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

I do perceive here a divided duty. Othello.

JEALOUSY is the keenest, the most selfish, the most poignant of all sufferings. “It is,” says Milton, “the injured lover’s hell.” This monster having now seized upon Stephen, is holding him in a close embrace and is swiftly crushing within him all hope and peace and joy.

To watch Dulce day after day in her cousin’s society, to mark her great eyes grow brighter when he comes, is now more than he can endure. To find himself second where he had been first is intolerable to him, and a shrinking feeling that warns him he is being watched and commented upon by all the members of the Blount household, renders him at times half mad with rage and wounded pride.

Not that Dulce slights him in any way, or is cold to him, or gives him to understand, even indirectly, that she would gladly know her engagement at an end. She is both kind and gentle much more so than before but any doubt he had ever entertained about her having a real affection for him has now become a certainty.

He had won her unfairly. He had wrought upon her feelings in an evil hour, when her heart was torn with angry doubts and her self-love grievously hurt; when all her woman’s soul was aflame with the thought that she was the unwelcome property of a man who would gladly be rid of her.

Her parting with Roger, and the unexpected emotion he had then betrayed, had opened her eyes in part, and had shown her how she had flung away the thing she desired, to gain naught. Even now, I think she hardly knows how well she loves her cousin, or how well he loves her, so openly displayed is her pleasure in his society, so glad is the smile that welcomes him whenever he enters the room where she is, or seats himself beside her which is very often or when he addresses her, which means whenever he has anything at all to say to anybody.

At first he had fought manfully against his growing fears, but when a week had gone by and he had had it forced upon him that the girl he loved was every day becoming more silent and distraite in his presence, and when he had seen how she would gladly have altogether avoided his coming if she could, he lost all heart, and, flinging up his cards, let a bitter revengeful feeling enter and take possession of his heart where love, alone, before, had held full sway.

If not his she shall at least never be Roger’s. This he swears to himself, with white lips and eyes dangerously bright.

He has her promise, and he will keep her to it. Nothing shall induce him to release her from it; or if he has to consent to her not fulfilling her engagement with him, it shall be only on condition that she will never marry Dare. Even should she come to him with tears in her eyes and on her bended knees to ask him to alter this decision, she will beg in vain. He registers a bitter vow that Roger shall not triumph where he has failed.

He knows Dulce sufficiently well to understand that she will think a good deal of breaking the word she gave him of her own free will, even though she gave it in anger and to her own undoing. He can calculate to a nicety the finer shades of remorse and self-contempt that will possess her when he lays his case in all its nakedness before her. She is a wilful, hot-tempered little thing, but the Blounts for generations have been famed for a strain of honor toward friend and foe that runs in their blood, and is dear to them as their lives. Therefore he knows her word will be as sacred to her as her bond.

To Stephen just at this time the world is a howling wilderness; there is no sun anywhere, and every spring is dry. He has fallen into the habit of coming very seldom to the Court, where he used to be morning, noon, and night, ever since his unlucky engagement; indeed, no one in the house or out of it has seen him since the day before yesterday.

Sitting at home, brooding over his wrongs, with a short and well-blackened pipe in his mouth, he is giving himself up a victim to despair and rage. That he can still love her with even, it seems to him, a deeper intensity than before, is the bitterest drop in his cup. It was all so sudden, so unexpected. He tortures himself now with the false belief that she was beginning to love him, that she might have loved him had time been given him, and had Egypt held Roger but a few months longer in her foster arms. In a little flash it had all come to him, and now his life is barren, void of interest, and full of ceaseless pain.

“Bring withered Autumn leaves,
Call everything that grieves,
And build a funeral pyre above his head!
Heap there all golden promise that deceives,
Beauty that wins the heart, and then bereaves,
For love is dead.

“Not slowly did he die.
A meteor from the sky
Falls not so swiftly as his spirit fled
When, with regretful, half-averted eye,
He gave one little smile, one little sigh,
And so was sped.”

These verses, and such as these, he reads between his doleful musings. It gives him some wretched comfort to believe Dulce had actually some sparks of love for him before her cousin’s return. An erroneous belief, as she had never cared for him in that way at all, and at her best moments had only a calm friendship for him. It is my own opinion that even if Roger had never returned she yet would have found an excuse at some time to break off her engagement with Gower, or, at least, to let him understand that she would wish it broken.

To-day is fine, though frosty, and everybody, the children included, are skating on the lake, which is to be found about half a mile from the house at the foot of a “wind-beaten hill.” The sun is shining coldly, as though steadily determined to give no heat, and a sullen wind is coming up from the distant shore. “Stern Winter loves a dirge-like sound,” and must now, therefore, be happy, as Boreas is asserting himself nobly, both on land and sea.

Some of the jeunesse doree of the neighborhood, who have been lunching at the Court, are with the group upon the lake, and are cutting (some of them) the most remarkable figures, in every sense of the word, to their own and everybody else’s delight.

Dulce, who is dressed in brown velvet and fur, is gliding gracefully hither and thither with her hand fast locked in Roger’s. Julia is making rather an exhibition of herself, and Portia, who skates as she does everything else to perfection, but who is easily tired, is just now sitting upon the bank with the devoted Dicky by her side. Sir Mark, coming up to these last two, drops lazily down on the grass at Portia’s other side.

“Why don’t you skate, Mark?” asks Portia, turning to him.

“Too old,” says Gore.

“Nonsense! You are not too old for other things that require far greater exertion. For one example, you will dance all night and never show sign of fatigue.”

“I like waltzing.”

“Ah! and not skating.”

“It hurts when one falls,” says Mark, with a yawn; “and why put oneself in a position likely to create stars before one’s eyes, and a violent headache at any moment?”

“Inferior drink, if you take enough of it, will do all that sometimes,” says Mr. Browne, innocently.

“Will it? I don’t know anything about it” (severely). “You do, I shouldn’t wonder; you speak so feelingly.”

“If you address me like that again, I shall cry,” says Dicky, sadly.

“Why are not you and Portia skating? It is far too cold to sit still on this damp grass.”

“I am tired,” says Portia, smiling rather languidly. “It sounds very affected, doesn’t it? but really I am very easily fatigued. The least little exertion does me up. Town life, I suppose. But I enjoy sitting here and watching the others.”

“So do I,” says Sir Mark. “It quite warms my heart to see them flitting to and fro over there like a pretty dream.”

“What part of your heart?” asks Mr. Browne, with a suppressed chuckle “the cockles of it?” It is plain he has not yet forgotten his snubbing of a minute since.

Nobody takes any notice of this outrageous speech. It is passed over very properly in the deadliest silence.

“By Jove!” says Sir Mark, presently, “there’s Macpherson down again. That’s the eighteenth time; I’ve counted it.”

“He can’t skate a little screw,” says Dicky. “It’s a pity to be looking at him. It only raises angry passions in one’s breast. He ought to go home and put his head in a bag.”

“A well-floured one,” responded Sir Mark.

Portia laughs. Her laugh is always the lowest, softest thing imaginable.

“Charitable pair,” she says.

“Why, the fellow can’t stand,” says Mr. Browne, irritably. “And he looks so abominably contented with himself and his deplorable performance. That last time he was merely trying to get from that point there to that,” waving his hand in both directions. “Any fool could do it. See, I’ll show you.” He jumps to his feet, gets on to the ice, essays to do what Captain Macpherson had tried to do, and succeeds in doing exactly what Captain Macpherson did. That is to say, he instantly comes a most tremendous cropper right in front of Portia.

Red, certainly, but consumed with laughter at his own defeat, he returns to her side. There is no use in attempting it, nothing earthly could have power to subdue Dicky’s spirits. He is quite as delighted at his own discomfiture as if it had happened to somebody else.

“You were right, Dicky,” says Sir Mark, when he can speak, “Any fool could do it. You did it.”

I did, says Dicky, roaring with laughter; with a vengeance. Never mind

’Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in the dust.’”

“I hardly think I follow you,” says Sir Mark. “Where’s the dust, Dicky, and where’s the just? I can’t see either of them.”

“My dear fellow, never be literal; nothing is so so boring,” says Mr. Browne, with conviction. “I’m,” striking his chest, “the dust, and there,” pointing to the lake, “is the just, and no, by-the-by, that don’t sound right I mean

“Oh, never mind it,” says Sir Mark.

Dulce and Roger having skated by this time past all the others, and safely over a rather shaky part of the ice that leaves them at the very farthest corner of the lake, stop somewhat out of breath and look at each other triumphantly.

Dulce is looking, if possible, more bonny than usual. Her blood is aglow, and tingling with the excitement of her late exertion; her hair, without actually having come undone, is certainly under less control than it was an hour ago, and is glinting and changing from auburn to brown, and from brown to a warm yellow, beneath the sad kisses of the Wintry sun. One or two riotous locks have escaped from under her otter-skin cap and are straying lovingly across her fair forehead, suggesting an idea of coquetry in the sweet eyes below shaded by their long dark lashes.

“Your eyes are stars of morning,
Your lips are crimson flowers,”

says Roger softly, as they still stand hand in hand. He is looking at her intently, with a new meaning in his glance as he says this.

“What a pretty song that is!” says Miss Blount, carelessly. “I like it better almost every time I hear it.”

“It was you made me think of it now,” says Roger; and then they seat themselves upon a huge stone near the brink, that looks as if it was put there on purpose for them.

“Where is Gower?” asks Roger, at length, somewhat abruptly.

“Yes where?” returns she, in a tone suggestive of the idea that now for the first time she had missed him. She says it quite naturally and without changing color. The fact is it really is the first time she has thought of him to-day, but I regret to say Roger firmly believes she is acting, and that she is doing it uncommonly well.

“He hasn’t been at the Court since yesterday has he?” he asks, somewhat impatiently.

“N o. But I dare say he will turn up by-and-by. Why?” with a quick glance at him from under her heavy lashes. “Do you want him?”

“Certainly not. I don’t want him,” said Roger, with exceeding emphasis upon the pronoun.

“Then I don’t know anybody else who does,” finishes Dulce, biting her lips.

“She is regularly piqued because the fellow hasn’t turned up a lover’s quarrel, I suppose,” says Mr. Dare, savagely, to himself, reading wrongly that petulant movement of her lips.

“YOU do!” he says. To be just to him, he is, and always, I think, will be, a terribly outspoken young man.

I do?”

“Yes; you looked decidedly cut up just now when I spoke of his not being here since yesterday.”

“You are absurdly mistaken,” declares Miss Blount, with dignity. “It is a matter of the most perfect indifference to me whether he comes or goes.” (Oh, if he could only know how true this is!)

“Even more piqued than I supposed,” concludes Roger, inwardly.

“However, I have no doubt we shall see him this evening,” goes on Dulce, calmly.

That will be a comfort to you, at all events,” murmurs he, gloomily.

Silence follows this. Nothing is heard save the distant laughter of the skaters at the other end of the lake and the scraping noise of their feet. The storm is rising steadily in the hills above, but as yet has not descended on the quiet valley. The gaunt trees are swaying and bending ominously, and through them one catches glimpses of the angry sky above, across which clouds are scudding tempestuously. The dull sun has vanished: all is gray and cheerless. The roar of the breakers upon the rock-bound coast comes up from afar: while up there upon the wooded hill the

“Wind, that grand old harper, smites
His thunder-harp of pines.”

“Perhaps we had better return to the others,” says Dulce, coldly, making a movement as though to rise.

“Now I have offended you,” exclaims Roger, miserably, catching her hand, and drawing her down to the stone beside him again. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me; I only know I am as wretched as ever I can be. Forgive me, if you can.”

He pulls his hat over his eyes and sighs deeply. At this moment his whole appearance is so decidedly suicidal that no true woman could look at him unmoved. Miss Blount is a true woman, her hauteur of a moment since vanishes like snow, and compassion takes its place.

“What is making you wretched?” she asks, in a tone meant to be severe, but which is only friendly.

“When I remember what a fool I have been,” begins Roger, rather as if he is following out a train of thought than answering her.

“Oh, no; not that,” says Dulce, very kindly; “don’t call yourself that.”

“There is no other name for me,” persists Roger, with increasing melancholy. “Of course, at that time I knew you didn’t particularly care for me, but,” disconsolately, “it never occurred to me you might care for any other fellow!”

“I didn’t!” said Miss Blount, suddenly; and then, as suddenly, she remembers everything, her engagement to Stephen, her horror of that engagement, all that her last words have admitted, and, growing as red as a rose, she seeks to hide her confusion by burying her rounded chin as deep as she can in her soft furs. At the same time she lowers her lids over her shamed eyes and gazes at her boots as if she never saw small twos before.

Roger, I need hardly say, is too much of a gentleman to take any notice of this impulsive admission on her part. Besides, he hardly gets as much consolation out of it as he should. He is in that stage when to pile up the agony becomes a melancholy satisfaction, and when the possibility of comfort in any form takes the shape of a deliberate insult.

“Did you ever once think of me all the time I was away?” he asks, presently, in a low tone that distinctly gives her to understand he believes she didn’t. That in fact he would in in his present frame of mind rather believe she didn’t. His voice is growing absolutely tragic, and, altogether, he is as deplorably unhappy as any young woman could desire.

“I wish,” says poor Dulce, her voice quivering, “that you would not speak to me like this now, or or that you had spoken like it long ago!”

“I wish I had, with all my soul,” says Roger, fervently. “However,” with a heavy sigh, “you are engaged to him now, you know, so I suppose there is no use in talking about it.”

“If I do know it, why tell me again about it?” says Dulce reproachfully, her eyes full of tears. “Just like you to remind me of my misfortune!”

It is out. She has been dying to tell him for the last half-hour of this trouble that has been pressing upon her for months, of this most distasteful engagement, and now that she has told him, though frightened, yet she would hardly recall her words. Her lashes linger on her cheeks, and she looks very much as if she would like to cry but for the disgrace of the thing.

“Your misfortune!” repeats Roger, in a strange tone. “Are you not happy, then?”

He has risen to his feet in his surprise and agitation, and is looking down on her as she sits trembling before him, her hands tightly clasped together.

“Do you mean to tell me he is not good to you?” asks Roger, seeing she either cannot or will not speak.

“He is too good to me; you must not think that,” exclaims she, earnestly. “It is only that I don’t care about his goodness I don’t care,” desperately, “for anything connected with him.”

“You have made a second mistake, then?”

“Not a second,” in a very low tone.

“Then let us say, you have again changed your mind?”

“No.”

“You liked him once?” impatiently.

“No.”

“You might as well say you did like me,” says Roger, with angry warmth; “and I know I was actually abhorrent in your sight.”

“Oh, no, no,” says Dulce for the third time, in a tone so low now that he can hardly hear it; yet he does.

“Dulce! do you know what you are implying?” asks he, in deep agitation. “It is one of two things now: either that you never liked Stephen, and always lov liked me, or else you are trying to make a fool of me for the second time. Which is it?”

To this Miss Blount declines to make any reply.

“I won’t leave this spot to-day until you answer me,” says Roger, fell determination on his brow; “Which is it?”

“I’m sure, at least, that I never liked Stephen in that way,” confesses she, faintly.

“And you did like me?”

Silence again.

“Then,” says Mr. Dare, wrathfully, “for the sake of a mere whim, a caprice, you flung me over and condemned me to months of misery? Did you know what you were doing? Did you feel unhappy? I hope to goodness you did,” says Roger, indignantly; “if you endured even one quarter of what I have suffered, it would be punishment sufficient for you.”

“Had you nothing to do with it?” asks she, nervously.

“No; it was entirely your own fault,” replies he, hastily. Whereupon she very properly bursts into tears.

“Every woman,” says some one, “is in the wrong till she cries; then, instantly, she is in the right.”

So it is with Dulce. No sooner does Roger see “her tears down fa’” than, metaphorically speaking, he is on his knees before her. I am sure but for the people on the lake, who might find an unpleasant amount of amusement in the tableau, he would have done so literally.

“Don’t do that,” he entreats, earnestly. “Don’t Dulce. I have behaved abominably to you. It was not your fault; it was all mine. But for my detestable temper

“And the chocolate creams,” puts in Dulce, sobbing.

“It would never have occurred. Forgive me,” implores he, distractedly, seeing her tears are rather on the increase than otherwise. “I must be a brute to speak to you as I have done.”

“I won’t contradict you,” says Miss Blount, politely, still sobbing. There is plainly a great deal of indignation mingled with her grief. To say it was all her fault, indeed, when he knows.

“Don’t cry any more,” says Roger, coaxingly, trying to draw her hands down from her eyes; “don’t, now, you have got to go back to the others, you know, and they will be wondering what is the matter with you. They will think you had a bad fall.”

This rouses her; she wipes her eyes hastily and looks up.

“How shall I explain to them?” she asks, anxiously.

“We won’t explain at all. Let me take off your skates, and we will walk up and down here until your eyes are all right again. Why, really,” stooping to look at them, “they are by no means bad; they will be as good as ever in five minutes.”

Inexpressibly consoled, she lets him take off her skates, and commences a gentle promenade with him up and down the brown and stunted grass that lies upon the path.

“There was a time,” says Roger, after a pause, “when I might have dared to kiss away your tears, but I suppose that time is gone forever.”

“I suppose so,” dismally; tears are still wetting the sweet eyes she turns up to his.

“Dulce! let me understand you,” says Roger, gravely. “You are quite sure you don’t care for him?”

“Quite,” says Dulce, without a second’s hesitation.

“Then ask him to give you up to release you from your promise,” says Roger, brightly.

“I I’d be afraid,” replies Miss Blount, drooping her head.

“Nonsense!” says Roger (of course it is not he who has to do it). “Why should you feel nervous about a thing like that? You don’t want to marry him, therefore say so. Nothing can be simpler.”

“It doesn’t sound simple to me,” says Dulce, dolefully.

Just at this moment a young man, dressed in gray, emerges from the group of alders that line the south edge of the lake, very near to where Dulce and Roger are standing. He is so situated that he is still concealed from view, though quite near enough to the cousins to hear what they are saying. The last two sentences having fallen on his ears, he stands as if spell-bound, and waits eagerly for what may come next.

“He can’t possibly want to marry you if you don’t want to marry him,” says Roger, logically, “and you don’t?” a little doubtfully still.

“I don’t, indeed,” says Dulce, with a sad sigh and a shake of her auburn head.

At this the young man in the gray suit, with a bitter curse, turns away, and, retracing his steps, gets to the other side of the lake without being seen by either Dulce or his companion.

Here he declines to stay or converse with anyone. Passing by Portia and the two men who are still attending to her, he bows slightly, and pretends not to hear Dicky’s voice as it calls to him to stop.

“He is like that contemptible idiot who went round with the ’banner with the strange device,’” says Dicky Browne, looking after him; “nothing will stop him.”

“What’s up with him now?” asks Sir Mark, squeezing his glass into his eye, the better to watch Stephen’s figure, as it hurriedly disappears.

“I expect he has eaten something that has disagreed with him,” says Dicky, cheerfully.

“Well, really, he looked like it,” says Gore. “A more vinegary aspect it has seldom been my lot to gaze upon, for which I acknowledge my gratitude. My dear Portia, unless you intend to go in for rheumatics before your time, you will get up from that damp grass and come home with me.”