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Oddsfish! by Robert Hugh Benson

And of the Duchess of Cleveland


"My dear cousin," I said again, "even if I had come on some such mission, I should assure you, as I do now, that it was nothing of the kind. How else could such missions be kept secret at all? It would be a _secretum commissum_ in any case; as the theologians would say. I can but repeat what I said in my letter to you; and, if you will think of it, you will see that it is not likely that any matter of importance would be entrusted to a young man of my age."

That seemed to quiet him. I have often noticed that to appeal to the experience and wisdom of a fool is the surest way to content him.

He began then to talk of the Court; and it would not be decent of me to record even a tenth part of the gossip he told me regarding the corruption that prevailed in Whitehall. Much of it was no doubt true; and a great deal more than he told me in some matters; but it came pouring out from him, and with such evident pleasure to himself, that it was all I could do to preserve a pleasant face towards him. He told me of the little orange-girl, Nell Gwyn, who was now just twenty-eight years old; and how she lived here and there as the King gave her houses--in Pall Mall, and in Sandford House in Chelsea, and at first at the "Cock and Pie" in Drury Lane; and how her hair was of a reddish brown, and how, when she laughed her eyes disappeared in her head; and of the Duchess of Cleveland, that was once Mrs. Palmer and then my Lady Castlemaine, now in France; and of the Duchess of Portsmouth, and her son created Duke of Richmond three years ago; and of the mock marriage that was celebrated, in my Lord Arlington's house at Euston, seven years ago between her and the King. And these things were only the more decent matters of which he spoke; and of all he spoke with that kind of chuckling pleasure that a heavy country squire usually shews in such things, so that I nearly hated him as he sat there. For to myself such things seem infinitely sorrowful; and all the more so in such a man as the King was; and they seemed the more sorrowful the more that I knew of him later; for he had so much of the supernatural in him after all, and knew what he did.

Then presently my Cousin Jermyn began upon the Duke; and at that I nearly loosed my tongue at him altogether. For I knew very well that the guilt of the Duke was heavier even than the guilt of the King, since James had the grace of the Sacraments to help him and the light of the Faith to guide him. But I judged it better not to shew my anger, since I was, as the Holy Father had told me, to be "in the world," though interiorly not of it: and so I feigned sleep instead, and presently had to snore aloud before my cousin could see it: and, as he stopped speaking, my Cousin Dorothy came in to bid us good-night.

"Why, I have been half asleep," I said. "I am tired with my journey. What were you saying, cousin?"

He leered again at that, as if to draw attention to his daughter's presence.

"Why, we were talking of high matters of state," he said, "when you fell asleep--matters too high for little maids to hear of. Give me a kiss, my dear."


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