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    Chapter 8

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    Chapter 9
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    THE KEY OF THE CIPHER

    Where is the man who does not persuade himself that when he gratifies his own curiosity he does so for the sake of his womankind? So Richard Talbot, having made his protest, waited two days, but when next he had any leisure moments before him, on a Sunday evening, he said to his wife, "Sue, what hast thou done with that scroll of Cissy's? I trow thou wilt not rest till thou art convinced it is but some lying horoscope or Popish charm."

    Susan had in truth been resting in perfect quietness, being extremely busy over her spinning, so as to be ready for the weaver who came round periodically to direct the more artistic portions of domestic work. However, she joyfully produced the scroll from the depths of the casket where she kept her chief treasures, and her spindle often paused in its dance as she watched her husband over it, with his elbows on the table and his hands in his hair, from whence he only removed them now and then to set down a letter or two by way of experiment. She had to be patient, for she heard nothing that night but that he believed it was French, that the father of deceits himself might be puzzled with the thing, and that she might as well ask him for his head at once as propose his consulting Master Francis.

    The next night he unfolded it with many a groan, and would say nothing at all; but he sat up late and waked in early dawn to pore over it again, and on the third day of study he uttered a loud exclamation of dismay, but he ordered Susan off to bed in the midst, and did not utter anything but a perplexed groan or two when he followed her much later.

    It was not till the next night that she heard anything, and then, in the darkness, he began, "Susan, thou art a good wife and a discreet woman."

    Perhaps her heart leapt as she thought to herself, "At last it is coming, I knew it would!" but she only made some innocent note of attention.

    "Thou hast asked no questions, nor tried to pry into this unhappy mystery," he went on.

    "I knew you would tell me what was fit for me to hear," she replied.

    "Fit! It is fit for no one to hear! Yet I needs must take counsel with thee, and thou hast shown thou canst keep a close mouth so far."

    "Concerns it our Cissy, husband?"

    "Ay does it Our Cissy, indeed! What wouldst say, Sue, to hear she was daughter to the lady yonder."

    "To the Queen of Scots?"

    "Hush! hush!" fairly grasping her to hinder the words from being uttered above her breath.

    "And her father?"

    "That villain, Bothwell, of course. Poor lassie, she is ill fathered!"

    "You may say so. Is it in the scroll?"

    "Ay! so far as I can unravel it; but besides the cipher no doubt much was left for the poor woman to tell that was lost in the wreck."

    And he went on to explain that the scroll was a letter to the Abbess of Soissons, who was aunt to Queen Mary, as was well known, since an open correspondence was kept up through the French ambassador. This letter said that "our trusty Alison Hepburn" would tell how in secrecy and distress Queen Mary had given birth to this poor child in Lochleven, and how she had been conveyed across the lake while only a few hours old, after being hastily baptized by the name of Bride, one of the patron saints of Scotland. She had been nursed in a cottage for a few weeks till the Queen had made her first vain attempt to escape, after which Mary had decided on sending her with her nurse to Dumbarton Castle, whence Lord Flemyng would despatch her to France. The Abbess was implored to shelter her, in complete ignorance of her birth, until such time as her mother should resume her liberty and her throne. "Or if," the poor Queen said, "I perish in the hands of my enemies, you will deal with her as my uncles of Guise and Lorraine think fit, since, should her unhappy little brother die in the rude hands of yonder traitors, she may bring the true faith back to both realms."

    "Ah!" cried Susan, with a sudden gasp of dismay, as she bethought her that the child was indeed heiress to both realms after the young King of Scots. "But has there been no quest after her? Do they deem her lost?"

    "No doubt they do. Either all hands were lost in the Bride of Dunbar, or if any of the crew escaped, they would report the loss of nurse and child. The few who know that the little one was born believe her to have perished. None will ever ask for her. They deem that she has been at the bottom of the sea these twelve years or more."

    "And you would still keep the knowledge to ourselves?" asked his wife, in a tone of relief.

    "I would I knew it not myself!" sighed Richard. "Would that I could blot it out of my mind."

    "It were far happier for the poor maid herself to remain no one's child but ours," said Susan.

    "In sooth it is! A drop of royal blood is in these days a mere drop of poison to them that have the ill luck to inherit it. As my lord said the other day, it brings the headsman's axe after it."

    "And our boy Humfrey calls himself contracted to her!"

    "So long as we let the secret die with us that can do her no ill. Happily the wench favours not her mother, save sometimes in a certain lordly carriage of the head and shoulders. She is like enough to some of the Scots retinue to make me think she must take her face from her father, the villain, who, someone told me, was beetle-browed and swarthy."

    "Lives he still?"

    "So 'tis thought, but somewhere in prison in the north. There have been no tidings of his death; but my Lady Queen, you'll remember, treats the marriage as nought, and has made offer of herself for the misfortune of the Duke of Norfolk, ay, and of this Don John, and I know not whom besides."

    "She would not have done that had she known that our Cis was alive."

    "Mayhap she would, mayhap not. I believe myself she would do anything short of disowning her Popery to get out of prison; but as matters stand I doubt me whether Cis--"

    "The Lady Bride Hepburn," suggested Susan.

    "Pshaw, poor child, I misdoubt me whether they would own her claim even to that name."

    "And they might put her in prison if they did," said Susan.

    "They would be sure to do so, sooner or later. Here has my lord been recounting in his trouble about my lady's fine match for her Bess, all that hath come of mating with royal blood, the very least disaster being poor Lady Mary Grey's! Kept in ward for life! It is a cruel matter. I would that I had known the cipher at first. Then she might either have been disposed of at the Queen's will, or have been sent safe to this nunnery at Soissons."

    "To be bred a Papist! Oh fie, husband!"

    "And to breed dissension in the kingdoms!" added her husband. "It is best so far for the poor maiden herself to have thy tender hand over her than that of any queen or abbess of them all."

    "Shall we then keep all things as they are, and lock this knowledge in our own hearts?" asked Susan hopefully.

    "To that am I mightily inclined," said Richard. "Were it blazed abroad at once, thou and I might be made out guilty of I know not what for concealing it; and as to the maiden, she would either be put in close ward with her mother, or, what would be more likely, had up to court to be watched, and flouted, and spied upon, as were the two poor ladies--sisters to the Lady Jane--ere they made their lot hopeless by marrying. Nay, I have seen those who told me that poor Lady Katherine was scarce worse bested in the Tower than she was while at court."

    "My poor Cis! No, no! The only cause for which I could bear to yield her up would be the thought that she would bring comfort to the heart of the poor captive mother who hath the best right to her."

    "Forsooth! I suspect her poor captive mother would scarce be pleased to find this witness to her ill-advised marriage in existence."

    "Nor would she be permitted to be with her."

    "Assuredly not. Moreover, what could she do with the poor child?"

    "Rear her in Popery," exclaimed Susan, to whom the word was terrible.

    "Yea, and make her hand secure as the bait to some foreign prince or some English traitor, who would fain overthrow Queen and Church."

    Susan shuddered. "Oh yes! let us keep the poor child to ourselves. I could not give her up to such a lot as that. And it might imperil you too, my husband. I should like to get up instantly and burn the scroll."

    "I doubt me whether that were expedient," said Richard. "Suppose it were in the course of providence that the young King of Scots should not live, then would this maid be the means of uniting the two kingdoms in the true and Reformed faith! Heaven forefend that he should be cut off, but meseemeth that we have no right to destroy the evidence that may one day be a precious thing to the kingdom at large."

    "No chance eye could read it even were it discovered?" said Susan.

    "No, indeed. Thou knowest how I strove in vain to read it at first, and even now, when Frank Talbot unwittingly gave me the key, it was days before I could fully read it. It will tell no tales, sweet wife, that can prejudice any one, so we will let it be, even with the baby clouts. So now to sleep, with no more thoughts on the matter."

    That was easy to say, but Susan lay awake long, pondering over the wonder, and only slept to dream strange dreams of queens and princesses, ay, and worse, for she finally awoke with a scream, thinking her husband was on the scaffold, and that Humfrey and Cis were walking up the ladder, hand in hand with their necks bared, to follow him!

    There was no need to bid her hold her tongue. She regarded the secret with dread and horror, and a sense of something amiss which she could not quite define, though she told herself she was only acting in obedience to her husband, and indeed her judgment went along with his.

    Often she looked at the unconscious Cis, studying whether the child's parentage could be detected in her features. But she gave promise of being of larger frame than her mother, who had the fine limbs and contour of her Lorraine ancestry, whereas Cis did, as Richard said, seem to have the sturdy outlines of the Borderer race from whom her father came. She was round-faced too, and sunburnt, with deep gray eyes under black straight brows, capable of frowning heavily. She did not look likely ever to be the fascinating beauty which all declared her mother to be--though those who saw the captive at Sheffield, believed the charm to be more in indefinable grace than in actual features,--in a certain wonderful smile and sparkle, a mixed pathos and archness which seldom failed of its momentary effect, even upon those who most rebelled against it. Poor little Cis, a sturdy girl of twelve or thirteen, playing at ball with little Ned on the terrace, and coming with tardy steps to her daily task of spinning, had little of the princess about her; and yet when she sat down, and the management of distaff and thread threw her shoulders back, there was something in the poise of her small head and the gesture of her hand that forcibly recalled the Queen. Moreover, all the boys around were at her beck and call, not only Humfrey and poor Antony Babington, but Cavendishes, Pierrepoints, all the young pages and grandsons who dwelt at castle or lodge, and attended Master Sniggius's school. Nay, the dominie himself, though owning that Mistress Cicely promoted idleness and inattention among his pupils, had actually volunteered to come down to Bridgefield twice a week himself to prevent her from forgetting her Lilly's grammar and her Caesar's Commentaries, an attention with which this young lady would willingly have dispensed.

    Stewart, Lorraine, Hepburn, the blood of all combined was a perilous inheritance, and good Susan Talbot's instinct was that the young girl whom she loved truly like her own daughter would need all the more careful and tender watchfulness and training to overcome any tendencies that might descend to her. Pity increased her affection, and even while in ordinary household life it was easy to forget who and what the girl really was, yet Cis was conscious that she was admitted to the intimacy and privileges of an elder daughter, and made a companion and friend, while her contemporaries at the Manor- house were treated as children, and rated roundly, their fingers tapped with fans, their shoulders even whipped, whenever they transgressed. Cis did indeed live under equal restraint, but it was the wise and gentle restraint of firm influence and constant watchfulness, which took from her the wish to resist.
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