In Convent Walls, by Emily Sarah Holt.
The historical portion of this tale has been partially narrated in one of my previous volumes, "In All Time of our Tribulation," in which the Despenser story is begun, and its end told from another point of view. That volume left Isabelle of France at the height of her ambition, in the place to reach which she had been plotting so long and so unscrupulously. Here we see the Nemesis come upon her and the chief partner of her guilt; the proof that there is a God that judgeth in the earth. It is surely one of the saddest stories of history—sad as all stories are which tell of men and women whom God has endowed richly with gifts, and who, casting from them the Divine hand which would fain lift them up into the light of the Golden City, deliberately choose the pathway of death, and the blackness of darkness for ever. Few women have had grander opportunities given them than Isabelle for serving God and making their names blessed and immortal. She chose rather to serve self: and thereby inscribed her name on one of the blackest pages of England's history, and handed down her memory to eternal execration. For "life is to do the will of God"—the true blessedness and glory of life here, no less than the life hereafter.
"Oh, the bitter shame and sorrow, That a time should ever be When I let the Saviour's pity Plead in vain, and proudly answered— 'All of self, and none of Thee!'
"Yet He found me; I beheld Him Bleeding on the accursed tree,— Heard Him pray, 'Forgive them, Father!' And my wistful heart said faintly, 'Some of self, and some of Thee!'
"Day by day, His tender mercy, Healing, helping, full and free, Sweet and strong, and, ah! so patient, Brought me lower, while I whispered, 'Less of self, and more of Thee!'
"Higher than the highest heaven, Deeper than the deepest sea, Lord, Thy love at last hast conquered: Grant me now my heart's desire— 'None of self, and all of Thee!'"
PART ONE, CHAPTER 1.
WHEREIN DAME CICELY DE CHAUCOMBE SCRIBETH SOOTHLINESS (1360).
WHEREIN COMMENCE THE ANNALS OF CICELY.
"Heaven does with us, as we with torches do— Not light them for themselves."
"It is of no use, Jack," quoth I. "I never did love her, I never can, and never shall."
"And I never bade you, Sissot," answered he. "Put that in belike, prithee."
"But you bade me write the story out," said I. "Ay, I did so. But I left you free to speak your mind of any body that should come therein, from a bishop to a baa-lamb," said he.
"Where shall I go for mine ink?" I made answer: "seeing that some part of my tale, to correspond to the matter, should need to be writ in vernage, [Note 1] and some other in verjuice."
"Keep two quills by you," saith he, "with inkhorns of the twain, and use either according to the matter."
"Ay me!" said I. "It should be the strangest and woefullest tale ever writ by woman."
"The more need that it should be writ," quoth Jack, "by them that have lived it, and can tell the sooth-fastness [truth] thereof. Look you, Sissot, there are men enough will tell the tale of hearsay, such as they may win of one and another, and that is like to be full of guile and contrariousness. And many will tell it to win favour of those in high place, and so shall but the half be told. Thou hast lived through it, and wist all the inwards thereof, at least from thine own standing-spot. Let there be one tale told just as it was, of one that verily knew, and had no purpose to win gold or favour, but only to speak sooth-fastness."
"You set me an hard task, Jack!" I said, and I think I sighed.
"Easier to do, maybe, than to reckon on," saith he, in his dry, tholemode [Note 2] way. "Thou needest write but one word at once, and thou canst take thine own time to think what word to write."
"But I have no parchment," said I. I am a little afraid I coveted not any, for I fancied not the business at all. It was Jack who wanted the story writ out fair, not I.
"Well, I have," saith Jack calmly.
"Nor any quills," said I.
"I have," saith Jack, after the same fashion.
"And the ink is dried-up."
"Then will we buy more."
"But—" I stayed, for I thought I had better hold my tongue.
"But—I have no mind to it," saith Jack. "That might have come first, Sissot. It shows, when it doth, that thou hast come to an end of thine excuses. Nay, sweet heart, do but begin, and the mind will have after."
"Lack-a-daisy!" said I, trying to laugh, though I felt somewhat irked [worried, irritated]: "I reckon, then, I had best do mine husband's bidding without more ado."
"There spake my Sissot," saith he. "Good dame!"
So here am I, sat at this desk, with a roll of parchment that Jack hath cut in even leches [strips] for to make a book, and an inkhorn of fresh ink, and divers quills—O me! must all this be writ up?
Well, have forth! I shall so content Jack, and if I content not myself, that shall pay me.
It was through being one of Queen Isabel's gentlewomen that I came to know these things, and, as Jack saith, to live through my story. And I might go a step further back, for I came to that dignity by reason of being daughter unto Dame Alice de Lethegreve, that was of old time nurse to King Edward. So long as I was a young maid, I was one of the Queen's sub-damsels; but when I wedded my Jack (and a better Jack never did maiden wed) I was preferred to be damsel of the chamber: and in such fashion journeyed I with the Queen to France, and tarried with her all the time she dwelt beyond seas, and came home with her again, and was with her the four years following, until all brake up, and she was appointed to keep house at Rising Castle. So the whole play was played before mine own eyes.
I spake only sooth-fastness when I told Jack I could never love her. How can man love whom he cannot trust? It would have been as easy to put faith in a snake because it had lovesome marks and colouring, as in that fair, fair face—ay, I will not deny that it was marvellous fair— with the gleaming eyes, which now seemed to flash with golden light, and now to look like the dark depths of a stagnant pool. Wonderful eyes they were! I am glad I never trusted them.
Nor did I never trust her voice. It was as marvellous as the eyes. It could be sweet as honey and sharp as a two-edged sword; soft as dove's down, and hard as an agate stone. Too soft and sweet to be sooth-fast! She meant her words only when they were sword and agate.
And the King—what shall I say of him? In good sooth, I will say nothing, but leave him to unfold himself in the story. I was not the King's foster-sister in sooth, for I was ten years the younger; and it was Robin, my brother, that claimed kin with him on that hand. But he was ever hendy [amiable, kindly, courteous] to me. God rest his hapless soul!
But where shall my tale begin? Verily, I have no mind to set forth from the creation, as chroniclers are wont. I was not there then, and lived not through that, nor of a long while after. Must I then begin from my creation? aswhasay [as who should say—that is to say], as near it as my remembrance taketh me. Nay, I think not so: for then should I tell much of the reign of King Edward of Westminster [Edward the First], that were right beside the real story. I think I shall take date from the time of the Queen's first departure to France, which was the year of our Lord God, 1324.
I was a young maid of seventeen years when I entered the Queen's household,—her own age. But in another sense, I was tenfold the child that she was. Indeed, I marvel if she ever were a child. I rather think she was born grown-up, as the old heathen fabled Minerva to have been. While on waiting, I often used to see and hear things that I did not understand, yet which I could feel were disapproved by something inside me: I suppose it must have been my conscience. And if at those times I looked on my mother's face, I could often read disapproval in her eyes also. I never loved the long secret discourses there used to be betwixt the Queen and her uncle, my Lord of Lancaster: they always had to me the air of plotting mischief. Nor did I ever love my Lord of Lancaster; there was no simplicity nor courtesy in him. His natural manner (when he let it be seen) was stern and abrupt; but he did very rarely allow it to be seen; it was nearly always some affectation put on. And I hate that, and so doth Jack.
At that time I loved and hated instinctively, as I think children do; and at seventeen years, I was a child in all things save by the almanac. I could rarely tell why I did not love people—only, I did not love them. I knew oftener why I did. I never thought much of Sir Piers de Gavaston, that the King so dearly affected, but I never hated him in a deadly fashion, as some did that I knew. I loved better Sir Hugh Le Despenser, that was afterwards Earl of Gloucester, for he—
"Sissot," saith a voice behind me, "what is the name of that chronicle?"
"I cannot tell, Jack," said I. "What wouldst have it called?"
"'The Annals of Cicely,'" quoth he; "for she is beginning, middle, and end of it."
I felt as though he had cast a pitcher of cold water over me. I sat looking at my parchment.
"Read it over, prithee," saith he, "and count how many great I's be therein."
So did I, and by my troth there were seventy-seven. Seventy-seven of me! and all in six leaves of parchment, forsooth. How many soever shall there be by the time I make an end?
"That's an ill beginning, Jack!" said I, and I felt ready to cry. "Must I begin over again?"
"Sissot," quoth he, "nothing is ever undone in this world."
"What mean you?" said I.
"There was man died the year before thou wert born," he made answer, "that was great friend of my father. He was old when my father was young, yet for all that were they right good friends. He was a very learned man; so wise in respect of things known but to few, that most men accounted him a very magician, and no good Christian. Howbeit, my father said that was but folly and slander. He told my father some of the strange matters that he found in nature; and amongst them, one thing, which hath ever stuck by me. Saith Friar Roger, Nothing is ever destroyed. Nothing that hath once had being, can ever cease to be."
"Why, Jack!" cried I. "Verily that must be folly! I cast this scrap of parchment on the chafer, and it burneth up. It is gone, see thou. Surely it hath ceased to be?"
"No," saith he. "It is gone into ashes and smoke."
"What be ashes and smoke?" asked I, laughing.
"Why, they be ashes and smoke," he made answer. "And the smoke curleth up chimney, and goeth out into the air: and the air cometh up Sissot's nose-thirls, and feedeth her bodily life; and Sissot maketh seventy-seven I's to six pages of parchment."
"Now, Jack, softly!" said I.
"So it is, my dame," pursueth he. "Every thing that dieth, feedeth somewhat that liveth. But I can go further an' thou wilt. Friar Roger thought (though he had not proved it) that every word spoken might as it were dwell in the air, and at bidding of God hereafter, all those words should return to life and be heard again by all the world."
I could not help but laugh.
"Why, what a din!" said I. "Do but think, all the words, in all languages, buzzing about man's ears, that were ever spoken since Adam dwelt in the Garden of Eden!"
"Wouldst thou like all thy words repeated thus, Sissot?"
"I would not mind, Jack."
"Wouldst not? Then I am worser than thou, which is like enough. I would not like to hear all my foolish words, all my angry words, all my sinful words, echoed back to me from the starry walls of heaven. And suppose, Sissot—only suppose that God should do as much with our thoughts! I dare say He knows how."
I covered my face with mine hands.
"That would be dreadful!" I whispered.
"It will be, in very deed," softly said Jack, "when the Books are opened, and the names read out, in the light of that great white Throne which shall be brighter than noon-day. I reckon in that day we shall not be hearkening for Sir Piers de Gavaston's name, nor for Sir Hugh Le Despenser's, but only for those of John and Cicely de Chaucombe. Now, set again to thy chronicling, my Sissot, and do it in the light of that Throne, and in the expectation of that Book: so shall it be done well."
And so Jack left me. But to speak sooth, seeing the matter thus makes me to feel as though I scarce dared do it at all. Howsobe, I have it to do: and stedfast way maketh stedfast heart.
There were plenty of people who hated Sir Hugh Le Despenser, but I and my mother Dame Alice were not amongst them. He had been brought up with the King from his youth, but the King never loved him till after the death of Sir Piers de Gavaston. The Queen loved him, just so long as the King did not. That was always her way; the moment that she saw he cared for anything which was not herself, she at once began to hate it. And verily he never gave her cause, for he held her ever dearest of any mortal thing.
Sir Hugh was as goodly a gentleman as man's eyes might see. Those who loved him not called him proud—yea, the very spirit of pride. But the manner they thought pride seemed to me rather a kind of sternness or shortness of speech, as if he wished to have done with the matter in hand. Some people call every thing pride; if man talk much, they say he loves to hear his own voice; if he be silent, he despises his company. Now it seems to me that I often speak and am silent from many other causes than pride, and therefore it may be the like with other folk. Do those which are ever accusing other of pride, do all their actions for that reason? If not so, how or why should they suspect it in other men? I do not think Sir Hugh was so much prouder than other. He knew his own value, I dare say; and very like he did not enjoy being set at nought—who doth so? Other said he was ambitious: and there might be some sooth-fastness in the accusation; yet I fancy the accusers loved a slice of worldly grandeur no less than most men. And some said he was wicked man: that did I never believe.
As for his wife, Dame Alianora, I scarcely know what to say of her. She was a curious mixture of qualities. She clung to the King her uncle when others forsook him, she was free-handed, and she could feel for man in trouble: those were her good points. Yet she seemed to feel but what she saw; it was "out of sight, out of mind," with her; and she loved new faces rather too well to please me. I think, for one thing, she was timid; and that oft-times causes man to appear what he is not. But she was better woman than either of her sisters—the Lady Margaret Audley and the Lady Elizabeth de Clare. I never saw her do, nor heard her say, the heartless acts and speeches whereof I knew both of them guilty. I dare say, as women go, she was not ill woman. For, alas! I have lived long enough to know that there be not many good ones.
Well, I said—no did I?—that I would begin with the year 1324 of our Lord God. But, lack-a-day! there were matters afore 1324, like as there were men before Agamemnon. Truly, methinks there be a two-three I did well not to omit: aswhasay, the dying of Queen Margaret, widow of King Edward of Westminster, which deceased seven years earlier than so. I shall never cease to marvel how it came to pass that two women of the same nation, of the same family, being aunt and niece by blood, should have been so strangely diverse as those two Queens. All that was good, wise, and gentle, was in Queen Margaret: what was in Queen Isabel will my chronicle best tell. This most reverend lady led a very retired life after her husband's death, being but a rare visitor to the Court, dwelling as quietly and holily as any nun might dwell, and winning love and respect from all that knew her. Very charitable was she and most devout: and (if it be lawful to say thus) had I been Pope, I had sooner canonised her than a goodly number that hath been. But I do ill to speak thus, seeing the holy Father is infallible, and acts in such matters but by the leading of God's Spirit, as saith the Church. Good lack, but there be queer things in this world! I saw once Father Philip screw up his mouth when one said the same in his hearing, and saith he—
"The Lord Pope is infallible when he speaketh ex cathedra, but so only."
"But how," saith he that spake, "shall we know when he is sat in his chair and when he is out of it?"
An odd look came into Father Philip's eyes.
"Master," saith he, "when I was a little lad, my mother told me divers times that it was not seemly to ask curious questions."
But I guess what the good Friar thought, though it be not always discreet to speak out man's thoughts. Ah me! will the time ever come when man may say what he will, with no worse thereafter than a sneer or a sharp rebuke from his neighbour? If so were, I would I had been born in those merry days—but I should want Jack to be born then belike.
"Sissot," saith a voice over my shoulder, "wist thou the full meaning of thy wish?"
Jack is given to coming in quietly—I never knew him make a noise—and peeping over my shoulder to see how my chronicle maketh progress: for he can well read, though he write not.
"What so, Jack?" said I.
"I reckon we should be the younger by some centuries," quoth he, "and perchance should not be at all. But allowing it, dost thou perceive that such a difference should mean a change in all things?—that no fear should in likelihood mean no reverence nor obedience, and might come to mean more than that?"
"That were dread!" said I. "What manner of times should they be?"
"I think," saith he, "those very 'tempora periculosa' whereof Saint Paul speaketh, when men shall love their own selves, and be proud, unthankful, without affection, peace, or benignity, loving their pleasures rather than God. And if it serve thee, I would not like to live in those times."
"Dear heart, nor would I!" quoth I. "Yet surely, Jack, that seemeth a gainsaying. Were all men free to speak what they would, and not be called to account therefor, it were soothly to love their neighbours and show benignity."
"Ay, if it were done for that end," he made answer. "But the heart of man is a cage of deceits. Much must befall the world, I take it, ere that cometh to pass: and while they that bring it about may be good men that mean well, they that come to use it may be evil, and mean ill. The Devil is not come to an end of his shifts, be thou sure. Let man run as fast and far as he will, Satan shall wit how to keep alongside."
I said nought. Jack is very wise, a deal more than I, yet I cannot always see through his eye-glasses. Mayhap it is not always because I am wiser of the twain.
"Freedom to do good and be good is a good thing," then saith he: "but freedom to be ill, and do ill, must needs be an ill thing. And man being what he is, how makest thou sure that he shall always use his freedom for good, and not for ill?"
"Why, that must man chance," said I.
"A sorry chance," answereth he. "I were liever not to chance it. I thought I heard thee deny Fina this last week to go to the dance at Underby Fair?"
"So thou didst," said I. "She is too young, and too giddy belike, to trust with a bevy of idle damosels as giddy as she."
"Well, we are none of us so far grown-up in all wisdom that it were safe to trust us with our own reins in all things. Hast never heard the saw, 'He that ruleth his own way hath a fool to his governor'?"
"Well!" said I; "but then let the wise men be picked out to rule us, and the fools to obey."
"Excellent doctrine, my Sissot!" quoth Jack, smiling in his eyes: "at least, for the fools. I might somewhat pity the wise men. But how to bring it about? Be the fools to pick out the wise men? and are they wise enough to do it? I sorely fear we shall have a sorry lot of governors when thy law comes to be tried. I think, Wife, thou and I had better leave God to rule the world, for I suspect we should do it something worser than He."
Let me fall back to my chronicling. Another matter happed in the year 1319, the which I trow I shall not lightly forget. The Queen abode at Brotherton, the King being absent. The year afore, had the Scots made great raids on the northern parts of England, had burned the outlying parts of York while the King was there, and taken the Earl of Richmond prisoner: and now, hearing of the Queen at Brotherton, but slenderly guarded, down they marched into Yorkshire, and we, suspecting nought, were well-nigh caught in the trap.
Well I mind that night, when I was awoke by pebbles cast up at my casement, for I lay in a turret chamber, that looked outward. So soon as I knew what the sound meant, I rose from my bed and cast a mantle about me, and opened the casement.
"Is any there?" said I.
"Is that thou, Sissot?" quoth a voice which I knew at once for my brother Robert's, "Lose not one moment, but arouse the Queen, and pray her to take horse as speedily as may be, or she shall be captured of the Scots, which come in great force by the Aire Valley, and are nearhand [nearly] at mine heels. And send one to bid the garrison be alert, and to let me in, that I may tell my news more fully."
I wis not whether I shut the casement or no, for ere man might count ten was I in the Queen's antechamber, and shaking of Dame Elizabeth by the shoulders. But, good lack, she took it as easy as might be. She was alway one to take matters easy, Dame Elizabeth de Mohun.
"Oh, let be till daylight," quoth she, as she turned on her pillow. "'Tis but one of Robin Lethegreve's fumes and frets, I'll be bound. He is for ever a-reckoning that the Scots be at hand or the house o' fire, and he looks for man to vault out of his warm bed that instant minute when his fearsome news be spoken. Go to sleep, Cicely, and let folks be."
And round turned she, and, I warrant, was asleep ere I could bring forth another word. So then I fell to shaking Joan de Vilers, that lay at tother end of the chamber. But she was right as bad, though of another fashion.
"Wherefore rouse me?" saith she. "I can do nought. 'Tis not my place. If Dame Elizabeth arise not, I cannot. Thou wert best go back abed, dear heart. Thou shalt but set thyself in trouble."
Well, there was no time to reason with such a goose; but I longed to shake her yet again. Howbeit, I tarried no longer in the antechamber, but burst into the Queen's own chamber where she lay abed, with Dame Tiffany in the pallet—taking no heed that Joan called after me—
"Cicely! Cicely! how darest thou? Come back, or thou shall be mispaid or tint!" [Held in displeasure or ruined.]
But I cared not at that moment, whether for mispayment or tinsel. I had my duty to do, and I did it. If the news were true, the Queen was little like to snyb [blame] me when she found it so: and if no, well, I had but done as I should. And I knew that Dame Tiffany, which tended her like a hen with one chicken, should hear my tidings of another fashion from the rest. Had Dame Elizabeth lain that night in the pallet, and Dame Tiffany in the antechamber, my work had been the lighter. But afore I might win to the pallet—which to do I had need to cross the chamber,—Queen Isabel's own voice saith from the state bed—"Who is there?"
"Dame," said I,—forgetting to kneel, in such a fluster was I—"my brother hath now brought tidings that the Scots come in force by the Aire Valley, with all speed, and are nearhand at the very gate; wherefore—"
The Queen heard me no further. She was out of her bed, and herself donning her raiment, ere I might win thus far.
"Send Dame Elizabeth to me," was all she said, "and thyself bid De Nantoil alarm the garrison. Well done!"
I count I am not perfect nor a saint, else had I less relished that second shake of Dame Elizabeth—that was fast asleep—and deliverance of the Queen's bidding. I stayed me not to hear her mingled contakes and wayments [reproaches and lamentations], but flew off to the outermost door, and unbarring the same, spake through the crack that wherewith I was charged to Oliver de Nantoil, the usher of the Queen's chamber, which lay that night at her outer door. Then was nought but bustle and stir, both within and without. The Queen would have up Robin, and hearkened to his tale while Alice Conan combed her hair, the which she bade bound up at the readiest, to lose not a moment. In less than an hour, methinks, she won to horse, and all we behind, and set forth for York, which was the contrary way to that the Scots were coming. And, ah me! I rade with Dame Elizabeth, that did nought but grieve over her lost night's rest, and harry poor me for breaking the same. I asked at her if she had better loved to be taken of the Scots; since if so, the Queen's leave accorded, we might have left her behind.
"Scots!" quoth she. "Where be these ghostly [fabulous, figurative] Scots? I will go bail they be wrapped of their foldings [plaids] fast asleep on some moor an hundred miles hence. 'Tis but Robin, the clown! that is so clumst [stupid] with his rashness, that he seeth a Scot full armed under every bush, and heareth a trumpeter in every corncrake: and as if that were not enough, he has a sister as ill as himself, that must take all for gospel as if Friar Robert preached it. Mary love us! but I quoke when thou gattest hold on me by the shoulders! I count it was a good hour ere I might sleep again."
"Dear heart, Dame!" cried I, "but it was not two minutes! It is scantly an hour by now."
"Then that is thy blame, Cicely, routing like a bedel [shouting like a town-crier], and oncoming [assaulting] folks as thou dost. I marvel thou canst not be peaceable! I alway am. Canst mind the night that ever I shaked thee awake and made thee run out of thy warm bed as if a bear were after thee?"
I trust I kept out of my voice the laughter that was in my throat as I said, "No, Dame: that cannot I." The self notion of Dame Elizabeth ever doing thus to any was so exceeding laughable.
"Well! then why canst—Body o' me! what ever is yonder flaming light?"
Master Oliver was just alongside, and quoth he drily—
"Burden not your Ladyship; 'tis but the Scots that have reached Brotherton, and be firing the suburbs."
"Holy Mary, pray for us!" skraighs Dame Elizabeth, at last verily feared: "Cicely, how canst thou ride so slow? For love of all the saints; let us get on!"
Then fell she to her beads, and began to invoke all the Calendar, while she urged on her horse till his rapid trotting brake up the aves and oras into fragments that man might scarce hear and keep him sober. I warrant I was well pleased, for all my weariness, when we rade in at Micklebar of York; and so, I warrant, was Dame Elizabeth, for all her impassibility. We tarried not long at York, for, hearing that the Scots came on, the Queen removed to Nottingham for safer keeping. And so ended that year.
But no contakes had I, save of Dame Elizabeth, that for the rest of that month put on a sorrowful look at the sight of me. On the contrary part, Robin had brave reward from the King, and my Lady the Queen was pleased to advance me, as shall now be told, shortly thereafter: and ever afterwards did she seem to affy her more in me, as in one that had been tried and proved faithful unto trust.
Thus far had I won when I heard a little bruit behind me, and looking up, as I guessed, I saw Jack, over my shoulder.
"Dear heart, Jack!" said I, "but thou hast set me a merry task! Two days have I been a-work, and not yet won to the Queen's former journey to France; yet I do thee to wit, I am full disheartened at the stretch of road I see afore me. Must I needs tell every thing that happed for every year? Mary love us! but I feel very nigh at my wits' end but to think of it. Why, my Chronicle shall be bigger than the Golden Legend and the Morte Arthur put together, and all Underby Common shall not furnish geese enow to keep me in quills!"
I ended betwixt laughter and tears. To say sooth, I was very nigh the latter.
"Take breath, Sissot," saith Jack, quietly.
"But dost thou mean that, Jack?"
"I mean not to make a nief [serf] of my wife," saith he. I was something comforted to hear that.
"As for time, dear heart," he pursueth, "take thou an hour or twain by the day, so thou weary not thyself; and for events, I counsel thee to make a diverse form of chronicle from any ever yet written."
"How so, Jack?"
"Set down nothing because it should go in a chronicle, but only those matters wherein thyself was interested."
"But that, Jack," said I, laughing as I looked up on him, "shall be the 'Annals of Cicely' over again; wherewith I thought thou wert not compatient." [Pleased, satisfied; the adjective of compassion.]
"Nay, the Annals of Cicely were Cicely's fancies and feelings," he made answer: "this should be what Cicely heard and saw."
I sat and meditated thereon.
"And afore thou wear thy fingers to the bone with thy much scribing," saith he, with that manner of smile of his eyes which Jack hath, "call thou Father Philip to write at thy mouth, good wife."
"Nay, verily!" quoth I. "I would be loth to call off Father Philip from his godly meditations, though I cast no doubt he were both fairer scribe and better chronicler than I."
To speak sooth, it was Father Philip learned me to write, and the master should be better than the scholar. I marvel more that have leisure learn not to write. Jack cannot, nor my mother, and this it was that made my said mother desirous to have me taught, for she said, had she wist the same, she could have kept a rare chronicle when she dwelt at the Court, and sith my life was like to be there also, she would fain have me able to do so. I prayed Father Philip to learn my discreet Alice, for I could trust her not to make an ill use thereof; but I feared to trust my giddy little Vivien with such edged tools as Jack saith pen and ink be. And in very sooth it were a dread thing if any amongst us should be entrapped into intelligence with the King's enemies, or such treasonable matter; and of this are wise men ever afeared, when their wives or daughters learn to write. For me, I were little feared of such matter as that: and should rather have feared (for such as Vivien) the secret scribing of love-letters to unworthy persons. Howbeit, Jack is wiser than I, and he saith it were dangerous to put such power into the hands of most men and women.
Lo! here again am I falling into the Annals of Cicely. Have back, Dame Cicely, an' it like you. Methinks I had best win back: yet how shall I get out of the said Annals, and forward on my journey, when the very next thing that standeth to be writ is mine own marriage?
It was on the morrow of the Epiphany, 1320, that I was wedded to my Jack in the Chapel of York Castle. I have not set down the inwards of my love-tale, nor shall I, for good cause; for then should I not only fall into the Annals of Cicely, but should belike never make end thereof. Howbeit, this will I say,—that when King Edward bestowed me on my Jack, I rather count he had his eyes about him, and likewise that there had been a few little passages that might have justified him in so doing: for Jack was of the household, and we had sat the one by the other at table more than once or twice, and had not always held our tongues when so were. So we were no strangers, forsooth, but pretty well to the contrary: and verily, I fell on my feet that morrow. I am not so sure of Jack. And soothly, it were well I should leave other folks to blow my trumpet, if any care to waste his breath at that business.
I was appointed damsel of the chamber on my marriage, and at after that saw I far more of the Queen than aforetime. Now and again it was my turn to lie in that pallet in her chamber. Eh, but I loved not that work! I used to feel all out [altogether] terrified when those great dark eyes flashed their shining flashes, and there were not so many nights in the seven that they did not. She was as easy to put out as to shut one's eyes, but to bring in again—eh, that was weary work!
I am not like to forget that July even when, in the Palace of Westminster, my Lord of Exeter came to the Queen, bearing the Great Seal. It was a full warm eve, and the Queen was late abed. Joan de Vilers was that night tire-woman, and I was in waiting. I mind that when one scratched on the door, we thought it Master Oliver, and instead of going to see myself, I but bade one of the sub-damsels in a whisper. But no sooner said she,—"Dame, if it shall serve you, here is my Lord of Exeter and Sir Robert de Ayleston,"—than there was a full great commotion. The Queen rose up with her hair yet unbound, and bade them be suffered to enter: and when my Lord of Exeter came in, she—and after her all we of her following—set her on her knees afore him to pray his blessing. This my Lord gave, but something hastily, as though his thoughts were elsewhere. Then said he—
"Dame, the King sends you the Great Seal, to be kept of you until such time as he shall ask it again."
And he motioned forward Sir Robert de Ayleston, that held in his arms the great bag of white leather, wherein was the Great Seal of gold.
Saw I ever in all my life face change as hers changed then! To judge from her look, she might have been entering the gates of Heaven. (A sorry Heaven, thought I, that gold and white leather could make betwixt them.) Her eyes glowed, and flashed, and danced, all at once: and she sat her down in a chair of state, and received the Seal in her own hands, and saith she—
"Bear with you my duty to the King my lord, and tell him that I will keep his great charge in safety."
So her words ran. But her eyes said—and eyes be apt to speak truer than voices—"This day am I proudest of all the women in England, and I let not go this Seal so long as I can keep it!"
Then she called Dame Elizabeth, which received the Seal upon the knee, and the Queen bade her commit it to the great cypress coffer wherein her royal robes were kept.
Not long after that, the Queen took her chamber at the Tower afore the Lady Joan was born; and the Great Seal was then returned to the King's Wardrobe. Master Thomas de Cherleton was then Comptroller of the Wardrobe: but he was not over careful of his office, and left much in the hands of his clerks; and as at that time Jack was clerk in charge, he was truly Keeper of the Great Seal so long as the Queen abode in the Tower. He told me he would be rare thankful when the charge was over, for he might not sleep o' nights for thinking on the same. I do think folks in high place, that be set in great charge, should do their own work, and not leave it to them beneath, so that Master Comptroller hath all the credit when things go well, and poor John Clerk payeth all the wyte if things go wrong. But, dear heart! if man set forth to amend all the crooked ways of this world, when shall he ever have done? Maybe if I set a-work to amend me, Cicely, it shall be my best deed, and more than I am like to have done in any hurry.
Now come I to the Queen's journey to France in 1324, and my tale shall thereupon grow more particular. The King sent her over to remonstrate with the King of France her brother for his theft of Guienne—for it was no less; and to conclude a treaty with him to restore the same. It was in May she left England and just before that something had happened wherein I have always thought she had an hand. In the August of the year before, Sir Roger de Mortimer brake prison from the Tower, and made good his escape to Normandy; where, after tarrying a small season with his mother's kinsmen, the Seigneurs de Fienles, he shifted his refuge to Paris, where he was out of the King's jurisdiction. Now in regard of that matter it did seem to me that King Edward was full childish and unwise. Had his father been on the throne, no such thing had ever happed: he wist how to deal with traitors. But now, with so slack an hand did the King rule, that not only Sir Roger gat free of the Tower by bribing one of his keepers and drugging the rest, but twenty good days at the least were lost while he stale down to the coast and so won away. There was indeed a hue and cry, but it wrought nothing, and even that was not for a week. There was more diligence used to seize his lands than to seize him. And at the end of all, just afore the Queen's journey, if my Lady Mortimer his wife, that had gone down to Southampton thinking to join him, was not taken and had to Skipton Castle, and the young damsels, her children, that were with her, sent to separate convents! I have ever believed that was the Queen's doing. It was she that loved not the Lady Mortimer should go to France: it should have interfered with her game. But what weakness and folly was it that the King should hearken her! Well—
"Soft you, now!"
"O Jack, how thou didst start me! I very nigh let my pen fall."
"Then shouldst thou have inked thy tunic, Sissot; and it were pity, so good Cologne sindon as it is. But whither goest thou with thy goose-quill a-flying, good wife? Who was Sir Roger de Mortimer? and what like was he?"
"Who was he, Jack?" quoth I, feeling somewhat took aback. "Why, he was—he was Sir Roger de Mortimer."
"How like a woman!" saith Jack, setting his hands in the pockets of his singlet.
"Now, Jack!" said I. "And what was he like, saidst thou? Why, he was as like a traitor, and a wastrel, and every thing that was bad, as ever I saw man in all my life."
"Horns, belike—and cloven feet—and a long tail?" quoth Jack. "I'll give it up, Sissot. Thou wert best write thy chronicle thine own way. But it goeth about to be rarely like a woman."
"Why, how should it not, when a woman is she that writeth it?" said I, laughing. But Jack had turned away, with that comical twist of his mouth which shows him secretly diverted.
Verily, I know not who to say Sir Roger was, only that he was Lord of Wigmore and Ludlow, and son of the Lady Margaret that was born a Fienles, and husband of the Lady Joan that was born a Geneville; and the proudest caitiff and worst man that ever was, as shall be shown ere I lay down my pen. He was man that caused the loss of himself and of other far his betters, and that should have been the loss of England herself but for God's mercy. The friend of Sathanas and of all evil, the foe of God and of all good—this, and no less, it seemeth me, was Sir Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore. God pardon him as He may [if such a thing be possible]!
Note 1. A very sweet, luscious wine. Verjuice was the most acid type of vinegar.
Note 2. Quiet, calm, patient. In Lowland Scotch, to thole is still to endure; and thole-mood must mean calm endurance.
PART ONE, CHAPTER 2.
WHEREIN CICELY BEGINS TO SEE.
"Tempt not the Tempter; he is near enough."
Dr Horatius Bonar.
Now can any man tell what it is in folks that causeth other folks to fancy them? for I have oft-times been sorely pestered to find out. Truly, if man be very fair, or have full winning ways, and sweet words, and so forth, then may it be seen without difficulty. I never was puzzled to know why Sir Roger or any other should have fallen o' love with Queen Isabel. But what on earth could draw her to him, that puzzled me sore. He was not young—about ten years elder than she, and she was now a woman of thirty years. Nor was he over comely, as men go,—I have seen better-favoured men, and I have seen worser. Nor were his manners sweet and winning, but the very contrary thereof, for they were rough and rude even to women, he alway seemed to me the very incarnation of pride. Men charged Sir Hugh Le Despenser with pride, but Sir Roger de Mortimer was worse than he tenfold. One of his own sons called him the King of Folly: and though the charge came ill from his lips that brought it, yet was it true as truth could be. His pride showed every where—in his dress, in the way he bore himself, in his words,—yea, in the very tones of his voice. And his temper was furious as ever I saw. Verily, he was one of the least lovesome men that I knew in all my life: yet for him, the fairest lady of that age bewrayed her own soul, and sold the noblest gentleman to the death. Truly, men and women be strange gear!
I had written thus far when I laid down my pen, and fell a-meditating, on the strangeness of such things as folks be and do in this world. And as I there sat, I was aware of Father Philip in the chamber, that had come in softly and unheard of me, so lost in thought was I. He smiled when I looked up on him.
"How goeth the chronicle, my daughter?" saith he.
"Diversely, Father," I made answer. "Some days my pen will run apace, but on others it laggeth like oxen at plough when the ground is heavy with rain."
"The ground was full heavy when I entered," saith he, "for the plough was standing still."
I laughed. "So it was, trow. But I do not think I was idle, Father; I was but meditating."
"Wise meditations, that be fruitful in good works, be far away from idlesse," quoth he. "And on what wert thou thinking thus busily, my daughter?"
"On the strange ways of men and women, Father."
"Did the list include Dame Cicely de Chaucombe?" saith Father Philip, with one of his quiet smiles.
"No," I made answer. "I had not reached her."
"Or Philip de Edyngdon? Perchance thou hadst not reached him."
"Why, Father, I might never think of sitting in judgment on you. No, I was thinking of some I had wist long ago: and in especial of Dame Isabel the Queen, and other that were about her. What is it moveth folks to love one another, or to hate belike?"
"There be but three things can move thee to aught, my daughter: God, Satan, and thine own human heart."
"And my conscience?" said I.
"Men do oftentimes set down to conscience," saith he, "that which is either God or Satan. The enlightened conscience of the righteous man worketh as God's Holy Spirit move him. The defiled conscience of the evil man listeneth to the promptings of Satan. And the seared conscience is as dead, and moveth not at all."
"Father, can a man then kill his conscience?"
"He may lay it asleep for this life, daughter: may so crush it with weights thereon laid that it is as though it had the sickness of palsy, and cannot move limb. But I count, when this life is over, it shall shake off the weight, and wake up, to a life and a torment that shall never end."
"I marvel if she did," said I, rather to myself than him.
"Daughter," he made answer, "whoso she be, let her be. God saith not to thee, He, and she, but I, and thou. When Christ knocketh at thy door, if thou open not, shall He take it as tideful answer that thou wert full busy watching other folks' doors to see if they would open?"
"Yet may we not learn, Father, from other folks' blunders?"
"Hast thou so learned, daughter?"
"Well, not much," said I. "A little, now and then, maybe."
"I never learned much," saith he, "from the blunders of any man save Philip de Edyngdon. What I learned from other folks' evil deeds was mostly to despise and be angered with them—not to beware for myself. And that lore cometh not of God. Thou mayest learn from such things set down in Holy Writ: but verily it takes God to pen them, so that we may indeed profit and not scorn,—that we may win and not lose. Be sure that whenever God puts in thine hand a golden coin of His realm, with the King's image stamped fair thereon, Satan is near at hand, with a gold-washed copper counterfeit stamped with his image, and made so like that thou hast need to look close, to make sure which is the true. 'Hold not all gold that shineth'—a wise saw, my daughter, whether it be a thing heavenly or earthly."
"I will endeavour myself to profit by your good counsel, Father," said I. "But mine husband bade me write this chronicle, though, sooth to say, I had no list thereto. And if I shall leave to deal with he and she, how then may my chronicle be writ?"
"Write thy chronicle, my daughter," he answered. "But write it as God hath writ His Chronicles. Set down that which men did, that which thou sawest and heardest. Beware only of digging into men's purposes where thou knewest them not, and sawest but the half thereof. And it is rarely possible for men to see the whole of that which passeth in their own day. Beware of setting down a man as all evil for one evil thing thou mayest see him to do. We see them we live amongst something too close to judge them truly. And beware, most of all, of imagining that thou canst get behind God's purposes, and lay bare all His reasons. Verily, the wisest saint on earth cannot reach to the thousandth part thereof. God can be fully understood, only of God."
I have set down these wise words of good Father Philip, for though they be too high and wide for mine understanding, maybe some that shall read my chronicle may have better brains than she that writ.
So now once again to my chronicling, and let me endeavour to do the same as Father Philip bade me.
It was on the eve of Saint Michael, 1325, that the Queen and her meynie (I being of them) reached Paris. We were ferried over the Seine to the gate of Nully [Note 1], and thence we clattered over the stones to the Hotel de Saint Pol [Note 2], where the Queen was lodged in the easternmost tower, next to our Lady Church, and we her meynie above. Dame Isabel de Lapyoun and I were appointed to lie in the pallet by turns. The Queen's bedchamber was hung with red sindon, broidered in the border with golden swans, and her cabinet with blue say, powdered with lily-flowers in gold, which is the arms of France, as every man knoweth, seeing they are borne by our King that now is, in right of this same Queen Isabel his mother. He, that was then my Lord of Chester, was also of the cortege, having sailed from Dover two days before Holy Cross [Note 3], and joined the Queen in Guienne; but the Queen went over in March, and was all that time in Guienne.
Dear heart! but Jack—which loveth to be square and precise in his matters—should say this were strange fashion wherein to write chronicles, to date first September and then the March afore it! I had better go back a bit.
It was, then, the 9th of March the Queen crossed from Dover to Whitsand, which the French call Guissant. She dwelt first, as I said, in Guienne, for all that summer; very quiet and peaceful were we, letters going to and fro betwixt our Queen and her lord, and likewise betwixt her and the King of France; but no visitors (without there were one that evening Dame Isabel lay in the pallet in my stead, and was so late up, and passed by the antechamber door with her shoes in her hands, as little Meliora the sub-damsel would have it she saw by the keyhole): and we might nearhand as well have been in nunnery for all the folks we saw that were not of the house. Verily, I grew sick irked [wearied, distressed] of the calm, that was like a dead calm at sea, when ships lie to, and can win neither forward nor backward. Ah, foolish Cicely! thou hadst better have given thanks for the last peace thou wert to see for many a year.
Well, my Lord of Chester come, which was the week after Holy Cross, we set forth with few days' delay, and came to Paris, as I said, the eve of Michaelmas. Marvellous weary was I with riding, for I rade of an horse the whole way, and not, as Dame Isabel did, with the Queen in her char. I was so ill tired that I could but eat a two-three wafers [Note 4], and drink a cup of wine, and then hied I to my bed, which, I thank the saints, was not the pallet that night.
The King and Queen of France were then at Compiegne, King Charles having been wed that same summer to his third wife, Dame Jeanne of Evreux: and a good woman I do believe was she, for all (as I said aforetime) there be but few. But I do think, and ever shall, that three wives be more than any man's share. The next morrow, they came in from Compiegne, to spend Michaelmas in Paris: and then was enough noise and merriment. First, mass in our Lady Church, whereto both Dame Isabel and I waited on the Queen; and by the same token, she was donned of one of the fairest robes that ever she bare, which was of velvet blue of Malyns [Malines], broidered with apple-blossom and with diapering of gold. It did not become her, by reason of her dark complexion, so well as it should have done S—
"Hold! Man spelleth not Cicely with an S."
"Jack, if thou start me like this any more, then will I turn the key in the lock when I sit down to write," cried I, for verily mine heart was going pitter-patter to come up in my throat, and out at my mouth, for aught I know. "Thou irksome man, I went about to write 'some folks,' not 'Cicely.'"
"But wherefore?" saith Jack, looking innocent as a year-old babe. "When it meaneth Cicely, then would I put Cicely."
"But I meant not Cicely, man o' life, bless thee!"
"I thank thee for thy blessing, Sissot; and I will fain hope thou didst mean that any way. I will go bail thy pen meant not Cicely, good wife; but if it were not in thine heart that Sissot's fair hair, and rose-red complexion, and grey eyes, should have gone better with that blue velvet gown than Queen Isabel's dusky hair and brown eyes, then do I know little of man or woman. And I dare be bound it would, belike."
And Jack lifteth his hat to me right courteously, and is gone afore I well know whether to laugh or to be angered. So I ween I had better laugh.
Where was I, trow? Oh, at mass in our Lady Church of Paris, where that day was a miracle done on two that were possessed of the Devil, whose names were Geoffrey Boder and Jeanne La Petite; and the girdle of Saint Mary being shown on the high altar, they were allowed to touch the same, whereon they were healed straightway. And the Queen, with her own hands, gave them alms, a crown; and her oblation to the image of Saint Mary in the said church, being a festival, was a crown (her daily oblation being seven-pence the day); and to the said holy girdle a crown, and to the holy relics, yet another. Then came we home by the water of Seyne, for which the boatman had twelve pence. [Note 5.]
We dwelt after this full peacefully at Paris for divers weeks, saving that we made short journeys to towns in the neighbourhood; as, one day to the house of the Sisters Predicants of Poissy, and another to God's House of Loure [Note 6], and another to Villers, where tarried the Queen of France, and so forth. And some days spent we likewise at Reyns and Sessouns. [Note 7.]
At Paris she had her robes made, of purple and colour of Malbryn, for the feast of All Saints, and they were furred with miniver and beasts ermines. And to me Cicely was delivered, to make my robe for the same, three ells rayed [striped] cloth and a lamb fur, and an hood of budge.
The Queen spent nigh an whole day at Sessouns, and another at Reyns, in visiting the churches; and the last can I well remember, by reason of that which came after. First, we went to the church of Saint Nicholas, where she offered a cloth of Turk, price forty shillings; and to Saint Remy she gave another, price forty-five shillings; and to the high altar of the Cathedral one something better. And to the ampulla [Note 7] and shrine of Saint Remy a crown, and likewise a crown to the holy relics there kept. Then to the Friars Minors, where at the high altar she offered a cloth of Lucca bought in the town, price three and an half marks [Note 8]. And (which I had nearhand forgot) to the head of Saint Nicasius in the Cathedral, a crown.
The last night ere we left Sessouns, I remember, as I came into the Queen's lodging from vespers in the Cathedral,—Jack, that went with me, having tarried at the potter's to see wherefore he sent not home three dozen glasses for the Queen's table (and by the same token, the knave asked fifteen pence for the same when they did come, which is a price to make the hair stand on end)—well, as I said, I was a-coming in, when I met one coming forth that at first sight I wist not. And yet, when I meditated, I did know him, but I could not tell his name. He had taken no note of me, save to hap his mantle somewhat closer about his face, as though he cared not to be known—or it might be only that he felt the cold, for it was sharp for the time of year. Up went I into the Queen's lodging, which was then in the house of one John de Gyse, that was an honester man than Master Bolard, with whom she lodged at Burgette, for that last charged her three shillings and seven-pence for a worser lodging than Master Gyse gave her for two shillings.
I had writ thus far when I heard behind me a little bruit that I knew.
"Well, Jack?" said I, not looking up.
"Would thou wert better flyer of falcons, Sissot!" saith he.
"Dear heart! what means that, trow?" quoth I.
"Then shouldst thou know," he made answer, "that to suffer a second quarry to turn thee from thy first is oft-times to lose both."
"Verily, Jack, I conceive not thy meaning."
"Why, look on yon last piece. It begins with thee coming home from vespers. Then it flieth to me, to the potter and his glasses, to the knavery of his charges, and cometh back to the man whom thou didst meet coming forth of the door—whom it hath no sooner touched, than it is off again to the cold even; then comest thou into the Queen's lodging, and down 'grees' [degrees, that is, stairs] once more to the landlord's bill. Do, prithee, keep to one heron till thou hast bagged him."
"Ha, chetife!" cried I. "Must I have firstly, secondly, thirdly, yea, up to thirty-seventhly, like old Father Edison's homilies?"
"Better so," saith he, "than to course three hares together and catch none."
"I'll catch mine hare yet, as thou shall see," saith I.
"Be it done. Gee up!" saith he. [Note 9].
Well, up came I into the Queen's antechamber, where were sat Dame Elizabeth, and Dame Isabel de Lapyoun, and Dame Joan de Vaux, and little Meliora. And right as I came in at the door, Dame Joan dropped her sewing off her knee, and saith—
"Lack-a-day! I am aweary of living in this world!"
"Well, if so," saith Dame Elizabeth, peacefully waxing her thread, "you had best look about for a better."
"Nay!" quoth she, "how to get there?"
"Ask my Lord of Winchester," saith Dame Isabel.
"I shall lack the knowledge ill ere I trouble him," she made answer. "Is it he with the Queen this even?"
"There's none with the Queen!" quoth Dame Isabel, as sharp as if she should have snapped her head off.
Dame Joan looked up in some astonishment.
"Dear heart!" said she, "I thought I heard voices in her chamber."
"There was one with her," answereth Meliora, "when I passed the door some minutes gone."
"Maybe the visitor is gone," said I. "As I came in but now, I met one coming forth."
"Who were it, marry?" quoth Dame Joan.
"It was none of the household," said I. "A tall, personable man, wrapped in a great cloak, wherewith he hid his face; but whether it were from me or from the November even, that will I not say."
"There hath been none such here," saith Dame Elizabeth.
"Not in this chamber," saith Meliora.
"Meliora Servelady!" Dame Isabel made answer, "who gave thee leave to join converse with thy betters?" [Note 10].
The sub-damsel looked set down for a minute, but nought ever daunted her for long. She was as pert a little maid as ever I knew, and but little deserved her name of Meliora. (Ah me, is this another hare? Have back.)
"There hath been none of any sort come to the Queen to-day," said Dame Isabel, in so angered a tone that I began at once to marvel who had come of whom she feared talk.
"Nay, but there so hath!" makes response Dame Joan: "have you forgot Master Almoner that was with her this morrow nigh an hour touching his accounts?—and Ralph Richepois with his lute after dinner?"
"Marry, and the Lady Gibine, Prioress of Oremont," addeth Dame Elizabeth.
"And the two Beguines—" began Meliora; but she ended not, for Dame Isabel boxed her ears.
"Ay, and Jack Bonard, that she sent with letters to the Queen of France," saith Dame Joan.
"Yea, and Ivo le Breton came a-begging, yon poor old man that had served her when a child," made answer Dame Elizabeth.
"And Ma—" Poor Meliora got no further, for Dame Isabel gave her a buffet on the side of her head that nigh knocked her off the form. I could not but think that some part of that buffet was owing to us three, though Meliora had it all. But what so angered Dame Isabel, that might I not know.
At that time came the summons to supper, so the matter ended. But as supper was passing, Dame Joan de Vaux, by whom I sat, with Master Almoner on mine other hand, saith to me—
"Pray you, Dame Cicely, have you any guess who it were that you met coming forth?"
"I have, and I have not," said I. "There was that in his face which I knew full well, yet cannot I bethink me of his name."
"It was not Master Madefray, trow?"
"In no wise: a higher man than he, and of fairer hair."
"Not a priest neither?"
"Leave not to sup your soup, Dame Cicely, nor show no astonishment, I pray, while I ask yet a question. Was it—Sir Roger the Mortimer of Ludlow?"
For all Dame Joan's warnful words, I nigh dropped my spoon, and I never knew how the rest of the soup tasted.
"Wala wa!" said I, under my breath, "but I do believe it was he."
"I saw him," saith she, quietly. "And take my word for it, friend—that man cometh for no good."
"Marry!" cried I in some heat, "how dare he come nigh the Queen at all? he, a banished man! Without, soothly, he came humbly to entreat her intercession with the King for his pardon. But e'en then, he might far more meetly have sent his petition by some other. Verily, I marvel she would see him!"
"Do you so?" saith Dame Joan in that low quiet voice. "So do not I. She will see him yet again, or I mistake much."
"Ha, chetife!" I made answer. "It is full well we be on our road back to Paris, for there at least will he not dare to come."
"Surely not, for the King of France, which himself hath banished him, should never suffer it."
Dame Joan helped herself to a roasted plover with a smile. When the sewer was gone, quoth she—
"I think, Dame Cicely, you know full little whether of Sir Roger de Mortimer or of the King of France. For the last, he is as easily blinded a man as you may lightly see; and if our Queen his sister told him black was white, he should but suppose that she saw better than he. And for the other—is there aught in all this world, whether as to bravery or as to wickedness, that Sir Roger de Mortimer would not dare?"
"Dear heart!" cried I. "I made account we had done with men of that order."
"You did?" Dame Joan's tone, and the somewhat dry smile which went with it, said full plainly, "In no wise."
"Well, soothly we had enough and to spare!" quoth I. "There was my Lord of Lancaster—God rest his soul!—and Sir Piers de Gavaston (if he were as ill man as some said)."
"He was not a saint, I think," she said: "yet could I name far worser men than he."
"And my sometime Lord of Warwick," said I, "was no saint likewise, or I mistake."
"Therein," saith she, "have you the right."
"Well," pursued I, "all they be gone: and soothly, I had hoped there were no more such left."
"Then should there be no original sin left," she made answer; "yea, and Sathanas should be clean gone forth of this world."
The rest of the converse I mind not, but that last sentence tarried in my mind for many a day, and hath oft-times come back to me touching other matters.
We reached Loure on Saint Martin's Day [November 11th], and Paris the next morrow. There found we the Bishops of Winchester and Exeter, [Stratford and Stapleton], whom King Edward had sent over to join the Queen's Council. Now I never loved overmuch neither of these Reverend Fathers, though it were for very diverse causes. Of course, being priests, they were holy men; but I misdoubt if either were perfect man apart from his priesthood—my Lord of Winchester more in especial. Against my Lord of Exeter have I but little to say; he was fumish [irritable, captious] man, but no worse. But my Lord of Winchester did I never trust, nor did I cease to marvel that man could. As to King Edward, betray him to his enemies to-day, and he should put his life in your hands again to-morrow: never saw I man like to him, that no experience would learn mistrust. Queen Isabel trusted few: but of them my said Lord of Winchester was one. I have noted at times that they which be untrue themselves be little given to trust other. She trusted none save them she had tried: and she had tried this Bishop, not once nor twice. He never brake faith with her; but with King Edward he brake it a score of times twice told, and with his son that is now King belike. I wis not whether at this time the Queen was ready to put affiance in him; I scarce think she was: for she shut both Bishops out of her Council from the day she came to Paris. But not at this time, nor for long after did I guess what it signified.
November was nigh run out, when one morrow Dame Joan de Vaux brought word that the Queen, being a-cold, commanded her velvet mantle taken to her cabinet: and I, as the dame in waiting then on duty, took the same to her. I found her sat of a chair of carven wood, beside the brasier, and two gentlemen of the other side of the hearth. Behind her chair Dame Elizabeth waited, and I gave the mantle to her to cast over the Queen's shoulders. The gentlemen stood with their backs to the light, and I paid little note to them at first, save to see that one was a priest: but as I went about to go forth, the one that was not a priest turned his face, and I perceived to mine amaze that it was Sir Roger de Mortimer. Soothly, it needed all my courtly self-command that I should not cry out when I beheld him. Had I followed the prompting of mine own heart, I should have cried, "Get thee gone, thou banished traitor!" He, who had returned unlicenced from Scotland ere the war was over, in the time of old King Edward of Westminster; that had borne arms against his son, then King, under my Lord of Lancaster; that, having his life spared, and being but sent to the Tower, had there plotted to seize three of the chief fortresses of the Crown—namely, the said Tower, and the Castles of Windsor and Wallingford,—and had thereupon been cast for death, and only spared through the intercession of the Queen and the Bishop of Hereford: yet, after all this, had he broken prison, bribing one of his keepers and drugging the rest, and was now a banished felon, in refuge over seas: he to dare so much as to breathe the same air with the wife of his Sovereign, with her that had been his advocate, and that knew all his treacheries! Could any worser insult to the Queen have been devised? But all at once, as I passed along the gallery, another thought came in upon me. What of her? who, knowing all this and more, yet gave leave for this man—not to kneel at her feet and cry her mercy—that had been grace beyond any reasonable hope: but suffered him to stand in her presence, to appear in her privy cabinet—nay, to act as though he were a noble appointed of her Council! Had she forgot all the past?
I travelled no further for that time. The time was to come when I should perceive that forgetfulness was all too little to account for her deeds.
That night, Dame Tiffany being appointed to the pallet, it so fell out that Dame Elizabeth, Dame Joan, and I, lay in the antechamber. We had but began to doff ourselves, and Dame Elizabeth was stood afore the mirror, a-combing of her long hair—and rare long hair it was, and of a fine colour (but I must not pursue the same, or Jack shall find in the hair an hare)—when I said to her—
"Dame Elizabeth, pray you tell me, were you in waiting when Sir Roger de Mortimer came to the Queen?"
"Ay," saith she, and combed away.
"And," said I, "with what excuse came he?"
"Excuse?" quoth she. "Marry, I heard none at all."
"None!" I cried, tarrying in the doffing of my subtunic. "Were you not ill angered to behold such a traitor?"
"Dame Cicely," saith she, slowly pulling the loose hairs forth of the comb, "if you would take pattern by me, and leave troubling yourself touching your neighbours' doings, you should have fewer griefs to mourn over."
Could the left sleeve of my subtunic, which I was then a-doffing, have spoke unto me, I am secure he should have 'plained that he met with full rough treatment at my hands.
"Good for you, Dame, an' you so can!" said I somewhat of a heat. "So long as my neighbours do well, I desire not to mell [meddle] nor make in their matters. But if they do ill—"
"Why, then do I desire it even less," saith she, "for I were more like to get me into a muddle. Mine own troubles be enough for me, and full too many."
"Dear heart! had you ever any?" quoth I.
"In very deed, I do ensure you," saith she, "for this comb hath one of his teeth split, and he doth not only tangle mine hair, but giveth me vile wrenches betimes, when I look not for them. And 'tis but a month gone, at Betesi [Bethizy], that I paid half-a-crown for him. The rogue cheated me, as my name is Bess. I could find in mine heart to give him a talking."
"Only a talking?" saith Dame Joan, and laughed. "You be happy woman, in good sooth, if your worsest trouble be a comb that hath his teeth split."
"Do but try him!" quoth Dame Elizabeth, and snorked [twisted, contorted] up her mouth, as the comb that instant moment came to a spot where her hair was louked [fastened] together. "Bless the comb!" saith she, and I guess she meant it but little. "Wala wa! Dame Joan, think you 'tis matter for laughter?"
"More like than greeting," [weeping], she made answer.
"Verily," said I, "but I see much worser matter for tears than your comb, Dame Elizabeth. Either the Queen is sore ill-usen of her brother, that such ill companions should be allowed near her, or else—"
Well for me, my lace snapped at that moment, and I ended not the sentence. When I was laid down beside Dame Joan, it came to me like a flash of lightning—"Or else—what?" And at that minute Dame Joan turned her on the pillows, and set her lips to mine ear.
"Dame Cicely," quoth she, "mine heart misdoubts me it is the 'or else.' Pray you, govern your tongue, and use your eyes in time to come. Trust not her in the red bed too much, and her in the green-hung chamber not at all."
The first was Dame Elizabeth, and the last Dame Isabel de Lapyoun, that lay in a chamber hung with green, with Dame Tiffany. I was secure she meant not the other, but to make certain I whispered the name, and she saith, "She."
I reckoned it not ill counsel, for mine own thoughts assented thereto, in especial as touched Dame Isabel.
After that day wherein Sir Roger de Mortimer was in the Queen's cabinet, I trow I kept mine eyes open.
For a few days he came and went: but scarce more than a sennight had passed ere I learned that he had come to dwell in Paris all out; and but little more time was spent when one even, Dame Isabel de Lapyoun came into our chamber as we were about to hie us abed, and saith she, speaking to none in especial, but to all—
"Sir Roger de Mortimer is made of the Prince's following, and shall as to-morrow take up his abode in the Queen's hostel."
"Dear heart!" saith Dame Elizabeth, making pause with one hand all wet, and in the other the napkin whereon she went about to dry it. "Well, no business of mine, trow."
I could not help to cry, "Ha, chetife!"
Dame Isabel made answer to neither the one nor the other, but marched forth of the door with her nose an inch higher than she came in. She was appointed to the pallet for that night, so we three lay all in our chamber.
"This passeth!" saith Dame Elizabeth, drying of her fingers, calm enough, on the napkin.
"Even as I looked for," saith Dame Joan, but her voice was not so calm. There was in it a note of grief [a tone of indignation].
"I ne'er trouble me to look for nought," quoth Dame Elizabeth. "What good, trow? Better to leave folks come and go, as they list, so long as they let [hinder] you not to come and go likewise."
"I knew not you were one of Cain's following, Dame Bess."
"Cain's following!" saith she, drawing off her fillet. "Who was Cain, trow? Wala wa! but if my fillet be not all tarnished o' this side. I would things would go right!"
"So would I, and so did not Cain," Dame Joan makes answer. "Who was he, quotha? Why, he that slew his brother Abel."
"Oh, some of those old Scripture matters? I wis nought o' those folks. But what so? I have not slain my brother, nor my sister neither."
"It looks as though your brother and your sister too might go astray and be lost ere you should soil your fingers and strain your arms a-pulling them forth."
"Gramercy! Every man for himself!" saith Dame Elizabeth, a-pulling off her hood. "Now, here's a string come off! Alway my luck! If a body might but bide in peace—"
"And never have no troubles, nor strings come off, nor buttons broke, nor stitches come loose—" adds Dame Joan, a-laughing.
"Right so—man might have a bit of piece of man's life, then. Why, look you, the string is all chafen, that it is not worth setting on anew; and so much as a yard of red ribbon have I not. I must needs don my hood of green of Louvaine."
She said it in a voice which might have gone with the direst calamity that could befall.
"Dame Elizabeth de Mohun, you be a full happy woman!"
"What will the woman say next?"
"That somewhat hangeth on what you may next say."
"Well, what I next say is that I am full ill-used to have in one hour a tarnished fillet and a broken string, and—Saint Lucy love us! here be two of my buttons gone!"
I could thole no longer, and forth brake I in laughter. Dame Joan joined with me, and some ado had we to peace Dame Elizabeth, that was sore grieved by our laughing.
"Will you leave man be?" quoth she. "They be right [real] silver buttons, and not one more have I of this pattern: I ensure you they cost me four shillings the dozen at John Fairhair's in London [a London goldsmith]. I'll be bound I can never match them without I have them wrought of set purpose. Deary, deary me!"
"Well!" saith Dame Joan, "I may break my heart afore I die, but I count it will not be over buttons."
"Not o'er your buttons, belike," saith Dame Elizabeth. "And here, this very day, was Hilda la Vileyne at me, begging and praying me that I would pay her charges for that hood of scarlet wrought with gold and pearls the which I had made last year when I was here with the Queen. Truly, I forgat the same at that time; and now I have not the money to mine hand. But deary me, the pitiful tale she told!—of her mother ill, and her two poor little sisters without meet raiment for winter, and never a bit of food nor fuel in the house—I marvel what maids would be at, to make up such tales!"
"It was not true, trow?"
"True?" saith Dame Elizabeth, pulling off her rings. "It might be true as Damascus steel, for aught I know. But what was that to me? I lacked the money for somewhat that liked me better than to buy fuel for a parcel of common folks like such. They be used to lack comforts, and not I. And I hate to hear such stories, belike. Forsooth, man might as well let down a black curtain over the window on a sunshine day as be plagued with like tales when he would fain be jolly. I sent her off in hot haste, I can tell you."
"With the money?"
"The saints be about us! Not I."
"And the little maids may greet them asleep for lack of food?" saith Dame Joan.
"How wis I there be any such? I dare be bound it was all a made-up tale to win payment."
"You went not to see?"
"I go to see! I! Dame Joan, you be verily—"
"I am verily one for whom Christ our Lord deigned to die on the bitter rood, and so is Hilda la Vileyne. Tell me but where she dwelleth, and I will go to see if the tale be true."
"Good lack! I carry not folks' addresses in mine head o' that fashion. Let be; she shall be here again in a day or twain. She hath granted me little peace these last ten days."
"And you verily wis not where she dwelleth?"
"I wis nought thereabout, and an' I did I would never tell you to-night. Dear heart, do hie you abed and sleep in peace, and let other folks do the like! I never harry me with other men's troubles. Good even!"
And Dame Elizabeth laid her down and happed the coverlet about her, and was fast asleep in a few minutes.
The next even, when we came into hall for supper, was Sir Roger de Mortimer on the dais, looking as though the world belonged to him. Maybe he thought it was soon to do the same; and therein was he not deceived. The first day, he sat in his right place, at the high table, after the knights and barons of France whom the King of France had appointed to the charge of our Queen: but not many days were over ere he crept up above them—and then above the bishops themselves, until at last he sat on the left hand of Queen Isabel, my Lord of Chester being at her right. But this first night he kept his place.
Note 1. Neuilly. Queen Isabelle's scribe is responsible for the orthography in this and subsequent places.
Note 2. The old Palace of the French Kings, the remaining part of which is now known as the Conciergerie.
Note 3. September 12th.
Note 4. Cakes made with honey. Three pennyworth were served daily at the royal table.
Note 5. Wardrobe Account, 19 Edward the Second, 25/15.
Note 6. Rheims and Soissons. An idea of the difficulties of travelling at that time maybe gathered from the entry of "Guides for the Queen between Paris and Rheims, 18 shillings."
Note 7. The vessel containing the oil wherewith the Kings of France were anointed, oil and ampulla being fabled to have come from Heaven.
Note 8. 2 pounds 13 shillings 4 pence.—Wardrobe Account, 19 Edward the Second, 25/15.
Note 9. Gee. This is one of the few words in our tongue directly derivable from the ancient Britons.
Note 10. "Avice Serueladi" occurs on the Close Roll for 1308.
PART ONE, CHAPTER 3.
HOW DAME ELIZABETH'S BILL WAS PAID.
"And yet it never was in my soul To play so ill a part: But evil is wrought by want of thought As well as by want of heart."
As I came forth of hall, after supper, that even, and we were entered into the long gallery whereinto the Queen's degrees opened, I was aware of a full slender and white-faced young maid, that held by the hand a small [little child] of mayhap five or six years. She looked as though she waited for some man. The Queen had tarried in hall to receive a messenger, and Dame Joan de Vaux was in waiting, so Dame Elizabeth, Dame Isabel, Dame Tiffany, and I were those that passed along the gallery. Dame Isabel and Dame Tiffany the maid let pass, with no more than a pitiful look at the former, that deigned her no word: but when Dame Elizabeth came next, on the further side, I being betwixt, the maid stepped forward into the midst, as if to stay her. Her thin hands were clasped over her bosom, and the pitifullest look ever I saw was in her eyes.
"Dame, ayez pitie!" was all she said; and it was rather breathed than spoken.
"Bless us, Saint Mary!—art thou here again?" quoth Dame Elizabeth of a testier fashion than she was wont. "Get thee gone, child; I have no time to waste. Dear heart, what a fuss is here over a crown or twain! Dost think thy money is lost? I will pay thee when it liketh me; I have not my purse to mine hand at this minute."
And on she walked, brushing past the maid. I tarried.
"Are you Hilda la Vileyne?" I said unto her.
"Dame, that is my name, and here is my little sister Iolande. She hath not tasted meat [food] this day, nor should not yesterday, had not a kindly gentleman, given me a denier to buy soup. But truly I do not ask for charity—only to be paid what I have honestly earned."
"And hadst thou some soup yesterday?"
"Yes—no—Oh, I am older; I can wait better than the little ones. The mother is sick: she and the babes must not wait. It does not signify for me."
Oh, how hungered were those great eyes, that looked too large for the white face! The very name of soup seemed to have brought the craving look therein.
I turned to the small. "Tell me, Iolande, had Hilda any of the soup yesterday?"
"No," said the child; "I and Madeleine drank it, every drop, that our mother left."
"And had Hilda nothing?"
"There was a mouldy crust in the cupboard," said the child. "It had dropped behind the cup, and Hilda found it when she took the cup down. We could not see it behind. We can only just reach to take the cup down, and put it up again. That was what Hilda had, and she wiped the cup with one end of it."
"The cup that had held the soup?"
"Yes, surely," said the child, with a surprised look. "We only have one,—does not Madame know?"
"It is an esquelle [porringer; a shallow bowl], not a cup," said Hilda, reddening a little: "the child hardly knows the difference."
I felt nearhand as though I could have twisted Dame Elizabeth's neck for meat for those children.
"And are you, in good sooth, so ill off as that?" said I. "No meat, and only one esquelle in all the house?"
"Dame," said Hilda meekly, as in excuse, "our father was long ill, and now is our mother likewise; and many things had to be sold to pay the apothecary, and also while I waited on them could I not be at work; and my little sisters are not old enough to do much. But truly it is only these last few weeks that we have been quite so ill off as to have no food, and I have been able to earn but a few deniers now and then— enough to keep us alive, but no more."
"How much oweth you Dame Elizabeth?" said I.
"Dame, it is seven crowns for the hood I wrought, and three more for a girdle was owing aforetime, and now four for kerchiefs broidering: it is fourteen crowns in all. I should not need to ask charity if I could but be paid my earnings. The apothecary said our mother was sick rather from sorrow and want of nourishment than from any malady; and if the good Dame would pay me, I might not only buy fresh matter for my work, but perchance get food that would make my mother well—at least well enough to sew, and then we should have two pairs of hands instead of one. I do not beg, Dame!"
She louted low as she spoke, and took her little sister again by the hand. "Come, Iolande; we keep Madame waiting."
"But hast thou got no money?" pleaded the barne. "Thou saidst to Madeleine that we should bring some supper back. Thou didst, Hilda!"
"I did, darling," allowed her sister, looking a little ashamed. "I could not peace the babe else, and—I hoped we should."
I could bear no more. The truth of those maids' story was in the little one's bitter disappointment, and in poor Hilda's hungry eyes. Eyes speak sooth, though lips be false.
"Come," said I. "I pray you, tarry but one moment more. You shall not lose by it."
"We are at Madame's service," said Hilda.
I ran up degrees as fast as ever I could. As the saints would have it, that very minute I oped the door, was Dame Elizabeth haling forth silver in her lap, and afore her stood the jeweller's man awaiting to be paid. Blame me who will, I fell straight on those gold pieces and silver crowns.
"Fourteen crowns, Dame Elizabeth!" quoth I, all scant of breath. "Quick! give me them—for Hilda la Vileyne—and if no, may God forgive you, for I never will!"
Soothly, had the Archangel Raphael brake into the chamber and demanded fourteen crowns, Dame Elizabeth could have gazed on him no more astonied than she did on me, Cicely, that she had seen nearhand every day of her life for over a dozen years. I gave her leave to look how it listed her. From the coins in her lap I counted forth nine nobles and a French crown, and was half-way down degrees again ere she well knew what I would be at. If I had had to pay her back every groat out of mine own purse—nay, verily, if I had stood to be beheaden for it—I would have had that money for Hilda la Vileyne that night.
They stood where I had left them, by the door of the long gallery, near the porte-cochere, but now with them was a third—mine own Jack, that had but now come in from the street, and the child knew him again, as she well showed.
I heard her say, as I came running down swiftly—for I was dread afraid Dame Elizabeth should overtake me and snatch back the money—and I might have spared my fears, for had I harried the Queen's crown along with her crowns, no such a thing should ever have come in her head—"O Hilda!" saith the child, "see here the good Messire who gave us the denier to buy soup."
I might have guessed it was Jack. He o'erheard the child, and stayed him to pat her on the head.
"Well, little one, was the soup good?"
"So good, Messire! But Hilda got none—not a drop."
"Hush!" saith Hilda; but the child would go on.
"None at all! why, how was that?" saith Jack, looking at Hilda.
I answered for her. "The sick mother and helpless babes had the soup," said I; "and this brave maid was content with a mouldy crust. Jack, a word in thine ear."
"Good!" saith he, when I had whispered to him. "Go thy ways, sweetheart, and so do."
"Nay, there is no need to go any ways," said I, "for here cometh Meliora down degrees, and of a truth I somewhat shrink from facing Dame Elizabeth after my robbery of her, any sooner than must be—Meliora, child, wilt run above an instant, and fetch my blue mantle and the thicker of mine hoods?"
Meliora ran up straightway; for though she was something too forward, and could be pert when she would, yet was she good-natured enough when kindly used. I turned to Hilda.
"Hold thy palm, my maid," said I. "Here is the money the lady ought [owed] thee." And I haled into her hand the gold pieces and the silver crown.
Verily, I could have greeted mine eyes sore to see what then befell. The barne capered about and clapped her hands, crying, "Supper! supper! now we shall have meat!" but Hilda covered her eyes with her void hand, and sobbed as though her heart should break.
"God Almighty bless you, kind Dame!" said she, when as she could speak again. "I was nearhand in utter mishope [nearly in despair]. Now my mother can have food and physic, and maybe, if it please God, she shall recover. May I be forgiven, but I was beginning to think the good God cared not for poor folks like us, or maybe that there was no God to care at all."
Down came Meliora with my hood and mantle, which I cast all hastily about me, and then said I to Hilda—
"My maid, I would fain see thy mother; maybe I could do her some good; and mine husband here will go with us for a guard. Lead on."
"God bless you!" she said yet again. "He must have heard me." The last words were spoken lowly, as to herself.
We went forth of the great gates, and traversed the good streets, and came into divers little alleys that skirt the road near Saint Denis' Gate. In one of these Hilda turned into an house—a full poor hut it was—and led me up degrees into a poor chamber, whither the child ran gleefully afore. Jack left me at the door, he and I having covenanted, when we whispered together, what he should do whilst I visited Hilda's mother.
Little Iolande ran forward into the chamber, crying, "Supper! supper! Mother and Madeleine, Hilda has money for supper!"
What I then beheld was a poor pallet, but ill covered with a thin coverlet, whereon lay a pale, weak woman, that seemed full ill at ease, yet I thought scarce so much sick of body as sick at heart and faint with fasting and sorrow. At the end of the pallet sat a child something elder than Iolande, but a child still. There was no form in the chamber, but Hilda brought forward an old box, whereon she cast a clean apron, praying me to sit, and to pardon them that this should be the best they had to offer. I sat me down, making no matter thereof, for in very deed I was full of pity for these poor creatures.