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

“What sudden anger’s this? How have I reaped it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin leaped from
his eyes.” SHAKESPEARE.

The night wears on. By this time everybody is either pleased or disappointed with the evening. For the most part, of course, they looked pleased, because frowns are unbecoming; but, then, looks go for so little.

Julia, who has impounded a middle-aged baronet, is radiant. The middle-aged baronet is not! He evidently regards Julia as a sort of modern albatross, that hangs heavily to his neck, and withers beneath her touch. She has been telling him all about her early life in India, and her troubles, and the way she suffered with her servants, and various other private matters; and the poor baronet doesn’t seem to see it, and is very fatigued indeed. But Julia has him fast, and so there is little hope for him.

Dulce and Roger have been at open war ever since the second dance. From their eyes, when directed at each other, have darted forked lightning since that fatal dance.

“If they could only have been kept apart for ‘this night only,’” says Sir Mark, in despair, “all might have been well; but the gods ordained otherwise.”

Perhaps the careless gods had Stephen Gower’s case in consideration; at all events, that calm young man, profiting by the dispute between the betrothed pair, has been making decided, if smothered, love to Dulce, all the evening.

By this time, indeed, the whole room has noticed his infatuation, and covert remarks about the probability of her carrying on to a successful finish her first engagement are whispered here and there.

Sir Christopher is looking grave and anxious. Some kind friend has been making him as uncomfortable about Dulce’s future as circumstances will permit.

Meanwhile, Dulce herself, with a bright flush upon her cheeks and a light born of defiance in her blue-green eyes, is dancing gaily with Stephen, and is looking charming enough to draw all eyes upon her.

Dicky Browne, of course, is in his element. He is dancing with everybody, talking to everybody, flirting with everybody, and is, as he himself declares, “as jolly as a sand boy.” He is making love indiscriminately all round with old maids and young married and single with the most touching impartiality.

“Dicky is like the bee amongst the flowerets. By Jove, if he improves the shining hours, he ought to make a good match yet,” says Dicky’s papa, who has condescended to forsake his club for one night, and grace Dulce’s ball with his somewhat attenuated charms.

As the above speech will prove, Mr. Browne senior’s knowledge of Watts and Tommy Moore is limited and decidedly mixed.

Among all the fair women assembled at the Hall to-night, to Portia, beyond dispute, must the golden apple be awarded. She is still pale, but exceedingly beautiful. The wistful, tired expression that darkens her eyes only serves to heighten her loveliness, and throw out the delicate tinting of her fair skin. Dulce, noticing her extreme pallor, goes up to her, and whispers gently:

“You are tired, darling. Do not dance any more, unless you wish it.”

“I am not sure, I don’t wish it; I don’t exactly know what it is I do wish,” says Portia, with a rather broken smile. “I daresay, like most other things in this life, I shall find out all about it when it is too late. But finish your waltz, dearest, and don’t puzzle your brain about me.”

All the windows are thrown wide open. Outside the heavens are alight with stars. The air is heavy with the breath of dying flowers, and the music faint and low at times, and again wild and sweet rises and swells as the director waves to and fro his magic wand.

Inside, in the conservatories, the lamps are burning low; the tender blossoms are hanging down their heads. Between the dark green branches of the shrubs, lights blue and red and yellow gleam softly. In the distance may be heard the plaintive drip-drip of many fountains.

Roger, passing through one of the halls, and seeing Dulce and Mr. Gower standing before a huge Chelsea bowl of flowers, stops short, hesitates, and then, bon gré mal gré, goes up to them and makes some trivial remark that neither deserves an answer nor gets one.

Dulce is apparently wrapped up in the contemplation of a flower she has taken from the old bowl that looks something like an indoor Marguerite; she is plucking it slowly to pieces, and as she so mutilates it, whispers softly the incantation that will help to declare her fortune:

Il maime un peu beaucoup passionement pas du tout. Il maime un peu

The petals are all gone; nothing remains but the very heart of the poor flower, which now, as she breaks it mercilessly in two, flutters sadly to her feet, and dies there.

“Yes just so,” she says, with a little hostile glance at Roger, distinctly seen by Gower “and such a very little, that it need hardly count!”

“What an unsatisfactory lover,” says Roger, rather satirically, returning her glance with interest. “Of whom were you thinking?”

My dear Roger, you forget, says Miss Blount, with admirable promptitude; how could I think of any one in that light! I have never had a lover in my life. I have only had you!” She says this slowly, and lets her lids fall half over her eyes, that are now gleaming with undue brilliancy.

“True!” replies Dare, with maddening concurrence, stroking his mustache softly.

Isn’t Roger charming,” says Dulce (her own manner deeply aggravating in its turn), tapping Gower’s arm lightly and confidentially with her fan; “so honest and withal so gracious.”

“A compliment from you is, indeed, worth having,” says Roger, who is in a dreadful temper; “but a truce to them now. By-the-by, were you really thinking of me just now when you plucked that unoffending flower to pieces? I can hardly bring myself to believe it.”

“If not of you, of whom should I be thinking?” retorts she, calmly but defiantly.

“Well Gower, for example,” says Roger, with a sneering laugh, and unpardonable bad taste. “He looks as though he could do a lover’s part at a moment’s notice, and without the slightest effort.”

As he makes this objectionable little speech, he turns on his heel and leaves them.

Dulce, crimson, and with her breath coming somewhat quickly, still lets her eyes meet Gower’s bravely.

“I must ask you to excuse my cousin,” she says, quietly. “How warm the rooms are; is there no air anywhere, I wonder?”

“On the balcony there is,” says Gower, gently. “Shall we go there for a minute or two?”

She lays her hand upon his arm, and goes with him through the lighted, heavily-perfumed rooms on to the balcony, where the cool air is blowing, and where the fresh scent from the waving pines makes itself felt.

The moon is sailing in all its grandeur overhead. Below, the world is white with its glory. The music of many rivulets, as they rush sleepless to the river, sounds sweeter far than even the strains of the band within.

It is past midnight. The stars are growing pale. Already the “world’s heart” begins to throb,

“And a wind blows,
With unknown freshness over lands and seas.”

Something in the silence and majesty of the hour, and something, perhaps, within her own heart, brings the unbidden tears to Dulce’s eyes.

“What can be the matter with Roger?” asks Stephen, presently, in a low tone. “We used to be such good friends, long ago. I never saw anyone so changed. He used to be a genial sort of fellow.” The emphasis is very expressive.

“Used he?” says Dulce, in a somewhat expressionless tone.

“Yes; a right down good sort.”

“Is he so very bad now?” says Dulce, deliberately and dishonestly ignorant.

“To you yes.”

There is a pause.

“I think I hardly understand you,” she says, in a tone that should have warned him to be silent.

“Have you forgotten the scene of a moment since?” he asks her, eagerly. “His voice, his glance, his whole manner were unbearable; you bore it like an angel but why should you bear anything? Why should you trouble yourself about him at all? Why not show that you care as little for him as he cares for

“Go on,” says Dulce, imperiously.

“As he cares for you, then,” says Stephen, recklessly.

“You have been studying us to some purpose, evidently,” exclaims Dulce, turning to him with extreme bitterness. “I suppose, indeed, you are not alone in your judgment. I daresay it is apparent to the whole world that I am a matter of perfect indifference to to my cousin!”

“‘Who runs may read,’” says Stephen with quiet determination. “Why should I lie to you? He must be blind and deaf, I think it is not to be accounted for in any other way. Why, that other morning in the garden, you remember how he then

“I remember nothing,” interrupts she, haughtily, turning away from him, deep offence in her eyes.

But he follows her.

“Now you are angry with me,” he says, miserably, trying to look into her averted face.

“Why should I be angry?” she says, petulantly. “Is it because you tell me Roger does not care for me? Do you think I did not know that before? It is, indeed, a question with me whether I am or am not an object of aversion to the man I have promised to marry.”

“You speak very hardly,” he says.

“I speak what is in my heart,” says Dulce, tremulously.

“Nevertheless, I should not have said what I did,” says Stephen, remorsefully, “I know that. Whatever I might have thought, I should have kept it to myself; but” in a low tone “it maddens me to see you give yourself voluntarily to one incapable of appreciating the treasure that has fallen to his share a treasure beyond price when there are others who, for a word, a glance, a smile, would barter

He pauses. His voice is trembling. His eyes are bent upon the ground as though he is half afraid to meet her glance. There is genuine feeling in his tone.

Dulce, impressed by his open agitation, in spite of herself, leans over the balcony, and lets her fingers wander nervously amongst the leaves of the Virginian creeper that has intertwined itself in the ironwork, and is now fluttering within her reach. It is gleaming blood-red beneath the kiss of the fickle moonbeams, that dance hither and thither amidst its crimson foliage.

Plucking two or three of the reddest leaves, she trifles with them gently, and concentrating all her attention on them, gives herself an excuse for avoiding Stephen’s earnest gaze. Her hands are unsteady. She is affected by the sincerity of his manner; and just now, too, she is feeling hurt and wounded, and, perhaps, a little reckless. Her self-pride (that dearest possession of a woman) has sustained a severe shock; for the first time she has been awakened to the fact that the whole country considers her as naught in the eyes of the man whose wife she has promised to be.

To prove to the country that she is as indifferent to Roger as he (it appears) is to her, becomes a settled desire within her heart; the more she dwells upon this, the more sweet it seems to her that there should be another man willing to be her slave; another in whose sight she is all that a woman should be, and to whom each tone of her voice, each glance of her soft eyes, is as a touch of heaven!

Her silence emboldening Gower, he bends over her, and lays his hand upon the slender fingers that are still holding the scarlet leaves of the Virginian creeper.

“Do you understand me?” he asks, nervously.

“Yes.”

She feels almost constrained to answer him honestly, so compelling is the extreme earnestness of his manner.

“It seems a paltry thing now to say that I love you,” goes on Gower in an impassioned tone that carries her away with it, now that she is sore at heart; “You know that. You have known it for weeks.” He puts aside with a gesture her feeble attempt at contradiction. “Every thought of my heart is yours; I live only in the hope that I shall soon see you again. Tell me now honestly, would it be possible to break off this engagement with your cousin?”

At this she shrinks a little from him, and a distressed look comes into her beautiful eyes.

What are you saying? she says, in a half-frightened way. It has been going on for so long, this engagement always, as it seems to me. How should I break it off? And then there is Uncle Christopher, he would be unhappy; he would not forgive, and besides

Her voice dies away. Memory vague but sharp, comes to her. If she should now deliberately discard Roger, how will it be with her in the future? And yet what if he should be glad of his freedom; should welcome it with open arms? If, indeed, he should be only waiting for her to take the initiative, and give him his release!

This reflection carries its sting; there is madness in it. She closes her lips firmly, and her breath comes quickly and uncertainly.

“It will be better for you later on,” breaks in Gower, tempting her, surely but quietly. “When you are married it is all very well for you now, when escape at any moment is possible; but when you are irrevocably bound to an unloving husband how will it be with you? Other women have tried it, and how has it ended with them? Not as it will with you, I know; you are far above the many; but still your life will drag with you there will be no joy! no sympathy! no Dulce have pity on yourself (I do not say on me), and save yourself while you can.”

She makes a last faint protest.

“How do you know he does not love me?” she asks, painfully. “How can you be sure? and at least” wistfully “we are accustomed to each other, we have known each other all our lives, and we have quarrelled so hard already that we can scarcely do anything more the worst with us is over.”

“It will be different then,” says Gower he is speaking from his heart in all honesty. “Now you belong to him only in an improbable fashion; then

“It is your belief that he does not love me at all?” interrupts she, tapping her foot impatiently upon the ground.

“It is my belief,” returns he slowly.

Almost as he speaks, some one steps from the lighted room beyond on the balcony and approaches them. It is Roger.

“This is ours, I think,” he says, addressing Dulce, and alluding to the waltz just commencing.

“Is it what a pity; I had quite forgotten,” she says, wilfully. “I am afraid I have half promised it to Mr. Gower, and you know he dances charmingly.”

The emphasis not to be mistaken. The remark, of course, is meant alone for Roger, and he alone hears it. Gower has gone away from them a yard or two and is buried in thought. As Roger dances divinely her remark is most uncalled for and vexes him more than he would care to confess.

“Don’t let me interfere with you and your new friend,” he says, lifting his brows. “If you want to dance all night with Gower, by all means do it; there is really no earthly reason why you shouldn’t.”

Here, as his own name falls upon his ears, Gower turns and looks at Roger expectantly.

“I absolve you willingly from your engagement to me,” goes on Roger, his eyes fixed upon his wilful cousin, his face cold and hard. The extreme calmness of his tone misleads her. Her lips tighten. A light born of passionate anger darkens her gray eyes.

“Do you?” she says, a peculiar meaning in her tone.

“From this engagement only,” returns he, hastily.

“Thank you. Of your own free will, then, you resign me, and give me permission to dance with whom I will.”

The warm blood is flaming in her cheeks. He has thrown her over very willingly. He is evidently glad to escape the impending waltz. How shall she be avenged for this indignity?

“Mr. Gower,” she says, turning prettily to Stephen, “will you get me out of my difficulty? and will you dance this waltz with me? You see,” with a brave effort to suppress some emotion that is threatening to overpower her, “I have to throw myself upon your mercy.”

“You confer a very great honor upon me,” says Gower, gently. The courtesy of his manner is such a contrast to Roger’s ill-temper, that the latter loses the last grain of self-control he possesses. There is, too, a little smile of conscious malice upon Gower’s lips that grows even stronger as his eyes rest upon the darkened countenance of his whilom friend. His whilom friend, seeing it, lets wrath burn even fiercer within his breast.

“You are not engaged to any one else?” says Dulce, sweetly, forgetting how a moment since she had told Roger she had half promised Gower the dance in question.

“Even if I was, I am at your service now and always,” says Gower.

“As my dancing displeases you so excessively,” says Roger, slowly, “it seems a shame to condemn you to keep the rest of your engagements with me. I think I have my name down upon your card for two more waltzes. Forget that, and give them to Gower, or any one else that suits you. For my part I do not care to ” He checks himself too late.

“Go on,” says Dulce, coldly, in an ominously calm fashion. “You had more to say, surely; you do not care to dance them with me you meant to say. Isn’t it?”

“You can think as you wish, of course.”

“All the world is free to do that. Then I may blot your name from my card for the rest of the evening?”

“Certainly.”

“If those dances are free, Miss Blount, may I ask you for them?” says Stephen, pleasantly.

“You can have them with pleasure,” replies she, smiling kindly at him.

“Don’t stay too long in the night air, Dulce,” says Roger, with the utmost unconcern, turning to go indoors again. This is the unkindest cut of all. If he had gone away angry, silent, revengeful, she might perhaps have forgiven him, but this careful remembrance of her, this calm and utterly indifferent concern for her comfort fills her with vehement anger.

The blood forsakes her lips, and her eyes grow bright with passionate tears.

“Why do you take things so much to heart?” says Stephen, in a low voice. “Do you care so greatly then about an unpleasant speech from him? I should have thought you might have grown accustomed to his brusquerie by this.”

“He wasn’t brusque just now,” says Dulce. “He was very kind, was he not? Careful about my catching cold, and that.”

Very,” says Gower, significantly. “Yet there are tears in your eyes. What a baby you are.”

“No, I am not,” says Dulce, mournfully. “A baby is an adorable thing, and I am very far from being that.”

“If babies are to be measured by their adorableness, I should say you are the very biggest baby I ever saw,” declares Mr. Gower, with such an amount of settled conviction in his tone that Dulce, in spite of the mortification that is still rankling in her breast, laughs aloud. Delighted with his success, Gower laughs, too, and taking her hand draws it within his arm.

“Come, do not let us forget Roger gave you to me for this dance,” he says. “If only for that act of grace, I forgive him all his misdeeds.” With a last lingering glance at the beauty of the night, together they return to the ballroom.