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UNDER THE SHADOW OF THE ELMS
Her head full of romantic nonsense! Well! perhaps that was the true keynote of Sue's character; perhaps, too, it was that same romantic temperament which gave such peculiar charm to her personality. It was not mere beauty--of which she had a plentiful share--nor yet altogether her wealth which attracted so many courtiers to her feet. Men who knew her in those days at Acol and subsequently at Court said that Lady Sue was magnetic.
She compelled attention, she commanded admiration, through that very romanticism of hers which caused her eyes to glow at the recital of valor, or sorrow, or talent, which caused her to see beauty of thought and mind and character there where it lay most deeply hidden, there--sometimes--where it scarce existed.
The dark figure of her guardian's secretary had attracted her attention from the moment when she first saw him moving silently about the house and park: the first words she spoke to him were words of sympathy. His life-story--brief and simple as it had been--had interested her. He seemed so different from these young and old country squires who frequented Acol Court. He neither wooed nor flattered her, yet seemed to find great joy in her company. His voice at times was harsh, his manner abrupt and even rebellious, but at others it fell to infinite gentleness when he talked to her of Nature and the stars, both of which he had studied deeply.
He never spoke of religion. That subject which was on everybody's tongue, together with the free use of the most sacred names, he rigorously avoided, also politics, and my Lord Protector's government, his dictatorship and ever-growing tyranny: but he knew the name of every flower that grew in meadow or woodland, the note of every bird as it trilled its song.
There is no doubt that but for the advent of that mysterious personality into Acol village, the deep friendship which had grown in Sue's heart for Richard Lambert would have warmed into a more passionate attachment.
But she was too young to reflect, too impulsive to analyze her feelings. The mystery which surrounded the foreigner who lodged at the Quakeress's cottage had made strong appeal to her idealism.
His first introduction to her notice, in the woods beyond the park gate on that cold January evening, with the moon gleaming weirdly through the branches of the elms, his solitary figure leaning against a tree, had fired her imagination and set it wildly galloping after mad fantasies.
He had scarcely spoken on that first occasion, but his silence was strangely impressive. She made up her mind that he was singularly handsome, although she could not judge of that very clearly for he wore a heavy mustache, and a shade over one eye; but he was tall, above the average, and carried the elaborate habiliments which the Cavaliers still affected, with consummate grace and ease. She thought, too, that the thick perruque became him very well, and his muffled voice, when he spoke, sounded singularly sweet.
Since then she had seen him constantly. At rare intervals at first, for maidenly dignity forbade that she should seem eager to meet him. He was ignorant of whom she was--oh! of that she felt quite quite sure: she always wore a dark tippet round her shoulders, and a hood to cover her head. He seemed pleased to see her, just to hear her voice. Obviously he was lonely and in deep trouble.
Then one night--it was the first balmy evening after the winter frosts--the moon was singularly bright, and the hood had fallen back from her head, just as her face was tilted upwards and her eyes glowing with enthusiasm. Then she knew that he had learnt to love her, not through any words which he spoke, for he was silent; his face was in shadow, and he did not even touch her; therefore it was not through any of her natural senses that she guessed his love. Yet she knew it, and her young heart was overfilled with happiness.
That evening when they parted he knelt at her feet and kissed the hem of her kirtle. After which, when she was back again in her own little room at Acol Court, she cried for very joy.
They did not meet very often. Once a week at most. He had vaguely promised to tell her, some day, of his great work for the regeneration of France, which he was carrying out in loneliness and exile here in England, a work far greater and more comprehensive than that which had secured for England religious and political liberty; this work it was which made him a wanderer on the face of the earth and caused his frequent and lengthy absences from the cottage in which he lodged.
She was quite content for the moment with these vague promises: in her heart she was evolving enchanting plans for the future, when she would be his helpmate in this great and mysterious work.
In the meanwhile she was satisfied to live in the present, to console and comfort the noble exile, to lavish on him the treasures of her young and innocent love, to endow him in her imagination with all those mental and physical attributes which her romantic nature admired most.
The spring had come, clothing the weird branches of the elms with a tender garb of green, the anemones in the woods yielded to the bluebells and these to carpets of primroses and violets. The forests of Thanet echoed with songs of linnets and white-throats. She was happy and she was in love.
With the lengthened days came some petty sorrows. He was obviously worried, sometimes even impatient. Their meetings became fewer and shorter, for the evening hours were brief. She found it difficult to wander out so late across the park, unperceived, and he would never meet her by day-light.
This no doubt had caused him to fret. He loved her and desired her all his own. Yet 'twere useless of a surety to ask Sir Marmaduke's consent to her marriage with her French prince. He would never give it, and until she came of age he had absolute power over her choice of a husband.
She had explained this to him and he had sighed and murmured angry words, then pressed her with increased passion to his heart.
To-night as she walked through the park, she was conscious--for the first time perhaps--of a certain alloy mixed with her gladness. Yet she loved him--oh, yes! just, just as much as ever. The halo of romance with which she had framed in his mystic personality was in no way dimmed, but in a sense she almost feared him, for at times his muffled voice sounded singularly vehement, and his words betrayed the uncontrolled violence of his nature.
She had hoped to bring him some reassuring news about Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse's intentions with regard to herself, but the conversation round the skittle-alley, her guardian's cruel allusions to "the foreign adventurer," had shown her how futile were such hopes.
Yet, there were only three months longer of this weary waiting. Surely he could curb his impatience until she was of age and mistress of her own hand! Surely he trusted her!
She sighed as this thought crossed her mind, and nearly fell up against a dark figure which detached itself from among the trees.
"Master Lambert!" she said, uttering a little cry of surprise, pressing her hand against her heart which was palpitating with emotion. "I had no thought of meeting you here."
"And I still less of seeing your ladyship," he rejoined coldly.
"How cross you are," she retorted with childish petulance, "what have I done that you should be so unkind?"
"Aye! I had meant to speak to you of this ere now--but you always avoid me ... you scarce will look at me ... and ... and I wished to ask you if I had offended you?"
They were standing on a soft carpet of moss, overhead the gentle summer breeze stirred the great branches of the elms, causing the crisp leaves to mutter a long-drawn hush-sh-sh in the stillness of the night. From far away came the appealing call of a blackbird chased by some marauding owl, while on the ground close by, the creaking of tiny branches betrayed the quick scurrying of a squirrel. From the remote and infinite distance came the subdued roar of the sea.
The peace of the woodland, the sighing of the trees, the dark evening sky above, filled his heart with an aching longing for her.
"Offended me?" he murmured, passing his hand across his forehead, for his temples throbbed and his eyes were burning. "Nay! why should you think so?"
"You are so cold, so distant now," she said gently. "We were such good friends when first I came here. Thanet is a strange country to me. It seems weird and unkind--the woods are dark and lonely, that persistent sound of the sea fills me with a strange kind of dread.... My home was among the Surrey hills you know.... It is far from here.... I cannot afford to lose a friend...."
She sighed, a quaint, wistful little sigh, curiously out of place, he thought, in this exquisite mouth framed only for smiles.
"I have so few real friends," she added in a whisper, so low that he thought she had not spoken, and that the elms had sighed that pathetic phrase into his ear.
"Believe me, Lady Sue, I am neither cold nor distant," he said, almost smiling now, for the situation appeared strange indeed, that this beautiful young girl, rich, courted, surrounded by an army of sycophants, should be appealing to a poor dependent for friendship. "I am only a little dazed ... as any man would be who had been dreaming ... and saw that dream vanish away...."
"Yes!--we all dream sometimes you know ... and a penniless man like myself, without prospects or friends is, methinks, more prone to it than most."
"We all have dreams sometimes," she said, speaking very low, whilst her eyes sought to pierce the darkness beyond the trees. "I too ..."
She paused abruptly, and was quite still for a moment, almost holding her breath, he thought, as if she were listening. But not a sound came to disturb the silence of the woods. Blackbird and owl had ceased their fight for life, the squirrel had gone to rest: the evening air was filled only by the great murmur of the distant sea.
"Tell me your dream," she said abruptly.
"Alas! it is too foolish! ... too mad! ... too impossible...."
"But you said once that you would be my friend and would try to cheer my loneliness."
"So I will, with all my heart, an you will permit."
"Yet is there no friendship without confidence," she retorted. "Tell me your dream."
"What were the use? You would only laugh ... and justly too."
"I should never laugh at that which made you sad," she said gently.
"Sad?" he rejoined with a short laugh, which had something of his usual bitterness in it. "Sad? Mayhap! Yet I hardly know. Think you that the poor peasant lad would be sad because he had dreamed that the fairy princess whom he had seen from afar in her radiance, was sweet and gracious to him one midsummer's day? It was only a dream, remember: when he woke she had vanished ... gone out of his sight ... hidden from him by a barrier of gold.... In front of this barrier stood his pride ... which perforce would have to be trampled down and crushed ere he could reach the princess."
She did not reply, only bent her sweet head, lest he should perceive the tears which had gathered in her eyes. All round them the wood seemed to have grown darker and more dense, whilst from afar the weird voice of that distant sea murmured of infinity and of the relentlessness of Fate.
They could not see one another very clearly, yet she knew that he was gazing at her with an intensity of love and longing in his heart which caused her own to ache with sympathy; and he knew that she was crying, that there was something in that seemingly brilliant and happy young life, which caused the exquisite head to droop as if under a load of sorrow.
A broken sigh escaped her lips, or was it the sighing of the wind in the elms?
He was smitten with remorse to think that he should have helped to make her cry.
"Sue--my little, beautiful Sue," he murmured, himself astonished at his own temerity in thus daring to address her. It was her grief which had brought her down to his level: the instinct of chivalry, of protection, of friendship which had raised him up to hers.
"Will you ever forgive me?" he said, "I had no right to speak to you as I have done.... And yet ..."
He paused and she repeated his last two words--gently, encouragingly.
"And yet ... good master?"
"Yet at times, when I see the crowd of young, empty-headed fortune-seeking jackanapes, who dare to aspire to your ladyship's hand ... I have asked myself whether perchance I had the right to remain silent, whilst they poured their farrago of nonsense into your ear. I love you, Sue!"
"No! no! good master!" she ejaculated hurriedly, while a nameless, inexplicable fear seemed suddenly to be holding her in its grip, as he uttered those few very simple words which told the old, old tale.
But those words once uttered, Richard felt that he could not now draw back. The jealously-guarded secret had escaped his lips, passion refused to be held longer in check. A torrent of emotion overmastered him. He forgot where he was, the darkness of the night, the lateness of the hour, the melancholy murmur of the wind in the trees, he forgot that she was rich and he a poor dependent, he only remembered that she was exquisitely fair and that he--poor fool!--was mad enough to worship her.
It was very dark now, for a bank of clouds hid the glory of the evening sky, and he could see only the mere outline of the woman whom he so passionately loved, the small head with the fluttering curls fanned by the wind, the graceful shoulders and arms folded primly across her bosom.
He put out his hand and found hers. Oh! the delight of raising it to his lips.
"By the heaven above us, Sue, by all my hopes of salvation I swear to you that my love is pure and selfless," he murmured tenderly, all the while that her fragrant little hand was pressed against his lips. "But for your fortune, I had come to you long ago and said to you 'Let me work for you!--My love will help me to carve a fortune for you, which it shall be my pride to place at your feet.'--Every nameless child, so 'tis said, may be a king's son ... and I, who have no name that I can of verity call mine own--no father--no kith or kindred--I would conquer a kingdom, Sue, if you but loved me too."
His voice broke in a sob. Ashamed of his outburst he tried to hide his confusion from her, by sinking on one knee on that soft carpet of moss. From the little village of Acol beyond the wood, came the sound of the church bell striking the hour of nine. Sue was silent and absorbed, intensely sorrowful to see the grief of her friend. He was quite lost in the shadows at her feet now, but she could hear the stern efforts which he made to resume control over himself and his voice.
"Richard ... good Richard," she said soothingly, "believe me, I am very, very sorry for this.... I ... I vow I did not know.... I had no thought--how could I have? that you cared for me like ... like this.... You believe me, good master, do you not?" she entreated. "Say that you believe me, when I say that I would not willingly have caused you such grief."
"I believe that you are the most sweet and pure woman in all the world," he murmured fervently, "and that you are as far beyond my reach as are the stars."
"Nay, nay, good master, you must not talk like that.... Truly, truly I am only a weak and foolish girl, and quite unworthy of your deep devotion ... and you must try ... indeed, indeed you must ... to forget what happened under these trees to-night."
"Of that I pray you have no fear," he replied more calmly, as he rose and once more stood before her--a dark figure in the midst of the dark wood--immovable, almost impassive, with head bent and arms folded across his chest. "Nathless 'tis foolish for a nameless peasant even to talk of his honor, yet 'tis mine honor, Lady Sue, which will ever help me to remember that a mountain of gold and vast estates stand between me and the realization of my dream."
"No, no," she rejoined earnestly, "it is not that only. You are my friend, good Richard, and I do not wish to see you eating out your heart in vain and foolish regrets. What you ... what you wish could never--never be. Good master, if you were rich to-morrow and I penniless, I could never be your wife."
"You mean that you could never love me?" he asked.
She was silent. A fierce wave of jealousy--mad, insane, elemental jealousy seemed suddenly to sweep over him.
"You love someone else?" he demanded brusquely.
"What right have you to ask?"
"The right of a man who would gladly die to see you happy."
He spoke harshly, almost brutally. Jealousy had killed all humility in him. Love--proud, passionate and defiant--stood up for its just claims, for its existence, its right to dominate, its desire to conquer.
But even as he thus stood before her, almost frightening her now by the violence of his speech, by the latent passion in him, which no longer would bear to be held in check, the bank of clouds which up to now had obscured the brilliance of the summer sky, finally swept away eastwards, revealing the luminous firmament and the pale crescent moon which now glimmered coldly through the branches of the trees.
A muffled sound as of someone treading cautiously the thick bed of moss, and the creaking of tiny twigs caused Richard Lambert to look up momentarily from the form of the girl whom he so dearly loved, and to peer beyond her into the weirdly illumined density of the wood.
Not twenty yards from where they were, a low wall divided the park itself from the wood beyond, which extended down to Acol village. At an angle of the wall there was an iron gate, also the tumble-down pavilion, ivy-grown and desolate, with stone steps leading up to it, through the cracks of which weeds and moss sprouted up apace.
A man had just emerged from out the thicket and was standing now to the farther side of the gate looking straight at Lambert and at Sue, who stood in the full light of the moon. A broad-brimmed hat, such as cavaliers affected, cast a dark shadow over his face.
It was a mere outline only vaguely defined against the background of trees, but in that outline Lambert had already recognized the mysterious stranger who lodged in his brother's cottage down in Acol.
The fixed intensity of the young man's gaze caused Sue to turn and to look in the same direction. She saw the stranger, who encountering two pairs of eyes fixed on him, raised his hat with a graceful flourish of the arm: then, with a short ironical laugh, went his way, and was once more lost in the gloom.
The girl instinctively made a movement as if to follow him, whilst a quickly smothered cry--half of joy and half of fear--escaped her lips. She checked the movement as well as the cry, but not before Richard Lambert had perceived both.
With the perception came the awful, overwhelming certitude.
"That adventurer!" he exclaimed involuntarily. "Oh my God!"
But she looked him full in the face, and threw back her head with a gesture of pride and of wrath.
"Master Lambert," she said haughtily, "methinks 'twere needless to remind you that--since I inadvertently revealed my most cherished secret to you--it were unworthy a man of honor to betray it to any one."
"My lady ... Sue," he said, feeling half-dazed, bruised and crushed by the terrible moral blow, which he had just received, "I ... I do not quite understand. Will you deign to explain?"
"There is naught to explain," she retorted coldly. "Prince Amédé d'Orléans loves me and I have plighted my troth to him."
"Nay! I entreat your ladyship," he said, feeling--knowing the while, how useless it was to make an appeal against the infatuation of a hot-headed and impulsive girl, yet speaking with the courage which oft-times is born of despair, "I beg of you, on my knees to listen. This foreign adventurer ..."
"Silence!" she retorted proudly, and drawing back from him, for of a truth he had sunk on his knees before her, "an you desire to be my friend, you must not breathe one word of slander against the man I love. ..."
Then, as he said nothing, realizing, indeed, how futile would be any effort or word from him, she said, with growing enthusiasm, whilst her glowing eyes fixed themselves upon the gloom which had enveloped the mysterious apparition of her lover:
"Prince Amédé d'Orléans is the grandest, most selfless patriot this world hath ever known. For the sake of France, of tyrannized, oppressed France, which he adores, he has sacrificed everything! his position, his home, his wealth and vast estates: he is own kinsman to King Louis, yet he is exiled from his country whilst a price is set upon his head, because he cannot be mute whilst he sees tyranny and oppression grind down the people of France. He could return to Paris to-day a rich and free man, a prince among his kindred,--if he would but sacrifice that for which he fights so bravely: the liberty of France!"
"Sue! my adored lady," he entreated, "in the name of Heaven listen to me.... You do believe, do you not, that I am your friend? ... I would give my life for you.... I swear to you that you have been deceived and tricked by this adventurer, who, preying upon your romantic imagination ..."
"Silence, master, an you value my friendship!" she commanded. "I will not listen to another word. Nay! you should be thankful that I deal not more harshly with you--that I make allowances for your miserable jealousy.... Oh! why did you make me say that," she added with one of those swift changes of mood, which were so characteristic of her, and with sudden contrition, for an involuntary moan had escaped his lips. "In the name of Heaven, go--go now I entreat ... leave me to myself ... lest anger betray me into saying cruel things ... I am safe--quite safe ... I entreat you to let me return to the house alone."
Her voice sounded more and more broken as she spoke: sobs were evidently rising in her throat. He pulled himself together, feeling that it were unmanly to worry her now, when emotion was so obviously overmastering her.
"Forgive me, sweet lady," he said quite gently, as he rose from his knees. "I said more than I had any right to say. I entreat you to forgive the poor, presuming peasant who hath dared to raise his eyes to the fairy princess of his dreams. I pray you to try and forget all that hath happened to-night beneath the shadows of these elms--and only to remember one thing: that my life--my lonely, humble, unimportant life--is yours ... to serve or help you, to worship or comfort you if need be ... and that there could be no greater happiness for me than to give it for your sweet sake."
He bowed very low, until his hand could reach the hem of her kirtle, which he then raised to his lips. She was infinitely sorry for him; all her anger against him had vanished.
He was very reluctant to go, for this portion of the park was some distance from the house. But she had commanded and he quite understood that she wished to be alone: love such as that which he felt for his sweet lady is ever watchful, yet ever discreet. Was it not natural that she did not care to look on him after he had angered her so?
She seemed impatient too, and although her feelings towards him had softened, she repeated somewhat nervously: "I pray you go! Good master, I would be alone."
Lambert hesitated a while longer, he looked all round him as if suspicious of any marauders that might be lurking about. The hour was not very late, and had she not commanded him to go?
Nor would he seem to pry on her movements. Having once made up his mind to obey, he did so without reserve. Having kissed the hem of her kirtle he turned towards the house.
He meant to keep on the tiny footpath, which she would be bound to traverse after him, when she returned. He felt sure that something would warn him if she really needed his help.
The park and woodland were still: only the mournful hooting of an owl, the sad sighing of the wind in the old elms broke the peaceful silence of this summer's night.
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