The execution of Lady Lake's criminal and vindictive project would not have been long deferred, after the defeat she had sustained from Lord Roos, but for her husband's determined opposition. This may appear surprising in a man so completely under his wife's governance as was Sir Thomas; but the more he reflected upon the possible consequences of the scheme, the more averse to it he became; and finding all arguments unavailing to dissuade his lady from her purpose, he at last summoned up resolution enough positively to interdict it.
But the project was only deferred, and not abandoned. The forged confession was kept in readiness by Lady Lake for production on the first favourable opportunity.
Not less disinclined to the measure than her father was Lady Roos, though the contrary had been represented to Sir Thomas by his lady; but accustomed to yield blind obedience to her mother's wishes, she had been easily worked upon to acquiesce in the scheme, especially as the fabricated confession did not appear to hurt her husband, for whom (though she did not dare to exhibit it) she maintained a deep and unchanging affection. So utterly heart-broken was she by the prolonged and painful struggle she had undergone, that she was now almost indifferent to its issue.
For some time her health had given way under the severe shocks she had endured; but all at once more dangerous symptoms began to manifest themselves, and she became so greatly indisposed that she could not leave her room. Extremely distressing in its effects, the attack resembled fever. Inextinguishable thirst tormented her; burning pains; throbbing in the temples; and violent fluttering of the heart. No alleviation of her sufferings could be obtained from the remedies administered by Luke Hatton, who was in constant attendance upon her; nor will this be wondered at, since we are in the secret of his dark doings. On the contrary, the fever increased in intensity; and at the end of four days of unremitting agony,—witnessed with cynical indifference by the causer of the mischief,—it was evident that her case was desperate.
From the first Lady Lake had been greatly alarmed, for with all her faults she was an affectionate mother, though she had a strange way of showing her affection; and she was unremitting in her attentions to the sufferer, scarcely ever quitting her bedside. After a few days, however, thus spent in nursing her daughter, she herself succumbed to a like malady. The same devouring internal fire scorched her up, and raged within her veins; the same unappeasable thirst tormented her; and unable longer to fulfil her task, she confided it to Sarah Swarton, and withdrew to another chamber, communicating by a side door, masked by drapery, with that of Lady Roos.
Devoted to her mistress, Sarah Swarton would have sacrificed her life to restore her to health; and she cared not though the fever might be infectious. The gentleness and resignation of the ill-fated lady, which failed to move Luke Hatton, melted her to tears; and it was with infinite grief that she saw her, day by day, sinking slowly but surely into the grave. To Lady Roos, the presence of Sarah Swarton was an inexpressible comfort. The handmaiden was far superior to her station, with a pleasing countenance, and prepossessing manner, and possessed of the soft voice so soothing to the ear of pain. But the chief comfort derived by Lady Roos from the society of Sarah Swarton, was the power of unbosoming herself to her respecting her husband, and of pouring her sorrows into a sympathising ear. Lord Roos had never been near his wife since her seizure—nor, that she could learn, had made any inquiries about her; but notwithstanding his heartless conduct, her great desire was to behold him once more before she died, and to breathe some last words into his ear; and she urged the wish so strongly upon her confidante, that the latter promised, if possible, to procure its accomplishment.
A week had now nearly elapsed—the fatal term appointed by Luke Hatton—and it could be no longer doubted that, if the last gratification sought by Lady Roos were to be afforded her, it must not be delayed.
The poor sufferer was wasted to a skeleton; her cheeks hollow; eyes sunk in deep cavities, though the orbs were unnaturally bright; and her frame so debilitated, that she could scarcely raise herself from the pillow.
Sarah Swarton accordingly resolved to set out upon her errand; but before doing so, she sought an interview with Lady Lake, for the purpose of revealing certain fearful suspicions she had begun to entertain of Luke Hatton. She would have done this before, but there was almost insuperable difficulty in obtaining a few words in private of her ladyship. The apothecary was continually passing from room to room, hovering nigh the couches of his patients, as if afraid of leaving them for a moment, and he seemed to regard Sarah herself with distrust. But he had now gone forth, and she resolved to take advantage of his absence to make her communication.
The physical tortures endured by Lady Lake were exceeded by her mental anguish. While the poison raged within her veins, the desire of vengeance inflamed her breast; and her fear was lest she should expire without gratifying it. Bitterly did she now upbraid herself for having delayed her vindictive project. More than once she consulted Luke Hatton as he stood beside her couch, with the habitual sneer upon his lips, watching the progress of his own infernal work, as to the possibility of renovating her strength, if only for an hour, in order that she might strike the blow. But he shook his head, and bade her wait. Wait, however, she would not, and she became at length so impatient, that he agreed to make the experiment, telling her he would prepare a draught which should stimulate her into new life for a short time, but he would not answer for the after consequences. This was enough. She eagerly grasped at the offer. Revenge must be had, cost what it would. And it was to prepare the potion which was to effect her brief cure that Luke Hatton had quitted her chamber, and left the coast clear for Sarah Swarton.
Startled by the abrupt entrance and looks of the handmaiden, Lady Lake anxiously inquired if all was well with her daughter.
"As well as it, seems ever likely to be with her, my lady," replied Sarah Swarton. "She is somewhat easier now. But has your ladyship courage to listen to what I have to tell you?"
"Have I ever shown want of courage, Sarah, that you should put such a question?" rejoined Lady Lake, sharply.
"But this is something frightful, my lady."
"Then do not hesitate to disclose it."
"Has your ladyship never thought it a strange illness by which you and my Lady Roos have been seized?" said Sarah, coming close up to her, and speaking in a low, hurried tone, as if afraid of being overheard, or interrupted.
"Why should I think it strange, Sarah?" returned Lady Lake, regarding her fixedly. "It is a dreadful and infectious fever which I have taken from my daughter; and that is the reason why Sir Thomas, and all others, except Luke Hatton and yourself, are forbidden to come near us. What we should have done without you, Sarah, I know not, for Luke Hatton tells me the rest of the household shun us as they would a pestilence. I trust you will escape the disorder, and if I am spared your devotion shall be adequately requited. As to Luke Hatton, he seems to have no fear of it."
"He has no reason to be afraid," replied Sarah, significantly. "This is no fever, my lady."
"How!" cried Lady Lake. "Would you set up your ignorance against the skill and science of Luke Hatton? Or do you mean to insinuate—"
"I insinuate nothing, my lady," interrupted Sarah; "but I beseech you to bear with fortitude the disclosure I am about to make to you. In a word, my lady, I am as certain as I am of standing here, that poison has been administered both to you and to my Lady Roos."
At this terrible communication, a mortal sickness came over Lady Lake.
Thick damps gathered upon her brow, and she fixed her haggard eyes upon Sarah.
"Poisoned!" she muttered; "poisoned! If so, there is but one person who can have done it—but one—except yourself, Sarah!"
"If I had committed the crime, should I have come hither to warn you, my lady?" rejoined Sarah.
"Then it must be Luke Hatton."
"Ay," replied Sarah, looking round anxiously. "It is he. When he did not think I noticed him, I chanced to see him pour a few drops from a phial into the drink he prepares for your ladyship and my Lady Roos; and my suspicions being aroused by his manner as much as by the circumstance, I watched him narrowly, and found that this proceeding was repeated with every draught; with this difference merely, that the dose was increased in strength by one additional drop; the potion administered to your ladyship being some degrees less powerful than that given to my dear lady, and no doubt being intended to be slower in its effects. That it was poison, I am certain, since I have tested it upon myself, by sipping a small quantity of the liquid; and I had reason to repent my rashness, for I soon perceived I had the same symptoms of illness as those which distress your ladyship."
"Why did you not caution me sooner, Sarah?" said Lady Lake, horror-stricken by this narration.
"I could not do so, my lady," she replied. "It was only yesterday that I arrived at a positive certainty in the matter, and after my imprudence in tasting the drink, I was very ill—indeed I am scarcely well yet; and, to tell truth, I was afraid of Luke Hatton, as I am sure he would make away with me, without a moment's hesitation, if he fancied I had discovered his secret. Oh, I hope he will not come back and find me here."
"Who can have prompted him to the deed?" muttered Lady Lake. "But why ask, since I know my enemies, and therefore know his employers! Not a moment must be lost, Sarah. Let Sir Thomas Lake be summoned to me immediately. If he be at Theobalds, at Greenwich, or Windsor, let messengers be sent after him, praying him to use all possible dispatch in coming to me. I cannot yet decide what I will do, but it shall be something terrible. Oh, that I could once more confront the guilty pair! And I will do it—I will do it! Revenge will give me strength."
"I cannot undertake to bring the Countess hither, my lady," said Sarah. "But I may now venture to inform you that I am charged with a message from my dear lady to her cruel husband, with which I am persuaded he will comply, and come to her."
"Lure him hither, and speedily, by any means you can, Sarah," rejoined Lady Lake. "Before you go, help to raise me from my couch, and place me in that chair. It is well," she cried, as her wishes were complied with. "I do not feel so feeble as I expected. I was sure revenge would give me strength. Now give me my black velvet robe, and my coif. Even in this extremity I would only appear as beseems me. And hark ye, Sarah, open that drawer, and take out the weapon you will find within it. Do as I bid you quickly, wench. I may need it."
"Here it is, my lady," replied Sarah, taking out a dagger, and giving it to Lady Lake, who immediately concealed it in the folds of her robe.
"Now go," pursued the lady; "I am fully prepared. Let not a moment be lost in what you have to do. Do not give any alarm. But bid two of the trustiest of the household hold themselves in readiness without, and if I strike upon the bell to rush in upon the instant. Or if Luke Hatton should come forth, let him be detained. You understand?"
"Perfectly, my lady," replied Sarah, "and I make no doubt they will obey. I am sure it has only been Luke Hatton who, by his false representations, has kept them away, and I will remove the impression he has produced."
"Do not explain more than is needful at present," said Lady Lake. "We know not precisely how this plot may have been laid, and must take its authors by surprise. You were once more intimate than I liked with that Spanish knave, Diego. Breathe not a word to him, or all will be repeated to his master."
"Rest assured I will be careful, my lady. I have seen nothing whatever of Diego of late, and care not if I never behold him again. But what is to happen to my dear lady?"
"Leave her to me," replied Lady Lake. "I hope yet to be able to save her. Ha! here comes the villain. Away with you, Sarah, and see that my orders are obeyed."
The handmaiden did not require the command to be repeated, but hastily quitted the room, casting a terrified look at the apothecary, who entered it at the same moment.
Luke Hatton appeared greatly surprised on finding Lady Lake risen from her couch, and could not help exclaiming, as he quickly advanced towards her—"You up, my lady! This is very imprudent, and may defeat my plans."
"No doubt you think so," rejoined Lady Lake; "but knowing you would oppose my inclination, I got Sarah to lift me from the couch, and tire me during your absence. Have you prepared the mixture?"
"I have, my lady," he replied, producing a small phial.
"Give it me," she cried, taking it from him.
After examining the pale yellow fluid it contained for a moment, she took out the glass stopper, and, smelling at it, perceived it to be a very subtle and volatile spirit.
"Is this poison?" she demanded, fixing her eyes keenly upon Luke Hatton.
"On the contrary, my lady," he replied, without expressing any astonishment at the question, "it would be an antidote to almost any poison. It is the rarest cordial that can be prepared, and the secret of its composition is only known to myself. When I said your ladyship would incur great risk in taking it, I meant that the reaction from so powerful a stimulant would be highly dangerous. But you declared you did not heed the consequences."
"Nor do I," she rejoined. "Yet I would see it tasted."
"Your mind shall be made easy on that score in a moment, my lady," said Luke Hatton.
And taking a small wine-glass that stood by, he rinsed it with water and carefully wiped it; after which he poured a few drops of the liquid into it and swallowed them.
During this proceeding Lady Lake's gaze never quitted him for a second. Apparently satisfied with the test, she bade him return the phial to her.
"You had better let me pour it out for you, my lady," he replied, cleansing the glass as before. "The quantity must be exactly observed. Twenty drops, and no more."
"My hand is as steady as your own, and I can count the drops as accurately," she rejoined, taking the phial from him. "Twenty, you say?"
"Twenty, my lady," rejoined Hatton, evidently displeased; "but perhaps you had better confine yourself to fifteen, or even ten. 'T will be safer."
"You think the larger dose might give me too much strength—ha! What say you to fifty, or a hundred?"
"It must not be, my lady—it must not be. You will destroy yourself. It is my duty to prevent you. I must insist upon your giving me back the phial, unless you will consent to obey my orders."
"But I tell you, man, I will have a hundred drops of the cordial," she cried pertinaciously.
"And I say you shall not, my lady," he rejoined, unable in his anger to maintain the semblance of respect he had hitherto preserved, and endeavouring to obtain forcible possession of the phial.
But she was too quick for him. And as he stretched out his hand for the purpose, the dagger gleamed before his eyes.
"Back, miscreant!" she cried; "your over-eagerness has betrayed you. I now fully believe what I have hitherto doubted, that this is a counter-poison, and that I may safely use it. It is time to unmask you, and to let you know that your villanies are discovered. I am aware of the malignant practices you have resorted to, and that my daughter and myself would have been destroyed by your poisonous preparations. But I now feel some security in the antidote I have obtained; and if I do perish I have the satisfaction of knowing that I shall not die unavenged, but that certain punishment awaits you and your employers."
On this she poured out half the contents of the phial into the glass, saying as she drank it, "I reserve the other half for Lady Roos."
Luke Hatton, who appeared thunder-stricken, made no further effort to prevent her, but turned to fly. Lady Lake, however, upon whom the restorative effect of the cordial was almost magical, ordered him to stay, telling him if he went forth he would be arrested, on hearing which he sullenly obeyed her.
"You have not deceived me as to the efficacy of the potion," said the lady; "it has given me new life, and with returning vigour I can view all things as I viewed them heretofore. Now mark what I have to say, villain. You have placed me and my daughter in fearful jeopardy; but it is in your power to make reparation for the injury; and as I hold you to be a mere instrument in the matter, I am willing to spare the life you have forfeited, on condition of your making a full confession in writing of your attempt, to be 'used by me against your employers. Are you willing to do this, or shall I strike upon the bell, and have you bound hand and foot, and conveyed to the Gatehouse?"
"I will write that I was employed by the Countess of Exeter to poison you and my Lady Roos," replied Luke Hatton, stubbornly; "but I will do nothing more."
"That will suffice," replied Lady Lake, after a moment's reflection.
"And when I have done it, I shall be free to go?" he asked.
"You shall be free to go," she replied.
There were writing materials on an adjoining table, and, without another word, Luke Hatton sat down, and with great expedition drew up a statement which he signed, and handed to Lady Lake; asking if that was what she required?
A smile lighted up her ghastly features as she perused it.
"It will do," she said. "And now answer me one question, and you are free. Will this cordial have the same effect on my daughter as on me?"
"Precisely the same. It will cure her. But you must proceed more cautiously. Were she to take the quantity you have taken, it would kill her. Am I now at liberty to depart?"
"You are," replied Lady Lake.
So saying, she struck the bell, and immediately afterwards the door was opened; not, however, by the attendants, but by Sir Thomas Lake.
As the Secretary of State perceived that the apothecary avoided him, and would have passed forth quickly, he sternly and authoritatively commanded him to stay, exclaiming, "You stir not hence, till you have accounted to me for my daughter, who, I understand, is dying from your pernicious treatment. What ho, there! Keep strict watch without; and suffer not this man to pass forth!"
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «The Star-Chamber: An Historical Romance, Volume 2», автора William Ainsworth. Данная книга относится к жанрам: «Историческая фантастика», «Исторические приключения».. Книга «The Star-Chamber: An Historical Romance, Volume 2» была издана в 2018 году. Приятного чтения!