Now, when that fair young English girl, at her father's voice, turned to
acknowledge my presence -- thinking it was some other new knight of the
many who came there every hour -- she lifted her eyes to mine, and then,
all on a sudden, without rhyme or reason, she started back and blanched
whiter than her own wimple, and then flushed again, equally
unaccountably, and fell a-trembling and staring at me in a wondrous
fashion. She came a step forward, as though she would greet some long
looked-for friend, and then withdrew, and half held out her hand, and
took it back, the while the color came and went upon her cheeks in quick
flushes, and, stirred by some strange emotion, her bosom rose and fell
under the golden cestus and the lawn with the stress of her feelings. The
sudden storm, however invoked, shook that sweet fabric most mightily.
There, in that very minute, it seemed -- there, in that merry, careless place
in sight of me, but a gaudy gallant a little more thoughtful-looking,
perhaps, than those she often saw, yet, all the same, naught but a stranger
unknown and nameless to her -- moved by some affinity within us, just as
the alchemist's magic touch converts between two breaths one elixir in his
crucibles to another, so, before my eyes, I saw in that fair girl's pallid face
love flush through her veins, and light her heart and eyes with a
And I -- I, the unhappy, I, the sorrow bestower, as I saw her first, what of
all things in this wide world should I think of -- what should leap up in my
mind as I perked my gilded scabbard and bowed low to the polished
oaken floor in my glittering Plantagenet finery -- what vision should come
to me in that latter-day hall, among those mandolin-fingering courtiers,
before that costly raimented maiden, the fair heiress of a thousand years of
care and gentle living, that girl leaning frightened and shy upon the arm of
her strong father like a soft white mist-cloud in the shadow of a mountain
-- what thought, what idea, but a swift revision of Blodwen, my wild,
ruddy, untutored British wife!
All those gaudy butterflies of the new day, that stately home and that fair
flower herself, shrunk into nothing; and as the white lightning leaps
through the dull void of midnight, and shows for one dazzling second
some long-remembered country, ashine in every leaf and detail, to the
startled pilgrim, and then is gone with all the ghostly mirage of its passage,
so in that surprising moment, so full of import, Blodwen rose to my mind
against all reason and likelihood -- Blodwen the Briton, the ruddy-haired --
Blodwen radiant with her gentle motherhood -- Blodwen, who could
scream so fiercely to her clansmen in the fore-front of conflict, and drive
her bloody chariot through the red mud of battle with wounded foemen
writhing under her remorseless wheels more blithely than a latter-day
maid would trip through the spangled meadow-grass of spring-time --
Blodwen rose before me!
Oh, 'twas wild, 'twas foolish, past explaining nonsense! And, angry with
myself and that white maid who stood and hung her head before me, I
stroked my hand across my face to rid me of the fancy, and, gathering
myself together, made my bow, murmuring something fiercely civil, and
turned my back upon her to seek another group.
Yes; but if you think I conquered that fancy, you are wrong. For days and
days it haunted me, even though I laughed it to scorn, and, what made the
matter more difficult, more perplexing, was that I had not guessed in
error: the unhappy Isobel had loved me from first sight, and, against every
precedent her nature would have warranted, grew daily deeper in the
toils. And I, who never yet had turned from the eyes
of supplicant maid, watched her color shift and fly as I came or went, and
strode gloomy, unmindful through all her pretty artifices of maiden
tenderness, burning the meanwhile with love for her disdainful sister. It
was a strange medley, and in one phase or another pursued me all the
time I was in that noble keep. When I was not wooing I was being wooed.
Alas! and all the coldness I got from that black-browed lady with the
goddess carriage and the faultless skin I passed on to the poor, enamored
girl who dogged my idle footsteps for a word.
Thus, on one day we had a tournament. All round the great castle, under
the oaks, were pitched the tents of the troopers, while the pennons and
bannerets of knights and barons, as we saw them from the turret-top,
shone in the sunlight like a field of flowers. 'The soldier-yeomen had their
sports and contests on the greensward, and we went down to watch them.
Thor! but I never saw such bronzed and stalwart fellows, or witnessed
anything like the truth and straightness of those stinging flights of shafts
the archers sent against their butts! Then the next day, following the sports
of the common people, in the tilt-yard inside the barbican, we held a
tourney, a mock battle and a breaking of spears, a very gorgeous show
indeed, and near as exciting as an honest melee itself.
So tuneful in my ears proved the shivering of lances and the clatter of
swords on the steel panoply of the knights, that, though at first I held
aloof, stern and gloomy with my futile passion, yet presently I itched to
take a spear, and, since those sparkling riders liked the fun so much, to let
them try whether my right hand had lost the cunning it learned before
their fathers were conceived. And as I thought so, standing among the
chief ones in that brilliant tourney ring, up came the white Rose and
tempted me to break a lance, and sighed so softly and brushed against me
with her scented draperies, and tried with feeble self-command to meet
my eyes and could not, and was so obviously wishful that I should ride a
course or two, and so prettily in love, that I was near relenting of my
I did unbend so much as to consent to mount. A page fetched my armor
and my mighty black charger draped in crimson-blazoned velvet and
ribboned from head to tail, and then I went to the rear of the lists and put
on the steel.
"Thanks, good squire," I said to the youth who thrust my pointed toes into
the stirrups when I was on my horse.
"Now give me up my gauntlets and post me in my principles."
"Fy, sir, not to know," quoth he, "the worship of weapons and the honor of
"Thanks. That is not difficult to remember; and as to my practice?"
"Ah! there you confuse him," put in a jester standing by. "No good knight
likes to be bound too closely as to that,"
As I rode round the lists a white hand from under the sisters' dais -- to
whom belonging I well could guess -- threw me a flower, the which fell
under my sleek charger's hoofs and was stamped into the trodden mold.
And then the trumpet sounded "Avant!" called the glittering marshal, and
we met in mid-career.
Seven strong knights did I jerk from their high-peaked saddles that
morning, and won a lady's golden head-ring, and rode round about the
circus with it on my lance point. When I came under where Isobel sat, I
saw her fair cheeks redder than my ribbons with maiden expectation; but
as I passed without a sign, they grew whiter than her lawn. And then I
reined up and deposited that circlet at the footstool of her sister. The
proud, cold maid accepted the homage as was her duty, but scarcely
deigned to lower her eyes to the level of my helmet plumes while her
father put it on her forehead.
A merry time we had in that courtly place waiting for the signal to start;
and much did I learn and note -- Soon the favorite gallant in that goodly
company, the acknowledged strongest spearman in the lists, the best teller
of strange stories by an evening fire. But never an inch of way could I
make with the impenetrable girl on whom my wayward heart was set,
while the other -- the younger -- made her sweet self the pointing-stock of
high and low, she was so blindly, so obviously in love.
One day it came to a climax. We met by chance in a glade of black shadows
among the cedar branches, I and that damsel in white, and finding I would
not woo her, she set to work and wooed me -- so sweet, so strong, so
passionate, that to this day, I can not think how I withstood it. Yes, and
that fair, slim maid, renowned through all the district for her gentle
reticence, when I would not answer love with love, and glance for glance,
fired up with white-hot passion, threw hesitance to the wind, and besought
and knelt to me, and asked no more than to be my slave, so sweet, so
reckless in her passion that it was not the high-born English lady who knelt
there, but rather it seemed my dear, fiery, untutored British princess,
Fool I was not to see it then, witless after so much not to guess the
tameless spirit, the intruder soul that poor girl at my feet held unwitting in
She came to me, as I have said, all in a gust of feeling unlike herself, and,
when I would not say that which she longed to hear, she wrung her hands,
and then down she came upon her knees, and clipped me round my
jeweled belt, and confessed her love for me in such a headlong rush of
tearful eloquence I durst rot write it.
"Lady," I said, lifting the supple girl to her feet, "I grieve, but it is useless.
Forget! forgive! I can not answer as you would,"
"Ah, but," she answered, rushing again to the onset sighing as now the hot,
strange love that burned within her and now her sweet native spirit strove
for mastery -- "surely I think I am possessed -- I will not take 'No' for an
answer. I am consumed (oh! fy to say it) for thee. I am not first in thy dear
affection -- why, then, I will be second. Not second! then I will be the
hundredth from thy heart. My light, my life and fate, I can not live without
thee. Oh! as yon were born by your mother's consummated love, as thou
hast ever felt compunction for a white-cheeked maid, have pity on me. I
tell thee I will follow thee to the ends of the earth (Lord, how my tongue
runs on!). For one moiety of that affection perhaps a happier woman has I
will serve thee through life. Thou hast no wife, 'tis said, to hinder. Thou art
a soldier; and a score of them, ere I was touched with this strange infection,
have sued hopeless for but a chance of that which is proffered thee so
freely. Truth! they have told me I was fair, and tall, with a complexion that
ridiculed the water-lilies on the moat, and hair, one said, was like ripe corn
with a harvest sun upon it ('it makes me blush' -- I heard her whisper to
herself -- 'to apprise myself like this'), and yet you stand averse and sullen,
with eyes turned from me, and deaf ears! am I a sight so dreadful to you?"
"Maid!" I cried, shutting out her supplicant beauty from my heart --
overfull as I thought it of that other one, her sister -- "no man could look
upon you and not be moved. The wayward immortals have given you
more sweetness than near any other woman I ever saw. 'A sight so
dreadful to me!' Why, you are fairer than an early morning in May, when
the new sun gets up over the wet-flowered hawthorns. And for this very
reason, for pity on us both, stand up and dry your tears. Believe me, dear
maid, where I go you can not come. You tread the rough soldier's path.
Why, those pretty velvet
buskins would wear out in the first march. And turn those dainty hands to
the rough craft of war, to scouring harness and grooming chargers -- oh!
that were miserable indeed; those cherry lips are worse suited than you
know for the chance fare of camp and watch-fire, and these round arms
would soon find a sword was heavier than a bodkin -- there, again forget,
forgive -- and, perhaps, when I come back -- "
But why should I further follow that sad love-scene under the broad-
spreading cedars? Let it be sufficient for you that I soothed her as well as
might be, and stanched her tears, and modified my coldness, taking her
pretty hands, and whispering to as dainty and greedy an ear as ever was
opened to hear, perhaps, a little more of lover friendliness than I truly
meant; and so we parted.
Now see the shield turned. That very afternoon did the other sister
unbend a point with cruel suavity, and set me joyous by promising to
meet me at nightfall, whereat, as you will readily understand, every other
event of the day faded into nothingness. At the appointed hour, just as the
white mist floated in thick, fine wisps from the shadowed moat on the
eastward of the castle wall, and the red setting sun was throwing the
strong black shadows of cedar branches upon the copper-gleaming
windows and walls of the side that faced him, I rose, and making some
jesting excuse, slipped away from my noisy comrades in the hall into the
shadows of the corridors. Yes; and though you may smile, he who thought
this Phoenician had plumbed the well of mortal love to the very depth, had
learned all there was to learn, and left nothing that could stir him so much
as a heart-beat in this fair field of adventure, was now tripping through the
ruddy and black dusk, anxious and alert, his pulses beating a quicker
measure than his feet, the native boldness of his nature all overlaid with
new-born diffidence, fingering his silken points as he went, and conning
pretty speeches, now hoping in his lover hesitance the tryst would not be
kept, and then anon spurning himself for being so laggard and faint-
hearted; and thus progressing in moods and minds as many as the gentle
shadows chequering his path from many an oriel window and many a
fluted casement, he came at length within sight of the deep-set window
looking down over the pale shining water and the heavy woods beyond,
where his own love-tale was to be told.
And there, as I plucked back the last tapestry that barred my passage, and
stood still for a moment on the threshold -- there, before we, sitting on the
trestles under the mullions
in the twilight, was the figure of my fair and haughty English girl.
She had her face turned away from the evening glow, her ample white
cap, peaked and laced with gold on either crescent point, further threw
into shadow the features I knew so well, while the fine, shapely hands lay
hidden in the folds of the ample dress which shone and glimmered in the
dusk against the oak panelings of that ancient lobby in misty uncertainty.
Gentle dame! My heart bounded with expectant triumph to see how
pensive and downcast was her look, how still she sat, and how,
methought, the white linen and the golden ceinture above her heart rose
and fell even in that silent place with the tumult of maidenly passion
within. My heart opened to her, I say, as though I were an enmored
shepherd about to pour a brand-new virgin love into the frightened ears
of some timid country maid, and within my veins, as the heavy arras fell
from my hands behind me, there surged up the molten stream of eastern
love. I neither waited to see nor hear else, but strode swiftly over the floor
and cast myself down there at her feet upon one knee (gods! how it makes
me smart to think of it! -- I who had never bent a knee before in
supplication to earth or heaven), and poured out before her the offering of
my passion. Hot and swiftly I wooed her, saying I scarce know what,
loosening my heart before that silent shrine, laying bare the keen, strong
throb of life and yearning that pulsed within me, persuading, entreating,
cajoling, until both breath and fancy failed. And never, under all that
stream of love, had the damsel given one sign -- one single indication of
Then on I went again, deeming the maid held herself not yet wooed
enough, disporting myself before her, and pleading the simplicity of my
love, saying how that, if it brought no great riches with it, yet was it the
treasure of a truthful heart. Did she sigh to widen her father's broad lands?
I swore by Osiris I would do it for her love better than any petty lordling
could. Did she desire to shine, honored above all women, where spears
were broken or feasts were spread? Think of yon littered lists, I cried, and
told her there was not a champion in all the world I feared; none who
should not come humbled to her footstool; while as for honor and
recognition -- Jove! I would pluck them from the king himself, even as I
had plucked them from his betters. Yet never a sign that fair girl gave.
Full of wonder and surprise, I waited for a moment for some sign or show,
if not of answering fire, at least of reason;
and then, as I cheeked in full course my passionate pleadings, that
wretched thing before me burst, not into the tears I expected of maidenly
capitulation, nor into the proud anger of offended virgins, but into a silly,
plebeian simper, which began in ludicrous smothered merriment under
the folds of the lawn she held across her face, and ended, amid what
appeared contending feelings, in a rustic outburst of sobs and
I was on my feet in an instant, all my wild love-making dammed back
upon my heart by suspicion and surprise, and as I frowned fiercely at that
dim-seen form under the distorting shadow of the windows, it rose -- to
nothing like Alianora's height -- and stepped out where the evening light
better illumined us. And there that poor traitress tore off in anger and
remorse the lace and linen of a well-born English maiden, and stood
revealed before me the humblest, the meanest seeming, and the most
despised kitchen-wench of any that served in that baronial hall.
You will guess what my feelings were as this indignity I had been put to
rushed upon me, how in my wounded pride I crossed my arms savagely
upon my breast, and turned away from that poor, simpering, rustic fool,
and clinched my teeth, and swore fierce oaths against that cruel girl who,
in her pride and insolence, had played me this sorry trick. Wild and bitter
were the gusts of passion that swept through my heart, and all the more
unruly since it was by and for a woman I had fallen , and there was none
for me to take vengeance on.
In a few minutes I turned to the wretched tool of a vixen mistress. "Hast
any explanation of this?" I sternly asked, pointing to the disordered finery
that lay glimmering upon the floor.
The unhappy kitchen-maid nodded behind her tears and the thick red
hands wherewith she was streaking two wet, round cheeks with alternate
hues of grief and dinginess, and put a hand into her bosom and handed me
a folded missive. I tore it open and read, in prettily scrawled old Norman-
French, this cruel message:
"This is to tell that nameless knight who has nothing to distinguish him but
presumption, that although the daughter of an English peer must ever
treat his suit with the contempt it deserves, Yet will she go so far as to
select him from among her father's vassals one to whom she thinks he
might very fitly unburden his soul of its load of 'love and fealty.'"
Such was the missive, one surely penned by as ungentle a
hand as ever ministered to a woman's heart. I tore it into hundred
fragments, and then grimly pointed my traducer to the narrow wicket in
the remote wall leading down by a hundred stony stairs to the scullion
places whence she had come. She turned and went a little way toward it,
then came sobbing back, and burst out into grief anew, and "Alas! alas! sir,"
she cried, "this is the very worst task that ever I was put to. Shame upon
Lady Alianora, and double shame upon me for doing her behests! I am
sorry, sir, indeed I am! Until you began that wonderful tale I thought 'twas
but a merry game; but, oh, sir, to see you there upon your knee, to see
your eyes burning in the dark with true love for my false mistress -- why,
sir, it would have drawn tears from the hardest stone in the mill down
yonder. And ever as your talk went on just now, I kept saying to myself:
sure, but it must be a big heart which works a tongue like that; and when
you had done, sir; ah! before you were half-way through, though I could
not stop you, yet I loathed my errand. I am sorry, sir, indeed I am! I can
not go until I be forgiven."
"There, there, silly girl," I said, my wrath quenched by her red eyes and
humble amendment, "you are fully absolved."
She kissed my hands and dried her eyes, and swept together, with woman
swiftness, the tattered things in which she had masqueraded, and then, as
she was about to leave, I called her back.
"Stay one moment, damsel. How much had you for thus betraying me?"
"Two sequins, sir," she answered, with simplicity
"Why, then, here's three others to say naught about this evening's doings
in the servants' hall. You understand? There, go, and no more tears or
thanks;" and, as the curtain fell upon her, I could not help muttering to
myself: "What! two sequins to undo you, Phra, and three to mend it? why,
Phoenician, thou hast not been so cheap for thirteen hundred years!"
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