The Castle Well
"What vantage or what thing
Gett'st thou thus for to sting,
Thou false and flatt'ring liar?
Thy tongue doth hurt, it's seen
No less than arrows keen
Or hot consuming fire."
So sang the congregation in the chapel at Chartley, in the strains of
Sternhold and Hopkins, while Humfrey Talbot could not forbear from a
misgiving whether these falsehoods were en
irely on the side to which
they were thus liberally attributed. Opposite to him stood Cicely, in
her dainty Sunday farthingale of white, embroidered with violet buds,
and a green and violet boddice to match, holding herself with that
unconscious royal bearing which had always distinguished her, but with
an expression of care and anxiety drawing her dark brows nearer
together as she bent over her book.
She knew that her mother had left her bed with the earliest peep of
summer dawn, and had met the two secretaries in her cabinet. There
they were busy for hours, and she had only returned to her bed just as
the household began to bestir itself.
"My child," she said to Cicely, "I am about to put my life into thy
keeping and that of this Talbot lad. If what he saith of this Langston
be sooth, I am again betrayed, fool that I was to expect aught else.
My life is spent in being betrayed. The fellow hath been a go-between
in all that hath passed between Babington and me. If he hath uttered it
to Walsingham, all is over with our hopes, and the window in whose
sunlight I have been basking is closed for ever! But something may yet
be saved. Something? What do I say?--The letters I hold here would
give colour for taking my life, ay, and Babington's and Curll's, and
many more. I trusted to have burnt them, but in this summer time there
is no coming by fire or candle without suspicion, and if I tore them
they might be pieced together, nay, and with addition. They must be
carried forth and made away with beyond the ken of Paulett and his
spies. Now, this lad hath some bowels of compassion and generous
indignation. Thou wilt see him again, alone and unsuspected, ere he
departs. Thou must deal with him to bear this packet away, and when he
is far out of reach to drop it into the most glowing fire, or the
deepest pool he can find. Tell him it may concern thy life and liberty,
and he will do it, but be not simple enough to say ought of Babington."
"He would be as like to do it for Babington as for any other," said Cis.
The Queen smiled and said, "Nineteen years old, and know thus little of
"I know Humfrey at least," said Cis.
"Then deal with him after thy best knowledge, to make him convey away
this perilous matter ere a search come upon us. Do it we must, maiden,
not for thy poor mother's sake alone, but for that of many a faithful
spirit outside, and above all of poor Curll. Think of our Barbara!
Would that I could have sent her out of reach of our alarms and shocks,
but Paulett is bent on penning us together like silly birds in the net.
Still proofs will be wanting if thou canst get this youth to destroy
this packet unseen. Tell him that I know his parents' son too well to
offer him any meed save the prayers and blessings of a poor captive, or
to fear that he would yield it for the largest reward Elizabeth's
coffers could yield."
"It shall be done, madam," said Cicely. But there was a strong purpose
in her mind that Humfrey should not be implicated in the matter.
When after dinner Sir Amias Paulett made his daily visit of inspection
to the Queen, she begged that the young Talbots might be permitted
another walk in the garden; and when he replied that he did not approve
of worldly pastime on the Sabbath, she pleaded the celebrated example
of John Knox finding Calvin playing at bowls on a Sunday afternoon at
Geneva, and thus absolutely prevailed on him to let them take a short
walk together in brotherly love, while the rest of the household was
collected in the hall to be catechised by the chaplain.
So out they went together, but to Humfrey's surprise, Cicely walked on
hardly speaking to him, so that he fancied at first that she must have
had a lecture on her demeanour to him. She took him along the broad
terrace beside the bowling-green, through some yew-tree walks to a
stone wall, and a gate which proved to be locked. She looked much
disappointed, but scanning the wall with her eye, said, "We have scaled
walls together before now, and higher than this. Humfrey, I cannot
tell you why, but I must go over here."
The wall was overgrown with stout branches of ivy, and though the
Sunday farthingale was not very appropriate for climbing, Cicely's
active feet and Humfrey's strong arm carried her safely to where she
could jump down on the other side, into a sort of wilderness where
thorn and apple trees grew among green mounds, heaps of stones and
broken walls, the ruins of some old outbuilding of the former castle.
There was only a certain trembling eagerness about her, none of the
mirthful exultation that the recurrence of such an escapade with her
old companion would naturally have excited, and all she said was,
"Stand here, Humfrey; an you love me, follow me not. I will return
With stealthy stop she disappeared behind a mound covered by a thicket
of brambles, but Humfrey was much too anxious for her safety not to
move quietly onwards. He saw her kneeling by one of those black
yawning holes, often to be found in ruins, intent upon fastening a
small packet to a stone; he understood all in a moment, and drew back
far enough to secure that no one molested her. There was something in
this reticence of hers that touched him greatly; it showed so entirely
that she had learnt the lesson of loyalty which his father's influence
had impressed, and likewise one of self-dependence. What was right for
her to do for her mother and Queen might not be right for him, as an
Englishman, to aid and abet; and small as the deed seemed in itself,
her thus silently taking it on herself rather than perplex him with it,
added a certain esteem and respect to the affection he had always had
She came back to him with bounding steps, as if with a lightened heart,
and as he asked her what this strange place was, she explained that
here were said to be the ruins of the former castle, and that beyond
lay the ground where sometimes the party shot at the butts. A little
dog of Mary Seaton's had been lost the last time of their archery, and
it was feared that he had fallen down the old well to which Cis now
conducted Humfrey. There was a sound--long, hollow, reverberating,
when Humfrey threw a stone down, and when Cecily asked him, in an
awestruck voice, whether he thought anything thrown there would ever be
heard of more, he could well say that he believed not.
She breathed freely, but they were out of bounds, and had to scramble
back, which they did undetected, and with much more mirth than the
first time. Cicely was young enough to be glad to throw off her
anxieties and forget them. She did not want to talk over the plots she
only guessed at; which were not to her exciting mysteries, but gloomy
terrors into which she feared to look. Nor was she free to say much to
Humfrey of what she knew. Indeed the rebound, and the satisfaction of
having fulfilled her commission, had raised Cicely's spirits, so that
she was altogether the bright childish companion Humfrey had known her
before he went to sea, or royalty had revealed itself to her; and Sir
Amias Paulett would hardly have thought them solemn and serious enough
for an edifying Sunday talk could he have heard them laughing over
Humfrey's adventures on board ship, or her troubles in learning to
dance in a high and disposed manner. She came in so glowing and happy
that the Queen smiled and sighed, and called her her little milkmaid,
commending her highly, however, for having disposed of the dangerous
parcel unknown (as she believed) to her companion. "The fewer who have
to keep counsel, the sickerer it is," she said.
Humfrey meantime joined the rest of the household, and comported
himself at the evening sermon with such exemplary discretion as
entirely to win the heart of Sir Amias Paulett, who thought him
listening to Mr. Blunden's oft-divided headings, while he was in fact
revolving on what pretext he could remain to protect Cicely. The
Knight gave him that pretext, when he spoke of departing early on
Monday morning, offering him, or rather praying him to accept, the
command of the guards, whose former captain had been dismissed as
untrustworthy. Sir Amias undertook that a special messenger should be
sent to take a letter to Bridgefield, explaining Humfrey's delay, and
asking permission from his parents to undertake the charge, since it
was at this very crisis that he was especially in need of God-fearing
men of full integrity. Then moved to confidence, the old gentleman
disclosed that not only was he in fear of an attack on the house from
the Roman Catholic gentry in the neighbourhood, which was to take place
as soon as Parma's ships were seen on the coast, but that he dreaded
his own servants being tampered with by some whom he would not mention
to take the life of the prisoner secretly.
"It hath been mooted to me," he said, lowering his voice to a whisper,
"that to take such a deed on me would be good service to the Queen and
to religion, but I cast the thought from me. It can be nought but a
deadly sin--accursed of God--and were I to consent, I should be the
first to be accused."
"It would be no better than the King of Spain himself," exclaimed
"Even so, young man, and right glad am I to find one who thinks with
me. For the other practices, they are none of mine, and is it not
written 'In the same pit which they laid privily is their foot taken'?"
"Then there are other practices?"
"Ask me no questions, Mr. Talbot. All will be known soon enough. Be
content that I will lay nothing on you inconsistent with the honour of
a Christian man, knowing that you will serve the Queen faithfully."
Humfrey gave his word, resolving that he would warn Cicely to reckon
henceforth on nothing on his part that did not befit a man in charge.