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Madame,' said Malcolm, with an attempt at the assurance he believed himself to have acquired; but he could only finish by faltering and blushing. There was a power of repression about Esclairmonde that annihilated all his designs, and drove him back into his bashful self whenever he came into contact with her, and felt how unlike the grave serene loftiness of her presence was to the mere queen of romance, that in her absence her shadow had become.
Alice Montagu, returning to her side, relieved while disconcerting him. Sweet little Alice had been in a continual flutter ever since commands had come from Meaux that she was to come out to meet the father whom she had not seen since what seemed like half her childish life-time, and the betrothed whom she had never seen at all; and Lady Westmoreland had added to her awe by the lengthened admonition with which she took leave of her. And on this day, when Esclairmonde herself had arrayed the fair child in the daintiest of rose-pink boddices edged with swan's down, the whitest of kirtles, and softest of rosy veils, the flush of anxiety on the pale little face made it so fair to look upon, that as the maiden wistfully asked, “Think you he will flout me?' it was impossible not to laugh at the very notion. 'Ah! but I would be glad if he did, for then might I bide with you.'
When, in the general greeting, Alice had been sought out by a tall, dark-browed, grizzled warrior, Esclairmonde had, cruelly as the maiden thought, kept her station behind the Countess, and never stirred for all those wistful backward glances, but left her alone to drop on her knee to seek the blessing of the mighty old soldier.
And now she was holding his great hand, almost as tough as his gauntlets, and leading him up to her friend, while he louted low, and spoke with a grand fatherly courtesy.
Fair Demoiselle, this silly wench of mine tells me that you have been good friend to her, and I thank you for the same with all mine heart.'
'Silly' was a fond term of love then, and had all the affection of a proud father in it as the Earl of Salisbury patted the small soft fingers
in his grasp
"Truly, my Lord,' responded Esclairmonde, 'the Lady Alice hath been my sweetest companion, friend, and sister, for these many months.'
•Nay, child, art worthy to be called friend by such a lady as this? If so, I shall deem my little Alice grown a woman indeed, as it is time she were-Diccon Nevil is bent on the wedding before we go to the wars again.'
Alice coloured like a damask rose, and hid her face behind her friend.
'Hast seen him, sweet ?' asked Esclairmonde, when Salisbury liad been called away. "Is he here?'
“Yes. Out there. He with the white bull on bis surcoat,' said Alice, dreading to look that way.
*And hast spoken with him?' asked the lady next, feeling as if the stout, commonplace, bardy-looking soldier she saw was scarce what she would have chosen for her little wild rose of an Alice, comely and brave though he were.
“He hath kissed mine hand,' faltered Alice, but it was quite credible that not a word had passed. The marriage was a business contract between the houses of Wark and Raby, and a grand speculation for Sir Richard Nevil, that was all ; but gentle Alice had no reluctance beyond mere maidenly shyness, and unwillingness to enter on an unknown future under a new lord. She even whispered to her dear Clairette that she was glad Sir Richard never tormented her by talking to her, and that he was grave, and so old.
“So old? why, little one, he can scarce be seven-and-twenty!
* And is not that old! oh, so old !' said Alice. Able to take care of me. I would not bave a youth like that young Lord of Glenuskie. Oh no-never !
“That is well,' said Esclairmonde, smiling; 'but wherefore put such disdain in thy voice, Alice ? He used to be our playfellow, and he hath grown older and more manly in this year.'
‘His boyhood was better than such manhood,' said Alice; "he was more to my taste when he was meek, than now that he seems to say, “I would be saucy if I durst.” And he hath not the stuff to dare any way.'
'Fie! fie! Alice, you are growing slanderous.'
‘Hush, silly one, what skills it? Youths must pass through temptation; and if his King hindered his vocation, may be the poor lad may rue it sorely, but methinks he will come to the right at last. better to say a prayer for his faults than to speak evil of them, Alice.'
Poor Malcolm! He was at that very moment planning with an embroiderer a robe wherein to appear, covered with flashes of lightning transfixing the world, and mottoes around—“Esclairé mais Embrasé !'
Every moment that he was absent from Esclairmonde was spent in composing chivalrous discourses in which to lay himself at her feet, but the mere sight of her steady dark eyes scattered them instantly from his memory; and save for very shame he would have entreated King James again to break the ice for him, since the lady evidently supposed that she had last year entirely quashed his suit. And in this mood, Malcolm mounted and took his place to ride into Paris, where the King wished to arrive in the evening, and with little preparation, so as to avoid the weary length of a state reception, with all its speeches and pageants.
In the glow of a May evening the cavalcade passed the gates, and entered the city, where the streets were so narrow, that it was often impossible to ride otherwise than two and two. The foremost bad emerged into an open space before a church and churchyard, when there was a sudden pause, a shock of surprise. All across the space, blocking
up the way, was an enormous line of figures, looking shadowy in the evening light, and bearing the insignia of every rank and dignity that earth presented. Popes were there, with triple crown and keys, and fanned by peacock tails ; scarlet-hatted and caped cardinals, mitred and crosiered bishops, crowned and sceptred kings, ermined dukes, steelclad knights, gowned lawyers, square-capped priests, cowled monks, and friars of every degree-nay, the mechanic with his tools, the peasant with his spade, even the beggar with his dish; old men, and children of every age ; and women too of all grades—the tower-crowned queen, the beplumed dame, the lofty abbess, the veiled nun, the bourgeoise, the peasant, the beggar ;-all were there, moving in a strange shadowy wild dance, sometimes slow, sometimes swift and mad with gaiety, to the music of an unseen band of clashing kettle-drums, cymbals, and other instruments, that played fast and furiously; while above all a knell in the church tower rang forth at intervals a slow deep lugubrious note; and all the time there glided in and out through the ring a grisly being-skull-headed, skeleton-boned, scythe in hand-Death himself; and ever and anon, when the dance was swiftest, would he dart into the midst, pounce on one or other, holding an hour-glass to the face, unheeding rank, sex, or age, and bear his victim to the charnel-house beside the church. It was a sight as though some terrible sermon had taken life, as though the unseen bad become visible, the veil were taken away; and the implicit unresisting obedience of the victims added to the sense of awful reality and fatality.
The advance of the victorious King Henry made no difference to the continuousness of the frightful dance; nay, it was plain that he was but in the presence of a monarch yet more victorious than himself, and the mazes wound on, the performers being evidently no phantoms, but as substantial as those who bebeld them; nay, the grisly ring began to absorb the royal suite within itself, and an awe-stricken silence prevailed —at least, where Malcolm Stewart and Ralf Percy were riding together.
Neither lad durst ask the other what it meant. They thought they knew too well. Percy ceased not for one moment to cross himself, and mutter invocations to the saints ; Malcolm's memory and tongue alike seemed inert and paralyzed with horror-his brain was giddy, his eyes stretched open ; and when Death suddenly turned and darted in his direction, one horrible gush of thought-'Fallen, fallen! Lost, lost ! No confession !--came over him; he would have sobbed out an entreaty for mercy and for a priest, but it became a helpless shriek; and while Percy's sword flashed before his eyes, he felt himself falling, deathstricken, to the earth, and knew no more.
“There, he moved,' said a voice above him.
‘How now, Glenuskie! cried Ralf Percy. 'Look up; I verily thought you were sped by Death in bodily shape; but 'twas all an abominable grisly pageant got up by some dismal caitiffs.'
'It was the Danse Macabre,' added the sweet tone that did indeed un
close Malcolm's eyes, to see Esclairmonde bending over him, and holding wine to his lips. Ralf raised him that he might swallow it, and looking round, be saw that he was in a small wainscoted chamber, with an old burgher woman, Ralf Percy, and Esclairmonde, certainly not in the other world. He strove to ask what it meant,' and Esclairmonde spoke again. It is the Danse Macabre; I have seen it in Holland. It was invented as a warning to those of sinful life, and this good woman tells me it has become the custom to enact it every evening at this churchyard of the Holy Innocents.'
'A custom I devoutly hope King Harry will break !' exclaimed Ralf. 'If not, I'll some day find the way between those painted ribs of Monseigneur de la Mort, I can tell him! I had nearly given him a taste of my sword as it was, only some Gascon rogue caught my arm, and he was off ere I could get free. So I jumped off, that your poor corpse should not be trodden by French heels ; and I hardly know how it was, but the Lady Esclairmonde was by my side as I dragged you out, and caused these good folks to let me bring you in behind their shop.'
Lady, Lady, I am for ever beholden,' cried Malcolm, gathering himself up as if to fall at her feet, and his heart bounding high with joy, for this was from death to life indeed.
'I saw there was someone hurt,' said Esclairmonde in her repressive manner. "Drink some more wine, eat this bread, and you will be able to ride to the Hotel de St. Pol.'
"Oh, Lady, let me speak of my bliss !' and he snatched at her hand, but was still so dizzy that he sank back, becoming aware that he was stiff and bruised from his fall. Almost at the same moment a new step and voice were heard in the little open booth where the cutler displayed his wares, and King James was at once admitted.
How goes it, laddie ? he asked. “They told me grim Death had clutched you and borne you off to his charnel-house, but at least I see an angel bas charge of you.'
Esclairmonde slightly coloured as she made answer, “I saw someone fall, and came to offer my poor skill, Sir; but as the Sieur de Glenuskie is fast recovering, if you will permit Sir Nigel Baird to attend me, Sir, I will at once return.'
'I am ready-I am not hurt. Oh, let us go together!' panted Malcolm, leaping up.
“Eh, gentlemen!' exclaimed the hospitable cutler's wife ; 'you will not away so fast! This gallant knight will permit you to remain. And the fair lady, she will do me the honour to drink a cup of wine to the recovery of her betrothed.'
‘Not so, good woman,' said Esclairmonde, a little apart, 'I am the betrothed of Heaven. I only assisted because I feared the youth's fall was more serious than it proves.'
The bourgeoise begged pardon, and made a curtsey ; there was nothing unusual in the avowal the lady had made, when the convent was a thoroughly recognized profession; but Esclairmonde could not carry out her purpose of departing separately with old Sir Nigel Baird; Malcolm was on his feet, quite ready to mount, and there was no avoiding the being assisted to her saddle by any but the King, who was in truth quite as objectionable a companion, as far as appearances went, for a young solitary maiden, as was Malcolm himself. Esclairmonde felt that her benevolence might have led her into a scrape. When she had seen the fall, knowing that to the unprepared the ghastly pageant must seem reality, she had obeyed the impulse to hurry to the rescue, to console and aid in case of injury, and she had not even perceived that her female companions did not attempt to accompany her. However, the mischance could best be counteracted by simplicity and unconsciousness ; so as she found herself obliged to ride by the King, she unconcernedly observed that these fantastic dances might perhaps arouse sinners, but that they were a horrible sight for the unprepared.
Very like a dream becoming flesh and blood,' said James. We in advance were slow to perceive what it was, and then the King merely thought whether it would alarm the Queen.'
'I trow it did not.'
‘No; the thing has not been found that will stir her placid face. She merely said it was very lugubrious, and an ill turn in the Parisians thus to greet her, but they were always senseless bêtes ; and he, being relieved of care for her, looked with all his eyes, with a strange mixture of drollery at the antics and the masques, yet of grave musing at the likeness to this present life.'
“I think,' said Esclairmonde, 'that King Henry is one of the few men to whom the spectacle is a sermon. He laughs even while he lays a thing to heart.'
These few sentences had brought them to the concourse around the gateway of the great Hotel de St. Pol, in whose crowded court-yard Esclairmonde had to dismount; and after being handed through the hall by King James, to make her way to the ladies' apartments, and there find out, what she was most anxious about, how Alice, who had been riding at some distance from her with her father, had fared under the alarm.
Alice ran up to her eagerly. 'Ah, dear Clairette, and was he greatly burt?' Not much; he had only swooned for fright.'
Swooned ! to be a prince, and not have the heart of a midge ! • And how was it with you, you very wyvern for courage ?
• With me? Oh, I was somewhat appalled at first, when my father took hold of my rein, and bade me never fear; for I saw his face grow amazed. Sir Richard Nevil rode up on the other side, and said the hobgoblins should eat out his heart ere they hurt me; and I looked into his face as he said that, and liked it more than ever I thought to like any but yours, Clairette. I think my father was going to leave me to him and see