A princess, yet a captive in the hands of her father's foes; those foes who were already whispering their fell intention of putting him to death!
This was the situation of the youthful Elizabeth, the second daughter of the ill-fated monarch, Charles I. Her mother and her eldest brother were beyond the seas, having made good their escape from Cromwell and his Roundheads; but she, with her two brothers, James, Duke of York, and Henry, Duke of Gloucester, were captives in the power of the Parliament, and though treated with courtesy and a certain kindliness, they were permitted no liberty to come and go, or even to write to their friends. Every action was carefully observed, and their persons were so closely guarded that there was little hope of evading the many watchful eyes that were ever bent upon them.
"If I could but reach my brother and our mother!" was the exclamation ever on the lips of James, when he and his sister were alone together. It seemed to the high-spirited boy that once free from these encircling walls and the vigilance of his warders, once across the sea to join the others of his name and race, he must surely achieve some great thing for the deliverance of his father; his restless mind was ever pondering this theme. The thought of making good his escape was never absent from his mind night nor day.
Perhaps he plotted almost too much for his own success; for a day came when he was summoned to an interview with certain of the Parliamentary authorities, and he returned to his sister's apartments with flushed face and flashing eyes. Elizabeth saw that he had been deeply angered by what had passed, and she quickly got rid of her attendant, that she and her brother might speak in peace together. This liberty was the only one accorded to the Royal captives. Their rooms were guarded; they never went abroad unwatched and unattended; but within the precincts of the palace they had some privacy permitted to them, and they could speak together without being overheard, though never without a fear of possible eavesdroppers.
"Sister, I have been grossly insulted!" cried James, with flashing eyes; "they have intercepted my letter to our sister of Orange; they said they had discovered treasonable matter in it."
"Treasonable matter!" echoed Elizabeth, her breath coming and going. "They dare to talk of treason!—They!"
"Ay; that was the very word—treasonable matter! They saw, or thought they saw it, in my desire to quit the country—to escape to Holland——"
"But the letter was in cypher," interrupted Elizabeth. "How could they read it when they had it?"
A dark frown clouded the brow of James.
"That I did not condescend to inquire; but I heard some talk between those knaves themselves. I gathered that they had got the letter, and had then sent for the Earl of Northumberland, and had shown him how we had evaded his vigilance; had warned him, that if he could not find the key of the cypher in which it had been written, he should be committed to the Tower. Did I not tell you the other day that I was certain my effects had been ransacked? I did not miss the cypher key. I know it so well that I scarce ever have to look at it now. Doubtless they found and took it away; but I did not observe it."
"And they were angry with you, James?"
"Angry? Ay, that they were. They dared to threaten me with the Tower, too, if they found me plotting escape again!"
Elizabeth clasped her hands closely together, her face worked with the emotion she strove to master. She came and stood beside James, and laid her soft cheek against his.
"Jamie, Jamie," she cried piteously, "if they were to take you from me, I think that I should die!"
He put his arm about her, and they stood together, looking out of the window, thinking and pondering deeply.
"But, sister, you would have to learn to live without me if I were to escape this thraldom, and win my liberty. Could you bear to let me go for that?"
A little tremor ran through the girl's slight frame. She was very frail and delicate, this gentle, young Elizabeth; little fit to bear the buffets of outrageous fortune, to stand alone in her strange captivity; cut off from father, mother, friends, and kindred, and beset with so many cruel anxieties and fears on behalf of those she loved best. Her greatest solace in these sorrowful days was the companionship of her brother James, who, being a year or more her senior, and endowed with robust health, seemed like a tower of strength to the frail girl, hardly more than a child in years, though misfortune had given a strange maturity to her mind and disposition. It could not but be a dismal thought to lose the constant companionship of this brother, to send him forth into the perils of the great world without, where so many foes awaited him. She might well have sought to keep him beside her, fearing the perils of any project of escape; but despite her natural fears and shrinkings, and the delicacy of her frame, the spirit of kings and warriors was within her, and that spirit rose to meet the sacrifice which might be required of her.
"I would bear to let you go for that, Jamie," she answered. "But it would break my heart were you taken from me to be immured within the walls of the Tower."
"It may come to that one of these days," said James, "if I be not able to effect my escape. I cannot show the patience that you are able to command; and I am not a child like Harry, there, of whose words and acts no special note is taken. And did not our father bid me use every effort to regain my liberty, and reach the side of our mother and brother? It may be that already they are planning how to invade these shores, summon all loyal hearts to join them, and set my father on the throne once more! Oh! if such a thing were to happen, I must be there to help."
His eyes kindled, his frame seemed to expand and grow tense; and an answering thrill ran through that of the young Princess.
"Ah, Jamie, Jamie, if only it might be!" she cried.
"And why not, sister, why not? Other captives have escaped from far stricter bondage than any we suffer from. What one has done another may do. Why not?"
"But they were men, and we are so young. We are scarce more than children, albeit often I feel so old—so old!"
"You are old enough to have the ready wit of a woman!" cried James; yet even in his stress of feeling and excitement he kept his voice pitched in a low key. "I have thought and thought and planned, but everything falls to the ground; or we are betrayed into the hands of our enemies, and threatened with stricter captivity than this. Elizabeth, put your wits to work! Can you think of nothing? In bygone days it has been the women sometimes who have done the thinking, whilst the men have done the acting. Why should it not be so now?"
The boy's dark, strenuous face looked earnestly into the fair spiritual one of his sister, and into the cheeks of the young Elizabeth a faint colour stole.
"Oh, Jamie, I will try: I will try!" she answered. "But even could I think of some stratagem or plan by which you could gain the freedom of the world without, who is there outside that would dare to help you away across the sea, whom we could dare to trust with such a secret?"
"There is Colonel Bamfield," answered James promptly. "He is the man whom I would trust for that."
"Colonel Bamfield?" echoed Elizabeth doubtfully. "He who turned traitor to our father's cause when all was lost? Would you trust such an one as he?"
"He is not a traitor at heart," whispered James eagerly. "He is the staunchest friend we have. He has but feigned adherence to the Parliamentary cause that he may the better serve us. I have had speech with him, sometimes, for a few minutes. I trow he is to be trusted. And as our enemies know that none is so bitter as a renegade, they think he is our deadly foe. They do not suspect him as they would suspect others. He plays his part right cunningly. He rails upon the King and his brood most lustily; but all the while he is on the watch to serve us. I know, could I once escape from these walls, that he would make all the rest easy."
There were footsteps without, and brother and sister started apart, as the attendants entered the room on some pretext. They were well used to this sort of thing. They were seldom left long alone together. The little Duke of Gloucester, who had been playing quietly in a corner whilst his brother and sister were talking, now came running up, and begged for a game of hide and seek.
This was one of the favourite sports of the Royal children; but to-night Elizabeth excused herself on the plea of fatigue, and the two young Dukes played alone, running hither and thither, and forgetting their troubles for awhile, in the interest of the game.
Elizabeth sat alone with her face hidden in her hands, thinking, thinking, thinking, till it seemed as though her brain would scarcely stand the strain of the mental conflict going on within her. She was roused from her reverie at last by little Henry, who came and pulled impatiently at her dress.
"Come and help me to find Jamie," he begged. "He has hidden so well we can none of us find him. You come and try!"
Elizabeth rose quickly to her feet; she suddenly felt as though some inspiration had darted into her heart. At the moment she did not pause to examine it. She felt that when night came, and she was alone in the darkness, she must take out this thing that had forced itself with lightning rapidity into her being, and examine it at leisure. Might it be that already the clue was in her hands?
The Royal children were, at this time, under the care of Algernon Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, and his Countess, and it was the desire of both to make the captivity of the Princess and her brothers as little irksome and trying as possible. At the same time, since they were held responsible for their safe-keeping by the Parliament, they dared not but use every precaution; and it was no easy matter for any of the children to escape the vigilance of their guardians.
A short time before this they had been at Sion House, and when there had paid several visits to Hampton Court, to see their father who was in confinement there. Once, not long since, they had spent two nights with him in that Palace, to their great and mutual happiness.
Now they had been removed to the Palace of St. James's, then on the outskirts rather than actually in London itself, and surrounded by pleasant gardens, in which the Royal children took exercise in fine weather. They were very kindly treated by the Earl and Countess, and all the servants of the household were instructed to show due and befitting respect to the children of the King. So, in one sense of the word, their life was not an unhappy one; but the shadow lying over their father's fate, and the knowledge of their own inability to go to him or to go anywhere, save at the will of their captors, made life somewhat bitter to all, and roused a fierce sense of revolt in the heart of young James.
It was during the children's sports that they were permitted most liberty; and certainly James had found a clever place of concealment this evening, for neither brother nor sister nor attendants could find him; and it was only when Elizabeth called his name aloud from the different corridors, and the great bell for supper clanged, that the boy made his appearance, dusty and half covered with cobwebs, and laughingly told Harry that he had found a fine hiding-place up near the roof, and would show it him another day.
The spring days were beginning to lengthen out now. A little while ago it had been dark when they rose from supper, now it was growing lighter every day. There was that promise of spring in the air that makes glad the hearts of all young things. But it is hard to be a captive, penned within walls and gates, when nature itself seems calling aloud upon men to rejoice and to come forth into the gay free world without.
"If it goes on much longer, Elizabeth, methinks I shall go mad!" spoke James one day, when he and she were alone together.
Then it was that, with bated breath and beating heart, Elizabeth whispered into her brother's ear the thoughts and plans which had given her so many sleepless nights of anxiety.
"Jamie, have you ever noticed when we have passed Benyion's cottage, the great key that hangs beside the door? That is the key of the outer garden leading down to the river. I have seen him use it many times as we have walked in the gardens."
"Yes, I have seen him unlock that gate too. What of it?"
"Jamie, if you had that key some evening at dusk, and if we had hidden out yonder in our hollow tree some of my clothes, made to fit you, so that none could suspect you were a boy, could you so arrange that Colonel Bamfield should be awaiting you at the river side with a wherry to take you to some vessel bound for Holland? I have still left a little of the gold that our father entrusted to me. And I am told that seafaring folk will brave much for gold. Colonel Bamfield could arrange all that."
"But how, how could I gain that key and use it at such an hour?" questioned James, in an eager whisper. "How could such a thing be? Are we not followed and watched everywhere?"
"Yet have you not eluded all watchful eyes times without number in your games with Harry? Have we not often searched the house for an hour, and then have had to call you to come to us? If you can elude watchful eyes in play, why not in earnest some day, whilst they think the play is going on, and will make no marvel of missing you for an hour or more? The days are getting long. Let us have our game after supper instead of before. Let us so play night by night for a week or more, that they will not dream we have any motive in the change. Let our friend the Colonel, if he is to be trusted, make his plans. Then, upon a certain night, when all is in readiness, and the boat is lying waiting for you, we will play our hide-and-seek with a difference, and whilst brother and servants are seeking for James within the house, and even the gardens—he will be far down the river, making for the vessel that is to carry him hence."
"But the key, Elizabeth, the key!" cried James, in great excitement; "how can I gain possession of that?"
"Listen, Jamie," answered Elizabeth, "I have thought of that. You must begin to pretend to have exhausted the hiding-places of our portion of the house, and you must ask to-day that the house steward will let you conceal yourself in his pantry. Then the next day get leave of the cook to hide somewhere in the kitchen. Another day be bolder still, and get into the hay-loft, where the coachman will be proud and merry to hide you. And then when the day comes that you ask the gardener for the key of his cottage, to hide you there awhile, neither he nor any other who hears will think it aught but a merry jest. Then as Harry will every day be an hour and more in hunting you, that should be time enough for you to change your attire and slip away through the gate; and if Colonel Bamfield only do his part, you should be out of reach ere the pursuit has fairly begun."
James suddenly flung his arms about his sister's neck.
"Oh! Elizabeth, Elizabeth! and you have thought of all that?"
"I think of nothing else whilst we are playing hide-and-seek night by night."
"And suppose they find out that you were privy to the scheme all the while, what will they do to you, Elizabeth!"
She looked into his eyes, a brave smile on her pale face.
"Think not of that, Jamie; in sooth I care little what they do to me. If you only get safe away let them take me to the Tower, or whither they will. Little Harry is too young to care greatly, so long as we are together; and I do not think they will take him from me, even though they do more straitly confine us."
"But you—what would you do in that grim place?" asked James, with something of a shudder.
"I think all places are alike to me now," answered Elizabeth, with her strangely spiritual smile, pathetic on the face of one so young; "God will take care of us there as well as here. Do not fear for me, Jamie. We must strive to do what our father wished. I shall be happy indeed in knowing that you are safe and free. For my part, I am content in feeling myself near to him, and in knowing that if he is a prisoner—so am I."
Who would have thought, to watch the merry games of the Royal children during the bright spring evenings that followed, what tumultuous thoughts were surging within them, and what a daring plan had been hatched in the brain of that delicate young girl, who so patiently hunted the house, evening by evening, with her little brother, in search of that clever hider, James.
The servants were by this time devoted to the children, who treated them with that invariable high-bred courtesy that never failed the hapless Stuarts, whatever else they might lack or fail in. Coachman, steward, cook, pantler—all were ready to assist the young Duke to some new hiding-place, night by night. They enjoyed the game almost as much as the children themselves. Indeed, they seemed to take a pride in lengthening out the search, though in the end some whispered hint would be given to the little brother if his energies showed signs of flagging, and he would start forth hot upon the scent that would eventually lead him to the hiding-place, if James did not spring out upon him first.
The Earl and Countess were well used to the shouts and cries of little Harry as he ran hither and thither through the house. The Earl generally visited his young charges early in the evening, often just after supper, and then he left them to their games till about nine o'clock, when he attended first the younger Prince, and then the elder to their rooms, and paid them the compliment of superintending in person their toilet for the night.
At last came the long-awaited Friday, the twenty-first day of April. The twilight lingered long now, and the game of hide-and-seek was regularly played after supper, lasting generally till the bedtime of the Duke of Gloucester.
He stopped short on seeing the Countess.
The Countess of Northumberland visited Elizabeth and her brothers this evening, and sat awhile with the Princess after supper. Little Harry was playing in a corner of the room; but the Countess looked rather anxiously into Elizabeth's face, and remarked how white it was.
"But I am not sick, I thank you, Madam," said the girl gently. "Belike it is but the first of the springtide heat. I pray you not to send the doctor. He does but give me physic which I know not how to swallow. I shall be better anon—in a few days, I trust."
At that moment James came running into the room, as though to speak to his sister. He stopped short on seeing the Countess; but then, coming forward, joined in the conversation, and chatted merrily enough. None noted the quick glances that passed between brother and sister, nor the strange wistfulness that brooded in Elizabeth's eyes.
Suddenly James started up, as though just bethinking him.
"Why, Harry, we must have our game; shall I hide again? Then give me five minutes' grace, and come after me!" He looked at Elizabeth, and said, "Wilt thou go with him? Or art thou tired to-night, sister?"
"In sooth, I think she is aweary," said the Countess; and James put his hands on Elizabeth's shoulders, boy fashion, and snatched a kiss from her lips.
"Then go to bed, sweetheart, and one of the servants shall attend Harry," he said; "but he will not be content without his game of play."
The boy was gone, and Elizabeth was thankful that little Harry now claimed the attention of the Countess; for she felt as though every drop of blood had ebbed from her face. What would be the next thing that she heard of her brother?
She could not be persuaded to remain in her room. She roamed all over the house with Harry, whilst the Countess went back to her husband. Harry's bedtime came at last; it was dark outside, save for the light of the moon; the Earl came out, and asked where the boy was, and learned that he was still seeking his brother.
"Then I must needs help find him too," said the good-natured nobleman, taking Harry's hand, and as the child seemed somewhat weary of the search, he looked inquiringly at the servants.
Then one came forward, and whispered that the Duke was hiding in the gardener's cottage, of which he had begged the key; and thither they all proceeded, Elizabeth commanding herself to laugh and chat with Harry, and wonder where next Jamie would hide, and how many more strange places were still left for him to find.
Harry ran gaily into the cottage, when somebody had forced open the locked door for him, at a sign from the Earl, whose face had suddenly clouded over. But ransack as they might, not a trace of the fugitive could be found.
With a stifled exclamation of dismay the Earl dashed down to the water-gate, which he found open. Then the truth flashed across him, and he bit his lips in perplexed confusion.
"Conduct the Princess and the Duke to the house," he said, "we must make further inquiries into this matter!"
Then Elizabeth knew at least that James had escaped from the Palace, though she could not know for many days whether he would succeed in making good his escape to Holland.
She sought the privacy of her own rooms, and, falling upon her knees, gave thanks to God for His great goodness in watching over them thus far.
Every day she expected to hear that some severe punishment was to be inflicted upon her—perhaps even death itself, so little did she understand the laws of the land—for the part she had taken in her brother's escape. But strange to say her own complicity in the plot was never suspected at that time. Her very calmness and courage, which enabled her first to plan the clever scheme and then to go through her own part so tranquilly, averted all suspicion from her.
Even the Earl, when all the facts of the case were known, was exonerated from blame. He had before told the Parliament that he declined absolute responsibility with regard to the Royal children, unless he made actual prisoners of them—a thing he was not prepared to do; and although there was some angry discussion in the House, and several stringent measures were recommended by certain extreme men, yet in the end humane counsels prevailed, and the Princess Elizabeth, together with her little brother, were permitted to remain beneath the kindly care of the Earl and Countess of Northumberland.
James escaped after a few perils, and got safe over to Holland; but the hasty kiss he snatched from his brave young sister upon that April evening was the last he ever gave or took from her.
The girl Elizabeth never recovered the shock of her father's death two years later, and though she lingered for more than a year, winning the hearts of all about her by her sweetness of disposition and the wonderful courage and fortitude she exhibited in the midst of so many trials and sufferings, she passed peacefully away to a world where pain and partings are no more, and where the sorrowful and weary are at rest.
Little Harry was with her to the last, receiving at her hands such few poor possessions as remained to her. A while later, by an unwonted freak of generosity on Cromwell's part, the boy was permitted to join his mother in France.