by Walter Scott
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a law-clerk and judge, Clerk of Session and Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire, one of the leading figures of Scottish Toryism and of the Highland Society. Scott was the first English-language author to achieve international fame, largely with novels of a romantic past.
For more works by Walter Scott, see The Index
I. - At Cumnor
The village of Cumnor, within three or four miles of Oxford, boasted in the eighteenth of Queen Elizabeth an excellent inn, conducted by Giles Gosling, whom no one excelled in his power of pleasing his guests of every description.
A traveller in the close of the evening was ushered, with much semblance of welcome, into a large, low chamber, where several persons were seated in different parties, some drinking, some playing cards, some conversing.
The host soon recognised, without satisfaction, his graceless nephew, Michael Lambourne, who had not been heard of for long years; but, saying his sister's son should be called to no reckoning in his house, he heartily invited all who would to join them at supper in honour of his nephew's return. Many present remembered him as a school companion, and so forth, and, encouraged by the precept and example of Michael Lambourne, they soon passed the limits of temperance, as was evident from the bursts of laughter with which his inquiries after old acquaintances were answered. Giles Gosling made some sort of apology to a solitary guest who had sat apart for their license; they would be to-morrow a set of painstaking mechanics, and so forth, though to-night they were such would-be rufflers, and prevailed on him to join them.
Most of Michael's old friends seemed to have come to some sad end, but one, Tony Foster, for whom he inquired had married, and become a good Protestant, and held his head high, and scorned his old companions. He now dwelt at Cumnor Place, an old mansion house, and had nothing to do with anybody in Cumnor, not entirely from pride; it was said there was a fair lady in the case.
Here Tressilian, the guest, who had sat apart, intervened in the conversation, and was informed that Foster had a beautiful lady closely mewed up at Cumnor Place, and would scarcely let her look upon the light of day.
Michael Lambourne at once wagered that he would force Tony Foster to introduce him to his fair guest, and Tressilian asked permission to accompany him, to mark the skill end valour with which he should conduct himself, and, in spite of the host's warnings, the next morning they set off together to Anthony Foster's dwelling.
Michael Lambourne soon let Tressilian know that he suspected other motives than simple curiosity had led him, a gentleman of birth and breeding, into the company of such a scant-of-grace as himself, and owned that he expected both pleasure and profit from his visit.
They found the gate open, and passed up an avenue overshadowed by old trees, untrimmed for many years. Everything was in a dilapidated condition. After some delay, they were introduced into a stone-paved parlour, where they had to wait some time before the present master of the mansion made his appearance. He looked to Tressilian for an explanation of this visit, so true was Lambourne's observation that the superior air of breeding and dignity shone through the disguise of an inferior dress. But it was Michael who replied to him, with the easy familiarity of an old friend, and though Foster at first made it obvious that he had no wish to renew the acquaintance, in a few minutes he requested him to follow him to another apartment, and the two worthies left the room, leaving Tressilian alone.
His dark eyes followed them with a glance of contempt, some of which was for himself for having stooped for a moment to be their familiar companion. A slight noise interrupted his reverie. He looked round, and in the beautiful and richly attired female who entered he recognised the object of his search. His first impulse urged him to conceal his face in the cloak, but the young lady (she was not above eighteen years old) ran joyfully towards him, and, pulling him by the cloak, said playfully:
"Nay, my sweet friend, after I have waited for you so long, you come not to my bower to play the masquer."
"Alas, Amy," said Tressilian, in a low and melancholy voice. Then, as she turned pale as death, he added: "Amy, fear me not."
"Why should I fear you?" said the lady; "or wherefore have you intruded yourself into my dwelling, uninvited, sir, and unwished for?"
"Your dwelling, Amy?" said Tressilian. "Alas! is a prison your dwelling? A prison, guarded by the most sordid of men, but not a greater wretch than his employer?"
"This house is mine," said Amy, "mine while I choose to inhabit it. If it is my pleasure to live in seclusion, who shall gainsay me?"
"Your father, maiden," answered Tressilian, "your broken-hearted father, who dispatched me in quest of you with that authority which he cannot exert in person."
"Tressilian," said the lady, "I cannot - I must not - I dare not leave this place! Go back to my father. Tell him I will obtain leave to see him within twelve hours from hence. Tell him I am well - I am happy. Go, carry him the news. I come as sure as there is light in heaven - that is, when I obtain permission."
"Permission? Permission to visit your father on his sick-bed, perhaps on his death-bed?" repeated Tressilian impatiently. "And permission from whom? Amy, in the name of thy broken-hearted father, I command thee to follow me!"
As he spoke, he advanced and extended his arm, as with the purpose of laying hold upon her. But she shrunk back from his grasp, and uttered a scream which brought into the apartment Lambourne and Foster.
"Madam, fare you well!" said Tressilian. "What life lingers in your father's bosom will leave him at the news I have to tell."
He departed, the lady saying faintly as he left the room:
"Tressilian, be not rash. Say no scandal of me."
Tressilian pursued the first path through the wild and overgrown park in which the mansion of Foster was situated. At the postern, a cavalier, muffled in his riding cloak, entered, and stood at once within four yards of him who was desirous of going out. They exclaimed, in tons of resentment and surprise, the one "Varney!" the other, "Tressilian!"
"What takes you here?" said Tressilian. "Are you come to triumph over the innocence you have destroyed? Draw, dog, and defend thyself!"
Tressilian drew his sword as he spoke, but Varney only replied:
"Thou art mad, Tressilian! I own appearances are against me, but by every oath Mistress Amy Robsart hath no injury from me!"
Tressilian forced him to draw, and Varney received a fall so sudden and violent that his sword flew several paces from his hand. Lambourne came up just in time to save the life of Varney, and Tressilian perceived it was madness to press the quarrel further against such odds.
"Varney, we shall meet where there are none to come betwixt us!"
So saying, he turned round, and departed through the postern door.
Varney, left alone, gave vent to his meditations in broken words. "She loves me not - I would it were as true that I loved not her! But she must not leave this retreat until I am assured on what terms we are to stand. My lord's interest - and so far it is mine own, for if he sinks I fall in his train - demands concealment of this obscure marriage."
II. - The Earl and the Countess
At first, when the Earl of Leicester paid frequent visits to Cumnor, the Countess was reconciled to the solitude to which she was condemned. But when these visits became rarer and more rare, the brief letters of excuse did not keep out discontent and suspicion from the splendid apartments which love had once fitted up for beauty. Her answers to Leicester conveyed these feelings too bluntly, and pressed more naturally than prudently that she might be relieved from the obscure and secluded residence, by the Earl's acknowledgement of their marriage.
"I have made her Countess," Leicester said to his henchman Varney; "surely she might wait till it consisted with my pleasure that she should put on the coronet?"
The Countess Amy viewed the subject in directly an opposite light.
"What signifies," she said, "that I have rank and honour in reality, if I am to live an obscure prisoner, without either society or observance, and suffering in my character, as one of dubious or disgraced reputation?"
Leicester, high in Elizabeth's favour, dared not avow his marriage, and Varney was always at hand to paint the full and utter disgrace that would overwhelm him at the Court were the marriage known, and to spur his ambition to avoid the ruin of his fortunes.
Varney even prompted Leicester to invite the Countess to pass as Varney's wife, lest Elizabeth's jealousy should be aroused, and this suggestion and the knowledge that Varney desired her for himself (for he made no secret of his passion), drove the Countess to escape from Cumnor and to seek her husband at Kenilworth, Janet Foster, her faithful attendant, at first suggested that the Countess should return home to her father, Sir Hugh Robsart, at Lidcote Hall, in Devonshire.
"No, Janet," said the lady mournfully; "I left Lidcote Hall while my heart was light and my name was honourable, and I will not return thither till my lord's public acknowledgement of our marriage restore me to my native home with all the rank and honour which he has bestowed on me. I will go to Kenilworth, girl. I will see these revels - these princely revels - the preparation for which makes the land ring from side to side. Methinks, when the Queen of England feasts within my husband's halls, the Countess of Leicester should be no unbeseeming guest."
"Dearest madam," said the maiden, "have you forgotten that the noble Earl has given such strict charges to keep your marriage secret, that he may preserve his Court favour? And can you think that your sudden appearance at his castle, at such a juncture, and in such a presence, will be acceptable to him?"
"I will appeal to my husband alone, Janet. I will be protected by him alone. I will see him, and receive from his own lips the directions for my future conduct. Do not argue against my resolution. And to own the truth, I am resolved to know my fate at once, and from my husband's own mouth; and to seek him at Kenilworth is the surest way to attain my purpose."
"May the blessing of God wend with you, madam," said Janet, kissing her mistress's hand.
III. - At Kenilworth
With pomp and magnificence, Leicester entertained the Queen at the Castle of Kenilworth. Of the Countess he saw nothing for some days, and Varney let it be thought that the unhappy lady who had made her way into the castle was his wife, while Amy, mindful of the alarm which Leicester had expressed at the Queen's knowing aught of their union, kept out of the way of her sovereign.
Then, on one memorable morning, when a hunt had been arranged, Leicester escorted the Queen to the castle garden, with another chase in view. Without premeditation, but urged on by vanity and ambition, his importunity became the language of love itself.
"No, Dudley," said Elizabeth, yet with broken accents. "No, I must be the mother of my people. Urge it no more, Leicester. Were I, as others, free to seek my own happiness, then indeed - but it cannot be. It is madness, and must not be repeated. Leave me. Go, but go not far from hence; and meantime let no one intrude on my privacy."
The Queen turned into a grotto in which her hapless, and yet but too successful, rival lay concealed, and presently became aware of a female figure beside an alabaster column.
The unfortunate countess dropped on her knee before the queen, and looked up in the queen's face with such a mixed agony of fear and supplication, that Elizabeth was considerably affected.
"What may this mean?" she said. "Stand up, damsel, what wouldst thou have with us?"
"Your protection, madam," faltered the unfortunate countess. "I request - I implore - your gracious protection - against - against one Varney!"
"What, Varney - Sir Richard Varney - the servant of Lord Leicester? What are you to him, or he to you?"
"I was his prisoner, and I broke forth to - to - "
Amy hastily endeavoured to recall what were best to say which might save her from Varney without endangering her husband.
"To throw thyself on my protection, doubtless," said Elizabeth. "Thou art Amy, daughter of Sir Hugh Robsart. I must wring the story from thee by inches. Thou didst leave thine old and honoured father, cheat Master Tressilian of thy love, and marry 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 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, startled by Amy's vehemence, replied: "Why, God, ha' mercy, woman! Tell me, for 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, Amy at length uttered in despair: "The Earl of Leicester knows it all!"
"The Earl of Leicester!" said Elizabeth, in astonishment. "The Earl of Leicester! Come with me instantly!"
As Amy shrunk back with terror, Elizabeth seized on her arm, and dragged the terrified countess to where Leicester stood - the centre of a splendid group of lords and ladies.
"Stand forth, my Lord of Leicester!" cried the queen.
Amy, thinking her husband in danger from the rage of an offended Sovereign, instantly forgot her own wrongs, and throwing herself before the queen, exclaimed, "He is guiltless, madam - he is guiltless; no one can lay aught to the charge of noble Leicester!"
"Why, minion," answered the queen, "didst not thou thyself say that the Earl of Leicester was privy to thy whole history?"
At that moment Varney rushed into the presence, with every mark of disorder.
"What means this saucy intrusion?" said Elizabeth.
Varney could only prostrate himself before her feet, exclaiming: "Pardon, my Liege, pardon! Or let your justice avenge itself on me; but spare my noble, my generous, my innocent patron and master!"
Amy started up at the sight of the man she deemed most odious so near her, and besought the queen to save her from "that most shameless villain!" "I shall go mad if I look longer on him."
"Beshrew me, but I think thou art distraught already," answered the queen. Then she bade Lord Hunsdon, a blunt, warm-hearted old noble, "Look to this poor distressed young woman, and let her be safely bestowed, till we require her to be forthcoming."
"By our Lady," said Hunsdon, taking in his strong arms the 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, and the queen followed him with her eye, and then turned angrily to Varney, for Leicester stared gloomily on the ground.
"Speak, Sir Richard, and explain these riddles."
"Your Majesty's piercing eye," said Varney, "has already detected the cruel malady of my beloved lady. It is the nature of persons in her disorder, so please your Grace, to be ever most inveterate in their spleen against those whom, in their better moments, they hold nearest and dearest. May your Grace then be pleased to command my unfortunate wife to be delivered into the custody of my friends?"
Leicester partly started, but making a stronger effort, he subdued his emotion, while Elizabeth answered sharply, that her own physician should report on the lady's health.
That night Leicester sought the countess in her apartment, and would have avowed his marriage to the queen, but for Varney's influence. Finding all other argument vain, Varney finally urged that the countess was in love with Tressilian, and mentioned that he had seen him at Cumnor. Leicester allowed his mind to be poisoned, and was silent when, on the Queen's physician declaring Lady Varney to be sullen and the victim of fancies, Elizabeth answered, "Nay, then away with her all speed. Let Varney care for her with fitting humanity, but let them rid the castle of her forthwith."
IV. - The Death of the Countess
Armed with the authority of Leicester's signet-ring Varney induced the countess to leave Kenilworth for Cumnor, declaring that the earl had ordered it for his own safety. But no sooner was the lady gone than Leicester repented of the consent Varney had wrested from him. An interview with Tressilian and the recovery of a letter written by Amy at Cumnor revealed all Varney's villainy. Too late he acknowledged his marriage to the queen, and when the fury of Elizabeth's anger had somewhat subsided, she ordered Tressilian and Sir Walter Raleigh to repair at once to Cumnor, bring the countess to Kenilworth, and secure the body of Richard Varney, dead or alive.
But Varney's fell purpose had already decided that the countess must be got rid of. A part of the wooden gallery immediately outside her door was really a trap-door, and beneath it was an abyss dark as pitch. This trap-door remained secure in appearance even when the supports were withdrawn beneath it.
"Were the lady to attempt an escape over it," said Varney, to his accomplice Foster, who held the house by Varney's favour, "her weight would carry her down."
"A mouse's weight would do it," Foster answered.
"Why, then, she die in attempting her escape, and what could you or I help it? Let us, to bed; we will adjust our project to-morrow."
On the next day, when evening approached, Varney summoned Foster to the execution of their plan. Foster himself, as if anxious to see that the countess suffered no want of accommodations, visited her place of confinement. He was so much staggered at her mildness and patience, that he could not help earnestly recommending to her not to cross the threshold on any account until Lord Leicester should come. Amy promised that she would resign herself to her fate, and Foster returned to his hardened companion with his conscience half-eased of the perilous load that weighed on it. "I have warned her," he said; "surely in vain is the snare set in the sight of any bird!"
He left the countess's door unsecured on the outside, and, under the eye of Varney, withdrew the supports which sustained the falling trap, which, therefore, kept its level position merely by a slight adhesion. They withdrew to wait the issue on the ground floor adjoining; but they waited long in vain.
"Perhaps she is resolved," said Foster, "to await her husband's return."
"True! Most true!" said Varney, rushing out; "I had not thought of that before."
In less than two minutes, Foster, who remained behind, heard the tread of a horse in the courtyard, and then a whistle similar to that which was the earl's usual signal. The instant after the door to the countess's chamber opened, and in the same moment the trap-door gave way. There was a rushing sound - a heavy fall - a faint groan, and all was over.
At the same instant Varney called in at the window, "Is the bird caught? Is the deed done?"
"O God, forgive us!" replied Foster.
"Why, thou fool," said Varney, "thy toil is ended, and thy reward secure. Look down into the vault - what seest thou?"
"I see only a heap of clothes, like a snowdrift," said Foster. "O God, she moves her arm!"
"Hurl something down on her."
"Varney, thou art an incarnate fiend!" replied Foster. "There needs nothing more - she is gone!"
"So pass our troubles," said Varney; "I dreamed not I could have mimicked the earl's call so well."
While they were at this consultation Tressilian and Raleigh broke in upon them. Foster fled at their entrance, and escaped all search. He perished miserably in a secret passage, behind an iron door, forgetting the key of the spring-clock, and years later his skeleton was discovered.
But Varney was taken on the spot. He made very little mystery either of the crime or of its motives - alleging that there was sufficient against him to deprive him of Leicester's confidence, and to destroy all his towering plans of ambition. "I was not born," he said, "to drag on the remainder of life a degraded outcast; nor will I so die that my fate shall make a holiday to the vulgar herd."
That night he swallowed a small quantity of strong poison, which he carried about his person, and next morning was found dead in his cell.
The news of the countess's dreadful fate put a sudden stop to the pleasures of Kenilworth. Leicester retired from court, and for a considerable time abandoned himself to his remorse. But as Varney in his last declaration had been studious to spare the character of his patron, the earl was the object rather of compassion than resentment. The queen at length recalled him to court; he was once more distinguished as a statesman and favourite; and the rest of his career is well known to history. But there was something retributive in his death, for it is believed he died by swallowing a draught of poison, designed by him for another person.
Tressilian at length embarked with his friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, for the Virginia expedition, and young in years, but old in grief, died before his day in that foreign land.
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