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

“A vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast.”

TIME, as a rushing wind, slips by, and brings us Dulce’s ball. The night is lovely and balmy as any evening in the Summer months gone by, though now September shakes the leaves to their fall. A little breeze sweeps up from the ocean, where the “lights around the shore” show mystical and bright; while overhead, all down the steeps of heaven, myriad stars are set, to flood the sleeping world with their cold, clear beauty.

Upon the walls, and all along the balconies, lie patches of broken moonshine; and in the garden the pale beams revel and kiss the buds until they wake; and “all flowers that blow by day come forth, as t’were high noon.”

In the library the lamps are lowered. Nobody has come down-stairs yet, and the footman, giving the last lingering touch to the little sweet gossiping fire that warns them of Winter’s approach, turns to leave the room. On the threshold, however, he stands aside to let Miss Vibart enter.

She is dressed in a white satin gown, creamy in shade, and rather severe in its folds. Some pale water-lilies lie upon it, as though cast there by some lucky chance, and cling to it lovingly, as if glad to have found so soft a resting place. There is no flower in her hair, and no jewels anywhere, except three rows of priceless pearls, that clasp her slender throat. Throwing her gloves and fan upon the centre table, she walks slowly to a mirror, and examines herself somewhat critically.

As if ungratefully dissatisfied with the lovely vision it presents to her, she turns away again, with an impatient sigh, and trifles absently with a paper knife near her. There is a discontented line about her mouth, a wistful, restless expression in her eyes. She moves slowly, too, as if gladness is far from her, and shows, in every glance and movement, a strange amount of languor.

As though her thoughts compel her to action, she walks aimlessly from place to place; and now, as if she is listening for something to come; and now, as if she is trying to make up her mind to take some step from which she shrinks in secret.

At last, drawing her breath with a sudden quickness, born of determination, she opens a drawer in a cabinet, and, taking from it a little volume in the Tauchnitz binding, she opens the library door, and, turning to the right, walks swiftly down the corridor.

From out the shadow a figure advances toward her, a figure bent and uncomely, that tries in vain to avoid the meeting with her, and to get out of sight before recognition sets in.

It is the old man Slyme. As she sees him there returns to Portia the memory of many other times when she has met him here in this corridor, with apparently no meaning for his presence. Some unaccountable and utterly vague feeling of dislike for this man has been hers ever since she first saw him. He is repugnant to her in a remarkable degree, considering how little he has to do with her life in any way.

“He seems to haunt this part of the house,” she says to herself now, uncomfortably. “If I were Fabian I should hate to know there was a chance of meeting him every time I opened my door. Has he, perhaps, a passion for Fabian or

Instinctively she throws an additional touch of hauteur into her shapely head, and without deigning to notice the old man, sweeps by him, her glimmering white skirts making a gentle frou-frou as she goes.

When she has passed, the secretary raises his eyes and watches her departing form, furtively. There is great cunning mixed with malignity and resentment in his glance. He mutters something inaudible, that carries no blessing in its tone, but yet, as though fascinated by her beauty, he stands still and follows each step she takes upon the polished oaken flooring.

As she stops at a particular door, his whole face changes, and satisfied malice takes the place of resentment.

“Even such pride can stoop,” he mutters, with a half-drunken chuckle. “And it is I, my fine lady who can scarce breathe when I am by that have power to ring your proud heart.”

He turns, and shambles onwards towards his own den.

Portia’s steps have grown slower as she gets nearer to the door before which Slyme has seen her stop. Her eyes have sought the ground; all along the floor her image may be seen, lengthened, but clear; almost with every step she seems to tread upon herself. As she reaches the door she hesitates, and then lifts her hand as if with the intention of knocking. But again she pauses, and her hand drops to her side. As if more nervous than she cares to own, she leans against the lintel of the door, as one might, desirous of support.

Then the weakness vanishes; fastening her teeth upon her under lip, she rouses herself, and tapping gently but distinctly upon one of the panels, awaits an answer.

Presently she gets it. “Come in,” says Fabian’s voice, clear, indifferent; and slowly turning the handle she enters the room.

The lamps are alight; a fire is burning in the grate. At the upper table of this room, that is his study, his very sanctum sanctórum, Fabian is sitting with some papers and books before him.

At first, being unconscious of who his visitor is, he does not lift his head, but now, seeing her, he rises quickly to his feet, and says,

“You!” in accents of the most acute surprise.

She is standing barely inside the door with the little volume pressed closely, almost convulsively, between her fingers, and for a moment makes him no reply. It is the first time they have ever been alone since that day when he had injured his arm through the running away of Sir Christopher’s mare.

Now, his face, his tone, is so unfriendly that a great fear falls upon her. Is he very angry with her still? Has she sinned past forgiveness? Will he, perhaps, order her to leave the room? She tries to rally her power of resistance against what fate relentless, implacable is preparing for her; but in vain. A terrible fear of him (the man regarding her with such stern eyes) and of herself crushes her. Her heart dies within her; what evil has fallen upon her days, that once were happy? and yet and yet of what what exquisite sweetness is this evil formed!

She flushes, first painfully; and then the flush fades, and pallor holds full sway.

“I can do something for you?” asks Fabian, not advancing toward her, not letting even one kindly accent warm his frozen tone, and this when the silence has grown positively unbearable.

“Thank you no.” Her little cold hands are nervously twined around the book she holds. Speech has cruelly deserted her; a sob has risen in her throat, and she is battling with it so fiercely, that for a moment she can say nothing. Then she conquers, and almost piteously she lays the book upon the very edge of the table nearest her, and says with difficulty:

“I brought you this. At breakfast this morning you said you had not read it; and to-night I knew you would be alone, and I thought it is ’The Europeans’ it might help you to while away an hour.”

Her voice dies away and again silence follows it. She is really frightened now. She has met many men, has been the acknowledged beauty of a London season, has had great homage laid at her feet; but no man has had power to make her heart waken, until she met this man, upon whom disgrace lies heavy. It is Kismet! She feels cold now, and miserable, and humbled before him who should surely be humbled before her. What has she meant by coming to his room without so much as an invitation; to him who in her sight is guilty, indeed, of an offense not to be forgiven in the world.

She grows tired and very weary, and the old pain at her heart, that always comes to her when she is miserable or perplexed, is tormenting her now, making her feel sick of life and dispirited.

“It was kind of you to think of me,” says Fabian, coldly; “too kind. But there are some matters of importance I must get through to-night, and I fear I shall not have time for fiction.”

She takes up the book again, the little instrument that betrays his determination to accept no benefits at her hands, and moves toward the door.

Coming quickly up to her, that he may open the door, he stands between her and it, and stops her.

“As you are here,” he says, “let me look at you. Remember, I have never seen you dressed for a ball before.”

As if astonished at his request, she stands quite still, and, letting her round, bare arms hang loosely before her, with her hands clasped, she lets him gaze at her sweet fairness in utter silence. It takes him some time. Then

“You are very pale,” he says no more. Not a word of praise escapes him. She is woman enough to feel chagrin at this, and discontent. Has her glass lied to her, then? One small word of approbation, even about her gown, would have been sweet to her at this moment. Is she so very pale? Is it that this white gown does not become her? A quick dislike to the beautiful robe and only an hour ago she had regarded it with positive affection now takes possession of her.

“I am always pale,” she says, with subdued resentment.

“Not always. To-night one hardly knows where your dress ends, and where you begin.” She has hardly time to wonder if this is a compliment or the other thing, when he goes on again: “I don’t think I ever saw you in white before?” he says.

“No; and it is probable you will never see me in it again,” she says, petulantly. “I dislike it. It is cold and unbecoming, I think.”

“No, not unbecoming.”

“Well,” she says, impatiently, “not becoming, at least.”

“That, of course, is quite a matter of taste,” he says, indifferently.

She laughs unpleasantly. To make him give a decided opinion upon her appearance has now grown to be a settled purpose with her. She moves her foot impatiently upon the ground, then, suddenly, she lifts her eyes to his the large, sweet, wistful eyes he has learned to know so well, and that now are quick with defiance and says, obstinately:

“Do you think it suits me?”

He pauses. And then a peculiar smile that, somehow, angers her excessively, grows round his lips and lingers there.

“Yes,” he answers, slowly; “you are looking admirably you are looking all you can possibly desire to-night.”

She is deeply angered. She turns abruptly aside, and, passing him, goes quickly to the door.

“I beg your pardon,” he says, hastily, following her, with a really contrite expression on his face. “Of course I know you did not want me to say that yet what was it you did want me to say? You challenged me, you know.”

“I am keeping you from your work,” says Portia, quietly. “Go back to it. I know I should not have come here to disturb you, and

“Do not say that,” he interrupts her, eagerly. “I deserve it, I know, but do not. I have lost all interest in my work. I cannot return to it to-night. And that book you brought, let me have it now, will you? I shall be glad of it by-and-by.”

Before she can refuse, a sound of footsteps without makes itself heard; there is a tinkling, as of many bangles, and then the door is thrown wide, and Dulce enters.

She is looking very pretty in a gown of palest azure. There is a brightness, a joyousness, about her that must attract and please the eye; she is, indeed,

“One not tired with life’s long day, but glad
I’ the freshness of its morning.”

“I have come to say good-night to you, Fabian,” she says, regarding her brother with loving, wistful eyes. “I suppose I shan’t be able to see you again until to-morrow. Promise me you will go to bed, and to sleep, soon.”

“That is the very simplest promise one can give,” returns he, mockingly. “Why should not one sleep?” Then, seeing the extreme sadness that has settled on her mignonne face, that should, by right, only be glad with smiles, goes on more gently: “Be happy; I shall do all you ask me.”

“Ah, Portia, you here, too,” says Dulce, smiling gratefully at her. “How sweet you are looking to-night and your gown how perfect. Isn’t it lovely, Fabian?”

“Quite lovely,” slowly.

“And she herself, too,” goes on Dulce, enthusiastically, “isn’t she lovely, as well?”

“Yes,” says Fabian, still more slowly.

“She is like a dream of snow, or purity or something,” says Dulce, vaguely, but admiringly.

“Or ice?” says Fabian.

“Oh, no, not ice. It is too hard, too unsympathetic, too cold.”

“They are both cold, are they not?” says Portia, with a very faint smile. “Both ice and snow.”

“Dulce, Dulce!” calls somebody, from without.

“Now, who is that,” says Miss Blount, irritably. “Roger, of course. I really never am allowed one moment to myself when he is in the house. He spends his entire time, first calling me, and then quarreling with me when he finds me. He does it on purpose, I think. He can’t bear me to have even one peaceful or happy instant. I never met any one so utterly provoking as Roger.”

She runs to him, nevertheless, and Portia moves as if to follow her.

“Don’t leave me in anger,” entreats Fabian, in some agitation, detaining her by a gesture full of entreaty. “Do anything but that. Think of the long hours I shall have to put in here, by myself, with nothing but my own thoughts; and say something kind to me before you go.”

“You forget,” she says, with slow reproach, her eyes on the ground. “How can you hope for anything even one word sympathetic from ice. Let me go to Dulce.”

“You shall not leave me like this,” dictates he, desperately, shutting the door with sudden passion, and deliberately placing his back against it. “Am I not sufficiently unhappy that you should seek to make me even more so; to add, indeed, a very crown to my misery. I will not face the long night alone with this fresh grief! The remembrance of your face as it now looks at me, of your eyes, so calm, so unforgiving, would fill the weary hours with madness. You don’t know what it is to endure the pangs of Tantalus, to have a perpetual hunger at your heart that can never be satisfied. I do. I have suffered enough. You must be friends with me before you go.”

“I came to make friends with you. I wanted to be friends with you, and

“Yes, I know. I received you ungraciously; I grant it; but was there nothing for me to forgive? And even if I was unpardonably ungrateful for your kindness, is that so heavy a crime that I should be punished for it with what is worse than death? Portia, I entreat you, once again, put your hand in mine before you leave me.”

He is very pale, and there is a very agony of expectation in his dark eyes. But yet she stands irresolute, not seeing his agony, because her head is bent, with her fair arms still hanging before her, with her fingers closely intertwined.

He can look unrebuked upon her beauty, upon the rounded whiteness of her arms, upon the tumultuous rise and fall of her bosom, upon the little shapely, perfect head, that might well have graced a throne.

Each rich charm in her lovely downcast face is clear to him; a great yearning takes possession of his breast, an unconquerable desire to tell her all he feels for her. There have been moments when he has thought he must fall at her feet, and laying hold of the hem of her garment, cry aloud to her from out his heart’s wild longing, “I have gone mad! I love you! Let me die!”

This is such a moment. Oh! to be able to take her in his arms for even one brief instant, and hold her close to his breaking heart this silent girl, with her pride, and her beauty, and her cruel tenderness.

He sighs heavily, and turns his head away. Still no word escapes her. She might almost be cut in marble, so quiet, so motionless she stands. Is she indifferent to his pain; or careless of it or ignorant?

“Go, then,” he says, without looking at her, in a voice from which all warmth and feeling of any sort, be it anger or regret, has flown. “There is no reason at all why you should waste even one kind word or touch upon me. I was mad to ask it.”

At this, life returns to her. Her lips quiver; she lifts her eyes to his, and such is the force of her regard that he is constrained, sorely against his will, to return it. Then he can see her eyes are full of tears great liquid loving drops that tremble to their fall; and even as he watches them, in painful wonder, they part from her lids and run all down her pale but rounded checks.

She holds out to him, not one, but two hands. His whole face changes; a gladness, that has in it something of heaven, fills his eyes.

Taking the little trembling hands softly in his own, he lays them on his beating heart.

For a moment only, then he lets them fall; and then, before this divine joy has quite left him, he finds himself, once more alone.