Stories from Old English Poetry/Margaret, the Fair Maid of Fresingfield

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MARGARET, THE FAIR MAID OF FRESINGFIELD.

(FROM ROBERT GREENE.)

KING HENRY III. was holding court in London and treating with ambassadors from Spain for the marriage of his son and heir with the Castilian Princess Elinor. In the mean time the Prince of Wales was playing truant in Suffolkshire, and with a troop of lords and courtiers, young and giddy as himself, all dressed in Lincoln green, was chasing the deer through the merry wood of Framlingham, and holding revels among the country rustics as if he had forgot that the blood of royalty ran in his veins.

In the little hamlet of Fresingfield stood the keeper’s cottage, just on the verge of the grand greenwood, where only the king and his followers held the right to hunt. Here dwelt the royal keeper of the game, with his only daughter Margaret, who far and wide was famed as the “fair daisy,” the “peerless pearl,” of Fresingfield.

One summer morn, not far from this same cottage, in a dewy lane, walled high with hedge of odorous hawthorn, two gallants reclined upon the grass while they held close converse. The one was Prince Edward, heir to the English crown; the other, his friend and: confidant, Edward Lacy, Earl of Lincoln.

“I tell thee, Ned,” said the prince, “she is the most peerless piece of loveliness that ever tangled my thoughts in the web of her golden hair.”

“Still harping on the rustic Margaret, my lord?” rejoined Lacy. “Do you forget your sire is even now looking out for the ship which bears from Spain the dark-eyed Elinor?”

“I care not for her, nor all Spain beside. My thoughts are set on Margaret only. If thou hadst seen her but even now, as I did, Ned, working among her cream-bowls, her white arms bared, plunging in among the yellow curds, her soft hair dropping over her rosy cheeks, the smile that parted her cherry lips,— I tell thee, Lacy, thou, like me, would be ready to hazard crown and head with it, to win this lovely maiden of Fresingfield.”

“Not I, my lord,” laughed Lacy. “No woman’s glance has ever wounded my heart. I’ faith, though, I am sorry for thee, and I such fear what the king would say to thy rustic ove.”

“Have I not said I care not for my father. It is the maid whose coyness baffles me. Hardly a word or look will she yield to my entreaties. But I have a plot, Lacy, if thou wilt but aid me in it.”

“As your father’s subject I ought not, but as your friend, I know not how to deny you,” answered Lacy.

“Do not forget, my good Ned, that one of these days I shall myself be king. Let me whisper this wise aphorism in thine ear: If thy hair is not beginning to turn gray, it is better to win the prince’s friendship than to sue for the king’s favor. Now let me unfold. I have told thee that the maiden herself will not regard me. In her coldness lies the secret of my slow suit. I will ride straight to Friar Bacon, who lives close by at Oxford. He is a necromancer of wondrous power. Him will I solicit to give me a love charm, or throw over Mistress Margaret a spell, which shall cause her to doat on me. Then farewell to court and courtly wedding, and here among the shades of Suffolk I will woo and wed an English bride, such as all Castile cannot match.”

“But what part have I in this, my lord?” asked Lacy.

“Ah, I forget not that. To-morrow they hold a fair here in Suffolk, which all the country attend. Thou must go hither, attired as a rich farmer’s son, and for my sake keep away all other suitors from sweet Margaret’s side, while you woo her in my behalf. Buy her rich fairings, give her the choicest gifts, and tell her that the gallant dressed in Lincoln-green, who in her milk-rooms helped her run her cheese, sends all these tokens, and his heart with them. How sayest thou to this, Lacy?”

“That if thou wilt promise to stand betwixt me and thy father’s wrath in this, I will woo the maid for you as if I were in love with her myself.”

“Thanks! thanks! sweet Ned. And now I will to horse and ride to Oxford. Adieu. Forget not your promise, and by Friar Bacon’s arts and your wooing, I shall yet have the fairest bride in all England.”

Fair little Margaret was not unconscious of the admiration written in all faces that looked on her; and when she had attired herself for the day’s pleasure at Suffolk fair, it was with no careless disregard of her prettiness. Among the booths and in the fields, her track was followed by a train of admirers; and even the keeper’s portly presence could not fright away the bolder swains, who pressed close enough to offer her their gifts and whisper their most delitate flatteries into her ear. But all compliments were coarse, and all gifts waxed poor, beside the speeches and the offerings of one gentleman who followed all day, like a shadow, the steps of the father and daughter. Once or twice, indeed, when the keeper was well-nigh lost in the huge pots of good ale in which he strove to quench the thirst and heat of the tiresome day, this bold gallant would walk aside with the maiden, plying an eager suit, at which she blushed, and to which she listened.

But alas, Margaret’s heart sank, her cheek flushed and paled, her little foot tapped impatiently the ground on which she stayed to listen to his words, when the suitor explained that not for himself was the suit he urged, nor the gifts he proffered, but that a lover richer than himself, sent her the love these tokens denoted.

Then she listened less willingly than at first, and when the gallant begged one brief meeting next day among the hedgerows of Fresingfield, out of safe hearing of her watchful sire, the maiden only half consented, and parted from him almost in doubt if she should keep her vague promise.

Still the days waxed and waned, and the prince lingered in Oxford. Day after day in the lanes and groves of Fresingfield, the maiden met the gallant Lacy, and listened while he urged his friend’s suit.

Such was the state of affairs with both, when one June morning Margaret walked forth alone on the skirts of the forest. As she moved slowly along to a tryst with Lacy, which was to be held under the shadow of an old oak spreading its branches across a grassy slope, she met one of the friars of the monastery, whose gray towers she could see in the distance rising out of the thick greenery which encircled it. Margaret knew the reverend father, and had often sought his advice and counsel in her girlish troubles. Now she saw his face clouded and stern, as he met her gaze.

“Benedicite, my daughter,” he said, stopping in her footsteps. “Yet before I give thee my benediction, let me see if thou wilt accept of counsel, or deservest my blessing. How hast thou been busy of late? I fear other places have seen more of thy presence than church or confessional.”

Margaret blushed, and as she began to answer, stopped, frightened at the friar’s stern glance.

“Do you know who is this gallant who has been so much with thee of late?” inquired the friar.

“Yes, father. He is a rich farmer’s son, from Beccles, who comes here with honorable suit from another wealthier farmer in his own town, But indeed, father, I care not for the suit he brings, and I have often told him so.”

“Silly child, are you so deceived? Know you not what all the town rings with? That the farmer’s son is no other than Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and that his friend, for whom he sues, is Edward, Prince of Wales, and heir of England?”

“By all a maiden’s faith, I did not know it,” cried Margaret in dismay. And sinking at the friar’s feet, she burst into such tears that even his cold heart was touched at her grief.

“Has he won you to love the prince?” he asked, bending to raise her from her knees, and seat her upon the knoll under the oak where Lacy was approaching to meet her.

“No, no,” said Margaret sadly, “not him,—not the friend of the false earl. It was Lacy— (if it be indeed Lacy, as thou sayest))—that I have suffered myself to look on with such thoughts as now I must not think again.”

“Hush thy sighs,” returned the friar, under his breath. “Even now the recreant earl comes hither. Dismiss him at once. His suit, whether for himself or his friend, can only bring dishonor to a simple maiden such as thee. Send him away, and forget that thou hast ever seen him;” and so saying, the priest hastily departed, leaving Lacy to draw near the maid.

“What ill news has found thee out, sweet girl?” asked Lacy anxiously, as he marked the traces of tears on her cheeks.

“No ill news, good sir,” she answered coldly. “Nor aught that will be news to your ears. I have just learned that the Earl of Lincoln was here in the forest, doing injustice to his high rank, by hiding it under a peasant’s garb.”

Lacy flushed, and stammered a reply.

“Do not deny yourself, my lord,” said Margaret. “I thought you were of my own rank, or I should never have changed so many words with you. And now farewell.”

“Stay, Margaret. Leave me not so suddenly. I confess I have hidden my rank from you. But my wooing was all in good earnest.”

“It was jest with you, my lord, but earnest with me. O! how these gentlemen who call themselves noble, will flatter and feign, to wrong a trusting woman’s heart!”

“On my life, on my knightly honor, Margaret, I mean no jest. I love you. At first, indeed, I laughed at the charms of woman’s face and voice. But since I saw you, everywhere, at the fair, in all our walks and meetings, I have loved you more and more. And if thou wilt, I will make thee the Lincoln Countess and my true and honorable wife.”

“Alas! Lord Lacy, I fear much that pride will never let thee stoop so low as from thee to me.”

“Margaret, I swear by the holy rood, I am in dear earnest. Here, at your feet, I take my oath. Will you be Lincoln’s Countess, and Edward Lacy’s wife?”

“It seemeth me, Lord Lacy, you are not the trustiest of wooers. Pray tell me, sir, do you speak for yourself, or woo you still for the courtier clad in green. I marvel much that he speaks not for himself.”[1]

“A truce to thy jesting, sweet one. The prince may henceforth do his own wooing. From this time Ned Lacy has flatteries but for one woman, and eyes but for his bride.”

Thus it turned out that while Prince Edward tarried in Oxford, Margaret was won by his untrusty friend. The prince’s delay was not wholly his own fault. When he reached the colleges, he found the court already there, and amid the royal party was “La Belle Elinor,” the Spanish princess, whom the king had chosen for his son’s bride.

Daily the prince had met the lovely Castilian, and it must be confessed her glances had somewhat troubled his thoughts. But he prided himself on his constancy, and resolved Lacy should have no cause to laugh at him. When at length the court left the college for the London palace, Edward sought to meet with Friar Bacon, before posting back to Fresingfield to see the fair maiden.

It was on the very morn in June that Lacy’s rank and love were revealed to Margaret that Edward gained admission to the abode of the learned friar. In his darkened room not a ray of sunlight made its way into the deep gloom. As the prince entered, he could hardly distinguish the stately figure of the monk as he rose and came forward to greet him.

“Welcome, my lord,” said the deep voice of Bacon, “what errand has your highness, that he thus honors my humble cell?”

“Know you my rank, good friar?” asked Edward, surprised at the salutation.

“Not only your rank, my prince, but also your errand. You are come to ask my aid in your suit with Margaret.”

“By heaven, this is magic indeed,” said Edward, aghast to have his thoughts thus read before he could tell them. “You speak the truth. And since you know so much, tell me now how I can win the lady?”

“You have dallied too long in Oxford, my lord,” answered Bacon, shaking his head with a grave smile. “I might have aided you at first, but now it is beyond my art. Already your friend has won her for himself.”

“What mean you?” cried Edward, turning pale with rage. “Not Lacy? I would have staked my life on his trustiness.”

“Even Lacy, my lord. The witch Beauty has charms more potent than men’s friendship can hold out against. Do you wish to be made sure of the truth of what I have said?”

“I do desire it with all my heart,” answered the prince.

No sooner had he spoken than the friar produced from a closet in his study an oval mirror of polished steel resting on a standard of carved wood. Putting the mirror on the table he placed before it a silver chafing dish, containing lighted coals. Upon these he threw a handful of gray powder. At once an aromatic smoke arose from the dish, and wreathed itself about the mirror.

“Now look, and see what you may see,” said Bacon, motioning the prince to stand before the mirror.

As Edward looked, he beheld the green forest of Framlingham appear in the polished surface. The scene grew more and more distinct, till at length he could see the spreading oak where Margaret and Lacy were wont to hold tryst; then the fair maiden, and finally Lacy himself, were clearly visible. With angry eyes he saw the lovers meet, and heard, as one hears in a dream, the words with which they plighted troth, and Lacy promised to make Margaret his wife Inflamed with rage, Edward was hardly restrained from thrusting his sword through the steel surface of the mirror, and as soon as he could leave the cell of Bacon, posted hastily back to Fresingfield.

It is needless to relate how the prince confronted the happy lovers, and how he raved, while Margaret wept and pleaded, and Lacy nobly defended himself from the charge of treachery. At last, touched by the maiden’s tears, and moved perhaps by the remembrance of the dark eyes of Elinor, which, in the brief space he had seen her, had turned on him more tender glances than he had ever been able to win from Margaret’s blue orbs, Edward forgave his friend and blessed the lovers in true princely style.

And now Margaret is the betrothed bride of Lincoln’s earl, and happier in such happiness than if Edward had made her queen. The two gentlemen agree to ride together to London, where Edward has resolved to signify to his father his readiness to marry the princess. Lacy will seek the king’s consent to his marriage with Margaret, which, in the king’s good humor at Edward’s nuptials, he doubts not will be given. As for loving Margaret, she stays in sunny Fresingfield, shaping rich stuffs into fair garments, and with apt fingers weaving dainty broideries in fine linen, all of which shall be fit wearing for the Countess of Lincoln.

Her hand was sought by many of her own rank, when Lacy’s absence left the field clear to suitors. Her father pressed a little some of these suits, fearing wisely that Lord Lacy’s fancy may be brief. But Margaret’s heart rested in perfect faith in her lover; and she has no ear for any other suit.

One day, walking near the wood, she beheld a page, wearing the green livery of Lincoln, posting hastily to her father’s cottage. Margaret hastened to meet him in the path, and craved to know what news he bore from Lacy.

“If you are the fair maid of Fresingfield,” answered the youth, “I have a letter for thee, and a purse beside.”

Margaret seized the letter, and breaking the seal, read these words which stained the fair paper:—

“Margaret, the blossoms of the almond tree grow in a night and vanish in a morn; the butterfly’s wings shine in the sun, and are broken in the first dew. So my love for thee would not outlive our parting. Know that I have chosen a Spanish lady for my wife, a waiting woman to Princess Elinor; a lady fair, and no less fair than thyself, rich and of noble blood. I leave thee to thy liking, and have sent thee this purse of gold to thy dowry. Farewell. Neither thine or his own, Edward Lacy.”

Cruel, cruel words for trusting Margaret to read from the letter whose seal was still warm with her kisses. Proudly she crushed the traitorous paper under her foot, and pushing back the purse of gold he proffered, she turned to the page.

“Take back the gold thou hast brought, good youth, and tell Lord Lacy that no one can rejoice more than I do that his wavering fancy is at rest, and that I wish him all happiness. For myself, I have done with false vows and falser lovers, and. to-morrow’s sun will see me safe in he walls of Framlingham Convent, where I will be sworn at once a holy nun.”

Margaret’s resolve once taken, neither the grief nor the entreaties of her father could move her from it. On such a summer’s day as the one when, under the greenwood shades, Lacy had confessed his rank and asked her to be his wife, she set out for the Nunnery of Framlingham. The mossy towers of the convent, rising through the trees, and the dewy shades of the forest, made a picture no less fair than before. But to Margaret’s eyes a shadow was over all the day, and there was no beauty for her even in the fairest things of earth. Henceforth her thoughts shall only be fixed on death and objects of solemn interest.

As she muses thus, slowly treading the little path where she had often strayed with her recreant lover, the tramp of horse’s feet broke on the wood’s stillness. Their clatter reached even her abstracted ears. Looking up with a start, she beheld standing in her path, with steed smoking with the haste with which they rode, Lord Lacy, and his friend Lord Ernsby, a blunt old soldier, whose face Margaret has once before seen.

In a trice Lacy leaps from his horse, and kneeling at her feet, he seizes the hand which she endeavors to withhold from his grasp.

“Am I too late, Margaret?” he cries. “I have ridden with all speed to stop thy purpose. The letter was but a jest to try thy constancy. No word of it was true. Speak to me, sweet one: thou wilt not be a nun?”

“My lord, I am even now on my way to Framlingham. There shall I shortly take the sacred vows. Your letter has killed my heart, It is forever dead to love. Let me go, my lord. Seek not to trouble my thoughts, which now are fixed on things above the earth.”

“Forgive me, Margaret, and take back your vows. You will not for a jest (I confess a crue jest) take your favor from me. You cannot, for a jest, give up my love and me. Even now the prince delays his nuptials with Elinor, that thou and I may grace them together.”

“Too late, Lord Lacy. Better heaven’s glories than earth’s fading joys. Leave me, I beseech you, and trouble my repose no more.”

Lacy, fearful of her long denial, turned an imploring look to Ernsby.

“Come, come,” said that bluff old soldier. “Think well of it, maiden. The time is but short, and we soldiers are not patient. You can not mean your words. Exchange the pleasures of the court for a grave nunnery? Choose now. Heaven or Lord Lacy, which contents you best? To be a nun, or be Lord Lacy’s wife?”

Margaret’s resolution wavered, and seeing her hesitation, Lacy again threw himself at her feet.

“You will forgive the cruel trial of your faith,” he pleaded.

“The heart is weak, my lord,” said Margaret, “and when you come with your beguiling voice, you know well I cannot say you nay.”

So ends our story amid the rapture of wedding bells, which chime all over London. Our last glimpse of our rustic daisy is in the splendor of the court, beside the lovely Princess Elinor, who thanks the Earl of Lincoln, that he has given her as chief attendant, his new-made Countess, the “fair star of Fresingfield.”

  1. These lines are almost verbatim, the words in Greene’s comedy, “Honorable History of Friar Bacon.” They will recall to modern readers the “Wooing of Miles Standish.”