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King's dignified tone of courtesy, he was always reduced to the air of one soliciting rather than conferring a favour.
Finally, Malcolm was called in, and presented to the Duke, making his own promise on his word of honour as a prince, and giving a written bond, that so soon as he obtained the hand of the Demoiselle de Luxemburg, he would resign her Hainault estates to the Duke of Burgundy for a sum of money, to be fixed by persons chosen for the purpose.
This was more like earnest than anything Malcolm had yet obtained ; and he went home exulting and exalted, his doubts as to Esclairmonde's consent almost silenced when he counted up the forces that were about to bear upon her.
And they did descend upon her. Countess Jaqueline had been joined by other and more congenial Flemish dames, and was weary of her grave monitress; and she continually scolded at Esclairmonde for perverseness and obstinacy in not accepting the only male thing she had ever favoured. The Bishop of Thérouenne threatened and argued ; and the Duke of Burgundy himself came to enforce his commands to his refractory vassal, and on finding her still unsubmissive, flew into a rage, and rated her, as few could have done, save Philippe, called the Good.
All she attempted to answer was, that they were welcome to her lands, so they would leave her person free; her vows were not to man, but to God, and God would protect her.
It was an answer that seemed specially to enrage her persecutors, who retorted by telling her that such protection was only extended to those who obeyed lawful authority ; and hints were thrown out, that if she did not submit willingly, she might find herself married forcibly, for a bishop could afford to disregard the resistance of a bride.
Would Malcolm-would his King-consent to her being thus treated ?
As to Malcolm, he seemed to her too much changed for her to reckon on what remnant of good feeling there might be to appeal to in him. And James, though he was certain not to permit palpable coercion in his presence, or even if he were aware that it was contemplated, seemed to have left the whole management of the affair to Esclairmonde's own guardians; and they would probably avoid driving matters to extremities that would revolt him, while he was near enough for an appeal. And Esclairmonde was too uncertain whether her guardians would resort to such lengths, or whether it were not a vain threat of the giddy Countess to compromise her dignity, by crying out before she was hurt; and she had no security, save that she was certain that in the English household of King Henry such violence would not be attempted ; and out of reach of that protection she never ventured.
Once she said to Henry, My only hope is in God and in you, my Lord.'
And Henry bent his head, saying, 'Noble Lady, I cannot interfere ; but while you are in my house, nothing can be done with you against your will." VOL. 7.
Yet even Henry was scarcely what he had been in all-pervading vigilance and readiness. Like all real kings of men, he had been his own prime minister, commander-in-chief, and private secretary, transacting a marvellous amount of business with prompt completeness ; and when, in the midst of shattered health which he would not avow, the cares of two kingdoms, and the generalship of an army, with all its garrisons, rested on him, his work would hardly have been accomplished but for his brother's aid. It was never acknowledged-often angrily disdained. But wben John of Bedford had watched the terrible lassitude and lethargy that weighed on the King at times in the midst of his cabinet work, he was constantly on the watch to relieve him; and his hand and style so closely resembled Henry's, that the difference could scarce be detected ; and he could do what none other durst attempt. Many a time would Henry, whose temper had grown most uncertain, fiercely rate him for intermeddling ; but John knew and loved him too well to heed ; and his taet and unobtrusiveness made Henry rely on him more and more.
If the illness had only been confessed, those who watched the King anxiously would have had more hope; but he was hotly angered at any hint of his needing care; and though he sometimes relieved oppression by causing himself to be bled by a servant, he never allowed that anything ailed him; it was always the hot weather, the anxious tidings, the long pageant, that wearied him—things that were wont to be like gnats on a lion's mane.
Those solemn banquets and festivals—lasting from forenoon to eventide, with their endless relays of allegorical subtilties, their long-winded harangues, noisy music, interludes of giants, sylvan men, distressed damsels, knights-errant on horseback, ships and forests coming in upon wheels, and fulsome compliments that must be answered-had been always his aversion ; and were now so heavy an oppression, that Bedford would have persuaded the Queen to curtail them. But to the fair Catherine this appeared an unkind endeavour of her disagreeable brother-in-law, to prevent her from shining in her native city, and eclipsing the Burgundian pomp; and she opened her soft brown eyes in dignified displeasure, answering that she saw nothing amiss with the King; and she likewise complained to her husband of his brother's jealousy of her welcome from her own people, bringing on him one of Henry's most bitter sentences.
Henry would only have had her abate somewhat of the splendour that gratified her, because he did not think it becoming to outshine her parents ; but Catherine scorned the notion. Her old father would know nothing, or would smile in his foolish way to see her so brave; and for her mother, she recked not so long as she had a larded capon before her; nor was it possible to make her understand that this fatuity and feebleness were the very reasons for deferring to them.
The ordering of the feast fell to Catherine and her train ; and its splendours on successive days had their full development, greatly to the constraint and weariness, among others, of Esclairmonde, who was always assigned to Malcolm Stewart, and throughout these long days had to be constantly repressing him; not that he often durst make her any direct compliment, for he was usually quelled into anxious wistful silence, and merely eyed her earnestly, paying her every attention in
And such a silent tedious meal was sure to be remarked, either with laughing rudeness by Countess Jaqueline, or with severe reproof by the Bishop of Thérouenne, both of whom assured her that she had better lay aside her airs, and resign herself in good part, for there was no escape for her.
One day, however, when the feast was at the Hotel de Bourgogne, and there were some slight differences in the order of the guests, the Duke of Bedford put himself forward as the Lady Esclairmonde's cavalier, so much to her relief, that her countenance, usually so guarded, relaxed into the bright sweet smile of cheerfulness that was most natural to her. Isolated as the pairs at the table were, and with music braying in a gallery just above, there was plenty of scope for conversation ; and once again Esclairmonde was talking freely of the matters regarding the distress in Paris, that Bedford had consulted her upon before he became so much engrossed with his brother's affairs, or she so beset by her persecutors.
Towards the evening, when the feast had still some mortal hours to last, there fell a silence on the Duke ; and at length, when the music was at the loudest, he said, “Lady, I have watched for this moment. You are persecuted. Look not on me as one of your persecutors; but if no other refuge be open to you, here is one who might know better how to esteem you than that malapert young Scot.'
"How, Sir? exclaimed Esclairmonde, amazed at these words from the woman-hating Bedford.
• Make no sudden reply,' said John. 'I had never thought of you save as one consecrate, till, when I see you like to be hunted down into the hands of yon silly lad, I cannot but thrust between. My brother would willingly consent: and if I may but win your leave to love you, Lady, it will be with a heart that has yearned to no other woman.'
He spoke low and steadily, looking straight before him, with no visible emotion, save a little quiver in the last sentence, a slight dilating of the delicately cut nostril; and then he was silent, until having recovered the self-restraint that had been failing him, he prevented the words she was trying to form, by saying, ‘Not in haste, Lady. There is time yet before you to bethink yourself whether you can be free in will and conscience. If so, I will bear you through all.'
How invitingly the words fell on the lonely heart, so long left to fight its own battles! There came for the first time the full sense of what life might be, the shielding tenderness, the sure reliance, the pure affection, such as she saw Henry lavish on the shallow queen, but which she could meet and requite in John. The brutal Boëmond, the childish Malcolm, had aroused no feeling in her but dislike or pity, and to them a convent was infinitely preferable; but Bedford-the religious, manly, brave, unselfish Bedford-opened to her the view of all that could content a high-souled woman's heart, backed moreover by the wonder of having been the first to touch such a spirit.
It would not have been a mésalliance. Her family was one of the grandest of the Netherlands; the saintly Emperor, Henry of Luxemburg, was her ancestor; and Bedford's proposal was not a condescension, such as to rouse her sense of dignity. His rank did not strike her, as did his lofty stainless character; the like of which she had never known to exist in the world of active life till she saw the brothers of England, who came more near to the armed saints and holy warriors of Church legend, than her fancy had thought mortal man could do, bred as she had been in the sensual, violent, and glittering Burgundy of the fifteenth century. In truth, as Malcolm had thought the cloister the only refuge from the harshness and barbarism of Scotland, so Esclairmonde had thought piety and purity to be found nowhere else; and both had found the court of Henry V. an infinitely better world than they had supposed possible; but until the present moment, Esclairmonde had never felt the slightest call to take a permanent place there. Now, however, the cloister, even if it were open to her, presented a gloomy cheerless life of austerity, in comparison with human affection and matronly duty. And most vivid of all at the moment, was the desire to awaken the tender sweetness that slept in those steady grey eyes, to see the grave wise visage gleam with smiling affection, and to rest in having one to take thought for her, and finish this long term of tossing about and selfdefence. Was not the patience with which he kept his eyes away from her already a proof of his consideration and delicate kindness?
But deep in Esclairmonde's soul lay the sense that her dedication was sacred, and her power over herself gone. She had always felt a wife's allegiance due to Him whom she received as her spiritual Spouse; and though the sense at this moment only brought her disappointment and self reproach, her will was loyal. The bond was cutting into her very flesh, but she never even thought of breaking it; and all she waited for was the power of restraining her grateful tears. In this she was assisted, by observing that Bedford's attention had been attracted towards his brother, who was looking wan and weary, scarcely tasting what was set before him; and after fitfully trying to converse with Marguerite of Burgundy, at last had taken advantage of an endless harangue from all the Virtues, and had dropped asleep. The Lady Anne was seen making a sign to her sister not to disturb him ; and Bedford murmured, with a sigh, “There is for once a discreet woman.' Then, as if recalled to a sense of what was passing, he turned on Esclairmonde his full earnest look, saying, “You will teach the Queen how he should be cared for. You will help me.'
'Şir,' said Esclairmonde, feeling it most difficult not to falter, this is a great grace, but it cannot be.'
Can not,' said Bedford slowly. You have taken thought.'
“Sir, it is not the part of a betrothed spouse to take thought. My vows were renewed of my own free will; and it were sacrilege to try to recall them for the first real temptation.'
She spoke steadily, but the effort ached through her wliole frame, especially when the last word illumined John Plantagenet's face with strange sweet light, quenched as his lip trembled, his nostril quivered, his eye even moistened, as he said, 'It is enough, Lady; I will no more vex one who is vexed enough already ; and you will so far trust me as to regard me as your protector, if you should be in need ?'
• Indeed I will,' said Esclairmonde, hardly restraining her tears.
. That is well,' said Bedford. And he neither looked at her nor spoke to her again, till, as he led her away in the procession from the hall, he beld her hand fast, and murmured, “There then it rests, sweet Lady; unless, having taken counsel with your own heart, you should change your decree, and consult some holy priest. If so, make but a sign of the hand, and I am yours; for verily you are the only maiden I could ever have loved.'
She was still in utter confusion, in the chamber where the ladies were cloaking for their return, when her hands were grasped on either side by the two Burgundian princesses.
'Sweet runaway, we have caught you at last! Here, into Anne's chamber. See you we must! How is it with you? Like you the limping Scot better than Boëmond ? laughed the Dauphiness, her company dignity laid aside for school-girl chatter.
• If you cannot hold out,' said Anne, 'the Scot seems a gentle youth; and at least, you are quit of Boëmond.'
• Yes,' said Marguerite, ‘his last prank was too strong for the Duke: quartering a dozen men-at-arms on a sulky Cambrai weaver till he paid him 2000 crowns. Besides, it would be well to get the Scottish king for an ally. Do you know what we two are here for, Clairette ? We are both to be betrothed; one to the handsome captive with the gold locks; the other to your bawk-nosed neighbour, who seemed to have not a word to say.'
But,' said Esclairmonde, replying to the easiest part of the disclosure, 'the King of Scots is in love with the Demoiselle of Somerset.'
• What matters that, silly maid ?' said Marguerite; he does not displease me; and Anne is welcome to that melancholy duke.'
O Lady Anne !' exclaimed Esclairmonde, 'if such be your lot, it would be well indeed.'
• What, the surly brother, of whom Catherine tells such tales !' continued Marguerite.