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Over The Border
BOOK I.—THE GIRL.
BOOK II.—THE MAN.
BOOK III.—THE JOURNEY.
BOOK IV.—THE RETURN
“SHE LEANED EAGERLY FORWARD AND SCANNED THE WRITING.”
The end of October had been more than usually fine, and now the beginning of November was following the good example set by its predecessor. In the Home Park, the only part of the extensive grounds surrounding Hampton Court Palace that was well wooded, the leaves had not entirely left the branches, and the turf beneath was green and firm, as yet unsodden by autumnal rain.
Along one of the forest aisles there walked a distinguished party, proceeding slowly, for the pace was set by a disease-stricken man whose progress was of painful deliberation. He was tall and thin; his body was prematurely bent, though accustomed to be straight enough, if one might judge by the masterful brow, now pallid with illness, or by the glance of the piercing eye untamed even by deadly malady. That he was not long for this earth, if Nature had her way, a scrutinizer of that handsome, powerful face might have guessed; yet he was singled out for destruction even before his short allotted time, for at that moment his enemies, hedged in secrecy behind locked doors, were anxiously planning his ruin. They were wise in their privacy, for, had a whisper of their intentions gone abroad, the Earl of Strafford would have struck first and struck hard, as, indeed, he intended to do in any case.
Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was accompanied by an imposing train. On either side of him, accommodating their slow steps to his, were some of the highest in the land, who waited on his words and accorded him a deference more obsequious than that with which they might have distinguished the King himself; for all knew that this shattered frame was more to be dreaded than the most stalwart personage who that day trod English soil.
Behind this noble circle followed a numerous band of attendants, alert for beck or call, each having place according to his degree. A huntsman was surrounded by dogs kept in thrall by fear of the whip. Falconers with hooded hawks attested a favorite sport of the Earl, who loved to have the birds near him even though he made no trial of their flight. And here he walked the grounds of the King as if he owned them; as though he were permanent master instead of transient guest. Here he rested for the moment, hoping to recover some remnant of health by the placid Thames, after his troublous journey from Ireland, which turbulent country lay numb under his strong hand, soon to be vocal enough when the hounds were upon him. No echo of London’s clamour came to this green paradise. He knew the mob was crying out against him, as in truth the whole country cried; but he heeded not the howl, despising his opponents. Better for him had he been more wary or more conciliatory.
Among those now in his company was young De Courcy, one of the numerous band of Frenchmen smilingly received at Court because the consort of Charles had a predilection for her countrymen,—a preference unshared by any save her husband. The French contingent thought little of the scowls of the English so long as those in authority smiled on them and the smile brought profit. They were regarded as titled mercenaries; spies probably, anxious to feather their own nests at the expense of the Treasury; possibly the propagating agents of a Church of which England had a deep distrust; certainly possessing an overweening influence at Court, dividing still further the unfortunate King from his suspicious people. It might have been imagined that so thoroughly English, so strenuous a man as Strafford, the last to be deluded by suave manners or flattery, although he had an insatiable appetite for cringing deference, yet uninfluenced by it (as witness his crushing of Lord Montmorris in Ireland), would have shown scant friendship for frivolous French nobles; but it was a fact that he bore from young De Courcy a familiarity of address that he would have suffered from none other in the kingdom. Courtiers find a ready reason for every action, and they attributed Strafford’s forbearance to the influence De Courcy possessed with the Queen, for his lordship was well aware that his sovereign lady showed small liking for the King’s most powerful minister. Strafford was too keen a politician not to make every endeavour to placate an enemy who at all hours had access to the private ear of his master, on whose breath depended his own elevation. Therefore it may well be that he thought it worth while to conciliate one of the haughty lady’s favourites.
The conversation under the trees was lightly frivolous, despite the seriousness of the time. Strafford was not one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and if he was troubled that the King insisted on his presence in London, refusing to him permission to return to Ireland, where he was safe,—the wielder of the upper hand,—his manner or expression gave no hint of his anxiety. A cynical smile curved his bloodless lips as he listened to the chatter of De Courcy, not noticing the silence of the others, who disdained a conversational contest with the voluble Frenchman.
“I give your lordship my assurance,” insisted the young man, “that his Majesty was much perturbed by the incident. All Scots are superstitious, and the King has Scottish blood in his veins.”
“As to superstition, I have never learned,” said Strafford, speaking slowly, “that the French are entirely free from some touch of it.”
“That’s as may be,” continued De Courcy airily, “but her Majesty, who is French, advised the King to think nothing more of the encounter, so she regards but lightly any predictions of doom from an old gipsy hag.”
“There were no predictions of doom, and no gipsy hag. The case was of the simplest, now exaggerated by Court gossip,” amended the Earl.
“My lord, I have it almost direct from the King himself.”
“Your ‘almost’ will account for anything. It was merely a piece of youthful impertinence which should have been punished by one of the park rangers, had any been present. The King had honoured me with his company in the park. We were alone together, discussing problems of State, when there suddenly sprang out before us a smiling, froward girl, who cried, ‘Merry gentlemen, I will predict your fortunes if in return you tell me where I may find the Earl of Strafford.’ His Majesty looked at me, and the hussy, quick to take a hint, evidently saw that I was the person sought. In any case the King’s remark must have confirmed her suspicion. ‘Your predictions are like to prove of small value,’ said his Majesty, ‘if you ask such a question. Here you have two men before you. Choose the greater.’ Whereupon the wench seized my hand before I was aware, and the King laughed.”
“It was an uncourtierlike proceeding,” said De Courcy. “That young woman will not advance in a world which depends on the smile of the mighty for promotion.”
“The choice shows her a true prophet,” muttered one of the nobles; but Strafford, paying no heed, went on with his account.
“The words which followed were more diplomatic than the action. ‘You are the King’s best friend,’ she said, examining the palm she had taken. Then his Majesty cried, ‘What do you read in my hand?’ ‘You are the King’s worst enemy,’ said the pert hussy. This nonplussed Charles for the moment, who replied at last, ‘I think you are more successful with my comrade. Read all you find in his palm, I beg of you.’ Then the gipsy, if such she was, went glibly on. ‘Your fate and that of the King are interwoven. If you overcome your enemies, the King will overcome his. If you fall, the King falls. Your doom will be the King’s doom; your safety the King’s safety. At the age you shall die, at that age will the King die, and from the same cause.’ His Majesty laughed, somewhat uneasily I thought, but said jauntily, ‘I have the advantage of you, Strafford, for you may die at any moment, but I am given seven years to live, being that space younger than you.’ I was annoyed at the familiarity of the creature, and bade her take herself off, which she did after making vain appeal for some private conversation with me.”
“Was she fair to look upon? In that case I do not wonder at your indignation. To learn that a handsome and young woman was searching for you in the lonely forest, to meet her at last, but in company of a King so rigid in his morals as Charles, was indeed a disappointment. You had been more favoured with any other monarch of Europe beside you. Had you no chance of getting one private word with her; of setting time and place for a more secluded conference?”
A slight frown ruffled the broad, smooth brow of the statesman, but it vanished on the instant, and he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly.
“I but gave you a brief account of a very simple incident that you were inclined to make much of. You have now the truth, and so may dress the retailing of it in the guise that best pleases you. I make no doubt ’twill be fanciful enough when next I hear it.”
“Were it any other monarch than Charles, I should say he was annoyed to find his minister so favoured; but in his mind the prediction will take more space than thought of the prophet, be she never so young or so fair. But all good wishes go toward you, my lord. It is my prayer that when next you meet the woodland sylph you are alone in the forest.”
As if to show how little profit follows the prayer of a French exquisite, there stepped out from behind a thick tree in front of them the person of whom they spoke. She was tall and slender, with dancing eyes of midnight blackness, which well matched the dark, glossy ringlets flowing in profusion over her shapely shoulders. Her costume betokened the country rather than the Court, yet its lack of fashionable cut or texture was not noticed in a company of men, and the almost universal gaze of admiration that rested on her showed that in the eyes of the majority she was well and tastefully garbed.
“My lord of Strafford,” she said in a sweet clear voice, “I crave a word with you in private.”
De Courcy laughed provokingly; the others remained silent, but turned their regard from the interloper to the Earl, whose frown of annoyance did not disappear as it had done before. Strafford spoke no word, but his underlings were quick to interpret and act upon his black look. Two attendants silently took places beside the girl, ready to seize her did his lordship give a sign. The huntsmen let loose the dogs that had been snarling at the newcomer. They made a dash at her, while she sprang nimbly to the tree that had concealed her, having first whisked from the scabbard of an astonished attendant the light sword with which he was supposed to guard himself or his master.
“Call off your hounds, you villain!” she cried in a voice that had the true ring of command in it; indeed, to many there the order had a touch of the Earl’s own tones in anger. “I ask not for my own escape from scath, but for theirs. I’d rather transfix a man than hurt a dog. You scoundrel, you shall feel the sting of this point if you do not instantly obey.”
The thin shining blade darted here and there like an adder’s tongue, and as painfully. Yelp after yelp showed its potency, and the dogs, quick to learn that they were overmatched, abated their fury and contented themselves with noisy outcry at a safe distance from the semicircle of danger, jumping sideways and backward, barking valorously, but keeping well clear of the rapier. At a glance from the Earl the huntsman whipped them back into their former places.
“Yes, lash them, you whelp, but it’s over your own shoulders the cord should go, had I the ordering, thou meanest of the pack.”
“Madam,” said the Earl of Strafford sternly, “I would have you know that none give orders here but me.”
“In that you are mistaken, my lord. You have just heard me give them, and furthermore have seen them obeyed. But aside from the ordering of either you or me, I understand this to be the King’s park.” Again De Courcy laughed.
“She hit you there, my lord,” he had the temerity to say.
Strafford paid no attention to his gibe, but gazed darkly at the fearless intruder.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“I have told you, my lord. I wish a word in your private ear.”
“Speak out what you have to say.”
“’T is to be heard by none but the Earl of Strafford; no, not even by the King himself; for, you should know, were it other fashion, I would have spoken when last I encountered you.”
“I have no secrets from the King.”
“Nor need this be one. ’T is yours to proclaim to the world at your pleasure. But first it is for your ear alone. Send that painted popinjay to the rear with the dogs. The others are gentlemen and will retire of their own accord when they learn a lady wishes to speak privily with you.”
It was now the turn of the English nobles to laugh, which they did merrily enough, but De Courcy seemed less pleased with the rude suggestion. He fumbled at his sword-hilt, and muttered angrily that if any present wished to make the girl’s reference his own, a meeting could be speedily arranged to discuss the question. Strafford, however, had no mind for any by-play. His glance quelled the rising difference; then he said harshly to the young woman,—“What do you here in the King’s park, lacking permission, as I suspect?”
“Indeed,” cried the girl with a toss of the head, “they say, where I come from, that everything seemingly possessed by the King belongs actually to the people, and being one of the people I come to my own domain asking permission of none.”
“You are young to speak treason.”
“’T is no treason of mine. I but repeat what others say.”
“Still, how came you here?”
“Easily. Over the wall. I was refused access to you by any other means, so I took the method that suggested itself.”
“You were feigning yesterday to be a gipsy. Who are you?”
“That is what I wish to tell your lordship when I get the opportunity. As for yesterday, I feigned nothing. I but retold what an old gipsy once said to me regarding the King and Lord Strafford. I wished to engage your attention, but, like the underlings of this palace, you turned me away.”
“Your persistence shall be rewarded, but with this proviso. If the news you make so much of is not worth the telling, then shall you expiate your impudence in prison. If you fear to accept the risk, you had better begone while there is yet time, and let us see no more of you.”
“I accept the hazard freely, my lord.”
The Earl of Strafford said no more, but turned to his followers, who at once withdrew to the background, except De Courcy, who, not having forgiven the insult placed upon him, and unconscious that his reluctance to quit the spot was giving point to the girl’s invective, cried angrily,—“Beware, Lord Strafford. There may be more in this than appears on the surface. She has shown herself expert with a stolen blade. That blade is still in her hand.”
The Earl smiled coldly; he was unused to disobedience even where it concerned his own safety.
“’Tis but fair,” he said, “that I should take some risk to equal hers. I’ll chance the stroke. Your prayer was that I should meet this damsel alone in the forest. Do not, I beg of you, prevent fulfilment of your devout petition by further tarrying.”
But before this was spoken the girl had flung the borrowed rapier far into the forest glade, then waved her disencumbered hand to the departing Frenchman, saying mockingly,—“Farewell, popinjay. The treacherous ever make suggestion of treachery.” To the Earl she added, “My lord, I am entirely unarmed.”
“What have you to say to me?” replied Strafford severely, bending his dark gaze upon her.
“Sir,”—her voice lowered so that none might by any chance overhear,—“Sir, I am Frances Wentworth, your lordship’s eldest daughter.”
The Earl lowered upon the girl, and the black anger upon his brow might have warned a more intrepid person than even she appeared to be that there was peril in trifling. When at last he spoke, his voice was harsh and menacing.
“What do you expect to gain by a statement so preposterous?”
“I expect to gain a father.”
The girl’s answer trod quick upon the heels of the question, but her colour changed from red to pale, and from pale to red again, and her hurried breathing hinted of some knowledge of her hazard, which nevertheless she faced without flinching.
“My eldest daughter, say you? My eldest daughter is Ann, aged thirteen, a modest little maid. I take you to be older, and I should hesitate to apply to you the qualification I have just coupled with her name.”
“I am sixteen, therefore her senior. Thus one part of my contention is admitted. If she is modest, it doth become a maid, and is reasonably to be expected, for she hath a mother’s care. I have had none. If you detect a boldness in my manner, ’t is but another proof I am my father’s daughter.”
Something resembling a grimace rather than a smile disturbed the white lips of Strafford at this retort. He bent his eyes on the ground, and his mind seemed to wander through the past. They stood thus in silence opposite each other, the girl watching him intently, and when she saw his mouth twitch with a spasm of pain, a great wave of pity overspread her face and brought the moisture to her eyes; but she made no motion toward him, held in increasing awe of him.
“Boldness is not a virtue,” he muttered, more to himself than to her. “There’s many a jade in England who can claim no relationship with me.”
This remark, calling for no response, received none.
“Sixteen years of age! Then that was in——”
The Earl paused in his ruminations as if the simple mathematical problem baffled him, the old look of weariness and pain clouding his downturned face.
“The year 1624,” said the girl promptly.
“Doubtless, doubtless. 1624. It is long since; longer than the days that have passed seem to indicate. I was a young man then, now——now——I am an aged wreck, and all in sixteen years. And so in you, the spirit of youth, the unknown past confronts me, demanding——demanding what?”
“Demanding nothing, my lord.”
“Humph. You are the first then. They all want something. You think I am an old dotard who is ready, because you say you want nothing, to accept your absurd proposal. But I am not yet fifty, nor as near it as these fell maladies would have me appear; and a man should be in his prime at fifty. Madam, it will require more convincing testimony to make me listen to you further.”
“The testimony, irrefutable, stands here before you. Raise your eyes from the ground, my lord, and behold it. If, scrutinizing me, you deny that I am your daughter, I shall forthwith turn from you and trouble you no more.”
Strafford slowly lifted his gloomy face, prematurely seamed with care, and his heavy eyes scanned closely the living statue that confronted him. The sternness of his features gradually relaxed, and an expression near akin to tenderness overspread his face.
“Any man might be proud to claim you, my girl, no matter how many other reasons for pride he possessed. But you have not come here merely because someone flattered the Earl of Strafford by saying you resembled him.”
“No, my lord. I am come to return to you this document which once you presented to my mother.”
She handed him a paper, which he read with intent care. It ran thus:
“I have, in little, much to say to you, or else one of us must be much to blame. But in truth I have that confidence in you, and that assurance in myself, as to rest secure the fault will never be made on either side. Well, then; this short and this long which I aim at is no more than to give you this first written testimony that I am your husband; and that husband of yours that will ever discharge these duties of love and respect toward you which good women may expect, and are justly due from good men to discharge them; and this is not only much, but all which belongs to me; and wherein I shall tread out the remainder of life which is left to me——”
Strafford looked up from his perusal, blank amazement upon his countenance.
“How came you by this paper?”
“I found it among the documents left by my grandfather, who died a year ago. It was sent by you to my mother.”
“Do you deny the script?”
“I do not deny it, but’t was written by me eight years since, and presented to my third wife, whom I married privately.”
“Your third wife? Who was she?”
“She was Mistress Elizabeth Rhodes, and is now Lady Strafford.”
“Then she is your fourth wife. You will see by your own inditing that this letter was written in March, 1624.”
The date was unmistakably set down by the same hand that had penned the bold signature, “Thomas Wentworth,” and the bewilderment of the Earl increased as he recognized that here was no forgery, but a genuine letter antedating its duplicate.
“Is it possible,” he murmured to himself, “that a man has so little originality as to do practically the same thing twice?” Then aloud to the girl he said:
“Who was your mother?”
“I had hoped the reading of this document would have rendered your question unnecessary. Has a man such gift of forgetting, that the very name of the woman he solemnly married has slipped his memory as easily as the writing of the letter she cherished?”
“She was Frances, daughter of Sir John Warburton,” murmured the Earl.
“His only daughter, as I am hers, my lord.”
“But when Sir John wrote me coldly of her death, he made no mention of any issue.”
“My grandfather always hated you, my lord. It is very like that he told you not the cause of my mother’s death was her children’s birth.”
“Yes, my lord. My twin brother and myself.”
An ashen hue overspread the Earl’s face, and the hand that held the letter trembled until the fateful missive shook like one of the autumn leaves on the tree above it. Again his mind wandered through the past and conjured up before him the laughing face of his supposedly only son, whose position was thus unexpectedly challenged by a stranger, unknown and unloved. A daughter more or less was of small account, but an elder son promised unsuspected complications. The ill favour with which he had at first regarded the girl returned to his troubled countenance, and she saw with quick intuition that she had suddenly lost all the ground so gradually gained. Cold dislike tinctured the tone in which the next question was asked.
“If, as you say, you have a brother, why is he not here in your place; you in the background, where you properly belong?”
“Sir, I suppose that her good name is thought more of by a woman than by a man. She wishes to be assured that she came properly authenticated into this world, whereas a man troubles little of his origin, so be it he is here with some one to fight or to love. Or perhaps it is that the man is the deeper, and refuses to condone where a woman yearns to forgive. My brother shares our grandfather’s dislike of you. He thinks you cared little for our mother, or you would not have been absent during her last days when——”
“I knew nothing of it. The times then, as now, were uncertain, requiring absorbed attention from those thrown willingly or unwillingly into public affairs. What can a boy of sixteen know of the duties thrust upon a man in my situation?”
“Sixteen or not, he considers himself even now a man of position, and he holds your course wrong. He says he has taken up the opinions you formerly held, and will do his best to carry them to success. He is for the Parliament and against the King. As for me, I know little of the questions that disturb the State. My only knowledge is that you are my father, and were you the wickedest person in the world I would come to you. A man may have many daughters, but a daughter can have but one father; therefore am I here, my lord.”
Like the quick succession of shade and sunshine over the sensitive surface of a lovely lake, the play of varying emotions added an ever-changing beauty to the girl’s expressive face; now a pitiful yearning toward her father when she saw he suffered; then a coaxing attitude, as if she would win him whether he would or no; again a bearing of pride when it seemed she would be denied; and throughout all a rigid suppression of herself, a standing of her ground, a determination not to give way to any rising sentiment which might make the after repulse a humiliation; if a retreat must come it should be carried out with dignity.
The Earl of Strafford saw nothing of this, for his eyes were mostly on the ground at his feet. That his mind was perturbed by the new situation so unexpectedly presented to him was evident; that he was deeply suspicious of a trap was no less clear. When he looked up at her he found his iron resolution melting in spite of himself, and, as he wished to bring an unclouded judgment to bear upon the problem, he scrutinized the brown sward at his feet. Nevertheless he was quick to respond to any show of sympathy with himself, even though he was unlikely to exhibit appreciation, and he was equally quick to resent the slightest lack of deference on the part of those who addressed him. If the girl had made a thorough study of his character she could not have better attuned her manner to his prejudices. Her attitude throughout was imbued with the deepest respect, and if the eye refused to be advocate for her, the ear could not close itself to the little thrill of affection that softened her tone as she spoke to him. He raised his head abruptly as one who has come to a decision.
“November is the stepmother of the months, and the air grows cold. Come with me to the palace. In a world of lies I find myself believing you; thus I am not grown so old as I had feared. Come.”
The girl tripped lightly over the rustling leaves and was at his side in an instant, then slowed her pace in unison with his laboured mode of progression.
“Sir, will you lean upon my shoulder?”
“No. I am ailing, but not decrepit.”
They walked together in silence, and if any viewed them the onlookers were well concealed, for the park seemed deserted. Entering the palace and arriving at the foot of a stairway, solicitous menials proffered assistance, but Strafford waved them peremptorily aside, and, accepting now the support he had shortly before declined, leaned on his daughter’s shoulder and wearily mounted the stair.
The room on the first floor into which he led her overlooked a court. A cheerful fire burned on the hearth and cast a radiance upon the sombre wainscoting of the walls. A heavy oaken table was covered with a litter of papers, and some books lay about. Into a deep arm-chair beside the fire Strafford sank with a sigh of fatigue, motioning his daughter to seat herself opposite him, which she did. He regarded her for some moments with no pleased expression on his face, then said with a trace of petulancy in the question:
“Did your grandfather bring you up a lady, or are you an ignorant country wench?”
She drew in quickly the small feet out-thrust to take advantage of the comforting fire, and the blaze showed her cheek a ruddier hue than heretofore.
“Sir,” she said, “the children of the great, neglected by the great, must perforce look to themselves. I was brought up, as you know, without a mother’s care, in the ancient hall of a crusty grandfather, a brother my only companion. We played together and fought together, as temper willed, and he was not always the victor, although he is the stronger. I can sometimes out-fence him, and, failing that, can always outrun him. Any horse he can ride, I can ride, and we two have before now put to flight three times our number among the yokels of the neighborhood. As to education, I have a smattering, and can read and write. I have studied music to some advantage, and foreign tongues with very little. I daresay there are many things known to your London ladies that I am ignorant of.”
“We may thank God for that,” muttered her father.
“If there are those in London, saving your lordship, who say I am not a lady, I will box their ears for them an they make slighting remarks in my presence.”
“A most unladylike argument! The tongue and not the hand is the Court lady’s defence.”
“I can use my tongue too, if need be, my lord.”
“Indeed I have had evidence of it, my girl.”
“Queen Elizabeth used her fists, and surely she was a lady.”
“I have often had my doubts of it. However, hereafter you must be educated as doth become a daughter of mine.”
“I shall be pleased to obey any commands my father places on me.”
The conversation was interrupted by a servant throwing open the door, crying:
“His Majesty the King!”
The girl sprang instantly to her feet, while her father rose more slowly, assisting himself with his hands on the arms of the chair.
There was more of hurry than of kingly dignity in the entrance of Charles. The handsome face was marred by an imperious querulousness that for the moment detracted from its acknowledged nobility.
“Strafford,” he cried impatiently, “I have been kept waiting. Servants are at this moment searching palace and park for you. Where have you been?”
“I was in the forest, your Majesty. I am deeply grieved to learn that you needed me.”
“I never needed you more than now. Are you ready to travel?”
Strafford’s gloomy face almost lighted up.
“On the instant, your Majesty,” he replied with a sigh of relief.
“That is well. I trust your malady is alleviated, in some measure at least; still I know that sickness has never been a bar to duty with you. Yet I ask no man to do what I am not willing to do myself for the good of the State, and I shall be shortly on the road at your heels.”
“Whither, your Majesty?” asked the Earl with falling countenance, for it was to Ireland he desired to journey, and he knew the King had no intention of moving toward the west.
“To London, of course; a short stent over bad roads. But if you are ailing and fear the highway, a barge on the river is at your disposal.”
“To London!” echoed the Earl, something almost akin to dismay in his tone. “I had hoped your Majesty would order me to Ireland, which I assure your Majesty has been somewhat neglected of late.”
“Yes, yes,” exclaimed the King brusquely, “I know your anxiety in that quarter. A man ever thinks that task the most important with which he intimately deals, but my position gives me a view over the whole realm, and the various matters of State assume their just proportions in my eyes; their due relations to each other. Ireland is well enough, but it is the heart and not the limbs of the empire that requires the physicians’ care. Parliament has opened badly, and is like to give trouble unless treated with a firm hand.”
The hand of the Earl appeared anything but firm. It wavered as it sought the support of the chair’s arm.
“Have I your Majesty’s permission to be seated? I am not well,” Strafford said faintly.
“Surely, surely,” cried the King, himself taking a chair. “I am deeply grieved to see you so unwell; but a journey to London is a small matter compared with a march upon Dublin, which is like to have killed you in your present condition.”
“Indeed, your Majesty, the smaller journey may well have the more fatal termination,” murmured the Earl; but the King paid no attention to the remark, for his wandering eye now caught sight of a third in the conference, which brought surprised displeasure to his brow. The girl was standing behind the high back of the chair in which she had been seated, in a gloomy angle where the firelight which played so plainly on the King and Strafford did not touch her.
“In God’s name, whom have we here? The flippant prophet of the forest, or my eyes deceive me! How comes this girl in my palace, so intimate with my Lord Strafford, who seemed to meet her as a stranger but yesterday?”
The slumbering suspicion of Charles was aroused, and he glanced from one to the other in haughty questioning.
“I never met her until I encountered her in the forest when I had the honour to accompany your Majesty. To-day, as I walked with De Courcy and others, there came a second accosting from her, as unexpected as the first. The girl craved private speech with me, which I somewhat reluctantly granted. The upshot is, she brings me proof, which I cannot deny, that she is my eldest daughter.”
“Your eldest daughter!” cried the King, amazed. “Is your family then so widely scattered, and so far unknown to you, that such a claimant may spring up at any moment?”
“I was married privately to the daughter of Sir John Warburton. Circumstances separated me from my wife, and although her father curtly informed me of her death he said nothing of issue. There was a feud between us,—entirely on his part,—I had naught against him. It seems he has been dead this year past, and my daughter, getting news of her father among Sir John’s papers, comes thus southward to make inquiry.”
“You fall into good fortune, my girl. Your extraordinary claim is most readily allowed.”
Frances, finding nothing to say, kept silence and bowed her head to the King, whom she had regarded throughout with rapt attention.
“Where got you your gift of prophecy? Is prescience hereditary, and has your father’s mantle already fallen on your shoulders? He is my best friend, you said, and I my worst enemy. God’s truth, Madam, you did not lack for boldness, but the force of the flattery of your father is lessened by my knowledge of your relationship, hitherto concealed from me.”
“Your Majesty, it has hitherto been concealed from myself,” said the Earl wearily.
“Has the girl no tongue? It wagged freely enough in the forest. Come, masquerader, what have you to say for yourself?”
“Your Majesty, I humbly crave your pardon. The words I used yesterday were not mine, but those of a gipsy in the north, who told me I was the daughter of the Earl of Strafford at a time when such a tale seemed so absurd that I laughed at her for connecting my name of Wentworth with one so exalted as the Earl of Strafford. Later, when I received proof that such indeed was the case, her words returned to me. I had no right to use them in your august presence, but the entourage of the Lord Strafford prevented my meeting him; thus, baffled, I sought to intercept him in the forest, and was willing to use any strategy that might turn his attention toward me, in the hope of getting a private word with him.”
“I knew you had a tongue. Well, it matters little what you said; your mission seems to have been successful. Do not think I placed any weight upon your words, be they gipsy-spoken or the outcome of a spirit of mischief. My Lord Strafford, you will to London then?”
“Instantly, your Majesty.”
“I will consult with you there to-morrow. And have no fear; for on my oath as a man, on my honour as a king, I will protect you.”
The King rose and left the room as abruptly as he had entered it.
For some moments Strafford lay back in his chair, seemingly in a state of collapse. The girl looked on him in alarm.
“Sir, is there anything I can do for you?” she asked at length.
“Call a servant. Tell him to order a coach prepared at once, and see that it is well horsed, for I would have the journey as short as possible.”
“My lord, you are in no condition of health to travel to London. I will go to the King and tell him so.”
“Do that I requested you, and trouble me not with counsel. There is enough of woman’s meddling in this business already.”
Frances obeyed her father’s instructions without further comment, then came and sat in her place again. The Earl roused himself, endeavouring to shake off his languor.
“What think you of the King?” he asked.
“He is a man corroded with selfishness.”
“Tut, tut! Such things are not to be spoken in the precincts of a Court. No, nor thought. He is not a selfish monarch, other than all monarchs are selfish, but——discussion on such a theme is fruitless, and I must be nearing my dotage to begin it. I am far from well, Frances, and so, like the infirm, must take to babbling.”
“Do you fear Parliament, my lord? How can it harm you when you have the favour of the King?”
“I fear nothing, my girl, except foolish unseen interference; interference that may not be struck at or even hinted against. Did they teach you the history of France in your school?”
“No, my lord.”
“Then study it as you grow older; I’ll warrant you’ll find it interesting enough. Ruined by women. Ruined by women. Seven civil wars in seventeen years, and all because of viperish, brainless women. Well, we have one of the breed here in England, and God help us!”
“You mean the Queen, my lord?”
“Hush! Curses on it, will you be as outspoken as another of your sex is spiteful and subtle? Mend your manners, hussy, and guard your tongue. Could you not see you spoke too freely to the King a moment since?”
“Sir, I am sorry.”
“Be not sorry, but cautious.”
Strafford fell into a reverie, and there was silence in the room until the servant entered and announced that the coach was ready, whereupon his master rose unsteadily.
“Sir,” said the girl, “will you not eat or drink before you depart?”
“No.” Then, looking sharply at his daughter, he inquired, “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Bring hither some refreshments, whatever is most ready to hand, and a measure of hot spiced wine. I had forgotten your youth, Frances, thinking all the world was old with me.”
When the refection came, she ate but sparingly, despite her proclamation, but coaxed him to partake and to drink a cup of wine. He ordered a woman’s cloak brought for her, which, when she had thrown it over her shoulders, he himself fastened at her throat.
“There,” he said, when the cloak enveloped her, “that will protect you somewhat, for the night grows cold.”
Strafford himself was wrapped in warm furs, and thus together they went down the stairs to the court, now dimly lighted. A cavalier, who seemed to have been standing in wait for them, stepped out from the shadow of the arches, and Frances recognized the French spark whom she had so frankly characterized earlier in the day.
“My lord,” protested De Courcy jauntily, “you have your comrades at a disadvantage. You have captured the woodland nymph, and, I hear, propose spiriting her away to London. I do protest ’t is most unfair to those who are thus left behind.”
“Sir,” said Strafford, with severity, pausing in his walk, “I would have you know that the lady to whom you refer is the Lady Frances Wentworth, my eldest daughter, ever to be spoken of with respect by high and low. Native and foreign shall speak otherwise at their distinct peril.”
The Frenchman pulled off his bonnet with an impressive sweep that brushed its ample feather lightly on the stones. He bent his body in a low obeisance that threatened, were it not so acrobatically accomplished, to pitch him forward on his nose.
“If I congratulate your lordship on finding so rare a daughter, rather than offer my felicitations to the lady in the attainment of so distinguished a father, it is because I am filled with envy of any man who acquires a companionship so charming. My lady, may I have the honour of escorting you to the carriage?”
The girl shrank closer to her father and made no reply. On the other hand the father offered no objection, but returned—rather stiffly, it is true—the bow of the foreigner, and De Courcy, taking this as an acceptance, tripped daintily by the girl’s side, chattering most amiably.
“I hear on the highest authority that our sovereign lady is tired of Hampton, and that we are all to be on the march for London again; to-morrow, they tell me. London delights me not. ’T is a grimy city, but if, as I suspect, a new star of beauty is to arise there, then ’t will be indeed the centre of refulgence, to which worshippers of loveliness will hasten as pilgrims to a shrine. I take it, my lord, that you will introduce your daughter to the Court, and hide her no longer in the cold and envious northland?”
“My daughter has already been presented to his Majesty, and doubtless will take the place at Court to which her birth entitles her.”
“And to which her grace and charm no less lay claim. I hope to be present when the lady is greeted by the Queen we both adore. The meeting of the Lily of France with the Rose of England will be an occasion to be sung by poets; would that I were a minstrel to do justice to the theme.”
Their arrival at the carriage, with its four impatient horses, postillion-ridden, saved Strafford the effort of reply had he intended such. He seated himself in the closed vehicle, and his daughter sprang nimbly in beside him, ignoring the proffered aid of De Courcy, who stood bowing and bending with much courtesy, and did not resume his bonnet until the coach lurched on its lumbering way, preceded and followed by a guard of horsemen, for the Earl of Strafford always travelled in state.
Nothing was said by either until the jingling procession was well clear of the park, when the girl, with a shudder, exclaimed:
“I loathe that scented fop!”—then, seeming to fear a reproof for her outspoken remark, added, “I know I should not say that, but I cannot see what you have in common with such a creature that you are civil to him.”
To her amazement her father laughed slightly, the first time she had heard him do so.
“When we travel, Frances, safe out of earshot, you may loathe whom you please, but, as I have warned you, ’t is sometimes unsafe to give expression to your feelings within four walls. I may find little in common with any man, least of all with such as De Courcy, whom I take to be as false as he is fair; but there is slight use in irritating a wasp whom you cannot crush. Wait till he is under my hand, then I shall crush ruthlessly; but the time is not yet. He has the ear of the Queen, and she has the ear of her husband.”
“Sir, what reason have you to suspect that the Queen moves against you?”
“One reason is that I am this moment journeying east when I would be travelling west. In truth, my girl, you seem resolved unconsciously to show you are your father’s daughter with that uncurbed tongue of yours, for a lack of lying is like to be my undoing. If I had told the King I must to London, ’t is most like we were now on our way to Dublin.”
“But it may be the King himself who thus orders you contrarywise.”
“I know the King. He is not, as you think, selfish, but ever gives ear to the latest counsellor. He is weak and thinks himself strong; a most dangerous combination. With trembling hand he speaks of its firmness. Now, a weak monarch or a strong monarch matters little; England has been blessed with both and has survived the blessing; but a monarch who is. weak and strong by turns courts disaster. ‘War with the Scots,’ says the King. He will smite them with a firm hand. Very good; a most desirable outcome. But our captains, promoted by a woman’s whisper and not by their own merit, trust to the speed of their horses rather than the ingenuity of military skill, and so escape the Scots. Our army is scattered, and there is panic in Whitehall. I am called, for God’s sake, from Ireland, and I come scarce able, through illness, to sit my horse. I gather round me men of action and brain, and send Madam’s favourites to the rear, where they will gallop in any case as soon as the enemy shows front. What is the result? A portion of our Scottish friends are cut up, and those whose legs are untouched are on the run. Very good again. The dogs are rushing for their kennels. What happens? An added title for me, you might suppose. Not so. A censure comes post haste from London. ‘Leave the Scots alone, the King is negotiating with them.’ In the face of victory he embraces defeat. A peace is made that I know nothing of; all their demands are granted, as if they had environed London! I am left like a fool, with a newly inspired army and no enemy. They termed it ‘negotiating’ in London, but I call it ‘surrender.’ If you intend to submit, keep the sword in its sheath and submit. If you draw the sword, fight till you are beaten, then submit when there is nothing else to do. God’s name! They did not need to hale me from Ireland, where I had wrenched peace from chaos, to encompass a disgraceful retreat! Even De Courcy could have managed that with much greater urbanity than I.”
“And you think the Queen is responsible?”
“Who else? Her generals were disgraced and whipped like dogs. Unvaliant in the battle-field, they are powerful in the ante-chamber, and their whines arise in the ears of the Lily of France, who would rather see her husband wrecked than saved by me. But I was never one to hark back on things that are past. My duty was to save the King from future errors. One more grave mistake lay open to him, and that was the summoning of Parliament at such a moment. It was a time for action, not for words. ‘If you meant to concede, why did you not concede without bloodshed?’ was a question sure to be asked; a question to which there could be no answer. Very well. I accepted in humbleness the censure that should have been placed on other shoulders, and sent back by the courier who brought it a message imploring the King to call no Parliament until we had time to set our house in order and face Lords and Commons with good grace. I then arranged my command so that if the Scots broke forth again they would meet some examples of military science, and not view only the coat-tails of the Queen’s favourite generals. No reply coming from the King, I mounted my horse, and, with only one follower, set forth for London. Pushing on through darkness on the second night of my journey, I heard the galloping of a horse behind me, and drew rein, fully expecting that the greedy Scots, asking more than could be allowed, had taken to the field again. ‘Good friend,’ I cried, ‘what news, that you ride so fast?’ ‘Great news,’ he answered, breathless. ‘A Parliament is summoned, and as I am an elected member I ride in haste. Please God, before the month is done we have Strafford’s head in our hands and off his treacherous shoulders.’”
The girl gave utterance to a little cry of terror.
“Oh, ’t was nothing but some braggart countryman, knowing not to whom he spoke so freely, and big in the importance of his membership, dashing on to London, thinking the world rested on his speed; and thus I learned how my advice had been scorned. When I met the King he was all panic and regret. He had conjured up the Devil easily enough, but knew not how to allay him. He bewailed his mistakes and called himself the most unfortunate of monarchs, eager to please, yet constantly offending. He was in a contrite mood, but that soon changed. ’T is my head they want,’ I said. ‘Do with it as you please. If it is useless to you, toss it to them; if useful, then send me to Ireland, where I shall be out of the way, yet ready to afford you what service lies in my power.’ He swore he would concede them nothing. He was done with unappreciated complaisance, and now it was to be the firm hand. They should learn who was ruler of the realm. He gave me permission to return to my post. I was his only friend; his truest counsellor. That was yesterday. You heard him speak to-day. It is still the firm hand, but I must to London. There indeed exists a firm hand, but it is concealed, and so directed by hatred of me that it may project the avalanche that will overwhelm us all.”
“And what will you do in London?” asked his daughter in an awed whisper.
“God knows! Had I the untrammelled ordering of events, I would strike terror into Parliament, as I struck terror into the Scots or the Irish, but——but if, after that, there was a similar sneaking underhand surrender, why then the countryman would have my head, as he hoped. I fear there are troublous times before us. This alternate grip of the firm hand, and offering of open-palmed surrender, each at the wrong time, is like the succeeding hot and cold fits of an ague; ’T will rend the patient asunder if long continued. Frances, be ever a womanly woman. Never meddle with politics. Leave sword and State to men.”
Tired with long converse and the jolting of the vehicle, Strafford sank into a troubled sleep, from which he was at last awakened by the stopping of the carriage in front of his town house.
Frances Wentworth crossed the threshold of her father’s house with more trepidation than she had experienced on entering the palace of the King at Hampton Court. Here probably awaited a stepmother with her children, and Frances doubted the cordiality of the approaching reception. The ever-increasing fear of her father, a sentiment felt by nearly all those who encountered him, mingled with hatred, usually, on their part, but with growing affection on hers, prevented the putting of the question whether or no Lady Strafford was now in London. Their journey together had been silent since he ceased the exposition of the difficulties which surrounded him,—a man whom all England regarded as being paramount in the kingdom, yet in reality baffled and almost at bay. Looking back over the day now drawn to its close, she marvelled at her own courage in approaching him as she had done, light-heartedly and confident. Were her task to be re-enacted her mind misgave her that she would not possess the temerity to carry it through, with her new knowledge of the man. Yet if Strafford were hated in the three kingdoms, he seemed to be well liked in that little despotism, his home, where servants clustered round, for each of whom he had a kind word. Whether they knew of his coming or not, the house was prepared for his reception, fires blazing, and a table spread in the room to which he conducted his daughter. Outside, the night was cold and damp, and the inward warmth struck gratefully upon the senses of the travellers.
“Mrs. Jarrett,” said the Earl to his housekeeper, who looked with wonder at the new-comer he had brought, “have you aught of woman’s trappings that will fit my daughter here?”
“Your daughter, my lord?”
“Yes, and as you will be consumed by curiosity until you know how it comes so, I will add that she is newly found, having lived till now with her grandfather in the North, and is the child of my second wife, Frances Warburton, married by me some seventeen years since. Any further particulars my daughter herself will supply, if you question shrewdly, as I doubt not you will; but postpone inquiry, I beg of you, until to-morrow. Meanwhile robe her as best you may with the materials at hand, and that quickly, for I wish her company at supper.”
Frances was then spirited away to the apartment assigned to her, and when presently she reappeared she was costumed more to her father’s liking than had hitherto been the case. They sat down together to the meal that had hastily been prepared for them.
“To-morrow, if I remember aright what you said, is your birthday.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Is it difficult for you to say ‘Father’? My other children pronounce the word glibly enough. When you and I first met, and even since then, you seemed not backward in speech.”
“Sir, I find myself more afraid of you than I was at the beginning.”
Strafford smiled, but answered: “I assure you there is no need. I may be an implacable enemy, but I have the reputation of being as staunch a friend. So to-morrow is your birthday, saddened by the fact that it is also the date of your mother’s death. That is a loss for which a man in my onerous position cannot even partially atone, but it is a loss which you perhaps have not keenly felt. It seems heartless to speak thus, but the fact remains that we cannot deeply deplore the departure of what we have never enjoyed. One thing I can covenant; that you shall not hereafter know the lack of money, which is something to promise in a city of shops.”
“I have never known the lack of it, my lord.”
“Have you indeed been so fortunate? Well, there again you bear a resemblance to your father. Sir John was reputed comfortably off in the old days, and I infer he harboured his wealth, a somewhat difficult task in times gone by. Are you then his heir?”
“One of two, my lord.”
“Ah, yes! I had momentarily forgotten the brother who favours his grandfather rather than his sire. I am like to be over-busy to-morrow to attend the mart of either mercer or goldsmith, and if I did, I should not know what to purchase that would please you. But here are all the birthday presents of London in embryo, needing but your own touch to bring forth the full blossom of perfect satisfaction. Midas, they say, transmuted everything he fingered into gold, and it is the province of your sex to reverse the process. Buy what catches your fancy, and flatter your father by naming it his gift.”
He held forward a very well filled purse, through whose meshes the bright gold glittered.
“Sir, I do not need it, and you have been very kind to me as it is.”
“Nonsense! We all desire more than we can obtain. It is my wish that you take it; in any case it is but part payment of a debt long running and much overdue.”
Fearing again to refuse, she accepted the proffered purse with evident reluctance, now standing opposite her father, who said:
“I am very tired and shall not rise early to-morrow. Do not wait breakfast for me. Good-night, daughter.”
Although he had said the last conventional words of the day, he still stood there as if loath to retire, then he stooped and kissed her on the lips, ruffling her black, wayward, curly hair so like his own in texture, colour, and freedom from restraint, and patting her affectionately on the shoulder.
“You will not be afraid of me from this time forward, child?” he asked. “Indeed, Frances, I grow superstitious as I become older, and I look on your strange arrival as in some measure providential. There is none of my own kind to whom I can speak freely, as I did to you in the carriage; my daughters—my other daughters—are too young. My Lady Strafford takes much interest in her garden, and dislikes this London house and this London town, for which small blame is to be imputed to her. In you, a man’s courage is added to a woman’s wit, and who knows but my daughter may prove the reinforcement I lacked in my baffling fight with the unseen. Do you speak French, my girl, or are you as ignorant of the language of that country as of its history?”
“I speak it but haltingly, sir, though I was taught its rudiments.”
“We must amend that. It is to our tongue what the thin rapier is to the broadsword. Good lack! there was a time when one language served the English, yet great deeds were done and great poems written; but that time is past now. I must get you a master. I have likely used the broadsword overmuch, but who knows? You may be the rapier by my side.”
“I hope I shall not disappoint you, sir, though I am but a country maid, with some distrust of this great city and its Court.”