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

“Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.”
In Memoriam.

“DID he I mean did you ever ; Dulce, will you be very angry with me if I ask you a question?”

“No. But I hope it won’t be a disagreeable one,” says Dulce, glancing at him cautiously.

“That is just as you may look at it,” says Roger. “But I suppose I may say it after all, we are like brother and sister are we not?”

“Ye-es. Quite like brother and sister,” says Dulce, but somehow this thought seems to give her no pleasure.

“Only we are not, you know,” puts in Roger, rather hastily.

“No, of course we are not,” replies she, with equal haste.

“Well, then, look here

But even now that he has got so far, he hesitates again, looks earnestly at her, and pulls his mustache uncertainly, as if half afraid to go any further.

It is the afternoon of the next day, and as the sun has come out in great force, and the mildness of the day almost resembles Spring in its earliest stages; they are all about the place, strolling hither and thither, whithersoever pleasant fancy guides them.

Roger and Dulce, after lingering for some time in the Winter garden looking at the snowdrops, and such poor foster-babes as have thrust their pallid faces above the warm earth, that, like a cruel stepmother, has driven them too early from her breast, have moved slowly onwards until they find themselves beside a fountain that used to be a favorite haunt of theirs long ago.

Dulce, seating herself upon the stone-work that surrounds it, though the water is too chilly to be pleasant, still toys lightly with it with her idle fingers, just tipping it coquettishly now and then, with her eyes bent thoughtfully upon as it sways calmly to and fro beneath the touch of the cold wind that passes over it.

Just now she raises her eyes and fixes them inquiringly on Roger.

“Go on,” she says, quietly. “You were surely going to ask me something. Are you afraid of me?”

“A little, I confess.”

“You need not.” She is still looking at him very earnestly.

“Well, then,” says Roger, as though nerving himself for a struggle “tell me this.” He leaves where he is standing and comes closer to her. “Did did you ever kiss Gower?”

Never never!” answers Dulce, growing quite pale.

“I have no right to ask it, I know that,” says Roger. “But,” desperately, “did he ever kiss you?”

“Never, indeed.”

“Honor bright?”

“Honor bright.”

A long silence. Miss Blount’s fingers are quite deep in the water now, and I think she does not even feel the cold of it.

“He has been engaged to you for three months and more and never wanted to kiss you!” exclaims Roger at last, in a tone expressive of great amazement and greater contempt.

“I don’t think I said quite that,” returns she, coloring faintly.

“Then” eagerly “it was you prevented him!”

“I don’t care much about that sort of thing,” says Dulce, with a little shrug.

“Don’t you? Then I don’t believe you care a button about him,” replies he, with glad conviction.

“That is mere surmise on your part. Different people” vaguely “are different. I don’t believe if I had any affection for a person that a mere formal act like kissing would increase the feeling.”

“Oh, wouldn’t it, though!” says Mr. Dare “that’s all you know about it! You just try it, that’s all.”

“Indeed I shall do nothing of the kind,” says Dulce, with much indignation, and some natural disappointment that he should recommend such a course to her!

“I didn’t mean that you should should I didn’t, in the least, that you should be a bit civiller to Gower, or any one, than you are now,” says Roger, hastily, greatly shocked at the construction she has put upon his words, and rather puzzled for language in which to explain himself more clearly. At this the cloud disappears from her pretty face, and she bestows a smile upon him that at once restores him to equanimity.

“I can’t say I think much of Gower as a lover,” he says, after a while, a touch of scorn in his voice. “To be engaged to you for three whole months, and never once to kiss you.”

You were engaged to me for three whole years,” replies his cousin, quietly, yet with a flash from her deep gray eyes that means much, “and I cannot remember that you ever cared to kiss me at all.”

This is a home-thrust.

“I don’t know what was the matter with me then,” he says, making no attempt at denial, though there certainly were one or two occasions he might have referred to; “I don’t believe” in a low tone “I ever knew I was fond of you until until I lost you.”

“Oh, you must not talk to me like this!” entreats she, the tears coming into her eyes and trembling on her long lashes.

“I suppose not. But this new-found knowledge is hard to suppress; why did I not discover it all sooner?”

“Better late than never,” says Dulce, with a poor attempt at lightness and a rather artificial little laugh, meant to conceal the sorrow that is consuming her. “I think you ought to feel gladness in the thought that you know it at last. Knowledge is power, isn’t it?”

“I can feel only sorrow,” says Roger, very sadly. “And I have no power.”

Dulce’s wretched fingers are getting absolutely benumbed in the cold water, yet she seems to feel nothing. Roger, however, stooping over her, lifts the silly little hand and dries it very tenderly, and holds it fast between both his own; doubtless only with the intention of restoring some heat to it. It is quite amazing the length of time it takes to do this.

“Dulce!”

“Well?” She has not looked at him even once during the last five minutes.

“If you are unhappy in your present engagement and I think you are why not break with Gower? I spoke to you of this yesterday, and I say the same thing to-day. You are doing both him and yourself an injustice in letting it go on any longer.”

“I don’t know what to say to him.”

“Then get some one else to say it. Fabian, or Uncle Christopher.”

“Oh, no!” says Dulce, with a true sense of delicacy. “If it is to be done at all I shall do it myself.”

“Then do it. Promise me if you get the opportunity you will say something to him about it.”

“I promise,” says Dulce, very faintly. Then she withdraws the hand from his, and without another word, not even a hint at what the gaining of her freedom may mean to either or rather both of them, they go slowly back to the garden, where they meet all the others sitting in a group upon a huge circular rustic seat beneath a branching evergreen; all, that is, except Fabian, who of late has become more and more solitary in his habits.

As Stephen has not put in an appearance at the Court now for fully two days, speculation is rife as to what has become of him.

“It is the oddest thing I ever knew,” Julia is saying, as the cousins come up to the rustic-seat.

“What is it?” asks Roger, idly.

“Stephen’s defection. He used to be as true as the morning post, and now I hope he hasn’t made away with himself,” says Dicky Browne.

“He has had since this time yesterday to do it,” says Sir Mark. “I wonder if it takes long to cut one’s throat.”

“It entirely depends on whether you have sharpened your razor sufficiently, and if you know how to sharpen it. I should think a fellow devoid of hirsute adornment would take a good while to it,” returns Mr. Browne, with all the air of one who knows. “He wouldn’t be up to it, you know. But our late lamented Stephen was all right. He shaved regular.”

“He was at the lake yesterday,” says Portia. “He came up to us from the southern end of it.”

At this both Dulce and Roger start, and the former changes color visibly.

“I really wonder where he can be,” says Julia.

“So do I,” murmurs Dulce, faintly, but distinctly, feeling she is in duty bound to say something. “Stephen never used to miss a day.”

“Here I am, if you want me,” says Stephen, coming leisurely up to them from between the laurels. “I thought I heard somebody mention my name.”

He is looking pale and haggard, and altogether unlike the languid, unemotional Stephen of a month ago. There are dark circles under his eyes, and his mouth looks strangely compressed, and full of an unpleasant amount of determination.

“I mentioned it,” says Dulce. She is compelled to say this, because he has fixed his eyes upon her, and plainly everybody expects her to reply to him.

“Did you want me?” asks he, casting a scrutinizing glance upon her. So absorbed is he in his contemplation of her that he has positively forgotten the fact that he has omitted to bid any one a “fair good-morrow.”

“I was certainly wondering where you were,” says Dulce, evasively. She is frightened and subdued she scarcely knows why. There is something peculiar in his manner that overawes her.

“It was very good of you to remember my existence. Then you were only wondering at my absence. You did not want me?”

Dulce makes no reply. She would have given anything to be able to make some civil, commonplace rejoinder, but at this moment her wits cruelly desert her.

“I see. Never mind,” says Stephen. “Well, even if you don’t want me, I do want you you will come with me as far as the Beeches?”

His tone is more a command than a question. Hearing it, Roger moves involuntarily a step forward, that brings him nearer to Dulce. He even puts out his hand as though to lay it upon her arm, when Stephen, by a gesture, checks him.

Dont be alarmed, he says, with a low, sneering laugh, every vestige of color gone from his face. I shall do her no harm. I shant murder her, I give you my word. Be comforted, she will be quite as safe with me as she would even be with you.” He laughs again, dismisses Roger from his thoughts by an indescribable motion of his hand, and once more concentrates his attention upon the girl near him, who, with lowered eyes and a pale, distressed face, is waiting unwillingly for what he may say next.

All this is so unusual, and really, every one is so full of wonder at Stephen’s extraordinary conduct, that up to this none of the spectators have said one word. At this juncture, however, Sir Mark clears his throat as if to say something, and, coming forward, would probably have tried the effect of a conciliatory speech, but that Stephen, turning abruptly away from them, takes Dulce’s hand in his, and leads her in silence and with a brow dark as Erebus, up the gravelled path, and past the chilly fountain, and thus out of sight.

It is as though some terrible ogre from out of a fairy tale had descended upon them and plucked their fairest damsel from their midst, to incarcerate her in a ‘donjon keep’ and probably eat her by and by, when she is considered fit to kill.

Do do you think he has gone mad?” asked Julia, with clasped hands and tearful eyes.

“My dear Mark, I think something ought to be done, some one ought to go after her,” says Portia, nervously. “He really looked quite dreadful.”

“I’ll go,” says Roger, angrily.

“No, you won’t,” says Sir Mark, catching hold of him. “Let them have it out, it is far the best thing. And if she gets a regular, right-down, uncommonly good scolding, as I hope she will” viciously, “I can only say she richly deserves it.”

“I can only say I don’t know whether I am standing on my head or on my heels,” says Mr. Browne, drawing a long breath; “I feel cheap. Any one might have me now for little or nothing quite a bargain.”

“I don’t think you’d be a bargain at any price,” says Sir Mark; but this touching tribute to his inestimable qualities is passed over by Mr. Browne in a silence that is almost sublime.

“To think Stephen could look like that!” he goes on, as evenly as if Sir Mark had never spoken. “Why, Irving is a fool to him. Tragedy is plainly his forte. Really, one never knows of what these aesthetic-looking people are capable. He looked murderous.”

At this awful word the children who have been silent and most attentive spectators of the late scene, and who have been enchanted with it turn quite pale, and whisper together in a subdued fashion. When the whispering has reached a certain point, the Boodie gives Jacky an encouraging push, whereupon that young hero darts away from her side like an arrow from a bow, and disappears swiftly round the corner.

Meanwhile, having arrived at the Beeches, a rather remote part of the ground, beautiful in Summer because of the luxuriant foliage of the trees, but now bleak and bare beneath the rough touch of Winter, Stephen stops short and faces his companion steadily. His glance is stern and unforgiving; his whole bearing relentless and forbidding.

To say Miss Blount is feeling nervous would be saying very little. She is looking crushed in anticipation by the weight of the thunderbolt she knows is about to fall. Presently it descends, and once down, she acknowledges to herself it was only a shock after all, worse in the fancy than in the reality; as are most of our daily fears.

“So you wish our engagement at an end?” says Stephen, quite calmly, in a tone that might almost be termed mechanical.

He waits remorselessly for an answer.

“I you I didn’t tell you so,” stammers Dulce.

No prévarications, please. There has been quite enough deception of late.” Dulce looks at him curiously. “Let us adhere to the plain truth now at least. This is how the case stands. You never loved me; and now your cousin has returned you find you do love him; that all your former professions of hatred toward him were just so much air or, let us say, so much wounded vanity. You would be released from me. You would gladly forget I ever played even a small part in the drama of your life. Is not all this true?”

For the second time this afternoon speech deserts Dulce. She grows very white, but answer she has none.

“I understand your silence to mean yes,” goes on Stephen, in the same monotonous tone he had just used, out of which every particle of feeling has been absolutely banished. “It would, let me say, have saved you much discomfort, and your cousin some useless traveling, if you had discovered your passion for him sooner.” At this Dulce draws her breath quickly, and throws up her head with a haughty gesture. Very few women like being told they entertain a passion for a man, no matter how devotedly they adore him.

Mr. Gower, taking no notice of her silent protest, goes on slowly.

“What your weakness and foolish pride have cost me,” he says, “goes for nothing.”

There is something in his face now that makes Dulce sorry for him. It is a want of hope. His eyes, too, look sunk and wearied as if from continued want of sleep.

“If by my reprehensible pride and weakness, of which you justly accuse me, I have caused you pain ” she begins tremulously, but he stops her at once.

“That will do,” he says, coldly. “Your nature is incapable of comprehending all you have done. We will not discuss that subject. I have not brought you here to talk of myself, but of you. Let us confine ourselves to the business that has brought me to-day for the last time, I hope to the Court.”

His tone, which is extremely masterful, rouses Dulce to anger.

“There is one thing I will say,” she exclaims, lifting her eyes fairly to his. “But for you and your false sympathy, and your carefully chosen and most insidious words that fanned the flame of my unjust wrath against him, Roger and I would never have been separated.”

“You can believe what you like about that,” says Gower, indifferently, unmoved by her vehement outburst. “Believe anything that will make your conduct look more creditable to you, anything that will make you more comfortable in your mind if you can. But as I have no wish to detain you here longer than is strictly necessary, and as I am sure you have no wish to be detained, let us not waste time in recriminations, but come at once to the point.”

“What point? I do not understand you,” says Dulce, coldly.

“Yesterday, when passing by the southern end of the lake, hidden by some shrubs, I came upon you and your cousin unawares, and heard you distinctly tell him (what I must be, indeed, a dullard, not to have known before) that you did not love me. This was the substance of what you said, but your tone conveyed far more. It led me to believe you held me in positive detestation.”

“Oh! You were eavesdropping,” says Dulce, indignantly.

Stephen smiles contemptuously.

“No, I was not,” he says, calmly. He takes great comfort to his soul in the remembrance that he might have heard much more that was not intended for his ears had he stayed in his place of concealment yesterday, which he had not. “Accident brought me to that part of the lake, and brought, too, your words to my ears. When I heard them I remembered many trivial things, that at the moment of their occurrence had seemed as naught. But now my eyes are opened. I am no longer blind. I have brought you here to tell you I will give you back your promise to marry me, your freedom” with a sudden bitterness, as suddenly suppressed “on one condition.”

“And that?” breathlessly.

“Is, that you will never marry Roger without my consent.”

The chance of regaining her liberty is so sweet to Dulce at this first moment that it chases from her all other considerations. Oh, to be free again! In vain she strives to hide her gladness. It will not be hidden. Her eyes gleam; her lips get back their color; there is such an abandonment of joy and exultation in her face that the man at her side the man who is now resigning all that makes life sweet to him feels his heart grow mad with bitter hatred of her, himself, and all the world as he watches her with miserable eyes. And he poor fool! had once hoped he might win the priceless treasure of this girl’s love! No words could convey the contempt and scorn with which he regards himself.

“Do not try to restrain your relief,” he says, in a hoarse, unnatural tone, seeing she has turned her head a little aside, as though to avoid his searching gaze. “You know the condition I impose you are prepared to abide by it?”

Dulce hesitates. “Later on he will forget all this, and give his consent to my marrying any one,” she thinks, hurriedly, in spite of the other voice within her, that bids her beware. Then out loud she says, quietly:

“Yes.”

Even if he should prove unrelenting, she tells herself, it will be better to be an old maid than an unloving wife. She will be rid of this hateful entanglement that has been embittering her life for months, and and, of course, he won’t keep her to this absurd arrangement after a while.

“You swear it?”

“I swear it,” says Dulce, answering as one might in a dream. Hers is a dream, happy to recklessness, in which she is fast losing herself.

“It is an oath,” he says again, as if to give her a last chance to escape.

“It is,” replies she, softly, still wrapt in her dream of freedom. She may now love Roger without any shadow coming between them, and ah! how divine a world it is! he may perhaps love her too!

“Remember,” says Gower, sternly, letting each word drop from him as if with the settled intention of imprinting or burning them upon her brain, “I shall never relent about this. You have given me your solemn oath, and I shall keep you to it! I shall never absolve you from it, as I have absolved you from your first promise to-day. Never. Do not hope for that. Should you live to be a hundred years old, you cannot marry your cousin without my consent, and that I shall never give. You quite understand?”

“Quite.” But her tone has grown faint and uncertain. What has she done? Something in his words, his manner, has at last awakened her from the happy dream in which she was reveling.

“Now you can return to your old lover,” says Stephen, with an indescribably bitter laugh, “and be happy. For your deeper satisfaction, too, let me tell you that for the future you shall see very little of me.”

“You are going abroad?” asks she, very timidly, in her heart devoutly hoping that this may be the reading of his last words.

“No; I shall stay here. But the Court I shall trouble with my presence seldom. I don’t know,” exclaims he, for the first time losing his wonderful self control and speaking querulously, “what is the matter with me. Energy has deserted me with all the rest. You have broken my heart, I suppose, and that explains everything. There, go,” turning abruptly away from her; “your being where I can see you only makes matters worse.”

Some impulse prompts Dulce to go up to him and lay her hand gently on his arm.

“Stephen,” she says, in a low tone, “if I have caused you any unhappiness forgive me now.”

“Forgive you?” exclaims he, so fiercely that she recoils from him in absolute terror.

Lifting her fingers from his arm as though they burn him, he flings them passionately away, and, plunging into the short thick underwood, is soon lost to sight.

Dulce, pale and frightened, returns by the path by which she had come, but not to those she had left. She is in no humor now for questions or curious looks; gaining the house without encountering any one, she runs up-stairs, and seeks refuge in her own room.

But if she doesn’t return to gratify the curiosity of the puzzled group on the rustic-seat, somebody else does.

Jacky, panting, dishevelled, out of breath with quick running rushes up to them, and precipitates himself upon his mother.

“It’s all right,” he cries, triumphantly. “He didn’t do a bit to her. I watched him all the time and he never touched her.”

“Who? What?” demands the bewildered Julia. But Jacky disdains explanations.

“He only talked, and talked, and talked,” he goes on, fluently; “and he said she did awful things to him. And he made her swear at him and and

What?” says Sir Mark.

“It’s impossible to know anybody,” sighs Dicky Browne, regretfully, shaking his head at this fresh instance of the frailty of humanity. “Who could have believed Dulce capable of using bad language? I hope her school-children and her Sunday class won’t hear it, poor little things. It would shake their faith forever.”

“How do you know he is talking of Dulce?” says Julia, impatiently. “Jacky, how dare you say dear Dulce swore at any one?”

“He made her,” says Jacky.

“He must have behaved awfully bad to her,” says Dicky, gravely.

“He said to her to swear, and she did it at once,” continues Jacky, still greatly excited.

Con amore,” puts in Mr. Browne.

“And he scolded her very badly,” goes on Jacky, at which Roger frowns angrily; “and he said she broke something belonging to him, but I couldn’t hear what; and then he told her to go away, and when she was going she touched his arm, and he pushed her away awfully roughly, but he didn’t try to murder her at all.”

“What on earth is the boy saying?” says Julia, perplexed in the extreme, “Who didn’t try to murder who?”

“I’m telling you about Dulce and Stephen,” says Jacky, in an aggrieved tone, though still ready to burst with importance. “When he took her away from this, I followed ’m; I kept my eyes on ’m. Dicky said Stephen looked murderous; so I went to see if I could help her. But I suppose he got sorry, because he let her off. She is all right; there isn’t a scratch on her.”

Sir Mark and Dicky were consumed with laughter. But Roger, taking the little champion in his arms, kisses him with all his heart.