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   Chapter 1 THE CHILD OF PROPHECY

Simon Dale By Anthony Hope Characters: 19629

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


One who was in his day a person of great place and consideration, and has left a name which future generations shall surely repeat so long as the world may last, found no better rule for a man's life than that he should incline his mind to move in Charity, rest in Providence, and turn upon the poles of Truth. This condition, says he, is Heaven upon Earth; and although what touches truth may better befit the philosopher who uttered it than the vulgar and unlearned, for whom perhaps it is a counsel too high and therefore dangerous, what comes before should surely be graven by each of us on the walls of our hearts. For any man who lived in the days that I have seen must have found much need of trust in Providence, and by no whit the less of charity for men. In such trust and charity I have striven to write: in the like I pray you to read.

I, Simon Dale, was born on the seventh day of the seventh month in the year of Our Lord sixteen-hundred-and-forty-seven. The date was good in that the Divine Number was thrice found in it, but evil in that it fell on a time of sore trouble both for the nation and for our own house; when men had begun to go about saying that if the King would not keep his promises it was likely that he would keep his head as little; when they who had fought for freedom were suspecting that victory had brought new tyrants; when the Vicar was put out of his cure; and my father, having trusted the King first, the Parliament afterwards, and at last neither the one nor the other, had lost the greater part of his substance, and fallen from wealth to straitened means: such is the common reward of an honest patriotism wedded to an open mind. However, the date, good or bad, was none of my doing, nor indeed, folks whispered, much of my parents' either, seeing that destiny overruled the affair, and Betty Nasroth, the wise woman, announced its imminence more than a year beforehand. For she predicted the birth, on the very day whereon I came into the world, within a mile of the parish church, of a male child who-and the utterance certainly had a lofty sound about it-should love where the King loved, know what the King hid, and drink of the King's cup. Now, inasmuch as none lived within the limits named by Betty Nasroth, save on the one side sundry humble labourers, whose progeny could expect no such fate, and on the other my Lord and Lady Quinton, who were wedded but a month before my birthday, the prophecy was fully as pointed as it had any need to be, and caused to my parents no small questionings. It was the third clause or term of the prediction that gave most concern alike to my mother and to my father; to my mother, because, although of discreet mind and a sound Churchwoman, she was from her earliest years a Rechabite, and had never heard of a King who drank water; and to my father by reason of his decayed estate, which made it impossible for him to contrive how properly to fit me for my predestined company. "A man should not drink the King's wine without giving the King as good," my father reflected ruefully. Meanwhile I, troubling not at all about the matter, was content to prove Betty right in point of the date, and, leaving the rest to the future, achieved this triumph for her most punctually. Whatsoever may await a man on his way through the world, he can hardly begin life better than by keeping his faith with a lady.

She was a strange old woman, this Betty Nasroth, and would likely enough have fared badly in the time of the King's father. Now there was bigger game than witches afoot, and nothing worse befell her than the scowls of her neighbours and the frightened mockery of children. She made free reply with curses and dark mutterings, but me she loved as being the child of her vision, and all the more because, encountering her as I rode in my mother's arms, I did not cry, but held out my hands, crowing and struggling to get to her; whereat suddenly, and to my mother's great terror, she exclaimed: "Thou see'st, Satan!" and fell to weeping, a thing which, as every woman in the parish knew, a person absolutely possessed by the Evil One can by no means accomplish (unless, indeed, a bare three drops squeezed from the left eye may usurp the name of tears). But my mother shrank away from her and would not allow her to touch me; nor was it until I had grown older and ran about the village alone that the old woman, having tracked me to a lonely spot, took me in her arms, mumbled over my head some words I did not understand, and kissed me. That a mole grows on the spot she kissed is but a fable (for how do the women know where her kiss fell save by where the mole grows?-and that is to reason poorly), or at the most the purest chance. Nay, if it were more, I am content; for the mole does me no harm, and the kiss, as I hope, did Betty some good; off she went straight to the Vicar (who was living then in the cottage of my Lord Quinton's gardener and exercising his sacred functions in a secrecy to which the whole parish was privy) and prayed him to let her partake of the Lord's Supper: a request that caused great scandal to the neighbours and sore embarrassment to the Vicar himself, who, being a learned man and deeply read in demonology, grieved from his heart that the witch did not play her part better.

"It is," said he to my father, "a monstrous lapse."

"Nay, it is a sign of grace," urged my mother.

"It is," said my father (and I do not know whether he spoke perversely or in earnest), "a matter of no moment."

Now, being steadfastly determined that my boyhood shall be less tedious in the telling than it was in the living-for I always longed to be a man, and hated my green and petticoat-governed days-I will pass forthwith to the hour when I reached the age of eighteen years. My dear father was then in Heaven, and old Betty had found, as was believed, another billet. But my mother lived, and the Vicar, like the King, had come to his own again: and I was five feet eleven in my stockings, and there was urgent need that I should set about pushing my way and putting money in my purse; for our lands had not returned with the King, and there was no more incoming than would serve to keep my mother and sisters in the style of gentlewomen.

"And on that matter," observed the Vicar, stroking his nose with his forefinger, as his habit was in moments of perplexity, "Betty Nasroth's prophecy is of small service. For the doings on which she touches are likely to be occasions of expense rather than sources of gain."

"They would be money wasted," said my mother gently, "one and all of them."

The Vicar looked a little doubtful.

"I will write a sermon on that theme," said he; for this was with him a favourite way out of an argument. In truth the Vicar loved the prophecy, as a quiet student often loves a thing that echoes of the world which he has shunned.

"You must write down for me what the King says to you, Simon," he told me once.

"Suppose, sir," I suggested mischievously, "that it should not be fit for your eye?"

"Then write it, Simon," he answered, pinching my ear, "for my understanding."

It was well enough for the Vicar's whimsical fancy to busy itself with Betty Nasroth's prophecy, half-believing, half-mocking, never forgetting nor disregarding; but I, who am, after all, the most concerned, doubt whether such a dark utterance be a wholesome thing to hang round a young man's neck. The dreams of youth grow rank enough without such watering. The prediction was always in my mind, alluring and tantalising as a teasing girl who puts her pretty face near yours, safe that you dare not kiss it. What it said I mused on, what it said not I neglected. I dedicated my idle hours to it, and, not appeased, it invaded my seasons of business. Rather than seek my own path, I left myself to its will and hearkened for its whispered orders.

"It was the same," observed my mother sadly, "with a certain cook-maid of my sister's. It was foretold that she should marry her master."

"And did she not?" cried the Vicar, with ears all pricked-up.

"She changed her service every year," said my mother, "seeking the likeliest man, until at last none would hire her."

"She should have stayed in her first service," said the Vicar, shaking his head.

"But her first master had a wife," retorted my mother triumphantly.

"I had one once myself," said the Vicar.

The argument, with which his widowhood supplied the Vicar, was sound and unanswerable, and it suited well with my humour to learn from my aunt's cook-maid, and wait patiently on fate. But what avails an argument, be it ever so sound, against an empty purse? It was declared that I must seek my fortune; yet on the method of my search some difference arose.

"You must work, Simon," said my sister Lucy, who was betrothed to Justice Barnard, a young squire of good family and high repute, but mighty hard on idle vagrants, and free with the stocks for revellers.

"You must pray for guidance," said my sister Mary, who was to wed a saintly clergyman, a Prebend, too, of the Cathedral.

"There is," said I stoutly, "nothing of such matters in Betty Nasroth's prophecy."

"They are taken for granted, dear boy," said my mother gently.

The Vicar rubbed his nose.

Yet not these excellent and zealous counsellors proved right, but the Vicar and I. For had I gone to London, as they urged, instead of abiding where I was, agreeably to the Vicar's argument and my own inclination, it is a great question whether the plague would not have proved too strong for Betty Nasroth, and her prediction gone to lie with me in a death-pit. As things befell, I lived, hearing only dimly and, as it were, from afar-off of that great calamity, and of the horrors that beset the city. For the d

isease did not come our way, and we moralised on the sins of the townsfolk with sound bodies and contented minds. We were happy in our health and in our virtue, and not disinclined to applaud God's judgment that smote our erring brethren; for too often the chastisement of one sinner feeds another's pride. Yet the plague had a hand, and no small one, in that destiny of mine, although it came not near me; for it brought fresh tenants to those same rooms in the gardener's cottage where the Vicar had dwelt till the loyal Parliament's Act proved too hard for the conscience of our Independent minister, and the Vicar, nothing loth, moved back to his parsonage.

Now I was walking one day, as I had full licence and leave to walk, in the avenue of Quinton Manor, when I saw, first, what I had (if I am to tell the truth) come to see, to wit, the figure of young Mistress Barbara, daintily arrayed in a white summer gown. Barbara was pleased to hold herself haughtily towards me, for she was an heiress, and of a house that had not fallen in the world as mine had. Yet we were friends; for we sparred and rallied, she giving offence and I taking it, she pardoning my rudeness and I accepting forgiveness; while my lord and my lady, perhaps thinking me too low for fear and yet high enough for favour, showed me much kindness; my lord, indeed, would often jest with me on the great fate foretold me in Betty Nasroth's prophecy.

"Yet," he would say, with a twinkle in his eye, "the King has strange secrets, and there is some strange wine in his cup, and to love where he loves--"; but at this point the Vicar, who chanced to be by, twinkled also, but shifted the conversation to some theme which did not touch the King, his secrets, his wine, or where he loved.

Thus then I saw, as I say, the slim tall figure, the dark hair, and the proud eyes of Barbara Quinton; and the eyes were flashing in anger as their owner turned away from-what I had not looked to see in Barbara's company. This was another damsel, of lower stature and plumper figure, dressed full as prettily as Barbara herself, and laughing with most merry lips and under eyes that half hid themselves in an eclipse of mirth. When Barbara saw me, she did not, as her custom was, feign not to see me till I thrust my presence on her, but ran to me at once, crying very indignantly, "Simon, who is this girl? She has dared to tell me that my gown is of country make and hangs like an old smock on a beanpole."

"Mistress Barbara," I answered, "who heeds the make of the gown when the wearer is of divine make?" I was young then, and did not know that to compliment herself at the expense of her apparel is not the best way to please a woman.

"You are silly," said Barbara. "Who is she?"

"The girl," said I, crestfallen, "is, they tell me, from London, and she lodges with her mother in your gardener's cottage. But I didn't look to find her here in the avenue."

"You shall not again if I have my way," said Barbara. Then she added abruptly and sharply, "Why do you look at her?"

Now, it was true that I was looking at the stranger, and on Barbara's question I looked the harder.

"She is mighty pretty," said I. "Does she not seem so to you, Mistress Barbara?" And, simple though I was, I spoke not altogether in simplicity.

"Pretty?" echoed Barbara. "And pray what do you know of prettiness, Master Simon?"

"What I have learnt at Quinton Manor," I answered, with a bow.

"That doesn't prove her pretty," retorted the angry lady.

"There's more than one way of it," said I discreetly, and I took a step towards the visitor, who stood some ten yards from us, laughing still and plucking a flower to pieces in her fingers.

"She isn't known to you?" asked Barbara, perceiving my movement.

"I can remedy that," said I, smiling.

Never since the world began had youth been a more faithful servant to maid than I to Barbara Quinton. Yet because, if a man lie down, the best of girls will set her pretty foot on his neck, and also from my love of a thing that is new, I was thoroughly resolved to accost the gardener's guest; and my purpose was not altered by Barbara's scornful toss of her little head as she turned away.

"It is no more than civility," I protested, "to ask after her health, for, coming from London, she can but just have escaped the plague."

Barbara tossed her head again, declaring plainly her opinion of my excuse.

"But if you desire me to walk with you--" I began.

"There is nothing I thought of less," she interrupted. "I came here to be alone."

"My pleasure lies in obeying you," said I, and I stood bareheaded while Barbara, without another glance at me, walked off towards the house. Half penitent, yet wholly obstinate, I watched her go; she did not once look over her shoulder. Had she-but a truce to that. What passed is enough; with what might have, my story would stretch to the world's end. I smothered my remorse, and went up to the stranger, bidding her good-day in my most polite and courtly manner; she smiled, but at what I knew not. She seemed little more than a child, sixteen years old or seventeen at the most, yet there was no confusion in her greeting of me. Indeed, she was most marvellously at her ease, for, on my salute, she cried, lifting her hands in feigned amazement,

"A man, by my faith; a man in this place!"

Well pleased to be called a man, I bowed again.

"Or at least," she added, "what will be one, if it please Heaven."

"You may live to see it without growing wrinkled," said I, striving to conceal my annoyance.

"And one that has repartee in him! Oh, marvellous!"

"We do not all lack wit in the country, madame," said I, simpering as I supposed the Court gallants to simper, "nor, since the plague came to London, beauty."

"Indeed, it's wonderful," she cried in mock admiration. "Do they teach such sayings hereabouts, sir?"

"Even so, madame, and from such books as your eyes furnish." And for all her air of mockery, I was, as I remember, much pleased with this speech. It had come from some well-thumbed romance, I doubt not. I was always an eager reader of such silly things.

She curtseyed low, laughing up at me with roguish eyes and mouth.

"Now, surely, sir," she said, "you must be Simon Dale, of whom my host the gardener speaks?"

"It is my name, madame, at your service. But the gardener has played me a trick; for now I have nothing to give in exchange for your name."

"Nay, you have a very pretty nosegay in your hand," said she. "I might be persuaded to barter my name for it."

The nosegay that was in my hand I had gathered and brought for Barbara Quinton, and I still meant to use it as a peace-offering. But Barbara had treated me harshly, and the stranger looked longingly at the nosegay.

"The gardener is a niggard with his flowers," she said with a coaxing smile.

"To confess the truth," said I, wavering in my purpose, "the nosegay was plucked for another."

"It will smell the sweeter," she cried, with a laugh. "Nothing gives flowers such a perfume." And she held out a wonderfully small hand towards my nosegay.

"Is that a London lesson?" I asked, holding the flowers away from her grasp.

"It holds good in the country also, sir; wherever, indeed, there is a man to gather flowers and more than one lady who loves smelling them."

"Well," said I, "the nosegay is yours at the price," and I held it out to her.

"The price? What, you desire to know my name?"

"Unless, indeed, I may call you one of my own choosing," said I, with a glance that should have been irresistible.

"Would you use it in speaking of me to Mistress Barbara there? No, I'll give you a name to call me by. You may call me Cydaria."

"Cydaria! A fine name!"

"It is," said she carelessly, "as good as any other."

"But is there no other to follow it?"

"When did a poet ask two names to head his sonnet? And surely you wanted mine for a sonnet?"

"So be it, Cydaria," said I.

"So be it, Simon. And is not Cydaria as pretty as Barbaria?"

"It has a strange sound," said I, "but it's well enough."

"And now-the nosegay!"

"I must pay a reckoning for this," I sighed; but since a bargain is a bargain I gave her the nosegay.

She took it, her face all alight with smiles, and buried her nose in it. I stood looking at her, caught by her pretty ways and graceful boldness. Boy though I was, I had been right in telling her that there are many ways of beauty; here were two to start with, hers and Barbara's. She looked up and, finding my gaze on her, made a little grimace as though it were only what she had expected and gave her no more concern than pleasure. Yet at such a look Barbara would have turned cold and distant for an hour or more. Cydaria, smiling in scornful indulgence, dropped me another mocking curtsey, and made as though she would go her way. Yet she did not go, but stood with her head half-averted, a glance straying towards me from the corner of her eye, while with her tiny foot she dug the gravel of the avenue.

"It is a lovely place, this park," said she. "But, indeed, it's often hard to find the way about it."

I was not backward to take her hint.

"If you had a guide now--" I began.

"Why, yes, if I had a guide, Simon," she whispered gleefully.

"You could find the way, Cydaria, and your guide would be most--"

"Most charitably engaged. But then--" She paused, drooping the corners of her mouth in sudden despondency.

"But what then?"

"Why then, Mistress Barbara would be alone."

I hesitated. I glanced towards the house. I looked at Cydaria.

"She told me that she wished to be alone," said I.

"No? How did she say it?"

"I will tell you all about that as we go along," said I, and Cydaria laughed again.

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