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He was almost tempted to speak. The note of sympathy in her voice allured him, and sympathy was to him as drink to one who perishes of thirst. A passionate, indefinable longing impelled him to pour out the story that in Worcester he had related unto Kenneth, and thus to set himself better in her eyes; to have her realize indeed that if he was come so low it was more the fault of others than his own. The temptation drew him at a headlong pace, to be checked at last by the memory that those others who had brought him to so sorry a condition were her own people. The humour passed. He laughed softly, and shook his head.
"There is nothing that I can tell you, child. Let us rather talk of Kenneth."
"I do not wish to talk of Kenneth."
"Nay, but you must. Willy-nilly must you. Think you it is only a war-worn, hard-drinking, swashbuckling ruffler that can sin? Does it not also occur to you that even a frail and tender little maid may do wrong as well?"
"What wrong have I done?" she cried in consternation.
"A grievous wrong to this poor lad. Can you not realize how the only desire that governs him is the laudable one of appearing favourably in your eyes?"
"That desire gives rise, then, to curious manifestations."
"He is mistaken in the means he adopts, that is all. In his heart his one aim is to win your esteem, and, after all, it is the sentiment that matters, not its manifestation. Why, then, are you unkind to him?"
"But I am not unkind. Or is it unkindness to let him see that I mislike his capers? Would it not be vastly more unkind to ignore them and encourage him to pursue their indulgence? I have no patience with him."
"As for those capers, I am endeavouring to show you that you yourself have driven him to them."
"Sir Crispin," she cried out, "you grow tiresome."
"Aye," said he, "I grow tiresome. I grow tiresome because I preach of duty. Marry, it is in truth a tiresome topic."
"How duty? Of what do you talk?" And a flush of incipient anger spread now on her fair cheek.
"I will be clearer," said he imperturbably. "This lad is your betrothed. He is at heart a good lad, an honourable and honest lad - at times haply over-honest and over-honourable; but let that be. To please a whim, a caprice, you set yourself to flout him, as is the way of your sex when you behold a man your utter slave. From this - being all unversed in the obliquity of woman - he conceives, poor boy, that he no longer finds favour in your eyes, and to win back this, the only thing that in the world he values, he behaves foolishly. You flout him anew, and because of it. He is as jealous with you as a hen with her brood."
"Jealous?" echoed Cynthia.
"Why, yes, jealous; and so far does he go as to be jealous even of me," he cried, with infinitely derisive relish. "Think of it - he is jealous of me! Jealous of him they call the Tavern Knight!"
She did think of it as he bade her. And by thinking she stumbled upon a discovery that left her breathless.
Strange how we may bear a sentiment in our hearts without so much as suspecting its existence, until suddenly a chance word shall so urge it into life that it reveals itself with unmistakable distinctness. With her the revelation began in a vague wonder at the scorn with which Crispin invested the notion that Kenneth should have cause for jealousy on his score. Was it, she asked herself, so monstrously unnatural? Then in a flash the answer came - and it was, that far from being a matter for derision, such an attitude in Kenneth lacked not for foundation.
In that moment she knew that it was because of Crispin; because of this man who spoke with such very scorn of self, that Kenneth had become in her eyes so mean and unworthy a creature. Loved him she haply never had, but leastways she had tolerated - been even flattered by - his wooing. By contrasting him now with Crispin she had grown to despise him. His weakness, his pusillanimity, his meannesses of soul, stood out in sharp relief by contrast with the masterful strength and the high spirit of Sir Crispin.
So easily may our ideals change that the very graces of face and form that a while ago had pleased her in Kenneth, seemed now effeminate attributes, well-attuned to a vacillating, purposeless mind. Far greater beauty did her eyes behold in this grimfaced soldier of fortune; the man as firm of purpose as he was upright of carriage; gloomy, proud, and reckless; still young, yet past the callow age of adolescence. Since the day of his coming to Castle Marleigh she had brought herself to look upon him as a hero stepped from the romancers' tales that in secret she had read. The mystery that seemed to envelop him; those hints at a past that was not good - but the measure of whose evil in her pure innocence she could not guess; his very melancholy, his misfortunes, and the deeds she had heard assigned to him, all had served to fire her fancy and more besides, although, until that moment, she knew it not.
Subconsciously all this had long dwelt in her mind. And now of a sudden that self-deriding speech of Crispin's had made her aware of its presence and its meaning.
She loved him. That men said his life had not been nice, that he was a soldier of fortune, little better than an adventurer, a man of no worldly weight, were matters of no moment then to her. She loved him. She knew it now because he had mockingly bidden her to think whether Kenneth had cause to be jealous of him, and because upon thinking of it, she found that did Kenneth know what was in her heart, he must have more than cause.
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The Tavern Knight -by- Rafael Sabatini