Poor Cis, she knelt gazing perplexed into the embers, now and then touching a stick to make them glow, till Nat, the chief of “the old blue bottles of serving-men,” came in to lay the cloth for dinner, exclaiming, “So, Mistress Cis! Madam doth cocker thee truly, letting thee dream over the coals, till thy face be as red as my Lady’s new farthingale, while she is toiling away like a very scullion.”
It was a rainy November afternoon. Dinner was over, the great wood fire had been made up, and Mistress Talbot was presiding over the womenfolk of her household and their tasks with needle and distaff. She had laid hands on her unwilling son Edward to show his father how well he could read the piece de resistance of the family, Fabyan’s Chronicle; and the boy, with an elbow firmly planted on either side of the great folio, was floundering through the miseries of King Stephen’s time; while Mr. Talbot, after smoothing the head of his largest hound for some minutes, had leant back in his chair and dropped asleep. Cicely’s hand tardily drew out her thread, her spindle scarcely balanced itself on the floor, and her maiden meditation was in an inactive sort of way occupied with the sense of dulness after the summer excitements, and wonder whether her greatness were all a dream, and anything would happen to recall her once more to be a princess. The kitten at her feet took the spindle for a lazily moving creature, and thought herself fascinating it, so she stared hard, with only an occasional whisk of the end of her striped tail; and Mistress Susan was only kept awake by her anxiety to adapt Diccon’s last year’s jerkin to Ned’s use.
Suddenly the dogs outside bayed, the dogs inside pricked their ears, Ned joyfully halted, his father uttered the unconscious falsehood, “I’m not asleep, lad, go on,” then woke up as horses’ feet were heard; Ned dashed out into the porch, and was in time to hold the horse of one of the two gentlemen, who, with cloaks over their heads, had ridden up to the door. He helped them off with their cloaks in the porch, exchanging greetings with William Cavendish and Antony Babington.
“Will Mrs. Talbot pardon our riding-boots?” said the former. “We have only come down from the Manor-house, and we rode mostly on the grass.”
Their excuses were accepted, though Susan had rather Master William had brought any other companion. However, on such an afternoon, almost any variety was welcome, especially to the younger folk, and room was made for them in the circle, and according to the hospitality of the time, a cup of canary fetched for each to warm him after the ride, while another was brought to the master of the house to pledge them in—a relic of the barbarous ages, when such a security was needed that the beverage was not poisoned.