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.”