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Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy was vastly perturbed. Try how he might, he had been unable to make any discovery with regard to the mysterious events, which he felt sure were occurring all round him, a discovery which--had he but made it--would have enabled him to apply with more chance of success, for one of the posts in my Lord Protector's secret service, and moreover, would have covered his name with glory.
This last contingency was always uppermost in his mind. Not from any feeling of personal pride, for of a truth vanity is a mortal sin, but because Mistress Charity had of late cast uncommonly kind eyes on that cringing worm, Master Courage Toogood, and the latter, emboldened by the minx's favors, had been more than usually insolent to his betters.
To have the right to administer serious physical punishment to the youth, and moral reproof to the wench, was part of Master Busy's comprehensive scheme for his own advancement and the confusion of all the miscreants who dwelt in Acol Court. For this he had glued both eye and ear to draughty keyholes, had lain for hours under cover of prickly thistles in the sunk fence which surrounded the flower garden. For this he now emerged, on that morning of November 2, accompanied by a terrific clatter and a volley of soot from out the depth of the monumental chimney in the hall of Acol Court.
As soon as he had recovered sufficient breath, and shaken off some of the soot from his hair and face, he looked solemnly about him, and was confronted by two pairs of eyes round with astonishment and two mouths agape with surprise and with fear.
Mistress Charity and Master Courage Toogood--interrupted in the midst of their animated conversation--were now speechless with terror, at sight of this black apparition, which, literally, had descended on them from the skies.
"Lud love ye, Master Busy!" ejaculated Mistress Charity, who was the first to recognize in the sooty wraith the manly form of her betrothed, "where have ye come from, pray?"
"Have you been scouring the chimney, good master?" queried Master Courage, with some diffidence, for the saintly man looked somewhat out of humor.
"No!" replied Hymn-of-Praise solemnly, "I have not. But I tell ye both that my hour hath come. I knew that something was happening in this house, and I climbed up that chimney in order to find out what it was."
Pardonable curiosity caused Mistress Charity to venture a little nearer to the soot-covered figure of her adorer.
"And did you hear anything, Master Busy?" she asked eagerly. "I did see Sir Marmaduke and the mistress in close conversation here this morning."
"So they thought," said Master Hymn-of-Praise with weird significance.
"Well? ... And what happened, good master?"
"Thou beest in too mighty an hurry, mistress," he retorted with quiet dignity. "I am under no obligation to report matters to thee."
"Oh! but Master Busy," she rejoined coyly, "methought I was to be your ... hem ... thy partner in life ... and so ..."
"My partner? My partner, didst thou say, sweet Charity? ... Nay, then, an thou'lt permit me to salute thee with a kiss, I'll tell thee all I know."
And in asking for that chaste salute we may assume that Master Hymn-of-Praise was actuated with at least an equal desire to please Mistress Charity, to gratify his own wishes, and to effectually annoy Master Courage.
But Mistress Charity was actuated by curiosity alone, and without thought of her betrothed's grimy appearance, she presented her cheek to him for the kiss.
The result caused Master Courage an uncontrollable fit of hilarity.
"Oh, mistress," he said, pointing to the black imprint left on her face by her lover's kiss, "you should gaze into a mirror now."
But already Mistress Charity had guessed what had occurred, her good humor vanished, and she began scouring her cheek with her pinner.
"I'll never forgive you, master," she said crossly. "You had no right to ... hem ... with your face in that condition.... And you have not yet told us what happened."
"Aye! you promised to tell me if I allowed you to kiss me. 'Tis done...."
"I well nigh broke my back," said Master Busy sententiously. "I hurt my knee ... that is what happened.... I am well-nigh choked with soot.... Ugh! ... that is what happened."
"Lud love you, Master Busy," she retorted with a saucy toss of her head, "I trust your life's partner will not need to hide herself in chimneys."
"Listen, wench, and I'll tell thee. No kind of servant of my Lord Protector's should ever be called upon to hide in chimneys. They are not comfortable and they are not clean."
"Bless the man!" she cried angrily, "are you ever going to tell us what did happen whilst you were there?"
"I was about to come to that point," he said imperturbably, "hadst thou not interrupted me. What with holding on so as not to fall, and the soot falling in my ears...."
"Aye! aye! ..."
"I heard nothing," he concluded solemnly. "Master Courage," he added with becoming severity, seeing that the youth was on the verge of making a ribald remark, which of necessity had to be checked betimes, "come into my room with me and help me to clean the traces of my difficult task from off my person. Come!"
And with ominous significance, he approached the young scoffer, his hand on an exact level with the latter's ear, his right foot raised to indicate a possible means of enforcing obedience to his commands.
On the whole, Master Courage thought it wise to repress both his hilarity and his pertinent remarks, and to follow the pompous, if begrimed, butler to the latter's room upstairs.
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