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“ Forgive me forgive me- most gracious princess ! ” said Amy, dropping once more on her knee, from which she had arisen.
“For what should I forgive thee, silly wench ?” said Elizabeth ; " for being the daughter of thine own father? Thou art brainsick, surely. Well, I see I must wring the story from thee by inches. Thou didst deceive thine old and honored father - thy look confesses it — cheated Master Tressilian thy blush avouches it - and married this same Varney.”
Amy sprung on her feet, and interrupted the Queen eagerly with, “ No, madam, no- as there is a God above us, I am not the sordid wretch you would make me! I am not the wife of that contemptible slave — of that most deliberate villain ! I am not the wife of Varney! I would rather be the bride of Destruction !”
The Queen, overwhelmed in her turn by Amy's vehemence, stood silent for an instant, and then replied, “Why, God ha' mercy, woman! - I see thou canst talk fast enough when the theme likes thee. Nay, tell me, woman," she continued, for to the impulse of curiosity was now added that of an undefined jealousy that some deception had been practiced on her, — “tell me, woman for by God's day, I WILL know whose wife or whose paramour art thou ? Speak out, and be speedy. - Thou wert better dally with a lioness than with Elizabeth.”
Urged to this extremity, dragged as it were by irresistible force to the verge of a precipice which she saw but could not avoid, — permitted not a moment's respite by the eager words and menacing gestures of the offended Queen, Amy at length uttered in despair, “The Earl of Leicester knows it all."
" The Earl of Leicester!” said Elizabeth, in utter astonishment. — “The Earl of Leicester !” she repeated, with kindling anger, “ Woman, thou art set on to this — thou dost belie him — he takes no keep of such things as thou art. Thou art suborned to slander the noblest lord, and the truest-hearted gentleman, in England! But were he the right hand of our trust, or something yet dearer to us, thou shalt have thy hearing, and that in his presence. Come with me come with me instantly!"
As Amy shrunk back with terror, which the incensed Queen interpreted as that of conscious guilt, Elizabeth rapidly advanced, seized on her arm, and hastened with swift and long steps out of the grotto, and along the principal alley of the
Pleasance, dragging with her the terrified Countess, whom she still held by the arm, and whose utmost exertions could but just keep pace with those of the indignant Queen.
Leicester was at this moment the center of a splendid group of lords and ladies assembled together under an arcade, or portico, which closed the alley. The company had drawn together in that place, to attend the commands of her Majesty when the hunting party should go forward, and their astonishment may be imagined, when, instead of seeing Elizabeth advance toward them with her usual measured dignity of motion, they beheld her walking so rapidly that she was in the midst of them ere they were aware ; and then observed, with fear and surprise, that her features were flushed betwixt anger and agitation, that her hair was loosened by her haste of motion, and that her eyes sparkled as they were wont when the spirit of Henry VIII. mounted highest in his daughter. Nor were they less astonished at the appearance of the pale, attenuated, half-dead, yet still lovely female, whom the Queen upheld by main strength with one hand, while with the other she waved aside the ladies and nobles who pressed toward her under the idea that she was taken suddenly ill. — “Where is my Lord of Leicester ?" she said, in a tone that thrilled with astonishment all the courtiers who stood around. — “Stand forth, my Lord of Leicester!”
If, in the midst of the most serene day of summer, when all is light and laughing around, a thunderbolt were to fall from the clear blue vault of heaven, and rend the earth at the very feet of some careless traveler, he could not gaze upon the smoldering chasm which so unexpectedly yawned before him with half the astonishment and fear which Leicester felt at the sight that so suddenly presented itself. He had that instant been receiving, with a political affectation of disavowing and misunderstanding their meaning, the half-uttered, half-intimated congratulations of the courtiers, upon the favor of the Queen, carried apparently to its highest pitch during the interview of that morning ; from which most of them seemed to augur that he might soon arise from their equal in rank to become their master. And now, while the subdued yet proud smile with which he disclaimed those inferences was yet curling his cheek, the Queen shot into the circle, her passions excited to the utterinost; and, supporting with one hand, and apparently without an effort, the pale and sinking form of his almost expiring wife, and pointing with the finger of the other to her half-dead fea
tures, demanded in a voice that sounded to the ear of the astounded statesman like the last dread trumpet call, that is to summon body and spirit to the judgment seat, “Knowest thou this woman?”
As, at the blast of that last trumpet, the guilty shall call upon the mountains to cover them, Leicester's inward thoughts invoked the stately arch which he had built in his pride, to burst its strong conjunction, and overwhelm them in its ruins. But the cemented stones, architrave and battlement, stood fast; and it was the proud master himself who, as if some actual pressure had bent him to the earth, kneeled down before Elizabeth, and prostrated his brow to the marble flagstones on which she stood.
“Leicester," said Elizabeth, in a voice which trembled with passion, “could I think thou hast practiced on me — on me thy Sovereign-on me thy confiding, thy too partial mistress, the base and ungrateful deception which thy present confusion surmises — by all that is holy, false lord, that head of thine were in as great peril as ever was thy father's ! ”
Leicester had not conscious innocence, but he had pride to support him. He raised slowly his brow and features, which were black and swollen with contending emotions, and only replied, “ My head cannot fall but by the sentence of my peers
- to them I will plead, and not to a princess who thus requites my faithful service."
“What! my lords,” said Elizabeth, looking around, "we are defied, I think - defied in the Castle we have ourselves bestowed on this proud man ! — My Lord Shrewsbury, you are marshal of England ; attach him of high treason.”
“Whom does your Grace mean?” said Shrewsbury, much surprised, for he had that instant joined the astonished circle.
“Whom should I mean, but that traitor Dudley, Earl of Leicester ! — Cousin of Hunsdon, order out your band of gentlemen pensioners, and take him into instant custody. – I say, villain, make haste!”
Hunsdon, a rough old noble, who, from his relationship to the Boleyns, was accustomed to use more freedom with the Queen than almost any other dared to do, replied bluntly, “ And it is like your Grace might order me to the Tower tomorrow for making too much haste. I do beseech you to be
“ Patient - God's life!” exclaimed the Queen, "name not the word to me — thou know'st not of what he is guilty !”
Amy, who had by this time in some degree recovered herself, and who saw her husband, as she conceived, in the utmost danger from the rage of an offended Sovereign, instantly (and alas, how many women have done the same !) forgot her own wrongs, and her own danger, in her apprehensions for him, and throwing herself before the Queen, embraced her knees, while she exclaimed, “He is guiltless, madam, he is guiltless - no one can lay aught to the charge of the noble Leicester."
“Why, minion," answered the Queen, "didst not thou thyself say that the Earl of Leicester was privy to thy whole history?"
“Did I say so?” repeated the unhappy Amy, laying aside every consideration of consistency, and of self-interest. - Oh, if I did, I foully belied him. May God so judge me, as I believe he was never privy to a thought that would harm me !"
“ Woman !” said Elizabeth, “I will know who has moved thee to this; or my wrath — and the wrath of kings is a flaming fire-shall wither and consume thee like a weed in the furnace.”
As the Queen uttered this threat, Leicester's better angel called his pride to his aid, and reproached him with the utter extremity of meanness which would overwhelm him forever if he stooped to take shelter under the generous interposition of his wife, and abandoned her, in return for her kindness, to the resentment of the Queen. He had already raised his head, with the dignity of a man of honor, to avow his marriage, and proclaim himself the protector of his Countess, when Varney, born, as it appeared, to be his master's evil genius, rushed into the presence, with every mark of disorder on his face and apparel.
“What means this saucy intrusion ?” said Elizabeth.
Varney, with the air of a man overwhelmed with grief and confusion, prostrated himself before her feet, exclaiming, “Pardon, my Liege, pardon ! —or at least let your justice avenge itself on me, where it is due ; but spare my noble, my generous, my innocent patron and master!
Amy, who was yet kneeling, started up as she saw the man whom she deemed most odious place himself so near her, and was about to fly toward Leicester, when, checked at once by the
uncertainty and even timidity which his looks had reassumed as soon as the appearance of his confidant seemed to open a new scene, she hung back, and uttering a faint scream, besought of her Majesty to cause her to be imprisoned in the lowest dungeon of the Castle - to deal with her as the worst of criminals — “But spare,” she exclaimed, “my sight and hearing, what will destroy the little judgment I have left — the sight of that unutterable and most shameless villain !”
“ And why, sweetheart ?” said the Queen, moved by a new impulse ; “what hath he, this false knight, since such thou
; accountest him, done to thee ? ”
“Oh, worse than sorrow, madam, and worse than injury he has sown dissension where most there should be
I shall go mad if I look longer on him.”
“Beshrew me, but I think thou art distraught already,” answered the Queen. — “My Lord Hunsdon, look to this poor distressed young woman, and let her be safely bestowed and in honest keeping, till we require her to be forthcoming.
Two or three of the ladies in attendance, either moved by compassion for a creature so interesting, or by some other motive, offered their service to look after her ; but the Queen briefly answered, “ Ladies, under favor, no. - You have all “
(give God thanks) sharp ears and nimble tongues — our kins
man Hunsdon has ears of the dullest, and a tongue somewhat rough, but yet of the slowest. — Hunsdon, look to it that none have speech of her.'
“By Our Lady !” said Hunsdon, taking in his strong sinewy arms the fading and almost swooning form of Amy, " she is a lovely child ; and though a rough nurse, your Grace hath given her a kind one. She is safe with me as one of my own ladybirds of daughters."
So saying, he carried her off unresistingly and almost unconsciously, his war-worn locks and long gray beard mingling with her light brown tresses, as her head reclined on his trong square shoulder. The Queen followed him with her eye-she had already, with that self-command which forms so necessary a part of a Sovereign's accomplishments, suppressed every appearance of agitation, and seemed as if she desired to banish all traces of her burst of passion from the recollection of those who had witnessed it. “My Lord of Hunsdon says well,” she observed ; "he is indeed but a rough nurse for so tender a babe.”