A BROTHER TO DRAGONS
OTHER OLD-TIME TALES
BY AMELIE RIVES
NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS, FRANKLIN SQUARE 1888
Copyright, 1888, by HARPER & BROTHERS.
All rights reserved.
WITH GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE
THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH
MY FIRST EDITOR
OF the tales published in this volume, "A Brother to Dragons" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly for March, 1886; "The Farrier Lass o' Piping Pebworth" in Lippincott's Magazine for July, 1887; and "Nurse Crumpet tells the Story" in Harper's Magazine for September, 1887.
A BROTHER TO DRAGONS 1
THE FARRIER LASS O' PIPING PEBWORTH 82
NURSE CRUMPET TELLS THE STORY 168
A BROTHER TO DRAGONS.
IN the year of grace, 1586, on the last day of the month of May, to all who may chance to read this narrative, these:
I will first be at the pains of stating that had it not been for Marian I had never indited these or any other papers, true or false. Secondly, that the facts herein set down be true facts; none the less true that they are strange. I will furthermore explain that Marian is the Christian name of my lawful wife, and that our surname is Butter.
My wife had nursed the Lady Margaret from the moment of her birth; and here I must make another digression. The Lady Margaret was the twin sister of the then Lord of Amhurste, Lord Robert, and my lady and his lordship had quarrelled—Marian saith, with a great cause, but I cannot herein forbear also expressing my opinion, which is to the effect that for that quarrel there was neither cause, justice, nor reason. Therefore, before those who may chance to read these words, I will lay bare the facts pertaining to the said quarrel.
It concerned the family ghost, which ghost was said to haunt a certain blue chamber in the east wing of the castle. Now I myself had never gainsaid these reports; for although I do not believe in ghosts, I have a certain respect for them, as they have never offered me any affront, either by appearing to me or otherwise maltreating me. But Marian, who like many of her sex seemed to consort naturally with banshees, bogies, apparitions, and the like, declared to me that at several different and equally inconvenient times this ghost had presented itself to her, startling her on two occasions to such an extent that she once let fall the contents of the broth-bowl on Herne the blood-hound, thereby causing that beast to maliciously devour two breadths of her new black taffeta Sunday gown; again, a hot iron wherewith she was pressing out the seams of Lady Margaret's night-gown. On the second occasion, she fled along the kitchen hall, shrieking piteously, and preceded by Doll, the kitchen wench, the latter having in her seeming a certain ghostly appearance, as she was clad only in her shift, which the draughts in the hall inflated to a great size. The poor maid fled affrighted into her room and locked the door behind her; yet when I did essay to assuage the terror of Mistress Butter, identifying Doll and the blue-room ghost as one and the same, she thanked me not, but belabored me in her frenzy with the yet warm iron, which she had instinctively snatched up in her flight; demanding of me at the same time if I had ever seen Doll's nose spout fire, and her eyes spit in her head like hot coals. I being of a necessity compelled to reply "No," Marian further told me that it was thus that the ghost had comported itself; that, moreover, it was clad all in a livid blue flame from top to toe, and that it had a banner o' red sarcenet that streamed out behind like forked lightning. She then said that this malevolent spirit had struck her with its blazing hand, and that, did I not believe her, I could see the burn on her wrist. Upon my suggesting that this wound might have been inflicted by the iron in its fall, she did use me in so unwifely a manner that I sought my bed in much wrath and vexation of spirit. Nay, I do fear me that I cursed the day I was wed, the day on which my wife was born, wishing all women to the d—l; and that, moreover, out loud, which put me to much shame afterwards for some days; although, be it said to my still greater shame, it was full a fortnight e'er I confessed my repentance unto the wife whom I had so abused.
But meseems I have in this digression transgressed in the matter o' length; therefore, to return to the bare facts.
It was on the subject of this ghost that my lord and the Lady Margaret had disagreed. My lord, being a flighty lad, although a marvellous fine scholar and well-disposed, did agree with my wife in the matter of the ghost; while my lady was of a like mind with myself.
It doth seem but yesterday that she came to me as I was training the woodbine o'er the arbor that led to her little garden, and put her white hand on my shoulder. (My lady was never one for wearing gloves, yet the sun seemed no more to think o' scorching her fair hands than the leaves of a day-lily.) She comes to me and lays her hand on my shoulder, and her long eyes they laugh at me out of the shadow of her hat; but her mouth is grave as though I were a corse.
"Butter, dost thou believe in this ghost?"
"Nay, my lady," answered I, hoping to shift her to better soil; "I ne'er meddle with ghosts or goblins. Why, an there be such things, should they wish me harm? O' my word, my brain is no more troubled with ghosts, black or white, than our gracious Queen's"—here I doffed my cap—"is with snails and slugs;" and here I plucked a slug from a vine-leaf and set my heel on't.
"Nay, nay!" quoth she, a-shutting of her white eyelids so tight that all the long black hairs on them stood straight out, like the fringe on Marian's Sunday mantle in a high wind. "Butter! thou nasty man!"
"Why—for how dost thou mean, my lady?" quoth I.
"Why, for mashing that poor beast to a pap." And then a-holding of her hand level below her eyes, so that she might not discern the ground, "Is he dead?" quoth she.
"Dead?" asked I, for I was somewhat puzzled in my mind.
"Ay, the slug; is he dead?"
"That he is, verily," said I; for in truth he was naught but a jelly, and therewith I drew a pebble over him with my foot, that the sight o' his misfortune should not disturb her tender heart.
"How if I were to crush you 'neath my heel, Master Butter?" quoth she at last, having peered about for the sight she dreaded, and, not seeing it, returning to her discourse. "How wouldst thou like that, excellent Master Butter?" But somehow, as I looked at her foot, my mouth, for all I could do, went into a smile. For though she was as fine a maiden as any in all Warwickshire, her foot, methinks, was of so dainty a make 'twould scarce have dealt death to a rose.
"But truly, my lady," continued I, seeing that she was making up a face at me, "thou knowest I've naught in common with ghosts."
"Ay," quoth she. "And thou knowest the like of me. But"—and here stops she, with the slyest tip of her frowzed curls towards the house—"thou knowest also this, Butter, that his lordship, my brother, thinks as doth Marian, thy wife, and that therein we four cannot agree."
So I look at my hoe-handle, and say I, "My lady, it is known to me."
"Well, now, Butter," she goes on, "thou most wise, most excellent, most cunning, most delectable of Butters, I have concocted a plan. I' fecks, Butter" (for my lady, like her Majesty the Queen, was somewhat given to swearing, though more modest oaths, as should become a subject)—"I' fecks, Butter," saith she, "'tis a most lustick plot. But I would not thy mome heard us;" and with that she makes me send away Joe, the under-gardener. He being gone, she whispers in my ear how she hath plotted to fright his lordship and Marian into very convulsions of further conviction, by appearing to them at the door o' the blue room in her night-gown, with a taper in her hand and her face chalked. What she desired o' me was, that I should come to the blue room with her, and there remain while she played off this pretty fantasy on my lord and Marian.
To be truthful in these my last days o' earth, I liked not my proffered office o'er-well. Howbeit, that night did I do the bidding o' my young mistress, and—loath am I to speak of it, even at this late day—'twas the cause of my young master's leaving his home and going to bide in foreign countries.
Ah, bitter tears did his sister weep, and with mine own eyes I saw her, on the day he set forth, cling to his neck, and when he shook her thence, hang about his loins, and when at last he pushed her to the ground, she laid her hands about his feet and wept; and between every sob it was, "Go not, brother, for my fault! Go not, brother, for my fault!" or else, "Robin, Robin, dost not love me enough to forgive me so little?" and then, "If thou didst but love me a little, thou couldst forgive me much." But he stepped free of her hands and went his ways, and my lady lay with her head where his feet had been, and was still.
Then Marian, who was very wroth with me for my part in the matter, did up with her nursling in her own proper strong arms (for she was aye a strong lass, that being one o' the chief reasons for which I had sought her in marriage—having had, as should all men, an eye to my posterity. It was a great cross to me, as may be thought, to find that all my forethought had been in vain, and that while Turnip, the farrier, had eight as fine lads as one would care to father, of a puny wench that my Marian could have slipped in her pocket, Mistress Butter presented me with no children, weakly or healthy). But, as I have said, Marian, in her own arms, did carry my lady up-stairs to her chamber, and laid her on the day-bed.
And by-and-by she opes her eyes (for Marian agreed that I sate on the threshold), and says she, putting out her hand half-fearful-like, "Is't thou, brother?"
"Nay, honey," saith Marian; "it is I, thy Marian, thy nurse."
Then said my lady, "Ay, nurse; but my brother, he is below—is't not so?" But when Marian shook her head, my lady sate up on the day-bed and caught hold of her short curls, and cried out, "I have banished him! I have made him an outlaw! I have banished him!" And for days she lay like one whose soul was sped.
Well, the young lord came not back, nor would he write; so we knew not whether he were alive or dead. Yet were Marian and myself not unhopeful, for full oft did the heady boy find some such cause of disagreement with his sister to abide apart from her. But when we saw that in truth he came not back, and that week sped after week, and month did follow month, and still no tidings, we had perforce to acknowledge that the young lord was indeed gone to return no more.
The Lady Margaret, in her loneliness, grew into many strange ways. She did outride any man in the county, and she had a blue-roan by the name of Robin Hood; which same, methinks, no man in or out o' th' county would 'a' cared to bestride. She would walk over to Pebworth ('piping Pebworth,' as Master Shakespeare hath dubbed it) and back again, a distance o' some six miles; and afterwards set forth for a gallop on Robin Hood, and be no more a-weary, come eventide, than myself from a trip 'round the gardens. She swam like a sea-maid, she had fenced even better than her brother, and methinks she was the bonniest shot with a long-bow of any woman in all England. She was but fifteen when my lord left Amhurste for aye, and in the years since she had grown mightily, and was waxed as strong as Marian, and full a head taller. But she had long, curved flanks that saved her from buxomness; and her head was set high and light on her shoulders, like a bird that floats on a wave, and o'er it ran her bright curls, the one o'er the other, like little wavelets. Her eyes were as gray as a sword, and as keen, and she had broad lids as white as satin-flowers, and there was a fine black ring around them, made by her long lashes.
My lady was courted by many a fine lord, and more than three youngsters have I seen weep because of her coldness towards them; speeding them away out o' the sight o' mankind (as they thought), and casting themselves along the lush grass in my lady's garden, there to bleat and bleat, like moon-calves for the moon.
For one lad did my heart bleed, verily. 'Twas for the young Lord of Mallow—but a lad with buttercup curls and speedwell eyes, and a smile to win the love o' any maid in her reason (though, to be sure, my lady was in her reason). He comes to me and gets between my knees, like any little eanling that might 'a' been mine own, and quoth he:
"Butter, Butter, she loves thee! Wilt thou not speak to her, and tell her that she shall be the richest lady in all England, and maid of honor to the Queen, and have more jewels than the Queen herself? Oh, Butter!" cried he.
Then said I, a-stroking of the yellow gossamer that bestrewed his shoulders, as he knelt, head bowed, between my knees, "Nay, my lord, 'tis not so that thou shalt win the Lady Margaret. She careth no more for jewels than she doth for the beads in a rainbow; nor doth she care for riches. And methinks a maid who would marry just to be maid of honor to a queen would not be an honorable maid either to herself or to her sovereign;" for so indeed I thought.
Then saith he, "Butter, dost thou believe in love-philters?"
And I asked his meaning, for verily I was ignorant of 't, albeit I was not ignorant in all matters. And he explained to me that it was a drink or potion to cause love.
Then I answered, and said, "Calamint doth make a good brew, likewise sage, and some flax is soothing, but methinks none o' these would cause love."
On this he wept again, but said that I was a good old man, and that on his return to Mallow he would send me a gift; and so he did—a pair o' silk hose, such as my lady and the Queen do wear; but being mindful of my station, I laid them aside for the sake o' th' poor lad, and yesterday Marian did bring them to me, with her ten fingers through as many moth-holes. Whereupon I was minded o' th' text concerning that we lay not up treasures where moth and rust do corrupt, and at my behest Marian read me the whole of that chapter. But to return to bare facts.
It was on a certain night in March that there occurred the conversation which was the cause of this narrative. There had been news of the return of one Lord Denbeigh to Warwickshire—by report as wild a cavalier as ever fought, and a godless body to boot. Marian, who, as I have said, had always a certain knack for ghost stories and the like, froze me with her accounts o' this wild lord's doings. Quoth she:
"Fire-brace is a suiting name for him, inasmuch as 'tis a family name, and he a fire-brand to peace wheresome'er he shall go."
"Peace—peace thyself!" quoth I, hearing my lady's foot along the hall. And, o' my word, Marian had but just ceased, and given her attention to the fire, when in clatters my lady, with her riding-whip stuck in her glove, and her blood-hound Hearn in a leash. She was much wrought, either with riding or rage, for there was a quick red in her cheek, and she had set her red lips until they were white. Then took she the hound between her knees, and plucked off her gloves. Here I did find it my duty to speak.
"My lady," cried I, "'tis not in your mind to baste the dog?"
"Ay, that it is," quoth she, and her lips went tighter, and she jerked at her glove.
Then said I, "How if he leap at thy throat?" And she answered, "Nay, he knows better;" and with that she gripped his collar, and let swing her whip. Then did I bid Marian that she leave the room. As for me, it was my duty to stay, though, as I have given an oath to tell but the truth in this narrative, I must confess that I was in a sweat from head to foot with fear.
But the great hound crouched as though he knew he got but what he deserved, and when my lady had given him ten or twenty lashes she flung wide the door, and said she, "Get thee gone, coward! Go fare as fares the poor beggar thou sought'st to bite!" and the hound slunk out. Then turned my mistress to me, and—"Butter," saith she, "yon beast sought to bite an old beggar as we came through the park, so I whipped him. But for naught save cruelty or disobedience will I ever whip a dog; so, Butter, the next time that thou seest me about to lash one, keep thy counsel." (This was the harshest that my lady e'er spoke, either to me or to Marian.) Then went she to the door and called Marian.
"Come, nurse," quoth she, "I am a-weary. Fling me some skins on the settle, and I will lie down, and thou shalt card out my locks with thy fingers." So we heaped the settle with the skins o' white bears, and thereon my lady cast herself, like a flower blown down upon a snow-bank; and by-and-by, what with the warmth and Marian's strokings, she fell into a deep sleep. But we two sate and gazed on her.
She was all clad in a tight riding-dress of green velour cloth, and her white face seemed to come from the close collar like a white lily from its sheath. She was e'er flower-like, asleep or waking, as I have said, and her pretty head was sleek and yellow, like a butterfly's wing. She was so sound that it appeared to me and Marian as though one longer breath might transform the mimicry into the actual thing—death. But by-and-by awe fell from us, as it doth ever fall, even in the presence of that which hath awed us, and my wife and I did return to our discourse concerning my Lord Denbeigh.
Quoth I to Marian, "But, wife, may not malice invent these tales?"
"Nay, nay," said she, shaking her head; "as bloody a rogue as ever lived—as bloody a rogue as ever lived. They do say as how he'll set a whole tavern in a broil ere he be entered in for three minutes."
"But," quoth I, "may he not be provoked?"
"Nay, I tell thee," said she; "but he'll jump at a body's head, and cleave 't open ere a body can say 'Jesus.'"
At this I said, firmly, "I doubt not but what the poor man is most surely maligned." Whereupon Mistress Butter did wax exceeding wroth.
"Why wilt thou e'er be seeking to plead the cause o' villains?" cried she. "First that bloody beast o' my lady's, now this bloody villain o' th' devil's. I do wonder at thee, Anthony Butter." Whereat I did put in that I sometimes wondered at myself.
"For why?" quoth she.
"Why, that I ever married to be worded by a wench," said I. And at this I am most entirely sure that she would have cast her joint-stool at me, had she not been sitting on 't, and my lady's head against her knee. So she called me a "zany," and then after a little a "toad," but went on stroking my lady's hair.
And, by-and-by, back we come to his lordship.
"'Tis not alone his bloody tricks and murderous ways," quoth my wife, "that causes all Christian folk to abhor him, but he consorts with no other women than drabs and callets. Dost excuse that?"
"Nay," said I, with sufficient gravity, "then is this earl no longer a man, but a swine, and not fit for men's discussion, much less that of women."
At this reproof I saw anger again in her eye, but she was so pleased withal at having got me to call Lord Denbeigh a swine that she forebore any further personal affront.
"And yet," she went on, "they do say he be as fine a man as a wench will walk through the rain to glimpse at, and a brave and a learned; but that he wed a Spanish maid, and she betrayed him, and so he hath vowed to hate women, one and all."
"Hast thou seen him?"
"Nay, but I've had him itemized to me by the wife o' Humfrey Lemon. A blue eye, a hooked nose, a—"
"Well, well, wife," quoth I, "if a blue eye and a hooked nose be as bad signs in a man as they be in a horse, methinks this thy villain is a very round villain."
"And so he is," affirmed she.
"Yet," said I, "there is somewhere in me a something that doth pity him."
"By my troth!" cried my wife. "I do believe, Master Butter, that thou'dst pity the Devil's wife in childbirth."
"Ay, that I would!" I made answer, with a great calmness, for I saw that she sought to rouse my spleen.
"Well, do not bellow," blurted she, "for my mistress is as sound as a gold-piece."
Then quoth my lady, a-rising up on her elbow,
"Nay, that she is not. And, moreover, she would hear all the stories concerning this bad and bloody Lord of Denbeigh!"
When Marian heard my lady so speak, methought she would have swooned in verity; for she knew my lady's contempt for gossip. E'en for the first time in all her life, Marian could not find a word to her tongue.
"La! my lady," said she, and then stopped and was silent. My lady laughed at her, with her deep eyes; but as was her wont, her mouth was wondrous solemn.
"Ay, nurse," quoth she, "thou thought'st me safe i' th' Land o' Nod, but one hath ears to hear there as elsewhere." Then she reaches out one hand and plays with Marian's ruff. "Go to, nurse," says she. "Dost thou not see I am even i' th' same case with thyself? I too would gossip a little. Come, word it—word it!"
So Marian told her all that she had heard, together with a little prophesying here and there, which boded no good to my Lord Denbeigh. She told how he had e'en been a brave lad, but how in Spain he had wed with a wife who played him false; how then he had vowed vengeance on all womankind, becoming a brawler and a haunter o' taverns; how death was in his sword and lightnings in his eye.
My lady listened, and now and again she would pinch her eyelids softly with her thumb and ring-finger, as one who is deep in thought. But when Marian paused for breath, she turned to her, and quoth she,
"Nurse, thou hast often preached unto me; listen now to my preachings. Thou shalt often hear a man abused, nurse, but chiefly for that which he hath never done. This wild lord, I doubt not, hath been guilty of sorry deeds. What man hath not? But the half that thou hast told me is not to be believed."
Then went she to her room, taking Marian with her, but I saw that she was moved.
It was but the next day that my lady's uncle, Sir John Trenyon, came riding into the court. He often came in such wise, to bide for a day or two with his niece. A most courteous gentleman; red of face, blue of eye, and blithe of tongue. He had a jest for each tick o' th' clock, and a kind word for all.
"Ah, Butter," saith he, "and where is thy mistress? And thy wife, the good Dame Marian—where is she? And how about thy family? Hast thou no better prospects than of yore?"
Whereat I looked sorrowful enough, I doubt not, for he did bid me take heart, as my first-born might have had a hare-lip or a crook-back. Then did he toss me his bridle-reins, and my lady, having heard his voice, came forth to meet him.
"So, lady-bird!" quoth he, clasping her. "I am come for no less than three reasons this time. First, to see thy bonny face. Second, to ride thy bonny Robin. Third, to inquire and seek out a certain villain of mine acquaintance, of whom you have doubtless heard;" and forthwith did he say to her of how the wicked Lord Denbeigh was the son of a friend and comrade, and of how he had known him when a lad, together with much more, at which my lady pricked up her ears, as 'twere, having all a lady's love for stories of wicked men who are not yet either old or ill-favored.
"By my troth," declared the old knight in ending, "I will take but a mouthful to stay me, and then set forth straightway in quest o' th' rascal." So having dined right heartily, he rode forth again.
Now, having related this hap to Marian, she was devoured of so great a curiosity that, as I am an honest man, I looked to see her consumed even unto her bones, as some men who burn of drink. She would have it that I must hazard a guess on the shape of Lord Denbeigh's nose, the color of his hair, and the height of his body. She forced me to wonder whether he were civil or rude of tongue. She pressed me to say whether I thought there was aye a chance of his returning with Sir John. She questioned me, in a word, until, having no answers, I was like to lose my wits, or my temper, or both together. At last comes she and sits on my knee, and tickles the back of my neck right playfully, as in the days of our wooing.
"As I live, Tony," quoth she, "we are like to have a strange story under our very noses. What if"—and here she takes my face in her two hands, and sets her chin against mine, so that I see four round blue eyes against her white brow, and am like to go blind with her thoughtlessness—"what if it turns out that the Lord hath set upon our lady to be the saviour of this wicked earl?"
"Ay," cried I. "And what if the Lord hath set upon me to be the founder of a nation, like Abraham? What then?" At which she boxed my ears right soundly. But I could not blame her, for in the wrong I was, without doubt, although verily she had plagued me into it. So I sued for pardon, and got it, and a kiss into the bargain. But she would not leave me in peace concerning Lord Denbeigh.
When that same afternoon there comes Sir John a-riding past, and the bad earl at his side, "What dost thou say now?" quoth Marian, a-plucking me in a way that did not serve to increase good feeling betwixt us. "Ah ha! Are not women prophetesses by nature?"
"Ay, by ill-nature," answered I; and for this quip I was not forgiven for two days.
It was towards the setting of the sun when Sir John and Lord Denbeigh rode up to the door of Amhurste, and my lady, knowing naught, came out at the sound of the horses' feet, thinking only to greet her uncle. The red light from the west shone on her, and dabbled her white kirtle as with blood, and her face was like one of the red roses in her garden. So she put up her hand to shield it, and saw the stranger standing at her feet.
There was ne'er a nobler-looking man, for all he might outblack Satan in his soul: straight of body, and strong of limb, and lofty of head. His hair was the color of my lady's, and there seemed to be ever some sunshine in it, as he moved his head. Methought his face was fair and goodly to look upon, albeit his lips went downward at the corners, and there was a droop in his broad lids. He was clad all in a close suit of dark velvet, and in his hand he held a black hat with a knot of heron-plumes.
My lady stood and looked down at him from under her long, white hand, and he stood and looked up at my lady, as one looks upward at a fair picture. And the evening light crept between them. I was ashamed of my own folly, when I did catch myself remembering Marian's silly sayings; but for all that, they did come back to me, as the words of a foolish woman will return to the wisest of men. And in truth he did gaze up at her, as though she were more holy than the heavens above her. And for all her hand, the sunset found its way unto her cheek.
What I now relate was told me by Marian some three days after. 'Twas on the night of the day on which Sir John had brought the stranger to Amhurste, and Marian was carding out my lady's tresses before her bedroom fire.
Quoth my lady, suddenly, "Nurse, didst thou see Lord Denbeigh ere he went?"
And Marian said that she had seen him.
"He hath a strange face, nurse."
"How 'strange,' my lady?"
"Why, it seems to me that each feature in it doth contradict the other. His brow is stern, and saith to his eyes, 'Ye shall not be gentle.' His eyes say to his nose, 'Spread not thy nostrils so proudly.' His nose commands his lips that they smile not; but, nurse, there was ne'er a sweeter smile on the lips o' a saint!"
Marian fell a-thinking, and pulled my lady's hair. My lady heeded it not, so Marian fell a-thinking yet more deeply.
"It is not a face that tells of a bad heart," continued my lady. "Rather it speaks of rebellion and misfortune. A sad story—a sad story."
"What is, my lady?" asked Marian; but my lady was far away, whither Marian could not follow.
"Nurse," she saith, presently, "that were a soul worth saving." Then got she suddenly to her feet, and turned and took her nurse's hands with hers. "It shall be saved," she saith, "God helping."
And she kissed Marian, and lay down upon her bed. But Marian did tell me how that no sleep visited her lady's eyes that night. Through the darkness she could hear her turn, first on this side, then on that; then sigh and move her pillow, and sigh again.
Methought Marian would have split in sunder with importance, when Lord Denbeigh took to coming sometimes to Amhurste. 'Twas never for even an hour that he stayed; and 'twas always some question of business that brought him. But my lady and he touched hands full oft during a week, and always he would look at her with a different look from that which his eyes did wear at other times. And she spoke to him e'er courteously and kindly, even as though he had been a holy man and worthy of all reverence.
One day it chanced that my lady rode the blue-roan out into the woods, towards the hut of old Joan Gobble, who was crippled by reason of age. My lady had me follow her on Dumble, th' white nag, with a pat o' butter and some wine. I was taken up with pondering as to why my lady should go in person to Dame Gobble's, seeing she might have sent me alone on Dumble as well. Be that as it may, as we rode along by a brook-side, under the thick leaves, whom should we come upon but my Lord Denbeigh. He was kneeling beside the water, and holding down his hand into the brook. As I looked I saw that his hand was befouled with gore, and that the brown stream did rush away ruddily from beneath his fingers.
My lady did not wait for me to hold Robin Hood, but did swing herself from her saddle, and was beside the earl in a trice. He looked up, and seeing her, did start upon his feet.
"Nay," said she, putting out her hand, "but tell me if I can aid thee."
And he strove to hide his hand at his side, saying. "Tis but a scratch;" but the blood ran down like water on the grass.
"Think not to spare me the sight o' blood," said my lady, "for I am learned in bandaging wounds." And certes she was, seeing that every soul at Amhurste did come to her for healing, let a cat but scratch them. And she took his hand between her two fair hands (having drawn off her gloves), and saw that his wrist was deeply severed as with a knife. But she asked him no questions, telling him only to stoop while she cleansed his hand sufficiently to bind it. And as she laid it in the water, and pressed the lips of the wound together, he said unto her in a low tone, not meaning that I should hear him,
"Would that thou couldst wash my soul as thou hast washed my hand!"
She looked straight into his eyes, with her own so clear and honest, like a dog's (meaning no disrespect to my lady, as God knows), and she answered him and saith,
"It were well worth the washing, my lord; but an higher than I must cleanse it."
And he saith, "There is none higher."
At that my lady's blood rose in her cheek, but she besought him that he would not speak to her in such wise. When she had made a compress of the napkins in the basket wherein I was carrying Dame Gobble's butter, and had stanched the blood, she unwound the ribbon from her silver hunting-horn, and cast it about his neck for a rest to his wounded arm. Then he did bend down his head and kissed the ribbon, and my lady turned quickly, and got upon the roan, and rode away at so smart a pace that methinks Dame Gobble's butter and wine did reach her in a closer conjunction than she could have found pleasant.
When I told Marian of this encounter, merely by the way of a bit of gossip, she did smile in such a wise that I was minded to cuff a woman for the first time in a long life.
It was that same night that Marian did tell me how that she feared the earl was in danger of some sort, judging by certain words that my lady had let fall in her sleep. I noticed how that my lady seemed restless, and would start at the clap o' a door, or when Herne did come suddenly upon her. And one day she leaned from a window, as I swept up the rose-leaves from the grass on the east terrace, and called to me to come thither. She was as white as her kirtle, and her gray eyes were dark like water before a storm. She did not look at me, but beyond into the air. So I waited, having plucked off my cap, and my lady stood looking, looking; and after a while she saith,
"Thou hast aye been a true and faithful servant unto me: therefore I am about to give unto thee a great charge."
And I said, "My lady, thou knowest that thou canst trust me;" and in truth I could say no more, for my throat was stiff.
And she continued and said,
"Thou must be to-night at the Red Deer, and that by nine of the clock. One will be there in whom we have both deep interest. I cannot tell thee more. Take thy sword with thee, but have no fear—thou wilt have no cause to use it. Yet, lest thou be fearful, take it with thee." And she said, "Thou wilt remember?"
"My lady, when have I e'er forgotten word of thine?" Whereat she did put out her fair hand to me, saying, "Never," and there were tears in her eyes.
So that night (for the first time in many years) did I find myself within the doors of the Red Deer. A cosey place it was, despite the wine-bibbers that did profane it; and the inn-keeper's wife, a most buxom, eye-pleasing wench, with three sturdy boys aye clambering about her. As I looked, some hard and sinful thoughts did visit my heart concerning the bounty that the Lord had lavished upon one who was a barterer of wine, when I, who had lived ever a temperate and (in so far as was in my power) a godly life, should remain childless. But I did conquer at last, bidding Satan get behind me, and was left in peace to toast my feet, and to ponder as to who it was that my lady had sent me thither to mark. Had I not loved my lady with all my heart, methinks I could not have stood the terms that were heaped upon me by the brawlers. I will not repeat the foul slanders; suffice it to say, I sustained for one half hour what few men are called upon to endure throughout a lifetime.
At last, the newness being gone, they left me in peace, and I, being settled safely in my corner, did set to work to watch the door.
Who should enter at that very moment but my Lord Denbeigh! He was wrapped in a long brown cloak, and wore a broad hat, unornamented by plume or buckle, pulled down over his eyes. He came and tossed himself into a chair near the fire, and sat there pondering upon the coals, with his legs out in front of him. Now, I have ever had a woman-weakness for a goodly leg in man, and the splendid limbs of Lord Denbeigh did witch me into a steadier gaze than that which civility doth permit. This by-and-by he did notice, and so spoke to me.
"At what art thou staring, ancient?" quoth he, not unkindly. So I told him, whereupon he laughed somewhat.
"Methinks thou art but a doting body," he said, "and yet is thy face familiar. What now? Hast thou e'er met with me before?"
Then did I lie right roundly, being, to confess the truth, not a little afraid.
"Out on thee," saith his lordship; "the truth is not in thee. I ne'er forget a face; how, then, shall I forget a face such as thine? Certes I have seen thee before. Wilt thou colt me?"
And again lied I—blackly, most abominably.
"As thou wilt," quoth he; "but thy face is known to me, for all that."
It was at this time that the door opened again, and there did enter a stripling, clad all in dark maroon velvet, wrapped also about with a long cloak, and having a velvet bonnet pulled down over his brows i' th' manner o' Lord Denbeigh's. One could see naught o' his visage for the shadow from his head-gear. The revelers scarce noted his entrance, being far gone in drink, and some having departed, and others asleep. The lad came and stood near the fire, and I saw that he looked at Lord Denbeigh from under his drooping bonnet—the earl having withdrawn unto a table apart, with a glass of wine and some papers, and his sword across the table. Even as I looked the boy turned, and went over, and leaned on the table to finger the heavy sword. My heart was afraid within me, for there was a dark light in the eyes that flashed up at the youth from under Lord Denbeigh's stern brows. I was nigh unto them, being but a stride or two apart, and so marked all that passed between them.
"By my troth," quoth his lordship, "a valiant crack!"
"Meaning me?" quoth the lad, smiling.
"Ay, meaning thee, Sir Insolence. Dost thou know how to handle thine own sword, that thou handlest a stranger's so freely?"
"Even so. But I meant not to vex thee. In truth, I am come to thee on an errand of life and death;" and as he spoke, he did doff his bonnet and toss it upon the table, and the firelight and candlelight did leap upon his fair curls, and as I saw his face it was the face of my lady. The earl did start half-way to his feet, and his face was first like fire and then like snow.
"Margaret!" he saith, back of his teeth, as 'twere.
And the lad smiled, leaning still upon the table.
"Nay; my sister is called so," he said, "but my name is Robert, and I am the Lord of Amhurste and her brother. Haply she hath mentioned me unto your lordship."
The earl stared as one who sees a ghost (though I believe not in them myself), and he saith, "Whence comest thou? All think that thou art dead."
And the boy said,
"Nay, but I would not that any besides thee knew of my whereabouts. As to thee, I know more concerning thee even than my sister, and it is for her sake that I come to thee to-night."
And my lord saith, "For her sake?"
"Even so. I am come to persuade thee that thou wilt not go on the errand thou wottest of two nights hence. There are those who do mean thee death. It is certain that thy life is plotted against. Surely thou wilt be warned?" And as I looked, the color left the lad's face, and he grew white as any woman. Almost I could have sworn it was my lady's face. Line for line, eyelash for eyelash, look for look. And methought no mother's heart e'er yearned towards her new-born babe as yearned my heart towards the youth. It seemed as though I must cry out to him. To see him thus after five weary years; to be so near him, and yet unable to touch even the latchet of his shoes, or to hear his voice calling my name. I trembled and was blind with longing. When at last I did look up, he said again, "Surely, thou wilt be advised?"
The earl leaned with his forehead set in his clasped hands, and by-and-by he said,
"It is impossible. Would that I could!"
And the lad said,
"Nay, it is not impossible. Thou canst save thine own life with a word."
And Lord Denbeigh answered him:
"My life is not worth even a word," and he did not lift up his forehead from his hands.
Then said my master, "Thy life may be worth less than naught to thee, but to others its price is above their own." And again he was as pale as any girl.
And he spoke again and said, "Thou wilt not go? Thou wilt be warned?"
And again did the man answer, saying, "Impossible."
Then saith my master,
"Lord Denbeigh, if thou goest to London on the morrow, I will follow thee there. Nay, thou canst not prevent me. And think you my sister's heart will be warmer towards thee if her brother's blood be spilled at thy behest?"
And the earl sat with his stern eyes on the lad, and he said,
"Thy blood will ne'er be spent at my behest. I do forbid thee to follow me."
And the lad said,
"I am not to be forbidden." So they stood and looked at one another. And all at once the boy put out his hand ('twas my lady's very gesture) and took the earl's sleeve, and saith he in a gentle voice,
"Thou wert a man after God's own heart did not thou let Satan consort with thee."
Then turned Lord Denbeigh with a laugh that was not merry. And he saith,
"As thou quotest Scripture to me, select thy texts with greater care. Even to my mind there doth come one more suiting; for even as Job, 'I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.'"
Then saith the lad, still with his hand on the man's arm,
"Is it not the more to thy discredit that thou, who couldst be brother to Christ, do make brothers of dragons? Verily, my lord, I am bold through my sister, for methinks it is thus that she would have answered thee."
And the man turned away as though to hide his face.
Lord Robert spoke with Lord Denbeigh at some length, but he was not to be turned from his purpose (which, methought, must be a very strange and grewsome one, judging by their words). So finally they went out separately, and I got me back to Amhurste.
The next morning I did relate to my lady all that had passed, but mentioning no names, as I saw that she wished it not. And when I was finished she bade me go straightway to London and find out the whereabouts of Lord Denbeigh. Moreover, she told me that she herself would be there shortly with Marian, and that they two would lodge at the house of Marian's aunt, one Mistress Pepper, a linen-draper's wife. At this I wondered greatly, the more that she should keep silent concerning her brother than that she should follow him to London. And all that I could think was that Lord Robert was in some dire conspiracy, likewise the earl, and that she feared for the lives of one or both. So we all go to London, I earlier than my lady and Marian.
For a day I lost sight of Lord Denbeigh (whom I had followed closely all the way from Warwickshire), but the next afternoon I marked him as he passed along a by-way, and heard him speak with some one of his friends, naming a tavern where he would meet him at a certain hour that night.
So first I found out where the tavern was, then straight to my lady and acquainted her with all that I had discovered.
She said naught but to commend my diligence, and she went whiter than a just washed sheep at shearing-time. Quoth I to myself, "Butter, there is more here than thou wottest of;" which was very true.
That night, a little before the hour set upon, I did get me to the tavern, and lurked quietly in the shadows where none might observe; and there, verily, was the earl and him with whom he had spoken in the afternoon. He had but said a word or so when Lord Robert entered, and went and stood at his elbow, but did not touch him or pluck at his cloak. Albeit, the earl seemed to feel his presence, for shortly he turned and saw the lad.
"How!" quoth he. "Thou here?"
And the boy said, "I told thee I would follow thee."
And Lord Denbeigh answered him, "Dost thou know of what thou speakest?"
And the lad said, "Verily I know, and thou mayest trust me;" and with that he muttered two or three words under his breath, which, because of mine old ears, I could not catch. And the two men started and looked at one another. Then the earl did turn to his friend, saying to him that they could indeed trust the lad. So they three clasped hands. When that was done, Lord Denbeigh turns to my master, and saith he, "Hast thou thy dirk with thee?" and the lad answered that he had both sword and dagger.
"Not that there is any danger," quoth the earl, "but that thou mayest feel easy."
But the lad said, "There is danger, as I have told thee; and thou art putting thy life in jeopardy." At this Lord Denbeigh only laughed; but as they went out into the street I marked that he kept the lad close at his side, almost as a mother keeps a child.
The night was still and cold, and the sky full of little white clouds that lapped the one over the other, like shells on a seashore. Now and again the moon would strike through, in a long, bright ray, that seemed like a keen blade or lance severing the misty air. The three went on and on, through many winding ways, and still I followed, for I knew not into what danger the lad might be hastening.
All at once, in a dark turning, there came the clang of swords and a rushing and scuffling, but no cry of any kind; and methought the silence was more hideous than sound. Stiff as were my old joints with disuse, I drew my sword and lay about me lustily, striving to get between the villains and my young master (which is no credit to me, as I was so wrought with rage that I verily believe I would have no more felt the thrust of a rapier than Marian's housewife the prick of a needle). But there was no method in aught, neither could anything be seen; for the moon had withdrawn behind the clouds, and we seemed to be fighting underneath clear water, so pale and ghastly was the light shed about us from the pale clouds. And as I struck out with my sword I saw a fellow in a mask close with Lord Denbeigh, lifting a dagger high in his hand, while another rascal pinned the earl's hands to his sides. And even as I looked, the lad leaped between, and the thin knife went deep into his breast. At the same time there was a louder clash of swords, and a thudding of men's bodies together, and the masked wretches turned about and did take to their heels with a good will. So I sheathed my sword and ran forward.
Lord Denbeigh and his friend were bending over the lad, who lay out-stretched between them, with his white face turned up to the white sky, looking like the face of a dead man at the bottom of a clear pool. Then could I not withhold my grief, but cried aloud, "My master, my master!" and tried to feel with my trembling old hands for the wound.
Then said the earl, "Not here! I will carry him to a place of safety." And he lifted the boy in his arms, as though he had been a hurt child.
When the other saw that, he laid hold on Lord Denbeigh's arm, saying, "What mean you? are you distraught? There is but scarce time by the clock."
And the earl said, "Go you on. I must take this boy where his wound can be bound."
"Nay," said the man. "I tell you, you are mad!"
And Lord Denbeigh turned on him, and spoke in a harsh voice:
"I have said I will not go. I have done with thee and thine. Go thy ways ere it be too late;" and he passed on and left the man to swallow the moonshine with his great gaping mouth.
And he saith unto me, "Follow closely." So by-and-by we came to a great gray house, and Lord Denbeigh opened the door and bade me enter with him.
We passed through a vast hall, and up a ponderous staircase, and into a room. A fire was burning on the hearth, and there was a fantastic kind of lamp swinging from a silver chain above the bed's foot.
I guessed rightly that this was his lordship's own apartment. He laid the lad on the bed, and fell to undoing his doublet of black velvet. I did see him set to shivering, as 'twere, when he noted the red stains on the shirt underneath, and my heart stood still within me. Then he opened the red linen, and did put in his hand gently to feel if the heart were yet beating; but no sooner had he done this than he gave a strange cry, and drew out his hand dripping with blood, and stood staring and trembling. At the same moment the lad stirred, and opened his eyes, and began to clutch feebly at his doublet, drawing it together. I made naught of it until Lord Denbeigh did turn to me, with the face of a dead man, and quoth he, "Stay here while I fetch women," and so rushed out like one in truth distraught.
Then did it all come upon me, and I knew that the face upon which I looked was the face of my lady.
Ere another second had passed I heard the earl's voice without, and he spoke with a woman:
"Do thou go instantly and clothe the lady within in some of thy garments; and have care that thou say no word to any of what hath happened, else will it not be well for thee."
When I heard the tone in which he spoke, methought in truth it would not be well for her did she not heed his commands.
Shortly there entered a woman most marvellous fair, with hair that seemed spun of black taffetas, and a skin like a white jasmine. When she saw the blood her lips whitened, and she did close them more closely, but no cry escaped her. Whereat I was much ashamed, remembering the hullabaloo that I had raised.
I turned aside while she disrobed my lady and clothed her in clean linen, and drew down the sheets, placing her between them. But the blood still flowed in spite of all bandages, and the fair linen was soon crimson.
And when all was prepared, the woman went to the door and said, "You can enter," and the earl came into the chamber again. When, however, he did see my lady he cried out, "God in heaven! she will bleed to death!" and he called the woman, and showed her how to stanch the wound. Then, when the steps of the surgeon were heard in the hall without, he said unto her, "Remember. She is thy sister, and thieves have stabbed her for the jewels on her neck." And she answered him, "I will remember."
And all this time methought I was in an evil dream, and that Marian, for some spite, would not awaken me.
How it came about, to this day I recollect not, but ere two weeks had sped we were again at Amhurste, and my lady in her own bower, under Marian's care. As to that, Marian had been with my lady ever since the fatal night whereon she was nigh done to death by that masked ruffian.
The earl did go himself to fetch her from Mistress Pepper's, and after that she came neither of us saw the sloe-eyed woman any more.
None had known of my lady's stay in town, saving my lady herself, Lord Denbeigh, the black-eyed woman (who never uttered word more, good or bad, after that she had said, "I will remember"), Marian, and me. So besides us five no one was the wiser.
It was towards the last of May that my lady did beg that we would lift her out to sit in a long-chair on the east terrace. The birds were at their morning gossiping in the shrubbery, and the air was most sweet with the breath of the white lilacs. My lady looked like a snow-wreath fallen suddenly among the greenery of spring, but her eyes did peep softly, like bluebells, from the snows of her face. Methought she was all white and blue, like the heavens above her, and her hair made sunshine over all. Herne, the blood-hound, lay at her feet, and would not be stirred, though for sport my lady had Marian to tempt him with some comfits.
While we were all there, and my lady showing us how the light shined through her thin hands, and discoursing right merrily, there came a page and handed her a letter. Back fell she among her pillows, and her eyelids dropped over her eyes, like snow-flakes fallen on violets. Anon she opened the letter, and having read it, said unto Marian, "Nurse, go bid him hither." So Marian beckoned me, and we left her. As we entered the house, who should pass us but my Lord of Denbeigh, and o' my word he was whiter than my lady, if anything, and wrapped as usual in a long cloak. He seemed not to see us, and we went on in silence.
Here transpires the only part of this narrative concerning which I am reluctant to write. I will out with it, however, and the Almighty knows that I have not done with repentance even yet. So be it. There was a window overhanging the terrace where my lady sat (the window out of which she had leaned to speak to me about repairing to the Red Deer). But let me not defer longer. I, Anthony Butter, of respectable parents, and counted among my fellows and betters an honest man, did go to this window, and did most deliberately listen to the words that passed between my mistress and the Earl of Denbeigh. In fact (for I have sworn to keep back no jot or tittle of the truth), I did speed me so fast that I was at the window ere his lordship reached my lady's side.
He came slowly, but his look went before him, and was fast upon my lady's face ere he himself was within ten yards of her. When at last he was come to her side, he did stand and look down on her, but uttered no word. And also my lady did look down, and there was a light like sunset on her cheek.
Then suddenly did he drop upon his knees beside her, and bowed down his head upon her knee and was silent. Then my lady (God forever keep her!) did turn her eyes quickly, and stole a look to see that no one was nigh (God forgive my dastardly presence!), and did reach out one pale hand, half fearfully as 'twere, and did let it rest upon the man's bowed head, as a white rose-leaf falls and rests on the earth. And she said but two words, "My friend;" yet methought all love was in them. Whereat he raised his head and looked at her, and it is so that men look upward when they pray. He took her hands with his and held them to his breast, and he saith, "Dear saint, if thou forgivest me, wilt thou but kiss my brow?" And she bended forward and kissed him; and he trembled, calling her by name; and she asked him what he would with her. Then kneeling at her side, he spoke to her, and his words were as follows:
"Thou hast heard of my life and of my misfortunes, but all hath not been told thee. Grant me but patience for a moment, that I myself may tell thee all."
And she saith unto him, "Say on."
So he spoke and said, "There is much that I may not tell thee, yet part I will tell thee, for that I must. Thou hast heard how that my wife—" But he could not continue, so dropped his face into my lady's hands, and she waited for him, saying softly,
"I will understand what thou dost not say. Be not troubled, but speak out thy soul to me;" and presently he told her more. As I do live, never listened I to sadder story. So piteous it was that my tears fell down like rain, and I was sore afraid that my sighing would discover my whereabouts. But the Almighty is merciful even to sinners, and I remained unnoted. 'Twas the old tale of love and treachery; a false wife and a friend who was a villain.
The earl had killed the man (but in fair encounter), and his wife he had brought back, never to be as husband to her more, but to preserve her from further sin. And I do maintain that 'twas a noble act, and I did quite forgive him the blood of his betrayer. Methought my lady did forgive him too, for she did but stroke his hair softly, saying ever and anon, "Poor soul!" or "God help thee!" And by-and-by he lifted his face, and saith, "But the worst is yet to tell thee."
And she said again, "Say on."
And he trembled again, but spoke out bravely: "My wife yet lives. It was she who bound thy wounds."
Now at this I thought to see my lady swoon; but she only smiled, though better had one seen her weep than smile in such wise. And she saith, "I have known that these many days;" and she leaned towards him, and placed both hands upon his head, saying, "Weep not. I hold thee guiltless. Do not weep."
But he sobbed, clasping her knees, as one whose heart is broken, saying now and again below his breath, "O God! O God!"
If there be this side the stars a more awful sight than the sight of a strong man in tears, God grant I may ne'er behold it, for surely I should die of pity. Doth it please God that I resemble Abraham in the matter of age, if in none other, ne'er will that scene fade from my memory—my lady, so wan and white and narrow, like a tall lily over which a rude wind hath swept, and at her knee the strong man, bowed as a little lad that saith his prayers, clasping her kirtle and her hands, as though one sinking in deep waters were to grasp at a floating stem of flowers for support. And after a while, when the violence of his grief was spent, he saith unto her,
"I sail for Spain with Essex on the morrow, as thou knowest; but it doth remain for me to tell thee why I go. It is for that I think the lad, thy brother, hath been a prisoner of war these many years, and I go to bring him to thee."
And she sat and looked at him as though her heart had leaped from her breast into his body; but she spake no words save only, "God keep thee; God go with thee."
And suddenly he saith unto her, as though the words would forth,
"I loved thee from the moment that I saw thee. Let me but tell thee that."
She whispered, saying, "It was even so with me." And he lifted his eyes and looked at her. Then fled I, as though I had drawn away the veil from the sanctuary, for I thought that God would surely smite me for having beheld that look.
* * * * *
So Lord Denbeigh sailed with the Earl of Essex for the war in Spain, and my lady's soul left her body and went with him; for surely 'twas but her body that remained at Amhurste. All day long would she sit silent, nor move, nor look, and her hands the one upon the other before her, as who should say, "I am done with all things, whether of work or of play." So passed the months, and ever and anon some report would reach the village of the wild earl's deeds in Spain, and of how he would fight ten men with one arm wounded and the blood in his eyes, and such like tales. But no word came direct, either through letters or friends. So passed the months, and it was nigh to August, and the fighting was over for the time, when one day, with a clattering as of a horsed army, there comes dashing into the court two cavaliers on horseback, and one of them was my Lord of Denbeigh. Ere I could look at the other he had leaped to the ground, and had me about the neck a-kissing me as roundly as ever a wench in the market-place. And lo! when I looked, it was Lord Robert in very truth. He was grown out of all knowledge, and as brown as a nut, but as big and as bonny a lad as ever clapped hand to sword.
When I could turn my eyes from him upon the earl, I saw that he was waxed as pale as death, and wore his arm in a kerchief, and that there was a great red streak adown his temple, clean through his right eyebrow. And his splendid flanks and chest were hollow, like those of a good steed that lacketh fodder. But when he stood and leaned against his horse's neck and smiled at us, methought he was by far the goodliest man that ever I had looked upon. His teeth were as white as the foam on his horse's bit, and there was a deep nick at the corner of his mouth, like that at the mouth of a girl.
Then must I call Marian, and send her to break the news to my lady. So in a moment she comes rushing down along the stair-way, like a branch that is blown suddenly from the top o' a tall tree, and so into Lord Robert's arms; and he catches her to his heart, and so stands holding her; and they make no motion nor any sound whatever. Then turns the earl away, and leaves them together. But I marked that his eyes were brimming, and that there was a quiver in his lip.
Ere night all is known to us: how Lord Robert had been a prisoner in Spain all these years, yet was he treated with courtesy at the behest o' some wench. But he did not love her, God be praised! And 'tis in my mind to this day how he might have wed her, and how the earl did relate to him his bitter experiences with a Spanish wife. Ay, that is my firm opinion. All this and more did we hear, laughing and weeping by turns. But it was not until Lord Robert saw my lady alone that she heard of how the earl had saved him at the risk of his own life, all but bearing him in his arms through the enemy, hewing his way right and left. And, moreover, Lord Robert did tell how that the blood from that cut on the earl's temple did in truth run down into his eyes and blind him, but how that he dashed it back and slew the man who wounded him, and so they escaped.
The next morning, as I did sally forth with my cross-bow to have a shot at a screech-owl which for some nights past had disturbed Marian's slumbers, she in her turn having disturbed mine, I did see Lord Denbeigh come out upon the terrace and throw himself down along the grass, beneath a tulip-tree, with a book. But he read not, lying very quiet, with his head raised up upon one hand and his elbow sunk in the soft turf. And as the sunlight struck through the leaves upon his glittering hair, and his face like marble, I could not but pause to gaze on him, so noble looked he. But his eyes were far away, and his thoughts with them.
It was for this that he did not hear my lady coming until she stood beside him, and her white gown brushed his cheek. But seeing her, he leaped to his feet, and the blood ran along his face, and then seemed all to settle in the long wound, leaving him more pale than before. And she said to him,
"Nay, do not rise, for thou art weak yet;" but he would not be seated, so they stood there, side by side in the fair morning light. And presently she puts out her hand (no one ere reached out their hand as did my lady), and she just lays it on his sleeve, and saith she, "I am come to thank you—to thank you with all my heart and soul—" and there a sob chokes her, and she can say no more.
Again the blood swept up across his brow; and he said, "For God's love, say no more."
But she answered, saying, "Nay, I have so much to say." And she came nearer to him for a little space; and her head drooped downward, like a flower full of rain. And she did knit and unknit her white fingers as they hung before her. And she saith, "There is no guerdon worthy such a knight, but if an thou—"
Then all on a sudden did she reach out both arms towards him, and her fair hands, palms upward, and the scarlet leaped to her very brow; but she lifted her little head proudly, albeit her eyes were dropped downward, and she said unto him, "Take me, for I am thine."
And he trembled from head to foot, and parting his lips as though to speak, reached out his arms and clasped her.
And when I realized what I had done, I did drop my cross-bow and took to my heels, like one followed by goblins.
Now, even as I hope to be saved, I but just come to recognize that this was my second eavesdropping. So be it. I have vowed, and must keep my vow.
It was all made clear to me that night, when Marian did relate to me how that the Spanish woman had slain herself by swallowing flame. At which (though mightily pleased, God forgive me, on account of my lady and the earl) I was more than ever thankful that Lord Robert had escaped alive and unwed out o' th' clutches o' th' Spanish wench. And here it occurreth to me that I have not yet told that Marian did know from the first of my lady's going up to town dressed as her brother. This I record more on account of its being a marvellous instance of a woman's keeping her tongue than to shame Marian, who hath often read how that wives should submit themselves unto their husbands as unto the Lord. Howbeit, all ended so happily that I had not the heart to scold her.
With the first frosts of October my lady and the earl were wed. Methought the queen herself could not have had a finer wedding, and certes no woman could have had a nobler spouse. He was yet pale from his wounds, but most soldierly of bearing and proud of carriage. He was clad all in white, like my lady. A more beauteous apparel I have never seen.
His doublet was of cloth of silver, with a close jerkin of white satin embroidered in silver and little pearls. His girdle and the scabbard of his sword were of cloth of silver, with golden buckles. His poniard and sword were hilted and mounted in gold, together with many blazing orders and richer devices that I know not how to enumerate.
My lady's gown was all of white satin, sewn down the front with little pearls, like those on my lord's jerkin, and her ruff was of soft lace, not stiff, as was the fashion, but falling about her bosom most modestly and becomingly. Lord Robert, methinks, was eke as goodly, after his way, as either his sister or Lord Denbeigh, being close clad from head to foot in crimson sarcenet, slashed all with cloth of gold. My lady had given me some suiting clothes for the occasion; and as for Marian, methought in her new gown of sea-green taffeta, with her new ruff and head-gear, that she looked as fair a matron as any mother of fine lads in all England.
Seven months they had been wed, and it was May again. Methought such love had never been on earth since Eden. 'Twas gladness but to see them. And all, moreo'er, was so well with Lord Robert, who, folks did say, was in mighty great favor at court, and like to become a shining light in the land.
'Twas on a May morning. The trees were a-lilt with birds, and the sound of waters set all the winds a-singing. All at once comes my lord, and sets his hand on my shoulder. Then know I that something dire hath happened. And he saith, "Friend, where is thy mistress?"
And I tell him that she is out among her roses.
Then saith he all at once, "The Queen hath sent for me—I must to war."
And I could do naught but stare at him. And he said to me: "In an hour I must be gone. Say naught to thy mistress. I will go don a suiting dress, and do thou bring me my sword and give it into my hand."
And he went, returning shortly, and I gave him the sword. It was then that we heard the voice of my lady without, and she sang a song of the spring-tide. The words I have ne'er forgot, though I did but hear them once:
"For O! For O! The cowslips blow, And the ground's all gold below me; The speedwell's eye Peers up so bli' I swear it seems to know me!
"The lady-smocks In silver frocks Do flout the sonsy clover; The humble bee Consorts wi' me And hails me for a rover.
"Then trip, then trip, And if ye slip Your lad will lend a hand O; The lass in green With black, black een, Is the fairest in the land O."
And as the earl listened methought he would have fallen, grasping my shoulder, old man as I was, and bending down his head upon it. And I did stay him with my arm, as though he had been my very son—for old age is father to all men.
So my lady comes in, with her gold hair blowing, and her white kirtle full of red roses, and seeing her lord goes to meet him. But when she noted the soldierly fashioning of his dress, and the sword girt at his thigh, she opened her lips as though to cry out, but no sound escaped them. And her kirtle slipped from her hold, and the red roses lay between them like a pool of blood.
Then she saith unto him, "Tell me. Quick, quick!"
And he lifts her to him, and saith, "Sweetheart, my Queen hath bidden me come fight for her and for my country."
And she saith naught, only clasps him.
But by-and-by she cries out, saying, "Go not! Go not! Else wilt thou kill me." And so speaking, falls like one dead at her lord's feet.
Then I, running like one distraught to fetch Marian, do tilt pell-mell into Lord Robert, who hath come down to Amhurste for a week or so of rest.
"Heydey!" quoth he. "What Jack-a-lent hath frighted thee?" And I told him all. Never a word said he, but went straightway and got upon his horse, and clapped spurs to its sides, and so out of sight.
And all that night my lady lay nigh to death, so that there was ne'er a thought in the breast of any for another soul. Therefore Lord Robert was not missed.
Ere two days were past came a man with despatches, and we found out how that Lord Robert had substituted himself for the earl (having acquainted the Queen with the circumstances—and he being, moreover, so great a favorite), and how the Queen had granted Lord Denbeigh leave to remain in England a while longer.
And so his lordship was with his lady when their child was born, but Lord Robert was killed in the wars.
They grieved sore for him, and for many weeks would not be comforted. And even it was said that the Queen mourned for him, and did banish all festivities from court for the space of several days.
But like as the stars do pale in the morning sky, so pales the orb of sorrow before the rays of the great sun, happiness.
And though he was ne'er forgotten, and though the tears would spring to my lady's eyes heard she but his name mentioned, yet she did smile again and was happy.
It chanced but this morning that Marian and I, leaning from the window that overlooks the east terrace, did see a most winsome sight.
'Twas a fair morning, and May again, and on such mornings as these my lady would go forth on the east terrace with the child. And there grow all such sweet flowers as my lady loves—the red mule-pinks, and dame's-violets, such as are sweet o' evenings, but marvellous fair to look upon both by sunlight and moonlight. And the south wall was all thick with the yellow violets, so that my lady's head looked like the head o' a saint against a golden platter. And there did my lady sit, on a quaintly wrought bench, with the little lord.
And this morning, when she was seated, and the babe curled against her bosom, and Marian and myself thinking o' the pictures o' the Virgin Mary and the blessed Jesus (saving that my lady's kirtle was all of white and gold, like the lilies, knotted in her waistband), she looked up on a sudden, and lo! there was the master coming along over the grass towards her. When he saw who it was that sat there, he doffed his plumed hat like as though it had been the Virgin Mary for very truth, and he paused a minute, but then came on.
When my lady saw him who he was, there came a fair red o'er all the white o' her throat and face; ay, and withal over her very bosom. And she put up one white hand, with her wedding-ring on't, and made as though she would shield the sun from the babe's eyes.
And all this time my lord came slowly over the grass, as though the sweet sight did pleasure him both far and near. And when he was approached, he stood, still with his hat in his hand, and looked down at the babe and its mother, and was silent.
Then the child, feeling mayhap that its father was near, twisted over towards him, reaching out its waxen arm, and smiled right knowingly; whereat my lord did pluck the great plume out o' his hat and lay it across my lady's bosom; moreover, he knelt and put an hand on the babe, but his arm he held about his wife.
Then did she draw both my lord and the child to her, and pressed them against her, but her face she lifted Godwards.
And something spoke within our hearts that we turned and left the window.
THE FARRIER LASS O' PIPING PEBWORTH.
HUMFREY LEMON, meeting Bered Turnip, before the "Red Deer," doth speak as follows:
* * * * *
Whom have we here? Well, well, by my troth! 'tis none other than Bered Turnip, the farrier, as I do live! Come for an alms-drink, comrade. Would I had as many gold-pieces as we have burnt alnights i' this very tavern! And is it thus we meet after all these years? It doth seem but yesterday that we supped under this very roof as juvenals. Dost thou mind thee o' the night that we gave old Gammer Lick-the-Dish a bath in his own sack, for that he served us in a foul jerkin? By'r lay'kin, those were days! Well, well, to meet thee thus! Though, believe it or not, as thou wilt, I had such a pricking i' my thumbs but an hour gone that I was of a mind to roar you like any babe with a pin in his swaddling-bands. Thou wast my beau-peer i' those times; and we are kin by profession, moreover. How be Mistress Turnip and thy eight lads? Ha! ha! Dost remember how old Anthony Butter—him who was gardener at Amhurste Castle, ye mind—dost thou remember in what spite he held thee because o' those eight little salads o' thine? A always said a married with an eye to a's posterity; and o' my word a's been cockeyed e'er since, for's posterity has e'er kept him on the lookout: never chick or child hath Mistress Butter given him.
Quoth he to me one day, a-setting of 's chin in 's thumb and forefinger (thou mind'st his solemn ways)—quoth he to me, "Lemon," quoth he, "would I knew why the Lord doth seem to look with a more bounteous favor on such as are farriers, than on such as be followers of other trades; for methinks, what with thee, and Turnip, and Job Long-pate, who bides in Dancing Marston, England will owe the chief o' her future population to blacksmiths." I quoth, to humor him, quoth I, "Belike, Master Butter," quoth I, "the Almighty hath gotten wisdom by experience, and doth purpose to put no further trust in gardeners." Whereat he waxed so wrathful, that for the sake o' my breeches I took to my heels. But, Lord! it doth seem as though a had a spite against th' very children o' others. Thou mindest my Keren? By'r lay'kin, 'twill not stick i' my old pate how that thou hast not been in these parts since my Keren could 'a' walked under a blackberry-bramble without so much as tousling her tresses. Well, a grew up a likely lass, I can tell thee! Sure thou mindest why we—my wife and I—did come to call her Keren? Go to! Thou dost! 'Tis the jest o' th' place to this day. Well, then, if thou dost not, I'll be at the pains o' telling thee; for methinks 'twas a wise thought. We did christen her Keren-Happuch; "for," quoth my wife, "when that we be pleased with her, we can call her Keren—which is as sweet-sounding a name as a maid can have; and, on the other hand, when we be wroth with her, we can call her Happuch—which sure would be a rough name even for thy trotting mare Bellibone." Ha! ha! And thereby, comrade, hangs another tale, as Master Shakespeare was wont to say. My wife, thou must know, hath e'er been a loyal admirer o' our gracious Queen, and it comes to her ears one day as how her Majesty did ride a-horseback most excellent well. Naught would do but that I must let Mistress Lemon mount for a ride upon my gray mare Bellibone. Now Bellibone, though as willing a nag as ever ambled, did think far more o' getting to her journey's end than o' the manner in which she did accomplish the journey; and, I will say, a trotted as though a was for breaking th' stones on th' Queen's highway, instead o' getting o'er 'em. Well, I did what I could to dissuade Mistress Lemon from her enterprise, but a was as firm as one o' my surest driven nails in a new shoe. So a let her go. Couldst thou but 'a' seen her when she was returned an hour after! Ha! ha! ha! a was for breaking my head with my own pincers.
"Dost thou call that devil's-riding-horse 'Bellibone?'" quoth she, with what breath there was left to her. "By my troth, I think she hath not another bone in her whole body besides her backbone!"
But I spake o' Keren. Thou knowest that even as a lass she had a sharp tongue o' her own—as keen as a holly leaf, by my troth. So be it. 'Twas one day nigh unto Martlemas that old Butter did undertake to chide her for conducting herself after the manner o' a lad rather than o' a lass.
Quoth she to him, a-setting of her little black pate to one side, and of her little brown arms akimbo—quoth she, "Since the Lord hath not made me a lad," quoth she, "I cannot more than act like one; and so I will do!"
Quoth he, "Thou hast a sour name, a bitter tongue, and a peppery temper, jade; and the two last be not gifts o' the Lord."
"And thou," quoth she, "hast a mustard conceit, for right sure am I that 'tis big enough for a goose to roost in! And whether th' Lord hath given it to thee or not, I'm glad I have 't not," quoth she; for she had heard it read, in some meeting whither her mother would sometimes take her, of how the fowls o' the air did lodge i' th' branches o' the mustard-plant. Well, by'r lay'kin, th' village hath ne'er forgot that to this day, and that I'll prove thee when we be through drinking!
What hath become o' her? Go to! Sure thou knowest that? Well, well 'tis a tale to make a play of. I've often thought, had Master Shakespeare known of 't, how he would 'a' fashioned it into a jolly play. Tell thee of 't? What! art in earnest? By the mass, then, thou must drink again. Come, fill up, fill up. What there! a cup o' the amber drink for Master Turnip!
Let me see: how old was th' lass when thou didst set forth on thy jauntings? Some two years, methinks. And she was fourteen on the first day o' March i' that year wherein she did sauce old Butter with some o' 's own wit for gibing at her for a tomboy. O' my word, man, th' old fellow was not far i' th' wrong. If e'er th' angel o' life did make an error i' th' distributing o' souls, 'twas on the night Keren was brought into this world. And a say that with a cause, moreover; for th' same night, mark you, one Mistress Mouldy, over the way, was brought to bed o' a man-child. That's neither here nor there. Herein doth lie the singularity. That child did grow up to knit stockings i' th' door-way like any wench; Peter Mouldy's th' name, and a plays a part i' th' story I'm about to relate to thee. Ne'er in all thy travels hast thou e'er seen so crack-brain a wench as my Keren! Lord! it set thy head to swimming did she but enter a room. She had no more stability o' motion than a merry-go-round; and she was that brown, a bun looked pale i' th' comparison, when she did lift it to her mouth to eat it. A strapping jade, and strong as any lad o' her age i' th' village. In her seeming she took neither after her mother nor after me, though she was a comely wench as wenches go—hair as black as a January night in stormy weather, and eyes as big and as bright and as yellow (o' my word)—as yellow as two crown pieces! They looked out from under her thick eyebrows like sunlight peeping from a heavy cloud. And she was made like a lad for suppleness. Taller than her mother by head and shoulders, and within a full inch o' my forelock. By'r lay'kin! how she could sing too! She would troll thee a ditty i' th' voice o' a six-foot stripling, but for a' that, as sweet as bells far away on a still noon in summer-tide. And she was always getting hold o' saucy songs, and putting them to tunes o' her own invention. A could 'a' had aye the lads i' th' village, had a wanted 'em; but, Lord! a had one sweetheart one day, and another the next, till they were one and all for murdering or marrying her. But she would none o' 'em. 'Twas one summer's day, her mother being gone to th' village, that she did set about to brew some sack; and as she did stand by the big pot while it cooled, to see that naught fell into 't, up comes Master Peter Mouldy with his knitting, and grins at her across the caldron, after the fashion o' a horse eating briers. She not noticing him, quoth he,
"Good-morrow, sweet Mistress Lemon."
Saith she, not looking at him,
"How, mistress?" saith he, with his mouth as wide as a church door on a Sunday.
"Why, for calling a lemon sweet," saith she, "when all the world doth know that it is sour."
Thereat he did fall a-grinning again.
"Sweet, sweet mistress Keren," quoth he, "'tis thee I praise, and not thy name. And I will wager that thou art not sour, Mistress Keren."
"How wilt thou find out, either to lose or to win thy wager?" quoth she.
"Thus!" quoth he. And, o' my word, the homespun got his arms about her, knitting and all (though I would 'a' laid two cows and a lamb they couldn't 'a' reached about her pretty waist), and smacked her right heartily full on her red mouth.
Well, comrade, that something would happen I knew full well; but when she did up with him by the seat o' his breeches and the collar o' his jerkin, and did souse him head first into the pot o' sack, methought I would 'a' burst in sunder, like Judas Iscariot (meaning no blasphemy).
And when he was climbed out, spluttering and white with terror, she did fish out his hat with his big knitting-needles, and did set it upon his head, and did thrust him outside, and did shut the door in 's face. But never a word said she from first to last. Then methought in verity I would 'a' split in twain from top to toe, like the veil o' the temple (meaning no blasphemy, as I will swear on th' book). And when she caught sight o' me she too fell a-laughing, and quoth she to me, "I have spoiled a good brew for thee, father, but 'twas worth the paying for." And therewith she did out with the worth o' the sack from her purse, which she always carried in her bosom, after a fashion inherited from her mother, and counted down the silver into my hand. I took it, for I ever strove to bring up my children in the ways o' honesty; and certes she had spoiled the contents o' the caldron by turning it into a bath-tub for Master Mouldy. Well, 'twas th' talk o' th' village for full a month; scarce did young Mouldy dare put out his nose from behind the lattice o' his mother's cottage. But th' other lads seemed to fall more daft about the lass than aye afore.
Now, my wife's sister had a daughter, called Ruth, and in all things was she most different from my Keren. A'd a head as yellow as Keren's eyes, and eyes as brown as Keren's skin, and a skin as white as Keren's teeth; and a was slim and tender-looking, like a primrose that hath but just ventured out on a day in early spring. Moreover, she was a timid, sweet-voiced creature—the kind o' wench that makes even a weak man feel strong, ye mind, comrade. But a was ne'er o'er-civil to my lass. Neither did Keren waste much love upon her; she said from th' very start that th' hussy had a sly tongue; "and a sly tongue," saith she, "doth ever mate with a false heart," saith she; "and from such a marriage what offspring can ye look for, unless it be for mischief?" saith she.
They had not much to do the one with the other, however, until the coming of Robert Hacket to Pebworth. And a was as fine a lad as e'er caused a lass to don her Sunday kirtle on a Saturday. 'Twas said as how he had met with Ruth while that she was on a visit to her aunt in Dancing Marston, and that he had come to Pebworth to wed with her. All would 'a' been well had not it come to Keren's ears how that Mistress Ruth said that she would bring Master Hacket to see her cousin Keren, but that she did not want her sweetheart to be out with her family ere that he had married into it; meaning neither more nor less than that my Keren was a shame unto her name by reason o' her romping ways.
"The cat!" quoth Keren, waxing as red as any damask rose for very anger; "the little, spiteful cat! But I'll cut her claws for her! Do thou bide and mark me, father. Ay, I'll serve her and her Robert in such wise they'll go to their graves remembering."
Now, 'twas the very next day that the lads and lasses o' the village did crown her harvest-queen, and all Bidford was out to see 't. And very queen she looked, too, borne aloft in a throne made all o' dark red roses, and her dark curls crowned with a wreath o' corn and o' poppies, that shined in the sunlight like to gold strewn all with rubies. She wore a new kirtle of white wool, and her brown throat rose from her white kerchief like as a frozen wood-dove's dusky breast doth peep from new-fallen snow.
And Mistress Ruth walked beside her as one o' her maids o' honor. And they twain did remind me of naught so much as of a lamb trotting by the side of a forest doe—the one so meek and white, and the other so free and brown, with great eyes ever moving, and head aloft.
There, moreover, walked Master Hacket. He was as brown as my Keren, and nearly half as tall again; and he had eyes like pools o' water under a night heaven, wherein two stars have drowned themselves, as 'twere, and brows as black and straight as a sweep o' cloud across an evening sky. Ruth walked at his side, all glittering with her unbound hair, like to a sunbeam that follows a dark stream. And I saw that they talked together, and nodded as though agreeing on something, and looked together at my lass where she sat on her flower-throne with her poppy-crown, and her lips like poppies. And all at once she turned and saw them, and her lips parted over her white teeth in a sudden smile, as when a kirtle o' red silk doth tear over a white petticoat beneath; and she turned away; but I could see that she laughed in her brown throat, as a bird sings sometimes for its own hearkening ere trolling for the whole forest. So I said to myself, "'Ware, 'ware, my little spring lamb; there is trouble ahead for thee. Thou wilt not win thy Boaz so easily as thou dost think, my little Ruth."
Now, when they were come to the fields, and the maids seated under some elm-trees, and all the lads fallen to 't with their sickles, while that they were reaping the glistening corn my Keren doth leap to her feet, and she calls out,
"I know not the name o' yonder man, but I do know that I can give him a lesson in reaping!"
So forthwith up jumps she, and, striding out into the sunlit meadow, jerks young Hacket's sickle from his hand, and, having turned back the sleeves o' her smock, stands well upon her shapely legs and begins to reap.
Now, methought I had ne'er in all my life seen anything more pleasing to look upon. The wind blew down her thick locks about her, so that she was wrapped in a mantle worthy any queen; while with every sweep o' her strong brown arms the tumbling grain did fall like gold about her, so that she seemed to be trampling upon her treasures after a manner truly royal. Also a red came into her shadowy cheeks, like as though a scarlet flower tossed into a clear brown stream should rise slowly upward beneath the limpid surface and shine a-through. And all at once she ceased, and came back towards the young man, and returned his sickle unto him. And she said, smiling,
"Take thou thy blade, for I have not only reaped the grain, but I have reaped the reward of my bragging as well." And, behold! when I was come up to them with a drink o' water in a gourd, there was the blood falling down upon her white kirtle, as though the poppies in her crown had melted in the sunlight and did stain her garment.
He did cry out, saying, "O' my word, lass, thou art deeply hurt. Let me but look at it."
She saith unto him (winding her arm about in her long hair), "Nay, 'tis nothing, and belike if thou look upon it 'twill spoil thy dinner: so here's to thy health, and my father will bind it for me."
Then, when we were retired again into the shade, and I had torn a strip off of her kirtle wherewith to stanch the blood, she laughed outright, and saith,
"By my troth, father! I do verily believe thou thinkest me awkward without a purpose."
"Purpose!" saith I; for I could not believe my ears. "How dost thou mean—purpose?"
"That's neither here nor there," saith she, still laughing. "But I'll lay thee my heifer, father, that Mistress Ruth's sweetheart cometh on the morrow to inquire after Mistress Ruth's cousin Keren."
Wherewith she did make me a deep courtesy, and did get her back to the other lasses ere I could reply.
Well, as I live, and must some day die, and do hope when I do die to get to heaven, I was so taken aback with the hussy's cunning I could do naught but stand and stare after her for some minutes.
And on the morrow he did come, and on the day after that he came, and yet a third day and he was under my roof again.
Then saith my wife, after that his third visit was o'er, and speaking to Keren as she sat spinning i' th' door-way, "Happuch," saith she, "thou art serving thy cousin Ruth a very jade's trick."
Then, hearing as how she did call her "Happuch," I did prick up my ears, as 'twere; for I knew there was anger brewing.
"Thou art very free with thy words to-day, mother," quoth the maid, a-spinning very quickly.
"Not so free as thou art with thy favors to the sweetheart o' another lass," replied her mother.
"How dost thou know he is the sweetheart o' another lass?" saith Keren.
"If an he be not," quoth her mother, who, though not half so big as her child, was in nowise less valiant—"if an he be not," quoth she, "'tis time he were."
"And for why?" saith Keren.
"Thou knowest as well as I do, Happuch," saith my wife; whereat up started my crack-brain in a fine fury.
"Why wilt thou call me that vile name, when thou knowest how it maddens me?" saith she, hurling her spindle upon the floor, and tightening both her pretty hands so that they looked like balls o' her own brown yarn.
"For that I am not pleased with thee, Happuch," saith her mother, with all composure, looking at the linen as she washed it, with her head cocked to one side.
"There again!" shouted my wildfire, stamping with her foot. "Why didst thou not call me Beelzebub and have done with 't?"
"For the reason," quoth her mother, calmly, "that neither Beel nor Zebub is a suiting name for a woman, and, furthermore, that thou art not the Devil, though thou dost act like him on occasions."
"Wife, wife," put in I, seeing that the girl was like to split with rage, "speak gentler to Keren."
"To Happuch," saith she.
"Speak gentler to the girl," saith I, hoping to compromise, as 'twere.
"Happuch," saith my wife again.
"Well, well," saith I, still hoping to split the difference, so that I would have neither my wife nor my daughter upon me, "if thou wouldst only speak gentler to Keren-Happuch, thou—"
"To Happuch," saith my wife a third time; whereat the lass did bounce out o' the house without more ado, and spent that night with a friend o' her own, by name one Mistress Meg Titmouse.
"Wife," saith I unto her later, hoping to draw her into converse concerning Keren, so that I might reason with her as to her treatment o' th' lass—"wife," saith I, amiably, and, as I thought, in a manner most winsome, "wherefore didst thou speak to Keren as thou didst this morning?"
"I spake to Happuch," saith my wife, "because I did choose so to do. And as for the why o' that wherefore, though thou shouldst smirk till doomsday like a dog scratching his ear, ne'er wilt thou get it out o' me!"
Then saith I, being justly angered, as I think thou wilt admit, comrade—saith I,
"Thou art welcome to keep thy counsel!" saith I.
And I followed the example set me by my vixen, and did spend more than half the night at this very tavern.
Well, the next morning, as I did pass out on my way to my forge, whom should I see in the garden but my Keren and Master Robert Hacket! and if e'er a woman was possessed o' a devil, 'twas just that lass o' mine then, comrade. She had caused young Hacket to climb up into a pear-tree, and while that he was up there she did bear away the ladder by which he had mounted, and she saith to him,
"Now, Master Robin, I am going to sing thee a song. Wilt thou listen?"
"With all my heart," saith he. So he leaned on his elbow, stretched out like a young panther along the limb o' th' tree, and looked down on her. Now, as I live, down went that jade on her knees in the grass, and she lifts up her two pretty hands to him as though in prayer, and thus sings she (I knew the song by heart):
"'Listen, Robin, while I woo. This world's stale with repetition: I'll not do as others do; Haste thee, love, to my tuition. Robin, I'll make love to you, As men to other maidens do.
"'Oh, what eyes my Robin hath! April fields own no such blue; In the luscious aftermath There's no flower so fair to view. Robin, Robin, hear me woo. All my soul's in love with you!
"'Robin, will you marry me?— Thus upon my knees I sue: O' my word I'll harry thee Like as men their sweethearts do. Robin, as I live I'm true: Will you wed me, Robin?—Will you?'"
Now, what chanced thereupon I think thou wilt agree with me, comrade, in saying it did but serve her right. Down falls he like a ripe pomewater at her side, and takes her about the waist, and sets his mouth to hers (all in a twink, comrade; thou hadst not time to shape thy mouth for a whistle ere 'twas all done, or verily my mouth had given forth something besides whistling), and saith he,
"That will I, lass; an' if thou be not my wife ere that snail-coming new moon doth thrust out her horns, my name is not Hacket, nor will thine be!"
Now, comrade, though it doth shame me verily so to speak o' mine own flesh, I saw by her pretending to push him away that she did mightily relish his kisses; for, by my troth! had she sought to scuffle with him 'twould 'a' been as snug an encounter as when day and night wrestle for the last bit o' a June sky.
And she saith to him, feigning to scowl, "How now, thou rapscallion! dost thou dare?"
"Ay, ay," quoth he, "in verity I do!" quoth he. And in verity a did, too.
But just as I was consulting with the Lord how to act, He having had even a greater experience with wayward children than myself (may He pardon me if I be too free with His holy name!)—just, I say, as I was asking Him to show me in what wise to proceed, up goes her hand, and she gives him a sound cuff o' th' ear (young Hacket's ear—not the Lord's; may He pardon me if so it sounded), and she saith,
"Take that for striving to make a fool out o' an honest girl! I know thy goings on with Ruth Visor," saith she. "Thou'lt ne'er blind me with thy pretty speecheries." And a was o'er th' palings and out o' sight like a wind-blown leaf.
Then did young Hacket come to th' fence and lean upon it with both his arms, and support his chin with a thumb on either side o't, and saith he,
"Methinks she'd 'a' made a better warrior than a wife," saith he; "but when she hath ta'en off the edge o' her warlike spirit in fighting for her freedom," saith he, "why, then," saith he, "I'll marry her!" So saith he—every word o't. By my troth, comrade, an I had not had so much the advantage by having my nippers in my hand, I would 'a' thrashed him then and there. But, "fair play" being my motto, and having my nippers, as I saith, I forbore; yea, I forbore, and walked away unseen of him. And, o' my word, I was much angered with myself for not being more angry with th' wench.
"For," saith I, out loud, that I might be impressed by the sound as well as by the knowledge o' th' fact—"for," saith I, a-hammering away on a shoe for Joe Pebbles's brown nag King Edward (though I had often reasoned with Joe on account o' th' name, first because o' its irreverence, second on account o' th' horse not being that kind o' a horse, as 'twas a mare)—"for," saith I, as I made th' shoe, saith I, "'tis sure a great wickedness to steal a lass's sweetheart away from her!" saith I. And so 'twas; but, for all I could do, I could not feel angered with the hussy.
But that day when she did fetch me my dinner, being finished, I did pull down th' sleeves o' my shirt, and wiped off my leathern apron, and quoth I to her,
"Lass, come here and sit upon my knee."
So she comes right willingly, being fond o' me to an extent that did oft seem to astony the mother that bore her (seeing that she was fond o' naught save her own way); she comes, and she perches upon my knee (as sometimes thou shalt see a hawk rest wings on a bull's back), and she kittles my throat with her long brown fingers, and hugs me about the neck (the jade! a knew I was for scolding her), and saith she, "Well, father, here be I." Methinks I can hear her say it now, as soft as any little toddler come for a kiss. "Here be I," she saith; and with that she fills all my face with her curls (the jade! a saw that in my eye which a did not care to face). "Here be I," saith she.
"Ay," saith I, speaking in a gruff voice; "and now that here thou be," saith I, "I'll tell thee what I want of thee."
"Thou canst want naught that I will not do," saith she. (The jade! a had a way with her to 'a' made Bess herself yearn for matrimony.) But I was stanch; I was stanch, comrade. Saith I,
"Methinks thy mother was right to speak to thee as yesternight she did," saith I; "for I saw thee strive to graft a pear-tree with a branch o' th' tree o' knowledge," saith I.
"Then," saith she, hot as my forge all in a breath, and bouncing from my knee—"then thou wast an eavesdropper!" saith she.
"Even as the Lord afore me," saith I, not over-pleased at her sauciness. "And being in some sort thy Creator, and thou having set up for thyself an Eden in my garden," saith I, "who hath a greater right than I to watch over thee?" saith I.
Then she not answering me, thus did I continue:
"Why dost thou not take unto thyself an husband," quoth I, "to do both thyself and thy parents a credit?"
"Show me such an one," saith she, "and I do promise thee to wed him."
"There, then," quoth I, "is Davy Short hose, the poulterer—"
"A bangled-eared buffoon as ever lived!" quoth she; "and a fool into the bargain."
"So be it," saith I; for I was set upon keeping my temper. "What dost thou say to Beryamen Piggin, the brewer?"
"A say if ever a piggin was in sore need o' a new link, 'tis that one," saith she. "And, what's more, I'll not serve for 't," saith she.
"How, then, of Nanfan Speckle, the tanner?"
"A's as pied as a's name," quoth she, "both soul and body."
"There be Jezreel Spittlewig, the joiner."
"Methinks," quoth she, "if a'd do a little joining to a's own shackling body, a might hold together long enough to go through the marriage ceremony," saith she. "Howbeit, I'm not a-sure of 't."
"Well, then, Jack Stirthepot, the chair-mender."
"A'd have to stir th' pot with a witch ere a brewed a wedding with me," quoth she.
"What sayest to Reuben Puff, the tinker?"
"If I say so much as a word to any one o' em," cried she, snatching up the pail wherein she had brought my victuals, "may thy first grandchild be born without a tongue!" saith she. And out she went.
Then quoth I to myself, quoth I, "Lemon," quoth I, "the jade's in love with th' crack—no more, no less." And I said further, said I, "Bodykins!" said I, a-shoeing of King Edward with all my might, "by cock and pye!" said I, "an a wants him let a have him. 'Tis more than his dessert, I'll warrant," so quoth I. "And as for Dame Visor's hussy, let her learn to bridle her tongue," quoth I. And 'twas just here that wench Keren did creep up and take me about the neck, as I was a-filing of King Edward's hoof.