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Title: The Harper's Stories Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1301881h.html Language: English Date first posted: Apr 2013 Most recent update: Oct 2016 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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CEDRIC the churl looked up from the basket he was weaving of osier bands and listened.
The thick woods of Kent lay to right and left of him; a path wound through the clustering trees, and, as it dipped to the distance, there was a flash of vivid blue sea.
The autumn foliage, faded to hues of gold and brown, rustled in a bright sunshine; dead leaves strewed the ground, but grass of a clear green grew in patches beneath the trees.
In this little clearing in the forest stood a wattled hut. The thin smoke curled slowly from it in delicate spirals against the cloudless sky; at the doorway stood a yellow-haired child, clasping a rough red pitcher to the bosom of her striped frock.
Cedric, seated on a log, listened.
The sharp notes of birds broke on the stillness and the soft sound of coming horses.
The little girl came lazily across the grass, the sun dazzled in her brilliant hair and on her bare brown arms; she sang to herself happily.
Through the trees, riding swiftly from the sea, came a party of horsemen; they rode in single file by reason of the narrowness of the path, and trotted so, one at a time, into the clearing, where each halted, waiting for the next.
Cedric moved the completed osier baskets behind the log, so that they were secure from thievery or accident, and stared leisurely at the strangers. There came forty or more of them, and a few serving men.
As they gathered there, a confused group, gazing to right and left, the blue eyes of the Saxon were stolidly observing them.
He saw men handsomely dressed in travelling mantles lined with fox and beaver, their horses laden with packages and fair painted coffers; the servants had bundles at their backs. Dark men they were, with high, sharp features, unarmed, distinctly not warriors; they conversed together in a soft strange tongue, leaning from their saddles towards each other with wondering anxious faces. Two kept themselves apart: one, a haughty, handsome man of an imperious presence, who held his purple mantle carelessly at the breast with a white ringed hand, and stared round him with bright black eyes; the other, different in dress and bearing from the rest, a man clothed in armor linked with gold.
The Saxon child crept up to her father's side, eying the strangers, and one of them, turning, looked at the man and the hut beyond.
He wheeled his horse round and spoke in Saxon, a little halting.
"This is the kingdom of Kent?" he asked. "Surely it is so?"
The other travellers turned to listen, and the two apart watched composedly.
"Listen," said the first speaker. "We are invited of the King—your King; we are from across the sea, certainly. I am Frankish. I come because my language is the language of this country. These," he glanced round at his companions, "are from Rome, verily. Where is your King?"
"Canterbury," answered Cedric. "And who be ye?"
The stranger indicated the man in the purple mantle.
"He, the prior Augustine, hath been sent by the Pope to convert this land of Britain faithfully," he said. "We are his humble company. We bring knowledge of the true God, verily."
Cedric gazed at Augustine.
"Is it the God," he said, "whom the Queen hath a chapel in honor of? A place, lordings, with fair colored windows."
"Verily the Queen Bertha of Kent hath such a chapel, and a holy man who daily holdeth service; truly, through this righteous woman's workings upon her husband, hath he written to Rome for servants of God to come and preach the true faith in the land."
"It is a goodly chapel," the churl replied. "And many repair there in wonder. It holdeth a picture of a fair-faced man, and a cloth worked in silk and the hair of the Queen."
The stranger, smiling, answered:
"Many more wonders than that will we bring ye, for our God healeth the sick, yea, and raiseth the dead."
Then another interrupted, saying:
"Wherefore hath not the King sent to welcome us? Last night we landed, and, behold! there were none—neither folk nor lodging. Verily, we have slept beneath the trees. This morning one came saying, 'Here are horses and food,' and with that departed hastily."
Cedric shook his head.
"I know naught. The King is at Canterbury."
They looked at one another; "The road is strange to us, certainly."
"But ye cannot mistake it," said Cedric. "Riding through the wood ye come upon an open road. Follow it; it shall bring ye to Canterbury."
The priests set their horses in motion. There was great jingling of bits and harness, and the sun made a gallant show of the furred and embroidered garments.
Cedric picked up the unfinished basket. The child, idly holding her pitcher, stood by his side, with fearless blue eyes considering the strangers.
"Beware of the wood," said Cedric, "if ye bring new gods."
A priest with his fingers in the reins turned and asked sharply, "Wherefore?"
"It belongeth," said the churl, putting back his yellow hair, "to the old gods, and they are jealous."
He fixed the osier bands between his knees and began skilfully plaiting them.
"Mostly," he continued, "it belongeth to Freda—she hath a well there."
"She is a false god," returned the priest; "an idol—an image, such as we have come to destroy utterly."
"She is the wife of Thor," said Cedric, "and she sits in the wood yonder by the well."
"Truly that is a lie," said the priest, calmly. "And unholy men have deceived thee. She is not there—certainly ye may search and never find her."
On the ending of his words rose a burst of laughter, so clear and sudden that they started in their saddles.
It came from the child.
"I have seen her," she said.
They stared at her.
"I have seen Freda sitting by her well," she went on.
"Child," said the Frankish bishop, "ye spoke of what cannot be. Lies have deluded ye."
But the girl shook her head.
"I have spoken with her," she persisted. "She cometh from the well."
The priest's dark face grew stern.
"Here is deceit and a device of the devil," he said, apart. "Child, ye saw nothing."
She laughed again. "I will tell ye the manner of her. She is a goodly goddess, small, with white feet. She sits in the well—something she sings, and leaneth sideways to gaze into the water."
The priest frowned.
"They even wallow in their error! When the King is converted, Kent will be also converted, and ye will see the folly, child, of falsehoods, verily."
But she only smiled and turned away with her pitcher. There was a pause. Augustine gazed after her; then he spoke to the Frank, and his voice was cold.
"What doth the pagan say?" he asked. "I must learn the Saxon, certainly!"
"She speaketh of her false gods," was the answer. "Lo! they are deep in error."
The priests rode on in stately fashion across the clearing. Cedric paused from his osier plaiting to watch them go, but the child, holding her pitcher in the tinkling stream, sang unconcernedly of Freda as the clear water bubbled into the lip.
Two abreast now, for the path was wider, the priests proceeded through the forest. The ground was soft with acorns and beech mast, and the trailing brambles glowed orange and scarlet with berries; a multitude of birds sang continually, and the sky was a marvellous blue.
The only one of the company who was no monk, the knight Valerian of Ravenna, began to sing for joy of the weather and the fresh wind blowing lightly on his face. For here were no slumbrous airs nor swooning sunshine, as he had known in Italy, but a clear brightness and an exalting freshness. It had rained lately, and the autumn perfume of damp earth and leaves was in his nostrils. Now and then the startled deer fled at their approach, slipping like red shadows through the yellow bracken; rabbits fled across their path, and pheasants with splendid plumage.
The knight Valerian, brother of Augustine the prior, began singing the louder:
"What hope have I of gaining heaven,
Myrra—when the virtues are few,
Myrra—when the sins are seven,
"And the sweetest sin is you—is you!
"Surely I have no need of heaven
(Sins that are seven),
When the sun shines gold through the shade of the vine,
And thou art mine—and thou art mine!"
At that, Augustine checked him; for how, said he, "shall he that is profane convert the pagan?"
But Valerian laughed as if the pagan were no great matter, and held up his hand with its green ring, and watched the light slip in and out of the jewel.
"It is a smiling land," he said. "Right glad am I, I came, certainly."
"Surely it shall shine more," said Augustine, from his purple hood, "when it is under the power of Rome."
Valerian plucked a spray of ash berries as he passed the bending tree.
"Yet the old gods keep it gay, verily," he smiled; and in his pleasant voice the song rose again:
"What hope have I of a saintly crown,
When the world is so sweet,
And two hands draw me down,
Two lips to meet—to meet!
"Surely I have no need of heaven
(Sins that are seven),
When the grass is green and daisy pied,
And the shadows hide—the shadows hide!"
Then he fell to silence and thinking of the child's talk of Freda (for he knew the Frankish tongue).
Valerian the knight was good to look upon; he had a face such as the old Romans gave their gods, smooth and very proud; his hair curled a little under his helmet, and was, like his eyes, dark as the horse he rode.
Augustine the prior was very like unto him, save for the pallor of his face and his monk's dress; yet in pride and splendor he was his equal, for he took his mission in no humility, but imperially.
Both shone in embroidery, square cut colored stones, and the rich, dark hues of Byzantium. From Valerian's shoulders hung a silken cloak of red hue, and round his full, bare throat was a golden chain.
The greenwood spread and broadened about them; it seemed that the fair loneliness increased as they advanced.
The train of monks and serving men rode in silence; Valerian fixed the ash berries between his horse's ears.
"The King," said Augustine, haughtily, "should have sent, certainly, even to meet us graciously."
"As I do think," replied Valerian, "he doth wish it to seem thou hast come of thine own will. Maybe he feareth the old gods, verily."
Augustine's dark eyes surveyed him sideways.
"Something art thou of a pagan, Valerian."
The knight laughed.
"Lo! this wood is beautiful, certainly," he said. "The little maid spoke of the gods dwelling here—lo! I look for them fearfully."
The sun was creeping towards the horizon; here under the trees the great shadows lay, and the blue of the sky was burning pale and cold.
"Surely I have no need of heaven
(Sins that are seven),
For the calm of the dawn is over the sea,
And the touch of thy hand is all to me."
They had reached the bottom of a little slope, up which the path wound, to divide at the top into a fork.
It was thickly grown with ash and beech trees that cast a gloomy shade, and in the midst of them was a well green with moss and fern.
The cavalcade paused, uncertain which path to take.
"Freda's well," said the Frankish bishop. "Surely we will dedicate it to some holy saint."
The well was circular; fern and grass that the dripping water had kept fresh grew around it; behind, through the silvery trunks of the beeches, glowed the rose hues of a cloudless sunset.
Valerian took off his helmet, hanging it to his saddle bow; and the breeze that blew from the west lifted the heavy hair from his forehead.
Slowly they rode up the slope with a jingle of bells and a glimmer of brilliant color darkly visible.
Valerian, a little ahead, suddenly stopped, a noble figure all the dark horse against the smooth beech trunks.
He said nothing, but gazed in front of him, leaning forward a little, his throat and face in profile above the rich armor.
The monks paused too.
Something was moving in the deep shadows of the well.
The hanging ferns and grasses were stirred and rustled; a white arm, dripping crystal drops, held back the wet green, and a woman appeared among the fern.
They saw her but dimly, for the rosy light of the sunset did not touch the deep beech shadows. She stood a second, utterly still, with that outflung arm holding back the ferns. There was naught on her slender body save a yellow shift; nothing to hide her but the shadow and the drooping bracken.
"Freda!" said Valerian. "Freda!"
At the sound of his voice she looked towards him, and drew away.
A little shudder ran through the monks. The figure made no attempt to move or speak; pale as ivory she gleamed in the dusk.
Only Augustine rode calmly to his brother's side.
"Speak to the woman," he commanded. "Rid her begone, certainly, and put no tricks upon us."
"It is the goddess, verily," answered Valerian, breathlessly. "Lo, she moves!"
"Certainly a false goddess," frowned Augustine. He raised his clear voice:
"Witch, devil, begone in the name of the Holy Virgin!"
As he spoke he raised the cross he wore.
She took no heed: only she made a shivering motion, and pulled the boughs about her.
"She understandeth not not Latin," said Augustine, and he called to the Frank, who rode up swiftly.
"Fiend or woman," said he in Saxon, "profane not the ground where holy men must tread. Delusion of the devil, begone!"
She gave a moaning little cry, and smote her hands upon her bosom.
"Thor! Thor!" she cried, and ran swiftly from the shadow.
For a second the rosy glow shone on white limbs and yellow hair, then she was gone into the thick darknesses of the trees.
Augustine's lip curled.
"So the false gods go, surely;" he said. "Let us press onwards to Canterbury hastily."
But as the company was proceeding down the wider path, Valerian spake.
"I will come presently. Lo! have I not come to convert! Certainly I will covert the pagan goddess."
A little he laughed.
"Pleased she me mightily."
"Therefore," said Augustine, sternly, "thou wilt follow her in mere profanity?"
"Therefore will I follow her to bring her to the true faith, certainly," Valerian answered. "Or if she be a fiend, bring I her to Canterbury on my saddle," and he turned and made his way warily into the thicknesses of the trees.
The stout yellow bracken caught his horse's hoofs and stayed his progress; the path he followed narrowed and twisted; in his ears were the sound of whispering leaves innumerable and the echo of his brother's angry voice.
"Now, by St. Honor," he said, "back will not I—"
As he spoke, the wood fell away before him to right and left, as if the trees made a sudden passage, and he found himself at the top of a hill ending so suddenly it seemed the edge of the world that touched the western sky—the burning, blushing sky, fading stains of gold and red, like molten jewels, spilt blood and wine that shone before him.
Straight up against this stood the woman, on the very summit and edge of the hill, with the dipping valley at her feet.
The yellow shift, blowing, showed her bare feet; across her throat waved little strands of yellow hair; she looked towards the sunset as if she prayed.
"Freda!" said Valerian, gently.
She turned, saw man and horse dark against the wood, and fled through the forest.
Horse and man plunged heavily after her, but ways were open to her that were closed to them; she sprang with great lightness through the bushes, and Valerian, with the boughs in his face and catching at his sleeves, lost sight of her.
He laughed, and, reining his horse, turned the way he had come through the wood.
"What need have I of heaven
(Sins that are seven),
When the sun shines gold through the leaves of the vine,
and thou art mine—and thou art mine!"
The dew was falling; he felt it on his face as he looked up at the first stars glittering through the leaves; it was neither day nor night, but a marvellous time of twilight. Idly he rode on, his reins falling slack, and in his brain memories of the day slipped together: the line of white above the blue sea that was the shore of Kent, the ride through those first woods, so different from his woods at Ravenna, the little hut in the clearing, with the smoke arising in the still way of autumn, the man with the beautiful osier baskets behind the fallen log, and the child with her red pitcher clasped to her breast.
He found himself by the well again, and rode round it slowly, picturing the white arm that he had seen divide the fern.
His horse stumbled over something; a heap on the ground. As he leant from the saddle he saw embroideries gleam duskily.
Swiftly he dismounted; a woman's clothes lay at his feet—a rich robe, a red mantle, and leather sandals among the fallen beechnuts.
Freda's garb! He lifted them from the dead leaves and put them over his saddle. They were heavy with gold fringes and beads; he handled them curiously; then knotted the reins to a beech bough, and waited for her to come for her garments. The moon rose, turning the grayness into silver. Valerian seated himself by the edge of the well, crushing the soft damp ferns; he trailed his hand in the water; it was cold as snowflakes. Holding on to the rim, he gazed down into the blackness of the well depths, forming visions of a woman rising, floating upwards, with the water weeds on her breast, till she touched the surface, and the water broke in ripples from her face as she emerged, holding up dripping arms, glittering in the light of the rising moon.
A light sound behind him made him look up sharply from the well.
She was close to him, standing by the beech tree; she shivered cruelly.
For a moment they gazed at each other; then she held out her hands.
"Give me my garments," she said, mournfully. "Am cold."
He made no answer; the moonlight striking through the trees showed his Byzantine beauty and cast his shadow dark behind him.
The woman came a little nearer.
"Am afraid," she said. "Give me my garments."
She shuddered under the thin linen of her shift, and looked around timidly for her attire.
"Thou art human, certainly," answered Valerian, marking her shivering.
"St. Honor! but I thought ye one of the gods of Britain, verily. Lo! I am a Christian knight, and bear unto pagans a dislike, mightily."
"Am cold," she repeated; she came still closer. "Art terrible to look upon." Curiosity came into her voice. "Hast a sword and great weapons—art Thor or a daemon?"
She lifted her long yellow hair from her eyes to gaze at him; the moonlight lay over her as she bent closer.
Valerian made the sign of the cross over his glittering breastplate.
"I loathe thy false gods bitterly—there is but one Lord, and Him serve I faithfully."
Blue eyes gazed into black eyes across the moonlight and the shadows of the fern; hers were troubled. She put out her hand and touched his where it lay on his breast.
"Am cold—cold," she said, sadly. "Feel my fingers."
"Thou art a witch," he said, "and thy power lieth in thy garments certainly. Lo! I come to do war on such as thee—even I."
"Am no witch." She drew back against the beech trunk. "Art cruel." She eyed him in a troubled manner as he leant forward with a clink of armor from his seat on the well.
"I will convert thee, hastily,"—he laughed a little. "Thou shalt become Christian presently, Listen unto me."
"Am no witch," she repeated.
"Yet a follower of false gods," said Valerian.
"My gods are true," she answered. "Give me my garments."
"But ye shall hear me, verily."
She drew herself up, and her hands clenched.
"Greatly I hate ye," she said through her teeth.
"What is thy name?" asked Valerian.
She stood rigid, erect, staring down at her bare feet on their carpet of dead leaves.
"Nay, tell me; we will give thee another. Augustine shall baptize thee holily."
Her hands went up to her face; she fell to crying softly; she slipped down on to the beech mast in a curled up position of distress.
"Am cold," she murmured, through faint little sobs. "Am weary—am hurt—"
She glanced piteously at her foot.
"Am afraid of the wolves."
She turned her face against the beech trunk and wept unrestrainedly in a quiet manner.
Valerian rose and brought her garments from his saddle to lay them beside her.
"Thy garb," he said.
She glanced round timidly; then, seeing her dress beside her, smiled.
He stood looking at her as she arrayed herself in silence with a shudder of content. When she had clasped her hood under her chin and put on her mantle there was little of her to be seen for the heavy loose draperies that fell around her.
Gravely he picked up her sandals and offered them.
She looked at her foot.
"Am hurt," she said. She seated herself on one of the spreading beech roots, and showed him that her foot was cut across the instep.
"It paineth me," she complained, and the tears welled into her eyes.
"Ye are a coward," smiled Valerian.
She fell anew to sobbing, with a piteous look at the injured foot.
"I will tie it up for ye, certainly," said Valerian. "Yet I do not think it hurteth mightily." He turned back his velvet sleeve and tore off a strip of the linen underneath; she followed this with a curiosity that stifled her sobs. By this the moon had risen high, and the well was distinct in silver light. Valerian dipped his bandage in the beautiful water and brought it to her.
She watched with interest and satisfaction while he bound the wound up, kneeling before her.
When he had finished he delicately laced the embroidered sandals over her slender feet.
She said nothing till he rose and turned away; then she cried out:
"Am afraid of the wolves—ah! am bitterly afraid."
He looked back at her. She smiled. "Wilt stay?" she asked.
Valerian reseated himself by the edge of the well.
"Ye are a coward, certainly," he said. "Yet had I no thought of going. Did I not leave the others to find ye, that I might convert ye, even I?"
She frowned at that; great self-confldence had come with the wearing of the mantle and gown.
"Didst follow me?" she said. "Wherefore?"
He fingered the long fern fronds beside him. "To find if ye were fiend truthfully. To bring ye with me to Canterbury; and because ye are fair, mightily."
She drew herself together in her heavy draperies.
"Shalt not take me to Canterbury," she said, wildly. "Wilt not come—hate thy God—"
He gazed at her in terror and anger, and his brows lifted with wonder.
"Who art thou?" he asked.
"Hate thee," she answered, vehemently.
"Thou art fierce, certainly," he said, "and I must even leave thy soul to damnation and thy body to the wolves."
At that and the sight of him untying the reins from the beech boughs her courage fell; she wavered between terror and anger; then:
"Am bitterly afraid of wolves," she whispered.
"Will ye come with me to Canterbury?" he asked.
For answer she beckoned him to her side, and when he came heavily over the dead leaves, she caught his hand between hers, and gazed up at him with frightened eyes.
"Am Osberga of Kent," she said in a hurried whisper. "Am the King's daughter. Lo! he will be Christian; he sent over the sea for Christian priests, but I—I love the old gods—they are very gracious to me—will be true to them—so am fled here—will to my mother's sister in Mercia."
Panting, she ceased, and her little hands clasped in an eager manner over his.
A flush crept into Valerian's smooth face.
"I am of the Christians," he said. "Thou shalt return to the King."
"No! no!" she implored. "Would go to Mercia."
The moonshine was over her very wonderfully. It caused her bare throat to gleam like ivory. Valerian, the Byzantine knight, laughed, and drew her to the well, and made her sit beside him there, with the waving shadows of the ferns over her dress.
She came without resistance, gazing at him the while with wide blue eyes.
"The old gods are dead," he said, holding her slackly by the arm. "The saints rule in heaven now. Listen. I come from Ravenna, which is a Christian town. Canterbury will be a Christian town."
"Therefore have I left it," interrupted Osberga of Kent.
"Ye shall not avoid the true faith; Britain will be a Christian land."
She shook her head.
"Thor will prevent it."
"Have I not said the old gods are dead, certainly!"
She smiled scornfully.
"No," she said. "They neither die nor sleep. The Queen hath a chapel to thy God, and she hath won the King to listen, and the old gods will be wrathful—and I go to Mercia."
Leaning forward, he still held her arm and looked down into her upturned face.
"Go ye to Mercia alone?"
Osberga of Kent shook her head.
"Ethelfrid, who is King of Mercia, is coming for me; last year he came to Kent—"
Valerian interrupted her, frowning.
"This King is late," he said.
"Have lost my way," she said, mournfully. "Shouldst be waiting by the river. Lo! he will be there, and I cannot discover the way."
At the thought of it she began weeping softly again.
Valerian frowned more, and gazed at the tracery of the fern fronds in the moonlight.
"'Tis best, verily," he said, "that ye should not meet this pagan."
"Is brave," she whispered through her sobs. "Is a great man—is King of Mercia. I sent to him to take me away when the new God came; lo! he sent a churl back, and said on this day he would wait by the river." Her sobs ceased; she looked at Valerian in an anxious manner. "Think ye they will come after me before I find the river?"
He answered gravely:
"I think that I should take ye back presently. This man is a pagan, certainly."
"Will not take me," she frowned. "Hate Canterbury. Often do I come here to bathe in Freda's well—(it maketh ye fair)—often do I come here as the sun sets to be rid of Canterbury. Will not go back."
"I might make ye," said Valerian, quietly.
She looked at him. There was a breathless pause; then he spoke again.
"I might put ye on my saddle and take ye back to Canterbury with me. To save your soul, certainly."
Osberga put her hand over her heart.
"Why—am afraid," she said, piteously. "Am afraid—and Ethelfrid is not here. If ye choose to take me—" She stopped, gazing with frightened eyes.
Valerian sprang up impetuously, and his face was flushed.
"St. Honor, no!" he said in an unsteady voice. "Ye shall keep tryst faithfully—ye shall go with the pagan King. Wherefore should I stop ye? To each man his gods."
And he laughed to think what Augustine the prior would have said.
Osberga of Kent gave a little panting breath of relief. "Will stay till the morning?" she asked. "Cannot find the river in the dark—maybe Ethelfrid will come for me."
He turned, and seated himself slowly in his old place, his mantle all about him on the mossgrown earth, the moonshine on his dark Roman face. He looked at her curiously, and his fingers played with the gold chain that hung on his breast.
She smiled sweetly on him.
"Art kind," she said. "Ethelfrid will thank thee."
"Need I no pagan's gratitude, certainly," he answered.
There was silence as they sat opposite each other with the trees and the silence about them; then Osberga spoke, yawning.
"Am sleepy," she said. "Am tired."
Her blue eyes were half shut; her head drooped.
"Ye can sleep fearlessly," he answered. "By St. Honor, I will not leave ye!"
She gave a sleepy smile.
"The earth is hard," she murmured. She shifted her position on the well edge and gazed into the black water. "It looks fearful, yet it is not deep. When I stand in it, it cometh only to my neck; yet I would not fall in."
Her voice fell in a tired fashion, her head drooped.
"Am very sleepy," she announced.
Moved by a sudden impulse when he saw her weary, drooping, and desolate against the cold earth and dripping ferns, stirred by tenderness and he knew not what feeling of pity, Valerian leant forward and held out his arms.
She looked at him sleepily from the shadow of her hood; he touched her and drew her very gently towards him.
To his wonder and extraordinary pleasure she came willingly, and lay with a sigh of content on the folds of the soft mantle that fell over his armor.
Her eyes closed, and her breathing became faintly regular. Warm and flushed and soft she lay, curled in her heavy draperies in the curve of his arm, with her head against his breast. Her yellow hair fell from her hood over his knee; she was sleeping very peacefully.
Valerian put his mantle round his shoulders and held her loosely up to him.
Now and then in her sleep she gave a little sound of ease and content, and her face was like a child's; in her lap her fingers lay curled slackly and rosy; under the rich dress her bosom rose and fell steadily.
Valerian, holding her in his arms, gazed out over her drooping head at the moonlit forest, and thought of his saints at Ravenna and the pagan King waiting at the river.
So still they were that a little troop of deer passing out of the beeches came fearlessly to his very feet, and sniffed his shining greaves and her trailing gown before they passed on lightly into the forest.
Valerian's thoughts flew wide, circled the world and the world's goods, judged and appraised the worth of things, and came back to the wonder of the moonlit forest and the sleeping woman in his arms.
Slowly, wonderfully, the moon died and the day rustled through the trees. Light that was very pale and luminous slipped through the beech trunks; the birds commenced singing in a clear manner. Osberga of Kent stirred and sighed; he drew her closer to his heart, praying she might not wake yet, for surely it was sweet to enfold her helpless sleep. Her head had fallen back on his shoulder; as the day dawned he saw her face more clearly, her parted lips, her golden brows, the yellow hair falling apart over her white forehead.
His horse made an impatient movement, shaking his trappings, and there was a sudden sound of branches broken and thrust aside.
Valerian looked up calmly.
A horseman crashed down the bracken and drew up a few paces from the well.
The pale dawn showed him a mighty man. He was helmeted, and carried his shield on his arm; both his mantle and his horse were ivory white, and even in that dimness his hair shone golden.
In utter silence he gazed at the two beside the well.
"Thou art Ethelfrid of Mercia, certainly," said Valerian.
The horseman started to hear his tongue and name from the lips of this splendid stranger.
"Am Bretwalda of Mercia," he answered. "Am Ethelfrid." He touched his horse, and came slowly closer; his eyes flashed fiercely, in a wonderful rage: he pointed to the woman in the Roman's arms.
"Osberga of Kent?" he asked, and his bare arm shook, showing the silver snake that bound it glimmering unsteadily.
"Truly," said Valerian, "Osberga of Kent. I am Valerian of Ravenna, and a Christian knight."
The Bretwalda of Mercia put his hand to his sword.
"Wherefore sleepeth she in thine arms?" he asked, grimly.
"Truly she was weary with seeking for thee; honors she me greatly. Lo! she sleeps as a child, peacefully." Gently he disengaged his arm from about her, and she fell slackly against him, drooping into the folds of his mantle.
The Bretwalda said naught, but, erect on his huge horse, gazed at them with burning blue eyes.
"I have guarded her faithfully," said Valerian, "and kept her for ye, when I might have carried her to Canterbury—to the Christians. St. Honor pardon me—but to each his gods."
He laughed softly, looking down upon her, and the sun, brightening, smote his gorgeous armor into points of light.
"Art a strange man," said Ethelfrid. "Hast a kingly look." He leant from the saddle, and stared into Valerian's face. "She trusted ye?"
The "Roman smiled proudly.
"Ye see, Ethelfrid of Mercia."
The Bretwalda glanced at the sleeping woman.
She stirred, and flung her hand out among the ferns.
"Osberga!" cried Ethelfrid.
She sat up, flushed, suddenly awake, and held out her arms.
With the golden glow of the dawn over her, she rose and laughed.
The magnificent Bretwalda wheeled his horse round so that he was alongside her.
"Osberga," he said, "get up before thy father's people come."
Valerian rose, standing beside the edge of the well.
"Shall I not lift her up?" he smiled. "Have I not kept her for thee?"
Lightly he raised her and put her into Ethelfrid's arms; so was she swung on to the white horse.
"Hast been good to me," said Osberga, clinging to the ivory mantle. "Is Christian lording, yet took me not back to the new God."
The Bretwalda's blue eyes looked steadily, curiously, at the stranger, and Valerian's glance was calm to meet his scrutiny.
"Tied up my foot," said Osberga. "Was gentle to me."
Still the two men gazed at each other. No word of thanks said Ethelfrid; but suddenly he turned the woman round and held her away from him.
"Kiss her," he said.
Valerian, standing beside the well, was not on a level with her face and hanging hair; smiling, she put back her hood, leaning down; the dawn was flaming through the trees and glittering in the water of the well.
Valerian of Ravenna, suddenly pale, kissed her coldly on the brow.
The Bretwalda caught her proudly up to him, lifted his glittering shield in salute, and was gone at a gallop down the forest glade.
Valerian watched the white horse flash between the tree trunks, then mounted his own steed and turned its head toward Canterbury.
Cloudless and beautiful the morning was about him, yet he felt his arms empty and his spirit weary. He noticed coldly the wonders of the forest, the begony with its flaming berries, the last dandelions and daisies, the amber hues of the oak, the scarlet of the beech; then he looked curiously at his torn sleeves. A robin sang loudly; then presently a merle. Valerian of Ravenna rode steadily with his helmet clanking at his saddle, and he smiled to himself, playing with the chain at his breast.
Thus to Canterbury, in the glory of the fair morning.
"What hope have I of heaven,
Myrra—when virtues are few,
Myrra—when sins are seven,
And the sweetest sin is you—is you!"
THE long alley of chestnut trees leading to the château was barred with light and shade; the great green leaves were all atremble in the warm air, and in the thick grass the daisies lay wide open to the sun.
The clock of the distant village struck four as Mademoiselle Sophie came slowly on between the sun-flecked trunks, holding up her pink skirt from her reluctant feet. She was frowning, and her full red lips pouted a little in a manner not unbecoming to her sleepy beauty; her long brown eyes, her thick rich auburn hair, her clear skin, flushed from the sun, were noticeable points in a sumptuous appearance. She gave the impression of something golden, soft, and sullen as she came across the bright silent park land.
Her dress was of something that shimmered in pink silks; where the tight bodice was cut away over her white bosom she had pinned a peony of flaring scarlet; her hands were locked behind her, and now and then she tossed her head impatiently as the ends of her shining curls were blown in her face.
Walking so, slowly, she came to the confines of the park; here an old and sunken wall of brick divided it from open meadow-land that dipped slowly to the hollow where the village lay. The sun glittered on the distant vane on the church spire and shone golden in broad fields of grain and rich orchards. Sophie, with no regard to this slumbrous prospect before her, climbed the low wall and descended the slope of grass beyond.
At the bottom of this slope a little wood was to be entered by a path crossed by a wooden stile; leaning against this stile a man in faded vermilion velvet stood in a very intent attitude, absolutely motionless, his head turned from Sophie's advance. She, as soon as she saw him, slackened her pace, and paused altogether at length to gaze at him in a slow, half-resentful manner.
The flaming foliage of the bramble and the soft green leaves of the hazel trees overhanging the stile cast waving shadows over him, but the sun falling through the shifting branches dazzled in his rare bright brown hair.
Sophie carne forward with a sudden movement, the tall meadowsweet dragging at the hem of her gown, and the man at the stile turned and raised a clear-cut English face, half pleasantly scornful and wholly alluring.
"You have frightened them away," he smiled, and he indicated two pheasants that flashed into the undergrowth at her approach.
Sophie frowned, disdaining a reply.
"You are always late," he said, easily.
She came up to the post of the stile and rested her round white arms on it.
"Do you think I have nothing else to do but keep time to the minute with you?" she asked. "Do you imagine my thoughts are so full of you, Paulyn?" And as she spoke she knew that it had taken a fierce effort of her will to delay her coming, and that, so much had she wished to be soon, she had dragged out the weary time, and with difficulty, that she might be late.
Paulyn, Lord Frere, answered with a deepening of his smile.
"I, you see, have nothing better to do," he said, "and so I am here to time—always."
The reply, given lightly, as a compliment, stung her; she did not care that he should avow so carelessly his liking for her company.
"I wonder why I come at all?" she said, heavily.
He moved from the stile, and leaning against the tree trunk, looked at her curiously. His clothes, though they had been splendid once, were much worn and faded, the tinsel braid on his coat was tarnished, and the cravat knotted round his throat of fine but torn lace; he looked what he was—an adventurer of birth and parts, with attraction of daredevilry, youth, and breed to weigh against his obvious poverty.
"You know why you come, Sophie," he answered her. "The old house is dull."
Her anger rose at his unconcerned pleasantness; she pulled at the velvet leaves of the hazel and tore them mercilessly in her strong white fingers.
"Not so dull," she said, with a flashing look under her heavy brows, "as you, perchance, may think. Another of your cold nation has come to Luneville."
"My cold nation!" he laughed. "Now what made you say that?"
She ignored the question.
"Sir Gilbert Fraser is my father's guest," she continued. "He is a fine gentleman."
"Fifty," said Lord Frere, "and old for that. I know him."
Sophie tossed her head.
"Not so old, m'sieu," she answered; "there are some would say wealth were better than youth—since it can be shared—"
Lord Frere smiled.
"You would remind me, my dear, that it is owing to the difference between poverty and wealth that he is honored at the château—while your acquaintance with me is clandestine, and your father would not receive a ruined prodigal. Still"—he lifted slowly his gray eyes—"you leave the château for the hedge-row, do you not?"
She scattered the torn fragments of hazel leaf to the wind.
"What do you know of Sir Gilbert?" she asked.
He laughed, as if amused at the seriousness of her question.
"I knew him in England, my dear,—he is a worthy gentleman. He would make you a good husband."
"Ah!" said Sophie. "Though he is fifty, and old for that?"
Lord Frere suddenly sighed.
"Ah, my dear, he is rich, as you have said, and you are not fitted for a poor man's wife—as I have recognized."
Sophie moved a little farther away among the sun-flecked foliage.
"I do not understand you," she said, while in her heart she understood only too well—he did not care as she cared; bitterly she wondered if men ever did care as women did. She pulled at a fading leaf beside her. "It is autumn," she said, with a faint laugh. "Summer is over, and you must ride away!"
"It has been a pleasant season," said Lord Frere, softly. "You have been very gracious to a vagabond."
The yellow leaf fluttered from her fingers.
"You are going?" she asked.
"I think that you are tired of me," he said. "Yes, Sophie—as you have said, the summer is over." He came up to the stile and rested against it. Words choked in her throat; her hands lay over the peony at her breast.
"If I had been rich, now," sighed Lord Frere, "it had been different."
She was standing half with her back to him, and he could not see the slow color mount into her face, nor how the peony rose and fell over her heart.
"Well?" she said, unsteadily, without looking at him. "How different, m'sieu?"
He lifted his eyebrows and glanced away from her down the cool green glade of the little wood; an expression of rather whimsical melancholy rested on his handsome face; he broke off one of the tall late buttercups growing by the post and twisted it in his fingers.
"Ah, different!" he said, absently.
A hot sideway glance of hers discovered his indifferent bearing. Was he a coward, or did he not understand?—Was it possible he did not understand? She sought desperately for words which should enlighten him, but the precious minutes flew past and she was silent.
A bird whirred out of the covert near, and Lord Frere's sleepy gray eyes were following it as it flitted down the woodland sun-flecked path. Sophie spoke—not as she wished to speak, still with some attempt to get within his guard.
"You are a spendthrift at heart," she said. "And what do you care for money? If one offered you a fortune to-morrow, you would hardly lift your hand to take it."
"You read me well," he said, never looking round at her; "over-well, perhaps. This friend of yours, Sir Gilbert Fraser, offered me a fortune yesteryear that I refused."
"What do you mean?" she cried, and the blood rushed into her face.
"He collects curiosities, does he not?" Lord Frere glanced at her over his shoulder. "I had something left from the ruin of my fortunes that he wished to buy."
"And you would not sell it?"
"Not for anything he or any man could offer—for some foolish reason I value it greatly."
Sophie felt a giddiness in her head. So he did not value what a fortune could have bought—would buy now—her family's toleration—the position of her equal.
"So," she said, in a voice as quiet as she could make it, "you have it still—this thing!"
Lord Frere twirled the buttercup between his white teeth.
"Yes—I have it." He put his hand into his vest pocket. "With me now and always."
She answered; her eyes sparkled brilliantly.
"You are mad to carry it there—worth a fortune! You will be robbed or murdered for your folly!"
"Why, I can protect it," he said, easily, as he held out a little carved wood case on the palm of his fine hand.
She would not touch it: her rival, the thing he "valued greatly"—she drew back with instinctive hatred of what the little box contained. He gave her a quick, sharp glance, then unfastened the case.
It contained an apple of pure gold, perfectly modelled, with two curling jade leaves set against the stalk. Lord Frere took it out and touched a little spring; the apple flew open in four quarters against the leaves, and disclosed a diamond as large as a lady's nail and beautifully cut.
"An ancestress of mine," said Lord Frere, "was judged the most beautiful woman in England, and her husband had this made for her—she wore it, I think, at her girdle. It was a pretty conceit."
"What is it to you?" asked Sophie, under her breath, "Would not the money buy what you would value more than this toy?"
"I know of nothing,"—and it seemed to her as if he had struck her insolently in the face.
She could not trust herself to speak, while he, all unconscious, showed her how the four quarters were carved inside with the likenesses of the four most beautiful women the world has known—Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Queen Guinevere, and Lucretia Borgia.
"And she had red-gold hair—as you have," he said, pointing to this last.
The remark came to her with the shock of revelation.
"Do you think of me—of women—as—well, like that?" she asked, in a curious, breathless way. "As—such colored hair—such a shaped face—hands so made—" She half held out her own, then laughed. "Mon Dieu—you do not understand!"
"Why, no," he answered; his clear gray eyes were on her questioningly.
"It is not worth while," she flashed. "And now I think—it is over-late—I must return."
She came up to the stile and leaned a little towards him; the sunlight shimmered on her satin bodice and showed most wonderfully the glittering threads of her hair.
"It shall not come again," she said.
Lord Frere closed the golden apple and returned it to his pocket.
"Why?" he asked. "You are tired of your amusement?"
Through the perfect golden green silence following on his speech, the church in the village below them struck, and the clear echo of the little bell seemed to hover a long while in the sweet air; Sophie moved with slow fingers a lock of hair back from her face.
"Keep your toy well, my lord," she smiled.
"You think I am a fool to keep it," he answered her. "Well, I shall never part with it—unless—"
She took him up quickly.
"God wot, I might come to starve!" he laughed.
She drew away from the stile.
"Then you can sell that jewel to Sir Gilbert," she said, and her eyes narrowed. "Now—good-by, Paulyn."
She held out her hand.
"You mean it?" he asked.
She answered quietly:
"We go to Paris in two days—and you," she smiled slowly—"you will be tired of our quiet village."
"Is this the end of our wayside acquaintance?" he laughed. "And you take leave of me—like this!"
"I will come again to-morrow," said Sophie. "To say good-by, Paulyn,—but now they are expecting me at the château."
Their hands met and clasped lightly above the heads of the tall buttercups and parsley flowers; then she gathered up her dress and turned away.
"Until to-morrow," said Lord Frere, and smiled at her carelessly.
She gave one glance at the slim figure in the faded scarlet and passed on her way. Her face was curiously pale and hardened; she walked very slowly and steadily towards the château, and paused now and then to shake the fragments of leaves and grass off the edge of her long gown.
On entering the great house she went straight to the library, where she found her father's guest over his books.
He looked up as her gracious youth came into the room, and the warm color of her opulent beauty was jewel-like against the sombre background. Sir Gilbert rose from his place.
Without a word Sophie passed him, took the peony from her breast and set it in the dragon-painted vase on the mantel-shelf; then she turned.
"It is yes, after all, Sir Gilbert," she said, quietly. "I will be your wife."
THE ruddy, steady glow of a fire that had burned to a great golden heart shone on the blue and purple of a Japanese vase that stood on a slim table by Sir Gilbert's chair and gave a slight color to his worn, bloodless face. By the tall window stood his wife, gazing out on Soho Square, growing dim in the waning English afternoon.
Sir Gilbert looked thoughtfully at her beautiful figure and the fine line of her bare throat and averted face.
"Will you come here, Sophie?" he said at last.
She turned at once and moved across the room in her usual slow manner; as she came into the glow of the fire the bright green of her gown, the carnation of her face, the glitter of her hair, and the white jewels at her throat showed as notable things.
"You wanted me?" she asked.
Sir Gilbert rose and unlocked the glass front of a black lacquer cabinet that stood against the wall; while, with slow, careful movements, he sought for something in its dark recesses, she watched him without interest.
After a while he found what he looked for and held it out to her.
"I wish you to wear this to-night," he said.
It was a little box that lay on his hand; she knew it and what it contained.
"What whim is this?" she asked, quietly.
"No whim at all." He unlocked the box and took out a gold apple with jade leaves. "You remember that I bought this two years ago, when you were in France?"
"I remember," said Sophie. She picked up a drawn-silk hand-screen and held it up before her face.
Sir Gilbert laughed dryly.
"The man who sold it to me came today to buy it back."
"Ah?" The rose-silk screen fluttered a little in her hand.
"He is coming to-night to dine with us," continued her husband. "I think he will amuse you."
"Amuse me?" The hand-screen was quite still now.
"Yes—he is interesting." Sir Gilbert was fixing the apple to a long, fine gold chain. "He was most stormy when I refused to sell this to him, but we parted good friends. He is Earl of Clare now, through a distant cousin's death, and, for the time at least, a swinging fortune. A scoundrel, of course."
"Why do you have him here?" asked Sophie. "Do you think scoundrels amuse me?"
"He is charming, too—I can read him very easily; he has set his heart on this." He touched the apple lightly. "He intends by any means to get it. I dare say"—again he laughed dryly—"he has thieved in his time."
His wife laid down the screen; for all the glow of the firelight, she was, had her husband eyes to notice, curiously pale for her.
"So you want me to wear it?" she asked.
"Hidden in your dress." He handed it to her.
She put the chain round her white neck and slipped the apple into the bosom of her gown.
"So?" she said, rather faintly; she felt a cold touch against her heart, and for a moment it was as if he had passed her again, after all these years.
"So." Sir Gilbert nodded, well pleased. "I shall puzzle him as to where I keep it, shall I not?"
"He is coming to discover that?" asked Sophie.
"I think so—ostensibly, of course, to see my collection: it will be a duel of wits."
She moved back into the warm shadows of the room.
"Why should he value it so highly?" she questioned; then suddenly, "You make him out a common thief, and yet let him come here!"
"He is amusing," repeated Sir Gilbert, "an attractive vagabond."
Sophie laughed, quite unreasonably scornful, it seemed to her husband.
"You have said you found it dull," he remarked.
Her fingers curled round the fine chain that held the apple.
"You offer a strange diversion."
Sir Gilbert answered sharply:
"Say I please myself, then, madam. I like the fellow."
She came to the fire and seated herself in one of the deep leathern chairs.
"It is no matter, either way—to me."
In this attitude, that was neither attention nor indifference, but like lifeless movement, sitting forward, motionless, with her head half turned to the door, and the firelight ruddy on her averted cheek, she sat long after her husband had left the room, and though the wood on the hearth was sinking into ashes she did not notice it.
She heard a carriage drive up without, and never moved; she heard footsteps on the stairs, and never moved.
Then, when the door opened, she rose suddenly, and her hands closing on the hand-screen, snapped the fragile stick. It was the servant with the candles.
With an impulse of daring and defiance she took the one set on the table near the Japanese vase and placed it on the mantel-shelf, so that the light fell on her face, and when he entered with Sir Gilbert she was standing so with her head erect. In the seconds that her husband used in introducing them her eyes flashed courageously over him.
Five years ago!
She had imagined many things; she had not been prepared for this: he was ostentatiously splendid, magnificently dressed, and the richness of his appointments suited his reckless face; he was as attractive now, standing within her door in his perfumed velvets, as her straying thoughts during these years had ever pictured him in his faded scarlet coat.
He accepted her presence, her position, with the calm she knew he would show; in the instant that she dared look into his dangerous eyes he showed her that their last meeting was as vivid in his mind as in hers. But had Sir Gilbert been as keen on the track of their secret as he was unconscious of it, he could have guessed nothing from the Earl's demeanor.
He said very little to Sophie;·while her husband displayed the treasures with which the room was filled he leaned against the table, facing the fire, and his attention was all for the connoisseur and his collection.
Sophie pushed the candle away from her now and sat back in her chair watching. She saw her husband moving to and fro among his cabinets; the table laden with gold and silver ware that glittered in the candelight: ancient chasubles with rough-set gems, carved ivory coffers, and strange-shaped ornaments of rock crystal; and it was all but a dim background to the figure of the Earl.
He was in black and white velvet, with a great knot of pink ribbons on his shoulder; his profile was towards her, and she noticed a hunch of violets fastened in his Bruges-lace cravat. He talked and laughed with Sir Gilbert; he was entertaining, charming, flattering; he used that subtlest of incense, envy, and Sophie observed that despite his cool summing up, her husband was fascinated and enthralled.
She had lived very quietly since her marriage; how quietly she had not realized till now. As she sat in the shadow looking at the Earl she was aware that her life had stopped with his passing out of it, and that the long even years with Sir Gilbert had been filled with merely mechanical actions and aimless thoughts; now, like a tide dammed and suddenly set free, her blood flowed passionately. She knew that her husband was old and dull, that her days had been as dust; she knew what she had missed, and she looked with narrowed brown eyes at the careless figure of the man who had cheated her of it.
His brilliant presence had altered the sombre house as it had altered the quiet woods round her home; she could see Sir Gilbert was under the spell of the graces being so freely used for his captivation, although he had named the Earl—scoundrel.
Sophie put her fingers to the fine chain crossing her bosom: it was curious to remember the day when they had stood either side of the stile with tall buttercups between and the jewel now hidden over her heart had flashed in his open hand.
He never mentioned the apple; if he was observant of every detail that might discover to him its hiding-place, he gave no sign of it; careless and gay, absolutely at his ease, he appeared to have no motive beyond the moment.
At dinner, Sophie, seated between him and her husband, was so near him that their sleeves brushed when they moved; still, he spoke very little to her, and looked at her hardly at all. As she listened to his interested converse with Sir Gilbert she wondered if she had read aright that first glance of his—if, after all, he had not completely forgotten! It was likely enough: what had not these five years, so uneventful to her, been to him?
She colored hotly to think of it. Sir Gilbert remarked on her silence; he was secretly a little piqued that his beautiful wife had made so little impression on the Earl, though the latter's willing attention to his learned talk on his precious collection might be some recompense.
To Sophie the evening was intolerable; her blood stirred with a strange, unnameable excitement. When they returned to the upstairs room, where Sir Gilbert's curios still glittered on the table, she escaped to the balcony and stood silent there, looking over the dark square and the winking lights of the town.
She could hear the voices of the two, so different in quality, modulated to the same tone; looking round sharply once, she saw her husband bending over one of his cabinets, and the Earl seated by the fire in the chair she had just left. She could only see his back; his attitude was that of some one writing,—the next instant he had risen, turned, and was coming towards her.
"You have dropped your fan, my lady."
He stood in the shadow of the window; the light from within caught his white sleeve as he held out her painted fan.
She had left it, purposely, on the chair; without a demur, however, she took it, and the Earl, bowing, returned to Sir Gilbert, who was opening upon the gilt settee a portfolio.
Sophie stood perfectly still, gazing with unseeing eyes across the darkness. He had written something on her fan. She felt as though some one gripped her heart and held it so that she could not breathe. So—he was playing with her husband! What did he want with her—what did he dare to want with her?
She moved so that some of the light fell over her, and unfurled her fan; yellow butterflies were painted on it, and they seemed to dance before her eyes like live things; then she read, in clear pencilling's beneath them, his message:
"Venus wears the apple to-night—both are mine by right—I have been without both too long. I have so much to ask, to answer. After I leave tonight I shall return to your garden and wait for you. Paulyn."
Sophie closed her fan slowly; her desire was to laugh madly; this was characteristic of him: when he could have had her for the asking,—yes, it was the naked truth, for the asking,—he rode away, and now she was another man's wife, he would risk a great deal to whistle her back. She was to steal his jewel for him, and he put this on her fan!—his old recklessness—his old insolence.
Hardly a glance did she give him when he took his leave, but an hour later she was waiting at the end of the dark garden, with a cloak over her bright dress.
The moon was out, and the stars, but their fire was quenched behind a soft veil of mist; the whole sky was dull and gray. The garden was not finely kept nor filled with blooms, but by the plane trees and the old stone seat at the wall grew a quantity of half-wild wallflowers, and their perfume was sweet and strong.
Sophie sat on the stone seat and twisted a spray in her fingers; the garden here was lit, in a gloomy flickering fashion, by the swinging street-lamp on the house opposite the wall.
The miserable thin moon cleared the dark chimney-tops and swam into the pallid sky with a trail of wet vapor after her. Sophie heard the steps of a passerby echoing down the empty streets; the wallflowers fell from her hands on to the lap of her silk dress.
As the footsteps died away, another, bolder and firmer, sounded, coming nearer, and she could hear him singing, in a soft, reckless voice.
She rose and waited.
He knocked on the little wooden door in the garden wall.
"He is very sure I am here," she thought, and opened the door quietly.
He entered with a wholly delightful, half-hushed laugh; he wore a dark velvet riding-mantle, and swung his hat in his hand.
Sophie closed the door and went back to the seat; he followed her, eagerness on his lips.
"Now—forget five years—my dear!" He took her passive hand and held it warmly. "First, why did you never come the last time—as as you promised?"
"You speak of too long ago," she answered,—" yet—you are much the same."
"To you always."
"I did not mean that." She had withdrawn her hand from his and closed it over the sprig of flowers in her lap. "I mean that you were reckless and careless in the way you behaved to-night—and—very certain."
He laughed in his old assured manner.
"Of what?" He had seated himself at the end of the seat and was leaning towards her; she could half see his face in the shadow of his dark hair. "Sophie—are you not glad that I have come?"
"Do you think that I have been waiting for you all these years?" she answered; her blood was running quick at the manner in which he took it for granted that she should come at his first bidding, the manner in which he accepted, without either surprise or thanks, her compliance with his monstrous request, but there was little to be told from her quiet voice, little to be seen from her shrouded figure.
"Sophie," said the Earl, leaning closer, "I have often wondered why you never came to say farewell as you promised me. Sometimes I thought that I knew—"
She laid the wallflower to her lips.
"Why will you talk of five years ago? What have you come to say to me now?"
"I think that you know."
She could hear his quick breathing. Surely he was a little moved.
"Listen to me, Lord Clare. You went out of my life utterly. I only heard of you once—when my husband told me he had bought this toy from you." She touched her bosom and saw his eyes flash. "I never thought to see you again until to-night—now, what can you imagine are my feelings towards you—now, what do you mean to say?"
Her hand rested on her knee; he laid his very gently over it.
"You care something or you had never remembered you ever cared more; you cared something or you had not come tonight. You belong, Sophie, to me, and I am here to claim you."
Her fingers trembled under his.
"Me—or your jewel?"
"Both—mine, both! The dotard sought to outwit me; he thought I should not guess where he had concealed the jewel; he thought that it would be impossible for me to steal it from such a hiding-place."
She stopped him swiftly,
"Yes—he thought so."
The Earl laughed at the recollection of the successful part he had played that evening.
"You have graced this dusty dwelling long enough, my dear."
Sophie rose suddenly; the perfume of the wallflowers was strong as wine to make her senses—reel.
"You woo me late," she said, thickly.
"Before, I was a poor man." His voice came through the cross-shadows; she could see the dark outline of his figure against the flickering lamplight cast across the wall; she put out her hand and touched the smooth bark of the plane tree.
"Why did you sell—this?" Again she touched her bosom.
She felt he reined in eagerness as he answered.
"I was starving."
"So—what could not go for love went for bread!" She laughed. "And now—you have come to ask me to steal it for you, have you not—to give it to you?"
"No." He rose from his seat. "I want you, yourself—Venus as well as the apple, my dear."
She was breathing painfully.
"You—you would suggest I go with you?"
"You—you think I will?"
"By God! I think so."
Her fingers had closed over the chain across her bosom; she saw how he watched this.
"What else am I to steal from Sir Gilbert for you?" she asked; she moved away from him, but he leaned forward and caught at her glittering dress where the cloak fell aside.
"Are we to palter here until the old man sees us? Sophie, I am tired of England. Come with me back to France."
She was drawn against the wall now, crushed in among the wallflowers.
"Hush! they will hear us in the street! Stand away from me, my lord. You do not understand—nothing could make you understand!"
At the tone in her voice he instinctively stepped back, and she moved past him, with the dull light flickering on her figure.
"Do you think that there is nothing I value more than your late-flung favor!" she said, quietly. "If I were a free woman I would not trust myself to such as you—no! Stand away from me!" She flung out her hand and struck him lightly on the breast. "Once I amused you—to me it was something more; for five years you were silent; now—things are different; I came here to-night to tell you so." Her voice came in pants. "You think me a dull fool,"—she pulled at the chain round her neck. "Once I might—have followed you—anywhere; now—good night—oh, I can say it easily—farewell!"
He seized her hands, but she dragged them away.
"Here is what you came for—this that have round my neck."
She tossed the chain at his feet. He sprang after her, but she ran down the dark length of the garden rapidly, and he heard her close and bolt the window.
At that Lord Clare went back to the plane and the wallflowers. At his feet the chain glittered in a tiny heap. What he had come for—yes—perhaps.
Yet Sophie—so suddenly unattainable—was provokingly alluring, unfathomable, and surprising. He gathered the jewel into his pocket without looking at it and stepped into the street. His swift vanity was reassured.
"After all, the jade cares," he thought, "or why did she give me this?"
He smiled, and leaning against the street post, leisurely drew it from his pocket. Sir Gilbert's jewel was a good guarantee of Sir Gilbert's wife.
The yellow lamplight and the cloudy radiance of the moon shone on the chain as he ran it over his fingers, looking for the familiar glitter of the golden apple:
But in place of it hung a little gilded skull.
Lord Clare felt the blood run to his heart with a hateful sense of shock.
"By gad! does the jade care!" he said. Then he laughed curiously and, with her mocking gift hanging over his fingers, looked up at her dark house.
"And do I care to have missed the apple—or to have missed—Venus?"
THE black marble clock pointed slender gold hands at a quarter to one, gave an expectant whir, paused the fraction of a second, then struck delicate chimes that echoed pleasantly in the large quiet room.
Beyond the tall windows, where the dark silk curtains hung carelessly, half looped back, the silent night showed; the chamber was handsome, sombre, and lit only by branched candlesticks placed either side the mantel-shelf; these were reflected in a stately and ghostly fashion in the large mirror, wreathed with dull gold, that rose behind them to the ceiling, which was by Thornhill, indistinguishable now for the shadows. The walls were of crimson and gilt-stamped leather, hung here and there with gloomy portraits; the furniture splendid and heavy. A steady fire burned on the hearth and flickered in the polished front of a Chinese cabinet, which was in use as a desk and scattered with papers. A gentleman sat before it with a pen in his hand, But he was not writing. Reflectively he bit the end of the quill and gazed down at the floor beside him. He wore a light-colored travelling-coat, and on the corner of the chair hung his hat. Presently he rose and, still with the pen in his hand, crossed to the fireplace. He looked at himself in the mirror—not, it seemed, with any intent; absently merely.
The door was opened; he turned expectantly, with the air of one weary of waiting. It was his servant who entered.
"A lady is below who wishes to see your lordship."
The gentleman frowned in a puzzled manner. "A lady—any one you know?"
"I have never seen her before, my lord!"
He considered a moment. "And no sign of Peter—no message?"
"He is plaguy slow. She, this lady, does she come from him?"
"I do not think so, my lord."
My lord glanced at the clock and smiled a little. "One of the Jack's spies, perhaps—it's inconvenient and—late. Tell her she had better reconsider her request, Saunders."
"I tried to get her to go before I troubled your lordship," answered the servant, "but she was so earnest, I did not know—"
"You knew," the gentleman interrupted, "that I was not expecting her. I should not be here if Peter hadn't been so tardy, and in that case you would have had to get rid of her—"
"She is so persistent, my lord..."
His master took a pipe from the mantel-shelf and knocked out the ashes.
"Saunders, you flatter me—is she pretty and young?"
"Both, my lord, and well dressed—she came in her own coach, which waits for her at the gate."
My lord smiled again and raised his fair eyebrows. "Does she know what time it is?"
"I told her."
"She said she must see you, my lord, if it was one in the morning or four."
His lordship gave a sideway look at himself in the mirror.
"Bring her up, Saunders."
The servant was leaving.
"And, hark ye, if any message comes, bring it me; and if Peter arrives, keep 'em quiet until I ring the bell."
He had lit his pipe now and was smoking; he stood leaning carelessly against the mantelpiece, with his back half turned to the door; the mellow light of candles and fire showed his handsome, cynical face, and gleamed in the rolled curls of his singularly smooth, fine, light-brown hair; where his roquelaure fell apart the white satin of a ball dress showed, and a sapphire sparkled in the long lace at his throat.
He heard some one enter, and slowly turned. The door closed, and a lady advanced into the room. She was masked. My lord, with an elbow resting by the marble clock and his pipe in his mouth, did not move.
"Ah, Incognita," he said, and stared at her.
She paused by the Chinese cabinet; as she did not answer, he spoke again.
"You unmasked to the servant, madam—"
She interrupted, with a clearer voice and a firmer accent than he had expected. "Because I thought his report on my features might help to obtain an audience of you, sir."
"Well," he smiled, insolently, "let us see if he spoke the truth—"
Instantly she took off the mask and came a little nearer.
She was tall and fair—very fair; her eyes were light gray, shaded darkly; her mouth very sweet; she wore a bronze-colored dress and a light-green silk mantle; she looked at him steadily and fearlessly.
"In the name of God!" he cried, suddenly, after gazing at her a space, "what brought you here?"
There was no answer to that, nor any change in her judicial gaze. He laid down his pipe and offered her, with an almost imperceptible alteration of manner, a chair. She swept into a high-backed Spanish seat with a graceful outspreading of silks.
"Thank you, Lord Bolingbroke," she said, gravely.
He slightly, very slightly, flushed. "Am I to guess, madam, your name and business?"
"I am," she answered, "coming to that."
She sat lightly and proudly, her mask in her right hand, her head high, the long curls of her powdered hair trembling on her bosom. She continued to look intently at my lord, as if this scrutiny had been the object of her coming.
The marble clock struck one. He commented on it. "The hour is unusual, madam."
"The matter on which I come is unusual, sir."
He smiled. "It appears to be to excite my curiosity."
"It is more serious, my lord, than that."
"I do not know your name, Incognita," he reminded her.
Her eyes were defiant. "It would not enlighten you, Lord Bolingbroke."
Her pretty foot, showing beneath her dress, impatiently tapped the carpet. He observed it admiringly, and let her see he did, at which the glittering shoe disappeared. He laughed, but she colored and held her head still higher.
"There is no mystery about me, my lord; I am Dorinda Desborough, sister to Captain Charles Desborough who died at Malplaquet, and daughter of Major Desborough, now in Ireland."
She said this as if she claimed kinship with princes, and her eyes sparkled gloriously.
"A Hanoverian," remarked Lord Bolingbroke, lightly; "then you have not come here for a political reason?"
"A matter of politics," answered Miss Desborough, "could have waited until the morning."
"This is an affair of greater importance, then—" his continued smile was scarcely this side of insolence. "Now I can think of nothing of more consequence than politics, Miss Desborough, unless it be love."
"But I know of many things," she replied, gravely, "and what I come about does not touch love."
He stirred the logs with the toe of his riding-boot, and looked at her the while.
"Why, I hardly flattered myself, madam; in truth, I did not"—he thrust his hands into his pockets and laughed—"and you must give me credit for that, considering the circumstances; it proves, Miss Desborough, that I am not very vain."
She answered, pale and cold: "Every word you say, Lord Bolingbroke, proves you to be what I have always known you were; but I have not come here to—to—"
She faltered, and he smilingly finished the sentence.
"—to discuss my morals? Well, I believe they were ruled out of polite conversation, as known at the boarding-schools, some time ago." His blue eyes were mocking. "It would be interesting to know what you have heard of me."
Her fingers closed tightly over the mask. "I must get to what I came to say," she said, hurriedly.
"Faith, 'tis no occasion for haste," he assured her. "I, at least, am enjoying myself—green becomes you vastly, Miss Desborough."
His bold yet careless glance revealed an admiration he did not consider it worth while to conceal; her bosom heaved.
"I heard one thing about Lord Bolingbroke," she said, "that now I see is false; it was said his fine manners were as certain as—as some other qualities of his."
He seemed amused. "The present occasion is hardly one for ceremony"—he looked at her under his full lids—"do you think so?"
"I am not asking for ceremony, but respect," answered Miss Desborough. "I wish you would mend the tone in which you speak to me, my lord; it is not very creditable."
Lord Bolingbroke did not alter his smiling stare. "I am not very famous for creditable things, madam."
The color came into her face; she moved her hand as if she swept his remark aside. "You were at the Queensbury ball to-night," she said.
"So much I can admit, seeing all London knows it," smiled my lord.
"I, also, was there."
"No need to inform me," he lied, courteously. "I, of course, observed you."
"I think," she said, "you did not, for I was watching you—"
"You are vastly complimentary, Miss Desborough."
"I wanted," she continued, "to speak to you; but"—she averted her eyes angrily and put her hand to her heart; her charming profile against the background of shadows was admired by my lord—"I may tell you at once, sir, that I am Miss Kitty Kynaston's cousin."
Nothing in his easy demeanor betrayed whether the name meant anything to him or no. "A young lady I am acquainted with," he said. "She, also, was at the Queensbury ball—"
Miss Desborough faced him again. "Where is she now?"
Lord Bolingbroke eyed her steadily.
"I wonder?" he said, with a slight drawl.
"You know!" His accuser panted a little.
He raised his eyebrows. "I know?" he answered. "Well, I suppose the ball is over now and she has gone home to Westminster; she is in her room; perhaps she is looking at her glove and thinking of its fellow; perhaps she is taking off her shoes and stockings—think of sweet Kitty taking off her shoes and stockings!"
Miss Desborough rose. "Sir," she said, "Miss Kynaston is in this house."
Lord Bolingbroke moved from the hearth. "You flatter me," he answered, looking at her intently, "for, I think, the second time."
"She is here," repeated the lady, "and I have come to take her back."
"That is the reason for your coming?"
"That is my reason; Miss Kynaston must return home—before anyone has missed her." As she spoke she crushed her velvet mask together in her hands and drew herself to her full straining height.
"Again I say," smiled the Viscount, "that you flatter me in supposing Miss Kynaston is here...I wonder what makes you imagine she might be?" he added, carelessly.
"I do not imagine, my lord, I know; my cousin is somewhere in this house."
He returned to the hearth and rested his elbow on the mantelpiece. "Only one lady honors my mansion to-night, madam—yourself."
She moved a step farther into the shadows of the room. "That I do not believe."
The candle-light, full on his alluring face, showed the lazy smile that touched his lips. "I give you my word, Miss Desborough."
Her gray eyes flashed mightily. "The word of Harry St. John, sir, is not a thing to be trusted."
Again my lord slightly, very slightly, flushed. "You allow me no virtues, madam."
She trembled, with anger perhaps.
"Your lordship allows yourself none." She moved toward him again. "Look at me, sir, and dare tell me there is any reason why I should take your word—"
He laughed. "You seem bent on insulting me, Miss Desborough."
"I knew," she answered, "that you would lie to me; I was not so foolish as to think you would tell me the truth."
The satin glittered under the roquelaure as he lifted his shoulders. "The truth, after all, is a tiresome thing."
"Your lordship has often found it so."
He changed from his careless position and faced her. "On my honor, Mis Kynaston is not here." Their eyes met steadily.
"Your honor is as little to me as your word, sir. I came, not to hear your protestations, but to take away my cousin Kitty."
His mouth hardened. "Your cousin Kitty"—he almost imperceptibly imitated her inflection of the words—"would be grateful to you for your care, but I cannot think she would wish to have her name used like this."
"Her name!" cried Miss Desborough. "Her name! It is you to talk of her name, when, unless she comes home tonight, she will not have a shred of reputation left nor be able to hold up her head again! I am here to save her name."
"I repeat, she is not here."
"And I repeat, sir, that I know she is."
"Prove it," said Lord Bolingbroke.
She colored at his tone, but her eyes were dauntless. "You have been paying court to Kitty since the winter."
"Her mother," he said, with the shadow of a sneer, "had no objection to my visits."
Miss Desborough blazed with disdain. "Aunt Kynaston met you at the Dean's house, and you called on her because of Kitty. We are not people in your set, and you had no reason to pursue the acquaintance, except Kitty."
"A pretty reason, though."
"She has no father or brothers, and Mrs. Kynaston is not very worldly—which made it unfair on my cousin."
"And pleasant," he smiled, "for me."
"Kitty, too, is sometimes foolish," continued Miss Desborough, "and so she let you write her notes, and answered them secretly. She told me of this a few days ago when I came to stay with them—"
"And you scolded her—poor Kitty!"
Miss Desborough held on to the back of the chair. "Do not imagine I am telling you Kitty is fond of you. Would it be likely"—her voice was scornful—"with so many younger men adoring her? But she was flattered because you are Lord Bolingbroke."
He looked at her sharply, and laughed. "Do the ladies already consider me old?"
"Kitty is only twenty, my lord. I suppose you do not seem very young to her. Captain Eric Bellamy is twenty-three; she must, I suppose, make comparisons. They are very fond of each other, really, and she is not to spoil it by her folly. I, sir, have resolved on that."
Lord Bolingbroke, thirty-five, and the most popular man in London, hardly knew what to make of this clear verdict—old!—even to twenty; he had never considered that. "Under these circumstances," he said, "it seems you should have sought out the favored gallant, Miss Desborough; it is strange to seek your cousin in the house of a gentleman you say she is so indifferent to."
Miss Desborough flashed over him quite wonderfully brilliant eyes. "I admit," she conceded, "that you are her Majesty's Minister, and that you have a—reputation; also that Kitty is silly and has just quarrelled with Captain Bellamy—"
"About me?" he asked.
"About you, Lord Bolingbroke. Captain Bellamy did not care for her to attend the Queensbury ball because you procured the invitation, and as he became imperious, she, of course, got vastly angered. He demanded of her that she should never see you again."
"What did he say?" queried my lord, lazily.
"He said," flashed Miss Desborough; then she checked herself. "You are a powerful man, sir; it is not fair to Captain Bellamy to repeat what he said."
"You leave me," said the Viscount, "to infer—Well, madam, is that the sole proof you have that I ran away with Miss Kynaston?"
She sank again into the chair. "Indeed no. I saw this morning something was wrong with Kitty—then Aunt Kynaston could not come to the ball with us, being sick, and we went under the protection of a lady who did not look after Kitty—"
Lord Bolingbroke seemed considerably amused. "You condemn me on very oblique evidence."
She clenched her hands in her lap; impatience flushed her cheek. "I mark Kitty; I see her agitated—she loses her glove (I think you have it); in the middle of the ball she disappears; I search for her; I find our friend, who says Kitty has taken leave of her with a tedious headache and gone home in the chariot with a maid; I find our chariot still at the door; I drive home desperately; Aunt Kynaston is in bed, Kitty not there; I pretend to the servant I am going to join her at supper at Queensbury house and have but returned to see if my aunt is well; then I mount the chariot again and come here—this is my evidence, my lord. What do you say to it?"
She paused, breathless and accusing; her cloak had slipped back and showed crushed lace and faded violets on her bosom; Lord Bolingbroke had seldom been gazed at by such fearless eyes.
"This," he answered, "that you had better have sent Captain Bellamy on such an errand."
"You think it strange of me to have come?"
"It puts us both," he smiled, "into an awkward position."
She did not lower her eyes. "Captain Bellamy would not understand," she said; "there was no one but myself could come, because no one but myself must know Kitty was here to-night."
"Perhaps," said Lord Bolingbroke—again he lightly imitated her slight accent—"I do not seem very young to you; you must, I suppose, make comparisons, and you felt tolerably safe in visiting such an ancient beau as myself."
"I was not thinking of you at all," she answered, hastily—"only of Kitty...As to myself," she smiled, "I come of a different world from my cousin; my father and all my friends would understand why I came here. You, my lord, flung boarding-school miss at me; I was never that. I had been a man, I should have become a soldier. I have journeyed all over Europe and never been afraid of anything except a coward, and I did not think your lordship that...Now I have told you everything, give Kitty back to me!" She rose. "Please, Lord Bolingbroke—I have been here long enough."
He looked at her calmly. "Miss Kynaston is not here."
She surveyed him keenly. The effect of the soft light, the satin, and powder was to make him look less than his years; though had she seen him in broad daylight she would probably have set him down as older than he was; his extreme good looks were but an aggravation of his insolence.
"You lie!" she said, hotly. "I know it..."
"But you cannot prove it," mocked Lord Bolingbroke.
She considered; he was prepared for her ringing for the servants and demanding to be shown over the house, but she did not move from where she stood.
"Kitty must be here; she left the ball before I did, and I have been home since. Lord Bolingbroke, if we are not back by three our absence will be marked."
"Then you had better leave, madam."
"Not without Kitty."
"Since I play chorus—again, she is not here."
"Why," demanded Miss Desborough, "does your lordship wear riding-boots and a roquelaure?"
He bowed to her. "Because before I was diverted by your charming company I had intended leaving for my place in Kent to-night."
"And not alone..."
"With my servants—"
He laughed. "I am not so far honored."
She moved a quick step, the mellow candle-light full on her fairness; she put her hand to her brow in a bewildered way, and the green silk cloak slipped from her shoulders.
"You have resolved to be cruel, my lord," she said, faintly; then she dropped her hand. "I vow I feel quite faint."
Lord Bolingbroke was picking up her cloak; he paused with it in his hand, interested by the sudden change in her manner. "The avenging angel is discovered to be human," he said—"or does Nemesis suffer from the vapors?"
She turned to face him. "My salts are in the pocket of the mantle. Will you put it round me, my lord?"
The Viscount smiled. As he came up to her she seemed to droop; then, as his eyes were very intent on her face, she snatched something from the pocket of his white coat and sprang to the other end of the room.
"Kitty's glove!" she cried, with no sign of faintness now, but a face set and dauntless.
"Damnation!" said Lord Bolingbroke, and flushed beneath his powder.
"You should, my lord," flashed Miss Desborough, "have put it farther in your pocket; I observed it as you moved." She unrolled the long mauve silk glove and discovered a crumpled piece of paper.
"That letter, madam," remarked my lord, "is mine."
She read it aloud: "'Yes—I will meet your man at twelve o'clock in the shrubbery—it is best we be not missed together, as you say, but do not be long after me, Harry, or I shall faint in the coach. With haste, with fears, with love, Your distracted Kitty.'"
My lord shrugged his shoulders. "I think you take a liberty, Miss Desborough."
She tore the note into a hundred pieces. "What now for the word of Harry St. John?" she cried, triumphant.
"You cannot think less of it than you did, madam," he answered, his eyes rather dark and a color in his face; "and what of the obvious inclination of Miss Kynaston!"
He flung her cloak over the chair and clasped his hands behind him, a trick of his on the rare occasions when he was nonplussed or roused.
"What of the mouse in the trap!" she retorted, scornful. "I think he had some inclination for the bait that got him there."
"Maybe, madam, also, I think it was not easy to get him out." He glanced at the clock, that was on the verge of striking the half-hour. "May I remind you that your coachman will wonder at your absence?"
"He?" she laughed. "He was a soldier; he knows why I am here, and will not wonder; I do not fear that my father's men will ever fail me—but Kitty..."
He interrupted her. "You dare a great deal, Miss Desborough; perhaps a little too much. I think you interfere unwarrantably in your cousin's affairs; believe me, she will hardly thank you—"
"Not now, perhaps, but afterward—"
"We, Miss Desborough, are dealing with the present...afterward you and your fire-eating relations may take their revenge on me."
"What is the use of revenge?" she answered; "I am thinking of Kitty."
"So am I," said Lord Bolingbroke.
"She is in this house, and I will not leave it until I find her."
"You Irish!" laughed my lord. "Would you like to call the servants up and question them, bring in the watch and search the house?"
Her fair countenance was contemptuous. "She is going back with me—quietly."
"Madam, believe me, if Miss Kynaston was in the room now she would refuse to accompany you."
"Ah, you think she dotes on you!" cried Miss Desborough.
"I think," he answered, "that you contradict yourself—you vow the lady is here, on the point of eloping with me, and you deny that she holds me in the least regard."
"I never denied that she was foolish as—"
"—as I am wicked?" he finished.
"That was not what I intended to say, my lord."
He looked at her with a smiling curiosity. "Indeed, I have marked your strange absence of reproaches. I cannot accuse you of railing, Miss Desborough."
"One does not reproach an enemy," she said, and she also smiled. "One defeats him—if one can."
"The reservation shows some wit, madam. Does it not also show that you have faint hopes of victory?"
Her hand stole over the violets on her breast. "Lord Bolingbroke," she said, and the gravity, almost tenderness, of eyes and voice swept away his careless mockery as a thing of no meaning, "you will give me a chance—as if it was another man. At heart I am a gentleman; treat me as one to-night." She came a step nearer to him. "It is not worth while, Lord Bolingbroke, it is nothing to you—a great deal to Kitty, to her mother, to Captain Bellamy...to me. I have said once I know you are not a coward—it is only a coward who is too proud to say 'I lose!'"
He gazed at her very earnestly. "I like you, Miss Desborough," he answered. "I think you are the first lady I have complimented with that expression. I like you well enough to wish you had not come here to-night."
The fire was falling into ashes; the marble clock struck a quarter to two.
"But you must see," continued my lord, "that if Miss Kynaston, or any lady, threw herself on my protection, she, Miss Kynaston or any lady, would have a claim on me I could not—forgive me—ignore."
He was smiling gravely with his lips and brilliantly with his eyes; he touched the smouldering embers with his foot and sparks flew up.
"In brief," said Miss Desborough, "you do not choose that a woman should cause you in any way to alter your designs? Well"—her breath came heavily—"you have the advantage, my lord; it is your house, filled with your creatures—you could lock me up here and ride off with Kitty under my eyes; but you won't do that, my lord!"
"Why not, Miss Desborough?"
She gave a little panting laugh. "I saw you once in Dublin when you were Mr. St. John, and everyone was giving you the most grievous character—but I. One man like that is worth ten clods like Harley, I said, and—and if he is but half as fine a gentleman as he looks—'tis enough."
"You dare more than you have yet done," said my lord. "In saying that you make me vain, and a vain man is not to be trusted—"
"Not vain, sir," she flashed, "but proud—sure there isn't a man in England has more to be proud of than you!"
"Now I perceive you try to flatter me," he smiled.
Miss Desborough moved farther away. "I have always admired you, my lord..."
"Ah," said he, quickly, "Dorinda dares—to tell me that!"
She courtesied. "Dorinda dares—to your face, my lord."
Lord Bolingbroke laughed. "Then I might dare—"
"What?" challenged Miss Desborough
"Perhaps—to kiss Dorinda," he said, not insolently, but with a gay gallantry evoked by her spirit.
She flushed and sparkled an answer.
"Oh, I'll kiss you gladly, Lord Bolingbroke, if you'll give me Kitty."
"You must not tempt me—if Miss Kynaston chooses..."
"Ah," she cried, "if Kitty chooses! Bring her in, my lord, and let her choose!"
There was a second's pause before he answered: "That way you lose."
"No," she said. "I shall win—and if I do not, if Kitty of her own free will does not come home—well, I'll let her go with you, my lord, with never a protest. Do you take the challenge?"
They looked at each other intently.
"By gad!" replied my lord, "I do. And if she elects to go home, I'll give you the despised word of Harry St. John that I'll never molest her again, nor shall tonight's adventure ever be breathed—my people can be discreet."
"And this time I'll take your word!" cried she. "And if I lose—"
"If you lose," said my lord, coming nearer, "you'll give me the kiss I did not take."
"Oh yes!" she answered, elated.
Lord Bolingbroke rang the bell.
"One thing," said Miss Desborough. "I may say what I like to her—without interruption?"
He turned to face her again. "What you like, madam"—his eyes danced amusement—"pictures of weeping mother, distracted lover, entreaties; but"—he glanced at the timepiece—"I can give you no more than ten minutes by the clock—still that, without interruption."
"Very well," said Miss Desborough, "ten minutes' passionate pleading against the splendid smile of Harry St. John!"
My lord flushed despite himself; the servant entered. "There is a lady below—"
"Yes, sir; she arrived some time ago."
"Ask Miss Kynaston to come up here."
Miss Desborough, erect and twisting her handkerchief into knots, stepped back toward the Chinese desk, where the thick shadows almost concealed her. My lord, intolerantly handsome, stood by the chimney-piece with the candle-light glimmering in his brilliant hair.
The door opened violently, and Kitty Kynaston, all lace, white satin, and brown curls, rushed into the sombre room.
"Oh, Harry!" she cried, almost before she had crossed the threshold, "I thought should die. The wheel came off the coach, and I had to come in a hackney, and so was late, and then you keep me waiting until I am in hysterics!"
She sank into the chair that had served her cousin; her lovely face was near as pale as the pearls round her throat. As she gathered fresh breath, my lord, never moving, spoke: "You are disputed, my dear; this lady desires you to return home with her."
Miss Desborough came a little out of the shadows.
Miss Kynaston shrieked. "Dorinda!"
"Yes," said Miss Desborough—"I, Kitty...and now we had better go home."
Miss Kynaston sprang to her feet, her face sudden scarlet. "I am never going home again; you have no right to interfere, Dorinda—"
My lord glanced at Miss Desborough and very slightly smiled.
"The right of your friend, Kitty," she said, quietly.
Miss Kynaston shook with agitation. "Harry! my lord!—what does this mean? What is Dorinda doing here?"
"Oh, can't you see?" cried that lady, ignoring my lord's delicate triumph. "Well, my dear, I did not think you were quite so foolish."
"This is intolerable," said Kitty; her eyes blazed with excitement, her cheeks burned with shame. "My lord," she added, hysterically, "please take me away."
"I am afraid," answered Lord Bolingbroke, "that you must listen to her for ten minutes." Again he smiled at Miss Desborough.
"You have no right, Dorinda," cried Miss Kynaston, frantically. "I will not endure this—espionage."
"I never spied on you, Kitty."
"Then how could you know!"
"My lord—Harry told me."
The veins showed on Miss Kynaston's soft throat and forehead. "Told you!" she exclaimed.
Miss Desborough stepped nearer to her. "Will you come home, Kitty?" she asked, earnestly.
Miss Kynaston stamped her foot. "No—I will not."
Both ladies seemed careless of my lord's presence and absorbed in each other, Kitty Kynaston tempestuous, fierce, and overwrought; Miss Desborough pale and controlled.
"You won't come home, Kitty?"
"Not if you was to go on your knees, Dorinda. I know my own affairs. I'll not endure this meddling," was the passionate answer.
"I don't think of going on my knees, my dear," said Miss Desborough, quietly. "This isn't at all an heroical affair...Of course, if I had thought you were going to behave so foolishly, I should have told you before—"
"Harry!" shrieked Miss Kynaston.
"Oh, my dear, Harry to me before ever you had seen him...this isn't the time for delicacy—and you must know the truth."
"I don't understand!" flashed Kitty.
"Oh, la!" cried Miss Desborough, "I did not think you could be so simple—didn't anyone advise you Lord Bolingbroke was a great admirer of mine?"
"We met in Dublin—he sent me three notes a day, and I returned them all," said Miss Desborough. "Those you received addressed to 'Chloe' were written for me, but you seemed so pleased with them I hadn't the heart to tell you."
"Dorinda!" gasped Miss Kynaston, "how dare you!"
"Oh, Dorinda dares"—she gave a second's glance at the Viscount—"and surely you didn't think you were the first? Oh, you are very young...why, six months ago my lord was importuning me to run away with him; his admiration was quite the talk of Dublin."
"Harry!" cried Miss Kynaston, "tell me this isn't the truth!"
"My lord," said Miss Desborough, "ten minutes!"
He made a little movement, took his handkerchief out and pressed it to his lips, but did not speak.
"Of course it's the truth, Kitty. Why ever should I tell you a lie? How otherwise should I know you would be here to-night if my lord hadn't told me how you had lost your head?"
"Lost my head!" quivered Kitty.
"I always assured him you were merely playing; he vowed you were quite in love with him," answered Miss Desborough, "and so he suggested an elopement to you—well, just to see...I was very much to blame, but—I never thought you would go—"
"Stop!" cried Miss Kynaston, desperately.
Her cousin continued, piteously. "After you had left the ball, my lord came and—gave me this"—she held up the long silk glove—"to show he had won...then I was frightened."
Miss Kynaston stared at the glove. "Oh!" she said.
"Are you convinced?" asked Miss Desborough.
Kitty Kynaston turned distractedly to my lord. "Why don't you speak—why don't you speak, sir? I shall think it true!"
He looked at the clock; it wanted three minutes of the ten during which he had promised not to contradict Miss Desborough. "You must believe her if you will, madam," he answered.
"You must disbelieve if you can!" Miss Desborough snatched something from her bosom and held it out on the palm of her hand before the maddened eyes of Kitty: a miniature of my lord with "To the fairest Chloe" inscribed on the rim.
"He gave me this in Dublin," cried Miss Desborough. "It is just like yours, is it not? He must have them by the dozen! Oh, believe me, he cares for me as much as he does for you, and for any other woman as well as either of us!"
The Viscount stepped forward. "By gad! madam—" he began, but her brilliant eyes held him silent.
Miss Kynaston stared at the miniature a second, then whirled into speech. "I have been treated most vilely! I hate you both! How dared you, sir! How dared you! Oh, I wish I was dead!"
He made an impulsive movement toward her.
"Coward! Traitor!" Her lovely face was transformed with passion. "And you, miss, a deceitful hussy—" she burst into tears. "I never really liked either of you—Oh! Oh! I am ashamed I—ever—looked at you, sir. It was always against my own judgment—"
She crushed her handkerchief into her eyes. "I'm going home."
"Yes," said Miss Desborough, rather faintly, "we will both go home."
But Miss Kynaston, darting her a fierce look of weeping indignation, sped past and dashed out of the room, letting the door bang behind her.
Her cousin caught hold of the chair back. "Nine minutes, my lord," she cried, gasping a little, "and wilful Kitty saved!"
"By Heaven!" said Lord Bolingbroke, "the ingenuity of that move, madam, deserved success—you are a splendid diplomat."
"I am a woman, understanding a woman," she answered, moving in an exhausted fashion toward the door. "Now I must go and make it right with Kitty."
My lord came after her. "I kept my promise," he said, "did I not? Faith, I let myself be damned without a word of protest."
Miss Desborough smiled. "I have to thank you for that. You must forgive me, my lord," she blushed, "in the—matter of—Dublin."
"It would have been the truth had I been fortunate enough to meet you there."
She caught hold of the door-handle and did not look at him. "Kitty is in hysterics in the hall; I must get her home—you have promised silence. Well, at last, good night, my lord..."
"One word, one moment." He was ardently masterful. "How did you obtain the picture?"
It was still in her hand; she held it out to him. "I found it on Kitty's table when I looked in her room. I suppose she had forgotten it in her agitation. Take it back, sir."
He hesitated, but her raised eyes were very steady. "Please take it, Lord Bolingbroke."
He took, instead, her hand. "Dorinda," he said—"Dorinda dares not keep it?"
She snatched away her hand, and the miniature fell on the floor between them. "Dorinda dares her own heart to-night," she cried, wildly, "and has dared it far enough! Good night, my lord!"
She opened the door and escaped. He heard her silks on the stairs, and her quick sobbing breaths as she struggled to compose herself.
After a while he closed the door and went to the window. By the aid of the lamp at his gates he saw two ladies mount a chariot, one sobbing on the shoulder of the other.
The marble clock struck a quarter past two. Lord Bolingbroke set his teeth, and in his heart cursed a certain lean and shrewish lady who was his Viscountess.
MASTER HUMPHREY looked out of his window at Chepeside.
In the garden opposite was a hawthorn in full flower, and beside it a lime tree, almost bare of leaves as yet, but full of wood-doves.
It was very warm, and Master Humphrey had the window wide open; the pale, still sun circled the chamber, gilded the dark smooth walls, the long chest that stood in a corner, carved with a procession of revellers, the table at which Master Humphrey sat, and the parchments that covered it with heavy leaves that fluttered a little in the spring breeze.
Close to his idle right hand that held a reed pen was a box of ebony and silver, and over it trailed a cluster of very frail roses, white stained with pink.
Master Humphrey sighed, then yawned and gazed out of the window at the Chepe, the may, and the blue above the gabled houses.
His room was on the ground floor, and his window low, so that when he rested his elbow on the sill and leaned out he was almost in the street.
He was not a young man, nor in appearance gay, being pale and slight, and soberly dressed in olive green, but he looked at the hawthorn and sighed like a love-sick youth.
A clerk in a red hood went down the street; Master Humphrey followed the spot of color with idle eyes almost to the city gates, then set himself to writing again.
A great French book in a cover of leather touched with gold stood at his elbow: he was translating from it a celebrated romance.
Flaggingly the reed pen went up and down the vellum.
"Into ye halle sche came
Knelt before lorde and dame
Saying In Gode hys name
Ich grete ye alle.
"And King Artour
Who is of greet valour,
Of Knyghtes ye flour,
On hym Ich calle,
"Set ye swerdes a flame,
Ich telle a heavv shame
Justyce be dulle and lame
If ye delaye.
"In a darke tour
Loathly a villian dour
Holdes in thys hour
A hygh borne may."
Master Humphrey yawned again and dropped the pen.
With an air of reflection he took up a sheet of vellum on which was drawn in red paint a large and flourishing capital letter P, finely shaped, but bare, hollow, and unadorned.
Master Humphrey looked at it ruefully, shook his head, set it down, and presently fell asleep, leaning sideways in his chair.
As the bells of the convent of St. Austin were ringing, a young squire came singing down the street.
He was tall and slender; his hair was a soft brown, his lips red, his eyes very brightly gray; he wore a clear-green doublet, one red hose and one white, a hood of blue satin, and a cloak of cramoisy. One hand he held on his hip, where a little dagger hung; he walked daintily, careful of his pointed shoes, and his manner was most joyous.
"God Himself was born in Maytime Phillipa!
Philomel at night, the bounting in the day time Phillipa!
The throstle in the even and my heart at the dawn
Bless the merrie month when God Himself was born!"
At Master Humphrey's open window he stayed his steps and his singing and looked into the mellow little chamber.
Seeing the writer was asleep, he smiled and climbed the sill gracefully to peep at the writing on the parchment.
He read over the lines with a smiling disdain, then mischievously took up the pen and added:
"Ich am tyred of Hercules and Lysander,
Of Peryceles and Alysander
Of Perceforert and ye Salymander
Of Artour and hys courte.
"If sich a tale ye must rite
Of dragon, dame and heavy fighte,
Preymak oure labour lighte
And thys tale shorte."
Master Humphrey woke up with the scratching of the pen, and the young squire burst out laughing.
"I have been finishing thy accomplished 'rime couée' for thee," said the youth, demurely. "See how very smooth it goes—"
Master Humphrey looked.
"Now thou hast spoiled a page of parchment for me—how must I rub to get that fair again?"
"Leave it," smiled the squire; "it is as good as thine—"
"But not so pertinent to the tale."
"A silly tale!" cried the other, joyously. "Art thou not tired of such silly tales?"
"I earn good money with them," returned Master Humphrey.
"Why, so thou dost, and a pleasant way, too. I would like to write tales well enough"—he waved a fair hand—"but differently. Come out into the fields; thou art so bemused with chant royal, couplet, 'rime couée,' thou canst not see there is a better poem than ever thou stained vellum with in that fresh hawthorn facing thee."
The older man smiled indulgently.
"Peace, for God His sake; you are young and vain."
The squire caught up the ebony box and tried to see his own fair face in the polished silver fittings.
"Attend to me, Jeffray." Master Humphrey held up the unfinished capital. "See, I have to complete this—it was sent me from Burgundy."
"Burgundy!" sighed the young man. "I have been there—Oh, Venus!"
"Listen to me—one of the Duke's men did it and died; now, as it was a good skin, they have sent it to me, to write a poem and even decorate it. You have sometimes a wit—tell me what P stands for?"
Master Jeffray shook back his curls. "By Gesu and Ovid—say Phillipa!"
The other frowned.
"It is not a love poem—"
"By charity! I do not know the word." Then he sprang over the sill into the street again and laughed over his shoulder. "I think it means 'Pleasure'—that is what the poor wight would have written—
"Pleasure is a goddess
Well beloved by me
With bliss she comes and honeysuckle
To bind me to her knee!"
Singing as he had come, he went down the street toward the gates.
Master Humphrey mixed his saucer of colors and began to paint in, standing by the stem of the letter, a youth in green and white and red, with a chaplet of daisies round his soft locks.
While he was still bending over this a lady came past with two pages and a serving-man. She wore an amber-colored gown, a long silver veil, and a 'cote hardie' of purple trimmed with ermine; she also stopped at the window and turned her face, like a breathing blossom, toward Master Humphrey.
"Hast thou any fresh romances since I came back from Burgundy?" she asked.
"This one, Mistress Phillipa, that a certain squire of his Grace has passed but now on his way to the fields."
"By charity!" her red mouth was scornful. "I go not there to meet him—nor any other, but to pull flowers for my lady Blanche, certes, but I have walked from the Savoy."
Master Humphrey held up the letter he worked on.
"Master Jeffray says it means 'pleasure'—so I paint him standing there."
Her glass-gray eyes became suddenly wet, like pale irises in the rain.
"He thinketh of nought but pleasure," she said, petulantly.
"Nay—first he said—Phillipa!"
"A silly jest by the rood," she declared, and pulled at the yellow curl on her breast.
"You play with him too long," admonished Master Humphrey. "Before ye both went to Burgundy with the Duke it was the same tale."
"Thou art too ready with thy romances—"
"Yet he loveth thee, Mistress Phillipa."
"Maybe," she spoke indifferently, "he is no more to me than this—"
She shook a crimson butterfly off her veil.
"Yet you break your heart for him," smiled Master Humphrey.
She leaned in through the window.
"Listen to me; I give you another meaning for your letter:
"Pride holds Love in armes two
Giveth a hundred pains and mo
Poor Love he cannot move nor go
Pride is very strong, I tell you so—"
"Shall I paint thee here also?" asked Master Humphrey.
"Why," she said, "I mind not if in a picture I stand by Master Jeffray Chaucer."
She waved her hand and went on, followed by the bright liveries of Lancaster.
Master Humphrey smiled and drew in a figure of a lady with yellow hair the other side of the stem of the letter P.
Several people—priests, nuns, clerks, monks, and soldiers—went past the window, and presently came another lady who was of a very breath-taking beauty.
Master Humphrey, seeing her, bowed from the window; she was on foot and had three damsels with her.
"Mistress Sywnford," said the painter, "Your sister has just passed here."
"Ay, the whole world goes to the field to-day. Was Master Jeffray Chaucer with her?"
"Nay; he went first,"
"She is out of humor with him, for yesterday he fell a-brawling and beat the watch."
"But being my lord's squire he escaped?"
"Oh ay," she said, heavily.
Master Humphrey looked at her curiously; she was of a golden-red loveliness, with brown eyes and drooping mouth; he had never seen her look anything but serenely or stormily sad. Her gown was pale blue, worked with little wreaths and roses of gold and silver; round her hair was a twist of velvet flowers, purple and white; over them a veil of fine tissue.
"My lord's grace is in the fields?" asked Master Humphrey.
"Yes," she said, and looked away down the Chepe.
Then suddenly she was scornful.
"By faith, thou art very peaceful here!"
"Ay," he answered. "I paint an initial letter."
He showed it to her; already it glittered with wet colors.
"Pride and pleasure," he nodded his head. "Can you think of another meaning, Mistress Sywnford?"
"Passion and pain," she answered, instantly.
At this her three damsels, who were clad severally in russet, tawny, and and murry, smiled at one another behind her back.
"Make a rhyme on that," said the painter.
"I am no trouvère."
"Shall I try?" He laid down his brush and folded his arms on the parchments.
"Passion and pain be hard to fight
My beauty gives me no delight
Nor pomp of ribible and clokardè
Of low dowcemere and bombardè
"Ah!" interrupted Katherine Sywnford. "You mean to rhyme on misplaced love—"
She frowned dangerously.
"Something about a king's son," answered Master Humphrey, "who had a dark face would have been in that song."
"By charity!" she cried; then she sighed. "A king's son!"
"The Duke's Grace of Lancaster is a son of kings."
"Why do you speak of him?"
"Because he is the most perfect knight I ever knew, and I have made him the hero of many a tale."
She laughed uneasily.
"Johan of Ghent is much praised and much admired. Give you good day. Master Humphrey."
Slowly and with her head held a little droopingly she passed on, and her damsels fingered their hoods and smiled at one another under quiet lids.
Master Humphrey painted in the loop of the P a lady sitting bowed, with braided hair and embroidered robe, and behind her a background of dark blue sprinkled with stars.
And while he was finishing this a company came back through the Chepe toward the Savoy.
First on a white horse with scarlet trappings rode Johan of Ghent and Lancaster, and the common people stopped under the eaves and in the gutter to watch him pass.
He wore a furred robe of gold-colored silk, a deep rose coif over his dark hair, and gloves sparkling with jewels on the back.
Beside him was the Duchess Blanche, delicate with gold locks glimmering in a net; riding a white palfrey.
They talked together very lovingly.
After came knights and squires, pages and serving-men, among them Sir Otto Sywnford whittling a rose stick.
Then Katherine and Phillipa walking slowly, the elder with her eyes on her mistress showing pale and lovely through the press, and her sister with a half-smile for Jeffray Chaucer's joyous glance as he looked over his shoulder at her petulant beauty.
Most of his company carried flowers that they had picked without the ramparts—narcissi, daffodils, cowslips, hawthorn, wild roses, eglantine, and the marguerite.
Master Humphrey looked at Johan of Ghent.
"Power would be the meaning ye would set to this," he said to himself, and his thoughts shook into rhyme as he watched the procession pass.
"Power of life and death I hold,
Of love too, I wis, and such fair things
Well may I be proud and bold
Favourite of God and heir of Kings.
Beauty and strength adorn me like fine gold,
And while the sword on my bright greaves rings
I do not think I ever can grow old.
Oh Gesu and Phoebus, these English Springs
When the sun 'gins to shine across the wold!"
And so they passed. And it fell very still, for it was midday.
The painter looked at his unfinished letter.
"My own meaning now," he said.
He drew a splendid knight riding away across the page with a pennon in his hand, and then above the letter over all an angel hooded and meek.
With that finished, he wrote with his reed pen dipped in brown:
"Peace comes to alle, after alle,
Longe toyle, short stryfe or strong sea.
Peace to them that ryse and them that falle,
Either in joye or miserie.
Peace at laste, beyonde ye kindly starres
Where Gode He smyles and waytes,
Looking on alle oure revelryes and warres
Short joys, sade loves and weary hates,
Peace for alle; after most stormy daye
Cometh Peace which lasteth for alwaye."
A GENTLEMAN was seated on a mile-stone that marked four miles to Bemerton, in the county of Wiltshire; it was midday in the month of June; warm, fair, and cloudy; the gentleman had an inkhorn by his side, and was employed in busily writing on some loose sheets of paper that he held on his knee.
A little grove of young beech trees cast a rippling shade across the smooth white road; a hedge of hawthorn stuck with great clusters of blossoms shut off the meadow-land, where flocks of silent sheep grazed; about the mile-stone and edging the road grew sparrow-grass, dock leaves, large and torn, the parsley flowers with their feathery green and swollen striped buds, wild thyme, close and dark in the tufted grass, buttercups smooth and glistening, sun-reddened daisies, and ragged-robins, fragile and wild.
A continuous veil of soft white cloud moved slowly across the sky, allowing a tempered sun to shine gently over the fields; and it was so quiet that the sound of the gentleman's quill moving over the paper was heard distinctly by a person who, all unknown to him, seated beside the gate that led into the meadow behind him, was watching him very closely.
This person was a lady of comely appearance habited in a dark-gray travelling dress.
She had a little riding-switch in her hands, and held it across her knees with an air of resolution, and her hood was thrown back on her shoulders, showing red ribbons in her brown hair.
After she was tired of bending frowning eyes on the unconscious gentleman on the mile-stone, she took to glancing up and down the road, uttering little sighs of impatience, as if in hope the busy writer might look up.
But he was too absorbed to hear her. The faint shadows waved to and fro on the road, the sheep moved slowly about in the soft grass, the wild flowers glowed and sparkled in the hedges, the hawthorn shone amid its sharp leaves and thorns; still the gentleman wrote, and the lady sat a few yards away from him on the low gate-post, sighing, frowning, and twisting her whip in her gloved fingers.
Then, coming evidently to some resolution, she left her post and advanced along the hedge.
Still he seemed utterly unaware of her presence; she stopped within a yard of the mile-stone.
"Sir," she' said, "wilt thou be so courteous as to give me a sheet of paper, and to lend me for a moment thy pen?"
He looked up, glanced at her with a pair of sweet gray eyes, and smiled in an abstracted manner; he was attired in quiet black, and long fair curls hung on to his clerical collar of fair lawn.
"Surely, mistress," he answered, courteously; he handed her a sheet of paper, drawn from those on his knee, and fell to writing again.
She looked at him with an amused frown on her brows.
"Sir, if thou deniest me the quill, the paper is of no service."
He looked at her blankly, then tugged himself away from his dreams and blushed.
"I crave thy indulgence, mistress," he said. "When I am full of thoughts I am not mindful." He gave her the pen.
"Nay," she answered, taking it, "I have watched thee for a full half-hour and hardly hast thou moved."
"Watched me?" he glanced about him, bewildered; it began to occur to him that it was a strange thing a lady should interrupt his work in this manner. Now that he had resigned his pen, he had wits and leisure to observe her; she was young and pleasant, well dressed; he knew her for a gentlewoman, and marvelled that she should be alone.
She took the sheet of paper to a beech tree that had encroached beyond the hedge, and, leaning across the flowers, began to write, setting the sheet against the stem. Standing so, with the parsley blossoms against her gray dress and the sunshine glimmering through the transparent beech leaves on to her glossy hair, with her brows gathered in a frown with the joint labor of writing and holding the paper steady, she made a pretty image of grace and softness.
The gentleman's curiosity was aroused.
"Hold it not unmannerly, mistress," he said, "if I shall question thee as to the reason of thy unprotected condition on a roadway where, albeit as tranquil as any in the King's dominions, Violence oft stalks abroad, to the menace of the weak."
The lady looked at him over her shoulder and colored.
"I know it fits not well with safety, sir, for a female to expose her person, unattended, seeing there are robbers and such horrid creatures that do prowl about, as I have oft heard travellers relate, but untoward circumstances have brought me to this pass. I pray that thou thinkest no less of me for that."
She had now finished writing, and, taking a pin from her dress, fixed the paper to the tree.
"I was seated by yonder gate when thou first camest hither—surely thou hadst not seen me had I not spoken, so deep wast thou in thy meditation. There is thy pen."
He had risen and come toward her, holding the fluttering sheets.
"Is it permitted me to read what thou hast written?" he asked.
"I write not secrets on the barks of trees," she answered. "It is there for any man to peruse."
She stood holding out the pen to him; he took it, and she watched him while he read her paper. It ran thus—in a large, unpractised hand:
" Dere Tom,—It is a Sade Thinge Men are soe fulle of Evile and a Pitie, I see Thou hast deserted me Leeving me to Alle the Perils on the King his rode soe I am Gone and doe not meen to see your Face againe tho' once I thought it bewtiful. If Thou Returnst Thou wilt No why I am Gone Tom. If Not Thou dost not care so in Each case Fare thee well, tho' Wicked. Nancy.
I Add that I am also Hungrie."
"I do not write clerkly penmanship," she said. "And it may be some words are ill spelt, but it is clear and stinging, is it not, sir?"
"I am pitiful for Tom," answered the gentleman. "This offence must be great."
"It is," she returned, shortly.
"And the last portion of this message or letter," continued the gentleman"—forgive me—it is hardly logical this that thou hast written—'in each case, farewell.' Now if he sees not the paper he obtains not the farewell—so it is not in each case or either case, but in one—"
"Tom is no scholar," she answered, gravely. "And what irks thee he will notice not."
He was not satisfied. "If he returneth, he hath not forsaken thee?"
"Nay," she admitted.
"Then if he returneth he needeth not the message, and if he cometh not it is useless, since he will not see it."
The lady bit her lip and reflected.
"He is not coming back," she said at length. "But if he did I should desire him to know I knew he would not. So I will leave the paper."
The gentleman was silenced.
"How far is it to the nearest village?" she asked, playing with a spray of hawthorn.
"At four miles lieth Bemerton," he pointed to the mile-stone. "Of which parish I am the unworthy minister, Mr. Herbert."
"I thank thee. I am Mistress Anne Rolleston. I would the village was something nearer, as I am passing hungry, but even as it is I must proceed there, waiting no more for Tom."
"This is a strange matter," said Mr. Herbert. "Truly if thou wouldst tell me a little more I might aid thee."
"Sir," she answered, "it is a woful series of misadventures—all due to the ill temper of Tom. Tom is of a pragmatical, tiresome humor—of a—"
"In brief—ye have quarrelled," smiled Mr. Herbert.
"This morning," she said, gravely, "I was married to Tom by uncle's chaplain, and we ran away, meaning to depart from this spot. But the chaplain through fear betrayed us, I conjecture, for my uncle and my cousin Humphrey came after us with pistols, my uncle always desiring me to marry my cousin Humphrey, and I caring nothing for it. We distanced them, which Tom said was a miracle, as his horse had a double burden, and I misliked that and told him it was of his own choosing that I rode behind him, and he replied that a wife should not have sharp answers ready—which was an ill thing in him, seeing we have been but a few hours wed. On saying this to Tom he said that it was no matter of time but one of principle, and I could not forbear rejoining that my cousin Humphrey had never spoken to me like that—being always more gentle in his manner to me than Tom.
"Near this the horse fell lame and Tom was furious, and I chid him for it, for if a man cannot keep his temper on his wedding-day—when shall he? He said I loved to chafe him, and that we must turn off our course, else we should be overtaken by uncle and Cousin Humphrey, so we went across some fields and came upon another road, which was mighty lonely. Tom led the horse and I walked behind. And then were we set upon by ugly villains who had guns; they took the horse and my box of jewels and Tom's watch and shoe-buckles and brooch and left us desolate. Upon which I wept and told Tom Humphrey would have done better in the like case, and he said if he had made resistance he had been killed, and perhaps I had been glad, and this was what came to a man for taking a wife, he had done better to have remained single, as his friends had advised him, and such like unmannerly talk. Then we came on to this road, and Tom said we must walk to Bemerton, and I said I would not, being tired, and so we disagreed. He said he would not leave me, I said he was no protection, whereon he told me I was a silly woman, and he wished that he had left me in my uncle's house. I said I wished so indeed, and asked him could he not find me a horse? He replied he would go a little way down the road to see if he might observe a house. Whereat he went, and that must be two hours or so past, and I will wait no longer."
Mistress Rolleston finished her tale with an indignant glance from brown eyes sparkling with moisture at the paper pinned to the beech tree.
"Some mischance hath befallen Tom," said Mr. Herbert. "I cannot believe he would forsake thee in this barbarous manner."
She seemed to be under no apprehensian as to Tom's safety.
"Thieves will not molest a man already robbed," she said, scornfully; she drew out her handkerchief from her sleeve and dashed away the tears gathered in her eyes. "And Tom had his wits and his two hands—Nay, he hath gone of a design and left me forlorn."
"But, mistress," protested Mr. Herbert, "a man may not so desert his wife—knowst thou where he had intention of taking thee?"
"To his house, Rolleston Court. It is, he told me, many miles from here, nor do I desire to go there—nay, nor will I."
"Then thou wilt return to thy uncle, mistress?" questioned Mr. Herbert.
Mistress Rolleston evaded that.
"Sir, I am hungry and chafed with waiting; I will go on to Bemerton, where some will have pity on my plight."
"Assuredly I will accompany thee," said Mr. Herbert, in his courtier-like yet sweetly simple manner. "It is not meet for thee to go alone."
"Sir," she answered, gratefully, "I cannot be so far beholden to thee—"
Mr. Herbert waved his delicate hand.
"Bemerton Rectory will be honored—and thou shalt not call it hospitality, since it is my bare duty as God His minister."
He picked up his hat and his inkhorn and rolled together the papers.
"Thou writest a book?" she asked, striving to put by her own heaviness.
A look of soft shy pleasure came into Mr. Herbert's face.
"It is, Mistress Rolleston, a book of some poor prose meditations—entitled The Priest to the Temple."
"Thou art a learned gentleman," answered she, "and a kind one, and I am sorely troubled that I have interrupted thee with my trivial and worldly distresses."
He reassured her that his work, such as it was, suffered not at all from being broken off abruptly, and they turned their faces toward Bemerton.
Perceiving that the lady labored under some gloom caused by her forsaken plight, and that her thoughts were turning upon Tom, Mr. Herbert, to distract her, began to discourse pleasantly.
"Hath not nature fairly enamelled these fields and meadows?" he said. "It seemeth to me that the month of June hath in it something of an unearthly beauty, as if God His mercy did disclose unto us a little of the delights of Paradise. Truly, a space of green, set with tall and excellent flowers, a fresh hedge beyond grown with tender white blossoms, a group of slender trees with leaves uplifted to the pearly heavens, hath in it as much of the divine as is vouchsafed to us."
"It is very sweet," she answered.
"Thou hast a neighborhood full of delights here, Mr. Herbert."
"In my most ungrateful moments I could desire no more than the blessings God hath sent me," said Mr. Herbert, his eyes shining. "But this scene, enchanting as it is, lacketh yet one thing—the Sabbath bells—that do come so sweetly across the fields; on a fair Sunday morning it breaketh the heart with beauty to hear them."
"Ah me!" sighed the lady, "I would Tom had been a godly man."
They reached a point where the road divided into two; the sign-post marked one way to Bemerton, that which led straight ahead.
Close to the sign-post was a whitewashed inn.
"Here we may get food," said Mr. Herbert.
"Tom had not far to go," remarked the lady, and her lips quivered.
As they approached the inn they saw a bay horse with a white forefoot standing by the mounting-block.
"Oh!" cried Mistress Anne Rolleston; she stopped. "I beseech you, sir, that we do not enter the inn—"
"Methought," answered Mr. Herbert, "thou wert over-hungry to walk to Bemerton."
"I am hungry no longer," she said, hastily, "For that is Cousin Humphrey his horse."
"Then, mistress," exclaimed Mr. Herbert, "I will call him out—"
"Nay," she returned, something pale and shaking. "He would be enraged with me and carry me back to uncle—and since I am Tom his wife—"
"We must discover Tom," said Mr. Herbert.
She made no reply to that.
"Do not pass the inn, lest he be looking from the window," she entreated, "but let us take this road."
"Which leads not to the village," smiled Mr. Herbert. "But since I have a friendship for Tom we will follow it for a little and then traverse the fields to Bemerton."
Her deep brown eyes flashed gratitude.
"Dear sir, thou art very good to me."
They turned down the other road and walked rapidly away from the inn.
"It must be Cousin Humphrey came this way," said Mr. Herbert, "otherwise had he passed us."
"And where is Tom?" she cried. "What if he met with Humphrey?" Then, after considering a space, "I am sorry," said she, "that I did leave that message on the tree, for if Cousin Humphrey should see it he will know that I have quarrelled with Tom, which is not to my liking."
"Thou saidst—'twas for all men to read."
"All—save Humphrey and uncle."
The road was narrow and high banked with wild-sloe hedges; blue asters and yellow daisies edged their path. Mr. Herbert carried his hat in his hand as if in reverence of the beautiful day, and tenderly clasped his papers to his bosom; Anne Rolleston thought of Tom and fingered her hood and her kirtle and looked about her uneasily, as if she feared to see him lying dead or disabled under every tree they passed..
But she carried it with a high head, for—ah ah!—it was disgraceful of him. Not half a mile along the road—merely round the bend—there was this inn; minutes should have seen his return, and if the place proved not a posting-house, why—then he could have come back to take her there; oh, Tom, I fear thou art without excuse.
They turned through a gate and walked across the fields.
"This way," said Mr. Herbert. "It is many miles to Bemerton, but I know a cottage where they will be pleased to let thee rest."
"Oh, sir," replied Mistress Rolleston, "how I am beholden to thy goodness, yet, withal, must admit, though ashamed, that my heart is something heavy because of Tom."
"Be not downcast," replied Mr. Herbert, sweetly. "Assuredly we shall find thy Tom—there is some explanation for his absence, difficult now to guess at, but ample, in truth, and easy to believe."
Mistress Anne kept her glance on the grass at her feet.
"Sir," she said, falteringly, "a while ago I spoke overconfidently also, I fear—I was enraged—but thou dost not think—that is—harm is not likely to have come to him?"
"To mine own knowledge the country is open as God His hand," replied Mr. Herbert. "Never have I seen aught but pleasant and innocent sights, and though I would love not to think of a damsel wandering in any place alone, still I would never fret for a gentleman his safety."
The field they traversed sloped to an orchard enclosed by a low wooden fence; Mr. Herbert opened the wicket and they entered.
All hues of pink and cream and white, the clusters of blossoms lay lightly on the gnarled old trees; green and gray mosses, dull-red lichens, clung to their twisted branches, and here and there the flowers had drifted on to the tall grass and lay fluttering there amid the sorrel and daisies.
"Summer snow," said Mr. Herbert. "It is wondrous sweet."
In places the trees were so low they had to stoop in passing under them, and once Mistress Anne's hood was caught back by an errant bough and the white petals shaken on to her brown curls and red ribbons.
When they had passed through the orchard they came to another gate, admitting them to a garden filled with currant and gooseberry bushes, the young fresh leaves of which were smelling fragrantly.
Mistress Anne gathered up her skirts because of the thorns and looked at the gabled house adjoining the garden.
They went round to the front, where the sun lay strongly over a bed of pinks, a border of stocks and sweet-williams; over the white-beamed face of the house climbed a sweetbrier; a thrush in a basket cage hung against the wall, and a smooth-haired dog slept on the warm cobbled path.
"This is a tranquil place," sighed Mistress Anne.
A woman in a blue gown came to the open door and curtsied low at the sight of Mr. Herbert.
"Mistress Powell," he said, "there hath been an accident on the highroad, and this lady is too weary to walk to Bemerton, therefore I dared assure her she would be welcome here for what time it would take me to return to Bemerton and fetch a horse."
Mistress Powell, overwhelmed with pleasure, welcomed them into the house.
"And my Jack will run into Bemerton for your honor."
"Nay," answered Mr. Herbert. "This lady will stay at the Rectory, and I will acquaint Mistress Herbert of her coming."
Mistress Anne sank down on the settle inside the door of the great shady kitchen, for she was truly weary.
"Mr. Herbert," said she, "I put thee to great trouble."
"Nay," he replied. "'Tis I who will ask a favor of thee—that is, that thou shouldest take these papers into thy keeping until my return."
She flushed with pleasure and put her hand out for the roll.
Mr. Herbert lingered over it.
"They are safer with thee," he smiled. "If I, being careless when alone, dropped any of these vagrant sheets, it would be some anguish to repair the loss."
With that and many comforting words and assurances of his swift return the gentleman left the cottage.
Mistress Anne clasped his papers tightly and watched him across the fields, his fair hair spread over his gleaming white collar, his slender black figure casting a shadow behind it; Mistress Powell, with a tall girl to help her and two curious children clustering about her skirts, brought refreshment to the guest, and she was not slow to take it; Tom, she reflected, must be hungry by now, and at the thought of him she had much ado to prevent the tears from splashing into a cup of milk or flavoring the cake she ate.
When she had finished she was prettily grateful; they hastened to place a chair for her in the door, and she sat there in the sun, with the fat thrush and the silly dog for company.
While she mused about Tom and his great wickedness, the roll of Mr. Herbert's writings fell from her knee, and, being carelessly tied, the string ('twas a ribbon from Mr. Herbert's wristband) came undone and the sheets were scattered at her feet.
She picked them up hastily and respectfully and began putting them neatly together according to their numbering.
There were eight pages—all freshly written upon in a close hand.
She counted them—one, two, three, four, five, six—nine, ten—
She caught her breath-two sheets were gone. She looked about the garden. But no; had she not instantly picked up the leaves as they came untied?
Again she counted them. Alas, there was no mistake; two sheets of Mr. Herbert's book were lost.
Dismay and self-reproach made her heart beat thickly; she had disturbed him, distracted him; through her his book, the result of his holy meditation and labor, would be spoiled.
She could not bear to picture his face when he discovered his misfortune—had he not said "it would be anguish to repair the loss?"
"Oh, Tom!" she cried to herself, "thou art the cause of all this!"
But there was a remedy; somewhere along the road were those two straying sheets, the chances great that nobody would yet have passed along that lonely way, discovering them. It was not so very far to the mile-stone where she had first met Mr. Herbert; could she but run back there and secure them before he returned, she would repair the mischief that she had unconsciously caused.
She did not like to go along the road alone; she was sorely tired, and she had a dread of Cousin Humphrey lurking near—but these objections were not to be set against the joy of recovering the precious sheets.
Rising, she softly called to her one of the children watching her from the kitchen.
"Dear chuck," she said, "if I am not back before Mr. Herbert his return, tell him I am gone to walk in the orchard and will soon be back—the same to thy mother."
She tied up carefully the remaining papers and put them in the pocket hanging at her side, then started off swiftly through the currant bushes, looking about her as she went.
Quite distinctly could she remember the way they had come, and reckoning the distance in her mind, was sure that she could secure the precious writings and be back with them before Mr. Herbert returned from Bemerton.
If she could not find them—that tragedy loomed as large in her mind as the desertion of Tom, "for surely," she said to herself, "it would be a woful thing if Mr. Herbert his book was spoiled through a silly woman."
Under the orchard boughs she looked in vain; across the meadows her eyes were busy from right to left for a hopeful glimmer of white or aught that might prove to be the missing sheets.
When she reached the road she had found nothing, and was besides a little breathless with anxiety and quick walking.
The sun was now at its fiercest, and the clouds had rolled off the sky, leaving the landscape golden. Mistress Anne set her lips at the sight of the long, lonely, white, hot road, closed the gate with an air of resolution, and hurried in the direction of the inn.
Her eager brown eyes scanned every bed of celandines, every clump of white clover, every waving tuft of speedwell she passed, and when she had almost reached the end of the road—when the white inn began to stare at her through the trees—her heart sank dolefully.
Fears of Cousin Humphrey assailed her; she began to slacken her pace; it was hot and dusty, she felt miserably alone, and the prospect of the empty road with no hint of what she sought was mighty merciless.
Still she pursued her way, though flaggingly, and presently had reached the inn and turned on to the highroad.
The ominous nag with the white forefoot was no longer there; that was some poor comfort—but, alas! it seemed as if she would not find the missing sheets!
Had she overlooked them on the way?—how was it possible they could have gone—who, on that lonely road, should, in the short space of half an hour or so, have found and carried away two small portions of paper lying by the roadside? It was mystifying and miserable.
If she might find only one—her feverish thoughts told her that two must spoil the work of the gentle writer who had befriended her...She reached the mile-stone...nothing!
There was her own message, dangling from the beech trunk—there was the mile-stone, marked with ink—nothing else!
She sank down on the soft wild flowers and gentle grass, all dismayed.
"Oh, Tom," she said, and, "Sweet Tom, where art thou?" then she began to cry for desolation, and, "Cruel Tom!" said she.
Her hands went up to her face and she sobbed, not loudly, in a piteous, stifled manner.
She must go back to Mr. Herbert—she must face him with the tale of the missing pages.
A live terror mingled suddenly with these miseries, caused by the click, click of a horse coming slowly along the road.
Perhaps this was Humphrey—perhaps it was some passing traveller who had found the precious leaves; perhaps it was some brigand or robber.
This last surmise proved the strongest; Mistress Anne sprang up and withdrew into the foliage beneath the beech, tears still in her eyes and her heart thumping thickly.
She saw the horseman come into sight; a bay horse with a white forefoot, but the rider was not Humphrey.
"Hullo—Nan!" said he.
"Oh, Tom!" she cried, coming round the tree, then she choked.
He walked the horse up to her and dismounted; his pleasant face was red and he had no hat.
"Nan, where hast thou been?" he asked her. "Sweet Nan, art thou still angered?"
"Indeed," said she, joyfully, "I was not angry, Tom—but thou, thou art a little—late."
"Late!" answered he; and he smiled, for no reason, it seemed, but the pleasure of looking at her face. "Late!" he repeated. "When I have had thy cousin Humphrey to settle with—"
"That is Cousin Humphrey his horse," cried she—"and, oh, Tom!"—this in a breathless addition—"hast thou killed him!"
"Nay," said he, in a shy manner. "But first tell me where thou wert."
She told him her adventures in a breath.
"I waited here till I was tired, Tom, then I went with a clergyman—Mr. Herbert—on the road to Bemerton."
"Ay," answered Tom, "that is holy Mr. Herbert that was at the court—but what of the man from the inn? Listen, Nan; when I got thither I ran into Humphrey, and we talked, and I asked after thy uncle. He is five miles back, said Humphrey, being too stout for riding—I am the only one. I said, 'I am Anne her husband.' 'Very well,' said he, heroical, 'I will make Anne a widow.' Seeing he was resolved to fight, I called a man and bid him go up the road and stand by you. With that we went into the garden, and we said, let us fight only till the first blood is drawn, because we once were friends. So we did, but I hurt Humphrey his side so that he was near to death. And methought thou wast safe away from the bloodshed, so rode into Bemerton on Humphrey his horse, where there is a doctor, to save Humphrey his life, and when I returned asked about the lady. 'I found no lady,' said this silly man, and I was like to be maddened, and with that galloped up here and saw naught—then I went the other way and all the while called on thee—and but now came back here again to look once more. And that is the story, Nan."
He paused, panting and flushed after the longest speech he had ever made in his life, and a little surprised at himself for having made it.
Mistress Anne pulled her message off the tree and squeezed it up in her hand.
"What is that?" he asked.
"Tom," said she, "thou art very nice."
He colored and played with the saddle fringe of Humphrey's bay; she came to where lie stood and slid her hand into his.
"Art sweet-tempered, too," she smiled.
"Am a brute," said Tom, looking at the dusty toes of his boots, "to have vexed thee, Nan."
"Nay-I was peevish with the early rising—and, oh, Tom!" she pulled the papers out of her pocket, "there are Mr. Herbert his papers, and two are lost!"
"Thou camest to search for them?" asked Torn; "then I am glad they were lost."
"Oh, Tom!" she cried, thrusting them into his big hand. "It is a book and marred by two sheets—being gone—and through me was this misfortune."
Tom puckered his brows and strove to look learned.
"We must find them, dear heart," he said.
They spread out the curling sheets on the saddle and Tom's great fingers smoothed them out.
"One, two, three, four, five, six," said she counting; "then—see—nine, ten—"
Tom frowned and twisted up his face; he seemed to be reading the close writing; Mistress Anne waited in awe.
"See," said he, triumphantly—"the words read straight from six to nine—and so on—'tis Mr. Herbert hath numbered them wrong, and no sheets are missing, Nan."
Her delight and admiration were boundless.
"Thou art a scholar and wit," she cried.
Then she looked away and they both were silent.
"Wilt thou ride pillion now?" asked Tom at last, shyly, "as far as Bemerton, Nan?"
"Oh, Tom!" she said.
THE prisoner looked up as they crossed the threshold of the castle; looked up and around him with an air of curiosity and personal interest.
When my lord's secretary came to the little party in the great hall, he was still gazing, in that keen, absorbed manner, at the dark walls that shut him in; for the rest, he stood very quietly surrounded by his four captors.
"What is this?" asked the secretary. He was a young man and seemed depressed; to wear notably that manner of gloom which was the result of living in the huge and lonely castle.
One of the men with the prisoner was from London, in the Government employ, half spy, half constable; he took the leadership naturally.
"We found this man breaking into the castle grounds," he said. "He showed fight, could give no account of himself; the Duke had best see him."
The secretary's eyes ran over the prisoner.
"Is it worth while?" he asked, indifferently.
The man from London was nettled.
"Yes," he said. "What am I down here for? The follow was making for the coast—for all we can swear a Papist with a French sloop hanging round the horizon—and after the plots—"
"Ah, plots!" interrupted the secretary. "We hear of nothing but plots now."
"And with good reason. There are more Papists abroad than have been discovered vet."
The secretary was still indifferent.
"Need you have troubled my lord?"
"I think, sir, there is no other magistrate near by..."
"Well—" said the secretary, and he lifted his shoulders; the men about the prisoner knew what lay behind his manner; my lord was a Papist and more than suspected of complicity in these same plots; it was a rumor not breathed openly, but universally believed, that he was an exile from London and Court favor on account of discovery of his treason, and that, did not the King owe him more money than could ever be repaid, he had shared the end of my lord Stafford. This was no matter of theirs now, anxious as they were to please their masters the mob with fresh victims; two of them were soldiers from my lord Feversham's regiment, quartered near to have an eye on the dangerous; the fourth a nondescript ally of the man from London.
"Take the fellow to town," said the secretary, eying them.
"We want my lord's authority for that—he was captured in the castle grounds."
The secretary turned on his heel.
"This way," he said, and mounted the wide, ill-lit stone stairs.
The castle had been built in the time of the Norman kings, and was little altered from those days, save in the dreariness that had descended on it since the loss of its ancient glory; it lacked the men-at-arms, the squires, the pages, the jesters, the guests coming and going, who had once made its vastness cheerful.
It seemed now a dead and hollow shell, though every stone was intact, and this part at least furnished with a show of great wealth.
The secretary, the little group of men behind him, stopped on a wide landing hung with tapestry.
It was as yet only twilight, but two huge iron arms, painted and gilt, projecting from the wall, gripped in their fists thick tapers that had been lit some time, for they bent either side the fingers that held them, and the wax dripped over the gilt and scarlet.
Between them was a lofty door; the secretary entered and the others followed; the prisoner still looked about him with an air of eager observation.
The room had been rebuilt of late years; the walls were lined with panelling, the ceiling painted; the chimney-piece was handsomely carved, and in the stained-glass window that burned azure in the dusk were the arms of my lord's family quartering fifteen heiresses.
The candles were yet unlit, but a steady fire burned upon the hearth. The secretary lit a lamp that hung by silver chains from the ceiling, and left by an inner door.
The prisoner stood a little apart from his guards, and as the lamp flame leaped up, disclosing the room, his eyes went at once to the mantelpiece, where a portrait of my lord's father was set in the dark wood between two figures of Strength and Charity, that stood in niches under a Grecian canopy.
The painting was dark and stiff, yet powerful in a certain carriage of the head, a locked look about the mouth, as of one who could speak and would not, and a bold, stern expression in the dark eyes.
Below the portrait, cut deep in the wood, was the family motto, "Strength and Charity," on a scroll with the arms beneath.
In the centre of the room, under the lamp was a table set with gold writing materials, several books, and a milk-hued alabaster bust of a warrior; on the floor was a Persian carpet, and, on a rich bench against the wall, a suit of damascened armor, and a crimson cloak.
The prisoner's quick, attentive glance did not miss one of these details; he appeared more interested in his surroundings than his situation.
The others stood at attention, whispering among themselves; the prisoner's arms were tied behind him, and they had taken his weapons away, nor did he show the least sign of the desperate fierceness he had displayed before they were able to capture him in the castle grounds.
Not five minutes after the secretary had left, the inner door opened again, and my lord entered the room.
He held a bunch of violets in his hand and came straight to the table.
The prisoner looked at him with no change in his demeanor; the others uncovered.
"I am sorry to trouble your Grace," began the man from London.
"I am not infrequently disturbed in this manner," returned the Duke. "We. do not lack for plots." He laid his violets on the table and seated himself.
He was not above eighteen or twenty, of the middle height and slender, delicate, of a compelling gravity in his bearing and expression, yet of a courteous sweetness in his manner; with all, he had a half-sad air of long self-containment at variance with his extreme youth.
His face showed no likeness to the dark portrait over the mantelpiece; it was pale, still rounded with the curves of childhood; the features aristocratic, sensitive, and regular.
His eyes were gray, soft, and beautiful, well set under level brows; thick curls of dusky brown hair fell on to his shoulders, framing and accentuating his pallor. He was very finely dressed in ash-colored satin, with a gold ribbon in his cravat, and silver threads in his waistcoat; his whole personality was remarkable for an air of proud austerity and serene dignity.
His glance rested without curiosity on the prisoner.
"The government is overzealous in these parts," he said, with the candor of one who disdains to be politic. "I think it becomes tyrannical."
The man from London had his answer ready.
"Your Grace knows the ferment the kingdom is in since the plot was discovered."
My lord seemed to know and despise the plot for a mere political engine; it was not difficult for a man of sense to see more of Lord Shaftesbury than the Crown in this sensational discovery that was shaking the kingdom; he looked away from the captors and addressed the prisoner.
"Sir." he said, courteously, "have you any reason to adduce for being in my grounds to-night?"
The prisoner drew a quick breath and shook himself.
"I am a stranger," he said, in a low voice. "I did not know I was forbidden."
"That is but reasonable," answered the Duke. "And I, sir, should be pleased enough to set you on your way, yet to satisfy these gentlemen, you must first answer another question—for what reason were you in this lonely part of the country—and so late?"
The prisoner looked at the floor.
"I was staying in the village," he began.
The man from London interrupted.
"My lord, it is a lie; I have had the village under observation; two hours ago this fellow rode up to the inn, left his horse, and made straight for the sea. Yesterday I had news of a foreign vessel lurking along the coast, and 'tis as plain as can be that this fellow was to meet her to-night—he was late and so broke through your lordship's grounds as a short way—when we, who had followed, stopped him; he made a fierce resistance, and whatever he may have composed since, he could then give no account of himself."
The Duke did not appear much impressed.
"What have you to say?" he asked the prisoner.
"I was on my own business. I refuse to disclose it;" he gave the man from London an ugly look. "Everything is not involved in your damned Popish plot."
"You can say no more?" questioned my lord, looking at him.
"I will not."
"Your Grace hears!" cried the man from London.
"I hear no treason, Sir," said the young Duke, coldly, "nor do I see any reason to connect this man with plots—false informers are common, and I would not on slight grounds send a man to London under suspicion now."
He picked up the violets and laid them down again.
"Set the man at liberty," he said.
"Your Grace is too careless." The man from London stepped to the table. "We found this on the prisoner; two pistols, and this—"
He placed a red leather case with silver clasps among the quills and papers.
The prisoner made an impetuous movement, quickly checked.
"Aha!" said the man from London, triumphantly.
"What is here?" asked the Duke, with dislike of his task.
He opened the red case; it contained a packet of letters tied round and round with yellow silk and scaled in two places with a wax of a curious green color, and one loose paper, also sealed; there was a writing in cipher across one corner.
"If your Grace will open them..."
"I can see no occasion to open these papers, sir. I think you encroach upon your duty."
The young spoke with disdain and weight; he leaned back in his chair and looked at the prisoner.
"Will you give me your word, sir, these papers contain nothing treasonable?" he asked.
"They treat of private matters, my lord," was the low answer.
"Your Grace sees he is evasive," put in the Government man.
The Duke slightly frowned; he again addressed the prisoner.
"You make it difficult for me—I have no wish to send you to London—a little frankness, sir, would best serve my wishes and yours."
The prisoner moved his head and moistened his lips; his manner showed controlled resentment and sullenness.
"If your Grace," he said, in a labored fashion, "will release me—I assure you, I swear, I am innocent of all plots..."
He paused; my lord, with the violets to his lips, was watching him.
"I am in a situation which is difficult to explain—I—"
Again he came to a stop.
"What are these papers?" asked my lord, lowering his gray eyes to them.
"Your Grace, private matters."
"What is your name?"
"One of no importance." This with some fierceness.
"Indeed, you must answer me, if I am not to give credence to your guilt."
The man from London interrupted.
"There is no need for anything further, my lord; send the man to London."
A slight flush overspread my lord's fair face.
"For Francis Dangerfield to swear his life away?" he said. "I will have more proof than this first."
He picked up the loose letter.
"By your leave, sir, I must open this, since you will not be more free with me."
The prisoner came swiftly forward and stood at the table.
"Will your Grace," he said earnestly, "send these men from the room first?"
My lord paused and looked up.
"Why?" he asked.
The prisoner, who had been hitherto in the shadow, stood now directly under the light of the silver lamp.
He was a man of no more than forty, but his eyes and mouth were deeply lined, and there was no look of youth on his cynical face; he was powerfully made, not tall, but erect, and dressed in velvet—the garb of a gentleman. Gazing steadily at the Duke, he repeated his request.
"I entreat your lordship not to open that letter until we are alone and, by everything that can have any weight with you, to send these men away."
There was so much of force, desperate, sincere appeal, intense feeling in his speech that the youth to whom it was addressed stared at him with some wonder.
The tired brown eyes and the clear gray eyes held each other a moment's space.
Then my lord spoke.
"Very well...Why not!"
The man from London had a hundred reasons; but the young Duke's calm authority overruled him; he and his followers went sullenly from the room to wait on the head of the great stairs.
With their going was silence; only the distant, vague beat of the sea, and the complaint of a rising wind striking the windows, broke the stillness.
My lord still held the letter.
"If you will tell me no more, I must read this," he said.
"I told you that it was a private matter, but you will not take my word," returned the prisoner, fiercely.
Now he was alone with his judge, his demeanor had changed; his manner was impatient, almost insolent.
My lord, who from not considering him at all had been drawn to some interest, regarded him with inscrutable, wide eyes, and broke the seal of the letter.
The prisoner interrupted.
"Will you untie my hands?" he asked. His face had a curious dead pallor, his mouth strained.
My lord gave a half-glance at the pistols lying where the man from London had left them among the papers.
"The ropes cut my wrists," said the prisoner, hoarsely.
The Duke moved the pistols to beside his own seat, then rose and untied, with some difficulty, the skilful knots.
He returned to his chair in silence, and the prisoner crossed to the fire and with a little shudder held his hands out to the glow.
My lord opened the letter, glanced down it carelessly, then more attentively, turned it over to see the last lines, then raised his eyes swiftly to the other man, who was watching him with an expression of hatred.
"Well, my lord, read it," he said.
Without an answer the Duke turned again to the letter.
It bore neither name of place, nor date, nor any term of address, but commenced at once in a firm handwriting with these words:
"I have been more successful than I dared to hope.
"The Plot, as you will have heard, is shaking the country, Shaftesbury is the most forceful man in England, and no Papist is safe. There is no need for me to name the lords who have lately suffered.
"As for our private affairs, you must know that I have managed them very well; with the aid of public feeling (and every one now thinks a Papist the devil himself) and my own talent for counterfeit handwriting I have involved my old enemies beyond redemption. You remember our oaths?...not to spare.
"The little Duke is ruined for his father's sake and for my father's memory; he dare not show himself at Court nor near London, but hides in one of his great mansions—perhaps the castle I shall have to pass to-night.
"The King owes him much, but I will spring a mine under him no royal hand shall save him from; I look to see his head fall as fell the heads of Montrose and Derby, so I have put him in the inner plot to kill the King.
"You say you still walk with God in the old faith and that it comforts you in your exile, and ask me of myself.
"I am not what my father was; how could I be? I know not what I believe, I have seen many strange things since I was a godly man; it is pleasant at least to be avenged.
"You will say I am careless and that this should be in cipher, but I will deliver it to Campion myself.
"The country is riddled with spies, but our rendezvous is so lonely I fear not to be discovered. I am supposed in London, where I gave evidence last week.
"Continue with your share of the business; send me what news you can; 'The Woolpack' is safe enough and not suspected of anything more serious than owling.
"Your last letters from Lord S—— to the Spanish were useful; a cry of foreign invasion always works.
"Be careful and be hopeful. I look to see you in London yet."
The letter ended as abruptly as it had begun; my lord laid it down, and looked round at the prisoner.
"You wrote this?"
The man turned with his back to the fire.
"To whom is it written?"
"Why should I tell you?"
"I think I can guess—an exile in Holland, probably a regicide."
"Yes, a regicide."
The young Duke moved slowly in his chair so that he faced the prisoner.
"And you are one of the authors of this infamous plot: an Oates, a Dangerfield, a Bedloe—"
"Listen to me—my name is Martin Bampfield."
The Duke, pale, cold, gazed at him with unmoved eyes.
"That name is nothing to me."
"It is the name of one who hates you and all your house."
"I have never heard it before."
"I think you have, my lord."
The prisoner's eyes were hard and narrowed; the red light of the fire flushed his swarthy face as he half swung round with a heavy gesture of his hand to his heart.
"I do not know you," came my lord's grave young voice, "but it seems you are the man who has slandered me to the King and to the country."
"Yes—I—yours is a great name, sir; not so great I could not drag it down—but this is your turn—these papers clear you and damn me."
"Why did you do it?" asked the Duke. "What was I to you?"
Martin Bampfield cast his eyes slowly round the wide chamber.
"My father died in this room," he said.
The Duke's beautiful mouth tightened.
"My father was shot by your father in this room—that man I write to was there, and he described it to me often—to the figures here of Strength and Charity." He smiled sarcastically.
"Your father was a rebel?" asked the Duke, very coldly.
"My father was a patriot," said Martin Bampfield. "He was shot here, in this room."
"He was caught in the castle, he and this other man, and they were brought here—"
"Spies," said my lord, shortly.
"—and your father ordered them to be hanged as Cromwell's men; but, all unarmed as they were, they showed such fight that one escaped...and your father shot the other himself as he ran to the door."
"Well?" said the Duke, haughtily.
"Docs your lordship remember it now? It was before you were born, but I think some one told you the story of John Bampfield, preacher."
"I have heard of the end of John Bampfield, spy," answered the Duke. "But I have not given it much thought."
The other moved a step from the hearth.
"Would you have done as your father did?"
My lord slightly lifted his fair, level brows.
"I thought so—I meant to bring you to the block—"
My lord folded up the letter.
"You are a false informer, a defamer of innocence, a man without honor or conscience—what can I do with such as you?"
"It is very easy," said Martin Bampfield. "You hold your vindication and my ruin in your hand."
"My lord rested his elbow on the table and took his chin in his hand.
"Why did you wish those men sent from the room?"
"Because I desired to settle this affair with you alone."
The Duke did not alter his easy position; the austere calm of his youthfulness was in no way troubled; his eyes, wide and clear, held the other in a searching, steady look.
"You speak as if there were a feud between us," he said.
The prisoner came a step nearer the table.
"There has been a feud between our families—always; you have not heard of it, belike, but we always hated each other, and in the Civil War it culminated...in this room. We are different in everything, in rank, in creed, in fortune...I am not what my father was, but what the times have made me—though at heart a republican always and vowed to vengeance on Papists, such as you. Listen to me—under the Lord Cromwell I was a great man, and your father was an exile in Flanders—then the slothful King came back for the curse of England, and your house rose again—the Earl became the Duke...died in court favor...and I—I changed with fortune. And so, forgotten, I worked against you and your proud name...the plot..."
"Stop!" the Duke interrupted, imperiously. "This plot is a fabrication—you are telling me that?"
Martin Bampfield smiled.
"No—I tell you what you know—that the lies that exiled you here were of my making—as for the rest—I betray nothing."
The Duke never moved.
"You and your kind have sent innocent men to the block," he said.
"There, God help me, would I have sent you, and never repented it."
In the pause that followed was the insistent and mournful sound of the sea, the hurrying passage of the wind past the mullions, and the strong ripple of the flames on the hearth.
"Well," said Martin Bampfield, "why do you not call those men in and say 'Here is no Papist intriguing with France, but one of the coiners of the Plot—a Cromwellian, a republican—take him to London—to Tyburn.'"
The Duke picked up the bunch of drooping violets and held them against his lips.
"You have done me a great wrong," he said, coldly. "Perhaps the greatest wrong in any man's power to do another...you have disgraced me, covered my name with shame, broken my career at the beginning...it is strange you should have fallen into my power."
Martin Bampfield moved back toward the fire.
"Fortune lies with you again," he said, fiercely. "Make an end of it..."
"I never harmed you," replied my lord. "I scarcely knew your name."
The prisoner made an impatient gesture.
"I am glad I did what I did—" he swung round abruptly. "I tell you, could I get my hand on one of those pistols I would burn that letter and shoot you, and lie, and lie, until your name was never cleared."
My lord raised his head from his hand.
"This hate is a strange thing—I think I hate you, Mr. Bampfield...a feud, difference of code, of King, of God—you are indeed hateful to me."
He made a half-shuddering movement with his fair right hand.
"What need for so many words!" demanded the prisoner, sullenly. "Send me to my death from the spot where my father was slain. Well, I may have stumbled from the altars where he worshipped. I shall find them again in the end, and I thank God, my lord, that I met you and told you what I had done."
The Duke slightly frowned.
"Why, this is very paltry—and yet, I think you are sincere, which is a marvellous thing...Our gods are indeed different, Mr. Bampfield."
He still held the violets, and now laid them down beside the pistols at his elbow.
"What are these?" He took up the other papers that were bound together with the long yellow silk strands.
"Will not your Grace open them?" sneered the other. "You have the pistols and a bell at your elbow—if we were equally matched, they would be in the fire first."
My lord looked at him keenly, and broke the silk.
Various letters and papers fell out on to the table.
At the sight of them the prisoner made a step forward.
The Duke's delicate hand closed over one of the pistols.
"As you remind me, I am armed," he said, while a faint flush overspread his features. "Keep your distance, sir."
Martin Bampfield smiled bitterly.
My lord looked at the documents; they were of varying degrees of importance; keys to cipher, accounts of meetings, lists of names, letters from Flanders, addresses of secret printing-presses, copies of prayers—much to incriminate the obscure, perhaps harmless plotter—nothing to clear the innocent accused.
The young Duke looked up from his scrutiny,
"You know better than most, Mr. Bampfield, that, in the state of ferment you have roused the country into, in the heat and confusion now existing, there is little judgment exercised, little mercy shown. The Popish bugbear is nearly dead—a reaction would claim much blood—do I make myself plain?
"These papers of yours would set the mob on the Dissenters as it has been set on the Papists—there are a great many names here, Mr. Bampfield—" he looked in a straight, commanding way at the prisoner, who returned an insolent glance.
"I and those others are in your power—need you enlarge on the theme? Call in those men—you have no cause to be tender with them nor to love me."
"Mr. Bampfield—" my lord was gathering the papers together; he looked up abruptly. "Did you not desire those men from the room—did you request me to loosen your hands with no idea of these pistols?"
"Maybe," smiled Martin Bampfield.
My lord's eves were disdainful and mournful: his delicate and child-like face expressed a half-grieving judgment.
"Have I clearly understood?" he said. "You, from hatred of my name, my creed, my class, my person, have forged the lies that make me a traitor and an assassin—you would have brought me to a dishonorable death—you avow this?"
"I do avow it." answered Martin Bampfield. "Your father shot mine, and I would have caused your death very gladly."
The Duke glanced at the alabaster bust; he had brought it from Italy; it represented St. George; serene, brave, youthful—the Church militant. My lord's name was George.
"A Dutch vessel is waiting for your letter near the coast?" he asked.
"For how long?"
"Awaits a signal from you?"
"Yes—you need not ask me what it is."
"I have no occasion to know," replied my lord. "That vessel will take no letter, Mr. Bampfield—it had better take a passenger."
Through his speech was the steady sound of wind and sea, the fainter whisper of the fire as it burned to a clear red heart of liquid flame.
The prisoner turned about; his nostrils were distended, he roughly bit his lower lip.
"What do you mean?"
My lord looked not at all at the man whom he addressed, but at the bust and the bunch of violets.
"There are more ways than one from this castle—you had better leave before the Government men return."
Again Martin Bampfield asked quickly:
"What do you mean?"
The Duke rose, and lifted his eyes, still not to the prisoner, but to the portrait above the chimneypiece, between the figures of Strength and Charity.
"You will be safe in Holland—more I cannot do for you. If you show yourself in London again—do not fear but I shall know of it—if you again defame the innocent, I shall speak."
"Oh," said Martin Bampfield, half under his breath. "You mean that I am a free man?"
"And that I may go unmolested to the coast?"
"Go and join the regicides in Flanders, the Calvinists at the Stadtholder's court, Mr. Bampfield. I think there is no longer a place for you in England."
The prisoner came fiercely up to the table.
"Why are you doing this?"
"My reasons are not for your comprehension, sir—I would advise you to leave—at once."
He pointed to the inner door by which he had himself entered.
"In a few seconds you can be out of the castle—in a few moments by the sea."
"Martin Bampfield drew himself up and half laughed.
"So—are you a fool—is this a thank-offering for your vindication?"
He pointed to the open letter lying before my lord.
"Or are you hoping I shall refuse to go? But I never claimed to be a knight errant. I leave, and with no gratitude, my lord."
With an uneasy, lowering defiance he swung toward the inner door.
"One moment," said the Duke. Instantly, suspiciously, the other turned to face him.
My lord, standing full in the gentle light of the silver lamp, looked very young, very slight, though he held himself with a grave loftiness.
"Well!" demanded Martin Bampfield, savagely.
"There are your properties," with a little sweep of his hand he indicated the table before him. "Take them."
Martin Bampfield stared.
"I—I—" he stammered, paused.
"You will take them, Mr. Bampfield; they are of no use to me."
Slowly the older man neared the table.
"What game are you playing?" he asked, wiping his lips.
"Ah," said my lord, a little wearily. "I pray you—haste."
Martin Bampfield took up the packet.
"So—you will be generous—but the letter?"
"It is yours," said my lord, never moving from his erect position.
"You know what it means to you?"
The Duke smiled.
"It means to me, sir, nothing—seen at Whitehall, it might mean something to you."
"I advise you to destroy it, Mr. Bampfield."
For a moment they gazed at each other, then Martin Bampfield picked up the letter.
"You think I will show it myself." He gave an unsteady, forced laugh.
"I know you will not."
"Well, you are right—"
He crossed rapidly to the fireplace. "You will not snare me with your fine chivalry—"
With his eyes watchfully on the Duke he east the letter on to the flames.
The youth made no movement, and did not change his faint smile; Martin Bampfield stared at him, baffled.
As the letter twisted into a blackened curl, he approached the table again.
"I don't understand..." he began, thickly.
"There is no need," answered my lord. "These also are yours." He pointed to the pistols lying before him.
"Your pistols, yes."
Martin Bampfield hesitated.
"You want..." he broke off. He bit his lip. "You mean me to take them?"
"Yes—I have no need of them."
"You know...I would have killed you—"
"Yes. I know."
"Why are you giving me these pistols?"
My lord's smile deepened.
"Different breed, different creeds, Mr. Bampfield, as you said yourself."
Martin Bampfield took up the weapons; my lord moved round the table and touched the silver bell behind St. George; then he lifted his eyes and looked at the other.
There was just the table between them; Martin Bampfield slipped one pistol into his belt; he held the other and fingered the trigger: his mouth was working nervously and his heavy brows were drawn into a frown.
The Duke moved from the table and went to the fireplace. He stood so, with his back to the room, holding out his hands to the clear glow of the fire.
The little bracket-clock with the swinging weights struck the half-hour; the wind had abated and only called softly at the latticed panes.
"Curse you," said Martin Bampfield, below his breath; he flung the pistol on the table.
My lord looked round.
The inner door opened to admit the secretary; his master gave him a little smile.
"Mr. Marston, you will take this man to the coast, the quickest way that may be, and there leave him—I think, Mr. Bampfield, that will be convenient for you."
The prisoner made no answer.
"You will be secret," said my lord, "and as quick as may be. I shall miss your company—go armed—good-night, Mr. Bampfield."
The secretary bowed. Martin Bampfield looked over his shoulder at my lord, clutched at the breast of his coat, frowned, and bit his lip.
Something lingered on his tongue, curses or thanks; but the secretary touched him on the arm and the moment passed. With an awkward, sullen step and no backward glance he followed the young man from the room.
As the door closed after them, my lord stepped up to it and slipped the finely wrought iron bolt.
He stood for a moment looking over his shoulder with an absorbed expression in his eyes; then he crossed to the other door and opened it on the men waiting without.
"Sirs." he said, courteously, "will you enter?"
They came into the warm, pleasant glow of the fire and lamplight; seeing the prisoner was not there, the man from London gave a quick exclamation.
"Sir," the Duke addressed him, "I have administered justice to that man in mine own fashion—he will not trouble England, nor need you think further of him."
"He is gone?"
"Your Grace hath let him go?"
"He was a plotter?"
"And those papers, my lord?"
"Were of no consequence, sir."
The man from London could not disguise his anger.
"Before God, your Grace took something on yourself."
My lord looked at him gravely.
"So do you, sir, to speak to me in that manner."
"It was my duty, my lord, to take that fellow to London."
"You are absolved from it, sir."
"You know what color this will have put upon it, my lord?"
"I can imagine," said his Grace.
"It will be believed that this man knew too much of your lordship—that those papers contained matter you were glad to hush up, and that you were glad to buy the silence of an accomplice—"
My lord flushed as he answered:
"In this district I am the law, sir. What is thought at Whitehall does not touch us now—I have no explanation to give save that the man was my enemy."
"Sirs—I would he left to my own leisure."
The man from London turned to the door; the other three were staring at the Duke.
"Very well, my lord, very well," he said, angrily, "but this tale will brand you as a Papist plotter, You may believe me."
He bowed to the slim youth by the table, who returned it with a grave inclination of his head, and with an air of anger left the chamber, his followers behind him.
My lord, when the echo of their clumsy footsteps had died away, unbolted the inner door. Then he went to the window and lifted the dark curtain from the lattice.
The new moon was riding through heavy clouds, casting black shadows over cliff, field, and tree, showing now and then the distant sparkle of the sea.
My lord unlocked the casement, and opened it to the lonely night.
The earth lay mysterious and rich beneath the white spaces of the tumultuous sky; it was cold, with fitful gusts of wind.
My lord stood there, resting his head against the mullions, one hand to his breast, and smiling out upon the moon-scattered darkness until the quiet young secretary returned.
"Ah, Mr. Marston—that is accomplished?"
"The fellow left me, sir, and soon after I saw a boat put off from under the cliff," said the secretary. "He was an ungrateful churl. He sent this message to your Grace—" Mr. Marston hesitated.
"Well?" My lord closed the window.
"'Tell the Duke,' he said, 'that because he is a fool, the feud is not ended.'"
The Duke was silent; the secretary looked at him with an intense curiosity.
"My lord," he asked, abruptly, "this will go against you in London—why did you do it?"
My lord drew a passionate breath. "Because I hated him," he said, quietly. "Even as my father must have hated his...in this room...I hate him. That is the reason, Mr. Marston."
AS she stood on the threshold of the home that was his and would soon (so soon!) be hers, her heart was filled with a noble happiness.
She paused, with a delicate hesitation, delaying a moment of yet deeper joy that she might dwell on it with a longer delight, beside the ancient cypress that hugely overshadowed the long terrace, and looked at the beautiful outlines of Fordyce Hall. Turrets and gables, the work of different builders in different ages, showed dark and clear against an autumn sky of golden gray, and beyond the house miles of hushed wood and parkland swept to the misty horizon.
Below the terrace where Ann Vereker stood, the gardens dipped in old and perfect arrangement of walk and fountain, rosary and quidnunc, arbor and bowling-green, The bright, large flowers of the late year glowed against the worn stone and the rich lawns; there was nothing to disturb the ordered loveliness that had been so wisely planned and so long-enduring. "And in this place I shall be his wife," thought Ann.
She looked at him as he paused a few paces away from her; he stood in the shadow of the cypress, and was gazing past the gardens to the fair, open prospect beyond. She had never seen him in these surroundings before; always their background had been a town—London, Bath, the Wells, a fashionable world, gaiety, a crowd—the proper natural setting for those born to aristocratic ease. A country life was not the mode, and it had not seemed strange to Ann that Sir Richard made no suggestion of showing her his home until their betrothal was nearly at an end.
Yet she had always longed for this moment, always wished to see him in the place where he belonged, where he was master—the place where he was born, and his fathers born before him back to the time of the first Norman king.
It was more beautiful than she had expected, he was more completely one with this setting than she had pictured. Suddenly all the time they had spent together in London seemed wasted; she thought coldly of the town mansion that was being refurnished.
"We will live here," she decided.
She looked at the open door through which she had not yet passed, and then again at him.
"Dick," she said, and her voice was low, "how long is it since you were here?"
"Three years," he answered, quietly.
"Why did you never bring me before?" asked Ann.
He looked at her and seemed to brace himself.
"Oh, my dear," he said—"my dear!" He raised his hand and let it fall as if dismissing a subject impossible of expression.
She noticed then that he was unusually grave—she remembered that he had been grave ever since they had left her brother in the coach in obedience to her wish to see the place alone with him, and they entered the grounds together.
"Did you think I would not care?" she asked. It occurred to her that perhaps he thought her frivolous—that perhaps he had not read her intense desire to take her position and future responsibilities seriously. Her sensitive, mobile face flushed; she leaned her slender figure against the warm, hard stone of the terrace and fixed her eyes on the house; she trembled with the desire to convey to him what she felt for this house of his and all the tradition it stood for. His race had bred fine, useful men and women; she wanted to tell him that she would be worthy of them.
But he was so silent that her delicate desires were abashed. "Shall we go into the house?" she said.
"Ah yes," he answered. "I hope, Ann, that you will like it," he added; and she smiled, for it seemed to her that his tone was a very formal one to be used between such complete friends and lovers as they were; but it did not displease her; she liked the surprises his moods afforded, she was even glad of his present gravity; she felt reserved herself in her own deep happiness.
They walked along the terrace to the side door that stood open; the sunlight had parted the gray veil of clouds and lay lightly over the steps as Ann Vereker ascended them and entered Fordyce Hall.
In accordance with her wish there were no servants to welcome them. "Let me be quite alone with you for the first time," she had said, and he had acceded to her whim without comment.
She had always been exquisite in her observation and keen in her perceptions, and since she had met Richard Fordyce she had known the great sharpening of the senses a strong passion brings; colors, sounds, light, and perfume were now to her so many ecstasies, almost unbearable in their poignancy. And all that he now revealed to her—the fine corridors, the great dining-room, the ball-room, the old carving, the old painted ceilings, the old tapestries, the old furniture—gave her a pleasure that deepened to pain.
In the deep oriel window his quarterings showed, and the bearings of the various heiresses who had at one time or another graced the name of Fordyce. In the dining-room hung the portraits of his ancestors, men and women who seemed strangely remote and aloof, and who yet shared his dear traits in their dark, masterful features. An atmosphere of loneliness and desertion hung heavy in these rooms, but that did not sadden Ann; she felt the place was stately with memories—chambers where so many had lived and died must convey this air of regret. She hushed her footsteps and her voice, and thought that this house peopled with shadows of past achievements would make a worthy background for a warm and living love.
They had not gone above the ground floor when he led her to the great hall and state entrance, and, opening the portals that were stiff on their hinges, showed her the famous view across the woodland and river, that embraced three counties.
She stood, with the soft airs blowing her nut-brown curls beneath the wide brim of her Leghorn hat, and gazed on the entrancing prospect. Directly before her, half concealed by a little belt of elm trees, was a squat Norman church.
"Your church?" she questioned.
"Yes," said Sir Richard, "but it is the only church for the village, too—they come here on Sunday, but they marry and bury at Earl's Stanton, ten miles away."
She touched his arm half timidly; he did not look at her, and a faint sensation of coldness on his part tinged her happiness with apprehension.
"May I see the church now?" she asked, on a sudden impulse.
"Whatever you wish, Ann," he answered.
They crossed the open lawn and the broad drive and entered a green gate in a red wall which admitted them, not, as she expected, into the churchyard, but into a fruit garden that sloped down the side of a little hill.
The fully ripe peaches and apricots hung amid the curling leaves on the sunburnt walls, and some had escaped the nets that held them and lay on the freshly turned earth, and clusters of St. Michael's daisies and sunflowers grew amid the plum and pear trees. Sir Richard crossed the end of the garden and opened another door in the farther wall; as he held it aside for Ann, she stepped past him and found herself among the graves.
A few yew-trees rose in still darkness from the even grass that was scattered with the scarlet berries that fell from the somber boughs.
The flat, discolored grave-stones were mostly in shade, but over those upright against the wall the misty sunshine fell in a dreamy radiance; above the wall the fruit-trees showed, and Ann noticed how the fruit had fallen and lay among the graves.
An old man was trimming the grass; at sight of Sir Richard he took off his hat and stood respectfully at attention. Ann smiled at him; this place was sacred but not sad to her; she wondered why Sir Richard had arranged their marriage for a London church—she would like to have been married here where some day she would be buried—a Fordyce among her kin.
They entered the church; it was small, old, sunken, and dedicated to a forgotten saint—Vedust. The painted glass in the windows was ancient and beautiful, the worn rood-screen had guarded the altar for two hundred years; there were some beautiful brasses in the chancel, and in the Lady Chapel a tomb in fair painted marble.
One name was repeated on brasses and marble, the name of Fordyce; as Ann Vereker stood in a reverent attitude behind the altar she saw this word again and again on tomb and tablet with varying inscriptions and titles of honor.
Among the newer mural tablets which showed white among the time-stained stones were those of his father, his mother, his sister. And, newest of all, one that made Ann catch her breath with a sense of shock.
It was the small square of alabaster dedicated to the memory of his first wife. His first wife. Ann read the inscription:
Sacred to the Memory of Margaret,
Daughter of John Basinghall of Salop
and Wife of Richard Fordyce,
Baronet of Fordyce, Hampshire,
who died May 1725, aet. 23.
Nothing else; no word of love or regret. Ann was glad that there was no parade of mock sentiment; she had been little in his life, Ann was convinced—he never spoke of her, and Ann had tried to forget her existence, had succeeded indeed in closing her mind to all thoughts of her—what was she but an incident to be forgotten—the wife of two years who had died without children. Yet standing here in the somber silence, Ann found herself forced to consider this woman. Somewhere near she was actually lying in her coffin. "Perhaps," thought Ann, "I am standing over her now."
She turned to Sir Richard; his face was inscrutable, his figure dark in the shadows. "Were you—" she broke off, unable to form the words: she had wanted to ask him if he had been married in this church.
It was suddenly horrible that he had ever been married before.
She glanced at their pew, and saw that to sit there would be to sit in full view of this white tablet—"Sacred to the Memory of Margaret...Wife of Richard Fordyce—"
"How close the air is!" she said. "Shall we not go?"
He moved away in silence, and they came together out of the hushed church into the hushed graveyard. The sun had withdrawn behind the increasing gray vapors and would be seen no more that day; the elms that half concealed the house were shaking in a little breeze, and the yellow leaves were drifting steadily down. The place was sad—sad with an atmosphere her happiness could not defy; the air had become chill, and she shivered in her silk coat.
In the distance the old man was cleaning the moss from a headstone. It occurred to Ann that he had seen (many times!) this Margaret; she wished to stop and question him, for a great curiosity now pressed her about the woman whose existence she had hitherto been content to ignore—had this dead wife of his been dark or fair, sad or gay, beautiful or lovable?
She had heard nothing of her, she was sure that she had been an insignificant personality, but she wanted to ask the old gardener and be certain.
"How silent you are, Ann!" said Sir Richard.
She looked up at him with a little start. "So are you," she smiled.
"The day is overcast," he answered, "and a gloomy one in which to overlook an empty house."
"But I will see the rest," she interrupted—"an empty house! Your home, Dick, and mine to be."
"You like the place?" he asked.
She wanted to say so much and words were so inadequate—she wished he would look at her. "I love every stone," she said, passionately.
"We shall not be here much," replied Sir Richard, opening the gate.
"Why not?—the place lacks a master."
"Oh, it is old—and dreary—and in need of repair—"
"That can be altered," she smiled; in her heart she was wondering if he had trodden these churchyard grasses, or crossed the end of this fruit garden, since his first wife had died.
She was sure he had not; no, nor entered the house. Were old memories holding him silent?—the thought tortured her; yet she tried to reason it away and to dispel this shadowy menace of Margaret Fordyce. She had always known that he had been married, and always been able to ignore it; in no way had it come between them. Why should it now?
Yet the old perfect happiness did not return even when they had entered the house again together; the solemn atmosphere of the ancient church seemed to lurk in the quiet rooms; she could not people them with the sweet visions of her own future and his—it was the past that seemed to fill them, and when she mounted the wide, dark stairs she pictured Margaret Fordyce going up them in her bridal dress and being carried down them in her coffin.
He took her to the armory, and she stood pale and thoughtful among the beautiful weapons with which the walls were lined; he showed her his father's sword, his own favorite weapon, and a light French rapier water-waved in gold.
"Do you fence?" he asked, as he hung the rapier back next another of the same weight and length.
"No," said Ann. He made no comment, but she knew now that his first wife had fenced with him—with those two rapiers, in this very room.
They went into the picture-gallery, and she was blind to the beauty of painting and carving, for her eyes were straining, half guiltily, half fearfully, for a portrait of Margaret Fordyce.
He showed her one after another of his ancestors, explaining their lives and actions, and when he came to the great picture of his father on horseback, with the taking of Namur in the distance, her heart was beating fast and her eyes searching furtively for a woman's face. But Margaret Fordyce was not there; yet Ann detected a bare space next to the likeness of Sir Richard's sister—as if, she thought, a painting had been hung there and removed.
It seemed that it would have only been natural for her to ask for his first wife, but she could not, though she was aware that her remarks were vague and forced; he, too, seemed absorbed in some inner thought, and did not notice her distraction.
As they came out from the picture-gallery on to the great stairs again she was struck anew by the chill and ominous atmosphere of the house. She regretted now her desire to have the house empty on her first visit; some servant or kinsman would have been a relief, some one who could have spoken casually and naturally of Margaret Fordyce.
He showed her the paintings on the stairway, and they mounted higher into a region of silence and shadows. The windows were shuttered, the blinds drawn, and the furniture in linen covers.
Without waiting for Sir Richard, Ann hurried through the first suite of rooms: she was looking still for some sign of Margaret, some portrait. These were—had been—a woman's rooms. Would she have to live in them?—to use this furniture, to gaze at herself in these mirrors?
At the end of the suite was a locked door; she tried the handle with a sudden desperation, as if she expected to find the solution of some mystery.
Sir Richard was quickly beside her. "There is nothing of interest there," he said, quietly.
She turned, and they looked at each other for the first time since they had entered the house together.
"Why may I not go in?" asked Ann.
"I did not forbid you," he said. He was pale but smiling; the expression of his face was so different from any that she had ever seen there before that he seemed to her for the moment a stranger.
"I want to go in," she said, trying to smile too, but with a bitter sensation that everything was becoming ghastly and unnatural; she endeavored to struggle against this; she had been perfectly happy a few moments ago—and nothing had happened, she told herself; nothing had happened.
"May I not see this room?" she asked, not knowing what impulse goaded her to insist.
Without answering, he took a key from the pocket of his brocade waistcoat. He carried the key with him, then—perhaps all the while, ever since she had known him, he had had this key to the past next his heart.
In silence he unlocked the door and in silence she entered. The chamber was small, the air close and oppressive; the first glance showed Ann that it was a lady's apartment, and that it had been locked away hastily, with every article untouched as the former occupant had left it. Beyond was another room, the door of which was half open; Ann could see a bed, with curtains of fine needlework, and a mirror covered with a white cloth.
Dust was over everything; Ann could hardly fetch her breath; she unlatched one of the shutters, and the sad autumn light revealed the ruin wrought by time and neglect. Cobwebs clung round the windows, the gilt chairs were tarnished, dust lay gray and heavy in the folds of the curtains. On a side table was a bunch of flowers—changed to a little powder among the wired and faded ribbons of the bouquet; near it was a box of gloves half opened, the string and wrappings thrown carelessly down, the yellow, shriveled gloves unworn.
In one corner of the room stood a harpsichord, open and covered with sheets of music, some of which had fallen to the floor. Beside this, standing against the wall, was a large picture in a dark frame, concealed by a red cloak flung over it.
Ann was drawn by this picture to a forgetfulness of everything else, even to a forgetfulness of Sir Richard, who stood motionless on the threshold. She crossed the floor, and the boards creaked beneath her feet, a startled mouse sprang across her path and disappeared into the dark bedroom.
She stooped and lifted the red cloak. A woman's face looked at her from the glowing canvas.
A beautiful face, alive, alert, fair, and proud, with a peculiar triumphant smile on the lips. She was painted against a dark curtain and a glimpse of summer trees; her unpowdered hair was bound with a purple ribbon, and her brocaded dress was cut low over her jeweled bosom. The painting was stiff and precise, but marvelously lifelike and glowing in color.
In the left-hand corner was written in white letters, "Margaret Fordyce, May, 1725"-the year, the month she died.
Ann stepped back from the painting; her heart was beating thickly and the world was rapidly changing about her; she put out her hand and touched by chance the keyboard of the harpsichord, that gave forth a dismal and jangled sound that she echoed with a low and horrified cry. Sir Richard stepped into the room.
"After three years," he said, looking round—"after three years—"
"What has happened?" murmured Ann. "What has happened?" She leaned weakly against the corner of the harpsichord and gazed still at that third presence in the room—the portrait of Margaret Fordyce.
"Why did you not tell me?" she asked, faintly. He made no defense.
"We are quite strangers," continued Ann.
He turned his eyes on her, but still did not speak.
"How did she die?" asked Ann.
"She was flung from her horse...on her birthday—she was wearing that cloak."
"Why did you not tell me?" repeated Ann Vereker.
"I thought—I hoped—" he broke off.
"You loved her," said Ann.
He stumbled to the bouquet and fingered the ruins of the roses.
"This is as she left it," said Ann. "You shut it away as she left it—but she is still here. In this room. In this house. In the church. How she must laugh at me!"
He stared at her.
"She called you. You could not help coming here—even though it meant bringing me. I was to help you forget."
The triumphant face on the canvas seemed to deepen its disdainful smile.
"You will never forget," continued Ann. "You love her."
"She is dead," said Sir Richard, and he braced his shoulders with the action of a man who endeavors to shake off the oppression of a hideous dream. "Dead. Dead."
"She is here," repeated Ann.
Sir Richard turned his eyes fearfully, hungrily to the portrait. "Oh, God!" he said, sharply.
"This is tragedy," thought Ann. She seemed dull in a dull world; she looked across the harpsichord and noticed that the rain was falling aslant the dry leaves on the withered trees outside. When last the sun shone she had been supremely happy. What had happened?
Nothing...save that she had seen the portrait of Margaret Fordyce.
She had loved him so sincerely, and he had used this love of hers as an opiate—and now the other woman triumphed.
"Dick," she said, in a hopeless voice, "I am going."
He did not answer; the painted figure seemed to step from the frame and dominate both of them. Before her beauty, her assurance, Ann felt insignificant, a creature who did not matter.
Sir Richard picked up one of the faded white gloves and sank onto the tarnished chair; he looked at the portrait, and Ann knew that the last three years had rolled away for him. He belonged to the other woman.
Ann Vereker, the intruder, left him with his wife and went away forever.
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