IN THE WOODS OF ALTHORPE

IT was after sundown and the light was dim in the great gallery of
Althorpe. Candles were set in silver sconces at intervals down its
whole length of over a hundred feet, but between lay soft shadows,
and the pictured faces of many famous men and women, of sovereigns of
England, statesmen, soldiers, and court beauties, looked down from the
walls on either hand. Holbein and Van Dyke and Lely had wrought upon
these canvases. Here was the famous Duchess of Cleveland, painted by
Lely, and the Countess of Grammont, and yonder was Lady Portsmouth and
Nell Gwynne herself; and in this strange company, the fair, sweet,
coquettish face of Betty Clancarty, lovely as any of the court beauties
and far more lovable and true.

The floor was polished and strewn with splendid rugs; far-off
India, Turkey, Italy, France, and Holland had contributed rugs and
tapestries, paintings, beautiful bric-a-brac and statuary to decorate
the famous gallery of the Spencers, where Anne of Denmark, Queen of
James the First, and the young Prince Charles, the future royal martyr,
saw the Masque of Ben Jonson. Here, too, came doubtless King Charles
the First, he who created Henry Spencer Earl of Sunderland; here, also,
reigned the daughter of the Sidneys, Dorothy, Countess of Sunderland,
the heroine of Waller’s verses and the grandmother of Lady Betty. A
gallery full of memories, where royalty and beauty smiled dimly from
the great canvases, and every footstep woke an echo of the past.

At that sunset hour the place was quiet save for the cawing of the
rooks under the eaves, for they haunted every corner of the house and
congregated in the long avenues that enfiladed the park; yet even the
sound of bird consultations did not disturb the revery of the man
who slowly paced up and down the gallery—a man past middle age with
an inscrutable face, his head a little bowed as he walked, his hands
behind his back, his dress a long gown of black velvet, ruffles of
lace at the throat and over the slender white hands—a strange man,
self-possessed, complacent, smooth, infinitely winning of address, and
one of the most unscrupulous politicians and time-servers of that
time-serving age when William the Third knew not where to look among
his English counsellors for steady faith, when it was no uncommon thing
for a man to swear allegiance both at Westminster and Saint Germain,
and to be an apostate besides. Even in that age of falsehood and double
dealing, Robert, second Earl of Sunderland, excelled his fellows; but
if he excelled them in falsehood, so did he also in discernment, in the
power to read men, and to win them by his polished and smooth address,
the charm of a personality that had won even upon the cold astuteness
of the king himself.

Whatever his thoughts were now, Lord Sunderland’s face was placid, his
perfect mask of serenity immutable, as he walked to and fro, now and
then pausing to look critically at a fine picture, or to take counsel
with himself, and he looked up with a calm smile when the door at the
farther end of the gallery opened and the graceful figure of Lady Betty
came swiftly toward him. He admired his daughter deeply, but subtle
as he was he did not understand her. His standard of womanhood was
different, and he had no ennobling example in his wife; she had been
false to him and he had known it, and had used the services of her
lover to smooth his own way with William of Orange, while he himself
was vowing fealty to James the Second and walking barefoot, taper in
hand, to the chapel royal to be admitted into the Roman communion—a
communion he renounced as easily at a convenient season. This daughter
who had grown up unlike either parent in simplicity and retirement,
this beautiful, spirited, pure-souled creature he did not understand,
but he admired her, and after his own fashion he loved her. On the
other hand, Lady Betty understood him in many ways more thoroughly than
he dreamed; she had a woman’s intuitions, and she did not reverence
him; his subtlety, his falsehood, his smooth affability did not deceive
her; she looked at him with clear eyes, and knew him better than the
wise and watchful sovereign whom he served. But she was his daughter
and she inherited all his charm of manner, his smooth tongue, his easy
address, and he saw it and always smiled upon her.

She came up to him now with a sparkle in her eyes which portended more
than he imagined.

“Are you better, sir?” she asked, with solicitude; “your absence from
table disturbed me. Was it illness or politics?”

“Both, Betty,” replied the earl smiling; “but you missed me not, you
had a younger and a better man in Spencer.”

“Faith, sir, I would rather have a worse one,” retorted Lady Betty,
with a shrug, “such piety and virtue are too much, they overwhelm me.
’Tis a pity that good men are so often bores!”

Sunderland smiled, amusement twinkling in his deep-set eyes.

“I have often found them so, Betty,” he admitted; “but Charles is a
worthy youth, my dear, and his advice, though often somewhat tedious
and long winded, is weighty and merits consideration.”

“It may be so,” replied the countess, with an arch smile; “but upon my
soul, sir, he was so long and loud in braying it at me that I fell to
looking at his ears, expecting to see them start up on either side of
his head and grow long and pointed. He is tedious!” and her ladyship
yawned.

“Brothers often are, Betty,” remarked the earl smiling; “you must
have other and gayer company. In fact, I was but now planning to send
you to Newmarket for the races; Lady Sunderland is there, Spencer is
going, and I go presently. You have lived too much in retirement here;
you must go to Newmarket and hear gayer talk than the discourses of our
young sage.”

“I shall be glad to escape the oracle,” said the countess; but she
glanced searchingly at her father and added quietly, “My retirement
becomes me, sir; I am practically a widow.”

The earl’s expression changed a trifle, but such a trifle that his
daughter made little of it.

“We will not refer to that unhappy contract,” he said smoothly; “it was
an error on my part, Elizabeth, and I assure you I repent it.”

“Has Lord Clancarty written to you, father?” she asked, so abruptly
that Sunderland started, and for an instant his eye faltered under
hers, and he hesitated before he was himself again.

“Never,” he said calmly, closing his silver snuff-box and giving the
lid a friendly little tap.

His momentary confusion, though, was nearly his undoing; his daughter
laid a white hand on his arm.

“He has written you,” she said imperiously, “and lately, too!”

“Upon my word, Elizabeth,” said the earl frowning, “you go too far.”

“I cannot help it,” she cried impetuously. “Have I no rights? Ought it
to be concealed from me and confided to my brother, who only taunts me?
My husband has written you!”

Sunderland had recovered himself now, however, and smiled calmly at her.

“You are too headstrong, my love,” he said smoothly, “too easily
suspicious. If Clancarty wrote, why should I conceal it? As you remark,
he is your husband in the eyes of the law, but your husband in fact he
is not, and trust me, Betty, he is too great a Jacobite to risk himself
in England.”

“But, father, the Peace of Ryswick has brought many back,” she said,
“and we all know—it is notorious how easy King William is—and you,
you could get Clancarty’s pardon a thousand times over, if you would!”

“Hear the child!” said Sunderland, with a gesture of mock despair.
“Why, Betty, ’twas marvellous hard to get my own, and the politicians
hate me so that not even Spencer’s devotion to the Whigs appeases that
party. Clancarty’s pardon!—’twould cost me my liberty and, perhaps, my
head.”

“Nonsense!” pouted Lady Betty; “you are the king’s friend; I will not
believe you. And you might, at least, take thought of me; I am his
wife.”

“O child, child!” laughed Lord Sunderland, “as little his wife as
my Lady Devonshire or the Princess Anne. Married to him, through
your father’s folly, when you were eleven and parted from him on the
instant. What virtue is there in such a contract? Be sure, my love, he
has in no wise respected it—nor will he while I have my daughter safe
with me. Think not of him, Betty! ’Twas my folly, but then he possessed
large estates in Munster and it promised to be a great match; for,
believe me, I had no thought of tying you to a proscribed and penniless
scapegrace.”

“Ay,” said Lady Betty, with spirit, “he was rich and now he is poor;
therefore, my lord, I will not desert him!”

Lord Sunderland laughed, but his eyes did not laugh with him.

“There is no question of desertion, my child,” he said smoothly, “you
are not his wife, and you never shall be.”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” retorted the incorrigible countess, “I am his
wife, and I will be no other man’s.”

“Tush!” replied the earl impatiently, “you know not what you say. Go
to your apartment, Elizabeth, and reflect upon the matter until you
recollect your duty to me. Here comes Spencer now with some visitors,
and I have no more leisure for your childish folly.”

But Lady Betty would not be silenced; as she retired toward the door
opposite the one that was opening to admit the earl’s visitors, she
murmured low but distinctly,—

“I am his wife, my lord, and I will be no less,” and she swept out with
her face aflame and her head high.

She came to the head of the great staircase and stood looking down,
gracefully poised, her finger on her lips; a charming figure, musing
upon destiny, with the soft candle-light shining down upon her stately
young head and her flowing white robes. She began to hum softly to
herself the air of “Roseen Dhu.”

“And one beaming smile from you
Would float like light between
My toils and me, my own, my true,
My dark Rosaleen!
My fond Rosaleen!
Would give me life and soul anew,
A second life, a soul anew!
My dark Rosaleen!”

ALTHORPE, called in Domesday Books “Ollethorp,”—and held before the
Conquest, as the freehold of Tosti and Snorterman,—had been the
home of the Spencers since the days of Henry the Seventh, when one
John Catesby, second son of John Catesby of Legus Ashby, sold it to
John Spencer, Esquire, son of William Spencer of Wormleighton, in
Warwickshire, descended from the younger branch of the Despencers,
anciently Earls of Gloucester and Winchester, and still more remotely
from Ivo, Viscount Constantine, who married Emma, daughter of Alan of
Brittany, before the Conquest—coming, therefore, by blood from one of
the great feudal lords of France.

Althorpe House was built of freestone, in the form of the letter H,
the two long wings joined by a central building in which was the main
entrance facing south. It stood in a beautiful spot, level and well
wooded. The old gatehouse, remnant of the feudal strength of Althorpe,
had once been surrounded by a moat, but that had long since run dry
and was overgrown with turf as smooth as velvet. The long avenues of
elms and beeches and limes ran from it to the very doors of the earl’s
house, and about it lay the park, enfiladed by those avenues of stately
trees, while beyond were the meadows—in the old time it was said
that there were eight acres of meadowland and two of thornwood in one
small portion of the freehold of Ollethorp—and now the great domain
stretched out on every hand, beautified by nature and by art.

It was in the woods of the park that Lady Betty and her attendant,
Alice Lynn, walked on the morning after her interview with her father.
It was too threatening to set out upon the journey to Newmarket,
so they strolled on the outskirts of the earl’s domain. Both girls
were cloaked and hooded and prepared for rain and, indeed, more than
once there was the sharp pattering of drops on the thick foliage
overhead. They did not hasten their steps, for neither of them feared
the elements, and Lady Betty really feared nothing greatly, being a
high-spirited and daring young creature who loved adventure well.
A fresh breeze began to blow, rustling the leaves, and the branches
swayed and creaked above them, a trellis-work of wavering green through
which the gray sky blinked occasionally. To the left was a coppice,
black with shadows; before them, here and there, a wide vista of open
fields showed the grass rippling in a thousand waves; and again the
tree-tops that seemed to touch the long, ragged clouds scudding so
low, heavy with moisture and torn by wind. And the same wind—grown
caressing—tossed the soft locks of Lady Betty’s hair into little curls
about her face under the yellow bird’s-eye hood.

“What have you there, Alice?” she asked, as the girl stooped and peeped
into a patch of grass growing in an opening between the trees.

“’Tis but a four-leafed clover, madam,” Alice replied, pulling it.

Lady Clancarty took it and looked at it with a quizzical eye.

“There is a saying in Devonshire,” she said, “that if you find a
four-leafed clover and an even-leafed ash on the same day you will
surely see your love ere sundown.”

“I have none, my lady,” replied Alice demurely.

Lady Betty laughed with a delicious ripple of merriment.

“You have none, girl?” she said archly. “What a prompt confession! I
grow suspicious, Alice, and see, there is the tell-tale blood creeping
up to your hair. Fie, girl, fie! Where is thy true love, thine own love
now?”

“Indeed, I know not, madam,” replied Alice meekly; “no one ever wooed
me but the parson, and his mouth was so large that it frightened me; it
did open his head like a lid.”

“Mercy on us, girl, ’twas an opening in life for you,” laughed Lady
Betty; “and ’tis said that a large mouth is generous.”

“He was a great eater, madam,” replied the handmaid bluntly.

“Then were you surely meant for him, lass, for you are a famous maker
of pastries, as I know. But tell me, Alice, did ever you have your
fortune told?”

“Nay, ’twas not thought seemly by my aunt,” replied Alice; “I was
reared as strict as any Calvinist.”

“And yet live with a sinner,” said Lady Clancarty with a smile. “I
would inquire my fate, if there be any fortune-teller or sooth-sayer
near. I grow more curious every day, Alice, to know what the end may
be.”

“Ignorance is ofttimes best, my lady,” quietly replied her attendant.

“It may be,” Lady Clancarty said; “but sooth, Alice, ’tis very trying.
I would fain know—I would fathom that dark cloud that hangs upon my
destiny.”

“Dear Lady Betty,” Alice said, “is there indeed a dark cloud upon it?
It seems to my humble vision fair as summer sunshine, and high and
noble.”

The mistress sighed. “Ah, simple maid,” she said, “look not
enviously upon high estate. Light hearted I was born, gay and full of
recklessness, I believe, but happy—ah, Alice, once I was! But now,
my mind keeps turning ever to the thought of one less happy; I have a
home and he—he has none; I have friends—belike, he is friendless. I
have money, a dower cut from his estates in Munster; he is a beggar!
O Alice, it grieves me; I would fain help him; I would fain give him
back my dower; I would—oh, do you not see what I must seem to him?
Heartless, cold, without sense of my duty, a robber and an enemy? I who
am true, I who have only too kind a heart, I who would give my all to
help him—what is the song?

‘Oh, I could kneel all night in prayer,
To heal your many ills!’

Alice, I must know how my husband fares, I—mercy on us, girl, what
ails you?” she cried, for Alice had given a scream of alarm, starting
back from the coppice near at hand.

“There’s some one there!” cried the handmaid, in agitation, “I saw a
man’s boot and spur yonder.”

“Where?” demanded Lady Betty impatiently, “where is your scare-crow,
you little simpleton?”

But before Alice could reply a large man emerged from the beeches and
advanced toward them. He was clad in a long riding coat of dark blue
with deep capes, and his high boots were splashed with mud. As he
approached he lifted his wide-brimmed, beplumed hat, uncovering a head
which was striking in contour. His face was of a bold and handsome type
and his dark gray eyes were keen; he wore the full, long periwig of the
prevailing fashion and a flowing cravat of Flemish lace.

“A likely bugbear, my girl,” whispered Lady Betty roguishly, pinching
Alice’s arm, but turning an innocent face upon the stranger.

“I crave pardon,” he said, with an easy salutation, “I have lost my
way; will you direct me to Northampton?”

“The town lies five miles from us, sir,” replied Lady Betty, “and the
tavern of the King’s Arms is upon the high street.”

“I thank you,” he replied courteously, but with no apparent desire
to depart, and gazed at Lady Clancarty with an open admiration that
offended Alice, who plucked at her mistress’ sleeve.

“Will you tell me what place this is?” he added, pointing at Althorpe
House.

“It belongs to our master, the Earl of Sunderland,” replied Lady Betty,
affecting the pert air of a waiting-maid; “’tis a fine place, sir, with
a gallery full of pictures and another full of books and books and
books! Dear me, sir, a sight of ’em! Your worship should go and look at
’em; ’tis a very hospitable house, too, and strangers are made welcome.”

“Indeed,” he said, with a smile, “I would be glad to avail myself of
the opportunity—at another season. And you, my pretty maids, are the
keeper’s daughters?”

“Faith, yes, sir,” said Lady Clancarty, dropping a courtesy, “we’re
twins.”

“By Saint Patrick, you are strangely untwinlike!” remarked the stranger
frankly; “never saw I two birds from one nest with less resemblance;
one a pigeon and the other—”

“What, your honor?” demanded Lady Betty roguishly, while Alice plucked
at her skirts in genuine confusion and fear.

“A bird of Paradise,” said he gallantly, kissing the tips of his
fingers to her.

Lady Betty hung her head, simpering like the veriest country girl.

“Faith, sir,” she said, fingering her kerchief, “I don’t know what that
is. Is it poultry?”

“It has wings, my dear,” he replied smiling, “but, in this case, they
are only figurative.”

“La, sir!” cried Lady Betty, “what’s that? It sounds like something
strange.”

“It’s a figure of speech, my girl,” he replied, a daring smile in his
gray eyes as he drew a step nearer and Betty retreated a step, partly
drawn by Alice; “but eyes like stars and cheeks like roses do not
belong to the barnyard.”

Her ladyship, suspecting that she had betrayed herself, bridled a
little, but her love of mischief kept her from flight.

“Faith!” she said, looking down, “you fine gentlemen talk so finely
that a poor maid cannot follow you. Go to the tavern, sir, and there
your worship will find a listener after your own heart, for they do
say that saucy Polly can talk up to Lord Spencer himself, and he’s the
most learned man in England, sir; and, indeed, I do believe that all
the others that ever knew half as much died of it immediately and were
buried! Go to the tavern, sir, and good cheer to you and good by,” and
her ladyship dropped another awkward courtesy.

“Here, lass, a kiss and a crown for your pains,” said the stranger,
making a sudden attempt to catch her by the arm.

But Lady Betty danced off as light as a feather, laughing roguishly
under her hood.

“Nay, sir,” she said wickedly, “girls do not kiss strangers in this
country if they do—in France!”

“Confound the witch!” ejaculated the traveller, with a start of
surprise. “Pshaw! ’twas my French coin she saw,” he added, and smiled
as he watched the two girlish figures flying through the trees.

Meanwhile Lady Betty was laughing and Alice remonstrating.

“Oh, my lady, how could you?” she said; “he might recognize you, he
might have kissed you!”

“So he might!” admitted Lady Clancarty gleefully, “and how handsome he
is! Did you mark him, Alice, is he not handsome?”

“Nay, madam,” said the discreet handmaid, still shocked and frightened,
“that I know not, but he was overbold in staring at your ladyship.”

“Did he so?” asked Lady Betty pensively, blushing in a tell-tale
fashion; “I noted it not; but was he not tall and strong and finely
framed, Alice, with a bonny gray eye?”

“Oh, comely enough in appearance, my lady, but bold and with a reckless
air; I trembled lest he should insult you.”

“Pooh, pooh, girl, you would love a milksop!” said Lady Betty
petulantly; “he has the very eye and front of a soldier. I’ll wager he
is some gallant who can strike a good blow for his sweetheart. What
fun would there be in life without a harmless jest? He took me for a
waiting-woman.”

“That he did not!” cried Alice, “he knew you, take my word for it, and
he would have kissed you, the daring wretch!”

The handmaid shuddered at the thought and the mistress laughed at her
perturbation, laughed with sweet gayety, her mirth rippling in low,
joyous notes.

“You have no eye for a fine man, Alice,” she said blithely; “you little
prude, do you think I would have let him? Nay, then do you not know me;
but ’twas rare fun to see the dare-devil in those gray eyes of his. He
has French gold, too, and mercy, how startled he was at my haphazard
shot. ’Tis some Jacobite, and there are fierce Whigs at Northampton!
Lackaday, the poor gentleman may come into trouble, I must warn him.”

“My lady, my lady,” protested Alice, and then stood aghast. “The saints
help us,” she murmured, “there she runs after that bold gallant, like a
village lass, and if the earl should see her!”

But generous-hearted Lady Clancarty thought of neither Alice nor the
earl. Light of foot as any fawn, she flew over the green after the
stranger’s retreating figure, for he had turned in another direction
and was leading a black horse by the bridle. The swift run and the
excitement of the moment brought the blood to Betty’s cheeks, and she
panted for breath when she overtook him.

He turned with a smile. “What, lass,” he said gayly, “hast come for
your kiss?”

Lady Clancarty gasped and grew crimson with shame; then drawing herself
up to her full height, she flashed at him a look of withering scorn.

“You mistake, sir,” she said haughtily, “you are addressing Lady
Clancarty.”

He took off his hat and the long plumes swept the ground at her feet as
he made her a profound obeisance.

“I beseech your ladyship’s pardon,” he said, graceful and gracious—but
not one whit abashed, “my eyes were dazzled—else they would have made
no such mistake.”

But Betty would not be appeased; like a child who has been naughty and
repented, she tried to appear as if it had not been. She was cold and
haughty.

“Sir, I would merely warn you to be less careless of your French gold
at Northampton,” she said; “we do not love St. Germain here,” and with
a courtesy as low as his bow she left him.

Left him staring after her with a glow in his gray eyes.

* * * * *

Alice Lynn usually slept in a little anteroom of Lady Betty’s
bedchamber, and that night as she lay abed she was awakened suddenly.
The room was full of moonlight, and in it stood Lady Betty in her
night-rail,—a charming figure, with softly dishevelled hair about her
shoulders, and eyes that seemed to sparkle in the pale duskiness of her
face. The tirewoman started up in alarm.

“My lady, oh, my lady!” she cried, “are you ill? Has aught happened?”

“Hush, no, no!” whispered Lady Betty, with a soft little laugh; “but,
Alice, didn’t you notice that he said ‘by Saint Patrick’?”

“He! Who?” groaned poor Alice sleepily.

“The stranger, little goose!”

“Nay, madam,” said the poor handmaid; “I noticed naught but his bold
eyes; I was afraid of him.”

“Nonsense!” Lady Betty exclaimed with a gesture of impatience; and she
tripped lightly to the window and stood looking out over the moonlit
park.

Alice yawned, drawing herself together on the edge of her bed in a
crumpled attitude, one pink foot swinging near the floor; she was
fairly nodding with sleep. Not so her mistress. Lady Betty brushed the
soft hair from her face and stood in the moonlight a lovely figure,
half revealed and half concealed by thin white draperies.

“I wonder,” she said musingly, “if—if Clancarty looks at all like this
man?”

“I cannot tell, madam,” replied Alice demurely; “but it may be so.”

“You rogue!” laughed her mistress, “you would insinuate that two rakes
may well resemble each other! Ah, Alice, he is my husband, mind you
that, and a woman’s husband is not as other men.”

“You know him not at all, my lady,” yawned Alice, rubbing her eyes,
“and if he’s like some—”

“Fudge, my girl, what do you know of husbands?” said Betty gayly; “I
believe you have never even glanced out of the tail of that blue eye of
yours at any bold gallant yet.”

The handmaid sighed sleepily.

“’Tis better so, my lady,” she said meekly.

“The parson not excepted!” laughed Lady Betty, dancing back lightly
over the floor and pinching the girl’s cheek as she passed.

“Oh! that my hero had his throne,
That Erin’s cloud of war were flown,
That proudest prince would own his sway
Over the hills and far away!”

sang my lady, taking dancing steps as she tripped toward her own door;
she was full of gayety, incorrigible and delightful as ever, though
the great clock on the stairs was striking twelve. But Alice sighed
drearily, and her mistress heard her.

“Poor lass!” she laughed, “go to sleep; I am a heartless wretch,” and
she ran off laughing to her room, and Alice sank on her pillows again
with a sigh of despair.

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