"Of a worthy London prentice My purpose is to speak, And tell his brave adventures Done for his country's sake. Seek all the world about And you shall hardly find A man in valour to exceed A prentice' gallant mind." _The Homes of a London Prentice_.
Six more years had passed over the Dragon court, when, one fine summerevening, as the old walls rang with the merriment of the young boys atplay, there entered through the gateway a tall, well-equipped, soldierlyfigure, which caught the eyes of the little armourer world in a moment."Oh, that's a real Milan helmet!" exclaimed the one lad.
"And oh, what a belt and buff coat!" cried another.
The subject of their admiration advanced muttering, "As if I'd not beenaway a week," adding, "I pray you, pretty lads, doth Master AldermanHeadley still dwell here?"
"Yea, sir, he is our grandfather," said the elder boy, holding a lesserone by the shoulder as he spoke.
"Verily! And what may be your names?"
"I am Giles Birkenholt, and this is my little brother, Dick."
"Even as I thought. Wilt thou run in to your grandsire, and tell him?"
The bigger boy interrupted, "Grandfather is going to bed. He is old andweary, and cannot see strangers so late. 'Tis our father who hearethall the orders."
"And," added the little one, with wide-open grave eyes, "Mother bade usrun out and play and not trouble father, because uncle Ambrose is sodowncast because they have cut off the head of good Sir Thomas More."
"Yet," said the visitor, "methinks your father would hear of an oldcomrade. Or stay, where be Tibble Steelman and Kit Smallbones?"
"Tibble is in the hall, well-nigh as sad as uncle Ambrose," began Dick;but Giles, better able to draw conclusions, exclaimed, "Tibble! Kit!You know them, sir! Oh! are you the Giles Headley that ran away to be asoldier ere I was born? Kit! Kit! see here--" as the giant, broaderand perhaps a little more bent, but with little loss of strength, cameforward out of his hut, and taking up the matter just where it had beenleft fourteen years before, demanded as they shook hands, "Ah, MasterGiles, how couldst thou play me such a scurvy trick?"
"Nay, Kit, was it not best for all that I turned my back to make way forhonest Stephen?"
By this time young Giles had rushed up the stair to the hall, where, ashe said truly, Stephen was giving his brother such poor comfort as couldbe had from sympathy, when listening to the story of the cheerful, braveresignation of the noblest of all the victims of Henry the Eighth.Ambrose had been with Sir Thomas well-nigh to the last, had carriedmessages between him and his friends during his imprisonment, had handedhis papers to him at his trial, had been with Mrs Roper when she brokethrough the crowd and fell on his neck as he walked from WestminsterHall with the axe-edge turned towards him; had received his last kindfarewell, counsel, and blessing, and had only not been with him on thescaffold because Sir Thomas had forbidden it, saying, in the old strainof mirth, which never forsook him, "Nay, come not, my good friend. Thouart of a queasy nature, and I would fain not haunt thee against thywill."
All was over now, the wise and faithful head had fallen, because itwould not own the wrong for the right; and Ambrose had been brought homeby his brother, a being confounded, dazed, seeming hardly able to thinkor understand aught save that the man whom he had above all loved andlooked up to was taken from him, judicially murdered, and by the King.The whole world seemed utterly changed to him, and as to thinking orplanning for himself, he was incapable of it; indeed, he lookedfearfully ill. His little nephew came up to his father's knee, pausing,though open-mouthed, and at the first token of permission, bursting out,"Oh! father! Here's a soldier in the court! Kit is talking to him.And he is Giles Headley that ran away. He has a beauteous Spanishleathern coat, and a belt with silver bosses--and a morion that PhilSmallbones saith to be of Milan, but I say it is French."
Stephen had no sooner gathered the import of this intelligence than hesprang down almost as rapidly as his little boy, with his welcome. Nordid Giles Headley return at all in the dilapidated condition that hadbeen predicted. He was stout, comely, and well fleshed, and veryhandsomely clad and equipped in a foreign style, with nothing of thelean wolfish appearance of Sir John Fulford. The two old comradesheartily shook one another by the hand in real gladness at the meeting.Stephen's welcome was crossed by the greeting and inquiry whether allwas well.
"Yea. The alderman is hale and hearty, but aged. Your mother is tabledat a religious house at Salisbury."
"I know. I landed at Southampton and have seen her."
"And Dennet," Stephen added with a short laugh, "she could not wait foryou."
"No, verily. Did I not wot well that she cared not a fico for me? Ihoped when I made off that thou wouldst be the winner, Steve, and I amright glad thou art, man."
"I can but thank thee, Giles," said Stephen, changing to the familiarsingular pronoun. "I have oft since thought what a foolish figure Ishould have cut had I met thee among the Badgers, after having given legbail because I might not brook seeing thee wedded to her. For I wassore tempted--only thou wast free, and mine indenture held me fast."
"Then it was so! And I did thee a good turn! For I tell thee, Steve, Inever knew how well I liked thee till I was wounded and sick among thosewho heeded neither God nor man! But one word more, Stephen, ere we goin. The Moor's little maiden, is she still unwedded?"
"Yea," was Stephen's answer. "She is still waiting-maid to MistressRoper, daughter to good Sir Thomas More; but alack, Giles, they are insore trouble, as it may be thou hast heard--and my poor brother is likeone distraught."
Ambrose did indeed meet Giles like one in a dream. He probably wouldhave made the same mechanical greeting, if the Emperor or the Pope hadbeen at that moment presented to him; but Dennet, who had been attendingto her father, made up all that was wanting in cordiality. She hadalways had a certain sense of shame for having flouted her cousin, and,as his mother told her, driven him to death and destruction, and it washighly satisfactory to see him safe and sound, and apparentlyrespectable and prosperous.
Moreover, grieved as all the family were for the fate of the admirableand excellent More, it was a relief to those less closely connected withhim to attend to something beyond poor Ambrose's sorrow and his talk,the which moreover might be perilous if any outsider listened andreported it to the authorities as disaffection to the King. So Gilestold his story, sitting on the gallery in the cool of the summerevening, and marvelling over and over again how entirely unchanged allwas since his first view of the Dragon court as a proud, sullen, raw ladtwenty summers ago. Since that time he had seen so much that the timeappeared far longer to him than to those who had stayed at home.
It seemed that Fulford had from the first fascinated him more than anyof the party guessed, and that each day of the free life of theexpedition, and of contact with the soldiery, made a return to themonotony of the forge, the decorous life of a London citizen, and thebridal with a child, to whom he was indifferent, seem more intolerableto him. Fulford imagining rightly that the knowledge of his intentionsmight deter young Birkenholt from escaping, enjoined strict secrecy oneither lad, not intending them to meet till it should be too late toreturn, and therefore had arranged that Giles should quit the party onthe way to Calais, bringing with him Will Wherry, and the horse he rode.
Giles had then, been enrolled among the Badgers. He had little to tellabout his life among them till the battle of Pavia, where he had had thegood fortune to take three French prisoners; but a stray shot from afugitive had broken his leg during the pursuit, and he had been laid upin a merchant's house at Pavia for several months. He evidently lookedback to the time with gratitude, as having wakened his betterassociations, which had been well-nigh stifled during the previous yearsof the wild life of a soldier of fortune. His host's young daughter hadeyes like Aldonza, and the almost forgotten possibility of returning tohis love a brave and distinguished man awoke once more. His burghert
hrift began to assert itself again, and he deposited a nest-egg fromthe ransoms of his prisoners in the hands of his host, who gave himbonds by which he could recover the sum from Lombard correspondents inLondon.
He was bound by his engagements to join the Badgers again, or he wouldhave gone home on his recovery; and he had shared in the terrible takingof Rome, of which he declared that he could not speak--with asignificant look at Dennet and her children, who were devouring hiswords. He had, however, stood guard over a lady and her young childrenwhom some savage Spaniards were about to murder, and the whole familyhad overpowered him with gratitude, lodged him sumptuously in theirhouse, and shown themselves as grateful to him as if he had given themall the treasure which he had abstained from seizing.
The sickness brought on by their savage excesses together with the Romansummer had laid low many of the Badgers. When the Prince of Orange drewoff the army from the miserable city, scarce seven score of that oncegallant troop were in marching order, and Sir John Fulford himself wasdying. He sent for Giles, as less of a demon than most of the troop,and sent a gold medal, the only fragment of spoil remaining to him, tohis daughter Perronel. To Giles himself Fulford bequeathed Abenali'swell-tested sword, and he died in the comfortable belief--so far as hetroubled himself about the matter at all--that there were specialexemptions for soldiers.
The Badgers now incorporated themselves with another broken body ofLandsknechts, and fell under the command of a better and moreconscientious captain. Giles, who had been horrified rather thanhardened by the experiences of Rome, was found trustworthy and rose incommand. The troop was sent to take charge of the Pope at Orvieto, andthus it was that he had fallen in with the Englishmen of Gardiner'ssuite, and had been able to send his letter to Ambrose. Since he hadfound the means of rising out of the slough, he had made up his mind tocontinue to serve till he had won some honour, and had obtained enoughto prevent his return as a hungry beggar.
His corps became known for discipline and valour. It was trusted often,was in attendance on the Emperor, and was fairly well paid. Giles wastheir "ancient" and had charge of the banner, nor could it be doubtedthat he had flourished. His last adventure had been the expedition toTunis, when 20,000 Christian captives had been set free from thedungeons and galleys, and so grand a treasure had been shared among thesoldiery that Giles, having completed the term of service for which hewas engaged, decided on returning to England, before, as he said, hegrew any older, to see how matters were going.
"For the future," he said, "it depended on how he found things." IfAldonza would none of him, he should return to the Emperor's service.If she would go with him, he held such a position that he could providefor her honourably. Or he could settle in England. For he had a goodsum in the hands of Lombard merchants; having made over to them spoilsof war, ransoms, and arrears when he obtained them; and having at timesearned something by exercising his craft, which he said had been mostvaluable to him. Indeed he thought he could show Stephen and Tibble afew fresh arts he had picked up at Milan.
Meantime his first desire was to see Aldonza. She was still at Chelseawith her mistress, and Ambrose, to his brother's regret, went thitherevery day, partly because he could not keep away, and partly to try tobe of use to the family. Giles might accompany him, though he stilllooked so absorbed in his trouble that it was doubtful whether he hadreally understood what was passing, or that he was wanted to bring aboutan interview between his companion and Aldonza.
The beautiful grounds at Chelsea, in their summer beauty, lookedinexpressibly mournful, deprived of him who had planted and cherishedthe trees and roses. As they passed along in the barge, one spot afteranother recalled More's bright jests or wise words; above all, the veryplace where he had told his son-in-law Roper that he was merry, notbecause he was safe, but because the fight was won, and his consciencehad triumphed against the King he loved and feared.
Giles told of the report that the Emperor had said he would have given ahundred of his nobles for one such councillor as More, and the prospectof telling this to the daughters had somewhat cheered Ambrose. Theyfound a guard in the royal livery at the stairs to the river, and at thedoor of the house, but these had been there ever since Sir Thomas'sapprehension. They knew Ambrose Birkenholt, and made no objection tohis passing in and leaving his companion to walk about among the bordersand paths, once so trim, but already missing their master's hand andeye.
Very long it seemed to Giles, who was nearly despairing, when a femalefigure in black came out of one of the side doors, which were notguarded, and seemed to be timidly looking for him. Instantly he was ather side.
"Not here," she said, and in silence led the way to a pleached alley outof sight of the windows. There they stood still. It was a strangemeeting of two who had not seen each other for fourteen years, when theone was a tall, ungainly youth, the other well-nigh a child. And nowGiles was a fine, soldierly man in the prime of life, with a short,curled beard, and powerful, alert bearing, and Aldonza, though the firstflower of her youth had gone by, yet, having lived a sheltered and farfrom toilsome life, was a really beautiful woman, gracefullyproportioned, and with the delicate features and clear olive, skin ofthe Andalusian Moor. Her eyes, always her finest feature, were sunkenwith weeping, but their soft beauty could still be seen. Giles threwhimself on his knee and grasped at her hand.
"My love!--my only love!" he cried.
"Oh! how can I think of such matters now--now, when it is thus with mydear mistress," said Aldonza, in a mournful voice, as though her tearswere all spent--yet not withholding her hand.
"You knew me before you knew her," said Giles. "See, Aldonza, what Ihave brought back to you."
And he half drew the sword her father had made. She gave a gasp ofdelight, for well she knew every device in the gold inlaying of theblade, and she looked at Giles with eyes full of gratitude.
"I knew thou wouldst own me," said Giles. "I have fought and gone farfrom thee, Aldonza. Canst not spare one word for thine old Giles?"
"Ah, Giles--there is one thing which if you will do for my mistress, Iwould be yours from--from my heart of hearts."
"Say it, sweetheart, and it is done."
"You know not. It is perilous, and may be many would quail. Yet it maybe less perilous for you than for one who is better known."
"Peril and I are well acquainted, my heart."
She lowered her voice as her eyes dilated, and she laid her hand on hisarm. "Thou wottest what is on London Bridge gates?"
"I saw it, a sorry sight."
"My mistress will not rest till that dear and sacred head, holy as anyblessed relic, be taken down so as not to be the sport of sun and wind,and cruel men gaping beneath. She cannot sleep, she cannot sit or standstill, she cannot even kiss her child for thinking of it. Her mind isset on taking it down, yet she will not peril her husband. Nor verilyknow I how any here could do the deed."
"Ha! I have scaled a wall ere now. I bare our banner at Goletta, withthe battlements full of angry Moors, not far behind the Emperor's."
"You would? And be secret? Then indeed nought would be overmuch foryou. And this very night--"
"The sooner the better."
She not only clasped his hand in thanks, but let him raise her face tohis, and take the reward he felt his due. Then she said she mustreturn, but Ambrose would bring him all particulars. Ambrose was asanxious as herself and her mistress that the thing should be done, butwas unfit by all his habits, and his dainty, scholarly niceness, torender such effectual assistance as the soldier could do. Giles offeredto scale the gate by night himself carry off the head, and take it toany place Mrs Roper might appoint, with no assistance save such asAmbrose could afford. Aldonza shuddered a little at this, proving thather heart had gone out to him already, but with this he had to becontented, for she went back into the house, and he saw her no more.Ambrose came back to him, and, with something more like cheerfulnessthan he had yet seen, said, "Thou art happy, Giles."
sp; "More happy than I durst hope--to find her--"
"Tush! I meant not that. But to be able to do the work of the holyones of old who gathered the remnants of the martyrs, while I haveindeed the will, but am but a poor craven! It is gone nearer to comfortthat sad-hearted lady than aught else."
It appeared that Mrs Roper would not be satisfied unless she herselfwere present at the undertaking, and this was contrary to the views ofGiles, who thought the further off women were in such a matter thebetter. There was a watch at the outer entrance of London Bridge, thetrainbands taking turns to supply it, but it was known by experiencethat they did not think it necessary to keep awake after belatedtravellers had ceased to come in; and Sir Thomas More's head was setover the opposite gateway, looking inwards at the City. The mostsuitable hour would be between one and two o'clock, when no one would bestirring, and the summer night would be at the shortest. Mrs Roper wasexceedingly anxious to implicate no one, and to prevent her husband andbrother from having any knowledge of an act that William Roper mighthave prohibited, as if she could not absolutely exculpate him, it mightbe fatal to him. She would therefore allow no one to assist saveAmbrose, and a few more devoted old servants, of condition too low foranger to be likely to light upon them. She was to be rowed with muffledoars to the spot, to lie hid in the shadow of the bridge till a signallike the cry of the pee-wit was exchanged from the bridge, then approachthe stairs at the inner angle of the bridge where Giles and Ambrosewould meet her.
Giles's experience as a man-at-arms stood him in good stead. Hepurchased a rope as he went home, also some iron ramps. He took asurvey of the arched gateway in the course of the afternoon, andshutting himself into one of the work-sheds with Ambrose, he constructedsuch a rope ladder as was used in scaling fortresses, especially whenseized at night by surprise. He beguiled the work by a long series ofanecdotes of adventures of the kind, of all of which Ambrose heard notone word. The whole court, and especially Giles number three, were verycurious as to their occupation, but nothing was said even to Stephen,for it was better, if Ambrose should be suspected, that he should bewholly ignorant, but he had--they knew not how--gathered somewhat. OnlyAmbrose was, at parting for the night, obliged to ask him for the key ofthe gate.
"Brother," then he said, "what is this work I see? Dost think I can letthee go into a danger I do not partake? I will share in this pious acttowards the man I have ever reverenced."
So at dead of night the three men stole out together, all in theplainest leathern suits. The deed was done in the perfect stillness ofthe sleeping City, and without mishap or mischance. Stephen's stronghand held the ladder securely and aided to fix it to the ramps, and justas the early dawn was touching the summit of Saint Paul's spire with apromise of light, Giles stepped into the boat, and reverently placed hisburden within the opening of a velvet cushion that had been ripped upand deprived of part of the stuffing, so as to conceal it effectually.The brave Margaret Roper, the English Antigone, well knowing that alldepended on her self-control, refrained from aught that might shake it.She only raised her face to Giles and murmured from dry lips, "Sir, Godmust reward you!" And Aldonza, who sat beside her, held out her hand.
Ambrose was to go with them to the priest's house, where Mrs Roper wasforced to leave her treasure, since she durst not take it to Chelsea, asthe royal officers were already in possession, and the whole family wereto depart on the ensuing day. Stephen and Giles returned safely toCheapside.