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    Chapter 4

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    Chapter 5
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    THE OAK AND THE OAKEN HALL.

    The oaks of Sheffield Park were one of the greatest glories of the place. Giants of the forest stretched their huge arms over the turf, kept smooth and velvety by the creatures, wild and tame, that browsed on it, and made their covert in the deep glades of fern and copse wood that formed the background.

    There were not a few whose huge trunks, of such girth that two men together could not encompass them with outstretched arms, rose to a height of more than sixty feet before throwing out a horizontal branch, and these branches, almost trees in themselves, spread forty- eight feet on each side of the bole, lifting a mountain of rich verdure above them, and casting a delicious shade upon the ground beneath them. Beneath one of these noble trees, some years after the arrival of the hapless Mary Stuart, a party of children were playing, much to the amusement of an audience of which they were utterly unaware, namely, of sundry members of a deer-hunting party; a lady and gentleman who, having become separated from the rest, were standing in the deep bracken, which rose nearly as high as their heads, and were further sheltered by a rock, looking and listening.

    "Now then, Cis, bravely done! Show how she treats her ladies--"

    "Who will be her lady? Thou must, Humfrey!"

    "No, no, I'll never be a lady," said Humfrey gruffly.

    "Thou then, Diccon."

    "No, no," and the little fellow shrank back, "thou wilt hurt me, Cis."

    "Come then, do thou, Tony! I'll not strike too hard!"

    "As if a wench could strike too hard."

    "He might have turned that more chivalrously," whispered the lady to her companion. "What are they about to represent? Mort de ma vie, the profane little imps! I, believe it is my sacred cousin, the Majesty of England herself! Truly the little maid hath a bearing that might serve a queen, though she be all too black and beetle- browed for Queen Elizabeth. Who is she, Master Gilbert?"

    "She is Cicely Talbot, daughter to the gentleman porter of your Majesty's lodge."

    "See to her--mark her little dignity with her heather and bluebell crown as she sits on the rock, as stately as jewels could make her! See her gesture with her hands, to mark where the standing ruff ought to be. She hath the true spirit of the Comedy--ah! and here cometh young Antony with mincing pace, with a dock-leaf for a fan, and a mantle for a farthingale! She speaks! now hark!"

    "Good morrow to you, my young mistress," began a voice pitched two notes higher than its actual childlike key. "Thou hast a new farthingale, I see! O Antony, that's not the way to curtsey--do it like this. No no! thou clumsy fellow--back and knees together."

    "Never mind, Cis," interposed one of the boys--"we shall lose all our play time if you try to make him do it with a grace. Curtsies are women's work--go on."

    "Where was I? O--" (resuming her dignity after these asides) "Thou hast a new farthingale, I see."

    "To do my poor honour to your Grace's birthday."

    "Oh ho! Is it so? Methought it had been to do honour to my fair mistress's own taper waist. And pray how much an ell was yonder broidered stuff?"

    "Two crowns, an't please your Grace," returned the supposed lady, making a wild conjecture.

    "Two crowns! thou foolish Antony!" Then recollecting herself, "two crowns! what, when mine costs but half! Thou presumptuous, lavish varlet--no, no, wench! what right hast thou to wear gowns finer than thy liege?--I'll teach you." Wherewith, erecting all her talons, and clawing frightfully with them in the air, the supposed Queen Bess leapt at the unfortunate maid of honour, appeared to tear the imaginary robe, and drove her victim on the stage with a great air of violence, amid peals of laughter from the other children, loud enough to drown those of the elders, who could hardly restrain their merriment.

    Gilbert Talbot, however, had been looking about him anxiously all the time, and would fain have moved away; but a sign from Queen Mary withheld him, as one of the children cried,

    "Now! show us how she serves her lords."

    The play seemed well understood between them, for the mimic queen again settled herself on her throne, while Will Cavendish, calling out, "Now I'm Master Hatton," began to tread a stately measure on the grass, while the queen exclaimed, "Who is this new star of my court? What stalwart limbs, what graceful tread! Who art thou, sir?"

    "Madam, I am--I am. What is it? An ef--ef--"

    "A daddy-long-legs," mischievously suggested another of the group.

    "No, it's Latin. Is it Ephraim? No; it's a fly, something like a gnat" (then at an impatient gesture from her Majesty) "disporting itself in the beams of the noontide sun."

    "Blood-sucking," whispered the real Queen behind the fern. "He is not so far out there. See! see! with what a grace the child holds out her little hand for him to kiss. I doubt me if Elizabeth herself could be more stately. But who comes here?"

    "I'm Sir Philip Sydney."

    "No, no," shouted Humfrey, "Sir Philip shall not come into this fooling. My father says he's the best knight in England."

    "He is as bad as the rest in flattery to the Queen," returned young Cavendish.

    "I'll not have it, I say. You may be Lord Leicester an you will! He's but Robin Dudley."

    "Ah!" began the lad, now advancing and shading his eyes. "What burnished splendour dazzles my weak sight? Is it a second Juno that I behold, or lovely Venus herself? Nay, there is a wisdom in her that can only belong to the great Minerva herself! So youthful too. Is it Hebe descended to this earth?"

    Cis smirked, and held out a hand, saying in an affected tone, "Lord Earl, are thy wits astray?"

    "Whose wits would not be perturbed at the mere sight of such exquisite beauty?"

    "Come and sit at our feet, and we will try to restore them," said the stage queen; but here little Diccon, the youngest of the party, eager for more action, called out, "Show us how she treats her lords and ladies together."

    On which young Babington, as the lady, and Humfrey, made demonstrations of love-making and betrothal, upon which their sovereign lady descended on them with furious tokens of indignation, abusing them right and left, until in the midst the great castle bell pealed forth, and caused a flight general, being, in fact, the summons to the school kept in one of the castle chambers by one Master Snigg, or Sniggius, for the children of the numerous colony who peopled the castle. Girls, as well as boys, were taught there, and thus Cis accompanied Humfrey and Diccon, and consorted with their companions.

    Queen Mary was allowed to hunt and take out-of-door exercise in the park whenever she pleased, but Lord Shrewsbury, or one of his sons, Gilbert and Francis, never was absent from her for a moment when she went beyond the door of the lesser lodge, which the Earl had erected for her, with a flat, leaded, and parapeted roof, where she could take the air, and with only one entrance, where was stationed a "gentleman porter," with two subordinates, whose business it was to keep a close watch over every person or thing that went in or out. If she had any purpose of losing herself in the thickets of fern, or copsewood, in the park, or holding unperceived conference under shelter of the chase, these plans were rendered impossible by the pertinacious presence of one or other of the Talbots, who acted completely up to their name.

    Thus it was that the Queen, with Gilbert in close attendance, had found herself an unseen spectator of the children's performance, which she watched with the keen enjoyment that sometimes made her forget her troubles for the moment.

    "How got the imps such knowledge?" mused Gilbert Talbot, as he led the Queen out on the sward which had been the theatre of their mimicry.

    "Do you ask that, Sir Gilbert?" said the Queen with emphasis, for indeed it was his wife who had been the chief retailer of scandal about Queen Elizabeth, to the not unwilling ears of herself and his mother; and Antony Babington, as my lady's page, had but used his opportunities.

    "They are insolent varlets and deserve the rod," continued Gilbert.

    "You are too ready with the rod, you English," returned Mary. "You flog all that is clever and spirited out of your poor children!"

    "That is the question, madam. Have the English been found so deficient in spirit compared with other nations?"

    "Ah! we all know what you English can say for yourselves," returned the Queen. "See what Master John Coke hath made of the herald's argument before Dame Renown, in his translation. He hath twisted all the other way."

    "Yea, madam, but the French herald had it all his own way before. So it was but just we should have our turn."

    Here a cry from the other hunters greeted them, and they found Lord Shrewsbury, some of the ladies, and a number of prickers, looking anxiously for them.

    "Here we are, good my lord," said the Queen, who, when free from rheumatism, was a most active walker. "We have only been stalking my sister Queen's court in small, the prettiest and drollest pastime I have seen for many a long day."

    Much had happened in the course of the past years. The intrigues with Northumberland and Norfolk, and the secret efforts of the unfortunate Queen to obtain friends, and stir up enemies against Elizabeth, had resulted in her bonds being drawn closer and closer. The Rising of the North had taken place, and Cuthbert Langston had been heard of as taking a prominent part beneath the sacred banner, but he had been wounded and not since heard of, and his kindred knew not whether he were among the unnamed dead who loaded the trees in the rear of the army of Sussex, or whether he had escaped beyond seas. Richard Talbot still remained as one of the trusted kinsmen of Lord Shrewsbury, on whom that nobleman depended for the execution of the charge which yearly became more wearisome and onerous, as hope decayed and plots thickened.

    Though resident in the new lodge with her train, it was greatly diminished by the dismissal from time to time of persons who were regarded as suspicious; Mary still continued on intimate terms with Lady Shrewsbury and her daughters, specially distinguishing with her favour Bessie Pierrepoint, the eldest grandchild of the Countess, who slept with her, and was her plaything and her pupil in French and needlework. The fiction of her being guest and not prisoner had not entirely passed away; visitors were admitted, and she went in and out of the lodge, walked or rode at will, only under pretext of courtesy. She never was unaccompanied by the Earl or one of his sons, and they endeavoured to make all private conversation with strangers, or persons unauthorised from Court, impossible to her.

    The invitation given to little Cicely on the arrival had not been followed up. The Countess wished to reserve to her own family all the favours of one who might at any moment become the Queen of England, and she kept Susan Talbot and her children in what she called their meet place, in which that good lady thoroughly acquiesced, having her hands much too full of household affairs to run after queens.

    There was a good deal of talk about this child's play, a thing which had much better have been left where it was; but in a seclusion like that of Sheffield subjects of conversation were not over numerous, and every topic which occurred was apt to be worried to shreds. So Lady Shrewsbury and her daughters heard the Queen's arch description of the children's mimicry, and instantly conceived a desire to see the scene repeated. The gentlemen did not like it at all: their loyalty was offended at the insult to her gracious Majesty, and besides, what might not happen if such sports ever came to her ears? However, the Countess ruled Sheffield; and Mary Talbot and Bessie Cavendish ruled the Countess, and they were bent on their own way. So the representation was to take place in the great hall of the manor-house, and the actors were to be dressed in character from my lady's stores.

    "They will ruin it, these clumsy English, after their own fashion," said Queen Mary, among her ladies. "It was the unpremeditated grace and innocent audacity of the little ones that gave the charm. Now it will be a mere broad farce, worthy of Bess of Hardwicke. Mais que voulez vous?"

    The performance was, however, laid under a great disadvantage by the absolute refusal of Richard and Susan Talbot to allow their Cicely to assume the part of Queen Elizabeth. They had been dismayed at her doing so in child's play, and since she could read fluently, write pretty well, and cipher a little, the good mother had decided to put a stop to this free association with the boys at the castle, and to keep her at home to study needlework and housewifery. As to her acting with boys before the assembled households, the proposal seemed to them absolutely insulting to any daughter of the Talbot line, and they had by this time forgotten that she was no such thing. Bess Cavendish, the special spoilt child of the house, even rode down, armed with her mother's commands, but her feudal feeling did not here sway Mistress Susan.

    Public acting was esteemed an indignity for women, and, though Cis was a mere child, all Susan's womanhood awoke, and she made answer firmly that she could not obey my lady Countess in this.

    Bess flounced out of the house, indignantly telling her she should rue the day, and Cis herself cried passionately, longing after the fine robes and jewels, and the presentation of herself as a queen before the whole company of the castle. The harsh system of the time made the good mother think it her duty to requite this rebellion with the rod, and to set the child down to her seam in the corner, and there sat Cis, pouting and brooding over what Antony Babington had told her of what he had picked up when in his page's capacity, attending his lady, of Queen Mary's admiration of the pretty ways and airs of the little mimic Queen Bess, till she felt as if she were defrauded of her due. The captive Queen was her dream, and to hear her commendations, perhaps be kissed by her, would be supreme bliss. Nay, she still hoped that there would be an interference of the higher powers on her behalf, which would give her a triumph.

    No! Captain Talbot came home, saying, "So, Mistress Sue, thou art a steadfast woman, to have resisted my lady's will!"

    "I knew, my good husband, that thou wouldst never see our Cis even in sport a player!"

    "Assuredly not, and thou hadst the best of it, for when Mistress Bess came in as full of wrath as a petard of powder, and made your refusal known, my lord himself cried out, 'And she's in the right o't! What a child may do in sport is not fit for a gentlewoman in earnest.'"

    "Then, hath not my lord put a stop to the whole?"

    "Fain would he do so, but the Countess and her daughters are set on carrying out the sport. They have set Master Sniggius to indite the speeches, and the boys of the school are to take the parts for their autumn interlude."

    "Surely that is perilous, should it come to the knowledge of those at Court."

    "Oh, I promise you, Sniggius hath a device for disguising all that could give offence. The Queen will become Semiramis or Zenobia, I know not which, and my Lord of Leicester, Master Hatton, and the others, will be called Ninus or Longinus, or some such heathenish long-tailed terms, and speak speeches of mighty length. Are they to be in Latin, Humfrey?"

    "Oh no, sir," said Humfrey, with a shudder. "Master Sniggius would have had them so, but the young ladies said they would have nothing to do with the affair if there were one word of Latin uttered. It is bad enough as it is. I am to be Philidaspes, an Assyrian knight, and have some speeches to learn, at least one is twenty-five lines, and not one is less than five!"

    "A right requital for thy presumptuous and treasonable game, my son," said his father, teasing him.

    "And who is to be the Queen?" asked the mother.

    "Antony Babington," said Humfrey, "because he can amble and mince more like a wench than any of us. The worse luck for him. He will have more speeches than any one of us to learn."

    The report of the number of speeches to be learnt took off the sting of Cis's disappointment, though she would not allow that it did so, declaring with truth that she could learn by hearing faster than any of the boys. Indeed, she did learn all Humfrey's speeches, and Antony's to boot, and assisted both of them with all her might in committing them to memory.

    As Captain Talbot had foretold, the boys' sport was quite sufficiently punished by being made into earnest. Master Sniggius was far from merciful as to length, and his satire was so extremely remote that Queen Elizabeth herself could hardly have found out that Zenobia's fine moral lecture on the vanities of too aspiring ruffs was founded on the box on the ear which rewarded poor Lady Mary Howard's display of her rich petticoat, nor would her cheeks have tingled when the Queen of the East--by a bold adaptation--played the part of Lion in interrupting the interview of our old friends Pyramus and Thisbe, who, by an awful anachronism, were carried to Palmyra. It was no plagiarism from "Midsummer Night's Dream," only drawn from the common stock of playwrights.

    So, shorn of all that was perilous, and only understood by the initiated, the play took place in the Castle Hall, the largest available place, with Queen Mary seated upon the dais, with a canopy of State over her head, Lady Shrewsbury on a chair nearly as high, the Earl, the gentlemen and ladies of their suites drawn up in a circle, the servants where they could, the Earl's musicians thundering with drums, tooting with fifes, twanging on fiddles, overhead in a gallery. Cis and Diccon, on either side of Susan Talbot, gazing on the stage, where, much encumbered by hoop and farthingale, and arrayed in a yellow curled wig, strutted forth Antony Babington, declaiming--

    "Great Queen Zenobia am I, The Roman Power I defy. At my Palmyra, in the East, I rule o'er every man and beast"

    Here was an allusion couched in the Roman power, which Master Antony had missed, or he would hardly have uttered it, since he was of a Roman Catholic family, though, while in the Earl's household, he had to conform outwardly.

    A slender, scholarly lad, with a pretty, innocent face, and a voice that could "speak small, like a woman," came in and announced himself thus--

    "I'm Thisbe, an Assyrian maid, My robe's with jewels overlaid."

    The stiff colloquy between the two boys, encumbered with their dresses, shy and awkward, and rehearsing their lines like a task, was no small contrast to the merry impromptu under the oak, and the gay, free grace of the children.

    Poor Philidaspes acquitted himself worst of all, for when done up in a glittering suit of sham armour, with a sword and dagger of lath, his entire speech, though well conned, deserted him, and he stood red-faced, hesitating, and ready to cry, when suddenly from the midst of the spectators there issued a childish voice, "Go on, Humfrey!

    "Philidaspes am I, most valorous knight, Ever ready for Church and Queen to fight.

    "Go on, I say!" and she gave a little stamp of impatience, to the extreme confusion of the mother and the great amusement of the assembled company. Humfrey, once started, delivered himself of the rest of his oration in a glum and droning voice, occasioning fits of laughter, such as by no means added to his self-possession.

    The excellent Sniggius and his company of boys had certainly, whether intentionally or not, deprived the performance of all its personal sting, and most likewise of its interest. Such diversion as the spectators derived was such as Hippolyta seems to have found in listening to Wall, Lion, Moonshine and Co.; but, like Theseus, Lord Shrewsbury was very courteous, and complimented both playwright and actors, relieved and thankful, no doubt, that Queen Zenobia was so unlike his royal mistress.

    There was nothing so much enforced by Queen Elizabeth as that strangers should not have resort to Sheffield Castle. No spectators, except those attached to the household, and actually forming part of the colony within the park, were therefore supposed to be admitted, and all of them were carefully kept at a distant part of the hall, where they could have no access to the now much reduced train of the Scottish Queen, with whom all intercourse was forbidden.

    Humfrey was therefore surprised when, just as he had come out of the tiring-room, glad to divest himself of his encumbering and gaudy equipments, a man touched him on the arm and humbly said, "Sir, I have a humble entreaty to make of you. If you would convey my petition to the Queen of Scots!"

    "I have nothing to do with the Queen of Scots," said the ex- Philidaspes, glancing suspiciously at the man's sleeve, where, however, he saw the silver dog, the family badge.

    "She is a charitable lady," continued the man, who looked like a groom, "and if she only knew that my poor old aunt is lying famishing, she would aid her. Pray you, good my lord, help me to let this scroll reach to her."

    "I'm no lord, and I have naught to do with the Queen," repeated Humfrey, while at the same moment Antony, who had been rather longer in getting out of his female attire, presented himself; and Humfrey, pitying the man's distress, said, "This young gentleman is the Countess's page. He sometimes sees the Queen."

    The man eagerly told his story, how his aunt, the widow of a huckster, had gone on with the trade till she had been cruelly robbed and beaten, and now was utterly destitute, needing aid to set herself up again. The Queen of Scots was noted for her beneficent almsgiving, and a few silver pieces from her would be quite sufficient to replenish her basket.

    Neither boy doubted a moment. Antony had the entree to the presence chamber, where on this festival night the Earl and Countess were sure to be with the Queen. He went straightway thither, and trained as he was in the usages of the place, told his business to the Earl, who was seated near the Queen. Lord Shrewsbury took the petition from him, glanced it over, and asked, "Who knew the Guy Norman who sent it?" Frank Talbot answered for him, that he was a yeoman pricker, and the Earl permitted the paper to be carried to Mary, watching her carefully as she read it, when Antony had presented it on one knee.

    "Poor woman!" she said, "it is a piteous case. Master Beatoun, hast thou my purse? Here, Master Babington, wilt thou be the bearer of this angel for me, since I know that the delight of being the bearer will be a reward to thy kind heart."

    Antony gracefully kissed the fair hand, and ran off joyously with the Queen's bounty. Little did any one guess what the career thus begun would bring that fair boy.
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