CHAPTER I The Fifth Day of April, 1676
Upon the village of Camylott there had rested since the earliest peep of dawn a hush of affectionate and anxious expectancy, the very plough-boys going about their labours without boisterous laughter, the children playing quietly, and the good wives in their kitchens and dairies bustling less than usual and modulating the sharpness of their voices, the most motherly among them in truth finding themselves falling into whispering as they gossiped of the great subject of the hour.
"The swallows were but just beginning to stir and twitter in their nests under the eaves when I heard the horses' hoofs a-clatter on the high road," said Dame Watt to her neighbour as they stood in close confab in her small front garden. "Lord's mercy! though I have lain down expecting it every night for a week, the heart of me leapt up in my throat and I jounced Gregory with a thump in his back to wake him from his snoring. 'Gregory,' cries I, ''tis sure begun. God be kind to her young Grace this day. There goes a messenger clattering over the road. Hearken to his horse's feet.'"
Dame Bush, her neighbour, being the good mother of fourteen stalwart boys and girls, heaved a lusty sigh, the sound of which was a thing suggesting much experience and fellow-feeling even with noble ladies at such times.
"There is not a woman's heart in Camylott village," said she, "which doth not beat for her to-day—and for his Grace and the heir or heiress that will come of these hours of hers. God bless all three!"
"Lord, how the tiny thing hath been loved and waited for!" said Dame Watt. "'Tis somewhat to be born a great Duke's child! And how its mother hath been cherished and kept like a young saint in a shrine!"
"If 'tis not a great child and a beauteous one 'twill be a wondrous thing, its parents being both beautiful and happy, and both deep in love," quoth motherly Bush.
"Ay, it beginneth well; it beginneth well," said Dame Watt—"a being born to wealth and state. What with chaplains and governors of virtue and learning, there seemeth no way for it to go astray in life or grow to aught but holy greatness. It should be the finest duke or duchess in all England some day, surely."
"Heaven ordains a fair life for some new-born things, 'twould seem," said Bush, "and a black one for others; and the good can no more be escaped than the bad. There goes my Matthew in his ploughboy's smock across the fields. 'Tis a good lad and a handsome. Why was he not a great lord's son?"
Neighbour Watt laughed.
"Because thou wert an honest woman and not a beauty," quoth she.
The small black eyes set deep in Bush's broad red face twinkled somewhat at the rough jest, but not in hearty mirth. She rubbed her hand across her mouth with an awkward gesture.
"Ay," answered she, "but 'twas not that I meant. I thought of all this child is born to—love and wealth and learning—and that others are born to naught but ill."
"Lawk! let us not even speak of ill on such a day," said her neighbour....