There was an expression of both sorrow and care on the fine and winning features of the Princess Joan, Countess of Gloucester, as she sat busied in embroidery in an apartment of Carlisle Castle, often pausing to rest her head upon her hand, and glance out of the broad casement near which she sat, not in admiration of the placid scene which stretched beyond, but in the mere forgetfulness of uneasy thought. Long the favorite daughter of King Edward, perchance because her character more resembled t
at of her mother, Queen Eleanor, than did either of her sisters, she had till lately possessed unbounded influence over him. Not only his affection but his pride was gratified in her, for he saw much of his own wisdom, penetration, and high sense of honor reflected upon her, far more forcibly than in his weak and yielding son. But lately, the change which had so painfully darkened the character and actions of her father had extended even to her. Her affection for a long time blinded her to this painful truth, but by slow degrees it became too evident to be mistaken, and she had wept many bitter tears, less perhaps for herself than for her father, whom she had almost idolized. His knightly qualities, his wisdom, the good he had done his country, all were treasured up by her and rejoiced in with never-failing delight. His reputation, his popularity, were dear to her, even as her noble husband's. She had not only loved, she had reverenced him as some superior being who had come but to do good, to leave behind him through succeeding ages an untarnished name, enshrined in such love, England would be long ere she spoke it without tears. And now, alas! she had outlived such dreams; her reverence, lingering still, had been impaired by deeds of blood her pride in him crushed; naught but a daughter's love remaining, which did but more strongly impress upon her heart the fatal change. And now the last blow was given; he shunned her, scarcely ever summoned her to his presence, permitted the wife of a day to tend him in his sufferings, rather than the daughter of his former love, one hallowed by the memories of her mother, the beloved and faithful partner of his youth.
It was not, however, these thoughts which entirely engrossed[Pg 290] her now not undivided sorrows. Her sister Elizabeth, the Countess of Hereford, had just left her, plunged in the deepest distress, from the extraordinary fact that her husband, summoned seemingly in all amity by the king, had been arrested by the Lord Marshal of England as an aider and abettor of treason, and was now in strict confinement within the castle; not permitted to embrace his wife and children, whom he had not seen since his arrival from Scotland, where he had so gallantly assisted the cause of Edward, and whence he had but just returned in triumph. No other cause was assigned saving having given countenance to treason and lèze majesté, but that the irritation of the king had prohibited all hope of present pardon;—she, Lady Hereford, though his own daughter, having been refused admission to his presence. Both the Earl and Countess of Gloucester had anxiously striven to comfort the anxious wife, conquering their own fears to assure her that hers were groundless; that though from some mysterious cause at present irritated, as they knew too well a trifle made him now, Hereford was too good and loyal a subject for the king to proceed to extremities, whatever might have been his fault. Rumors of the confusion at Berwick had indeed reached Carlisle, and it was to have them confirmed or denied, or connected with some appearance of veracity, the Earl of Gloucester had quitted the royal sisters, determining to use his influence with his sovereign, even to dare his wrath, for the release of Hereford, whose good services in Scotland deserved a somewhat different recompense. Lady Hereford, too anxious and dispirited to remain long in one place, soon departed to seek the youthful Margaret of France, her father's beautiful wife, and beseech her influence with him, either for the pardon of her husband, or at least communication with him.
It was these sad thoughts which engrossed the Princess Joan, and they lingered too on Hereford's prisoner, the brave, and noble Nigel, for both to her husband and herself he had been in his boyhood an object not only of interest but of love. His beauty, his extraordinary talents, had irresistibly attracted them; and yet scarcely could they now believe the youthful knight, with whose extraordinary valor not only Scotland but England rung, could be that same enthusiast boy. That he had been taken, was now a prisoner in Berwick Castle, on whom sentence of death sooner or later would be passed,[Pg 291] brought conviction but too sadly to their hearts, and made them feel yet more bitterly their influence with Edward was of no account.
"Hast thou succeeded, Gilbert? Oh, say that poor Elizabeth may at least be permitted access to her husband," was the countess's eager salutation to her husband, as he silently approached her. He shook his head sorrowfully.
"Alas! not even this. Edward is inexorable, possessed by I know not what spirit of opposition and wrath, furiously angered against Hereford, to the utter forgetfulness of all his gallant deeds in Scotland."
"But wherefore? What can have chanced in this brief period to occasion this? but a few days since he spoke of Hereford as most loyal and deserving."
"Aye, that was on the news of Kildrummie's surrender; now forgotten, from anger at a deed which but a few years back he would have been the first to have admired. That rash madman, Nigel Bruce, hath not only trebly sealed his own fate, but hurled down this mishap on his captor," and briefly he narrated all he had learned.
"It was, indeed, a rash action, Gilbert; yet was it altogether unnatural? Alas, no! the boy had had no spark of chivalry or patriotism about him, had he stood tamely by; and Gloucester," she added, with bitter tears, "years back would my father have given cause for this—would he thus have treated an unhappy woman, thus have added insult to misery, for an act which, shown to other than his rival, he would have honored, aye, not alone the deed, but the doer of it? If we, his own children, feel shamed and indignant at this cruelty, oh, what must be the feelings of her countrymen, her friends?"
"Then thou believest not the foul slander attached to the Countess of Buchan, my Joan?"
"Believe it!" she answered, indignantly; "who that has looked on that noble woman's face can give it the smallest credence? No, Gilbert, no. 'Tis published by those base spirits so utterly incapable of honor, knighthood, and patriotism themselves, that they cannot conceive these qualities in others, particularly in a female breast, and therefore assign it to motives black as the hearts which thought them; and even if it were true, is a kingly conqueror inflicting justice for treason against[Pg 292] himself, to assign other motives for that justice? Doth he not lower himself—his own cause?"
"Alas, yes!" replied her husband, sorrowfully; "he hath done his character more injury by this last act than any which preceded. Though men might wish less blood were shed, yet still, traitors taken in arms against his person justice must condemn; but a woman, a sad and grieving woman—but do not weep thus, my gentle wife," he added, tenderly.
"Can a daughter of Edward do other than weep, my husband? Oh, if I loved him not, if my very spirit did not cling round him so closely that the fibres of both seem entwined, and his deeds of wrath, of exacting justice, fall on me as if I had done them, and overwhelm me with their shame, their remorse, then indeed I might not weep; but as it is, do not chide me, Gilbert, for weep I must."
"Thou art too noble-hearted, Joan," he said, kindly, as he circled her waist with his arm, "only too noble-hearted for these fearful times. 'Tis but too sad a proof of the change in thy royal father, that he shuns thy presence now even as he once loved it."
A confusion in the passage and ante-room disturbed their converse, and Gloucester turned towards the door to inquire the cause.
"Tis but a troublesome boy, demanding access to her highness the countess, my lord," was the reply. "I have asked his name and business, questions he deigns not, forsooth, to answer, and looks so wild and distracted, that I scarce think it accords with my duty to afford him admittance. He is no fit recipient of my lady's bounty, good my lord; trust me, he will but fright her."
"I have no such fear, my good Baldwin," said the princess, as, on hearing her name, she came forward to the centre of the chamber; "thou knowest my presence is granted to all who seek it, an this poor child seems so wild, he is the fitter object of my care. They are using violence methinks; give him entrance instantly."
The attendant departed, and returned in a very brief space, followed by a lad, whose torn and muddy garments, haggard features, and dishevelled hair indeed verified the description given. He glanced wildly round him a moment, and then flinging himself at the feet of the princess, clasped her robe[Pg 293] and struggled to say something, of which the words "mercy, protection," were alone audible.
"Mercy, my poor child! what mercy dost thou crave? Protection I may give thee, but how may I show thee mercy?"
"Grant me but a few moments, lady, let me but speak with thee alone. I bear a message which I may not deliver to other ears save thine," said or rather gasped the boy, for he breathed with difficulty, either from exhaustion or emotion.
"Alone!" replied the countess, somewhat surprised. "Leave us, Baldwin," she added, after a moment's pause. "I am privately engaged for the next hour, denied to all, save his grace the king." He withdrew, with a respectful bow. "And now, speak, poor child, what wouldst thou? Nay, I hear nothing which my husband may not hear," she said, as the eyes of her visitor gazed fearfully on the earl, who was looking at him with surprise.
"Thy husband, lady—the Earl of Gloucester? oh, it was to him too I came; the brother-in-arms of my sovereign, one that showed kindness to—to Sir Nigel in his youth, ye will not, ye will not forsake him now?"
Few and well-nigh inarticulate as were those broken words, they betrayed much which at once excited interest in both the earl and countess, and told the reason of the lad's earnest entreaty to see them alone.
"Forsake him!" exclaimed the earl, after carefully examining that the door was closed; "would to heaven I could serve him, free him! that there was but one slender link to lay hold of, to prove him innocent and give him life, I would do it, did it put my own head in jeopardy."
"And is there none, none?" burst wildly from the boy's lips, as he sprung from his knees, and grasped convulsively the earl's arm. "Oh, what has he done that they should slay him? why do they call him guilty? He was not Edward's subject, he owed him no homage, no service, he has but fought to free his country, and is there guilt in this? oh, no, no, save him, in mercy save him!"
"Thou knowest not what thou askest, boy, how wholly, utterly impossible it is to save him. He hath hurled down increase of anger on his own head by his daring insult of King Edward's herald; had there been hope before there is none now."[Pg 294]
A piercing cry escaped the boy, and he would have fallen had he not been supported by the countess; he looked at her pitying face, and again threw himself at her feet.
"Canst thou not, wilt thou not save him?" he cried; "art thou not the daughter of Edward, his favorite, his dearly beloved, and will he not list to thee—will he not hear thy pleadings? Oh, seek him, kneel to him as I to thee, implore his mercy—life, life, only the gift of life; sentence him to exile, perpetual exile, what he will, only let him live: he is too young, too good, too beautiful to die. Oh! do not look as if this could not be. He has told me how you both loved him, not that I should seek ye. It is not at his request I come; no, no, no, he spurns life, if it be granted on conditions. But they have torn me from him, they have borne him to the lowest dungeon, they have loaded him with fetters, put him to the torture. I would have clung to him still, but they spurned me, trampled on me, cast me forth—to die, if I may not save him! Wilt thou not have mercy, princess? daughter of Edward, oh, save him, save him!"
It is impossible in the above incoherent words to convey to the reader even a faint idea of the agonized wildness with which they were spoken; the impression of unutterable misery they gave to those who listened to them, and marked their reflection in the face of the speaker.
"Fetters—the lowest dungeon—torture," repeated Gloucester, pacing up and down with disordered steps. "Can these things be? merciful heaven, how low hath England fallen! Boy, boy, can it be thou speakest truth?"
"As there is a God above, it is truth!" he answered, passionately. "Oh, canst thou not save him from this? is there no justice, no mercy? Rise—no, no; wherefore should I rise?" he continued, clinging convulsively to the knees of the princess, as she soothingly sought to raise him. "I will kneel here till thou hast promised to plead for him with thy royal father, promised to use thine influence for his life. Oh, canst thou once have loved him and yet hesitate for this?"
"I do not, I would not hesitate, unhappy boy," replied the princess, tenderly. "God in heaven knows, were there the slenderest chance of saving him, I would kneel at my father's feet till pardon was obtained, but angered as he is now it would irritate him yet more. Alas! alas! poor child, they[Pg 295] told thee wrong who bade thee come to Joan for influence with Edward; I have none now, less than any of his court," and the large tears fell from the eyes of the princess on the boy's upturned face.
"Then let me plead for him; give me access to Edward. Oh, I will so beseech, conjure him, he cannot, he will not say me nay. Oh, if his heart be not of steel, he will have mercy on our wretchedness; he will pardon, he will spare my husband!"
The sob with which that last word was spoken shook that slight frame, till it bowed to the very ground, and the supporting arm of the countess alone preserved her from falling.
"Thy husband!—Gracious heaven! who and what art thou?" exclaimed the earl, springing towards her, at the same instant that his wife raised her in her arras, and laid her on a couch beside them, watching with the soothing tenderness of a sister, till voice and strength returned.
"Alas! I feared there was more in this deep agony than we might see," she said; "but I imagined not, dared not imagine aught like this. Poor unhappy sufferer, the saints be praised thou hast come to me! thy husband's life I may not save, but I can give protection, tenderness to thee—aye weep, weep, there is life, reason in those tears."
The gentle voice of sympathy, of kindness, had come upon that overcharged heart, and broke the icy agony which had closed it to the relief of tears. Mind and frame were utterly exhausted, and Agnes buried her face in the hands of the princess, which she had clasped convulsively within both hers, and wept, till the wildness of agony indeed departed, but not the horrible consciousness of the anguish yet to come. Gradually her whole tale was imparted: from the resolution to follow her betrothed even to England, and cling to him to the last; the fatal conclusion of that rite which had made them one; the anxiety and suffering which had marked the days spent in effecting a complete disguise, ere she could venture near him and obtain Hereford's consent to her attending him as a page; the risks and hardships which had attended their journey to Berwick, till even a prison seemed a relief and rest; and then the sudden change, that a few days previous, the Earl of Berwick had entered Sir Nigel's prison, at the head of five or ten ruffians, had loaded him with fetters, conveyed him to the lowest and filthiest dungeon, and there had administered the torture, she[Pg 296] knew not wherefore. Her shriek of agony had betrayed that she had followed them, and she was rudely and forcibly dragged from him, and thrust from the fortress. Her brain had reeled, her senses a brief while forsaken her, and when she recovered, her only distinct thought was to find her way to Carlisle, and there obtain access to the Earl and Countess of Gloucester, of whom her husband had spoken much during their journey to England, not with any wish or hope of obtaining mercy through their influence, but simply as the friends of former years; he had spoken of them to while away the tedious hours of their journey, and besought her, if she should be parted from him on their arrival at Berwick, to seek them, and implore their protection till her strength was restored. Of herself, however, in thus seeking them, she had thought not; the only idea, the only thought clearly connected in her mind was to beseech their influence with Edward in obtaining her husband's pardon. Misery and anxiety, in a hundred unlooked-for shapes, had already shown the fallacy of those dreams which in the hour of peril had strengthened her, and caused her to fancy that when once his wife she not only might abide by him, but that she might in some manner obtain his liberation. She did not, indeed, lament her fate was joined to his—lament! she could not picture herself other than she was, by her husband's side, but she felt, how bitterly felt, she had no power to avert his fate. Despair was upon her, cold, black, clinging despair, and she clung to the vain dream of imploring Edward's mercy, feeling at the same moment it was but the ignis fatui to her heart—urging lighting, impelling her on, but to sink in pitchy darkness when approached.
Gradually and painfully this narrative of anguish was drawn from her lips, often unconnectedly, often incoherently, but the earl and countess heard enough, to fill their hearts alike with pity and respect for the deep, unselfish love unconsciously revealed. She had told, too, her maiden name, had conjured them to conceal her from the power of her father, at whose very name she shuddered; and both those noble hearts shared her anxiety, sympathized in her anguish; and speedily she felt, if there could be comfort in such deep wretchedness, she had told her tale to those ready and willing, and able to bestow it.
The following day the barons sat in judgment on Sir Nigel Bruce, and Gloucester was obliged to join them. It was use[Pg 297]less, both he and the princess felt, to implore the king's mercy till sentence was passed; alas! it was useless at any time, but it must have been a colder and harder heart than the Princess Joan's to look upon the face of Agnes, and yet determine on not even making one effort in his favor. At first the unhappy girl besought the earl to permit her accompanying him back to Berwick, to attend her husband on his trial; but on his proving it would but be uselessly harrowing the feelings of both, for it would not enable her to go back with him to prison, that it would be better for her to remain under the protection of the countess, endeavoring to regain strength for whatever she might have to encounter, either to accompany him to exile, if grace were indeed granted, or to return to her friends in Scotland, she yielded mournfully, deriving some faint degree of comfort in the earl's assurance that she should rejoin her husband as soon as possible, and the countess's promise that if she wished it, she should herself be witness of her interview with Edward. It was indeed poor comfort, but her mind was well-nigh wearied out with sorrow, as if incapable of bearing more, and she acquiesced from very exhaustion.
The desire that she herself should conjure the mercy of Edward had been negatived even to her anxious heart by the assurance of both the earl and the princess, that instead of doing good to her husband's cause she would but sign her own doom, perchance be consigned to the power of her father, and be compelled to relinquish the poor consolation of being with her husband to the last. It was better she should retain the disguise she had assumed, adopting merely in addition the dress of one of the princess's own pages, a measure which would save her from all observation in the palace, and give her admittance to Sir Nigel, perchance, when as his own attendant it would be denied.
The idea of rejoining her husband would have reconciled Agnes to any thing that might have been proposed, and kneeling at the feet of her protectress, she struggled to speak her willingness and blessing on her goodness, but her tongue was parched, her lips were mute, and the princess turned away, for her gentle spirit could not read unmoved the silent thankfulness of that young and breaking heart.[Pg 298]