The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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II. On A July Afternoon
In the meanwhile in a remote corner of the park the quality was assembled round the skittle-alley.
Imagine Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse standing there, as stiff a Roundhead as ever upheld my Lord Protector and his Puritanic government in this remote corner of the county of Kent: dour in manner, harsh-featured and hollow-eyed, dressed in dark doublet and breeches wholly void of tags, ribands or buttons. His closely shorn head is flat at the back, square in front, his clean-shaven lips though somewhat thick are always held tightly pressed together. Not far from him sits on a rough wooden seat, Mistress Amelia Editha de Chavasse, widow of Sir Marmaduke's elder brother, a good-looking woman still, save for the look of discontent, almost of suppressed rebellion, apparent in the perpetual dark frown between the straight brows, in the downward curve of the well-chiseled mouth, and in the lowering look which seems to dwell for ever in the handsome dark eyes.
Dame Harrison, too, was there: the large and portly dowager, florid of face, dictatorial in manner, dressed in the supremely unbecoming style prevalent at the moment, when everything that was beautiful in art as well as in nature was condemned as sinful and ungodly; she wore the dark kirtle and plain, ungainly bodice with its hard white kerchief folded over her ample bosom; her hair was parted down the middle and brushed smoothly and flatly to her ears, where but a few curls were allowed to escape with well-regulated primness from beneath the horn-comb, and the whole appearance of her looked almost grotesque, surmounted as it was by the modish high-peaked beaver hat, a marvel of hideousness and discomfort, since the small brim afforded no protection against the sun, and the tall crown was a ready prey to the buffetings of the wind. Mistress Fairsoul Pyncheon too, was there, the wife of the Squire of Ashe; thin and small, a contrast to Dame Harrison in her mild and somewhat fussy manner; her plain petticoat, too, was embellished with paniers, and in spite of the heat of the day she wore a tippet edged with fur: both of which frivolous adornments had obviously stirred up the wrath of her more Puritanical neighbor.
Then there were the men: busy at this moment with hurling wooden balls along the alley, at the further end of which a hollow-eyed scraggy youth, in shirt and rough linen trousers, was employed in propping up again the fallen nine-pins. Squire John Boatfield had ridden over from Eastry, Sir Timothy Harrison had come in his aunt's coach, and young Squire Pyncheon with his doting mother. And in the midst of all these sober folk, of young men in severe garments, of portly dames and frowning squires, a girlish figure, young, alert, vigorous, wearing with the charm of her own youth and freshness the unbecoming attire, which disfigured her elders yet seemed to set off her own graceful form, her dainty bosom and pretty arms. Her kirtle, too, was plain, and dull in color, of a soft dovelike gray, without adornment of any kind, but round her shoulders her kerchief was daintily turned, edged with delicate lace, and showing through its filmy folds peeps of her own creamy skin.
'Twas years later that Sir Peter Lely painted Lady Sue when she was a great lady and the friend of the Queen: she was beautiful then, in the full splendor of her maturer charms, but never so beautiful as she was on that hot July afternoon in the year of our Lord 1657, when, heated with the ardor of the game, pleased undoubtedly with the adulation which surrounded her on every side, she laughed and chatted with the men, teased the women, her cheeks aglow, her eyes bright, her brown hair--persistently unruly--flying in thick curls over her neck and shoulders.
"A remarkable talent, good Sir Marmaduke," Dame Harrison was saying to her host, as she cast a complacent eye on her nephew, who had just succeeded in overthrowing three nine-pins at one stroke: "Sir Timothy hath every aptitude for outdoor pursuits, and though my Lord Protector deems all such recreations sinful, yet do I think they tend to the development of muscular energy, which later on may be placed at the service of the Commonwealth."
Sir Timothy Harrison at this juncture had the misfortune of expending his muscular energy in hitting Squire Boatfield violently on the shin with an ill-aimed ball.
"Damn!" ejaculated the latter, heedless of the strict fines imposed by my Lord Protector on unseemly language. "I ... verily beg the ladies' pardon ... but ... this young jackanapes nearly broke my shin-bone."
There certainly had been an exclamation of horror on the part of the ladies at Squire Boatfield's forcible expression of annoyance, Dame Harrison taking no pains to conceal her disapproval.
"Horrid, coarse creature, this neighbor of yours, good Sir Marmaduke," she said with her usual air of decision. "Meseems he is not fit company for your ward." "Dear Squire Boatfield," sighed Mistress Pyncheon, who was evidently disposed to be more lenient, "how good-humoredly he bears it! Clumsy people should not be trusted in a skittle alley," she added in a mild way, which seemed to be peculiarly exasperating to Dame Harrison's irascible temper.
"I pray you, Sir Timothy," here interposed Lady Sue, trying to repress the laughter which would rise to her lips, "forgive poor Squire John. You scarce can expect him to moderate his language under such provocation."
"Oh! his insults leave me completely indifferent," said the young man with easy unconcern, "his calling me a jackanapes doth not of necessity make me one." "No!" retorted Squire Boatfield, who was still nursing his shin-bone, "maybe not, Sir Timothy, but it shows how observant I am."
"Oliver, pick up Lady Sue's handkerchief," came in mild accents from Mistress Pyncheon.
"Quite unnecessary, good mistress," rejoined Dame Harrison decisively, "Sir Timothy has already seen it."
And while the two young men made a quick and not altogether successful dive for her ladyship's handkerchief, colliding vigorously with one another in their endeavor to perform this act of gallantry single-handed, Lady Sue gazed down on them, with good-humored contempt, laughter and mischief dancing in her eyes. She knew that she was good to look at, that she was rich, and that she had the pick of the county, aye, of the South of England, did she desire to wed. Perhaps she thought of this, even whilst she laughed at the antics of her bevy of courtiers, all anxious to win her good graces.
Yet even as she laughed, her face suddenly clouded over, a strange, wistful look came into her eyes, and her laughter was lost in a quick, short sigh. A young man had just crossed the tiny rustic bridge which spanned the ha-ha dividing the flower-garden from the uncultivated park. He walked rapidly through the trees, towards the skittle alley, and as he came nearer, the merry lightheartedness seemed suddenly to vanish from Lady Sue's manner: the ridiculousness of the two young men at her feet, glaring furiously at one another whilst fighting for her handkerchief, seemed now to irritate her; she snatched the bit of delicate linen from their hands, and turned somewhat petulantly away. "Shall we continue the game?" she said curtly.
The young man, all the while that he approached, had not taken his eyes off Lady Sue. Twice he had stumbled against rough bits of root or branch which he had not perceived in the grass through which he walked. He had seen her laughing gaily, whilst Squire Boatfield used profane language, and smile with contemptuous merriment at the two young men at her feet; he had also seen the change in her manner, the sudden wistful look, the quick sigh, the irritability and the petulance.
But his own grave face expressed neither disapproval at the one mood nor astonishment at the other. He walked somewhat like a somnambulist, with eyes fixed--almost expressionless in the intensity of their gaze.
He was very plainly, even poorly clad, and looked a dark figure even amongst these soberly appareled gentry. The grass beneath his feet had deadened the sound of his footsteps but Sir Marmaduke had apparently perceived him, for he beckoned to him to approach.
"What is it, Lambert?" he asked kindly.
"Your letter to Master Skyffington, Sir Marmaduke," replied the young man, "will you be pleased to sign it?"
"Will it not keep?" said Sir Marmaduke.
"Yes, an you wish it, Sir. I fear I have intruded. I did not know you were busy." The young man had a harsh voice, and a strange brusqueness of manner which somehow suggested rebellion against the existing conditions of life. He no longer looked at Lady Sue now, but straight at Sir Marmaduke, speaking the brief apology between his teeth, without opening his mouth, as if the words hurt him when they passed his lips.
"You had best speak to Master Skyffington himself about the business," rejoined Sir Marmaduke, not heeding the mumbled apology, "he will be here anon." He turned abruptly away, and the young man once more left to himself, silently and mechanically moved again in the direction of the house.
"You will join us in a bowl of sack-posset, Master Lambert," said Mistress de Chavasse, striving to be amiable.
"You are very kind," he said none too genially, "in about half-an-hour if you will allow me. There is another letter yet to write."
No one had taken much notice of him. Even in these days when kingship and House of Lords were abolished, the sense of social inequality remained keen. To this coterie of avowed Republicans, young Richard Lambert--secretary or whatnot to Sir Marmaduke, a paid dependent at any rate--was not worth more than a curt nod of the head, a condescending acknowledgment of his existence at best. But Lady Sue had not even bestowed the nod. She had not actually taken notice of his presence when he came; the wistful look had vanished as soon as the young man's harsh voice had broken on her ear: she did not look on him now that he went.
She was busy with her game. Nathless her guardian's secretary was of no more importance in the rich heiress's sight than that mute row of nine-pins at the end of the alley, nor was there, mayhap, in her mind much social distinction between the hollow-eyed lad who set them up stolidly from time to time, and the silent young student who wrote those letters which Sir Marmaduke had not known how to spell.