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It took Mistress Charity some little time to recover her breath.
She had thrown herself into a chair, with her pinner over her face, in an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
When this outburst of hilarity had subsided, she sat up, and looked round her with eyes still streaming with merry tears.
But the laughter suddenly died on her lips and the merriment out of her eyes. A dull, tired voice had just said feebly:
"Is Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse within?"
Charity jumped up from the chair and stared stupidly at the speaker.
"The Lord love you, Master Richard Lambert," she murmured. "I thought you were your ghost!"
"Forgive me, mistress, if I have frightened you," he said. "It is mine own self, I give you assurance of that, and I, fain would have speech with Sir Marmaduke."
Mistress Charity was visibly embarrassed. She began mechanically to rub the black stain on her cheek.
"Sir Marmaduke is without just at present, Master Lambert," she stammered shyly, "... and ..."
"Yes? ... and? ..." he asked, "what is it, wench? ... speak out? ..."
"Sir Marmaduke gave orders, Master Lambert," she began with obvious reluctance, "that ..."
She paused, and he concluded the sentence for her:
"That I was not to be allowed inside his house.... Was that it?"
"Alas! yes, good master."
"Never mind, girl," he rejoined as he deliberately crossed the hall and sat down in the chair which she had just vacated. "You have done your duty: but you could not help admitting me, could you? since I walked in of mine own accord ... and now that I am here I will remain until I have seen Sir Marmaduke...."
"Well! of a truth, good master," she said with a smile, for 'twas but natural that her feminine sympathies should be on the side of a young and good-looking man, somewhat in her own sphere of life, as against the ill-humored, parsimonious master whom she served, "an you sit there so determinedly, I cannot prevent you, can I? ..."
Then as she perceived the look of misery on the young man's face, his pale cheeks, his otherwise vigorous frame obviously attenuated by fear, the motherly instinct present in every good woman's heart caused her to go up to him and to address him timidly, offering such humble solace as her simple heart could dictate:
"Lud preserve you, good master, I pray you do not take on so.... You know Master Courage and I, now, never believed all those stories about ye. Of a truth Master Busy, he had his own views, but then ... you see, good master, he and I do not always agree, even though I own that he is vastly clever with his discoveries and his clews; but Master Courage now ... Master Courage is a wonderful lad ... and he thinks that you are a persecuted hero! ... and I am bound to say that I, too, hold that view...."
"Thank you! ... thank you, kind mistress," said Lambert, smiling despite his dejection, at the girl's impulsive efforts at consolation.
His head had sunk down on his breast, and he sat there in the high-backed chair, one hand resting on each leather-covered arm, his pale face showing almost ghostlike against the dark background, and with the faint November light illumining the dark-circled eyes, the bloodless lips, and deeply frowning brow.
Mistress Charity gazed down on him with mute and kindly compassion.
Then suddenly a slight rustling noise as of a kirtle sweeping the polished oak of the stairs caused the girl to look up, then to pause a brief while, as if what she had now seen had brought forth a new train of thought; finally, she tiptoed silently out through the door of the dining-hall.
"Charity! Mistress Charity, I want you! ..." called Lady Sue from above.
We must presume, however, that the wench had closed the heavy door behind her, for certainly she did not come in answer to the call. On the other hand, Richard Lambert had heard it; he sprang to his feet and saw Sue descending the stairs.
She saw him, too, and it seemed as if at sight of him she had turned and meant to fly. But a word from him detained her.
Only once had he thus called her by her name before, that long ago night in the woods, but now the cry came from out his heart, brought forth by his misery and his sorrow, his sense of terrible injustice and of an irretrievable wrong.
It never occurred to her to resent the familiarity. At sound of her name thus spoken by him she had looked down from the stairs and seen his pallid face turned up to her in such heartrending appeal for sympathy, that all her womanly instincts of tenderness and pity were aroused, all her old feeling of trustful friendship for him.
She, too, felt much of that loneliness which his yearning eyes expressed so pathetically; she, too, was conscious of grave injustice and of an irretrievable wrong, and her heart went out to him immediately in kindness and in love.
"Don't go, for pity's sake," he added entreatingly, for he thought that she meant to turn away from him; "surely you will not begrudge me a few words of kindness. I have gone through a great deal since I saw you...."
She descended a few steps, her delicate hand still resting on the banisters, her silken kirtle making a soft swishing noise against the polished oak of the stairs. It was a solace to him, even to watch her now. The sight of his adored mistress was balm to his aching eyes. Yet he was quick to note--with that sharp intuition peculiar to Love--that her dear face had lost much of its brightness, of its youth, of its joy of living. She was as exquisite to look on as ever, but she seemed older, more gentle, and, alas! a trifle sad.
"I heard you had been ill," she said softly, "I was very sorry, believe me, but ... Oh! do you not think," she added with sudden inexplicable pathos, whilst she felt hot tears rising to her eyes and causing her voice to quiver, "do you not think that an interview between us now can only be painful to us both?"
He mistook the intention of her words, as was only natural, and whilst she mistrusted her own feelings for him, fearing to betray that yearning for his friendship and his consolation, which had so suddenly overwhelmed her at sight of him, he thought that she feared the interview because of her condemnation of him.
"Then you believed me guilty?" he said sadly. "They told you this hideous tale of me, and you believed them, without giving the absent one, who alas! could not speak in his own defense, the benefit of the doubt."
For one of those subtle reasons of which women alone possess the secret, and which will forever remain inexplicable to the more logical sex, she steeled her heart against him, even when her entire sensibilities went out to him in passionate sympathy.
"I could not help but believe, good master," she said a little coldly. "Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, who, with all his faults of temper, is a man of honor, confirmed that horrible story which appeared in the newspaper and of which everyone in Thanet hath been talking these weeks past."
"And am I not a man of honor?" he retorted hotly. "Because I am poor and must work in order to live, am I to be condemned unheard? Is a whole life's record of self-education and honest labor to be thus obliterated by the word of my most bitter enemy?"
"Your bitter enemy? ..." she asked. "Sir Marmaduke? ..."
"Aye! Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse. It seems passing strange, does it not?" he rejoined bitterly. "Yet somehow in my heart, I feel that Sir Marmaduke hates me, with a violent and passionate hatred. Nay! I know it, though I can explain neither its cause nor its ultimate aim...."
He drew nearer to the stairs whereon she still stood, her graceful figure slightly leaning towards him; he now stood close to her, his head just below the level of her own; his hand had he dared to raise it, could have rested on hers.
"Sue! my beautiful and worshiped lady," he cried impassionedly, "I entreat you to look into my eyes! ... Can you see in them the reflex of those shameful deeds which have been imputed to me? Do I look like a liar and a cheat? In the name of pity and of justice, for the sweet sake of our first days of friendship, I beg of you not to condemn me unheard."
He lowered his head, and rested his aching brow against her cool, white hand. She did not withdraw it, for a great joy had suddenly filled her heart, mingling with its sadness, a sense of security and of bitter, yet real, happiness pervaded her whole being: a happiness which she could not--wished not--to explain, but which prompted her to stoop yet further towards him, and to touch his hair with her lips.
Hot tears which he tried vainly to repress fell upon her fingers. He had felt the kiss descending on him almost like a benediction. The exquisite fragrance of her person filled his soul with a great delight which was almost pain. Never had he loved her so ardently, so passionately, as at this moment, when he felt that she too loved him, and yet was lost to him irrevocably.
"Nay! but I will hear you, good master," she murmured with infinite gentleness, "for the sake of that friendship, and because now that I have seen you again I no longer believe any evil of you."
"God bless my dear lady," he replied fervently. "Heaven is my witness that I am innocent of those abominable crimes imputed to me. Sir Marmaduke took me to that house of evil, and a cruel plot was there concocted to make me appear before all men as a liar and a cheat, and to disgrace me before the world and before you. That the object of this plot was to part me from you," added Richard Lambert more calmly and firmly, "I am absolutely confident; what its deeper motive was I dare not even think. It was known that I ... loved you, Sue ... that I would give my life to save you from trouble ... I was your slave, your watch-dog.... I was forcibly removed, torn from you, my name disgraced, my health broken down.... But my life was not for them ... it belongs to my lady alone.... Heaven would not allow it to be sacrificed to their villainous schemes. I fought against sickness and death with all the energy of despair.... It was a hand-to-hand fight, for discouragement, and anon despair, ranged themselves among my foes.... And now I have come back," he said with proud energy, "broken mayhap, yet still standing ... a snapped oak yet full of vigor, yet ... I have come back, and with God's help will be even with them yet."
He had straightened his young figure, and his strong, somewhat harsh voice echoed through the oak-paneled hall. He cared not if all the world heard him, if his enemies lurked about striving to spy upon him. His profession of love and of service to his lady was the sole remaining pride of his life, and now that he knew that she believed and trusted him, he longed for every man to hear what he had to say.
"Nay! what you say, kind Richard, fills me with dread," said Sue after a little pause. "I am glad ... glad that you have come back.... For some weeks, nay, months past, I have had the presentiment of some coming evil.... I have ... I have felt lonely and...."
"Not unhappy?" he asked with his usual earnestness. "I would not have my lady unhappy for all the treasures of this world."
"No!" she replied meditatively, striving to be conscious of her own feelings, "I do not think that I am unhappy ... only anxious ... and ... a little lonely: that is all.... Sir Marmaduke is oft away: when he is at home, I scarce ever see him, and he but rarely speaks to me ... and methinks there is but scant sympathy 'twixt Mistress de Chavasse and me, though she is kind at times in her way."
Then she turned her eyes, bright with unshed tears, down again to him.
"But all seems right again!" she said with a sweet, sad smile, "now that you have come back, my dear ... dear friend!"
"God bless you for these words!"
"I grieved terribly when I heard ... about you ... at first ..." she said almost gaily now, "yet somehow I could not believe it all ... and now...."
"Yes? ... and now?" he asked.
"Now I believe in you," she replied simply. "I believe that you care for me, and that you are my friend."
"Your friend, indeed, for I would give my life for you."
Once more he stooped, but now he kissed her hand. He was her friend, and had the right to do this. He had gradually mastered his emotion, his sense of wrong, and with that exquisite selflessness which real love alone can kindle in a human heart, he had succeeded in putting aside all thought of his own great misery, his helplessness and the hopelessness of his position, and remembered only that she looked fragile, a little older, sadder, and had need of his help.
"And now, sweet lady," he said, forcing himself to speak calmly of that which always set his heart and senses into a turmoil of passionate jealousy, "will you tell me something about him."
"The prince...." he suggested.
But she shook her head resolutely.
"No, kind Richard," she said gently, "I will not speak to you of the prince. I know that you do not think well of him.... I wish to look upon you as my friend, and I could not do that if you spoke ill of him, because ..."
She paused, for what she now had to tell him was very hard to say, and she knew what a terrible blow she would be dealing to his heart, from the wild beating of her own.
"Yes?" he asked. "Because? ..."
"Because he is my husband," she whispered.
Her head fell forward on her breast. She would not trust herself to look at him now, for she knew that the sight of his grief was more than she could bear. She was conscious that at her words he had drawn his hand away from hers, but he spoke no word, nor did the faintest exclamation escape his lips.
Thus they remained for a few moments longer side by side: she slightly above him, with head bent, with hot tears falling slowly from her downcast eyes, her heart well-nigh breaking with the consciousness of the irreparable; he somewhat below, silent too, and rigid, all passion, all emotion, love even, numbed momentarily by the violence, the suddenness of this terrible blow.
Then without a word, without a sigh or look, he turned, and she heard his footsteps echoing across the hall, then dying away on the threshold of the door beyond. Anon the door itself closed to with a dull bang which seemed to find an echo in her heart like the tolling of a passing bell.
Then only did she raise her head, and look about her. The hall was deserted and seemed infinitely lonely, silent, and grim. The young girl-wife, who had just found a friend only to lose him again, called out in mute appeal to this old house, the oak-covered walls, the very stones themselves, for sympathy.
She was so infinitely, so immeasurably lonely, with that awful, irretrievable day at Dover behind her, with all its dreariness, its silent solemnity, its weird finish in the vestry, the ring upon her finger, her troth plighted to a man whom she feared and no longer loved.
Oh! the pity of it all! the broken young life! the vanished dreams!
Sue bent her head down upon her hands, her lips touched her own fingers there where her friend's had rested in gratitude and love, and she cried, cried like a broken-hearted woman, cried for her lost illusions, and the end of her brief romance!
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