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Anna Jane Vardill

Legends of Lampidosa

Collected by a Recluse

Continued

THE ENGLISHWOMAN

About that period of the seventeenth century when the republican enemies of King Charles, even in the opinion of their most active leader, had medicined the Parliament till they had brought it into a consumption, and reformed the nation “as a man wiped a dish and turneth it upside down,” Sir Bevil De Grey retired in disgust to his mansion near Worcester. He was a man whose faults would have been very few if his Christian neighbours had judged as mercifully as the recording angel of Mahomet, who is said to register no errors committed when a Turk is intoxicated, in a passion, or not arrived at years of discretion. Though he had now lived half a century, he was very far from those years, having a high respect for drinking, as a part of old English hospitality; and for fits of passion, because, as he said, a hail-storm is better than a fog. The churlish Puritans of those days saw nothing to alarm them in the eccentricities of an old cavalier, whose attachment to the ancient order of things shewed itself chiefly in a superstitious fondness for half forgotten ceremonies. He kept a falconer, a buffoon, and a decrepit Welsh musician, who understood all the songs of his ancestor Thaliessin, and especially his custom of pouring mead “into the long blue horn of ancient silver.” Like passionate men in general, Sir Bevil was capable of abundant kindness as the heavy dew in hot climates atones for the sun’s excess. He had a niece, to whom, in defiance of the plain names which then prevailed, he had given the poetical one of Amaranth, promising to add his whole estate at his death. She grew up well resembling the aromatic and unfading flower whose appellation she bore. There was in her thoughts, her countenance, and her voice, such an equal and combining sweetness that it tinctured whatever came within her influence. She was the sole conductress of her uncle’s household, and her presence always ensured that comfort for which other languages have no name, though it implies the most tranquil kind of happiness. But his seclusion and the modesty of her nature allowed her few recreations except her embroidery frame, her virginals, and the garden of Bevil Lodge, until her twenty-first birthday, when her uncle declared his intention to distinguish it by a revival of the ancient English may-games and pastime of riding the ring. For this purpose a large square* was staked and fenced with ropes, having also two bars at the lower end, through which the actors passed and repassed. Six young men entered first, clothed in leathern jerkins, with woodmen’s axes upon their shoulders and large garlands of ivy-leaves and sprigs of hawthorn. Then followed six village girls, dressed in blue kirtles with primrose-wreaths, leading a fine sleek cow, decorated by ribbons of various colours intertwined with flowers, and the horns tipped with gold. These were succeeded by six foresters in green tunics, hoods, and hose; each carrying a bugle-horn attached to a silk baldrick, which he sounded as he passed the frontier. Sir Bevil’s chief falconer personified Robin Hood, and came next, attired in a bright grass-green vest fringed with gold, his hood and hose of parti-coloured blue and white. He had a large garland of rosebuds on his bead, a bow bent in his hand, and a sheaf of arrows at his girdle, with a rich blue baldrick to support his bugle-horn and gilt dagger. Ten attendants followed him in green garments, with bows and arrows. Two maidens strewed flowers before Amaranth herself, who obeyed her uncle’s absolute command by appearing as princess of the revels in an antique watchet-coloured tunic reaching to the ground, over which she wore a white linen surcoat with loose sleeves, fringed with silver, and very neatly plaited: her girdle of silver brocade formed a double bow on the left side, and her long flaxen hair, divided into many ringlets, flowed over her shoulders, covered on the top of her head by a net-work caul of gold, adorned with a wreath of violets. Two other village- maidens, in sky-coloured rockets or surcoats girdled with crimson, in the fashion of Henry the Sixth’s reign, and crowned with violets and cowslips, followed the young heiress. Then entered the maypole, drawn by eight fine oxen, loaded with scarfs, ribbons, and flowers, round their gilded horns; while the hobby-horse and the dragon closed the procession. Horns sounded, the spectators shouted, the woodmen and village girls danced round it, and the chief minstrel played on his bagpipes accompanied by the pipe and tabor. Sir Bevil’s jester performed the hobby-horse with great skill in ambling, trotting, gallopping, and frisking. The ranger, in the shape of a dragon, yelled and shook his wings admirably; but the most exquisite sport proceeded from a light slender boy, with small bells attached to his knees and ankles, who capered between the two monsters, throwing meal slyly into the gazers’ faces, and rapping their heads with a bladder tied to his staff. This actor used these privileges of the may-game with so much activity, that Sir Bevil was not surprised when he appeared at the trial of archery which ended the pageant, and proved himself the most successful marksman. The good old Baronet beckoned him with his own hand to receive the crown of laurel and ribbons from Amaranth, and waited with some curiosity, while he untied his mask and beard of wire, to see by whom the character of “Much the Miller” had been so well performed. But joy, triumph, and other sensations, had called such new expressions into the stripling’s face,that Sir Bevil hardly recollected his idiot entertainer, Deaf Archibald, whom he had cherished many years in his household as a successor to his established fool. Nobody knew any thing of Archibald, except that he had wandered alone to Sir Bevil’s domain in the utmost misery of neglected childhood, half-naked, half-famished, and with even more stupidity than deafness usually creates. Notwithstanding his deplorable tatters, the frightful vacancy of his large hazel eyes, and the idiot grin which widened his elf-like face, he gained an advocate in Amaranth, who humbly entreated her uncle to allow him bread and shelter in his kitchen. There the poor boy found willing patrons among the domestics, and his fantastic gestures, joined to some good-nature, introduced him to Sir Bevil’s notice. Amaranth formed a language suited to his capacity, and by very slow degrees, and most patient kindness, taught him to read and write. Though impenetrably deaf, he comprehended her least whisper; and about his sixteenth year, had begun to imitate the exercises of his rustic companions with a kind of mechanical instinct when the birth day of his benefactress celebrated. At the may-games he was unanimously chosen to represent the farcical personage called “Much the Miller,” and his ingenious mimicries excelled expectation; but when Amaranth placed the prize-garland on his head, his vacant countenance was suddenly and strongly convulsed, he gasped for breath, and burst into tears. From that moment sensibility and reason seemed to have awakened together. Sir Bevil mistook the first blush of conscious pride for the common shame of stupid ignorance, and, laughing, promised to admit him among the riders at the ring. A long thick rope was stretched across the square, supported by stakes placed parallel, and a strong pole erected about four yards high. From it hung a ring, or small circle of brass, with two small springs affixed to the top, and thrust into a brazen socket, which gave way when the point of the lance entered the ring, and allowed it to be drawn out without damage Two of Sir Bevil’s serving-men, equipped at heralds, in tabards richly embroidered with silver and gold, first entered the lists with trumpets, followed by five seeming knights in tilting habits of silver brocade, scarlet mantles, and striped sattin bonnets, attended by as many bare-headed squires in one livery of blue velvet and orange-tawny sattin. All rode well-mounted before the pavilion where Sir Bevil and his niece were seatcd, and asked permission to ride three courses at the ring. Archibald stood silently beneath it, viewing these mock candidates with a countenance in which the light of sudden intellect seemed struggling with confused and gloomy feelings. He cast a glance of shame and anger at his own dress, and retired among the crowd. But when the successful competitor struck his lance into the ring, and advanced to receive the usual recompense of an ivy-wreath from Amaranth, an uplifted hand was suddenly seen, and Sir Bevil, hastily leaning forward, received a pistol-shot in his breast. No one doubted that it had been levelled at the lancer, but cries of indignation and grief from the crowd shewed their devotion to their patron. In the first moment of astonishment, none remembered to close the entrance of the square; and till Sir Bevil’s body had been conveyed into his hall, scarcely any perceived that the five masked lancers and their attendants had disappeared. Their flight fixed upon them the suspicion which had begun to rest on Archibald, who had disappeared also. But the search was strict, and the crowd, whose first occupation had been so mirthful, were soon dispersed to alarm the neighbourhood. Silent dismay prevailed in the Lodge itself, where the Chaplain, his patron’s confidential inmate, endeavoured to secure caution among the household. Many of the elders understood his fears that some political enmity or stratagem was hidden under this seeming accident. All agreed in lamenting that a cherished whim had tempted their good master to hazard an exhibition which, however harmless and unconnected with royal pageantry, might give umbrage to the jealous republicans in power. In the dead of that fatal night, a party of the searchers returned, bringing with them the blue velvet doublet worn by one of the pretended squires at the may-game. They had found it in a lonely thicket, and traces of blood among the withered leaves had induced them to dig under some earth slightly heaped together. It covered the body of a man whose cap and under-coat bore the badge of Cromwell’s party, though remnants of a silk baldrick and blue hose proved that he had been one of the May-day lancers. Conscious of the danger which might involve themselves if this man’s blood was found upon them, the yeomen had closed up his grave, and returned to Bevil Lodge with only his blue doublet carefully concealed in a sack. The Chaplain undertook to preserve it, and, when he had dismissed Sir Bevil’s honest tenants, placed it in the most secret repository of the Lodge, for amongst the folds he had perceived traces of fingers dipped in meal which had adhered to the blue velvet; and he guessed, but dared not ask himself to believe, that the wearer’s death had been caused by Archibald, perhaps in vengeance for Sir Bevil’s. Few, except the Chaplain, expected the fortitude shewn by Amaranth on this disastrous occasion. But as iron may be found in honey, and both oil and iron in water, he was not surprised to discover the softness, suavity, and strength, united in her character. She received the counsels of the good pastor, and enforced his orders with a quiet and sober firmness which excited emulation among her servants. They had all grown grey in her uncle’s service, and they deserved to be entrusted with her safety. It was soon whispered amongst them that Sir Bevil still lived, and was allowed by his family-surgeon to hope for some months’ existence, if not for recovery. But no one entered his apartment except that surgeon, the chaplain, and his neice, whose skilful assiduity was admirable. Archibald’s name was never mentioned in her presence, and in her cares for the invalid all remembrance of the fugitive seemed to be absorbed. But the chaplain, who had seen the gradual unfoldings of his character, thought of the unhappy young man with fatherly tenderness, and of his probable fate with deep regret. Fearful to preserve an evidence against him, yet unwilling to break the clue of justice, he stood by his hearth alone at midnight, holding the ill-fated doublet in his hand over the flame to which he had half-determined to consign it, when the gate-bell rung loudly. Sir Bevil’s mansion had no moat, no garrison, no means of resistance; and while the frighted servants gathered together to warn him that armed horsemen stood round the walls, the old man, defended only by his white hairs and the surplice which he hastily put on, stationed himself opposite the door, and seeing it hurst open by the assailants, advanced to meet their leader. He was a young man in the uniform of a Cromwellian lieutenant; and when he saw only an aged priest and a few trembling servants, he ordered his soldiers to file peaceably into the hall. Then shewing the Protector’s order, he demanded the person of Sir Bevil De Grey, which he was instructed to convey in safe custody to London, where a trial awaited him for outraging the Commonwealth by a profane pageant, and by causing one of its soldiers to be massacred. At this last intimation the chaplain trembled, as he remembered that he had left the soldier’s tunic half-consumed upon his hearth. But he walked upstairs with a steady step, followed by the young commander alone, till he reached the first corridor near Sir Bevil’s chamber. There he paused, and was going to speak, when Amaranth came forward to meet them. Her calm air, her beauty, and the gentle sound of her voice, touched the commissioner with respectful pity—“Sir,” she said, “my uncle’s sick-bed never had any other attendant except myself, and many hours have passed since he lost all hope of life. The Protector will not think it amiss that he should die under his own roof in your custody. Permit me to consider you my honourable guest this night, and to-morrow, if you desire it, I will accompany my uncle’s body to London.”—“If he is dying,” said the Lieutenant, in an agitated voice—“If,” added the Chaplain, “if the living expect honour, they will shew it to the dying—we are all your hostages.”

Cromwell’s officer looked earnestly on the silver hairs of the chaplain, still more earnestly on Amaranth, and was awed by the holiness of age and of innocence. He bowed and stepped back with that compassionate kindness which few men are unwilling to shew if they are told that they possess it. But he declined either refreshment or repose; and directing his sergeant to place vigilant guards below and round the mansion, he announced that the gallery before Sir Bevil’s chamber-door would he his own station during the night. Amaranth retired submissively into that chamber, followed by the chaplain, but not by the young lieutenant, to whom she offered the key with a grace which forbade him to accept it. He only laid it on the ground at her feet, and placed his sword upon it, signifying that her confidence was guarded by his honour.

When Amaranth found herself alone with the chaplain near her uncle’s bed, her glance informed him what was most necessary. He was going to raise the trap door which lay concealed near the hearth, when it slid from beneath his hand, and Archibald presented himself—Archibald, no longer gazing with the sullen indifference of idiotism, but pale as death, with fierce eyes, and two pistols clenched in his hands. “Shall I kill him?” he said, in a stifled voice, with a look towards the door which needed no words to explain it. Amaranth forbade him by one of those gestures so full of eloquence; and he, resigning his weapons to the chaplain, held her in a long and passionate embrace. But suddenly pointing to the curtained couch, she whispered—“He must go to-night, and instantly!—lead the way.”—“Let the chaplain shew it,” replied Archibald—“I must stay here to guard you.”—“He will need you both,” she answered; I need but One.”—“May the blessing of that Almighty One rest here!” said the Chaplain, laying his hands on Archibald and Amaranth as they still clung together. The occupier of the couch stepped from it, covered completely by a large dark cloak, and followed his two guides down a secret passage, leaving Amaranth with no living companion.

When day-light had begun, the door of Sir Bevil’s chamber was opened by his chaplain to Cromwell’s commissioner. “Enter, Sir,” said Amaranth, with a countenance terribly pale and calm—“your prisoner is ready to attend you.” The lieutenant looked between the curtains of the bed, and saw Sir Bevil in his shroud. He drew back shuddering, cast his eyes on a couch which stood near, and exclaimed, “You have deceived me—this room has had another inhabitant, or I should have been admitted sooner to witness this.—Many days may have past since Sir Bevil’s death, and some secret reason has caused its concealment.”—Archibald sprang from beneath the couch—“There is no longer any concealment—I was the living prisoner in this room—I am her brother, and the punisher of that vile soldier who destroyed our uncle.”

Perceiving the confused astonishment of the Lieutenant and Amaranth’s speechless agony, the Chaplain attempted the dangerous task of explanation.—“This young man,” said he, “is the natural son of a proscribed and unfortunate father, who perished on the scaffold. Even his uncle did not know him. I feared Sir Bevil’s eccentricities, and trusted only his sister with the secret. Her kindness rescued him from idiotism—her courage has sheltered his life—if your duty requires you to sacrifice it, remember I am her accomplice.”

The republican officer was confounded by a scene so new and beautiful. He looked at the sister lying senseless in the arms of her brother, whose life seemed  , and at the aged chaplain, who loved them as a Father. Tears, perhaps the first he had ever shed, escaped from his eyes as he gave his hand to Archibald. Words were not necessary to tell that he intended to befriend them. He easily conceived into how much peril the young man had plunged himself by sacrificing his uncle’s assassin; and supposed it a sufficient reason for his mysterious concealment in this chamber, where he never suspected that another fugitive had been hidden. It was agreed that Archibald should remain secreted, while the Lieutenant returned to certify Sir Bevil’s death to Cromwell. For that purpose he departed instantly, but before his arrival in London the Protector had expired, and in the confusion which followed, Amaranth’s inheritance escaped confiscation. When Charles the Second made his first public tour through England, she still lived in Bevil Lodge with her venerable chaplain. Charles supped at her table; and while he pledged her in a full bowl of wine, said, with his usual gallant gaiety—“I wear this suit of forest-green, madam, to remind you of the May-day when I first appeared in it. No one knew, except yourself, that our good uncle devised the pageant to favour my secret visit here. I hope you have preserved your white tunic and watchet-coloured mantle to be worn as a bridal-dress when I give you away in marriage.” Amaranth replied, that she should always keep with honour what she had worn on a day of good fortune to England.—“And this,” added the graceful Monarch, “ought to be a fortunate day for one of my subjects. The Lieutenant who would not leave old Oliver without a just cause, will not leave Charles for a bad one. I was not his King when he was my enemy; and now I am his King, I am bound to be his friend. I have appointed him my ambassador to the court of Spain, and promised him the noblest woman in England.”—The sovereign’s will was obeyed, and his nuptial gift was a gold box containing a wreath resembling the violet crown she had worn on May- day, but composed of precious stones; and the patent of her brother’s peerage, as a recompense for the faithful escort he gave his King from the death-chamber of Sir Bevil. How wisely and how happily Amaranth performed the duties of a wife and mother, appears best in her own words to her son.

“Be innocent as a dove and wise as a serpent in all affairs that concern your estate and reputation. Be charitable in thought, word, and deed, and think no time well spent which tends not to improve your mind, health, or honour. Remember your father, of whom I can draw no just picture unless God shall bless me with his likeness in yourself. We had but one soul between us, and we so studied each other that we knew our loves and resentments were the same. He used to say I managed his household and servants wholly, yet I always governed myself and them by his commands. His judgment was perfect in every case, except when he judged his enemies, whom he never punished; and his memory perfect in retaining every thing but injuries.”

This happy and virtuous pair were buried in one grave in Ware Church, and their honourable epitaph was—“He was a brave Englishman, and his wife an Englishwoman.

* * *

“Really,” said the Secretary of the Eunomian Society, when he had finished his task of reading aloud—“the seven heroines of these legends seem to represent the characters of women in their seven ages—the first loves, the second reasons, the third exhibits, the fourth manages, the fifth cheats, the sixth scolds, and the seventh gives advice. I suppose the hive of females from whence they came resembles their own composition. But, brother Bertram, where is your promised explanation of the means by which you obtained them?”—“You will find it,” I replied, “in this supplement to the last.—My modern Englishwoman resembles Sir Bevil’s heiress only in having a short tunic, a great many flowers on her head, and a dull brother: but when we have seen all, we seven philosophers may amend our Eunomia, or law of happiness, and comfort ourselves by remembering the good primate of Aquitaine’s maxim—“The wisest err seven times.”—Mr. Philowhim sighed, and began the short modern supplement which concluded his labours.

V.

* See Strutt's Antiquities.

(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 72, October 1817, pp. 297-301