How that night was spent Cecil could never recall in full. Vague memories remained with him of wandering over the shadowy country, of seeking by bodily fatigue to kill the thoughts rising in him, of drinking at a little water-channel in the rocks as thirstily as some driven deer, of flinging himself down at length, worn out, to sleep under the hanging brow of a mighty wall of rock; of waking, when the dawn was reddening the east, with the brown plains around him, and far away, under a knot of palms was a goatherd with his flock, like an idyl from the old pastoral life of Syria. He stood looking at the light which heralded the sun, with some indefinite sense of heavy loss, of fresh calamity, upon him. It was only slowly that he remembered all. Years seemed to have been pressed into the three nights and days since he had sat by the bivouac-fire, listening to the fiery words of the little Friend of the Flag.
The full consciousness of all that he had surrendered in yielding up afresh his heritage rolled in on his memory, like the wave of some heavy sea that sweeps down all before it.
When that tear-blotted and miserable letter had reached him in the green alleys of the Stephanien, and confessed to him that his brother had relied on the personal likeness between them and the similarity of their handwriting to pass off as his the bill in which his own name and that of his friend was forged, no thought had crossed him to take upon himself the lad’s sin. It had only been when, brought under the charge, he must, to clear himself, have at once accused the boy, and have betrayed the woman whose reputation was in his keeping, that, rather by generous impulse than by studied intention, he had taken up the burden that he had now carried for so long. Whether or no the money-lenders had been themselves in reality deceived, he could never tell; but it had been certain that, having avowed themselves confident of his guilt, they could never shift the charge on to his brother in the face of his own acceptance of it. So he had saved the youth without premeditation or reckoning of the cost. And now that the full cost was known to him, he had not shrunk back from its payment. Yet that payment was one that gave him a greater anguish than if he had laid down his life in physical martyrdom.
To go back to the old luxury, and ease, and careless peace; to go back to the old, fresh, fair English woodlands, to go back to the power of command and the delight of free gifts, to go back to men’s honor, and reverence, and high esteem — these would have been sweet enough — sweet as food after long famine. But far more than these would it have been to go back and take the hand of his friend once more in the old, unclouded trust of their youth; to go back, and stand free and blameless among his peers, and know that all that man could do to win the heart and the soul of a woman he could at his will do to win hers whose mere glance of careless pity had sufficed to light his life to passion. And he had renounced all this. This was the cost; and he had paid it — paid it because the simple, natural, inflexible law of justice had demanded it.
One whom he had once chosen to save he could not now have deserted, except by what would have been, in his sight, dishonor. Therefore, when the day broke, and the memories of the night came with his awakening, he knew that his future was without hope — without it as utterly as was ever that of any captive shut in darkness, and silence, and loneliness, in a prison, whose only issue was the oubliettes. There is infinite misery in the world, but this one misery is rare; or men would perish from the face of the earth as though the sun withdrew its light.
Alone in that dreary scene, beautiful from its vastness and its solemnity, but unutterably melancholy, unutterably oppressive, he also wondered whether he lived or dreamed.
From among the reeds the plovers were rising; over the barren rocks the dazzling lizards glided; afar off strayed the goats; that was the only sign of animal existence. He had wandered a long way from the caravanserai, and he began to retrace his steps, for his horse was there, and although he had received license to take leisure in returning, he had no home but the camp, no friends but those wild-eyed, leopard-like throng around him like a pack of dogs, each eager for the first glance, the first word; these companions of his adversity and of his perils, whom he had learned to love, with all their vices and all their crimes, for sake of the rough, courageous love that they could give in answer.
He moved slowly back over the desolate tracks of land stretched between him and the Algerian halting-place. He had no fear that he would find his brother there. He knew too well the nature with which he had to deal to hope that old affection would so have outweighed present fear that his debtor would have stayed to meet him yet once more. On the impulse of the ungovernable pain which the other’s presence had been, he had bidden him leave Africa at once; now he almost wished he had bid him stay. There was a weary, unsatisfied longing for some touch of love or of gratitude from this usurper, whom he had raised in his place. He would have been rewarded enough if one sign of gladness that he lived had broken through the egotism and the stricken fear of the man whom he remembered as a little golden-headed child, with the hand of their dying mother lying in benediction on the fair, silken curls.
He had asked no questions. He had gone back to no recriminations. He guessed all it needed him to know; and he recoiled from the recital of the existence whose happiness was purchased by his own misery, and whose dignity was built on sand. His sacrifice had not been in vain. Placed out of the reach of temptation, the plastic, feminine, unstable character had been without a stain in the sight of men. But it was little better at the core; and he wondered, in his suffering, as he went onward through the beauty of the young day, whether it had been worth the bitter price he had paid to raise this bending reed from out the waters which would have broken and swamped it at the outset. It grew fair, and free, and flower-crowned now, in the midst of a tranquil and sunlit lake; but was it of more value than a drifted weed bearing the snake-egg hidden at its root?
He had come so far out of the ordinary route across the plains that it was two hours or more before he saw the dark, gray square of the caravanserai walls, and to its left that single, leaning pine growing out of a cleft within the rock that overhung the spot where the keenest anguish of all his life had known had been encountered and endured — the spot which yet, for sake of the one laid to rest there beneath the somber branches, would be forever dearer to him than any other place in the soil of Africa.
While yet the caravanserai was distant, the piteous cries of a mother-goat caught his ear. She was bleating beside a water-course, into which her kid of that spring had fallen, and whose rapid swell, filled by the recent storm, was too strong for the young creature. Absorbed as he was in his own thoughts, the cry reached him and drew him to the spot. It was not in him willingly to let any living thing suffer, and he was always gentle to all animals. He stooped, and, with some little difficulty, rescued the little goat for its delighted dam.
As he bent over the water he saw something glitter beneath it. He caught it in his hand and brought it up. It was the broken half of a chain of gold, with a jewel in each link. He changed color as he saw it; he remembered it as one that Venetia Corona had worn on the morning that he had been admitted to her. It was of peculiar workmanship, and he recognized it at once. He stood with the toy in his hand, looking long at the shining links, with their flashes of precious stones. They seemed to have voices that spoke to him of her about whose beautiful white throat they had been woven — voices that whispered incessantly in his ear, “Take up your birthright, and you will be free to sue to her at least, if not to win her.” No golden and jeweled plaything ever tempted a starving man to theft as this tempted him now to break the pledge he had just given.
His birthright! He longed for it for this woman’s sake — for the sake, at least, of the right to stand before her as an equal, and to risk his chance with others who sought her smile — as he had never done for any other thing which, with that heritage, would have become his. Yet he knew that, even were he to be false to his word, and go forward and claim his right, he would never be able to prove his innocence; he would never hope to make the would believe him unless the real criminal made that confession which he held himself forbidden, by his own past action, ever to extort.
He gazed long at the broken, costly toy, while his heart ached with a cruel pang; then he placed it in safety in the little blue enamel box, beside the ring which Cigarette had flung back to him, and went onward to the caravanserai. She was no longer there, in all probability; but the lost bagatelle would give him, some time or another, a plea on which to enter her presence. It was a pleasure to him to know that; though he knew also that every added moment spent under the sweet sovereignty of her glance was so much added pain, so much added folly, to the dream-like and baseless passion with which she had inspired him.
The trifling incident of the goat’s rescue and the chain’s trouvaille, slight as they were, still were of service to him. They called him back from the past to the present; they broke the stupor of suffering that had fastened on him; they recalled him to the actual world about him in which he had to fulfill his duties as a trooper of France.
It was almost noon when, under the sun-scorched branches of the pine that stretched its somber fans up against the glittering azure of the morning skies, he approached the gates of the Algerine house-of-call — a study for the color of Gerome, with the pearly gray of its stone tints, and the pigeons wheeling above its corner towers, while under the arch of its entrance a string of mules, maize-laden, were guided; and on its bench sat a French soldier, singing gayly songs of Paris while he cut open a yellow gourd.
Cecil went within, and bathed, and dressed, and drank some of the thin, cool wine that found its way thither in the wake of the French army. Then he sat down for a while at one of the square, cabin-like holes which served for casements in the tower he occupied, and, looking out into the court, tried to shape his thoughts and plan his course. As a soldier he had no freedom, no will of his own, save for this extra twelve or twenty-four hours which they had allowed him for leisure in his return journey. He was obliged to go back to his camp, and there, he knew, he might again encounter one whose tender memories would be as quick to recognize him as the craven dread of his brother had been. He had always feared this ordeal, although the arduous service in which his chief years in Africa had been spent, and the remote expeditions on which he had always been employed, had partially removed him from the ever-present danger of such recognition until now. And now he felt that if once the brave, kind eyes of his old friend should meet his own, concealment would be no longer possible; yet, for the sake of that promise he had sworn in the past night, it must be maintained at every hazard, every cost. Vacantly he sat and watched the play of the sunshine in the prismatic water of the courtyard fountain, and the splashing, and the pluming, and the murmuring of the doves and pigeons on its edge. He felt meshed in a net from which there was no escape — none — unless, on his homeward passage, a thrust of Arab steel should give him liberty.
The trampling of horses on the pavement below roused his attention. A thrill of hope went through him that his brother might have lingering conscience, latent love enough, to have made him refuse to obey the bidding to leave Africa. He rose and leaned out. Amid the little throng of riding-horses, grooms, and attendants who made an open way through the polyglot crowd of an Algerian caravanserai at noon, he saw the one dazzling face of which he had so lately dreamed by the water-freshet in the plains. It was but a moment’s glance, for she had already dismounted from her mare, and was passing within with two other ladies of her party; but in that one glance he knew her. His discovery of the chain gave him a plea to seek her. Should he avail himself of it? He hesitated a while. It would be safest, wisest, best, to deliver up the trinket to her courier, and pass on his way without another look at that beauty which could never be his, which could never lighten for him even with the smile that a woman may give her equal or her friend. She could never be aught to him save one more memory of pain, save one remembrance the more to embitter the career which not even hope would ever illumine. He knew that it was only madness to go into her presence, and feed, with the cadence of her voice, the gold light of her hair, the grace and graciousness of her every movement, the love which she would deem such intolerable insult, that, did he ever speak it, she would order her people to drive him from her like a chidden hound. He knew that; but he longed to indulge the madness, despite it; and he did so. He went down into the court below, and found her suite.
“Tell your mistress that I, Louis Victor, have some jewels which belong to her, and ask her permission to restore them to her hands,” he said to one of her equerries.
“Give them to me, if you have picked them up,” said the man, putting out his hand for them.
Cecil closed his own upon them.
“Go and do as I bid you.”
The equerry paused, doubtful whether or no to resist the tone and the words. A Frenchman’s respect for the military uniform prevailed. He went within.
In the best chamber of the caravanserai Venetia Corona was sitting, listless in the heat, when her attendant entered. The grandes dames who were her companions in their tour through the seat of war were gone to their siesta. She was alone, with a scarlet burnous thrown about her, and upon her all the languor and idleness common to the noontide, which was still very warm, though, in the autumn, the nights were so icily cold on the exposed level of the plains. She was lost in thought, moreover. She had heard, the day before, a story that had touched her — of a soldier who had been slain crossing the plains, and had been brought, through the hurricane and the sandstorm, at every risk, by his comrade, who had chosen to endure all peril and wretchedness rather than leave the dead body to the vultures and the kites. It was a nameless story to her — the story of two obscure troopers, who, for aught she knew, might have been two of the riotous and savage brigands that were common in the Army of Africa. But the loyalty and the love shown in it had moved her; and to the woman whose life had been cloudless and cradled in ease from her birth, there was that in the suffering and the sacrifice which the anecdote suggested, that had at once the fascination of the unknown, and the pathos of a life so far removed from her, so little dreamed of by her, that all its coarser cruelty was hidden, while only its unutterable sadness and courage remained before her sight.
Had she, could she, ever have seen it in its realities, watched and read and understood it, she would have been too intensely revolted to have perceived the actual, latent nobility possible in such an existence. As it was she heard but of it in such words as alone could meet the ear of a great lady; she gazed at it only in pity from a far-distant height, and its terrible tragedy had solemnity and beauty for her.
When her servant approached her now with Cecil’s message she hesitated some few moments in surprise. She had not known that he was in her vicinity. The story she had heard had been simply of two unnamed Chasseurs d’Afrique, and he himself might have fallen on the field weeks before, for aught that she had heard of him. Some stray rumors of his defense of the encampment of Zaraila, and of the fine prowess shown in his last charge, alone had drifted to her. He was but a trooper; and he fought in Africa. The world had no concern with him, save the miniature world of his own regiment.
She hesitated some moments; then gave the required permission. “He has once been a gentleman; it would be cruel to wound him,” thought the imperial beauty, who would have refused a prince or neglected a duke with chill indifference, but who was too generous to risk the semblance of humiliation to the man who could never approach her save upon such sufferance as was in itself mortification to one whose pride survived his fallen fortunes.
Moreover, the interest he had succeeded in awakening in her, the mingling of pity and of respect that his words and his bearing had aroused, was not extinct; had, indeed, only been strengthened by the vague stories that had of late floated to her of the day of Zaraila; of the day of smoke and steel and carnage, of war in its grandest yet its most frightful shape, of the darkness of death which the courage of human souls had power to illumine as the rays of the sun the tempest-cloud. Something more like quickened and pleasured expectation than any one among her many lovers had ever had power to rouse, moved her as she heard of the presence of the man who, in that day, had saved the honor of his Flag. She came of a heroic race; she had heroic blood in her; and heroism, physical and moral, won her regard as no other quality could ever do. A man capable of daring greatly, and of suffering silently, was the only man who could ever hope to hold her thoughts.
The room was darkened from the piercing light without; and in its gloom, as he was ushered in, the scarlet of her cashmere and the gleam of her fair hair was all that, for the moment, he could see. He bowed very low that he might get his calmness back before he looked at her; and her voice in its lingering music came on his ear.
“You have found my chain, I think? I lost it in riding yesterday. I am greatly indebted to you for taking care of it.”
She felt that she could only thank, as she would have thanked an equal who should have done her this sort of slight service, the man who had brought to her the gold pieces with which his Colonel had insulted him.
“It is I, madame, who am the debtor of so happy an accident.”
His words were very low, and his voice shook a little over them; he was thinking not of the jeweled toy that he came here to restore, but of the inheritance that had passed away from him forever, and which, possessed, would have given him the title to seek what his own efforts could do to wake a look of tenderness in those proud eyes which men ever called so cold, but which he felt might still soften, and change, and grow dark with the thoughts and the passions of love, if the soul that gazed through them were but once stirred from its repose.
“Your chain is here, madame, though broken, I regret to see,” he continued, as he took the little box from his coat and handed it to her. She took it, and thanked him, without, for the moment, opening the enamel case as she motioned him to a seat at a little distance from her own.
“You have been in terrible scenes since I saw you last,” she continued. “The story of Zaraila reached us. Surely they cannot refuse you the reward of your service now?”
“It will make little difference, madame, whether they do or not.”
“Little difference! How is that?”
“To my own fate, I meant. Whether I be captain or a corporal cannot alter ——”
He paused; he dreaded lest the word should escape him which should reveal to her that which she would regard as such intolerable offense, such insolent indignity, when felt for her by a soldier in the grade he held.
“No? Yet such recognition is usually the ambition of every military life.”
A very weary smile passed over his face.
“I have no ambition, madame. Or, if I have, it is not a pair of epaulettes that will content it.”
She understood him; she comprehended the bitter mockery that the tawdry, meretricious rewards of regimental decoration seemed to the man who had waited to die at Zaraila as patiently and as grandly as the Old Guard at Waterloo.
“I understand! The rewards are pitifully disproportionate to the services in the army. Yet how magnificently you and your men, as I have been told, held your ground all through that fearful day!”
“We did our duty — nothing more.”
“Well! is not that the rarest thing among men?”
“Not among soldiers, madame.”
“Then you think that every trooper in a regiment is actuated by the finest and most impersonal sentiment that can actuate human beings!”
“I will not say that. Poor wretches! They are degraded enough, too often. But I believe that more or less in every good soldier, even when he is utterly unconscious of it, is an impersonal love for the honor of his Flag, an uncalculating instinct to do his best for the reputation of his corps. We are called human machines; we are so, since we move by no will of our own; but the lowest among us will at times be propelled by one single impulse — a desire to die greatly. It is all that is left to most of us to do.”
She looked at him with that old look which he had seen once or twice before in her, of pity, respect, sympathy, and wonder, all in one. He spoke to her as he had never spoken to any living being. The grave, quiet, listless impassiveness that still was habitual with him — relic of the old habits of his former life — was very rarely broken, for his real nature or his real thoughts to be seen beneath it. But she, so far removed from him by position and by circumstance, and distant with him as a great lady could not but be with a soldier of whose antecedents and whose character she knew nothing, gave him sympathy, a sympathy that was sweet and rather felt than uttered; and it was like balm to a wound, like sweet melodies on a weary ear, to the man who had carried his secret so silently and so long, without one to know his burden or to soothe his pain.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, while over the brilliancy of her face there passed a shadow. “There must be infinite nobility among these men, who live without hope — live only to die. That soldier, a day or two ago, who brought his dead comrade through the hurricane, risking his own death rather than leave the body to the carrion-birds — you have heard of him? What tenderness, what greatness there must have been in that poor fellow’s heart!”
“Oh, no! That was nothing.”
“Nothing! They have told me he came every inch of the way in danger of the Arabs’ shot and steel. He had suffered so much to bring the body safe across the plains, he fell down insensible on his entrance here.”
“You set too much store on it. I owed him a debt far greater than any act like that could ever repay.”
“You! Was it you?”
“Yes, madame. He who perished had a thousandfold more of such nobility as you have praised than I.”
“Ah! Tell me of him,” she said simply; but he saw that the lustrous eyes bent on him had a grave, sweet sadness in them that was more precious and more pitiful than a million utterances of regret could ever have been.
Those belied her much who said that she was heartless; though grief had never touched her, she could feel keenly the grief of other lives. He obeyed her bidding now, and told her, in brief words, the story, which had a profound pathos spoken there, where without, through the oval, unglazed casement in the distance, there was seen the tall, dark, leaning pine that overhung the grave of yesternight — the story over which his voice oftentimes fell with the hush of a cruel pain in it, and which he could have related to no other save herself. It had an intense melancholy and a strange beauty in its brevity and its simplicity, told in that gaunt, still, darkened chamber of the caravanserai, with the gray gloom of its stone walls around, and the rays of the golden sunlight from without straying in to touch the glistening hair of the proud head that bent forward to listen to the recital. Her face grew paler as she heard, and a mist was over the radiance of her azure eyes; that death in the loneliness of the plains moved her deeply with the grand simplicity of its unconscious heroism. And, though he spoke little of himself, she felt, with all the divination of a woman’s sympathies, how he who told her this thing had suffered by it — suffered far more than the comrade whom he had laid down in the grave where, far off in the noonday warmth, the young goats were at rest on the sod. When he ceased, there was a long silence; he had lost even the memory of her in the memory of the death that he had painted to her; and she was moved with that wondering pain, that emotion, half dread and half regret, with which the contemplation of calamities that have never touched, and that can never touch them, will move women far more callous, far more world-chilled than herself.
In the silence her hands toyed listlessly with the enamel bonbonniere, whose silver had lost all its bright enameling, and was dinted and dulled till it looked no more than lead. The lid came off at her touch as she musingly moved it round and round; the chain and the ring fell into her lap; the lid remained in her hand, its interior unspoiled and studded in its center with a name in turquoise letters —“Venetia.”
She started as the word caught her eye and broke her reverie; the color came warmer into her cheek; she looked closer and closer at the box; then, with a rapid movement, turned her head and gazed at her companion.
“How did you obtain this?”
“The chain, madame? It had fallen in the water.”
“The chain! No! the box!”
He looked at her in surprise.
“It was given me very long ago.”
“And by whom?”
“By a young child, madame.”
Her lips parted slightly, the flush on her cheeks deepened; the beautiful face, which the Roman sculptor had said only wanted tenderness to make it perfect, changed, moved, was quickened with a thousand shadows of thought.
“The box is mine! I gave it! And you?”
He rose to his feet, and stood entranced before her, breathless and mute.
“And you?” she repeated.
He was silent still, gazing at her. He knew her now — how had he been so blind as never to guess the truth before, as never to know that those imperial eyes and that diadem of golden hair could belong alone but to the women of one race?
“And you?” she cried once more, while she stretched her hand out to him. “And you — you are Philip’s friend? you are Bertie Cecil?”
Silently he bowed his head; not even for his brother’s sake, or for the sake of his pledged word, could he have lied to her.
But her outstretched hands he would not see, he would not take. The shadow of an imputed crime was stretched between them.
“Petite Reine!” he murmured. “Ah, God! how could I be so blind?”
She grew very pale as she sank back again upon the couch from which she had risen. It seemed to her as though a thousand years had drifted by since she had stood beside this man under the summer leaves of the Stephanien, and he had kissed her childish lips, and thanked her for her loving gift. And now — they had met thus!
He said nothing. He stood paralyzed, gazing at her. There had been no added bitterness needed in the cup which he drank for his brother’s sake, yet this bitterness surpassed all other; it seemed beyond his strength to leave her in the belief that he was guilty. She in whom all fair and gracious things were met; she who was linked by her race to his past and his youth; she whose clear eyes in her childhood had looked upon him in that first hour of the agony that he had suffered then, and still suffered on, in the cause of a coward and an ingrate.
She was pale still; and her eyes were fixed on him with a gaze that recalled to him the look with which “Petite Reine” had promised that summer day to keep his secret, and tell none of that misery of which she had been witness.
“They thought that you were dead,” she said at length, while her voice sank very low. “Why have you lived like this?”
He made no answer.
“It was cruel to Philip,” she went on, while her voice still shook. “Child though I was, I remember his passion of grief when the news came that you had lost your life. He has never forgotten you. So often now he will still speak of you! He is in your camp. We are traveling together. He will be here this evening. What delight it will give him to know his dearest friend is living! But why — why — have kept him ignorant, if you were lost to all the world beside?”
Still he answered her nothing. The truth he could not tell; the lie he would not. She paused, waiting reply. Receiving none, she spoke once more, her words full of that exquisite softness which was far more beautiful in her than in women less tranquil, less chill, and less negligent in ordinary moments.
“Mr. Cecil, I divined rightly! I knew that you were far higher than your grade in Africa; I felt that in all things, save in some accident of position, we were equals. But why have you condemned yourself to this misery? Your life is brave, is noble, but it must be a constant torture to such as you? I remember well what you were — so well, that I wonder we have never recognized each other before now. The existence you lead in Algeria must be very terrible to you, though it is greater, in truth, than your old years of indolence.”
He sank down beside her on a low seat, and bowed his head on his hands for some moments. He knew that he must leave this woman whom he loved, and who knew him now as one whom in her childhood she had seen caressed and welcomed by all her race, to hold him guilty of this wretched, mean, and fraudulent thing, under whose charge he had quitted her country. Great dews of intense pain gathered on his forehead; his whole mind, and heart, and soul revolted against this brand of a guilt not his own that was stamped on him; he could have cried out to her the truth in all the eloquence of a breaking heart.
But he knew that his lips had been sealed by his own choice forever; and the old habits of his early life were strong upon him still. He lifted his head and spoke gently, and very quietly, though she caught the tremor that shook through the words.
“Do not let us speak of myself. You see what my life is; there is no more to be said. Tell me rather of your own story — you are no longer the Lady Venetia? You have been wedded and widowed, they say?”
“The wife of an hour — yes! But it is of yourself that I would hear. Why have left the world, and, above all, why have left us, to think you dead? I was not so young when we last saw you, but that I remember well how all my people loved you.”
Had she been kept in ignorance of the accusation beneath which his flight had been made? He began to think so. It was possible. She had been so young a child when he had left for Africa; then the story was probably withheld from reaching her; and now, what memory had the world to give a man whose requiem it had said twelve long years before? In all likelihood she had never heard his name, save from her brother’s lips, that had been silent on the shame of his old comrade.
“Leave my life alone, for God’s sake!” he said passionately. “Tell me of your own — tell me, above all, of his. He loved me, you say? — O Heaven! he did! Better than any creature that ever breathed; save the man whose grave lies yonder.”
“He does so still,” she answered eagerly. “Philip’s is not a heart that forgets. It is a heart of gold, and the name of his earliest friend is graven on it as deeply now as ever. He thinks you dead; to-night will be the happiest hour he had ever known when he shall meet you here.”
He rose hastily, and moved thrice to and fro the narrow floor whose rugged earth had been covered with furs and rugs lest it should strike a chill to her as she passed over it; the torture grew unsupportable to him. And yet, it had so much of sweetness that he was powerless to end it — sweetness in the knowledge that she knew him now her equal, at least by birth; in the change that it had made in her voice and her glance, while the first grew tender with olden memories, and the last had the smile of friendship; in the closeness of the remembrances that seemed to draw and bind them together; in the swift sense that in an instant, by the utterance of a name, the exbarrier of caste which had been between them had fallen now and forever.
She watched him with grave, musing eyes. She was moved, startled, softened to a profound pity for him, and filled with a wondering of regret; yet a strong emotion of relief, of pleasure, rose above these. She had never forgotten the man to whom, in her childish innocence, she had brought the gifts of her golden store; she was glad that he lived, though he lived thus, glad with a quicker, warmer, more vivid emotion than any that had ever occupied her for any man living or dead except her brother. The interest she had vaguely felt in a stranger’s fortunes, and which she had driven contemptuously away as unworthy of her harboring, was justified for one whom her people had known and valued while she had been in her infancy, and of whom she had never heard from her brother’s lips aught except constant regret and imperishable attachment. For it was true, as Cecil divined, that the dark cloud under which his memory had passed to all in England had never been seen by her eyes, from which, in childhood, it had been screened, and, in womanhood, withheld, because his name had been absolutely forgotten by all save the Seraph, to whom it had been fraught with too much pain for its utterance to be ever voluntary.
“What is it you fear from Philip?” she asked him, at last, when she had waited vainly for him to break the silence. “You can remember him but ill if you think that there will be anything in his heart save joy when he shall know that you are living. You little dream how dear your memory is to him —”
He paused before her abruptly.
“Hush, hush! or you will kill me! Why! — three nights ago I fled the camp as men flee pestilence, because I saw his face in the light of the bivouac-fire and dreaded that he should so see mine!”
She gazed at him in troubled amaze; there was that in the passionate agitation of this man who had been serene through so much danger, and unmoved beneath so much disaster, that startled and bewildered her.
“You fled from Philip? Ah! how you must wrong him! What will it matter to him whether you be prince or trooper, wear a peer’s robes or a soldier’s uniform? His friendship never yet was given to externals. But — why? — that reminds me of your inheritance. Do you know that lord Royallieu is dead? That your younger brother bears the title, thinking you perished at Marseilles? He was here with me yesterday; he has come to Algeria for the autumn. Whatever your motive may have been to remain thus hidden from us all, you must claim your own rights now. You must go back to all that is so justly yours. Whatever your reason be to have borne with all the suffering and the indignity that have been your portion here, they will be ended now.”
Her beauty had never struck him as intensely as at this moment, when, in urging him to the demand of his rights, she so unconsciously tempted him to betray his brother and to forsake his word. The indifference and the careless coldness that had to so many seemed impenetrable and unalterable in her were broken and had changed to the warmth of sympathy, of interest, of excitation. There was a world of feeling in her face, of eloquence in her eyes, as she stooped slightly forward with the rich glow of the cashmeres about her, and the sun-gleam falling across her brow. Pure, and proud, and noble in every thought, and pressing on him now what was the due of his birth and his heritage, she yet unwittingly tempted him with as deadly a power as though she were the vilest of her sex, seducing him downward to some infamous dishonor.
To do what she said would be but his actual right, and would open to him a future so fair that his heart grew sick with longing for it; and yet to yield, and to claim justice for himself, was forbidden him as utterly as though it were some murderous guilt. He had promised never to sacrifice his brother; the promise held him like the fetters of a galley slave.
“Why do you not answer me?” she pursued, while she leaned nearer with wonder, and doubt, and a certain awakening dread shadowing the blue luster of her eyes that were bent so thoughtfully, so searchingly, upon him. “Is it possible that you have heard of your inheritance, of your title and estates, and that you voluntarily remain a soldier here? Lord Royallieu must yield them in the instant you prove your identity, and in that there could be no difficulty. I remember you well now, and Philip, I am certain, will only need to see you once to —”
“Hush, for pity’s sake! Have you never heard — have none ever told you ——”
Her face grew paler with a vague sense of fear; she knew that he had been equable and resolute under the severest tests that could try the strength and the patience of man, and she knew, therefore, that no slender thing could agitate and could unman him thus.
“What is it I should have heard?” she asked him, as he kept his silence.
He turned from her so that she could not see his face.
“That, when I became dead to the world, I died with the taint of crime on me!”
An intense horror thrilled through the echo of the word; but she rose, and moved, and faced him with the fearless resolve of a woman whom no half-truth would blind, and no shadowy terror appall.
“Of crime? What crime?”
Then, and then only, he looked at her, a strange, fixed, hopeless, yet serene look, that she knew no criminal ever would or could have given.
“I was accused of having forged your brother’s name.”
A faint cry escaped her; her lips grew white, and her eyes darkened and dilated.
“Accused. But wrongfully?”
His breath came and went in quick, sharp spasms.
“I could not prove that.”
“Not prove it? Why?”
“I could not.”
“But he — Philip — never believed you guilty?”
“I cannot tell. He may; he must.”
“But you are not!”
It was not an interrogation, but an affirmation that rang out in the silver clearness of her voice. There was not a single intonation of doubt in it; there was rather a haughty authority that forbade even himself to say that one of his race and that one of his Order could have been capable of such ignoble and craven sin.
His mouth quivered, a bitter sigh broke from him; he turned his eyes on her with a look that pierced her to the heart.
“Think me guilty or guiltless, as you will; I cannot answer you.”
His last words were suffocated with the supreme anguish of their utterance. As she heard it, the generosity, the faith, the inherent justice, and the intrinsic sweetness that were latent in her beneath the negligence and the chillness of external semblance rose at once to reject the baser, to accept the nobler, belief offered to her choice. She had lived much in the world, but it had not corroded her; she had acquired keen discernment from it, but she had preserved all the courageous and the chivalrous instincts of her superb nature. She looked at him now, and stretched her hands out toward him with a royal and gracious gesture of infinite eloquence.
“You are guiltless, whatever circumstance may have arrayed against you, whatever shadow of evil may have fallen falsely on you. Is it not so?”
He bowed his head low over her hands as he took them. In that moment half the bitterness of his doom passed from him; he had at least her faith. But his face was bloodless as that of a corpse, and the loud beatings of his heart were audible on the stillness. This faith must live on without one thing to show that he deserved it; if, in time to come, it should waver and fall, and leave him in the darkness of the foul suspicion under which he dwelt, what wonder would there be?
He lifted his head and looked her full in the eyes; her own closed involuntarily, and filled with tears. She felt that the despair and the patience of that look would haunt her until her dying day.
“I was guiltless; but none could credit it then; none would do so now; nor can I seek to make them. Ask me no more; give me your belief, if you can — God knows what precious mercy it is to me; but leave me to fulfill my fate, and tell no living creature what I have told you now.”
The great tears stood in her eyes, and blinded her as she heard. Even in the amaze and the vagueness of this first knowledge of the cause of his exile she felt instinctively, as the Little One also had done, that some great sacrifice, some great fortitude and generosity, lay within this sealed secret of his sufferance of wrong. She knew, too, that it would be useless to seek to learn that which he had chosen to conceal; that for no slender cause could he have come out to lead this life of whose sufferings she could gauge the measure; that nothing save some absolute and imperative reason could have driven him to accept such living death as was his doom in Africa.
“Tell no one!” she echoed. “What! not Philip even? Not your oldest friend. Ah! be sure, whatever the evidence might be against you, his heart never condemned you for one instant.”
“I believe it. Yet all you can do for me, all I implore you to do for me, is to keep silence forever on my name. To-day, accident has made me break a vow I never thought but to keep sacred. When you recognized me, I could not deny myself, I could not lie to you; but, for God’s sake, tell none of what has passed between us!”
“But why?” she pursued —“why? You lie under this charge still — you cannot disprove it, you say; but why not come out before the world, and state to all what you swear now to me, and claim your right to bear your father’s honors? If you were falsely accused, there must have been some guilty in your stead; and if —”
“Cease, for pity’s sake! Forget I ever told you I was guiltless! Blot my memory out; think of me as dead, as I have been, till your eyes called me back to life. Think that I am branded with the theft of your brother’s name; think that I am vile, and shameless and fallen as the lowest wretch that pollutes this army; think of me as what you will, but not as innocent!”
The words broke out in a torrent from him, bearing down with them all his self-control, as the rush of waters bears away all barriers that have long dammed their course. They were wild, passionate, incoherent; unlike any that had ever passed his lips, or been poured out in her presence. He felt mad with the struggle that tore him asunder, the longing to tell the truth to her, though he should never after look upon her face again, and the honor which bound silence on him for sake of the man whom he had sworn under no temptation to dispossess and to betray.
She heard him silently, with her grand, meditative eyes, in which the slow tears still floated, fixed upon him. Most women would have thought that conscious guilt spoke in the violence of his self-accusation; she did not. Her intuition was too fine, her sympathies too true. She felt that he feared, not that she should unjustly think him guilty, but that she should justly think him guiltless. She knew that this, whatever its root might be, was the fear of the stainless, not of the criminal life.
“I hear you,” she answered him gently; “but I do not believe you, even against yourself. The man whom Philip loved and honored never sank to the base fraud of a thief.”
Her glorious eyes were still on him as she spoke, seeming to read his very soul. Under that glance all the manhood, all the race, all the pride, and the love, and the courage within him refused to bear in her sight the shame of an alien crime, and rose in revolt to fling off the bondage that forced him to stand as a criminal before the noble gaze of this woman. His eyes met hers full, and rested on them without wavering; his head was raised, and his carriage had a fearless dignity.
“No. I was innocent. But in honor I must bear the yoke that I took on me long ago; in honor I can never give you or any living soul the proof that this crime was not mine. I thought that I should go to my grave without any ever hearing of the years that I have passed in Africa, without any ever learning the name I used to bear. As it is, all I can ask is now — to be forgotten.”
His voice fell before the last words, and faltered over them. It was bitter to ask only for oblivion from the woman whom he loved with all the strength of a sudden passion born in utter hopelessness; the woman whose smile, whose beauty, whose love might even possibly have been won as his own in the future, if he could have claimed his birthright. So bitter that, rather than have spoken those words of resignation, he would have been led out by a platoon of his own soldiery and shot in the autumn sunlight beside Rake’s grave.
“You ask what will not be mine to give,” she answered him, while a great weariness stole through her own words, for she was bewildered, and pained, and oppressed with a new, strange sense of helplessness before this man’s nameless suffering. “Remember — I knew you so well in my earliest years, and you are so dear to the one dearest to me. It will not be possible to forget such a meeting as this. Silence, of course, you can command from me, if you insist on it; but —”
“I command nothing from you; but I implore it. It is the sole mercy you can show. Never, for God’s sake! speak of me to your brother or to mine.”
“Do you so mistrust Philip’s affection?”
“No. It is because I trust it too entirely.”
“Too entirely to do what?”
“To deal it fruitless pain. As you love him — as you pity me — pray that he and I never meet!”
“But why? If all this could be cleared ——”
“It never can be.”
The baffled sense of impotence against the granite wall of some immovable calamity which she had felt before came on her. She had been always used to be obeyed, followed, and caressed; to see obstacles crumble, difficulties disappear, before her wish; she had not been tried by any sorrow, save when, a mere child still, she felt the pain of her father’s death; she had been lapped in softest luxury, crowned with easiest victory. The sense that here there was a tragedy whose meaning she could not reach, that there was here a fate that she could not change or soften, brought a strange, unfamiliar feeling of weakness before a hopeless and cruel doom that was no more to be altered by her will than the huge, bare rocks of Africa, out yonder in the glare of noon, were to be lifted by her hand. For she knew that this man, who made so light of perils that would have chilled many to the soul in terror, and who bore so quiet and serene a habit beneath the sharpest stings and hardest blows of his adversities, would not speak thus without full warrant; would not consign himself to this renunciation of every hope, unless he were compelled to it by a destiny from which there was no escape.
She was silent some moments, her eyes resting on him with that grave and luminous regard which no man had ever changed to one more tender or less calmly contemplative. He had risen again, and paced to and fro the narrow chamber; his head bent down, his chest rising and falling with the labored, quickened breath. He had thought that the hour in which his brother’s ingratitude had pierced his heart had been the greatest suffering he had ever known, or ever could know; but a greater had waited on him here, in the fate to which the jeweled toy that he had lifted from the water had accidentally led him, not dreaming to what he came.
“Lord Royallieu,” she said softly, at length, while she rose and moved toward him, the scarlet of the trailing cashmeres gathering dark, ruby lights in them as they caught sun and shadow; and at the old name, uttered in her voice, he started, and turned, and looked at her as though he saw some ghost of his past life rise from its grave. “Why look at me so?” she pursued ere he could speak. “Act how you will, you cannot change the fact that you are the bearer of your father’s title. So long as you live, your brother Berkeley can never take it legally. You may be a Chasseur of the African Army, but none the less are you a Peer of England.”
“What means that?” he muttered. “Why tell me that? I have said I am dead. Leave me buried here, and let him enjoy what he may — what he can.”
“But this is folly — madness ——”
“No; it is neither. I have told you I should stand as a felon in the eyes of the English law; I should have no civil rights; the greatest mercy fate can show me is to let me remain forgotten here. It will not be long, most likely, before I am thrust into the African sand, to rot like that brave soul out yonder. Berkeley will be the lawful holder of the title then; leave him in peace and possession now.”
He spoke the words out to the end — calmly, and with unfaltering resolve. But she saw the great dews gather on his temples, where silver threads were just glistening among the bright richness of his hair and she heard the short, low, convulsive breathing with which his chest heaved as he spoke. She stood close beside him, and gazed once more full in his eyes, while the sweet, imperious cadence of her voice answered him:
“There is more than I know of here. Either you are the greatest madman, or the most generous man that ever lived. You choose to guard your own secret; I will not seek to persuade it from you. But tell me one thing — why do you thus abjure your rights, permit a false charge to rest on you, and consign yourself forever to this cruel agony?”
His lips shook under his beard as he answered her.
“Because I can do no less in honor. For God’s sake, do not you tempt me!”
“Forgive me,” she said, after a long pause. “I will never ask you that again.”
She could honor honor too well, and too well divine all that he suffered for its sake, ever to become his temptress in bidding him forsake it; yet, with a certain weariness, a certain dread, wholly unfamiliar to her, she realized that what he had chosen was the choice not of his present or of his future. It could have no concern for her — save that long years ago he had been the best-loved friend of her best-loved relative — whether or no he remained lost to all the world under the unknown name of a French Chasseur. And yet it smote her with a certain dull, unanalyzed pain; it gave her a certain emotion of powerlessness and of hopelessness to realize that he would remain all his years through, until an Arab’s shot should set him free, under this bondage of renunciation, beneath this yoke of service. She stood silent long, leaning against the oval of the casement, with the sun shed over the glowing cashmeres that swept round her. He stood apart in silence also. What could he say to her? His whole heart longed with an unutterable longing to tell her the truth, and bid her be his judge between him and his duty; but his promise hung on him like a leaden weight. He must remain speechless — and leave her, for doubt to assail her, and for scorn to follow it in her thoughts of him, if so they would.
Heavy as had been the curse to him of that one hour in which honor had forbade him to compromise a woman’s reputation, and old tenderness had forbade him to betray a brother’s sin, he had never paid so heavy a price for his act as that which he paid now.
Through the yellow sunlight without, over the barren, dust-strewn plains, in the distance there approached three riders, accompanied by a small escort of Spahis, with their crimson burnous floating in the autumnal wind. She started, and turned to him.
“It is Philip! He is coming for me from your camp today.”
His eyes strained through the sun-glare.
“Ah, God! I cannot meet him — I have not strength. You do not know ——”
“I know how well he loved you.”
“Not better than I him! But I cannot — I dare not. Unless I could meet him as we never shall meet upon earth, we must be apart forever. For Heaven’s sake promise me never to speak my name!”
“I promise until you release me.”
“And you can believe me innocent still, in face of all?”
She stretched her hands to him once more. “I believe. For I know what you once were.”
Great, burning tears fell from his eyes upon her hands as he bent over them.
“God bless you! You were an angel of pity to me in your childhood; in your womanhood you give me the only mercy I have known since the last day you looked upon my face! We shall be far sundered forever. May I come to you once more?”
She paused in hesitation and in thought a while, while for the first time in all her years a tremulous tenderness passed over her face; she felt an unutterable pity for this man and for his doom. Then she drew her hands gently away from him.
“Yes, I will see you again.”
So much concession to such a prayer Venetia Corona had never before given. He could not command his voice to answer, but he bowed low before her as before an empress — another moment, and she was alone.
She stood looking out at the wide, level country beyond, with the glare of the white, strong light and the red burnous of the Franco–Arabs glowing against the blue, but cloudless sky; she thought that she must be dreaming some fantastic story born of these desert solitudes.
Yet her eyes were dim with tears, and her heart ached with another’s woe. Doubt of him never came to her; but there was a vague, terrible pathos in the mystery of his fate that oppressed her with a weight of future evil, unknown, and unmeasured.
“Is he a madman?” she mused. “If not, he is a martyr; one of the greatest that ever suffered unknown to other men.”
In the coolness of the late evening, in the court of the caravanserai, her brother and his friends lounged with her and the two ladies of their touring and sketching party, while they drank their sherbet, and talked of the Gerome colors of the place, and watched the flame of the afterglow burn out, and threw millet to the doves and pigeons straying at their feet.
“My dear Venetia!” cried the Seraph, carelessly tossing handfuls of grain to the eager birds, “I inquired for your Sculptor–Chasseur — that fellow Victor — but I failed to see him, for he had been sent on an expedition shortly after I reached the camp. They tell me he is a fine soldier; but by what the Marquis said, I fear he is but a handsome blackguard, and Africa, after all, may be his fittest place.”
She gave a bend of her head to show she heard him, stroking the soft throat of a little dove that had settled on the bench beside her.
“There is a charming little creature there, a little fire-eater — Cigarette, they call her — who is in love with him, I fancy. Such a picturesque child! — swears like a trooper, too,” continued he who was now Duke of Lyonnesse. “By the way, is Berkeley gone?”
“What for? — where to?”
“I was not interested to inquire.”
“Ah! you never liked him! Odd enough to leave without reason or apology?”
“He had his reasons, doubtless.”
“And made his apology to you?”
Her brother looked at her earnestly; there was a care upon her face new to him.
“Are you well, my darling?” he asked her. “Has the sun been too hot, or la bise too cold for you?”
She rose, and gathered her cashmeres about her, and smiled somewhat wearily her adieu to him.
“Both, perhaps. I am tired. Good-night.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12