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First published under the title In Mary’s Reign in 1901, it was re-released under the title The Tangled Skein in 1907. In this historical novel, Queen Mary is characterized as a loving woman with a strong sense of justice. The book arises from Mary’s love for the fictional character Robert d’Esclade, fifth Duke of Wessex, said in this book to be the people’s choice as King Consort. Wessex is chivalrous and charming, but semi-betrothed to Lady Ursula Glynde, whom he has not seen since her infancy. Wessex is repelled by the idea of having his wife thrust upon him and purposely avoids Lady Ursula. Unknown to Wessex, the Queen jealously guards him against Ursula, who is extremely beautiful. As soon as she realizes the Queen is keeping her away from Wessex, Ursula is angered. She believes she loves Wessex, for his nobility and goodness, and she is invested heavily in the betrothal. On her father’s deathbed, Ursula promised to go into a convent if she did not marry Wessex. Although Ursula does not want to lose her independence by marrying, she seeks to frustrate the Queen’s plans and make Wessex notice her; however, the arrival of Cardinal de Moreno, and his henchman Don Mignel, Marquis de Saurez, shifts the scene. The Cardinal is in England to negotiate the marriage between Philip II of Spain and Mary. To end the Queen’s love for Wessex, the Cardinal tries to marry Wessex and Lady Ursula. But when the Queen discovers the ruse, she declares that his Eminence should leave England immediately; she will not marry Philip. Then the Cardinal has to set to work to part the lovers, a far more difficult and intricate business than bringing them together. It costs a life, Wessex his freedom, and Lady Ursula her good name before it can be effected. The skein is more hopelessly tangled than before, and still Mary remains obdurate. The Queen loses her dignity, will and love. The Cardinal’s victory is gained at the expense of his own career.
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Baroness Emmuska Orczy
IN MARY’S REIGN
First published in 1901
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
TO MY LITTLE SON JACK
TO HIS SCHOOLMATES AT “RAMSBURY”
It was amongst you all that I wrote the last chapters of this romance. To you, therefore — to your growing manhood, your pretty, budding thoughts of chivalry and honour, which I so loved to see developing in the tender atmosphere of your dear little school-home by the sea — I inscribe and dedicate this record of a noble and good man’s life.
Even Noailles, in his letters to his royal master, admits that the weather was glorious, and that the climatic conditions left nothing to be desired.
Even Noailles! Noailles, who detested England as the land of humid atmospheres and ill-dressed women!
Renard, who was more of a diplomatist and kept his opinions on the fogs and wenches of Old England very much to himself, declared enthusiastically in his letter to the Emperor Charles V, dated October 2nd, 1553, that never had he seen the sky so blue, the sun so bright, nor the people of this barbarous island more merry than on the memorable first day of East Molesey Fair: as all who will, may read for themselves in Vol. III of the Granvelle Papers:
“Aulcungs ne pourroient contempler ciel plus bleu soleil plus brillianct ni peuple plus joieult.”
Yet what have we to do with the opinions of these noble ambassadors of great and mighty foreign monarchs?
Our own chroniclers tell us that East Molesey Fair was the maddest, merriest, happiest time the goodly folk of the Thames Valley had had within memory of the oldest inhabitant.
Was not good Queene Marye, beloved daughter of the great King Henry VIII, crowned at last? crowned in Westminster Abbey, as all her loyal subjects had desired that she should be, despite His Grace of Northumberland and his treasonable faction, whom God and the Queene’s most lawful Majesty would punish all in good time?
In the meanwhile let us be joyful and make merry!
Such a motley crowd as never was seen. Here’s a sheriff from London City, pompous and dignified in dark doublet and hose, with scarlet mantle and velvet cap; beside him his lady trips right merrily, her damask kirtle held well above her high-heeled shoes, her flowered paniers looped in the latest style, with just the suggestion of a farthingale beneath her robes, to give dignity to her figure and value to the slimness of her waist.
Here a couple of solemn burgesses in velvet cloaks edged with fur, and richly slashed doublets, are discussing the latest political events; whilst a group of Hampton merchants, more soberly clad, appraise the wares of a cutler lately hailed from Spain.
Then the dames and maidens with puffed paniers of blue or vivid scarlet, moving swiftly from booth to booth, babbling like so many gaily-plumaged birds, squabbling with the vendors and chaffing the criers.
Here and there the gaudy uniform of one of the liveried Companies will attract the eye, anon the dark cloak and close black mask which obviously hides the Court gallant.
Men of all ranks and of all stations have come out to East Molesey to-day. Merchants, shopkeepers, workers, aldermen and servants, all with their womenkind, all with pouches more or less well filled, for who would go to Molesey Fair but to spend money, to drink, to eat, or to make merry?
Then there were the ‘prentices!
They had no money to spend, save a copper or so to throw to a mountebank, but nevertheless they contrived to enjoy themselves right royally.
Such imps of mischief!
No whipping-post to-day! Full licence for all their pranks and madcap jokes. The torment of all these worthy burgesses out on a holiday.
Oh! these ‘prentices!
Hundreds of them out here this afternoon. They’ve come down from Esher and Hampton, Kingston and Westminster and London City, like so many buzzing insects seeking whom they can annoy.
Now on the ground, suddenly tripping a pompous dame off her feet; anon in rows, some half-dozen of them, elbow to elbow, head foremost, charging the more serious crowd, and with a hoot and a yell scattering it like a number of frightened goslings. Yet again at the confect booth, to the distraction of the vendors of honey-cakes, stealing sugar-plums and damson cheese, fighting, quarrelling, screeching, their thin legs encased in hose of faded blue or grey worsted, their jerkins loose, their shirt sleeves flapping in the breeze, a cool note of white amidst the dark-coloured gowns of the older men.
Heavens above! what a to-do!
A group of women be-coiffed, apparelled in best kirtles and modish shoes, were pressing round a booth where pantoufles, embroidered pouches, kerchiefs, and velveted paniers were laid out in tempting array.
Just beyond, a number of buxom country wenches, with round red arms, showing bare to the grilling sun, and laughing eyes, aglow with ill-concealed gourmandise, were gaping at a mighty display of pullets, hares, and pigeons, sides of roebuck and haunches of wild boar, ready spiked, trussed, and skewered, fit to tempt Her Majesty’s Grace’s own royal palate.
Sprigs of sweet-scented marjoram, thyme, and wool-blade tastefully disposed, further enhanced the attractions of this succulent show. ’Twas enough to make the sweetest mouth water with anticipatory delight. A brown-eyed, apple-cheeked wench in paniers of brilliant red was unaffectedly licking her pretty lips.
“This way, mistress, this way!” shouted the vendor of these appetizing wares. A sturdy fellow, he, with ginger-coloured pate, and wielding a long narrow-bladed knife in his fleshy hand. “This way! a haunch of buck from the royal venery! a hare from Her Liege Majesty’s own chase! a pullet from—”
“Nay, thou gorbellied knave!” responded a vendor of drugs and herbs close by, whose stall was somewhat deserted, and whose temper was obviously suffering. “Nay! an thou speakest the truth thou art a thief, but if not, then thou’rt a liar! In either case art fit for the hangman’s rope!”
“This way, my masters! this way!” came in loud, stentorian cries from a neighbouring booth, “this way for Peter the juggler, the greatest conjurer the world has ever seen!”
“This way! I pray you, worthy sirs!” this from yet another place of entertainment, “this way for John the tumbler!”
“Peter the juggler will swallow a cross-bow of steel before your very eyes!” shouted one crier.
“John the tumbler will climb Saint Ethelburga’s steeple without help of rope or ladder,” called the other.
“Peter will show you how to shoe a turkey, how to put salt on a swallow’s tail, and how to have your cake and eat it!”
“John will sit on two stools without coming to the ground!”
“Marry! and ye both lie faster than my mule can trot!” came in hilarious accents from one of the crowd.
“And Peter the juggler will show thee how to make thy mule trot faster than thou canst lie, friend,” responded Peter’s crier unabashed, “and a mighty difficult task ‘twill be, I’ll warrant.”
Laughing, joking, ogling like some fickle jade, the crowd passed from booth to booth: now dropping a few coins in Peter the juggler’s hat, now watching the antics of John the tumbler; anon looking on amazed, half terrified at the evolutions of a gigantic brown bear, led by the nose by a vigorous knave in leather jerkin and cross-gartered hose, and accompanied by a youngster who was blowing on a mighty sackbut until his cheeks looked nigh to bursting.
But ads heart! who shall tell of all the attractions which were set forth on that memorable day before the loyal subjects of good Queene Marye?
There were the trestles where one could play at ball and knuckle-bone, or chance and mumchance; another, where evens and odds and backgammon proved tempting. He who willed could tilt at Weekie, play quoits or lansquenet, at ball or at the billiards, or risk his coppers on such games as one-and-thirty, or at the pass ten; he might try his skill, too, at throwing the dart, or his strength at putting the stone.
There were mountebanks and quacksalvers, lapidaries at work, and astrologers in their tents. For twopence one could have a bout with the back-sword or the Spanish tuck, could watch the situations and conjunctions of the fixed stars and the planets, could play a game of tennis or pelitrigone, or be combed and curled, perfumed and trimmed so as to please a dainty mistress’s eye.
And through it all the loud bang! bang! bang! of the big drums, the criers proclaiming the qualities of their wares, the jarring notes of the sackbut and the allman flute, the screechy viol and the strident nine-hole pipe, all playing against one another, each striving to drown the other, and mingling with the laughter of the crowd, the yells of the ‘prentices, the babble of the women, formed a huge volume of ear-splitting cacophony which must have been heard from one end of the country to the other.
All was noise, merriment, and laughter, save in one spot — an out-of-the-way, half-hidden corner of the fair, where the sister streams, the Ember and the Mole, join hands for a space, meet but to part again, and whence the distant towers and cupolas of Hampton Court appeared like those of a fairy palace floating in mid-ether, perched high aloft in the shimmering haze of this hot late summer’s afternoon.
There are many accounts still extant of the various doings at East Molesey Fair on this 2nd of October in the year of our Lord 1553, and several chroniclers — Renard is conspicuous among the latter — make mention of the events which very nearly turned the gay and varying comedies of that day into weird and tragic drama.
Certainly the witch’s tent was a mistake.
But what would you? No doubt the worthy individual, who for purposes of mystification called himself “Abra,” had tried many means of earning a livelihood before he and his associate in business took to the lucrative, yet dangerous trade of necromancy.
He was tall and gaunt, with hooked nose and deep-sunk eyes; he had cultivated a long, grey beard, and could call forth the powers of Mirrab the Witch with a remarkably solemn and guttural voice.
As for Mirrab herself, no one was allowed to see her. That was part of the business. She was a witch, a dealer in magic potions, charms and philters, a reader of the stars, and — softly be it spoken — a friend and companion of the devil! She only appeared enveloped in a thick veil, with divining wand held lightly in her hand, the ends of her gold tresses alone visible below the heavy covering which swathed her head.
It was the mystery of it all — cheap devices at best — which from the first had irritated the country-folk who thronged the Fair.
The tent itself was unlike any other ever seen at East Molesey. It stood high upon a raised wooden platform, to which a few rough steps gave access. On the right was a tall flagstaff, with black flag emblazoned with white skull and cross-bones, fluttering lazily in the breeze.
On the left a huge elm tree, with great heavy branches overshadowing the tent, had been utilized to support a placard bearing the words,
“Mirrab! the World-famed Necromancer!
Sale of Magic Charms and Love Philters
Horoscope Casting and Elixir of Life!”
Perched on the platform, and assisted by a humbler henchman, armed with big drum and cymbals, the worthy Abra, in high-peaked cap and flowing mantle covered with strange devices, had all day long invited customers to his booth by uttering strange, mysterious promises.
“This way, this way, my masters,” he would say with imposing solemnity, “the world-famous necromancer, Mirrab, will evoke for you the spirits of Mars, of Saturn, or of the moon.”
“She will show you the Grand Grimorium…!”
Now what was the Grand Grimorium? The very sound of the words suggested some agency of the devil; no Christian man had ever heard or spoken of the Grand Grimorium.
“She will show you the use of the blasting rod and the divining wand. She will call forth the elementary spirits…”
Some people would try to laugh. Who had ever heard of the elementary spirits? Perhaps if some of the more enlightened town worthies happened to be nigh the booth, one or two of them would begin to chaff the necromancer.
“And prithee, friend wizard,” a solemn burgher would suggest, “prithee what are the elementary spirits?”
But Abra was nothing if not ready-witted.
“The elementary spirits,” he would explain with imperturbable gravity, “are the green butterfly, the black pullet, the queen of the hairy flies, and the screech owl.”
The weird nomenclature was enough to make any one’s hair stand on end. Even the sedate burgesses would shake their heads and silently edge away, whilst their womenkind would run swiftly past the booth, muttering a quick Ave to the blessed Virgin or kissing the Holy Scapulary hung beneath their kerchiefs, as their terrified glances met the cabalistic signs on the black flag.
The humbler country-folk frankly spat upon the ground three times whenever they caught sight of the flag, and that is a sure way of sending the devil about his business.
The shadows now were beginning to lengthen.
The towers and cupolas of Hampton Court Palace were studded with gold and gems by the slanting rays of the setting sun.
It had been a glorious afternoon and, except in the open space immediately in front of the witch’s tent, the fun of the fair had lost none of its zest.
The witch’s booth alone was solitary — weird-looking beneath the spreading branches of the overhanging elm.
The tent seemed lighted from within, for as the evening breeze stirred its hangings, gleams of brilliant red, more glowing than the sunset, appeared in zigzag streaks between its folds.
Behind, and to the right and left of it, the gentle murmur of the sister streams sounded like ghostly whisperings of evening sprites, busy spreading their grey mantles over the distant landscape.
As the afternoon wore on, the crowd in the other parts of the Fair had grown more and more dense, and now, among the plainer garb of the burgesses and townsfolk, and the jerkins and worsted hose of the yokels, could be seen quite frequently a silken doublet or velvet trunk, a masked face perhaps beneath a plumed bonnet, or the point of a sword gleaming beneath the long, dark mantle, denoting the Court gallant.
Now and then, too, hooded and closely swathed forms would flit quickly through the crowd, followed by the inquisitive glances of the humbler folk, as the dainty tip of a broidered shoe or the richly wrought hem of a silken kirtle, protruding below the cloak, betrayed the lady of rank and fashion on gay adventure bent.
Most of these veiled figures had found their way up the rough wooden steps which led to the witch’s tent. The fame of Mirrab, the Soothsayer, had reached the purlieus of the palace, and Abra, the magician, had more than once seen his lean palm crossed with gold.
“This way, noble lords! this way!”
He was even now trying to draw the attention of two cloaked figures, who had just emerged in sight of the booth.
Two gentlemen of the Court evidently, for Abra’s quick eye had caught a glimpse of richly chased sword-hilts, as the wind blew the heavy, dark mantles to one side.
But these gentlemen were paying little heed to the worthy magician’s blandishments. They were whispering excitedly to one another, whilst eagerly scanning the crowd all round them.
“They were ladies from the Court, I feel sure,” said the taller man of the two, “I swear I have seen the hem of that kirtle before.”
“Carramba!” replied the other, “it promised well, but methinks we’ve lost track of them now.”
He spoke English very fluently, yet with a strong, guttural intonation, whilst the well-known Spanish oath which he uttered betrayed his nationality.
“Pardi!” he added impatiently, “I could have sworn that the damsels were bent on consulting the witch.”
“Nay, only on seeing the fun of the Fair apparently,” rejoined the other, “we’ve lain in wait here now for nigh on half an hour.”
“Mirrab the Soothsayer will evoke for you the spirits of the moon, oh noble lords!” urged Abra, with ever-increasing persuasiveness. “She will give you the complaisance of the entire female sex.”
“What say you, my lord,” said the Englishman after a while, “shall we give up the quest after those elusive damsels and woo these obliging spirits of the moon? They say the witch has marvellous powers.”
“Bah, milor!” rejoined the Spaniard gaily, “a veiled female! Think on it! Those who have entered yon mysterious tent declare that scarce an outline of that soothsayer could they glean, beneath the folds of thick draperies which hide her from view. What is a shapeless woman? I ask you, milor. And in England, too,” he added with affected gallantry which had more than a touch of sarcasm in it, “where all women are shapely.”
“Mirrab, the world-famous necromancer, will bring to your arms the lady of your choice, oh most noble lords!” continued the persistent Abra, “even if she were hidden beyond the outermost corners of the earth.”
“By my halidame! this decides me,” quoth the Englishman merrily. “I pray you come, my lord. This adventure promises better than the other. And, who knows?” he added in his turn with thinly-veiled, pleasant irony, “you Spaniards are so persuasive — the witch, if she be young and fair, might lift her veil for you.”
“Allons!” responded the other, “since ’tis your wish, milor, let us consult the spirits.”
And, standing aside with the courtly grace peculiar to those of his nationality, he allowed his companion to precede him up the steps which led to Mirrab’s tent.
Then he too followed, and laughing and chattering the two men disappeared behind the gaudily painted draperies.
Not, however, without tossing a couple of gold pieces into the hands of the wizard. Abra, obsequious, smiling, thoroughly contented, sat himself down to rest awhile beside his patient, hard-worked henchman.
At some little distance from the mysterious booth a trestle table had been erected, at which some three or four wenches in hooped paniers and short, striped kirtles, were dispensing spiced ale and sack to the thirsty village folk.
Here it was that Mirrab the witch and her attendant wizard were most freely discussed — with bated breath, and with furtive glances cast hurriedly at the black flag, which was just visible above the row of other booths and gayer attractions of the Fair.
There was no doubt that as the evening began to draw in, and the sun to sink lower and lower in the west, the superstitious terror, which had all along set these worthy country yokels against the awesome mysteries of the necromancer’s tent, had gradually culminated into a hysterical frenzy.
At first sullen looks had been cast towards that distant spot, whence the sound of Abra’s perpetual “This way, noble lords, this way!” came every now and then as a weird and ghostly echo; but now muttered curses and even a threatening gesture from time to time had taken the place of angry silence.
As the hard pates of these louts became heated with the foaming ale, their tempers began to rise, and the girls, with characteristic love of mischief and gossip, were ready enough to add fuel to the smouldering flames.
There was also present in the minds of these wenches an obvious feeling of jealousy against this mysterious veiled witch, who had proved so attractive to the Court gallants who visited the Fair.
Her supposed charms so carefully hidden beneath thick draperies, were reputed to be irresistible, and Mistress Dorothy, Susan, and Joan, who showed their own pretty faces unblushingly, were not sufficiently versed in mountebanks’ tricks to realize that Mirrab’s thick veil was, without doubt, only a means for arousing the jaded curiosity of idlers from the Court.
Be that as it may, it was an established fact that no one had seen the soothsayer’s face, and that Mistress Dorothy, who was pouring out a huge tankard of sack for her own attendant swain, was exceedingly annoyed thereby.
“Bah!” she said contemptuously, as Abra and his magic devices were being discussed at the table, “he is but a lout. I tell thee, Matthew, that thou’rt a fool to take count of him. But the woman,” she added under her breath, “is possessed of the devil.”
Matthew, the shoemaker, took the tankard, which his sweetheart had filled for him, in both hands and took a long draught before he made any reply. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, spat upon the ground, and looked significantly at the circle of friends who were gathered round him.
“I tell you, my masters,” he said at last with due solemnity, “that I saw that witch last night fly out from yonder tree astride upon a giant bat.”
A holy shudder went round the entire assembly. Pretty Mistress Susan crossed herself furtively, whilst Joan in her terror nearly dropped the handful of mugs which she was carrying.
Every one hung on the shoemaker’s lips.
Short and somewhat tubby of body, Matthew had a round and chubby face, with pale blue, bulging eyes, and slightly elevated eyebrows, which gave him the appearance of an overgrown baby. He was for some reason, which has never transpired to this day, reputed to have wonderful wisdom. His items of news, gleaned from a nephew who was scullion in the royal kitchen, were always received with boundless respect, whilst the connection itself gave him a certain social superiority of which he was proudly conscious.
Like the true-born orator, Matthew had paused a moment in order to allow the full strength of his utterance to sink into the minds of his hearers.
“Aye!” he said after a while, “she flew out from between the branches and up towards the full moon, clad only —”
A brusque movement and a blush from Mistress Dorothy here stopped the graphic flow of his eloquence.
“Er — hem —!” he concluded more tamely, “I saw her quite plainly.”
“More shame then on thee, master,” retorted Dorothy, whose wrath was far from subsiding, “for thus gazing on the devil’s work.”
But the matter had become of far too great import to allow of feminine jealousies being taken into account.
“And I know,” added an elderly matron with quaking voice, “that my sister Hannah’s child caught sight of the witch outside her tent this morning, and forthwith fell into convulsions, the poor innocent lamb.”
“She hath the evil eye, depend on it,” quoth Dorothy decisively.
The men said nothing. They were sipping their ale in sullen silence, and looking to Matthew for further expressions of wisdom.
“Those evil spirits have oft a filthy countenance,” explained the shoemaker sententiously, “and no doubt ’twas they helped to convulse Mistress Hannah’s child. Some have four faces — one in the usual place, another at the back of the head, and one looking out on either side; others appear with a tall and lean body and bellow like a bull.”
“Hast seen them, Matthew?” came in awed whispers from those around.
“Nay! God and the Holy Virgin forbid!” protested Matthew fervently. “God forbid that I should enter their abode of evil. I should lose my soul.”
There was a long, ominous silence, broken only by quickly muttered invocations to the saints and to Our Lady.
The men looked furtively at one another. The women clung together, not daring to utter a sound. Mistress Dorothy, all the boldness gone out of her little heart, was sobbing from sheer fright.
“Friends,” said Matthew at last, as if with sudden resolution, “if that woman be possessed of the devil, what’s to be done?”
There was no reply, but obviously they all understood one another, for each wore a shame-faced look all of a sudden, and dared not meet his neighbour’s eye. But the danger was great. The devil in their midst would mean poisoned wells, the sweating sickness, some dire calamity for sure; and it was the duty of every true-hearted countryman to protect his home and family from such terrible disasters.
Therefore when Matthew in his wisdom said, “What’s to be done?” the men fully understood.
The women, too, knew that mischief was brewing. They drew closer to one another and shivered with cold beneath their kerchiefs, in spite of the warmth of this beautiful late summer’s afternoon.
“Beware of her, Matthew,” entreated Mistress Dorothy tearfully.
She drew a small piece of blue cloth from the bosom of her dress: it was pinked and broidered, and had the image of the Holy Virgin painted on one side of it. Quickly she slipped it under her lover’s jerkin.
“Take it,” she whispered, “the scapulary of Our Lady will protect thee.”
This momentous conclave was here interrupted by the approach of the small detachment of the town guard which had been sent hither to ensure order amongst the holiday-makers.
Matthew and his friends began ostentatiously to talk of the weather and other such trifling matters, until after the guard had passed, then once more they put their heads together.
But this time they bade the women go. What had to be discussed now was men’s work and unfit for wenches’ ears.
In the meanwhile the two gallants were returning from their visit to the witch’s tent.
As they came down the steps more than one voice among the passers-by inquired eagerly:
“What fortune, sirs?”
“In truth she hath strange powers,” was the somewhat guarded response.
The two men strolled up to a neighbouring wine-vendor and ordered some wine. They had thrown their cloaks aside and removed their masks, for the air was close. The rich, slashed doublets, thus fully displayed, the fine lace at throat and wrist, the silken hose and chased daggers, all betokened the high quality and wealth of the wearers.
Neither of them seemed much above thirty years of age; each had the air of a man in the prime of life, and in the full enjoyment of all the good things which the world can give.
But in their actual appearance they presented a marked contrast.
The one tall and broad-shouldered, florid of complexion, and somewhat reddish about the hair and small pointed beard; the other short, slender, and alert, with keen, restless eyes, and with sensuous lips for ever curled in a smile of thinly veiled sarcasm.
Though outwardly on most familiar terms together, there was distinctly apparent between the two men an air of reserve, and even of decided, if perhaps friendly, antagonism.
“Well, milor Everingham,” said the Spaniard after a while, “what say you to our adventure?”
“I say first and foremost, my lord,” replied Everingham with studied gallantry, “that my prophecy proved correct — the mysterious necromancer was no proof against Spanish wiles; she unveiled at a smile from Don Miguel, Marquis de Suarez, the envoy of His Most Catholic Majesty.”
“Nay,” rejoined Don Miguel, affecting not to notice the slight tone of sarcasm in his friend’s pleasant voice, “I scarce caught a glimpse of the wench’s face. The tent was so dark and her movements so swift.”
There was a moment’s silence. Lord Everingham seemed lost in meditation.
“You are thoughtful, milor,” remarked Don Miguel. “Have the genii of the moon conquered your own usually lively spirits?”
“Nay, I was thinking of the curious resemblance,” mused Everingham.
“A resemblance? — to whom?”
“As you say, the tent was dark and the wench’s movements swift, yet I could see that, though coarsely clad and ill-kempt, that witch, whom they call Mirrab, is the very physical counterpart of the new Court beauty, the Lady Ursula Glynde.”
“The fiancée of the Duke of Wessex!” exclaimed the Spaniard. “Impossible!”
“Nay, my lord,” rejoined Everingham pointedly, “she scarce can be called His Grace’s fiancée as yet. They were children in their cradles when her father plighted their troth.”
The Spaniard made no immediate reply. With an affected, effeminate gesture he was gently stroking his long, black moustache. Everingham, on the other hand, was eyeing him keenly, with a certain look of defiance and challenge, and in a moment the antagonism between the two men appeared more marked than before.
“But gossip has it,” said the Marquis at last, with assumed nonchalance, “that Lady Ursula’s father — the Earl of Truro, was it not? — swore upon his honour and on his deathbed that she should wed the Duke of Wessex, whenever he claimed her hand, or live her life in a convent. Nay, I but repeat the rumour which has reached me,” he added lightly, “put me right if I am in error, my lord. I am but a stranger, and have not yet had the honour of meeting His Grace.”
“Bah!” said Everingham impatiently, “His Grace is in no humour to wed, nor do the Earl of Truro’s deathbed vows bind him in any way.”
He took up his bumper, and looking long and thoughtfully into it, he said with slow emphasis:
“If the Duke of Wessex be inclined to marry, believe me, my lord Marquis, that it shall be none other than the Queen of England! Whom may God bless and protect,” he added, reverently lifting his plumed hat with one hand, whilst with the other he held the bumper to his lips and tossed down the full measure of wine at one draught.
“Amen to that,” responded Don Miguel with the same easy nonchalance.
He too drained his bumper to the dregs; then he said quietly:
“But that is where we differ, milor. His Eminence the Cardinal de Moreno and myself both hope that the Queen of England will wed our master King Philip of Spain.”
Everingham seemed as if he would reply. But with a certain effort he checked the impatient words which had risen to his lips. Englishmen had only just begun to learn the tricks and wiles of Spanish diplomacy, the smiles which hide antagonisms, the suave words which disguise impulsive thoughts.
Lord Everingham had not wholly assimilated the lesson. He had frowned impatiently when the question of the marriage of his queen had been broached by the foreigner. It was a matter which roused the temper of every loyal Englishman just then; they would not see Mary Tudor wedded to a stranger. England was beginning to feel her own independence; her children would not see her under another yoke.
Mary, in spite of her Spanish mother, was English to the backbone. Tudor-like, she had proved her grit and her pluck when opposing factions tried to wrest her crown from her. She was Harry’s daughter. Her loyal subjects were proud of her and proud of her descent, and many of them had sworn that none but an English husband should share her throne with her.
With the same sarcastic smile still lurking round his full lips the Spaniard had watched his friend closely the while. He knew full well what was going on behind that florid countenance, knew the antagonism which the proposed Spanish marriage was rousing just then in the hearts and minds of Englishmen of all classes.
But he certainly did not care to talk over such momentous questions at a country fair, with the eyes and mouths of hundreds of yokels gaping astonishment at him.
As far as he was concerned the half-amicable discussion was closed. He and his friend had agreed to differ. According to Spanish ideas, divergence in political opinions need not interfere with pleasant camaraderie.
With a genuine desire, therefore, to change the subject of conversation, Don Miguel rose from his seat and idly scanned the passing crowd.
“Carramba!” he ejaculated suddenly.
“What is it?”
“Our two masks,” whispered the Spaniard. “What say you, milor, shall we resume our interrupted adventure and abandon the tiresome field of politics for the more easy paths of gallantry?”
And without waiting for his friend’s reply, eager, impetuous, fond of intrigues and mysteries, the young man darted through the crowd in the direction where his keen eyes had spied a couple of hooded figures, thickly veiled, who were obviously trying to pass unperceived.
Everingham followed closely on the young Spaniard’s footsteps. But the sun had already sunk low down in the west. Outlines and silhouettes had become indistinct and elusive. By the time the Marquis de Suarez and his English friend had elbowed their way through the throng the two mysterious figures had once more disappeared.
Breathless, half laughing and half crying, very merry, yet wholly frightened, those same two hooded and masked figures had paused almost immediately beneath the platform of Mirrab’s tent.
They had been running very fast, and, exhausted, were now clinging to one another, cowering in the deepest shadow of the rough wooden construction.
“Oh! Margaret sweet,” whispered a feminine voice from behind the silken mask, “I vow I should have died with fright!”
“Think you we have escaped them?” murmured the other feebly.
She who had first spoken, taller than her friend and obviously the leader of this mad escapade, tiptoed cautiously forward and peered out into the open space.
“Sh — sh — sh!” she whispered, as she dragged her unwilling companion after her, “do you see them?… right over there… they are running fast… Oh! ho! ho! ho!” she laughed suddenly with childish glee as she clapped her hands together, “but, Margaret dear!… did we not fool them merrily?… Oh! I could shriek for joy! Aye, run, run, run, my fine gallants!” she added, blowing an imaginary kiss to her distant pursuers, “an you go that way you’ll ne’er o’ertake us, e’en though you raced the wind… ha! ha! ha!…”
Her laugh sounded a little forced and hysterical, for she had had a terrible fright, and her companion was still clinging miserably, helplessly to her side.
“Nay, Ursula, how can you be so merry?” admonished Margaret in a voice almost choked with tears, “think if the Duchess of Lincoln were to hear of this adventure — or Her Majesty herself — oh!…”
But Ursula’s gay, madcap mood was proof against Margaret’s tears.
“Oh! oh! oh!” she ejaculated, mimicking her friend’s tones of horror. “Oh!” she added with mock seriousness, “well, then, of course, there would be trouble, Margaret mine!… sweet Margaret!… such a lecture!… and oh! oh! oh! such black looks from Her Majesty!… we should e’en — think on it! — have to look demure for at least two days, until our sins be forgiven us!…”
She paused awhile, mischief apparent even beneath the half-transparent lace which hid her laughter-loving mouth. She drew her trembling companion closer to her, and, still laughing, she coaxed her gently.
“There, there, sweet,” she murmured, “cheer up, I pray thee, cheer up… See, we have come to the end of our journey. We have baffled those persistent gallants, and this is the witch’s tent. Margaret!” she added with an impatient tap of the foot, “art a goose to go on crying so? I vow I’d have come alone had I known thou’rt such a coward.”
“Ursula!” said Margaret, somewhat emboldened by her friend’s assurance, “could you guess who were those two gallants?”
“Nay,” replied Ursula indifferently, “one of them, methinks, was the Marquis de Suarez, for I caught sight of his black silk hose, but what do we care about these nincompoops, Margaret? Come and see the witch — we have no time to lose.”
Eagerly she turned towards the booth, and somewhat awed, anxious, yet not wholly daring, she gazed up in astonishment at the gaudy draperies, the tall flagstaff, the weird black flag with its strange device. Then with sudden resolution she planted her foot upon the bottom step.
“Wilt follow me, sweet?” she asked.
Even as she spoke Abra, in tall peaked cap and flowing mantle, emerged from within the tent.
Margaret, who was screwing up her courage to follow her friend, gave a shriek of dismay.
“No! no! no! Ursula!” she said, clinging to the other girl, not daring to look up at the awesome figure of the lean magician. “I implore you, give up the thought.”
“Give up the thought?” rejoined Ursula, boldly trying to smother her own superstitious fears, “when I’ve gone thus far?”
“I cannot think what you want with that horrid witch!” pleaded Margaret.
At sight of Abra’s long white beard, his wizard’s wand, and cloak covered with cabalistic signs, even Ursula’s courage had begun to ebb. She had hastily retreated from the steps and followed Margaret once more within the protecting shelter of the shadows.
“I want to know my fortune, Margaret mine,” she said in a voice which was not quite as firm as before, “and I hear that this witch can see into the future. ’Tis said that she has marvellous powers.”
“Why should you want to know the future?” persisted timid, practical Margaret, “is not the present good enough for you?”
“His Grace of Wessex comes back to Court to-day,” rejoined Ursula, “after an absence of many months.”
“Well? — what of him?”
“What of him?… Margaret, art stupid, or art not my friend?… Is it not natural that I should wish to know whether I am to be Duchess of Wessex or abbess in a holy but uncomfortable convent?”
“Yes, ’tis natural enough,” assented Margaret thoughtfully, “but —”
“His Grace has never seen me since I was so long,” said Ursula with a short, impatient sigh, and stretching out a round arm decked with a sleeve of rich silk and fine lace. “I had a red face then, and pap was stuffed into my mouth to keep me quiet. You see, I could not have been madly alluring then.”
“And you are beautiful now, Ursula. But of what avail is it? You cannot wed His Grace of Wessex, for he’ll never ask you to be his wife. He’ll marry the Queen. All England wishes it.”
“But I wish him to marry me,” quoth Ursula with a resolute tap of her high-heeled shoe against the ground. “Yes, me! and I want that witch yonder to ask the stars if he will fall in love with me when he sees me, or if he will yield to those who want to make of him a tool for their political ambition, and marry an ugly, ill-tempered old woman who happens to be Queen of England.”
Margaret’s horror, amazement, and awe had rendered her almost speechless. Ursula’s utterance was nearly sacrilegious, in these days when kings and queens ruled by right divine.
But the young girl continued, quite unabashed by her friend’s rebuke.
“Well,” she said imperturbably, “you can’t deny that the Queen is old!… and ugly!… and ill-tempered!…”
Margaret, however, was prepared to deny these monstrous statements with the last breath left in her delicate body. The poor little soul was frightened out of her wits.
Suppose some one had overheard! — and repeated the tale that two of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting had called Her Majesty old! — and ugly! — and ill-tempered!
Nay, Ursula’s madcap freaks were past bearing! and would lead her into serious trouble one of these days.
“Margaret,” whispered the delinquent, who still seemed quite unaware of the enormity of her offence, “hast thou ever seen His Grace of Wessex?”
“No,” replied Margaret curtly, for she was still very wrathful, and vaguely felt that, at this stage, all references to the Duke were somehow treasonable.
“Nor I since I was a baby,” sighed Ursula, “but see here…”
From beneath the folds of her cloak she drew a chain and locket, and holding the latter before Margaret’s unwilling eyes, she said ecstatically:
“That’s his picture. Isn’t he handsome?”
“You’ve fallen in love with his picture!”
“Madly indeed!” retorted Margaret.
Ursula once more hid the locket inside her robe. She had regained all her courage. Once more dragging her weaker companion by the wrist she turned towards the witch’s booth.
Abra, the magician, tired out by his day’s exertions, had settled himself down on a tattered piece of rug outside the tent; there he had fallen peacefully asleep, his venerable head thrown back, his lean shanks hanging over the edge of the platform and snoring the snore of the just. Thus he had failed to spy the two hooded, dainty figures, who had all along kept within the shadows.
Suddenly through his pleasant slumbers he heard an eagerly whispered:
Whilst the toe of his shoe was violently tagged at from below.
“They won’t listen!” added an impatient, half-tearful voice.
But already Abra was on his feet. Giving his humble henchman a violent kick to wake him up, he began to mutter mechanically, even before he was fully conscious:
“What ho, my masters! consult the world-famous necromancer —”
Bang! bang! bang! on the big drum came automatically from his henchman, who was only half awake.
“No! no! no!” entreated Ursula, “I prithee not so much noise! We wish to consult the soothsayer… we’ve brought some money… three gold pieces… is that enough?… But in the name of Our Lady I beg of thee not to make so much noise.”
Timidly she held up a silken purse towards the astonished wizard. Three gold pieces! — why, ’twas a fortune, the like of which the worthy Abra had never beheld in one sum in his life.
To ask him not to make a noise was to demand the impossible. With one hand he pushed his henchman vigorously to one side. The latter dropped his cymbals, which rattled off the platform with an ear-splitting crash.
All the while Abra in stentorian tones, and holding back the folds of the tent, was shouting at the top of his voice:
“This way, ladies! for the great soothsayer Mirrab, the sale of love-philters and charms, and of the true elixir of life.”
“The die is cast, Margaret mine,” said Ursula, trying vainly to steady her voice, which was trembling, and her knees which were shaking beneath her. “Art coming? — Oh! I — I — feel a little nervous,” she admitted in spite of herself, “and you — oh! how your hand trembles…”
She was frankly terrified now. The noise was so awful, and though she did not dare look to the right or left of her she was conscious that she and her friend were no longer alone on the open place. She could hear the murmur of voices, the sound of idle folk gathering in every direction.
Her instinct suggested immediate flight, and the abandonment of this mad adventure while there was yet time, but her pride urged her to proceed. She gripped Margaret’s wrist with a resolute hand and made a quick rush for the steps.
Alas! she was just two seconds too late. The next instant she felt her waist seized firmly from behind, whilst a merry voice shouted:
“Cornered at last!”
Wrenching herself free with a sudden twist of her firm young shoulders, Ursula contrived to liberate herself momentarily. She was dimly conscious of having caught sight of Margaret in the like plight as herself.
“Not so fast, fair one,” whispered an insinuating voice close to her, “a word in thy pretty ear.”
Oh! the shame of this vulgar adventure! Pursued like some kitchen wench out on a spree, by a gallant, eager for an idle kiss.
She felt her cheeks tingle underneath her mask; saw and guessed the short laugh, the shrug of the shoulders of the idlers round, far too accustomed to these spectacles to take more than passing note of it.
Once more the firm grip had seized her waist. This time she felt herself powerless to struggle.
“Nay, in the name of heaven, sir,” she entreated tearfully, “I pray you let me go.”
“Not until I have caught a nearer sight of those bright eyes, that shine at me through that cruel mask.”
The soft guttural tones revealed the identity of the speaker to Ursula. She knew Don Miguel well; knew his wild, impudent spirit, his love of idle flirtations which had already made him the terror of the prim Queen’s Court. She knew that she would not be allowed to escape before this ridiculous episode had been brought to its usual conclusion.
Oh! how she longed for the Duchess of Lincoln’s severe guardianship at this moment! How bitterly she repented the folly which had prompted her to drag Margaret along into this wild adventure.
Poor Margaret! she, too, was doing her best to evade the unwelcome attentions of her gallant! and that magician! and those louts! all grinning like so many apes at the spectacle.
It was maddening!
And she was helpless!
The next moment the young Spaniard’s indiscreet hands had snatched the protecting mask from her face, and the daintiest and most perfect picture Nature had ever fashioned stood revealed, blushing with shame and vexation, before his delighted, slightly sarcastic gaze.
“Ah! luck favours me indeed!” he murmured with avowed admiration, “the newly-risen star — nay! the brightest sun in the firmament of beauty! the Lady Ursula Glynde!”
She was only nineteen then. Not very tall, yet perfectly proportioned, and with that small, oval face of hers which delighted yet puzzled all the artists of the epoch.
The dark hood of her cloak had fallen back at the impertinent gesture of the young Spaniard; her fair hair, slightly touched with warm gold, escaped in a few unruly curls from beneath the stiff coif of brocade which encircled her pretty head.
The neck was long; the shoulders, rich, young and firm, gleamed like ivory beneath the primly folded kerchief of lace of a dead, bluish white, a striking note of harmonious contrast.
Have not all the rhymesters of the period sung the praises of her eyes? What shall the poor chronicler add to these poetical effusions, save that Ursula’s eyes were as changeable in colour as were her moods, her spirits, the expression of her face, and the inflexions of her voice.
And then there was the proud little toss of the head, that contemptuous curl of the lip which rendered her more desirable than any of her more yielding companions.
Indeed, Don Miguel felt in luck. His arm was still round her waist. He felt the young figure stiffen beneath his admiring glances.
The fair one was half mad with rage, and quite adorable in her wrath.
“My lord Marquis, this is an outrage!” she said at last, “and here in England —”
“Nay, fair one,” rejoined the Spaniard with a slight accent of irony, “even in England, when two ladies, masked and alone, are held prisoners at nightfall, and in a public place, by their ardent adorers, they must needs pay ransom for their release. What say you, my lord?” he added, turning gaily to where his friend held pretty Margaret a not too unwilling prisoner.
“’Tis but justice,” assented Lord Everingham, “and yours the first prize, Marquis. Fair one,” he said, looking down into Margaret’s shyly terrified eyes, “wilt pay toll to me the while?”
“Gentlemen!” proudly protested Lady Ursula, “an there’s any honour in you —”
“Nay! honour lies in snatching a kiss from those sweet lips,” rejoined Don Miguel with a graceful flourish of his plumed hat.
This act of gallantry, however, almost cost him the price of his victory. Ursula Glynde, born and bred in the country, was the daughter of a sturdy Cornish nobleman. Accustomed to ride untamed foals, to have bouts at the broadsword or the poniard with the best man in the county, she would not yield a kiss or own herself vanquished quite as readily as the Spaniard seemed to expect.
With a vigorous jerk of the body she had once more freed herself from the Marquis’s grasp, and running up to Margaret, she snatched her by the hand and dragged her away from Lord Everingham, readjusting her hood and mask as she flew towards the booth, vaguely hoping for shelter behind the folds of the tent.
But once more fate interposed relentlessly betwixt her and her attempts at escape. Two gallants, seeing the episode, eager to have a hand in the adventure, friends no doubt too of Don Miguel and Everingham, laughingly barred the way to the steps, just as the two girls had contrived to reach them. With a cry of disappointment Ursula, still dragging Margaret after her, tried to double back. But it was too late. Don Miguel and Lord Everingham were waiting for them on the other side. They were two to one now, and all chances of escape had hopelessly vanished.
Never had Ursula Glynde felt so mortified in her life.
“Many thanks, gentlemen, for this timely interference,” came in mocking accents from that odious Spaniard. “The ransom, sweet one,” he added, as the chase ‘twixt gallants and maids became more general, and the girls at last felt themselves quite helpless and surrounded.
Ursula’s pride alone prevented her from bursting into tears.
“By my faith! here is strange sport!” said a pleasant, slightly mocking voice suddenly. “What say you, Harry Plantagenet? A lively sight… what?… four gallants frightening two ladies!”
Instinctively every one had turned in the direction whence the voice had come. A man was standing some dozen yards away with mantle tightly drawn round him, his tall figure stooping to pat and fondle a powerful-looking boarhound, which clung closely to his side.
He had spoken very quietly, apparently to the dog, whose great ears he was gently stroking.
Without taking any further heed of the somewhat discomfited gentlemen, he came forward towards the little group.
“Ladies, your way stands clear,” he said, with that same pleasant irony still apparent in his voice, and without casting more than a cursory glance at the close hoods and dark masks, which was all that he could see of the ladies, whom he had so incontinently saved from an unpleasant position.
“Sir,” murmured Ursula, under her breath and without attempting to move, for she felt as if her knees would give way under her.
“Nay, Madam,” rejoined the newcomer lightly, “if my interference has angered you, I pray you forgive me and I’ll withdraw, as these gentlemen here obviously desire me to do. But an you really wish to escape, my friend here will assure you that you can do so unmolested… Eh, Harry? what say you?” he added, once more turning his attention to the dog.
The boarhound, as if conscious of this appeal to his chivalry, turned a knowing eye on the two girls.
The four men had been taken so absolutely unawares that during the few seconds while this brief colloquy took place they had scarcely realised that an interfering and unknown stranger was trying to hamper them in their amusements.
They had remained quite speechless, more astonished at the newcomer’s impertinence than wrathful at the interruption; and when the next instant Ursula and Margaret suddenly fled with unaffected precipitancy, no one attempted to stop them.
Harry Plantagenet’s intelligent eyes followed the retreating figures until they were out of sight. Then he yawned with obtrusive incivility, and plainly showed his master that the present company no longer interested him.
“Well, Harry, old man, shall we go?” said the stranger, calmly turning on his heel.
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