John Heywood, who was a remarkably fine singer, seized the mandolin, which lay near him, and began to sing.
It was a song, possible only in those days, and at Henry’s voluptuous and at the same time canting court–a song full of the most wanton allusions, of the most cutting jests against both monks and women; a song which made Henry laugh, and the ladies blush; and in which John Heywood had poured forth in glowing dithyrambics all his secret indignation against Gardiner, the sneaking hypocrite of a priest, and against Lady Jane, the queen’s false and treacherous friend.
But the ladies laughed not. They darted flashing glances at John Heywood; and Lady Richmond earnestly and resolutely demanded the punishment of the perfidious wretch who dared to defame women. The king laughed still harder. The rage of the ladies was so exceedingly amusing.
“Sire,” said the beautiful Richmond, “he has insulted not us, but the whole sex; and in the name of our sex, I demand revenge for the affront.”
“Yes, revenge!” cried Lady Jane, hotly.
“Revenge!” repeated the rest of the ladies.
“See, now, what pious and gentle-hearted doves ye are!” cried John Heywood.
The king said, laughingly: “Well, now, you shall have your will–you shall chastise him.”
“Yes, yes, scourge me with rods, as they once scourged the Messiah, because He told the Pharisees the truth. See here! I am already putting on the crown of thorns.”
He took the king’s velvet cap with solemn air, and put it on.
“Yes, whip him, whip him!” cried the king, laughing, as he pointed to the gigantic vases of Chinese porcelain, containing enormous bunches of roses, on whose long stems arose a real forest of formidable-looking thorns.
“Pull the large bouquets to pieces; take the roses in your hand, and whip him with the stems!” said the king, and his eyes glistened with inhuman delight, for the scene promised to be quite interesting. The rose-stems were long and hard, and the thorns on them pointed and sharp as daggers. How nicely they would pierce the flesh, and how he would yell and screw his face, the good-natured fool!
“Yes, yes, let him take off his coat, and we will whip him!” cried the Duchess of Richmond; and the women, all joining in the cry, rushed like furies upon John Heywood, and forced him to lay aside his silk upper garment. Then they hurried to the vases, snatched out the bouquets, and with busy hands picked out the longest and stoutest stems. And loud were their exclamations of satisfaction, if the thorns were right and sharp, such as would penetrate the flesh of the offender right deeply. The king’s laughter and shouts of approval animated them more and more, and made them more excited and furious. Their cheeks glowed, their eyes glared; they resembled Bacchantes circling the god of riotous joviality with their shouts of “Evoe! evoe!”
“Not yet! do not strike yet!” cried the king. “You must first strengthen yourselves for the exertion, and fire your arms for a powerful blow!”
He took the large golden beaker which stood before him and, tasting it, presented it to Lady Jane.
“Drink, my lady, drink, that your arm may be strong!”
And they all drank, and with animated smiles pressed their lips on the spot which the king’s mouth had touched. And now their eyes had a brighter flame, and their cheeks a more fiery glow.
A strange and exciting sight it was, to see those beautiful women burning with malicious joy and thirst for vengeance, who for the moment had laid aside all their elegant attitudes, their lofty and haughty airs, to transform themselves into wanton Bacchantes, bent on chastising the offender, who had so often and so bitterly lashed them all with his tongue.
“Ah, I would a painter were here!” said the king. “He should paint us a picture of the chaste nymphs of Diana pursuing Actaeon. You are Actaeon, John!”
“But they are not the chaste nymphs, king; no, far from it,” cried Heywood; laughing, “and between these fair women and Diana I find no resemblance, but only a difference.”
“And in what consists the difference, John?”
“Herein, sire, that Diana carried her horn at her side; but these fair ladies make their husbands wear their horns on the forehead!”
A loud peal of laughter from the gentlemen, a yell of rage from the ladies, was the reply of this new epigram of John Heywood. They arranged themselves in two rows, and thus formed a lane through which John Heywood had to pass.
“Come, John Heywood, come and receive your punishment;” and they raised their thorny rods threateningly, and flourished them with angry gestures high above their heads.
The scene was becoming to John in all respects very piquant, for these rods had very sharp thorns, and only a thin linen shirt covered his back.
With bold step, however, he approached the fatal passage through which he was to pass.
Already he beheld the rods drawn back; and it seemed to him as if the thorns were even now piercing his back.
He halted, and turned with a laugh to the king. “Sire, since you have condemned me to die by the hands of these nymphs, I claim the right of every condemned criminal–a last favor.”
“The which we grant you, John.”
“I demand that I may put on these fair women one condition–one condition on which they may whip me. Does your majesty grant me this?”
“I grant it!”
“And you solemnly pledge me the word of a king that this condition shall be faithfully kept and fulfilled?”
“My solemn, kingly word for it!”
“Now, then,” said John Heywood, as he entered the passage, “now, then, my ladies, my condition is this: that one of you who has had the most lovers, and has oftenest decked her husband’s head with horns, let her lay the first stroke on my back.”
A deep silence followed. The raised arms of the fair women sank. The roses fell from their hands and dropped to the ground. Just before so bloodthirsty and revengeful, they seemed now to have become the softest and gentlest of beings.