by William Shakespeare
Presented by Paul W. Collins
© Copyright 2011 by Paul W. Collins
By William Shakespeare
Presented by Paul W. Collins
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Note: Spoken lines from Shakespeare’s drama are in the public domain, as is the Globe edition (1864) of his plays, which provided the basic text of the speeches in this new version of King John. But King John, by William Shakespeare: Presented by Paul W. Collins, is a copyrighted work, and is made available for your personal use only, in reading and study.
Student, beware: This is a presentation, not a scholarly work, so you should be sure your teacher, instructor or professor considers it acceptable as a reference before quoting characters’ comments or thoughts from it in your report or term paper.
Possession and Right
From his throne, King John of England addresses the ambassador. “Now say, Chatillon: what would France with us?”
The visitor nods. “After greeting, thus speaks the King of France of my behavior to the majesty, the borrowed majesty, of England here—”
“A strange beginning: ‘borrowed’ majesty!” says the white-haired queen mother, frowning as she stands beside the king. Eleanor of Aquitaine is the widow of King Henry II.
“In silence, good mother, hear the embassy.”
Annoyed, Lord Chatillon resumes, haughtily: “France, in right and true behalf of thy deceasèd brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim to this fair island, to Ireland and the territories of Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, and Maine,”—four areas of France now held by the English, “desiring thee to lay aside the sword which sways usurpingly in these several titles, and put these same into young Arthur’s hand—thy nephew and, rightly, thy royal sovereign!”
John, new to the throne—his older brother, King Richard, died in France, fighting King Philip’s forces—has expected a challenge to his rule centered on the boy Arthur, nominal Duke of Brittany. “What follows if we disallow of this?”
Chatillon’s face darkens. “The proud control of fierce and bloody war, to enforce these rights so forcibly withheld!”
King John is calm. “We here have controlment for control, warfare for war—and blood for blood! So answer France.”
“Then take my king’s defiance from my mouth, to the farthest limit of my embassy!”
“Bear mine to him,” says the king, “and so depart in peace.” But, anger rising, he offers a warning: “Go thou as lightning toward the eyes of France!—for ere thou canst report, I will be there!—and the thunder of my cannon shall be heard!
“So hence! Be thou the trumpet of our wrath!—and sullen presage of your own decay!
“An honourable conduct let him have. Pembroke, look to ’t,” he tells the earl. “Farewell, Chatillon.”
The ambassador bows curtly and strides away. He leaves the throne room, with Lord Pembroke and both noblemen’s attendants hurrying behind.
- As the stunned courtiers exchange comments, Eleanor speaks privately. “What now, my son? Have I not ever said how that ambitious Constance would not cease till she had kindled France, and all the world, upon the right and party of her son?
- “This might have been prevented and made whole with very easy arguments of love—which now the manage of two kingdoms must with fearful, bloody issue arbitrate!”
- John is fully confident. “Our strong right and our possession are for us.”
- “Your strong possession much more than your right!—or else it must go wrong with you and me! So much my thinking whispers in your ear, which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.”
A rural sheriff has come into the hall and approached Lord Essex. The earl listens, then walks to the throne. “My liege, here is the strangest controversy that e’er I heard, come from the country to be judged by you! Shall I produce the men?”
John nods. “Let them approach.”
The king has decided how to secure money for the war; he announces to the court, “Our abbeys and our priories shall pay this expedition’s charge.” An immediate stir follows; the Church will not willingly yield to the taxation.
The sheriff’s two disputants now come before King John. “What men are you?”
“Your faithful subject, I!” The tall, powerfully built one bows. “A gentleman born in Northamptonshire, and eldest son, as I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge, a soldier knighted in the field by the honour-giving hand of Coeur de Lion!”—the late King Richard.
“What art thou?” John asks the other, a slender, sharp-faced young man.
“The son and heir to that same Faulconbridge,” says Robert.
“Is that the elder, yet art thou the heir?” the king asks him. “You came not of one mother then, it seems….”
Says Philip, “Most certainly of one mother, mighty king; that is well known; and, as is thought, one father. But for the certain knowledge of that truth, I put you o’er to Heaven and to my mother. Of that I might doubt, as all men’s children may.”
“Out on thee, rude man!” protests Lady Eleanor. “Thou dost shame thy mother, and wound her honour with this diffidence!”
“I, madam? No!—I have no reason for it! That is my brother’s plea, and none of mine!—the which if he can prove, he thereby pops me out from at least five hundred pound a year! Heaven guard my mother’s honour—and my land!” The money is the income it produces, paid by tenant farmers.
“A good, blunt fellow!” says John, accustomed to hearing courtiers’ roundabout rhetoric. “Why, being younger born, doth he lay claim to thy inheritance?”
“I know not why, except to get the land,” says Philip. “Only this once has he slandered me with bastardy.
“As to whether I be as truly begot or no, that still I lay upon my mother’s head. But that I am as well begot, my liege, fair befall the bones that took the pains for me!” he adds.
He motions toward his brother. “Compare our faces, and be judge yourself.
“If old Sir Robert did beget us both, and his son Robert were like him, O Father, on my knee I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee!” Philip is certainly more handsome and physically impressive than Robert.
King John chuckles, as do his courtiers. “Why, what a madcap hath heaven lent us here!”
- The queen mother, leaning closer to the king, whispers. “He hath a trick of Coeur de Lion’s face!—and the accent of his tongue seems like his! Do you not read some tokens of my son in the large composition of this man?”
- John nods, remembering his strong, bold brother, a warrior of renown whose exploits are already sounding legendary. “Mine eye hath well examined his parts, and finds them perfect Richard!”
The king turns to Robert, “Sirrah, speak: what doth move you to claim your brother’s land?”
But Philip answers: “Because he hath a face half like my mother’s; with that, Half-face would he have all my land! For a half-faced groat,”—a small, well worn coin, “five hundred pound a year!”
Now, finally, Robert begins his suit: “My gracious liege, when that my father lived, your brother did employ my father much—”
“Well, sir, by that you cannot get my land!—your tale must be how he employed my mother,” quips Philip.
“—and once dispatched him in an embassy to Germany, there with the emperor to treat of high affairs touching that time,” says Robert. “The king took the advantage of his absence, and in the mean time sojourned at my father’s—where how he did prevail I shame to speak! But truth is truth.
“When this same lusty gentleman was begot, large lengths of sea and shore between my father and my mother lay—as I have heard my father speak himself,” says Robert. “Upon his death he by will bequeathed his lands to me, and took it on his death-bed that this, my mother’s son, was none of his!—that if he were, he came into the world full fourteen weeks before the course of time!
“Then, good my liege, let me have what is mine—my father’s land—as was my father’s will!”
King John considers the law. “Sirrah, your brother is legitimate,” he tells Robert. “Your father’s wife did after wedlock bear him; and if she did play false, the fault was hers—which fault lies as the hazard of all husbands that marry wives.
“Tell me, what if my brother, who, as you say, took pains to beget this son, had from your father claimed this son for his? In sooth, good friend, your father might have kept this calf, bred from his cow, from all the world—in sooth he might!
“If he were my brother’s, my brother could not claim him; nor could your father reject him, even being none of his.
“Thus I conclude: my mother’s son did beget your father’s heir; and your father’s heir must have your father’s land.”
Robert is stunned. “Shall then my father’s will be of no force to dispossess that child which is not his?”
Says Philip dryly, “Of no more force to dispossess me, sir, than was his will to beget me, as I think.”
Queen Eleanor regards him. “Which hadst thou rather be: a Faulconbridge like thy brother, and enjoy thy land; or the reputed son of Coeur de Lion, in thy presence a lord—but no land beside.”
Replies Philip, “Madam, if my brother had my shape, and I had his—Sir Robert’s, like him—and if my legs were two such riding-rods, my arms such stuffed eel-skins, my face so thin that by mine ear I durst not stick a rose, lest men should say, ‘Look, where three-farthings”—a rose-embossed coin—“goes!’ And if in his shape were I heir to all land…
“I would I might never stir from off this place! I would give it, every foot, not to have his face! I would not be Sir Bob in any case!”
“I like thee well!” laughs old Queen Eleanor. “Wilt thou forsake thy fortune, bequeath thy land to him, and follow me? I am a soldier now, and bound for France!”
Philip turns to Robert, “Brother, take you my land—I’ll take my chance! Sell your face for five pence and ’tis dear”—overpriced. “Yet your face hath got five hundred pound a year!
“Madam, I’ll follow you unto the death!” vows Philip.
She laughs again. “Nay, I would have you go before me thither!”
Laughing, he bows. “Our country manners give way to our betters’!”
John rises to stand before his nephew. “What is thy name?”
“Philip, my liege; so is my name begun: ‘Philip, good old Sir Robert’s wife’s eldest son.’”
The king steps forward. “From hence forth, bear his name whose form thou bear’st! Kneel thee down Philip, but rise more great!” He places the flat of his sword on the man’s shoulder. “Arise, Sir Richard, and Plantagenet!”—a family name of kings.
The new nobleman, just knighted, rises and bows to the king and queen mother. He turns to Robert. “Brother by the mother’s side, give me your hand! My father gave me honour, yours gave land. Now blessèd be that hour, by night or day: when I was begot, Sir Robert was away!”
Eleanor is delighted. “The very spirit of Plantagenet!”—especially of King Henry II, her second husband. “I am thy grandam, Richard; call me so!”
“Madam, by chance, but not by truth”—not by his mother’s being true, says Sir Richard. He shrugs. “What, though? Something’s about: a little out of the light, in at the window, or else o’er the hatch. Who dares not ‘stir’ by day must walk by night!
“And have is have, however men do catch! Near or far off, well won is still well shot—and I am I, howe’er I was begot!”
King John tells Robert, “Go, Faulconbridge. Now hast thou thy desire; a landless knight makes thee a landed squire!
“Come, madam, and come, Richard, we must speed for France!
“To France—for it is more in need!”
“Brother, adieu,” says Richard to Robert kindly. “Good fortune come to thee, for thou hast gotten i’ the path of honesty.”
The king and queen mother head toward the Privy Council chamber, followed by several lords; the other courtiers leave the throne room, gesticulating in urgent, wartime conversation. The now-secure county squire heads for home.
Thinks Sir Richard, Afoot of honour, better than I was—but by a-many foot of land the worse!
Pondering his new role as a noble agent of chivalry, he considers marriage—sourly. Well, now can I make any ‘Joan’ —a term for a common woman, or worse— a lady!
His imagination roams; he pictures a gentleman bowing and greeting him: ‘Good e’en, Sir Richard!’
‘God-a-mercy, fellow.’ And if his name be George, I’ll call him Peter, for new-made honour doth forget men’s names: ’tis too respectable and too unsociable for your conversation!
He sees himself at an inn. Now your traveller—he and his toothpick—is at My Worship’s meal; and when my knightly stomach is stuffed, why then I suck my pickèd teeth, and catechise my man of countries. ‘My dear sir,’—thus, leaning on mine elbow I begin. ‘I shall beseech you—that is, question you now.’
And then comes answer like an ABCs book’s: ‘O sir,’ says Answer, ‘At your Best Command!—at your employment!—at your service, sir!’ ‘No, sir,’ says Question, ‘I, sweet sir, at yours!’
Then, ere Answer knows what Question would ask—save in dialogue of compliment, and talk of the Alps and Apennines, the Pyrenees and the river Po—it draws toward supper, and so concludes.
But this is ‘Your Worship’-ful society, as befits a mounting spirit like myself—for he is but a bastard of the time who doth not smack of observation!—reflect its trends. Richard laughs. And so am I, whether I smack or no!
And not only in dress and device, exterior form, outward accoutrement, but also from the inner motion to deliver sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth! —treachery. Which, though I will not practise deceit, yet to avoid being deceivèd I mean to learn—for deceptions shall strew the footsteps of my rising.
Going to the throne-room doors, he spots a lady hurrying down the corridor from the palace entrance.
But who comes in such haste in riding robes? What woman-post is this? Hath she no husband that will take pains to blow a horn before her? Oh, me—it is my mother!
The beautiful gentlewoman, nearly out of breath, reaches him, followed by her steward.
“How now, good lady! What brings you here to court so hastily?”
Lady Faulconbridge has learned that Robert meant to press his claim with the king; she is furious. “Where is that slave, thy brother? Where is he, that holds mine honour in chase, up and down?”—high and low.
“My brother Robert, old Sir Robert’s son?—Colbrand the giant—that same mighty man?” he gibes, alluding to a figure of fable. “Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?”
“Sir Robert’s son!—aye, thou unreverent boy, Sir Robert’s son! Why scorn’st thou at Sir Robert? He is Sir Robert’s son, and so art thou!”
“James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?” asks Richard.
The man nods. “Good leave, good Philip.” He moves away.
Sir Richard laughs. “Philip?—it’s the French king’s name—a sparrow’s! James, there’s toys abroad! Anon I’ll tell thee more!”
The new knight faces his mother. “Madam, I was not old Sir Robert’s son. Sir Robert might have eaten his part in me upon Good Friday and ne’er broke his fast!
“Sir Robert could do well,” he says gently. “But, marry, do confess—could he beget me?” asks robust Richard, spreading his strong arms. “Sir Robert could not do it! We know his handiwork!
“Therefore, good mother, to whom am I beholden for these limbs?” He smacks a mighty thigh. “Sir Robert never holp to make this leg!”
But Lady Faulconbridge merely glares. “Hast thou conspirèd with thy brother?—thou who for thine own gain shouldst defend mine honour! What means this scorn, thou most-untoward knave?”
“Knight, knight, good mother! Basilisco-like!”—like the comical knight of a popular play. “What?—I am dubbed!—I had it on my shoulder!
“But, Mother, I am not Sir Robert’s son. I have disclaimèd Sir Robert and my land: legitimation, name and all, is gone.
“Then, good my mother, let me know my father,” he pleads earnestly. “Some proper man, I hope. Who was it, Mother?”
“Hast thou denied thyself a Faulconbridge?”
“As faithfully as I deny the Devil.”
The lady, now thoughtful, studies his face. She sighs. “King Richard, Coeur de Lion, was thy father.
“By long and vehement suit I was seducèd to make room for him in my husband’s bed; Heaven, lay not my transgression to my charge!
“Thou art the issue of my dear offence, which was so strongly urgèd past my defence!”
He smiles at her. “Now, by this light, were I to be got again, madam, I would not wish a better father!
“Some sins do bear their privilege on earth; and so doth yours,” he tells her. ”Your fault was not your folly; you must needs have lain your heart at his dispose, subjected tribute to commanding love, against whose fury and unmatchèd force the fearless lion could not wage a fight!—nor keep its princely heart from Richard’s hand!
“He that perforce robs lions of their hearts may easily win a woman’s!
“Aye, my mother, with all my heart I thank thee for my father!
“Who dares but say thou didst not well when I was begot, I’ll send his soul to hell!
“Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin—and they shall say: when Richard me begot, if thou hadst said him nay it had been sin!
“Who says it was, he lies! I say ’twas not!”
She ignores his rascally jest on naught.
Here in France, Guiomar, Archduke of Austria, is also the Viscount of Limoges; he has led his forces north from the Aquitaine region to join with the army of King Philip in besieging an English-held city about fifty-five leagues southwest of Paris.
The sovereign is beginning the war against King John, from whom he first intends to wrest control of the territories in France occupied by the English.
“Here before Angiers, well met, brave Austria!” says the king’s son Louis, known as the dauphin, as he and his father prepare to introduce the foreign nobleman to King John’s young nephew. The French are pressing the boy’s hereditary claim to England’s crown—his deceased father, Geoffrey, was an older brother of John’s—to bolster their own cause.
King Philip solemnly addresses the pretender, who is eleven: “Arthur, that great forerunner of thy blood, Richard, who robbed the lion of his heart, and fought the holy wars in Palestine, by this brave duke came early to his grave. And, for amends to his posterity, at our importuning he is come hither to spread his colours, boy, in thy behalf, and to rebuke the usurpation of thine unnatural uncle, English John!
“Embrace him, love him, give him welcome hither!”
As the lords listen, Arthur, standing beside his mother, looks up at Limoges—who sports King Richard’s cape, made from a lion’s hide—and says, as he has been taught to say, “God shall forgive you Coeur de Lion’s death for what you rather give his offspring: life, by shadowing their right under your wings of war! I give you welcome with a powerless hand, but with a heart full of unstainèd love! Welcome before the gates of Angiers, duke!”
“Ah, noble boy!” says the dauphin. “Who would not do thee right?”
The Austrian leans toward Arthur. “Upon thy cheek lay I this zealous kiss, as seal to this indenture of my love: that to my home I will no more return,” he says, straightening, “till Angiers and the rights thou hast in France, together with that pale, that white-faced shore”—the chalky cliffs of Dover—“whose foot spurns back the ocean’s roaring tides, and coops from other lands her islanders, even until England, hedgèd in by the main,”—the sea, “that water-wallèd bulwark, ever secure and confident from foreign purposes—even till that utmost corner of the west salute thee for her king!
“Till then, fair boy, I will not think of home, but follow arms!”
Cries Lady Constance, “Oh, take his mother’s thanks, a widow’s thanks, till your strong hand shall help to give him strength to make more requital to your love!”
The ambitious Austrian’s smile seems gracious. “The peace of heaven is theirs that lift their swords in such a just and charitable war!”
“Well, then, to work!” says King Philip. “Our cannon shall be bent against the brows of this resisting town!” He turns to his herald, nearby, beside the royal tent. “Call for our chiefest men of the discipline, to cull the plots of best advantage”—to select targets. “We’ll lay before this town our royal bones!—wade to the market-place in French men’s blood!—but we will make it subject to this boy!”
But the duchess hopes for a simpler victory—and one less costly to the nation her boy is to rule. “Stay for an answer to your embassy,” she urges, “lest, unadvisèd, you stain your swords with blood! My lord Chatillon may from England bring that right in peace which here we urge in war; and then we shall repent each drop of blood that hot, rash haste so incorrectly shed.”
The king points. “A wonder, lady!—lo, upon thy wish, our messenger Chatillon is arrivèd!”
The rider quickly dismounts, and, after a servant receives the reins, hurries toward the king.
“What England says, say briefly, gentle lord!” Philip tells him as he bows. “We coldly pause for thee, Chatillon. Speak!”
“Then turn your forces from this paltry siege,” says the ambassador, “and stir them up against a mightier task!
“The King of England, impatient of your just demands, hath put himself in arms! The adverse winds by whose leisure I have been stayed have given him time to land his legions all as soon as I!
“His marches are expedient to this town!—his forces strong, his soldiers confident!
“With him along is come the mother-queen, an Ate”—goddess of vengeance—“stirring him to blood and strife! With her, her granddaughter, the Lady Blanche of Spain; with them a bastard of the deceasèd king—and all the unsettled youths of the land!
“Rash, inconsidering, fiery voluntaries, with ladies’ faces but fierce dragons’ spleens, have sold their fortunes at their native homes, bearing their birthrights proudly on their backs to make hazard of new fortunes here!
“In brief, the heavy English hulls have now wafted across a braver choice of dauntless spirits than did ever float upon the swelling tide to do offence and scathe in Christendom!”
The nobles are silent, stunned. Urgently, Chatillon points west. “The interruption of their churlish drums cuts off more circumstance!” he cries. “They are at hand!—therefore prepare, to parley or to fight!”
Philip is amazed. “How much unlooked-for is this expedition!”—speed.
“By however much unexpected, by so much we must awake endeavor for defence!” says the archduke. “For courage mounteth with occasion! Let them be welcome then: we are prepared!”
King Philip nods to his captains, who hurry away to rouse their ranks of foot-soldiers.
The royal parties have agreed to talk, and they soon convene just outside the heavy, barred doors of the main gate in the massive stone walls surrounding Angiers.
King John strides past the guards and attendants to face King Philip. “Peace be to France—if France in peace permit our just and lineal entrance to our own! If not: bleed, France!—and peace ascend to heaven, whiles we, God’s wrathful agent, do correct their proud contempt who drive his peace to heaven!”
“Peace be to England, if war return from France to England, there to live in peace!” retorts Philip. “England we love, and for England’s sake with the burden of our armour here we sweat! This toil of ours should be a work of thine—but thou art so far from loving England that thou hast under-wrought its lawful king, cut off the sequence of posterity, out-faced an infant state, and done a rape upon the maiden virtue of the crown!”
Philip pulls the boy forward. “Look here upon thy brother Geoffrey’s face—these eyes, these brows, were moulded out of his! This little abstract doth contain that large which died in Geoffrey, and the hand of Time shall draw this brief into as huge a volume!
“That Geoffrey was thy elder brother born, and this is his son! England was Geoffrey’s right, and thus is his son’s!
“How in the name of God comes it, then, that thou art called a king, when living blood doth beat in these temples, which own the crown that thou o’ermasterest?”
King John demands, indignantly, “From whom hast thou this great commission, France, to draw my answer from thine articles?”
Says Philip, “From the supernal Judge that stirs good thoughts in any breast of strong authority to look into blots and stains on right! That Judge hath made me guardian to this boy!—under whose warrant I impeach thy wrong, and by whose help I mean to chastise it!”
King John scoffs. “Alack, thou dost usurp authority!”
“Excusèd it is,” King Philip replies scornfully, “to beat usurping down!”
Lady Eleanor now steps forward to challenge: “Who is it thou dost call usurper, France?”
Lady Constance faces her English mother-in-law. “Let me make answer!—thy usurping son!”
“Out, insolent!” says Eleanor, waving her away. “Shall thy bastard be king?—so that thou mayst be a queen, and check the world?”
Says Constance, bitterly, “My bed was ever to thy son as true as thine was to thy husband!” Eleanor’s infidelity, while her first husband was away at war, led to her divorce. “And this boy is liker in feature to his father, Geoffrey, than thou and John—who are as like as rain to water, or Devil to his dam, in manners!
“My boy a bastard? By my soul, I think his father was never so true-begot!—it cannot be, if thou wert his mother!”
Eleanor says sourly to Arthur, “There’s a good mother, boy—who blots thy father!”
Constance tells him, “There’s a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee!”
“Peace!” says the Austrian, irked by the women’s shrill exchange.
“Hear the crier!” laughs Sir Richard contemptuously.
Limoges frowns at the him. “Who the devil art thou?”
“One, sir, that will play the devil with you, if he may catch your hide and you alone! You are the hare of the proverb, whose valour plucks dead lions by the beard! I’ll stroke your skin-coat, all right, if I catch you! Sirrah, look to’t!—in faith, I will, i’ faith!”
John’s niece glares at the duke, “Oh, well did he become that lion’s robe who did disrobe the lion of that robe!”—King Richard. Lady Blanche’s father is the King of Castile in Spain.
Sir Richard laughs at Limoges. “It lies as sightly on the back of him as great Alcides”—Hercules—“shows upon an ass!
“But, ass, I’ll lay on what shall make your shoulders crack—and take that burthen from your back!”
Demands the angry duke, “What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with such abundance of superfluous breath?”
But King Philip turns impatiently to the dauphin. “Louis, describe straight what we shall do!”
“Women and fools, break off your conference!” the prince tells the English side. He lays a hand on Arthur’s slender shoulder. “King John, this is the very sum of all: England and Ireland, Anjou, Touraine, Maine and Poictiers, in right of Arthur do I claim from thee! Wilt thou resign them, and lay down thine arms?”
“My life as soon!” growls King John—to King Philip. “I do defy thee, France!” He addresses the boy: “Arthur of Bretagne, yield thee to my hand, and out of my dear love I’ll give thee more than e’er the coward hand of France can win! Submit thee, boy!”
And Eleanor smiles kindly. “Come to thy grandam, child!”
Says Constance sourly, “Do, child!—go to Grandam, child! Give Grandam a kingdom, and Grandam will give you a plum, a cherry—and a fig!”—a rude gesture. “There’s a good grandam!”
“Good my mother, peace!” moans Arthur. “I would that I were low in my grave; I am not worth this coil that’s made for me!”
“His mother shames him so, poor boy, that he weeps,” says Eleanor.
“Now shame upon you, whether he does or no!” cries Constance. “His grandam’s wrongs, and not his mother’s shames, draw from his poor eyes those heaven-moving pearls—which Heaven shall take in the nature of a fee!—aye, with these crystal beads, Heaven shall be bribèd to do him justice—and take revenge on you!”
“Thou monstrous slanderer of heaven and earth!” cries Eleanor.
Constance retorts fiercely: “Thou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth! Call not me slanderer!—thou and thine usurp the dominions, royalties and rights of this oppressèd boy! This is thy eldest son’s son, unfortunate in nothing but in thee!—thy sins are visited on this poor child!
“But the canon of the law is laid on him, being but the second generation removèd from thy sin-conceiving womb!”
“Bedlam, have done!” demands King John.
The duchess is defiant. “I have but this to say: that not only she is plaguèd for her sin, but God hath laid her plague on this removèd issue!—plagued by her and with her plague!—her sin his injury!—and the beadle”—whipper—“of her sin ill-punishes the person of this child! And all for her! A plague upon her!”
Eleanor draws herself up with stern dignity. “Thou unadvisèd scold, I can produce a will that bars the title of thy son!”
The other lady scoffs. “Oh, who doubts that? A will?—a wicked will; a woman’s will!—a cankered grandam’s will!”
Even King Philip is exasperated with Constance. “Peace, lady!” he tells her. “Pause, or be more temperate! It ill beseems this royal presence to cry aim to these ill-tunèd repetitions!”—to invite echoing replies.
He motions to his herald. “Some trumpet summon hither to these walls the men of Angiers! Let us hear them say whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s!”
The horn sounds; soon, citizens come to the parapet. The most corpulent calls down, “Who is it that hath warned us to the walls?”
King Philip, still beside the child, replies, loudly: “’Tis France, in behalf of England!”
“England, for itself!” cries King John. “You men of Angiers, and my loving subjects—”
Philip interrupts: “You men of Angiers, Arthur’s loving subjects, our trumpet called you to this gentle parle—”
“Under our advance!” says John. “Therefore hear us first!” He turns, and makes a broad gesture that sweeps the French positions—and gun batteries. “These flags of France that are here before the eye and prospect of your town, have hither marched to your endamagement!
“Their cannons have bowels full of wrath!—already mounted are they to spit forth their iron indignation ’gainst your walls!—all in preparation for a bloody siege, a merciless proceeding by these French confronting your city’s eyes, your wincing gates!
“And but for our approach, by this time those sleeping stones, that girdle you about as doth a vest, by the compulsion of their ord’nance had been dishabited from their fixèd beds of lime!—made wide for a bloody power to rush upon your peace in havoc!
“But on the sight of us—your lawful king, who painfully, with much expedient march, have brought a countercheck before your gates, to save unscratchèd your city’s threatened face—behold!—the French, amazèd, vouchsafe a parle!
“And now, instead of shot-iron wrapped in fire to make a shaking fever in your walls, they shoot but calm words, folded up in smoke to make a faithless error in your ears!
“Trust which accordingly, kind citizens, and let us in! For your king, whose laboured spirits, wearied in this action of swift speed, craves harbourage within your city walls!”
King Philip glares up at the city men. “When I have said, then make answer to us both!”
He grips Arthur by the shoulder and pulls him forward. “Lo, in this right hand, whose protection is most divinely vowèd upon the right of him it holds, stands young Plantagenet, son to the elder brother of this man!—and king o’er him and all that he enjoys!
“For his down-trodden equity we tread in warlike march these greens before your town, bearing no further enmity to you than the constraint of hospitable zeal for the relief of this oppressèd child provokes religiously!
“Be pleasèd, then, to pay that duty which you truly owe to him that owns it!—namely, this young prince!—and then hath our arms, like to a muzzled bear, all offence sealèd up, save in aspect! Our cannons’ malice vainly shall be spent against the invulnerable clouds of heaven—and with a blessèd and unvexèd retire, with swords unhacked and helmets all unbruisèd, we will bear home again that lusty blood which we came here to spout against your town, and leave your children, wives, and you in peace!”
Philip steps closer—frowning, now. “But if you unwisely pass our profferèd offer, ’tis not the roundure of your old-facèd walls can hide you from our messengers of war,”—cannon, “though all these English and their military men were harboured within their rude circumference!
“Then tell us: shall your city call us lord, in that behalf which we have challenged it?—or shall we give the signal to our rage, and stalk in blood to our possession!”
The leading burgher speaks: “In brief: we are the King of England’s subjects; for him, and in his right, we hold this town.”
“Then acknowledge the king, and let me in!” calls King John.
The townsman demurs. “That can we not. But he that proves to be the king, to him will we prove loyal! Till that time have we rammed up our gates against the world.”
King John points to his own head. “Doth not the crown of England prove the king?
“And if not that, I bring you witnesses,” he cries, pointing toward the army still marching up in legions behind him. “Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England’s breed—”
- Bastards and else, thinks Sir Richard.
“—to verify our title with their lives!”
King Philip responds: “As many and as well-born bloods as those—”
- Some bastards, too, thinks the knight.
“—stand in his face to contradict his claim!”
The gentleman of Angiers shrugs. “Till you compound whose right is worthier, we for the worthier withhold the right from both.”
King John sees that the city men are resolute. “Then God forgive the sin of all those souls that, before the dew of evening fall, shall fleet to their everlasting residence in dreadful trial over our kingdom’s king!”
“Amen, amen!” cries King Philip. “Mount, chevaliers! To arms!”
As the noblemen begin to move, the knight invokes chivalry: “Saint George, who thrashèd the dragon!—and e’er since sits on his horse’s back at mine hostess’ door,” says Sir Richard, picturing the common tavern sign, “teach us some fencing!”
He sneers at the tawny-caped Austrian. “Sirrah, were we at home in your den, sirrah, I would put an ass’s head on your lion’s hide—and make a monster of you!”
“Peace! No more!” says the disgusted duke, turning away.
“Oh, tremble!” Richard warns those about him, “for you hear the lion roar!”
But King John, done with talking, grasps his arm and points west. “Up, higher—to the plain where we’ll set forth in best appointment all our regiments!”
Richard nods. “Speed then, to take advantage in the field!”
The English commanders return to their companies of troops.
King Philip is more than ready to fight them. “It shall be so!” He directs his lords east. “And at the other hill command the rest to stand!
“For God and our right!”
Streaming down from their respective hillsides, the kings’ armies collide—nobles on horseback, common soldiers on foot—piercing, slashing and hacking each other with lance, sword and dagger, pounding and pummeling with cudgel and fist.
After much fighting and many excursions large and small, the French king’s herald again comes to summon the city’s officials to the top of their front wall.
“You men of Angiers!—open wide your gates and let in young Arthur, Duke of Bretagne!—who by the hand of France this day hath made much work for tears in many an English mother, whose sons lie scattered, bleeding on the ground! Many a widow’s husband lies grovelling, coldly embracing the discolourèd earth!
“And victory with little loss doth play upon the dancing banners, triumphantly displayed, of the French!—who are at hand to enter as conquerors, and to proclaim Arthur of Britain England’s king!—and yours!”
But now the English herald rides toward the gates and sounds his own trumpet. “Rejoice, you men of Angiers!—ring your bells! King John, your king and England’s, doth approach—commander of this hot, malicious day!
“Their armours that marchèd hence so silver-bright return hither all gilt with Frenchmen’s blood! There stuck no plume in any English crest that is removèd by a staff of France!—our colours do return in those same hands that did display them when we first marchèd forth!—and, like a troop of jolly huntsmen come our lusty English, all with purpled hands dyèd in the slaughter of their dying foes!
“Open your gates, and give the victors way!”
The town’s most eminent citizen regards the horsemen—unimpressed. “Heralds, from off our towers we might behold, from first to last, the onset and retire of both your armies—whose equality our best eyes cannot but see!
“Blood hath bought blood, and blows have answered blows; strength was matched by strength, and power confronted power. Both are alike!—and both alike we like.
“One must prove greatest! While they weigh so even, we hold our town for neither, yet for both.”
King John and King Philip have agreed to a brief truce. On horseback, they now approach the wall and its towers, each with his attendants and several knights. Their retinues follow to join them before the gate.
“France, hast thou yet more blood to cast away?” asks John. “Say: shall the current of our right run on?—whose passage, vexèd with thy impediment, shall leave its native channel, and with course disturbèd o’erswell even thy confining shores!—unless thou let its silver water keep a peaceful progress to the ocean!”
Philip snorts. “England, thou hast not saved one drop of blood in this hot trial more than we of France!—rather, lost more! And I swear by this hand—that sways the earth this climate overlooks!—before we will lay down our justly borne arms, we’ll put down thee ’gainst whom these arms we bear!—or add a royal number to the dead, gracing the scroll that tells of this war’s loss, with slaughter coupled to the names of kings!”
Sir Richard is still elated after his strenuous first efforts in the thick of frenzied fighting, but he feels some frustration. Hah! Majesty!—how high thy glory towers when the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
Oh, now doth Death line his dead jowls with steel: the swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs! And now he feasts, mouthing the flesh of men in undeterminate differences of kings!
He watches as the monarchs dismount and walk toward the wall to parley. Why stand these royal fronts amazèd thus? Cry ‘Havoc!’ kings!—back to the stainèd field, you equal potents, fiery-kindled spirits, and let destruction of one part confirm the other’s peace!
’Till then, blows, blood and death!
King John calls to the observers above, “Whose party do ye townsmen yet admit?”
“Speak, citizens!” demands King Philip. “For England, who’s your king!”
The burgher replies: “The King of England, when we know the king.”
“Know him in us, that here hold up his right!” cries Philip.
“In us, that are our own great deputy, and bear possession here in our person!” shouts John, slapping his own breastplate, “lord of our presence, of Angiers, and of you!”
The city’s heavy dignitary, having watched their armies’ combat, is not convinced; he tells both, “A greater power than we denies all this! And till it be undoubted, we do lock our former scruple in our strong-barred gates, kingèd by our fears until our fears be resolved—purged and deposèd by some certain king!”
Sir Richard is disgusted—and he speaks out. “By heaven, these scoundrels of Angiers flout you kings, and stand securely on their battlements as if in a theatre, whence they gape and point at your industrious scenes—and acts of Death!
“You royal presences, be ruled by me! Do like the mutines of Jerusalem!”—the holy city’s contentious factions, when besieged by Romans. “Be friends awhile, and both, conjointly, bend your sharpest deeds of malice on this town! East and west, let France and England mount their battering cannon, chargèd to the mouths,”—packed full of gunpowder, “till their soul-scarring clamours have brawled down the flinty ribs of this contemptuous city!
“I’d play incessantly upon these jades,”—whores, “even till unfencèd desolation leave them as naked as the vulgar air!
“That done, dissever your united strengths,” Richard urges the sovereigns, “and part your mingled colours”—banners—“once again—turn face to face, and bloody point to point! Then, in a moment, Fortune shall cull forth out of one side her happy minion, to whom in favour she shall give the day, and kiss him with a glorious victory!
“How like you this wild counsel, mighty states?—smacks it not somewhat judicious?”
Says King John, “Now by the sky that hangs above our heads, I like it well! France, shall we knit our powers and lay this Angiers even with the ground?—then, after, fight over who shall be king of it?”
Sir Richard challenges King Philip: “If thou hast the mettle of a king, being as wronged as we are by this peevish town, turn thou the mouths of thine artillery, as we will ours, against these saucy walls!
“And when that we have dashed them to the ground, why then defy each other—and pell-mell make work upon ourselves, for heaven or hell!”
“Let it be so!” cries King Philip. “ Say: where will you assault?”
King John is eager. “We from the west we’ll send destruction into this city’s bosom!”
Limoges nods. “I from the north!” says the Austrian duke.
“Our thunders from the south shall rain their drift of bullets on this town!” says King Philip.
Sir Richard is privately delighted: Oh, prudent discipline!—from north to south, Austria and France shoot—into each other’s mouth! I’ll stir them to it! “Come, away, away!” he cries, urging on both monarchs.
But the wealthy citizens above have thought of an alternative. “Hear us, great kings!” cries the leader. “Vouchsafe to stay awhile, and I shall show you peace and fair-facèd league! Win you this city without stroke or wound!—rescue those breathing lives to die in beds, who’d here become sacrifices for the field!
“Persever not, but hear me, mighty kings!” he calls down.
“Speak on, with favour,” says King John. “We are bent to hear.”
The fat man leans from a crenel in the stone battlement, and points. “That daughter, there, of Spain, the Lady Blanche, is niece to England.
“Look upon the years of Louis the dauphin and that lovely maid’s!
“If lusty Love”—Cupid—“should go in quest of beauty, where should he find it fairer than in Blanche? If zealous Love should go in search of virtue, where should he find it purer than in Blanche? If ambitious Love sought a match of birth, in whose veins abounds richer blood than in Lady Blanche?
“Such as she is in beauty, virtue, birth, is the young dauphin in every way completed!
“Yet not complete—nay, he is not she; and she, again, lacks nothing to name lack, if lack it be, but that she is not he! He is the half part of a blessèd man, left to be finishèd by such as she; and she a fair divided excellence, whose fulness of perfecting lies in him!
“Oh, two such silver currents, when they join, do glorify the banks that bound them in! And two such shores to two such streams made one, two such controlling bounds shall you be, kings, to these two princely persons—if you marry them!
“This union shall do more than battering can to our fast-closèd gates!—for at this match, with swifter speed than powder can enforce, the mouth of passage shall we fling wide ope, and give you entrance!
“But without this match, the sea enragèd is not half so deaf, nor lion more confident, nor mountains of rock more free from motion—no, not Death himself in mortal fury half so peremptory—as we to keep this city!”
King Philip mocks the townsman’s words of defiance. “Here’s a threat that shakes the rotten carcass of old Death out of his rags! Here’s a large mouth, indeed, that spits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas!—talks as familiarly of roaring lions as maids of thirteen do of puppy-dogs! What cannoneer begot this lusty blood?—he speaks plain cannon-fire!—smoke and belch! He gives the bastinado”—torturous pounding of a prisoner’s feet—“with his tongue! Our ears are cudgelled!—not a word of his but buffets better than a fist of France!
“Zounds, I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father ‘Dad!’” The late king was to be addressed—by everyone—as “Your Majesty.”
- As Philip gibes on, Lady Eleanor speaks quietly to John. “Son, list to this injunction: make this match!—give with your niece a dowry large enough! For by this knot thou shalt tie surely thy now-unsure assurance to the crown, so that yon green boy shall have no sun to ripen the bloom that promiseth a mighty fruit!”
- She watches Philip, who is now conferring with the handsome dauphin. “I see a yielding in the looks of France! Mark, how they whisper! Urge them now, while their souls are capable of this ambition, lest now-molten zeal cool in the windy breath of soft petitions, pity and remorse, and congeal again to what it was!”
The men of Angiers stare down. “Why answer not the double majesties this friendly entreaty of our threatened town?”
Philip looks to John. “Speak England first—who hath been forward to speak first unto this city. What say you?”
John moves to stand beside Blanche. “If that the dauphin there, thy princely son, can in this book of beauty read ‘I love,’ her dowry shall weigh equal with a queen’s!—for Anjou and fair Touraine, Maine, Poictiers, and all that upon this side the sea we find liable to our crown and dignity—except this city now by us besiegèd—shall gild her bridal bed, and make her as rich in titles, honours and promotions as she, in beauty, education, blood, can hold with any princess of the world!”
Philip asks his son. “What say’st thou, boy? Look on the lady’s face.”
“I do, my lord,” says Louis happily, “and in her eye I find a wonder!—or a wondrous miracle: the shadow of myself formèd in her eye, which being but the shadow of your son, becomes a sun, and makes your son a shadow! I do protest I never loved myself till now!
“I behold myself infixèd, drawn in the flattering tablet of her eye!”
He turns to the lovely lady, and soon they are speaking softly, shyly, together.
- Sir Richard the watches the couple—cynically. ‘Drawn in the flattering tablet of her eye!’ Hanged in the frowning wrinkle of her brow, and quartered in her heart, doth he espy himself—Love’s traitor!
- He looks at the dauphin. This is a pity, now, that there should be such a lover!—so vile a lout as he!—even hanged and drawn and quartered!
Blanche tells the French prince, “My uncle’s will in this respect is mine; if he see aught in you that makes him like—anything sees which moves his liking—I can with ease translate it to my will!” She blushes. “Or if you will, to speak more properly, I will enforce it easily to my love!
“I will not flatter you, my lord, that all I see in you is worthy of love, further than this: I do see nothing in you, though churlish thoughts themselves should be your judge, that I can find should merit any hate!”
King John goes to them. “What say these young ones? What say you, my niece?”
Blanche curtseys. “That she is bound in honour ever to do what you in wisdom vouchsafe to say.”
John turns to Louis. “Speak then, Prince Dauphin; can you love this lady?”
The young man beams. “Nay, ask me if I can refrain from love!—for I do love her, most unfeignedly!”
King John is pleased. “Then do I give Volquessen, Touraine, Maine, Poictiers and Anjou, those five provinces, with her to thee!—and this addition more: full thirty thousand marks of English coin!
“Philip of France, if thou be pleased withal, command thy son and daughter-in-law to join hands!”
“It likes us well!” says the French sovereign, smiling. “Young princes, close your hands!”
“And your lips, too!” adds the Austrian duke, “for I am well assured that I did so when I was first assurèd!”
King Philip faces the city. “Now, citizens of Angiers, open your gates!” he calls. “Let in that amity which you have made!—for at Saint Mary’s chapel the rites of marriage shall be solemnized immediately!”
He glances around his French contingent. “Is not the Lady Constance in this troop? I know she is not—her presence would have interrupted much for this match made up!
“Where is she—and her son? Tell me, who knows.”
“She is at Your Highness’ tent, sad and worried,” the Earl of Salisbury informs him.
Philip frowns. “And, by my faith, this league that we have made will give her sadness very little cure!” He turns to John. “Brother of England, how may we content this widow lady? In her right we came—which we, God knows, have turned another way, to our own advantage!”
“We will heal up all,” King John assures him. “For we’ll create young Arthur Duke of Bretagne and Earl of Richmond!—and this rich, fair town we make him lord of!
“Call the Lady Constance; some speedy messenger bid her repair to our solemnity.” Lord Salisbury himself bows and goes. “I trust we shall, if not fill up the measure of her will, yet in some measure satisfy her so that we shall stop her exclamation.”
Philip shares that hope.
King John addresses both royal parties: “Go we, as well as haste will suffer us, to this unlooked for, unpreparèd pomp!”
The erstwhile combatants amble amiably through the now-open entrance, warmly welcomed by the city fathers.
Sir Richard watches them all. Mad world! Mad kings!
Mad compromises! he thinks, as the English and French captains turn away, and go to tell their surviving troops the news.
John, to stop Arthur’s title to the whole, hath willingly parted with a part!
And Philip—whose armour ‘conscience’ buckled on, whom zeal and charity brought to the field as God’s own soldier, is wounded in the ear by that same purpose-changer!—that sly devil, that broker who ever breaks the pate of Faith!—that daily break-vow!—he who wins from all, from kings, from beggars, old men, young men—from maid who, having no external thing to lose but the word ‘maid,’ cheats the poor maiden out of that!—that smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Accommodation!
Accommodation: the slanting of the world!
The world itself is poisèd well, made to run evenly upon even ground—till this vile, inventive, pulling bias, this swaying of motion—this same basis makes it take heed!—away from all dispassionate direction, purpose, course, intent!
And thus hath Accommodation—this bawd, this broker, this all-changing word—clapped onto the outward eye of fickle France—drawn him from his own determinèd aid, from a resolved and honourable war to a most base and vilely concluded peace!
Richard laughs; his smile is wry. And why rail I on Accommodation? Only because he hath not wooèd me yet!—not because I have no power to clutch my hand when his fair angels would salute my palm, but because my hand is yet untempted!
Those angels—gold coins embossed with such images—are beyond the grasp of the landless knight. Like a poor beggar I raileth on the rich!
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail!—and say there is no sin but to be rich!
Then, being rich, my virtue shall be to say there is no vice but beggary!
Since kings break faith upon accommodation, Gain, be my lord—for I will worship thee!
In the French king’s canvas pavilion, Lady Constance stares, incredulous. “Gone to be married? Gone to swear a peace? False blood to false blood joinèd—gone to be friends!
“Shall Louis have Blanche—and Blanche those provinces?” she demands angrily of Lord Salisbury.
“It is not so!” she cries, as young Arthur watches, wide-eyed. “Thou hast misspoken—misheard!—be well advisèd: tell thy tale again! It cannot be!—thou dost but say ’tis so! I trust I may not trust thee, for thy word is but the vain breath of a common man! Believe me, I do not believe thee, man!—I have a king’s oath to the contrary!
“Thou shalt be punished for thus frighting me!” she groans, “for I am sick, and vulnerable to fears—oppressèd with wrongs, and therefore full of fears!—a widow, husbandless, subject to fears; a woman, naturally born to fears!
“And though thou now confess thou didst but jest, I cannot make a truce with my vexèd spirits—they will quake and tremble all this day!”
Fuming fretfully she regards the old nobleman, who feels great pity. “What dost thou mean by shaking of thy head? Why dost thou look so sadly on my son? What means that hand upon that breast of thine? Why holds thine eye that lamentable rheum, like a proud river peering o’er his bounds? Be these sad signs confirmers of thy words?
“Then speak again—not all thy former tale, but this one word: whether thy tale be true.”
Salisbury nods. “As true as I believe you think those false who give thee cause to doubt my saying true.”
The duchess moans. “Oh, if thou teach me to believe this sorrow, teach thou this sorrow how to make me die!—let belief and life encounter as do two desperate men who in the very fury of meeting fall and die!
“Louis marry Blanche!” She looks at Arthur. “Oh, my boy, then where art thou? France friend with England, what becomes of me?
“Fellow, begone!” she orders the earl. “I cannot brook thy sight! This news hath made thee a most ugly man!”
“What other harm have I done, good lady, but to speak the harm that is by others done?”
“Which harm within itself is so heinous as makes harmful all that speak of it!”
She starts to sob.
The boy is alarmed. “I do beseech you, madam, be content!”
She will not. “If thou, that bid’st me be content, wert grim—ugly, and slanderous to thy mother’s womb, full of unpleasing blots and concealèd stains—lame, foolish, crooked, swart, prodigiously patched with foul moles and eye-offending marks—I would not care! Then I would be content; for then I should not love thee!—no, nor thou become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown!
“But thou art fair!—and at thy birth, dear boy, Nature and Fortune joined to make thee great! Of Nature’s gifts thou mayst with lilies boast, and with the half-opened rose!” She paces. “But Fortune, oh, she is changèd!—corrupted, and won from thee!
“She adulterates, hourly, with thine uncle John!—and with her golden hand hath plucked-on France to tread down fair respect for sovereignty, and made his majesty the bawd to hers! Philip is a bawd to Fortune, and King John, that usurping John, a strumpet to Fortune!
“Tell me, thou fellow,” she demands of Lord Salisbury, “is not France forsworn? Envenom him with words,” she wails, “or get thee gone, and leave these woes which I am bound to under-bear alone.”
“Pardon me, madam, I may not go without you to the kings….”
“Thou mayst!—thou shalt!—I will not go with thee! I will instruct my sorrows to be proud; for grief is proud, and makes its debtor stoop!
“Let kings assemble to me, and come unto the great ‘state’ of my grief!—for my grief is so great that no supporter but the huge, firm earth can hold it up!”
Seemingly about to faint, she places a hand over her heart, and, grasping the arm of a heavy chair with the other, sinks to the ground. “Here I and Sorrow sit! Here is my throne!—bid kings come bow to it!”
A call of cornets from outside interrupts her moaning.
The kings, coming from the just-concluded nuptials, walk side by side, followed by the bride and groom, and by nobles of the wedding party.
King Philip beams as he replies to Blanche: “’Tis true, fair daughter-in-law! To solemnize this day, the glorious sun stays in his course and plays the alchemist, turning, with the splendor of his precious eye, the meagre, cloddy earth to glittering gold! And this blessèd day in France shall ever be kept estival! The yearly course that brings this day about shall never see it but as holiday!”
The monarchs face other; each grips the other’s right hand to signify their new accord.
“A wicked day, and not a holy day!” cries Constance, pulling herself to her feet. “What hath this day deservèd? What hath it done that it in golden letters should be set among the high tides in the calendar? Nay, rather turn this day out of the week!—this day of shame, oppression, perjury! Or, if it must still stand, let wives with child pray that their burthens may not fall”—children be born—“this day, lest that their hopes be ominously crossèd!
“On this day let seamen fear to wreck!
“No bargains break that are not made this day! But may all things begun this day come to ill end!—yea, faith itself to hollow falsehood change!”
King Philip protests: “By heaven, lady, you shall have no cause to curse the fair proceedings of this day! Have I not pawned to you my majesty?”
“You have beguiled me with a counterfeit resembling majesty!—which, being touched and tried, proves valueless!” she retorts. “You are forsworn!—forsworn! You came in arms to spill mine enemies’ blood!—but now you strengthen it with yours! The grappling vigour and rough frown of war is cold!—in amity, and painted peace!—and our oppression hath made up this league!”
She looks upward. “Arm, arm, you heavens, against these perjured kings! A widow cries, ‘Be husband to me, heavens! Let not the hours of this ungodly day wear out the day in peace, but ere sunset set armèd discord ’twixt these perjured kings!’ Hear me, oh, hear me!”
The archduke, standing with Philip, is appalled. “Lady Constance, peace!”
“War! War! No peace!” cries the duchess. “Peace is to me a war!
“Oh, Limoges!—oh, Austria!—thou dost shame that bloody spoil,”—the lion’s hide, “thou slave, thou wretch, thou coward!—thou little valiant, great in villainy!” She sneers. “Thou, ever strong—upon the stronger side! Thou, Fortune’s champion, that dost never fight but when her capricious ladyship is nearby to teach thee safety!
“Thou art perjured too! What a fool art thou, a tramping clown, to brag and stamp and swear upon my part! Thou cold-blooded slave, hast thou not spoken like thunder on my side?—been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength?—and dost thou now fall over to my foes?—only smoothing-up greatness?
“Thou, wear a lion’s hide?—doff it, for shame!—and hang a calf’s skin on those recreant limbs!”
The duke is puffing with rage, livid. “Oh, that a man should speak those words to me!”
“And hang a calf’s skin on those recreant limbs!” adds Sir Richard, laughing.
Limoges turns, a hand at the hilt of his sword. “Thou darest not say so, villain, for thy life!”
Richard steps forward. “‘And hang a calf’s skin on those recreant limbs!’” he growls.
King John frowns at the knight. “We like this not!—thou dost forget thyself!”
The arrival of a red-robed visitor, with several other priests in attendance, halts the exchange. “Here comes the holy legate of the Pope!” says King Philip, smiling.
The churchman greets them—unsmiling. “Hail, you anointed deputies of Heaven.
“To thee, King John, my holy errand is. I, Pandulph, of fair Milan cardinal, and from Pope Innocent the legate here, do in his name demand, religiously, why thou against the Church, our holy mother, so willfully dost spurn—force and perforce keep—Stephen Langton, chosen Archbishop of Canterbury, from that holy see!”—jurisdiction. “This, in our foresaid holy father’s name, Pope Innocent, I do demand of thee!”
John is indignant. “What earthy name can task the free breath of a sacred king with interrogatories? Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name so slight, unworthy and ridiculous to charge me to an answer, as the Pope’s!
“Tell him that!—and from the mouth of England add this much more: that no Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions!—that, as we under Heaven are supreme head, so under Him that great supremacy where we do reign we alone will uphold—without the assistance of a mortal hand!
“So tell the Pope—all reverence set apart from him and his usurpèd authority!”
“Brother of England, you blaspheme in this!” gasps King Philip, highly perturbed.
John scoffs. “Though you and all the kings of Christendom are led so grossly by that meddling priest—dreading the curse that money may buy out, by the merit of vile gold—dross, dust!—and purchasing corrupted pardon from a man who in that sale seals pardon from himself!—though you, and all the rest so led, cherish this juggling witchcraft with revenue, yet I alone, alone do oppose me against the Pope, and count his friends my foes!”
Cardinal Pandulph pronounces grimly, “Then, by the lawful power that I have, thou shalt stand cursèd and excommunicate!
“And blessèd shall be he who doth revolt from his allegiance to an heretic!
“And meritorious shall that man be callèd—canonized and worshipped as a saint!—that takes away, by any secret course, thy hateful life!”
Constance steps forward. “Oh, lawful let it be that I have room to curse awhile with Rome! Good father cardinal, cry thou amen to my keening curses!—for beyond my wrong there is no tongue hath power to curse him rightly!”
The priest, annoyed, tells her, “There’s law, and warrant, lady, for my curse.”
“And for mine too!” she cries. “When law can do no right, let it be lawful that law bar no wrong! Law cannot give my child, here, his kingdom, for he that holds his kingdom holds the law! Therefore, since law itself is defected to wrong, how can the law forbid my tongue to curse?”
The cardinal faces the other king. “Philip of France, on peril of a curse, let go the hand of that arch-heretic!—and raise the power of France against his head, unless he do submit himself to Rome!”
The queen mother is watching Philip. “Thou look’st pale, France—do not let go thy hand!” she warns.
“Look to that, Devil,” Constance tells John, “lest France repent, and by a disjoining of hands, Hell lose a soul!”
“King Philip, listen to the cardinal!” urges Limoges.
“‘And hang a calf’s skin on his recreant limbs!’” prods Sir Richard, moving closer to the Austrian.
The duke scowls at the knight. “Well, ruffian, I must pocket up these wrongs, because—”
“—your breeches best may carry them!” says Richard, sending a booted foot in his direction. The duke dodges, barely avoiding the kick.
King John is watching the French king. “Philip, what say’st thou to the cardinal?”
“What should he say but as the cardinal says?” demands Lady Constance.
“Bethink you, Father, of the difference!” the dauphin warns Philip. “Heavy purchase of a curse from Rome, or the light loss of England as a friend. Forego the less costly!”
“That’s the curse of Rome!” argues Blanche, pulling her hand away from her husband’s.
“Oh, Louis, stand fast!” urges Constance. “The Devil tempts thee here, in likeness of a new, untrimmèd bride!”—one still virginal.
Blanche scoffs: “The Lady Constance speaks not from her faith, but from her need!”
“Oh, if thou grant my need, which lives only because of the death of faith,” counters Constance, “thou must needs infer this principle: that faith would live again by death of need. Then tread down my need, and faith mounts up! Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!”
John, watching Louis’s troubled face, waves her away with his free hand. “The king is movèd,”—angered, “and answers not to thee!”
“Oh, be re-movèd—from him,” Constance tells Philip, “and answer well!”
“Do so, King Philip!” urges Limoges. “Hang no more in doubt!”
“Hang nothing but a calf’s skin, most sweet lout!” rhymes Richard to the duke.
King Philip confesses, “I am perplexed, and know not what to say!”
Asks Cardinal Pandulph, “What canst thou say but what will perplex thee more, if thou stand excommunicate, and cursèd!”
“Good reverend father, make my position as yours,” says Philip, “and tell me how you would bestow yourself!” He nods toward King John. “His royal hand and mine are newly knit, and the conjunction of our inward souls married in league!—coupled and linkèd together with all religious strength of sacred vows!
“The latest breath that gave the sound of words was in faith deep-sworn!—pledges for peace, amity, true love between our kingdoms and our royal selves! And just before this, truce took no longer than we could wash our hands well to clasp in this royal bargain of peace! Heaven knows they were besmeared and over-stainèd by slaughter’s strokes, when revenge did paint the fearful difference of incensèd kings!
“Then shall these hands, so lately purged of blood, so newly joined in love—so strong in both!—unyoke this grasp and this kind regreet?—play fast and loose with faith?—jest with Heaven?—make such unconstant children of ourselves as now to snatch palm”—emblem of devotion—“again from our palms?—unswear faith sworn?—and to the marriage-bed of smiling peace march a bloody host, and make ruts in the gentle brow of true sincerity?
“O holy sir, my reverend father, let it not be so! Out of your grace, devise, ordain—impose some gentle order! And then we shall be blest: to do your pleasure, and continue as friends!”
Pandulph is stone-faced. “All form is formless, order orderless, save what is opposite to England’s love,” he insists. “Therefore to arms! Be champion of our Church!—or let the Church, our mother, breathe her curse, a mother’s curse, on her revolting son!
“France, thou mayst safer hold a serpent by the tongue, a chafèd lion by the deadly paw, a fasting tiger by the tooth, than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold!”
But King Philip retains his grip. “I may disjoin my hand, but not my faith!”—honorable pledge.
“So makest thou ‘faith’ an enemy to faith!” says Cardinal Pandulph, “and like a civil war, set’st oath to oath, thy tongue against thy tongue!
“Oh, let thy vow first made to heaven be to heaven first performèd!—that is, to be the champion of our Church! What since thou sworest was sworn against thyself, and may not be performèd by thyself!
“As for that which thou hast sworn to do: amiss is not amiss when it is truly done; and when doing tends to ill, thy being true is best done by not doing it!
“Though indirect, yet indirection thereby grows direct, and falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire within the scorchèd veins of one new-burned!”—the proverbial explanation for liquor’s easing of pain. “The better act for mis-taken purpose is to mis-take again!
“It is religion that doth make vows kept; but thou hast sworn against religion!—thou swear’st against the thing thou swear’st by, and makest an oath the surety for thy perseverance against an oath!
“The truth thou art unsure to swear swears only not to be forsworn—else what a mockery should it be to swear! But thou dost swear only to be forsworn!—are most forsworn in maintaining what thou dost swear!
“Therefore thy later vows against thy first are in thyself rebellion against thyself! And better conquest never canst thou make than to arm thy constant and nobler parts against these giddy, loose notions!—upon which better part, our prayers come in—if thou vouchsafe them!
“But if not, then know: the peril of our curses will light on thee so heavily as thou shalt not shake them off, but die in despair under their dark weight!”
Limoges notes with dismay the kings’ still-joined hands. “Rebellion, flat rebellion!”
Sir Richard again taunts the duke: “Will’t not be?” he demands. “Will not ‘a calf’s skin’ stop-up that mouth of thine?”
The dauphin, too, has lost patience. “Father, to arms!”
“Upon thy wedding day?” cries Blanche, “against the blood that thou hast marrièd? What?—shall our feast be held with slaughtered men? Shall braying trumpets and loud, churlish drums, clamours of hell be the music to our pomp?
“O husband, hear me!—ay, alack, how new is ‘husband’ in my mouth!
“Even for that name,” she says, kneeling, “which till this time my tongue did ne’er pronounce, upon my knee I beg: go not to arms against mine uncle!”
Lady Constance steps toward Louis to counter that plea. “Oh, upon my knee, made hard with kneeling, I do pray thee too, thou virtuous dauphin: alter not the fate forethought by Heaven!”
His bride looks up at the French prince. “Now shall I see thy love? What motive may be stronger with thee than the name of wife?”
Constance replies, “That which upholdeth him that thee upholds: his honour! Oh, thine honour, Louis, thine honour!”
The dauphin has been staring at his father. “I muse that Your Majesty doth seem so cold, when such profound respects do pull you on!”
“I will pronounce a curse upon his head!” warns Cardinal Pandulph.
King Philip surrenders. “Thou shalt not need.” He looks at John. “England, I will fall from thee.”
“Oh, fair return of banished majesty!” cries Constance, as their hands separate.
“Oh, foul revolt by French inconstancy!” mutters Eleanor.
King John is furious. “France, thou shalt rue this hour within this hour!”
King Philip nods, sadly. “Old Time, the clock-setter… that bald sexton, Time… is it as he rules? Well then, France shall rue,” he says, resigned.
Blanche looks tearfully toward the western horizon. “The sun’s o’ercast with blood! Fair day, adieu! Which is the side that I must go withal? I am with both! Each army hath one hand, I having hold of both, and in their rage they swirl asunder and dismember me!
“Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win; Uncle, I must needs pray that thou mayst lose! Father, I may not wish good fortune thine,” she tells the priest. “Grandam, I will not wish thy fortunes thrive,” she tells Eleanor. “Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose!—assured of loss before the match be played!”
Her husband pleads: “Lady, with me, with me thy fortune lies!”
“Then where my fortune lives, there my life dies!” she sobs.
King John turns to Sir Richard. “Cousin, go draw our puissance together!” The eager warrior bows happily and goes. “France, I am burning with inflaming wrath!—a rage whose heat hath such condition that nothing can allay it!—nothing but blood!—the blood, and dearest-valued blood, of France!”—Philip’s.
The French ruler is not intimidated. “Thy rage shall burn thee up and thou shalt turn to ashes, ere our blood shall quench that fire! Look to thyself!—thou art in jeopardy!”
“No more than he who threatens!” sneers John.
He motions to his train. “To arms let’s hie!”
Schemes Are Set
On the plains outside high-walled Angiers, an English knight, resplendent in carefully refurbished armor, stands amid the battle, nearly out of breath. Helmet off, he has been kneeling to work; he rises, looking down with considerable satisfaction.
He wipes sweat from his forehead. Now, by my life, this day grows wondrous hot! Some airy devil hovers in the sky and pours down mischief! He is wearing a heavy, tawny cape.
Austria’s head lies there, while Philip breathes! he thinks, triumphant; Philip Faulconbridge—now Sir Richard Plantagenet—pulled his father’s lion-skin from the archduke after slaying him.
He looks up to see King John rushing across the field toward him, pulling along by the arm young Arthur, whom he has taken prisoner. With them is Hubert de Burgh.
“Hubert, keep this boy,” the king tells the royal chamberlain. “Richard, make up!”—prepare to fight again. “My mother is assailèd at our tent—and ta’en, I fear!”
“My lord, I rescued her—her highness is in safety! Fear you not,” Richard assures him—to the king’s great relief.
“But on, my liege!” cries the knight, “for very little pains will bring this labour to a happy end!”
De Burgh hurries the captive boy along after them.
“So shall it be,” King John tells his mother. “Your Grace shall stay behind—strongly guarded!” A cordon of troops will soon shield her on the open field, not far from where fighting continues—and where she insists on being, to observe.
“Cousin, look not sad,” he tells Arthur. “Thy grandam loves thee!—and thine uncle will be as dear to thee as thy father was!”
But the boy frets. “Oh, this will make my mother die with grief!”
John tells Sir Richard, “Cousin, away to England! Haste before—and, ere our coming, see that thou shake the bags of hoarding abbots!—set at liberty imprisoned angels!”—gold coins. The king needs money for the war, and he will take it from the Church. “The hungry must now be fed upon the fat ribs of peace! Use our commission in its utmost force!”
Richard grins. “Bell, book, and candle”—emblems of excommunication—“shall not drive me back, when gold and silver beckon me to come on!” He bows. “I leave, Your Highness.”
The knight kneels before Lady Eleanor. “Grandam, I will pray—if ever I remember to be holy—for your fair safety! Doing so, I kiss your hand.”
The venerable queen mother smiles. “Farewell, gentle cousin!”
“Coz, farewell!” says King John, as Richard strides away.
Eleanor waves Arthur forward. “Come hither, little kinsman! Hark, a word….” The boy listens, nodding, as his white-haired grandmother reassures him.
“Come hither, Hubert,” says John, taking the gentleman aside, away from the noblemen attending the king. “Oh, my gentle Hubert, we owe thee much!” He puts a hand to his own heart. “Within this wall of flesh there is a soul counts thee its creditor, and with advantage means to pay thy love! And, my good friend, thy voluntary oath lives in this bosom, dearly cherishèd! Give me thy hand!”
As he shakes the chamberlain’s hand, John pauses, apparently thinking. “I had a thing to say… but I will fit it with some better time.
“By heaven, Hubert, I am almost ashamed… to say what good respect I have for thee!”
The chamberlain is highly flattered. “I am much bounden to Your Majesty!”
“Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet, but thou shalt have; and creep time ne’er so slow, yet it shall come for me to do thee good!
“I had a thing to say… but let it go.” He glances, frowning, up at the sky. “The sun is in the heavens, and the proud day, attended with the pleasures of the world, is all too wanton, and too full of gawds to give me audience—making that idiot Laughter keep in men’s eyes, and strain their cheeks to idle merriment!—a passion hateful to my purposes….”
John looks at the gentleman for a moment, and then begins to speak—his voice ominously, chillingly low—even more privately. “If the midnight bell, with its iron tongue and brazen mouth, did sound into the drowsy night—if this same where we stand were a churchyard, and thou possessèd with a thousand wrongs—or if that surly spirit Melancholy had bulked thy blood, which else runs tickling up and down the veins, and made it heavy….”
He moves closer. “Or if that thou couldst see me without eyes, hear me without thine ears, and make reply without a tongue—using impression alone, without eyes, ears and harmful sound of words—then, in despite of broad and watchful day, I would into thy bosom pour my thoughts.”
He shrugs. “Ah, but, I will not.
“Yet I love thee well; and, by my troth, I think thou lovest me well….”
“So well,” says de Burgh, “that what you bid me undertake, though that my death were adjunct to my act, by heaven, I would do it!”
King John nods. “Do not I know thou wouldst?” He moves even closer and grasps the gentleman’s shoulder. “Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert,” he whispers, “throw thine eye on yon young boy. I’ll tell thee what, my friend: he is a very serpent in my way!—and whereso’er this foot of mine doth tread, he lies before me! Dost thou understand me? Thou art his keeper….”
“And I’ll keep him so that he shall not offend Your Majesty!”
Hubert blinks. “My lord?”
Now De Burgh understands. He pales and swallows—but he bows. “He shall not live.”
“Enough.” They move toward the queen mother. “I could be merry now,” says King John. “Hubert, I love thee well! I’ll not say what I intend for thee!” But he adds, “Remember!
“Madam, fare you well!” John tells his mother, kissing her cheek. “I’ll send those powers o’er to Your Majesty.”
Eleanor will accept the soldiers’ protection. “My blessing go with thee!”
“For England, cousin, go,” John tells the boy. “Hubert shall be your man, attend on you”—he looks meaningfully at Hubert—“with all true duty.”
Hubert bows, and the two begin their journey, through English-held lands in France, then by ship across to Dover.
The king returns to his commanders. “On toward Calais, ho!”
In the royal palace at Paris, King Philip is dismayed by news of his fleet. “So, by a roaring tempest on the flood, our whole armado of convected sail is scattered, and disjoinèd from fellowship!” Pursuit of John’s ships in the channel has been stalled by the storm.
“Courage and comfort,” says Cardinal Pandulph calmly. “All shall yet go well.”
“What can go well when we have run so ill? Are we not beaten? Is not Angiers lost?—Arthur ta’en prisoner?—divers dear friends slain?” He frowns. “And bloody England”—King John—“into England gone, o’erbearing interruption in despite of France!”
Notes Louis, shaking his head, “And what he had won, that hath he fortified!
“So hot a speed!—such temperate order, with such advice dispensèd in so fierce a cause doth want example!”—lack precedent. “Who hath read or heard of any kindred action like to this?” he asks, still amazed.
Says Philip glumly, “I would bear well that England had this praise; so, we could find some explanation for our shame!”
He is rubbing his temples when a distraught, disheveled lady, her hair is disarray, enters the throne room. “Look who comes here: a grave unto a soul!—holding the eternal spirit, against its will, in the vile prison of afflicted breathing.” As Constance approaches, he hopes to prevent another public eruption. “I prithee, lady,” he says, offering his arm, “go away with me….”
“Lo, now I now see the issue of your peace!” cries the duchess.
“Patience, good lady! Comfort, gentle Constance!”
“No! I defy all counsel, all redress but that which ends all counsel: true redress—death, death!
“O amiable, lovely Death!—thou, odouriferous staunchness, sound rottenness!—arise forth from the couch of lasting night, thou haunting terror to prosperity, and I will kiss thy detestable bones, and put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows!—and ring these fingers with thy household worms!—and stop-up this gap of breath”—mouth—“with fulsome dust!—and be a carrion monster like thyself!
“Come!—gape at me and I will think thou smilest, and buss thee as thy wife! Misery’s lover, oh come to me!”
“O fair affliction, peace!” pleads the king.
“No, no, I will not, having breath to cry! Oh, that my tongue were in the Thunderer’s mouth! Then with a passion would I shake the world—and rouse from sleep that fell anatomy which cannot hear a lady’s feeble voice!—which scorns a modern invocation!” She glares, angry even at Death.
Cardinal Pandulph chides: “Lady, you utter madness—and not sorrow!”
“Thou art not holy to belie me so! I am not mad!—this hair I tear is mine; my name is Constance; I was Geoffrey’s wife; young Arthur is my son—and he is lost!” she wails. “I am not mad; I would to heaven I were!—for then ’tis likely I should forget my self! Oh, if I could, what grief I would forget!”
She grasps the sleeve of the priest’s robe. “Preach some philosophy to make me mad, and thou shalt be canonizèd, cardinal! For, being not mad but sensible of grief, my reasoning part produces reasons how I may be delivered from these woes, and teaches me to kill!—or hang myself!
“If I were mad, I should forget my son, or madly think some swaddled infant were he.
“I am not mad!” she sobs. “Too well!—too well I feel the different plague of each catastrophe!”
“Bind up those tresses,” says King Philip soothingly—pitying her. Oh, what love I note in the fair multitude of those her hairs, where but by chance a silver drop —a tear— hath fallen. Even to that drop, ten thousand wiry friends do glue themselves in sociable grief, like true, inseparable, faithful loves, sticking together in calamity!
The duchess challenges: “To England, if you will!”
“Bind up your hairs—”
“Yes, that I will! And wherefore will I do it?—I tore them from their bands, and cried aloud, ‘Oh, that these hands could so redeem my heir as they have given these hairs their liberty!’ But now I envy their liberty, and will again commit them to their bonds—because my poor child is a prisoner!
“And, Father Cardinal, I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in heaven. If that be true, I should see my boy again! For between the birth of Cain, the first male child, and him that did first suspire yesterday there was not such a gracious creature born!
“But now will the canker sorrow eat at my bud, and chase the native beauty from his cheek; and he will look as hollow as a ghost, dim and meagre as in ague’s fit! And so he’ll die—and rising so, when I shall meet him again in the court of Heaven I shall not know him!
“Therefore never, never may I behold my pretty Arthur more!” she wails, clutching her arms to herself.
Cardinal Pandulph frowns. “You hold too heinous an aspect of grief!”
“He talks to me that never had a son!” she replies.
“You are as fond of grief as of your child!” counters King Philip.
But Constance, again lost in her thoughts, speaks quite softly now. “Grief fills up the room of my absent child—lies in his bed, walks up and down with me; puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words; reminds me of all his gracious parts, stuffs out his vacant garment within its form.
“Then I have reason to be fond of grief.
“Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I, I could give better comfort than you do.” With both hands, she vigorously disturbs her hair further. “I will not keep this form upon my head, when there is such disorder in my mind!
“Oh, Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son!” she cries, shaking with sobs. “My life, my joy, my food, my all-the-world!”
She blinks, slowly, then nods. “My widow’s comfort,” she murmurs, staggering away, “and my sorrow’s cure….” She leaves the throne room.
“I fear some outrage!” King Philip tells the others. “I’ll follow her!” His attendants hurry after him.
The dauphin broods. “There’s nothing in this world can make me joy; life is as tedious as a twice-told tale vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man—and shame hath spoiled the world’s sweet taste, yields nought but bitterness!”
Pandulph tells him, “Before the curing of a strong disease, just at the instant of repair and health, the fit is strongest. Evils that take leave show evil most of all on their departure.
“What have you lost by the losing of this day?”
“All days of glory, joy and happiness!” says the young prince.
“If you had won it, you certainly had,” counters the cardinal. “No, no!—when Fortune means to do men the most good, she looks upon them with a threatening eye.” He ponders for a moment. “’Tis strange to think how much King John hath lost in this, which he accounts so clearly as won.
“Are you grievèd that Arthur is his prisoner?”
“As heartily as he is glad he hath him!” says the dauphin.
The churchman shakes his head. “Your mind is all as youthful as your blood!
“Now hear me speak with a prophetic spirit!—for even the breath of what I mean to say shall blow the dust—each straw, each little rub—out of the path which shall lead thy foot directly to England’s throne!
“And therefore mark! John hath seizèd Arthur; and it cannot be that whiles warm life plays in that child’s veins the misplacèd John should entertain an hour, one minute—nay, one quiet breath of rest! A sceptre snatched with an unruly hand must be as boisterously maintained as gained! And he who stands upon a slippery place makes quibble of no vile hold which can stay him up!
“That John may stand, then Arthur needs must fall!
“So be it,” he says sadly, “for it cannot be but so.”
Louis is puzzled. “But what shall I gain by young Arthur’s fall?”
“You—in the right of Lady Blanche, your wife—may then make all the claim that Arthur did!”
“And lose it, life and all, as Arthur did!”
“How green you are, and fresh in this old world!” says Pandulph. “John lays plots; the times conspire with you!—for he that steeps his safety in true blood shall find but bloody safety—and turn it untrue! This act, so evilly born, shall cool the hearts of all his people, and so freeze up their zeal that none-so-small advantage shall step forth to check his reign but they will cherish it!—no natural exhalation in the sky, no scrape of nature, no distempered day—no common wind nor accustomed event but they will pluck away the natural cause and call them meteors, prodigies and signs: abortive presages and tongues of Heaven, plainly announcing vengeance upon John!”
Louis considers. “May be he will not touch young Arthur’s life, but think himself safe in his ’prisonment.”
“Oh, sir, when John shall hear of your approach, if Arthur be not gone already, even at that news he dies!” The priest thinks dourly of the English king. “And then the hearts of all his people shall turn from him, and kiss the lips of unacquainted change—and pluck from the bloody finger-ends of John strong matter for wrath and revolt!
“Methinks I see this hurly all afoot!”—already begun. “And, oh, what a better matter breeds for you than I have named: the bastard Faulconbridge is now in England ransacking the Church—offending charity! If but a dozen French were there in arms, they would be as a call to bring ten thousand English to their side!—as a little snow, tumbled together, anon becomes a mountain!
“O noble dauphin, go with me to the king! ’Tis wonderful what may be wrought out of their discontent, now that their souls are toppèd full of offence!
“For England go! I will whet onward the king!”
Louis is convinced. “Strong reasons make strong actions! Let us go!
“If you say aye, the king will not say no!”
“Heat me these irons hot; and, look thou, stand behind the arras,” de Burgh tells two rough-looking men, pointing to the thick wall-hanging across from the hearth. “When I strike my foot upon the bosom of the ground, rush forth and bind the boy you shall find with me fast to the chair. Be heedful! Hence, and watch.”
The two move from the fire toward the heavy drapery, in a cellar chamber of the palace at London. “I hope your warrant will bear out the deed,” says the heavier knave doubtfully.
Uncleanly scruples, thinks the chamberlain dourly. “Fear not you! Look to’t!” he tells the men, and they are soon concealed. He has received an odious order from the king concerning the serpent in his path.
De Burgh calls toward the door, “Young lad, come forth! I have something to say with you.”
“Good morrow, Hubert!” says Arthur cheerfully, coming in from the corridor.
“Good morrow, little prince.”
“As little prince as may be, having so great a title to be more than prince!” says the heir to the throne. He sees the gentleman’s expression. “You are sad.”
“Indeed, I have been merrier.”
“’Mercy on me,” says the lad apologetically, “methinks nobody should be sad but I!
“Yet I remember: when I was in France, young gentlemen would be sad at night simply for wantonness! By my Christendom, if I were out of prison, and kept sheep, I should be as merry as the day is long!
“And so I would be here, but that I suspect my uncle practises more harm to me! He is afraid of me—and I of him! Is it my fault that I was Geoffrey’s son? No, indeed, is’t not!—and I would to heaven I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert.”
The royal steward is upset. If I talk to him, with his innocent prate he will awake my mercy—which lies dead! Therefore I will be sudden, and dispatch!
Arthur regards him with concern. “Are you sick, Hubert?—you look pale today. In sooth, I would you were a little sick, so that I might sit all night and watch with you!” He smiles. “I warrant I love you more than you do me,” he says, in playful challenge.
His words do take possession of my bosom! Hubert unfolds a document and hands it to the boy. “Read here, young Arthur.”
Even as he watches, his vision blurs, eyes stinging. How now, foolish rheum?—turning dispiteous torture out of door! I must be brief, lest resolution drop out at mine eyes in tender, womanish tears! He asks, gruffly, “Can you not read it? Is it not fair-writ?”
The child is aghast. “Too fairly, Hubert, for so foul effect! Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?”
“Young boy, I must.”
“And will you?”
“Have you the heart? When your head did but ache, I knit my handercher about your brows—the best I had—a princess wrought it for me!—and I did never ask it from you again. And with my hand at midnight I held your head; and like the watchful minutes to the hour, still and anon cheered up the heavy time, saying, ‘What lack you?’ and ‘Where lies your grief?’ Or ‘What good love may I perform for you?’
“Many a poor man’s son would have lain still, and ne’er have spoke a loving word; but you at your sick service had a prince! Nay, you may think my love was crafty love, and call it cunning—do, an if you will; if Heaven be pleasèd that you must use me ill, why then you must.
“Will you put out mine eyes?—these eyes that never did, nor never shall, so much as frown on you!”
Hubert looks down. “I have sworn to do it; and with hot irons must I burn them out.”
“Ah, none but in this iron age would do it! The iron itself, though heated red-hot, approaching near these eyes would drink my tears, and quench its fiery indignation even in the matter of mine innocence!—and after that, consume away in rust, for once containing fire to harm mine eye!
“Are you more stubborn, harder, than hammered iron? If an angel should have come to me and told me Hubert would put out mine eyes, I would not have believed him!—no tongue but Hubert’s!”
“Come forth!” cries de Burgh—and the henchmen emerge, bringing cords. “Do as I bid you do!”
The terrified boy falls to his knees. “Oh, save me, Hubert, save me! My eyes are put out even with the fierce looks of these bloody men!”
The chamberlain turns away. “Give me the iron, I say, and bind him there.”
“Alas, what need you be so boisterous rough?” protests the child, as the short man shoves him onto a chair of dark, scuffed pine, and ties his slender arms behind its back. “I will not struggle; I will stand stone-still! For Heaven’s sake, Hubert, let me not be bound! Nay, hear me, Hubert!” he pleads. “Drive these men away, and I will sit as quiet as a lamb! I will not stir, nor wince, nor speak a word, nor look upon the iron angrily! But thrust these men away, and I’ll forgive you, whatever torment you do put me to!”
“Go, stand within,” de Burgh tells the two. “Let me alone with him.”
They don’t delay. “I am best pleased to be from such a deed!” mutters the heavier as they stamp away.
“Alas, then, I have chid away my friend!” moans Arthur watching the man go. “He hath a stern look, but a gentle heart! Let him come back, that his compassion may give life to yours!”
De Burgh raises a smoking rod of iron; the searing-hot end is red as he stands before the bound captive. “Come, boy—prepare yourself.”
“Is there no remedy?”
“None but to lose your eyes.”
“Oh, Heaven, that there were but a mote in yours!—a grain of dust, a gnat, a wandering hair—any annoyance in that precious sense! Then, feeling what small things are boisterous there, your vile intent must needs seem horrible!”
“Was this your promise?” complains de Burgh. “Go to; hold your tongue!”
“Hubert, the utterance of a set of tongues must needs lack, when pleading for a pair of eyes! Let me not hold my tongue, let me not, Hubert!—or, Hubert, if you will, cut out my tongue, if I may keep mine eyes! Oh, spare my eyes, though to no use but still to look on you!”
He looks from the metal’s now-gray point up to the chamberlain. “Lo, for my truth, the instrument is cold—and would not harm me!”—does not want to.
“I can heat it, boy.”
“No, in good sooth!—the fire is dead with grief, being created for comfort, then used in undeservèd extremes! See for yourself: there is no malice in this burning coal!—else the breath of heaven had blown its spirit out, and strewed repentant ashes on its head!”
“But with my breath I can revive it, boy.”
“If you do, you will but make it blush, and glow with shame at your proceedings, Hubert! Nay, perchance it will spark into your eyes!—and like a dog that is compelled to fight, snatch at his master that doth tarre him on!
“All things that you would use to do me wrong deny their office! Only you do lack that mercy which fierce fire and iron extend—creatures of note for mercy-lacking uses!”
The iron falls with a clank, and de Burgh sobs. He wipes tears from his eyes. “Well, see to live!” he groans, overwhelmed. “I will not touch thine eye for all the treasure that thine uncle owns!”
He takes the rod back to the hearth, then stares at the embers. “Yet am I sworn!—and I did purpose, boy, with this same very iron to burn them out.”
“Oh, now you look like Hubert!” cries Arthur. “All this while you were disguisèd!”
“Peace. No more,” says de Burgh, untying the child. “Your uncle must not know but that you are dead! I’ll fill those doggèd spies with false reports.
“Adieu! And, pretty child, sleep doubtless and secure, that Hubert, for the wealth of all the world, will not offend thee!”
“Oh heaven! I thank you, Hubert!”
“Silence; no more.
“Go closely in with me,” he whispers; and quietly, stealthily, he leads the boy down dark corridors.
Thinks the gentleman, fearfully, Much danger do I undergo for thee!
Taking his seat upon the carved-oak throne this evening, King John is quite comfortable after his second coronation; England’s noblemen have reaffirmed allegiance to him, despite the Pope’s condemnation. “Here once again we sit, once again crownèd—and looked upon, I hope, with cheerful eyes!”
But the Earl of Pembroke grumbles. “This ‘once again,’ but that Your Highness pleased it, was once superfluous. You were crowned before, and that high royalty was ne’er pluckèd off, the faith of men ne’er stained with revolt. Fresh expectation troubled not the land with any longed-for change to a better state.”
“Therefore, to be possessèd with double pomp,” says the Earl of Salisbury, “to guard a title that was rich before—to gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily, throw a perfume on the violet, cool the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow—were with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven!”—the sun. “So to garnish is wasteful and ridiculous excess!
“But that your royal pleasure must be done, this act is as an ancient tale new-told—and in the last repeating troublesome, being urgèd at a time unseasonable!” says Pembroke.
Salisbury nods. “In this, the antique and well-noted face of a plain, old form is much disfigured. And, like a wind shifted into a sail, it makes the course of thoughts to fetch about—startles and frights consideration!—makes sound opinion sick, and truth suspected, for putting on so new-fashioned a robe!”
“When workmen strive to do better than well, they do confound their skill by covetousness,”—greed, says Pembroke. “And oftentimes the excuse for a wrong doth make the wrong the worse for the excusing—as patches set upon a little breach discredit more in hiding of the fault than did the fault before it was so patchèd.”
“We breathed our counsel to this effect before you were new-crownèd,” Salisbury points out. Seeing the sovereign’s frown, he quickly adds, “But it pleased Your Highness to overbear it; and we are all well pleasèd, since all and every part of what we would doth make a stand at what Your Highness will.”
Says John firmly, “Some reasons for this double coronation I have possessed you with, and think them strong. And more—more strong than lesser, in my fear—I shall imbue you with. Meantime, ask but what you would have reformèd which is not well, and well shall you perceive how willingly I will both hear and grant you your requests!”
Pembroke glances at the other lords, then regards John cautiously. The nobility has already exacted considerable concessions from the king; Arthur, a child, would be even more malleable. “Then I, as but one that am the tongue of these, do sound the purpose of all their hearts both for myself and them.
“Chief of all, for your safety, the which myself and they bend our best studies, we heartily request the enfranchisement of Arthur—whose restraint doth move the murmuring lips of Discontent to break into this dangerous argument: if you hold in arrest what you have no right to hold, why then your fears—which, as they say, ‘attend the steps of wrong’—could move you to mew up your tender kinsman—to choke his days with barbarous ignorance, and deny his youth the rich advantage of good exercise!
“So that the time’s enemies may not use that to grace incidents, let it be our suit that you have bid us ask his liberty—which, for our good, our weal on you depending, we no further ask than, whereupon it heightens your weal, he have his liberty,” says Lord Pembroke obsequiously.
“Let it be so,” says John calmly; a blind boy cannot threaten his reign. “I do commit his youth to your direction.”
The noblemen are pleased—and relieved.
The king sees the chamberlain, visibly perturbed, come into the throne room. Taking him aside, has asks, “Hubert, what news with you?”
Two earls also confer—privately, in alarm. “This is the man should do the bloody deed!” whispers Pembroke angrily. “He showed his warrant to a friend of mine! The image of a wicked, heinous crime lives on in his eyes!” He leans nearer, still watching de Burgh. “That close aspect of his does show the mood of a much-troubled breast!—and fearfully I do believe ’tis done, what we so feared he had a charge to do!”
Salisbury watches John. “The colour of the king doth come and go between his purpose and his conscience, like heralds ’twixt two dreadful armies sent! His distress is so ripe it needs must break!”
“And when it breaks,” says Pembroke, “I fear will issue thence the foul corruption of the sweet child’s death!”
John returns to the throne, clearly upset. “We cannot hold back mortality’s strong hand,” he says mournfully. “Good lords, although my will to give it is living, the suit which you demand is gone and dead.” He motions toward the boy’s keeper. “He tells us Arthur is deceasèd tonight!”
The other nobles gasp, but Salisbury, stone-faced, stares at John. “Indeed we feared his sickness was past cure.”
Adds Pembroke pointedly, “Indeed, we heard how near his death he was before the child himself felt he was sick.” He exchanges grave looks with his friend. “This must be answered, either here or hence!”
“Why do you bend such solemn brows on me?” demands King John. “Think you I bear the shears of destiny? Have I commandment on the pulse of life?”
Salisbury grows red-faced with anger. “It is apparent!—foul play! And ’tis shame that greatness should so grossly offer it!” He bows stiffly and turns away. “So shrive it, for your name!—and so, farewell!”
“Stay yet, Lord Salisbury!—I’ll go with thee!” says Pembroke, following, “and find the inheritance of this poor child: his little kingdom of a forcèd grave! That blood which owned the breadth of all this isle, three foot of it doth hold!
“Bad world the while! This must not be thus borne!” he says, shaking his head angrily as they leave. “This will break out to all our sorrows!—and ere long, I fear!”
King John, affronted and alarmed, watches the noblemen storm away. They burn in indignation!
I repent! There is no sure foundation set on blood—no certain life achieved by others’ death!
And now a courier, still wearing the heavy cloak of a sea traveler, rushes into the throne room and bows before the distraught king.
“A fearful eye thou hast!” says John. “Where is that blood that I have seen inhabiting those cheeks? So foul a sky clears not without a storm! Pour down thy weather—how goes all in France?”
“From France to England!” says the messenger. “Never was such a power”—armed force—“for any foreign preparation levied in the body of the land! The copy of your speed is learned by them!—for when you should be told they do prepare, the tidings come that they are all arrivèd!”
King John rises, furious at the failure of his spies and agents. “Oh, then hath our intelligence been drunk!—where hath it slept?
“Where is my mother’s watchful care, that such an army could be drawn in France, and she not hear of it?”
“My liege, her ear is stopped with dust: the first of April your noble mother died!—and, as I hear, my lord, the Lady Constance in a frenzy died three days before! But this from Rumour’s tongue I idly heard; if true or false I know not.”
John staggers back to the throne. Withhold thy speed, O dreadful occurrence!—make a league with me till I have pleased my discontented peers!
He gapes at the courier. “What?—Mother dead! How wildly then walks my estate in France!
“Under whose conduct came those powers of France that thou as truth givest out are landed here?”
“Under the dauphin.”
John presses fingers against graying temples. “Thou hast made me giddy with these ill tidings!”
Sir Richard comes to the king, bringing in tow an ill-kempt commoner.
John regards the knight sourly. “Now what says the world to your proceedings?”—expropriating Church wealth. “Do not seek to stuff my head with more ill news, for it is full!”
“But if you be afeard to hear the worse,” Richard retorts, “you’ll let the worst fall unheard on your head!”
“Bear with me cousin,” moans John, “for I was amazèd under a tide!” Grasping the throne’s arms, he sits up straighter. He motions the two forward. “But now I breathe again aloft the flood, and can give audience to any tongue, speak it of what it will.”
Richard has been seizing money from the Church’s many English holdings. “How I have sped among the clergymen, the sums I have collected shall express.
“But as I travelled hither through the land, I found the people strangely fantasied—possessed with rumours, idle dreams—not knowing what they fear, but full of fear!”
He pushes the man forward. “And here is a prophet that I brought with me from forth the streets of Pomfret, whom I found with many hundreds treading at his heels!—to whom he sung, in rude, harsh-sounding rhymes, that ere the next Ascension Day at noon, Your Highness should deliver up your crown!”
King John glares at the masterless rustic. “Thou idle dreamer!—wherefore didst thou so?”
“Foreknowing that the truth will fall out so.”
“Hubert, away with him!” cries John. “Imprison him!—and at noon on that day whereon he says I shall yield up my crown, let him be hanged!” The feast of Ascension is on the fortieth day after Easter.
“Deliver him into secure custody, then return,” says John urgently, “for I must use thee.” De Burgh takes the hapless old soothsayer by the arm and leads him away.
“O my gentle cousin, hear’st thou the news abroad of who are arrivèd?” asks John.
“The French, my lord—men’s mouths are full of it! And more besides: I met Lord Bigot and Lord Salisbury—with eyes as red as new-enkindled fire!—and others, going to seek the grave of Arthur, who, they say, was killed this night at your instigation!”
John feels cornered. “Gentle kinsman, go and thrust thyself into their companies. I have a way to win their loves again!—bring them before me!” He will argue that De Burgh exceeded his charge.
“I will seek them out.”
“Aye, but make haste!—the better foot is before! Oh, let me have no subject enemies, when adverse foreigners affright my towns with dreadful pomp of stout invasion! Be Mercury!—set feathers to thy heels, and fly like thought from them to me again!”
“The spirit of the time shall teach me speed!” says Sir Richard, already hurrying away.
“Spoken like a spirited, noble gentleman!” calls John. “Go after him,” he tells the courier, “for he perhaps shall need some messenger betwixt me and the peers—and be thou he.”
The messenger bows. “With all my heart, my liege!” He hurries after the knight.
My mother, dead! thinks John, forlorn.
Hubert returns—pale, but resolved to equivocate. “My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight!—one fixèd, and four that did whirl about the other in wondrous motion!”
The chamberlain approaches, wringing his hands. “Old men and beldams in the streets do prophesy upon it dangerously!—young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths! And when they talk of him, they shake their heads and whisper one another in the ear!—and he that speaks doth grip the hearer’s wrist, whilst he who hears makes fearful action!—with wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes!
“I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus”—an upraised arm hovers, motionless—“whilst his iron did on the anvil cool, with open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news—who, with shears and measure in his hand, standing in slippers which his nimble haste had falsely thrust upon contrary feet, told of a-many thousand warlike French that were embattled,”—mustered for war, “and ranked in Kent!”—landed on the southeastern coast.
“Then another lean, unwashèd artificer cuts off his tale, and talks of Arthur’s death!”—widely expected, since his capture.
“Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?” demands the worried king. “Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death? Thy hand hath murdered him!” Having ordered—in writing—only a maiming, he seems indignant. “I had a mighty cause to wish him dead—but thou hadst none to kill him!”
The chamberlain stands aghast. “Had not, my lord?—why, did you not provoke me?”
John affects sorrow. “It is a curse of kings to be attended by slaves that take their inclination for a bloody warrant to break within the house of life!—and on a blinking of authority”—a brief lapse—“to understand it as law—to grow the meaning of dangerous majesty, when perchance it frowns more upon mood than advisèd respect!”
Hubert pulls the king’s warrant from inside his coat. “Here in your hand is seal for what I did!”
King John realizes that the document will hardly appease the angry baronage. He sinks back upon the throne—and considers something worse: Oh, when the last account ’twixt heaven and earth is to be made, then shall this hand and seal witness against us to damnation!
How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds makes deeds ill done! He scowls at Hubert. “Hadst not thou been nearby—a fellow by the hand of Nature marked, quoted, as assigned to do a deed of shame—this murder had not come into my mind! But, taking note of thy abhorrèd aspect, finding thee fit for bloody villainy, apt, liable to be employed in danger, I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death—and thou, to be endearèd to a king, made it no conscience to destroy a prince!”
“Hadst thou but shook thy head, or made a pause when I spake darkly what I purposed, or turned an eye of doubt upon my face, as bidding me tell my tale in express words, deep shame had struck me silent—made me break off!—and those thy fears might have wrought fears in me!
“But thou didst understand me by my signs, and didst in returnèd signs parley with sin!—yea, without stop didst let thy heart consent!—and consequently thy rude hand acted the deed which both our tongues held too vile to name!
“Out of my sight, and never see me more!
“My nobles leave me!” he moans, “and my state is challenged, even at my gates, with ranks of foreign powers!”
He claps a hand over his heart. “Nay, in the body of this fleshly land—this kingdom, this confine of blood and breath—hostility and civil tumult strain between my conscience and my nephew’s death!”
De Burgh is relieved to hear it. “Arm you against your other enemies; I’ll make a peace between your soul and you: young Arthur is alive!
“This hand of mine is yet an innocent hand, not painted with the crimson spots of blood! Within this bosom never entered yet the dreadful motion of a murderous thought!
“And you have slandered Nature for my form, which howsoever rude exteriorly is yet the cover of a fairer mind than to be butcher of an innocent child!”
King John stares, amazed. “Doth Arthur live? Oh, haste thee to the peers!—throw this report on their incensèd rage, and make them tame in their obedience!
“Forgive the comment that my passion made upon thy features, for my rage was blind, and foul, imaginary eyes of blood presented thee more hideous than thou art!”
He sees a flash of further protest. “Oh, answer not, but to my chambers bring the angry lords with all expedient haste!
“I conjure thee but slowly!—run more fast!”
In the darkness, a small door, weathered and rarely used, creaks open onto the slanting, western roof of the royal palace, and a slender form moves to the parapet. Arthur’s palms sweat as he leans forward to peer fearfully over the edge.
The wall is high!—but yet will I leap down! Good ground, be pitiful and hurt me not!
There’s few or none do know me; if they did, this ship-boy’s semblance hath disguisèd me quite. He climbs onto the cold stone ledge.
He sees no one far below, on the wide, dim expanse of moonlit turf. I am afraid!—and yet I’ll venture it! If I get down and do not break my limbs, I’ll find a thousand shifts to get away!
He remembers the glowing-hot iron. As good to go and die as stay and die! He draws in a full breath—and leaps down.
The boy falls too close to the castle; his back is broken on rocks in the ditch that channels away rainwater.
Unable to move, struggling to breathe, he cannot cry for help.
Slowly he blinks. Oh me! My uncle’s spirit is in these stones!
Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones….
Pain and darkness enfold him.
Emerging cautiously past a side door, three noblemen step outside and hurry away from the windows’ light to a dark side of the castle.
His voice hushed, Salisbury tells the others, “Lords, I will meet him at Saint Edmundsbury!—it is our safety, and we must embrace this gentle offer of the perilous time!”
“Who brought that letter from the cardinal?” asks Pembroke.
“The Count Melun, a noble lord of France—whose private word to me of the dauphin’s love is much more general than these lines impart!” says Salisbury, sliding the letter back into a coat pocket.
“Tomorrow morning let us meet him, then,” says Lord Roger Bigot.
“Or rather, then set forward,” Salisbury amends, “for ’twill be two long days’ journey, lords, or ere we meet.” They are to join Louis’s invading forces northeast of London, in Suffolk.
The nobles are startled when a knight in armor hails them. “Once more today, well met, distempered lords!” says Sir Richard. “The king by me requests your presence straight!”
Lord Salisbury shakes his head defiantly. “The king hath dispossessed himself of us! We will not line his thin, bestainèd cloak with our pure honours, nor attend the foot that leaves a print of blood where’er it walks! Return and tell him so! We know the worst!”
“Whate’er you think, good words, I think, were best,” warns the knight sternly.
“Our griefs, and not our manners, reason now!” Salisbury tells him.
“But there is little reason in your grief,” replies Richard. “Therefore ’twere reason you had manners now.”
“Sir, sir, impatience hath its privilege!”
“’Tis true—to hurt its master, no man else.”
Salisbury has spotted something—a shape on the ground. “This is the prison,” he notes, peering up as he walks toward the wall. “What is he lies here?” He looks down—and cries out.
Pembroke hurries to his side—and gasps. “O, Death!—made proud with pure and princely beauty!” Staring at the small body, he moans. “The earth had not a hole to hide this deed!”
“Murder himself, as if hating what he hath done, doth lay it in the open, to urge on Revenge!” says Salisbury, furious.
Bigot concurs. “Aye, when he doomed this fairness, he found it too precious for a grave!”
Salisbury confronts the loyal knight. “Sir Richard, what think you?
“Have you beheld?” he demands angrily, pointing to the boy. “Or must you have read or heard ere you could think?—or do you almost think?—though you see what you do see!
“Could thought, without this object, form such another? This is the very top, the height, the crest!—or crest unto the crest of Murder’s coat of arms!
“This is the bloodiest shame, the wildest savagery, the vilest stroke that ever wall-eyed wrath or staring rage presented to the tears of soft remorse!”
“All murders past do stand excusèd in this!” mutters Pembroke. “And this, sole and so unmatchable, shall give a holiness, a purity, to the yet-unbegotten sins of time, and prove deadly bloodshed but a jest, compared to this heinous spectacle!”
Richard has tears in his steel-gray eyes. “It is a damnèd and a bloody work!—the graceless action of a heavy hand, if that it be the work of any hand….”
“If that it be the work of any hand?” cries Salisbury. “We had a kind of light ”—a glimmer—“of what would ensue! It is the shameful work of Hubert’s hand!—the practise and the purpose of the king!
“From whose obedience I forbid my soul, kneeling before this ruin of sweet life!—and breathing to his breathless excellence the incense of a vow, a holy vow, never to taste the pleasures of the world, never to be infected with delight, nor conversant with ease and idleness, till I have set a glory to this hand by giving it the worship of revenge!”
“Our souls religiously confirm thy words!” says Pembroke.
And now De Burgh finally finds them; he comes rushing over the lawn with his message from the king. “Lords, I am hot with haste in seeking you!—Arthur doth live! The king hath sent for you!”
Growls Salisbury, “Oh, he is cold that blushes not at death!” He shoves the chamberlain away. “Avaunt, thou hateful villain!—get thee gone!”
“I am no villain!” cries Hubert.
Salisbury draws his sword. “Must I rob the law?”
Richard warns the younger, untested man. “Your sword is bright, sir. Put it up again.”
The earl moves forward. “Not till I sheathe it in a murderer’s skin!”
Cries Hubert, “Stand back, Lord Salisbury!—stand back, I say! By heaven, I think my sword’s as sharp as yours! I would not have you, lord, forget yourself, nor tempt the danger of my true defence—lest I, by marking of your rage, forget your worth—your greatness and nobility!”
“Out, dunghill!” shouts Bigot. “Darest thou brave a nobleman?”
“Not for my life,” protests Hubert, “but yet I dare defend my innocent life against even an emperor!”
Salisbury glares. “Thou art a murderer!”
Warns Hubert, a hand at the hilt of his sword, “Do not prove me so.
“As yet I am none! Whose tongue soe’er speaks is false—not truly speaks….” He faces the earl more boldly. “Who speaks not truly lies!”
“Cut him to pieces!” urges Pembroke.
Sir Richard steps between them. “Keep the peace, I say!”
Salisbury is enraged. “Stand by, or I shall gall you, Faulconbridge!”
Richard laughs, turning toward him fearlessly. “Thou wert better gall the Devil, Salisbury! If thou but frown on me, or stir thy foot, or teach thy hasty spleen to do me shame, I’ll strike thee dead!
“Put up thy sword betime, or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron that you shall think the Devil is come from Hell!”
Bigot is irked by the interference. “What wilt thou do, renownèd Faulconbridge!—second a villain and a murderer?”
“Lord Bigot, I am none!” cries the chamberlain.
“Who killed this prince?” demands Bigot.
Hubert now sees the boy—goes over and falls to his knees beside the body. “’Tis not an hour since I left him well!” He sobs. “I honoured him!—I loved him!—and will weep my date of life out for his sweet life’s loss!”
Salisbury scoffs. “Trust not those cunning waters of his eyes, for villainy is not without such rheum—and he, long traded in it, makes it seem like rivers of remorse and innocence!” He turns to the other lords. “Away with me, all you whose souls abhor the uncleanly savours of a slaughter-house! For I am stifled with this smell of sin!”
“Away toward ’Bury!—to the dauphin there!” cries Bigot.
Pembroke sheathes his blade. “Tell the king he may there inquire us out!” he snarls at Richard as he stalks away with the other noblemen.
Thinks the knight, shaking his head, Here’s a good world! He looks down at the weeping chamberlain. “If thou didst this deed of death, beyond the infinite and boundless reach of mercy art thou damnèd, Hubert. Know you of this fair work?”
The gentleman takes a moment too long. “Do but hear me, sir,” he pleads.
“Hah! I’ll tell thee what!—thou’rt as damnèd as foul!—nay, nothing is so foul! Thou art more deeply damnèd than Prince Lucifer! There is not yet so ugly a fiend in Hell as thou shalt be, if thou didst kill this child!”
“Upon my soul—!”
“If thou didst but consent to this most cruel act, do but despair! If thou want’st a rope, the smallest thread that ever spider twisted from her womb will serve to strangle thee!—a rush will be a beam to hang thee on! Or, wouldst thou drown thyself, put but a little water in a spoon and it shall be as all the ocean, enough to stifle such a villain!”
He studies de Burgh. “I do suspect thee very grievously!”
Tenderly, Hubert reaches forward and closes Arthur’s eyes. “If I in act, consent, or sin of thought be guilty in the stealing of that sweet breath which was embounded in this beauteous clay, let Hell have pains enough to torture me.
“I left him well!” he sobs.
Richard believes it. “Go. Bear him in thine arms.”
Hubert nods, wiping away tears.
The knight watches, sorrowfully, his wryness vanquished. I am dazed, methinks, and lose my way among the thorns and dangers of this world.
Hubert arranges the limbs, then carefully lifts the broken body.
How easily dost thou take all England up! thinks Richard. From forth this morsel of dead royalty, the life, the right and truth of all this realm is fled to heaven!
And England now is left to tug and scamble—and to pay by the tithe the unowèd interest of proud-swelling state!
Now doth doggèd War bristle his angry crest for the bare-picked bone of majesty!—and snarl in the gentle eyes of Peace!
Now powers away from home and discontents at home meet in one line!—and vast destruction waits, as doth a raven over a sick-fall’n beast, for the imminent decay of wrested pomp!
Now happy is he whose cloak and cincture can hold out this tempest!
Richard tells the weeping chamberlain, “Bear away that child, and follow me with speed. I’ll to the king.
“A thousand businesses are briefly at hand, and heaven itself doth frown upon the land!”
King John, his face hard with barely suppressed anger, regards Cardinal Pandulph, who is standing beside him in the throne room this morning. “Thus have I yielded up into your hand the circle of my glory.”
Solemnly, the priest returns the crown of England. “Take again from this my hand, as beholding to the Pope, your sovereign greatness and authority.”
John takes back the crown, and replaces it upon his head. “Now keep your holy word!
“Go meet the French, and use all your power from His Holiness to stop their marches, before we are in flames! Our discontented counties do revolt!—our people quarrel against obedience, swearing allegiance and the love of soul to stranger blood!—to foreign royalty!
“This inundation of mistempered feeling rests to be qualified only by you! Then pause not!—for the present time’s so sick that immediate medicine must be ministered, or overthrow incurable ensues!”
The priest, unwilling to be hurried, tells the monarch, “It was my breath that blew this tempest up—upon your stubborn usage of the Pope!
“But since you are a gentle convertite, my tongue shall hush again this storm of war, and make fair weather in your blustering land. On this, Ascension Day, remember well that upon your oath of service to the Pope go I, to make the French lay down their arms.”
With a curt bow, he leaves to meet with Louis, whose army, encouraged by Englishmen’s disaffection, has made surprisingly good progress since landing, moving northward, then coming west toward London.
John seats himself on the throne. Is this Ascension Day? Did not the prophet say that before Ascension Day at noon my crown I should give off? Even so I have!
I did suppose it would be on constraint, but, heaven be thanked, it is but voluntary! he thinks—with bitter sarcasm. He groans and, slowly smoothing his beard, ponders wearily and ruefully.
Sir Richard comes to him and bows. His dour report is of the French army’s swift success. “All Kent hath yielded!—nothing there holds out but Dover Castle; London hath received the dauphin and his powers like a kind host!”
The knight regards the brooding king. “Your nobles will not hear you, but are gone to offer service to your enemy!—and wild amazement hurries up and down the little number of your doubtful friends.”
John is surprised. “Would not my lords return to me again, after they heard young Arthur was alive?”
“They found him: dead, and cast unto the street—an empty casket where the jewel of life by some damnèd hand was robbed and ta’en away.”
“That villain Hubert told me he did live!” cries John, stunned.
“So, on my soul, he did, for aught he knew,” says Richard, wondering if John otherwise accomplished the boy’s death. “But wherefore do you droop?” he asks the sovereign. “Why look you sad? Be as great in act as you have been in thought!—let not the world see fear and sad distrust govern the motion of a kingly eye!
“Be as stirring as the time!—be fire to fire; threaten the threatener, and outface the brow of bragging horror!
“So shall inferior eyes that borrow their behaviors from the great grow great by your example, and put on the dauntless spirit of resolution!
“Away, and glister like the god of war when he intendeth to complement the field! Show boldness and aspiring confidence! What?—shall they seek the lion in his den, and fright him there?—and make him tremble there? Oh, let it not be said!
“Forward!—run to meet displeasure farther from thy doors, and grapple with it ere it comes so nigh!”
But John sinks back against the throne. “The legate of the Pope hath been with me, and I have made a happy peace with him. And he hath promised to dismiss the powers led by the dauphin.”
“Oh inglorious league!” cries the knight. “Shall we, upon the trampling of our land, send fair-play orders, and make compromises, offer weak parley and base truce to invasive arms? Shall a beardless boy, a silken cockerel”—stuffed-cloth rooster—“wantonly brave our fields, and flesh his spirit in a warlike roil, mocking the air with colours idly spread—and find no check?
“Let us, my liege, to arms!
“Perchance the cardinal cannot make your peace!—or if he do, let it at least be said they saw we had the purpose of defence!”
King John merely nods. “Have thou the ordering of this present time.”
“Away, then, with good courage!” cries Richard, already going. Yet I know our party may well meet a prouder foe.
Even as he rushes to rally the royal troops, he fears, now, that John has grievously sinned.
Several English noblemen have signed an agreement with the smug French prince. Louis tells Count Giles, in the dauphin’s huge tent at his army’s new encampment near St. Edmundsbury, “My Lord Melun, let this be copied out, and keep it safe for our remembrance.
“Return the precedent”—original document—“to these lords again; so that, having our fair terms written down, both they and we perusing o’er these notes may know wherefore we took the sacrament, and keep our faiths, firm and inviolable.”
“Upon our side it never shall be broken!” says Salisbury—flushing; not long ago they had sworn just such allegiance to John. “But, noble dauphin, albeit we swore a voluntary zeal and an unurgèd faith to your proceeding, yet believe me, prince, I am not glad for a time so sore that it should seek bandaging by contemnèd revolt, and healing the intemperate canker of one wound by making many!
“Oh, it grieves my soul that I must draw this metal from my side to be a widow-maker! Ah, if only it were honourable rescue in defence that cries out upon the name of Salisbury! But such is the infection of the time that, for the health and physic of our right, we cannot but cope with the very hand of stern injustice and confusèd wrong!”
He faces the other Englishmen. “And is’t not a pity, O my aggrievèd friends, that we, the sons and children of this isle, were born to see so sad an hour as this, wherein we step after a stranger’s march across her gentle bosom, and fill up her enemies’ ranks!—do grace the gentry of a land remote, and follow unacquainted colours here!
“What, here? O nation, if only thou couldst be moved!—if Neptune’s arms which clippeth thee about would bear thee from the knowledge of thyself, and grapple thee against a pagan shore, these two Christian armies might combine the blood of malice within a vein of league, and not expend it so unneighbourly!” His throat chokes with emotion; he turns away. “I must withdraw, and weep over the blot of this enforcèd cause!”
Louis, dressed in colorful silks, as he would be at home in the French court, feels disdain. A noble temper dost thou show in this—and great affectation wrestling in thy bosom doth make an earthquake of nobility!
He believes these English lords, behind the rhetoric of patriots, are like him—ambitious and calculating. Oh, what a noble combat hast thou fought—between compulsion and a brave aspect!
He proffers an embroidered pink kerchief. “Let me wipe off this honourable dew which silverly doth progress on thy cheeks!
“My heart hath melted at a lady’s tears, being an ordinary inundation; but this effusion of such manly drops, this shower, blown up by tempest of the soul, startles mine eyes, and makes me more amazèd than had I seen the vaulty top of heaven figured quite o’er with burning meteors!
“Lift up thy brow, renownèd Salisbury, and with a great heart heave away the storm! Commend these waters to those baby eyes that never saw the giant world enragèd,” he says, patronizingly, “nor met with fortune other than feasts, full of warmèd blood,”—heated with drink, “of mirth, of gossiping.”
The dauphin, annoyed, renews his bribery. “Come, come!—for thou shalt thrust thy hand as deep into the purse of rich prosperity as Louis himself! So, nobles, shall you all, that knit your sinews to the strength of mine!”
They hear a herald’s trumpet. “And even there, methinks, an angel spake!” laughs Louis. “Look, where the holy legate comes apace, to give us warrant from the land of Heaven, and on our actions set the name of right with holy breath.”
Cardinal Pandulph comes to him and nods. The Italian wastes no time. “Hail, noble Prince of France. The next is this: King John hath reconciled himself to Rome! His spirit, that so stood out against the holy Church, the great metropolis and see of Rome, is come in!”
The priest motions imperiously. “Therefore thy threatening colours now wind up, and tame the savage spirit of wild war, so that, like a lion fostered up by hand, it may lie gently at the foot of peace, and be no further harmful than in show.”
“Your Grace shall pardon me,” says Louis haughtily, “I will not go back!
“I am too high-born to be propertied!—to be a secondary of control, a useful serving-man, or an instrument to any sovereign state throughout this world!
“Your breath first kindled the dead coals of war between this chastisèd kingdom and myself, and brought in matter that would feed this fire!—and now ’tis far too huge to be blown out by that same weak wind which enflamed it!
“You taught me how to know the face of ‘right’—acquainted me with an interest in this land—yea, thrust this enterprise into my heart! And come ye now to tell me John hath made his peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?
“I, by the honour of my marriage-bed, can—after young Arthur—claim this land for mine! And now that it is half conquered, must I back because John hath made his peace with Rome?
“Am I Rome’s slave? What penny hath Rome borne to underprop this action, what men provided, what munition sent? Is’t not I that undergo this charge?
“Who else but I,”—he glances at the English lords—“and such as to my claim are liable, sweat in this business, and maintain this war!
“Have I not heard these islanders shout out ‘Vive le roi!’ as I have bankèd ships at their towns?
“Have I not here the best cards for the game?—to win this easy match, played for a crown!
“And shall I now give o’er the yielded bet? No, no!—on my soul, it never shall be said!”
The cardinal warns the youth, “You look on but the outside of this work!”
“Outside or inside, I will not return till my attempt be glorified by so much as was promised to my ample hope!—before I drew this gallant head of war, and called these fiery spirits to outface in conquest, and to win renown, even in the jaws of danger and of death!”
He looks to the entrance as a sennet signals, loudly, the arrival of another visitor. “What lusty trumpet thus doth summon us?”
“According to the fair play of the world,”—customs of chivalry, “let me have audience!” demands Sir Richard, as he and his attendants enter the dauphin’s tent—and approach the cardinal.
“I am sent to speak, my holy lord of Milan, from the king! I come to learn how you have dealt for him. Then, according to your answer, I will know the scope and warrant limited unto my tongue.”
Pandulph spreads his hands. “The dauphin is too wilfully opposite, and with my entreaties will not temporize! He flatly says he’ll not lay down his arms!”
Richard the warrior beams. “By all the blood that ever breathèd fury, the youth says well!
“Now hear our English king!—for thus his royalty doth speak by me: he is preparèd!
“And for good reason should he be! This apish and unmannerly approach, this harnessed parade and unadvisèd revel,”—he looks at Louis, “this beardless sauciness of boyish troops, the king doth smile at! And he is well prepared to whip this dwarfish warfare, these pigmy arms, from out the circle of his territories!”
He regards the French lords with contempt. “That hand which had the strength, even at your door, to cudgel you and make you take the hatch—to dive like buckets into concealèd wells, to crouch in the crap of your stable-planks, to lie like pawns locked up in chests and trunks, to hug with swine, to seek out sweet safety in vaults and prisons, and to thrill and shake even at the crying of your nation’s crow, thinking its voice an armèd Englishman’s!—shall that victorious hand that in your chambers gave you chastisement be feeble here?
“No!” he roars. “Know that the gallant monarch is in arms, and like an eagle soars o’er his aery towers, to down annoyance that comes near his nest!”
He glares at the English nobles. “And you degenerates, you ingrate revolters!—you bloody heroes ripping ope the womb of your dear Mother England, blush for shame!—for your own ladies and pale-visaged maids come tripping like Amazons after her drums!—change thimbles into armèd gauntlets, turn needles to lances, and their gentle hearts to fierce and bloody inclination!”
Louis interrupts, waving him away. “There end thy brave,”—affront, “and turn thy face in peace! We grant thou canst outscold us! Fare thee well; we hold our time too precious to be spent with such a brabbler.”
Cardinal Pandulph asks Louis, “Give me leave to speak.”
“No, I will speak!” insists Richard.
“We will attend to neither!” cries the dauphin. “Strike up the drums!—and let the tongue of war plead for our interest, and our being here!”
Richard laughs. “Indeed, being beaten your drums will cry out!—and so shall you, when beaten!
“Do but start an echo with the clamour of thy drum,” he warns, “and, even at hand, a drum is already bracèd that shall reverberate all as loud as thine!
“Sound but another, and another shall rattle the welkin’s ear!”—roil the sky—“and mock the deep-mouthed thunder!
“For at hand—not trusting to this halting legate here, whom he hath used rather for sport than need—is warlike John! And in his frown sits bare-ribbèd Death!—whose office this day is to feast upon whole thousands of the French!”
“Strike up our drums, says Louis, scornfully, “to find this danger out!”
Richard strides away. “And thou shalt find it, dauphin, do not doubt!”
The king’s forces furiously attack the dauphin’s French army and its allied English rebels. The fighting is desperate, spurring vigorous assaults and frantic retreats on both sides, as the intense battle wears on.
“How goes the day with us?” asks John, sitting, sullen, in a tent away from the combat. “Tell me, Hubert.”
“Badly, I fear,” the chamberlain reports; their contingent has already been compelled by the turmoil to move farther back. “How fares Your Majesty?”
The King of England’s face shows his anguish. “This fever, that hath troubled me so long, lies heavy on me. Oh, my heart is sick!”
A messenger comes to John. He bows, and speaks quickly: “My lord, your valiant kinsman Faulconbridge desires Your Majesty to leave the field, and send him word, by me, which way you go!”
“Tell him, toward Swinshead, to the abbey there,” says the king. He intends to leave the French behind by journeying northward; but the worst of his troubles, he knows, will go with him.
The young messenger’s face brightens: “Be of good comfort! For the great supply that was expected here by the dauphin was wrecked three nights ago on Goodwin Sands!” Ships bringing reinforcements foundered on those shoals after crossing from France. “This news was brought to Sir Richard but even now! The French fight coldly, and retire themselves!” he reports happily.
But King John, pale, wipes his forehead. “Ay me! This tyrant fever burns me up, and will not let me welcome this good news.
“Set on toward Swinshead,” he tells his servants. He rises unsteadily. “To my litter straight; weakness possesseth me, and I am faint….”
Lord Salisbury, watching as invasion troops are driven back by the English, is astonished—and appalled. “I did not think the king so stored with friends!”
“Up once again!” urges Lord Pembroke. “Put spirit in the French! If they miscarry, we miscarry too!”
“That misbegotten devil Faulconbridge,” says Salisbury angrily, “in spite of spite, alone upholds the day!”
Pembroke nods. “They say King John, sorely sick, hath left the field.”
The lords see that a French nobleman, armored, but without a helmet, is being helped by two servants to stagger toward them. “Lead me to the revolts of England, here!” he tells the men.
Revolts. Salisbury looks at the others. “When we were more fortunate, we had other names.”
“It is the Count Melun!” Pembroke tells them, as their suborner approaches.
“Wounded unto death,” notes Salisbury quietly; blood streams from Melun’s forehead.
The count reaches them. “Fly, noble English!—you are bought and sold!”—betrayed. “Untread the rude way of rebellion, and welcome home again discarded loyalty! Seek out King John, and fall before his feet!—for if the French prince be lord of this loud day, he means to recompense the pains you take by cutting off your heads!
“Thus hath he sworn, and I with him, and many more with me, upon the altar at Saint Edmundsbury—even on that altar where we swore to you dear amity and everlasting love!”
Salisbury gapes. “May this be possible? May this be true?”
Melun touches his face and shows a crimson left palm. “Have I not hideous Death within my view?—retaining but a quantity of life which bleeds away, even as a form of wax dissolveth from its figure ’gainst the fire!
“What in this world should make me now deceive, since I must lose the use of all deceit?” He clutches at a gold cross in his right hand. “Why then should I be false, since it is true that I must die here, and live hence by truth!
“I say again: if Louis do win the day, he is forsworn if e’er those eyes of yours behold another day break in the east! And even this night—whose black, contagious breath already smokes about the burning crest of the old, feeble and day-wearied sun—even this ill night your breathing shall expire, betrayèd!—paying for treachery the treacherous fine of all your lives, if Louis by your assistance win the day!”
The count is weakening, and his men ease him to the ground. “Commend me to one Hubert, with your king,” he groans. “The love of him—and this respect besides: for that my grandsire was an Englishman—awakes my conscience to confess all this.
“In view whereof, I pray you bear me hence from forth the noise and rumour of the field, where I may think the remnant of my thoughts in peace, and part this body and my soul with contemplation and devout desires.”
“We do believe thee!” says Salisbury. “And beshrew my soul but I do love the favour and form of this most-fair opportunity!—by the which we will untread the steps of damnèd flight, and like an abated and retirèd flood, leave our rankness’ irregular course, stoop low within those bounds we have lookèd o’er, and calmly run on in obedience, even to our ocean—to our great King John!”
He kneels beside Melun. “My arm shall give thee help to bear thee hence; for I do see the cruel pangs of death in thine eye.
“Away, my friends!
“New flight!—and happy newness that attends old right!”
In his tent, Louis exults by the light of many candles over the day’s success. “The sun of heaven methought was loath to set, but stayed and made the western welkin blush, when the English measured backward their own ground in faint retire!
“Oh, bravely came we off,” he tells the perfumed sycophants of his expedition, “when with a volley of our shot, needless after such bloody toll, we bade them good-night!—and cleanly wound up our tattering colours—last in the field, and almost lords of it!”
As the young courtiers laugh and clap, an officer is heard at the tent’s guarded opening. “Where is my prince, the dauphin?”
“Here!” cries Louis, elated by the applause. “What news?”
The captain of the guard bows. “The Count Melun is slain; the English lords by his persuasion are again fallen back; and your new supplies, which you have wished so long, are cast away and sunk on Goodwin Sands!”
“Oh, foul, cruel news! Beshrew thy very heart!” cries the dauphin. “I did not think to be so sad tonight as this hath made me!”
Still, he remembers a more pleasing report. “Who was he that said King John did fly, an hour or two before the stumbling night did part our weary powers?”
“Whoever spoke it, it is true, my lord,” the officer tells him.
Louis waves the captain away. “Well, keep good quarter and good care tonight.
“The day shall not be up so soon as I, to try the fair adventure of tomorrow!”
A torch, flickering in the chilly Lincolnshire field not far from Swinshead Abbey, reveals the dark shape of a horseman leading his mount through sentries’ perimeter. “Who’s there?” demands Hubert de Burgh, already hurrying toward the sentinels. “Speak, ho!” He raises a pistol, already cocked. “Speak quickly, or I shoot!”
“A friend,” says the cloaked man, tying the reins to a fence rail. “What art thou?”
“Of the party of England!”—the king.
The stranger’s face is half hidden by a scarf, and shadowed beneath a hat’s wide brim. “Whither dost thou go?”
“What’s that to thee? Why may not I demand of thine affairs, as well as thou of mine?”
“Hubert, I think.”
“Thou hast a perfected thought,” nods the chamberlain, surprised. “I will upon all hazards well believe thou art my friend, that know’st my tongue so well!” He lowers the weapon. “Who art thou?”
“Who thou wilt,” says the knight dryly. “And if thou please, thou mayst befriend me so much as to think I come, in one way, from the Plantagenets!”—as a son of Richard Lion-Heart.
Says Hubert, now recognizing Sir Richard, “Unkind remembrance, thou and eyeless night have done me shame!” He returns the warm smile. “Brave soldier, pardon me that any accent breaking from thy tongue should ’scape the true acquaintance of mine ear!”
Newly arrived ahead of the king’s exhausted legions, which are still on their northward march, Richard craves word of his king. “Come, come—sans compliment, what news abroad?”
“Why, here walk I in the black brow of night to find you!”
“Briefly, then, what’s thy news?”
“Oh, my sweet sir, news fitting to the night—dark, fearful, comfortless, and horrible!”
“Show me the very wound of this ill news!—I am no woman; I’ll not swoon at it.”
“The king, I fear, is poisoned by a monk! I left him almost without a word, and broke out to acquaint you with this evil, that you might the better arm you to the sudden time than if you had at leisure known of this.”
“How did he take poison? Who did taste for him?”—sample his food, a customary royal precaution.
“The monk!—a resolvèd villain, I tell you, whose bowels suddenly burst out!”
The skeptic frowns; a priest a suicide? And Richard knows King John had felt ill long before departing from the field of battle. Perfidy is poisonous.
“The king yet speaks,” says Hubert hopefully, “and peradventure may recover.”
“Whom didst thou leave to attend his majesty?”
“Why, know you not?” asks Hubert, surprised. “The lords are all come back,”—returned to support the king, “and brought Prince Henry”—John’s young son—“in their company! At his request the king hath pardoned them, and they are all near his majesty!”
Richard is astonished—and furious. “Withhold thine indignation, mighty Heaven!” cries the knight to the starry sky, “and tempt us not beyond our power to bear it!”
His voice rasps with frustration and anguish: “I’ll tell tree, Hubert, half my power,”—army of troops—“passing through flats this night, were taken by the tide!—those Lincoln Washes have devoured them! Myself, well mounted, barely escaped!”
He remembers the horror: cold seawater, surging swiftly to rise across the marshy lowlands, overwhelmed foot-soldiers unable to run in the deep, thick muck. Those who made it through are now straggling along after him.
“Away before! Conduct me to the king!—I fear he will be dead ere I come!”
“It is too late,” says Prince Henry sadly. “The life of all his blood is touchèd corruptingly. And his pure brain, which some suppose the soul’s frail dwelling-house, doth by the idle comments that it makes foretell the ending of mortality.”
The boy is standing, just before dawn, with Lords Salisbury and Bigot just outside the wide oak doors of the abbey. A lone torch illuminates their solemn faces.
Lord Pembroke emerges with news of the feverish king. “His highness yet doth speak, and holds belief that being brought into the open air would allay the burning quality of that fell poison which assaileth him!”
“Let him be brought into the orchard here,” orders the prince, a lad not yet twelve. Lord Bigot bows and goes inside. “Doth he still rage?”
“He is more patient than when you left him,” says Pembroke. “Just now he sang.”
“Oh, the futility of sickness!” moans the boy. “Fierce extremes in their continuance will not feel themselves; Death, having preyed upon the outward parts, leaves them invisible, and his siege is now against the mind—the which he pricks and wounds with many legions of strange fantasies that, in their throng and press against the last redoubt, confound themselves!
“’Tis strange that Death should sing,” he murmurs. He remembers the common belief that a swan sings when it is dying. “I am the cygnet”—with an echo of signet—“to this pale, faint swan, who chants a doleful hymn to his own death, and from the organ-pipe of frailty sings his soul and body to their lasting rest.” The boy is well aware that the burden of kingship will soon fall upon him.
Lord Salisbury is impressed with the poise and perception shown by John’s son. “Be of good comfort, prince! For you are born to set a form upon what he hath left so inchoate, shapeless and rude!”—to unite England.
Lord Bigot returns with two strong attendants, who are carrying the pallid monarch on a chair.
Looking around weakly, King John draws a long breath. “Aye, marry, now my soul hath elbow-room!—it would not out at windows, nor at doors!
“There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble to dust!” He groans. “I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen upon a parchment—and against this fire do I shrivel up!”
Prince Henry goes to his father. “How fares Your Majesty?” he asks gently.
“Poisoned. Ill fare! Dead!—forsook, cast off, since none of you will bid the winter come to thrust its icy fingers in my maw, nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course through my burning bosom, nor entreat the north to make its bleak winds kiss my parchèd lips, and comfort me with cold,” whines John. “I do not ask you much—I beg but ‘cold comfort!’—and you are so strict and so ingrateful, you deny me that!”
Henry takes his hand. “Oh, that there were some virtue in my tears that might relieve you!”
“The salt in them is hot,” mumbles John, pulling his hand away. “Within me is a hell!—and there the poison is as a fiend confined to tyrannize on unreprievable, condemnèd blood!”
Hurrying from the sentinels’ line, Sir Richard comes to join them. He kneels before the king, sweating. “Oh, I am scalded with my violent motion in speeding to see Your Majesty!”
John squints, then recognizes him. He sighs. “Oh, cousin, thou art come to set mine eyes”—close them after death. “The tackle of my heart is cracked and burned, and all the shrouds wherewith my life should sail have been turnèd, by one thread, one little… hair”—or heir.
He groans. “My heart hath one poor string to stay it by—which holds but till thy news be utterèd. And then all this thou seest is but lump, a model of confounded royalty.”
Richard nods and slowly rises. “The dauphin is repairing hitherward—where heaven knows how we shall answer him!—for in the night, as I upon advantage did remove, the best part of my power were in the Washes all unwarily devoured by the unexpected flood!”
Lord Salisbury bends to look closely at the king’s face. “You breathe these dead news in as dead an ear,” he tells Richard. “My liege, my lord!—a moment ago a king—now thus.”
Prince Henry—King Henry III—stares. “Even so must I run on; and even so, stop. What surety hath the world, what hope, what stay?—when this was now a king, and now is clay.”
He ponders his future—and that of all England.
The faithful knight regards, with pity, his late lord, the last son of King Henry II. “Art thou gone so?” Tears well into his eyes. “I do stay behind but to do the office for thee of revenge, and then my soul shall wait on thee to heaven, as it on earth hath been thy servant still.”
He looks up. The horizon’s glow promises a clear dawn.
Lion-hearted Richard faces the lords. “Now, now you stars that move in your right spheres, where be your powers? Show now your mended faiths!—and instantly return with me, again to push destruction and perpetual shame out of the weak door of our fainting land!
“Straight let us seek, or straight we shall be sought! The dauphin rages at our very heels!”
Salisbury’s eyebrows rise. “It seems you know not, then, so much as we. The Cardinal Pandulph is within, at rest, who half an hour since came from the dauphin—and brings from him such offers of our peace as we with honour and respect may take—with purpose immediately to leave off this war!”
Richard scowls. “He will the rather do it when he sees ourselves well sinewed to our defence!” he says fiercely.
“Nay, it is in a manner done already,” Salisbury assures him, “for many wagons he hath dispatchèd to the seaside, and put his cause and quarrel to the disposing of the cardinal—with whom yourself, myself and other lords, if you think meet, this afternoon will consummate this business readily.”
Richard considers; the time for heroic combat has passed. “Let it be so.”
The knight looks kindly at young Henry. “And you, my noble prince, with other princes that may thus be spared, shall wait upon your father’s funeral.”
The boy nods. “At Worcester must his body be interrèd; for so he willed it.”
“Thither shall it, then,” says Sir Richard. “And happily may your sweet self put on the lineal state, and glory of the land!” He goes to Henry and kneels. “To whom with all submission, on my knee I do bequeath my faithful services and true subjection everlastingly!”
“And the like tender of our love we make,” says Salisbury, “to rest without a spot forever more!” He and the others kneel.
Henry smiles bravely, and wipes his eyes. “I have a kindly soul that would give you thanks, and knows not how to do it but with tears!”
Sir Richard stands and gazes at the sunrise. “Oh, let us pay the time but needful woe, since it hath been beforehand with our griefs”—already cost enough.
“This England never did—nor never shall—lie at the foot of a proud conqueror but when it first did help to wound itself.
“Now that these, her princes are come home again, let come the other three corners of the world in arms,” he proclaims, “and we shall shock them!
“Nought shall make us rue, if England to itself do rest but true!”