A Forgotten Hero, or, Not for Him, by Emily Sarah Holt.
This shortish book takes us to the end of the thirteenth century, and, although the people in the book are mostly high-born, the scene is a very domestic one. It gives us a good understanding of the way life was lived in those days. Recommended for its social interest.
A FORGOTTEN HERO, OR, NOT FOR HIM, BY EMILY SARAH HOLT.
CASTLES IN THE AIR.
"O pale, pale face, so sweet and meek, Oriana!"
"Is the linen all put away, Clarice?"
"And the rosemary not forgotten?"
"I have laid it in the linen, Dame."
"And thy day's task of spinning is done?"
"All done, Dame."
"Good. Then fetch thy sewing and come hither, and I will tell thee somewhat touching the lady whom thou art to serve."
"I humbly thank your Honour." And dropping a low courtesy, the girl left the room, and returned in a minute with her work.
"Thou mayest sit down, Clarice."
Clarice, with another courtesy and a murmur of thanks, took her seat in the recess of the window, where her mother was already sitting. For these two were mother and daughter; a middle-aged, comfortable-looking mother, with a mixture of firmness and good-nature in her face; and a daughter of some sixteen years, rather pale and slender, but active and intelligent in her appearance. Clarice's dark hair was smoothly brushed and turned up in a curl all round her head, being cut sufficiently short for that purpose. Her dress was long and loose, made in what we call the Princess style, with a long train, which she tucked under one arm when she walked. The upper sleeve was of a narrow bell shape, but under it came down tight ones to the wrist, fastened by a row of large round buttons quite up to the elbow. A large apron—which Clarice called a barm-cloth—protected the dress from stain. A fillet of ribbon was bound round her head, but she had no ornaments of any kind. Her mother wore a similar costume, excepting that in her case the fillet round the head was exchanged for a wimple, which was a close hood, covering head and neck, and leaving no part exposed but the face. It was a very comfortable article in cold weather, but an eminently unbecoming one.
These two ladies were the wife and daughter of Sir Gilbert Le Theyn, a knight of Surrey, who held his manor of the Earl of Cornwall; and the date of the day when they thus sat in the window was the 26th of March 1290.
It will strike modern readers as odd if I say that Clarice and her mother knew very little of each other. She was her father's heir, being an only child; and it was, therefore, considered the more necessary that she should not live at home. It was usual at that time to send all young girls of good family, not to school—there were no schools in those days—but to be brought up under some lady of rank, where they might receive a suitable education, and, on reaching the proper age, have a husband provided for them, the one being just as much a matter of course as the other. The consent of the parents was asked to the matrimonial selection of the mistress, but public opinion required some very strong reason to justify them in withholding it. The only exception to this arrangement was when girls were destined for the cloister, and in that case they received their education in a convent. But there was one person who had absolutely no voice in the matter, and that was the unfortunate girl in question. The very idea of consulting her on any point of it, would have struck a mediaeval mother with astonishment and dismay.
Why ladies should have been considered competent in all instances to educate anybody's daughters but their own is a mystery of the Middle Ages. Dame La Theyn had under her care three girls, who were receiving their education at her hands, and she never thought of questioning her own competency to impart it; yet, also without a question, she sent Clarice away from her, first to a neighbouring knight's wife, and now to a Princess, to receive the education which she might just as well have had at home. It was the command of Fashion; and who does not know that Fashion, whether in the thirteenth century or the nineteenth, must be obeyed?
Clarice was on the brink of high promotion. By means of a ladder of several steps—a Dame requesting a Baroness, and the Baroness entreating a Countess—the royal lady had been reached at last, whose husband was the suzerain of Sir Gilbert. It made little difference to this lady whether her bower-women were two or ten, provided that the attendance given her was as much as she required; and she readily granted the petition that Clarice La Theyn might be numbered among those young ladies. The Earl of Cornwall was the richest man in England, not excepting the King. It may be added that, at this period, Earl was the highest title known short of the Prince of Wales. The first Duke had not yet been created, while Marquis is a rank of much later date.
Dame La Theyn, though she had some good points, had also one grand failing. She was an inveterate gossip. And it made no difference to her who was her listener, provided a listener could be had. A spicy dish of scandal was her highest delight. She had not the least wish nor intention of doing harm to the person whom she thus discussed. She had not even the slightest notion that she did any. But her bower-maidens knew perfectly well that, if one of them wanted to put the dame in high good-humour before extracting a favour, the best way to do so was to inform her that Mrs Sheppey had had words with her goodman, or that Dame Rouse considered Joan Stick i' th' Lane [Note 1], no better than she should be.
An innocent request from Clarice, that she might know something about her future mistress, had been to Dame La Theyn a delightful opportunity for a good dish of gossip. Reticence was not in the Dame's nature; and in the thirteenth century—and much later than that—facts which in the nineteenth would be left in concealment, or, at most, only delicately hinted at, were spoken out in the plainest English, even to young girls. The fancy that the Countess of Cornwall might not like her whole life, so far as it was known, laid bare to her new bower-woman was one which never troubled the mind of Dame La Theyn. Privacy, to any person of rank more especially, was an unknown thing in the Middle Ages.
"Thou must know, Clarice," began the Dame, "that of old time, before thou wert born, I was bower-maiden unto my most dear-worthy Lady of Lincoln—that is brother's wife to my gracious Lady of Gloucester, mother unto my Lady of Cornwall, that shall be thy mistress. The Lady of Lincoln, that was mine, is a dame of most high degree, for her father was my Lord of Saluces, [Note 2], in Italy—very nigh a king—and she herself was wont to be called 'Queen of Lincoln,' being of so high degree. Ah, she gave me many a good gown, for I was twelve years in her service. And a good woman she is, but rarely proud—as it is but like such a princess should be. I mind one super-tunic she gave me, but half worn,"—this was said impressively, for a garment only half worn was considered a fit gift from one peeress to another—"of blue damask, all set with silver buttons, and broidered with ladies' heads along the border. I gave it for a wedding gift unto Dame Rouse when she was wed, and she hath it now, I warrant thee. Well! her lord's sister, our Lady Maud, was wed to my Lord of Gloucester; but stay!—there is a tale to tell thee thereabout."
And Dame La Theyn bit off her thread with a complacent face. Nothing suited her better than a tale to tell, unless it were one to hear.
"Well-a-day, there be queer things in this world!"
The Dame paused, as if to give time for Clarice to note that very original sentiment.
"Our Lady Maud was wed to her lord, the good Earl of Gloucester, with but little liking of her side, and yet less on his. Nathless, she made no plaint, but submitted herself, as a good maid should do—for mark thou, Clarice, 'tis the greatest shame that can come to a maiden to set her will against those of her father and mother in wedlock. A good maid—as I trust thou art—should have no will in such matters but that of those whom God hath set over her. And all love-matches end ill, Clarice; take my word for it! Art noting me?"
Clarice meekly responded that the moral lesson had reached her. She did not add whether she meant to profit by it. Probably she had her own ideas on the question, and it is quite possible that they did not entirely correspond with those which her mother was instilling.
"Now look on me, Clarice," pursued Dame La Theyn, earnestly. "When I was a young maid I had foolish fancies like other maidens. Had I been left to order mine own life, I warrant thee I should have wed with one Master Pride, that was page to my good knight my father; and when I wist that my said father had other thoughts for my disposal, I slept of a wet pillow for many a night—ay, that did I. But now that I be come to years of discretion, I do ensure thee that I am right thankful my said father was wiser than I. For this Master Pride was slain at Evesham, when I was of the age of five-and-twenty years, and left behind him not so much as a mark of silver that should have come to me, his widow. It was a good twenty-fold better that I should have wedded with thy father, Sir Gilbert, that hath this good house, and forty acres of land, and spendeth thirty marks by the year and more. Dost thou not see the same?"
No. Clarice heard, but she did not see.
"Well-a-day! Now know, that when my good Lord of Gloucester, that wed with our Lady Maud, was a young lad, being then in wardship unto Sir Hubert, sometime Earl of Kent (whom God pardon!) he strake up a love-match with the Lady Margaret, that was my said Lord of Kent his daughter. And in very deed a good match it should have been, had it been well liked of them that were above them; but the Lord King that then was—the father unto King Edward that now is—rarely misliked the same, and gat them divorced in all hate. It was not meet, as thou mayest well guess, that such matters should be settled apart from his royal pleasure. And forthwith, ere further mischief could ensue, he caused my said Lord of Gloucester to wed with our Lady Maud. But look thou, so obstinate was he, and so set of having his own way, that he scarce ever said so much as 'Good morrow' to the Lady Maud until he knew that the said Lady Margaret was commanded to God. Never do thou be obstinate, Clarice. 'Tis ill enough for a young man, but yet worse for a maid."
"How long time was that, Dame, an' it like you?"
"Far too long," answered Dame La Theyn, somewhat severely. "Three years and more."
Three years and more! Clarice's thoughts went off on a long journey. Three years of disappointed hope and passionate regret, three years of weary waiting for death, on the part of the Lady Margaret! Naturally enough her sympathies were with the girl. And three years, to Clarice, at sixteen, seemed a small lifetime.
"Now, this lady whom thou shalt serve, Clarice," pursued her mother—and Clarice's mind came back to the subject in hand—"she is first-born daughter unto the said Sir Richard de Clare, Lord of Gloucester, and our Lady Maud, of whom I spake. Her name is Margaret, after the damsel that died—a poor compliment, as methinks, to the said Lady Maud; and had I been she, the maid should have been called aught else it liked my baron, but not that."
Ah, but had I been he, thought Clarice, it should have been just that!
"And I have heard," said the Dame, biting off her thread, "that there should of old time be some misliking—what I know not—betwixt the Lady Margaret and her baron; but whether it were some olden love of his part or of hers, or what so, I cast no doubt that she hath long ere this overlived the same, and is now a good and loving lady unto him, as is meet."
Clarice felt disposed to cast very much doubt on this suggestion. She held the old-fashioned idea that a true heart could love but once, and could not forget. Her vivid imagination instantly erected an exquisite castle in the air, wherein the chief part was played by the Lady Margaret's youthful lover—a highly imaginary individual, of the most perfect manners and unparalleled beauty, whom the unfortunate maiden could never forget, though she was forced by her cruel parents to marry the Earl of Cornwall. He, of course, was a monster of ugliness in person, and of everything disagreeable in character, as a man in such circumstances was bound to be.
Poor Clarice! she had not seen much of the world. Her mental picture of the lady whom she was to serve depicted her as sweet and sorrowful, with a low plaintive voice and dark, starry, pathetic eyes, towards whom the only feelings possible would be loving reverence and sympathy.
"And now, Clarice, I have another thing to say."
"At your pleasure, Dame."
"I think it but meet to tell thee a thing I have heard from thy father— that the Lord Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, thy lady's baron, is one that hath some queer ideas in his head. I know not well what kind they are; but folk say that he is a strange man and hath strange talk. So do thou mind what thou dost. Alway be reverent to him, as is meet; but suffer him not to talk to thee but in presence of thy lady."
Clarice felt rather frightened—all the more so from the extreme vagueness of the warning.
"And now lap up thy sewing, child, for I see thy father coming in, and we will go down to hall."
A few weeks later three horses stood ready saddled at the door of Sir Gilbert's house. One was laden with luggage; the second was mounted by a manservant; and the third, provided with saddle and pillion, was for Clarice and her father. Sir Gilbert, fully armed, mounted his steed, Clarice was helped up behind him, and with a final farewell to Dame La Theyn, who stood in the doorway, they rode forth on their way to Oakham Castle. Three days' journey brought them to their destination, and they were witnesses of a curious ceremony just as they reached the Castle gate. All over the gate horseshoes were nailed. A train of visitors were arriving at the Castle, and the trumpeter sounded his horn for entrance.
"Who goes there?" demanded the warder. "The right noble and puissant Prince Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, Leicester, and Derby; and his most noble lady, Blanche, Queen Dowager of Navarre, Countess of the same, cousins unto my gracious Lord of Cornwall."
"Is this my said noble Lord's first visit unto the lordship of Oakham?" asked the warder, without opening the gate. "It is."
"Then our gracious Lord, as Lord of the said manor, demands of him one of the shoes of the horse whereon he rides as tribute due from every peer of the realm on his first coming to this lordship."
"My right noble and puissant Lord," returned the trumpeter, "denies the said shoe of his horse; but offers in the stead one silver penny, for the purchase of a shoe in lieu thereof."
"My gracious Lord deigns to receive the said silver penny in lieu of the shoe, and lovingly prays your Lord and Lady to enter his said Castle."
Then the portcullis was drawn up, and the long train filed noisily into the courtyard. This ceremony was observed on the first visit of every peer to Oakham Castle; but the visitor was allowed, if he chose, as in this instance, to redeem the horse-shoe by the payment of money to buy one. The shoes contributed by eminent persons were not unfrequently gilded.
The modest train of Sir Gilbert and Clarice crept quietly in at the end of the royal suite. As he was only a knight, his horse-shoe was not in request Sir Gilbert told the warder in a few words his name and errand, whereupon that functionary summoned a boy, and desired him to conduct the knight and maiden to Mistress Underdone. Having alighted from the horse, Clarice shook down her riding-gown, and humbly followed Sir Gilbert and the guide into the great hall, which was built like a church, with centre and aisles, up a spiral staircase at one end of it, and into a small room hung with green say [Note 3]. Here they had to wait a while, for every one was too busily employed in the reception of the royal guests to pay attention to such comparatively mean people. At last—when Sir Gilbert had yawned a dozen times, and strummed upon the table about as many, a door at the back of the room was opened, and a portly, comfortable-looking woman came forward to meet them. Was this the Countess? thought Clarice, with her heart fluttering. It was extremely unlike her ideal picture.
"Your servant, Sir Gilbert Le Theyn," said the newcomer, in a cheerful, kindly voice. "I am Agatha Underdone, Mistress of the Maids unto my gracious Lady of Cornwall. I bid thee welcome, Clarice—I think that is thy name?"
Clarice acknowledged her name, with a private comforting conviction that Mistress Underdone, at least, would be pleasant enough to live with.
"You will wish, without doubt, to go down to hall, where is good company at this present," pursued the latter, addressing Sir Gilbert. "So, if it please you to take leave of the maiden—"
Sir Gilbert put two fingers on Clarice's head, as she immediately knelt before him. For a father to kiss a daughter was a rare thing at that time, and for the daughter to offer it would have been thought quite disrespectful, and much too familiar.
"Farewell, Clarice," said he. "Be a good maid, be obedient and meek; please thy lady; and may God keep thee, and send thee an husband in good time."
There was nothing more necessary in Sir Gilbert's eyes. Obedience was the one virtue for Clarice to cultivate, and a husband (quality immaterial) was sufficient reward for any amount of virtue.
Clarice saw her father depart without any feeling of regret. He was even a greater stranger to her than her mother. She was a self-contained, lonely-hearted girl, capable of intense love and hero-worship, but never having come across one human being who had attracted those qualities from their nest in her heart.
"Now follow me, Clarice," said Mistress Underdone, "and I will introduce thee to the maidens, thy fellows, of whom there are four beside thee at this time."
Clarice followed, silently, up a further spiral staircase, and into a larger chamber, where four girls were sitting at work.
"Maidens," said Mistress Underdone, "this is your new fellow, Clarice La Theyn, daughter of Sir Gilbert Le Theyn and Dame Maisenta La Heron. Stand, each in turn, while I tell her your names."
The nearest of the four, a slight, delicate-looking, fair-haired girl, rose at once, gathering her work on her arm.
"Olympias Trusbut, youngest daughter of Sir Robert Trusbut, of the county of Lincoln, and Dame Joan Twentymark," announced Mistress Underdone.
She turned to the next, a short, dark, merry-looking damsel.
"Elaine Criketot, daughter of Sir William Criketot and Dame Alice La Gerunell, of the county of Chester."
The third was tall, stately, and sedate.
"Diana Quappelad, daughter of Sir Walter Quappelad and Dame Beatrice Cotele, of the county of Rutland."
Lastly rose a quiet, gentle-looking girl.
"Roisia de Levinton, daughter of Sir Hubert de Levinton and Dame Maud Ingham, of the county of Surrey."
Clarice's heart went faintly out to the girl from her own county, but she was much too shy to utter a word.
Having introduced the girls to each other, Mistress Underdone left them to get acquainted at their leisure.
"Art thou only just come?" asked Elaine, who was the first to speak.
"Only just come," repeated Clarice, timidly.
"Hast thou seen my Lady?"
"Not yet: I should like to see her."
Elaine's answer was a little half-suppressed laugh, which seemed the concentration of amusement.
"Maids, hear you this? Our new fellow has not seen the Lady. She would like to see her."
A smile was reflected on all four faces. Clarice thought Diana's was slightly satirical; those of the other two were rather pitying.
"Now, what dost thou expect her to be like?" pursued Elaine.
"I may be quite wrong," answered Clarice, in the shy way which she was not one to lose quickly. "I fancied she would be tall—"
"Right there," said Olympias.
"Oh, no, she is fair."
"And very beautiful, with sorrowful eyes, and a low, mournful voice."
All the girls laughed, Roisia and Olympias gently, Diana scornfully, Elaine with shrill hilarity.
"Ha, jolife!" cried the last-named young lady. "Heard one ever the like? Only wait till supper. Then thou shalt see this lovely lady, with the sweet, sorrowful eyes and the soft, low voice. Pure foy! I shall die with laughing, Clarice, if thou sayest anything more."
"Hush!" said Diana, sharply and suddenly; but Elaine's amusement had too much impetus on it to be stopped all at once. She was sitting with her back to the door, her mirthful laughter ringing through the room, when the door was suddenly flung open, and two ladies appeared behind it. The startled, terrified expression on the faces of Olympias and Roisia warned Clarice that something unpleasant was going to happen. Had Mistress Underdone a superior, between her and the Countess, whom to offend was a very grave affair? Clarice looked round with much interest and some trepidation at the new comers.
Note 1. Stykelane and Bakepuce—both most unpleasantly suggestive names—occur on the Fines Roll for 1254.
Note 2. Saluzzo.
Note 3. A common coarse silk, used both for dress and upholstery.
THE MISTS CLEAR AWAY.
"Nec tecum possum vivere, nec sine te."
One at least of the ladies who had disturbed Elaine's hilarity did not look a person of whom it was necessary to be afraid. She was a matronly woman of middle age, bearing the remains of extreme beauty. She had a good-natured expression, and she rather shrank back, as if she were there on sufferance only. But the other, who came forward into the room, was tall, spare, upright, and angular, with a face which struck Clarice as looking very like verjuice.
"Agatha!" called the latter, sharply; and, laying her hand, not gently, on Elaine's shoulder, she gave her a shake which rapidly reduced her to gravity.
"Ye weary, wretched giglots, what do ye thus laughing and tittering, when I have distinctly forbidden the same?—Agatha!—Know ye not that all ye be miserable sinners, and this lower world a vale of tears?— Agatha!"
"Truly, Cousin Meg," observed the other lady, now coming forward, "methinks you go far to make it such."
"Agatha might have more sense," returned her acetous companion. "I have bidden her forty times o'er to have these maids well ordered, and mine house as like to an holy convent as might be compassed; and here is she none knows whither—taking her pleasure, I reckon—and these caitiff hildings making the very walls for to ring with their wicked foolish laughter!—Agatha! bring me hither the rod. I will see if a good whipping bring not down your ill-beseen spirits, mistress!"
Elaine turned pale, and cast a beseeching glance at the pleasanter of the ladies.
"Nay, now, Cousin Meg," interposed she, "I pray you, let not this my first visit to Oakham be linked with trouble to these young maids. I am well assured you know grey heads cannot be well set on green shoulders."
"Lady, I am right unwilling to deny any bidding of yours. But I do desire of you to tell me if it be not enough to provoke a saint to swear?"
"What! to hear a young maid laugh, cousin? Nay, soothly, I would not think so."
Mistress Underdone had entered the room, and, after dropping a courtesy to each of the ladies, stood waiting the pleasure of her mistress. Clarice was slowly coming to the conclusion, with dire dismay, that the sharp-featured, sharp-tongued woman before her was no other than the Lady Margaret of Cornwall, her lovely lady with the pathetic eyes.
"Give me the rod, Agatha," said the Countess, sternly.
"Nay, Cousin Meg, I pray you, let Agatha give it to me."
"You'll not lay on!" said the Countess, with a contortion of her lips which appeared to do duty for a smile.
"Trust me, I will do the right thing," replied Queen Blanche, taking the rod which Mistress Underdone presented to her on the knee. "Now. Elaine, stand out here."
Elaine, very pale and preternaturally grave, placed herself in the required position.
"Say after me. 'I entreat pardon of my Lady for being so unhappy as to offend her.'"
Elaine faltered out the dictated words.
"Kiss the rod," said the Queen.
She was immediately obeyed.
"Now, Cousin Meg, for my sake, I pray you, let that suffice."
"Well, Lady, for your sake," responded the Countess, with apparent reluctance, looking rather like a kite from whose talons the Queen had extracted a sparrow intended for its dinner.
"Sit you in this chamber, Cousin Meg?" asked the Queen, taking a curule chair as she spoke—the only one in the room.
"Nay, Lady. 'Tis mine hour for repeating the seven penitential psalms. I have no time to waste with these giglots."
"Then, I pray you, give me leave to abide here myself for a season."
"You will do your pleasure, Lady. I only pray of you to keep them from laughing and such like wickedness."
"Nay, for I will not promise that for myself," said Queen Blanche, with a good-tempered smile. "Go your ways, Meg; we will work no evil."
The Countess turned and stalked out of the door again. And Clarice's first castle in the air fell into pieces behind her.
"Now, Agatha, I pray thee shut the door," said the Queen, "that we offend not my Cousin Margaret's ears in her psalms. Fare ye all well, my maids? Thy face is strange to me, child."
Clarice courtesied very low. "If it please the Lady Queen, I am but just come hither."
She had to tell her name and sundry biographical particulars, and then, suddenly looking round, the Queen said, "And where is Heliet?"
"Please it the Lady Queen, in my chamber," said Mistress Underdone.
"Bid her hither, good Agatha—if she can come."
"That can she, Lady."
Mistress Underdone left the room, and in another minute the regular tap of approaching crutches was audible. Clarice imagined their wearer to be some old woman—perhaps the mother of Mistress Underdone. But as soon as the door was opened again, she was surprised and touched to perceive that the sufferer who used them was a girl little older than herself. She came up to Queen Blanche, who welcomed her with a smile, and held her hand to the girl's lips to be kissed. This was her only way of paying homage, for to her courtesying and kneeling were alike impossible.
Clarice felt intuitively, as she looked into Heliet's face, that here was a girl entirely different from the rest. She seemed as if Nature had intended her to be tall, but had stopped and stunted her when only half grown. Her shoulders were unnaturally high, and one leg was considerably shorter than the other. Her face was not in any way beautiful, yet there was a certain mysterious attraction about it. Something looked out of her eyes which Clarice studied without being able to define, but which disposed her to keep on looking. They were dark, pathetic eyes, of the kind with which Clarice had gifted her very imaginary Countess; but there was something beyond the pathos.
"It looks," thought Clarice, "as if she had gone through the pathos and the suffering, and had come out on the other side—on the shore of the Golden Land, where they see what everything meant, and are satisfied."
There was very little time for conversation before the supper-bell rang. Queen Blanche made kind inquiries concerning Heliet's lameness and general health, but had not reached any other subject when the sound of the bell thrilled through the room. The four girls rapidly folded up their work, as though the summons were welcome. Queen Blanche rose and departed, with a kindly nod to all, and Heliet, turning to Clarice, said, "Wilt thou come down with me? I cannot go fast, as thou mayest see; but thou wilt sit next to me, and I can tell thee anything thou mayest wish to know."
Clarice thankfully assented, and they went down the spiral staircase together into the great hall, where three tables were spread. At the highest and smallest, on the dais, were already seated the Queen and the Countess, two gentlemen, and two priests. At the head of the second stood Mistress Underdone, next to whom was Diana, and Heliet led up Clarice to her side. They faced the dais, so that Clarice could watch its distinguished occupants at her pleasure. Tables for meals, at that date, were simply boards placed on trestles, and removed when the repast was over. On the table at the dais was silver plate, then a rare luxury, restricted to the highest classes, the articles being spoons, knives, plates, and goblets. There were no forks, for only one fork had ever then been heard of as a thing to eat with, and this had been the invention of the wife of a Doge of Venice, about two hundred years previous, for which piece of refinement the public rewarded the lady by considering her as proud as Lucifer. Forks existed, both in the form of spice-forks and fire-forks, but no one ever thought of eating with them in England until they were introduced from Italy in the reign of James the First, and for some time after that the use of them marked either a traveller, or a luxurious, effeminate man. Moreover, there were no knives nor spoons provided for helping one's self from the dishes. Each person had a knife and spoon for himself, with which he helped himself at his convenience. People who were very delicate and particular wiped their knives on a piece of bread before doing so, and licked their spoons all over. When these were the practices of fastidious people, the proceedings of those who were not such may be discreetly left to imagination. The second table was served in a much more ordinary manner. In this instance the knife was iron and the spoon pewter, the plate a wooden trencher (never changed), and the drinking-cup of horn. In the midst of the table stood a pewter salt-cellar, formed like a castle, and very much larger than we use them now.
This salt-cellar acted as a barometer, not for weather, but for rank. Every one of noble blood, or filling certain offices, sat above the salt.
With respect to cooking our fathers had some peculiarities. They ate many things that we never touch, such as porpoises and herons, and they used all manner of green things as vegetables. They liked their bread hot from the oven (to give cold bread, even for dinner, was a shabby proceeding), and their meat much underdone, for they thought that overdone meat stirred up anger. They mixed most incongruous things together; they loved very strong tastes, delighting in garlic and verjuice; they never appear to have paid the slightest regard to their digestion, and they were, in the most emphatic sense, not teetotallers.
The dining-hall, but not the table, was decorated with flowers, and singers, often placed in a gallery at one end, were employed the whole time. A gentleman usher acted as butler, and a yeoman was always at hand to keep out strange dogs, snuff candles, and light to bed the guests, who were not always in a condition to find their way upstairs without his help. The hours at this time were nine or ten o'clock for dinner (except on fast-days, when it was at noon), and three or four for supper. Two meals a day were thought sufficient for all men who were not invalids. The sick and women sometimes had a "rear-supper" at six o'clock or later. As to breakfast, it was a meal taken only by some persons, and then served in the bedchamber or private boudoir at convenience. Wine, with bread sopped in it, was a favourite breakfast, especially for the old. Very delicate or exceptionally temperate people took milk for breakfast; but though the Middle Ages present us with examples of both vegetarians and total abstainers, yet of both there were very few indeed, and they were mainly to be found among the religious orders.
In watching the illustrious persons on the dais one thing struck Clarice as extremely odd, which would never be thought strange in the nineteenth century. It was the custom in her day for husband and wife to sit together at a meal, and, the highest ranks excepted, to eat from the same plate. But the Earl and Countess of Cornwall were on opposite sides of the table, with one of the priests between them. Clarice thought they must have quarrelled, and softly demanded of Heliet if that were the case.
"No, indeed," was Heliet's rather sorrowful answer. "At least, not more than usual. The Lady of Cornwall will never sit beside her baron, and, as thou shalt shortly see, she will not even speak to him."
"Not speak to him!" exclaimed Clarice.
"I never heard her do so yet," said Heliet.
"Does he entreat her very harshly?"
"There are few gentlemen more kindly or generous towards a wife. Nay, the harsh treatment is all on her side."
"What a miserable life to live!" commented Clarice.
"I fear he finds it so," said Heliet.
The dillegrout, or white soup, was now brought in, and Clarice, being hungry, attended more to her supper than to her mistress for a time. But during the next interval between the courses she studied her master.
He was a tall and rather fine-looking man, with a handsome face and a gentle, pleasant expression.
There certainly was not in his exterior any cause for repulsion. His hair was light, his eyes bluish-grey. He seemed—or Clarice thought so at first—a silent man, who left conversation very much to others; but the decidedly intelligent glances of the grey eyes, and an occasional twinkle of fun in them when any amusing remark was made, showed that he was not in the least devoid of brains.
Clarice thought that the priest who sat between the Earl and Countess was a far more unprepossessing individual than his master. He was a Franciscan friar, in the robe of his order; while the friar who sat on the other side of the Countess was a Dominican, and much more agreeable to look at.
At this juncture the Earl of Lancaster, who bore a strong family likeness to his cousin, the Earl of Cornwall—a likeness which extended to character no less than person—inquired of the latter if any news had been heard lately from France.
"I have had no letters lately," replied his host; and, turning to the Countess, he asked, "Have you, Lady?"
Now, thought Clarice, she must speak to him. Much to her surprise, the Countess, imagining, apparently, that the Franciscan friar was her questioner, answered, [Note 1], "None, holy Father."
The friar gravely turned his head and repeated the words to the Earl, though he must have heard them. And Clarice became aware all at once that her own puzzled face was a source of excessive amusement to her vis-a-vis, Elaine. Her eyes inquired the reason.
"Oh, I know!" said Elaine, in a loud whisper across the table. "I know what perplexes thee. They are all like that when they first come. It is such fun to watch them!"
And she did not succeed in repressing a convulsion behind her handkerchief, even with the aid of Diana's "Elaine! do be sensible."
"Hush, my maid," said Mistress Underdone, gently. "If the Lady see thee laugh—"
"I shall be sent away without more supper, I know," said Elaine, shrugging her shoulders. "It is Clarice who ought to be punished, not I. I cannot help laughing when she looks so funny."
Elaine having succeeded in recovering her gravity without attracting the notice of the Countess, Clarice devoured her helping of salt beef along with much cogitation concerning her mistress's singular ways. Still, she could not restrain a supposition that the latter must have supposed the priest to speak to her, when she heard the Earl say, "I hear from Geoffrey Spenser, [Note 2], that our stock of salt ling is beyond what is like to be wanted. Methinks the villeins might have a cade or two thereof, my Lady."
And again, turning to the friar, the Countess made answer, "It shall be seen to, holy Father;" while the friar, with equal composure, as though it were quite a matter of course, repeated to the Earl, "The Lady will see to it, my Lord."
"Does she always answer him so?" demanded Clarice of Heliet, in an astonished whisper. "Always," replied Heliet, with a sad smile. "But surely," said Clarice, her amazement getting the better of her shyness, "it must be very wanting in reverence from a dame to her baron!"
Clarice's ideas of wifely duty were of a very primitive kind. Unbounded reverence, unreasoning obedience, and diligent care for the husband's comfort and pleasure were the main items. As for love, in the sense in which it is usually understood now, that was an item which simply might come into the question, but it was not necessary by any means. Parents, at that time, kept it out of the matter as much as possible, and regarded it as more of an encumbrance than anything else.
"It is a very sad tale, Clarice," answered Heliet, in a low tone. "He loves her, and would cherish her dearly if she would let him. But there is not any love in her. When she was a young maid, almost a child, she set her heart on being a nun, and I think she has never forgiven her baron for being the innocent means of preventing her. I scarcely know which of them is the more to be pitied."
"Oh, he, surely!" exclaimed Clarice.
"Nay, I am not so sure. God help those who are unloved! but, far more, God help those who cannot love! I think she deserves the more compassion of the two."
"May be," answered Clarice, slowly—her thoughts were running so fast that her words came with hesitation. "But what shouldst thou say to one that had outlived a sorrowful love, and now thought it a happy chance that it had turned out contrary thereto?"
"It would depend upon how she had outlived it," responded Heliet, gravely.
"I heard one say, not many days gone," remarked Clarice—not meaning to let Heliet know from whom she had heard it—"that when she was young she loved a squire of her father, which did let her from wedding with him; and that now she was right thankful it so were, for he was killed on the field, and left never a plack behind him, and she was far better off, being now wed unto a gentleman of wealth and substance. What shouldst thou say to that?"
"If it were one of any kin to thee I would as lief say nothing to it," was Heliet's rather dry rejoinder.
"Nay, heed not that; I would fain know."
"Then I think the squire may have loved her, but so did she never him."
"In good sooth," said Clarice, "she told me she slept many a night on a wet pillow."
"So have I seen a child that had broken his toy," replied Heliet, smiling.
Clarice saw pretty plainly that Heliet thought such a state of things was not love at all.
"But how else can love be outlived?" she said.
"Love cannot. But sorrow may be."
"Some folks say love and sorrow be nigh the same."
"Nay, 'tis sin and sorrow that be nigh the same. All selfishness is sin, and very much of what men do commonly call love is but pure selfishness."
"Well, I never loved none yet," remarked Clarice.
"God have mercy on thee!" answered Heliet.
"Wherefore?" demanded Clarice, in surprise.
"Because," said Heliet, softly, "'he that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is charity.'"
"Art thou destined for the cloister?" asked Clarice.
Only priests, monks, and nuns, in her eyes, had any business to talk religiously, or might reasonably be expected to do so.
"I am destined to fulfil that which is God's will for me," was Heliet's simple reply. "Whether that will be the cloister or no I have not yet learned."
Clarice cogitated upon this reply while she ate stewed apples.
"Thou hast an odd name," she said, after a pause.
"What, Heliet?" asked its bearer, with a smile. "It is taken from the name of the holy prophet Elye, [Elijah] of old time."
"Is it? But I mean the other."
"Ah, I love it not," said Heliet.
"No, it is very queer," replied Clarice, with an apologetic blush, "very odd—Underdone!"
"Oh, but that is not my name," answered Heliet, quickly, with a little laugh; "but it is quite as bad. It is Pride."
Clarice fancied she had heard the name before, but she could not remember where.
"But why is it bad?" said she. "Then I reckon Mistress Underdone hath been twice wed?"
"She hath," said Heliet, answering the last question first, as people often do, "and my father was her first husband. Why is pride evil? Surely thou knowest that."
"Oh, I know it is one of the seven deadly sins, of course," responded Clarice, quickly; "still it is very necessary and noble."
Heliet's smile expressed a mixture of feelings. Clarice was not the first person who has held one axiom theoretically, but has practically behaved according to another.
"The Lord saith that He hates pride," said the lame girl, softly. "How, then, can it be necessary, not to say noble?"
"Oh, but—" Clarice went no further.
"But He did not mean what He said?"
"Oh, yes, of course!" said Clarice. "But—"
"Better drop the but," said Heliet, quaintly. "And Father Bevis is about to say grace."
The Dominican friar rose and returned thanks for the repast, and the company broke up, the Earl and Countess, with their guests, leaving the hall by the upper door, while the household retired by the lower.
The preparations for sleep were almost as primitive as those for meals. Exalted persons, such as the Earl and Countess, slept in handsome bedsteads, of the tent form, hung with silk curtains, and spread with coverlets of fur, silk, or tapestry. They washed in silver basins, with ewers of the same costly metal; and they sat, the highest rank in curule chairs, the lower upon velvet-cove red forms or stools. But ordinary people, of whom Clarice was one, were not provided for in this luxurious style. Bower-maidens slept in pallet-beds, which were made extremely low, so as to run easily under one of the larger bedsteads, and thus be put out of the way. All beds rejoiced in a quantity of pillows. Our ancestors made much more use of pillows and cushions than we—a fact easily accounted for, considering that they had no softly-stuffed chairs, but only upright ones of hard carved wood. But Clarice's sheets were simple "cloth of Rennes," while those of her mistress were set with jewels. Her mattress was stuffed with hay instead of wool; she had neither curtains nor fly-nets, and her coverlet was of plain cloth, unwrought by the needle. In the matter of blankets they fared alike except as to quality. But in the bower-maidens' chamber, where all the girls slept together, there were no basins of any material. Early in the morning a strong-armed maid came in, bearing a tub of water, which she set down on one of the coffers of carved oak which stood at the foot of each bed and held all the personal treasures of the sleeper. Then, by means of a mop which she brought with her, she gently sprinkled every face with water, thus intimating that it was time to get up. The tub she left behind. It was to provide—on the principle of "first come, first served"—for the ablutions of all the five young ladies, though each had her personal towel. Virtue was thus its own reward, the laziest girl being obliged to content herself with the dirtiest water. It must, however, be remembered that she was a fastidious damsel who washed more than face and hands.
They then dressed themselves, carefully tying their respective amulets round their necks, without which proceeding they would have anticipated all manner of ill luck to befall them during the day. These articles were small boxes of the nature of a locket, containing either a little dust of one saint, a shred of the conventual habit of another, or a few verses from a gospel, written very minutely, and folded up extremely small. Then each girl, as she was ready, knelt in the window, and gabbled over in Latin, which she did not understand, a Paternoster, ten Aves, and the Angelical Salutation, not unfrequently breaking eagerly into the conversation almost before the last Amen had left her lips. Prayers over, they passed into the sitting-room next door, where they generally found a basket of manchet bread and biscuits, with a large jug of ale or wine. A gentleman usher called for Mistress Underdone and her charges, and conducted them to mass in the chapel. Here they usually found the Earl and Countess before them, who alone, except the priests, were accommodated with seats. Each girl courtesied first to the altar, then to the Countess, and lastly to the Earl, before she took her allotted place. The Earl always returned the salutation by a quiet inclination of his head. The Countess sat in stony dignity, and never took any notice of it. Needlework followed until dinner, after which the Countess gave audience for an hour to any person desiring to see her, and usually concluded it by a half-hour's nap. Further needlework, for such as were not summoned to active attendance on their mistress if she went out, lasted until vespers, after which supper was served. After supper was the recreation time, when in most houses the bower-maidens enjoyed themselves with the gentlemen of the household in games or dancing in the hall; but the Lady Margaret strictly forbade any such frivolous doings in her maidens. They were still confined to their own sitting-room, except on some extraordinary occasion, and the only amusements allowed them were low-toned conversation, chess, draughts, or illumination. Music, dancing (even by the girls alone), noisy games of all kinds, and laughter, the Countess strictly forbade. The practical result was that the young ladies fell back upon gossip and ghost-stories, until there were few nights in the year when Roisia would have dared to go to bed by herself for a king's ransom. An hour before bed-time wine and cakes were served. After this Mistress Underdone recited the Rosary, the girls making the responses, and at eight o'clock—a late hour at that time—they trooped off to bed. All were expected to be in bed and all lights out by half-past eight. The unlucky maiden who loitered or was accidentally hindered had to finish her undressing in the dark.
Note 1. This strange habit of the Countess is a fact, and sorely distressed the Earl, as he has himself put on record, though with all his annoyance he shows himself quite conscious of the comicality of the proceeding.
Note 2. The depenseur, or family provider. Hence comes the name of Le Despenser, which, therefore, should not be spelt Despencer.
ON THE THRESHOLD OF LIFE.
"I will not dream of him handsome and strong— My ideal love may be weak and slight; It matters not to what class he belong, He would be noble enough in my sight; But he must be courteous toward the lowly, To the weak and sorrowful, loving too; He must be courageous, refined, and holy, By nature exalted, and firm, and true."
By the time that Clarice had been six weeks at Oakham she had pretty well made up her mind as to the characters of her companions. The Countess did not belie the estimate formed on first seeing her. The gentle, mournful, loving woman of Clarice's dreams had vanished, never to be recalled. The girl came to count that a red-letter day on which she did not see her mistress. Towards the Earl her feeling was an odd mixture of reverential liking and compassion. He came far nearer the ideal picture than his wife. His manners were unusually gentle and considerate of others, and he was specially remarkable for one trait very rarely found in the Middle Ages—he was always thoughtful of those beneath him. Another peculiarity he had, not common in his time; he was decidedly a humourist. The comic side even of his own troubles was always patent to him. Yet he was a man of extremely sensitive feeling, as well as of shrewd and delicate perceptions. He lived a most uncomfortable life, and he was quite aware of it. The one person who should have been his truest friend deliberately nursed baseless enmity towards him. The only one whom he loved in all the world hated him with deadly hatred. And there was no cause for it but one—the strongest cause of all—the reason why Cain slew his brother. He was of God, and she was of the world. Yet nothing could have persuaded her that he was not on the high road to perdition, while she was a special favourite of Heaven.
Clarice found Mistress Underdone much what she had expected—a good-natured, sensible supervisor. Her position, too, was not an easy one. She had to submit her sense to the orders of folly, and to sink her good-nature in submission to harshness. But she did her best, steered as delicately as she could between her Scylla and Charybdis, and always gave her girls the benefit of a doubt.
The girls themselves were equally distinct as to character. Olympias was delicate, with a failing of delicate people—a disposition to complaining and fault-finding. Elaine was full of fun, ready to barter any advantage in the future for enjoyment in the present. Diana was caustic, proud of her high connections, which were a shade above those of her companions, and inclined to be scornful towards everything not immediately patent to her comprehension. Roisia, while the most amiable, was also the weakest in character of the four; she was easily led astray by Elaine, easily persuaded to deviate from the right through fear of Diana.
The two priests had also unfolded themselves. The Dominican, Father Bevis, awoke in Clarice a certain amount of liking, not unmixed with rather timorous respect. But he was a grave, silent, undemonstrative man, who gave no encouragement to anything like personal affection, though he was not harsh nor unkind. The Franciscan, Father Miles, was of a type common in his day. The man and the priest were two different characters. Father Miles in the confessional was a stern master; Father Miles at the supper-table was a jovial playfellow. In his eyes, religion was not the breath and salt of life, but something altogether separate from it, and only to be mentioned on a Sunday. It was a bundle of ceremonies, not a living principle. To Father Bevis, on the contrary, religion was everything or nothing. If it had anything to do with a man at all, it must pervade his thoughts and his life. It was the leaven which leavened the whole lump; the salt whose absence left all unsavoury and insipid; the breath, which virtually was identical with life. One mistake Father Bevis made, a very natural mistake to a man who had been repressed, misunderstood; and disliked, as he had been ever since he could remember—he did not realise sufficiently that warmth was a necessity of life, and that young creatures more especially required a certain brooding tenderness to develop their faculties. No one had ever given him love but God; and he was too apt to suppose that religion could be fostered only in that way which had cherished his own. His light burned bright to Godward, but it was not sufficiently visible to men.
Clarice La Theyn had by this time discovered that there were other people in the household beyond those already mentioned. The Earl had four squires of the body, and the Countess two pages in waiting, beside a meaner crowd of dressers, sewers, porters, messengers, and all kinds of officials. The squires and the pages were the only ones who came much in contact with the bower-maidens.
Both the pages were boys of about fifteen, of whom Osbert was quiet and sedate for a boy, while Jordan was espiegle and full of mischievous tricks. The squires demand longer notice.
Reginald de Echingham was the first to attract Clarice's notice—a fact which, in Reginald's eyes, would only have been natural and proper. He was a handsome young man, and no one was better aware of it than himself. His principal virtue lay in a silky moustache, which he perpetually caressed. The Earl called him Narcissus, and he deserved it.
Next came Fulk de Chaucombe, who was about as careless of his personal appearance as Reginald was careful. He looked on his brother squire with ineffable disdain, as a man only fit to hunt out rhymes for sonnets, and hold skeins of silk for ladies. Call him a man! thought Master Fulk, with supreme contempt. Fulk's notion of manly occupations centred in war, with an occasional tournament by way of dessert.
Third on the list was Vivian Barkworth. To Clarice, at least, he was a perplexity. He was so chameleon-like that she could not make up her mind about him. He could be extremely attractive when he liked, and he could be just as repellent.
Least frequently of any were her thoughts given to Ademar de Gernet. She considered him at first entirely colourless. He was not talkative; he was neither handsome nor ugly; he showed no special characteristic which would serve to label him. She merely put him on one side, and never thought of him unless she happened to see him.
Her fellow bower-maidens also had their ideas concerning these young gentlemen. Olympias was—or fancied herself—madly in love with the handsome Reginald, on whom Elaine cracked jokes and played tricks, and Diana exhausted all her satire. As to Reginald, he was too deeply in love with himself to be sensible of the attractions of any other person. It struck Clarice as very odd when she found that the weak and gentle Roisia was a timid admirer of the bear-like De Chaucombe. As for Diana, her shafts were levelled impartially at all; but in her inmost heart Clarice fancied that she liked Vivian Barkeworth. Elaine was heart-whole, and plainly showed it.
The Countess had not improved on further acquaintance. She was not only a tyrant, but a capricious one. Not merely was penalty sure to follow on not pleasing her, but it was not easy to say what would please her at any given moment.
"We might as well be in a nunnery!" exclaimed Diana.
"Nay," said Elaine, "for then we could not get out."
"Don't flatter thyself on getting out, pray," returned Diana. "We shall never get out except by marrying, or really going into a nunnery."
"For which I am sure I have no vocation," laughed Elaine. "Oh, no! I shall marry; and won't I lead my baron a dance!"
"Who is it to be, Elaine?" asked Clarice.
"Ha, chetife! How do I know? The Lady will settle that. I only hope it won't be a man who puts oil on his hair and scents himself."
This remark was a side-thrust at Reginald, as Olympias well knew, and she looked reproachfully at Elaine.
"Well, I hope it won't be one who kills half-a-dozen men every morning before breakfast," said Diana, making a hit at Fulk.
It was Roisia's turn to look reproachful. Clarice could not help laughing.
"What dost thou think of our giddy speeches, Heliet?" said she.
Heliet looked up with her bright smile.
"Very like maidens' fancies," she said. "For me, I am never like to wed, so I can look on from the outside."
"But what manner of man shouldst thou fancy, Heliet?"
"Oh ay, do tell us!" cried more than one voice.
"I warrant he'll be a priest," said Elaine.
"He will have fair hair and soft manners," remarked Olympias.
"Nay, he shall have such hair as shall please God," said Heliet, more gravely. "But he must be gentle and loving, above all to the weak and sorrowful: a true knight, to whom every woman is a holy thing, to be guarded and tended with care. He must put full affiance in God, and love Him supremely: and next, me; and below that, all other. He must not fear danger, yet without fool-hardiness; but he must fear disgrace, and fear and hate sin. He must be true to himself, and must aim at making of himself the best man that ever he can. He must not be afraid of ridicule, or of being thought odd. He must have firm convictions, and be ready to draw sword for them, without looking to see whether other men be on the same side or not. His heart must be open to all misery, his brain to all true and innocent knowledge, his hand ready to redress every wrong not done to himself. For his enemies he must have forgiveness; for his friends, unswerving constancy: for all men, courtesy."
"And that is thy model man? Ha, jolife!" cried Elaine. "Why, I could not stand a month of him."
"I am afraid he would be rather soft and flat," said Diana, with a curl of her lip.
"No, I don't think that," answered Roisia. "But I should like to know where Heliet expects to find him."
"Do give his address, Heliet!" said Elaine, laughing.
"Ah! I never knew but one that answered to that description," was Heliet's reply.
"Ha, jolife!" cried Elaine, clapping her hands. "Now for his name! I hope I know him—but I am sure I don't."
"You all know His name," said Heliet, gravely. "How many of us know Him? For indeed, I know of no such man that ever lived, except only Jesus Christ our Lord."
There was no answer. A hush seemed to have fallen on the whole party, which was at last broken by Olympias.
"Well, but—thou knowest we cannot have Him."
"Pardon me, I know no such thing," answered Heliet, in the same soft, grave tone. "Does not the Psalmist say, 'Portio mea, Domine'? [Note 1] And does not Solomon say, 'Dilectus meus mihi?' [Note 2.] Is it not the very glory of His infinitude, that all who are His can have all of Him?"
"Where did Heliet pick up these queer notions?" said Diana under her breath.
"She goes to such extremes!" Elaine whispered back.
"But all that means to go into the cloister," replied Olympias in a discontented tone.
"Nay," said Heliet, taking up her crutches, "I hope a few will go to Heaven who do not go into the cloister. But we may rest assured of this, that not one will go there who has not chosen Christ for his portion."
"Well," said Diana, calmly, a minute after Heliet had disappeared, "I suppose she means to be a nun! But she might let that alone till she is one."
"Let what alone?" asked Roisia.
"Oh, all that parson's talk," returned Diana. "It is all very well for priests and nuns, but secular people have nothing to do with it."
"I thought even secular people wanted to go to Heaven," coolly put in Elaine, not because she cared a straw for the question, but because she delighted in taking the opposite side to Diana.
"Let them go, then!" responded Diana, rather sharply. "They can keep it to themselves, can't they?"
"Well, I don't know," said Elaine, laughing. "Some people cannot keep things to themselves. Just look at Olympias, whatever she is doing, how she argues the whole thing out in public. 'Oh, shall I go or not? Yes, I think I will; no, I won't, though; yes, but I will; oh, can't somebody tell me what to do?'"
Elaine's mimicry was so perfect that Olympias herself joined in the laugh. The last-named damsel carried on all her mental processes in public, instead of presenting her neighbours, as most do, with results only. And when people wear their hearts upon their sleeves, the daws will come and peck at them.
"Now, don't tease Olympias," said Roisia good-naturedly.
"Oh, let one have a bit of fun," said Elaine, "when one lives in a convent of the strictest order."
"I suspect thou wouldst find a difference if thou wert to enter one," sneered Diana.
Elaine would most likely have fought out the question had not Mistress Underdone entered at that moment with a plate of gingerbread in her hand smoking hot from the oven.
"Oh, Mistress, I am so hungry!" plaintively observed that young lady.
Mistress Underdone laughed, and set down the plate. "There, part the spice-cake among you," said she. "And when you be through, I have somewhat to tell you."
"Tell us now," said Elaine, as well as a mouthful of gingerbread allowed her to speak.
"Let me see, now—what day is this?" inquired Mistress Underdone.
All the voices answered her at once, "Saint Dunstan's Eve!" [May 13th].
"So it is. Well—come Saint Botolph, [June 17th] as I have but now learned, we go to Whitehall."
"Ha, jolife!" cried Diana, Elaine, and Roisia at once.
"Will Heliet go too?" asked Clarice, softly.
"Oh, no; Heliet never leaves Oakham," responded Olympias.
Mistress Underdone looked kindly at Clarice. "No, Heliet will not go," she said. "She cannot ride, poor heart." And the mother sighed, as if she felt the prospective pain of separation.
"But there will be dozens of other maidens," said Elaine. "There are plenty of girls in the world beside Heliet."
Clarice was beginning to think there hardly were for her.
"Oh, thou dost not know what thou wilt see at Westminster!" exclaimed Elaine. "The Lord King, and the Lady Queen, and all the Court; and the Abbey, with all its riches, and ever so many maids and gallants. It is delicious beyond description, when the Lady is away visiting some shrine, and she does that nearly every day."
Roisia's "Hush!" had come too late.
"I pray you say that again, my mistress!" said the well-known voice of the Lady Margaret in the doorway. "Nay, I will have it.—Fetch me the rod, Agatha.—Now then, minion, what saidst? Thou caitiff giglot! If I had thee not in hand, that tongue of thine should bring thee to ruin. What saidst, hussy?"
And Elaine had to repeat the unlucky words, with the birch in prospect, and immediately afterwards in actuality.
"I will lock thee up when I go visiting shrines!" said the Countess with her last stroke. "Agatha, remember when we are at Westminster that I have said so."
"Ay, Lady," observed Mistress Underdone, composedly.
And the Lady Margaret, throwing down the birch, stalked away, and left the sobbing Elaine to resume her composure at her leisure.
In a vaulted upper chamber of the Palace of Westminster, on a bright morning in June, four persons were seated. Three, who were of the nobler sex, were engaged in converse; the last, a lady, sat apart with her embroidery in modest silence. They were near relatives, for the men were respectively husband, brother-in-law, and uncle of the woman, and they were the most prominent members of the royal line of England, with one who did not belong to it.
Foremost of the group was the King. He was foremost in more senses than one, for, as is well known, Edward the First, like Saul, was higher than any of his people. Moreover, he was as spare as he was tall, which made him look almost gigantic. His forehead was large and broad, his features handsome and regular, but marred by that perpetual droop in his left eyelid which he had inherited from his father. Hair and complexion, originally fair, had been bronzed by his Eastern campaigns till the crisp curling hair was almost black, and the delicate tint had acquired a swarthy hue. He had a nose inclining to the Roman type, a broad chest, agile arms, and excessively long legs. His dark eyes were soft when he was in a good temper, but fierce as a tiger's when roused to anger; and His Majesty's temper was—well, not precisely angelic. [Note 3.] It was like lightning, in being as sudden and fierce, but it did not resemble that natural phenomenon in disappearing as quickly as it had come. On the contrary, Edward never forgot and hardly forgave an injury. His abilities were beyond question, and, for his time, he was an unusually independent and original thinker. His moral character, however, was worse than is commonly supposed, though it did not descend to the lowest depths it reached until after the death of his fair and faithful Leonor.
The King's brother Edmund was that same Earl of Lancaster whom we have already seen at Oakham. He was a man of smaller intellectual calibre than his royal brother, but of much pleasanter disposition. Extreme gentleness was his principal characteristic, as it has been that of all our royal Edmunds, though in some instances it degenerated into excessive weakness. This was not the case with the Earl of Lancaster. His great kindness of heart is abundantly attested by his own letters and his brother's State papers.
William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, was the third member of the group, and he was the uncle of the royal brothers, being a son of their grandmother's second marriage with Hugh de Lusignan, Count de La Marche. Though he made a deep mark upon his time, yet his character is not easy to fathom beyond two points—that his ability had in it a little element of craft, and that he took reasonable care of Number One.
Over the head of the lady who sat in the curule chair, quietly embroidering, twenty-five years had passed since she had been styled by a poet, "the loveliest lady in all the land." She was hardly less even now, when her fifty years were nearly numbered; when, unseen by any earthly eyes, her days were drawing to their close, and the angel of death stood close beside her, ready to strike before six months should be fulfilled. Certainly, according to modern ideas of beauty, never was a queen fairer than Leonor the Faithful, and very rarely has there been one as fair. And—more unusual still—she was as good as she was beautiful. The worst loss in all her husband's life was the loss of her.
So far from seeing any sorrow looming in the future was King Edward at this moment, that he was extremely jubilant over a project which he had just brought to a successful issue.
"There!" said he, rubbing his hands in supreme satisfaction, "that parchment settles the business. When both my brother of Scotland and I are gone, our children will reign over one empire, king and queen of both. Is not that worth living for?"
"Soit!" [Be it so] ejaculated De Valence, shrugging his Provencal shoulders. "A few acres of bare moss and a handful of stags, to say nothing of the barbarians who dwell up in those misty regions. A fine matter surely to clap one's hands over!"
"Ah, fair uncle, you never travelled in Scotland," interposed the gentle Lancaster, before the King could blaze up, "and you know not what sort of country it is. From what I have heard, it would easily match your land in respect of beauty."
"Match Poitou? or Provence? Cousin, you must have taken leave of your senses. You were not born on the banks of the Isere, or you would not chatter such treason as that."
"Truly no, fair Uncle, for I was born in the City of London, just beyond," said Lancaster, with a good-humoured laugh; "and, verily, that would rival neither Scotland nor Poitou, to say nothing of Dauphine and Provence. The goddess of beauty was not in attendance when I was born."
Perhaps few would have ventured on that assertion except himself. Edmund of Lancaster was among the most handsome of our princes.
"Beshrew you both!" cried King Edward, unfraternally; "wherever will these fellows ramble with their tongues? Who said anything about beauty? I care not, I, if the maiden Margaret were the ugliest lass that ever tied a kerchief, so long as she is the heiress of Scotland. Ned has beauty enough and to spare; let him stare in the glass if he cannot look at his wife."
The Queen looked up with an amused expression, and would, perhaps, have spoken, had not the tapestry been lifted by some person unseen, and a little boy of six years old bounded into the room.
No wonder that the fire in the King's eyes died into instant softness. It would have been a wonder if the parents had not been proud of that boy, for he was one of the loveliest children on whom human eye ever rested. Did it ever cross the minds of that father and mother that the kindest deed they could have done to that darling child would have been to smother him in his cradle? Had the roll of his life been held up before them at that moment, they would have counted only thirty-seven years, written within and without in lamentation, and mourning, and woe.
King Edward lifted his little heir upon his knee.
"Look here, Ned," said he. "Seest yonder parchment?"
The blue eyes opened a little, and the fair curls shook with a nod of affirmation.
"What is it, thinkest?"
A shake of the pretty little head was the reply.
"Thy Cousin Margaret is coming to dwell with thee. That parchment will bring her."
"How old is she?" asked the Prince.
"But just a year younger than thou."
"Is she nice?"
The King laughed. "How can I tell thee? I never saw her."
"Will she play with us?"
"I should think she will. She is just between thee and Beatrice."
"Beatrice is only a baby!" remarked the Prince disdainfully. Six years old is naturally scornful of four.
"Not more of a baby than thou," said his uncle Lancaster, playfully.
"But she's a girl, and I'm a man!" cried the insulted little Prince.
King Edward, excessively amused, set his boy down on the floor. "There, run to thy mother," said he. "Thou wilt be a man one of these days, I dare say; but not just yet, Master Ned."
And no angel voice whispered to one of them that it would have been well for that child if he had never been a man, nor that ere he was six months older, the mother, whose death was a worse calamity to him than to any other, and the little Norwegian lassie to whom he was now betrothed, would pass almost hand in hand into the silent land. Three months later, Margaret, Princess of Norway and Queen of Scotland, set sail from her father's coast for her mother's kingdom, whence she was to travel to England, and be brought up under the tender care of the royal Leonor as its future queen. But one of the sudden and terrible storms of the North Sea met her ere she reached the shore of Scotland. She just lived to be flung ashore at Kirkwall, in the Orkneys, and there, in the pitying hands of the fishers' wives, the child breathed out her little life, having lived five years, and reigned for nearly as long. Who of us, looking back to the probable lot that would have awaited her in England, shall dare to pity that little child?
Note 1. "Thou art my portion, O Lord."—Psalm 119, verse 57.
Note 2. "My beloved is mine."—Canticles 2, verse 16.
Note 3. Two anecdotes may be given which illustrate this in a manner almost comical; the first has been published more than once, the latter has not to my knowledge. When his youngest daughter Elizabeth was married to the Earl of Hereford in 1302, the King, annoyed by some unfortunate remark of the bride, snatched her coronet from her head and threw it into the fire, nor did the Princess recover it undamaged. In 1305, writing to John de Fonteyne, the physician of his second wife, Marguerite of France, who was then ill of small-pox, the King warns him not on any account to allow the Queen to exert herself until she has completely recovered, "and if you do," adds the monarch in French, of considerably more force than elegance, and not too suitable for exact quotation, "you shall pay for it!"
WAITING AND WEARY.
"Oh! for the strength of God's right hand! the way is hard and dreary, Through Him to walk and not to faint, to run and not be weary!"
We left the Royal party in conversation in the chamber at Westminster.
"Have you quite resolved, Sire, to expel all the Jews from England?" asked De Valence.
"Resolved? Yes; I hope it is half done," replied the King. "You are aware, fair Uncle, that our Commons voted us a fifteenth on this condition?"
"No, I did not hear that," said De Valence.
"How many are there of those creatures?" inquired Lancaster.
"How should I know?" returned Edward, with an oath. "I only know that the Chancellor said the houses and goods were selling well to our profit."
"Fifteen thousand and sixty, my Lord of Surrey told me," said Lancaster. "I doubted if it were not too high a computation; that is why I asked."
"Oh, very likely not," responded Edward, carelessly. "There are as many of them as gnats, and as much annoyance."
"Well, it is a pious deed, of course," said Lancaster, stroking his moustache, not in the dilettante style of De Echingham, but like a man lost in thought. "It seems a pity, though, for the women and children."
"My cousin of Lancaster, I do believe, sings Dirige over the chickens in his barnyard," sneered De Valence.
Lancaster looked up with a good-tempered smile.
"Does my fair Uncle never wish for the day when the lion shall eat straw like the ox?" [Note 1.]
"Not I!" cried De Valence, with a hearty laugh. "Why, what mean you? are we to dine on a haunch of lion when it comes?"
"Nay, for that were to make us worse than either, methinks. I suppose we shall give over eating what has had life, at that time."
"Merci, mille fois!" laughed his uncle. "My dinner will be spoiled. Not thine, I dare say. I'll be bound, Sire, our fair cousin will munch his apples and pears with all the gusto in the world, and send his squire to the stable to inquire if the lion has a straw doubled under him."
"Bah!" said the King. "What are you talking about?"
"How much will this business of the Jews cost your Grace?" asked De Valence, dropping his sarcasms.
"Cost me?" demanded Edward, with a short laugh. "Did our fair uncle imagine we meant to execute such a project at our own expense? Let the rogues pay their own travelling fees."
"Ha! good!" said the Poitevin noble. "And our fair cousin of Lancaster shall chant the De Profundis while they embark, and I will offer a silver fibula to Saint Edward that they may all be drowned. How sayest, fair Cousin?"
"Nay," was Lancaster's answer, in a doubtful tone. "I reckon we ought not to pity them, being they that crucified our Lord. But—"
But for all that, his heart cried out against his creed. Yet it did not occur to him that the particular men who were being driven from their homes for no fault of theirs, and forced with keen irony of oppression to pay their own expenses, were not those who crucified Christ, but were removed from them by many generations. The times of the Gentiles were not yet fulfilled, and the cry, "His blood be on us, and on our children" had not yet exhausted its awful power.
There was one person not present who would heartily have agreed with Lancaster. This was his cousin and namesake, Edmund, Earl of Cornwall, who not only felt for the lower animals—a rare yet occasional state of mind in the thirteenth century—but went further, and compassionated the villeins—a sentiment which very few indeed would have dreamed of sharing with him. The labourers on the land were serfs, and had no feelings,—that is, none that could be recognised by the upper classes. They were liable to be sold with the land which they tilled; nor could they leave their "hundred" without a passport. Their sons might not be educated to anything but agriculture; their daughters could not be married without paying a fine to the master. Worse things than these are told of some, for of course the condition of the serf largely depended on the disposition of his owner.
The journey from Oakham to Westminster was a pleasant change to all the bower-maidens but one, and that was the one selected to travel with her mistress in the litter. Each was secretly, if not openly, hoping not to be that one; and it was with no little trepidation that Clarice received the news that this honour was to be conferred on her. She discovered, however, on the journey, that scolding was not the perpetual occupation of the Countess. She spent part of every day in telling her beads, part in reading books woefully dry to the apprehension of Clarice, and part in sleeping, which not unfrequently succeeded the beads. Conversation she never attempted, and Clarice, who dared not speak till she was spoken to, began to entertain a fear of losing the use of her tongue. Otherwise she was grave and quiet enough, poor girl! for she was not naturally talkative. She was very sorry to part with Heliet, and she felt, almost without knowing why, some apprehension concerning the future. Sentiments of this sort were quite unknown to such girls as Elaine, Diana, and Roisia, while with Olympias they arose solely from delicate health. But Clarice was made of finer porcelain, and she could not help mournfully feeling that she had not a friend in the world. Her father and mother were not friends; they were strangers who might be expected to do what they thought best for her, just as the authorities of a workhouse might take conscientious care in the apprenticing of the workhouse girls. But no more could be expected, and Clarice felt it. If there had only been, anywhere in the world, somebody who loved her! There was no such probability to which it was safe to look forward. Possibly, some twenty or thirty years hence, some of her children might love her. As for her husband, he was simply an embarrassing future certainty, who—with almost equal certainty—would not care a straw about her. That was only to be expected. The squire who liked Roisia would be pretty sure to get Diana; while the girl who admired Reginald de Echingham was safe to fall to Fulk de Chaucombe. Things always were arranged so in this world. Perhaps, thought Clarice, those girls were the happiest who did not care, who took life as it came, and made all the fun they could out of it. But she knew well that this was how life and she would never take each other.
Whitehall was reached at last, on that eve of Saint Botolph. Clarice was excessively tired, and only able to judge of the noise without, and the superb decorations and lofty rooms within. Lofty, be it remembered, to her eyes; they would not look so to ours. She supped upon salt merling [whiting], pease-cods [green peas], and stewed fruit, and was not sorry to get to bed.
In the morning, she found the household considerably increased. Her eyes were almost dazzled by the comers and goers; and she really noticed only one person. Two young knights were among the new attendants of the Earl, but one of them Clarice could not have distinguished from the crowd. The other had attracted her notice by coming forward to help the Countess from her litter, and, instead of attending his mistress further, had, rather to Clarice's surprise, turned to help her. And when she looked up to thank him, it struck her that his face was like somebody she knew. She did not discover who it was till Roisia observed, while the girls were undressing, that—"My cousin is growing a beard, I declare. He had none the last time I saw him."
"Which is thy cousin?" asked Clarice.
"Why, Piers Ingham," said Roisia. "He that helped my Lady from the litter."
"Oh, is he thy cousin?" responded Clarice.
"By the mother's side," answered Roisia. "He hath but been knighted this last winter."
"Then he is just ready for a wife," said Elaine. "I wonder which of us it will be! It is tolerably sure to be one. I say, maids, I mean to have a jolly time of it while we are here! It shall go hard with me if I do not get promoted to be one of the Queen's bower-women!"
"Oh, would I?" interpolated Diana.
"Why?" asked more than one voice.
"I am sure," said Olympias, "I had ever so much rather be under the Lady Queen than our Lady."
"Oh, that may be," said Diana. "I was not looking at it in that light. There is some amusement in deceiving our Lady, and one doesn't feel it wrong, because she is such a vixen; but there would be no fun in taking in the Queen, she's too good."
"I wonder what Father Bevis would say to that doctrine," demurely remarked Elaine. "What it seems to mean is, that a lie is not such a bad thing if you tell it to a bad person as it would be if you told it to a good one. Now I doubt if Father Bevis would be quite of that opinion."
"Don't talk nonsense," was Diana's reply.
"Well, but is it nonsense? Didst thou mean that?"
It was rather unusual for Elaine thus to satirise Diana, and looked as if the two had changed characters, especially when Diana walked away, muttering something which no one distinctly heard.
Elaine proved herself a tolerably true prophetess. Fete followed fete. Clarice found herself initiated into Court circles, and discovered that she was enjoying herself very much. But whether the attraction lay in the pageants, in the dancing, in her own bright array, or in the companionship, she did not pause to ask herself. Perhaps if she had paused, and made the inquiry, she might have discovered that life had changed to her since she came to Westminster. The things eternal, of which Heliet alone had spoken to her, had faded away into far distance; they had been left behind at Oakham. The things temporal were becoming everything.
In a stone balcony overhanging the Thames, at Whitehall, sat Earl Edmund of Cornwall, in a thoughtful attitude, resting his head upon his hand. He had been alone for half an hour, but now a tall man in a Dominican habit, who was not Father Bevis, came round the corner of the balcony, which ran all along that side of the house. He was the Prior or Rector of Ashridge, a collegiate community, founded by the Earl himself, of which we shall hear more anon.
The Friar sat down on the stone bench near the Earl, who took no further notice of him than by a look, his eyes returning to dreamy contemplation of the river.
"Of what is my Lord thinking?" asked the Friar, gently.
"Of life," said the Prince.
"Not very hopefully, I imagine."
"The hope comes at the beginning, Father. Look at yonder pleasure-boat, with the lads and lasses in it, setting forth for a row. There is hope enough in their faces. But when the journey comes near its end, and the perilous bridge must be shot, and the night is setting in, what you see in the faces then will not be hope. It will be weariness; perhaps disgust and sorrow. And—in some voyages, the hope dies early."
"True—if it has reference only to the day."
"Ah," responded the Prince, with a smile which had more sadness than mirth in it, "you mean to point me to the hope beyond. But the day is long Father. The night has not come yet, and the bridge is still to be shot. Ay, and the wind and rain are cold, as one drops slowly down the river."
"There is home at the end, nevertheless," answered the Dominican. "When we sit round the fire in the banquet hall, and all we love are round us, and the doors shut safe, we shall easily forget the cold wind on the water."
"When! Yes. But I am on the water yet, and it may be some hours before my barge is moored at the garden steps. And—it is always the same, Father. It does seem strange, when there is only one earthly thing for which a man cares, that God should deny him that one thing. Why rouse the hope which is never to be fulfilled? If the width of the world had lain all our lives between me and my Lady, we should both have been happier. Why should God bring us together to spoil each other's lives? For I dare say she is as little pleased with her lot as I with mine— poor Magot!"
"Will my Lord allow me to alter the figure he has chosen?" said the Predicant Friar. "Look at your own barge moored down below. If the rope were to break, what would become of the barge?"
"It would drift down the river."
"And if there were in it a little child, alone, too young to have either skill or strength to steer it, what would become of him when the barge shot the bridge?"
"Poor soul!—destruction, without question."
"And what if my Lord be that little child, safe as yet in the barge which the Master has tied fast to the shore? The rope is his trouble. What if it be his safety also? He would like far better to go drifting down, amusing himself with the strange sights while daylight lasted; but when night came, and the bridge to be passed, how then? Is it not better to be safe moored, though there be no beauty or variety in the scene?"
"Nay, Father, but is there no third way? Might the bridge not be passed in safety, and the child take his pleasure, and yet reach home well and sound?"
"Some children," said the Predicant Friar, with a tender intonation. "But not that child."
The Earl was silent. The Prior softly repeated a text of Scripture.
"Endure chastisement. As sons God dealeth with you; what son then is he, whom the Father chasteneth not?" [Hebrews 12, verse 7, Vulgate version.]
A low, half-repressed sigh from his companion reminded the Prior that he was touching a sore place. One of the Prince's bitterest griefs was his childlessness. [He has told us so himself.] The Prior tacked about, and came into deeper water.
"'Nor have we a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our infirmities, for He was tempted in all things like us, except in sinning.'" [Hebrews 4, verse 15, Vulgate version.]
"If one could see!" said the Earl, almost in a whisper.
"It would be easier, without doubt. Yet 'blessed are they who see not, and believe.' God can see. I would rather He saw and not I, than—if such a thing were possible—that I saw and not He. Whether is better, my Lord, that the father see the danger and guard the child without his knowing anything, or that the child see it too, and have all the pain and apprehension consequent upon the seeing? The blind has the advantage, sometimes."
"Yet who would wish to be blind on that account?" answered the Earl, quickly.
"No man could wish it, nor need he. Only, the blind man may take the comfort of it."
"But you have not answered one point, Father. Why does God rouse longings in our hearts which He never means to fulfil?"
"Does God rouse them?"
"Are they sin, then?"
"No," answered the Prior, slowly, as if he were thinking out the question, and had barely reached the answer. "I dare not say that. They are nature. Some, I know, would have all that is nature to be sin; but I doubt if God treats it thus in His Word. Still, I question if He raises those longings. He allows them. Man raises them."
"Does He never guide them?"
"Yes, that I think He does."
"Then the question comes to the same thing. Why does God not guide us to long for the thing that He means to give us?"