Books had been his closest companions all his days. Though he’d sailed the wide oceans and seen wonders with his own eyes, it was the treasures in the chest of books he took with him everywhere that always proved his inspiration and his solace. Now there was but one book left to him, his Bible, in which he had written those last lines.
The last of so many words: all those paeans he had written to his gracious Queen, that glittering, clever, imperious lady, gone now; his history of the world, still unfinished; and all his other attempts, some completed to his satisfaction, others mere rough notions in his mind. Had he taken enough time to write about her: that noble, kindly lady whose loving care had so surely started him on his path towards greatness and honour? He scratched his head. He could think of only one passing reference to a mother in all his works:
Our mother's wombs the tiring houses be,
Where we are dressed for life’s short comedy.
A fine turn of phrase! She had dressed him well for the parts he’d played on the stage of life. In his time he’d known success as a soldier, an adventurer, a courtier and a poet. Would that he had heeded more her gentle advice and performed equally well as a son, a lover, a husband, a brother, a father and a friend. He shook his head again. His mother, that woman of noble wit, had done so much more than costume him to take his place in the world.
He got up stiffly and threw the blanket carelessly across the narrow bed, lay down and stretched, hoping to ease the nagging pain in his joints. All too soon there would be a cure for that; a cure for all his ills.
He must have slept for a time. Turning his tired eyes upwards, he peered into the half-light, searching for the square of light; the one tiny window set high in the cold stone walls. The sky was dark, but the door creaked as it swung open; the priest, come again with a candle.
He chuckled. “What ho, Dean Townson,” he called, as cheery as a sunbeam. How surprised the man had been earlier to find him so jauntily fearless in the face of what must follow.
He would have them remember him in all his splendour, so he dressed with care: a fine doublet, an embroidered waistcoat, black taffeta breeches, a ruff-band, and elegant ash-coloured silken stockings, all topped by the black velvet gown Bess had brought for him. He placed the Queen’s diamond ring on his finger. He even put on his nightcap, hiding the grey locks that had of late become somewhat unkempt. He snorted. How foolish! He would soon have no need of its warmth. Perhaps he’d give it to some poor soul come to watch the show.
He savoured each mouthful of that last breakfast; kept up a bright show of mirth as he shared a jest with the serving man who brought it. He smoked a last pipe of his favourite tobacco, drawing it deep into his lungs.
The comedy of his days was all but over. He had but one more act to perform; one last speech to deliver.
It was still early in the day when the door swung open again and a low voice said, “Sir, if you please, it is time.”
Stooping to pass beneath the stone lintel, Sir Walter Raleigh stepped out into the cold, grey October morning.
* * *
Even such is Time, that takes in trust Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
These words were found after his death on the flyleaf of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Bible at the Old Gatehouse near Westminster Abbey, where he had been imprisoned. They are the final verse for a poem he had written many years earlier. In his cell before his execution he had added these two lines:
But from this earth, this grave, this dust, My God shall raise me up, I trust.