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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Last Of The Barons - Book 1 - Chapter 6
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The Last Of The Barons - Book 1 - Chapter 6 Post by :rogzac Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :3469

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The Last Of The Barons - Book 1 - Chapter 6

BOOK I
CHAPTER VI. MASTER MARMADUKE NEVILE FEARS FOR THE SPIRITUAL WEAL OF HIS HOST AND HOSTESS

Before the hour of supper, which was served at six o'clock, Nicholas Alwyn arrived at the house indicated to him by Madge. Marmaduke, after a sound sleep, which was little flattering to Sibyll's attractions, had descended to the hall in search of the maiden and his host, and finding no one, had sauntered in extreme weariness and impatience into the little withdrawing-closet, where as it was now dusk, burned a single candle in a melancholy and rustic sconce; standing by the door that opened on the garden, he amused himself with watching the peacock, when his friend, following Madge into the chamber, tapped him on the shoulder.

"Well, Master Nevile. Ha! by Saint Thomas, what has chanced to thee? Thine arm swathed up, thy locks shorn, thy face blanched! My honoured foster-brother, thy Westmoreland blood seems over-hot for Cockaigne!"

"If so, there are plenty in this city of cut-throats to let out the surplusage," returned Marmaduke; and he briefly related his adventure to Nicholas.

When he had done, the kind trader reproached himself for having suffered Marmaduke to find his way alone. "The suburbs abound with these miscreants," said he; "and there is more danger in a night walk near London than in the loneliest glens of green Sherwood--more shame to the city! An' I be Lord Mayor one of these days, I will look to it better. But our civil wars make men hold human life very cheap, and there's parlous little care from the great of the blood and limbs of the wayfarers. But war makes thieves--and peace hangs them! Only wait till I manage affairs!"

"Many thanks to thee, Nicholas," returned the Nevile; "but foul befall me if ever I seek protection from sheriff or mayor! A man who cannot keep his own life with his own right hand merits well to hap-lose it; and I, for one, shall think ill of the day when an Englishman looks more to the laws than his good arm for his safety; but, letting this pass, I beseech thee to avise me if my Lord Warwick be still in the city?"

"Yes, marry, I know that by the hostelries, which swarm with his badges, and the oxen, that go in scores to the shambles! It is a shame to the Estate to see one subject so great, and it bodes no good to our peace. The earl is preparing the most magnificent embassage that ever crossed the salt seas--I would it were not to the French, for our interests lie contrary; but thou hast some days yet to rest here and grow stout, for I would not have thee present thyself with a visage of chalk to a man who values his kind mainly by their thews and their sinews. Moreover, thou shouldst send for the tailor, and get thee trimmed to the mark. It would be a long step in thy path to promotion, an' the earl would take thee in his train; and the gaudier thy plumes, why, the better chance for thy flight. Wherefore, since thou sayest they are thus friendly to thee under this roof, bide yet a while peacefully; I will send thee the mercer, and the clothier, and the tailor, to divert thy impatience. And as these fellows are greedy, my gentle and dear Master Nevile, may I ask, without offence, how thou art provided?"

"Nay, nay, I have moneys at the hostelrie, an' thou wilt send me my mails. For the rest, I like thy advice, and will take it."

"Good!" answered Nicholas. "Hem! thou seemest to have got into a poor house,--a decayed gentleman, I wot, by the slovenly ruin!"

"I would that were the worst," replied Marmaduke, solemnly, and under his breath; and therewith he repeated to Nicholas the adventure on the pastime-ground, the warnings of the timbrel-girls, and the "awsome" learning and strange pursuits of his host. As for Sibyll, he was evidently inclined to attribute to glamour the reluctant admiration with which she had inspired him. "For," said he, "though I deny not that the maid is passing fair, there be many with rosier cheeks, and taller by this hand!"

Nicholas listened, at first, with the peculiar expression of shrewd sarcasm which mainly characterized his intelligent face, but his attention grew more earnest before Marmaduke had concluded.

"In regard to the maiden," said he, smiling and shaking his head, "it is not always the handsomest that win us the most,--while fair Meg went a maying, black Meg got to church; and I give thee more reasonable warning than thy timbrel-girls, when, in spite of thy cold language, I bid thee take care of thyself against her attractions; for, verily, my dear foster-brother, thou must mend and not mar thy fortune, by thy love matters; and keep thy heart whole for some fair one with marks in her gipsire, whom the earl may find out for thee. Love and raw pease are two ill things in the porridge-pot. But the father!--I mind me now that I have heard of his name, through my friend Master Caxton, the mercer, as one of prodigious skill in the mathematics. I should like much to see him, and, with thy leave (an' he ask me), will tarry to supper. But what are these?"--and Nicholas took up one of the illuminated manuscripts which Sibyll had prepared for sale. "By the blood! this is couthly and marvellously blazoned."

The book was still in his hands when Sibyll entered. Nicholas stared at her, as he bowed with a stiff and ungraceful embarrassment, which often at first did injustice to his bold, clear intellect, and his perfect self-possession in matters of trade or importance.

"The first woman face," muttered Nicholas to himself, "I ever saw that had the sense of a man's. And, by the rood, what a smile!"

"Is this thy friend, Master Nevile?" said Sibyll, with a glance at the goldsmith. "He is welcome. But is it fair and courteous, Master Nelwyn--"

"Alwyn, an' it please you, fair mistress. A humble name, but good Saxon,--which, I take it, Nelwyn is not," interrupted Nicholas.

"Master Alwyn, forgive me; but can I forgive thee so readily for thy espial of my handiwork, without license or leave?"

"Yours, comely mistress!" exclaimed Nicholas, opening his eyes, and unheeding the gay rebuke--"why, this is a master-hand. My Lord Scales--nay, the Earl of Worcester himself--hath scarce a finer in all his amassment."

"Well, I forgive thy fault for thy flattery; and I pray thee, in my father's name, to stay and sup with thy friend." Nicholas bowed low, and still riveted his eyes on the book with such open admiration, that Marmaduke thought it right to excuse his abstraction; but there was something in that admiration which raised the spirits of Sibyll, which gave her hope when hope was well-nigh gone; and she became so vivacious, so debonair, so charming, in the flow of a gayety natural to her, and very uncommon with English maidens, but which she took partly, perhaps, from her French blood, and partly from the example of girls and maidens of French extraction in Margaret's court, that Nicholas Alwyn thought he had never seen any one so irresistible. Madge had now served the evening meal, put in her head to announce it, and Sibyll withdrew to summon her father.

"I trust he will not tarry too long, for I am sharp set!" muttered Marmaduke. "What thinkest thou of the damozel?"

"Marry," answered Alwyn, thoughtfully, "I pity and marvel at her. There is eno' in her to furnish forth twenty court beauties. But what good can so much wit and cunning do to an honest maiden?"

"That is exactly my own thought," said Marmaduke; and both the young men sunk into silence, till Sibyll re-entered with her father.

To the surprise of Marmaduke, Nicholas Alwyn, whose less gallant manner he was inclined to ridicule, soon contrived to rouse their host from his lethargy, and to absorb all the notice of Sibyll; and the surprise was increased, when he saw that his friend appeared not unfamiliar with those abstruse and mystical sciences in which Adam was engaged.

"What!" said Adam, "you know, then, my deft and worthy friend Master Caxton! He hath seen notable things abroad--"

"Which, he more than hints," said Nicholas, "will lower the value of those manuscripts this fair damozel has so couthly enriched; and that he hopes, ere long, to show the Englishers how to make fifty, a hundred,--nay even five hundred exemplars of the choicest book, in a much shorter time than a scribe would take in writing out two or three score pages in a single copy."

"Verily," said Marmaduke, with a smile of compassion, "the poor man must be somewhat demented; for I opine that the value of such curiosities must be in their rarity; and who would care for a book, if five hundred others had precisely the same?--allowing always, good Nicholas, for thy friend's vaunting and over-crowing. Five hundred! By'r Lady, there would be scarcely five hundred fools in merry England to waste good nobles on spoilt rags, specially while bows and mail are so dear."

"Young gentleman," said Adam, rebukingly, "meseemeth that thou wrongest our age and country, to the which, if we have but peace and freedom, I trust the birth of great discoveries is ordained. Certes, Master Alwyn," he added, turning to the goldsmith, "this achievement maybe readily performed, and hath existed, I heard an ingenious Fleming say years ago, for many ages amongst a strange people (Query, the Chinese?) known to the Venetians! But dost thou think there is much appetite among those who govern the State to lend encouragement to such matters?"

"My master serves my Lord Hastings, the king's chamberlain, and my lord has often been pleased to converse with me, so that I venture to say, from my knowledge of his affection to all excellent craft and lere, that whatever will tend to make men wiser will have his countenance and favour with the king."

"That is it, that is it!" exclaimed Adam, rubbing his hands. "My invention shall not die!"

"And that invention--"

"Is one that will multiply exemplars of books without hands; works of craft without 'prentice or journeyman; will move wagons and litters without horses; will direct ships without sails; will--But, alack! it is not yet complete, and, for want of means, it never may be."

Sibyll still kept her animated countenance fixed on Alwyn, whose intelligence she had already detected, and was charmed with the profound attention with which he listened. But her eye glancing from his sharp features to the handsome, honest face of the Nevile, the contrast was so forcible, that she could not restrain her laughter, though, the moment after, a keen pang shot through her heart. The worthy Marmaduke had been in the act of conveying his cup to his lips; the cup stood arrested midway, his jaws dropped, his eyes opened to their widest extent, an expression of the most evident consternation and dismay spoke in every feature; and when he heard the merry laugh of Sibyll, he pushed his stool from her as far as he well could, and surveyed her with a look of mingled fear and pity.

"Alas! thou art sure my poor father is a wizard now?"

"Pardie!" answered the Nevile. "Hath he not said so? Hath he not spoken of wagons without horses, ships without sails? And is not all this what every dissour and jongleur tells us of in his stories of Merlin? Gentle maiden," he added earnestly, drawing nearer to her, and whispering in a voice of much simple pathos, "thou art young, and I owe thee much. Take care of thyself. Such wonders and derring-do are too solemn for laughter."

"Ah," answered Sibyll, rising, "I fear they are. How can I expect the people to be wiser than thou, or their hard natures kinder in their judgment than thy kind heart?" Her low and melancholy voice went to the heart thus appealed to. Marmaduke also rose, and followed her into the parlour, or withdrawing-closet, while Adam and the goldsmith continued to converse (though Alwyn's eye followed the young hostess), the former appearing perfectly unconscious of the secession of his other listeners. But Alwyn's attention occasionally wandered, and he soon contrived to draw his host into the parlour.

When Nicholas rose, at last, to depart, he beckoned Sibyll aside. "Fair mistress," said he, with some awkward hesitation, "forgive a plain, blunt tongue; but ye of the better birth are not always above aid, even from such as I am. If you would sell these blazoned manuscripts, I can not only obtain you a noble purchaser in my Lord Scales, or in my Lord Hastings, an equally ripe scholar, but it may be the means of my procuring a suitable patron for your father; and, in these times, the scholar must creep under the knight's manteline."

"Master Alwyn," said Sibyll, suppressing her tears, "it was for my father's sake that these labours were wrought. We are poor and friendless. Take the manuscripts, and sell them as thou wilt, and God and Saint Mary requite thee!"

"Your father is a great man," said Alwyn, after a pause.

"But were he to walk the streets, they would stone him," replied Sibyll, with a quiet bitterness.

Here the Nevile, carefully shunning the magician, who, in the nervous excitement produced by the conversation of a mind less uncongenial than he had encountered for many years, seemed about to address him--here, I say, the Nevile chimed in, "Hast thou no weapon but thy bludgeon? Dear foster-brother, I fear for thy safety."

"Nay, robbers rarely attack us mechanical folk; and I know my way better than thou. I shall find a boat near York House; so pleasant night and quick cure to thee, honoured foster-brother. I will send the tailor and other craftsmen to-morrow."

"And at the same time," whispered Marmaduke, accompanying his friend to the door, "send me a breviary, just to patter an ave or so. This gray-haired carle puts my heart in a tremble. Moreover, buy me a gittern--a brave one--for the damozel. She is too proud to take money, and, 'fore Heaven, I have small doubts the old wizard could turn my hose into nobles an' he had a mind for such gear. Wagons without horses, ships without sails, quotha!"

As soon as Alwyn had departed, Madge appeared with the final refreshment, called "the Wines," consisting of spiced hippocras and confections, of the former of which the Nevile partook in solemn silence.

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