Of the two young women, it was Mistress Anne who had the more parts, and the attraction of the mind the least dull. In sooth, Nature had dealt with both in a niggardly fashion, but Mistress Barbara was the plainer and the more foolish. Mistress Anne had, perchance, the tenderer feelings, and was in secret given to a certain sentimentality. She was thin and stooping, and had but a muddy complexion; her hair was heavy, it is true, but its thickness and weight seemed naught but an ungrateful burden; and she had a dull, soft eye. In private she was fond of reading such romances as she could procure by stealth from the library of books gathered together in past times by some ancestor Sir Jeoffry regarded as an idiot. Doubtless she met with strange reading in the volumes she took to her closet, and her simple virgin mind found cause for the solving of many problems; but from the pages she contrived to cull stories of lordly lovers and cruel or kind beauties, whose romances created for her a strange world of pleasure in the midst of her loneliness. Poor, neglected young female, with every guileless maiden instinct withered at birth, she had need of some tender dreams to dwell upon, though Fate herself seemed to have decreed that they must be no more than visions.
It was, in sooth, always the beauteous Clorinda about whose charms she builded her romances. In her great power she saw that for which knights fought in tourney and great kings committed royal sins, and to her splendid beauty she had in secrecy felt that all might be forgiven. She cherished such fancies of her, that one morning, when she believed her absent from the house, she stole into the corridor upon which Clorinda’s apartment opened. Her first timid thought had been, that if a chamber door were opened she might catch a glimpse of some of the splendours her sister’s woman was surely laying out for her wearing at a birth-night ball, at the house of one of the gentry of the neighbourhood. But it so happened that she really found the door of entrance open, which, indeed, she had not more than dared to hope, and finding it so, she stayed her footsteps to gaze with beating heart within. On the great bed, which was of carved oak and canopied with tattered tapestry, there lay spread such splendours as she had never beheld near to before. ’Twas blue and silver brocade Mistress Clorinda was to shine in to-night; it lay spread forth in all its dimensions. The beautiful bosom and shoulders were to be bared to the eyes of scores of adorers, but rich lace was to set their beauties forth, and strings of pearls. Why Sir Jeoffry had not sold his lady’s jewels before he became enamoured of her six-year-old child it would be hard to explain. There was a great painted fan with jewels in the sticks, and on the floor—as if peeping forth from beneath the bravery of the expanded petticoats—was a pair of blue and silver shoes, high-heeled and arched and slender. In gazing at them Mistress Anne lost her breath, thinking that in some fashion they had a regal air of being made to trample hearts beneath them.