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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Abbess Of Vlaye » CHAPTER XXIII THE BRIDE'S DOT.
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 The Abbess left alone in the garden-chamber listened intently; looking now on the door which had closed on her rival, now on the windows, whence it was just possible that she might catch the flutter of the girl's flying skirts. But she did not move to the windows, nor make any attempt to look down. She knew that her ears were her best sentinels; and motionless, scarcely breathing, in the middle of the floor, she strained them to the utmost to catch the first sounds of discovery and alarm.
None reached her, and after the lapse of a minute she breathed more freely. On the other hand, the waiting-maid--glad to prolong her freedom--did not return. The Abbess, still listening, still intent, fell to considering, without moving from the spot, other things. The light was beginning to wane in the room--the room she remembered so well--the corners were growing shadowy. All things promised to favour and prolong her disguise. Between the inset windows lay a block of deep gloom; she had only to fling herself down in that place and hide her face on her arms, as the Countess, in her abandonment, had hidden hers, and the woman would discover nothing when she entered--nothing until she took courage to disturb the bride--and would dress her.
The bride? Even in the last minute the room had grown darker--dark and vague as her sombre thoughts. But it happened that amid its shadows one object still gleamed white--a tiny oasis of brightness in a desert of gloom. The pile of dainty bride-clothes, lawn and lace, that lay on the window-seat caught and gave back what light there was. It seemed to concentrate on itself all that remained of the day. Presently she could not take her eyes from the things. They had at first repelled her. Now, and more powerfully, they fascinated her. She dreamed, with her gaze fixed on them; and slowly the colour mounted to her brow, her face softened, her breast heaved. She took a step towards the bride-clothes and the window, paused, hesitated; and, flushed and frowning, looked at the door.
But no one moved outside, no footstep threatened entrance; and her eyes returned to the lace and lawn, emblems of a thing that from Eve's day to ours has stirred women's hearts. She was not over-superstitious. But it could not be for nothing, a voice whispered her it could not be for nothing that the things lay there and, while night swallowed all besides, still shone resplendent in the gloaming. Were they not only an emblem, but a token? A sign to her, a finger pointing through the vagueness of her future to the clear path of safety?
The Abbess had thought of that path, that way out of her difficulties, not once only, nor twice. It had lain too open, too plain to be missed. But she had marked it only to shrink from it as too dangerous, too bold even for her. Were she to take it she must come into fatal collision, into irremediable relations with the man whom she loved; but whom others feared, and of whom his little world stood in an awe so dire and so significant.
Yet still the things beckoned her; and omens in those days went for more than in these. Things still done in sport or out of a sentimental affection for the past--on All-hallows' E'en or at the new moon--were then done seriously, their lessons taken to heart, their dictates followed. The Abbess felt her heart beat high. She trembled and shook on the verge of a great resolve.
Had she time? The cloak slipped a little lower, discovering her bare shoulders. She looked at the door and listened, looked again at the pale bride-clothes. The stillness encouraged her, urged her. And, for the rest, had she not boasted a few minutes before that, whoever feared him, she did not; that, whoever drifted helpless on the tide of fate, she could direct her life, she could be strong?
She had the chance now if she dared to take it! If she dared? Already she had thwarted him in a thing dear to him. She had released his prisoner, conveyed away his bride, wrecked his plans. Dared she thwart him in this last, this greatest thing? Dared she engage herself and him in a bond from which no power could free them, a bond that, the deed done, must subject her to his will and pleasure--and his wrath--till death?
She did fear him, she owned it. And she had not dared the venture had she not loved him more. But love kicked the beam. Love won--as love ever wins in such contests. Swiftly her mind reviewed the position: so much loss, so much gain. If he would stand worse here he would stand better there. And then she did not come empty-handed. Fain would she have come to him openly and proudly, with her dower in her hands, as she had dreamed that she would come. But that was not possible. Or, if it were possible, the prospect was distant, the time remote; while, this way, love, warm, palpitating, present love, held out arms to her.
The end was certain. For all things, the time, the gathering darkness, her gaoler's absence, seconded the temptation. Had she resisted longer she had been more than woman. As it was, she had time for all she must do. When the waiting-maid returned, and glanced around the darkened room, she was not surprised to find her crouching on the floor in the posture in which she had left her, with head bowed on the window-seat. But she was surprised to see that she had donned the bride-clothes set for her. True, the shimmer of white that veiled the head and shoulders agreed ill with the despondency of the figure; but that was to be expected. And at least--the woman recognised with relief--there would be no need of force, no scene of violence, no cries to Heaven. She uttered a word of thanksgiving for that; and then, thinking that light would complete the improvement and put a more cheerful face on the matter, she asked if she should fetch candles.
"For I think the priest is below, my lady," she continued doubtfully; she had no mind to quarrel with her future mistress if it could be avoided. "And my lord may be looked for at any moment."
The crouching figure stirred a foot fretfully, but did not answer.
"If I might fetch them----"
"No!" sharply.
"But, if it please you, it is nearly dark. And----"
"Am I not shamed enough already?" The bride as she spoke--in a tone half ruffled, half hysterical--raised her arms with a passionate gesture. "If I must be married against my will, I will be married thus! Thus! And without more light to shame me!"
"Still it grows--so dark, my lady!" the maid ventured again, though timidly.
"I tell you I will have it dark! And"--with another movement as of a trapped animal--"if they must come, bid them come!" Then, in a choking voice, "God help me!" she murmured, as she let her head fall again on her arms.
The woman wondered, but felt no suspicion; there was something of reason in the demand. She went and told the elder woman who waited below. She left the room door ajar, and the Abbess, raising her pale, frowning face from the window-seat, could hear the priest's voice mingling in the whispered talk. Light steps passed hurriedly away through the garden, and after an interval came again; and by-and-by she heard more steps, and voices under the window--and a smothered laugh, and then a heavier, firmer tread, and--his voice--his! She pictured them making way for the master to pass through and enter.
She had need of courage now, need of the half-breathed prayer; for there is no cause so bad men will not pray in it. Need of self-control, too, lest she give way and fall in terror at his feet. Yet less need of this last; for fear was in her part, and natural to the right playing of it. So that it was not weakness or modest tremors or prostration would betray her.
She clutched this thought to her, and had it for comfort. And when the door opened to its full width, and they appeared on the threshold and entered, the priest first, the lord of Vlaye's tall presence next, and after these three or four witnesses, with the two women behind all, those less concerned found nothing to marvel at in the sight; nor in the dim crouching figure, lonely in the dark room, that rose unsteadily and stood cowering against the wall, shrinking as if in fear of a blow. It was what they had looked to see, what they had expected; and they eyed it, one coveting, another in pity, seeing by the half-light which was reflected from the pale evening sky little more than is here set down. For the priest, appearances might have been trebly suspicious, and he had suspected nothing; for he was terribly afraid himself. And M. de Vlaye, ignorant of the Abbess's visit and exulting in the success of his plan, a success won in the teeth of his enemy, had no grounds for suspicion. Even the marriage in the gloaming seemed only natural; for modesty in a woman seems natural to a man. He was more than content if the little fool would raise no disturbance, voice no cries, but let herself be married without the need of open force.
With something of kindness in his tone, "The Countess prefers it thus, does she?" he said, raising his head, as he took in the scene. "Then thus let it be! Her will is mine, and shall be mine. Still it is dark! You do, in fact, Countess," he continued smoothly, "prefer it so? I gathered your meaning rightly--from those you sent?"
With averted face she made a shamed gesture with her hand.
"You do not----"
"If it must be--let it be so!" she whispered. "And now!" And suddenly she covered her face--they could picture it working pitifully--with her hands.
M. de Vlaye turned to his witnesses. "You hear all present," he said, "that it is with the Countess of Rochechouart's consent that I wed her. For me it is my part now and will be my part always to do her pleasure." Then turning his face again to the shrinking figure, that uttered no protest or word of complaint, "Father, you hear?" he continued, a note of triumph in his voice. "Do your office on us I pray, and quickly." And he advanced a step towards his bride.
The Romish sacrament of marriage is short, and reduced to its essentials is of the simplest. Father Benet had his orders, and thankful to be so cheaply quit of his task--for she might have appealed to him, might have shrieked and struggled, might have made of his work a public crime--he hastened to bind the two together. For one second, at the most critical part of the rite--if that could be said to have parts which was done within the minute--the bride hung, wavered, hesitated--seemed about to protest or faint. The next, as by a supreme effort, she tottered a step nearer to the bridegroom, and placed her hand, burning with fever, in his. In a few seconds the words that made them man and wife, the irrevocable "Conjungo vos," were spoken.
Then followed a single moment of awkwardness. The Captain of Vlaye's heart was high and uplifted. All had gone well, all had gone better than his hopes. Yet he was prudent as he was bold. He would fain have raised her veil before them all and kissed her, and proved beyond cavil her willingness. But he doubted the wisdom of the act. He reflected that women were strange beings and capricious. She might be foolish enough to shriek--more, to faint, to resist, to speak; she might realise, now that it was too late, the thing which she had done. And a dozen curious eyes were on them, were watching them, were judging them. He contented himself with bowing over her hand.
"Would you be alone, madame?" he said gently. "If so, say so, sweet. And you shall be alone, while you please."
The answer, low and half-stifled as it was, astonished him. "With you," she murmured, with face half-averted. And as the others, smiling and with raised eyebrows, looked at one another, and then at a glance from him turned to withdraw, "And a light," she added, in the same subdued tone, "if you please."
"Bring a light," he said to the waiting-woman. "And, mark you, see that when your lady wants supper it be ready for her."
She had still, before they withdrew, a surprise for him. "I would have a draught of wine--now," she murmured.
He passed the order to them with a gay air, thinking the while of the queer nature of women. And he stood waiting by the door until the order was carried out. The footsteps of the witnesses and their laughter rose from the garden below as the maid brought in lights and wine and set them on the table beside him. "You can go," he said; and after a fleeting glance, half of envy, half of wonder at her new mistress--who had sunk into a sitting posture on the window-seat--the woman went out.
"May I serve you?" he murmured gallantly. And he poured for her.
With her face turned from him she lifted the gauzy veil with one hand and with the other--it trembled violently--she raised the wine to her lips. Still with her shoulder to him--but he set this down to modesty--she gave him back the empty cup, and he went and set it down on the table beside the door. When he turned again to her she had raised her veil and risen to her feet, and stood facing him with shining eyes.
"By Heaven!" he cried. And he recoiled a pace, his swarthy face gone sallow. Was he mad? Was he dreaming? The priest had been silent on the Abbess's visit. He believed her leagues distant. He had no reason to think otherwise. And he had not been more astonished if the one woman had turned into the other before his eyes. "By Heaven!" he repeated. For the moment sheer astonishment, the stupor of bewilderment, held him dumb.
She did not speak, but neither did she quail. She stood confronting him, erect and stately, her beauty never more remarkable than now, her breast heaving slightly under the lace.
"Am I mad?" he muttered again. And he closed his eyes and opened them. "Or dreaming?"
"Neither!" she replied.
"Then who in God's name are you?" he retorted, in something approaching his natural voice; though the awe of the unnatural still held his mind.
"Your wife," she answered.
"My wife!" With the words the full shock of that which had happened struck him.
"Your wife," she rejoined unblenching, though her heart beat wildly, furiously, in her bosom, and she feared, ah, how she feared! "Your wife! And which of us two"--she continued proudly--"has a better right to be your wife? I,"--and with the word she flung the lace superbly from her head and shoulders, and stood before him in the full splendour of her beauty--"or that child? That puny weakling? That doll? I," with increasing firmness--he had not struck her yet!--"who have your vows, sir, your promises, your sacred oath--and all my due, as God knows and you know--or that puppet? I, who dare, and for your sake have dared--you know it only too well!--or that craven, puling and weeping and waiting for the first chance to flee you or betray you? What I have done for you"--and proudly she held out her hands to him--"you know, sir. What she would have done you know not."
"I know that you have ruined me," he said, looking darkly at her.
"And in return for--what?" she answered, with a look as dark.
His nostrils quivered, a pulse beat hard in his cheek. Only the sheer boldness of that which she had done, only the appeal of the lioness in her to the lion in him--and her beauty--held his hand; held his hand from striking her down, woman though she was, at his feet. Had she faltered, had she turned pale or trembled, had she uttered but one word of supplication, or done aught but defy him, he had flung her brutally to the floor and trampled upon her.
For the Captain of Vlaye was no knight of romance. And no scruple on his part, no helplessness on hers would have restrained his hand. But he loved her after his fashion. He loved her beauty, which had never been more brilliant or alluring; he loved the spirit that proved her fit helpmeet for such as he. And thwarted, tricked, baffled, hanging still on the verge of violence over which the least recoil on her part would push him, he still owned reason in her claim. She was the more worthy--of the two; such beauty, such spirit, such courage would go far. And not many weeks back he had looked no higher, aimed no farther, but had deemed her birth fit dower. But love sits lightly on the ambitious, and driven by a new danger to a new shift, forced to look abroad for aid, he had put her aside at the first temptation--not without a secret thought that she might be still what she had been to him.
Her eyes, her words told a different story, and in his secret heart he gave her credit for her act; and he held his hand. But his looks were dark and bitter and passionate, as he told her again that she had ruined him, and flung it coarsely in her face that she brought herself, and naught besides to the bargain.
"It is but a little since you thought that enough!" she replied, with flashing eyes.
"You are bold to speak to me thus!" he said between his teeth. "What? You that call yourself my wife, to beard me!"
"That am your wife!" she answered, though sick fear rapped at her heart.
"Then for that the greater need to heed what you say!" he replied. "Wives that come empty-handed to husbands that ask them not had best be silent and be patient! Or in a very little time they creep as low as before they went high! You beautiful fool!" he continued, in a tone of mingled rage and admiration, "to do this in haste and forget I could punish at leisure! To do me ill, ay, to ruin me, and forget that henceforth my pleasure must be yours, my will your rule! My wife, say you?" with increasing bitterness. "Ay! And therefore my creature, helpless as the scullion I send to the scourge, or the trooper I hang up by the heels for sleeping! You--you----" and with a movement as fierce as it was sudden he grasped her wrist and twisted her round forcibly so that her eyes at close quarters looked into his. "Do you not yet repent? Do you not begin to see that in tricking the Captain of Vlaye you have made your master?"
She could have screamed with pain, for the bones of her slender wrist seemed to be cracking in his cruel grip--but she knew that in her courage, and in that only, lay her one hope. "I know this," she replied hardily, forcing herself to meet his eyes without flinching, "that you mistake! I do not come empty--or I had not come," with pride. "I bring you that will save you--if you treat me well. But if you hold me so----"
"What will you do?" savagely.
"Release me and I will tell you," she answered. "I shall not fly. And if I say nothing to the purpose, I shall still be in your power."
He yielded, moved in secret by her spirit. "Well," he said, "speak! But let it be to the purpose, madam, that is all."
"Said I not it should be to the purpose?" she answered, her eyes bright. "And I keep my word, if you do not. Tell me, sir, frankly, what had that child, that doll"--bitterly--"to put in the scales against me? Beauty?"
"A skin as white as mine or arms as round?" She held them out to him. "Or brighter eyes? You have looked in mine often enough and sworn you loved me, sworn that you would do me no wrong! You should know them-- and hers!"
"It was none of these."
"Her birth? Nay, but she is no better born than I am! A Rochechouart is what a Villeneuve was. Her rank? No. Then what was it?"
"No one thing," he answered drily. "But five hundred things."
"You are quick-witted. Spears."
"And her manors also, I suppose?" with contempt. "Her lordships here and there! Her farms and castles in Poitou and the Limousin and Beauce and the Dordogne! Her mills in the Bourbonnais and her fishings in Sologne!"
"Not one of these!"
"The spears only, as God sees me!" he answered firmly. "For without these I could enjoy not the smallest of those. Without these, of which you, beautiful fool, have robbed me--robbing me therewith of my last chance--I take no farm nor smallest mill, nor hold one groat of that I have won! Do you think, my girl," he continued grimly, "that I was not pressed when I gave up your lips and your kisses for that child's company? Do you think it was for a whim, a fancy, a light thing that I turned my back on you and your smiles, and at risk sought a puling girl, when I could have had you without risk? Bah! I tell you it was not to gain, but to hold--because he had no other choice and no other way--it was not for love but for life, that the King went to his Mass! And I to mine!"
"All this I thought," she said quietly. She was no longer afraid of him.
"You thought it?"
"I knew it."
"You knew it? You knew, madam," he repeated, his face darkening, "on what a narrow edge I stood, and you dashed away my one holdfast?"
"To replace it by another," she replied, her figure welling with confidence. "I tell you, sir, I come not to you empty-handed, if I come unasked. I bring my dowry."
He eyed her gloomily. "It should be a large one," he muttered, "if it is to take the place of that I have lost."
"It is a large one," she answered. "But," with a change to gentleness, "do me credit. I have not puled nor wept. I have uttered no cry, I have made no complaint. But I have righted myself, doing what not one woman in a hundred would have dared to do! I have wit that has tricked you, and courage that has not quailed before you. And henceforward I claim to be no puppet for your play, no doll for your dull hours! But your equal, my lord, and your mate; deepest in your counsels, the heart of your plans, your other brain, your other soul! Make me this, hold me thus--close to you, and----
"Is that the thing you bring me?" he said, with sarcasm. Yet she had moved him.
"No!" She fell a little from her height, she looked appeal. "My dowry is different. But say first, sir, I shall be this!"
"Bring me the spears," he answered, his eyes gleaming, "and you shall be that and more. Bring me the spears, and----" He made as if he would take her forcibly in his arms.
She recoiled, but her eyes shone. "I am yours," she said, "when you will! Do you not know it? But, for the present, listen. I have a husband, but I have also a lover. A lover of whom"--she continued more slowly, marking with joy how he started at the word--"my lord and master has no need to be jealous. He has not touched of me more than the tips of my fingers; yet if I raise but those fingers he has spears and to spare--five hundred and five hundred to that!--and I have but to play the laggard a little, and dangle a hope, and they dance to my piping."
He understood. A deep flush tinged the brown of his lean face. "You have brought," he said, "the Duke to parley."
"To parley!" She pointed superbly to the floor. "Nay, but to my feet! What will you of him? Spears, his good word, his intercession with the King, a post? Name what you will, and it shall be yours."
He looked at her shrewdly, with a new admiration, a new and stronger esteem. Already she filled the place which she had claimed, already she was to him what she had prayed to be. "You are sure?" he said.
"In a week, had I not loved you, I had had him and his Duchy, and all those spears! And mills and manors and lordships and governments, all had been mine, sir! Mine, had I wished this man; mine, had I been willing to take him! But I"--letting her arms fall by her sides and standing submissive before him--"am more faithful than my master!"
He stood staring at her. "But if this be so," he said at last, his brows coming together, "what of it? How does it help us? You are now my wife?"
"He need not know that yet."
"He need not know it," she continued firmly, "until he has played his part, and wrung your pardon from the King! Or at the least--for that may take time--until he has drawn off his power and left you to face those whom you can easily match!"
"He would have wedded you?" he asked, eyeing her in wonder.
"For certain."
"But, sweet----"
"I am sweet now!" she said, with tender raillery.
"To do this you must go to him?"
"He shall touch of me no more than the tips of my fingers," she answered smiling. "Nor"--and at the word a blush stole upward from her neck to her brow, "need I go on the instant, if your men can be trusted not to talk, my lord."
"He is soon without a tongue," he replied grimly, "who talks too fast here! You should know that of old."
She lowered her eyes, the colour mounting anew to her brow. "Yes," she murmured. "I know that your people can be silent. But the Lieutenant of Périgord is here. You have not"--with a quick, frightened look--"injured him?"
"Have no fear."
"For that were fatal," she continued anxiously. "Fatal! If things go wrong, he may prove our safety."
"Pooh, I know it well," Vlaye replied, with a nod of intelligence. "None better, my girl. But have no fear, he will hear naught of our doings. Not, I suppose"--with a searching look, half humorous, half suspicious--"that he is also a captive of your bow and spear."
"I hate him," she answered.
Her tone, vehement, yet low, struck the corresponding chord in his nature. He took her into his arms with a reckless laugh. "You were right and I was wrong!" he cried, as he fondled her. "You will bring me more than a clump of spears, my beauty! More than that foolish child! God! In a month I had strangled her! But you and I--you and I, sweet, will go far together! And now, to supper! To supper! And the devil take to-morrow and our cares!"


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