Some, indeed, of the youngest and boldest ride on horseback, but the ladies chiefly move in these waggons, which are fitted up with considerable comfort, and are necessary to sleep in when the camp is formed by the wayside at night. None noticed him as he went by, except a group of three cottage girls, and a serving-woman, an attendant of a lady visitor at the castle. He heard them allude to him; he quickened his pace, but heard one say, “He’s nobody; he hasn’t even got a horse.”
“Yes he is,” replied the serving-woman; “he’s Oliver’s brother; and I can tell you my lord Oliver is somebody; the Princess Lucia—” and she made the motion of kissing with her lips. Felix, ashamed and annoyed to the last degree, stepped rapidly from the spot. The serving-woman, however, was right in a measure; the real or supposed favour shown Oliver by the Prince’s sister, the Duchess of Deverell, had begun to be bruited abroad, and this was the secret reason why the Baron had shown Oliver so much and so marked an attention, even more than he had paid to Lord Durand.
Full well he knew the extraordinary influence possessed by ladies of rank and position. From what we can learn out of the scanty records of the past, it was so even in the days of the ancients; it is a hundredfold more so in these times, when, although every noble must of necessity be taught to read and write, as a matter of fact the men do neither, but all the correspondence of kings and princes, and the diplomatic documents, and notices, and so forth, are one and all, almost without a single exception, drawn up by women. They know the secret and hidden motives of courts, and have this great advantage, that they can use their knowledge without personal fear, since women are never seriously interfered with, but are protected by all.
The one terrible and utterly shameful instance to the contrary had not occurred at the time of which we are now speaking, and it was and is still repudiated by every man, from the knight to the boys who gather acorns for the swine. Oliver himself had no idea whatever that he was regarded as a favourite lover of the Duchess; he took the welcome that was held out to him as perfectly honest. Plain, straightforward, and honest, Oliver, had he been openly singled out by a queen, would have scorned to give himself an air for such a reason. But the Baron, deep in intrigue this many a year, looked more profoundly into the possibilities of the future when he kept the young knight at his side.
Felix was now outside the town and alone in the meadow which bordered the stream; he knelt, and drank from it with the hollow of his hand. He was going to ascend the hill beyond, and had already reached the barrier upon that side, when he recollected that etiquette demanded the presence of the guests at meal-times, and it was now the hour for tea. He hastened back, and found the courtyard of the castle crowded. Within, the staircase leading to the Baroness’s chamber (where tea was served) could scarcely be ascended, what with the ladies and their courtiers, the long trains of the serving-women, the pages winding their way in and out, the servants endeavouring to pass, the slender pet greyhounds, the inseparable companions of their mistresses.