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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.”