Читать онлайн "A Midsummer Tempest" автора Андерсон Пол Уильям - RuLit - Страница 7

 
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He placed chairs opposite each other before the hearth. She waited to take hers until he had settled down, shank across knee, fingertips bridged, glance quizzical. A smile eased the severity which most often possessed his countenance.

“In many ways, this place is just like Linz,” he remarked, “including, yea, another damosel.”

Jennifer stiffened. Firelight flickered across her face, its crackle went beneath her voice. “Who was she?”

After a moment, in confusion: “Pardon my forwardness, lord.”

“Naught calls for pardon, lady. Though,’tis odd—have I not told you of Count Kuffstein’s daughter? You’ve asked so eagerly about my past—which no man’s loth to tell a pretty maid—I thought you had my whole biography.”

“No, you’ve passed lightly over those three years when you were prisoner in Austria.” She leaned toward him. “I understand. The likenesses give pain.” Her tone was troubled. “Then do not speak of them to me, Prince Rupert.”

“I think I’d like to, if you will not mind,” he said slowly. “Then do.”

Her gaze never left him. His went to the hues which wove in the fire. “This seems to cast a thawing warmth,” he mused, “across a child born to the Winter King.”

“The Winter King?”

“His nickname’s new to you?” Rupert said, bending a startled attention back onto her. “Why, thus they called my father, for he reigned that single season in Bohemia. I know you know how England has been roiled by politics of the Palatinate.”

“I am not learned, your Highness,” Jennifer replied humbly. “As you’ve heard, I’m from a wild and lonely Cornwall coast. I got no schooling till I was fourteen, and in the years since then have been kept cloistered.”

Impishness broke through; she wrinkled her nose and giggled. “Please quote that not to Uncle Malachi.”

Rupert laughed too, with a malicious glance for the sentry and his fellows. They were out of earshot if voices stayed low. “You’ve told me almost nothing of yourself,” he realized.

Her bosom rose and fell. “There’s naught worth telling, Highness.”

Gravity came back upon him. “Jennifer,” he said, “with charm and merriment and… simply caring, you’ve kindled stars in this eclipse of mine. Today I see I’ve taken them for granted. I don’t think I’ll be here much longer—” At her strickenness, he nodded. “Aye. Reports come daily in how Cavaliers are everywhere in rout before the Roundheads. The London roads will soon be clear of them, and I’ll be taken thither…

Well, my lady, if ever you have thought of me as knight, although upon the side opposed to yours, give me your token as in olden time—but let it be a memory of you. Tell me your life, beginning at its dawn. No matter if I’ve heard some parts before.” He grimaced. “Remind me that you are by blood no Shelgrave.”

Did she flush, or was it only red fire-glow? She stared into the flames awhile before abruptly turning to him and saying: “If you’ll do likewise, Prince.”

“A handselled bargain.” Trying to laugh afresh, he reached over and laid his fingers about hers. She gasped, then clung; tears trembled on her lashes. The peering Puritan in the doorway bent neck around and muttered to a comrade.

Rupert released Jennifer and leaned against his chairback. “Not quite a fair exchange,” he observed, “because, you see, I’ll hear what’s mostly new—d’you understand I have not heard who your own father was?—while you’ll be getting yarns I fear are shopworn.”

“How can a tale of bravery wear out?”

Rupert squirmed a little. “Speak. Ladies first.”

She responded hesitantly: “As you may know, my mother and aunt were daughters of Horatio Binstock, a Yorkshire merchant—Congregational, though easygoing, not a strict reformer. Mine aunt wed Malachi but had no issue. My mother, younger, wilder, then eloped with Frank Alayne, half French, half Cornishman, the captain of a ship… and Catholic. Her father having died, Sir Malachi avenged the slight by causing Dad’s discharge. Thereon my parents had to seek his homeland, a hamlet on a rugged, wooded shore where he could be part owner of a boat that fished, bore freight, or smuggled as might be.” She raised eyes from lap; finding his fixed upon her, she lowered them again. “There I grew up, the oldest child of four. Mine only education was some French from Dad and friends of his from’cross the Channel. When Mother died, I must at ten be mistress, take care of those my siblings, and of Dad, who soon was drinking headlong as he’d lived. He drowned one autumn four years afterward. I fear we’d seldom been inside a church; but still the minister was good enough to write to London, to mine aunt and uncle. They, being childless, took us for their wards.”

“How fared you with them?”

“Oh, they’re not unkind—at least to us; the servants go in terror. We’d never been thus fed or clothed or housed. And we learned letters and… the true religion.”

Jennifer brightened. “And London is a fable come to life—those glimpses of it which I chanced to get—”

“Where are the other children?”

“Left behind, with Mistress Shelgrave, when Sir Malachi came north last year to see to his interests. He feared, like many, you, the dread Prince Rupert… would enter London soon… and might well sack it.… In both was he mistaken, I’ve discovered… My sister’s small, the other two are boys; but I, he said, had best come here for… caution.”

“It seems he thought his wife could safely bide,” Rupert said dryly.

The Roundheads, who had been huddled in a ring, dispatched one of their number downstairs. The two by the fire did not notice.

“And that is all my little life, your Highness,” Jennifer said.

“No, no, the barest bones.” She raised her head. The light played ruddy in her braids. “Your turn, my lord,” she challenged. “Thereafter comes the flesh for both of us—” She stopped, gasped, and buried blood-hot face in hands. Rupert hastened to cover her dismay with speech: “Let’s cast my bones and study how they fall. You’ve often heard them rattle, but you’ve asked it. My mother was a daughter of King James and Anne of Denmark. She wed Frederick, Elector of the Rhine Palatinate. They were a loving couple—thirteen children despite misfortune, I the fourth of them. Well, when the Protestants in Prague had cast the Emperor’s envoys out a palace window, they asked my father if he would be king of free Bohemia, and he accepted. There I was born, but had not seen a year before the Imperial armies overthrew him. Their crown discarded for a crown now lost, my parents wandered fugitive about till they found refuge in the Netherlands.’Twas granted for the blood of Silent William that flowed within my father’s veins. His widow and offspring still know straitened circumstances. Together with my brother, Prince Maurice, I early went to war, first in the aid of Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, then, with Swedish help, in trying to regain the Electorate our oldest brother claims. But what was gotten turned out to be me, for three years in the care of Graf von Kuffstein at Linz while people dickered my release.” Seeing her more calm: “You’ve heard all this.”

She summoned courage to answer, “No, not about that maid.”

“Oh, she was Kuffstein’s daughter, hight Susanne. He was a good old man who liked me well and hoped that I would join the Church of Rome. So far as he could rule, my bonds were light—except for being bonds—not unlike here, including the most welcome company of a delightful damsel whom I’ll ever remember with affection and respect.”

“I dare not hope to be… a new Susanne.”

“You will be while this head is on its neck.” Jennifer jerked erect in her chair. “What mean you?

     

 

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