreased the man's terror, but it had opened his mouth, and taken away his discretion; he continued: "It was an awful night. We all knew what was going to be done. I am sure, as Thomas Paulet said, we heard our very hearts beat. Then there was grim-faced Hobler, who at the judgment might be taken for the born twin of Master Abel, only he was taller by a span—even he looked uglier, nor spoke above his breath—'Is he at his prayers?' asked he, and Sir Brakenbury was as white as the earth itself—it was the beginning of Lent; and the snow lay three feet deep on it."
By no uncommon law of our nature, the dread design of the present night awoke keen recollection in the usually drowsy mind of this man. At first, with thrilling horror, Warwick interrupted him, but now the very terrors of the theme he chose assumed an awful charm—he was fascinated to listen, while his knees knocked together. Richard felt also the magic of such perilous excitement.
"Oh, Lord Edward," continued Roger, "these walls have seen fiendly sights—the blood of many a Plantagenet, York, or Lancaster, is on its pavement. Was it not in this room that the pious king Saint Henry, as Father Piers calls him—you will not sleep another night in it, so there is no harm now, telling you that his poor ghost has been seen on the battlements coming from this very chamber, where he was murthered."
The night wind rushed round the massy walls, the autumnal wind, fierce and howling—York started up. "No more of this unreason, while we need all our strength, and God's grace to boot, to nerve us to our task. Oh, ghost of Lancaster! if indeed thou hauntest this spot, where those akin to me did the foul deed, be thy pious soul propitiated now; many a mass shall be told for thy repose?"
Roger crossed himself, and said an Ave; then in his usual voice he rejoined, "Would the thing did not require blood. Master Abel vows by the saints—'twere better when men make bad oaths to swear by the fiends—that Sir John must die; old wrinkled Astwood squeaks out, "By'r Lady, it were not worth while, with only promises for reward, if we have not the rifling of the lieutenant's private chamber. They are bloody-minded men, my lord; Mat Strangeways, when he is sober, and I, fasting or feasting, hold out that we might bind him, and get the keys.' 'Blockhead,' says Master Blewet, saving your presence, 'thou goest the way to hang us all.'"
Another goblet had set Roger talking. Warwick had quitted the table. He threw open the casement: it was very dark, and the wind howled fearfully—"Oh, iron bars of my prison-house," cried the ill-fated prince, "can only midnight-murder wrench ye asunder? It is a dread act to disobey God's word, and lay the soul under mortal sin—must it be done?"
"My dear cousin," said York, "do not mistake—a month ago the choice was yours; now there is no going back. We have no right to draw these poor men into peril, and then to quarrel at the precaution they take for their safeties. We said, ay, when the matter was proposed. Again I repeat the word; they must look to it, who so savagely have driven us to the fatal pass. When Digby undertook the ungentle task of jailor, he knew that he must hold it at the hazard of his life."
"Sir John has ever been kind tome," said Warwick, "forgive the word, my lord, I am firm now—away with mercy! To win an easy egress from these murderous walls, I could myself plant the dagger."
"We are not executioners," interrupted the duke, who felt none of Warwick's vacillations, now sinking beneath the required tone, now wound up far above it, and was perfectly calm, though his heart, he scarce knew why, entertained no hope of success. Warwick believed that he should win, and mourned the losers in the frightful game. Richard knew that he might fail, and assuredly would, did he not meet each necessity and hazard with a dauntless spirit.
The sound of a bell from a neighbouring convent was brought fitfully by the wind—"They are ringing matins—there is our signal," cried Roger.
"And Digby's knell." The door of the chamber opened as Warwick said these words, and Blewet, with his usual catlike pace, slid in; he walked straight up to Hoger, and casting on him a glance from under his brows, said only, "Come."
"Are all at rest?" asked the earl.
"Two hours agone," said Master Abel, "I have kept myself awake sharpening my steel:" he touched the handle of a huge butcher's knife stuck in his girdle, whose glittering blade did credit to his care. Warwick turned pale and sick. "It will be dulled anon," continued Blewet.
"Where are thy comrades?" Richard asked.
"They wait at the end of the corridor—Master Astwood is counting his gains. Come, Long Roger."
Poor Roger followed him to the door, then turning to the princes; "My royal masters," said he, "if this deed goes ill, and I never see ye more, by Christ and his Cross, I pray a blessing on ye; if I may pray, but by the mass I fear I shall never pray, nor sup more."
They were gone—Warwick strove to look, to be firm, but he grew ashy white—a door clapped to at a distance made him almost faint. Richard was pale also; but his hand shook not in the least, as he presented a cup of wine to his cousin. "Give me water rather," said the earl, shuddering, "that cup is red—hark—it is his groans!"
"It is the wind around the turret, where my liege and brother died," said York, endeavouring to give other thoughts to the poor prince, who cried,—
"It is the hell-born laugh of fiends viewing the deed." With the breeze indeed came a sound of laughter. "Are we betrayed!" cried York: but the sound passed away in wailing. Warwick was on his knees—"I cannot pray," he cried, "a sea of blood is before me."
Steps now approached along the corridor, and Blewet, his stained, half-wiped knife in his hand, appeared—Again the monosyllable "Come," was pronounced—fraught with how different a meaning. A life had been torn from an innocent breast since then by that fell instrument. The princes, awe-struck, one trembling with dread, the other striving to quell his horror for a murderer, followed him, as he led through the gallery—at the end stood Astwood with a bunch of keys—there were no stains on his hands; he looked anxious, but brightened up when he saw the prisoners.
They trod stealthily along. Warwick's faltering steps scarce kept pace with their conductor's. After passing through many narrow high passages, they reached a low postern door. Astwood put the key in the lock—the sound was magical to the fearful earl. "Farewell, old frightful walls," he cried; "farewell, dark murderous prison-house, the Foul Fiend possess thee! such is my benison."
Blewet looked at him—York marked the sarcasm, the scorn of his glance—the gate meanwhile was opened; at that moment a clash of arms was heard. "The sentinels at the eastern gate," remarked Abel.
"God grant it!" cried Warwick, "God grant—yet can it be! and am I free?"
He rushed through the open door, intent to seize upon liberty, as Tantalus on his forbidden feast—his first step beyond the threshold of his prison was followed by a shriek—almost a woman's shriek, it was so shrill and piercing. What he quailed before, gave presence of mind to York—experienced in ills. Whatever the new evil might be, he went out to meet it calmly. A party of archers and yeomen were drawn up in the courtyard. "This truly is a mime," he said, "in which one at least wins. Our good lieutenant is safe; we are lost."
Grim Sir John had much disliked even this masque of murder. He saw their seizure with a grin of delight. He abhorred Richard, as the prime mover of the meditated assassination; but he hated Warwick more, who thus could lay in ambush for the life of one, who he believed had been a most courteous and soft-hearted jailor to him—he commanded his myrmidons to lead the royal kinsmen to the strongest ward-rooms of the Tower, with dogged, savage joy.
In dark and separate cells, in solitude and night, these ill-fated victims of craft and ambition were consigned to biting reflection and sinister anticipation. Warwick, worn out by the unusual excitement of the last weeks, by his eager hopes, and overwhelming despair, had no one thought, but ten thousand thoughts, making a chaos and hell of his poor heart. Richard felt more for his cousin than for himself. "But for me," he repeated internally, "he had still been a patient prisoner. Yet to break prison is not crime capital—he may yet be saved. Elizabeth will intercede; Tudor, for very shame, cannot do further wrong to one so near akin, so powerless and unfortunate. For myself:—I am dead already: the duke of York died, when first I became a slave. So that my memory survive in my own White Rose's heart—let the victor dispose at his pleasure of this mere shell of Richard."