The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview

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XVI. Rus In Urbe

One or two of the men looked up as de Chavasse entered, but no one took much notice of him.
Most of those present remembered him from the past few years when still with pockets well filled through having forestalled Lady Sue's maintenance money, he was an habitual frequenter of some of the smart secret clubs in town; but here, just the same as elsewhere, Sir Marmaduke was not a popular man, and many there were who had unpleasant recollections of his surly temper and uncouth ways, whenever fickle Fortune happened not to favor him.
Even now, he looked sullen and disagreeable as, having exchanged a significant glance with his sister-in-law, he gave a comprehensive nod to the assembled guests, which had nothing in it either of cordiality or of good-will. He touched Editha's finger tips with his lips, and then advanced into the room. Here he was met by Mistress Endicott, who had effectually thrown off the last vestige of annoyance and of rebellion, for she greeted the newcomer with marked good-humor and an encouraging smile.
"It is indeed a pleasure to see that Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse hath not forgot old friends," she said pleasantly.
"It was passing kind, gracious mistress," he responded, forcing himself to speak naturally and in agreeable tones, "to remember an insignificant country bumpkin like myself ... and you see I have presumed on your lavish hospitality and brought my young friend, Master Richard Lambert, to whom you extended so gracious an invitation."
He turned to Lambert, who a little dazed to find himself in such brilliant company, had somewhat timidly kept close to the heels of his employer. He thought Mistress Endicott vulgar and overdressed the moment he felt bold enough to raise his eyes to hers. But he chided himself immediately for thus daring to criticize his betters.
His horizon so far had been very limited; only quite vaguely had he heard of town and Court life. The little cottage where dwelt the old Quakeress who had brought him and his brother up, and the tumble-down, dilapidated house of Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse were the only habitations in which he was intimate. The neighboring Kentish Squires, Sir Timothy Harrison, Squire Pyncheon and Sir John Boatfield, were the only presentations of "gentlemen" he had ever seen. Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse had somewhat curtly given him orders the day before, that he was to accompany him to London, whither he himself had to go to consult his lawyer. Lambert had naturally obeyed, without murmur, but with vague trepidations at thought of this, his first journey into the great town. Sir Marmaduke had been very kind, had given him a new suit of grogram, lined with flowered silk, which Lambert thought the richest garment he had ever seen. He was very loyal in his thoughts to his employer, bearing with the latter's violence and pandering to his fits of ill-humor for the sake of the home which Sir Marmaduke had provided for him.
To Lambert's mind, Sir Marmaduke's kindness to him was wholly gratuitous. His own position as secretary being but a sinecure, the young man readily attributed de Chavasse's interest in himself to innate goodness of heart, and desire to help the poor orphan lad.
This estimate of his employer's character Richard Lambert had not felt any cause to modify. He continued to serve him faithfully, to look after his interests in and around Acol Court to the best of his ability; above all he continued to be wholeheartedly grateful. He was so absolutely conscious of the impassable social barrier which existed between himself and the rich daughter of the great Earl of Dover, that he never for a moment resented Sir Marmaduke's sneers when they were directed against his obvious, growing love for Sue.
Remember that he had no cause to suspect Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse of any nefarious projects or of any evil intentions with regard to himself, when he told him that together they would go this night to the house of an old friend, Mrs. Endicott, where they would derive much pleasure and entertainment. They had spent the previous night at the Swan Inn in Fleet Street and the day in visiting the beautiful sights of London, which caused the young lad from the country to open wide eyes in astonishment and pleasure.
Sir Marmaduke had been peculiarly gracious, even taking Richard with him to the Frenchman's house in Queen's Head Alley, where that curious beverage called coffee was dispensed and where several clever people met and discussed politics in a manner which was vastly interesting to the young man. Then when the evening began to draw in, and Lambert thought it high time to go to bed, for 'twas a pity to burn expensive candles longer than was necessary, Sir Marmaduke had astonished his secretary by telling him that he must now clean and tidy himself for they would proceed to the house of a great lady named Mistress Endicott--a friend of the ex-Queen Henrietta Maria and a lady of peculiar virtues and saintliness, who would give them vast and pleasing entertainment. Lambert was only too ready to obey. Enjoyment came naturally to him beneath his Quaker bringing-up: his youth, good-health and pure, naturally noble intellect, all craved companionship, with its attendant pleasures and joys. He himself could not afterwards have said exactly how he had pictured in his mind the saintly lady
-friend of the unhappy Queen--whom he was to meet this night.
Certainly Mistress Endicott, with her red face surmounted by masses of curls that were obviously false, since they did not match the rest of her hair, was not the ideal paragon of all the virtues, and when he was first made to greet her, a strange, unreasoning instinct seemed to draw him away from her, to warn him to fly from this noisy company, from the sight of those many faces, all unnaturally flushed, and from the sounds of those strange oaths which greeted his ears from every side.
A great wave of thankfulness came over him that, his gracious lady--innocent, tender, beautiful Lady Sue, had not come to London with her guardian. Whilst he gazed on the marvels of Westminster Hall and of old Saint Paul's he had longed that she should be near him, so that he might watch the brilliance of her eyes, and the glow of pleasure which, of a surety would have mantled in her cheeks when she was shown the beauties of the great city.
But now he was glad--very glad, that Sir Marmaduke had so sternly ordained that she should remain these few days alone at Acol in charge of Mistress Charity and of Master Busy. At the time he had chafed bitterly at his own enforced silence: he would have given all he possessed in the world for the right to warn Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse that a wolf was prowling in the fold under cover of the night. He had seen Lady Sue's eyes brighten at the dictum that she was to remain behind--they told him in eloquent language the joy she felt to be free for two days that she might meet her prince undisturbed.
But all these thoughts and fears had fled the moment Lambert found himself in the midst of these people, whom he innocently believed to be great ladies and noble gentlemen, friends of his employer Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse. It seemed to him at once as if there was something here--in this room--which he would not wish Lady Sue to see.
He was clumsy and gauche in his movements as he took the hand which Mistress Endicott extended to him, but he tried to imitate the salute which he had seen his employer give on the flat--not very clean--finger-tips of the lady. She was exceedingly gracious to him, saying with great kindliness and a melancholy sigh:
"Ah! you come from the country, master? ... So delightful, of a truth.... Milk for breakfast, eh? ... You get up at dawn and go to bed at sunset? ... I know country life well--though alas! duty now keeps me in town.... But 'tis small wonder that you look so young!"
He tried to talk to her of the country, for here she had touched on a topic which was dear to him. He knew all about the birds and beasts, the forests and the meadows, and being unused to the art of hypocritical interest, he took for real sympathy the lady's vapid exclamations of enthusiasm, with which she broke in now and again upon his flow of eloquence.
Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, who was watching the young man with febrile keenness, had the satisfaction to note that very soon Richard began to throw off his bucolic timidity, his latent yet distinctly perceptible disapproval of the company into which he had been brought. He sought out his sister-in-law and drew her attention to Lambert in close conversation with Mrs. Endicott. "Is everything arranged?" he asked under his breath.
"Everything," she replied.
"No trouble with our henchmen?"
"A little ... but they are submissive now."
"What is the arrangement?"
"Persuade young Lambert to take a hand at primero ... Endicott will do the rest." "Who is in the know?" he queried, after a slight pause, during which he watched his unsuspecting victim with a deep frown of impatience and of hate. "Only the Endicotts," she explained. "But do you think that he will play?" she added, casting an anxious look on her brother-in-law's face.
He nodded affirmatively.
"Yes!" he said curtly. "I can arrange that, as soon as you are ready." She turned from him and walked to the center table. She watched the game for a while, noting that young Segrave was still the winner, and that Lord Walterton was very flushed and excited.
Then she caught Endicott's eye, and immediately lowered her lashes twice in succession.
"Ventre-saint-gris!" swore Endicott with an unmistakable British accent in the French expletive, "but I'll play no more.... The bank is broken ... and I have lost too much money. Mr. Segrave there has nearly cleaned me out and still I cannot break his luck."
He rose abruptly from his chair, even as Mistress de Chavasse quietly walked away from the table.
But Lord Walterton placed a detaining, though very trembling hand, on the cinnamon-colored sleeve.
"Nay! parbleu! ye cannot go like this ... good Master Endicott ..." he said, speaking very thickly, "I want another round or two ... 'pon my honor I do ... I haven't lost nearly all I meant to lose."
"Ye cannot stop play so abruptly, master," said Segrave, whose eyes shone with an unnatural glitter, and whose cheeks were covered with a hectic flush, "ye cannot leave us all in the lurch."
"Nay, I doubt not, my young friend," quoth Endicott gruffly, "that you would wish to play all night.... You have won all my money and Lord Walterton's, too." "And most of mine," added Sir Michael Isherwood ruefully.
"Why should not Master Segrave take the bank," here came in shrill accents from Mistress Endicott, who throughout her conversation with Lambert had kept a constant eye on what went on around her husband's table. "He seems the only moneyed man amongst you all," she added with a laugh, which grated most unpleasantly on Richard's ear.
"I will gladly take the bank," said Segrave eagerly.
"Pardi! I care not who hath the bank," quoth Lord Walterton, with the slow emphasis of the inebriated. "My system takes time to work.... And I stand to lose a good deal unless ... hic ... unless I win!"
"You are not where you were, when you began," commented Sir Michael grimly. "By Gad, no! ... hic ... but 'tis no matter.... Give me time!"
"Methought I saw Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse just now," said Endicott, looking about him. "Ah! and here comes our worthy baronet," he added cheerily as Sir Marmaduke's closely cropped head--very noticeable in the crowd of periwigs-emerged from amidst the group that clustered round Mistress Endicott. "A hand at primero, sir?"
"I thank you, no!" replied Sir Marmaduke, striving to master his habitual ill-humor and to speak pleasantly. "My luck hath long since deserted me, if it e'er visited me at all. A fact of which I grow daily more doubtful."
"But ventre-saint-gris!" ejaculated Lord Walterton, who showed an inclination to become quarrelsome in his cups, "we must have someone to take Endicott's place, I cannot work my system hic ... if so few play...."
"Perhaps your young friend, Sir Marmaduke ..." suggested Mistress Endicott, waving an embroidered handkerchief in the direction of Richard Lambert. "No doubt! no doubt!" rejoined Sir Marmaduke, turning with kindly graciousness to his secretary. "Master Lambert, these gentlemen are requiring another hand for their game ... I pray you join in with them...."
"I would do so with pleasure, sir," replied Lambert, still unsuspecting, "but I fear me I am a complete novice at cards.... What is the game?"
He was vaguely distrustful of cards, for he had oft heard this pastime condemned as ungodly by those with whom he had held converse in his early youth, nevertheless it did not occur to him that there might be anything wrong in a game which was countenanced by Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, whom he knew to be an avowed Puritan, and by the saintly lady who had been the friend of ex-Queen Henrietta Maria.
"'Tis a simple round game," said Sir Marmaduke lightly, "you would soon learn." "And ..." said Lambert diffidently questioning, and eying the gold and silver which lay in profusion on the table, "there is no money at stake ... of course? ..." "Oh! only a little," rejoined Mistress Endicott, "a paltry trifle ... to add zest to the enjoyment of the game."
"However little it may be, Sir Marmaduke," said Lambert firmly, speaking directly to his employer, "I humbly pray you to excuse me before these gentlemen ..." The three players at the table, as well as the two Endicotts, had listened to this colloquy with varying feelings. Segrave was burning with impatience, Lord Walterton was getting more and more fractious, whilst Sir Michael Isherwood viewed the young secretary with marked hauteur. At the last words spoken by Lambert there came from all these gentlemen sundry ejaculations, expressive of contempt or annoyance, which caused an ugly frown to appear between de Chavasse's eyes, and a deep blush to rise in the young man's pale cheek. "What do you mean?" queried Sir Marmaduke harshly.
"There are other gentlemen here," said Lambert, speaking with more firmness and decision now that he encountered inimical glances and felt as if somehow he was on his trial before all these people, "and I am not rich enough to afford the luxury of gambling."
"Nay! if that is your difficulty," rejoined Sir Marmaduke, "I pray you, good master, to command my purse ... you are under my wing to-night ... and I will gladly bear the burden of your losses."
"I thank you, Sir Marmaduke," said the young man, with quiet dignity," and I entreat you once again to excuse me.... I have never staked at cards, either mine own money or that of others. I would prefer not to begin."
"Meseems ... hic ... de Chavasse, that this ... this young friend of yours is a hic ... damned Puritan ..." came in ever thickening accents from Lord Walterton. "I hope, Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse," here interposed Endicott with much pompous dignity, "that your ... hem ... your young friend doth not desire to bring insinuations doubts, mayhap, against the honor of my house ... or of my friends!" "Nay! nay! good Endicott," said Sir Marmaduke, speaking in tones that were so conciliatory, so unlike his own quarrelsome temper, quick at taking offense, that Richard Lambert could not help wondering what was causing this change, "Master Lambert hath no such intention--'pon my honor ... He is young ... and ... and he misunderstands.... You see, my good Lambert," he added, once more turning to the young man, and still speaking with unwonted kindness and patience, "you are covering yourself with ridicule and placing me--who am your protector to-night--in a very awkward position. Had I known you were such a gaby I should have left you to go to bed alone."
"Nay! Sir Marmaduke," here came in decisive accents from portly Mistress Endicott, "methinks 'tis you who misunderstand Master Lambert. He is of a surety an honorable gentleman, and hath no desire to insult me, who have ne'er done him wrong, nor yet my friends by refusing a friendly game of cards in my house!" She spoke very pointedly, causing her speech to seem like a menace, even though the words betokened gentleness and friendship.
Lambert's scruples and his desire to please struggled hopelessly in his mind. Mistress Endicott's eye held him silent even while it urged him to speak. What could he say? Sir Marmaduke, toward whom he felt gratitude and respect, surely would not urge what he thought would be wrong for Lambert.
And if a chaste and pure woman did not disapprove of a game of primero among friends, what right had he to set up his own standard of right or wrong against hers? What right had he to condemn what she approved? To offend his generous employer, and to bring opprobrium and ridicule on himself which would of necessity redound against Sir Marmaduke also?
Vague instinct still entered a feeble protest, but reason and common sense and a certain undetermined feeling of what was due to himself socially--poor country bumpkin!--fought a hard battle too.
"I am right, am I not, good Master Lambert?" came in dulcet tones from the virtuous hostess, "that you would not really refuse a quiet game of cards with my friends, at my entreaty ... in my house?"
And Lambert, with a self-deprecatory sigh, and a shrug of the shoulders, said quietly:
"I have no option, gracious mistress!"