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   Chapter 24 A COMEDY BEFORE THE KING

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 20127

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


On the next day but one M. de Fontelles and I took the road for London together. Carford lay between life and death (for the point had pierced his lung) at the inn to which we had carried him; he could do no more harm and occasion us no uneasiness. On the other hand, M. de Fontelles was anxious to seek out the French Ambassador, with whom he was on friendly terms, and enlist his interest, first to excuse the abandonment of his mission, and in the second place to explain the circumstances of his duel with Carford. In this latter task he asked my aid since I alone, saving the servants, had been a witness of the encounter, and Fontelles, recognising (now that his rage was past) that he had been wrong to force his opponent to a meeting under such conditions, prayed my testimony to vindicate his reputation. I could not deny him, and moreover, though it grieved me to be absent from Quinton Manor, I felt that Barbara's interests and my own might be well served by a journey to London. No news had come from my lord, and I was eager to see him and bring him over to my side; the disposition of the King was also a matter of moment and of uncertainty; would he still seek to gain for M. de Perrencourt what that exacting gentleman required, or would he now abandon the struggle in which his instruments had twice failed him? His Majesty should now be returning from Dover, and I made up my mind to go to Court and learn from him the worst and the best of what I might look for. Nay, I will not say that the pure desire to see him face to face had not weight with me; for I believed that he had a liking for me, and that I should obtain from him better terms in my own person than if my cause were left in the hands of those who surrounded him.

When we were come to London (and I pray that it be observed and set down to my credit that, thinking there was enough of love-making in this history, I have spared any narrative of my farewell to Barbara, although on my soul it was most moving) M. de Fontelles at once sought the Ambassador's, taking my promise to come there as soon as his summons called, while I betook myself to the lodging which I had shared with Darrell before we went to Dover. I hoped to find him there and renew our friendship; my grudge was for his masters, and I am not for making an enemy of a man who does what his service demands of him. I was not disappointed; Robert opened the door to me, and Darrell himself sprang to his feet in amazement at the sound of my name. I laughed heartily and flung myself into a chair, saying:

"How goes the Treaty of Dover?"

He ran to the door and tried it; it was close-shut.

"The less you say of that, the safer you'll be," said he.

"Oho," thought I, "then I'm not going to market empty-handed! If I want to buy, it seems that I have something to sell." And smiling very good-humouredly I said:

"What, is there a secret in it?"

Darrell came up to me and held out his hand.

"On my life," said he, "I didn't know you were interested in the lady, Simon, or I wouldn't have taken a hand in the affair."

"On my life," said I, "I'm obliged to you. What of Mlle. de Quérouaille?"

"She has returned with Madame."

"But will return without Madame?"

"Who knows?" he asked with a smile that he could not smother.

"God and the King," said I. "What of M. de Perrencourt?"

"Your tongue's hung so loose, Simon, that one day it'll hang you tight."

"Enough, enough. What then of Phineas Tate?"

"He is on board ship on his way to the plantations. He'll find plenty to preach to there."

"What? Why, there's never a Papist sent now! He'll mope to death. What of the Duke of Monmouth?"

"He has found out Carford."

"He has? Then he has found out the Secretary also?"

"There is indeed a distance between his Grace and my lord," Darrell admitted.

"When rogues fall out! A fine saying that, Darrell. And what of the King?"

"My lord tells me that the King swears he won't sleep o' nights till he has laid a certain troublesome fellow by the heels."

"And where is that same troublesome fellow?"

"So near me that, did I serve the King as I ought, Robert would now be on his way with news for my Lord Arlington."

"Then His Majesty's sentiments are mighty unkind towards me? Be at peace, Darrell. I am come to London to seek him."

"To seek him? Are you mad? You'll follow Phineas Tate!"

"But I have a boon to ask of the King. I desire him to use his good offices with my Lord Quinton. For I am hardly a fit match for my lord's daughter, and yet I would make her my wife."

"I wonder," observed Darrell, "that you, Simon, who, being a heretic, must go to hell when you die, are not more careful of your life."

Then we both fell to laughing.

"Another thing brings me to London," I pursued. "I must see Mistress Gwyn."

He raised his hands over his head.

"Fill up the measure," said he. "The King knows you came to London with her and is more enraged at that than all the rest."

"Does he know what happened on the journey?"

"Why, no, Simon," smiled Darrell. "The matter is just that. The King does not know what happened on the journey."

"He must learn it," I declared. "To-morrow I'll seek Mistress Gwyn. You shall send Robert to take her pleasure as to the hour when I shall wait on her."

"She's in a fury with the King, as he with her."

"On what account?"

"Already, friend Simon, you're too wise."

"By Heaven, I know! It's because Mlle. de Quérouaille is so good a Catholic?"

Darrell had no denial ready. He shrugged his shoulders and sat silent.

Now although I had told Barbara that it was my intention to ask an audience from the King, I had not disclosed my purpose of seeing Mistress Nell. Yet it was firm in my mind-for courtesy's sake. Of a truth she had done me great service. Was I to take it as though it were my right, with never a word of thanks? Curiosity also drew me, and that attraction which she never lost for me, nor, as I believe, for any man whose path she crossed. I was sure of myself, and did not fear to go. Yet memory was not dead in me, and I went in a species of excitement, the ghost of old feelings dead but not forgotten. When a man has loved, and sees her whom he loves no more, he will not be indifferent; angry he may be, or scornful, amused he may be, and he should be tender; but it will not be as though he had not loved. Yet I had put a terrible affront on her, and it might be that she would not receive me.

As I live, I believe that but for one thing she would not. That turned her, by its appeal to her humour. When I came to the house in Chelsea, I was conducted into a small ante-chamber, and there waited long. There were voices speaking in the next room, but I could not hear their speech. Yet I knew Nell's voice; it had for me always-ay, still-echoes of the past. But now there was something which barred its way to my heart.

The door in front of me opened, and she was in the room with me. There she was, curtseying low in mock obeisance and smiling whimsically.

"A bold man!" she cried. "What brings you here? Art not afraid?"

"Afraid that I am not welcome, yet not afraid to come."

"A taunt wrapped in civility! I do not love it."

"Mistress Nell, I came to thank you for the greatest kindness--"

"If it be kindness to help you to a fool!" said Mistress Nell. "What, besides your thanks to me, brings you to town?"

I must forgive her the style in which she spoke of Barbara. I answered with a smile:

"I must see the King. I don't know his purposes about me. Besides, I desire that he should help me to my-fool."

"If you're wise you'll keep out of his sight." Then she began to laugh. "Nay, but I don't know," said she. Then with a swift movement she was by me, catching at my coat and turning up to me a face full of merriment. "Shall we play a comedy?" she asked.

"As you will. What shall be my part?"

"I'll give you a pretty part, Simon. Your face is very smooth; nay, do not fear, I remember so well that I needn't try again. You shall be this French lady of whom they speak."

"I the French lady! God forbid!"

"Nay, but you shall, Simon. And I'll be the King. Nay, I say, don't be afraid. I swear you tried to run away then!"

"Is it not prescribed as the best cure for temptation?"

"Alas, you're not tempted!" she said with a pout. "But there's another part in the comedy."

"Besides the King and Mademoiselle?"

"Why, yes-and a great part."

"Myself by chance?"

"You! No! What should you do in the play? It is I-I myself."

"True, true. I forgot you, Mistress Nell."

"You did forget me, Simon. But I must spare you, for you will have heard that same charge of fickleness from Mistress Quinton, and it is hard to hear it from two at once. But who shall play my part?"

"Indeed I can think of none equal to it."

"The King shall play it!" she cried with a triumphant laugh, and stood opposite to me, the embodiment of merry triumph. "Do you catch the plot of my piece, Simon?"

"I am very dull," I confessed.

"It's your condition, not your nature, Simon," Nell was so good as to say. "A man in love is always dull, save to one woman, and she's stark-mad. Come, can you feign an inclination for me, or have you forgot the trick?"

At the moment she spoke the handle of the door turned. Again it turned and was rattled.

"I locked it," whispered Nell, her eyes full of mischief.

Again, and most impatiently, the handle was twisted to and fro.

"Pat, pat, how pat he comes!" she whispered.

A last loud rattle followed, then a voice cried in anger, "Open it, I bid you open it."

"God help us!" I exclaimed in sad perplexity. "It's the King?"

"Yes, it's the King, and, Simon, the piece begins. Look as terrified as you can. It's the King."

"Open, I say, open!" cried the King, with a thundering knock.

I understood now that he had been in the other room, and that she had left his society to come to me; but I understood only dimly why she had locked the door, and why

she now was so slow in opening it. Yet I set my wits to work, and for further aid watched her closely. She was worth the watching. Without aid of paints or powders, of scene or theatre, she transformed her air, her manner, ay, her face also. Alarm and terror showed in her eyes as she stole in fearful fashion across the room, unlocked the door, and drew it open, herself standing by it, stiff and rigid, in what seemed shame or consternation. The agitation she feigned found some reality in me. I was not ready for the thing, although I had been warned by the voice outside. When the King stood in the doorway, I wished myself a thousand miles away.

The King was silent for several moments; he seemed to me to repress a passion which, let loose, might hurry him to violence. When he spoke, he was smiling ironically, and his voice was calm.

"How comes this gentleman here?" he asked.

The terror that Nell had so artfully assumed she appeared now, with equal art, to defy or conquer. She answered him with angry composure.

"Why shouldn't Mr. Dale be here, Sir?" she asked. "Am I to see no friends? Am I to live all alone?"

"Mr Dale is no friend of mine--"

"Sir--" I began, but his raised hand stayed me.

"And you have no need of friends when I am here."

"Your Majesty," said she, "came to say farewell; Mr Dale was but half an hour too soon."

This answer showed me the game. If he had come to bid her farewell-why, I understood now the parts in the comedy. If he left her for the Frenchwoman, why should she not turn to Simon Dale? The King bit his lip. He also understood her answer.

"You lose no time, mistress," he said, with an uneasy laugh.

"I've lost too much already," she flashed back.

"With me?" he asked, and was answered by a sweeping curtsey and a scornful smile.

"You're a bold man, Mr Dale," said he. "I knew it before, and am now most convinced of it."

"I didn't expect to meet your Majesty here," said I sincerely.

"I don't mean that. You're bold to come here at all."

"Mistress Gwyn is very kind to me," said I. I would play my part and would not fail her, and I directed a timid yet amorous glance at Nell. The glance reached Nell, but on its way it struck the King. He was patient of rivals, they said, but he frowned now and muttered an oath. Nell broke into sudden laughter. It sounded forced and unreal. It was meant so to sound.

"We're old friends," said she, "Simon and I. We were friends before I was what I am. We're still friends, now that I am what I am. Mr Dale escorted me from Dover to London."

"He is an attentive squire," sneered the King.

"He hardly left my side," said Nell.

"You were hampered with a companion?"

"Of a truth I hardly noticed it," cried Nelly with magnificent falsehood. I seconded her efforts with a shrug and a cunning smile.

"I begin to understand," said the King. "And when my farewell has been said, what then?"

"I thought that it had been said half an hour ago," she exclaimed. "Wasn't it?"

"You were anxious to hear it, and so seemed to hear it," said he uneasily.

She turned to me with a grave face and tender eyes.

"Didn't I tell you here, just now, how the King parted from me?"

I was to take the stage now, it seemed.

"Ay, you told me," said I, playing the agitated lover as best I could. "You told me that-that-but I cannot speak before His Majesty." And I ended in a most rare confusion.

"Speak, sir," he commanded harshly and curtly.

"You told me," said I in low tones, "that the King left you. And I said I was no King, but that you need not be left alone." My eyes fell to the ground in pretended fear.

The swiftest glance from Nell applauded me. I would have been sorry for him and ashamed for myself, had I not remembered M. de Perrencourt and our voyage to Calais. In that thought I steeled myself to hardness and bade conscience be still.

A long silence followed. Then the King drew near to Nell. With a rare stroke of skill she seemed to shrink away from him and edged towards me, as though she would take refuge in my arms from his anger or his coldness.

"Come, I've never hurt you, Nelly!" said he.

Alas, that art should outstrip nature! Never have I seen portrayed so finely the resentment of a love that, however greatly wounded, is still love, that even in turning away longs to turn back, that calls even in forbidding, and in refusing breathes the longing to assent. Her feet still came towards me, but her eyes were on the King.

"You sent me away," she whispered as she moved towards me and looked where the King was.

"I was in a temper," said he. Then he turned to me, saying "Pray leave us, sir."

I take it that I must have obeyed, but Nell sprang suddenly forward, caught my hand, and holding it faced the King.

"He shan't go; or, if you send him away, I'll go with him."

The King frowned heavily, but did not speak. She went on, choking down a sob-ay, a true sob; the part she played moved her, and beneath her acting there was a reality. She fought for her power over him and now was the test of it.

"Will you take my friendships from me as well as my--? Oh, I won't endure it!"

She had given him his hint in the midst of what seemed her greatest wrath. His frown persisted, but a smile bent his lips again.

"Mr Dale," said he, "it is hard to reason with a lady before another gentleman. I was wrong to bid you go. But will you suffer me to retire to that room again?"

I bowed low.

"And," he went on, "will you excuse our hostess' presence for awhile?"

I bowed again.

"No, I won't go with you," cried Nell.

"Nay, but, Nelly, you will," said he, smiling now. "Come, I'm old and mighty ugly, and Mr Dale is a strapping fellow. You must be kind to the unfortunate, Nelly."

She was holding my hand still. The King took hers. Very slowly and reluctantly she let him draw her away. I did what seemed best to do; I sighed very heavily and plaintively, and bowed in sad submission.

"Wait till we return," said the King, and his tone was kind.

They passed out together, and I, laughing yet ashamed to laugh, flung myself in a chair. She would not keep him for herself alone; nay, as all the world knows, she made but a drawn battle of it with the Frenchwoman; but the disaster and utter defeat which had threatened her she had averted, jealousy had achieved what love could not, he would not let her go now, when another's arms seemed open for her. To this success I had helped her. On my life I was glad to have helped her. But I did not yet see how I had helped my own cause.

I was long in the room alone, and though the King had bidden me await his return, he did not come again. Nell came alone, laughing, radiant and triumphant; she caught me by both hands, and swiftly, suddenly, before I knew, kissed me on the cheek. Nay, come, let me be honest; I knew a short moment before, but on my honour I could not avoid it courteously.

"We've won," she cried. "I have what I desire, and you, Simon, are to seek him at Whitehall. He has forgiven you all your sins and-yes, he'll give you what favour you ask. He has pledged his word to me."

"Does he know what I shall ask?"

"No, no, not yet. Oh, that I could see his face! Don't spare him, Simon. Tell him-why, tell him all the truth-every word of it, the stark bare truth."

"How shall I say it?"

"Why, that you love, and have ever loved, and will ever love Mistress Barbara Quinton, and that you love not, and will never love, and have never loved, no, nor cared the price of a straw for Eleanor Gwyn."

"Is that the whole truth?" said I.

She was holding my hands still; she pressed them now and sighed lightly.

"Why, yes, it's the whole truth. Let it be the whole truth, Simon. What matters that a man once lived when he's dead, or once loved when he loves no more?"

"Yet I won't tell him more than is true," said I.

"You'll be ashamed to say anything else?" she whispered, looking up into my face.

"Now, by Heaven, I'm not ashamed," said I, and I kissed her hand.

"You're not?"

"No, not a whit. I think I should be ashamed, had my heart never strayed to you."

"Ah, but you say 'strayed'!"

I made her no answer, but asked forgiveness with a smile. She drew her hand sharply away, crying,

"Go your ways, Simon Dale, go your ways; go to your Barbara, and your Hatchstead, and your dulness, and your righteousness."

"We part in kindness?" I urged.

For a moment I thought she would answer peevishly, but the mood passed, and she smiled sincerely on me as she replied:

"Ay, in all loving-kindness, Simon; and when you hear the sour gird at me, say-why, say, Simon, that even a severe gentleman, such as you are, once found some good in Nelly. Will you say that for me?"

"With all my heart."

"Nay, I care not what you say," she burst out, laughing again. "Begone, begone! I swore to the King that I would speak but a dozen words to you. Begone!"

I bowed and turned towards the door. She flew to me suddenly, as if to speak, but hesitated. I waited for her; at last she spoke, with eyes averted and an unusual embarrassment in her air.

"If-if you're not ashamed to speak my name to Mistress Barbara, tell her I wish her well, and pray her to think as kindly of me as she can."

"She has much cause to think kindly," said I.

"And will therefore think unkindly! Simon, I bid you begone."

She held out her hand to me, and I kissed it again.

"This time we part for good and all," said she. "I've loved you, and I've hated you, and I have nearly loved you. But it is nothing to be loved by me, who love all the world."

"Nay, it's something," said I. "Fare you well."

I passed out, but turned to find her eyes on me. She was laughing and nodding her head, swaying to and fro on her feet as her manner was. She blew me a kiss from her lips. So I went, and my life knew her no more.

But when the strict rail on sinners, I guard my tongue for the sake of Nelly and the last kiss she gave me on my cheek.

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