S O for a little while Myles was disposed to congratulate himself upon having come off so well from his adventure with the Earl. But after a day or two had passed, and he had time for second thought, he began to misdoubt whether, after all, he might not have carried it with a better air if he had shown more chivalrous boldness in the presence of his true lady; whether it would not have redounded more to his credit if he had in some way asserted his rights as the young dame's knight-errant and defender. Was it not ignominious to resign his rights and privileges so easily and tamely at a signal from the Earl?
"For, in sooth," said he to Gascoyne, as the two talked the matter over, "she hath, in a certain way, accepted me for her knight, and yet I stood me there without saying so much as one single word in her behalf."
"Nay," said Gascoyne, "I would not trouble me on that score. Methinks that thou didst come off wondrous well out of the business. I would not have thought it possible that my Lord could ha' been so patient with thee as he showed himself. Methinks, forsooth, he must hold thee privily in right high esteem."
"Truly," said Myles, after a little pause of meditative silence, "I know not of any esteem, yet I do think he was passing patient with me in this matter. But ne'theless, Francis, that changeth not my stand in the case. Yea, I did shamefully, so to resign my lady without speaking one word; nor will I so resign her even yet. I have bethought me much of this matter of late, Francis, and now I come to thee to help me from my evil case. I would have thee act the part of a true friend to me—like that one I have told thee of in the story of the Emperor Justinian. I would have thee, when next thou servest in the house, to so contrive that my Lady Alice shall get a letter which I shall presently write, and wherein I may set all that is crooked straight again."
"Heaven forbid," said Gascoyne, hastily, "that I should be such a fool as to burn my fingers in drawing thy nuts from the fire! Deliver thy letter thyself, good fellow!"
So spoke Gascoyne, yet after all he ended, as he usually did, by yielding to Myles's superior will and persistence. So the letter was written and one day the good-natured Gascoyne carried it with him to the house, and the opportunity offering, gave it to one of the young ladies attendant upon the Countess's family—a lass with whom he had friendly intimacy—to be delivered to Lady Alice.
But if Myles congratulated himself upon the success of this new adventure, it was not for long. That night, as the crowd of pages and squires were making themselves ready for bed, the call came through the uproar for "Myles Falworth! Myles Falworth!"
"Here I be," cried Myles, standing up on his cot. "Who calleth me?"
It was the groom of the Earl's bedchamber, and seeing Myles standing thus raised above the others, he came walking down the length of the room towards him, the wonted hubbub gradually silencing as he advanced and the youngsters turning, staring, and wondering.
"My Lord would speak with thee, Myles Falworth," said the groom, when he had come close enough to where Myles stood. "Busk thee and make ready; he is at livery even now."
The groom's words fell upon Myles like a blow. He stood for a while staring wide-eyed. "My Lord speak with me, sayst thou!" he ejaculated at last.
"Aye," said the other, impatiently; "get thee ready quickly. I must return anon."
Myles's head was in a whirl as he hastily changed his clothes for a better suit, Gascoyne helping him. What could the Earl want with him at this hour? He knew in his heart what it was; the interview could concern nothing but the letter that he had sent to Lady Alice that day. As he followed the groom through the now dark and silent courts, and across the corner of the great quadrangle, and so to the Earl's house, he tried to brace his failing courage to meet the coming interview. Nevertheless, his heart beat tumultuously as he followed the other down the long corridor, lit only by a flaring link set in a wrought-iron bracket. Then his conductor lifted the arras at the door of the bedchamber, whence came the murmuring sound of many voices, and holding it aside, beckoned him to enter, and Myles passed within. At the first, he was conscious of nothing but a crowd of people, and of the brightness of many lighted candles; then he saw that he stood in a great airy room spread with a woven mat of rushes. On three sides the walls were hung with tapestry representing hunting and battle scenes, at the farther end, where the bed stood, the stone wall of the fourth side was covered with cloth of blue, embroidered with silver goshawks. Even now, in the ripe springtime of May, the room was still chilly, and a great fire roared and crackled in the huge gaping mouth of the stone fireplace. Not far from the blaze were clustered the greater part of those present, buzzing in talk, now and then swelled by murmuring laughter. Some of those who knew Myles nodded to him, and two or three spoke to him as he stood waiting, whilst the groom went forward to speak to the Earl; though what they said and what he answered, Myles, in his bewilderment and trepidation, hardly knew.
As was said before, the livery was the last meal of the day, and was taken in bed. It was a simple repast—a manchette, or small loaf of bread of pure white flour, a loaf of household bread, sometimes a lump of cheese, and either a great flagon of ale or of sweet wine, warm and spiced. The Earl was sitting upright in bed, dressed in a furred dressing-gown, and propped up by two cylindrical bolsters of crimson satin. Upon the coverlet, and spread over his knees, was a large wide napkin of linen fringed with silver thread, and on it rested a silver tray containing the bread and some cheese. Two pages and three gentlemen were waiting upon him, and Mad Noll, the jester, stood at the head of the bed, now and then jingling his bawble and passing some quaint jest upon the chance of making his master smile. Upon a table near by were some dozen or so waxen tapers struck upon as many spiked candlesticks of silver-gilt, and illuminating that end of the room with their bright twinkling flames. One of the gentlemen was in the act of serving the Earl with a goblet of wine, poured from a silver ewer by one of the squires, as the groom of the chamber came forward and spoke. The Earl, taking the goblet, turned his head, and as Myles looked, their eyes met. Then the Earl turned away again and raised the cup to his lips, while Myles felt his heart beat more rapidly than ever.
But at last the meal was ended, and the Earl washed his hands and his mouth and his beard from a silver basin of scented water held by another one of the squires. Then, leaning back against the pillows, he beckoned to Myles.
In answer Myles walked forward the length of the room, conscious that all eyes were fixed upon him. The Earl said something, and those who stood near drew back as he came forward. Then Myles found himself standing beside the bed, looking down upon the quilted counterpane, feeling that the other was gazing fixedly at him.
"I sent for thee," said the Earl at last, still looking steadily at him, "because this afternoon came a letter to my hand which thou hadst written to my niece, the Lady Alice. I have it here," said he, thrusting his hand under the bolster, "and have just now finished reading it." Then, after a moment's pause, whilst he opened the parchment and scanned it again, "I find no matter of harm in it, but hereafter write no more such." He spoke entirely without anger, and Myles looked up in wonder. "Here, take it," said the Earl, folding the letter and tossing it to Myles, who instinctively caught it, "and henceforth trouble thou my niece no more either by letter or any other way. I thought haply thou wouldst be at some such saucy trick, and I made Alice promise to let me know when it happed. Now, I say, let this be an end of the matter. Dost thou not know thou mayst injure her by such witless folly as that of meeting her privily, and privily writing to her?"
"I meant no harm," said Myles.
"I believe thee," said the Earl. "That will do now; thou mayst go."
"What wouldst thou say?" said Lord Mackworth.
"Only this," said Myles, "an I have thy leave so to do, that the Lady Alice hath chosen me to be her knight, and so, whether I may see her or speak with her or no, the laws of chivalry give me, who am gentle born, the right to serve her as a true knight may."
"As a true fool may," said the Earl, dryly. "Why, how now, thou art not a knight yet, nor anything but a raw lump of a boy. What rights do the laws of chivalry give thee, sirrah? Thou art a fool!"
Had the Earl been ever so angry, his words would have been less bitter to Myles than his cool, unmoved patience; it mortified his pride and galled it to the quick.
"I know that thou dost hold me in contempt," he mumbled.
"Out upon thee!" said the Earl, testily. "Thou dost tease me beyond patience. I hold thee in contempt, forsooth! Why, look thee, hadst thou been other than thou art, I would have had thee whipped out of my house long since. Thinkest thou I would have borne so patiently with another one of ye squires had such an one held secret meeting with my daughter and niece, and tampered, as thou hast done, with my household, sending through one of my people that letter? Go to; thou art a fool, Myles Falworth!"
Myles stood staring at the Earl without making an effort to speak. The words that he had heard suddenly flashed, as it were, a new light into his mind. In that flash he fully recognized, and for the first time, the strange and wonderful forbearance the great Earl had shown to him, a poor obscure boy. What did it mean? Was Lord Mackworth his secret friend, after all, as Gascoyne had more than once asserted? So Myles stood silent, thinking many things.
Meantime the other lay back upon the cylindrical bolsters, looking thoughtfully at him. "How old art thou?" said he at last.
"Seventeen last April," answered Myles.
"Then thou art old enough to have some of the thoughts of a man, and to lay aside those of a boy. Haply thou hast had foolish things in thy head this short time past; it is time that thou put them away. Harkee, sirrah! the Lady Alice is a great heiress in her own right, and mayst command the best alliance in England—an Earl—a Duke. She groweth apace to a woman, and then her kind lieth in Courts and great houses. As for thee, thou art but a poor lad, penniless and without friends to aid thee to open advancement. Thy father is attainted, and one whisper of where he lieth hid would bring him thence to the Tower, and haply to the block. Besides that, he hath an enemy, as Sir James Lee hath already told thee—an enemy perhaps more great and powerful than myself. That enemy watcheth for thy father and for thee; shouldst thou dare raise thy head or thy fortune ever so little, he would haply crop them both, and that parlously quick. Myles Falworth, how dost thou dare to lift thine eyes to the Lady Alice de Mowbray?"
Poor Myles stood silent and motionless. "Sir," said he at last, in a dry choking voice, "thou art right, and I have been a fool. Sir, I will never raise mine eyes to look upon the Lady Alice more."
"I say not that either, boy," said the Earl; "but ere thou dost so dare, thou must first place thyself and thy family whence ye fell. Till then, as thou art an honest man, trouble her not. Now get thee gone."
As Myles crossed the dark and silent court-yards, and looked up at the clear, still twinkle of the stars, he felt a kind of dull wonder that they and the night and the world should seem so much the same, and he be so different.
The first stroke had been given that was to break in pieces his boyhood life—the second was soon to follow.