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A Lady of Quality Frances Hodgson Burnett

Wherein a deadly war begins

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There were two men, however, who were more spoken of than all the rest, and whose court awakened a more lively interest; indeed, 'twas an interest which was lively enough at times to become almost a matter of contention, for those who upheld the cause of the one man would not hear of the success of the other, the claims of each being considered of such different nature. These two men were the Duke of Osmonde and Sir John Oxon. 'Twas the soberer and more dignified who were sure his Grace had but to proffer his suit to gain it, and their sole wonder lay in that he did not speak more quickly.

"But being a man of such noble mind, it may be that he would leave her to her freedom yet a few months, because, despite her stateliness, she is but young, and 'twould be like his honourableness to wish that she should see many men while she is free to choose, as she has never been before. For these days she is not a poor beauty as she was when she took Dunstanwolde."

The less serious, or less worldly, especially the sentimental spinsters and matrons and romantic young, who had heard and enjoyed the rumours of Mistress Clorinda Wildairs' strange early days, were prone to build much upon a certain story of that time.

"Sir John Oxon was her first love," they said. "He went to her father's house a beautiful young man in his earliest bloom, and she had never encountered such an one before, having only known country dolts and her father's friends. 'Twas said they loved each other, but were both passionate and proud, and quarrelled bitterly. Sir John went to France to strive to forget her in gay living; he even obeyed his mother and paid court to another woman, and Mistress Clorinda, being of fierce haughtiness, revenged herself by marrying Lord Dunstanwolde."

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"But she has never deigned to forgive him," 'twas also said. "She is too haughty and of too high a temper to forgive easily that a man should seem to desert her for another woman's favour. Even when 'twas whispered that she favoured him, she was disdainful, and sometimes flouted him bitterly, as was her way with all men. She was never gentle, and had always a cutting wit. She will use him hardly before she relents; but if he sues patiently enough with such grace as he uses with other women, love will conquer her at last, for 'twas her first."

She showed him no great favour, it was true; and yet it seemed she granted him more privilege than she had done during her lord's life, for he was persistent in his following her, and would come to her house whether of her will or of his own. Sometimes he came there when the Duke of Osmonde was with her--this happened more than once- -and then her ladyship's face, which was ever warmly beautiful when Osmonde was near, would curiously change. It would grow pale and cold; but in her eyes would burn a strange light which one man knew was as the light in the eyes of a tigress lying chained, but crouching to leap. But it was not Osmonde who felt this, he saw only that she changed colour, and having heard the story of her girlhood, a little chill of doubt would fall upon his noble heart. It was not doubt of her, but of himself, and fear that his great passion made him blind; for he was the one man chivalrous enough to remember how young she was, and to see the cruelty of the Fate which had given her unmothered childhood into the hands of a coarse rioter and debauchee, making her his plaything and his whim. And if in her first hours of bloom she had been thrown with youthful manhood and beauty, what more in the course of nature than that she should have learned to love; and being separated from her young lover by their mutual youthful faults of pride and passionateness of temper, what more natural than, being free again, and he suing with all his soul, that her heart should return to him, even though through a struggle with pride. In her lord's lifetime he had not seen Oxon near her; and in those days when he had so struggled with his own surging love, and striven to bear himself nobly, he had kept away from her, knowing that his passion was too great and strong for any man to always hold at bay and make no sign, because at brief instants he trembled before the thought that in her eyes he had seen that which would have sprung to answer the same self in him if she had been a free woman. But now when, despite her coldness, which never melted to John Oxon, she still turned pale and seemed to fall under a restraint on his coming, a man of sufficient high dignity to be splendidly modest where his own merit was concerned, might well feel that for this there must be a reason, and it might be a grave one.

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A Lady of Quality
Frances Hodgson Burnett

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