Chapter 18 My Lady Dunstanwolde sits late alone and writes
That she must leave the Panelled Parlour at her usual hour, or attrac_ttention by doing that to which her household was unaccustomed, she wel_new, her manner of life being ever stately and ceremonious in its regularity.
When she dined at home she and Anne partook of their repast together in th_arge dining-room, the table loaded with silver dishes and massive glitterin_lass, their powdered, gold-laced lacqueys in attendance, as though a score o_uests had shared the meal with them. Since her lord’s death there had bee_ights when her ladyship had sat late writing letters and reading document_ertaining to her estates, the management of which, though in a measur_ontrolled by stewards and attorneys, was not left to them, as the business o_ost great ladies is generally left to others. All papers were examined b_er, all leases and agreements clearly understood before she signed them, an_f there were aught unsatisfactory, both stewards and lawyers were called t_er presence to explain.
“Never did I—or any other man—meet with such a head upon a woman’s shoulders,”
her attorney said. And the head steward of Dunstanwolde and Helversly learne_o quake at the sight of her bold handwriting upon the outside of a letter.
“Such a lady!” he said—“such a lady! Lie to her if you can; palter if yo_now how; try upon her the smallest honest shrewd trick, and see how it fare_ith you. Were it not that she is generous as she is piercing of eye, no ma_ould serve her and make an honest living.”
She went to her chamber and was attired again sumptuously for dinner. Befor_he descended she dismissed her woman for a space on some errand, and when sh_as alone, drawing near to her mirror, gazed steadfastly within it at he_ace. When she had read Osmonde’s letter her cheeks had glowed; but when sh_ad come back to earth, and as she had sat under her woman’s hands at he_oilette, bit by bit the crimson had died out as she had thought of what wa_ehind her and of what lay before. The thing was so stiffly rigid by thi_ime, and its eyes still stared so. Never had she needed to put red upon he_heeks before, Nature having stained them with such richness of hue; but as n_ady of the day was unprovided with her crimson, there was a little pot amon_er toilette ornaments which contained all that any emergency might require.
She opened this small receptacle and took from it the red she for the firs_ime was in want of.
“I must not wear a pale face, God knows,” she said, and rubbed the colour o_er cheeks with boldness.
It would have seemed that she wore her finest crimson when she went forth ful_ressed from her apartment; little Nero grinned to see her, the lacquey_aying among themselves that his Grace’s courier had surely brought good news,
and that they might expect his master soon. At the dinner-table ’twas Ann_ho was pale and ate but little, she having put no red upon her cheeks, an_aving no appetite for what was spread before her. She looked strangely a_hough she were withered and shrunken, and her face seemed even wrinkled. M_ady had small leaning towards food, but she sent no food away untouched,
forcing herself to eat, and letting not the talk flag—though it was indee_rue that ’twas she herself who talked, Mistress Anne speaking rarely; but a_t was always her way to be silent, and a listener rather than one wh_onversed, this was not greatly noticeable.
Her Ladyship of Dunstanwolde talked of her guests of the afternoon, and wa_harming and witty in her speech of them; she repeated the _mots_ of th_its, and told some brilliant stories of certain modish ladies and gentleme_f fashion; she had things to say of statesmen and politics, and was sparklin_ndeed in speaking of the lovely languisher whose little wrist was to_elicate and slender to support the loaded whip. While she talked, Mistres_nne’s soft, dull eyes were fixed upon her with a sort of wonder which ha_ome of the quality of bewilderment; but this was no new thing either, for t_he one woman the other was ever something to marvel at.
“It is because you are so quiet a mouse, Anne,” my lady said, with he_azzling smile, “that you seem never in the way; and yet I should miss you i_ knew you were not within the house. When the duke takes me to Camylotte yo_ust be with me even then. It is so great a house that in it I can find you _ower in which you can be happy even if you see us but little. ’Tis _eavenly place I am told, and of great splendour and beauty. The park an_lower-gardens are the envy of all England.”
“You—will be very happy, sister,” said Anne, “and—and like a queen.”
“Yes,” was her sister’s answer—“yes.” And ’twas spoken with a deep in-draw_reath.
After the repast was ended she went back to the Panelled Parlour.
“You may sit with me till bedtime if you desire, Anne,” she said; “but ’twil_e but dull for you, as I go to sit at work. I have some documents of impor_o examine and much writing to do. I shall sit up late.” And upon this sh_urned to the lacquey holding open the door for her passing through. “I_efore half-past ten there comes a message from Sir John Oxon,” she gav_rder, “it must be brought to me at once; but later I must not be disturbed—i_ill keep until morning.”
Yet as she spoke there was before her as distinct a picture as ever of wha_ay waiting and gazing in the room to which she went.
Until twelve o’clock she sat at her table, a despatch box by her side, paper_utspread before her. Within three feet of her was the divan, but she gave n_lance to it, sitting writing, reading, and comparing documents. At twelv_’clock she rose and rang the bell.
“I shall be later than I thought,” she said. “I need none of you who ar_elow stairs. Go you all to bed. Tell my woman that she also may lie down.
I will ring when I come to my chamber and have need of her. There is yet n_essage from Sir John?”
“None, my lady,” the man answered.
He went away with a relieved countenance, as she made no comment. He kne_hat his fellows as well as himself would be pleased enough to be release_rom duty for the night. They were a pampered lot, and had no fancy for lat_ours when there were no great entertainments being held which pleased the_nd gave them chances to receive vails.
Mistress Anne sat in a large chair, huddled into a small heap, and lookin_olourless and shrunken. As she heard bolts being shot and bars put up fo_he closing of the house, she knew that her own dismissal was at hand. Door_ere shut below stairs, and when all was done the silence of night reigned a_t does in all households when those who work have gone to rest. ’Twas _ommon thing enough, and yet this night there was one woman who felt th_tillness so deep that it made her breathing seem a sound too loud.
“Go to bed, Anne,” she said. “You have stayed up too long.”
Anne arose from her chair and drew near to her.
“Sister,” said she, as she had said before, “let me stay.”
She was a poor weak creature, and so she looked with her pale insignifican_ace and dull eyes, a wisp of loose hair lying damp on her forehead. Sh_eemed indeed too weak a thing to stand even for a moment in the way of wha_ust be done this night, and ’twas almost irritating to be stopped by her.
“Nay,” said my Lady Dunstanwolde, her beautiful brow knitting as she looked a_er. “Go to your chamber, Anne, and to sleep. I must do my work, and finis_o-night what I have begun.”
“But—but—” Anne stammered, dominated again, and made afraid, as she ever was,
by this strong nature, “in this work you must finish—is there not something _ould do to—aid you—even in some small and poor way. Is there—naught?”
“Naught,” answered Clorinda, her form drawn to its great full height, he_ustrous eyes darkening. “What should there be that you could understand?”
“Not some small thing—not some poor thing?” Anne said, her fingers nervousl_wisting each other, so borne down was she by her awful timorousness, fo_wful it was indeed when she saw clouds gather on her sister’s brow. “I hav_o loved you, sister—I have so loved you that my mind is quickened somehow a_imes, and I can understand more than would be thought—when I hope to serv_ou. Once you said—once you said—”
She knew not then nor ever afterwards how it came to pass that in that momen_he found herself swept into her sister’s white arms and strained against he_reast, wherein she felt the wild heart bounding; nor could she, not bein_iven to subtle reasoning, have comprehended the almost fierce kiss on he_heek nor the hot drops that wet it.
“I said that I believed that if you saw me commit murder,” Clorinda cried,
“you would love me still, and be my friend and comforter.”
“I would, I would!” cried Anne.
“And I believe your word, poor, faithful soul—I do believe it,” my lady said,
and kissed her hard again, but the next instant set her free and laughed.
“But you will not be put to the test,” she said, “for I have done none. An_n two days’ time my Gerald will be here, and I shall be safe—saved and happ_or evermore—for evermore. There, leave me! I would be alone and end m_ork.”
And she went back to her table and sat beside it, taking her pen to write, an_nne knew that she dare say no more, and turning, went slowly from the room,
seeing for her last sight as she passed through the doorway, the erect an_plendid figure at its task, the light from the candelabras shining upon th_ubies round the snow-white neck and wreathed about the tower of raven hai_ike lines of crimson.