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Oddsfish! by Robert Hugh Benson

The Duke sneezed once or twice

On the next morning when I came downstairs early it seemed to me that my Cousin Dorothy was herself downstairs too early for mere good manners. The guests were not yet stirring; yet the maids were up, and the ale set out in the dining-room, and the smell of hot oat-cake came from the kitchen. There were flowers also upon the table; and my cousin was in a pretty brown dress of hers that she did not wear very often.

I looked upon her rather harshly; and I think she observed it; for she said nothing to me as she went about her business.

I went out into the stable-yard to see the horses; and found my Cousin Tom there already, admiring them; and indeed they were fine, especially a great dappled grey that was stamping under the brush of the fellow who had first knocked at our door last night.

"That is Mr. Morton's horse, I suppose?" said Tom.

The man who was grooming him did not speak; and Tom repeated his question.

"Yes, sir," said the man, with a queer look which I understood, though Tom did not, "this is Mr. Morton's."

"And the chestnut is Mr. Atkins'?" asked my cousin.

"Just so, sir; Mr. Atkins'," said the man, with the corners of his mouth twitching.

The grinning ape--as I thought him--very nearly set me off into saying that I knew all about it; and that the yellow saddle-cloth was the colour the Duke of Monmouth used always; but I did not. It appeared to me then the worst of manners that these personages should come and make a mock of country-folk, so that even the servants laughed at us.

* * * * *

Our guests were downstairs when I came in again, and talking very merrily to my Cousin Dorothy, who was as much at her ease as last night. The Duke sneezed once or twice.

"You have taken a cold, sir," said Dolly.

"It was in a good cause," he said; and sneezed again.

"_Salute_," said I.

He gave me a quick look, astonished, I suppose, that a rustic should know the Italian ways.

"_Grazie_," said he, smiling. "You have been in Italy, Mr. Mallock?"

"Oh! I have been everywhere," I said, with a foolish idea of making him respect me.

* * * * *

When they rode away at last, we all stood at the gate to watch them go. The storm had cleared away wonderfully; and the air was fresh and summerlike, and ten thousand jewels sparkled on the limes. They made a very gallant cavalcade. The horses had recovered from their weariness, for they were finely bred, all five of them; and the Duke's horse especially was full of spirit, and curvetted a little, with pleasure and the strength of our corn, as he went along. The servants' liveries too were gay and pleasant to the eye:--(they were not the Duke's own liveries; for when he went about outside town he used a plainer sort)--and the Duke's dark blue, with his fair curls and his great hat which he waved as he went, and my Lord Essex's spruce figure in his buff, all made a very pretty picture as they went up the village street.

It was this, I think, and my Cousin Dolly's silence as she looked after them, that determined me; and as we three went back again up the flagged path to the house, and the servants round again to the yard, I spoke.

"Cousin Tom," I said. "Do you wish to know who our guests were?"

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