Part 7 out of 7
"Not here," she said, and in silence led the way to a pleached alley
out of sight of the windows. There they stood still. It was a
strange meeting of two who had not seen each other for fourteen
years, when the one was a tall, ungainly youth, the other well-nigh
a child. And now Giles was a fine, soldierly man in the prime of
life, with a short, curled beard, and powerful, alert bearing, and
Aldonza, though the first flower of her youth had gone by, yet,
having lived a sheltered and far from toilsome life, was a really
beautiful woman, gracefully proportioned, and with the delicate
features and clear olive skin of the Andalusian Moor. Her eyes,
always her finest feature, were sunken with weeping, but their soft
beauty could still be seen. Giles threw himself 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
my dear mistress," said Aldonza, in a mournful voice, as though her
tears were all spent--yet not withholding her hand.
"You knew me before you knew her," said Giles. "See, Aldonza, what
I have brought back to you."
And he half drew the sword her father had made. She gave a gasp of
delight, for well she knew every device in the gold inlaying of the
blade, and she looked at Giles with eyes fall of gratitude.
"I knew thou wouldst own me," said Giles. "I have fought and gone
far from thee, Aldonza. Canst not spare one word for thine old
"Ah, Giles--there is one thing which if you will do for my mistress,
I would 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
may be 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 his arm. "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
any blessed 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 stand still, she cannot even kiss her child for
thinking of it. Her mind is set on taking it down, yet she will not
peril her husband. Nor verily know I how any here could do the
"Ha! I have scaled a wall ere now. I bare our banner at Goletta,
with the battlements full of angry Moors, not far behind the
"You would? And be secret? Then indeed nought would be overmuch
for you. And this very night--"
"The sooner the better."
She not only clasped his hand in thanks, but let him raise her face
to his, and take the reward he felt his due. Then she said she must
return, but Ambrose would bring him all particulars. Ambrose was as
anxious as herself and her mistress that the thing should be done,
but was unfit by all his habits, and his dainty, scholarly niceness,
to render such effectual assistance as the soldier could do. Giles
offered to scale the gate by night himself, carry off the head, and
take it to any place Mrs. Roper might appoint, with no assistance
save such as Ambrose could afford. Aldonza shuddered a little at
this, proving that her heart had gone out to him already, but with
this he had to be contented, for she went back into the house, and
he saw her no more. Ambrose came back to him, and, with something
more like cheerfulness than he had yet seen, said, "Thou art happy,
"More happy than I durst hope--to find her--"
"Tush! I meant not that. But to be able to do the work of the holy
ones of old who gathered the remnants of the martyrs, while I have
indeed the will, but am but a poor craven! It is gone nearer to
comfort that sad-hearted lady than aught else."
It appeared that Mrs. Roper would not be satisfied unless she
herself were present at the undertaking, and this was contrary to
the views of Giles, who thought the further off women were in such a
matter the better. There was a watch at the outer entrance of
London Bridge, the trainbands taking turns to supply it, but it was
known by experience that they did not think it necessary to keep
awake after belated travellers had ceased to come in; and Sir Thomas
More's head was set over the opposite gateway, looking inwards at
the City. The most suitable hour would be between one and two
o'clock, when no one would be stirring, and the summer night would
be at the shortest. Mrs. Roper was exceedingly anxious to implicate
no one, and to prevent her husband and brother from having any
knowledge of an act that William Roper might have prohibited, as if
she could not absolutely exculpate him, it might be fatal to him.
She would therefore allow no one to assist save Ambrose, and a few
more devoted old servants, of condition too low for anger to be
likely to light upon them. She was to be rowed with muffled oars to
the spot, to lie hid in the shadow of the bridge till a signal like
the cry of the pee-wit was exchanged from the bridge, then approach
the stairs at the inner angle of the bridge where Giles and Ambrose
would meet her.
Giles's experience as a man-at-arms stood him in good stead. He
purchased a rope as he went home, also some iron ramps. He took a
survey of the arched gateway in the course of the afternoon, and
shutting himself into one of the worksheds with Ambrose, he
constructed such a rope ladder as was used in scaling fortresses,
especially when seized at night by surprise. He beguiled the work
by a long series of anecdotes of adventures of the kind, of all of
which Ambrose heard not one word. The whole court, and especially
Giles number three, were very curious as to their occupation, but
nothing was said even to Stephen, for it was better, if Ambrose
should be suspected, that he should be wholly ignorant, but he had--
they knew not how--gathered somewhat. Only Ambrose was, at parting
for the night, obliged to ask him for the key of the gate.
"Brother," then he said, "what is this work I see? Dost think I can
let thee go into a danger I do not partake? I will share in this
pious act towards the man I have ever reverenced."
So at dead of night the three men stole out together, all in the
plainest leathern suits. The deed was done in the perfect stillness
of the sleeping City, and without mishap or mischance. Stephen's
strong hand held the ladder securely and aided to fix it to the
ramps, and just as the early dawn was touching the summit of St.
Paul's spire with a promise of light, Giles stepped into the boat,
and reverently placed his burden within the opening of a velvet
cushion that had been ripped up and deprived of part of the
stuffing, so as to conceal it effectually. The brave Margaret
Roper, the English Antigone, well knowing that all depended on her
self-control, refrained from aught that might shake it. She only
raised her face to Giles and murmured from dry lips, "Sir, God must
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
was forced to leave her treasure, since she durst not take it to
Chelsea, as the royal officers were already in possession, and the
whole family were to depart on the ensuing day. Stephen and Giles
returned safely to Cheapside.
CHAPTER XXV. OLD HAUNTS
"O the oak, and the birch, and the bonny holly tree,
They flourish best at home in my own countree."
When the absence of the barbarous token of the execution was
discovered, suspicion instantly fell on the More family, and
Margaret, her husband, and her brother, were all imprisoned. The
brave lady took all upon herself, and gave no names of her
associates in the deed, and as Henry VIII. still sometimes had
better moods, all were soon released.
But that night had given Ambrose a terrible cough, so that Dennet
kept him in bed two days. Indeed he hardly cared to rise from it.
His whole nature, health, spirits, and mind, had been so cruelly
strained, and he was so listless, so weak, so incapable of rousing
himself, or turning to any fresh scheme of life, that Stephen
decided on fulfilling a long-cherished plan of visiting their native
home and seeing their uncle, who had, as he had contrived to send
them word, settled down on a farm which he had bought with
Perronel's savings, near Romsey. Headley, who was lingering till
Aldonza could leave her mistress and decide on any plan, undertook
to attend to the business, and little Giles, to his great delight,
was to accompany them.
So the brothers went over the old ground. They slept in the hostel
at Dogmersfield where the Dragon mark and the badge of the
Armourers' Company had first appeared before them. They found the
very tree where the alderman had been tied, and beneath which Spring
lay buried, while little Giles gazed with ecstatic, almost religious
veneration, and Ambrose seemed to draw in new life with the fresh
air of the heath, now becoming rich with crimson bells. They
visited Hyde Abbey, and the well-clothed, well-mounted travellers
received a better welcome than had fallen to the lot of the hungry
lads. They were shown the grave of old Richard Birkenholt in the
cloister, and Stephen left a sum to be expended in masses for his
behoof. They looked into St. Elizabeth's College, but the kind
warden was dead, and a trembling old man who looked at them through
the wicket hoped they were not sent from the Commissioners. For the
visitation of the lesser religious houses was going on, and St.
Elizabeth's was already doomed. Stephen inquired at the White Hart
for Father Shoveller, and heard that he had grown too old to perform
the office of a bailiff, and had retired to the parent abbey. The
brothers therefore renounced their first scheme of taking Silkstede
in their way, and made for Romsey. There, under the shadow of the
magnificent nunnery, they dined pleasantly by the waterside at the
sign of Bishop Blaise, patron of the woolcombers of the town, and
halted long enough to refresh Ambrose, who was equal to very little
fatigue. It amused Stephen to recollect how mighty a place he had
once thought the little town.
Did mine host know Master Randall? What, Master Randall of
Baddesley? He should think so! Was not the good man or his good
wife here every market day, with a pleasant word for every one! Men
said he had had some good office about the Court, as steward or the
like--for he was plainly conversant with great men, though he made
no boast. If these guests were kin of his, they were welcome for
So the brothers rode on amid the gorse and heather till they came to
a broad-spreading oak tree, sheltering a farmhouse built in frames
of heavy timber, filled up with bricks set in zigzag patterns, with
a high-pitched roof and tall chimneys. Barns and stacks were near
it, and fields reclaimed from the heath were waving with corn just
tinged with the gold of harvest. Three or four cows, of the tawny
hue that looked so home-like to the brothers, were being released
from the stack-yard after being milked, and conducted to their field
by a tall, white-haired man in a farmer's smock with a little child
perched on his shoulder, who gave a loud jubilant cry at the sight
of the riders. Stephen, pushing on, began the question whether
Master Randall dwelt there, but it broke off half way into a cry of
recognition on either side, Harry's an absolute shout. "The lads,
the lads! Wife, wife! 'tis our own lads!"
And as Perronel, more buxom and rosy than London had ever made her,
came forth from her dairy, and there was a melee of greetings, and
Stephen would have asked what homeless little one the pair had
adopted, he was cut short by an exulting laugh. "No more adopted
than thy Giles there, Stephen. 'Tis our own boy, Thomas Randall!
Yea, and if he have come late, he is the better loved, though I trow
Perronel there will ever look on Ambrose as her eldest son."
"And by my troth, he needs good country diet and air!" cried
Perronel. "Thou hast had none to take care of thee, Ambrose. They
have let thee pine and dwine over thy books. I must take thee in
"'Tis what I brought him to thee for, good aunt," said Stephen,
Great was the interchange of news over the homely hearty meal. It
was plain that no one could be happier, or more prosperous in a
humble way, than the ex-jester and his wife; and if anything could
restore Ambrose it would surely be the homely plenty and motherly
care he found there.
Stephen heard another tale of his half-brother. His wife had soon
been disgusted by the loneliness of the verdurer's lodge, and was
always finding excuses for going to Southampton, where she and her
daughter had both caught the plague, imported in some Eastern
merchandise, and had died. The only son had turned out wild and
wicked, and had been killed in a broil which he had provoked: and
John, a broken-down man, with no one to enjoy the wealth he had
accumulated, had given up his office as verdurer, and retired to an
estate which he had purchased on the skirts of the Forest.
Stephen rode thither to see him, and found him a dying man,
tyrannised over and neglected by his servants, and having often
bitterly regretted his hardness towards his young brothers. All
that Stephen did for him he received as tokens of pardon, and it was
not possible to leave him until, after a fortnight's watching, he
died in his brother's arms. He had made no will, and Ambrose thus
inherited a property which made his future maintenance no longer an
anxiety to his brother.
He himself seemed to care very little for the matter. To be allowed
to rest under Perronel's care, to read his Erasmus' Testament, and
attend mass on Sundays at the little Norman church, seemed all that
he wished. Stephen tried to persuade him that he was young enough
at thirty-five to marry and begin life again on the fair woodland
river-bordered estate that was his portion, but he shook his head.
"No, Stephen, my work is over. I could only help my dear master,
and that is at an end. Dean Colet is gone, Sir Thomas is gone, what
more have I to do here? Old ties are broken, old bonds severed.
Crime and corruption were protested against in vain; and, now that
judgment is beginning at the house of God, I am thankful that I am
not like to live to see it."
Perronel scolded and exhorted him, and told him he would be stronger
when the hot weather was over, but Ambrose only smiled, and Stephen
saw a change in him, even in this fortnight, which justified his
Stephen and his uncle found a trustworthy bailiff to manage the
estate, and Ambrose remained in the house where he could now be no
burthen. Stephen was obliged to leave him and take home young
Giles, who had, he found, become so completely a country lad,
enjoying everything to the utmost, that he already declared that he
would much rather be a yeoman and forester than an armourer, and
that he did not want to be apprenticed to that black forge.
This again made Ambrose smile with pleasure as he thought of the boy
as keeping up the name of Birkenholt in the Forest. The one wish he
expressed was that Stephen would send down Tibble Steelman to be
with him. For in truth they both felt that in London Tib might at
any time be laid hands on, and suffer at Smithfield for his
opinions. The hope of being a comfort to Ambrose was perhaps the
only idea that could have counterbalanced the sense that he ought
not to fly from martyrdom; and as it proved, the invitation came
only just in time. Three days after Tibble had been despatched by
the Southampton carrier in charge of all the comforts Dennet could
put together, Bishop Stokesley's grim "soumpnour" came to summon him
to the Bishop's court, and there could be little question that he
would have courted the faggot and stake. But as he was gone out of
reach, no further inquiries were made after him.
Dennet had told her husband that she had been amazed to find how, in
spite of a very warm affection for her, her husband, and children,
her father hankered after the old name, and grieved that he could
not fulfil his old engagement to his cousin Robert. Giles Headley
had managed the business excellently during Stephen's absence, had
shown himself very capable, and gained good opinions from all.
Rubbing about in the world had been very good for him; and she
verily believed that nothing would make her father so happy as for
them to offer to share the business with Giles. She would on her
part make Aldonza welcome, and had no fears of not agreeing with
her. Besides--if little Giles were indeed to be heir to Testside
was not the way made clear?
So thus it was. The alderman was very happy in the arrangement, and
Giles Headley had not forfeited his rights to be a freeman of London
or a member of the Armourers' Guild. He married Aldonza at
Michaelmas, and all went well and peacefully in the household.
Dennet never quitted her father while he lived; but Stephen
struggled through winter roads and floods, and reached Baddesley in
time to watch his brother depart in peace, his sorrow and
indignation for his master healed by the sense of his martyrdom, and
his trust firm and joyful. "If this be, as it is, dying of grief,"
said Hal Randall, "surely it is a blessed way to die!"
A few winters later Stephen and Dennet left Giles Headley in sole
possession of the Dragon, with their second son as an apprentice,
while they themselves took up the old forest life as Master and
Mistress Birkenholt of Testside, where they lived and died honoured