or Annual of Literature and the Arts
compiled by William Fraser
London: William Pickering,
pp. pp. 285-311
THE palace of Nonsuch, near Ewell, in Surrey, was intended by Henry the Eighth, as its proud title sufficiently attests, to afford an unrivalled specimen of his magnificence and taste; but, while he was lavishing his treasures in this most unnecessary addition to his royal residences, Death was sharpening the dart which was to tumble down the ostentatious tyrant, and consign him to his last narrow palace — the tomb.
Nonsuch was left unfinished, and unfulfilled promise of splendour, a gorgeous and yet melancholy evidence of the uncertainty of human grandeur; and Queen Mary, shrinking from the cost of its completion, had it in contemplation to ull it down to save farther charges; when the Earl of Arundel, "for the love and honour he bore to his old master," purchased the place, and finished it according to the original design. Not a vestige of it now remains; it has passed away with the other elaborate gewgaws of [Page 286]mortal vanity, and the arrogant name which it has left behind it, sounds in our ears like a mournful echo, mocking the presumption of other times. And yet the proud structure was not deficient in solidity as well as stateliness. "It was built round two courts," says the accomplished authoress of Queen Elizabeth's Memoirs — "an outer and an inner one, both very spacious; and the entrance to each was by a square gate-house highly ornamented, embattled, and having turrets at the four corners. These gate-houses were of stone, as was the lower story of the palace itself; but the upper one was of wood, "richly adorned, and set forth and garnished with a variety of statues, pictures, and other antic forms of excellent art and workmanship, and of no small cost;" all which ornaments, it seems, were made of rye dough. In modern language the pictures would probably be called basso-relievos. From the eastern and western angles of the inner court rose two slender turrets, five stories high, with lanterns on the top, which were leaded and surrounded with wooden balustrades. These towers of observation, from which the two parks attached to the palace, and a wide expanse of champaign country beyond, might be surveyed as in a map, were celebrated as the peculiar boast of Nonsuch.
It was the morning of Michaelmas Eve, the woodwork of the gaudy structure which was painted and [Page 287]lacquered, glistered in the light of a cloudless sun the numerous gilt vanes, fashioned in the shapes of the various animals that figured in the armorial bearings of royalty, flashed form the top of every tower and pinnacle; while the royal banners displayed from the summits of the two lofty turrets, and flaunting proudly on the breeze, announced to all the circumjacent country that they floated over Queen Elizabeth and her Court, who were then residing in the palace. Although it was thus graced and honoured, the earliness of the hour, and the heat of the morning, had prevented any great appearance of bustle around the exterior of the building. A few halberdiers and yeomen of the guard, in their rich liveries, were lounging in front of the outer gate-house; along the roads that skirted the parks, horses and carriages, betraying their progress by the dust, were seen to converge towards the same point; but in other respects, the landscape was as still as it was lovely. The herds of deer in the park, only distinguishable by their horns, were crouching in the shade: the cows, that were usually pastured around the gatehouse, had not yet returned from the farm, whither they had been driven to be milked; and with the exception of a single stately stag which emerged from a thicket, as if to reconnoiter, and snuff up the morning air, nothing appeared to move within the wide chase that surrounded the mansion; while the absence of [Page 288]music, or any other sound of state or revelry from the walls, gave reason to conclude that her majesty had not yet arisen from her slumbers.
Upon a terrace, however, which flanked the exterior of the inner court, and communicated by a flight of stone steps with the park, was assembled a little party, who had obeyed the first summons of Chanticleer, in the loyal and laudable hope of affording good entertainment to their royal mistress, when it should please her to begin the sports and pastimes of the day. Among these was old Yeovil, one of the huntsmen, a withered weatherbeaten figure, but with a patch of red upon either cheek-bone, that seemed to attest he might still be in at a good many deaths before his own. He held three leash of greyhounds by leathern thongs, and was surrounded by several couple of staghounds, most of the latter being crouched at his feet, dosing and winking at the sun; while the former with ears erect, and in various graceful attitudes of alert attention, were imitating their master in watching the movements of a motley group immediately opposite to them. It consisted of Master Toby so called from his being at the head of the scullery, and who for the nonce had constituted himself, moreover, a sort of deputy master of the revels; and a troop of extempore maskers, collected from among the inferior domestics, who had agreed to get up a little pageant among themselves, stuffed full of ful-[Page 289]some compliments to the queen, and according to the fashion of the time, most fantastically allegorical. Shakspeare's ridicule, and the burlesque of Bottom the Weaver, had not been yet long enough before the public to banish the rage for such emblematic foolery: nor would it under any circumstances have been likely to exert a beneficial influence upon Master Toby, who sometimes made furtive excursions from the scullery into the regions of Parnassus, and whose taste had been exclusively derived from the quaint devices of those symbolical banquets he had assisted in cooking; and which, from their hieroglyphical character, had received the appropriate name of Subtleties. At this self-appointed masque-master, who with a paper in one hand, and a cane in the other, was strutting about, endeavouring to get up a rehearsal as well among the amateur actors by whom he was surrounded, some of whom were attired as allegorical females, the calm old huntsman gazed with a quiet wonderment, that kept his face fixed in an intermediate expression between a simper and a sneer. And, sooth to say, they must have exhibited a puzzling sort of cross-reading to a straightforward man like him, who knew all the parties by sight, but neither understood why they were thus strangely metamorphosed, nor comprehended the purport of what they were instructed to utter.
The man who was to misrepresent Diana having [Page 290]thrown up his legs on a bench, in defiance of petticoats and decorum, and all the bienseances that should distinguish the "chaste huntress of the silver bow;" swore "by cogs nouns, and snails," in answer to the summons of Master Toby, that he would not come to book 'til he had finished his pipe; in confirmation of which averment he spat upon the ground, and recommenced his whiffs with such energy, that the half-moon in his head was only occasionally seen as it dimly emerged from the cloud of tobacco-smoke in which it was enveloped.
"Come, then, Cupid, we will begin with you, have you got your speech quite perfect?" said Master Toby, to a little boy, who had twisted his wings all awry in the earnestness of a game of marbles with an urchin of his own age.
"Yes, sir, yes;" replied the son of Venus. "Fain dubs, Jemmy! fain tribbs! Knuckle down, Jemmy! fain going through the ring a second time! Keep your yard's distance, and no cheating!"
Pittikins! you young scapegrace! call you this saying the speech?" exclaimed Toby, in wrath. "Spout it, sirrah, spout it, or your shoulders shall be scored with my rattan till they show like ribs of pork."
"Nay, now, forsooth, Master Toby, let us finish the game, there's a good fellow. Its my go next, and there are only three in the ring. And look you [Page 291]her's lazy Barney Mumpford falling asleep in the sun for want of something to do. Hallo, Barney! Barney!" continued the stripling, bawling in his ear; "there's Master Toby waiting for you to begin."
The person thus aroused, whose close doublet and hose were thickly painted with tongues to give him the semblance of Report of Fame, now got lazily up, and after some very deliberate stretching and yawning begun his speech, which he spouted with a sort of drowsy pomposity. As it was intended to compliment the queen, not less upon the wide diffusion of her glory than upon her extensive knowledge of languages or tongues, it commenced after the following fashion:
"To the four quarters of the earth I've blown
Eliza's name; I need not add my own.
Useless to her would such a blazon be,
For she who knows all tongues must needs know me!" —
"By my fackins, though, Master Toby," cried the spokesman, breaking off in the very exordium of his address, "if her grace should ask my name after all, I shall e'en tell her that I'm Barney Mumpford, that I have been a groom seven years, and that the post-master of the great stables is vacant; for I may as well have it as another, and a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse."
With a look of profound alarm, the culinary stage-[Page 292]manager declared that such a departure from histrionic precedent would infallibly bring them all into disgrace, and reminded his pupil that he ought to have announced himself in the first instance by blowing his trumpet.
"Odso! And so I ought," cried Barney; "and I need not have forgotten it, for I found that part easier to learn by heart than all the rest."
So saying her put the instrument to his mouth, and summoning all his breath to his aid, gave birth to a discordant bray, which seemed to have had a groan and a roar for its respective parents. At this abortive effort, old Yeovil, who from childhood upwards had been accustomed to wind every instrument of the sort from a penny trumpet to a French horn, could no longer remain a passive spectator; but seizing the trumpet and applying it to his mouth, he collected the breath into his hollow leathern cheeks, and blew so loud and lusty a recheat, that the inner court echoed to the sound, the dogs suddenly leaped up, baying and barking, and at the same moment, a gentleman-usher, issuing form the offices, rebuked them angrily, as a set of unmannerly grooms and brawling mummers, to keep such a coil ere the breakfast-bell had warned in the great court, and when it was even uncertain whether her Highness had quitted her bed-room.
"I would give a Harry groat," said Yeovil, "to [Page 293]know whether her grace means to betake herself to the stand in the park to see the coursing, or whether we are to uncouple the hounds, and drive up a fat buck for the cross-bow, for the morning begins to wear, and the dew will be soon off the grass."
"Body o' me!" ejaculated Master Toby, drawing himself up, and looking contemptuously at the huntsman; "think you our noble and learned mistress will recreate herself with brute beasts, when she might listen to the Orphean strains of poetry that I have provided for her in this our most quaint, dainty, and delectable device? Now, good man Report, pursue your speech — pursue your speech — 'accept, fair, peerless, learned, virgin queen — "
"Grammercy! Master Toby," quoth Report — "four lines at a stretch is honest yeoman's work, you must get some one else to accept the queen, for it is clean beyond me to go any further." Not less indignant as a poet than as a loyal subject at this declaration, master Toby was about to pronounce a severe reprimand upon Goodman Report, when he was forestalled by a loud laugh from the four quarters of the world, who were standing in the shade playing at chuck-arthing with Saint Michael, which latter personage had been dressed up to do honor to his own approaching eve. Africa and the Saint, after wrangling for some time about a farthing, had betaken themselves, like true Englishmen, to swearing, and [Page 294]then to mutual accusations of profaneness; when the Saint, pointing to is adversary's visage, which was smeared over with a sooty pigment to give him the better semblance of a negro, declared that he must needs have been the greatest offender, since he had sworn till he was black in the face. This joke was received with a huge and simultaneous burst of laughter by Europe, Asia, and America, although they were repeatedly called to order, and were threatened with the tattan by the wrathful master Toby. Finding his four refractory quarters to be indifferent to his menaces, the latter now betook himself to father Thames, a venerable looking figure with a crown of bulrushes, a long beard of sedge and water-flags, and wearing a loose watchet robe, which having fallen back while he was emptying a pot of ale, disclosed a pair of greasy buckskin hose, with riding boots and spurs. "Zooks, master Toby, let us finish the tankard — you know the Thames is apt to be dry at this season," cried the river god, chuckling at his own wit. "Dry quotha! methinks you're always adry," replied Toby — "but beshrew me an I ever knew the Thames to be replenished with humming ale, where's your urn?" "Here, master Toby, here," said father Thames, thrusting a large pitcher under his left arm, and where's the tinsel stream that is to come pouring out of it?" "I popp'd it inside to keep it dry, for there was an ugly dew this morn-[Page 295]ing that would presently have washed off all the glitter."
"By my fackins! that was well cared for: keep your water dry whatever you do: hold your urn more sloping, and though that cannot spout, you many spout away yourself."
Thus instructed and commended, the river god lifting up his voice, which was by no means so clear and liquid as the character required, exclaimed,
"On my proud breast those floating castles ride,
That did subdue the great Armada's pride;
Behold illustrious Queen — "
when his progress was not less suddenly than unpleasantly interrupted by a freak of the mischievous urchin, Cupid, who, having finished his game of marbles, and lighted a piece of paper by the assistance of Diana's pipe, slily insinuated it into the river god's left hand, as it hung dangling beneath his urn. Little expecting to be thus surreptitiously set on fire, father Thames, uttering a cry of surprise and pain, let fall the pitcher, which was smashed into a hundred pieces, and bounded forward a good clothier's yard at a single leap. No sooner, however, had he discovered the little incendiary, who betrayed himself by a shriek of laughter, than with fury in his looks he blustered out an oath, much too combustible for so aqueous a divinity, and commenced an immediate [Page 296]pursuit for the purpose of inflicting a summary vengeance. In less than a minute the offender had run twice round Africa, crossed Europe, scudded behind the back of Asia, and swung round the front of America; but Scamander when he pursued the runaway Achilles was not more swift or unrelenting than father Thames in his chace of the unlucky Cupid, who having thrown away his wings that he might fly the faster, at length bolted across the terrace through a postern gate that led into the inner court, his pursuer followed close upon his heels, and both were presently out of sight and hearing. Ere the laughter occasioned by this incident had subsided among the rest of the party to whom the fugitives belonged, their attention was arrested by a company of horsemen riding towards the palace at full speed, and leaving a long cloud of dust behind them. As they galloped past the end of the terrace, in order to wheel round towards the gate-house, it was evident they had travelled far and fast, and through a different tract of country from that which surrounded Nonsuch; for both horses and riders were splashed with mud and mire, over which a white powdery dust had settled, until it had become impossible to distinguish the colour of either steed or garment, although it was sufficiently evident from their accoutrements, feathers and bearing, that the leading cavaliers were officers. At the head of the band, mounted on a fleet barb, was [Page 297]a young gallant, who, as far as could be judged from the great rapidity with which he passed, possessed singular beauty of form and feature, and appeared to be a most graceful and accomplished horseman. Four others, although they rode a little way behind him, seemed by their gestures to be his friends and companions, and at a distance of ten or twenty yards was the rear of the cavalcade, consisting of grooms and other attendants. Without relaxing his speed until he reached the entrance of the great gatehouse, the leader of the troop threw himself hastily from his horse, and hurried into the court with the air of one whose rank and station authorized him to pass, even into the residence of royalty, without let or question; although the yeomen of the guard looked somewhat anxiously at one another, as if they ought to have demanded his purpose before they suffered him to enter. At the portal which formed the entrance to the queen's dwelling apartments, and through which the stranger would have speeded in the same unceremonious manner as before, the pages, gentlemen ushers, and others, who were clustered about the doors, and who were startled at the appearance of such a soiled and bespattered figure, forcing himself, as it were, into the private chambers, drew up and opposed his progress, enquiring at the same time who he was, and what he wanted. "Gentlemen," said the stranger, impatiently waving his hand for them to [Page 298]fall back, "my purpose brooks not delay, and I beseech you not to parley with me but to give me free passage. What! am I so changed by a little mud and dirt that ye know me not for the Earl of Essex, Master of the Horse, and of the Ordnance, and the Lord Deputy?" So saying, and without giving them time to recover from their surprise, he passed through the midst of them, and began to ascend the stairs.
Labouring under heavy imputations for his misconduct in Ireland, from which country he had suddenly returned, notonly without leave, but in positive disobedience to the commands of his royal mistress; relying upon her well-known affection for his pardon, and complete restoration to favor, if he could once gain access to her, and apprehensive that if he failed in this object his enemies would ensure his disgrace and ruin, the impetuous earl had ridden post both day and night, without communicating his purpose to a single individual, except a few of his particular adherents, and having thus far successfully triumphed over all obstacles, he was not likely to be impeded by the pages and chamberlains whom he encountered in the private apartments, as he hurried through them. Gazing in utter amazement at such a bespattered figure, making the floors ring to his heavy riding boots as he stalked onwards towards the queen's bedroom, some stood aloof, concluding that he had explained his errand to the yeomen below; [Page 299]while others placed themselves in his way, and informed him that the Queen had not yet come forth: but he either passed them, or put them aside, with the air of one who would not be disobeyed, and thus traversed the presence chamber, and the waiting room of the maids of honor, several of whom were not a little alarmed at the sight of such an inexplicable apparition. Neither noticing their startled looks, nor heeding their eager whispers, the adventurous Earl pursued his way, and never stopped till he came to the Queen's bed-room, the door of which he undauntedly opened, walked in, and closed it behind him.
Elizabeth was newly risen, and her locks were hanging in disorder about her face. She was incapable of fear, but her surprise was not without agitation at the first sight of a heated and bemoiled stranger thus intruding into her bed-room, and she was on the point of calling out for her chamberlain, when Essex rushed forward, threw himself upon his knees, and humbly implored her pardon. The sound of his well-known voice, the humility of his language, and, above all, the sight of one whom she still loved, kneeling at her feet, and looking up to her with flushed and imploring features, so won upon her unprepared heart, that she held out both her hands to him to kiss, listened with a kind aspect to all his excuses, and gave him a more cordial reception than even his fondest hopes had ventured to anticipate. [Page 300]Weak as a woman, although great and illustrious as a sovereign, she now suffered the former character to predominate, and Essex, who with all his headstrong impetuosity was not deficient in the courtier's art, took good advantage of the mood in which he found her. Attributing his unsanctioned return to the impossibility of existing any longer out of the presence of a divinity, whose sight was as vital to him as was the breath of heaven to his nostrils, he addressed her in terms of passionate, and even romantic gallantry, talked of her excellent beauties, though she was now in her sixty-seventh year, compared her at once to Venus and Minerva, to a nymph goddess, and angel, quoted Latin and Greek in confirmation of his assertions, and played his part so successfully, that leaving her after a conference of some duration, he appeared in high spirits, and thanked God that though he had suffered many storms abroad, he had found a sweet calm at home.
Having taken some refreshment, and attired himself in his most splendid suit, as some atonement for the unseemly habiliments in which he had before presented himself, Essex, who had been invited to repeat his visit to the palace, was sallying forth for that purpose, when he was accosted by a personage, who respectfully vailing his beaver, and presenting a letter, would have explained its object had he not been anticipated by the Earl's exclaiming — "Ha, [Page 301]Will Shakspeare! what makest thou at Nonsuch, when thou shouldst be playing the ghost to the holiday folks in London, and easing them of their Michaelmas testers?"
The poet replied that he had come to Ewel with his friend Dick Burbage to solicit of the Queen a Licence for their theatre, and that his gracious patron, the Earl of Southampton, who was now unfortunately under her Majesty's heavy displeasure, had condescended to give him a letter to his special good friend the Lord Essex, bespeaking his influence and kind offices as soon as he should return from Ireland. Of this happy event the bard declared that he had entertained no immediate expectation; but having learnt, within the last half hour, that his lordship had actually arrived at Nonsuch, he had been emboldened to deliver the letter with which he had been thus honored. "Grammercy! master Shakspeare!" cried the Earl after hastily glancing over the paper, "I am myself but a newly pardoned criminal, and therefore little warranted to become a suitor; but I feel too happy in her grace's favor not to wish to extend it to others. There are few things in which I would not venture to pleasure the Lord Southampton: and it would like me no less to serve the merry varlet, or the soul-stirring bard, (which shall I call thee?) whose lofty lines ever seem to me to o'ertop all praise, 'till they are clean eclipsed by his quaint and comic fantasies. [Page 302]So forward! with me to the garden, and if I may speed your suit, it shall not lack a willing advocate."
The poet bowed his thanks, and followed at a short distance behind the Earl, who, however, turned round and conversed familiarly with him till they entered the gardens, which according to the prevailing taste were laid out in trim beds, formal parterres, fountains, and successive terraces, communicating withone another by flights of stone steps, and ornamented with vases, statues, and groupes of sculpture. At the extremity of one of these terraces stood a little pavilion called the Paradise, being decorated with representations of Adam and Eve, the Serpent and the Tree of Knowledge; and having an arbour for its entrance engrailed with clustering althaeas, jessamines, honeysuckles, roses, pomegranates, and other flowering shrubs, all of which were in full bloom and fragrance. Within this odorous and shady bower, the Queen, who had been observed to bestow an unusual attention that morning upon her toilet, was seated, holding a large feather fan, and surrounded by several maids of honor, all standing. Behind them, within the pavilion, were seen other female attendants employed in caul work: lutes and citharas, with cards and a richly enamell'd chess board were lying upon a marble table by their side. Upon approaching the august figure of royalty thus picturesquely enthroned, the Earl fell upon his knees, an act of homage which [Page 303]her Majesty always exacted, even from her ministers in their audiences of business; and Shakspeare, halting at some little distance, immediately imitated his example. Essex found a no less gracious reception than he had experienced in the morning, for the remembrance of his flattery had not yet passed away, and their conference had lasted for some time when the Queen, looking towards Shakspeare, enquired whether his squire, who seemed but young in years, had left his locks in the hands of the Irish rebels, that he wore so bald a brow. "I much fear me that I am presumptuous and overbold," said the Earl after having mentioned the name and object of his attendant. "I who am myself but a petitioner for mercy and forgiveness, in thus becoming a suitor for others; but since your majesty's condescension has so soon forgotten my offences, I may perhaps stand better excused now than at another time, for forgetting myself."
"So, this is the dramatic chronicler," said the queen, who had felt much interest in his historical plays; "let him approach; we would have speech of him; and you, my lord, may avail yourself of yonder seat, for after so long and so speedy a journey you may well need a little rest."
Bowing as he accepted the permission thus given to him, Essex beckoned to the poet, who approached, and concluding that he had been invited to imitate [Page 304]his patron, seated himself upon a low garden stool, beside the earl, and immediately opposite to the Queen. So unusually gracious was the present mood of Elizabeth, that she smiled at a mistake which at another moment might have excited her indignation, and waved her hand to her attendants as a signal that they might retire into the pavilion, a notice which they instantly obeyed. Essex, catching the expression of the Queen's face with the alacrity of a courtier, smiled also: while Shakspeare, perfectly unconscious that he had committed any violation of court etiquette, read his petition with a respectful propriety, that might well atone for his little oversight.
"Look you, Master Playwright," graciously exclaimed her majesty when he had concluded; "your writings like us well, but touching this licence for playing more frequently, here is our head Bearward who has been lately complaining to us most piteously that you have become his worst enemy, for that when the flag is flying at your theatre of the Globe, his garden is so deserted by the people, that his best bear will scarcely pay the baiting. How say you to this?"
"I dare not misprise his calling, since it has ever found a gracious patron in your majesty," replied the bard; "but under favour I would venture to affirm that he who withdraws his fellow subjects from such [Page 305]pastimes, and instructs them in their country's annals, and points out to their admiration the glory of their monarchs, (than whom none have been more illustrious than your majesty's immediate ancestors) can hardly fail to civilize and exalt the people, though he may find it impossible to add to the renown of the sovereign."
"It is well, and wisely, and loyally urged," said the Queen, evidently pleased with the speech; "and, by my troth! it may chance to speed the licence for which you are our petitioner. And what led you to our musty chronicles, Sir Poet, when your playwright's art might have found better range in the wider walks of fancy and invention?"
"My grand-father fought with good approof in the battle of Bosworth Field," said Shakespeare, not sorry to have an excuse for mentioning the circumstance, "and was fortunate enough to find favour with your grace's ancestor, the valiant King Henry the Seventh. From him and from my father I have inherited a love of loyalty and of my country's glory; and as I despaired of doing justice to such splendid deeds as the defeat of the Armada, and the other exploits that have glorified your grace's reign, I was driven to record the annals of your less illustrious predeccessors."
"Beshrew me," said the Queen, in an under voice to Essex, "if I have ever heard a varlet speak [Page 306]more honorably, or pithily to the purpose. And yet," she continued, again addressing herself to Shakespeare, "if we forget us not, thou hast somewhere ventured an allusion to our royal self. The passage stays not with us, but we have forgiven it, though it coupled our name if we mistake not, with some idle flower."
Elizabeth perfectly remembered the lines, though she would not appear to attach so much importance to them, as to have thought them worthy her recollection. Essex however, who saw the real motives of her reserve, and knew that she would be pleased with the quotation, exclaimed, "your Majesty may pardon both the poet and myself, when we do but recall a Midsummer Night's Dream;" and then looking passionately at the Queen he continued:
|"That very time I saw (but thou couldst not)|
|Flying between the cold moon and the earth,|
|Cupid all arm'd: a certain aim he took|
|At a fair vestal throned by the West,|
|And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow,|
|As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;|
|But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft|
|Quench'd in the chste beams of the watery moon;|
|And the imperial votaress passed on|
|In maiden meditation, fancy free.|
|Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell:|
|It fell upon a little western flower,|
|Before milk-white; now purpled with love's wound,|
|And maidens call it, "Love in Idleness."|
"It ran even thus, but I took you not, my lord, for so shrewd a remembrancer," said the queen.
"The lines might easily have passed from out my head," replied the Earl, "but they related to my admired sovereign, and therefore were they treasured in my heart of hearts." He laid his hand upon his breast as he spoke; Elizabeth looked pleased, though she noticed not the speech, but turning to Shakspeare, resumed, "we have already passed our pardon for this liberty of your pen, wherefore we rebuke it not; and touching the licence that you seek, it shall be even as you wish, and our secretary shall have order to prepare the patent."
"I shall be ever bound to pray for your gracious majesty," said the poet, bowing profoundly. "God's pity! sir; they tell me that you playwrights be but scant sayers of your prayers, and since they are henceforward to be put up for our own well and welfare, you shall neither lack the means to proffer them, nor a memorial of her for whom you pray." So saying, Elizabeth took a volume from a low table that stood beside her chair, and graciously extended it to Shakspeare with these words: "The Queen presents you her prayer-book: you may retire."1 Judging from the latter command [Page 308]that he was not expected to express his gratitude, the poet kissed the volume with great reverence, pressed it to his heart, and retired from the royal presence with repeated obeisances, not less delighted at the success of his suit, than flattered by so signal a testimony of her Majesty's favour and condescension.
After a prolonged conference, in which he had every reason to believe that he had completely re-instated himself in the Queen's favour, Essex also withdrew, descending the terraces, and crossing towards a postern gate of the park. In this route he most unfortunately encountered the fair Mrs. Bridges, one of the maids of honor, with whom he had long been suspected of being deeply in love, and who on his account had already been exposed to the wrath, and even the blows of her royal mistress. Imagining [Page 309]himself to be screened from observation, the enamoured Earl accosted her in such terms of fervent and high-flown gallantry as were then in vogue among the courtiers, and placing a small collar of chrystals around her neck, which he declared that he had brought from Ireland expressly for her wearing, he would have detained her still longer in dalliance, had not his Innamorata hurried away, urging the necessity of resuming her attendance upon the Queen. Although her Majesty had been so embowered in the arbour as not to be visible to Essex, she had unluckily been following him with her eyes, through a treacherous loop-hole of the leaves, and with a rage-envenomed heart had witnessed the whole transaction.
It was not without a considerable struggle that she could prevent an immediate explosion of her fury and assume a forced composure of look and voice as she exclaimed to the approaching offender, "So, mistress! you can find time to wait upon us when you have finished your amorous foolery with the Lord Deputy. If there be neither treason nor immodesty in the avowal, we would fain know what passages passed between you."[Page 310]
"Ay, with such haste," interposed the Queen, "that you have left your partlet all awry."
"Nothing would dissuade his lordship," resumed Mistress Bridges, blushing still deeper, as she adjusted her ruff, "but he must needs place this Irish carcanet around my neck."
At this confession Elizabeth could restrain herself no longer. Quick as lightning she bestowed upon her trembling rival a violent box on the ear, tore the collar from her neck, dashed it to the ground, and exclaimed with a look, and voice that sufficiently declared her to be the daughter of Henry the Eighth:
"God's death! thou hussy, thou wanton! thou gill-flirt! thou flaunting young cockatrice! is our court and presence to be contaminated and insulted by such doings as these? Begone! and let me never again see thy shameless face: what! did I send this traitorous and temerarious youth to Ireland to collect carcanets for his concubines, instead of putting chains around the rebel Tyrone. By the throne of heaven! he shall dearly rue it. I am no Queen to be thus saucily entreated."
The terrified maid of honor shrunk away to conceal her disgrace; Elizabeth arose and walked hastily towards the mansion, but having had a few minutes to collect herself, and feeling probably that she had betrayed rather more violence than became her sex and station, she turned towards her attendants, and [Page 311]in a tone of assumed moderation exclaimed, "For ourself, ladies, this matter touches us not; the disloyal minion and the frontless minx would have been forgotten in silent scorn, but that we will neither suffer our public service to be neglected, nor the decency of our court to be violated.
"For the latter, let the name of this flirting puppet be scratched from the list of our maids; and touching this misproved and disobedient Lord Deputy, who has dared to desert his post, and return from Ireland in open defiance of our orders, we will see that he be straightway humbled; where is our secretary? let him join us forthwith in the council room.
That same evening the Earl was committed a prisoner to his chamber, and after much delay and numerous vacillations, occasioned by the miserable perplexity of the Queen's mind, as she fluctuated between severity and returning tenderness, she at length publicly disgraced him, and deprived him of all his great offices and emoluments. Always haughty and ungovernable, and rendered alike desperate in fortune and in mind by these indignities, the ill-fated Earl was driven to those frantic and well known projects of rebellion which shortly afterwards conducted him to the scaffold.
1. [Note to "Essex and the Maid of Honour":] The book thus presented Shakespeare, we may suppose to be that beautiful and rare volume, described by Dr. Dibdin in his Bibliographical Decameron, and known among collectors as Queen Elizabeth's Prayer Book. Through the friendship of Mr. Freeling (from a copy in his possession) the Proprietors are enabled to present an admirable facsimile of one leaf. The extract, is part of a prayer by the celebrated John Fox, author of the Book of Martyrs. Dr. Dibdin says, "I wish I knew more of the private history of this elegant volume at all events if you feel disposed to loosen your purse strings, purchase one of the earlier editions of it, on account of the superior sharpness or truth of the outline." The Doctor adds that the first edition is dated 1569, the second 1578, the third 1581, the fourth 1590, and the fifth 1608. [Author, Horace Smith.] Back