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

“Let the dead past bury its dead.” LONGFELLOW.

JUST at first it is so delightful to Dulce to have Roger making actual love to her, and so delightful to Roger to be able to make it, that they are content with their present and heedless of their future.

Not that everything goes quite smoothly with them, even now. Little skirmishes, as of old, arise between them, threatening to dim the brightness of their days. It was, indeed, only yesterday that a very serious rupture was near taking place, all occasioned by a difference of opinion about the respective merits of Mr. Morton’s and Messrs. Crosse & Blackwell’s pickles; Dulce declaring for the former, Roger for the latter.

Fortunately, Mark Gore coming into the room smoothed matters over and drew conversation into a more congenial channel, or lamentable consequences might have ensued.

They hold to their theory about the certainty of Stephen’s relenting in due time until they grow tired of it; and as the days creep on, and Gower sitting alone in his castle in sullen silence refuses to see or speak to them, or give any intimation of a desire to soften towards them, they lose heart altogether, and give themselves up a prey to despair.

Roger one morning had plucked up courage, and had gone over to the Fens, and had forced himself into the presence of its master and expostulated with him “mildly but firmly,” as he assured Dulce afterwards, when she threw out broad hints to the effect that she believed he had lost his temper on the occasion. Certainly, from all accounts, a good deal of temper had been lost, and nothing indeed came of the interview beyond a select amount of vituperation from both sides, an openly avowed declaration on Mr. Gower’s part that as he had not requested the pleasure of his society on this, or any other, occasion, he hoped it would be the last time Roger would present himself at the Fens; an equally honest avowal on the part of Mr. Dare to the effect that the discomfort he felt in coming was almost (it never could be quite) balanced by the joy he experienced at departing, and a few more hot words that very nearly led to bloodshed.

When Roger thought it all over dispassionately next morning, he told himself that now indeed all things were at an end, that no hope lay anywhere; and now February is upon them, and Spring begins to assert itself, and the land has learned to smile again, and all the pretty early buds are swelling in the hedgerows.

I wonder they don’t get tired of swelling only to die in the long run. What does their perseverance gain for them? There is a little sunshine, a little warmth, the songs of a few birds flung across their trailing beauty, and then one heavy shower, and then death! What a monotonous thing is nature, when all is told? Each year is but a long day; each life but a long year: at morn we rise, at night we lay our weary heads upon our pillows: at morn we rise again, and so on. As Winter comes our flowers fade and die; Spring brings them back again; again the Winter kills them, and so forever!

Now Spring has come once more to the old Court, to commence its triumphant reign, regardless of the fact that no matter how bright its day may be while it lasts, still dissolution stares it in the face. The young grass is thrusting its head above ground, a few brave birds are singing on the barren branches. There is a stir, a strange vague flutter everywhere of freshly-opening life.

“We shall have to shake off dull sloth pretty early to-morrow,” says Dicky Browne, suddenly, apropos of nothing that has gone before; his usual method of introducing a subject.

“Why?” asks Portia, almost startled. It is nearly five o’clock, and Mr. Browne, having sequestrated the remainder of the cake, the last piece being the occasion of a most undignified skirmish between him and the Boodie, the Boodie proving victor, is now at liberty to enter into light and cheerful conversation.

“The meet, you know,” says Dicky. “Long way off. Hate hunting myself, when I’ve got to leave my bed for it.”

“You needn’t go,” says Dulce; “nobody is pressing you.”

“Oh! I’m not like you,” says Mr. Browne, contemptuously, “liking a thing to-day and hating it to-morrow. You used to be a sort of modern I mean decent Diana, but lately you have rather shirked the whole thing.”

“I had a cold last day, and and a headache the day before that,” stammers Dulce, blushing scarlet.

“Nobody could hunt with a headache,” says Roger, at which defence Mr. Browne grins.

“Well, you’ve got them over,” he says. “What’s going to keep you at home to-morrow?”

“I don’t understand you, Dicky,” says Miss Blount, with dignity. “I am going hunting to-morrow; there is nothing that I know of likely to keep me at home.”

She is true to her word. Next morning they find her ready equipped at a very early hour, “Taut and trim,” as Dicky tells her, “from her hat to her boots.”

“Do you know,” he says, further, as though imparting to her some information hitherto undiscovered, “joking apart, you will understand, you are really quite a pretty young woman.”

“Thank you, Dicky,” says she, very meekly; and as a more substantial mark of her gratitude for this gracious speech, she drops a fourth lump of sugar into his coffee.

Shortly after this they start, Dulce still in the very gayest spirits, with Roger on her right hand and Mark Gore on her left. But, as they near the happy hunting-grounds, her brightness flags; she grows silent and preoccupied, and each fresh hoof upon the road behind her makes her betray a desire to hide herself behind somebody.

Of late, indeed, hunting has lost its charm for her, and the meets have become a source of confusion and discomfort. Her zest for the chase has sustained a severe check, so great that her favorite hounds have solicited the usual biscuit from her hands in vain.

And all this is because the one thing dear to the soul of the gloomy Stephen is the pursuit of the wily fox, and that therefore on the field of battle it becomes inevitable that she must meet her whilom lover face to face.

Looking round fearfully now, she sees him at a little distance, seated on an irreproachable mount. His brows are knitted moodily, his very attitude is repellant. He responds to the pleasant salutations showered upon him from all quarters by a laconic “How d’ye do,” or a still more freezing nod. Even Sir Christopher’s hearty “Good-morning, lad,” has no effect up on him.

“Something rotten in the state of Denmark, there,” says the master, Sir Guy Chetwoode, turning to Dorian Branscombe. “Surely, eh? Rather a safe thing for that pretty girl of Blount’s to have given him the go-by, eh?”

“Wouldn’t have him at any price if I were a girl,” says Branscombe. “I don’t like his eyes. Murderous sort of beggar.”

“Faith, I don’t know,” says Geoffrey Rodney, who is riding by them, and who is popularly supposed always to employ this expletive, because his wife is Irish. “I rather like the fellow myself; so does Mona. It’s rough on him, you know, all the world knowing he has been jilted.”

“I heard it was he gave her up,” says Teddy Luttrel, who has been fighting so hard with a refractory collar up to this that he has not been able to edge in a word.

“Oh, I daresay!” says Branscombe, so ironically, that every one concludes it will be useless to say anything further.

And now the business of the day is begun. Every one has settled him or herself into the saddle and is preparing to make a day of it.

Two hours later many are in a position to acknowledge sadly that the day they have made has not been exactly up to the mark. The various positions of these many are, for the most part, more remarkable than elegant. Some are reclining gracefully in a ditch; some are riding dolefully homeward with much more forehead than they started with in the morning; some, and these are the saddest of all, are standing forlorn in the middle of an empty meadow, gazing helplessly at the flying tail of the animal they bestrode only a short five minutes ago.

The field is growing decidedly thin. Lady Chetwoode, well to the front, is holding her own bravely. Sir Guy is out of sight, having just disappeared over the brow of the small hill opposite. Dicky Browne, who rides like a bird, is going at a rattling pace straight over anything and everything that comes in his way, with the most delightful impartiality, believing, as he has never yet come a very violent cropper, that the gods are on his side.

Roger and Dulce got a little way from the others, and are now riding side by side across a rather hilly field. Right before them rises a wall, small enough in itself, but in parts dangerous, because of the heavy fall the other side, hidden from the eye by some brambles growing on the top of the stone-work.

Lower down, this wall proves itself even more treacherous, hiding even more effectually the drop into the adjoining field, which is here too deep for any horse, however good, to take with safety. It is a spot well known by all the sportsmen in the neighborhood as one to be avoided, ever since Gort, the farmer, some years before, had jumped it for the sake of an idle bet, and had been carried home from it a dead man, leaving his good brown mare with a broken back behind him.

It would seem, however, that either ignorance or recklessness is carrying one of the riders to-day towards this fatal spot. He is now bearing down upon it with the evident intention of clearing the traitorous wall and so gaining upon the hounds, who are streaming up the hill beyond, unaware that almost certain destruction awaits him at the point towards which he is riding so carelessly.

Dulce, turning her head accidentally in his direction, is the first to see him.

“Oh, see there!” she cries, in a frightened tone, to Roger, pointing to the lower part of the field. “Who is that going to take Gort’s Fall?”

Roger, following her glance, pulls up short, and stares fixedly at the man below, now drawing terribly near to the condemned spot. And, as he looks, his face changes, the blood forsakes it, and a horrified expression creeps into his eyes.

“By Jove! it is Stephen,” he says at last, in an indescribable tone; and then, knowing he cannot reach him in time to prevent the coming catastrophe, he stands up in his stirrups and shouts to the unconscious Stephen, with all the strength of his fresh, young lungs, to turn back before it is too late.

But all in vain; Stephen either does not or cannot hear. He has by this time reached the wall; his horse, the gallant animal, responds to his touch. He rises there is a crash, a dull thud, and then all is still.

Involuntarily Dulce has covered her eyes with her hand, and by a supreme effort has suppressed the cry that has risen from her heart. A sickening sensation of weakness is overpowering her. When at length she gains courage to open her eyes again she finds Roger has forsaken her, and is riding like one possessed across the open field, and there beyond, where the sun is glinting in small patches upon the dry grass, she sees, too, a motionless mass of scarlet cloth, and a dark head lying oh! so strangely quiet.

Roger having safely cleared the unlucky wall higher up, has flung himself from his saddle, and is now on his knees beside Gower, and has lifted his head upon his arm.

“Stephen, Stephen!” he cries, brokenly. But Stephen is beyond hearing. He is quite insensible, and deaf to the voice that in the old days used to have a special charm for him. Laying him gently down again, Roger rises to his feet, and looks wildly round. Dulce has arrived by this time and, having sprung to her feet, has let her horse, too, go to the winds.

“He is not dead?” she asks at first, in a ghastly whisper, with pale and trembling lips.

“I don’t know, I’m not sure,” says Roger, distractedly. “Oh, if somebody would only come!”

Not a soul is in sight. By this time every one has disappeared over the hill, and not a human being is to be seen far or near.

“Have you no brandy?” asks Dulce, who is rubbing the hands of the senseless man, trying to restore animation by this means.

“Yes, yes, I had forgotten,” says Roger, and then he kneels down once again, and takes Stephen into his arms, and raising his head on his knee, tries to force a few drops of the brandy between his pallid lips.

At this supreme moment all is forgotten all the old heartaches, the cruel taunts, the angry words. Once again he is his earliest friend; the boy, the youth, the man, he had loved, until a woman had come between them. Everything rushes back upon him, as he stoops over Gower, and gazes, with passionate fear and grief, upon his marble face.

After all, there had been more good points than bad about Stephen, more good, indeed, than about most fellows. How fond he had been of him in the old days; how angry he would have been with any one who had dared then to accuse him of acting shabbily, or Well, well, no use in raking up old grievances, now, and no doubt there was great temptation; and besides, too, uncivil things had been said to him, and he (Roger) had certainly not been up to the mark himself in many ways.

Memories of school and college life crowd upon Roger now, as he gazes with ever-increasing fear upon the rigid features below him; little scenes, insignificant in themselves, but enriched by honest sentiment, and tenderly connected With the dawn of manhood, when the fastidious Gower had been attracted and fascinated by the bolder and more reckless qualities of Dare, recur to him now with a clearness that, under the present miserable circumstances, is almost painful.

He tries to shake off those tormenting recollections; to bury his happy college life out of sight, only to find his mind once more busy on a fresh field.

Again he is at school, with Stephen near him, and all the glory of an Eton fight before him. What glorious old days they were! so full of life and vigor! and now, it is with exceeding pathos he calls to mind one memorable day on which he had banged Stephen most triumphantly about the head with a Latin grammar Stephen’s grammar, be it understood, which had always seemed to add an additional zest to the affair; and then the free fight afterwards, in which he, Roger, had been again victorious; and Stephen had not taken it badly either; had resented neither the Latin banging nor the victory later on. No, he was certainly not ill-tempered then, dear old chap. Even before the blood had been wiped from their injured noses on that never-to-be-forgotten occasion Stephen had shaken hands with him, and they had sworn publicly a life-long friendship.

And here is the end of it! His sworn friend is lying stark and motionless in his embrace, with a deathly pallor on his face that is awfully like death, and with a heart, if it still beats, filled with angry thoughts of him, as he bends, scarcely less bloodless than himself, above him.

Will no one ever come?

Roger glares despairingly at Dulce, who is still trying to get some brandy down the wounded man’s throat, and even as she does so Stephen’s eyes unclose, and a heavy sobbing sigh escapes him.

Strangely enough, as the two bend over him, and his gaze wanders from one face to the other, it rests finally, with a great sense of content, not on Dulce’s face but Roger’s. Instinctively he turns in his hour of need from the woman who had wronged him to the man whom he had wronged in the first instance, and who though he had suffered many things at his hands of late brings to him now a breath from that earlier and happier life, where love which has proved so bitter was unknown.

“Stephen! Dear old fellow, you are not much hurt, are you?” asks Roger, tenderly. “Where is the pain? Where does it hurt you most?”

“Here!” says Stephen, faintly, trying to lift one of his arms to point to his left side; but, with a groan, the arm falls helpless, and then they know, with sickening feeling of horror, that it is broken. Stephen loses consciousness again for a moment.

“It is broken!” says Roger. “And I am afraid there must be some internal injury besides. What on earth is to be done, Dulce?” in a frantic tone; “we shall have him here all night unless we do something. Will you stay with him while I run and try to find somebody?”

But Stephen’s senses having returned to him by this time, he overhears and understands the last sentence.

“No, don’t leave me,” he entreats, earnestly, though speaking with great difficulty. “Roger, are you there? Stay with me.”

“There is Dulce,” falters Roger.

“No, no; don’t leave me here alone,” says the wounded man, with foolish persistency, and Roger, at his wits’ end, hardly knows what to do.

“Are you anything easier now?” he asks, raising Stephen’s head ever so gently. Dulce, feeling her presence has been thoroughly ignored, and fearing lest the very sight of her may irritate her late lover, draws back a little, and stands where he can no longer see her.

“Try to drink this,” says Roger, holding the flask again to Gower’s lips and forcing a few drops between them. They are of some use, as presently a slight, a very slight tinge of red comes into his cheek, and his eyes show more animation.

“It is very good of you, old man,” he whispers, faintly, looking up at Roger. “I believe you are sorry for me, after all.”

The “after all” is full of meaning.

“Why shouldn’t I be sorry for you?” says Roger, huskily, his eyes full of tears. “Don’t talk like that.”

“I know you think I behaved badly to you,” goes on Stephen, with painful slowness. “And perhaps I did.”

“As to that,” interrupted Roger, quickly, “we’re quits there, you know; nothing need be said about that. Why can’t we forget it? Come, Stephen, forget it all, and be friends again.”

“With all my heart,” says Gower, and his eyes grow glad, and a smile of real happiness illumines his features for a moment.

“Now, don’t talk any more; don’t, there’s a good fellow,” says Roger, with deep entreaty.

“There is one thing I must say,” whispers Gower, “while I have time. Tell her that I have behaved like a coward to her, and that I give her back her promise. Tell her she may marry whom she pleases.” He gasps for breath, and then, pressing Roger’s hand with his own uninjured one, says, with a last effort, “And that will be you, I hope.”

The struggle to say this proves too much for his exhausted strength; his head drops back again upon Roger’s arm, and, for the third time, he falls into a dead faint.

The tears are running down Roger’s cheeks by this time, and he is gazing with ever-increasing terror at the deathly face below him, when looking up to address some remark to Dulce, he finds she is nowhere to be seen. Even as he looks round for her in consternation, he sees two or three men hurrying toward him, and two others following more slowly with something that looks like a shutter or door between them. Dulce, while he was listening to Stephen’s last heavily-uttered words, had hurried away, and, climbing over all that came in her way, had descended into a little valley not far from the scene of the accident, where at a farmhouse she had told her tale, and pressed into her service the men now coming quickly toward Roger.

With their help the wounded man (still happily unconscious) is carried to the farm-house, where he remains until, the carriage from the Court having arrived, they take him home in it as carefully as can be managed.

In a few hours the worst is known; and, after all, the worst is not so very bad. His arm is broken and two of his ribs, and there is rather a severe contusion on his left shoulder. Little Dr. Bland has pledged them his word in the most solemn manner, however, that there is no internal injury, and that his patient only requires time and care to be quite himself again in no time. This peculiar date is a favorite one with the little medico.

The household being reassured by this comfortable news, every one grows more tranquil, and dinner having proved a distinct failure, supper is proposed; and Roger having hunted the whole house unsuccessfully for Dulce, to compel her to come in and eat something, unearths her at last in the nursery, where she is sitting all alone, staring at the sleeping children.

“Where’s nurse?” asks Roger, gazing around. “Has she been dismissed, and have you applied for the situation?”

“She has gone down for a message. I came here,” says Dulce, “because I didn’t want to speak to anybody. I feel so strange still, and so frightened.”

“Come down and eat something,” says Roger. “You must. I shall carry you if you won’t walk, and think how the servants will speak about your light behavior afterwards! Do come, darling; you know you have eaten nothing since breakfast.”

“I wonder if he is really in no danger?” says Dulce wistfully.

“He certainly is not. I have it from Bland himself; and, Dulce,” and here he hesitates, as if uncertain whether he ought to proceed or not, “now it is all right, you know, and and that and when we have heard he is on the safe road to recovery, it can’t be any harm to say what is on my mind, can it?”

“No; I suppose not,” says Dulce, blushing vividly.

“Well, then, just say you will marry me the very moment he is on his feet again,” says Roger, getting this out with considerable rapidity. “It will seem ungracious of us, I think, not to take advantage of his kindness as soon as possible.”

“Supposing he was to go back of it all when he got well,” says Dulce, timidly.

“Oh, he can’t; a promise is a promise, you know as he has made us feel. Poor old Stephen!” this last hastily, lest he shall seem hard on his newly-recovered friend.

“If you think that,” says Dulce, going close up to him and looking at him with soft love-lit eyes, “I will marry you just whenever you like.” To make this sweet assurance doubly sweet, she stands on tiptoe, and, slipping her arms round her lover’s neck, kisses him with all her heart.