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How Cicely Danced Before the King by Thomas Archer


The old manor-house of Sir Christopher Burroughs of Stolham, Norfolk, lay shining in the last rays of the setting sun, on the eve of May Day 1646. The long range of windows along the front of the building between the two buttresses flashed with crimson and gold; for the house faced the south-west, and the brilliant light that shone from the rim of the blood-red cloud behind which the sun was sinking, glowed deep on the diamond panes. But the house was lighted within as well as without. In the large low-ceilinged dining-hall wax candles burned in great silver sconces, and the cloth was laid for supper. In the upper room the gleams that came through the spaces between the heavy curtains showed that there was company there. If any one had gone close to the porch and listened, he could have heard the sound of voices talking loudly, and now and then a laugh, or could have seen the shadows of servants passing to and fro in the buttery just within the great hall; nay, any one going round the corner of the house where there was an angle of the wall of the garden, could have heard from an upper window the sound of a lute playing a slow and stately measure, and if his ears had been very sharp indeed, he would have detected the light footfalls of dancers on the polished oaken floor.

It was an exciting time; for King Charles I and his cavaliers and the army that they commanded had been beaten by Oliver Cromwell and the soldiers of the Parliament at Naseby, in Northamptonshire, and the King had lost all his baggage and his letters and papers. After this Charles had been from place to place with his army, till he reached Oxford, where his council was staying, and from this town he thought he should be able either to get to London or to go northward and join the Scotch army.

But news had just come to Sir Christopher Burroughs that Cromwell and his general, Fairfax, had marched to Newbury, only a mile from Oxford; and though the worthy knight of Stolham was not fighting for the King any more than most of his neighbours in Norfolk were, he was more on the side of the Royal cause than on that of the Parliament; so that the report of the King's danger gave him a good deal of anxiety, and he and his friends and their ladies were talking about it as they waited for the butler to come and tell them that supper was ready. The troubles of the times did not always prevent people from eating and drinking and having merry-makings. The people around Stolham did not care enough for the Royal cause to give up all pleasures; and some of them—friends of Sir Christopher too—were more inclined to side with the Parliament and the Puritan generals, though at present they said very little about it; and Sir Christopher presently called out,—

“Well, we met not to talk of politics or of the King's affairs; so let us to supper, though I cannot but say that I would fain see the ceasing of this strife, and the King with his own again.”

“Yes, with his own; but not with that which belongs to his subjects,” said a farmer, who had been fined for not paying the taxes which the King had ordered to be forced upon the people without the consent of Parliament.

“Come, come,” said Dame Burroughs, laughing and taking the farmer's arm, “we women hear enough of such talk every day in the week; but to-morrow will be May Day, and there will be open house to our friends, and for the lads and lasses, dancing at the May-pole, and a supper in the barn. Let us keep English hearts within us even in these dark times, and make merry as we can.”

“But methinks the May-pole is no more than a pagan thing, an idol to encourage to vanity and profane dancing,” said a sour-faced man, who had been standing by the window.

“It may have been a pagan custom once,” said Sir Christopher; “and the same may be said of preaching from a pulpit; but all depends on the way of it, and not on the thing itself. As to dancing, it is an old custom enough; there is Scripture warrant for it perhaps, and it comes naturally to all young creatures. I'll be bound, now, that our Dick and his little cousin Cicely are at this moment getting the steps of the gavotte or the other gambadoes that have come to us from France and Spain, that they may figure before the company to-morrow.”

“That are they!” said the dame laughing, as a servant opened the door, and each of Sir Christopher's friends gave a hand to a lady to lead them down to supper. “Hark! don't you hear my kinswoman's lute? Poor, kind Dorothy, she will play to them for the hour long, and likes nothing better. I can hear their little feet pit-a-patting; and Dick would insist on putting on his new fine suit, all brave with Spanish point and ribbon velvet, and the boy has buckled on a sword, too, while the little puss, Cicely, not to be backward, is all a prop with a stiff petticoat and a brocaded fardingale, and has on her little silk cap with the pearls, just as I have heard the fashion is among the Queen's French ladies of honour. Hark! there they go, tum-tum-ty, tum-twenty-tum, tum-twenty-tum! Bless their little hearts!”

The sour-faced man made a grimace; for his wife was just before him, and he could see her feet moving in time to the music as they all went down into the great hall laughing and talking; nor did the sound of the music cease till it was shut out by the closing of the door after they had sat down to supper; and even then it came upon them in gushes of melody every time a servant opened the door, to bring in another dish or a flagon of ale or of wine.

They heard it when, supper being nearly over, the butler came in softly and whispered to Sir Christopher, who, asking them to excuse him for a moment, went out into the hall.

A horseman was standing there, booted and spurred, and with his riding whip in his hand, and his steed was snorting, and scraping the ground outside.

“Do you know me again, Sir Christopher?” said the man, in a low voice.

“Let me bring you to the light,” muttered the knight, leading him to the porch where there was a lantern hanging. “To be sure. I have seen you up at Whitehall and at Oxford, too, and are not likely to forget His Majesty's Groom of the Chambers. How fares it with our Royal Master?”

“Why, it stands this way, sir, as I take it,” whispered the visitor. “His Majesty must either fly the country or reach the army of the Scots, which he has no liking for, or raise the eastern counties and risk another battle. As it is, we have come safe out of Oxford, where Fairfax and the arch-rebel Cromwell are closing upon the city, and the king has ridden behind me after I had trimmed off his pointed beard, and made him look as much like a servant as is possible to his sainted person. I left him an hour ago after we had left Deeping, for I came on here to see if you could receive him, not according to his rank, but as a plain guest, with the name of Thomas Williams; for there are those about who might be meddlesome, and His Majesty can only tarry for two or three days, waiting for a message from the Scots generals, to be brought by a trusty hand. I had feared that His Majesty would have overtaken me, for my horse cast a shoe, and came limping along for a mile or more, till at the smithy yonder by the roadside I found a farrier.”

“Bring my dear friend Mr. Thomas Williams on with you,” said Sir Christopher loudly, as the door opened and a serving man came out; “he shall be welcome for old times' sake when we were at college together, and tell him I will not have him put up at the inn while there is a bed and a bottle at Stolham Manor.”

Now neither Sir Christopher nor this visitor, who was the King's Groom of the Chamber, knew that the King, hearing the sound of horsemen behind him, had ridden past and turned down a bye-road, which all the same led him to Stolham; still less did they imagine that he was actually in the old manor house while they were talking there in the hall; because they had no notion of what had happened in the room where Mistress Dorothy was twanging the lyre, and the two young cousins were footing to the tune of Valparaiso Bay.

While the children were in the very midst of a figure and Dick was snapping his fingers, and Cicely was making the grand chasse, Mistress Dorothy, glancing up from her music towards the window, had seen a pale face looking through the pane. She was not a woman to scream or to faint, for she was a quiet, staid, middle-aged person of much experience, and had lived in London, where she went to Court more than once with Sir Christopher and her kinswoman Dame Burroughs; so she kept on playing, and walked a little nearer to the window. The man who was outside—for it was a man, and he had climbed the angle of the wall, and now sat amidst the ivy close to the window-sill—beckoned to her, and as she advanced opened the breast of his coat, and showed a great jewel fastened with a gold chain under his vest.

Another moment, and she had unfastened the window, and he had raised himself to the sill and come in. He was dressed like a servant,—a groom,—for he wore high riding-boots and spurs, and had a cloak strapped round his waist; he seemed to forget to take off his hat, but stood still in the middle of the room, as Mistress Dorothy suddenly knelt before him, and said in a whisper, “Children, children, kneel; it is the King!”

Then the visitor removed his hat and showed his high, handsome face. Dick and Cicely also fell on their knees, but the King said, “Rise, madam; rise, little ones; and pardon my intrusion. I am travelling secretly, and was on my way hither when I found that I was followed, and so left my horse at the inn in the next village, and walked on. I would not that Sir Christopher Burroughs should be summoned, for my pursuers will ere long be at the gate, and, not finding me here, may pass.”

Now Dick Burroughs was as sharp a little blade as could be found between Stolham and Land's End, and quick as lightning he said, “But, Majesty, if it be no offence, let Cousin Cicely and I go on with our dancing, for there be some friends of Sir Christopher at supper, and should they or the servants no longer hear the lute, and think that we be tired, they may be sent to call us to bed, seeing that to-morrow will be May Day, and we shall rise early.”

“And then, Your Majesty,” lisped Cicely, “if anybody break in and come up here and see us dancing, they will go away, and you can hide behind the hangings yonder.”

“You are a bright lad, and you a loyal little lady,” said Charles, with a grave smile.

“There is a horseman coming up the road,” said Dick, in a whisper. “Your Majesty had best find a hiding-place, and I will show it you. Above this room is the turret, and behind the hangings here is a door, where a ladder goes straight up the wall to take you to the turret-room, from which you can see far up and down the road. Let me go first and light Your Majesty, and carry your cloak.” Then, taking a candle from the music stand, he began to mount the steps.

“Thou'rt a brave lad,” said the King, “and I'll follow thee.”

“And it shall go hard but I'll get thee some supper, your Majesty,” said Dick; “but Cis and I must keep on dancing till all the guests be gone,—and you will see who comes and leaves,—even if it be till daybreak, for there is a May moon shining all night.”

“Now, Mistress Dorothy, now, Cis,” cried Dick, when he had come down and closed door and curtain, “music, music, for we must keep on dancing.” The dancing never ceased, but Dick stole to the buttery and found a pie and a flagon of wine, which he carried with cup, knife, and napkin, to the King in the turret-room, and then down to dance again, till his legs ached and poor Cicely began to droop.

There was a knock at the door, and the stumbling of feet upon the stair, and then the voice of Sir Christopher outside saying, “What warrant ye have to enter this house I know not; but as you take not my word, look for yourselves.' With that he opened the door, and two men looked into the room.

“Dance up, Cis,” whispered Dick, who gave a skip, and pretended to see nobody. “Play a little faster, Mistress Dorothy.”

“Now,” said Sir Christopher, to the two fellows who stood outside, “mayhap you will leave these children to their sport till it is time for them to go to bed;” and with that he shut the door, and the fellows went lumbering down the stair. It seemed to be hours afterward when Sir Christopher again appeared. He opened the door suddenly, and he was not alone. Dame Burroughs was with him and a strange gentleman.

“What! not in bed, you naughty rogues!” he said, as his eye fell on Cissy, who was sitting on the floor, her head upon her hands, fast asleep.

“Dick, lad, what ails thee?” For Dick was standing by the hangings with the sword that he carried half-drawn from the scabbard, and great black rings round his eyes, and his legs trembling.

“Come, Dick,” said the knight, “this is His Majesty's Groom of the Chambers, and I would that we knew where our royal master could be found.”

“Here he is,” said a deep voice from behind the curtain, as the King drew it aside and stepped into the room. The music ceased, Madame Dorothy gave a great cry. Charles stooped and caught up Cicely from the ground in his arms and kissed her.

“Come, sweetheart,” he said, “thou hast danced for the King till thou art half-dead, but the King will not forget thee. Richard, thou'rt a brave lad, and thou must come and kiss me, too. If we both live, thou shalt not repent having served Charles Stuart both with head and feet.”


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