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- Via Crucis - 2/55 -

bad, as she found in her path, especially and notably the heart of Arnold de Curboil, a widowed knight, cousin to that Archbishop of Canterbury who had crowned Stephen king, after swearing allegiance to Maud. This Arnold, who had followed his great cousin in supporting King Stephen's cause, had received for his service broad lands, both farm and forest, in Hertfordshire, bordering upon the hereditary estates of the Wardes; and in the turmoil and chaos of the long civil war, his word, at first without Raymond's knowledge, had more than once saved the latter's little castle from siege and probable destruction. Warde, in his loyalty to the rightful sovereign, had, indeed, rather drawn back from the newcomer's friendship than made advances to win it; but Raymond had yielded in the end to his wife's sarcasms and to his own sense of obligation, as he began to find out how, again and again, in the turning tides of civil strife, his neighbour, though of opposite conviction, served him by protecting his bondsmen, his neat cattle, and his growing crops from pillage and destruction. Raymond did not trace such acts of neighbourly kindness to the day when, hawking with his lady and little Gilbert, then hardly big enough to sit upon a horse, they had been overtaken by a winter storm not far from Arnold's lands, and when Arnold himself, returning from a journey, had bidden them take shelter in a small outlying manor house, where he was to spend the night, and whither his servants had brought his little daughter Beatrix to meet her father. Raymond had accepted the offer for his wife's sake, and the two families had made acquaintance on that evening, by the blazing fire in the little hall.

Before supper, the men had talked together with that sort of cheery confidence which exists almost before the first meeting between men who are neighbours and of the same rank, and the Lady Goda had put in a word now and then, as she sat in the high-backed chair, drying the bright blue cloth skirt of her gown before the crackling logs; and meanwhile, too, young Gilbert, who had his mother's hair and his father's deep-set eyes, walked round and round the solemn little dark- faced girl, who sat upon a settle by herself, clad in a green cloth dress which was cut in the fashion for grown-up women, and having two short stiff plaits of black hair hanging down behind the small coverchief that was tied under her fat chin. And as the boy in his scarlet doublet and green cloth hose walked backward and forward, stopping, moving away, then standing still to show off his small hunting-knife, drawing it half out of its sheath, and driving it home again with a smart push of the palm of his hand, the little girl's round black eyes followed all his movements with silent and grave curiosity. She was brotherless, he had no sisters, and both had been brought up without companions, so that each was an absolute novelty to the other; and when Gilbert threw his round cap, spinning on itself, up to the brown rafters of the dim fire-lit chamber and caught it upon one finger as it came down again, the little Beatrix laughed aloud. This seemed to him nothing less than an invitation, and he immediately sat down beside her on the settle, holding his cap in his hand, and began to ask her how she was called, and whether she lived in that place all the year round; and before long they were good friends, and were talking of plovers' eggs and kingfishers' nests, and of the time when they should each have a hawk of their own, and a horse, and each a hound and a footman.

When supper was over and a serving-woman had taken the little Beatrix away to sleep in the women's upper chamber, and when the steward of the manor farm, and his wife and the retainers and servants, who had eaten and drunk their fill at the lower end of the hall, were all gone to their quarters in the outbuildings,--and when a bed had been made for Gilbert, in a corner near the great chimney-piece, by filling with fresh straw a large linen sack which was laid upon the chest in which the bag was kept during the daytime, and was then covered with a fine Holland sheet and two thick woollen blankets, under which the boy was asleep in five minutes,--then the two knights and the lady were left to themselves in their great carved chairs before the fire. But the Lord of Stoke, who was a strong man and heavy, and had eaten well and had drunk both ale and Gascony wine at supper, stretched out his feet to the fire-dogs, and rested his elbows upon the arms of his chair, and matched his hands together by the thumbs and by the forefingers, and by the other fingers, one by one; and little by little the musical, false voice of his lady, and the singularly gentle and unctuous tones of his host, Arnold de Curboil, blended together and lost themselves, just as the gates of dreamland softly closed behind him.

The Lady Goda, who had been far too tired to think of riding home that night, was not in the least sleepy, and, moreover, she was profoundly interested in what Sir Arnold had to say, while he was much too witty to say anything which should not interest her. He talked of the court, and of the fashions, and of great people whom he knew intimately and whom the Lady Goda longed to know; and from time to time he managed to convey to her the idea that the beauties of King Stephen's court would stand in a poor comparison with her, if her husband could be induced to give up his old-fashioned prejudices and his allegiance to the Empress Maud. Lady Goda had once been presented to the Empress, who had paid very little attention to her, compared with the interest she showed in Sir Raymond himself. At the feast which had followed the formal audience, she had been placed between a stout German widow lady and an Italian abbot from Normandy, who had talked to each other across her, in dog-Latin, in a way which had seemed to her very unmannerly; and the German lady had eaten pieces of game-pie with her knife, instead of using her fingers, as a lady should, before forks were invented. On the following morning the Lady Goda had been taken away again by her husband, and her experiences of court life had been brought to an abrupt close. If the great Earl Robert of Gloucester had deigned to bestow a word upon her, instead of looking through her with his beautiful calm blue eyes at an imaginary landscape beyond, her impressions of life at the Empress's court might have been very different, and she might ever afterwards have approved her husband's loyalty. But although she had bestowed unusual pains upon the arrangement of her splendid golden hair, and had boxed the ears of a clumsy tirewoman with so much vivacity that her own hand ached perceptibly three hours afterwards, yet the great earl paid no more attention to her than if she had been a Saxon dairy-maid. These things, combined with the fact that she unexpectedly found the ladies of the Empress's court wearing pocket sleeves, shaped like overgrown mandolins, and almost dragging on the rushes as they walked, whereas her own were of the old-fashioned open cut, had filled her soul with bitterness against the legitimate heir to King Henry's throne and had made the one-sided barrier between herself and her husband--which she could see so plainly, but which was quite invisible to him--finally and utterly impassable. He not only bored her himself, but he had given her over to be bored by others, and from that day no such thing as even the mildest affection for him was to be thought of on her side.

It was no wonder that she listened with breathless interest to all Sir Arnold told her, and watched with delight the changing expression of his smooth face, contrasted at every point with the bold, grave features of the Lord of Stoke, solemnly asleep beside her. And Curboil, on his side, was not only flattered, as every man is when a beautiful woman listens to him long and intently, but he saw also that her beauty was of an unusual and very striking kind. Too straight, too cold, too much like marble, yet with hair almost too golden and a mouth like a small red wound; too much of every quality to be natural, and yet without fault or flaw, and too vivid not to delight the tired taste of the man of pleasure of that day, who had seen the world from London to Rome and from Rome to the imperial court of Henry the Fifth.

And she, on her side, saw in him the type to which she would naturally have been attracted had she been perfectly free to make her choice of a husband. Contrasted with the man of action, of few words, of few feelings and strong ones, she saw the many-sided man of the world, whose mere versatility was a charm, and the thought of whose manifold experiences had in it a sort of mysterious fascination. Arnold de Curboil was above all a man of tact and light touch, accustomed to the society of women and skilled in the art of appealing to that unsatisfied vanity which is the basis of most imperfect feminine characters. There was nothing weak about him, and he was at least as brave as most men, besides being more skilful than the majority in the use of weapons. His small, well-shaped, olive-tinted hand could drive a sword with a quicker thrust than Raymond Warde's, and with as sure an aim, though there might not be the same massive strength behind it. In the saddle he had not the terrible grip of the knee which could make a strong horse shrink and quiver and groan aloud; but few riders of his day were more profoundly skilled in the art of showing a poor mount to good advantage, and of teaching a good one to use his own powers to the utmost. When Warde had ridden a horse six months, the beast was generally gone in the fore quarters, and broken-winded, if not dead outright; but in the same time Curboil would have ridden the same horse twice as far, and would have doubled his value. And so in many other ways, with equal chances, the one seemed to squander where the other turned everything to his own advantage. Standing Sir Arnold was scarcely of medium height, but seated, he was not noticeably small; and, like many men of short stature, he bestowed a constant and thoughtful care upon his person and appearance, which resulted in a sort of permanent compensation. His dark beard was cut to a point, and so carefully trimmed as to remind one of those smoothly clipped trees representing peacocks and dragons, which have been the delight of the Italian gardener ever since the days of Pliny. He wore his hair neither long nor short, but the silky locks were carefully parted in the middle and smoothed back in rich dark waves. There was something almost irritating in their unnatural smoothness, in the perfect transparency of the man's healthy olive complexion, in the mouselike sleekness of his long arching eyebrows, and in the perfect self-satisfaction and confidence of his rather insolent reddish-brown eyes. His straight round throat, well proportioned, well set upon his shoulders, and transparently smooth as his own forehead, was thrown into relief by the exquisite gold embroidery that edged the shirt of finest Flemish linen. He wore a close-fitting tunic of fine scarlet cloth, with tight sleeves slightly turned back to display his shapely wrists; it was gathered to his waist by a splendid sword-belt, made of linked and enamelled plates of silver, the work of a skilled Byzantine artist, each plate representing in rich colours a little scene from the life and passion of Christ. The straight cross-hilted sword stood leaning against the wall near the great chimney-piece, but the dagger was still at the belt, a marvel of workmanship, a wonder of temper, a triumph of Eastern art, when almost all art was Eastern. The hilt of solid gold, eight- sided and notched, was cross-chiselled in a delicate but deep design, picked out with rough gems, set with cunning irregularity; the guard, a hollowed disk of steel, graven and inlaid in gold with Kufic characters; the blade, as long as a man's arm from the elbow to the wrist-joint, forged of steel and silver by a smith of Damascus, well balanced, slender, with deep blood-channels scored on each side to within four fingers of the thrice-hardened point, that could prick as delicately as a needle or pierce fine mail like a spike driven by a sledge-hammer. The tunic fell in folds to the knee, and the close- fitted cloth hose were of a rich dark brown. Sir Arnold wore short riding-boots of dark purple leather, having the tops worked round with a fine scarlet lacing; but the spur-leathers were of the same colour as the boot and the spurs themselves of steel, small, sharp, unornamented, and workmanlike.

Six years had passed since that evening, and still, when the Lady Goda closed her eyes and thought of Sir Arnold, she saw him as she had seen him then, with every line of his expression, every detail of his dress, sitting beside her in the warm firelight, leaning forward a little in his chair, and talking to her in a tone of voice that was meant to be monotonous to the sleeper's ear, but not by any means to her own. Between Warde and Curboil the acquaintance had matured--had been in a measure forced in its growth by circumstances and mutual obligations;

Via Crucis - 2/55

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