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Side by side stepped that oddly assorted pair along - the maiden whose soul was as pure and fresh as the breeze that blew upon them from the sea, and the man whose life years ago had been marred by a sorrow, the quest of whose forgetfulness had led him through the mire of untold sin; the girl upon the threshold of womanhood, her life all before her and seeming to her untainted mind a joyous, wholesome business; the man midway on his ill-starred career, his every hope blighted save the one odious hope of vengeance, which made him cling to a life he had proved worthless and ugly, and that otherwise he had likely enough cast from him. And as they walked:
"Sir Crispin," she ventured timidly, "you are unhappy, are you not?"
Startled by her words and the tone of them, Galliard turned his head that he might observe her.
"I, unhappy?" he laughed; and it was a laugh calculated to acknowledge the fitness of her question, rather than to refute it as he intended. "Am I a clown, Cynthia, to own myself unhappy at such a season and while you honour me with your company?"
She made a wry face in protest that he fenced with her.
"You are happy, then?" she challenged him.
"What is happiness?" quoth he, much as Pilate may have questioned what was truth. Then before she could reply he hastened to add: "I have not been quite so happy these many years."
"It is not of the present moment that I speak," she answered reprovingly, for she scented no more than a compliment in his words, "but of your life."
Now either was he imbued with a sense of modesty touching the deeds of that life of his, or else did he wisely realize that no theme could there he less suited to discourse upon with an innocent maid.
"Mistress Cynthia," said he as though he had not heard her question, "I would say a word to you concerning Kenneth."
At that she turned upon him with a pout.
"But it is concerning yourself that I would have you talk. It is not nice to disobey a lady. Besides, I have little interest in Master Stewart."
"To have little interest in a future husband augurs ill for the time when he shall come to be your husband."
"I thought that you, at least, understood me. Kenneth will never be husband of mine, Sir Crispin."
"Cynthia!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, lackaday! Am I to wed a doll?" she demanded. "Is he - is he a man a maid may love, Sir Crispin?"
"Indeed, had you but seen the half of life that I have seen," said he unthinkingly, "it might amaze you what manner of man a maid may love - or at least may marry. Come, Cynthia, what fault do you find with him?"
"Why, every fault."
He laughed in unbelief.
"And whom are we to blame for all these faults that have turned you so against him?"
"Yourself, Cynthia. You use him ill, child. If his behaviour has been extravagant, you are to blame. You are severe with him, and he, in his rash endeavours to present himself in a guise that shall render him commendable in your eyes, has overstepped discretion."
"Has my father bidden you to tell me this?"
"Since when have I enjoyed your father's confidence to that degree? No, no, Cynthia. I plead the boy's cause to you because - I know not because of what."
"It is ill to plead without knowing why. Let us forget the valiant Kenneth. They tell me, Sir Crispin" - and she turned her glorious eyes upon him in a manner that must have witched a statue into answering her - "that in the Royal army you were known as the Tavern Knight."
"They tell you truly. What of that?"
"Well, what of it? Do you blush at the very thought?"
"I blush?" He blinked, and his eyes were full of humour as they met her grave - almost sorrowing glance. Then a full-hearted peal of laughter broke from him, and scared a flight of gulls from the rocks of Sheringham Hithe below.
"Oh, Cynthia! You'll kill me!" he gasped. "Picture to yourself this Crispin Galliard blushing and giggling like a schoolgirl beset by her first lover. Picture it, I say! As well and as easily might you picture old Lucifer warbling a litany for the edification of a Nonconformist parson."
Her eyes were severe in their reproach.
"It is always so with you. You laugh and jest and make a mock of everything. Such I doubt not has been your way from the commencement, and 'tis thus that you are come to this condition."
Again he laughed, but this time it was in bitterness.
"Nay, sweet mistress, you are wrong - you are very wrong; it was not always thus. Time was - " He paused. "Bah! 'Tis the coward cries "time was"! Leave me the past, Cynthia. It is dead, and of the dead we should speak no ill," he jested.
"What is there in your past?" she insisted, despite his words. "What is there in it so to have warped a character that I am assured was once - is, indeed, still - of lofty and noble purpose? What is it has brought you to the level you occupy - you who were born to lead; you who - "
"Have done, child. Have done," he begged.
"Nay, tell me. Let us sit here." And taking hold of his sleeve, she sat herself upon a mound, and made room for him beside her on the grass. With a half-laugh and a sigh he obeyed her, and there, on the cliff, in the glow of the September sun, he took his seat at her side.
A silence prevailed about them, emphasized rather than broken by the droning chant of a fisherman mending his nets on the beach below, the intermittent plash of the waves on the shingle, and the scream of the gulls that circled overhead. Before the eyes of his flesh was stretched a wide desert of sky and water, and before the eyes of his mind the hopeless desert of his thirty-eight years.
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The Tavern Knight -by- Rafael Sabatini