Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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It is a very small museum, if indeed it be worthy of that name, and stands in a back street of a little Italian town, and is so unimportant to many, perhaps to most so uninteresting, that very few disturb the quiet here, which is like the quiet of the cloister or the graveyard.
Some rich citizen, who had the industry and the vanity of the true antiquary, gathered together during a long and, probably, idle life all these toys and trifles of art and antiquity, and, dying, left his collection and his house to his native town, to be the property of the people for ever.
So the old mansion was duly cleared out, the collection dutifully arranged in cases and drawers, the old catalogue enlarged and altered, and the little museum was ready and open.
That, perhaps, was a hundred years ago. And now the old house and the old collection have been left behind, almost forgotten in that backwater of a long side street, where else there is nothing even remotely of interest.
If there had been anything of value amidst these odds and ends it would by now have been found and rescued; but among these ancient treasures there is nothing to attract the attention of anyone.
The door stands always open, and in the hall sits a lean and faded porter always asleep. When a rare visitor appears he wakes with a start, points in a bewildered way up the dark stairs and falls asleep again.
There is no other guardian in the place; a thief would have easy chances of stealing, but there is nothing worth the taking away.
The whole house is redolent of dust: dust beyond words, not only on the surface of everything, but in all nooks and crannies, the dust of a hundred years penetrating deep into walls and floors and ceiling—a very veil of oblivion descending on what is useless and unused, forgotten and dead.
Some of the furniture remains—a set of Spanish chairs with leathern fringes, a wooden bedstead with a faded blue tapestry canopy, a writing-desk, a bureau, all unpolished, drilled with worm-holes and dull with the thick dust.
They had a ghastly forlorn look, as if they had never been used by human beings, but were relics of some ghost world of tragedy.
It is the same with the pictures on the walls, these innumerable, dark worthless pictures, huge oils in tarnished frames, some with the names of great painters attached, most labelled "unknown." What are they, these bogus Raphaels, and Rubens, Van Dyck, and Rembrandt, and those more honest daubs that are nameless?
Who painted them, at what time, in what country—is it possible that this black hard varnished wood and canvas were ever fresh with wet paint?
They seem immortal, and as if they had been always what they are now—old, mysterious and dusty.
Who were the subjects of all these unknown portraits in pastel and oil that grin or frown from their tarnished frames?
It is strange to think they ever lived and moved, so corpse-like, so unhuman are they in their dusty immobility.
About the rooms stand the cases filled with an undisturbed medley of trifles.
Bones and ornaments from tombs of Egypt, coins and shells from savage islands, porcelain and pottery, chipped and mended, statuettes and miniatures, strings of beads and boxwood carvings, engravings of long-forgotten events, books on long-forgotten themes, incomplete sets of chessmen, worn packs of playing cards, old fans, toys, swords, musical instruments, cups, plates, daggers, pistols, tankards, medals, stones, watches, candlesticks, clocks, lamps, riding-whips, wax bas-reliefs, Roman mosaics, paste buckles and necklaces, bone combs and carvings in coral, wreaths of the thin Etruscan gold beaten into the shape of laurel branches, intaglio rings and cameo rings, collars of fine linen heavy with a marvellous embroidery and yellow and stiff, caskets covered with silk and sewn with figures of cavaliers and ladies—such are these treasures, once handled by living fingers, once useful and lovely, now mere scraps of wood and metal, glass and pottery, stuff and lace, all discoloured, dull and meaningless—piteous neglected relics that should have been long ago destroyed or entombed and that, shut away here in their dusty cases, seem so remote from life and the world that there is about them a faint horror. It is always silent in the museum, and sad, even when the strong sunlight streams through the old-fashioned window and throws the colours from the arms of the old antiquary in splashes of warm light on the dusty floor, the dusty walls, the dusty cases.
A solitary footstep makes a notable noise, a dismal creaking of the loosened boards; a raised voice would sound strange here, where the air has been so long empty of more than a whisper; there are a green tree and a fountain in the little garden, glimpsing it from the windows, they seem a thing from another world.
There are no words to express the stillness and desolation of this place unless they are the two words—dust and oblivion—oblivion and dust.
The catalogue, bound in dry and crackling calf, hangs by a dust-rusted cord to the wall in the principal room; it has never been printed, this is the only copy; the neat writing within is almost the colour of yellow ochre now; it hangs with the leaves falling apart, and a spider has spun an almost imperceptible web from corner to corner.
Some of the objects are labelled in this same fine handwriting, most are not; what little there is to know of all must be searched for in the catalogue.
Yet even this grave and learned compilation is evasive—it gives as "unknown" the portraits that raise curiosity; it chronicles Raphaels and Rubens with an unfaltering faith that cause the veracity of all the items entered here to be suspected; in brief it is untrustworthy and had better be left to the spider who is making the old covers of use at last.
Yet if one could look back—beyond the dust, beyond the years to the time when all these dead things were fresh—when the originals of those portraits moved and worked and laughed, when beer was really brewed in those jugs and tea drunk from those cups, when those cards were dashed on to the playing table, when that sword graced some gallant's thigh, that paste necklace some woman's neck, when that collar was stitched by some industrious fingers, those coins shook in someone's pocket, and those clocks were wound up and ticked in someone's home—if one could look back to those times, might not one find curious stories, sad stories, and gay stories attached to these old worthless objects?—as staring at ashes one may recall the flames.
Blow away the dust, and from the darkness of oblivion draw at hazard these tales, each belonging to an item in the old catalogue, and to trifles that lie mostly huddled together in one neglected case.
All together now, and covered with one common dust—once far separated by years and by distance, for scarcely two are of the same epoch or the same country.
THIS is how the item is entered in the old catalogue—the ring lies carelessly in the corner of a long dusty glass case; near is a fragment of an Etruscan necklace, the fine filigree work broken into shreds; occupying the centre of the case is a shrivelled and half unwrapt mummy of a sacred ibis, and another object of horror, the dried head of a Maori chief with hard painted cheeks and long tufts of coarse black hair.
If anyone should chance to glance here, the interest of these ghastly relics would obscure that of the cornelian ring, dull under the dust, with the setting dirty and tarnished. Yet once it played a part in a tale at once romantic and pleasant—once it was bright and polished and handled by youthful fingers, and treasured as an antique fresh from the new ploughed vineyards of the Roman campagna, though a later judgment considered its pretensions doubtful, and the label is dubious.
This is the story of the cornelian ring.
The date is the date of the one English regency. The scene is first in Kent, and the curtain goes up on the figure of a young girl walking along the terrace of a fine old manor-house.
She was a young girl, not more than twenty, and pleasing as any fair Englishwoman of her breed and age, slender, erect, self-composed, delicate featured, with wide grey eyes more than a little discontented in expression.
Her name was Ruth Fairfax, and as she had been destined for her cousin's bride ever since she was a little child, and his name was Basil, some fantasy had shortened her name into Rue.
Basil and Rue they had always been as children playing together—Basil and Rue at the formal betrothal and during the few months of their position as serious lovers.
And they were Basil and Rue to each other now when they wrote to each other—he from London, she from Featherstonehaugh Manor-house, which she had never left in all her life.
Nor was she ever intended to leave it—she had been bred with that one idea—that she was to be the wife of Basil and the Mistress of the Manor.
Early an orphan, Basil's mother had brought her up, and her not inconsiderable fortune had gone in acquiring fresh land round Featherstonehaugh, and in improving the property which was one day to be hers, which was, in fact, partly hers now.
And she loved the place with an ardent response to all the careful training she had received to love and revere it, with a keen sense of all the tradition it stood for, the fine life it was symbolic of, and she asked nothing better than the destiny prepared for her—to reign over Featherstonehaugh as she had been taught to reign.
She looked over the noble sweeps of lawn broken by magnificent beech and yew trees, that extended to the great iron gates, then glanced up at the house, built under the Tudors and turreted, and now stately under a sombre June sky.
Then she skirted the wide terrace and walked rapidly and gracefully to the back of the mansion.
There a simple garden brought its sweetness to the very arched doorways of the dwelling; there was no exotic flower, only those blooms that had flourished here almost as long as the Featherstonehaughs themselves—large Canterbury bells of a pale shell pink, Jacob's Ladder, purple and white sweet-williams, bushes of lavender, pink poppies, azure cornflowers, and the tall spikes of white lilies yet in bud.
And behind this border grew the roses, now in full glory, heavy crimson blooms amid deep crimson foliages, roses with sulphur hearts, blush roses with sea-green leaves, and rambling roses of white and crimson, minute and multitudinous among the fine trails of green.
Among these roses walked a tall lady, snipping the faded flowers into a rush basket that she carried on her arm.
She wore a shawl over her gown of black and white striped taffetas, and a frilled muslin cap fastened under her chin.
At the girl's approach she turned towards her a fine, thin and determined face.
Rue came and stood beside her; neither spoke.
There was something ominous in this silence, as was something ominous in the grey sky and chill wind of this June day.
The elder lady used her scissors vigorously, and the girl watched with the intentness of preoccupation the heavy heads of the roses fall on to the moist ground.
Presently she stooped and began picking them up and placing them in the basket on her aunt's arm.
Lady Featherstonehaugh glanced at her serious face and spoke.
"You heard from Basil this morning?"
Rue answered as if replying to a challenge.
"And I was not told?"
"I was awaiting an opportunity of telling you, Aunt Ellen."
"You have it now."
The lady dropped the scissors into the basket and stood facing her niece, who had flushed at the cold tones directed to her so haughtily. But her tone also was resolute and calm as she replied:
"It is time Basil returned."
"I know that." Lady Featherstonehaugh spoke frankly but with the same coldness.
"He must come back."
Rue pronounced the words with energy; the skirt of the dark close gown was ruffled by the wind, her fair hair blown across her brow; she looked very resolute, and, in a delicate manner, strong.
The elder woman eyed her keenly.
"Can you make him come back?"
Rue answered slowly.
"No—nor can you, Aunt Ellen;" then, reluctantly facing a contemptuous truth, "He cares no more for either of us—nor for Featherstonehaugh." Basil's mother stood as one outraged; she was speechless at this tearing aside of the veil she had hung before reality, at this ruthless levelling of the defences her love had built round her son.
Looking at her Rue was stirred into passion.
"Please let us help each other! Please let me tell you how it is—he gambles."
Rigid his mother answered.
"I know—all young men do."
Rue was unflinching.
"He plays high—and loses."
"We can afford some losses."
"Not these losses."
Lady Featherstonehaugh shivered and glanced up at the clouded sky.
"What has he written to you?" she demanded on a note of surrender.
"That he loses—and worse than money."
Rue's eyes were dark; she answered with a certain fierceness.
"He begins to stake Featherstonehaugh."
The elder lady set her lips and her brow in frowning lines; she stood erect before the blow of a horrible suspicion confirmed. Just for a moment she was on the defensive, excuses, even denials, on her lips, the life-long spirit of devotion refusing to be utterly quenched, even at this moment, which was but the climax of long weeks of trial and suspense.
Then, under the straight glance of the girl, a glance which was singularly fearless and ardent, she surrendered.
"Yes, Rue," she said, and her voice sounded old and uncontrolled. "You are quite right—something must be done."
But there was a hopeless sound in her words, as if she said, "What can two women do against a man, who is at once their lord and their beloved?"
Rue took her arm very gently and relieved her of the basket of dead roses, and the two erect, yet pitiful, figures passed from under the shadow of the grey sky into the shadow of the ancient house.
In the tapestried drawing-room, proudly kept unchanged through all changes of taste and mode, they faced each other and their trouble.
"It is Lord Muskerry," said Rue.
Lady Featherstonehaugh bowed her head.
"I have realised that," she answered.
Her manner was quite meek, the manner of one towards another who has shown the courage he himself has lacked.
"That man," continued the girl with emphasis, "has Basil by the throat—he will get every penny from him—and every rood of Featherstonehaugh."
Basil's mother was dumb; she was hardly prepared for this extreme facing of the situation. Basil was Basil—to be adored and reverenced—"my Son" and "master of Featherstonehaugh," yet the energy and decision of the younger woman silenced this tradition and this pride. Deep in her stalwart heart Basil's mother was afraid; she kept her hands tight locked in her lap, and looked at Rue with an intensity that grew piteous.
Rue looked at the window; the clouds had broken now and a fine rain fell on the swaying flowers; the horizon began to glow a luminous colour of pearl, and in rifts in the clouds shafts of light gleamed against which the rain looked like a veil of diamonds.
"It is Lord Muskerry," repeated the girl; her figure in the blue gown, straight, tight and showing the limbs, the elegant feet in the white stockings and black sandals looked incongruous against the old massive oak chair built to frame ruff and wimple, stomacher and farthingale.
"He has been in the hands of Lord Muskerry," she added, "ever since he went to London—'twas his first friend—his ruin."
"It is with Lord Muskerry he plays?" the question came reluctantly.
"He himself admits it," replied Rue; with scorn she quoted her lover's letter, "'Playing with my Lord Muskerry I have been unfortunate—I staked and lost some of the Haugh Woods.' That is what he said."
"The Haugh Woods!" muttered Lady Featherstonehaugh.
Rue proceeded with her indictment.
"Betty Morton has written the same thing to me. She says her husband hears of Basil at all the night clubs—that he is in the foremost of every folly, every devilry in town—this has been going on for more than a year, Aunt Ellen."
"For a year and three months—and two days, dear." She had the date of her son's departure engraved in her heart.
"And during that time he has not once thought to visit us—his return is ever postponed—and our marriage is never referred to."
She turned her eyes on her aunt; she was very moved; the fair face was flushed—she was thinking of more than Basil, she was thinking of Featherstonehaugh.
"Are we going to wait here while he squanders and stakes the estate?"
The elder lady looked at her in silence; she had no suggestion to make; she was so trained to inaction, as the only dignified course for a woman, that she could think of no alternative; her married life had been an admirable training in patience; the late Sir Basil had had so many faults that she had hardly been able to suppress a sigh of relief at his demise; but he had not gambled beyond the ordinary trifling play of a gentleman. This was a new disaster—and threatened ruin—horrors impossible to contemplate.
"He could never gamble Featherstonehaugh," she broke out suddenly.
"He has begun," replied Rue. "This Lord Muskerry will suck him dry—do you think that he will be content with a portion of Haugh Woods? He will play for the whole estate."
"It is very possible—larger estates than this have been lost this way."
"Who is he, this Muskerry?"
Rue's clear eyes flashed hate.
"Who can he be? A greedy adventurer—a penniless peer, a fribble of fashion—a rook on the outlook for such a pigeon as Basil! Who else?"
"Is there no one?" asked Lady Featherstonehaugh desperately, "who can save Basil? One of his father's friends?"
"Would he listen to them? You know he would not."
"There must be someone."
"I know of no one."
"But something must be done."
The girl raised her hand impulsively and put back her soft hair.
"We must go to London," she said.
Amazement flushed the other lady's face.
"We? I have not been to town since Basil's father died."
"We must go now."
"To London—to the town house—to stay with Basil to—to fight Lord Muskerry."
Hope began to light the clouds of Lady Featherstonehaugh's bewilderment.
After all why should they not break through the tradition that as females they should wait decorously in the country till their lord pleased to return.
"I believe that you are right, my dear," she said, and flushed. "Basil certainly needs us, and as he will not come to us, we must go to him."
Rue was thinking more of Featherstonehaugh than of Basil.
Before one rood of the manor fell into the hands of strangers she was prepared to make a valiant fight.
Bending together with interlocked hands the women took counsel.
It ended by Basil's mother drawing the girl to her bosom and crying over her. Rue did not cry at all.
Within the week they were ready to start. Sir Basil had had but a day's notice of their arrival; his cousin did not wish to give him the chance to write putting them off with any excuse either specious or laboured.
They did not expect the warmest of welcomes; of late their correspondence had been cold and tinged with reproach; he would be sure to suspect their motive in this sudden unparalleled visit.
He did indeed mark his displeasure by being out when they arrived at the town mansion.
This disturbed Rue very little. She took command of the household, established the new servants she had brought with her, then took the coach and went shopping with her aunt in the Haymarket and the adjacent fashionable streets.
She was not indifferent to the trifle of clothes; she had never looked a country miss, and now she ordered the finest gowns she had ever worn with surety and taste.
Lady Featherstonehaugh approved; she grew younger and less formal in this atmosphere; she almost enjoyed the constant spectacle of the changing crowd, but Rue wished that she was back at Featherstonehaugh.
Nothing distracted her from the one set purpose in her mind.
That night Sir Basil returned so late that both the ladies were abed.
The next morning his mother came into Rue's room.
The girl lay yet in the heavy old bed, shadowed by folds of silk curtains.
"What, have you seen him?"
"He was up early—I heard him come down—his voice on the stairs—I hurried down—he was going for a ride—"
"To avoid us!"
"He says he rides every morning." Lady Featherstonehaugh still strove to defend him.
"What did he say?"
"Oh—greetings—surprise—he behaved well—asked for you—"
Rue was still unmollified.
"Could he do less?"
She slipped from the bed and stood in her long ruffled gown gazing at her aunt.
"You do not look pleased," she said keenly.
"He was changed?"
Basil's mother was startled.
"How did you guess?"
"I thought that he would be—lately his letters have changed."
For a little they were silent; the elder woman sat on the edge of the bed.
"We shall never do anything with him," she said sadly.
"He is—so changed as all that?" demanded Rue frowning.
"I am afraid so."
Rue said nothing more; she braced herself to meet this Basil, so changed that his mother spoke of it—changed indeed he must be!
His betrothed had found him easy to deal with in the past, bright, laughing, good-humoured, malleable—too malleable. Now another and sinister influence had moulded him.
Rue felt bitter towards London, very bitter towards Lord Muskerry.
If Basil had remained at Featherstonehaugh he would not have changed, but have remained the same dear lord, the centre of their adoration and interest.
That day she did not see him; she armed herself with patience, surrounded herself with such friends as there were in London, found out what she could of the formidable Lord Muskerry.
She found that she had been mistaken in her estimation of him; he was no fop of fashion, no starving adventurer, but a man of wealth and distinction; he had a reputation as a diplomat—would soon be in the Government, so much even his enemies admitted. Rake and gambler he might be, but this had never hindered his success nor smirched his reputation; he was spoken of as one destined to a notable career—compared to Bolingbroke, was a wit, an author—a man certainly distinguished.
Rue hated him the more.
She had a capacity for hatred as some have for love; often she was surprised herself at the quick passion of her feelings against some person or object who wounded or vexed her; and Lord Muskerry had done both.
For he had taken from her what was most peculiarly hers—her lover, and was on the way to take from her her fortune and her home.
The first meeting with Basil was one of perfect courtesy.
He behaved with a frankness that was the most perfect guard to his thoughts and feelings, and her manner had always been one of easy reserve, even towards him.
But while the two exchanged commonplaces in the great drawing-room of the town mansion, she asking after the London season, he after Featherstonehaugh, they were keenly regarding each other.
It was almost the keenness of enemies—certainly it was a keenness free from all illusion and almost from kindness.
He could not but approve her bloom, the glow of wind and sun in her cheeks, the clearness of her eyes, the abundant glossy hair looped round the high amber comb; her figure, not concealed by the close gown of tight silk, was too full for his taste, a freedom in her movements seemed boldness, her feet seemed large, though finely shaped, her hands were browned on the backs, he noticed the scars of rose thorns on her fingers—worse than all, she had now an air too composed, even too commanding for one who had become used to the adoration and thousand veiled flatteries of town ladies.
He hesitated in his judgment, sometimes considering her a beautiful woman, sometimes as one without charm.
At least she was not the country miss, awkward and shy—it was equally certain that she was not a fine lady adept in the art of fascination.
In Rue's judgment there had been no hesitancy; even before their greeting hands had parted, after the first alert glance she had said to herself—"He will not do."
As they sat side by side on the long yellow settee this first swift verdict of hers was confirmed.
His mother had said that he was changed. To Rue's quicker perception he had not changed but matured; she realised, with a cruel pang, that all the faults she saw in him now were always there, latent but potent—his charm had become affectation, his weakness, before unconscious, now on guard, was veiled by an air of obstinacy. He was now no longer afraid of disregarding emotions he had been awed into holding sacred, nor ashamed to own his love of folly; he spoke with a shrug of his mother, with a sneer of Featherstonehaugh; his shallowness very completely aped the gentleman à la mode. His face had altered; the rosy freshness was changed into a thick pallor, becoming but unhealthy, the fullness of the lips and chin was emphasised, the eyes were heavy lidded; he wore the extreme fashion, and carried himself with the air of a man who gives too much attention to his dress.
"When are you returning home?" asked Rue—she used the last word with meaning; she saw that his vanity resented it.
"Have you come to fetch me?" he parried. "Like a school dame after a truant?"
She considered her reply.
"Well, perhaps," she said slowly.
He made a movement that he could not divest of impatience.
"This is my mother!" he exclaimed.
"Nay, it was I, Basil."
"You?" The enmity in his glance was unmistakable.
"I want you to come back to Featherstonehaugh." There was no flattery in her tones.
He spoke lightly to cover his vexation.
"Do not be provincial, Rue. Men do not stay on their estates nowadays. London is the only place for a man of position."
"What will you do in London?"
"Muskerry has promised to get me a Government place."
"My dear!" His tone was a protest against her insistence. "The place has a very capable steward."
She locked her hands about her knees and her eyes were dark with earnestness.
"You cannot afford this life, Basil."
He blushed from the tight folds of his muslin cravat to the curls of his carefully arranged hair.
"You are gambling," she proceeded. "You are beginning to sell the estate."
He curbed the haughty answer he desired to give; she was his cousin, would be his wife, and had a large money interest in his property, and she was not displeasing to him, nor was he in love with any other woman.
Also considerations and a weak desire to have a confidant moved him to take her reproofs humbly.
"In town one must gamble"—his defence was voluble—"you do not understand that yet, Rue. Muskerry is a great player—it is done at all the clubs; I have my way to make and cannot hang back. Muskerry is a patron worth having, he could send me to an Embassy in Europe. I thought you would like that, the life of foreign courts—as for the land, it is easily bought back—and the mortgages—"
"Mortgages?" she cried; she had not thought of that.
Reluctantly, yet with a certain relief, he gave her the truth; yes, the estates were mortgaged—in part—every gentleman's estates were, it meant nothing; yes, he had been to the Jews, it was incredible how money went in town, but a man had to, there was no making a career else. Why, she did not realise the state of things; everyone from the Regent downwards was in debt, it was the way things were done; the only alternative was to rot in the country, and he couldn't do that—didn't she understand?
Rue understood; her calmness reassured him; he left her affectionately and promised to take her riding in his white and gilt phaeton that afternoon.
Rue sat for a long while silent on the satin settee.
She knew all that she needed to know now; this one interview had told her everything.
Gambling, debts, mortgages—these words indicated, like signposts, a wilderness of folly.
How far things had gone she did not need to know; it was obviously but a question of how long it took for Featherstonehaugh to slip through Basil's loose fingers.
Rue wept in sheer passion; her lover was gone. The boy of the past she might have loved, the man of the present never, and with her lover her future had vanished too—small chance had she now of reigning in Featherstonehaugh as from her childhood she had been taught to reign.
She went to Lady Featherstonehaugh, as one going to seek comfort from an ally, but Basil had been before her; he had spoken to his mother, made excuses, told half-truths, she was again wholly his; Rue felt herself shut out; here was one who would always adore Basil and listen to no evil of him; all would come right, she said, Basil was as other young men; let them wait without anxiety—after all, women should not interfere.
Rue felt her blood flaming; like a poisoned dart her rage went out to Lord Muskerry—she wished that she could go and seek him—women were so chained...
Basil did not come to take her out that afternoon; in the evening she saw him intoxicated; she knew that this was merely fashion, that no man was exempt, yet it increased her sense of his carelessness and folly.
Next day he dined at home; his mother, the decorous hostess, delighted to receive her son's fashionable guests.
Rue found herself in the window embrasure talking to a gentleman very quietly dressed in grey cloth.
"You are new to London?" he asked her.
"I understand London," she replied.
He looked at her with interest; he liked her carriage, her air of fearlessness, her beautiful arms and shoulders—her gown of heavy white satin with borders of gold embroidery and gold cords under the bust showed no country taste; her robustness, which had repelled Basil, attracted him—it was like the perfume of clover, the fragrance of lavender and honey to one to whom these things had the charm of variety.
"It is a little difficult to understand London," he answered.
"I know," she answered him; and looked at him carefully and quite frankly.
Dark he was and slender, of a type new to her, aquiline in feature, with large and powerful eyes, an air of great ease and perfect mastery of himself.
He seemed amused and interested in others and absolutely self-assured; she thought there was more than a little of the devil in him—suddenly, on a quick intuition she said, "You are Lord Muskerry!"
"Yes," he said, "did you not hear my name when we were presented?"
"Then—how did you guess?"
"I do not know."
They looked at one another steadily, astonished at the interest each had for each.
He had never considered Basil Featherstonehaugh with any particular attention, nor gone beyond his first summary of him as another youngster from the country more or less foolish and more or less amusing.
That his estates could not probably stand the strain of the rate he was living at, Lord Muskerry guessed, but that had been no matter of his; he knew too what Rue did not know, that Basil was a born gambler, difficult, if not impossible, to save.
Now he was interested in the man because of the woman; this girl was not the type he had expected the young squire's betrothed to be; he admired her—the kind of woman to help a man, he thought, but not such a man as Basil Featherstonehaugh.
"Are you long for town?" he asked.
"It depends upon the success I meet with," answered Rue; she continued to give him her keen attention; she thought of him as the most dangerous enemy, as such he held her with an endless interest.
He probed the frankness that pleased him.
"If you succeed?"
She flushed a little.
"Succeed in persuading Basil to return home," she answered bluntly. "We country folk, my lord, do well to keep away from London."
He looked amused.
"A rare sentiment and one that does credit to your intelligence, Miss Fairfax."
She continued, speaking rapidly, as if explaining her position and her motives: she had a desire to make herself very clear with this man.
"Here, Sir Basil is nothing—in Featherstonehaugh he is something; he will never be distinguished in London, in Featherstonehaugh he is always a great man."
"You love the place," said Lord Muskerry keenly.
"It is," she answered proudly, "my home and my kingdom."
He was speaking to her seriously as if they had long known each other.
"You realise he is entangled?"
She dropped her glance and her lips trembled, for she wondered if it were much worse than she knew.
"I think," said Lord Muskerry carelessly, "that he is much embarrassed."
Rue suddenly turned on him, beating her foot on the floor and speaking in a low accent of intense rage.
"This is your doing, my lord!" she flung at him. "You have made this poor youth's ruin your amusement—and now your boast!"
Lord Muskerry was sincerely astonished; he laughed in her face.
"You mistake. Sir Basil is a born gambler, he plays with any who will take his stakes—"
"You are his tempter," returned she unappeased.
He shrugged his shoulders, and looked at her with narrowed eyes.
"Make the request, Miss Fairfax, and I will never play with Sir Basil again."
But her pride was in arms; vanity and loyalty to Basil combined to lead her into a foolish action.
She defied instead of conciliating.
"Basil is no gambler, I know him. I do not need your lordship's assistance."
The dark devil that had so often borne down his opponents leapt to his eyes.
"Would you challenge me, madam?" he asked very soft.
"I do not need your lordship's assistance," she repeated; she told herself that this fire in her heart was hatred of the man, driving her into wildness.
"You do not know Sir Basil," he said with an air of mocking.
He held out his firm handsome right hand, which bore one ring, a cornelian in a brass setting.
"You see this," he continued, "an almost worthless thing though a pretty antique—but set in brass as I bought it in Italy?"
"Well?" said she, breathing a little heavily, but with eyes very courageously on his dark amused face.
"Well, Sir Basil would stake, when he is in his madness of play, all Featherstonehaugh against this—"
The thing was too monstrous, she laughed it away.
"You are at liberty, my lord, to endeavour to obtain Featherstonehaugh at so low a rate."
Rue turned and hastened away; she was beginning to lose her composure; certainly this man had a power, a force; she could not help comparing him with Basil, but angrily checked that disloyalty.
She felt lonely in the great house, lonely in the crowd of strangers, and, for all the proud front she had shown to Lord Muskerry, utterly unprepared as to how to cope with the situation; she believed the best of Basil, but at the best he was changed, even his adoring mother had admitted that—weak he was, too, and vain and obstinate, and what was her influence over him?—she could not be sure even that he still regarded her as his friend.
When the reception was over she went again to his mother.
"Lord Muskerry says Basil is a gambler born," she said abruptly.
"These fashionable men use the term as a compliment," was the reply; there was beginning to be considerable strain of feeling between the two women; the presence of Basil had entirely lulled his mother; she could not now bear to hear anything against him; he seemed to her to be leading the life of any young man of quality in town, and she was quite satisfied with his careless assurance that the estates were safe.
"The entanglement is more than we know of," continued Rue; "you cannot, will not realise it."
"My dear, you listen to gossip," replied the elder lady; "if you are going to make yourself unhappy about Basil, let us go back to Featherstonehaugh."
"And wait for the day when he comes to us with empty pockets," cried Rue, "telling us that no stick nor stone on the estate is any longer ours?"
"This talk," said the elder lady, "is an insult to my son."
Rue left her without another word; she felt hardened against both the Featherstonehaughs.
Lord Muskerry and some other gentlemen dined with Basil that evening; afterwards, as was usual, they passed into the card-room; the girl reluctantly mounting the wide staircase to the decorum of the drawing-room gave a backward look in time to catch a glance from my lord.
A glance of amusement, she thought, at a country miss who had defied him.
She looked from him to Basil; her betrothed was sober as any gentleman there, she took some comfort from that.
Long after Lady Featherstonehaugh had gone to bed and Rue was in her chamber, with her maid dismissed, the men remained in the cardroom.
Several times she went out on to the stairs and leaning over the white baluster listened; the door was opened and shut occasionally as the servant carried in fresh bottles and glasses; she heard the voices of the gamblers, not raised, but sharp with excitement; once she heard Lord Muskerry laugh.
One o'clock came and she had not undressed; all her candles, save one on the dressing-table, had guttered out unheeded; this last vague light showed her pale and haggard in her coral red silk, a string of garnet gleamed dark on her pale throat, and a high gold comb sparkled in her bright hair.
When she moved she felt a strange pain in her head and limbs, a feverish coldness which was a heat and yet a shiver.
Her complete healthiness was startled at these symptoms of weakness; she was forced to admit that this was the mind affecting the body, forced to realise how she had suffered during those hours that she had waited here, her thoughts following every incident, her imagination picturing every movement that was taking place in the cardroom—a room she was fast beginning to regard as fatal.
She had seldom been awake, never been up and dressed, so late; she looked from the window; the silence and darkness of the city was worse than the silence and darkness of the country; the air was cold—the uncharitable cold of an English summer.
She took from the press an Indian shawl, Basil's one present to her since her arrival, and put it round her shoulders, then, without any formed resolution, she opened the door and descended the stairs.
The decoration of the house was white, showing now a pale opal colour in the subdued light from the silk-shrouded, crystal-hung lamps on the stairway.
Rue hated this coldness—the tears rose in her eyes as she thought of Featherstonehaugh house, that rich palace of her dreams.
For a moment she paused before the card-room door, conscious that her limbs were heavy, that her head was giddy, conscious of the serene classical lines of the moulding in the panels before her—then she opened the door and stood before the flushed party of men intent on their play.
Her eyes were only for one face; in looking for Basil Featherstonehaugh she forgot all confusion and weakness.
He was close to her, leaning across the slender table, a dice-box of goat's hair bound in silver grasped in his right hand.
The multitudinous folds of his cravat were loosened and the billows of muslin fell in disorder over his bosom; his hair was pushed out of the fashionable arrangement of curls and hung awry on his damp forehead, his face looked quite fallen and old and ill; with every second that the girl looked at him she knew that what Lord Muskerry had told her was true; even her inexperience could not fail to see that here was a man absorbed by the intense and overwhelming passion of the born gambler.
She went straight up to him; the other men in the room did not exist for her at that moment.
But they were all staring at her; none of them had paid much attention to Miss Fairfax either at the reception or the dinner, but now her sudden and strange appearance, her vivid dress, bright shawl, and unusual pallor that set off a beauty hitherto unnoticed, set all eyes on her; play was stopped; all, with tacit consent, waited for her to declare herself.
But her thoughts were only for Basil, and he was the only man who paid no attention to her.
She called his name in a tone in which she had never uttered it before.
He looked up; his dazed eyes showed neither surprise nor resentment at her presence.
She laid her hand on his shoulder.
He shook himself like a man trying to shake off sleep.
"Why, you should be in bed," he said, and his gaze turned again to the dice-box.
Rue looked from him across the table—she saw that his opponent was Lord Muskerry, who surveyed her with a brilliant glance.
She drew her breath sharply, her hand tumbled from her bosom, letting slip the Indian shawl and revealing her pale throat and shoulders with the necklace of dark lustrous stones.
The other guests left their own play to gather about these three; one or two advised Basil to desist; they saw tragedy in the tired face of the woman.
"You have played high enough for to-night, Sir Basil."
He took no heed of these words a friend whispered in his ear.
Lord Muskerry heard them and repeated them aloud.
"Best play no more to-night, Sir Basil, lest you lose further."
The young man lifted his head, roused at last.
"What do you mean? To cheat me of my revenge? I must and will have my revenge—luck will turn."
"I'll play no more," said Lord Muskerry, but he did not move from the table.
"Why do you say that?" demanded Basil, his eyes ugly.
"Because I always beat you—in games of hazard as in games of skill."
"A good reason," said Rue. "Leave it now, Basil—cards and dice—for to-night."
He looked up at her and laughed.
"You have come to bring me luck, eh, Rue? To see me win what I have lost?" He turned keenly to the other man. "My lord, my lord, I will play you any stakes you wish—to prove my luck."
Lord Muskerry took the brass-mounted ring from his finger and placed it on the table.
"That against all you possess, that is the only stake I play to-night."
The company drew closer round Basil; he picked up the ring and laughed unsteadily.
"A fine intaglio—I always admired it—"
"Against all that you still possess of Featherstonehaugh—your town house, your horses—"
"I am sure of my luck," interrupted Basil.
Rue Fairfax came closer to him; the candle-light threw out her brilliant figure against the dark garments and white cravats of the men.
"You are not sane to-night, Basil," she said in a voice rough with distress. "You do not know what you are doing."
"I am perfectly sober, my dear," he cut in with impatience.
She clasped her hands with agonised entreaty.
"Basil, consider me—"
He looked her up and down.
"I'll add you to the list," he said with an eager laugh. "What do you say to that, Lord Muskerry, the hand of this lady?"
"Done," said my lord quietly.
Rue leapt from the card-table as swiftly as if he had struck her from her balance.
An elderly man caught her arm kindly.
"You must not think of him at all, Miss Fairfax—a born gambler—a reckless gambler, I fear quite worthless—"
Rue did not hear the words, she was listening to the clatter of the dice, then the smart smack of them on the table.
Basil had thrown first; he pushed his chair back, red in the face.
"Did I not tell you that my luck had changed?"—he had thrown the five and six.
My lord cast his throw in silence.
An instant's silence held the company, then from each man broke a soft subdued exclamation.
The last throw showed the double six.
"Chance was always against you," remarked my lord; he picked up the ring and rose.
Basil sat dumb and foolish; his usual sickly pallor had returned, he drummed on the table sharply.
"I had a purpose of my own in this gamble," said my lord very easy and grand, "which was not to ruin Sir Basil. Gentlemen, bear witness, he remains as he was—master of all that for which he played"—here my lord looked at Rue, who stood with her head down—"since the only item I value among Sir Basil's possessions was that one which I may not take."
"Which is that?" asked the young man stupidly, ashamed and bewildered by this turn.
"The last you offered," said my lord.
Rue looked up at that; she was flushed and breathing hard, and looked as beautiful as a country rose.
"If you mean my hand," she said, "it is yours; you may be a devil, as I make no doubt you are, but you are not a coward or a fool."
Before them all she put her hand in his and he slipped the brass ring on her marriage finger.
"You and I together, madam," he answered, "will make our way in the world."
Sir Thomas Laurence left a portrait of Ruth, Lady Muskerry, in a red velvet gown; her robust beauty suited his facile brush, her frank face looks from the canvas radiant with health and success.
Later he sketched Sir Basil, an old man at thirty, ruined and weary; this drawing, however, was never finished, but remains in the artist's sketchbook.
And in this case in the old museum chance has thrown the cornelian ring, which was never mounted in gold after all.
IN a certain solitary cottage in the village of Chalfont St. Giles a girl stood watching with the utmost anxiety and trepidation the landscape of glade and beech forest that spread verdant and golden in the serene afternoon light.
No other house was in sight and no other human being, the stillness was broken only by the chatter of the swallows that had built their mud nests under the eaves.
The girl stood in the porch, sheltered by the sweet load of honeysuckle the light lattice supported and which, past the fullness of summer, shed rose-and-gold petals on her hair and shoulders.
Her face was pale and drawn past any look of youthful softness, the hand that grasped the little riding-whip showed the muscles white and taut. She had bitten her under-lip until it was bleeding and swollen, and her eyes swept the country-side with a look painful in its intensity. For her lover had failed.
Long hours had passed since he should have met her here—at this, his own rendezvous.
And neither he, nor any message, nor any human being had come to relieve Lucinda Marston's vigil—a vigil that was slowly becoming an agony.
For this was no ordinary appointment for love's amusement.
For Lucinda it was to have been the casting of the die, the supreme surrender.
She had renounced all for him—home, parents, friends, position, honour.
"Good-bye," she had said to the places dear to her, resolutely she had put aside all weak thoughts of regret and remorse.
All her worldly possessions were in the small bundle that lay in the room behind her; her horse stood ready, fresh and waiting.
Her lover had not come.
And she could not go back.
The letter she had left behind her—the letter that would shame her father and break her mother's heart—made that impossible.
She could never face them again, the kind hearts who only yesterday had seemed one with hers. She was shut out for ever from the dear home that yesterday had seemed part of herself. Again and again she reviewed the extent of her sacrifice.
And she had been glad to make it, proud to bear even disgrace for his sake, for truly she loved him without stint.
Loved him so that it had seemed a great, almost a noble thing to cast her honour and her name under his feet.
He was not free; an old unloved wife, his enemy and his evil wisher, bound him; when this chain was removed he would marry Lucinda; meanwhile she was glad to come to him, with no more guarantee than his vows, and no sterner bond than love.
Their love had been a secret; he was of noble birth and lived mostly in London; she had seen him first when he was on a visit to her neighbour and cousin, Sir Peter Bamfield.
For three months of riotous happiness they had contrived to meet for stolen snatches of joy in garden and field, wood and way-side, then he had returned to London, only to return again and live hidden where he might see her when she went abroad.
This sweetness was too perilous to endure; she came to the moment when she must renounce all or risk all, her father was pressing a marriage with Sir Peter, her mother was growing curious as to her silence, her flushes, her sudden tears.
Her lover pressed her to leave all for him—they would go abroad and live solitary until he was free.
He must return to London to make arrangements for this flight, before his departure he told her of this rendezvous.
A cottage of his, romantic and solitary, not above five miles from her own door; she had often seen the place on their stolen drives together; he said that he had bought it because she had admired the rural beauty of the situation, the charm of the tangled garden where the roses rioted unpruned and unrestrained.
Now she hated the place, it seemed to her horrible in its remoteness, as enclosed as a tomb, as distant from love and happiness as a corner of Hell.
Again and again she took out the letter in which he had enclosed the key and told her the day and the hour—"Wednesday, at ten of the clock." She had made no mistake—how had it been possible to make a mistake in this, when she had counted every hour, every minute, centred her whole life round this date?
The richer light of waning afternoon began to fall over the beechy slopes. Lucinda turned back into the cottage.
The porch opened straight into a brick-floored kitchen with whitewashed walls, this into a tiny parlour at the back, from which a flight of open stairs led to the two attic bedrooms above. Lucinda when she first arrived, high spirited, had noticed the order and freshness of the place and thought it truly charming.
Blue check curtains hung at the leaded panes of the bow window, on the high shelf above the open hearth and on the oak dresser stood bowls, jugs and plates of pottery and vessels of pewter, copper pans and kettles were arranged on the spotless hearth.
There were wand-bottom chairs, a table for dining, a brass bracket clock and a pewter lamp, a press full of linen, and on the window-sill basil and lavender growing in pots.
The back room was furnished with greater luxury; a wool carpet covered the floor, an old settle was filled with blue and red silk cushions, a screen of needlework stood before the fireplace, a mirror in an ebony frame hung above the couch; on a side table were some elegant satin boxes, a writing-desk held several articles in silver and tortoise-shell.
Lucinda, entering the house afresh, was no longer pleased with it; the details that had struck her before as charming, now seemed sinister.
Whom did these things belong to, and who had arranged them?
Who kept them fresh and neat? Had he so bought the house? But these were not things belonging to any ordinary peasant.
She wandered in her distress from one room to the other, touching the various objects and noticing their brightness.
Who had lived here?
She began to loathe it all, to shudder at these neat silent rooms, to wonder why he had made this rendezvous—were there not dear spots beloved by them in the fragrant beech-woods under the open sky.
The impulse took her to mount the humble winding stairs; she had not yet seen the upper part.
She ascended, but reluctantly, afraid of the empty room below, and the empty room above, most afraid of the silence.
But she kept saying to herself, "When I return to the porch he will be there—I will pass the time thus, and when I return he will be waiting."
The stairway opened directly into the upper room; it was protected by a light rail and a low gate only.
Lucinda opened, closed the gate and looked round.
It was an attic with a sloping roof, furnished as a bedchamber; the walls were hung with cheap but pleasant wool hangings, dark rush mats were on the floor, the low truckle bed was covered with a blue linsey quilt, a cream-coloured ewer and basin stood on an oak stand for washing.
Lucinda passed into the next attic; it seemed to her a woman's room.
The window looked out on the front, over the wide view which she had been gazing at from the porch, and which had grown so ominous during the ordeal of waiting.
On the wall facing the window was a long mirror in a frame of gilded wood. Lucinda turned and surveyed her reflection.
She was surprised that she was not more changed; almost had she expected to see herself withered.
Colourless and grave, but the same Lucinda of the delicate, frail beauty, and the wide eyes and the soft reddish hair, who had yesterday laughed round the table with her brothers and sisters, and felt her mother's hand on her locks.
The same Lucinda, in the drab riding-habit she had put on in the early hours of that morning, with the lace cravat cunningly arranged to show the round throat, and the knot of pink sarcenet ribbon in the loose curls.
She turned swiftly from the mirror and stood with her back to it, looking at the room.
The bed, though low and without a canopy, was covered with a quilt of dull blue silk, the fine embroidery of the pillows showed where this was turned back.
A Persian carpet was on the floor, of finer texture than that which Lucinda had had in her own chamber at home, there were two low chairs and two faldstools covered in blue and yellow silk, a low chest, like an ancient marriage coffer, a little table with candlestick, snuffers, and clock.
Lucinda wondered for whom this room had been prepared—who had lived here in this solitary and romantic spot.
Whoever it was, she felt their presence; it seemed as if someone spied on her with hostile eyes.
She was turning to the door when she noticed a little book on the shelf below the mirror; she picked it up, though with a little shiver, as of repulsion or apprehension.
It was a prayer-book bound in yellow velvet with silver clasps.
Lucinda opened it; the pressed petals of a white rose fell from between the pages.
On the fly-leaf was written—"to my deare love;" the writing was unversed—and straggling—a woman's surely.
Lucinda put back the book.
The sun had left the upper windows now; the serene desolation of evening was beginning to fall over the lonely landscape; Lucinda returned downstairs; the front door stood open as she had left it; on the table lay her black feathered hat, which she had taken off, to ease her head, hours ago.
He had not come.
All her fond cheatings of herself had not availed, the house was desolate, as she had known it would be.
She sat down by the table and took her head in her hands; she had not eaten since last night and physically she was faint.
Where should they not have been now? In London, that city she had never seen but heard so much of from him, hidden in those delectable rooms in St. Paul's Churchyard he had told her of, where no one would think of looking for them—the lodging above the hosier's shop with a view of the Cathedral church.
And they would be alone, at last, after all the anxiety and restraint and waiting.
But he had not come.
Her courage was equal to going on alone to find him, but she had no clue to his whereabouts in the unknown city; he had always written to her from inns and taverns.
She looked up at the little brass clock; but she did not need to see the time marked there, the passage of the hours was too deeply graven into her mind.
As she sat staring at the timepiece, the conviction entered her heart that he must be dead.
Living, he would never have failed her; there could be no doubt as to that.
She was sure he was dead, she wondered in what way he had died.
Then she wondered what she was going to do.
Though so near home, she could never return, nor were they likely to seek her here; she had said in her letter that the object of her flight was London.
The fantastic thought occurred to her of going into the little front bedchamber, of lying on the blue covered bed and waiting till she died—how long did a broken heart take to kill one healthy and strong?
But she did not move.
The last sunshine was receding from the landscape, and a dullness filled the little room; a shadow blocked the open door and a woman stood before Lucinda.
The girl sat motionless, her hands, dropped from her brow, encircling each other on the table.
The stranger came slowly into the room; she was splendidly though carelessly dressed in a gown and loose jacket of gold satin, trimmed with heavy gold embroidery, and a soft cap of black velvet; her hands were bare and she wore yellow leather shoes with square toes and wide stiff bows of silk. This strange appearance left Lucinda breathless and overwhelmed with a deeper sense of horror.
The lady had pearls round her neck and in her ears, she was beautiful with a kind of beauty of which Lucinda had never dreamed, so different was it from anything that had ever entered her world—a fair beauty, cold and yet voluptuous, weary and yet eager.
She seated herself in the wand chair by the fireplace, looking most strange in these incongruous surroundings.
"You must be Lucinda Marston," she said. "Why do you look so frightened?"
"You came so quietly that you startled me," answered Lucinda. "I am Lucinda Marston—what shall I call you?"
"You may call me the town lady," replied the stranger, "and nothing else for the moment."
"Why are you here?" asked Lucinda, facing all her terrors with this direct question.
The other surveyed her with some interest.
"You have kept your courage," she remarked.
"How long have you been waiting for him?"
"Please tell me what you know about me," she said.
The town lady nodded.
"You are behaving well. You have been waiting for him, Anthony Denton, since this morning; you were to elope together to London and afterwards abroad—or so you thought."
Lucinda walked to and fro without any glance or answer.
"You are one of the daughters of a country squire, a few months ago you met your lover; he stayed at a neighbouring house with other nobles from town."
She paused, as if exhausted by so many words, and added:
"Is not this so?"
"It is correct," said Lucinda, still walking about. "What interest is it to you?"
"You are not his wife?"
Lucinda stopped in her pacing as she spoke.
The town lady laughed; there was something vulgar and ugly about her laughter.
"No; oh no!"
Lucinda, still in the same attitude of grave and tense attention, asked another question.
"Will you tell me if he is alive?"
The other looked at her startled.
"My God, why should you say that?"
Lucinda answered simply.
"I could not believe that if he were alive he would fail me."
The other stared, as if abashed.
"He is alive," she said quietly after a moment's pause.
Lucinda began walking up and down the red bricks again; she gave no sign of discomposure beyond her white gravity.
"Come," added the other woman not unkindly, "I'll warrant you have not eaten all day?"
Lucinda did not reply.
The town lady rose and went to the cupboard beneath the dresser, and opening the wide doors showed a supply of food, meat, bread, cheese, fruit, and wine.
Lucinda did not notice this touch of the ludicrous in her tragedy, that she had been starving near plenty, but only observed the ease and familiarity with which the brilliant stranger moved about the room, finding a tablecloth, forks and glasses, and laying out the supper on the board.
"You will eat with me," she said when her preparations were complete.
She looked at Lucinda with challenging eyes, and the girl's spirits rose to answer.
He was alive and he loved her; of the first she was assured, and of the second she had never doubted.
Why, then, should she not be brave and meet this strange creature on her own grounds?
And certainly she was hungry and the food fresh and tempting, and deftly arranged.
"I will eat with you," she replied with a new fire behind her seriousness, "and afterwards you shall explain to me."
They sat down opposite to each other; as the light was beginning to be uncertain, the town lady lit the lamp and stood it between them.
She was surprised to find how dry her throat was, and how parched her lips; the food once tasted, caused her disgust.
Her hostess noticed this and poured wine for her.
"I do not drink wine," said Lucinda; she noticed it was a rich vintage coming heavy from the bottle and having a luscious flavour of fruit and scent.
"You would have drunk if he had come," said the lady, looking at her through half-closed eyes.
"No," answered Lucinda, "we should not have stayed here."
"Ah?" The other seemed incredulous. "So you think, of course," she added.
"Whose house is this?" asked Lucinda suddenly.
"I know," she corrected herself, remembering that he had bought it to please her. "I mean whose was it—and to whom do these things belong?
"To him, it has always been his."
The other waved her hand.
"Everything is his?" Lucinda was thinking of the prayer-book upstairs.
"Everything, I suppose."
The town lady answered with a certain carelessness; she was eating with delicacy yet with force and energy; Lucinda swallowed bread and fruit.
"Is there some water?" she asked.
"Here none, but near by is a well."
"I will fetch some."
The town lady put out her hand to stay her.
"No, it suits my humour to wait on you."
She rose, and taking a jug of cream-coloured pottery from the dresser passed out into the evening, her vivid dress gleamed in the twilight as she went by the window.
Lucinda thought of her home, for ever lost, of the future so clouded and even terrible, of the fantasy of the present situation.
"But he loves me," she said half aloud, so that the sound of the words might give her fortitude, and she clasped her hand over her bosom where the slender packet of letters, which was all she had of his, was concealed beneath her riding bodice.
The town lady returned, the wet jug in her hands, she poured out the water into a thick glass beaker.
Lucinda drank eagerly, and again, until the little jug was drained.
Then she rose and went to the window and looked out upon the dusk.
The other trimmed the lamp, took off her cap and shook out her hair.
Then taking a mirror from the collection of golden articles that hung by little chains to her waist, she studied her face which was so carefully tinted and powdered, though Lucinda, who had never seen a woman's face tampered with, had not noticed it.
"I suppose that we must spend the night here," she remarked with an air of indifference.
Lucinda did not look at her.
"Why?" she asked. "Can you not leave the way you came?"
The town lady replied with the same air of indifference, which seemed to mask some deep and inner purpose; she dropped the mirror and keenly regarded the girl's rigid figure.
"My coach is at the turn of the road, my people put up at the inn."
Lucinda felt her hostility; her own went out to meet it.
"Why did you come?"
She turned now and the lamplight showed every line of her courageous and innocent face.
"Why did you come?" she repeated.
The other woman rested her elbows on the table and stared at her with frank insolence.
"To see you," she said, smiling.
"How did you know I was here?"
"That is easy—I saw your letter promising to come."
Now Lucinda winced.
"Yes," the town lady enjoyed her distress. "And I wanted to see you—to see what held his fancy now! You are pretty, as pretty as I was once; well born, too, and gentle. I am sorry for you, Mistress Marston."
Lucinda smiled now.
"You need not be sorry for me. You have come here to mystify and, I think, insult me, but it does not matter.—"
"Why?" the other rose.
"Because he loves me," said Lucinda.
"Are you so sure of that?"
"I am sure."
The blue eyes of the town lady darkened with anger and possibly despair.
"Perhaps he does," she replied slowly, "such love as his is easily aroused. And easily cooled, my young Madam."
"Tell me," said Lucinda steadily, "why he did not come?"
"Because I prevented him," was the answer. "I made it impossible for him to come. And then I resolved to come myself—to see you and, if I liked you, to save you.
"Save me?" said Lucinda.
"Yes, child. Because you are a little country fool and do not understand."
Lucinda came to the table.
"I am, as you say, a little country fool, but I understand very well that he loves me."
The town lady answered impatiently.
"How obstinate you are! See, I admit that he loves you—to-day—but to-morrow?"
"Who can promise for to-morrow?" said Lucinda. "I take love as it comes to me. To-day is mine."
"And what of yesterday—and the other woman?"
"That is not for me to think of."
The lady sighed.
"You have courage. I think you are sincere. I will believe that of you. I will save you—send you back to your quiet home and your honourable life."
"I shall never go back," said Lucinda.
"When you know the truth you will."
Lucinda turned her face away.
"You mean to tell me of his wife? I know."
"His wife does not count," returned the town lady. "She was broken and put aside long ago—she has her priests and her prayers. I came to talk to you of the man himself."
"You can tell me nothing of him that will change me," said Lucinda.
"Yes, I can. I can tell you this, the house where we now stand is his retreat for his passing light o' love when it is his fancy to be rustic and simple, to shelter his intrigues when he goes wooing in disguise."
Lucinda believed it, had she not found something sinister in the place...and the prayer-book upstairs...
She stood motionless, leaning forward a little, the tips of her fingers resting on the table.
"You think," continued the other, "that he would have taken you abroad. You would never have left these walls till he was tired of you, or if you were a favourite, you would have gone to ruffle it for a brief space in town."
Lucinda moistened her lips.
"What are you trying to tell me? What is the good of any of this talk?" she asked.
"Child, child, I have good right to hate you, but I swear I am sorry for you."
"Madam, Lord Anthony—"
"Your lover is not Lord Anthony."
"You believe it?"
"It matters so little."
"Girl, you are infatuate. Tell me, you know nothing of him?"
"Nothing but what he has told me. It is enough, Madam."
She was watching the town lady very closely; she had only one object in standing there listening to her, and that was to find out the whereabouts of her lover.
Somehow this woman had come between them, but she would find him; she glanced at the window and the rising moon.
All she had heard might be lies as it might be the truth—which did not seem to matter...
Where was he waiting for her?
"No, you know nothing of him," repeated the town lady.
Lucinda hardly heard her words; her own impatience could not any longer be curbed; she came directly to her point.
"Where is he now? Will you tell me where he is?"
"That you may go to him?"
The other woman laughed.
"I am here to prevent that, you silly child."
Lucinda looked at her sternly.
"I suppose he once loved you, and you are jealous of me."
A distorted smile contracted the lady's features.
"Yes, he once loved me."
"That is in the past," said Lucinda. "Child, child!" cried the town lady a little wildly, "keep your youth and your innocence—it is not worth while losing them for what that man can offer!"
"I must experience that for myself," replied Lucinda. "I cannot, Madam, take your word for it."
"And I will know too, out of my own knowledge," cried Lucinda. "Nothing can make me deny my love!"
They stood facing, challenging and defying each other.
The older woman pulled a case from the objects hanging at her waist.
A case of silver filigree.
She snapped it open to show a painting on ivory; it was a portrait of a gentleman.
Lucinda's wild eyes saw that the face was the dark sad face of her lover.
"It is he," she said. "Well? Well, Madam?"
The town lady, holding the miniature out in a shaking hand, bent nearer across the table.
"It is the King!" she whispered.
Lucinda still stood erect, her nostrils dilated and her lips compressed.
She noticed the details of the painting, the star and ribbon, the baton, the crown on the cushions in the background, the Royal monogram C.R. twisted into the delicate gold frame—it was the King.
"Well," she murmured. "Well—"
"It is the King!" repeated the town lady.
"And you?" flashed Lucinda.
"I am Lady Castlemaine."
Lucinda shook her head.
"I have never heard of you."
The other laughed bitterly.
"You would soon have heard of me in London."
Lucinda stared without speaking; she showed no emotion; it seemed as if she had been rendered senseless by what she had heard, yet her expression remained composed and courageous.
"I was once what you are, child," continued Lady Castlemaine, "and I loved him too—quite as romantically as you do! I have paid. In what bitterness, what humiliation, what disgust, what weariness I could not tell you. Only hear this conclusion—it is not worth the price. And I was one of the fortunate ones—there were others—like you, the fancies of an idle day—what are they now? You would shield your eyes from them."
Lucinda dropped her head.
Lady Castlemaine flushed with the energy of her speech and with a certain satisfaction on seeing the girl drawn together before her words, like a flower beaten by the winds.
"Save yourself—and thank God fasting that you can save yourself. Keep what you have—your home, your innocence, your dreams."
Lucinda drew further away.
"One thing," she said thickly. "Would he have come, if he could?"
"I made that impossible—a council arranged for to-day prevented him, he sent a messenger to bid you wait, whom I intercepted; you see how frank I am with you, I admit he cares—while it lasts."
"While it lasts!" murmured Lucinda.
"You will hate me," said Lady Castlemaine, "but afterwards you will be grateful, oh, very grateful; when you are safe at home with your good husband and your children, and your fine sewing, with your comfortable home about you, in the possession of peace and honour—then you will remember this moment and thank me."
Lucinda fell back before her until her shoulders were against the wall.
Lady Castlemaine smiled; there was the same bitterness in it as in her laughter; Lucinda, with head drooping, did not see this smile.
"Go home, child," she said, "the moon holds."
At this Lucinda looked up.
A broad shaft of moonlight fell across the sill; the refulgence of it mingled with and was lost in the lamplight.
Lucinda came to the table and picked up her hat and riding stock from the end not covered by the cloth.
Slowly she turned and left the room; she did not close the door, and the moonlight entered and touched the gorgeous figure of Lady Castlemaine who stood breathing heavily with her effort and her success.
"I have saved her," she thought. "Saved her!—saved myself I Who would have been secure when that face ruled the Court?"
She went out slowly into the night and down the hillside path that led to the road where her coach waited.
Before her was Lucinda Marston, leading her horse; when both reached the road, the town lady spoke.
"You have not said 'farewell.'—"
Lucinda mounted and gathered up the reins.
"We shall meet again, Madam," she answered.
Something in the girl's demeanour frightened Lady Castlemaine.
"Where are you going?" she cried.
Lucinda looked down; her pallor in the moonlight made her face look as if it had been carved from pearl.
"Where are you going?" repeated the King's favourite roughly.
Lucinda leant down and lightly flicked her whip across the angry, distorted, upturned countenance of my lady.
"To Whitehall!" she cried in a tone of unspeakable triumph. "To the King!"
And she turned her horse towards the London road.
THE wedding feast was nearly over.
The bride sat apart in her own chamber, even her maids dismissed, and listened to the last harps and violins whose sad music echoed through the old palazzo and quivered across the lagoon.
She sat in the dusk which obscured her splendour; her brocaded gown was unlaced and showed her shoulders and bosom rising from loose lace and lawn; her shoes were off and her stockings were of silk so fine as to show every line in her feet—which were crossed on a footstool of rose-coloured damask.
Most of the powder had been shaken from her hair which fell over her shoulders in fine curls of gold; she wore a chaplet, and necklace and earrings of pearls; the dimly seen furniture showed richly in the shadows, bouquets of roses, lilies, and carnations were on the dressing-table, on the chairs and on the floor.
On the bride's lap were trails of syringa, verbena, and orange and lemon, from her hair fell the blooms of the bridal coronal and mingled with these.
Once or twice she stretched herself and yawned, her body moving softly in the silken clothes.
Could anyone have flashed a candle or a lamp through the gloom and revealed that head and face adorned with flowers and jewels, he would have seen a wicked countenance look up at him from the shadows, a countenance as firm in outline and as soft in colour as tinted alabaster, a low, smooth brow, beautiful, hard eyes, scornful nostrils to a straight, small nose, a beautiful curved, greedy mouth, a smooth white chin.
So she sat, Giuditta Grimaldi, while her bridegroom entertained the last guests, sat and mused in the darkness.
And waited for her lover.
Waited patiently with languid self-composure, and did not trouble to listen for the chiming of the little silver clock out of the darkness.
Men had never kept Giuditta waiting; she was so sure of all of them; this security made her disdainful; she had never cared for any of her lovers save for this man for whom she waited on her wedding night.
When she heard the splash of oars beneath her window she did not move, when she heard his feet on the stone façade, climbing up to her, she did not turn her head.
Only when his figure appeared on the balcony did she move, and gathering all her blossoms to her bosom, come, breathing sweetness, to the open window.
Darkness concealed him; the infant moon was but enough to cast a sparkle on the dark waters of the canal and show the dark outlines of the crowded, silent palaces against the pale darkness of the sky.
"So Giuditta is married," he said.
She leant on his heart; her flowers, falling through careless fingers, fell on the balcony and through the iron railings on to the waters below.
"They would marry me," she said, "as well he as another. How silent the city is tonight."
"The plague is spreading."
"It is not near us?"
"Nay, the other end of Venice, but the mere name frightens people."
He did not offer to caress her; his cold lovemaking had always served to increase her passion, she took him by the shoulder and drawing his head down, almost roughly kissed his cheek.
"Listen," her words came quickly, yet softly, like an accompaniment to the harp and violins, "we have never had more than a few moments together, you and I—I have played with you long enough, I love you, Astorre, I love you—I can be free to-night—take me, take me away—"
Her surrender was almost fierce; the man who held her shuddered.
"I meant to ask you for to-night—your wedding night," he said, whispering through her hair that curtained his ear, "to-night I will show you how I love you, Giuditta, Giuditta—"
She smiled; she hated her husband and his family, it pleased her to insult them; voluptuously, playing with her own pleasure, she passed her little hand slowly over the face of her lover and let it rest on his lips to receive his kiss.
"You will come with me in my gondola tonight?" he whispered.
"Leave that to me—how shall I get down to you?"
"I have a rope ladder—you will be safe with me."
"And before dawn you will bring me back?"
"You shall' come back," he said, "when you wish."
The music ceased.
Giuditta drew softly away and tiptoed back into the room.
Feeling her way to the dressing-table she found a box that she knew by the silk surface and the raised design of seed pearls.
Opening this she drew out a little package.
Swiftly and with a delicate touch she found a goblet of wine, which she had placed carefully on the little table by the window.
Into this she dropped the contents of the package, a white powder that fell heavily and quickly dissolved.
With this still in her hand she unlocked the door, listened, and hearing footsteps retreated behind the heavy folds of the silk bed curtain.
Her husband entered.
"Dark—dark?" he said.
"I am abed," answered Giuditta from the curtains, "I was weary."
The Marchese paused; he was not sure of his bride nor of his own fortune in having married a great beauty; the feast had left him depressed, a heavy weight hung about his heart.
"Where are your candles, Giuditta?" he asked.
She put her head down so that the sound of her voice came from the pillow.
"Leave the candles, my eyes are tired."
Carefully in the darkness she was holding upright the goblet, holding it steadily so that the liquid should not spill.
She heard him coming towards her; he moved the curtains and she saw his dark shape between her and the dimness of the window.
She laughed, and the laughter enticed him; he bent down, peering for her through the dark.
Noiselessly she sat erect on the bed, gently and accurately she held the glass to his lips.
"Drink this to our wedding—it is fine Greek wine; I have been waiting for you to drink with me."
He took the glass from her, she heard the rim clink against his teeth.
His hand felt for her blindly; she evaded him, slipping easily into the room.
The Marchese sat on the edge of the bed.
His voice was low and held a dull note of accusation; she watched the dark bulk of his figure slip sideways.
She turned and supported him so that he should make no noise in falling.
Gently she let him slide to the ground.
He lay there motionless.
She could see the white patches made by his wrist ruffles and the lace at his bosom.
Cautiously she waited, standing over the drugged man, then she went again to her dressing-table and the blue silk box, and took out strings of jewels which she fastened round her neck and waist and wrists.
Then she found her slippers by the chair where she had been sitting, and feeling along the couch found a cloak which she cast over her shoulders.
Laughing under her breath, she came out on to the balcony.
The night was serene and melancholy.
Black were the palaces rising against the sky, black the shadows they cast into the waters of the canals, remote were the stars, and as remote seemed the little yellow lights that flamed up here and there in distant windows.
Giuditta clung to her lover.
He turned from where he had been leaning over the iron railing.
"Ah, you are ready?"
"He sleeps—the poppy-seed is swift."
"Sleeps he already? You have used more than poppy-seed."
"That other drug they gave me, too—he fell like a dead man."
"Would you have cared if he had been dead, my Giuditta?"
She laughed again.
"Why should I care?"
"You care for me?"
"I have told you."
"Will you come now?"
"Take me away."
She shivered when he showed her the rope ladder hanging over the balcony, but she climbed over the iron work without assistance.
With her shoes under one arm and her skirts gathered under the other, the beautiful Giuditta descended into the darkness.
The rope ladder was held taut, the gondolier received her in his arms and she sank into the cushions of the light, swaying boat.
Breathing heavily, she sat silent, watching the dark ripples the feeble lamp at the prow showed beating on the rocking gondola.
The palazzo towered so far above her it seemed as if she was at the bottom of a well; all these great buildings overwhelmed the frail boat with their heavy shadows.
When he joined her she gave a little sigh of gladness; the boat shot away out on to the canal.
Giuditta looked up at the open window of her bridal chamber, and a sense of danger touched her hard heart.
But she had managed intrigues as perilous as this before—only the fact that this time she was in love unnerved her courage.
She leant forward.
"Where are we going?"
He said the word quickly and quietly out of the darkness.
She moved luxuriously on the cushions and looked up at the stars which were so low and brilliant it seemed as if every minute they would fall in a shower on the dark city.
The gondola sped out into the Grand Canal; there were few lights in the windows and those few were dim, not the bright flame of festivals.
Only here and there lanterns hung on the mooring poles outside the palaces.
The state barges rocked at anchor by the broad stone steps; in this city of music there was no music to-night.
"How melancholy," said Giuditta.
It was a melancholy that pleased her, as it rendered the more exquisite the contrast of her own happiness in being with the man whom she loved, her pleasure in being engaged on this delicious adventure on her wedding night.
They turned from the sea and the islands and towards the Rialto.
"How silent," said Giuditta.
She liked this silence which seemed to make the world hers to fill with her own thoughts of love, not a breath intruded on her reveries; her passion could dominate the night undisturbed; she wished that they might move indefinitely between these dark palaces over the dark water and under the vivid stars.
They passed a shrine near the bridge; the Madonna holding the Child in an alcove in the wall of a palace.
A feeble lamp showed her dull blue and pink gown and the placid face of the Child.
Giuditta felt sorry for the Madonna who sat holding her Babe all day and all night, and never came down to row over the lagoons.
"How still it is," she whispered.
"The plague," said Astorre.
They were passing under the Rialto, in complete darkness.
Giuditta wished that he had not used that word—"the plague."
"This morning I saw many houses marked with the red cross," continued Astorre, "and many pale faces looking from upper windows for assistance."
"And no one went?"
"The priests or the nuns. But there are not enough. The people die so fast, the black gondolas are laden to the water edge, and there are no more coffins in the city."
"Why do you tell me this?" asked Giuditta. "We should not be abroad."
"Where I take you is safe from infection. You are not afraid?"
"Have I proved myself a coward?"
She took his right hand in both of hers and drew it down to her bosom.
He looked at her; she could see the pale oval of his face, nothing more; the darkness began to tease her, it was like a veil between them.
"Take me into the light," she whispered, "and you will see how I am adorned for you."
"For me!" he repeated the words in a strange tone. "Do you remember when you loved Rosario?" he added abruptly.
"Rosario," she murmured the name lazily, playing with the memory it evoked.
"Oh, I remember—did you think I had forgotten? But you are mistaken, I never cared for him."
"He loved you."
She laughed, not vexed at this conversation; it pleased her to remember the men who had loved her, and it pleased her to think Astorre was jealous.
"He loved you," repeated the man thoughtfully.
"He broke his heart for you."
"You know it."
"There have been so many," smiled Giuditta. "And this was—last year. I sent him away after I met you."
"You played with him for three months."
"He was a pretty gentleman and adored me in good faith."
"He forsook Rosina for you."
"You know that, also."
"I had forgotten."
"She loved him."
"But he loved only me. Poor Rosina!" Giuditta laughed again.
"And he forsook her for you. They were betrothed."
"The marriage day fixed."
"I suppose it amused you to part them and then fling him aside?"
She released his hand and caressed it softly as she answered.
"I suppose so. But that is in the past, nothing amuses me now but to be with you. Is it not as if we had wings and flew between water and sky?"
"To what goal do we travel, you and I, O Giuditta?"
"To what goal! The future is dark, like the night!"
"I cannot dream what my life will be. I have never loved before."
"Love is powerful."
"Too powerful," she shuddered; "it disturbs me. I wish I did not love."
"Why, Giuditta, why?"
"Because I know not where it will lead me—I feel as if it would ruin my life and even cause my death."
"Love is like that. I also am in the talons of love which drives me to anything—even perhaps to crime."
She shivered with joy to hear him say this.
"You think of my husband?"
Astorre was silent.
They had turned off the Grand Canal and entered one smaller and almost totally dark, where the water lapped at weed-hung steps and the rust of gratings of lower windows.
"Suppose you killed him," murmured Giuditta; "such things have been done for a woman."
"Yes, murder has been done for a woman."
She pressed close to him.
"You—could you do that?"
He answered strongly.
The warm arms from which cloak and sleeves had fallen, encircled him.
She laid her cheek on his shoulder.
"You would kill for love?"
"Without pity or hesitation?"
"Ah, you know how to love! You are like what a lover should be."
"I know how to love, Giuditta—I have given my life for love."
"We shall be happy, my dearest, we shall be happy!"
They passed a church now; either side was a wall covered with roses; the yellow light from the wide open door showed these flowers and the circular wet steps and the bowed forms of the worshippers; for a second, too, it showed the small flushed face of Giuditta and the jewels on her bosom.
The darkness engulfed them again.
"Do you ever pray, Giuditta?"
"I prayed once."
"For what boon?"
"After I had first seen you, beloved, I prayed you might love me."
He answered fiercely.
"I prayed for that too, on my knees, fasting I prayed you might love me! Some kind saint listened—I have burnt many candles at many shrines."
Her arms slipped from his neck, she sat upright, adjusting her thrown-back hair which lay in coils inside her hood.
The gondola stopped.
For a moment it shook to and fro as the man fastened it to the post, then rocked steadily at the moorings.
"We are there?" asked Giuditta.
She felt that all this had happened before in a dream; the narrow doorway with the steep steps rising out of the water, the two grated windows and the high-placed iron lamp that shed a dismal light over the masonry were all familiar to her.
"This is not your house?" she whispered.
"No, the house of one of my friends—empty for the moment. But I have all ready for this night's feast."
"It looks gloomy," said Giuditta.
She stood up, drawing her cloak about her shoulders.
Astorre laid a plank from the gondola to the steps and handed her ashore.
A long passage was before her, damp and narrow, the house seemed mean and neglected.
Giuditta turned to her lover who was quickly beside her.
"You said you were bringing me to your home—here I would not have come."
"This is my true home—not in the great palace, I have prepared it for you—"
She was unconvinced, and hesitated.
"You cannot turn back now," he said, gently taking her arm, "here it is safe—no one will come to seek you here."
"That is true," she admitted.
"And you are with me."
"Lead me," she said, "and light! light! We have been in the dark so long!"
He took her hand and led her down the passage which was high and dark and damp and narrow—the entrance of a poor and neglected house, Giuditta thought.
Resentment touched her heart like a little flame; her adventure was spoilt by these sordid surroundings, her love was no longer what it had been on the balcony of her own beautiful chamber or in the gondola under the stars.
"Where are you leading me?" she asked, and her hand stiffened in his grasp.
The passage seemed endless.
Now they reached some steps, he guided her up, opened a door and ushered her into a lit room. It was a fair-sized apartment with painted walls and ceiling; the two windows were open; a chandelier of coloured glass gave the soft yellow light.
Beneath stood a table elegantly laid with two covers and two purple velvet chairs; for the rest the furniture was of a bedroom; a bed draped with purple and rose-coloured hangings stood on a dais, there were coffers, mirrors and a dressing-table.
Giuditta did not like the room.
It was not the setting she had imagined or wished for her love.
The chamber seemed to her unpleasant, even fearful, yet there was nothing strange about the place, it was like so many other Venetian rooms, rich, sombre, a little heavy in furnishing.
Astorre handed her into one of the velvet chairs and turned to leave her.
"Prince," she said imperiously, "I do not like this house."
He stood, with his hand on the open door, looking at her intently.
Now at last he was revealed to her, after the long concealment of the dark; she forgot her vexation as she looked at him.
His was the extreme handsomeness of face and body that is the passport to all worldly pleasures, handsomeness of dark warm colouring, of beautiful eyes, masculine and passionate, of a haughty mouth, curved and sensitive, handsomeness of movement and gestures, bearing and pose.
His curled black hair was only slightly powdered and he wore no hat; a double caped cloak hung open to show his suit of dark crimson; he wore diamonds in his cravat that twinkled under the clasp of his mantle.
Giuditta, looking at him, smiled.
She loved him, she was proud of him—they were together.
What did the background matter?
She put her fair head back against the velvet back of the chair.
"Why do you leave me, Astorre?" she asked in a gentler tone.
He had been fixing her with an intense scrutiny, drinking in her jewelled beauty as she was his, she believed.
At her words he drew himself together with a little start, as if awakened out of some dream or reverie.
"I go to fetch your supper, Giuditta," he answered. "To-night I wait on you."
Without waiting for her consent, he left her quickly.
Giuditta sat still awhile playing with the pearls on her bosom and the sweet thoughts in her mind.
Then she rose and went to the window as people always will in a strange room.
She was at the back of the house and the stagnant waters of a little-used canal sucked at the bricks two feet below the windows, opposite the blank walls of crowded houses blocked out the night.
It was silent and desolate—Giuditta did not find this silence soft and pleasing as had been that on the canals, but rather dreary and sinister.
She moved back into the room, went to one of the mirrors and surveyed her own gorgeous fairness, pearl and diamond bedecked, to give her courage.
She was beautiful, no doubts could obscure that fact—she was beautiful, and what had beauty to fear?—in her experience, nothing.
Now she moved to the door and opened it—without the utter darkness of the corridor.
Quickly she closed it; horror, like a palpable presence, rose and confronted her.
"What is the matter with this room?" she asked herself.
Fear suddenly rose from all sides, engulfing her like waves.
She seemed to stand in isolation assailed by a thousand phantoms of horror, terror, and wrath; deeper fear and dismay than she had imagined possible to experience were now poured into her heart as water into a cup.
She had a glimpse into regions of infernal melancholy and unclean blackness, which was as if she peered suddenly into a chasm darker and deeper than eternity.
She seemed to be sinking down the steep walls of hell into an abyss where she would be for ever lost, lost to all she had ever loved or enjoyed.
Buried through long aeons with the sins of a hundred million years lying heavy on her heart...Then the great horror passed; she fell on her knees beside the chair from which she had risen sick and shivering.
Clasping her hands tightly she called on her love.
"Astorre, why do you leave me?"
Now she had no desire for love, no appetite for pleasure, but she called on the only human being whom she thought to be near.
What was the matter with the room—what had happened here, why was she imprisoned here between the open windows with the lapping black waters beneath and the open door with the black passage without?
She turned round about like one confined, and though she was free of action and surrounded by space, her movement was as if she beat against bars.
Her straining ears heard a step and she moved to her feet, stumbling in her long gown and shaking the pearls and diamonds on her bosom.
She scarcely saw him with gladness; he seemed to have changed since they had entered the house; even his beauty was no longer pleasant, but had in it something horrible; as a handsome face will look from a design of hideous forms and partake of their terror, so he seemed to have been absorbed into the atmosphere of the house, robbed of charm and invested with horror.
"Prince," said Giuditta feebly, "take me away from here."
He pointed to the untouched table.
"We have not supped."
"I could not eat."
"What has happened, Giuditta?"
She made a great effort over her fears, but the earlier joyousness of the evening was not to be recaptured.
"Nothing has happened—but I feel as if I was going to lose all I cared for."
He seated himself at the table, and taking his face in his hands looked at her.
"All you ever cared for? What have you ever cared for?"
She could not answer—what, in truth, was there she was afraid to lose?
To escape from this house she would have gladly forgone Astorre and found herself at home beside the drugged husband, for at the touch of personal fear, passion had died, and other days would bring another love.
"Myself," she said at last. "I fear to lose myself, my life, my existence—"
"That in truth," answered Astorre, "is all that you have to lose."
She noticed now the difference in his tone; not with this had he spoken to her in the gondola.
Another and dreadful fear possessed her now.
"Astorre, why have you brought me here?"
"You ask me that now? Was it not for your sweet company?"
She supported herself by the chair and looked from him to the two open windows.
"I do not like this place," she said almost as if to herself.
"Close the windows," she continued, "the air from the water is damp."
"The night is warm, Giuditta."
"But I feel the house chill."
She looked round for the cloak she had brought with her; it was brocade, the colour of faded red roses, lined with lemon-coloured satin, her marriage cloak...She thought of her husband...she pictured him, very vividly, lying beside the bed in the dark room, with the bridal flowers scattered near.
Her fingers trembled as she fingered the mantle; what a perverse fool she was—she might as well have loved the Marchese, he was as personable a man as the one she had chosen—why had she risked so much for Astorre?—if she was not back before the palace was awake she was lost, lost before all Venice.
Why had she done this foolish thing, she asked herself dully—she could not now understand the passion that had prompted her to this adventure.
Thinking only of her own safety and her own terrors, she sank huddled into the chair and stared at Astorre.
The door was pushed open gently and a woman entered bearing a salver on which were various dishes.
She wore a plain cloth dress that might have been that of any servant, but over her face was a thick mask with slits for the mouth and eyes; made of grey silk and spotted with scarlet, it was one of the fantastic vizards of carnival.
"What is your jest?" asked Giuditta.
The woman put the dishes on the table; meat, pastries, and fruit on carved silver, and tall bottles of wine in cases of filigree.
"What jest?" repeated Giuditta.
"There is no jest," said Astorre.
Giuditta rose in wild terror.
"A plot, there is some plot—this food is poisoned, I can swear it!"
"You shall not eat if you do not wish," he showed no surprise at her fears.
The masked woman remained standing inside the door, the salver in her hands.
Giuditta lowered at both of them.
"Take me home," she said between her teeth, "or on my soul you shall pay for it!"
"Certainly I shall pay for this night's work," he replied; he began unconcernedly to drink his wine and eat his supper.
Now she trembled with supplication.
"What harm have I ever done to you? You loved me, did you not? But a little while ago."
"Prince," she continued desperately, "what is this you have against me?"
"What should I have against you?"
Another thought came to her.
"You are mad, mad," she pointed to the silent third, "that woman is mad also!"
"Not mad, Giuditta."
"Then take me home."
All her energy was now concentrated on that, to get away, to escape, to be free of them both, to be back in her own place.
Astorre rose, his glass in his hand.
"To your good health, Giuditta."
He drank to her gravely, mockingly, she thought, his fine hand flushed red from the reflection of the wine cast by the candles above his head, which filtered their light through sparkling glass.
She waited, helpless.
"Why are you frightened?" asked Astorre. "I swear I shall never touch you."
"Why should you, what have you against me?" through all her terrors she fumbled with the wonder of it all...a little while ago they had been lovers.
The woman now came forward to remove the plates.
"Take off your mask," said Astorre.
She did so and looked at Giuditta with a pale, mournful face.
"You know her?" asked Astorre.
"It is Rosina."
"Rosina! Changed, oh, Heaven, changed!" cried Giuditta.
"You remember her?" smiled Astorre. "She was betrothed to Rosario—he left her for you—he amused you—and she—"
"You never thought of me, did you?" asked Rosina, "nor of all the other women whose hearts you rifled?"
"Is this a vendetta?" asked Giuditta swiftly.
"I swear that we shall not touch you," repeated Astorre.
This did not reassure her nor lift the black cloud of terror that hung over her soul; the sight of the woman whom she had so wantonly and maliciously and contemptuously wronged, filled her with unavailing rage and deeper dread.
She turned to Astorre, something of her beauty, blanched and withered through fear, returned in the flush of her anger.
"Why do you champion her?" she demanded, "was your brother so much to you?"
"He was much and she was more. I always loved Rosina, as she loved Rosario."
Giuditta flung her head back and looked at him out of half closed eyes from which gleamed hatred.
"How I loathe you," she said.
His beauty was now to her like the gorgeous skin of the serpent, a thing to be detested and destroyed.
She would gladly have killed him and stepped over his dead body to freedom.
Her helplessness made her sick with fury.
"Come away," said Rosina.
She slipped her hand inside Astorre's.
"Good-night, Giuditta," said Astorre.
Relief soothed her when they were gone; she thought they meant to ruin her by leaving her there so that she could not return in time.
But she believed her wits were equal to this dilemma.
They locked the door after them as she had expected.
But there were the windows.
Mounting on a chair she detached one of the candles from the chandelier, and hurrying to the first window, thrust the light out and stared about her.
She had enough jewels to bribe half Venice—there must be someone who would come to her rescue.
The flame burned straight in the still air, it showed the waters below—the walls of the house; nothing else.
No boat, no passing gondola, no light in an opposite window encouraged her to hope.
The place was deserted.
Still she moved the candle to and fro and peered to right and left.
Suddenly she ceased this movement of her arm, she continued to stare and her face became as lifeless as the stone window that framed her terror.
She had seen between the two windows, coarsely marked on the rough wall, the scarlet cross, the warning and the sign of a plague-stricken house.
The candle dropped through her fingers, the little flame hissed to extinction in the sucking black waters.
Slowly she moved back into the room; physical nausea seized her; her jewels galled her like ropes of lead.
She tottered to the bed to stretch her fainting limbs there.
When her shaking hands had contrived to draw the curtains, shriek after shriek left her lips and echoed through the doomed house.
There lay Rosario, stiff and awful on the neat pillows; his livid, mottled face showing the manner of his death.
SOPHIA FIELDING, her daily duties done, moved lightly through her home, finding the long afternoon neither dull nor empty, so little count does inner happiness take of outer glooms.
The sunless manor house was cheerful to Sophia, the solitude a pleasant thing, for she carried in her bosom the letter from her lover in which he asked her to be his wife.
It was sweet to know that he loved her when she had been torturing herself with a thousand foolish doubts, it was glorious to know that he was out of danger and coming to her that very evening.
So her brother wrote, in that other dear letter she treasured:
"I return to-night, safely, as Heaven grant it, the rebels are all scattered and will soon be dealt with as such villains deserve. I bring Captain Brabazon, who has acquitted himself very well. He has asked me for your hand in marriage, which I take to be a proposition as agreeable to you as it is to me, and honourable to both of us."
There was not a cloud in her sky, which was the brighter for the storms which had lately over-cast it—the rebellion, the alarm and confusion of the country, the advance of the rebels with all the wild rumours and terrors that accompanied them, the departure of her brother and lover, soldiers both, to help stem this tide of wild aggression—the days and nights of wild anxiety, of hope and dread and waiting.
And then Sedgemoor and these two letters brought her by a flushed young corporal who had galloped up and away swiftly to join in the good work of dealing with "those villains, the rebels." Fielding House stood so near Sedgemoor that Sophia had lain awake all night listening to the sound of Fevershant's artillery which had continued intermittently until dusk of the next day.
The maid-servants had closed themselves in their rooms, fearful of a rebel victory and that Monmouth's men should sack the desolate house and hang them all on the threshold.
Sophia had nursed no such terror, but she had been still with apprehension for Captain Brabazon. Now those terrible days were over; the rebellion was no more, the King was safe on his throne, the world had again swung into its normal course and those dear to her were coming home.
She had seen to the preparation of their rooms, she had ordered the supper that was to welcome them; since she was fourteen she had been her brother's housekeeper, walking carefully in the ways her dead mother had taught her, and skilful in all womanly matters.
To-day she had done all there was to be done, and she felt too excited to employ herself with her needle or her embroidery or her tapestry-frame, so she moved from one room to another in a state of pleasurable agitation, the pretty colour coming and going in her cheeks as she anticipated the meeting of that evening.
What would he say—"You got my letter?" Could she speak like that, so frankly and courageously, would she not rather be tongue-tied until he coaxed her into speech?
Over the mantelpiece and opposite where he would sit at the supper-table she had placed, with some blushes and timidity, a portrait of herself, taken when her brother had carried her to London for His Majesty's coronation. A pupil of the Court painter, Sir Peter Lely, had executed the portrait and painted Sophia in the correct attitude of a Court lady. Ignoring fashions of pannier and tight bodice, high head-dress and lace lapels, he had taken her in a loose gown of grey satin, with her hair flowing naturally, sleeves and bosom caught with pearl studs and in the right hand a pink rose.
Sophia, who had thought the town fashions strange and disconcerting, was pleased with this simplicity, in which indeed her modest beauty bloomed most fairly, and to-day, in honour of her happiness, she wore the grey satin gown and at the heart had fastened a pink rose.
She looked at the painting with approval, the paint was bright and fresh, the varnish glossy, the colouring had a pleasant glow—Sophia thought it worth the good guineas her brother Roger, in the pride of his affectionate heart, had paid to the agreeable young painter.
But she soon became tired of looking at the picture, and taking up the dark blue mantle that always lay ready in the hall (a country garment ill suited to cover satins), put it over her shoulders and stepped out into the garden.
The sundial in the forecourt told her that it was only three o'clock.
She had the whole sunny afternoon before her, in which to dream and meditate...her happy time of dreams which she was to long recall when all her dreams were over.
Over the red brick of the house roses and honeysuckle climbed, the solitudes of the garden were filled with sweet flowers and herbs, the purple spikes of the rosemary, the clouded blue of the lavender, the vivid blue of the larkspurs rose amid the blooms of summer.
Sophia passed to where the garden ended in a low hedge of yew, and looked across the lonely and serene country-side, fields and pastures, orchards and meadows sloping to moor and heath.
From here she had almost been able to see the battle—that bitter battle between Englishmen, on English soil.
As she gazed now a shadow came over her happiness, pity for those who had died the other day—pity for those who had yet to die.
Rebels—they deserved death (Sophia was of loyalist stock and believed in divine right), but she hoped that the King would be merciful—yet he had no great reputation for mercy.
Sophia even felt pity for the young, foolish leader of this enterprise that had ended so mournfully—my Lord of Monmouth, the Protestant Duke, and King Monmouth as the peasantry here in the West called him.
Her brother had given her the character of the man in a few contemptuous words—the spoilt dear of fortune and of women, shallow, unstable, a rake, a libertine, without courage or decision; edged on to this attempt by more cunning rogues like Argyll and Ferguson, he would, young Roger Fielding had said, be proved a veritable coward and trifler when the supreme moment of his fortunes came and disaster walked at his elbow, and turned his steps towards Tower Hill.
For, certainly, even if the poorer victims were spared this arch rebel would not be; he had proclaimed himself King of England, he had sanctioned Ferguson's wild manifesto that accused the rightful sovereign of absurd crimes...and James had always hated his mother's favourite son, who could have cheated him out of a throne if a certain black box containing a marriage certificate could have been found.
So whoever was saved, the young Duke, once the darling of a Court and the beloved of a King, was doomed.
Sophia was sorry when she thought of this; in her own happiness she would have liked to confer happiness on all others.
She was sorry that this man must die; she hoped that he might reach the coast and escape; she had heard that there was a lady in Holland whom he loved better than his own Duchess—Sophia frowned at that—she condemned the Duke but pitied the lady.
"What should I do," she thought simply, "if Jack Brabazon was married to another and came wooing me the same?"
She opened the little gate in the yew hedge and stepped out into the field.
The sunshine was like a blessing over her, she threw back the cloak and let the warmth fall over her bare head.
Then she seated herself under a hawthorn on a little knoll.
There were no more blooms, but a close mass of green leaves cast a shade. Sophia sat outside this, in the sun, with her hands clasped round her knees.
She was withdrawn into dreams again when a little sound startled her—a sound distinct from all the usual noises of the country-side.
It was repeated again—a very gentle and heartbroken sigh.
Sophia looked very keenly over her shoulder, in the direction of this sound.
A deep ditch or gulley ran down the field, and from this a man was raising himself, one hand on the grass-grown edge either side.
As Sophia stared he lifted himself with great grace and ease to level ground and stood, not five yards away from the girl, shaking the earth and dust, grasses and ferns from his clothes.
As he looked up from this he saw Sophia.
He put his hand very quickly to his heart, and looked to right and left.
"A fugitive," thought Sophia.
A fugitive, that was to say, a rebel, a traitor—contempt chilled Sophia's pity.
The man, after looking keenly about him, brought his eyes to her face.
"You are alone?"
Her nostrils widened; perhaps he meant to frighten her; with level gaze she defied him.
"Not so alone as to be fearful of such as you," she replied.
He very faintly smiled, then sighed.
"I never inspired terror," he said.
"You are a rebel," remarked Sophia; she spoke with the lofty scorn of one bred and nurtured in loyalty.
"One of Monmouth's officers," he answered; he continued to hold his heart, like one spent with fatigue and pain.
"You are broken, you rebels?"
"There will be no mercy," said Sophia hardening herself.
"My brother and my—" she checked the words—"all my friends were with Feversham."
"They were fortunate."
"Loyal they are," said Sophia.
She rose, shaking the little dry grass seeds from the grey satin skirt.
"What did you hope to do?" she asked curiously.
"It was a fool and his folly from the first," he replied.
She looked at him closely, saw how stained and weary was his unshaven face, his head tied uncouthly with a silk handkerchief, his linen all soiled...his countenance seemed familiar to her, or like someone she had once known.
With a feeling of pity that was almost of shame she reflected on what state of misery he must be reduced to before he would stand like this before her, passively as if awaiting her decision. She had not realised the punishment waiting the rebels nor the penalties to be inflicted on those who succoured or sheltered them.
On the impulse, and ignorant of what she might be risking, she spoke.
"Are you hungry and tired?" her voice was cold, and he flushed.
"I am sadly in need of clean linen," he answered.
Something in his manner impressed her, something grand and strange...poor wretch, she was sure he was a gentleman.
"I am alone in the house save for the maids," she said, "my brother does not return until tonight and our men are all abroad looking for rebels—strange they did not find you."
"I have been in ditches," he said.
"If you will trust me," replied Sophia, "I will give you what help I may, but you must never boast of it or think of me as your friend, for I despise your party and your conduct and scorn you for the disloyal rebel you are."
"I must grow used to scorn and contempt, Madam—the price of failure."
"If you had succeeded," said Sophia, "I should have felt the same—your Duke would never have been my king."
She turned away, beckoning him to follow her; they skirted the outside of the garden wall, reached the house and the door in the side; as Sophia opened this, she spoke.
"You hope to get to the sea?"
"That is my intention."
"You had better wait till it is dark."
They mounted the narrow turnpike stair; "how easily he comes," thought Sophia—she thought it was not so much trust that made him put his life so easily into her hands, but rather the apathy of utter fatigue and despair.
She felt sobered, even saddened; her glorious afternoon of dreams was spoilt; it seemed as if she, as well as the man behind her, was doomed to some miserable and hastening fate.
At the top of the staircase were two rooms, the wardrobe and the woman's room, beyond her brother's three apartments.
She had been sure that no one would be here, all were busy in the kitchens; the sheets and coverlets for the guest-chamber had long since been selected.
The wardrobe was a large room, filled with presses and coffers, rolls of tapestry, bales of stuff for making up, sets of covers for chairs and bed draperies, all manner of furniture plenishings and trappings.
Sophia led him into the next room which was called the woman's room and contained distaffs, spinning-wheels, tapestry frames, all implements for sewing and embroidery, with designs for the same pinned on the wall, while half-finished garments and linen in the course of mending was piled on the various tables.
"We are safe here," said Sophia.
Her heart was beating a little fast, she opened the door of her brother's apartment.
"You will find there clean linen and water, and when you return here I will have some food for you."
He thanked her with a little smile, and again the swift impression that his face was familiar to her came upon her like a shock.
The door closed on him and she went downstairs, vexed with herself.
She was sure that her brother would not be pleased with her action—she did not think that her lover would.
Almost she regretted the impulse of pity that had impelled her to succour this wretched rebel.
She managed to creep unperceived into the larder and in two journeys to convey up to the woman's room a jug of cider, a loaf of white bread, a cold meat pasty, some cheese and some apples.
For appointments she went to her own closet and took from her few pieces of silver, a knife, fork and tumbler of gilded silver, and from her linen press a napkin of linen.
She regretted taking these which were considered too choice for her own use, but she could get no others without disturbing the servants.
Locking the door of the wardrobe on the staircase she spread her little feast, taking a certain pleasure in this, but blushing the while with vexation at her situation.
The fugitive was so long in her brother's chamber that she began to feel nervous.
It was well past four—there were not so many hours before that triumphant return to-night and Sophia felt suddenly and quite decidedly that she would sooner go forth an outcast herself than have her brother and Jack Brabazon discover her with the rebel.
And she had to remove the food and rearrange the chamber.
She knocked on the door.
Almost instantly he opened it; Sophia pointed to the table, then, retreating, seated herself apart, between the large distaff on which the thick flax hung; behind her head an oriel window admitted the western sun.
This, falling over her fair hair, lingering in her lap and over her crossed hands, finally rested on the head and shoulders of the man at the table.
Sophia, still holding herself in antagonism, ventured to look at him.
He was looking at her.
As she met his eyes an extraordinary feeling touched her nerves.
As if she looked at the newly returned dead, or one singled out from humanity for some awful doom...so strange was his expression, so impossible was it for her to read its meaning.
It was a beautiful face, she wondered that she had not noticed before how beautiful, how unusual.
He had shaved, and a little blood now coloured his cheeks, brown in their proper complexion; he had taken the handkerchief from his head, and his hair, dark auburn brown, thick and curly, fell on to his shoulders.
His cravat and shirt were clean, his suit, a fawn-coloured riding habit, freed from dust, his soft knee-boots brushed.
Where the shirt frill fell over the waistcoat Sophia caught a glimpse of a jewel concealed in the fold of linen.
Sophia did not speak.
She wished he would move his gaze.
His eyes were very beautiful, she had noticed them at first, dark, changeful, mournful, but not effeminate, they at once aroused interest and attraction.
The face seemed made for gaiety—the low brow, the short nose, the full mouth and cleft chin, the handsomeness of contour and of colour were meant to charm and be charmed.
All the more terrible was this look of bewilderment, of despair—of tragic hopelessness. He ate his food slowly and without relish.
"We are a long way from the coast," said Sophia at last, speaking out of her thoughts.
He seemed to rouse himself from dreams.
"A long way for a man tracked as I am tracked—hiding as I must hide!"
"Perhaps they will think no more of you—there are so many others."
He shuddered violently.
"Poor souls! poor souls!"
"They must pay."
"Those who led them should pay," he spoke with the first show of passion he had given, "why should they pay? Poor souls, poor souls, they knew not what they did."
"One should pay for all," said Sophia, "and that one is the Duke of Monmouth."
The rebel looked at her with that strange expression of submission.
"I do believe he would be very willing to pay for all, very willing to do anything to save the poor misled wretches who followed him."
"But he can do nothing," said Sophia thoughtfully, then she added, "How did he bear himself in the battle?"
"He is no soldier," said the fugitive.
"But he has been brave in France, and in Scotland, they say."
"Then he fought with Fortune, not against her."
"You mean he has no courage?"
"He has no courage for this turn—he fled."
"Before the day was lost?"
"Yea, before the day was lost—fled and left his poor peasants to fight his doomed cause."
So saying he rose and began walking up and down the room very slowly, between the spinning-wheels and great presses and rolls of arras and tapestry covers.
Sophia sat still; it all seemed sordid and miserable, her contempt of the rebels was changed to compassion, her scorn of their leader intensified, poor fop, poor coward!
"Where is he now, this Duke of yours?" she asked.
"As I am," he answered, "a fugitive, friendless—hopeless!"
"He will be captured?"
"How can he escape capture?"
He looked at her in silence.
"Well," said Sophia, "he wishes to be a king, and must die like a king."
She rose and moved to the window; the sunset was beginning to colour the sky with a great stain like living blood.
"It is not so easy to pay," said the rebel, "when one is young—and loved. Come, if you loved and were separated from your lover would you care to have to die before you saw him again, die without a word or a look?"
Sophia turned to him; she saw that he was speaking of himself, that he was facing the thought of his own death with unutterable horror and dread, with no courage and yet with that curious resignation that kept his speech low and his face composed.
Sophia did not care to look at him.
"You may escape or you may find mercy," she said with averted face.
"Mercy?" he repeated hastily, "when did King James show mercy to any? Think you he will show mercy to Monmouth?"
Loyalty impelled her to defend the King.
"How can he forgive black treason? The Duke had no shadow of right, for the dignity of England the King must not forgive Monmouth. But you, you who have been misled and cajoled may—be—"
"God knows I was misled," he interrupted with great passion.
"How could you have been deceived by a cause so hopeless?"
"Hopeless!" he repeated in a tired voice, "from the first hopeless! Yet England rose to meet us—the West welcomed us!"
For the second during which he spoke the mournful expression of his face changed, a look of pleasure brightened his eyes and curved his mouth as he recalled those early deceptive triumphs of the fatal expedition.
This passing change showed to Sophia what he must have been once, the charm, the gaiety once possessed by that countenance now so dreary and harassed; she had an impression of something strange, at once rare and spoilt.
"The world is sad and wrong," she said, "and I am sorry for you who have come against this sadness and this wrong—though I hate your deed and despise your leader."
"You think he deserves to die?"
"Oh, sir, how dare I say that of any human creature? He has been very sinful, but I hear one woman loves him truly, and that is something good of him."
"It is true," answered the fugitive eagerly, "and she is a gentlewoman of merit, you must never think less of her, a good woman...I knew her in Holland, a good woman...and very brave...she left all for him."
Sophia's youthful severity did not admire this, but she could spare pity for the Duke's lady waiting forlorn for evil news.
"What will she do?" she asked wonderingly.
He looked at her swiftly; his voice was still eager and his beautiful eyes shone.
"She will die," he said, "so they will not be so long separated."
She did not dislike him for the loyalty to love his speech showed.
She also thought there was nothing now for the Duke's lover but death.
"Will you go now?" she said, "while I can guide you past our grounds."
He seemed to rouse himself.
"Go?" he glanced round the room. "I feel at peace here—"
"But you cannot stay, my brother comes tonight."
"He is a soldier, you said?"
"Searching now for fugitives, eh?"
Sophia felt ashamed.
"It is poor sport," said the rebel, answering her silence. "I remember after Bothwell Brig Claverhouse wanted to cut down the Whigs—and I stopped him. I am glad of that. I thought of it last night; they thought I was soft, but I am glad of it."
"You stopped them? The Duke of Monmouth was in command at Bothwell Brig!"
"Child, have you not guessed I bear that most unfortunate name?"
Confused by a great timidity Sophia shrank away; abashed by the greatness and the doom of this quiet gentleman.
"You are Monmouth, you," she murmured stupidly, all the times that she had heard his gilded name rang in her head.
"I am he. Now let me go. And if you have a lover, child, teach him to be merciful."
Sophia closed her eyes.
John Brabazon and her brother were searching for rebels—searching for Monmouth—before she had not thought of this with terror, but now she shivered at the reflection.
"Do you pity me?" smiled the Duke, moving to the door.
Sophia raised her troubled eyes.
"It would be a hard heart that could not pity your Grace."
"There are many hard hearts abroad, my dear, there is one on the throne of England."
A sense of despair seized Sophia, she seemed to be touched by his anguish as by a bitter chilling wind.
"Oh, why did you embark on this? You might have been happy in exile!"
He looked at her with eyes of agony.
"I was happy."
"And yet you tried for this foolishness?"
"I was persuaded. I was not meant for these turns but for peaceful times. I was persuaded by ambitious men."
As he confessed his weakness and his failure the tears stood in his eyes.
He held out his hands to Sophia.
"You are a good child. And a Protestant, despite your loyalty?"
She suffered him to take her hands.
"Pray for me," said Monmouth in an exalted tone. "Pray for me—when I am—when it is over. I have been wicked—but I never wronged any wittingly. God bless you and your lover."
He looked steadily into her distressed face, and added in a lower tone, "And pray for her. She is as good as you, and my wife before God. She took me from great looseness of life and taught me happiness."
He shuddered and let Sophia's hands drop from his.
"Now let me go."
Sophia roused herself.
"Your Grace cannot go like that."
She pointed to his clothes.
He stared at her helplessly.
"You must be in some disguise."
She clasped her brow and he stood, with his air of resignation, waiting for her decision.
With the fastidiousness of the man who had never known dirt or even dishevelment before he had eagerly (more eagerly than he had taken food) accepted the chance of clean linen and of altering the disorder in his appearance, he had never thought of the folly of going abroad in this guise.
Nor, till this moment, had Sophia.
Now she was conscious that they both, in face of great difficulty and tragedy, had been behaving like a couple of dazed children.
She tried to gather her wits.
The Duke stood watching her, quite passively.
Sophia remembered an old peasant on the estate whose grandson had joined the rebels and whose sympathies were wholly with the Protestant Duke—this man might provide a suit of rough clothes at least.
"I must go," said Monmouth, "this way I endanger you."
He looked at the blood-coloured splendour of the sunset, which was now fading from the deepening purple of the sky.
And he looked with a shudder as a man who knows he might count how many times he will see the sun rise or set.
Sophia turned to the stairs and he followed her; his gentle step behind her sounded curiously in her ears.
They entered the garden, which was illuminated by the last hesitating light.
The Duke now walked beside Sophia.
As long as memory lasted she could not pass through this yew-bordered walk without seeing this sad figure with the beautiful face of resigned anguish moving by her side. She stepped swiftly, fearful of observation from the house.
When they left the garden and came out on to the hillside Sophia felt a little relief and yet a deeper melancholy.
The evening air, the sunset colour in the sky, the low breeze that waved the long grasses seemed fitting surroundings for the doomed man whose despair was touched with exaltation and who from bewildering agony was drawing some strange secret comfort, as men on the rack have held communication with angels.
Sophia looked shyly at his face.
Now they walked side by side.
"I hope your Grace may get away," she said; these were the only words of comfort of which she could think.
"I have no such hopes," he answered.
"Then what upholds your Grace?"
"Upholds me?" he said with hesitation.
Sophia hesitated also; by his own confession he had played a paltry part, by her own observation he was broken by his misfortunes, yet she could find no other word but this "uphold."
"I do think that your Grace is in some way supported."
"By memory," he said slowly; "remember that you have promised me to pray for her."
He spoke as one might speak of the dead; "it is love," thought Sophia; "in spirit they communicate and she comforts him."
They reached the cottage she had in mind; it stood lonely, out of sight of the house; the old man was working in his garden.
Sophia ran to the little gate and spoke:
"You have a grandson with the rebels, Peter?" He straightened himself.
Sophia shook her head.
"I have no news. This is a rebel—will you give him a suit of clothes that he may have a chance of escape?"
The old man looked from her to the Duke.
"I thought your ladyship was loyal," he said.
"I trust you," answered Sophia.
The peasant looked long at the fugitive, peering with his worn eyes through the dusk.
"Come in, come in," he said at last.
Monmouth followed him into the cottage; Sophia noticed how he had to stoop in entering the low door.
For a curious space of time she waited in the dusk, leaning against the gate.
The fires of the sun were extinguished and darkness overspread the luminous west; the loneliness seemed more ominous than spying eyes, the solitude more threatening than menacing crowds.
In a few moments the Duke returned in a soiled smock and breeches, slouch hat and latchet shoes.
Sophia pointed out the way to him; a vague way at best—across the open country.
He held her hand at parting.
His smock was unbuttoned over his shirt, she again saw the jewel on his heart.
"You must not keep that—what is it?"
"It will betray you."
"I could not leave it."
She made no answer.
He stooped and kissed her cold bare hand.
"God bless you, Madam."
No more of thanks or farewell than that and was gone, walking swiftly with his graceful step and soon lost in the dusky landscape.
"He has no chance at all," said the old man who had returned to the gate.
"You must burn his clothes," said Sophia hastily "and keep silence."
"He has no chance," repeated the peasant, "his death was written in his face."
Sophia, heavy-footed, returned to the house.
Her brother and Captain Brabazon did not return that night, nor till two days after.
Sophia had moved the portrait of herself from the dining-room and did not wear the festival grey dress in which to greet her lover.
He was triumphant with the news of the capture of the Duke of Monmouth: "starving, unkempt, in a peasant dress, hiding in a ditch." He had been one of those to seize the unfortunate Prince.
Sophia listened to his eager recital...the rebellion was over, Monmouth would be executed in London.
"There could be no mercy for him?"
"Mercy?—he deserved none."
"No, he deserved none," Sophia admitted.
Later, he asked her the answer to his letter, his proposal; to his great amazement Sophia, smiling and decided, said No.
A LADY sat at the low window of an upper room in a house overlooking the cathedral close, and looked at the twin towers of Exeter rising golden with sunshine against a sky of pale winter blue.
Her face and her pose were discontented; a spirit of gloom and unhappiness emanated from her and made the rather old-fashioned, dark room dismal—it was obviously the dwelling of one careless and indifferent to external things, a little untidy, a little neglected, conventional in taste.
Her dress was not conventional, but it was neglected as if it had been chosen with enthusiasm and worn in despair; the elaborate frills on the skirt and bodice of red taffeta, the fine work of the muslin apron, the fantastic cut of the overskirt of flounced coral-coloured velvet, accorded ill with the slatternly shoes and stockings, the soiled mob cap with the crumpled blue ribbon, and the untidy black locks neither dressed nor curled.
Her figure was slight, her face pleasing, and in some lights and by some spectacles, considered beautiful, but it was marred by melancholy and some bitterness, and her complexion had the unhealthy, pallid look given by an unhealthy, idle, and secluded life.
Such, at twenty-seven, was Drusilla Wilmot, once a pretty, sparkling girl, the belle of the county society in which she moved.
Disappointed ambition had soured her shallow nature, and the frustration of the hopes raised by her so-called brilliant marriage had left her discontented and rebellious.
She had married the best match in her neighbourhood, Sir Gabriel Wilmot, and it had been an affair of love on both sides, and, for Drusilla at least, full of promise, of potential happiness and coloured with dreams.
It had all come to failure; there never had been quite enough money to satisfy her worldly vanities, never quite enough love and admiration to satisfy her jealous woman's pride, never enough sweetness and kindness to make a desirable home, a common meeting-ground of pleasant things.
The slender bond of a mutual passion had soon snapped, and for this many a year they had been held together only by the enduring but galling chain of common interest.
By now, little would either have cared for a scandal, however open, that had set them free, but the question of money held them both bound.
He could not find the sum the restitution of her dowry demanded, she would not go to live on some pittance dependent on the success of his gaming or the luck of his bets, so their life continued from day to day, from month to month, a miserable life of mock splendour, of feigned ease, of difficult pretension, and secret bitternesses, anxieties and unhappiness.
The bitterness was entirely on Drusilla's part; Sir Gabriel had escaped that, as if, in loosening himself from her, he had cast from him all the misery of her soured temperament.
Contented or happy he could not be, but he had his friends, his interests, his pleasures. Drusilla had none of these.
There were few people in Exeter whom she cared to know, since her point of view was always clouded by dreams of that London which she had never been able to achieve, and they found in her too much of the country madam which she persistently refused to admit she had been born and bred.
He found his place in the society of the quiet city, she could not.
He had his card parties, his rides, his visits, she had nothing.
He had his friendship with Miss Frances Tremaine, the Dean's daughter, a friendship without reproach in the eyes of all save Drusilla—she had not such consolation.
At present the sole interest in her dreary life was a perilous acquaintance with Lord Pawlet, her husband's distant cousin and his guest.
Justin Pawlet was a man of fashion, unattached, unburdened by any ties, apparently of sufficient means, and certainly of sufficient charm, to make life one pleasant adventure.
Chance had brought him to Exeter and the society of his relative, some definite attraction kept him there; Drusilla was sure that this attraction was herself.
She had hardly the courage to admit that she was in love with him, so strong still was her early training; she did not face the future nor weigh the possible consequences of possible indiscretion, so hedged in was her nature by the mechanical decorum of the life she led, but she encouraged him furtively by every means in her power, and in her heart she held the terrified knowledge that she was on the edge of desperate things.
Exeter did not approve of Lord Pawlet; he had the manner and not the background of the great world, his splendour consisted of words, not facts. After the first dazzle, sober observers wished to know why such a luminary had left his sphere to shine in such dull company, but Sir Gabriel upheld him and bound him to him in a quick and defiant friendship.
This friendship was not wholly for the good of a country gentleman used to moderate ways. Sir Gabriel began to spend too lavishly, to waste too much time on cards, to exhibit a restless and reckless demeanour, to show distaste for the monotony of a country town, to further estrange himself from his semblance of a home.
And Drusilla sat behind the low windows and moped, not because her husband neglected her, but because he absorbed the society of Justin Pawlet.
As she looked out at the old placid close, the smooth green, the fair church, the circle of peaceful, dignified houses of which her unloved home formed part, a madness of discontent rose in her heart and gripped it like a physical agony.
She wondered fiercely why she was unhappy, what fatal mistake had rendered her life so unsupportable, what false step had condemned her to drink the last lees of dissatisfied ambition and baulked desire.
In her desperation she even thought of children—she had never liked or wanted them, now she wondered if she could have been that sort of soul, content with little things—at least real things. She had nothing, it was a shadow of a life.
She looked sideways out of the window at Mols Coffee House, by the narrow passage. Her husband was there with Justin Pawlet—they had most of their food there now; Drusilla kept an untidy household, and her husband was glad to escape her melancholy presence at miserable meals, served by indifferent servants.
Drusilla was not clever enough to lure Justin by a charming home, nor had she any longer the energy to change her life.
Bitterness made her slack in mind and body. She shrilled complaints at the servants and suffered them to neglect her and rob her as much as they pleased.
She told herself that if she had had the fine mansion of her dreams she would have been a regal mistress, a perfect mistress—nothing was worth while here, where the maids were ill-trained, the house too small, the money insufficient. It was the same with her appearance: what was the use of taking trouble when she had no woman to wait on her, when her gowns had to be made by the local mantua-maker, and she never could afford anything but steel buckles and imitation laces?
So acute became her sufferings as she stared out of the window, that she rose at last and began to walk up and down the room.
The door gently opened and closed.
Drusilla's wild glance of expectancy was instantly clouded by dull vexation.
It was her husband's sister, Katherine Wilmot, who entered.
She had been long ago sacrificed to Drusilla's ambition; when her sister-in-law refused to live in the country, and chose Exeter until London could be achieved, Wilmot House was let, and Kate had to follow her brother's fortunes.
She did not like this life which Drusilla was careful to render secluded and dull for her, but she did not complain, and out of a household so slatternly and uncomfortable, in which the imperious mistress did not let her interfere by a whisper, she had contrived to snatch neatness and charm in her own person and her own apartment.
She had no money save the small sums Sir Gabriel's swift pity could now and then spare from his disordered finances, but her mended tabinets and scoured silk were always elegant, she wore fine lace of her own making, and fresh linen of her own laundering—for the rest, Drusilla dismissed her as a nonentity, and for once Exeter agreed with Drusilla.
Kate Wilmot in her useless abnegation and the pointless monotony of her life seemed overlooked by God and man alike.
Yet her personality was sweet and pleasant, she had the wide eyes and short features, the full brown curls and fresh complexion of her brother; but no one had ever noticed Kate, she had neither lovers nor friends.
Drusilla disliked her because she did not complain; this passivity irritated her as it had long irritated her in Sir Gabriel.
Yet Kate was useful in the role of stage "confidante," as listener and recipient of complaints and lamentations.
As she entered now Drusilla eyed her sullenly. Kate went to a drawer in the heavy tortoise-shell inlaid cabinet and took out some linen needlework, neatly folded.
"Is Gabriel in?" she asked as she seated herself to catch the last light.
"No." Drusilla scorned to remark on the stupidity of the question.
"Nor Lord Pawlet?"
"They are at Mols?"
"Of course—unless," added Drusilla, "Gabriel is talking piety with Frances Tremaine in the deanery drawing-room."
"I wish he were," said Kate; she bent her glossy head low over her work, and her minute needle flew in and out industriously.
"Why?" asked Gabriel's wife indignantly.
"It is a good influence," said the sister softly.
"'Tis a vastly impertinent thing to say," she flashed. "Is she to have more influence than I?"
"You cannot keep him from the cards, she may," replied Kate.
She was often thus quietly frank, and Drusilla had grown to accept it; though she might fume for a while, after all, it did not at all matter what Kate thought or said.
"Why should he be kept from his cards?" asked Drusilla.
Kate put down her sewing.
"Do you know what they say?"
"What in particular?"
"These parties—at Mols—"
She stopped, as if awestruck.
Drusilla was contemptuous.
"Someone is cheating, they think—they suspect—"
His wife brought out the word with an accent that was almost of joy; if the bitter monotony of their lives could be ended by an event that would ruin the husband she hated, and free her, she would be only pleased.
Yet she was surprised also; she had never thought of Gabriel as a card-sharper.
"How did you hear of this?" she asked with the quiet of interest.
"From several—from Gabriel himself."
"'Tis strange that I did not hear anything."
"You were not interested."
"You mistake, I am," said Drusilla with meaning; her thoughts travelled to the person most constantly in her mind. "Lord Pawlet—he knows, I suppose?"
"He laughs—you may conceive how he laughs—yet it is his fault."
Drusilla lowered at this aspersion on her hero.
"It is true," continued Kate. "Gabriel never played so high before. Lord Pawlet encourages him—he is a great gambler."
"He comes from the great world where men do not count their pence."
"The more reason he should return there—we must count ours."
"You seem to find a pleasure in saying disagreeable things."
"Drusilla, you must face the truth sometimes: there is not enough money for us to live as we are living."
A passionate indignation shook Drusilla.
"As we are living! My God, as we are living!" she cried.
"It is mismanagement," said Kate with unruffled calm; "the money goes and we get nothing for it—for the moment Gabriel is lucky—that will not last; if it did, we could not live on his card winnings."
"You think he cheats?" asked Drusilla.
Kate slightly winced.
"I do not know," she said deliberately. "I think he may as he sinks further into ruin and—dissipation."
She folded up the sewing, for it was now too dark to see.
"Well, prevent it," answered Drusilla recklessly.
"I will try," said Kate.
Her tone made Drusilla look at her.
"What will you do?"
"I shall speak to Lord Pawlet."
Instant jealousy scorched Drusilla; she dared not speak.
"I shall ask him to go away, to leave us alone," added Kate.
Drusilla's bosom swelled, and the hot tears rose in her angry eyes.
Was she to have her one distraction, her one hope, her one pleasure, snatched from her by the scruples of this silly girl?
"He will not go," she said heavily.
"There is good in him," said Kate. "He might be saved."
"Saved!" sneered Drusilla.
Kate took no notice; she knew that her sister-in-law scoffed at her little pretensions to godliness, but Kate in her small, quiet way was sincerely religious, her narrow and precise idea of goodness had the power of her personal purity and her ignorance; nothing could upset her ideas of right and wrong; this gave her calm and a certain force that Drusilla sometimes vaguely felt.
She felt it now; she feared that Kate was capable of speaking to Lord Pawlet and even of sending him away.
Yet what opposition could she offer without betraying her secret?
"They are so long bringing the lights," said Kate; "one loses so much time."
She rose and pulled the bell-rope.
"Let the candles be," said Drusilla violently. "I am tired of the candlelight—tired!"
She rose, stretching her arms.
"Now the days are so short—always the candles—my life is passed in candlelight—always groping in the half dark—"
"And what of mine?" asked Kate. "But I will choose another chamber if you will not have the candles."
She left gently, and Drusilla was relieved by her going.
Yet wholly unhappy, alone and brooding, wholly discontented in the darkened chamber.
Presently, in reply to Kate's ring, the maid brought in the candles.
Drusilla shuddered before the dim, yellow light; then, suddenly, as the servant left, a man entered with an alert step.
The light rose in her eyes to welcome him; she stood foolishly.
"Alone?" said Lord Pawlet.
"In every way," she answered.
They stood facing each other, and he smiled a little.
Her heart beat thickly, and she turned away her head; her wretchedness was stirred to desperation by his handsome presence, his air of courage, of indifference, of freedom.
"You come from Mols?" she asked.
"Yes—Gabriel has gone to the deanery."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Why did you not go?"
"I followed my pleasure."
She faced him now.
"Did your pleasure bring you here?"
"Yes," said he.
Drusilla wondered why her courage failed her; what in this moment stood between them; when he was beside her she was always sure they loved each other, yet neither ever said so.
She looked at him with the appeal of a dumb animal in her brown eyes, imploring him to release her from the restraint in which convention held her mute.
"Poor child!" he said, and putting out his hand touched her cheek.
"Why do you pity me?" she asked.
This was not the level on which she wished to be taken.
"Because of Gabriel?" she added.
"Gabriel is a good fellow," he said; his hand fell gently to her shoulder.
"I wonder," said Drusilla—"have you heard this story of his playing false at Mols?" she continued fiercely.
My lord was visibly startled; his hand released her shoulder.
"Gabriel playing false?" he repeated.
"So they say—someone cheats, and they think it is he, because he is poor and full of debts."
Her callous crudeness seemed to take him aback; she misread his amazement.
"Yes, we are poor," she said defiantly. "Your lordship, who is a rich man, cannot understand poverty."
"You are bitter," remarked my lord.
Stung and humiliated she turned away; certainly she loved him; why did not something happen—how did women take that step out of the cage of decorum?
My lord was looking at her earnestly.
"Perhaps you have reason to be bitter," he said gently.
Drusilla could not answer; she seated herself at some distance from him and stared at his handsome face; the dimness of the candlelight vexed her; it seemed to hang between them, like a veil that she longed to tear aside.
"You do not believe this about Gabriel?" he asked keenly.
She was angry that he should mention her husband, especially in this tone of friendship.
"Does Miss Wilmot believe it?" added my lord.
"What does that matter?" flared Drusilla; these two, her husband and his sister, seemed to stand between her and her desires—even in these few moments they intruded.
"I am Sir Gabriel's friend," said Justin Pawlet thoughtfully.
"Why do you remind me of that?" she demanded.
He came towards her.
"I believe that you would be glad if it were true," he said.
Drusilla lifted her head to face him.
"Perhaps I should," she answered. "Perhaps I should be glad of anything that set me free from this life."
He spake curiously.
"How could it set you free?"
"Would you consider me bound to a dishonoured man as I am bound to an honourable one?—to a card-sharper as I am to a gentleman?" she demanded.
"No," he said. "No."
Drusilla rose impatiently; her unhealthy pallor was flushed and her eyes were bright and sparkling.
"Do you not understand me?" she asked, and there was something piteous in her eagerness, in the stumbling waste of her words.
He put his hand where it had rested before, on her thin shoulder where the dark curls fell in disorder.
"Poor child!" he said; his dark face was slightly flushed.
She looked at him with defiant eyes.
"Well?" she said with trembling lips.
She thought that it was surely her moment, that he would take her to his heart and comfort her, that she would taste the joy of his comfort, of his praises, of his sympathy; more than ever before she believed that they loved each other.
The door was opened swiftly, and Kate Wilmot entered.
My lord stood unmoved, but Drusilla, shrinking away from under his touch, shivered and whitened with wrath.
"Gabriel has not returned," said Kate. "Shall we dine without him?"
Drusilla turned her head away in silence; she believed that Kate had purposely interrupted these precious moments, that she had seen their faces and understood their thoughts, and was resolved to thwart them, and she hated Kate with an implacable hatred.
Lord Pawlet remained composed.
"Shall we not wait a little?" he said.
"As you please," answered Kate; she seated herself by the candles and drew from her capacious pocket the neat length of embroidery.
Drusilla saw that she was determined not to leave them, and her heart swelled with impotent fury.
My lord glanced at Drusilla, but spoke to Kate.
"I purchased a new sword to-day," he said, and unbuckled it to show.
Kate put down her work.
"At the shop in the Western Hay?" she asked; she took the slender weapon in her slender hands and looked at it with gentle eyes.
"Yes—it is an elegant French make."
Kate admired it; she ran her finger down the shining length of the smooth scabbard and over the pierced pattern of the guard, then took up one by one the tassels of steel beads which hung from the hilt.
"You look thoughtful," smiled my lord.
She raised candid eyes.
"I am thoughtful."
Drusilla could not endure to sit watching; she knew that Kate was not afraid of her, and would deliver her lecture to Lord Pawlet in Drusilla's own presence if need be.
And she, through being Gabriel's wife, through lack of wit, of daring, through ignorance of how to handle the situation, would have to sit silent. But she knew other ways of defeating both Kate and Gabriel.
With a swift and passionate look at my lord, she left the room.
With unsteady steps she turned into the dining-room; the supper was already laid.
Drusilla looked with sick distaste at the dish of cold ham garnished with cabbage, at the hacked loaf, the stained decanters, the carelessly-placed plates and glasses.
If she could get away—if she could end it—in any fashion.
Near the window stood a card-table; Drusilla went to this and stood a moment, then snatched open a drawer—and took out a pack of cards.
She hastily selected the ace of spades, thrust it into the bosom of her dress and returned the rest to the table-drawer, which she locked.
Then she snatched one of the candles from the brass sconce above her head, and holding it in her bare hands she ran with a fierce and evil swiftness up the stairs to her husband's dressing-room.
Her flaring flame showed her what she came to seek—the clothes her husband wore in the evening lying across the chair by the door to the powder-closet.
She steadied herself and placed the candle cautiously on the dressing-table, that she might not betray herself by a trail of spilt wax.
Then, taking up Sir Gabriel's rose-coloured waistcoat, she ripped open a portion of the lining and slipped in the ace of spades.
She had scarcely hung the garment back when she heard Sir Gabriel's step on the stair and his voice humming a little song.
In silent terror she caught up her light and fled across the landing to her own chamber.
She tried not to think what she had done—a foolish trick, a stupid, vulgar trick, the trick of a malicious child—yet it might serve.
Presently she heard my lord, whose chamber lay through her husband's, come upstairs, and then their voices as they laughed and talked together.
Then they went down together, and the front door closed.
She rushed to the window and saw the two cloaked figures cross the close and disappear into the lighted door of Mols Coffee House.
Now she was afraid lest he had not changed his clothes.
It was not likely, as he was particular in his dress, but she could not rest until she was sure; softly she tiptoed back into his room.
The rose-coloured waistcoat, and the red cloth suit that had been lying with it, were gone.
But she was startled by seeing on the couch another waistcoat of much the same shade.
A quick examination showed her that this was not the garment in which she had placed the card, and she crept downstairs satisfied.
The engraved face of the tall clock in the hall told her that she had been upstairs for more than an hour.
Kate had eaten her supper and was quietly at work in the drawing-room.
Drusilla looked at the food with loathing. She felt strangely sick and faint, her hands and feet were very cold...
She tried to collect her thoughts clearly, and to review what she had done and what she must yet do.
She did not repent her action, but already she was afraid of what the consequences might be to herself. She believed that Justin Pawlet would despise her if he knew, and she began to plan what her behaviour must be, so that he would never guess.
With futile cunning she tried to convince herself that she had done no wrong.
Sir Gabriel was a cheat—even Kate thought so—and she had but dragged his disgrace into the light.
Now surely my lord would pity her, now she would be free to go to him...perhaps he would take her to London—or abroad.
"Anywhere—out of the candlelight," said Drusilla. Then, with a feverish sharpening of her wits, she considered how to complete her deliverance, which was certainly not yet achieved.
Selecting from her desk a sheet of ordinary paper, such as might be used by anyone, she cut a new quill and wrote laboriously with her left hand these words:
"You will find the cheat you have been looking for in the man who wears the rose-pink waistcoat."
Carefully folding this and sealing it with a plain pink wafer, which she selected because she had no others of that colour, she ran upstairs and put on her darkest hood and cloak.
As she was leaving the house she had to pass the open door of the drawing-room.
As she crept, trembling, past the long bar of light, she had a strange sight of Kate.
The girl was on her knees beside the low music-stool in front of the old spinet. Her hands were clasped on the worn brocade and her face was turned upwards, and gently illuminated by the candlelight.
Even to her sister-in-law's eyes she looked beautiful in that moment.
She shrank before the fresh outer air and the vague lights of the close, and stood for a moment irresolute, crouching in the shadow of her own porch, the wind blowing her hood down on her hot face. Confusion had fallen on her well-natured plans; she felt foolish and incapable of any kind of action.
She did not even know to whom to deliver the letter.
Then the light in the old low windows of Mols Coffee House shone clearly at her through the dimmer light and the shadows.
She moved towards it.
Creeping on to the grass of the cathedral yard, she came, always in shadow, opposite this light which came from the upper window of the big public room, the old panelled room that had seen many generations come and go.
Voices and the little sounds of people moving—the creak of a chair, the movement of a glass, came out to Drusilla; on the low ceiling she could see monstrous shadows flung, the outlines of gigantic perukes and shoulder-knots.
They were, she thought, playing already.
Swiftly she crossed the road and hid herself in the porch of St. Martin's Church, while she further considered what she had in hand.
It occurred to her to deliver her note to the Dean's son if he was of the company—there would be a pleasure in making the brother of Frances Tremaine the instrument of Gabriel's ruin.
While her courage lasted she faced the light and noise of the coffee-house, and pushing open the door stood within, hooded and cloaked beyond recognition.
A drawer stood within the door.
"Is Mr. Tremaine upstairs?" asked Drusilla.
"Give him this note as quickly as may be," said Drusilla, and hastened away.
When she was once more in the open-air she had a feeling of having acquired another personality—she was no longer the nonentity she had been till this evening.
"I suppose I am a wicked woman, a wicked woman," she said to herself; she was angry that this thought came, but she could not dismiss it—she was wicked, different, changed.
She wanted to go on her knees and pray to the God whom she had always scoffed at, that Justin Pawlet might never know what she had done; at the same time she was fiercely ready to justify herself before all the world.
As she returned furtively to her own home, she wondered, with an unpleasant wonder, why Kate, sober, undemonstrative Kate, who prayed at certain times and in certain places, as her bedside and the cathedral aisle, should have been on her knees before the harpsichord.
What was the nature of her petition to the Heaven she thought so near?
Drusilla did not care to think, for she believed that it was in some way connected with herself and Lord Pawlet.
Slowly she dragged her unwilling feet up to the drawing-room.
Time had become suddenly terrible, a burden and a menace—she could not do anything, she could not sleep; she must wait till something happened.
Unsuspecting and serene, Kate sat in the candlelight; there was no work in her hands now.
The yellow light and luminous shadows softened her shabby gown of green chintz, and gave a fresh softness to a face in itself soft.
Drusilla had flung off her cloak in the hall, and entered as if from the supper-room.
"I wish to speak to you, Drusilla."
Kate spoke earnestly, her eyes, her sister-in-law noticed, were shining with excitement.
She seemed like one who has meditated on good news till their happiness is touched with exultation.
Drusilla too was excited, with a sick, heavy agitation that scarcely allowed her to speak.
She nodded, seating herself by the unshuttered window where she could see the light in Mols Coffee House.
"I want to tell you," said Kate, very seriously and softly, almost with the manner of one approaching a sacred subject, "about Gabriel."
Drusilla made a little sound; it astonished her how dry her throat had become, and what a difficulty she had in finding words.
"It is quite untrue about the cards," continued Kate. "Gabriel is quite guiltless of the least suspicion of such a thing."
Drusilla winced before this certainty.
"How do you know?" she jerked out.
"I must not tell you—yet, at least—but I do know. You may believe me."
Drusilla did believe her, and sat dumb and helpless before this belief.
Yet she sought wildly for words with which to deny what Gabriel's sister said.
Kate, wrapped in a strong, inner feeling of her own, did not notice the other's agitation.
"And to-morrow," she added, "Lord Pawlet goes away."
All Drusilla's strained and stifled feelings merged now into hatred of this quiet girl.
"What has he to do with it?" she asked violently.
"He leaves," said Kate, "and therefore there is no need to talk of him further."
"What right have you to interfere with my guest?" asked Drusilla.
"I asked him to go."
"I know...how dare you!..."
"It was better he should go."
"He shall not go—but you sooner, you intolerable creature!"
"Why," asked Kate calmly, "should you wish him to remain?"
Drusilla looked at her and then laughed excitedly; after all her trouble—why this fret about to-morrow—to-morrow everything would be changed.
"You are a silly girl," she said wildly, "and understand nothing. To-morrow brings another day—we shall see to-morrow, you and I."
Kate curiously regarded her.
"I think you are not well," she said. "You look as if you had the fever."
Again Drusilla laughed; she felt drowsy now and heavy-headed, almost as if she could sleep.
"I shall go to bed—they may not be home till dawn."
"It is for the last time," said Kate.
"The last time," echoed Drusilla.
Slowly she left the room and went upstairs;
Kate took her place and gazed at the light in Mols Coffee House.
Upstairs Drusilla, dishevelled, shaken, craving for oblivion, slept.
All her strength slipped from her, and she fell into the deep slumber of nervous exhaustion, passing into a world of confusion and feverish dreams of bitter horror.
Downstairs, Kate, cold in every limb, with the candles going out about her, watched the light that came from the room where Justin Pawlet was.
Drusilla's parting words echoed in her tired brain.
"The last time."
To-morrow he would be gone; it was not likely that she would either see him or hear from him again; she had sent him from her narrow circle where she was imprisoned—once sent away he would not return.
Only now did Kate realise what life might be, and by this wild revelation what it was and what it must be, when he had gone.
Yet it was best he should go, she never faltered from that—best for Gabriel and Drusilla, for her and for himself.
And he had her prayers, her meditations; she could escape into inner regions of the soul; there she had the advantage of Drusilla.
She pitied Drusilla.
The cathedral clock struck one, and Kate, too, fell asleep at the useless vigil, a piteous, chilled figure with fallen head, huddled in the window-seat.
A violent knocking at the door roused both these women.
Kate woke first, and instantly remembered everything; she glanced at the light in the Coffee House; it was still there; the same second she was sure of another light, the glare of flaming pine knots without cast into the darkness of the room where the candles had long since gutted out, and voices, hushed yet impatient, and now and then breaking into loud speech.
Drusilla heard, and remembered nothing. In a fury of panic she flung herself from the bed and rushed downstairs, haunted by the ugly after-horror of dreams.
She met Kate in the hall; then she remembered.
"Gabriel has come home," she said.
"Something has happened," said Kate.
She was unfastening the door and shivering in the cold air of the passage.
Drusilla leant against the wall and began to put her hair up, finding the pins in the fallen masses of tangled curls.
The door opened on a glare of torchlight and the bitter chill of night.
A group of men, all indistinct and blurred with light and shadow, stood without; one, a falling, dragging figure, was being supported by the others.
Drusilla heard the words "a duel"—"it was all over in five minutes," and "My God! does no one know of a surgeon?" and the group tramped past Kate and into the hall, clumsily dragging their burden.
She saw it all very clearly; there was no confusion in her mind now, it worked with great lucidity. Gabriel had fought, had been wounded, was dying—her freedom was more complete than she had ever hoped or guessed—this was indeed the end of his life and hers—the end.
She continued putting up her hair, not knowing what she was doing.
The torches had to be put out in the hall; darkness engulfed them all.
"Candles! Candles!" came excited voices.
"Always candlelight," said Drusilla hysterically.
Kate felt her way into the dining-room and lit the candles on the table; the procession followed her, coming heavily with their burden, Drusilla at their heels.
She noticed the uncleared table, left under the pretence that Sir Gabriel might return, the ham, the loaf, the soiled glasses, the disarranged cloth, the stained plates.
"But this is the end," she repeated. She bent forward to stare at the wounded man; he who supported him suddenly looked up at her, and she stared into her husband's face.
"Why—you—you," she said, pointing at him "You—you—"
Sir Gabriel lifted higher the man he was holding up under the arm-pits.
"Have you nothing?" he asked. "Nothing?"
He stared round with a fierce helplessness.
"The couch," said one.
There the wounded man was dragged and extended. Drusilla saw that he wore a rose-coloured waistcoat, then as they held the snatched-up candles near his face she saw that it was Justin Pawlet.
"Gabriel did it?" she asked eagerly; her first thought was that, to implicate her husband.
"No—young Tremaine—it was cards—he was suspected. Tremaine flung it in his face—we found the ace of spades in his waistcoat—Tremaine struck him—they fought at once—by candlelight—he's done for—perhaps better so."
These words, flung to her by one of the excited young men, flushed with wine and horror, showed the truth to Drusilla.
Lord Pawlet shared her husband's dressing-room, his waistcoat, flung on top of her husband's clothes, had deceived her—she had put the card into the wrong man's garment.
And now he was dying of it, while Gabriel stood over him, untouched...
Kate had brought some clove cordial, all she had.
"It does not matter," said one compassionately. "It is not any use."
Justin Pawlet writhed on the worn damask cushions; he had been thrust through the lungs and was bleeding inwardly.
"Kate, come here," he whispered.
She came at once and knelt beside him; the others fell back a little as before one who had a right.
"Girl," said he, trying to gaze at her with his agonised eyes. "I told you to-day—I was a cheat—"
She bent her head.
"That I lived by it—but I promised—"
She supplied what he would have said.
"You promised me that you would go away when I told you that your dishonour was being put to Gabriel—my lord, you promised me—and I believed you."
"Why?" gasped my lord.
They raised him a little that he might look at her, so obviously were his thoughts with her and with no one else present.
She took his chilled hand between her two cold palms, and looked at him very curiously, bending her distorted face above his distorted face.
"Because I loved you," she said.
He made a movement with his head, as if he said, "I know."
"I love you," she repeated. "Do you like to hear it?"
Again that faint movement of assent; then he gathered strength to speak.
"Child—I did not cheat to-night—I kept my word—that fool, Tremaine—someone set him on me—the ace—that dug my grave—" His dying eyes fixed her with a passionate force; he tried to raise himself a little. "Before God I know nothing of it!"
For a second his voice was the voice of a strong man, then he collapsed, and her arms were about him.
"I believe you," she said loudly.
He tried to speak again, but the blood came to his lips, and as she pressed him close, stained her bosom.
Drusilla crept closer to watch him die.
AGAIN the shadows invaded the house in the cathedral close; Drusilla sat again alone in the drawing-room; Kate was in the burial-ground of St. Mary Major, standing by the grave of a disgraced adventurer; Gabriel was with Frances Tremaine, with whom he had arranged her brother's escape to France; the tragedy had brought them very close together.
Drusilla had never spoken; her silence had branded Justin Pawlet with a deathbed lie; she never would speak, but she knew that this could not hurt Kate, Kate who had loved and believed.
It was out of her power to hurt Kate or Gabriel as it was out of her power to help herself.
As she sat shivering in her dreariness, the slatternly maid brought in the candlelight!
CLAUDE BOWCHER found himself awaiting with increasing dread the approach of the 12th of December.
He still called it December to himself; the new names of the divisions of the years of liberty had never taken root in his heart, which remained faithful to many of the old traditions.
Yet he was a good servant of the new Republic, and had so far escaped peril during perilous times without sinking into servile insignificance.
He was a clerk in the Chamber of Deputies, well paid and unmolested; from the safe vantage of a dignified obscurity he watched greater men come and go, and ate his supper and smoked his pipe in peace while the death-carts went to and from the prisons and the Place de la Revolution, which Bowcher, in his mind, thought of as the Place du Louis XVI.
He had his ambitions, but he held them suspended till safer times; he was not the man for a brilliant, fiery career ending in the guillotine; he was not, either, pessimistic; a better epoch, he would declare, would certainly emerge from the present confusion (he refused to accept it as anything else), which could but be regarded as the birth throes of a settled state.
Therefore, being young and calm, and having lost nothing by the upheaval of society, he waited, as he felt he could afford to wait, until the order of things was once more stable and established. The horrors that had washed, like a sea of filth and blood, round his safety had scarcely touched him; this terror he felt at looking forward to the 12th of December was the first fear that he had ever known.
A fear unreasonable and by no means to be explained.
The first and main cause of his dread was a trifle, an affair so slight that when he had first heard of it he had put it from his mind as a thing of no importance.
One of the Deputies of Lille had put his finger on a conspiracy in the Department of Bearn, involving several names that had hitherto passed as those of good friends of the Republic.
The matter did not loom large, but required some delicacy in the handling. The Deputy for the Department concerned was away, no steps were to be taken until his return, which would be on the 12th of December; then Bowcher, as a man reliable and trustworthy, was to carry all papers relating to the alleged conspiracy to his house at St. Cloud.
At first the young clerk had thought nothing of this, then he had been rather pleased at the slight importance the mission gave him.
That night, over his supper in the little café in the Rue St. Germains, he began to think of Ambrosine, who had long been a forbidden memory.
She was a little actress in a light theatre that existed during the days of the Terror like a poisonous flower blooming on corruption.
She had lived in a little house on the way to St. Cloud, a house on the banks of the river, an innocent and modest-looking place to shelter Ambrosine, who was neither innocent nor modest.
Claude Bowcher had loved her, and every night after she had finished her part in the wild and indecent performance, he would drive her home in a little yellow cabriolet which had once belonged to a lady of fashion.
They had been quite happy; she was certainly fond of Claude, and, he believed, faithful to him; he had rivals, and it flattered him to take her away from these and make her completely his, almost subservient to him; she was only a child of the gutters of St. Antoine, but she was graceful and charming, and endearing, too, in her simplicity and ardour, which she preserved despite her manifold deceits and vices.
She was not beautiful, but she had dark blue eyes, and kept her skin lily pale, and her hair was wonderful, and untouched by bleach or powder; fair and thick and uncurling, yet full with a natural ripple, she kept it piled carelessly high with such fantastic combs as she could afford, and from these it fell continually on to her thin bosom and slanting shoulders.
Claude, sitting in his café, remembered this fair hair, and how it would fly about her when she ran from the stage, flushed, panting, half naked from the dance by which she had amused men inflamed with blood.
He thought: "To take those papers I shall have to pass the house where she lived—"
He checked himself; then his thought continued: "Where she died."
Ambrosine had been murdered three years ago.
One day in winter she had not appeared at the theatre. As there was a new topical song for her to learn, they had sent a messenger to the little house on the river.
He found her in her bed-gown on the floor of her bed-chamber, stabbed through and through the fragile body.
The house was in confusion, and had been stripped of its few poor valuables.
No one knew anything; the house was lonely, and Ambrosine lived alone; the old woman who worked for her came in for a portion of the day only.
It was found that she had no friends or relatives, and that no one knew her real name—she was just a waif from the Faubourg St. Antoine.
That night Claude went to see her; they had quarrelled a little, and for two days he had kept away.
Rough care had disposed her decently on the tawdry silks of the canopied bed; she was covered to the chin, and her face, bruised and slightly distorted, had the aggrieved look of a startled child.
Her hair was smoothed and folded like a pillow beneath her head, her little peaked features looked insignificant beside this unchanged splendour of her hair.
As Claude looked at her he wondered how he could have ever loved her—a creature so thin, so charmless; his one desire was to forget her, for she now seemed something malignant.
He paid what was needful to save her from a pauper's burial and went back to Paris to forget. No one found it difficult to forget Ambrosine; her obscene tragedy troubled no one, there was too much else happening in France.
Thieves had obviously murdered her for her few possessions; it was left at that, for no one really cared.
The Faubourg St. Antoine could provide plenty such as she.
For a while she held Claude at night; with the darkness would come her image, holding him off sleep.
Always he saw her dead, with the strained, half-open lips, the half-closed, fixed eyes, the thin nose, and the cheeks and chin of sharp delicacy outlined against the pillow of yellow hair.
Always dead. Again and again he tried to picture her living face, her moving form, but he could not capture them.
He could not recall the feel of her kisses or her warm caresses, but the sensation of her cold yet soft dead cheek as he had felt it beneath a furtive touch was long with him.
But after a while he escaped from Ambrosine; he forgot.
Now, as he remembered the way his route took him on the 12th of December, he remembered.
Not that he had any horror of the house or the locality—it simply had not happened that he had ever had occasion to go there since her death. Probably there were other people living there now, or the house might even be destroyed—in any case he would take a détour round the deserted Park.
But it was absurd to suppose that he was afraid of that house or unwilling to pass the way he had last passed coming from her deathbed. It was all over and he had forgotten.
So he assured himself; yet he began to recall Ambrosine, and always with a sensation of faint horror.
That night was the beginning of his fear.
He went home late to his lodging near the café and, on sleeping, dreamt, very exactly, this dream, which had the clearness and force of a vision.
He dreamt that it was the 12th of December, and that he was riding towards St. Cloud, carrying the papers he was to take to the Bearnais Deputy.
It was a cold, clear, melancholy afternoon, and the silence of dreams encompassed him as he rode.
When he reached the great iron gates of the dismantled Park, his horse fell lame. He was not very far from his destination, and he decided to go on on foot.
Leaving his horse at a little inn, he struck out across the Park.
He saw it all perfectly plainly—the great avenues of leafless trees, the stretches of green sward scattered with dead leaves, the carp ponds and fountains with their neglected statues and choked basins, the parterres where flowers had bloomed not so long ago, and that now looked as utterly decayed, and to his right, as he walked, always the pale glimpse of the river, shining in between the trees.
Now, as he proceeded and the dusk began to fill the great Park with shadows, he was aware of a companion walking at his side, step for step with him. He could not discern the head and face of this man, which seemed inextricably blended with the shadows, but he saw that he wore a green coat with dark blue frogs.
And he at once began to conceive of this, companion a horror and dread unspeakable. He hastened his steps, but the other, with the silent precision of dreams, was ever beside him; the day had now faded to that fixed, colourless light which is the proper atmosphere of visions, and the trees and grass were still, the water without a ripple.
They came now, Claude and the figure that dogged him, to a flat carp-basin, dried and lined with green moss.
A group of trees overshadowed it with bare branches, a straight stone figure rose behind, faceless and ominous.
Claude did not remember this place, well-known as was St. Cloud to him.
His companion stopped, and bent down to adjust the buckle of his shoe.
Claude longed to hasten on, but could not move; the other rose, took his hand and led him hurriedly across the dry grass.
They approached the bank of the river and a house that stood there, on the confines of the Park.
Claude knew the house.
It was shuttered as when he had seen it on his last visit to Ambrosine.
The garden was a mass of tangled weeds—he noticed a bramble that barred the door across and across.
"They did not find the place so easy to let," he found himself saying.
His companion released him, and, wrenching off the rotting shutter of one of the lower windows, climbed into the house.
Claude, impelled against his will, followed.
He saw, very distinctly (as, indeed, he had seen everything very distinctly in his dream), the dreadful, bare, disordered room of Ambrosine.
Then a deeper and more utter horror descended on him.
He knew suddenly, and with utter conviction, that he was with the murderer of Ambrosine.
And while he formed a shriek, the creature came at him with raised knife, and had him by the throat, and he knew that he was being killed as she had been killed, that their two fates were bound together, and that her destiny, from which he had tried to free himself, had closed on him also.
This being the culmination of the dream, he woke; he slept no more till morning, and even in the daylight hours the dream haunted him with a great and invincible dread.
It was the more horrible that reality mingled with it—remembrance of days that had really existed were blended with remembrance of that dreadful day of the dream, recollections of Ambrosine were blended with that vision of her deserted home.
The past and the dream became one, rendering the dead woman an object of horror, hateful and repellent.
He could not without a shudder recall her gayest moments, or think of the little theatre where she used to act.
So three days passed, and then he dreamt the dream again.
In every detail he went through it as he had been before, and by no effort could he awake until the dream was accomplished and he was in the grip of the murderer of Ambrosine, with the steel descending into his side.
And the date of his journey was now only a week off; he hardly thought of trying to evade it, of pleading illness, or asking another to take his place; it was part of the horror of the thing that he felt that it was inevitable that he should go—that his journey was not to be evaded by any effort, however frantic, that he might make.
Besides, he had his sane, reasonable moments when he was able to see the folly of being troubled by a dream which had recalled a little dancer with whom he had once been in love, and involved her with a certain journey near her dwelling that he was bound to make.
That was what it came to—just a dream, and a recollection.
He argued in these quiet moments that it was not strange that his purposed journey to St. Cloud should arouse memories of Ambrosine, and that the two should combine in a dream.
He distracted himself by taking a deeper interest in the wild, fierce life of Paris, by listening to all the tragedies daily recounted, by visiting all the quarters most lawless and most distressed. One day he even went—for the first time—to watch the executions.
This real horror would check, he thought, the fanciful horror that haunted him.
But the first victim he saw was a young girl with hands red from the cold, a strained mouth and fair hair turned up on her small head; her eyes, over which the dullness of death seemed to have already passed, stared in the direction of Claude. He turned away with a movement so rough that the crowd, pressing round him, protested fiercely.
Claude strode through the chill and windy streets of Paris and thought of the approaching 12th of December as of the day of his death. So intense became his agitation that he turned instinctively towards his one friend, as one being enclosed in darkness will turn towards the one light.
Réné Legarais was his fellow clerk and his first confidant and counsellor—a man a few years older than himself, and, like himself, sober, quiet, industrious, and well balanced.
Claude found his lodging near the Pre-aux-Clercs empty; Réné was yet at the Chamber.
Claude waited; he found himself encouraged even by the sight of the cheerful, familiar room, with books, and lamp, and fire, and the coffee-service waiting for his friend's return.
He now tried hard to reason himself out of his folly.
He would tell Réné, and with the telling he would see the absurdity of the whole thing, and they would laugh it away together over a glass of wine.
Réné, he remembered, had also been in love with Ambrosine, but in a foolish, sentimental fashion—Claude smiled to think it, but he believed that Réné had been ready to marry the little creature. She had even favoured his respectful wooing (so gossip said) until Claude had appeared, with bolder methods, and his vivid good looks, and his lavish purse.
Réné had retired with the best of grace, and that was all long ago and forgotten by both; Claude wondered why he thought of it now, sitting here in the warmth and light.
Only because he was unnerved and unstrung and obsessed by that weird dream.
Réné came home at his usual hour, flushed by the sharp wind and shaking the raindrops from his frieze coat.
He was a pale young man with heavy brown hair, insignificant features, and a mole on his upper lip.
He looked unhealthy and pensive, and wore horn-rimmed glasses when he worked.
"Where were you this afternoon?" he asked.
"Your desk was empty."
"I was not well," said Claude.
Réné gave him a quick glance.
Claude looked well enough now, a colour from the fire in his handsome brown face, his slim figure stretched at ease in the deep armed leather chair and a half mocking smile on his lips.
"I went to see the executions," he added.
"Bah!" said Réné.
He came to the fire and warmed his hands, which were stiff and red with cold; they reminded Claude of the hands of the girl whom he had seen on the platform of the guillotine.
"It is the first time," replied Claude, "and I shall not go again."
"I have never been," said Réné.
"There was a girl there," Claude could not keep it off his tongue.
"There always are girls, I believe."
"She was quite young."
"Yes?" Réné looked up, aware that interest was expected of him.
"And thin—like Ambrosine."
"You remember," said Claude impatiently, "the little dancer...at St. Cloud."
"Oh—whatever made you think of her?" Réné looked relieved, as if he had expected something far more portentous and terrible.
"That is what I wish to know—what has made me think of her? I believed that I had forgotten."
"I had, certainly."
"So had I."
"What has reminded you?"
Claude struggled with his trouble, which now seemed to him ridiculous.
"I have to go to St. Cloud," he said at last.
"On business of the Chamber?"
"And this reminded you?"
"Yes—you see," explained Claude slowly, "I have not been there since."
"Not since?" Réné pondered, and seemed to % understand.
"And lately I have had a dream."
"Oh, dreams," said Réné; he lifted his shoulders lightly and turned from the fire.
"Do you dream?" asked Claude, reluctant to enter on the subject, yet driven to seek the relief of speech.
"Who does not dream—now—in Paris?"
Claude thought of the thin girl on the steps of the guillotine.
"There is good matter for dreams in Paris," he admitted, adding gloomily, "I wish that I had not been to the executions."
Réné was making the coffee; he laughed good-naturedly.
"Come, Claude, what is the matter with you? What have you on your conscience?"
Réné lifted his brows.
"Have you not found, in Paris, in three years, a woman to make you forget Ambrosine, poor little fool?"
"I had forgotten," said Claude fiercely, "but this cursed journey—and this cursed dream—made me remember."
"You are nervous, over-worked," replied his friend; it was quite true, that in these few weeks Claude had been working with a desperate energy; he snatched eagerly at the excuse.
"Yes, yes, that is it...but the times...enough to unnerve any man—death and ruin on either side and the toils closing on so many one knew."
Réné poured out the coffee, took his cup and settled himself comfortably in the armchair opposite Claude. He drank and stretched his limbs with the satisfaction of a man pleasantly tired.
"After all, you need not take this journey," he said thoughtfully; "there are a dozen would do it for you."
"That is just it—I feel impelled to go, as if no effort of mine would release me"—he hesitated a moment, then added: "That is part of the horror of it."
"Of the whole thing—do you not see the horror?" asked Claude impatiently.
"My dear fellow, how can I, when you have not told me what this wonderful dream is about?" Claude flushed, and looked into the fire; after all, he thought, Réné was too commonplace to understand his ghostly terrors—and the thing did seem ridiculous when he was sitting there, warm and comfortable and safe.
Yet it could not be dismissed from his mind—he had to speak, even if to a listener probably unsympathetic.
"It is like a vision," he said. "I have had it three times—it is a prevision of the journey to St. Cloud.—"
Réné, attentive, waited.
"It is so very exact," continued Claude, "and each time the same."
"Oh, it is only that—the ride to the gate, the leaving of the lame horse, the walk through the Park, and then—"
"The appearance of a man walking beside me."
"You know him?"
"I hardly saw the face."
"Well?" Réné continued to urge Claude's manifest reluctance.
"We went, finally, to the house of Ambrosine."
"Ah yes, she lived there on the banks of the river—"
"Surely you remember—"
"We were never intimate," smiled Réné. "I do not believe that I ever went to her house. Of course it was familiar to you?"
"I saw it again exactly—it was shut up. Deserted and in decay. My companion broke the window shutters and stepped in. I followed. The room was in disrepair, unfurnished—as I looked round the place—"
He shuddered, in spite of his strong control.
"The fiend with me revealed himself. I knew that he was the murderer of Ambrosine, and he fell on me as he had fallen on her—"
Réné was silent a moment.
"Why should the murderer of Ambrosine wish to murder you?" he asked at length.
"How do I know? I tell you my dream."
"An extraordinary dream."
"Would you take it as a warning?"
"Of what will happen?"
"It is obviously absurd," said Réné quietly.
"Yes, absurd—yet I feel as if the 12th of December would be the day of my death."
"You have brooded over it—you must put it out of your mind."
"I cannot," said Claude wildly. "I cannot!"
"I tell you, it is out of my power to stay away."
Réné looked at him keenly.
"Then how can I help you?"
Claude took this glance to mean that he doubted of his wits.
"Only by listening to my fool's talk," he said, smiling.
"Does that help?"
"I hope it may—you see, the whole thing—that wretched girl—has become an obsession—waking and sleeping."
"After you had forgotten."
"Yes, I had forgotten," said Claude.
"So had I, to tell the truth."
"Why should one remember? It was a curious affair."
"Her murder, yes."
"I do not see that it was so curious. A little wanton, living alone with some spoils foolishly displayed—she courted her fate."
"But she had so little—a few bits of imitation jewellery—a few coins—and who should have known of them?"
Réné shrugged, and put down his empty coffee cup.
"And they said she was liked by the few poor folk about—"
"There are always ruffians on the tramp on the watch for these chances."
"Yes—yet it was strange—"
Réné interrupted with an expression of distaste.
"Why go back to this?"
Claude stared, as if amazed at himself.
"You become morbid, unreasonable, Claude; rouse yourself, forget this thing."
The other laughed; it did not have a pleasant sound.
"I suppose I am haunted."
"Why should you be? You did not do her any wrong."
"She cared for me."
Réné laughed now.
"By God!" said Claude fiercely, "she cared for me—I believe she still cares—that is why she will not let me go—"
Réné rose and took a step or two away from him.
"What are you talking of?" he asked.
"I say, she cares—that is why she is trying to warn me."
"You think it is she?"
"You must not allow yourself these fancies, my poor fellow."
"You may well pity me. I never cared for her—I think I hated her, when she was dead. I hate her now—why won't she keep quiet in her grave and leave me alone?"
He rose and walked across the room with a lurching step.
Réné, leaning against the table, watched him.
"What was the house like—in your dreams?"
"I told you."
"It had a taint of death—like a smell of stale blood.—"
"It is not likely," said Réné, "that the place is empty. Now, if it was inhabited, would not that shake your faith in your vision?"
Claude stopped short in his walk; he had not thought of that.
"Now," smiled Réné, "send someone to look at the place."
"Who could live there—after that?"
"Bah! do you think people stop for that nowadays? If they did, half the city would be uninhabited. The place is cheap, I presume, and someone's property. I do not suppose it has been allowed to fall into disrepair. That was your fancy."
"I might send someone to see," reflected Claude.
"That is what I suggest—find out before the 12th, and if the house is inhabited, as I am sure it is, all this moonshine will clear away from your brain and you will undertake your journey with a good heart."
"I will do that," answered Claude gratefully. "I knew that you would help me—forgive me for having wearied you, Réné."
His friend smiled.
"I want you to be reasonable—nothing is going to happen—after all, these papers to the Bearnais are not of such importance, no one would murder you to get them."
"Oh, it had nothing to do with the Bearnais, but with Ambrosine."
"You must forget Ambrosine," said Réné decidedly. "She has ceased to exist, and there are no such things as ghosts."
Claude smiled; he was thinking that once Réné had been quite sentimental over Ambrosine; certainly he was cured of that fancy.
Why could not he too completely put the little dancer from his mind?
He also had long ceased to care.
But he was ashamed to refer further to his fears and imaginings.
"You have done me good," he declared. "I shall think no more of the matter. After all, the 12th will soon come and go, and then the thing will cease to have any meaning."
Réné smiled, seemingly relieved by his returned cheerfulness.
"Still, send someone to look at the house," he said; "that will send you on your journey with a lighter heart."
They parted, and Claude went home through the cold streets.
As soon as he had left the lighted room and the company of his friend, the old dreary terror returned.
He hastened to his chamber, hoping to gain relief amid his own surroundings, and lit every candle he could find.
He would not go to bed as he dreaded the return of the dream, yet he was sleepy and had nothing to do.
Presently he went to a bottom draw r er in the modest bureau that served him as wardrobe, and took out a small parcel wrapped in silver paper. He unfolded it and brought forth a chicken-skin fan, wreathed with figures of flying loves in rose and silver tones that surrounded a delicate pastoral river scene, the banks trailing with eglantine, the azure sky veiled in soft clouds and a blue satin-lined boat fastened by a gold cord to an alabaster pillar in readiness for amorous passengers.
The fan was not new; there were the marks of some spots that had been cleaned away, spots of blood, perhaps, and the fine ivory sticks were stained in places.
Claude had bought it at a bric-à-brac shop filled with the plunder of château and hôtel; it had been cheap and valuable, and at the time he had not cared that it had probably been stolen from some scene of murder and violence, and that the one-time owner had almost certainly bowed her neck to a bitter fate—no, it had rather amused him to buy for the little dancer of the Faubourg St. Antoine the property of some great lady.
Now it seemed a sinister and horrid omen, this toy with the blood spots scarcely erased.
It had been meant as a peace-offering for Ambrosine—after their little quarrel, which was never to be mended this side the grave. He had had it in his pocket when he had gone to look at her for the last time.
Since then it had lain in the drawer forgotten, it had never occurred to him to give it to another woman—it was doubly the property of the dead. Now he handled it carefully, opening and shutting it in the candlelight and staring at those cupids, who brought no thoughts of love, and that faery scene that brought no thoughts of peace.
And as he looked he seemed to see the delicate thing in the small hands of Ambrosine as she sat up in the big bed with the gaudy draperies, and her fair hair fell down and obscured the fan.
Her fair hair...
How plainly he could see her fair hair as he had last seen it, folded into a neat pillow for her head.
He put the fan away and built up a big fire, feeding it with pine knots; he was possessed by the certainty that if he slept he would again dream of the journey to St. Cloud.
It seemed as if Ambrosine was in the room, trying to speak to him, to tell him something; but he would not let her, he would not put himself in her power; he would not sleep.
Among the neglected books on the little shelf by his bed was an old copy of Pascal.
Claude took this down and began reading it with painful exactitude and attention.
With this and strong coffee he kept himself awake till morning.
Before he left for the Chamber, he paid his landlord's son to go to St. Cloud and look at the house of Ambrosine, which he very carefully described, adding the excuse that he had been told of the place as a desirable house for the summer heat; above all things the boy must notice whether it was inhabited or not.
All that day he was languid and heavy-eyed, weary from lack of sleep, with his nerves on the rack.
Through the dreary, monotonous hours he was picturing his messenger, treading unconsciously the way that had become so terrible to him, approaching the fatal house and finding it, as he had found it, three times in his dreams, deserted and decayed.
Rend made no reference to their conversation of the previous night, but he was more than ever friendly and pleasant.
When the intolerable day was at last over, he asked Claude to dine with him, but the other declined; his reason, which he did not give, was that he was desperately anxious to hear the news the boy had brought from St. Cloud.
When he reached home the fellow had returned; a boat had given him a lift each way.
Claude was foolishly relieved to see his calm and cheerfulness.
"Well?" he asked, with the best indifference he could assume.
"Well, Citizen Bowcher, I should not take that house at St. Cloud."
"Why?" The words came mechanically.
"First of all, there has been a bad murder there."
"How did you find that out?"
"The people on the boat told me—they go past every day."
So the thing was known—remembered.
"Never mind that, boy. What of the house?"
"It is in ruins, decay—"
"Well, all shuttered up—"
"Yes, citizen," he began, staring at Claude, whose manner was certainly startling, "and the garden full of weeds."
Claude made an effort to speak rationally.
"So you did not see the house inside, eh?" he asked.
"No one knew who had the key—the landlord lived in Paris, they said, and never came there. The place had a bad reputation because of the horrid murder done there—"
"In these times," muttered Claude, "are they so sensitive?"
"They are just ignorant people, citizen, those on the boat and those I met in the forest."
"And the house was impossible?"
"It would need a good deal of repairing."
"And the weeds in the garden were monstrous—there was one great bramble across and across the door."
Claude gave him a terrible look and dismissed him.
So it was all there, exactly like his dream.
There were only three days to the 12th—only three days perhaps to live.
When he reached his room he looked at the calendar, hoping he had made some mistake in the date.
No—in three days it would be the 12th.
He could not go to bed, but no coffee could keep him awake.
As soon as he was asleep he dreamed his dream of the journey to St. Cloud, nor could he rouse himself until the horrid sequence of events was complete.
He awoke shivering, unnerved, and cold with sweat.
He had to take brandy before he could lit himself to make his toilet and go to the Chamber.
As he hurried along the street fresh with the transient morning freshness of the city, the burden of his misery was lightened by a sudden thought. He would take a companion with him, he would take Réné.
That would defeat the dreams.
The warning would have saved him; no one would attack two of them, and they could go armed; they need not go near the house, and they could proceed by water and not walk through the Park.
Claude felt almost himself again as he thought out this plan.
No sooner had he reached the Chamber than he found his friend and broached the scheme to him.
Réné was agreeable, and readily accorded his company.
"I thought of it myself," he said. "I can easily get permission to come with you, and we will lay this ghost once and for ever."
Claude was so relieved that he almost lost his old foreboding.
But the night before the journey he again dreamed that he was being murdered by the murderer of Ambrosine, who wore a green coat with dark blue frogs.
At the appointed hour' They set out, Réné endeavouring to cheer Claude, who was gloomy and taciturn, but as the journey proceeded, his spirits rose; the charm had been proved wrong in the first instance, he was not going on horseback to St. Cloud.
But when they reached the gates of the Park, he was disappointed to find the boat stopped at the little quay and began unloading.
Réné had arranged with the captain, and Réné, it seemed, had misunderstood.
The boat went no further.
But it was only a short walk across the Park to St. Cloud and the Deputy's house—the captain could not understand Claude's discomfiture.
Well, they must walk—here again the dream was wrong.
He had a companion.
Réné laughed at him; the walk would do them good this cold evening, and they would be at their destination long before dusk—as for the return, if they were not offered hospitality, well, there were good inns in St. Cloud.
They entered the magnificent iron gates, now always open, and started briskly across the grass.
Here it was, exactly as he had seen it in his dreams, the huge bare trees, the dead leaves underfoot, the pallid gleam of the river to the right, the expanse of forest to the left, through which now and then a fountain or a statue showed.
It was bitterly cold, the sky veiled, and presently a thin mist rose off the river, dimming everything with fog.
Like the dim light of his dream.
"We shall lose our way," he said.
"No—I know this way well."
"You know it?"
"When I was a boy I used to live at St. Cloud," said Réné.
They proceeded more slowly, muffled to the throats in their greatcoats, which they had worn all the journey, for it had been cold on the river also.
Claude thought of Ambrosine till his senses reeled round that one image.
Here she had walked, he with her, often enough—near was her house, near her grave.
He seemed to see her in every dimness between the trees—Ambrosine—with her fair hair mingling with the mist.
Suddenly before him a huge fountain arose with a dried basin and a featureless statue behind.
And Réné stopped to latch up his shoe.
He was not thinking of his dream now, but he had the sensation that this had all happened before. As he looked at Réné, he muttered to himself, half stupidly:
"What an extraordinary coincidence!—"
Then Réné straightened himself and slipped his hand through his friend's arm.
His mantle had fallen back a little, and Claude saw that he wore a new suit, dark green, frogged with dark blue, and again he muttered:
"What an extraordinary coincidence!—"
"I know the way," said Réné, and led him, as if he had been a blind man, through the shifting mist.
In a few moments they stood on the outskirts of the Park and before the decayed and deserted house of Ambrosine.
As he had seen it, with the weeds in the garden and the bramble across the door.
They entered the little patch of ground.
"Now we are here," said Réné, "we may as well look inside."
So saying he wrenched off one of the rotting shutters and climbed into the room.
Claude followed him, like a creature deprived of wits.
They stood together in the damp, dull, bare room—as they had stood together in the dream.
Claude looked at Réné's face, which had quite changed.
"So you murdered her?" he said in a sick voice.
"You never guessed?" asked Réné. "I loved her, you see, and she loved me till you came. And then I hated both of you. I was mad from then, I think, as mad as you with your infernal dreams."
"You murdered Ambrosine!" whimpered Claude.
"And your dream showed me the way to murder you. I have been waiting so long to find how to do it."
Claude began laughing.
Her fair hair—if one could open her grave one might see it again—like a pillow for her head—He looked at Réné, whose pale and distorted face seemed to grow larger, until it bore down on him like an evil thing blotting out hope.
Claude did not put a hand to any of the weapons he had brought; he fell on his knees and held up his hands in the attitude of prayer, while he began to gabble senseless words.
And Réné fell on him with the knife that had killed Ambrosine.
DON PABLO DE TASSIO rose from his afternoon sleep, and, moving to the window on unslippered feet, peered through the green lattice into the blazing courtyard, where some scarlet flowers clung to the rough white wall.
A great stillness hung over the burning afternoon; the deep blue sky was alive with sparkles of gold; the broad leaves of the fig, the gold and crimson fruit of the pomegranate, the vivid orange hanging among the dark leaves showed in the garden beyond the white courtyard.
And beyond that were the square white houses and slanting roofs of the Valencian town, the confused walls and turrets, towers and terraces shaded here and there with the foliage of the palm, the acacia, and the fig.
Here and there, too, where the houses opened on to a garden or a street, was a glimpse of the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean Sea.
There was no one in sight; the green or blue lattice was shut over every window, the rush blind drawn out over every balcony.
In the courtyard of Don Pablo's house the sun shone unshaded, dry white dust filled every corner; in the centre was a well raised on three steps and protected by a delicate ironwork from which hung two copper pots, flashing back the sun from their polished surface.
On the steps of the well stood pots painted green and filled with gardenias, crimson lilies, and jasmine.
Brilliant lizards lay in the crevices of the stone, their palpitating sides their only sign of life.
Don Pablo looked with changed eyes at this prospect, which had been familiar to him all his life. He had always loved the town, the house, the heat, these gorgeous afternoons of September—but now all affected him with a sense of horror.
He pulled the blind slats level so as to have a better view, and leant his sick head against the arched mullion.
Nothing was changed—to the outward eye all looked as he had ever known it—yet all was different, all touched by the terror of his inner knowledge of the fate of the town and of her inhabitants.
The place was under a curse—it would soon be depopulated—what bloomed now as a garden would be empty soon as a desert; these peaceful homes would be abandoned, their owners in exile, the fruit of generations of laborious toil would come to nothing, for they who had worked would be driven into exile, leaving behind their possessions.
For at length, after years of alternate hope and fear, after strife, intrigue, and bitterness on each side, the fatal fiat had gone forth.
All the Morisco Christians in Valencia, under pretence of their secret infidel leanings, and the assistance they were alleged to give to the Muslim corsairs who harassed the coast from Catalonia to Andalusia, were to be banished to Barbary, taking with them only such property as each could carry.
Though they had long been persecuted by the hate of the pure Valencian Christians, and the Duke of Lerma, the King's Minister and favourite, was especially their enemy, yet the final blow had fallen as a thunderclap from a blue heaven.
Even now, Don Pablo, looking over the town on which such an awful fate had fallen, could hardly believe the thing.
Over thirty thousand families in Valencia came under the ban of banishment, and all were prosperous, law-abiding, good tax-payers, thrifty, self-respecting citizens of the Christian faith, whose only fault was their mixture of Moorish blood and their supposed Moorish sympathies.
It was amazing to Don Pablo—as he considered it, almost incredible.
For it was a well-known thing that the Moriscos of Valencia, hampered as they were by unjust taxation and fiscal edicts, their industries discouraged and themselves oppressed by racial hatred, religious bigotry and ignorant statesmanship, had nevertheless contrived to make their province the most flourishing in the whole of Spain; their horticulture and agriculture were unrivalled, and their manufactories and arts were one of the chief glories and riches of the kingdom.
But jealousy, fanaticism, and malice had triumphed; everyone with a taint of Morisco blood was to be expelled from his home, with the exception of a few of the most skilled and "most Christian" who were to be left to teach their arts and crafts to the Spaniards who would step into their place.
To distinguish the Morisco from the pure Christian had proved a task of some difficulty, as there was scarcely a family in the whole province that could not trace its descent from the Spanish Moors; but the Government officials, frequently inspired by private cupidity, spite, or jealousy, had solved the problem by a wholesale clearance of those who could be even suspected of the Moorish taint—-a taint which was in many cases hard to discover, so closely had Spaniard and Moor become amalgamated.
Don Pablo de Tassio stood outside this disaster; his father was a Castilian who had come to Valencia in his youth and there founded a factory for the making of damascened and gold-worked steel for which the district was famous.
Don Pablo had inherited his fortune and his industry, had always kept well on the side of the priests and the Government, and, even at the present moment, enjoyed such a degree of favour that he was permitted to retain the Morisco skilled workers whom he employed and on whose art and industry his livelihood depended.
Yet—and it was this that clouded his face and darkened his brow—his mother had been a Morisco, and her son, his half-brother, was one of those under sentence of banishment.
In their youth they had been intimate, had even loved each other; the elder De Tassio had been no bigot; he had allowed his wife to bring the son of her first marriage to be brought up with his own child.
But on his death the two young men had fallen into disagreement.
Juan, the elder, had inherited the silk-weaving business of his father, who had been a wealthy manufacturer of pure Moorish descent, and he had devoted himself to this, retiring from the house and company of Pablo.
Gradually, as political and religious feeling ran high in the province, the two fell into estrangement, each embracing the race of his own father; their businesses were worked in rivalry, each endeavouring to become more prosperous than the other, and the breach was made final and unbridgeable when both selected the same lady for their courtship.
Dona Estreldis del Ayamonte was one of the beauties of Villajoyosa, and had taken full advantage of her position in coquettishly hesitating between the two rich and handsome young men who wooed her so ardently.
But at length her choice had fallen on Juan, and she had overcome the reluctance of her parents, who were not pleased to promise her to a Morisco, however wealthy.
The marriage was to have taken place in October, and now, in September, the Edict had been published, and Juan must go to the coast of Barbary for lifelong exile—leaving behind his cherished factory—all his possessions, including Dona Estreldis.
Don Pablo had sincerely hated his brother since he had defeated him in the lists of love, and rejoiced with a silent satisfaction at the utter ruin that had overtaken his rival.
No more would he be annoyed by hearing of his half-brother's prosperity—of his industry and skill, of the success of the rich silks and embroideries woven from his own designs, of the increase in his workers and his output.
Now the factory would be closed, the looms silent, and master and men gone from Villajoyosa for ever. No more would Pablo be vexed by the sight of his brother's haughty figure swaggering along the streets and in the Plaza, kneeling defiantly in the church, or walking with Dona Estreldis and her parents in the evening along the palm groves that bordered the sea.
He had heard that Juan would leave to-morrow; the Spanish galleys were in waiting in every Valencian port, and the expulsion of the Moriscos had begun immediately on the proclamation of the Edict. He wondered what his brother was doing; he wondered what he would be doing on the eve of such a disaster. He tried to imagine what it would feel like to be suddenly bereft of his cherished prosperity, his position, his ease and comfort—to find himself treated as a prisoner—a criminal, to be subject to insult and scorn, perhaps blows and more humiliation.
Don Pablo shuddered.
Moving from the window, he returned to the couch where he had taken his midday rest.
Beside it was a small table of ebony inlaid with a pattern in ivory. On this were glasses and jugs and a white porcelain jar.
Don Pablo mixed himself a glass of sherbet flavoured with citron and drank it slowly. The heat was intense, he could not move without fatigue.
He leant back on the couch again, staring at the straight bars of sunlight which fell through the open slats of the blind on to the smooth red-tiled floor.
Flies buzzed round the white walls and ceilings and on the hangings of gold and crimson leather; it was the only sound.
Don Pablo looked with approving eyes round the handsome chamber.
The polished black furniture, the Eastern rugs, the sideboard with the majolica dishes, the writing-desk of "pietraduza," all bespoke wealth.
He dwelt on his good fortune and his luck; everything he had wanted he had achieved.
Except Dona Estreldis.
And for that loss he could console himself—there were plenty of other desirable women in Villajoyosa besides the disdainful daughter of the old Ayamonte.
He glanced at himself in a little mirror cunningly framed in mother o' pearl that hung above the table by his couch.
A lean, dark comely young man answered his gaze; there was much of the Morisco in his black eyes with the long lashes, in his arched nose and full mouth, in the graceful contours of his head and face, the thick curl of his close hair and his sallow complexion.
As he looked at himself now he seemed to be staring at Juan.
Yet the Castilian blood in him had always angrily rejected the Morisco strain, and he had never admitted the likeness between himself and his half-brother—but now—
Certainly he was like Juan.
He passed his hand angrily across his face and turned from the mirror.
Unbidden and unwanted memories of his childhood came to his mind.
In this room he and Juan had played together; here in the quiet heat of the day their mother had told them stories.
Of all her tales they had loved most of all that of the battle of Lepanto.
Their young fancies had been stirred by her picture of the Turkish commander, wreathed in pearls, standing on the deck of his gilt galley and of that of his enemy, Don John of Austria, with a feathered arrow sticking in every joint of his armour, urging on the Christian hosts to victory.
And afterwards they would play at Turk and Spaniard, turning the chairs into galleys and using lemons and figs as weapons to hurl at each other in the fight.
He wondered if Juan ever thought of these days now the mimic rivalry had developed into so deadly an earnest, and Christianity had proved once more its intolerance and its jealousy, and Spain once more her fierce bigotry and insane policy.
Becoming tired of these thoughts, he rose and went downstairs.
The household was beginning to stir after the great heat of the day.
Don Pablo went into the courtyard; the bottom of the house formed an open arcade where grew a great vine.
The master of the house stood there, under the yellow fruit and leaves, and watched the servants bringing out the long trestles covered with split figs and place them to dry in the sun.
Others brought deep wooden troughs filled with crushed tomatoes, and bunches of grapes, small and black, tied to a light trellis, and halved pears and rings of apples, all to dry for winter use.
The pots of flowers round the well were moved into the shade and there watered; sounds of movement and of work came from the house.
The sun was less powerful and one could breathe freely.
Don Pablo called to him an old man spreading out the figs—a Castilian this, who had been with his father.
Standing under the portico, shaded by the vine, he spoke to his servant.
"Any news from the town, Marcos?"
The old man had removed his wide straw hat and stepped into the shade.
"The Mariscos make ready to depart, Señor," he answered.
"It seems strange, Marcos."
"It is just, Señor."
"You think so?" asked the young man, almost eagerly.
The old peasant looked at him with eyes in which shone the fierce spiritual pride which had made Spain terrible and splendid.
"How could we prosper with the infidel in our midst?"
"But they are Christians," said Don Pablo, speaking like one who wished his words to be disputed and refuted.
"So they say," replied the old Castilian sourly "New Christians!"
"They will take the wealth of the country with them, Marcos."
"No, Señor," cried the peasant eagerly, "they are forbidden to take any money with them."
"Wealth is not money, Marcos," replied his master sadly.
"Nay, it is industry and skill. It is what has made Valencia bloom like the rose—Spain loses half her revenue with the Edict."
"What matter for that," returned Marcos, "if we perform the service of God in casting out these heathen?"
Pablo knew that Lerma and Philip would have said the same.
The old servant continued to gaze at him earnestly, almost suspiciously.
"You are glad to see Villajoyosa purged, Señor?" he asked.
He was thinking of the Morisco mother and her eldest son.
Don Pablo read the thought, and the blood flushed up from his white collar to his black hair.
"Do you not suppose that I am glad?" he asked haughtily.
"The Edict will touch no one for whom I care," added the master; "we are safe, Marcos, and we may keep as many Moriscos as we will to work for us."
"I am pleased at that, Señor, for certainly these devils work well."
On their work his fortune had been built; no Spaniard could have done the delicate and exquisite steel and gold work which commanded such a high price in the markets of Europe, and the proceeds from which had made a rich man of Don Pablo de Tassio.
"You have not been into the town to-day, Señor Pablo?"
"No!"—the young man glanced away—"I shall go presently."
"You will see some fine sights, Señor—all the Moriscos running about like ants whose heaps have been overturned."
And the old man sucked his thin lips vindictively.
His master looked at him curiously.
"Marcos, why do you hate the Moriscos?" he asked.
Again that look of suspicion crossed the shrewd peasant face.
"Because they are bad Christians," he answered keenly.
"For no other reason?"
"What other reason should I have, Señor? And is that not enough?"
"The priests would say so."
"And one must believe the priests, Señor. The Pope himself said they were to go."
"Well, they will go, Marcos—about one hundred and fifty thousand from this province alone."
The peasant chuckled.
"A good haul for the devil's net!" he cried gloatingly.
Don Pablo did not answer; he turned back into the house and entered the darkened room behind the arcade.
This was his private closet and counting-house; the walls were filled with shelves of ledgers, account and order books, and several desks and tables for specimens of the beautiful handicraft of the Moriscos.
Swords, blades and scabbards, daggers, gorgets, gauntlets and small steel caps all wonderfully damascened and inlaid, as well as smaller articles, such as hunting-knives, ink-dishes, candlesticks, stirrups, mirror frames, and various-shaped boxes.
It was the usual hour for Don Pablo to go through his accounts.
The clerk had left the books ready on the desk, the quill was mended, the great chair with the purple velvet cushions in place.
But to-day the young merchant did not even look at these things.
Instead he went to the bottom drawer of a black bureau that stood beneath the low window and lifted out a Moorish sword in a scabbard covered with crimson satin.
His mother had given him this.
When a young boy he had seen it in her possession and passionately envied the grace and splendour of the thing.
And she had told him that it had belonged to her father and to his before him, and that they had been grandees in Granada in the old days when the Moors had been kings in Spain.
Afterwards, a few months before her death, she had given him the weapon and bidden him cherish it fondly.
He did not think that he had ever looked at it since.
Now he handled it curiously.
It was a short scimitar of engraved steel with a hilt of beaten gold, very finely worked and set with rubies and square lumps of turkis put so close together that the curved hornlike handle glimmered blue as a forget-me-not.
The scabbard was edged and tipped with gold, also set with blue and red stones, and though all was a little tarnished by long disuse it still shone a thing of splendour.
Don Pablo softly handled the heathen weapon which he had so long put by and forgotten; he wondered why it had come into his mind to-day.
His thoughts travelled to the ancestor who had worn the scimitar when the Moors had ruled in Spain.
Ruled—and now they were despised, hounded—finally exiled from their homes.
What a change was here!
He put the little sword back in the deep dark drawer, closed it, and taking his hat from the chair near the desk, went out aimlessly into the white sunny streets.
Adjoining his house were his works; from one of the low doors of them there came an old Morisco who had been long in his employment. The hours of labour were not yet over, and the man was dressed for departure.
Don Pablo stopped him.
"You are leaving work?"
"Your employment, Señor."
The master flushed.
"But you are exempt from the Edict—all my people are exempt."
"But my people are not, Don Pablo"—the old man looked at him with dull eyes—"they are exiled, and I am going with them."
"You are going with them?"
The Morisco did not answer; he stood patiently, looking down the sunny street.
The master moved away from him, half shamefacedly.
"You have been paid?"
Don Pablo wanted to say something like thanks, even gratitude, wishes of good luck, expressions of good-will, yet was silent.
The old workman turned away without a backward look at the building where he had toiled at his beautiful handicraft for the best years of his life, and went slowly up the street, his stooping figure casting a bent shadow on the houses as he passed.
Don Pablo watched him go.
"That is what Dona Estreldis will do," he said to himself; "she will do that—"
He knew now that this thought had always been in the back of his head, and that the words of the old Morisco had merely shaped what he had always known.
Estreldis would follow Juan as the workman followed his people.
The young man was sure of it; she was romantic, high-spirited, very much in love; she would leave everything, mount the galley with Juan and with him sail to Barbary and there find a new life—perhaps even a new happiness. So, after all, Juan would triumph.
For surely it was a finer thing to go into exile with a woman like Estreldis for a companion than to remain at home in smug prosperity and ease.
"If I had been exiled no one would have gone with me," he thought.
The alluring image of the woman rose before his mind.
He thought he would see her once more; he thought that it would please him to offer her some protection and assistance in her heroic act.
Perhaps they would be married before they went; for her sake he would fetch and fee the priest—he was prepared to rise to nobility for the sake of Estreldis.
It would be strange to see Juan again—yet not altogether displeasing.
He turned in the direction of the house of Dona Estreldis.
Many a shop he passed was closed, many a house shuttered; from many a garden came sounds of hurry, confusion, wailing and cries.
Don Pablo tried not to notice these things; he wished Villajoyosa would be as it had been a week ago—as it had been ever since he had known the town.
These sights and sounds of distress stirred something fierce in his blood.
He hastened his steps.
As he reached the low white portico of the Ayamontes he stood at a loss, wondering if she would see him—or any—at this moment.
Her duenna came to the lattice to peer at the new-comer, and seeing Don Pablo, hastened to admit him to the outside staircase that led from the courtyard to the apartments of her young mistress.
Don Pablo came silently into her presence, using the reverence one would use before a great grief.
The room had dull red walls and black furniture, and still had the straw blinds drawn out over the flower-filled balcony, so that it was cool and full of shade.
Dona Estreldis sat on a dark scarlet couch; behind her the duenna had her place at a spinning-wheel, and was carding white yarn from a large rush basket.
Pablo kissed the young woman's finger-tips and stood looking at her.
She was dressed as if ready to go forth.
Her full skirts of a shining pearl-coloured taffeta, edged with bands of black velvet, just lifted to show her scarlet shoes; her black bodice, laced with strings of coral beads, was fastened loosely over an undergarment of lace mingled with silver threads; over she wore an emerald green silk jacket bordered with red roses, and over that was a white shawl, fringed and fine as gossamer.
A string of gold filigree beads enclosed her round smooth throat, her dusky brown hair was curled up into a high tortoise-shell comb set with corals, and in her ears hung long pearls.
Between her full lips she held a gardenia, and she stared at her completed toilette in a little gold hand mirror which she held slackly on her lap.
She did not smile at Don Pablo; her large lustrous eyes rested on him mournfully.
Nor did he know what to say; she had always been very desirable and beautiful in his eyes; now she had the air of something apart and holy, for he viewed her through the glory of the heroic sacrifice he believed she was going to make for his brother's sake.
He envied Juan.
She took the flower from her lips and fastened it behind her delicate little ear.
"It is a long time since you have been here," she said.
He had no answer.
"Why do you come now?" she asked gently; she leant back on the dark rich cushion; her exotic, frail, and transient beauty glowed at him with the splendour of a perfect thing.
It was strange to think of her among the exiles in Barbary.
"I thought you might need me," he said earnestly and humbly.
Her moist lips parted in a faint smile as she replied.
"That was a most gentle thought, Don Pablo," she said.
"Can I help you?"
Her heavy lashes drooped.
"In any way."
He thought that she was shy of asking his assistance for his brother; he wished to clearly show her his generosity.
Dona Estreldis appeared to be considering.
"I was very unkind to you," she murmured softly.
With raised hand he made a gesture of protest.
"And now I am punished," concluded the lady.
"I am here to help you."
She considered him with a full look from her languorous eyes.
"Have you seen Juan?"
She spoke the name with less emotion than he had expected; he admired her courage.
"Oh!"—she pursed her lips.
Don Pablo explained himself.
"As there had not been good feeling between us I thought he would not take my visit kindly or pleasantly."
"I expect you are right."
"But if you wish, Dona Estreldis, I will go to him."
"And take any message."
"I have no message, Don Pablo."
"Everything is arranged?"
"What should there be to arrange?"
He looked at her with surprise.
"Will you not see him?"
"No," she answered. "I wrote to him."
"But you—you"—he fumbled for his words—"Juan leaves to-morrow," he added at last.
"You did not know?"
"No, but when I wrote I said the sooner he left the better—for both of us."
"I do not understand."
"While he is here I am in a foolish position, Don Pablo."
He stared at her, frowning.
"He was my betrothed lover."
"Now I am free."
She looked at him with meaning, her glance was full of encouragement.
"I am free," she repeated.
"You are not going with him?" asked Don Pablo stupidly.
"Señor! Do you know what you say? Go with him—accompany an exile to the coasts of Barbary—if I was so foolish it would not be permitted me!"
Pie saw now indeed the folly of his supposition.
"No, I did not know what I was saying," he answered.
"And he is ruined," continued Dona Estreldis, "quite ruined."
"I know—quite ruined."
The lady spoke again, in her sweet and plaintive tones which echoed strangely in the brain of her listener.
"It has been terrible for me—but it was my own unreasonableness. My father was always against the match. A girl's caprice, Señor."
She gave him a long look.
"I have suffered, Madonna!" she added with a sigh.
"I am sorry for you, Dona Estreldis."
She also got up, shaking her silks.
"I take your coming graciously. Will you wait and see my father, who is now abroad?"
He made heavy excuses; he was not looking into her tempting face, but down at the floor.
She put out her little perfumed hand at their parting.
He saw that he could have her now, for the asking.
His brother was dead to her—no longer in her world or in her scheme of life.
She was ready to take another cavalier to fill his place.
Thus was Estreldis!
He left her; he heard her rustle out into the balcony, and as he crossed the courtyard the white gardenia from her hair fell at his feet.
Don Pablo looked up.
She disappeared with a laugh, her finger to her lips.
He went his way, leaving the white flower to wither in the sun.
Thus was Estreldis!
Well, he had the better cause to rejoice—his enemy was stripped indeed, and he had no need to exercise generosity, no need to aid or envy Juan.
His was the entire triumph now; he might, if he would, win the disputed woman now—or, if he would, disdain her.
And Juan would go alone.
No word or look from his beloved would soften his departure; he would go knowing her indifferent to his fate.
So crudely Don Pablo put his thought, so crudely it remained with him, the thought and the sting thereof—he wondered why there should be any sting in the consideration of the lightness of this woman.
Was not the man his rival and his enemy?
Had he not, until an hour ago, desired Estreldis, and now she could be his?
She was still beautiful—he could remember every detail of her beauty as he remembered the shape and colour of the stones in the scimitar he had handled that morning.
Why then was she valueless?
He could not answer this—it was beyond him to interpret the moods of his own soul.
Without purpose or aim he returned to his house. Everything was as usual, but it did not seem so to Don Pablo.
That night there was a thunderstorm over Villajoyosa; Pablo lay awake all night listening to the sound of it.
He arose before his household was astir, and putting on his plainest cloak went down to the counting-house and took the turkis stone scimitar from the drawer.
Then he set out, as the old Morisco had-gone, without a backward look at his home and his prosperity.
He made his way to the quays where the wretched exiles were being driven on board the galleys by the insolent Spanish officials.
After the rain of last night the sun shone with a liquid brightness, the roofs of Villajoyosa gleamed between the fig and palm, the blue and violet sea was rough with waves capped by pearl-coloured foam.
Along the dusty white road from the town came Juan.
Pablo de Tassio went to meet him.
The elder brother drew his mantle closer about his face and hurried on.
Don Pablo walked beside him, hurrying to keep pace.
"I am going too—I also have Morisco blood—see, do you remember this?"
He held out the flashing scimitar from the shade of his cloak.
"It belonged to our mother's people—I am coming with you."
Juan paused in his walk.
"I do not know—I had to."
Juan looked at him keenly out of the keen dark eyes so like his own.
"We used to love each other," he said.
"I remember that."
"I was very lonely," added Juan.
"And I—when I heard that you were going."
"It is strange," said Juan.
The half brothers stepped together on to the galley that was to take them into perpetual exile.
That night, as they lay together on the hard bench and in the foul darkness, Pablo, lying awake with many thoughts, felt his brother gently kiss his brow.
And somehow he was repaid for all he had left behind—and for Estreldis.
JAMES HEPBURN returned to Scotland with the sad feelings of an exile who comes back to find everything strange.
It was not long, as years went, since he had fled from his country after the Argyll rising, yet it was long enough to have changed him.
He was largely ruined in fortune, and there seemed little chance that the changed order which had restored him to his country would also restore his estates.
He possessed a pittance, stored in Holland before the evil days came, but it was not sufficient to allow of large leisure or ample freedom of action. He had petitioned the new Government for reinstatement in his land—he knew that he could not soon expect this redress from the present chaos of affairs.
Meanwhile he was in Edinburgh, idle, strangely dull at heart.
The cause for which he had sacrificed everything had been largely achieved, yet this achievement had not brought him the peace of satisfaction.
The present Prince was, no doubt, a wise choice, but this was not James Hepburn's man—he had surrendered to death on Tower Hill, and in the present clash of events his name had become obscure and his career of little meaning.
The Protestant religion was secure, and the old tyranny for ever overthrown; yet this consummation did not seem like the triumph imagined in '85.
Somehow Mr. Hepburn had dreamed it all very differently.
Perhaps his sense of disillusion, of disappointment, was due to his own inaction, his own uselessness.
He had taken no part in the "glorious revolution" which had freed England, but had floated in the wake of other men's achievement and other men's fortune.
The old splendid days of plot and counter-plot, intrigue, daring—all the fascinating expeditions of a desperate cause, all the romance of a gallant minority—were over.
Strangely, all his friends had been lost, had drifted from him on the current of tempestuous events; there was no one left of the old band who had left the Netherlands to follow Argyll in the days of the persecutions.
And he had had magnificent friends.
His heart ached with longing for those lost days, and for one friend in particular, whom he had neither seen nor heard from during the whole time of his exile.
And for another, a woman this—dear Jeannie Duncan.
He found that he disliked Edinburgh as much as he had disliked the Hague and Rotterdam. The familiar buildings, the well-known streets, gave him no welcome.
They seemed full of an alien atmosphere, full of a bustle and a turmoil that belonged to business not his; he was no longer part of great causes nor connected with high politics; he had served his turn; he was as forgotten as Monmouth and Argyll themselves.
He would leave Edinburgh.
In Craigiemuir, his native place, he would find someone who knew him, some shepherd or hind who would remember the fine days and who would shelter him a little in the chimney-corner till he had had time to arrange his derelict fortunes and plan his vague future.
First he would see Jeannie Duncan, if she yet lived in Edinburgh, sweetest of women, kindest of friends, most loyal of partisans.
Twice she had refused to be his wife in the days when he had been able to match her in position; he would not be able to ask her again now, nor did he think she would ever, under any circumstances, have changed her mind.
She was a woman of a firm decision; she would never have married save for love.
Mr. Hepburn reflected with something of a start that she might very well be married.
There was a pang in the thought.
Sitting over his dinner in the tavern in Rosamund's Wynd, he pictured Jeannie Duncan.
Other faces had pleased an idle fancy, other smiles had eased a lonely heart, other companionship had lightened the empty hours of exile, but he had never asked, never wished, another woman to be his wife.
After five years he could picture her as accurately as if he had seen her yesterday.
Most frequently he visioned her as in one terrible scene he had beheld her.
The scene was a barn at night; she, in a blue lute-string with a lace scarf over her head, was holding high a candle to light two duellists: himself and an Englishman who had slandered their dear comrade, Francis Mowbray.
The Englishman had been slain.
Jeannie Duncan had shown neither grief nor remorse: "He is dead and his lie with him," she had said.
Francis had kissed her hand as she rose from beside the dead man.
Francis had afterwards kissed him—he remembered how clearly he could recall the touch of the cold cheek!
Francis Mowbray had reason to be grateful to his champion.
Could the odious charge against him have been proved, Argyll himself, who loved him, would have been the first to have called for his hanging.
For the young man, so swiftly silenced by Mr. Hepburn, had declared the beautiful and beloved Francis to be in the pay of the King's men, and to have betrayed to them that Whigs were in hiding in Colonel Duncan's house.
Someone had played the traitor, for the house had been surrounded, and in the ensuing foray Jeannie's brother had been killed.
Several other gentlemen had been captured and afterwards duly executed in Edinburgh.
It was during the flight of the survivors that the accusation had been flung; it was in their first shelter, the barn on the moor, full of heather and dried peat, that Mr. Hepburn had silenced the accuser.
He recalled it all so perfectly—the dark, the hasty lights, the comely body of the young Englishman, the gratitude of Francis Mowbray, above all, Jeannie Duncan in her wrath at the slander, in her triumphant protestation of her friend's innocence.
There had been another woman there, Margaret Sinclair, Jeannie's cousin, and betrothed to Francis.
He had not taken much notice of her, nor could he now recall her very clearly, except he remembered her sobbing, and always in the background.
Soon after they had scattered.
The news he had received of his friends had been sparse.
Colonel Duncan had gone to France with his daughter, and had died soon after, whereupon she had returned to Scotland.
Francis Mowbray, who had relatives at the English Court, had been pardoned on payment of a fine.
Mr. Hepburn supposed that he was married to Margaret—that would be an old story now.
Well, well, it was strange how clear it was still, all that mad, sweet time.
It seemed such an eternity ago, yet was but five years.
She would be only thirty now, and he was but five years older.
Yet to him, rusty with inaction, life seemed to hold nothing more.
He finished his meal and went his way, drifting up and down the streets like a man with no purpose in his soul.
He could not bring himself to go and find Jeannie Duncan, he so dreaded to find her gone, or changed, or married.
She might even be dead.
He was astonished at the horror this thought gave him, for in truth she had been long dead to him.
Now he blamed her for never having written to him; they should have kept in touch.
Yet she might have written and he never have received the letters.
Communication had been difficult between the exiles.
He was brooding himself into folly; he would go and find her and ask her if she knew the whereabouts of Francis Mowbray, for whose sake he had killed a man.
Perhaps these five years had a little dulled that ardent friendship—yet he would have liked to know good news of the charming young soldier who had been the darling of the short-lived enterprise of '85.
By the middle of the afternoon he stood before what had been Colonel Duncan's Edinburgh house.
His old dread seized him; he feared to ring lest he should hear the name of a stranger as that of the owner of the house.
Yet, while he hesitated, the cloud of his doubts was most gloriously dispelled.
A lady passed him and mounted the steps; he sprang forward to see the face of Jeannie Duncan between the folds of the silk hood.
The same instant she knew him and was in his arms in their mutual gladness.
Laughing, clasping hands, asking questions, they went into the dark old house and up the dark old staircase.
But when they reached the little room he knew so well, a certain restraint fell upon them; they loosened from each other's clasp and stood apart, looking each on each.
The great joy that he had had in finding her in her father's house sank.
He realised that they were strangers now, and that the old days were far off.
A foolish embarrassment prevented him from speaking.
He looked at her and at the room, with an inquiry that was almost wistful.
Little or nothing was changed.
In all the comfortable, heavy furnishing he saw but two new objects.
Above the shining black bureau where stood the silver-mounted hour-glass and the parcel gilt candlesticks, hung a small portrait of Francis Mowbray.
The beautiful face, strong and rather sadly smiling, looked out from between the long brown curls with the expression that James Hepburn knew so well.
It was a fine painting, smooth and detailed as a miniature, and so perfect a likeness that it was a painful thing to Mr. Hepburn to look upon it.
The other object that he noticed as new was a smooth, polished, round porridge-bowl with a silver rim that stood on a little table by the window.
He did not know why he should have observed so small a thing, but his eye had rested there the moment he had entered the room.
Then he looked back at Jeannie.
She stood gazing at him with a half tender, half humorous smile.
So little had she changed that he wondered that he should feel strange before her.
A hood and cloak of dark blue and green tartan clasped by a glistening, clear yellow stone was thrown back from her full black gown, which flowed pleasingly round the womanly lines of her figure.
The pale curls of her brown locks hung on to her white collar and shaded her open throat, her large eyes, the colour of tarn-water, her firm features, very delicately coloured, her mouth, very soft, yet firmly set at the corners—all were unchanged, at least to his exile's eyes.
It was she who spoke, throwing off the silence that had fallen like a cloud between them.
"So it is James Hepburn back again at last!" she smiled.
He glanced above her head where hung a small diminishing mirror surrounded by a frame of shining black balls.
In this he could see himself; a rather lean, shabby figure, with dark hair none too well dressed and a dark face a little haggard, a little weary and disillusioned in expression.
"Not back as I would wish to be, Jeannie," he answered, voicing his inner discontent.
She responded with her quick sympathy.
"Ah, you have lost much—everything?"
"Nearly all—but it is not that."
She understood him—he remembered how quick she had always been at understanding.
"Ah, you sigh for the old days of lost causes, James?"
"I sigh for what has not been achieved," he replied.
"For what we have not achieved," she said eagerly; "but the thing has been done."
"What has been done?"
"Everything," she spoke with energy. "All is as we wished it to be—a Protestant King."
"Not the King of our choosing."
She ignored him.
"Peace, freedom—all we ever wanted, James!"
"You are content, then?" he asked grudgingly. Unaccountably she flushed.
"Your heart has gone out of politics," he accused her.
The blood lingered in her fair cheeks.
"Perhaps," she admitted.
She took the great tapestry chair by the window and made him sit on the little needlework stool by her side.
Presently he was going to ask her about herself; the dim hope of one day winning her after all was to be disclosed at the back of his thoughts; now they would talk of indifferent things—just to prolong the pleasure of sitting together.
"How did you come to keep the house just the same while you were away?" he asked.
"My father's sister lived here."
"She was not touched?"
"Nor I—they left the women alone."
"Why did you never write to me?"
He expected—hoped—that she would say she had written.
Instead Jeannie shook her head.
"There was nothing to write of."
"Jeannie! There was all the news. And I wanted to hear of you."
"I had nothing to say."
"You know I came to Paris to find you?" he asked.
"And you had just left—"
"I came home after my father died."
His glance wandered to the portrait of Francis Mowbray—indeed, it could not long keep away.
He did not wish to speak of it, yet could not forbear.
"A new painting—of Frank?" he said.
"How we all loved him!" exclaimed Mr. Hepburn.
"Yes," said Jeannie again.
"The picture?" he questioned her half fiercely, against his own will.
"The picture? It was painted in France—we met him there."
"Why do you keep it here, Jeannie?"
"Why? Did not we all love him, as you have said?"
"Do not look like that," she said with an uneasy smile; "you seem as if you thought—"
He caught up her hesitation.
"He was dead," she concluded.
"I feel as if the Frank we loved was dead—as my old self is dead."
"He is alive," answered Jeannie.
"I knew it," said Mr. Hepburn with a strange bitterness.
"I think he will have a post under the new Government."
"You see him often?"
The reply surprised and irritated him.
"Will not you be glad to see him again?" she asked gently.
"I cannot tell, Jeannie."
"Why should you be doubtful?"
"It is so long ago."
"A few years."
"In matter of emotion, Jeannie, very long ago," he said.
"He loves you, you know."
"And speaks of you so frequently."
"Does he speak of the duel?" asked Mr. Hepburn sharply.
Her voice sank in her throat.
"But I think it better to forget these things," she added.
"They cannot be forgotten, Jeannie."
"They need not be spoken of—but you lulled a man for him, and you have a right to remember," she said reluctantly.
Mr. Hepburn was silent.
Jeannie drew herself erect in her chair and looked at him.
"You have never regretted it?" she asked with an effort.
"That I was his champion?"
"No—why should I?" he demanded keenly.
"Indeed, indeed, why? It was such a foul, false accusation—Frank! They might as well have accused the Duke himself!"
He was cool before her vehemence.
"I wonder who the spy was?" he said.
She shuddered with distaste of the subject. "What is the use of thinking of that now?"
"I have had so little else to think of for these five years."
"I hope it was one of those slain."
"Yes—I wonder who. We all seemed equally honourable, did we not? It was a strange piece of treachery."
"Why strange? Our betrayal was the price of someone's pardon."
"I cannot understand it—treachery."
Jeannie was silent.
"Whoever it was," he added, "was your brother's murderer."
She stared at him.
"It is all over," she whispered.
"Yes—but one thinks of it—"
"I have not—for years—"
"Not when you see Francis Mowbray?"
"Then least of all—"
"You believe in him, then?"
"Believe in him?" she was amazed, incredulous. "What do you mean? Did you not establish his innocence?"
"I was his champion, certainly."
"But now you are so cold."
Her voice was reproachful.
"You loved him," she added.
"Loved him, yes, but it is so long ago," he replied, "and I have had so much idleness in which to think."
"If it is so long ago, why cannot you forget about it?"
"One does not forget."
"You must," said Jeannie impatiently.
He rose and moved restlessly about the room; the sun had gone behind the house-tops and the long spring twilight began to fill the room.
Mr. Hepburn picked up the porridge bowl.
"Why do you keep this here, Jeannie?"
He looked at her and saw that her eyes were full of tears, although she smiled.
"Do you not remember it?"
"Yes—when you were in hiding, soon after you landed on Craigiemuir—and I used to run out into the heather with the bowl of porridge for you and Francis Mowbray."
Always Francis Mowbray—it seemed as if their talk could have no other subject. "Was this his or mine?"
"His—Frank's—yours was cracked in the bowl."
He put it down.
"Why do you keep it, Jeannie, when you say you want to forget?"
"Some things I like to remember, that is one of them, how I used to come out to you in the kind heather—"
"Is that all you care to remember, Jeannie?" he asked sadly.
Her placid brows were troubled.
"Why do you dwell on those sad old times?"
"Were they sad?"
"Glorious, rather, Jeannie."
"I do not know."
"You prefer this dull peace?"
"Dull? Is it dull? I am happy."
He was vexed beyond concealment.
"Were you not happy then?" he asked impetuously and angrily.
She faced him frankly.
"Not so happy."
"How mistaken I was!"
She threw out her hands in a gesture of pleading and defence.
"How could one be happy? Living so—in constant peril—to all one loved."
"You are a woman after all, Jeannie, an ordinary woman."
"I made no pretence to be anything else," she said sadly.
"I used to think you a heroine."
Jeannie laughed mournfully.
"I always wanted peace," she said wistfully, "and safety for those I loved."
"Ah well, we have all changed—" he took up his hat; the cry of his illusion broke from him: "Somehow I dreamed it differently."
With an affectionate gesture she took his arm.
"You are not leaving me, like this? James, why do you dwell on the past? Let us forget it, please—it was so—unhappy."
"This reminded me."
He nodded towards the portrait of Francis Mowbray, which to him was the most insistent thing in the room.
"How can you keep that there if you wish to forget?"
"Oh, James, you loved him."
Her eyes were shining; he thought her expression was curious.
Something hot within him made him ask a strange question.
"He is married to Margaret?"
The little word chilled him.
"She—I do not know," said Jeannie in a distressed voice.
"You do know," he persisted, almost roughly. "What was it?"
Her hand dropped from his sleeve.
"They quarrelled. She—would not believe in him."
Their eyes met.
"Yes," said Jeannie desperately, "she thought he had betrayed us."
"And said so?"
"I believe she did."
"She had a courage," cried Mr. Hepburn, "that little thing!"
"That little thing—she is married to a man in Ayrshire."
Jeannie looked at him very earnestly.
"James, you and I ought to agree in this matter—you championed Francis, and I—"
"You, Jeannie, you?"
"I married him."
She drew away with a little heartless laugh.
"You married him?"
"I am his wife these two years—I did not tell you at first—"
She paused to arrange her words.
"I thought it would be so pleasant when he came in—but you—somehow you have changed all—why—" she was rather desperate, "do you look at me like that?"
He shook his head.
In these few seconds she had changed; the old Jeannie had left him.
This was a strange woman, another man's wife, the wife of Francis Mowbray.
"What is the matter, James?"
She spoke very piteously, and he was sorry for her, yet could say nothing.
"You will stay and meet him?"
"Not now, Jeannie.''
"You used to love him," she came back to that.
He had no answer to her words, which were an accusation.
"I never thought of this, Jeannie, never dreamt of it."
"Yet—is it so strange?" she asked bravely.
"And yon live here—in the old house!"
"We live at his place in Fife—his father is dead now—but came here a while ago when there seemed this chance of his doing something for the Government—Frank is like you, James, he hates to be idle."
She spoke quickly, with a pitiful desire to please, but Mr. Hepburn could not respond.
"Finding you in the old house, I thought that you were unwed," he said.
"I know—it was foolish of me."
She sank into the great tapestry chair.
"Oh, James, what has happened?"
"It seems to be spoilt—our meeting."
"There was nothing to spoil—that was my mistake, Jeannie."
"Perhaps my coming back at all was a mistake," he said.
She tried to smile.
"Because I am married to Frank?"
"Because of my own foolishness, I suppose."
He looked again at the brilliant portrait and then at the little porridge bowl.
She made no attempt to detain him now when he prepared to leave.
"You will come back?" she asked.
"Certainly I will come back—I am but a short time in Edinburgh."
"Yet come again—and see him—Francis."
He read a challenge in her clear, dark eyes.
"Certainly I must see Francis," he replied smoothly; "your husband, Jeannie!"
"My husband," she said gently.
He turned from her look of love.
When he was out in the street he shook himself as a man would do who is recovering from a physical blow.
And very slowly he went down the chill, darkening street towards his cheerless lodging.
Why had he never thought, he asked himself, of a thing so simple, so obvious?
Of course Margaret Sinclair, small-souled, practical, would have disbelieved the man, and of course Jeannie, lofty, devoted, loyal, and romantic, would champion him—even to the gift of herself, pitying him until her compassion blossomed into love. (For he had no doubt at all that now she loved Francis.)
From his knowledge of human nature and of these two women, he might have known which of them would marry Francis Mowbray.
But he had never guessed—he had let the thing happen.
He cursed himself for a bitter fool.
Jeannie had done a dreadful thing, Jeannie had made a hideous mistake.
And he had been the primary cause.
Her cry—"Did not you establish his innocence!" rang horribly in his heart.
From the seed of his acted lie had sprung this dreadful fruit of her marriage.
She had believed—in her impetuous goodness—the honour he had so madly championed.
Championed, knowing the truth.
Knowing that Francis Mowbray was guilty—guilty as hell.
A traitor and the cause of the death of young Ensign Duncan, Jeannie's brother—cause of the death of those others executed in Edinburgh.
It all seemed to him unreal—as anything of unexpected horror will seem.
And through all the horror he felt very clearly the amazement at his own change of attitude towards Francis.
For he certainly had loved Francis; knowing his guilt he had championed him and had felt no remorse or regret in so doing, no remorse in killing the Englishman who had spoken the truth.
So strong had been his love and loyalty for Francis, so strong the charm and fascination of the young man, that he had rushed forward blindly to silence his accuser and given no thought to the right or wrong of the thing.
Now these stood out with horrid clearness.
Coarse, crude, unsympathetic as the Englishman had been, he had been right.
And Francis, the lovable, the gallant, had been damnably wrong.
Mr. Hepburn had always tried to forget the scene in which Francis had been proved guilty; now he recalled it with cruel clearness.
It had been early in that fatal night while the party of fugitives, wet from a passing storm, had stopped at a deserted farm.
Francis had been with Mr. Hepburn in the cowbyre, when Morton the Englishman had rushed in with his accusation.
"You betrayed us, damn you, Mowbray—what is this?" and he had held out a paper, "you left this in Colonel Duncan's house—'tis written to the King's men."
And before James Hepburn could speak, Francis had snatched the paper and thrust it into his shirt bosom.
"Yes, I wrote it—what else?"
And James, acting on a violent impulse, had struck young Morton over the face.
"You always wanted to ruin Mowbray," he said, "but this shall ruin you."
The other, gasping with fury, tugged at his sword; but there came a quick alarm that the soldiers were after them, and they mounted on the instant and rode through the heather.
During that wild, dark ride, Francis had kept close to his friend.
"I did it," he had whispered once; "you can denounce me if you like."
James had affected not to hear.
Again had come the beloved voice.
"Will you still fight for me?"
And still Mr. Hepburn had not answered.
When all had gathered again in the shelter of the barn he had acted instantly.
"Mr. Morton called Frank the traitor—you know he always hated Frank—I'll silence him—now."
And his sword was out and the two were at it in red earnest.
In such a little while Morton was silenced indeed, and the thing seemed over.
Now he knew that had only just begun—at least for him, for Jeannie and for Francis.
He thought of Francis more than he thought of Jeannie.
His enthusiasm being quite dead, the behaviour of his friend seemed of an incredible baseness; he had deliberately taken advantage of his falsely established innocence to win a woman who could have scorned him with bitter loathing had she known the truth.
And then there was the brother—he might well be called the murderer of young Duncan, and of Morton too.
An ugly thing to be between husband and wife—what kind of man was the fellow to live with that on his conscience!
Prosperous!—so she had said.
No doubt he was prosperous; probably he had taken the price of his treachery—and now he was in with this Government—a man who would always be on the safe side.
And Jeannie adored him—or rather, she adored the false Francis that he, James, had helped to create.
He could not go home, but remained walking the cold streets.
The moon rose above the house-tops, faintly lighting the primrose sky against which the straight houses showed black.
James wandered towards the castle; his heart was as chill as the night air that blew on his cheeks and struggled with his cloak.
He wondered why he cared so fiercely—he had ceased to love Francis—he had ceased to hope for Jeannie.
He had always known that Frank was base—and yet the knowledge of this marriage seemed to have revealed this baseness for the first time as it had revealed the goodness, the almost foolish nobility of Jeannie.
His thoughts turned to the other woman.
He was surprised at her intuition; she had always seemed insignificant, even stupid.
But the little people were always sharp for the low side of others—Jeannie had been blinded by her own loftiness.
She had stepped into the trap the common wits of Margaret Sinclair had avoided.
He remembered how magnificently she had borne herself during the duel, holding aloft the candle to light the swords while Margaret had cowered in a corner weeping.
Well, Margaret was out of it, and Jeannie was chained for life to a hideous lie.
"And I," thought Mr. Hepburn, "had better return as I came—"
There was no excuse for him to interfere; he believed they were happy.
Yet he had an obstinate desire to destroy that happiness by telling the truth.
He had a desire to make Francis pay—at last.
A desire that he should lose Jeannie, that he should know the scorn with which she would receive the real man he had masked so long.
Yet he felt that the gratification of such a desire would bring him to the level of Francis.
And certainly it would break Jeannie's heart.
Between them they would kill her, as between them they had already involved her in the tragedy she now unconsciously acted.
No, he could not tell Jeannie.
He would go away again and try to forget—let the years pass over and dim the thing.
But he felt a wish to see and speak with Francis first.
A wish to try if the old charm still existed, if looking upon the man he would find it easier to forgive him.
With this resolve he turned back to his lodging and sent a boy with a note to Francis asking him to see him on the morrow.
It was strange to address to Francis at Colonel Duncan's house.
His hand shook as he wrote, and he could not wholly control the jealous bitterness that surged up in his heart.
He slept but little that night, and every hour found him in an increasing agitation.
There had been no answer to his note, and he took this to mean that Francis would be awaiting him.
With a painful reluctance he faced the sweet morning and the familiar streets, and went to the house that was no longer a pleasant habitation to him.
He was shown into the room where he had seen Jeannie yesterday.
As before, the brilliant portrait held and challenged his gaze.
He stared at it, hoping by this means to prepare himself for the vivid personality of the real man whose fascination he wished most ardently to withstand.
But it was Jeannie who entered.
"You thought to see Frank?"
He looked at her with great reverence and great tenderness.
"He did not get your letter, James. I opened it—I wanted to see you again before you saw him."
He was a little troubled by her words and by the seriousness of her manner.
She seated herself in the full light of the window, very upright.
She wore a white gown with a silver sprig in the silk mesh of the stuff and a high tucker of gathered lawn; he thought she had dressed herself with care in her best for his sake, and was touched, and still further troubled.
"I have not slept all night," said Jeannie deliberately. "I lay awake thinking of your visit and what you said."
She put back the curls from her forehead with shaking hand.
"You were strange, James, but I think I understand; nay, I am sure I understand what you meant to say."
"Nothing, nothing," he stammered.
"Oh, I read you!" she cried. "You think Frank guilty."
He was too utterly amazed to speak—amazed more at her calm than her words.
"Perhaps you always thought so," she continued. "Anyhow, you do now. You believe he was a traitor."
He sat silent with a downcast face, startled by the strange weakness of his limbs.
"I thought that might be your belief," said Jeannie—her glance travelled to the portrait; "during these years I have sometimes wondered if you were really loyal to him."
Now he was stung into speech.
"Loyal! I have been dumb—I have been more than loyal."
"No," said she, "for in your heart you did not believe."
"You reproach me with that?"
He was lashed by her injustice.
"Yes—you should have known that he, Frank, was incapable of any baseness—how was it you did not know him better?"
"You never doubted then?"
"Never. Can you tell me the same?"
"Then I will prove you were wrong." There was an extraordinary look in her eyes.
He was helpless in his bewilderment.
"You cannot prove the truth to be false," he said amazedly.
"You do not know the truth."
"Poor Jeannie!" he cried desperately.
"Nay—listen—will you hear the truth? I was the traitor."
He rose and peered at her, quite blankly.
"You never thought of that, did you?" she continued desperately. "Not one of you guessed. I told him when I saw the surprise had failed and that I had lost the letter to the King's officer—no one but a woman would have been so stupid, would they? Stupid to lose the thing, even in that confusion. I was frightened, I asked him to save me—Morton found the paper and chose to fix it on the one he had always hated—you know what happened."
His lips moved several seconds before he found two words.
"I know—I know."
Again two words:
"Pardon for myself—my father and Francis. I did it for them. I saw the enterprise was doomed—a stupid woman sees those things. I cared for nothing but saving Francis—I care for nothing but Francis now."
"Yet you put this on him?"
"I was a coward."
"You let Margaret think him guilty?"
"Yes—so he was free to come to me."
If the sun had sunk into darkness at midday he could not have been more shocked and amazed with horror than he was now by this discovery of the soul of Jeannie.
He stared at her as at a beautiful thing suddenly broken—lying in useless shreds at his feet.
She was too low for contempt, even for pity.
"Yes, Francis loves you?" he said drearily.
"He loves me," her trembling voice was yet triumphant.
"But I," said James, "could not even hate you now."
"I had to tell you."
"I wonder why."
"I could not bear you should think that Frank was base."
"You do not care what I think of you?"
"Oh—I am only a woman."
He turned away without saying farewell, nor did she ask this word, though she knew that she would never see him again.
As he left the room his glance fell on the little porridge bowl.
He recalled how she had come to them in the heather, and the tears rushed up to his eyes.
A backward look at Jeannie showed her sitting with folded hands, her face averted.
He found himself wandering in the street, amazed at his own grief, astonished at the foolishness of life. As he reached the corner he saw Frank Mowbray going towards his home.
The winning face was unchanged; he looked a happy man.
James stared after him and watched him enter the house.
As he did so he was pierced by a thought that reinstated Jeannie in glory a thousand times triumphantly—in glory.
Supposing she had lied to cover Frank's dishonour? He dared not think this true—it was but a sign of his own weakness that he must still try to exalt her even now.
In any case he could do nothing but leave them to their love.
JULIE was a peasant girl whom the caprice of a great lord had brought to Paris.
He wished to see, he said, how a wild rose would change in a hothouse.
But Julie did not change at all, and he soon became tired of watching her, and left her to her own devices.
She was not sorry, for he had never attracted her. Paris and not he had fetched her from her dull village.
She had learnt dancing to please Monseigneur, and now she began dancing in the ballet in the Opera-Comique.
After she had been there a week M. de Morny fell in love with her and took her away from the stage.
Julie was very happy now, for she was much in love with M. de Morny.
He established her in his "petite maison" at Auteuil. She had never seen such splendour, for Monsiegneur had only given her rooms near St.
Germain du Pres, in a turretted, rather dreary house.
So, in the spring of 1747 we find Julie, a small, foolish detail of this marvellous wicked Paris sunk in all the ways of corruption known of old to the cities of the plain, and in a good many more of her own invention—Paris, shimmering with brilliant colours on the surface of her rottenness like the rainbow lights on a stagnant pool. Here was Julie, loving and beloved, safe at Auteuil, knowing nothing of the affairs of the world and caring nothing, looking upon Paris as but a great shop where she might drive in her rose-lined chariot and buy what she chose.
In her childhood she had been given to fits and trances, had seen visions of the saints and angels, and once for nearly a week had lain unconscious, muttering only the name of the Virgin Mary. She would have been sent into a convent if her parents had not wished her to help on the little farm.
This frustration of her desires had thrown her in an illness which had left her too weak to help in farm or any other work.
She took to wandering about the fields and dreaming of the saints and holy nuns of whom the cure had told her. And there she might have stayed had she not chanced to be beautiful, with the frail, fair, spiritual, yet voluptuous beauty that the paintings of François Boucher had then made very much the fashion. Monsiegneur had met her, had talked to her of Paris.
Her visions changed in quality, the beauty of life appealed to her feeble brain as the beauty of renunciation had appealed.
And, as she had, despite her former longings for a religious life, very little knowledge of good and evil, she had been easily persuaded to follow Monseigneur to Paris.
At first she had been homesick and so entirely stupid that Monseigneur had regretted his experiment of transplantation.
Now M. de Morny had discovered her she was no longer homesick; her short memory held no place for regrets.
She chanced to please entirely the jaded and capricious taste of her lover; she had, he considered, all the feminine virtues.
That is to say, beauty, taste, docility, affection—her stupidity did not annoy him, and he did not know about the trances and the conventual leanings; Julie, being happy, showed no sign of swoons or hysteria.
She was as soft and loving as the most exacting vanity could wish, and she possessed in perfection two qualities—her beauty and her taste.
As to the first she was a freak of nature, born of a peasant stock yet fragile as a figure of bisque china, exquisite as to hands and feet, pale yet brilliant in colouring, pure and childlike in expression, yet full of a thousand unconscious coquetries and graces.
And her taste had never gone astray; she knew, by some deep instinct, all about clothes and adornments both of her house and her table; she could be trusted to choose an equipage or a flower with a perfect sense of what the occasion demanded.
She had no idea of management, of money—she scarcely knew the coinage of the kingdom; she was, as M. de Morny had told a friend, one of those expensive trifles that might easily ruin a man in a few months.
But he did not intend to be ruined, he had all the wits Julie lacked, and he liked her expensiveness; it flattered his pride and justified his choice. The confidential steward who ran his "petite maison—" controlled the purse, and inside the wide limits of his allowance (M. de Morny was far richer and more important than Julie would ever have been able to understand) she spent what she would.
Not a minute of her day was either dull or sad; she had her beautiful rooms to arrange, her charming little garden to attend, her kittens, her dog, her monkey and her parrot, her maid, Dorine, to chatter with, her visits to the shops, the visits of the milliner, the dressmaker, the silk merchant, the jeweller.
And then the comings of M. de Morny, the god who had provided all these bewilderments of joy. Sometimes he came in the afternoons, sometimes in the evenings—sometimes for a week together he would not come at all.
And Julie was so happy that she scarcely missed him.
She was really living in a fairy tale, and no question of any kind entered her heart.
She never troubled what he was doing when he was not with her, nor what sort of a world he lived in, nor why no one came to see her, nor why she was never allowed out alone.
She never even asked herself, how long this was going to last.
And therefore she was happy.
As she could neither read nor write he was spared sending her notes and verses, but every morning arrived a basket of fruit and flowers to remind her of him when he was not there.
He was always expecting to find Julie bored or cross or in tears when he returned after one of his long absences.
He thought to find her soon begin to crave for other admiration, for the theatre, for suppers, for friends to admire her luxury.
But Julie proved different to all his other experiences, she was always smiling, always content—she seemed to know of no existence beyond him and his house.
Never before had he been able to keep one of his toys so secret.
And he was afraid to keep her anything but secret, for he could not tell how soon she might be spoilt.
He had a great and rather unreasonable desire to preserve her ignorance.
And yet sometimes her sheer placidity irritated him, he was appalled at her stupidity, almost angry at her unquestioning content.
"Would she live like this all her life?" he asked himself.
It seemed that she would.
The spring of 1748 came, and she was the same as she had been a year ago.
M. de Morny was not yet tired of her.
He admitted that he was very fond of her, and, if he did not see her very often, and she never complained of neglect, she supplied all the frivolity he needed in his busy life.
Certainly she was still expensive, but the result of her spendings always pleased his exquisite and exacting taste.
It happened in the spring of 1748 that a wave of piety spread over Paris.
Ladies left their pleasures to retire (for a time) into convents.
Good works and holy living became a kind of crazy fashion stuck strangely on the mode of the life of Paris.
The cause of this hysterical enthusiasm, this feverish excitement for the piquancy of goodness, was supposed to be Cardinal Duplessis.
His eloquence and his fame brought thousands to hear his sermons in Saint Sulpice, and his influence was far-reaching and wonderful—especially among women.
Even Julie, in her little flowered backwater, heard of it.
Buying silk in Paris the story came to her ears; the milliner bringing her new hat spoke of Cardinal Duplessis.
A chord long silent was touched in Julie's heart; at last there was a tiny cloud on her sunlit sky. \
When next M. de Morny came to see her he found her slightly sad for the first time since he had known her.
She was out in the garden, near the fountain, seated in her favourite latticed arbour, which was a mass of jasmine and small pink roses.
Her white cat was at her feet, a cage of doves hung above her head.
It was all, M. de Morny thought, quite charming and idyllic.
Except for the slightly sad look in Julie's china blue eyes.
This vexed him.
He was so used to the serenity of Julie, to see her disturbed was like missing the rising of the sun would have been.
"What is the matter?" he asked.
She looked at him, wondering if she could tell him what was the matter.
Her glance was vague; she had not realised him clearly, any more than anything in her short and simple life.
He was to her rather a nebulous glory as was suitable to the respect in which she held him and the part he had played in her fortunes.
She did not see the fine detail of his dark composed features—too wide the face was for perfect handsomeness, otherwise of great attraction—she had never noticed the curious power and brightness of his long brown eyes, the constant play of expression that changed his mobile mouth, an expression generally of cynical amusement, but sometimes passionate, grave or severe.
To Julie he was just M. de Morny, the splendour from whom flowed all the joys that had made her life so radiant for the last year; she never noticed details save the details of clothes.
Now she was puzzling how to express herself, and did not notice his vexation at her mood.
"Things happen in Paris," she said at last.
"And what has happened in particular?"
"Cardinal Duplessis," said Julie reverently.
His glance fiercely flashed for a second.
"Is this a jest?" he asked.
"Oh no," answered Julie. "He does not jest. He is a Cardinal, a holy man. Perhaps you have heard of him?"
He kept his eyes fixed on her as if wishful to discover if she was sincere; then, convinced that she was not, and, after all, it was impossible to imagine Julie making a mock of him, or any one, he smiled.
"Well, I have certainly heard of the Cardinal," he answered, pulling at the red roses above his head, "but I cannot see why he should disturb your peace of mind, Julie."
She was glad of the phrase.
"That is what he does do—disturb my peace of mind."
M. de Morny was amused.
"How?" he asked.
"He—he makes me feel that I am not good, Monseigneur."
"Child, child, have you a conscience after all?" he mocked.
But her lovely eyes held an unblenching seriousness of purpose.
"Wicked people are frightened because of what he says—the milliner told me."
"Are you wicked?"
"Am I?" she asked anxiously.
But Julie added gravely:
"It is not a light thing—Hell."
"What do you know of it?"
"A good deal. The cure used to tell me."
"Oh, the cure."
"He was a holy man."
"But not as holy as a Cardinal, of course."
"Of course not."
He was still looking at her very curiously had she had eves to notice.
Nor did she hear the mocking intonation of his answers.
"I wished to be a novice," said Julie; "after all, perhaps it would have been a better life."
A look of relief swept into his intent eyes; she was certainly a simpleton.
"But you would not have been so well dressed, Julie," he said gently.
Her dreamy gaze travelled past him.
"Cardinals wear scarlet," she added.
"Have you seen one?"
"At home," she added with a certain pride, "there is a picture in the church—a Cardinal who was a very great saint. He wears scarlet."
"I believe," said M. de Morny, "they do—sometimes."
Julie was absorbed in her own thoughts.
"It is no light thing—Hell," she repeated.
"Ah, well," said M. de Morny, "there is really no need for us to consider it."
Julie gave him a wistful look.
"People are repenting—in Paris."
He roused himself to take her seriously.
"Julie! Why do you speak of these things?" She could not be diverted from her grave meditation.
"Cardinal Duplessis must be a great man."
The repetition of this name seemed to irritate M. de Morny.
"There is no need to think of him."
"Oh, I," her lip suddenly quivered—"I used to see saints and angels—now I never do."
He regarded her critically; this was certainly a new Julie; he had never thought of her as hysterical or likely to see visions.
"Saints and angels!" his fine eyebrows lifted.
"I used to see them," she repeated. "The Madonna and Saint Gabriel."
"Have you missed them?"
"No. I have had so much else, you see, Monseigneur, but hearing of this made me think of them again. I dreamt of them last night."
M. de Morny began to be vexed.
"Julie, I do not like to hear these things."
His air of authority quelled her, but she drew a little away from him.
He took a white satin case from the pocket of his steel-blue satin coat.
She did not sparkle as was usual with her when receiving his gifts; he noticed this and handed her the case in silence.
Julie opened it with timid fingers.
It contained a little rose beautifully carved in ivory, and stained a vivid scarlet; a fine gold chain was attached.
"It reminds me," said Julie, "of Cardinal Duplessis—scarlet—a scarlet rose."
He had not credited her with so much imagination; he was vexed at her persistence in a subject that he was weary of; altogether he was surprised and disappointed in Julie to-day.
She hung the ornament round her neck; it glowed above her heart, a strange spot of colour on her pale gown.
M. de Morny rose lazily, stretching his graceful figure. Julie did not look at him; her thoughts were still with the saints and angels who had once been her companions and who had so long since gone for ever.
The roses and the jasmine were lovely against the blue sky, the clear water trickled fairly in the marble basin, a soft breeze ruffled the feathers of the white doves that fluttered across the close green lawns, but the delicate figure of Julie was no longer in keeping with this gentle picture.
Her head drooped, there was no gaiety in her face, and her hands were folded on her lap as they had been when she used to sit dreaming beside her placid sheep.
M. de Morny looked at her between amazement and irritation.
She had broken the spell of his peaceful mood, he had not this time tasted the perfect serenity to which he looked forward, and which he had hitherto enjoyed, on his visits to Julie in her luxurious retreat.
He wished to leave her, and return to his world; if she was not going to be sensible he would leave her altogether, he decided.
Yet he was aware of a certain pathos in her sad attitude, and before he left he stooped and kissed her, very tenderly, on the bowed fair head.
Julie was not aware that the visit had been spoilt; she hardly noticed that he did not stay to share her déjeuner; her childish mind had wandered from her lover.
The next day she went to Paris with Dorine; she did not stay long with the milliners and mantuamakers.
She directed that her gay little cabriolet should be driven to Saint Sulpice.
Dorine protested, but Julie took no heed; she dismounted as eagerly before the great dark door as if she had been entering the most enticing bonnet shop in Paris.
Dorine, frightened, clung to her flowered skirts. Julie pushed her way through the crowd that contained many as worldly-looking as herself.
The vastness of the interior, the dim light of the coloured lamps hazed by the smoke of the incense, the reverent silence of the people, brought the tears to Julie's eyes.
A scarlet figure was descending from the high-placed pulpit.
As Julie looked he disappeared, and a slight murmur like a breath of relief after strong tension broke from the congregation.
The sermon of Cardinal Duplessis was over.
Julie began to weep; the atmosphere of the place drugged her; she swayed on her feet, trembling.
Dorine dragged her away into the clear light of the square.
"Mon Dieu! What would M. de Morny say!" she exclaimed nervously.
But Julie wept unheedingly.
A fat cleric was handing leaflets in the doorway.
One was thrust into Julie's hand.
She clutched it eagerly, and her ignorant eyes pitifully scanned the printed page.
"It is a sermon of the Cardinal Duplessis," said Dorine. "If you come away, Madame, I will read it to you."
Julie returned silently to the frivolous little chariot and silently to Auteuil.
But she did not forget Dorine's promise.
That evening, instead of teasing the monkey, nursing the cat, or talking scandal, Dorine, between yawns of boredom and tears of vexation, had to read the sermon of Cardinal Duplessis.
Julie, seated on a couch of gilt wood and shining grey satin, listened in a rapt silence.
Her hands were clasped on her befrilled lap, and her face was pale and anxious—a strange little face with its doll-like beauty, at once foolish and voluptuous, and that expression of distress and gravity contrasting with the frail contours, the delicate rouge and powder, the gossamer curls which were too light to sustain even the chaplet of seed pearls that preened among them.
Julie's shoes, of pink satin, had diamonds in the heels and butterflies painted on the soles; they showed beneath the billows of her rose-coloured skirts.
Julie's eyes passed from gravity to tragedy in their expression as she listened to the words of Cardinal Duplessis.
Dorine had neither wit nor patience to invent—she read what was before her with a voice sharp with irritation at this whim of her mistress.
But her pert intonation could not destroy the power of the great Cardinal's sentences.
They shook the blind ignorant soul of Julie as they had shaken the awakened cynical soul of Paris.
They moved her as the bells of the village church in her native village, as the earnest words of the humble cure had moved her. She forgot the painted boudoir and saw again the soft fields veiled with dew—the cropping sheep, the wide expanse of sky and the visions that had come to her when she had sat there, cold and often hungry, beneath the remote and rustling poplar trees in the early still mornings.
Cardinal Duplessis wrote of Time and Death and Judgment.
His was a rare and moving eloquence. Julie did not know this, but she did know that she was stirred as she had never been stirred by anything—not even by the splendour of Paris or the love of M. de Morny, or the life this love had opened out to her.
Before her eyes glimpsed an obscure vision, dim yet touched with glory, full of wondrous figures and half-seen shapes in the centre of which was the awful scarlet figure of Cardinal Duplessis.
The lazy flat voice of the vexed maid stumbled over the magnificent sentences of the great preacher.
He spoke of corruption—with keen and bitter scorn he tore the glittering veil from the lives of his contemporaries and showed that the outward brilliancy was but as the poisonous colours on foul and stagnant waters; he showed vice, hideous, ghastly, decked in the hues and emblems of disease lurking behind the pretty roses and the garlanded cupids; he showed the loathsomeness of folly, the wickedness of luxury and idleness, the horrible end of these things—no less than hell mouth.
"Hell opened on earth," said the Cardinal, "and hell hereafter for all eternity."
With a whip as of scorpions he lashed the guilt of his generation, with caustic emphasis he showed the hollowness of pleasure and the bitter payment that would be exacted for present indulgence. He stripped the tinsel from the dainty figures of such as Julie, and showed them as what they were—"the devil's baits"—at best poor puppets pulled by the strings of evil.
Julie did not understand all the Cardinal said; she did not know, even by name, half the sins to which he referred, and she had hardly knowledge of good and evil.
But she was acutely aware of the difference between the lost and the saved, the damned and the blest, Heaven and Hell.
It was the one thing that had ever been taught her, the one thing she had, all her life, thoroughly grasped.
And all the involved denunciations and glowing rhetoric of the Cardinal bore to her this one meaning—that she was a sinner, sunk and lost in sin, as in the white convent on which she had turned her back she would have been saved, even, perhaps, blessed.
For the Cardinal was eloquent on the beauty and holiness of renunciation, of the merit of the conventual life, the peace, the security of these saintly retreats, which, like flowers rising from mud, redeemed the general corruption of the land.
This much Julie understood.
When Dorine had finished and the pamphlet fell from her tired fingers, Julie sat motionless with blank eyes.
The maid slipped away, but Julie did not notice her absence nor did she ring for candles.
When she at length rose her limbs were cramped from too long sustaining one attitude; she felt a little giddy and her head ached.
Her fingers clutched at the scarlet rose on her heart, which seemed to her to be a mystic emblem of that flower of holiness, Cardinal Duplessis, and before her eyes swam strange lights and deep darknesses.
She stumbled over the spindle-legged furniture and tried to call out for candles, but could not.
She heard Dorine laughing in the garden and the sound braced her; shivering like a frightened child she crept up to bed.
The next morning she awoke with a fever, but M. de Morny was coming, and Julie understood that she must show no altered demeanour to him; she wished that she could be alone that day, but dutifully prepared herself for the reception of her master.
Dorine, who had absolutely forgotten the incident of yesterday, brought a new gown to Julie's bedside; the fine texture of muslin, shot with gold and silver threads, the slender ribbons of deep purple velvet, and the little bouquets of satin flowers in pink and lavender with gold leaves aroused Julie's spirits.
She laughed and chattered as gaily as usual, but she could not dismiss the vision conjured up by the words of Cardinal Duplessis, nor the dreams that had troubled her feverish sleep.
M. de Morny noticed her hot hand and her too brilliant eyes.
She was a changed Julie, without a doubt. He began to be interested in this different being. He missed her sweet serenity that had pleased him so long; but he watched her curiously with a sense that his peasant girl had not been a failure—just when he was beginning to tire of her as a lover she had discovered an entirely new side of her character to him, thereby still holding him—this was what, he reflected, so many women had failed to do.
"What is disturbing you, Julie?" he asked.
They sat over their coffee by the open window that looked on the garden where the flowers were massed in the sunshine under the blue.
She blushed and looked down; she was too simple to disguise her trouble.
"I went to hear Cardinal Duplessis," she said.
"Went to hear him?"
"At Saint Sulpice."
M. de Morny appeared startled, a rare thing for him; a look of suspicion flashed into his keen eyes.
"Are you jesting with me, child?" he asked sternly.
Her tears rose at his harsh tone.
"Why should I jest with Monseigneur?" she trembled.
"Why, indeed?" his tone was lighter, he leant forward and took her hand. "What did the Cardinal say?" he added.
She was warmed into a full confidence.
"I heard nothing—it was over when I reached the church."
"You saw His Eminence?"
"Yes—oh, Monseigneur, he must be a wonderful man! A saint!"
"So they say."
"A saint," she repeated reverently. "They gave me his sermon at the door—Dorine read it to me."
"Yes—Monsieur forgets that I cannot read."
"No—I had not forgotten, Julie."
"He is wonderful," said Julie—she had not a great choice of words.
"Would you like to meet him?"
A painful flush suffused her childish face.
The blood burnt in her cheeks like a great rose of shame.
"How could I—a sinner?" she stammered.
"So you think you are a sinner, Julie?"
"I know I am," she said.
"And you, Monsieur—and all Paris," she insisted with a certain doggedness.
"All sinners and all condemned to Hell, eh, Julie?" he smiled.
An awful look came into her wide eyes.
"Oh, Jesu, what shall I do?" she exclaimed.
The man who was so critically and coolly watching her was surprised by this look of anguish; he had seldom seen that expression in a young face, never on a fair young face, and his experience was wide—decidedly Julie was an interesting experiment.
"You ought to have gone into a convent," he said.
"Yes," answered Julie.
"Well," he said, playing with her, "there is still time."
"No," she replied.
"It is never too late, Julie—if you wish I will take you to Cardinal Duplessis and he shall tell you so."
"Monseigneur—I have not the courage."
M. de Morny laughed.
"He is not so terrible."
"He is a saint, I dare not approach him."
"You should certainly be in a convent."
Julie began to weep.
And she did not weep like a child, but with a certain tragic bitterness.
Surprising tears, M. de Morny thought, for Julie to shed.
He watched her with negligent curiosity; his cold heart was not much moved by her distress, though he did not lack tenderness for Julie, but his keen and brilliant brain was amused and interested as it had seldom been.
Fair penitents were the fashion in Paris just now—M. de Morny had seen many of them, but he had not observed one who was sincere—as Julie was obviously sincere.
Strange—this little stupid thing from the country, who had so eagerly and joyously accepted luxury and pleasure—had she truly that spark of divine madness that made the ascetic and the saint?
M. de Morny had hitherto scarcely believed in such people, but he could not disbelieve in Julie and in Julie's tears.
"Child," he said, "how can I teach you that you weep for nothing?"
She raised her flushed and distorted face.
"Since there is no Hell, Julie, and you weep for fear of it—"
He could not forbear a smile at her genuine horror; it amused him to shock this bigotry that was so alien to his sceptical mind and his scoffing world.
"I am in earnest, Julie—no one any longer believes in Hell."
"But Cardinal Duplessis," she stammered—"his—his sermons?"
"Being a Cardinal he must occasionally preach, my dear."
"Being an ambitious man and an eloquent man he preaches well—that is all."
"But he is a saint!"
"I do not think so."
"But—what he says!"
"That is his 'metier.'—"
She was shrinking from him with distrust; with every word he said she felt that he was wicked, as wicked as herself, that he was trying to lead and inveigle her from the truth, from holiness and salvation as represented by Cardinal Duplessis.
A feeling that was near despair took possession of her trembling heart.
She leant back in her satin chair, and her face was so white and scared that he was moved to pity.
"Oh, we are lost—surely we are lost!" she murmured desperately.
"You and I, Monseigneur."
Truly the girl was a little mad, he thought, as well as extraordinarily simple—yet she was most interesting—with that face and those sentiments. He wondered what his friends would think of her; formerly he had wished to keep her unspoilt—entirely closed from the world—now he felt a certain desire to make a display of his discovery of the strange soul of Julie.
His handsome, dominant face, so free from emotion, yet so capable of expressing all emotions that it was like the face of an actor who has reduced his features to the likeness of a mask, was turned, with a look of curiosity in the calm agate eyes, towards the pathetic little figure of Julie.
At the sound of his voice she started so that the coffee cup fell from her hand and was broken on the leg of the ormolu table.
"Never mind," said M. de Morny, smiling at her stare of distress. "I will give you another service—I never really cared for this."
The girl stooped and began foolishly picking up the fragments of china.
"Can you give me a new soul, Monseigneur?" she trembled.
She straightened herself and looked down at the pieces in her hand.
"Not I, Julie—nor anyone."
"Cardinal Duplessis," she murmured.
"Not he, Julie."
"Oh, if one repents," she said passionately.
"Julie, you silly child, how can I prove to you that there is nothing for you to repent of? You have done no wrong."
"I am a sinner," insisted Julie.
"There is nothing else in the world, my dear," he assured her.
She looked at him with mistrust.
"At least there is God in Heaven," she said desperately. "He knows what I mean."
M. de Morny was silent.
"I think I will go home—" added Julie pitifully.
"Home?" he frowned.
"To the old cure—he would understand—it was he who wished me to be a novice."
M. de Morny did not wish to lose Julie; her quiet and childlike charm had exactly suited his unemotional nature.
With her he had no fears of rivals—and she was unique.
Both these things flattered his pride—besides, he was as fond of her as he was capable of being of anyone save himself.
He could recall no other such woman among his acquaintances, nor did he believe that he was ever likely to find one so charming, so simple—so suitable.
"You must not go home," he said decisively.
"Why, Monseigneur?" she asked timidly.
"Because I want you to stay here, Julie," he replied authoritatively.
She regarded him gravely, without either the pleasure or the submission he had expected.
"I think I ought to go," she said.
The case was more serious than he had thought; he roused his elegant leisure.
"You must learn that there are no saints in the world, Julie."
His dark eyes smiled.
"And I must show you," he added.
Her expression did not change.
"You shall see Cardinal Duplessis, Julie."
She shrank from him and his suggestion. "Oh, I should not dare! I should not dare!"
"He is not so terrible."
"But I am not fit to appear before a man of God, Monseigneur."
M. de Morny laughed.
"Silly one," he said, "by this time next week you will have forgotten this foolishness."
He left early that afternoon, and his going was a relief to Julie.
Immediately she was free she called Dorine and questioned her as to whether the Cardinal was soon preaching again.
Yes, he was preaching that very day—at Saint Sulpice again.
Julie longed to go, but found that strict orders had been left for the gay little chariot to take her nowhere but to the shops.
For the first time since her coming to Paris she realised that she had sold her liberty.
It was impossible for her to leave the house, even on foot, alone.
She looked at the high walls of the exquisite garden—walls covered with roses, yes, but the walls of a prison, as Julie suddenly discovered.
Sick with agitation she crept up to her lonely little bedchamber.
Fear seized her again and a constant sickness shook her heart.
She shivered into bed and the sheets felt icy about her hot limbs.
The calm cynical words of M. de Morny rang in her bewildered brain.
"There must be a God—there must be holiness," she kept saying to herself.
All her surroundings had now become intolerable, every beautiful trifle that she had innocently loved now seemed like a menace of eternal perdition.
She burnt candles all that night, and could not sleep.
With the morning came a present from M. de Morny—a basket of white jasmine and roses concealing a Sevres coffee service—powder blue, painted with scenes of ladies walking in a park with terraces and lofty trees.
Julie looked at them listlessly, and listened without interest to the note that accompanied them and which Dorine read.
M. de Morny was coming to supper, bringing with him friends—"who would cure her of her sweet follies and her visions of saints."
Julie lay in bed till the afternoon; she could not eat, her lips and throat were dry, her lower limbs cold, every familiar object in the room wore a ghastly chill look of horror, there was nothing to which she could turn for comfort, nor could she explain to herself the dismal change which had befallen all her surroundings.
She only knew that if she could get away and find once more the old fields and the old cure she might again know peace.
But she had neither force nor spirit to contemplate escaping from the silken bonds that held her in Paris; she merely lay and shivered, thinking of her life and of the words of Cardinal Duplessis.
Dorine forced her to dress, attiring her in a saffron-coloured gown with panniers of lavender-coloured gauze, and rouging the face and lips that were so pitifully white.
Julie sat inert till she heard M. de Morny's voice in the hall below, and then she stumbled downstairs in a nameless panic, her frail hands clutching at the scarlet rose that hung among the furbelows on her panting heart.
A party of men and women stood in the gold and rose entrance hall; foremost was M. de Morny wrapped in a voluminous and flowing dark mantle.
Julie paused, further frightened by these strangers; soft and good-humoured laughter arose at the sight of her scared, childish look.
"Is this the little saint?"
Julie saw her lover take off the cloak, and beheld before her the figure of Cardinal Duplessis as she had seen him in the pulpit at Saint Sulpice.
"Come down, Julie," smiled His Eminence, "and I will absolve you from your sins."
"You are—" the words died on her quivering lips.
"M. de Morny is Cardinal Duplessis," smiled one of his companions: "you know now what value is to be attached to his sermons, Mademoiselle."
Julie moved her head with a desperate look for succour.
And saw none, saw herself closed in, surrounded by horror.
"Then there is no God," she said.
She moved forward as if she was on the level and fell over the stairs and so at the Cardinal's feet.
When they lifted her up her mind was gone; she could only mutter, in the dialect of her childhood, about visions of Saint Gabriel and the Virgin.
"TO-MORROW," said Petronilla.
She had said the word so often; Astome both dreaded and loved to hear it on her lips, for it meant delay and also hope.
To-night she seemed to discern a keener shade of disappointment on his face, for she paused at the turn of the stair and, looking back over her shoulder, said gently: "To-night he needs me—he is not well—when he calls for me in the morning I must be there."
Astome watched her slender figure quietly ascend the wide stair with the worn gilt balusters one side and the other the bright frescoes of landscapes painted on the wall.
She wore a white gown and shoes of rose-coloured velvet; in her hand was a little lamp with a floating wick which cast an amber light over her soft loveliness.
Astome watched her pause on the first landing, gently unlatch the door of the Conte degli Adimari's chamber, look in, ascertain that he slept, then pass on to her own room, leaving the stairs in darkness.
Then he returned to the library where he worked every day and all day with the Conte, who was compiling a history of the Adimari family.
Their one recreation was chess—an hour after supper, while Petronilla sat at her tapestry frame.
Astome looked at the board put carefully aside, with the pieces in place for the morrow's completion of the game.
He disliked chess—he disliked the long days of minute and uncongenial toil—he even disliked the beautiful old Florentine villa in which he had spent the last three years of his life—or would have disliked it if it had not been the background to Petronilla.
Petronilla was the Contessa degli Adimari, the young wife of the old Conte—no more than twenty to his seventy—the old man had loved her gentleness, her studious mind, and she had been passive in the hands of ambitious parents.
It could only be a few years, they said, and Petronilla would be free, a Contessa and rich.
So the girl became the wife and assistant of the quiet old man, and helped him with the voluminous folio of the Degli Adimari's memoirs, copied coats of arms, and drew up pedigrees and wrote long pages in her fine handwriting, patiently and accurately, from the Conte's dedication.
She saw no one—the villa half-way up the Apennines was as quiet as the convent she had left when her father came to tell her of the marriage he had arranged.
And she did not repine; as she had never had friends or pleasures she could not miss them, and she came to love the Villa with the frescoed rooms, the terraces, the gardens, and the peaceful, unchangeful life and the cultured, courteous companionship of the old nobleman.
But after a year she began to lose her strength; she could no longer do her task but painfully and slowly, even the evening walks with the Conte on the terraces fatigued her, once or twice she fainted over the great leather-bound volumes—and it became clear that another assistant would have to be found to compile the memoirs of the Degli Adimari.
The Conte, with the unworldly simplicity of the recluse who has forgotten the ways of human nature and the strength of human passion, brought his young relative, Astome degli Adimari, a poor cadet of a branch line.
He came for the sake of the home and possible advantage from a relation rich and kindly, and he stayed solely for the sake of Petronilla.
Even when, through his mother's family, he inherited considerable property that made him independent, he stayed because of Petronilla.
Brought together daily, left much alone, of similar quiet tastes and warm dispositions, they learnt simply and naturally to love.
The heart of Petronilla was unlocked, and she discovered many secrets therein.
For one thing, that this life did not satisfy her after all—that she wanted a home, and that this was not it—for another, that to love was an imperative need, and that she belonged where she loved and not where the church had given its blessing.
Yet gentleness, pity, and even affection for the old man who had always been kind to her stayed her action and kept her in her place.
Many times she had promised Astome that she would abandon this unnatural life to go with him, yet when the moment came she had always hesitated. It seemed as if she lacked the power to break through the fine chains of custom that enmeshed them all.
Always she had some gentle excuse—"When we have finished this pedigree" "when this chapter is complete," "he is not well, when he is better"—and though these excuses were trivial to the ears of his passion he could not but love her more for them.
Finally he had prevailed so far that she had packed the belongings she would take with her and even written the letter to be left behind.
His own arrangements had been complete so long that he wearied at them—the details of their flight, their journey, had all been planned—his house at Vallombrosa was ready to receive her—and even now Petronilla always said "to-morrow."
Astome looked round the empty library, and a sense of dreariness entered his soul.
Her "to-morrow" rang in his ears with a mournful sound—the hopes she held out to him glittered with the fatal colours and ghostly, luminous light of the "will-o'-wisp" over deathly marshes.
He wondered if they would ever be free to love each other, if she would ever be his in the pine woods and amid the shrines of Vallombrosa—where he had so often imagined her light figure moving among the cyclamen and anemones.
She was not strong, and of late had failed in health, he thought.
She was too frail, and given to fever in the afternoons, to faintings and pains in her side, a little cough shook her perpetually—it was nothing, they all said, she would be well with the first suns of summer, yet now, reflecting upon it, Astome felt uneasy.
For the first time he wondered if she would ever be well.
Moodily he picked up the rock crystal goblet by the chess-board, in which the Conte always took his evening drink of spiced Sicilian wine.
Astome took up the goblet and moodily looked at it—it was as tiresomely familiar as the room, the papers, the Conte's seat and his own, ever in the same place.
Yet in the depths of his heart he was conscious that these objects caused him a pang—a sense that if he lost them he would be sorry.
Custom had put round his heart its dreadful chains of tenderness—he would be sorry to part even with these things associated with one whom he hated.
Hated—no, he could not say he hated the gentle, courteous husband of Petronilla.
He had even shared her half-expressed remorse at their joint flight.
Though that, he felt, was folly.
The Conte wanted no more of them, had no right to more of them.
Too long he had sapped their youth, their strength, taking their devotion, their tenderness, their labour, their attention as a matter of course—too long, like an overwhelming shadow, he had stood between them and all life owed them.
Astome felt it was wrong to sacrifice the golden days to this old man.
He would be as happy with his ancient servants, who understood his ways and his needs; he did not need youth, beauty, and strength to wait upon his simple needs.
Astome put down the goblet.
How often he had seen it in Petronilla's hands—every evening at the same hour she would bring it in, full of the sweet drink, and place it by the Conte's side.
Astome wondered if he would miss this service—why should he?—a servant could perform the office as well.
The words again came into his head; he seated himself in the Conte's chair, before the lamp, which was beginning to flicker for lack of trimming—would there ever be a to-morrow for him and Petronilla?
His love for her was as free of passion as his feeling for the Conte was free of hate—an immense tenderness, as strong, and rarer than passion, was the emotion that bound him to Petronilla.
He was, himself, surprised at this, for she was his first desire; yet his senses were stirred dreamily, and there was no desperate ardour to claim her for his, mingled with his impatience to take her away from the Villa degli Adimari into freedom.
The few kisses he had had of her he remembered more as balm than fire.
His feeling was softer yet stronger than passion—an immense yearning shook him when he thought of Petronilla, and thinking of her, sitting in the Conte's chair and staring at the waning lamp, somehow he thought of death.
His eye travelled to the pile of manuscripts, all traced with the names of people long dead.
Death had never touched those he cared for, and he had the courage of security.
Petronilla degli Adimari would one day be the name of a dead woman.
He was angry with himself for the thought.
But the thought had come and would remain: Petronilla would one day be the name of a dead woman.
Petronilla of the laurel trees he called her, from the little grove of laurels that was her favourite walk, and where they would sit and talk or read in the long hours of the afternoon, when the Conte slept behind the green lattices.
He thought of her always with this background of the sharp-pointed leaves and round berries of the laurel, between them the fine mosaic of the sky, pale azure in spring, purple in summer and autumn, and in the winter obscured with clouds.
He stared at the goblet from which the old man drank every night, and which had been touched so often by Petronilla's fragile hands.
The lamp flickered and went out for lack of oil; a pale blur of blue moonlight fell through the high latticed window.
Astome stood motionless, with the goblet in his hand; never before had he been so aware of the utter silence of the house.
He thought of Petronilla, sleeping, white in the white linen, and of the old Conte in his magnificent chamber, and he wondered what dreams visited either of them in their repose...
The next day Petronilla came to him on the terrace; they seldom were free in the morning, but to-day, Petronilla said, the Conte was not well enough to work. They turned their steps towards the laurel trees.
"To-day is your to-morrow, Petronilla," said Astome.
"Oh, he is sick," she answered.
A dreariness that was beyond disappointment fell on the heart and spirit of Astome.
In silence they descended the steps from the terrace and crossed the garden.
The pearl-pink and white flowers of San Guiseppe were almost out on their grey-leaved bushes, and those huge, scentless roses called roses of Nero.
In the borders pinks bloomed, and the crimson camellia heads were unfolding.
They came out on to the open hillside, which was crowned by the laurel trees.
Under their feet were cyclamen and violets, purple and white; before their eyes an almond and peach orchard in a dip of the hill; the boughs could not be seen for the blossom.
They walked in silence to the laurel trees, and sat down side by side on the short, dry grass.
The sunlight fell softly through the flickering leaves; Petronilla clasped her hands round her raised knees; she wore a white gown figured with little clusters of pink flowers and girdled high under her bosom; her hair, which was neither dark nor fair, but warm and neutral in colouring, was drawn away from her face and gathered by coral-headed pins into a coil at the nape of her neck.
She looked at Astome with brown eyes, appealing and sad; she held herself languidly, and her breathing was deep and noticeable.
"Petronilla," said Astome, "we waste our lives—do you realise how we waste our lives?"
She looked away, hesitant.
"When are you going to end it?" insisted the young man. "It is in your hands, beloved."
"Oh no," she answered, "it is not in my hands, Astome. I cannot decide."
"I will decide," said Astome, but without hope in his voice or look. "The old man does not need us, would not miss us. Do you not see that you are sacrificing yourself to a phantasy?"
"You think that he would not miss us?" asked Petronilla slowly.
"Why should he? Anyone could be paid to do what we do—the writing, the research, the attendance. He lives in the past, the old man—he does not notice who is about him—after a day's grief he would not miss either of us." Petronilla slowly shook her head.
"I do not think that you are right," she said. "Nay, I know that you are not right. He loves us both."
"But what is that love to ours?"
"It is a thing I cannot hurt—I cannot," she answered; she looked down at her clasped hands.
A great bitterness filled the sore heart of Astome. "Do you mean," he asked, "that I am to wait this old man's death?"
"Give me a little longer—give me time," she pleaded, and lifted eyes that were touched by tears.
"I have already given you so long, Petronilla. What is your love for me worth if you put this sentiment before it?"
"You know I love you, dear, my dear!"
His dark face did not lighten of its gloom.
"I have told you I love you," said Petronilla simply. "I do love you—I always shall."
He warmed at her words.
"Then come away with me—let us begin this new life together—we are stifled here by the dusty atmosphere of the past; the infirmities of old age, always before us, overwhelm us—we do not live—this place is dead, peopled with ghosts!"
"The villa is melancholy, yes," said Petronilla, "but I am fond of it—fond of the old man—I hardly can imagine any other existence."
"This life is sapping your strength, your courage," cried Astome. "I must save you—"
"Hush!" She held out her hands, and the sleepy sunshine fell across them.
"Here, in the Villa degli Adimari, one is always hushed," said Astome.
"It is for such a little while," answered Petronilla humbly.
"How long, how long?"
She drew a little closer.
"Oh, love, be not so impatient!"
Her little hands clung to his dark coat.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
But Astome was bitter enough to be brutal.
"If you love the old man, why do you deceive him?"
"He knows we love each other," whispered Petronilla, hanging her head.
"He thinks we are fond of each other," smiled Astome. "He does not know the truth."
"Why should he? It would break his heart—and we can wait, we are so young."
"But our love and all that it is built on is so unstable, Petronilla—it is offered to us now, let us take it—oh, beloved, let us take it while we can!"
The warm wind ruffled her soft hair and fluttered the edges of her draperies, where they touched the grass.
Astome, looking at her, was filled with helpless rage and helpless desire.
She seemed as unattainable as if she had never confessed her love for him, never promised to go with him to his house by the sea and be his for ever more. And what stood between them was an old, sickly student, who cared for nothing but his books and his papers, and who was incapable of noticing what took place about him.
This seemed to Astome ridiculous and yet unsurmountable; he did not think that he would ever persuade Petronilla to leave the Conte.
And over him also came the sense of the melancholy, the remoteness, the silence of these long spring days and of the villa where so many had lived and died and been forgotten.
The futility of love and life seemed overwhelming; he felt like a man for whom everything was over.
Petronilla looked at him, and the tears overbrimmed her eyes.
"I make you sad," she said. "You should never have come here."
She rose and leant against one of the slender laurel trees.
"You should never have loved me," she added.
"I wish I had not," he replied, "for I think you mean to break my heart."
"We are together," she answered pitifully; "cannot you be happy this way?"
She looked at him very wistfully, and tightly clasped her thin little hands.
"I suppose we are different. I can be happy—just knowing that you are there; that you love me, that we shall never, never part, and that some day we shall be free to love each other. Knowing that, and that the Conte is happy, I can be happy also, Astome."
"You live in dreams," said Astome gloomily.
"Dreams? I wonder. Certainly I could be content, dreaming of you."
He was moved to a great tenderness towards her, but he was still bitter, still angry, and would speak no word of softness.
She spoke again, still pleading with him.
"I wish you could be pleased with me—"
"Pleased?" he rose and stood before her. "I love you, I want you."
Petronilla shrank, overwhelmed by the nearness of his presence.
"I know," she said feebly. "I know—indeed, Astome, but—"
She was silent suddenly, and he almost thought that he had won her; he wished he could put her upon his horse before him, like the knights in the foolish tales of old, and ride away with her now.
He thought that she would not protest if once he could hold her to him and take her swiftly away from this melancholy villa and this old man with his books about the dead.
But even while he thought this, a thin, sweet voice came through the laurel trees.
Astome's moment was over; the light sank in the eager eyes of the Contessa. "Petronilla!"
Gentle but insistent rose the voice of the old man; they saw him below them, walking along the marble paths of the garden.
Petronilla turned from her lover and went down the slope to the Conte.
Astome watched her offer her frail arm to support his frail weight, and the slow progress of the two towards the villa.
He could not, at once, follow them.
His gaze dwelt on her slender figure, her dear head, the whole lovable person of her—so passionately adored even to the least turn of the gown that fluttered round her ankles.
She was his—he knew he held the soul of Petronilla—and yet he was debarred from her by the shadowy figure of the gentle old man to whom she was nothing but nurse and servant.
Soon, sitting under the laurel trees, he became aware of the loneliness.
He could not any longer stay there in the soft, sleepy sunshine and moving shadow, looking on the blossom orchard, the low garden which the sun filled as wine a cup, and the straight, faded pink front of the villa.
He knew that the Conte would be waiting for him in the old library with the books and parchments ready before him—waiting in his courteous fashion until it pleased his young kinsman to come to him.
Astome almost hated him for this indulgence; it galled him that the old man was so kind, so unassuming, so considerate, so unsuspicious. Perhaps if he had been harsher, sterner, Petronilla would not have felt the burden of him on her gentle soul.
If he had been a tyrant, Astome would have felt justified in his insistence, which he now employed with a dull feeling of guilt.
For deeply as he hid it in his heart, he had the feeling that the Conte did love, and could miss, them both.
It was not a feeling that he would have listened to, in his selfish longing for Petronilla; but it was there, and further clouded his melancholy with remorse and distress.
Slowly he returned to the villa, impatient with his peaceful, melancholy surroundings, impatient with love, with life, with Petronilla.
He found the lady and her husband in the library.
The Conte sat before the open doors of his muniment bureau; in his hand was a sheaf of stained and discoloured parchment.
A dark brown cloak was about his shoulders as if he was chilly, even on this soft day; a black silk cap covered his elegant head, and his aquiline face, drawn, sallow, and heavy, was slightly flushed with pleasure as he read aloud an ancient footnote to an old chronicle of the degli Adimari, which confirmed some surmise of his own.
He looked up at the entrance of his young kinsman. Astome tried not to see his obvious pleasure and friendly smile.
Petronilla sat at the great dark desk under the latticed window; the sunlight, filtering through the squares of greenish glass, fell in a subdued, almost a ghostly light on her bent fair head and thin figure.
She was mending a quill, and a sheet of paper lay before her on the desk.
"Contessa," said Astome, and waited for her to give him the place.
Petronilla rose silently and moved to the other end of the room.
"Let her stay," said the Conte. "Perhaps you," he added wistfully, "are tired of this dull, close nook—you have scarcely left the desk these last weeks—"
Astome did not give the warm assurances he knew the old man looked for.
"It is my work," he answered, and sat down and took up the half-mended quill.
"But if you would rather be free this morning," began the Conte, troubled.
"Nay," said Astome with an effort, "let us begin, signor." He took up the sheets that he had written yesterday and arranged them in order.
His fingers moved mechanically through this task, and his glance was sadly on Petronilla.
She sat beyond her husband with the large tapestry frame behind her. The tapestry that hung on it was worked with a forest scene in dull colours; half-way down the canvas the stitching ended. Astome remembered that it had ended there for some time; it was many days since Petronilla had cared to touch the wools.
She usually sat, as she sat now, in the high-backed, dark-cushioned chair, with her head leaning listlessly to one side and her hands idle in her lap.
The Conte smoothed out his documents on a corner of the desk, and began dictating the fourteenth chapter of his history of the Degli Adimari. It was an account of a tournament held in the villa two hundred years before.
Astome's pen took down the description of knights and their armour, the jousts, the mock battles with sweets and flowers, the feasts, the tents in the gardens now so solitary, the dances in the halls now so silent, the pomp and movement where all was now so quiet.
And all the while he was thinking of Petronilla, and wondering if this obligation of disguise would be ever lifted from her, and if he would ever call her his own in his own house, ever become free from the overwhelming atmosphere of the villa and the Conte's presence.
And like a tiny hammer in his brain a little pulse seemed to be beating—"Never—never."
Now and then he looked at Petronilla.
She never moved, and seemed so withdrawn from what was passing as to appear lifeless.
Her head leant heavily into the hollow of her slender shoulder, and her hands were so loosely interlocked that the fingers fell apart.
In the shadow that encompassed her, her face seemed as colourless as her dress.
Her hair was one with the darkness behind her; she looked half unreal, a thing withdrawn into nebulous shadows.
And in Astome's heart and brain beat the little pulse—"Never—never."
So he continued to write in the closed room, with the dulled sunlight falling over his papers and the slow, musical voice of the old man in his ears, and monotony, and discontent, and longing, over him like a cloak of pain.
Wearily the hours went by, unannounced by any clock, and marked only by the passage of the sun across the chamber.
Steadily went Astome's hand across the paper, and the old man's voice droned on with the gorgeous details of the tournament; all the now obscure items of the gaieties of old times.
Presently he stopped writing.
"The Contessa—" he said.
The Conte stared.
"Eh?" he said, confused by being stopped in his reading.
"The Contessa looks ill."
The other turned in his chair, hardly realising what had been said.
"She is asleep or—"
"Petronilla!" cried the old man, in sudden, sharp alarm.
They went over to her.
"She is asleep," said the Conte.
"Fainted," said Astome.
He laid his hand on the low rise of her breast and felt beneath it the flutter of her heart.
"Oh, gentle Heaven!" cried the old man piteously.
"She lives," said Astome.
"Lives? How could it be otherwise?" He stared in a bewilderment of anguish. "She is young and well."
"Not so well, signor. Help me take her upstairs."
Together, they, the old man and the young, carried the light weight of Petronilla up to her chamber, there the sun was falling unstained and clear through an open window.
It lay over the frail figure of Petronilla when they placed her on the bed, showed the almost transparent delicacy of her features, the fineness of her fallen hands, and sparkled in the light threads of the purple and gold coverlet.
Lucrezia, the waiting woman, as old and gentle and quiet as her master, came hastening with silent anxiety.
The signora had fainted, she said—it was nothing, of late the signora had not been strong; she had fainted once before while she was having her gown fastened, but had forbidden it to be mentioned.
The Conte stood silent, leaning forward a little and looking down at his wife as if he was trying to read something in her unconscious face.
And Astome looked at him and saw his love, plainly now, beyond all denial.
Astome knew that he loved Petronilla—she was more to him than nurse or servant.
Perhaps he loved her as much as Astome—that was a strange thought for his lover's jealousy.
The old man never looked at the young man who was so keenly studying him.
With his hands clasped gently on his heart, he stared at Petronilla.
Lucrezia had all her essences ready, a little serving-maid hurried with a cordial; the men were put aside.
Astome led the Conte from the chamber.
"We must finish the chapter, signor," he said.
A gleam of brightness lightened the amazed sorrow of the old man's face.
"Yes, yes, the chapter," he answered. "Ill, is she ill?" he added, in a confused fashion. "But she is young and well—we never thought of her as ill, did we, Astome? A little cough—"
"It is nothing," said Astome hastily.
The Conte sent one of the men riding into Florence for a doctor, and the two returned to their work in the library.
That day, as every other day, the dictation went on, the sheets were covered by Astome's neat handwriting, the old man read aloud from his parchments.
"I wonder if I shall live to finish this book," he said wistfully, as he lovingly put aside the day's work.
"I wonder if he cares more for the book or for Petronilla," thought Astome, half bitterly, half with a strange tenderness.
She came down as usual that evening. The doctor had named no definite disease—she was weak, she must be careful, she needed the sun, that was all.
She brought her husband his spiced drink, and he, happy to see her moving about again, kissed the hands that served him.
Astome brought out the chess-board, and they finished the game of yesterday, the Conte pleased and content, the grave young man looking across the pieces at the grave girl in the high, deep-cushioned chair. He seemed so fatally and completely separated from her, first by the gentle Conte and then by something that was not gentle, but very terrible.
He did not now think—"When will she come with me?" but—"When will she be well?" And again the little pulses in his brain seemed to beat out the word "Never—never."
That night, after she had taken the old man up to his rooms, she came back into the library, where Astome still sat over the chess-board, near the oil lamp.
He could not speak to her.
"Astome," she laid her hand on his bent shoulders, "are you angry with me?"
He shook his head; he was near tears.
"Oh, my dear," said Petronilla, "I cannot help it, I am ill—I did not want you to know—but—it is so clear."
He could not look up.
"To-morrow I will talk to you," she added in an exhausted voice.
"To-morrow," said Astome, "always tomorrow!"
He rose, pushing over the chess-board and scattering the pieces on the floor between them.
"Come with me now, Petronilla—all is ready, there is a moon"—he hardly knew what he was saying. "I will make you well, I will love you so that you cannot die!"
She moved away from him, smiling and holding her hand to her throat.
"There is the old man—and his book—we—could not—do it," she whispered; she shook her head, and her eyebrows lifted mechanically while her lips quivered. "It is—not for us—it is hard to realise that, is it not, but it is not for us—not for us—"
They looked at each other, frightened; a bewilderment was on them and a terror.
The darkness, the gloom and the silence of the house were about them like a curse.
She wore a dark gown, and her face showed through the shadows like a fair flower above black water.
Their hands touched and fell apart again.
"This place is like a tomb," stammered the young man.
"Yet you will stay," whispered Petronilla.
"You know you have me—"
"I mean afterwards."
"Hush, hush, we must not wake him—"
"I would not care. I could go to him now and tell him the truth, and take you away from him under his eyes."
"If you did I should no longer love you," she said; "but you will not, I know you too well."
"What is he to me? I do not wish ever to talk of him," he cried in desperation.
She moved still further away, till her back was against the wall.
"We must talk of him, he is there."
She paused a moment and seemed about to weep, then spoke again, calmly.
"And if there is only one of us left, Astome, you must stay with him—and finish the book—"
He tried to touch her, but she was swiftly gone.
"If she dies, I shall go mad," he said. "If she dies I shall not be able to endure this villa or the old man a single day."
IN the vintage time, the first sunny days of October, they lost Petronilla.
She died in her sleep; perhaps of a broken heart and thwarted love. She never complained through all that long summer, when she lay on her couch with the two men in the room or on the terrace. She hardly ever saw her lover alone; they were completely separated.
Only, before she composed herself for that last sleep, she drew her lover's hand down to her lips and said: "Remember—you stay to comfort him."
She was buried under the marble floor of the chapel attached to the villa; the flowers were all over, but Astome laid sprigs of laurel above her simple "Hie facet Petronilla degli Adimari."
On the evening of the funeral, Astome came into the library.
The old man was sitting alone beside the muniment chest. He looked timidly up at Astome.
"You will stay?"
The young man trimmed the lamp with steady fingers.
"You will help me with the rest of my days—the waiting?" continued the Conte. "I would—like," he added in broken tones, "to finish the book."
"Yes," said Astome, "we must finish the book."
The old eyes, so pitifully swollen by tears, brightened with gratitude.
"But to-night it is too late for work," added Astome, and he took down the chess-board and the men in their familiar inlaid box.
"You loved her too," said the old man, "and she was very fond of you—she would like you to stay. I should be very lonely if you went."
"I shall not go," said Astome, setting the pieces. "I shall try and do for you what she did, Conte."
When he looked up from the chess-board to the empty chair in the corner, in front of the unfinished tapestry, he saw the face of the dead woman smiling between the fading laurel leaves.
THE name attracted him and then the woman; he first saw her under no circumstances of romance. She was a mantua-maker of the poorer sort, and he saw her standing at attention with a breadth of grey taffeta in her hands, scissors at her waist, and her eyes anxiously on her work.
She was then part of the background of a picture of which Sybilla Dering was the light and centre. He was betrothed to Sybilla, and their wedding was but a few weeks away. It was, therefore, doubly strange that he should have looked not at her, radiant before the mirror in her pink silk, which she was displaying for his admiration, but at the little figure of the sempstress, who was not looking at him at all, but frowning at her handiwork, the pink dress.
He had praised Sybilla and praised the gown; his usual lover-like courtesy had not changed; he spoke no word to the mantua-maker, and there was no glance between them—but this, the first time that he had seen her, was the beginning of it all.
He knew that she was French; her name—Camille Rochfort—had been mentioned in his presence some days before he had first beheld her. It had lingered in his memory—Camille Rochfort—and now the image of the woman lingered in his heart.
Yet he had always considered himself in love with Sybilla, and very fortunate in obtaining her hand.
She was fair, pleasant, fond, his equal in means and position; he had chosen her himself from among all the women of his acquaintance.
Of Camille Rochfort he knew nothing.
He began to wonder at himself—at love.
There were frequent and innocent opportunities of seeing the mantua-maker.
She was with Sybilla every day, preparing the bride's clothes; Sybilla liked to display these before her lover, and Anthony Redesdale drifted into the subtle deception of declaring he liked to see her in them because he knew that this meant his admittance to the little work-room where Camille Rochfort worked.
Sometimes Sybilla's mother was present, sometimes a friend—never, for a moment, was he alone with the sempstress, whom everyone pleasantly ignored, and who was never spoken to save about some detail of her work.
She was perfectly self-contained, and appeared to notice them as little as they noticed her, nor did she give, by as much as a flicker of her lids, any cognisance that she was aware of Anthony's furtive regard.
When he had seen her two or three times he knew every detail of her appearance by heart; when the time grew so near his wedding that she was at work on Sybilla's bridal gown, he knew himself fatally in love with her, knew that he was being fast hurried past prudence and reason.
So far his fortunes had been safe, his life easy; his people were prosperous country gentry, who had never lacked money or standing.
He himself was a lawyer, and had done well in his profession; he had comfortable rooms in the Temple, and had already taken and furnished a house at Highgate for Sybilla.
A few weeks ago he had foreseen no cloud that could possibly blot the peaceful horizon of his days.
Now there was—Camille Rochfort.
His life had become a distress and a problem; the day he had seen her working at the white bodice of his betrothed's wedding-gown, he had been shocked into seeing how terrible was the distress, how acute the problem.
As he walked home from the house in Queen's Street, he beheld her image as clearly as if she walked beside him.
The short features, the slanting eyes, the heavy brows, the curved lips, the olive-gold complexion, and the black ringlets free from powder, the tall figure that yet gave an impression of slightness and smallness, the faded gown, the worn apron, the rubbed shoes—the hand worn with sewing.
It was autumn, and the dusk was falling; he knew she did not work in Queen's Street after the lamps were lit.
Almost unconsciously his footsteps faltered, then stopped; he lingered under the portico of Wilde House, at the corner of Lincoln's Inn Fields.
"What harm if I meet her by chance, accost her and walk with her a little way—for once?—I shall so soon not see her ever again."
He was already so much in love that he could not imagine what life would be like without seeing Camille Rochfort—and, as he formulated this thought—"I shall soon never see her again"—he was startled by the curious pain of it—it did not seem possible that there could be so much anguish attached to so little a thing, for he persisted in thinking of the episode as only a little thing.
Why, he had not even spoken to her.
She came out of the gathering mists and shadows and stood at his elbow, peering up at him out of the gloom of the arcade.
"It is—ah, yes, it is Monsieur Redesdale—pardon me, Monsieur, but I did not know—"
He stared at her, slowly lifting his beaver.
She wore a dark cloak and cardinal, and he could not see any of her personality at all, only a slender woman whom he knew was Camille Rochfort, the sempstress.
"I do not know why I spoke," she added.
"I was a little surprised at seeing Monsieur here—Monsieur will forgive?"
She turned on her way, and he fell into step beside her.
He did not know what to say, and so complimented her upon her English, which was, indeed, clear and fluent.
"In the shop where I worked in Paris," she answered, "I was the one to speak to the English ladies—and I have been here now—two, nay, but nearly three years."
"Why did you come to London?" asked Anthony bluntly.
"Why does Monsieur ask questions?" she replied very deliberately, and he felt his blood tingle; he had spoken to her but a few minutes, and was already on the verge of danger.
He was silent.
They were crossing the open fields; the sky was grey and heavy above them and the wind blew in their faces; they had to keep their heads bent, and his greatcoat and her thin cloak were blown together behind them.
The stormy cheerlessness of the weather served to deepen the extraordinary tenderness Anthony felt for the woman walking beside him.
He thought of the many evenings that she had come home like this, alone, and his heart contracted with a yearning anguish to be with her always, and so, because he knew that he was prepared to be foolish beyond measure, he held his peace.
"Perhaps Monsieur is interested?" said Camille Rochfort.
He could not define her manner. It was not demure or coquettish, although the words sounded so, but rather frank, and touched, perhaps, with wildness.
"Yes," he said.
"Ah—I have observed Monsieur looking."
He was surprised and vexed—she had seemed so unconscious.
"Monsieur did not know?"
"That I had observed him looking?"
"No," said Anthony foolishly.
"Why should Monsieur look at me instead of at his beautiful betrothed?"
And now the note of wildness was unmistakable. "I am no longer pretty—I am twenty-eight," she added. "I have had a hard life—so hard—such work!"
He caught at that.
"I wanted to know about that—your work—and how you live—alone?"
She was silent; he could see nothing of her but the slender figure struggling against the bitter wind; she had a muff of dark velvet which she held up to shield her face.
"I live with my brother," she said suddenly; "he is an engraver. We were told there would be more work in England. But it was not so."
"I might assist you there," answered Anthony eagerly, thinking of all the influential and wealthy people whom he knew.
"No one can assist, Monsieur, my brother is crippled."
"He was hurt by a coach—in the street—his hip—he has to lie on his back, Monsieur. Always. And one cannot hold the burin and the needle on one's back. At least—not to engrave well enough."
He was profoundly moved, and yet further drawn towards her by this commonplace tragedy.
"And you work for him?"
"Monsieur, he has worked for me—always—only since he was ill—" She paused, and then added reluctantly: "My work has had to do for both."
They had now crossed the fields and entered upon the dark, narrow streets at the back of Holborn.
They had to walk cautiously over the cobbles and gutters, sparely lit by scattered oil lamps, and the wind creeping between the high houses and down the close alley whipped and stung. "They—the Derings—pay well?" stammered Anthony suddenly.
"Well?" He heard her catch back a laugh. "People do not employ the little mantua-maker if they pay well, Monsieur. I get the recommendation from one lady to another because I am cheap—very cheap."
She quietly named a sum that made him wince.
"And then there are the times when there is no work," she added, graver.
"One has saved."
He was ashamed and angry; he had never thought of her in connection with actual poverty. He was vexed with Sybilla, whose image seemed suddenly to lose half its prettiness and charm; he had always thought of her as so gentle and kind—and she gave this woman what was not enough to live on in decency.
"Mistress Dering is careless—" he began.
"Not about money," said Camille quietly. "She is prudent—she made me take half what I wished for, because she knew I needed the work. It is always so. She will make Monsieur an admirable wife."
"I will speak to her."
He saw his own great folly, and was silent.
"It would not be successful," added Camille; "but if Monsieur wishes to do a kindness he will ask his wife to employ me in the future."
She stopped abruptly before the mean door of a squalid dwelling.
She held out her hand, bare and red with the cold.
He snatched off his glove to clasp the stiff fingers in his.
She looked at him from the shade of the cardinal, which the wind had blown a little back on her tumbled hair; her face was pale, a little pinched, the northern wind had sharpened her contours and driven the rose-gold tints from her complexion.
"Monsieur's curiosity is satisfied?" she asked, with a little smile.
Seeing her there, chilled and lonely, against the common lintel of the poor house, the truth in him put aside fear and convention, and spoke out.
"No, I am not satisfied. I want to see more of you—to know you."
She regarded him with narrowed eyes.
"It is not very pleasant to walk home alone after dark," she said. "Monsieur, if he will, may accompany me home from Queen's Street—sometimes."
He did not loosen her hand.
She was keenly scrutinising his dark earnest face.
"Now—good-bye, Monsieur," she said firmly.
She drew away her hand, warmed by his clasp, entered the house and closed the door.
It was with Anthony Redesdale as with some idle swimmer, allowing himself to drift along the current of a river, slowly, almost unconsciously, then suddenly being swept over a rapid and borne headlong and powerless to an unknown destination.
After he had spoken to Camille Rochfort, her power over him was complete.
Every other person in the world, including Sybilla, became to him shadowy.
He wondered that this absorption and abstraction did not show, that he was still able to conduct his daily life, and that no one noticed how changed he was.
For him the world was utterly different—sometimes he could have shouted aloud for joy of this, sometimes he had moments of calm when he said to himself roughly: "You are a fool; you will ruin yourself."
He tried to reason out the situation; he would spend the night walking up and down his chamber, thinking, planning, wondering.
What was he going to do? How solve his extraordinary problem?
He asked himself these questions, but his interest in them and in their solution was half-hearted. He could not think of the future, only of Camille Rochfort and the joy of love.
And somehow, deep in his heart, was a conviction, founded on nothing but the instinctive strength and hopefulness of passion, that all would be right with them some day.
A deep and wonderful excitement filled his days; Camille Rochfort had recreated the world for him.
Meanwhile the sempstress went every day to Queen's Street, and stitched at Sybilla Dering's wedding-gown.
Since that first meeting he had walked home with her every day.
When his leisure permitted he would spend the afternoon in the Derings' house watching, when able, the mantua-maker sewing Sybilla's clothes—always—nothing was allowed to interfere with this—he would be waiting at the corner of Wilde House to walk home with Camille.
She always dismissed him on the threshold of her house, and no word of love had been spoken between them.
Yet it seemed to Anthony as a thing understood, accepted, and only for a short while postponed, this love.
There was, he thought, no need of words; he did not even wish to hasten any climax or consummation, so wonderful was his present joy.
She neither rebuked nor encouraged his attentions; she conversed with him naturally, sometimes a little bitterly; she made not the least reference to what the future could hold for either, and in the household of the Derings she was dumb, and of so perfect a discretion that she did not appear to know if he was in the room or not.
The wedding was a month off.
Even Anthony, through the infatuation that drugged him, realised that this could not go on; he must break with Sybilla—or with Camille.
The last was unthinkable.
And at the first, when squarely faced, he shuddered, with the shudder of one drawing back from a plunge.
It would be no easy thing to face tears, reproaches, scenes—her brother might challenge him—at best he would lose his friends, his social life. He would have to take Camille to France, out of it all.
And that would mean giving up his position and his work that he had been so fond of, so proud of, and living idly on his private income, until his father died and he could take Camille to the old place in the country.
And possibly his father might disinherit him, leaving him with just the bare livelihood his own fortune represented.
Certainly he was a fool; he contemplated throwing away his life for a woman of whom he knew nothing—who had charmed him he knew not how.
He was angry with himself.
Why had he not been able to love Sybilla? Why had he ever thought that he loved Sybilla?
He laughed now to think that he had ever made such a mistake.
Now it must be rectified; he must get himself free of Sybilla and all that she stood for; there was no other way, for it did not occur to him to offer Camille less than marriage; he wanted her for his own for always, and he could not tolerate the irritation of another woman in his life.
That evening he spoke to Camille, lingering by her side when they met under the portico.
"This must be altered.—"
She looked at him without speaking; she was pale, and looked as if she had had tears recently in her eyes.
She carried a small bundle, which he took from her and put under his arm.
"Must be altered?" she asked dully. "But nothing does alter—"
"No, it will go on—just as it is, until one is dead! Mon Dieu! This poverty!"
"Poverty—I spoke of love!"
"Let me go home," she said almost roughly. "We had the rent to pay—everything has gone for that. I am hungry—he is alone—without a fire."
He could have wept—have fallen at her feet; he stood before her trembling.
"Oh, Camille!" (How naturally her name came to his lips!) "You never told me!"
"Was I to beg?"
"But now you must let me help you—" he spoke with authority, almost sternly, and drew her arm through his.
Camille was silent.
As they crossed the great square where the dusk was already falling darkly, he began telling her of his love.
The words fell over one another, almost incoherently; he hardly knew what he was saying, his breath seemed impotently to beat the air in his attempt to give expression to his passion.
He told her that he would look after her always, that never, never again should she know poverty or despair, want or sorrow.
She listened in silence, leaning rather heavily on his arm.
This muteness of hers impressed him through his passion as a reproach; he checked himself suddenly, drawing his breath.
"I should not be saying this to you now."
He emphasised the last word, but she whispered back:
"No, you should not, Monsieur, be saying this to me at any time."
He wondered to himself if she had understood him, realised that he wanted to make her his wife, that he would fling aside everything for her; he thought that she had not understood; even to himself he had been incoherent.
But now was not the time, with the wind in their faces, the dark about them and their feet stumbling on the rough cobbles.
"I must see you—I must speak to you, you must understand me," said Anthony.
He began to be angry with the barriers that hedged him in, to hate this time of waiting—it was monstrous that he could not help her—he thought of his warm, comfortable chambers—it was monstrous that he could not take her there, instead of trudging beside her through the cold to this miserable quarter where her poor home was situate.
Wild with himself, he could find no words to say, and neither spoke until they reached her door.
Then she put out her hand for the bundle.
"You may come up," she said, lifting her heavy eyes, "but be very quiet, please, Monsieur, I do not want my brother disturbed."
Anthony caught at this.
"But I want to see your brother," he said eagerly, thinking that he would make his explanations to the cripple; that he could explain to him better than to Camille what he meant to do for both of them.
But she put her arm across the door so that he could not pass.
"You must not see him," she said hastily. "It is impossible—you do not know how ill he is; if you insist I cannot let you come up."
"I insist on nothing—only let me come and speak to you, Camille.—"
"Promise me that you will be quiet, then, and not disturb my brother." The light of the dirty lamp was on her face, and by it he saw her, for the first time, flush. "He would not care for you to come here," she added; "we are not used to being so poor."
There was reluctance in her voice, in her manner, in her eyes.
But she dropped her arm from the door and suffered him to follow her up the old, narrow, worn wooden stairs.
On the second landing she stopped and opened the door in front of her; they came at once into a large carpetless room lit by a small lamp on the centre table.
"The little girl beneath," said Camille, "she is good, she comes up to look after my brother, and always there is the lamp lit for me."
Anthony hardly heard what she said; the poverty of the place was so stark, so undisguised, that he felt ashamed that he had forced his presence on her; he had hitherto always seen her in comfortable surroundings—but here was where she really belonged—to this abject, utter poverty.
He stood amazed—and yet he had known.
But he was so used to a certain mode of life, to expecting and accepting certain things as a matter of course, that he had never realised nor visualised any other states of existence.
"Monsieur is surprised?" said Camille.
"I will end it," answered Anthony.
She lifted her shoulders.
With a quick movement she took off the cardinal; her hair had fallen on to her shoulders and was tumbled across her brow.
She sat down by the table and began untying her bundle.
The room was bare of anything save this table, a couple of chairs, a shelf of miserable crockery, a piece of narrow drugget hanging in front of the window, and a couch or long bench covered by one or two cotton blankets.
There was a door at the back and a large fireplace, but it was empty, and the room bitterly cold. "This is where she lives," said Anthony to himself, "this is where she sleeps."
Camille had opened the parcel and taken out a white bodice shot with silver, skeins and reels of cotton and silk, and some braids of pearl trimming.
"Miss Dering's wedding-gown," she said, holding it up.
The brilliant stuff, the lace, the pearls, looked strange enough in this room.
"I must finish it here or it will not be ready in time," added Camille.
"It will never be needed," said Anthony.
She looked at him with absent eyes; her fingers continued to move over the white brocade.
He stood the other side of the table looking at her, feeling as if he was choked by tears.
"Won't you speak to me?" he asked, so unsteadily that the words were almost unintelligible.
Camille put down the work and sheltered her eyes with her thin cold hand.
"You cannot help," she said.
"I can—I must—I will help you and for ever."
"Love I do not want," she answered with sudden fierceness.
"I will not press you, I will wait"—her words did not even discourage him, so inwardly sure was he of her.
She dropped her hands and looked at him.
"Money would help—only money—what would you think, Monsieur, if I asked you for money?"
He flushed and stammered, pulling open his greatcoat.
Camille laughed like one in desperation and rose.
He put on the bare table all the money he had with him—three pieces of gold and some more of silver.
"To-morrow," he murmured, "you shall have all you require, Camille."
She moved the white bodice so that she could see the money.
"That is enough," she answered, very faintly.
"Enough?" said Anthony. "All that I have is yours, Camille."
But he tried to restrain himself to calmness, almost coldness, knowing this was not the moment to trouble her, seeing that she was distracted, hardly mindful of his presence—wishful, he felt, for him to be gone. "To-morrow?" he said.
"I shall see you to-morrow?"
With a start she collected herself.
"You want me to go now, Camille? I can do nothing?"
She shook her dark head.
"You have been very good," she said mechanically. "I am most indebted, Monsieur."
"You must not talk to me like that, Camille, my dear."
He took her hand, and she did not resist nor respond.
"Do you not understand—yet?" he asked, earnestly looking at her.
"You have been very good," she repeated.
He released her hand; clearly he could not speak to her to-night.
She roused herself at that.
"Ah yes, my brother—if he was disturbed—you had better—Monsieur cannot find it amusing here, not at all."
As he looked back from the door, he saw her pick up and count the money he had given her.
Strange was the cold, dark street that night to Anthony Redesdale, wonderful and new the moon floating in between the dark and tawny clouds.
From this day on his whole life would be changed; he would break with the old order and cut himself adrift with Camille.
He could not think of the right or wrong of this resolution—it was something that had been decided apart from his own volition.
Nor could he picture what his future life might be.
Everything would be different—all that he had hitherto cared for would be lost, but he did not consider that.
Camille Rochfort alone occupied his soul, his heart, his thoughts.
Early the next morning he went to see Sybilla Dering.
She met him in the little drawing-room, where the fire had not yet been lit.
She was wearing a gown made by Camille, a thing of dark tabinet, and over her fair hair a cap of fine muslin, worked by the same fingers.
Anthony noticed this, and thought how curious it was to think that in the next room Camille was now sitting, working at Sybilla's wedding-gown—stitching the same bodice he had seen last night in her poor room, next his gold pieces.
"You have come very early," said Sybilla gently. She glanced at his unpowdered hair and plain morning clothes. "Did you want to speak to me?" she added.
He thought she spoke with an effort, and forced himself to notice her—for days she had been but a moving shadow.
Now he looked almost cruelly at the face he had so lately thought the dearest in the world.
It was a pale face to-day, one distracted and sad—the expression on it reminded him of the expression he had yesterday seen on the face of Camille Rochfort. This look confused, but did not soften him. He began to speak, almost mechanically, and quite bluntly.
It was as if someone else was speaking for him, someone whom he could not control.
"It has all been such a mistake, Miss Dering. I have been wrong to let it go so far—you must forgive me—lately I have been very troubled in my mind—"
"Please stop," said Sybilla.
She rose and put out her hand, much as Camille had put out her hand yesterday to protect the door of her poor dwelling.
"There is no need to say any more," she added. "I dislike to hear it. And it is unnecessary, Mr. Redesdale."
"I know what you want to say."
Anthony stared; a new comprehension touched his self-absorption.
Somehow that made everything different; he felt a pang of unutterable shame.
"Oh, Heaven," he said bitterly, and broke off, turning away his face.
"You could not help it, I know," said the girl drearily. "People cannot ever help themselves, I suppose—it is a pity."
"How did you guess?" he cried; he had felt so secure in the world of his own creating where he and Camille Rochfort had been enclosed alone that he could not yet grasp the fact that Sybilla actually knew.
"Do you imagine," she answered, "that I am so dull as not to have seen? You have had no eyes for me these past weeks. You have been like a man under an enchantment."
"I think that is what has happened to me, Sybilla," he said humbly.
She looked at him through tears; she had never regarded him with any particular ardency, but she had been very glad to think of her coming marriage, and quite ready to attach herself exclusively to his fortunes.
And now that she had finally lost him, her recent days of silent misery culminated in a feeling like despair.
"Who is it?" she asked desperately. "Who is it?"
So she did not know of Camille Rochfort—and he could not tell her.
She bore his silence bravely; her pride instinctively rallied to disguise her hurt.
"I am sorry for you," she said. "You seem to me very unhappy, Mr. Redesdale."
"I am distressed and humbled," he answered. "I do not know what to say nor how to act."
"You must, sir, follow the dictates of your own heart."
She thought that rather a heroic thing to say, and her lips tightened.
"Your people," said Anthony heavily. "I must see your people."
"I entreat you—no—it would only distress me vastly. Leave things as they are. If you have no explanations to give me, what can you offer them?"
"What indeed?" he wondered wearily.
"I shall tell them that I have decided not to marry you," added Sybilla. "It is, sir, quite true. For some days past I had resolved that."
"I can only ask your pardon," murmured Anthony. He felt utterly humiliated; much of the joy had gone from his mad love—only the wrong and folly of it seemed present now.
Sybilla waited, hoping that he might have something further to say.
She could make nothing of his abstracted and strange demeanour.
And she was not clever enough to get the situation into her own hands, and too shy and too cold to make the scene emotional.
So she said "Good-bye" with her gaze fixed on the fireless grate, and Anthony left her, feeling like a whipped dog.
As he closed the door of the Queen's Street mansion behind him, he knew that he was shutting himself out of his old life.
Sybilla had behaved well, she had been very gentle; he had accomplished his freedom with astonishing ease.
But he knew that she would never forgive him, and that her world, which till lately had been his world, would never forgive him either.
He stood by the road-posts a while, then turned slowly towards the Arcade, where he had so often met Camille Rochfort.
And as he lingered there, trying to adjust his new liberty to the old order, the little sempstress came up behind him.
"They have turned me away," she said, and looked at him with fierce question in her eyes.
At first, stupidly, he thought that Sybilla had discovered.
"Miss Dering told me there would be no more work—sent me away on the minute—what have you told her? Why did you come to see her this morning, Monsieur?"
Now he understood.
"There is to be no marriage, that is what she meant, Camille.—"
"No marriage! And I was to have had work for another three weeks! What have you done?—"
He laughed, joyous again, at the sight of her, at the thought of the future before her and him, his unreasoning love mounting high in his heart.
"Do you not understand? I am free, Camille. You have no need to work any more. You will marry me."
She stepped back against the stained dark wall; even in the shadow he saw that her face was flushed with passion.
"You speak like a fool," she said, and flung to the air a fierce sentence in French. "Is it because I took your money that you think I am in love with you?"
But he was still sure of her.
"I will make you happy," he answered swiftly. "You do not know how happy—"
"Is it because of me that you do not marry Miss Dering?" she demanded.
"Oh, Mon Dieu!" She broke into wild exclamations of anger. "Is it possible one could be so stupid! So I lose my work, and you cannot help me any more! This is what it means to deal with an Englishman! Now we must starve, starve—yes, starve, I say!"
"What do you mean?" he asked sternly. "Were you using me?"
She flung up her head.
"I let you help me, yes—you were interested, you admired, and I was desperate—it was for him. I never thought you would do this! Dieu! How could I have dreamt of such folly! I could have managed if you had not been a fool—"
"Camille, why do you talk like this? I love you beyond everything. Why will you not marry me?"
"Because I love someone else," she said furiously; she snapped her fingers in his face; "because that man I have up there, and for whom I work, and lie, and scheme, is my husband. Do you hear? My husband. And you have spoilt everything—"
She swept together the ends of her shabby cardinal, and turned away across Lincoln's Inn Fields.
PIA DELLA TESTANEGRA lay in her great carved bed and looked between the drawn curtains at a portrait of herself painted on the wall.
The figure was a portion of a fresco of flat pale colours showing nymphs and unicorns, cupids and satyrs intertwined with arabesques and delicate wreaths of roses; it ran round the big chamber in lines of grace and beauty. The Contessa Pia raised herself a little in the bed in order to obtain a better view of the likeness of herself which was in the centre of the wall at the foot of the bed and full in the light of the big window to the left which looked on to the lake.
It was the representation of a young woman with a pointed, beautiful pale face, dark eyes and bleached fair hair, gathered into elaborate ringlets on the top of her delicate head.
She wore a lemon-coloured gown, and held high a golden salver piled with dusky purple grapes.
The Contessa Pia stared at the fair painted face with an impassive look.
The picture was but a faint reflection of what the original had been; but the woman's sunken eyes were calm.
Her beauty had been over so long ago that she had ceased to regret the loss.
It was sixty years since the fresco had been painted, fifty years since her radiant loveliness had begun to wane.
And now she was so old that her age had become a legend.
They said she was a hundred, so far back did her story go—but no one knew exactly because all her contemporaries were dead.
And now she was dying in this lonely castle outside Rome, the gift of her third husband.
Dying penitent and blessed by the Holy Church.
She leant back on the cushions and folded her hands on the high embroidered sheets.
Her dim eyes turned to the view from the window—a great expanse of stormy lake, grey beneath a great sky, sloping woods of pine on the opposite distant bank, and the heavy lines of the Certosa which stood straightly opposite the castle with the sweep of lake between.
Pia had had many residences to choose from when she finally retired from the world, and everyone wondered why she had chosen this ancient castle set on the edge of the brooding lake and shut away from Rome and the Campagna by the Saline Hills. But she had been obstinate about her choice, as she had been obstinate in the renunciation of all the titles and honours left her by her four husbands, and would be called only by her own name, Pia della Testanegra.
Perhaps she had no reason for either caprice: if she had few cared to ask it now.
She was quite forgotten by the great world she had once dominated. Another generation had taken the places of her friends and lovers; those she remembered as children were now old men and women; there was no human being left in whom she took any interest.
For years she had seen no one but the brethren from the Certosa opposite—the good monks who were so busily engaged in saving her soul; for the Contessa, having tasted all the perilous sweets of earth, did not intend to forgo the holy joys of Heaven.
Nor did the Certosini intend to forgo the building of the new church which was to be Pia's price for absolution.
They had to be very patient, for she was cunning and avaricious, and would not part with anything while she lived; but she had promised them all at her death, and the plans for the new church were already drawn, and the Prior had seen many an architect and artist.
Now at last the valiant old woman had confessed defeat.
She could fight no more against death, and, lest he should take her unawares, she had that morning signed a deed conveying all her property to the Certosini.
All except her jewels—these she could not bring herself to part with.
They were the only things she still loved—the price and symbol of her long-vanished beauty—the homage, the adoration of her lovers, all her memories, splendid and tender, all her pride and triumph—these things she saw in her jewels.
And while she could draw a breath she would not part with them.
She would have ordered them to be buried with her, but she knew there was no one whom she could trust.
As she looked out at the distant lines of the Certosa, she drew her thin lips back off her toothless gums in a slow smile.
The Prior wanted the jewels, and was angry because they had not been promised with the other property; he or one of the brethren would be at her side presently, urging her to part with her treasures. The greed of the monks amused the withered heart of the old woman.
In her day she had been greedy also; she could sympathise with lust for gain; her favours she had once sold as high as the monks were now selling theirs.
She sucked her lips at the thought, and felt a faint impatience that those times were past, and that she was now old.
But the feeling quickly passed, and she lay tranquilly watching the distant Certosa and nodding her palsied head at it as if she defied the Prior and all the brethren.
The door was timidly opened, and Stefanina entered.
She was always frightened at this great room with the huge window looking on to the lake, the black chests and chairs against the light-painted walls, the four-poster bed with the heavy curtains of blue Venetian velvet, and the old, old woman sunk into her pillows.
The Contessa turned and looked at the girl; her own children had died long ago; Stefanina was her brother's grandchild.
Pia had hardly known of her existence; but the girl's mother had heard that the Contessa approached her end, and Stefanina had been sent to wait on her grand-aunt, and to see if her grace and youth could not charm some of the treasures of the old castle into the fair young hands of this last of the Testanegra, who was poor and as fond of the world as ever her grand-aunt had been.
The Contessa had suffered her to come; she knew the object of mother and daughter, and it amused her as the greed of the monks amused her.
"You are alone," said Stefanina, treading softly to the bedside—"why are you always alone? It is not right."
The old woman glanced at the Certosa and then at the girl.
She was desperately ill at ease with the Contessa, desperately lonely and frightened in the dreary, half-empty castle.
She had very little hope of gaining anything by her self-imposed visit, and a great terror of seeing this awful old woman die.
But she controlled her longing to fly back to Rome because of the vexation and disappointment of her mother, which she knew she would have to face if she abandoned her post.
And at the bottom of her own heart was a half fierce, half timid resolution not to let these monks have everything—not to allow them the entire treasure when a little would mean so much to her poor fortunes.
She stood, hesitant, at the bedside.
The grey light from the window touched her with a cold illumination.
"You should not be alone," she repeated uneasily. "Will you not have the doctor or old Philomela?"
"Neither," said the Contessa.
"Then I will sit with you."
"As you please, Stefanina."
And the old woman smiled again.
The girl seated herself on the bed step, and clasped her hands in her lap.
She was not beautiful as Pia had been, but she was graceful, brown-haired, brown-eyed, clear-skinned and very young.
Something like a flower of early spring was Stefanina, a white hyacinth or a snowdrop, with her air of remote cool fragrance.
But in her heart she was a true Testanegra, ambitious, ardent, passionate.
The Contessa eyed her; then, stretching out a thin, mottled hand, touched her shoulder.
"Would you like to see my jewels?" she whispered hoarsely.
The girl's eyes flashed as if she had heard the voice of a lover.
"Ah, if I might!"
The old woman drew a small key from under her pillow.
"The third drawer in the black bureau," she muttered.
She took the key and hastened to the great bureau at the end of the room.
"It is nothing much," said Pia.
She looked at the Certosa and dragged herself up in bed.
Stefanina, opening the drawer, saw several plain caskets.
"Bring them," commanded Pia.
The girl carried the caskets, two or three at a time, and placed them on the thick blue and gold cover that lay smoothly over Pia's shrunken limbs.
The old woman sat upright with sudden strength; her shoulders were covered by a scarf of silver and lace; lace was round her head and fastened under her chin.
Her face, fleshless, wrinkled and colourless, with the powerful features prominent and sharp, was like a grotesque carved out of stained ivory.
She took from a thin chain round her neck a master key of filigre, and opened rapidly one casket after another.
Her swollen-veined, hard hands, shaking and twitching, hurriedly cast the contents of each case on to the bed.
"Nothing much," she muttered. "As you see, nothing much."
She shook her head at Stefanina.
"Only pearls," she jerked out.
"Pearls!" gasped the girl.
They covered the bed from one side to another; mostly chains and necklets, with a few brooches and earrings, all very simply set, and of every size, shape and kind, rope on rope, cluster on cluster, soft, lustrous and gleaming.
"I never cared for anything but pearls," said Pia, grinning.
"Pearls!" exclaimed Stefanina again; she hung over the bed, breathless.
On the hideous old face and the soft young face was the same look of absorbed eagerness, the look of woman gazing at her adornment.
"Everyone gave me pearls," muttered the Contessa. "I have the finest pearls in Italy. I used to have the madness for pearls—pearls round my ankles when I was abed, child, a cross of pearls hidden in my bosom—pearls—always pearls!"
Stefanina took up some of the chains and braids and let them slip through her fingers; the feel of them, their softness and lightness, gave her exquisite pleasure.
She imagined herself arrayed in them, and shuddered with excitement.
"They must not be sold," added Pia. "No—they must be left as they are—to adorn the Madonna."
She blinked maliciously at the girl.
"Will they not look well on the new statue of the Madonna, baby, in the new church of the Certosini?"
"You—you have given them to the monks?" asked Stefanina faintly.
"But you will do so?"
The old woman nodded.
"To whom else, child?"
"The Madonna does not need them."
"Oh, she will be very pleased," returned the old woman sharply. "And in return she will keep me a snug place in Paradise."
"The monks have had so much," murmured Stefanina.
"They must have all. I have been very wicked—wicked," she repeated the word with a chuckle. "And now I must pay."
The girl was silent with longing and mortification.
Pia looked at her with sudden sharpness.
"You would like them? Earn them, then, wring them out of men like I did. Make men love you so that they will buy a kiss with this." She held up a string of yellow pearls. "You start as I started—a Testanegra—young—poor. But no, you have not got it—"
She paused, struggling with her breath.
"No man would go mad for you," she added viciously.
Stefanina flushed, and eyed the pearls.
"You have no power."
Stefanina bit her lip.
"If you cannot get your spoils for yourself," concluded the Contessa, "you shall have none of mine."
"You think I am a fool, Contessa," said the girl quietly.
"Yes. I have no kindness for your sort of woman."
"I am not beautiful, as you were," answered Stefanina.
"No," grinned Pia.
"But I might do something for myself," added Stefanina.
The old woman glanced over the long-limbed slight figure in the green gown, at the delicate, rather expressionless face.
"You will never do anything," she snapped, and dropped back on her pillows.
Stefanina bent her head.
"Will you give me one of these necklets—for my mother?" she asked meekly. "To have as a remembrance."
The girl's long brown eyes gleamed; she folded her hands in her lap.
The old woman seemed to doze, her hands outspread over the coverlet and across the masses of pearls.
Stefanina looked out of the window and across the stormy waters of the lake to the distant building of the Certosa.
The silence of a few moments passed in the big chamber.
Then Philomela, the old, old waiting-woman who remembered Pia in her glory, entered.
"One of the Certosini to see the Contessa."
Pia opened her eyes immediately; she liked the attentions of the monks.
She knew they came for her sole remaining possessions, the pearls, and the sense of power pleased her.
Stefanina made no movement to go; the Contessa seemed to have forgotten her.
Philomela shrieked on seeing the pearls, and swept them into a heap with clutching fingers, but the monk was already in the room, and had seen them.
Pia smiled as he uttered his blessing, for his eyes were on the pearls.
"You are a new face," she said.
"Brother Florio," said the monk. "Brother Roberts was sick, Signora Contessa."
This was not true; the monk had been sent because the Prior believed in his address and eloquence; they had heard that a relative of the Contessa was at the castle, and had become alarmed, for fear they should, after all, lose some of the spoils of Pia della Testanegra.
"You have come for the jewels," sneered the old Contessa.
"I have come to tell you your duty," replied the monk.
"Have you not enough?"
"Are you not penitent?" he demanded sternly, approaching the bed.
"You have all," she said, goading him.
Stefanina looked at the monk; he was young, and his face was dark above his white habit.
"Leave me, child," said the Contessa; "the holy monk wishes to speak to me."
As she passed the monk her gown brushed his habit—very lightly.
"She will give you the pearls," she whispered, "but they belong to me."
Brother Florio flushed.
"What is that?" shrieked the Contessa.
The monk looked at the girl.
But Stefanina left the room.
She wandered out of the castle and on to the sloping sides of the lake.
The solitude made her shiver.
It was autumn, and the trees almost bare, only the distant chestnuts behind the Certosa still glowed with colour.
The heavy, close-packed sky threatened rain; the air was warm and close.
Stefanina wandered along the narrow paths worn in the banks.
The sharp thorns of the low acacia bushes caught her gown, which was ruffled by the breeze from the lake.
Her hair was blown across her face and shoulders; a colour came into her face.
She turned back towards the entrance to the castle and waited.
When Brother Florio left the Contessa and came down to the lake for his boat, he found Stefanina in his path.
She said nothing.
But she looked at him, putting back the long tendrils of hair from her long eyes.
The monk stopped.
"What did you mean by saying the pearls were yours?" he asked. "Did she promise them to you?"
"To the Holy Church.—"
"Ah! But she will not give them up till she is dead."
"They are mine."
He regarded her narrowly.
"Yes, look at me," said Stefanina.
"I am looking."
"What do you see?"
Again the monk flushed.
"A woman," he answered sternly.
"More than that," said the girl. "A young, a fair woman."
She came nearer.
"Would not the pearls suit me better than the Madonna?"
Don Florio looked at her intently—indeed, she forced him to look at her—as he had perhaps looked at no human being, certainly at no woman before. Her fine lineaments, the blown-back wave of her hair and gown against the background of the lake and the bare bushes disturbed the monk.
He put his hand to his waist, where hung a small ebony crucifix on a rosary of ebony and silver beads.
Stefanina noticed the gesture.
"The crucifix for you and the pearls for me," she said.
She held out her soft warm hand and put it on his, which was cold and thin, and had never known a woman's touch before.
"You blaspheme bitterly," he said.
Stefanina laughed in a way that made his words seem ridiculous.
"But you will give me the pearls?"
Her hand tightened on his.
"The pearls of the Contessa!" cried the monk, amazed and like one roused from speechless confession. "Do you not see that I am one of the Certosini?"
"But a man," smiled Stefanina.
"The boat waits," said Don Florio.
He drew his hand abruptly from hers and turned away down the winding path that led to the edge of the gloomy lake.
The girl watched him, but he never looked back. She returned to the castle and to the Contessa's bedchamber.
The old woman was asleep, the pearls piled on the coverlet.
The ancient Philomela sat watching them with tireless eyes.
"Philomela," said Stefanina gently, "do you think I am a fool?"
"I think you are not clever enough to get the pearls of my mistress," answered the old waiting-woman. "They are safely in the keeping of the Holy Church, Signorina, and my mistress's soul will soon be safe in Heaven."
The girl looked at the ugly sunken face of the sleeping woman.
"Was she so very beautiful?" she asked curiously and doubtfully.
Philomela pointed a crooked finger at the lovely heap of pearls.
"Beautiful enough to win that, and houses and lands—and four husbands, Signorina."
"Beautiful enough and clever enough," said Stefanina.
"Clever?" laughed Philomela. "Yes, she was very clever indeed."
"Why did not the monk take the pearls?" asked Stefanina.
"She will never let them go till she is quite dead," nodded the old woman. "Then the Church will have them, and they will go to the new statue of the Madonna."
"There are too many for her to wear at once," said Stefanina dreamily.
"The others will be locked away in a scented chest of holy wood. Don Florio told us the statue would be taken from the likeness of the Contessa in the fresco; it will be wax, life-size and painted, and will have gold dust in the hair—it will stand on a velvet altar cloth and wear the Contessa's most gorgeous robes and the pearls. So the Signora can look from Paradise and see a likeness of herself in the new church. And so, the monk says, she will feel that she has not lost the pearls she could not take to Heaven."
"He is cunning, that monk," said Stefanina thoughtfully.
After this the days grew chilly, and a copper pan of charcoal was brought into the chamber of the dying woman.
She hardly ever spoke now, and never raised her head from the great soft pillow.
A shawl of white wool took the place of that of silver lace.
She seemed unconscious even when awake, and what little she muttered could be understood by none but Philomela, who declared that her words referred to the splendid orgies of the past.
She was always in the room now, this old Philomela, always watching her mistress and watching the pearls.
Stefanina came in and out of the room in her plain green gown and a little tippet of fox fur over her shoulders, for it was very cold now in the great bare, empty castle.
And Don Florio came to and fro from the Certosa. Since he had been so successful the Prior sent him and no other.
He tried never to look at Stefanina, and she saw that he was troubled when in her presence. She passed him often in the corridors; she never spoke to him, but she looked, and smiled, and once she laughed.
She knew that Don Florio was comparing her in his mind with the Madonnas in the Certosa and the peasant girls who lived in the villages round the lake.
These and the old Contessa and the old waiting-woman were the only women he had seen since he could remember, for he had been brought to the Certosa a little boy, and had never left it, save for a few hours—never been further than the castle across the lake.
Stefanina did not know this; but she knew that she was different both from the Madonnas and the peasant girls, and that the young monk had noticed this difference.
And was disturbed.
Long the Contessa lingered; daily Stefanina saw the monk, who came constantly to the castle that he might be there when the old woman died, and take the pearls away.
While she lived her feebleness defied him to touch them.
"Not yours yet," she would whisper. "And perhaps they never will be, eh?"
For she still loved to withhold her last gift. Once, when she had a little more strength, she told Philomela as much.
"If I give him the pearls he will never come again, and I shall lack prayers, and who knows," she added, blinking at the pale girl by the bedside, "but that I may give them to Stefanina after all—after all?"
Stefanina also knew that it was a gibe.
That night the patient monk stayed late, watching and praying.
The Contessa had long since confessed and received the Viaticum.
Still she lingered.
The doctor said she would not die yet, no, not for several days perhaps.
Weary and disheartened the monk left the bedchamber where the dozing Philomela kept a still watchful eye on the pearls heaped over her mistress's coverlet.
In the long, lonely and cold corridor, lit only by an ancient lamp which dimly showed the damp, discoloured, peeling, painted walls, he met Stefanina.
She wore a gown of rose-coloured and white brocade which she had found in the Contessa's wardrobe; it was heavy with ancient perfume.
Her hair was dressed high in the manner of Pia's locks in the fresco; her little fingers only just showed beneath the rich heavy stuff of her tight sleeves, across her slender bust the gown was cut straightly with a thick band of gold.
Don Florio looked, turned away his eyes, and looked again.
Stefanina bent slightly towards him as he passed; she was under the lamp, and in the rays of it gleamed softly from head to foot in the warm shadows.
"Have you got the pearls?" she asked.
"I am very tired," said the monk wearily—"very tired."
"The pearls are mine," said Stefanina. "You know that—"
He made a movement as if to pass her, then paused.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because they belong to the world, and I am of the world."
Her lustrous eyes looked deep into his.
"You know nothing of the world, do you?" she asked softly.
He stood silent, with bent head.
"Nothing of beauty and joy, nothing of what my aunt really was?"
"That knowledge is not for us," he answered slowly.
"The pearls are not for you."
"Signorina, the Contessa gives them to the Church in expiation of her sins."
"They are my heritage."
"She will not give them to me, Signorina."
"But you will, Don Florio."
"Will you not?"
He wavered, stood bewildered, tortured.
"Come," said Stefanina.
She beckoned to him and turned towards the Contessa's chamber.
With weak feet he followed her.
Softly she entered.
A single oil lamp burnt on the little table by the bedside; old Philomela was asleep in the deep armchair beside it—uncovered, gleaming from one end of the bed to the other, were the pearls.
Stefanina and the monk stood side by side looking at them.
Neither had any memories—yet as they gazed each felt the strange pangs of memory.
The girl was thinking of all that she meant to enjoy—all the vague rosy future that was before her—the monk was thinking of all that he had forgone.
Neither had any reality on which to base their dreams, which were wonderful and formless and drawn from their own souls.
Stefanina bent forward and put her hands over the pearls.
The rich dress brushed against the rough habit of the monk.
With fascinated eyes he watched her. She was all shining in the light of the solitary little lamp—all shining, her hair, her eyes, her gown.
Visions of things he had never seen filled the monk's brain.
Dancing, and soft colours, and things made of gold, diamonds in the hair of women, bare limbs and wine goblets, music and song—festival beneath the trees and beneath the moon.
What did he know of these things—why should he think of them?
Frightened at himself, he turned with a violent movement.
The crucifix on his rosary caught on the heavy post of the bed, and was snapped off and fell on the heap of pearls.
Stefanina looked up.
Her glowing glance met the wild glance of the monk.
"Can you defy me any more?" she said.
He moved his lips, but did not speak.
Stefanina bent again over the bed; she looked from the pearls to the old woman.
"Ah, Don Florio," she said softly, "the Contessa is dead."
She laid her fresh cheek above the withered breast; she put her fair hand above the shrivelled lips.
"Dead—and cold—the doctor knew so little after all."
"Wake the woman," said the monk hoarsely; he stared at the dead as a child might stare.
Philomela sat with her head fallen forward and her hands dropped in her lap; she looked as if she, too, was dead.
Stefanina made no effort to rouse her; she turned to the monk and put her arm about his shoulder.
"The pearls are mine?" she whispered with her lips very close to his ear.
He shuddered under her touch.
"Are they not mine?"
He looked at her desperately; his young face was distorted. "Take them," he said—"take them, let me go"—he muttered some words of supplication.
Stefanina loosened her arm at once.
Don Florio fled from the chamber and the castle, and took the boat across the black lake to the quiet Certosa to tell the Prior that he had lost the pearls after all—after all—and to do penance for certain wild thoughts and wicked desires.
Stefanina gathered up the pearls by the armful from the brocade that covered the dead woman. She smiled into the old, old face of the Contessa.
"Am I such a fool, great-aunt? I have won from one man what it took you years to win from many."
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