Chapter 15 In which Sir John Oxon finds again a trophy he had lost
His Grace of Osmonde went back to France to complete his business, and all th_orld knew that when he returned to England ’twould be to make hi_reparations for his marriage with my Lady Dunstanwolde. It was a marriag_ot long to be postponed, and her ladyship herself was known already to b_ngaged with lacemen, linen-drapers, toyshop women, and goldsmiths. Mercer_waited upon her at her house, accompanied by their attendants, bearin_urdens of brocades and silks, and splendid stuffs of all sorts. Her chario_as to be seen standing before their shops, and the interest in her purchase_as so great that fashionable beauties would contrive to visit the counters a_he same hours as herself, so that they might catch glimpses of what sh_hose. In her own great house all was repressed excitement; her women wer_nraptured at being allowed the mere handling and laying away of the glorie_f her wardrobe; the lacqueys held themselves with greater state, knowing tha_hey were soon to be a duke’s servants; her little black Nero strutted about, his turban set upon his pate with a majestic cock, and disdained to enter int_attle with such pages of his own colour as wore only silver collars, h_eeling assured that his own would soon be of gold.
The World of Fashion said when her ladyship’s equipage drove by, that he_eauty was like that of the god of day at morning, and that ’twas plain tha_o man or woman had ever beheld her as his Grace of Osmonde would.
“She loves at last,” a wit said. “Until the time that such a woman loves, however great her splendour, she is as the sun behind a cloud.”
“And now this one hath come forth, and shines so that she warms us in mer_assing,” said another. “What eyes, and what a mouth, with that strange smil_pon it. Whoever saw such before? and when she came to town with my Lor_unstanwolde, who, beholding her, would have believed that she could wear suc_ look?”
In sooth, there was that in her face and in her voice when she spoke whic_lmost made Anne weep, through its strange sweetness and radiance. ’Twas a_f the flood of her joy had swept away all hardness and disdain. Her eyes, which had seemed to mock at all they rested on, mocked no more, but eve_eemed to smile at some dear inward thought.
One night when she went forth to a Court ball, being all attired in brocade o_hite and silver, and glittering with the Dunstanwolde diamonds, which starre_er as with great sparkling dewdrops, and yet had not the radiance of her eye_nd smile, she was so purely wonderful a vision that Anne, who had bee_atching her through all the time when she had been under the hands of he_irewoman, and beholding her now so dazzling and white a shining creature, fell upon her knees to kiss her hand almost as one who worships.
“Oh, sister,” she said, “you look like a spirit. It is as if with the eart_ou had naught to do—as if your eyes saw Heaven itself and Him who reign_here.”
The lovely orbs of Clorinda shone more still like the great star of morning.
“Sister Anne,” she said, laying her hand on her white breast, “at times _hink that I must almost be a spirit, I feel such heavenly joy. It is as i_e whom you believe in, and who can forgive and wipe out sins, has forgive_e, and has granted it to me, that I may begin my poor life again. Ah! _ill make it better; I will try to make it as near an angel’s life as a woma_an; and I will do no wrong, but only good; and I will believe, and pray ever_ay upon my knees—and all my prayers will be that I may so live that my dea_ord—my Gerald—could forgive me all that I have ever done—and seeing my soul, would know me worthy of him. Oh! we are strange things, we human creatures, Anne,” with a tremulous smile; “we do not believe until we want a thing, an_eel that we shall die if ’tis not granted to us; and then we kneel and knee_nd believe, because we _must_ have somewhat to ask help from.”
“But all help has been given to you,” poor tender Anne said, kissing her han_gain; “and I will pray, I will pray—”
“Ay, pray, Anne, pray with all thy soul,” Clorinda answered; “I need th_raying—and thou didst believe always, and have asked so little that has bee_iven thee.”
“Thou wast given me, sister,” said Anne. “Thou hast given me a home an_indness such as I never dared to hope; thou hast been like a great star t_e—I have had none other, and I thank Heaven on my knees each night for th_rightness my star has shed on me.”
“Poor Anne, dear Anne!” Clorinda said, laying her arms about her and kissin_er. “Pray for thy star, good, tender Anne, that its light may not b_uenched.” Then with a sudden movement her hand was pressed upon her boso_gain. “Ah, Anne,” she cried, and in the music of her voice, agony itself wa_inging—“Anne, there is but one thing on this earth God rules over—but on_hing that belongs— _belongs_ to me; and ’tis Gerald Mertoun—and he is min_nd _shall_ not be taken from me, for he is a part of me, and I a part o_im!”
“He will not be,” said Anne—“he will not.”
“He cannot,” Clorinda answered—“he shall not! ’Twould not be human.”
She drew a long breath and was calm again.
“Did it reach your ears,” she said, reclasping a band of jewels on her arm, “that John Oxon had been offered a place in a foreign Court, and that ’twa_aid he would soon leave England?”
“I heard some rumour of it,” Anne answered, her emotion getting the better o_er usual discreet speech. “God grant it may be true!”
“Ay!” said Clorinda, “would God that he were gone!”
But that he was not, for when she entered the assembly that night he wa_tanding near the door as though he lay in waiting for her, and his eyes me_ers with a leaping gleam, which was a thing of such exultation that t_ncounter it was like having a knife thrust deep into her side and through an_hrough it, for she knew full well that he could not wear such a look unles_e had some strength of which she knew not.
This gleam was in his eyes each time she found herself drawn to them, and i_eemed as though she could look nowhere without encountering his gaze. H_ollowed her from room to room, placing himself where she could not lift he_yes without beholding him; when she walked a minuet with a royal duke, h_tood and watched her with such a look in his face as drew all eyes toward_im.
“’Tis as if he threatens her,” one said. “He has gone mad with disappointe_ove.”
But ’twas not love that was in his look, but the madness of long-thwarte_assion mixed with hate and mockery; and this she saw, and girded her sou_ith all its strength, knowing that she had a fiercer beast to deal with, an_ more vicious and dangerous one, than her horse Devil. That he kept at firs_t a distance from her, and but looked on with this secret exultant glow i_is bad, beauteous eyes, told her that at last he felt he held some power i_is hands, against which all her defiance would be as naught. Till this hour, though she had suffered, and when alone had writhed in agony of grief an_itter shame, in his presence she had never flinched. Her strength she kne_as greater than his; but his baseness was his weapon, and the depths of tha_aseness she knew she had never reached.
At midnight, having just made obeisance before Royalty retiring, she felt tha_t length he had drawn near and was standing at her side.
“To-night,” he said, in the low undertone it was his way to keep for suc_ccasions, knowing how he could pierce her ear—“to-night you are Juno’s self—_ery Queen of Heaven!”
She made no answer.
“And I have stood and watched you moving among all lesser goddesses as th_oon sails among the stars, and I have smiled in thinking of what these lesse_eities would say if they had known what I bear in my breast to-night.”
She did not even make a movement—in truth, she felt that at his next words sh_ight change to stone.
“I have found it,” he said—“I have it here—the lost treasure—the tress of hai_ike a raven’s wing and six feet long. Is there another woman in England wh_ould give a man a lock like it?”
She felt then that she had, in sooth, changed to stone; her heart hung withou_oving in her breast; her eyes felt great and hollow and staring as she lifte_hem to him.
“I knew not,” she said slowly, and with bated breath, for the awfulness of th_oment had even made her body weak as she had never known it feel before—“_new not truly that hell made things like you.”
Whereupon he made a movement forward, and the crowd about surged nearer wit_asty exclamations, for the strange weakness of her body had overpowered he_n a way mysterious to her, and she had changed to marble, growing too heav_f weight for her sinking limbs. And those in the surrounding groups saw _arvellous thing—the same being that my Lady Dunstanwolde swayed as sh_urned, and falling, lay stretched, as if dead, in her white and silver an_lashing jewels at the startled beholders’ feet.
* * * * *
She wore no radiant look when she went home that night. She would go hom_lone and unescorted, excepting by her lacqueys, refusing all offers o_ompanionship when once placed in her equipage. There were, of course, gentlemen who would not be denied leading her to her coach; John Oxon wa_mong them, and at the last pressed close, with a manner of great ceremony, speaking a final word.
“’Tis useless, your ladyship,” he murmured, as he made his obeisanc_allantly, and though the words were uttered in his lowest tone and with grea_oftness, they reached her ear as he intended that they should. “To-morro_orning I shall wait upon you.”
Anne had forborne going to bed, and waited for her return, longing to see he_pirit’s face again before she slept; for this poor tender creature, bein_enied all woman’s loves and joys by Fate, who had made her as she was, s_ived in her sister’s beauty and triumphs that ’twas as if in some far-off wa_he shared them, and herself experienced through them the joy of being a woma_ranscendently beautiful and transcendently beloved. To-night she had spen_er waiting hours in her closet and upon her knees, praying with all humbl_doration of the Being she approached. She was wont to pray long an_ervently each day, thanking Heaven for the smallest things and the mos_ommon, and imploring continuance of the mercy which bestowed them upon he_oor unworthiness. For her sister her prayers were offered up night an_orning, and ofttimes in hours between, and to-night she prayed not fo_erself at all, but for Clorinda and for his Grace of Osmonde, that their lov_ight be crowned with happiness, and that no shadow might intervene to clou_ts brightness, and the tender rapture in her sister’s softened look, whic_as to her a thing so wonderful that she thought of it with reverence as _oly thing.
Her prayers being at length ended, she had risen from her knees and sat down, taking a sacred book to read, a book of sermons such as ’twas her simple habi_o pore over with entire respect and child-like faith, and being in the mids_f her favourite homily, she heard the chariot’s returning wheels, and lef_er chair, surprised, because she had not yet begun to expect the sound.
“’Tis my sister,” she said, with a soft, sentimental smile. “Osmonde no_eing among the guests, she hath no pleasure in mingling with them.”
She went below to the room her ladyship usually went to first on her return a_ight from any gathering, and there she found her sitting as though she ha_ropped there in the corner of a great divan, her hands hanging clasped befor_er on her knee, her head hanging forward on her fallen chest, her large eye_taring into space.
“Clorinda! Clorinda!” Anne cried, running to her and kneeling at her side.
“Clorinda! God have mercy! What is’t?”
Never before had her face worn such a look—’twas colourless, and so drawn an_allen in that ’twas indeed almost as if all her great beauty was gone; bu_he thing most awful to poor Anne was that all the new softness seemed as i_t had been stamped out, and the fierce hardness had come back and wa_ngraven in its place, mingled with a horrible despair.
“An hour ago,” she said, “I swooned. That is why I look thus. ’Tis ye_nother sign that I am a woman—a woman!”
“You are ill—you swooned?” cried Anne. “I must send for your physician. Hav_ou not ordered that he be sent for yourself? If Osmonde were here, ho_erturbed he would be!”
“Osmonde!” said my lady. “Gerald! Is there a Gerald, Anne?”
“Sister!” cried Anne, affrighted by her strange look—“oh, sister!”
“I have seen heaven,” Clorinda said; “I have stood on the threshold and see_hrough the part-opened gate—and then have been dragged back to hell.”
Anne clung to her, gazing upwards at her eyes, in sheer despair.
“But back to hell I will not go,” she went on saying. “Had I not seen Heaven, they might perhaps have dragged me; but now I will not go—I will not, that _wear! There is a thing which cannot be endured. Bear it no woman should.
Even I, who was not born a woman, but a wolf’s she-cub, I cannot. ’Twas no_, ’twas Fate,” she said—“’twas not I, ’twas Fate—’twas the great wheel we ar_ound to, which goes round and round that we may be broken on it. ’Twas not _ho bound myself there; and I will not be broken so.”
She said the words through her clenched teeth, and with all the mad passion o_er most lawless years; even at Anne she looked almost in the old ungentl_ashion, as though half scorning all weaker than herself, and having smal_atience with them.
“There will be a way,” she said—“there will be a way. I shall not swoo_gain.”
She left her divan and stood upright, the colour having come back to her face; but the look Anne worshipped not having returned with it, ’twas as thoug_istress Clorinda Wildairs had been born again.
“To-morrow morning I go forth on Devil,” she said; “and I shall be abroad i_ny visitors come.”
What passed in her chamber that night no human being knew. Anne, who left he_wn apartment and crept into a chamber near hers to lie and watch, knew tha_he paced to and fro, but heard no other sound, and dared not intrude upo_er.
When she came forth in the morning she wore the high look she had been wont t_ear in the years gone by, when she ruled in her father’s house, and rode t_he hunt with a following of gay middle-aged and elderly rioters. Her eye wa_rilliant, and her colour matched it. She held her head with the ol_auntless carriage, and there was that in her voice before which her wome_uaked, and her lacqueys hurried to do her bidding.
Devil himself felt this same thing in the touch of her hand upon his bridl_hen she mounted him at the door, and seemed to glance askance at he_ideways.
She took no servant with her, and did not ride to the Park, but to th_ountry. Once on the highroad, she rode fast and hard, only gallopin_traight before her as the way led, and having no intention. Where she wa_oing she knew not; but why she rode on horseback she knew full well, it bein_ecause the wild, almost fierce motion was in keeping with the tempest in he_oul. Thoughts rushed through her brain even as she rushed through the air o_evil’s back, and each leaping after the other, seemed to tear more madly.
“What shall I do?” she was saying to herself. “What thing is there for me t_o? I am trapped like a hunted beast, and there is no way forth.”
The blood went like a torrent through her veins, so that she seemed to hear i_oaring in her ears; her heart thundered in her side, or ’twas so she though_f it as it bounded, while she recalled the past and looked upon the present.
“What else could have been?” she groaned. “Naught else—naught else. ’Twas _rick—a trick of Fate to ruin me for my punishment.”
When she had gone forth it had been with no hope in her breast that her wi_ight devise a way to free herself from the thing which so beset her, for sh_ad no weak fancies that there dwelt in this base soul any germ of honou_hich might lead it to relenting. As she had sat in her dark room at night, crouched upon the floor, and clenching her hands, as the mad thoughts wen_hirling through her brain, she had stared her Fate in the face and known al_ts awfulness. Before her lay the rapture of a great, sweet, honourabl_assion, a high and noble life lived in such bliss as rarely fell to lot o_oman—on this one man she knew that she could lavish all the splendour of he_ature, and make his life a heaven, as hers would be. Behind her lay the mad, uncared-for years, and one black memory blighting all to come, though ’twoul_ave been but a black memory with no power to blight if the heaven of love ha_ot so opened to her and with its light cast all else into shadow.
“If ’twere not love,” she cried—“if ’twere but ambition, I could defy it t_he last; but ’tis love—love—love, and it will kill me to forego it.”
Even as she moaned the words she heard hoof beats near her, and a horsema_eaped the hedge and was at her side. She set her teeth, and turning, stare_nto John Oxon’s face.
“Did you think I would not follow you?” he asked.
“No,” she answered.
“I have followed you at a distance hitherto,” he said; “now I shall follo_lose.”
She did not speak, but galloped on.
“Think you you can outride me?” he said grimly, quickening his steed’s pace.
“I go with your ladyship to your own house. For fear of scandal you have no_penly rebuffed me previous to this time; for a like reason you will not orde_our lacqueys to shut your door when I enter it with you.”
My Lady Dunstanwolde turned to gaze at him again. The sun shone on his brigh_alling locks and his blue eyes as she had seen it shine in days which seeme_o strangely long passed by, though they were not five years agone.
“’Tis strange,” she said, with a measure of wonder, “to live and be so black _evil.”
“Bah! my lady,” he said, “these are fine words—and fine words do not hol_etween us. Let us leave them. I would escort you home, and speak to you i_rivate.” There was that in his mocking that was madness to her, and made he_ick and dizzy with the boiling of the blood which surged to her brain. Th_ury of passion which had been a terror to all about her when she had been _hild was upon her once more, and though she had thought herself freed fro_ts dominion, she knew it again and all it meant. She felt the thunderin_eat in her side, the hot flood leaping to her cheek, the flame burning he_yes themselves as if fire was within them. Had he been other than he was, her face itself would have been a warning. But he pressed her hard. As h_ould have slunk away a beaten cur if she had held the victory in her hands, so feeling that the power was his, he exulted over the despairing frenzy whic_as in her look.
“I pay back old scores,” he said. “There are many to pay. When you crowne_ourself with roses and set your foot upon my face, your ladyship thought no_f this! When you gave yourself to Dunstanwolde and spat at me, you did no_ream that there could come a time when I might goad as you did.”
She struck Devil with her whip, who leaped forward; but Sir John followed har_ehind her. He had a swift horse too, and urged him fiercely, so that betwee_hese two there was a race as if for life or death. The beasts bounde_orward, spurning the earth beneath their feet. My lady’s face was set, he_yes were burning flame, her breath came short and pantingly between he_eeth. Oxon’s fair face was white with passion; he panted also, but straine_very nerve to keep at her side, and kept there.
“Keep back! I warn thee!” she cried once, almost gasping.
“Keep back!” he answered, blind with rage. “I will follow thee to hell!”
And in this wise they galloped over the white road until the hedge_isappeared and they were in the streets, and people turned to look at them, and even stood and stared. Then she drew rein a little and went slower, knowing with shuddering agony that the trap was closing about her.
“What is it that you would say to me?” she asked him breathlessly.
“That which I would say within four walls that you may hear it all,” h_nswered. “This time ’tis not idle threatening. I have a thing to show you.”
Through the streets they went, and as her horse’s hoofs beat the pavement, an_he passers-by, looking towards her, gazed curiously at so fine a lady on s_plendid a brute, she lifted her eyes to the houses, the booths, the faces, and the sky, with a strange fancy that she looked about her as a man look_ho, doomed to death, is being drawn in his cart to Tyburn tree. For ’twas t_eath she went, nor to naught else could she compare it, and she was so youn_nd strong, and full of love and life, and there should have been such blis_nd peace before her but for one madness of her all-unknowing days. And thi_eside her—this man with the fair face and looks and beauteous devil’s eyes, was her hangman, and carried his rope with him, and soon would fit it clos_bout her neck.
When they rode through the part of the town where abode the World of Fashion, those who saw them knew them, and marvelled that the two should be together.
“But perhaps his love has made him sue for pardon that he has so born_imself,” some said, “and she has chosen to be gracious to him, since she i_racious in these days to all.”
When they reached her house he dismounted with her, wearing an outward air o_ourtesy; but his eye mocked her, as she knew. His horse was in a lather o_weat, and he spoke to a servant.
“Take my beast home,” he said. “He is too hot to stand, and I shall not soo_e ready.”