The Oak And The Oaken Hall

The oaks of Sheffield Park were one of the greatest glories of the

place. Giants of the forest stretched their huge arms over the turf,

kept smooth and velvety by the creatures, wild and tame, that browsed

on it, and made their covert in the deep glades of fern and copse wood

that formed the background.

There were not a few whose huge trunks, of such girth that two men

together could not encompass them with outstretched arms, rose to a

height of more than sixty feet before throwing out a horizontal branch,

and these branches, almost trees in themselves, spread forty-eight feet

on each side of the bole, lifting a mountain of rich verdure above

them, and casting a delicious shade upon the ground beneath them.

Beneath one of these noble trees, some years after the arrival of the

hapless Mary Stuart, a party of children were playing, much to the

amusement of an audience of which they were utterly unaware, namely, of

sundry members of a deer-hunting party; a lady and gentleman who,

having become separated from the rest, were standing in the deep

bracken, which rose nearly as high as their heads, and were further

sheltered by a rock, looking and listening.

"Now then, Cis, bravely done! Show how she treats her ladies--"

"Who will be her lady? Thou must, Humfrey!"

"No, no, I'll never be a lady," said Humfrey gruffly.

"Thou then, Diccon."

"No, no," and the little fellow shrank back, "thou wilt hurt me, Cis."

"Come then, do thou, Tony! I'll not strike too hard!"

"As if a wench could strike too hard."

"He might have turned that more chivalrously," whispered the lady to

her companion. "What are they about to represent? Mort de ma vie, the

profane little imps! I, believe it is my sacred cousin, the Majesty of

England herself! Truly the little maid hath a bearing that might serve

a queen, though she be all too black and beetle-browed for Queen

Elizabeth. Who is she, Master Gilbert?"

"She is Cicely Talbot, daughter to the gentleman porter of your

Majesty's lodge."

"See to her--mark her little dignity with her heather and bluebell

crown as she sits on the rock, as stately as jewels could make her! See

her gesture with her hands, to mark where the standing ruff ought to

be. She hath the true spirit of the Comedy--ah! and here cometh young

Antony with mincing pace, with a dock-leaf for a fan, and a mantle for

a farthingale! She speaks! now hark!"

"Good morrow to you, my young mistress," began a voice pitched two

notes higher than its actual childlike key. "Thou hast a new

farthingale, I see! O Antony, that's not the way to curtsey--do it

like this. No no! thou clumsy fellow--back and knees together."

"Never mind, Cis," interposed one of the boys--"we shall lose all our

play time if you try to make him do it with a grace. Curtsies are

women's work--go on."

"Where was I? O--" (resuming her dignity after these asides) "Thou

hast a new farthingale, I see."

"To do my poor honour to your Grace's birthday."

"Oh ho! Is it so? Methought it had been to do honour to my fair

mistress's own taper waist. And pray how much an ell was yonder

broidered stuff?"

"Two crowns, an't please your Grace," returned the supposed lady,

making a wild conjecture.

"Two crowns! thou foolish Antony!" Then recollecting herself, "two

crowns! what, when mine costs but half! Thou presumptuous, lavish

varlet--no, no, wench! what right hast thou to wear gowns finer than

thy liege?--I'll teach you." Wherewith, erecting all her talons, and

clawing frightfully with them in the air, the supposed Queen Bess leapt

at the unfortunate maid of honour, appeared to tear the imaginary robe,

and drove her victim on the stage with a great air of violence, amid

peals of laughter from the other children, loud enough to drown those

of the elders, who could hardly restrain their merriment.

Gilbert Talbot, however, had been looking about him anxiously all the

time, and would fain have moved away; but a sign from Queen Mary

withheld him, as one of the children cried,

"Now! show us how she serves her lords."

The play seemed well understood between them, for the mimic queen again

settled herself on her throne, while Will Cavendish, calling out, "Now

I'm Master Hatton," began to tread a stately measure on the grass,

while the queen exclaimed, "Who is this new star of my court? What

stalwart limbs, what graceful tread! Who art thou, sir?"

"Madam, I am--I am. What is it? An ef--ef--"

"A daddy-long-legs," mischievously suggested another of the group.

"No, it's Latin. Is it Ephraim? No; it's a fly, something like a

gnat" (then at an impatient gesture from her Majesty) "disporting

itself in the beams of the noontide sun."

"Blood-sucking," whispered the real Queen behind the fern. "He is not

so far out there. See! see! with what a grace the child holds out her

little hand for him to kiss. I doubt me if Elizabeth herself could be

more stately. But who comes here?"

"I'm Sir Philip Sydney."

"No, no," shouted Humfrey, "Sir Philip shall not come into this

fooling. My father says he's the best knight in England."

"He is as bad as the rest in flattery to the Queen," returned young


"I'll not have it, I say. You may be Lord Leicester an you will! He's

but Robin Dudley."

"Ah!" began the lad, now advancing and shading his eyes. "What

burnished splendour dazzles my weak sight? Is it a second Juno that I

behold, or lovely Venus herself? Nay, there is a wisdom in her that

can only belong to the great Minerva herself! So youthful too. Is it

Hebe descended to this earth?"

Cis smirked, and held out a hand, saying in an affected tone, "Lord

Earl, are thy wits astray?"

"Whose wits would not be perturbed at the mere sight of such exquisite


"Come and sit at our feet, and we will try to restore them," said the

stage queen; but here little Diccon, the youngest of the party, eager

for more action, called out, "Show us how she treats her lords and

ladies together."

On which young Babington, as the lady, and Humfrey, made demonstrations

of love-making and betrothal, upon which their sovereign lady descended

on them with furious tokens of indignation, abusing them right and

left, until in the midst the great castle bell pealed forth, and caused

a flight general, being, in fact, the summons to the school kept in one

of the castle chambers by one Master Snigg, or Sniggius, for the

children of the numerous colony who peopled the castle. Girls, as well

as boys, were taught there, and thus Cis accompanied Humfrey and

Diccon, and consorted with their companions.

Queen Mary was allowed to hunt and take out-of-door exercise in the

park whenever she pleased, but Lord Shrewsbury, or one of his sons,

Gilbert and Francis, never was absent from her for a moment when she

went beyond the door of the lesser lodge, which the Earl had erected

for her, with a flat, leaded, and parapeted roof, where she could take

the air, and with only one entrance, where was stationed a "gentleman

porter," with two subordinates, whose business it was to keep a close

watch over every person or thing that went in or out. If she had any

purpose of losing herself in the thickets of fern, or copsewood, in the

park, or holding unperceived conference under shelter of the chase,

these plans were rendered impossible by the pertinacious presence of

one or other of the Talbots, who acted completely up to their name.

Thus it was that the Queen, with Gilbert in close attendance, had found

herself an unseen spectator of the children's performance, which she

watched with the keen enjoyment that sometimes made her forget her

troubles for the moment.

"How got the imps such knowledge?" mused Gilbert Talbot, as he led the

Queen out on the sward which had been the theatre of their mimicry.

"Do you ask that, Sir Gilbert?" said the Queen with emphasis, for

indeed it was his wife who had been the chief retailer of scandal about

Queen Elizabeth, to the not unwilling ears of herself and his mother;

and Antony Babington, as my lady's page, had but used his opportunities.

"They are insolent varlets and deserve the rod," continued Gilbert.

"You are too ready with the rod, you English," returned Mary. "You

flog all that is clever and spirited out of your poor children!"

"That is the question, madam. Have the English been found so deficient

in spirit compared with other nations?"

"Ah! we all know what you English can say for yourselves," returned the

Queen. "See what Master John Coke hath made of the herald's argument

before Dame Renown, in his translation. He hath twisted all the other


"Yea, madam, but the French herald had it all his own way before. So

it was but just we should have our turn."

Here a cry from the other hunters greeted them, and they found Lord

Shrewsbury, some of the ladies, and a number of prickers, looking

anxiously for them.

"Here we are, good my lord," said the Queen, who, when free from

rheumatism, was a most active walker. "We have only been stalking my

sister Queen's court in small, the prettiest and drollest pastime I

have seen for many a long day."

Much had happened in the course of the past years. The intrigues with

Northumberland and Norfolk, and the secret efforts of the unfortunate

Queen to obtain friends, and stir up enemies against Elizabeth, had

resulted in her bonds being drawn closer and closer. The Rising of the

North had taken place, and Cuthbert Langston had been heard of as

taking a prominent part beneath the sacred banner, but he had been

wounded and not since heard of, and his kindred knew not whether he

were among the unnamed dead who loaded the trees in the rear of the

army of Sussex, or whether he had escaped beyond seas. Richard Talbot

still remained as one of the trusted kinsmen of Lord Shrewsbury, on

whom that nobleman depended for the execution of the charge which

yearly became more wearisome and onerous, as hope decayed and plots


Though resident in the new lodge with her train, it was greatly

diminished by the dismissal from time to time of persons who were

regarded as suspicious; Mary still continued on intimate terms with

Lady Shrewsbury and her daughters, specially distinguishing with her

favour Bessie Pierrepoint, the eldest grandchild of the Countess, who

slept with her, and was her plaything and her pupil in French and

needlework. The fiction of her being guest and not prisoner had not

entirely passed away; visitors were admitted, and she went in and out

of the lodge, walked or rode at will, only under pretext of courtesy.

She never was unaccompanied by the Earl or one of his sons, and they

endeavoured to make all private conversation with strangers, or persons

unauthorised from Court, impossible to her.

The invitation given to little Cicely on the arrival had not been

followed up. The Countess wished to reserve to her own family all the

favours of one who might at any moment become the Queen of England, and

she kept Susan Talbot and her children in what she called their meet

place, in which that good lady thoroughly acquiesced, having her hands

much too full of household affairs to run after queens.

There was a good deal of talk about this child's play, a thing which

had much better have been left where it was; but in a seclusion like

that of Sheffield subjects of conversation were not over numerous, and

every topic which occurred was apt to be worried to shreds. So Lady

Shrewsbury and her daughters heard the Queen's arch description of the

children's mimicry, and instantly conceived a desire to see the scene

repeated. The gentlemen did not like it at all: their loyalty was

offended at the insult to her gracious Majesty, and besides, what might

not happen if such sports ever came to her ears? However, the Countess

ruled Sheffield; and Mary Talbot and Bessie Cavendish ruled the

Countess, and they were bent on their own way. So the representation

was to take place in the great hall of the manor-house, and the actors

were to be dressed in character from my lady's stores.

"They will ruin it, these clumsy English, after their own fashion,"

said Queen Mary, among her ladies. "It was the unpremeditated grace

and innocent audacity of the little ones that gave the charm. Now it

will be a mere broad farce, worthy of Bess of Hardwicke. Mais que

voulez vous?"

The performance was, however, laid under a great disadvantage by the

absolute refusal of Richard and Susan Talbot to allow their Cicely to

assume the part of Queen Elizabeth. They had been dismayed at her

doing so in child's play, and since she could read fluently, write

pretty well, and cipher a little, the good mother had decided to put a

stop to this free association with the boys at the castle, and to keep

her at home to study needlework and housewifery. As to her acting with

boys before the assembled households, the proposal seemed to them

absolutely insulting to any daughter of the Talbot line, and they had

by this time forgotten that she was no such thing. Bess Cavendish, the

special spoilt child of the house, even rode down, armed with her

mother's commands, but her feudal feeling did not here sway Mistress


Public acting was esteemed an indignity for women, and, though Cis was

a mere child, all Susan's womanhood awoke, and she made answer firmly

that she could not obey my lady Countess in this.

Bess flounced out of the house, indignantly telling her she should rue

the day, and Cis herself cried passionately, longing after the fine

robes and jewels, and the presentation of herself as a queen before the

whole company of the castle. The harsh system of the time made the

good mother think it her duty to requite this rebellion with the rod,

and to set the child down to her seam in the corner, and there sat Cis,

pouting and brooding over what Antony Babington had told her of what he

had picked up when in his page's capacity, attending his lady, of Queen

Mary's admiration of the pretty ways and airs of the little mimic Queen

Bess, till she felt as if she were defrauded of her due. The captive

Queen was her dream, and to hear her commendations, perhaps be kissed

by her, would be supreme bliss. Nay, she still hoped that there would

be an interference of the higher powers on her behalf, which would give

her a triumph.

No! Captain Talbot came home, saying, "So, Mistress Sue, thou art a

steadfast woman, to have resisted my lady's will!"

"I knew, my good husband, that thou wouldst never see our Cis even in

sport a player!"

"Assuredly not, and thou hadst the best of it, for when Mistress Bess

came in as full of wrath as a petard of powder, and made your refusal

known, my lord himself cried out, 'And she's in the right o't! What a

child may do in sport is not fit for a gentlewoman in earnest.'"

"Then, hath not my lord put a stop to the whole?"

"Fain would he do so, but the Countess and her daughters are set on

carrying out the sport. They have set Master Sniggius to indite the

speeches, and the boys of the school are to take the parts for their

autumn interlude."

"Surely that is perilous, should it come to the knowledge of those at


"Oh, I promise you, Sniggius hath a device for disguising all that

could give offence. The Queen will become Semiramis or Zenobia, I know

not which, and my Lord of Leicester, Master Hatton, and the others,

will be called Ninus or Longinus, or some such heathenish long-tailed

terms, and speak speeches of mighty length. Are they to be in Latin,


"Oh no, sir," said Humfrey, with a shudder. "Master Sniggius would

have had them so, but the young ladies said they would have nothing to

do with the affair if there were one word of Latin uttered. It is bad

enough as it is. I am to be Philidaspes, an Assyrian knight, and have

some speeches to learn, at least one is twenty-five lines, and not one

is less than five!"

"A right requital for thy presumptuous and treasonable game, my son,"

said his father, teasing him.

"And who is to be the Queen?" asked the mother.

"Antony Babington," said Humfrey, "because he can amble and mince more

like a wench than any of us. The worse luck for him. He will have

more speeches than any one of us to learn."

The report of the number of speeches to be learnt took off the sting of

Cis's disappointment, though she would not allow that it did so,

declaring with truth that she could learn by hearing faster than any of

the boys. Indeed, she did learn all Humfrey's speeches, and Antony's

to boot, and assisted both of them with all her might in committing

them to memory.

As Captain Talbot had foretold, the boys' sport was quite sufficiently

punished by being made into earnest. Master Sniggius was far from

merciful as to length, and his satire was so extremely remote that

Queen Elizabeth herself could hardly have found out that Zenobia's fine

moral lecture on the vanities of too aspiring ruffs was founded on the

box on the ear which rewarded poor Lady Mary Howard's display of her

rich petticoat, nor would her cheeks have tingled when the Queen of the

East--by a bold adaptation--played the part of Lion in interrupting the

interview of our old friends Pyramus and Thisbe, who, by an awful

anachronism, were carried to Palmyra. It was no plagiarism from

"Midsummer Night's Dream," only drawn from the common stock of


So, shorn of all that was perilous, and only understood by the

initiated, the play took place in the Castle Hall, the largest

available place, with Queen Mary seated upon the dais, with a canopy of

State over her head, Lady Shrewsbury on a chair nearly as high, the

Earl, the gentlemen and ladies of their suites drawn up in a circle,

the servants where they could, the Earl's musicians thundering with

drums, tooting with fifes, twanging on fiddles, overhead in a gallery.

Cis and Diccon, on either side of Susan Talbot, gazing on the stage,

where, much encumbered by hoop and farthingale, and arrayed in a yellow

curled wig, strutted forth Antony Babington, declaiming--

"Great Queen Zenobia am I,

The Roman Power I defy.

At my Palmyra, in the East,

I rule o'er every man and beast"

Here was an allusion couched in the Roman power, which Master Antony

had missed, or he would hardly have uttered it, since he was of a Roman

Catholic family, though, while in the Earl's household, he had to

conform outwardly.

A slender, scholarly lad, with a pretty, innocent face, and a voice

that could "speak small, like a woman," came in and announced himself


"I'm Thisbe, an Assyrian maid,

My robe's with jewels overlaid."

The stiff colloquy between the two boys, encumbered with their dresses,

shy and awkward, and rehearsing their lines like a task, was no small

contrast to the merry impromptu under the oak, and the gay, free grace

of the children.

Poor Philidaspes acquitted himself worst of all, for when done up in a

glittering suit of sham armour, with a sword and dagger of lath, his

entire speech, though well conned, deserted him, and he stood

red-faced, hesitating, and ready to cry, when suddenly from the midst

of the spectators there issued a childish voice, "Go on, Humfrey!

"Philidaspes am I, most valorous knight,

Ever ready for Church and Queen to fight.

"Go on, I say!" and she gave a little stamp of impatience, to the

extreme confusion of the mother and the great amusement of the

assembled company. Humfrey, once started, delivered himself of the

rest of his oration in a glum and droning voice, occasioning fits of

laughter, such as by no means added to his self-possession.

The excellent Sniggius and his company of boys had certainly, whether

intentionally or not, deprived the performance of all its personal

sting, and most likewise of its interest. Such diversion as the

spectators derived was such as Hippolyta seems to have found in

listening to Wall, Lion, Moonshine and Co.; but, like Theseus, Lord

Shrewsbury was very courteous, and complimented both playwright and

actors, relieved and thankful, no doubt, that Queen Zenobia was so

unlike his royal mistress.

There was nothing so much enforced by Queen Elizabeth as that strangers

should not have resort to Sheffield Castle. No spectators, except

those attached to the household, and actually forming part of the

colony within the park, were therefore supposed to be admitted, and all

of them were carefully kept at a distant part of the hall, where they

could have no access to the now much reduced train of the Scottish

Queen, with whom all intercourse was forbidden.

Humfrey was therefore surprised when, just as he had come out of the

tiring-room, glad to divest himself of his encumbering and gaudy

equipments, a man touched him on the arm and humbly said, "Sir, I have

a humble entreaty to make of you. If you would convey my petition to

the Queen of Scots!"

"I have nothing to do with the Queen of Scots," said the

ex-Philidaspes, glancing suspiciously at the man's sleeve, where,

however, he saw the silver dog, the family badge.

"She is a charitable lady," continued the man, who looked like a groom,

"and if she only knew that my poor old aunt is lying famishing, she

would aid her. Pray you, good my lord, help me to let this scroll

reach to her."

"I'm no lord, and I have naught to do with the Queen," repeated

Humfrey, while at the same moment Antony, who had been rather longer in

getting out of his female attire, presented himself; and Humfrey,

pitying the man's distress, said, "This young gentleman is the

Countess's page. He sometimes sees the Queen."

The man eagerly told his story, how his aunt, the widow of a huckster,

had gone on with the trade till she had been cruelly robbed and beaten,

and now was utterly destitute, needing aid to set herself up again.

The Queen of Scots was noted for her beneficent almsgiving, and a few

silver pieces from her would be quite sufficient to replenish her


Neither boy doubted a moment. Antony had the entree to the presence

chamber, where on this festival night the Earl and Countess were sure

to be with the Queen. He went straightway thither, and trained as he

was in the usages of the place, told his business to the Earl, who was

seated near the Queen. Lord Shrewsbury took the petition from him,

glanced it over, and asked, "Who knew the Guy Norman who sent it?"

Frank Talbot answered for him, that he was a yeoman pricker, and the

Earl permitted the paper to be carried to Mary, watching her carefully

as she read it, when Antony had presented it on one knee.

"Poor woman!" she said, "it is a piteous case. Master Beatoun, hast

thou my purse? Here, Master Babington, wilt thou be the bearer of this

angel for me, since I know that the delight of being the bearer will be

a reward to thy kind heart."

Antony gracefully kissed the fair hand, and ran off joyously with the

Queen's bounty. Little did any one guess what the career thus begun

would bring that fair boy.

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