“Who is the little cockatrice?” he cried, the tears streaming down his florid cheeks. “Who is the young she-devil? Ods bodikins, who is she?”
For a second or so the servants stared at each other aghast, not knowing what to say, or venturing to utter a word; and then the nurse, who had come up panting, dared to gasp forth the truth.
“’Tis Mistress Clorinda, Sir Jeoffry,” she stammered—“my lady’s last infant—the one of whom she died in childbed.”
His big laugh broke in two, as one might say. He looked down at the young fury and stared. She was out of breath with beating him, and had ceased and fallen back apace, and was staring up at him also, breathing defiance and hatred. Her big black eyes were flames, her head was thrown up and back, her cheeks were blood scarlet, and her great crop of crow-black hair stood out about her beauteous, wicked little virago face, as if it might change into Medusa’s snakes.
“Damn thee!” she shrieked at him again. “I’ll kill thee, devil!”
Sir Jeoffry broke into his big laugh afresh.
“Clorinda do they call thee, wench?” he said. “Jeoffry thou shouldst have been but for thy mother’s folly. A fiercer little devil for thy size I never saw—nor a handsomer one.”
And he seized her from where she stood, and held her at his big arms’ length, gazing at her uncanny beauty with looks that took her in from head to foot.
Her beauty of face, her fine body, her strength of limb, and great growth for her age, would have pleased him if she had possessed no other attraction, but the daring of her fury and her stable-boy breeding so amused him and suited his roystering tastes that he took to her as the finest plaything in the world.
He set her on the floor, forgetting his coursing, and would have made friends with her, but at first she would have none of him, and scowled at him in spite of all he did. The brandy by this time had mounted to his head and put him in the mood for frolic, liquor oftenest making him gamesome. He felt as if he were playing with a young dog or marking the spirit of a little fighting cock. He ordered the servants back to their kitchen, who stole away, the women amazed, and the men concealing grins which burst forth into guffaws of laughter when they came into their hall below.
“’Tis as we said,” they chuckled. “He had but to see her beauty and find her a bigger devil than he, and ’twas done. The mettle of her—damning and flogging him! Never was there a finer sight! She feared him no more than if he had been a spaniel—and he roaring and laughing till he was like to burst.”
“Dost know who I am?” Sir Jeoffry was asking the child, grinning himself as he stood before her where she sat on the oaken settle on which he had lifted her.