Read CHAPTER II of Portia or By Passions Rocked , free online book, by "The Duchess", on ReadCentral.com.

The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity. Burke.

Yes, I am quite ready,” says Portia.

The hour has flown, and Dulcinea, standing in the doorway of her cousin’s room, gazes on her with undisguised admiration. To Dulcinea, anything lovely, be it man, or beast, or flower, is an intense and everlasting delight, and now Portia enchants her. In very truth so well she might, as a fairer picture than she presents at this moment can hardly be imagined.

She is standing before a large glass, let into the wall on one side of the room from ceiling to floor, and, with a back glass in her hand, is leaning slightly to one side, as though lost in admiration of the soft mass of fair, brown hair that lies coiled low down on her neck in high-art fashion. She is like a soft harmony in black and gold, with her filmy robes clinging closely round her, and the old gold, that is so like tarnished yellow, touching her here and there.

“Ah! Mark was right,” says Dulce, with a little sigh of intensest pleasure. “Come down now (you cannot make yourself more beautiful), and be made known to Uncle Christopher.”

It is in the library that Miss Vibart makes herself known. Dulce entering first, with her gay little air, says:

“This is Portia, Uncle Christopher.” Thereupon a tall old man, rising from a chair, comes quickly up to them and takes Portia’s hand, and, stooping very low, presses his lips to her forehead.

He is a remarkably handsome old man, with light hair, and a rather warm complexion, and choleric, but kindly eyes. Even at the first glance Portia tells herself he would be as harsh a foe as he would be a champion true, and in so far she reads him right. He is hot-tempered, obstinate, at moments perhaps unjust, but at all times kind-hearted, and deserving of tenderest regard.

Now he is holding his new niece’s hand, and is gazing down at her with animated eyes, that no age will ever quite dim.

“So glad. So glad you have come to us,” he says, in a tone that reminds her of Dulce’s, though it is so deep and strong and masculine, and hers so very much the reverse in every way, “Bless me, how days go by! Just last week, as it seems to me, I saw you a little girl in short petticoats and frills, and furbelows, and now

“I wear petticoats still,” says Portia, demurely, with a soft laugh, “and frills sometimes, and often furbelows, I think, though I don’t in the least know what they mean, but they sound nice. So, after all, I should be now very much as I was.”

“Very much. But forgive me,” says Sir Christopher, “if I say you were not anything like as good-looking then as you are to-day.”

“A speech easy to forgive,” said Portia, lightly. Then, after a pause, “I, too, remember what you were like in those old days.”

“What then?” asked Sir Christopher, giving a sudden pull to his collar, and betraying an increased degree of interest.

“Nothing like so good-looking as you are to-day,” retorts she, with a quick smile and a little flicker of her eyelids.

“Ah! we shall be friends,” cries Sir Christopher, gaily. “Baby and you and I will ride roughshod over all the others; and we have wanted somebody to help us, haven’t we, Baby?” Then he turns more entirely to Dulce; “Eh, a sharp wit, isn’t it?” he says.

“Auntie Maud sent her love to you,” said Portia.

“Eh? Much obliged, I’m sure,” says Sir Christopher. “Very good of her; mine to her in return. A most estimable woman she always was, if short of nose. How she could have thrown herself away upon that little insignificant eh? though he was my brother eh?”

“She ought to have had you,” says Miss Vibart, with soft audacity.

“Eh? eh?” says Sir Christopher, plainly delighted. “Now, what a rogue!” He turns to Dulce, as he always does on every occasion, be it sweet or bitter. “You hear her, Dulce. She flatters me, eh?”

Uncle Christopher, you are a sad, sad flirt, says Dulce, patting his cheek. I am glad poor Auntie Maud escaped your fascinations. You would have forgotten her in a week. Do you know what oclock it is? after six. Now do go up and get ready for dinner, and try to be in time for once, if only to do honor to Portia. He is so irregular,” says Dulcinea, turning to Portia.

Miss Vibart, like Alice, begins to think it all “curiouser and curiouser;” yet, withal, the house seems full of love.

“Well, indeed as a rule, I believe I am late,” says Sir Christopher, in a resigned tone. “But I always put it down upon Mylder; he can’t tie a cravat!” Then, to Portia, “You are pale and thin, child. You must get rosy and fat, and above all things healthy, before we are done with you.”

“She must, indeed,” says Dulce, “though I doubt if she will thank us for it by-and-by; when she finds herself (as she shall) with rose-colored cheeks like a dairy-maid, she will be very angry with us all.”

“I shall never have red cheeks,” says Portia; “and I shall never be angry with you; but I shall surely get strong in this charming air.”

“Here you will live forever,” says Dulce. “People at ninety-five consider themselves in the prime of life.”

“Lucky they!” says Portia; “they must ‘wear the rose of youth’ upon them forever.”

“Oh! we can die young,” says Dulce, hastily, as though anxious to take a stigma off her country-side. “We have been known to do it, but not much; and the happiest have gone the soonest.”

“Yes,” says Uncle Christopher, most cheerfully he is plainly unimpressed, and shows an inclination to whistle

“Golden lads and girls, all must,
As chimney-sweepers come to dust!”

“I say, Dulce, isn’t Portia like that picture of your grand-aunt in the north gallery?”

“Like who?” asks Portia, anxiously.

“Like the handsomest woman in Europe, of her time,” says Sir Christopher, earnestly, with a low, profound bow that might perhaps have been acceptable to “the handsomest woman in Europe,” but only serves now to raise wild mirth in the breasts of her degenerate grand-nieces.

When they have reached again the hall outside (leaving Sir Christopher to seek the tender mercies of Mylder) Portia turns to her cousin

“I am fortunate,” she says, in her usual composed fashion that is yet neither cold nor repellant, “I find Uncle Christopher, also, altogether charming!”

The “also” is very happy. It is not to be misunderstood, and is full of subtle flattery. Dulcinea yields to it, and turns, eyes and lips bright with a warm smile, upon Miss Vibart.

“Yes; he is quite everything that is nice,” she says, gracefully ignoring the compliment to herself. “Now, shall we come and sit on the balcony until dinner is ready; as a rule, we assemble there in Summer instead of in the drawing-room, which, of course, is more convenient, and decidedly more gloomy.”

“I have an all-conquering curiosity to know everything about everybody down here,” says Portia, as they reach the balcony. Dulce pushes a low, sleepy-looking chair toward her, and, sinking gracefully into it, she turns her eyes up to her cousin. “Tell me all about your Roger,” she says, languidly. “As I must begin with somebody, I think I shall prefer beginning with with what shall I call him? Your young man?”

“It sounds like Martha’s baker’s boy,” says Dulce, laughing; “but you may call Roger what you like. I wish with all my heart you could call him husband, as that would take him out of my way.”

They are standing on the balcony, and are looking toward the South. Beyond them stretch the lawns, green and sloping; from below, the breath of the sleeping flowers comes up to greet them; through the trees in the far, far distance comes to them a glimpse of the great ocean as it lies calm and silent, almost to melancholy, but for the soft lap, lapping of the waves upon the pebbly shore.

“Some one told me he was very handsome,” says Portia, at a venture. Perhaps she has heard this, perhaps she hasn’t. It even seems to her there is more truth in the “has” than in the “hasn’t.”

“I have seen uglier people,” admits Dulcinea, regretfully; “when he has his face washed, and his hair brushed, he isn’t half a bad boy.”

“Boy?” asks Portia, doubtfully; to her the foregoing speech is full of difficulty.

“I daresay you would call him a man,” says Dulce, with a shrug of her soft shoulders; “but really he isn’t. If you had grown up with him, as I have, you would never think of him as being anything but an overgrown baby, and a very cross one. That is the worst of being brought up with a person, and being told one is to marry him by-and-by. It rather takes the gilt off him, I think,” says Dulce with a small smile.

“But why must you marry him?” asks Portia, opening her large black fan in an indolent fashion, and waving it to and fro.

The sun retiring

“On waves of glory, like an ocean god,”

flings over her a pale, pink halo, that renders even more delicately fine the beauty of her complexion. A passing breeze flings into her lap a few rose-leaves from a trailing tree that has climbed the balcony, and is now nodding drowsily as the day slowly dies. She is feeling a little sorry for Dulce, who is reciting her family history with such a doleful air.

“Well, I needn’t, you know,” says that young lady, lightly; “not if I don’t choose, you know. I have got until I am twenty-one to think about it, and I am only eighteen now. I daresay I shall cry-off at the last moment; indeed, I am sure I shall,” with a wilful shake of the head, “because Roger, at times, is quite too much, and utterly insupportable, yet, in that case, I shall vex Uncle Christopher, and I do so love Uncle Christopher!”

“But he had nothing to do with the arrangement, had he?”

“Nothing. It was his brother, Uncle Humphrey, who made the mistake. He left the property between us on condition we married each other. Whichever of us, at twenty-one, declines to carry out the agreement, gets L500 a year off the property, and the rest goes to the happy rejected. It is a charming place, about six miles from this, all lakes and trees, and the most enchanting gardens. I daresay Roger would be delighted if I would give him up, but” (vindictively) “I shan’t. He shall never get those delicious gardens all to himself.”

“What an eccentric will,” says Portia.

“Well, hardly that. The place is very large, and requires money to keep it up. If he had divided the income between us, and we had been at liberty to go each our own way, the possessor of the house and lands would not have had enough money to keep it in proper order. I think it rather a just will. I wish it had been differently arranged, of course, but it can’t be helped now.”

“Is he your first cousin? You know I have heard very little about this branch of my family, having lived so long in India.”

“No, my second cousin. Fabian is Uncle Christopher’s heir, but if if he died, Roger would inherit title and all. That is another reason why I hate him. Why should he have even a distant claim to anything that belongs to Fabian?”

“But, my dear girl, you are not going to marry a man you hate?” says Portia, sitting up very straight, and forgetting to wave her fan.

“Not exactly,” says Dulce, meditatively; “I really don’t think I hate him, but he can be disagreeable, I promise you.”

“But if you marry him, hardly tolerating him, and afterwards you meet somebody you can love, how will it be with you then?”

“Oh, I shan’t do that,” she says; “I have felt so married to Roger for years, that it would be positively indecent of me, even now, to fall in love with any one. In fact I couldn’t.”

“I daresay, after all, you like him well enough,” says Miss Vibart, with her low, soft laugh. “Mark Gore says you are exactly suited to each other.”

“Mark Gore is a confirmed old bachelor, and knows nothing,” says Dulce, contemptuously.

“Yet once, they say, he was hopelessly in love with Phyllis Carrington.”

“So he was. It was quite a romance, and he was the hero.”

“Phyllis is quite everything she ought to be, and utterly sweet,” says Portia, thoughtfully. “But is she the sort of person to create a grande passion in a man like Mark?”

“I daresay. Her eyes are lovely; so babyish, yet so full of latent coquetry. A man of the world, like Mark, would like that sort of thing. But it is all over now, quite a worn-out tale. He visits there at stated times, and she has thoughts only for her baby and her ‘Duke,’ as she calls her husband.”

“I wonder,” says Miss Vibart, with a faint yawn, “if at times she doesn’t find that a trifle slow?”

Then she grows a little ashamed of herself, as she catches Dulce’s quick, puzzled glance.

“It is a very pretty baby,” says Dulce, as though anxious to explain matters.

“And what can be more adorable than a pretty baby?” responds her cousin, with a charming smile. “Now do tell me” quickly, and as though to change the current of her companion’s thoughts “how many people are in this house, and who they are, and everything that is bad and good about them.”

Dulce laughs.

“We come and go,” she says. “It would be hard to arrange us. I am always here, and Uncle Christopher, and Fabian. Roger calls this his home, too, but sometimes he goes away for awhile, and Dicky’s room is always kept for him. We are all cousins pretty nearly, and there is one peculiarity I mean, Uncle Christopher makes no one welcome who does not believe in Fabian.”

Her voice falls slightly as she makes the last remark, and she turns her head aside, and, leaning over the balcony, plays absently with a rosebud that is growing within her reach. In this position she cannot see that Portia has colored warmly, and is watching her with some curiosity.

You must try to like Fabian, says Dulce, presently. Her voice is sad, but quite composed. She appears mournful, but not disconcerted. You have no doubt heard his unfortunate story from Auntie Maud, and you believe in him, don’t you?” She raises her eyes to her cousin’s face.

“I hardly think I have quite heard the story,” says Miss Vibart evasively.

“No? It is a very sad one, and quite unaccountable. If you have heard anything about it, you have heard all I can tell you. Nothing has ever been explained; I am afraid now nothing ever will be. It rests as it did at the beginning that is the pity of it but you shall hear.”

“Not if it distresses you,” says Portia gently. A feeling of utter pity for Fabian’s sister, with all her faith and trust so full upon her at this moment, touches her keenly. As for the story itself, she has heard it a score of times, with variations, from Auntie Maud. But then, when brought to bay, what can one say!

“It will not distress me,” says Dulce, earnestly; “and I would so much rather you knew everything before you meet him. It will make things smoother. It all happened four long years ago years that to him must seem a lifetime. He is twenty-nine now, he was only twenty-five then, just the time, I suppose, when life should be sweetest.”

“It is mere accident makes life sweet at times,” says Portia. “It has nothing to do with years, or place, or beauty. But tell me about your brother.”

“He had just come home for his leave. He was so handsome, and so happy without a care on earth and was such a pet with the men in his regiment. I was only a child then, but he never seemed too old to talk to me, or to make me his companion. And then one morning it all happened; we were at breakfast as we might be to-morrow” says poor Dulce, with a comprehensive gesture, “when one of the men came in and said somebody wanted to speak to Uncle Christopher. When I think of it” with a long-drawn sigh “my blood seems to run cold. And even now, whenever Harley comes in at breakfast and bends over Uncle Christopher in a confidential way to tell him it may be about the puppies or the last filly, a sensation of faintness creeps over me.”

“I don’t wonder,” says Portia, feelingly. “How could one ever forget it? You are making yourself unhappy; go no farther now, but tell me about it another time.”

“As I have begun I shall finish,” says Dulce, heroically, “even at the risk of boring you. But” wistfully “you will forgive me that.”

“Go on; I want to hear,” says Portia, strangely moved. Yet it seems cruel to make her repeat what she knows so well already, and what is so bitter to the narrator.

“Well, Uncle Christopher went out to see the man who wanted him, and after a little bit came back again, with a white face, and told us one of the clerks at the County Bank had dared to say Fabian had forged his Uncle Christopher’s name for L500. I think I hardly understood; but Fabian got up, and first, he grew very red, and then very white, but he said nothing. He only motioned to me not to stir, so I sat quite still, and then he went up to Uncle Christopher, who was very angry, and laid his hand upon his arm and led him out of the room.”

She pauses.

“Dulcinea,” as yet the more familiar appellation “Dulce” is strange to Miss Vibart. “Dulcinea,” she says, very sweetly, holding out a soft, pale, jewelled hand, with tender meaning, “come and sit here beside me.”

Dulce is grateful for the unspoken sympathy, but instead of accepting half the lounging chair, which is of a goodly size, she sits down upon a cushion at Portia’s feet, and leans her auburn head against her knee.

“It was quite true that somebody had forged Uncle Christopher’s name for L500, but who it was has never transpired. Uncle Christopher wanted to hush it up, but Fabian would not let him. The writing was certainly Fabian’s, I mean the imitation was exactly like it. I saw it myself; it was so like Fabian’s that no one could possibly know one from the other. You see” wistfully “I am terribly honest, am I not? I do not pretend to see a necessary flaw.”

“I like you the better for that,” says Portia; involuntarily she lays her hand on Dulcinea’s throat, just under her chin, and presses her gently towards her. “If it will make you happier tell me the rest,” she says.

“Unfortunately at that time Fabian did want money. Not much you know, but the fact that he wanted it at all was fatal. He had lost something over the Grand National or one of those horrid races and people heard of it; and then, even after long waiting and strictest inquiry, we could not discover who had been the real offender, and that was worst of all. It seemed to lay the crime forever upon Fabian’s shoulders. He nearly went mad at that time, and we, who loved him, could do nothing to comfort him.”

“Ah! that was hard,” says Portia, leaning over her. “Not to be able to lift the burden from those whose life is dear to us as our own is almost more than one can bear!”

“How you understand,” says Dulce, gratefully. “And then, you see, somehow every one got to know about it; Fabian could not prove his innocence, and I suppose the story sounded badly in alien ears. And then there came a day when somebody Lord Ardley I think cut Fabian publicly, and that made an end of all things. Uncle Christopher wanted to take notice of that, too wanted I think” (with a wan smile that has no mirth in it) “to challenge Lord Ardley and carry him over to France and fight it out with him a la mort, but Fabian would not allow it, and I think he was right.”

“Quite right.” There was quite a ring in Miss Vibart’s tone as she says this, but Dulce is too occupied with sad retrospect to notice anything at this moment. “How could the writing have so exactly resembled Fabian’s?” she says, presently; “it was Uncle Christopher’s name was forged, was it not?”

“Yes, but Fabian writes exactly like him. He makes his capitals quite the same. Anyone trying to copy Uncle Christopher’s writing would probably succeed in imitating Fabian’s perfectly.”

“Ah! he writes like Uncle Christopher,” says Portia, slowly, as though adding another link in her own mind to a conclusion already carefully formed.

“You will like him, I think,” says Dulce, getting up from her low position as though restless and desirous of change. She leans her back against the balcony and faces her cousin. “Though he is terribly altered; so different to what he used to be. He is so grave now, and silent and moody. He seems to be ever brooding over the mystery of his own life, and trying trying to get away from everybody. Oh! how he suffered, how we all suffered just then, knowing him to be innocent.”

“You knew he was innocent?” says Miss Vibart. Unfortunately her tone is one of inquiry. She has her hands clasped in her lap and is looking steadily at Dulce, who is watching her intently from the railings of the balcony, where she stands framed in by roses. Miss Vibart’s fan has slipped to the ground; she is really interested in this story. May not the hero of it prove an absorbing study? Her tone, however, grates upon the ears of the “absorbing study’s” sister. Dulce flushes perceptibly; opens her lips hastily as though to speak, and then suppresses herself.

“I forgot,” she says, quietly, after a moment’s reflection, “you have never seen him.”

The faith in this small remark touches Portia keenly the more in that she has already formed her own opinion on the subject in hand.

“I wonder he stayed here after it happened,” she says, with some faint acceleration of manner. Haste to Portia, is a word unknown.

“He is a hero, a martyr,” says Dulce, earnestly, two large tears gathering in her eyes. “He was in the K.D.Gs., as you know, but of course he flung up his commission then, and was going abroad, when Uncle Christopher fell ill. So ill, that we despaired of him. And when even the doctor from London refused him hope, he called Fabian to his bedside and made him swear he would not leave him while he lived and then he recovered. But he has always held Fabian to his word; and, indeed, it was a very necessary promise, because I don’t think Uncle Christopher could live without him now. It is all terribly sad; but it would be worse if Fabian were really in fault, would it not?”

“It is all very sad,” says Portia. Her eyes are bent, and she is slowly turning a ring round and round upon her finger.

“It has ruined Fabian’s life, and broken his heart,” says Dulce, in a low tone. “It is more than sad.”

“But if innocent, why should it weigh so heavily upon him?” asks Portia, gently.

If,” says Dulce, quickly, the hot blood mounting to her cheeks. Then very coldly “There is no ‘if’ about it; he is innocent. However mysterious his unhappy story may sound in a strang in your ears, nevertheless, our Fabian has nothing to do with disgrace. It could not touch him.”

“I put it badly,” says Portia, correcting her mistake with much grace. “I should have said as he is innocent. Forgive me.”

“It was all a mistake,” says Dulce, who is now very pale, “But we are so unaccustomed to even the faintest doubt of Fabian. Even Mark Gore, the sceptic, believes in him. How tired you look; would you like another cushion to your back?”

“No, thank you. I am quite comfortable and quite happy. Do you know,” with a slow, lovely smile, “I rather mean that last conventional phrase: I am happy; I feel at rest. I know I shall feel no want here in this delicious old place with you!” This is prettily toned, and Dulce smiles again. “I am so tired of town and its ways.”

“You will miss your season, however,” says Dulce, regretfully for her.

“Yes, isn’t that a comfort?” says her cousin, with a devout sigh of deepest thankfulness.

“A comfort!”

“Yes. I am not strong enough to go about much, and Auntie Maud has that sort of thing on the brain. She is like the brook she goes on for ever, nothing stops her. Ah! See now, for example, who are those coming across the lawn? Is one your brother?”

“No! It is only Dicky Browne and

“Your Roger?”

“Oh! yes; my Roger,” repeats Dulce, with a distasteful shrug.

Then she leans over the balcony, and says:

“Roger, come up here directly; for once in your life you are wanted by somebody. And you are to come, too, Dicky, and please put on your Sunday manners, both you boys, because I am going to introduce you to Portia!”