On a wintry morning at the close of 1690, the sun shining faint andred through a light fog, there was a great noise of baying dogs, loudvoices, and trampling of horses in the courtyard at Wildairs Hall; SirJeoffry being about to go forth a-hunting, and being a man with a cholerictemper and big, loud voice, and given to oaths and noise even when ingood-humour, his riding forth with his friends at any time was attendedwith boisterous commotion. This morning it was more so than usual,for he had guests with him who had come to his house the day before,and had supped late and drunk deeply, whereby the day found them, somewith headaches, some with a nausea at their stomachs, and some onlyin an evil humour which made them curse at their horses when they wererestless, and break into loud surly laughs when a coarse joke was made. There were many such jokes, Sir Jeoffry and his boon companions beingrenowned throughout the county for the freedom of their conversationas for the scandal of their pastimes, and this day ’twas wellindeed, as their loud-voiced, oath-besprinkled jests rang out on thecold air, that there were no ladies about to ride forth with them.
’Twas Sir Jeoffry who was louder than any other, he havingdrunk even deeper than the rest, and though ’twas his boast thathe could carry a bottle more than any man, and see all his guests underthe table, his last night’s bout had left him in ill-humour andboisterous. He strode about, casting oaths at the dogs and ratingthe servants, and when he mounted his big black horse ’twas amidsuch a clamour of voices and baying hounds that the place was like Pandemonium.
He was a large man of florid good looks, black eyes, and full habitof body, and had been much renowned in his youth for his great strength,which was indeed almost that of a giant, and for his deeds of prowessin the saddle and at the table when the bottle went round. Therewere many evil stories of his roysterings, but it was not his way tothink of them as evil, but rather to his credit as a man of the world,for, when he heard that they were gossiped about, he greeted the informationwith a loud triumphant laugh. He had married, when she was fifteen,the blooming toast of the county, for whom his passion had long diedout, having indeed departed with the honeymoon, which had been of thebriefest, and afterwards he having borne her a grudge for what he choseto consider her undutiful conduct. This grudge was founded onthe fact that, though she had presented him each year since their marriagewith a child, after nine years had passed none had yet been sons, and,as he was bitterly at odds with his next of kin, he considered eachof his offspring an ill turn done him.
He spent but little time in her society, for she was a poor, gentlecreature of no spirit, who found little happiness in her lot, sinceher lord treated her with scant civility, and her children one afteranother sickened and died in their infancy until but two were left. He scarce remembered her existence when he did not see her face, andhe was certainly not thinking of her this morning, having other thingsin view, and yet it so fell out that, while a groom was shortening astirrup and being sworn at for his awkwardness, he by accident casthis eye upward to a chamber window peering out of the thick ivy on thestone. Doing so he saw an old woman draw back the curtain andlook down upon him as if searching for him with a purpose.
He uttered an exclamation of anger.
“Damnation! Mother Posset again,” he said. “What does she there, old frump?”
The curtain fell and the woman disappeared, but in a few minutesmore an unheard-of thing happened — among the servants in the hall,the same old woman appeared making her way with a hurried fretfulness,and she descended haltingly the stone steps and came to his side wherehe sat on his black horse.
“The Devil!” he exclaimed — “what are you herefor? ’Tis not time for another wench upstairs, surely?”
“’Tis not time,” answered the old nurse acidly,taking her tone from his own. “But there is one, but an hour old,and my lady — ”
“Be damned to her!” quoth Sir Jeoffry savagely. “A ninth one — and ’tis nine too many. ’Tismore than man can bear. She does it but to spite me.”
“’Tis ill treatment for a gentleman who wants an heir,”the old woman answered, as disrespectful of his spouse as he was, beinga time-serving crone, and knowing that it paid but poorly to coddlewomen who did not as their husbands would have them in the way of offspring. “It should have been a fine boy, but it is not, and my lady — ”
“Damn her puling tricks!” said Sir Jeoffry again, pullingat his horse’s bit until the beast reared.
“She would not let me rest until I came to you,” saidthe nurse resentfully. “She would have you told that shefelt strangely, and before you went forth would have a word with you.”
“I cannot come, and am not in the mood for it if I could,”was his answer. “What folly does she give way to? This is the ninth time she hath felt strangely, and I have felt as squeamishas she — but nine is more than I have patience for.”
“She is light-headed, mayhap,” said the nurse. “She lieth huddled in a heap, staring and muttering, and she wouldleave me no peace till I promised to say to you, ‘For the sakeof poor little Daphne, whom you will sure remember.’ Shepinched my hand and said it again and again.”
Sir Jeoffry dragged at his horse’s mouth and swore again.
“She was fifteen then, and had not given me nine yellow-facedwenches,” he said. “Tell her I had gone a-huntingand you were too late;” and he struck his big black beast withthe whip, and it bounded away with him, hounds and huntsmen and fellow-roysterersgalloping after, his guests, who had caught at the reason of his wrath,grinning as they rode.
In a huge chamber hung with tattered tapestries and barely set forthwith cumbersome pieces of furnishing, my lady lay in a gloomy, canopiedbed, with her new-born child at her side, but not looking at or touchingit, seeming rather to have withdrawn herself from the pillow on whichit lay in its swaddling-clothes.
She was but a little lady, and now, as she lay in the large bed,her face and form shrunken and drawn with suffering, she looked scarcebigger than a child. In the brief days of her happiness thosewho toasted her had called her Titania for her fairy slightness anddelicate beauty, but then her fair wavy locks had been of a length thattouched the ground when her woman unbound them, and she had had thecolour of a wild rose and the eyes of a tender little fawn. SirJeoffry for a month or so had paid tempestuous court to her, and hadso won her heart with his dashing way of love-making and the daringnessof his reputation, that she had thought herself — being child enoughto think so — the luckiest young lady in the world that his blackeye should have fallen upon her with favour. Each year since,with the bearing of each child, she had lost some of her beauty. With each one her lovely hair fell out still more, her wild-rose colourfaded, and her shape was spoiled. She grew thin and yellow, onlya scant covering of the fair hair was left her, and her eyes were bigand sunken. Her marriage having displeased her family, and SirJeoffry having a distaste for the ceremonies of visiting and entertainment,save where his own cronies were concerned, she had no friends, and grewlonelier and lonelier as the sad years went by. She being so withouthope and her life so dreary, her children were neither strong nor beautiful,and died quickly, each one bringing her only the anguish of birth anddeath. This wintry morning her ninth lay slumbering by her side;the noise of baying dogs and boisterous men had died away with the lastsound of the horses’ hoofs; the little light which came into theroom through the ivied window was a faint yellowish red; she was cold,because the fire in the chimney was but a scant, failing one; she wasalone — and she knew that the time had come for her death. This she knew full well.
She was alone, because, being so disrespected and deserted by herlord, and being of a timid and gentle nature, she could not commandher insufficient retinue of servants, and none served her as was theirduty. The old woman Sir Jeoffry had dubbed Mother Posset had beenher sole attendant at such times as these for the past five years, becauseshe would come to her for a less fee than a better woman, and Sir Jeoffryhad sworn he would not pay for wenches being brought into the world. She was a slovenly, guzzling old crone, who drank caudle from morningtill night, and demanded good living as a support during the performanceof her trying duties; but these last she contrived to make wondrouslight, knowing that there was none to reprove her.
“A fine night I have had,” she had grumbled when shebrought back Sir Jeoffry’s answer to her lady’s message. “My old bones are like to break, and my back will not straightenitself. I will go to the kitchen to get victuals and somewhatto warm me; your ladyship’s own woman shall sit with you.”
Her ladyship’s “own woman” was also the sole attendantof the two little girls, Barbara and Anne, whose nursery was in anotherwing of the house, and my lady knew full well she would not come ifshe were told, and that there would be no message sent to her.
She knew, too, that the fire was going out, but, though she shiveredunder the bed-clothes, she was too weak to call the woman back whenshe saw her depart without putting fresh fuel upon it.
So she lay alone, poor lady, and there was no sound about her, andher thin little mouth began to feebly quiver, and her great eyes, whichstared at the hangings, to fill with slow cold tears, for in sooth theywere not warm, but seemed to chill her poor cheeks as they rolled slowlydown them, leaving a wet streak behind them which she was too far gonein weakness to attempt to lift her hand to wipe away.
“Nine times like this,” she panted faintly, “and’tis for naught but oaths and hard words that blame me. I was but a child myself and he loved me. When ’twas ‘MyDaphne,’ and ‘My beauteous little Daphne,’ he lovedme in his own man’s way. But now — ” she faintlyrolled her head from side to side. “Women are poor things” — achill salt tear sliding past her lips so that she tasted its bitterness — “onlyto be kissed for an hour, and then like this — only for this andnothing else. I would that this one had been dead.”
Her breath came slower and more pantingly, and her eyes stared morewidely.
“I was but a child,” she whispered — “a child — as — asthis will be — if she lives fifteen years.”
Despite her weakness, and it was great and woefully increasing witheach panting breath, she slowly laboured to turn herself towards thepillow on which her offspring lay, and, this done, she lay staring atthe child and gasping, her thin chest rising and falling convulsively. Ah, how she panted, and how she stared, the glaze of death stealingslowly over her wide-opened eyes; and yet, dimming as they were, theysaw in the sleeping infant a strange and troublous thing — thoughit was but a few hours old ’twas not as red and crumple visagedas new-born infants usually are, its little head was covered with thickblack silk, and its small features were of singular definiteness. She dragged herself nearer to gaze.
“She looks not like the others,” she said. “Theyhad no beauty — and are safe. She — she will be like — Jeoffry — andlike me.”
The dying fire fell lower with a shuddering sound.
“If she is — beautiful, and has but her father, and nomother!” she whispered, the words dragged forth slowly, “onlyevil can come to her. From her first hour — she will knownaught else, poor heart, poor heart!”
There was a rattling in her throat as she breathed, but in her glazingeyes a gleam like passion leaped, and gasping, she dragged nearer.
“’Tis not fair,” she cried. “If I — ifI could lay my hand upon thy mouth — and stop thy breathing — thoupoor thing, ’twould be fairer — but — I have no strength.”
She gathered all her dying will and brought her hand up to the infant’smouth. A wild look was on her poor, small face, she panted andfell forward on its breast, the rattle in her throat growing louder. The child awakened, opening great black eyes, and with her dying weaknessits new-born life struggled. Her cold hand lay upon its mouth,and her head upon its body, for she was too far gone to move if shehad willed to do so. But the tiny creature’s strength wasmarvellous. It gasped, it fought, its little limbs struggled beneathher, it writhed until the cold hand fell away, and then, its baby mouthset free, it fell a-shrieking. Its cries were not like those ofa new-born thing, but fierce and shrill, and even held the sound ofinfant passion. ’Twas not a thing to let its life go easily,’twas of those born to do battle.
Its lusty screaming pierced her ear perhaps — she drew a long,slow breath, and then another, and another still — the last onetrembled and stopped short, and the last cinder fell dead from the fire.
When the nurse came bustling and fretting back, the chamber was coldas the grave’s self — there were only dead embers on the hearth,the new-born child’s cries filled all the desolate air, and mylady was lying stone dead, her poor head resting on her offspring’sfeet, the while her open glazed eyes seemed to stare at it as if inasking Fate some awful question.
In a remote wing of the house, in barren, ill-kept rooms, the poorinfants of the dead lady had struggled through their brief lives, andgiven them up, one after the other. Sir Jeoffry had not wishedto see them, nor had he done so, but upon the rarest occasions, andthen nearly always by some untoward accident. The six who haddied, even their mother had scarcely wept for; her weeping had beenthat they should have been fated to come into the world, and when theywent out of it she knew she need not mourn their going as untimely. The two who had not perished, she had regarded sadly day by day, seeingthey had no beauty and that their faces promised none. Naughtbut great beauty would have excused their existence in their father’seyes, as beauty might have helped them to good matches which would haverid him of them. But ’twas the sad ill fortune of the childrenAnne and Barbara to have been treated by Nature in a way but niggardly. They were pale young misses, with insignificant faces and snub noses,resembling an aunt who died a spinster, as they themselves seemed mostlikely to. Sir Jeoffry could not bear the sight of them, and theyfled at the sound of his footsteps, if it so happened that by chancethey heard it, huddling together in corners, and slinking behind doorsor anything big enough to hide them. They had no playthings andno companions and no pleasures but such as the innocent invention ofchildhood contrives for itself.
After their mother’s death a youth desolate and strange indeedlay before them. A spinster who was a poor relation was the onlyperson of respectable breeding who ever came near them. To saveherself from genteel starvation, she had offered herself for the placeof governess to them, though she was fitted for the position neitherby education nor character. Mistress Margery Wimpole was a poor,dull creature, having no wilful harm in her, but endowed with neitherdignity nor wit. She lived in fear of Sir Jeoffry, and in fearof the servants, who knew full well that she was an humble dependant,and treated her as one. She hid away with her pupils inthe bare school-room in the west wing, and taught them to spell andwrite and work samplers. She herself knew no more.
The child who had cost her mother her life had no happier prospectthan her sisters. Her father felt her more an intruder than theyhad been, he being of the mind that to house and feed and clothe, howsoeverpoorly, these three burdens on him was a drain scarcely to be borne. His wife had been a toast and not a fortune, and his estate not beinggreat, he possessed no more than his drinking, roystering, and gamblingmade full demands upon.
The child was baptized Clorinda, and bred, so to speak, from herfirst hour, in the garret and the servants’ hall. Once onlydid her father behold her during her infancy, which event was a mereaccident, as he had expressed no wish to see her, and only came uponher in the nurse’s arms some weeks after her mother’s death. ’Twas quite by chance. The woman, who was young and buxom,had begun an intrigue with a groom, and having a mind to see him, wascrossing the stable-yard, carrying her charge with her, when Sir Jeoffrycame by to visit a horse.
The woman came plump upon him, entering a stable as he came out ofit; she gave a frightened start, and almost let the child drop, at whichit set up a strong, shrill cry, and thus Sir Jeoffry saw it, and seeingit, was thrown at once into a passion which expressed itself after themanner of all his emotion, and left the nurse quaking with fear.
“Thunder and damnation!” he exclaimed, as he strode awayafter the encounter; “’tis the ugliest yet. A yellow-facedgirl brat, with eyes like an owl’s in an ivy-bush, and with avoice like a very peacocks. Another mawking, plain slut that noman will take off my hands.”
He did not see her again for six years. But little wit wasneeded to learn that ’twas best to keep her out of his sight,as her sisters were kept, and this was done without difficulty, as heavoided the wing of the house where the children lived, as if it werestricken with the plague.
But the child Clorinda, it seemed, was of lustier stock than herolder sisters, and this those about her soon found out to their grievousdisturbance. When Mother Posset had drawn her from under her deadmother’s body she had not left shrieking for an hour, but hadkept up her fierce cries until the roof rang with them, and the oldwoman had jogged her about and beat her back in the hopes of stiflingher, until she was exhausted and dismayed. For the child wouldnot be stilled, and seemed to have such strength and persistence inher as surely infant never showed before.
“Never saw I such a brat among all I have brought into theworld,” old Posset quavered. “She hath the voice ofa six-months boy. It cracks my very ears. Hush thee, then,thou little wild cat.”
This was but the beginning. From the first she grew apace,and in a few months was a bouncing infant, with a strong back, and apower to make herself heard such as had not before appeared in the family. When she desired a thing, she yelled and roared with such a vigour asleft no peace for any creature about her until she was humoured, andthis being the case, rather than have their conversation and love-makingput a stop to, the servants gave her her way. In this they butfollowed the example of their betters, of whom we know that it is notto the most virtuous they submit or to the most learned, but to thosewho, being crossed, can conduct themselves in a manner so disagreeable,shrewish or violent, that life is a burden until they have their will. This the child Clorinda had the infant wit to discover early, and havingonce discovered it, she never ceased to take advantage of her knowledge. Having found in the days when her one desire was pap, that she had butto roar lustily enough to find it beside her in her porringer, she triedthe game upon all other occasions. When she had reached but atwelvemonth, she stood stoutly upon her little feet, and beat her sistersto gain their playthings, and her nurse for wanting to change her smock. She was so easily thrown into furies, and so raged and stamped in herbaby way that she was a sight to behold, and the men-servants foundamusement in badgering her. To set Mistress Clorinda in theirmidst on a winter’s night when they were dull, and to tormenther until her little face grew scarlet with the blood which flew upinto it, and she ran from one to the other beating them and screaminglike a young spitfire, was among them a favourite entertainment.
“Ifackens!” said the butler one night, “but sheis as like Sir Jeoffry in her temper as one pea is like another. Ay, but she grows blood red just as he does, and curses in her littleway as he does in man’s words among his hounds in their kennel.”
“And she will be of his build, too,” said the housekeeper. “What mishap changed her to a maid instead of a boy, I know not. She would have made a strapping heir. She has the thigh and shouldersof a handsome man-child at this hour, and she is not three years old.”
“Sir Jeoffry missed his mark when he called her an ugly brat,”said the woman who had nursed her. “She will be a handsomewoman — though large in build, it may be. She will be a brownbeauty, but she will have a colour in her cheeks and lips like the redof Christmas holly, and her owl’s eyes are as black as sloes,and have fringes on them like the curtains of a window. See howher hair grows thick on her little head, and how it curls in great rings. My lady, her poor mother, was once a beauty, but she was no such beautyas this one will be, for she has her father’s long limbs and fineshoulders, and the will to make every man look her way.”
“Yes,” said the housekeeper, who was an elderly woman,“there will be doings — there will be doings when she is aripe young maid. She will take her way, and God grant she mayn’tbe too like her father and follow his.”
It was true that she had no resemblance to her plain sisters, andbore no likeness to them in character. The two elder children,Anne and Barbara, were too meek-spirited to be troublesome; but duringClorinda’s infancy Mistress Margery Wimpole watched her rapidgrowth with fear and qualms. She dare not reprove the servantswho were ruining her by their treatment, and whose manners were formingher own. Sir Jeoffry’s servants were no more moral thantheir master, and being brought up as she was among them, their youngmistress became strangely familiar with many sights and sounds it isnot the fortune of most young misses of breeding to see and hear. The cooks and kitchen-wenches were flighty with the grooms and men-servants,and little Mistress Clorinda, having a passion for horses and dogs,spent many an hour in the stables with the women who, for reasons oftheir own, were pleased enough to take her there as an excuse for seekingamusement for themselves. She played in the kennels and amongthe horses’ heels, and learned to use oaths as roundly as anyGiles or Tom whose work was to wield the curry comb. It was indeeda curious thing to hear her red baby mouth pour forth curses and unseemlywords as she would at any one who crossed her. Her temper andhot-headedness carried all before them, and the grooms and stable-boysfound great sport in the language my young lady used in her innocentfuries. But balk her in a whim, and she would pour forth the eloquenceof a fish-wife or a lady of easy virtue in a pot-house quarrel. There was no human creature near her who had mind or heart enough tosee the awfulness of her condition, or to strive to teach her to checkher passions; and in the midst of these perilous surroundings the littlevirago grew handsomer and of finer carriage every hour, as if on therank diet that fed her she throve and flourished.