The mother was stricken down with the load of her grief; it seemed to her more than she could bear. Her two sons—her only sons—young men of such promise, such beauty, such piety—lying in that foul prison of Newgate, of which many horrid tales were told; lying there waiting a trial, which all believed could only end in one way. It was well known how fierce was the wrath of the King against all who had taken any share in the late rebellion, and neither the youth of the offenders nor their virtuous lives would be likely to have any effect upon the sentence which they had brought upon themselves by their recent ill-advised act. The mother buried her face in her hands and groaned aloud.
Those were sad and anxious days in many homes, particularly in the West of England, where the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion had broken out, and had been quickly quenched in fire and bloodshed.
To Mrs. Hewling it seemed a terrible visitation of Providence that her two promising sons had been in any way mixed up in it.
"If I had only kept them with me here in England, they would have been safe!" she moaned.
It was not very long since Mrs. Hewling had been left a widow, in affluent circumstances indeed, but with a large family to bring up. She had two most promising sons, Benjamin and William, the first twenty-one and the second close upon nineteen years of age, and Benjamin's twin-sister Hannah was a beautiful girl of much promise, who, at this crisis of her mother's life, was acting as her chief support and helper. There were several little sisters, scarcely more than children; but the intermediate sons had died in infancy, and the chords of the mother's heart seemed to twine themselves about Benjamin and William in a fashion which made their present perilous situation a thing that could hardly be borne by her.
And the bitterest thought of all was that had she only kept the boys with her in London after their father's death, instead of letting them go to Holland, to see something of the world and complete their education, all this misery might have been spared.
Adverse as the citizens of London were to many of the methods and opinions of the King, still there was no desire at present to get rid of him by any violent revolution, or to place the crown upon another head. A few years later, and the whole nation rose in a bloodless revolt against the man who had broken his pledges and his coronation vow, and would have plunged England into a fierce struggle against the trammels of Popery. But at that time things were not ripe for such a drastic measure, nor was the Duke of Monmouth such a sovereign as the nation could accept. But here and there where the Protestant spirit burnt more fiercely than elsewhere, or over in Holland, where the claim of the Duke had been more freely allowed, and where he was eagerly recruiting forces to take with him to England, his cause seemed a righteous cause, and inspired enthusiasm and devotion. Mrs. Hewling could not altogether wonder that her two sons, reared in all the most ardent Puritan and Protestant tenets of the day, should have been fired with a desire to join the expedition, and to strive to strike a blow for their faith upon England's shores.
And now, that ill-starred revolt having come to its tragic end, her boys were amongst those who, having first sought flight, had since then surrendered themselves to justice. It had been told her by friends that they were lying in Newgate prison, and would almost immediately be sent back whence they had come, to stand their trial at the Western Assizes, over which the fierce and notoriously cruel Judge Jeffreys was to preside.
So paralysed by horror was the poor mother, whose health had long been very frail, that she had been unable herself to leave the house and seek permission to visit her sons. And Hannah had persuaded her not to attempt a task so much beyond her powers.
"I will go first, mother," she said. "I will go with my good grandfather, who will gain me admission, and we will take money with us. Money will do much within Newgate, they say, to ameliorate the condition of the prisoners. Another day thou shalt go; but let me be the first."
So Hannah had gone under the safe-keeping of her grandfather, Mr. Kiffin, a citizen well known and greatly respected in the town, and the mother was awaiting their return in a fever of anxiety.
She was turning over in her bewildered brain a thousand schemes for the preservation of her boys. But the more she pondered, the more helpless did she become. True, she had many friends, and several possessed of wealth and influence in the city; but these were for the most part, from their strong Protestant and dissenting or Puritan leanings, so obnoxious to the Court party that intervention by them would do rather harm than good.
Her own father, Mr. Kiffin, was one of these He would have no fear in presenting a petition; yet if such a movement on his part were fore-ordained to failure, it would be better it should not be made. Others more likely to obtain a hearing would probably be afraid to intermeddle in such a matter. Those were the days in which it was none too safe to show sympathy towards the King's enemies, or towards those who had distinguished themselves by opposition to the Established Church. The penalty for showing kindness to dissenters was often extraordinarily severe; and what would it be to take a friendly interest in youths who had been concerned in treasonable rebellion?
With despair in her heart the mother sat waiting, pondering and weeping; longing unspeakably for the husband who was no more, and feeling the desolation of her widowhood as she had never felt it before.
Then the door opened quietly, and a tall figure glided in wrapped from head to foot in a long, dark cloak.
"Hannah!" cried the mother, "have you seen them?—have you seen my boys? Oh, give me news of them! My heart is hungry!"
The girl threw back the hood which was drawn over her head, and her face showed pale in the twilight. It was a very beautiful face, lighted by the enthusiasm of a great love—a love that conquers fear, and sinks all thought of self in devotion to the object at heart. It was such a face as we see sometimes on painted window, or in chiselled marble—a face full of lofty self-abnegation and simple heroism. The eyes shone like stars, and the mother, looking at her daughter, held out her arms, and cried:
"Ah, Hannah, Hannah, if any can save them it will be thou."
Hannah knelt at her mother's feet and spoke quietly and rapidly.
"I have seen them, mother. They were together, with many others. But my grandfather had them taken out and brought into a separate room, where we could talk. It was a dreadful place, that first,"—she shivered slightly as she spoke,—"but they will not go back to it. Grandfather is staying, and he will arrange all that. I saw them. Oh, mother, you need not fear for them! They have no fear for themselves. They are ready for the worst that may befall. Their only fear is lest they were wrong in taking up arms. When they did it, it seemed a right and holy thing. They have heard other things since coming to England, and are the less confident of that. But they have no other fear. If they have done amiss they are willing to die. They both say that. It is not death that can affright them. They have made their peace with God."
The mother's tears ran over, although there was something of joy in hearing such an assurance.
"But we must save them, daughter!—we must save them!"
"We will try," answered Hannah steadily, yet without the brightness of hope in her eyes. "We will leave no stone unturned. We will accomplish what can be accomplished. But——"
The last word was little more than a sigh. It was not meant to reach her mother's ears, yet it did: and Mrs. Hewling exclaimed:
"But what, daughter, but what? What hast thou heard more?"
"I have heard nought that we have not been told before; only, mother mine, when the grim walls of a prison are about one, and grim gaolers are talking with that cool certainty of things they have grown familiar with, the horrible reality seems to come over one like a flood; and the awful doom comes ever nearer and nearer. The boys have heard much—the implacable temper of the King; his bloodthirsty mood; his choice of the Judge who is to arraign them. In Newgate it is whispered that there will be such a slaughter in the West as has not been heard of in this land. I felt myself shaking all over at the things I heard there. Oh, I fear for my brothers, I fear, I fear!"
The mother clasped her in her arms, and they mingled their tears together. Hannah told in broken words of all that she had gleaned from her brothers, of what they had dared and done, how they looked, how they had stood the journey and the prison; and how they were soon to be sent down to the West Country, to be tried at those places where they had been seen in arms against the King.
"That is the worst of it!" cried the mother. "Had it been here in London town our friends and the influence of our party might have had weight. But over yonder—so far away! Ah, if I could but go there with them!"
"Mother, I will go!" said Hannah, speaking firmly and resolutely. "I have thought of it all the way home. I have plans of all sorts in my head. Grandfather will soon be here, and then he will tell you more, and we will talk it over together. But I must be there. I must go with them. I must—I must!"
"But, my child, my child, how can I spare thee? They say that the King is so incensed that even to show pity for the condemned—for the prisoners—is accounted as a crime. Suppose that hurt were to befall thee?"
"Mother," she answered gently, "God can protect me, and I think He will. But be that as it may, I cannot let my brothers go to what may be their death alone. I must be there to visit them in their prison, to lighten the rigours of captivity, to provide them with whatever may be permitted in the way of defence; to cheer and strengthen them (if so it must be) upon the very scaffold itself. Benjamin is as my second self. I could not be other than at his side. Oh, my brother—my brother!"
A rush of tears choked her voice; she sobbed upon her mother's breast; but the outbreak relieved the overcharged heart, and when her grandfather appeared she was the same calm, resolute maiden she had shown herself in the public streets, and in the dim retreats of the dreadful gaol.
Mr. Kiffin had made arrangements for the better lodging and treatment of his grandsons during their brief detention in Newgate; but he had heard that almost immediately they were to be sent west to be ready to stand their trial with others at the coming Assizes; and at the very name of these the mother's cheek paled.
"Yes, it is a terrible thought—the power that will be placed in the hands of one man—and he one noted for ferocity of temper and gross injustice to those who are brought before him. It is known too that the King has selected him for these very qualities to fill the dreadful office which will be his. Yet for our poor lads there may be this one chance: his cruelty is only rivalled by his greed of money; and we may appeal to his cupidity where we should appeal in vain to his clemency."
"Must we then offer him a bribe?" asked Mrs. Hewling, with a faint distaste in her tone, as though even with her sons' lives at stake, the thought of buying justice or mercy with gold had in it something repulsive to her better nature. Hannah's beautiful eyes were likewise turned upon her grandfather questioningly. It was an age when all sorts of things were bought and sold for hard cash, that never should have been so trafficked for; but in the stern Puritan tenets in which this family had been reared any sort of illicit bartering was strongly condemned.
"I did not mean exactly that; but yet we may perhaps move him through his love of money. You have both heard me speak of my old friend and fellow-citizen, with whom in past days I lived a long while, working with him as a brother might," and he named a name that was familiar to both mother and daughter.
"Well, strange as it may seem, the young barrister, now made a judge, this violent, bloodthirsty Jeffreys, is my old friend's kinsman, and, in fact, his next-of-kin. I had forgotten the fact, if indeed I ever knew it, till I had a letter from him a few days since reminding me of it, and asking if there was anything that he could do to aid us in our trouble. I have seen him, and he has promised to use every means in his power to gain the leniency of the Judge for our two dear lads. It is unluckily true that they have taken up arms against the King. It cannot but be proved against them, nor will they seek to deny it. By the law of the land they have merited death, and may even be condemned to suffer the full penalty. But as my friend informs me, out of the hundreds who will undergo sentence, not a few will escape the dread final penalty. Even the King in all his ferocity will not dare to slay by thousands, though he may by hundreds. Many will be condemned to death, who will afterwards be respited and undergo lighter sentences, or be let off with a heavy fine. In this matter the voice of the Judge will have weight; and my friend will use every argument to induce him to commute the death penalty (if passed upon Benjamin or William) into one that a heavy fine will cover."
Mother and daughter seemed to breathe more freely; and Hannah unfolded her plan of going herself to Lyme Regis and Taunton, the places to which her brothers were to be taken—she knew not exactly whither they were to be sent—that she might minister to them in every possible way, cheer and strengthen them in their hour of trial, and be there to forward any suit that might be made on their behalf.
"There will be peril in such a mission, granddaughter," said the old man. "Many a gentle-hearted woman has suffered grievously for doing less than thou dost propose to do."
"I shall suffer more by staying away," said Hannah simply. "I must go. Something within me bids me. I cannot hold back. Thou wilt be here to care for mother and the little ones. I must be with my brothers."
They did not try to hold her back. Her heart was set upon the sorrowful journey, and the mother, in her yearning over her boys, was ready to speed her upon her way. She had money, as much as she could use for every possible purpose, and letters to friends of their friends in the West Country, who would show her kindness and help her in her difficult task. Mr. Kiffin would have accompanied her, but that his daughter seemed to require him more, and he was something too infirm easily to endure the long, rough journey. But he sent two of his experienced servants with Hannah; and the journey was made easy to her in every possible way, albeit in her present mood she would almost have welcomed hardship and privation. What might not her brothers be suffering of both?
She found that they had been conveyed to Taunton, and lodged in the castle there. The building was densely crowded at this time; for the dread Judge was on his way, and the friends of the prisoners were in a terrible state of agitation and fear. Stories were flying from mouth to mouth of what the inhuman Judge had done and said at Winchester, and how he had condemned the aged and virtuous Lady Lisle to be burnt to death for no greater sin than that of harbouring some unhappy wretch, who had fallen beneath the King's ban. What hope was there for any here?
But through the influence of those who cared for her, Hannah obtained the grace of an interview with her brothers on the eve of their trial, and found them calm and resigned. It was keen joy to them to embrace their sister again, to give their last messages (as they thought they might be) to all the loved ones at home, and to know how much they were thought of and prayed for by many far and near. But they had no hope of mercy. They had heard of the implacable nature of the Judge, and were aware that their very wealth and importance, in one sense of the word, would be against them. Obscure persons might be respited, and those perhaps of noble blood; but not those whose fame came from their resolute adherence to precepts civil and religious that were abhorred of King James and his Court.
It was a fearful moment for Hannah when she was passed into that close and crowded Court upon the momentous day, and saw the red and bloated face of the Judge and his bloodshot eyes glaring at the prisoners, as a wolf glares at the victims he is about to spring upon and devour. What need to talk of that trial?—it was the veriest travesty of justice ever known. The prisoners were bidden if they desired mercy to plead guilty, and as soon as they had done so were sentenced to a traitor's doom in one solid mass. Respite would come later for some, that was partly understood; but whenever some special plea was put forward for an individual who had friend or counsel to speak for him, the fury of the Judge rose to a fearful pitch, and he roared down the voice of the defender, rolling his eyes and swearing with such hideous vehemence that soon none dared lift up a voice in his presence, and Hannah was supported half fainting from the Court, where she had heard both her brothers condemned to death.
But even then her courage did not desert her, and terrible as was the aspect of the Judge, and awful as were the things spoken of him, she resolved to place herself in his way as he came forth, and plead for the lives of her brothers, as the one last faint hope still remaining to her.
Alas! she might as well have sought mercy from the flinty rock, or the sea breaking in merciless fury. The bloated, evil face was turned upon her in savage fury. The Judge plucked his robe out of her detaining hand, and flung himself into his coach crying out:
The Judge plucked his robe out of her detaining hand.
"Madam, your brothers are a pair of pestilent rogues, who come from a pestilent nest of dissenters. I would I had the power to send you to the gallows with them! That is the only place for a cursed brood like yours!"
And as Hannah, fired by wrath and by her sisterly despair, would not even then be silenced, but continued her petition with her hands upon the window frame of his coach, he leaned out upon the other side and roared to his charioteer to cut at that pestilent woman with his whip; and the lash drew blood from Hannah's white fingers as she sank half fainting into the arms of her friends.
And yet that very evening, to her immense astonishment, she received a courteous summons to the presence of the Judge, and on presenting herself at his lodging in the castle, with the friend in whose care she was at that time living, she found Jeffreys in an extraordinarily different mood. He had, in fact, just made the discovery that the woman he had treated so brutally was one of the family specially recommended to him by his relative, who had said that the ultimate benefits he might expect from him would largely depend on what efforts he made to save the two Hewling brothers. If the Judge had not been so drunk overnight when this missive reached him, he might possibly have acted differently in Court that day; but now he assured Hannah that he would do all in his power to obtain a respite of the capital sentence for her brothers, though he implied that this might be an affair of money, and practically demanded three hundred pounds for his services, which Hannah in her bewilderment and by the advice of her friend was ready to pay.
But the days dragged on and no message came from the King. The gentle William, who had been sentenced to die at Lyme Regis almost immediately after his trial, met his doom upon the scaffold with unflinching fortitude, and all the grace his sister could obtain was that she might take possession of the unmutilated body, which was interred in consecrated ground, two hundred brave young maidens of the place incurring the possible displeasure of the King by walking in white robes at his funeral, and singing hymns over his grave.
But Hannah had no time for vain lamentations. The fire of despair was in her heart. Benjamin yet lived. He was not to die till the last day of the month. There was yet time to plead for him. She knew not whether Judge Jeffreys had been true to his promise or no; but at least she, his sister, would strain every nerve, would know no rest day or night till she had obtained his pardon, even though she should have to seek it from the King himself.
In vain her friends warned her of the uselessness and peril of her task; go she would, and as fast as horse could speed her. And with the last touching letter from her brother William in her pocket, and the scene of his death photographed upon her memory, she posted to London, to achieve what all men told her was impossible.
She scarcely paused to mingle her tears with her mother's. A fever was in her heart. Her grandfather had influence enough to obtain for her admission to the palace, and there she was met and kindly spoken to by a gentleman, whose name she knew not at the time, but who was no other than Lord Churchill, afterwards the great Duke of Marlborough.
Churchill regarded her with a look of exceeding compassion; Hannah presented indeed a touching picture in her girl's grief and sisterly devotion; and her unusual beauty had not been dimmed by all the troubles through which she had passed. Something of her story was known even at Whitehall, and known also was the character of the merciless man before whom her brothers had been tried, and the merciless monarch who had sent him forth to this work.
"Madam," said Lord Churchill, as the summons came for Hannah to be received by the King, and as he spoke he laid his hand upon the marble of the carved mantelpiece upon which he leaned, "my wishes for success go with you, and my most hearty sorrow for your distress; yet I dare not speak any word of hope to buoy up your sinking spirits; for this marble is not harder nor more susceptible of compassion than is the heart of the King."
Poor Hannah was destined to find it so. She was received with cold looks; her petition, so carefully worded and drawn up, was scarcely looked at before the King flung it down, and threw a curt heartless refusal at her.
She was hurried away by the attendants, who, though commiserating her grief and innocence, felt that she only ran a needless risk of drawing down the royal wrath upon herself.
"You are a brave lady," said Lord Churchill, himself bowing her out of the King's suite of apartments. "My heartiest sympathy goes with you. A man with so brave a sister will surely go bravely to his death. And there will come a time when that is all that the best of us can ask to do."
Churchill spoke the truth; the brave brother of a brave sister met his death with unshrinking fortitude, cheered to the last by the presence of Hannah, and by her sisterly love and care.
No thought of personal fatigue or personal peril sufficed to prevent her returning instantly to Taunton, and the last days of Benjamin's short life were rendered almost happy to him by his reunion with his twin sister, and by their constant intercourse.
Money could purchase this boon, though it could not purchase the prisoner's life.
He suffered upon the scaffold with so many others as little guilty as he of doing wrong, albeit something rash and ill-advised, and when Hannah had obtained with trouble and much cost the right to take his body and bury it, as in the case of William, she had only to return home to tell her mother the terrible and mournful tale.
"But thy courage sweetened death for them both, my child," said the mother. "In days to come that will be a thought that will bring to thee the comfort thou canst not feel yet."
"I never felt brave," Hannah would answer simply, when her friends praised her. "I only did what I had to do. I could not help myself."