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As had been arranged when Lempriere challenged Leicester, they met soon
after dawn among the trees beside the Thames. A gentleman of the court,
to whom the Duke's Daughter had previously presented Lempriere, gaily
agreed to act as second, and gallantly attended the lord of Rozel in his
adventurous enterprise. There were few at Court who had not some grudge
against Leicester, few who would not willingly have done duty at such a
time; for Leicester's friends were of fair-weather sort, ready to defend
him, to support him, not for friendship but for the crumbs that dropped
from the table of his power. The favourite himself was attended by the
Earl of Ealing, a youngster who had his spurs to win, who thought it
policy to serve the great time-server. Two others also came.
It was a morning little made for deeds of rancour or of blood. As they
passed, the early morning mists above the green fields of Kent and Essex
were being melted by the summer sun. The smell of ripening fruit came on
them with pungent sweetness, their feet crashed odorously through clumps
of tiger-lilies, and the dew on the ribbon-grass shook glistening drops
upon their velvets. Overhead the carolling of the thrush came swimming
recklessly through the trees, and far over in the fields the ploughmen
started upon the heavy courses of their labour; while here and there
poachers with bows and arrows slid through the green undergrowth, like
spies hovering on an army's flank.
To Lempriere the morning carried no impression save that life was well
worth living. No agitation passed across his nerves, no apprehension
reached his mind. He had no imagination; he loved the things that his
eyes saw because they filled him with enjoyment; but why they were, or
whence they came, or what they meant or boded, never gave him meditation.
A vast epicurean, a consummate egotist, ripe with feeling and rich with
energy, he could not believe that when he spoke the heavens would not
fall. The stinging sweetness of the morning was a tonic to all his
energies, an elation to his mind; he swaggered through the lush grasses
and boskage as though marching to a marriage.
Leicester, on his part, no more caught at the meaning of the morning, at
the long whisper of enlivened nature, than did his foe. The day gave to
him no more than was his right. If the day was not fine, then Leicester
was injured; but if the day was fine, then Leicester had his due. Moral
blindness made him blind for the million deep teachings trembling round
him. He felt only the garish and the splendid. So it was that at
Kenilworth, where his Queen had visited him, the fetes that he had held
would far outshine the fete which would take place in Greenwich Park on
this May Day. The fete of this May Day would take place, but would he see
it? The thought flashed through his mind that he might not; but he trod
it under foot; not through an inborn, primitive egotism like that of
Lempriere, but through an innate arrogance, an unalterable belief that
Fate was ever on his side. He had played so many tricks with Fate, had
mocked while taking its gifts so often, that, like the son who has
flouted his indulgent father through innumerable times, he conceived that
he should never be disinherited. It irked him that he should be fighting
with a farmer, as he termed the Seigneur of the Jersey Isle; but there
was in the event, too, a sense of relief, for he had a will for murder.
Yesterday's events were still fresh in his mind; and he had a feeling
that the letting of Lempriere's blood would cool his own and be some cure
for the choler which the presence of these strangers at the Court had
wrought in him.
There were better swordsmen in England than he, but his skill was
various, and he knew tricks of the trade which this primitive Norman
could never have learnt. He had some touch of wit, some biting
observation, and, as he neared the place of the encounter, he played upon
the coming event with a mordant frivolity. Not by nature a brave man, he
was so much a fatalist, such a worshipper of his star, that he had
acquired an artificial courage which had served him well. The unschooled
gentlemen with him roared with laughter at his sallies, and they came to
the place of meeting as though to a summer feast.
"Good-morrow, nobility," said Leicester with courtesy overdone, and
bowing much too low. "Good-morrow, valentine," answered Lempriere,
flushing slightly at the disguised insult, and rising to the moment.
"I hear the crop of fools is short this year in Jersey, and through no
fault of yours--you've done your best most loyally," jeered Leicester, as
he doffed his doublet, his gentlemen laughing in derision.
"'Tis true enough, my lord, and I have come to find new seed in England,
where are fools to spare; as I trust in Heaven one shall be spared on
this very day for planting yonder."
He was eaten with rage, but he was cool and steady.
He was now in his linen and small clothes and looked like some untrained
"Well said, nobility," laughed Leicester with an ugly look. "'Tis seed
time--let us measure out the seed. On guard!"
Never were two men such opposites, never two so seemingly ill-matched.
Leicester's dark face and its sardonic look, his lithe figure, the
nervous strength of his bearing, were in strong contrast to the bulking
breadth, the perspiring robustness of Lempriere of Rozel. It was not easy
of belief that Lempriere should be set to fight this toreador of a
fighting Court. But there they stood, Lempriere's face with a great-eyed
gravity looming above his rotund figure like a moon above a purple cloud.
But huge and loose though the Seigneur's motions seemed, he was as intent
as though there were but two beings in the universe, Leicester and
himself. A strange alertness seemed to be upon him, and, as Leicester
found when the swords crossed, he was quicker than his bulk gave warrant.
His perfect health made his vision sure; and, though not a fine
swordsman, he had done much fighting in his time, had been ever ready for
the touch of steel; and had served some warlike days in fighting France,
where fate had well befriended him. That which Leicester meant should be
by-play of a moment became a full half-hour's desperate game. Leicester
found that the thrust--the fatal thrust learned from an Italian
master--he meant to give, was met by a swift precision, responding to
quick vision. Again and again he would have brought the end, but
Lempriere heavily foiled him. The wound which the Seigneur got at last,
meant to be mortal, was saved from that by the facility of a quick
apprehension. Indeed, for a time the issue had seemed doubtful, for the
endurance and persistence of the Seigneur made for exasperation and
recklessness in his antagonist, and once blood was drawn from the wrist
of the great man; but at length Lempriere went upon the aggressive. Here
he erred, for Leicester found the chance for which he had manoeuvred--to
use the feint and thrust got out of Italy. He brought his enemy low, but
only after a duel the like of which had never been seen at the Court of
England. The toreador had slain his bull at last, but had done no justice
to his reputation. Never did man more gallantly sustain his honour with
heaviest odds against him than did the Seigneur of Rozel that day.
As he was carried away by the merry gentlemen of the Court, he called
back to the favourite:
"Leicester is not so great a swordsman after all. Hang fast to your
honours by the skin of your teeth, my lord."
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