* * * * *
That night she appeared at the birth-night ball with the wreath of roses on her head. No other ladies wore such things, ’twas a fashion of her own; but she wore it in such beauty and with such state that it became a crown again even as it had been the first moment that she had put it on. All gazed at her as she entered, and a murmur followed her as she moved with her father up the broad oak staircase which was known through all the country for its width and massive beauty. In the hall below guests were crowded, and there were indeed few of them who did not watch her as she mounted by Sir Jeoffry’s side. In the upper hall there were guests also, some walking to and fro, some standing talking, many looking down at the arrivals as they came up.
“’Tis Mistress Wildairs,” these murmured as they saw her. “Clorinda, by God!” said one of the older men to his crony who stood near him. “And crowned with roses! The vixen makes them look as if they were built of rubies in every leaf.”
At the top of the great staircase there stood a gentleman, who had indeed paused a moment, spellbound, as he saw her coming. He was a man of unusual height and of a majestic mien; he wore a fair periwig, which added to his tallness; his laces and embroiderings were marvels of art and richness, and his breast blazed with orders. Strangely, she did not seem to see him; but when she reached the landing, and her face was turned so that he beheld the full blaze of its beauty, ’twas so great a wonder and revelation to him that he gave a start. The next moment almost, one of the red roses of her crown broke loose from its fastenings and fell at his very feet. His countenance changed so that it seemed almost, for a second, to lose some of its colour. He stooped and picked the rose up and held it in his hand. But Mistress Clorinda was looking at my Lord of Dunstanwolde, who was moving through the crowd to greet her. She gave him a brilliant smile, and from her lustrous eyes surely there passed something which lit a fire of hope in his.
After she had made her obeisance to her entertainers, and her birthday greetings to the young heir, he contrived to draw closely to her side and speak a few words in a tone those near her could not hear.
“To-night, madam,” he said, with melting fervour, “you deign to bring me my answer as you promised.”
“Yes,” she murmured. “Take me where we may be a few moments alone.”
He led her to an antechamber, where they were sheltered from the gaze of the passers-by, though all was moving gaiety about them. He fell upon his knee and bowed to kiss her fair hand. Despite the sobriety of his years, he was as eager and tender as a boy.
“Be gracious to me, madam,” he implored. “I am not young enough to wait. Too many months have been thrown away.”
“You need wait no longer, my lord,” she said—“not one single hour.”