[Editor: A short story by Erle Cox, set in England. Published in The Australasian, 26 December 1936.]
The two vows of Lady Anne
Short story by Erle Cox
“And so,” said the Lord of Wrotham, “it is Hertford who has added to the charter that Wrotham descends through the female line.” “And therefore the walking wine-sack would be my husband.” The glint in Lady Anne’s eyes suggested that such a marriage would not mean unalloyed happiness for the Earl of Hertford.
In an age when heiresses were State pawns, the suggested alliance was more normal than exceptional. It was the revolt of clean and splendid youth against the threat of debauched middle age that lit the fires of battle in her eyes. Besides, there was Sir Hugh Daventry to be considered, and Hugh — well, he was Hugh, and that meant her universe to Lady Anne.
Her father watched the flushed, angry face, understanding. “It’s a sorry affair, Anne. Though he did not put it in words, Hertford means to have you and Wrotham or the King will not sign the charter.”
“But what brings the dog here in such haste? What’s afoot?” Anne tapped a small foot impatiently among the rushes on the floor.
“He rode in with the Bishop of Bury but an hour since, with a score of men —”
“Those cutthroats I saw in the yard?” Anne interrupted.
Wrotham nodded. “He said he rode ahead of Henry to warn me that the King would lie at Wrotham till Monday. They ride west — to school the Welsh chiefs.”
“And our good bishop? Why does he herd in such company?” Anne asked.
Her father shook his head. “I had no chance for speech with him. Mayhap Stephen scented trouble and came as watchdog.”
Ann took a step forward and laid a white hand on her father’s shoulder gently. “What must be, must be. I will obey if you command.”
With his hand grasping his grizzled beard Wrotham stared before him a moment. Then the old warrior suddenly stood erect and brought his hand smashing to the trestle beside him. “No!” he almost shouted. “Must I peddle my daughter for my land at the bidding of Hertford?”
Anne shook her head sadly. “Cross Hertford, dear old wolf, and you go landless. He holds us in a cleft stick.”
For a minute Wrotham strode to and fro across the narrow chamber. Then stopped and said resolutely. “Better that than live beneath his hand. There is always France. Phillip would give me Vaux for my allegiance. Listen, Anne! The choice is yours. I am old and little matters for me. Choose as you please!”
“You mean ——?”
“Aye! Mean it and I will stand by you.”
Anne stood irresolute, but Wrotham urged her on. “Go, Anne! He is in the lower tower chamber, where he roosts, talking some King’s business with Stephen.”
* * * * * *
But Lady Anne did not go directly to Hertford. First she made her way to her own stone-walled, tapestry-hung room, and dismissed the women she found there. Then she flung herself on her couch. For nearly half an hour she lay pondering over the disaster that threatened her life.
Slowly a thought took shape. With closed eyes she lay, testing its every desperate turn, so still that she appeared to be asleep. That morning Lady Anne had arisen from her couch a happy girl, without a care in the world. She rose from it the second time that day a woman — a woman, steel-nerved by an inflexible purpose. With head erect, imperious and splendid, she passed to the lower tower room. By its low arched doorway one of Hertford’s cutthroats stood on guard. Leering at her as she paused, the man dropped his pike across her path. The Lady Anne of an hour ago would have shrunk back. The Lady Anne of the moment turned blazing eyes on the guard and hissed — “Would you hang? You dog!”
The pike jerked erect. At a peremptory motion of her hand the man drew aside the leather curtain, and Anne swept past him into the room.
Two torches on the walls and a thick candle on a heavy table lit the small, circular chamber. On one side of the table lounged Hertford. Opposite him, with parchments spread before him, sat Stephen, Bishop of Bury. To him Anne bowed reverently. The two men had been taken by surprise at Anne’s unceremonious entrance. Hertford sat twirling, by the stem, a dull and dented silver wine cup. His dark green, velvet robe was marked in front by stains of food and wine. Against the wall beside him lay the mail he had put off.
Stephen had greeted her with a smile. Hertford glowered up at her without moving, and Anne recognised the intentional insolence that he assumed to overawe her. It was Hertford who broke the silence. “Your pardon, Lady Anne, but we are deep in the King’s business.” There was a curt dismissal in his tone.
“Then the King’s business can wait on mine.” Hertford gaped, but there was a smile mingled with the astonishment on the Bishop’s face as he surveyed a new and surprising Lady Anne.
Hertford scrabbled in his thick, unkempt beard with stubby fingers. “Oh!” he sneered, “since my Lady Anne Wrotham’s affairs are greater than the King’s, let us hear them.”
Anne smiled over sweetly at the Bishop, and, nodding in Hertford’s direction, murmured, “A truly gallant lover, my Lord Bishop.”
Hertford sat erect. “Our affairs may rest till another time,” he snapped.
“They will not.” Her voice was decisive, and she continued, “My father tells me that the Earl of Hertford has offered me the insult of marriage. Better one of our swineherds!”
Anne caught a warning glance from the Bishop as a dark flush spread over Hertford’s face. He half arose from the settle, but recovered himself before his almost involuntary outburst of anger. When he spoke again his voice was cool and even.
“Still, I think you will accept my insult, Lady Anne.”
Stretching his arm across the table Hertford tapped one of the parchments that lay before the Bishop. “It is the King’s will, as well as my own ——”
“So,” interrupted the Bishop, and his voice was icy, “that is the real reason for withholding the charter.”
Hertford nodded, “A State matter, my Lord. There are wings to be clipped. Wrotham, with his nest of knights about him, such as Daventry, carries himself a little high. Henry would have Wrotham in safe hands.”
“Safe hands!” Anne’s voice cut like a knife. “The safe hands of the man who urged four knights to a foul deed at Canterbury, before its altar.” The two men sat frozen. Spoken by a man, the words Anne had uttered would have been a death warrant. For it was common talk that Hertford’s hand had been behind the murder of Becket.
When at last Hertford found his voice, though he controlled it, he was trembling with rage. “Still will you marry me,” he said hoarsely.
“And, if I still refuse?”
“Then your father goes landless!”
Anne tossed her head defiantly. “A small price for such an escape!”
Hertford bent forward, and as Anne looked at his eyes they reminded her of those of a wicked wild boar. “Listen, you pink and white fool,” he growled. “You forget — I am Earl Marshal of England and answer for the safety of the King’s Grace. Do I not know of the lands in France your father claims, at Vaux? Do I wait like a dolt while a discontented and dispossessed Baron crosses over to France — a traitor?”
Anne drew a deep breath. “You mean?”
“I mean the loss of Wrotham is but part of the price you will pay; and your father will pay.”
Suddenly Anne felt very cold. “I must have time to think.” she muttered.
Hertford banged his hand on the table. “No,” he thundered. “You demanded your business comes before the King’s and so it shall. Your answer?”
* * * * *
Lady Anne gazed blankly at the narrow arrow slot before her, and her heart missed a beat as she glimpsed a knight in mail ride by. It was Sir Hugh Daventry. For all their sakes she must carry out her desperate plan. Inwardly, she prayed for strength.
She bowed with a humility she was far from feeling. “I agree!” she said quietly.
“Then the marriage takes place to-morrow, when the King is here,” said Hertford.
Anne held up a slender white hand. “One moment, my lord. I agree, but on my own terms. You will accept those, or I choose, and choose cheerfully, the worst you can do.” There was no mistaking her inflexible determination.
“And your precious terms?” Hertford grunted.
“First, the charter of Wrotham is sealed by the King. Second, that the marriage does not take place until the week after Holy Week.”
Hertford spluttered a vicious oath. “Do you think you deal with a page or a ninny? What safeguard have I that you will keep your word, with Holy Week nigh on six months away.”
“This,” replied Anne calmly. “On Sunday, at High Mass, before the King and his lords, I will swear on the Holy Elements to give you my hand during the week after Holy Week, if the charter is sealed, and if not to you I will give it to none other.”
Hertford thought deeply and then turned to the bishop. “What think you, my lord?”
The bishop, who had watched the scene with increasing anxiety, answered with an edge on his voice. “I think much, but this I say, that vow will bind our Lady Anne faster than steel could bind her.”
“Have your way,” he snorted at Anne.
Without another glance at Hertford, Anne bowed low before the bishop, asking his blessing, and then, head high, she left the chamber.
* * * * *
But Anne swept down the passage until she came on a page dicing with Simon, the captain of her father’s horse. It was a forbidden pastime for the page, and at another time would have won swift retribution. “Boy,” she ordered hastily. “Go, find Sir Hugh Daventry and bid him come to me at —” she paused to think, “at the stillroom, and let none hear the message.”
Then to Simon: “I need help, Simon. Let Sir Hugh pass through, and then wait near the stillroom lest any of Hertford’s cut-throats trouble us.”
Simon clanked after her, and a few moments later, as Sir Hugh hurried by, nodded him cheerfully towards the stillroom door.
Between Hugh and the Lady Anne, their greetings were likely to be prolonged, because they had been separated for nearly 24 hours. But with a lover’s sensitiveness, Hugh recognised the anxiety in her face. The speedily told story sent Hugh’s hand to the hilt of his great sword, and his wrath blazed up in a pious desire to hew Hertford into pieces.
But Lady Anne’s arms clung about his neck. “Oh, Hugh. I love you for it, but it is madness,” she cried. “Would you play Hertford’s game for him? Suppose you killed him, what of the King?”
Hugh paused in his struggle to free himself. “But, dear heart,” he said, “if you take that oath we are parted.”
Anne stepped back, shaking her head, and smiling a little sadly. “Force is useless. You and my father are a pair — dear fighting blunderers alike. Cannot you see we can only meet guile with guile and cunning with cunning? It will take a woman’s wit to beat Hertford.”
“But ——” he began, bewildered.
Anne’s hand sought a fine gold chain about her neck. By it she drew from her bosom a small gold crucifix, rudely formed in the art of the day. “Listen, my dear love,” she said gently; then, holding the crucifix before her she went on, “I swear by the body of our dear Lord that in the week following Holy Week I will wed you and none other,” and she sealed the vow by raising the cross to her lips.
“But,” he protested, “the oath you make before the altar!”
Lady Anne put her arms about him and laughed softly. “Hugh, my lover, there is but small joy in hugging a man in mail ——” then, after a moment, “the oath before the altar I will take also.” Then, seeing his bewilderment, she said, “Hugh, will you trust me and help me?”
“Both trust and help you with life itself, if need be,” he answered fervently.
Hugh nodded emphatically.
“Well, all you have to do is to do all I ask without question or hesitation.”
“But, Anne! two such oaths!” They lived in a day when faith was a more simple and religion more a vital force than it is to-day. Hugh was even more anxious than perplexed.
“I will keep both vows,” smiled Anne, and stifling further protest with her soft, pink fingers she said, “Remember, you promised to trust me, but I dare not trust you or anyone else.”
Hugh surrendered with a lover’s grace. “Your orders, my lady?” he asked.
“Only this — guard jealously your peace with Hertford, and when the King comes to-morrow beg permission from him to ride with him into Wales. With you near him, Hertford’s suspicions, if he has any, will be lulled.”
“And you, dearest?” he ventured.
“What’s a lover’s promise worth?” she laughed. “You were to ask no questions. But this I will tell you. Until the Monday after Holy Week I take refuge with the Abbess of St. Albans. And now, dear heart, you must go.
* * * * *
Next day Henry came to Wrotham, and in the castle for three days there was high revel. On the Saturday Henry sealed the charter of Wrotham, and on the Sunday, before the King and his lords, Anne made her vow in the chapel, where the Bishop of Bury held the Holy Elements.
It was with nothing short of consternation that Bishop Stephen heard the story of Anne’s conflicting oaths. His admonishment, stern and uncompromising, was listened to with more levity than reverence.
“But Anne, my dear child,” he expostulated, “you have done a terrible wrong.”
“If I keep both vows?” Anne smiled.
“That were beyond the wit of man,” countered the Bishop between anger and pity.
The Lady Anne held up her hand, on which gleamed a great ruby, set there by Hertford in the chapel. “But not beyond the wit of woman, an’ it please my lord.” Then she added after a pause “That is, if a certain gruff, cross, but rather dear Bishop will help me.”
“Help you to keep both vows and fool Hertford,” he demanded.
“That is what I thought you would be clever enough to understand,” murmured Ann.
“To foil Hertford I would —” he broke off his restless pacing and faced her. “Mind you, Anne! I’ll take no part in evil of the sacrilege of broken oaths.”
Impudently Anne kissed his cheek — “You old dear, all I ask is a parchment giving protection of the Church to all who help, so their help does no hurt to canon law or the law of the King.”
He stared at her irresolute for a moment. “Faith! you baggage,” he said at last, “Much would I like to know what’s in your mind.”
“Best not, my Lord,” she laughed, “then you can declare so to Hertford and the King with a clear conscience.”
Without another word to Anne the Bishop turned to Brother Martin and dictated the protection Anne demanded. When he had signed it and sealed it with his own signet he passed it to Anne, who again kissed him and, with a hearty word of gratitude, fled.
As his Lordship watched the swaying curtain through which Lady Anne had passed, he said: “Brother Martin, we who serve our Lord through His Church have many blessings. But of those blessings, my son, the greatest, I think, is celibacy.”
On the Monday a peace fell on Wrotham. Henry departed, and in his train took Hertford, whereat my Lady Anne was much pleased, and also Sir Hugh Daventry, at which she was by no means pleased, though she had so ordered it.
On the day following Lady Anne entered her horse litter, and, accompanied by two of her women and an escort led by Simon, made her journey to the nunnery of St. Albans. By the way she paused for a long space at the home, half-hut and half-cave, of the hermit, Bernard. For the hermit Bernard was a very wise and a very holy man, who had great repute in those parts also as a leech, for he had studied in France and Rome, and cured the wounds and the ills of all for miles around Wrotham, and what Lady Anne said to the hermit only he knows, but it was clear to those who watched that Bernard did not like what he heard.
It was only after Lady Anne had shown him the Bishop’s parchment that she left well contented. But long after she had passed on her way Bernard, the hermit, knelt before his simple altar in profound prayer.
* * * * * *
It was on the Thursday of Holy Week that Henry and his court descended on Wrotham and there kept the fast of Good Friday. That year Easter fell late and spring came early. The whole countryside round Wrotham was ablaze with new life.
None the less there were still three anxious and worried men in the castle. Both Sir Hugh and Stephen of Bury sought news from Wrotham, but beyond that she was well he could tell them no more than they themselves knew.
On the Sunday after evensong, as the Bishop paced the castle wall, there fell into step beside him Sir Hugh Daventry, limping slightly from a wound from a Welsh arrow. Question and answer told that neither knew more than the other.
“Hugh, my son,” sighed the Bishop, “my mind is vexed, for I fear some madcap trick that may bring sorrow to her — and mayhap shame.”
“Never shame, my Lord,” defended Hugh stoutly. “But I, too, am heavy at heart. What may hap to me is nothing, but if Hertford does her harm —” here his hand crept across to the heavy hilt of his sword.
“None of that, my son,” said the Bishop sternly. “Anne is right, only guile can defeat the guile of Hertford.” Then pausing he looked along the wall and exclaimed “But what ails Simon,” for the grim old captain was hovering uncertainly 20 feet away.
Seeing he was noticed, Simon approached. “What news, Simon?” demanded Sir Hugh.
The captain hesitated, staring from one to the other. “For me?” asked Hugh, and Simon nodded.
“Then I had best get beyond earshot,” said the Bishop, turning, after exchanging glances with Hugh.
“From my Lady Anne, Sir Hugh. She bids you wait her at the cot of Bernard the hermit at noon to-morrow, and not to forget your promise.” Simon recited a well-learned lesson and took himself off without waiting for an answer.
The Bishop rejoined Hugh. “A message from ——?”
Hugh nodded gravely. “I cannot understand.”
“I ask nothing, Hugh,” replied the Bishop, “but whatever she may desire, obey without question.”
Hugh laughed grimly. “You and she have minds alike, my Lord, for she has wrenched a promise from me that I obey her blindly. The devil’s in it all.”
* * * * * *
Next day at noon, Hugh, an hour before his time, greeted Anne with a glad heart as her escort of a dozen men, headed by Simon and her litter, came to a halt before the hermit’s hut.
Anne waved the escort away, and turned with Hugh into the hermit’s hut, bidding her women wait outside. Under her arm she bore a small carved cedar casket, which she placed upon the altar. Then for a few precious moments she lay quiet in his arms, before she drew herself gently free.
“Hugh, there is no moment to waste! For this one hour you must promise blind obedience.” Then she smiled up at him gravely. “After that, for all my life, dear one, will I obey you.”
“As you please, Anne, and what next?”
“Bernard, we are ready,” called Anne to the hermit, who stood aside with his head bowed.
“Your women, my Lady,” said the hermit, and Anne called them into the hut.
Then while the castle of Wrotham rang with the roar and bustle of preparation for the marriage of Lady Anne and Hertford, at the hermit’s hut was that same Lady Anne wed to Sir Hugh — a bewildered and enraptured Sir Hugh — as fast as the Church could bind them.
When the groom walked into the open air Anne turned to him. “Now is your moment of trial, Hugh.”
“I have promised, Lady Anne — Daventry,” he added with a happy laugh.
“Then for two hours we part,” commanded the bride, “for I must keep my vow to that black dog Hertford.”
“No buts, my husband — nothing but obedience,” said Anne gaily. “You ride alone to Daventry manor. Leave me Simon and the escort, and in two hours I will be with you. Go now, my dear, my dear, or I can never let you go!”
For a second Hugh hesitated, then he stooped and kissed her, and flung himself across his horse.
“Ride, and ride fast,” she cried as he turned his horse, and as Hugh spurred across the meadow to the woodland she stood watching him until he was out of sight, her hand pressed to her breast.
Then slowly she turned to Simon and said; “Simon, my friend, there is a grave mission for you. Remember, I trust you.”
“Have I ever failed my Lady Anne?” he grinned under his bushy beard.
“Never, Simon, but least of all can you fail me now. I have business with the hermit. When that is done I will pass to my litter, not speaking to you. With me go to Daventry the escort and my women. You will remain here, and take your orders from Bernard, as from me. You understand?”
“Trust me, my lady,” growled the old war dog, and Anne turned away content.
At the door of his hut the hermit awaited her. “My lady,” he said gently, “and is your will the same? Your heart still set?”
“Now more than ever,” said Anne decisively. “Do swiftly and without fear what is to be done.”
She passed into the hut with Bernard, calling her women in with her, and its frail door was closed.
* * * * * *
For nearly an hour, while the men of the escort diced on, a cloak thrown on the grass, Simon stood in the warm sunlight. No sound came from the hut. He heard nothing but the buzzing of bees in the clover at his feet. Then as the door shook he barked the escort to their saddles as Lady Anne came from the hut, and with her face half-veiled by her cloak took her place in the litter.
As she had said, she neither spoke to Simon nor looked towards him. He watched the little troop and the litter, with the two women pacing beside it, follow the path taken by Hugh, until it too disappeared. Again Simon stood, waiting.
Then suddenly Bernard appeared, and Simon swung himself heavily into his saddle. The hermit bore under his arm the casket that Lady Anne had brought with her, and in his hand a small roll of parchment. “Take these with care, Simon,” he ordered, “and place them yourself in the hands of his Lordship the Earl of Hertford at Wrotham. Giving him greetings from our Lady Anne.”
Without a word Simon took the casket, and horse and man lumbered creaking and clanking toward Wrotham.
* * * * *
In the great hall of the castle, at the high table, sat Henry. With him sat Hertford, Wrotham, and the Bishop of Bury, and about them stood a dozen nobles of the Court.
All looked up as Simon clanked his way to the dais and halted before Hertford.
“My Lord Earl Marshal,” boomed Simon. “Greeting from our Lady Anne, who bade me place these before your lordship with my own hands.” And Simon deposited casket and parchment on the tressel. Then he saluted abruptly and departed, his duty done.
“Ho!” laughed Henry, “a gift from the bride, Hertford!” His Majesty was in high good humour, and called for a health to the Lady Anne.
Hertford took up the parchment and snapped the silken thread about it testily. “Does she take me for a monk, to read her writing? Here, my lord bishop, please you to be my clerk for the moment.”
Stephen, more curious than the rest, opened the scroll eagerly as Hertford fumbled with the lid of the cedar casket. And this is what Stephen of Bury read aloud to the listening group:—
“To my Lord the Erle of Hertforde:—
“Greeting from Anne Daventry. My Lord will have in minde how on the bodie and bloode of our Dere Lord did I take oathe that on the weeke next after Holie Week would I give him my hand, and so mine oathe I kyp, and purge me of my vowe before our Lord. — Anne Daventry.”
As he was reading Hertford had opened the casket, from which he had taken a small white silken bundle. As Stephen finished reading the last fold of the silk fell away from what it held.
As their eyes fell on what lay before them every man gasped and remained for a little space as though frozen. Only Stephen moved, as he crossed himself with eyes involuntarily closed. Then he broke the silence, his voice hard and relentless.
“My Lord Hertford. I bear witness before God and man that Lady Anne has kept her vow. Remember, my Lord, the cloak of the Church is about her and hers; harm her at your peril.” And slowly the Bishop of Bury went from the hall with bowed head.
But as he moved Hertford burst out with a terrible oath. “Fooled, by God!” he shouted, dashing his cup to the table. “Am I to be cheated by ——”
In a second Wrotham was on his feet, with his sword drawn gleaming in the torchlight. “Silence, you ——”
But Hertford’s sword, too, was out.
What Wrotham might have said was cut short by a burst of that terrible Plantagenet rage, against which no man among them dared stand.
“Up swords! Up swords, I say!” thundered Henry, “Is Wrotham Castle a tavern, that you dare to brawl before your King?” In the silence as he paused the blades could be heard grating into the scabbards. Then he turned to Hertford. “Your work, my Lord, and foul work!” he hissed, pointing towards the table. “Hear me, Hertford. My cloak also is about Lady Anne and her people. One move against them and your head answers for it. You have what you bargained for — take it.” There was bitter scorn in the King’s voice.
But my Lord Hertford did not take what was his. He shrunk backwards — for there on the table, whiter than the silk on which it lay, waxen and exquisite, was the severed left hand of Lady Anne. On its third finger gleamed evilly the great ruby which Hertford had set upon it.
That night the Earl of Hertford got drunker than usual, and those who knew the Earl Marshal best regarded that as a notable achievement.
The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.), 26 December 1936, p. 43
[Editor: Added closing quotation mark after “Hertford?”. Changed “will stand” to “I will stand”; “King’s let” to “the King’s, let”; “of angar” to “of anger”.]