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But despite outward indifference, with the brief appearance of the soberly-garbed young student upon the scene and his abrupt and silent departure, all the zest seemed to have gone out of Lady Sue's mood.
The ingenuous flatteries of her little court irritated her now: she no longer felt either amused or pleased by the extravagant compliments lavished upon her beauty and skill by portly Squire John, by Sir Timothy Harrison or the more diffident young Squire Pyncheon.
"Of a truth, I sometimes wish, Lady Sue, that I could find out if you have any faults," remarked Squire Boatfield unctuously.
"Nay, Squire," she retorted sharply, "pray try to praise me to my female friends."
In vain did Mistress Pyncheon admonish her son to be more bold in his wooing.
"You behave like a fool, Oliver," she said meekly.
"But, Mother ..."
"Go, make yourself pleasing to her ladyship."
"But, Mother ..."
"I pray you, my son," she retorted with unusual acerbity, "do you want a million or do you not?"
"But, Mother ..."
"Then go at once and get it, ere that fool Sir Timothy or the odious Boatfield capture it under your very nose."
"But, Mother ..."
"Go! say something smart to her at once ... talk about your gray mare ... she is over fond of horses ..."
Then as the young Squire, awkward and clumsy in his manner, more accustomed to the company of his own servants than to that of highborn ladies, made sundry unfortunate attempts to enchain the attention of the heiress, his worthy mother turned with meek benignity to Sir Marmaduke.
"A veritable infatuation, good Sir Marmaduke," she said with a sigh, "quite against my interests, you know. I had no thought to see the dear lad married so soon, nor to give up my home at the Dene yet, in favor of a new mistress. Not but that Oliver is not a good son to his mother--such a good lad!--and such a good husband he would be to any girl who ..."
"A strange youth that secretary of yours, Sir Marmaduke," here interposed Dame Harrison in her loud, dictatorial voice, breaking in on Mistress Pyncheon's dithyrambs, "modest he appears to be, and silent too: a paragon meseems!"
She spoke with obvious sarcasm, casting covert glances at Lady Sue to see if she heard.
Sir Marmaduke shrugged his shoulders.
"Lambert is very industrious," he said curtly.
"I thought secretaries never did anything but suck the ends of their pens," suggested Mistress Pyncheon mildly.
"Sometimes they make love to their employer's daughter," retorted Dame Harrison spitefully, for Lady Sue was undoubtedly lending an ear to the conversation now that it had the young secretary for object. She was not watching Squire Boatfield who was wielding the balls just then with remarkable prowess, and at this last remark from the portly old dame, she turned sharply round and said with a strange little air of haughtiness which somehow became her very well:
"But then you see, mistress, Master Lambert's employer doth not possess a daughter of his own--only a ward ... mayhap that is the reason why his secretary performs his duties so well in other ways."
Her cheeks were glowing as she said this, and she looked quite defiant, as if challenging these disagreeable mothers and aunts of fortune-hunting youths to cast unpleasant aspersions on a friend whom she had taken under her special protection.
Sir Marmaduke looked at her keenly; a deep frown settled between his eyes at sight of her enthusiasm. His face suddenly looked older, and seemed more dour, more repellent than before.
"Sue hath such a romantic temperament," he said dryly, speaking between his teeth and as if with an effort. "Lambert's humble origin has fired her imagination. He has no parents and his elder brother is the blacksmith down at Acol; his aunt, who seems to have had charge of the boys ever since they were children, is just a common old woman who lives in the village--a strict adherent, so I am told, of this new sect, whom Justice Bennet of Derby hath so justly nicknamed 'Quakers.' They talk strangely, these people, and believe in a mighty queer fashion. I know not if Lambert be of their creed, for he does not use the 'thee' and 'thou' when speaking as do all Quakers, so I am told; but his empty pockets, a smattering of learning which he has picked up the Lord knows where, and a plethora of unspoken grievances, have all proved a sure passport to Lady Sue's sympathy."
"Nay, but your village of Acol seems full of queer folk, good Sir Marmaduke," said Mistress Pyncheon. "I have heard talk among my servants of a mysterious prince hailed from France, who has lately made one of your cottages his home."
"Oh! ah! yes!" quoth Sir Marmaduke lightly, "the interesting exile from the Court of King Louis. I did not know that his fame had reached you, mistress."
"A French prince?--in this village?" exclaimed Dame Harrison sharply, "and pray, good Sir Marmaduke, where did you go a-fishing to get such a bite?"
"Nay!" replied Sir Marmaduke with a short laugh, "I had naught to do with his coming; he wandered to Acol from Dover about six months ago it seems, and found refuge in the Lamberts' cottage, where he has remained ever since. A queer fellow I believe. I have only seen him once or twice in my fields ... in the evening, usually ..."
Perhaps there was just a curious note of irritability in Sir Marmaduke's voice as he spoke of this mysterious inhabitant of the quiet village of Acol; certain it is that the two matchmaking old dames seemed smitten at one and the same time with a sense of grave danger to their schemes.
An exile from France, a prince who hides his identity and his person in a remote Kentish village, and a girl with a highly imaginative temperament like Lady Sue! here was surely a more definite, a more important rival to the pretensions of homely country youths like Sir Timothy Harrison or Squire Pyncheon, than even the student of humble origin whose brother was a blacksmith, whose aunt was a Quakeress, and who wandered about the park of Acol with hollow eyes fixed longingly on the much-courted heiress.
Dame Harrison and Mistress Pyncheon both instinctively turned a scrutinizing gaze on her ladyship. Neither of them was perhaps ordinarily very observant, but self-interest had made them keen, and it would have been impossible not to note the strange atmosphere which seemed suddenly to pervade the entire personality of the young girl.
There was nothing in her face now expressive of whole-hearted partisanship for an absent friend, such as she had displayed when she felt that young Lambert was being unjustly sneered at; rather was it a kind of entranced and arrested thought, as if her mind, having come in contact with one all-absorbing idea, had ceased to function in any other direction save that one.
Her cheeks no longer glowed, they seemed pale and transparent like those of an ascetic; her lips were slightly parted, her eyes appeared unconscious of everything round her, and gazing at something enchanting beyond that bank of clouds which glimmered, snow-white, through the trees.
"But what in the name of common sense is a French prince doing in Acol village?" ejaculated Dame Harrison in her most strident voice, which had the effect of drawing every one's attention to herself and to Sir Marmaduke, whom she was thus addressing.
The men ceased playing and gathered nearer. The spell was broken. That strange and mysterious look vanished from Lady Sue's face; she turned away from the speakers and idly plucked a few bunches of acorn from an overhanging oak.
"Of a truth," replied Sir Marmaduke, whose eyes were still steadily fixed on his ward, "I know as little about the fellow, ma'am, as you do yourself. He was exiled from France by King Louis for political reasons, so he explained to the old woman Lambert, with whom he is still lodging. I understand that he hardly ever sleeps at the cottage, that his appearances there are short and fitful and that his ways are passing mysterious.... And that is all I know," he added in conclusion, with a careless shrug of the shoulders.
"Quite a romance!" remarked Mistress Pyncheon dryly.
"You should speak to him, good Sir Marmaduke," said Dame Harrison decisively, "you are a magistrate. 'Tis your duty to know more of this fellow and his antecedents."
"Scarcely that, ma'am," rejoined Sir Marmaduke, "you understand ... I have a young ward living for the nonce in my house ... she is very rich, and, I fear me, of a very romantic disposition ... I shall try to get the man removed from hence, but until that is accomplished, I prefer to know nothing about him ..."
"How wise of you, good Sir Marmaduke!" quoth Mistress Pyncheon with a sigh of content.
A sentiment obviously echoed in the hearts of a good many people there present.
"One knows these foreign adventurers," concluded Sir Marmaduke with pleasant irony, "with their princely crowns and forlorn causes ... half a million of English money would no doubt regild the former and bolster up the latter."
He rose from his seat as he spoke, boldly encountering even as he did so, a pair of wrathful and contemptuous girlish eyes fixed steadily upon him.
"Shall we go within?" he said, addressing his guests, and returning his young ward's gaze haughtily, even commandingly; "a cup of sack-posset will be welcome after the fatigue of the game. Will you honor my poor house, mistress? and you, too, ma'am? Gentlemen, you must fight among yourselves for the privilege of escorting Lady Sue to the house, and if she prove somewhat disdainful this beautiful summer's afternoon, I pray you remember that faint heart never won fair lady, and that the citadel is not worth storming an it is not obdurate."
The suggestion of sack-posset proved vastly to the liking of the merry company. Mistress de Chavasse who had been singularly silent all the afternoon, walked quickly in advance of her brother-in-law's guests, no doubt in order to cast a scrutinizing eye over the arrangements of the table, which she had entrusted to the servants.
Sir Marmaduke followed at a short distance, escorting the older women, making somewhat obvious efforts to control his own irritability, and to impart some sort of geniality to the proceedings.
Then in a noisy group in the rear came the three men still fighting for the good graces of Lady Sue, whilst she, silent, absorbed, walked leisurely along, paying no heed to the wrangling of her courtiers, her fingers tearing up with nervous impatience the delicate cups of the acorns, which she then threw from her with childish petulance.
And her eyes still sought the distance beyond the boundaries of Sir Marmaduke's private grounds, there where cornfields and sky and sea were merged by the summer haze into a glowing line of emerald and purple and gold.
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