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Title: Vivienne
Author: "Rita" (Eliza Margaret Jane Humphreys)
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1701221.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: November 2017
Date last updated: November 2017

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

VIVIENNE

A Novel

BY

"RITA"

AUTHOR OF "DAME DURDEN," "MY LADY COQUETTE," "LIKE DIAN'S KISS,"
"COUNTESS DAPHNE," ETC.

"Love can transpose to form and dignity."

.....Midsummer Night's Dream.


The Author's first novel, originally published in three volumes in 1877
by Sampson, Low & Co., London.

Serialized in the Western Herald (Bourke, N.S.W.) commencing 5
November, 1887, and also as "The Triumph of Love", in the Leader
(Orange, N.S.W.) commending 18 April, 1914.



CONTENTS.

Book I.

I. THE CHATEAU OF RENONÇEUX
II. MAY AND DECEMBER
III. WHAT "HAS BEEN"
IV. THERE IS SWEET MUSIC HERE
V. DANGER
VI. YET I AM WELL
VII. IN POOR ATTIRE
VIII. A STORY OF THE PAST

Book II.

I. LIFE'S SPRINGTIME
II. LA MODE
III. "THE IDOL OF MY YOUTH"
IV. THE "BAL MASQUE"
V. DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND
VI. A "CONTE DES FEES"
VII. FOR THY LOVE I NEVER PRAY'D
VIII. HOW LIGHT A CAUSE

Book III.

I. THE FIRST SEEDS
II. AN "AFFAIRE DU CŒUR"
III. TREACHERY
IV. To BE WROTH WITH ONE WE LOVE
V. COULD LOVE PART THUS
VI. NEAR THE BRINK
VII. A GREAT SIN
VIII. WHEN JOY IS FLED
IX. THE TRUTH AT LAST
X. MY HEART IS BREAKING
XI. HOW THE PROMISE WAS KEPT

Book IV.

I. NECESSITY OWNS NO LAW
II. "COALS OF FIRE"
III. A CHARMED CUP
IV. A HOPE

Book V.

I. VENICE
II. A TALE OF THE PAST
III. SCORN OR RUE
IV. FAR WORSE THAN ANY DEATH
V. IN DEEDS--NOT YEARS
VI. THE DIVINITY OF THE SOULLESS

Book VI.

I. LEARNT IN SUFFERING
II. LOVE IN VAIN
III. THE LAST SEAL
IV. "VENGEANCE IS MINE"
V. MORE CLOUDS IN THE SKY
VI. LOST!

Book VII.

I. A HARD DUTY
II. THE MYSTERY DEEPENS
III. DEPTHS OF PAIN
IV. KING OF HIMSELF
V. CROSS PURPOSES
VI. TESTED AND TRIED
VII. KEEPING FAITH

Book VIII.

I. AS LAST YEAR'S ROSES
II. THE LAST DREAM
III. ERE THE END COMES
IV. FAME AT LAST
V. L'ENVOI


***


VIVIENNE.




BOOK I.




CHAPTER I.--THE CHÂTEAU OF RENONÇEUX.


"Half light, half shade She stood; a sight to make an old man
young."....Tennyson.



THE dusky shade of a green wood.

Golden bars of sunshine are slanting through the trees; the morning
dews gleam from the opening hearts of wild flowers, and on the
spear-like blades of waving grasses. Above stretches the wide, warm
beauty of a cloudless sky--a sky that glows with rose and sapphire as
the dawn touches it with a farewell kiss, and leaves it to the fuller
splendour of the waking day.

The wood stands on a southern hill-side in the fair vine country
of Lorraine. The land is bright with the new-born beauty of
spring--glorious with light, replete with colour wherever the eye
wanders. The young vines have just begun to uncurl their delicate
tendrils; the breath of budding blossoms weighs on every breeze.
Through the corn-fields and bridle-roads there is a delicious, delicate
gleam of tender green, or wondrous flushes of pale pink from the almond
and peach trees. The grasses are crimsoned with tulips; every nook is
sweet with odours of violets, and where the silver light of the winding
river catches the sun's rays, there rises the faint blue vapour of the
morning mists, or the smoke of a barge lazily drifting on the quiet
water, while its owners sleep.

Beyond the wood a broad white road is visible, bordered on either
side by flowering chestnuts, and winding downwards into a valley from
whence it again ascends, and leads on through breadths of corn-land
and fragrant orchards, till it is lost in the distance. In the heart
of the wood where the shadows are deepest a tiny brook runs merrily
along, singing a song of its own to the lilies and forget-me-nots which
grow on its borders; but the lilies are not the only listeners this
fair spring morning, and the shy forget-me-nots, as they peep into the
waters to see their own reflection, behold another vision there to.

A young girl stands by the brook-side, smiling down at the waters
which mirror her own loveliness. Only a girl of some sixteen summers,
bare-headed, poorly clad, but beautiful exceedingly, with that beauty
which no poverty can hide. The slender form owes nothing to the coarse,
ill-fitting garments which may disfigure but cannot conceal its perfect
grace and rounded outlines. The lustrous eyes, and tender poetic face,
are eloquent with thought and feeling; but the loveliness that makes
the face so infinitely witching is something purer and deeper than even
its external perfection--it is the beauty of a lovely soul, a pure and
noble spirit.

She seems in deep thought, as she lingers there in the warm spring
glory of the early day. The light breeze kisses her hair. The birds
overhead sing loud and sweet, but she scarcely heeds them. The musing
languor deepens in her eyes, and some wave of deeper feeling, some
touch of graver thought shadows the innocent calm of the girlish face,
and, while taking nothing from its beauty, gives that beauty a sweeter,
sadder meaning.

"What a picture for an artist!"

These words, uttered just loud enough to reach her ear, startle her
suddenly from her abstraction. Glancing hastily round she observes two
figures on the path beyond, attentively watching her. The hot, swift
colour flies to her cheek as she becomes conscious of their scrutiny,
and as if that scrutiny were in some way offensive to her she turns
hastily away, and unheeding the laughing salutation which follows her
departure, disappears with rapid steps in an opposite direction.

"Too bad, really! Have I frightened her, De Verdreuil?" questions the
younger of the two men who have disturbed her solitude so abruptly.
"But I say what a lovely face to find in these woods of yours! Do you
know who she is?"

"I can't say I do--a paysanne, or cottager's daughter, I suppose. I
have been so long absent from Renonçeux that I can claim no knowledge
of its sylvan divinities. Have you fallen a victim to this new face
already, Legard? You look moon-struck enough. How you do rave about the
beau sexe to be sure! The very sight of a petticoat puts all your
ideas to flight with the exception of one—that of making love to its
owner!"

"True enough!" laughed the other. "But how am I to help it, Raoul? I
was born to adore women--it's my nature. I believe I fell in love with
my nurse at the tender age of three, and since then I have gone on
improving."

"Improving, Gaston!"

"Well, my dear fellow, don't look supercilious over it. I know what a
cynic you are in these matters, but make allowances for others who find
charms in the pursuits you despise."

"Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle, in my opinion. Thank goodness
I have no time to waste on women, and less inclination than time.
Flirtations are only for idle fellows like you, Legard!"

"Lucky for me, I say. Love-making is the poetry and essence of
life. Fancy preferring politics to bright eyes, and ministerial
embroglerie to boudoir intrigues. It will be all the worse for you
one day though, mon ami."

"Indeed--and why?" asked his companion, raising his eyebrows with a
faint gesture of disdain.

"Why? Because I never yet knew one of you cold, cynical individuals who
despise or affect to despise women, who did not do one of two things;
worship hopelessly a very cold one, or fall madly in love with a very
bad one. Take my word for it, De Verdreuil, you'll do one or other yet."

"My dear Gaston!" laughed the other; "it is no use arguing about it,
I know, for we should never agree. It seems to me 'a folly's crown of
folly,' if I may venture to use such a parody, for any man to sigh and
languish, and make himself an object of compassion and ridicule to all
beholders for the sake of a woman. Thank God I have never done it, nor
do I mean to begin, if I can help it."

"All very fine to talk," laughed the other. "One of these days, Raoul,
you will find that your heart is not so invulnerable as you imagine.
Even Achilles had his weak point, you know!"

"Of course as you pass your whole existence in love-making, Legard, you
cannot believe that I really mean what I say on the subject. Change,
it pray--there's a good fellow. I promised to show you the finest view
of the château, did I not? Just wait till we turn this point, and then
look at something fairer even than a woman's face--at least, in my
opinion."

An exclamation of involuntary admiration fell from Gaston Legard's
lips, as he obeyed his companion's directions.

They were out of the wood now, and on the summit of the hill which
sloped gradually down to the park and estates of Renonçeux, one of the
oldest and noblest possessions in Lorraine, and belonging to a race old
and famous as itself. At present it was owned by Raoul de Verdreuil,
father of the dark, grave-looking man, who now stood gazing down at his
prospective possessions with mingled pride and admiration. The château,
with its grey towers and sloping terraces, its famous gardens blushing
with roses from end to end, was very old and very beautiful. It looked
tranquil and innocent enough now in the clear soft morning light, but
it had a host of traditions, of blood-stained records, and terrible
deeds surrounding it. Those shady, odorous gardens, full of the murmurs
of birds and bees, and sweet with the fragrance of scented winds, bore
many and mournful memories; had witnessed scenes of guilt, and woe,
and passion; had heard love-tales both reckless and despairing. But
there were no voices to speak of it now, for Nature keeps her secrets
so faithfully and well, that no living mortal ever yet accused her of
confidence betrayed.

Raoul de Verdreuil, whose grave, dark eyes rested with mingled pride
and affection on his beautiful home, was the last of his race; a race
famous for loyal courage, for a lofty, stainless pride in name and
possessions, for dauntless chivalry and unimpeachable honour; yet a
race who had won more fear than love, more admiration than regard.
Kings had known the value of their services, changing dynasties had
felt the terrible influence of their power. The courtly graces and
faultless chivalry of the old régime still lingered round them,
but their ruling passion was pride--a lofty, self-sufficient pride,
that never brooked insult, or forgave dishonour; that held aloof from
the follies, and passions, and failings of the day, more because they
deemed them unworthy of imitation, than that they really despised them.
A pride that had broken many hearts, cursed many lives, and yet was
inherent in each successor.

"Well, was I not right in telling you the view was worth the trouble of
the walk?" said Raoul de Verdreuil, breaking the silence at length, and
turning towards his friend.

"It is splendid—magnificent!" was the reply. "Ah! De Verdreuil, I
am inclined to envy you, indeed. Not only have you won a position
for yourself in the ministerial world, but you have all this wealth
and property in prospect. Truly fortune has smiled upon you to some
purpose!"

"Yes; I have not much to complain of," was the answer.

"And yet I daresay you are not content," said Gaston Legard, laughing.
"I wonder if any of us ever are content with our life, and sphere,
and prospects. I don't believe it. Look at yourself for instance;
instead of living quietly at home or enjoying yourself, without any
trouble, you must needs plunge into all the embroglia of ministerial
life, and worry yourself from morning to night with diplomatic
stratagems which carry you off to all parts of the globe, when you
might be amusing yourself in Paris. How foolish it seems to me!"

"Only because you are differently constituted," said Raoul de
Verdreuil, smiling. "What seems to you delightful and amusing is to
me little else than boredom and ennui. I get so heartily sick of
the intrigues, follies, and scandals of fashionable life, that I am
thankful to fly from it at every opportunity. My ambition lies in
winning fame, in achieving distinction, in tasting the sweets of power,
and ruling, instead of being ruled. Yours, Legard," he added, laughing,
"consists of conquests of which you tire as soon as they are achieved,
and sunning yourself in smiles, whose very sweetness palls upon your
fancy in the space of a month."

"Quite as sensible a proceeding, it seems to me, as that of playing
the part of 'Monkey and roasted Chestnuts' to a Court," was the quick
retort, "in settling petty ministerial squabbles, in flying abroad
at a moment's notice to fulfil impossible instructions, or suavely
endeavouring to pacify countries who quarrel over split hairs. What
pleasure can such a life have? To me it is an incomprehensible mystery."

"I suppose so," was the quiet answer. "Well, we won't pursue the
subject, Legard; as we only seem inclined 'to agree to differ'
respecting it. Shall we go back the way we came, or would you prefer a
change of route?"

"I suppose there's no chance of the 'pretty paysanne' appearing on
the scene again," said Gaston Legard regretfully. "Well, I will trust
to your choice, De Verdreuil, you know more of the locality than I do."

"Come this way, then," said his friend, leading the way down the hill,
and turning into a broad road shaded by large and magnificent trees,
which appeared to run straight in the direction of the château. They
proceeded slowly along, discussing subjects grave or gay at intervals,
but it was evident their minds were of too dissimilar a nature for any
great sympathy to exist between them.

"By the bye, De Verdreuil," remarked Gaston Legard, as they were
nearing the entrance gates, "how do you like the new inmate of
Renonçeux? Your beautiful and juvenile belle-mère; your manner does
not give me the idea of her advent being a pleasant one to you. I
suppose the change was not agreeable?"

A flush rose to the dark, handsome face of Raoul de Verdreuil at this
inquiry, and a strange light gleamed in his eyes, which might have
warned his companion that he was treading on dangerous ground.

"No change could be exactly agreeable that interfered between the close
relationship and complete confidence of my father and myself," he said,
coldly. "However his happiness is above all selfish considerations, and
where it is concerned my own feelings must not interfere."

"I know that very well; your love for your father used to be a byword
among us even in your school days, Raoul; but nevertheless, I should
scarcely think that the sudden introduction of a young and beautiful
woman like the Countess de Verdreuil into your domestic life was quite
welcome to such a woman-hater as yourself. What changes she has made in
Renonçeux already!"

The calm, grave face of the young count grew paler and harder than its
wont at these careless words; it was evident that the discussion was
not a pleasant one to him, though he skilfully evaded any expression of
his real feelings.

"Changes for the better, you must allow, Gaston," he said lightly. "The
old château wanted brightening up, I am sure, and female influence,
however much it interferes with the serious interests of life in my
opinion, is yet a necessary evil sometimes. The place looked quite
dreary and deserted a year ago, and look at it now!"

"It is lively and gay enough, at all events, under the rule of its
present chatelaine," answered the other. "She knows how to make life
enjoyable, does she not, De Verdreuil?"

"According to your views of enjoyment, yes," said Raoul de Verdreuil;
"but you know our opinions differ very widely on that subject."

"And on a good many others, eh, de Verdreuil? Well, we've no more time
for arguments or disagreements either, for here comes your fidus
Achates to meet you. I suppose I'd better beat a retreat, for you two
will be up in the clouds, and raving about celestial chords, and divine
harmonies, and goodness knows what."

"Nonsense," said the other, sharply; "Albert Hoffmann can talk about
other things beside music, Legard. Don't hurry away like that."

As he spoke the object of these remarks came up to them.

He was a young man, apparently about eighteen or nineteen years of age,
but he might have been even less, so fair and boyish was the delicate
face, so slight and almost fragile the figure. Many people looking at
that dreaming brow, those soft, violet eyes, and tender, mobile lips,
called the face "womanish," and womanish perhaps it was in its extreme
beauty of form and colouring. Albert Hoffmann looked what he was--a
poet--a dreamer--an artist whose whole soul was filled with dreams of
some impossible greatness, some beauty and divinity that only vexed the
humanity which vainly strove to shape and clothe it in more material
forms. Of life in its grosser, harsher phases Albert knew scarce
anything. He had been carefully sheltered from all such knowledge by
his guardian, Raoul's father, and he had lived at Renonçeux as long as
he could remember.

A few words will tell his history as he joins Raoul de Verdreuil
and Gaston Legard, and walks with them up to a side entrance of the
château. His father was a German nobleman, who had married a beautiful
singer, a fair dazzling creature of no known parentage, but of great
gifts. They had both died, and the Count de Verdreuil being the chief
and only friend of the Graf von Hoffmann, undertook the sole charge and
care of his infant son, who seemed to have inherited all his mother's
genius and beauty. Albert Hoffman had no remembrance of either of his
parents; he had grown up and associated with scarce any one but Raoul
de Verdreuil and his father--grown up with an artist's soul within his
fragile, delicate form, and a poet's dreams of all things beautiful in
his heart.

He loved Raoul devotedly--worshipped and admired him perhaps all the
more, for the very contrast his splendid physical powers and cultivated
intellect presented to his own fragile strength and dreamy nature. His
constitutional delicacy had interfered in a great measure with his
education, and his nervous dread of public schools had obliged his
guardian to keep him entirely at home. The boy's absorbing passion
was music. Of that his soul was full--of that he dreamt unceasingly.
He would spend hours in the music-room at Renonçeux pouring out the
fancies that filled his brain, wedding the strangest and subtlest of
harmonies into that one perfect whole of beauty and of power which
calls on music for its sole interpreter; proving the strength and force
of his gifts by every trifle that he penned, yet withheld from public
hearing for very diffidence and fear.

He worshipped music with mingled awe and rapture--uncertain of his own
powers, yet conscious of a strength possessing him and leading him
on to dare the wildest difficulties of his art. Longing for praise,
yet dreading discouragement, timid and fearful of his own strength,
yet feeling his heart thrill with divine ideals, and tremble with
ecstatic joy as slowly and surely dawned upon him the almost certain
conviction of his own genius. There was a story for him in the songs of
the birds, in the waving branches of the trees, in the brown brook's
laughing babble, as it chattered over the stones and kissed the blue
forget-me-nots that bordered it. There was a history for him in the
opening blossoms, in the tender buds with the dews shut in their virgin
hearts, in the golden hues of the corn fields, in the flaming scarlet
poppies, in the rich, sweet fragrance of the laden vines. Everything
in Nature touched him and appealed to him, for Art is no Art when it
cannot bow the heart it rules, to love and reverence that one great
Teacher.

Albert had never left Renonçeux; its familial beauty was dear and
sacred to him as the only name he had ever known, and neither his
guardian's nor Raoul's persuasion could ever induce him to accompany
them on any of their visits to Paris. "He was happier at the château,"
he always said, and when they found he was really in earnest they let
him please himself in the matter, and ceased to wonder at, or argue
about his strange fancy.

So years had drifted quietly along; then suddenly came a change
in Renonçeux, for which neither Raoul nor Albert Hoffmann was
prepared. The old Count de Verdreuil, after being twenty years a
widower, suddenly married again; a woman, too, whose extreme youth
and marvellous beauty were apparently her sole attractions, for no
satisfactory account of her birth or antecedents was ever received by
the world. Society shrugged its shoulders and wondered and whispered
many things about the new Countess of Renonçeux, but to no one did
the news of this marriage give such grief and anger as to the proud
and haughty Raoul de Verdreuil. He was absent at the time, but came
hurrying home with swiftest speed at the first news of his father's
marriage.

What passed between them no one ever knew; no whisper of the nature
of that interview ever escaped one or other, but that it had been a
terrible and agitating one was plainly seen. Raoul left the château
immediately afterwards, ostensibly on business of political importance,
but Albert, who received his hurried farewell, saw there was some
strange and forcible reason for this hasty departure.

"God bless you, my friend," he had whispered in hoarse and uncertain
accents, "I am not coming back for another year; it is best so. Look
after my father for me, and don't let him believe ill of me!"

Then he was gone, and Albert Hoffmann in no small wonder and surprise
was left to puzzle over this mysterious conduct on the part of his
friend. At first he thought it must arise from jealousy. He had loved
his father so deeply that he could not bear any one to step between him
and his father's love and confidence. "Yes, that must be the reason,"
thought Albert to himself, "and perhaps in time when the first pain
and jealousy wears off they will be reconciled, and as good friends as
ever."

He did not know that men once estranged by a woman's influence can
never again be quite the same. The world has proved that over and
over again.

A year passed, and then news reached the château that the young
count was coming back to Renonçeux once more, and great joy filled
Albert's heart at the news. There had been changes innumerable since
the installation of the new countess. The reception-rooms had been
altered and redecorated to suit her taste, the gardens laid out in
improved style and on improved system, but she had sense enough to
see that the antique and faultless beauty of the château itself could
be in no way improved by modern art, and so she suffered it to remain
with the severe and time-worn character of its architecture untouched
and undisturbed. But she filled it with guests. She made the most of
her first Parisian season, and having conquered coldness and smiled
down distrust, was pronounced by the World of Fashion to be a success
in her way. She was too beautiful, too bewitching, too full of life,
and joy, and vitality herself to mingle in society and not captivate
it; and when, for the first time since her marriage, she threw open
the long-closed portals of Renonçeux to the élite of the world of
fashion, her invitations were eagerly accepted, and people affected
to forget they had ever styled the lovely Blanche de Verdreuil "a
designing adventuress."

But to return to the trio on the terrace this bright spring morning.
Albert Hoffmann came eagerly up to his friend, and seemed longing yet
hesitating to make some request to him which the presence of Gaston
Legard interfered with. Raoul's quick eyes read the restraint in his
manner immediately, and helped him out of it.

"Excuse me now, Legard," he said, as they reached the broad flight of
steps leading to the entrance; "I am going to the music-gallery till
breakfast time. I promised Albert to hear and see all he has been
doing during my absence. Oh! there comes Beaumarchais; he will be
delighted to have a chat with you, I'm sure;" and nodding gaily in the
direction of the gentleman in question, who was sauntering along with a
cigar in his mouth, Raoul linked his arm carelessly in that of Albert
Hoffmann's, and entered the château with him.




CHAPTER II.--MAY AND DECEMBER.

"There was an aged monarch;
His heart was sad; his head was grey;
This poor and aged monarch
A young wife married one day."
....Heine.


"WHAT was it you wanted, Albert?" Raoul de Verdreuil asked this
question as he stood in the music-room beside his friend.

"Nothing very particular, Raoul, only----" and the boyish face flushed
suddenly with shame, and pride, and pleasure, "only I have written an
opera at last. It is quite finished now, and I thought if you would not
mind asking the countess for me, that we might have it performed here
at Renonçeux. It is only in three acts, and we could do without scenery
even, or get it from Paris. You know the theatre she has had built
would do admirably, and she sings so well and acts so well herself
that I am sure we could manage it. I want to hear how it sounds. If it
pleases me I might get it done in Paris afterwards; don't you think so,
Raoul?"

"Why, how ambitious you have become, all of a sudden," laughed his
friend, gazing fondly down at the flushed, eager face, as he spoke.
"A year ago we could hardly get you to acknowledge even what you had
composed, and now you want to challenge public opinion on it. What has
created such a change in that bashful mind of yours?"

"Please don't laugh at me, Raoul," pleaded the sweet, boyish voice; "I
am in earnest about this, but I don't like to ask the countess myself;
she is very kind and sympathetic, and often comes here and makes me
play to her, but I have not courage to proffer this request for all
that. Will you do it?"

"If you wish it, yes," said Raoul, his face darkening slightly as he
spoke, as though the mission entrusted to him was not an agreeable one.
"But I would much rather not. The Countess de Verdreuil and myself
are not the best of friends, and I scarcely think a request of mine
will carry much weight. However, I will try my best. You know there is
little or nothing I can refuse you!"

"Indeed, you are only too good to me always, Raoul," said Albert
Hoffmann earnestly; "but tell me why are you so averse to the countess?
she seems so interested in you, she talks so much about you, and yet
you are so cold and indifferent, and appear to me to dislike her so
much. Why is it, Raoul? Did you know her before she married your
father? Is there any real reason for your antipathy?"

"Those are questions I do not care to answer," said Raoul de Verdreuil
coldly. "I did know the countess before she married, and that knowledge
was sufficient to make me feel certain she was no fit wife for my
father. He married her in a moment of deepest infatuation, and when I
found the step was irrevocably taken I knew it was no use to rake up
the bitterness of the past. But this I know, in Blanche de Verdreuil's
life there is a secret, and the women of our race have ever brought
unsullied hearts and natures to the lords of Renonçeux. I said some
such words as these to my father when I first heard of his strange
and sudden marriage, and the result was that we came about as near
to quarrelling irrevocably as ever two men, fiery, and proud, and
self-willed, could come. I have not forgiven yet the woman who came
between me and my father's love; the woman who first caused us to part
in anger. True, we are reconciled again, but there is a restraint
between us now. The old perfect confidence has given place to reserve.
The first seeds of estrangement have been sown, and the harvest may
be a plentiful one for aught I know. Women are born mischief-makers I
verily believe."

A look of distress crossed Albert Hoffmann's face as he listened to
these words.

"I am so sorry, Raoul, for your sake," he said gently, "but perhaps you
are mistaken about the countess. She is so gentle and winning, and your
father is so devoted to her, that I cannot help thinking the step he
has taken is for his own happiness. He looks ten years younger since he
married."

"Yes, it is all very well now," said Raoul, turning to the window
impatiently; "but will it last? That is the question arising constantly
in my mind; the question I cannot answer."

"Let us hope it will last, Raoul," said the quiet voice of the
boy artist who, living in his own world of dreams and fancies, could
scarcely comprehend the vexed and troubled questions of grave duties,
sterner truths, the whole wonderful and contradictory elements of human
life around him.

"Now I fear I have made you melancholy, Albert," said Raoul de
Verdreuil, after a moment's silence, during which his thoughts had not
been pleasant ones, to judge from his face. "I forget sometimes what
a veritable tyro you are in the ways of the world. Banish that grave
face now, and go and play to me; your music will soothe me better than
anything, and effectually drive away my ill-humour."

Albert obeyed immediately; his friend's slightest wish was ever law
to him. In truth it was no common friendship that bound these two
apparently dissimilar characters; for the timid, trustful, clinging
nature of Albert Hoffmann needed the support and sympathy of a stronger
nature, and had found it in Raoul de Verdreuil, and by force of that
very contrast which so often marks the friendship of men and women,
so in like manner, the firm, self-reliant, and proud heart of the one
found a strange peace and content in the innocent love and inalienable
devotion of the other. Raoul de Verdreuil was Albert's beau idéal
of manly perfection. His very coldness and hauteur, his steadfast
will, his unrestrained ambitions, and his pride of race and heritage
were all virtues in the eyes of his friend; for to him he was never
cold; never negligent; never proud. The most perfect confidence and
sympathy existed between them; the sympathy of mutual comprehension, of
exhaustless tenderness, of boundless trust; and though their friendship
was not one that proclaimed itself to all eyes and ears as women's
friendships so often do, yet it lived in their hearts and spoke in
their lives, and was to each a sure and living reality that needed few
words, that was rather felt than seen.

Obedient to Raoul's wish Albert Hoffmann turned now to the organ, and
the melody of his own creation rolled out in waves of richest sound in
the stillness of the early day. His friend stood silent beside him,
listening to the deep-drawn, melodious chords, solemn as a cathedral
chant, tender as a dream of youth, pure as the inspiration of a poet.
The lingering harmonies grew sadder and more plaintive; the artist gave
the rein to fancy, and let his hands interpret his thoughts as they
would, and Raoul's eyes rested musingly and regretfully on the player.

The light from the stained glass windows cast strange shadows on the
oaken floor, and fell across the ivory keys of the organ. Now and then
a lingering sunbeam touched the bent head and loose, golden curls of
the young artist, and still he played on and on, forgetful of all other
presence; while the thoughtful beauty of his face grew rapt and bright,
and the dreamful, far-off look in his eyes made Raoul's heart ache with
strange and sudden pain. It seemed as if the unearthly beauty of the
boy's young face struck him with fear and foreboding in that moment. So
might the angels look in the courts of glory above, but so does never a
human face look unless the seal of another Life is set upon its beauty.

An hour later Raoul de Verdreuil was seated in the breakfast-room of
the château. The room was filled with guests; the table glittered with
crystal and silver, and the sunlight sparkled on rare fruits and costly
dainties, on dishes and wines that would have tempted even the most
exingéant of epicures.

Through the open windows the scents of the rose-gardens below stole in
with soft and subtle odours and golden rays of light flitted ever and
anon through the lace and azure hangings, to rest on women's faces, and
linger on tresses sunny as the summer sunshine itself.

There was one woman there whose beauty was so rare and perfect that
it made her shine out among the groups around as something too
exquisite for rivalry. She was Blanche, Countess de Verdreuil, wife
of the handsome, white-haired man beside her, who bore his threescore
years so lightly and gracefully still. He and Raoul were very like
each other--the same dark, haughty face reminding one of Vandyck's
portraits, the same grave, proud eyes, and broad, thoughtful brow had
descended from father to son. Both were eminently handsome men, worthy
of the race from which they sprung; the race whose boast had ever been,
"Their women were always lovely, their men always great."

The old count's infatuation for his young wife had become a byword
among his friends and acquaintances, and her loveliness was a potent
spell sufficient in itself to account for the rapt and unalienable
devotion she received. She was very fair--too fair to be of southern
origin, with great lustrous eyes, and hair that seemed to have caught
its hue from the sunlight and kept it evermore. Her lips were lovely;
laughing, child-like, scarlet as carnation buds; lips that whether
parted in smiles, or closed in gravity, were always full of charm.

In fact, Blanche de Verdreuil was that most enchanting, and dangerous
creation--a perfectly beautiful woman. Figure, face--both were types of
feminine loveliness, faultless in their way. If the perfect face was
trained to each expression, if the eyes wanted depth and sincerity,
if the lovely, child-like lips wore that seemingly innocent smile, a
trifle too often for it to be quite genuine, none noticed it, save and
except--Raoul de Verdreuil.

To him--a man well skilled in reading natures, to him who thinks men's
hearts and passions are instruments for his skilful hands to play upon
as he will--this woman's shallow, selfish nature bears the stain of
that one vice he abhors,--deceit. He knows it, and she knows that
he does; that to him her witcheries, and airy graces, and matchless
coquetry, are all a sham. There is no ring of true metal in the base
coins she proffers; artifice is her real charm; her beauty and her
nature are alike, shallow and soulless. Perhaps of all the men who have
been blinded by her charms and led captive by her coquetries, Raoul de
Verdreuil is the only one who read her nature too thoroughly ever to
be deceived by it. In the black gulf of years long past--years that
Blanche de Verdreuil never thinks of now without a shudder as of some
nameless fear--she learnt her own powerlessness to charm this one man
to love or believe in her.

The secret of those years lies between them, unknown to any save
themselves, and it is one destined to work terrible havoc in the time
to come.

Raoul de Verdreuil was right when he told Albert Hoffmann of his fears
for the future, since this fair, radiant creature had become the
mistress of his home, but those fears would have been doubly terrible
could he have foreseen what lay in this woman's power, or read the
treachery of her heart.

With all her beauty, with all her witchery and grace, Blanche de
Verdreuil is a woman who will prove a subtle antagonist, a dangerous
foe.

She is relentless and vindictive; she has neither the generosity to
forgive or foreget the slightest offence against her own supreme beauty
and self-love. She has her own schemes to work even now, and a storm
is already hovering on the horizon of that home life at Renonçeux--a
storm that will work a deadly, fearful havoc over more than one of its
inmates when it bursts.

But there is no sign of it yet, no omen of its ruin, and fury, and
despair on the radiant face of the lovely châtelaine of Renonçeux, in
the adoring worship of her husband's eyes as they rest on her ever and
always from amidst the many other beautiful women she rivals, as the
sun outrivals the stars; in the grave, impassive features of Raoul de
Verdreuil sitting there by Albert Hoffmann's side, with never a smile
upon his lips at the gay jests and idle words that fall upon his ear.
But he looks up suddenly at last as Blanche de Verdreuil's clear, sweet
voice exclaims gaily,--

"A forest divinity, Monsieur Legard! Who can it be? I thought I knew
most of the fair paysannes around, but I can call to remembrance
none worthy of such an enthusiastic description as yours."

"Oh, Gaston is romancing as usual," said a beautiful brunette, Madame
de Villeroi by name, and cousin to Gaston Legard. "He is always
lighting upon some rara avis, you know, who generally proves the
very reverse of what we were led to expect."

"I am not romancing in this instance, however," said Monsieur Legard.
"Ask De Verdreuil if I am not right in what I said? Raoul, was not the
maiden we frightened from her forest retreat this morning as lovely as
any nymph of classic lore?"

"She was very beautiful, I allow," said Raoul coldly, "but we had so
little time to judge that I could not undertake to catalogue her charms
as you have done!"

"There! did I not say he was romancing?" cried Madame de Villeroi,
flashing her beautiful eyes triumphantly on her cousin's face. "How
could you tell what she was like, Gaston, when Monsieur de Verdreuil,
who had the same time and opportunity for judging, declares his
inability to do so. Was she fair or dark, Monsieur de Verdreuil?"

"I really cannot say," said Raoul, with a faint smile. "Fair, I
think."

"Wrong!" exclaimed Gaston Legard; "she was dark; at least her hair
looked like a mixture of bronze and gold in the sunlight, but her eyes
were dark--dark as night. What is the use of asking De Verdreuil about
a woman, he never knows what they're like. I suppose he would describe
Madame la Comtesse as dark, if any one asked him. I never saw any one
so ignorant and so indifferent on all matters appertaining to your
adorable sex, madame" (with a slight bow to the Countess de Verdreuil),
"as Raoul is. But, as I told him this morning, it will be all the worse
for him one day."

A general laugh followed this remark. Raoul de Verdreuil's coldness
and indifference towards women were, indeed, proverbial, and many a
beautiful and, as she deemed, irresistible member of the beau sexe
had used all her powers of fascination in vain to chain him to her
side--to win something warmer than that calm, perfect courtesy which
never changed, and was as faultless as it was cold.

No wonder women called him heartless, for no loveliness had ever
charmed him to warmth and passion; no eyes lulled him to forgetfulness
of his own aims, his own ambitions; no lips wooed him to the brief
delirium of love. His indifference was borne of real, not pretended
coldness; was no cynical affectation of disdain, but simply the very
thing it appeared. Love was to him an empty sound--a meaningless jest;
a passion, that lived in men's words--not ruled their hearts; a name
that he greeted with that superb disdain which only strong natures feel
for the weakness of their fellow-men.

He smiled at those words of Gaston Legard's--a smile, that illuminated
his dark, haughty features, without softening or warming their
passionless repose.

"All the worse for me one day," he answered, echoing Legard's last
words. "By the time that indefinite period arrives, Gaston, I hope I
shall be able to combat its dangers. I am undergoing my novitiate under
good tuition."

"Indeed, whose is that?" asked his friend eagerly. "Didn't you, just
this morning, declare that you were never in love in your life, and
never wished to be, and----"

"Oh hush, pray!" interrupted Raoul, laughing. "Don't betray my
confidence so rashly; a nice fellow you are to be Father Confessor, I
must say. What I told you though is quite true, and if you want to know
the secret of my invincibility, as you call it, it lies in disbelief
and indifference--two potent charms, are they not, madame?"

The latter portion of his sentence had been spoken so low that only
Blanche de Verdreuil heard it. She looked hastily up at the young
count's face, but meeting only that look of quiet amusement in his
eyes, turned hastily away, and said, as if to hide her momentary
embarrassment, "I think I must try and find out who this wonderful
beauty is."

"For what purpose?" asked Raoul de Verdreuil suddenly. "Let her rest
in her own sphere, madame, and keep that greatest of all earth's
blessings, which the poor alone seem able to retain--content."

"Don't get epigrammatic, for goodness sake, Raoul," laughed Gaston
Legard; "there's a season for all things you know, and none of us want
to think seriously so early in the morning, I'm quite sure. By the
way, Madame," he continued, turning to Blanche de Verdreuil, "did you
not propose we should ride to the ruined abbey of St. Marguerite this
morning? I think it is time the horses were ordered, if we mean to do
it."

"Certainly," said the countess, looking intensely relieved at the
change of subject. "Raoul, will you give the orders while we make our
toilettes? I suppose you won't care to join us."

"Why not?" he said, in his most negligent, indifferent tone. "If one
is bound to be idle, you know, one may as well be idle in company,
and as I am taking a holiday from work I may as well take my fill of
pleasure. What horse shall I order for you, madame, 'La Belle Etoile?'"

"No. I shall ride Estelle!" said the countess, rising from her seat.

"My dear Blanche," interposed her husband, "pray don't ride that
chestnut again. It makes me quite nervous to think of your attempting
it; remember the last time, and how nearly she threw you."

"Oh! I am not afraid," was the laughing answer. "There are few horses I
cannot master if I choose."

"It will be great folly for you to attempt it, I think," said Raoul de
Verdreuil quietly. "Estelle is not fit for a lady to ride. She is the
wildest mare in the stables."

"Nevertheless, I mean to ride her," was the answer, given haughtily
and coldly, while the flush deepened on the delicate cheek of Blanche
de Verdreuil; and without another word she swept out of the room, with
the graceful, swaying step so peculiarly her own. In vain her husband
followed to entreat her to change her determination, she was firm and
resolute, and declared her complete ability to master any horse she
chose to ride, and the Count de Verdreuil, finding all remonstrance
useless, could only beseech his son, who was a skilful and admirable
horseman, to keep near the wilful beauty, and look after Estelle if she
appeared inclined to show any mischief.

The mission seemed by no means a pleasant one to Raoul, for his face
looked darker and graver than ever as he sauntered up and down the
terrace waiting for the horses to appear.

"Are you coming, Albert?" he asked, stopping before the window of the
library, and seeing his friend there watching him.

"No. I don't care for riding, you know, and besides I have some work to
finish. The morning is the only time I can find now, since we are so
gay at Renonçeux."

"But, my dear boy," said Raoul gently, "you work too hard, it seems
to me. You are much too pale and thin for my liking. Do leave off
composing for once, and come for a long ride. It will do you all the
good in the world, and give you fresh inspiration too."

Albert Hoffman shook his head with a faint smile of disbelief.

"Don't tempt me, Raoul," he answered. "I know what I have to do, and
I must do it. Life is short enough for art as it is. I do not care
to waste an unnecessary moment. Ah! here come the riders. Raoul," he
whispered, leaning forward so as to be nearer his friend, "you won't
forget what I asked you, will you? about the opera, you know."

"I shall not forget," said Raoul quietly, his eyes wandering to the
exquisite figure of Blanche de Verdreuil, as she came slowly towards
them, in the full radiance of the sunlight. "Good-bye, mon cher, and
don't overwork yourself, if only to please me."

The boyish face flushed all over with pleasure at those words.

"Rest assured of that," he said earnestly. Then he retreated from the
window, and Raoul de Verdreuil turned slowly away to meet the countess.

"The horses are here, madame," he said, as he joined her. "Shall I
assist you?"

"If you will," she answered, glancing at him in some surprise;
his offers of courtesy were not very frequent. "But I thought you
disapproved too much of my resolution to further or assist it in any
way?"

"I do disapprove of it," said Raoul coldly, "but for all that I am
going to help you in your evident determination to break your neck. As
I cannot defeat your purpose, I may as well aid you in the first step
towards it."

"What a pleasant speech!" laughed the countess merrily. "Really,
monsieur, you must study the art of making yourself disagreeable,
I think. That speech of yours at the breakfast table has mortally
offended all the ladies here--they will never forgive it."

"I am very sorry, I am sure; I know by experience that truth is the
one thing tabooed in polite circles. Bring that with you and you can
count your enemies by the score immediately. I have unfortunately not
yet managed to do without that unpleasant companion who has such an
awkward knack of intruding when not desirable. Hence my reputation as a
disagreeable man."

"A diplomat and truthful!" exclaimed Blanche, shrugging her
shoulders with a gesture of incredulity. "Nay, monsieur; that is an
anomaly I cannot believe in. Say rather, you make truth serve your
purpose only when it suits you to hurt other people's feelings. Ah!
here is Estelle. Now mount me, please. It is time we were off, for it
is a long ride to St. Marguerite's Abbey."




CHAPTER III.--WHAT "HAS BEEN."

"She look'd so lovely as she sway'd
The rein with dainty finger tips.
A man had given all other bliss
And all his worldly wealth for this--
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips."
.... Tennyson.


OVER the mosses of the forest path Raoul de Verdreuil rode by the side
of the Countess of Renonçeux. Through the leafy boughs stray sunbeams
fell across her face, from which all the smiles and mirth had died
away, leaving it grave, and anxious, and disturbed. The riding party
had fallen into pairs as if by one consent, and none had disputed
Raoul's claim as he took his place by Blanche de Verdreuil's side.

For some moments a total silence reigned between them, but the gloom
deepened in Raoul's eyes, and the firm, grave lips were compressed as
if with some determination--not pleasant, but still unalterable.

One swift glance from Blanche de Verdreuil's eyes read the expression
of his whole face in an instant, and her cheek paled slightly as if
with some fear she only breathed to her own heart. She knew that of
all men she had met in the world, and with whom she had played at
love-making in the ordinary course of events, none would have ridden by
her side as Raoul did now, neither heeding nor admiring the dazzling
beauty whose power she had long deemed invincible; neither lifting his
eyes to meet her own, nor seeking to awaken her interest with words and
courteous speech.

Blanche de Verdreuil was a thorough coquette, a woman who had studied
the weakness, the foibles, the passions of men so well that she
could adapt herself to each nature it pleased her to conquer. There
was no womanly charm, no feminine grace she could not counterfeit
most perfectly. The sweet voice could thrill, and sink to tenderest
sympathy. The beautiful eyes could darken with earnest feelings, or
sparkle with brightest mirth, or veil themselves beneath their fringing
lashes to suit every sentiment and feeling she chose to simulate. She
had a passionate belief in, and supreme love for, herself. She loved to
think herself invincible; to rouse passions in others she could never
feel, but which were the sole gratification her vanity craved, the
insignia of her sovereignty--the very crown and sceptre of her kingdom.

But in one instance her arts had been useless because they were
arts. Her schemes had been faulty, her beauty valueless; nay more,
those schemes had recoiled on her own head, and inasmuch as they had
been powerless to win the love for which she longed, had yet taught her
the weakness of her own heart, which, waking at last from its selfish
slumbers, had thrilled and burned with the reckless, unavailing passion
she had so often kindled in the hearts of others.

In the hour that taught her one man's power, Blanche de Verdreuil
first learned the full extent of woman's weakness; learnt it too when
reckless of consequences, mad with despair, she had forgotten all
womanly scruples, all womanly shame, and cast down her heart at the
feet of a man who had not spurned, but simply and coldly declined the
gift; had scarcely even cared to veil from her eyes the amused scorn,
the half-concealed contempt he felt for the reckless self-betrayal,
which coming from a woman was, in his eyes, inexcusable.

And so taking her wounded pride, her broken vanity, her aching
undisciplined heart back to herself again, Blanche de Verdreuil had
vowed that her life should be spent henceforth for one purpose,
dedicated to one end--revenge; and fate playing into her hands, as it
often does play into the hands of those who give themselves over to
evil, sent across her path the father of the very man who had scorned
and rejected her. Her decision was soon made. Her victim in this
instance brought an old man's adoring faith and passionate belief, and
boundless love to this beautiful woman's feet, and became her slave as
blindly, as willingly, as she could have wished. All she told him as to
herself, her life, her antecedents, he never questioned, never doubted.
His first marriage had been of ambition, not of love; and twenty years
of a wifeless, solitary life had left his heart still fresh and young
despite his years. The love this woman kindled there burnt up like
a devouring flame all thoughts of prudence, all demands of rank and
honour. His passion blinded him, and its overmastering power swept all
doubts and scruples away with swift increasing force. He married her
and brought her to his home; that home where all the women had been
noble, and pure, and true, where no stain of dishonour rested even
amidst reckless passions, and faithful loves, and terrible temptations;
brought her there to worship, and adore, and believe in her from that
day forward, till the faithful, loyal heart she had won so securely had
ceased to beat for life and love; had gone to learn in another world
the secret she had guarded so well in this.

"You are very silent this morning, madame," said Raoul de Verdreuil at
last, as he glanced at the beautiful face beside him.

"I might say the same of you," answered Blanche with a faint, nervous
laugh. "May I ask to what I owe the unusual honour of your escort?"

"I promised my father to look after you," was the reply given coldly
and indifferently. "He does not consider Estelle trustworthy."

Blanche de Verdreuil's lips curled somewhat scornfully.

"Any one else could perform that service equally well," she said;
"but since I have the unusual pleasure of your company, Monsieur de
Verdreuil, permit me to ask if you have altered the determination you
expressed on the occasion of your last visit to Renonçeux?"

Raoul's face grew dark with anger at these words.

"I have not altered it. I repeat what I said then; the position you
have gained here has been gained by treachery and deceit. For my
father's sake I tolerate your presence and respect the secret of your
real antecedents; but Renonçeux can no longer be my home while shared
by you."

The hot blood dyed Blanche de Verdreuil's face as she listened.

"You still keep your old art of wounding, to perfection," she said
passionately. "Ah, monsieur, the world speaks truly when it says you
have neither pity nor love, nor even compassion for either man or
woman. You have come to Renonçeux for one purpose only--to wound and
torture me. I hear it in your words, I read it in your looks; it sounds
in the veiled meaning, the cruel satire of every speech I hear from
your lips!"

"Don't get excited, pray. You are frightening Estelle," interrupted the
cool, tranquil voice of Raoul. "My object in coming to Renonçeux really
does not deserve such abuse as you give it. I never war with women; I
don't consider they are worth the trouble; but all the same, madame,
Blanche Lecroix has no title to her present position, and she knows
it; and it is small wonder that I--knowing it also--should scarce feel
courteously disposed towards one so unworthy of the name and place of
my dead mother."

"Oh, hush!" cried Blanche, her very lips growing white at his words.
"For pity's sake forget that name, and all belonging to that time.
The past is over and done with, how can it benefit you to rake up its
memories again? You tried it once when you appealed to your father to
annul our marriage; you know his answer; and I," she added, slowly and
softly, "know my power. You had better let it be peace between us,
monsieur."

He laughed again: a chill, merciless laugh which made her shiver at the
sound.

"Do you really suppose," he said quietly, "that I shall enter into any
compact with you? That, knowing what I know, suspecting what I do, I
fear to measure weapons with you, or dread your influence, great as it
may appear at present? You know very little of me, madame, to imagine
such a thing. I am not given to softness or weakness as a rule, but
what little I possess can never plead your cause, should it ever be
in my power to make you answer for the shame and loathing which has
filled my heart ever since I knew who it was my father had chosen
as his wife. And now----" he paused a moment as if to curb the anger
raging in his heart,--"now even, I might excuse you, did I think you
really cherished and valued that wealth of love, that adoring trust,
that boundless faith lavished upon you; could I think that any pure or
womanly motive had prompted your marriage with my father. But I know it
is not so. I know that ambition, vanity, selfishness, perchance motives
even worse, alone influenced your choice; and looking at the Future by
the light of the Past, I feel my heart ache with forebodings. I know
that for once my home and race are in danger of what has never yet
darkened the one, or sullied the other--dishonour!"

Blanche de Verdreuil raised her head with proud contempt, and her lip
curled with intense scorn.

"I wonder you dare say such words to me," she said, her voice trembling
with passion. "Were you so blameless in those days we know of,
monsieur? Has the white flower of virtue been so entirely yours, that
you should blame a woman for succumbing to such a temptation as your
father's love was to me? You know what my life was, you say; is it
then so wonderful that I should welcome any change, especially a change
that promised to raise me from the degradation, the misery, the despair
of such a life? Why should I have raised barriers in the very face of
the peace and safety I had craved for so long? Why----"

"Why, in short, should you have been for once honest and unselfish,"
interrupted Raoul: "two virtues rarely found in women. No, I suppose
it was not to be expected of you, madame. Loyalty and courage are not
feminine qualities, at least as far as my experience goes; you were
only true to the instincts of your sex after all. You thought it no
shame to hide the sins and follies of the past behind the safe and
sheltering love of a man's great trusting heart, beneath the honour of
his name, the social distinction of his rank and wealth; and he--he
believes you disinterested in your choice. Truly, the world may well
say 'Love is blind;' a surer instance than this was never found of the
truth of that proverb."

"How you must hate me!" she cried passionately, as the last of those
cold, merciless words fell on her ear. "Oh, Raoul whose fault is it
that I made this choice? who----"

"I think you had better not say any more," he interrupted, with a
sudden flush upon his dark, grave face, a strange light in his eyes,
as they rested on the beautiful, agitated woman before him. "There are
some things a man cannot well hear, even from a woman; and you know,"
he added more gently, "the fault was not mine, say what you will; even
if it were, I hold to my old creed; a woman who marries without love,
who brings to her husband a heart whose histories are sealed from his
knowledge, is a woman not worthy of his love, his home, his confidence."

"What an old-world, impossible creed that is!" laughed Blanche de
Verdreuil scoffingly; "look at the society around you, the world you
live in, and ask is such a doctrine possible. Does it exist in one
marriage you have witnessed? The very social laws of France are against
it."

"That may be," was the quiet answer. "I know it sounds absurd and
impossible to women, because it would so materially affect their
interests. I believe that goes before everything with them, does it
not? Hearts are a mere secondary consideration."

"Not always," she said in the same tone; "but if you are going to wait
till you find a woman who comes up to the standard you have described,
I fear you will never find one worthy the inestimable honour of
becoming your wife."

"Very probable, indeed. But yet there are such women in the world. You
look incredulous. Well, it is only natural you should; I suppose you
cannot understand the type of womanhood from among whom I might seek,
yes, and find one capable of a disinterested marriage."

She flushed hotly at the speech. She knew its severity was well merited.

"You are a model of courtesy, I must say. I wonder all women----"

"Don't hate me?" he questioned as she hesitated. "Well, so do I
sometimes. But it matters little whether they do or not. Take care,
madame!" he cried, as the countess's horse suddenly swerved and reared,
"Estelle is getting decidedly impatient of this quiet pace."

"And so am I," exclaimed Blanche de Verdreuil, with a bright, defiant
smile. "I want a good stretching gallop to shake off the effects of our
conversation."

"You should have had a curb for that mare," continued Raoul, somewhat
uneasily. "I don't like her looks at all."

"Chut!" cried Blanche lightly. "There is nothing to fear from her.
I am not afraid. There was never a horse yet I feared to mount. Now,
monsieur, I shall join the others. Our tête-à-tête has lasted long
enough. I don't suppose either of us will regret its termination. You
are sure," she continued more earnestly, as she reined in her horse for
a moment, despite its impatience, "you are sure it is to be war--not
peace? I will never ask it again after to-day, Raoul."

As she spoke his name she looked up at his face with real anxiety
shadowing her eyes; but his own never softened, even as they took in
the living, exquisite loveliness of this woman he counted as a foe.

"Peace between us," he said bitterly. "Is it possible? Is my memory
of the past too faithful when I say I cannot promise it? I will make no
compact with--you."

Her face blanched beneath the quiet scorn of his words, but her eyes
gleamed with a fierce, unsparing hate under the long, sweeping fringe
of their lashes, and her mouth compressed tightly as if to keep back
the fury of her unspoken wrath.

"Be it so," she said at length, her voice chill and passionless as his
own! "Yours is the decision; yours be also the result. Only remember--I
never spare."

Ere he could speak, she raised her whip, and struck the chestnut
impatiently with it, forgetful of the warnings she had received. The
animal started, reared, then dashed suddenly forward; the rider was
unprepared for the sudden demand upon her nerve and coolness, and in
another instant Estelle was tearing along the narrow road with the bit
between her teeth, totally unmanageable.




CHAPTER IV.--THERE IS SWEET MUSIC HERE.

"There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass."
.... Tennyson.

THE notes of the organ were pealing through the music-gallery at
Renonçeux.

From the gardens below the faint, soft breeze, laden with fragrance,
swept softly in at the open window. All the drowsy, sunlit silence was
full of odours of flowers. The terraces were deserted, and the rose
aisles were left to the bees and butterflies in the stillness and hush
of the hot noontide hour.

The music thrilled and quivered in the silence, as if it were some
living voice tremulous with passion, weighted with joy akin to pain
in its depth, and fervour, and happiness. It haunted the stillness
without and within; it fell on the ear of a girl lingering in the
picture-gallery beyond those heavy velvet portières; a girl standing
awed, entranced, with parted lips and great, dark, changing eyes,
and a faint scarlet bloom on her cheeks that came and went with the
breathless agitation of the moment. Involuntarily she moved nearer and
nearer those doors whence came the magic of that wonderful melody.
Stirred and moved but by one impulse--to be nearer it.

A light touch and the doors opened, and she stood within the shadowy
room, trembling at her own temerity, yet incapable of retreat. The
light from the stained glass windows fell on the gilded pipes of the
organ, and on the head of the player whose back was towards her, and
who was quite unconscious of her presence. The great melodious waves
of sound filled the room with their wonderful power, and he, wrapped
in the vague, enchanting dreams that music always brought him, never
heeded the shadow that fell across the sunlight, the soft footstep
crossing the oaken floor--never thought for a moment that he was not
alone.

The rich harmonies suddenly grew soft and subdued; a few weird, solemn
minor chords changed the whole character of the music. No longer glad
and triumphant, but sweet, and sad, and mournful, it thrilled out its
tender melody; and the face of the player was very grave, and the face
of the listener very pale. The last notes died away in the stillness,
the white, fragile hands left the keys, and then--suddenly--a
deep-drawn sigh that was almost a sob fell on his ear, and turning
hastily round he saw a figure leaning against the embrasure of one of
the windows--a woman's figure half revealed, half indistinct in the
shadows where she lingered so timidly. When she saw she was observed
she came hurriedly forward.

"You will think me very bold, monsieur," she said, blushing deeply; "I
had no right to intrude here; but I was in the gallery adjoining, and I
heard you playing. I listened till I could not resist coming in here.
It is so long since I heard music like yours. It took me back to the
old days, and the old life--and I forgot all else, monsieur." Her voice
seemed to Albert Hoffmann as the low chime of silver bells. The faint
foreign accent lingering in its tones was inexpressibly charming.

"Do not apologize any more, mademoiselle," he said, wondering who this
girl could be, with her wonderful beauty, her graceful speech, her shy,
half-bashful air. "I am sure you were perfectly welcome to listen as
long as you pleased. Are you," he hesitated slightly--"are you staying
at the château?"

She looked at him with great, astonished eyes, as if she thought he
spoke in mockery.

"I, monsieur?" she exclaimed, glancing involuntarily down at her shabby
garments, and the thick dusty boots covering her dainty feet; "no; how
could any one in my station be a guest at Renonçeux? I only came over
with gran'mère to-day, and while she stayed to chat with her nephew,
the chef de cuisine here, the housekeeper gave me leave to look at
the pictures, as all the visitors were away. That is how I heard you
playing, monsieur!"

"Are you very fond of music then?" inquired Albert, thinking what a
picture she made, with the crimson and violet hues of the stained glass
weaving out a fanciful robe for her graceful figure, and the rippling
masses of her half-bright, half-dusk hair glistening in the rays of the
sunlight.

"I love it," she said quietly, though her eyes shone and flashed with a
wonderful eager light. "I have always loved it since my childhood."

"I wonder who she can be," thought Albert, more and more puzzled every
moment, and feeling half embarrassed by her presence. He was always shy
with women.

"Is this the first time you have come to Renonçeux?" he said presently.

"Yes," she answered; "I have not lived here long. My home is in that
little cottage just off the high road and beyond the wood. I live there
with Gran'mère Beauvoir."

"Have you no parents of your own, then?"

"No," she said sadly. "Gran'mère has adopted me, but I have no claim
upon her except my friendlessness."

She ceased abruptly, and Albert longed to hear again that rich, sweet
voice, whose music lingered in his heart like a sense of new-born joy.

Yet he scarcely liked to question her about herself. She seemed at once
so shy, so proud, so full of womanly dignity and girlish frankness.

The poverty and coarseness of her dress only seemed to display the
grace of her figure to fuller advantage. She had the tall, slender,
voluptuous form of the south; the dreamy, passionate eyes; the soft,
mournful smile, the broad, thoughtful brow we see in an Italian face;
but the fairness of the skin betrayed some other origin also, and gave
a rarer charm to the dark eyes, the dusky gold-flecked hair.

"You are not French, mademoiselle, I see," said Albert, presently;
"your accent betrays that."

"Oh, no," she answered quickly; "Italy is my birthplace. But it would
be hard to decide what I am," she continued, with a faint smile. "My
father was French, I believe, my mother of English extraction, though
born in Italy like myself. It is little enough I know about either of
them."

"Are they not living now?" said Albert, so gently, so sympathizingly,
that it robbed the question of anything like curiosity.

"No," she said sadly; "my mother died shortly after I was born; my
father I know nothing of."

Albert was silent.

Those few words spoke a whole history; it might be of shame, it might
be of error; but whichever it was, the pure dawning life of the young
girl before him was shadowed by that nameless sorrow.

She vaguely understood its meaning; the simple history she had told
the young artist was the only history she knew; all else had been kept
from her by the love and watchfulness of the only friend she possessed
in the world, the old faithful peasant-woman, her foster-mother Manon
Beauvoir; and the nameless, motherless child, had grown up to womanhood
with the proud instincts, and the vague longings of a high-born, lofty
nature, yet with only poverty and friendlessness for her portion, and
the unproven error of her dead mother's past for her heritage.

"I lived in Italy for many years," she said presently. "In Bologna,
in Pisa, in Florence. Gran'mère was very poor, but we managed to live
comfortably: somehow one needs so little in Italy. I was very happy. I
learnt all I could. Gran'mère managed that I should be educated, and I
was always fond of reading; and the good sisters at the convent where
she worked taught me as much as they could. But still I fear I am very
ignorant."

"And your name?" asked Albert presently, as she paused.

"Vivienne St. Maurice. It was my mother's name. After her death, my
father told Gran'mère that he was going away for a few weeks on a
journey; that she was to take charge of me until his return; and he
left her money enough for all necessaries during his absence. From that
day he never returned. Gran'mère heard no more of him. Whether he is
living or dead she does not know to this day. But pardon me, monsieur;
I am wearying you with my foolish confidences."

"Indeed, no," said Albert eagerly, "I like to listen to you. I wish I
could do anything to help you. Did your father leave no clue to his
movements, give no hint of where he was going? Perhaps something may
have happened to him, some evil, some accident. It is strange he should
disappear so entirely."

The girl shook her head sorrowfully.

"I know no more," she answered. "Perhaps if any one great or
influential had sought for him, or striven to trace his history, I
might have gained some clue ere this, but Gran'mère knew no one, and we
had no friends to interest themselves about us; and so the years have
passed, and I am a child no longer, and the life I lead seems against
all the instincts of my nature; and yet,--what other can I hope for?"

The simple pathos of the words touched her listener's heart; their
restrained pain, their wistful longings were so full of sadness. He
turned from the appealing eyes, so child-like in their sorrow, so
womanly in their gentle patience, their infinite regret.

This girl interested him strangely. Little as he had ever thought of
women, there was something about her that charmed and touched him
indescribably; she was so fair, so pure, so child-like; it seemed hard
to think that one so young was already touched by life's suffering;
already shadowed by the world's reproach.

Not caring to answer her last words he turned to the music-desk before
him.

"Can you play?" he asked softly; "you seem fond of music?"

"I used to play the organ; not a grand one like this, monsieur, but I
fear I have forgotten the little I learnt by this time."

"It is a pity your love has not been fostered and encouraged. Music is
such a joy in itself, I think. Judging from your face, mademoiselle, I
should say you appreciated it for its own sake. Am I right?"

"Indeed you are. I scarcely know why I love music so dearly. Perhaps
because I was brought up in a land where it is inherent in almost
every soul," she answered; "one hears it everywhere in Italy. In the
peasants' voices, in the muleteers' songs, in the great nobles' houses,
in the cathedrals and churches, in the streets of the poor, in the
palaces of the rich. When I was a little child of five years old I
used to go to St. Eustache, a church in Florence. I would creep up to
the organ-gallery and listen to the music and the singing for hours
together. At last an old man noticed me, he was the organist there; a
grave, gentle, kindly man, whose whole heart was full of music, whose
whole life had been spent in service of his art. He taught me to play,
and trained my voice, and let me come and sing when he practised his
choir. I know most of the grand masses and all the beautiful chants
they used to sing, by heart."

She paused, and then went on more sadly, with the pain of some wistful
memory in her sweet young voice.

"From the time I left Italy I have had no opportunity to follow music
or study it as I should wish. I sing to myself, for I can never forget
what I have learnt; but oh! I miss the organ, and the dear old master
who taught me all I know, all I shall ever know, I fear. Your playing,
monsieur, was to me as a glimpse of my lost paradise again."

"You are very good to say so," he answered. "Do you know the mass I was
playing?"

"Mozart's--the third, I think. Yes, I know it, monsieur. Shall I sing
the 'Agnus Dei' to you?"

She asked the question as simply and naturally as if it was an ordinary
request. There was no shyness, no hesitation on her face; nothing but
the glow and enthusiasm of an artiste for the art she reverenced.

"Do, pray!" said Albert eagerly; "I should like to hear your voice."

She obeyed immediately. The first notes as they rang out through the
vast gallery, rich, clear, impassioned, fairly startled Albert as he
heard them.

Her voice was of rare and exquisite beauty, mournful, thrilling, yet
so sweet withal that the young artist felt like one entranced by its
beauty, spell-bound by its power. She sang the old Latin words with her
pure Italian accent, her whole fervour of heart and soul thrown into
their meaning, interpreting the whole divine truths of a master mind,
as though its genius tired her own.

Albert listened in amazement. Music gave her the one charm that could
sway his soul, and touch his nature--the one spell which made her
beauty irresistible, and seemed to bring the divinity he had only seen
in dreams and imagined in idyls, before him as a living presence. Never
had he felt as he felt now, when he heard the tender sweetness of that
perfect voice floating sadly and faintly away with the last chords
of the closing harmonies. His hands left the keys. His eyes, rapt,
passionate, awe-struck, rested on her face.

"It was perfect--sublime! Who taught you to sing like that?"

"Nature, I suppose," she said, smiling a little at his enthusiasm. "Do
I really sing well?"

"Sing well? Your voice is perfectly marvellous," cried Albert
enthusiastically. "You have a gift great and glorious beyond all words.
Friendless, nameless, obscure, with that. Why the world would give
you eternal fame if it heard you!"

"Is that true?" she questioned breathlessly, as if unable to believe
his praise, and all the hopes which sprang to life with its utterance.

"True, mademoiselle? Indeed it is; why should you doubt it? Are you so
ignorant of your own powers?"

"I think so," she said, with a faint smile. "No one ever told me what
you have done, monsieur. Gran'mère always said I was her nightingale,
and my old master used to prophesy that my voice would be a grand
one some day, but I never thought it might do for me what you say,
monsieur,--give me fame, wealth, friends. Ah! I thought I would be
always poor as I am now."

She lifted her eloquent eyes to his face with all a child's gratified
vanity and gladness shining in their depths. That look startled Albert,
and distressed him too. Had he been wise in telling her, her power? Was
not the life he had spoken of attended by dangers hitherto unimagined
by her in her dreaming childhood, her innocent faith? A child with the
beauty of a woman, ignorant of peril, unconscious of harm, nameless and
obscure, would not the world be full of danger to such a one?

Involuntarily he stretched out his hand and laid it on her own.

"Child," he said gently, "you are safer in your poverty; you are richer
in your innocence and purity than ever the world can make you. Do not
weary your young heart with futile wishes; with hopes that if realized,
may, after all, fail in giving you content. The world, for all its
allurements, is full of troubles and griefs that in your present life
you need never know--of heartaches and miseries that now you cannot
even imagine."

"I do not care for that," she answered, proudly drawing herself away
from his touch. "I want to be great--famous--loved. At least, I should
not be scorned as a peasant then."

He paused a moment, saddened by her words.

"You would not leave the friend who has sheltered and protected you so
long for the imaginary glories of the world, were the choice given you
now--would you?" he asked at length.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed; "nothing would tempt me to leave Gran'mère;
she has been all in all to me; she took me from my dead mother's arms;
she tended, nursed, and sheltered me. She worked for me through all the
years I was helpless. Oh no, monsieur! I would never forsake her. Only
if I have any gift, any talent as you said, why should I not use it for
her in her old age as she has used her strength and given the labour of
her hands for me? Surely it is not wrong to wish to repay her if I
can?"

"Not wrong, certainly. But for the life that would give you fame, I
doubt her counselling you to leave your present one. If she knows
anything of the world she knows the perils of the stage."

"But the great singers I have seen in Italy were always so happy and so
rich," cried the girl eagerly. "They always looked as if they had not
a care or a grief in the world. And then to see them on the stage, so
lovely, so graceful. The brilliant lights, the rapturous applause, the
enthusiastic praises of vast crowds rewarding all their efforts! Oh!
monsieur, a life like that must be paradise."

"With the serpent's sting in the roses--Yes. I was foolish to tell
you of such a possibility as the life you name. I have made you
discontented. Sing to me again and forget this grave conversation. Will
you try this?"

He drew a MSS., part of his own opera, from among a heap of music, and
first playing the melody over for her to catch it, waited for her to
sing. The girl hesitated, a little shy of beginning, but seeing his
expectant look she complied with his wish, and the young artist heard
his own aria performed faultlessly and correctly for the first time
since it had left his pen. Although the music was new to the girl, her
quick ear caught it immediately, and the sweet rich notes thrilled out
once more, stirring the young artist's heart with keen delight, with
still greater wonder.

"Thank you," he said simply, when she had ceased. "I had no idea my own
music could be so exquisite as you have rendered it."

"Is that yours?" she asked, in astonishment. "Oh, monsieur, how
beautiful! That is for an opera, is it not?"

"Yes," he said, smiling at her surprised face. "My first attempt."

"Then you write music, too, and you play so magnificently! Ah,
monsieur, what happiness you have given me to-day!"

"I hope you will come again," he said quickly. "I shall always be glad
to play to you--still more glad if you will sing to me. A voice like
yours is rare; I could never tire of listening to it; it seems hard it
should be wasted in obscurity," he added musingly, as his eyes wandered
again to the girl's fair, downcast face.

"And yet you first counselled that very obscurity as safety; methinks
you are changeable, monsieur," said Vivienne, smiling archly at him.

She had been puzzled and disappointed by his words. It seemed hardly
fair that he should breathe a hope so exquisite in her ears one moment,
to dash it to the ground the next. In her unconsciousness of all
harm, her ignorance of all danger, the life of a stage singer, with
its dazzling allurements, had seemed a perfect paradise of delight,
promising untold bliss to her young heart. The world was a golden realm
of joy, and hope, and gladness; what could harm or hurt her there she
wondered, and a grave shadow passed over the sunny fairness of her face
as she thought of Albert's discouragement.

He noticed it quickly, and was angry with himself for his own
inadvertent words, spoken on the impulse of the moment. For some
minutes an embarrassed silence reigned between them both, while he
hesitated to answer her last remark.

"Changeable am I?" he said at length. "Indeed I am not. If a time ever
comes when I can serve you I will do so, but I will not urge upon you
a life which, dazzling and alluring as it is, carries great peril and
sore temptations to one young, friendless, beautiful as you are. If you
wish, however, I will speak to the countess about you. It may be in
her power to do something for you or your gran'mère. You live just out
of the wood, I think you said; that cottage with the large pear-tree
before it, I suppose."

"Yes, monsieur. It belonged to a sister of gran'mère's, and at her
death her nephew, who is chef de cuisine at the château, as I told
you before, bade gran'mère come and live there if she liked rent free.
So we came to France then, and settled down at Renonçeux, and----"

"Vivienne! Vivienne!"

The name rang out through the adjacent gallery reminding the girl of
the length of her absence and startling her by its suddenness.

"That is gran'mère calling," she said hurriedly. "Oh, how long I must
have been away. A thousand thanks to you, monsieur, for all your
kindness. Adieu!" and ere he could speak a word to detain her she fled
swiftly away through the curtained doors, and left Albert Hoffmann
alone once more.

Yet could he ever be alone again in that room, while her presence
haunted it, and would so haunt it from this hour?

The slow hours waned, the shadows grew deeper, weaving fantastic images
on the oaken floor, and shadows of the future, stranger than any thrown
by the lingering light and waning day were gathering and shaping
themselves around the silent figure bending there over the closely
written score, whose chief attraction now lay in the fact that she
had sung it.

"Who can do it justice now?" he murmured, as he placed the sheets
tenderly and carefully together. "It will never, never sound the same
to me again."

And the girl whose face haunted him could think of nothing but his
promise. Its glamour of hope was before her eyes, as she told the
history of the past hour to gran'mère, who softly chided her for giving
her confidence to a stranger, and trusting in his words with so little
maidenly reserve. But the gentle rebuke was unheeded, for the girl's
eyes were dazzled by the promised glory of a new life, and no warning
could chill her fervent belief in Albert's promises.

As she passed on to her house (such a poor and humble home it was after
the magnificence of the château of Renonçeux) her heart seemed gay
and light as a child's, sweet snatches of song rose to her lips, gay
and glad, as those of the birds above her head; but her eyes for once
seemed heedless of the beauty around her.

The old triumph had begun, the triumph of the world over the innocence
and peace of an unstirred, dreaming heart. New hopes, new thoughts,
new ambitions had sprung up to life within her. Would they be pure,
unsullied, noble still? Would the tranquil rest and the innocent dreams
be worth more than the glories her heart whispered of now?

Perchance they might, but being a woman the chances lay in favour of
ambition--not of the rest of heart and content of mind which must be
sacrificed to obtain it.




CHAPTER V.--DANGER.

ON and on over the narrow bridle-path, fleet as the wind, and mad with
the wild, glad sense of freedom, the chestnut flew along. And pale and
white her rider sat, grasping desperately at the reins which were now
powerless to check the furious animal.

Her eyes were fixed on the road before her, the long, stretching,
shelterless road into which the forest path opened; once that road
was reached there was no danger. The horse would tire in time of this
tremendous pace; it could not last, and she was not afraid of keeping
her seat, even though the swift motion made her giddy, and the little
hands clutching the reins so desperately were cut and bleeding with the
strain.

But the path was narrow, and the great trees, with their wide-spreading
branches, made it difficult to guide any horse even at a moderate pace.
Again and again Blanche bent her head down to the very saddle-bow, to
avoid being struck by some low branch; her hat was carried away, her
habit caught and torn, her breath came in low, quick gasps. Would the
road never be reached; would the speed never slacken?

It was near now, stretching white and distinct before her in the bright
glare of the blinding sunshine. They must reach it soon.

But the mare thought otherwise; suddenly she swerved aside with a
swift, sidelong movement. There was a crash, a fall, and her rider fell
from the saddle, stunned by the blow of the huge, projecting branch
which had struck her unprotected head. Fortunately her foot was not
entangled in the stirrup, or a fearful fate might have been hers. As
it was she lay motionless at the foot of the tree, while the chestnut
freed from its burden dashed madly along, and was lost to sight in an
instant.

The sight of the prostrate figure, with the long, loose trail of its
golden hair streaming over the mossy ground, struck with a strange
dread to Raoul de Verdreuil's heart as he came up to it at last. He
checked his horse, and hastily fastening the bridle-rein to the nearest
branch, approached the motionless woman.

He bent over her as she lay white and still on the dank, mossy roots of
the tree. There seemed no breath or life in her. The beautiful face was
like marble; the smooth brow had one dark, terrible bruise on it, where
the heavy branch had struck it. There was no flutter of life in the
pulse, no throb or beat in the heart beneath the dark, closely-fitting
riding-habit. Raoul felt alarmed. He scarcely knew what to do.

Involuntarily he loosed the bodice of her habit at the throat, and
raising the beautiful head from the ground, rested it on his arm. Water
there was none at hand he knew, but he fancied she was only stunned by
the fall, and trusted to nature to bring her round.

In a moment or two he knew he was right, for he felt a faint,
fluttering sigh breathe from the lips over which he bent; then a
quick, tremulous, shiver ran through her whole frame, and Blanche de
Verdreuil's eyes opened on the grave, anxious face above. A faint blush
flushed the marble whiteness of her skin as she tried to withdraw from
his arm; but her strength was not equal to the exertion, and her eyes
closed again.

Raoul held a flask to her lips, which he drew from his riding-coat, and
forced a few mouthfuls of its contents down her throat. It seemed as
if the cordial revived her immediately, for her eyes opened again and
fastened on Raoul's face with an eager, passionate glance, that even
her weakness and her danger could not withhold.

"Are you much hurt?" he asked anxiously. "No, don't move yet, you may
faint again. Rest quietly for a few moments, and then I will help you
to rise."

She did not answer; the white-veined lids drooped over her beautiful
eyes, and she leant silently against him. How beautiful she looked at
that moment! Even Raoul, cold and indifferent as he was, felt that
thought stealing through his heart, as the faint colour slowly warmed
her face, and the rich bloom returned to her lips, and the heavy
fragrant tresses of her loosened hair swept across his breast, on which
her head rested so wearily and languidly.

Involuntarily the thought crossed him--"If the soul within was as
perfect as the form, this woman would be irresistible indeed."

"I hope you are not injured, madame," he said presently. "I fear that
fall was a terrible one at the speed you were going."

"I don't think I am much hurt," she answered faintly; "only bruised
and shaken. I can't remember anything after the bough struck me. I
only wonder how I managed to get free of the stirrup, and escape being
dragged along by that terrible mare!"

"You would ride her in spite of remonstrances," said Raoul. "I only
wonder your life has not paid the penalty of your wilfulness."

"You would not care if it had!" she exclaimed, trying to draw
herself away from his supporting arm. "Oh, Raoul, if you only knew how
little I value my life, you would not wonder at my recklessness."

Raoul's face grew strangely pale at the impetuous words. Involuntarily
his thoughts travelled back to a time, when in the brilliant beauty
of a southern land, a fair girl face had smiled upon him; a reckless,
passionate love been cast at his feet--a love which he had neither
wooed, nor valued. With that memory came back the old haughty scorn
which his momentary pity had driven from his face. In her weakness
and helplessness this woman was even more hateful to him than before,
because she could claim his pity and enforce his assistance.

"I fancy the others will be here soon," he said, purposely ignoring her
last words. "Estelle took their road; if they see her riderless, they
will be sure to return to see whether there has been any accident."

"I hope they will not," exclaimed Blanche. "I don't want them now. I am
thankful they were not near me; thankful even for the accident which
might have been my death, because,"--she paused and looked at him with
glowing, passionate eyes--"because, Raoul, for once you have been kind,
for once I have seen you gentle; because for these few moments of your
care, I could almost--die--content."

"Oh, hush?" he said, pained and distressed beyond words at this wild,
impetuous outburst. "You do not think what you are saying."

"Do I not?" she cried, with a faint laugh, merciless in its scorn of
her own weakness. "Do I not? I know it only too well. I shall know it
all my life--I shall know it till I learn to hate you for the pain, and
the misery, and the shame of it all, as I pray to hate you and--cannot."

"Madame!"--The proud, grave face beside her burned hotly with the shame
that she did not seem to feel for herself--"Madame, I cannot listen to
such words. Even your weakness is no excuse for what is dishonour to
you as a wife and a woman."

"How stern and cold you are! Merciless and proud--is that not the
creed of you de Verdreuils? All the waves of a woman's love may beat
and dash themselves against that firm, invincible rock of pride and
self-restraint which your race possess, and beat in vain. Oh, Raoul!
Raoul!" and suddenly bending her face on her clasped hands, she burst
into a paroxysm of tears and sobs, which shook her from head to foot.

Raoul gazed at her in silent amazement and bitter wrath. That this
woman--his father's wife, the mistress of his home--should so give
herself over to the shame and senselessness of this unsought love
for him, was a humiliation deep and intense, all the more so because
of his own pride of will, and force of self restraint, which could
neither comprehend nor make allowances for her own deficiency in those
qualities.

Fortunately at this moment the rapid sound of horses' feet was audible
in the distance, and, with an expression of intense relief, Raoul
exclaimed, "I hear the others coming, madame. Do you think you could
manage to sit up alone now?"

She flushed crimson all over her delicate face and throat, and drew
herself swiftly away from his arm.

"I think so," she said, her voice changing from its tremulous tones,
and growing cold and proud as his own. "Thank you for all your
assistance, monsieur. If you will lend me your hand, I think I can rise
and stand now."

Raoul assisted her to her feet in silence. She was evidently only
bruised and shaken, as she had said, for she was quite able to stand.

"What a dreadful object I must look!" she said presently, as she began
twisting up the fallen shower of hair which covered her like a mantle.
"Is my forehead very much bruised? It feels twice its size, somehow."

"The bruise is swelling, I think," said Raoul, intensely relieved by
the matter-of-fact tone the conversation had assumed. "But you can soon
have remedies applied when you get home, madame. Ah! and that reminds
me, how are you to get home? Can you ride, do you think?"

"What horse can I have?" she questioned doubtfully. "No, monsieur, I
see nothing for it but to wait here till I have a carriage sent from
the château."

"I will ride back then and order it," said Raoul eagerly. "The others
will be here in a moment, and you can explain the accident. In less
than an hour I hope to be back, madame."

He hastily mounted his horse, and rode off just as Blanche became
the centre of an eager, sympathising group, all full of curiosity
and alarm, and offers of assistance, which she laughingly declined,
declaring herself to have been more frightened than hurt.

Raoul did not return with the carriage. The old Count de Verdreuil had
hastened in great anxiety and alarm to the scene of the disaster; but
Blanche, now quite recovered from the effects of her fall, was not as
pleased at his concern as she might have been, and treated his anxiety
with ridicule, and even indifference. All the way home she maintained
a rigid silence; and her husband gazing fondly and adoringly at the
pale, lovely face, wondered a little at its unusual gravity. When she
reached the château she went straight to her own rooms, nor did she
appear among the guests any more that night, pleading fatigue and
indisposition as her excuse.




CHAPTER VI.--YET I AM WELL!


"One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well;
another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman,
one woman shall not come in my grace."--Shakespeare.


"I COULD not undertake your mission, Albert, the chestnut put it out of
my head this morning," said Raoul de Verdreuil, as with his arm in that
of Albert Hoffmann's, he paced up and down the terrace that evening.

"Could you not?--I am not sure that it matters after all, Raoul. I
don't think I care about having my opera performed by these people
here. They would in the first place think it too much trouble to study
it. Then I must engage an orchestra; I think the music is too difficult
for any amateur players, and on the whole, Raoul, I think I would
rather the matter stood over for a little time."

"Why, Albert," cried his friend, stopping in his walk, and gazing
curiously at the boyish face which crimsoned like a girl's before his
searching eyes, "why, my dear boy, what has come over you since the
morning? You were quite full of this idea then."

"Yes, I know," said Albert, his voice growing more confused. "But you
see I have been thinking it over again, and I heard--I mean I have
seen--I have heard a voice--and----"

"Mon cher," cried Raoul, in a tone of mock solemnity, "this is
really too much of a mystery! You have heard--you have seen a voice.
What in the name of all that's wonderful have you seen? A fairy or a
pixie, or what? She seems to have confused your senses considerably, at
all events."

"Well, don't laugh, and I'll tell you, Raoul," said Albert, making
a strong effort to conquer his habitual bashfulness; and then he
proceeded to give his friend an account of Vivienne's appearance in the
music-gallery that morning; her wonderful voice; her strange, romantic
history; all of which had made so deep an impression on him. "She is
as beautiful as a dream," he went on; "and so proud and graceful, yet
withal so innocent and helpless; and then her voice--anything more
magnificent you cannot imagine; and oh, Raoul! if you could only see
her!" and, having entangled himself amidst these involved phrases,
Albert paused from sheer want of breath.

Raoul smiled, the kindly, gentle smile which he so rarely gave to
anyone but those he loved.

"My dear boy," he exclaimed; "the idea of your turning champion for
damsels in distress is really too absurd. What in the world will happen
next?"

"Ah! don't make fun of me, Raoul," pleaded the boy. "Is it any wonder
that I feel for this friendless girl? She has the same love for art,
the same need of sympathy and encouragement, and like me she has lost
her parents; she has no home of her own."

"And what have you promised to do for her?" inquired Raoul, his voice
grave and earnest now, in sympathy with the boy's evident feeling.

"I thought of speaking to the countess about her," said Albert,
timidly. "You see, Raoul, it would be nothing to her to befriend this
girl, and raise her to a position more suitable than the one she now
occupies; her own genius will do the rest. Vivienne St. Maurice would
be one of the finest and most marvellous singers of the day, if trained
and educated for the life and profession of one."

"Oh! now I see why the performance of the opera has been postponed,"
said Raoul drily. "This marvellous prima-donna in embryo is of course
the only singer whose voice could do justice to your music--now."

Albert coloured hotly. "Don't be so unjust, Raoul," he said. "It is not
like you to distort motives in this manner, and I thought," he added,
with a ring of disappointment in his voice, "I thought I had only to
speak to you and you would be glad to help her--she is so friendless."

"Don't get so doleful over it," said his friend, smiling in spite
of himself at the boy's woe-begone expression. "I am quite as much
interested in the girl as you could desire, but what do you want me to
do? Not intercede with the countess on her behalf, I hope. If I did
so, your philanthropic schemes would be useless immediately. Blanche
de Verdreuil is in my opinion the last woman in the world to feel any
sympathy for distressed innocence, or pure ambition. I don't think the
history of this friendless girl, with the wonderful voice and romantic
story, would interest the countess sufficiently to make her relieve or
assist her in any way."

"But I must try to enlist her sympathy, at all events," said Albert, "I
promised Vivienne I would."

"How naturally you say that name!" said Raoul, smiling in spite of
himself. "What an enchantress this girl must be! I thought art was to
be your only mistress; you will find love a dangerous rival; poets,
painters, musicians--artists, in fact, of every creed find half their
power is gone when they ever succumb to a rival influence. And women
are too jealous of the only antagonist who has ever competed with
their charms successfully, to let the love for art reign in sole and
undisturbed possession of a man's heart. Once love, and you are shorn
of your strength; you lose half your power. You sink your individuality
into the interests and nature of another, and art ceases to become
the one delight of your heart, and, as a natural consequence, your
future can never bear out the promise of your past."

"But that is a very one-sided view of the case, Raoul," said Albert
eagerly; "I never heard of an artist whose life became barren or
unfruitful, simply because a woman shared it. I do not think that
genius can be cramped or killed in any man's heart by the presence of
a pure and holy love, and though I am little skilled in women's ways,
of this I am sure, that no true woman would ever strive to weaken the
hand, or dull the brain, or destroy the enthusiasm, which made the man
she loved famous in the eyes of the world."

"No true woman--perhaps not; but where so many are false, it
would be a difficult matter to find one true, I fancy."

"Oh, Raoul, some day you will not be so hard on them. Some day you
yourself will know what love is, and then----"

"Then I shall make a fool of myself after the most approved fashion,
I suppose," laughed his friend; "but I have managed to exist very
comfortably as yet, without them, and I hope I may long do so. I feel
inclined to say, like Benedick, 'Till all graces be found in one woman,
one woman shall not come in my grace.'"

Albert was silent for some moments.

"Do you really think you will never love, Raoul?" he asked presently,
"you always scoff at it as such utter weakness. Do you never fear it
may become a reality to yourself?"

"In sober earnest, I never trouble myself to think about it at all. It
seems absurd to see other men hang on a woman's smile, and fall at a
woman's feet, and languish for a word from her lips. I certainly can
never imagine myself doing anything of the kind, nor do I fear such a
fate."

For Raoul de Verdreuil had yet to learn the truth of the words he
had laughed at as idle that very morning; that love--despised as
weakness--becomes terrible one day in its awakened strength; a master
instead of a slave.

* * * * * *

An hour later the rooms were filled with guests. The absence of the
hostess in no way interfered with the pleasure of the evening. In
the card-room a few men were playing; Raoul de Verdreuil amongst the
number. They played long, and the stakes were high; and far on into
the night the reckless play lasted. When they broke up and strolled
away, some to the smoking-room, some to their respective chambers,
Raoul lingered for a little beside the piano, where Albert sat playing
quaint, dreamy music, that seemed to suit the hour and the silence
around.

"Go on," he said presently, as he leaned back in his chair with his
eyes wandering ever and anon to the rapt, earnest face of the player;
and the boy obeyed, while the sweet, soft melodies floated through the
room with a strange, pathetic eloquence, and Raoul closed his eyes and
let the dreamy peace of the music calm and soothe him as it would.

It ceased at last, and Albert left the instrument and came towards him.

"Why are you so silent, Raoul?" he said softly.

"Ah, Albert!" his friend cried with sudden passionate regret, "If I
only knew I had led a life as pure and sinless as your own! If, keeping
you beside me always, I too might learn what stainless chivalry might
live even in a man's heart, I think I should be happier for the
knowledge than ever I can be now."

"Dear Raoul," spoke the pleading, tender voice--always so loving and
so gentle when that name was uttered, "you could not be better in my
eyes for any life you led. You are so noble, so generous, so true. If
you have pride, it is only one that holds your honour a more priceless
possession than your rank. If you have ambition, it is always pure
and great, with no mean, unscrupulous ends in view. You are a friend
any man might be proud to call by that name, because it means so much
to you, because its faith is so nobly kept, its spirit so thoroughly
understood. Don't say you would change yourself in any way, Raoul, for
I could not love you more were you better; I could not love you less
were you a thousand times worse."

Raoul looked at him quickly. So brave and pure and trustful the young
face seemed, with that light of love and earnestness shining through it.

"I wonder if you will think so always?" he said, hurriedly, for his
voice was unsteady, and its calm, even tones had forsaken him. "God
grant it; and now go to bed. I cannot have you keeping such hours as
these; you will be laid up if you don't take care."

"Yes, I am tired, I think," said Albert, a little wearily, as he
clasped Raoul's hand in farewell. "Are you not coming too, Raoul?"

"Presently. I must pay the smoking-room a visit first; be thankful, mon
cher, that you haven't learnt what it is to be under the tyranny of
that awful power--a weed. Now be off with you!"

But he did not go to the smoking-room till long after his friend
had left. Slowly and thoughtfully he paced the room to and fro, in
ceaseless, restless measure.

"It is best for me to leave," he muttered at last, as he stopped that
monotonous pacing. "She is not to be trusted, and I--I must guard
his honour if I can, for indeed he may not long be able to guard it
for himself."

Then he went, and only when the sunrise glowed warm and ruddy in the
east did he throw himself down to rest and sleep. But the rest was
troubled and disturbed, and his face, with its calm, proud gravity, was
shadowed by unquiet dreams--by the passing touch of sleepless passions,
and thoughts which no slumber could deaden.




CHAPTER VII.--IN POOR ATTIRE.


"As shines the moon in clouded skies.
She in her poor attire was seen."--Tennyson.


A WARM, tranquil night.

The stars gleam in the deep, clear blue of the sky. The night-dews
glisten on the grass and shine in the hearts of the roses; the heavy
scents of flowers float up from the gardens below the terraces; the
whole of the Château of Renonçeux is ablaze with lights, and the
painted oriels gleam through the screen of foliage, while the dusky
shadows of the twilight reign without.

Blanche de Verdreuil stands on the terrace fronting the château--the
soft folds of her dress floating behind her, and the gleam of diamonds
sparkling in the rich gold of her hair.

She looks wonderfully beautiful in the dusky light, while her eyes gaze
out on the wide-stretching park, the silver spray of the fountains, the
white gleam of the marble statues. How still the whole country lies in
the hush of that starlit peace! How, in the dark, still, dewy night,
all woe and weariness seem as unremembered things.

Blanche leans her cheek on her hand and listens languidly to the tale
she hears--the tale which Albert Hoffmann at last finds courage to
tell, for already a week has passed since Vivienne St. Maurice came to
the château.

His voice is very low and very earnest as he confides to the beautiful
woman beside him the strange romantic history of the friendless girl,
whose genius is so rare, whose poverty so great.

"How long ago is it since she came?" asked Blanche presently; "a week
did you say? That was before Raoul left, then?"

"Yes, madame. It was the very day you met that accident by falling from
your horse."

"And why did you not tell me about her before?" asked Blanche, glancing
up at him with radiant, smiling eyes.

"Because you never gave me the opportunity, madame! You know for three
days you did not leave your room, and since then you have been so much
engaged, I scarcely liked to intrude upon you with this history."

"Did Raoul know of it?" asked the countess.

"Oh yes, madame, I told him at once; but he said of course it was not a
case a man could interfere with."

"Do you know?" asked Blanche presently, while a faint flush wavered on
her cheek,--"do you know why Raoul left so hurriedly?"

"No; I wish I could say I did," said Albert, a little sadly; "he
pleaded business, but I scarcely think it was solely and entirely
business that took him away from here. But one can never question Raoul
too closely."

Blanche de Verdreuil was silent for some moments.

"It was strange," she said musingly; "he promised to stay a month at
Renonçeux, and was not here a week!"

"Raoul was always a bird of passage," said Albert, smiling; "his
movements are generally uncertain, and his time never his own. But I
wish he had not left so soon. For a whole year I had not seen him, and
then--only to stay a week after all."

"Perhaps he will come again in the autumn," said Blanche; "did he give
any hint of doing so?"

"None whatever," answered Albert, "but still I hope he will come. He is
going to England now, and he never stops there long, I know."

Blanche was silent again. Her thoughts seemed wandering far away, and
Albert began to think he had not after all succeeded in interesting her
about Vivienne. Suddenly she turned to him again----

"The girl is very beautiful, you say?"

"Yes, madame; but her beauty is far from being her only charm. It is
her gifts--her genius for which I plead. It would be sad if they were
lost."

"Beautiful, gifted, and an orphan! I was an orphan too, yet none
offered to befriend me," said Blanche in a low, sad voice unlike her
own. "And what do you wish me to do for this girl?" she continued,
turning suddenly to Albert. "Adopt her, educate her, or turn her into a
prima donna who will astonish the world by her advent?"

"I want you to see her yourself," said Albert earnestly; "her life is
now one of poverty and obscurity--a life for which she is in every
way unsuited. At present she is a mere child, free and careless and
unconscious of harm, but she knows her gifts. No amount of poverty and
hardships could ever yet stifle genius in a human soul. It will assert
itself; it will speak out its power. And this girl is, after all, only
true to her sex. She is conscious of her own ability; and, being so,
she cannot be content, while cramped and restrained in the exercise of
it. What woman could?"

"How eloquently you plead her cause!" said Blanche, a faint smile
lingering on her lips as she spoke. "Indeed, so powerful a champion
must have good reason for his interest and zeal. You have made me quite
anxious to see this wonder of yours, monsieur. Where did you say she
lived?"

"Just on the outskirts of the wood, madame; the carriage-road leads by
the cottage."

"You have soon found that out, I see," said Blanche, laughing. "Have
you paid her a visit since she was at the château, monsieur?"

"No; certainly not," answered Albert coldly. "Poor as Mademoiselle St.
Maurice is, and humble as her circumstances seem, she is as proud, and
as deserving of respect as any lady in the land."

"Sans doute, monsieur--in your estimation. Well, I feel curious
to see this wonder. But mind, I make no promises; if she is as proud
as you say, she will not be an easy subject for either patronage or
assistance, I imagine. And now let us go indoors and have some music.
The night air grows chill, I think."

Albert gave her his arm without a word, and as he watched her pass from
group to group, the centre of attraction wherever she moved, he almost
doubted whether his conversation had left any impression on her mind.

That it had done so, Blanche de Verdreuil could have assured him with
perfect truth; for she felt strangely interested about this girl,
of whom she had heard twice already; and the very morning after her
conversation with Albert Hoffmann she set out to pay her promised visit.

Vivienne St. Maurice had already begun to doubt the sincerity of
Albert's promises, and to fancy he had forgotten her entirely. Standing
at the porch of her cottage home one bright sunny morning, and
dwelling, as she so often dwelt, on the memory of that interview, she
was suddenly startled by the noise of approaching wheels.

They came nearer and nearer--so near at last that she turned her head
and saw a dainty little pony-carriage driven by a woman so wonderfully
lovely that the girl looked at her in amazement, wondering how anything
so fair could be human. A little page, dressed in the De Verdreuil
livery, sprang down from his seat as the carriage paused at the cottage
gate, and took the reins from the hands of his mistress. Then Vivienne,
suddenly recovering her scattered senses, became aware that the visitor
was looking inquiringly towards her, and hastened swiftly down the
garden path to receive her.

"Is this Manon Beauvoir's cottage?" inquired the lady.

"Yes, madame," said Vivienne, blushing at the earnest scrutiny of the
gaze she met.

"And you? you are Vivienne St. Maurice, I suppose?" pursued her
interrogator.

"Yes, madame."

"Ah! Perhaps you do not know me. I have not been long enough at
Renonçeux to make acquaintance with all my people. I am the Countess de
Verdreuil."

"Will madame be pleased to enter?" said the girl shyly, flushing to
her temples as she thought of Albert's promise, and saw he had not
forgotten it. "Shall I call gran'mère to receive her?"

"Oh no!" said Blanche de Verdreuil lightly, "I only came to see you.
We will go and sit there in the garden, under that great pear-tree of
yours, and I will tell you my reasons for this visit."

And, gathering up the trailing silken skirts of her dress, the
countess followed the girl to the rustic seat she had mentioned. She
was startled at Vivienne's beauty, the grace of her figure, the rich
southern loveliness of her face, the sweet, shy manner that yet was
free from all rustic awkwardness and diffidence. But above all there
was something about her face, her smile, her look, that brought back
some memory to her thoughts, that haunted her with a dim recollection
of some other face she had seen, but whose fugitive likeness she could
not follow or trace at present.

She seated herself on the bench, while Vivienne remained standing
opposite her--the warm sunlight falling through the boughs and touching
her cheek with its hot kiss, till the scarlet bloom deepened, and the
great dark, glowing eyes gained new brightness. Blanche de Verdreuil,
leaning back on her seat, and keenly scrutinizing the girl's face and
figure, grew more puzzled every moment.

"I suppose you are surprised to see me?" she said presently. "The
truth is, that Monsieur Hoffmann, my husband's ward, has been speaking
to me about your voice. He heard you sing, and was so struck by your
proficiency that he wishes me to see if I can aid you in turning your
talents to account. Should you like to be a great singer, mademoiselle?"

"Oh yes, madame!" cried the girl eagerly. "But is it possible? do you
think I could?"

Blanche laughed a little coldly.

"I should say your face was a fortune in itself, without your voice
being in the question at all," she answered. "I have not heard you sing
yet, or I could judge better of your powers. But of course, to be a
singer you must study your art; you must learn to act as well. Should
you care to do this?"

The girl's face clouded.

"I should like it--yes; but gran'mère, she thinks the stage so wicked.
Even when I told her of all that monsieur at the château said to me,
she scolded me for listening to him. She said she would never allow me
to go to any theatre, or act or sing in public, as long as she lived."

"Ah! that alters the case of course. Well, let me hear your story--as
much of it as you know. Perhaps I can find some other means of
assisting you. With that picture of a face you deserve a better fate
than to be buried alive in this wretched hovel."

This beautiful, soulless, sensual woman, with her exquisite face, and
her shallow nature, was for once interested and absorbed by the strange
attraction of this girl's manner, and the charm of face and voice
which gave her history, simple as it was, a nameless charm of its own.
That she was well-born she could not doubt; the poise of her head, the
ease and grace of manner, the sweet, high-bred dignity which sat so
naturally upon her, were all indications of birth far above her present
station; and ever and anon that strange memory, that dim likeness she
could not follow, flashed across Blanche de Verdreuil's mind as she
listened to the girl's simple story, and by its light read all the
danger the world would hold for one so lovely and so unprotected.

"That is all?" she questioned, as Vivienne ceased speaking at last.

"All, madame."

"I wonder why this girl interests me," thought the countess. "It seems
absurd to think of my turning philanthropist. But I like her,
strange to say, though, as a rule, my own sex are about as indifferent
to me as anything else that does not contribute to my enjoyment."

"A sad story," she continued aloud. "But, mademoiselle, you need have
no fear of the future if you choose to accept the favours of chance.
No one could sentence you to poverty and obscurity with a face that
is a poem in itself, and a voice which, from all accounts, may rival
Pasta's. Suppose you come to the château for a little while; see how
you like the life there. My guests leave in a few weeks now. You are
welcome to stay with me then, and I will see what I can do for you."

"Oh, madame!" cried the girl joyfully, "do you really mean it? How
kind, how good you are!"

Blanche laughed--a scornful, harsh laugh that somehow jarred on the
girl's ear, and pained her heart. Why, she could not tell.

"Am I? You are the first that ever said so. Well, will you come when I
send for you?"

"But gran'mère," said Vivienne hesitatingly, "she is so old, so
helpless, madame. I cannot leave her."

"Nonsense," said the countess impatiently, while a shade of irritation
clouded her eyes. "You don't mean to drag her about everywhere you go,
I suppose? I cannot certainly have wooden shoes and serge petticoats in
my reception-rooms, even to please you, petite. No, if you come to
me you must come alone; and you must forget this rustic life for the
time being; I will give you plenty of opportunity for doing so."

Vivienne hesitated. The temptation was very powerful, but still a
lingering doubt of its motives shadowed her prospects of happiness.

"If your visit pleases you," continued Blanche, feeling a strange
inclination to tempt this girl to accept her offer, "you may stop
with me altogether, if you like. Renonçeux is dull enough when my
guests leave, and I must remain there during the autumn and winter.
I should like a companion, mademoiselle; with a year or two of
education and culture you would be irresistible. Surely this wretched,
poverty-stricken life is not worth a thought beside the one I offer
you."

"But gran'mère," persisted Vivienne, "what will she do here alone?"

"She will not be selfish enough to mar your prospects, I imagine," said
the Countess de Verdreuil. "Of course you must give her up if you come
to me. But you will be treated like a young princess at Renonçeux; you
will have done with poverty and obscurity. Now what do you say to my
offer? will you accept it?"

How self-confident the question was! How little doubt lingered in
Blanche de Verdreuil's mind concerning its ready acceptance!

But the girl still stood before her, motionless, speechless; her breath
coming and going in quick uncertain gasps,--a sense of bewilderment and
uncertainty in her mind.

At last she spoke.

"Madame, your offer is generous--too generous almost, it seems to
me. But ought I to accept it? I have no claim upon you--no right to
your bounty and interest; and--pardon me, madame, but it seems as if
to agree with your demands I must give up the only friend I have in
the world--the faithful love which has sheltered and guarded me so
long--that I, in short, must desert, in her helpless old age, the very
protectress and guardian of my life hitherto; and for what? to benefit
myself entirely. Oh, madame, do not tempt me! Indeed, indeed, to act as
you would have me act seems so ungrateful. It cannot be right, I feel
sure."

"You are very foolish, I think," said Blanche, rising and surveying the
girl with cold, astonished anger; "you will doubtless never have such
another chance offered you; and my conditions are so simple, I cannot
understand why you refuse them."

"I hope you are not angry, madame," said Vivienne timidly. "I know you
are most kind, most generous; but, even though my heart craves for the
life your words open to me, I cannot forget that my first duty is to
her who took me from my dead mother's arms--who sheltered and cared
for, and protected me, even in her poverty--who has been the only
friend I have known, and whom you ask me to forsake."

The proud, simple words touched Blanche de Verdreuil's heart with a
faint sense of shame, but she only answered coldly,--

"Of course you must please yourself; I only hope you may never repent
your present decision." Then she turned haughtily away, and Vivienne
followed to open the gate for her.

The one chance she had longed for--the one hope she had cherished--she
had lost now. The girl's face paled as the thought crossed her
mind,--"Was she not acting foolishly? Would she not repent it all her
life long?"

"Adieu, mademoiselle!" spoke the clear, cold voice of the offended
countess. "If you do change your mind, perhaps you will let me know.
Take a week to consider all I have said." Then she took the reins in
her hands, and in a few moments was out of sight.

"Was it a dream?" thought Vivienne, standing there and gazing after the
fairy-like equipage gradually disappearing amidst a cloud of dust. "Was
it all a dream? or have I really refused what my heart has been longing
for these months past?"

She bent her head on the gate where her arms rested, and thought of
all she had lost by her decision--of the grandeur and beauty and
endless enjoyment of the life she had voluntarily refused, and then, in
contrast to it, of the humble cottage, the daily toil and anxiety, the
hard, ceaseless routine of her present life.

"But I could not forsake gran'mère," she said as she raised her head
and proudly dashed away the tears in her soft, wistful eyes. "I could
not; it would be so base, so ungrateful. Oh! why did the countess make
it so hard for me to decide?"

Then she walked back to the cottage and entered it. How poor and humble
it looked! How the red-brick floor, with its one worn shred of carpet,
and the rush-bottomed chairs, and even the neat array of the simple
homely ware on the shelves struck upon her notice!

How bare and destitute this home was, and how utterly devoid of
anything save the barest necessaries, the meanest comforts! She glanced
at the coarse rough dress of her faithful old nurse, busied now about
the ordinary duties of her life, the simple, domestic cares which to
her seemed so important--to the young girl, in her youth and strength,
and beauty, so trivial.

Involuntarily, Vivienne contrasted this life of hers with what it might
have been; and her eyes, wandering to the rough serge garments of her
own wear, seemed to behold again the exquisite robes and delicate laces
of Blanche de Verdreuil's costly toilette.

"I have had a visitor, gran'mère," she said presently, as she took the
soup-pot from the old woman's feeble hands and set it on the fire. "Did
you see our lady from the château here?"

"No, child!" exclaimed the old woman in astonishment; "what did she
come for?"

"To see me, I believe," said Vivienne carelessly, "at least, so
she said. It appears, gran'mère, that the gentleman I saw in the
music-gallery the other day has spoken to the countess about--about my
voice, and she wants me to become a singer. She would educate me for it
herself, and she wished me to live at the château entirely."

"Did she say so?" exclaimed gran'mère Beauvoir in unfeigned
astonishment: "did she really say so, petite? To live at the
château? Now our Lady be praised, but this is, indeed, good news!"

"Would you like me to go there?" asked Vivienne, wistfully, as she
came and leant on the back of the chair where the old woman had seated
herself to recover from her astonishment.

Gran'mère hesitated a moment.

"Like it? Nay, petite, thou art the very sunshine of my old eyes!
Like it? no! But then I must think of thee, dear child. My life is but
a rough and coarse one for such as thee, Vivienne. I can never forget
thy mother was a lady, and I am only a peasant. Well, what more said
the countess?"

"Oh, many things," answered the girl; "but what need to repeat them
now? I am not going to Renonçeux: I told her so."

"Not going?" echoed gran'mère in surprise. "Why, petite?"

"Why? Because she burdened her invitation with an impossible
condition," said Vivienne proudly. "I was to leave you--leave you,
gran'mère. Oh! how could she be so heartless as to ask it?"

"Truly, child, you were foolish to think she would not ask it," said
the old woman tenderly. "Is it likely that I can go to the château? Am
I fit for the presence of the great lords and ladies there?"

"You are fit for a queen's palace, gran'mère," cried the girl, eagerly
and impulsively, as she knelt down by the side of her aged friend and
drew the frail old hands tenderly down on her bowed head; "and where
you cannot go, I will not. Do you think I would ever leave you--you,
who have stood in place of father and mother to me so long--my one best
friend on earth?"

Gran'mère's eyes grew dim as she listened to the sweet, impulsive words.

"Ah, chérie," she answered softly, "I am old and feeble now. The
blessed saints have heard my prayers and opened a new home for you when
the old home can be yours no longer. Dear child! you must go to the
château for my sake."

"And leave you here to die alone and helpless? A fitting return truly,
to make for a lifetime of devotion! Oh, gran'mère, do you think so
badly of me as to ask it?"

"Not now, not just now, chérie; but when I am gone, when you have no
friend or protector left; then, Vivienne, you must promise me to accept
this shelter. You will have a home more fitted for you than this,
petite, and I shall be content to go when I know I leave you safe."

"Oh, gran'mère, gran'mère," cried the girl, bursting into a passion of
weeping, "don't break my heart by saying you will leave me! How can you
die and leave me in this great lonely world alone?"

"Dear child, it is God's will!"--and the aged voice grew reverent, and
the trembling hands more firm in their clasp--"God's will, Vivienne;
and if thy future is safe, my heart will be at peace. When the time
comes, He will be Thy Protector and thy Friend!"




CHAPTER VIII.--A STORY OF THE PAST.


THE autumn was dying.

Slowly and softly the last sighs of its fragrant breath rested on the
earth; the amber glow of the leaves, and the flush of scarlet berries,
and the ceaseless fall of the last petals left on the late roses, all
told the same sad tale--of glory vanished, of beauty dead.

The guests had departed from Renonçeux, and the château itself looked
gloomy and melancholy in the dusky October gloom, while the wind moaned
softly through the grey turrets, and sighed amongst the clinging ivy,
and swept the falling showers of autumn leaves along the deserted
terraces and untrodden walks.

Blanche, Countess of Renonçeux, sat alone in her boudoir, listening to
the moan of the wind as it swept at intervals across her windows. Her
eyes were gazing wearily into the bright flame before her--the flame
that lit up the soft burnished gold of her hair, and shone on the white
folds of her trailing dress, and the gleam of scarlet from the roses in
her bosom, the only ornament she wore.

She had a book in her hand, but her eyes never rested on the page that
was open before her, and the whole expression of her face was one of
weariness and discontent; for, with all her beauty and all her wealth,
Blanche de Verdreuil was a disappointed and dissatisfied woman.

She had married for two potent reasons--revenge and safety. Her
position as Countess of Renonçeux was unassailable, she thought. The
wealth and honours for which she had given her soulless beauty were all
the payment she had desired; but she craved for constant gaiety and
excitement, for the homage of men, the envy of women, and the smiles
of the World around her. She hated quiet and retirement; she, who was
so used to conquest, could not exist without some one to subjugate and
charm. All-conscious of her power and beauty as Blanche de Verdreuil
was, that power was valueless when the world could not witness it, when
men could not bow to it.

And the countess was seriously angered now, for all her persuasions
had failed in inducing her husband to take her from Renonçeux when her
guests left. Her complaints and murmurs he treated as the whims of a
spoiled child. Renonçeux was his home, and there he would remain till
the spring. She could not induce him to change his decision, and she
was obliged to submit to it. But her heart was wrathful and indignant,
and her changing caprices and whims were enough to try the patience of
any one less blind and devoted than her still infatuated husband.

But Blanche told herself at last that she must be careful not to show
her true character yet; that prudence and self-control were necessary
for the schemes already planned and resolved upon by her mischievous
brain; so, finding that fretting and complaining only brought fresh
showers of endearments and caresses upon her, only pained and
distressed him, without in any way altering his resolution, she came to
the conclusion that she had better submit, with as good grace as she
could assume, to this enforced retirement, inwardly resolving to atone
for it by every imaginable caprice and extravagance when she went to
Paris in the spring.

Sitting there now in her luxurious boudoir, her thoughts were all of
the plans and purposes of the future--the future which she promised
herself should be bright and brilliant, and enviable as wealth and
beauty such as she possessed could make it. The intoxication of
triumph, the might of gold, the all-powerful magic of a woman's
loveliness, were hers; and if, armed with them, the world did not fall
at her feet and render her its homage, the world was harder to please
than the vanity of woman believed possible.

A knock came at her door as she thought of these triumphs and indulged
in these visions of the future. She turned impatiently at the summons.
"The count, I suppose," she muttered: "entrez."

Her page entered with a note. "The bearer waits," he said with a low
bow. "I told him madame was occupied, madame was not to be disturbed;
but he said it was life and death; he is in great haste; he awaits
madame's pleasure below."

The countess glanced hastily over the note, and then tossed it
contemptuously into the flames.

"Dying," she said, as she looked from the glowing delicate hues of her
chamber to the gloom and darkness of the night. "And why should I go to
her? What is her secret to me?"

"Madame will be pleased to send the man away?" insinuated the page.

"Yes, bid him go! I have no answer;" and she settled herself once more
down to the enjoyment of her fireside reverie.

Another knock, and the page entered again.

"Pardon, madame! but this man actually refuses to go with that message.
He says madame is absolutely wanted. The woman says she cannot die till
she sees madame. Ah! what obstinacy; it is unheard of!"

"Order me the close carriage. I will go!" exclaimed the countess
suddenly. "Quick! what are you waiting for?"

"Pardon, madame! but the night, the weather; it is impossible that
madame can go out in such weather, surely!"

"Order it to stop raining, then, for madame's pleasure," said the
countess sharply. "Be off, and if the carriage is not here in five
minutes you lose your place!"

The page retreated precipitately, and Blanche hurriedly threw a thick
dark cloak around her, and exchanged her dainty shoes for walking-boots.

"After all it is as well to hear what she wants!" she muttered during
these preparations. "A secret to tell me! I wonder what it is?"

And, with a hasty glance at the mirror, the Countess of Renonçeux left
her room, and a moment after was driving through the gloomy October
night along the carriage-road which led to Manon Beauvoir's cottage.

* * * * * *

Gran'mère Beauvoir was dying.

The cottage was very silent--silent with that strange hush which only
comes when the shadow of the angel of death is brooding overhead, and
its outstretched wings fill all the gloom around and above--silent with
the silence that only lasts when we watch the sands of a life running
slowly and surely out, and know that for the one we watch the weariness
of time will soon cease--the mystery of eternity begin.

In a poor, ill-furnished room--a strange contrast to the luxurious
chambers at Renonçeux--Blanche de Verdreuil stood by Manon Beauvoir's
side.

The brilliance of her youth and loveliness were heightened and
intensified by the very poverty and simplicity of her surroundings;
but there was a cold, hard glitter in her eyes, a covert smile on the
mocking scarlet mouth that were strangely at variance with a death-bed
scene.

Vivienne was not present; she had been dismissed by Gran'mère Beauvoir
as soon as the Countess of Renonçeux arrived, for the old peasant woman
did not wish her darling to hear her strange tale, part of which was
founded on reality, the rest on supposition and credence only.

She spoke very low, and oftentimes her tale was interrupted by fits
of exhaustion and weakness. Blanche de Verdreuil listened at first
indifferently, then attentively, as the words fell from the speaker's
lips slowly and painfully, with the failing breath and failing strength
of death's near approach. A strange light gleamed in her eyes as the
story ceased, and she spoke hurriedly, almost anxiously.

"You say you never mentioned this to any one?"

"No, madame; of what use to mention what were only suspicions in my
own mind--suspicions, too, which never seemed likely to have any
foundation? It was only very lately that I could even find any clue to
the mystery of Count Maurice de Verdreuil's life. All is so dark and
strange concerning it. And then--only then--madame, when my strength
began to fail, did my mind seem to become clear, and all this I have
told you shaped itself out before me. I place it in your hands,
madame--a dying woman's bequest, given with a dying woman's trust. You
have wealth and influence enough to serve my darling, and you could
soon discover whether this tale is founded upon fact. You offered to
befriend Vivienne once, madame, and the child refused you, because she
would not leave me in my age and helplessness; but now, madame, there
is no one to stand between her and your guardianship; and if you are
still kind and generous enough to repeat that offer, she must accept
it--as gratefully as I would accept it for her."

The aged eyes, with that strange film of death already creeping over
them, rested anxiously on the beautiful haughty face.

Blanche was silent.

Her brief interest in Vivienne had long passed away; her selfish nature
was incapable of long holding any real, heartfelt, genuine sympathy for
another, and she had told Albert Hoffmann that his pretty enchantress
had refused her offers of help and assistance, and there the subject
had ended, as far as she was concerned; now it was again forced on her
notice, and she did not care to resume it.

But the pleading voice of the dying woman never ceased that beseeching
entreaty. She could not die, it almost seemed, till the safety of
her darling was in some way insured, till the care of her future was
placed in other hands, when her own resigned the task.

"I would have asked the count himself," she said presently, wondering
at the hesitation and indecision of the Countess of Renonçeux, "but I
knew how painful a subject that old sad story was, how none have heard
it from his lips since that awful day I told you of, madame. And so----"

"Yes, yes; I know!" said Blanche de Verdreuil hurriedly. "Well, do not
distress yourself any more; I will promise what you ask. I will take
Vivienne to Renonçeux."

"Now our Lady in Heaven bless you, madame, for those words. I know
they will be faithfully kept; the race to which your marriage has
allied you, never yet broke faith with living or with dead. Here
madame," she added, drawing from under her pillow a little shabby
desk, all worn with age and travel-stained, as though it had known
many journeyings--"here is the one and only clue I can give you. A
feeble one enough, but with God's help and blessing it may serve a good
purpose yet."

What purpose it was to serve she little knew as she gave it up into
those treacherous hands.

Ah! life ever hinges upon chance, say what we will. Such little things;
such trifling, careless actions!

If all the "might have been's" that strew the pathway of our lives were
garnered up and told, we should know that of all strange things which
make human life a mockery of human will, there is none so strange as
that which marks the confidence of men's self-built purposes and plans,
and the utter indifference to those plans with which Fate sweeps them
into nothingness!




BOOK II.




CHAPTER I.--LIFE'S SPRINGTIME.

"I dream'd that as I wandered by the way
Bare winter suddenly was changed to spring." .... Shelley


MANON BEAUVOIR was buried, and the Countess de Verdreuil announced to
her husband that she had promised to befriend and protect the beautiful
girl who had lived under her guardianship so long--the child who had
known no mother's care or father's love; whose nature, whose beauty,
and high-born instincts all seemed to unfit her for the coarse, rough
life of a peasant, and yet who had no other life to look forward to
unless she, Blanche de Verdreuil, gave her the shelter and protection
she needed so much.

And the old count thought how sweet and charitable a nature was that of
his beautiful wife, and cordially approved of her plan, and welcomed
Vivienne to Renonçeux with a chivalry and courtesy such as he might
have shown the noblest lady in the land.

It never occurred to him to treat her as a dependant. The first sight
of her face, the sound of her voice, the grace and ease which seemed
so natural to her, all convinced him that the girl, in spite of the
mystery of her birth and parentage, was in all respects fitted for a
higher sphere in life than she had hitherto occupied.

So through the autumn and winter, Vivienne remained at the château,
and the count insisted upon her having every advantage and instruction
possible to complete her neglected education and her wonderful musical
talents. Her voice seemed to him as to every one else--a marvel, and
the cultivation and care it now received seemed to add to its charm and
perfect its beauty.

In the long winter evenings when it rang through the lofty rooms,
thrilling and echoing far out into the night, even Blanche de Verdreuil
was entranced by its magical power. Her very teachers were lost in
wonder when they heard her, and prophesied she might rival Pasta
herself if she chose to do so.

But to Albert Hoffmann this girl's genius and magnificent gifts were as
revelations of a new and soul-felt delight, an inexhaustible wonder.

With him the shyness and reserve of her manner were changed to frank
and familiar confidence. They were constantly together, and their
mutual love for the same art, their passionate delight and absorbing
admiration for all belonging to music were naturally sufficient to
account for their frequent and uninterrupted companionship. So at least
the old count thought, and so apparently did Blanche de Verdreuil,
for no restraint was ever placed upon their intercourse, no barrier
ever raised between that friendly and almost hourly intercourse which
to Albert Hoffmann was gradually becoming the one thing worth living
for--the one joy of his life.

And yet to meet and speak and associate with this lovely, gifted girl
was a danger whose nature and source of joy he never questioned. He
was still so much of a boy in looks, in his shy reserve and habitual
diffidence, that to Vivienne he seemed even younger than herself, and
she treated him with the frank, natural affection she might have shown
to a brother, as indeed she began to consider him; while he day by day
let his thoughts dwell on her, watched for her footsteps, hungered
for her words and looks and smiles, till his life seemed merged into
a paradise of dreams, so holy and so pure, that they coloured every
thought and hope of his heart.

He did not speak of them, he hardly dared to breathe the fullness of
their meaning even to himself, for they could not be clothed in the
language of any earthly passion; they were so vague and dreamy, and
yet withal so beautiful in their innocent dawn, so fresh and unsullied
by any breath of worldly sophistry, or mere selfish desire, that
none could have read them without a deep and intense pity for the
boy-dreamer, whose very love was like his nature--a poem not to be
understood or read by every eye, but shut up in his own heart's depths,
fostered by his own vivid imagination, and coloured by the force of his
own fervent fancies and poetic thoughts.

The months glided swiftly by, the winter was never dark, the days never
dreary, the hours never long to Albert now. Life was a beautiful,
glorious reality, a paradise, an elysium. The earth seemed glorious
and glad as with the radiance of eternal summer. There was no shadow
upon its brightness for him, no cloud upon its beauty. Of the future he
never thought, of any termination to his dream of delight, which seemed
at once so perfect and so inexhaustible, he never questioned. Vivienne
was beside him--that was all he knew and all he cared to know.

The girl grew more lovely as the months passed by. The deep, marvellous
eyes, the dusky glory of her hair, the rich colouring of the faultless
face all grew into yet more vivid beauty with the grace of her dawning
womanhood. The sweetness and infinite gentleness of her nature shone
out more fully as her timidity and restraint wore off, and the new life
she led became habitual in its thousand wonders of luxury and ease
which had seemed so strange at first.

Brilliant, graceful, fanciful, and yet with a strange, deep
undercurrent of sadness flowing beneath the mirth and buoyancy of her
natural character, Vivienne St. Maurice was in every respect a woman
dangerously fascinating and dowered with wonderful gifts--a woman whom
a man might well deem worthy of his whole heart, a woman whom many
would love, but who would only love once, and for ever.

With the first early days of spring, Blanche de Verdreuil left for
Paris, only too thankful that her banishment was over, and inwardly
vowing never to submit to such an enforced exile, as she termed it,
again. Vivienne of course remained at Renonçeux, the countess taking
care to provide her with a chaperon in the form of an elderly
dowager, who was to combine the duties of companion with the charge of
the household, in the absence of its mistress.

What blissful months those were to the young artist!

Vivienne and he were together under the same roof, sharing the same
life. The days were all gladness, the nights all delight. She was near
him. What fairer joy could earth bestow?

They strolled through woods, all fresh and green with the breath of
spring. They watched the day die out in glory and the night shine out
of gloom. In the soft dusk of the evening she sang to him, or made
him play to her sweet, dreamy melodies of Mendelssohn, or grand and
passionate compositions of Beethoven, that stirred her own soul to its
very depths with their sublime meaning.

And all unconsciously her smiles, her praises, her very gentleness,
and untroubled calm were leading him on to love her with a worship
deep and passionate, yet humble as its own strength and exalted trust.
Her beauty, perfect as it was, could never have won such reverence and
love from him, had it not been the index of a nature--noble, generous,
exalted--yet withal womanly and tender.

Meanwhile Raoul de Verdreuil was drifting from country to country
with his usual uncertainty of movement. At intervals he had news from
Renonçeux, but for many months he had not heard from Albert, and he
began to grow troubled at this unwonted silence, when at last a letter
reached him. A strange, odd, bewildering letter it was too--one that
raised a smile to his lips, and lit the dark, earnest eyes with a look
of quizzical amusement.

"Albert must be hard hit," he said to himself; "six pages, and not one
without Vivienne appearing in it two or three times at least. Poor boy!
What a pity that he should have taken the disease so early! I'm afraid
he'll be quite spoilt for anything by the time I see him again. What
a description of the girl too! She must be wonderfully beautiful if
she's anything like it. Now I wonder what induced Blanche to have her
at Renonçeux. It's odd, and unlike her, to say the least of it. I
should like to find out her motive!"

He folded up the letter and returned it to its envelope, with a
thoughtful look replacing his former amused one, and the old gravity
deepening in his eyes.

"What a strange thing it must be to feel all these raptures about a
woman!" he exclaimed presently, half aloud, as he rose from his seat
and went to the window. "I can't understand it at all myself--long may
I say the same, and I think I shall too; my heart must be uncommonly
tough, it has stood so many sieges, and yet feels none the worse; and
here I am eight-and-twenty years of age, and might be fifty, for all
the power a woman has to rouse or interest me."

He looked out on the calm, starry night, on the beautiful rushing
waters of the distant Danube, on all the glitter and splendour of the
Austrian capital where he was now staying.

"The world is fair enough," so ran his thoughts, "and men are happy
enough and content enough while they are free. I would not change
places with Albert though Vivienne St. Maurice were twice as beautiful,
and ten times as enchanting, and that is hardly possible, I suppose."

Then he turned away and entered his dressing-room; he was to go to
an ambassador's ball that night, and the hour was already late.
Nevertheless, he never hurried his toilet in any way, or troubled
himself to remember the fact that bright eyes were watching for him,
and lovely faces growing pale with anger or disappointment as the time
massed, and his promises to them seemed forgotten, as indeed they were,
for Raoul de Verdreuil rarely paid the compliment of a second thought
to any of the women he met in society, and their airy graces and
coquettish exactions were too trivial to be remembered in their absence
by one so indifferent to their presence.

The ball was at its height when he arrived, and not a few graceful
reproaches fell on his ear as one fair aristocrat after another greeted
him. For Raoul de Verdreuil had that surest and strongest attraction
for all women in the languid, egotistic high-bred society among which
he moved--complete and perfect indifference to their charms.

No more complete method exists for rousing a woman's interest than to
appear totally careless respecting it. And his coldness was so natural,
so unfeigned, that no woman, however beautiful, could ever flatter
herself that she had penetrated beneath its icy mask--had ever won a
second thought from him when he had left her side. He was perfectly
courteous, but withal rarely moved from the grave, serene composure of
his manner, and his conquest had become a task even the vainest and the
loveliest deemed impossible.

Amidst all the mirth and revelry of the ambassador's ball his face
never seemed to lighten with interest or enjoyment, his eyes never
seemed to rest on any form, however beautiful, with more admiration
than he would have bestowed on a picture presented to his notice, and
at any moment a word from some great statesman, or political authority
in the ministerial world had twofold more interest for him than the
sweetest glance, or softest whispers of any woman present.

When he left the assemblage of brilliant beauties, of titled
dignitaries, of political rulers of all nations, a sigh of relief
escaped his lips. It seemed that the fresh, sweet air, the starlit
night, were doubly grateful after the heated rooms, with their heavy
scents and fragrant odours, their glitter of wealth and show, their
mockery of enjoyment, and load of insincerity.

He walked on to his hotel, not caring to drive back, late as the hour
was, or rather early, for already the dawn was breaking in the east,
though the stars were bright as ever in the clear, soft sky above.

He could hear the rush of the swift river sweeping ever onwards to the
far-off sea. He could catch the glance of its waters, flowing on with
the stars mirrored in their depths, and murmuring a solemn melody, as
of the mighty deeds of past ages, the records of dead years.

Something of melancholy, of foreboding, seemed to come to him in
that moment; one of those strange, wistful, and wholly indescribable
sensations that shadow the brightness of our lives with the prescience
of evil or of sorrow, we know not why. It was new to Raoul de Verdreuil
to feel thus, and he wondered dimly why at this moment, when success
and high praise had just rewarded his mission, he should experience a
feeling so totally at variance with the triumphs he had won.

"I think Albert's letter has made me discontented," he muttered to
himself, as he tried to shake off the gloom and heaviness oppressing
him. "I have always been first with him, and now I am dethroned for a
woman--a girl whom he has known but a few brief months, but yet who has
taught him in that space to forget for the first time in our lives his
earliest friend. Am I jealous, I wonder--jealous of the sex I despise?
Pshaw! it is ridiculous."

But ridiculous or not, Raoul de Verdreuil could not shake the shadow
from his heart, the gloom from his brow.

He walked on, far on, in the cool, fresh dawn of the early day--on
till he reached the river's rushing waters, all dark and swift as the
restless thoughts of his own mind, and gazing down at them he mused on
all the changes they had witnessed, on all the secrets they had kept,
while centuries and cycles had swept over them, leaving them still
unchanged. Fleeting and innumerable phantoms, generations of the dead
seemed trooping by in the faint, grey morning light; wings rushing
past like the restless sweep of the waters, fanned his brow in that
mysterious solitude.

Thus in years gone by had others mused before him--thus in years to
come would others muse long after him. Nations might perish, dynasties
change; but the same river would roll on unchanged to the distant sea,
and the same thoughts fill men's hearts as they watched its course, and
heard its voices speak from the grave of past ages.




CHAPTER II.--LA MODE.


"There's not a joy the world can give, like that it takes away."--Byron.


THE city of Paris is in all the brilliance of its springtide gaiety.

Rank and fashion throng the Bois, and stream after stream of carriages
bear their dazzling freight of beauty to inaugurate the season this
sunny day of the opening year.

Among the many splendid equipages is one whose occupants seem to
attract universal admiration. They are two women, both wonderfully
lovely, though in a totally different style; one is very fair, with a
wealth of sunny hair coiled round her small, exquisitely-shaped head,
with changing, sparkling eyes and lips like scarlet blossoms. She leans
back amid the soft cushions of her carriage, and from time to time
bends gracefully in acknowledgement of the many greetings she receives;
for Blanche de Verdreuil is one of the reigning queens of the beau
monde now.

Her companion is a young girl apparently not more than eighteen years
of age. The beauty of a pure and sunny youth, a frank and fearless
spirit, speaks out in the glance of the dark eyes, and sparkles in the
fair, rich colouring of the dainty face; the face whose greatest charm
is the charm it derives from the soul within.

It is the face of the girl by the brook-side; the face of the listener
in the music-gallery at Renonçeux; the face of the weeping mourner in
the poor and shadowy room where her only friend lay dying; the face
that has gladdened the old château for nearly two years past, and now
shines forth on the great world of Paris, to learn for the first time
the full power of a woman's beauty, when society goes mad for its
smiles and crowns it with the dictum of its favour. It is Vivienne
St. Maurice who sits by Blanche de Verdreuil's side; Vivienne, scarce
changed even now from the girlish dreamer in the woods of Renonçeux;
Vivienne, who, by the Countess de Verdreuil's caprice, is for the first
time introduced to the world of a great city, and whose eyes gaze
wonderingly at the scene around her, which has all the charm of novelty
yet.

It was a sudden whim on the part of the countess to bring her ward
to Paris this year--a whim that caused Vivienne herself a curious
excitement and flutter of mingled delight and wonder at heart. But she
came, and this first day of her glimpse of Parisian life was to her an
alternate bewilderment and enjoyment.

"Who is she?"

The fashionable throng asked that question again and again, and yet no
answer was given. None knew, or seemed to know, the rank, or name, or
history of the lovely girl who passed and repassed as the carriage took
its way through the crowded drive.

"What an exquisite face! Do you know who she is?" The speaker, a young
and extremely handsome man, leaned forward to address this question to
the Duchess de Villemaire, whose set was one of the most exclusive in
Paris, and whose gold eye-glass had just been raised to look at the new
occupant of the Countess de Verdreuil's carriage.

"A pretty girl. Wants style though, I think," she answered
superciliously; "un peu trop l'air paysanne]!" and she leant back
with an expression of complete indifference.

"Oh! your Grace, that is too severe," said the first speaker, the young
Marquis d'Orvâl, and the richest and most eligible parti then in
Paris. "That freshness and piquancy is just the greatest charm of all.
One finds Beauty au naturel quite refreshing after seeing it so
often à la mode."

This was a cruel remark to make considering that the two unmarried
daughters of the duchess were present, and that they were both the very
height and perfection of la mode, though passé enough in point
of feminine charms to necessitate a constant resort to art instead of
nature.

"You know the Countess de Verdreuil, do you not?" continued the Marquis
d'Orvâl presently.

"Oh, yes! one knows many people whom you cannot exactly avoid; but I do
not visit her."

"She is well received though. Why is your Grace exceptional in your
favour?"

The duchess shrugged her shoulders with a gesture more expressive than
words.

"She is not one of us, that is all. Mysterious beauties raised
suddenly to high rank and honours are not yet received in my set. I
pride myself on being exclusive, Monsieur d'Orvâl, as you know."

The young marquis bowed, and then rode on without further remark.
Exclusive or not, the Duchess de Villemaire was anything but agreeable,
he thought; and how atrociously plain her daughters were--by
daylight!--So his thoughts ran as he rode slowly on, his eyes glancing
swiftly among the stream of carriages, ever in search of that one face,
the loveliest, he thought, of the many beautiful ones he had seen all
his life through.

He saw it at last, with the sunshine lighting the sweet laughing eyes;
with the gleam of gold in the heavy masses of hair drawn from the pure
white brow; with the scarlet bloom on lips and cheeks that no hand but
Nature's had painted; and amidst all the beauty and light, and vivid
wonderful colouring, there seemed to speak out the fearless, guileless
spirit of a child, the sweet unconsciousness of self, which is at once
the rarest and most perfect charm of a woman's nature.

The Marquis d'Orvâl knew the Countess de Verdreuil as well as people
in society ever know each other. He met her constantly, admired
her extremely, listened to all the pretty stories and impertinent
suggestions, and boudoir-perfumed scandals he heard about her, and that
was all. But now a strange impulse prompted him to join her, as, in the
momentary pressure of the crowd, her carriage was obliged to remain
stationary.

Another instant, and he was bowing over her hand and receiving her
sweetest smiles; for Blanche knew that this man set the seal of fashion
on any one he chose to notice, and she had long and vainly courted
his attention in the hope that his dictum would raise her to that
enviable notoriety which his notice could bestow alike on a grande
dame, or a ballet-dancer.

"Allow me to introduce you to my ward, Mademoiselle St. Maurice," said
Blanche de Verdreuil, after the first greetings had been exchanged.

The Marquis d'Orvâl bowed low to the beautiful girl who had so
interested and attracted him, and she returned his salutation with the
calm, easy dignity which was so natural and graceful a charm of her
manner.

"I think I have not had the pleasure of seeing Mademoiselle St. Maurice
in Paris before?" questioned the marquis, as he rode beside the
countess through the crowded drive of the Bois de Boulogne.

"Cela va sans dire," laughed Blanche de Verdreuil gaily. "I have
only just brought her out. I am going to enact the part of chaperon
this season, Monsieur d'Orvâl."

"Hardly fair to give you so thankless and fatiguing an office, madame,"
he answered in the same tone, while his eyes turned admiringly to the
faultless loveliness of the new débutante again.

Blanche shrugged her shoulders with a pretty affectation of
indifference.

"I hope I shall not find it so," she answered. "My ward is not
difficult to manage, and though the charge is new and responsible to
me, I have no doubt I shall be able to go through with it successfully."

Vivienne's face flushed hotly at the words; low spoken as they were
she heard them, and turned hastily away, as though she dared not trust
herself to answer.

The marquis looked from Blanche to her ward with scarce concealed
curiosity. It struck him at that moment, that between the countess
and this beautiful girl no great love reigned, and he marvelled not
a little that Blanche should have consented to enact the part of
chaperon to one who was only too likely to prove a dangerous rival.
Again and again his eyes wandered to Vivienne's perfect face. He had
seen many lovely women, but never one so lovely as this--never one who
forced him to interest and wonder despite himself.

Blanche de Verdreuil noted his admiring glances, his wandering replies;
and despite the jealousy she felt at Vivienne's easy conquest of this
proud, difficile noble, she yet congratulated herself on the fact,
as it promised success to the schemes already at work in her own brain.

"Shall I meet you at the Embassy ball, madame?" asked d'Orvâl presently.

A shadow of defiant hauteur clouded the brilliant eyes of the countess.

"No, I think not," she said coldly. "We have only just arrived,
monsieur, and----"

"Oh! I see," he interrupted, not wishing to put her to the trouble of
inventing a fiction to hide the real fact--that she had not been asked.
"I merely inquired because I heard Lady S. expressing her doubts as
to whether you were in Paris when she was issuing her invitations. I
shall have the pleasure of assuring her of your arrival, and that of
Mademoiselle St. Maurice."

Blanche de Verdreuil's heart gave a swift throb of triumph and delight.
It was the summit of her ambition to get into the exclusive set, of
which Lady S. was ruler. She was the wife of the English ambassador,
and Blanche, during her two seasons of Parisian life had never been
asked to the balls at the Embassy. She wondered whether the Marquis
d'Orvâl was in earnest, or whether he merely said what he had done out
of politeness.

"I shall confidently expect to meet you there," he continued presently.
"Of course your invitations will reach you in the course of a day or
two; Mademoiselle will see every one worth knowing in Paris then, for
the ball this year is to be one of the most brilliant of the season."

"So I believe," said Blanche calmly, not wishing of course that the
marquis should fancy this was the first she had heard of it. "To-night
we are going to the Countess de Liramar's--at least, my husband and
myself. Vivienne is not to be introduced till my own ball comes off."

"Paris will be the loser for that," said the young marquis, turning to
the fair girl beside him. He began to talk to her now, but the grave,
beautiful eyes looked so contemptuous at the soft compliments and
unmeaning flatteries with which his conversation was filled, that he
plainly saw these courtier-like graces were of no avail to win either
interest or regard from her. She was unlike any one he had ever seen;
she was a beautiful and interesting study, piquing, bewitching, and
bewildering him at every moment.

The naive unconsciousness, and unaffected ease of her manner were
simply enchanting to this man of the world, though he had always
boasted that he possessed no pastoral tastes, and that fashion and life
were one and the same thing with him. But he was enchained and held
in check at one and the same moment by this shy child--so unlike the
self-possessed beauties of fashion, and the proud and arrogant leaders
of ton with whom his whole life had been associated.

Blanche de Verdreuil chatted on of the thousand gay nothings of
Parisian scandal, the new rivals for fame at the opera-house, the new
beauties of the season to be introduced for the grand Matrimonial
Stakes, of the bal masqué she was about to give in her hotel in the
Faubourg St. Germain, and at which her lovely ward was to make her
debût; and while she talked and he listened and assented from time
to time, his eyes ever rested on the face of Vivienne, with its varying
expression, its faultless loveliness and extreme youth.

It was new to him to gaze on charms which Nature's hand alone had
formed and coloured; and the tutored heart of the man of the world was
touched and subdued into something far different to its ordinary calm
and critical coldness, as he at last left her side, and rode slowly
home, to ponder over the interest she had awakened.

"And what do you think of Paris, ma chère?" inquired Blanche of her
companion, as their carriage turned homewards at length, and the
dense crowd of rank and fashion were left behind; "or rather, what do
you think of the pet of Paris at present, the Marquis d'Orvâl--that
Admirable Crichton of the nineteenth century, that epitome of courtesy,
good breeding, rank, and wealth, upon whom Fashion has set her seal,
and whose smile of approbation is coveted by all, as the one thing
needful to give them prestige and success? There can be no doubt
about his opinion of you, and his verdict once given, all Paris
will follow suit, and go wild after you with its accustomed foolish
excitement! Nevertheless, you are very fortunate in succeeding so well;
to have made an impression on this cold and difficile critic is a
feat to be proud of."

"I am sorry to say I do not feel any particular gratification at having
unconsciously satisfied the Marquis d'Orvâl's critical judgment," was
the answer. "I thought he was a very insincere, shallow-minded man;
good looking, certainly; but then he knows it so well; that destroys
the charm at once."

"My dear Vivienne," exclaimed Blanche de Verdreuil, in horrified
astonishment, "what are you saying? Shallow-minded, good-looking!
the handsomest man in Paris; the one of all others whose opinion is
regarded as immutable; whose tastes, habits, manners are copied and
applauded by the elite of society! for Heaven's sake, child, don't
let any one hear you say such things of him. Why they would put you
down as some ignorant, foolish girl not worth a thought at once. I
tell you, d'Orvâl is worshipped here in Paris. He is the fashion;--the
richest and most honourable in the land court his presence at their
houses. He is sought after by all and every rank. He gives the password
of admission into the best houses, and the most exclusive circles. Why
the very fact of his noticing you is sufficient to proclaim you the
belle of the season; and instead of being proud of, and elated by that
notice, you actually presume to criticize its bestower!"

"How much you will have to teach me, madame," said Vivienne, laughing
in unfeigned amusement at Blanche de Verdreuil's horrified tones. "But
I am such a complete novice, you know; is it any wonder your great
world dazzles and bewilders me at first. The deference you show to this
Marquis d'Orvâl's opinions, is to me totally incomprehensible; but you
ought not to wonder at my inability to judge of his merits, when you
think of my total ignorance of fashionable life. I fear I shall be a
very troublesome pupil to you, madame."

Blanche shrugged her shoulders as if the responsibility was not going
to sit very heavily upon her, as indeed she never meant it to do; but
she did wonder a little curiously what she should do with this girl,
whose frank, outspoken opinions, and straight-forward earnestness,
would be serious draw-backs to her worldly teaching. How was she to
instruct her in those polished artifices which are so essentially
requisite to social success? How was she to teach her to distinguish
detrimentals from eligibles; to penetrate the mysteries of ton; to
refrigerate acquaintances with a glance; to sweep past inconvenient
friends with a cool unconsciousness of their very existence; to tell
polite falsehoods with a charming assumption of truth and sincerity; to
be, in short, of the world--worldly, and in her generation--wise?

Blanche feared the task would be beyond her powers, for the nature of
Vivienne St. Maurice was not one to acquire such accomplishments as
these either readily or easily. And yet her chief reason for wishing to
adopt Vivienne was that she saw in her a quick and efficient means for
securing social success at last. The girl's beauty and accomplishments
were of so rare and extraordinary an order, that she was well
calculated to shine in society by their right of distinction alone;
and the countess imagined if she introduced her as her ward, with all
the advantages of rank and wealth to set off her attractions, that
she would create a perfect furore in Paris. But she had scarcely
imagined she could succeed so quickly as she had done, for she knew
well that the Marquis d'Orvâl's admiration of Vivienne would raise her
to a loftier eminence than any introduction or exertion of her own. She
knew, too, that his speech relative to the Ambassador's ball meant an
entrée for her at last, and for this she felt she was indebted to
Vivienne's fair face again. On the whole, therefore, the Countess de
Verdreuil felt remarkably well satisfied with her day's amusement, and
was inclined to be extremely complacent to Vivienne on the strength of
it.

"What a lovely woman!" exclaimed the girl suddenly, as the carriage
came abreast of another scarcely less gorgeous than itself, whose
occupant was a very handsome woman, with brilliant eyes, and a full,
voluptuous figure.

"My dear," cried Blanche turning her eyes away from the retreating
vehicle, "I wonder what you can see to admire in her. She is a singer
at the Opera, but not at all a proper person; be sure you never remark
her before any one, it would be so very awkward."

The girl's dark eyes rested wonderingly on her companion's face. She
puzzled over her words for some minutes in silence, and then said,--

"But, madame, it surely is no disgrace to be a singer at the Opera, and
this lady looked an aristocrate au bout des ongles, I am sure.
Why do you say she is not a proper person?"

"Simply because she is not received. She was a famous singer,
but scandalized herself by making an error--one of those faux pas
society cannot excuse. She is no longer received; her place has been
supplied, and she has, in fact, lost her footing, and will never be
able to regain it again. Don't ask any more questions about her,
Vivienne; these topics are not for a young girl to discuss." And the
countess settled herself back on her cushions with an expression of
virtuous disdain that did her infinite credit.

Vivienne felt pained and grieved without knowing why.

"An opera singer," that was what she longed to be--the career above
all others she deemed most enchanting, most enviable; and Blanche had
sneeringly described this beautiful singer as "not a proper person!"

She tried to imagine some motive for such a verdict, but she could
think of nothing; and, strange to say, her sympathies were more
with the beautiful woman stigmatized as "not proper" than with her
detractor; for Vivienne could not quite fathom the nature of her
protectress, and it was so opposite in every respect to her own,
that there could be but little sympathy between them. The caprice
of her manner, the mockery of all pure and simple impulses, the
inconsistencies of character so marked and so self-evident, were all
painful and incomprehensible to Vivienne. Sometimes she fancied that
the restlessness and caprices of the countess must proceed from a heart
ill at ease, mind dissatisfied, a spirit burdened with the pain of a
hidden memory, the weight of past sorrows, or the secrets of other
years.

Her coquetry and heartlessness were also antagonistic to Vivienne's
lofty creeds of woman's purity and single-mindedness, but she strove to
think no ill of her. She told herself how much gratitude she owed her;
how she had promised gran'mère on her death-bed that she would abide by
the counsels and follow the advice of her new guardian, even as she had
done her own; but Vivienne knew that what was done from duty was very
different from the service prompted by love alone; and, knowing this,
she felt that Blanche de Verdreuil could never win from her a tithe of
the devotion, respect, and affection which the poor simple-minded old
peasant had won. The one had given, out of her poverty and necessity,
such full and perfect measure of love and fidelity as the other could
never render out of her abundance. For the faith of the heart is worth
a million protestations, or benefits showered down at our feet by those
to whom it is no sacrifice to bestow the one, or the other.




CHAPTER III.--"THE IDOL OF MY YOUTH."


"Behold her there
As I beheld her ere she knew my heart,
My first, last love, the idol of my youth."
....Tennyson.


IN the full clear warmth of the noon-day, while the spring sunshine lit
up the grey towers at Renonçeux, and sparkled on the new opened buds
and tender leaves, a carriage drove up the broad gravelled drive, and
stopped at the entrance of the château. The door was thrown hastily
open, and Raoul de Verdreuil, all bronzed and dusty with his long,
swift journey back to Lorraine, alighted, and ran up the broad steps
with eager impatience visible in his face.

"The family were all in Paris,"--that was the first news he heard in
answer to his inquiries.

An exclamation of impatience fell from Raoul's lips.

"Monsieur Hoffmann--was he not at Renonçeux, then?"

"Oh, yes! monsieur was in the music-room. Should he announce Monsieur
le Comte's arrival?" asked the footman.

"No; don't trouble," said Raoul carelessly. "I will go and seek him
myself; meantime see to my luggage and take it to my room."

The man bowed and turned to assist the young count's valet, while his
master walked on through the quiet galleries and deserted rooms on
his way to the music-gallery at the farthest end of the château. As
he stood outside the heavy velvet doors, he paused to listen for the
familiar sound of the organ; but all was silent, and, half doubting
whether Albert was really there, he opened the door and went in quietly.

One rapid glance showed him his friend. He was sitting at the organ,
but not playing; his arms rested on the key-board, and his head was
bent forward on his hands. There was something in the weary grace of
the slight figure so expressive of dejection that Raoul's heart gave a
swift throb of fear. Had anything happened, he wondered.

He crossed the oak floor lightly, and stood beside him. Albert started
at the touch on his arm, and, seeing who it was, gave a cry of
astonishment and delight.

"Why, Raoul, is it really you? Dear old fellow, how glad I am to see
you! But what a surprise! Why did you not write to me?"

"Three questions in as many seconds!" said his friend, laughing. "How
am I to answer them all? Yes, it is really myself. I was summoned back
from Turin suddenly, and, of course, being in Paris, I came down here
as soon as possible. I find, however, the château deserted except by
you--you solitary hermit. When did they go to Paris, Albert?"

"Only yesterday morning. You have just missed each other; what a pity!
But you won't go back just yet, Raoul, will you? I am so dull here now,
and you will have so much to tell me of all that you have been doing
these two years past. How well you look, Raoul, only so brown, and let
me see--older--yes, certainly older. You don't carry your years so well
as you ought to do, in my opinion at least."

Raoul de Verdreuil laughed carelessly. "I suppose not, but what does it
matter after all? Besides, you see me at a disadvantage. I have been
travelling all night, and have not even waited to remove the stains
and dust of my long journey before coming to see you. That reminds me,
though, I have not been able to get a good look at you yet; just come
out of that shadowy corner now, and let me see what these two years
have done for you."

Albert laughed and obeyed, colouring still with the old boyish
bashfulness, as the searching eyes of his friend met his own. He was
changed, Raoul saw; taller certainly, but the slight figure had still
the same delicate, shrinking appearance that was so inexpressibly
painful to him; he would have liked to see it with more vigour, more
strength apparent in its youthful proportions; but the face was still
the same frank, guileless face as of old, only the smooth brow bore now
many lines of care, and the clear deep-blue eyes had the faint shadow
of pain or longing in their depths. What had changed him? Involuntarily
Raoul's hand tightened its grasp on his shoulder, and his eyes looked
pained as he spoke out his thoughts.

"Albert, this won't do; either you have been working too hard or
something has been troubling you, and you have kept it from me. Tell
me, what is it?"

The face before him flushed a hot dusky red, and for the first time in
his life Albert answered his friend pettishly, almost angrily,--

"What absurd nonsense, Raoul! nothing of the kind has happened. I
assure you I am perfectly well and happy, and, as far as work is
concerned, I have been very lazy the last twelve months. I have
scarcely written anything."

Raoul de Verdreuil shook his head. "You can't deceive me, so don't try;
but I don't wish to force your confidence; you shall tell me just what
you please about yourself, and I will ask no more questions. Now let me
go and make myself a more presentable figure, and then we will have a
stroll through the park after lunch is over. I confess my journey has
given me an appetite."

So, lightly turning the conversation off, he passed his arm through
that of his friend, and they left the room together; but Raoul felt
hurt at this first restraint--this first appearance of withheld
confidence on the part of Albert. It was so new, so unusual for the
boy to be in any way reserved or cold to him, and in his heart crept
a faint anger--a sudden indignation as he whispered to himself this
change was the work of a woman--the woman who had come between him and
his friend's love--whose power was now greater than his own. But he
would not let Albert see how pained and hurt he was; he chatted and
laughed so gaily and freely that no suspicion entered the boy's mind of
the real cause of that assumed gaiety; far less did the thought cross
him that those few impatient words had bared to Raoul's eyes the secret
of his own changed looks, his restless, feverish manner, his sudden
fits of depression at one moment, alternating with the forced and
unnatural merriment he assumed at other times.

They talked of many things--of Raoul's travels, of the countries he had
visited, the sights he had seen; but of one subject Albert would not
speak, and that was of Vivienne St. Maurice; he was so shy and reticent
about her, that his friend hardly liked to press his own curiosity
on his notice, though he longed to hear about the new inmate of the
château.

All through that afternoon, while they strolled through the park and
visited all the old familiar spots they both had loved since their
boyhood, Albert evidently avoided any but the merest allusions to
Vivienne. He talked freely enough of the countess and her increasing
love of gaiety and amusement; her dislike to anything in the shape of
quiet or retirement; of how, when she was not in Paris, the château was
always filled with guests; and her extravagance and recklessness were
the theme of wonder to the whole country round.

A dark shadow rested on Raoul's brow as he listened to this, and his
lips curled with mingled scorn and contempt.

"I wonder my father allows it," he said bitterly; "surely he has still
some authority in his own hands, and such a life can scarcely be
pleasant to him now. Do you know, Albert," he continued sadly, "that
during these two years of absence I have only heard from him once? and
he used to write to me so often before--before this marriage."

"I think you ought to look after your own interests more than you do,
Raoul," said his friend; "I have heard more than one of the visitors
here remark on your long, strange absence, and say, too, how great an
influence the countess is acquiring over her husband; and I wish you
would remember too, Raoul, how much power is vested in your father's
hands--how a wily and skilful enemy could injure you. When you see the
count again, you will be able to understand my meaning better. He is
more infatuated about his wife, more blind to her faults than ever; his
mind is not so clear, nor his health so good as they were two years
ago, and I think, if I were you, Raoul, I would not leave Renonçeux
again for so long as you have just done."

"It seems to me, mon cher, that you have managed to pick up some
worldly wisdom too, in these years of my absence," said Raoul, laughing
a little, though the anxiety in his eyes deepened at the words he had
heard; "however,"--he went on speaking more earnestly now--"however,
it appears to me that it is indeed necessary to see for myself how
the land lies; and I think, after resting here a day or two, I shall
go up to Paris and pay my respects to the fair countess, while I keep
my eyes open to her tactics at the same time. And has she taken this
protégée of hers up with her too?"

"Mademoiselle St. Maurice has gone for the first time to Paris," said
Albert, flushing like a girl, in spite of his efforts at self-control.
"The countess is going to introduce her, I believe. She has been
talking about doing so for the last twelve months; but Vivienne did not
seem to care about it; however, at last she went, and----"

"Is now fascinating all Paris, I suppose?" interrupted Raoul, smiling.
"But what a wonderful young lady she must be not to care about
the delights of the great world! I thought all girls were, as a rule,
quite elated at the bare idea of mixing with all the follies and
gaieties of social life--of tasting the glories of conquests and the
sweets of dissipation."

"Oh! but Vivienne is so unlike all other girls," cried Albert eagerly,
his tongue at last unloosed on this delicious subject, and his previous
restraint and bashfulness forgotten in his desire to proclaim the
marvellous perfections of his divinity. "She is so coy and proud, so
lovely, yet so perfectly unconscious of her loveliness; so gifted,
yet so humble in her opinion of her own genius. I think, in the whole
world, there lives not another woman who could equal Vivienne St.
Maurice."

"You make me feel quite anxious to see this wonder of the nineteenth
century," said Raoul, subduing his mocking tones out of consideration
for Albert's enthusiasm. "A girl who is beautiful, yet not vain;
gifted, yet humble; shy, yet proud; poor and of no pretensions, yet
graceful and dignified as any aristocrat in the world of fashion; truly
she must be a marvel, Albert, if she is all you say she is."

"I cannot say one half of it," cried Albert, with a strange, sudden
despair in his glad young voice, "I can only worship her as the fairest
vision that ever haunted a poet's dreams, or made the world below the
Elysium they have painted it."

Raoul was silent for a moment; then he turned to his friend with the
old, caressing grace, so sweet and rare with him.

"Dear Albert! if, indeed, she be all this, I shall not grudge her your
love, although I look upon her as my first rival in your heart now."

The fair boyish face coloured with glad surprise, and the blue eyes, so
clear and guileless in their happy youth, looked up as lovingly as ever
at the dark grave face above them.

"No one could rival you, Raoul; surely you know that without my
telling it. It is true this new love has crept upon me unawares; how, I
cannot say, but I keep it a secret from all; from her most of all:
for she does not even guess its existence."

"If you have not told her, she certainly cannot know; but it seems to
me, Albert, that her very reluctance to go to Paris shows there was
some strong attraction at Renonçeux, and what could that be but
yourself?"

Albert shook his head.

"We will not speak of it any more, Raoul," he said sadly; "I do not
think it interests you, and it pains me a little."

A little! There was sharpest torture in Vivienne's name now--now that
she had gone from his side, and he could only picture her lovely and
courted and happy, dazzling all eyes--bewildering all hearts as she had
dazzled and bewildered his--the centre of every gaiety and pleasure
that could fascinate and draw her heart from its quiet, peaceful
memories of him, from the solitude and penance he was enduring from
day to day--the solitude born of his own vain love and her absence.

"It does interest me," said Raoul gently; "pray don't think that
because I have so often mocked at love and called it folly, that I
cannot feel for you now. But believe me, Albert, you despair too soon;
you have kept your feelings a close secret, and yet you fancy the girl
does not return them. You must be a bolder wooer if you wish to win
a woman's heart. You will see, if I am not mistaken very much, that
Vivienne will come back to Renonçeux unharmed by the gay world after
all, and true to her first champion still. Absence is the truest test
of love, you know, and absence will teach her the value of a love and a
heart so loyal and steadfast as yours, Albert."

Albert looked up with such fervent hope in his eyes, that Raoul felt
more than repaid for his words, though they were spoken more to cheer
his friend than because he himself believed them. The ice once broken,
however, Albert forgot his reticence and even his unwillingness to
discuss the subject, and poured out his love-tale from beginning to
end in Raoul's ears. To any one else Raoul would have listened with
ill-concealed impatience, and no small amount of scorn; but to Albert
he gave such patient attention, such perfect sympathy as could only
spring from friendship long and close and true as that friendship of
theirs had been, as could only exist with love that loves at all
times--the love of one man for another, when "it passes the love of
women."

Such friendships are rare indeed; but when they exist they form a bond
so close, so deep, that neither trial, nor absence, nor death itself
can ever again unsever it.

The hours passed swiftly enough now all coldness and restraint had
vanished, and the old brotherly cordiality revived again, undisturbed
by any doubts, unshadowed by any clouds, and the cheery words of his
friend made the young artist's heart more hopeful, and taught him to
look with braver trust and manlier courage into the future before him.

Day after day passed, and still Raoul de Verdreuil lingered at
Renonçeux. Albert clung to him so eagerly, and shrank with such evident
pain from the idea of his leaving him to his solitude again, that he
stayed on until days lapsed into weeks, and the visit to Paris was
still postponed. One day Albert met him with a face of eager delight
and intense excitement.

"Look here, Raoul," he said; "Vivienne has written to me at last!
such a long, delightful letter! but you shall read it yourself if you
please; and you are right, really right, Raoul. She does not forget
Renonçeux; she thinks of it always. Amidst the gaiety and pleasure
and constant excitement of her new life--amidst all the wonder and
delights of Paris--she says, 'Ah, Albert, I was happier in the dear old
music-room with you than I am now!'"

"Oh, 'young lord lover,' how foolish you are!" said Raoul, laughing at
his excitement. "No, don't offer it to me; those pages of enchantment,
as you deem them, are simply four closely-written sheets of feminine
calligraphy which I don't care about deciphering at present. I would
rather have my breakfast, shocking as the confession appears; but
I won't object to your telling me as much as you please about your
inamorata's confessions, if it's any relief to your feelings to do
so--only spare me the tender bits, there's a good fellow! Now fire
away!"

"Really, Raoul, you are too bad," said his friend, half-laughing; "I
have a great mind not to tell you anything about the letter at all; it
will just serve you right."

"It won't distress me very much, I fear," said Raoul philosophically;
"women's letters are all very much alike, I know. Read me the
postscript, though; that's sure to be something worth hearing."

"There isn't one," said Albert triumphantly "I told you she was
different from most girls; am I not right!"

"You're joking, I know," said Raoul, proceeding with his breakfast in
his usual leisurely fashion; "a woman write a letter without a P.S.!
Impossible!"

"For most women, perhaps," said Albert, proud that his divinity had not
even one failing for Raoul to discover as yet. "But she tells me in
this last page----"

"You're sure it's not in the P.S.?" interrupted Raoul.

"No, you unbeliever, you may look for yourself if you like. She tells
me here that the countess is going to give a costume ball or masked
ball at her hotel, half the elite of Paris will be there. There has
been a grand debate on the subject of costumes, and Vivienne is going
to appear as 'Elaine.'"

"Why not her namesake, 'Vivien the Enchantress'?" said Raoul
carelessly. "I'll be bound she would work her spells on many a Merlin
there before the evening was over."

"Oh, Raoul!" cried Albert, pained and shocked at such irreverent
mention of his lady-love, "how can you suggest such a character for one
so young and innocent as Vivienne? If you were only to see her once,
you would know how impossible----"

"It would be for me to fall in love with her--eh, Albert? Yes, dear old
fellow, I know all that. We won't have the rhapsodies just yet, please.
Go on with the letter."

"It does interest you for all your mockery, I see," said Albert,
beginning to peruse his precious document again. "Where was I? Oh, I
see! 'Elaine.' Well, she says, 'The Countess de Verdreuil decided on
this, and she is going to appear as Guinevere'"--(" Trust Blanche for
making the most of herself," growled Raoul in an undertone)--"'and she
wishes the count to be King Arthur.'"

"Now, by Jove! this is too bad," cried Raoul, springing to his feet;
"making my father go in for all this mummery at his time of life. What
can the woman be thinking of? My dear boy," he continued more calmly,
"I shall have to go to Paris and look after him myself. Masked balls at
seventy years of age! Why, she will want him to dance a hornpipe for
her guests' amusement next. Well, what more foolery follows this?"

"'The countess thought it would be a good idea to have the whole of
King Arthur's court represented,'" continued Albert, reading on, "'so
we shall have Sir Tristam and Sir Bedivere, and Galahad and Percival,
and Lancelot du Lac, who is to be impersonated by the Marquis d'Orvâl,
the reigning star of fashion here, as Blanche is always informing me,
and in my opinion one of the most conceited and effeminate dandies in
all Paris. His anxiety about his costume was worthy of any woman, and
he and Blanche took three days to agree about it. What do you think
it is to be? A baldric (whatever that may be) of black velvet studded
with gold and gems, chain armour, and mantle of cloth of gold, fastened
on one shoulder; a shield--blank--and a helmet encrusted with gold
and precious stones. This is considered the appropriate costume for
this valiant and far-famed knight. He is very handsome, this Marquis
d'Orvâl, and I daresay will look very well. I asked him if he did not
think it would be inconvenient to dance in his warlike garb of shield
and helmet and breastplate, but he said he would of course lay aside
these appendages then; still I think the mantle will be in his way,
unless he persuades his partner to envelope herself in its cumbersome
folds. How funny that would look, wouldn't it?"

"Well, any more?" asked Raoul, as Albert paused and looked up.

"I thought you would not care to hear it," said Albert a little
mischievously.

"Oh! now we come to sentiment, I suppose? Well, you can miss that and
go on to the next paragraph. Does she say when this ball is to come
off?"

"No. Stay--yes; here is some more about it again: 'The bal masqué
is to take place on the 25th'--that's three days from this, Raoul--'
and I am looking forward to it eagerly, as it will be my first. I have
only been to the opera and to two or three quiet parties as yet, but I
am to come out really on this occasion. I wish you could see my dress,
Albert. But there, I don't suppose you would understand it if you did.
I will only tell you it is pure white entirely, and my only ornaments
will be white flowers. Shall I look like the "lily maid," do you
think?'"

"There stop, for goodness' sake," cried Raoul. "Spare me all those
feminine hints about dress. Your ideal is very human and very like a
woman after all; those last sentences were as good as a P.S."

Albert folded up his letter and put it carefully away in the
breast-pocket of his velvet morning coat.

"Laugh away as much as you like now," he said composedly. "As long as
she has not forgotten me, I don't mind your making fun of us."

"And I haven't time to do it either," said Raoul, rising from the
table. "Now to study these trains out. Just ring the bell for me
Albert, and tell Felix to pack my valise. I must be off to Paris by the
next train. I suppose you won't come with me?"

"No," he answered half-doubtfully, half-shrinkingly, as though the
suggestion pleased and pained him at one and the same moment. "No; I
think not, Raoul, much as I should like it for some things; perhaps it
is best for me to stay here. Shall you stop long?"

"It all depends on how I find things going on," said Raoul, turning to
give his instructions to the servant who just entered.

"I suppose you'll see me off, Albert?" he continued presently, as the
man left the room to prepare the carriage, and, receiving a ready
affirmation, he went off to hasten the preparations for his instant
departure. A very short time elapsed before both the young men were
driving rapidly down to the station a mile distant from the château;
and in a few minutes from the time of his arrival there, Raoul was
whirling off to Paris as fast as the train could take him. There was a
look of suppressed excitement on his face very unusual for it to wear,
and he laughed once outright, as if some inward thought amused him.

"A capital plan!" he said half-aloud in the solitude of his
compartment. "Not much time to manage it, though. I must remember the
costume exactly. Black velvet, cloth of gold, helmet, and shield. Ha!
ha! it will be a comedy in real life, and enable me to penetrate into
certain little mysteries as well;" and he leant back on the seat and
gave vent to a burst of hearty and genuine laughter.

The train dashed on through fair bright villages, past budding
vineyards, and blossoming orchards, never stopping on its way to the
great capital; and Raoul de Verdreuil, scarcely noting the beauty of
the fair spring landscape around, only stretched himself full length
on his carriage-seat, and dwelt thoughtfully on a plan which he had
decided upon executing--a plan fired in his brain by a few chance words
in Vivienne St. Maurice's letter.




CHAPTER IV.--THE "BAL MASQUE."


"The sun has set,
And in the lighted halls the guests are met;
The beautiful look'd lovelier in the light
Of love and admiration and delight.
. . How many meet who never yet have met,
To part too soon, but never to forget.
How many saw the beauty, power, and wit
Of looks and words which ne'er enchanted yet."
.... Shelley.


"OF course you are going to the bal masqué to-night, d'Orvâl?"

The speaker, a dashing young attaché, had just finished a last game of
ecarté with the marquis; and now, under the glitter of light and warmth
which shone on all the luxuries and elegance the mirrors and consoles,
the dazzling array of silver and glass in d'Orvâl's sumptuous rooms,
they sat smoking and chatting together of all the social and political
affaires then interesting the Parisian world.

"Oh, yes; that's a long-standing promise of mine," answered d'Orvâl,
as he languidly wiped his long sweeping moustaches after a draught of
Chambertin; "but that needn't hurry you off Clermont. There's plenty of
time before I start to finish our discussion."

"The 'new beauty' is to come out to-night, isn't she?" pursued
Clermont. "I believe you have seen her pretty frequently, d'Orvâl, but
we less fortunate mortals have only been tantalized by chance glimpses
now and then. I suppose the countess wants to enhance the value of
her ward by giving her the additional attraction of inaccessibility.
However, I have heard so much about her that I almost wish I was going
to-night to judge of her charms for myself. I have only seen her at a
distance hitherto."

"Come with me, if you like," said d'Orvâl; "I am sufficiently ami de
la maison to bring any one I choose."

"But every one is to go in costume, and I have nothing ready," said
the attaché; "and I have two other balls to appear at to-night--places
where I must go. No, d'Orvâl, I fear I must decline your offer,
tempting as it is. But that reminds me what is your dress to be--is it
a secret?"

"Well, it was till now," said the marquis, "but as the time's up, I
don't mind telling you. I am going to have the most original costume of
the evening, Clermont; there won't be another like it--I know that for
a fact."

("Like your confounded conceit to think so," thought Victor Clermont
to himself). "Well, and what's this wonderful costume to be?" he asked
aloud.

"That of Sir Lancelot du Lac, King Arthur's famous knight," was the
answer. "My costumier declared that there would not be such another
dress in all Paris, and I made him solemnly promise not to describe it
to any one."

"But what's it to be such a secret for?" asked his friend; "you're not
going to meet a band of conspirators in Blanche de Verdreuil's salons,
are you?"

"Now, don't be absurd, Victor; of course not; but we are all to be
masked till supper time, and of course I don't want every one to know
who I am."

"Except Blanche herself, or the lovely ward; which is the attraction,
eh, d'Orvâl, or is that a secret too?"

"Women have deuced little attraction for me," said the marquis,
rising, and glancing conceitedly at his handsome figure in the opposite
mirror. "No--you needn't leave yet, Victor. I must go and dress, but
Willoughby and Sainte-Claire will be here directly, and they'll keep
you company for half an hour."

"Very well, then, I'll wait and see you adorned for the fray--for
it won't be armed, I suppose?" said Victor Clermont, laughing, and
settling himself comfortably back in his chair again, when he devoted
himself to his cigar and a new novel, till the entrance of two of
d'Orvâl's friends who were to accompany him to the ball disturbed his
solitude for the time.

"Look! here comes our peerless knight," cried the Vicomte Sainte-Claire
as d'Orvâl entered at last. "By Jove, Léon, you look the character to
the life. What a magnificent get up!"

"He says there won't be another like it there to-night," said Victor
Clermont. "I believe you're right, too, d'Orvâl. It does you infinite
credit. But now I suppose I must be off to take my turn at the
tread-mill. How it all bores one after the first season to be sure!"

"True enough, but what would those poor women do without us?" said
d'Orvâl conceitedly. "Of course it is only for their sakes we sacrifice
our own inclinations so continually. They ought to be much more
grateful than they are. I'm sure."

"Society expects every man to do his duty," said Lionel Willoughby, who
belonged to the British Legation, and as a rule was out every night of
his life, and attended half a dozen balls in an evening; "and precious
stiff work the duty is, generally speaking. Well, d'Orvâl, I see you
are growing impatient, so we'll be off. Au revoir, mon ami,"
he said, turning to Clermont; "I go to attend our peerless knight to
fields of conquests and of victory. I wonder who is to number the
slain, though, Léon?" he added, laughing, as he followed d'Orvâl down
the broad staircase to his carriage. "How many Elaines will languish
and pine away from this night forward, do you think?"

The face of the young marquis flushed a dusky red, and he turned
hastily aside to give some directions to his servants without
vouchsafing any answer. Did he think of the "Elaine" he was so soon to
meet--the beautiful girl who had already piqued and fascinated him more
than any woman he had ever seen?

Whether he thought of her or not, his manner was unusually distrait
and absent during the drive to the Countess de Verdreuil's hotel in the
Faubourg St. Germain; and when he at last alighted there and entered
the magnificent salons where Blanche had assembled half the wealth
and rank of Paris to grace her ball, his first glance was not for
Guinevere, but Elaine.

It was already late, and the rooms were crowded with maskers in every
gay and fanciful costume imaginable.

Kings, queens, knights, pages; flower-girls, peasants--every
nationality and every rank in life seemed represented there. Dominoes
of every colour, glittering with jewels and spangled with gold and
silver, shone in an incessant dazzling array, and amidst the blaze of
light, the gleam of jewels, the flutter of bright-hued ribbons, the
glow of rare flowers, the marquis looked in vain for the pure white
robes and exquisite form of Vivienne St. Maurice.

In all that crowd, laughing, jesting--waylaying him every moment and
arresting his steps at every turn, his progress was necessarily slow,
and some time elapsed before he could make his way to the Countess
de Verdreuil's side. Taking advantage of her position as hostess,
and prompted as much by vanity as anything else, Blanche wore no
mask; and when the marquis reached her she was in one of the smaller
reception-rooms, surrounded by a crowd of admirers, all bending towards
her with the homage and flattery she loved so well, and never wearied
of inspiring.

Lovely as Blanche was, she had never appeared to greater advantage than
on this night, and d'Orvâl paused a moment ere he spoke to her, as if
taking in the whole faultless perfection of face and figure, set off as
they were by the exquisite hues of her dress.

The glittering masses of her hair, the soft rose-flush of excitement
on her cheek, the languid lustre of her eyes--all made her dangerously
lovely at that moment; and when she turned and greeted the marquis
(whom she recognised immediately by his dress) with a shower of
playful raillery for his late attendance on his liege lady, he forgot
the object of his search for the time being, and lingered beside her
instead.

Presently, however, growing weary of the whispers and mockery and
repartee around, he bent down to Blanche and asked where Vivienne was.

"Dancing, I believe," was the careless answer. "She has hardly been
beside me a moment the whole evening. But if you wish to claim her,
monsieur, you will soon be able to find her, as, like myself, she is
unmasked. I wish you would bring her back, in fact, as, now that you
have arrived, I wish to arrange that costume quadrille we agreed upon."

The marquis was in no way unwilling to depart on his quest, having
first, however, as in duty bound, engaged the countess as his partner
in the forthcoming dance. Then he once more took his way through the
crowd of dominoes, violet and grey, rose and black, amber and blue and
scarlet, searching among them all for that pure white dress of the Lily
Maid of Astolat, yet still unsuccessful in his endeavours to find it or
its fair wearer.

Meanwhile Vivienne St. Maurice had entered upon this the first real
gaiety of her life with feelings of unalloyed delight and intense
excitement. It seemed to her more like a scene in fairyland than
anything in real life. The blaze of light, the moving kaleidoscope
of colour, the infinite variety of costume, the dazzling array of
jewels, and fluttering rosettes, and bright eyes gleaming through the
envious masks--all combined to make a picture at once bewildering and
enchanting. As she stood leaning on her partner's arm in the pause of a
waltz she had been dancing, there were few who could help gazing at the
fair guileless face, so naive and innocent, so thoroughly incapable of
hiding its own pleasure and enjoyment in the scene around.

She was beset on all sides by claims on her attention, by entreaties
for every dance; and she answered them all with such exquisite grace,
such serene unconsciousness of her own unsurpassed attractions, that it
was no wonder if even calm, astute men, habituated to every description
of female loveliness, felt that in her presence there was a charm more
piquant and irresistible, than in the finished graces and polished wit
of women of the world. It was the charm of innocence, the unsullied
purity of a sweet and shadowless youth with the dawning consciousness
of womanhood just touching it into graver thoughts and deeper
earnestness.

At the conclusion of one of the dances Vivienne became conscious of
the close and eager scrutiny of a masker leaning negligently against
the archway of the dancing-saloon. Looking at him again as she passed,
she recognised the costume of the Marquis d'Orvâl. The velvet suit,
the armour like a network of finest silver, the mantle of cloth of
gold, the shining helmet--yes, she could not be mistaken; and as the
dark eyes gleamed through the velvet mask and met her own, she saw the
recognition in their gaze, and acknowledged his low and reverential bow
with a graceful bend of her head.

Evidently encouraged by her salute, the knight advanced, and in low and
eager tones besought her to dance with him. Vivienne hesitated for a
moment, and then remembering she had promised him the first dance for
which he asked on this evening, she accepted his proffered arm, and
they both returned to the ball-room again.

"You are a late arrival, monsieur," said Vivienne presently. "I thought
you would have been here long ago."

"I was detained unexpectedly," he answered; and something in the
voice struck Vivienne as being unfamiliar, for she turned and looked
scrutinizingly at her companion.

"Oh, indeed!" she said carelessly; "was your costumier unpunctual after
all? I must really congratulate you on the success of your instructions
to him, monsieur; the idea has been carried out remarkably well."

"Do you think so?" he said; and Vivienne wondered again that the
complacent self-satisfied tones of the conceited young marquis could be
so careless and indifferent on a subject which had hitherto appeared so
all-important. "I am glad it pleases you, Mademoiselle St. Maurice; and
how comes it you wear no mask to-night? I thought it was compulsory on
every guest?"

"Yes, but the countess and myself are exempt from the necessity,"
said Vivienne. "You know, monsieur, as this is her ball, she thought
she could not very well receive her guests masked, and so she made me
appear without one also; but I mean to wear mine presently. I think it
must be so much more amusing; and I have gone through all the necessary
introductions now."

"Mask yourself before we dance," said her companion eagerly. "Do,
mademoiselle; you will not have to bear the scrutiny of these
innumerable pairs of eyes around you."

"Very well," said Vivienne, laughing; "but I must go into this
anteroom, monsieur, to adjust it. Will you wait for me?"

"Certainly," he said, in those low, courteous tones which puzzled
Vivienne. They were so different to the languid utterances of the
Marquis d'Orvâl generally.

"I suppose, though, he has a different manner in society; and he
has no one to whom he can show off his airs and graces just now,"
she said to herself as she passed into a small anteroom, which was
completely deserted now. She adjusted her mask, laughing a little at
the extraordinary change it made in her appearance.

"What a pity my dress is so well known!" she thought, as she looked at
herself before leaving the room. "It would be ever so much nicer if no
one could tell who I was. Oh! what is this?" she exclaimed half aloud,
as she saw lying on a couch near her a sky-blue domino embroidered
with silver. "I have a great mind to put this on for a little while. I
wonder if Blanche will be very angry with me?" She paused doubtfully;
then with a merry laugh she seized the domino, and in another instant
was transformed from her original appearance entirely.

"I'm afraid it's naughty of me," she thought, still smiling at the
transformation, "but it will be such fun; even Blanche won't know me
now, and I can soon take it off and put it back here again when I've
done with it." So, hesitating no longer, she left the room, and joined
the knight, who was waiting for her outside the door.

"I wonder if he will recognise me?" she said; "I think I shall try. I
will speak to him in Italian."

"Alone and solitary, Sir Knight?" she said, in the liquid tones of her
native tongue. "What do you in silent thought amidst a scene so gay?"

He started slightly, and answered abstractedly. "I am waiting for my
liege lady to appear. I have sworn attendance upon her for this night,
and therefore the scene has no attractions without her presence."

A laugh, so sweet and clear and musical, fell on his ears, that he
looked at his companion in astonishment.

"Don't you know me, Monsieur le Marquis?" she said; "I really did not
think I could deceive you so easily."

"Elaine herself, transformed into a new character!" he exclaimed,
offering her his arm, and smiling at her evident enjoyment of the
trick. "You did it very well, mademoiselle; I never suspected you for a
moment."

"I hope the countess won't be angry with me," said Vivienne more
gravely. "But every one knows my dress by this time, and I wanted to
be inconnue for a little while, like every one else. If she scolds
me, monsieur, you must take my part and make my excuses. I feel in such
wild spirits to-night, that I really cannot keep in remembrance all the
instructions she gave me about my behaviour."

"Surely she might have trusted your own sense and judgment more," said
her companion; "I do not think Mademoiselle St. Maurice would ever
transgress any code of social observance."

"Ah, you don't know me, you see!" she answered, shaking her head with
a pretty gravity that made him smile. "I assure you monsieur, if I had
my way, I should transgress all these odious rules and convenances,
which I am so weary of hearing about, every moment--I should indeed. I
like to have perfect freedom of thought and action--to do just what I
please the moment I want to do it, without stopping to think what every
one will say if I do it. You are very much shocked, are you not?
None of your modern young ladies, fresh from their convent walls, and
regulating all their words and actions by the rules laid down for them,
would ever proclaim such sentiments as these, would they?"

"I suppose not," said her companion.

"Don't say suppose," she exclaimed half pettishly; "you know it very
well, only you don't like to tell me so. I wish I could find any one
who would speak out exactly what they thought, and not clothe it in
ambiguous phrases; but I suppose that's not one of the rules laid down
in your great world, is it, Monsieur d'Orvâl?"

"Indeed, no," he said gravely. "I hardly think it would do either,
mademoiselle. We should always be quarrelling with each other, and
offending each other irrevocably. You would find that out very soon."

"I should not care," she answered, turning her eyes, as soft and liquid
as a child's, to meet his own as they flashed through his mask. "If I
offended any one by speaking the truth, I should think they must be
very weak and foolish, and scarcely worth the trouble of telling it to."

"A sweeping denunciation!" he said lightly. "Should you like every one
to speak the exact truth to you, mademoiselle; always, even when
they told you what they thought of you?"

"Of course I should," she answered, looking at him again with those
serene, child-like eyes, so shadowless and calm as yet, so innocent of
any concealment, so devoid of any fear.

"The tale would be too flattering, even then," he said gently.
"Ah, mademoiselle! you are right; truth could never harm or offend
you--you have nothing to fear from it; but there are few, if any, in
the world around to whom it would be either welcome or pleasant, and
therefore it has gradually become extinct in fashionable life, and is
tabooed from polite circles as an undesirable acquaintance. But we must
take our places now, mademoiselle; the music has begun."

During the dance there was little opportunity for conversation, but
when it was over the knight and his companion joined the crowd of
promenaders, and Vivienne had the pleasure of seeing the effect of her
disguise, as she escaped all the scrutiny and attention to which she
had been hitherto subjected.

"You think balls very enjoyable, do you not?" said her companion
presently; "a fairyland of enjoyment, where all the mirth is innocent,
and all the pleasure real; where no such things as heartaches and
sorrows, passions or intrigues, dare show themselves; where pleasure
reigns alone; where the roses bloom with no canker at their core, and
fair faces smile with no secret gnawing at their hearts? Am I not
right?"

"I do think so to-night," she said softly. "Don't destroy the illusion,
if it is one, by any cynical observations. I shall learn the real
nature of these things soon enough, I suppose; but it is very pleasant
to look on them now and believe every one is as happy as they seem."

"How I envy you!" he said softly. "I would give a great deal to be able
to feel the same--to look upon life with that freshness of feeling,
that child-like belief, which never dreams of the evil below the
surface--of the canker at the core of all such pleasures as these."

"You speak very gloomily," said Vivienne, laughing gaily in her own
innocent mirth and thorough disbelief of what he said. "For such a
votary of fashion as yourself to give vent to such sentiments as
these seems to me like rank heresy. Why do you pursue these pleasures
so untiringly, if your real opinion of them is what you have just
declared? Your conduct and ideas seem to me strikingly inconsistent,
Monsieur d'Orvâl."

"I do not pursue them untiringly, I assure you," he said, speaking very
earnestly. "I have long been weary of them, and long avoided them; but
still there are times when one is bound to pay some respect to the
demands of society, and the sacrifice to inclination in these instances
is in no way atoned for by the enjoyment derived."

"I could never have believed these were your real sentiments," said
Vivienne, her voice growing puzzled, and her eyes looking wonderingly
at the masked face beside her. Was this--yes, surely it must
be--the Marquis d'Orvâl? and yet how different he was to-night from
all she had ever believed him to be! His languor, his affectation, his
conceit, were all laid aside; he had not paid her a single compliment,
nor given vent to that strain of flattery, which had so wearied and
annoyed her before, whenever she had been in his society.

"Could you not?" he said, laughing carelessly. "Ah, mademoiselle! don't
you know we all wear two faces--one for the world, one for ourselves?
If I have laid aside the first for your sake, it is because I knew you
would prefer truth to falsehood, and I can afford to let you know me as
I am without fear of incurring your mockery, or lowering myself in your
esteem."

"I think it is a great pity you ever wear another," said Vivienne,
with a naive unconsciousness of the flattery in her own words. "Why
should you take the trouble of making every one believe you different
from what you really are? To me it is incomprehensible. The true
character is always preferable to the false, and I should think
you were paying society a very poor compliment by assuming one so
different, and in every way so far below your own."

"You prefer the Marquis d'Orvâl as you have found him to-night, then,
to the same individual he has seemed on other occasions?" inquired her
companion.

The laughing eyes glanced mischievously up at him through the velvet
mask.

"Don't try and make me pay compliments, Monsieur d'Orvâl; that is a
province entirely your own, and one I have no wish to take from you,"
she said. "I am not going to tell you which I prefer: I leave that for
your own ingenuity to discover."

Her companion was silent for a few moments; then he said suddenly,--

"Will you honour me with another waltz, mademoiselle, or am I asking
too great a favour of you?"

"I will give you the next," she said, carelessly; "but there are two
more dances between it."

"Will you not like to rest here a little while, then?" he asked as they
neared the conservatories. "How delightfully cool and beautiful they
look after the heat and noise of the rooms, do they not?"

"They do indeed," she said, drawing her hand from his arm as she spoke,
and wandering idly along through the beautiful groups of flowers
and blossoming shrubs around. "I love flowers so dearly," she added
suddenly, as she bent down over a cluster of scarlet blossoms near her.
"They always remind me of my old home--my beautiful, sunny Italy. These
flowers we have here, though, are not nearly so fine as those in the
conservatories at Renonçeux. Have you ever been there, monsieur? Oh! of
course not; I remember your telling me that when I first met you. It is
such a lovely place; I wish you knew it."

"Why?" he asked quietly.

"Oh, because then I could talk to you about it, of course, and you
would be able to understand my enthusiasm, whereas now the subject
won't interest you at all."

"Oh, you are mistaken, I assure you," he said eagerly, while he thought
to himself how perfectly lovely were those eyes of hers when lit up by
real feeling. "It would interest me greatly to hear about the château.
Have you lived there long?"

"Two years," she said gravely. "The Countess de Verdreuil constituted
herself my sole guardian and protectress on the death of my only
friend; since then I have lived with her entirely."

"And do you prefer the new life to the old?" he asked gently.

She shook her head, while wistful, dreamy shadows deepened in her eyes.

"It is happier in one way," she answered at length. "I suppose I ought
to assert that I do prefer it, without an instant's hesitation: but I
am faithful to old friends and old memories, monsieur, and I have lost
one thing I dearly love by this exchange, and that is----"

"What?" he asked, as she hesitated.

"Surely you know," she said, flashing her bright, beautiful eyes up at
him as he stood beside her; "what all seem to have but those who live
in the purples, and steep their lives in the enervating luxuries of
such a world as this--freedom!"

His eyes glanced from her to the long vista of light and splendour
opening beyond--the dazzling array of gems and jewels, of gorgeous
costumes and priceless dresses, while the far-off swell of the music
sounded sweet and faint to his ears; from thence he looked again at
her--the beautiful girlish figure leaning so gracefully there amidst
the wealth of blossoms, the clustered flowers and gleaming statues.

"Are you, then, so fond of liberty?" he asked. "It is a dangerous thing
for a woman. Believe me, they are safer and better hemmed in by care,
and bound down by rules they dare not infringe, than if their own will
and their own pleasure were the sole laws they acknowledged. Besides,"
he continued, smiling, "if they lose liberty they gain what is worth
far more--power."

"Power!" she said dreamily, as she turned and gazed down into the clear
marble basin of a fountain near her. "What power? A brief one at best,
and one where the intellect is ever subservient to external charms.
Power! There is no real power a woman can wield in this world, because
she dare not move from the beaten track--because she dare not infringe
one of the terrible rules laid down for her by society--because in
her youth she is hampered and trammelled by the guardianship of
conventionality, and in maturity she has sunk her own individuality
into that of another, and formed new bonds that fetter her even more
than the old."

"So young and so wise," he answered, gazing half in surprise at the
girl, whose head was bent so low he could not see those marvellous eyes
which mirrored every feeling in her heart. "What a feminine paradox you
are, mademoiselle! I feel strongly inclined to recant all my previous
doctrines as regards women, and assign you the right of converting me
to your own views."

She moved aside a little impatiently.

"Now you are relapsing into your old ways, monsieur, and I shall
declare you have forfeited my good opinion as soon as it was gained.
Are you going to relapse into your other self again--the one you
informed me you kept for the world? If so, I must request you to take
me back to the Countess de Verdreuil again."

The radiant eyes turned to his face half vexed, half laughing, and,
meeting their gaze, he returned it with one of earnest, yet it seemed
almost reluctant, admiration.

Then he spoke, but with a slight nervous hesitation in his clear
ringing tones.

"Mademoiselle, are you very unforgiving, I wonder? Would your pardon be
difficult to obtain for a transgression, a whim, only undertaken on a
sudden impulse, and that not to gratify mere idle curiosity, but from a
real earnest desire to convince myself of all I had previously heard?"

"What do you mean?" she said, startled and confused by his words, and
speaking in a cold and dignified tone. "You speak in riddles, monsieur,
and I confess I cannot understand your meaning."

"It is simply this," he said gently. "I fear all this time you have
been taking me for some one else; you have addressed me by his name at
all events, and I was unwilling to destroy the illusion just at once,
and----"

"You have taken a very mean advantage of my ignorance, then," she said
haughtily, "and one which I regret extremely. Am I to understand,
then, that you are not the Marquis d'Orvâl? that you are, in fact, a
stranger?"

"Yes."

He made no apology, offered no excuse, and the hot colour dyed the
girl's face beneath her mask, and the beautiful eyes looked very
indignant now.

"I suppose I ought to feel honoured by your entertaining yourself at my
expense?" she said; "I only wonder I did not penetrate the deception
sooner. However, monsieur, as the farce is over, perhaps you will
kindly take me back to the Countess de Verdreuil?"

"You are not offended, are you?" he said earnestly. "Indeed,
mademoiselle, I did not wish to take any advantage of your mistake,
but you seemed so perfectly convinced that I was the Marquis d'Orvâl,
that I could not resist keeping up the delusion a little while; and,
after all, mademoiselle, the domino gives free permission for all such
innocent deceptions as these. It is laissez-faire, laissez-parler
from the moment you assume its disguise, and you have told me no
secrets, and I have taken no other advantage of my success than to
speak as any other stranger might have done."

"It was too bad," said Vivienne gravely; but in the very midst of her
rebuke she gave vent to such a peal of merry, child-like laughter, that
its infection caused her companion to join in it also.

"To think of my calling you Monsieur d'Orvâl!" she said suddenly; "and
how well you kept it up, monsieur! Do people often make these sort of
mistakes at masked balls?"

"Very often," he said, with a smile; "and they don't always end so
harmlessly as ours, mademoiselle; but I hope you are not going to bear
malice against me any longer; say you forgive me, and in token let me
have that dance you promised."

"But I don't think I ought to dance with you after this," said Vivienne
gravely, struggling with a dim sense of outraged propriety, and not at
all sure whether her conduct was quite correct. "You see, monsieur, I
have been all this time under the impression that you were somebody
else, and now I don't know who you are at all."

"Never mind that," he said, laughing; "I am not an ogre,
mademoiselle, and you need not be frightened about transgressing
les convenances, considering you have confessed to me how little
you cared for them. Come, let us have this waltz in token of your
forgiveness."

He offered her his arm, and with a half-shy reluctance she took it,
and walked back with him through the maze of brilliant blossoms and
marble pillars, and silver spray of falling fountains, to the ball-room
where the first strains of the promised waltz were sounding; and as she
floated off into its graceful measure with that strong yet gentle arm
clasping her dainty waist, Vivienne began to wonder dreamily who this
stranger could be.

She was not aware that any hint of the Marquis d'Orvâl's costume had
escaped, yet it could not have been copied so closely as this by chance
alone; and if this was not the true Sir Lancelot, where was he?

In no room had she seen the duplicate of this masker, yet if the
Marquis d'Orvâl were there he would be certain to be attired in a
similar costume, or perhaps he had suddenly changed his mind and
persuaded one of his friends to impersonate Sir Lancelot, and he would
of course be in a dress unknown to her. Yes, this was the most probable
suggestion of all, and, when the waltz was over, Vivienne had become so
assured of her idea being the right one, that she gave a faint start of
surprise as through the archway of the adjoining salon she saw the very
double of her companion advancing towards them.

Height, figure, dress, all were so exactly alike that it was impossible
to tell one from the other. Two Sir Lancelots had evidently chosen
to appear at the ball, and both met now as the groups on either side
parted and made way for the advancing form of the last arrival.




CHAPTER V.--DIAMOND CUT DIAMOND.


VIVIENNE ST. MAURICE watched the approach of the second Lancelot du
Lac with feelings of unmixed amusement. She knew how the Marquis
d'Orvâl had prided himself upon the originality of his idea as to his
costume, and now he found that the carefully-guarded secret had leaked
out in some way or other, for his own dress was copied to the utmost
exactness, and the figure before him might have been taken for the
reflection of his own.

However, he was too much a man of the world to betray his annoyance
by any sign, and passed Vivienne and her companion with a haughty
glance, flashed from the dark eyes which gleamed through his mask with
angry fire and ill-concealed vexation. For an instant Vivienne stood
in expectation of his addressing her; but he passed on immediately,
and only then did she remember her own change of costume, and the mask
which concealed the upper part of her face, leaving only the chin and
throat visible below.

"He does not know you," whispered her companion; "now, mademoiselle,
remove your domino, and let me lead you back to the Countess de
Verdreuil."

Vivienne obeyed immediately. She hastened to the anteroom before
mentioned, and in three minutes came out again unmasked and in her
original attire as the Lily Maid of Astolat. The unknown knight, about
whose identity she was still puzzling herself, gave her his arm, and
together they went back through the crowded rooms to the Countess de
Verdreuil's side.

She greeted them with a pleased smile.

"How quick you have been, monsieur!" she said. "Now, Vivienne, since
you are here, we will have that costume quadrille. I believe my whole
court are present," she continued, looking round.

"All save the king himself," said the knight; then, as Vivienne
released her hand, he whispered entreatingly. "Don't betray me yet,
mademoiselle, I beg of you."

"The king?" said Blanche wonderingly; "what king?"

"King Arthur, of course," was the answer.

"Oh, my husband has long since retired," she said carelessly; "he did
not feel well, and the heat and the noise were too much for him."

Then, giving the signal for the different couples to pair off, she laid
her hand on the knight's arm, and they moved off to the dancing-salon.

It was just midnight, the hour agreed upon for the quadrille, and,
the instant they appeared, the rest of the spectators stood in groups
around to watch the royal party. The magnificent dresses of the
knights and ladies were the object of universal admiration. There were
Guinevere and Lancelot, Elaine and Percival, Tristam and Ysolde, and
others too numerous to mention.

But the face of the Maid of Astolat outshone all others; and yet,
perfect though the face was, it was not half so resistless as the charm
of expression, which lit or shadowed it at intervals--the charm which
lay in every glance of the lovely child-like eyes--in the smiles of the
beautiful arched lips--in all the grace of movement and gesture which
betrayed her southern origin. Even Blanche de Verdreuil's loveliness
could not eclipse that of her ward, nor could the languor and
nonchalance, the ease and dignity, the wit and brilliance which turn
by turn gave their sorcery to the one, vie with that rarer fascination
of grace and purity and serene unconsciousness, which made the chief
attraction of the other.

The one was a woman of the world--polished, brilliant, bewitching--the
other had the guileless youth, the earnest truth, the shadowless purity
of a mind and heart unsullied by taint of worldliness, or knowledge of
evil.

The countess was somewhat surprised at her companion's addressing her
in Italian, but she answered readily, imagining that he chose that
language as it was not so well known to those around.

"I am sorry to hear the Count de Verdreuil is not well. His presence
would have completed our court admirably," he said.

"Oh, there is nothing very serious the matter," said Blanche in the
same careless, indifferent tones she had before used in speaking of her
husband. "Paris never agrees with him--at least he says so--and yet he
will not allow me to come by myself, and he cannot expect me to bury
myself alive in that dismal château of his all the year round. It is
triste enough to spend even three months there, and I am obliged to
sacrifice so much of the year to oblige him; but more than that I will
not do, and I have managed to get my own way in that hitherto."

"You do not like Renonçeux, then?" said her companion; "yet I hear it
is such a charming place, madame."

"Oh, yes, it is well enough now; I have modernized some of the
rooms, and the gardens and conservatories; and when I have plenty of
guests staying with me it is very endurable for a month or two; but I
have no sylvan tastes, monsieur, and I always am happy to leave it."

"You have travelled a great deal, have you not?" he questioned
carelessly. "To one accustomed to a wandering life, with its constant
change and excitement, any settled place of abode is never long
endurable."

"I have travelled--yes," she answered, playing somewhat nervously
with the flowers in her hand. "But not more than others, monsieur, in
these days of rapid locomotion, when a tour round the world is nothing
unusual."

"And do you prefer France to Italy?" he asked.

She glanced quickly up.

"I never told you I had been in Italy," she said, losing for the first
time the negligent self-possession of her ordinary manner.

"Did you not? yet I certainly heard it; if not from yourself, from some
one else. Florence, I think, was the place mentioned."

A hot flush of colour passed over her face.

"It is long ago since I was in Italy; but, of course, I visited all the
cities of any note during my stay. Which of your friends possesses a
memory so excellent, monsieur?"

He laughed: "Oh, one hears so many things about people," he said
carelessly, "that one hardly notices at the time. I cannot remember my
authority at present, madame; but it cannot surely concern you to know
who it was."

"Of course not," she said with ill-concealed nervousness; "only I was
not aware any one would interest themselves about a thing so long past
as my visit to Italy."

"A beautiful woman must ever pay the penalty of her beauty," he said,
speaking low enough for her ears alone to catch the words. "Perhaps
the faithfulness of a memory may not always be convenient to her,
but, nevertheless, there are some faces that once seen are never
forgotten."

What was there in the words to make the delicate face of Blanche de
Verdreuil pale so suddenly? She alone knew.

"I also have been in Florence," he said carelessly in the next pause of
the dance; "but more recently than yourself, of course. It was a few
years ago, and the whole city was full of a terrible tragedy that had
just been enacted there. Probably you have heard of it, madame?"

"I may have; one hears of so many terrible tragedies now-a-days. What was
this particular one, Monsieur d'Orvâl?"

Her voice was calm, but there was a defiant ring in its clear, rich
tones that made a faint smile rise to the lips of her companion.

"It was the suicide of a gambler," he said, "whose house had been
one of the most frequented in the city--a house where the play was
notoriously high, and the luck notoriously uniform; though, strange to
say, it never ran in favour of the guests themselves. Well, notice had
reached the authorities of doings not strictly regular at this villa
(let me see, what was the name?) oh! Villa Constanza, and they thought
fit to pay it a visit. The night they came, this man, Count Lorenzo I
think he called himself, was arrested, the whole contents of the villa
seized, and it was found that all the dice were loaded, and that he
had duplicate cards of every kind in his possession. When captured,
the fellow coolly asked if he might help himself to a glass of water
on a buffet near him, went up to it--but how pale you look, Madame de
Verdreuil, I fear my story will be too tragic to please you."

"Oh, no, pray go on," she said, though her voice was nervous and
hurried, and the hand which held her bouquet trembled visibly; "what
was the end of this story?"

"Well, he went up to it, turned his back for a second on his capturers,
took a pistol from his coat, and shot himself through the heart--dead.
The sensation this created was tremendous. His wife and a young
girl--her niece, as she was popularly supposed to be--took advantage of
the confusion and fled from the villa, bearing with them all the gold
and valuables on which they could lay hands. They were both implicated
in the business also, but managed to escape. In fact, the search for
them was not a very long or careful one, and so they got off easily
enough."

"And is that all, monsieur?"

The question was asked in the same defiant voice as before, and by a
strong effort Blanche de Verdreuil conquered her agitation. What was
this story to her? Of course the Marquis d'Orvâl merely told it as an
incident brought to his recollection by the mention of Italy--nothing
more.

"That is all," he said quietly. "I suppose you are thinking I
have chosen a strange time and place for repeating a tale of this
description, are you not, madame?"

"A ball-room is certainly not quite the place where one expects to hear
such things," she answered; "but if you have no more tragic events to
relate, monsieur, allow me to ask--why, who is this?" she exclaimed,
breaking suddenly off in her question, "Sir Lancelot du Lac again! How
comes it, Monsieur d'Orvâl, that you have not preserved your secret
better?"

"It is very strange," he said in a tone of feigned annoyance; "but
perhaps my rascal of a costumier has betrayed me. Certainly that
individual yonder has copied my dress exactly. I wonder who he is,
madame?"

The quadrille was just over now, and, standing watching its conclusion,
with eyes of indignation and wrath, was the second knight, about whose
identity Vivienne was the only one in possession of certain information
at this moment. As the dancers ceased and mixed with the crowd of
promenaders again, Blanche and her partner came near to him. With a
rapid movement he bent to her, and exclaimed--

"How comes it, madame, that I have forfeited my right to your hand
for this dance? I went to seek your ward, and, my search being
unsuccessful, I returned to claim you, as previously agreed. I find
that you have already supplied my place and forgotten your promise."

"Pardon, monsieur," exclaimed the countess in surprise; "there is some
mistake. I promised to dance with Sir Lancelot du Lac, and I have done
so. In making that promise it never occurred to me that there might be
two knights of the same appearance, between whom it is impossible to
distinguish. I have been all this time under the impression that I was
dancing with the Marquis d'Orvâl. Unless you both unmask, it is hardly
possible to tell which of you is the gentleman in question."

"Madame is right," answered the marquis, now growing irate and
indignant at the trick played upon him.

This quadrille was the event of the evening, and he had been left
out of it altogether, when he had flattered himself that he would be
the principal attraction. "It is only fair, monsieur," he continued,
turning to his rival, "that the countess should be able to judge
whether she has broken her promise or not. I am perfectly willing to
assure her of my being the one to whom the promise was made; I
suppose you are equally ready to convince her she has mistaken you for
me?"

"I believe, Madame de Verdreuil, that we are all bound to remain masked
until supper-time; was not that the rule you laid down for the evening?"

"Certainly," said Blanche, now growing seriously embarrassed between
these conflicting claims.

"And I therefore assert my right to maintain my incognito till then;
but since this gentleman considers I have deprived him of his dance,
I resign all further pretensions to your hand, madame, and have the
honour to leave you to his explanations."

And with a quiet bow he released her hand and turned away, leaving
Blanche for once thoroughly bewildered.

"Not the Marquis d'Orvâl? Who can he be?" she thought, uneasily,
"and how much does he know? Why did he persist in referring to Italy?"

Not being able to answer these questions satisfactorily, she turned
to the real Marquis d'Orvâl, who was standing in silent indignation,
gnawing his moustache, and inwardly wishing he could force this cool
stranger to unmask then and there, that he might at least have the
satisfaction of finding out who he was.

"Eh bien, monsieur, we are having some mysteries, are we not?"
said Blanche lightly. "I really cannot be sure whether you are the
Marquis d'Orvâl, after being deceived so easily just now. However, we
must have patience a little longer, and then we can solve this riddle
for our own satisfaction."

"I can assure you in this instance you are not mistaken in your
surmises," said the knight, trying to subdue his offended tones into
the usual slow, courteous ones he used in society. "I am only sorry,
madame, that you were so easily deceived; I have been counting upon
the pleasure of this dance with you all the evening, and now I find my
right has been usurped, and you imposed upon."

"Too bad, really; but then you know all these little deceptions are
quite usual at a masked ball," said Blanche lightly, and trying to hide
her own vexation at the trick played upon them both; "but you must
laugh at it as I do, monsieur; and as you have lost this dance, you
shall have as many others as you care to claim, to atone for it. Come,
that is a fair promise, is it not?"

"You are too kind, indeed, madame," he said, imitating her own evident
desire to treat the whole affair as a joke. "But you must confess I
have been somewhat hardly used in this matter."

"You have indeed, and so have I, for until you spoke I had not the
least suspicion that you were not my partner; and you don't know,
monsieur," she added, with one of her dazzling smiles, "what secrets I
may have let out in consequence of that belief; and then to find out I
have been confiding in a stranger after all!"

He smiled superciliously.

"I should have thought Madame de Verdreuil's own powers of
discrimination were sufficiently keen for the mistake to have been
discovered sooner," he said coldly; for conceit was the Marquis
d'Orvâl's strong, or rather weak point, and he could not afford to be
magnanimous.

"The wisest and cleverest may be deceived sometimes," said Blanche.
"Ah, this is my favourite waltz. Come, monsieur, forget your
ill-humour, and let these magic strains efface all memory of it."

There was no resisting this appeal, and d'Orvâl was too much a man
of the world to let his vexation be apparent any longer; besides,
he thought it would soon be supper-time, and then he would have at
least the satisfaction of knowing who this bold intruder (for so he
termed him in his own mind) was. He therefore complied with Blanche de
Verdreuil's invitation, and whirled her off into the circle of dancers.

It was the last waltz before supper. Vivienne St. Maurice was speedily
besieged by requests to dance it, yet she seemed reluctant to give the
right of prior claim to one more than another. As she stood combating
the requests and entreaties urged so repeatedly on her, a tall figure
bent over her hand, a low voice said, in quick decisive tones,--

"Mademoiselle, I have the honour to remind you of your promise; this is
our last dance," and before Vivienne had recovered from her surprise,
she found herself led once more into the dancing-salon by the unknown
knight, Sir Lancelot.

She was too bewildered by his coolness and audacity to make any
remonstrance; nor could she be quite certain, at that moment, whether
she had really promised him this waltz or not. It was only half over
when he stopped and drew her away from the crowd into a recess.

"Mademoiselle St. Maurice," he said in a voice low, rich, and
musical--a voice which Vivienne thought the most beautiful she had ever
heard,--"I must ask your forgiveness once more before I leave. Will you
pardon my boldness, and believe that I had a motive for acting in this
manner--mysterious as it may seem--a motive you could not blame if you
knew it? One day I may be able to explain it to you, for we shall meet
again, and that soon."

"Are you a prophet or magician, that you can tell that?" said Vivienne,
her face flushing before the glance of the dark, earnest eyes fixed
so steadily on her. "Nothing is certain in this world, you know, and
many things may happen to prevent my seeing you ever again, I may leave
Paris. I may----"

"Nonsense!" he interrupted impatiently. "I tell you our meeting is as
certain as that I now speak to you."

"Without my knowing who you are?" said Vivienne, finishing his sentence
for him. "You forget that, monsieur."

"I don't forget it," he said earnestly. "You will know me again if you
can remember my voice, which is the only thing I have not altered along
with my disguise. And now, mademoiselle, my time is short, for I leave
immediately; say what I wish to hear; say you pardon my deception."

Vivienne smiled mischievously up at the masked face above her.

"Why should I say it?" she asked; "and besides, monsieur, you have no
business to leave before supper. You are bound to satisfy our curiosity
then as to who you are. It is not fair to mystify every one as you have
done, and then leave us to puzzle over it, as we shall undoubtedly do."

"Have I not told you, you shall know some day? yes, and that soon, if
you care to know, mademoiselle."

"Of course I care," she said, the faint colour rising in her cheeks
once more. "All women are curious, you know, monsieur, and I fear
I share that particular weakness of my sex to the utmost extent
possible--a humiliating confession, is it not?"

"Its truth makes it a noble one. Now the waltz is ending and I must
go," he said hurriedly. "Farewell, mademoiselle; since you will not say
what I wish, I must go without it."

"Farewell," she said, still smiling; then taking a flower from her
bouquet, she suddenly placed it in his hand. "If you know Italian," she
continued, blushing again as if at her own sudden impulse--"if you know
my language, monsieur, you will know what this means."

He took it eagerly, while a strange, swift light glowed in his dark,
earnest eyes.

"I know," he said in Italian, "and when you meet me again I will tell
you, if you remember this night."

Then he left her with no further word or look--left her standing
there in her graceful beauty, her innocent youth, amidst the glitter
of warmth and light in the festive saloons that were now a blaze of
colour, a whirl of moving figures.

Swiftly and surely he threaded his way through the numerous
reception-rooms' and into the court without. Servants rushed eagerly to
ask his bidding, and he answered them all impatiently, "His carriage
was waiting--he needed no assistance."

Then springing into a close carriage which was standing at the entrance
gates of the hotel, he gave an order in a low voice to the footman.
Those loitering about could not catch the direction; curious eyes noted
how plain was the carriage--how neither crest nor coronet adorned its
panels, and how the footmen wore no livery. Everything was simple
and unpretentious, and this was the first guest who left Blanche de
Verdreuil's ball that night.

Through the lighted streets the carriage whirled swiftly along, and its
occupant, leaning back, tore the mask from his face, and tossed it down
on the seat beside him.

"What impulse prompted me," he said half aloud, with a fierce, wild
impatience in his voice, that startled even himself. "Beautiful they
said she was; ah! beautiful does not express one half of the witchery
that lives in every smile and glance of that exquisite face! I have
only seen it once, and yet for the first time in my life I wish I was
once more young and pure as Albert is."

And Raoul de Verdreuil leant back in his carriage, and amidst the
glare and tumult of the lighted streets he saw nothing, felt nothing,
save one feeling alone--which had sprung to sudden life beneath the
smiles of a girl's lips--the dreamy loveliness of a girl's dark eyes.
Before his mind there swam a dim, confused memory of blinding colours
and dazzling lights, the gleam of jewels and the flash of women's eyes
beneath the masks that hid all other beauty.

But was it these which made his heart throb with swift, uneven beats,
which blinded his eyes to all external objects in the world of gaiety
and brilliance around?

Was it not rather a pure girl-face that stood out from among all others
with its dreamy, lustrous eyes, gazing half-awed, half-dazzled at the
wonders of a new life? Was it not rather a graceful white-robed figure,
standing alone in its purity and simplicity among the surrounding
radiance of colour? Was it not the smile of those child-like lips which
had so suddenly lit up his heart to a new knowledge, and opened his
eyes to a beauty he had passed all these years of his life, neither
knowing nor caring to know?

Raoul de Verdreuil, for the first time in his life, was haunted by such
doubts, and pursued by such memories as these.




CHAPTER VI.--A "CONTE DES FÉES."


"We sigh not, and the eye's not moistened;
We laugh at times, we often smile.
In not a look, in not a gesture,
The secret comes to light the while."
.... Heine.


THROUGH the late night, and till the rising dawn was flushing the
eastern sky, the ball went gaily on. Blanche de Verdreuil had declared
it should be a success, and spared neither pains nor expense to make it
so.

The supper-room was magnificent, hung with rose-coloured silk, and
lighted with crystal chandeliers, flashing their brilliant light on
a meal sumptuous and exquisite as the most fastidious taste could
desire. Masks were removed, and faces fair and brilliant shone forth to
dazzle and bewilder, without the envious disguise which had hitherto
concealed them. And at the head of the table, with the light falling
on the lustre of her hair, the diamonds in her bosom, the floating
delicate-hued draperies of her dress, sat Blanche de Verdreuil.

A feverish gaiety gave brightness to her eyes, and flushed her cheeks
with unwonted brilliance, till they glowed like the rose japonicas in
her bouquet. Her laugh rang out clear and sweet as ever; her wit was no
less keen and graceful as she parried the words of homage and flattery
murmured in her ear; and yet Blanche de Verdreuil's heart was beating
fast and fierce with keenest pain and deadly fear, and her eyes, as
they swept the faces around her with constant uneasy restlessness, were
bright with inward fever, not with pleasure or enjoyment.

"Every one is unmasked, yet I do not see our friend Lancelot the
Second," said the Marquis d'Orvâl in a low voice, as he bent towards
the countess.

"No; he is not here, I am afraid," she answered, while the bright
colour wavered and paled in her face, as her glance wandered uneasily
down the length of the crowded room.

"I suppose he was afraid to betray himself," said Léon d'Orvâl with
a supercilious sneer. "Certainly he has played a very mean and
unjustifiable part in the entertainment you have given us, madame, and
it appears we are not even to have the satisfaction of his presence to
answer for it."

"Let us dismiss the subject, pray," said Blanche; "I am weary of it,
monsieur. Mystery is a thing I particularly dislike, and as there seems
no probability of our discovering this one, it is best to think no more
about it."

Apparently Léon d'Orvâl thought so also, for he alluded to it no more,
but turned his attention to Vivienne St. Maurice, who was seated beside
him, and gave himself entirely up to the task of entertaining her.

He would not have felt flattered, however, had he known that his fair
companion was inwardly contrasting his languid graces and affectations
with the rich musical voice, the manly, earnest words she had so lately
heard from the stranger knight--contrasting them, too, in a manner
which placed the Marquis d'Orvâl at considerable disadvantage; and
though she smiled and listened and answered, her ear was inattentive,
her mind distrait and absent, and it was no small relief to her when
the guests left the supper-table and returned to the ball-room again.

Vivienne would fain have remained by Blanche de Verdreuil's side, but
such a thing was impossible; she was besieged every moment by new
claimants for her hand; and as the night waned swiftly, the tide of
gaiety flowed higher and yet more brilliantly along.

The ward of the countess was without dissent pronounced the most
beautiful of all the lovely women in those crowded rooms; her
débût was a complete success; her words and smiles were courted
as assiduously as the vainest could have desired; she stood on the
first giddy eminence of power, and yet was scarcely conscious of it.
The flattery, and homage, and adulation, poured out so freely and
continuously, were lightly put aside with the graceful disbelief, the
enchanting carelessness of a child. The proudest and the noblest who
courted her attention could not flatter himself that he would even
be remembered; and the serene unconsciousness of her manner was a
thousandfold heightened by the beauty of that exquisite face, which
smiled on all and changed for none.

Blanche de Verdreuil noted the triumph of her ward, and a sudden pang
of jealousy swept through her heart. Was her beauty less--her charms
no greater than those of the girl she had taken from poverty and
obscurity, and raised to such a height as this? she questioned angrily.
And yet it was as well that Vivienne should triumph--that the world
should bow before her beauty and court her smiles--for was it not a
sure method of furthering her own interests--of obtaining a footing,
at once secure and lasting, in that world whose notice she courted and
coveted as the one thing most desirable in life?

So she hid her jealousy and her fears, and the soft languid utterances
of her lips from time to time confirmed and agreed with the praises
uttered of her ward's grace and loveliness. A few words here and
there let fall just enough of Vivienne's history to satisfy curiosity
and silence scandal; for the rest, the girl must manage her affairs
herself, she thought, and it would be strange, indeed, if that
exquisite witchery of face, voice, and manner could not subdue doubts,
and achieve for Vivienne a woman's surest safeguard--marriage.

The ball went on till the faint grey dawn crept in through the
curtained windows, and the pure breath of the morning air swept over
the heavy perfumes of the heated rooms. Then gradually the hues and
colours changed and faded; the low murmur of voices, the soft chimes
of woman's laughter, died away; the salons and reception-rooms swiftly
emptied themselves of the groups of maskers; and Vivienne St. Maurice,
standing by Blanche de Verdreuil's side as the last guests departed,
murmured half audibly to the beautiful triumphant woman smiling her
last farewells, receiving her last compliments:--

"Ah, madame, what a pity it is all over! It was like a conte des
fées!"

* * * * * *

A short time later, and Blanche de Verdreuil sat in her luxurious
dressing-room, with her rich toilette de soir exchanged for a robe
of lace and muslin, and the shining masses of her hair no longer
crowned with diamonds, but unbound and hanging in waves and ripples
half-way to her feet. Very lovely she looked, leaning languidly back
in the luxurious fauteuil--lovely still, though her face had lost
its brilliance, her eyes their lustre, and the one was pale as if with
weariness, the others shadowed by anxious thought.

She was thinking not of her ball in its gay and successful
brilliance--not of the noble and courtly crowd who had honoured and
graced it so willingly--not of the Marquis d'Orvâl's honeyed words and
graceful flatteries, nor his promise to secure her admission into those
rigid and exclusive circles she had long sighed to enter--no, not of
any of these, but of that one strange guest who had sought her side--of
his words, which, whether purposeless, or meant as a menace of
danger, had stirred to life a cold, deadly fear within her heart--of a
scene his story had recalled to her; and she shuddered as she bent over
her fire now, and asked herself what his purpose could have been, and
who he was, this mysterious stranger, whose words had curdled her
blood with fear, and robbed her ball of all its promised triumph.

"Shall I ever be secure?" she thought with sudden, passionate
fear as she tossed back the shining masses of her hair, and gazed
half-affrighted at her own image in the mirror beside her. "Will none
be merciful enough to forget that? Is it to haunt me as a Nemesis
all my days--to dog my steps, and rise before me, turn where I will,
leaving me powerless to purchase my safety or hide my shame?"

"I thought beauty was invincible," she continued, after a pause, during
which she had mercilessly scanned the reflection of her own face as
the mirror gave it back--taking in the faultless features, the sunlit
hair, the lustrous eyes, the arched, pouting lips, as though they were
only means to an end--tools to be used unsparingly in some service
she had set herself. "But I have learnt its weakness once already; it
was valueless in his eyes--the only man from whom I have anything
to fear. Will it be valueless soon in those of others? I fear it.
Vivienne is a dangerous rival, and I fear will never prove a plastic
or a willing tool. I must call my last resources into action, and yet
treachery to him seems so base! I have not learnt to hate him yet,
though I have tried so long; I have not learnt to forget the only
weakness I was ever guilty of--my love. And until then--until then--oh,
God, I cannot wrong him!"

In the solitude around, while yet the world was wrapped in slumber, and
the waking beauty of the dawn had no eyes to see it save some chance
wanderer without a home, or some grief-stricken watcher by a bed of
pain, Blanche de Verdreuil stooped her proud head, and crouched before
the brightness and warmth of the flickering flames like a guilty thing;
covering her eyes as if to shut out from sight some of the misery
and the shame she could not banish, that nothing could teach her to
forget--nay, worse, that others would not forget for her.

She sat there, never moving or stirring, though the day was rapidly
advancing; motionless, save for some shiver, as of fear or pain, that
from time to time ran through her; feeling no sense of fatigue, no
willingness to sleep, though the flush had long faded from her face
and left it colourless as marble. Nor did she raise her head from its
drooping posture till the noise and bustle in the streets without fell
at last on her ear, and the golden shafts of sunlight pierced the
draperies of falling silk that would fain have shut them out a little
longer.

Then she started to her feet, and with steps slow and weary, as of
one in pain, she sought her couch at last; and as she went a gleam of
defiance flashed through the languor of her eyes--a smile, merciless
and cruel, lingered on her lips, and she muttered in a voice wholly
unlike her own sweet musical tones, "There is no choice now--it must be
done--and soon!"




CHAPTER VII.--"FOR THY LOVE I NEVER PRAY'D."


"Ne'er to stir thy bosom thought I;
For thy love I never pray'd."--Heine.


IT was the morning after the bal masqué, and Vivienne St. Maurice
sat waiting for the countess in her pretty, daintily-furnished
morning-room, where they usually breakfasted together.

The girl's eyes were bright, and a smile stole ever and anon to her
lips as if her thoughts were all pleasant, her memories all unshadowed.
Were they of the flattery and homage laid at her feet the previous
night--of the triumph she had won--the conquests she had achieved?

"Are you tired of waiting?" said Blanche de Verdreuil's voice,
startling her suddenly from her reverie.

"Oh no, madame!"--and Vivienne turned from the window and came forward
to greet the countess--"I have only been down a few minutes myself."

"Your dissipation has certainly not affected your looks," said Blanche,
looking with a faint shadow of envy at the bright, glowing face of the
girl, and made painfully aware of her own pale cheeks and languid eyes
by the contrast. "I wish I could say the same; I am very tired this
morning."

She seated herself at the breakfast-table, and, as Vivienne took her
place beside her, said carelessly,--

"And now tell me all about your conquests last night, ma chère. They
seemed numerous enough, as far as I could judge."

Vivienne flushed scarlet.

"Do you call it conquest to be besieged by a crowd of flatterers
who, I suppose, say the same unmeaning things to every one they meet?"
she asked gravely.

"Now pray don't begin your old arguments about sincerity and truth, and
all that nonsense," said Blanche impatiently. "I wish I could put some
common sense into your head, Vivienne. All girls who are introduced
into the world ought to have but one aim and object constantly before
them--to make a brilliant marriage. A girl with a face like yours, and
with the advantages of your present position, can command any match
of the season, if she only plays her cards well and skilfully. After
that is once achieved, your life will be one continued success; and I
particularly wish you to bear this in mind, because a first season is
everything, and you have already the ball at your feet. Of course you
know very well, Vivienne, that your present position is not in any way
secure. You have no rank, no parentage, to give you any solid claim
upon society; and the utmost tact will be needed to enable you to hold
your own, even after the brilliant triumph of your first introduction.
I think the Marquis d'Orvâl is really serious at last, his admiration
is excessive; and if you take my advice you will not let him escape.
He is the parti of the season at present. I can wish you no better
or more enviable fate than to bring him to your feet; and without
flattery, Vivienne, I must say I don't think that will be a very
difficult matter for you to attempt."

The girl's face burned with hot blushes, as if some shame lay in this
worldly counsel.

"The Marquis d'Orvâl is nothing to me," she said proudly, "nor would he
be if he were ten times as rich and great as you say he is. Oh, madame!
is it quite impossible for me to enjoy the world without a marriage of
convenience being forced upon my notice?--without my looking upon every
man who notices me as a speculation for my own views, an object for
securing my own safety? Indeed, indeed, I would a thousand times rather
die in poverty and obscurity than lead such a life as that."

"It is very likely you will die in poverty and obscurity if you
continue with this romantic folly," said Blanche de Verdreuil angrily.
"For goodness sake, Vivienne, remember what chances you are throwing
away! What madness it is to suppose that, if your real history were
known, you would ever be received by the society you can now reign over
like a queen! Do you suppose that such things as wealth and rank and
position drop from the clouds, that you can afford to make light of
them when fate casts them at your feet, and you have merely to stoop
and raise them at your pleasure? You make me positively angry with your
romantic and childish ideas. What do you expect is to become of you in
the end, if you make light of all these advantages now?"

Vivienne was silent, though the hot flush burned deeper and deeper on
her cheek, and her soft eyes looked indignant; but she knew what it was
to argue with the countess on these matters: such conversations had
been of frequent occurrence between them since her arrival in Paris,
and the worldly wisdom of Blanche de Verdreuil usually silenced her
arguments with sophistry too skilful for her to combat, though it left
her unshaken in her own mind as to her views.

"I have spoken to you often before," continued Blanche; "but I feel
it incumbent upon me now to urge more strongly than ever the positive
necessity of your making a wealthy and creditable marriage. It is
the one reason for my introducing you to the world as I have done. I
promised your gran'mère, as you call her, that I would befriend you
as long as it was in my power; and I can serve you in no better way
than by impressing upon you the absolute necessity of securing some
surer footing in society than I can give you. You are no child now,
Vivienne; you must surely see what lies before a portionless, nameless
girl whose whole history is shrouded in mystery, and whose life has
been dependent on the charity of others. The years are few that a
woman reigns, even with such beauty as you possess, and the highest
wisdom you can practise is to seize the golden opportunity now lying at
your very hand, and give the world no further excuse for cavilling or
wondering at your success. A woman, once married, has safety, security,
freedom. Until then she is but the bond-slave of circumstances, she has
no certain foot-hold in the society she rules; and that you have not,
Vivienne, as you well know."

The girl's beautiful face had grown very pale at these words; her
breath came and went as if her heart were stirred by some deep emotion.
As Blanche ceased speaking, she glanced proudly and fearlessly up and
said,--

"Madame, what promises you made to my old friend you know best
yourself. Only, if I had thought that my dependent position would have
been so constantly brought before me, I should have found courage to
disobey even her last wishes, and never humiliated myself by living
in a false position so long. A girl who is friendless and nameless,
as you say I am, has little claim upon the world; and had you told me
your real motive for introducing me to its notice in the manner you
have done, I would never have consented to leave Renonçeux. There are
some--many, perhaps--who would think my position an enviable one; to
me it is only a bitter humiliation. But say what you will, madame, I
shall never add to it the crowning degradation of a marriage such as
you describe. I would rather work--beg--starve--than take from a man's
love, or a man's belief in me, the advantages of a selfish security.
At least my pride will not suffer me to stoop so low as that, now that
your words have shown me what shame and reproach can lie in that word
'marriage.'"

The Countess de Verdreuil bit her lip with vexation. Did not these
words bare the secret of her own married life to her now? did they not
show the real degradation in which she had steeped that life while
cloaking its past sins and shame and follies with the mantle of an
honourable name, with the trust and belief of a man's great love which
asked for no recompense, sought no reward save her own heart?

"If these are your views," she said coldly, "I see very little use in
your coming to Paris at all. However, I shall hope that another month
of this life will open your eyes to its advantages, and that, instead
of reproaching me for my well-meant efforts on your behalf, you will
come to see that my views are the wisest and the safest."

"I did not mean to seem ungrateful for all your kindness and interest,
madame," said Vivienne humbly. "I only meant to say that I cannot bring
myself to look upon marriage as a cloak of convenience. Whoever marries
me will know my history as far as I know it myself. That there is no
shame in it I am perfectly sure, and perhaps the mystery surrounding it
may one day be cleared up, and then all the world may know who I am. I
have no wish to sail under false colours even now; and if you think,
madame, that the fact of your mentioning my history will in any way
interfere with the reception I may meet with among your friends and
acquaintances, I would rather a thousand times that you did so and left
me to retirement and obscurity than force me into a position to which
I have no right, and whose tenure will ever be insecure so long as it
depends on falsehood and deception."

"You may be thankful I am not so foolish as yourself," said Blanche,
rising from her seat, as if to put an end to the conversation. "You
little know what danger and what misery the world holds for women whose
beauty has neither rank nor position to uphold it. Life is pleasant
enough to those who have skill to make it serve them, not bend and
serve it. Now I must leave you to your own reflections. My husband
wishes me to drive with him this morning, and I have promised to do so.
Au revoir, ma chère, and try to believe the best philosophy in the
world is that which teaches a woman her own value--and how to preserve
it."

She left the room as she spoke, and Vivienne was alone once more. She
rose to her feet with flashing eyes and burning cheeks.

"Surely she has no soul, no heart, no conscience to speak thus!" cried
the girl, with a swift, passionate scorn lighting her face. "Oh, why
have I bound myself to obey her? For three years more this bondage lies
upon me; for three years more her roof must shelter me. A promise to
the dying is sacred, they say; how sacred I only know now, when to
break the chains of Blanche de Verdreuil's caprices I would give all I
possess, and yet I dare not do it."

She went to the window and stood gazing down into the busy street
below, while the azure warmth of the morning sky stretched calmly and
cloudlessly above its bustle and confusion, a silent rebuke in its
serene quietude to the endless turmoil with which men vex the world and
themselves.

The great city was all astir with the new cares of a new day. The pulse
of life throbbed fast and fierce within its breast, under the glorious
light of the springtide and the blue arch of the cloudless sky, under
the fetters of tyranny as under the banners of freedom.

The fair girl-face looked down on the stream of traffic, the luxuries
of wealth, the countless contrasts between each grade of life, each
rank and class, which only a great city can show. On the steps of
a church crouched a wretched outcast, humbly asking alms from the
beautiful aristocrat whose trailing robes swept negligently by as she
entered for the early Mass; at the street corner a flower-girl, with a
dark Italian face and lustrous eyes, moved hastily aside to escape the
curling lash of a coachman in gorgeous livery as he drove a magnificent
carriage past her, while the dust from its wheels almost blinded her
as she gazed enviously at its occupant--a laughing, painted woman, who
might have been a beggar like herself, had she not learnt the wisdom of
the world in time--that wisdom which makes vice a better paymaster than
virtue.

Vivienne turned away, sighing half pitifully for the misery of the one,
for the shame of the other.

"How much there is in the world for us to do!" she said sadly; "and
yet, while wealth and poverty pass each other every hour of the day,
while the terrible contrast between them is so glaringly apparent,
there seems no sense of responsibility, no thought of injustice in the
minds of the rich and the great; no fear of the evils they encourage,
the wrongs they foster and increase."

* * * * * *

An hour later a visitor called at the hotel of the Count de Verdreuil,
and inquired for him.

"Monsieur le Comte was not at home," he was informed; "he was driving
with madame."

"I will wait, then," was the answer. "Don't hesitate about admitting
me," he continued, smiling at the man's puzzled face. "I am his son;
if you were not a stranger here you would have known that without my
telling you."

The man bowed humbly.

"Pardon, monsieur! I have not the honour to know monsieur, being
a stranger, but, if he will please to wait, there is little doubt
but that Monsieur le Comte will be back within an hour. Meantime
Mademoiselle St. Maurice is in the morning-room; shall I have the
pleasure of announcing monsieur's arrival to her?"

"No, don't trouble yourself," said Raoul de Verdreuil carelessly, "I
will find my way without your assistance. Meantime let my father know
of my being here as soon as he arrives."

Without further parley he went up the broad staircase, and turned in
the direction of the room where he had been informed Vivienne was. Even
had he not known which it was, he would soon have discovered it, for he
heard the sound of a voice singing, and, softly turning the handle of
the door, so as to enter noiselessly and unperceived, he found himself
in the presence of Vivienne St. Maurice.

Her back was turned to the door, and she herself was seated before the
grand piano, too engrossed in her occupation to hear Raoul's noiseless
entrance. He stood quite silent, listening to the rich, passionate
voice thrilling out in the stillness with a power and pathos he had
never heard in any other.

Music had always a power over him, and music such as this was so
exquisite that it gave the girl before him a divinity, an intoxication,
an ideality, quite apart from the feelings he had formed of any living
woman yet. He saw her with the flood of the rich sunlight falling
through the hangings of amber silk, and lighting the lustre of her
hair--that beautiful bronze-hued hair, so lovely and so matchless in
colour. He saw her in the radiance of the noon-day glory as it fell on
the white folds of her dress, on the exquisite lines of the girlish
figure, and all the force and fervour of his memory of the past
night swept back like a flood over his heart, and made him for once
breathless, speechless, bewildered in the presence of a woman.

Her song ceased, and as she rose from the instrument she for the first
time became aware of his presence. A look of haughty surprise flashed
in her eyes--those dark, lovely southern eyes, which mirrored every
thought and feeling of her nature. Her glance swept over him with a
surprised and amazed interrogation that recalled him to himself.

"Pardon me," he said, as he bowed low before her, "I fear you consider
me an intruder. I must introduce myself, therefore, as Raoul de
Verdreuil; you, mademoiselle, are doubtless Mademoiselle St. Maurice. I
have heard too much of you to fail to recognise you immediately."

Over the girl's exquisite face came a flush of wonderful softness and
surprise.

"Are you Raoul de Verdreuil?" she said impulsively; "Albert's
friend, of whom I have heard him speak a thousand times? Ah, welcome,
monsieur! how little I thought of ever meeting you again in Paris! We
imagined you were still abroad."

"I returned very suddenly," he said, taking the hand she so frankly
outstretched in greeting. "I went first to Renonçeux but learnt from
Albert you were all in Paris, so I came here again, mademoiselle."

"You have been to Renonçeux lately?" she said eagerly. "Ah, then you
can tell me all the news of the château. How is Albert, Monsieur de
Verdreuil? Is he not tired of his lonely life? Why could you not
persuade him to come to Paris with you?"

"He likes his solitary life too well, I fear," said Raoul, inwardly
conscious of a strange pang at this vivid interest and concern in
the young artist's welfare, yet vexed at the disloyalty he could not
account for. "I tried to persuade him to come, mademoiselle, but in
vain. He sent you many messages, and bade me tell you how much he
misses your presence at Renonçeux, but still I could not tempt him from
his solitude."

While he spoke, Vivienne's eyes rested searchingly on him. What was
it so familiar to her about this stranger she wondered? Not the face.
That she knew she had not seen, save in the picture gallery at
Renonçeux. Was it the voice that stirred some recent memory in her
heart, that perplexed and puzzled her every time its rich, musical
accents fell on her ear? Yet where could she have heard it before?
Suddenly a thought flashed upon her; the hot colour flushed in her
cheeks, and her eyes rested on Raoul with a light, half mischievous,
half doubting, and wholly bewitching, with its mixture of childish
gaiety and womanly dignity.

"Have you been in Paris long?" she asked. "Were you not here before
to-day, monsieur?"

"Of course," he said, with a grave smile, as if he knew what had
prompted the question. "Many times before to-day, Mademoiselle St.
Maurice."

"No, but I mean were you not here last night?" she continued
impulsively. "I am sure of it--certain of it; but still one may be
mistaken, you know."

He laughed.

"What makes you think I was here last night, mademoiselle!" he
questioned carelessly.

"Because at the ball there was some one whose name we could not
discover; who--oh, monsieur! I am sure I am right when I say that you
played that trick upon us. You impersonated Lancelot du Lac--though how
you could have copied the Marquis d'Orvâl so exactly, I cannot imagine!"

He smiled gravely at her impulsive questioning.

"I did not think a woman's wit was so quick," he said. "How do you
associate me with this mysterious individual, mademoiselle? Are you
quite certain you are not mistaken?"

"Quite certain," she said, laughing gleefully; "you cannot deceive me,
monsieur; I remember your voice perfectly well."

"Do you?" he said--a bright gleam of pleasure flashing from his dark
eyes at her innocent words. "And do you remember this too?"

From the pocket of his coat he drew a flower--the flower Vivienne had
given to the mysterious knight the previous evening. A bright wave
of colour flushed the girl's fair face as she saw it again, and she
glanced shyly and nervously at Raoul.

"I see you do," he said quietly. "And now to explain the mystery of my
appearance. I owe my costume to your description of what the Marquis
d'Orvâl was to wear, in your letter to Albert."

"But why did you make such a mystery of the matter?" inquired Vivienne
timidly. "Why not have appeared in your own character, Monsieur de
Verdreuil?"

"I had reasons of my own for not wishing to be recognised," he answered
gravely. "Strange and unaccountable as my conduct may seem, I must ask
you to dispense with all explanations of it at present; and now let us
dismiss the subject while I give you all the news of Renonçeux."

But Vivienne seemed shy and embarrassed in his presence now, and the
frank cordiality of her manner had disappeared. They could not meet
as strangers--these two, who had heard so much of each other--and the
memory of the previous night was still fresh in the minds of both.
Whenever Vivienne thought of that, the same restraint crept over her,
and replaced the former ease and child-like frankness of her looks and
words.

Of Raoul de Verdreuil she had heard a thousand times--of his courage,
his fearless nobility, his stainless honour, his intense pride, and his
chivalrous friendship; and in her own innocent dreams he had figured
often as a hero--a man apart from all other men. And now she met
him--had met him in ignorance of his very identity with her ideal of
manly perfection, and she grew frightened, and bewildered, and ill at
ease as she thought of this and wondered how she should entertain this
preux chevalier of her fancy; ignorant all the time that his eyes
were feasting on the varying expressions of her face, and that in his
heart he no longer wondered at Albert Hoffman's rapt enthusiasm and
inalienable devotion to this girl.

He noted her embarrassment at length, and with the utmost tact and
delicacy sought to relieve it; drawing her on to forget the fact of
their strange acquaintance, and tell him of her life at Renonçeux, her
passion for music, her thoughts and fancies, whose very purity and
simplicity made them seem precious and inestimable in the eyes of this
man of the world, who had seen so much of the evil, the vanity, and the
folly of life.

In all his experience he had never met any one like her, and a new and
strange reverence crept into his heart, and softened his own eyes, as
ever and anon they sought the lovely child-like face before him.

He read like an open book the frank, sweet nature of this girl, whose
every glance, whose every word, haunted and perplexed him as the
fairest beauty, the most brilliant graces of other women, had never
done.

He did not pause to analyze what he felt, to question the subtle
meaning of this new power. He never feared that his strength, which had
hitherto been great enough to defy all fascinations of women, might
bend and yield before the smile of this one girl. He never dreamt that
this graceful, beautiful child, who stood on the very threshold of a
life which to him had long seemed vanity and weariness, held in her
hands a spell against which his cynical coldness would be powerless to
rebel--that, living in her idealistic sphere of fair faiths and golden
fancies, she could allure him to the same belief, and charm him to the
same tenderness, that reigned in her own heart.

He had been careless, contemptuous, indifferent all his life with
women. Now, for the first time, he saw the sweetness and freshness of a
nature unsullied by the world's breath, by the world's teaching; and,
seeing it, he longed with a strange, irresistible longing to keep its
innocence unharmed, its purity untouched; for though he had held women
lightly, and reverenced them as little as men of the world do reverence
them, when judging their real worth, by the little esteem they set
upon themselves, yet at this moment those pure eyes looked down all
base, unholy thoughts within his breast, and brought to his heart a
revelation unguessed, unknown, through all these years he had lived.

Some far-off memories of his boyhood rose to life, when high and lofty
ambitions had filled his dreams of the future, when an ideal love had
swept into the chambers of his heart and nestled there, looking down at
him with eyes as pure and shadowless as those on which he gazed. The
dreams and the faith he had never realized, and almost forgotten, came
back to him now with sorcery far sweeter, with power far greater, than
he had known then.

Was it too late?




CHAPTER VIII.--HOW LIGHT A CAUSE!


"Alas! how light a cause may move
Dissension between hearts that love!"
.... Moore.


FOR more than an hour Vivienne and Raoul were together, with no
interruption; and in that hour they made rapid strides towards that
friendship and intimacy which was destined to affect their after-lives
so materially.

Never had Raoul exerted himself to please any one as he did to interest
and amuse this girl; never had he so freely displayed the stores of his
mind, the force of his intellect, the bold poetic imagery, which long
travel and acquaintance with the world had fostered and created within
him; and Vivienne listened to him entranced by the wonders he unfolded,
the scenes he painted, the countries he described. That hour passed all
too swiftly for them both, and, much as Raoul had longed to greet his
father, the entrance of the count and his wife was not so welcome as it
ought to have been to him.

Blanche entered, radiant, lovely as a vision in her shimmering robes,
her dainty Parisian bonnet, her whole faultless toilette; but as
Raoul's eyes fell on his father he could hardly repress an exclamation
of horror, so marked was the change in the old man he had left so hale
and hearty only two years before. The erect form was bent and bowed, as
if the weight of age had suddenly made itself felt; the noble, haughty
face was lined and shrunk, as if with care and suffering; the eyes
had lost their fire, and were dull and lustreless now; and Raoul, as
he took the frail, trembling hands in his own, could not repress some
expression of the grief and the shock which his fathers appearance gave
him.

"Have you been ill since I left?" he questioned anxiously. "I am
grieved indeed to see you so changed."

"Changed--nonsense!" said the old man impatiently; "I am very well;
perfectly well, Raoul. More years left in me than you imagine, perhaps.
Come, come; don't stand looking at me with that woe-begone face; tell
me all about yourself--where you have been--when you arrived. Have you
just come to Paris?"

"Yes," said Raoul absently, too shocked and bewildered to collect his
thoughts yet. "I went to Renonçeux, thinking I should find you there;
but as Albert told me you had come to Paris, I followed you."

"Ah, that was right, that was right," said the old man. "Yes, I have
come up for the season. Blanche must not lose it, you know, and
Renonçeux is but dull for her when all the rest of the world are
enjoying themselves in Paris."

"But you know you like to come too," said the countess, "and the
doctors all recommended it for you, and I am sure you look a great deal
better than you did at Renonçeux."

"Yes, yes; I am much better," he said hurriedly, while his eyes rested
on his wife's fair face with the same rapt devotion as of yore. "And
now, Raoul, let me look at you in your turn. Two years have changed
you; yes, certainly they have changed you: have they not, Blanche? He
looks so bronzed, and so much older too. Why, Raoul, the old man bears
his years best after all!"

His son looked fondly down at the worn, aged face, and a great, intense
pity gathered in his eyes.

"I am glad it is so," he said; "I wish you may keep your health and
strength for many years to come, father. But really I shall begin to
think I am quite an 'ancient mariner' in appearance soon, every one
seems so determined to impress upon me the fact of my looking so much
older since I left France two years ago."

Blanche looked quickly at him as he spoke.

"Have you come to stay in Paris," she asked; "or is this one of your
flying visits again?"

Half unconsciously his eyes strayed to Vivienne, where she stood by the
window, her head turned away from the group in the centre of the room,
that she might not seem to watch them.

"I have nothing to call me away for the next month," he said, answering
her slowly at last, "and I may as well stop in Paris as anywhere else."

"Of course, of course," said his father hastily, "and you must take
up your abode here as usual. There is room enough and to spare, and
Blanche will be pleased to have you with us, I am sure."

He glanced at his wife as if expecting her to second his invitation,
and she said haughtily, "Your son knows only too well that his home is
open to him at any time. I should be sorry if he thought any invitation
necessary before making use of it as he used to do."

Raoul's eyes rested on her with a curious, grave questioning, as if he
sought some meaning beyond that of the words; and Blanche, in spite of
her efforts at self-command, felt the warm blood glow in her face as
those sombre eyes rested so searchingly on her.

"I will avail myself of your invitation, then," he said at length, "and
take up my abode with you while I stay in Paris."

"Very well; then that is settled," said the old count; "and now I will
leave you to the ladies for a little while, Raoul. I shall see you
again in an hour or two. I--I have some business to attend to."

"Can I be of any assistance to you?" said Raoul eagerly.

"No, no!" he answered quickly, almost impatiently. "If I want you at
any time, Raoul, you may be certain I shall not wait long before asking
for your help. Meanwhile I will order one of the servants to fetch your
things from your hotel, as you mean to stay here;" and he left the room
hurriedly, as if he feared his son might again offer to accompany him.

"You find your father very much changed, do you not?" said Blanche,
turning to Raoul as the old man left them.

"I do indeed," he answered gravely and sadly; "more than I
expected--more than his years demand. I am grieved to see it."

"The count is never well in Paris," said Vivienne, speaking for the
first time since the others had entered. "I think he looks much worse
since we came here."

"What nonsense, Vivienne!" cried Blanche sharply. "Did not his
physicians say that the air of Paris was far more suitable than any
other? and you know that since we have been here he goes out a great
deal more, and exerts himself a great deal more, than when he is moped
in the château."

"He does not look fit for much exertion, in my opinion," said Raoul
with cold displeasure; for the heartlessness and selfishness of this
woman grated upon him more keenly than ever. "At his years, life should
be calm and tranquil and undisturbed."

"December should not wed with May, then," said Blanche arrogantly.
"You forget, monsieur, that your father will not permit me to enjoy
myself as I wish in society; he thinks it incumbent upon him to attend
me everywhere, ridiculous as it seems, and all my persuasions and
entreaties are of no avail to prevent him doing so. But let us change
the subject. Now you are here, you may perhaps be better able to make
him more careful about himself. I confess I am not able to do so. And
now let me ask if my ward has looked after your comfort during my
absence? Have you had any refreshment? I suppose you made friends with
each other without the ceremony of introduction?"

"Oh, yes!" said Raoul; "I took the liberty of coming in here, attracted
by a voice singing, and I found the owner of the voice was Mademoiselle
St. Maurice. Of course I have heard all about her from Albert, and so
we needed little introduction."

"But I am sorry to say I forgot to ask you if you would not have any
refreshment, as Madame la Comtesse suggests," said Vivienne, colouring.
"We had not long finished breakfast when you came in; we were very late
this morning, owing to the ball."

"Oh, yes! my bal masque; it was such a success!" said Blanche
eagerly. "Every one I have met to-day has been complimenting me about
it. What a pity you were not here a day sooner, monsieur; you could
have been present at it."

"A great pity certainly!" said Raoul, with a glance of amusement
at Vivienne, who looked slightly confused at this remark. "I have
no doubt, madame, my presence would have added to its success
considerably."

"Vivienne!" said the countess suddenly, "I forgot to tell you that
Madame François has come about your dress. You will find her in my
boudoir."

The girl accepted the signal of dismissal without any observation, and
left the room immediately. Blanche turned eagerly to Raoul as the door
closed.

"What do you think of my ward?" she said hurriedly and somewhat
anxiously. "You have heard her history I suppose?"

"Oh, yes! Albert told me long ago. I was surprised to hear of your
turning philanthropist, madame."

"I hardly expected you would give me credit for disinterested motives
in any action," said the Countess de Verdreuil haughtily; "but, ill as
you think of me, monsieur, I yet had not the heart to let a friendless,
beautiful girl like Vivienne St. Maurice be thrown on the scant charity
of the world while I had it in my power to prevent it."

"Your words do you infinite credit," said Raoul, looking searchingly at
the beautiful face before him. "So does your action; but as for your
motives, madame, perhaps they lie somewhat deeper than I or the world
can fathom."

Blanche de Verdreuil's face flushed with angry pride at his words.

"Whatever my motives may seem to you, I know them to be sincere,"
she answered coldly. "I pitied the girl and the position she was
placed in--a position for which I could not but see she was in every
way unfitted. It was Albert Hoffmann, however, who first told me her
history; and when I saw her and heard her voice I thought it would only
be a charity to let her see the world. Her future must be guided by the
use she makes of her opportunities. Her great wish has been to go on
the stage."

"The stage! you surely will not allow that?" cried Raoul impetuously.
"Her purity, her innocence, to be contaminated by such a life! To show
herself for gold to the gazing crowd whose very admiration is shame! To
be applauded and admired according to the caprice of the moment, the
reality of the passions she stimulates! The bare idea is desecration to
a nature like hers!"

"How interested you seem in my ward!" said Blanche, with a cold smile.
"Your penetration does you infinite credit, monsieur, if in an hour you
can read all characters as exactly as you seem to have done hers."

"Her face speaks it more plainly than any words," said Raoul quietly,
not caring to bare his real interest to the scorn and satire of his
enemy; "and I know too well that such a nature as hers is most unfitted
for the life of an actress. Her beauty is too rare for her to escape
all the notoriety and persecution of the worldly and profligate. She
cannot be happy, because, when once she learns the reality of the life
which looks so bright and enchanting on the surface, her whole nature
will recoil from it. Gold can never make the world a paradise for her
as it is for so many of her sex. The falsehood and the vileness she
will encounter will first shock and then disgust her. I know that
already."

Blanche de Verdreuil looked scrutinizingly at him. Long as she had
known Raoul, she had never seen him so stirred and moved by anything
as her mention of Vivienne's wishes, and the vehement bitterness
with which he spoke angered her excessively. Who was this girl--this
beggared outcast she had befriended--that she should rouse in the cold,
proud man she had loved so vainly an interest so profound, a sympathy
so sudden?

"Your judgment is flattering," she said; "nevertheless, monsieur,
Vivienne St. Maurice is, after all, no better than the rest of her sex.
She pines for this life you deride, as though it were paradise! In
fact, were it not that she is bound to abide by my wishes and remain
under my guardianship, by her promise to the old dead woman who was her
only friend, I should not be able to restrain her inclinations. She
would be on the stage even now. However, she is bound to remain with
me until she is twenty-one, and if by that time she has not married, I
make no doubt her first act on attaining her liberty will be to embrace
the very profession of which you, monsieur, have such a righteous
horror."

Raoul was silent; he saw in that moment that Blanche de Verdreuil's
motives for adopting Vivienne were not pure or disinterested--that
the leaven of jealousy was already at work in her heart; and a great
fear rose within his own for the beautiful, friendless girl whose only
protection now was her own simple truth and integrity. He did not
believe what Blanche had said; he did not fear that Vivienne was really
so enamoured of the false glitter of stage-life as to long for it
with such excessive love and such complete belief as the countess had
avowed, or that she was even now looking at those golden gates closed
upon her own longings, with all the desire and belief that Blanche de
Verdreuil ascribed to her. But he felt a strange interest and a vague
fear respecting the future of this girl--feelings both strange and
unwonted for him to experience, when he had so long scoffed and made
light of the name and the power of women.

"I can scarcely believe you, madame," he said, after a brief
hesitation, "and I must confess that I am puzzled to account for your
motives in befriending this girl. However, since she is living under
your roof, and introduced to the world under your guardianship, I can
only hope that your own experience will at least make you pitiful to
one so friendless and so gifted as she seems."

Blanche turned very pale at his words, and her eyes gleamed dangerously
beneath their drooping lids.

"I wish your memory were not so faithful," she said haughtily. "Can you
never recollect that my past is over and done with--buried fathoms deep
with that old life whose very name I abhor, since circumstances have
fashioned my fate so differently to what I anticipated then?"

"Did you bury conscience, honour, heart with it?" he asked; "if so,
I cannot wonder that your life gives you now all you need, and that
remorse and pity have never disturbed its enjoyment."

"Have they not?" she cried, with a sudden, passionate grief that
thrilled out in momentary forgetfulness of her efforts to appear
hardened before this man. "O God! how little you know--how little you
dream of what my life is to me--of what my heart holds even yet!"

"Then let that remorse make you tender of the young life in your
guardianship," he said gravely and gently--more gently than this woman
had ever heard him speak since she became his father's wife. "Let the
remembrance of your past make you gentle and pitiful of her future!
As you fulfil the trust of a dying woman--and reward the faith of a
friendless girl--so will that God whose name you have just uttered
spare and pardon you!"

The solemn, earnest words swept over her heart with a soothing peace
long a stranger to it.

Involuntarily she turned to Raoul de Verdreuil, and her eyes for once
spoke truth as they met his own--

"If you had said so long ago--if you had been as gentle then as you are
at this moment--I might have been a better woman, I might have saved
myself from many a sin; but now--I cannot believe that what man's love
denied and scorned, God's love can pity and redeem!"

And with those reckless words she turned swiftly away and left him.




BOOK III.




CHAPTER I.--THE FIRST SEEDS.


"A cruel punishment for one most cruel, If such can love, to make that
love the fuel Of the mind's hell."--Shelley.


THE spring had deepened into summer.

The whirl of gaiety and pleasure was at its height in Paris.
The city laughed and danced and glittered with its customary
vivacious enthusiasm, its gay, inconstant thoughtlessness, like
the thoughtlessness of a child in its summer-day idleness, its
forgetfulness of care, its indifference to sorrow in years to come.

The days were all bright with the glow and warmth and colour of the
skies of France. The nights were riotous with mirth and revelry and
sin, while the streets were like streams of fire, and the avenues
glittered with a million lights, and the leaves shook with the laughter
and the music and the songs--the restless, ceaseless pleasure of life
and motion which the populace loved.

And the great world ruled with its luxury, its frivolity, its endless
pleasures crowded into every hour; its endless heartaches stifled
under every folly; the great world of fashion and of wealth, of vanity
and greed; and the season was as brilliant in its last days as in its
first; one moving, changing picture of charm and colour and show, whose
surface gaiety seemed as full of delight as the bright city itself.

To Vivienne St. Maurice that season in Paris had brought the full and
perfect triumph of a woman's beauty.

Go where she would, a crowd of flatterers besieged her, admiration
and love were showered upon her; the world was at her feet from the
moment the Marquis d'Orvâl had given the password for her admission by
pronouncing her the most beautiful débutante Paris had ever seen.
Blanche de Verdreuil herself almost forgot to be jealous of her ward's
beauty in the prestige it gave to her own self. She had gained
admission to many an exclusive and jealously-guarded circle only by a
word from the Marquis d'Orvâl, whose infatuation respecting Vivienne
was now a secret no longer, and who chose to have his idol fêted and
worshipped to the utmost by the world of fashion and the leaders of
ton.

The marvel was that this life had not changed the girl--that every
instinct of her nature adapted itself to it as easily as though
from her cradle it had been her lot. The grave, sweet dignity, half
child-like, half womanly, was still her greatest charm; the purity and
singleness of her nature were all unharmed; the serene grace of word
and manner remained unaltered and untouched by the homage and adulation
poured out to her so continuously; and many a cold and worldly heart
felt its charm, and bent to its influence with a reverence and belief
in woman's purity long strange and unfelt.

The belle of the season, the queen of society, the victory-crowned
beauty of Paris was in many respects the same pure, dreaming child who
had lingered in the woods of Renonçeux and weaved her own strange,
impossible fancies of life, and all belonging to it, under the shade of
the leafy boughs, beneath the warmth of the slanting sun-rays.

The radiant eyes, gazing now on the world she could rule by a smile, a
word, a glance, never marred their triumph by coquetry, never spoke a
feeling false or trivial. The laughter on the happy, parted lips was
still the mirth of a child's innocent enjoyment, was no fictitious
semblance of joy or delight. Whether heiress or peasant, Vivienne St.
Maurice would still be as alluring, as gracious, as pure as if the sins
and the shame of the world could neither stain nor contaminate her
innate and soul-felt purity.

That she had many enemies, many detractors, was of course to be
expected. A triumph so sudden and so complete as hers must ever be
the mark for censure, for envy and for malice. But she heard nothing
that could pain or wound her--nothing that could distress her innocent
enjoyment of life and all it brought her now. Even Blanche de Verdreuil
had come to the conclusion that she could not afford to risk offending
Vivienne now that she was a power in society, that Moloch to which she
would have sacrificed all and everything she possessed.

But Blanche hated her all the same for her easy triumph, hated her for
her beauty, hated her for her pure unsullied truth, hated her perhaps
most of all because she saw that Raoul de Verdreuil gave to this girl
such homage and such reverence as never in all his life he had bestowed
on any woman before.

To her no light or frivolous word ever passed his lips. He treated her
with such gentleness, such courtesy, such respect as made her whole
heart turn and trust him, as filled her with wonder and delight that
one she deemed so lofty and so great could thus stoop to feel even
interest for one like her.

He had never used the language of lovers, therefore she gradually
became accustomed to that grave, tender, familiar intercourse which
invited her confidence and deepened her trust, till she came to
consider Raoul as some one quite apart from the rest of the world--some
one to whom she could turn in every trouble or perplexity, on whose
strong, steadfast nature she could lean with perfect confidence and
security.

And Raoul?

For the first time in his calm, self-controlled life, Raoul was
recklessly, blindly deceiving himself. He believed he felt for this
girl only the purest and most faithful friendship, born of her strange
position--her unprotected life, her singular and enforced dependence
on the woman who ruled in his own home. Long restraint had given him
the iron force of self-control. Whatever softer thoughts, whatever
whispered passions stirred his heart in her presence, he curbed
and silenced with a stern resolution, unlike any he had previously
exercised. He had so long scoffed at love, that he could not even
suffer himself to dwell upon it as possible, especially now when love
would be disloyalty to his only and earliest friend.

So while the constant intercourse and association of their lives threw
them daily, almost hourly, together, the one never dreamt that her
pure reverence and simple faith were becoming the very religion of a
deathless love, and the other called his sympathy and interest and
subjugated passion, that mockery which binds men and women in a tie so
frail--a word, a look can break it--Friendship!

But one saw the danger to which they were drifting--one whose eyes
were rendered doubly sharp by jealousy, by hatred, by disappointed
passion--and in her heart there grew a dark and poisonous instinct, a
cruel and remorseless plan, and she smiled at the blindness of both
which left at her mercy the defenceless life and simple trust of the
girl she had promised to befriend.

* * * * * *

Since Raoul de Verdreuil had remained in Paris, his father had
delegated to him the task of accompanying and chaperoning his young
wife and her beautiful ward to the endless festivities and amusements
which made so constant a demand on their time.

His failing health and rapidly decreasing strength made him quite
unfit for such an exertion himself, and he was glad to make it over
to his son and remain in quiet and seclusion. Yet he was angry and
jealously fearful of any remarks as to his own inability to undertake
such duties, putting it all on the score of disinclination or want of
leisure, or any reason rather than the right one.

Thus it happened that Raoul was more frequently in the society of the
countess than either he cared or sought to be; and thus it happened,
too, that the very tools she wished for were placed in the hands
of Blanche de Verdreuil for shaping and carving out a scheme base
and sinful as her own nature--a scheme which was to bring ruin and
degradation upon the home and name with which Raoul's fondest and
dearest memories were associated.

Very skilfully she set to work; very slowly and cautiously did poisoned
whispers and distorted truths reach her husband's ear--rumours which
pointed out some special attraction as the real cause of his son's
long stay in Paris, his sudden fondness for gaiety, his gradual
neglect of official and political demands, his new absorbing interest
in his home life. Very cautiously these whispers spread and unfolded
themselves like dark and evil dreams that cannot be shaken off, even
while the dreamer laughs and mocks at them; and while Raoul was all
unconscious of the fierce jealousy his own actions were awaking in the
old man's heart, a subtle hand was at work, a siren's voice, false and
treacherous and alluring, breathed out falsehoods that wore the garb of
truth, fictions that bore the semblance of reality.

Slowly and surely the coldness and restraint between father and son
widened and deepened; slowly and painfully Raoul's proud heart read the
distrust he could neither account for nor disarm; and while the breach
in his home circle widened, he turned to the pure face and sweet, ready
sympathy of Vivienne for consolation, and, finding it only too readily,
thereby fanned the flame to fiercer burning in the jealous, vindictive
nature of his enemy.

All unknowing what he did, all unconscious and unsuspicious of harm,
Raoul de Verdreuil was sowing by his own heedlessness the first seeds
of a harvest of revenge and shame and misery, which other hands would
reap, as well as his own, in years to come!




CHAPTER II.--AS "AFFAIRE DU CŒUR."


"Difficulties spur us when they do not check us."--Reade.


"ONLY one week more and then we shall be back at Renonçeux!"

The speaker was Vivienne St. Maurice, and the words were addressed to
the Marquis d'Orvâl, as they stood side by side, one sweet moonlit
night, on a balcony overlooking the beautiful illuminated gardens
of the Hôtel d'Alençon. She had been dancing with the marquis, and,
complaining of the heat of the rooms, he had led her forth into the
cool scented summer air, and now stood silently watching her as the
moonlight fell on her beautiful face and lit up the depths of her
lustrous, starry eyes.

"You speak as if you were glad to leave Paris," he said, in answer to
her remark. "Do you never think of the pain and the regret your absence
will occasion?"

She laughed--the low laughter of a happy child.

"I am not vain enough to suppose such a thing for a single moment,"
she answered. "I know the world will not feel the absence of a unit
like myself: even if it should, there is plenty of consolation to be
obtained, and I shall soon be forgotten."

"By some, perhaps; by many not soon, or easily, or ever. You do
yourself wrong to suppose so."

She looked away from him down into the beautiful gardens with their
aisles of roses, their falling waters, illumined now by lights that
gleamed star-like through leaves and boughs.

"The world's memory is not a faithful one," she said gravely. "If it
were----"

"What then?" he questioned, as she paused.

"What then? Ah, monsieur, you need not ask. If truth and genius, and
fidelity and worth, were things remembered, they would also be things
rewarded; and that they never are now!"

"But I am not speaking of things in the abstract; I am speaking of
you. Can you doubt but that your absence will be pain to many--to me
at least? Were it not that the Countess de Verdreuil has invited me
to Renonçeux in the autumn, I scarcely know how I should bear it. As
it is, the time will be long and weary enough when Paris sees you no
longer."

"Paris is too inconstant to feel regret for a memory," she answered
lightly, though a slight flush of anger rose to her face. Such speeches
as these were never welcome to one who had so little vanity and so
little interest in them as Vivienne. "And so I think are you, Monsieur
d'Orvâl, unless the world belies you very much."

"I may have been," he answered, with unusual earnestness. "But I have
learned a better lesson of late than the world has ever taught me, and
while I remember that, mademoiselle, I remember you."

Vivienne laughed carelessly: these words had so little meaning, so
little attraction for her.

"By-the-bye," said the Marquis d'Orvâl presently, "have you ever
discovered, mademoiselle, who was that mysterious stranger at the bal
masqué? The countess was speaking to me on the subject a few days
ago. She said her efforts to find out his name or rank had been quite
useless."

The obscure light hid the bright flush that burned on Vivienne's cheek
as she answered hurriedly,--

"I thought you would have made the discovery long since, as it seemed
to distress you so much at the time. You are sure it was not one of
your own friends, monsieur?"

"Quite sure," he answered confidently; "I had not mentioned my dress to
any one of them, and no one could have copied it so exactly if they had
not received some information on the subject."

"Never pride yourself on your originality again, monsieur," said
Vivienne, laughing. "I believe you could forgive everything but the
fact of this impertinent individual copying your costume, when it had
cost you such thought and deliberation. I really felt very sorry for
you when I found how it had been wasted."

He bit his lip at her mockery.

"I believe you think me a conceited fool," he muttered angrily; "you
are always ridiculing me."

"Oh no, monsieur!" said Vivienne, with sudden gravity; "not so bad
as that. I believe you do think a great deal of yourself, but then I
suppose it is excusable. The world has made you its enfant gâté so
long."

"You are very candid," he answered, smiling in spite of himself at
her words. "But I think you are right, Mademoiselle St. Maurice. I
have been so little accustomed to contradiction, or to the denial of
anything on which I have set my heart, that I fear it makes me too
ready to believe that to will and to have are one and the same thing
with me."

"A dangerous belief, I should imagine," she said gravely, "and one
which will not always hold ground."

"I fear so myself, of late," he answered, his languid tones sinking to
greater earnestness. "I fear there is one great gift I covet all in
vain, and that fear makes me a coward at last. You do not guess what
that gift is, mademoiselle?"

"I? No!" she answered calmly, almost indifferently, for she was already
wearied of this man's companionship and empty courtesies. "Anything
that lies beyond money to purchase, and rank to bribe, Monsieur
d'Orvâl?"

"I hope so; for once in all my life I hope so," he answered
passionately, as he gazed down at the beautiful, child-like face, with
its starry, eloquent eyes. "Oh, Vivienne! can you not even guess what
it is? You who have such gracious pity, such infinite gentleness for
every living thing, can you not read what tortures I bear? for I am mad
enough to love you as I never loved living woman yet. I lay my very
life down at your feet, only praying one word to say it is not all in
vain--not without hope, Vivienne!"

She turned to him--startled, amazed, angered.

"Monsieur, I have given you no warrant for such hope--no right to
address such words to me; and I cannot accept your love. I never even
for one moment dwelt upon its possibility!"

"Do not decide too hastily!" he pleaded eagerly, while his eyes
dwelt upon her with a yearning love that touched her heart to
pity him. "Think what my love can give, for there is nothing I
could deny you. Think of the rank, the honours I lay at your feet,
unquestioningly--only praying you to take them as a queen takes what is
her sovereign right--only beseeching you to look with pity on the heart
that is wholly and entirely yours--to listen to my love, and accept it!"

"I cannot," she said simply. "I am sorry, very sorry that you have
spoken such words to me. You cannot surely think so ill of me as to
imagine I could be bribed to marry you by the rank and wealth and
honours you could give me? If so, monsieur, it is time you learnt some
women hold their love at too high a value to sell it for a million such
advantages as those! A king would never purchase my hand, unless he had
first gained my heart!"

Very proudly she spoke; all her child-like beauty moved and stirred into
a grave, calm dignity unlike her usual manner.

"And why should I not gain that?" he asked earnestly--all his
languid conceit, his worldly calmness, swept away by the force of the
new feelings her beauty and her gentleness had awakened. "Why should I
not win your heart in time? You are so young; you know so little of the
world as yet; and if you will only let me try--if you will only give me
the faintest word of hope, I would wait and serve you untiringly only
to have the blessed chance of one day calling you mine."

She shook her head gravely, and her eyes rested on his face with the
calm, untroubled gentleness of a child. "It could never, never be!"
she said quietly. "It would be useless pain to you to let you suppose
such a thing, even for a moment. No, monsieur, dismiss all thought of
it, and let us be friends again--more is impossible."

He was silent for a moment--grievously pained and wounded; for all the
best and truest impulses of his nature had been called to life by this
love which was valueless in the eyes of the only woman to whom he had
ever offered it in real sincerity.

"I can never accept your decision as final, or look upon your love as
wholly beyond my power to gain, unless it is given to--another man," he
said, at length.

Over all the fairness of her face a warm flush deepened and wavered,
and her eyes had a startled, wistful look, as if those words had
touched some hidden spring in her nature. "I wish you would believe
me," she said, with a new softness and sadness in her clear, young
voice. "Indeed! indeed! it would be better to forget me; never to look
upon my face again, if such hopes are to live in your heart!"

But he noted the wistful eyes, the dreamy softness, the wavering flush,
and he said in his heart, "I will not despair. She is such a child: how
can she know what love is worth yet?"

"We had better return to the ball-room," she said gently, interrupting
his silence at last. "Our absence will be remarked."

He gave her his arm in silence. He could not frame any words at that
moment to hide his pain--his wounded pride and disappointed love.
Together they entered the ball-room, and the marquis, taking Vivienne
to the Countess de Verdreuil's side, bowed gravely, and left her with
her chaperon.

"Well, Vivienne, am I to congratulate you?" whispered Blanche, as she
noted the flushed cheeks and downcast eyes of her lovely ward.

"On what?" was the answer, as the girl played somewhat nervously with
the flowers of her bouquet.

"On your acceptance of the Marquis d'Orvâl, of course. I am sure he has
proposed to you, has he not?"

"Yes!"

The scarlet flush burned deeper, the curled lashes drooped lower, and
the girl's voice was nervous and tremulous, for she saw Raoul watching
her a short distance off.

"Well, have you no more to say?" asked the countess impatiently.

"No," said Vivienne calmly.

"No! What in the world is the matter with you? Are your conversational
powers to be limited to monosyllables?" cried Blanche. "Can you say
nothing more than 'yes' or 'no'? What have you arranged with the
Marquis?"

"Nothing!" said the girl calmly, raising her eyes at last from her
flowers to the face of her guardian.

"Good heavens, Vivienne! are you mad or an idiot?" exclaimed the
countess in a low voice of intense anger. "Nothing! You surely do not
mean to say you have been so childish, so foolish, as to refuse him?"

"I do," said Vivienne quietly. "Why should I have done otherwise? The
Marquis d'Orvâl is nothing to me!"

"Nothing to you?"

The words left Blanche de Verdreuil's lips with such utter amazement
and blank incredulity, that Vivienne could hardly repress a smile.

"Nothing to you! To think that the world holds a girl so utterly
foolish and absurd as to throw away such a chance--such a position
as that of the Marchioness d'Orvâl, the future Duchesse d'Alençon,
the most splendid match of the season--for a whim, a fancy so utterly
childishly ridiculous as that the man who offers it is nothing to
her! Vivienne, you really are too trying!"

"I am sorry to displease you, madame," said the girl proudly. "But
not for the best match in France--not to please you even--could I
perjure myself so utterly as to take the name of a wife upon me, while
feeling totally indifferent, and unable to fulfil the duties of one."

Blanche was silent from perfect indignation and wrath. She could find
no words in which to condemn this worse than folly of which Vivienne
had been guilty. It needed all the force of self-control--all the
deception of which she was capable--to hide these feelings at the
moment. But the eyes of the world were upon her, and she was compelled
to subdue them for the time being.

"I see only too plainly how completely I have thrown away all my care
and interest in your welfare, Vivienne," she said, in cold, cutting
accents which fell like ice on the girl's tender heart. "You are the
most ungrateful, foolish creature it has ever been my lot to meet.
What is to become of you in the future if you mean to go on in this
Quixotic, unreasonable manner, God only knows: I don't."

Then she turned away, to smile her sweetest smiles and scatter her
graceful words and airy wit on the group of courtiers she ever managed
to assemble in her train, for Blanche de Verdreuil was a popular woman
in society now, and used her powers gracefully and skilfully that she
bid fair to keep her place, hard as it had been to win.

Meanwhile Raoul crossed the room and came up to Vivienne as she sat,
pained and distressed by the harsh words of the countess, and longing
wildly and vainly that she could fly to some solitary place away from
the great heartless world which glittered and sparkled around, there to
weep over her broken fancies, her impossible dreams, which were being
so rudely dispelled, one after another.

"This is our dance, do you care to give it me?" he asked, in those
low, musical tones which ever wore a deeper tenderness, a strange
gentleness, for her.

"Oh, yes," she said, rising with a faint sigh, and accepting his arm
immediately.

"You look tired and troubled," he said, as he led her away. "What has
Blanche been saying to vex you? I saw her speaking to you a short time
ago."

"She is angry with me because I cannot look upon things as she does,"
said Vivienne sadly. "She finds me a very troublesome pupil: I know,
but what can I do? I cannot be false to my early teachings--my own
instincts. Oh, how I wish I had never come to Paris!"

Something so like a sob rose in her throat that Raoul was startled and
grieved.

"You are over-wrought--over-excited," he said soothingly. "Come away
from here. We will not dance, but go to the gardens instead. The air is
so warm it will not hurt you."

She let him lead her where he would with the passive unresisting
obedience of a child, and soon they were wandering together among the
arcades of roses, the flower-bordered parterres, and softly-shaded
lights of the beautiful gardens, whither many of the guests had already
strayed.

"Now tell me," said Raoul de Verdreuil, as he folded the soft scarlet
cashmere round the girl's slight figure, to protect her from the night
air, "tell me what has distressed you so much; perhaps I can help you."

But a strange restraint seemed to curb Vivienne's confidence, and she
hesitated for some minutes, while he walked beside her, patiently
awaiting her words.

"It is so little," she said at length, while the colour faded
from her face, and the strange, shy fear in her voice pained him
immeasurably,--"so little with which to trouble you, monsieur. The
countess is often vexed with me because I cannot think and act as she
wishes; and then I am so grieved to think I cannot return her kindness
to me by an unquestioning obedience. Only some stronger power withholds
me, some inborn principle prompts me to do what I know and feel is
right, and then--that somehow never agrees with what the world calls
right, monsieur."

He smiled at her innocent words.

"I have no doubt of that," he said; "the countess and yourself look
at life from two opposite points of view, and I should imagine were
never likely to agree unless you, mademoiselle, lost your purity and
clear-sighted instincts (which heaven forefend!), or Blanche underwent
a kind of moral earthquake respecting all her views of life--social,
moral, and conventional. And is this all your trouble?"

She was silent and embarrassed. Lie to him she could not: equivocate
she dared not; yet how could she tell him of the marquis and his
love--of the Countess de Verdreuil's indignation, and her own refusal
of this brilliant offer?

"Not quite all," she said, with that strange, new-born shyness which
saddened and perplexed him; "but all I can tell you, monsieur."

She would not use any of those semi-falsehoods with which society
cloaks its unmentionable truths; she would not use those dainty
equivoques, which are to the world as masks in the ball of life.
No--better to pain him by withheld confidence than deceive him by
anything not wholly truth. That he was pained she knew only too soon by
the shadow on his brow, the coldness of his reply, as he said,--

"Of course I have no wish to force your confidence, mademoiselle; only
I am sorry to find you cannot trust me sufficiently to feel certain I
should never abuse it."

"Oh, do not think that," she cried earnestly, in real distress: "I
do trust you most wholly and entirely, monsieur; only----" she paused,
while the rich colour burned deeper and deeper in her cheeks--"only do
you not know there are some things a woman cannot well speak of without
seeming to betray another's trust?"

"Only love affairs," he said carelessly, though a gleam of suppressed
anger lit his eyes. "Of course, if your secret is an affaire du
cœur, mademoiselle, it is not for me to allude to it. You will let
me know when I am to congratulate you, I hope."

"Most assuredly," she answered coldly, stung to the quick by his
indifferent tone, and hurt that he could so misunderstand her. "Only it
will not be just yet, Monsieur de Verdreuil. My choice has to be made,
and you know I am difficult to please."

"I fear it will be a case of embarras des richesses," he said in
the same tone. "Mademoiselle St. Maurice has so many sighing for the
honour of selection that I feel curious at times to know on whom it
will fall."

The bright colour faded from her face, and the soft eyes were shadowed
with painful thoughts. Why did he speak so cruelly? she wondered.
Had he, too, mistaken her nature? Could he not read her better than
to imagine she would link her fate and give her heart to any one of
these butterflies of fashion who beset her path from day to day? She
was silent and pained, and, as she walked slowly beside him, all the
regret and sorrow of her heart shadowed the brilliance of her face and
deepened its melancholy. Raoul saw the change, and it touched him to
a swift, fierce anger for his own words--a passionate scorn for the
jealous weakness that had prompted them.

"Forgive me," he said more gently; "I did not mean to vex you. I did
not think of what I was saying."

She turned her beautiful eyes on him with that sweet humility he knew
so well shining in their depths.

"Forgive?" she said, half unconsciously; "what is there I would not
forgive you? Only I thought you at least understood me better than
to think for one moment such thoughts as your words expressed."

A world of tenderness flashed in his eyes at those simple words. A
great longing came over him to tell her of his jealous fears, to set
his doubts at once and for ever at rest; but even as the words rose hot
and swift, and tremulous with eager hopes, to his lips, a low musical
laugh fell on their ears; and, starting at the sound, they saw coming
towards them Blanche de Verdreuil and the Marquis d'Orvâl.

"Ah, truants! so I have found you at last?" said Blanche. "Vivienne,
the marquis has been looking for you in vain. He says you promised him
this waltz. If you care to dance it, do so; if not, we will go home,
for it is late enough, and the dawn is already rebuking us. Come,
decide; which shall it be?"

"I think I would rather not dance any more, if Monsieur d'Orvâl will
excuse me," said Vivienne. "I am already fatigued, and it is so
intensely hot in the ball-room. I would rather go home, madame."

"Very well," said Blanche de Verdreuil, as she quietly released her
companion's arm. "You heard my ward's decision, monsieur?"

"Yes, and bow to mademoiselle's wishes as commands," answered the
marquis, in accents of unfeigned regret. "Permit me, then, the honour
of conducting you to your carriage, Mademoiselle St. Maurice," he
continued, as he saw Blanche turn and speak to Raoul.

Vivienne accepted his arm without a word, and he led her away through
the glittering avenues of trees, leaving the countess to follow at her
leisure.

"Come, monsieur," she said lightly to Raoul de Verdreuil, "you must be
my knight perforce. But poor Léon deserves his chances; he has been a
perfect model of constancy in his devotion to Vivienne throughout this
season. I expect, before we leave Paris, to hear that she is to be the
Marchioness d'Orvâl. A brilliant prospect, is it not, monsieur!"

"Do you think she cares for him, then?" asked Raoul de Verdreuil
suddenly.

"Cares!" echoed Blanche, elevating her eyebrows in feigned
astonishment. "Pardieu, monsieur, who cares for the man she
marries now-a-days? Vivienne has the true wisdom of her sex. She knows
how to use her opportunities, and will probably make the best bargain
with the world that lies in her power."

"You misjudge her, I think," said Raoul coldly; "Vivienne is different
to most women, and I do not fear she will make a mercenary marriage."

"Do you not?" questioned Blanche with well-assumed indifference.
"Eh bien, monsieur! Time will show which of us is correct in our
surmises."

Raoul was silent, but his heart burned with a new fierce pain, and that
night brought him neither sleep nor rest.

"Am I fool enough to believe this woman?" he muttered to himself, as
he sat alone in his room, and watched the daylight glowing in the
eastern sky, while yet no slumber would visit his aching eyes or calm
the restless fever in his veins. "Am I fool enough to trust what she
says, when I know the purity of that perfect life?"




CHAPTER III.--TREACHERY.


"She's beautiful, and therefore to be wooed;
She is a woman--therefore to be won."
.... Shakspeare.


THE great world of fashion had grown weary of Paris at last, and left
the city to the heat and dust and scorching glare of the blinding
summer sunshine. It blazed on the white glitter of the houses, the
smooth pavements of the streets; it throbbed with fiercest heat on
thoroughfares still filled with ceaseless traffic and endless toil--on
panting horses laden with heavy burdens--on men toiling and labouring
from dawn of day to close of night--on all the mockery of summer in a
great city, when the blue skies blind with their cloudless brilliance,
and the fierce sunlight dazzles and consumes with scorching heat,
and no breath of sweet, pure air fans the pale cheeks, and cools the
fevered brow of those condemned to remain pent up in their close
prisons of poverty, and shame, and want.

The season was over. Rank and fashion had fled to the cool seas and
sunny lakes and luminous skies of other lands and other climes. The
reign of pleasure was over: it is only the reign of toil that knows no
end--that will know no end while the world drags on its days.

Once more the Château of Renonçeux was thrown open. Once more through
its stately avenues and shady terraces wandered groups of fair women,
idling the summer hours away in indolent enjoyment and languid content.
Through the scented aisles of the rose-gardens, and amidst the murmur
of the fountains, floated the sound of happy laughter; and over the
velvet sward and marble terraces glided the dainty feet and sweeping
robes of Blanche de Verdreuil's guests.

Never before had such a brilliant and titled assemblage congregated
at the château since Blanche had become its mistress, and the fair
châtelaine taxed her powers to the uttermost to interest and surprise
and amuse them as the days passed swiftly by.

There were riding-parties, excursions, moonlight fêtes, balls,
theatricals, festivities without end. And amidst the gaiety and the
pleasure crowding all the days, and filling all the nights, heartaches
and jealousies, bitter passions and black treachery were at work, and
evil days were brooding over Renonçeux, as a storm broods over a fair,
bright landscape in the splendour of a summer noon.

Albert and Vivienne had met again, and that meeting had brought keen
pain to the young artist. She was unchanged in much, he saw. She
had still the dreamy, poetic thoughtfulness, the tender purity, the
spiritual grace of the girl who had listened to his music in the
organ-gallery of the château, and been so constantly and dangerously
associated with him in every hope, in every memory, in every dream of
his heart since; but the cloudless serenity, the perfect peace of her
nature had been tampered with, and the former unrestrained intimacy no
longer reigned between them.

And Albert was puzzled, and perplexed too, by the change in Raoul.
He was grave almost to sternness. His mention of Vivienne was ever
rare and guarded, and though he listened to and encouraged Albert's
confidence as in days of yore, if ever the subject turned to Vivienne,
he shrank visibly from it, and, even if he listened, rarely volunteered
any opinions of his own as to her heart being attached to any of her
admirers as Albert jealously fancied. To both the friends there had
come that chilling restraint, that struggle with what seems disloyalty,
that only a woman's smile can light in men's hearts, only a woman's
influence breathe and fan to one consuming fire within them.

Only a short time before their confidence had been perfect, their faith
complete, their love most true and loyal; and now a shadow had fallen
on their hearts, the old familiar intercourse was restrained, and if
possible avoided; yet each hid the pain and stifled the jealousy which
they read all too well for their own peace, their long, untroubled
friendship.

To Raoul de Verdreuil life now was a strange, undisciplined longing for
the sight of one face, the sound of one voice. With every morning he
rose with this thought--he should see her again. He did not pause to
analyze what he felt--to read the meaning of this subtle intoxication
of the senses, this restless fever of mind and body, which banished
peace, and launched his life on a sea of tempestuous passion. His
strength had been so great all his life before, his self-control so
strong, his pride so immovable, that they cast him into more utter
captivity now for their long restraint upon his heart and nature.

He was stricken powerless by a thousand new emotions--by the light
in a girl's soft eyes as they met his own--by the smile on her lips,
which, as it greeted him, puzzled and perplexed, and yet dazzled his
eyes with its tender, poetic beauty. His life was suddenly confused and
transfigured from all its wonted calm; and yet, as he drifted towards
the danger of this sudden overmastering passion, he sternly told
himself it could never be realized, never be returned. He even strove
to blind himself to the tumult in his heart, the madness in his soul,
which were so mingled and so nameless, he still called them--friendship.

Yet he wondered, at times, how the interests of his political life
had palled upon him so utterly--how, in the midnight solitude of his
chamber, his thoughts turned from the tangled webs of diplomacy, the
subtle workings of finesse, and dwelt ever and always on one pure,
sweet face--the face of a woman with the grace and purity of scarce
departed childhood lingering on it and around it; and vague, dreamy
thoughts, half stormy, and at times half sad, took possession of his
heart, and in his dreams of life now there stole the sorcery and the
sweetness of a passion never felt, or even imagined, before--a passion
grand and lofty, pure and stainless, which lived for one object, and
cherished but one thought--the happiness of what it loved. And in such
moments as these Raoul would pace his room with fevered, restless
steps, and tell himself again and again that, if Vivienne's love was
not for him, he would resign it cheerfully. In such moments he would
declare that his friend's claim was too sacred to be interfered with by
word or look of his.

And thinking of the loyal trust of the boy-artist, the pure and
faithful worship he had rendered this girl, Raoul de Verdreuil curbed
and restrained himself with all the force and might of his iron will,
and never betrayed to Vivienne St. Maurice the love that was wasting
his life and consuming his heart with the fever of its own desires, the
torture of its passionate unrest.

* * * * * *

A sweet summer night; a night on which fall the last lingering notes
of a singer's voice through the open windows of Blanche de Verdreuil's
pretty theatre at the château.

The guests are assembled there to witness an opera produced by the
joint exertions and indefatigable zeal of Albert Hoffmann and Vivienne
St. Maurice. She has taken the chief part, and acted and sung with
a grace and pathos and abandon wholly marvellous and bewildering
in one usually so shy and reserved. But there is genius in the
girl--genius that would glorify the most trivial part she undertook,
and that made her throw herself heart and soul into the character she
played, into the music she sang, to-night.

It is for Albert's sake, and she exerts herself not for others, but
for him; and the result is a success beyond her hopes, a success which
her genius claims apart from her beauty and her popularity with the
audience, whose critical tastes are more than satisfied.

The music comes in for its fair meed of approbation also. The languid
dilettanti speak in wonder of the power and grandeur of the work
they have heard. A few marvel why the young composer does not give it
to the world, and let its merits gain him fame and triumph by their own
intrinsic worth; and while they talk and wonder, and criticize actors
and singers again and again, Vivienne is standing in her dressing-room,
with the flush of her late triumph on her fair face, and the light and
brilliance of excitement sparkling in her eyes.

Standing there, the girl seemed to forget all her life, all her past,
all her present, and to wake to the consciousness of a new power,
sublime and grand and intoxicating. She felt that in her was the fire
of genius, the passion and fervour of art, and the knowledge sprang to
life by the rapid, unerring instinct of genius alone. It was born--not
of the flattery and the praises so lavishly bestowed, not of the
self-confidence of a first success--but of the influence and force of a
new power, long latent, and now called into life by its first exercise,
its first unaided and intoxicating triumph.

"I could do so much," she said softly to herself, as she moved
backwards and forwards through the length of the room, too restless to
keep still, too excited to remain quiet,--"so much--so much; and yet I
am bound down to this inert, passive existence for two more years. Oh!
why was I so foolish as to promise what I did? Why did I chain myself
down so utterly to Blanche de Verdreuil's guardianship? The tie grows
daily more irksome, the restraint more severe, and yet it seems to
me that to break one or other must needs seem a sin to the dead. Oh,
gran'mère! if you can see me now, you must see also how hard it is to
keep that promise--how little there is to bind me to this life--how
much to tempt me from it!"

A knock startled her from these thoughts; a summons reached her from
without, and recalled her to herself again. With a strange reluctance
she obeyed it--a reluctance new to her till now, for she felt as if the
flatteries and praises she would receive from the world must jar on the
consecration of her thoughts to an art she had always deemed divine,
and that now seemed doubly so. But she roused herself from her ecstatic
dreams, her glorious visions. She changed her dress, and then swept
with her usual tranquil grace back to the crowded rooms, where the
audience she had enchanted were still discussing and marvelling at her
powers.

Apart from the rest--his eager eyes fixed on her, his face bright with
a new reverence and adoration--stood Albert Hoffmann. He had given her
no praise, spoken no thanks, for it seemed to him now that the force
and genius of this girl rendered such poor tribute as mere words a
mockery of admiration.

Breathed through her--shadowed forth by her--all his vague, poetic
dreams had taken life, had become great beyond all dreams of greatness.
Her voice, her gestures, her impassioned acting, had given to his
own creations such rich, warm, glowing life, such pure and eloquent
meaning, that they startled even himself with a grandeur of conception
that hitherto had been to him only an ideal meaning. If even the
listless, ironical, surfeited temperaments of the assembled guests
were enthralled and aroused to enthusiasm, it was little wonder that
the composer himself, whose heart was so devoted to his art and
all belonging to it, should find no words--should deem all praises
weak--should only, when her eyes sought his, let the silent eloquence
of a look speak all the burdened passion of his full heart, and give
her no other thanks as she at last stood beside him.

Her face was pale now--her eyes heavy and languid. The after-effects of
excitement, the force with which genius ever recoils upon itself, were
becoming apparent, and Albert's quick eyes noted the signs with sudden
pain.

"You are wearied, Vivienne; you have taxed your strength too severely,"
he said, with that sweet sympathy which love teaches. "Can you not rest
now? See, every one is leaving."

"I am a little tired," she said wearily; "but, as the guests are
leaving, I shall soon be able to retire also."

"Will you come out on the terrace for a moment?" asked Albert. "It is
far pleasanter than these hot rooms."

"Very well," she said, with a sudden tremor in her voice that startled
him; "let us go!"

He did not know that she had seen Raoul's dark, grave eyes fixed
sternly and coldly on her, as he stood in the shadow of the curtained
windows at the other end of the room; he did not guess that her heart
was aching and throbbing with pain, because Raoul alone had given her
no praise, had uttered no word of thanks or pleasure; that there echoed
and lingered in her memory one silvery, playful whisper of Blanche de
Verdreuil's as she had murmured in her ear,--

"You were admirable, ma chère, in your part; only Raoul thinks your
acting somewhat too prononcée in style; he says it would do very
well for the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris, but he never imagined you were
so fitted for the stage before. To tell you the truth, Vivienne, he
does not approve of your display at all."

And those words had poisoned all her triumph--had spoilt all her
enjoyment--had rankled in her heart, and turned its innocent pleasure
into keenest pain. Raoul's disapprobation, at the very moment when
her whole nature was stirred and roused within her by the force and
fervour of these new, vivid, impassioned feelings! It was as gall and
wormwood to their sweetness. She went out into the still balmy night,
with all its scents of flowers and foliage. She was very silent, very
still, and Albert stood by her side silent as herself. Amidst the pain
and the fever of her thoughts, she gave no heed to him; he was utterly
and entirely forgotten. But with the breath of the summer air, and the
beauty of the summer night, a sudden calm hushed her, a sudden peace
stole over her.

Wrapped in that starlit loveliness, while the moonlight slept in
tranquil beauty over the dewy earth, a whisper stole to her and soothed
the restless fever within her breast. All the pure, sweet faith, the
dreaming, passionate idyls of a love not conscious, not wholly known,
stirred her heart from its slumbers. In the eyes gazing out at the
shadows, where the moon's rays fell, a new light gathered--a new beauty
shone--the "light that never yet was upon land or sea," the beauty that
only shines in a woman's eyes when she loves--and loves her best.

* * * * * *

In a room within, Blanche de Verdreuil lingered by Raoul's side. In the
subdued light she noted how white and stern he looked, and she knew
what feelings were at work in his heart--what jealousy and pain were
rending and torturing him within. A fierce joy took possession of her;
a cruel, vengeful delight throbbed and quivered in her veins. Such
pain, such torture had long been hers; now she could deal it back in
full and perfect measure to him.

They were quite alone; there were no eyes to watch, no curious ears to
hear the words that passed between them. Slowly and sweetly her voice
stole on his ear; slowly and surely the dark fears and jealous doubts
of his own heart were met and strengthened and assured.

"You are sure of this?" he said suddenly, as he turned fiercely to
her, his hand clasping her arm in momentary forgetfulness of all save
the agony her words dealt to him.

"Sure--only too sure," she said softly and regretfully. "Her refusal of
the Marquis d'Orvâl, and many other splendid offers she has received,
angered me excessively. I insisted upon knowing the reason, and at last
discovered it. Vivienne loves this young Galahad--this champion to
whom she owes her present life, her present position, her rescue from
poverty and obscurity; and loves him so well, too, that she refuses all
other advantages, honours, and dignities for his sake; loves him as
women only love once in their lives--as she will never love again."

He was silent; words would not come now his own fears were realized,
his own doubts assured--now that the fierce, cruel pain within his
heart told him the folly of his long blindness.

"It is quite an idyl of love--a poem, a fairy-tale, in these prosaic
days," went on the low, sweet voice of his persecutor; "and I had
not the heart to be angry with the girl for her folly--for folly
it assuredly is, to love a dreamer, an idler, a visionary, such as
Albert Hoffmann. But they are both young; a few years' waiting will
not harm them; and I, as Vivienne's guardian, will of course see she
has sufficient settled on herself to keep her in the position she now
occupies."

Raoul hardly heard her words; the fierce pain within deafened and
blinded him to all reason in this moment. He threw up the window, as
if the heat of the room would stifle him. On the terrace without stood
two figures, silent and engrossed, while the moon's rays fell on the
upturned face and rapt, earnest eyes of one. It was that of Albert
Hoffmann.

With a sudden, swift movement he turned to Blanche and seized her hands
in both his own.

"Answer me," he said--his voice hoarse and broken, despite his efforts
at self-control--"answer me truly, this once, as you hope for mercy
yourself in the world to come: did she--Vivienne--tell you she loved
Albert?"

"She did!"

Not a jar in the clear tones; not a false ring in the sweet, low voice;
and yet Blanche knew the words were utterly, wholly false--knew she
lied to him.

His face paled; his hands shook; a quiver ran through the strong, erect
form.

"That is enough," he said hoarsely.

He dropped her hands and turned away with the slow, uneven step of a
man half-stunned by a sudden blow.

"Stop!"

He stood at the door amazed. His father was leaning against it, his
face white and stern, his whole frame trembling with passion and wrath.

"Stop, Raoul! a word with you, ere you go."

"Certainly," answered his son, wearily; "I am at your service, sir."

The soft noise of a closing door, the noiseless gliding of a woman's
step at the further end of the room, was unheard by either of them.
Blanche de Verdreuil had seen that meeting; she knew her schemes were
working as she wished.

"Come in here!" continued the old count sternly, as he entered the
deserted room. "Now tell me--what words were those you spoke to my
wife? How dared you forget my honour--hers--your own--and pour out
the vile protestations of a shameless love in her pure ears? Do you
think I am a dotard--blind and deaf and helpless--that I cannot avenge
dishonour even now, though one foot is in the grave? Do you think I
have been blind to your arts, your schemes? By heaven, Raoul! you shall
answer to me for every word you have uttered to her, for every thought
with which you seek to pollute an honoured home! Answer me, if you can,
or the very lowest of my household shall turn you from my doors this
very hour!"

Raoul gazed at him in such utter amazement, such incredulous wonder,
that for a moment it curbed and restrained his anger.

"Father! such words from you to me!"

The very gentleness of the rebuke stung the old man afresh.

"Such words! Were every word a scourge to lash you, it would be too
weak for punishment such as you merit!"

"But tell me, what have I done?" cried Raoul, in such an agony of
bewilderment and entreaty that it startled the old man, though it never
touched his heart to any belief in his son's innocence.

"Your pretended ignorance is of little avail," he said scornfully.
"A few words will unveil your infamy. Years before I married Blanche
you knew her. That you loved her I do not doubt, though you denied
it. When you met her here as my wife you favoured me with a tissue of
falsehoods respecting her, which I refused to credit; you then refused
to live here any longer, and absented yourself for years, voluntarily
estranging yourself from me and withdrawing all your previous
confidence. I made no remark. I let you act as you would. But since you
were in Paris, since once again you voluntarily took up your abode with
me, your conduct has entirely changed. You have sought and followed my
wife in a manner that has drawn down the remarks of the world on us
both--on me for my blindness, on you for your guilt. I long turned a
deaf ear to the whispers that reached me. You were my son, and I deemed
your honour stainless as my own. But of late--here at Renonçeux--I
have watched you myself. You are ever by Blanche's side, in Blanche's
presence. To-night my suspicions became certainty. Did I not see you
just now--your agitation, your grief, your looks, as you held her hands
in yours? Oh, God! it maddens me to think of it. Nay, no word; would
you have me disbelieve the evidence of my own senses! I know you for a
villain, Raoul; I look upon you as no son of mine, you traitor to all
truth! One word more: leave my roof for ever, and never, while I live,
shall my eyes look forgiveness on your false face again!"

His voice literally shook with rage and passion, and Raoul, as he
listened in utter amazement, saw at last the pitfall into which his
heedless feet had fallen. He remembered now the thousand excuses and
projects framed by Blanche to keep him near her of late--the countless
demands upon his time and attention, to which he had submitted for
Vivienne's sake. Falsehood wore the garb of truth; deceit and suspicion
had inveigled him into this dilemma, and how to clear himself he knew
not.

"It is all false!" he said at last. "God forgive you that ever such
base suspicions found dwelling-place or belief in your heart! I never
thought to hear living man apply the word dishonoured to me!"

"You cannot deny it; you cannot say that I speak without foundation for
my words," said his father fiercely. "Prove to me your innocence. Have
you not haunted her footsteps, sought her side? Did I not see you just
now, as I entered this very room, your hands clasping hers; your words,
your looks, your very actions proclaiming the passion of your heart? If
these things speak for your innocence, it looks to me strangely like
guilt. Had I not met you as I did at this very moment, I might have
doubted all I had heard; but I doubt no longer, Raoul; and I say we
had better part from this night forward. The same home can no longer
shelter us both."

"And you believe I love your wife?--I?"

Raoul spoke with such scorn, such amazement, that for the first time
a doubt of his guilt crept into the old man's heart, and made itself
heard despite his jealous passions: but he answered sternly,--

"I do believe it. I doubted it until to-night; I doubt no longer. My
heart is wrung with shame and agony, that I must say to my only son,
to the last who bears my name--let us part, and that soon, ere a worse
thing come to us."

Raoul looked at him--pity for his weakness, anger for his base
suspicions, mingling with the love and reverence he bore him.

"Since you can think such thoughts, and harbour such doubts, it is
indeed time we part," he said. "You are my father--that I cannot
forget, and that alone forbids me to say what I would have said, had
any other man applied such words to me as you have done. Nay, do not
speak again, or I may for once be tempted to forget your years and our
relationship, and answer you as man to man--not as son to father! I
leave you to your own belief. Time alone can prove how utterly untrue
and unworthy it is. Some day you will know my honour stainless--then,
and only then can I refute this charge--then also these words which you
have spoken will come back to your memory, and with them remorse--if
not forgiveness!"

He paused; but the stern face never relaxed. The old man was
unmoved--unpitying--inexorable.

"At least let us part friends," entreated Raoul, forgetting all save
that this was his father, and that they might never meet in life again.
"You will not refuse me your hand?"

There was no answer, no sign. The stern face looked harder, colder,
more inflexible than ever. Raoul's own face paled till it was white as
death. He asked no more, he said no word--he bowed his head, and left
the old man standing there relentless--unforgiving still.

Only when his step echoed in the distance, and died away in the silence
of the late night, did the Count de Verdreuil's face relax--did the
worn and aged form unbend from its haughty dignity; and the old
man bent his head, and in a sudden paroxysm of remorse and grief,
tears--weak, childish tears--rolled down his cheeks. It is sad to see
age weep. It was sad to see him now in his trouble and distress, his
pain and perplexity. His strength gave way--his pride snapped like a
bow overstrained.

"Oh! my wife, my wife!" he cried. "God forgive you if you have deceived
me now. Heaven pardon you if I have wronged my son--my only son--for
your sake!"

And the wife he loved so idolatrously, that for her sake he had wronged
a noble, stainless heart, and banned a life as pure and upright as
his own with the shame and stigma of dishonour--that wife cowered,
trembling and terror-stricken, in her own dainty room, whither she had
fled at the first sound of that strife between father and son, which
she had planned and provoked.

Doubly perjured--doubly false--her victory brought her no pleasure;
her revenge was remorseful, even in its first moments of success. To
the woman who said from this night forward, "Evil, be thou my good!"
there was neither rest, nor peace, nor reward. Her own hand was shaping
out her own punishment. The wrong she was working out for others would
inevitably recoil on herself.




CHAPTER IV.--"TO BE WROTH WITH ONE WE LOVE."


"Alas! they had been friends in youth,
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above,
And life is thorny, and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain."
.... Coleridge.


THE dawn was breaking in the eastern sky, grey and chill and
colourless; the sun had not warmed the heavens yet, and no flush of
light or radiance had penetrated the morning mists, or swept them from
the earth below.

Albert Hoffmann lay sleeping, after a night of intense excitement--of
vague, wild hopes--of new ambitions, tinged with the rose-hues of a
first success, and the pure, sweet fancies of a first love. His face
was colourless, and tinged with that deep melancholy that often comes
with sleep, when mind and body have laid aside the strain of long and
feverish excitement. As he lay in that profound, dreamless slumber, the
door of his room opened softly, and Raoul de Verdreuil entered.

He was dressed for travelling, and his face in the dim, shadowy light,
looked pale and colourless as marble, while all its eager fire and
dauntless light had changed to a serene and infinite melancholy, that
told only too well of the pain at heart, the struggle with himself, the
warfare of fierce and terrible passions that the night had witnessed.

He approached the bed, and bent over the sleeper, undecided whether to
waken him from that dreamless rest. But even as he doubted and waited
there, silent and uncertain, Albert stirred and moved; then, with a
faint sigh, opened his eyes, and met that weary gaze of his friend as
it rested on his face.

"Raoul!"

He sprang up, awake, half-fearful of some evil that had happened.

"What is it?" he said eagerly, sleep banished in an instant by the
sudden fear at his heart. "Has anything happened, Raoul? Why, you are
already dressed! Is it so late?"

"Don't be alarmed, Albert,"--and Raoul seated himself beside him, and
his voice was calm and passionless as ever. "I have only come to wish
you good-bye. I am summoned to Paris. Look here!" He drew a large
official document from his coat, and showed it him. "This came last
night, and I must attend to it. I have already neglected my duties
too long. I want you to make my adieux for me to the countess and her
guests, and--Mademoiselle St. Maurice."

Albert noticed how he hesitated over that one name.

"I cannot wait till they are up; but you will excuse me, I know; and,
Albert, say good-bye to me now--for it may be long before we meet
again."

"Raoul!" cried his friend in unconcealed astonishment. "There is
something the matter, I know. Tell me what it is--trust me, dear Raoul!
There is something that troubles and perplexes you. Will you not let me
hear it? We had no secrets unshared once."

Raoul was silent. A heart-sick misery was making his life desolate, yet
he could tell to no one the base suspicions which had forced him from
his father's roof--which had turned the loyal faith of his father's
heart to distrust and anger. No, not even to Albert could he repeat
those words, whose fiery shame tortured him--words he could never
forget, even if he might learn to pardon them in years to come.

"Albert," he said calmly, "I have a secret to keep which I cannot tell
to living soul, not even to you. You must not think I am unkind to
refuse you my confidence. My secret concerns another as well as myself,
and my own heart alone must hold it. And now my time is short. One word
and I must leave you. There has been a coldness and restraint between
us of late; the fault was mine. I know my folly now, and, knowing it,
I see at last how far worthier you are of the gift I was mad enough
to covet once. You know what I mean, and I want you to know also,
that I pray for your happiness and hers, as I never in all my life
prayed for anything yet. I want you to tell her this from me as your
friend and hers; and I want you to forget all the coldness and withheld
confidence of these past months, and look upon me still as your truest
and most faithful friend; and you must not think it strange if I am
absent a long time now, or if years pass before we can meet. Try to
think of me at my best, and remember that, whatever the world says of
me, I am not wholly bad. Promise me this!"

A mist of tears rose in the clear, boyish eyes at the unconscious
tenderness of those tones.

"Oh! Raoul!" he pleaded, "if you would only trust me, if you would
only tell me your trouble, I might help you. Is it--is it about
her--Vivienne?"

"No, no!" he cried eagerly, almost fiercely. "Do not think that, do not
fear that. It is a trouble you cannot share, otherwise I would not have
resisted your entreaties. And now I must go; it is daylight already,
and I have no time to lose. Farewell!"

He held out both his hands with a yearning gesture, which showed more
than anything else how his calm, self-controlled nature was shaken and
aroused--how the longing for love and sympathy broke out through all
his efforts at restraint. Albert gave him his hands in silence; he
was too startled, too distressed, for any other appeal to come to his
lips. That some strange, sudden ill had befallen his friend he could
not doubt. But as he felt the warm, familiar grasp--as he gazed at the
weary, colourless face from which all the light and gladness of life
seemed fled--his heart cried out in one last appeal,--

"Oh, Raoul, let me help you! let me know your grief. Your looks, your
presence here, are all so strange, I shall know no peace when you are
gone."

"You will have her," he said, simply, with a smile so sad, it had a
deeper pathos than tears. "She will comfort and console you better than
anything else. Ask no more, for I can tell you nothing. God bless you,
and give you all happiness. And now once more--Farewell!"

He wrung his hands, and, ere Albert could speak another word, was
gone, leaving him, bewildered and distressed, to wonder over what had
passed, and perplex himself with theories innumerable for his friend's
extraordinary conduct.

So while the closed casements of the château shut out the morning
light, and the sunrise swept over the east, and the birds woke to chant
the praises of a new day, Raoul de Verdreuil mounted his horse, and
rode slowly away from the home he had loved so long--the home he had
been driven from by the shame of a terrible and unmerited dishonour.

There was wonder and loudly-expressed astonishment at the news of
Raoul's abrupt departure when Albert Hoffman related it at the
breakfast-table that morning. No suspicion of such a thing had crossed
the minds of any of the guests at Renonçeux. Only by two of those
seated at the table was the news already expected--the Count de
Verdreuil and his wife.

Matchless actress as she was, Blanche felt her cheeks pale as she
heard that Raoul had left, but her husband's eyes were fixed eagerly
and searchingly upon her, and she summoned all her self-command,
and forced herself to smile and talk and be as gay and brilliant
as usual, murmuring, with cold indifference, that Raoul was always
eccentric--never to be depended on--that she had half-expected him
to leave them suddenly--his stay had already been so unusually long.
And then she skilfully turned the conversation to other matters, and
this strange departure was alluded to no more. But a thrill of savage
joy swept through her heart as her eyes rested on Vivienne, and noted
how deadly pale she turned, how some inward pain shadowed all the
brightness of her eyes as she heard of Raoul's absence, and remembered
he had spoken no parting word, had left her no farewell, for Albert
kept his message to give her when alone.

The meal went on, however, in spite of the heartaches and misery
throbbing beneath the laughter and the words of the assembled; and
if some noticed Vivienne's extreme quiet, and Blanche de Verdreuil's
feverish gaiety, and the old count's stern, grave face, they never
thought of attributing these facts to the news they had just heard.

The long hours of that day dragged on; how weary and how painful they
were to Vivienne she alone knew. The Count de Verdreuil shut himself
up in solitude; Blanche exerted herself to interest and amuse her
guests, and invented schemes for their enjoyment, as if she dreaded
a moment's quiet, or a moment's peace, that could give her time to
think; and at last Albert Hoffmann sought Vivienne's side, and told
her of his pain and perplexity regarding Raoul; she listened with a
coldness and restraint altogether new to her, and it seemed to Albert
so like indifference that his heart beat high with hope, and he said
to himself, "She cannot care for Raoul, as I once feared; she seems
to have scarcely any interest for his affairs; his absence apparently
makes no difference to her; how foolish I have been to fear it!"

But through all that day the girl battled with this new pain, this
sudden weariness of heart, this fierce, intolerable longing for one
look, one word from the man who had left her so carelessly and coldly;
when night came at last, and the noise and laughter and the tumult
of the many voices died away, and she was free to tear the mask from
her face, she threw herself on her knees by the open window of her
room, and gave vent to a torrent of passionate grief, long pent up,
long restrained, but whose very agony taught her at last the secret
of her heart; that bore her away from the shadow-land of fancies and
of dreams, of pure, untroubled thoughts, and innocent, unquestioning
enjoyment; that showed her she was a child no longer. In this hour she
learnt the mingled torture, and sweetness, and shame of a woman's love
when she knows that love unsought, yet cannot ever again withdraw it.

The moonlight streamed through the window, its softened radiance
falling on her bowed head and masses of loosened hair, on the white,
speechless agony of the young, fair face upturned for one swift moment
to the starlit heavens, then bending lower and lower, as if with
the agony of its own shame, the knowledge of its own secret. So the
moonlight left her, so the grey dawn found her, as the hours passed
swiftly, silently along; while she was all unconscious of their flight
in this new pain that had come to her heart and shadowed her life.




CHAPTER V.--COULD LOVE PART THUS?


"Could love part thus,
Was it not well to speak,
To have spoken once?"
.... Tennyson.


A WEEK had passed since Raoul de Verdreuil had left Renonçeux. A week
during which a strange shadow, a strange cloud seemed to have fallen
over the gaiety and brightness of the life at the château.

Since his son's departure a settled gloom had changed the Count de
Verdreuil's open, cheerful manner, to one unsettled, troubled, and
spiritless. He was never seen to smile. Some heavy care weighed upon
his brow, and lined and furrowed his cheeks; and whispers went about
of how at night, when the guests had separated and the lights were
extinguished, and peace and darkness brooded over all, he would be
seen wandering through the passages and galleries, candle in hand, and
entering one room, a little room on the right of the grand reception
salons; and there he would sit for hours, never moving or stirring till
the daylight roused him to himself once more, when he would wander back
as he came, more like an uneasy ghost than a living man; and whispers
went about of his failing health, and his failing mind, which daily
grew more weak and childish, and the guests grew weary of the dullness
of the château, and the forced, uncertain spirits of their hostess, and
one by one they left it until it was almost deserted.

There were strange rumours, too, coming no one knew how or whence,
concerning the ward of the Countess de Verdreuil. Some said she was
a peasant-girl born on the estate; others that Blanche had a deeper
interest and nearer relationship to her than was supposed; and Vivienne
noticed the cold faces, and scornful words that were often visible, and
scarcely concealed beneath the mask of courtesy; noticed them with a
dim wonder, a strange, listless indifference that sprang only from the
pain of her heart and the weariness of her life as it was now.

One hot September noon she came to the music-gallery, where Albert
Hoffman was altering and improving the score of the opera she had sung
so successfully. She entered so quietly that he did not notice her till
she went over to the window, and stood leaning half-wearily against it,
while the soft light enfolded her, making her look beautiful beyond all
words as his eyes rested on her face. A flush of eager delight rose
to his own; of late she had seemed to avoid him, and that she should
at last voluntarily seek his favourite haunt, as in their old days of
confidence and friendship, was to him a pleasure such as he rarely
knew. He saw how pale she looked in the full radiance of the bright,
soft light, and a swift pain shot through his heart. As he watched her
she turned listlessly towards him.

"Are you busy, Albert?" she said; "don't let me disturb you. I only
came here because it is so quiet and so cool."

Albert's heart gave a throb of pain and disappointment at her languid,
careless words; then he said--

"You never disturb me, Vivienne; surely you know that all too well!
Your presence is the deepest joy my life can know."

She was silent. Indeed she scarcely heard him. Her thoughts were far
away. Her heart was weary and oppressed. Trouble, vague and nameless,
was shadowing her life, and she had brought the thoughts and the
troubles here. She had come to think them out in the solitude she had
found so often--in the room of all others she loved the best.

"Play to me," she said suddenly, never turning her eyes away from the
wide sweep of the park before her and the beautiful avenue of trees
beyond; and Albert rose and went to the organ without a word.

Looking at the slender figure leaning there with the light from the
stained glass falling so richly around it, he thought of the time when
first he had seen her in a like attitude--in her poor peasant's dress
and dusty shoes, but yet so beautiful in it all, that the rough coarse
garments could not hide her natural grace, or delicate loveliness.
Involuntarily his fingers wandered into the same air he had played
to her then--only weaving into its tender melody now the passionate
longings of his great, unspoken love--the prayers of imploring passion
which filled his heart to overflowing in that moment.

As he ceased the girl's face was white and drawn, as if with inward
pain, and her hands were locked tightly together, while the misery in
her eyes was beyond all words.

"Vivienne!" he cried, puzzled and distressed by her evident suffering,
"is anything the matter with you? My darling, speak to me. Your
troubles are mine you know--do you not?"

"It is nothing," she said hurriedly; "only--why did you play that? Why
did you bring back so vividly again all I was then--all I am now?"

"Why, Vivienne," he said, in astonishment, "what do you mean? Are you
not happier now, dear? are you not in a sphere of life more suitable
in every way--or," his voice trembled a little as he saw how the girl
shrank from him, "or has any one offended you--pained you? You do not
look like your fair bright self to-day!"

"Oh, Albert," she cried impetuously, "I am wretched here! I want to
go away from it all. I want to be independent of every one. I cannot
live in this humiliation any longer. I cannot bear the whispers and
wonders as to who I am. Oh, help me to act for myself; to do something
which will at least give me independence. I cannot--will not live at
Renonçeux any longer."

"Vivienne," said the young man sadly, "this is a strange and sudden
determination on your part. This home is as much yours as mine. The
Countess de Verdreuil told me that she gave a solemn promise to your
gran'mère to adopt and protect you, and you have seemed happy and
contented all this time. Has any one said anything to make you feel
your position?"

"Oh, no; but I can see it in their faces. I can read it in their looks.
I know that I have no right to be with them as an equal until my birth
is proved satisfactorily, and there is so much mystery about it all
that I fear it is now impossible to ascertain anything."

"Vivienne," said Albert, in a low, passionate voice, "my darling, I
must speak at last. Vivienne, give me the right to protect you. No
whisper shall ever be breathed against you then. I have dreamt and
thought of you since first I saw you standing there, where you now
stand, my beautiful queen. I have dreamed that one day I might stand
before you and tell you how deathless and true a love is mine, how
little it asks from you, except to make you happy evermore--if you
will let me do it, Vivienne. For you I will win fame and honour and
success--for you I can work and toil unceasingly. See already how
much I have done; but it is nothing--nothing to what I will do for
one little word of hope from you, my darling--for one whisper of
encouragement to tell me it is not quite in vain."

"Oh, hush, Albert!" cried the girl, her white face upraised now, and
her lips quivering with the pain his words had given her. "I never
thought of this, of your caring for me in this way. I have looked upon
you as a brother always, and, oh, forgive me, Albert, if it pains you
to hear it, as it grieves me to say it, I can never look upon you as
anything else. Oh, God forgive me!" she cried, turning away from the
agony she saw in his face. "What have I done that this should come
upon me too?"

A silence as of death fell between them, broken only by her stifled
sobs as she leant against the window with her face buried in her hands.
It seemed to Albert then as if all the light and beauty of the day had
vanished, and he was standing in the deep, black darkness of an endless
night, fighting with a foe whose deadly grip would never leave his
heart--could never be shaken off from his life in any time to come.
Across the blind despair and death-like agony of that moment, no ray of
hope could shine. He was powerless to speak; into what words could he
pour the anguish he was suffering?

"If my life could end now!" he said, at last, his voice falling on
the stillness with a ring of passionate pain that went to Vivienne's
heart. "To have thought and hoped this so long, so long! And now--my
God, how can I bear it!"

She raised her face to his appealingly.

"If anything I could do or say would make it less hard, how gladly I
would do it! But, Albert, what you have asked is impossible. It could
never be! Oh, why can you not be content as we were, Albert? Why give
me this pain of paining you? Why not let me be your sister still as I
have long been? Why----"

"Hush! can you ask such vain questions as these? It shows how little
you know of a man's love, or you would know also that having once given
it he can no more calm it down to the mere placid ordinary friendship
you name, than he can tear the heart that bears it out from his breast,
and so learn forgetfulness and death."

She trembled at the wild words, all the more pained and terrified
because they came from one ordinarily so gentle and so tender. What
could she say to comfort him? Nothing she knew. Love like this she had
never dreamed he would feel for her. Love like this it was not in her
to feel for him. She knew her own heart now, and she knew to
whom all its love was irrevocably given, and knowing something of his
suffering by her own, she yearned to comfort him, yet could not.

The gentle pity in her soft eyes only made him feel more utterly
wretched, only told him how vain was the hope that anything he could
do would ever make them glow with passion, or kindle with answering
tenderness. His face was white as death, and its anguish grew
unbearable to Vivienne as she met his gaze fastened so imploringly on
her; she was still standing before him, still wrapped and folded in the
glow of the rich soft light. How fair, how inexpressibly fair, and yet
how pitiless she seemed to him!

"There is no hope for me, then?" he said, jerking out the words as if
each one hurt him even to speak it. "Oh, Vivienne! why?--surely love
like mine must win some return at last, if you will only let me try,
if you will only give me the same chance you give to the other men who
crowd about you from day to day; if----" then he broke suddenly off
and seized her hands and held them in his own, which burned like fire,
"Say, Vivienne, is there one among them who has won what I covet;
is there one you love! In pity tell me, and I will go from hence and
never look upon your face again till I have learnt self-control or
forgetfulness!"

She drew herself up with the old proud disdainful grace he remembered
so well.

"One of them! those butterflies who hover round me and weary me with
meaningless flattery? No! How can you think it? I should not be worthy
of your love could I give mine so lightly and unworthily."

"Then--then, Vivienne, will you not give me some hope? something to
look forward to in the future, when you will see how worthily I love,
how deathlessly and enduringly I will remember you?"

"It would be but needless pain, I know," said the girl, with sad
earnestness. "Do not ask me, Albert; indeed, indeed, a sister's love
is all I can ever feel for you. It is best you school yourself to
believe it now, however hard or cruel I may seem to you. It grieves
me--how much it grieves me you can never know--to seem unkind to you;
for ever since I came to Renonçeux you have been so kind, so gentle, so
sympathizing; but yet what can I do?"

Her voice grew broken and uncertain as she read how her words pained
him, as she saw the heavy shadows, more pitiful than any tears, gather
in his eyes.

"You can do nothing, of course," he said, with such utter desolation
in his voice that it thrilled her heart with pain. "I have only been a
fool, like most men at some period or other of their lives. I must bear
my sorrow, as they have done before me; go back to a lonely life, or
strive to stifle the memory of my misery in the world I have so long
shunned. What does it matter to any one what becomes of me?"

"Don't speak so bitterly," she said;--" there are many to care for you.
Even though I cannot give you the love you wish, I shall always think
of you as my truest, dearest friend; the first I found out of my own
poor home; the one I shall keep all my life through, I hope."

She strove to speak cheerfully and bravely, though her heart was heavy
within her; for she loved Albert very dearly and truly; he had been,
as she said, her earliest friend in this new home; but she knew only
too well that the love she felt for him was too calm and sisterly to
offer in exchange for the passionate worship of his whole heart; that
her love was all "save that of man or woman when they love their best,"
while his was the one best gift of his life, and in its fervour and
intensity must be cast back to him by her own hands, even in the moment
of its first utterance.

"There is a proverb about a starving man and half a loaf, is there
not!" he said, with a sad bitter laugh. "Even your friendship seems
sweeter than any other love, Vivienne: but to see you, meet you, be
with you, as I have been of late, I cannot bear any longer. I must do
something to stifle this pain at heart--this madness that tortures me
so vainly; for, till I lose all power of loving, Vivienne, I know I
shall love you, be it ever so vain or ever so hopeless. Perhaps, when
the first sharpness and bitterness of my disappointment has worn off, I
may be able to accept the friendship you offer; now I cannot!"

The tears gathered in her eyes as she gazed at the white young face,
so pitiful, yet so brave in the struggle for calmness, in the strong
endeavour to subdue its signs of suffering before her at this moment.
Softly and tenderly she spoke to him, all earnest, hopeful words her
heart could prompt.

"You are too young to make one disappointment, however great it seems
now, shadow all your life henceforward," she said at last. "Be brave,
Albert, and do your best to conquer it. I scarcely think any woman is
worth such a waste of love as a lifetime spent in her worship seems
to me. There is so much to be done in the world, so much for us all
to do, that to despair at the very commencement, because something
has not happened just as we wished it to happen, is neither right nor
wise. Tell me you will try your best, dear Albert, to--to forget this.
You are meant for great things, I know; you must not let the world be
ignorant of your merits any longer, and Art will be your best consoler
yet."

The death-knell of every hope he had so long built, of every thought
he had so long cherished, rang out in her firm and gentle words. She
could never love him--never! And he? Ah! every heart-beat told him,
with swift and terrible agony, that his love could never die; that its
passion could never perish, do what he would, strive how he might.

He turned to her, and all the anguish, and all the love of his whole
nature spoke out in wild impassioned words.

"My beautiful--my beloved, could any power living or dead make me
forget you? Oh, Vivienne, almost I could pray that we had never met!
and yet--not knowing you--my life would have lost the sweetest joy it
has ever known--it ever can know--now."

She bent her head to hide the falling tears that nothing could
restrain. She would have made any sacrifice to give him peace again,
and yet she felt how utterly powerless she was to whisper any comfort.

"Say good-bye to me," he whispered, in a low, hoarse voice "Say
good-bye, and let me leave you, and strive for calmness. I shall forget
my manhood if I linger here, and shame even your weakness by my own."

She looked up--her eyes all dark and misty with tears, and yet so
pitiful in their wordless sympathy.

With a swift, passionate impulse, a yearning he could not repress, he
suddenly drew her to his breast, and held her there, strained close to
his beating, aching heart. The hot blood dyed her cheeks with swift and
painful blushes, but looking at the agony of the white boyish face, she
had not the power to resist him.

"The first and the last," he murmured passionately, as he bent his lips
to hers, and let them rest there in one long, quivering kiss that was
in itself as a farewell to the love that must henceforth be dead to
him. "Oh, my beautiful, my beloved, say one last word to me--one that
in all the years to come may soothe the anguish of an hour like this!"

"God comfort you," she whispered softly, "and send you the peace and
rest of a purer love than any earth can give. And now say you can
forgive me for this pain. If you could see my heart, you would know how
deep is my remorse for having so unwittingly caused it."

"Forgive you?" he said; "I would forgive you every sin, every error.
Darling, the world holds none whose love for you will be more tender,
more true than mine. The fault is none of yours that I suffer now.
Rather it is my own blind folly. I might have known--ah, long ago, I
might have known how vain it was to hope this. And now, farewell!"

Not trusting himself to say another word, to give another look, he
slowly loosed his hold and set her free, then turned and went swiftly
away ere she could stay him.

She stood quite motionless where he had left her, with a nameless sense
of fear and pain confusing her as she tried to think over all that had
passed. Was she to blame? Had she crushed the brightness out of this
young life? Had she destroyed the genius and the hopes within it?

"Oh, God, teach him to forget!" she prayed, as the agony of remorse,
the tenderness of an infinite pity swept through her heart; then,
pressing her hands to her burning temples, as if to still the pain
throbbing within, she bowed her head on her outstretched arms and wept
such tears as in all her life before she had never shed.




CHAPTER VI.--NEAR THE BRINK.


"My shadow falls upon my grave,
So near the brink I stand."
.... Hood.


THE soft fair days of summer had passed away.

The shadows grew more sombre in the woods. The dead gold and crimson
glory of falling leaves strewed the ground, and the flow of burning
sunsets tinged the skies. On the orchard-mosses the over-ripened fruit
dropped softly and unheeded from the boughs; the scent of grapes
gathered for the wine-press, and the luscious dreamy odours of crushed
leaves and fading flowers and trodden fruits, were heavy in the air.

It was the autumn time once more, and the changes in the world without
were not greater than the changes in the world within. The little world
of thought and life and human passions which seems so all-important,
which plays so great a part in the souls, the lives, the interests of
men.

Over the Château of Renonçeux brooded the shadow of death. There was
gloom and sorrow and trouble; darkened rooms and hushed footsteps
and voices awed and subdued, for with the waning glory of the dying
year the life of the Count de Verdreuil was waning too; fading
slowly--surely--till it bore no likeness to the strength of manhood,
till it was nothing but the lassitude of utter weakness, the
helplessness of a little child.

There were no guests at Renonçeux now; none but Vivienne and Blanche;
for even Albert Hoffmann had left--to study for his profession in
Germany, he said; but there was one who knew of another reason for this
sudden resolve, another cause for this strange absence, and though it
grieved and pained her to think of his self-enforced banishment, she
yet knew that his truest comfort and surest consolation lay in his art,
and that to devote himself solely and entirely to that, would be the
best if not the only remedy for a misplaced and unrequited love.

Of Raoul, no word had reached them since he left Renonçeux so abruptly.
Neither letter nor message had he sent to any at the château. Vivienne
was in complete ignorance as to his present address, and Blanche
declined taking any steps to discover it, although every day it was
feared that his father might die, and the young count's absence at such
a time was strange and inexplicable to many.

But Blanche de Verdreuil had her own schemes--her own plans, and
Raoul's presence at this time was scarce desirable. The quarrel between
his father and himself was well known to her, and her words had fanned
the old man's jealous rage and fierce anger to an incessant and
consuming fire within his heart, to one restless, ceaseless craving for
revenge in his mind.

Yet still, as he lay dying now, a faint remorse came over him. Raoul
was his only son, the last of his name and race. It went hard with him
to believe him dishonoured--to proclaim him base. He strove blindly,
yearningly, for some foot-hold for his shaken faith; his love pleaded
for the only child that had been born to him by the wife for whom he
had had such tender reverence, such loyal trust, though he had never
given her the blind, passionate adoring worship which his heart had
bestowed on the love of his later years. His trust had been blind, his
faith limitless, and he believed in Blanche and worshipped her still;
content even for her sake to doubt his son's honour, so she bade him do
it, and repaid him with sorceress smiles and false kisses, and murmured
love words.

But though he had wronged Raoul, though he had bidden him leave
his roof and seek it no more while he lived, no thought of further
punishment, of deeper injustice had been in his mind. Raoul was still
his son; he held his name and honour in his keeping; he was the last of
his race, and, whatever his sins and thoughts, the old man never forgot
that his titles and his wealth were due to him; that he must reign at
Renonçeux when death gave him the right to do so; when the old king
was deposed for the young monarch to succeed in his place; and if the
thought brought any bitterness with it, he yet never dreamt of robbing
Raoul of his lawful heritage, of divesting him of his legal rights. He
did not think of such revenge as this; but another did.

In the mournful, shadowy hues of his chamber, the old man lay one
night. Lights were darkened there, and footsteps hushed, and voices
whispered low and soft that another morning's sun would never rise for
him, another dawn never greet his eyes with the flush and warmth and
colour of a new day. And he knew it.

He had no pain now to rack his frame, to torture his limbs; a great
weariness and a great calm were all he felt, and he knew the end was
near.

In the darkness and the shadows of the autumn twilight, while the red
gleam of the fire shone over the rich hues and luxurious appointments
of his chamber, a woman came and stood beside his bed. The flush and
splendour of her beauty dazzled him; the soft caress of her lips, the
subtle perfume of her hair stole over his senses with a dreamy delight
that wrapped him in bliss even now, with the hand of death and the
shadows of eternity so close to him. He had loved her so utterly, so
blindly since first he met her in the splendour and brilliance of her
beauty, but never had he loved her as now, when he knew his hours were
numbered, that every moment as it passed made one less for his eyes to
rest on, and his hand to touch, and his ears to hear, the face and the
voice of his enchantress.

She stooped over him as he lay there sick unto death, and her voice was
very low and sweet as she asked him if he still suffered, if he were
not better this night?

"Much better," he murmured, as his eyes dwelt upon her with the
limitless adoration of his great love. "My dearest! only to see your
face is relief and forgetfulness of pain."

She smiled. This fond belief, this unalienable faith and devotion, were
still sweet to her; were proof and signal of her power, and valuable,
inasmuch as they were of use for the furtherance of her schemes.

"You wear my favourite colours," he said, touching gently the delicate
azure folds of her robe. "You are more beautiful than ever, Blanche.
The years but make your loveliness more perfect, it seems to me."

She seated herself beside him, and signed his attendants to retire.
Then she answered,--

"It is only for you I value it; alas! if I could but see you in
health and strength once more."

"A vain wish, I fear; one never likely to be realized now," he answered
sadly and regretfully. "Ah, Blanche! to leave you is worse pain than
any death can bring."

"Oh, hush, hush!" she said, as she laid her lips on his hand to still
their trembling. "It is not that yet."

"It grieves you to lose me, then?" he said, with a sudden light in his
eyes as they rested on her bent head, with its wealth of shining hair.
"You love me still?"

"Ah! you know it so well," she said softly. "None can be to me what you
have been. None ever were before."

He was silent for very joy; those words brought to his heart a deep,
exquisite sense of pleasure that stirred and moved him even in his
extremity of weakness and of pain.

"How can I reward you? how can I thank you?" he said. "Words are weak
to tell how much I have loved you since first your face dazzled me,
since first your power taught me the one passion of my heart. And now,
Blanche, one word. You know that rumours reached me of Raoul's devotion
to you. You know, too, how long I doubted and strove to resist all
suspicion of his perfidy until I could doubt no longer. Tell me again,
was it not true that he loved you?"

"It was."

He drew a deep breath; a light of fierce and sudden wrath flashed in
his eyes.

"And you? I never asked you before, Blanche. Forgive me that I ask it
now."

"I gave him the answer he deserved; surely you know what that would
be?"

A spasm contracted his face, his colour changed, his breath caught.
Then he asked her fiercely,--

"His words! tell me quick! Were they dishonour to you? of myself I
speak not."

She knew he was dying. She knew his hours were numbered, and yet she
had no remorse, no pity. Low and clear and pitiless the words fell from
her lips,--

"They were--the worst dishonour man can name to woman!"

An oath--deep muttered, fierce with a wrath that made her tremble,
escaped his lips.

"If I could only avenge it, if life could be to him the shame and
bitterness he would have made it to me!"

Her face flushed, her eyes glittered with a triumph cruel, base, and
evil. The moment of her vengeance was at hand, the hour she had schemed
and planned for so long had come to her at last. She bent to him; a
whisper, remorseless, vindictive as herself stole from her lips, and
the purpose of her life shaped itself out in those brief words,--

"You can avenge it. It is not yet too late. The shame he would
have brought on you, you can repay to the uttermost. The dishonour he
would have given to your heart, your house, your name, you can give
back to him in full and ample measure!"

The old man listened to her breathless and confused.

"What do you mean?" he said hoarsely. "Speak----"

She bent still lower, so that no ear but his own could catch the words.

"Renonçeux is not entailed. You need not leave it to an unworthy
son!"

He started up. His face white and ghastly, his eyes blazing with fierce
and jealous passions. He looked like an avenger of evil in that moment
of fury and of shame. He suffered fiercer agony in the temptation those
words brought to him, than any physical suffering had given to his
wasted frame.

"The last of my race, the last of my name," he muttered, so low she
could scarcely hear him. "To crown him with such dishonour as this! To
cast him out on the world with the ban of disinheritance clinging to
him evermore. It were punishment enough for even a worse crime."

"And does he not merit it?" she asked, rising to her feet, and
confronting him with passionate fury. "Is my honour nothing? Am I to
be dethroned that he may reign here? Is his sin to be never visited
upon his head because it failed in accomplishing what he desired? Oh,
Heavens! and I believed you loved me!"

He sank back on the pillows, trembling like a leaf, a thousand emotions
warring in his heart and torturing his brain. He could not reason,
he could not think; he could only hear the voice of passion, of
outraged honour, of fierce and jealous wrath. He was silent. Save for
his laboured breathing she might have thought him dead; alarmed and
terrified, she hastened to a cabinet near by, and poured out a glass of
wine, which she brought him.

"Drink this," she whispered softly, "it will give you strength and
calmness. It will bring you power to avenge wrong, and shield your
honour?"

Unhesitatingly he obeyed. The rich draught brought the colour to his
face, the warmth to his chill limbs and trembling hands.

"I am better," he said, as he gave her back the glass. "I can think
now. Tell me, Blanche, is it too late? Is there any one here who can
draw up a fresh will for me?"

She trembled with delight. The fierce, cruel joy in her eyes deepened
and sparkled with success, so near and sure it seemed to her now.

"The notary is here," she said softly, "shall he come to you?"

"Yes, quick, or it may be too late; and stay, Blanche; let the
physician be present too, that he may certify I am still sane, and
capable of accounting for my actions."

She summoned the attendants and gave the message. The old man expressed
no wonder, no surprise at the fact of the notary being there ready for
the summons. His mind was full of this one idea, to avenge on his son
the dishonour he would have brought on him: he could grasp no other.

"He thought me an old dotard," he muttered fiercely to himself, "he
looked on that beauty and coveted it for himself. He would have sinned
against me without regret. He shall find even with my last breath I
can defend my honours and hers. When he comes here once more to claim
his heritage, to reign in his own right, he will find that a father's
justice can outweigh a father's love. All other sins, all sins to me
even, I could have forgiven, but the sin that touches her shall
never win from me forgiveness or excuse. The last of my race, the
last of my name!" he cried aloud, with a sudden passionate grief that
thrilled through the silence around. "Oh, God, how hard it is to do
this thing!"

The guilty woman beside him heard that cry. She turned to him again.

"Better let the race die and the name perish while yet it is borne by a
life pure and noble and stainless as yours, than be perpetuated by one
shameless and unworthy."

"You are right," he said simply; "those words are more noble than my
regrets. To you shall the name go and my possessions with it, and if,
in years to come----" his voice trembled and shook with the effort
to say the words--"if in years to come you wed another, let your
children bear it in place of him who is my son no longer."

She bent her head to hide the flush that burned on her cheeks.

"Ever noble, ever true!" she murmured, as she kissed his brow, already
damp with the chill of death. "How can I thank you, save by being as
true and tender of your memory as you have been of my honour."

His eyes filled with a great agony--these moments were torture to
him. He hated himself for what he was about to do, and yet his blind
belief and passionate adoration for this woman left him powerless to
refuse her will. She had ruled and swayed him so long, that in his
helplessness and weakness he was completely at her mercy. He never
even questioned why she had kept these things from him till his fate
was sealed and his life all but ended, till weakness and suffering had
enfeebled his frame and robbed him of his clear intellect and calm
reason. He had spent his heart, his honour, his very existence on her,
and now she could do with him as she would. He believed her words as
though an angel had spoken them; he believed in Raoul's guilt as firmly
as if his own lips had confessed it, and rage and passion, outraged
honour, and blind, besotted love, all conspired to give him over to the
power of a vengeful and unjust temptation.

A sin against himself he could have pardoned, but a sin against her
seemed to him a crime too base for any forgiveness to reach it. So he
lay there, stern, pitiless, silent, while the minutes ticked away the
passage of time and brought him nearer and nearer to the shadow-land of
death.

There came a slight stir in the silence. The notary entered, and with
him the physician who had never left the château for days past. They
raised the old man on his pillows, but a strange, feverish strength
seemed to have come to him, and he waved back all assistance. Then,
with a clear, calm, unfaltering voice he dictated to the notary beside
him the words of his last will and testament. The physician, the
countess, and the attendants withdrew to the farther end of the room
just out of earshot. To the doctor it seemed no unusual thing that his
patient should alter his will at the last moment. Many did it. Why not
the Count de Verdreuil?

"I telegraphed to the embassy yesterday, and desired them to let the
young count know of his father's danger," he said softly to Blanche;
"you said he had left no address here, but he will be sure to get a
telegram now, I should imagine. It was the best plan I could think of."

"You did quite right," she answered absently, her ears strained to
catch the sound of her husband's voice.

Would that slow, monotonous dictation never be over? Every moment
seemed an eternity of suspense to her. The will once signed and sealed,
she had nothing to fear. Raoul might come to-night if he chose, she
thought triumphantly. He could do nothing; she was safe, and her
vengeance, long promised, was at last secured.

The voice ceased, the witnesses were summoned, the signatures affixed.
The notary folded up his documents and left the room. The physician
stood by his patient's side and laid his finger on the pulse; each
beat grew slower feebler, more uncertain. He laid him gently back on
the pillows, but the dim eyes still turned in blind, beseeching agony
to the face of the woman he loved. She approached him, her cheeks ashy
pale, her lips colourless almost as his own. With a last effort he
stretched his arms to her, his voice murmured her name, his eyes still
sought her own. Then suddenly strength seemed to forsake him, and with
a faint sigh, as of utter weariness, he fell back--dead!

Then the guilty woman who had deceived him, whose words had stung
him to a cruel and remorseless vengeance, for the first time in all
her life felt a woman's weakness overpower her. Her brain reeled, a
sickness of mortal dread came over her, a mist blinded her eyes and
shut out the lights and the faces around.

With a low, faint cry of terror, Blanche de Verdreuil fell faint and
senseless to the ground.




CHAPTER VII.--A GREAT SIN.


It is great sin to swear unto a sin,
But greater still to swear a sinful oath."
.... Shakespeare.


IN the hush and silence of the late night, Blanche de Verdreuil sat
alone--a look of cruel meaning in her eyes, all the clear, sweet
radiance, the delicate loveliness of her face changed to the pallor of
exhaustion and fatigue. She felt neither remorse nor regret in this
hour, her vengeance was still sweet to her heart, and she never wearied
of dwelling on it. But, despite herself, a shapeless, nameless fear was
chilling her, a fear of the very man she had wronged, and with that
fear of him the dread of her own sins, the memories of past years.

The wind sighed wearily through the trees without. Each blast that
shook the boughs, each moan whose plaintive murmurs echoed ever and
again through the stillness, startled her and chilled her blood with
a new terror--the terror of guilt, the blackness of treachery and
falsehood. How it haunted her, and yet how she gloried in her success;
how even her fear could not rob it of its triumph, the honey-sweetness
of its poison lying deep down in the very depths of her heart.

Would Raoul suspect her? she wondered. He had not done so before. The
quarrel with his father had been entirely between themselves. Neither
had implicated nor suspected her as the origin and cause of it; but now
if Raoul should return, if he heard this will read, if the news for
which he was so totally unprepared came to him with all the publicity
and shame she meditated, what would be the result. If he traced the
evil to her, if he believed she had planned and furthered it with all
her influence and all her power--what then? Ah!--what then?

Through the years that had passed no whisper had been breathed; and
yet she knew her secret was never safe--that it might rise and crush
her at any moment; and if she made this man her enemy, he would be a
dangerous and relentless one. Vague shapes, nameless horrors, overtook
and coloured her fancy as she pictured to herself what he might do had
he the power. How the fierce and terrible passions of his race, once
loosed from their long restraint, might rise up and avenge the wrong
she had dealt, the shame she had given.

The red glow of the fire burnt lower and lower, yet she sat there,
unheeding the passage of the hours, the flight of time. The gloom of
the night enclosed her; the weary sighing of the wind ceased to trouble
her. The stars faded and the dawn came, grey and chill, and colourless
as her own face, with the weight of its weary passions and its restless
thoughts. But when the morning broke she still sat there beside the
white fallen ashes of the fire; the red flush in the east woke the
birds to sing at her window-panes as they left their ivy nests, yet
never woke her from that trance and stupor of something worse than
grief, more terrible than woe.

For though Blanche de Verdreuil had vowed herself to evil, though she
had neither remorse, nor grief, nor pity for those she wronged, for
herself she yet had fear--fear of the dead sins of other years,
as they broke from their graves and faced her in the solitude of the
autumn night, while the man who had loved her all too well lay cold and
dead, beyond all power to recall his last rash act, and the man she had
wronged was speeding swiftly, hastily back to the home he would only
reach--too late!

The news of the old count's death spread far and wide. It came to
Raoul in Rome; it reached Albert Hoffmann in the quiet little German
town where he was studying; it travelled to Paris, where the great
world received it with little wonder and less regret, while men
spoke together of the vast possessions he would leave behind him,
and wondered how much of his wealth would fall to the share of his
beautiful wife, and laid wagers as to how soon she would marry again.

Travelling night and day, allowing himself no pause, no rest, to
sleep, Raoul hastened back to Renonçeux. His mind was full of but one
thought--to be in time; to hear the voice whose last utterance had
been anger, speak his forgiveness; to see the aged eyes whose last
look had been wrath and scorn of him, soften to the old love, the old
faith they had once held. His father was dying; he knew. Ah! surely
Death would spare him just long enough for his son to see him once
more; surely that terrible yearning which hungered for one glance, one
word of forgiveness, would not feel its longings disappointed! Surely
he would be in time! He prayed it as he had never prayed for anything
before. It fevered and consumed him with its intense and fearful agony.
The swiftest speed at which he travelled seemed all too slow; for his
thoughts were ever with the dying man whose hours were numbered, for
whom he had now no memories save gentle and forgiving ones, even though
he had wronged and suspected him so basely. How swiftly the time sped!
how slowly his journey progressed! how to the fever and agony of his
thoughts as they spanned the distance which separated him from that
dying-bed, all motion seemed slow and lagging.

Would he never reach Renonçeux? Would he never be in time?

* * * * * *

At last the grey towers rose before him; the old familiar landscapes
met his eyes. The foaming horses bore him swiftly up the beautiful
avenue, now carpeted with dead and fallen leaves.

How dark, and mournful, and deserted it all looked! Darkened windows,
through which no ray of light gleamed; the mournful sighing of the
wind the only sound throughout that hushed and solemn stillness. He
sank back on the cushions of his travelling carriage, and covered his
face with his hands. On Nature itself seemed stamped the fear that had
tortured him so long; on the face of the earth, the gloom of the sky,
he seemed to read those words, "Too late!"

"Am I in time?"

His haggard face, his hoarse, broken voice, spoke such suffering and
suspense, that the old steward who awaited him felt his eyes grow dim
and his own voice tremble as he answered,--

"No, Monsieur le Comte; I grieve to tell you it is too late. The
funeral takes place to-morrow."

Raoul staggered against the doorway with the reeling, helpless step of
a drunken man.

"And we parted in anger!"--that was the thought which tortured
him. He could never hear the words "I forgive" spoken; he could never
read the restored faith, the old, tender love, in his father's eyes.

"Take me to him," he said abruptly; and the old man bowed low, and led
the way to the darkened room where that white, still form was lying;
silent for evermore, wrapped in that last sleep which knows no earthly
waking.

Raoul stooped over it. How calm and still and passionless was the aged
face! How strangely peaceful and content; no trace of its last fierce
anger, no regret for that last rash deed disturbed its tranquil rest
or shadowed its deep repose. Unconscious of the wrong done to him,
the shame in store for him, the son bent over his dead father's bier,
and on the marble brow a hot tear dropped, wrung from his agony and
despair. The calm, proud eyes which had known no tears since infancy,
grew blind and misty with those that gathered in them now. A deep,
voiceless sob shook him as he threw himself down by that narrow couch
from which the sleeper would never arise to speak the words he had so
longed to hear.

Respectful of that grief, the old servitor left him alone with the
dead, softly closing the door that the sound might not disturb him;
and Raoul de Verdreuil knelt there in the silence and the gloom of
the night, his strong frame rent and shaken by a storm of emotion, a
tempest of grief such as had never yet visited his heart; one prayer
alone thrilling through the remorse and tenderness of his great love,--

"Oh, God! forgive me that I ever thought a harsh or angry thought of
him. Now at least he knows my innocence; now at least he can bestow
his pardon!"

Ah! do the dead ever know again the thoughts of the living? If so, how
can they rest so peaceful and content while those they have loved and
left are suffering by their acts--acts which they cannot recall when
the world and the things of the world are left behind them! Do they
know remorse, or repentance, or regret in that unknown land whither
they have gone? Do they see with clearer vision, judge with calmer
powers? If so, what peace, or rest, or happiness can they know while
the wrong and injustice they have dealt to others still haunt their
memories, still disturb their peace?

With all honour and respect the Count de Verdreuil was buried. With all
sorrow and regret the mourners followed the stately cortège, and then
back to the château, where the light of day was once more admitted,
where, the voices no longer sank to dim, mysterious whispers, and the
footsteps were no longer hushed as if their sound could wake the dead
or penetrate the awful peace and calm which shrouded him, they came for
the last ceremony of all, "the reading of the will."

The Countess de Verdreuil, in her heavy mourning, which seemed to
make her complexion more delicately fair even than its wont, reclined
languidly amidst her cushions. Vivienne St. Maurice, pale and
awe-struck, and with her lovely eyes so full of sympathy that Raoul
could not but read it, was beside her. The invited guests took their
seats around, and then the notary produced his documents, and with much
rustling of papers and settling of gold eye-glass, and almost nervous
fussiness, he began to read. A dead silence fell on all. The words were
few and clear, and pitilessly distinct. On Raoul's ear they fell at
first with a bewildering and wholly incomprehensible meaning. What
was this?

For a moment his face turned white as death, and his hands clenched
convulsively at the nearest support; he fancied he must be the victim
of some fearful nightmare, the prey of some delirious fancy. Had he
assembled all these people to witness his shame; to hear his dishonour;
to be the subject of their compassion and amusement? Was this truth
that reached him?

The whole room, the crowd of amazed and wondering faces surged round
him like a sea. Then the whole truth seemed to stand out clear and
distinct before him; burning into his brain its fiery letters, every
one of which was a shame and an injustice, throbbing and beating in his
heart till every pulse seemed sounding the misery and the horror of
this knowledge which had come to him from a stranger's lips; which had
found him so totally unprepared.

As it all came home to him at last, as he heard that he was now a
disinherited son as well as an unloved one; as in the long list of
a stainless ancestry his name stood out banned and disgraced for
no fault, no crime, no dishonour of his own; he felt a wild torrent
of fury, of passionate indignation swelling up within him. Wounded
pride and unmerited wrong unloosed all the fierce and long restrained
passions of his race, and Raoul de Verdreuil sprang from his seat, and
with one stride crossed the room, and stood beside the notary.

"What are you reading?" he demanded.

Blanche de Verdreuil shivered with a cold, sudden fear.

Gazing half-terrified at the face before her, she felt, for the first
time, what she had risked in unloosing the fierce and terrible passions
of this man. In making him her enemy she was risking all peace, all
security henceforward. In the awful stillness of that moment, while his
eyes rested on the paper which the notary handed him, while a faint
murmur of astonishment ran through the listeners watching him, the
chill of fear swept through her heart, and her face turned white as
death.

Slowly Raoul de Verdreuil read the words. Silently he laid the paper
down before the notary, and then--while all watched, while all waited,
half in pity, half in amazement--his eyes turned and rested on the
white face of the woman who had wronged him.

She could not avoid that look, some strange overmastering force
compelled her to meet it, and all the defiance and pride of her
nature died out in her eyes as she raised them to his, and in their
place gleamed a swift and sudden fear, a fear that all read, and many
wondered at. She cowered like a guilty thing before that look from the
man she had wronged, and from her lips fell a faint cry of terror.

As Raoul heard it a smile crossed his own, so pitiless, so chill, that
none seeing it could repress a fear of what it boded for the future.
Half unconsciously his hand closed on the paper, crushing it like a
thread in his grasp.

"Did you draw this up?" he asked the notary.

"I did."

"And was--my father," (how the firm voice shook now) "perfectly sane at
the moment he dictated it?"

"Perfectly; his brain was as clear, his faculties as bright as ever.
The physician can testify to it."

"Then," and Raoul's hand relaxed its grasp of the paper, and he turned
to the countess, "then, madame, allow me to congratulate you on your
success. You have a creed of honour all your own I know, a convenient
creed, and one that has served you well. But take care that some day I
too may not have it in my power to deal you just such mercy as you have
dealt to me."

The delicate face before him paled to the death-like hue of intense
terror. In the hour of that triumph she had coveted so long, Blanche
de Verdreuil felt the guilty fear of retributive justice, the serpent
sting of remorse robbing her of all peace or joy for evermore. She sank
back amidst the soft cushions of her couch, while a deadly faintness
stole over her, and her eyes gazed with faint, appealing terror on
Raoul's face, so calm, so merciless then.

In that moment she wondered how she had ever loved him, and yet her
baseness looked shameful before that cold contempt, that grand and
pitiless scorn, in the face of her enemy. She knew how mean and
cowardly and degraded she must appear, and the knowledge killed all
love for him for evermore; for passion wild, undisciplined, and
unrestrained, ever trenches on the borderland of hate, and Blanche
had reached that borderland now. Raoul, seeing the terrified, guilty
look in her eyes, remembered she was a woman. A thing too mean, too
contemptible for even just anger, or reproach.

Though the blood of his race ran fierce and hot with its untamable
passions through his veins, though wrath and fury, and the bitterness
of unmerited shame surged wildly in his heart, he yet restrained
himself. He would not let others smile contemptuously at his inability
to compose himself, to refrain from upbraiding the future mistress of
his house, and possessor of his wealth. With a great and supreme effort
he turned to those assembled.

"Messieurs, pardon me that in a moment of just indignation I have
seemed discourteous. The totally unexpected news I have heard this
morning must plead my excuse. There can be no further need for my
presence, so I will relieve you of it; you may, perhaps, be able to
judge what pain it is to remain here!"

With a grave, courteous bow, he turned away and passed from the room;
those near the window saw him cross the terrace, and take his way
through the leaf-strewn avenue which led to the chief entrance of the
park. He walked at his usual leisurely pace; a stranger meeting him
would have deemed nothing unusual had happened--only in his eyes,
glowing under their drooped lids with fierce resolve and bitter
humiliation, could the passions that raged within his heart be read.

It was just mid-day, the sun was hot with the heat of the scarce
departed summer; the leaves fell slow and soft from the boughs; here
and there a bird's song rose on the stillness, and the cloudless
heavens were calm and serene as he glanced up through the arching trees
above his head, and caught the blue lustre of their tranquil beauty.
Alas! that nature should be so fair, and only man so vile!

The day was without shadow, the hour without cloud in its noontide
brightness; but Raoul hated its beauty, hated its peace, which only
seemed to mock the raging passions of his heart. He walked onward,
feeling that the bitterness of unmerited shame was, for the first
time in all his life, his portion; that he, the last of his race, was
driven from his birthplace, banned and dishonoured for no sin, by a
woman's treachery, a dying man's credulous fondness. Through those
silent solitudes of woodland, those aisles of stately trees, he pursued
his way, the thoughts within his breast speeding him on, he cared not
whither; the sense of unmerited wrong maddening him to fury.

Suddenly he paused and turned. From the rising ground on which he stood
the lofty towers and stately terraces of the château were plainly
visible. A host of powerful memories thronged in his heart as he
gazed. It was the home of his childhood; the beloved birthplace he had
so reverenced. From scenes of hardship, of travel, of danger, he had
ever come to that home as a refuge and a shelter; and now--now it was
nothing to him, now it had been wrested from his hands and given to
another. It had been stained and polluted by treachery and deceit.

Perhaps--oh, bitterest thought of all!--his feet would never again
cross its threshold, would never tread its familiar ways. As this
thought crossed him and came home with swift and sudden pain to his
heart, a half-stifled cry of inward agony escaped him. It pierced the
silence of the woodland, it startled the singing birds in their boughs
above, then, throwing up his arms above his head, Raoul de Verdreuil
fell face downwards on the mossy, leaf-strewn earth, like a man
senseless and dead.




CHAPTER VIII.--WHEN JOY IS FLED.


"As the earth when leaves are dead,
As the night when sleep is sped,
So the heart when joy is fled."
.... Shelley.


How long Raoul lay in that death-like stupor he never knew. When he
awoke to consciousness again, with a faint, quivering breath as of some
inward pain, he found that he was resting in Albert Hoffmann's arms;
and starting up, amazed and confused with this new-felt weakness still
numbing his senses and bewildering his brain, he exclaimed,--

"You, Albert? Why did you follow me here?"

The loving eyes warmed and kindled with new, rich light.

"Why! Did you dream that in your trouble and your need I should be long
absent? Did you deem mine only a summer-day friendship, Raoul?"

His friend was silent. He staggered to his feet, ashamed of the
womanish weakness that had overtaken him, ashamed that the pride and
the strength within had given way so utterly at last; vexed that any
human eye, even that of the friend he loved so well, should have
witnessed his helplessness, as he lay faint and unconscious, smitten to
the very dust by the heavy blow of a great and unexpected calamity such
as had overtaken him.

He was silent for some minutes, while he leant weak and exhausted
against the trunk of the great chestnut beneath which he had fallen.
Then, meeting the pitying love of his friend's eyes, he broke the
silence and said,--

"Albert, can you account for this--this injustice to me? Had any sign
or word of it been given by my father ere he died?"

"You know I was away, Raoul," he answered; "I only came back late last
night--after your own return in fact--and when I saw you this morning I
did not like to intrude upon your grief. The news that will contained
was as strange, as unexpected to me as to yourself."

"But how was it you were away?" asked Raoul, in surprise.

"Did you not hear? did you not know I have been in Freiburg for the
last three months?" said Albert, his face paling a little as he met
Raoul's calm, astonished gaze.

"This is the first I have heard of it," he answered. "What took you
there?"

"I am going to study my art in real earnest," said the young man,
avoiding that searching gaze bent on him now; "I have only been playing
at it hitherto. I saw an advertisement in a German paper from one
Professor Eltermein, a celebrated musician and a careful teacher. He
wanted a pupil to board and reside with him, and take some of the
duties of concert-meister off his hands. I answered it, and then,
everything being satisfactorily and speedily arranged, I took up my
abode with him; and only when Vivienne wrote to tell me of the Count de
Verdreuil's extreme danger did I return."

A sudden spasm of pain crossed Raoul's face. Vivienne--he had lost
her too! He had given his love in vain; he had spent his heart in a
fruitless, passionate worship, hopeless as it was sweet. Of course
Albert was working for her, studying his art, pursuing fame and
achieving success for her sake alone, for the great gift and precious
guerdon of her love. And he--he was so utterly destitute of all love
now. His life henceforth would only be one of suffering and despair. He
stifled the pain within by a strong effort. He knew none suspected his
love for Vivienne; he was determined that Albert--least of all--should
guess at its existence.

"You are wise, I think," he said simply; "a man's best safeguard lies
in work. Were it not for that, I think I should go mad now."

"It is a cruel thing, a fearful thing!" said Albert indignantly. "Oh,
Raoul, when I heard those words read, I thought I must be the victim of
some dreadful nightmare, some evil dream. I could not believe that your
father would ever have committed an act of such injustice, have dealt
out to you a wrong so shameful and so strange."

"You do not think I merited it, then?" asked Raoul calmly, though his
eyes glowed and burnt with the fever and the pain of his heart.

"I! think you merited dishonour! The whole world could not force
such belief on me."

The eager, boyish denial, the wondering amazement in the fair face
beside him, soothed Raoul's heart as no other power could have soothed
it then.

"Thank you!" he said very quietly, though his hand trembled as he laid
it on the young man's shoulder. "Your simple trust is worth a hundred
protestations. But you cannot suppose my father has acted thus for no
cause, for no reason at all?"

"I know you have been wronged," was the indignant answer. "Ah, Raoul, I
told you long ago I feared the influence of the Countess de Verdreuil.
Of late she could do with your father as she would. Her power you can
trace for yourself now, for you know how he loved his name, how he ever
used to urge upon you the necessity for marriage. He could not bear
the idea of his race dying out; and now, though you are the last Count
de Verdreuil, though he knew he had no other heir, he yet could leave
all his enormous wealth, his vast possessions, to his wife; and, worst
of all, stipulate that if she marries again her children shall inherit
the property, and take the name and titles that are justly yours. Oh,
Raoul, why do you allow anything so unjust to stand? Why do you not
dispute it to the uttermost? He could not have been reasonable or sane
when he made such a will as that."

"You heard what they said--he was perfectly sane; it is certified by
his physician, by all who witnessed the will; and that is enough for
me. He did it in reason; and even if he had no right to do it, do
you think that I would seek to wring from justice what was denied me by
my father's love?"

"Ah, Raoul," said Albert sadly, "you are far too noble for the sins and
falsehoods of such a world as this we live in. You have been wronged,
cruelly wronged, I know; and those who have accused you of error profit
by their falsehood, while you stand silent and unmoved, and see all you
love go to strange names and alien blood. How can you bear it?"

"No words of yours can make it seem less hard to me," said Raoul, the
hot blood dyeing his face as he thought of his unmerited dishonour, a
thousand memories of past years, past hopes, and noble ambitions rising
and breaking forth within his heart. "Do not think I am going to sit
tamely by and let that false traitress profit by her deed. She will
have cause to repent it one day, if I mistake not. And then----"

He paused; and Albert, as he watched the chill, relentless smile on
his lips, felt that it boded little mercy to Blanche de Verdreuil in
the future, if ever her path crossed his; if the tangled webs of her
past life were ever unravelled by the hands of the man she had wronged;
if all the misery and the evil she had done to him, could ever by
him be dealt back to her in full and ample measure.

In that moment Raoul de Verdreuil registered a vow, none the less sure
because it was unspoken, that this shame, and agony, and bitterness,
this only legacy of his father's love, should bring to the treacherous
heart of the woman who had given it to him to bear, the just punishment
that she deserved. Her ill-gotten wealth should bring her no joy; her
possessions should but burden her with remorse. That she was a woman
he forgot; that she was a vile and treacherous foe he alone remembered.

From the hour that Blanche de Verdreuil had wronged her husband's son,
the sleuth-hounds of vengeance were loosed on her track, and with every
day that dawned, every sun that set, the punishment of her sin was
slowly and surely preparing to meet her. The past was already arming
itself from its grave of dead and unforgotten memories to crush into
dust the glories of the future she had promised herself; and that past
held a secret which could rob her youth of its beauty, her life of its
sweetness, her soul of its peace.

"And what are you going to do now, Raoul?" asked Albert, breaking the
silence that had so long reigned between them.

"I shall go back to Rome," he answered. "I shall not care to set foot
in my native land again, you may be sure, Albert. I must set myself to
carve out my own fortunes now. You know hard work is the best exorcist
for dark hours and painful memories. God knows I shall have enough of
them! and yet I cannot sit down and repine for all I have lost while I
have life and strength and liberty left me. I suppose I must learn to
do without happiness!"

He spoke so sadly that Albert's gentle heart was pained and grieved to
hear him. Words like these were new and rare from Raoul's lips, so rare
that they breathed out a pain he could not stifle, a suffering he could
not conceal, and in Albert's eyes came a speechless longing to comfort
him, that Raoul could not but read; that touched his heart amidst all
its bitterness and all its pain.

"Raoul," said the boy gently, "you remember when you left Renonçeux
so suddenly a few months back, and how I prayed you then to let me
know your trouble and share your secret, but you would not. Has that
anything to do with what has happened? Did you and your father part in
anger? I remember thinking how strange it was he never remarked your
absence or mentioned your name, and from that day he never smiled or
seemed as he used to be. He changed and broke down, and grew so old and
helpless that it seemed as if years had passed over his head since that
night. And he used to rise at night and wander about the château like
a ghost, and was always seen going to that little anteroom which leads
from the reception-rooms,--you know it; do you not?--with the two
entrances."

"Yes, yes," said Raoul impatiently; "and he used to go there, you say?"

"Oh, yes; continually at night, and he would sit for hours there alone,
with his head bowed on his arms, perfectly still, perfectly motionless.
Every one noticed it at last, and Vivienne told me that it was only
when he grew too weak and helpless to raise himself, or even move from
his bed, that he discontinued this habit. Was it not strange?"

"He must have felt some remorse, then," said Raoul, speaking more to
himself than to Albert. "That room was where we parted. How little I
thought when he refused my hand that his own would never touch mine in
life again!"

"Why was your parting such an unfriendly one?" asked Albert. "Had
she begun to work mischief even then?"

"She has done nothing else since she married him," said Raoul bitterly.
"Albert, that time you ask of is a bitter and remorseful memory to me.
My father spoke to me that night such words as between man and man
could only be avenged by blood: as coming from father to son, I could
only refute by denial; denial which was never credited. We parted in
bitter anger, and he was unforgiving to the last. How merciless his
wrath, how firm his faith in my guilt, this last act shows. I never
believed he could be revengeful, but now I know it only too well!"

He turned aside, and gazed wearily and regretfully up the long avenue,
away to where the lofty towers of the château were bathed in the warm
glow of the autumn sunlight. He felt as if his home had never been so
dear to him as now when he had lost it, and in his heart he almost
cursed the woman who had come between him and his father's love, and
robbed him of his heritage.

Albert made no remark on his last words. He was in ignorance of the
very reason of the quarrel between father and son, which had brought
such results about, but he felt that no words, no sympathy could give
Raoul any comfort now. His friend's voice broke on the stillness, with
a sudden, regretful cry, that showed how his whole nature was shaken by
this new and unforeseen calamity.

"To lose all that! to lay it down and see another possess it, a new
race dwelling where the old have dwelt so long! Oh, God! that I had
died before this day!"

"Nay, Raoul, that is not like you to say such words. You know yourself
stainless and honourable; you suffer for another's treachery, not for
your own sin. That thought should surely give you strength now, and
consolation in time to come. And there is yet hope, Raoul. Blanche may
never marry, or, even if she does, may bear no heirs. In that case you
will have your own again. She is just the woman to make no provision
for the future, and unless she leaves a will, you will be able to claim
it all back again. Perhaps some day I shall see you once more reigning
at Renonçeux in your own right. You know treachery never yet succeeded
in its aims; it is certain to overreach itself sooner or later."

Raoul shook his head, with a faint smile.

"You mean well, I know, Albert; but your consolations are useless at
present. The smart is too recent for any hope of its healing just
yet. My only comfort is in action now. I shall never set foot in the
château again, unless--a most improbable occurrence--I can come there
with my honour cleared, my rights restored. Until that day dawns I
leave France. It has not a place or a memory that is not inexpressibly
painful to me. I have won little love in my life, and there will be few
to miss, and none to regret me here. Now, say farewell, and go back
to the château. Stay, here is my address in Rome. You can write to me
when you go back to Germany again, and I promise to let you know of my
whereabouts. You are my only tie to life and love; I cannot afford to
lose sight of you entirely."

Albert took the card from his hand silently and sadly. No parting
between them had ever seemed so sad a one as this. A moment's silence
reigned between them, as with clasped hands they stood, their eyes
resting on each other's face, as if that long, wistful look was their
last.

The words that passed their lips there were none to hear save the birds
who had hushed their singing in the boughs above. The proud head of the
young count bent low, his voice was stifled and hoarse as it fell on
Albert's ears, his hands shook like a woman's.

"May God reward you for your faith and love. For your sake I will
believe life still holds some good for me. Even if we never meet again,
remember that in the darkest hour of my life your love was the one
thing that kept my heart from despair."

His hands loosed their grasp, his footsteps echoed for one brief
moment, as they crushed the fallen leaves beneath their tread; then,
without one backward glance at the home he loved, or the friend
he left, Raoul de Verdreuil went swiftly on through the winding
avenue, which led to the lodge-gates beyond. Albert rested silent and
motionless where he had left him--his eyes blind to the light, his ears
deaf to the sigh of the wind, to the twitter of the birds above him,
and all the brief, sweet sunshine of the autumn day shut out by a mist
of tears.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Ere nightfall, the château was once more deserted, the guests had left.

The Countess de Verdreuil was now in undisturbed possession of the
enormous wealth, the princely possessions for which she had bartered
her beauty and her honour.

And with only a brief farewell to Vivienne, Albert Hoffmann went back
to Freiberg again, never more to return to the home which he had shared
with his friend since his early boyhood; never more to see its familiar
beauty, to tread its familiar ways.

For him, as for Raoul, a new life had begun, and the tranquil peace of
the old was a thing of the past.




CHAPTER IX.--THE TRUTH AT LAST.


"'He loves thee not!' thus spoke they to the maid,
'He sports with thee;' she bow'd her head in grief."
.... Geibel.


THAT night Vivienne St. Maurice sat alone by the bright fire in her
room, thinking sadly and wearily of the events of the past day. To her,
as to Albert, the news of Raoul's disinheritance came with a startling
and unexpected shock.

What was the reason of it? That question neither could answer. In their
brief interview, ere Albert left Renonçeux, the young man had only said
that his friend declared his intention of never returning to France
again unless this dishonour was effaced, this stain upon his name
removed, and Vivienne heard the news with a strange sickness at heart,
for since that memorable night when she had performed in Albert's
opera, Raoul had never by word or look resumed that cordial, and to
her most precious friendship, which had been the sweetest and most
absorbing joy her life had ever held.

How the bond had been severed so utterly she could not tell; she
could only, in her deep humility, imagine that he had wearied of his
interest in her. What was there, she asked herself often and often, to
attract and allure a man like Raoul de Verdreuil, in her ignorance,
her simplicity, her innocent, childish adoration of himself. He had
been so much to her, her heart had unconsciously made him its hero, its
ideal, long before she had ever seen him, and when she did meet him,
the grave reverence, the perfect chivalry, the tender interest of his
manner had won such trust, such faith, such tenderness from her that a
love, deathless, exhaustless, unspeakable, was rooted in her heart too
firmly ever to be ejected thence again. She did not know herself yet
how deep it was, how pure and steadfast, and unchangeable. She knew
little of the world: its follies had only amused her, its shams and
trickeries only wearied her, and the innocence of her own nature had
learnt no harm and caught no contagion from the evils it contained.
She knew so little of life, of its depths of danger, its perils of
passion, its sins of shame. The simple creeds of her own heart were
her best safeguard, and all its highest, purest, yet most passionate
devotion had been won, unknown to him, unconsciously to her, by Raoul
de Verdreuil.

But now the longing to see his face and hear his voice had been
answered by equal pain in his presence. She had seen him again, but his
greeting had been cold and constrained; he had spoken but few words to
her, and when he had left Renonçeux in the shame and the wrath of his
enforced dishonour, in that moment, when her whole heart had gone out
to him in its sweetest and most fervent sympathy, he had had no thought
for her. He had left the château, he had left Renonçeux, he had left
France for ever perhaps, and he had not said one word of farewell; he
had not even so far remembered her as to leave a message with Albert to
show he had not quite forgotten her existence yet.

The thought was very bitter. It haunted her incessantly now, as she
dwelt on the events of the day, as she pictured Raoul's pain and
Raoul's suffering, as she thought of the blow to his pride, and the
shame to his honour, that his father's unjust and cruel will had been.

"No wonder he forgot me," she sighed to herself; "how could he remember
anything in such an hour as that?"

Without, the wind was rising fast and fierce. The brief beauty of
the autumn day had changed to storm and rain. The sky was black and
starless, and the air chill and cold. But the girl's heart was chilled
and darkened by a deeper gloom than any Nature bore, and she shivered
as she bent nearer to the warm glow of the firelight, and her cheek
paled, and her eyes had a vague and troubled sadness in their depths,
born of that inward perplexity, that pain which throbbed so unceasingly
in her breast, the pain which her own thoughts brought her.

While she sat alone in the firelight, there came a sudden glow of
radiance and colour in the room, and turning swiftly round she saw
Blanche de Verdreuil enter. She had a small silver lamp in her hand,
which she set down upon a stand near by, and then she swept gracefully
up to Vivienne's side and seated herself in a low-cushioned fauteuil
near her.

"I thought I should find you in the dark," she said. "How can you
bear to sit alone on such a gloomy night as this? I am quite nervous
from listening to the wind, although I have made Ednée stop all this
time and read to me; but the girl grew so sleepy and made such stupid
mistakes that I was obliged to dismiss her at last, and so I have come
to you, Vivienne. What are you dreaming about in this semi-obscurity,
petite?"

Her tone was more than usually caressing, but Vivienne felt a strange
and more forcible repugnance to her than usual, in spite of that. She
saw how feverishly bright her face was, and what a curious, triumphant
glitter shone in her eyes when the languid lids no longer veiled them.
A flush rose to the girl's cheeks as she answered,--

"I was thinking of all that has happened here to-day, madame."

"And your sympathies are of course with the disinherited knight," said
Blanche, with a cold, scornful laugh, "that Bayard of the nineteenth
century whom you deem so faultless. I hope he enjoys his prospects at
this moment."

The hot colour burned deeper in Vivienne's face, and her voice trembled
with indignation.

"How can you accept this wealth, knowing it is justly his?" she
said passionately. "How can you bear to see him divested of his lawful
rights, dishonoured in the sight of men, dismissed from his home and
all whom he has loved and dwelt amongst, since his infancy? Oh! madame,
can you live here and be happy knowing this?"

Blanche de Verdreuil's eyes glittered beneath their drooping lids with
a fierce hate and scorn.

"What right have you to question my actions?" she said haughtily.
"Do you forget who you are?"

The girl's face grew pale as death at the insolent scorn of the
question.

"I do not," she said simply; "but even your benefits to me, madame,
cannot outweigh my sense of justice, or permit me to think that,
because you are my benefactress, all you do is right."

Blanche de Verdreuil laughed, the caustic, insolent laugh of security
and pride.

"Do you suppose I came here to hear this--to have my actions questioned
and arraigned by an outcast rescued from a gutter? It is time,
mademoiselle, that we came to an understanding as to our relative
positions. I have born your insolence long enough; I am not going to do
so any longer."

All her long jealousy, her bitter hatred of the girl spoke out in these
words at last. There was no longer need to hide them; and Blanche de
Verdreuil was to-night in just such mood as the tiger whose first taste
of human blood makes him long for more; her first taste of vengeance
did but create a thirst insensate and cruel, and she longed to visit
it on the girl before her. The mask fell from her face; she revealed
herself as she was, now there was no more necessity for her to act
the part she had hitherto done.

Vivienne's face paled still more; her hand pressed tight against her
heart to still its throbbing; her very lips were colourless as death.

"What do you mean?" she faltered.

"Mean!" The cruel laugh rang out again on the stillness. "You ask
what I mean? Since you are so obtuse, I will soon tell you. I do not
mean you to remain under my roof any longer, unless you choose to obey
me, and be ruled by me implicitly. I have allowed you to have your own
way hitherto, because it suited me; but I am a free agent now. I have
unlimited wealth at my command; I have the world at my feet. In one
way alone you can serve me, and if you choose to do so, my home shall
still be yours, and the world you fooled so prettily with that mock
innocence, that ingénue modesty, shall never know from whence you
sprang, or who you are. Had you been less beautiful, all the genius in
life would never have given you the position I gave you; for though
you never knew or suspected it, the true history of your birth is only
shame. Your father was a French nobleman certainly, but your mother
was never his wife; she was only a poor Italian girl, with a fair face
and a fine voice, whom he picked up on the stage of some second-rate
theatre in Bologna, and he----"

"Who dares to say this of her?" Vivienne sprang to her feet, her
face white as marble, her lips blanched, the agony and the shame in her
eyes startling even her tormentor as she met their gaze.

"I say it," she said coolly; "your nurse never told you, of course,
but she told me, and she prayed and begged of me so earnestly to
protect you that I promised to do it. It was a whim; you were a pretty
child enough, and it pleased me to have some one here in the long
months when I could not go to Paris. My husband was interested in you
also. He said you reminded him of that picture in the gallery--that
brother of his who died; you have heard the story often, I dare say.
But as I know this of you, you can scarcely suppose that I am going
to have you arraign me, or sit in judgment on my actions, of whatever
nature they are. For the first time in my life I feel free; I taste
the blessings of liberty, of wealth, of position; and I say again, if
you wish to remain with me, you may do so, but you must serve me in
all ways as I wish, and I will keep your secret. The world esteems you
nobly born; I took good care of that. Well, they shall think so still;
I will not betray you as the nameless bastard, the poor, beggared
cottage-girl I found; only you shall obey me in all things. First and
foremost you shall marry the Marquis d'Orvâl. You were mad enough to
reject him in Paris; but he loves you all the more because you are
difficult to win. As his wife you can serve me well, and----"

"For what do you take me?" cried Vivienne, her words breaking across
Blanche de Verdreuil's insults with a depth of scorn, an unutterable
horror. In that moment all the evil long hidden, all the truth long
screened, flashed upon her, and filled her heart with a sickening,
unspeakable loathing for this woman, whose real nature at last was laid
bare to her sight.

"For what do you take me, that you say such words? If you know my
history, if it is true what you say of me, why have you deceived me and
made me deceive others so long? If you adopted and befriended me only
to serve your own ends, why do you turn upon me now? I have eaten your
bread, I have accepted your benefits with all humility, not because
I wished to do it, but because a promise to the dead bound me; and
now----" she paused; her strength seemed to fail her; her heart beat
with a slow, sickening pain, that seemed to drain all the life from her
veins--"now you counsel me to a worse dishonour still. Oh, God! are
you a woman, to speak such words, such insults?"

"You will have to hear plainer speech, and less carefully veiled
insult, as you call it, before long," said Blanche, her eyes resting
on the girl with a cruel, thirsty enjoyment of the torture she was
inflicting. "I have told you my reasons for adopting you; I have told
you my conditions as to your future if you wish to remain with me. But
you are at liberty to please yourself, to gratify your craze for the
stage if you will. Perhaps, in time to come, the Marquis d'Orvâl may
yet win for his mistress the girl who once scorned to become his wife!"

Her words fell on heedless ears now; Vivienne scarcely heard or noted
what she said, so keen a pain, so cruel a torture throbbed and quivered
in her young, innocent heart.

She was a thing of shame, of no account. She had neither friend nor
counsellor to seek. Instinctively she stretched her arms out to her
persecutor with a faint cry of appeal.

"Have mercy! have pity!" she said in her agony. "Tell me those words
are not true; tell me my mother bore no shame! that I, her child, at
least may claim an unstained name from one whose love has been to me
only a meaningless word all my life long!"

It was the one thought in her heart now; the one absorbing grief which
made all others insignificant; this new vague horror, which touched
her with shame for the lives she had hitherto reverenced; this first
chill breath of the scorn and contumely, vaguely held for her in the
utterance of that word "dishonour."

But she spoke to one without mercy, with only a jealous hatred of her
beauty, the greater for its long concealment. This girl had won without
an effort what Blanche had coveted all her life, and that thought
maddened her. Her vengeance had fallen on the man who had once scorned
her; so would she visit that vengeance equally and remorselessly on the
girl he loved. They should both suffer; they should both feel the pain
and the fever of heart they had given her to bear, and to inflict that
pain and deal back that suffering she set herself unscrupulously to
work, and so far her efforts had been successful.

"It is true," she answered Vivienne. "Surely your ignorance of
the world is not so extreme that you cannot reason this fact out for
yourself. Noblemen, even if poor, or exiled, or unfortunate, do not
usually marry their inferiors in rank or station. Poverty they may
excuse, but low descent never. Whatever you in your simplicity have
believed, is quite erroneous, about as erroneous as another idea you
have formed, and which has been remarked upon and laughed at more
than you imagine. I speak of your ridiculous infatuation for Raoul de
Verdreuil--an infatuation so marked and so indelicate that it drew down
the scorn of many of my guests upon your head, and even disgusted the
object of your affections so much that he left purposely to avoid you!"

The white face before her suddenly flushed to deepest crimson. The
girl's whole nature was roused by the insult breathed in those words.
Their shame lashed her gentle spirit to fierce anger and fiercer pride.
The faintness left her, the weakness passed away. Like a dagger's
thrust in her innocent heart those words pierced to its very core,
bearing its secret to the scorn of other eyes, and tearing the veil
from her own.

"Silence!" she cried, with calm contempt in her voice, though her heart
throbbed and panted like a wounded bird, and the scarlet flush on her
brow and cheek burned deeper and deeper in its agonizing shame, "you
have said enough. What you mean by torturing and insulting a friendless
and defenceless girl, as you have tortured me, I cannot understand. By
your own voluntary wish I took up my abode with you. Are you lost even
to the ordinary courtesies of hospitality when you address me thus? I
have accepted your favours, true; but I never asked for or demanded
them. They were free gifts, I supposed; yet now they seem to you a
reason for all the insult and contumely you can shower upon my head. At
least, rest content with the suffering you have inflicted, and leave me
in peace. It is the last favour I will ever ask or accept from you
again."

For one moment the calmness and heroism of the girl cowed even the
ruthless heart of her antagonist. She knew her words had pierced to
the very core and centre of her being, yet she showed no sign, she
acknowledged none of the inward agony rending and consuming her with
fiercest pain. The greatness and purity of her love gave her strength
to defend it, even amidst the suffering it brought her.

But Blanche de Verdreuil had given free rein now to all the worst
passions of her nature, and with the next instant her voice rang out
clear and cold and pitiless as ever.

"I shall not leave you until you have heard all I have to say to you,
so you need not trouble yourself to put on those tragic airs again.
Keep them for the life before you. You will need them, I dare say. I
have told you my reasons for adopting you. I have also told you my
conditions for your remaining here. You have not yet answered whether
you accept them or not."

"You ask that! Have you any doubt as to what my reply will be after
what you have said? Do you think I have neither womanly pride, nor
womanly feeling left in me?"

Her great lustrous eyes flashed out such a world of scorn, that Blanche
de Verdreuil shrank from their lofty questioning, their indignant,
fearless glance.

"You refuse me, then?" she said, with the mocking, careless smile she
had worn before. "Soit, mademoiselle! May I ask what your intentions
are with regard to the future?"

The girl's face paled again.

"My life here ends to-night," she said, still speaking with that
terrible calm. "Of my future, you shall know nothing. I go to a life in
which you will have neither interest, nor control, nor place again. But
I bear with me to the latest hour I live the punishment of my belief in
you!"

Blanche rose to her feet then, stung at last by a reproach so simple,
yet so touching.

"Very well," she said; "you little know what you do; of course you
are an angel of innocence and purity, and the world believes in you
only because you came to it with your hands full of gold, and your
name set round with a shining circlet of honour; go to it now and
see what it will say to you. Your very beauty will be your deadliest
foe, unless--well, you will learn the alternative soon enough, I need
not name it now. Nay, hear me out, I have one thing more to say. You
accused me of wronging Raoul de Verdreuil, of having come into his
possessions by injustice. Would you like to know why your faultless
hero is banished from here? why his father deemed him no fitting
representative of the rank and honours of his race? Well, I will tell
you; it may prevent you from wasting all the sweetness of that virgin
heart in vain. He loved me. Yes, you may start and look incredulous.
He loved me, and his love was the one absorbing passion his life ever
knew. One night he was mad enough to confess this, and when I scorned
and rejected him, he knelt at my feet and prayed me never to betray
him to his father. But in the midst of his wild prayers and passionate
protestations his father himself entered. A terrible scene ensued, and
it ended in Raoul being sent forth from here with this sole reward for
his virtuous passion--disinheritance. Now perhaps you can read the
secret of this strange will aright. Now perhaps you can sympathise with
your ideal of truth and loyalty in his own enforced exile from the home
he has himself dishonoured."

Vivienne had listened to these words as one spell-bound. With the last,
speech sprang to her lips, passionate, fiery, uncontrolled. For herself
she could bear pain silently, for him she had no power to keep her
indignation curbed and controlled.

"It is false, all false!" she cried, her voice thrilling with intense
feeling, with passionate unbelief. "Whatever you may say of Raoul de
Verdreuil, I know him to be the very soul of honour; as for you,
after your words to me to-night, I credit nothing, I believe nothing.
Now have you said enough, or am I to be favoured with any more
inventions?"

Blanche de Verdreuil's face paled at these words, they touched her as
nothing before had done.

"You doubt me?" she said. "Think you I cannot guess why? You poor,
doll-faced puppet, you thought to win him for yourself! You little know
how he scorned and mocked at your scarce-concealed manœuvres. I tell
you Raoul de Verdreuil never felt tenderness for living woman yet,
save for me. If I held up my finger now, he would return and fall
at my feet like the veriest slave that ever woman fooled. Believe it or
not as you choose--this, and this alone, is the sole cause for his
banishment, his ruin, his disinheritance. The world suspects it. I know
it. He will be, from this day, the scorn of his friends, the jest of
his foes. Now I leave you to your rest; I scarcely think your slumbers
will be peaceful to-night, at least!"

She stood on the threshold--the lamp in her hand--the same cruel smile
on her lips, the same gleam of triumph in her eyes. Then the door
opened, closed upon her, and Vivienne was alone--at last.

A fearful horror seized her. The silence of the night seemed filled
with voices mocking her misery, triumphing in her pain. She neither
stirred nor moved, but stood there, with her hands tight pressed upon
her heart, and such a look upon her face as only comes when all the
life and faith and joy of a pure and sinless soul is smitten with a
living death--is crushed, and broken, and destroyed for evermore in the
first sweet summer of its dreams.

Once her lips moved,--a low moan, as of some wounded creature, stricken
down with pain, escaped her.

"Oh God! why did I not die in my mother's arms? Why was I spared for
such misery as this? If only my life could end this night!"

Heaven help us! How often we pray for death when sorrow's seal is set
upon our lives! Were such prayers granted as we in our short-sighted
wisdom desire, the world would have little to teach us, the grave much!




CHAPTER X.--"MY HEART IS BREAKING."


"My eyes are full of tears, my heart of love,
My heart is breaking, and my eyes are dim,
And I am all aweary of my life."
.... Tennyson.


THE hour of midnight chimed in the silence.

Vivienne raised her head from the couch where she had thrown herself
when Blanche de Verdreuil left her, and as the last stroke fell on her
ear she rose to her feet. Her eyes where full of a strange, tearless
agony--her face colourless as marble. The whole hideous truth of her
life had been forced upon her at last. She who had deemed herself
nobly-born--who was proud and fearless as any young queen with her
rights of sovereignty, her stainless lineage--now knew herself to be a
thing of shame; an outcast, with neither name nor honour to shelter her
from the world's scorn.

She remembered now the cold looks, the veiled sneers of Blanche de
Verdreuil's guests. They must have known or suspected something even
then, and yet how blind she had been! No thought of the truth had
ever crossed her mind, no suspicion of its real meaning flashed upon
her till now. Her secret, her cherished secret, had been noted and
whispered, and made the sport of cruel tongues and mocking lips.
They had said that the cottage-girl--the beggar whom the Countess de
Verdreuil had adopted--loved the heir of Renonçeux! The shame and the
torture of that thought were almost maddening to the girl's proud
spirit. That what she had scarcely dared acknowledge even to herself
should have been noticed and commented upon, bared to curious eyes,
mocked at by scornful tongues, was agony to her now.

She never questioned the truth of what Blanche had told her: what her
eyes had been able to read, other eyes had seen also, and Raoul's
sudden coldness and altered manner were now a mystery no longer.
She read their meaning all too well by the revelation of Blanche de
Verdreuil's words. How he must despise her! The flush of shame burned
deeper on her brow each moment that she thought of it. In her ignorance
and simplicity, it seemed to her the worst dishonour a woman could
be guilty of, to let a man read her heart--to bare its secret to his
eyes and the eyes of the world. She knew now why he had held aloof
from her; while she in her blindness had unconsciously been deceiving
herself, he had deemed the best way to spare her was total avoidance
of her presence. But did he love Blanche, she wondered. The horror
of that thought was unspeakable. She had deemed Raoul de Verdreuil
the very soul of honour. Could he be so base, so vile as to whisper
love-words, and breathe his passion into the ears of his father's wife?
She shuddered from that thought as from some loathsome thing. She flung
it from her as she would have flung some poisonous snake, whose slow,
winding folds were creeping round her limbs. But all the life, and this
faith, and this joy of her heart were killed in her--killed utterly and
for ever, she thought, by a woman's treacherous words.

Blanche de Verdreuil had been cruel and merciless all her life
long, but never so cruel as now, when she had wrung all the peace
and innocence and sweetness of this fair life from out of it, as
remorselessly as she might have wrung the song from a bird's throat
in its first hours of praise and thanksgiving. With scarce a shadow
of regret, without a vision of dishonour, Vivienne had lived up to
this day. And now--now she knew that the farthest stretch of years
could never give her back her innocent dreams, her rich, pure faith in
woman's truth, in man's honour.

She heard the howl of the fierce wind, the rush and sweep of the
falling rain, and with a shudder she strove to collect her thoughts,
all pained and bewildered as they were with the numbing terror of this
heavy grief. She suffered those tortures which are doubly torture when
they fall upon the innocent, and as she rose to her feet and listened
to the wild warfare of the elements, one thought vaguely shaped itself
out of the darkness and tumult of her mind, and on that thought she
resolved to act.

"I will never look upon her face again!" she murmured to herself, as
she took off the trailing heavy silk of her mourning robe, worn that
day for the first time in memory of the Count de Verdreuil.

Then she went to the wardrobe which contained her dresses, and selected
a plain, dark travelling-dress of thick serge from amongst the many
others. This she put on with trembling hands and beating heart, as
though she meditated some act of guilt; then she seized a heavy mantle
from its peg, and, drawing the hood over her head, turned to the window
and looked out on the blackness and fierceness of the stormy night.

The rain was falling heavily; the wind moaned and howled around the
château. But the storm held no terrors for her; her brain was fevered
and excited, and reason held no spell to calm her in the terrible agony
of that hour. She would have gone to death, had she known it lay before
her, sooner than have slept another night under the shelter of Blanche
de Verdreuil's roof, sooner than have stood again in her presence, and
seen that cruel smile of triumph in her eyes. That she was homeless and
friendless as any wandering beggar she never remembered. That she had
neither shelter nor help to seek, once she left Renonçeux, she never
thought.

She opened her window and stepped out on the balcony beneath. From
thence a flight of steps led to the gardens below, on the right of the
terrace. She closed the window, and, drawing her cloak closely round
her, went out to the darkness and solitude of the wild, stormy night.
With no backward glance, but with a vague, nameless sense of fear, she
hurried on, her slight figure shaken by the fury of the storm, as the
fierce blasts from time to time swept over her. Her hood fell back,
her hair, loosened by the wind, was tossed to and fro in spite of her
efforts to twist it back under its covering. But she went on still,
scarcely heeding the fury of the storm, the blinding, pitiless sweep
of the rain. Her feet took the old familiar way to the wood which led
to her old home. The wood where Raoul de Verdreuil had seen her three
years before, as she stood by the brook-side and pictured to herself
the fairy-like fancies of the life she was to live.

For one whole hour she pursued her way untiringly, scarce knowing how
or where she went in the misery of her heart, and the death of all
its joy and faith; deaf and blind to everything now save the cruel,
ceaseless pain which throbbed and beat in her brain with its own
restless agony.

Her garments were drenched and heavy with the rain, they clogged her
with their weight, and impeded her at every step; her breath only came
in short, fitful gasps. The fierce gusts shook her slight frame like
a reed, and loosened the covering from her head, and tossed her long,
floating hair to the winds, as if in mockery. Still she struggled on,
pursued only by blind, unreasoning terror, sensible of nothing but
that one desire to escape from the woman who had wronged and scorned
and outraged every feeling of her heart; on, on, through the darkness
around; through the narrow passage of the wood, where the boughs
swayed, and tossed, and creaked, as the wind bent them like twigs in
its fury; on and over the mossy ground, all damp and sodden with the
rain; on through the windings and turnings of that narrow path, once so
familiar to her steps; on, still on, with her face colourless and set
as if with the sternness of some great resolve. There was none to see,
none to help, none to stay her, as with that fixed, desperate endeavour
she still pursued her way. The death-like whiteness of her face never
changed. The laboured beating of her heart grew each moment more
painful. Then, suddenly, a dizzy, deadly faintness overwhelmed her. The
fragile form reeled and shook like a lily on its stem. Above, in the
clouded heavens, the faint, swift gleam of the moon shone out for one
brief moment from its curtain of darkness--shone on the swaying form,
the sweet, child-face upraised in its helpless misery to the pitiless
storm--on the masses of loosened hair and the white lips parted in
silent agony.

Then darkness veiled the heavens, and equal darkness swept over the
senses of the weary girl below. Involuntarily she stretched her arms
out to the gloom and the shadows around, as if seeking for support.
The unnatural strength which had so long sustained her at last gave
way, and she sank senseless down on the damp, leaf-strewn ground, her
head resting on the mossy underwood of the forest-path, and her soft,
trailing hair, all tangled and wet with the wind and the rain, veiling
her unconscious form.




CHAPTER XI.--HOW THE PROMISE WAS KEPT.


"The sight of means to do ill deeds,
Makes ill deeds done."
.... Shakspeare.


BRIGHT and fair dawned the morning after the storm, with neither trace
nor shadow of the past night's fury to dim its brightness; and radiant
as the morning itself the Countess de Verdreuil lay back amongst the
soft cushions of her chair, and languidly sipped the chocolate her maid
had just brought to her.

In her dainty dressing-room, with every mirror on the walls reflecting
her own exquisite face, she was thinking triumphantly enough of the
success her schemes had won for her.

She was free and untrammelled, her own mistress entirely. With
unbounded wealth in her possession, with beauty, and youth, and
strength to enjoy it, she knew she could command the world's homage
now; that her wealth and her loveliness combined would bring crowds
of suitors to her feet; but she resolved to taste the sweets of
independence to the uttermost, ere again binding herself down to the
bondage of matrimony. To be great, courted, powerful, enchanting; but
above all, free. To go where she would, act as she pleased, scatter
her wealth in every costly extravagance and fantastic fancy that
pleased her; and yet give up her liberty to none till just such time as
it suited her to do so.

Leaning negligently there, with that smile upon her lips, that glitter
of triumph in her eyes, her maid thought she had very little of the
appearance of a recently-bereaved widow; but then, as she said to
herself afterwards,--

"If Monsieur le Comte chose to marry a young and beautiful lady, what
could he expect but that his death would be only a release to be
welcomed, not a loss to be mourned;" which reasoning of the pretty
soubrette was very much like that of the world at large.

"I shall not remain here," thought the countess to herself. "This old,
gloomy château is ennuyante in the extreme. No, I shall spend the
winter abroad, perhaps in Algiers, I have never been there; or at Rome,
I should like to see the Carnival again; anywhere out of France for
the present, as I must of course keep up the pretence of mourning for
a while. Abroad no one will calculate how many months it is since I
have worn crape, or what depth of mourning I choose to introduce in my
attire whenever I go out."

"I wonder how Vivienne is this morning," she continued, setting down
her cup, and gazing musingly at the bright fire before her. "I am
almost sorry I spoke so plainly as I did last night--only the girl
is too beautiful to keep beside me, and she grows so intolerable
insolent that I can make no use of her at all. I think, however, I have
effectually put a stop to her grand airs and queenly graces. I shall
have no more of them now she knows who she is. If she would be a little
more humble, and do as I wish, I would still keep her here; or if she
is still obstinate and blind to her own interests, I might get her on
the stage at the leading opera-house in Paris. I don't wish the girl
to be ruined after all, now that I have effectually put an end to her
love affair, and her foolish notions of high birth and noble descent.
If she goes on the stage Raoul will never look at her again; I think
I have played my cards too well for that; and if she does not,
and consents to remain with me, I shall insist upon her marrying the
Marquis d'Orvâl. She must have been mad to refuse him; I think such an
offer would even tempt me."

She smiled complacently at herself in the opposite mirror at the
thought, and then rang a small hand-bell near to summon her maid.

"Ask Mademoiselle St. Maurice to come to me here," she said as the girl
entered, and then she fell languidly back amongst the cushions again
with an assumption of ease and indifference she was far from feeling.

She could not forget Vivienne's agonized look the previous night, nor
her words of piteous entreaty as she heard that story of her mother's
shame, and besought Blanche to deny its truth. If the girl had known
that it was wholly and entirely a fabrication on the part of her enemy,
with no foundation save in her own evil mind, what would her feelings
be now? A low, cruel laugh escaped Blanche de Verdreuil's lips; hushed
quickly and instantaneously, however, as footsteps approached her room,
and the door suddenly opened.

Her maid entered--alone--with a white, scared face, and shaking hands.

"Pardon, madame! but Mademoiselle St. Maurice is not in her room!"

"Not in her room!"

Blanche started up from her graceful attitude. "Not in her room; well,
seek her then, she must be somewhere in the château. In the music-room
or the salon, perhaps. Don't stand gazing at me with that white
face, girl! You look as if you had seen a ghost!"

Ednée faltered out some half-intelligible apology, and then went on
to say that Mademoiselle St. Maurice's maid had been to her room
that morning, and found it all in disorder; her dresses heaped about
in various directions, the bed had never been slept in, and the
servants one and all declared that nothing had been seen or heard of
mademoiselle that morning in any part of the château.

Blanche de Verdreuil's delicate cheek turned a shade paler at the news.
This hare-brained, desperate girl had evidently resolved to scandalize
her by flight, and flight sudden and stealthy as this had been. Well,
it was of no consequence to her, she was well rid of her. She had
chosen to act in this wild, headstrong manner, and she must abide by
the consequences. She gave the girl orders to have an instant search
made for her ward through every part of the château and the grounds.
"Not that I suppose you will hear anything of her," she said coldly;
"my belief is that she has eloped with some one whom I had forbidden
her to marry. That is I expect the true secret of her flight."

The girl, wondering at the little concern her mistress took in
Vivienne's extraordinary departure, left the room in silence to give
the necessary orders for the search.

"If it had been anybody else but mademoiselle," she said wonderingly,
"I should not have been surprised; but she--so gentle, so sweet, so
good--to fly in the dead of night like a thief from the home of her
guardian! it is incroyable; and on the very day when Monsieur le
Comte has been buried too, and she always so gentle and loving to him!
I cannot understand it at all!"

Nor any one else, save the fair, smiling woman nestled in her dainty
boudoir, and murmuring softly to herself as she thought of Vivienne's
flight in the wild storm and the tempestuous darkness of the past
night; "So much the better for me, she has taken all the responsibility
of her future out of my hands, and she can do what she likes with
herself now. I am thankful enough I shall see her no more. I hate her
when I think that Raoul loved her."

So Blanche de Verdreuil kept her promise to the dead.




BOOK IV.




CHAPTER I.--NECESSITY OWNS NO LAW.


"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control;
These three alone lead life to sovereign power."
.... Tennyson.


IT was the time of the Carnival at Rome.

Fantastic cars and gorgeous chariots, and crowds of grotesque maskers
thronged the Corso. The shouts and the jests and the uproar of the
laughing, struggling multitude were almost deafening. From the
festooned windows and gaily-draped balconies of the houses men and
women leaned to laugh and jest at the crowd below, while they tossed
flowers, and sweetmeats, and gilded toys into the carriages as they
passed.

All were mad and merry with the mirth and licence of the Carnival;
grotesque, laughter-loving, riotous with a nation's forgetfulness of
pain--a people's reaction and caprice though the great, weary, fettered
heart beat on beneath that surface of mirth, and the yoke of tyrannous
error was heavy on their lives.

They forgot the pain, they forgot the suffering, they forgot the
confused sense of wrong struggling and seeking for right which
oppressed their more rational moments, and they gave themselves up
unreservedly to the follies and the licence of Carnival time, greeting
the old king once more with the loyalty and delight that he at least
had never forfeited. They crowned him still with the faith and the
gladness, and the free, spontaneous mirth of a jesting, laughter-loving
nation.

Standing in the shadow of an archway, gloomy even in the clear sunshiny
splendour of that winter day, Raoul de Verdreuil watched the shifting,
changing brilliant scene before him. He had been a week in Rome, and
this was the first day of the Carnival. To him it was no new sight; he
had seen it in Germany, in Florence, in Verona, as well as in the great
capital, and he watched it now with scarce a smile for its follies, or
an ear for its jests; it seemed to him but a mockery of pleasure, a
pretence of mirth, tossed by the hands of tyranny to bind the errors of
superstition still closer to a people's heart, just as a painted bauble
tossed to a child stills its cries, and pacifies its desires for the
time being.

His grave eyes wandered over the crowd, and scanned the faces in the
windows with supreme indifference; Raoul felt but little interest in
either one or other. The memories of his past life were still with him;
he had borne with its desolation, and carried its unmerited dishonour
deep-rooted in his heart, and the pain was keen and sharp as ever--the
sense of unmerited wrongs poisoned much of the happiness and content
that still might have been his. He never forgot that he was the first
of his race on whom the ban of disinheritance had fallen. The thought
of his enemy living in his home, squandering his wealth, triumphing in
his possessions, was keenest torture to him. Though none had heard him
lament, he suffered all the more because of his proud reticence, his
outward indifference, his serene, untroubled calm.

The world had marvelled enough at his father's strange will, and much
pity and unbounded sympathy were felt and expressed for the young
count, but he calmly and gravely put it aside with a coldness that
froze all its well-meant kindness into silence.

He was the last man in the world to lay bare his heart to others. He
shrank from pity as an insult, from sympathy as from pain. He hated
to think that he was an object for the world's commiseration, and
therefore fenced himself round with a barrier of deeper reserve than
before this shame had touched him. That he had been wronged all knew
and none doubted, but his own lips never let fall a word to enlighten
them as to the reason, or allow them to imagine the result. For the
sake of his manhood, for the pride of his race, Raoul de Verdreuil
resolved that none should ever read the weakness of his heart, or have
power to say his life had been wrecked and marred by the injustice
dealt to him. He had met his disgrace with the weapon of indifference,
and in adversity as in prosperity none had ever heard a regret from
his lips, or seen the haughty pride and serene composure of his nature
moved or disturbed. His brilliant talents shone forth amidst his
clouded fortunes with additional lustre, and while men marvelled at his
serene and unmoved endurance of wrong, they marvelled more at the power
and grandeur of an intellect whose might ruled and swayed them as it
had never done before, and which from very force of suffering won its
noblest triumphs.

Yet Raoul de Verdreuil had his dark moments, all the more dark and
hopeless, because he opened his heart to none, because he shut himself
out from all sympathy, and let no one know how keen an anguish filled
his soul--how deep a grief had poisoned all his life. At times a thirst
for vengeance seized him, and all the worst and fiercest passions of
his nature tempted him to avenge his wrongs. All the dreams of his
youth came back, and with them the loss of the heritage he had loved
and reverenced, as the one fairest, brightest spot in all the earth.
Then he remembered the woman who had wronged him, and he longed with a
fierce, terrible longing to give her back measure for measure; to fill
her life with the shame, and the misery, and the endless pain that his
own had become to him now.

Times there were too when, amidst the tumult and the beauty of foreign
cities a great, heart-sick, restless desire oppressed him--a desire to
see once more the familiar beauty of the home he had lost. Some dream
would bear him back to it again, and he saw the fresh, sweet shade of
forest leafage, and the vast expanse of park and woodland, the purple
bloom of vineyards, the gleam of blossoming orchards, and then--he woke
to memory, and thought in bitterness of heart to whom he owed his loss!
Then all his philosophy vanished, and a passionate agony consumed him,
and in such moments as those, Raoul de Verdreuil had no mercy, and no
remorse, but set himself with stern and desperate endeavour to achieve
the purpose he had sworn as he looked his last on the home a woman's
treachery had snatched from him.

Such had been his life during the months that had passed since he left
Renonçeux, and now in the bright, clear glow of the winter sunshine he
found himself once more at Rome, while King Carnival held his court in
the streets and the palaces, and mirth and madness filled the whole
city with reckless delight.

While he waited and watched it all from the archway where he had found
standing-place on a flight of half-broken steps, his eyes rested for a
moment on a balcony opposite.

He started--leant forward more eagerly as if in doubt--and then all
the calmness and coldness of his face changed as if by magic. His eyes
flashed scorn, the dusky glow of anger burned on his brow, for there
before him--with the sunshine sparkling on her face, with smiles on
her lips, with a crowd of men flattering, bending, waiting on her as
courtiers on a sovereign--sat the woman who had wronged him.

She looked beautiful as ever as she leant there with her arms on the
marble balustrade, the rich, soft, velvet folds of her dress framing in
her beauty by its dark hues, as the ebony frame of a picture heightens
the glowing colours and delicate hues of the painting itself. Her eyes
laughed down at the crowd below as she tossed them the gilded bonbons
with which her hands were filled, and in her joyous, careless mirth,
the eyes of the man she had wronged and defrauded rested on her once
more.

He never took his gaze from her face, and at last it seemed as if
the strange magnetic force of that fixed look compelled her own
eyes to turn in his direction. She saw him then--stern, relentless
unforgiving--as she had seen him in a thousand dreams, a thousand
fancies, since the hour they had parted.

No thought of meeting him in Rome had crossed her mind. She thought he
had long left the city, and now amidst the riot and the mirth of the
Carnival they met again.

Over the heads of the people, breathless, panting, laughing, as they
thronged every street and passage, and doorway, the eyes of these two
met--the woman who had wronged, and the man who suffered for the wrong.
That look spanned and bridged the intervening space with its relentless
purpose on the one side, its mute and haughty defiance on the other.
But in that moment Blanche de Verdreuil's heart felt the same chill,
deadly terror as when, in the hour of her promised triumph, she read
the merciless determination of the man she had made her bitterest foe.

"He has not forgiven me," she thought, as she turned her eyes away from
the pitiless face in the shadows of the archway below. "He never will
forgive me now. Yet I am secure enough. Why should I fear him?"

But, all the same, she did fear him, in spite of her efforts to
believe herself safe, in spite of her pride of possession, her splendid
beauty, her vast wealth. Though the world smiled on her, and lovers
worshipped her, and every costly fancy or caprice she formed she could
gratify at will, Blanche de Verdreuil could not forget the past; could
not blind herself to the fact that she was treading over a mine which
at any moment might explode and bury her beneath its ruins. Of remorse
or of pity she never thought, but fear could touch her still.

When her terror had subsided, and the colour stole back to her face,
and the light to her eyes, the countess glanced once more in the
direction of her enemy. The archway was deserted.

Raoul de Verdreuil had gone.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Night in Rome.

The vast squares, and carved columns, and majestic ruins of the city
are bathed in the clear light of the new-risen moon. Far away from the
lighted streets, and the shining windows and the noisy crowds, a man
wanders alone. His step is swift, his eyes seek the ground, his face
is dark with stormy passions, and while he hurries on in the clear,
frosty, starlit night, he sees nothing of the splendid magnificence and
ruined grandeur around him; of all the beauty desolate with neglect,
yet grand in its decay which Art once raised, and Genius sanctified ere
centuries of change and storms of war had swept over the Eternal City.

As he reaches the Forum he pauses and looks round; a shadow, stealthy,
and indistinct flits behind a ruined pillar near by, a shadow that has
dogged his footsteps since he left the city itself. The shadow of a man
gaunt, large-eyed, with a woolfish, hungry look in his face, with the
stamp of want and woe on his brow. He crouches behind the pillar, and
the man he has followed is all unconscious of his presence; he stands
with the wild grasses crushed beneath his feet, and his back against
the ruined arch which towers in lofty, solitary grandeur against the
background of the starry sky, amidst the dusk of the gloomy shadows.

The Forum is deserted, silent--still with the stillness of a
world-forgotten greatness brooding over its desolate beauty. The ghosts
of buried ages hold solemn meetings there; martyred saints and mighty
lives haunt the forsaken ruins which once held all the pomp and glory
of Rome. The weight of memories oppresses the silence, the measureless
achievements of the past point backwards to triumphs great and noble,
to deeds grand and brave. The glory that has been still lingers
there, still illumines the dim, unknown depths of the Eternal City
itself, and the mantle of reverence covers the nakedness of her
desolation, and hides pityingly the ravages of time.

The moon-rays fall on the face of the man who has come thither in
weariness of heart and bitterness of spirit, who has fled from the
noisy pleasure-seekers in the lighted streets beyond, who seeks in
solitude what others seek in recklessness and riot, and pleasures of
the senses--forgetfulness of suffering!

The shadow of the watcher near him crouches lower and lower, in the
attitude of a beast of prey about to spring on the victim it has marked
for itself. The lean, nervous hand clutches firmly the glittering steel
of the weapon with which he is armed--the long, sharp blade of an
Italian bravo, the blade of which he is about to plunge in the heart of
the unconscious and defenceless man whom he looks upon merely as lawful
prey for his own necessities to feast upon.

The lurking attitude, the cruel, stealthy watch, tell their own tale
too well. Hunger and want are the two demons which make men criminals,
and these two demons have fast hold of the wretched, cowering creature
keeping that midnight watch, and seeing his deadliest foe only in a
stranger whom Fortune has given all she has denied to him.

And the man he watches suspects no danger, fears no harm, as wrapped in
his own gloomy, revengeful thoughts he leans against the ivy-crowned
stonework of the ruins.

The moon is behind a cloud now, the shadows are denser and deeper;
swiftly the crouching form creeps out from its hiding-place, and glides
forward in that momentary gloom.

There is a cry--a struggle.

Then the moon shines forth again, clear, bright, pitiless as
ever--shines on two forms locked and closed in that terrible struggle
for life which only comes when chances are desperate, and help
impossible. Reeling, swaying, striving, they wrestle breast to breast,
one face stern and fearless, even in its sudden sense of danger; the
other black and fierce with evil passions, lustful with the thirst for
blood, the greed of gold, the desperation of want.

The struggle is short and swift, the strength of the combatants
unequal; for while the frame of one is firm, well knit, and powerful,
that of his would-be assassin is feeble with hunger and fasting, and
his lips grow white with fear as he feels how weak he is in the hands
of his powerful antagonist.

Suddenly, with a swift, supple movement, he frees his right arm.

There is a gleam of steel in the moonlight as the blade quivers aloft,
but ere it can strike its way to the heart of his opponent, the wrist
is seized, the weapon wrenched away, and the man himself falls down
helpless, breathless, and stunned at the feet of Raoul de Verdreuil.




CHAPTER II.--"COALS OF FIRE."


"The voice of the dead was a living voice to me!"
.... Tennyson.


BREATHLESS, panting, powerless, the fallen man looked up in the face of
his conqueror, while he lay at his feet half stunned by the force with
which he had been thrown there.

Raoul's eyes looked down on him with a dim sense of compassion striving
with the loathing and disgust he felt for the coward who would have
taken his life without a regret, for the mere sake of the gold on his
person.

"Why have you done this?" he asked, as he watched his prostrate foe
struggling back to life and sensibility again. "What harm have I ever
done to you that you should seek to take my life?"

There was no anger in his voice; it was grave and stern, yet
compassionate withal, for he saw this poor outcast was in dire want,
and he knew that need and desperation too often go hand in hand. The
man looked up at him with a dim wonder in his eyes, replacing all their
former ferocity.

"I am starving," he said half fiercely, as he raised himself to a
sitting attitude. "Hunger makes brutes of us all when we have nought
but that to fill our lives; it makes us ready to curse God and man,
to steal, or lie, or murder--as I would have murdered you, signor, a
moment ago."

Raoul's face softened.

"You speak like an educated man, not a beggar," he said. "How comes it
you have fallen so low as this?"

The man slowly gathered himself from the ground, faint, blind,
staggering still from bodily weakness, as well as from the blow which
had felled him. He rose to his feet, cowed and quelled, like a beaten
hound; had his weapon been in his hand at that moment, he would not
have either strength or will to use it. He accepted his defeat, and
bent to his conqueror like a slave.

"How comes it? you may well ask that," he said bitterly. "I have been
unfortunate all my life. I have had few chances, and they have never
prospered. I have dragged on an existence of shame, of beggary, of
wretchedness for years past. But what I have been matters not; look at
what I am."

"It is that I look at, and for that I pity you," said Raoul. "You say
you have had few chances; are you sure you have utilized chances when
they fell in your way? Wise men compel opportunities, if they do not
always come to them. You must have been singularly unfortunate to have
descended to a bravo's skill, and an assassin's cowardice for bread. Do
you know I can hand you over to the authorities for this attempt on my
life?"

"I know it," was the reply.

"At least you might have given me some notice of your intentions,"
pursued Raoul. "A man does not mind a fair fight for his life, but to
be taken unawares is not exactly pleasant. Supposing our positions were
reversed, and I had been lying at your feet at the present moment, what
would you have done?"

"Robbed you, undoubtedly; killed you, most probably," was the cool
answer. "I should have only thought of my necessity, signor, as it
is----"

"As it is I must think of it for you," said Raoul, in the same
half-mocking, jesting voice he had used throughout the conversation.
"Well, let me hear what you want?"

The man was silent, abashed by this unexpected treatment. He could not
understand it.

"You think I am not in distress," he said sullenly; "that my misery is
only a subject for jest?"

"God forbid!" said Raoul earnestly. "I jest at no man's misery. I am
willing to help you if you tell me what I can do, but I do not wish to
give you the mere temporary relief of gold: it will be spent, wasted
perhaps, and in a month you will fall back on your old trade again.
Tell me what you were. A man of education should always be able to keep
bread in his mouth at all events. There are dire straits of poverty, I
know, but still there are other ways of gaining a livelihood than by
crime."

"Do you think I do not know it?" cried the man passionately, as he
pushed the dark tangled curls from his brow, and raised his head with a
gesture of mingled scorn and defiance. "What I was once--you wish to
know that. My name was on men's lips, and in women's hearts, and I had
wealth as much as I wanted; and love, ah! love that turned my life to
poison, and my heart to sin, and stamped me with a memory hideous and
false, yet alluring still. But that is all over for ever. The fair side
of life has long been unknown to me. Of the dark I could tell you much
more, did you care to hear it?"

"I do not," said Raoul, in the same gentle tones he had used before. "I
can imagine what it must have been to have brought you to this."

No rebuke or reproach could have stung the man so deeply as those
few simple words. He looked at the calm, noble face before him, and
wondered why its pity was so deep, its compassion so infinite.

There were men in the world degraded, debased, criminal as himself, who
could have told of like forbearance and like compassion on the part
of Raoul de Verdreuil--men whom he had rescued and saved from vice,
from infamy, from their own evil natures, their own vicious ways; and
yet the world called him cold and heartless--a man without sympathy,
without love. So we judge of those we cannot understand!

A moment, and the old fierce light shone in the man's eyes, the old
savage mockery rang in his voice.

"Can you? I doubt it. All things have gone fair and smoothly with you.
How can you read the wrongs and imagine the temptings which beset a man
so fallen as I am now? How can you, who look of the great ones of the
world, know aught of the foulness and treachery which lurk in the dark
places of the earth, which pollute the fairest life? In mine there is
misery you cannot fathom--wrongs that gods could not pardon!"

"Is it so?"

Raoul's thoughts wandered back to his own past. Had he not also
suffered; had his misery not bowed him to the dust; had he not also
felt as if he knew wrongs that gods could not pardon? Mockery, shame,
dishonour, loss. His heart softened to the wretched being before him.
His eyes rested on him with a deeper compassion. He saw that in spite
of the ravages of want and hunger the face was delicately moulded;
the form slight and graceful. He was no longer young, but vice and
famine had sharpened and aged his features even more than time. The
dark, olive skin, the black, glittering eyes, and tangled, jetty curls
proclaimed his southern origin, and the fluency and ease with which he
spoke Italian made Raoul imagine he must be a native of the country.

"Well!" he said, suddenly rousing himself from his abstraction, "while
I talk you are famishing. Listen, I will give you enough money to buy
you food and secure you a lodging for to-night. To-morrow come to me
again, and I will see what I can do for you. Any hour after sunset you
will find me at this address."

He pencilled a few words in Italian and handed it to the man, who
regarded him for some moments in too great amazement for speech.

Suddenly he threw himself down before him--thanking, blessing, weeping
like a child, with all the fervour and passion of southern expletives
gracing the eloquence of his words.

"Signor, signor! I came here to-night a devil; you have made me a man.
You have given back life to my body, and feeling to my heart. In all
my life to come you shall do with me as you will. I am yours from this
night forward! I would go to death for you as willingly as I would have
dealt it to you only an hour ago!"

And he meant it.

His life had been evil, cruel, merciless for long years past. He had
not known a single good or kindly thought of his species. In all the
agonies, and the evils, and the desolation of his soul no pity, no
charity had relieved him; and now the man he would have murdered with
as little regret as he would have taken the life of bird or beast
that might serve him for food--this man alone, of all he had ever
met, succoured him; nay, more, had thought of his soul as well as his
body. He did not rest content with relieving him from the one pressing
necessity of want--he dealt to him a surer mercy; he sought to raise
and rescue his moral nature from the depths of its degradation, and
therefore it was that his gratitude was so rich and passionate in its
first full abandonment of thankfulness, therefore it was that he saw in
Raoul de Verdreuil not a saviour only, but a man great and noble with
the one true greatness that sways humanity with the force of its own
truth and power.

Raoul stopped his words at last.

"No thanks are needed," he said quietly, "I have done but little.
Reserve them till there is need. How do you know I am to be trusted? I
may ere to-morrow have handed you over to the authorities."

The man looked up at him, a dog-like fidelity shining in the eyes
lately so fierce and brutal.

"You would but do right even then," he said; "I have no claim on your
mercy or your charity. I only wonder you did not kill me as I lay here.
It would have been only just if you had!"

Raoul was more moved than he cared to show. How utterly broken down
was the whole wild, brutalized nature before him; and by what? a
few, simple words spoken as from man to man; not a superior to an
outcast. That was all, and what magic it had worked! What magic it
would still work Raoul never guessed then. He little thought that this
act of his to-night, which had changed a murderer to a faithful slave
henceforward, would be the key to a mystery he longed to fathom, would
give to him the vengeance he fought, the justice he claimed.

"But you know I shall not do it," he answered him, placing some gold in
the man's hands. "No, I wish to give you a better chance of living,--an
object in life, if possible. Now, take this--it will give you food,
shelter, and clothing; to-morrow night I shall expect you!"

And waiting no longer to hear the fervent thanks, the murmured
blessings of a life rescued from worse than death, Raoul walked swiftly
away to the distant city, while above him the starlit beauty of the
night shone as the sole witness of a deed noble, generous, trustful as
the heart which had prompted it--a deed destined to bring forth results
great and marvellous, such as neither benefactor nor receiver imagined.

*  *  *  *  *  *

One hour after sunset, the day following that strange adventure in the
Forum, Raoul de Verdreuil awaited the man who had attempted his life.

He almost started when he saw him, so great a change had taken place
in his appearance. He could scarcely recognize him as the miserable,
starving object who had cowered at his feet the night before, looking
the very essence of brutalized, debased humanity. The wolfish, hungry
look had left his eyes; the tangled, jet black curls were no longer
matted and disordered; the slight, supple form was clad in well-fitting
and suitable garments; and as he advanced and bowed low before the
man who had thus rescued him, and given him back the feelings and the
instincts so long strangers to his nature, Raoul looked well pleased at
the change, and welcomed him cordially.

The more the man spoke, the more his benefactor marvelled at his
fluent, graceful speech, his varied knowledge, the evidence of culture
and refinement in his words and manner. How could he have sunk so low
as to become a midnight assassin? He listened, and pondered what he
could do for him, and the more he pondered the more puzzled he became.

"What have you been?" he asked him at last.

"I--many things in my life. The secret of my ruin is soon told; it is
contained in one word--gambling."

"Ah!"

The expression fell softly from Raoul's lips. This solved the
mystery--this accounted for the fall. He looked musingly at the man for
some moments, then he said,--

"A bad trade, and a ruinous one, my friend. To peril life, and peace,
and future on the turn of a wheel--the faith of a card! I cannot wonder
that you are what you are, if such has been your life."

"I used to have luck once," said the Italian, with a strange, wistful
regret in the tones of his voice, "but fortune mocked me, and the more
I sought her the more I lost; and then I grew reckless, desperate, mad
I believe. I lost honour, faith, love, all in a single night by the
turn of a card, and since then I have not cared what became of me."

Raoul looked at him in silence.

"I am sorry for you," he said gently, "but of all trades a gambler's is
the one I most despise. I would as soon pin my faith to a drunkard's
promises as to a gambler's word. I wish to help you with all my heart,
but how can I trust you? The first tempting of the dice will draw you
towards it irresistibly with all the old fascination. My labour will be
wasted; my counsels forgotten."

The Italian approached him with a grave, steadfast resolve in his face,
that ennobled and purified it for the moment from all its traces of
vice and ignominy.

"Signor," he said earnestly, almost sadly, "I have no claim upon your
kindness, nay, rather, I deserve all your severest justice, not your
clemency and forbearance. But I will promise you this. I owe you a debt
of gratitude which no words can express, nor any act repay. I promise
you that I will never again touch card or dice, and I will keep my word
only say you believe me."

There was no withstanding the earnest appeal, the almost piteous
entreaty of those words. Faith might save him, disbelief might ruin
him. Raoul read that plainly enough, and he was not one to do work by
halves.

"I believe you," he said gravely, "and with that promise I give you
back my trust again. Give me your hand on it."

The man looked at him in utter amazement.

"My hand--you ask for my hand, and I--great Heaven! I would have taken
your life like a dog!"

"No matter; I may need your services. I should like to feel I can
depend on them--and you."

The man seized his outstretched hand with an outburst of gratitude so
fervent that Raoul could hardly silence it. But he knew that the life
he had won back from the deep abyss of misery and crime was his from
that day forward, for good or evil.

"If I might never leave you, if I might always feel you near, it is
life and strength to me once more!"

These were the words of the Italian as he rose at last from an
interview long and full of purpose and of good, yet all too short for
him, in his overflowing gratitude to the man who had saved him in his
misery.

Raoul looked at him earnestly.

"You would like that?" he said.

"Like it! Ah signor, with you I forget my infamy, my shame. I feel my
lost youth revive, my lost hopes live, my lost ambitions waken!"

"You shall have your wish then, for a time at least," said Raoul, with
a sudden quick resolve: "your knowledge of languages answers to one
great requirement of my present position. I have so much correspondence
on my hands that I was thinking only yesterday of applying for a
secretary to assist me. For one month I will let you have the post.
It is one of trust and responsibility as well as of work. You will be
under my own eye entirely, and according as you evince your capability
so will I reward your labours. What do you say to my offer?"

"Say!" stammered the man, too utterly confounded almost for speech.

"Is my proposal so very extraordinary?" said Raoul, smiling. "The world
would doubtless call it Quixotic, but then I have never let the world's
opinions interfere with my actions. Our present compact is made between
ourselves as between man and man--you are free to accept or refuse it
as you wish."

"Do drowning men accept life, do prisoners accept freedom? Oh, signor,
even as salvation, liberty, rescue, comes your offer to me! May the
mercy you have shown be rewarded to you a thousand times! Your trust
shall never be misplaced--I swear it!"

Into the darkened room shone the clear, pure beauty of the evening
star. In the heavens above there was light, radiant, glorious,
peaceful. But into the darkened heart and sin-wrecked life of the man
whose head was bowed in the fullness of his gratitude and joy there
stole a peace as deep, a light as pure--the light of hope restored, of
a soul rescued and saved from the guilt of a terrible past, from the
grave of sin and despair.




CHAPTER III.--A CHARMED CUP.


"Thou hast a charmed cup, O Fame!
A draught that mantles high,
And seems to lift this earthly frame above mortality."
.... Mrs. Hemans.


A QUAINT old room in a quiet little German town.

Three people are seated there one chill evening in early spring. The
firelight shines on the dark oak furniture, the carvings of the chairs
and picture-frames, the smooth, well-waxed floor, so characteristic of
a German home. It differs from the generality of them in one respect
however; it has no hideous, comfortless stove in the corner, but an
open hearth, on which a bright fire blazes and crackles cheerfully, and
whose ruddy glow falls on the white head of an old man bending low over
the flames; on the fair, smooth, placid face of a young girl near him,
his daughter; and again, on the clear-cut, delicate profile of a young
man seated in the darkest and most shadowy corner of the room playing.

What music it was! Poetic, ethereal, sublime; and yet how far below the
dreams of excellence, the sublime ideals of the player! It thrilled out
on the silence of the firelit room; its passionate prayers--its divine,
unearthly dreams, filled the chamber with a flood of richest melody;
and the old man bowed his head as he listened, feeling again the
memories of his dead youth throbbing in his heart, seeing as through
the golden haze of past belief the joys of his once glad faith ere time
and the world had chilled it. The young girl beside him dropped the
work from her hands and folded them idly on her lap, and her eyes grew
dim with wistful pain, with vague longings; for the player was very
dear to her.

She looked at him as she sat mute and silent, listening to his
music--to her ever the sweetest in the world.

"It seems too beautiful for earth," she said softly, as his fingers
left the keys, slowly and lingeringly as though they loved their touch.

"Probably that is the reason why the world will have none of it," he
said, with a faint smile, as he turned towards her.

Into the music he had woven the story of his own life, the weariness
of his own longings, the failure of his own dreams. It was like a
story whose truth to nature and to life appealed to the experience of
individual hearts, whose sweet, sad mysteries woke all the slumbering
memories of bygone years and thrilled the listeners' hearts with
passionate regrets, with the pain of long buried hopes, with all the
fancy and sweetness of the past.

To the old man it had spoken of youth and its fair promises; to
the girl, of an awakened soul, whose instincts, ever stretching
heavenwards, were yet clogged and bound by earthly chains. To the
player himself it told of divine possibilities, of hidden powers, of
all that Youth and Faith behold in the dreams that visit them. It was
beautiful exceedingly, but in its beauty there lingered a touch of
sadness, like the key-note of its melodies, the inspiration of its
themes; and sorrow thrilled even amidst its joy, like the pain and the
fear of a heart overweighed with its own great happiness.

A silence filled the room as the music ceased, broken only by the fall
of the wood ash on the hearth. Then the player left his seat and came
forward in the full glow of the firelight.

He was Albert Hoffmann; but not the same Albert who had been wont to
look upon life as a pleasant dream, a place for fancies and imaginings.
In truth, he had found it far otherwise since he had been thrown
on his own resources, since the death of his guardian had left him
totally unprovided for, and he was obliged to fight the battle of life
for himself and wake from dreams to realities. He had never known or
heeded the value of money, and now he learnt its use--nay, its absolute
necessity. He was utterly penniless save for his own scanty earnings,
and they barely sufficed to give him the comforts of a home with his
master--a home very different from the luxuries and magnificence of
Renonçeux.

Professor Eltermein was himself a poor man; all his learning and
experience had not sufficed to make him famous during his lifetime. The
world will never recognize what it cannot understand: and he had loved
art for its own sake too well to study popularity, which was perhaps
the reason that he was a poor man still, though great in reputation,
and vast and profound in all the theoretical and practical knowledge of
his art.

The professor had many pupils, but of them all, none was so great a
favourite as Albert Hoffmann. In him he recognized the greatness of a
genius far more exalted than ordinary talent; and in the young artist's
struggles and difficulties he seemed to live his own youth over again,
and fight the same battles with the world's selfishness and blindness
as his pupil fought for the first time.

But he knew what Albert did not, that the victory lay with a man's own
powers of endurance, and that, because that endurance so seldom could
hold out against the pressure of bodily need and bodily weakness,
genius such as fired his heart now, had too often succumbed to the
world's will and given simply what was demanded, not what it craved
to give--nobler teachings, grander truths, diviner conceptions. And,
knowing this, he was ever pitiful and tender to the young dreamer by
his side, and encouraged his lofty aspirations to yet greater heights,
nor permitted him to let any work fall into the time-worn grooves of
mere commonplace, such as the world applauds most, because it can
understand it best.

The profession Albert followed is one seldom inclined to treat its
followers with generosity. His greatest works had been the last to
recompense him. His music differed essentially from other music, and
the world has ever a strange suspicion of the man who dares to be
original. That which demands thought and attention, which soars to
loftier heights and embodies diviner ideals than men are accustomed to
behold, is not that which pleases them best.

The greatest genius is seldom that which reaps its rewards in its own
lifetime. The mediocre is, after all, the safest food on which to feed
the world, if men would but enjoy life and sacrifice fame in order to
believe it.

It dawned upon the young artist gradually that his sublime creations,
his ambitious dreams, his hopes of fame, were not the food for daily
life. The hardest lesson a human heart can learn is that which brings
to genius the sordid cares of necessity, which weights its pinions with
earthly wants, and brings it down to the level of a world it would fain
forget. And to be honest to genius is to refuse to walk in the way the
world would have us walk, or prostitute the noblest gifts of God to the
base uses of men.

Albert Hoffmann had to learn these truths as others before him have had
to learn them, as others after him will learn them, while the world
goes on its own way, sacrificing merit with the thoughtlessness of
neglect, giving to genius contempt in life, and fame in death as its
best and surest reward.

He had lived many months in the quiet little German town where he was
now. Of Raoul he had heard from time to time, as he wandered here and
there in the restlessness of his spirit or the exigencies of foreign
policy; but of Vivienne he knew nothing. He imagined she must be still
with the Countess de Verdreuil; and as in his correspondence with Raoul
the subject of Renonçeux was always avoided, neither of the friends
ever guessed that the beautiful ward of the countess had been driven
forth from her protection, and that her fate was a mystery to all who
had ever known her; and Raoul never guessed that either the girl he had
loved so madly was thrown unprotected on the mercy of the world, or
that the friend who had been to him as a brother was fighting a hard
battle with life, and learning for the first time the hardships and
difficulties that are to genius as the rein to the fiery steed, who
longs for the freedom of the desert.

So the months drifted by, the seasons came and went, and the first
year of his life in Germany came to an end. Buried in that quaint,
world-forgotten town whither he had gone, the time passed swiftly and
imperceptibly along by reason of its very monotony. He lived with his
master still, and the fair, gentle German maiden to whom he turned for
sympathy, or encouragement in his hours of despair was to him as a
sister in this new home. He grew to love it for its very simplicity and
quiet, its calm, unbroken rest.

Such a quaint, dreamy little place it was, yet beautiful withal, for
it was shut in by great forests of pine, and dark purple mountains,
stretching up their heads to catch the first rays of sunrise or the
hazy cloud-mists of the evening. There were dark woods, too, and
rushing torrents, and little babbling, shadowy brooks. There was much
beauty, though of a wild and sometimes gloomy nature, but its peace
and its loneliness suited Albert well, and he was content to live
there, and work there, though his master often counselled him to seek
other towns and fairer cities, where he might have a better chance of
success. But Albert always answered him,--

"What did they do for you?" And the old man, knowing that his life had
been wasted in them to no purpose, urged his wishes no longer on the
pupil he loved as a son, because in him he saw his own youth reproduced
and his own dreams revived.

So the young artist lived with them, and became to the old man as a
son, to the young girl as a hero; and her guileless heart weaved all
pure and noble fancies about him and his future, and her life found joy
and gladness in his confidence. Hitherto her father had been all in all
to her; now a new interest had crept into her heart; and when the old
man praised and encouraged the gifted intelligence of his pupil, she
listened with a fervour of belief and a glow of sympathy which Albert
scarcely noticed.

His master's praises were dearer to him than any other, because he knew
they must be deserved ere ever they would be given. But he never knew
that the old man, even amidst his encouraging prophecies, trembled for
the future of the young artist before him; that from the teaching of
his own experience, he knew the world would be a cruel taskmaster for
his pure hopes, his ardent fancies; that the keen sting of his own
disappointments pierced him afresh, and his own failure saddened him
again when in his pupil's works he recognised a genius grand beyond all
words, and great beyond all praise; yet, because of that very grandeur
and that very greatness, incomprehensible in the age he lived in.

The master remembered his own past when he thought of his pupil's
future. He remembered a time when, with youth's divine dreams, and
youth's blind belief in the impossible, he had thought to vanquish the
world at a touch, and to teach it mightier lessons of a newer, loftier
faith. He remembered the bitter combat his life had been; for he could
only look back now on a battle-field strewn with dead hopes, and
stricken powers, and vanquished ambitions. He thought of all that he
had sought and the world had denied, till in very weariness and despair
he had sickened of the strife and renounced fame for ever, turning his
face resolutely away from the delusive promises of youth, and bringing
down to the stern and sober level of real life the inborn inspirations
of his heart and soul.

Does the world ever give any other reward but thanklessness and neglect
to those who dream of teaching it purer, nobler truths than any it has
yet learnt, and who hold only in one hand genius--in the other poverty
and belief?




CHAPTER IV.--A HOPE.


"What wisdom more, what better life
Than pleaseth God to send;
What worldly goods, what longer use
Than pleaseth God to lend?"
.... Tusser.


"WHAT do you think of it, Herr Professor?"

Albert laid his hand on the old man's shoulder as he ceased playing,
and came forward in the glow of the firelight. His master had not
spoken either praise or criticism yet, and the young man had grown
weary of the long silence which had followed his remark to Bertha
Eltermein.

"What do you think of it?" he repeated. "The score is finished at
last; half a year's hard labour in it too! What are its merits or its
chances, do you suppose?"

The professor raised his head from its drooping attitude, and gazed
proudly up at the face before him. How fair and young and spiritual
it looked in the gleam of the flames, in the semi-obscurity of the
shadowy, quaint old room!

"It has but one fault," he said gently, "it is too spiritual. It
appeals to the few, not to the many. It passes by all claims to
popularity. Music can have no greater fault in the present day. Were
your name already famous, its beauty and originality, its exquisite
pathos and poetic thought would give you all the triumph you desire; as
it is, you are unknown, and you choose this work to carry your name to
the world. The envious will sneer at it; the panderers to popular taste
and popular error will deny that it has any merit; publishers will be
shy of introducing it, because it differs in many respects from the
acknowledged and universally-accepted standard of the music the public
usually hear. I fear it will be a hard struggle ere you can obtain
a hearing for it. Perhaps if you take it to Leipzig you may have a
chance. I have a friend at the Conservatoire who may help you, for the
sake of some slight service I rendered him in the past. Will you try?"

"If you think I have a chance, certainly," said Albert, looking
lovingly at the closely-written pages of his symphony, and turning over
the leaves with the gentle, reverent touch of an author as he sees his
work completed, and knows how much depends on its success.

"It differs widely from the ordinary standard," continued the
professor. "It will be received with distrust, and meet with more
difficulty than either you anticipate or it deserves. Men would rather
drag art down to the level of their own understanding than educate
themselves to meet its requirements. Think you they will turn their
eyes from earth, their ears from the cry of their own wants and
necessities to listen even to the music of the spheres! now, too, when
the melody they love best is the melody of gold; the only gods they
care to worship, the twin divinities of wealth and pleasure."

He ceased speaking, and the young, earnest face of the artist grew
troubled at his words.

"What can I do?" he said sadly, "I cannot write otherwise than I feel.
God has given me genius. How can I be false to that?"

It was the old cry of despair wrung from the bitterness of a man's
heart when he feels the genius within appeal in vain to the world
without, when he knows it may beat its wings against the prison bars
of circumstances, and beat them in vain, while its only recompense is
defeat, and its only fame--forgetfulness.

"True; that is what we all say," answered the old man gravely. "We
cannot be false to that. No! but it were a thousand times better if
we could; better for us here, at all events, while life clamours for
support, and the body's hunger is keener and sharper than the soul's.
Ah! mein Schüler, it is one of the toughest problems we have to
solve, this sacrifice of ease for hardships, wealth for want, life for
fame, which genius demands when, as you say, we cannot be false to
it. It is a wisdom so unworldly that the world calls it foolishness.
It looks to men's eyes as a vain pursuit after shadows, while all the
substance and goodness of life are passed by in scorn!"

A silence fell upon them after those words, and Bertha Eltermein,
looking up from her shadowy corner at the grave young face she had
grown to love so well, saw how sad and pale it looked now, and how soon
discouragement had robbed it of all its glow and fervour. Her heart
went out to him in a great throb of tenderness and pity.

"After writing such music as that," she said softly, "you have
surely little to fear. Have faith in yourself, Herr Albert, and that
will compel others to believe in you. My claim to men's wonder and to
men's praise would never give me distrust of my own power to enforce
it?"

"Because you are a woman, Fraulein Bertha, and women reason and feel
so differently to men," said Albert sadly. "Faith in myself is a thing
I am sadly deficient in. I long to win fame; I long to achieve great
things, and leave a mark in the world ere I bid farewell to it. I often
think my life will not be a long one, and therefore it is I feel the
craving to achieve something ere it is over that will prove it has not
been quite idle or purposeless."

The girl glanced quickly up at him, while a cold breath of fear swept
over her heart--a fear new to her in her happy, placid life. It had
never occurred to her that a time might come when things would change,
when Albert Hoffmann would be with them no longer, and all the dreamy
content and simple peace of her home life now would be altered entirely
by the loss of one of its members. That he might go forth into the
world and fight its battles for himself was probable, but surely he
would always return to the shelter of that quiet roof where his first
efforts had been made; he would always come to them for sympathy and
rest. Of that she had no doubt, but these words opened a new fear
before her, and she shuddered away from its chilling touch, as if a
cold hand had been laid upon her own.

"Bertha does not understand these matters, does she, Albert?" said
the professor, breaking the silence that had followed his pupil's
words. "It is very easy to talk of compelling the world to believe
in us; it is a very different matter to make it do so. Only those
who have tried the experiment know the difficulty. That you long for
fame and work for it I know. But as Bertha says, you lack courage and
confidence, and that will render the struggle a hard and a dispiriting
one for you. Yet my advice is, 'Go out in the world. Measure your own
merits with those of other men, but never lower the standard you have
set yourself, however hard it is to keep up to it.' All true genius
should exalt by its teachings, not debase itself to the ordinary
level which men are content to believe perfect, because it saves them
the trouble of thinking out anything new and strange, and therefore
incomprehensible."

"That is what I wish to do," said Albert eagerly. "It is easy enough
to follow in the same paths when others have smoothed the way and
explained the landmarks. My ideas are different, and when I give the
rein to fancy and imagination, I cannot but see my music is different
to other music. Whether better or worse, it is not for me to say. I
only write as I feel."

"That is best," said his master approvingly. "Originality is a gift in
itself, and one that you possess in an extraordinary degree. I told you
when you first came to me I could teach you but little. I may say now
I have taught you all I can; the rest remains for you to do. Men who
have genius like yourself should never rest content with obscurity. It
is a wrong done to themselves, to the world, and to the gift within
their soul. They should not let the world pass by and not strive to
make their voice heard in it--to plant the seeds from which a future
harvest of good may spring, while they tread life's highway with their
fellow-men. All things of beauty, of wisdom, and of greatness leave
the world better, purer, nobler for the lessons they teach; for genius
never dies, it makes itself heard in men's lives, it speaks in men's
tongues, it rises from the ashes of the past and gains new life in the
future!"

Then the old man turned to gaze meditatively in the fire-depths again,
and Bertha rose and put aside her work, and lighted the candles on
the table, and drew the curtains over the window, and once more the
young artist turned to his score, ever and anon striking some soft,
rich chords from the keys before him, while the old glory and the old
delight flushed his face and lit his eyes as they alone had power to do
now.

For Albert had never forgotten his dreams of love in the past, and
their pain and their longing could only be lulled to rest by the
exercise of a stronger power--the power of a genius God had bestowed,
and his art had consecrated to itself. He lived only for that now.
Failure and obscurity he dreaded only because of that inward, restless
fever which made him long to teach others all that he had himself
learnt. He only asked of the world--belief, and of the future--fame.

He passed by the thought of wealth in scorn; it was not gold for which
he laboured; it was only for such honour as would make his name live in
men's memories and gladden men's hearts so that they could never let it
die out in forgetfulness, even if they would.

"What have you done with your opera?" asked his master suddenly,
interrupting the soft, slow harmonies which sounded ever and anon in
the silence of the room.

"I have sent it to Paris," said Albert, turning towards him as he
spoke. "The director of one of the musical societies there has hopes
of having it produced at one of the theatres. He is a man of great
influence I know. You remember I told you I had the opera performed
once at Renonçeux. I engaged an orchestra, and this gentleman was the
conductor. He liked the opera so much that he wished me to produce
it in Paris. However, I could not make up my mind about it then; and
afterwards----" he hesitated a moment--"afterwards so many things
happened, and I came to Germany, and for a time forgot all about it.
However, I corrected and improved it during the winter, and now this
Monsieur L'Estrange has it. He says I can expect no payment, even if it
is performed, unless it is an extraordinary success."

"And you agreed to these terms?"

"Certainly. What else could I do? Any terms for a hearing just at
first, Herr Professor, I have no name--yet."

"Ah, I know that cry of old," said his master sadly. "No name, no
name--always that with these vampires who live on our brains and
turn our labours to their own ends and purposes! No name! It is the
millstone they hang round our necks, the weight with which they crush
out all the hope and gladness of our lives. No name, lieber Gott! and
how are we to get it, while every man's mind is busy with schemes for
his own ends and purposes, and we, unless we bring something to further
and assist those schemes, may starve in a garret or die in a gutter!"

"Dear father!" said Bertha soothingly, as she crossed over to the old
man and took his shaking hands tenderly in her own, "do not excite
yourself so. Things have gone hard with you, I know, but still you
often tell me you are content with life as it is."

"So I am, so I am, Liebchen," he answered her tenderly. "I have
thee, and thou art my great comfort, Bertha. But I grieve for Albert
sorely when I see how hard a struggle lies before him--when I think
that he too may have to slake his thirst for fame in the bitter waters
of disappointment; though Heaven grant him a better fate! He deserves
it!"

"Or else save me from witnessing it!" cried Albert impetuously. "I
don't care for length of years if my heart is to be crushed and
saddened by weary failures and unattainable longings. The birds do not
sing in the darkness. The flowers do not bloom in the desert. Even so
the greatest genius cannot live without hope, nor can I deem my life
worth living, without success."

"Hush!" said the old man gravely. "Are the gifts of God to be only
valued by the reward they bring? Is the nature within you only so far
precious in respect to the hopes realized, the ambitions achieved?
Is the world our only judge, or even our best? Ah, Albert, you are
young and I am old, and all that you feel I felt once, when my spirit
rebelled against the harsh teachings of the world, even as yours
rebels now. Lieber Gott! the world has so many mysteries we cannot
fathom, so many lessons it well-nigh breaks our hearts to learn. Think
of the years I have lived, and in them all I have only lost hope and
won--content. One day I shall know why it was. I can only wait--I can
only wait!"

"You teach me a noble lesson--a lesson of endurance and of faith," said
Albert gently. "God give me patience and strength to learn it as you
have done!"

"It seems strange to you now," said the old man gently. "Yes, for you
are young, and youth frets itself to death, like a caged bird, while
it beats its wings against the prison-bars of the world's neglect;
while it sings on and on, and finds no listener to its song. The air
blows softly by that cage, and the sun shines on it, yet the captive
within heeds neither one nor other. It asks for freedom only, and what
freedom is to the young, success is to genius. It paves the way for
all fair things beyond. It is life, and air, and sunshine. Ah, Albert,
it is no new thing to suffer all that you suffer, I know it in my own
experience, hundreds know it, and will know it again in theirs. While
the world exists such things as have been will be. The wonder of
it all is that we deem each individual experience some new, strange
thing which has fallen upon us alone. Alas! could the dead speak
they would but tell the same tale to the living, as the living would
tell the dead. Life has not changed one whit from what it was in the
beginning of the world, only the difficulty is--to believe it!"

And the old man sighed for his past, and the young man sighed for his
future, and a silence fell on both as they thought of the great problem
life had almost solved for one, and was only opening to the other.




BOOK V.




CHAPTER I.--VENICE.


"So o'er the lagune
We glided; and from that funereal bark
I lean'd and saw the city, and did mark
How from their many isles in evening's gleam
Its temples and its palaces did seem
Like fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven!"
.... Shelley


ERE the month's probation was over, which Raoul de Verdreuil had set
his strange secretary, he had every reason to congratulate himself on
the choice he had made.

The man was intelligent, well-informed, trustworthy, but above all he
had for his employer that passionate devotion which springs to life
in a southern nature with a rapidity and force that colder and less
effusive minds cannot understand, and are often apt to distrust. His
services to Raoul were a labour of love, and his abilities were of no
common order. Added to this he had a knowledge of languages which far
exceeded Raoul's own. German, Russian, French, Italian, Dutch, and
English were all familiar to him, and the more Raoul saw and studied
his varied acquirements, the more he marvelled at the low depths of
infamy to which he had fallen ere he rescued and gave him back to
a new and better life. Humanity is rarely entirely bad; there are
few, if any, living creatures who are too hopelessly depraved to be
reclaimed, if only any one would strive to reclaim them--if only a kind
voice, a helping hand, could reach them in the darkness of their moral
degradation, and draw them back from the depths of sin and misery while
yet they are sinking therein.

Raoul de Verdreuil's own life had known hours of madness and
despair--times when he rushed wildly and recklessly into folly and
forgetfulness, only because existence seemed a curse, a bondage of the
body from which the soul longed to free itself. Yet there was something
within him which calamity could not conquer. Though love and honour had
been wrenched from him by treachery, the dignity of manhood remained.
He would not--nay, he could not--kill the nobler powers of mind and
intelligence; and when the darkness and blackness of his first rage and
disappointment had passed away, he resolutely set himself to work out
new objects in life, which might recompense him in some degree for all
he had lost. He was not a man to sit idly down and waste his time in
vain regrets and repinings; but, all the same, the deep, undying hatred
he bore to the woman who had wronged him lived and took deeper root in
his heart as time went on. He never forgot her act, and he never forgot
the vengeance he had sworn on her; and, though he bore himself proudly
and coldly as ever to the eyes of the world, the fires of fierce and
remorseless passion slumbered in his heart, ready to burst forth in all
their fury the moment that opportunity applied the match.

Yet to others Raoul showed a noble charity and a boundless compassion
few credited him with possessing. When need and wrong and oppression
met him in the world, his sympathy was ever ready, his help ever
quickest and surest. It seemed almost as if he set himself this task
as a penance for his own dark, evil thoughts--as if, in lightening the
sorrows of others, he atoned to his own heart for its unworthy and oft
times merciless purpose; for revenge is a cruel and dastardly passion,
and one that works as much ruin in the lives of those who plan as those
who suffer from it.

He had lost much: but it was not the loss so much as the treachery
which had given the loss to him, that he wished to avenge. Treachery
was to him a sin unpardonable, because, in his own lofty soul, it could
never find dwelling-place for a moment; and when he thought of all it
had done for him, of the shame and the loss it had brought him amidst
the glow and fervour of his hopes, he said to himself that all worth
living for now, was to pay it back in measure deep and full to the
traitress who had wronged him.

But of all he had rescued in the world around him, none had appealed to
him so strongly as the man who from a murderer had become a faithful
slave, a devoted and most unselfish friend. Raoul knew that a dark
mystery was coiled about his heart; but he never questioned its cause,
for he knew that confidence is valueless unless given of its own
free-will.

That this man's life had been a chequered one was evident. A gamester's
is ever a life of strange contrasts, of rapid changes; now in sunshine,
now in darkness; one day rich, successful, glorious; the next reckless,
hopeless, desperate. But the man was faithful to his word. For one
whole year he dwelt with Raoul de Verdreuil, and in that time he never
gave him the slightest cause to distrust his promises. The remorse he
felt for his attempt on the life of his benefactor never left him, and
it purified and ennobled him, so that Raoul, watchful and carefully
observant of his actions, had never once repented of a generosity which
to the eyes of the world would have seemed an outburst of Quixotic
madness, but which had saved a human soul from eternal death--the death
in life of all that is pure and great within it--which, instead of a
blasphemous, venomous, degraded outcast, showed a man alive to his own
responsibilities once more, and able and willing to bear them--a truer
generosity than any charity gives to those whose bodies it rescues,
whose souls it forgets.

One night, just a year after Raoul had met his assassin in the ruined
solitude of the Forum at Rome, he was alone with him in the charmed and
silent calm of a night in Venice.

They were drifting slowly along beneath the marble walls, the shadowy
arches, the mighty palaces, of that strange, weird, ghostly city,
whose very life is still and wonderful and awe-struck, as though some
magician's spell enclosed it, which none can remove. In the darkness
of the night there was no sound audible save the beat of the oars in
the water, or the soft, low cry of a distant gondolier. The white
gleam of the moonlight fell on dark marble piles, on quaint carvings,
on mosaic-lined walls--on all the massive, ancient beauty of past
centuries, where, in those sea-bathed palaces, oligarchy had kept high
state, and the Bride of the Adriatic had once held her nuptial feast.

Raoul leaned back against the cushions of his gondola, and his thoughts
drifted far away to those days of splendour and delight when the
Adriatic had been crowded with returning fleets flushed with victory
and sated with triumph--when the palaces, towering above that endless
flow of gliding waters, had been filled with the pageantry and glory
of success--when women's beauty and reveller's mirth had filled the
silence that now seemed eternal, and the glow and marvel of colour and
loveliness had made the Venice of the past so different from the Venice
of the present.

Suddenly a voice startled him. He saw the dark, enthusiastic face of
the Italian gazing at him in the moonlit stillness of the summer night;
it was strangely stirred and moved.

"Signor!" he said softly, "it is a year to-day since I first came to
you--a whole year--and you have not questioned me once of that life
you saved. I promised you once, long ago, that if a day ever came when
I could tell you my story I would do so. In a place, in a night like
this, my youth, my hopes, my dreams of love come back to me again. If
you care to listen, I will tell you how I Carlo Viotti became a gambler
and an assassin."

"Are you sure it does not pain you to rake up the ashes of the past?
Tell me nothing that distresses you," said Raoul gently.

He, too, was saddened and softened by the mysterious hush, the
tranquil, ethereal beauty of the Venetian night. He, too, felt that his
years seemed cold, and passionless, and heavy-laden, as he floated over
the mystic depths of those calm lagunes. In such a night men's hearts
are attuned to softer passions, to sweeter thoughts, than ambition
brings, or the world bestows. In such a night Raoul felt that the earth
would have been without shadow for him could one face shine out of
the darkness around--could the light of a woman's eyes and the touch of
a woman's lips make life a paradise such as only visited him in dreams.

And yet, while such thoughts thrilled him with their sweetness, and
wrapped him in their joy, his vengeance was to meet him face to face at
last!




CHAPTER II.--A TALE OF THE PAST.


"Oh! she was fair! Her nature once all spring,
And deadly beauty, like a maiden-sword,
Strikingly beautiful! I see her now."
.... Bailey.


CARLO VIOTTI drew nearer to Raoul as he began his tale, and the soft,
liquid Italian which flowed from his lips seemed to suit well the
dreamy, shadowy beauty of the scene, while they floated ghost-like over
the gliding waters of the canal, and the fragrance of the sea-wafted
air came stealing through the silence of the night.

There was a lulling charm in the air around--a mysterious calm in the
depths of the brooding shadows--and Raoul leant back with a sigh of
regret for the mournful memories awakened, for the light and the peace
of happy years that now might never visit him. And while the measured
heat of the oars made a music of their own, while afar off sounded the
soft sweet melody of a gondolier's song--while the hush and fragrance
of the night closed them in its deep enfolding shadows, the story of
his life was told by the man he had rescued to Raoul de Verdreuil.

"Years ago," he began, "when I was but a boy, I lived in Napoule. You
know Napoule, signor? No? Ah, a fair place, well known throughout all
Provence. It lies in the shade of palms and orange-groves. Only a
little place, but beautiful exceedingly with ever-blooming roses and
luscious grapes, and fields of olives and vineyards. My parents went to
live there when I was very young; and in a place so small, where every
one knew his neighbours' business and his neighbours' history, you may
be sure gossip and scandal abounded. Well, there was an old woman who
lived far up among the vinehills of Napoule, and who enjoyed but an
ill reputation among the people. No one knew how she lived or what she
did, and yet there was no stint or want in her house, nor any sign of
poverty about her. All sorts of rumours and histories were invented for
her, but no one really knew anything of her affairs. One day a story
went through the village that at midnight a carriage had driven up to
her house, and a tall man, wrapped up in a long fur cloak, had got
out of it with something like a bundle in his arms. However this may
be, it was certain enough that from that time a child was heard and
seen about the cottage--a little fairy-like, beautiful creature, with
hair like gold-dust, and soft dark eyes, and lips like carnation-buds.
People wondered who the child was and whence it came, but the woman
never betrayed its origin by word or look, and the mystery was never
solved. As the child grew up she was sent to a convent among the hills
to be educated. The rumour was that she was herself to take the veil;
but, looking at the lovely face and exquisite form, it was impossible
to believe the girl would ever sacrifice her beauty, and bury it in the
seclusion of such a life as that of a nun. I was about nineteen, and
she fifteen or thereabouts, when I first summoned courage to speak to
her. It was hard ever to get word or speech of her, for the old woman
watched her jealously, and took her every day to the convent herself.
No one was ever admitted to the lonely house on the hill-side, and
there was a mystery about the girl which gave additional charm to her
loveliness, and made many watch and wait for opportunity to speak to
her. None succeeded, however. She was too well guarded for that; but
one day I, excited by curiosity, as many of my friends and neighbours
had been, went up to the convent and loitered about the garden, just
outside the walls, in hopes of seeing this wonderful beauty. Ere long
I heard a voice singing on the other side of the wall. I listened; it
was very low and sweet; a voice which thrilled and stirred my heart
as nothing had ever done before. I looked around. Near by grew a tall
tree with great overhanging boughs. A moment, and I had swung myself
up to the level of the convent walls, actuated only by an impulse
to see for myself the sweet-voiced singer, whose voice had a power
so great. I crept along the outstretched boughs; before me were the
convent gardens, and beneath me, lying on the broad, tufted grasses and
ferns, with the shadows of the branching trees above her head, and her
hair gleaming like gold in the sunlight, was the girl whom I longed to
see--the mysterious creature whom some said was a witch-child sent for
no good purpose to our peaceful village, and whose spells had already
worked mischief in the good folks' homes.

"I looked at her silently--long. Anything so beautiful I had never seen
or imagined.

"I looked at her till my heart went out to her in that look--till my
very life and soul seemed to leave me and centre itself in that girlish
loveliness, that divine form. She saw me at last. She neither screamed
nor moved, nor appeared startled. Probably the monotony of her life had
long wearied her, and she was glad of any change or any novelty. She
spoke to me very softly. She bade me be careful I was not perceived;
but it was the noon-hour, and the good sisters were all in the convent,
and she was free for an hour to roam about the gardens. So much she
told me, and that this was the quietest and most unfrequented nook in
all the gardens, and we were not likely to be disturbed. I believe she
bewitched me from that moment. I had neither thought nor wish but of
her. Day and night her face haunted me. Again and again I sought her
at the same hour, in the same place, growing bolder as time went on,
and even venturing to enter the sacred precincts of the convent gardens
myself. She told me how she hated the restraint of her life--the quiet
monotony--the strict seclusion. As time went on, she was obliged to
live at the convent altogether, and the good nuns said it would soon
be her privilege to take the veil. Then it was that the truth flashed
upon me--I loved her! To lose her--to see her given up to such a
life--a life worse than death itself--was torture unendurable. I lost
all self-command, and in one of our meetings I told her of my love. She
said if only I would rescue and take her away from this life, she would
be mine. Mine! What transports of enthusiasm, what idolatry of madness,
what depths of bliss that word held for me then! To win her I would
have sacrificed anything, everything, and to win her I set myself the
work of rescue and of sacrilege."

He paused. The light of that old madness gathered in his eyes; the
memories of that old dead, unforgotten time, when the sorcery and
sweetness of love had been his, kindled in his heart. His voice grew
deeper, more passionate, as it thrilled out in the stillness of the
night, with the sweetest remembrances his youth had held.

"I loved her; oh, God! how I loved her! I thought I had outlived all
softness of that memory, but its power can move me still. She was so
beautiful! I deemed her so perfect, and yet all wrong and guilt and
madness of my past life I owe to her. Almost I doubt whether it is
hate or love I feel when I think of her as she was then, in that sweet
golden summer-time of my youth, when my heart's whole worship was laid
at her feet, and I reverenced her as the one pure, perfect thing the
world contained.

"While I planned and thought on scheme after scheme, the very
opportunity I sought came to me. My father was a man well off, with
the finest estate in all Napoule, and I was his only son. He resolved
I should not spend all my days in the quiet and the solitude of this
little dreaming village. I must see the world; I must be great and
famous; and for this purpose he suddenly resolved to send me to a rich
merchant's house in Paris. It was a good opening, he said, and one
that promised speedy advancement and much wealth in time to come. This
news timed in well with my schemes. No one suspected I even knew the
fair novitiate at the convent and everything seemed to happen just as
I wished. The day before that determined upon for her to take the vows
of a nun, I was to leave Napoule. I arranged with her that I should
provide a disguise for her, that she was to flee the day before I left,
and we could meet half way to Paris, so that no one could suspect us of
having gone away together. She agreed readily to everything I wished,
and all promised well for the success of our plans.

"The day came; Blanche left the convent by means of a ladder which I
provided. There was no alarm given, and not till the next morning did
the news of her flight spread to the village. There was no trace of her
to be found. She had stained her fair skin, and hidden her hair under a
sailor's cap, and, dressed as a fisher-boy, had left the village in a
small sailing-vessel the night before. Gold had bribed the captain to
take his strange passenger; gold paved the way for all other exigencies
of her travels. She was safe and unsuspected like myself. From the day
she left the convent none heard of her again. At the place appointed I
met her, and we were married by a priest ere we went on to Paris. The
ceremony took place in a little out-of-the-way village; no questions
were asked; gold silenced all suspicions, and we were safely wedded.

"When I reached Paris I took rooms for us both in one of the quietest
and least-frequented parts of the city. The merchant to whom I was to
go was a rich man, and in his office I began my life of independence
and freedom. He noticed my assiduity and steadiness, and it pleased
him. I had always a great gift for languages, and I studied them and
mastered them so well, that he found me of great use as a translator to
his firm. He promoted me more rapidly than I expected, and I began to
make money for myself. I told no one I was married, save a fellow-clerk
with whom I formed an acquaintanceship, which soon ripened into
friendship. He was older than myself; clever--well educated--of good
birth. I liked his companionship, and, as time went on, I took him to
my home, and introduced him to my wife. She had been well content with
her new life. She loved the gay, bright, beautiful city, and I took her
everywhere I could, and gave her such pleasures and enjoyments as were
possible. But after a time she began to complain of the dullness of our
life. She wanted friends--constant change and excitement. This I could
not give her; of her own sex I knew none; of mine I never cared to know
many, save and except this one friend, whom I deemed a man of honour.
I always thought my wife loved me as fully and passionately as I loved
her. I lived still in a paradise of belief, and every thought and hope
of my heart centred in and around her. For her I worked and laboured;
for her I strove for wealth and honour; for her all temptations of
the new and dazzling life of a city so full of allurements as Paris
were passed by in scorn. I told none of my family or friends of my
marriage at her earnest wish. It was a secret shared only by the one
friend admitted to our home.

"At last it dawned upon me that this man had other means and other
resources besides the income he derived from his business. He lived in
splendid rooms; he rode the finest horses; he mingled with some of the
wealthiest society in Paris. How did he do it? His income was not very
much more than mine, I knew, and it puzzled me often to discover what
other resources he possessed.

"At last he told me himself. The secret was no mystery after all.
He was a gambler. In all chances he was successful to a marvel. I
have seen him win a fortune in one night. He laughed at my horror
when first he confessed his secret to me, and by little and little
drew me on, first to hear, then to watch, then to try for myself the
mysteries of cards, the fatal temptings of the dice-box. Fortune
smiled on me, and chance deluded me. I rose to wealth in one dizzy
moment of success. Then my wife seemed at last content. We had
excitement, gaiety, pleasure enough. Paris was like my beautiful
love, I often thought--gay, volatile, capricious, ardent--a child in
its thoughtlessness and its mirth--an empress in its sovereignty and
witchery. She loved her new life, and I was happy in her happiness.
But the life and the excitement were not good for me. I neglected my
business. I hazarded more and more on the chances of the gaming-table.
I lost and won; I won and lost. I had vast wealth one day--the next I
woke to beggary and ruin. I had nothing--absolutely nothing--not one
coin left of all the many I had wasted and lavished in folly and in
chance. I was a beggar!"

He paused. The dark shadows of the past--the misery and recklessness of
that mad time--swept over him, and Raoul's voice came pityingly through
the silence,--

"Tell me no more if it pains you."

"It is over now," he answered him with a strange tremor in his voice.
"What remains to tell is not much. The discovery of my ruin was a
shock which sobered me. I looked on the madness of the past months. I
resolved to eschew their vile temptations for ever. With penitence and
shame I sought my girl-wife. I told her of the loss, the ruin I had
brought on us both. She listened, not as I expected, with upbraidings
and reproaches, but with pity and gentleness. Then all my heart went
out to her in tenfold power and worship. I loved her as I had never
loved her yet. Then while still her words echoed in my ears, and her
smiles soothed my troubles, and my heart rejoiced in the one great
treasure that neither good nor evil fortune could take from it,
she--the woman I loved and trusted above all in the earth--she fled
from me with the man who had tempted me to my ruin! Even while she
soothed and comforted me, her plans had been laid. She left me to my
poverty and shame, as remorselessly as if no tie had bound us. I lost
wealth, love, honour, in one moment!

"You know how the world takes these things; but I was young then, and
maddened and desolate. I had loved this woman so utterly, and she--was
vile and worthless. Does the world hold a greater curse for a man's
trust than that?

"I believe I was mad when this came home to me. I know not what I did.
The very chain of reason seemed to snap like a feeble thread. The
months drifted by; I knew nothing of them. The shame of my misery and
degradation burnt itself into my brain. Of life I asked nothing save
forgetfulness or death!

"But let me hasten on. I will draw the veil over years hateful and
poisonous and sin-steeped; for I verily believe I was mad with very
despair, with very recklessness. Years had passed; their guilt was
consuming every purer and higher instinct of my nature, when suddenly
I heard that she was dead. A message came to me in a far-off land,
whither I had gone. How she knew or traced me thither I cannot tell;
but with the thought of her death I forgot her sin, and I longed
to look upon her face again. Of her life since she left me I knew
nothing--I could guess enough; but I thought of her youth and her
loveliness; I thought of the girl-recluse in the solitude of her
convent. I thought of the fair young wife, who had made my life a brief
paradise of bliss, and I went to seek her in death.

"Capri was where I had heard from her; to Capri I went. I wondered
that she had gone thither, to so remote, so quiet a place; but I had a
madness, a longing to look on her again; and I went to the beautiful
little nook, with its face turned to Sicily, and its groves of orange
and citrons, and the blue waters of its bay lined with fisher-boats,
and the tiny toy-like villas nestled amidst the leafy heights of its
sea-girt rocks."

Again he paused, and his head bent low, and his breath came fast and
quick. Raoul did not speak; he deemed it best that the story should be
ended in his own way. In a few moments the man resumed it:--

"The villa whither I had been directed was that of the Contessa
Lorenzo, a Florentine lady."

Raoul started, and listened more eagerly.

"I sought admission, but had much difficulty in obtaining it. However,
I firmly refused to go until I saw the contessa herself. She was a
woman middle-aged, and with little beauty; nor did I like either her
manners or appearance. From her I learnt that--my wife--had lived
with her for some months past; that she had been ill, and delicate,
and a constant invalid; seeing no one, living in strict seclusion,
and greatly distressed in mind about some one against whom she had
committed a great and unpardonable sin. The contessa had used many
efforts to find out who this was, and at last, shortly before she died,
the news reached her of his whereabouts. The individual was myself; the
dying penitent my wife. I came too late to see her. She had been buried
the day before. The contessa gave me a ring I recognised immediately
as one I had bestowed on the woman who had wronged me, in the days of
our love and trust. She directed me to the burying-ground, and then I
took my leave of her and went my way. My vengeance was taken out of my
hands. The guilty creature who had wrecked my life and broken my heart
had gone to render up her account at the judgment-seat above; and I--I
went forth, stricken, lonely, desolate, a wanderer on the face of the
earth, which has worn no smile for me since that hour.

"There is little else to tell, signor. When my senses came back to me,
I seemed to have neither object nor ambition in life. I set myself
to forget the misery within me; to grind out my deadly pain as best
I could. I sank lower and lower; I grew more evil, more vile. I had
neither faith in human honour nor in human love; a life is soon lost
then." His voice grew softer as he continued:--"In the grave of my
buried years lies all the madness and the folly and the guilt from
which your voice rescued and your pity saved me. If I am anything
better now, I owe it only to you."

"And the name of the woman who wronged you thus?"

Raoul's voice was hoarse and constrained, and his eyes burned with a
strange, swift light of eagerness as they rested on the Italian.

"Her name? Have I not told you? The name she went by in Napoule, the
only name I heard of her having, was Blanche Lecroix!"

A cry, hoarse and strange, thrilled out in the silence. Raoul seized
the arm of his companion.

"Do you know what you say? Are your temptress and my traitress one and
the same? You say she is dead. I know she is living--living! Great
heavens! and your wife!"

The Italian gazed at him, in amazement too great for words.

"Speak!" continued Raoul hoarsely. "Is it true? If so, my life is free
again! At last! at last God sends me justice!"

"Signor," stammered the man, "what is it you mean? What moves you so?
You ask if my words are true? As there is a heaven above me, yes! But
what have they to do with you? How can she who is dead have ever done
you harm?"

"She is not dead!" said Raoul, speaking in a voice low and distinct;
"she lives still. But a few years ago she became my father's wife. She
is now Blanche de Verdreuil, Countess of Renonçeux."

"It is false; it cannot be!" cried Viotti, as in the agony of passion
and disbelief he clenched his hands on the frail wood-work before him,
while his frame quivered, and his eyes had a mute imploring anguish
like that of a creature wounded unto death. "I forgave her in her
death; I wept over her grave among the far-off hills of Capri. Do you
say she has lived and deceived others all these years, enjoying wealth
and honours and the world's smiles, while I--no hunted criminal could
be more utterly fallen than I was only a year ago!"

The anguish in his voice touched Raoul's heart more deeply than his
words.

"I am sorry for you," he said softly. "I little thought our lives
were so closely united by the evil deeds of one woman. But it is true
nevertheless. See, we are landing now; come to my rooms; I have proof
enough to convince you of the truth of my words ere long."

The man rose to his feet like one stunned and bewildered by a great
shock.

Mechanically be followed Raoul from the gondola, as its keel grated on
the steps of the landing-place, and together they passed up the marble
stairs to the place of his dwelling--a majestic, melancholy building,
with lofty casements and many rooms, now lonely and unspeakably
desolate.

In one of them Raoul paused, and motioned Viotti to be seated also.
Then without further prelude or hesitation, he unfolded to the Italian
the story of his own wrongs, and traced back incidents and proofs with
sure, unerring hand, till the chain of evidence was complete--till the
girl-recluse of the Napoule convent, the wife of Carlo Viotti, the
fair, enchanting Countess of Renonçeux, were all proved to be one and
the same person.




CHAPTER III.--SCORN OR RUE.


"How false is the fairest breast!
How little worth, if true!
And who would wish possess'd
What all must scorn or rue?"
.... Bailey.


WELL might Blanche de Verdreuil have trembled had she known the
precipice on which she stood; but as yet she was ignorant of her
danger, and gave no thought to the future in her reckless enjoyment of
the present. She basked in the sunshine of flattery; she indulged in
every wanton caprice and idle fancy that pleased her; and the lavish
splendour and courtly magnificence, which made up the whole sum of her
existence, were themes of universal wonder and remark.

She lived in a world of magnificence and beauty, whose treasures gold
had purchased for her. There were none to gainsay her wishes, to deny
her whims; no language but that of flattery and subservience reached
her ears; no harsh truths or disagreeable counsels disturbed her mind.
She had sold herself to pleasure and to sin, and she got the full price
of her bargain. Not one sting of remorse ever pierced the silken folds
of her robes, or sheathed its sharp point in the delicate bosom; a
nature steeped in selfishness, warped by sin and shame, what was there
to soften or recall her to better impulses, or purer thoughts? She
lived for the world, and the world idolized her, and gave her all she
asked of it. If she had hours of satiety, of weariness, or exhaustion,
none knew of them, none suspected them. She laughed and jested, and
defied all care, and her beauty was glorious as ever, and her power
greater. For she had wealth and dignities now, and even the great ones
of the world, who had once been shy of receiving her because of the
mystery of her past, the uncertainty of her own birth and rank, now
welcomed her as an equal, and sought her as a friend. Yes! Blanche
de Verdreuil had her fill of triumph, and she never thought that her
sceptre might fall from her grasp--that her kingdom might crumble into
dust and ashes at her feet.

When her year of widowhood had expired, and she had come to dazzle and
delight the world of Paris with her wealth and her beauty, curious
voices asked, and curious tongues spoke of Vivienne St. Maurice, her
beautiful ward; and by little and little the questioners heard a
strange tale of the fair girl, whose beauty had startled and bewitched
them all for one whole season. The rumour went that she had fled
stealthily and secretly from her guardian's house with a young Italian
singer, and, whether true or not, the world could not stop to question
or cavil at it. She was gone: that was all they could tell, and all
they cared for at present.

So Blanche reigned without a rival, and triumphed without an effort,
and, if remembrance ever came to her, it was in her solitude when none
knew or could hear of it, and her kingdom of evil seemed to her only a
kingdom of good.

It was spring-time in Paris, and fashion's reign had commenced once
more. There were bright colours, and beautiful faces, and dainty
equipages thronging the Bois de Boulogne. There were laughter and
mirth and festivity in the air, and rich foliage in the woods and
pleasure-gardens, and a wealth of blossoms in balconies and windows.
The reign of pleasure had commenced once more and the devotees of
fashion were thronging to its court.

Among the costly equipages, as in the time when Vivienne had first
beheld the glories of Parisian life, came that of Blanche de
Verdreuil--only more costly, more splendid than of yore, with its
prancing horses, its gorgeous liveries, its crested panels, and
its beautiful occupant leaning back amongst the cushions with the
languor and dignity of an empress. A crowd was around--a mixed and
heterogeneous multitude of all ranks and grades of life, for it was a
fête-day in Paris.

As her carriage was stopped for a moment in its progress, her eyes
swept negligently over the faces around. She saw a man among them
whose gaze was fastened on her with a look which fascinated her, which
compelled her eyes to meet it.

Slowly her face blanched to the ashy hues of sickening terror; she
gazed as one might gaze on the dead new risen from the grave where it
has been laid to rest. The smiles died on her lips, the light faded
from her eyes; Blanche de Verdreuil looked like the ghost of the
bright, beautiful creature she had been only a moment before.

Then the carriage dashed on: the face she had seen was lost amongst the
crowd. Life and thought and memory came back to her. But her white lips
shook, and she muttered to herself, "The game is played out now; I am
lost!"

Once--twice the the Countess de Verdreuil's carriage made the circuit
of the Bois. She smiled and bowed and jested, light-hearted as ever to
all appearance. None could read the agony she suffered, the tortures
she endured; for a great horror enfolded her, and all peace was over
for evermore. Her life would be branded with shame; the world she had
fooled so successfully would soon know her as she was--her dignities,
her possessions might all be wrenched from her by a single word. The
future would be accursed from this day forward.

She touched the check-string of her carriage and ordered it back
to her hotel. And still, in her passage through the bright streets
and fashionable thoroughfares, she was met and recognized, and gave
greetings in return, and none knew that the anguish and terror within
her heart were so intolerable that she could have screamed out in her
fear and horror of what was to come. No murderer pursued by the ghost
of his victim could have known a worse horror and shuddered with a
deeper fear than she did.

Trembling, heart-sick, desperate, she reached the shelter of her
splendid home, and fled to the solitude of her room.

What should she do?

Plans, wild, vague, and confused, rushed through her brain--some
dismissed immediately, others pondered, and one at last decided upon.

With lightning swiftness her orders were given and carried out. If all
wondered, none dared to disobey.

Ere nightfall the Countess de Verdreuil had left Paris and returned to
Renonçeux.




CHAPTER IV.--FAR WORSE THAN ANY DEATH.


"A devil rises in my heart
Far worse than any death to me."
.... Tennyson.


"WAS I not right?"

The question was put to Carlo Viotti by Raoul, as they met again after
a brief absence. The Italian, still doubting that his wife lived, that
she could be identical with the woman who had wronged his benefactor,
had gone to Paris for the sole reason of convincing himself of the
truth. He had but just returned from his journey. He had seen the
face of his traitress: he had seen her in her sovereignty of beauty
and triumph and wealth. He knew her again; he knew, too, that she had
duped and cheated him for her own ends. She wished him to believe her
dead in order that she might be free to marry again without the dread
of discovery. She had trusted to chance to befriend her, and hitherto
she had been safe. He never for one moment had doubted the fact of her
death from the time her message reached him, and her ring had been
given to him; and even Raoul's proofs had not been sufficient to shake
that belief, till under the green aisles and rich foliage of the Bois
de Boulogne he had seen her throned in the splendour and clothed with
the honours she had won by treachery and deceit.

It was enough: he had seen her face again. He needed nothing more
yet. He returned to Raoul de Verdreuil, where he awaited him in the
Austrian capital, whither his official calling had required his
presence--returned, ready now to bring forward all his proofs and hold
up to the scorn of the world she had cheated so long, the woman who had
wronged him.

Raoul de Verdreuil knew that Blanche would not give up easily all she
had gained. The proofs of her marriage must be forthcoming first, and
after so long a lapse of time it would be no easy matter to obtain
them. This task, however, Carlo Viotti set himself resolutely to
achieve, and, having decided upon a plan of action to be followed out,
he left Raoul and went on his search alone.

Blanche de Verdreuil need not have fled from Paris in such alarm. Her
husband had no present intention of confronting her with her crime,
or publishing her shame. Horror-struck, indignant, as he was at the
thought of his own great wrongs, it was for Raoul he felt the deepest
pity. He had been to him as as angel of light sent to guide his erring
steps to truth and rectitude once more; on him he had lavished all the
worship and devotion of his warm southern nature. For him he would have
deemed no sacrifice too great, no service too hard; and when he thought
that the guilty wife, who had wrecked his own life and poisoned all his
own trust in honour and faith, was also the traitress who had robbed
and wronged his benefactor, his indignation and wrath knew no bounds.
To hurl her from her eminence she had gained by treachery and kept by
sin--this was the one thought in his mind now, and in his thirst for
vengeance he forgot all the love he had once borne her. Retribution
fired his heart and armed his hand; and to that end and for that
purpose he set himself to work out her destruction, forgetful of all
else.

Of the tie that had once bound them, the love that had been to him
as the dream of a new life, he never thought now. All pity, all
compassion, was swallowed up by the wrath and indignation that filled
his heart when he thought how he had been duped and cheated all these
years past. He had wakened out of a fool's paradise, and then given
himself up to despair, while she--she had laughed at her easy victory.
She had fooled him only too effectually, and had given herself up
to the pleasures of a new life; she had spared none, she had denied
herself no single thing all her life through, so that she might win
enjoyment. She had forsaken all duty, had known neither loyalty to love
nor respect of honour, and yet all that pleasure and wealth and gold
could give had been hers. Such are the wages of sin!

All favours of chance and circumstance had served her well, and been
used by her unsparingly. She had had no pity for youth, no remorse for
wrong; and yet she had triumphed so long--so long! But the triumph was
over now; her reign was past and done with, and the very uncertainty of
how or when the blow would fall upon her, made her life one of torture
and agony unbearable.

Since the day her husband's face had met her eyes in the crowds of
Paris, Blanche de Verdreuil had known no peace or rest. She was haunted
by a Nemesis terrible and relentless; she was pursued by a phantom
awful and yet intangible. She fled from Paris to Renonçeux to avoid
it even for a day. Her whole thought now was to elude the danger that
threatened her, and her only safety seemed in flight.

At Renonçeux she thought again of her plans. She was a woman of fertile
invention, of many resources, and she taxed all her powers now in this
the hour of her greatest peril. Sometimes she thought of buying the
silence of this man. She had wealth enough to tempt him, surely. At
another time she resolved to deny his claims, to refute them boldly,
and defy all proof and identification. What was there in common between
the beautiful, haughty Countess de Verdreuil and the simple obscure
novice at the convent at Napoule? Who could prove them to be the same?
And, again, all evidences of her marriage must have been lost long
since. The priest who had married them had been an old man; he must
be dead by this time. If she took a high standing, if she refused to
recognize or allow that this man was her husband, she might yet be
safe. Her word would have more weight than his. Only she dreaded that
Raoul might hear of this--Raoul, who was a foe at once relentless and
cruel. He whom of all she had ever wronged she dreaded most, and who
would expose her infamy to the world as mercilessly as she had robbed
him of his heritage. If they should ever meet--she shuddered at the
thought of the possibility, whose danger she never exaggerated, for
Raoul's word and influence would carry a weight of truth with them
which her husband alone could never possess; and no bribe, no pleading,
would ever soften his heart or turn aside his purpose--that she knew.

Yet why should they meet? Why had that thought flashed so suddenly
across her mind? She could not tell. She only felt a strange horror, a
presentiment of punishment crushing all the enjoyment out of her life
since that face had suddenly looked at her again--the face she
had long forgotten, and which seemed to have risen from the dead to
award her the justice she merited.

In all her egotism and callous indifference to the sufferings of
others, she had ever been keenly alive to fear for herself, and this
fear was now so sharp and torturing that it never left her night or day.

In the hush and solitude of the midnight hour she paced her room
alone--her face blanched and haggard, her eyes wild and desperate. If
she could have given the man whose name she had once borne--whose home
she had once shared--to death now, she would have done it without a
pang of regret! She knew no pity for others, only for herself. She had
no remorse or regret for the wrongs she had dealt all her life through,
but she had a fearful, terrible fear for her own safety. She had won
so much, she dreaded inexpressibly to lose it all; and lose it she
must, unless this evil could be averted. She pressed her hands to her
throbbing temples, she cried out in her horror and her fear. In the
darkness of the night she paced the room in all the costly apparelling,
the glitter of gems with which she had ever delighted to adorn her
beauty; and yet that beauty seemed stricken out utterly, and was cold,
colourless, faded, as the hues of a flower when the chill frosts of
winter first touch its delicate loveliness. She had had no horror of
her sin, but she had fear of its chastisement; and the God she had
forgotten and despised and outraged by her acts could be to her nothing
in her hour of need but a just and terrible Avenger.

"What shall I do? what can I do?"

These words thrilled out on the solitude of that midnight hour, and no
help, no answer came.

"My sins have come home to me at last!" she murmured despairingly.
"All those I have wronged will glory in my downfall, will laugh at my
shame. I broke faith with the living and the dead, and now--I have none
to keep faith with me. The very fate to which I consigned Vivienne
is now mine. I--the proud, the wealthy, the prosperous Countess of
Renonçeux--am nothing but a beggar and imposter! How shall I bear----?
Oh, Heaven! how shall I bear it?"

She threw herself on her couch and buried her face in her hands, while
the horror and the helplessness of her fate enfolded her more closely
as the hours sped on. She could think of nothing to avert it; and yet
to sit quiet and inactive, waiting for its approach, consumed by the
dread and the fear of it each moment, each day she lived--the thought
was unbearable; she could not do it!

"I must act--act, or I shall go mad!" she cried despairingly, as she
raised her white, agonized face, where the touch of this new and deadly
fear had stamped itself. "I will not remain here. If they want me, at
least they shall have work to find me. I will travel through the length
and breadth of the world to avert the evil. It will give the world
food for wonder, true--in the beginning of the season to fly like one
possessed, to rush from place to place, as I must do; but at least I
shall be safe for a time; and time is everything to me now. I may be
able to decide upon some plan for the future, if only I can once force
my brain to think calmly of all that lies before me in the present!"

The resolve once formed, she seemed to grow calmer. All was not yet
lost. Of one thing she was certain; her pursuer--for so she deemed her
husband--had not the wealth and means she possessed. If she could only
succeed in disguising her intentions by leaving no trace behind, he
might never be able to find her. From city to city, from country to
country, she would go; she might baffle pursuit and elude detection
even yet. As she thought of it, the light and colour stole back to her
face, and she rose from her couch with the glitter of defiance instead
of the previous haunting terror in her eyes.

She went swiftly over to her escritoire, and busied herself with
the papers and letters it contained; some she destroyed, others she
preserved, placing them in the various drawers and receptacles before
her. "I must take with me only what is absolutely necessary," she said
to herself; "everything else must take its chance. I don't suppose I
shall ever come back here again."

A half-sigh, a sigh of regret, escaped her. She had perilled so much,
dared so much, to win this, and now she must leave it!

Yet safety was before all other considerations now, and that made her
strong to resolve and strong to act even in such an emergency. As she
opened one of the drawers before her to place some papers within,
something contained in it attracted her attention. Involuntarily she
drew it out and glanced at it. A little worn, shabby leather desk--that
was all. She smiled as she looked at it.

"Vivienne should have had this," she said; "it is the only legacy
she has ever received, and she has left it behind her. How long ago
it seems since that old woman put this in my hands, and told me that
mysterious story of Vivienne's birth and parentage! What a ridiculous
notion she had about the girl being related to the De Verdreuils! I am
glad I never mentioned it. Raoul or his father would have been sure
to have set to work to prove her something very great or wonderful. I
wonder what has become of her now? I should like to know. How strange
that I should think of her to-night, though--to-night, when my own fate
ought to engross every consideration of my heart!

Then she drew the desk towards her, and opened it. Its contents were a
ring and a few letters, yellow and worn with age, and tied together by
ribbon equally faded and discoloured. She unfastened them, and glanced
carelessly at their contents. Apparently they did not interest her, for
she tossed them aside, saying half aloud, "I had better burn them all;
they are rubbish, and hold no clue to the old woman's story." The ring
she looked at more closely; a curious old-fashioned ring it was, and
one that seemed to bring some memory back to her again; for she turned
a shade paler than before, and her hand trembled as she held it.

"After all it might be true," she murmured. "How strange it seems to
think of it! But even if it were, these letters prove no marriage. Not
in one of them does he allude to her as his wife."

She took the desk to the lamp near her, and examined it more closely.
It looked so deep from the outside, and yet, when opened, the
receptacle for letters was unusually shallow. Could it contain a
secret drawer? she wondered. She passed her hand over every part of
it carefully. What was that? Something very small, like a tiny round
button, caught her finger in its passage over the smooth surface of
the interior. She pressed it slightly, then more forcibly. Suddenly
the bottom of the desk rose up like a lid, and revealed below a drawer
containing several letters, and a folded and addressed paper, with the
inscription uppermost. Instinctively Blanche de Verdreuil clutched
them, and drew them forth from their hiding-place.

She read the address of the folded paper first, and as she read it
every vestige of colour fled from her face, and she trembled in every
limb. She opened it out; it was a will!

With cheeks blanched, with eyes strained and terrified, she read it;
and as she read she knew her labour had been in vain--that, even if the
husband she had wronged had not risen from the grave of that terrible
past, another avenger could wrest from her the possessions she had won
by treachery and falsehood.

"Doubly lost--doubly lost!" she cried wildly; "trapped and caught like
a hunted animal! Oh! if only I dared to die this night!"

In her fear and her horror she crushed the paper in her grasp, and
glanced wildly around. Her impulse was to destroy it. The voice of the
dead--the wishes of the dead--what were they to her? A touch, and the
whole evidence of Vivienne's birth, of Vivienne's heritage, could be
destroyed irrevocably.

"No wonder I hated her!" she muttered to herself, as her trembling
hands clutched convulsively the faded, time-worn documents, whose
importance was so vital a thing. "No wonder I recognized in her an
enemy, and a perilous one. If she knew of this!"

She took the papers and advanced swiftly to the fire. Its ashes were
still alive; there was sufficient heat in them to destroy these fatal
proofs. But just as her hand was outstretched to cast them in the
grate, a sudden chilling terror seemed to overcome her. A fear, deadly
and horrible, numbed her limbs, and chilled her blood.

She felt as if she were not alone.

Her eyes, distended with fear and alarm, glanced round in nervous
dread. Her very limbs seemed suddenly frozen and powerless beneath the
touch of this unnatural horror.

Before her, in the darkness of the shadowy room, a shape, indistinct
and terrible, seemed to rise. The grey, stony face, the stern, sad
eyes of the dead Count de Verdreuil looked once more on her--his arm
outstretched and pointing to the papers in her hand--his face dark and
wrathful as when she had made him believe in his son's dishonour!

Was it a vision conjured up by her own distempered brain--her
over-wrought fancy? She never knew. It only seemed to her in that moment
that the dead had arisen to protect the living--that her hands were
powerless to accomplish the deed of destruction--for in the grey, chill
dawn, with that awful, shapeless form, those fixed stony eyes upon her,
Blanche de Verdreuil's arm fell helpless by her side, and the papers
rustled on the floor, harmless and safe.

Then through the stillness and silence of the Château of Renonçeux,
a shriek, wild and fearful, rang out from the lips of the terrified
woman--a shriek that echoed through the vast corridors and deserted
rooms, and curdled the very blood of those who heard it, as they
sprang, startled and aroused from their sleep, to seek its cause.

There, in the grey dusk of the early day, they found their mistress
stretched senseless and cold on the floor of her apartments, with such
a look upon her face as the dead might wear from whom life has been
stricken in a moment of agony.




CHAPTER V.--IN DEEDS--NOT YEARS.


"We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs."
.... Bailey.


THE world of Paris had a new sensation over which to excite itself.

The beautiful Countess de Verdreuil had chosen to leave the city in
the very commencement of the season, without a word of explanation or
excuse. What was the reason?

All wondered; none could tell. Mystery shrouded her, and rumour
busied itself with her name, and curious tongues to whom her honour
and success were bitter as wormwood, made light of her reputation and
weaved airy scandals, and sent forth poisoned falsehoods, and the world
began to distrust what it could not understand, and what she had not
thought fit to explain.

But Blanche de Verdreuil heeded not, cared not. Her one thought now was
safety and concealment, and she laid her plans accordingly. Already the
avengers were on her track; already watchful eyes noted and reported of
her actions to Raoul de Verdreuil, and he knew that when the hour came,
when his vengeance was ripe, and his proofs incontrovertible, then
she could not hide from him any longer. The laws she had outraged would
pursue and seize upon her, no matter whether she fled to the uttermost
parts of the earth, or awaited her doom at Renonçeux itself.

But, till his plans were ripe and his proofs certain, he troubled her
by no sign. She fled from place to place, under the impression that she
was eluding and baffling all pursuit, and Raoul laughed amusedly to
himself as he heard of it, knowing so well how useless it was, knowing,
too, that the moment he chose to lay his hand upon her and arrest her
progress, he could do it with the utmost ease.

So as the months went on, and still no sign was made, no evidence of
discovery given: Blanche de Verdreuil began to breathe freely once
more. Perhaps after all she had been alarming herself unnecessarily;
perhaps Viotti had no intention of pursuing her. Hope began to live
in her heart again. The first shock of terror subsided, and Blanche
de Verdreuil assured herself again and again that her fears had been
utterly groundless.

One day she held in her hands an Italian paper, whose contents she
was scanning carelessly and indifferently. A paragraph in it at last
arrested her notice. She began to read it--at first indifferently, then
eagerly--while her cheeks flushed and her eyes grew bright, and the
swift dawn of hope made her bosom heave with quick, breathless gasps of
wonder and relief.

She read that "a little boat containing two men had been lost in the
Bay of Naples during a sudden storm. It contained only a boatman and
an Italian--Carlo Viotti by name--a stranger to Naples," the paper
went on to say, "and one who had only arrived there a short time
before, ostensibly on business connected with the Government, as he was
secretary to a member of the French Legation. The boat had capsized,
and both the men had been drowned ere assistance could reach them."

This paragraph was like the beginning of a new life to the guilty
woman. Her enemy was dead! She was safe.

These two thoughts took instantaneous possession of her mind, and
absorbed her now to the utter exclusion of all previous fear.

Then, when prudence asserted itself once more, she resolved to make
inquiries herself as to the identity of the drowned man with that of
the Carlo Viotti she dreaded. With the birth of new hope there sprang
up in her again the longings for that old life of excitement and
joy and pleasure which she had fled from in the vague horror of her
discovery in Paris. Were this man dead, she need deny herself that
life no longer; excuses for her sudden absence could soon be framed
by her ready invention. Her health had given way; her physicians had
ordered change of scene and air: that would satisfy the world, once she
returned to it. And again she basked in the sunshine of its imaginary
welcome, the music of its adulation, the favour of its smiles.

Again and again she read the paper, and the more she read it, the more
she was convinced that the Carlo Viotti there mentioned was indeed the
husband of her girlhood, the man from whom she had fled, not because
she had wearied of him so much as because he could no longer give her
those things which made the paradise of her life; for the selfish,
grasping heart of this woman only longed for the one surpassing joy of
possessing the wherewithal to make her life one of ease and splendour
and luxury.

To gain these possessions she had sacrificed honour and truth; and,
having gained them, she had been content till fear robbed her heart
of its joy, and her conscience, roused from its long sleep, bade her
behold in the man she had first wronged the avenger of all her previous
sins.

All these years she had utterly forgotten this man. When the Count
de Verdreuil had come in her way, she had accepted his offer without
a regret for the crime she was committing. From the moment she had
forsaken Viotti her life had been one of recklessness and sin. Her
lover had soon wearied of her, and then, left to her own resources, she
had used her beauty and her arts unsparingly. It was in Italy that the
idea of her pretended decease first occurred to her, and she had put it
into execution, aided by the ready help and keen wit of the Contessa
Lorenzo, wife of the notorious Florentine gambler, whose tragic end
Raoul had related at the masked ball. At Florence Raoul de Verdreuil
first met this woman, who was represented as the niece of the contessa.
Her rare and exquisite loveliness drew many of the wealthiest and
noblest men of the city to the gambler's table, and he used her as a
tool for his own purposes. A young Florentine noble had taken Raoul to
the count's house, and introduced him to the beautiful girl about whom
the whole city was raving. It suited Blanche at that time to adopt the
role of innocence and virtue; but Raoul suspected her from the first,
and watched her narrowly. His coldness and indifference to one so used
to capture and enslave all men who came in her way first piqued, then
interested, and finally roused in this woman a fierce and reckless love
for him. Regardless of consequences, reckless of results, she disgusted
Raoul de Verdreuil by a sudden self-betrayal of the feelings he had
inspired; and in that moment she learnt how this man, who had first
taught her the meaning of a passion she had scorned the possibility
of feeling, suspected her real character and the secret of her past
life. She had long changed the name of Blanche Lecroix, under which she
had married Viotti. After her pretended death she assumed the name of
Blanche de Courville.

Even Count Lorenzo and his wife never knew her by any other. It
chanced, however, that one day while Raoul was at the villa, waiting
for the count's appearance, he saw a small neatly-bound volume lying on
one of the tables in the room. Opening it carelessly, he saw that it
was a Roman Catholic Prayer-book; just as he was about to lay it down,
a name on the fly-leaf caught his eye; it was Blanche Lecroix.
Ere he had time to read more, the door opened, and the countess and her
niece entered. The girl's eyes fell immediately on the book which Raoul
was just replacing, and she turned so deadly white that he thought
she was about to faint. In a few moments, however, she recovered her
self-possession, and talked and laughed as though nothing had happened.

Raoul never saw that book again.

One day, when he casually mentioned the name, she grew so suddenly
and strangely agitated that he was more than ever convinced some dark
mystery lay hidden away in the past years of her life, which he could
not at that time fathom. He never did fathom it either, till he heard
Votti's story, and then saw revealed with terrible clearness the whole
past infamy and shame of the woman who had passed so long as his
father's wife.

The old Count de Verdreuil had met her in Paris years after the
Florentine episode, and the moment she met him Blanche resolved to
spare no pains to bring him to her feet, to deal back to Raoul some
of the shame and humiliation which he had given her as payment of an
unsought love. She had succeeded only too well.

Ere the news of that strange and sudden marriage reached Raoul de
Verdreuil she was safely enthroned at Renonçeux, and her power over her
husband was so great that she found no difficulty in making him believe
the story she invented which gave her life no shame, and her beauty no
sin, save distressed innocence and straitened circumstances.

In his first rage and madness Raoul strove to open his father's eyes
to the worse than folly of his conduct, but the effort was fruitless.
He would believe no ill of his idol; he had made her his wife in the
fullness of his faith and trust, and Raoul's words and remonstrances
were worse than useless. He lived in that same fool's paradise of
belief till the day of his death. He had given this woman the old
stainless name, the last possessions of his race. He had wronged his
only son for her sake, and now he had gone to that land from whence no
traveller returns, and the wrong he had committed was irreparable.

Such had been Blanche de Verdreuil's life; but in the present relief of
her heart she gave no thought to these things. She longed so to assure
herself of her safety that she even forgot her fear of discovery, and
she formed a scheme in her own mind for the sole purpose of making her
belief certainty. Suspense was intolerable now; she could bear it no
longer. The flight, the pursuit, the haunting dread of her life for
these past months was torture to her now. She resolved to put an end
to it at once. She would go to Naples incognita. None should know
her name or rank. She would herself institute all inquiries about this
accident, and discover whether the drowned man was really her avenger.
If so, farewell to fear and dread. Once more the old life would be
hers; once more the delights of the world would charm from her all
sense of danger or regret; once more the age she lived in would accept
her and deify her as of old, because she had won its passport to
honour--success.

So she soothed her fears now; so she schemed and plotted afresh for
the glory of new triumphs and the forgetfulness of past shame; and
so too she skilfully hid her real rank, and concealed her real name,
while with all the speed of wind and rail she flew swiftly on to the
far-off coast whose smiling seas had drawn to their treacherous depths
the man from whom she had fled in terror since the moment she had read
recognition in his eyes, and with that recognition the sure coming of
his vengeance!




CHAPTER VI.--THE DIVINITY OF THE SOULLESS.


"Naples! thou heart of man which ever pantest
Naked beneath the lidless eye of Heaven!
Elysian city, which to calm enchantest
The mutinous air and sea; they round thee, even
As sleep round love, are driven!"
.... Shelley.


THE splendour of the noon-day sun shone full upon the white walls,
the myrtle groves, the orangeries, with their wealth of golden fruit,
the half-wild, half-cultivated beauty of a villa on the outskirts
of Naples. The drowsy hum of the insects as they passed from flower
to flower, the heavy fragrance of innumerable blossoms, the utter
stillness around and about, gave no sign of human life. The windows of
the villa were open, and the blinds were drawn partially down to keep
out the heat of the sun-rays, and in the interior of one of the rooms a
woman sat alone. She seemed to be waiting for some one, for from time
to time she glanced impatiently at the door, then at the tiny jewelled
watch hanging from its pendant beside her.

Presently the sound of footsteps sounded in the passage without. The
door opened, and a servant ushered into her presence a man who, from
his dress and manner, seemed to belong to the maritime authorities of
the port.

He bowed respectfully, and she signed him to be seated.

"I wish to make some inquiries respecting this accident," she said,
pointing to a paragraph in the paper beside her, which he took, glanced
at, and then laid down again.

"Si, l'illustrissima!"

"The paper says the two men were drowned ere help could reach them. Is
that so?"

The man broke forth into a flow of voluble Neapolitan patois,
assuring her that it was true. There was no blame to be attached to any
one. A sudden squall had broken over the bay; ere any assistance could
be rendered, the boat was capsized. It was on its way to Capri, and
both the boatman and his passenger had been drowned--that is to say, no
one had heard anything of them since, and, if either had been picked up
by any other boat, news would have reached the town without doubt. It
was very sad, very deplorable; but then the signore would go over in
spite of the threatening weather, and now he was lost.

He shrugged his shoulders, and hoped he was no friend of the
illustrious signora; but really no one could have prevented the
accident or assisted either of the men--it was quite impossible.

The signora sat in meditative silence for some moments, as he finished
his protestations and excuses. Then she said suddenly, drawing out her
purse as she spoke,--

"Can you describe to me the appearance of the boatman's passenger? I
should like to know it. From the name mentioned, I have some slight
fancy that I knew him once myself. I can tell whether I am correct if I
hear a description."

"Oh, yes," the man answered readily, "he was an Italian, signora;
he was tall, slight made, with dark eyes, jet-black hair, olive
complexion. He had been a week at Naples, and spent his time in going
backwards and forwards from there to Capri or Amalfi. He seemed fond of
boating, was quite alone, and professed to be waiting for despatches
from the Government."

The signora drew a deep breath of relief; the description was exact. It
answered to her knowledge of the drowned man with perfect accuracy. She
placed a piece of gold in the palm of her informant, and then signified
that the interview was over, and he might retire. As soon as she was
alone, she sprang to her feet and went to an inner room adjoining the
one where this interview had taken place.

She looked at herself in the glass with a smile of playing round her
lips. Then she raised her hand and divested herself of a shrouding
mantilla of heavy black lace, removing at the same time a mass of dark
chestnut curls, and revealing underneath the waving tresses of her own
shining hair.

"Now I am myself again!" she said, with a low, soft laugh of triumph.
"Truly luck befriends me at all points; I am not destined to be
vanquished yet."

Perhaps she was right. Luck seemed to befriend her most amazingly, for
luck is ever the divinity of the soulless!

*  *  *  *  *  *

With the fall of evening all Naples knew that the Villa d'Alfieri
had been taken for a month by a beautiful, wealthy, and titled
countess, travelling for her health. Fabulous reports were spread as
to her beauty and her rank, and, ere three days had passed, all the
illustrious visitors and inhabitants of the town had been to call upon
her, and returned with yet more wonderful reports of her loveliness and
her fascination.

Blanche had thrown aside all caution now. Her enforced flight--her
temporary seclusion from the gaieties which were to her the very soul
and essence of enjoyment--all made her long to secure them once again,
to exercise her old sorcery over men, to bask in the sunshine of
flattery and praise, and receive the homage, she had been compelled to
forego. Her secret was safe; her avenger was dead! The blue, smiling
waters of the bay below her villa held all the proofs she dreaded--all
the vengeance she had feared--and her heart rejoiced in its safety. Her
beauty shone out afresh in the sunshine of security, and, forgetful of
all else save the enjoyment of the present, the Countess de Verdreuil,
as she still styled herself, prepared to hold her court, and live her
old life of recklessness and extravagance in the very place where the
husband of her youth had met his death but a few brief weeks before.

On that very day when she had sought the proof and certainty of
Viotti's death from the official at the harbour, she made up her mind
to give no further thought to precaution.

Why should she hide herself any longer? Whom had she to fear?

She roamed from room to room of the beautiful little villa she had
rented, resolving to fill it with guests, to resign all thoughts of
solitude and retirement, and return to Paris in the winter. The light
and lustre stole brightly back to her eyes; the soft, sea-shell bloom
warmed her cheeks. Her step grew buoyant with hope, and her voice
carolled forth its joy like a bird when it sees the spring budding
forth again over a land where winter has reigned all too long. All the
day her heart was light with its glad relief, and her mind at rest from
its long and heavy-weighted fear. With the night she went out in the
balcony of her villa, and stood gazing down at the far-off waters of
the beautiful bay.

All around her was the cloudless beauty of the summer night. Lights
were shining star-like from the villas scattered around--shining
through groves of olive and cistus and arbutus woods like glow-worms
among some heavy-leaved foliage.

She stood gazing out at it all with a strange sense of relief and
gladness at her heart. She promised herself a long and serene enjoyment
of life from this time forward. She was even now planning great and
brilliant festivities which should arouse the wonder and envy of all;
and with the starlit radiance of the sky above, and the full warm glow
of light from the opened windows behind her, she was revealed fully
and perfectly to the watching, cautious gaze of a man in the tangled
shrubberies of the garden beneath her balcony--a man cloaked and
shrouded, as if for disguise, and whose figure mingled with the shadows
around so closely that none could perceive him. His eyes looked out
from amidst the wealth of shrubs and creepers, and rested searchingly
with a keen, piercing scrutiny on the face and form of the beautiful
woman who leant in serene unconsciousness over the light ironwork of
the balcony.

He saw her clearly and distinctly--the light falling on the golden
waves of her hair, on her bare, snowy shoulders, her white, curved
arms. How fair she looked--how young still! The years had not robbed
her cheek of its rich bloom--her lips of their scarlet glow; no sign of
weariness or age was yet about her. She looked as fair, as alluring,
as when in her girlish loveliness she had dazzled her young lover's
eyes with her beauty, and bewitched him by her arts. Did the watchful
eyes see her as she had been then, or had the glamour of love departed
and left him, who had known it in those far-off days of his youth, "a
sadder and a wiser man"?

His scrutiny never altered. Sternly, pitilessly, he gazed on the fair,
unconscious woman before him. Did he think of a time when she had been
his--his in the sweet security of wedded love--his to have and to hold
against all the forces of the world? Did he remember aught of that old
ecstatic bliss, when, in the mad idolatry of passion, he had deemed the
world held no purer, fairer thing than the woman he called wife?--when
his lips had lingered on the scarlet mouth, and his hand caressed the
gleaming shower of that rippling golden hair? Did he think of these
things now?

For the watcher in that thicket of tangled shrubs and scented blossoms
was the man whom Blanche de Verdreuil deemed dead and silent for
evermore, beneath the blue, gleaming waters of the bay below. He had
been picked up just as he was sinking for the last time by a Caprian
fisherman, who had drawn him into his boat and taken him home to his
little cabin on the coast. There he had lain for some days in a state
of exhaustion and stupor; but at last he recovered, though for weeks
he was too weak and feeble to move far from the cabin, or make any
exertion to return to Naples. Thus the report of his death was never
contradicted. The boatman who had been rowing him was really drowned,
and no paper reached Viotti in his humble little shelter to give the
account of his supposed death. He was awaiting Raoul at Naples, and
as soon as he could collect his thoughts again he sent one of the
fisher-lads of his preserver to call there for letters or papers. There
was only one letter, and that contained the news that his friend would
arrive in Naples in the course of a few weeks, and he was to await him
there. So Viotti remained in Capri, resting and gradually recovering
health and strength; and none knew of his rescue yet.

One evening he sailed over to Naples himself, and as he was not
sufficiently well known there to attract special notice, he was not
recognized as the stranger whom all supposed to have met with his death
in the bay.

At the first shop he entered, a dark-eyed contadina was chattering
vociferously about the beautiful contessa who had arrived at the Villa
d'Alferi.

"She was French--she was beautiful as a vision, and fair as an angel.
She was rich too--so rich, her servants said, that she could buy up
all Naples if she wished," and so on. Viotti listened with languid
amusement to the girl's voluble information. She was so full of her
theme she could talk of nothing else. Presently she let fall the
name of this illustrious wonder. The pronunciation was strange, but
something in it attracted Viotti's ear. He turned to the girl, and put
a few brief questions to her, which speedily brought forth loquacious
answers.

"No, she had not seen the contessa; but the gardener at the villa had
told her how angelically beautiful she was, and that she was travelling
for her health, and the physicians had ordered her to Naples."

"When did she arrive?"

"Only the previous day. No one had seen her yet but just her people at
the villa. The villa had been to let a long time. It was expensive, but
the contessa was so rich, what was that to her? And she had taken it
for a month certain. She would stay longer if the air agreed with her."

"Where is the villa?" Viotti asked.

"Oh! far up on the hill-side. You followed the road leading direct
from the town; the way was plain enough, and the villa was the largest
and handsomest in Naples. It had been to let long because its rent was
high, and only the foreign signori ever had money enough to take it."

Viotti was silent for a moment, evidently deep in thought. Then he
seemed to have formed some resolution. If it was as he suspected,
and this woman, who had been flying from him in fear, had by some
strange chance come to the very spot where he was located, it was
surely the very strangest and most incomprehensible thing he had ever
met with. What was her object in coming to Naples? When last heard
of, she had been living in a remote village in Switzerland--a little
world-forgotten, solitary place, where even tourists seldom penetrated.
To have come to Naples so suddenly! What could be her reason?

With a few laughing words to the contadina he left her and went slowly
up the white dusty road to the villa whither she had directed him. It
was a long walk, but he reached it at last.

There he paused and asked himself what he should do. He could not gain
admission without some ostensible reason--and that was not his object
either. He wished to see this lady, if possible, unknown to herself or
any of her attendants. How could he manage it? The entrance gates were
shut. He could see the winding path, bordered by heavy shrubs and dark
trees, which led up to the villa, but he could not enter in. He walked
slowly round, glancing ever and anon at the white gleaming walls, the
masses of heavy foliage, and wondering how he could manage to effect
an entrance. In his circuit round the exterior of the grounds, he came
upon a small gate which seemed to lead into a piece of waste-ground
beyond the gardens. He tried the latch; it gave readily and quickly
to his touch, and without further trouble he found himself in the
shrubbery of the villa itself. It was while he stood there, watching
the gleam of light through the open windows, and gazing eagerly into
the dainty, luxurious chambers above, that Blanche left the room where
she had been sitting alone, and came out into the balcony.

Viotti strained his eyes to catch sight of her face, and, all
unconscious of her danger, she bent forward with the full light of the
moon above her head, and the radiance of the chamber beyond revealing
her to his sight as distinctly and clearly as he needed.

His heart seemed to stand still with a sickening pang; a feverish
hatred of this woman, whose loveliness had been his curse, stole
through his veins. In the warm, balmy sweetness of the summer night he
shivered with an icy chill. He could have seized her where she stood,
and crushed out her life and her beauty with the fierce and ruthless
hatred of a desert brute. His wrongs alone were remembered. Her very
loveliness did but inflame and torment him afresh with the longing for
vengeance.

It was absolute torture to him to stand there and gaze on that fair,
smiling, radiant creature, and know the vileness and the infamy of her
life--know she was but a painted lie--a thing to work men's ruin and
curse men's lives, and yet smile and live, and even enjoy her own!

And yet he restrained himself, though his eyes never left her, and the
sweet, hushed silence of the night held no calming spell for the fever
in his veins--the wild passions surging and raging in his heart.

"Such women as she it is who make men murderers!" he muttered hoarsely.

He shuddered at the thought, but it came again and again, coiling
itself snake-like round his heart in cold, poisonous folds, hissing
its tempting through every vein and fibre of his frame, till his hands
clenched the fragile blossoms before him in their agony, and the cold
dews stood on his brow with the torture under which he writhed.

He had had but one religion in his life--love! love for this woman who
had duped, and cheated, and wronged him--wronged him as utterly as the
measure of his love had been boundless; cheated him as remorselessly as
his own belief had been blind and passionate and true.

He thought of his wasted years, his neglected talents, the vileness
and infamy to which he had given himself up when she had betrayed and
forsaken him; and every thought and every memory which throbbed in
his heart nerved him afresh to the one relentless purpose he had set
himself--vengeance on her!

Remorselessly she had slain his happiness, so in like manner would he
avenge its death. A thing so beautiful, yet so vile, so dangerous and
so deadly, deserved no mercy at his hands, nor should she find it. She
had given him over to such despair as had well-nigh maddened his brain
and destroyed his reason. What claim had she on his pity now? She had
slain it with her own hand, forfeited it by her own act, long years ago!

As he stood and looked at her, he cursed her in his heart. When at last
she turned away and entered her lighted, daintily-furnished boudoir, he
stole softly out from the shadows of the leafy screen which had hidden
him from her sight, and with all the worst passions of his southern
nature roused and loosed by her presence, he left the villa grounds and
went out and back to Capri over the starlit waters, with the knowledge
that his traitress was at last at his mercy and in his power.




BOOK VI.




CHAPTER I.--LEARNT IN SUFFERING.


"They learn in suffering What they teach in song." .... Shelley.


A VILLA stands amongst the hills of Florence.

It has been long deserted; it is half-ruined with neglect; there are
broken sculptures on the terraces, and broken windows in what was once
the chapel. There are few habitable rooms in the whole building, and
the very grounds are a wilderness, though their wealth of flowering
shrubs and graceful creepers makes even their desolation beautiful.

In the gardens there are trees covered with snowy blossoms, and
lilies grow amongst the tangled grasses, and the crimson glory of the
oleander-buds gleams brightly forth at the warm touch of the resting
sunbeams.

One can see the city far below; the towers and spires of its many
churches, the sculptured marbles of its buildings gleaming white and
clear in the light of the early summer day; and farther away, in the
purple haze of the distance, are the leafy woods and forest depths
of Vallombrosa. It is a place for an artist to dream--for a poet to
write--this picturesque, half-ruined spot, with the loveliness around
and about it, and that sweeping canopy of blue above, and the distant
height of mountains clasping the landscape like a belt, with the white
gleam of their eternal snows melting into the azure depths of the sky.

The villa stands high on the hill-side--far above the meadows where the
lilies bloom--far above the fair city whose marbles glisten through the
veil of olive-leaves in the gardens beyond.

Birds are singing in the garden, and all the brightness and beauty of
the summer day are strewn broadcast over the deserted grounds. A window
is half-open in one of the rooms, and from within comes the sound of
a girl's voice, fresh, sweet, yet mournful withal, as though a burden
of sadness thrilled through the melody of the notes. Through the open
windows the voice floats with its passionate, soul-stirred beauty; and
it echoes through the silence of the flower-scented gardens, where the
bees are sipping the sweets of the blossoms, and the birds are flitting
from the leafy boughs.

Then it ceases suddenly, and the singer comes to the open window and
looks down at the gardens below. The hour is scarce noon. The air is
languid with heat and heavy with fragrance. The breeze sweeps down from
the far-off pine-woods, and showers the peach-blossoms on the tangled
grasses, and blows the scents of the vines and the almond trees lazily
over the hills, scarcely seeming to stir the leaves of the one, or the
blossoms of the other. The singer is a girl--young--yet with marks of
care on her fair face, subduing its brilliant beauty, and giving the
dark, lustrous eyes a grave, weary look, far more troubled than her
youth should know yet.

She is a great singer, the world says, yet only two years ago she was
unknown. Now she has risen to sudden fame; she has won great triumphs;
and though none know her history or her name, save that she came to
Milan, and appeared first at the Opera House there, in the character of
the heroine in "Rigoletto," she has made cities ring with her praises,
and marvel at her voice, and acknowledge her genius, which is no less
great than her beauty. Yet she lives in the strictest retirement.
None can gain admission to her dwelling; none can boast that her
acquaintance or friendship has been gained. But her very seclusion adds
to her fame; the mystery enshrouding her gives her beauty additional
lustre--her presence rarer charms. Triumphs innumerable she has
won; yet off the stage her life is almost nun-like in its severity
and seclusion, and her home is guarded by a dragon-like duenna, who
is alike stolidly indifferent to bribery and persuasion, and above
all devoted to her fair young charge. Signora Véronique is the name
by which the world knows her, and of aught else they are in total
ignorance.

Yet the girl who leans out from the window of that Florentine villa is
strangely like the Vivienne St. Maurice who disappeared so mysteriously
from the château of Renonçeux after the Count de Verdreuil's
death--strangely like the girl who, maddened by the taunts and tortured
by the insults of her guardian, fled in the gloom and storm of the
autumn night, with the one desperate resolve of escape, the only
feeling in her wounded, stricken heart--fled to freedom or to death,
she cared not which, so that her secret was safe, so that her fate
was unknown, so that never again the cruel, merciless taunts of her
persecutor might wound and sting her to the verge of madness.

Yes, Irene Véronique and Vivienne St. Maurice are one and the same. The
girl who had sunk senseless and helpless down on the forest-path of the
woods of Renonçeux, with the wild, stormy night and the fierce warfare
of the elements the sole witnesses of her agony and despair, is now the
great singer of whom the world speaks so enthusiastically--of whose
future it prophesies great and wonderful things--of whose past it knows
nothing.

Vivienne had been saved by one of those God-sent chances which
sometimes befriend us in our hours of peril; saved by one of a
wandering tribe of gipsies encamped in the woods of Renonçeux. Her
life had been in sore danger for long after, and they had taken her
with them on their wanderings, and nursed and tended her back to
health and strength again; though for many months her reason wavered
in the balance, and the events of that dreadful night tortured her
weak, bewildered brain with innumerable horrors. But the picturesque,
wandering life--the free, open-air existence she led--restored her more
than anything else would have done. Slowly and gradually she recovered,
and with bodily health and bodily strength came back once more all the
longings for the life so long denied her.

She knew her voice was in itself a mine of gold--that its finished
cultivation made any further instruction unnecessary; and as soon as
she could safely leave her strange protectors she began to meditate
upon the best means of furthering her views as to her future life. At
first she only accepted a subordinate part in a small theatre, but
her voice was so magnificent--her talents so undoubted--that they
won fame for her ere she herself was aware of it. The manager of an
opera-house heard her sing in one of the smaller towns in Italy. He
sought her out and offered her an engagement in Bologna. From there
she went to Milan--everywhere winning fresh laurels, greater triumphs,
wider fame. Now she had accepted an engagement in Florence, and had
taken this deserted, remote villa for the time of her stay, because
of its picturesque situation, its wild, desolate beauty, its absence
from the noise and bustle of the city itself; and she it is who stands
now at the open casement of her room and gazes wistfully out at the
golden sunlight and the wavering shadows, while afar off stretch the
dark pine-woods and dense, sombre forests sloping gradually up to
Vallombrosa.

Of what does she think as she stands there with that far-off look in
her eyes, that shadow on the fairness of her face?

Of the changes her life has known, though its years number but
twenty-two--of the memories of her girlhood--of the pleasures of that
brief, unclouded time when love, with its sorcery of joy, had thrown
its golden glamour round each hour she lived.

The sunshine of the outer world is around her, shedding its bright
gold on her hair as she leans out in the warmth of its noontide glow.
The birds sing happy songs in the shelter of the blossoming boughs;
the butterflies flit from flower to flower in the gardens below, and
the bees rifle the sweets from the wild white roses climbing round the
window-frames, and hum the drowsy song of their lazy content in the
glory of the summer hours.

She stands and listens and watches it all; but now the summer hours
bring her no golden dreams of the future; only saddest memories of the
past she would fain forget--and cannot. For Vivienne is a child no
longer. Her nature has been stirred and wakened, her heart has been
wounded, her innocent faith deceived; and a woman's soul is within that
fair, girlish form now--a woman's dignity and fearlessness shine in
the lustrous eyes, once so shy and child-like. She has known suffering,
she has known pain; yet she has never forgotten or changed that old
allegiance of her youth. Its pain is with her still, its agony of
shame and wounded pride is never forgotten; above all other things she
dreads the thought of meeting Raoul de Verdreuil ever again, and yet
she knows none will be so dear to her in all her life henceforward. She
is nothing to him--no--of that fact she assures herself with a certain
proud humility that shows how little thought of her own worthiness to
be anything to him is left with her. Blanche de Verdreuil killed such
hope only too successfully, and Vivienne only prays still, with burning
blushes kindling in her cheeks, that never, never again may Raoul cross
her path, since her secret is known to him--since he, who cares so
little for any woman living, has learnt her wild, hopeless love, and
scorned and pitied and neglected her from that hour. Of his love for
the countess she does not think; she doubts Blanche de Verdreuil's word
on that subject, though at times she had been half inclined to believe
it.

But these two memories--of her enemy and the man she loved--are ever
present with her. Even in the hours of her stage triumphs she trembles
and pales at some fancied resemblance to one or other of them. Off
the stage she will see no one; most of her business arrangements are
conducted by letter; she has a dread and horror of strangers quite
unaccountable, and she shuts herself up from all pleasures or gaieties
of the world as rigidly as though they were sinful and hateful to her.

A strange life for one so young and lovely to lead is that which
Vivienne St. Maurice has chosen, and it has told upon her already. She
is so grave, so silent, so different from the radiant, buoyant girl she
used to be; and her manner is haughty and dignified, and self-reliant
in an extraordinary degree. To look on that proud, pure face is enough
to set calumny at defiance; and the world has never whispered a single
scandal detrimental to her honour, in spite of her lonely and almost
unprotected life, and the mystery surrounding her antecedents.

She was companionless, save for the old Italian lady whom she had
taken to live with her, and who loved this fair, friendless girl as
though she were her own child; her guardianship was as strict and
incorruptible as though the young singer's reputation was precious to
her above all other considerations in the world. Yet she too wondered
what story lay in the hidden past of this girl's former life. What gave
such sadness to the fair, proud face? What filled the eyes at times
with such passionate pain, such yearning tenderness? for to her as to
the world Vivienne's history was a sealed book. That the girl was not
happy she knew. A self-restrained life, such as she led, was not suited
to her nature; the feverish triumphs of the stage, the sudden accession
to fame, could not content her always; she loved her art devotedly, but
she craved for human love and human sympathy as well, for she was a
woman--and women are not often capable of such complete abnegation of
the instincts and requirements of their nature as to find their sole
happiness in fame and success--even so great as Vivienne's had been.

And in spite of her love for art, in spite of the triumphs and
independence of her daily life, Vivienne was not happy--not even so
happy as when, with the pain and perplexity of her life at Renonçeux,
the constant tax on her time and obedience which the Countess de
Verdreuil had demanded, there still lingered deep down in her heart
the sweet, untroubled fancies of her love-dream. She lived in
utter solitude; of the world she knew little; of the friends and
acquaintances of her past life, in Paris or at Renonçeux, she never
heard; and when at night she went to the physical and mental fatigues
of the stage, it was more for the real love and the real genius she
had for art than because she valued the victories she gained and the
homage she received. They were of worth because they showed her own
worth, because she knew they were the frank, spontaneous utterance of
a people's sympathy and appreciation, not bought or purchased by any
baser coin than simple merit.

And strange as was the existence she had chosen for herself, no
taint of worldly impurity ever came near her; the grave, sweet calm,
the tranquil, unapproachable dignity of her manner, were her only
safeguards, and her best; for if a woman's own nature cannot be her
security against insult or reproach--if her own conduct cannot give the
lie to calumny, and shield her from opprobrium and shame--the chief
protection she can own is wanting, and the fault lies with herself.
The world is bad enough, and heartless enough, God knows, but neither
so bad nor so heartless as to wantonly destroy a thing so fragile and
so beautiful as a woman's purity for the mere sake of the pleasure it
takes in believing the worst of her, while knowing nothing but the best.

Evil may have been, and was, indeed, often round the beautiful young
singer; on the stage and off, her loveliness was too rare and too
perfect not to attract observation, and excite passions base and
unworthy as well as noble and sincere; but the evil never touched her,
never approached her so nearly that it grew loathsome and offensive.
In that most difficult position and most trying ordeal for a woman's
purity--the publicity of the stage--the constant criticism and notice
of the world around her--she yet maintained her dignity and knew
no stain upon her honour. And she herself was so young, so gifted,
so exquisitely lovely, that she won all hearts to an enthusiastic
admiration, a reverent worship, perhaps as novel as it was genuine and
sincere.

Such had been her life for the past two years, while the three inmates
of her former home, who had each played an important part in her early
history, were scattered in different parts of the world; while neither
Raoul de Verdreuil amidst his official duties, nor Albert Hoffmann
in his absorbing studies, nor Blanche de Verdreuil in her new-born
terror and her reckless flight from place to place, knew anything of
her. Raoul imagined she must still be with the countess, and in the
rare occasions of Albert's letters marvelled that he never spoke of
her. Albert had written to her at Renonçeux, and, receiving no answer,
thought she must have gone abroad with her guardian.

Blanche herself gave no further heed to her from the time she had fled
from her roof, and as Raoul never breathed a word of his strange and
important discoveries respecting the history of the false Countess of
Renonçeux to Albert, the fact of Vivienne's flight was still unknown to
either of the two friends.

So at the time of Vivienne's visit to Florence they were in total
ignorance both of her departure from Renonçeux, and her stage life and
new title; yet the web of fate was drawing them nearer and nearer day
by day, and, unconsciously to each, the time was not far distant when
their lives should cross and meet again with a stranger and deeper
interest encircling them than any previous knowledge had foretold.




CHAPTER II.--LOVE IN VAIN.


"And is not love in vain,
Torture enough without a living tomb?" 
.... Byron.


"A FOREIGN signor has called to see the Signora Véronique!"

Vivienne turned abruptly from the window at this announcement.

"You know I receive no one here," she said haughtily. "I cannot see
him, Maruccio. Tell him that."

"May not this be some one who knows you, Irene?" said the gentle voice
of the old Italian lady, who was seated at the farthest end of the
room. "It is scarcely well to dismiss him without asking even his name."

The girl sighed wearily.

"I care not," she answered; "there is no one in the world I wish to
see. A strange face, or even a familiar one, is intolerable to me
sometimes!"

"But it is not well for thee, carissima," said her friend gently,
"to be so lonely always. The life will tell on thee day by day till
all thy fair bright youth is sapped and withered by such unnatural
restraint."

"Here is Maruccio again," said Vivienne. "Well, has he not gone yet?"
she added impatiently.

"Si, signora," said the woman as she handed her young mistress a card.
"The signor left immediately; he looked sadly distressed at your
message, and he left this card for you and a letter."

"Lay them down there," said Vivienne negligently. "I will look at them
presently."

The woman obeyed, and left the room.

"Are you not going to read the letter, carissima?" inquired Madame
Pitteri, as Vivienne made no movement to do so.

The girl smiled a little.

"How anxious you are about this stranger!" she said, as she walked over
to the table and looked first at the letter, as its superscription
faced her.

A low cry fell from her lips. She turned pale as death; then tore open
the envelope and read the contents in a second. The next instant her
voice was sounding through the passages,--

"Maruccio! Maruccio! come here, quick!"

Then, as the astonished serving-woman made her appearance, she
exclaimed in breathless haste,--

"Haste, Maruccio! fly, and overtake the gentleman who called just now!
He cannot have gone far; bring him back immediately!"

The woman obeyed without a word. She ran to the gate. The figure of the
visitor was still in sight; he was walking slowly down the shady road
leading to the city. She ran swiftly after him, crying out for him to
stop as she drew nearer. The sound of the flying feet and excited voice
made him look round and pause.

Panting and breathless, Maruccio reached his side.

"Eccellenza!" she cried; "my mistress has sent me to bring you back;
she wishes to see you immediately."

The gentleman looked at her in great astonishment.

He was a young man with a fair face, so delicately chiselled, so
perfectly faultless in its beauty, that the dark eyes of the Italian
woman gazed in admiration at it.

"Your mistress wishes to see me?" he said wonderingly. "Very well,
I will come." He turned back and walked beside her in a strange
bewilderment; first to be refused admission, then sent for in this
hasty manner! Truly Signora Veronique was eccentric in her fancies.

The woman led him back to the villa, and ushered him into a large
room lighted by three windows, and furnished with quaint mezzo-tinted
cinque-cento furniture that would have delighted a painter's eyes. The
room was shaded from the full blaze of the sunshine by blinds outside
the windows, and in the faint shadowy light the young man's dazzled
eyes could just note a woman's figure standing before him in the centre
of the room. An instant, and her voice thrilled the silence with the
music that for long had been lost to his heart,--

"Albert! dear Albert! is it indeed you?"

For one brief second of time the young man gazed at her with eyes of
incredulous, bewildered joy.

Then her name fell from his lips in passionate ecstasy, in amazed
delight,--

"Good heavens, Vivienne! you? By what miracle do I find you here?"

"Oh, Albert! Albert!" cried the girl, weeping, laughing, clasping his
outstretched hands in a very gladness of welcome and surprise. "It is
a miracle indeed! To see you again; to find you in Florence! Why,
surely the age of wonders has begun!"

His eyes had grown accustomed to the shaded room after the glare
of the brilliant sunshine, and he saw before him the Vivienne of
old--laughing, tearful, blushing--a hundred times more beautiful, it
seemed to him, than when he had parted from her at Renonçeux two years
before.

His eyes rested on her; their amazement and wonder brought her back
from the excitement and delight of this unexpected meeting.

"You did not know I had become a singer?" she asked, blushing hotly
at his searching gaze, and gently freeing her hands from his clasp.
"I left Renonçeux long ago. I have heard nothing of it, or any one
connected with it since."

"And I never knew," he murmured in bewilderment. "I always thought you
were with the countess. How strange it all seems!"

"Come and sit down here, and I will tell you about it," said Vivienne.
"It is a long story, but I must put it in as few words as possible.
After you left Renonçeux the countess insulted me so grossly that I
resolved to leave her. She told me plainly I was a dependent on her
bounty--an outcast rescued by her charity. That I could not bear.
Without a word of my intentions to her or any one, I left the château.
I had no difficulty in securing an engagement. The director of one of
the first theatres in Milan offered me one. I came to Italy because
I was not known. Nothing would have induced me to appear in Paris,
and I left France as soon as I possibly could. I have been singularly
fortunate. My voice has done for me all you once prophesied it would
do, Albert, and now I am Signora Veronique, the prima donna of the
grand opera-house in Florence! There is my history for you."

"But, Vivienne," said the young man hesitatingly, "this is very
extraordinary--that you should leave Renonçeux alone, unprotected,
without a friend to counsel or advise you. Why did you not apply to me?"

"Why?" The hot blushes came and went on the girl's fair face. "Why?
Because I was determined to seek aid from no one; because I could not
bear again the taunts of my weak and dependent position; because I
resolved I should fight the battle of life for myself, single-handed;
and I have succeeded."

Albert looked at her in renewed astonishment. This dignified, fearless
creature was very different from the clinging, timid girl he had known
at Renonçeux. Truly adversity had changed her in many ways.

He gazed at the beautiful, queenly woman before him, with his wonder
speaking all too plainly; and yet a new and reverent admiration of her
filled his heart at her words.

"But you cannot live alone," he said at last, "or--are you married,
Vivienne?"

She laughed and blushed with some of her old, sweet, girlish shyness.

"Married! no, Albert! But of course, as you say, I do not live alone. I
have a duenna, a chaperon, in order to satisfy the scruples of this
most exacting world of ours. You shall see her presently--a dear old
lady she is--a native, too, of my birthplace, Bologna; Signora Pitteri
is her name. She has lived with me ever since I wanted a protectress,
so you need not suppose I have been altogether careless of appearances
since I chose a public profession. Now this is all I mean to tell you
about myself. Let me hear of you. Why did you leave Germany? and what
strange chance brought you to Florence and to me?"

The face before her grew clouded and saddened as she spoke, and
Vivienne noted with sudden pain how changed and worn it looked--how
sadly altered from the bright, boyish face of old. The years had not
aged it. The dreamy, far-off look still haunted the beautiful violet
eyes of the young dreamer she remembered so well, but those eyes were
too feverishly bright for health now, and the cheeks were sunken and
pale, save for a flush that, ever and anon, warmed the transparent skin
with swift and transient beauty, the broad white brow had lines of care
on its smooth surface, and she noted too how slight and thin and almost
attenuated was the whole frame and figure of her old friend.

"Ah, Vivienne!" he said softly, "I have not been so fortunate as you.
My dreams are dreams still. My life has been one of hardship and
difficulty, and fame is as far off as ever."

"Oh, Albert!" cried the girl pityingly, "how strange, how sad! I
thought by this time you would be a great man, and----"

"I am little better than a beggar!" interrupted Albert bitterly.
"You know, Vivienne, the Count de Verdreuil's death left me entirely
dependent on my own resources. Well, the months have drifted into
years, and I cannot even gain for my works a hearing. I have come to
the conclusion that I am a hopeless failure! It is sad to think that
music demands so much, and gains so little! My old master told me I was
before the age I live in. I have learnt what that means--neglect and
starvation!"

"Oh, Albert! is this true?" cried the girl pityingly. "How grieved I am
to hear it!"

"Are you?" he said gently. "Yes; it is true enough. Sometimes I have
despaired; sometimes I have renounced all hope, and resolved to be
anything but what I am--only somehow I cannot. I suppose music is
inborn in me; I cannot do without it; and yet it seems the one most
profitless thing in all the world on which to depend. When my master
died, I had no home; I have been wandering from one place to another
ever since. I was six months in Leipzig. They played my music at the
Gewandhaus once. It ran through a hot fire of criticism; it found
plenty of admirers--no publishers. Then I came to Italy. I have written
a new opera. It has been from one place to another without success. Now
tell me what is the reason of all this. Do you not think the fault must
lie with me?"

Vivienne looked compassionately at him. "I scarcely know what to say,"
she answered. "It is difficult to understand the secret of popularity.
I often feel wearied of the operas I play, and yet the managers assure
me nothing else will satisfy the public. Novelty in music is a thing of
suspicion, it appears. Now this I know, Albert: your music is the most
wonderfully original music I know of; it is totally unlike any other;
therefore you will have a hard battle to fight before it is received.
It is not the public you have to fear, it is those who guard the way to
the ear of the public. They are always fearful of a new venture, always
anxious to keep to the old beaten track, because they know there is a
chance of failure or loss in the new. But now this reminds me. What did
you want with Signora Véronique, Albert, that you called upon her? Is
there anything I can do to assist you?"

The fair, boyish face coloured hotly with the old bashful shyness she
remembered so well.

"Oh, Vivienne, forgive me! I did not know it was you. The truth is, I
had a letter of introduction to the manager of the opera-house here.
I called on him, and he told me that all his arrangements for the
season were already made. He looked over my score, though, and made
me play some of it over to him. Then he said that his prima donna,
Signora Véronique, was a great admirer of musical novelties--was
always entreating him, in fact, to give her a new rôle. If I
liked, he would give me a letter of introduction to her. She was very
enthusiastic, very generous--in fact, I cannot tell you all his praises
of you, Vivienne. She had great influence too, and might do something
for me. So I came to this wonderful being, and found--you! That is all."

Vivienne laughed.

"And having found me," she said gaily, "it will go hard with me if I
cannot help you, Albert. I owe you all my own success; it is but just I
should try and secure yours. The manager who sent you to me is one of
my few friends. He is such a kind-hearted, sympathizing man. He must
have taken a fancy to you, Albert, or he would never have sent you to
me. He knows I rigidly exclude all callers and visitors of your sex
from my house."

"Do you?" said Albert wonderingly, as he looked at the lovely face
before him, and marvelled how she could keep the homage of the world
from her presence.

"Indeed I do! I see no one; I go nowhere. I live here with Madame
Pitteri, and I go from here to my stage triumphs, and no one knows more
of me than that I am Irene Véronique, nor do I intend them to do so."

"But what a strange life!" said Albert. "Are you not very lonely,
Vivienne?"

"Sometimes," she said lightly, "but I have plenty of occupation here.
You know, Albert, the pleasures of the great social tread-mill were
always rather toilsome to me."

"Yes, I remember," he answered her gravely. "You have chosen wisely,
Vivienne. But to most women such a life would be impossible. You must
care very little for pleasure or admiration, or the things most dear
to women's hearts when once fame trumpets forth their praises to the
world!"

She sighed. Little enough she cared for such things, she knew. Her old
child-life had been far sweeter, though once she had deemed it only
monotonous, simple, and obscure. How she had longed to change it then!
How great and precious a thing fame had seemed to her while still
unknown. And now, when her desires had been gratified, the vague sense
of that bitter fact which lies at the root of all human attainments,
which corrodes the gold of all human greatness was the only thing her
wishes had brought her--disappointment!

She had gained greatness, but she had also lost faith, peace, love. She
thought of the tender, homely face of gran'mère--of the simple home
amongst the leafy woods--the quaint old kitchen with its bare floor,
its worn furniture, its bright array of pewter on the shelves, its wood
fire, with the soup-pot simmering above the flames--and she remembered
with a pang of regret how she had despised it all--once.

"Ah, Albert!" she cried, half-laughing, half-tearful, as she turned to
him again, "I have gained so much, only to wish I had never gained
it--only to long that I might go back once more to the old, simple life
again--only to wish I was a glad, thoughtless child, running wild over
the meadows and orchards with the glad, free air about me, and the
smiling heavens above? How foolish we are--we women! Do we ever know
content?"

Ere he could answer her, she rose hastily up, as if ashamed of her
weakness.

"Come," she said lightly, "I must introduce you to my duenna; she
will think I have outraged the proprieties dreadfully by this long
interview. Come with me to the other room. You must share our al
fresco luncheon now you are here."

He followed her without a word, feeling more as if he were in a
bewildering, beautiful dream than in the actual living presence of
this girl. She made him stay with her all the day. She had so much
to say and to hear, she declared, that she could not part with him,
and at last, when all other topics had been exhausted, he began to
speak of Raoul. He had not heard from him, he said, for nearly a year.
He had written several times, but he feared that, as Raoul had been
so constantly changing his address, the letters could not have been
received.

"And it is not as if I were stationary either," he went on; "I have
been a wanderer also, and so I suppose, if he has written to me, I have
lost the chance of getting them. These foreign postal regulations are
so bad. If one leaves a place, they never will forward your letters
properly."

"And the countess--do you know anything of her?" asked Vivienne--her
heart beating fast and quick at the bare mention of Raoul's name.

"No; Raoul has never mentioned her, and I fancied the subject was
painful to him. Ah, Vivienne, he has been cruelly wronged! What would I
not give to see him back at Renonçeux again!"

"Do you think that will be possible?" said Vivienne, trying to calm her
trembling voice, and only succeeding in making it constrained and cold
by the effort.

"Who can tell?" said Albert sadly. "He has suffered great injustice.
Perhaps, after all, the wrong may right itself in time: stranger things
have happened."

Then they were both silent. The shadows of those old days fell on them,
and with them other memories wakened, of which neither cared to speak.

When night fell, and Albert Hoffmann returned to the city, he went
back with a richer, deeper gladness in his heart than he had known
through all these weary months of trial and failure. But he went back
also with the knowledge that his love for Vivienne was increased a
thousandfold--that the very sight of her face had brought back again
the old madness--the old pain.




CHAPTER III.--THE LAST SEAL.


"The love where Death has set his seal,
Nor age can chill, nor rival steal,
Nor falsehood disavow." 
.... Byron.


THE Villa d'Alfieri in Naples was brilliant with lights. A fête was
being held there by the beautiful French countess who had lately
arrived, and about whose loveliness and wealth rumour had been busy
ever since.

The fête was gorgeous--magnificent--eclipsing anything Naples had seen
for long years past. The grounds were illuminated: fairy-like pavilions
rose here and there; fountains threw up their showers of silver spray,
and caught all the glowing hues of coloured stars and gleaming lamps,
which hung among the trees like the enchanted fruit of Eastern fables.
The far-off swell of music, the chiming melody of women's laughter,
the mystery of intrigue, romance, and pleasure--all mingled there in
the brilliance and enchantment of the scene; the pure stars above
looked down on light that mocked their own; the faint breeze stirred
the foliage, and swept over the dewy orange-boughs, and caught the
amorous whispers of the night on its wings, and bore them far away to
its own fair home in the south. The flying hours were crowned with
every fanciful and cosily device that pleasure could invent, and gold
secure; and the Countess de Verdreuil, standing amidst her guests, the
loveliest of all the lovely women there, felt her heart swell with
triumph and delight as the murmurs of admiration and wonder fell on her
ear from the crowd she had gathered to grace her fête.

It was verging upon midnight.

The sounds of festivity rose and fell upon the air; sweet strains of
music burst ever and anon from some concealed nook in the grounds
around. The full, lustrous moonlight flooded lawn and terrace, trees
and shrubs, with its radiance. Here and there, where the shadows
slept in some dark, leafy nook, was the white gleam of a statue, or
the graceful form of a dancing-god poised on its airy pedestal. The
fragrance of orange-flowers, of myrtles and roses, dew-steeped and
odorous, filled the air with their sweetness. Even from without the
garden-walls and ornamented gates, enough could be heard and seen to
tell of the brilliant revelry, the marvellous beauty, the gay and
graceful mirth, of the scene within.

In a shadowy, leafy nook of the illuminated grounds, the faint sparkle
of a lamp among the foliage falling on her face, the gleam of the
moonlight resting on the hues of her trailing dress, sat Blanche de
Verdreuil. She was alone; she had just dismissed her attendant cavalier
on some slight errand, and was awaiting his return. It was the first
moment of solitude she had known; and as she leant carelessly back on
her seat, her eyes wandered over the brilliant scene, and a smile of
triumph rose to her lips.

Suddenly she started to her feet as though a serpent had stung her;
pale, breathless, terrified, her eyes glanced in wild and fearful alarm
from side to side. What was that she had heard as she rested in her
seat? Was it fancy? Was it reality? Was it only her own guilty fear
that had conjured it up?

Two words had floated to her with the sighing of the wind, the
tremulous murmurs of the parted leaves. Two words!

Yet her heart seemed to stand still with horror; her very limbs seemed
frozen and powerless. She stood there with the wild, despairing look of
some hunted animal driven at last to bay, and as she stood and as she
gazed, the whisper came to her again, "Blanche Lecroix!"

Who said it? Who knew it? Out from the leafy shadows of the shrubbery
before her two figures came; one, her husband--the other, Raoul
de Verdreuil!

"Not dead! not dead!" she gasped, as her white lips parted in
agony, and her hands clenched the wood-work of the seat. Then she turned
and fled like one possessed--her shrill screams startling the assembled
guests, and bringing them in throngs around her.

"Take me away!" she shrieked in her frantic terror, "take me away! Oh,
God! that I might die to-night!"

*  *  *  *  *  *

An hour afterwards the villa was dark and quiet; the lights were
extinguished, the guests had left; no sign of the recent revelry, the
brilliant festivity, could be found now in the hushed silence, the
darkened rooms.

In a lighted chamber within, a woman crouched over the blaze of a
bright wood fire. Its warmth seemed to bring neither heat nor life back
to the chill torpor of her frame, for she shivered and trembled from
time to time as if with deadly cold, and her eyes glanced from side to
side in the wildest terror and alarm. She had dismissed her attendants
when her guests had left, declaring she had only been alarmed by the
sudden appearance of a man in the shrubberies, who had sprung out and
accosted her; and though many wondered why this incident should have
caused her such extreme terror as to unfit her for the continuance of
the fête, they kept the wonder to themselves, and accepted her excuses
with extreme courtesy and apparent belief.

And now she was alone--alone in her chamber, with the costly glitter of
her rich apparelling thrown on the floor beside her, while with locked
doors and curtained windows she crouched by the fire in the cold, numb
terror of her fear, fear of what the morrow would bring forth, when
the world she had fooled and cheated so long, would know her as she
was. Every shadow on the wall, every fall of the ashes in the grate,
startled her afresh. The room seemed filled with spectres of the past,
with horrors and memories innumerable. All the security and safety on
which she had prided herself so short a time before had been but a
plank, whose frail foot-hold had refused to support her, whose strength
had given way when least expected, and plunged her into the boiling,
seething waters of destruction below.

Flight was useless now--disguise unavailing. The sea would not hold her
avenger; death would not keep him from his purpose: nay, worse than
all, the very man of all others whom she had feared his meeting, was
with him now. Together their plans were laid; together their vengeance
would be taken. She had wronged them both so basely and treacherously;
what mercy could she expect from them now? None! none!

She felt paralyzed with this thought. Its vague, shapeless horror had
taken form and life at last, and she was powerless to meet or avert
it. The law she had outraged, the justice she had mocked, the strange
destiny which, in the moment of her proudest triumphs, had brought her
face to face with the guilt of her earliest youth--all these terrified
her now as spectres of a life long given to infamy and sin. And while
the time sped by, and the hours softly chimed their flight to her
heedless ears, she felt her own deeds, and the merciless retribution
she had herself courted so long, enfolding her in a poisonous net from
which there was no escape, whose folds were stifling her, and crushing
her even now.

"I cannot avert it!" she cried wildly and passionately. "Oh, what mad
impulse made me come here to the very spot, the very place where he
awaited me? The sea gives up its victims, the grave its dead, to avenge
my sins. Oh, God! is there no escape?--no escape?"

She paced her room with restless steps; her hands pressed tight against
her aching breast, her beautiful hair tossed wildly from her face;
her whole expression agonized, despairing as that of a creature lost,
forsaken, desolate.

Ah! Blanche de Verdreuil tasted the full bitterness of her wrong-doing
in this hour. The dead-sea fruit she had gathered through her life was
now dust and ashes in her mouth. She had none to whom she could turn
for comfort or consolation. She had never known tenderness, nor pity,
and none would yield her in her hour of need what she had too often
despised in her hours of triumph.

Yet as she moved to and fro in her restless, feverish walk through
the length of her lighted chamber, a thought struck her. She started,
paused, and then she laughed aloud--a cruel, mocking, triumphant laugh,
that rang through the stillness of the night, and startled the echoes
around with its strange, unmirthful sound.

"Oh, fool! to think my power is gone when I have that!" she cried
aloud. "At least I shall know the sweetness of revenge!"

On her face, as the lamp-rays fell upon it, there gleamed the cruel,
unsparing hate of a woman when she has killed all softness in her
nature--all purity in her soul--all pity and remorse for herself as
well as others.

She swept across the room with the old haughty grace of movement, and
went over to an ebony casket, richly carved and chased, that stood
on her dressing-table. Opening it with a key of strange and curious
workmanship, she took from thence a packet of papers, and commenced to
read them slowly and carefully over; then she folded them together,
sealed and addressed them, and, going over to her escritoire, sat down
and commenced to write. For some moments her pen moved rapidly over the
paper, and the light, as it fell on her face, lit up the smile on her
lips, the merciless gleam in her eyes, both cruel with the cruelty that
men never know--the cruelty of a lost woman's hatred.

She threw down her pen at last, and placed what she had written with
the packet she had taken from the casket; then locked them all up again.

"Now let him do his worst," she said; "at least he will gain nothing by
it; and I, though I lose all, I have vengeance for the loss."

Then she left the casket on her table, and went slowly back to her
seat by the fire. Involuntarily she glanced at herself as she passed
her mirror, and the sight of her face horrified her. All its beauty
seemed to have withered and faded away before the agony of these last
few hours. The icy hand of terror had changed all its warmth and colour
into the greyness and hardness of age. She shuddered as she looked at
it, and then threw herself on her couch, with her face pressed down on
the pillows and her hands still clasped against her heart, as though
every beat and throb were agony to her now.

"Oh! for sleep--for rest!" she muttered wildly, as she lay there in
solitude and pain. "How my eyes burn and my brain throbs! Will nothing
rob me of memory? will nothing give me peace?"

She groaned aloud as she spoke. Indeed, for once, Blanche de Verdreuil
suffered keener torture than ever she had inflicted on others. Then
suddenly she sprang from her recumbent attitude, and went to her
dressing-table once more. A dainty inlaid dressing-case stood there,
and, hastily unlocking it, she drew out a small cut-glass bottle,
containing some thick dark liquid. With trembling hands she unloosed
the stopper, and poured some of its contents into a glass, without any
attempt at measurement. This she drank hastily off, and, replacing the
bottle in its case--without locking it again--she returned to her
couch, and once more threw herself down to rest.

Gradually the lulling effect of the opiate she had taken began to
appear. Her eyes closed wearily and heavily; her hands fell by her
side. The weary, agonized look left her face, and sleep seemed to seal
her features into peace and beauty once again.

Slowly the moments passed; slowly the hours chimed the flight of time
in the hushed stillness of the room where she lay. The world without
grew flushed and rosy with the warmth and beauty of the early day. One
faint ray of sunlight stole softly through the curtained windows, and
flitted across the shadowy gloom, till it shone over the couch where
the sleeper lay--so calm, so tranquil now!

How still and white she was! The sunbeam kissed her lips, and fluttered
over the golden waves of her hair, and rested softly on the closed
eyelids whose veiling lashes swept the marble whiteness of her cheeks.
But its gentle warmth never seemed to bring the rose-bloom back to the
face, or the rich crimson hues to the parted lips, or penetrate the
dreamless rest of the motionless figure.

Ah, no! for never again could sunbeam's warmth or daylight's glow
awaken that sleeper from her rest. It was endless, eternal, now!

The day grew later. The fuller rays of sunlight bathed the world in
mellow radiance, and wakened men to toil and labour and sorrow once
again. The birds sang of the summer's glory in the trees without; the
fountains rose and fell with their plashing music; but in the marble
basins of the garden, the tiny gold and silver fish looked in vain for
their morning meal, for their mistress still lay in her darkened room,
sleeping that strange, deep sleep, wrapped in that motionless calm.

Richer and fuller grew the beauty of the day. Heat and warmth brooded
over the distant hills, and glistened on the smiling waters of the
bay; the flowers drooped; the birds sang more softly; the music of
the fountains grew more audible in the stillness; and the owner of
all this beauty lay still in the shadowy silence of that chamber
within--her eyes blind to the sunlight--her ears deaf to the music of
the singing-birds--her heart pulseless and still for evermore.

Her life was ended!

So they found her at last, when the wonder of her long silence at last
gave her household courage to break into her room unsummoned. Then the
horror of discovery filled the dark and silent chamber where she lay,
and terrified faces gazed at her, and hushed voices carried the news
from one to the other of her many attendants, and within and without
the Villa d'Alfieri there was but one whisper floating throughout the
day,--"She is dead!"

They covered the white, still face; they closed the half-opened lids of
the once beautiful eyes that had now no beauty; and so they left her to
the darkness and the solitude of her dreamless rest--to the sleep that
knows no earthly waking.




CHAPTER IV.--"VENGEANCE IS MINE."


"Come away, for life and thought
Here no longer dwell."
.... Tennyson.


THROUGHOUT the day Naples had but one topic of conversation--the sudden
and mysterious death of the French countess at the Villa d'Alfieri.

Was it suicide? was it accidental? Rumours of every description
were floating through the town. The authorities looked grave as
they returned from their investigation; the medical men made their
examination and inquiries, and shook their heads and said--nothing.
Finally, when excitement and wonder were at their height, a new
sensation was created by the appearance of two strangers--one of whom
gave the name of the Count de Verdreuil, secretary to the French
Legation--the other, strange to say, was the very individual who was
supposed to have lost his life in the bay a short time before. Naples
had gossip enough on which to regale itself, when all these incidents
came crowding together one after another, and good use it made of its
opportunities for the time being.

It was a relief, however, to the disorganized household at the Villa
d'Alfieri when Raoul de Verdreuil calmly announced his right of
authority, and took all the management of affairs into his own hands.
He saw the municipal authorities; he received the doctors after the
examination was over; he interrogated the frightened servants, and
finally, from their voluble and incoherent bursts of information,
arrived at all the facts bearing on Blanche de Verdreuil's death. The
cause was evident enough. The unlocked case, the emptied glass, the
dark stain on the lips of the lifeless corpse--all told how the end had
come--but, whether self-sought or accidental, who could determine?

The countess's own maid declared that her mistress was frequently
accustomed to take sleeping-draughts. She had herself administered them
on several occasions. On this particular night, her mistress had seemed
terribly excited and nervous. She declared she had been frightened
by some one in the gardens during her fête, and, indeed, had looked
so ill that the girl had begged permission to remain with her during
the night. This, however, madame had imperatively refused, declaring
she only required rest, and that if she did not feel well during the
night, she would ring. The girl had, however, slept in an adjoining
room, to be near if anything was needed, for she felt really uneasy at
the wild looks and excited manner of her mistress. She had listened
several times at the door; but, all seemed quiet, and receiving no
summons, she went to sleep at last herself, and did not wake till very
late. She went immediately to her mistress's room, and knocked softly
for admission. There was no answer, and, fancying the countess must be
asleep, she did not like to repeat her knock, but came back again in
half an hour and tried to open the door; she found it locked, and then,
as her summons for admission was still unanswered, she grew alarmed,
and called some of the other servants. All attempts to waken the
countess or enter the room proved unavailing, yet none of them liked
to force open the door; at last one of the men suggested an entrance
by the window, and this was at last effected. He found his mistress
lying on her couch, still partially dressed, as her maid had left her
the previous night; and when he opened the door and the other members
of the household came rushing in, there was no doubt about their lady
being dead. She was perfectly cold; she must have been dead for hours,
they thought.

As no further information could be obtained, Raoul set himself to
work to hush up any scandal on the subject. This woman had borne his
father's name; the world knew her only as his wife; and, now that she
was dead, he dreaded to have all the infamy and degradation of her life
made known to it.

It was true he had come prepared to confront her with her guilt--to
take from her the honours and possessions of which she had robbed
him--but even that he had of late determined to do with as little
publicity and as much avoidance of open scandal as was compatible with
the requirements of justice. The wrongs she had committed against him
were, after all, not half so great as those for which Carlo Viotti
had suffered so long and so deeply, and he had vested all power of
retribution in the person of the husband she had so wantonly forsaken,
so basely deceived in years gone by.

The inheritance of his father's was his; she could not withstand the
might of avenging justice; if she yielded it up to him quietly and at
once, he had determined to keep her secret from the world--to give her
such provision as should insure her comfort for the rest of her life,
and leave the punishment of her crimes in the hands of the only man to
whom it of right belonged. And when he came to tell her this, when the
whole fabric of plans carefully matured, of proofs patiently gathered,
of knowledge slowly and skilfully acquired, were woven into the one
perfect whole of a just retribution, he found the work had been taken
from his hands--that all his plans and purposes had been frustrated by
a will stronger than his own, and his carefully-laid schemes were swept
away before his eyes on the current of a great, mysterious power, even
as a river sweeps away a leaf it has caught in the rush of its mighty
waters.

It was a lesson that he had much need to learn--a lesson he could never
forget in all his life again, for it showed him the littleness of human
will and human purpose; it brought him face to face with the great
teachings of death, and, above all, it smote his heart with a terrible
self-reproach that this tragic end of a life in the midst of life
might be in some measure due to him--that the guilty, hunted woman, on
whom he had once sworn to be avenged, had chosen death rather than his
accusations, or her husband's retribution.

Retribution! Ah, when shall we who use that word for our own petty
ends, our own vindictive or revengeful purposes, learn that it is God's
weapon of justice--not man's?

So Raoul de Verdreuil, by right of his relationship to the deceased,
took all the management of her affairs upon his own shoulders. The
necessary inquiries were skilfully and carefully conducted; all
unnecessary publicity was avoided; and as, by the evidence of her
maid, the countess had seemed to be labouring under some strong mental
excitement on the night of her death, and was also proved to be in the
habit of resorting to opiates under all such circumstances, there was
little apparent doubt in the minds of the investigators that it was
purely accidental. The countess had evidently taken an overdose of her
accustomed draught, and the result was--death!

That she could have wilfully made away with her life seemed an utter
impossibility. A woman, young, beautiful, wealthy, gifted with every
possible good and every worldly advantage her heart could desire--to
suppose that such a woman would voluntarily destroy herself in the very
zenith of her beauty and celebrity was quite incredible. So it came
to pass that a verdict of "Accidental Death" was returned; and while
her strange fate was read and commented upon in every circle where she
had shone and triumphed--in every city where she had stayed and made
herself notorious by her loveliness, her extravagance, her rank--none
knew or imagined that she had no title to that rank, no right to that
wealth, no honour, truth, or virtue with that beauty.

The world never guessed how skilfully she had cheated it; that secret
was laid with her in her grave by the two men who of all others had
suffered most deeply for its shame and unscrupulous wrong-doing.

It was Raoul's wish, and Viotti obeyed it as he would have obeyed the
lightest word of the man to whom he yielded the most loyal fidelity and
love. So Blanche de Verdreuil was buried with all honour and respect;
her name shielded, her honour saved, by the very man she had deemed
most merciless.

Half the wealth and rank of Naples attended the funeral of the
ill-fated countess, and the death which science pronounced "accidental"
drew down much sympathy and loudly-expressed regret from all quarters.

"So young! so beautiful! so rich!" people said to one another, "and
then to die so suddenly and fearfully amidst such blessings as these!
Ah, it was indeed terrible!"

And if they had known how terrible that end had been--if any human
eye had seen the horror and dread of her last moments--they would have
shuddered still more; they would have acknowledged it was worse even
than they deemed it. But only one Eye had witnessed that terrible
conflict, only one Presence had been there when that guilty soul had
winged its flight from earth, and to Him alone could her account be
rendered now. And when the grave had closed on her, and the sins and
sorrows of life were a sealed book henceforward, the husband she had
betrayed, the man she had wronged, stood bare-headed beside her last
resting-place, and murmured, with heartfelt sincerity, at last, "I
forgive!"




CHAPTER V.--MORE CLOUDS IN THE SKY.


"Her deeds yet live; the worst is yet to come;
But let your sleep for this one night be sound."
.... Tennyson.


"AND you will go back to Renonçeux once more, signor?"

Viotti asked this question as he and Raoul were slowly pacing the
grounds of the Villa d'Alfieri on the evening of the day when Blanche
de Verdreuil had been buried.

"Yes," Raoul answered quietly. "I suppose she has made no will; if she
has, it will be of no use; probably she knew that, and never attempted
it."

Viotti looked at him a moment silently, as if debating some question
in his own mind that he did not care to ask. At last he said
hesitatingly,--

"Signor, pardon me, but I cannot help seeing there is some trouble on
your mind still. All is not satisfactory yet. Is it any new trouble
connected with her, or am I asking what I have no right to know?"

Raoul did not answer him immediately; he looked troubled, strangely
troubled for one who had now accomplished the long sought desires of
his heart--who had won back his rich inheritance--who stood high in
men's honour and the world's praise.

"I have a trouble," he said slowly at last, "and one that perplexes me
exceedingly. But I do not know how you can help me, Viotti, even if I
tell you."

"Ah, monseigneur!" cried Viotti impetuously, "is there aught in the
world I would not do for you? The debt of a deathless gratitude is
still mine. I would serve you with my life, my liberty, my all, if only
you desire it."

"Yes, Viotti, I know," said Raoul gently. "But this is a matter in
which interference is almost impossible. The truth is that some years
ago Blanche de Verdreuil--for so we will still call her--adopted a
young girl and introduced her to society as her ward: she lived with
her, and was received by the world with all honour and respect. When I
left Renonçeux, after my father's death, this young lady was still an
inmate of the château; I have heard no word of her since. I thought she
was still living with her guardian, but she is not here; nor from any
of the attendants, not even the countess's own maid, can I ascertain
anything bearing on her present life, position, or history. This seems
to me very singular, to say the least of it. The girl was too beautiful
and too gifted not to create a sensation wherever she appeared, and her
fate seems now an unaccountable mystery."

"Perhaps she is married,'" suggested Viotti. "How long is it since you
have heard anything about her!"

"Not since I turned my back on France," said Raoul. "The fault may be
mine; I never inquired about her till now; but still I cannot think
your suggestion correct. Probable enough it is; but if she had married,
I should have certainly heard of it."

"You don't think that she, that Blanche, has ill-used the girl in
any way?" said Viotti in a low voice, troubled and grave as his face.

"God forbid!" said Raoul. "I believe in my heart she was jealous of her
always, but still I cannot imagine she would have done anything cruel
to one so young and friendless, so thoroughly dependent on her, as
Mademoiselle St. Maurice was."

"Mademoiselle St. Maurice--is that her name!" inquired Viotti.

"Yes; but there was always a mystery about this girl; no one knew
exactly who she was, and the countess took very good care no one
should. But I believe," he added hesitatingly, "that my friend, Albert
Hoffmann, about whom I have spoken to you before, Viotti, was deeply
attached to Mademoiselle St. Maurice; in fact, I thought, when last I
left Renonçeux, that they would be married ere long. Now it is strange
that he has mentioned nothing whatever about her in any of his letters;
he at least ought to know something. That is one reason why I still
expected to find her living with Blanche de Verdreuil."

"But you have not heard from your friend for a long time--more than
nine months, you said: many things may have happened in that time.
Perhaps they are married, and so engrossed with each other that they
have no thought of any one else. Under such circumstances time passes
marvellously quick; we scarcely note the lapse of months then,
monseigneur."

Raoul flushed; a strange pain shot through his heart at these words. He
had deemed his love long conquered, a thing of the past, a dream never
to be realized; but when he thought of Vivienne, the memory of her
power, the memory of his own weakness, were all present again. Love!
how often he had told himself it was never for him; but he had scorned
it all his life only to find it at last, when too late.

Love! he thought of it now with a fierce, wild regret that was in
itself a passion; it could never live in his life again; he told
himself that so often--oh, so often!--and yet the telling brought no
belief, nor any cessation to his pain.

"Could it be that she was wedded to his friend ere this?" he asked
himself, as he pondered over Viotti's last words. "It might be, it was
all too probable; and in the joy and sweetness of their happy love he
was forgotten."

The thought was bitter beyond all bitterness, and yet he had long
deemed his own feelings conquered and subdued. But to think of her he
loved as a wife--to imagine her happy, blessed--the idol of a husband's
heart, the sunshine of a husband's home--was a thing he had not yet
realized.

"I scarcely think my friend would marry and not let me know," he said
at length. "But you see, Viotti, I have been such a wanderer lately,
that letters may have missed me; and, again, I have not written to him
since I found out the mystery of this unhappy woman. I could not bear
to tell him anything about it until I knew I was really in possession
of my own again. He has not been stationary either, and so I suppose we
have both been waiting and wondering why letters don't come, and all
the time the letters are lying in some out-of-the-way post-office to
be claimed. I once found a letter for me in the Tyrol district a year
after I had left the place. Doubtless some of Albert's are now sharing
the same fate."

"I see nothing for it but to make inquiries at Renonçeux," said Viotti
quietly. "You have nothing of sufficient importance to keep you here,
when all this sad business is settled. Have you looked over Blanche's
papers, though? They may contain some information."

"Not all--only such as the authorities deemed relative to a will. But
there were nothing but letters and accounts in her escritoire and desk,
and none of the letters related to Mademoiselle St. Maurice."

"But at Renonçeux surely there will be some chance of obtaining
information. It is merely a question of time."

"Yes, that is true! I think by to-morrow night we might manage to
leave, Viotti."

"Certainly we might, or at least you might, monseigneur. You do not, of
course, need my presence in your home."

"What nonsense is this? Of course I need it, and your assistance as
well. Are you going to forsake me in my prosperity, Viotti?"

"Oh, monseigneur! you know that is impossible. But for you, what would
I be now? Yet you will not need me any longer, and I have no right to
expect that your home is always to be my shelter."

"But I mean it to be so as long as ever you care to accept it, Carlo,"
said Raoul gently. "You have proved yourself deserving of my trust--ay,
and of my friendship too. They are never taken back when once bestowed."

"Oh, signor! signor!" cried Viotti passionately, as he clasped Raoul's
hands with all the enthusiastic warmth, the mobile emotion of his
nation and his temperament, "how can you speak so to me? What have I
done to deserve such honour? If you had killed instead of rescuing me,
it would have been but just; even then I should have been too gently
dealt with."

The grateful, incoherent words were sweet to Raoul's ears. This life he
had rescued was now a noble and a useful one, and yet it ever rendered
him the passive obedience, the grateful love, the reverent worship of
a child. It gave him full recompense for many other sorrows, for many
weary hours, for all the trials and anxieties now so suddenly ended.
This man was at least no time-server. He reversed all the creeds of
the world by the very offer he had just made. He had served and clung
to Raoul most faithfully in the hour of his adversity and need. When
fortune and prosperity were once more restored, he would have withdrawn
from him at once, as though be was no longer a friend, but an intruder.

Raoul turned to him and smiled--that grave, rare smile the Italian
loved so well,--

"Ah, Viotti! whatever debt you owed me in the past you have more than
repaid now. Let me hear no more of gratitude. At least it has brought
her a fearful recompense for her life's long sin."

The dark, southern face grew strangely pale, the eyes sank before
Raoul's pitying gaze.

"There again you saved me," he murmured faintly. "How mad I was with
passion and revenge only a week ago! Now----"

"Now the work is taken from our hands," said Raoul softly and
reverently, as he glanced up at the dark, clear blue of the cloudless
sky; "now we both know how grand a justice is that which proclaims
aloud, 'Vengeance is mine!'"

Viotti gazed wonderingly at Raoul de Verdreuil. The grave, earnest face
had a new nobility, a deeper meaning now, for Raoul had learnt a lesson
by the death-bed of the woman who had wronged him that could never be
effaced or forgotten in all his life again.

He had come to Naples to meet Viotti. All proofs of that marriage with
Blanche Lecroix had disappeared; the little village was now a town; the
church had been altered and enlarged almost beyond recognition; the
priest was dead, and none could find the register which bore the date
of that one special entry. Still Viotti did not despair. He remembered,
when he received that strange summons to Capri, that he had taken with
him a large leathern pocket-book, which contained, among other papers,
a copy of this marriage entry. While in Capri he had lost the book, and
never missed it till long after he had left the little village.

It occurred to him that this pocket-book might have been found and
preserved. The simple-minded fisher-folk were too honest not to guard
anything so found, in case of a claimant appearing.

With this hope, therefore, he had gone to Naples, and spent most of his
time in sailing backwards and forwards from thence to Capri, while he
made investigations about his lost property. His search had for long
been a fruitless and profitless one. Then came the accident by which
he was supposed to have met his death, and for weeks he stayed on at
Capri, suffering so severely from the shock he had received, and all
the previous excitement and fatigue he had undergone, that his life was
really in danger. When he rallied, it was to hear that the guilty woman
who had fled from him to shame and infamy, in the years of her youth,
was now actually living at Naples, rejoicing in all the frivolity and
extravagance of a life she had lately denied herself from fear alone.
This information, and his subsequent sight of her in the privacy of her
luxurious home, inflamed Viotti's worst passions and fiercest instincts
over again. Scarcely could he bring himself to await Raoul's arrival.
He longed to face this beautiful traitress himself, to confront her
with her guilt, her infamy, her shame; but his promise to Raoul
withheld him, and he waited still.

He kept away from Naples. He knew that the report of his death must
have drawn Blanche there, and he resolved to let her remain still in
the false security of that belief until such time as Raoul de Verdreuil
wished.

Meanwhile a strange and unexpected chance brought into his hands the
very proofs for which he had sought and searched so long.

He was sitting one day in the little cabin of the fisherman who had
saved his life, meditating on the difficulties which had so retarded
his efforts at discovery. As he sat and as he thought, a sudden noise
and crash as of a heavy fall startled him from his abstraction.
Springing to his feet, in order to ascertain the cause of this
confusion, he forced his way into the inner room of the cabin, and
there a scene of mingled disorder and noise greeted his eyes and ears.
The two eldest children of his fisher friends had been employing
themselves, in the absence of their parents, by climbing up to the top
of a large chest which stood in one corner of the room. Whether the
chest--which was a family heirloom--had begun to feel the effects of
age, or whether the weight of the children had been too great for it,
no one could tell; but certain it was that the lid had given way, and,
when Viotti appeared in the doorway, one of the boys had disappeared
in the interior, and was shouting and struggling lustily to get out
from his unexpected prison. His brother, alarmed at the catastrophe,
was trying with all his puny strength to rescue the little captive, but
with such success that he overturned the chest entirely, and it fell
with a heavy crash to the ground!

The noise of splintered wood, the dust and mildew of years, which
had accumulated both in the box and its contents, and the cries of
the frightened children--all made a scene of hopeless confusion for
the moment; and as Viotti, half laughing, half angered with the
mischievous urchins, helped them out of their predicament, and began to
examine into the amount of damage they had done, he saw lying amidst
the débris of broken wood, mildewed linen, and quaint ornaments,
which the chest had contained, an old leather pocket-book, the first
glimpse of whose shabby cover and tarnished clasps seemed strangely
familiar. Hastily he seized it and glanced at its contents. Yellow
and seared were the pages and the papers it contained; but the first
look convinced Viotti that his long-lost property was once more in
his possession, restored by one of those strange accidents which men
attribute to chance for want of a better agent. Once convinced of it
being his own, he lost no time in claiming it from its present owners,
and he then ascertained that the wife of the Caprian had found it
years before, when she was quite a child, lying on the beach by the
fisher-boats. She had brought it home and given it to her mother, and,
as neither of them could read, the book was consigned to the old chest,
and there it had lain till now.

Overjoyed at this discovery, Viotti lost no time in communicating it
to Raoul de Verdreuil, and the news had brought him to Naples with all
speed, ready to face his foe and prove her infamy at last.

The proofs of her wrong-doing were now in his possession; at any moment
he could confront her with a weight of evidence sufficient to convince
her of her own powerlessness, and the world of her long deceit. But
still Raoul was not merciless. Some pang of pity for this woman who had
so wronged the dead and the living, still lingered in his heart, and he
had resolved to seek her privately, to tell her of his discoveries, and
point out the one restitution which lay in her power to make.

On the night of her fête Viotti insisted upon seeking her at last,
and Raoul, fearful of his southern passions and his long-restrained
anger, dared not let him go alone. Together they had entered the
villa grounds; together they had watched her reigning in her beauty
and sovereignty, queen of the brilliant festivities of the night, and
then in a moment of ungovernable fury, Viotti had broken from Raoul's
restraining arm, and confronted her in the sudden silence and solitude
of her thoughts, telling all his purpose, proving all her shame,
overthrowing all her triumph by those two words which had brought back
all the infamy of the past--"Blanche Lecroix!"

*  *  *  *  *  *

That night, after his conversation with Viotti, Raoul de Verdreuil
stood, wakeful and silent, by his open window, gazing at the far-off
town as it lay clasped in the shadows of the night.

The heat of the day had passed away with the glow of a burning sunset.

Innumerable stars glittered in the sky, and the whole width of the
shining waters was touched and lightened by the gleam of moonlight. The
soft wind swept lightly over his brow, and its touch seemed to him as a
caress of tenderness from some gentle hand. He was happier now than he
had been for years; happy at the thought of his recovered home and his
speedy return to it; happy because once more he could go back in honour
to the land he had never forgotten--to the old familiar places he had
never loved so well as when he deemed them lost.

How often he had mourned, and thought, and craved for his lost
heritage. How often his memory had gone to it, waking or sleeping;
how often in dreams had he trodden the beautiful shadowy aisles of
its avenues and woodlands, and felt the sweep of fragrant winds from
the leafy depths of its far-off forests! And now--now the dreams were
dreams no longer; now it was all his own again; and his heart yearned
for it, and his eyes longed for it, as never before had they yearned
and longed in all his wanderings and absence.

He had regained his birthright; it was his own from this day forward,
and he bowed his head in reverent homage to the Power that had
restored, and the mighty Will that had restrained his own rash hands
from polluting his recovered treasure by the baseness of a cruel
vengeance such as he had once determined upon taking. That night Raoul
de Verdreuil slept in peace and dreamed himself more blessed than he
deserved. With the morrow he would awake to the pain and the grief
of a new discovery, more fatal to his happiness than any he had yet
experienced.

It did not dawn upon him in his new-born peace; it did not shadow his
tranquil slumbers. He slept and dreamt of joy and happiness in the
future before him--of all things fair and calm and gentle.

Ah! it were well if from some dreams men never wakened!




CHAPTER VI.--LOST!


"Life! what is life? A shadow!
Its breath is but the immediate breath we draw.
Ten thousand accidents for us in ambush lie!"
.... Henry Jones.


IT was the morning after the funeral at the Villa d'Alfieri. Raoul's
time was incessantly occupied; there were still many things to be
arranged. The retinue of servants had to be paid and dismissed; the
villa given up to the agent who had let it to the countess: the
magnificent jewels belonging to her--most of which were hereditary,
though many had been gifts of his father--Raoul had determined on
taking back with him to Renonçeux. There was no other claimant for
them, even supposing that Blanche had held any legal right to their
possession; so Raoul ordered them to be carefully packed with his own
things, and gave them to the care of his personal attendant, who was to
accompany him back to Renonçeux. Everything else--the costly wardrobe,
the magnificent dresses, the thousand feminine trifles belonging to
the ill-fated woman--he ordered to be sold, and gave over the proceeds
to her own maid. Then, with a sigh of relief, he felt he had done
all that was necessary, and, deeming himself free from all further
responsibility, he ordered the preparations for his departure to be
hastened, as he wished, if possible, to leave Naples that night.

It was just noon. Viotti had gone down to the town on business, and
Raoul was alone. He wandered through the deserted and dismantled rooms
of the villa one after another, thinking still of that strange and
sudden termination to the life of its owner, which had made such an
impression on him. He came to her own boudoir at last--the dainty,
luxurious chamber where her last moments had been spent, and the awful
agony of her newly-discovered danger had tortured her to madness. There
he paused and glanced sadly around. With a strange unwonted interest he
noted the thousand luxuries of art and wealth and beauty--the dainty
hangings of lace and azure silk, the Dresden-framed mirrors, the costly
sculptures, the inlaid tables, with their graceful trifles of ormolu,
and malachite, and ivory, scattered over them. He lingered there with
an interest altogether strange and new; feminine luxuries were of small
account to Raoul de Verdreuil as a rule; and while he lingered, his
attention was attracted by a small ebony casket, curiously and richly
carved, and standing on the dressing-table opposite him. He went over
and took it up in his hand, gazing with some curiosity at its quaint
and peculiar workmanship. It was locked, but all the keys of the
countess were in his possession, and, prompted by a vague feeling of
curiosity and interest, he sat down and began to try them, one after
the other, in the lock of the casket.

For a long time he was unsuccessful in finding the one that opened it;
but at last he did succeed, and, with a faint smile at his own unusual
curiosity, he saw the key turn, the lid fly back, and before him lay a
packet of papers, sealed and addressed to--himself.

With an exclamation of wonder he drew them out, and saw, to his
surprise, the handwriting of Blanche de Verdreuil.

"Strange," he murmured, turning over the packet again and again; "after
searching cabinets and desks and escritoires so long, I at last come
upon this--written on the night of her death too! What can it be?"

He broke the seal; a letter fell out first. It was addressed to him. He
laid the rest of the papers down and began to read it.

As he read, the letters seemed to dance and flame before his eyes. The
mockery of all his hopes, the failure of all his dreams, spoke out to
him in those few brief lines. Every drop of blood slowly left his face
and lips, and the letter fell from his hands and rustled on the floor
at his feet.

Then he turned and seized the folded packet which lay beside him.
Slowly and steadily he read its contents, his face growing paler, his
brow sterner, as one sheet after another was perused and finished.

He laid them down at last and staggered to his feet like a man in a
dream. He paced the room with swift, uneven steps--his breath coming
and going as though with some inward struggle--some fierce effort at
self-command.

The unexpected blow--the blow aimed by Blanche de Verdreuil's last
act--had fallen on him with crushing force. He could scarcely realise,
scarcely believe in the truth of what her letter contained. The
knowledge of loss to be sustained--of wrong unwittingly dealt by
him--came home to his heart new-weighted by a sudden fear he scarcely
dared to name to himself.

He sat there alone through the burning hours of the summer noon--alone,
save for the consciousness of a terrible misery that crept over his
senses, that robbed him of calmness and of peace. In that moment Raoul
de Verdreuil could have thrown himself down and wept like a woman for
the hopes that were lost--for the glory that was dead!




BOOK VII.




CHAPTER I.--A HARD DUTY.


"I only gain to lose,
And lose to gain."


RENONÇEUX once more!

The setting sun was shedding all its glory on the grey majestic pile,
and reddening the painted oriels, and the stately beauty of the château
had never seemed so beautiful to Raoul de Verdreuil as now, when,
through the bold curve of the park and the winding avenue of trees in
the full splendour of their summer foliage, his carriage swept swiftly
on and up the familiar drive, to pause at the entrance of his home,
after years of absence.

He had been a wanderer half his life--partly from circumstances,
partly from love of change; but he had ever loved Renonçeux above all
other places with a great and enduring love, and a certain pride in
its great hereditary possessions, not for their worth or splendour so
much as their ancestral dignity, their stainless repute, their antique
grandeur, stretching back to past centuries, and glorious with past
greatness. He leaned forward as the carriage drove swiftly through the
arching aisles, and gazed eagerly, yet sadly, at the noble pile before
him, all gold and flame-hued where the sun-rays rested, all dark with
clustered ivy where the shadows slept.

A few minutes and the young count sprang from the carriage steps,
and entered the beautiful vaulted hall, where the dim splendour of
the fading day shone through the purple and crimson hues of the many
windows, figuring the marble floor with rich and varied colouring.
Through lines of servants, bowing and smiling their glad yet
respectful welcome, Raoul passed on to the rooms beyond. He was weary
with travel--and something more than physical weariness and bodily
fatigue shadowed the grave repose of his face, and gave that subdued
and sorrowful expression to the eyes which rested so tenderly and
regretfully on all around him.

There were none to welcome him save the servitors of his household;
neither friend nor relation to give him greeting on this, his strange
and unexpected arrival; and the irrepressible sadness and melancholy of
his face deepened as his loneliness made itself so plainly felt.

"A strange home-coming!" he said to himself; "and yet not more strange
than it should be--to a home that is mine no longer!"

Then he turned and gave a few rapid orders to the house-steward, and
went to his own room, where dinner was served soon after.

The young count looked strangely sad and weary as he sat in his lonely
splendour, while the sunset warmth of the closing day stole through the
open windows, and the fragrant breath of the late roses swept by on the
evening breeze.

The servants who waited on him noted and wondered at his strange
abstraction, the weary gravity of his face, the almost stern resolve
written on every line of his brow. They wondered still more when,
at the conclusion of the meal, he gave orders that the whole of his
household and tenantry were to assemble in the great hall by nine
o'clock; he wished to speak to them there.

Many wondered what this strange summons meant, as they bore it from
one to the other of the tenantry of Renonçeux. Far and wide the news
spread that their young lord had returned to his own possessions--that
his heritage had been restored to him again--and, while curiosity and
interest were rife as to his sudden return, and his unexpected orders,
the young count himself sat in sad and earnest thought, awaiting their
arrival.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It was night at Renonçeux. The great hall was crowded with a respectful
and wondering assembly, all eager to know for what reason this summons
had been issued--why their lord had desired their presence.

As the hour of nine struck, Raoul de Verdreuil left his solitary room
and came there to meet them; a faint, low murmur of welcome greeted
him. Of all that concourse, there was not one man or woman who did not
in their hearts rejoice that the old name and the old heritage were
again in the keeping of the last of that honoured race, whose strange
and unaccountable banishment had so long perplexed and grieved them.

Their young lord had returned to his own, and gladly and warmly they
welcomed him.

But Raoul, as he stood before them in the full blaze and colour of the
lighted hall, did not look like a man in possession of a restored and
noble heritage. The grave, saddened face wore no triumph, nor even
gladness. He looked like a man borne down by adverse fate, and troubled
with many perplexities, not as they had thought he would look--glad,
content, triumphant. He bowed to them with the grave and courteous
grace so entirely his own, and then, in the hushed and perfect
stillness around, his voice sounded--tranquil, passionless, distinct.

"I have sent for you here because I have a duty to perform which it
is incumbent on me to fulfil without delay. I stand before you here
to-night in order to disabuse your minds of the idea you have naturally
formed. You think I am your lord, that Renonçeux is mine, even as it
was my father's; that you owe me allegiance, duty, service--do you not?"

A faint murmur of assent ran through the crowd.

"It is a very natural mistake," he resumed, still speaking in the same
unmoved, tranquil voice--"a mistake which I myself believed in till a
few days ago. Well, then, I have come to tell you that I am not the
lord of Renonçeux! I have, in fact, no more right or claim to the
château and estates than any of you!"

He paused again, looking round at the amazed and startled faces with a
grave, sad regret. Then he resumed his explanation,--

"A sad mistake has originated--a mistake which you will regret as
much as I do, when you hear of it--a mistake which my hands must
rectify without delay. There are some among you, doubtless, who
remember my father's elder brother, Count Maurice de Verdreuil. To
me, of course, his name is only a name. I have no memory of him. My
father has often told me the story of his banishment, because of his
political difference with the Government, and his exertions on behalf
of the Bourbon family. His exile was to last for ten years, and he
left France in bitterness of spirit at what he termed the injustice
and ingratitude of his country. While in Italy he contracted a secret
marriage, which no one ever suspected or heard of. His wife died in
giving birth to a child--a daughter; and my uncle about the same time
heard of his own father's sudden death here at Renonçeux, and that,
on the term of his banishment being concluded, he became the owner of
the estates and château, as the eldest son. Now comes a portion of the
story which I can only fill up from conjecture. My uncle made a will,
leaving all his possessions to his daughter--then, of course, a mere
infant. He had full power to do this, Renonçeux not being entailed,
but always descending to heirs direct, both male and female. However,
he remembered his brother was also married, and had a son--myself. It
occurred to him that he would like to see him, and for this purpose he
wrote to my father and requested him to come over to Italy, as he was
still serving out the term of his banishment, and unable to return to
France. He appointed a place for this meeting, and, leaving his child
at Bologna with her nurse, he set out on his journey.

"That meeting never took place. While waiting for my father's arrival,
he met his death by drowning, during a sudden squall that overtook him
while boating on the lake of Como. My father arrived only in time to
hear of his death and identify him as his brother. The secret of his
marriage never transpired. The nurse in whose care the child was left
only knew him by his assumed name, for, from the moment he left France,
he dropped his rank and title, and called himself only Monsieur St.
Maurice. The faithful servant was the sole protector of the child's
infant years; she deemed her father had deserted her. She had no proofs
of the marriage, they having been in Monsieur St. Maurice's possession,
and he placed them with the will he had made in the secret drawer of
an old-fashioned desk belonging to his wife. This desk and a ring
belonging to her mother were the sole inheritance of the orphan child,
and as such were carefully kept and guarded for her by her nurse, Manon
Beauvoir!"

"Manon Beauvoir!" fell from the lips of the astonished listeners.

"Yes!" said Raoul quietly. "No doubt you are astonished; you can trace
out the rest of the story easily enough now. The rightful heiress of
Renonçeux is the adopted child of the faithful old woman who lived for
so long in this very place, totally ignorant of her nursling's history
and her rights. The ward of the Countess de Verdreuil, who lived at
Renonçeux after Manon Beauvoir's death--the young and beautiful girl
whom we all know as Mademoiselle St. Maurice--I can now prove to be the
heiress of Renonçeux, the daughter of my uncle, Count Maurice--your
châtelaine henceforward--Vivienne de Verdreuil!"

A total silence followed these words; unqualified amazement was the
only feeling prevailing over the astonished listeners. They looked at
the calm, noble face of the man before them--he who was no longer lord
of Renonçeux by right of this strange discovery, and yet whom they
loved and reverenced so dearly--whom they would have received so gladly
in his father's place.

Then one from among the circle of the tenantry stepped forward with a
low bow.

"My lord," he said, "that this is true we can scarcely doubt, since we
have your word for it. But it goes hard with us to see you banished
again, even though the cause is a just one now. We had hoped to have
you among us henceforward."

Raoul smiled a little sadly.

"You cannot have hoped it more fondly than I did," he answered, "but
justice ordains it otherwise. Your new mistress will be all you can
desire--of that I feel certain--and I am thankful it is in my power to
make amends for the wrong we have unwittingly done her all these years.
I have a few words more to say ere I dismiss you. I cannot ascertain
how or why Mademoiselle de Verdreuil left Renonçeux so abruptly after
the death of my father. The housekeeper told me a strange tale which
the countess appears to have invented as the ostensible reason for her
ward's flight from here. I cannot and do not believe that the young
lady would have done anything dishonourable, nor do I credit this story
of an elopement, of which I only heard a few hours ago. However, her
unaccountable disappearance has complicated matters considerably, for I
have now to find out where she has fled and for what reason."

Then he paused, while the blood rushed in a hot flush over his
features, till then so grave and impassive.

"If wrong has been done, it remains for me to discover and right it. I
have no more to say--save that I ask of your love all the loyalty and
respect for your new mistress which my race have ever received--all the
generous fealty you would have rendered me had I come to reign here in
honour once again."

A low murmur ran throughout the listening crowd.

Raoul smiled tenderly at the sorrowful, perplexed faces on which he
might never look again.

"My friends," he answered them, "what is right is seldom pleasant;
Justice is a stern taskmaster; but your love and your fidelity are very
precious to me, and I shall never forget you--be sure of that; and
now--farewell!"

They crowded round him--tearful, sorrowful--pained at those words which
seemed to speak an eternal parting. And then with a few kindly words
to each, a warm hand-clasp to all, Raoul de Verdreuil dismissed them,
and stood alone in the great vaulted hall, listening to the echo of
their footsteps, the murmur of their voices, as they died away in the
distance.

He had done his duty, he had avenged injustice, he had obeyed the
wishes of the dead, so soon as ever those wishes were known to him. He
had laid down all rights, all claims for ever, but now he felt for the
first time the sharp pang of regret smite him as he looked around on
all he must leave for ever--the birthright which was no birthright--the
heritage which was no heritage--the name hallowed by every memory of
childhood, endeared by the pride and lofty honour of a past ancestry,
which yet never had been his home by right. All must be given up!

A hard duty lay before him, yet he must not shrink from it. On the
morrow the search for the lost heiress must commence. He had only heard
from the housekeeper that night of Vivienne's flight from Renonçeux,
and the Countess de Verdreuil's declaration that she had eloped. But
Raoul treated this idea with scorn. That proud, pure-minded girl, in
whose veins ran the blood of his race, would never have stooped to an
action mean or dishonourable--of that he felt assured. He knew now why
Blanche had hated and feared her.

These proofs were in her possession, and Raoul naturally supposed that
the whole facts of Vivienne's birth had been known to her and concealed
by her since she first took the girl under her protection. She had
added but another to her long list of sins; she had wronged--cruelly
wronged--the orphan girl to whom she had promised protection, and
sent her forth from the shelter of her roof to find friends or not as
chance favoured her. Raoul's indignation knew no bounds when he thought
of this, when he pictured the beautiful, friendless girl who was the
heiress to this enormous wealth, thrown on the world to battle with its
trials and temptations unaided and alone.

When he stood and looked his last--as he deemed--on the magnificence
and beauty around him, he felt a torrent of passion and wrath surging
in his veins at the thought of the ignominy and dishonour forced by
this false, perjured woman who had borne his father's name, and reigned
here as his father's wife, on the young orphan to whom those rights
belonged.

Then he left the hall and went out into the night, his sad memories
burdening him with the pain that never left him now--went out in his
loneliness and grief to take farewell of all he had deemed his own from
his childhood. All he had lost--first by a woman's treachery--then by a
woman's birthright!




CHAPTER II.--THE MYSTERY DEEPENS.


"To err is human,
To forgive divine!"
.... Pope.


WITH the earliest dawn of the following day Raoul de Verdreuil was
speeding by express train to Paris. There was much to be done relative
to the estates of Renonçeux--the proving of this newly-discovered will,
and the tracing of the present whereabouts of the young heiress.

On his arrival in Paris, Raoul went immediately to his father's
adviser and man of business, and laid before him the whole facts of
this strange history, and the proofs which had lain so long concealed
and unsuspected in the little worn, shabby-looking desk which Manon
Beauvoir had placed in the keeping of Blanche. The lawyer did not seem
in any way pleased at this unexpected discovery.

"In the first place," he said, "the exiled son had not dealt fairly
by concealing his marriage from his family. In the next, although he
had full power to will the estate in any way he pleased, he thought
he should not have left it wholly and unreservedly to his daughter.
There had been cases, of course, where female heirs had been appointed
to the château and estates of Renonçeux, but these were very rare. As
Count Maurice de Verdreuil knew his brother had a son," the avocat
went on to say, "he should have merely portioned his daughter and let
the estate go to his brother. The property in Paris alone amounted
to a handsome fortune, and by this will everything went to the sole
possession and control of a young girl, while the count himself had
nothing but the title."

Here, however, Raoul interrupted his lamentations by telling him
decidedly that they were not to the point. His uncle had chosen to
leave everything to his daughter, with the sole condition that if, at
his death, she was unmarried, she should live at Renonçeux with her
uncle until she reached the age of twenty-one, when the whole property
became her own. He wished, however, that his brother should live at
the château, and have the guardianship of the young heiress until
she married, when her husband was to assume the title and name of de
Verdreuil. If she had no children, the property was to revert to the
son of his brother, Raoul. If she had, then, in like manner, it was to
descend to them.

These facts being plainly stated, and his father's death having, of
course, done away with the question of guardianship, Vivienne became
possessor of everything, subject to no control.

"Now," continued Raoul, "the strange part of the story is that my
cousin should actually have been living with us so long, yet we were
all in total ignorance of her relationship."

"But why did she run away?" questioned the lawyer, looking shrewdly at
Raoul through his spectacles.

"That I cannot tell you," said the young man gravely. "I have reason
to suspect that the late countess (how hard it was to give her that
title!) did not treat her as kindly as she might have done. From what
I can ascertain at the château, I find that a serious quarrel arose
between them, and the young lady left Renonçeux secretly in consequence
of this disagreement. What has become of her, and how or where she
is living, is at present a complete mystery. It is for that I have
come to bid you, without delay, do all in your power to find her--but
secretly, of course--it will not do for the world to breathe any
scandal concerning the young countess; and I wish all inquiries made as
quietly and privately as possible."

"That, of course, shall be done," said the avocat gravely, "although
I think it will be rather difficult to trace the mysterious young lady.
Have you a picture of her, or can you furnish me with a description?"

"I have no picture of her," said Raoul de Verdreuil; "of course I can
give you a description, but I thought you had seen her at Renonçeux
during my father's lifetime."

"No; I never had that pleasure. The will your father made was drawn up
by a strange firm, the head of whom, as you doubtless remember, was
a friend of the Countess de Verdreuil. You would not take my advice
and contest that will, and I suppose now you will not listen to me
if I tell you that this will does not legally prove the young lady,
Mademoiselle St. Maurice, to be in truth the daughter of your uncle.
How do you know the adopted child of Manon Beauvoir is in reality the
child born at Bologna, and the certificate of whose birth is certainly
not among these papers?"

"How averse legal minds are to take anything on faith!" said Raoul
smiling. "Have I not told you that the letter which the Countess de
Verdreuil wrote to me the night of her death contains the story of
Manon Beauvoir's mistress--Vivenne's mother? Are not these old letters
addressed to 'Madame St. Maurice' in my uncle's writing, and written by
him to his wife, Vivienne? True, the countess says that the old nurse
doubted the existence of a marriage, but this certificate proves it
beyond dispute; then, too, he married under his own name, Maurice de
Verdreuil, though he always called himself St. Maurice after he left
France; therefore the marriage is legal on all points."

"Yes, yes, but why is there no certificate of the child's birth? How
are we to prove that the daughter mentioned in his will is the young
lady you suppose?--that is the question!" said the avocat.

"She was born at Bologna; my uncle, in writing to my father to meet
him, dates that letter from Bologna. Manon Beauvoir states that her
master left the child in her care, and from that time was never heard
of again. She is ignorant that he was drowned accidentally ere my
father arrived at Como. This ring is one with the seal and motto of
our family, and was in the possession of Vivienne's mother; it must,
therefore, have been given her by her husband. Surely this is enough to
identify her with the child mentioned by my uncle."

The lawyer shook his head.

"Not enough if you choose to dispute it," he said. "Facts are
stubborn things, and in law we deal with facts only; conjectures and
suppositions go for nothing. However, it may be easier to prove the
runaway ward of the late countess, the heiress of Renonçeux, since
you have made up your mind she is so, than to prove she is not.
Belief goes a long way. I suppose you wish me to set inquiries afoot
immediately. I shall work both sides of the question: first, what has
become of the Mademoiselle St. Maurice who disappeared so suddenly from
the château; then whether this Mademoiselle St. Maurice is really the
daughter of the Count Maurice de Verdreuil. We must send a confidential
agent to Bologna immediately to begin with."

"Make all haste, at any rate," said Raoul eagerly. "I shall feel like
an impostor till she is found, and all this sad injustice under which
she has suffered so long is righted."

"People who have property have no business to contract secret marriages
and adopt feigned names," said the old lawyer impetuously. "I really
have very little sympathy with this young lady. Her father has not
consulted her interest by weaving all these complications around the
matter; and it grieves me to think of this magnificent estate going to
a female heir. I am very sorry it was not entailed; you would have been
safe enough then; as it is----"

"As it is," interrupted Raoul, rising at last to put an end to the
interview, "I have no right to it, and I am not going to pretend that I
have. I leave these papers with you, and I only pray you do your best
to settle these matters with as little delay as possible."

"Merci! monsieur. But it seems to me you are in as great a hurry to
get rid of all this fine property of yours as most men would be to keep
it," said the old lawyer, pushing back his spectacles and surveying the
young count with mingled wrath and perplexity. "Of course I must do as
you bid me, but I do it with little heart. I have always looked upon
you as the heir to Renonçeux. And first I hear that your father makes
everything over to his wife--it is well he did not ask me to draw up
that will for him--then, when she dies, and I once more think you are
to have your rights restored, you come to me with this extraordinary
story of a secret marriage, and a will, and an heiress! It is really
trying, monsieur, I assure you."

"Eh bien, Monsieur Silvain," laughed Raoul, "it cannot be helped
now. You must get over your disappointment as I do. Surely you would
not counsel me to act in any other way, would you?"

"I don't know; I am not going to commit myself, monsieur; but I see you
are impatient to be off. Well au revoir for the present. Do you stay
in Paris, or are you bound for the antipodes again immediately?"

"I am only in Paris for two days," said Raoul. "If you need me, you
know my address--Hôtel Meurice, as usual. Now I must leave you; I have
more business than enough to attend to in the next four-and-twenty
hours."

"You will let me know where to communicate with you?" said Monsieur
Silvain, as he bowed the young count out of his private room.

"Certainly," was the ready answer, "and once more let me impress upon
you these two important facts--speed and secrecy."

"Depend upon me, monsieur," replied the avocat solemnly. Then the
door closed, the interview was over, and Raoul de Verdreuil found
himself once more in the gay and brilliant streets of Paris.

"If I had been an extravagant man," he mused, as he went slowly along,
"this would mean simply ruin. How fortunate that I made up my mind,
long ago, to have no waiting for dead men's shoes, oppressing my life
with idleness and improvidence; now I can really afford to give up my
expected fortune without much inconvenience. It is my home, my heritage
for which I feel regret. How can I bear to look upon it again? How can
I ever set foot in it, knowing she is the mistress of it all? loving
her so madly as I do. Oh, child! child! if I could forget you! Have I
lived all these years only to find out at last that the will of a man
counts for nothing when once he has set his heart upon a woman's love?
I--who thought myself so strong!"

Is it not always those who deem themselves most strong who prove the
weakest in a conflict such as this--the conflict between the love that
craves and the love that is denied. And Raoul knew well that, often as
he had tried to deceive himself, often as he had proclaimed his love
conquered, it was so far from being really forgotten that its memory
never left him; it could torture, and pain, and deceive him still.

He called it folly, madness, but all the same he could neither forget
nor banish it. He knew that his life could never bring him such joy
again as this child, with her innocent face and dreaming eyes, and low,
sweet melody of voice had brought him for that brief summer-time of joy
which had passed so soon, which had left him so desolate. To dwell
upon her memory was at once sweetest joy and saddest pain; the more he
thought of her, the more he marvelled whither she had fled.

Was it to Albert--her lover?

Nay, that was hardly possible. He would never have kept such a thing a
secret from his friend, and yet to whom else would she be likely to go?

Perhaps in her proud independence she had determined to seek no aid,
to tell no one of her flight. Perhaps Albert himself never guessed
it. Then with this thought he shuddered afresh at the danger of such
an unprotected life for one so young, so fair, so guileless. No, she
could not have acted without some counsellor or adviser, and who would
be so likely to supply that place as Albert--her earliest champion,
her faithful friend, her devoted lover. The only thing for which Raoul
could not account was, why Albert had never mentioned her name in
any of his letters. If Vivienne had fled to him in her trouble and
distress, and he had married her, what was the reason of his keeping it
a secret?

Indeed, the more Raoul thought of the whole matter, the more perplexed
he grew. There was a mystery about it which only time and patience
could unravel, and with a determination to do his utmost to discover
it, he at last entered his hotel and sat down to consider the best plan
for action.

That night Viotti was to arrive. These new complications Raoul had, of
course, confided to him, and the quick perception and subtle instinct
of the Italian gave him a deeper insight into the state of Raoul's
feelings than he was aware of. Viotti saw that his benefactor loved
this girl who, by a strange and untoward chain of circumstances, became
now the mistress and owner of what he had deemed his own home. When
Raoul had departed so hastily to Renonçeux, he left Viotti behind at
Naples to wind up the few remaining affairs of Blanche de Verdreuil,
and bade him join him in Paris as speedily as possible.

The Italian, on being left alone, immediately set himself to work to
think out the matter for himself, and first of all he came to the
conclusion that if Vivienne St. Maurice had fled from her guardian,
as Blanche confessed she had done, in that letter, written to Raoul
the night of her death, she had told no one, and confided to no one
the secret of her flight, or her reasons for leaving the château. He
had asked Raoul to give him that letter in which Blanche stated that
"she had quarrelled with her ward; that after her departure she had
discovered accidentally the papers in the secret drawer of her desk,
and she left these to Raoul as a legacy, with the hope that he could
make use of them." In another paper he would find Manon Beauvoir's
story as she had related it on her death-bed to the Countess de
Verdreuil. Now this letter gave Viotti much food for speculation, and
from it he drew the following conclusions:--

First, Blanche hated this girl with such bitter hatred that she
must have had some stronger cause for it than mere suspicion of her
relationship to the de Verdreuils. As the discovery of her birth had
only taken place after Vivienne's flight, she must have had some
other reason for her dislike to the girl. Now what was that reason?

Viotti thought over this carefully "Women never hate each other so
much," he considered, "as from jealousy. Now was Blanche jealous of
Vivienne's beauty, or had Vivienne robbed her of a conquest on which
she had set her mind; one or other such reason must lie at the root of
her jealousy--the question was which?" He pondered over this for some
time; finally, he concluded the young lady must have had some more
serious reason than a mere disagreement, for running away from the only
home she had in the world. As she had run away, however, the most
important point was to discover where.

Letting the reasons alone for the moment, Viotti began to consider
this question: Had she loved Raoul de Verdreuil's friend, the young
musician? If so, and she had become his wife, Viotti began to think
it very strange that no word of such a marriage had reached the young
count. Again, if she had no lover, if she had fled for the sole reason
of this disagreement between Blanche and herself, what was the most
natural life for her to seek when she had only herself to depend on?

A new idea struck him as he debated this view of the subject. Her
voice; that was a fortune in itself. Had not Raoul de Verdreuil spoken
again and again of its marvellous beauty? Of course her voice would
naturally be the only thing on which she could depend. Now he began
to see his way more clearly. They must first find out whether any new
singer of any fame had arisen within the last two years, and if so, who
she was? The name, of course, would be no clue. Vivienne St. Maurice
would be sure to adopt another name if she went on the stage. But
patience and perseverance would clear up the difficulty at last. Of
that Viotti felt assured, and he resolved to tell Raoul de Verdreuil,
when he met him in Paris, of his conjectures respecting Vivienne's
present life, and see whether he coincided with his views on the matter.

"One of two things it must be," said the Italian to himself, at the
end of a long and serious consideration of all the events he had heard
of, "the girl has fled to the protection of a lover, or else she
has resolved to make her own way in the world, and for that reason
would naturally utilize the great gift she possesses. Will it be very
difficult to trace her, I wonder?"

So his thoughts ran on during the intervening space of time between
Raoul's departure for Renonçeux and the day when he was to meet him in
Paris; and by the time he left Naples Carlo Viotti had become convinced
that he was right in supposing Vivienne St. Maurice to have resolved
upon a life of independence for herself.

Blanche had treated the girl cruelly, of that he had no doubt; and
since he had discovered that Raoul loved her, a new light entirely was
thrown upon the subject. Blanche had not rested content with the wrong
she had done to Raoul; she had also visited upon the young, friendless
girl he loved, her cruel and malicious spite. The more Viotti thought
of it the more convinced he became that jealousy was at the bottom of
all this mystery connected with the lost heiress.

Whether she loved Raoul or not, it was impossible to say yet; but
the Italian shrewdly suspected she was not indifferent to the young
count. This supposition furnished him with a substantial reason for
her conduct. If Blanche had sown dissension and coldness between them,
the girl was more likely to flee from Renonçeux and hide herself and
her sorrows under a new life and an assumed name. Some serious cause
for this flight and sudden disappearance there must be, and what more
probable cause than that? None.

Viotti argued this out, and then feeling assured he was not far from
the truth, he set out on his journey to France with a lighter heart
than he had carried for a long time. The agony and vengeance of his
soul had been laid down for ever by the grave of the woman who had
betrayed him. True, he had hated her with a fierce, unsparing hatred;
he had resolved to give her to shame and reproach and the just
punishment of her life-long guilt; but when he had sought her presence,
armed with that resolve, actuated by those fierce passions, he had
found that she would receive her punishment from a mightier judge: and
his anger died out for ever.

The hour that had brought him this knowledge brought him the teaching
of a power that he had never yet acknowledged. He had armed himself
to crush and destroy her; he had longed to avenge his own wrongs upon
her--to tear away the veil from her secret sins, and reward her evil
for evil, with the sternness of the Mosaic law itself; and he found
that his own will was nothing, that a man's purpose set against God's
power is a thing as fragile as a child's soap-bubble, which the first
faint breeze of the outer air can destroy.

And when he looked his last on the fair spot which contained all that
remained of the once beautiful and victorious Countess of Renonçeux,
when he stood by her grave in the red glow of the sunset the evening
before he left Naples, he bent his head reverently there, and something
like a prayer escaped his lips as he murmured sadly, "I forgive--at
last."

But the forgiveness could not reach her now, and the prayer could not
alter the sentence passed upon her, and all his pity was powerless to
bridge the gulf which separates the living from the dead; for alas!
like most acts of human remorse--like most atonements in human lives,
they only came--too late!




CHAPTER III.--DEPTHS OF PAIN.


"The labour we delight in physics pain."
.... Shakspeare.


OUT of the depths of calamity men gather the heroism of their future.
Great powers often lie dormant in a human soul, until the bracing air
of adversity sweeps suddenly over it; then it awakes from its lethargy.
The innate strength so long untried, the powers of mind and brain, so
long lulled to indolence and rest, arise from their slumbers, and the
man who in prosperity might have wasted his life as an idle dreamer,
becomes, by force of calamity and hardship, great with the truest,
noblest greatness that the world immortalizes, or fame rewards.

Yet--if we only knew it--there is more true courage needed to accept
existence, when the cruel teachings of necessity have robbed it of all
charm, than is ever required to bow down to the touch of death and
resign life, because all that makes life worth living has fled from us.

So Albert Hoffmann often thought as he battled resolutely on with the
hardships which, though they only purified and ennobled his soul, yet
gave the languor of physical weakness, the weariness of bodily fatigue,
the wasting of strength, the exhaustion of suffering to his body.

He had taken up his abode in Florence by Vivienne's wish, and she
it was who cheered and encouraged him to hope for the success that
seemed ever so distant and so hopeless. For though the young singer
had great influence, managers are not always inclined to bring out a
new opera by an unknown composer, at their own personal risk, merely
to please their favourite prima donna, and Vivienne was put off with
promises and pretty speeches from time to time, until she plainly saw
that there was no chance of Albert's opera being brought out till the
spring following. She had not meant to stay in Florence so long, but
for Albert's sake she resolved to make the sacrifice. He never knew
that she had agreed with the director of the opera-house to forfeit
half her salary for the expenses of the undertaking, and never guessed
the strenuous and unfailing exertions she had made solely in his behalf
ere she succeeded in wringing a promise from this same individual that
the opera should be produced without fail, if she would consent to bind
herself down to a fresh agreement with him for the next season.

"With this hope and this end in view Albert struggled on. Poverty was
nearer him now than ever it had been before, but poverty in Italy has a
grace and a poetry of its own. One needs so little there, and even that
little has a picturesque charm around it.

He breathed no word to Vivienne of his difficulties, and she never
suspected them. He lived in one solitary room, in a remote part of the
city, and when he came to see her he never alluded, in any way, to the
daily increasing privations of his life. But they told visibly on his
health, on the delicate, weakly frame, so long accustomed to every care
and luxury wealth could give, and his strength grew less and less,
while still he worked harder and harder to still the passionate pain of
his heart, and the trials of his poverty-stricken life.

Vivienne saw that physical suffering was often his; that physical
weakness oppressed him with a strange langour altogether new to him,
and she gently chided him for working so hard, and tried to persuade
him to lay aside his compositions, and give himself some rest, but he
only smiled at her anxieties, and declared that life was all too short
for art, and he could not afford an idle hour now.

So while the months drifted by, these two remained in Florence, all
unconscious of the search that was being made for them, and the great
discoveries and changes at Renonçeux--ignorant even that Blanche de
Verdreuil was dead, or that Raoul was speeding from place to place,
and advertising in foreign papers and employing all sorts of agents to
trace Vivienne.

One evening Albert came to her, as he often did, for a little rest from
his labours, a little change to the colourless monotony of his life. He
came restless with the fever and the pain of his unsatisfied longings,
but he knew that the sound of her voice and the sight of her fair,
calm face, would be to him as the soothing touch of a cool hand to a
fever-stricken man.

She was alone when he entered, seated before her window and gazing out
at the clear, cold starlit night, with a book lying idly in her lap.
Something in the negligence and dejection of her attitude struck Albert
as unusual, and when she turned her head to welcome him she saw the
soft eyes were dimmed by a mist of tears.

"Ah! it is you," she said, rising as he advanced to greet her. "Why
have you deserted me so long? I thought you were never coming again,
Albert!"

A warm flush rose to the brow of the young artist.

"Have you missed me?" he said eagerly. "Oh, Vivienne, if I thought you
cared to see me half as much as I care to come, you would not say I was
often absent!"

"Of course I have missed you," she answered, speaking lightly to cover
the embarrassment his words occasioned. "You have not been here for a
week at least! what have you done with yourself all the time?"

"I have not been well," he said gently; "I suppose, as you say,
Vivienne, work tells upon us in the long-run; I have been obliged to
lay up for a little, and rest myself at last."

"Oh, Albert, and you never told me," said the girl reproachfully. "How
unkind!"

"Was it?" he said, seating himself wearily by the fire. "Ah, well, I
am all right again now, Vivienne, and I have brought over this mass. I
want you to tell me what you think of it."

"More compositions! Oh, Albert, you will really make yourself ill if
you work so hard," she answered, as she took the score from his hand
and glanced over it. "Well, you must first have some refreshment after
your long walk, and then I will listen, and sing it too, if you wish."

With these words she rang the bell, and gave orders for wine and fruit
to be brought. Then she seated herself opposite Albert, and said
laughingly, "I must receive you sans cérémonie to-night. Madame
Pitteri is not well, and has retired for the night, I believe."

"It is like old times," said Albert, looking at the girl's beautiful
face with the rapt, passionate adoration of his heart shining in his
eyes. "Ah, Vivienne, how happy I was then!"

"Because life was rosy?" she asked smiling. "You were a very useless
dreamer in those days, Albert, if I remember right; you lived as
completely out of the world as though you were in a monastery. You
were a visionary, a poet, shunning all the actual realities of life,
and living in a world where the very thought of pain or suffering was
excluded. Now that you have awakened to its responsibilities, you feel
it doubly hard to battle with them!"

He sighed deeply at her words.

"I suppose I am very useless," he answered. "But oh, Vivienne, what am
I to do? I try my best; I work with all my heart, with all my energy,
and yet you deem me a dreamer and an idler."

"Ah, no, Albert," said Vivienne hastily, "I never meant that for a
moment. No one could do more than you do now. It is hard, I know, to
struggle on against adverse circumstances so long; it seems to me
sometimes that life is nothing after all but one long struggle, that we
must all toil and work and strive, and consume our lives in grinding,
ceaseless labour if we wish to do anything for the world at all--the
world that is so thankless, even for our best gifts!"

"What were you thinking of," he asked her softly, "when I came here
to-night?"

She coloured, and her eyes drooped for a moment; then she answered
gravely,--

"I was thinking how sad it is to be always alone; I have no mother to
love or comfort me. A friendless woman against a friendless world! Is
it not enough to make me sad when I think of it?"

The words had an intense and touching pathos that went to her
listener's heart; Vivienne was usually so brave and hopeful, she never
betrayed by any word that her life was not a life she cared to live,
and now those words revealed to him a deeper loneliness even than his
own. For was she not a woman? and do not women's hearts and women's
natures crave for love as flowers crave for sunshine, as prisoned birds
for the free, sweet summer air? This friendless, beautiful girl, with
her gifts and her grace, and her proud instincts, was yet as desolate
now as any lost, stray fawn that has wandered from its herd, and become
an alien in the sight of all others.

"You feel that now," he said, leaning towards her and speaking
eagerly, though his voice was very low and very earnest. "Ah, Vivienne,
your life need not be a lonely one unless you wish; the world would
give you love and homage enough if you will it."

"You would not counsel me to seek such love as that?" she asked,
raising her head with quiet scorn. "The world and I will have
nothing more to do with each other than we have at present, Albert.
Do you think I do not know what it would say of me if I gave it but
the slightest chance? Where is the worth of any love I might win
there, when with it would come scorn and shame? I have not even such
protection as lies in a stainless name or blameless birthright."

"That you cannot tell," he said gravely; "I do not believe the
Countess de Verdreuil's story, Vivienne. You have nothing but her own
assertion to go upon."

"True, but gran'mère always bid me not count too surely upon my name
being really mine, or my birth being free from some dim wrong, some
vague, mysterious error which lay upon my childhood like a shadow. Why
did my father disappear so strangely? why did he never seek me again?
it would have been a greater kindness had he slain me, ere he left me
such a heritage as shame!"

She spoke passionately, indignantly; all her woman's soul fired and
tortured by the memory of unmerited wrong. Her own guiltless life could
never be free from blame now, it seemed to her; sinless and stainless
as it was, no honourable love would ever be given to her while the ban
of dishonour rested on that life, and covered it with shame--not her
own, but still which she must bear till death.

"Do you feel it so much, dear?" the young artist asked, as he left his
seat and went and knelt beside her in the warm glow of the firelight.
"Oh, Vivienne, if only you could have loved me! if only you could
love me now!"

The words broke from him despite himself, despite all self-control;
despite even the knowledge of his own poverty and weakness, and the
little he had to offer her. He only remembered that she was friendless,
nameless, unprotected, and he loved her.

A sudden rush of tears came to her eyes, and the colour burned hotly
in her face. She bent her head, that graceful, haughty head, with its
diadem of sunny hair, and a slight shiver shook her, as if with the
chill of some memory whose pain was unforgotten still.

"Oh, hush," she said entreatingly. "Do not force me to add to the pain
of your own life now; I thought that old story was a thing so utterly
of the past, I never dreamt you would recur to it again."

"Is it an old story to you?" he asked sadly. "Oh, Vivienne, to me it
is still a thing of yesterday. It can never be past, for it rises
afresh with every sight of your face; it seems a time has never been,
or a time can never be, when I shall cease to forget I love you!"

He spoke so wearily, so hopelessly, that the girl's heart ached for
him. If only she could comfort him--love him she could not, with the
love he gave her, "the love of man and woman when they love their best."

"We are both alone," he went on earnestly; "the world is against me, I
know, and I have little enough to offer you but a heart that has known
no other love save love of you, Vivienne. Oh, my darling! if only that
love could content you, I would ask no other thing of life save to try
and make you happy; at least, no tongue could speak against you, no
breath of scorn approach you then."

"And you would give all and ask nothing, Albert," she said wearily.
"You would waste all this wealth of love on an empty, thankless heart.
Nay, that bargain would be very unfair, it could not content you,
it would never satisfy me; I look upon you as a brother still, dear
Albert: dearer than that you could not be; nearer than that you
cannot."

He rose and stood before her, pale, hopeless, saddened.

"Be honest with me at least, Vivienne," he implored. "If you can never
love me as I wish, is it because you care for some one else? I will
never trouble you again then."

The crimson colour flushed all her face with rosy warmth, then faded
swiftly away, and left it paler than his own.

"You have no right to ask," she said passionately, in the pain and
agony of her wounded pride, "I shall never marry any one although I do
not marry you: let that content you now."

"Forgive me," he said gently, reading in those passionate, impulsive
words the death-knell of all his hopes, knowing that her heart too bore
the pain that throbbed and burned within his own. "I will never ask you
again, Vivienne. I will try and remember love is not for me while I
live in this world of sorrow and regret."

"Oh, Albert," cried the girl remorsefully, as she heard in the
bitterness of those words some of the agony her own heart had learnt
to bear, "I am so sorry to pain you, but what can I do? You are my one
friend now, do not let us recur to this again: try and conquer it as a
man can conquer when he strives his best."

"Do you think I have not tried?" he asked, with a smile so sad that the
tears rushed to her eyes in sudden sympathy. "Do you think I have not
prayed and sought for forgetfulness with every power of my heart. And
then your face crossed me again, your eyes looked up to mine once more,
and the years of absence were as though they had never been, and--I
have my task to learn again, Vivienne."

She was silent.

What could she say to calm that pain she herself had given; to chase
from his heart the agony of its own passionate unrest. "It seems cruel
to give you the same answer again," she said at last; "but I have no
other. My life has its own burdens--my heart its own bitterness: only
I would have done anything to save you more pain than you bear
already."

His face paled, his very lips were white with emotion.

"It may not be for very long," he said, in a voice low and sad, yet
infinitely gentle. "I have thought so of late, often and often. I could
almost pray to end my life soon, I am so weary--you cannot guess how
weary--of the endless struggle it has been of late."

She looked up at him; her eyes full of pity, her face soft, and
shadowed by regret. It seems so hard to suffer when youth is yet fresh,
and life just opening; when the future should be painted in the fair,
glad colours of hope, and instead there looms the shadow of despair
over all the outstretched canvas.

"Forgive me that I seem ungrateful," she said softly; "and Albert, do
not speak so despairingly of life. God did not give you genius for you
to make light of it because the shadows of trouble cross your path, and
the touch of grief lies heavy on your heart. A time will come when,
looking back on all that seems so hard to bear now, you will see it was
ordered for a wise purpose--a noble end."

He did not answer her; he stood silently beside her there, in the dusky
room, battling with the fierce pain of his heart; striving to believe
how hopeless and how vain a thing was this love, which seemed now a
part of his being, so deep-rooted and so fervent was its strength.

Then she broke the silence, and her voice recalled him to himself
again. "Will you not try the organ? it is completed now. Of course, it
is very small, but it answers all my purposes."

"Certainly," he answered. "I had forgotten all about my mass; it is in
the other room, is it not?"

"Yes," she said, rising and leading the way. "Do you not think I have
made my home very comfortable, as well as picturesque, Albert?"

"You have indeed; I should scarcely know it again. I suppose you will
stay here all the winter now?"

"Oh, yes; I am very well content with it, and it is too remote from
the city to be robbed of its charm of seclusion. While I remain in
Florence--which will be until 'Kunigunde' appears--I shall not
change my residence."

They had reached what Vivienne called her "music-room" by this time,
and Albert went up to the small organ, just placed there, and sat
down to try it. The instrument was an insignificant one after the
magnificent organ at Renonçeux, but it answered ordinary purposes well
enough, and Vivienne had brought him thither as a distraction to the
gloom and sadness of his thoughts. She guessed rightly that music would
soothe him better than anything else, and she placed his mass on the
desk before him, and stood by to listen to it with an attention and
interest too genuine not to please the composer.

Whatever Albert might seem to lack in point of strength and firmness,
and manly fortitude, in his art he was a master and a king, by the
grandeur and force of an inspiration born of the purest, loftiest
genius that ever filled a human soul. She knew it, and as she listened
to him, and the grand, rich harmonies of the cathedral hymn he played
rose and fell in sonorous, rhythmical measure on her ear, she wondered
how a power so great, and a mind so noble, could yet not force the
world to listen and believe in it.

"It is indeed beautiful," she said, with a deep-drawn sigh, as the
music ceased at last. "Oh, Albert, how can you write such music and yet
despair of fame?"

"That is what Bertha used to say," he answered, with a faint smile;
"poor little thing; her prophecies have not come true yet."

"But they will," said Vivienne eagerly; "I feel sure of it. You know,
Albert, it is only to obtain the first hearing that is so difficult;
once that is done you will have little to fear. When your opera
is performed in the spring you will have no lack of success and
encouragement, I know. Are you going?" she added, as he left the organ
and gathered up his MSS., preparatory to bidding her farewell.

"Yes, it is late, and I must not take too much advantage of madame's
indisposition," he said, with a faint smile. "I will come up again
soon, and hope to hear you sing my 'Agnus Dei' for me. It will just
suit your voice, I think."

She did not answer, but led the way back to the other room, and stood
silently beside him in the firelight, as he put on his overcoat, his
only protection against the chill air of the winter night.

Then he took her hands in his own, and looked sadly down at the sweet
face, which looked strangely pale and weary now.

"Farewell," he said softly; "I will not vex you again with my foolish
hopes, I will try and believe that disappointments are best for me,
hard as they are to bear."

Then he left her, and she stood for long after he had gone, with her
face bent on her hands, and her heart filled with bitter and regretful
memories.

"Two lives shadowed by the same pain!" she murmured to herself. "O God,
why is the world so full of sorrow? Why is love so vainly given, so ill
bestowed?"

Others--as young, as fair, as perplexed as the beautiful, lonely girl
who had accepted the desolation of her life for the sake of the higher
gifts within it--have asked this question with the same wonder, the
same despair.

Others--like her--have had to wait and to wonder through long years of
bitterness and pain, for an answer still untold.




CHAPTER IV.--KING OF HIMSELF.


"When I arose and saw the dawn,
I sigh'd for thee;
When light rode high and the dew was gone,
I sigh'd for thee;
When noon lay heavy on flower and tree,
And the weary day turn'd to his rest,
Lingering like an unloved guest,
I sigh'd for thee!"
.... Shelley.


ALBERT left the lonely villa on the Florentine hills with a heavy heart
that night. He had not meant to betray his secret--to tell Vivienne of
the long unconquered love, which had again sprung up to warm, vivid,
passionate life at her presence, and he had betrayed it by that sudden
impulse to comfort her in her loneliness which had arisen with her
words.

"What a wasted life mine is!" he thought, as he went on through the
lighted streets. "I have no love, no fame, nothing to cheer me in my
solitude, or inspire me with hope for the future. All those lofty,
impossible dreams which filled my boyhood, are slowly vanishing before
the realities of life as it is now. I begin to think, with Jean Paul,
that music is the saddest of all sad things, 'because it speaks to us
of that which in all our life we find not, and never shall find.' Yes!
even my art is pain to me now. All I achieve is so far below what I
wish to achieve--a 'striving towards the light,' which only seems to
recede farther from me with every effort I make."

His head was bent in thought, and his eyes rested on the pavement
at his feet. In his abstraction he suddenly came in contact with a
stranger advancing from the opposite end of the street, and ere he was
aware of it knocked somewhat rudely against him.

Recovering from the shock, he began a hasty apology for his negligence,
but his words were cut short by an exclamation of amazement and
incredulity, and looking up he saw the tall, powerful figure, and the
dark, familiar face of Raoul de Verdreuil.

"Albert--by all that's wonderful!"

"Raoul! is it really you?"

Then they stood with clasped hands and eager eyes, and all the glad,
unspoken welcome of their hearts shining out in each face, despite the
astonishment of their sudden and unexpected meeting.

"Why, Albert, whatever are you doing in Florence?" exclaimed Raoul de
Verdreuil, as soon as he could find words to greet his friend. "Here
have I been hunting for you far and wide, and at last stumble upon you
in this prosaic manner. Where on earth have you been hiding yourself
all this time?"

"Have you not had my letters?" asked his friend. "I wrote to you when
I left Germany, and again from Milan; then from Florence, where I have
been for the last six months. I have been puzzling myself to account
for your long silence. I could not understand it; and now, what wind of
chance has blown you here, Raoul?"

"It would take the whole night to tell you," said Raoul de Verdreuil;
"so many things have happened since we last met. Come to my hotel. I
only arrived an hour ago, and was strolling through the streets to
pass the time away more than anything else. And then, to think of
meeting you like this! What extraordinary things do happen in this
world sometimes! But here, I am keeping you standing in the cold; how
thoughtless of me!"

He turned as he spoke and drew Albert's arm within his own, just with
the old, familiar ease of their boyish days; and it seemed to Albert
as if the intervening time had been but a dream, and once more he was
awaking to find himself by Raoul's side in the old, remembered woods of
Renonçeux.

"And now, mon cher," said his friend eagerly, as they walked on
together in the direction of his hotel, "tell me how has the world been
using you? What made you leave Germany? I thought that was the land par
excellence for your art to shine in all its glory. And now, when I
begin to look at you, I see you are sadly changed. How thin and worn
you look, dear friend! Have you been ill?"

"Yes; but nothing to speak of. I knocked myself up with too much work,
and for the last month have been on the sick list; but I feel quite
strong again now, Raoul."

"You look it, I must say," said his friend drily. "A breath of wind
would blow you away, I should fancy. So much for having no one to
look after you, Albert. I see I shall have to constitute myself your
guardian once more."

Albert smiled. It was pleasant to see the kind, familiar face of his
early friend again--pleasant to feel the strong, protecting influence
of his presence, and hear the kindly tones of his voice--so pleasant
that he wondered he had not missed him more during these long, dreary
months of absence.

"I have been fighting the battle of life single-handed," he said
lightly, "and somehow or other, Raoul, it has dawned upon me that I am
rather worsted in the fray. I never was good for very much, you know,
and Fame has been playing a Will-o'-the-wisp game with me that has
rather tired my patience and my strength."

"I wish I had known it. How selfish you must have thought me all this
time, Albert!" said Raoul, with such keen self-reproach in his heart as
had never smitten it during the years of his exile.

"Not at all," answered Albert hastily. "I know how much trouble
has fallen upon your own life, Raoul; my affairs are trifling and
insignificant in comparison."

"Here is the hotel at last," said Raoul de Verdreuil. "Now come in at
once. I have enough to tell you to make the night scarce long enough to
hold it!"

He waited for no answer, but led the way to his own rooms, and then,
bidding his friend be seated, he ordered supper to be served for them
immediately. He then closed the door, and came over to where Albert was
sitting.

"Now let me look at you!" he said, placing his hands on his shoulders,
and gazing down at the fair, delicate face, where the colour wavered
and paled before his eager scrutiny.

"Oh, mon ami!" he said, and his hands fell from the young man's
shrinking form as he spoke, "what have you been doing to yourself to
cause such a change? Why, you are a mere shadow, a ghost of what I left
behind me."

"Am I?" said Albert, flushing like a girl before those searching
eyes--that pained and sorrowful look. "Nonsense, Raoul, I am only a
little fagged and worn with work and late hours; I shall be all right
when I get some rest again."

But Raoul shook his head and answered nothing. His heart ached to
see the altered face of the young artist. He was changed, so utterly
changed! The beautiful, spiritual expression, the rapt, fervent light,
which had given his face the beauty of a sun-god, the cloudless
brilliance of a shadowless peace, were all gone now. Instead of them
Raoul saw the grave, serene melancholy--the deep and weary pain of a
heart no longer at rest--of a life troubled and disquieted. The beauty
with which nature had endowed him was still there, but it was a beauty
now shadowed, and worn, and faded with the combat and the weariness
of life. The struggle had been too hard for a nature so thoroughly
unfitted for the rough usage and rude, harsh ways of the world around,
and in the struggle existence had been robbed of its purest, loftiest
charms, and become cheerless, barren, and utterly distasteful.

"Do not trouble about me, Raoul," continued Albert at length, breaking
the long, troubled silence which had fallen upon them both; "I am
impatient to hear why you are in Florence. What has happened since we
parted? I am in total ignorance of everything."

"You know that Blanche is dead, I suppose?" said Raoul.

"Dead! good heavens, no! Where? how? Why, Raoul, you have regained your
rights! Renonçeux is yours again! Why did you not tell me sooner?"

"Hush! don't begin to congratulate me till you hear all," said Raoul,
interrupting him. "I wrote you a full account of all that had happened,
but I suppose the letter is still at Leipzig, waiting to be claimed.
Yes, Blanche is dead, and yet Renonçeux is not mine--will never be mine
again, as long as I live. Now, don't interrupt me, and I will tell you
all about it. It is the strangest story I have ever heard of; in a book
it would be wonderful and improbable, but yet it is all true."

Then he slowly and carefully unwound the threads of that mysterious
tale of wrong and shame, of vengeance and of passion, of pride and
cruelty, which had worked such evil on the lives of those connected
with it. He told him of his uncle's will, of Blanche de Verdreuil's
crimes, of his strange meeting with Carlo Viotti, of the chain of
events by which he had traced out the former life and long-concealed
secret of the woman who had passed as his father's wife, and finally of
the lost heiress, who was no other than Vivienne St. Maurice.

At this juncture Albert could keep silence no longer.

"Vivienne!" he exclaimed, springing from his seat, and facing Raoul
with astonishment, delight, and incredulity, all struggling for
expression at one and the same moment. "Is that why you came to
Florence? Did you know she was here?"

"No!" exclaimed Raoul, amazed and incredulous now in his turn.
"Vivienne here! Where? Is it true, then, that you are married?"

"Married!" ejaculated the young artist bitterly. "Good heavens! no!
What made you think of such a thing, Raoul? I, married to the heiress
of Renonçeux! How glad she will be of her escape, and what a mad fool I
have been even to think of her!"

"She is here, and you are here, and yet you are not--married?" said
Raoul wonderingly. "How comes it, Albert?"

"Simply enough. I came to Florence to try my luck. I was given a letter
of introduction to a great singer, Irene Véronique. I called upon her
and found Vivienne. She fled from Renonçeux and went upon the stage;
she adopted a new name, and has been living in Italy for the last two
years. That is all the mystery, Raoul."

"And I have been searching for her so long," said Raoul, still in the
same bewildered voice, "searching town after town, city after city, and
find her here!"

"I was thunderstruck when I discovered her," said Albert Hoffmann. "I
could not believe my eyes. I imagined she was still living with the
countess. What unheard of complications are arising out of all this! a
countess who is no countess, an heir who is no heir, a singer who is
the rightful owner of all the wealth and titles of Renonçeux! Raoul, it
is a sort of fairy-tale, ending up with a newly-discovered princess; it
only needs the prince to make it complete."

"And he ought to be yourself," said Raoul, trying to veil the pain of
his heart by speaking jestingly. "You who were her first champion, her
most devoted adherent. You love her still, Albert, do you not?"

"Love her," said the young man despairingly, "I shall love her till I
die, Raoul. But it is all in vain--all in vain."

"What!" said Raoul breathlessly, as he gazed in incredulous amazement
at the face of his friend. "Do you mean to say she does not care
for you? Blanche told me long ago that she loved you, that she had
confessed it to her."

"Then Blanche told you a fearful falsehood," said the young artist
indignantly. "I told Vivienne of my love before I left Renonçeux,
before your father died, Raoul, and she refused me then. I left the
château, resolved to work and forget my pain by dint of ceaseless,
unending labour. I could not. I met Vivienne here by some strange freak
of chance--met her lonely, friendless--a woman with a woman's best
gifts, undergoing a woman's worst trial, the trial of a public career,
such as hers is now. And yet she is pure, lofty, stainless, unblamable
in spite of all; and her life is one that the world can never taint
with the breath of scorn, or pollute by the faintest scandal."

"I can well believe it," said Raoul proudly. "She comes of a noble
race. She is not likely to forget the grand old maxim, Noblesse
oblige. But yet it seems so strange to think of her leading such a
life. Did she ever tell you why she left Renonçeux?"

"Not the particulars--only that Blanche insulted her most cruelly--that
she declared her to be a child of shame, and that unless she agreed
to certain conditions which Blanche named, and Vivienne indignantly
refused, she would not allow her to live at the château any longer."

Raoul's face grew dark with suppressed passion as he heard these words.

"That woman was infamous--bad to the core!" he said bitterly, as
he rose to his feet, and began to pace restlessly up and down the
room. "It is my belief she knew Vivienne's parentage--Vivienne's
history--from the moment of her adopting the girl after Manon
Beauvoir's death. And yet she concealed it from every one, and told
the child that shameful lie, and drove her forth to live or die, or
perish by worse than death, with the stigma of dishonour added to her
friendlessness and beauty. Great heaven! of what are women made, that
they can drive the young and innocent of their own sex to a fate the
worst man would shrink from giving them?"

Albert's face grew paler than before. Some sense of the unnatural
horror of that dead woman's act came over him for the first time. He
saw the perils which Vivienne had escaped, and the danger through which
she had passed. He knew now the sufferings she must have borne, the
agony which that pure, proud heart had known, and he ceased to wonder
that she deemed no solitude too deep, no loneliness too great, for her
life now.

Presently Raoul stopped in his walk, and came and stood before him. A
great pity, an infinite tenderness, shone in his eyes, as they rested
on the white, weary face of the young artist.

"Albert," he said, "I am sorry for you. All these years, I thought you
were so sure to win her love; I never dreamt of the possibility of
failure for a moment. And is this why you are so changed?"

"Am I so changed, really?" he asked, looking sadly up at the earnest,
loving face of his one friend. "I do not know it myself, but I suppose
such things do alter one in time. I have loved her so long, so dearly;
it is hard to think I am nothing to her, while she is everything in the
world to me."

A terrible yearning shook his voice, and Raoul turned silently away.
It was so hard to see him suffer, and yet know he had neither hope nor
consolation to offer.

"I wonder why she does not care for you," he said, feeling that the
glad throb of his own heart at the mention of Vivienne being still free
was a bitter disloyalty to his friend. "Do you think she cares for any
one else, Albert?"

"I never thought so till to-night," he said, with a pathos of weariness
in his voice more touching than any complaint: "for to-night her heart
seemed troubled by a grief as deep as my own, and from to-night I know
her love is for ever dead to me!"

Had he looked at Raoul's face as he said those words, he would have
seen the old grave shadow of disquietude steal over it once more. But
his own anguish, fresh-brought by the memory of his hopeless passion,
blinded him to all else, and he never raised his eyes or altered his
dejected attitude until the warm pressure of Raoul's hand on his bowed
shoulders forced him to look up.

"Come, Albert, be brave!" he said cheerily. "We have all our burdens to
bear, our griefs to carry, and our work to do in spite of them. I wish
with all my heart I could comfort you; but your best remedy is time,
and your only consolation work. The one will slowly deaden the first
sharpness of pain, the other will distract your thoughts from dwelling
on it."

Albert raised his eyes with such a dumb, wistful agony in them that
Raoul's heart ached for his suffering; he knew so well what love in
vain was.

"I will try," he said simply. "But all the life and joy of my heart
seems buried in the grave of this one hopeless love. The best I can do
for art is weak and unprofitable now--the breath of the wind, which men
feel, and then forget! If even I thought my works might live, it would
be some consolation; but that is denied me too."

"Dear Albert," said Raoul, with all a woman's gentleness and pity in
his voice, "there comes a time in most men's lives when they feel
existence is a burden too heavy to bear, when 'to curse God and die'
is a temptation whispered by the same voice that whispered it to the
patriarch of old, and a temptation which needs as much moral courage to
resist as he displayed. I have known its fierceness and battled with
its pain, and even you, innocent dreamer as you are, have not escaped
it. If telling you of my sufferings will in any way lighten your own,
I will let you hear at last the story of the past dark years, and how
I learnt the greatest wisdom a human heart can learn--to suffer and
endure."

Then, while the slow dark hours of the night passed on to join the
dawn of a new day, Raoul de Verdreuil told out to the friend he loved
so well, the story of his pride, his madness, and despair--how, in the
far-off days of his youth, he had met the woman who had wronged him
in his manhood, and the love he had scorned and rejected then became
the weapon of her vengeance in after years. He spoke of his father's
infatuation, and the base use that had been made of it. He touched
lightly on that terrible quarrel between them when their parting had
been for ever--though neither guessed it at the time--and he dwelt
sadly on the gradual estrangement, the slow but sure distrust which had
crept between their hearts, and taken the place of the old familiar
love and confidence.

Then came the account of the crowning misery which had fallen upon
him when he first learnt the bitterness of his father's wrath and
jealousy, and knew he had lost all the possessions he had looked
upon as his own from childhood. He told of the width and depth of
the desolation to which he had fled when he left the heritage of his
fathers, and knew that the brand of dishonour rested upon his life--of
misery, privation, solitude, when his heart had been filled with raging
passions, and the one thought ever present had been revenge. But the
darkness had passed--the power of that God-bestowed gift of intellect
within, had forced him to exertion once again, and with labour came
relief, and with relief salvation. He had life and strength and genius,
and they saved him from despair; and when at last the power for his
long-sought vengeance was bestowed on him, he had learnt there is
greater punishment for guilt than the hand of man can deal--there is
greater peace in mercy than the satiety of revenge can ever know; and
though the pride and self-sufficiency of his life had been crushed and
weakened in the struggle, he had come out in the end a conqueror.

"Be true to your genius, Albert," he said, as his tale drew to an
end at last. "Be true to yourself, and you have a greater gift in
store for you than you deem possible. In suffering, men have taught
their noblest lessons--have learnt their greatest powers, and it is
by suffering only that we learn there is no victory so great as the
victory we gain over our own hearts, and the evil temptings of our
lower nature."

"There is one thing you have omitted in your story, Raoul," said Albert
at last, after a long, unbroken silence, "and that is the secret of
the love I once suspected--the love whose every thought and hope you
strove so hard to stifle, because you deemed it disloyalty to me. Dear
Raoul, can you think I have known you so long, and could not read your
secret--strive as you will to hide it? I feared it long ago, though
my fears were banished by Vivienne herself--but now--now, Raoul, I
know our sorrow has its root in the same pain--the doubts and fears of
unrequited love."

Over Raoul de Verdreuil's dark and haughty face a flush of pride and
anger swept at these words.

"Do not speak of it now," he said, with unwonted sternness in his
voice. "Let us forget that for once our friendship wavered--for once my
heart harboured a feeling of envy for you."

"I will forget it," cried Albert eagerly and impulsively. "I will
forget it for ever, Raoul, but only because I see my own folly too
clearly ever to fall into the same error again--only because I know
so well that your love is Vivienne's, and hers is free for you to win
still."

For some moments neither spoke; their hearts were too full for words;
and when Raoul's voice broke the silence that had fallen on both,
it had a richer cadence of love thrilling in its tones than Albert
Hoffmann had ever heard before.

"Whatever the future holds for me, of good or evil," he said at last,
"it can never hold anything more true and faithful than your love,
Albert; it can never teach me greater lessons than those I have learnt
at the sacrifice of all my pride and self-will--by God's help alone!"

And Raoul spoke truly.

Once he would have compassed heaven and earth for vengeance: now he
knew that sweeter a thousand times than any retribution of man is the
peace that comes with forgiveness.

The man who is master over his own passions is a king indeed, worthy
of all sovereignty--is ruler of an empire greater than any the world
holds; and such a kingdom had Raoul de Verdreuil won for himself
when he learnt that mercy exceeds vengeance, even as heaven exceeds
earth--that pardon for wrong done is the noblest creed a human heart
can learn, and the grandest doctrine Christianity can teach!




CHAPTER V.--CROSS PURPOSES.


"All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but the ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame."
.... Coleridge.


"Is the Signora Véronique at home?"

"Yes, signor, but she cannot be seen. She gave me orders to admit none
to her presence to-day."

"I must see her," was the calm reply of the stranger who was standing
at the entrance of the Villa Constanza. "My business is of the utmost
importance. I have travelled from France on purpose to communicate it,
and I cannot leave until I have done so. See here!" he added, forcing
a handful of silver coins on the woman, who still hesitated about
admitting him. "Take these and bring me to your mistress; she will not
blame you, I promise."

Maruccio's scruples vanished before the sight of the silver, and she
led the importunate stranger into the hall, and left him before the
closed door of one of the rooms, where she said her mistress was. Then
she disappeared, and Raoul de Verdreuil, after an instant's hesitation,
knocked at the door and received permission to enter. He knew the voice
so well--the sweet, low voice whose music had been so long lost to him.

A moment, and he stood within the room, and before the woman he loved.

A low, stifled cry fell from her lips. Then--pale, haughty, amazed--she
rose from her seat, and confronted him. He saw her in the full light
of the clear sunshine, as it fell through the windows and lingered on
the dark folds of her velvet dress, on the dusky gold of her hair, on
all the beauty of face and form so perfect in its womanly grace, its
queenly dignity.

"Raoul!"

The name fell from her lips almost unconsciously, but he heard it,
and the sound of her voice and the sight of her face swept over his
heart with a sudden storm of passionate joy that robbed him of all
self-control. With a swift, impetuous movement he was beside her, his
head uncovered, his eyes blind, his senses dizzy, with the force and
strength of a power he had never recognised so fully as now--the power
of a woman's presence,--the sound of a woman's voice. Till he saw her
again, he had not known how eager had been his quest, how strong his
memory, how intense his love. Now, as he bent before her presence as a
subject to a queen, as his lips touched her hand, and his eyes looked
into hers once more, a rapturous joy thrilled his frame, such as in all
his life before he had never known, such as in all his life again he
never would know, save for this one woman who had taught him love.

What he said he never knew. He had longed for her so often in his
exile, in his solitude, in his grief; and now she was here beside
him--free, untrammelled--pure with all her girlhood's purity,
perfect with all a woman's grace--a thousand times more beautiful, a
thousandfold more dear than when he had seen her last.

In the senseless madness of his joy, his love spoke out at last; he
kissed her hands, her dress, with rapturous glad relief; he poured out
in wild, incoherent words the story of his long search, the secret of
his long love; and she--she stood there with her heart throbbing fast
and fierce, the colour flushing and paling in her cheeks, while his
words held her spell-bound and amazed, and the shadows of the room
seemed to sweep like eddying waters round and round her, and a darkness
as of sudden night to close over her senses, and steal away her life.

Then suddenly the floodgates of memory were opened, sense and feeling
swept back to her again. A tide of burning colour flushed her face, her
brow, her neck, and she wrenched herself from his touch, and signed
him back with a gesture, grand as scorn and outraged pride and womanly
dignity could make it.

"You!"

It was but one word, but it held such contempt, such scorn, that
it startled Raoul and calmed his passion, his joy, his sudden
forgetfulness of all save her. He looked at her in wonder, startled out
of all ordinary composure, and he saw before him no longer a gentle,
trusting girl, but a woman wronged and injured, and fenced round with
the barriers of a pride greater even than his own.

"Why are you here?" she asked calmly, as he stood before her abashed
and silenced, wondering what he had done that this girl should treat
him as an intruder. "The world is surely wide enough to keep your path
apart from mine! Have you not heard I admit no one to my presence here!
Least of all do I care to see one who brings back memories so hateful
as those connected with Renonçeux!"

Raoul was too utterly amazed for any words. What sort of reception was
this? What had he done to be so treated by the girl he had longed to
serve and to aid with all his heart and soul?

"Vivienne!" he said, in pained astonishment, "what do you mean? How
have I offended you?"

"Mean!" she said bitterly, as she turned her eyes from his pleading
face. "Mean! I mean that I wish my life now to be wholly free from
any memory of the past. When I left France I voluntarily resigned all
claims, all rights, all associations connected with it. I have no wish
for any one to recall them to my mind again. My wishes are so well
known that I scarcely think you have intruded on my privacy by fair
means, Monsieur de Verdreuil!"

"Good heavens, Vivienne!" cried Raoul, pained and wounded inexpressibly
by her tone, her words, her strange reception. "What is the reason
of this? Is the past to go for nothing? Have you no memory of our
friendship, no thought of what we were then? Or have I offended
you in any way? Surely, if you allow Albert Hoffmann to resume your
acquaintance, you cannot blame me for wishing to do the same. I have
searched and sought for you unceasingly, ever since I heard that
you had left Renonçeux, and that I never knew until Blanche de
Verdreuil's death."

"Death!" cried Vivienne, her face growing very white as she heard it,
"Blanche dead! and I never knew it!"

"I suppose not, since you resolutely exclude all messengers and
acquaintances of the outer world from your presence," said Raoul. "Will
you allow me to tell you of the important discoveries arising from her
death? They concern you very nearly."

"Concern me!" said Vivienne haughtily. "How, monsieur?"

"I must first tell you that your old nurse, Manon Beauvoir, confided
to Blanche de Verdreuil a desk and a ring belonging to your mother,
which were the sole possessions you brought with you to Renonçeux. What
passed between them previous to your accepting the guardianship of the
late countess I am not in a position to state. Whatever it was, Blanche
took a base and unfair advantage of it, and kept the whole matter
concealed from every one until her death, when all her papers came into
my possession, and among them these letters and this will. Perhaps you
would like to read them for yourself?"

Vivienne took them from his hands, pale and trembling with
agitation--took them and read their contents slowly and carefully,
while over her proud loveliness came a flush of eager feeling, of
intense relief, of passionate, incredulous joy, that changed it as by a
miracle.

Suddenly she let the papers fall, and looked up at Raoul with a
strange, dizzy bewilderment, as of one waking from a long trance that
might have been death, yet is mercifully changed to life.

"Is it possible? can this be true?" she murmured dreamily, "Renonçeux
mine; my father Maurice de Verdreuil! surely I am dreaming, and shall
wake to the old misery and the old shame that has never left me since
she spoke those cruel words!"

"Vivienne," said Raoul earnestly, as he came and stood beside her in
the soft glow of the firelight; "Vivienne, it is all true, every word.
At Bologna we found more proofs of the reality of this strange history;
at Renonçeux you are known and accepted as the heiress and mistress of
it all. Do you wonder now that I sought you far and wide, intent only
upon one thing, to repair the wrong we have unwittingly done you all
these years?"

"And you are my cousin!" she said, looking wonderingly up at him. "How
strange it all is! I cannot realize the truth yet."

"I suppose not," said Raoul gently; "it must seem incredible to you at
present. And now that I have explained all this, will you forgive me
for intruding upon you, as you accused me of doing a little while ago?
and will you tell me, Vivienne why you were so cold and cruel in your
greeting to one who has longed and laboured to serve you in all things
as I have done?"

His question roused all her pride, all her memories of that time when
he had said he left her because he knew she loved him. She thought of
his coldness, his silence, his neglect; and as she thought of it, she
hardened her heart against him now, remembering that his keen sense
of honour and of justice would alone have prompted him to serve her,
once he knew of their relationship, once he deemed her the mistress and
possessor of all that had once been his, and was his no longer.

Very proud and calm she looked, as she raised her head and glanced
quietly up at the grave, earnest face above her.

"I am sorry I was discourteous," she said, speaking just as coldly and
calmly as she might have spoken to the merest stranger. "My ignorance
of our relationship must plead my excuse."

"By heaven, Vivienne!" cried Raoul, with sudden passionate wrath, as
the sting of those cruel words tortured his heart beyond endurance, "if
I thought that this newly-discovered relationship was the only reason
why you tolerated my society, I would never look upon your face again!"

She was silent for a moment; her heart throbbed fast, her hands clasped
each other more tightly as they lay on her lap. Those wild, impulsive
words were at once sweet and painful to her, but still she doubted that
he loved her. She had grown so accustomed to that belief, she had so
schooled and tortured herself into accepting it, that she could not
shake it off now at once.

"What would you have me say?" she asked coldly. "I tell you plainly,
when I left Renonçeux it was with the hope I might never see it or any
one belonging to it again. You look incredulous; do you suppose I have
any great cause for gratitude to any one of my race? Did not my own
father wrong me in the first instance? Did not your father's wife aid
and abet that wrong as far as lay in her power? Have I any reason to
thank her for what has happened? Look at what my life has been, what
her protection made it! Placed in a false position, denied even a name,
a birthright of honour, and then flung on the world to perish or not
as I pleased! Is it any wonder that I feel small interest or affection
for any one of you now? Your own act is but common justice. Are you
going to claim any reward for it? or are you, too, incapable of being
disinterested?"

The cold, contemptuous words stung Raoul to the heart. That ever
Vivienne should so speak and act was to him a thing incomprehensible.

"You are sadly changed," he said, looking at her with mingled pain and
wonder. "I never thought to hear your lips utter anything so cruel or
unjust. At least, whatever wrong Blanche de Verdreuil did to you, it
is scarcely fair to blame me for it. I have done my best to atone, God
knows!"

She was silent, but her heart was steeling itself against persuasion.
She would not pardon him; she would not believe in him. If he had loved
her, would he have made her name a jest to be bandied about among
his associates? would he have left her without a word? would he have
neglected her so long? No, he only said these words because he knew
her to be well-born, wealthy, the mistress of his home. While she was
nameless, dependent, obscure, he had neglected, and perhaps despised
her. Was this half-hearted conduct worthy of being called love?

"I daresay I am changed," she said in the same constrained, unnatural
voice. "I have had enough to change me, enough to make me doubt the
existence of faith, love, and honour. The life I have led is not one to
keep a girl in the same belief that my heart held when the world and I
were as yet strangers to one another."

"I know your life has been a hard one," he said gently--he could be
patient with her still, for the sake of his love--"but it will be
brighter now; the future before you is a bright and a noble one. Let
that teach you forgetfulness of the past."

Over her face there swept a look of pain.

"Nothing can teach me that," she said; "nothing can give me back
the peace, the faith, the simple, unquestioning joy of my life as it
was when that false woman poisoned it with her cruel words. Do you
know," she added, speaking in a low, passionate voice that thrilled to
Raoul's very heart--"do you know that the night I fled from Renonçeux I
was desperate, I was almost mad? I prayed for death as in all my life
I never thought to pray, even for any good or happy thing; and had I
died, she would have been my murderess! She did not kill the life
that was in me; no! that was a mercy too great; but she gave me to a
worse misery. I have never known one glad or peaceful moment since."

Raoul looked at her, his whole heart stirred and shaken by the
greatness of his love--the vastness of his pity for the sufferings her
sinless innocence had known and borne so long.

"If I had only known it!" he muttered hoarsely. "Oh, my darling, if I
could have saved you from this!"

She smiled--a cold, careless smile that pained him infinitely more than
words.

"You? I never thought you had any remembrance of me at all!"

"No remembrance! To have lost that, Vivienne, I must first have lost
life. Why do you think so ill of me?"

"I do not think ill of you," she said, with the same calm indifference;
"only you seemed to have but little thought of me when you were with
us at Renonçeux. I can hardly imagine absence being favourable to any
deeper interest you might have had in my welfare."

"I dared not tell you, I dared not breathe it then," he said, with a
new and sudden softness in his voice, for the presence of this girl
filled his whole soul with a sweet, strange joy that had never touched
him before. "But your welfare and your happiness were and are dearer a
thousandfold to me than those of any living being. I would have gone to
the world's end to serve you, Vivienne."

"I think you did that," she said quietly, "though whether to serve
me, or not, I do not pretend to know. Certainly you took a strange and
most unusual way of showing your friendship and zeal in my welfare
while I was the poor dependent of the Countess de Verdreuil's bounty.
Of course, since you have discovered my claim on your interest, my
relationship to yourself, it is different. I do not question your
trouble or your exertions on my behalf since you knew who I am."

Raoul turned on her a face colourless as death. The passion and the
patience of his nature were still blended together; reproach her he
would not, though her words stung him to the quick.

"Do you think, then," he said proudly, "that only because of your
present position, only because of your descent from my own race, your
claim upon my kinship, that only for these have I sought to serve you?
You little know how you wrong me, Vivienne."

"With what other motives should I credit you?" she asked, not daring
to lift her eyes to the grave, pained face of the man she loved,
though she dared not confess it. "I judge you by your actions; clearer
evidence of the truth of my words is scarcely needed!"

"Believe what you may," he said earnestly; "but at least believe that
I have loved you, Vivienne--loved you as never had I thought of loving
any woman on this earth. You wound me beyond measure when you say such
cruel words as those you have just uttered!"

For a moment she was silent, struggling with the doubts that tortured
her, impatient, distrustful, yet half inclined to believe him, to give
him the old faith, the old trust once more.

"I do not wish to pain you," she said more gently; "least of all now,
when I know how much you lose by all I gain. I would willingly
restore Renonçeux to you if I could; I know how dearly you love it.
My one wish has been gratified; I know that on the names I love, all
reverence and all honour rest; with that I am content. As for the
wealth, the heritage that goes with this knowledge, I care so little
for them that I could pray of you to take them back again--to look upon
Renonçeux as still your own. You are more worthy of its honours than I
am, and it seems hard that you should twice lose it for--a woman!"

He heard her silently, while a new pain gathered in his heart, and
slowly shaped itself into certainty. She did not love him--he felt
assured of that--and she deemed him base and mean enough to seek her
only for the wealth she would bring, the possessions she would own, the
home she could restore to him. His pride rose in arms at that thought.
A woman who had loved him would have had greater faith than this. If
Vivienne could believe that he sought her merely as the heiress of
Renonçeux, she could care but little for him; she could have none of
that love and faith to give, without which her heart was valueless.

He answered her at last with a cold, serene composure, wholly unlike
his previous gentleness,--

"What you offer is impossible; you must know that as well as I do; and
since you do me such wrong as to suppose I only sought you for your new
station, I can well imagine how little sincerity my words must have
seemed to bear. There are some things a man cannot hear twice, even
from a woman. Whatever I have felt for you had better be as completely
forgotten as though I had never been foolish enough to betray it. I
thank you for reminding me that the beggared cousin has no right to woo
the heiress of Renonçeux!"

Those calm, proud words fell like lead on the girl's tortured heart.
Why could she not believe him--trust him still? Why? Oh, heavens? women
are so hard to comprehend sometimes!

She answered nothing; she shrank and cowered down in the play and glow
of the firelight, feeling that her words had worked this deadly sorrow
for their lives, and that he would never forget or forgive them. She
knew she had never loved him as she loved him in that moment when the
proud, fearless dignity of his face confuted her unworthy suspicions
better even than his words. She glanced up at last, but he looked so
cold, so stern now, that a great, chilling fear swept over her. Whether
he loved her or not, he would never speak to her again such words as
those she had scorned and refused to believe, in the shame of her
wounded pride, her half-hearted faith.

"Well, I must not trespass on your time," he said at length, breaking
the silence that had fallen on them both. "All further arrangements
concerning your property can be arranged with the lawyers, who at
present hold the deeds and manage the estate. This is their address in
Paris. These papers I of course leave with you. If you have any further
need of me, I shall be at your service--our relationship at least
demands that. For the rest--may others serve you better than I have
done, and prove more worthy of what I have lost! You shall not see my
face again unless--you--wish it."

The passion in his eyes had deepened to despair, but his voice was
calm, cold, unmoved. He was so deeply hurt, so deeply pained, that his
self-control made him appear unnaturally composed, and yet the heavy
throbs of his heart beat almost audibly on the stillness, and his face
was colourless as marble. She could not speak; she sat as if carved
in stone--mute, desolate, voiceless with the anguish of her heart.
She dared not look up, only because she dreaded to read the sentence
written on his face; but he thought it was because she neither pitied
his pain, nor desired his presence.

Without another word, another look, he turned and left her.

And Vivienne? She still sat there--motionless as a statue of
despair--her clasped hand resting in her lap, the play of the rising
and falling flames from the wood-fire on the hearth lighting up the
stony misery of her face. Her eyes never stirred from the red embers
before her, her head was never raised from its drooping, weary attitude.

The memory of a madness worse than death was upon her, the madness
which had cast away a love priceless, exhaustless, true. She thought
and thought till her thoughts grew into an unmeaning chaos, till her
brain ached with the misery of its own unending pain.

The world had taught her much, but she had yet to learn that
a woman's love, to be love at all, must be patient, enduring,
long-suffering--must eschew doubts and hold to faith--ay, and have pity
and pardon for every sin, boundless as the mercy of heaven.




CHAPTER VI.--TESTED AND TRIED.


"She said, I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"
.... Tennyson.


THE remainder of that day passed in an agony of self-reproach, and
grief and shame for Vivienne. Once she had thought that only to have
the mystery of her birth cleared, her name one of honour in the sight
of the world, would be the greatest happiness her life could know. Now
she had gained this wish, and with it wealth, dignity, greatness; and
yet her heart was heavier, crushed beneath a greater misery than any
she had imagined.

At times she wondered whether she had been mad to say such words to
Raoul de Verdreuil as she had said; at other moments the pride and
shame of the love she had fought with so long, came sweeping back in
waves of misery over her heart, and whispered she had only done as
any other woman would have done. Had not Raoul de Verdreuil left her
forgotten, unnoticed, unsought? Had he ever breathed a word beyond
friendship of the calmest, coldest nature, in those days when he might
have won her by a word? Had he not avoided her--treated her with
studied coldness and neglect--left her on the occasion of his leaving
Renonçeux without even the courtesy of a farewell?

The more she thought of it the more convinced she became that she had
acted rightly; he had wooed her as the mistress of Renonçeux, the
wealthy, titled heiress, promising himself an easy victory by the
memory of her past weakness, her unconscious self-betrayal. He thought
to find the same trusting, simple-minded girl in Vivienne de Verdreuil
as in Vivienne St. Maurice. He had found his mistake now. Had she been
still friendless, nameless, obscure, and he had come to seek her, and
woo her for his bride, she would have deemed him disinterested; but it
was far otherwise, their positions were reversed, and she could not
forget that his love--if love it was--had only sprung to life with her
assumed position and her new dignity as Countess of Renonçeux.

And yet he had seemed in earnest; his gladness at meeting her had
surely been unfeigned, and in spite of pride she longed, even now, to
hear the passionate accents of that voice, the thrill of those silent
kisses, the wordless tenderness of the great love which had shone in
his eyes when they rested on her face again.

"It is too late! too late!" she said, as she rose from her drooping
attitude by the fire, hours after Raoul had left her. "I am so changed
now, I seem to have lost all love and faith in every human thing, and
yet--once--I loved him so!"

The gladness of that love had died out of her life when distrust and
suspicion had entered. From the hour that a woman's words had laid bare
before her the secret of her heart, had made it a thing for mockery and
jest, Vivienne had deemed her love a shame. The simple, unquestioning
joy, the purity of a faith, at once perfect and complete, had been
blasted in a single moment by the scorn and reproach of a woman's
jealous hate, a woman's vindictive insults. And now--now she could not
recall it--she could not believe in it again; it seemed a thing so
utterly of the past; it had died in the horror of that moment when she
believed herself to be a creature whose only heritage was shame, whose
greatest crime existence--when a worse horror than death had seized and
crushed her life in the first sweet summer of its years.

Blanche de Verdreuil had done many evil things in the course of her
life, but she had never done a worse or more cruel deed than when she
told the friendless, innocent girl she had promised to protect, the lie
that had wrecked her happiness and destroyed her peace for ever.

While the slow, weary hours of the day dragged on to evening, while the
old Italian lady wondered at the changed looks and listless attitude,
and indifferent manner of her charge, Vivienne fought with the slow
despair, the sorrowful tenderness of her ceaseless regrets. He would
never return to her again--of that she felt sure. He could not forgive
her scorn, her coldness, her neglect, her disbelief; and she knew that
his love was to her above all price, above all other joys that earth
could give. And yet she had refused it, had distrusted it--had lost it
for evermore. Why?

Answer this, women who are weak, women who are proud, foolish,
exacting--doubting ever, trusting never, till the great and priceless
gifts of love are gone from you beyond all power of recall! Answer it,
you whose hearts are too faint, too weak, to believe all you cannot
understand--who have arrogated to yourselves a right to receive all a
man's devotion, a man's homage, and yet can mistrust and wrong him by a
thousand petty fears and doubts which he may be too proud to explain,
too generous to reproach!

But reason does not tarry with love, nor love with reason, or surely
men's lives--ay, and women's too--would not hold such tragic ends,
such woe and pain and misery, as we see and know they do. Is love
ever perfected without suffering--complete without pain? Do the jest
and the woe, the laughter and the sighs, lie so close together for no
purpose--for no graver teaching, for no higher end than we behold?

Ah no! That love alone is blest whose full and rich perfection we look
for in another world, where age cannot chill, nor time disenchant, nor
God Himself unsever it.

That only is love which is greater than death, and boundless as
eternity.

*  *  *  *  *  *

When evening fell, Raoul and Albert were once more together; and
in a few cold words the young count told his friend the history of
that interview with Vivienne; and at last the veil of silence was
removed--at last, in those few pained sentences, Raoul bared his heart
to his friend's loving eyes, and poured out its hopeless passion in
words such as Albert had never heard him utter in all his life before.

A storm of mingled emotions surged in the young artist's mind as he
listened. At first it was almost with relief that he heard how all the
joy and sweetness of the love he valued more than life was not even
for Raoul to win. Then he blamed himself most bitterly for thoughts
so selfish and disloyal. But the pain of his own unquenchable passion
burned still in his heart--he could not forget what Vivienne was to
him.

In a moment, however, he recovered himself, hating, with fierce,
intolerable hatred, the momentary weakness of his nature--the weakness
that had made him false to his friend even by a thought. As Raoul
ceased speaking, he lifted his white face from his hands and looked at
him with such infinite pity and tenderness, that it spoke more plainly
than any words his perfect sympathy.

Raoul de Verdreuil knew then that even this most cruel test of man's
friendship was powerless to affect the true and faithful love which
reigned between them. Truely it was love "passing the love of woman"--a
love that prompted Albert to generous self-abandonment of all his long
hopes and desires, and gave him strength to comfort and encourage Raoul
in the midst of his despair.

For Albert felt almost convinced that Vivienne loved his friend.
He remembered how changed she seemed after the sudden departure of
the young count from Renonçeux--how she had resolutely and firmly
refused all offers of marriage, however brilliant, and how she had
ever sought for news, or word of Raoul, with an eagerness and anxiety
altogether unusual to her. Then, too, he remembered that every mention
of Raoul's name of late had agitated her beyond anything else, and
that, although she shrank from questioning Albert about his friend, yet
she had listened with ill-concealed interest to whatever he said of
him--listened silently, it is true, but with fitful colour and wavering
spirits for long after. The more he thought of it, the more convinced
he became that some unexplained cause lay at the bottom of this
misunderstanding--some doubt, some mystery of the past which neither of
them would nor could explain yet.

And then with a sudden abnegation of self, with a chivalrous resolve
to seek the happiness of the two friends he loved best on earth,
Albert determined that he would seek the cause of their voluntary
separation--their inexplicable distrust--and, if possible, set doubts
and fears at rest for ever, and clear away the shadows that obscured
their love. It was a hard task for one who loved as he loved Vivienne,
but Albert sought her happiness before his own; he was so utterly, so
perfectly, unselfish, that to see Vivienne content and blessed at last
was all the reward he sought from life, now he knew her love was never
to be his--had never been his even for a single moment.

"Ah, Raoul!" he said at last, when out of the chaos of thoughts all
shapeless and confused, this one resolve stood clear and distinct
before him; "I thought a day would come when you too would learn, love
is not a jest, a mere name, an idle pastime, but a power so mighty that
no reasoning can overthrow, no strength defy, no pride or coldness
conquer it. I wish you may not learn the lesson too late. I trust its
teaching may not give you such suffering always."

"I shall never win her now," said Raoul sadly. "She thinks I only
pretended love because she is the possessor of all that I once thought
mine--because she is great and wealthy and powerful. Oh! I would that
she were only once more the pretty, careless, innocent child I saw in
the woods of Renonçeux so many summers ago!"

"I have given her all I have," he continued presently, "my whole
heart, my whole love--and yet I know she is lost to me for ever! One
cannot hear such words twice from a woman's lips as she spoke to me
to-day. I am too proud to plead what she will never believe, the
disinterestedness of my love. I cannot lie at a woman's feet and sue
for her smiles for ever. Were my life ever so lonely, my heart ever so
desolate, they still have duties, ambitions, hopes beyond my present
misery. I must just go forth again, to the fight and the struggle--only
now they seem harder and more wearisome than before."

"You have been so brave in every trial, Raoul," said Albert gently;
"you must bring the same courage to help you bear this. I cannot
believe Vivienne meant to be cruel or unjust; but you must remember how
hard her life has been, how much she has had to teach her suspicion
and distrust. What a lonely, desolate life for a young girl to lead
has been her life for the last two years! It has changed her--I know
that--but still the true heart, the warm, impulsive sympathy, the
generous instincts have not left her. In many things she is altered;
you cannot wonder that it is so; but in others she is as pure, as
faithful, as loveable as the innocent child we knew so long ago. I
believe, Raoul, she loves you despite all you have told me, and if
ever a day comes when she feels she has wronged you by a suspicion or
a doubt you did not deserve, she will not hesitate to tell you of her
fault, and strive to make amends for it. So much do I know of her--so
well do I judge her nature."

"And, Albert," said Raoul gently, as he looked at the fair, boyish
face, so steadfast in its heroic purpose, "do you grudge me the gift
of her love, should I ever obtain it, should a time ever come when her
doubts are proved to be unworthy, when I know I may love her in all
faith, in all tenderness again."

"Would you have grudged it to me, Raoul?" was the gentle reply. "It is
no question of who loves her best, or who is worthiest of her; it is
simply which of us she loves, and in whom her heart's best happiness
is concerned. You would not envy me, nor do I envy you, the possession
of that love. The choice rests with her alone--for the rest, God will
do with our lives as seems to Him best."

And Raoul de Verdreuil knew in that moment that his friend's love was
nobler, purer than his own.

A silence fell on both.

Their thoughts travelled back to the years that had passed, to the
friendship begun in boyhood--perfected in manhood; rooted and grounded
in the simplest and most perfect trust of each in each. Even the woman
they both loved had no power to break it now. Though she had dealt
to them the heaviest misery of their lives, they yet found comfort in
each other's sympathy. Ere they parted that night, all jealousy was at
rest for evermore; their confidence was perfect and complete as though
no shadow had ever crossed, no silence ever approached it, and yet
their friendship had never borne a stronger test than that night had
witnessed.

To Albert a moment of supreme temptation had come, and he had conquered
it. He was loyal to the trust bestowed, the confidence reposed in
him. He put away all thought of self for ever, from the moment that
he knew Raoul loved Vivienne, and remembered that she too might love
him. The strength and force of that faithful friendship swept all
base or selfish thoughts, all instincts of passion, for ever from
his heart; the hour for which he had so often prayed, the hour that
could try the truth of his allegiance, was here at last, and all the
tenderness of his nature, the purity and nobility of his soul, answered
to the demand made upon them. He left Raoul with but one purpose in
his heart, an earnest, steadfast resolve that would live with his
life henceforward--the purpose of reconciling these two who loved yet
doubted, who suffered yet endured, for the sake of that one great fault
in the nature and the heart of each--pride.

The world is full of such things--of faith killed by doubts, of love
misplaced and hopeless; of hearts that ache for their own weakness, and
lives condemned to sorrow for their own self-will; of all the madness
and the misery of that one sweet, passionate folly that men call--Love.
And yet we live and smile, while the sun shines on its way, and the
world drags on its days, and hearts beat, though every throb is pain
and anguish unutterable. The world is full of such things, and yet men
are not mad!

One wonders that it is so every day that dawns.




CHAPTER VII.--KEEPING FAITH.


"Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might:
Smote the chord of Self, that trembling passed in music out of sight."
.... Tennyson.


Two days had passed, and Vivienne began to wonder why she had neither
seen nor heard anything of Albert Hoffmann.

She had taken no steps whatever in the matter of her newly-discovered
heiress-ship; she never wrote to the lawyers; she made no inquiries
concerning Renonçeux; she just let the time slip listlessly, languidly
by, with neither heart nor care, nor interest for anything. On the
night of the second day following those unexpected discoveries, she
had to appear at the opera. Her engagement held her to the end of the
spring, and she resolved nothing would induce her to break it. Till
Albert's opera was produced, she would not leave the stage, though she
were twenty times a countess--a determination, of course, which no one
knew of but herself, and a resolve which first amazed and then angered
Madame Pitteri, when Vivienne told her of it.

Vivienne grew sadly impatient as Albert still kept aloof. Did he know
of her changed prospects? had he and Raoul met? Surely, yes. But why
did he not come, if such was the case? She grew perplexed and grieved,
the more she thought of it, and resolved at last that she would send
for him if he did not call at the villa next day.

She went to the opera at the usual time, feeling, for once in her life,
careless and indifferent as to how she acted. Her eyes swept over the
theatre again and again, in the hopes of seeing him. She would not
confess she had thought it barely possible that Raoul might be there
also, but neither of the two friends were visible among the audience,
and a strange, chilling sense of disappointment, altogether new to her,
robbed her acting of its graceful charm, its perfect self-possession,
and made her abstracted, preoccupied, and at times nervous.

She was thankful when the time came for her to go home, and the lighted
theatre and enthusiastic plaudits were at last left behind.

The night was clear as day as she drove through the streets of
Florence. All the city slept, silvery and still, beneath the moon-rays;
only now and then two shadows paused beneath some dusky archway, to
murmur a last good-night, or a woman's face looked out from some open
casement, or a lover waited below some dim, shadowy balcony, while a
girl's graceful figure leaned above, and from her hand a flower dropped
softly down--a token mute and eloquent as love itself.

Vivienne saw this with a new regret, a passionate longing for
like joys, for like tenderness, that wrung her heart with sudden,
intolerable pain. She buried her face in her hands; she would not look
out again at the sweet, poetic idyls of love and peace, with which she
had nothing in common now. She strove to forget that such love, such
sweet, rapturous joy might have been here, had not her own folly, her
own pride, rejected it. In the dreamy, midnight hour, with the quiet
stars shining so softly in the deep blue of the cloudless sky, she
knew her own heart better than she had known it before. She murmured
passionately, "What mattered whether he were worthy? If love be of any
worth, he would have been with me now."

It was her loneliness, the aching void of heart and soul, which nothing
but love could satisfy, that oppressed her. She had been alone so
long--so long--and the woman on the balcony, the leaning shadows in the
dusky archway--they could taste the joy and feel the dreamy sorcery of
that one word--"together."

"Shall I ever forget? shall I ever, ever forget?" she cried in
passionate regret. "Why did I shut my ears to his pleading, my heart
to his prayers? Did I think in my pride, my half-hearted faith, that
any man's love would come up to my ideal standard? Does a woman ever
find a faith that has never wavered, a heart that has never changed? If
even Blanche de Verdreuil's words were true, if he loved her then,
if for her sake he lost his father's trust, his own heritage, at least
he seemed to love me when he spoke of the past, when he pleaded
for the future. And I might have been content with that. I might have
known that a woman's love must be humble, patient, enduring, ere it
is worth anything to a man. Are they ever true as we are true? Does
one faith, one passion, hold them unchangeable till death? Ah, no!
ah, no! It seems to me I have yearned after impossible virtues; have
idealized impossible greatness, when I thought to find a heart that had
held no other love as mine has done. Albert, at least, has given me an
undivided allegiance, but yet I cannot love him."

She lay back in her carriage, faint, weary, spent; her proud eyes
dim with tears, her face white and weary with the pain at her
heart, and the fruitless longings of a love that she told herself
was dead--lost--a thing of the past. In the solitude and silence
of the midnight hour she grew more humble; she had no thought, no
consciousness, of anything but her love. Had Raoul been with her then
to plead his cause, to set her doubts at rest, he would have seen her
eyes grow tender with an infinite tenderness, the deeper and the purer
because of the lesson she was learning--the lesson that disarms a
woman's pride by the greatness of her love.

The carriage stopped. She was at the entrance of her villa once more.
In the grey, shadowy haze of the early morning, she passed through the
grounds and entered the hall, where a lamp burned in readiness for
her. She took it in her hand and entered the sitting-room, carelessly
tossing her cashmere wraps on a low couch as she advanced to the fire.

The room was quite deserted, but, ere she touched the bell, her maid
came in to inquire whether she required anything, and to bring her a
letter which had arrived during her absence.

Vivienne took it carelessly from the salver where it lay, and then
seated herself on a low chair before the hearth.

"You need not wait, Madelon," she said: "I need nothing, and it is very
late. I suppose Madame has gone to bed long ago?"

The girl answered in the affirmative and then retired, leaving her
young mistress alone, as she had desired.

Vivienne opened the letter--it was from Raoul de Verdreuil.

As she read the signature, the blood rushed in rosy torrents over her
face and brow, and in her agitation the words and letters swam in a
dim confused mass before her eyes. Then as she grew more calm, she
read it slowly and carefully, as though each word were precious beyond
price. And yet it was short and simple enough--merely a few courteous
sentences at best.

Raoul said that he was obliged to leave Florence, as he had received
a message from the Embassy, requiring his attendance in Paris
immediately; that he wished Vivienne to make any arrangements she
pleased connected with the château, but as he thought she might need an
agent more versed in business-matters than Albert, and more trustworthy
and reliable than a stranger, he had ordered his secretary, Carlo
Viotti, to call on her as soon as he returned from Bologna with the
papers relative to her birth, and if she pleased to make use of him as
her agent she would find him in all respects capable of managing her
affairs, as well as faithful in trust, and unfailing in zeal. "I fear
you may think me officious in interfering with or advising you," he
said in conclusion; "but I cannot bear to think of your friendless and
solitary position; and as there will be a great deal of trouble and
perhaps annoyance connected with these events, I should feel more at
rest if I knew you had some one to take the trouble off your hands, and
on whom you could thoroughly depend. Do not, however, consider yourself
in any way bound to respect my wishes on the subject. I do but advise
you as I think best for your own convenience and comfort. But remember
that you are your own mistress entirely, and can appoint any one you
please to act for you. The lawyers in Paris will of course need to
see the certificate Viotti brings from Bologna, also the will and the
papers I left with you, had better be returned to them. As these proofs
are valuable, you had better transmit them to Paris by a safe hand,
unless you go thither yourself. Albert will call on you to-morrow, as I
have begged him to help you in any way he possibly can. You will find
that being an heiress demands a great deal of attention to matters
about which you have hitherto troubled yourself very little."

Vivienne laid the letter down, her eyes brimming over with tears.

"How good he is!" she murmured low and tenderly, as she folded it up
again, and held it gently and carefully, as though it were indeed most
precious, in her hand. "How thoughtful and careful of me in spite of
everything! Oh, if I have wronged him! if I have misjudged him after
all, how shall I ever forgive myself?"

That night she slept with the letter resting on her heart, and on her
face was a light of peace and tenderness long a stranger to it.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The hours passed; the night faded. The rays of the morning slowly stole
through the narrow casements of the Villa Constanza. Vivienne awoke
with a smile on her lips, for she had been dreaming of Raoul, and in
that dream it seemed all doubts and fears had been set at rest. They
loved--they were together!

Ah! if dreams were only real--if they were ever anything but a mockery
of all we long for and never obtain--of all we seek and never find!

She rose and dressed herself hastily, for the sun was high, and she
remembered Albert was to come that morning. It was just mid-day when
he arrived, and the moment she greeted him she knew that Raoul had
told him all. The knowledge made her greeting so cold and constrained
that Albert grew uneasy. His task would be a harder one than he had
imagined, he thought, for the grave, proud dignity with which Vivienne
fenced herself in was a barrier against all attempts at gaining her
confidence, and Albert was too great a novice in women's ways to read
in that very pride and coldness, the certainty of his own suspicions.
It is only when a woman knows herself weak that she is so unnaturally
proud and cold, so tenacious of her dignity, so fearful of any approach
to the subject nearest her heart.

She fenced most skilfully with all Albert's attempts to introduce
Raoul's name, and yet her heart throbbed and her pulses quickened at
every mention of it. But the young man was determined not to leave her
till he ascertained something of the cause and nature of her rejection
of his friend; and at last, when all hints had failed to achieve the
desired object, he came boldly to the point by asking her whether she
would return soon to Renonçeux or not.

"Raoul wishes it," he said earnestly, "and, Vivienne, I think you ought
to leave the stage now; your position demands it; and of course, though
you will have to pay the forfeit-money for breaking your engagement,
that is of no consequence to you now."

Vivienne looked at him in astonishment.

"Leave the stage because of this! forego my engagement, my promise to
you, Albert? Never! Not if I were fifty times Countess of Renonçeux!"

"Oh, Vivienne!" said the young artist eagerly, "don't think of me,
don't consider that promise for a moment. I would sacrifice all my
hopes of fame sooner than you should do anything you may repent of
hereafter. And, Vivienne, I am sure Raoul would not like it. He seemed
to think you would give up the stage immediately. If you stop here till
the spring, I am sure it will annoy him very much. Pray consider it,
and make up your mind to act as he wishes."

"What are Raoul's wishes to me?" said the girl proudly. "He is not my
guardian; I can act as I please; and, Albert," she continued, speaking
more gently as she saw his distressed look, "I have made up by mind
that your opera shall be produced, come what may. And not only that,
but I mean to act in it. Who will do such justice to the heroine? who
will take such interest in the character as I shall? Have I not studied
and perfected myself in it for the last six months. You foolish boy!
you are pleading against your own interest by advising me to give it up
now."

Albert flushed slightly.

"How generous you are--how good?" he said warmly. "I scarcely think
another woman in the world would act in this manner at such a time.
But, Vivienne, have you no thought or care for your altered position?
You scarcely seem to trouble about it at all."

She was silent for a moment.

"I am glad that my name is an honourable and stainless one--that my
birthright is beyond reproach. As for all else I have gained, it is
nothing to me now."

She spoke so sadly, so regretfully, that Albert became more than ever
convinced his suspicions were correct. Young, fair, gifted--standing
on the threshold of a new life--why should she care so little for it
unless, as he suspected, she knew its best gifts were nothing without
love, without a heart at peace, a mind untroubled?

"You should not say that, Vivienne," he said softly. "A great and noble
life may be yours; its duties and responsibilities are not given you
only for your own pleasure, or to suit your own inclinations. Every
heart has its own burden of bitterness to bear; and though your trials
of the past may have dimmed and sobered many of your anticipations, I
cannot but think the future will make amends for it. And, Vivienne,"
he continued, more gently and tenderly still, "I cannot help seeing
there is some unhappiness weighing down your heart. I do not seek your
confidence if you have no wish to bestow it, but I wish you would
trust me and let me help you as though I were indeed your brother. Do
not throw your life's best happiness away because of a pride that is
foolish and unjust, because of a faith that has asked too much. Your
wrongs may be only fancied, your doubts a word might heal."

"Oh, hush!" she said entreatingly; "you do not know, Albert, you do not
know."

"What do I not know?" he asked, in the same gentle voice, though his
heart bled inwardly with the torture of his own sufferings. "Do you
think, Vivienne, that one who has known you so long, who has loved
you so well as I have done, cannot read your heart better than you
yourself! Oh, Vivienne! what has pride to do with love? Is a man's
whole life, his whole happiness, of such little account to you that you
can afford to sacrifice it for a little doubt, a too exacting pride, a
half-hearted faith, that is not worthy of the love it rejects? What are
women made of that they cannot feel for the madness and the misery they
shower broadcast on the earth?"

His eager, passionate words went home to the girl's proud heart all the
more because she knew how unselfish was his pleading, how noble his
devotion to his boyhood's friend: because she felt how deep was the
pain of his own love as it battled with that for which he sought her
pity.

"You plead his cause eloquently," she said, turning her face away from
his earnest gaze. "Did he send you here for that purpose?"

"Vivienne!" cried Albert in pained astonishment, "how can you wrong him
so?"

"What I said I mean," she answered haughtily "I do not look at words
and promises, but at deeds and actions. What has he done to prove his
sincerity? Once he loved Blanche de Verdreuil--it was before the Count
married her, true--but for all that her fascinations could sway and
allure him still, and cost him his inheritance. Her death gave him,
or seemed to give him back what he had lost. Then came the discovery
of this will, and he learns it is I who hold what he had long believed
to be his own. In restoring it he has acted honourably, I allow, but
he must have been false to every creed of his race, to every code of a
gentleman's honour, if he had not done an act of simple justice to one
who has been so deeply wronged. Oh, Albert!" she cried, with a sudden
burst of passionate tears, "if I could tear away these empty honours he
has thrust upon me, and cast them at his feet, I would do it gladly,
cheerfully, only to stand before his sight as the nameless beggar-girl,
the homeless orphan who first came to Renonçeux. Then I would know if
indeed his words were true, if he would wed me, love me for myself
alone, not for what I bring!"

"I know he would," said Albert. "Vivienne do you not think, by the
light of my own feelings for you, I can read the truth of another man's
heart? You wrong Raoul cruelly, you misjudge him deeply, if you think
his love for you is not a passion, strong, faithful, steadfast as his
own nature is--if you fancy for a single moment that he gave a thought
to what you were, once he deemed you free to be wooed by himself.
Vivienne, listen to me; it is God's truth I speak. I would willingly
die to serve you--to make you happy--to save you pain; and it wrings my
heart to see you wilfully disregarding a love, noble, true, and worthy
of you, as that which Raoul has offered. He has loved you so long--only
think how long, from the moment he saw you in Paris--and I know his
life, I know his heart so well that I am convinced this tale of Blanche
de Verdreuil's is entirely false. He would not be disloyal to me. I
had told him of my secret long before he ever saw you, and therefore
it was that he never spoke of love; he never whispered one word that
might lead you to believe he loved you so long as he thought you cared
for me. When he left Renonçeux so abruptly, it was because Blanche de
Verdreuil told him you had confessed to her that you loved me, and on
that same night his father, who had seen him talking to the countess,
accused him of seeking to dishonour him in his old age. For these
reasons you need not surely wonder at that strange, abrupt departure
from the château: and you know well, Vivienne, that from that day
forward chance robbed you both of all opportunity for any explanation
on the subject. It was only when I confessed to Raoul how hopeless was
my love, how all chance of winning you was over, that he showed me
at last the secret of his own heart--the secret you never suspected
through all these weary years, when he has suffered dishonour, exile,
shame, for the falsehood and treachery of the woman who has done her
best to poison our three lives. Oh, Vivienne! if you knew all he has
borne, all he has endured--how his heart has been rent with agony,
and yet how bravely and steadfastly he took up the burden of life and
suffered in silence and alone, so that even I, his nearest and his
truest friend, never for one moment suspected it--if you knew all this,
surely, surely you would not wrong him by suspicions so ungenerous, so
utterly unfounded as those which well nigh broke his heart when he left
your presence last."

He ceased, and Vivienne was weeping bitterly now. All pride, all
doubts, all wrong forgotten, she abandoned herself at that moment to
the full overmastering force of a grief passionate, self-accusing,
remorseful.

How she had wronged him--that was all she thought--how cruelly she had
wronged him! She saw it all so plainly now--now, when it was too late.
All the old perfect love and perfect faith of her childish days welled
up in her heart again, forcing down the unbelief that had made her
so cruel, and so scornful, when he had pleaded with her for faith in
his words and trust in his truth. A tempest of sobs shook her slight
frame; all the self-command, the fierce restraint she had placed on her
feelings of late gave way utterly now. She forgot Albert's presence,
she forgot her own pride; she only remembered all she had lost by her
own folly. She learnt, in the full awakening of a woman's passion, the
torture and the suffering of a woman's love.

"He has gone away believing me so proud, so worthless! He will think I
am not worthy of his love. Oh, Albert! I am the most wretched woman in
all the world."

"Ah, Vivienne!" said the young artist sadly, "why were you not more
true to yourself? Why did you falsify your whole nature to make you
seem unworthy?"

Her head sank on her hands; her pride was broken and abased at last.
She only thought how she had wronged the noble heart whose love had
been all her own.

Albert watched her silently. He knew now he had judged her rightly;
he knew why all his devotion, all his worship, had failed to win her
love--the love that had been given long ago to the friend he had sworn
to serve at any cost.

The torments of jealousy had no place in his heart now. He had said
rightly when he told Raoul that no question of who loved her best had
ever arisen in his mind; it was only whom she loved, and now he
knew that without doubt; and though he strove to be calm, to accept
his fate, a heavy, deadly oppression lay on his heart; the force and
strength of the one great passionate love he had ever known battled
fiercely against the leash of self-restraint.

As he saw her bowed down, weeping, remorseful, a great longing came
over him to fall at her feet, to clasp her once more to his own aching
heart, to kiss away the tears from those proud, lustrous eyes, hidden
now for very shame and misery from his eager gaze.

But he restrained himself, though the hot blood rushed from his heart,
flushing the worn, pallid outline of his cheek. His agony was greater
than his strength; he had not thought the task he set himself could
be so severe, so perilous to himself. But Vivienne in her beauty, her
loneliness, her grief, was more than he could resist; yet if he spoke,
or touched her now, he knew he would be false to the duty he had sworn
to accomplish, disloyal to the friend he loved only second to her.

The sincerity, the fealty, the self-surrender, he had vowed were all
so weak when weighed in the balance with a passion that throbbed in
every pulse, that lived in every heart-beat. It took all his courage to
battle with the temptings of his own nature, the whispers of his own
passion; and while that terrible conflict went on within him, the girl
he loved so vainly, so unselfishly, was thinking only of herself, of
Raoul, forgetting that the young artist had won back her faith and her
trust in his friend at a cost so painful, so fearful to himself.

The red flush slowly faded from the wan, white face before her. Albert
felt his eyes grow dim, his brain dizzy, with the agony he endured
at that moment. He rose, slowly, feebly, with a strange, uncertain
movement like that of a man smitten with sudden blindness in the light
of the vivid, golden sunshine.

"I must leave you now," he said faintly, turning his face aside that
she might not read his suffering. "I will come--soon--again."

Ere she could rise or speak, she saw him reel heavily forward--his arms
outstretched to save himself; then in an instant he lay on the ground
at her feet, his face white and rigid as death, a crimson torrent
rushing from his lips, dying the folds of her white dress with its
fearful stains.




BOOK VIII.




CHAPTER I.--AS LAST YEAR'S ROSES.


"What though I die, I die content,
For 'tis for her--
'Tis at her feet I die."
.... Goethe.


THE wild, terrified shriek with which Vivienne saw Albert fall at her
feet brought Madame Pitteri and Maruccio to the room.

"Oh, he is dying, I am sure he is dying!" cried the frightened girl, as
she bent over the prostrate form, while still that awful crimson stream
welled slowly over the ground, and the rigid features never relaxed
from their death-like repose.

"He has broken a blood-vessel; you must send for a doctor!" said Madame
Pitteri, who was the most composed and least alarmed of any.

"But do you think we should raise him?" said Vivienne, lifting her
white, terrified face from where she knelt by Albert's side. "Oh,
madame! it is so dreadful to see him lie here bleeding like this!"

"I scarcely like to move him," said the old lady; "but haste, Maruccio!
send Giâ for the doctor! He can take the horse, and tell him to
fly--speed--make all haste!"

"I saw the doctor pass here not ten minutes ago," said Maruccio. "You
know him, signora--the Doctor Florio who attends at the Villa
Santilla up on the hill. Giâ can overtake him in a few moments, he is
so fleet of foot."

"Send him for heaven's sake, then!" said Vivienne impatiently. "While
you talk, my friend is dying!"

The old woman left the room, and Vivienne and Madame Pitteri resumed
their efforts at restoring the suspended animation to the senseless
figure before them. How long the time seemed as they waited for medical
help! What an eternity of horror were those anxious moments when the
white, still face was locked in that rigid semblance of death, and
neither pulse nor heart-beat gave any sign of returning life!

At last, however, the physician arrived--the little bare-footed Italian
lad, who worked and ran errands for Maruccio, having overtaken him at a
short distance from the villa, and brought him back with all speed, as
he had been ordered.

Very grave and anxious he looked as he helped to raise the young
man and laid him on the couch while he tried to check the fearful
hemorrhage slowly and surely draining the life-blood from his lungs.

"It is not the first time this has happened," he said at length to the
old Italian lady--Vivienne having been dismissed from the room for ice
and bandages. "But I fear one of the larger vessels in the lungs has
burst. He is in great danger; on no account must he be moved either.
The least exertion or excitement will bring on a fresh attack of
hemorrhage. There, see, he is opening his eyes. Don't speak, signor,"
he added earnestly, as Albert looked wonderingly up at the strange face
bending over him--"Not a word--not a word, as you value your life!"

The young man closed his eyes with a faint sigh. He was too exhausted
for any words; he could not have moved or spoken, had he wished.

He lay there throughout the day, utterly spent, utterly wearied, and,
ere night fell, the doctor declared in confidence that, though the
immediate danger was passed--though the spark of life was not extinct
yet--Albert Hoffmann's days were numbered; he could not possibly live
many months more.

Vivienne heard the fiat of science with a strange, sick horror. It
seemed too dreadful to believe at first. She shuddered as she thought
of the young gifted life, so pure, so fair, so sinless, yet condemned
to death so early. All the promise of its genius, all the gifts of its
intellect, condemned to the silence of the grave ere ever the world
had recognized their beauty, or acknowledged their worth. The fragile
life was stricken down with the bloom of its early promise still
lingering in fresh, unsullied beauty on the scarce unclosed petals of
existence, in the first fair radiance of its years. Without a thought
that was impure, without a dream that was unholy, without one taint of
dishonour, one breath of shame, one stain of wrong upon it, the life
of the boy-artist was over for the world ere the world had learnt its
value, or heard its teachings. All he had striven for so vainly, all he
had sought so long, could never vex him again from the far-off heights
of hopes never realized, of ambitions never attained. Perhaps in the
exalted perfection of a better land he would complete the lessons begun
in this.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Slowly and wearily the days drifted by, and slowly the spark of life
wavered and burnt in the fragile form of the young artist. He remained
at the Villa Constanza, nursed with tender and unremitting care by
Vivienne and Madame Pitteri, as well as an experienced Sœur de Charité
sent by Doctor Florio. It was only after he was pronounced out of
danger that he allowed Vivienne to write to Raoul and acquaint him with
his illness. Unfortunately Raoul had left Paris ere the letter reached
there, and only received it a month later. But the first announcement
of Albert's illness decided him to return to Florence. He gave up his
post as soon as arrangements could be made at the Embassy, urging
important private affairs as his plea; and as he had never shirked duty
however arduous, or missions however irksome, he obtained leave of
absence readily, and was soon speeding back to Florence with a haste
and swiftness that took no count of fatigue or thought of rest for
himself.

Tumult and noise deafened him, change and speed wearied him; but
throughout all, and above all, that one longing to be with his friend
in the hour of his danger and weakness was ever in his heart. He
thought of another journey on a like errand, and how he had come too
late. Would it be so now? He groaned aloud as he thought of it; he
prayed--oh how earnestly!--to be in time.

The days grew warmer; the spring was already at hand. He felt the
sweep of southern breezes, and saw the blue of southern skies. The
days grew hot and cloudless, the nights brilliant with starshine; but
above all the beauty of the earth and the radiance of the heavens and
the confused noise and constant motion of sound and tumult around him,
he seemed to read that one great fear which had seized his heart when
Vivienne's letter reached him--the fear of Albert's death.

When the lilies were blooming in the meadows around, when the air blew
soft and fragrant over the young buds of the vines, when the delicious
spring of Italy was at its fairest, when the bloom of violets and
anemones filled every wood, and the glory of the sunlight touched
the rippling waters, and lent a blush of warmth and colour to the
budding flowers, he reached Florence at last. The bells were sounding
for evening prayer, the reddened shadows of the roofs caught all the
radiance of the heavens, and over the lily-whitened meadows came all
the fragrance of the spring, and the last murmurs of the day's farewell.

The world has many cities, great, queenly, noble, but few, if any of
them, can rival the loveliness of Florence. She holds no memories of
terror, of evil, and of shame. The day-star of liberty has shone on
her so long, and if her efforts at freedom have at times been blind,
or ignorant, or fancy-led, they at least have been free from tyranny
or slavish fear. The music and the poetry and the beauty of her past
greatness thrill through her still, like a pulse that can never cease
to beat, a song that can never cease to sound. Beauty has been with her
always, is with her still, and, looking at her to-day, the memories of
other years come back--noble, glorious, great. Men cannot forget even
now all she has suffered and achieved for the world in the past, to
immortalize it in the present and the future.

Raoul welcomed the first sight of the fair city and its familiar beauty
as he would have welcomed a friend. His journey was over at last. Then,
and only then, he remembered he was quite ignorant of Albert's address.
Vivienne had said in her hasty letter that he had been taken alarmingly
ill at her villa, that his life was in danger, and the doctor in
attendance expressed great doubts of his recovery.

But had Albert remained at the villa all this time, or been removed
elsewhere?

This could only be decided by inquiring in person, and though Raoul
de Verdreuil felt no inclination to intrude on Vivienne after what
had passed between them on the last occasion, yet consideration for
Albert's health, and his own anxiety respecting it, conquered his
scruples, and, having left his luggage at the hotel where he had
previously remained, he hastened to the Villa Constanza to make known
his arrival.

He drove swiftly through the lighted streets, all gay and brilliant now
with the mirthful, exuberant gaiety of an Italian crowd. But the mirth
jarred on him, the music and the jests and the laughter were not in
harmony with his own sad, anxious thoughts, and he longed to be free of
them and out of sight and hearing.

"Oh, God! if I should lose him!" he cried wildly, remorsefully. "No one
has ever loved me as he has done; and I have not half valued it, so
long as there seemed no fear of losing him, so long as his presence was
a certainty."

It is the burden of all human sorrow, this cry of non-appreciation.
Never do we realize the blessing of the love lavished and spent on us
till we lose it. Raoul de Verdreuil knew that now--now, when he could
recall a thousand acts of boyish self-denial, of generous yielding, of
faithful zeal, of unswerving fidelity, and knew that no other heart had
loved him with so true a love, so unselfish a devotion, as this one
friend who might soon be lost to him, whose love had been beyond "the
love of women."

"The years take all from me," he thought wearily--"my loves, my hopes,
my happiness--take all, and leave me but memories and grave-stones
to mark the passage of Time. What have I done? what have I laboured
for so long? Ere my dust has crumbled with its kindred clay, my name
will be forgotten. The little good I have striven to achieve, the very
deeds that made my name ring in men's ears and won praise all the more
sweet because it was reluctant--all these will serve but a very small
end, a very little purpose; and yet men labour on, toil on, strive on,
though they know the best they may do is imperfect, and the greatest is
forgotten."

The carriage stopped suddenly, and his train of thought came to an
end. With a nervous dread, an apprehension altogether new to him, he
dismissed the vehicle, and entered the villa grounds. His summons for
admission was answered by Maruccio as before. He asked her if her
mistress was in, and was answered in the affirmative. His next question
was whether Albert Hoffmann still remained there.

"Oh, yes, signor," said the woman, "the doctor has forbidden him to be
moved; he has never left us since his illness."

"And how is he?" asked Raoul eagerly, "any better?"

"Alas, no, eccellenza!" said the old woman sadly, wiping her eyes as
she spoke. "He is fading just like the blossoms fade; he gets only
weaker and weaker as the days pass by. It makes my heart ache to see
him."

"Will you tell your mistress I wish to speak with her?" said Raoul
huskily. The sight of the woman's emotion made him realize his friend's
danger all too well.

Maruccio immediately led him into the sitting-room, and went to seek
Vivienne.

Raoul stood there looking out into the gardens, though his eyes were
too misty and dim with the great, sorrowful dread which made his
heart ache so bitterly, to see them. The rustle of a woman s dress,
the sound of a light step, made him look hastily round. Then he saw
Vivienne again--not the beautiful, scornful woman who had parted from
him without a word, whose coldness had well-nigh broken his heart--but
pale, weary, languid with signs of suffering and of trouble in her
fair, sweet face, and a world of sorrow in her eyes. She came forward
to greet him very quietly.

"I am glad you have come," she said gently; "it has been a sad and
anxious time. You will find him fearfully changed, I fear!"

"May I see him?" asked Raoul eagerly, his thoughts, like her own,
forgetful of the past estrangement in this moment of suffering.

"Certainly; he is asleep just now, but if you like to sit by him or be
with him you are quite welcome to do so. He asks for you every day,
every hour almost. Doctor Florio says always your presence may be
beneficial to him, even now."

"I came as soon as I could. I have travelled night and day since I
first heard of his illness," said Raoul, as he followed her from the
room.

Vivienne did not answer. She paused before a door at the end of the
passage, softly turned the handle, and, glancing round, made a sign for
Raoul to enter; then she closed the door and left him alone with his
dying friend.

Albert was asleep. Treading softly and cautiously over the carpeted
floor, Raoul came and stood beside his couch, scarcely daring to
breathe for fear of disturbing the death-like slumber in which he lay.

As he looked at him he could have wept like a woman, so changed, so
worn, so fragile was the slender form; so thin and transparent the
white, folded hands, the pale, still face. And he looked so fair, so
boyish still, with the long, silken lashes resting on his cheek, the
rich, golden curls shading the delicate brow.

But a strange, pathetic beauty had shadowed and spiritualized every
feature--the beauty of heaven, the shadow of death. Looking at him as
he lay there, Raoul thought it might have been an angel's face on which
he gazed: so fair, so pure, so totally unlike anything of earth did
it seem. One could never fancy such a face being old, or careworn, or
haggard; it bore only the dreams of youth, the purest imaginings of
genius, and the stamp of heaven sealed its dreamless rest, and hushed
the cares of earth at last on the breast of eternal peace.

"He was not fit for such a world as this," thought Raoul, as he gazed.
"No wonder its doubts, its follies, its blind unbelief in all things
great and pure, were too much for him to contend with! If to lose him
is hard, to keep him seems so cruel! Perhaps the music of his soul will
find kindred echoes in another sphere. God grant it!"

He kept his watch by the sleeper for long. The shadows deepened, the
stars shone in through the casements as if they, too, loved to look at
that fair, sweet face, with its delicate, pathetic beauty, and the calm
of that perfect peace upon it. And they kept watch with him--as though
they were angel's eyes, as though that watch might end in a welcome,
glad and sweet--a welcome for the pure young soul whose noon of life
would soon deepen into the glad, full light of God's eternal day.

Raoul could not buoy himself up with false hopes or fictitious fancies,
though his heart ached when he thought of the coming parting with his
only friend, and he knew that in all the world none other would be so
dear and true a one as Albert Hoffmann. While these thoughts filled
his heart, and his eyes wandered away to the dreamy, cloudless calm
of the starry heavens without, Albert suddenly stirred--moved--awoke.
Very faint and low came his voice to Raoul's ear; in the dusky light he
could not see his face.

"Raoul! dear Raoul! I know that is you; you have come to me at last!"




CHAPTER II.--THE LAST DREAM.


A longing fills my heart,
Oh, how I fain would fly
And seek eternal rest
In that far home on high!"
.... Rückert.


IT almost seemed as if Raoul's presence had given Albert a new lease of
life, for from the hour when he awoke from his long slumber and saw his
friend beside him, he began slowly to mend. The days lengthened into
weeks, and care and attention and devoted nursing won back some frail
remnants of strength to the fragile form, and at last he was able to
leave his couch and feel the sweet, soft air of heaven fan his brow,
and see the rich verdure, the blossoming orchards, the lily-whitened
meadows, and the silver gleam of the Arno once more.

It was April--the month whose praises poets have hymned, April, that
fairest time of the fair young year--when he was at last able to
drive out with Raoul beside him. The land was a garden of beauty. The
sunlight, warm and golden, lent its colour to the wild flowers, and
kissed the rippling waters, and shone in the hearts of the arum-lilies,
on the crimson anemones and purple wood-violets. The lulling sound of
waters, the gliding noise of a bird's flight, the hum of bees rifling
sweets from the wild roses, the tender green of the blossoming vines,
the blue sweep of the stretching heavens--all these had a new and
fairer beauty for the young artist now, and his eyes rested on their
loveliness with the musing gaze of a poet--with the rapt worship of an
artist's nature.

He was very happy, happier than he had ever thought to be on earth
again, for the fever and the pain of his wasted love was softened now,
and he knew--ah, only too well--that his little space of life would
soon be over, that ere another summer had come and gone the grass would
be green above his lonely resting-place, the winds sighing his requiem
among the beechen shadows of the hill-side.

One great joy had been granted him; the one dream of his life would be
realized at last. The opera on which he had set such store was to be
produced in a few weeks' time; Vivienne had determined upon it, and,
what with persuasion and the influence of her new position, had gained
the point. It had been in progress of preparation for some time, and in
three weeks the first performance would be given.

Vivienne had acted upon Raoul's advice. She had appointed Carlo Viotti
as her agent and steward, and he took all trouble off her hands, and
managed her business-affairs so thoroughly and conscientiously that
Vivienne felt deeply grateful for his assistance. She was perfectly
firm in her determination not to leave Florence until the opera season
was over; indeed, she shrank from going back to Renonçeux with a
repugnance and aversion she could not conceal, and at which Viotti
marvelled excessively. He was now at Renonçeux, arranging matters
for her, superintending the estates, interviewing the lawyers, and
keeping her all the time well informed of the progress of affairs.
Viotti would rather have occupied his old post of secretary to Raoul
de Verdreuil--would infinitely have preferred to be near him, and of
assistance and service to him as heretofore, but Raoul had so earnestly
desired him to manage for Vivienne--had so represented it as a personal
favour, that he put his own wishes aside, and gave to the young heiress
all the devotion, attention, and zealous help that he would have given
to Raoul himself.

Vivienne wondered sometimes at the deep interest he took in her and
everything connected with her, for he gave her the assistance of a
devoted friend more than the paid services of an ordinary agent. She
knew he was faithfully attached to Raoul, though Viotti's lips were
sealed as to the debt of gratitude he owed his benefactor, and the
strange mystery and full dishonour of Blanche de Verdreuil's life had
never been told to her. Raoul had bound both Albert and Viotti by a
promise never to reveal the secret of the woman who had passed as his
father's wife so long, never to breathe to Vivienne the shame and the
horror of that past, whose infamy would have shocked her pure heart
beyond all words.

She knew nothing, therefore, of Carlo Viotti's connexion with the
dead woman, or of the links which bound him in that mysterious chain
of circumstances to Raoul. She only thought that his affection and
devotion were the fruits of some generous relief, some timely aid
granted in the past by the man he loved so faithfully. Between Raoul
and herself there existed now a coldness and restraint which lay like
a gulf between them. He was studiously courteous, unfailingly gentle;
but the calm, cold politeness of his manner was a barrier she could not
break down. He never spoke to her unless obliged; he neither advised,
nor directed, nor questioned her proceedings. In his visits to his
friend, the very fact of her entrance or presence would check the tide
of speech on his lips and make him silent, constrained, indifferent.
Vivienne saw the change, and her heart ached at it. She knew she had
only herself to blame; she told herself again and again that her scorn
had killed all Raoul's love--that her doubts and suspicions had angered
him beyond forgiveness--that never again would she hear him plead for
her trust, and pray for her love as he had done once.

And his coldness was torture now. She could not explain what he
appeared to have forgotten: she could not plead for what he never
seemed to seek. She also could only suffer silently, proudly, making no
sign, betraying no pain, but feeling that she would give all the world
could she break down that chilling reserve, and win one smile from the
grave, proud lips--one look of softer feeling from the eyes that only
looked with tenderness on Albert Hoffmann's face.

But Raoul was not changed; in his heart the same wild passion throbbed;
in his veins the same hot, rapturous joy ran swift and fierce with
every sight of her face, every sound of her voice. But he would not
betray it again. He would not have her say such words as had almost
maddened him by their scorn and disbelief when first he told her of his
love.

At times his task was hard, but to Raoul the lesson of endurance
and self-restraint was nothing new. When he looked at the delicate
loveliness of her face, the dreamy, lustrous, passionate eyes, he
longed with all a man's mad longing to win her for himself, to hold
her to his heart, to feast his eyes, his lips, his senses in that
intoxication of joy which could only come with the love of this one
woman who was all the world to him. Yet he made no sign; he stifled
every word, every look that could have betrayed such longings; beneath
the icy exterior of his manner to her there gleamed no warmth or glow
from the lava fires of his heart. The passion, that at times would have
broken forth in hot, unconsidered words, he crushed back from his lips.
A chain lay upon his love which only she could break, so long as she
kept silence, so long he held it back.

The brilliance of her beauty, the light of her smile, the infinite
tenderness of her manner to Albert--all these were torture to him now.
Only the stoniest self-command, only the very coldest courtesy dared
he permit himself to show; and it was little wonder if Vivienne at
last believed the semblance to be reality, the coldness unfeigned.
Raoul de Verdreuil had never permitted himself to be the slave of
his passions, even in his youth; and now, though the task was harder
than any previous one, he yet placed a curb upon them as stern, as
inflexible, as any of the mailed knights of old, and only in solitude
did he dwell on his own madness, did he linger on the memory of that
sweet enchantment, or the impassioned fancies of his visions of love.
He told himself that love was doomed to be his curse--that since he had
yielded the long-kept mastery of his life to a woman's power, he would
never know peace or content again; but all the telling could not bring
him back his freedom, could not restore the old calmness to his heart,
the old indifference to his life. "It is too late now," he would say
half unconsciously, "too late for reason; come what may, I shall love
her till my death."

Ah! there is no love so hard to conquer as the love we fight against
with every effort of our will--the love we crave and covet, while all
the time we tell our hearts it is not for us, it can never, never be
ours. Passion blessed with fruition becomes soon valueless, but the
love that has known no hope for its yearning, no solace for its pain,
no satiety for its wild desires, is, of all others, the love that burns
and throbs in heart and pulse with every breath of life--is the only
love unconquerable by will, and unconquered by death.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It was the night before that fixed for the performance of Albert
Hoffman's opera. The rehearsals had been constant, the preparations
were complete; the only regret the young composer had was that he
himself was unable to conduct it. That was quite impossible now.

His beloved score had to be entrusted to a stranger's care, and
produced under a stranger's supervision; but still he was determined to
be present on the opening night, and, though Doctor Florio shook his
head and looked grave at the proposition, and Raoul strove tenderly to
dissuade him, he was firm in his resolve.

"It is only a question of time, Raoul," he said, in answer to his
friend's remonstrances, "only a question of time for my health to last
now; I know that full well, and this may be the last pleasure I can
have on earth. You surely do not wish to deprive me of it?"

And Raoul, turning sadly away from the wistful face and pleading eyes,
had no heart to say more. So it came to pass that Albert had his way,
and was content.

On the night previous to the performance he was sitting by Raoul's side
at the open window of the room Vivienne had given unto him. She had
just left them, and passed out into the grounds, and they could see
her walking slowly up and down the terrace below--the shimmer of the
moonbeams resting on the dusky softness of her hair, the while folds of
her trailing dress.

They were both silent as they watched her; for to both her presence had
an intoxication, a delight sweet and sad with its nameless pain and
its silent hopelessness. It was a hot, windless night. The stars were
shining in myriads above the cypress-woods; the heavy odours of the
roses scented all the air; the silvery gleam and showering spray of a
fountain sparkled between a screen of leaves; the far-off sweetness of
a nightingale's song rose and fell on the silence.

"Raoul," said Albert very softly, so that his voice chimed in with the
dreamy silence around them,--"Raoul, you are not happy. I wish you
would unburden your heart to me to-night; for indeed I believe I can
heal some of its pain. I may not be here with you much longer. While I
am, I should like to feel I have done some good."

"Good! Oh, Albert! your life has been nothing but good! What have you
to reproach yourself with? I wish I could say as much for my own!"

"In all our lives there is some sin," said Albert gently. "Mine is
not exempt. I have had fewer temptations than most men, because of my
disinclination to mix with the world as they do, and because in Art I
have found purer joy than in any other thing in life save one. But that
was a dream--it is all over now for ever--and, Raoul, it is of this I
wish to speak to you. Vivienne loves you. Do you not believe it? It is
true--quite true. I tell you with my dying breath, for I know my hours
are numbered, and I want--oh, how I want you to be happy ere I leave
you, Raoul! Vivienne is very proud, and you are very proud, and you are
both heaping up endless misery for yourselves because neither of you
will speak, or show the other the secret of your apparent coldness. I
have loved Vivienne ever since I first saw her--ever since she stood in
the music-gallery at Renonçeux, and listened and spoke to me. I have
loved her--yes--but she never cared for me more than a sister cares
for a brother, or a friend for a friend. Somehow, since I loved her,
even my music has not been the same; there is always something missing,
something wanting. It is like searching for a lost note to make one
harmony complete, and I shall never find it here, Raoul--never on
earth, I know."

He paused, and his eyes wandered to the ilex-woods and cypress-groves
beyond, over to where the stars glittered in the radiant heavens, and
the moon hung like a silver lamp in her vault of cloudless blue.

"How beautiful earth is!" he said dreamily. "Ah! even death has no
terrors in Italy. It is like a dream of rest when we are weary--and I
am very weary, Raoul. I have been weary so long--so long--although my
years are few, and my life is young, and one would think it hard for
me to die. But they will not die with me--my works, my labours, my
thoughts--they will be remembered at last, and my name will live after
me; that is happiness enough!"

"To-morrow will decide: after that I have no fear. If I am worth
remembering, men will believe it then."

His hopes, his thoughts, his ambitions--all centred in this work, this
one utterance of his genius which was to make or mar his fame--to force
the world to believe in him at last. Of failure he never dreamed; of
success he never doubted; and he lay back now on his cushions with a
light of rapture and of hope in his eyes that almost startled Raoul as
he watched him.

Presently he spoke again.

"When I am gone, Raoul, you will know I was right when I said Vivienne
loves you--only you. I do not think she has ever given a thought to
another man; she made a hero of you ere ever she saw you, when I used
to tell her how good and great and noble you were. If you will but
lay aside your pride, and speak to her once more, you will find she
has long ago repented that cruel rejection which arose partly from a
woman's jealousy, partly from a woman's pride and want of faith. I will
not tell you more, for I want you to learn the truth from her own lips;
the happiness will be so much the greater for you both. I shall know of
your happiness, perhaps, and rejoice in it too, though I have done with
the things of earth for ever."

"Albert," said Raoul hoarsely, "your words are like new life to me;
but--to gain my joy at the expense of yours--it is the one drop of
bitterness in my cup!"

"But you must not think I envy you," said Albert. "If I were to live on
for long years yet, I should still rejoice that the two friends I love
best are happy and content at last; and I should still have one great
comfort left--for music was in my soul always, and it never has died
out of it, nor would die for any sufferings, any privations I might
have had to bear. Do you remember, Raoul, how you used to laugh at me
once, and call me a dreamer and an idler, and declare I was not fit to
do anything in the world? Perhaps you were right; the battle was soon
over. It seemed to take all the spirit and the strength out of me, and
I have grown weary of it all now."

"Don't speak so," cried Raoul hoarsely. "Your words seem like a
reproach to me. I might have helped you, I might have made things
easier for you. I might have smoothed the rough places you have had
to tread. I ought never to have left you to fight the battle of life
unaided and alone."

Albert looked up in the troubled face, his own eyes full of love and
tenderness unutterable.

"You must not say or think that, Raoul," he answered gently. "You have
nothing to reproach yourself with; never had man a friend more true, a
love more loyal than yours. Believe me, it is better as it is, better
I should die now, than live on through years of pain and weakness, for
I can never be strong again. And when one is weak and useless, always
dreaming of things that can never be--always weary and tired as I have
been of late--surely the rest that comes with eternal peace is the best
gift God can bestow."

And Raoul, looking at the white face, the listless hands, the blue
veined lids drooping so wearily over the beautiful, boyish eyes, felt
that he was right. Earth was indeed no fit place for him.

He bent towards him in the dusky gloom, while the moonlight fell with a
glory of its own on the face he loved so well. He could not speak; his
heart was full of a terrible, speechless grief, but he bent his lips on
the white brow, so pure, shadowless, so calm--and that mute caress told
all he felt.




CHAPTER III.--ERE THE END COMES.


"A tale of high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted."
.... Coleridge.


THE mellow heat of noon, warm with summer's near approach, fragrant
with all the odours of the spring, rested on Florence, bathing her
dusky palaces in glowing colour, gleaming like gold on the Arno's
winding waters. The soft south wind stirred the cypress-boughs and
blew the rosy clouds of oleander-leaves across Albert Hoffmann's face
as he lay on a pile of shawls and cushions in the garden of the Villa
Constanza. He was listening to Vivienne's voice as through the open
windows beyond he heard her singing her favourite arias in his opera of
"Kunigunde." The last rehearsal had taken place, but she was still
practising her part, determined, as Albert laughingly told her, on
"perfecting perfection."

Albert was expecting Raoul to come, and was awaiting him in the garden,
where he usually spent his afternoons now. He loved to see the sunlight
resting on the city through the veil of olive-leaves beyond the walls,
and to hear the birds' songs breaking the stillness, and watch the
cool shadows sleeping under the ilex-leaves. On this day he had been
restless, uneasy, disturbed, wholly unable to settle down into anything
like quiet; and Vivienne had softly chided him for his restlessness,
and declared that, unless he would try and compose himself a little, he
would be quite unfit to go to the opera-house that evening.

She had been glad when he at last went out into the gardens, and,
having seen him comfortably settled there, screened from the heat
and protected from the sun, she left him, to have one more private
rehearsal, she laughingly told him--but in reality because she wished
to avoid Raoul, and she knew he would soon be there. He was to spend
the afternoon--dine with them, and accompany them afterwards to the
opera.

Albert felt his restlessness vanish, and insensibly grew calmer as he
lay there, lulled by the dreamy warmth of the air, the heavy fragrance
of the orange-blossoms, the thrilling magic of the exquisite voice that
alone broke the stillness with its passionate waves of melody--its
mournful, pathetic meaning. It echoed over the silence of the deserted
gardens, eloquent as any Pasta's, it bore to him the fuller meaning
of his own labours, it interpreted the idealic loveliness of his own
thoughts.

Albert had searched the classic lore and innumerable traditions of his
fatherland for a subject for his opera; and the story of the suspected
wife, whose innocence heaven itself had determined to prove by a
miracle, was the one he had chosen at last. It gave best scope for
dramatic force--for realistic and poetic imagery. He had poured out in
its conception and incarnation all the passion and fervour of his soul,
all the joy and hope that were dead in his own life.

If he was ignorant of most of the ways of men, if his heart still kept
the innocence and simplicity of his boyhood, in his art he brought
all the vivid force of imagination to atone for it; and out of all
the pure, soul-fed fancies of his nature sprang poems of exquisite
beauty--music of grandest power--loveliness sublime, ethereal,
inspired, that was destined yet to haunt the world with its pure
teachings, and stir it to wonder and delight by its genius.

"Kunigunde" was a poem in itself. His matured knowledge, his
untiring zeal, had all been spent upon it. By it his fame would be
decided; through its success his name would live; and the wealth and
thought and labour spent in its creation be pronounced worthy of all
success--deserving of the triumph he sought.

While these thoughts flushed his face and brightened his eyes, and
stirred his heart with that alternation of hope and fear which is
inseparable from all dreams of fame the nearer their realization
approaches, he heard Raoul's step advancing at last. He raised himself
hastily from his languid attitude, the hectic colour deepening, the
blue, dreamy eyes flashing a welcome warm and tender as a woman's, on
the face he loved so dearly.

"At last you have come! The time has seemed so long without you,
Raoul," he said eagerly. "You are later than usual, are you not?"

"Yes, I was detained by Viotti. He has come from Paris. He wanted to
see Vivienne, but I told him not to trouble her with business matters
to-day; she will want all her attention for the great event of the
evening."

"I don't think she is at all nervous respecting her part," said Albert;
"and I tell her she is perfect in the music. Of course I cannot judge
of the acting, as I have not been present at any rehearsal; but I have
no fear of her success. It is not every composer who is fortunate
enough to obtain a prima donna so gifted, and yet so humble, so
amenable to all his hints and instructions as Vivienne has been to
mine."

"You must not dwell too much upon it though," said Raoul, as he threw
himself down beside his friend on the tangled grasses, all starred with
showers of fallen blossoms from the wind-stirred boughs above. "What
an exquisite day this is! You have chosen the fairest spot for your
retreat, I think, in all the gardens."

"Vivienne chose it," answered Albert; "she scolded me for being so
restless and dissatisfied all day, and finally brought me out here to
see if that would have a better effect on my nerves. I think she was
wise, don't you?"

"You look too excited to please me," said Raoul, as he laid his hand
lightly on the burning, wasted hands of the young artist. "You won't
be fit to go out to-night if you do not try and gain a little more
composure."

"Oh! I shall be all right by that time," answered Albert, with a laugh
that somehow sounded forced and unnatural to Raoul's ears.

He did not like Albert's looks, his feverish pulse, his flushed face,
and the painfully brilliant light in his eyes. He strove to calm down
his excitement. He led him to speak of other things, of other days,
and then he took out a book--a work whose power and force had already
made men talk of its author in wonder, and give his name rich guerdon
of praise, while they quoted and admired it for truths almost too noble
and exalted to seem attainable on earth.

The book was his own, and the secret of its authorship was known
only to Albert. As Raoul read out chapter after chapter, his rich,
musical voice giving new power and infinite charm to the words, Albert
insensibly yielded to the reaction of the day's excitement, to the
lulling peace of the hour, the soothing calm of the voice beside
him. His eyes closed, the fever-flush died out of his face, and the
profound repose of the slumber he needed, stole softly over his
wearied brain. Scarcely daring to move for fear of disturbing him,
Raoul closed the book and sat silently watching the sleeper. He looked
more fragile, more delicate than ever, as he lay in the hushed calm
of that trance-like slumber, the green tracery of the leaves falling
shadow-like across his brow; the bars of the slanting sunlight mingling
with the gold of his hair.

As Raoul watched him he felt a light touch on his shoulder, and,
glancing hastily up, he saw Vivienne standing there. He had not heard
her come, so soft had been her step on the velvet sward behind him.
She handed him a light, fleecy-looking shawl of some fine wool, and
whispered him to wrap it round Albert.

"I do not like his sleeping in the open air," she said softly, "but it
seems a pity to disturb him--rest is so essential now."

Raoul covered the prostrate figure as gently and carefully as a woman,
and then, rising to his feet, he walked by Vivienne's side up and down
the mossy lawn beyond, just within sight and hearing of the sleeper,
should he waken.

It was both unusual and strange for him to seek her, even for a moment,
and the girl wondered at his doing so now. They were silent for some
moments, though the subtle charm of each other's presence had a
power and an eloquence that needed no speech. A new, strange shyness
oppressed Vivienne, and gave her face a flush of softened feeling, of
half-proud, half-shy grace, lovelier than any of the brilliance and
brightness that sometimes rested on it.

As Raoul spoke, the shyness deepened, the grave, gentle look he
remembered so well replaced the ordinary proud indifference of her
face, and almost insensibly the change acted on his own heart like a
spell. His voice had a richer melody, and in his eyes the light of
passion, intense and uncontrollable, burned and glowed once more. He
thought of Albert's words. Could it, indeed, be possible that she
loved him? The thought seemed wild, vain, incredible for very joy and
sweetness of its folly. He would wait and watch still, ere risking all
his happiness again on the presumptuous madness of a love he could not
conquer.

He walked on beside her mechanically, as one in a dream, his senses
steeped in the languor and intoxication of her presence too utterly for
him to do more than wonder at his weakness, and succumb irresistibly to
it.

Now and then the flash of a giddy, exultant rapture ran swiftly through
his veins. He scarcely dared ask himself why he hoped once more--only
it seemed to him that the coldness and indifference had all vanished
from her manner to-day--that the proud, soft eyes were shy and tender
with the tenderness of a woman's love, and the regret of a woman's pity.

They talked of nothing personal; but the very care with which they
avoided it showed plainly enough it was from fear of some secret and
hidden danger lurking beneath such a subject. Had they been really
indifferent to each other, such avoidance would have been unnecessary.

The afternoon wore slowly away, the shadows lengthened, the daylight
faded in the west, and they stood and watched the sunset splendour of
the heavens reddening the marble spires of the distant city, flashing
in light and glory over the rippling waters of the Arno.

"How beautiful Florence is!" said Vivienne softly; "there is no other
city I love so well or I think so fair."

"I can well believe it," he answered. "She has a charm that entrances
all hearts--a spell that binds young and old. Hark! how the bells sound
now! It is the vesper hour already."

"I like those calls to prayer," she said musingly; "the Matin bell, the
Ave Maria, the Vespers. They seem to suit the land, the scenes, the
hours in Italy so well."

"But they have a sad meaning too," answered Raoul; "they speak of
superstition--of creeds men have deified and God has disregarded--of
the errors of priesthood, the weary rituals, the endless forms that are
devoid of all heart-worship, that are only men's means for their own
ends, and yet which they pretend are God's commands and God's teaching."

"How ignorant we are at best of what is really true and right!" she
said sadly. "Men's creeds are so numerous, so perplexing. It is one
endless struggle in groping for light in the midst of surrounding
darkness."

"And the light is only there," he said reverently, as his eyes
rested on the golden bars of the setting sun, and the crimson glory
of the western heavens. "Nature's God is the only God whose wisdom
defies all change of time and creeds. We learn greater truths on the
mountain-heights, the desert sands, the forest depths, than ever we
learn in stuccoed churches, at painted altars, at shrines of gold and
marble, at the confessionals of priests no wiser, no better, no nearer
heaven than the poor penitents they blind and keep in ignorance for
their own purposes."

"You are right, I think," she answered softly; "there is no temple so
fair, so great, as that--no teaching so pure, so grand, yet withal
so simple, as the teaching we learn from thence."

He looked on her with that new-born glow of passion in his eyes, made
nobler now by the thoughts she had awakened. As he watched her face,
his heart grew at peace within him--lulled to rest by the spell of
her presence--hopeful with the greatness of a love that he had deemed
impossible till Albert's words had once again given it life and faith
and gladness.

She seemed to have forgotten him for a moment; her eyes were fixed on
the opal tints of the sky, and her thoughts had wandered far away to
some impossible wonder-land of her own, where he could not follow her.
She looked round at last with a faint sigh, and a hot flush rose to her
face as she met his eyes fixed so earnestly on her.

"I must go," she said hurriedly, "and I think we ought to wake Albert
now. He should not sleep in the open air after sunset."

So they turned back, and while Vivienne went into the house to dress
for dinner, Raoul woke Albert and helped him indoors again.

"I feel so much better and stronger, Raoul," said the young artist
eagerly; "I think my long sleep has done me good."

And Raoul smiled tenderly at the flushed, eager face, and agreed that
he did look better--much better. And neither of them remembered the
change which always seems for the better--ere the end comes.

*  *  *  *  *  *

"Albert," said Vivienne anxiously, as the hour at last arrived when
she must depart for the opera, "promise me that you will sit quietly
in your box and be as careful of yourself as possible. You are not to
show yourself unless absolutely necessary. Doctor Florio, do make
him take care!" she added entreatingly, as the old physician approached
them. "I shall never be able to act or sing if I am tortured with
anxiety about your patient. I think it is very unwise of him to go
to-night."

Albert smiled brightly at the beautiful pleading face above him.

"Have no fear, Vivienne," he said gaily, "I will be a model of
propriety and caution. As for not going, I should be in a raging fever
with anxiety and suspense if I remained at home."

"I had no idea you were so wilful," she said as she turned away. "Now I
must not wait another moment or I shall be late."

Raoul took her to her carriage, and Doctor Florio followed them with
Madame Pitteri.

"You are not afraid of your own powers, Vivienne," he whispered softly,
as he stood beside her in the soft, clear light of the new-risen moon,
waiting for her companion to join them.

She glanced quickly up,--

"No not for myself, I only think of him."

And the words brought no pang of jealousy to Raoul's heart now.




CHAPTER IV.--FAME--AT LAST.


"He heeded not reviling tones,
Nor sold his heart to idle moans,
But, looking upward, full of grace,
He pray'd, and from that happy place
God's glory smote him on the face."
.... Tennyson.


A GLOW of light and colour--a confused sense of gilding and hangings
and laces--a vision of beautiful faces, of graceful, languid forms,
mingling with the faint, sweet odours of flowers from rare bouquets, of
soft voices and rippling laughter rising and falling on the air with
the sweet, chiming, bell-like music of Italian mirth--this was the
first idea the opera-house of Florence conveyed to Albert Hoffman as he
glanced through the curtains of his box after his arrival.

The house was crowded in every part. The advent of a new opera by a new
composer was an irresistible temptation, even if Vivienne's fame and
popularity had not been as great as they were.

The first notes of the overture sounded as Albert and Raoul seated
themselves in the box, and a breathless silence stilled the laughter
and the jests of the audience. The sweet, thrilling notes, with their
powers of sound, their pathetic echoes of sadness, their passionate,
soul-thrilling beauty, stilled the vast assemblage like a spell.

The waves of melody gathered force and volume every moment; the rich
cadences rose and fell and died away, to come back clothed in new
forms, varied by skilful changes; and finally, with a thunder of full
and concentrated power that vibrated through the building and throbbed
like the waves of a mighty sea, the music ceased, the overture was
ended.

A momentary silence--then, as if by one accord, a torrent of applause
ensued. The enthusiasm of the listeners rose to such a pitch that
nothing but the rising of the curtain silenced them, and that alone
prevented the encore which the conductor had almost been forced to
grant.

The opera commenced amidst breathless attention, intense silence, eager
enthusiasm, which only gathered force and fervour with every act.

What music it was! Fresh, graceful, aeriel; sad with pathos, passionate
with feeling, melancholy as the old weird romances of a buried age,
exquisitely tender as the dreams of love when it is young. It was
music that could charm the coldest heart, that bore the eloquence of
teachings pure and noble as they were gifted and sublime--music whose
tender and abiding strains lingered on the ear and haunted the memory,
as the faint, sweet sadness of some departing dream haunts our first
awaking.

Did it tell, to those who listened, the tale of a life's despair? Did
it speak of dying hopes, of passionate longings, and dreams so pure
and great that earth could never satisfy them? Did it speak of the
aching heart and weary brain whose whole powers had been spent in that
creation? Could it tell of that far-off time when a little tender lad
had dreamed his days away in music, seeing beauty and fragrance and
delight in every smile of the sunshine, in every change of the seasons,
whose brain could never rest without weaving every fancy into sound,
every thought into melody?

It bore the impress of all these things to the boy-artist as he
listened to it now. It recalled to him the old, fair, dead days when
his heart woke from the sleep of youth and spent its pure and perfect
passion on a love that had died in hopelessness. It told him in its
sadness and despair of all he had striven to teach the world, all that
it had been too deaf to hear, too blind to see, too heartless to care
about, while yet that care might have satisfied his heart, and saved
his life.

He leaned back on his seat and listened, feeling that new, strange
pleasure which every author's heart feels when he sees the world
is stirred and roused and interested by the creations of his own
brain--when for the first time his power is acknowledged and his genius
crowned by the homage of his fellow men.

Vivienne was unquestionably the attraction which had drawn many to
the opera-house that night; but Vivienne, beautiful, gifted, perfect
as she was, soon became only a part of the representation. Every ear
was charmed, every heart touched by the spell of the music itself; its
passion appealed to the heart, its loveliness haunted the memory, it
was famous for all time from this night forward.

With the close of the fourth and last act the enthusiasm of the
audience knew no bounds. The rapturous outburst of applause filling the
whole house, echoed again and again through the vast building. As the
plaudits reached the ears of the young composer, as his name passed
from one to another in the unanimous call for his appearance, he turned
his eyes away from the stage, and looked at Raoul with the strange,
far-off gaze of a man in a dream.

"Is it--over?" he asked.

"Yes!" said Raoul, looking anxiously at him. "You had better show
yourself just once, Albert; then you must come home."

Louder and more impatient grew the demand of the waiting crowd; then
Albert, suddenly waking to what was required of him, swept aside the
curtains of the box and gazed at the sea of eager faces below, above,
around him. The whole vast arena of the theatre echoed and re-echoed
with his name, and as his face at last appeared, and his grave bow at
last acknowledged the outburst of homage, the tumult was redoubled.
With one common impulse the people rose, their shouts and acclamations
rushing as from one man, one heart, to greet him. The fair, boyish
face flushed with pleasure, the beautiful, dreamy eyes swept over the
faces of the gazing crowd with still that strange, far-off look in
their depths as though they saw nothing. Then a strange noise as of
rushing waters filled his ears. He knew what that sound foreboded.
He staggered back from the place where he stood, and the crowd
around waited--stilled, awe-struck, breathless. An awe oppressed and
overwhelmed them. The look of that white, boyish face haunted them
with a strange dread. But the curtains fell before the box once more,
the orchestra separated, the lights were being extinguished, and they
poured out from the different entrances of the theatre with the music
they had heard on their lips and in their hearts. But in the stage box
was confusion, terror, dismay, for Albert Hoffmann, as he staggered
back in the dizzy, awful faintness of that moment, had fallen into
Raoul's outstretched arms with the life-blood flowing from his lips and
crimsoning the floor with its terrible stains.

So his name was given at last to the fame he sought.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The villa was reached at last, and they bore him to his own room, and
laid him down on the couch he would never leave in life again. He was
not dead yet, though they had feared it in that terrible moment when
his eyes had closed and his senses given way before the strain on his
fragile strength and weakened frame. Not dead--for when Vivienne, white
with terror, faint with fear, came swiftly to the room where they had
laid him, her cry of agony reached him as it thrilled through the
silence of the night, and he opened his eyes at last.

The girl threw herself beside him with a sudden, passionate abandonment
of grief wholly unlike her usual self-restraint.

"Oh, Albert! Albert!" she cried, while her tears fell like rain on
his hands as she bent her head upon them. "You are not going to leave
us now--now, when your genius has won a triumph so great--when the
world owns your power and acknowledges your worth at last?"

Her touch, her voice, gave back for one fleeting moment a pang of life
and strength to the almost pulseless heart, a flush and glow of warmth
to the white, still face. He turned his eyes to hers; the faithful
passion of his long unswerving devotion, lingered there still, despite
the languor of weakness, the near approach of death.

"My one love!" he murmured, so faintly that only her ears could hear
it. "Even my triumph to-night is more precious for your sake than for
its own. You won it for me, Vivienne!"

She was silent. Save for her sobs the room was still as death.
Raoul's eyes lingered on the face of his dying friend with speechless
tenderness, with unutterable regret.

"Albert," he whispered, as he bent over him, "if my neglect or
forgetfulness have in any way brought this upon you, oh, forgive me
now! Indeed, indeed, my remorse is deeper than you think."

"You have never done anything for which I blame you, Raoul," said
Albert gently. "You have been to me the noblest, truest friend that
ever man was blest with--more I cannot say. I have nothing to forgive
you--nothing. You will remember me in your hours of happiness, Raoul,
when the treasure I coveted is safely in your keeping. That is all I
ask of you. Vivienne," he continued, "Vivienne, are you there still? I
cannot see you now, my beautiful darling; but you will not forget me, I
know."

"Never--never!" she sobbed. "Oh, Albert, if you could have been with us
only a little longer!"

"It is God's will," he said reverently. "Vivienne, let your lips touch
mine once only ere I die; he will not envy me that, I know."

The girl raised her head and stooped over him without a word. Kiss
more pure, more passionless, never rested on the lips of man. His eyes
looked on her with that perfect love which in all his life had been so
entirely her own, and with that last caress his last breath fled.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Albert Hoffmann has been buried to-day.

All Florence mourns him with a sad and tender regret. All have striven
to do him honour. His own Mass has been sung in the great cathedral,
his own Requiem chanted as his funeral service. His name is on every
lip, his music on every tongue. His gifted powers, his marvellous
genius, his early death have brought him fame at last.

Ah! the world has a strange fancy of its own for immortalizing genius.
It kills it by neglect, and then--believes in it.

Yes, Florence mourns to-day, and bells peal out slow and sad the tale
of another life departed, and vast multitudes throng the great Duomo
to listen to the Mass the boy-artist wrote in years gone by when the
world would have none of him. And as the deep, rich notes of the organ,
and the clear young voices of the choristers give forth the grandeur of
his music, the beauty of his thoughts, men wonder and women weep, and
all praise the genius they have lost for ever, and adore it with a mad,
impulsive worship born of regret, and sorrow that it has faded from
their midst so early. But the recognition comes too late!

Too late!

Are any words so sad as these with which to immortalize greatness? Is
any satire so severe upon our tardy praises, our blind, unreasoning
neglect? Let those answer who deem that marble and gold, and praise
and worship, can atone to the dead for what has been denied to the
living--who kill all joy and hope and sweetness of life, and then
suddenly wake to the knowledge of its worth, and the remorse of their
long blindness.

The bells are wailing for the dead to-day.

So let them wail, so let them ring. They will never teach these truths
to the living.

*  *  *  *  *  *

It is evening.

The glow of roses burns in the dusky shadows; the glow-worms light
the white radiance of the magnolia-blossoms; all the hill-side is
hushed and still, and on the shelving slopes of leaf and blossom the
fire-flies sparkle and rest till they look star-studded as the skies.
From the city below, the faint sound of voices, the low, sweet chime of
bells, float soft and faint on the wings of the breeze. The moonlight
sleeps on the waters, the stars gleam in the dark, deep blue of the
heavens like lamps which the angels have lighted. The perfect beauty
of the perfect night enfolds the earth with the calm of its breathless
peace, as though sorrow had never saddened, and sin had never
desecrated it.

Two figures stand among the shadows of the ilex-wood, and gaze down at
the massed lights of the city far below.

In the sweet, luminous night, while the moonbeams rest on the face of
the woman he loves, Raoul de Verdreuil's eyes speak their tale of love
again. In the hushed calmness, the dreamy silence and sweetness of the
hour, their hearts speak out their long-guarded secret; their pulses
throb with swift, uncertain beats. In the ecstasy of such an hour, all
the purest, richest joy of life seems concentrated. For a few brief
moments they forget the friend they have lost, the life they have
mourned, with that supreme egotism of passion which holds all other
things of no account beside itself, and the love it craves.

"Vivienne," said Raoul, "am I right in thinking we both erred in the
past? Will you believe me now, if I tell you no pride, no coldness,
no neglect has killed my love for you? Can you trust me--yet?"

Her head bent in its haughty royalty, abashed by the memory of that one
great error--feeling unworthy of the joy that would crown it evermore.

"Oh, forgive me!" she cried, while all the remorse of her heart could
not dim the love that filled her eyes. "I have wronged you, I know, but
I have loved you so long. I know it now--at last!"

"Say that again!" he whispered, drawing her to his breast, while, in
the dusky gloom, his eyes looked down on her with a glory of hope, so
perfect in its joy that no words could have spoken half so eloquently
the deathless love of his heart.

"Say that I love you?" she answered, while the hot colour flushed her
cheeks, and her eyes sank before his own. "I have loved you--always,
Raoul!"

So low, so sweet, so passion-fraught, the tender words fell on his ear;
and as his breathless kisses sealed the lips that uttered them, his
arms pressed closer round her, his heart throbbed with rapture keen as
pain, wild as passion.

The fragrant wind moved softly through the silence; the deep chimes of
distant bells tolled the hour from the lighted city; the rich odours
of dew-laden flowers were heavy on the air; but to those two lovers in
the shadows of the ilex-woods, there was no sound, no breath, no music,
save the wild delight of that long embrace with which they sealed their
love-words, and satisfied the hunger of their hearts at last.

*  *  *  *  *  *

"It seems almost wrong to be so happy," said Vivienne at last, as
she raised her head and looked at him with eyes lustrous as the
stars, humid and gentle with the infinite tenderness of her new-found
joy,--"almost wrong when he is only just laid in his grave."

"Nay, my dearest, our happiness does him no wrong now," said Raoul
reverently. "It was his own wish to see us reconciled--to know us at
rest from all these cruel jealousies, these weary doubts that have
tormented us so long. If he sees us now, Vivienne, I think his tender,
faithful heart rejoices in our joy. The joy we owe to him, for I think
I should never have come back to you but for that message. Why were you
so cruel, my love?"

"I was almost mad with doubt and pain, I think," said Vivienne sadly.
"I believe that woman poisoned all my trust and faith by what she said,
Raoul, for I never felt the same again."

"And you thought I loved her?" said Raoul reproachfully. "Oh, my
treasure! no woman living ever won a thought of love from me but
you! Some day I will tell you the story of my acquaintance with her,
and its disastrous consequences--but not now, my dearest, not now; I
will not sully the brightness of an hour like this by any history of
the sin and shame of other years."

And Vivienne lays her head again on the noble, faithful heart whose
love is all her own, and a great silence falls upon them both; but
no speech can be more eloquent than those soft caresses, no words
more tender than those sighs which tremble on their lips in the very
fullness of their deep content.

Love is enough for them now--the love they have won through much pain
and sorrow, through the anguish of fears and disbelief--the love that
will never leave them in life again; for time cannot chill, nor any woe
appal, nor Death himself unsever it.

*  *  *  *  *  *

In the golden pomp of the early autumn, when the trees were yet bronzed
and reddened with the flush of the waning-summer, there was great
joy and rejoicing at Renonçeux. The château was thrown open to the
daylight, the long-closed windows were draped with costly hangings;
the grand reception-rooms, with their lavish magnificence and perfect
appointments and choice works of art, were all prepared for the new
châtelaine who was coming to her home at last.

The great flag waved from the tower with the De Verdreuil arms
emblazoned on its silken folds; floral arches were erected in the park;
great and numerous were the preparations of the household within, and
the tenantry without; for the glad news had reached them that their
young lord was still to reign there, that he had won for his bride the
beautiful mistress of these fair domains, and that, in gaining her,
they are not to lose him.

When the glory of the western sky was at its brightest, when the
grey towers and painted oriels were golden with the last rays of
sunset, when the great stretching woods of park and forest-land were
flooded with mellow light, a carriage drove swiftly through the open
entrance-gates, and a great shout of welcome rent the silence of the
autumn eve.

Through the stately avenues, the flower-arched aisles, beneath the
sunless shadows of beech and oak and elm-woods, Raoul de Verdreuil
saw his home again, and saw it now with no shame to dim its beauty,
no remorse to deaden its joy, for the glories of his race and the
greatness of his ancestors were once more his own; and though the
memories of the past saddened his heart for one brief moment, the
shadow passed as he looked on the woman beside him--the woman whose
eyes met his with the dreaming, passionate tenderness of a love greater
even than his dreams.

A few moments more, and those two, so long estranged, so cruelly
wronged, stand proudly on the threshold of their home. Through the
long line of bowing servants, who stand on either side of the grand
hall, with its splendour of colouring, its festive draperies, its
rich carvings, they pass on to the rooms beyond, and there, in the
ruddy glow of the firelight--with the warmth and beauty of the autumn
evening, lighting and cheering every familiar nook and corner--they
pause at last. Their eyes meet, and memory is busy with them both.

Every light, every sound, comes to them like a familiar voice; so much
of pain, so much of sorrow, such tender, sad regrets are linked with
this heritage of the race from which they spring. And Raoul's eyes
grow soft and tender as a woman's as he gazes on all around, even as a
long-banished exile gazes on the land for whose beauty he has hungered,
for whose freedom he has pined, in years of anguish and of solitude.

And as he looked his sufferings were forgotten, his pride grew humble
for very thankfulness, his heart grateful for very joy. The hopes
of his youth, the passion of his dreams, the love of his life were
restored to him; and, as he folded her in his arms and let his lips
rest on her own, the full, rich tide of a great joy swept over his
heart--this moment repaid him for all his suffering.

He had foresworn vengeance, he had given mercy; he had learnt the great
lesson of self-conquest in the fiercest temptings of a man's worst
passions; and the conquest had won him a rich and great reward. From
the grave of the past the future won its fairest promises--the present
its deepest peace.




L'ENVOI.

SWEET, sighing winds, balmy with summer's breath, heavy with
summer's fragrance, sweep over the dew-steeped grasses of an Italian
burying-ground. A young girl stands by the side of a grave, and with
tear-dimmed eyes, which see neither earth nor sky nor rosy twilight,
she lays a wreath of fresh-gathered flowers on the marble tablet. It
bears only a name and a date--the name of Albert Hoffmann.

The girl who long ago let her life live in the silent, unreturned love
she had given the young artist, is, after all, the one most faithful to
his memory now. She has no bliss of wedded happiness, no cares of the
busy world, no engrossing duties of rank and station to dim her memory
of the past. She kneels beside his last resting-place, faithful in
death as in life. She knows he is all her own, for none can rob her of
his memory now.

The roses and lilies lie on the cold, white marble of his tomb;
the far-off echoes of the city's mirth float by on the breezes of
the summer night. The graves are white against the shadows of the
cypress-trees, and the moonlight sleeps on the olive-groves beyond.

The fair-haired German maiden kneels by her lover's grave. In life she
was nothing to him; in death she can claim him, think of him, weep
over him as she will. There is no eye to see her in the loneliness
around save the pitying eye of Heaven; there is no ear to hear her wild
prayers, her tearless sobs, save the Ear that is never deaf to human
misery, or heedless of human prayer.

So we leave the young artist to the rest that only comes once to
our weary lives--to the peace which will only reach its uttermost
perfection in another world, with the smiles of God and the glories of
heaven!

THE END.


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