"Mother, will the little prince be there?"
"Yes, my son. He never leaves his mother's side. You will see them all today, if fortune favours us--the good King Henry, his noble queen, to whom he owes so much, and the little prince likewise. We will to horse anon, that we may gain a good view of the procession as it passes. The royal party lodges this night at our good bishop's palace. Perchance they will linger over the Sunday, and hear mass in our fair cathedral, Our loyal folks of Lichfield are burning to show their love by a goodly show of welcome; and it is said that his majesty takes pleasure in silvan sports and such-like simple pleasures, many preparations for the which have been prepared for him to witness."
"O mother, I know. Ralph and Godfrey have been practising themselves this many a day in tilting and wrestling, and in the use of the longbow and quarterstaff, that they may hold their own in the sports on the green before the palace, which they say the king will deign to watch.
"O mother; why am I not as old and as strong as they? I asked Ralph to let me shoot with his bow; but he only laughed at me, and bade me wait till I was as tall and as strong as he. It is very hard to be the youngest--and so much the youngest, too."
The mother smiled as she passed her hand over the floating curls of the gallant boy beside her; He was indeed a child of whom any mother might be proud: beautiful, straight-limbed, active, and fearless, his blue eyes glowing and shining, his cheek flushed with excitement, every look and gesture seeming to speak of the bold soldier spirit that burned within.
And these were times when it appeared indeed as if England's sons had need of all the warlike instincts of their race. Party faction had well-nigh overthrown ere this the throne --and the authority of the meek King Henry, albeit the haughty Duke of York had set forth no claim for the crown, which his son but two short years later both claimed and won. But strife and jealousy and evil purposes were at work in men's minds. The lust of power and of supremacy had begun to pave the way for the civil war which was soon to devastate the land. The sword had already been drawn at St. Albans, and the hearts of many men were full of foreboding as they thought upon the perilous times in which they lived; though others were ready to welcome the strife which promised plunder and glory and fame to those who should distinguish themselves by prowess in field or counsel in the closet.
The gentle Lady Stukely, however, was not one of these. Her heart sank sometimes when she heard the talk of her bold husband and warlike sons. They had all three of them fought for the king at the first battle, or rather skirmish, at St. Albans four years before, and were ardent followers and adherents of the Red Rose of Lancaster. Her husband had received knighthood at the monarch's hands on the eve of the battle, and was prepared to lay down his life in the cause if it should become necessary to do so.
But if rumours of strife to come, and terrible pictures of bloodshed, sometimes made her gentle spirit quail, she had always one consolation in the thought that her youngest child, her little Paul, would not be torn from her side to follow the bloody trail of war. Her two first-born sons, the younger of whom was twenty-two, had long been very finished young gallants, trained to every military enterprise, and eager to unsheathe their swords whenever rumour told of slight to King Henry or his haughty queen from the proud Protector, who for a time had held the reins of government, though exercising his powers in the name of the afflicted king.
But Paul was still a child, not yet quite eight years old; and of the five fair children born to her between him and his brothers, not one had lived to complete his or her third year, so that the mother's heart twined itself the more firmly about this last brave boy, and in the frequent absences of husband and sons upon matters of business or pleasure, the companionship between the pair was almost unbroken, and they loved each other with a devotion that may easily be understood. Paul felt no awe of his gentle mother, but rather looked upon himself as her champion and defender in his father's absence. It was no new thing for him to long for manhood and its privileges; for would not these make him all the stouter protector to his mother?
But she was wont when he spoke such words to check him by gentle counsel and motherly sympathy, and now she took his hand in hers and patted it smilingly as she replied:
"Ah, my little Paul, time flies fast, and you will be a man before very long now; but be content for these next days to be yet a child. Perchance the little prince will pay more heed to such as are of his age.
"You may chance to win a smile from him, even if the nobles and gentlemen regard not children."
Paul's face brightened instantly.
"O mother, yes; I had not thought of that. But I do so long to see the little prince. Oh, if he were to notice me--to speak to me--how happy I should be! We were born on the same day, were we not, dear mother--on the thirteenth of October? But I am older, am I not?"
"Yes, my child; by two years. You will be eight upon your next birthday, and he six. But I hear he is such a forward, kingly, noble child, that both in appearance and discretion he is far in advance of his actual age. Those who are brought up with royalty early learn the lessons which to others come but with advancing years."
"I love the little prince, our good king's son," cried Paul with kindling eyes; "I would that I had been called Edward, too. Mother, why was I not given his name, as I was born on his day, and that of the good St. Edward too?"
The mother fondly caressed the golden curls of the beautiful child as she answered:
"Ah, my son, we knew not till long afterward that our gracious queen had borne a little son on thy natal day. Paul is a name which many of our race have borne before, and so we called our child by it. It is the man that makes the name, not the name the man."
"I know that, mother; yet I would fain have borne the name of the little prince. But hark! I hear the sounds of the horses' feet. They are bringing them round to the door. Sweet mother, lose no time. Let us mount and depart. I would fain have been in the gallant band of gentlemen who rode out this morning at dawn to welcome and escort the king and queen; as my father and brothers were. But let us not delay. I should be sorely grieved were we to miss seeing the entry into the city."
Lady Stukely smiled at the impatience of the child, knowing well that many hours must elapse before the royal party would reach the city walls; but she was willing to gratify the ardent desires of her little son, and as she was already dressed for the saddle, she rose and took him by the hand and led him out to the courtyard, where some half dozen of the good knight's retainers were awaiting their lady and her son.
Stukely Hall was no very large or pretentious place, but it was built in that quadrangular form so common to that age, and accommodated within its walls the dependents and retainers that every man of rank had about him under the old feudal system, which obliged him to bring to his lord's service on demand a certain following of armed and trained soldiers.
In those days, when every article of common consumption was made at home, the household of even a knight or gentleman of no great wealth or note was no inconsiderable matter, and even the field labourers almost always dwelt within the walls of their lord's house, eating his bread, and growing old in his service as a matter of course, without thinking of such a thing as change.
So that although the greater part of the retainers had ridden off at dawn with the knight and his sons, there were still a good half-dozen stout fellows ready to escort their lady to the town; and besides these were many menials of lower grade standing about to see the start. Little Paul, who had grown up amongst them, ran from one to the other, telling them excitedly how he was going to see the prince that day, and eagerly accepting from the hands of his old nurse a beautiful bunch of red roses which she had gathered that morning, in the hope that her darling might have the chance to offer them to queen or prince.
Mother and son each wore the red rose broidered upon their state robes, and the boy had stuck the crimson blossom in his velvet cap. He was a perfect little picture in his white velvet tunic sloshed with rose colour, his white cloth hosen laced with gold from ankle to thigh, a short cloak flowing jauntily from his shoulders, and his bright golden curls flowing from beneath the crimson and white cap.
No wonder that his stately mother regarded him with looks of fond pride, or that his old nurse breathed a benediction on his pretty head, and invoked the saints and the blessed Virgin on his behalf. They little knew that the gallant child was riding forth to an encounter which would be fraught for him with strange results; and that the long-hoped-for meeting with the little prince would be the first step in one of those passionate attachments which almost always cost the owner of them dear.
The sun shone hot and bright as the little cavalcade set forth from the courtyard. The month was that of July, and merry England was looking its best. The fair landscape lying before the eyes of the riders seemed to breathe nothing but peace and plenty; and it was hard to think that the desolating hand of war might, before many years had passed, be working havoc and ruin over a land so smiling and happy now.
The rich valley in which the ancient city of Lichfield stands looked peculiarly beautiful and fertile that day. Lady Stukely, whilst replying to the eager talk of her excited little boy, could not but gaze around her with admiration, familiar as the scene was to her; and even the boy seemed struck, for he looked up and said:
"I hope the little prince will be pleased with our town. He will have seen many fine places on this progress, but I do think we shall give him the best welcome of all. We all love him so."
It seemed indeed as if the whole country had turned out to welcome the royal guests; for as the riders drew near to the city walls, they found themselves in the midst of a crowd of holiday folks, all bent upon the same object--namely, to take up a good position for witnessing the royal procession as it passed; and every few minutes some joyous roisterer would raise a shout, "Long live the king!" "Health to the queen!" "Down with the false friends--the House of York!" which cries would be taken up by the multitude, and echoed lustily along the road.
And as the party from Stukely Hall rode up, way being made by the crowd for persons of quality well known and beloved in those parts, little Paul vented his excitement in a new cry of his own; for, standing up in his stirrups and waving his cap in his hand, he cried in his clear boyish tones:
"Three cheers, good people, for the little prince! Three cheers for Edward, Prince of Wales, our future king!"
And this cheer was taken up with hearty goodwill by all the crowd; partly for the sake of the cause ear to the hearts of these loyal people, partly from admiration for the gallant child who had started it; and Paul rode on with a flushed and happy face, looking up to his mother and saying:
"They all love the little prince. Oh how I wish he would come!"
The captain of the little band of soldiers who guarded the gate by which the royal procession was to enter, came forward doffing his mailed head piece to greet the wife of the gallant Sir James, who was a notable gentleman in those parts. By his courtesy the lady and her child were allowed to take up a position so close to the gate as would insure for them a most excellent view of the royal party; whilst the humbler crowd was kept at a more discreet distance by the good-humoured soldiers, who exercised their office amid plenty of jesting and laughing, which showed that an excellent understanding existed between them and their brethren of the soil. The captain, as the hour for the entrance drew near, took up his position beside the lady, and conversed with her in low tones. Paul listened with all his ears the moment he discovered that the soldier was talking about his beloved little prince.
"I do not credit every idle tale I hear, or certes life would be but a sorry thing for a soldier. But there is a queer rumour flying about that some of the bold marauding fellows who follow the banner of York, Salisbury, and Warwick have been following and hanging on the trail of the royal party with a view to the capture--so it is said--of the Prince of Wales, who, once in the hands of the rival faction, would prove a hostage of no mean value. I can scarce credit such a tale myself. Sure am I that it cannot have originated in the mind of any of those noble earls, but must be the device of some meaner churl, who hopes to gain a reward for his treachery. Belike there is no truth whatever in it. Rumour is never idle, and must have some food to satisfy its cravings. I credit not so wild a tale, albeit I must be on the watch against all chances.
"But hark! hear you not that sound in the distance? and methinks I see on yonder height the glitter of the spearmen and the sheen of an armed multitude. Ay, it is truly so. They come, they come! Why, it is a goodly following our gallant knights and gentlemen have furnished. Their gracious majesties will have no cause to grumble at the loyalty of their trusty county of Lichfield."
Paul's breath went and came. The words of the captain had stirred his heart, and now the actual approach of the royal family set every pulse throbbing. Eagerly his eyes were fixed upon the advancing column of gallant riders, the self-appointed bodyguard of the king and queen--a bodyguard which, changing and shifting as the royal party progressed through the kingdom, yet never deserted them throughout the triumphal march, and did not a little to raise within the breast of the queen that martial ardour which was to be so severely tested in days to come.
Nearer and yet more near came the gay procession; banners flying, trumpets sounding, the joy bells from the town giving back gay response. And now the mounted gentlemen--amongst whom Paul's quick eyes have already discovered his father and brothers--wheel rapidly aside to right and left, forming a sort of avenue to the gateway through which the royal riders are to pass, to receive the loyal welcome of the venerable prelate and the city dignitaries.
Paul's breath comes and goes as the cheering in the crowd grows vociferous. He grasps his bunch of roses firmly in his hands, his cheeks glowing till they almost rival the damask bloom of the flowers, his eyes fixed in all their eager brightness upon the advancing band, which consists of the king and queen and prince and their own immediate attendants. It is a moment never forgotten by the boy in after life--the moment when first his glance fell upon the royal child around whose history romance has woven so many a tale; and it was with a start of peculiar surprises and a thrill of emotion he could not have analyzed, that the boy beheld the little prince of his dreams. For in those beautiful princely features, in the alert graceful figure and the floating curls of gold, Paul seemed to see his own lineaments reproduced, and gave one bewildered glance toward his mother to see if perchance the same thought struck her.
And indeed it did; for the chance resemblance between the young heir of the House of Lancaster and the son of an obscure Staffordshire knight was so remarkable that none who saw the two children could fail to be struck by it. Paul for a moment was almost awed, feeling as if he had no right thus to have aped the outward aspect of the little prince; but the next moment all else was forgotten in the excitement of the moment and in the vigorous cheering which greeted the close approach of royalty.
The party moved slowly forward, returning the loyal salutations of the crowd right graciously. The little prince was charming in his friendly gestures, and Paul observed that to one and another of the knights and gentlemen drawn up to do them honour he held out some little token, which was received with every demonstration of respect and gratification.
His intense excitement caused the little Paul to push out somewhat further than the line observed by the soldiers, and no one recalled him to his place; and thus it was that when, as the cortege moved forward, the Prince of Wales dropped the plumed hat with the white ostrich feather, which he was raising in response to the salutations showered upon him, it was Paul who had leaped to the ground and caught up the costly headgear from beneath the very feet of the king's horse, and, with glowing face and ardent gaze of admiration and homage, had bent the knee to the princely child, and restored the cap, whilst his bunch of roses was offered at the same moment with an air of modest eagerness that touched all hearts.
The little prince took both the cap and the flowers, thanking the lad with friendly smiles; but when he saw how closely that bright face resembled his own, and how those floating curls of shining gold uncovered to the hot sunshine were but as the counterpart of his, he too glanced at his mother, whose smiling face was bent with a proud pleasure upon the pretty picture formed by the two children, and he said in his clear, joyous tones:
"Why, verily, this must be a brother or a cousin of mine own. Tell me your name, good lad. Surely we must be akin."
"Nay, gracious prince," answered Paul in low tones; "I am but the son of a simple knight, who has ever been your royal father's loyal servant. But I was born, like you, upon St. Edward's Day, and perhaps our patron saint smiled kindly on us both."
The boy was so excited he scarce knew what he said; but his words seemed to please the little prince, who replied:
"Nay, now, if you share the good offices of my patron saint, you must wear my badge too, for love of me. See here, this little silver swan, the device of my noble ancestor King Edward the Third, it is now my badge, and you must wear it for my sake. Farewell for the nonce; we shall meet again--I am sure of it--ere we say goodbye to this pleasant city. I would I had a brother like you. But we will meet anon. Farewell, and forget me not."
The royal cavalcade was yet moving onward whilst these gracious words of childish greeting were spoken. The next moment the bewildered Paul was standing looking after the pretty child prince, the silver swan he grasped tightly between his hands alone convincing him that the whole encounter had not been a fair fleeting dream.
The great green meadow just without the walls of the city presented an animated spectacle even to eyes accustomed to the gay and party-coloured dresses of the Middle Ages, and to the hardy sports of her bold sons. The whole town and countryside had assembled to witness or bear a share in the merry silvan sports, instituted with a view of amusing the royal guests, who had halted at Lichfield for three nights in order that the pious monarch might hear mass on Sunday at the cathedral; and the Saturday was given over to the revels and pastimes at all times dear to the people, but more so than ever when royalty deigned to be the witness of the feats of skill and strength. And King Henry loved to watch the sports of his subjects. His simple mind; that shrank from the intrigues of court life, seemed to gather strength and health when removed from the strife and turmoil of parties. His malady, which at times completely incapacitated him from tasking part in the government, was always liable to recur, and it was with a view of recuperating his health, and calming his anxieties and fears for himself and those he loved best, that the queen had decided upon this progress through the loyal midland counties, and encouraged the people to display their skill in manly sports before their king; for nothing seemed more beneficial to him than the interest evoked by any spectacles of this kind.
And little Paul Stukely was an eager spectator of the encounters and feats that were taking place before royalty that bright summer day. Paul felt as if he were living and moving in a wonderful dream. He kept pulling off his little velvet cap to make sure that the silver swan--the prince's token--was still in its place; and even when most interested in any contest going on upon the green, his eyes would turn instinctively toward the fair child leaning upon his father's knee, and eagerly watching the rustic revels.
The royal guests were sumptuously lodged beneath a silken awning under a mighty oak tree that gave a refreshing shade. A platform had been erected for them beneath the awning, and chairs of state set thereon. From this vantage ground they could watch everything that went on, and reward the victors with words of praise, small pieces of silver, or some fragment of lace or ribbon from the royal apparel, as best suited the rank of the aspirant for honour; and the kindly smiles and gracious words bestowed upon all who approached increased each hour the popularity of the Lancastrian cause and the devotion of the people to their king.
But Paul had not, so far, ventured to present himself before the platform where the little prince was standing. He had not forgotten a single one of the kind words spoken by the youthful Edward yesterday, but he was fearful of presuming upon the favour thus shown him, and his very admiration for the princely child seemed to hold him back.
He knew that his father and brothers might rebuke him for forwardness if he presumed to thrust himself into notice. Sir James was one of those appointed to keep order upon the ground, and withhold the rustics from incommoding in any way the royal visitors; and the child knew that he would be the first to rebuke his own son for putting himself unduly forward. As the youngest in the house, Paul was accustomed to be held in small repute, and had no desire to provoke a rebuff which might even reach the ears of the little prince himself.
So he contented himself by hanging about on the outskirts of the crowd, casting many longing, lingering glances toward the group beneath the giant oak, and at other times diverting himself by watching the wrestlers, the mummers, or the archers, who in turn came forward to try their skill and strength. The quarterstaff contests were very exciting, and several broken heads were the result of the hearty encounters with that formidable weapon.
But Paul was familiar with most of the sports, and presently grew weary of watching. It was hot, too, and there was not much shade to be had in that big meadow; so he wandered a little apart, toward a copse beside a small stream, on the opposite side of which a thick forest rose stately and grand, and sitting down beside the merry brook, he clasped his hands round his knees and sank into a reverie.
He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he did not notice the light tread of approaching footsteps, and gave a great start when he suddenly felt an arm flung caressingly about his neck. He sprang to his feet with a cry of astonishment, and stood face to face with the little prince.
"You see I have found you," cried the child gleefully. "I saw you several times in the crowd today, but you would not come near me. Never mind; this is much better, for here we can talk, here we can be friends. Are you aweary of their gay shows? So am I, in faith. We have seen the same thing everywhere, and it is so good to be alone sometimes. I love not to be always followed and watched.
"See you that dim, dark wood? Let us e'en hide ourselves therein for a short hour. My mother will miss me from her side anon, and will send to seek me. I would not be found too easily. Come, let us hide ourselves there, and you shall tell me all about yourself, and we will play at being trusty friends and comrades.
"It is dull work being always a prince. I would that we could change parts for once. You shall be the prince and I will be the bold knight's son, and your very faithful servant."
"O my lord!" faltered Paul, almost overcome with excitement and pleasure at this strange encounter.
But the little prince stamped his foot and spoke with the air of a regular little autocrat.
"Nay, call me not that. Did I not say I would be nobody's lord for the nonce? What is your name? Paul? Then I will be called Paul for this next hour, and you shall be Edward. See, here is my jewelled collar and the cap with the ostrich plume--the badge of the Prince of Wales. Yes, put them on, put them on. Marry, I could think it was my very self, but a short inch the taller.
"Now, see, I take your cap instead; and now I am Paul, and you must bid me follow you and attend you in your journey through the forest. See, we will be fugitives, flying from the wicked Duke of York, who would fain grasp at the king's power, but my mother will not let him."
For a moment the child's eyes flashed, and his clenched hands and heaving breast showed that the spirit of Margaret of Anjou lived again in her child; but pulling himself up short with a laugh, the little prince added with a deferential bow, resuming his character of subject, "But I crave your pardon, sweet prince, if I lose control of myself in the thought of your wrongs. Lead on, noble lord, and I follow. Let us seek safety in the dim aisles of yon giant wood. Surely there is some ford or bridge nigh at hand which will give us safe crossing without wetting ourselves."
Children are children all the world over, and at any period of its history. Childhood ever delights in romance and imaginative situations and adventures; and before ten minutes had passed the boys had completely entered into the spirit of their play. Paul, shaking off the awe which had at first held him silent and abashed, played the part of prince with an energy and zeal which evoked the delight and admiration of his companion; whilst the younger boy was amused to lay aside for the moment any pretence at royalty, and pay his humble devoirs to his liege lord.
Paul knew of some stepping stones which led across the stream into the dark wood, and soon the boys were in what seemed to them the heart of the great forest. The prince was delighted by all he saw. The sense of freedom was enchanting, and his curiosity unbounded. He had never in his life before enjoyed a game of play in so unfettered a fashion with a comrade of nearly his own age; and soon forgetting even their own game, the boys were walking with arms twined round each other's neck, telling each other all that was in their hearts, and exchanging vows of unalterable affection.
"When I am grown to manhood, and am a belted knight with noble gentlemen of mine own to attend me, you shall be my very first esquire, Paul," said the prince emphatically; "and we will ride through the world together, seeking adventures which shall make all men wonder when they hear of them. And when I am king you shall be my first counsellor and greatest lord. I will degrade from office and dignity those proud nobles who have been traitors at heart to my kingly father, and to you I will give their broad lands and high titles. We will thus be comrades and friends through life. You would never desert me, would you, Paul?"
"I would lay down my life for your highness," cried Paul with enthusiasm. "I will live and die true to the Red Rose--to the sign of the silver swan."
The little prince's eyes kindled.
"I believe you would. I love you, Paul, and methinks that you would love me too. I would that I could take you with me now to be my friend and comrade through life; but perchance your lady mother could ill spare you, by what you say. I know what a mother's love is like."
Paul's face was grave. For the first time in his life he was confronted by the problem of a divided duty--that problem which troubles us all more or less at some time in our history.
"I would gladly go with your highness to the world's end," he said. "I should love to live and die at your side; but I doubt me if it would not be cruel to my mother. She sometimes tells me that her life would be a lone one without me."
"And you must stay with her," said the prince with decision; "at least so long as you are a child. When you are a grown man it will be different. Some day I will send for you, and you shall be my first and best friend; but it cannot be now. My mother might not approve my choice, and yours might not let you go. Princes as well as other men have to wait for what they want"--and the child sighed--"but some day our turn will come."
Then they resumed their play, and the hoary wood resounded to the merry shouts of the boys as they ran hither and thither in active sport, till the little prince was fairly tired out, though, still exulting in his escape from maternal vigilance, he stoutly protested against going back.
"See, good Paul," he said, "here is a right commodious hollow tree, heaped with last year's dead leaves. I will rest awhile hidden away here, where none will find me were they to look for me ever so. And if you could find and bring me here a draught of water from the brook or from some spring, I should be ever grateful. I am sore athirst and weary, too."
The child was nevertheless much pleased with his nest, and forthwith curled himself up in it like a young dormouse, delighting in the conviction that no attendants despatched by his mother to capture him would ever find him here. Boys have been young pickles ever since the world began, and were just as full of pranks in the fifteenth century as they are now. Edward had: a full share of boyhood's mischievous delight in his own way, and owing to the strong will and the ever-present vigilance of his mother, he had not had many chances of indulging his natural craving for independence. Therefore he rejoiced the more in it now, and was quite determined to return to his royal parents at such time only as it suited his own whim.
Paul was willing enough to do the behest of the prince, and stayed only to make him comfortable before starting off on the quest for water. He thought young Edward would soon be asleep, as indeed he was, so luxurious was his leafy couch within the giant oak; and resolved to run as far as a certain well he knew of in the wood, the water of which was peculiarly fresh and cold and clear, and where a cup was always kept by the brothers of a neighbouring monastery for the benefit of weary travellers.
Paul sped away on his mission with a light heart He was elated above measure by his day's adventure, and his head was brimming over with plans and dreams of the future, which was to be so glorious and so distinguished.
He the chosen comrade of their future king! he the loyal upholder of that king's rights, the bulwark of the throne, the trusted noble, the shrewd counsellor, the valiant warrior! A boy's ambition is boundless--innocent of envy or evil, but wild in its flights.
Paul went on his way with glowing cheeks and sparkling eyes, till a stealthy sound in the bushes beside him made him stop short, listening intently. He heard voices in cautious whisper.
"He cannot be far away. He certainly came to the wood. Long Peter says he had another boy with him; but be that as it may, he is here, and close at hand. We must lose no time.