An Unexpected Encounter
A S was said, perhaps a month passed; then Myles's visits came to an abrupt termination, and with it ended, in a certain sense, a chapter of his life.
One Saturday afternoon he climbed the garden wall, and skirting behind a long row of rosebushes that screened him from the Countess's terrace, came to a little summer-house where the two young ladies had appointed to meet him that day.
A pleasant half-hour or so was passed, and then it was time for Myles to go. He lingered for a while before he took his final leave, leaning against the door-post, and laughingly telling how he and some of his brother squires had made a figure of straw dressed in men's clothes, and had played a trick with it one night upon a watchman against whom they bore a grudge.
The young ladies were listening with laughing faces, when suddenly, as Myles looked, he saw the smile vanish from Lady Alice's eyes and a wide terror take its place. She gave a half-articulate cry, and rose abruptly from the bench upon which she was sitting.
Myles turned sharply, and then his very heart seemed to stand still within him; for there, standing in the broad sunlight without, and glaring in upon the party with baleful eyes, was the Earl of Mackworth himself.
How long was the breathless silence that followed, Myles could never tell. He knew that the Lady Anne had also risen, and that she and her cousin were standing as still as statues. Presently the Earl pointed to the house with his staff, and Myles noted stupidly how it trembled in his hand.
"Ye wenches," said he at last, in a hard, harsh voice—"ye wenches, what meaneth this? Would ye deceive me so, and hold parlance thus secretly with this fellow? I will settle with him anon. Meantime get ye straightway to the house and to your rooms, and there abide until I give ye leave to come forth again. Go, I say!"
"Father," said Lady Anne, in a breathless voice—she was as white as death, and moistened her lips with her tongue before she spoke—"father, thou wilt not do harm to this young man. Spare him, I do beseech thee, for truly it was I who bade him come hither. I know that he would not have come but at our bidding."
The Earl stamped his foot upon the gravel. "Did ye not hear me?" said he, still pointing towards the house with his trembling staff. "I bade ye go to your rooms. I will settle with this fellow, I say, as I deem fitting."
"Father," began Lady Anne again; but the Earl made such a savage gesture that poor Lady Alice uttered a faint shriek, and Lady Anne stopped abruptly, trembling. Then she turned and passed out the farther door of the summer-house, poor little Lady Alice following, holding her tight by the skirts, and trembling and shuddering as though with a fit of the ague.
The Earl stood looking grimly after them from under his shaggy eyebrows, until they passed away behind the yew-trees, appeared again upon the terrace behind, entered the open doors of the women's house, and were gone. Myles heard their footsteps growing fainter and fainter, but he never raised his eyes. Upon the ground at his feet were four pebbles, and he noticed how they almost made a square, and would do so if he pushed one of them with his toe, and then it seemed strange to him that he should think of such a little foolish thing at that dreadful time.
He knew that the Earl was looking gloomily at him, and that his face must be very pale. Suddenly Lord Mackworth spoke. "What hast thou to say?" said he, harshly.
Then Myles raised his eyes, and the Earl smiled grimly as he looked his victim over. "I have naught to say," said the lad, huskily.
"Didst thou not hear what my daughter spake but now?" said the Earl. "She said that thou came not of thy own free-will; what sayst thou to that, sirrah—is it true?"
Myles hesitated for a moment or two; his throat was tight and dry. "Nay," said he at last, "she belieth herself. It was I who first came into the garden. I fell by chance from the tree yonder—I was seeking a ball—then I asked those two if I might not come hither again, and so have done some several times in all. But as for her—nay; it was not at her bidding that I came, but through mine own asking."
The Earl gave a little grunt in his throat. "And how often hast thou been here?" said he, presently.
Myles thought a moment or two. "This maketh the seventh time," said he.
Another pause of silence followed, and Myles began to pluck up some heart that maybe all would yet be well. The Earl's next speech dashed that hope into a thousand fragments. "Well thou knowest," said he, "that it is forbid for any to come here. Well thou knowest that twice have men been punished for this thing that thou hast done, and yet thou camest in spite of all. Now dost thou know what thou wilt suffer?"
Myles picked with nervous fingers at a crack in the oaken post against which he leaned. "Mayhap thou wilt kill me," said he at last, in a dull, choking voice.
Again the Earl smiled a grim smile. "Nay," said he, "I would not slay thee, for thou hast gentle blood. But what sayest thou should I shear thine ears from thine head, or perchance have thee scourged in the great court?"
The sting of the words sent the blood flying back to Myles's face again, and he looked quickly up. "Nay," said he, with a boldness that surprised himself; "thou shalt do no such unlordly thing upon me as that. I be thy peer, sir, in blood; and though thou mayst kill me, thou hast no right to shame me."
Lord Mackworth bowed with a mocking courtesy. "Marry!" said he. "Methought it was one of mine own saucy popinjay squires that I caught sneaking here and talking to those two foolish young lasses, and lo! it is a young Lord—or mayhap thou art a young Prince—and commandeth me that I shall not do this and I shall not do that. I crave your Lordship's honorable pardon, if I have said aught that may have galled you."
The fear Myles had felt was now beginning to dissolve in rising wrath. "Nay," said he, stoutly, "I be no Lord and I be no Prince, but I be as good as thou. For am I not the son of thy onetime very true comrade and thy kinsman—to wit, the Lord Falworth, whom, as thou knowest, is poor and broken, and blind, and helpless, and outlawed, and banned? Yet," cried he, grinding his teeth, as the thought of it all rushed in upon him, "I would rather be in his place than in yours; for though he be ruined, you—"
He had just sense enough to stop there.
The Earl, gripping his staff behind his back, and with his head a little bent, was looking keenly at the lad from under his shaggy gray brows. "Well," said he, as Myles stopped, "thou hast gone too far now to draw back. Say thy say to the end. Why wouldst thou rather be in thy father's stead than in mine?"
Myles did not answer.
"Thou shalt finish thy speech, or else show thyself a coward. Though thy father is ruined, thou didst say I am—what?"
Myles keyed himself up to the effort, and then blurted out, "Thou art attainted with shame."
A long breathless silence followed.
"Myles Falworth," said the Earl at last (and even in the whirling of his wits Myles wondered that he had the name so pat)—"Myles Falworth, of all the bold, mad, hare-brained fools, thou art the most foolish. How dost thou dare say such words to me? Dost thou not know that thou makest thy coming punishment ten times more bitter by such a speech?"
"Aye!" cried Myles, desperately; "but what else could I do? An I did not say the words, thou callest me coward, and coward I am not."
"By 'r Lady!" said the Earl, "I do believe thee. Thou art a bold, impudent varlet as ever lived—to beard me so, forsooth! Hark'ee; thou sayst I think naught of mine old comrade. I will show thee that thou dost belie me. I will suffer what thou hast said to me for his sake, and for his sake will forgive thee thy coming hither—which I would not do in another case to any other man. Now get thee gone straightway, and come hither no more. Yonder is the postern-gate; mayhap thou knowest the way. But stay! How camest thou hither?"
Myles told him of the spikes he had driven in the wall, and the Earl listened, stroking his beard. When the lad had ended, he fixed a sharp look upon him. "But thou drove not those spikes alone," said he; "who helped thee do it?"
"That I may not tell," said Myles, firmly.
"So be it," said the Earl. "I will not ask thee to tell his name. Now get thee gone! And as for those spikes, thou mayst e'en knock them out of the wall, sin thou drave them in. Play no more pranks an thou wouldst keep thy skin whole. And now go, I say!"
Myles needed no further bidding, but turned and left the Earl without another word. As he went out the postern-gate he looked over his shoulder, and saw the tall figure, in its long fur-trimmed gown, still standing in the middle of the path, looking after him from under the shaggy eyebrows.
As he ran across the quadrangle, his heart still fluttering in his breast, he muttered to himself, "The old grizzle-beard; an I had not faced him a bold front, mayhap he would have put such shame upon me as he said. I wonder why he stood so staring after me as I left the garden."
Then for the time the matter slipped from his mind, saving only that part that smacked of adventure.