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    Chapter 41

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    Chapter 42
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    HER ROYAL HIGHNESS.

    Cicely had been living in almost as much suspense in London as her mother at Fotheringhay. For greater security Mr. Talbot had kept her on board the Mastiff till he had seen M. d'Aubepine Chateauneuf, and presented to him Queen Mary's letter. The Ambassador, an exceedingly polished and graceful Frenchman, was greatly astonished, and at first incredulous; but he could not but accept the Queen's letter as genuine, and he called into his counsels his Secretary De Salmonnet, an elderly man, whose wife, a Scotswoman by birth, preferred her husband's society to the delights of Paris. She was a Hamilton who had been a pensionnaire in the convent at Soissons, and she knew that it had been expected that an infant from Lochleven might be sent to the Abbess, but that it had never come, and that after many months of waiting, tidings had arrived that the vessel which carried the babe had been lost at sea.

    M. de Chateauneuf thereupon committed the investigation to her and her husband. Richard Talbot took them first to the rooms where Mrs. Barbara Curll had taken up her abode, so as to be near her husband, who was still a prisoner in Walsingham's house. She fully confirmed all that Mr. Talbot said of the Queen's complete acceptance of Cis as her daughter, and moreover consented to come with the Salmonnets and Mr. Talbot, to visit the young lady on board the Mastiff.

    Accordingly they went down the river together in Mr. Talbot's boat, and found Cicely, well cloaked and muffled, sitting under an awning, under the care of old Goatley, who treated her like a little queen, and was busy explaining to her all the different craft which filled the river.

    She sprang up with the utmost delight at the sight of Mrs. Curll, and threw herself into her arms. There was an interchange of inquiries and comments that--unpremeditated as they were--could not but convince the auditor of the terms on which the young lady had stood with Queen Mary and her suite.

    Afterwards Cicely took the two ladies to her cabin, a tiny box, but not uncomfortable according to her habits, and there, on Barbara's persuasion, she permitted Madame de Salmonnet to see the monograms on her shoulders. The lady went home convinced of her identity, and came again the next day with a gentleman in slouched hat, mask, and cloak.

    As Cicely rose to receive him he uttered an exclamation of irrepressible astonishment, then added, "Your Highness will pardon me. Exactly thus did her royal mother stand when I took leave of her at Calais."

    The Ambassador had thus been taken by storm, although the resemblance was more in figure and gesture than feature, but Mrs. Curll could aver that those who had seen Bothwell were at no loss to trace the derivation of the dark brows and somewhat homely features, in which the girl differed from the royal race of Scotland.

    What was to be done? Queen Mary's letter to him begged him so far as was possible to give her French protection, and avoid compromising "that excellent Talbot," and he thought it would be wisest for her to await the coming of the Envoy Extraordinary, M. de Pomponne Bellievre, and be presented by him. In the meantime her remaining on board ship in this winter weather would be miserably uncomfortable, and Richmond and Greenwich were so near that any intercourse with her would be dangerous, especially if Langston was still in England. Lodgings or inns where a young lady from the country could safely be bestowed were not easily to be procured without greater familiarity with the place than Mr. Talbot possessed, and he could as little think of placing her with Lady Talbot, whose gossiping tongue and shrewish temper were not for a moment to be trusted. Therefore M de Chateauneuf's proposal that the young lady should become Madame de Salmonnet's guest at the embassy was not unwelcome. The lady was elderly, Scottish, and, as M. de Chateauneuf with something of a shudder assured Mr. Talbot, "most respectable." And it was hoped that it would not be for long. So, having seen her safely made over to the lady's care, Richard ventured for the first time to make his presence in London known to his son, and to his kindred; and he was the more glad to have her in these quarters because Diccon told him that there was no doubt that Langston was lurking about the town, and indeed he was convinced that he had recognised that spy entering Walsingham's house in the dress of a scrivener. He would not alarm Cicely, but he bade her keep all her goods in a state ready for immediate departure, in case it should be needful to leave London at once after seeing the Queen.

    The French Ambassador's abode was an old conventual building on the river-side, consisting of a number of sets of separate chambers, like those of a college, opening on a quadrangle in the centre, and with one side occupied by the state apartments and chapel. This arrangement eminently suited the French suite, every one of whom liked to have his own little arrangements of cookery, and to look after his own marmite in his own way, all being alike horrified at the gross English diet and lack of vegetables. Many tried experiments in the way of growing salads in little gardens of their own, with little heed to the once beautiful green grass-plot which they broke up.

    Inside that gate it was like a new country, and as all the shrill thin intonations of the French rang in her ears, Cicely could hardly believe that she had--she said--only a brick wall between her and old England.

    M. de Salmonnet was unmistakably a Scot by descent, though he had never seen the land of his ancestors. His grandfather bad been ennobled, but only belonged to the lesser order of the noblesse, being exempted from imposts, but not being above employment, especially in diplomacy. He had acted as secretary, interpreter, and general factotum, to a whole succession of ambassadors, and thus his little loge, as he called it, had become something of a home. His wife had once or twice before had to take charge of young ladies, French or English, who were confided to the embassy, and she had a guest chamber for them, a small room, but with an oriel window overhanging the Thames and letting in the southern sun, so as almost to compensate for the bareness of the rest, where there was nothing but a square box-bed, a chest, and a few toilette essentials, to break upon the dulness of the dark wainscoted walls. Madame herself came to sleep with her guest, for lonely nights were regarded with dread in those times, and indeed she seemed to regard it as her duty never to lose sight of her charge for a moment.

    Madame de Salmonnet's proper bed-chamber was the only approach to this little room, but that mattered the less as it was also the parlour! The bed, likewise a box, was in the far-off recesses, and the family were up and astir long before the November sun. Dressed Madame could scarcely be called--the costume in which she assisted Babette and queer wizened old Pierrot in doing the morning's work, horrified Cicely, used as she was to Mistress Susan's scrupulous neatness. Downstairs there was a sort of office room of Monsieur's, where the family meals were taken, and behind it an exceedingly small kitchen, where Madame and Pierrot performed marvels of cookery, surpassing those of Queen Mary's five cooks.

    Cicely longed to assist in them, and after a slight demur, she was permitted to do so, chiefly because her duenna could not otherwise watch her and the confections at the same time. Cis could never make out whether it was as princess or simply as maiden that she was so closely watched, for Madame bristled and swelled like a mother cat about to spring at a strange dog, if any gentleman of the suite showed symptoms of accosting her. Nay, when Mr. Talbot once brought Diccon in with him, and there was a greeting, which to Cicely's mind was dismally cold and dry, the lady was so scandalised that Cicely was obliged formally to tell her that she would answer for it to the Queen. On Sunday, Mr. Talbot always came to take her to church, and this was a terrible grievance to Madame, though it was to Cicely the one refreshment of the week. If it had been only the being out of hearing of her hostess's incessant tongue, the walk would have been a refreshment. Madame de Salmonnet had been transported from home so young that she was far more French than Scottish; she was a small woman full of activity and zeal of all kinds, though perhaps most of all for her pot au feu. She was busied about her domestic affairs morning, noon, and night, and never ceased chattering the whole time, till Cicely began to regard the sound like the clack of the mill at Bridgefield. Yet, talker as she was, she was a safe woman, and never had been known to betray secrets. Indeed, much more of her conversation consisted of speculations on the tenderness of the poultry, or the freshness of the fish, than of anything that went much deeper. She did, however, spend much time in describing the habits and customs of the pensioners at Soissons; the maigre food they had to eat; their tricks upon the elder and graver nuns, and a good deal besides that was amusing at first, but which became rather wearisome, and made Cicely wonder what either of her mothers would have thought of it.

    The excuse for all this was to enable the maiden to make her appearance before Queen Elizabeth as freshly brought from Soissons by her mother's danger. Mary herself had suggested this, as removing all danger from the Talbots, and as making it easier for the French Embassy to claim and protect Cis herself; and M. de Chateauneuf had so far acquiesced as to desire Madame de Salmonnet to see whether the young lady could be prepared to assume the character before eyes that would not be over qualified to judge. Cis, however, had always been passive when the proposal was made, and the more she heard from Madame de Salmonnet, the more averse she was to it. The only consideration that seemed to her in its favour was the avoidance of implicating her foster-father, but a Sunday morning spent with him removed the scruple.

    "I know I cannot feign," she said. "They all used to laugh at me at Chartley for being too much of the downright mastiff to act a part."

    "I am right glad to hear it," said Richard.

    "Moreover," added Cicely, "if I did try to turn my words with the Scottish or French ring, I wot that the sight of the Queen's Majesty and my anxiety would drive out from me all I should strive to remember, and I should falter and utter mere folly; and if she saw I was deceiving her, there would be no hope at all. Nay, how could I ask God Almighty to bless my doing with a lie in my mouth?"

    "There spake my Susan's own maid," said Richard. "'Tis the joy of my heart that they have not been able to teach thee to lie with a good grace. Trust my word, my wench, truth is the only wisdom, and one would have thought they might have learnt it by this time."

    "I only doubted, lest it should be to your damage, dear father. Can they call it treason?"

    "I trow not, my child. The worst that could hap would be that I might be lodged in prison a while, or have to pay a fine; and liefer, far liefer, would I undergo the like than that those lips of thine should learn guile. I say not that there is safety for any of us, least of all for thee, my poor maid, but the danger is tenfold increased by trying to deceive; and, moreover, it cannot be met with a good conscience."

    "Moreover," said Cicely, "I have pleadings and promises to make on my mother-queen's behalf that would come strangely amiss if I had to feign that I had never seen her! May I not seek the Queen at once, without waiting for this French gentleman? Then would this weary, weary time be at an end! Each time I hear a bell, or a cannon shot, I start and think, Oh! has she signed the warrant? Is it too late?"

    "There is no fear of that," said Richard; "I shall know from Will Cavendish the instant aught is done, and through Diccon I could get thee brought to the Queen's very chamber in time to plead. Meantime, the Queen is in many minds. She cannot bear to give up her kinswoman; she sits apart and mutters, 'Aut fer aut feri,' and 'Ne feriare feri.' Her ladies say she tosses and sighs all night, and hath once or twice awoke shrieking that she was covered with blood. It is Burghley and Walsingham who are forcing this on, and not her free will. Strengthen but her better will, and let her feel herself secure, and she will spare, and gladly."

    "That do I hope to do," said Cicely, encouraged. The poor girl had to endure many a vicissitude and heart-sinking before M. de Bellievre appeared; and when he did come, he was a disappointment.

    He was a most magnificent specimen of the mignons of Henri's court. The Embassy rang with stories of the number of mails he had brought, of the milk baths he sent for, the gloves he slept in, the valets who tweaked out superfluous hairs from his eyebrows, the delicacies required for his little dogs.

    M. de Salmonnet reported that on hearing the story of "Mademoiselle," as Cicely was called in the Embassy, he had twirled the waxed ends of his moustaches into a satirical twist, and observed, "That is well found, and may serve as a last resource."

    He never would say that he disbelieved what he was told of her; and when presented to her, he behaved with an exaggerated deference which angered her intensely, for it seemed to her mockery of her pretensions. No doubt his desire was that Mary's life should be granted to the intercession of his king rather than to any other consideration; and therefore once, twice, thrice, he had interviews with Elizabeth, and still he would not take the anxious suppliant, who was in an agony at each disappointment, as she watched the gay barge float down the river, and who began to devise setting forth alone, to seek the Queen at Richmond and end it all! She would have done so, but that Diccon told her that since the alarm caused by Barnwell, it had become so much more difficult to approach the Queen that she would have no hope.

    But she was in a restless state that made Madame de Salmonnet's chatter almost distracting, when at last, far on in January, M. de Salmonnet came in.

    "Well, mademoiselle, the moment is come. The passports are granted, but Monsieur the Ambassador Extraordinary has asked for a last private audience, and he prays your Highness to be ready to accompany him at nine of the clock to-morrow morning."

    Cicely's first thought was to send tidings to Mr. Talbot, and in this M. de Salmonnet assisted her, though his wife thought it very superfluous to drag in the great, dull, heavy, English sailor. The girl longed for a sight and speech of him all that evening in vain, though she was sure she saw the Mastiff's boat pass down the river, and most earnestly did she wish she could have had her chamber to herself for the prayers and preparations, on which Madame's tongue broke so intolerably that she felt as if she should ere long be wild and senseless, and unable to recollect anything.

    She had only a little peace when Madame rose early in the morning and left her, thinking her asleep, for a brief interval, which gave her time to rally her thoughts and commend herself to her only Guide.

    She let Madame dress her, as had been determined, in perfectly plain black, with a cap that would have suited "a novice out of convent shade." It was certainly the most suitable garb for a petitioner for her mother's life. In her hand she took the Queen's letter, and the most essential proofs of her birth. She was cloaked and hooded over all as warmly as possible to encounter the cold of the river: and Madame de Salmonnet, sighing deeply at the cold, arranged herself to chaperon her, and tried to make her fortify herself with food, but she was too tremulous to swallow anything but a little bread and wine. Poor child! She felt frightfully alone amongst all those foreign tongues, above all when the two ambassadors crossed the court to M. de Salmonnet's little door. Bellievre, rolled up in splendid sables from head to foot, bowed down to the ground before her, almost sweeping the pavement with his plume, and asked in his deferential voice of mockery if her Royal Highness would do him the honour of accepting his escort.

    Cicely bent her head and said in French, "I thank you, sir," giving him her hand; and there was a grave dignity in the action that repressed him, so that he did not speak again as he led her to the barge, which was covered in at the stern so as to afford a shelter from the wind.

    Her quick eye detected the Mastiff's boat as she was handed down the stairs, and this was some relief, while she was placed in the seat of honour, with an ambassador on each side of her.

    "May I ask," demanded Bellievre, waving a scented handkerchief, "what her Highness is prepared to say, in case I have to confirm it?"

    "I thank your Excellency," replied Cicely, "but I mean to tell the simple truth; and as your Excellency has had no previous knowledge of me, I do not see how you can confirm it."

    The two gentlemen looked at one another, and Chateauneuf said, "Do I understand her Royal Highness that she does not come as the pensionnaire from Soissons, as the Queen had recommended?"

    "No, sir," said Cicely; "I have considered the matter, and I could not support the character. All that I ask of your Excellencies is to bring me into the presence of Queen Elizabeth. I will do the rest myself, with the help of God."

    "Perhaps she is right," said the one ambassador to the other. "These English are incomprehensible!"
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