Read CHAPTER IV of Portia or By Passions Rocked , free online book, by "The Duchess", on

“’Tis not mine to forget. Yet can I not
Remember what I would or what were well.
Memory plays tyrant with me, by a wand
I cannot master!”

PAST the roses, past the fragrant mignonette they go, the moon’s soft radiance rendering still more fair the whiteness of their rounded arms.

The dew lies heavy on leaf and flower. Motionless stand the roses, and the drooping lilies, and the pansies, purple and yellow. “God Almighty,” says Bacon, “first planted a garden; and indeed it is the purest of human pleasures; it is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man!”

Here, now, in this particular garden, where all is so deeply tranquil, it seems as if life itself is at a standstill, and sin and suffering, joy and ambition, are alike unknown. A “pure pleasure” it is indeed to gaze upon it, and a great refreshment to any soul tired, or overwrought, or sorrowful.

The stars are coming out slowly one by one, studding brilliantly the pale, blue vault of heaven, while from a

“Thin fleecy cloud,
Like a fair virgin veil’d, the moon looks out
With such serene and sweet benignity
That night unknits his gloomy brows and smiles.”

Dulce, plucking some pale blossom, lifts it to her lips, and kisses it lightly. Portia, drawing a deep breath of intensest satisfaction, stands quite still, and letting her clasped hands fall loosely before her, contemplates the perfect scene in mute delight.

Presently, however, she shivers, a passing breeze has cast a chill upon her.

“Ah! you are cold,” says Dulce, anxiously; “how thoughtless I am; yes, you are quite pale.”

“Am I?” says Portia. “It was the standing here, I fancy. India gave me bad habits, that, after three years, I find myself unable to conquer. Every silly little wind strikes a chill to my heart.”

“I shall get you a shawl in no time,” says Dulcinea; “but keep walking up and down while I am away, so as to keep your blood warm.”

“Your command shall be obeyed,” says Portia, smiling, and then Dulce, turning, disappears quickly amongst the shadows, moving as swiftly as her light young feet can carry her.

Portia, left alone, prepares to keep her promise, and walks slowly along the graveled path once more. Turning a corner, again a glimpse of the distant lake comes to her. It is entrancing; calm as sleep, and pure as the moon above, whose image lies upon its breast.

Even as she looks the image fades the “fleecy cloud” (jealous, perhaps, of the beauty of the divine Artemis, and of Portia’s open admiration of her) has floated over her again, and driven her, for a little moment, into positive obscurity.

The path grows dark, the lake loses its color. Portia, with a sigh, moves on, confessing to herself the mutability of all things, and pushing aside some low-lying branches of a heavily-scented shrub, finds herself face to face with a tall young man, who, apparently, is as lost in wonder at her appearance as she is at his!

She starts, perceptibly, and, only half-suppressing a faint exclamation of fear, shrinks backwards.

“I beg your pardon,” says the stranger, hastily. “I am afraid I have frightened you. But, really, it was all the fault of the moon.”

His voice is reassuring, and Portia, drawing her breath more freely, feels just a little ashamed of her momentary terror.

“I am not frightened now,” she says, with an upward glance, trying to read, through the darkness, the face of him she addresses. The clouds are scurrying swiftly across the sky, and now the moon shines forth again triumphant, and all things grow clearer. She can see that he is tall, dark, handsome, with a strange expression round his mouth that is surely more acquired than natural, as it does not suit his other features at all, and may be termed hard and reckless, and almost defiant. His jaw is exquisitely turned. In his eyes is a settled melancholy altogether his face betrays strong emotions, severely repressed, and is half-morbid and wholly sad, and, when all is said, more attractive than forbidding.

Portia, gazing at him with interest, tells herself that years of mental suffering could alone have produced the hard lines round the lips and the weariness in the eyes. She has no time for further speculation, however, and goes on quickly: “It was more than foolish of me; but I quite forgot, I” with some uncertainty “should have remembered.”

“What do you forget? and what should you have remembered?”

“I forgot that burglars do not, as a rule, I suppose, go about in evening clothes; and I should have remembered” with a smile “that there was yet another cousin to whom I had not been introduced.”

“Yes; I am Fabian Blount,” he says indifferently. He does not return her smile. Almost he gives her the impression that at this moment he would gladly have substituted another name for his own.

“Ah! you are Fabian,” she says, half-puzzled by his manner.

“If you will take my word for it.” His tone is even more strange as he says this, and now he does smile, but disagreeably.

Portia colors faintly.

“You have not asked me my name?” she says quietly. “I am Portia.”

“What a very pretty name!” He has had a half-smoked cigar behind his back all this time; now remembering it, he looks at it, and flings it far from him. “It reminds one of many things; Shakespeare, I suppose principally. I hope,” looking at her, “you will choose the right casket.”

“Thank you. That is a very kindly wish.”

“How does it happen that you are here all alone?”

“I was cold; I always am. Dulcinea saw me shiver, I think, and ran to get a shawl or some covering for me. That is all.”

“She is a long time getting it, is she not?”

“Is she?” says Portia. This speech of his piqués her a little. “Does it seem long?”

“Very long, if one is to shiver all the time,” replies he, calmly, reading her resentment in her face, but taking no notice of it. “Much too long to be out in this chilly night-air without sufficient clothing, and with a wholesome dread of possible burglars full upon you. May I stay with you till Dulce returns, and will you walk on a little? It is foolish to stand still.”

“I am sorry you threw away your cigar on my account. I am sure you want it now.”

“I don’t believe I ever want anything,” says Fabian, slowly; and then they walk on again, returning by the way she had come. The night-wallflower is flinging its perfume abroad, the seringas are making sweet the air, a light eager wind rushes softly past them.

“It was a long drive,” says Fabian, presently, with all the air of a man who is determined to rouse himself however against his will and carry on conversation of some sort. “Are you tired?”

“It was long. But everything here is so new, so fresh, so sweet, that I have forgotten to be tired.”

“You are one of those, perhaps, who always find variety charming.” As he speaks he carefully removes a drooping branch of roses out of her way.

“Not quite always.” She smiles as she defends herself. “I like old friends, and old songs best. I am not absolutely fickle. But I have always had a great desire to live in the country.”

“People who have never tried it, always do have that desire.”

“You think I shall be désillusionne in a week? But I shall not. When George had to return to India, I was so unhappy in the thought that perhaps I should have to live in town until his return. Of course I could have gone somewhere to live by myself, and could have found some charming old lady to take care of me, but I am not fond of my own society, and I can’t bear charming old ladies.”

“One feels quite sorry for the old ladies,” says Fabian, absently.

“I was afraid I should have to put in my two years of waiting for George, with Auntie Maud, and that would have been terrible. It would mean seasons, and months at fashionable watering-places, which would be only town out of town the same thing all over again. I was so glad when Uncle Christopher wrote to say he would like me to come here. I have often wondered since,” she says, suddenly smiling somewhat wistfully, and flushing a warm crimson, “whether all of you didn’t look upon my coming with disfavor.”

“What put such a thought as that into your head?”

“A very natural one I think. A stranger coming to a household always makes such a difference; and you had never met me, and you might not like me, and . Did any of you resent my coming?”

“No,” says Fabian. There is no energy in his reply, yet it is impossible to doubt that he means exactly what he says. “You must not begin by thinking unkindly of us,” he goes on, gently. “You may believe me when I say none of us felt anything but pleasure at the idea of your coming.”

“Yes? That was very good of you all.” She is longing to say, “Yet you see I kept you from dinner to-night,” but after a moment’s reflection leaves it unsaid.

“I hope the country will not disappoint you,” he says, after a slight pause. “It is unwise to begin by expecting too much.”

“How can it disappoint?” says Portia, with some intensity. She says nothing more, but she lifts her lovely face to the starry sky, and puts out her hands with a faint gesture, fraught with admiration, towards the heavy flowers, the distant lake, the statues half hidden by the drooping shrubs, and the moonlight sleeping upon all!

“There is always in the country, the sun, the flowers, and at night, the moon,” she says.

“Yet, the day will come, even for you, when there will be no sun, and when the moon will refuse to give its light.” He speaks peculiarly and as though his thoughts are wandering far from her to other scenes in which she holds no part.

“Still, there will always be the flowers,” she says, quickly, impressed by his tone, and with a strange anxiety to prove to herself that surely all things are not in vain.

“Oh, no! They are the frailest of the three,” returns he; “they are like our dearest hopes. At the very time they should prove true, when the cold Winter of our discontent is full upon us, they forsake us never to return.”

“Never? Does not the Summer bring them again?” She has stopped in the middle of the path, and is asking her question with an anxiety that astonishes even herself. “This rose bush,” she says, pointing to one close beside her, “now rich in glory, and warm with golden wealth, will it not bloom again next year, in spite of the death that must pass over it?”

“It may. But you will never see again those roses over there, that you love and rejoice in now! Others may be like them, but they cannot be quite the same.”

Portia makes no reply. The moonlight is full upon him, and she can see that his lips have lost their hardness, and are as full of melancholy as his eyes. She is looking curiously at him, regarding him perhaps in the light of a study he is looking, not at her at all, but at something that surely has no place in this quiet garden, lying so calm and peaceful beneath the light of heaven.

A terrible expression, that is despair and grief commingled, covers his face. Some past horror, that has yet power to sting, is holding him captive. He has forgotten Portia, the beauty of the night, everything! He is wrapt in some miserable memory that will not be laid. Surely, “the heart may break, yet brokenly live on.”

Be he guilty (as she believes him) of this crime that has darkened his life, or only the victim of unhappy circumstances, at this moment Portia pities him with all her heart.

Voices in the distance! Roger and Dulce still high in argument; a faint perfume of cigarettes; Dicky Browne’s irrepressible laugh; and then they all come round the corner, and somebody says, “Ah, here she is,” and Dicky Browne places a shawl round Portia’s shoulders.

“You here, Fabian?” says Dulce, gladly. “And making friends with Portia? That’s right.”

“Taking a mean advantage of us all I call it,” says Dicky Browne. “We got introduced in the cruel glare of day, with all our imperfections on our heads. You waited for moonshine, balmy air, scent of roses, poetical effect, and so on! That’s why you stayed away from dinner. And to think none of us saw through you! Well, I always said I was very innocent; quite unfit to go about alone!”

“Not a doubt of it,” said Roger, cheerfully. “But you won’t have to complain of that long. We are all on the look-out for a keeper for you, and a straight waistcoat.” Then, turning to Fabian, “Your headache better, old man?”

“Thank you yes. Your cousin is tired, I think, Dulce. Take her in and make her rest herself.”

“Ah! You are worn out,” says Dulce to Portia, with contrition. “I have been so long getting you the shawl; but I could not help it. You must not stay up, you know, to do manners to us, you must go straight to bed this moment, and come down like a rose in the morning. Now confess you are tired.”

“Well, yes, I am afraid I am,” says Portia, who is feeling faintly disappointed for the first time since her arrival. Why, she scarcely knows.

“She said ‘I am a-weary, a-weary; I would I were a-bed,’” quotes Mr. Browne, feelingly. Whereupon everyone feels it his duty to take Portia at once back to the house, less Mr. Browne, by any ill-luck, should commit himself still further.

It is only when Portia is at last alone in her own room that she recollects that Fabian forgot to shake hands with her. Or was it she with Fabian?