The Well in the Desert, An Old Legend of the House of Arundel, by Emily Sarah Holt.
The action takes place at the end of the fourteenth century and the start of the fifteenth. It deals largely with a family connected with Arundel in Sussex. They seem to have been rather nasty people, highly motivated by greed and desire for even higher stations in life. They were fairly well-placed by today's standards, being closely related to various of the Kings of England of the day. Some of the women in the story are quite as bad as many of the men.
When these wicked people had done their wicked deeds there were often unfortunate children, dispossessed or forgotten in some attic of the castle. One of these is the heroine of this story. She had never been told who or where her mother was. By a series of coincidences she comes across the name of a person who may know the answers to these questions. I will not spoil the story for you by telling you any more.
Throughout the book there is constant reference to Christ as the Well, the supplier of the vital Water of Life. Christianity was in a terrible mess at the time, with numerous sects, and with the members of any one sect feeling free to execute by any means the members of any other sect. There's plainly a modern parallel here.
On the whole the story is based on fact and on valuable contemporary records. When Miss Holt wrote the story it seemed likely that Philippa, the central figure, was accurately represented. Unfortunately, after the book was complete it was found that she could never have existed, so the poor authoress had to present her book as it stands, with an apology at the end.
THE WELL IN THE DESERT, AN OLD LEGEND OF THE HOUSE OF ARUNDEL, BY EMILY SARAH HOLT.
It is said that only travellers in the arid lands of the East really know the value of water. To them the Well in the Desert is a treasure and a blessing: unspeakably so, when the water is pure and sweet; yet even though it be salt and brackish, it may still save life.
Was it less so, in a figurative sense, to the travellers through that great desert of the Middle Ages, wherein the wells were so few and far between? True, the water was brackish; man had denied the streams, and filled up the wells with stones; yet for all this it was God-given, and to those who came, and dug for the old spring, and drank, it was the water of eternal life. The cry was still sounding down the ages.
"If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink." And no less blessed are the souls that come now: but for us, the wells are so numerous and so pure, that we too often pass them by, and go on our way thirsting. Strange blindness!—yet not strange: for until the Angel of the Lord shall open the eyes of Hagar, she must needs go mourning through the wilderness, not seeing the well.
"Lord, that we may receive our sight!"—and may come unto Thee, and drink, and thirst no more.
MY LADY'S BOWER IS SWEPT.
"I am too low for scorn to lower me, And all too sorrow-stricken to feel grief."
Soft and balmy was the air, and the sunlight radiant, at an early hour of a beautiful June morning; and fair was the landscape that met the eyes of the persons who were gathered a few feet from the portcullis of a grand stately old castle, crowning a wooded height near the Sussex coast. There were two persons seated on horseback: the one a youth of some twenty years, in a page's dress; the other a woman, who sat behind him on the pillion. Standing about were two men and a woman, the last holding a child in her arms. The woman on the pillion was closely veiled, and much muffled in her wrappings, considering the season of the year and the warmth of the weather; nor did she lift her veil when she spoke.
"The child, Alina," she said, in a tone so soft and low that the words seemed rather breathed than spoken.
The woman who stood beside the horse answered the appeal by placing the child in the arms of the speaker. It was a pretty, engaging little girl of three years old. The lady on the pillion, lifting the child underneath her veil, strained it to her bosom, and bowed her head low upon its light soft hair. Meanwhile, the horse stood still as a statue, and the page sat as still before her. In respectful silence the other three stood round. They knew, every one of them, that in that embrace to one of the two the bitterness of death was passing; and that when it was ended she would have nothing left to fear—only because she would have nothing left to hope. At length, suddenly, the lady lifted her head, and held forth the child to Alina. Turning her head away toward the sea, from the old castle, from the child, she made her farewell in one word.
The three standing there watched her departure—never lifting her veil, nor turning her head—until she was hidden from their sight among the abundant green foliage around. They lingered a minute longer; but only a minute—for a shrill, harsh voice from the portcullis summoned them to return.
"Ralph, thou lither hilding! Alina, thou jade! Come hither at once, and get you to work. My Lady's bower yet unswept, by the Seven Sleepers! and ye lingering yonder as ye had leaden heels! By the holy bones of Saint Benedict, our master shall con you light thanks when he cometh!"
"That may be," said Alina, under her breath. "Get you in, Ralph and Jocelyn, or she shall be after again."
And she turned and walked quickly into the castle, still carrying the child.
Eleven hours later, a very different procession climbed the castle-hill, and passed in at the portcullis. It was headed by a sumptuous litter, beside which rode a gentleman magnificently attired. Behind came a hundred horsemen in livery, and the line was closed by a crowd of archers in Lincoln green, bearing cross-bows. From the litter, assisted by the gentleman, descended a young lady of some three-and-twenty years, upon whose lips hovered a smile of pleasure, and whose fair hair flowed in natural ringlets from beneath a golden fillet. The gentleman was her senior by about fifteen years. He was a tall, active, handsome man, with a dark face, stern, set lips, and a pair of dark, quick, eagle-like eyes, beneath which the group of servants manifestly quailed.
"Is the Lady's bower ready?" he asked, addressing the foremost of the women—the one who had so roughly insisted on Alina's return.
"It is so, an't like your noble Lordship," answered she with a low reverence; "it shall be found as well appointed as our poor labours might compass."
He made no answer; but, offering his hand to the young lady who had alighted from the litter, he led her up the stairs from the banqueting-hall, into a suite of fair, stately apartments, according to the taste of that period. Rich tapestry decorated the walls, fresh green rushes were strewn upon the floor, all the painting had been renewed, and above the fireplace stood two armorial shields newly chiselled.
"Lady," he said, in a soft, courtly tone, "here is the bower. Doth it like the bird?"
"It is beauteous," answered the lady, with a bright smile.
"It hath been anew swept and garnished," replied the master, bowing low, as he took his leave. "Yonder silver bell shall summon your women."
The lady moved to the casement on his departure. It stood open, and the lovely sea-view was to be seen from it.
"In good sooth, 'tis a fair spot!" she said half aloud. "And all new swept and garnished!"
There was no mocking echo in the chamber. If there had been, the words might have been borne back to the ear of the royal Alianora—"Not only garnished, but swept!"
My Lady touched the silver bell, and a crowd of damsels answered her call. Among them came Alina; and she held by the hand the little flaxen-haired child, who had played so prominent a part in the events of the morning.
"Do you all speak French?" asked the Countess in that language—which, be it remembered, was in the reign of Edward the Third the mother-tongue of the English nobles.
She received an affirmative reply from all.
"That is well. See to my sumpter-mules being unladen, and the gear brought up hither.—What a pretty child! whose is it?"
Alina brought the little girl forward, and answered for her. "The Lady Philippa Fitzalan, my Lord's daughter."
"My Lord's daughter!" And a visible frown clouded the Countess's brow. "I knew not he had a daughter—Oh! that child! Take her away—I do not want her. Mistress Philippa, for the future. That is my pleasure."
And with a decided pout on her previously smiling lips, the Lady of Arundel seated herself at her tiring-glass. Alina caught up the child, and took her away to a distant chamber in a turret of the castle, where she set her on her knee, and shed a torrent of tears on the little flaxen head.
"Poor little babe! fatherless and motherless!" she cried. "Would to our dear Lady that thou wert no worse! The blessed saints help thee, for none other be like to do it save them and me."
And suddenly rising, she slipped down on her knees, holding the child before her, beside a niche where a lamp made of pottery burned before a blackened wooden doll.
"Lady of Pity, hast thou none for this little child? Mother of Mercy, for thee to deceive me! This whole month have I been on my knees to thee many times in the day, praying thee to incline the Lady's heart, when she should come, to show a mother's pity to this motherless one. And thou hast not heard me—thou hast not heard me. Holy Virgin, what doest thou? Have I not offered candles at thy shrine? Have I not deprived myself of needful things to pay for thy litanies? What could I have done more? Is this thy pity, Lady of Pity?—this thy compassion, Mother and Maiden?"
But the passionate appeal was lost on the lifeless image to which it was made. As of old, so now, "there was neither voice, not any to answer, nor any that regarded."
Nineteen years after that summer day, a girl of twenty-two sat gazing from the casement in that turret-chamber—a girl whose face even a flatterer would have praised but little; and Philippa Fitzalan had no flatterers. The pretty child—as pretty children often do—had grown into a very ordinary, commonplace woman. Her hair, indeed, was glossy and luxuriant, and had deepened from its early flaxen into the darkest shade to which it was possible for flaxen to change; her eyes were dark, with a sad, tired, wistful look in them—a look
"Of a dumb creature who had been beaten once, And never since was easy with the world."
Her face was white and thin, her figure tall, slender, angular, and rather awkward. None had ever cared to amend her awkwardness; it signified to nobody whether she looked well or ill. In a word, she signified to nobody. The tears might burn under her eyelids, or overflow and fall,—she would never be asked what was the matter; she might fail under her burdens and faint in the midst of them,—and if it occurred to any one to prevent material injury to her, that was the very utmost she could expect. Not that the Lady Alianora was unkind to her stepdaughter: that is, not actively unkind. She simply ignored her existence. Philippa was provided, as a matter of course, with necessary clothes, just as the men who served in the hall were provided with livery; but anything not absolutely necessary had never been given to her in her life. There were no loving words, no looks of pleasure, no affectionate caresses, lavished upon her. If the Lady Joan lost her temper (no rare occurrence), or the Lady Alesia her appetite, or the Lady Mary her sleep, the whole household was disturbed; but what Philippa suffered never disturbed nor concerned any one but herself. To these, her half-sisters, she formed a kind of humble companion, a superior maid-of-all-work. All day long she heard and obeyed the commands of the three young ladies; all day long she was bidden, "Come here", "Go there", "Do this", "Fetch that." And Philippa came, and went, and fetched, and did as she was told. Just now she was off duty. Their Ladyships were gone out hawking with the Earl and Countess, and would not, in all probability, return for some hours.
And what was Philippa doing, as she sat gazing dreamily from the casement of her turret-chamber—hers, only because nobody else liked the room? Her eyes were fixed earnestly on one little spot of ground, a few feet from the castle gate; and her soul was wandering backward nineteen years, recalling the one scene which stood out vividly, the earliest of memory's pictures—a picture without text to explain it—before which, and after which, came blanks with no recollection to fill them. She saw herself lifted underneath a woman's veil—clasped earnestly in a woman's arms,—gazing in baby wonder up into a woman's face—a wan white face, with dark, expressive, fervent eyes, in which a whole volume of agony and love was written. She never knew who that woman was. Indeed, she sometimes wondered whether it were really a remembrance, or only a picture drawn by her own imagination. But there it was always, deep down in the heart's recesses, only waiting to be called on, and to come. Whoever this mysterious woman were, it was some one who had loved her— her, Philippa, whom no one ever loved. For Alina, who had died in her childhood, she scarcely recollected at all. And at the very core of the unseen, unknown heart of this quiet, undemonstrative girl, there lay one intense, earnest, passionate longing for love. If but one of her father's hawks or hounds would have looked brighter at her coming, she thought it would have satisfied her. For she had learned, long years ere this, that to her father himself, or to the Lady Alianora, or to her half-brothers and sisters, she must never look for any shadow of love. The "mother-want about the world," which pressed on her so heavily, they would never fill. The dull, blank uniformity of simple apathy was all she ever received from any of them.
Her very place was filled. The Lady Joan was the eldest daughter of the house—not Mistress Philippa. For the pleasure of the Countess had been fulfilled, and Mistress Philippa the girl was called. And when Joan was married and went away from the castle (in a splendid litter hung with crimson velvet), her sister Alesia stepped into her place as a matter of course. Philippa did not, indeed, see the drawbacks to Joan's lot. They were not apparent on the surface. That the stately young noble who rode on a beautiful Barbary horse beside the litter, actually hated the girl whom he had been forced to marry, did not enter into her calculations: but as Joan cared very little for that herself, it was the less necessary that Philippa should do so. And Philippa only missed Joan from the house by the fact that her work was so much the lighter, and her life a trifle less disagreeable than before.
More considerations than one were troubling Philippa just now. Blanche, one of the Countess's tire-women, had just visited her turret-chamber, to inform her that the Lady Alesia was betrothed, and would be married six months thence. It did not, however, trouble her that she had heard of this through a servant; she never looked for anything else. Had she been addicted (which, fortunately for her, she was not) to that most profitless of all manufactures, grievance-making,—she might have wept over this little incident. But except for one reason, the news of her sister's approaching marriage was rather agreeable to Philippa. She would have another tyrant the less; though it was true that Alesia had always been the least unkind to her of the three, and she would have welcomed Mary's marriage with far greater satisfaction. But that one terrible consideration which Blanche had forced on her notice!
"I marvel, indeed, that my gracious Lord hath not thought of your disposal, Mistress Philippa, ere this."
Suppose he should think of it! For to Philippa's apprehension, love was so far from being synonymous with marriage, that she held the two barely compatible. Marriage to her would be merely another phase of Egyptian bondage, under a different Pharaoh. And she knew this was her probable lot: that (unless her father's neglect on this subject should continue— which she devoutly hoped it might) she would some day be informed by Blanche—or possibly the Lady Alianora herself might condescend to make the communication—that on the following Wednesday she was to be married to Sir Robert le Poer or Sir John de Mountchenesey; probably a man whom she had never seen, possibly one whom she just knew by sight.
Philippa scarcely knew how, from such thoughts as these, her memory slowly travelled back, and stayed outside the castle gate, at that June morning of nineteen years ago. Who was it that had parted with her so unwillingly? It could not, of course, be the mother of whom she had never heard so much as the name; she must have died long ago. On her side, so far as Philippa knew, she had no relations; and her aunts on the father's side, the Lady Latimer, the Lady de l'Estrange, and the Lady de Lisle, never took the least notice of her when they visited the castle. And then came up the thought—"Who am I? How is it that nobody cares to own me? There must be a reason. What is the reason?"
"Mistress Philippa! look you here: the Lady Mary left with me this piece of arras, and commanded me to give it unto you to be amended, and beshrew me but I clean forgot. This green is to come forth, and this blue to be set instead thereof, and clean slea-silk for the yellow. Haste, for the holy Virgin's love, or I shall be well swinged when she cometh home!"
"Who hears the falling of the forest leaf? Or who takes note of every flower that dies?"
The morning after Blanche and the arras had thus roughly dispelled Philippa's dream, the Lady Alianora sat in her bower, looking over a quantity of jewellery. She put some articles aside to be reset, dismissed others as past amendment, or not worth it, and ordered some to be restored to the coffer whence they had been taken. The Lady Alesia was looking on, and Philippa stood behind with the maids. At last only one ornament was left.
"This is worth nothing," said the Countess, lifting from the table an old bracelet, partly broken. "Put it with the others—or stay: whence came it?"
"Out of an ancient coffer, an't like your Ladyship," said Blanche, "that hath been longer in the castle than I."
"I should think so," returned the Countess. "It must have belonged to my Lord's grandmother, or some yet more ancient dame. 'Tis worth nothing. Philippa, you may have it."
Not a very gracious manner of presenting a gift, it must be confessed; but Philippa well knew that nothing of any value was likely to be handed to her. Moreover, this was the first present that had ever been made to her. And lastly, a dim notion floated through her mind that it might have belonged to her mother; and anything connected with that dead and unknown mother had a sacred charm in her eyes. Her thanks, therefore, were readily forthcoming. She put the despised bracelet in her pocket; and as soon as she received her dismissal, ran with a lighter step than usual to her turret-chamber. Without any distinct reason for doing so, she drew the bolt, and sitting down by the window, proceeded to examine her treasure.
It was a plain treasure enough. A band of black enamel, set at intervals with seed-pearl and beryls, certainly was not worth much; especially since the snap was gone, one of the beryls and several pearls were missing, and from the centre ornament, an enamelled rose, a portrait had apparently been torn away. Did the rose open? Philippa tried it; for she was anxious to reach the device, if there were one to reach. The rose opened with some effort, and the device lay before her, written in small characters, with faded ink, on a scrap of parchment fitting into the bracelet.
Philippa's one accomplishment, which she owed to her old friend Alina, was the rare power of reading. It was very seldom that she found any opportunity of exercising it, yet she had not lost the art. Alina had been a priest's sister, who in teaching her to read had taught her all that he knew himself; and Alina in her turn had thus given to Philippa all that she had to give.
But the characters of the device were so small and faint, that Philippa consumed half an hour ere she could decipher them. At length she succeeded in making out a rude rhyme or measure, in the Norman-French which was to her more familiar than English.
"Quy de cette eaw boyra Ancor soyf aura; Mais quy de cette eaw boyra Que moy luy donneray, Jamais soif n'aura A l'eternite."
Devices of the mediaeval period were parted into two divisions— religious and amatory. Philippa had no difficulty in deciding that this belonged to the former category; and she guessed in a moment that the meaning was a moral one; for she was accustomed to such hidden allegorical allusions. And already she had advanced one step on the road to that Well; she knew that "whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again." Ay, from her that weary thirst was never absent. But where was this Well from which it might be quenched? and who was it that could give her this living water?
Philippa's memory was a perfect storehouse of legends of the saints, and above all of the Virgin, who stood foremost in her pantheon of gods. She searched her repertory over and over, but in vain. No saint, and in particular not Saint Mary, had ever, in any legend that she knew, spoken words like these. And what tremendous words they were! "Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst."
There were long and earnest prayers offered that night in the little turret-chamber. Misdirected prayers—entreaties to be prayed for, addressed to ears that could not hear, to hands that could not help. But perhaps they reached another Ear that could hear, another Hand that was almighty. The unclosing of the door is promised to them that ask. Thanks be to God, that while it is not promised, it does sometimes in His sovereign mercy unclose to them that know not how to ask.
The morning after this, as Philippa opened her door, one of the castle lavenders, of washerwomen, passed it on her way down the stairs. She was a woman of about fifty years of age, who had filled her present place longer than Philippa could recollect.
Throughout the whole of the Middle Ages—for a period of many centuries, closing only about the time of the accession of the House of Hanover— laundress was a name of evil repute, and the position was rarely assumed by any woman who had a character to lose. The daughters of the Lady Alianora were strictly forbidden to speak to any lavender; but no one had cared enough about Philippa to warn her, and she was therefore free to converse with whom she pleased. And a sudden thought had struck her. She called back the lavender.
The woman stopped, came to Philippa's door, and louted—the old-fashioned reverence which preceded the French courtesy.
"Agnes, how long hast thou been lavender here?"
"Long ere you were born, Lady."
"Canst thou remember my mother?"
Philippa was amazed at the look of abject terror which suddenly took possession of the lavender's face.
"Hush, Lady, Lady!" she whispered, her voice trembling with fear.
Philippa laid her hand on the woman's arm.
"Wilt thou suffer aught if thou tarry?"
Agnes shook her head.
"Then come in hither." And she pulled her into her own room, and shut the door. "Agnes, there is some strange thing I cannot understand: and I will understand it. What letteth [hinders] thee to speak to me of my mother?"
Agnes looked astonished at Philippa's tone, as well she might. "It hath been forbidden, Lady."
"Who forbade it?"
The lavender's compressed lips sufficiently intimated that she did not mean to answer that question.
"Why was it forbidden?"
The continued silence replied.
"When died she? Thou mayest surely tell me so much."
"I dare not, Lady," replied Agnes in a scarcely audible whisper.
"How died she?"
"Lady, I dare not answer,—I must not. You weary yourself to no good."
"But I will know," said Philippa, doggedly.
"Not from me, Lady," answered the lavender with equal determination.
"What does it all mean?" moaned poor Philippa to her baffled self. "Look here, Agnes. Hast thou ever seen this bracelet?"
"Ay, Lady. The Lady Alianora never deigns to speak to such as we poor lavenders be, but she did not think it would soil her lips to comfort us when our hearts were sad. I have seen her wear that jewel."
A terrible fancy all at once occurred to Philippa.
"Agnes, was she an evil woman, that thou wilt not speak of her?"
The lavender's heart was reached, and her tongue loosed.
"No, no, Lady, no!" she cried, with a fervour of which Philippa had not imagined her capable. "The snow was no whiter than her life, the honey no sweeter than her soul!"
"Then what does it all mean?" said Philippa again, in a tone of more bewilderment than ever.
But the momentary fervour had died away, and silence once more settled on the lavender's tongue. Agnes louted, and walked away; and Philippa knew only one thing more—that the broken bracelet had been her mother's. But who was she, and what was she, this mysterious mother of whom none would speak to her—the very date of whose death her child was not allowed to know?
"That is too poor for you, Alesia," said the Lady Alianora.
"'Tis but thin, in good sooth," observed that young lady.
"I suppose Philippa must have a gown for the wedding," resumed the Countess, carelessly. "It will do for her."
It was cloth of silver. Philippa had never had such a dress in her life. She listened in mute surprise. Could it be possible that she was intended to appear as a daughter of the house at Alesia's marriage?
"You may choose your hood-stuff from chose velvets," said the Countess condescendingly to Philippa. "I trow you will have to choose your own gowns after you are wedded, so you may as well begin now."
"Will Philippa be wed when I am?" yawned Alesia.
"The same day," said the Lady Alianora.
The day was about sixty hours off; and this was the first word that Philippa had heard of her destiny. To whom was she to be handed over after this summary fashion? Would the Countess, of her unspeakable goodness, let her know that? But the Countess could not tell her; she had not yet heard. She thought there were two knights in treaty for her, and the last time he had mentioned it, the Earl had not decided between them.
As soon as Alesia's wardrobe was settled, and Philippa was no longer wanted to unfold silks and exhibit velvets, she fled like a hunted deer to her turret-chamber. Kneeling down by her bed, she buried her face in the coverlet, and the long-repressed cry of the sold slave broke forth at last.
"O Mother, Mother, Mother!"
The door opened, but Philippa did not hear it.
"Lady, I cry you mercy," said the voice of Agnes in a compassionate tone. "I meant not indeed to pry into your privacy; but as I was coming up the stairs, I thought I heard a scream. I feared you were sick."
Philippa looked up, with a white, woe-begone face and tearless eyes.
"I wish I were, Agnes!" she said in a hopeless tone. "I would I were out of this weary and wicked world."
"Ah, I have wished that ere now," responded the lavender. "'Tis an ill wish, Lady. I have heard one say so."
"One that never felt it, I trow," said Philippa.
"No did, Lady? Ay, one whose lot was far bitterer than yours."
"Verily, I would give something to see one whose lot were so," answered the girl, bitterly enough. "I have no mother, and as good as no father; and none would care were I out of the world this night. Not a soul loveth me, nor ever did."
"She used to say One did love us," said Agnes in a low voice; "even He that died on the rood. I would I could mind what she told us; but it is long, long ago; and mine heart is hard, and my remembrance dim. Yet I do mind that last time she spake, only the very day before—never mind what. But that which came after stamped it on mine heart for ever. It was the last time I heard her voice; and I knew—we all knew—what was coming, though she did not. It was about water she spake, and he that drank should thirst again; and there was another well some whither, whereof he that should drink should never thirst. And He that died on the rood would give us that better water, if we asked Him."
"But how shall I get at Him to ask Him?" cried Philippa.
"She said He could hear, if we asked," replied the lavender.
"She—that you wot of. Our Lady that used to be."
Agnes nodded. "And the water that He should give should bring life and peace. It was a sweet story and a fair, as she told it. But there never was a voice like hers—never."
Philippa rose, and opened her cherished bracelet. She could guess what that bracelet had been. The ornament was less common in the Middle Ages than in the periods which preceded and followed them; and it was usually a love-token. But where was the love which had given and received this? Was it broken, too, like the bracelet?
She read the device to Agnes.
"It was something like that," said Agnes. "But she read the story touching it, out of a book."
"What was she like?" asked Philippa in a low tone.
"Look in the mirror, Lady," answered Agnes.
Philippa began to wonder whether this were the mysterious reason for her bitter lot.
"Dost thou know I am to be wed?"
So the very lavenders had known it before herself! But finding Agnes, as she thought, more communicative than before, Philippa returned to her former subject.
"What was her name?"
Agnes shook her head.
"Thou knowest it?"
The lavender nodded in answer.
"Then why not tell it me? Surely I may know what they christened her at the font—Philippa, or Margaret, or Blanche?"
Agnes hesitated a moment, but seemed to decide on replying. She sank her voice so low that Philippa could barely hear her, but she just caught the words.
"The Lady Isabel."
Philippa sat a minute in silence; but Agnes made no motion to go.
"Agnes, thou saidst her lot was more bitter than mine. How was it more bitter?"
Agnes pointed to the window of the opposite turret, where the tiring-women slept, and outside of which was hung a luckless lark in a small wicker cage.
"Is his lot sweet, Lady?"
"I trow not, in good sooth," said Philippa; "but his is like mine."
"I cry you mercy," answered the lavender, shaking her head. "He hath known freedom, and light, and air, and song. That was her lot—not yours, Lady."
Philippa continued to watch the lark. His poor caged wings were beating vainly against the wicker-work, until he wearily gave up the attempt, and sat quietly on the perch, drooping his tired head.
"He is not satisfied," resumed Agnes in a low tone. "He is only weary. He is not happy—only too worn-out to care for happiness. Ah, holy Virgin! how many of us women are so! And she was wont to say that there was happiness in this life, yet not in this world. It lay, she said, in that other world above, where God sitteth; and if we would ask for Him that was meant by the better water, it would come and dwell in our hearts along with Him. Our sweet Lady help us! we seem to have missed it somehow."
"I have, at any rate," whispered Philippa, her eyes fixed dreamily on the weary lark.
GUY OF ASHRIDGE.
"For merit lives from man to man, And not from man, O Lord, to Thee."
Not until the evening before her marriage did Philippa learn the name of her new master. The Earl's choice, she was then informed, had fallen on Sir Richard Sergeaux, a knight of Cornwall, who would receive divers manors with the hand of the eldest daughter of Arundel. Philippa was, however, not told that Sir Richard was expected to pay for the grants and the alliance in extremely hard cash.
For to the lofty position of eldest daughter of Arundel (for that morning only) Philippa, to her intense surprise, found herself suddenly lifted. She was robed in cloth of silver; her hair flowed from beneath a jewelled golden fillet; her neck was encircled by rubies, and a ruby and pearl girdle clasped her waist. She felt all the time as though she were dreaming, especially when the Lady Alianora herself superintended her arraying, and even condescended to remark that "the Lady Philippa did not look so very unseemly after all."
Not least among the points which astonished her was the resumption of her title. She did not know that this had formed a part of the bargain with Sir Richard, who had proved impracticable on harder terms. He did not mind purchasing the eldest daughter of Arundel at the high price set upon her; but he gave the Earl distinctly to understand that if he were merely selling a Mistress Philippa, there must be a considerable discount.
When the ceremony and the wedding festivities were over, and her palfrey was standing ready at the door, Philippa timidly entered the banqueting-hall, to ask—for the first and last time—her father's blessing. He was conversing with the Earl of Kent, the bridegroom of Alesia, concerning the merits of certain hawks recently purchased; and near him, at her embroidery-frame, sat the Countess Alianora.
Philippa knelt first to her.
"Farewell, Philippa!" said the Countess, in a rather kinder tone than usual. "The saints be with thee."
Then she turned to the only relative she had.
Earl Richard just permitted his jewelled fingers to touch Philippa's velvet hood, saying carelessly,—"Our Lady keep thee!—I cry you mercy, fair son; the lesser tercel is far stronger on the wing."
As Philippa rose, Sir Richard Sergeaux took her hand and led her away. So she mounted her palfrey, and rode away from Arundel Castle. There were only two things she was sorry to leave—Agnes, because she might have told her more about her mother,—and the grave, in the Priory churchyard below, of the baby Lady Alianora—the little sister who never grew up to tyrannise over her.
It was a long journey ere they reached Kilquyt Manor, and Philippa had time to make the acquaintance of her new owner. He was about her own age, and so far as she could at first judge, a reasonably good-tempered man. The first discovery she made was that he was rather proud of her. Of Philippa the daughter of Arundel, of course, not of Philippa the woman: but it was so new to be reckoned anything or anybody—so strange to think that somebody was proud of her—that Philippa enjoyed the knowledge. As to his loving her, or her loving him, these were ideas that never entered the minds of either.
So at first Philippa found her married life a pleasant change. She was now at the head, instead of being under the feet of every one else; and her experience of Sir Richard gave her the impression at the outset that he would not prove a hard master. Nor did he, strictly speaking; but on further acquaintance he proved a very trying one. His temper was not of the stormy kind that reigned at Arundel, which had hitherto been Philippa's only idea of a bad temper: but he was a perpetual grumbler, and the slightest temporary discomfort or vexation would overcast her sky with conjugal clouds for the rest of the day. The least stone in his path was treated as a gigantic mountain; the narrowest brooklet as an unfathomable sea. And gradually—she scarcely knew how or when—the old weary discomfort crept back over Philippa's heart, the old unsatisfied longing for the love that no one gave. Her bower at Kilquyt was no more strewn with roses than her turret-chamber at Arundel. She found that "On change du ciel—l'on ne change point de soi." The damask robes and caparisoned palfreys, which her husband did not grudge to her as her father had done, proved utterly unsatisfying to the misunderstood cravings of her immortal soul. She did not herself comprehend why she was not happier. She knew not the nature of the thirst which was upon her, which she was trying in vain to quench at the broken cisterns within her reach. Drinking of this water, she thirsted again; and she had not yet found the way to the Well of the Living Water.
About seven years after her marriage, Philippa stood one day at the gate of her manor. It was a beautiful June morning—just such another as that one which "had failed her hope" at the gate of Arundel Castle, thirty years before. Sir Richard had ridden away on his road to London, whence he was summoned to join his feudal lord, the Earl, and Lady Sergeaux stood looking after him in her old dreamy fashion, though half-an-hour had almost passed since she had caught sight of the last waving of his nodding plume through the trees. He had left her a legacy of discomfort, for his spurs had been regilded, not at all to his mind, and he had been growling over them ever since the occurrence, "Dame, have you a draught of cold water to bestow on a weary brother?"
Philippa started suddenly when the question reached her ear.
He who asked it was a monk in the habit of the Dominican Order, and very worn and weary he looked. Lady Sergeaux called for one of her women, and supplied him with the water which he sorely needed, as was manifest from the eager avidity with which he drank. When he had given back the goblet, and the woman was gone, the monk turned towards Philippa, and uttered words which astonished her no little.
"'Quy de cette eaw boyra Ancor soyf aura; Mays quy de l'eaw boyra Que moy luy donneray, Jamays soyf n'aura A l'eternite.'"
"You know that, brother?" she said breathlessly.
"Do you, Lady?" asked the monk—as Philippa felt, with a deeper than the merely literal meaning.
"I know the 'ancor soyf aura,'" she said, mournfully; "I have not reached beyond that."
"Then did you ask, and He did not give?" inquired the stranger.
"No—I never asked, for—" she was going on to add, "I never knew where to ask."
"Then 'tis little marvel you never had, Lady," answered the monk.
"But how to ask?—whom to ask? There may be the Well, but where is the way?"
"How to ask, Lady? As I asked you but now for that lower, poorer water, whereof whosoever drinketh shall thirst again. Whom to ask? Be there more Gods in Heaven than one? Ask the Master, not the servants. And where is the way? It was made on the red rood, thirteen hundred years ago, when 'one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and forthwith came thereout blood and water.' Over that stream of blood is the way to the Well of Living Water."
"I do not fully understand you," returned Philippa.
"You look weary, Lady," said the monk, changing his tone.
"I am weary," she answered; "wearier than you—in one sense."
"Ay, wearier than I," he replied; "for I have been to the Well, and have found rest."
"Are you a priest?" asked Philippa suddenly.
The monk nodded.
"Then come in hither and rest, and let me confess to you. I fancy you might tell me what would help me."
The monk silently obeyed, and followed her to the house. An hour later he sat in Philippa's bower, and she knelt before him.
"Father," she said, at the close of her tale, "I have never known rest nor love. All my life I have been a lonely, neglected woman. Is there any balm-tree by your Well for such wounds as mine?—any healing virtue in its waters that could comfort me?"
"Have you never injured or neglected any, daughter?" asked the monk quietly.
"Never!" she said, almost indignantly.
"I cannot hold with you there," he replied.
"Whom have I ever injured?" exclaimed Philippa, half angrily, half amazed.
"Listen," said he, "and I will tell you of One whom all your life you have injured and neglected—God."
Philippa's protestations died on her lips. She had not expected to hear such words as these.
"Nay, heed not my words," he pursued gently. "Your own lips shall bring you in guilty. Have you loved God with all your mind, and heart, and soul, and strength? Hath He been in all your thoughts?"
Philippa felt instinctively that the monk spoke truly. She had not loved God, she had not even wished to love Him. Her conscience cried to her, "Unclean!" yet she was too proud to acknowledge it. She felt angry, not with herself, but with him. She thought he "rubbed the sore, when he should bring the plaster." Comfort she had asked, and condemnation he was giving her instead.
"Father!" she said, in mingled sadness and vexation, "you deal me hard measure."
"My daughter," answered the monk very gently, "the pitcher must be voided ere it can be filled. If you go to the Well with your vessel full of the water of earth, there will be no room there for the Living Water."
"Is it only for saints, then?" she asked in a disappointed tone.
"It is only for sinners," answered he: "and according to your own belief, you are not a sinner. The Living Water is not wasted on pitchers that have been filled already at other cisterns, 'I will give unto him that is athirst'—but to him only—'of the Fountain of the Water of Life, freely.'"
"But tell me, in plain words, what is that Water of Life?"
"The Holy Spirit of God."
Philippa's next question was not so wide of the mark as it seemed.
"Are you a true Dominican?"
"I am one of the Order of Predicant Friars."
"From what house?"
"Who sent you forth to preach?"
"Ah! yes, but I mean, what bishop or abbot?"
"Is the seal of the servant worth more than that of the Master?"
"I would know, Father," urged Philippa.
The monk smiled. "Archbishop Bradwardine," he said.
"Then Ashridge is a Dominican house? I know not that vicinage."
"Men give us another name," responded the monk slowly, "which I see you would know. Be it so. They call us—Boni-Homines."
"But I thought," said Philippa, looking bewilderedly into his face, "I thought those were very evil men. And Archbishop Bradwardine was a very holy man—almost a saint."
A faint ironical smile flitted for a moment over the monk's grave lips. The gravity was again unbroken the next instant.
"A very holy man," he repeated. "He walked with God; and he is not, for God took him. Ay, took him away from the evil to come, where he should vex his righteous soul no more by unlawful deeds—where the alloyed gold of worldly greatness, which men would needs braid over the pure ermine of his life, should soil and crush it no more."
He spoke rather to himself than to Philippa: and his eyes had a far-away look in them, as he lifted his head and gazed from the window over the moorland.
"Then what are the Boni-Homines?" inquired Lady Sergeaux.
"A few sinners," answered the monk, "whose hearts God hath touched, that they have sought and found that Well of the Living Water."
"But, Father, explain it to me!" she cried anxiously, perhaps even a little querulously. "Put it in plain words, that I can understand it. What is it to drink this Living Water?"
"To come to Christ, my daughter," replies the monk.
"But I cannot understand you," she objected, in the same tone. "How can I come? What mean you by coming? He is not here in this chamber, that I can rise and go to Him. Can you not use words more intelligible to me?"
"In the first place, my daughter," softly replied the monk, "you are under a great mistake. Christ is here in this chamber, and hath heard every word that we have said. And in the second place, I cannot use words that shall be plainer to you. How can the dead understand the living? How shall a man born blind be brought to know the difference of colour between green and blue. Yet the hardship lieth not in the inaptness of the teacher, but in the inability of the taught."
"But I am not blind, nor dead!" cried Philippa.
"Both," answered the monk. "So, by nature, be we all."
Philippa made no reply; she was too vexed to make any. The monk laid his hand gently upon her head.
"Take the best wish that I can make for you:—God show you how blind you are! God put life within you, that you may awake, and arise from the dead, and see the light of Christ! May He grant you that thirst which shall be satisfied with nothing short of the Living Water—which shall lead you to disregard all the roughnesses of the way, and the storms of the journey, so that you may win Christ, and be found in Him! God strip you of your own goodness!—for I fear you are over-well satisfied therewith. And no goodness shall ever have admittance into Heaven save the goodness which is of God."
"But surely," exclaimed Philippa, looking up in surprise, "there is grace of congruity?"
"Grace of congruity! grace of condignity!" [see Note] cried the monk fervently. "Grace of sin and gracelessness! It is not all worth so much as one of these rushes upon your floor. If you carry grace of congruity to the gates of Heaven, I warn you it shall never bear you one step beyond. Lay down those miserable rush-staffs, wherein is no pith; and take God's golden staff held out to you, which is the full and perfected obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ. That staff shall not fail you. All the angels at the gate of Paradise know it; and the doors shall fly wide open to whoso smiteth on them with that staff of God. Lord, open her eyes, that she may see!"
The prayer was answered, but not then.
"What shall I call you?" asked Philippa, when the monk rose to depart.
"Men call me Guy of Ashridge," he said.
"I hope to see you again, Father," responded Philippa.
"So do I, my daughter," answered the monk, "in that other land whereinto nothing shall enter that defileth. Nothing but Christ and Christ's—the Head and the body, the Master and the meynie [household servant]. May the Master make you one of the meynie! Farewell."
And in five minutes more, Guy of Ashridge was gone.
Note. "Condignity implies merit, and of course claims reward on the score of justice. Congruity pretends only to a sort of imperfect qualification for the gifts and reception of God's grace."—Manet's Church History, iv. 81.
"She hears old footsteps wandering slow Through the lone chambers of her heart."
When Guy of Ashridge was fairly gone, Philippa felt at once relieved and vexed to lose him. She had called in a new physician to prescribe for her disease; and she was sure that he had administered a harmful medicine, if he had not also given a wrong diagnosis. Instead of being better, she felt worse; and she resolved to give herself the next dose, in the form of a "retreat" into a convent, to pray and fast, and make her peace with God. Various reasons induced her to select a convent at a distance from home. After a period of indecision, she fixed upon the Abbey of Shaftesbury, and obtained the necessary permission to reside there for a time.
Lady Sergeaux arrived at Shaftesbury towards the close of August. She found the Abbess and nuns kindly-disposed towards her; and her stay was not disagreeable, except for the restless, dissatisfied feelings of her own heart. But she found that her peace was not made, for all her fastings, scourgings, vigils, and prayers. Guy's words came back to her with every rite, "God strip you of your own goodness!" and she could not wrap herself in its mantle as complacently as before.
In the Abbey of Shaftesbury was one nun who drew Philippa's attention more than the others. This was a woman of about sixty years of age, whom all the convent called Mother Joan. An upright, white-haired woman, with some remnant of former comeliness; but Mother Joan was blind. Philippa pitied her affliction, and liked her simple, straightforward manner. She had many old memories and tales of forgotten times, which she was ready enough to tell; and these Philippa, as well as the nuns, always liked to hear.
"How old were you, Mother Joan, when you became a nun?" she asked her one day during the recreation-hour.
"Younger than you, Lady," said Mother Joan. "I was but an hilding [see Note 1] of twenty."
"And wherefore was it, Mother?" inquired a giddy young nun, whose name was Laura. "Wert thou disappointed in love, or—"
The scorn exhibited on the blind woman's face stopped her.
"I never was such a fool," said Mother Joan, bluntly. "I became a nun because my father had decreed it from my cradle, and my mother willed it also. There were but two of us maids, and—ah, well! she would not have more than one to suffer."
"Had thy sister, then, a woeful story?" asked Sister Laura, settling her wimple, [see note 2], as she thought, becomingly.
"Never woman woefuller," sadly replied Mother Joan.
The next opportunity she had, Lady Sergeaux asked one of the more discreet nuns who Mother Joan was.
"Eldest daughter of the great house of Le Despenser," replied Sister Senicula; "of most excellent blood and lineage; daughter unto my noble Lord of Gloucester that was, and the royal Lady Alianora de Clare, his wife, the daughter of a daughter of King Edward. By Mary, Mother and Maiden, she is the noblest nun in all these walls."
"And what hath been her history?" inquired Philippa.
"Her history, I think, was but little," replied Senicula; "your Ladyship heard her say that she had been professed at twenty years. But I have known her to speak of a sister of hers, who had a very sorrowful story. I have often wished to know what it were, but she will never tell it."
The next recreation-time found Philippa, as usual, seated by Mother Joan. The blind nun passed her hand softly over Philippa's dress.
"That is a damask," [the figured silk made at Damascus] she said. "I used to like damask and baudekyn."
[Note: Baudekyn or baldekyn was the richest silk stuff then known, and also of oriental manufacture.]
"I never wear baudekyn," answered Philippa. "I am but a knight's wife."
"What is the colour?" the blind woman wished to know.
"Red and black, in stripes," said Philippa.
"I remember," said Mother Joan, dreamily, "many years ago, seeing mine aunt, the Lady of Gloucester, at the court of King Edward of Caernarvon, arrayed in a fair baudekyn of rose colour and silver. It was the loveliest stuff I ever saw. And I could see then."
Her voice fell so mournfully that Philippa tried to turn her attention by asking her,—"Knew you King Edward of Westminster?" [See note 3.]
"Nay, Lady de Sergeaux, with what years do you credit me?" rejoined the nun, laughing a little. "Edward of Westminster was dead ere I was born. But I have heard of him from them that did remember him well. He was a goodly man, of lofty stature, and royal presence: a wise man, and a cunning [clever]—saving only that he opposed our holy Father the Pope."
"Did he so?" responded Philippa.
"Did he so!" ironically repeated Mother Joan. "Did he not command that no Bull should ever be brought into England? and hanged he not the Prior of Saint John of Jerusalem for reading one to his monks? I can tell you, to brave Edward of Westminster was no laughing matter. He never cared what his anger cost. His own children had need to think twice ere they aroused his ire. Why, on the day of his daughter the Lady Elizabeth's marriage with my noble Lord of Hereford, he, being angered by some word of the bride, snatched her coronet from off her head, and flung it behind the fire. Ay, and a jewel or twain was lost therefrom ere the Lady's Grace had it back."
"And his son, King Edward of Caernarvon—what like was he?" asked Philippa, smiling.
Mother Joan did not answer immediately. At last she said,—"The blessed Virgin grant that they which have reviled him be no worse than he! He had some strange notions—so had other men, whom I at least am bound to hold in honour. God grant all peace!"
Philippa wondered who the other men were, and whether Mother Joan alluded to her own ancestors. She knew nothing of the Despensers, except the remembrance that she had never heard them alluded to at Arundel but in a tone of bitter scorn and loathing.
"Maybe," continued the blind woman, in a softer voice, "he was no worse for his strange opinions. Some were not. 'Tis a marvellous matter, surely, that there be that can lead lives of angels, and yet hold views that holy Church condemneth as utterly to be abhorred."
"Whom mean you, Mother?"
"I mean, child," replied the nun, speaking slowly and painfully, "one whom I hope is gone to God. One to whom, and for whom, this world was an ill place; and, therefore, I trust she hath found her rest in a better. God knoweth how and when she died—if she be dead. We never knew."
Mother Joan made the sign of the cross, and a very mournful expression came over her face.
"Ah, holy Virgin!" she said, lifting her sightless eyes, "why is it that such things are permitted? The wicked dwell in peace, and increase their goods; the holy dwell hardly and die poor. Couldst not thou change the lots? There is at this moment one man in the world, clad in cloth of gold, dwelling gloriously, than whom the foul fiend himself is scarcely worse; and there was one woman, like the angels, whose Queen thou art, and only God and thou know what became of her. Blessed Mary must such things always be? I cannot understand it. I suppose thou canst."
It was the old perplexity—as old as Asaph; but he understood it when he went into the sanctuary of God, and Mother Joan had never followed him there.
"Lady de Sergeaux," resumed the blind nun, "there is at times a tone in your voice, which mindeth me strangely of hers—hers, of whom I spake but now. If I offend not in asking it, I pray you tell me who were your elders?"
Philippa gave her such information as she had to give. "I am a daughter of my Lord of Arundel."
"Which Lord?" exclaimed Mother Joan, in a voice as of deep interest suddenly awakened.
"They call him," answered Philippa, "Earl Richard the Copped-Hat." [See Note 4.]
"Ah!" answered Mother Joan, in that deep bass tone which sounds almost like an execration. "That was the man. Like Dives, clad in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day; and his portion shall be with Dives at the last. Your pardon, Dame; I forgat for the nonce that I spake to his daughter. Yet I said but truth."
"That may be," responded Philippa under her breath.
"Then you have not found him a saint?" replied the blind nun, with a bitter little laugh. "Well, I might have guessed that. And you, then, are a daughter of that proud jade Alianora of Lancaster, for whose indwelling the fiend swept the Castle of Arundel clean of God's angels? I do not think she made up for it."
Philippa's own interest was painfully aroused now. Surely Mother Joan knows something of that mysterious history which hitherto she had failed so sadly to discover.
"I cry you mercy, Mother," she said. "But I am not the daughter of the Lady Alianora."
"Whose, then? Quick!" cried Mother Joan, in accents of passionate earnestness.
"Who was my mother," answered Philippa, "I cannot tell you, for I was never told myself. All that I know of her I had but from a poor lavender, that spake well of her, and she called her the Lady Isabel."
Philippa was deeply touched; for the name, twice repeated, broke in a wail of tender, mournful love, from the lips of the blind nun.
"Mother," she pleaded, "if you know anything of her, for the holy Virgin's love tell it to me, her child. I have missed her and longed for her all my life. Surely I have a right to know her story who gave me that life!"
"Thou shalt know," responded Mother Joan in a choked voice. "But, child, name me Mother Joan no longer. Call me what I am to thee—Aunt. Thy mother was my sister."
And then Philippa knew that she stood upon the threshold of all her long-nursed hopes.
"But tell me first," pursued the nun, "how that upstart treated thee— Alianora."
"She was not unkind to me," answered Philippa hesitatingly. "She did not give me precedence over her daughters, but then she is of the blood royal, and I am not. But—"
"Not royal!" exclaimed Mother Joan in extremely treble tones. "Have they brought thee up so ignorantly as that? Not of the blood royal, quotha! Child, by our Lady's hosen, thou art fifty-three steps nearer the throne than she! We were daughters of Alianora, whose mother was Joan of Acon, [Acre, where Joan was born], daughter of King Edward of Westminster; and she is but the daughter of Henry, the son of Edmund, son of Henry of Winchester." [Henry the Third.]
Philippa was silent from astonishment.
"Go on," said the nun. "What did she to thee?"
"She did little," said Philippa in a low voice. "She only left undone."
"Ah!" replied Mother Joan. "The one half of the Confiteor. The other commonly marcheth apace behind."
"Then," said Philippa, "my mother was—"
"Isabel La Despenser, younger daughter of the Lord Hugh Le Despenser the younger, Earl of Gloucester, and grand-daughter of Hugh the elder, Earl of Winchester. Thou knowest their names well, if not hers."
"I know nothing about them," replied Philippa, shaking her head. "None ever told me. I only remember to have heard them named at Arundel as very wicked persons, and rebels against the King."
"Holy Virgin!" cried Mother Joan. "Rebels!—against which King?"
"I do not know," answered Philippa.
"But I do!" exclaimed the blind woman, bitterly. "Rebels against a rebel! Traitors to a traitress! God reward Isabelle of France for all the shame and ruin that she brought on England! Was the crown that she carried with her worth the price which she cost that carried it? Well, she is dead now—gone before God to answer all that long and black account of hers. Methinks it took some answering. Child, my father did some ill things, and my grandfather did more; but did either ever anything to merit the shame and agony of those two gibbets at Hereford and Bristol? Gibbets for them, that had sat in the King's council, and aided him to rule the realm,—and one of them a white-haired man over sixty years! [See Note 5.] And what had they done save to anger the tigress? God help us all! We be all poor sinners; but there be some, at the least in men's eyes, a deal blacker than others. But thou wouldst know her story, not theirs: yet theirs is the half of hers, and the tale were unfinished if I told it not."
"What was she like?" asked Philippa.
Mother Joan passed her hand slowly over the features of her niece.
"Like, and not like," she said. "Thy features are sharper cut than hers; and though in thy voice there is a sound of hers, it is less soft and low. Hers was like the wind among the strings of an harp hanging on the wall. Thy colouring I cannot see. But if thou be like her, thine hair is glossy, and of chestnut hue; and thine eyes are dark and mournful."
"Tell me about her, Aunt, I pray you," said Philippa.
Joan La Despenser smoothed down her monastic habit, and leaned her head back against the wall. There was evidently some picture of memory's bringing before her sightless eyes, and her voice itself had a lower and softer tone as she spoke of the dead sister. But her first words were not of her.
"Holy Virgin!" she said, "when thou didst create the world, wherefore didst thou make women? For women have but two fates: either they are black-souled, like the tigress Isabelle, and then they prosper and thrive, as she did; or else they are white snowdrops, like our dead darling, and then they are martyrs. A few die in the cradle—those whom thou lovest best; and what fools are we to weep for them! Ah me! things be mostly crooked in this world. Is there another, me wondereth, where they grow straight?—where the black-souled die on the gibbets, and the white-souled wear the crowns? I would like to die, and change to that Golden Land, if there be. Methinks it is far off."
It was a Land "very far off." And over the eyes of Joan La Despenser the blinding film of earth remained; for she had not drunk of the Living Water.
"The founder of our house,"—thus Mother Joan began her narrative,—"was my grandfather's father, slain, above an hundred years ago, at the battle of Evesham. He left an infant son, not four years old when he died. This was my grandfather, Hugh Le Despenser, Earl of Winchester, who at the age of twenty-five advanced the fortunes of his house by wedding a daughter of Warwick, Isabel, the young widow of the Lord de Chaworth, and the mother's mother of Alianora of Lancaster. Thou and thy father's wife, therefore, are near akin. This Isabel (after whom thy mother was named) was a famed beauty, and brought moreover a very rich dower. My grandfather and she had many children, but I need only speak of one—my hapless father.
"King Edward of Caernarvon loved my father dearly. In truth, so did Edward of Westminster, who bestowed on him, ere he was fully ten years old, the hand of his grand-daughter, my mother, Alianora de Clare, who brought him in dower the mighty earldom of Gloucester. The eldest of us was Hugh my brother; then came I; next followed my other brothers, Edward, Gilbert, and Philip; and last of all, eight years after me, came Isabel thy mother.
"From her birth this child was mine especial care. I was alway a thoughtful, quiet maiden, more meet for cloister than court; and I well remember, though 'tis fifty years ago, the morrow when my baby-sister was put into mine arms, and I was bidden to have a care of her. Have a care of her! Had she never passed into any worse care than mine— well-a-day! Yet, could I have looked forward into the future, and have read Isabel's coming history, I might have thought that the wisest and kindest course I could take would be to smother her in her cradle.
"Before she was three years old, she passed from me. My Lord of Arundel—Earl Edmund that then was—was very friendly with my father; and he desired that their families should be drawn closer together by the marriage of Richard Fitzalan, his son and heir—a boy of twelve years—with one of my father's daughters. My father, thus appealed unto, gave him our snowdrop.
"'Not Joan,' said he; 'Joan is God's. She shall be the spouse of Christ in Shaftesbury Abbey.'
"So it came that ere my darling was three years old, they twined the bride-wreath for her hair, and let it all down flowing, soft and shining, from beneath her golden fillet. Ah holy Virgin! had it been thy pleasure to give me that cup of gall they mixed that day for her, and to her the draught of pure fresh water thou hast held to me! Perchance I could have drunk it with less pain than she did; and at least it would have saved the pain to her.
"That was in the fourteenth year of Edward of Caernarvon. [1320.] So long as Earl Edmund of Arundel lived, there was little to fear. He, as I said, loved my father, and was a father to Isabel. The Lady of Arundel likewise was then living, and was careful over her as a mother. Knowest thou that the Lady Griselda, of such fame for her patient endurance, was an ancestress of thy father? It should have been of thy mother. Hers was a like story; only that to her came no reward, no happy close.
"But ere I proceed, I must speak of one woeful matter, which I do believe to have been the ruin of my father. He was never loved by the people—partly, I think, because he gave counsel to the King to rule, as they thought, with too stern a hand; partly because my grandfather loved money too well, nor was he over careful how he came thereby; partly because the Queen hated him, and she was popular; but far above all these for another reason, which was the occasion of his fall, and the ruin of all who loved him.
"Hast thou ever heard of the Boni-Homines? They have other names— Albigenses, Waldenses, Cathari, Men of the Valleys. They are a sect of heretics, dwelling originally in the dominions of the Marquis of Monferrato, toward the borders betwixt France, Italy, and Spain: men condemned by the Church, and holding certain evil opinions touching the holy doctrine of grace of condignity, and free-will, and the like. Yet some of them, I must confess, lead not unholy lives."
Philippa merely answered that she had heard of these heretics.
"Well," resumed the blind woman, "my father became entangled with these men. How or wherefore I know not. He might have known that their doctrines had been condemned by the holy Council of Lumbars two hundred years back. But when the Friars Predicants were first set up by the blessed Dominic, under leave of our holy Father the Pope, many of these sectaries crept in among them. A company went forth from Ashridge, and another from Edingdon—the two houses of this brood of serpents. And one of them, named Giles de Edingdon, fell in with my father, and taught him the evil doctrines of these wretches, whom Earl Edmund of Cornwall (of the blood royal), that wedded a daughter of our house, had in his unwisdom brought into this land; for he was a wicked man and an ill liver. [See Note 6.] King Edward of Caernarvon likewise listened to these men, and did but too often according to their counsels.
"Against my grandfather and others, but especially against these men of Edingdon and Ashridge, Dame Isabelle the Queen set herself up. King Edward had himself sent her away on a certain mission touching the homage due to the King of France for Guienne; for he might not adventure to leave the realm at that time. But now this wicked woman gathered together an army, and with Prince Edward, and the King's brother the Earl of Kent, who were deluded by her enchantments, she came back and landed at Orewell, and thence marched with flying colours to Bristol, men gathering everywhere to her standard as she came.
"We were in Bristol on that awful day. My mother, the King had left in charge of the Tower of London; but in Bristol, with the King, were my grandfather and father my Lord and Lady of Arundel, their son Richard, and Isabel, and myself. I was then a maiden of sixteen years. When Dame Isabelle's banners floated over the gates of the city, and her trumpets summoned the citizens to surrender, King Edward, who was a timid man, flung himself into the castle for safety, and with him all of us, saving my grandfather, and my Lord of Arundel, who remained without, directing the defence.
"The citizens of Bristol, thus besieged (for she had surrounded the town), sent to ask Dame Isabelle her will, offering to surrender the city on condition that she would spare their lives and property. But she answered by her trumpeter, that she would agree to nothing unless they would first surrender the Earls of Winchester and Arundel; 'for,' saith she, 'I am come purposely to destroy them.' Then the citizens consulted together, and determined to save their lives and property by the sacrifice of the noblest blood in England, and (as it was shown afterwards) of the blood royal. They opened their gates, and yielded up my grandfather and thine to her will."
Note 1. Hilding: a word derived from the Anglo-Saxon, and used indiscriminately to denote a young person of either sex.
Note 2. Wimple: the covering for the neck, worn by secular women as well as nuns, and either with or without a veil or hood. It had been in fashion for two centuries or thereabouts, but was now beginning to be generally discarded.
Note 3. In accordance with the custom of the time, by which persons were commonly named from their birth-places, Edward the First, the Second, and the Third are respectively designated Edward of Westminster, of Caernarvon, and of Windsor.
Note 4. The copped-hat was the high-crowned brimless hat then fashionable, the parent of the modern one. An instance of it will be found in the figure of Bolingbroke, plate xvi. of the illustrations to Cretan's History of Richard the Second, Archaeologia, vol. xx.
Note 5. One historian after another has copied Froissart's assertion that Hugh Le Despenser the elder at his death was an old man of ninety, and none ever took the trouble to verify the statement; yet the post-mortem inquisition of his father is extant, certifying that he was born in the first week in March 1261; so that on October 8, 1326, the day of his execution, he was only sixty-five.
Note 6. It will be understood that this was the light in which the monks regarded Earl Edmund.
THE STORY OF ISABEL.
"O dumb, dumb lips! O crushed, crushed heart! O grief, past pride, past shame!"
Mother Joan had arrived at the point closing the last chapter, when the sharp ringing of the Abbess' little bell announced the end of the recreation-time; and convent laws being quite as rigid as those of the Medes and Persians, Philippa was obliged to defer the further gratification of her curiosity. When the next recreation-time came, the blind nun resumed her narrative.
"When Dame Isabelle was lodged at her ease, for she saw first to that, she ordered her prisoners to be brought before the Prince her son. She had the decency not to sit as judge herself; but, in outrage of all womanliness, she sat herself in the court, near the Prince's seat. She would have sat in the seat rather than have missed her end. The Prince was wholly governed by his mother; he knew not her true character; and he was but a lad of fourteen years. So, when the prisoners were brought forth, the tigress rose up in her place, and spake openly to the assembled barons (a shameful thing for a woman to do!) that she and her son would see that law and justice were rendered to them, according to their deeds. She! That was the barons' place, not hers. She should have kept to her distaff.
"Then said my grandfather, bowing his white head, 'Ah, Dame! God grant us an upright judge, and a just sentence; and that if we cannot have it in this world, we may find it in another.'
"The charges laid against them were then read by the Marshal; and the barons gave sentence—of course as Dame Isabelle wished. The Lord of Arundel and Surrey, the premier Earl of England, [see Note 1], and the aged white-haired Earl of Winchester, [see Note 2], were doomed to the death of traitors.
"Saint Denis' Day—child, it gives me a shudder to name it! We were within the castle, and they set up the gibbet before our eyes. Before the eyes of the son of the one man, the wife and son of the other! I remember catching up Isabel, and running with her into an inner chamber—any whither to be out of sight of that awful thing. I remember, too, that the Lady of Arundel, having seen all she could bear, fainted away on the rushes, and I laid her gently down, and nursed her back into life. But when she came to herself, she cried—'Is it all over? O cruel Joan, to have made me live! I might have died with my lord.' At last it was all over: over—for that time. And God had taken no notice. He had not opened the heavens and thundered down His great ire. I suppose that must have been on account of some high festival they had in Heaven in honour of Saint Denis, and God was too busy, listening to the angels, to have any time for us.
"But that night, ere the dawn, my father softly entered the chamber where we maidens slept. He had been closeted half the night with the King, taking counsel how to escape the cruel jaws of the tigress; and now he roused us, and bade us farewell. He and the King would set forth in a little boat, and endeavour to reach Wales. They thought us, however, safer in the castle. We watched them embark in the grey dawn, ere men were well astir; and they rowed off toward Wales. Would God they had stayed where they were!—but God had not ended the festival of Saint Denis.
"Twelve days that little boat rode the silver Severn; beaten back, beaten back at every tide, the waves rough, and the wind contrary. And at length Sir Henry Beaumont, the devil whispering to him who were in the boat, set forth in pursuit. [See Note 3.]
"We saw them taken. The Monday after Saint Luke, Edward of Caernarvon, sometime King of England, and Hugh Le Despenser, sometime Earl of Gloucester, were led captives into Bristol, and delivered to the tigress. But we were not to see them die. Perhaps Saint Luke had interceded for us, as it was in his octave. The King was sent to Berkeley Castle. My father they set on the smallest and poorest horse they could find in the army, clad in an emblazoned surcoat such as he was used to wear. From the moment that he was taken, he would touch no food. And when they reached Hereford, he was so weak and ill, that Dame Isabelle began to fear he would escape her hands by a more merciful death than she designed for him. So she stayed her course at Hereford for the Feast of All Saints, and the morrow after she had him brought forth for trial. They had need to bear him into her presence, he was so nearly insensible. Finding that they could not wake him into life by speaking to him and calling him, they twined a crown of nettles and set it on his head. But he was even then too near death to rouse himself. So, lest he should die on the spot, they hurried him forth to execution. He died the death of a traitor; but maybe God was more merciful than they, and snatched his soul away ere he had suffered all they meant he should. I suppose He allowed him to suffer previously, in punishment for his allying himself with the wicked men of Edingdon: but I trust his suffering purified his soul, and that God received him.
"Her vengeance thus satiated, Dame Isabelle set out for London. The Castle of Arundel was forfeited, and the Lady and her son Richard were left homeless. [See Note 4.] We set forth with them, a journey of many weary days, to join my mother. But when we reached London, we found all changed. Dame Isabelle, on her first coming, had summoned my mother to surrender the Tower; and she, being affrighted, had resigned her charge, and was committed to the custody of the Lord de la Zouche. So we homeless ones bent our steps to Sempringham, where were two of my father's sisters, Joan and Alianora; and we prayed the holy nuns there to grant us shelter in their abode of peace. The Lord of Hereford gave an asylum for young Richard.
"Those were peaceful, quiet days we passed at Sempringham; and they were the last Isabel was to know. Meanwhile, the Friars Predicants, and in especial the men of Edingdon and Ashridge, were spreading themselves throughout the land, working well to bring back the King. Working too well; for Dame Isabelle took alarm, and on Saint Maurice's Day, twelve months after her landing, the King died at Berkeley Castle. God knew how: and I think she knew who had sat by his side on the throne, and who was the mother of his children. We only heard at Sempringham, that on that night shrieks of agony rang through the vale of the Severn, and men woke throughout the valley, and whispered a requiem for the hapless soul which was departing in such horrible torment.
"But that opened the eyes of the young King (for the Prince of Wales had been made King; ay, and all the hour of his crowning, Dame Isabelle stood by, and made believe to weep for her lord): he began to see what a serpent was his mother; and I daresay Brother John de Gaytenby, the Friar Predicant who was his confessor, let not the matter sleep. And no sooner did Edward of Windsor gain his full power, than he shut up the wicked Jezebel his mother in the Castle of Rising. She lived there twenty years: she died there, fourteen years ago.
"So the tide turned. The friends of Dame Isabelle died on the scaffold, four years later, even as he had died; and we heard it at Sempringham, and knew that God and the saints and angels had taken up our cause at last. Child, God's mill grindeth slowly, but it grindeth very small.
"Ere this, Hugh, my brother, had been granted his life by the King, but not our father's earldom [see Note 5]; and when my father had been dead only two years, leaving such awful memories—our mother wedded again. Ah, well! she was our mother. But, child, I have seen a caterpillar, shaken rudely from the fragrant petals of a rose, crawl to the next weed that grew. She was fair and well-dowered; and against the King's will, she wedded the Lord de la Zouche, in whose custody she was.
"And now for the end of my woeful tale, which is the story of Isabel herself. For, one year later, the Castle of Arundel was given back to Richard Fitzalan; and two years thereafter the Lady of Arundel died. Listen a little longer with patience: for the saddest part of the story is that yet to come.
"When Richard and Isabel went back to the Castle of Arundel, I was a young novice, just admitted. And considering the second marriage of our mother, and the death of the Lady of Arundel, and the extreme youth of Isabel (who was not yet fourteen), I was permitted to reside very much with her. A woeful residence it was; for now began the fourteen terrible years of my darling's passion.
"For no sooner was his mother's gentle hand removed, than, even on the very day of her burial, Earl Richard threw off the mask.
"Before that time, I had wonderingly doubted if he loved her. I knew then that he hated her. And I found one other thing, sadder yet—that she loved him. I confess unto thee, by the blessed ankle-bones of Saint Denis, that I never could make out why. I never saw in him anything to love; and had I so done, methinks he had soon had that folly out of me. At first I scarcely understood all. I used to see livid blue bruises on her neck and arms, and ask her wherefore they were there; and she would only flush faintly, and say,—'It is nothing—I struck myself against something.' I never knew for months against what she struck. But she never complained—not even to me. She was patient as an angel of God.
"Now and then I used to notice that there came to the castle an aged man, in the garb of the Friars Predicants; unto whom—and to him only— Isabel used to confess. So changed was he from his old self, that I never knew till long after that this was our father's old confessor, Giles de Edingdon. She only said to me that he taught her good things. If he taught her her saintly endurance, it was good. But I fear he taught her other things as well: to hold in light esteem that blessed doctrine of grace of condignity, whereby man can and doth merit the favour of God. And what he gave her instead thereof I know not. She used to tell me, but I forget now. Only once, in an awful hour, she said unto me, that but for the knowledge he had given her, she could not have borne her life.
"What was that hour?—Ah! it was the hour, when for the first time he threw aside all care, even before me, and struck her senseless on the rushes at my feet. And I never forgave him. She forgave him, poor innocent!—nay, rather, I think she loved him too well to think of forgiveness. I never saw love like hers; it would have borne death itself, and have kissed the murderer's hand in dying. Some women do love so. I never did, nor could.
"But when this awful hour came, and she fell at my feet, as if dead, by a blow from his hand in anger,—the spirit of my fathers came upon me, and like a prophetess of woe, child, I stood forth and cursed him! I think God spake by me, for words seemed to come from me without my will; and I said that for two generations the heir of his house should die by violence in the flower of his age [See Note 6]. Thou mayest see if it be so; but I never shall.
"And what said he?—He said, bowing his head low,—'Sister Joan La Despenser is a great flatterer. Pray, accept my thanks. Henceforward, she may perhaps find the calm glades of Shaftesbury more pleasant than the bowers of Arundel. At least, I venture to beg that she will make the trial.' And he went forth, calling to his hounds.
"Ay, went forth, without another word, and left her lying there at my feet—her, to save whom one pang of pain I would have laid down my life. And the portcullis was shut upon me. I was powerless to save her from that man: I was to see her again no more. I did see her again no more for ever. I waited till her sense came back, when she said she was not hurt, and fell to excusing him. I felt as though I could have torn him limb from limb. But that would have pained her.
"And then, when she was restored, I went forth from the Castle of Arundel. I had been dismissed by the master; and dearly as I loved her, I was too proud to be dismissed twice. So we took our farewell. Her soft cheek pressed to mine—for the last time; her dear eyes looking into mine—for the last time; her sweet, low voice blessing me—for the last time.
"And what were her last words, saidst thou? I cannot repeat them tearlessly, even now.
"'God grant thee the Living Water.'
"Those were they. She had spoken to me oft—though I had not much cared to listen, except to her sweet voice—of something whereof this Giles had told her; some kind of fairy tale, regarding this life as a desert, and of some Well of pure, fresh water, deep down therein. I know not what. I cared for all that came from her, but I cared nought for what came only through her from Giles de Edingdon. But she said God had given her a draught of that Living Water, and she was at rest. I know nothing about it. But I am glad if anything gave her rest from that anguish—even a fairy tale.
"Well, after that I saw her no more again. But now and then, when mine hunger for her could no longer be appeased, I used to come to the Convent of Arundel, and send word to Alina, thy nurse, to come to me thither. And so, from time to time, I had word of her.
"The years passed on, and with them he grew harder and harder. He had hated her, first, I think, from the fancy that my father had been after some manner the cause of his father's violent end; and after that he hated her for herself. And as time passed, and she had no child, he hated her worse than ever. But at last, after many years, God gave her one—thyself. I thought, perchance, if anything would soften him, thy smiles and babyish ways might do it. But—soften him! It had been easier to soften a rock of stone. When he knew that it was only a girl that was born, he hated her worse than ever. Three years more; then the last blow fell. Earl Henry of Lancaster bade him to his castle. As they talked, quoth the Earl,—'I would you had not been a wedded man, my Lord of Arundel; I had gladly given you one of my daughters.'—'Pure foy!' quoth he, 'but that need be no hindrance, nor shall long.' Nor was it. He sent to our holy Father the Pope—with some lie, I trow—and received a divorce, and a dispensation to wed Alianora, his cousin, the young widow of the Lord de Beaumont, son of that Sir Henry that captured the King and my father. All the while he told Isabel nothing. The meanest of her scullions knew of the coming woe before she knew it. The night ere Earl Richard should be re-wedded, he thought proper to dismiss his discarded wife.