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    Chapter 26

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    Chapter 27
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    IN THE WEB.

    It was a beautiful bright summer day, and Queen Mary and some of her train were preparing for their ride. The Queen was in high spirits, and that wonderful and changeful countenance of hers was beaming with anticipation and hope, while her demeanour was altogether delightful to every one who approached her. She was adding some last instructions to Nau, who was writing a letter for her to the French ambassador, and Cicely stood by her, holding her little dog in a leash, and looking somewhat anxious and wistful. There was more going on round the girl than she was allowed to understand, and it made her anxious and uneasy. She knew that the correspondence through the brewer was actively carried on, but she was not informed of what passed. Only she was aware that some crisis must be expected, for her mother was ceaselessly restless and full of expectation. She had put all her jewels and valuables into as small a compass as possible, and talked more than ever of her plans for giving her daughter either to the Archduke Matthias, or to some great noble, as if the English crown were already within her grasp. Anxious, curious, and feeling injured by the want of confidence, yet not daring to complain, Cicely felt almost fretful at her mother's buoyancy, but she had been taught a good many lessons in the past year, and one of them was that she might indeed be caressed, but that she must show neither humour nor will of her own, and the least presumption in inquiry or criticism was promptly quashed.

    There was a knock at the door, and the usher announced that Sir Amias Paulett prayed to speak with her Grace. Her eye glanced round with the rapid emotion of one doubtful whether it were for weal or woe, yet with undaunted spirit to meet either, and as she granted her permission, Cis heard her whisper to Nau, "A rider came up even now! 'Tis the tidings! Are the Catholics of Derby in the saddle? Are the ships on the coast?"

    In came the tall old man with a stiff reverence: "Madam, your Grace's horses attend you, and I have tidings"--(Mary started forward)-- "tidings for this young lady, Mistress Cicely Talbot. Her brother is arrived from the Spanish Main, and requests permission to see and speak with her."

    Radiance flashed out on Cicely's countenance as excitement faded on that of her mother: "Humfrey! O madam! let me go to him!" she entreated, with a spring of joy and clasped hands.

    Mary was far too kind-hearted to refuse, besides to have done so would have excited suspicion at a perilous moment, and the arrangement Sir Amias proposed was quickly made. Mary Seaton was to attend the Queen in Cicely's stead, and she was allowed to hurry downstairs, and only one warning was possible:

    "Go then, poor child, take thine holiday, only bear in mind what and who thou art."

    Yet the words had scarce died on her ears before she was oblivious of all save that it was a familial home figure who stood at the bottom of the stairs, one of the faces she trusted most in all the world which beamed out upon her, the hands which she knew would guard her through everything were stretched out to her, the lips with veritable love in them kissed the cheeks she did not withhold. Sir Amias stood by and gave the kindest smile she had seen from him, quite changing his pinched features, and he proposed to the two young people to go and walk in the garden together, letting them out into the square walled garden, very formal, but very bright and gay, and with a pleached alley to shelter them from the sun.

    "Good old gentleman!" exclaimed Humfrey, holding the maiden's hand in his. "It is a shame to win such pleasure by feigning."

    "As for that," sighed Cis, "I never know what is sooth here, and what am I save a living lie myself? O Humfrey! I am so weary of it all"

    "Ah I would that I could bear thee home with me," he said, little prepared for this reception.

    "Would that thou couldst! O that I were indeed thy sister, or that the writing in my swaddling bands had been washed out!--Nay," catching back her words, "I meant not that! I would not but belong to the dear Lady here. She says I comfort her more than any of them, and oh! she is--she is, there is no telling how sweet and how noble. It was only that the sight of thee awoke the yearning to be at home with mother and with father. Forget my folly, Humfrey."

    "I cannot soon forget that Bridgefield seems to thee thy true home," he said, putting strong restraint on himself to say and do no more, while his heart throbbed with a violence unawakened by storm or Spaniard.

    "Tell me of them all," she said. "I have heard naught of them since we left Tutbury, where at least we were in my Lord's house, and the dear old silver dog was on every sleeve. Ah! there he is, the trusty rogue."

    And snatching up Humfrey's hat, which was fastened with a brooch of his crest in the fashion of the day, she kissed the familiar token. Then, however, she blushed and drew herself up, remembering the caution not to forget who she was, and with an assumption of more formal dignity, she said, "And how fares it with the good Mrs. Talbot?"

    "Well, when I last heard," said Humfrey, "but I have not been at home. I only know what Will Cavendish and my Lord Talbot told me. I sent Diccon on to Bridgefield, and came out of the way to see you, lady," he concluded, with the same regard to actual circumstances that she had shown.

    "Oh, that was good!" she whispered, and they both seemed to feel a certain safety in avoiding personal subjects. Humfrey had the history of his voyage to narrate--to tell of little Diccon's gallant doings, and to exalt Sir Francis Drake's skill and bravery, and at last to let it ooze out, under Cis's eager questioning, that when his captain had died of fever on the Hispaniola coast, and they had been overtaken by a tornado, Sir Francis had declared that it was Humfrey's skill and steadfastness which had saved the ship and crew.

    "And it was that tornado," he said, "which stemmed the fever, and saved little Diccon's life. Oh! when he lay moaning below, then was the time to long for my mother."

    Time sped on till the great hall clock made Cicely look up and say she feared that the riders would soon return, and then Humfrey knew that he must make sure to speak the words of warning he came to utter. He told, in haste, of his message to Queen Elizabeth, and of his being sent on to Secretary Walsingham, adding, "But I saw not the great man, for he was closeted--with whom think you? No other than Cuthbert Langston, whom Cavendish called by another name. It amazed me the more, because I had two days before met him in Westminster with Antony Babington, who presented him to me by his own name."

    "Saw you Antony Babington?" asked Cis, raising her eyes to his face, but looking uneasy.

    "Twice, at Westminster, and again in Paul's Walk. Had you seen him since you have been here?"

    "Not here, but at Tutbury. He came once, and I was invited to dine in the hall, because he brought recommendations from the Countess." There was a pause, and then, as if she had begun to take in the import of Humfrey's words, she added, "What said you? That Mr. Langston was going between him and Mr. Secretary?"

    "Not exactly that," and Humfrey repeated with more detail what he had seen of Langston, forbearing to ask any questions which Cicely might not be able to answer with honour; but they had been too much together in childhood not to catch one another's meaning with half a hint, and she said, "I see why you came here, Humfrey. It was good and true and kind, befitting you. I will tell the Queen. If Langston be in it, there is sure to be treachery. But, indeed, I know nothing or well-nigh nothing."

    "I am glad of it," fervently exclaimed Humfrey.

    "No; I only know that she has high hopes, and thinks that the term of her captivity is well-nigh over. But it is Madame de Courcelles whom she trusts, not me," said Cicely, a little hurt.

    "So is it much better for thee to know as little as possible," said Humfrey, growing intimate in tone again in spite of himself. "She hath not changed thee much, Cis, only thou art more grave and womanly, ay, and thou art taller, yea, and thinner, and paler, as I fear me thou mayest well be."

    "Ah, Humfrey, 'tis a poor joy to be a princess in prison! And yet I shame me that I long to be away. Oh no, I would not. Mistress Seaton and Mrs. Curll and the rest might be free, yet they have borne this durance patiently all these years--and I think--I think she loves me a little, and oh! she is hardly used. Humfrey, what think'st thou that Mr. Langston meant? I wot now for certain that it was he who twice came to beset us, as Tibbott the huckster, and with the beads and bracelets! They all deem him a true friend to my Queen."

    "So doth Babington," said Humfrey, curtly.

    "Ah!" she said, with a little terrified sound of conviction, then added, "What thought you of Master Babington?"

    "That he is half-crazed," said Humfrey.

    "We may say no more," said Cis, seeing a servant advancing from the house to tell her that the riders were returning. "Shall I see you again, Humfrey?"

    "If Sir Amias should invite me to lie here to-night, and remain to- morrow, since it will be Sunday."

    "At least I shall see you in the morning, ere you depart," she said, as with unwilling yet prompt steps she returned to the house, Humfrey feeling that she was indeed his little Cis, yet that some change had come over her, not so much altering her, as developing the capabilities he had always seen.

    For herself, poor child, her feelings were in a strange turmoil, more than usually conscious of that dual existence which had tormented her ever since she had been made aware of her true birth. Moreover, she had a sense of impending danger and evil, and, by force of contrast, the frank, open-hearted manner of Humfrey made her the more sensible of being kept in the dark as to serious matters, while outwardly made a pet and plaything by her mother, "just like Bijou," as she said to herself.

    "So, little one," said Queen Mary, as she returned, "thou hast been revelling once more in tidings of Sheffield! How long will it take me to polish away the dulness of thy clownish contact?"

    "Humphrey does not come from home, madam, but from London. Madam, let me tell you in your ear--"

    Mary's eye instantly took the terrified alert expression which had come from many a shock and alarm. "What is it, child?" she asked, however, in a voice of affected merriment. "I wager it is that he has found his true Cis. Nay, whisper it to me, if it touch thy silly little heart so deeply."

    Cicely knelt down, the Queen bending over her, while she murmured in her ear, "He saw Cuthbert Langston, by a feigned name, admitted to Mr. Secretary Walsingham's privy chamber."

    She felt the violent start this information caused, but the command of voice and countenance was perfect.

    "What of that, mignonne?" she said. "What knoweth he of this Langston, as thou callest him?"

    "He is my--no--his father's kinsman, madam, and is known to be but a plotter. Oh, surely, he is not in your secrets, madam, my mother, after that day at Tutbury?"

    "Alack, my lassie, Gifford or Babington answered for him," said the Queen, "and he kens more than I could desire. But this Humfrey of thine! How came he to blunder out such tidings to thee?"

    "It was no blunder, madam. He came here of purpose."

    "Sure," exclaimed Mary, "it were too good to hope that he hath become well affected. He--a sailor of Drake's, a son of Master Richard! Hath Babington won him over; or is it for thy sake, child? For I bestowed no pains to cast smiles to him at Sheffield, even had he come in my way."

    "I think, madam," said Cicely, "that he is too loyal-hearted to bear the sight of treachery without a word of warning."

    "Is he so? Then he is the first of his nation who hath been of such a mind! Nay, mignonne, deny not thy conquest. This is thy work."

    "I deny not that--that I am beloved by Humfrey," said Cicely, "for I have known it all my life; but that goes for naught in what he deems it right to do."

    "There spoke so truly Mistress Susan's scholar that thou makest me laugh in spite of myself and all the rest. Hold him fast, my maiden; think what thou wilt of his service, and leave me now, and send Melville and Curll to me."

    Cicely went away full of that undefined discomfort experienced by generous young spirits when their elders, more worldly-wise (or foolish), fail even to comprehend the purity or loftiness of motive which they themselves thoroughly believe. Yet, though she had infinitely more faith in Humfrey's affection than she had in that of Babington, she had not by any means the same dread of being used to bait the hook for him, partly because she knew his integrity too well to expect to shake it, and partly because he was perfectly aware of her real birth, and could not be gulled with such delusive hopes as poor Antony might once have been.

    Humfrey meantime was made very welcome by Sir Amias Paulett, who insisted on his spending the next day, Sunday, at Chartley, and made him understand that he was absolutely welcome, as having a strong arm, stout heart, and clear brain used to command. "Trusty aid do I need," said poor Sir Amias, "if ever man lacked an arm of flesh. The Council is putting more on me than ever man had to bear, in an open place like this, hard to be defended, and they will not increase the guard lest they should give the alarm, forsooth!"

    "What is it that you apprehend?" inquired Humfrey.

    "There's enough to apprehend when all the hot-headed Papists of Stafford and Derbyshire are waiting the signal to fire the outhouses and carry off this lady under cover of the confusion. Mr. Secretary swears they will not stir till the signal be given, and that it never will; but such sort of fellows are like enough to mistake the sign, and the stress may come through their dillydallying to make all sure as they say, and then, if there be any mischance, I shall be the one to bear the blame. Ay, if it be their own work!" he added, speaking to himself, "Murder under trust! That would serve as an answer to foreign princes, and my head would have to pay for it, however welcome it might be! So, good Mr. Talbot, supposing any alarm should arise, keep you close to the person of this lady, for there be those who would make the fray a colour for taking her life, under pretext of hindering her from being carried off."

    It was no wonder that a warder in such circumstances looked harassed and perplexed, and showed himself glad of being joined by any ally whom he could trust. In truth, harsh and narrow as he was, Paulett was too good and religious a man for the task that had been thrust on him, where loyal obedience, sense of expediency, and even religious fanaticism, were all in opposition to the primary principles of truth, mercy, and honour. He was, besides, in constant anxiety, living as he did between plot and counterplot, and with the certainty that emissaries of the Council surrounded him who would have no scruple in taking Mary's life, and leaving him to bear the blame, when Elizabeth would have to explain the deed to the other sovereigns of Europe. He disclosed almost all this to Humfrey, whose frank, trustworthy expression seemed to move him to unusual confidence.

    At supper-time another person appeared, whom Humfrey thought he had once seen at Sheffield--a thin, yellow-haired and bearded man, much marked with smallpox, in the black dress of a lawyer, who sat above the household servants, though below the salt. Paulett once drank to him with a certain air of patronage, calling him Master Phillipps, a name that came as a revelation to Humfrey. Phillipps was the decipherer who had, he knew, been employed to interpret Queen Mary's letters after the Norfolk plot. Were there, then, fresh letters of that unfortunate lady in his hands, or were any to be searched for and captured?
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