They spoke the truth, for they had reason to know it, having used every means in their power to find out whether he could be induced to quarrel with Philip and enter upon a civil war, which could have had but one issue, since all Spain would have risen to proclaim him king. He had been tempted by questions, and led into discussions in which it seemed certain that he must give them some hope. But they and their agents lost heart before the insuperable obstacle of the young prince's loyalty. It was simple, unaffected, and without exaggeration. He never drew his sword and kissed the blade, and swore by the Blessed Virgin to give his last drop of blood for his sovereign and his country. He never made solemn vows to accomplish ends that looked impossible. But when the charge sounded, he pressed his steel cap a little lower upon his brow, and settled himself in the saddle without any words and rode at death like the devil incarnate; and then men followed him, and the impossible was done, and that was all. Or he could wait and watch, and manoeuvre for weeks, until he had his foe in his hand, with a patience that would have failed his officers and his men, had they not seen him always ready and cheerful, and fully sure that although he might fail twenty times to drive the foe into the pen, he should most certainly succeed in the end,—as he always did.
Philip paced the chamber in deep and angry thought. If at that moment any one had offered to rid him of his brother, the reward would have been ready, and worth a murderer's taking. But the King had long cherished the scheme of marrying Don John to Queen Mary of Scotland,—whose marriage with Bothwell could easily be annulled—in order that his presumptuous ambition might be satisfied, and at the same time that he might make of his new kingdom a powerful ally of Spain against Elizabeth of England. It was for this reason that he had long determined to prevent his brother's marriage with Maria Dolores de Mendoza. Perez and Dona Ana de la Cerda, on the other hand, feared that if Don John were allowed to marry the girl he so devotedly loved, he would forget everything for her, give up campaigning, and settle to the insignificance of a thoroughly happy man. For they knew the world well from their own point of view. Happiness is often like sadness, for it paralyzes those to whose lot it falls; but pain and danger rouse man's strength of mind and body.
Yet though the King and his treacherous favourite had diametrically opposite intentions, a similar thought had crossed the minds of both, even before Don John had ridden up to the palace gate late on that afternoon, from his last camping ground outside the city walls. Both had reasoned that whoever was to influence a man so straightforward and fearless must have in his power and keeping the person for whom Don John would make the greatest sacrifice of his life; and that person, as both knew, was Dolores herself. Yet when Antonio Perez entered Philip's study, neither had guessed the other's thought.
* * * * *
The court had been still at supper when Adonis had summoned Don Antonio Perez to the King, and the Secretary, as he was usually called, had been obliged to excuse his sudden departure by explaining that the King had sent for him unexpectedly. He was not even able to exchange a word with Dona Ana, who was seated at another of the three long tables and at some distance from him. She understood, however, and looked after him anxiously. His leaving was not signal for the others, but it caused a little stir which unhinged the solemn formality of the supper. The Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire presently protested that he was suffering from an unbearable headache, and the Princess of Eboli, next to whom he was seated, begged him not to stand upon ceremony, since Perez was gone from the room, but to order his coach at once; she found it hot, she said, and would be glad to escape. The two rose together, and others followed their example, until the few who would have stayed longer were constrained to imitate the majority. When Mendoza, relieved at last from his duty, went towards the supper-room to take the place that was kept for him at one of the tables, he met Dona Ana in the private corridor through which the officers and ladies of the household passed to the state apartments. He stood still, surprised to see her there.
"The supper is over," she said, stopping also, and trying to scrutinize the hard old face by the dim light of the lamps. "May I have a word with you, General? Let us walk together to your apartments."
"It is far, Madam," observed Mendoza, who suspected at once that she wished to see Dolores.
"I shall be glad to walk a little, and breathe the air," she answered. "Your corridor has arches open to the air, I remember." She began to walk, and he was obliged to accompany her. "Yes," she continued indifferently, "we have had such changeable weather to-day! This morning it almost snowed, then it rained, then it, began to freeze, and now it feels like summer! I hope Dolores has not taken cold? Is she ill? She was not at court before supper."
"The weather is indeed very changeable," replied the General, who did not know what to say, and considered it beneath his dignity to lie except by order of the King.
"Yes—yes, I was saying so, was I not? But Dolores—is she ill? Please tell me." The Princess spoke almost anxiously.
"No, Madam, my daughters are well, so far as I know."
"But then, my dear General, it is strange that you should not have sent an excuse for Dolores' not appearing. That is the rule, you know. May I ask why you ventured to break it?" Her tone grew harder by degrees.
"It was very sudden," said Mendoza, trying to put her off. "I hope that your Grace will excuse my daughter."
"What was sudden?" enquired Dona Ana coldly. "You say she was not taken ill."
"Her—her not coming to court." Mendoza hesitated and pulled at his grey beard as they went along. "She fully intended to come," he added, with perfect truth.
Dona Ana walked more slowly, glancing sideways at his face, though she could hardly see it except when they passed by a lamp, for he was very tall, and she was short, though exquisitely proportioned.
"I do not understand," she said, in a clear, metallic voice. "I have a right to an explanation, for it is quite impossible to give the ladies of the court who live in the palace full liberty to attend upon the Queen or not, as they please. You will be singularly fortunate if Don Antonio Perez does not mention the matter to the King."
Mendoza was silent, but the words had their effect upon him, and a very unpleasant one, for they contained a threat.
"You see," continued the Princess, pausing as they reached a flight of steps which they would have to ascend, "every one acknowledges the importance of your services, and that you have been very poorly rewarded for them. But that is in a degree your own fault, for you have refused to make friends when you might, and you have little interest with the King."
"I know it," said the old soldier, rather bitterly. "Princess," he continued, without giving her time to say more, "this is a private matter, which concerns only me and my daughter. I entreat you to overlook the irregularity and not to question me further. I will serve you in any way in my power—"
"You cannot serve me in any way," answered Dona Ana cruelly. "I am trying to help you," she added, with a sudden change of tone. "You see, my dear General, you are no longer young. At your age, with your name and your past services, you should have been a grandee and a rich man. You have thrown away your opportunities of advancement, and you have contented yourself with an office which is highly honourable—but poorly paid, is it not? And there are younger men who court it for the honour alone, and who are willing to be served by their friends."
"Who is my successor?" asked Mendoza, bravely controlling his voice though he felt that he was ruined.
The skilful and cruel woman began to mount the steps in silence, in order to let him suffer a few moments, before she answered. Reaching the top, she spoke, and her voice was soft and kind.
"No one," she answered, "and there is nothing to prevent you from keeping your post as long as you like, even if you become infirm and have to appoint a deputy—but if there were any serious cause of complaint, like this extraordinary behaviour of Dolores—why, perhaps—"
She paused to give her words weight, for she knew their value.
"Madam," said Mendoza, "the matter I keep from you does not touch my honour, and you may know it, so far as that is concerned. But it is one of which I entreat you not to force me to speak."
Dona Ana softly passed her arm through his.
"I am not used to walking so fast," she said, by way of explanation. "But, my dear Mendoza," she went on, pressing his arm a little, "you do not think that I shall let what you tell me go further and reach any one else—do you? How can I be of any use to you, if you have no confidence in me? Are we not relatives? You must treat me as I treat you."
Mendoza wished that he could.
"Madam," he said almost roughly, "I have shut my daughter up in her own room and bolted the door, and to-morrow I intend to send her to a convent, and there she shall stay until she changes her mind, for I will not change mine"
"Oh!" ejaculated Dona Ana, with a long intonation, as if grasping the position of affairs by degrees. "I understand," she said, after a long time. "But then you and I are of the same opinion, my dear friend. Let us talk about this."
Mendoza did not wish to talk of the matter at all, and said nothing, as they slowly advanced. They had at last reached the passage that ended at his door, and he slackened his pace still more, obliging his companion, whose arm was still in his, to keep pace with him. The moonlight no longer shone in straight through the open embrasures, and there was a dim twilight in the corridor.
"You do not wish Dolores to marry Don John of Austria, then," said the Princess presently, in very low tones. "Then the King is on your side, and so am I. But I should like to know your reason for objecting to such a very great marriage."
"Simple enough, Madam. Whenever it should please his Majesty's policy to marry his brother to a royal personage, such as Queen Mary of Scotland, the first marriage would be proved null and void, because the King would command that it should be so, and my daughter would be a dishonoured woman, fit for nothing but a convent."
"Do you call that dishonour?" asked the Princess thoughtfully. "Even if that happened, you know that Don John would probably not abandon Dolores. He would keep her near him—and provide for her generously—"
"Madam!" cried the brave old soldier, interrupting her in sudden and generous anger, "neither man nor woman shall tell me that my daughter could ever fall to that!"
She saw that she had made a mistake, and pressed his arm soothingly.
"Pray, do not be angry with me, my dear friend. I was thinking what the world would say—no, let me speak! I am quite of your opinion that Dolores should be kept from seeing Don John, even by quiet force if necessary, for they will certainly be married at the very first opportunity they can find. But you cannot do such things violently, you know. You will make a scandal. You cannot take your daughter away from court suddenly and shut her up in a convent without doing her a great injury. Do you not see that? People will not understand that you will not let her marry Don John—I mean that most people would find it hard to believe. Yes, the world is bad, I know; what can one do? The world would say—promise me that you will not be angry, dear General! You can guess what the world would say."'
"I see—I see!" exclaimed the old man, in sudden terror for his daughter's good name. "How wise you are!"
"Yes," answered Dona Ana, stopping at ten paces from the door, "I am wise, for I am obliged to be. Now, if instead of locking Dolores into her room two or three hours ago, you had come to me, and told me the truth, and put her under my protection, for our common good, I would have made it quite impossible for her to exchange a word with Don John, and I would have taken such good care of her that instead of gossiping about her, the world would have said that she was high in favour, and would have begun to pay court to her. You know that I have the power to do that."
"How very wise you are!" exclaimed Mendoza again, with more emphasis.
"Very well. Will you let me take her with me now, my dear friend? I will console her a little, for I daresay she has been crying all alone in her room, poor girl, and I can keep her with me till Don John goes to Villagarcia. Then we shall see."
Old Mendoza was a very simple-hearted man, as brave men often are, and a singularly spotless life spent chiefly in war and austere devotion had left him more than ignorant of the ways of the world. He had few friends, chiefly old comrades of his own age who did not live in the palace, and he detested gossip. Had he known what the woman was with whom he was speaking, he would have risked Dolores' life rather than give her into the keeping of Dona Ana. But to him, the latter was simply the wife of old Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, the Minister of State, and she was the head of the Queen's household. No one would have thought of repeating the story of a court intrigue to Mendoza, but it was also true that every one feared Dona Ana, whose power was boundless, and no one wished to be heard speaking ill of her. To him, therefore, her proposition seemed both wise and kind.
"I am very grateful," he said, with some emotion, for he believed that she was helping him to save his fortune and his honour, as was perhaps really the case, though she would have helped him to lose both with equally persuasive skill could his ruin have served her. "Will you come in with me, Princess?" he asked, beginning to move towards the door.
"Yes. Take me to her room and leave me with her."
"Indeed, I would rather not see her myself this evening," said Mendoza, feeling his anger still not very far from the surface. "You will be able to speak more wisely than I should."
"I daresay," answered Dona Ana thoughtfully. "If you went with me to her, there might be angry words again, and that would make it much harder for me. If you will leave me at the door of her rooms, and then go away, I will promise to manage the rest. You are not sorry that you have told me, now, are you, my dear friend?"
"I am most grateful to you. I shall do all I can to be of service to you, even though you said that it was not in my power to serve you."
"I was annoyed," said Dona Ana sweetly. "I did not mean it—please forgive me."
They reached the door, and as she withdrew her hand from his arm, he took it and ceremoniously kissed her gloved fingers, while she smiled graciously. Then he knocked three times, and presently the shuffling of Eudaldo's slippers was heard within, and the old servant opened sleepily. On seeing the Princess enter first, he stiffened himself in a military fashion, for he had been a soldier and had fought under Mendoza when both were younger.
"Eudaldo," said the General, in the stern tone he always used when giving orders, "her Excellency the Princess of Eboli will take Dona Dolores to her own apartments this evening. Tell the maid to follow later with whatever my daughter needs, and do you accompany the ladies with a candle."
But at this Dona Ana protested strongly. There was moonlight, there were lamps, there was light everywhere, she said. She needed no one. Mendoza, who had no man-servant in the house but Eudaldo, and eked out his meagre establishment by making use of his halberdiers when he needed any one, yielded after very little persuasion.
"Open the door of my daughter's apartments," he said to Eudaldo. "Madam," he said, turning to the Princess, "I have the honour to wish you good-night. I am your Grace's most obedient servant. I must return to my duty."
"Good-night, my dear friend," answered Dona Ana, nodding graciously.
Mendoza bowed low, and went out again, Eudaldo closing the door behind him. He would not be at liberty until the last of the grandees had gone home, and the time he had consumed in accompanying the Princess was just what he could have spared for his supper. She gave a short sigh of relief as she heard his spurred heels and long sword on the stone pavement. He was gone, leaving Dolores in her power, and she meant to use that power to the utmost.
Eudaldo shuffled silently across the hall, to the other door, and she followed him. He drew the bolt.
"Wait here," she said quietly. "I wish to see Dona Dolores alone."
"Her ladyship is in the farther room, Excellency," said the servant, bowing and standing back.
She entered and closed the door, and Eudaldo returned to his big chair, to doze until she should come out.
She had not taken two steps in the dim room, when a shadow flitted between her and the lamp, and it was almost instantly extinguished. She uttered an exclamation of surprise and stood still. Anywhere save in Mendoza's house, she would have run back and tried to open the door as quickly as possible, in fear of her life, for she had many enemies, and was constantly on her guard. But she guessed that the shadowy figure she had seen was Dolores. She spoke, without hesitation, in a gentle voice.
"Dolores! Are you there?" she asked.
A moment later she felt a small hand on her arm.
"Who is it?" asked a whisper, which might have come from Dolores' lips for all Dona Ana could tell.
She had forgotten the existence of Inez, whom she had rarely seen, and never noticed, though she knew that Mendoza had a blind daughter.
"It is I—the Princess of Eboli," she answered in the same gentle tone.
"Hush! Whisper to me."
"Your father has gone back to his duty, my dear—you need not be afraid."
"Yes, but Eudaldo is outside—he hears everything when he is not asleep. What is it, Princess? Why are you here?"
"I wish to talk with you a little," replied Dona Ana, whispering now, to please the girl. "Can we not get a light? Why did you put out the lamp? I thought you were in another room."
"I was frightened. I did not know who you were. We can talk in the dark, if you do not mind. I will lead you to a chair. I know just where everything is in this room."
The Princess suffered herself to be led a few steps, and presently she felt herself gently pushed into a seat. She was surprised, but realizing the girl's fear of her father, she thought it best to humour her. So far Inez had said nothing that could lead her visitor to suppose that she was not Dolores. Intimate as the devoted sisters were, Inez knew almost as much of the Princess as Dolores herself; the two girls were of the same height, and so long as the conversation was carried on in whispers, there was no possibility of detection by speech alone. The quick-witted blind girl reflected that it was strange if Dona Ana had not seen Dolores, who must have been with the court the whole evening, and she feared some harm. That being the case, her first impulse was to help her sister if possible, but so long as she was a prisoner in Dolores' place, she could do nothing, and she resolved that the Princess should help her to escape.
Dona Ana began to speak quickly and fluently in the dark. She said that she knew the girl's position, and had long known how tenderly she loved Don John of Austria, and was loved by him. She sympathized deeply with them both, and meant to do all in her power to help them. Then she told how she had missed Dolores at court that night.
Inez started involuntarily and drew her breath quickly, but Dona Ana thought it natural that Dolores should give some expression to the disappointment she must have felt at being shut up a prisoner on such an occasion, when all the court was assembled to greet the man she loved.
Then the Princess went on to tell how she had met Mendoza and had come with him, and how with great difficulty she had learned the truth, and had undertaken Dolores' care for a few days; and how Mendoza had been satisfied, never suspecting that she really sympathized with the lovers. That was a state secret, but of course Dolores must know it. The King privately desired the marriage, she said, because he was jealous of his brother and wished that he would tire of winning battles and live quietly, as happy men do.
"Don John will tell you, when you see him," she continued. "I sent him two letters this evening. The first he burned unopened, because he thought it was a love letter, but he has read the second by this time. He had it before supper."
"What did you write to him?" asked Inez, whispering low.
"He will tell you. The substance was this: If he would only be prudent, and consent to wait two days, and not attempt to see you alone, which would make a scandal, and injure you, too, if any one knew it, the King would arrange everything at his own pleasure, and your father would give his consent. You have not seen Don John since he arrived, have you?" She asked the question anxiously.
"Oh no!" answered the blind girl, with conviction. "I have not seen him. I wish to Heaven I had!"
"I am glad of that," whispered the Princess. "But if you will come with me to my apartments, and stay with me till matters are arranged—well—I will not promise, because it might be dangerous, but perhaps you may see him for a moment."
"Really? Do you think that is possible?" In the dark Inez was smiling sadly.
"Perhaps. He might come to see me, for instance, or my husband, and I could leave you together a moment."
"That would be heaven!" And the whisper came from the heart.
"Then come with me now, my dear, and I will do my best," answered the Princess.
"Indeed I will! But will you wait one moment while I dress? I am in my old frock—it is hardly fit to be seen."
This was quite true; but Inez had reflected that dressed as she was she could not pass Eudaldo and be taken by him for her sister, even with a hood over her head. The clothes Dolores had worn before putting on her court dress were in her room, and Dolores' hood was there, too. Before the Princess could answer, Inez was gone, closing the door of the bedroom behind her. Dona Ana, a little taken by surprise again, was fain to wait where she was, in the dark, at the risk of hurting herself against the furniture. Then it struck her that Dolores must be dressing in the dark, for no light had come from the door as it was opened and shut. She remembered the blind sister then, and she wondered idly whether those who lived continually with the blind learned from them to move easily in the dark and to do everything without a light. The question did not interest her much, but while she was thinking of it the door opened again. A skirt and a bodice are soon changed. In a moment she felt her hand taken, and she rose to her feet.
"I am ready, Princess. I will open the door if you will come with me. I have covered my head and face," she added carelessly, though always whispering, "because I am afraid of the night air."
"I was going to advise you to do it in any case, my dear. It is just as well that neither of us should be recognized by any one in the corridors so far from my apartments."
The door opened and let in what seemed a flood of light by comparison with the darkness. The Princess went forward, and Eudaldo got upon his legs as quickly as he could to let the two ladies out, without looking at them as they crossed the hall. Inez followed her companion's footfall exactly, keeping one step behind her by ear, and just pausing before passing out. The old servant saw Dolores' dress and Dolores' hood, which he expected to see, and no more suspected anything than he had when, as he supposed, Inez, had gone out earlier.
But Inez herself had a far more difficult part to perform than her sister's. Dolores had gone out alone, and no one had watched her beyond the door, and Dolores had eyes, and could easily enough pretend that she could not see. It was another matter to be blind and to play at seeing, with a clever woman like the Princess at one's elbow, ready to detect the slightest hesitation. Besides, though she had got out of the predicament in which it had been necessary to place her, it was quite impossible to foresee what might happen when the Princess discovered that she had been deceived, and that catastrophe must happen sooner or later, and might occur at any moment. The Princess walked quickly, too, with a gliding, noiseless step that was hard to follow. Fortunately Inez was expected to keep to the left of a superior like her companion, and was accustomed to taking that side when she went anywhere alone in the palace. That made it easier, but trouble might come at one of the short flights of steps down and up which they would have to pass to reach the Princess's apartments. And then, once there, discovery must come, to a certainty, and then, she knew not what.
She had not run the risk for the sake of being shut up again. She had got out by a trick in order to help her sister, if she could find her, and in order to be at liberty the first thing necessary was to elude her companion. To go to the door of her apartments would be fatal, but she had not had time to think what she should do. She thought now, with all the concentration of her ingenuity. One chance presented itself to her mind at once. They most pass the pillar behind which was the concealed entrance to the Moorish gallery above the throne room, and it was not at all likely that Dona Ana should know of its existence, for she never came to that part of the palace, and if Inez lagged a little way behind, before they reached the spot, she could slip noiselessly behind the pillar and disappear. She could always trust herself not to attract attention when she had to open and shut a door.
The Princess spoke rarely, making little remarks now and then that hardly required an answer, but to which Inez answered in monosyllables, speaking in a low voice through the thick veil she had drawn over her mantle under her hood, on pretence of fearing the cold. She thought it a little safer to speak aloud in that way, lest her companion should wonder at her total silence.
She knew exactly where she was, for she touched each corner as she passed, and counted her steps between one well-known point and the next, and she allowed the Princess to gain a little as they neared the last turning before reaching the place where she meant to make the attempt. She hoped in this way, by walking quite noiselessly, and then stopping suddenly just before she reached the pillar, to gain half a dozen paces, and the Princess would take three more before she stopped also. Inez had noticed that most people take at least three steps before they stop, if any one calls them suddenly when they are walking fast. It seems to need as much to balance the body when its speed is checked. She noticed everything that could be heard.
She grew nervous. It seemed to her that her companion was walking more slowly, as if not wishing to leave her any distance behind. She quickened her own pace again, fearing that she had excited suspicion. Then she heard the Princess stop suddenly, and she had no choice but to do the same. Her heart began to beat painfully, as she saw her chance slipping from her. She waited for Dona Ana to speak, wondering what was the matter.
"I have mistaken the way," said the Princess, in a tone of annoyance. "I do not know where I am. We had better go back and turn down the main staircase, even if we meet some one. You see, I never come to this part of the palace."
"I think we are on the right corridor," said Inez nervously. "Let me go as far as the corner. There is a light there, and I can tell you in a moment." In her anxiety to seem to see, she had forgotten for the moment to muffle her voice in her veil.
They went on rapidly, and the Dona Ana did what most people do when a companion offers to examine the way,—she stood still a moment and hesitated, looking after the girl, and then followed her with the slow step with which a person walks who is certain of having to turn back. Inez walked lightly to the corner, hardly touching the wall, turned by the corner, and was out of sight in a moment. The Princess walked faster, for though she believed that Dolores trusted her, it seemed foolish to give the girl a chance. She reached the corner, where there was a lamp,—and she saw that the dim corridor was empty to the very end.
* * * * *
The Princess was far from suspecting, even then, that she had been deceived about her companion's identity as well as tricked at the last, when Inez escaped from her. She would have laughed at the idea that any blind person could have moved as confidently as Inez, or could afterwards have run the length of the next corridor in what had seemed but an instant, for she did not know of the niche behind the pillar, and there were pilasters all along, built into the wall. The construction of the high, springing vault that covered the whole throne room required them for its solidity, and only the one under the centre of the arch was built as a detached pillar, in order to give access to the gallery. Seen from either end of the passage, it looked exactly like the rest, and few persons would have noticed that it differed from them, even in passing it.
Dona Ana stood looking in the direction she supposed the girl to have taken. An angry flush rose in her cheek, she bit her lips till they almost bled, and at last she stamped once before she turned away, so that her little slipper sent a sharp echo along the corridor. Pursuit was out of the question, of course, though she could run like a deer; some one might meet her at any turning, and in an hour the whole palace would know that she had been seen running at full speed after some unknown person. It would be bad enough if she were recognized walking alone at night at a distance from her own apartments. She drew her veil over her face so closely that she could hardly see her way, and began to retrace her steps towards the principal staircase, pondering as to what she should say to Mendoza when he discovered that she had allowed his daughter to escape. She was a woman of manlike intelligence and not easily unbalanced by a single reverse, however, and before she had gone far her mind began to work clearly. Dolores, she reasoned, would do one of two things. She would either go straight to Don John's apartments, wait for him, and then tell him her story, in the hope that he would protect her, or she would go to the Duchess Alvarez and seek protection there. Under no circumstances would she go down to the throne room without her court dress, for her mere appearance there, dressed as she was, would produce the most profound astonishment, and could do her no possible good. And as for her going to the Duchess, that was impossible, too. If she had run away from Dona Ana, she had done so because the idea of not seeing Don John for two days was intolerable, and she meant to try and see him at once. The Duchess was in all probability with the Queen, in the latter's private apartments, as Dolores would know. On the whole, it seemed far more likely that she had done the rashest thing that had suggested itself to her, and had gone directly to the man she loved,—a man powerful enough to protect her against all comers, at the present time, and quite capable of facing even the King's displeasure.
But the whole object of Dona Ana's manoeuvre had been to get possession of Dolores' person, as a means of strongly influencing Don John's actions, in order thus to lead him into a false position from which he should not be able to escape without a serious quarrel with King Philip, which would be the first step towards the execution of the plot elaborated by Dona Ana and Perez together. Anything which could produce an open difference between the brothers would serve to produce two parties in Spain, of which the one that would take Don John's side would be by far the stronger. His power would be suddenly much increased, an organized agitation would be made throughout the country to set him on the throne, and his popularity, like Caesar's, would grow still more, when he refused the crown, as he would most certainly do. But just then King Philip would die suddenly of a fever, or a cold, or an indigestion, as the conspirators thought best. There would be no direct male heir to the throne but Don John himself, the acknowledged son of the Emperor Charles; and even Don John would then be made to see that he could only serve his country by ruling it, since it cried out for his rule and would have no other. It was a hard and dangerous thing to lead King Philip; it would be an easy matter to direct King John. An honest and unsuspicious soldier would be but as a child in such skilful hands. Dona Ana and Perez would rule Spain as they pleased, and by and by Don John should be chosen Emperor also by the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, and the conspirators would rule the world, as Charles the Fifth had ruled it. There was no limit to their ambition, and no scruple would stand between them and any crime, and the stake was high and worth many risks.
The Princess walked slowly, weighing in the balance all there was to lose or gain. When she reached the head of the main staircase, she had not yet altogether decided how to act, and lest she should meet some one she returned, and walked up and down the lonely corridor nearly a quarter of an hour, in deep thought. Suddenly a plan of action flashed upon her, and she went quickly on her way, to act at once.
Don John, meanwhile, had read the letter she had sent him by the dwarf jester. When the King had retired into his own apartments, Don John found himself unexpectedly alone. Mendoza and the guard had filed into the antechamber, the gentlemen in waiting, being temporarily at liberty, went to the room leading out of it on one side, which was appropriated to their use. The sentries were set at the King's door, and Mendoza marched his halberdiers out again and off to their quarters, while the servants disappeared, and the hero of the day was left to himself. He smiled at his own surprise, recollecting that he should have ordered his own attendants to be in waiting after the supper, whereas he had dismissed them until midnight.
He turned on his heel and walked away to find a quiet place where he might read the paper which had suddenly become of such importance, and paused at a Moorish niche, where Philip had caused a sacred picture to be placed, and before which a hanging silver lamp shed a clear light.
The small sheet of paper contained but little writing. There were half a dozen sentences in a clear hand, without any signature—it was what has since then come to be called an anonymous letter. But it contained neither any threat, nor any evidence of spite; it set forth in plain language that if, as the writer supposed, Don John wished to marry Dolores de Mendoza, it was as necessary for her personal safety as for the accomplishment of his desires, that he should make no attempt to see her for at least two days, and that, if he would accept this advice, he should have the support of every noble and minister at court, including the very highest, with the certainty that no further hindrance would be set in his way; it added that the letter he had burned had contained the same words, and that the two flowers had been intended to serve as a signal which it was now too late to use. It would be sufficient if he told the bearer of the present letter that he agreed to take the advice it contained. His assent in that way would, of course, be taken by the writer to mean that he promised, on his word. That was all.
He did not like the last sentence, for it placed him in an awkward position, as a man of honour, since he had already seen Dolores, and therefore could not under any circumstances agree to take advice contrary to which he had already acted. The most he could now say to the dwarf would be that he could give no answer and would act as carefully as possible. For the rest, the letter contained nothing treasonable, and was not at all what he had expected and believed it to be. It appeared to be written in a friendly spirit, and with the exception of his own brother and Mendoza, he was not aware that he had an enemy in Spain, in which he was almost right. Nevertheless, bold and frank as he was by nature, he knew enough of real warfare to distrust appearances. The writer was attached to the King's person, or the letter might have been composed, and even written in an assumed hand, by the King himself, for Philip was not above using the methods of a common conspirator. The limitation of time set upon his prudence was strange, too. If he had not seen her and agreed to the terms, he would have supposed that Dolores was being kept out of his way during those two days, whereas in that time it would be possible to send her very far from Madrid, or to place her secretly in a convent where it would be impossible to find her. It flashed upon him that in shutting up Dolores that evening Mendoza had been obeying the King's secret orders, as well as in telling her that she was to be taken to Las Huelgas at dawn. No one but Philip could have written the letter—only the dwarf's fear of Philip's displeasure could have made him so anxious that it should be read at once. It was all as clear as daylight now, and the King and Mendoza were acting together. The first letter had been brought by a woman, who must have got out through the window of the study, which was so low that she could almost have stepped from it to the terrace without springing. She had watched until the officers and the servants had gone out and the way was clear. Nothing could have been simpler or easier.
He would have burnt the letter at the lamp before the picture, had he not feared that some one might see him do it, and he folded it again and thrust it back under his doublet. His face was grave as he turned away, for the position, as he understood it, was a very desperate one. He had meant to send Dolores to Villagarcia, but it was almost impossible that such a matter should remain unknown, and in the face of the King's personal opposition, it would probably ruin Quixada and his wife. He, on his side, might send Dolores to a convent, under an assumed name, and take her out again before she was found, and marry her. But that would be hard, too, for no places were more directly under the sovereign's control than convents and monasteries. Somewhere she must go, for she could not possibly remain concealed in his study more than three or four hours.
Suddenly he fancied that she might be in danger even now. The woman who had brought the first letter had of course left the window unfastened. She, or the King, or any one, might get in by that way, and Dolores was alone. They might have taken her away already. He cursed himself for not having looked to see that the window was bolted. The man who had won great battles felt a chill at his heart, and he walked at the best of his speed, careless whether he met any one or not. But no place is more deserted than the more distant parts of a royal palace when there is a great assembly in the state apartments. He met no one on his way, and entered his own door alone. Ten minutes had not elapsed since the King had left the supper-room, and it was almost at that moment that Dona Ana met Mendoza.
Dolores started to her feet as she heard his step in the next room and then the key in the lock, and as he entered her hands clasped themselves round his neck, and her eyes looked into his. He was very pale when he saw her at last, for the belief that she had been stolen away had grown with his speed, till it was an intolerable certainty.
"What is it? What has happened?" she cried anxiously. "Why are you so white? Are you ill?"
"I was frightened," he said simply. "I was afraid you were gone. Look here!"
He led her to the window, and drew the curtain to one side. The cool air rushed in, for the bolts were unfastened, and the window was ajar. He closed it and fastened it securely, and they both came back.
"The woman got out that way," he said, in explanation. "I understand it all now—and some one might have come back."
He told her quietly what had happened, and showed her the letter, which she read slowly to the end before she gave it back to him.
"Then the other was not a love letter, after all," she said, with a little laugh that had more of relief in it than amusement, though she did not know it herself.
"No," he answered gravely. "I wish I had read it. I should at least have shut the window before leaving you!"
Careless of any danger to herself, she sat looking up into his anxious face, her clasped hands lying in his and quite covered by them, as he stood beside her. There was not a trace of fear in her own face, nor indeed of any feeling but perfect love and confidence. Under the gaze of her deep grey eyes his expression relaxed for a moment, and grew like hers, so that it would have been hard to say which trusted the other the more.
"What does anything matter, since we are together now?" she asked. "I am with you, can anything happen to me?"
"Not while I am alive," he answered, but the look of anxiety for her returned at once. "You cannot stay here."
"No—you will take me away. I am ready—"
"I do not mean that. You cannot stay in this room, nor in my apartments. The King is coming here in a few minutes. I cannot tell what he may do—he may insist on seeing whether any one is here, listening, for he is very suspicious, and he only comes here because he does not even trust his own apartments. He may wish to open the door—"
"I will lock it on the inside. You can say that it is locked, and that you have not the key. If he calls men to open it, I will escape by the window, and hide in the old sentry-box. He will not stay talking with you till morning!"
She laughed, and he saw that she was right, simply because there was no other place where she could be even as safe as where she was. He slowly nodded as she spoke.
"You see," she cried, with another little laugh of happy satisfaction, "you must keep me here whether you will or not! You are really afraid—frightened like a boy! You! How men would stare if they could see you afraid!"
"It is true," he answered, with a faint smile.
"But I will give you courage!" she said. "The King cannot come yet. Perez can only have just gone to him, you say. They will talk at least half an hour, and it is very likely that Perez will persuade him not to come at all, because he is angry with you. Perhaps Perez will come instead, and he will be very smooth and flattering, and bring messages of reconciliation, and beg to make peace. He is very clever, but I do not like his face. He makes me think of a beautiful black fox! Even if the King comes himself, we have more than half an hour. You can stay a little while with me—then go into your room and sit down and read, as if you were waiting for him. You can read my letter over, and I will sit here and say all the things I wrote, over and over again, and you will know that I am saying them—it will be almost as if I were with you, and could say them quite close to you—like this—I love you!"
She had drawn his hand gently down to her while she was speaking, and she whispered the last words into his ear with a delicate little kiss that sent a thrill straight to his heart.
"You are not afraid any more now, are you?" she asked, as she let him go, and he straightened himself suddenly as a man drawing back from something he both fears and loves.
He opened and shut his hands quickly two or three times, as some nervous men do, as if trying to shake them clear from a spell, or an influence. Then he began to walk up and down, talking to her.
"I am at my wit's end," he said, speaking fast and not looking at her face, as he turned and turned again. "I cannot send you to Villagarcia—there are things that neither you nor I could do, even for each other, things you would not have me do for you, Dolores. It would be ruin and disgrace to my adopted mother and Quixada—it might be worse, for the King can call anything he pleases high treason. It is impossible to take you there without some one knowing it—can I carry you in my arms? There are grooms, coachmen, servants, who will tell anything under examination—under torture! How can I send you there?"
"I would not go," answered Dolores quietly.
"I cannot send you to a convent, either," he went on, for he had taken her answer for granted, as lovers do who trust each other. "You would be found in a day, for the King knows everything. There is only one place, where I am master—"
He stopped short, and grew very pale again, looking at the wall, but seeing something very far away.
"Where?" asked Dolores. "Take me there! Oh, take me where you are master—where there is no king but you, where we can be together all our lives, and no one can come between us!"
He stood motionless, staring at the wall, contemplating in amazement the vastness of the temptation that arose before him. Dolores could not understand, but she did what a loving women does when the man she loves seems to be in a great distress. She came and stood beside him, passing one arm through his and pressing it tenderly, without a word. There are times when a man needs only that to comfort him and give him strength. But even a woman does not always know them.
Very slowly he turned to her, almost as if he were trying to resist her eyes and could not. He took his arm from hers and his hands framed her face softly, and pushed the gold hair gently back on her forehead. But she grew frightened by degrees, for there was a look in his eyes she had never seen there, and that had never been in them before, neither in love nor in battle. His hands were quite cold, and his face was like a beautiful marble, but there was an evil something in it, as in a fallen angel's, a defiance of God, an irresistible strength to do harm, a terror such as no man would dare to meet.
"You are worth it," he said in a tone so different from his natural voice that Dolores started, and would have drawn back from him, but could not, for his hands held her, shaking a little fiercely.
"What? What is it?" she asked, growing more and more frightened—half believing that he was going mad.
"You are worth it," he repeated. "I tell you, you are worth that, and much more, and the world, and all the world holds for me, and all earth and heaven besides. You do not know how I love you—you can never guess—"
Her eyes grew tender again, and her hands went up and pressed his that still framed her face.
"As I love you—dear love!" she answered, wondering, but happy.
"No—not now. I love you more. You cannot guess—you shall see what I will do for your sake, and then you will understand."
He uttered an incoherent exclamation, and his eyes dazzled her as he seized her in his arms and pressed her to him so that she could have cried out. And suddenly he kissed her, roughly, almost cruelly, as if he meant to hurt her, and knew that he could. She struggled in his arms, in an unknown terror of him, and her senses reeled.
Then all at once, he let her go, and turned from her quickly, leaving her half fainting, so that she leaned against the wall and pressed her cheek to the rough hanging. She felt a storm of tears, that she could not understand, rising in her heart and eyes and throat. He had crossed the room, getting as far as he could from her, and stood there, turned to the wall, his arms bent against it and his face buried in his sleeve. He breathed hard, and spoke as if to himself in broken words.
"Worth it? My God! What are you not worth?"
There was such a ring of agony and struggling in his voice that Dolores forgot herself and stood up listening, suddenly filled with anxiety for him again. He was surely going mad. She would have gone to him again, forgetting her terror that was barely past, the woman's instinct to help the suffering man overruling everything else. It was for his sake that she stayed where she was, lest if she touched him he should lose his senses altogether.
"Oh, there is one place, where I am master and lord!" he was saying. "There is one thing to do—one thing—"
"What is the thing?" she asked very gently. "Why are you suffering so? Where is the place?"
He turned suddenly, as he would have turned in his saddle in battle at a trumpet call, straight and strong, with fixed eyes and set lips, that spoke deliberately.
"There is Granada," he said. "Do you understand now?"
"No," she answered timidly. "I do not understand. Granada? Why there? It is so far away—"
He laughed harshly.
"You do not understand? Yes, Granada is far away—far enough to be another kingdom—so far that John of Austria is master there—so far that with his army at his back he can be not only its master, but its King? Do you understand now? Do you see what I will do for your sake?"
He made one step towards her, and she was very white.
"I will take you, and go back to-morrow. Do you think the Moors are not men, because I beat them? I tell you that if I set up my standard in Granada and call them to me, they will follow me—if I lead them to the gate of Madrid. Yes—and so will more than half the Spanish army, if I will! But I do not want that—it is not the kingdom—what should I care for that? Could I not have taken it and held it? It is for you, dear love—for your sake only—that we may have a world of our own—a kingdom in which you are queen! Let there be war—why should I care? I will set the world ablaze and let it burn to its own ashes, but I will not let them take you from me, neither now, nor ever, while I am alive!"
He came quickly towards her now, and she could not draw back, for the wall was behind her. But she thrust out her hands against him to keep him off. The gesture stopped him, just when he would have taken her in his arms.
"No, no!" she cried vehemently. "You must not say such things, you must not think such thoughts! You are beside yourself, and you will drive me mad, too!"
"But it will be so easy—you shall see—"
She cut his words short.
"It must not be easy, it must not be possible, it must not be at all! Do you believe that I love you and that I would let you do such deeds? Oh, no! That would not be love at all—it would be hate, it would be treason to you, and worse treason than yours against your brother!"
The fierce light was sinking from his face. He had folded his arms and stood very still, listening to her.
"You!" she cried, with rising energy. "You, the brave soldier, the spotless man, the very soul of honour made flesh and blood! You, who have but just come back in triumph from fighting your King's enemies—you against whom no living being has ever dared to breathe a slander or a slighting word. Oh, no, no, no, no! I could not bear that you should betray your faith and your country and yourself, and be called traitor for my sake! Not for ten lives of mine shall you ruin yours. And not because I might love you less if you had done that deed. God help me! I think I should love you if you committed any crime! The shame is the more to me—I know it. I am only a woman! But rather than let my love ruin you, make a traitor of you and lose you in this world and the next, my soul shall go first—life, soul, honour, everything! You shall not do it! You think that you love me more than I love you, but you do not. For to save you as you are, I love you so dearly that I will leave you—leave you to honour, leave you to your King, leave you to the undying glory of the life you have lived, and will live, in memory of my love!"
The splendid words rang from her lips like a voice from heaven, and her eyes were divinely lightened. For they looked up, and not at him, calling Heaven to witness that she would keep her promise. As her open hand unconsciously went out, he took it tenderly, and felt her fingers softly closing on his own, as if she would lift him to himself again, and to the dear light of her own thoughts. There was silence for a moment.
"You are better and wiser than I," he said, and his tone told her that the madness was past.
"And you know that I am right? You see that I must leave you, to save you from me?"
"Leave me—now?" he cried. "You only said that—you meant me to understand—you did not mean that you would leave me now?"
"I do mean it," she said, in a great effort. "It is all I can do, to show you how I love you. As long as I am in your life you will be in danger—you will never be safe from yourself—I see it all now! I stand between you and all the world would give you—I will not stand between you and honour!"
She was breaking down, fight as she would against the pain. He could say nothing, for he could not believe that she really was in earnest.
"I must!" she exclaimed suddenly. "It is all I can do for you—it is my life—take it!"
The tears broke from her eyes, but she held her head high, and let them fall unheeded.
"Take it!" she repeated. "It is all I have to give for yours and your honour. Good-by—oh, love, I love you so dearly! Once more, before I go—"
She almost, fell into his arms as she buried her face on his shoulder and clasped his throat as she was wont. He kissed her hair gently, and from time to time her whole frame shook with the sobs she was choking down.
"It kills me," she said in a broken voice. "I cannot—I thought I was so strong! Oh, I am the most miserable living woman in the world!"
She broke away from him wildly and threw herself upon a chair, turning from him to its cushion and hiding her face in her hands, choking, pressing the furious tears back upon her eyes, shaking from head to foot.
"You cannot go! You cannot!" he cried, falling on his knees beside her and trying to take her hands in his. "Dolores—look at me! I will do anything—promise anything—you will believe me! Listen, love—I give you my word—I swear before God—"
"No—swear nothing—" she said, between the sobs that broke her voice.
"But I will!" he insisted, drawing her hands down till she looked at him. "I swear upon my honour that I will never raise my hand against the King—that I will defend him, and fight for him, and be loyal to him, whatever he may do to me—and that even for you, I will never strike a blow in battle nor speak a word in peace that is not all honourable, through and through,—even as I have fought and spoken until now!"
As she listened to his words her weeping subsided, and her tearful eyes took light and life again. She drew him close, and kissed him on the forehead.
"I am so glad—so happy!" she cried softly. "I should never have had strength to really say good-by!"
* * * * *
Don John smoothed her golden hair. Never since he had known that he loved her, had she seemed so beautiful as then, and his thought tried to hold her as she was, that she might in memory be always the same. There was colour in her cheeks, a soft flush of happiness that destroyed all traces of her tears, so that they only left her grey eyes dark and tender under the long wet lashes.
"It was a cruel dream, dear love! It was not true!" Finding him again, her voice was low, and sweet with joy.
He smiled, too, and his own eyes were quiet and young, now that the tempest had passed away, almost out of recollection. It had raged but for a few moments, but in that time both he and she had lived and loved as it were through years, and their love had grown better and braver. She knew that his word was enough, and that he would die rather than break it; but though she had called herself weak, and had seemed to break down in despair, she would have left him for ever rather than believe that he was still in danger through her. She did not again ask herself whether her sudden resolution had been all for his sake, and had not formed itself because she dreaded to think of being bound to one who betrayed his country. She knew it and needed no further self-questioning to satisfy her. If such a man could have committed crimes, she would have hated them, not him, she would have pardoned him, not them, she would still have laid her hand in his before the whole world, though it should mean shame and infamy, because she loved him and would always love him, and could never have left him for her own sake, come all that might. She had said it was a shame to her that she would have loved him still; yet if it had been so, she would have gloried in being shamed for his sake, for even then her love might have brought him back from the depths of evil and made him again for her in truth what he had once seemed to the whole world. She could have done that, and if in the end she had saved him she would have counted the price of her name as very little to set against his salvation from himself. She would have given that and much more, for her love, as she would freely give all for him and even for his memory, if he were dead, and if by some unimaginable circumstances her ruin before the world could keep his name spotless, and his glory unsullied. For there is nothing that a true-hearted loving woman will not give and do for him she loves and believes and trusts; and though she will give the greatest thing last of all, she will give it in the end, if it can save him from infamy and destruction. For it is the woman's glory to give, as it is the man's to use strength in the hour of battle and gentleness in the day of peace, and to follow honour always.
"Forget it all," answered Don John presently. "Forget it, dear, and forgive me for it all."
"I can forget it, because it was only a dream," she said, "and I have nothing to forgive. Listen to me. If it were true—even if I believed that we had not been dreaming, you and I, could I have anything to forgive you? What?"
"The mere thought that I could betray a trust, turn against my sovereign and ruin my country," he answered bravely, and a blush of honest shame rose in his boyish cheeks.
"It was for me," said Dolores.
That should explain all, her heart said. But he was not satisfied, and being a man he began to insist.
"Not even for you should I have thought of it," he said. "And there is the thought to forgive, if nothing else."
"No—you are wrong, love. Because it was for me, it does not need my forgiveness. It is different—you do not understand yet. It is I who should have never forgiven myself on earth nor expected pardon hereafter, if I had let myself be the cause of such deeds, if I had let my love stand between you and honour. Do you see?"
"I see," he answered. "You are very brave and kind and good. I did not know that a woman could be like you."
"A woman could be anything—for you—dare anything, do anything, sacrifice anything! Did I not tell you so, long ago? You only half believed me, dear—perhaps you do not quite believe me now—"
"Indeed, indeed I do, with all my soul! I believe you as I love you, as I believe in your love—"
"Yes. Tell me that you do—and tell me that you love me! It is so good to hear, now that the bad dream is gone."
"Shall I tell you?" He smiled, playing with her hand. "How can I? There are so few words in which to say so much. But I will tell you this—I would give my word for you. Does that sound little? You should know, for you know at what price you would have saved my honour a while ago. I believe in you so truly that I would stake my word, and my honour, and my Christian oath upon your faith, and promise for you before God or man that you will always love me as you do to-day."
"You may pledge all three. I will, and I will give you all I have that is not God's—and if that is not enough, I will give my soul for yours, if I may, to suffer in your stead."
She spoke quietly enough, but there was a little quaver of true earnestness in her voice, that made each word a solemn promise.
"And besides that," she added, "you see how I trust you."
She smiled again as she looked at him, and knew how safe she was, far safer now than when she had first come with him to the door. Something told her that he had mastered himself—she would not have wished to think that she had ruled him? it was enough if she had shown him the way, and had helped him. He pressed her hand to his cheek and looked down thoughtfully, wishing that he could find such simple words that could say so much, but not trusting himself to speak. For though, in love, a man speaks first, he always finds the least to say of love when it has strongest hold of him; but a woman has words then, true and tender, that come from her heart unsought. Yet by and by, if love is not enduring, so that both tire of it, the man plays the better comedy, because he has the greater strength, and sometimes what he says has the old ring in it, because it is so well said, and the woman smiles and wonders that his love should have lasted longer than hers, and desiring the illusion, she finds old phrases again; yet there is no life in them, because when love is dead she thinks of herself, and instead, it was only of him she thought in the good days when her heart used to beat at the sound of his footfall, and the light grew dim and unsteady as she felt his kiss. But the love of these two was not born to tire; and because he was so young, and knew the world little, save at his sword's point, he was ashamed that he could not speak of love as well as she.
"Find words for me," he said, "and I will say them, for yours are better than mine."
"Say, 'I love you, dear,' very softly and gently—not roughly, as you sometimes do. I want to hear it gently now, that, and nothing else."
She turned a little, leaning towards him, her face near his, her eyes quiet and warm, and she took his hands and held them together before her as if he were her prisoner—and indeed she meant that he should not suddenly take her in his arms, as he often did.
"I love you, dear," he repeated, smiling, and pretending to be very docile.
"That is not quite the way," she said, with a girlish laugh. "Say it again—quite as softly, but more tenderly! You must be very much in earnest, you know, but you must not be in the least violent." She laughed again. "It is like teaching a young lion," she added. "He may eat you up at any moment, instead of obeying you. Tell me, you have a little lion that follows you like a dog when you are in your camp, have you not? You have not told me about him yet. How did you teach him?"
"I did not try to make him say 'I love you, dear,'" answered Don John, laughing in his turn.
As he spoke a distant sound caught his ear, and the smile vanished from his face, for though he heard only the far off rumbling of a coach in the great court, it recalled him to reality.
"We are playing with life and death," he said suddenly. "It is late, the King may be here at any moment, and we have decided nothing." He rose.
"Is it late?" asked Dolores, passing her hand over her eyes dreamily. "I had forgotten—it seems so short. Give me the key on my side of the door—we had decided that, you know. Go and sit down in your room, as we agreed. Shall you read my letter again, love? It may be half an hoar still before the King comes. When he is gone, we shall have all the night in which to decide, and the nights are very long now. Oh, I hate to lose one minute of you! What shall you say to the King?"
"I do not know what he may say to me," answered Don John. "Listen and you shall hear—I would rather know that you hear everything I say. It will be as if I were speaking before you, and of course I should tell you everything the King says. He will speak of you, I think."
"Indeed, it would be hard not to listen," said Dolores. "I should have to stop my ears, for one cannot help hearing every word that is said in the next room. Do you know? I heard you ask for your white shoes! I hardly dared to breathe for fear the servants should find out that I was here."
"So much the better then. Sit in this chair near the door. But be careful to make no noise, for the King is very suspicious."
"I know. Do not be afraid; I will be as quiet as a mouse. Go, love, go! It is time—oh, how I hate to let you leave me! You will be careful? You will not be angry at what he says? You would be wiser if you knew I were not hearing everything; you will want to defend me if he says the least word you do not like, but let him say what he will! Anything is better than an open quarrel between you and the King! Promise me to be very moderate in what you say, and very patient. Remember that he is the King!"
"And my brother," said Don John, with some bitterness. "Do not fear. You know what I have promised you. I will bear anything he may say that concerns me as well as I can, but if he says anything slighting of you—"
"But he may—that is the danger. Promise me not to be angry—"
"How can I promise that, if he insults you?"
"No, I did not mean that exactly. Promise that you will not forget everything and raise your hand against him. You see I know you would."
"No, I will not raise my hand against him. That was in the promise I made you. And as for being angry, I will do my best to keep my temper."
"I know you will. Now you must go. Good-by, love! Good-by, for a little while."
"For such a little time shall we say good-by? I hate the word; it makes me think of the day when I left you last."
"How can I tell what may happen to you when you are out of my sight?" asked Dolores. "And what is 'good-by' but a blessing each prays for the other? That is all it means. It does not mean that we part for long, love. Why, I would say it for an hour! Good-by, dear love, good-by!"
She put up her face to kiss him, and it was so full of trust and happiness that the word lost all the bitterness it has gathered through ages of partings, and seemed, what she said it was, a loving blessing. Yet she said it very tenderly, for it was hard to let him go even for less than an hour. He said it, too, to please her; but yet the syllables came mournfully, as if they meant a world more than hers, and the sound of them half frightened her, so that she was sorry she had asked him for the word.
"Not so!" she cried, in quick alarm. "You are not keeping anything from me? You are only going to the next room to meet the King—are you sure?"
"That is all. You see, the word frightened you. It seems such a sad word to me—I will not say it again."
He kissed her gently, as if to soothe her fear, and then he opened the door and set the key in the lock on the inside. Then when he was outside, he lingered a moment, and their lips met once more without a word, and they nodded and smiled to one another a last time, and he closed the door and heard her lock it.
When she was alone, she turned away as if he were gone from her altogether instead of being in the next room, where she could hear him moving now and then, as he placed his chair near the light to read and arranged the candlesticks on the table. Then he went to the other door and opened it and opened the one beyond upon the terrace, and she knew that he was looking out to see if any one were there. But presently he came back and sat down, and she distinctly heard the rustle of the strong writing-paper as he unfolded a letter. It was hers. He was going to read it, as they had agreed.
So she sat down where she could look at the door, and she tried to force her eyes to see through it, to make him feel that she was watching him, that she came near him and stood beside him, and softly read the words for him, but without looking at them, because she knew them all by heart. But it was not the same as if she had seen him, and it was very hard to be shut off from his sight by an impenetrable piece of wood, to lose all the moments that might pass before the King chose to come. Another hour might pass. No one could even tell whether he would come at all after he had consulted with Antonio Perez. The skilful favourite desired a quarrel between his master and Don John with all his heart, but he was not ready for it yet. He must have possession of Dolores first and hide her safely; and when the quarrel came, Don John should believe that the King had stolen her and imprisoned her, and that she was treated ill; and for the woman he loved, Don John would tear down the walls of Madrid, if need be, and if at the last he found her dead, there would be no harm done, thought Perez, and Don John would hate his brother even to death, and all Spain would cry out in sympathy and horror. But all this Dolores could neither know nor even suspect. She only felt sure that the King and Perez were even now consulting together to hinder her marriage with Don John, and that Perez might persuade the King not to see his brother that night.
It was almost intolerable to think that she might wait there for hours, wasting the minutes for which she would have given drops of blood. Surely they both were overcautious. The door could be left open, so that they could talk, and at the first sound without, she could lock it again and sit down. That would be quite as safe.
She rose and was almost in the act of opening the door again when she stopped and hesitated. It was possible that at any moment the King might be at the door; for though she could hear every sound that came from the next room, the thick curtains that hid the window effectually shut out all sound from without. It struck her that she could go to the window, however, and look out. Yet a ray of light might betray her presence in the room to any one outside, and if she drew aside the curtain the light would shine out upon the terrace. She listened at Don John's door, and presently she heard him turn her letter in his hand, and all her heart went out to him, and she stood noiselessly kissing the panels and saying over again in her heart that she loved him more than any words could tell. If she could only see out of the window and assure herself that no one was coming yet, there would be time to go to him again, for one moment only, and say the words once more.
Then she sat down and told herself how foolish she was. She had been separated from him for many long and empty months, and now she had been with him and talked long with him twice in leas than three hours, and yet she could not bear that he should be out of her sight five minutes without wishing to risk everything to see him again. She tried to laugh at herself, repeating over and over again that she was very, very foolish, and that she should have a just contempt for any woman who could be as foolish as she. For some moments she sat still, staring at the wall.
In the thought of him that filled her heart and soul and mind, she saw that her own life had begun when he had first spoken to her, and she felt that it would end with the last good-by, because if he should die or cease to love her, there would be nothing more to live for. Her early girlhood seemed dim and far away, dull and lifeless, as if it had not been hers at all, and had no connection with the present. She saw herself in the past, as she could not see herself now, and the child she remembered seemed not herself but another—a fair-haired girl living in the gloomy old house in Valladolid, with her blind sister and an old maiden cousin of her father's, who had offered to bring up the two and to teach them, being a woman of some learning, and who fulfilled her promise in such a conscientious and austere way as made their lives something of a burden under her strict rule. But that was all forgotten now, and though she still lived in Valladolid she had probably changed but little in the few years since Dolores had seen her; she was part of the past, a relic of something that had hardly ever had a real existence, and which it was not at all necessary to remember. There was one great light in the girl's simple existence, it had come all at once, and it was with her still. There was nothing dim nor dark nor forgotten about the day when she had been presented at court by the Duchess Alvarez, and she had first seen Don John, and he had first seen her and had spoken to her, when he had talked with the Duchess herself. At the first glance—and it was her first sight of the great world—she had seen that of all the men in the great hall, there was no one at all like him. She had no sooner looked into his face and cast her eyes upon his slender figure, all in white then, as he was dressed to-night, than she began to compare him with the rest. She looked so quickly from one to another that any one might have thought her to be anxiously searching for a friend in the crowd. But she had none then, and she was but assuring herself once, and for all her life, that the man she was to love was immeasurably beyond all other men, though the others were the very flower of Spain's young chivalry.
Of course, as she told herself now, she had not loved him then, nor even when she heard his voice speaking to her the first time and was almost too happy to understand his words. But she had remembered them. He had asked her whether she lived in Madrid. She had told him that she lived in the Alcazar itself, since her father commanded the guards and had his quarters in the palace. And then Don John had looked at her very fixedly for a moment, and had seemed pleased, for he smiled and said that he hoped he might see her often, and that if it were in his power to be of use to her father, he would do what he could. She was sure that she had not loved him then, though she had dreamed of his winning face and voice and had thought of little else all the next day, and the day after that, with a sort of feverish longing to see him again, and had asked the Duchess Alvarez so many questions about him that the Duchess had smiled oddly, and had shaken her handsome young head a little, saying that it was better not to think too much about Don John of Austria. Surely, she had not loved him already, at first sight. But on the evening of the third day, towards sunset, when she had been walking with Inez on a deserted terrace where no one but the two sisters ever went, Don John had suddenly appeared, sauntering idly out with one of his gentlemen on his left, as if he expected nothing at all; and he had seemed very much surprised to see her, and had bowed low, and somehow very soon, blind Inez, who was little more than a child three years ago, was leading the gentleman about the terrace, to show him where the best roses grew, which she knew by their touch and smell, and Don John and Dolores were seated on an old stone bench, talking earnestly together. Even to herself she admitted that she had loved him from that evening, and whenever she thought of it she smelt the first scent of roses, and saw his face with the blaze of the sunset in his eyes, and heard his voice saying that he should come to the terrace again at that hour, in which matter he had kept his word as faithfully as he always did, and presumably without any especial effort. So she had known him as he really was, without the formalities of the court life, of which she was herself a somewhat insignificant part; and it was only when he said a few words to her before the other ladies that she took pains to say 'your Highness' to him once or twice, and he called her 'Dona Dolores,' and enquired in a friendly manner about her father's health. But on the terrace they managed to talk without any such formal mode of address, and used no names at all for each other, until one day—but she would not think of that now. If she let her memory run all its course, she could not sit there with the door closed between him and her, for something stronger than she would force her to go and open it, and make sure he was there. This method, indeed, would be a very certain one, leaving no doubt whatever, but at the present moment it would be foolish to resort to it, and, perhaps, it would be dangerous, too. The past was so beautiful and peaceful; she could think its history through many times up to that point, where thinking was sure to end suddenly in something which was too present for memory and too well remembered not to be present.
It came back to her so vividly that she left her seat again and went to the curtained window, as if to get as far as possible from the irresistible attraction. Standing there she looked back and saw the key in the lock. It was foolish, girlish, childish, at such a time, but she felt that as long as it was there she should want to turn it. With a sudden resolution and a smile that was for her own weakness, she went to the door again, listened for footsteps, and then quietly took the key from the lock. Instantly Don John was on the other side, calling to her softly.
"What is it?" he asked. "For Heaven's sake do not come in, for I think I hear him coming."
"No," she answered through the panel. "I was afraid I should turn the key, so I have taken it out." She paused. "I love you!" she said, so that he could hear, and she kissed the wood, where she thought his face must be, just above her own.
"I love you with all my heart!" he answered gently. "Hush, dear love, he is coming!"
They were like two children, playing at a game; but they were playing on the very verge of tragedy, playing at life with death at the door and the safety of a great nation hanging in the balance.
A moment later, Dolores heard Don John opening and shutting the other doors again, and then there were voices. She heard her father's name spoken in the King's unmistakable tones, at once harsh and muffled. Every word came to her from the other room, as if she were present.
"Mendoza," said Philip, "I have private matters to discuss with his Highness. I desire you to wait before the entrance, on the terrace, and to let no one pass in, as we do not wish to be disturbed."
Her father did not speak, but she knew how he was bending a little stiffly, before he went backwards through the open door. It closed behind him, and the two brothers were alone. Dolores' heart beat a little faster, and her face grew paler as she concentrated her attention upon making no noise. If they could hear her as she heard them, a mere rustling of her silk gown would be enough to betray her, and if then the King bade her father take her with him, all would be over, for Don John would certainly not use any violence to protect her.
"This is your bedchamber," said Philip's voice.
He was evidently examining the room, as Don John had anticipated that he would, for he was moving about. There was no mistaking his heavy steps for his brother's elastic tread.
"There is no one behind the curtain," said the King, by which it was clear that he was making search for a possible concealed listener. He was by no means above such precautions.
"And that door?" he said, with a question. "What is there?"
Dolores' heart almost stood still, as she held her breath, and heard the clumsy footfall coming nearer.
"It is locked," said Don John, with undisturbed calm. "I have not the key. I do not know where it is,—it is not here."
As Dolores had taken it from the lock, even the last statement was true to the letter, and in spite of her anxiety she smiled as she heard it, but the next moment she trembled, for the King was trying the door, and it shook under his hand, as if it must fly open.
"It is certainly locked," he said, in a discontented tone. "But I do not like locked doors, unless I know what is beyond them."
He crossed the room again and called out to Mendoza, who answered at once.
"Mendoza, come here with me. There is a door here, of which his Highness has not the key. Can you open it?"
"I will try, your Majesty," answered the General's hard voice.
A moment later the panels shook violently under the old man's weight, for he was stronger than one might have thought, being lean and tough rather than muscular. Dolores took the moment when the noise was loudest and ran a few steps towards the window. Then the sounds ceased suddenly, and she stood still.
"I cannot open it, your Majesty," said Mendoza, in a disconsolate tone.
"Then go and get the key," answered the King almost angrily.
* * * * *
Inez remained hidden a quarter of an hour in the gallery over the throne room, before she ventured to open the door noiselessly and listen for any sound that might come from the passage. She was quite safe there, as long as she chose to remain, for the Princess had believed that she had fled far beyond and was altogether out of reach of any one whose dignity would not allow of running a race. It must be remembered that at the time she entered the gallery Mendoza had returned to his duty below, and that some time afterwards he had accompanied the King to Don John's apartments, and had then been sent in search of the key to the locked door.
The blind girl was of course wholly ignorant of his whereabouts, and believed him to be in or about the throne room. Her instinct told her that since Dolores had not gone to the court, as she had intended, with the Duchess Alvarez, she must have made some last attempt to see Don John alone. In her perfect innocence such an idea seemed natural enough to Inez, and it at first occurred to her that the two might have arranged to meet on the deserted terrace where they had spent so many hours in former times. She went there first, finding her way with some little difficulty from the corridor where the gallery was, for the region was not the one to which she was most accustomed, though there was hardly a corner of the upper story where she had never been. Reaching the terrace, she went out and called softly, but there was no answer, nor could she hear any sound. The night was not cold now, but the breeze chilled her a little, and just then the melancholy cry of a screech owl pierced the air, and she shivered and went in again.
She would have gone to the Duchess Alvarez had she not been sure that the latter was below with the Queen, and even as it was, she would have taken refuge in the Duchess's apartments with the women, and she might have learned something of Dolores there. But her touch reminded her that she was dressed in her sister's clothes, and that many questions might be asked her which it would be hard to answer. And again, it grew quite clear to her that Dolores must be somewhere near Don John, perhaps waiting in some concealed corner until all should be quiet. It was more than probable that he would get her out of the palace secretly during the night and send her to his adoptive mother at Villagarcia. She had not believed the Princess's words in the least, but she had not forgotten them, and had argued rightly enough to their real meaning.