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   Chapter 6 VI MALCOLM’S SUIT

The Caged Lion By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 25688

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


'That is a gentle and gracious slip of the Stewart. What shall you do with him?' asked King Henry of James, as they stood together at one end of the tilt-yard at Westminster, watching Malcolm Stewart and Ralf Percy, who were playing at closhey, the early form of nine-pins.

'I know what I should like to do,' said James.

'What may that be?'

'To marry him to the Lady Esclairmonde de Luxemburg.'

Henry gave a long whistle.

'Have you other views for her?'

'Not I! Am I to have designs on every poor dove who flies into my tent from the hawk? Besides, are not they both of them vowed to a religious life?'

'Neither vow is valid,' replied James.

'To meddle with such things is what I should not dare,' said Henry.

'Monks and friars are no such holy beings, that I should greatly concern me about keeping an innocent had out of their company,' said James.

'Nor do I say they are,' said Henry; 'but it is ill to cross a vow of devotion, and to bring a man back to the world is apt to render him not worth the having. You may perchance get him down lower than you intended.'

'This boy never had any real vocation at all,' said James; 'it was only the timidity born of ill-health, and the longing for food for the mind.'

'Maybe so,' replied the English king, 'and you may be in the right; but why fix on that grand Luxemburg wench, who ought to be a Lady Abbess of Fontainebleau at least, or a very St. Hilda, to rule monks and nuns alike?'

'Because they have fixed on each other. Malcolm needs a woman like her to make a man of him; and with her spirit and fervent charity, we should have them working a mighty change in Scotland.'

'If you get her there!'

'Have I your consent, Harry?'

'Mine? It's no affair of mine! You must settle it with Madame of Hainault; but you had best take care. You are more like to make your tame lambkin into a ravening wolf, than to get that Deborah the prophetess to herd him.'

James in sooth viewed this warning as another touch of Lancastrian superstition, and only considered how to broach the question. Malcolm, meantime, was balancing between the now approaching decision between Oxford and France. He certainly felt something of his old horror of warlike scenes; but even this was lessening; he was aware that battles were not every-day occurrences, and that often there was no danger at all. He would not willingly be separated from his king; and if the female part of the Court were to accompany the campaign, it would be losing sight of all he cared for, if he were left among a set of stranger shavelings at Oxford. Yet he was reluctant to break with the old habits that had hitherto been part of his nature; he felt, after every word of Esclairmonde-nay, after every glance towards her-as though it were a blessed thing to have, like her, chosen the better part; he knew she would approve his resort to the home of piety and learning; he was aware that when with Ralf Percy and the other youths of the Court he was ashamed of his own scrupulousness, and tempted to neglect observances that they might call monkish and unmanly; and he was not at all sure that in face of the enemy a panic might not seize him and disgrace him for ever! In effect he did not know what he wished, even when he found that the Queen had decided against going across the sea, and that therefore all the ladies would remain with her at Shene or Windsor.

He should probably never again see Esclairmonde, the guiding star of his recent life, the embodiment of all that he had imagined when conning the quaint old English poems that told the Legend of Seynct Katharine; and as he leant musingly against a lattice, feeling as if the brightness of his life was going out, King James merrily addressed him:-

'Eh! the fit is on you too, boy!'

'What fit, Sir?' Malcolm opened his eyes.

'The pleasing madness.'

Malcolm uttered a cry like horror, and reddened crimson. 'Sir! Sir! Sir!' he stammered.

'A well-known token of the disease is raving.'

'Sir, Sir! I implore you to speak of nothing so profane.'

'I am not given to profanity,' said James, endeavouring to look severe, but with laughter in his voice. 'Methought you were not yet so sacred a personage.'

'Myself! No; but that I-I should dare to have such thoughts of-oh, Sir!' and Malcolm covered his face with his hands. 'Oh, that you should have so mistaken me!'

'I have not mistaken you,' said James, fixing his keen eyes on him.

'Oh, Sir!' cried Malcolm, like one freshly stung, 'you have! Never, never dreamt I of aught but worshipping as a living saint, as I would entreat St. Margaret or-'

There was still the King's steady look and the suppressed smile. Malcolm broke off, and with a sudden agony wrung his hands together. The King still smiled. 'Ay, Malcolm, it will not do; you are man, not monk.'

'But why be so cruel as to make me vile in my own eyes?' almost sobbed Malcolm.

'Because,' said the King, 'she is not a saint in heaven, nor a nun in a convent, but a free woman, to be won by the youth she has marked out.'

'Marked! Oh, Sir, she only condescended because she knew my destination.'

'That is well,' said King James. 'Thus sparks kindle at unawares.'

Malcolm's groan and murmur of 'Never!' made James almost laugh at the evidence that on one side at least the touch-wood was ready.

'Oh, Sir,' he sighed, 'why put the thought before me, to make me wretched! Even were she for the world, she would never be for me. I-doited-hirpling-'

'Peace, silly lad; all that is past and gone. You are quite another now, and a year or two of Harry's school of chivalry will send you home a gallant knight and minstrel, such as no maiden will despise.'

The King went, and Malcolm fell into a silent state of musing. He was entirely overpowered, both by the consciousness awakened within himself, by the doubt whether it were not a great sin, and by the strangeness that the King, hitherto his oracle, should infuse such a hope. What King James deemed possible could never be so incredible, or even sacrilegious, as he deemed it. Restless, ashamed, rent by a thousand conflicting feelings, Malcolm roamed up and down his chamber, writhed, tried to sit and think, then, finding his thoughts in a whirl, renewed his frantic pacings. And when dire necessity brought him again into the ladies' chamber, he was silent, blushing, ungainly, abstracted, and retreated into the farthest possible corner from the unconscious Esclairmonde.

Then, when again alone with the King, he began with the assertion, 'It is utterly impossible, Sir;' and James smiled to see his poison working. Not that he viewed it as poison. Monasticism was at a discount, and the ranks of the religious orders were chiefly filled, the old Benedictine and Augustinian foundations by gentlemen of good family who wanted the easy life of a sort of bachelor squire, and the friaries were recruited by the sort of men who would in modern times be dissenting teachers of the lower stamp. James was persuaded that Malcolm was fit for better things than were usually to be seen in a convent, and that it was a real kindness not to let him merely retire thither out of faintness of heart, mistaken for devotion; and he also felt as if he should be doing good service, not only to Malcolm, but to Scotland, if he could obtain for him a wife of the grand character of Esclairmonde de Luxemburg.

He even risked the mention of the project to the Countess of Hainault, without whose consent nothing could be effected. Jaqueline laughed long and loud at the notion of her stately Esclairmonde being the lady-love of King James's little white-visaged cousin; but if he could bring it about she had no objection, she should be very glad that the demoiselle should come down from the height and be like other people; but she would wager the King of Scots her emerald carcanet against his heron's plume, that Esclairmonde would never marry unless her hands were held for her. Was she not at that very moment visiting some foundation of bedeswomen-that was all she heard of at yonder feast of cats!

In fact, under Dr. Bennet's escort, Esclairmonde and Alice were in a barge dropping down the Thames to the neighbourhood of the frowning fortress of the Tower-as yet unstained; and at the steps leading to the Hospitium of St. Katharine the ladies were met, not only by their friend Mrs. Bolt, but by Sir Richard Whittington, his kindly dame, and by 'Master William Kedbesby,' a grave and gentle-looking old man, who had been Master of St. Katharine's ever since the first year of King Richard II., and delighted to tell of the visits 'Good Queen Anne' of Bohemia had made to her hospital, and the kind words she had said to the old alms-folk and the children of the schools; and when he heard that the Lady Esclairmonde was of the same princely house of Luxemburg, he seemed to think no honour sufficient for her. They visited the two houses, one for old men, the other for old women, each with a common apartment, with a fire, and a dining-table in the midst, and sleeping cells screened off round it, and with a paved terrace walk overhanging the river, where the old people could sit and sun themselves, and be amused by the gay barges and the swans that expatiated there. The bedeswomen, ten in number, had a house arranged like an ordinary nunnery, except that they were not in seclusion, had no grating, and shared the quadrangle with the alms-folk and children. They were gentle and well-nurtured women, chiefly belonging to the city and country families that furnished servants to the queens; and they applied themselves to various offices of charity, going forth into the city to tend the poor, and to teach the women and children. The appointments of alms-folk and admissions to the school were chiefly made at their recommendation; and though a master taught all the book-learning in the busy hive of scholars-eighty in number-one or more of them instructed the little girls in spinning and in stitchery, to say nothing of gentle and modest demeanour. There was a great look of happiness and good order about all; and the church, fair and graceful, seemed well to complete and rule the institution. Esclairmonde could but sigh with a sort of regret as she left it, and let herself be conducted by Sir Richard Whittington to a refection at his beautiful house in Crutched Friars, built round a square, combining warehouse and manor-house; richly-carved shields, with the arms of the companies of London, supporting the tier of first-floor windows, and another row of brackets above supporting another overhanging story. A fountain was in the centre of a beautiful greensward, with beds of roses, pansies, pinks, stars of Bethlehem, and other good old flowers, among which a monkey was chained to a tree, while a cat roamed about at a safe distance from him.

Alice Montagu raised a laugh by asking if it were the cat; to which her city namesake replied that 'her master' never could abide to be without a cat in memory of his first friend, and marshalled them into the beautiful hall, with wainscot lining below, surmounted by an arcade containing statues, and above a beautiful carved ceiling. Here a meal was served to them, and the Lady talked with Whittington of the grand town-halls and other buildings of the merchants of the Low Countries, with whom he was a trader for their rich stuffs; and the visit passed off with no small satisfaction to both parties.

Esclairmonde sat in the barge on her return, looking out on the gray clear water, and on the bright gardens that sloped down to it, gay with roses and fruitful with mulberries, apples, and strawberries, and the mansions and churches that were never quite out of sight, though there were some open fields and wild country ere coming to Westminster, all as if she did not see them, but was wrapped in deep contemplation.

Alice at last, weary of silence, stole her arm round her waist, and peeped up into her face. 'May I guess thy thoughts, sweet Clairette? Thou wilt found such a hospice thyself?'

'Say not I will, child,' said Esclairmonde, with a crystal drop starting in each dark eye. 'I would strive and hope, but-'

'Ah! thou wilt, thou wilt,' cried Alice; 'and since there are Béguines enough for their own Netherlands, thou wilt come to England and be our foundress here.'

'Nay, little one; here are the bedeswomen of St. Katharine's in London.'

'Ah! but we have other cities. Good Father, have we not? Hull-Southampton-oh! so many, where poor strangers come that need ghostly tendance as well as bodily. Esclairmonde-Light of the World-oh! it was not for nothing that they gave thee that goodly name. The hospice shall bear it!'

'Hush, hush! sweet pyet; mine own name is what they must not bear.'

'Ah! but the

people will give it; and our Holy Father the Pope, he will put thee into the canon of saints. Only pity that I cannot live to hear of Ste. Esclairmonde-nay, but then I must overlive thee, mind I should not love that.'

'Oh, silence, silence, child; these are no thoughts to begin a work with. Little flatterer, it may be well for me that our lives must needs lie so far apart that I shall not oft hear that fond silly tongue.'

'Nay,' said Alice, in the luxury, not of castle-building but of convent-building; 'it may be that when that knight over there sees me so small and ill-favoured he will none of me, and then I'll thank him so, and pray my father to let him have all my lands and houses except just enough to dower me to follow thee with, dear Lady Prioress.'

But here Alice was summarily silenced. Such talk, both priest and votaress told her, was not meet for dutiful daughter or betrothed maiden. Her lot was fixed, and she must do her duty therein as the good wife and lady of the castle, the noble English matron; and as she looked half disposed to pout, Esclairmonde drew such a picture of the beneficent influence of the good baronial dame, ruling her castle, bringing up her children and the daughters of her vassals in good and pious nurture, making 'the heart of her husband safely trust in her,' benefiting the poor, and fostering holy men, wayfarers, and pilgrims, that the girl's eyes filled within tears as she looked up and said, 'Ah! lady, this is the life fitted for thee, who can paint it so well. Why have I not a brother, that you might be Countess of Salisbury, and I a poor little sister in a nunnery?'

Esclairmonde shook her head. 'Silly child, petite n?aise, our lots were fixed by other hands than ours. We will strive each to serve our God, in the coif or in the veil, in samite or in serge, and He will only ask which of us has been most faithful, not whether we have lived in castle or in cloister.'

Little had Esclairmonde expected to hear the greeting with which the Countess received her, breaking out into peals of merriment as she told her of the choice destiny in store for her, to be wedded to the little lame Scot, pretending to read her a grave lecture on the consequences of the advances she had made to him.

Esclairmonde was not put out of countenance; in fact, she did not think the Countess in earnest, and merely replied with a smile that at least there was less harm in Lord Malcolm than in the suitors at home.

Jaqueline clapped her hands and cried, 'Good tidings, Clairette. I'll never forgive you if you make me lose my emerald carcanet! So the arrow was winged, after all. She prefers him-her heart is touched by the dainty step.'

'Madame!' entreated Esclairmonde, with agitation; 'at least, infirmity should be spared.'

'It touches her deeply!' exclaimed the Duchess. 'Ah! to see her in the mountains teaching the wild men to say their Aye, and to wear culottes, the little prince interpreting for her, as King James told us in his story of the saint his ancestor.'

Raillery about Malcolm had been attempted before, but never so pertinaciously; and Esclairmonde heeded it not at all, till James himself sought her out, and, within all his own persuasive grace, told her that he was rejoiced to hear from Madame of Hainault that she had spoken kindly of his youthful kinsman, for whose improvement he was sure he had in great measure to thank her.

Esclairmonde replied composedly, but as one on her guard, that the Sieur de Glenuskie was a gentle and a holy youth, of a good and toward wit.

'As I saw from the first,' said James, 'when I brought him away from being crushed among our rude cousins; but, lady, I knew not how the task of training the boy would be taken out of my hands by your kindness; and now, pardon me, lady, only one thing is wanting to complete your work, and that is hope.'

'Hope is always before a holy man, Sir.'

'O, madame! but we peer earthly beings require an earthly hope, nearer home, to brace our hearts, and nerve our arms.'

'I thought the Sieur de Glenuskie was destined to a religious life.'

'Never by any save his enemies, lady. The Regent Albany and his fierce sons have striven to scare Malcolm into a cloister, that his sister and his lands may be their prey; and they would have succeeded had not I come to Scotland in time. The lad never had any true vocation.'

'That may be,' said Esclairmonde, somewhat sorrowfully.

'Still,' added James, 'he is of a thoughtful and somewhat tender mould, and the rudeness of life will try him sorely unless he have some cheering star, some light of love, to bear him up and guide him on his way.'

'If so, may he find a worthy one.'

'Lady, it is too late to talk of what he may find. The brightness that has done so much for him already will hinder him from turning his eyes elsewhere.'

'You are a minstrel, Sir King, and therefore these words of light romance fall from your lips.'

'Nay, lady, hitherto my romance has been earnest. It rests with you to make Malcolm's the same.'

'Not so, Sir. That has long been out of my hands.'

'Madame, you might well shrink from what it was as insult to you to propose; but have you never thought of the blessings you might confer in the secular life, with one who would be no hindrance, but a help?'

'No, Sir, for no blessings, but curses, would follow a breach of dedication.'

'Lady, I will not press you with what divines have decided respecting such dedication. Any scruples could be removed by the Holy Father at Rome, and, though I will speak no further, I will trust to your considering the matter. You have never viewed it in any light save that of a refuge from wedlock with one to whom I trust you would prefer my gentle cousin.'

'It were a poor compliment to Lord Malcolm to name him in the same day with Sir Bo?mond of Burgundy,' said Esclairmonde; 'but, as I said, it is not the person that withholds me, but the fact that I am not free.'

'I do not ask you to love or accept the poor boy as yet,' said James; 'I leave that for the time when I shall bring him back to you, with the qualities grown which you have awakened. At least, I can bear him the tidings that it is not your feelings, but your scruples that are against him.'

'Sir King,' said Esclairmonde, gravely, 'I question not your judgment in turning your kinsman and subject to the secular life; but if you lead him by false hopes, of which I am the object, I tell you plainly that you are deluding him; and if any evil come thereof, be it on your own head.'

She moved away, with a bend of her graceful neck, and James stood with a slight smile curving his lip. 'By my troth,' he said to himself, 'a lordly lady! She knows her own vocation. She is one to command scores of holy maids, and have all the abbots and priors round at her beck, instead of one poor man. Rather Malcolm than I! But he is the very stuff that loves to have such a woman to rule him; and if she wed at all, he is the very man for her! I'll not give it up! Love is the way to make a man of him, whether successful or not, and she may change her mind, since she is not yet on the roll of saints. If I could get a word with her father confessor, and show him how much it would be for the interest of the Church in Scotland to get such a woman there, it would be the surest way of coming at her. Were she once in Scotland, my pretty one would have a stay and helper! But all must rest till after the campaign.'

James therefore told Malcolm so much as that he had spoken to his lady-love for him, and that she had avowed that it was not himself, but her own vows, that was the obstacle.

Malcolm crimsoned with joy as well as confusion; and the King proceeded: 'For the vows'-he shrugged his shoulders-'we knew there is a remedy! Meantime, Malcolm, be you a man, win your spurs, and show yourself worth overcoming something for!'

Malcolm smiled and brightened, holding his head high and joyously, and handling his sword. Then came the misgiving-'But Lilias, Sir, and Patrick Drummond.'

'We will provide for them, boy. You know Drummond is bent on carving his own fortune rather than taking yours, and that your sister only longs to see you a gallant knight.'

It was true, but Malcolm sighed.

'You have not spoken to the lady yourself?' asked the King.

'No, Sir. Oh, how can I?' faltered Malcolm, shamefaced and frightened.

James laughed. 'Let that be as the mood takes you, or occasion serves,' he said, wondering whether the lad's almost abject awkwardness and shame would be likely to create the pity akin to love or to contempt, and deciding that it must be left to chance.

Nor did Malcolm find boldness enough to do more than haunt Esclairmonde's steps, trembling if she glanced towards him, and almost shrinking from her gaze. He had now no doubts about going on the campaign, and was in full course of being prepared with equipments, horses, armour, and attendants, as became a young prince attending on his sovereign as an adventurer in the camp. It was not even worth while to name such scruples to the English friar who shrived him on the last day before the departure, and who knew nothing of his past history. He knew all priests would say the same things, and as he had never made a binding vow, he saw no need of consulting any one on the subject; it would only vex him again, and fill him with doubts. The suspicion that Dr. Bennet was aware of his previous intention made him shrink from him. So the last day had come, and all was farewell. King Henry had persuaded the Queen to seclude herself for one evening from Madame of Hainault, for his sake. King James was pacing the gardens on the Thames banks, with Joan Beaufort's hand for once allowed to repose in his; many a noble gentleman was exchanging last words with his wife-many a young squire whispering what he had never ventured to say before-many a silver mark was cloven-many a bright tress was exchanged. Even Ralf Percy was in the midst of something very like a romp with the handsome Bessie Nevil for a knot of ribbon to carry to the wars.

Malcolm felt a certain exaltation in being enough like other people to have a lady-love, but there was not much comfort otherwise; indeed, he could so little have addressed Esclairmonde that it was almost a satisfaction that she was the centre of a group of maidens whose lovers or brothers either had been sent off beforehand, or who saw their attentions paid elsewhere, and who all alike gravitated towards the Demoiselle de Luxemburg for sympathy. He could but hover on the outskirts, conscious that he must cut a ridiculous figure, but unable to detach himself from the neighbourhood of the magnet. As he looked back on the happy weeks of unconstrained intercourse, when he came to her as freely as did these young girls with all his troubles, he felt as if the King had destroyed all his joy and peace, and yet that these flutterings of heart and agonies of shame and fits of despair were worth all that childish calm.

He durst say nothing, only now and then to gaze on her with his great brown wistful eyes, which he dropped whenever she looked towards him; until at last, when the summer evening was closing in, and the last signal was given for the break-up of the party, Malcolm ventured on one faltering murmur, 'Lady, lady, you are not offended with me?'

'Nay,' said Esclairmonde, kindly; 'nothing has passed between us that should offend me.'

His eye lighted. 'May I still be remembered in your prayers, lady?'

'As I shall remember all who have been my friends here,' she said.

'And oh, lady, if I should-should win honour, may I lay it at your feet?'

'Whatever you achieve as a good man and true will gladden me,' said Esclairmonde, 'as it will all others that wish you well. Both you and your sister in her loneliness shall have my best prayers. Farewell, Lord Malcolm; may the Saints bless and guard you, whether in the world or the Church.'

Malcolm knew why she spoke of his sister, and felt as if there were no hope for him. Esclairmonde's grave kindness was a far worse sign than would have been any attempt to evade him; but at any rate she had spoken with him, and his heart could not but be cheered. What might he not do in the glorious future? As the foremost champion of a crusading king, bearing St. Andrew's cross through the very gates of Jerusalem, what maiden, however saintly, could refuse him his guerdon?

And he knew that, for the present, Esclairmonde was safe from retiring into any convent, since her high birth and great possessions would make any such establishment expect a large dower with her as a right, and few abbesses would have ventured to receive a runaway foreigner, especially as one of her guardians was the Bishop of Thérouenne.

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