The Deserted Wife by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens

'Like ivy, woman's love will cling
Too often round a worthless thing.'

Immediately after the horrid murder of young Darnley, Mary of Scotland removed from the scene of his death to Sterling, ostensibly on a visit to her infant son. Thither she was followed by all the gay members of her court, among whom were the Earl of Bothwell and Balfour, the suspected murderers. A short time previous to this journey Mary had received a letter from one of her subjects in the north, strenuously recommending a young and interesting female to her protection, who, as the letter stated, had especial reasons for sojourning awhile in the neighborhood of the court. Mary with her usual benevolence kindly received the lovely stranger, and was so won by her grace and melancholy beauty, that with the thoughtlessness of her impulsive character, she installed her in the royal household and admitted her to the closest intimacy of mistress and servant. Her affections daily increased for one of whom she knew nothing, except that she was reported to have sprung from a noble but impoverished family, and had been drawn to court by her interest in a dear relation, or perhaps lover. The queen did not trouble herself to inquire into particulars, at a time when her own affairs not only engrossed her thoughts, but the attention of all Europe. Certain it was, that whatever had drawn Ellen Craigh to the Scottish court, it was no desire to partake of its pleasures. Though she occasionally mingled with the ladies of Mary's household, and even listened with silent interest to the scandal which recent events had given rise to, she sedulously secluded herself from the gallants of the court, and on no occasion had been known to leave the immediate apartment of the queen, except for a short space each day, when the relative who had drawn her from home might be supposed to occupy her attention.

On the day our story commences, Throgmorton, the English ambassador, had arrived at Sterling with despatches, which had been forwarded from London after the first news of young Darnley's death reached the court of St. James. Mary, eager to conciliate the imperious Elizabeth, had ordered an entertainment to be made in honor of her ambassador, and yielding to his first request, or rather demand for an audience, had been more than an hour closetted with him, in the little oratory which communicated alike with her audience-room and sleeping chamber.

The hour for robing had long passed, and Ellen Craigh was alone in the royal bed-chamber, waiting the appearance of her mistress. She might have been taken for a sorrowing angel, as she sat in the embrasure of a window, with the mellow-tinted light streaming through the stained glass over her tresses of waving gold, and flooding her small and exquisite figure with a brilliancy almost too gorgeous to harmonize with the delicate cheek and sorrowful blue eyes, which, at the moment, wore an expression of suffering which nothing on earth can represent, so patient and holy was it. She continued in one position, listlessly swaying the cord of twisted gold, which looped back the curtain falling in magnificent volumes over the upper part of the window, or pulling the threads from a massive tassel and scattering them one by one at her feet, till the carpet around looked as if embroidered over and over with the glittering fragments. The indistinct voices which came from the oratory, where the queen and the ambassador were seated, fell unheeded upon her senses, till a tone was mingled with theirs which started her to sudden life. She leaped up with an energy that sent the mutilated tassel with a crash against the window, and flinging back the tapestry which concealed the door of the oratory, bent her eye to a crevice in the ill-fitted pannel. The beating of her heart was almost audible, and the thin slender hand which held back the tapestry quivered like a newly prisoned bird, as she gazed with intense eagerness into the apartment. The queen sat directly opposite the door. At her right hand was placed a dark handsome man, of about thirty, with a haughty and almost fierce array of countenance, dressed in a style of careless magnificence, which bespoke a love of display rather than true elegance in his choice of attire. A subdued smile lurked about his lips, and he seemed intently occupied in counting the links of a massive gold chain, which fell over his doublet of three-piled velvet, studded and gorgeously wrought with jewels and embroidery. Now and then he would drop his hand carelessly over the queen's chair-arm, and fix his black eyes with a bold and admiring gaze on her features, with a freedom which bespoke more of audacious love, than of respect for the royal beauty. She not only submitted to his free glance, but more than once returned it with one of those looks which had scattered sorrow through many a Scottish bosom.

Throgmorton sat little apart. He had been speaking in a strain of calm expostulation; but marking the interchange of glances between the queen and her haughty favorite, he became indignant, and addressed Bothwell with a degree of cutting contempt, which turned the lurking smile on the nobleman's lip to a curl of bitter defiance. Heedless of the royal presence, he stood up, and rudely pushing the council-table from before him, half drew his sword, as if to punish the offender upon the spot. Throgmorton endured the blaze of his large fierce eyes with calm composure, and deliberately measuring his person from head to foot with a contemptuous glance, was about to resume his discourse; but the queen rose from her seat, and placing her white and jewelled hand persuasively on Bothwell's arm, she fixed her beautiful eyes full on his, and uttered a few low words of entreaty; then turning to the envoy, her exquisite face flushed with anger and her eyes flashing like diamonds, she exclaimed,

"Leave our presence, sir ambassador, and thank our moderation that thou art permitted to depart in safety, after this insult to our most trusty and faithful follower! Nay, my lord of Bothwell, put thy hand from that sword-hilt—this matter rests with us—doubt not, thy honor as well as that of thy mistress shall be duly righted."

The frowning nobleman pushed back his blade with a clang, and turned moodily away.

The queen looked on him gravely for a moment, and then turning to the Englishman proceeded with less of vehemence than had accompanied her last command.

"The message of our loving cousin has given us a surfeit of advice. To-morrow we will resume the subject," she said, forcing one of the resistless smiles, which she could call up at will, to brighten her lips; and with a graceful wave of the hand, she motioned him to withdraw.

The envoy bowed low and left the room without further speech. But the door was scarcely closed, when, with sudden self-abandonment, the queen threw herself into her chair, and burst into a passion of tears. Bothwell, who was angrily pacing the room, approached, and sinking to one knee took her hand tenderly in his. She looked at him a moment through her tears, murmured a few broken words, and dropping her face to his shoulder, wept bitterly.

Poor Ellen Craigh witnessed the whole scene. She heard Bothwell's expressions of soothing endearment, and saw the beautiful head, with its garniture of brown tresses, fall with such helpless dependence on his shoulder. A moment, and the queen drew the snowy hand, sparkling with tears and jewels, from her eyes, and sat upright. With a choking sensation the poor girl gazed on that face, in its transcendent loveliness, till a mist gathered before her eyes, and the words of Bothwell came broken and confusedly to her ear. When they left the oratory a few moments after, her hand fell nerveless to her side, the tapestry swept over the door with a rustling sound, and staggering a few paces into the chamber, she fell her whole length upon the carpet, her golden hair sweeping back from her bloodless forehead, her pale lips trembling and her slight limbs as strengthless as an infant's. Thus she lay for a time, and then tears gushed profusely from her shut eyes. After which she arose to a sitting posture, with her feeble hands twisted the scattered ringlets round her head, and arose; but so pale, so wo-begone, her very heart seemed crushed forever. Dragging herself to her favorite seat in the embrasure of a window, she leaned her temple against the stained glass, and murmured—

"Enough!—oh, enough!—I must go home now." But while the words of misery trembled on her lips, the door was flung open, and Mary Stewart entered the apartment. The room was misty with the purple glow of sunset, and the queen passed her shrinking attendant without observing her. Hastily advancing to a table, she took up a golden bird-call, and blew a peremptory summons; then throwing herself into a chair which stood opposite a small table, on which glittered the splendid paraphernalia of a French toilette, she waited the appearance of her attendants. Ellen Craigh made a strong effort and arose.

"Ha, art thou there, my mountain-daisy?" said the queen, looking kindly upon her,—"order lights, and send back the flock of tire-women my silly whistle has brought trooping hitherward—no hands but thine shall robe me to night."

Ellen obeyed, and after a few moments the light from two large candles of perfumed wax broke over the little mirror, with its framework of filigree silver, and flashed upon the golden essence-bottles and scattered jewels which covered the dressing-table. The poor waiting-maid drew back from the brilliant glare with the shudder of a sick heart. The queen looked on her earnestly for a moment, and then putting the golden locks back from her temple, as she would have caressed a child, she said—

"What!—cheeks like new-fallen snow!—lips trembling like the aspen!—and eye-lashes heavy with tears!—how is this, child?—but we bethink us;—was it not some untoward affair of the heart which brought thee to our court? We have been too negligent;—tell us thy grief, and on the honor of a queen, if there be wrong we will have thee bravely righted—so speak freely."

"Oh, no, no!—not here!—never to you."

Here poor Ellen broke off and stood before the queen, her hands clasped, her lips trembling and her large supplicating eyes fixed imploringly on her face.

"Well, well," said the queen soothingly, "at some other time be it—but remember that in Mary Stewart her attendant may find a safe friend as well as an indulgent mistress," and shaking her magnificent tresses over her shoulders, the royal beauty composed herself for the operations of the toilette.

Ellen gathered up the glossy volumes of hair and commenced her task. Her limbs shook, a cold moisture crept over her forehead, and her quivering hands wandered with melancholy listlessness, through the mass of shining ringlets it was her duty to arrange. As she stooped forward in her task, one of her own fair curls fell down and mingled, like a flash of spun gold, with those of her mistress. As if there had been contagion in the touch, she flung it back with a smile of strange, cold bitterness, the first and last that ever wreathed her pure lips; for hers was a heart to suffer and endure, but never to hate; it might break, but no wrong could harden it.

While her toilette was in progress, Mary became nervous and restless, now pushing the velvet cushions from her feet, and then moving the lights about the dressing-table, as if dissatisfied with the arrangement of every thing about her. At length she fell back in her chair, buried her face in her hands, and fairly burst into tears. Ellen grasped the back of her chair, and bending her pale face to the queen's ear, murmured—

"Tears are for the deserted—why does the queen weep?"

Mary was too deeply engrossed with her own feelings to mark the exact words, or the tremulous voice of her attendant. She threw the damp hair back from her face, and dashing the tears from her eyes exclaimed—

"No, no! it is nothing—proceed—there! let that ringlet fall thus upon the neck—now our robe, quickly—we shall be waited for at the banquet."

Ellen brought forth the usual mourning robe of black velvet, laden with bugles; but a flush of anger, or perhaps of shame, overspread the queen's face, and with an impatient gesture she exclaimed—

"Not that, girl—not that—I will mock my heart no longer!—away with it, and bring a more seemly garment!—the proud Englishman shall not scoff at our widow's weeds again."

Ellen obeyed, and the queen was soon robed as she had desired. Few objects could have been more beautiful than this dangerous woman, when she arose from her toilette—the perfect, yet almost voluptuous proportion of her form betrayed by the snowy robe, her tapering arms banded with jewels, and her superb waist bound with a string of immense pearls, clasped in front by a single diamond, and terminating where the broidery of her robe commenced, in tassels of threaded pearls. A tiara of small Scottish thistles, crowded amethysts and rough emeralds, burned with a purple light among her curls, and the face beneath seemed scarcely human, so radiant was its expression, and so beautiful the perfect harmony of its features. Throwing a careless glance at the mirror—for Mary was too confident of her attraction to be fastidious—she took up her perfumed handkerchief and left the room.

Ellen Craigh gazed after her sovereign till the last graceful wave of her drapery disappeared; then drawing a deep breath, as if her heart had thrown off an oppression quite insupportable, she cast a glance almost of loathing around the sumptuous apartment, and entered the oratory. Dropping on her knees by the chair which Bothwell had occupied, she laid her cheek on the cushion and wept long and freely, as if the contact with something he had touched had a softening influence on her heart. As she arose, the gleam of a handkerchief lying on the floor attracted her attention. She snatched it up with a faint cry of joy, for on one corner she found embroidered an earl's coronet and the crest of Bothwell. Eagerly thrusting the prize into her bosom, she left the oratory and passed into the open street.

It was midnight when Mary Stewart returned to her chamber. The lights were burning dimly on the table, and an air of gloomy grandeur filled the apartment. The queen was evidently much distressed; a deep glow was burning on her cheek, and her usually smiling eyes were full of a strange excitement. She snatched up the little golden call as if to give a summons, and then flung it down again, exclaiming—

"No, no—I could not brook their searching eyes," and with a still more disturbed air she paced the chamber, now and then stopping to divest herself of the ornaments she had worn at the ambassador's festival.

Perhaps for the first time in her life the agitated woman unrobed herself, and flinging back the crimson drapery which fell in heavy masses from the large square bedstead, threw herself upon the gorgeous counterpane and buried herself in the folds, as if they could shut out the evil thoughts that burned in her heart; but it was in vain that she strove for rest—that she gathered the rich drapery over her head and pressed her burning cheek to the pillow; her thoughts were all alive and astray.

It was a mournful sight—that beautiful and brilliant woman yielding herself to the thraldom of a wicked man, and rushing heedlessly to that which was to throw a stain upon her memory, enduring as history itself. Sin is hideous in every form—but when it darkens the bright and beautiful of earth, like a cloud over the sun, we reproach it for its own blackness, and doubly for the brightness it conceals.

As the misguided woman lay, with a hand pressed over her eyes, and one arm, but half divested of its jewels, flung out with a kind of desperate carelessness upon the counterpane, the murmur of an infant voice reached her from a neighboring apartment. She started up and tears gathered in her eyes.

"Woe is me!" she exclaimed, "this mad passion makes me forgetful alike of prayer and child."

Folding a dressing-gown about her, she entered the room whence the sound had come, and reappeared with an infant boy pressed to her bosom. After kissing him again and again with a sort of despairing fondness, she bore him to a recess where a small lamp of chased silver burned before a crucifix of the same metal, and an embroidered hassock was placed as if for devotion. Had she been left alone in the holy stillness of the night, with her lovely babe upon her bosom, and the touching symbol of our Saviour's death before her, the evil influence which was hurrying her on to ruin might have been counterbalanced; but as she knelt with the smiling babe lying on the hassock, her eyes fixed on the crucifix, and the guilty glow ebbing from her cheeks, the door softly opened, and the Earl of Bothwell stole into the chamber. Mary sprang to her feet as if to reprove the insolent intruder, but a sense of modesty, which in all her follies seemed never to have left her, succeeded to her indignation, if indeed she felt any. She glanced at her dishabille with a painful flush, and hastily seating herself, drew her uncovered feet, which had been hastily thrust into a pair of furred slippers, under the folds of her dressing gown, and then requested him to withdraw, in a voice which betrayed as much of encouragement as of reproof.

Without even noticing her request, Bothwell lifted the boy from the hassock, and seating himself, addressed her in a low and gentle tone, which he knew well how to assume. The erring woman listened to the witchery of his voice, till the unnatural glow again died from her cheek, and she sat with her eyes fixed on his, as a beautiful bird yielding to the fascination of a serpent.

"But thy wife," she said in a low irresolute tone, when Bothwell pressed for a reply to what he had been urging, "much as Mary may love—much as she may sacrifice, she cannot thrust a young and loving woman from a heart she loves and puts her faith in."

"Young and loving!" repeated Bothwell, with a sneer curling his haughty lip, "young and loving!—truly your grace must have been strangely misinformed;—she who styles herself Countess of Bothwell nearly doubles the age of her unfortunate husband; and as for love, if she knows any, it is for the broad acres which own him as their master."

A scarcely perceptible smile dimpled the queen's mouth, as she heard this account of her rival, but she made no reply, and Bothwell resumed his tone of earnest entreaty. As he proceeded, his voice and manner became more energetic.

"Say that you consent," he said, "say but a word, and the breath of evil shall never reach you;—say but your hand is mine as a token of assent, and Bothwell will worship you like a very slave."

The queen raised her hand, and though it trembled like an aspen, she placed it in his.

"It is thy queen who is the slave," she murmured in a broken voice, as Bothwell raised the beautiful hand to his lips, and covered it with rapturous kisses.

As he relinquished her hand, it came in contact with that of the child. As if an adder had stung her, she drew it back, and then with a sudden gush of feeling snatched the boy to her bosom and covered it with tears and kisses. Bothwell dreaded the influence of the pure maternal feeling thus expressed. Gently forcing the young prince from her embrace, he whispered—

"Trust him to me, dearest—trust him to one who would spill his heart's blood, rather than give pain to mother or child," and pressing her hand again to his lips, the arch-hypocrite left the room with the same cautious tread he had entered it with.

In a few moments after, he placed the young prince in charge with a creature in his confidence, saying—

"See to it, that none of the Darnley faction get possession of the brat,—keep him safe, or strangle him at once."

On the next day the Earl of Bothwell left Sterling, and it was whispered that he had been banished from court through the influence of the English ambassador; but conjecture was lost in astonishment, and when, two days after, the court at Sterling was broken up, and the queen, while on her way to Edinburgh, was met by Bothwell, with a force of eight hundred men, and conveyed to Dunbar by seeming violence, men stood aghast at the news; but those who had marked their queen closely during the few preceding days, concurred in the belief that she privately sanctioned the disgraceful outrage.

It was a gloomy and ancient pile—that in which Bothwell had left his deserted wife. In one of its apartments, beside a huge fire-place, in which a few embers smouldered in a sea of ashes, sat an old and wrinkled woman, spreading her withered palms for warmth, and occasionally turning a wistful look to the narrow windows, against which the rain and sleet were beating with real violence. As she listened, the tramp of approaching horses was heard in the court below, and before she had time to reach the door, it was flung open, and the Countess of Bothwell, dripping with wet and tottering with fatigue, flung herself into the arms of her old nurse.

"Sorrow on me," exclaimed the good woman, striving to speak cheerful, "how the child clings to my neck!—look up, lady-bird, and do not sob so—I know but too well how thy journey has speeded—may the curses of an old woman rest——"

"Oh, Mabel, Mabel, do not curse him—do not—we cannot love as we will," exclaimed the poor countess, clinging to the bosom of the old woman, as if to bribe her from finishing the anathema.

"Hush, darling, hush," replied old Mabel, pressing her withered lips fondly to the pure forehead of her foster-child—"he who could help loving thee——but hist, what is all this tramping in the court?—sit down, and I will soon learn."

The old woman divested the trembling young creature of her wet cloak and proceeded to the hall. After a few minutes absence she returned dreadfully agitated; her sunken eyes glowed like live coals, and her bony fingers were clenched together as a bird clutches her prey.

"My own darling," she said in a voice which she vainly strove to render steady, "I had thought not to have given his cruel message, but——"

"Speak on," said the poor young creature, raising her large eyes with the expression of a scared antelope, "I can bear any thing now."

But she broke off with a sudden and joyful cry, for the door had been cautiously opened, and her long absent husband stood before her. Forgetful of his estrangement—of his unkindness—of every thing but his early love—she sprang eagerly to his bosom and kissed him again and again, with the abandonment of a joyful child. It must have been a heart of stone which could have resisted such unbounded tenderness. For one moment, and but for one, she was pressed to her husband's heart, and then he put her coldly away.

"How is it that I find your lady here, after my express command to the contrary?" he said, sternly addressing the old nurse, while he forced the clinging arms of the countess from his neck.

The poor young creature shrunk from his look, like a flower touched by a sudden frost. Mabel threw her arm around her, and forced her to confront her angry husband.

"Why is she here!" shouted the old woman fiercely, "why is she here, in her own home!—because I could not, would not kill her with her base lord's message!—What! break her heart, and then thrust her forth to die?—Villain!—double-dyed and cowardly villain!—may the curses of a——"

Before the old woman could finish her anathema, the enraged Earl had stricken her grey head to the floor. The frightened countess fell on her knees beside her; but, with a terrible imprecation, Bothwell commanded his attendants to bear his victim from the room, and sternly ordered his trembling wife to remain.

"As you are here," he said, "it is not essential that we meet again; your signature is necessary to this paper; please to affix it without useless delay."

The countess took the paper, which was a petition to the Commissariot-Court for a divorce from her husband. Before she had read the first line, every drop of blood ebbed from her face. She did not faint, but with a degree of energy foreign to her character, she grasped the paper in her hands, as if about to tear it. The Earl seized her wrist, and fiercely demanded her signature.

"Never—never!" exclaimed the poor wife, struggling in his grasp—"Oh, Bothwell, you cannot wish it—you that so loved me—you that promised to love me forever and ever—no, no! you do not mean it—you cannot put your poor wife away thus!—I know that the little beauty you once prized is gone, but tears and sorrow have dimmed it;—bear with me but a little longer—say that you love me yet, and my bloom will come again;—look at me, Bothwell, husband, dear husband! and say that you did not mean it—that you gave me that horrid paper to frighten me—say but that, and your poor Ellen will worship you forever!"

This energetic appeal had its effect, even in the hard hearted Earl. He endured, and even partially returned the passionate caress with which she had accompanied her words; and when she fell back exhausted in his arms, he bore her to a seat and placed himself beside her.

"Ellen," he said, "I will deal candidly with you—I do love you, and have, even while in pursuit of another; but you have yet to learn that there is a stronger passion than love—ambition!"

"You do love me—bless you, bless you! Bothwell, for saying so much," she eagerly exclaimed, the affectionate young creature snatching his hand between both hers, and covering it with joyful kisses.

But her joy was of short duration. As the serpent uncoils its glittering folds, so did Bothwell lay bare the depravity and ambition of his heart. Artifice, persuasion and threats were used, and at length he prevailed. The petition for a divorce was signed; but the heart of the poor countess was broken by the effort.

It is almost useless to tell the reader, that the queen of Scots had consented to accompany Bothwell to his castle, but with the appearance of compulsion, on the night of his intrusion into her chamber. It was to prepare for the disgraceful visit, that he had sent orders for the expulsion of his unfortunate wife—orders which old Mabel had never delivered; and now that he had gained his object, in obtaining her signature to the petition, he proceeded to give directions for the castle to be put in order, for the reception of the royal guest. These arrangements occupied him during most of the night. At length, weary with exertion, he fell asleep in his chair. It was morning when he awoke. The light came softly through a neighboring window, and there, at his feet, with her head resting on his knees, and her thin, pale face turned toward him, lay his wife, asleep. Rest had quieted his ambitious thoughts. He was alone, in the stillness of a new day, with the gentle victim of his aspiring passions lying at his feet, grieved and heart-broken, her eyelids heavy with weeping, and every limb betraying the sorrow which preyed upon her. For a moment his heart relented, and a hot tear fell among her golden curls. Gently, as a mother would remove a sleeping infant, he raised her head, laid it on the cushion of his chair, and left her to her loneliness.

On the next day the Countess of Bothwell left the castle with her nurse, and not three hours after, Mary Stewart entered it in company with its wicked lord.

On the fourth day of Mary's sojourn at Dunbar, she, with the ladies of her train, joined in a stag hunt, which the Earl had ordered for their entertainment. The excitement of the chase had drawn Bothwell, for a moment, from her bridal rein, when an old woman came from a neighboring hut, and in a few ungracious words, invited the queen to rest a while. Mary gracefully accepted the offered courtesy, and some of her attendants would have followed her to the hut; but the old woman motioned them back with a haughty wave of her hand, and conducted the queen alone. There was no vestige of furniture in the room, except two small stools and a narrow bed, on which the outlines of a human form were visible. Grasping the queen's hand firmly in her own, the old woman drew her to the bed, and throwing back a sheet, pointed with her long fleshless finger to the form of a shrouded female.

"Look!" she sternly exclaimed, fixing her keen eyes on the face of the queen.

Mary looked with painful interest on the thin face, as white and cold as alabaster, with the golden hair parted from the pure forehead, and a holy quiet settled on every beautiful feature. White roses were scattered over the pillow, and the repose of the dead was heavenly. Mary bent over the corpse, and her tears fell fast and thick among the fresh flowers.

"Alas, my poor Ellen!" she said, turning to the woman, who stood like a statue pointing sternly to the body, "of what did she die?"

"Of a broken heart!" replied the nurse coldly, and with the same icy composure which had marked her conduct, she led her royal visitor to the door, without speaking another word.

Had she explained that Ellen Craigh and the Countess of Bothwell were the same person, regret for the evil she had wrought might have checked Mary in her career of folly. But the death of the deserted wife was kept a secret among the few faithful followers who had accompanied her in her wild expedition to Mary's court, and the nurse, on whose bosom she had yielded up her life. While the courts of Scotland were agitated with the divorce of Bothwell, the haughty man little knew that his gentle wife had ceased to feel his cruelty.