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

“None here are happy, but the very fool,
Or very wise: I am not fool enough
To smile in vanities, and hug a shadow;
Nor have I wisdom to elaborate
An artificial happiness from pains.” YOUNG.

THEY are all standing in the porch, saying “How d’ye do” to half a dozen of their neighbors, and being introduced to the dark young man in the Fens pew. He is a very handsome young man, and very light-hearted apparently, and looks very frequently at Miss Blount, who smiles at him very graciously, and tells him he must “really come up to luncheon at the Court, or Uncle Christopher will be so disappointed. Any friend of Roger’s” and so on.

“Portia,” says Sir Christopher, suddenly when Stephen Gower has expressed his extreme pleasure at the thought of lunching at the Court, always with his dark eyes fixed curiously upon Dulce “Come with me; I want to show you your poor mother’s last resting-place.”

“Ah! yes; I shall like to see that,” says Portia, tenderly, though the dead mother is only a bare memory to her. “Yes, take me to see it.”

They separate from the others, and go around an angle of the old church, and past an ivied corner, and so come to the quiet spot where stands the vault of the Blounts.

“It was too far to send her to the Vibarts’ burying-place,” says Sir Christopher; “at least we tried to think so, because we tried to keep her with us. And your father was dead. And at the very last, she murmured something about being laid beside her mother; poor, dear girl!” To Sir Christopher, Portia’s mother has always been a girl, and a poor soul. I think, perhaps, Portia’s father had been “breezy” in the way of temper.

Then Portia asks many questions, trivial in themselves, yet of mighty interest to these two, to whom the dead had been dear. And the questions and answers occupy some time, insomuch that when at length they return to the church porch, they find the others have all disappeared, and the sexton preparing to lock the church door.

“Where have all my people gone to?” asks Sir Christopher of this functionary, in an elevated tone, the functionary being, as he himself would describe it, “hard of hearing.” Whereupon they are informed that the “Court folk” went “away home through yon small iron gate,” and into the woods beyond, and are now presumably sauntering lazily homeward beneath the shade of the spreading oaks and elms.

“Then we cannot do better than follow their example,” says Sir Christopher, but almost before they come to the iron gate they see Fabian, who, unmindful of their presence, nay, rather, utterly unaware of it, is walking steadily, but slowly, onward, as though lost in thought.

Presently, hearing footsteps behind him, he turns, and seeing Portia, starts perceptibly, and comes to a standstill.

“I thought you would all be at home long before this,” he says, involuntarily. Involuntarily also his tone conveys the idea that his wish was “father to his thought.” There is a note in it that is distinct disappointment. Portia lets her lids fall over her eyes, and lets her lips form themselves into an almost imperceptible smile. Plainly he had loitered in the churchyard in the fond hope of avoiding them all (her especially it may be), and here is the result.

“We thought the same of you,” says Sir Christopher, cheerily, coming to the front bravely, “we believed you at the Court before this. Very lucky you aren’t though, as I want you to see Portia home. I must go and interview Bowles about that boy of his a duty I hardly admire.”

“It is late now. If you delay any longer you will miss your luncheon,” says Portia, hurriedly. Her face betrays unmistakable anxiety.

It is now Fabian’s turn to smile, but his lips are rigid, and the commonest observer may read, that mirth of even the grimmest description is far from him.

“Luncheon, eh? I don’t care a fig about luncheon,” says Uncle Christopher, gaily, “unless I’m shooting, or that. No. Better see Bowles now if I am to see him at all. Sunday is his only visible day, I’ve been told. His ‘At home,’ in fact as all the rest of the week he lies in bed, and refuses to wash himself.”

“Horrid man!” says Miss Vibart, merely for the sake of saying something. In reality had Bowles felt it his duty to lie a-bed all the year round, and never indulge in the simplest ablutions, it would not have given her a passing thought.

“On the Sabbath he rouses himself, and in a spotless shirt (washed by that idiot of a wife of his, who still will believe in him), and with a pipe in his mouth, he struts up and down the pavement before the door of his palatial residence,” says Uncle Christopher. “I am sure to find him to-day.”

“Let me go with you,” says Portia, as a last resource. “I should like to be made acquainted with this incomparable Bowles.” She smiles as she speaks, but the smile is somewhat artificial, and is plainly conjured up with difficulty for the occasion.

“Well, come,” says Sir Christopher, who always says “yes,” to every one, and who would encourage you warmly if you expressed a desire to seek death and the North Pole.

“It is quite impossible,” says Fabian, quietly, not raising his voice, and not moving as he speaks. “Portia cannot go with you to Bowles’ house. The man is insupportable.”

Portia has her hand upon Sir Christopher’s arm; her eyes are alight; something within her some contradictory power awakens a determination to see this Bowles. Yet it is hardly so keen a desire to see a man in a clean shirt and a “churchwarden” that possesses her, as a desire to circumvent the man who has opposed her expressed wish. Fabian, on his part, though pained, is equally determined that she shall not be brought face to face with the unpleasant Bowles. She has her eyes on him, but he has his on Sir Christopher.

“I should like to go with you,” she says, in clear tones, taking no heed of Fabian’s last remark; “I like country people, and strange village characters, and and that.” This is somewhat vague.

“You remember the last time Dulce went to see Mrs. Bowles?” says Fabian, who has caught Sir Christopher’s eye by this. Whatever Dulce may have endured during that memorable visit is unknown to Portia, but the recollection of it, as forced upon Sir Christopher’s memory, is all-powerful to prevent her accompanying him on his mission to-day.

“Yes, yes. I remember,” he says, hurriedly, “Bowles, as a rule, is not courteous. My dear child,” to Portia No, you cannot, I regret to say, come with me. This man can be uncomfortable in many ways. You understand, eh? You wouldn’t like him. People in shirt-sleeves, however clean, are always out of it, eh? There, good-by to both of you. Take her home, Fabian, and explain my absence to the others, especially to Roger’s friend, that new young fellow, Gower, of the Fens.”

So saying, he marched away to do battle with the objectionable Bowles, with his fine old shoulders well squared, and a world of defiance in his gait. There is no help for it! The two left behind feel this acutely, and Fabian pushing open the little iron gate, Portia goes down the stone steps and enters presently upon a wood all green, and soft and verdure-clad.

The trees are interlaced above their heads. Through them the calm, blue sky looks down in wonder, and sheds a scintillating radiance on their path.

“In heat the landscape quivering lies,
The cattle pant beneath the tree:”

No little kindly breath of air comes to break the monotony of the dead sultriness that lies on everything.

Portia sighs, and with a small, but expressive, gesture pushes her hat somewhat off her forehead. He is quick to notice the faintest sign of wrong in those with whom he associates, and now turning to her, says, gravely:

“Here, beneath the trees, where the sun cannot penetrate too severely, Dulce often takes off her hat. Take off yours.”

“If you think it will do any good,” says Portia, doubtfully; and as though fearful of seeming ungracious, she does take off her hat, and walks along beside him, bare-headed.

She is feeling sad and depressed. For the first time since her arrival she is wishing herself back again with Auntie Maud, who is anything but after her own taste. Yet to live on here in the shadow of a living lie is bitter to her; more bitter than she had ever supposed possible.

She had come down to the Court fully aware that Fabian (according to the lights of those with whom she had lived) was guilty of the crime imputed to him. He had always been discussed in her immediate circle with bated breath, as one who had eternally disgraced the good old name of Blount, and dragged it cruelly in the dust.

To be innocent and not to be able to prove one’s innocence, had seemed (and even now does seem to Auntie Maud and her set) a thing not to be entertained for a moment. It would be too preposterous! He had rendered their name hideous, but he should not impose upon them with his absurd stories of utter ignorance. They believed he had wilfully committed the forgery, trusting he would never be discovered, because of the unfortunate similarity between his writing and that of Sir Christopher. But he had failed, in spite of his ingenuity, and had been found out; and, though none of the forged notes had been discovered in his possession (which only proved the more to his distant relatives that he possessed the cleverness of the practised schemer), still they one and all sat upon him in solemn conclave, and pronounced him outside the pale of respectability.

That Christopher should elect to leave the beautiful old Court to such a one seems little less than a crime to the “cousins and aunts.” To leave it to a man shunned by the entire county (and very properly too!), a man ashamed to lift his head amongst his fellow men, and who had never tried to live down his disgrace or brave it out. In this fact the certainty of his being pusillanimous about his accusation lies the proof of his guilt, to them.

Portia is going over the whole sad story now again, while the sinner walks beside her. Once she lifts her eyes, and looks at him, and tells herself Roger was indeed right when he made much of his beauty. Yet Satan dwells in comely bodies! How sad that a face so inclined to nobility should be stamped with the lines of care, born of dishonor. Tears fill her eyes as she looks at him, and she turns her head quickly away, but not before he has seen and marked the signs of distress within her beautiful eyes. A spasm crosses his face; he recoils a little from her, as though fear possesses him. He frowns; and a curious light half grief, half anger grows upon him, and expresses itself upon his quiet lips. Something that is almost agony is in his eyes; truly though the body can know grief, the “sorrows of the soul are graver still.”

“What is it that has risen between us?” he asks, suddenly; there is something intense in his tone. “Have you?” he pauses, and then goes on with an effort “have you in your heart so utterly condemned me?”

They have come to a stand-still; and Fabian, as he asks this question, is standing with his back against a huge oak tree, his eyes fixed upon his companion. His face is as white as death.

She makes him no answer. A very fine shade of color, so faint as to be almost imperceptible, dyes her cheek for a moment and then vanishes as suddenly as it came, leaving her quite as pallid as he is himself.

“It is the most natural thing in the world to condemn,” he goes on, somewhat excitedly. “It is only human. One feels how easy it is. If one hears a damning story about an acquaintance, a story almost unsupported, how readily one inclines to the cruel side. It is not worse in one than in another. We all have a touch of savagery about us a thirst for blood. For the most part, if placed in a certain set number of circumstances, we all think and act alike. That we should be cast in one mould with the very commonest of our brethren is a humiliating thought, but strictly within the lines of truth. You do condemn me?”

He wishes to force her into saying so. She shrinks from him, and raises one hand to her throat, as though nervous and unhappy.

“I don’t know,” she says at last, in a low, hesitating tone. “I know nothing. Sometimes I don’t even know myself.”

“That is always a knowledge difficult of attainment,” he says, slowly. “But about me, in your heart, you are sure. You believe you do know. You think me guilty.” As he says the word he clenches one hand so firmly that the nails crush into the flesh.

“I would rather not talk about it,” says Portia, faintly.

By a terrible effort he recovers himself; a quick breath, that is almost a sigh, escapes him.

“That, of course, shall be as you wish,” he says, quietly; and, rousing himself, they walk on together beneath the branching elms, in silence, painful as it is prolonged.

Coming to a tiny stream (where he is compelled to offer and she to accept, his hand to help her over), she glances at him, but her glance is not returned, and then she sees that he has forgotten her very existence, and is, in thought, miles away from her. He has entered into some ideal realm of his own captured during his long years of isolation from the world.

As she is silently watching him and wondering, a dark figure, moving from between the shrubs that hide off one angle of the house, comes into their path, and, seeing them, makes a skulking movement to the right as though it would gladly escape observation.

“Good evening, Slyme,” says Fabian, in half kindly, half contemptuous tone. The old man murmurs something in return. His eyes refuse to meet Fabian’s, his hands join each other, and rub palm to palm in an uneasy, shuffling fashion. His voice is husky and slightly uncertain. His dull old eyes roam from Fabian to Portia in an odd, questioning way, as if debating some strange matter. Yet, though looking at them, it is at their arms or chests he looks, rather than at their faces.

Portia (who had stopped when Fabian had) now turns a little to one side and plucks a flower lazily from a neighboring shrub, and sighs a little as if weary, and as if she would gladly be at home.

At this, Fabian, who is quick to notice anything concerning her, rouses himself from his prolonged stare at Gregory, and, noting the instability of the old man’s gait, says, suddenly, with his dark gaze full upon him:

“Again!”

His tone this time is all contempt; no kindliness mingles with it. The old man seems to wither beneath it, and puts out his hands with a gesture suggestive of deprecation. Fabian, taking no notice of it, walks away from him, Portia gladly following.

Then the secretary’s face changes. Standing in the centre of the pathway, he looks after their retreating figures with a half-drunken scrutiny, full of malice.

“Ay,” he says, bitterly, beneath his breath, “as a dog I am in his sight! So he has destroyed his only hope this many a time!”

His head sinks into its old position on his chest, and with a muttered curse he continues his way.

Just as Portia ascends the stone steps that lead to the house, Fabian, by a gentle touch, detains her.

“Remember always this,” he said slowly and with an attempt at calmness that is infinitely sad, “that I do not blame you.”

Tears spring to her eyes. She is at least generous, and now a great longing to be able to believe in him, to be able to assure him of her unbounded faith in his honor possesses her. But, alas! faith is neither to be invoked nor purchased, and to lie to him, and tell him a soothing falsehood against her conscience would be worse than useless. The tears having gathered, two of them roll slowly down her cheeks. She turns hastily aside. Catching her hand he holds it for a short moment in his own.

“They at least are mine,” he says, meaning the tears, his voice deeply agitated, and then she draws her hand from his, and an instant later, is lost to sight.