The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Mary J. Windle/Alice Heath's Interview with Cromwell
At a late hour of the night, two persons were winding their way to the palace of Whitehall. One was an individual of the male sex, in whom might have been seen, even through the gloom, a polished and dignified bearing, which, together with his dress—though of the Puritanic order—declared him a gentleman of more than ordinary rank. His companion was a delicate woman, evidently like himself of the most genteel class, but attired in the simplest and plainest walking costume of the times. She leaned on his arm with much appearance of womanly trust, although there was an air of self-confidence in her step, suggesting the idea of one capable of acting alone on occasion of emergency, and a striking yet perfectly feminine dignity presiding over her whole aspect.
“I have counselled your visiting him at this late hour,” said the gentleman, “because, as the only hope lies in striking terror into his conscience, the purpose may be best answered in the solitude and silence of a season like this. Conscience is a coward in the daylight, but darkness and night generally give her courage to assert her power.”
“True, William,” replied Alice Heath (for she it was, and her companion, as the reader is aware by this time, was her husband), “true—but alas! I fear for the success of my visit; the individual of whom we are speaking deceives himself no less than others, and therefore to him she is a coward at all times. Hast thou not read what my poor dead grandfather’s old acquaintance has written about a man’s ‘making such a sinner of his conscience as to believe his own lies?’”
“I have not forgotten the passage, my Alice, and, ever correct in your judgment, you have penetrated rightly into the singular character we are alluding to. I wot it were hard for himself to say how far he has been actuated by pure, and how far by ambitious motives, in the hand he has had in the sentence of the king. Nevertheless, you would believe his conscience to be not altogether dead, had you seen him tremble and grow pale yesterday in the Court, during the reading of the warrant (which, by the way, he had worded and written with his own hands), when Charles Stuart raised his eyes and looked upon him as if to imply that he knew him for the instigator, and no unselfish one, either, of his doom. The emotion he then testified, it was, which led me to hope he may yet be operated upon to prevent the fatal judgment from taking effect. It is true, Charles is a traitor, and I cannot regret that, in being arraigned and tried, an example has been made of him. But having from the first anticipated this result, except for your father, Alice, I would have had no part in the matter, being entirely opposed to the shedding of his blood. All ends which his death can accomplish have already been answered; and I devoutly pray that the effort your gentle heart is now about to make for the saving of his life, may be blessed in procuring that merciful result.”
At this moment they paused before the magnificent structure, known as the Palace of Whitehall, and applied for admission. Vacated some time since by the king, it was now occupied by his rival in power, the aspiring Cromwell; and although the hour was so late, the vast pile was still illuminated. Having gained speedy access to the main building, the visitors were admitted by a servant in the gorgeous livery of the fallen monarch. Heath requested to be shown to an ante-room, while Alice solicited to be conducted without previous announcement to the presence of his master. After a moment’s hesitation on the part of the servant, which, however, was quickly overcome by her persuasive manner, he conducted her through various spacious halls, and up numerous flights of stairs, till, pausing suddenly before the door of a chamber, he knocked gently. As they waited for an answer, the accents of prayer were distinctly audible. They were desired to enter; the servant threw open the door, simply announcing a lady. Alice entered, and found herself alone with Cromwell.
The apartment was an ante-room attached to the spacious bed chamber formerly belonging to the king. It was luxuriously furnished with all the appliances of ease and elegance suitable to a royal withdrawing room. Tables and chairs of rose-wood, richly inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, were arranged in order around the room; magnificent vases of porcelain decorated the mantel-piece; statues from the chisel of Michael Angelo stood in the niches; and pictures in gorgeous frames hung upon the walls.
There, near a table, on which burned a single-shaded lamp, standing upright, in the attitude of prayer, from which he had just been interrupted, stood the occupant. For an instant, as she lingered near the door, and looked upon his figure, which bore so strongly the impress of power, and felt that on his word hung the fate of him for whom she had come to plead, she already feared for the success of her mission, and would fain almost have retracted her visit. But remembering the accents of prayer she had heard while waiting without, she considered that her purposed appeal was to the conscience of one whom she had just surprised, as it were, in the presence of his Maker, and took courage to advance.
“May I pray thee to approach and be seated, madam, and unfold the object of this visit?” said Cromwell, in a thick, rapid utterance, the result of his surprise, as he waved his visiter to a chair. “At that distance, and by this light, I can hardly distinguish the features of the lady who so inopportunely and unceremoniously honours me with her presence.”
Immediately advancing, she threw back her hood, and offering him her hand, said, “It is Alice Heath, the daughter of your friend, General Lisle.”
Cromwell’s rugged countenance expressed the utmost surprise, as he awkwardly strove to assume a courtesy foreign to his manner, and exchange his first ungracious greeting for something of a more cordial welcome.
With exceeding tact, Alice hastened to relieve his embarrassment, by falling back into the chair he had offered, and at once declaring the purpose of her visit.
“General Cromwell,” she began, in a voice sweetly distinct, “you stand high in the eyes of man, not only as a patriot, but a strict and conscientious servant of the Most High. As such, you have been the main instrument in procuring the doom now hanging in awful expectation over the head of him who once tenanted, in the same splendour that now surrounds yourself, the building in which I find you. Methinks his vacation of these princely premises, and your succession thereunto, renders you scarcely capable of being a disinterested advocate for his death—since, by it, you become successor to all the pomp and power formerly his. Have you asked yourself the question whether no motives of self-aggrandizement have tainted this deed of patriotism, or sullied this act of religion?”
“Your language is unwarrantable and unbecoming, madam,” said Cromwell, deadly pale and trembling violently; “it is written—”
“Excuse me,” said Alice, interrupting him; “you think it uncourteous and even impertinent that I should intrude upon you with a question such as I but now addressed to you. But, General Cromwell, a human life is at stake, and that the life of no ordinary being, but the descendant of a race of kings. Nay, hear me out, sir, I beg of you. Charles Stuart is about to die an awful and a violent death; your voice has condemned him—your voice can yet save him. If it be your country’s weal that you desire, that object has been already sufficiently answered by the example of his trial; or, if it is to further the cause of the Lord of Hosts that you place yourself at the head of Britain in his place, be assured that he who would assert his power by surrounding himself with a pomp like this, is no delegate of One who commissioned Moses to lead his people through the wilderness, a sharer in the common lot, and a houseless wanderer like themselves. Bethink you, therefore, what must be the doom of him, who—for the sake of ambition and pride—in order that he might for the brief space of his life enjoy luxury and power—under the borrowed name, too, of that God who views the act with horror and detestation—stains his hands with parricidal blood. Yes, General Cromwell, for thy own soul’s, if not for mercy’s sake, I entreat thee, in whom alone lies the power, to cause Charles Stuart’s sentence to be remitted.”
After a few moments’ hesitation, during which Alice looked in his face with the deepest anxiety, and awaited his answer, he said, “Go to, young woman, who presumest to interfere between a judge raised up for the redemption of England, and a traitor king, whom the Lord hath permitted to be condemned to the axe. As my soul liveth, and as He liveth, who will one day make me a ruler in Israel, thou hast more than the vanity of thy sex, in hoping by thy foolish speech to move me to lift up my hand against the decree of the Almighty. Truly—”
“Nay, General Cromwell,” said Alice, interrupting him, as soon as she perceived he was about to enter into one of his lengthy and pointless harangues, “nay, you evade the matter both with me and with the conscience whose workings I have for the last few moments beheld in the disorder of your frame. Have its pleadings—for to them I look and not to any eloquence of mine own—been of no avail? Will it please you to do aught for the king?”
“Young lady,” replied Cromwell, bursting into tears, which he was occasionally wont to do, “a man like me, who is called to perform great acts in Israel, had need to be immovable to feelings of human charities. Think you not it is painful to our mortal sympathies to be called upon to execute the righteous judgments of Heaven, while we are yet in the body! And think you when we must remove some prime tyrant that the instruments of his removal can at all times view their part in his punishment with unshaken nerves? Must they not even at times doubt the inspiration under which they have felt and acted? Must they not occasionally question the origin of that strong impulse which appears the inward answer to prayer for direction under heavenly difficulties, and, in their disturbed apprehensions, confuse even the responses of truth with the strong delusions of Satan? Would that the Lord would harden my heart even as he hardened that of—”
“Stop, sir,” said Alice, again interrupting him ere his softened mood should have passed away, “utter not such a sacrilegious wish. Why are the kindly sympathies which you describe implanted in your bosom, unless it be to prevent your ambition from stifling your humanity? The rather encourage them, and save Charles Stuart. Let your mind dwell upon the many traits of nobleness in his character which might be mentioned with enthusiasm, ay, and with sorrow, too, that they should be thus sacrificed.”
“The Most High, young woman, will have no fainters in spirit in his service—none who turn back from Mount Gilead for fear of the Amalekites. To be brief—it waxes late; to discuss this topic longer is but to distress us both. Charles Stuart must die—the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
As he spoke, he bowed with a determined but respectful reverence, and when he lifted up his head, the expression of his features told Alice that the doom of the king was irrevocably fixed.
“I see there is no hope,” said she, with a deep sigh, as Cromwell spoke these words in a tone of decision which left her no further encouragement, and with a brevity so unusual to him. Nor was his hint to close the interview lost upon her. “No hope!” she repeated, drawing back. “I leave you, then, inexorable man of iron, and may you not thus plead in vain for mercy at the bar of God!”
So saying, she turned and rejoined her husband, who remained in waiting for her: they returned together to Lisle’s house.