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

“Oh, how full of briars is this working-day world!”

“I WISH you would try to remember,” says Dulce, a little hastily. She is sitting in a rather Gothic chair, and the day is ultra-hot, and the strain upon her mental powers is greater than she can bear. Hence the haste.

She is leaning back in the uneasy chair now, pencil in hand, and is looking up at Roger, who is leaning over the table, in a somewhat supercilious manner, and is plainly giving him to understand that she thinks him a very stupid person, indeed.

This is irritating, and Roger naturally resents it. A few puckers show themselves upon his forehead, and he turns over a page or two of the gardener’s book before him with a movement suggestive of impatience.

“I am trying,” he says, shortly.

“Well, you needn’t tear the book in pieces,” says Dulce, severely.

“I’m not tearing anything,” retorts Mr. Dare, indignantly.

“You look as if you wanted to,” says Dulce.

“I don’t want anything except to be let alone,” says Mr. Dare.

The windows are all wide open. They were flung wide an hour ago, in the fond hope that some passing breeze might enter through them. But no breeze cometh is not, indeed, born and the windows yawn for it in vain. Outside, all Nature seems asleep; inside, the very curtains are motionless.

In a low rocking-chair, clad in the very lightest of garments permitted by civilization, sits Sir Mark Gore. He arrived at the Court only yesterday, in a perfect torrent of passionate rain, and was accused on all sides of having brought ill weather in his train. But to-day having asserted itself, and dawned fairly, and later on having burst into matchless beauty, and heat of the most intense, he is enabled to turn the tables upon his accusers, who look small and rather crushed.

“Have they had such a day this season?”

“Never! Oh, never!”

“Have they ever seen so lovely a one?”

“Never at least, hardly ever!”

They are vanquished. Whereupon he tells them they were distinctly ungrateful yesterday, and that he will never put in a good word for them with the clerk of the weather again. Never!

Just now he is nodding drowsily over his Times, and is vainly trying to remember whether the last passage read was about Midhat Pasha, or that horrid railway murder, or the Irish Land League.

In the next window sits Portia, clad in a snowy gown that suits her to perfection. She has been here now for a fortnight, and feels as if she had been here forever, and almost wonders if in reality she ever knew another home. She is lounging in the very easiest of cushioned chairs, and is making a base attempt at reading, which attempt is held up to public scorn every other minute by Dicky Browne, who is sitting at her feet.

He is half in and half out of the room. His feet being on the verandah, his head and shoulders in the room. He is talking a little, and fidgeting a little, and laughing a little, and, in fact, doing everything in the world except thinking a little. Thought and Dicky Browne are two.

The room in which they are all sitting is long and very handsome, with three windows and two fire-places. It is always called the blue room at the Court, for no earthly reason that any one can see, except that it is painted green the very most impossible green, calculated to create rapture in the breasts of Oscar and his fellows; a charming color, too, soothing, and calm, and fashionable, which, of course, is everything. There are tiny cabinets everywhere, gay with majolica ware and many a Palissy dish; while Wedgewood, and Derby, and priceless Worcester shine out from every corner. There are Eastern rugs, and Japanese screens, and, indeed, everything that isn’t Japanese is old English, and everything that isn’t old English is Japanese except, perhaps, a few lounging-chairs of modern growth brought in to suit the requirements of such unaesthetic beings as prefer the comfortable satin-and-down lounge to the more correct, if more trying oak.

“Perhaps it was the Duke of Edinburgh,” says Roger, breaking the silence that has lasted now for a full minute. “I see he is very handsome, of robust habit and constitution, and of enormous size and length. Is that what you want?”

“No; I am sure it was not the Duke of Edinburgh. It doesn’t sound like him. I wonder why you can’t think of it. I am sure if I once eat anything I should remember all about it.”

“Good gracious!” says Dicky Browne, from his lowly seat, glancing solemnly at Portia, “have they eaten the Duke of Edinburgh? It sounds like it, doesn’t it? They must have done it on the sly. And what a meal! Considering they acknowledge him to be of enormous size and length!”

“Perhaps it was Sir Garnet Wolseley,” says Roger, moodily, in the discontented tone of one who is following out a task utterly repugnant to his feelings. “He has an excellent flavor, but is entirely destitute of shank or shoulder.”

Sir Mark Gore, at this dreadful speech, lowers his paper and lifts his head. Portia looks faintly startled. What can Roger be talking about?

“Ain’t it awful,” says Mr. Browne, “who’d have thought it of them. They look quite mild and er like other people. Positively they are cannibals! And (did you remark?) it is roast shoulder they prefer, because they are grumbling at the want of it in the unfortunate General who has evidently been enticed from his home and coldly murdered by them. I wonder it wasn’t in the papers but doubtless the family hushed it up. And how heartlessly they speak! But, by the way, what on earth is a shank?

“The neck is splendid, and, indeed, there is no waste whatever,” goes on Roger, in a wooden tone.

“No waist whatever! Did you hear that? I always thought poor Sir Garnet was a lean man,” says Dicky, sotto voce. “Poor, poor fellow, can nothing satisfy them but rank and talent?”

“Not a bit like it,” breaks in Dulce, petulantly tapping her foot upon the floor. She is never petulant with any one but Roger, being indeed, by nature, the very incarnation of sweetness and light.

“Give it up,” says Roger, rising hope in his tone hope that, alas, is never verified.

“And meet McIlray with such a lame story as that! Certainly not,” says Dulce, warmly. “It must be found out. Do try again.”

“Well, this must be it,” says Roger, in despair, “The Marquis of Lorne, exquisite short neck, smooth skin, very straight, nice white spine.”

At this Sir Mark rises to his feet.

“Really, my dear Roger!” he says, impulsively but for the excessive laziness of his disposition it would have been severely.

“Ah,” says Roger, glad of anything in the shape of a reprieve, even though it be unpleasant argument.

“How can Dulcinea find any interest in the color of the Marquis’s spine?” says Sir Mark, reprovingly. “Forgive me if I say I think you are going a little too far.”

“I shall have to go farther,” says Roger, desperately, “There is no knowing where I shall end. She can’t find it out, and neither can I, and I see no hope of our arriving at anything except a lunatic asylum.”

“I can look it up by myself,” says Miss Blount, grandly, “I don’t want your help much. I daresay I can manage by myself, after all. And even if I can’t, I daresay Mark will come to my assistance if you forsake me.”

“I won’t,” says Gore, decidedly; “I won’t indeed. I would do anything in the world for you, Dulcinea, as you know, but for this work unfortunately I am too modest. I couldn’t go about making inquiries about the color of people’s spines. I couldn’t, indeed. As a matter of science I daresay it would be interesting to know the exact number of shades, but I feel I am unequal to the task.”

“The Duke of Connaught,” goes on Roger, wearily, hope being stifled in his breast, “bright green skin, well covered with bloom; small neck and

“Oh! hang it all, you know,” says Dicky Browne, forgetting himself in the excitement of the moment, “I don’t believe his Royal Highness has a green skin, do you, Portia? saw him only a fortnight ago, and he looked all right then, just as white as the rest of us.”

“It’s cucumbers,” says Miss Blount, with dignity.

“Yes, cucumbers,” responds Mr. Dare, with a sigh; he is evidently in the last stage of exhaustion. “McIlray has forgotten the name of some particular seed he planted in the Spring that we all liked immensely (how I wish we hadn’t), and he has compelled Dulce to try and discover it. So we are looking for it in these infer I mean these very prettily-illustrated books that the seedsman has kindly sent us (how I wish he hadn’t), and hope to find it before the millénium. I daresay any time next month you will still find us here poring over these identical books, but we shall be dead then there is at least comfort in that thought.”

“One wouldn’t think so, to look at you,” said Gore, pleasantly.

“You can go away, Roger, you really can,” says Dulce, irritably. “You are not the least use to me, and I hate grumblers.”

“Perhaps it is the Empress of India,” says Dicky Browne, who has come over to the table, driven by sheer curiosity, and is now leaning on Roger’s shoulder. “She ’is of enormous length, and the handsomest this year. She is beautifully shaped throughout, with scarcely any handle.’ Oh, I say, hasn’t the Queen a handle to her name? What an aspersion upon her royal dignity.”

“Ah! here is Fabian! Now, you may go away, all of you,” said Dulce, with fine contempt. “He will really be of some use to me. Fabian, what is the name of the cucumber that tiresome McIlray wants? I am worn out, almost in hysterics, trying to remember it.”

“What a pity you didn’t ask me sooner,” says Fabian. “It is all right. I made it out this morning, and told McIlray. He says now he remembers all about it perfectly.”

“Fabian, may I shake hands with you. You are a man and a brother,” says Roger, effusively, with a sudden return of animation. “I should, indeed, like to kiss you, but it might betray undue exhilaration. You have saved me from worse than death. Bless me, isn’t it warm?”

“Just a little sultry,” says Mr. Browne. “Show me that book you were looking at? Carter’s, eh? How I love a work of that sort! I think I love Carter himself. I daresay it is he designs those improbable vegetables and fruits that would make their fortunes as giants at a penny show. You see there are giants in these days.”

“Are there?” says Dulce. “I think there aren’t.”

“Well, it’s just as simple,” says Dicky, amiably. “Not a bit more trouble. It is quite as easy to suppose there aren’t, as to suppose there are. I don’t mind. But to return to our muttons. I really do esteem our Carter in anticipation. It occurs to me he yet may grow peaches as big as my head, and then what a time we’ll ’ave, eh? Eating fruit is my forte,” says Mr. Browne, with unction.

“So it is,” says Dulce. “Nobody will dispute that point with you. You never leave us any worth speaking about. McIlray says you have eaten all the cherries, and that he can’t even give us a decent dish for dinner.”

“What vile alliteration,” says Mr. Browne, unabashed. “Decent, dish, dinner. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“Well, I’m not,” says Dulce.

“Just shows your moral depravity. If you aren’t you ought to be. Three great big D’s in a breath! Shocking, shocking,” says Dicky, gravely.

“What a heavenly day, and how depressing. We are never satisfied,” says Mark Gore, flinging his arms above his head with a lazy gesture, and looking with almost comic despair at the pale-blue-and-gold glory in the heavens above.

Fabian, who has been standing near him, lost in a daydream, starts perceptibly at his tone, and moves as though he would go towards the door. Then, though still a little absent, and still wrapt in the dream from which he has sought to free himself, he looks round the room as though in search of something. Perhaps he finds it as his eyes light upon the window where Portia sits, because they linger there, and the restless expression, that has characterized his face up to this, vanishes.

He hesitates; pushes a book upon a table near him backwards and forwards gently two or three times, as though in doubt, and then walks straight to the window where Portia is, leans against the sash, just where he can see the lovely, downcast face before him.

After Dicky’s defection (or was it on Fabian’s entrance?) Miss Vibart returned to her neglected book, and has been buried in it ever since. Even when Fabian comes and stands close to her, she is so engrossed with the beauty of the story that she forgets to lift her eyes to look at him. So determinedly do they seek the page beneath them, that Fabian tells himself she must indeed have got to a thrilling part of her tale.

Her long, dark lashes lie like shadows on her cheeks. Her lips are closed. The hand that lies beneath the book trembles slightly.

They are all laughing at the upper end of the room at one of Dicky’s absurdities. Down here by the far window, there is a silence marked enough to make itself felt. I think at last even Mark Gore feels it, because he rises from his comfortable rocking-chair with a faint yawn, and, walking down the room, comes to anchor behind Portia’s chair.

Leaning over it, he says, pleasantly:

“Is that book of James’ so very charming as to make you deaf and blind to us poor mortals?”

“I am never deaf or blind to you,” says Portia, sweetly, glancing up at him over her shoulder. Her rounded chin is slightly tilted, a soft smile curves her lips.

At the Court Mark is a special favorite, yet so pretty a speech coming from Portia, who is usually so cold and indolent, strikes one as strange. Fabian regards her earnestly. How beautiful she is, yet how unsympathetic; has she no soul, no feeling? Surely her eyes, so large, so deep, so intense, belie this thought.

As though compelling himself, he says, with a visible effort:

“Have you been indoors all this lovely day? Has the sun had no power to tempt you to come out?”

“No;” she shakes her head as she answers him, and smiles, too, but the smile is cold as death, and though perfect, is altogether different from the one bestowed only a minute since upon Sir Mark.

“Then come out now,” says Gore, as though pleasantly impressed by the suggestion conveyed in Fabian’s speech. “Let us all shake off dull sloth and make a tour right round the gardens.”

“A charming idea,” says Portia, sitting more upright, and brightening visibly. She grows even animated, and animation, even of the faintest, is to be commended on such a day as this.

“Take your cousin to see the new carp-pond,” says Gore, addressing Fabian, but watching Portia attentively. “You will like to see it, Portia?”

“So very much,” says Portia. “But if I do go it must be with Dicky.”

Her manner as she says this gives both the men fully to understand that early in the day she had pledged herself to go for a walk some time in the afternoon. So far, so good it might have so explained itself but, unfortunately, at this moment Dicky Browne (who, as Dulce says, is always in the wrong place at the wrong time) comes up behind them, and addresses them generally:

“What are you all conspiring about?” he says, genially. “Roger and Dulce, for the fourteenth time to-day, have again agreed to differ, so I seek refuge here. Take me in, will you? And, by-the-by, what shall we do with ourselves this grilling day!”

“I have just been suggesting a quiet stroll,” says Sir Mark.

“The very thing,” exclaims Mr. Browne, who is amiability itself. “Why on earth didn’t we think of that before? Portia, if you will come with me, if you have not promised,” with a glance at Sir Mark, “to go with anyone else, I will show you a new tennis court that will draw tears of admiration from your eyes.”

This is the unfortunate part of it. It now becomes apparent to every one that Dicky did not ask her early in the morning to go for a walk anywhere. Silence follows Dicky’s speech. A faint-pink color, delicate but distinct, creeps into Portia’s cheeks; she does not lower her head, however, or her eyes either, but gazes steadily through the open window at the hills in the far, far distance, misty with heat and coming rain.

She feels that Fabian’s eyes are on her, and inwardly resents his scrutiny. As for Fabian himself, his brow contracts, and a somewhat unpleasant expression mars the beauty of his face; yet, turning to Dicky with the utmost composure, he says, calmly:

“Take Portia to see the carp-pond; that may interest her.”

“So I will,” says Dicky. “But you come, too, old man; won’t you? You understand all about fish, you know, and that, and I don’t a little screw. Make him come, Portia; he talks like a book when he has got to explain things.”

“Don’t trouble Portia,” says Fabian, quietly. “Even she could not persuade me to leave the house to-day, as I have business on hand that must be done.”

There is the very faintest touch of sarcasm in his tone. The “even she,” though very slightly done, is full of it. Portia, at least, is conscious of it. She unfurls her huge, black fan with a lazy gesture, and then turns her large eyes full upon him.

“So sorry my persuasions have failed,” she says, slowly, not having persuaded him at all; and, satisfied with this speech, waves the fan indolently to and fro, and with half-closed eyes watches the merry little sunbeams outside as they run hither and thither over the grass.

“Oh! let us do something,” says Dulce, from the distance. “I shall go mad if I am left here to talk to Roger all day.”

“I am sure I don’t want you to talk to me if it disagrees with you,” says Roger, with ill-suppressed ire.

Then they tell her they are going for a gentle stroll before tea is ready, and she consents to go with them if Sir Mark will walk with her instead of Roger; and Roger, having indignantly disclaimed all anxiety to be her companion on this occasion, peace is restored, and they all sally forth armed with big, white umbrellas, to inspect the stupid carp.

Fabian alone remains indoors to transact the mysterious business, that I think would have been gladly laid aside had Portia so willed it. That she had absolutely refused to have him as her companion in her walk, was so evident at the time of her expressed desire to go to see the carp with Dicky Browne, that Fabian could not be blind to it. Standing in the window of the library now, with the dying sunset reddening the scene without, and shedding upon the flowers its tenderest tints of fair array, Fabian reminds himself of each word she had said, of each smallest smile and glance that had belonged to her, and at this moment hates her with a hatred that is exceptionally bitter.

Then a little wave flows over his soul, and he tells himself how that he is unjust, and a stranger cannot be reasonably expected to think him innocent of a crime he himself has been unable to refute.

The day wanes. Twilight falls; a flush of soft violet color deepens the sky. The sound of footsteps echoes again in the long hall without; they have returned from the carp and the new tennis ground, and are asking eagerly for their tea. The sun has gone down behind the Western hills, and the stained-glass windows are throwing a sombre light over the antlers and Gothic chairs, and mediaeval furniture, in which the halls delight. Fabian, hearing the footsteps, pulls himself together somewhat roughly, and, opening a door that leads to a passage in little use, makes his way to a distant office, where he tells himself, bitterly, he is “far from the madding crowd,” and free from intrusion.

Dulce and Portia, crossing the hall, go down the north corridor that leads to the library Fabian has just vacated. A heavy crimson curtain conceals a door on one side, and, as they pass, a figure, emerging from behind it, brushes somewhat brusquely against Portia, filling her with sudden alarm.

This figure, as it appears in the vague gloaming, is bowed and bent, and altogether uncanny.

Portia, shrinking closer to Dulce, lays her hand upon her arm.

“Ah! what was that?” she says, fearfully.

“Only Gregory Slyme,” returns Dulce, quickly, “you are not frightened at him, poor old thing, are you? Have you not seen him before?”

“No,” says Portia, with a shudder and a backward glance at the shrunken figure creeping away down the corridor as if ashamed of itself.

“No? that is strange; but he has affected his own room a good deal of late.”

“But who is he?” anxiously.

“He was Uncle Christopher’s secretary for years, and calls himself that still, but Fabian does all the writing now.”

“What a start he gave me,” says Portia, putting her hand hurriedly to her heart as though in pain. “A chill seemed to rush all through my blood. It was as though I had met something that had worked, and would work, me harm!”

“Fanciful baby,” says Dulce, with very superior scorn; “old Slyme could not work ill to anyone. He has lived with us for years; but lately, within the last eight months, he has become well, a little uncomfortable; indeed, perhaps, unbearable is the word.”

“How so? what has he done?” asks Portia, unaccountably interested in this shadow that has crossed her path.

“I think he is very fond of brandy,” says Dulce, reluctantly, and in a very grieved little tone. “Poor old Gregory!”