"I ask you to abandon the ease and peace of Sheringham for a life as a soldier's bride that may be rough and precarious for a while, though, truth to tell, I have some influence at the Luxembourg, and friends upon whose assistance I can safely count, to find your husband honourable employment, and set him on the road to more. And how, guided by so sweet a saint, can he but mount to fame and honour?"
She spoke no word, but the hand resting in his entwined his fingers in an answering pressure.
"Dare I then ask so much?" cried he. And as if the ambiguity which had marked his speech were not enough, he must needs, as he put this question, bend in his eagerness towards her until her brown tresses touched his swart cheek. Was it then strange that the eagerness wherewith he urged another's suit should have been by her interpreted as her heart would have had it?
She set her hands upon his shoulders, and meeting his eager gaze with the frank glance of the maid who, out of trust, is fearless in her surrender:
"Throughout my life I shall thank God that you have dared it," she made answer softly.
A strange reply he deemed it, yet, pondering, he took her meaning to be that since Jocelyn had lacked the courage to woo boldly, she was glad that he had sent an ambassador less timid.
A pause followed, and for a spell they sat silent, he thinking of how to frame his next words; she happy and content to sit beside him without speech.
She marvelled somewhat at the strangeness of his wooing, which was like unto no wooing her romancer's tales had told her of, but then she reflected how unlike he was to other men, and therein she saw the explanation.
"I wish," he mused, "that matters were easier; that it might be mine to boldly sue your hand from your father, but it may not be. Even had events not fallen out as they have done, it had been difficult; as it is, it is impossible."
Again his meaning was obscure, and when he spoke of suing for her hand from her father, he did not think of adding that he would have sued it for his son.
"I have no father," she replied. "This very day have I disowned him." And observing the inquiry with which his eyes were of a sudden charged: "Would you have me own a thief, a murderer, my father?" she demanded, with a fierceness of defiant shame.
"You know, then?" he ejaculated.
"Yes," she answered sorrowfully, "I know all there is to be known. I learnt it all this morning. All day have I pondered it in my shame to end in the resolve to leave Sheringham. I had intended going to London to my mother's sister. You are very opportunely come." She smiled up at him through the tears that were glistening in her eyes. "You come even as I was despairing - nay, when already I had despaired."
Sir Crispin was no longer puzzled by the readiness of her acquiescence. Here was the explanation of it. Forced by the honesty of her pure soul to abandon the house of a father she knew at last for what he was, the refuge Crispin now offered her was very welcome. She had determined before he came to quit Castle Marleigh, and timely indeed was his offer of the means of escape from a life that was grown impossible. A great pity filled his heart. She was selling herself, he thought; accepting the proposal which, on his son's behalf, he made, and from which at any other season, he feared, she would have shrunk in detestation.
That pity was reflected on his countenance now, and noting its solemnity, and misconstruing it, she laughed outright, despite herself. He did not ask her why she laughed, he did not notice it; his thoughts were busy already upon another matter.
When next he spoke, it was to describe to her the hollow of the road where on the night of his departure from the castle he had been flung from his horse. She knew the spot, she told him, and there at dusk upon the following day she would come to him. Her woman must accompany her, and for all that he feared such an addition to the party might retard their flight, yet he could not gainsay her resolution. Her uncle, he learnt from her, was absent from Sheringham; he had set out four days ago for London. For her father she would leave a letter, and in this matter Crispin urged her to observe circumspection, giving no indication of the direction of her journey.
In all he said, now that matters were arranged he was calm, practical, and unloverlike, and for all that she would he had been less self-possessed, her faith in him caused her, upon reflection, even to admire this which she conceived to be restraint. Yet, when at parting he did no more than courteously bend before her, and kiss her hand as any simpering gallant might have done, she was all but vexed, and not to be outdone in coldness, she grew frigid. But it was lost upon him. He had not a lover's discernment, quickened by anxious eyes that watch for each flitting change upon his mistress's face.
They parted thus, and into the heart of Mistress Cynthia there crept that night a doubt that banished sleep. Was she wise in entrusting herself so utterly to a man of whom she knew but little, and that learnt from rumours which had not been good? But scarcely was it because of that that doubts assailed her. Rather was it because of his cool deliberateness which argued not the great love wherewith she fain would fancy him inspired.
For consolation she recalled a line that had it great fires were soon burnt out, and she sought to reassure herself that the flame of his love, if not all-consuming, would at least burn bright and steadfastly until the end of life. And so she fell asleep, betwixt hope and fear, yet no longer with any hesitancy touching the morrow's course.
In the morning she took her woman into her confidence, and scared her with it out of what little sense the creature owned. Yet to such purpose did she talk, that when that evening, as Crispin waited by the coach he had taken, in the hollow of the road, he saw approaching him a portly, middle-aged dame with a valise. This was Cynthia's woman, and Cynthia herself was not long in following, muffled in a long, black cloak.
He greeted her warmly - affectionately almost yet with none of the rapture to which she held herself entitled as some little recompense for all that on his behalf she left behind.
Urbanely he handed her into the coach, and, after her, her woman. Then seeing that he made shift to close the door:
"How is this?" she cried. "Do you not ride with us?"
He pointed to a saddled horse standing by the roadside, and which she had not noticed.
"It will be better so. You will be at more comfort in the carriage without me. Moreover, it will travel the lighter and the swifter, and speed will prove our best friend."
He closed the door, and stepped back with a word of command to the driver. The whip cracked, and Cynthia flung herself back almost in a pet. What manner of lover, she asked herself, was thin and what manner of woman she, to let herself be borne away by one who made so little use of the arts and wiles of sweet persuasion? To carry her off, and yet not so much as sit beside her, was worthy only of a man who described such a journey as tedious. She marvelled greatly at it, yet more she marvelled at herself that she did not abandon this mad undertaking.
The coach moved on and the flight from Sheringham was begun.
The Tavern Knight -by- Rafael Sabatini