MoboReader> Literature > By What Authority?

   Chapter 21 THE APPEAL TO C SAR

By What Authority? By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 34218

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The room was full of sunshine that poured in through two tall windows opposite, upon a motionless figure that sat in a high carved chair by the table, and watched the door. This figure dominated the whole room: the lad as he dropped on his knees, was conscious of eyes watching him from behind the chair, of tapestried walls, and a lute that lay on the table, but all those things were but trifling accessories to that scarlet central figure with a burnished halo of auburn hair round a shadowed face.

* * *

There was complete silence for a moment or two; a hound bayed in the court outside, and there came a far-away bang of a door somewhere in the palace. There was a rustle of silk that set every nerve of his body thrilling, and then a clear hard penetrating voice spoke two words.

"Well, sir?"

Anthony drew a breath, and swallowed in his throat.

"Your Grace," he said, and lifted his eyes for a moment, and dropped them again. But in the glimpse every detail stamped itself clear on his imagination. There she sat in vivid scarlet and cloth of gold, radiating light; with high puffed sleeves; an immense ruff fringed with lace. The narrow eyes were fixed on him, and as he now waited again, he knew that they were running up and down his figure, his dark splashed hose and his tumbled doublet and ruff.

"You come strangely dressed."

Anthony drew a quick breath again.

"My heart is sick," he said.

There was another slight movement.

"Well, sir," the voice said again, "you have not told us why you are here."

"For justice from my queen," he said, and stopped. "And for mercy from a woman," he added, scarcely knowing what he said.

Again Elizabeth stirred in her chair.

"You taught him that, you wicked girl," she said.

"No, madam," came Mary's voice from behind, subdued and entreating, "it is his heart that speaks."

"Enough, sir," said Elizabeth; "now tell us plainly what you want of us."

Then Anthony thought it time to be bold. He made a great effort, and the sense of constraint relaxed a little.

"I have been, your Grace, to Sir Francis Walsingham, and my lord Bishop of London, and I can get neither justice nor mercy from either; and so I come to your Grace, who are their mistress, to teach them manners."

"Stay," said Elizabeth, "that is insolence to my ministers."

"So my lord said," answered Anthony frankly, looking into that hard clear face that was beginning to be lined with age. And he saw that Elizabeth smiled, and that the face behind the chair nodded at him encouragingly.

"Well, insolence, go on."

"It is on behalf of one who has been pronounced a felon and a traitor by your Grace's laws, that I am pleading; but one who is a very gallant Christian gentleman as well."

"Your friend lacks not courage," interrupted Elizabeth to Mary.

"No, your Grace," said the other, "that has never been considered his failing."

Anthony waited, and then the voice spoke again harshly.

"Go on with the tale, sir. I cannot be here all day."

"He is a popish priest, your Majesty; and he was taken at mass in his vestments, and is now in the Tower; and he hath been questioned on the rack. And, madam, it is piteous to think of it. He is but a young man still, but passing strong and tall."

"What has this to do with me, sir?" interrupted the Queen harshly. "I cannot pardon every proper young priest in the kingdom. What else is there to be said for him?"

"He was taken through the foul treachery of a spy, who imposed upon me, his friend, and caused me all unknowing to say the very words that brought him into the net."

And then, more and more, Anthony began to lose his self-consciousness, and poured out the story from the beginning; telling how he had been brought up in the same village with James Maxwell; and what a loyal gentleman he was; and then the story of the trick by which he had been deceived. As he spoke his whole appearance seemed to change; instead of the shy and rather clumsy manner with which he had begun, he was now natural and free; he moved his hands in slight gestures; his blue eyes looked the Queen fairly in the face; he moved a little forward on his knees as he pleaded, and he spoke with a passion that astonished both Mary and himself afterwards when he thought of it, in spite of his short and broken sentences. He was conscious all the while of an intense external strain and pressure, as if he were pleading for his life, and the time was short. Elizabeth relaxed her rigid attitude, and leaned her chin on her hand and her elbow on the table and watched him, her thin lips parted, the pearl rope and crown on her head, and the pearl pendants in her ears moving slightly as she nodded at points in his story.

"Ah! your Grace," he cried, lifting his open hands towards her a little, "you have a woman's heart; all your people say so. You cannot allow this man to be so trapped to his death! Treachery never helped a cause yet. If your men cannot catch these priests fairly, then a-God's name, let them not catch them at all! But to use a friend, and make a Judas of him; to make the very lips that have spoken friendly, speak traitorously; to bait the trap like that-it is devilish. Let him go, let him go, madam! One priest more or less cannot overthrow the realm; but one more foul crime done in the name of justice can bring God's wrath down on the nation. I hold that a trick like that is far worse than all the disobedience in the world; nay-how can we cry out against the Jesuits and the plotters, if we do worse ourselves? Madam, madam, let him go! Oh! I know I cannot speak as well in this good cause, as some can in a bad cause, but let the cause speak for itself. I cannot speak, I know."

"Nay, nay," said Elizabeth softly, "you wrong yourself. You have an honest face, sir; and that is the best recommendation to me.

"And so, Minnie," she went on, turning to Mary, "this was your petition, was it; and this your advocate? Well, you have not chosen badly. Now, you speak yourself."

Mary stood a moment silent, and then with a swift movement came round the arm of the Queen's chair, and threw herself on her knees, with her hands upon the Queen's left hand as it lay upon the carved boss, and her voice was as Anthony had never yet heard it, vibrant and full of tears.

"Oh! madam, madam; this poor lad cannot speak, as he says; and yet his sad honest face, as your Grace said, is more eloquent than all words. And think of the silence of the little cell upstairs in the Tower; where a gallant gentleman lies, all rent and torn with the rack; and,-and how he listens for the footsteps outside of the tormentors who come to drag him down again, all aching and heavy with pain, down to that fierce engine in the dark. And think of his gallant heart, your Grace, how brave it is; and how he will not yield nor let one name escape him. Ah! not because he loves not your Grace nor desires to serve you; but because he serves your Grace best by serving and loving his God first of all.-And think how he cannot help a sob now and again; and whispers the name of his Saviour, as the pulleys begin to wrench and twist.-And,-and,-do not forget his mother, your Grace, down in the country; how she sits and listens and prays for her dear son; and cannot sleep, and dreams of him when at last she sleeps, and wakes screaming and crying at the thought of the boy she bore and nursed in the hands of those harsh devils. And-and, you can stop it all, your Grace, with one little word; and make that mother's heart bless your name and pray for you night and morning till she dies;-and let that gallant son go free, and save his racked body before it be torn asunder;-and you can make this honest lad's heart happy again with the thought that he has saved his friend instead of slaying him. Look you, madam, he has come confessing his fault; saying bravely to your Grace that he did try to do his friend a service in spite of the laws, for that he held love to be the highest law. Ah! how many happy souls you can make with a word; because you are a Queen.-What is it to be a Queen!-to be able to do all that!-Oh! madam, be pitiful then, and show mercy as one day you hope to find it."

Mary spoke with an intense feeling; her voice was one long straining sob of appeal; and as she ended her tears were beginning to rain down on the hand she held between her own; she lifted it to her streaming face and kissed it again and again; and then dropped her forehead upon it, and so rested in dead silence.

Elizabeth swallowed in her throat once or twice; and then spoke, and her voice was a little choked.

"Well, well, you silly girl.-You plead too well."

Anthony irresistibly threw his hands out as he knelt.

"Oh! God bless your Grace!" he said; and then gave a sob or two himself.

"There, there, you are a pair of children," she said; for Mary was kissing her hand again and again. "And you are a pretty pair, too," she added. "Now, now, that is enough, stand up."

Anthony rose to his feet again and stood there; and Mary went round again behind the chair.

"Now, now, you have put me in a sore strait," said Elizabeth; "between you I scarcely know how to keep my word. They call me fickle enough already. But Frank Walsingham shall do it for me. He is certainly at the back of it all, and he shall manage it. It shall be done at once. Call a page, Minnie."

Mary Corbet went to the back of the room into the shadow, opened a door that Anthony had not noticed, and beckoned sharply; in a moment or two a page was bowing before Elizabeth.

"Is Sir Francis Walsingham in the palace?" she asked,-"then bring him here," she ended, as the boy bowed again.

"And you too," she went on, "shall hear that I keep my word,"-she pointed towards the door whence the page had come.-"Stand there," she said, "and leave the door ajar."

Mary gave Anthony her hand and a radiant smile as they went together.

"Aha!" said Elizabeth, "not in my presence."

Anthony flushed with fury in spite of his joy.

* * *

They went in through the door, and found themselves in a tiny panelled room with a little slit of a window; it was used to place a sentry or a page within it. There were a couple of chairs, and the two sat down to wait.

"Oh, thank God!" whispered Anthony.

Again the harsh voice rang out from the open door.

"Now, now, no love-making within there!"

Mary smiled and laid her finger on her lips. Then there came the ripple of a lute from the outer room, played not unskilfully. Mary smiled again and nodded at Anthony. Then, a metallic voice, but clear enough and tuneful, began to sing a verse of the little love-song of Harrington's, Whence comes my love?

It suddenly ceased in the middle of the line, and the voice cried to some one to come in.

Anthony could hear the door open and close again, and a movement or two, which doubtless represented Walsingham's obeisance. Then the Queen's voice began again, low, thin, and distinct. The two in the inner room listened breathlessly.

"I wish a prisoner in the Tower to be released, Sir Francis; without any talk or to-do. And I desire you to do it for me."

There was silence, and then Walsingham's deep tones.

"Your Grace has but to command."

"His name is James Maxwell, and he is a popish priest."

A longer silence followed.

"I do not know if your Grace knows all the circumstances."

"I do, sir, or I should not interfere."

"The feeling of the people was very strong."

"Well, and what of that?"

"It will be a risk of your Grace's favour with them."

"Have I not said that my name was not to appear in the matter? And do you think I fear my people's wrath?"

There was silence again.

"Well, Sir Francis, why do you not speak?"

"I have nothing to say, your Grace."

"Then it will be done?"

"I do not see at present how it can be done, but doubtless there is a way."

"Then you will find it, sir, immediately," rang out the Queen's metallic tones.

(Mary turned and nodded solemnly at Anthony, with pursed lips.)

"He was questioned on the rack two days ago, your Grace."

"Have I not said I know all the circumstances? Do you wish me to say it again?"

The Queen was plainly getting angry.

"I ask your pardon, madam; but I only meant that he could not travel probably, yet awhile. He was on the rack for four hours, I understand."

(Anthony felt that strange sickness rise again; but Mary laid her cool hand on his and smiled at him.)

"Well, well," rasped out Elizabeth, "I do not ask impossibilities."

"They would cease to be so, madam, if you did."

(Mary within the little room put her lips to Anthony's ear:

"Butter!" she whispered.)

"Well, sir," went on the Queen, "you shall see that he has a physician, and leave to travel as soon as he will."

"It shall be done, your Grace."

"Very well, see to it."

"I beg your Grace's pardon; but what--"

"Well, what is it now?"

"I would wish to know your Grace's pleasure as to the future for Mr. Maxwell. Is no pledge of good behaviour to be exacted from him?"

"Of course he says mass again at his peril. Either he must take the oath at once, or he shall be allowed forty-eight hours' safe-conduct with his papers for the Continent."

"Your Grace, indeed I must remonstrate--"

Then the Queen's wrath burst out; they heard a swift movement, and the rap of her high heels as she sprang to her feet.

"By God's Son," she screamed, "am I Queen or not? I have had enough of your counsel. You presume, sir-" her ringed hand came heavily down on the table and they heard the lute leap and fall again.-"You presume on your position, sir. I made you, and I can unmake you, and by God I will, if I have another word of your counselling. Be gone, and see that it be done; I will not bid twice."

There was silence again; and they heard the outer door open and close.

Anthony's heart was beating wildly. He had sprung to his feet in a trembling excitement as the Queen had sprung to hers. The mere ring of that furious royal voice, even without the sight of her pale wrathful face and blazing eyes that Walsingham looked upon as he backed out from the presence, was enough to make this lad's whole frame shiver. Mary apparently was accustomed to this; for she looked up at Anthony, laughing silently, and shrugged her shoulders.

Then they heard the Queen's silk draperies rustle and her pearls chink together as she sank down again and took up her lute and struck the strings. Then the metallic voice began again, with a little tremor in it, like the ground-swell after a storm; and she sang the verse through in which she had been interrupted:

"Why thus, my love, so kind bespeak

Sweet eye, sweet lip, sweet blushing cheek-

Yet not a heart to save my pain;

O Venus, take thy gifts again!

Make not so fair to cause our moan,

Or make a heart that's like your own."

The lute rippled away into silence.

* * *

Mary rose quietly to her feet and nodded to Anthony.

"Come back, you two!" cried the Queen.

Mary stepped straight through, the lad behind her.

"Well," said the Queen, turning to them and showing her black teeth in a smile. "Have I kept my word?"

"Ah! your Grace," said Mary, curtseying to the ground, "you have made some simple loving hearts very happy to-day-I do not mean Sir Francis'."

The Queen laughed.

"Come here, child," she said, holding out her glittering hand, "down here," and Mary sank down on the Queen's footstool, and leaned against her knee like a child, smiling up into her face; while Elizabeth put her hand under her chin and kissed her twice on the forehead.

"There, there," she said caressingly, "have I made amends? Am I a hard mistress?"

And she threw her left hand round the girl's neck and began to play with the diamond pendant in her ear, and to stroke the smooth curve of her cheek with her flashing fingers.

Anthony, a little on one side, stood watching and wondering at this silky tigress who raged so fiercely just now.

Elizabeth looked up in a moment and saw him.

"Why, here is the tall lad here still," she said, "eyeing us as if we were monsters. Have you never yet seen two maidens loving one another, that you stare so with your great eyes? Aha! Minnie; he would like to be sitting where I am-is it not so, sir?"

"I would sooner stand where I am, madam," said Anthony, by a sudden inspiration, "and look upon your Grace."

"Why, he is a courtier already," said the Queen. "You have been giving him lessons, Minnie, you sly girl."

"A loyal heart makes the best courtier, madam," said Mary, taking the Queen's hand delicately in her own.

"And next to looking upon my Grace, Mr. Norris," said Elizabeth, "what do you best love?"

"Listening to your Grace," said Anthony, promptly.

Mary turned and flashed all her teeth upon him in a smile, and her eyes danced in her head.

Elizabeth laughed outright.

"He is an apt pupil," she said to Mary.

"-You mean the lute, sir?" she added.

"I mean your Grace's voice, madam

. I had forgotten the lute."

"Ah, a little clumsy!" said the Queen; "not so true a thrust as the others."

"It was not for lack of good-will," said poor Anthony blushing a little. He felt in a kind of dream, fencing in language with this strange mighty creature in scarlet and pearls, who sat up in her chair and darted remarks at him, as with a rapier.

"Aha!" said the Queen, "he is blushing! Look, Minnie!" Mary looked at him deliberately. Anthony became scarlet at once; and tried a desperate escape.

"It is your livery, madam," he said.

Mary clapped her hands, and glanced at the Queen.

"Yes, Minnie; he does his mistress credit."

"Yes, your Grace; but he can do other things besides talk," explained Mary.

Anthony felt like a horse being shown off by a skilful dealer, but he was more at his ease too after his blush.

"Extend your mercy, madam," he said, "and bid Mistress Corbet hold her tongue and spare my shame."

"Silence, sir!" said the Queen. "Go on, Minnie; what else can he do?"

"Ah! your Grace, he can hawk. Oh! you should see his peregrine;-named after your Majesty. That shows his loyal heart."

"I am not sure of the compliment," said the Queen; "hawks are fierce creatures."

"It was not for her fierceness," put in Anthony, "that I named her after your Grace."

"Why, then, Mr. Norris?"

"For that she soars so high above all other creatures," said the lad, "and-and that she never stoops but to conquer."

Mary gave a sudden triumphant laugh, and glanced up, and Elizabeth tapped her on the cheek sharply.

"Be still, bad girl," she said. "You must not prompt during the lesson."

And so the talk went on. Anthony really acquitted himself with great credit, considering the extreme strangeness of his position; but such an intense weight had been lifted off his mind by the Queen's pardon of James Maxwell, that his nature was alight with a kind of intoxication.

All his sharpness, such as it was, rose to the surface; and Mary too was amazed at some of his replies. Elizabeth took it as a matter of course; she was accustomed to this kind of word-fencing; she did not do it very well herself: her royalty gave her many advantages which she often availed herself of; and her address was not to be compared for a moment with that of some of her courtiers and ladies. But still she was amused by this slender honest lad who stood there before her in his graceful splashed dress, and blushed and laughed and parried, and delivered his point with force, even if not with any extraordinary skill.

But at last she began to show signs of weariness; and Mary managed to convey to Anthony that it was time to be off. So he began to make his adieux.

"Well," said Elizabeth, "let us see you at supper to-night; and in the parlours afterwards.-Ah!" she cried, suddenly, "neither of you must say a word as to how your friend was released. It must remain the act of the Council. My name must not appear; Walsingham will see to that, and you must see to it too."

They both promised sincerely.

"Well, then, lad," said Elizabeth, and stretched out her hand; and Mary rose and stood by her. Anthony came up and knelt on the cushion and received the slender scented ringed hand on his own, and kissed it ardently in his gratitude. As he released it, it cuffed him gently on the cheek.

"There, there!" said Elizabeth, "Minnie has taught you too much, it seems."

Anthony backed out of the presence, smiling; and his last glimpse was once more of the great scarlet-clad figure with the slender waist, and the priceless pearls, and the haze of muslin behind that crowned auburn head, and the pale oval face smiling at him with narrow eyes-and all in a glory of sunshine.

* * *

He did not see Mary Corbet again until evening as she was with the Queen all the afternoon. Anthony would have wished to return to Lambeth; but it was impossible, after the command to remain to supper; so he wandered down along the river bank, rejoicing in the success of his petition; and wondering whether James had heard of his release yet.

Of course it was just a fly in the ointment that his own agency in the matter could never be known. It would have been at least some sort of compensation for his innocent share in the whole matter of the arrest. However, he was too happy to feel the sting of it. He felt, of course, greatly drawn to the Queen for her ready clemency; and yet there was something repellent about her too in spite of it. He felt in his heart that it was just a caprice, like her blows and caresses; and then the assumption of youth sat very ill upon this lean middle-aged woman. He would have preferred less lute-playing and sprightly innuendo, and more tenderness and gravity.

* * *

Mary had arranged that a proper Court-suit should be at his disposal for supper, and a room to himself; so after he had returned at sunset, he changed his clothes. The white silk suit with the high hosen, the embroidered doublet with great puffed and slashed sleeves, the short green-lined cloak, the white cap and feather, and the slender sword with the jewelled hilt, all became him very well; and he found too that Mary had provided him with two great emerald brooches of her own, that he pinned on, one at the fastening of the crisp ruff and the other on his cap.

He went to the private chapel for the evening prayer at half-past six; which was read by one of the chaplains; but there were very few persons present, and none of any distinction. Religion, except as a department of politics, was no integral part of Court life. The Queen only occasionally attended evening-prayer on week days; and just now she was too busy with the affair of the Duke of Alen?on to spend unnecessary time in that manner.

When the evening prayer was over he followed the little company into the long gallery that led towards the hall, through which the Queen's procession would pass to supper; and there he attached himself to a group of gentlemen, some of whom he had met at Lambeth. While they were talking, the clang of trumpets suddenly broke out from the direction of the Queen's apartments; and all threw themselves on their knees and remained there. The doors were flung open by servants stationed behind them; and the wands advanced leading the procession; then came the trumpeters blowing mightily, with a drum or two beating the step; and then in endless profusion, servants and guards; gentlemen pensioners magnificently habited, for they were continually about the Queen's person; and at last, after an official or two bearing swords, came the Queen and Alen?on together; she in a superb purple toilet with brocaded underskirt and high-heeled twinkling shoes, and breathing out essences as she swept by smiling; and he, a pathetic little brown man, pockmarked, with an ill-shapen nose and a head too large for his undersized body, in a rich velvet suit sparkling all over with diamonds.

As they passed Anthony he heard the Duke making some French compliment in his croaking harsh voice. Behind came the crowd of ladies, nodding, chattering, rustling; and Anthony had a swift glance of pleasure from Mistress Corbet as she went by, talking at the top of her voice.

The company followed on to the hall, behind the distant trumpets, and Anthony found himself still with his friends somewhere at the lower end-away from the Queen's table, who sat with Alen?on at her side on a da?s, with the great folks about her. All through supper the most astonishing noise went on. Everyone was talking loudly; the servants ran to and fro over the paved floor; there was the loud clatter over the plates of four hundred persons; and, to crown all, a band in the musicians' gallery overhead made brazen music all supper-time. Anthony had enough entertainment himself in looking about the great banqueting-hall, so magnificently adorned with tapestries and armour and antlers from the park; and above all by the blaze of gold and silver plate both on the tables and on the sideboards; and by watching the army of liveried servants running to and fro incessantly; and the glowing colours of the dresses of the guests.

Supper was over at last; and a Latin grace was exquisitely sung in four parts by boys and men stationed in the musicians' gallery; and then the Queen's procession went out with the same ceremony as that with which it had entered. Anthony followed behind, as he had been bidden by the Queen to the private parlours afterwards; but he presently found his way barred by a page at the foot of the stairs leading to the Queen's apartments.

It was in vain that he pleaded his invitation; it was useless, as the young gentleman had not been informed of it. Anthony asked if he might see Mistress Corbet. No, that too was impossible; she was gone upstairs with the Queen's Grace and might not be disturbed. Anthony, in despair, not however unmixed with relief at escaping a further ordeal, was about to turn away, leaving the officious young gentleman swaggering on the stairs like a peacock, when down came Mistress Corbet herself, sailing down in her splendour, to see what was become of the gentleman of the Archbishop's house.

"Why, here you are!" she cried from the landing as she came down, "and why have you not obeyed the Queen's command?"

"This young gentleman," said Anthony, indicating the astonished page, "would not let me proceed."

"It is unusual, Mistress Corbet," said the boy, "for her Grace's guests to come without my having received instructions, unless they are great folk."

Mistress Corbet came down the last six steps like a stooping hawk, her wings bulged behind her; and she caught the boy one clean light cuff on the side of the head.

"You imp!" she said, "daring to doubt the word of this gentleman. And the Queen's Grace's own special guest!"

The boy tried still to stand on his dignity and bar the way, but it was difficult to be dignified with a ringing head and a scarlet ear.

"Stand aside," said Mary, stamping her little buckled foot, "this instant; unless you would be dragged by your red ear before the Queen's Grace. Come, Master Anthony."

So the two went upstairs together, and the lad called up after them bitterly:

"I beg your pardon, Mistress; I did not recognise he was your gallant."

"You shall pay for that," hissed Mary over the banisters.

They went along a passage or two, and the sound of a voice singing to a virginal began to ring nearer as they went, followed by a burst of applause.

"Lady Leicester," whispered Mary; and then she opened the door and they went in.

There were three rooms opening on one another with wide entrances, so that really one long room was the result. They were all three fairly full; that into which they entered, the first in the row, was occupied by some gentlemen-pensioners and ladies talking and laughing; some playing shove-groat, and some of them still applauding the song that had just ended. The middle room was much the same; and the third, which was a step higher than the others, was that in which was the Queen, with Lady Leicester and a few more. Lady Leicester had just finished a song, and was laying her virginal down. There was a great fire burning in the middle room, with seats about it, and here Mary Corbet brought Anthony. Those near him eyed him a little; but his companion was sufficient warrant of his respectability; and they soon got into talk, which was suddenly interrupted by the Queen's voice from the next room.

"Minnie, Minnie, if you can spare a moment from your lad, come and help us at a dance."

The Queen was plainly in high good-humour; and Mary got up and went into the Queen's room. Those round the fire stood up and pushed the seats back, and the games ceased in the third room; as her Grace needed spectators and applause.

Then there arose the rippling of lutes from the ladies in the next room, in slow swaying measure, with the gentle tap of a drum now and again; and the pavane began-a stately dignified dance; and among all the ladies moved the great Queen herself, swaying and bending with much grace and dignity. It was the strangest thing for Anthony to find himself here, a raven among all these peacocks, and birds of paradise; and he wondered at himself and at the strange humour of Providence, as he watched the shimmer of the dresses and the sparkle of the shoes and jewels, and the soft clouds of muslin and lace that shivered and rustled as the ladies stepped; the firelight shone through the wide doorway on this glowing movement, and groups of candles in sconces within the room increased and steadied the soft intensity of the light. The soft tingling instruments, with the slow tap-tap marking the measure like a step, seemed a translation into chord and melody of this stately tender exercise. And so this glorious flower-bed, loaded too with a wealth of essences in the dresses and the sweet-washed gloves, swayed under the wind of the music, bending and rising together in slow waves and ripples. Then it ceased; and the silence was broken by a quick storm of applause; while the dancers waited for the lutes. Then all the instruments broke out together in quick triple time; the stringed instruments supplying a hasty throbbing accompaniment, while the shrill flutes began to whistle and the drums to gallop;-there was yet a pause in the dance, till the Queen made the first movement;-and then the whole whirled off on the wings of a coranto.

It was bewildering to Anthony, who had never even dreamed of such a dance before. He watched first the lower line of the shoes; and the whole floor, in reality above, and in the mirror of the polished boards below, seemed scintillating in lines of diamond light; the heavy underskirts of brocade, puffed satin, and cloth of gold, with glimpses of foamy lace beneath, whirled and tossed above these flashing vibrations. Then he looked at the higher strata, and there was a tossing sea of faces and white throats, borne up as it seemed-now revealed, now hidden-on clouds of undulating muslin and lace, with sparkles of precious stones set in ruff and wings and on high piled hair.

He watched, fascinated, the faces as they appeared and vanished; there was every imaginable expression; the serious looks of one who took dancing as a solemn task, and marked her position and considered her steps; the wild gaiety of another, all white teeth and dimples and eyes, intoxicated by movement and music and colour, as men are by wine, and guided and sustained by the furious genius of the dance, rather than by intention of any kind. There was the courtly self-restraint of one tall beauty, who danced as a pleasant duty and loved it, but never lost control of her own bending, slender grace; ah! and there was the oval face crowned with auburn hair and pearls, the lower lip drawn up under the black teeth with an effort, till it appeared to snarl, and the ropes of pearls leaping wildly on her lean purple stomacher. And over all the grave oak walls and the bright sconces and the taper flames blown about by the eddying gusts from the whirlpool beneath.

As Anthony went down the square winding staircase, an hour later when the evening was over, and the keen winter air poured up to meet him, his brain was throbbing with the madness of dance and music and whirling colour. Here, it seemed to him, lay the secret of life. For a few minutes his old day-dreams came back but in more intoxicating dress. The figure of Mary Corbet in her rose-coloured silk and her clouds of black hair, and her jewels and her laughing eyes and scarlet mouth, and her violet fragrance and her fire-this dominated the boy. As he walked towards the stables across the starlit court, she seemed to move before him, to hold out her hands to him, to call him her own dear lad; to invite him out of the drab-coloured life that lay on all sides, behind and before, up into a mystic region of jewelled romance, where she and he would live and be one in the endless music of rippling strings and shrill flutes and the maddening tap of a little hidden drum.

But the familiar touch of his own sober suit and the creaking saddle as he rode home to Lambeth, and the icy wind that sang in the river sedges, and the wholesome smell of the horse and the touch of the coarse hair at the shoulder, talked and breathed the old Puritan common sense back to him again. That warm-painted, melodious world he had left was gaudy nonsense; and dancing was not the same as living; and Mary Corbet was not just a rainbow on the foam that would die when the sun went in; but both she and he together were human souls, redeemed by the death of the Saviour, with His work to do and no time or energy for folly; and James Maxwell in the Tower-(thank God, however, not for long!)-James Maxwell with his wrenched joints and forehead and lips wet with agony, was in the right; and that lean bitter furious woman in the purple and pearls, who supped to the blare of trumpets, and danced to the ripple of lutes, wholly and utterly and eternally in the wrong.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top