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- OF THE CAGED LION - 20/59 -
'Ah! but the people will give it; and our Holy Father the Pope, he will put thee into the canon of saints. Only pity that I cannot live to hear of Ste. Esclairmonde--nay, but then I must overlive thee, mind I should not love that.'
'Oh, silence, silence, child; these are no thoughts to begin a work with. Little flatterer, it may be well for me that our lives must needs lie so far apart that I shall not oft hear that fond silly tongue.'
'Nay,' said Alice, in the luxury, not of castle-building but of convent-building; 'it may be that when that knight over there sees me so small and ill-favoured he will none of me, and then I'll thank him so, and pray my father to let him have all my lands and houses except just enough to dower me to follow thee with, dear Lady Prioress.'
But here Alice was summarily silenced. Such talk, both priest and votaress told her, was not meet for dutiful daughter or betrothed maiden. Her lot was fixed, and she must do her duty therein as the good wife and lady of the castle, the noble English matron; and as she looked half disposed to pout, Esclairmonde drew such a picture of the beneficent influence of the good baronial dame, ruling her castle, bringing up her children and the daughters of her vassals in good and pious nurture, making 'the heart of her husband safely trust in her,' benefiting the poor, and fostering holy men, wayfarers, and pilgrims, that the girl's eyes filled within tears as she looked up and said, 'Ah! lady, this is the life fitted for thee, who can paint it so well. Why have I not a brother, that you might be Countess of Salisbury, and I a poor little sister in a nunnery?'
Esclairmonde shook her head. 'Silly child, petite niaise, our lots were fixed by other hands than ours. We will strive each to serve our God, in the coif or in the veil, in samite or in serge, and He will only ask which of us has been most faithful, not whether we have lived in castle or in cloister.'
Little had Esclairmonde expected to hear the greeting with which the Countess received her, breaking out into peals of merriment as she told her of the choice destiny in store for her, to be wedded to the little lame Scot, pretending to read her a grave lecture on the consequences of the advances she had made to him.
Esclairmonde was not put out of countenance; in fact, she did not think the Countess in earnest, and merely replied with a smile that at least there was less harm in Lord Malcolm than in the suitors at home.
Jaqueline clapped her hands and cried, 'Good tidings, Clairette. I'll never forgive you if you make me lose my emerald carcanet! So the arrow was winged, after all. She prefers him--her heart is touched by the dainty step.'
'Madame!' entreated Esclairmonde, with agitation; 'at least, infirmity should be spared.'
'It touches her deeply!' exclaimed the Duchess. 'Ah! to see her in the mountains teaching the wild men to say their Aye, and to wear culottes, the little prince interpreting for her, as King James told us in his story of the saint his ancestor.'
Raillery about Malcolm had been attempted before, but never so pertinaciously; and Esclairmonde heeded it not at all, till James himself sought her out, and, within all his own persuasive grace, told her that he was rejoiced to hear from Madame of Hainault that she had spoken kindly of his youthful kinsman, for whose improvement he was sure he had in great measure to thank her.
Esclairmonde replied composedly, but as one on her guard, that the Sieur de Glenuskie was a gentle and a holy youth, of a good and toward wit.
'As I saw from the first,' said James, 'when I brought him away from being crushed among our rude cousins; but, lady, I knew not how the task of training the boy would be taken out of my hands by your kindness; and now, pardon me, lady, only one thing is wanting to complete your work, and that is hope.'
'Hope is always before a holy man, Sir.'
'O, madame! but we peer earthly beings require an earthly hope, nearer home, to brace our hearts, and nerve our arms.'
'I thought the Sieur de Glenuskie was destined to a religious life.'
'Never by any save his enemies, lady. The Regent Albany and his fierce sons have striven to scare Malcolm into a cloister, that his sister and his lands may be their prey; and they would have succeeded had not I come to Scotland in time. The lad never had any true vocation.'
'That may be,' said Esclairmonde, somewhat sorrowfully.
'Still,' added James, 'he is of a thoughtful and somewhat tender mould, and the rudeness of life will try him sorely unless he have some cheering star, some light of love, to bear him up and guide him on his way.'
'If so, may he find a worthy one.'
'Lady, it is too late to talk of what he may find. The brightness that has done so much for him already will hinder him from turning his eyes elsewhere.'
'You are a minstrel, Sir King, and therefore these words of light romance fall from your lips.'
'Nay, lady, hitherto my romance has been earnest. It rests with you to make Malcolm's the same.'
'Not so, Sir. That has long been out of my hands.'
'Madame, you might well shrink from what it was as insult to you to propose; but have you never thought of the blessings you might confer in the secular life, with one who would be no hindrance, but a help?'
'No, Sir, for no blessings, but curses, would follow a breach of dedication.'
'Lady, I will not press you with what divines have decided respecting such dedication. Any scruples could be removed by the Holy Father at Rome, and, though I will speak no further, I will trust to your considering the matter. You have never viewed it in any light save that of a refuge from wedlock with one to whom I trust you would prefer my gentle cousin.'
'It were a poor compliment to Lord Malcolm to name him in the same day with Sir Boemond of Burgundy,' said Esclairmonde; 'but, as I said, it is not the person that withholds me, but the fact that I am not free.'
'I do not ask you to love or accept the poor boy as yet,' said James; 'I leave that for the time when I shall bring him back to you, with the qualities grown which you have awakened. At least, I can bear him the tidings that it is not your feelings, but your scruples that are against him.'
'Sir King,' said Esclairmonde, gravely, 'I question not your judgment in turning your kinsman and subject to the secular life; but if you lead him by false hopes, of which I am the object, I tell you plainly that you are deluding him; and if any evil come thereof, be it on your own head.'
She moved away, with a bend of her graceful neck, and James stood with a slight smile curving his lip. 'By my troth,' he said to himself, 'a lordly lady! She knows her own vocation. She is one to command scores of holy maids, and have all the abbots and priors round at her beck, instead of one poor man. Rather Malcolm than I! But he is the very stuff that loves to have such a woman to rule him; and if she wed at all, he is the very man for her! I'll not give it up! Love is the way to make a man of him, whether successful or not, and she may change her mind, since she is not yet on the roll of saints. If I could get a word with her father confessor, and show him how much it would be for the interest of the Church in Scotland to get such a woman there, it would be the surest way of coming at her. Were she once in Scotland, my pretty one would have a stay and helper! But all must rest till after the campaign.'
James therefore told Malcolm so much as that he had spoken to his lady-love for him, and that she had avowed that it was not himself, but her own vows, that was the obstacle.
Malcolm crimsoned with joy as well as confusion; and the King proceeded: 'For the vows'--he shrugged his shoulders--'we knew there is a remedy! Meantime, Malcolm, be you a man, win your spurs, and show yourself worth overcoming something for!'
Malcolm smiled and brightened, holding his head high and joyously, and handling his sword. Then came the misgiving--'But Lilias, Sir, and Patrick Drummond.'
'We will provide for them, boy. You know Drummond is bent on carving his own fortune rather than taking yours, and that your sister only longs to see you a gallant knight.'
It was true, but Malcolm sighed.
'You have not spoken to the lady yourself?' asked the King.
'No, Sir. Oh, how can I?' faltered Malcolm, shamefaced and frightened.
James laughed. 'Let that be as the mood takes you, or occasion serves,' he said, wondering whether the lad's almost abject awkwardness and shame would be likely to create the pity akin to love or to contempt, and deciding that it must be left to chance.
Nor did Malcolm find boldness enough to do more than haunt Esclairmonde's steps, trembling if she glanced towards him, and almost shrinking from her gaze. He had now no doubts about going on the campaign, and was in full course of being prepared with equipments, horses, armour, and attendants, as became a young prince attending on his sovereign as an adventurer in the camp. It was not even worth while to name such scruples to the English friar who shrived him on the last day before the departure, and who knew nothing of his past history. He knew all priests would say the same things, and as he had never made a binding vow, he saw no need of consulting any one on the subject; it would only vex him again, and fill him with doubts. The suspicion that Dr. Bennet was aware of his previous intention made him shrink from him. So the last day had
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