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PRINCE AMÉDÉ D'ORLÉANS
At first it seemed as if the stranger meant to beat a precipitate and none too dignified retreat now that the adoring eyes of Lady Sue were no longer upon him. But Mistress de Chavasse had no intention of allowing him to extricate himself quite so easily from an unpleasant position.
"One moment, master," she said loudly and peremptorily. "Prince or whatever you may wish to call yourself ... ere you show me a clean pair of heels, I pray you to explain your presence here on Sir Marmaduke's doorstep at ten o'clock at night, and in company with his ward."
For a moment--a second or two only--the stranger appeared to hesitate. He paused with one foot still on the lowest of the stone steps, the other on the flagged path, his head bent, his hand upraised in the act of re-adjusting his broad-brimmed hat.
Then a sudden thought seemed to strike him, he threw back his head, gave a short laugh as if he were pleased with this new thought, then turned, meeting Mistress de Chavasse's stern gaze squarely and fully. He threw his hat down upon the steps and crossed his arms over his chest.
"One moment, mistress?" he said with an ironical bow. "I do not need one moment. I have already explained."
"Explained? how?" she retorted, "nay! I'll not be trifled with, master, and methinks you will find that Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse will expect some explanation--which will prove unpleasant to yourself--for your unwarrantable impudence in daring to approach his ward."
He put up his hand in gentle deprecation.
"Impudence? Oh, mistress?" he said reproachfully.
"Let me assure you, master," she continued with relentless severity, "that you were wise an you returned straightway to your lodgings now ... packed your worldly goods and betook yourself and them to anywhere you please."
"Ah!" he sighed gently, "that is impossible."
"You would dare? ..." she retorted.
"I would dare remain there, where my humble presence is most desired--beside the gracious lady who honors me with her love."
"You are insolent, master ... and Sir Marmaduke ..."
"Oh!" he rejoined lightly, "Sir Marmaduke doth not object."
"There, I fear me, you are in error, master! and in his name I now forbid you ever to attempt to speak to Lady Susannah Aldmarshe again."
This command, accompanied by a look of withering scorn, seemed to afford the stranger vast entertainment. He made the wrathful lady a low, ironical bow, and clapped his hands together laughing and exclaiming:
"Brava! brava! of a truth but this is excellent! Pray, mistress, will you deign to tell me if in this your bidding you have asked Sir Marmaduke for his opinion?"
"I need not to ask him. I ask you to go."
"Go? Whither?" he asked blandly.
"Out of my sight and off these grounds at once, ere I rouse the servants and have you whipped off like a dog!" she said, angered beyond measure at his audacity, his irony, his manner, suggestive of insolent triumph. His muffled voice with its curious foreign accent irritated her, as did the shadow of his perruque over his brow, and the black silk shade which he wore over one eye.
Even now in response to her violent outburst he broke into renewed laughter.
"Better and better! Ah, mistress," he said with a shake of the head, "of a truth you are more blind than I thought."
"You are more insolent, master, than I had thought possible."
"Yet meseems, fair lady, that in the lonely and mysterious stranger you might have remembered your humble and devoted servant," he said, drawing his figure up towards her.
"You! an old friend!" she said contemptuously. "I have ne'er set eyes on you in my life before."
"To think that the moon should be so treacherous," he rejoined imperturbably. "Will you not look a little closer, fair mistress, the shadows are somewhat dark, mayhap."
She felt his one eye fixed upon her with cold intentness, a strange feeling of superstitious dread suddenly crept over her from head to foot. Like a bird fascinated by a snake she came a little nearer, down the steps, towards him, her eyes, too, riveted on his face, that curious face of his, surrounded by the heavy perruque hiding ears and cheeks, the mouth overshadowed by the dark mustache, one eye concealed beneath the black silk shade.
He seemed amused at her terror and as she came nearer to him, he too, advanced a little until their eyes met--his, mocking, amused, restless; hers, intent and searching.
Thus they gazed at one another for a few seconds, whilst silence reigned around and the moon peered down cold and chaste from above, illumining the old house, the neglected garden, the vast park with its innumerable dark secrets and the mysteries which it hid.
She was the first to step back, to recoil before the ironical intensity of that fixed gaze. She felt as if she were in a dream, as if a nightmare assailed her, which in her wakeful hours would be dissipated by reason, by common sense, by sound and sober fact.
She even passed her hand across her eyes as if to sweep away from before her vision, a certain image which fancy had conjured up.
His laugh--strident and mocking--roused her from this dreamlike state.
"I ... I ... do not understand," she murmured.
"Yet it is so simple," he replied, "did you not ask me awhile ago if nothing could be done?"
"Who ... who are you?" she whispered, and then repeated once again: "Who are you?"
"I am His Royal Highness, Prince Amédé d'Orléans," said Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse lightly, "the kinsman of His Majesty, King Louis of France, the mysterious foreigner who works for the religious and political freedom of his country, and on whose head le roi soleil hath set a price ... and who, moreover, hath enflamed the romantic imagination of a beautiful young girl, thus winning her ardent love in the present and in the near future together with her vast fortune and estates."
He made a movement as if to remove his perruque but she stopped him with a gesture. She had understood. And in the brilliant moonlight a complete revelation of his personality might prove dangerous. Lady Sue herself might still--for aught they knew--be standing in the dark room behind--unseen yet on the watch.
He seemed vastly amused at her terror, and boldly took the hand with which she had arrested his act of total revelation.
"Nay! do you recognize your humble servant at last, fair Editha?" he queried. "On my honor, madam, Lady Sue is deeply enamored of me. What think you of my chances now?"
"You? You?" she repeated at intervals, mechanically, dazed still, lost in a whirl of conflicting emotions wherein fear, amazement, and a certain vein of superstitious horror fought a hard battle in her dizzy brain.
"The risks," she murmured more coherently.
"If she discover you, before ... before ..."
"Before she is legally my wife? Pshaw! ... Then of a truth my scheme will come to naught ... But will you not own, Editha, that 'tis worth the risk?"
"Afterwards?" she asked, "afterwards?"
"Afterwards, mistress," he rejoined enigmatically, "afterwards sits on the knees of the gods."
And with a flourish of his broad-brimmed hat he turned on his heel and anon was lost in the shadows of the tall yew hedge.
How long she stood there watching that spot whereon he had been standing, she could not say. Presently she shivered; the night had turned cold. She heard the cry of some small bird attacked by a midnight prowler; was it the sparrow-hawk after its prey?
From the other side of the house came the sound of slow and firm footsteps, then the opening and shutting of a door.
Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse had played his part for to-night: silently as he had gone, so he returned to his room, whilst in another corner of the sparrow-hawk's nest a young girl slept, dreaming dreams of patriots and heroes, of causes nobly won, of poverty and obscurity gloriously endured.
Mistress de Chavasse with a sigh half of regret, half of indifference, finally turned her back on the moonlit garden and went within.
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