Premier Magazine, June 1919, pp. 87-109
The Night of Doom
by Rafael Sabatini
That long-faced, ingenuous young gentleman, Sir Thomas Overbury, who for a time was all but King of England, was diligently writing verses. To be more exact, he was composing a love-letter in versea passionate, burning, swiftly throbbing plea for fond compassion calculated to melt the iciest heart in England, much less the heart of that wanton Essex woman to whom it was addressed, a heart languishing for the opportunity to melt.
As he wrote he smiled. It was not merely that he took a poet's complacent satisfaction in the ingenuity of his jingles, although that pleased him, too. His real satisfaction lay in the deeper ingenuity prompting this rhymed production, the subtle secondary purpose of his own which it was to serve, as distinct from the obvious primary purpose for which it was intended by the elegant minion on whose behalf and in whose name it was being written.
A very subtle gentleman was Sir Thomas Overbury, with a head astonishingly old and cunning for the nine-and-twenty years he counted to his age. A wit and a scholar, he was endowed with a grasp of affairs, a gift of statecraft, and a genius for intrigue that might have carried him far indeed but for the lovely viper which crossed his path, and upon which he chanced to treadthe woman to whom he was now inditing, in another's name, this passionate rhymed epistle.
As it was, those gifts of his made him, as I have saidin a phrase that perhaps needs explainingall but King of England. King James I.that wisest fool in Christendomwas under the spell of his handsome favourite Robert Carr; and Carr was naught without Overbury, who mended out of his own abundant store Carr's lack of learning, supplied the soul and brain without which the minion had been fashioned. Thus Overbury ruled Carr, who ruled the king, who ruled England.
The friendship between Carr and Overbury was now some ten years old, antedating by some six years Carr's admission into royal favour. They had first met in Edinburgh, in 1601, at a time when Carr, a lad of about Overbury's own age, had been a page in the service of the Earl of Dunbar. On Overbury's return to his native England, he was accompanied by the comely young Scot, who came to seek his fortune at the Court of the Scots king. That fortune Carr found, as is well known, unexpectedly perhaps, in the tilt-yard at Whitehall. He had entered the service of his countryman, Sir James Hay, the favourite, and with him rode to that tilting-match, and there by his flaxen-haired comeliness and straight-limbed grace at once inspired the admiration of King James. When, his horse stumbling under him, he took a fall, it was to tumble headlong into the very lap of fortune; and although he broke one of his straight, shapely legs he had no cause to blame Fortune on that account. It was her way of serving him. For his plight merged compassionthe pity that is akin to loveinto the admiration which his beauty was arousing in the maudlin spirit of King James. It was the king himself who disposed for his being tended, and the king, as much as anyone, who nursed him, keeping him company for long hours at his bedside what time his leg was mending, discovering in him an endearing ingenuousness and a gay, sunny temperament, and conceiving for him then that extraordinary affection which was ultimately to make him the lad's utter slave.
When Rabbieas by now the king was fondly calling himrose at last from his bed, his leg mended, and its vigour and symmetry nowise impaired by his mishap, it was to plant his foot firmly upon the first rungs of fortune's ladder. His ascent of it was swift and easy, and to this Overbury contributed.
At the very outset the rising favourite had held out a hand to his friend that he might mount with him. And in this way he may have served a twofold aimthe first to help Overbury, the second to help himself. He was conscious of his own shortcomings, doubted his strength to mount unaided and to maintain himself at the summit when it should be reached; knew that he lacked learning and those gifts of mind which bring immunity from giddiness in the high places of the world. In Overbury, that quick-witted man of parts, sometime scholar of Queen's College, Oxford, and bencher of the Middle Temple, he perceived the strength which he himself lacked. Whilst singly neither might go far, united the twain might conquer the world itself. Carr possessed the physical beauty which had claimed the attention and now held the affection of the king. Overbury could supply the mind and soul, without which that beauty must in time reveal itself for an empty husk. Indeed, of this emptiness the king seemed already apprehensive, for he was diligently seeking to mend the lad's lack of learning, just as he was lavishly mending his lack of wardrobe. If he commanded tailors to wait on him and deck his loveliness becomingly, himself he set about educating him and teaching him Latin, though some suggested that it would be as well to begin by having Carr taught English. But the king was slow to perceive the lad's shortcomings in this, since his own accent was as broad Scots as Carr's.
Upon the knighthood presently bestowed on Carr had followed presently, at the new favourite's request, a knighthood for Overbury. He was also made a gentleman of the King's Household, to the great disgust of the queen, who held these royal minions in profound disfavour. Detesting the new favourite, yet in view of the king's exceeding fondness for him not daring to express it, she was glad to find a vent for her feelings in open hostility to Overbury.
It was largely as a result of this that, in 1609, Overbury withdrew from Court, and went to spend a year or so in France and the Low Countries, critically observant, storing his mind with further learning of a practical kind, and more fully equipping himself for the part he was soon to play in the political life of England.
On his return he found Sir Robert Carr so increased in fortune and favour as to be in the way of becoming the fount of all patronage, his doors and ante-chambers thronged with suitors. And Carr welcomed his friend's return right joyfully. More than ever now did he require Overbury's mental strength by which to guide and steady himself if he were to go further. His ambitions had swollen with his fortunes. He aimed at absolute power, yet knew himself incapable of wielding it unaided.
So now he took Overbury for his counsellor and guide. The queen's disfavour was to-day a matter of no moment; the ægis of the favourite had grown to such proportions that he who sheltered under it need fear no one, however highly placed. And Overbury, working in obscurity at first, and keeping himself well in the background, acquitted himself in so masterly fashion of his mentor's task that presently the doting monarch slobbered with joy to observe the growing mental power of his favourite, the extraordinary grasp he was acquiring of affairs, and the hitherto unsuspected acuteness of his judgment.
Even Carr's correspondence acquired a scholarly grace and a rhetorical force which were a further joy to the heart of James, who accounted them the fruits of the pains he had taken with the unlettered Scot.
In a contest of wits on a matter of policy with that astute old statesman Cecil, Lord Salisburywho hated Carr for a minion, and despised him for an unlettered, ignorant upstartKing James was to see this man, grown old in statecraft, which he had first practised in so masterly a manner under Elizabeth, outmatched and defeated by his darling Rabbie.
James wept for joyhe was very prone to tears under stress of emotionand thereafter Carr's advancement was swift and certain. Within the year we find him created Viscount Rochester, investedtogether with Charles, Duke of Yorka Knight of the Garter, made Keeper of Westminster Palace for life, and granted the castle of Rochester in fee simple, whilst his wealth and power grew so amazingly that you behold him firmly established as the most puissant gentleman in Englandhe who some four years ago had been a simple, needy Scottish squire in the train of Sir John Hay.
Thus well had Overbury served him; and as well was Overbury serving him now in this matter of that lovely child, Lady Essex, to whom my Lord of Rochester had so lost his heart that he proposed to enter the lists against the Prince of Wales, her acknowledged lover.
That the grace of his figure should have wrought upon her my lord had cause to hope from the soft glances he had detected in her eyes when turned upon him. It remained to complete the conquest by revealing the graces of his mindin reality the graces of the mind of his alter ego, Sir Thomas Overbury.
To this end Sir Thomas laboured at his rhymes, and, labouring, smiled, as we have seen.
He smiled because he did not mean quite to be so used, not would ever have lent himself to such base uses, but that it suited his own ends. For Sir Thomas had ambitions which soared far beyond the confines of this ghosting for my Lord of Rochester. Gradually the ghost should put on flesh; gradually men should come to know the master-mind that instructed Rochester in policy and statecraft. That little old man Salisbury could not live for ever. Already he was showing signs of failing. Soon the office of Secretary of State would fall vacant, and Sir Thomas dreamt dreams concerned with the succession of that office.
Meanwhile, let Rochester amuse himself. His lordship required little encouragement. Of late, seeing how completely Overbury was master of affairs, and how confidently he might leave them to his care, Rochester's mind had turned more and more to pleasure.
It was a condition of things that Sir Thomas desired to encourage. Let my lord by all means spend his days and his nights in pursuit of the Essex butterfly. That was to Sir Thomas's advantage.
Then, too, was she not a daughter of the too-powerful family of Howard, which Sir Thomas so cordially detested? Scandal in connection with her would hardly please that stiff-necked family, and scandal there was very likely to beindeed, there was already in abundance. Thus by his versifying on that summer afternoon he subtly advanced his interests.
He had accomplished his task, and was sitting back in his chair, the feathered end of his quill between his teeth, his thoughts a thousand miles away upon the steep road of ambition, when my Lord Rochester came to dispel his reverie.
If, at the instance of a king who loved pretty fellows well-arrayed, his lordship had changed his tailors often of late, at least he had changed them to some purpose. His doublet, peaked sharply at the waist, was of cloth of gold, its slashed sleeves laced over an undergarment of white silk; of cloth of gold, too, were his ballooning trunks, which descended almost to his knees. Below these the shapeliest, straightest legs in England were encased in creaseless silk stockings the colour of ripe apricots. His cloak was of white beaver, edged with gold lace, and even his snowy ruff was delicately laced in gold thread along its cobweb edges.
For the rest his beautiful face, with its blue eyes and red-gold beard, and his tall, straight, graceful figure were worthy of such dazzling raiment. And there was about him, too, an engaging air of sunny gaiety and of irresistible light-heartedness which enhanced his gifts of face and form.
To see this creature of sunshine was to love him, unless, like my lords of Salisbury or Pembroke, you found his influence with the king a stumbling-block to your own ambitions, or, like Prince Henry, you were too austere and too perceptive of the mental and spiritual shortcomings under all this outward bravery.
He came forward briskly, and threw an arm about the shoulder of his friend and secretary.
"Well, Tom! Well? And is it done? Is it done?"
Impatient eagerness stressed the broad Scottish accent, which was accounted by many an uncouthness in so lovely a courtier.
"It is that," said Overbury, catching, as by infection, something of the bur, a smile half amiable, half mocking on his long, pale face. "Look, and content you, for I have laboured on it these two hours or more. Not Ben Johnson himself could have served you better."
My lord leaned forward, and read the first line aloud:
"O lady, all of fire and snow compounded"
There he broke off from sheer enthusiasm.
"Man! That's a grand conceit! 'O lady all of fire and snow compounded!' A grand invocation, Tom! And it expresses her finely. A soul of fire and a chaste purity, cold and spotless as the driven snow."
"Ahem!" coughed Sir Thomas. "The image was intended to be purely physical," said he drily, and explained: "The fire is in her red-gold hair, her glowing eyes, her scarlet lips, perhapswhich no doubt could be fiery enough upon occasion; the snow is all the rest of her that is so wondrous white."
"Ay, ay, very true. But why not spiritual, too? Why not?"
"Because I would not have her imagine that you wrote either as a fool or as a mocker. A woman has no love for either."
"A fool or a mocker?" My lord was frowning. He took his arm from the other's neck, and stood stiffly upright, half-facing him now. "Why must I be either?"
Overbury smiled a little wanly, and shrugged his shoulders.
"It is whispered, I believe, that the Prince of Wales singed some of his puritanical austerity at her shrine. Indeed, he is in danger of being quite burnt up, unless you make haste to rescue him by substituting yourself as the holocaust. Though I doubt he'll not prove grateful."
"Ha!" It was a short laugh from Rochester, the stream of his thoughts swung by the last words into a fresh channel. "Already Prince Henry does not love us, Tom. He'll love us less hereafter."
"With the exception of the king, who loves you and detests mewho am, of course, detestableI don't think that between us we count a single friend in the royal family. It would not trouble me but for the thought that this young Puritan will be king some day, and then we may have to shift our lodgings from Whitehall. But that's in the futureand the future is less real than the past, which is itself unreal when compared with the present. The present is yours. Enjoy it, Robin. And here's the means."
He thrust the momentarily neglected verses under my lord's attention.
My lord read, and as he read his eyes kindled, his cheeks flushed delicately with delight.
"Man, ye've a gift!" he cried at last.
"Several gifts, Robin, several, as is known to all the world, and to none better than myself. Will they serve?"
"Serve! Good lack! It is the very key of heaven. There's magic in them."
"Of course. I wrote them."
"And the fee? Name it yourself. Ask what you will."
"Nay, I might ask too much, which would lower your admiration of the work, or too little, which would cheapen it. It shall be a gift to you, Robin. 'Sh! Not another word. And now to get this chaplet of sweet conceits into my lady's lap. There is the masque at Somerset House to-night. There will be dancing. That should be your occasion."
"None better, Tom. I had thought of it myself."
"You flatter my poor wit."
"Derider! Come, now, make a copy in your fairest hand."
"And so prove you an impostor. Oh, Robin, Robin, what would you be without me? Man, don't you see that your own pothooks must serve for this, to match the signature you'll append to it?"
"Then give me pen and ink, and lend me what aid you can."
My lord drew up a chair and sat down. Overbury, the scoffer, proffered a pen.
"Here it isfrom the pinions neither of Pegasus not turtle-dove, either of which would have been apposite enough, but of a goose, which is more apposite still. To it, Robin."
And my lord grew busy upon that key of heaven, as he called it.
It was to prove, ere all was done, the very key of hell for himthe very passport to ruin and dishonour. But that was not yet. At first it won him admittance to that garden of delight which he deemed paradise. For it did its work swiftly upon the lady to whom it was addressed, and in whose little hand his lordship left it that same night. It evoked from her a swift responsedue less, perhaps, to the shrewd magic of its appeal than to the passionate longing with which the lady had desired some such token from my lord.
A week or so thereafter the saturnine Sir Thomas Overbury was himself to witness a pregnant sign of the mischief he had so sweetly wrought. That old fox, Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, and Lord Privy Seal, brother to that Duke of Norfolk who had lost his head out of love for the Queen of ScotsKing James's mothergave an entertainment at Northumberland House, which was graced by the presence of the king, Prince Henry, and Prince Charles, the Duke of York.
Sir Thomas found himself at one moment in conversation with the earl. There was inevitably between the Lord Privy Seal and the secretary of a man so powerful in the State as my Lord of Rochester a certain political intimacy, grown from the almost daily intercourse that passed between them relating to affairs. Outwardly their relations were perforce friendly; yet neither had any illusions about the other, whence it naturally followed that in reality there was no love between themfor, as Overbury would have said, there can be no love where there is no illusion.
Sir Thomas knew my Lord of Northampton for a recusant, a secret Papist, and suspected him of aiming at the re-establishment of the Catholic faith in England. This, indeed, was the main reason why Northampton urged upon the king the marriage of Prince Henry and the Infanta of Spain, a matter which was splitting the Court into two great parties; the Spanish party, of which my Lord of Northampton, closely supported by all the powerful tribe of Howards, was the acknowledged head, and the anti-Spanish party, led by Prince Henry and the austere Earl of Pembroke, the queen's friend and the Howards' enemy. So far Sir Thomas had contrived to keep Rochester aloof from either party. The time, in his opinion, was not yet ripe to make a choice of sides, although he saw that it could not now be very long delayed. The Howardsand Northampton in particularwere assiduously wooing the king's favourite, with the aim of obtaining his weighty influence on their side. If they won him, they might account that they had won the king himself, since the king's will was now in Rochester's keeping, even as Rochester's was in Overbury's. And knowing this, Northampton wooed Overbury, whilst mistrusting him and disliking him for his shrewdness. It was a shrewdness whichas Northampton uncomfortably suspectedsaw to the very roots of the earl's schemes, whilst at the same time veiling his ownwhich is to say, Rochester'sintentions.
Already Overbury perceived that ultimate alliance with the Howards was becoming inevitable, that it was being rendered so by the arrogant stupidity of the other party. Stiff-necked Pembroke and the austere Prince of Waleswhose austerity was, however, somewhat damaged since he had been caught in the toils of Lady Essexwould not stoop to woo the all-powerful favourite to their side, preferring the luxury of indulging their hatred and contempt.
Overbury, cursing their inflexible stupidity, gave them back hate for hateparticularly Pembroke, whose arrogance provoked Sir Thomas's own arrogance, which was inferior to no man's. He had thought to delay the inevitable decision, frustrate it altogether perhaps, by helping to precipitate a scandal involving Rochester and Lady Essex. That might provoke the Howards, whose daughter she was, and convert them from wooers of the favourite into his enemies. But shrewd and cynical as he was, Sir Thomas had reckonedas he was to learn to-nightwithout certain factors of human baseness.
Standing there, on the edge of that glittering Court throng, in conversation with my Lord of Northampton, Overbury's eyes were suddenly caught by the handsome figure of Rochester sweeping past with Lady Essex on his arm. She was, says one of her contemporaries, "a lady of transcendent beauty and full of fire," whilst another describes her as "of a sweet and bewitching countenance." It was barest justice that they did her. Slight and small and exquisitely graceful was she. Above the broad, starched ruff Sir Thomas beheld a delicately featured, almost childish face, with great blue eyes and a mass of red-gold hair, in which a jewel glowed as if gathering light and fire from its setting. Below the ruff the bodice of her gown was cut very low and square, revealing a breast which, as in his rhymed epistle he had so justly said, would for whiteness shame the very snows.
But what caught his glance, and the glance of the swart-faced little earl beside him, was the unwonted flush upon her cheeks, the light that sparkled in her eyes as they glanced upwards with betraying shyness at her tall companion.
The radiant pair flashed past and were gone, eclipsed to the eyes of those two by the little throng that followed. But, in passing, the lady had dropped a glove, and a courtier stooped now to pick it up. Rising with that slender, perfumed simulacrum of a lovely hand, this courtier came face to face with a slim, shapely, sensitive-faced lad upon whose breast hung a George suspended from a broad riband.
The courtier was either a fool or malicious. He bowed low, and proffered the glove to the young man.
"May it please your highness," he lisped, "the glove of my Lady Essex."
The prince, who had been pale already, turned now a deathly white; the frown that had marred his brow grew deeper, and his eyes blazed on a sudden, whilst he stiffened and recoiled as if shrinking from the touch of something unclean and vile. Deeply resentful, deeply affronted as he was, not merely to see himself outbidden in the affections of this lady to whom he now accounted that he had stooped, to whose witchery he had fallen a prey, so that his will was weakened, and he was false to all his high ideals, and outbidden by one whom he had despised and accounted utterly detestable, he seized this chance to give expression to a contempt that was in itself but the expression of mortification.
"And what have I to do with it?" he asked in a tone that withered the smirking courtier before him. Then his lips curled terribly, and in a voice that carried far and rang in a score of eager ears: "It has been stretched by another," he added, and swept on.
In the momentary hush that followed this deliberate and deadly insult, Sir Thomas looked aslant at my Lord Northampton. He was baffled by the expression on the earl's aquiline face, so different was it from all that he could have expected. His lordship's long, slender fingers were combing his beard, his eyes were narrowed, and he almost seemed to smile.
Was it that, looking beneath the insult, he saw the lacerated feelings that had provoked it, and maliciously rejoiced in that hurt to a young man he did not love? Or could it be that Northampton would take satisfaction in the prostitution of his niece for the sake of the greater hold which through her he might obtain upon the all-powerful favourite?
Sir Thomas, who could be bold to insolence on occasion, would have sought of Northampton then and there a solution of this riddle had Northampton tarried to afford him the opportunity. But whilst he was considering words with which to approach the subject, the earl slipped from his side and was lost in the crowd. Sir Thomas did not attempt to follow. He turned about, and moved in the opposite direction, proceeded slowly, and using his ears the while to catch stray comments upon the behaviour of the prince. Suddenly he came face to face with the austere and stately Pembroke. The great nobleman nodded coldly.
"Your master, sir, grows daily of an increasing boldness," said he sourly.
"Nay, my lordnot grows. He was born so."
"Ha! I have known men better born who walked more circumspectly."
"Why, so have I," says Overbury, staring straight at the earl. "They are common hereabouts. That is why my Lord of Rochester achieves distinction."
"I wish him joy of such distinction as he has achieved to-night."
"He will be flattered by your lordship's interest when I convey it to him."
"Does my Lord Northampton walk these ways with you?" he asked, with supercilious scorn.
"Ah! Now you probe too deep in emptiness, my lord. For what should I know of my Lord Northampton's designs? I who occupy so small a place, a very rutæ folium, as Martial picturesquely puts it."
The Welsh earl smiled disdainfully.
"In that respect, sir, perhaps I can mend your lack of knowledge." The venom bubbled out of him. "My Lord of Northampton may at times have lapsed from wisdom, but never yet to the extent of leaning on a rotten staff."
"'Tis picturesque," said glib Sir Thomas, "almost as picturesque as Martial. But it lacks his accuracy." He was looking over Pembroke's shoulder, and beyond him, and his smilethe smile that the Welshman found so maddeningbroadened. "For the staffto keep to your lordship's well-chosen imageis far from rotten, and as for leaning on it, whywhere the king's majesty leans so heavily, there may my Lord of Northampton also lean with confidence. Look for yourself. Look behind you, my lord."
Down the middle of the room, through the parting crowd of courtiers, came the king, his right arm about the shoulders of my Lord Rochesteras much to express his fondness as to support himself and relieve his weakly legs of the weight of his ungainly, rather obese body. The jewelled fingers of his none too clean left hand were twirling some strands of the thin, fading beard that adorned his chin. His pale, rather watery eyes looked up with almost fawning devotion into his minion's face. He pinched the young man's cheek, smiled and smirked, mumbled and slobbered in his full-mouthed way.
My Lord Pembroke looked on, and his long face lengthened with loathing and chagrin. He realised the meaning of this ostentatious display of royal fondness. It was an amend offered by the king to his favourite for the affront which the prince had indirectly put upon him. There was by this time so little love between the king and his eldest son that to belong to the party of the one was almost to be opposed to the party of the other, and James may have intended now to warn such men as Pembroke to beware how far they presumed to take their tone from that which the prince's rank gave him immunity to adopt.
Looking beyond, Pembroke had a glimpse of the full face of the queen, and the fine, sensitive countenance of the prince, and on both he saw reflected something of his own disgust and anger.
A laugh, soft but infinitely mocking, rippled behind him. He set his teeth in rage, and span round to face that saturnine derider. But he was no more than in time to see Overbury retreating through the courtly press.
Though the last laugh in that encounter may have been with Overbury that night, yet he took little satisfaction from it, troubled as his mind was with that riddle concerning my Lord Northampton, and troubled the more because he had seen that the matter was exercising Pembroke, too.
Doubt, however, was not to plague him very long. Two days thereafter Rochester came once more to claim the services of his scholarly pen. He brought a letter from Lady Essex, which he frankly, almost ostentatiously, laid before his secretary. In this, brief as it was, her ladyship extolled the grace and beauty of his lordship's composition. Thereafter:
"My uncle," she wrote, "bids me chide you for that you do not come oftener to a house in which all are devoted to you. He desires that you honour him at dinner to-morrow. There will be none other, unless you so desire it, and then you shall find for company whomsoever you be pleased to name. So I pray you send me word, my lord, that I may comfort my uncle."
"You see, TomI am to find for company whomsoever I be pleased to name. What make you of that?"
"That the lady asks you to woo her," said Sir Thomas bluntly.
"You are brutal, Tom."
"Merely in words. In thought no more brutal than her ladyship. Her expression is less blunt than mine, but what she means is: Bid me to be of the company, and you may have your desire, being assured that unless you also name another there will be none other there. Faith, never was invitation plainer. It is yours to say yea or nay."
"Ay, ay," says his lordship, between satisfaction at the matter of his letter and vexation at the manner of his secretary. "Ay, ay. It will be as ye say, no doubt. And now to answer it."
"To be sure you must."
"Nay, nay, but it asks subtlety. 'Tis a task for you, Tom. The answer must be full worthy o' what has gone before. You see what she says: 'The silver-dropping stream of your lordship's pen' You must continue what you have begun, Tom. Bear with me."
Sir Thomas fetched a sigh from lips that smiled sardonically, and sat down to indite an answer. And thus my lord, being further committed to this imposture of employing the choice elegancies of his secretary's pen, was thereafter forced to continue in it. Sir Thomas, being endowed with a very fertile literary gift, and a full sense of subtleties of thought and melody of words, found in the task some measure of that self-expression which is the craving of every man of letters. Where Rochester would merely have made love, Overbury made literature as well. He wrote, in fact, precisely as he would have written had he been himself the suitor, which at times he almost imagined that he was. Into the growing amorousness of these letters he wove exquisite patterns of tender philosophy and graceful poesy, revealing coruscating beauties of mind that could not fail to dazzle and enchant.
Rochester, in high delight, proclaimed him a wizard, and with good reason, for he observed the daily growing effect of that wizardry upon my lady. In their frequent meetings now at Northumberland House her theme would often be the subject of those prized letters that he wrote, a theme in which it was not easy for him to do justice to the pen that passed with her for being his own. At first it had been the splendid beauty of the man that had attracted her, appealing irresistibly to her senses, and so provoked from her those languishing, inviting glances which had set afoot this mischief. But to that erstwhile physical admiration came to be added this intellectual, spiritual delight in him, so that what in its beginnings was no more than wanton fancy was grown by now into a very ardent worship on my lady's part, believing as she did that such beauties of body and mind had never yet been combined in any single man.
And worshipping him so, it is not strange at all that she should become impatient of the brevity and restraint of such meetings as took place between them at Northumberland House. For, be her scheming uncle never so accommodatingly disposed, there were limits sharply defined by rank and custom upon the extent to which he could countenance and abet the growing intimacy between his niece, who had a husband of her own, and my Lord of Rochester.
One day at last she gave free and frank expression to her impatience.
"My love," she murmuredfor it had come to that by now between them"are we to suffer for ever this parching thirst for each other's company? Are we never to do more than quicken it by these furtive, fleeting glimpses and stolen words?"
Tenderly, wistfully he looked down into the upturned face of that lovely child-woman.
"Sweet," he said, "how choicely you express it! Tantalus, in his damnation, suffered no such torture as I am suffering. But there are ever a hundred curious, peering eyes upon us. We are watched and spied upon on every hand, and could I suffer it that you should afford these crows of the Court reason to pluck and tear at your fair name, to befoul it with their scandal? I am bound like Prometheus to his rock, and my heart is being devoured by longing. Could I devise a way"
"Do you desire it?" she flashed in quickly.
And he saw at once that she had considered and resolved the difficulty that would not yield to his own wits.
"Desire it? Do I desire Heaven?"
"Then listen, Robin. I know a placea sweet garden by the river, within an hour's ride of Whitehallwhere we can freely meet, and spend whole hours together in secret from the world. Will you come to-morrow, as soon after noon as you can contrive? I shall be waiting for you."
"Tell me but where," he answered, out of breath.
"At Hammersmith, at the house of a safe friend of mine, who will not talk. Her name is Turner."
"At noon to-morrow I shall be there," was all that he had time to answer before Northampton joined them.
That evening Sir Thomas heard of it from his friend.
"So, so," said he, "the pace quickens. But keep your head, Robin. It becomes doubly necessary when a man has lost his heart."
For only answer Rochester laughed on a note of high exultation.
"And now that other matter. There is this trouble with the Commons on the score of supplies, set on by this pestilent Sir Roger Owen. Hard-pressed for money as he is, the king is fretted and vexed by this opposition. What view d'ye take of it, Tom? Have you considered?"
Overbury's fine, long face grew overcast with thought. He lay back in his deep chair and brought his slender finger-tips together.
"I have considered," he answered slowly, musingly. "But the matter is all knots and tangles. If the king resists, and arbitrarily exercises his prerogative to dissolve Parliament, he will have trouble. If he yields, he will have set up a precedent destructive of future power, displayed a weakness that will hereafter be most certainly abused. It comes to a choice of evils. And when that is forced upon us, sighs and vexations avail us nothing. It only remains to decide which is the less."
"The former, surely."
"So I should say. But it is the king who must decideso that he may blame no one else for the consequences, if they are evil. Which is not to say that he should not be guided in his decisionprovided always he believes in the end the decision to be his own."
"Then what do you counsel?"
"In your place, I should confine myself straitly to presenting the position much as I have just presented it."
My lord advanced his tablets.
"Ay, ay. Set it down for me."
Overbury wrote swiftly as he was desired.
"And now this question of the Spanish marriage. Have you thought of that?"
"I have. Butlet me sleep on it before I finally pronounce."
"These French proposals make some decision urgent."
"We can always temporise at need. We may have to do so even when we have decided. Temporisation is the first principle of statecraft. But I hope to have resolved it by to-morrow."
"I'll trust to that, Tom," said his lordship; and went off to see the king.
Alone, Overbury settled more deeply into his chair, a frown of thought between eyes that looked out through the latticed window at the blue summer sky and the gently stirring tops of the trees in the Privy Gardens.
Northampton's attitudefor that matter the attitude of all the Howardsregarding my Lady Essex and my Lord Rochester was a riddle no longer. To obtain a dominant hold upon the favourite, who was all-powerful with the king, they would make use of Frances Howard, Lady Essex, and they welcomed the opportunity offered them by the passion that had sprung up between the twain.
Overbury held them all in supreme contempt; Northampton; Privy Seal, the secret bigot in the pay of Spain; Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, her ladyship's father, who unscrupulously and simoniacally used to his own profit his position as Lord Chamberlain, urged on in this by his coarse, unmoral, shamelessly acquisitive wife. Their corruption, for which he had always despised them, now filled him with disgust.
A man does not write, even as a proxy, such love-letters to a woman as Overbury had been writing to Lady Essex without finding himself caught, however slightly, in the spell of sentiment he weaves. A gentle compassion for her whose honour was being made so unscrupulously to serve as a pawn in this game of statecraft and ambition welled up from his soul to increase his loathing of those corrupt ones who so used her almost against the very dictates of nature. He was moved, out of that loathing, to thwart their ambitions, dash their schemes to pieces. He had the power. Rochester would not move in this path, which was so full of pitfalls, without Overbury's counsel and pledged support.
The resolve grew swiftly. But it grew as a bubble that is blown, and, like a bubble, burst as suddenly. It burst the moment Sir Thomas realised that he was inflating it with sentiment.
In such matters sentiment could have no part. Interest must be his only guidethough it was interest of a vastly different sort from the interest of those others which had moved his scorn, for, in the matter of simony, and of profiting by patronage, Rochester's hands were clean, nor would Overbury have them otherwise.
Cynically he set himself to consider where they stood. The State was divided into two main parties, and so far, by following that first principle of temporising which he vaunted, he had kept Rochester free from espousing either. Towards the party of the queen it was impossible to lean. The hostility of her Majesty and of Prince Henry to the favourite would always have made that difficult.
Since the outrivalling of Prince Henry in the affections of Lady Essex it was become impossible. The party of the Howards was, as a party, no less powerful. But it was too corrupt and unscrupulous to be quite safe. Northampton in particular was too sly and slippery, and also far too dominant. If Overbury were to open the door to Northampton, he might presently find himself thrust out, and Rochester a mere tool in the earl's hands.
So the temporising must continue. But he would yield to the extent of an alliance with the Howardsan alliance, however, in which Rochester must remain an independent power. He would open a wicket to the Howards, but he would keep the door itself tight locked against them still. And to keep them in play the matter of the Spanish marriage might be considered, but considered only. There must be no deciding just yet awhile.
The result of all this was that presently we have the comic spectacle of Rochester discussing with the king the matter of the marriage of Prince Henry, who detested him, and even writingthrough the pen of Overburyletters to the prince on the same subject, letters which, out of respect for the king his father, the prince was forced to treat at least with outward deference, whilst inwardly writhing and raging to have the bestowal of his hand in marriage so calmly treated by this detested upstart who had robbed him of his mistress.
I doubt if any of those concerned, with the sole exception of Overbury, apprehended and appreciated the bitter comedy as it deserved. It is certain that Rochester did not, for Rochester was sinking deeper and deeper into his amorous morass, caring less and less for affairs, leaving the conduct of them more and more to Overbury, and depending daily more absolutely upon his secretary's brain, his own being all bemused and drugged with love.
And then, quite suddenly, out of that fair summer sky dropped a thunderbolt upon that bower of love, that fair garden by the river in the pleasant village of Hammersmith.
Mention has been made of my lady's husband. He was Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, son of that brilliant courtier whom Elizabeth had loved, ennobled, enriched, and then beheaded. The great estate which Elizabeth's bounty had bestowed upon her favourite had been confiscated with his head. But they had been restored to his son, the present earl, by King James.
The wealth of this lad had been the lure to the insatiable greedy Suffolk pair, and had led them to arrange a marriage between their daughter, the Lady Frances Howard, and young Devereux. The boy, though not more than fourteen at the time, but of a grave, thoughtful mind considerably in advance of his years, was not only made sensible of the advantages to himself that must accrue from his marriage with the daughter of the most powerful house in England, but was also stricken by the ravishing white beauty of the child of thirteen who was offered to him for a bride.
As for poor Frances, her will was never consulted. The chronicler Wilson is less than just to her when he terms her "too young to consider, but old enough to consent." The trinkets and gewgaws, the apparel, the pageantry of a Court wedding, and the chief rôle assigned to her, giving her the centre of the stage, were the sum of that to which her child's mind consented. Of the responsibilities and duties that marriage imposes she had no real apprehension, for the staid, grave-faced young bridegroom scarce a thought; he was no more than one of the stage properties necessary, it seemed, to her in this pretty play.
Thus lightly had that grave step been taken some eight years ago.
The children parted at the altar, Frances to go back to the care of her parents, Robert Devereux to make the grand tour, to complete abroad his education, and there learn the trade of soldiering.
For two years Frances remained quietly in the country. Then, matured in beauty, and with an air of confidence derived from the consciousness that as a countess by marriage she was a great lady, she came to take her place at Court, and receive the homage commanded as much by her personal charm as by the circumstance that she was the daughter of that fount of patronage, the Earl of Suffolk.
Thus Wilson sums it up: "The Court was her nest, her father being Lord Chamberlain; and she was hatched up by her mother, whom the sour breath of that age had already tainted, from whom the young lady might take such tincture that ease and greatness and Court glories would more distain and impress on her than any may wear out and diminish. And growing to be a beauty of the greatest magnitude in that horizon was an object fit for admirers, and every tongue grew an orator at that shrine."
In that luxurious, evil atmosphere, with no other guardians than a corrupt father and a spendthrift, wanton mother, she quickly became prodigal of expense, covetous of homage, and, in her excessive femininity, light of behaviour, utterly indifferent to the honour in her custody of that husband whom she scarcely knew. Such faint impression as he had made upon her young mind at the two or three fleeting meetings, that had been a prelude to the more fateful meeting at the altar, the years had by now effaced, and other sharper, deeper impressions entirely overlaid. He was not a reality to her. She was no more than vaguely conscious that he existed somewhere, and utterly incapable of conceiving a life in which this stranger should have any part.
Thus, like a butterfly in the sun, taking no thought for the morrow, had she lived in youth's sweet irresponsibility. And now of a sudden, out of nowhere as it seemed, this crushing blow had fallen. He was coming home to claim her.
In that Hammersmith garden by the river her eager lover came upon his lady pale and tearful. Distraught, grief-stricken eyes, that hitherto he had never known other than laughingly alluring, gave him to-day a piteous, unsmiling greeting.
He sprang to her with all a lover's quick solicitude.
"Why, Frances child, what has happened to you?"
For answer she proffered him a written sheet, on which he read:
"Sweet Wife,I come at last to ease a heart that has been sick with absence through all these years of our separation. It is a heart that has been ever true to the gracious loveliness it did discern in thee, and beats at last the quicker as the hour of its reward draws near. Within some few days I sail from France, impatient to set foot on English soil, the dearer to me because trodden by thy lovely feet. I shall come to thee as fast as horse can bear me, so that soon after this my herald shall have reached you you will behold me craving the welcome of your arms. In all these years one image only"
His lordship read no further. He had no patience with maudlin outpourings of unbidden love from this ridiculous boy-husband grown now to manhood, and no desire to nauseate himself by reading further. The news was all that mattered, and this he now possessed.
He looked at her with eyes well-nigh as grave as her own. His face had lost some of its colour, his air a deal of its usual magnificent assurance.
"Oh, 'sdeath!" he broke out. "What needs the fool come home to trouble us? He was well enough abroad. What brings him?"
Her lips twisted into a crooked little smile.
"He tells us plainly enough," she answered, and then a sudden gust of passion shook her. "To write to me so! To dare!" she panted.
"Indeed, it is very sickly stuff," said his lordship, with unconscious humour.
"And from a man I do not know, with whom I have hardly spokean utter stranger to me, and one of whom I desire to have no more knowledge than I have at present. Itit is not decent. II felt shamed as I read. What care I that my image may have been ever in his thoughts? I dare swear it has been ever in the thoughts of many another man. But would any of them dare to claim me for his own? And what is this fellow to me more than any other stranger?"
White-faced, she stared out across the gleaming river. She sat in a cool, green arbour above the brown river-wall of that terrace-garden. My lord stood beside her, his face overcast, his arms limp at his sides.
One of those arms he flung now about her bare, white shoulder, and he set his face against her own, so that his cheek was wetted by her tears. He was shocked and grieved for her beyond all expression; but like the egotist he was, he was even more shocked and grieved for himself, on account of difficulties that he now foresaw. He was sufficiently detached even in his grief to observe in passing that tears are so unbecoming as to mar even the most flawless beauty.
"My poor child, my poor child!" he murmured soothingly. "Comfort ye, and let us consider now."
"Consider? What is to consider? What is to consider when death approaches? And this is death."
"Don't, don't!" he begged her. "You must have known that one day this would happen."
"I did not!" she answered passionately.
"You thought him dead?"
"I never knew he lived. What was he to me?"
"Your husband, plague on it!" was the rueful answer.
"Ah, no; not that. That he shall never be."
"Unfortunately he is so already."
"Ah, surely, surely not. It is not the altar and the toothless mumbling of a bishop that makes a marriage. There must be on both sides the will and consent to mate. And what will was there on minewhat consent was ever asked of me? I was bestowed on him, as you may bestow a blind puppy out of a litter. I was too young to know what it meant. I was a child, taking a child's pleasure in a rare show, that is all, as Heaven hears me. And that he should come now to take me for his own, to bend me to his will, to make his wife and creature of me, who want nothing of him, to hold me in his loathsome arms, to kiss" She broke off, shuddering, and covered her face with her hands. "Oh, Heaven!" she moaned. "The horror of it!"
And so fell to sobbing.
My lord stood dazed and confounded. What was he to do, what say to comfort her, to fight off the horror of this reality? That she should have lived her irresponsible life without taking thought for this thing scarcely amazed him, who knew her light, joyous nature. He said nothing, which perhaps was best; and presently she spoke again. She drew her hands from her face, which violence of emotion had rendered almost haggard, and reaching out she seized his left hand, and drew him down beside her.
"If I did not love you, Robin," she faltered, "it might be easier. But loving you, how could I be unfaithful? That is what I should be if I suffered my Lord of Essex to claim me, and I should go in horror of myself."
It was a point of view that bewildered and troubled him. He had no words, therefore he could but draw her closer, most eloquent expression of his deep distress and emotion.
"Love me always, Robin! Love me always!" she implored him piteously.
"Can I help myself, child?" he asked her wanly. "But thisthis thing? What is to be done?"
"What counsel do you give me? I will do whatever you tell mealways, Robin, always."
He stared before him blankly, with clouded eyes and crumpled brow.
"What counsel can I give, dear Heaven? I must think! I must think!"
That was the truth of it. He must thinkwhich was another way of saying that he must take counsel with that brain of hisSir Thomas Overbury. Until he had talked this out with his secretary he could hope to find no gleam of guiding light.
To Overbury he came towards evening, all shaken still by the passionate, clinging leave-taking which had ended that day's unhappy meeting in Mrs. Turner's garden. Sir Thomas was not in the study, but from another adjacent room of Rochester's apartments that opened on to the Privy Gallery came a click-click of steel on steel, and the soft, padding thuds of quickly moving, stockinged feet.
Guided by the sound, my lord thrust open the door and entered. In the middle of that considerable chamber, which was almost empty of furniture, Overbury, in shirt and trunks, long, lithely vigorous, and graceful, was at sword-play with his man Davies. Such was his daily practice. He was not only skilled with the rapier, but intended so to keep himself, and he knew that constant exercise is the only way to accomplish it. Walking precariously amid enemies as he did, he never knew the moment when one of them, not daring otherwise to hurt him out of regard for the protection he enjoyed, might force a private quarrel upon him in spite of edicts against duelling. Therefore, he practised daily for an hour with the foils, and took care to let all the world know that he did so. It kept folk civil, he found.
He checked, fully extended in the lunge, and turned his head to see who entered without so much as by-your-leave. Beholding Rochester, he came upright.
"You are early returned," he said. Then, observing his lordship's troubled countenance, he caught his breath. "Is anything amiss?"
Rochester came forward.
"Leave us, Davies," he bade the servant.
With swift, silent obedience the man set down his foil, stepped into his shoes, drew on his doublet, and shuffled out.
My lord flung himself down on the embayed window seat, his back to the latticed panes. He sat hunched there, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his clenched hands. Before him stood Overbury, long, lean, and active, arms hanging full-length beside him, one hand clutching the hilt of the foil, the other the blade towards the point, and between them bending it like a whip.
"Tom, it's the very devil of a business!" groaned his lordship, when the door had closed. "Robert Devereux is coming home."
"I thought that would be it." Overbury had not so much as flickered an eyelid. "I knew of his coming."
"You knew? How?"
"Faith, isn't it my business to know everything that happens in the world? How should I serve you unless I were a sponge to absorb knowledge? There's a dispatch come from Parisfrom Digby. His Majesty sent it to me that you might see it, and consider some of the matters in it. I have prepared some notes. You'll find them, together with the dispatch, in your study when ye've time. Among sundry news items the dispatch contains is mention of the fact that my Lord of Essex is leaving for home."
"Home!" said Rochester, and his lips writhed.
"Yes," insisted Overbury. "I have been expecting it."
"Why? What knowledge had you?"
"Worldly knowledge, that is all. Knowledge that husbands have an inconsiderate trick of turning up when not required. Demned intruders, husbandsespecially this one."
"Man, don't laugh!" growled my lord, his northern burr accentuated.
"Tears won't help you. Besides, I doubt you'll have had a surfeit of them already. What are you going to do?"
"That is what I have come to ask you. I want advice."
"You mostly do. But, as my only advice in this case is nauseously distasteful, you'll refuse to follow it. Write finis to the chapter of my Lady Essex."
"I can't! I won't! No, by heaven, not for a dozen husbands."
"Very well, then," said Overbury the imperturbable. "In that case you had better pull off your boots and take a turn with the foils. You'll need to practise diligently, or one day soon it will be guard, guard, andbiffthe point in your liver!"
"You're a fool, Tom."
"So my father always told me, and yet"
"Men of my rank don't fight duels." He fancied himself a prince of the blood, you see, no less. "Besides, there are edicts."
"Yes; and there are street-corners and dark nights and daggers for the backs of gentlemen whose dignity does not suffer them to render honourable satisfaction to outraged husbands. Come, come, Robin. I'll be full of sense, if sense is what you need or want. Essex is coming home, and you must accept the fact that you have run your course. You've held the lists quite long enough. In the gentleman's absence you have been a poacher on his preserves. If you persist, now that he is coming back to look after his own, you'll meet the fate of any other poacher, and earn as much sympathy from the general. No, no! The comedy is played out. Let down the curtain, and go home to forget the play and return to the realities of life."
"My Heaven, man, is there aught in life more real?"
"You'll think so in a year's time. Meanwhile, accept my word for it, or resign yourself to being so much dead meat before that same year is out."
This last was the contingency that Overbury feared; and it was precisely because he feared it that he gave his advice in such downright fashion, with the full intention to persist in it until he had bent Rochester's mind to his will. His motives were at once his affection for Rochester, which was sincere, and his affection for himself, which was still more sincere. My lord of EssexSir Thomas had been at pains to obtain informationwas grown an austere and downright fellow, a puritanical, masterful soldier, free from all subtleties. Sir Thomas knew precisely what might be expected from such a mansix feet of earth for Rochester if he should be caught dangling about my lady. And if Rochester were removed at this stage what was to become of Overbury himself? His own feet were not yet sufficiently squarely planted. It was still Rochester who held the reins of power, so far as the king was concerned, by virtue of his handsome face and figure. Overbury enjoyed the Royal protection at second hand, and that protection would vanish if Rochester were removed. He would be left at the mercy of all his enemies, secret and avowed, who, amongst them, would make a speedy and unmerciful end of him. Moreoveras you will have gatheredthe affair between my lord of Rochester and Lady Essex had been threatening results quite other from those which Sir Thomas had foreseen when first he had encouraged his patron to embark on it. The HowardsNorthampton in particularwere obtaining upon the favourite a hold far greater than suited Overbury's ends.
He doubted if, in the pass to which things had come, he could succeed much longer in keeping them in play. Reluctant as he might be to break with them altogether, yet that seemed to him the lesser evil. Therefore, whatever the return of Essex might be to others, to Sir Thomas it was most opportune and welcome, as affording the means to shake off the Howards without an absolute breach with them. Whole-heartedly, then, Sir Thomas set himself now to preserve his patron, to hold him by main force out of the looming peril.
It was a task demanding all the wit and resource and strength of purpose with which Overbury had been endowed. In the end, by the indefatigable exertion of all these, he made his will prevail, and obtained my lord's promise to make an end of the affair between himself and Lady Essex.
Rochester pleaded with his masterful secretary to be allowed to go in person to convey that resolve, and take a last farewell of the lovely Frances. But Overbury denied him in such masterful terms that at last Rochester, entirely dominated, agreed to Sir Thomas's counter-proposal. Sir Thomas would write her one of his inimitable letters, couched in such terms of melting despair and grief that it should contain some echo of the breaking of his lordship's surcharged heart. It should blend love, despair, and wisdom so cunningly that my lady must find it impossible to rebel against its decision without forfeiting the worship in which the writer held her. It should subtly convey that this decision, taken in suffocation of every selfish instinct that urged the contrary, was entirely for her sake; and it should conclude on a note that bade her accept unquestioningly, as a last act of homage, this renunciation which prudence and wisdom dictated for her sake.
When that moving piece of writing was accomplished, my lord shed tears over it, and admitted that since this thing must be doneand he had been persuaded by now of the wisdom of it, and of the folly of persevering in an adventure that might end in ruinit could not be better done.
Her ladyship submitted perforce. All alternative had been cunningly abstracted. Her answer came. A little note of some half-dozen lines, comprising a sob of despairing submission, and a vow of eternal fidelity to their love, which made no exception in favour of an obtrusive husband.
Sir Thomas smiled in secret as he wrote "finis"prematurely, as we shall seeto that chapter of my Lord Rochester's career. Thereafter he plunged his patron more deeply into the business of the State, and set himself also in a subtle fashion to break down and lessen the intimacy which had grown up between Rochester and Northampton. This Northampton was not slow to perceive, and the perception did not increase his scant love of Overbury.
At first Sir Thomas found it difficult to wean Rochester from his passion. Gradually, however, he succeeded, assisted by events which found their climax, in the following spring, in the death of Salisbury, the Secretary of State. The consequences of this to Rochester, absorbing him wholly for a time, completed his cure, and so rendered him once more entirely the gay, sunny, laughing courtier in whom the king delighted.
It was for Rochester, and in even greater measure for Overbury, who as usual was the driving force, a time of stress and deep intrigue. The office of Secretary of State stood vacant, and the filling of it was a matter of great moment. The seals, meanwhile, continued in the hands of Sir Thomas Lake, who had acted as Salisbury's deputy during the earl's last illness; and Lake had every hope of being permanently appointed, and a considerable party to support him.
Then there was Sir Henry Neville, put forward as a candidate by the Commons, who came to seek Rochester's interest on his behalf. Rochester received them favourably, but said them neither yea nor nay. It was his intention, upon Overbury's recommendation, himself to take over, without any formal appointment, the duties of the office of Secretary of State; and the king favoured a project which would enable himself and his favourite to keep the control of affairs so completely in their own hands. This is what in the end took place, and Sir Thomas Lake was commanded to deliver up his seals to Rochester.
It was now that Overbury became more than ever invaluable to his friend and patron, acting as a skilled pilot in the troublous waters through which Rochester must steer. And, thanks to that supreme skill of his, Rochester was enabled to display to the king such a masterly grip of affairs, such a genius for intrigue and statecraft, that James's esteem for him and confidence in him were further increased.
But there were some others who knew better than King James. Having regained his normal mood, Rochester was athirst for pleasure as of old; and because of his confidence and trust in Overbury he did not hesitate to seek it, and so beguile the days, leaving to Sir Thomas the transaction of affairs. Thus Overbury's power continued to grow, and by some his hand began to be seen and to be recognised as that of the real secretary, the helmsman of the Ship of State. The first to become aware of this was, of course, Northampton, who, by virtue of his office of Privy Seal, was constantly in touch with the Secretary of State. He found himself dealing more and more, and at last exclusively, with Overbury on public affairs. It was with Overbury that he treated such matters as those concerning the forthcoming marriage of the Princess Elizabeth, the farming of the Customs, the granting of manufacturer's licences, the duties upon imports, and the treaties with foreign Powers.
It was into Overbury's hands that all secret dispatches were now delivered, so that he came to know more of foreign policy than the king himself. Out of this consciousness of power he grew more arrogant and sardonic than ever. Yet he played his game skilfully, and in the main was loyal to Rochester, content to await the reward that must in time inevitably be his, and must accord him the full fruition earned by his talents for his ambition.
He reckoned without two factorsNorthampton and Northampton's niece.
With regard to her ladyship, events had been moving for her, too, during the past year, since Rochester, under Overbury's advice, had broken with her. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, had come home breathlessly eager at last to realise the dream of these past years of exile. He had flown straight to his wife, whom he fondly pictured awaiting him as eagerly. The reception she gave him staggered and dumbfounded him, shattered at a blow his dream and rent his pride. For the sight of him nothing tempered her ladyship's disdain. She found herself looking upon a grave, silent man, uncouth of countenance, puritanical of air and dress, a man who first with clumsy eagerness, then gravely, and finally sternly informed her that he was her husband, and he had come to take her down to his home at Chartley.
She answered him in words that already she had rehearsed in her last talk with Rochester. He was a stranger to her; she did not admit his right to claim her to wife; she had been bartered to him before she had the will to give herself, and give herself to him she never would; he was a fool if he had imagined that things could be otherwise, and she begged him to do her the only favour that it lay in his power to do her, and that was never to let her see his face again.
It was a very hang-dog earl when she had finished; and it may be that he was hurt the more for finding her so very lovely and desirable. But he was youngnot yet quite twenty, in factand possessed of youth's inexhaustible fund of hope. He would be patient, he would wait; he realised the justice of some part of her complaint, but he would teach her to find him estimable. That was at first. But when, in spite of all his patience, she continued obdurate, when he realised that he would never win her, who refused him so much as the chance to woo her, he grew brutally stern once more, and stood upon his rights.
He was of a weak, obstinate, dull-witted nature, incapable of grappling with a situation of such complexity as this, a situation in which the first principles by which he had ever lived his life could avail him nothing. Yet he proceeded by them. He appealed to her parents, and it but remained for them to point out to their daughter that their granting or withholding their consent was as nothing. His was the power to compel her. Therefore she had best yield where she could not help herself.
It was the last drop in the cup of her despair. Benumbed, bereft, and feeling herself widowed of the man she loved, the man she deemed her true and natural mate, it required but this added horror to make her turn to thoughts of self-destruction.
In the end she resolved that, since she could not help herself, she would go down to Chartley with him as he commanded. But beyond that she would not yield an inch. She would make life as hideous for him as he had made it for her, and he should yet repent in bitterness this unchivalrous, unmanly exercise of force upon a defenceless woman.
And then he fell ill, dangerously ill, and her hopes soared wildly. It was then that she came to realise what his life meant to her, what his death would mean. It was his life that stood between her and the full achievement of her desires. Once he were dead, she would be free; no obstacle would stand between her and the man she loved. They would marry, an ideal union in a worldly as in a personal sense, that would give them, united, a power second to none in England.
She prayed then as she had never prayed before in her frivolous, butterfly life, prayed fervently that Devereux might die. And when in the end he recovered, and she perceived that Heaven was indifferent to her sufferings, deaf to her passionate entreaties, she turned in her despair to invoke the powers of hell.
It came about in this way. Seeing that as soon as her husband was restored to strength she must willy nilly to Chartley with him, she was moved to make a pilgrimage to the ground that love had consecrated for her.
In that sweet Hammersmith garden, in that very bower above the river where last Rochester and she had clung each to each in passionate distress, she walked sadly now with that questionable friend who had lent her house to those assignations. A pretty woman this Mrs. Turner, widow of a physician whom she had ruined by her riotous living. She came of a good family, and was chiefly renowned in the world of fashion as the inventor of the yellow ruff. She had friends in high places; but straitened circumstances, and the questionable shifts by which she was forced to live, had driven her to seek friends in low places, too.
Such, in brief, was the confidante into whose sympathetic ear my lady poured the bitterness that filled her soul, and the handsome, needy, wicked little widow was very prompt with her advice.
"Your remedy, child, lies in divorce."
"Divorce? And the groundsI who have not lived with him?"
"But you will be doing so soon."
Her ladyship smiled bitterly.
"Once that has come to pass it will be too late for any divorce. My lord's love for me will be dead by then, killed by what he will account my unfaithif it is not dead already. Oh, these bitter, bitter months of emptiness that are sped."
"You let him go too easily," said the widow, and sighed.
"What choice had I? He wrote me in such terms that my soul was torn. It was as if he wrote with his life's blood, and how could I increase the sufferings of one so anguished by refusing to obey what he accounted Fate's inexorable decree. I gave it thought. I am not all evil, nor all selfish, Turner. Such a nobility of soul as his is of itself ennobling, and points the way of duty, even of sacrifice. I saw that it might be very ill for him if I did other than he wished. Sometimes I am sorry. I am weak, you see. I nourish myself upon the hope that some daysome day" She broke off, choked by her sobs. Then, controlling herself in part: "But once I go to Chartley with my Lord of Essex it will be to close the door upon all hope, to close the very door of the tomb. What then could a divorce avail me? Besides," she ended, almost impatiently, "what divorce is possible?"
But Mrs. Turner had not lived upon her wits these years for nothing. She had amassed in the course of her adventures a considerable amount of very questionable, but very useful, knowledge. Some of that knowledge she now displayed, and saw her ladyship's innocent blue eyes grow rounder and larger with amazement at first, then quicken with sudden eagerness.
"Yes, yes!" she cried. "Oh, priceless counsel, my sweet Turner." And then, as suddenly, her eagerness all fell away. "But it will come too late. My lord's love will be cold by then, if it is not so already."
But here, too, Mrs. Turner had advice of an unusual kind.
"There are ways to stir up and quicken love, to give it birth, or resurrect it from the deadunfailing ways, my child. I know of my own knowledge, for once I was in need of help, and found it."
"What help? What manner of help?"
"The help of the unseen."
"Wizardry?" Her ladyship was disposed to be scornful. "Philtres and incantations and the like?"
She had heard of all this. Indeed, the reign of James was famous for its witch-hunting. But, in spite of persecution, there was no lack of warlocks in the land, who took the risk of being burnt for the sake of the rich and easy profits which their dark trade brought them.
"You laugh," said Mrs. Turner. "So do manyuntil, like myself, they have learnt to know better. There was a time when I, too, laughed. Yet I tell you that your needs can be supplied unerringly, that you can bind your lover to you with hoops of steel which no mortal power can break.
So solemn and emphatic was Mrs. Turner that my lady grew serious, and craved more knowledge.
It would be a fortnight later, and my Lord of Essex now progressing in his convalescence, when Rochester came one day into that pleasant room above the Privy Gardens where Sir Thomas conducted the affairs of England in his lordship's name. He carried in his hand a note, and there was a frown between his brows.
Sir Thomas looked up from his workhe was writing brisklyto bestow a greeting and ask a question. One and the other Rochester answered abstractedly, then stood hesitating. Finally, he crossed the room, and flung himself into a high-backed chair in the window embrasure. There he sat long, gnawing his golden beard, and ever and anon casting an eye upon the sheet of paper that he held. At last he rose, and spoke:
"Tom, here is a letter I have just received. It is anonymous. Look at it."
Sir Thomas looked. The writer, professing to address his lordship out of interest in himself and a certain lady who pined for love of him, who had suffered deeply in her separation from him, informed him that this lady, under the compulsion of the detestable man to whom she had been married, but was not, nor ever should be, her husband, would soon be going to share his home. That was affliction enough for this poor lady, but a greater affliction lay in her fear that his lordship should suppose her to go willingly, or even resigned, to martyrdom. It would immeasurably comfort her distress to know his lordship sure of her mind and constancy. Finally, would his lordship, out of his charity, give her a sign that he knew and understood, and that she still held in his thoughts the high regard she coveted above all other worldly possessions; and this without betraying the writer of the present letter by any allusion to it, such as in itself must mar the act of grace for which the writer pleaded entirely without the lady's consent, or even knowledge.
Sir Thomas read that curious letter twice. Thereafter he sat bemused awhile, then read it yet again, and again considered. Suddenly his sneering laugh rang out. His acute mind had pierced the heart of the riddle.
"Bah! A fortune teller!"
"A what?" said Rochester.
"Why, don't you see? My lady has sought knowledge of the future at some wizard's hands. To loosen her purse-strings he has foretold her that which she desired. To encompass the fulfilment of his predictions, and so bring her to his toils again, he sends you that touching letter, which he begs you not to mention. It is very simple."
"Simple?" said Rochester, and fetched a groan, then went away to the window again, and stood there, his back to the room, tapping the pane, what time the sunshine struck a nimbus of light from his flaxen head. Long he stood there, lost in dreams. Then he turned and quitted the room without another word, leaving Sir Thomas very thoughtful, doubting the wisdom of having resolved that riddle for his lordship.
Anon, when, some hours later, word was brought himfor he employed by now a tribe of spiesthat my lord had gone to visit the Earl of Suffolk at his housethe house in which my Lady Essex had her temporary dwellingSir Thomas knew that he had been ill-advised. He feared the worst, and his mood was one of exasperation. But nothing followed, save that soon thereafter my lady accompanied her husband down to Chartley, and with her going Rochester lost his gaiety, and grew moody again and full of sighs.
The coming of the Elector Frederic in the autumn to marry the Princess Elizabeth, and the banquets, masques, and plays and tilting-matches that made up the festivities with which the occasion was celebrated, provided the handsome favourite with occupation and excitement enough to lift him once more out of the slough into which he had been sinking.
And then, quite suddenlyalthough for months he had been ailingoccurred the death of Henry, Prince of Wales. He succumbed to a mysterious, wasting sickness, and inevitably the rumour went about that he had been poisoned.
That matter kept the gossips busy until the following spring, when a fresh scandal was sprung upon the Court. Lady Essex had left her husband, and was back at her father's house, and it was said that she would presently divorce the earl.
Essex had dragged his lady down to Chartley, and my lady had seen that Chartley should be made into the likeness of hell for him until such time as he thought fit to desist from his course of stupid obstinacy, and learnt that a woman's love is not to be compelled by hectoring. Weary of the struggle, at last he had consented to let her go; and, his love for her now turned to hatred, he was eager to get rid of her and to regain his freedom; so eager that he consented to the divorce upon any grounds on which she might think fit to sue.
And now my lady wrote to Rochester, and told him how things stood, begging, for the sake of what lay between them, his influence with the king to obtain the Royal consent to the divorce that should set her free at last. Rochester went off to visit her at once, and was thereafter in daily attendance.
When Overbury learnt what was afoot, and that the thing he had most feared a year ago was come to pass, a panic seized him. He learnt it from Rochester himself, and was so wrought upon that he never hesitated bluntly to question Rochester as to his intentions.
"Why," said Rochester simply, "I intend to marry her as soon as her present marriage shall have been declared null."
"Null?" said Overbury dully. "Upon what grounds, pray?"
"Does Essex consent to this?" quoth Sir Thomas.
"He does. Her ladyship has brought him to it."
"But the courts will never pronounce in favour of such a divorce. Too much is known"
"I think they will," Rochester cut in. "I have won the king's consent. It is just such a tangle of spiritual and temporal law as his mind loves. He is given the opportunity to expound learnedly and at length. Already he advances argument and precedent, biblical and legal. The archbishop may prove reluctant, I hear; but with the king for our advocate the end is foregone."
Overbury was very white. When he spokeafter a long moment's pausehis voice shook.
"Yet there are certain facts concerned with your relations with my lady which, if known, would prick this bubble for all time, so that not even the king would dare to insist that the courts should pronounce such a divorce."
"But they are known only to a friend of her ladyship's, who is safe, and to yourself, Tom, who are incapable of betraying my trust in you."
"And you intend to marry her?" said Overbury slowly. "You intend to make this wanton your wife and the mother of your children?"
"By Heaven, Tom"
"Hear me out, man. I am your friend, I have been these years the keeper of your very soul and conscience, until I know more of you than you know yourself."
"Even so I will not suffer you to utter defamatory lies"
"It is the truththe truth." And Overbury struck the table with his fist. "Think man; look back. Before you there was Prince Henry, and, before Prince Henry how many were there? After she is your wife, and the thrill of running you into harness shall have passed, how many will there be again? There's wantonness in her blood, inherited from that bawd, her mother."
Rochester got up, his face livid, his blue eyes afire.
"Another word on this, Sir Thomas, and we quarrel. Already you have said more than I should endure from any other living man."
And he flung out of the room before Overbury could answer him.
Thereafter for weeks there was a coolness between them, and the name of her ladyship never once was mentioned, which rendered Sir Thomas the more anxious. Under the calm mask into which he schooled his countenance rage was seething in his soul, a rage that was being fanned by the reports he received from his spiesor, rather, from his man Davis, the only spy he could trust in such a matter.
He learnt now that there were frequent secret meetings between Rochester and Lady Essex at a house in Paternoster Row that belonged to Mrs. Turner. This was an indiscretion which, with those divorce proceedings pending, might yet ruin all were it discovered. But that afforded Sir Thomas little consolation and little ground for hope. Where all the parties were willing and consenting, there was no one who had an interest in discovering the truth.
Then, too, he observed between Northampton and Rochester a growing intimacy, and into Northampton's manner with Sir Thomas there crept a subtle change, a gradual increase of haughtiness, a display at times of positive hostility, which he had not earlier dared reveal. From this Sir Thomas read the confirmation of his worst fears. Northampton was gradually obtaining a surer hold upon Rochester, Rochester was daily now at Northumberland House with the earl, andwhat made the matter infinitely worsehe sought to keep those visits secret from his secretary.
If before it had given Overbury anxiety to see Lady Essex become the mistress of Lord Rochester, with what feelings could he contemplate the measures that were to make her his patron's wife? The very manner in which Northampton and her parents lent their support was in itself eloquent of what must follow. Rochester would pass entirely into the power of the Howards. He would become their puppet; was, indeed, already fast becoming so. Once he was allied with them by marriage, the Howardsthrough himwould hold the reins of power.
Thus there would be an end to all Overbury's dreams, the frustration of his ambitions, the shattering of his confident hopes, the cruel waste of all his labour through these years that were gone since he set himself to make Rochester nominally, and himself actually, the greatest man in England.
When he learnt that a commission, headed by Dr. Abbott, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been appointed by the king to hold a preliminary inquiry into the lady's plea, Overbury exerted himself to make a last effort. He spoke to Rochester on the subject for the first time since that incipient quarrel some weeks ago.
"You are determined, Robin, to go through with this divorce and marriage?"
His lordship frowned.
"I am determined," was all he answered, coldly.
"Quis Deus vult perdere prius dementat," quoted Sir Thomas bitterly.
"You are madstark mad. And you go to your ruin, wasting all that has been done. By Heaven, Robin, how shall I hope to make you see reason, that you may come to"
"If you please, we will not talk of this any moreor ever," Rochester interrupted him. "You presume with me in giving counsel that is not sought."
"It would not be the first time," Overbury retorted bitterly, stung by that new accent of superiority, which seemed to mark a difference in their stations that had never yet been defined by either. "And never in all your life have you stood more sorely in need of counselsane counsel."
"Have done, I say." Rochester's cheeks empurpled. "You transcend the functions of your office. My marriage affairs are mine alone."
"You'll have forgotten that I wrote your love-letters," sneered Sir Thomas"letters which won you this woman, revealing as they did beauties of mind which she took to be your own and for which she came to love you."
"I see that you want to quarrel with me."
"Heaven forbid, Robin. I want to stand your friend, as I have always stood. Have I ever in all these nine years that we have been together ceased to study your fortune, reputation, and understanding? Should I now want to study aught else? Will you not listen, Robin?"
"I will not. I have heard too much from you already."
It was the end. One card only remained with Sir Thomas. It was a powerful one, yet dangerous to play. If it failed, his own utter ruin would follow. But there was a slender chance that it might prevail; and no chance can be too desperate in a situation otherwise hopeless. If he did nothing he was surely ruined. The Howards would see to that once the power to accomplish it were safely in their hands and Rochester allied to them by marriage. Therefore, he resolved to play that final card.
He remained working very late that night, awaiting my lord's return. Towards midnight, at last he heard his steps in the gallery. He rose, went to the door, opened it, and stepped out to confront the viscount.
Rochester fell back at sight of him standing there tense and purposeful in the square shaft of light that fell from the door upon the half-gloom of the gallery.
"How now?" says my lord. "Are you up yet?"
"Nay, what do you here at this time of night?" was the rejoinder. "Will you never leave the company of your base woman?"
Rochester took a step forward, an inarticulate cry of anger on his lips, his hand half-raised to strike. But Overbury, undeterred, continued:
"I give you warning that if you are set on marrying this creature and so ruining your honour and yourself, you and I must part. I will leave you free to stand on your own legs."
Rochester controlled himself.
"Why, as to that," said he, "my own legs are strong enough and straight enough to bear me up. But, by Heaven," he added, with increasing passion, "I will be ever with you for this!"
"To-morrow morning you will let me have that portion that is due to me, and so we part."
"Right gladly," snapped his lordship, and turned to go.
But Sir Thomas stayed him.
"Even so; do not think to run counter to my advice in this matter. I shall never consent to see you married to that woman; and the power to prevent it is mine. I need but tell a little of what I know to put an end to this divorce. My Lord of Canterbury is an honest man. Give you good-night, my lord."
And he thrust past his lordship and away.
Rochester, his anger chilled by sudden fearfor he was not slow to understand the threatswung round to follow; then he checked. He heard a movement in the gallery behind him, and looking over his shoulder was in time to see a shadow flit and vanish. The interview had been overheard. But to that he paid little attention, with this other thing to engage his mind. And because his mind, accustomed always to lean for support upon another, was unequal to deciding it alone, you see him betimes next morning seeking my Lord of Northampton at Northumberland House, and finding there her ladyship before him.
Those three held a council together upon the news that Rochester bore of Overbury's threat to thwart the divorce proceedings.
"He must be put away," said Northampton promptly, advice as obvious as it was sensible.
"Ay," breathed my lady, whose child-like eyes had grown hard and steely.
"Put away?" echoed Rochester, staring, his face grave to the point of horror.
"Put away somewhere where he can't talk, until divorce and marriage are accomplished, and until it will be too late for him to do a mischief," Northampton explained; but it may or may not have been what originally he had intended.
The crafty old earl was of a fluidity that could adapt itself ever to the vessel of circumstance.
Rochester's face lightened with relief, but my lady's grew darker with disappointment. Her wrath against the man who would rob her of the fruit of all her strivings, sufferings, and humiliationsand not until much later would these be revealed in fullwas of such a quality as not to be satisfied by anything short of his head upon a charger. But she held her peace what time her uncle slowly developed a cunning scheme by which Sir Thomas might be snugly bestowed out of harm's way until all was done.
And so my lord goes back to Whitehall, and straight to Sir Thomas, whom he discovers, very downcast and gloomy, alone in his study.
"How now, Tom, are you sober yet?" asks my lord, planting himself squarely before his secretary. "Are you still set on leaving me?"
Sir Thomas looked up. He was by now a prey to the reaction of the gamester who, in a moment of desperate exaltation, has staked all upon a throw, and lost.
"What else?" said he, a little suspicious of my lord's half-friendly tone after what had passed last night.
"Very well, then." His lordship sighed. "But after nine years of such friendship as ours, we must not part in anger. Nor is there any need. If you must leave me, you shall. Perhaps, in all the circumstances, it is best. But at least stay until I can find you some office worthy of your talents, to be your reward for your loyal service to me."
A sneer passed over Overbury's face, and was gone before my lord perceived it. He understood, he thought. They sought to bribe him now to hold his tongue. He considered. After all, what could it profit him to talk? His blow had failed. Bewitched by that wanton, my lord had done with him. Whether he betrayed the things that could thwart the divorce or not, himself he was ruined. Why not, then, take the chance of this office, and use it as stepping-stone to the greatness which he believed he could then reach by his own talents. He returned cold thanks, that in themselves implied reluctant consent.
In the days that followed his relations with Rochester were, so far as the latter was concerned, as if naught had happened. And then, at the end of a week or so, my lord brought him word that he had spoken to the king, and recommended Sir Thomas's appointment to some office of importance in the State, and that the king was entirely favourably disposed.
Two days lateron April 21, 1613Sir Thomas was waited upon by the Lord Chancellor, who came on behalf of his Majesty to offer him at his own choice the embassy to France, the Low Countries, or Russia.
A little dazzled by so glorious a prospect, far in excess of anything that he had dreamed, Sir Thomas spoke of the embarrassment of riches, and begged to be given until the morning to decide upon his choice. An hour later he was overwhelming Rochester with genuine thanks for the nobility of this recompense for his services, and begging his lordship to assist him in deciding which of the embassies to accept.
"Refuse all three," said my lord shortly, leaving Overbury aghast. "Pish!" he continued. "This is the hand of Pembroke. He knows what I have in mind for you, and thinks to thwart me by dazzling you with these. Refuse the embassies, and trust to me to find you a better office here at home."
"A better?" quoth Sir Thomas.
"The Secretaryship of State has, after all, remained vacant ever since Salisbury died," said Rochester, narrowing his eyes. "Why should not you hold the office, who have discharged its duties? Besides, to be frank, it is an office in which I must have a sure friend. Trust to me."
It was heaping coals of fire upon Overbury's headso Overbury felt. He was overwhelmed with gratitude, shame, and confusion.
When, next morning, the Lord Chancellor returned for his answer, Sir Thomas, acting upon Rochester's advice, politely declined his Majesty's gracious proposal, pleading reasons of ill-health.
The Chancellor, who saw before him a lean, active young man showing every sign of vigour, was amazed, and said so, adding that his Majesty intended this for Sir Thomas's good and preferment, and that he would be very ill-advised if he refused.
Sir Thomas shrugged, and in that impatient, supercilious way that was by now habitual to him:
"I will not leave my country for any preferment in the world," said he.
Within three hours he was, by order of the king, under arrest for high contempt, and committed to the Tower.
Yet he was very far from suspecting that a trap had been baited for him, and that he had been taken in like a simpleton. There was no deep guile in Rochester to have suggested anything of the kind to Sir Thomas, and it did not occur to him just then that Rochester might have been merely acting upon the instructions of that wicked old father of guile, the Earl of Northampton.
It took five months of bitter and close captivity to bring Sir Thomas to a realisation of how utterly he had been fooled, to make him see that the replies to his letters which he received from Rochester, with their repeated assurances that his release was at hand, were no more than evasions, and that it was not intended to release him until such time as the events themselves should have robbed him of the means he had of thwarting them.
When understanding came to him at last, his strength had wasted in that close confinement, where no one from without was allowed to approach him, where he saw none but those who ministered to his needs.
The food procured him was dainty and appetising, proper for a prisoner of his position in the world. But he began to be taken with sickness, and saw the flesh waste from his bones until little more than skin remained to cover them, and he had scarce the strength to move. He was very ill, as was found by his brother-in-law, Lidcote, who obtained at last permission to visit him on one occasion, and a physician was desired to attend him. The physician came, was mystified by his condition, prescribed for him, and went his way.
Sir Thomas did not mend, and at last, on September 7, Weston, his gaoler, introduced into his room an apothecary's boy, who came to administer an injection.
To this Sir Thomas submitted. He was by then too weak to think or care of what might betide. A violent sickness followed almost immediately upon that injection, and thereafter the wretched man writhed in agony for a week, until finally he died.
The world received the news of his death almost at the same time as that of the pronouncement of the divorce of Lady Essex, who thereby became the Lady Frances Howard once more. But years were to pass before the connection between the two events was to become apparent.
In November, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, was created Earl of Somerset by his doting king, and a month later, with great pomp and ceremony, he was married to the Lady Frances Howard at Whitehall.
He had reached his highest honour, touched the high meridian of his fortunes, which thenceforward steadily declined, gradually at first, now that the place of the strong man who had been his brain and soul was empty, and finally went down in ruin to infamous extinction.
It was two years later when the first stone was knocked out of an edifice which thereafter crumbled rapidly. Sir Ralph Winwood, who was then Secretary of State, received information that Sir Thomas Overbury had come to his end in the Tower by foul means. An English lad, who had been an apothecary's apprentice, dying in Brussels, had on his death-bed confessed that he had been bribed to administer to Sir Thomas Overbury a poisoned injection, of which Sir Thomas had died.
Sir Ralph, who was a shrewd and capable man, sought an explanation at the hands of Sir Jarvis Elvis, the Lieutenant of the Tower, with astounding results.
Sir Jarvis confessed that he had entertained suspicions of this fact; he had discovered earlier attempts to poison Overbury on the part of the gaoler Weston, who had been placed in attendance upon the prisoner by the suggestion of the Earl of Northampton. Considering the powerful people protecting Weston, and assuming him, indeed, to be no less than their agent, Sir Jarvis had hesitated to interfere in what seemed to him to be a matter of State. He had, however, done his utmost surreptitiously to save Overbury. He had brought Weston to recognise the hideousness of what he did, obtained from him a promise to desist from further attempts upon the prisoner's life, and had thereafter kept a close watch upon him. Nevertheless, he suspected that, in a moment when his vigilance had been relaxed, the thing was done.
Sir Ralph laid the matter before the king, and received James's orders to proceed in it, but with caution and secrecy.
How far James suspected the implication of his minionnow Earl of Somersetdoes not transpire. Whether a couple of years earlier, apprehensive for his favourite, he would not have ordered Winwood to drop the matter, is also a subject for speculation. But it happened that by this time he was becoming a little weary of Somerset, who was growing haggard in looks, careless in dress, irascible in temper, and subject to fits of moodiness and sullenness, where earlier he had been so comely and sunny.
Matters were made worse by the rise of a rival star in that handsome youth, George Buckingham, who had been deliberately thrust upon the King's attention. And, Somerset's jealousy being fired, he abandoned himself to a petulance that was almost feminine, upbraided, and at times even reviled, his king, who, though disposed to be long-suffering with his favourite, was growing very weary of this.
And now follow in quick succession, each incriminating the other, the trials of Weston, the gaoler, Sir Jarvis Elvis, Mrs. Turner, and Dr. Franklin, a wizard.
The Earl of Northampton would have been of the number, but that he had cheated justice by dying before these matters came to light. From the proceedings against these prisoners, each of whom was tried and hanged in turn, was drawn the dreadful, sordid story of that crime. All is disclosed, partly from their admissions, partly from old letters which were seized. How Mrs. Turner had procured for my Lady of Essex the services of the wizard Franklin, to ensure her, by means of incantations and witchcraft, the love of the now Earl of Somerset, and the withering of her then husband.
The waxen and leaden images employed in these loathsome, uncanny rites were displayed in court, to the deadly shame of my lady, who in her despair had lent herself to such foul practices. How poisons had been obtained by Mrs. Turner from Franklin and others for her ladyship, and how her ladyship had used these in tarts and jellies which had been sent to Weston to be given to Sir Thomas Overbury. How, when some of these measures had been frustrated by Sir Jarvis Elvis, so that the poison reaching the prisoner was not enough to make an end of him, Mrs. Turner had, on the countess's behalf, bribed the apothecary's lad with twenty pounds to administer a poisoned injection, to which Sir Thomas had finally succumbed.
When all those lesser criminals had been swept away to the hangman, came the turn of the Earl and Countess of Somerset, who were already in the Tower.
Somerset had been at Royston with the king in the previous Octoberjust before the trial of Westonwhen he received a summons from the Lord Chief Justice to go up to London for examination. He had until then refused to take the matter seriously, for the full facts were not yet disclosed, and he protested indignantly against the insolence of this summons. But James, who still showed him every tenderness, pacified him.
"Thou must go then, for if Coke send for me, I must go, too."
Anon, accompanying him to the waiting carriage, James wept over him, embracing him and praying him to make haste back.
Yet, when he was gone, the king was heard to sigh and say:
"I shall never see thy face more."
Somerset went up to London arrogantly confident. He went to learn the truth about the woman to whom he had sacrificed his friend, the beautiful child-woman who, when brought to trial in the following May, pleaded guilty to these revolting charges of witchcraft and murder, and yet, such was the magic of her beauty, filled the court with compassion.
Her disillusioned husband's trial followed. The case against him was weak, and had he been more master of his wits he could have rent it into shreds and triumphed over the enemies envy had made for him, enemies who stood gloating now over his downfall, his peers assembled there to judge him.
Oh, to have had Overbury then! Overbury, with his swift wit, his acute penetration, and his perfervid rhetoric. Overbury, to have revealed the hollowness of these charges, to have drawn sharply the line of my lord's association with his wife and her infamous uncle, and to have vindicated his own innocence.
Instead of Overbury, there was Overbury's last letter to him from the Tower, written when Overbury had no illusions left that he was being juggled by his former friend, fiercely upbraiding him his falseness and broken faith. And this letter was being read to him. Its closing sentence thundered through his tortured brain:
"So if you will deal thus wickedly with me, I am provided that, whether I live or die, your shame shall never die, but ever remain to the world to make you the most odious man living."
Thus Overbury had prophesied, and that prophecy crippled now his lordship's wits, robbed him of all defence.
He was found guilty, and sentenced, and he went back to the Tower, but not to die. Weston, on his trial, had said that the little fish would be taken and the big ones escape the net. That was another prophecy fulfilled. Somerset and his wife received a Royal pardon.
Their enemies accounted this an excessive mercy on the part of James. But in reality it was an atonement than which none could have been more bitter. They departed together from the Tower to go and hide their shame in the country, leaving behind them all the glories they had known, bereft of power, and became now objects of contempt. Their love was dead, and abhorrencethe abhorrence that comes of too much evil knowledgenow the only bond between them, who for love's sake had schemed and laboured so unremittingly and unscrupulously.
Her ladyship did not long survive. But Robert Carr lived on to a ripe old age, despised and forsaken of all save the ghost of his murdered friend, the man who had been the keeper of his soul, and who in death may well so have continued.