Were every hair upon his head a life, And every life were to be supplicated By numbers equal to those hairs quadrupled, Life after life should out like waning stars Before the daybreak—or as festive lamps, Which have lent lustre to the midnight revel, Each after each are quench’d when guests depart! OLD PLAY
The entrance of Queen Berengaria into the interior of Richard’s pavilion was withstood—in the most respectful and reverential manner indeed, but still withstood—by the chamberlains who watched in the outer tent. She could hear the stern command of the King from within, prohibiting their entrance.
“You see,” said the Queen, appealing to Edith, as if she had exhausted all means of intercession in her power; “I knew it—the King will not receive us.”
At the same time, they heard Richard speak to some one within:—“Go, speed thine office quickly, sirrah, for in that consists thy mercy—ten byzants if thou dealest on him at one blow. And hark thee, villain, observe if his cheek loses colour, or his eye falters; mark me the smallest twitch of the features, or wink of the eyelid. I love to know how brave souls meet death.”
“If he sees my blade waved aloft without shrinking, he is the first ever did so,” answered a harsh, deep voice, which a sense of unusual awe had softened into a sound much lower than its usual coarse tones.
Edith could remain silent no longer. “If your Grace,” she said to the Queen, “make not your own way, I make it for you; or if not for your Majesty, for myself at least.—Chamberlain, the Queen demands to see King Richard—the wife to speak with her husband.”
“Noble lady,” said the officer, lowering his wand of office, “it grieves me to gainsay you, but his Majesty is busied on matters of life and death.”
“And we seek also to speak with him on matters of life and death,” said Edith. “I will make entrance for your Grace.” And putting aside the chamberlain with one hand, she laid hold on the curtain with the other.
“I dare not gainsay her Majesty’s pleasure,” said the chamberlain, yielding to the vehemence of the fair petitioner; and as he gave way, the Queen found herself obliged to enter the apartment of Richard.
The Monarch was lying on his couch, and at some distance, as awaiting his further commands, stood a man whose profession it was not difficult to conjecture. He was clothed in a jerkin of red cloth, which reached scantly below the shoulders, leaving the arms bare from about half way above the elbow; and as an upper garment, he wore, when about as at present to betake himself to his dreadful office, a coat or tabard without sleeves, something like that of a herald, made of dressed bull’s hide, and stained in the front with many a broad spot and speckle of dull crimson. The jerkin, and the tabard over it, reached the knee; and the nether stocks, or covering of the legs, were of the same leather which composed the tabard. A cap of rough shag served to hide the upper part of a visage which, like that of a screech owl, seemed desirous to conceal itself from light, the lower part of the face being obscured by a huge red beard, mingling with shaggy locks of the same colour. What features were seen were stern and misanthropical. The man’s figure was short, strongly made, with a neck like a bull, very broad shoulders, arms of great and disproportioned length, a huge square trunk, and thick bandy legs. This truculent official leant on a sword, the blade of which was nearly four feet and a half in length, while the handle of twenty inches, surrounded by a ring of lead plummets to counterpoise the weight of such a blade, rose considerably above the man’s head as he rested his arm upon its hilt, waiting for King Richard’s further directions.
On the sudden entrance of the ladies, Richard, who was then lying on his couch with his face towards the entrance, and resting on his elbow as he spoke to his grisly attendant, flung himself hastily, as if displeased and surprised, to the other side, turning his back to the Queen and the females of her train, and drawing around him the covering of his couch, which, by his own choice, or more probably the flattering selection of his chamberlains, consisted of two large lions’ skins, dressed in Venice with such admirable skill that they seemed softer than the hide of the deer.
Berengaria, such as we have described her, knew well—what woman knows not?—her own road to victory. After a hurried glance of undisguised and unaffected terror at the ghastly companion of her husband’s secret counsels, she rushed at once to the side of Richard’s couch, dropped on her knees, flung her mantle from her shoulders, showing, as they hung down at their full length, her beautiful golden tresses, and while her countenance seemed like the sun bursting through a cloud, yet bearing on its pallid front traces that its splendours have been obscured, she seized upon the right hand of the King, which, as he assumed his wonted posture, had been employed in dragging the covering of his couch, and gradually pulling it to her with a force which was resisted, though but faintly, she possessed herself of that arm, the prop of Christendom and the dread of Heathenesse, and imprisoning its strength in both her little fairy hands, she bent upon it her brow, and united to it her lips.
“What needs this, Berengaria?” said Richard, his head still averted, but his hand remaining under her control.
“Send away that man, his look kills me!” muttered Berengaria.
“Begone, sirrah,” said Richard, still without looking round, “What wait’st thou for? art thou fit to look on these ladies?”
“Your Highness’s pleasure touching the head,” said the man.
“Out with thee, dog!” answered Richard—“a Christian burial!” The man disappeared, after casting a look upon the beautiful Queen, in her deranged dress and natural loveliness, with a smile of admiration more hideous in its expression than even his usual scowl of cynical hatred against humanity.
“And now, foolish wench, what wishest thou?” said Richard, turning slowly and half reluctantly round to his royal suppliant.
But it was not in nature for any one, far less an admirer of beauty like Richard, to whom it stood only in the second rank to glory, to look without emotion on the countenance and the tremor of a creature so beautiful as Berengaria, or to feel, without sympathy, that her lips, her brow, were on his hand, and that it was wetted by her tears. By degrees, he turned on her his manly countenance, with the softest expression of which his large blue eye, which so often gleamed with insufferable light, was capable. Caressing her fair head, and mingling his large fingers in her beautiful and dishevelled locks, he raised and tenderly kissed the cherub countenance which seemed desirous to hide itself in his hand. The robust form, the broad, noble brow and majestic looks, the naked arm and shoulder, the lions’ skins among which he lay, and the fair, fragile feminine creature that kneeled by his side, might have served for a model of Hercules reconciling himself, after a quarrel, to his wife Dejanira.
“And, once more, what seeks the lady of my heart in her knight’s pavilion at this early and unwonted hour?”
“Pardon, my most gracious liege—pardon!” said the Queen, whose fears began again to unfit her for the duty of intercessor.
“Pardon—for what?” asked the King.
“First, for entering your royal presence too boldly and unadvisedly—”
“THOU too boldly!—the sun might as well ask pardon because his rays entered the windows of some wretch’s dungeon. But I was busied with work unfit for thee to witness, my gentle one; and I was unwilling, besides, that thou shouldst risk thy precious health where sickness had been so lately rife.”
“But thou art now well?” said the Queen, still delaying the communication which she feared to make.
“Well enough to break a lance on the bold crest of that champion who shall refuse to acknowledge thee the fairest dame in Christendom.”
“Thou wilt not then refuse me one boon—only one—only a poor life?”
“Ha!—proceed,” said King Richard, bending his brows.
“This unhappy Scottish knight—” murmured the Queen.
“Speak not of him, madam,” exclaimed Richard sternly; “he dies—his doom is fixed.”
“Nay, my royal liege and love, ‘tis but a silken banner neglected. Berengaria will give thee another broidered with her own hand, and rich as ever dallied with the wind. Every pearl I have shall go to bedeck it, and with every pearl I will drop a tear of thankfulness to my generous knight.”
“Thou knowest not what thou sayest,” said the King, interrupting her in anger. “Pearls! can all the pearls of the East atone for a speck upon England’s honour—all the tears that ever woman’s eye wept wash away a stain on Richard’s fame? Go to, madam, know your place, and your time, and your sphere. At present we have duties in which you cannot be our partner.”
“Thou hearest, Edith,” whispered the Queen; “we shall but incense him.”
“Be it so,” said Edith, stepping forward.—“My lord, I, your poor kinswoman, crave you for justice rather than mercy; and to the cry of justice the ears of a monarch should be open at every time, place, and circumstance.”
“Ha! our cousin Edith?” said Richard, rising and sitting upright on the side of his couch, covered with his long camiscia. “She speaks ever kinglike, and kinglike will I answer her, so she bring no request unworthy herself or me.”
The beauty of Edith was of a more intellectual and less voluptuous cast than that of the Queen; but impatience and anxiety had given her countenance a glow which it sometimes wanted, and her mien had a character of energetic dignity that imposed silence for a moment even on Richard himself, who, to judge by his looks, would willingly have interrupted her.
“My lord,” she said, “this good knight, whose blood you are about to spill, hath done, in his time, service to Christendom. He has fallen from his duty through a snare set for him in mere folly and idleness of spirit. A message sent to him in the name of one who—why should I not speak it?—it was in my own—induced him for an instant to leave his post. And what knight in the Christian camp might not have thus far transgressed at command of a maiden, who, poor howsoever in other qualities, hath yet the blood of Plantagenet in her veins?”
“And you saw him, then, cousin?” replied the King, biting his lips to keep down his passion.
“I did, my liege,” said Edith. “It is no time to explain wherefore. I am here neither to exculpate myself nor to blame others.”
“And where did you do him such a grace?”
“In the tent of her Majesty the Queen.”
“Of our royal consort!” said Richard. “Now by Heaven, by Saint George of England, and every other saint that treads its crystal floor, this is too audacious! I have noticed and overlooked this warrior’s insolent admiration of one so far above him, and I grudged him not that one of my blood should shed from her high-born sphere such influence as the sun bestows on the world beneath. But, heaven and earth! that you should have admitted him to an audience by night, in the very tent of our royal consort!—and dare to offer this as an excuse for his disobedience and desertion! By my father’s soul, Edith, thou shalt rue this thy life long in a monastery!”
“My liege,” said Edith, “your greatness licenses tyranny. My honour, Lord King, is as little touched as yours, and my Lady the Queen can prove it if she think fit. But I have already said I am not here to excuse myself or inculpate others. I ask you but to extend to one, whose fault was committed under strong temptation, that mercy, which even you yourself, Lord King, must one day supplicate at a higher tribunal, and for faults, perhaps, less venial.”
“Can this be Edith Plantagenet?” said the King bitterly—“Edith Plantagenet, the wise and the noble? Or is it some lovesick woman who cares not for her own fame in comparison of the life of her paramour? Now, by King Henry’s soul! little hinders but I order thy minion’s skull to be brought from the gibbet, and fixed as a perpetual ornament by the crucifix in thy cell!”
“And if thou dost send it from the gibbet to be placed for ever in my sight,” said Edith, “I will say it is a relic of a good knight, cruelly and unworthily done to death by” (she checked herself)—“by one of whom I shall only say, he should have known better how to reward chivalry. Minion callest thou him?” she continued, with increasing vehemence. “He was indeed my lover, and a most true one; but never sought he grace from me by look or word—contented with such humble observance as men pay to the saints. And the good—the valiant—the faithful must die for this!”
“Oh, peace, peace, for pity’s sake,” whispered the Queen, “you do but offend him more!”
“I care not,” said Edith; “the spotless virgin fears not the raging lion. Let him work his will on this worthy knight. Edith, for whom he dies, will know how to weep his memory. To me no one shall speak more of politic alliances to be sanctioned with this poor hand. I could not—I would not—have been his bride living—our degrees were too distant. But death unites the high and the low—I am henceforward the spouse of the grave.”
The King was about to answer with much anger, when a Carmelite monk entered the apartment hastily, his head and person muffled in the long mantle and hood of striped cloth of the coarsest texture which distinguished his order, and, flinging himself on his knees before the King, conjured him, by every holy word and sign, to stop the execution.
“Now, by both sword and sceptre,” said Richard, “the world is leagued to drive me mad!—fools, women, and monks cross me at every step. How comes he to live still?”
“My gracious liege,” said the monk, “I entreated of the Lord of Gilsland to stay the execution until I had thrown myself at your royal—”
“And he was wilful enough to grant thy request,” said the King; “but it is of a piece with his wonted obstinacy. And what is it thou hast to say? Speak, in the fiend’s name!”
“My lord, there is a weighty secret, but it rests under the seal of confession. I dare not tell or even whisper it; but I swear to thee by my holy order, by the habit which I wear, by the blessed Elias, our founder, even him who was translated without suffering the ordinary pangs of mortality, that this youth hath divulged to me a secret, which, if I might confide it to thee, would utterly turn thee from thy bloody purpose in regard to him.”
“Good father,” said Richard, “that I reverence the church, let the arms which I now wear for her sake bear witness. Give me to know this secret, and I will do what shall seem fitting in the matter. But I am no blind Bayard, to take a leap in the dark under the stroke of a pair of priestly spurs.”
“My lord,” said the holy man, throwing back his cowl and upper vesture, and discovering under the latter a garment of goatskin, and from beneath the former a visage so wildly wasted by climate, fast, and penance, as to resemble rather the apparition of an animated skeleton than a human face, “for twenty years have I macerated this miserable body in the caverns of Engaddi, doing penance for a great crime. Think you I, who am dead to the world, would contrive a falsehood to endanger my own soul; or that one, bound by the most sacred oaths to the contrary—one such as I, who have but one longing wish connected with earth, to wit, the rebuilding of our Christian Zion—would betray the secrets of the confessional? Both are alike abhorrent to my very soul.”
“So,” answered the King, “thou art that hermit of whom men speak so much? Thou art, I confess, like enough to those spirits which walk in dry places; but Richard fears no hobgoblins. And thou art he, too, as I bethink me, to whom the Christian princes sent this very criminal to open a communication with the Soldan, even while I, who ought to have been first consulted, lay on my sick-bed? Thou and they may content themselves—I will not put my neck into the loop of a Carmelite’s girdle. And, for your envoy, he shall die the rather and the sooner that thou dost entreat for him.”
“Now God be gracious to thee, Lord King!” said the hermit, with much emotion; “thou art setting that mischief on foot which thou wilt hereafter wish thou hadst stopped, though it had cost thee a limb. Rash, blinded man, yet forbear!”
“Away, away,” cried the King, stamping; “the sun has risen on the dishonour of England, and it is not yet avenged.—Ladies and priest, withdraw, if you would not hear orders which would displease you; for, by St. George, I swear—”
“Swear NOT!” said the voice of one who had just then entered the pavilion.
“Ha! my learned Hakim,” said the King, “come, I hope, to tax our generosity.”
“I come to request instant speech with you—instant—and touching matters of deep interest.”
“First look on my wife, Hakim, and let her know in you the preserver of her husband.”
“It is not for me,” said the physician, folding his arms with an air of Oriental modesty and reverence, and bending his eyes on the ground—“it is not for me to look upon beauty unveiled, and armed in its splendours.”
“Retire, then, Berengaria,” said the Monarch; “and, Edith, do you retire also;—nay, renew not your importunities! This I give to them that the execution shall not be till high noon. Go and be pacified—dearest Berengaria, begone.—Edith,” he added, with a glance which struck terror even into the courageous soul of his kinswoman, “go, if you are wise.”
The females withdrew, or rather hurried from the tent, rank and ceremony forgotten, much like a flock of wild-fowl huddled together, against whom the falcon has made a recent stoop.
They returned from thence to the Queen’s pavilion to indulge in regrets and recriminations, equally unavailing. Edith was the only one who seemed to disdain these ordinary channels of sorrow. Without a sigh, without a tear, without a word of upbraiding, she attended upon the Queen, whose weak temperament showed her sorrow in violent hysterical ecstasies and passionate hypochondriacal effusions, in the course of which Edith sedulously and even affectionately attended her.
“It is impossible she can have loved this knight,” said Florise to Calista, her senior in attendance upon the Queen’s person. “We have been mistaken; she is but sorry for his fate, as for a stranger who has come to trouble on her account.”
“Hush, hush,” answered her more experienced and more observant comrade; “she is of that proud house of Plantagenet who never own that a hurt grieves them. While they have themselves been bleeding to death, under a mortal wound, they have been known to bind up the scratches sustained by their more faint-hearted comrades. Florise, we have done frightfully wrong, and, for my own part, I would buy with every jewel I have that our fatal jest had remained unacted.”