(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

Just outside London, a crowd had gathered to watch an archery contest. Several shot at the white cloth on the butt, but no one hit the mark squarely. Then in a haughty and preoccupied way a commoner stepped up, fitted his arrow, and pierced the center of the white field. While his fellow tradesmen applauded, he dropped back into the crowd.

A young noble, who was not entered in the contest, borrowed a bow. With sure aim, he hit fairly the little peg that secured the cloth to the butt. He gallantly returned the bow and strode away. As he was leaving, the commoner who had hit the cloth stopped him. Their instant recognition was mutual, and they began to talk delightedly of past times.

The commoner was Nicholas Alwyn, a goldsmith who had been the younger son of a good family. He had rejected the monk’s habit, the usual lot of younger sons, and had chosen to go into trade. He was shrewd enough to see that the future greatness of England lay in the prosperous middle class and that the day of feudal nobility was nearly over. He had taken part in the tournament simply to advertise his profession, not through love of decadent sport. The young noble, who was his foster brother, was Marmaduke Nevile. He had come from his northern estate to seek service with his kinsman, the powerful Earl of Warwick, who was known as the kingmaker.

On Alwyn’s advice, Marmaduke approached Lord Montagu, the Earl of Warwick’s brother, and made known his errand. The nobleman repulsed Marmaduke in full view of his retinue, for Marmaduke’s father had fought on the side of Lancaster in the recent wars, and the Warwicks had successfully supported the Yorkists.

Feeling abashed, Marmaduke accompanied Alwyn into the city. Alwyn advised him to go to see the Earl in person, and Marmaduke resolved to do so the next day.

On the road to his inn, he met a gentle girl surrounded by a screaming mob of women who earned their living by dancing and playing timbrels for fair crowds. Accusing the girl of trying to earn money by playing her gittern at the tournament, they would have harmed her if Marmaduke had not come to her rescue. He escorted the frightened girl away, but through faintheartedness he did not take her all the way home. As soon as he left her, the women set upon her again. She was rescued by an older man, a true knight who escorted her to her ruined dwelling.

It was dusk when Marmaduke left the city. Shortly afterward, he was attacked by a band of robbers who slashed him severely and left him to die. He managed to make his way to a nearby house, and there he was cared for by the girl whom he had deserted a short time before. She was Sibyll Warner, daughter of Adam Warner, a philosopher and alchemist who spent all of his time in his laboratory. After years of labor, he had nearly completed a crude model of a small steam engine. In those superstitious days, Adam was accounted a sorcerer and his daughter was suspected of witchcraft.

During his convalescence, Marmaduke was greatly attracted to Sibyll, but her superior learning was a barrier between them. Alwyn, who came to the house many times, also fell in love with the girl; but...

(The entire section is 1299 words.)