The abbess sat down and watched her.
She soothed the baby's plaints upon her bosom as she walked it, up and down the floor, singing a sweet, nursery song in a low and tender voice, until it fell asleep. Then she came and laid it sleeping on its cot.
"My dear daughter," said the abbess, gravely, "before you select this field of duty, I must warn you that it is, and it must needs be, of all charitable administrations, the most laborious and trying."
"It may be so; but it is also the most divine," said Salome, with a grave, sweet smile. "Listen, dear mother. I know not how it is, but—with all its pathos—the sphere of this room is heavenly. And while I held that baby to my bosom and soothed it to sleep, its little, soft form seemed to draw all the fever and soreness from my own aching heart as well. Here is my earthly work, dear mother! Nay, rather, here is my heavenly mission and consolation. Leave me here."
The mother-superior took the votaress at her word, and left her then and there.
In the course of the same day a small closet, communicating with the infants' dormitory, was fitted up as a sleeping berth for Salome, and her few personal effects were conveyed from the convent and arranged within her new dwelling.
Salome had not mistaken her vocation. To serve these forsaken and suffering children was to her a labor of love; to relieve them, a work of joy.
She never left her charge, except to go to chapel, or to her meals, which she took at the nuns' table, in their refectory.
On Christmas Eve, as she returned from dinner, Sister Francoise invited her to look into the work-room and see the Christmas presents in process of preparation.
To please the kind sister, she followed her into a long hall, furnished with little tables, at each of which sat two or three of the nuns at work.
As Salome, with her conductor, walked down the room, she saw that on one table was a pile of children's illustrated books of great variety to suit little ones, from three years old to thirteen. The two nuns seated at the table were busy writing in the books the names of those for whom they were intended.
Another table was piled with woolen scarfs, socks, gloves, and night-caps for the aged men and women, which the two nuns seated there were employed in rolling up into separate little parcels, and labeling with the names of the intended recipients.
Still another, and a longer table, was bright and gay with party-colored scraps of silk, satin, velvet, ribbon, muslin, lace and linen, with which half a dozen young nuns seated there were cheerfully engaged in making dresses for a basket full of dolls, for the Christmas gifts to the infants.
The blooming young nun Felecitie presided at this table. Seeing Salome approach with Sister Francoise, she accosted her:
"Our holy mother told us that you would come in and help us dress these dolls."
"And so I would have done, only I found some living and suffering dolls to dress and feed," said Salome, smiling.
"Yes, I know, the babies of the Foundling. Well, we are dressing these dolls for your babies," said the smiling sister.
"But do you suppose my tiny little ones will care for dolls?" inquired Salome.
"Be sure they will; from six months old, up, boys or girls, sick or well, babies will love dolls. I have seen a sick baby hug her doll, just as I have seen a sick mother clasp her child," answered the sister.
"These are the recreations of charity the holy mother told me of," said Salome, as she passed out of the work-room and went back to her own sphere of duty.
On Christmas morning after matins, the Christmas gifts were distributed in every one of the asylums, and every inmate was made happy by an appropriate present.
At ten o'clock high mass was celebrated in the chapel of the convent, and all the sisterhood assembled in their screened choir.
Three priests in their sacerdotal robes, and a dozen boys in white surplices, were expected to serve at the altar. The chapel was profusely decorated with holly, and the shrines were dressed with flowers. The pews were filled with a congregation of a rather better social position than usually assembled there in the convent chapel.
The services had not yet commenced. Salome bent forward with all the interest and curiosity of a recluse, to look, for a moment, upon the strangers.
She gave but one glance through the screen, and then suddenly, with a low cry, she sank back upon her seat.
"What is the matter, my daughter? Are you ill?" inquired the mother-superior, in a whisper.
Salome lifted up a face ashen pale with dismay, and gasped:
"I have seen him! I have seen him! He is there—there in the congregation below!"
"Who?" inquired the abbess, in vague alarm.
"My husband?—yet, no; oh, Heaven! not my husband, but the Duke of Hereward!"
THE STRANGER IN THE CHAPEL.
"The Duke of Hereward in the congregation?" echoed the abbess, with a troubled look.
"Yes, there in the middle aisle, in the third pew from the altar," replied Salome, in trembling tones.
"No matter. You have nothing to fear, my daughter; you will be protected. He has everything to fear; he is a felon before the law, and he may be prosecuted. Compose yourself, my child, and give your mind to heavenly subjects. See, the priest is coming in," murmured the abbess, who immediately crossed herself, and lowered her eyes in devotion.
Salome, though trembling in every limb, and feeling faint, almost to falling, followed the mother-superior's example, and tried to concentrate her mind in worship.
The solemn procession of the service entered the chancel—the priests in their sacerdotal vestments, the boys in their white robes. The officiating priest took his station before the altar, with his assistants on each side. And the impressive celebration of the high mass commenced.
But, ah! Salome could not confine her attention to the service! Her eyes, guard them carefully as she might, would wander from her missal toward the stalwart form and stately head of the stranger in that third pew front; her thoughts would wander back to the past, forth to the future, or, if they stayed upon the present at all, it was but in connection with that stranger.
Father F——, the great English priest, preached the sermon, from the text: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men." He preached with all the force, fervor and eloquence inspired by the Divine words, and he was heard with rapt attention by all the cloistered nuns and all the common congregation—by all within the sound of his voice, perhaps, except one—the most sorrowful one on that glad day. Salome tried in vain to follow the golden thread of his discourse.
But how little she was able to do, may be known from the deep sigh of relief she heaved when it was all over.
As soon as the benediction was pronounced, the nuns arose to leave their screened choir, and the congregation got up to go out from the chapel.
Salome lingered behind the sisterhood, and watched the handsome stranger in the third pew front—a stranger to every one present except herself.
He also lingered behind all his companions, and turned and looked intently up into the screened choir.
Salome saw his full face for the first time since his appearance there—and she saw that it was deadly, ghastly pale, with white lips and glassy eyes. He gazed into the screened choir as into vacancy.
Salome knew that he could see nothing there, yet she shrank back and stood in the deepest shadow, until she saw him pick up his hat and glide from the chapel, the last man that went out.
"Ah, what could have changed him so?" she thought—"love, fear, remorse—what?"
He had nothing to fear from her. If no one should take vengeance on him until she should do so, then would he go unpunished to his grave, and his sin would never have found him out in this world. Nay, sooner than to have hurt him in life, liberty, honor, or estate, she, herself, would have borne the penalty of all his crimes. Yet of those crimes what an unspeakable horror she had, though for the criminal what an unutterable pity—what an undying love.
While she stood there, gazing through the choir-screen upon the spot whence the stranger had disappeared, her bosom, torn by these conflicting passions of horror, pity, love, she felt a soft touch on her shoulder, and turning, saw the mother-superior at her side.
"My daughter, why do you loiter here?" she tenderly inquired.
Salome's pale face flushed, as she replied:
"Oh, mother, I was watching him until he left the church."
"My daughter, it was a deadly sin to do so!" gravely replied the abbess.
"He could not see me, mother," sighed Salome, in a tremulous voice.
"That was well. Come now to your own room, daughter, and do not tremble so. You have nothing to fear, except from your own weak and sinful nature," said the abbess, as she drew the girl's arm within her own and led her from the choir.
"Am I so weak and sinful, mother?" inquired Salome, after a silence which had lasted until the two had reached the door of the Infants' Asylum, where Salome now lodged.
"As every human being is! and especially as every woman is in all affairs of the heart," gravely returned the abbess.
"Can you spare me a few minutes, mother? Will you come in and let me talk to you a little while? Have you time? I want to talk to you. Oh! I wish we had mother-confessors for women—for girls, I mean, instead of father-confessors. Can you come in and let me talk to you, mother, for a little while?"
"Surely, daughter," said the abbess, gently as with her own hand she opened the door and led her votaress into the room.
Salome offered the one chair to the lady-superior, and then took the foot-stool at her feet, and laid her head upon her knees.
"Now speak to me freely, child. Tell me what you wish and how I can help you," said the abbess, kindly.
"Oh, mother! mother! I wish to be rid of the sin of loving him, for I love him still. In spite of all, I love him still!" exclaimed Salome, breaking down in a passion of tears and sobs.
The abbess laid her hands upon the bowed young head, and kept them so in silence until the storm of grief had passed. Then she said:
"Child you must fast and pray, and so combat the 'inordinate and sinful affections of the flesh.' Bethink you what you do in suffering them. You make an idol of that monster of iniquity who was an accomplice in the murder of your father—"
Salome uttered a low cry, and hid her face in her hands. The abbess went on steadily, almost pitilessly:
"A man who, having already a living wife, of whom he had grown tired and ashamed, married you, and so would have ruined you in soul and body."
Salome groaned deeply, and then suddenly broke forth in passionate exclamations:
"I know it! I know it? I know it from the evidence of my own senses, no less than from the testimony of others! I know it, but I cannot feel it, mother! I cannot feel it? My mind adjudges him guilty; my mind condemns him upon unquestionable proof; but my heart holds him guiltless; in the face of all the proofs, my heart acquits him! I know him to be a criminal; but I feel him to be one of the greatest, best and noblest of mankind! In spite of all I have heard and seen with my own ears and eyes, corroborated by the testimony of others—in spite of everything past, I feel, I feel that if he should now come and take my hand in his, and whisper to me, I should believe all that he might tell me, and go with him whithersoever he might choose to lead me! Mother, save me from myself!"
The abbess laid her hands again upon the throbbing head that lay on her lap, as she answered, mournfully:
"Said I not that you have nothing to fear except from your weak and sinful self. Child, you have nothing else on earth to dread. You are to be protected from yourself alone."
"And from him! Oh, mother, keep the great temptation from me!"
"He shall be kept from you, if, indeed, he should presume to seek you here," said the abbess.
"He will seek me, mother! He came to seek me, and for nothing else. He has by some means found out my retreat, and he has come to seek me! Be sure that he will present himself here to-morrow, if not to-day."
"In that case, we shall know how to deal with him, even though he is the Duke of Hereward; for he has, and can have, no lawful claim on you. So far from that, he is in deadly danger from you. He is liable to prosecution by you; for you are not his wife; you are only a lady whom he entrapped by a felonious marriage ceremony, and sought to ruin. It is amazing," added the abbess, reflectively, "that a nobleman of his exalted rank and illustrious fame should have stooped so low as to stain his honor with so deep a crime, and to risk the infamy and destruction its discovery must have brought upon him."
"It is amazing and incredible! That is why, in the face of the evidence of my own eyes and ears, the testimony of other eye and ear witnesses, and of my own certain knowledge, based upon proof as sure as ever formed the foundation of any knowledge, I still feel in my heart of heart that he is guiltless, stainless, noble, pure and true as the prince of noblemen should be," sighed Salome, adding word upon word of eulogy, as if she could not say enough.
"In the face of all positive proof, and of the convictions of your judgment, your heart tells you that this criminal is innocent," said the abbess, incisively.
"In the face of all, my heart assures me that he is pure, true, and noble!" exclaimed Salome.
"Do you believe your heart?" gravely inquired the elder lady.
"No; for is it not written: 'The heart is deceitful, and desperately wicked.' No, I do not believe my weak and sinful heart, which I know would betray me into the hands of my lover, if I should be so unfortunate as to meet him."
"You shall not meet him; you shall be saved from him," answered the abbess.
At that moment a bell was heard to ring throughout the building.
"That calls us to the refectory—to our happy Christmas festival. Come, my daughter," said the lady, rising.
"I cannot go! Oh, indeed I cannot go, mother. I am utterly unnerved by what has happened. I hope you will pardon and excuse me," pleaded Salome.
"What! Will you not join us at our Christmas feast?" kindly persisted the abbess.
"Indeed, it is impossible! I will rest on my cot for a few minutes, and then I will go and take my poor little Marie Perdue on my bosom and rock her to sleep. I hear her fretting now; and when I hush her cries, she also soothes my heartache."
"I will send you something; and I will come to you, before vespers," said the abbess, kindly, as she glided away from the room.
Salome lay alone on the cot, with closed eyes and folded hands, praying for light to see her duty and strength to do it.
She expected, in answer to her earnest prayers, that scales should fall from her eyes, and impressions pass from her heart, and that she should see her love in monstrous shape and colors, and be able to thrust him from her heart. Instead of which, she saw him purer, truer, nobler, than ever before. With this perception came a sweet, strange peace and trust which she could not comprehend, and did not wish to cast off.
She arose and went into the infants' dormitory, and took up the youngest and feeblest of the babes—the one which, on her very first visit, had so appealed to her sympathies, and which she had adopted as her own.
This child, like many others in the asylum, had no known story.
A few days before Christmas, late in the evening, a bell had been rung at the main door of the Infants' Asylum.
The portress who answered it found there a basket containing an infant a few weeks old. It was cleanly dressed and warmly wrapped up in flannel; but it had no scrap of writing, no name, nor mark upon its clothing by which it might ever be identified.
The portress took it into the dormitory, where it was tenderly received and cared for by the sisters on duty there.
The case was too common a one to excite more than a passing interest.
On the next day after the arrival of the infant, it happened that the mother-superior brought Salome there on her first visit, when the misery of the motherless and forsaken infant so moved the sympathies of the young lady that she immediately took it to her own bosom.
Subsequently, since she had devoted herself to the care of these deserted babies, she took an especial interest in this youngest and most helpless of their number.
She named it Marie Perdue, and stood godmother at its baptism.
It lay in her arms often during the day, and slept at her bosom during the night. It had grown to know its nurse, and to recognize her presence and caresses by those soft, low sounds, half cooing and half complaining, with which very young babes first try to utter their emotions or their wants.
Now, as she took little Marie Perdue from the cot, the child greeted her with sweet smiles and soft coos, and nestled lovingly to her bosom. And peace deepened in Salome's heart.
She sat down in a low nursing-chair, fed the child with warm milk and water until it was satisfied, and then rocked it and sang to it in a low, melodious voice, until it fell asleep.
She was still rocking and singing when the rosy-cheeked and cheery young Sister Felecitie came in.
"Our holy mother was going to send your dinner in here, Miss Levison; but I think it must be so dismal to eat one's dinner alone on Christmas day, so I pleaded to be allowed to plead with you that you will come and dine with us young sisters at the second table, which is just as good as the first, I assure you, only it is served an hour later. Will you come? Say yes!" urged the merry and kind-hearted girl.
"I will come, thank you; though I did too moodily decline the invitation of the abbess," said Salome, rising and placing her sleeping charge upon its little cot.
"Now! what did I tell you about the children and the dolls! Look there!" gleefully exclaimed Sister Felecitie, pointing to a row of cots where about a dozen infants lay asleep, clasping their dolls tightly.
"Yes, the tiny mimic mothers really do love their doll babies," Salome confessed with a smile.
As they went out of the dormitory they passed into the children's day-room, where about twenty infants, from one to two years old, were at play—some sitting on mats or creeping on all fours, because they could not yet stand; some walking around chairs and holding on to support themselves; and some running here and there, in full possession of the use of their limbs.
All rejoiced in the possession of little dolls.
"Look at them!" exclaimed Sister Felecitie, gleefully.
"We tried the least little ones with other toys: but, bless you, nothing else pleases them so well as dolls. We once tried the little yearlings with rattles, which we thought, it being noisy nuisances, would please them better; but save us! If any one doubts the doctrine of original sin and total depravity, they should have seen the three year-old babies fling down their rattles in a passion and go for the other babies' dolls, to seize and take them by force and violence; and the corresponding rage and resistance of the latter."
"All that was very natural," said Salome, with a smile.
"Oh, yes, natural, and perhaps something else too, beginning with a 'd.' They call children 'little angels.' Yes. I know they are, when they are sound asleep," exclaimed the sister, laughing.
"If they are not angels, they have angels with them. I feel they have, for when I am in their sphere, I possess my soul in peace."
As the young lady said this, the children noticed her presence for the first time, and all who could walk ran to her, clustered around her and thrust their dolls upon her, for inspection and approval.
All this Salome bestowed freely with many caresses and gentle, playful words.
Then the children sitting on the mats reached out their dolls at arm's-length, and screamed to have them noticed.
Salome made her way to these little sitters, while all the other children, clinging to her skirt, attended her, impeding her progress.
It was a great confusion.
The merry little sister laughed aloud.
"Now!" she said, gayly. "You are in their sphere, do you possess your soul in peace?"
"Something even better. My soul goes out to them, delighting in their innocent delight!" answered Salome.
And after she had patted their heads and praised their dolls, and pleased them all with loving notice, she followed her conductress from the children's play-room through the long rectangular passage that led to the nun's refectory.
The sisterhood, abstemious nearly all the days of the year, feasted on certain high holidays.
The Christmas dinner, laid for the young nuns in the refectory, would have satisfied the most fastidious epicure. But I doubt if any epicure could have enjoyed it half as well as did these abstemious young women, whose appetites were only let loose on certain high days and holidays.
Salome wondered at herself, who but two hours before had given way to a storm of passionate sobs and tears, yet now felt a strange peace of mind that enabled her to enter sincerely into the happiness of those around her.
In the afternoon, the convent was visited by a large number of benevolent people in the neighborhood, who brought their Christmas offerings to the poor and needy of the house.
These visitors were shown through all the various departments of charity, and left their offerings in each before they went away.
"I do wish one thing," said little Sister Felecitie, as she lingered near Salome, after the departure of the visitors.
"What do you wish, dear?" inquired the latter.
"Why, then, that the good people who give to our poor, whatever else they give, would always give the children dolls and the old people tobacco. The children never can have too many dolls, nor the old people enough tobacco."
"But is not the use of tobacco a vicious habit?"
"I hope not. It makes the poor old souls so happy."
The vesper bell called them to the chapel, and the conversation ceased.
Salome joined the procession and entered the choir.
As soon as she had taken her seat she looked through the screen upon the congregation assembled in the public part of the church. A great dread seized her that she should see again the man whose presence had so disturbed her in the morning.
Heaven! he was there!—not where he sat before, but in one of the end pews, facing the choir, so that she had a full view of his ghastly face and glassy eyes.
A sudden superstitious fear fell upon her. She almost thought the figure was his ghost, or was some optical illusion conjured up by her own imagination.
She wished to test its reality by the eyes of another. She wished to whisper to the abbess, and point him out, and ask her if she, too, saw him; but she dared not do this. The vesper hymn was pealing forth from the choir, and all the sisterhood, except herself, were singing.
She was their soprano, and she had to join them. She began first in a tremulous voice, but soon the spell of the music took hold of her, and carried her away, far, far above all earthly thoughts and cares, and she sang, as her hearers afterward declared, "like a seraph."
At the end of the service she whispered to the abbess, calling her attention to the pallid stranger in the end pew; but when both turned to look, the man had vanished!
"Mother, I do not know whether that ghostly figure was a real man, after all!" whispered Salome, in an awe-stricken tone.
"My good child, what do you mean?" inquired the abbess, uneasily.
"Mother, I feel as if I were haunted!" said Salome, with a shudder.
"Come! your nerves have been overtasked. You must have a composing draught, and go to bed," said the superior, decisively.
"It may be that I am nervous and excitable, and that I have conjured up this image in my brain—such a ghastly, ghostly image, mother! It could not have been real, though I thought nothing else this morning than that it was real. But this evening—oh! madam, if you had seen it, with its blanched face and glazed eyes, like a sceptre risen from the grave!"
"I have not seen the man yet, either this morning or this evening," said the elder lady, as she drew the younger's arm within her own.
"No, you have never seen him. I have no one's eyes but my own to test the matter. You have never seen him, and that is another reason why I think of the man as ghostly or unreal," whispered Salome.
They were now in the long passage leading from the chapel to the cells.
"I will take you again to your own little room in the Infants' Asylum," murmured the lady, as she turned with her protegee into the rectangular passage leading to the asylums.
She took Salome to the door of the house, gave her a benediction, and left her.
"Out there I have trouble, here I shall have peace," muttered the young woman, as she entered the children's dormitory, where every tiny cot was now occupied by a little, sleeping child.
Salome prepared to retire, and in a few moments she also was at rest, with her little Marie Perdue in her arms.
Christmas had come on Saturday that year. The next day being Sunday, there was another high mass to be celebrated in the chapel.
Salome, as usual, joined the nuns' procession to the choir, where the sisterhood, as was their custom, took their seats some few minutes before the entrance of the priest and his attendants.
With a heart almost pausing in its pulsations, Salome bent forward to peer through the screen upon the congregation, to see if by any chance the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) sat among them.
With a half-suppressed cry, she recognized his form, seated in the opposite corner of the church, from the spot he had last occupied.
"He shifts his place every time he appears," she said to herself.
And now, being determined that other eyes should see him as well as her own, she touched the abbess' arm and whispered:
"Pray look before the priest enters. There is the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) sitting quite alone in the corner pew, on the left hand side of the altar. Do you see him now?"
The abbess followed the direction with her eyes, and answered:
"No, I do not see any one there."
"Why, he is sitting alone in the left hand corner pew. Surely, you must see him now?" said Salome, bending forward to look again at the stranger.
The next instant she sank back in her seat, nearly fainting.
The pew was empty!
"There is really no one there, my child. Your eyes have deceived you," murmured the abbess, gently.
"He was there a moment since, but he has vanished! Oh! mother, what is the meaning of this?" gasped the girl, turning pale as death.
"The meaning is that your nervous system is shattered, and you are the victim of optical illusions. Or else—if there was a man really in that pew—he may have passed out through that little corner door leading to the vestry. But hush! here comes the priest," said the abbess, as the procession entered the chancel, preceded by the solemn notes of the organ.
Since "Miss Levison" was obliged to keep her place in the choir, it was well that she was an enthusiast in music, and thus able to lose all sense of care and trouble in the exercise of her divine art.
But for the music she would scarcely have got through the morning service.
And very much relieved she felt when the benediction was at length pronounced, and she was at liberty to leave the chapel.
"Oh, madam, this mystery is killing me! I have seen, or fancied I have seen, the Duke of Hereward in the church three times; yet no one else has been able to see him! If it was the duke, he has come here for some fixed purpose. He has, probably, by means of those expert London detectives, traced me out, and discovered my residence under this sacred roof. He has followed me here to give me trouble!" said Salome, as soon she found herself alone with the superior.
"My child," said the lady, "I must reiterate that you have nothing—he has everything to fear! I do not know, of course, for even you are not sure that you have really seen him. If you have, he is in this immediate neighborhood. If he is, why, then, the fact must be known to nearly every one outside the convent walls. The Duke of Hereward is not a man whose presence could be ignored. To-morrow, therefore, I will cause inquiries to be made, and we shall be sure to find out whether he is really here or not."
"Thanks, good mother, thanks. It will be a great relief to have this question decided in any way," said Salome, gratefully.
The mother-superior smiled, gave the benediction, and retired.
At vespers that evening, Salome looked all over the church in anxious fear of seeing the form that haunted her imagination; but her "ghost" did not appear, and, after all, she scarcely knew whether she was relieved or disturbed by his absence.
The next day, Monday, the abbess set diligent inquiries on foot to discover whether the Duke of Hereward, or any other stranger of any name or title whatever, had been seen in the neighborhood of St. Rosalie's for many days. Winter was not the season for strangers there.
After this, the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) was seen no more in the chapel.
Every time Salome accompanied the sisterhood to the chapel, she peered through the choir-screen, in much anxiety as to whether she should see the duke, or his apparition, among the congregation below; but she never saw him there again, nor could she decide, in the conflict between her love and her sense of duty, whether she most desired or deplored his absence.
So the days passed into weeks, and nothing more was heard or seen of the Duke of Hereward.
The Christmas holidays came to an end after Twelth-Day; the pupils returned to the school, and the academy buildings grew gay with the exuberance of young life.
Salome, who, during many years of her childhood and youth, had shared this bright and cheery school-life, now saw nothing of it.
The academy buildings, as has been explained before this, were situated on the opposite side of the court-yard from the asylums and entirely cut off from communication with them.
Salome, devoted to her duties in the Infants' Asylum, was more completely secluded from the world than even the cloistered nuns themselves; for the nuns were the teachers of the academy, and in daily communication with their pupils and frequent correspondence with their patrons, saw and heard much of the busy life without.
So the weeks passed slowly into months, and the winter into spring, yet nothing more was seen or heard of the Duke of Hereward.
Salome lost the habit of looking for him, and gradually recovered her tranquility. In the work to which she had consecrated herself—the care of helpless and destitute infancy—she grew almost happy.
Already she seemed as dead to the world as though the "black vail" had fallen like a pall over her head. No newspapers ever drifted into the asylum, nor did any visitor come to bring intelligence of the good or evil of the life beyond the convent walls.
Her year of probation was passing away. At its close she would take the white vail and enter upon the second stage of her chosen vocation—her year of novitiate—at the end of which she would assume the black vail of the cloistered nun, which would seal her fate.
She knew that before taking that final step she must make some disposition of that vast inheritance which, in her flight from her home, she had left without one word of explanation or instruction. She was assured that her fortune was in the hands of honest men, and there she was content to leave it for the present. She had in her possession about a thousand pounds in money and several thousand pounds in diamonds—ample means for self-support and alms-giving.
And so she was satisfied for the present to leave her financial affairs as they were, until the time should come when it would be absolutely necessary for her to give attention to them.
Meanwhile, had she forgotten him who had once been the idol of her worship?
Ah, no! however diligently her eyes, her hands, her feet were employed in the service of the little children she loved so tenderly, her thoughts were with him. She loved him still! It seemed to her at once the sin and the curse of her life that she loved him still. She prayed daily to be delivered from "inordinate and sinful affections," but in this case prayer seemed of little use; for the more she prayed the more she loved and trusted him. It was a mystery she could not make out.
So the spring bloomed into summer, and the world outside became so disturbed and turbulent with "wars and rumors of wars," that its tumult was heard even within the peaceful convent sanctuary.
The news of the abdication of Her Most Catholic Majesty, Isabella II of Spain, fell like a thunderbolt upon the little community of the faithful in the convent; and nowhere, in the political conclaves of Prussia or of France, was the Spanish succession discussed with more intensity of interest than among the simple sisterhood of St. Rosalie.
Who would now fill the throne of the Western Caesars, left vacant by the abdication of their daughter, the Queen Isabella?
These were the topics which filled the minds and employed the tongues of the quiet nuns, whenever and wherever their rules permitted them to indulge in conversation.
No sound of this disturbance however penetrated the peaceful sphere of the Infants' Asylum, which, indeed, seemed to be the innermost retreat, or the holy of holies in the sanctuary.
Salome lived within it, the chief ministering angel, dispensing blessings all around her, and growing daily into deeper peace, until one fatal morning, when a great shock fell upon her.
It was a beautiful, bright morning near the end of June, and the day in regular rotation on which the mother-superior of the convent made her official rounds of inspection in the Infants' Asylum.
She arrived early, and, accompanied by Salome, went over every department of the asylum, from attic to cellar, from dormitory to recreation grounds, and found all well, and approved and delighted in the well-being.
After her long walk she sat down to rest in the children's play-room, and directed Salome to take a seat by her side.
The room was full of little children. Not seated in orderly rows, as we have too often seen in Infant Asylums on exhibition days; but moving about everywhere as freely as their little limbs would carry them, and making quite as much noise as their health and well-being certainly required.
Among them was little Marie Perdue, now a bright, fair, blue-eyed cherub of seven months old, seated on a mat, and tossing about with screams of delight a number of small, gay-hued India-rubber balls.
The abbess was watching the children with pleased attention, when one of the lay sisters entered and put a card in her hands, saying that the gentleman and lady were waiting at the porter's wicket, and desired permission to see the interior of the Infant Asylum.
"Certainly, they are welcome," said the abbess. "Go and tell Sister Francoise to be their guide."
The lay sister left the room, and the abbess gave her attention again to the children, making occasional remarks on their health, beauty, playfulness, and so forth, which were all sympathetically responded to by Salome, until they heard the sounds of approaching voices and footsteps, and the visiting party, escorted by Sister Francoise.
Then the abbess and her companion ceased speaking, and lowered their eyes to the floor until the strangers should pass them.
But the strangers lingered on their way, noticing individual children for beauty, or brightness, or some other trait which seemed to attract.
The gentleman, speaking French with an English accent, asked questions in too low a tone to reach the ears of the abbess and her companion; but the lady kept silence.
At length, as the visitors drew nearer, they came upon little Marie Perdue, sitting on her mat, engaged in tossing about her gay-colored balls, and laughing with delight.
"Whose child is that?" asked the gentleman, in a voice that thrilled to the heart of Salome.
She forgot herself, and looked up quickly, but the form of Sister Francoise, standing, concealed the figure of the speaker, who seemed to be stooping over the child.
"Ay! wha's bairn is it?" inquired another voice, that fell with ominous familiarity on her ear, as she turned her head a little and saw the female visitor, a tall, handsome blonde, with bold, blue eyes and a cataraet of golden hair falling on her shoulders.
Sister Francoise did not understand the language of the woman, and turned with a helpless and appealing look to the gentleman, who still speaking French with the slightly defective English accent, replied:
"Madame asks whose child is that?"
"Oh, pardon! We do not know, Monsieur. It was left at our doors on the eighteenth of December last," replied Sister Francoise.
"A very fine child! Its name?"
"'Marie Perdue?' What? 'Marie Perdue?' What's 'Perdue?'" querulously inquired the tall, blonde beauty.
"'Thrown away,' 'lost,' 'abandoned,'" answered the gentleman, in a low voice.
As he spoke he stood up and turned around.
Salome uttered a low, half-suppressed cry, and covered her face with both hands.
The abbess impulsively looked up to see what was the matter, and—echoed the cry!
There was dead silence in the room for a minute, and then Salome lifted up her head and cautiously looked around.
The visitors had gone, and the children, who with child-like curiosity had suspended their play to gaze upon the strangers, were now re-commencing their noise with renewed vehemence.
Salome still trembling in every limb, turned toward her companion.
The abbess sat with clasped hands, lowered eyelids, and face as pale as death.
Salome, too much absorbed in her own emotion to notice the strange condition of the abbess, touched her on the shoulder and eagerly whispered:
"Mother, did you observe the visitors?"
"Yes," breathed the lady, in a very low tone, without lifting her eyelids.
"Did you notice—the man?" Salome continued.
"I did," murmured the abbess, in an almost inaudible voice, as she devoutly made the sign of the cross.
"Do you know who he was?"
"He was like our Christmas visitor in the chapel! He was the Duke of Hereward!"
"Nay," said the abbess, in a stern solemn voice. "He was not the Duke of Hereward. He was one whom I had reckoned as numbered with the dead full twenty years ago!"
THE ABBESS' STORY.
"'Not the Duke of Hereward!'" echoed Salome, astonishment now overcoming every other emotion in her bosom.
The abbess bowed her head in grave assent.
"'One whom you thought numbered with the dead, full twenty years ago?'" continued Salome, quoting the lady's own words, and gazing on her face.
"Full twenty-five years ago, my daughter, or longer still," murmured the abbess.
"This man is young. He could not have been grown up to manhood twenty-five years ago."
"He is well preserved, as the selfish and heartless are too apt to be; but he is not young."
"And he is not the Duke of Hereward?"
"Most certainly not the Duke of Hereward."
"Then in the name of all the holy saints, madam, who is he?" demanded Salome, in ever increasing amazement.
"He is the Count Waldemar de Volaski, once my betrothed husband, but who forsook me, as I have told you, for another and a fairer woman," gravely replied the abbess.
"Once your betrothed husband, madam! Great Heaven! are you sure of this?" exclaimed Salome, in consternation.
"Yes, sure of it," answered the abbess, slowly bending her head.
"But—pardon me—I thought that he had been killed in a duel by the lover of the woman whom he had won."
"Even so thought I. The news of his falsehood and of his death at the hands of the wronged lover, came to me in my convent retreat at the same time, and I heard no more of him from that day to this, when I have again seen him in the flesh. The saints defend us!"
"And you are absolutely certain that he was Count Waldemar?"
"I am absolutely certain."
"Mother Genevieve, did you know the woman who was with him?"
"No, not at all. I never saw or heard of her before. She seems to belong to the demi-monde, for she dresses like a princess, and talks like a peasant. Let us not speak of her," said the lady, coldly.
"We must speak of her, for I think I know who she is."
"You recognize her, then?"
"I cannot say that I do; at least, not by her person. I never saw her face before; but I have heard her voice under circumstances that rendered it impossible for me ever to forget its tones; and from her voice I believe her to be Rose Cameron, a Highland peasant girl of Ben Lone."
"Stop!" exclaimed the mother-superior, suddenly raising her hand. "You do not mean to intimate that she is the girl whom you overheard talking with the young Duke of Hereward at midnight, under your balcony, on the night before the murder of Sir Lemuel Levison?"
"She is the very same woman, as he is the very same man, who planned, if they did not perpetrate the robbery—who caused, if they did not commit, the murder; and their names are John Scott, Duke of Hereward, and Rose Cameron."
"My daughter, in regard to the girl you may be quite right; but in respect to the man you are utterly wrong."
"Should I not know my own betrothed husband?" demanded Salome, impatiently.
"Should I not know mine?" inquired the abbess, very patiently.
Salome made a gesture of desperate perplexity, and then there was a silent pause, during which the two women sat gazing in each other's faces in silent wonder.
Suddenly Salome started up in wild excitement and began pacing the narrow cell with rapid steps, exclaiming:
"There have been strange cases of counterparts in persons of this world so exact as to have deceived the eyes of their most intimate friends. If this should be a case in point! Great Heaven, if it should! If this Count Waldemar de Volaski should be such a perfect counterpart of the Duke of Hereward as to have deceived even my eyes and ears! Oh, what joy! Oh, what rapture! What ecstacy to find 'the princely Hereward' as stainless in honor as he is noble in name; and this most unprincipled Volaski the real guilty party! But—the marriage certificate in Hereward's own name! The letters to his so-called 'wife,' Rose Cameron, in Hereward's own handwriting! Ah, no! there is no hope! not the faintest beam of hope! And yet—"
She suddenly paused in her wild walk, and looked toward the abbess.
That lady was still sitting on the stool, at the foot of the cot, with her hands folded on her lap, and her eyes cast down upon them as in deep thought or prayer.
Salome sat down beside her, and inquired in a low tone:
"Mother Genevieve, was the Count Waldemar de Volaski ever in Scotland? Has he been there within the last twelve months?"
The lady lifted her eyes to the face of the inquirer, and slowly replied:
"My daughter, how should I know? Have I not said that, until this day, when I have seen him in the flesh standing in this room, I had believed him to have been in purgatory for twenty-five years or more?"
"True! true!" sighed Salome.
The abbess folded her hands, cast down her eyes, and resumed her meditations or prayers.
"You heard that he was killed in a duel, you say?" persevered Salome.
"Yes; the news of his treachery, and the news of his death at the hands of the Duke of Hereward reached me at the same moment in this convent, where I was then passing the first year of mourning for my parents. It was that news which decided me to take the vail and devote my life and fortune to the service of the Lord," said the lady, reverently bending her head.
Salome sat staring stonily as one petrified. She was absolutely speechless and motionless from amazement for the space of a minute or more. Then suddenly recovering her powers, she exclaimed:
"Mother! Mother Genevieve! For Heaven's sake! Did I understand you? From whose hand did you hear Count Waldemar received his death in a duel?"
"From the hand of the deeply injured husband, of course."
"But—who was he? Who? You mentioned a name!" wildly exclaimed Salome.
"Did I mention a name? Ah! what inadvertence! I never intended to let that name slip out. I am very sorry to have done so. Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! Mea maxima culpa!" muttered the abbess, bending her head and smiting her bosom.
"Mother Genevieve! Oh, do not trifle with me! do not torture me! I heard a name! Did I hear aright? Oh, I hope I did not! What name did you murmur? Tell me! tell me! WHO met Count Waldemar in a duel?" demanded Salome.
"I have no choice but to tell you now, though I would willingly have kept the fact from you. It was the Duke of Hereward, the late duke of course, the deeply-wronged lover of that fair woman, who met, and, as I heard, killed Count Waldemar de Volaski. But there were wrongs on both sides, deep, deadly wrongs on every side!" moaned the lady, clasping her hands convulsively and lowering her eyes.
"The Duke of Hereward! Heaven of heavens! the Duke of Hereward! Yes! I heard aright the first time; but I could not believe my own ears! The father of my betrothed!" murmured Salome, sinking back in her seat.
The abbess gravely bent her head.
"What of the frail woman? She was not—oh! no, she could not have been the mother of the present duke?"
"No," murmured the abbess, in a low voice.
"Mother Genevieve!" exclaimed Salome, suddenly, "will you tell me all you know of this terrible story?"
"My daughter, my past is dead and buried these many years; so I would leave it until the last great day of the Resurrection. Nevertheless, as the story of my life is interwoven with that of the princely line in whom you feel so deep an interest, I will relate it."
"Thanks, good mother," said Salome, nestling to her side and preparing to listen.
"Not here, and not now, my child, can I enter upon the long, sorrowful, shameful story—a story of pride, despotism and cruelty on one side; of passion, wilfulness and recklessness on the other; of selfishness, sin and ruin on all sides! Daughter, in almost every tale of sin and suffering you will find that there has always been sin on one side and suffering on the other; but in this story all sinned deeply, all suffered fearfully!"
"Except yourself, sweet mother. You never sinned," said Salome, taking the thin, pale hand of the lady and pressing it to her lips.
"Mea culpa! I sin every hour of my life!" cried the abbess, crossing herself.
"We all do; but you did not sin there," said the girl.
"I had no part—no active part, I mean—in that tale of guilt and woe. I was a pupil here in this convent then, waiting to be brought out and married to my betrothed. No, I had no part in that tragedy."
"Except the passive part of suffering."
"Ay, except the passive part of suffering; but hark, my child! the vesper bell is ringing; it calls us to our evening worship: let us go to the choir, and there forget all our earthly cares and seek the peace of Heaven," said the pale lady, slowly rising from her seat.
"When will you tell me the story, good mother?" pleaded Salome, in a low and deprecating tone.
"The vesper bell is ringing. The rules of the house must not be disturbed by your individual necessities. After the evening service comes the evening meal. Then, for me, my hour of rest in my cell; and for you, the duty of seeing your infant charge put to bed. When all these matters have been properly attended to, come to me in my cell. You will find me there. We shall be uninterrupted until the midnight mass; and in the interim I will tell you the story of a life that 'was lost, but is found, was dead, but is alive'—Benedicite, my daughter!" said the abbess, spreading her hands upon the bowed head of the girl, and solemnly blessing her.
Then she glided away.
Salome soon followed her, and joined the procession of nuns to the chapel.
As soon as she took her seat in the choir, she looked through the screen over the congregation below, to see if the strangers were in the chapel; but she saw them not.
When the vesper service was over, she took her tea with the nuns in their refectory; and then returned to the play-room in the Infants' Asylum.
The nurses were engaged in giving the little ones their supper, and putting them to bed.
Salome took up her own little Marie Perdue, to undress her.
As she divested the child of her little slip, something rolled out of its bosom and dropped upon the floor.
One of the nurses picked it up and handed it to Salome.
It was a small, hard substance, wrapped in tissue paper.
Salome unrolled it and found a ring, set with a large solitaire diamond. With a cry of surprise and pain, she recognized the jewel. It was her late father's ring! While she gazed upon it in a trance of wonder, the paper in which it had been wrapped, caught by a breeze from the open window, fluttered under her eyes. She saw that there was writing on the paper, and she took it up and read it.
"The ring must be sold for the benefit of the child and of the house that has protected her. She must be educated to become a nun."
There was no signature to this paper.
Salome rolled it around the ring again, and put it in her bosom, then she sent one of the nurses to call Sister Francoise.
When the old nun came into her presence, she inquired:
"Sister Francoise, you showed a lady and gentleman through the asylum, this afternoon; they came into this room; they stopped and noticed little Marie Perdue particularly. Did they ask any questions or make any remarks concerning her? I have an especial reason for asking."
"Oh, yes, sister! they did ask many questions—when she came, how long she had been, who took care of her, what was her name, and many more; and as I answered them to the best of my knowledge, I could not help seeing that they knew more about the child than I did," answered the nun, nodding her head.
"Did the gentleman or lady give anything to the child?"
"Not that I saw, which I thought unkind of them, considering all the interest they showed in words; for, as I say of all the fine ladies who come here and fondle the infants, what's the use of all the fondling if they never put a sou out, or a stitch in?"
"That will do, sister; I only wanted to know," answered the young lady, as she determined to keep her own counsel, and confide the news of the surreptitiously offered ring to the abbess only.
When she had rocked her child to sleep, laid it on its little cot, and placed two novices on duty to watch over the slumbers of the children, she left the dormitory by the rectangular passage that led to the nuns' house, and repaired at once to the cell occupied by the abbess.
It was a plain little den, in no respect better than those tenanted by her humble nuns, twelve feet long, by nine broad, with bare walls, and bare floor, and a small grated window at the farther end, opposite the narrow, grated door by which the cell was entered. It was furnished poorly with a narrow cot bed, a wooden stool, and a small stand, upon which lay the office-book of the abbess, and above which hung the crucifix.
As Salome entered the cell, the abbess arose from her knees and signed for her visitor to be seated.
Salome sat down on the foot of the cot, and the abbess drew the stool and placed herself near.
Then Salome saw the lady-superior was even paler and graver than usual; and anxious as the young lady felt to hear the abbess' story, she thought she would give her more time to recover, and even assist her in doing so, by diverting her thoughts to the new incident of the ring, which she produced and laid upon the mother's lap, saying:
"That was found by me in the bosom of little Marie Perdue's dress. It was donated to the house, for the benefit of the child. Here is the scrap of writing in which it was rolled."
The abbess silently took up the ring and the paper, and examined the first and read the last, saying:
"Such mysterious donations to the children are not uncommon, and are generally supposed to be offered by the unknown parents. This, however, is by far the most valuable present that has ever been made by any one to the institution, and must be worth at least a thousand Napoleons. It was made by the visitors of this morning, I suppose?"
"Yes, madam, it was."
"I see, I understand. Take charge of it, my daughter, until we can deliver it to the sister-treasurer," directed the lady-superior, as she replaced the ring in its wrapper and returned both to Salome.
"But, mother, I wish myself to become the purchaser of this ring. I have a thousand pounds with me. I will give them for the ring."
"My daughter!" exclaimed the abbess in surprise. "Why should you wish to possess this bauble? It can be of no use to you in the life you are about to enter, even if the rules of our order would permit you to retain it, which you know they would not."
"Mother! it was my father's ring! It was a part of the property stolen from him on the night of his murder," solemnly answered Salome.
"Holy saints! can that be true?" exclaimed the abbess.
"As true as truth. I know the ring well. He always wore it on his finger. Inside the setting is his monogram, 'L.L.,' and his crest, a falcon," answered Salome, once more unwrapping the ring and offering it to the inspection of the lady-superior.
"I see! I see! It is so. Ah, Holy Virgin! that it should have been offered by Count Waldemar, or by him whom you overheard conspiring with his female companion under the windows on the night of your father's murder!" cried the abbess, covering her face with a fold of her black vail.
"Count Waldemar, or the duke of Hereward, I know not which, I know not whom. Oh! mother, this mystery grows deeper, this confusion more confounded."
"Take back your ring, my child, and keep it without price. It was your father's, and it is yours. We cannot receive stolen goods even as alms offered to our orphans," said the abbess, dropping her vail and returning the jewel.
"I will take it and keep it because it was my dear father's; but I will give a full equivalent for its value. No one could object to that," said Salome, as she replaced the ring in her bosom. "And now, Mother Genevieve, will you tell me the promised story? It may possibly throw some light even upon this dark mystery."
The pale abbess bowed assent, and immediately began the narrative, which, for the Sake of convenience, we prefer to render in our own words.
THE DUKE'S DOUBLE.
First it is necessary to revert to the history of the Scotts of Lone, Dukes of Hereward.
He who married Salome Levison was the eighth of his princely line. Any one turning to Burke's Peerage of the preceding year, might have read this record of the late duke:
"Hereward, Duke of, (Archibald-Alexander-John Scott) Marquis of Arondelle and Avondale in the Peerage of England, Earl of Lone and Baron Scott in the Peerage of Scotland; born, 1st of Jan., 1800; succeeded his father as seventh duke, 1st Feb., 1840; married, first, March 15th, 1843, Valerie, only daughter of Constantine, Baron de la Motte; divorced, Nov, 1st, 1844; married, secondly, July 15th, 1845, Lady Katherine-Augusta, eldest daughter of the Earl of Banff, and has a son—Archibald-Alexander-John, Marquis of Arondelle, born 1st of May, 1846."
A whole domestic tragedy is comprised in one line of this record:
"Married, first, March 15th, 1843, Valerie, only daughter of Constantine, Baron de la Motte; divorced, Nov. 1st, 1844."
Now as to this poor, unhappy first wife:
Some few years before this first fatal marriage, the Baron de la Motte, one of the most illustrious French statesmen, was dispatched by his sovereign as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary from the Court of France to the Court of Russia.
The baron, with his suite, proceeding to St. Petersburg, accompanied by the baroness, a handsome Italian woman, and by their only child, Valerie, a beautiful brunette of only seventeen summers.
Valerie de la Motte was first introduced to the world of fashion at a great court ball, given by the Czar, in honor of the French Ambassador, in the Imperial Palace of Annitchkoff.
On this occasion the dark, brilliant beauty of Mademoiselle de la Motte, inherited from her Italian mother, was the more admired from its rarity and its perfect contrast to the radiant fairness of the Russian blondes. Here Valerie de la Motte met, for the first time, Waldemar de Volaski, the second son of the Polish Count de Volaski, and a captain of the Royal Guards, stationed at the palace. He was but twenty years of age, yet a model of fair, manly beauty. He was even then called "the handsomest man in all the Russias."
There was a Romeo and Juliet case of love at first sight between the young Russian officer and the youthful French heiress.
During the first season, the beauty's hand was sought by some among the most princely of the nobles that surrounded the throne of the Czar; but, to the disappointment of her ambitious parents, she refused them every one.
Certainly the French father might have followed the custom of his class and country, and coerced his young daughter into the acceptance of any husband he might have chosen for her; but he did not feel disposed to use harsh measures with his only and idolized child; he rather preferred to exercise patience and forbearance toward her, until she should have outlived what he called her childish caprices.
It was, however, no childish caprice that governed the conduct of Valerie de la Motte, but the unfortunate and fatal passion, inspired by the handsome young captain of the Royal Guards, whom she had waltzed with about a half a dozen times at the court balls.
Waldemar de Volaski was indeed as beautiful as the youthful god, Apollo Belvidere, and in his radiant blonde complexion a perfect contrast to the dark, splendid style of the lovely brunette, Valerie de la Motte; but he was only a younger son, with no hope or prospect of succession to his father's title or estates.
He did not dare openly to seek the hand of Mademoiselle de la Motte, for he knew that to do so would only be to have himself banished forever from her presence, by her ambitious father; but, loving her with all the passion of his heart, he sought secretly to win her love, and he succeeded.
It would seem strange that the carefully shielded daughter of the French minister should have been exposed to courtship by the young captain of the Royal Guards; but love is fertile in devices, and full of expedients, and "laughs," not only "at locksmiths," but at all other obstacles to its success.
The willful young pair loved each other ardently from the first evening of their meeting, and they could not endure to think of such a possibility as their separation. They found many opportunities, even in public, of carrying on their secret courtship. In the swimming turn of the waltz, hands clasped hands with more impassioned earnestness than the formula of the round dance required: in the casual meetings in the fashionable promenades of the beautiful summer gardens in Aptekarskoi Island—
"Eyes looked love to eyes that spake again. And all went merry as a marriage bell,"
so long as they could see each other every day.
As the summer passed, the young captain, grown more confident, wrote ardent love letters to his lady, which were surreptitiously slipped into her hands at casual meetings, or conveyed to her by means of bribed domestics; and these the willful beauty answered in the same spirit, as opportunity was offered her by the same means. But—
"A change came o'er the spirit of their dream."
The French minister was recalled home by his sovereign, and only awaited the arrival of his successor to take an official leave of the Czar.
About this time a letter from Volaski to Valerie was sent by the captain's faithful valet, and put in the hands of the lady's confidential maid, who secretly conveyed it to her mistress. This letter, which was fiery enough to have set any ordinary post-bag in a blaze, declared, among other matters, that the lady's answer would decide the writer's fate, for life or for death.
Mademoiselle de la Motte sat down and wrote a reply which she sent by her confidential maid, who placed it in the hands of the captain's faithful valet, to be secretly carried to his master.
Whether the answer decided the fate of the lover for life or for death, it certainly controlled his action in an important matter. Immediately on its receipt he hastened to the Hotel de l'Etat Major, the headquarters of the army department, and solicited a month's leave of absence to visit his father's family.
As it was the very first occasion upon which the young officer had asked such a favor, it was promptly granted him.
Of course no one suspected that the cause of the young captain's action had been the announcement that the French minister had been recalled by his government, and was about to return to Paris.
The next day Waldemar de Volaski left St. Petersburg, ostensibly to visit his father's estates in Poland.
And the next week the French minister, having presented his successor to the Czar, and received his own conge, left the court and the city, and set out for France.
The ministerial party travelled by the new railway from St. Petersburg to Warsaw, a distance of nearly seven hundred miles.
At the capital of Poland they designed to stop a few days to rest the baroness, whose health was suffering.
One day while in that city the baroness, her daughter, and the lady's maid, went out together, shopping for curiosities in the Marieville Bazaar, a square in the midst of the city, surrounded by many gay arcades.
The square was full of visitors, and every arcade was crowded with customers.
The baroness became somewhat interested in her purchases, and from moment to moment turned to consult her daughter, who seemed ever ready so assist her choice.
At length, however, in speaking to Mademoiselle de la Motte, her mother failed to receive an answer.
Turning to rebuke the inattention of her daughter, the baroness discovered that Valerie was missing.
Thinking only that she had got mixed up with the crowd, yet feeling very much annoyed thereat, Madam de la Motte called her maid and instituted a search, only to find, with dismay, that Mademoiselle was nowhere in the square.
Believing then that the young girl must have taken the extraordinary and very reprehensible proceeding of returning to the hotel alone and resolving to give her daughter a severe reprimand for her imprudence, the baroness returned to their temporary home, only to learn that Mademoiselle de la Motte had not been seen there by any one since she had left the house in company with her mother, attended by her maid.
Fearing then that her daughter, in rashly attempting to return home alone, had lost herself in the streets of Warsaw, the baroness sent messengers in every direction to seek for her and guide her back.
Meanwhile the Baron de la Motte, who had been to inspect the fine gallery of paintings preserved in the old villa of Stanislaus Augustus, returned to his hotel, and was informed by the now half distracted baroness of the disappearance of their daughter.
The Baron, struck with dismay, inquired into the circumstances of the case, and was told of the shopping expedition to the Marieville Bazaar, where Valerie was first missed.
"It was at her own earnest solicitation that I took her there, to pick up some of the curiously carved jewelry and trinkets. First, she wished, in consideration of my health, to go there attended only by her maid; but I would not allow any such indiscretion. I took her there myself, and even while I was talking with her before one of the arcades, she vanished like a spirit! One moment she was there, the next moment she was gone! We looked for her immediately, but found no trace of her."
The baron replied not one word to this explanation, but took his hat and walked out to join the search for the missing girl, while the baroness remained in her rooms, a prey to the most poignant anxiety.
It was near midnight when the baron returned, looking full ten years older than he did when he went forth.
No trace of the missing girl had been found, and whether her disappearance was a flight or an abduction no one could even conjecture.
The condition of the agonized mother became critical; she could not be persuaded to lie down, or to cease from her restless walking to and fro in her chamber.
At length, a physician was summoned, who administered a potent sedative, which conquered her nervous excitement, and laid her in a blessed sleep upon her bed.
The next morning the search, which had not been quite abandoned even during the night, was renewed with great vigor, stimulated by the large rewards offered by the afflicted father for the recovery of his lost child; but still no trace of Valerie de la Motte could be found, no news of her be heard.
And so, without any change a week passed away, and then, while the baroness lay in extreme nervous prostration, hovering between life and death, and the baron crept about her bed like a man bowed down by the infirmities of age, and all hope seemed gone, a letter arrived from Mademoiselle de la Motte to her parents.
It was written from San Vito, a small mountain hamlet in the northern part of Italy. By this letter she informed them that she was safe and happy as the wife of Captain Waldemar de Volaski, who had long possessed her heart, and to whom she had just given her hand. She begged her father and mother to pardon her for having sought her happiness in her own way, and assured them, notwithstanding her seemingly unfilial conduct, she still cherished the strongest sentiments of love and honor toward them both, and ever remained their dutiful and affectionate daughter—VALERIE DE LA MOTTE DE VOLASKI.
The mother, who under any other circumstances, would have been overwhelmed with mortification and sorrow at this mesalliance of her daughter, was now so glad to know that Valerie was alive in health, even though as the bride of a poor young captain of the Guards, that she thanked Heaven earnestly, and rejoiced exceedingly.
But the baron who would as willingly have never heard of his lost daughter, as that she had so degraded herself, left his wife's bed-chamber abruptly, and went off to his smoking-room, where he could vent his feelings by cursing and swearing to his heart's content.
The next day the Baron de la Motte, breathing maledictions, set out for Italy, accompanied by the baroness, who had wonderfully rallied in health and strength since she had received news of her missing daughter.
The proud baroness was, in one respect, like the poor Hebrew mother of the Bible story. She preferred to give up her child to another claimant rather than lose that beloved child by death.
The baron's party traveled day and night, without pause or rest, until they crossed the northern frontier of Italy, and halted at the little hamlet of San Vito, at the foot of the Apennines.
Here they found the fugitive pair living a sort of Arcadian life: and here they learned the facts which they had not hitherto even suspected.
Captain Waldemar de Volaski and Mademoiselle Valerie de la Motte had loved each other from the first moment of their meeting at the ball given in honor of the French minister, at the Imperial Palace of Annitchkoff, and had betrothed themselves to each other during the first month of their acquaintance. They had kept their betrothal a secret, only because they felt assured it would meet with the most violent opposition from the young lady's haughty parents; but they had carried on a constant epistolary correspondence through the instrumentality of the lover's valet and the lady's maid; but they had not intended to take any decisive step, until, at length, they were both startled by the recall home of the French minister.
When the announcement of this event reached the ears of Waldemar de Volaski, he was filled with despair at the prospect of parting from his betrothed.
He instantly dashed off a hasty letter to Valerie de la Motte, earnestly entreating her to save his life, and his reason, and secure their happiness, by consenting to an immediate marriage.
Mademoiselle de la Motte, closing her ears to the voice of conscience and discretion, and listening only to the pleadings of a reckless and fatal passion, wrote a favorable answer.
They knew that their plan would be exceedingly difficult of execution; but this did not deter them.
They made their arrangements with more tact than could have been expected of so youthful a pair of lovers.
He obtained leave of absence and left St. Petersburg, as has been stated, upon the pretext of visiting his father's estate in Poland; but really with the intention of preceding the minister's party to Warsaw, where, he had learned, they would break their journey and remain for a few days to recruit the strength of the baroness.
There, disguised as a peasant, and concealed in the suburban cottage of a faithful retainer of his family, Waldemar de Volaski waited for the arrival of the baron's party.
Then, through the instrumentality of the lover's valet and the lady's maid, a meeting was arranged between the imprudent young pair, at the Marieville Bazaar.
There Mademoiselle de la Motte found her lover watching for her.
Taking advantage of a few minutes during which her mother was engaged in the examination of some curious malachite ornaments, Valerie de la Motte slipped into the thickest of the crowd, joined her lover, and escaped with him to the suburban hut of the old retainer, where she changed her clothes, and from whence, in the disguise of a page, and carrying her female apparel in a small valise, she finally fled with him to Italy.
They stopped at the little mountain hamlet of San Vito, where she resumed her proper dress, and where, by a lavish expenditure of money, and a liberal disbursement of fair words, Waldemar de Volaski prevailed on a priest to perform the marriage ceremony between himself and Valerie de la Motte.
When this was done, the reckless pair took lodgings at a vine-dresser's cottage in the neighborhood of the hamlet, to spend their honeymoon, and wait for "coming events."
The coming events came. The parents arrived, and found the lovers living carelessly and happily in their Arcadian home. Here the outraged and infuriated father thundered into the ears of the newly-married pair the terrible truth that their marriage was no marriage at all without his consent, but was utterly null and void in the law.
At this astounding revelation, Valerie, overwhelmed with humiliation, fainted and fell, and was tenderly cared for by her mother; but the gallant captain very coolly replied that he knew the fact perfectly well, and had always known it, although Mademoiselle de la Motte had not even suspected it; and he ventured to represent to the haughty baron, that their illegal marriage only required the sanction of his silent recognition to render it perfectly legal, and that for his daughter's own sake he was bound to give it such recognition.
This aroused the baron to a perfect frenzy of rage. He charged Volaski with having traded in Mademoiselle de la Motte's affections and honor, from selfish and mercenary motives alone, and swore that such deep, calculating villainy should avail the villain nothing. He would not ratify his daughter's marriage with such a caitiff, but would use his parental power to tear her from her unlawful husband's arms, and immure her in the living tomb of an Italian convent.
He finished by dashing his open hand with all his strength full into the mouth of the bridegroom, inflicting a severe blow, and covering the handsome face with blood.
Valerie de la Motte, in a fainting condition, was placed in the cart of a vine-dresser, the only conveyance to be found, and carried to a neighboring nunnery, where she lay ill for several weeks, tenderly nursed by her sorrowful mother and by the compassionate nuns.
The Baron de la Motte remained in the village, awaiting a challenge from Waldemar de Volaski; but when a week had passed away without such an event, the furious old Frenchman, bent upon his enemy's destruction, dispatched a defiance to Captain Volaski, couched in such insulting and exasperating language as compelled the young officer, much against his will, to accept it.
They met to fight their duel in a secluded glade of the forest, lying between the hamlet and the foot of the mountains.
At the first fire, Volaski, who was resolved not to wound the father of his beloved Valerie, discharged his pistol in the air, but instantly fell, shot through the lungs by the Baron de la Motte!
AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE.
The Baron de la Motte, leaving Captain de Volaski stretched on the ground, to be cared for by the seconds and the surgeon in attendance, went back to the hotel and made preparations to leave San Vito.
Mademoiselle de la Motte, still very weak from recent illness, was placed in a carriage at the risk of her life, and compelled to commence the journey back to France.
Madame de la Motte, grieved with the grief and anxious for the health of her daughter, dared not show the sufferer any pity or kindness.
Monsieur de la Motte was no longer the tender and affectionate father he had hitherto shown himself: for, in his bitter mortification and fierce resentment, his love seemed turned to hatred, his sympathy to antipathy.
The attenuated form, the pale face, and the sunken eyes of his once beautiful child, failed to move his compassion for her. He told her with brutal cruelty that he had slain her lover in the duel, and left him dead upon the ground; and that she must think no more of the villain who had dishonored her family.
On arriving in Paris, the baron established his household in the magnificent Hotel de la Motte, in the most aristocratic quarter of the city; and here began for Valerie a life that was a very purgatory on earth.
At home, if her purgatory could be called her home, she was studiously and habitually treated with scorn and contempt, as a creature unworthy to bear the family name, or share the family honors; until at length the child herself began to look upon her fault in the light her father wished her to see it, and with such exaggerating eyes, withal, that she came to think of herself as a dishonored criminal, unworthy even to live. Her grief sank to horror, and her depression to despair.
She was treated as an outcast in all respects but one, and this exception was an additional cruelty; for she was introduced into the gay world of fashion, and compelled to mix in all its festivities, at the same time being sternly warned that if this same world should suspect her fault, she would not be received in any drawing-room in Paris.
Valerie was too broken-spirited to answer by telling the truth, that the world and the world's favor had lost all attraction for her, who would willingly have retired from it forever.
Valerie was presented to society as Mademoiselle de la Motte, and nothing was said of her stolen marriage with the young Russian officer.
That season was perhaps the gayest Paris had ever known during the quiet reign of the citizen king and queen. Brilliant festivities in honor of the Spanish marriages were the order of the days and nights. Representatives from every court in Europe were present, as special messengers of congratulation—or expostulation; for it will be remembered the Spanish marriages were not universally popular with the sovereigns of Europe.
Among the representatives of the English Court, present at the Tuileries, was the seventh Duke of Hereward, recently come into his titles and estates.
It was at a ball at the Tuileries that Valerie de la Motte first met the Duke of Hereward, then a very handsome man of middle age, of accomplished mind and courtly address. The beautiful, pale, grave brunette at once interested the English duke more than all the blooming and vivacious beauties at the French capital could do. At every ball, dinner, concert, play, or other place of amusement where Mademoiselle de la Motte appeared with her parents, the Duke of Hereward sought her out; and the more he saw of her, the more interested he became in her; and it must be confessed that the conversation of this handsome and accomplished man of middle age pleased the grave, sedate girl more than that of younger and gayer men could have done.
The duke, on his part, was not slow to perceive his advantage, and he would willingly have paid his addresses to Mademoiselle de la Motte in person, and won her heart and hand for himself, before speaking to her father on the subject; but as such a proceeding would not have been in accordance with the customs of the country, no opportunity was allowed him to do so; for whereas in England, or America, a suitor must win the favor of his lady before he asks that of her parents, in France the process is precisely the reverse of all this, and the lover must have the sanction of the father or mother, or both, before he may dare to woo the daughter; and this rule of etiquette holds good in all cases except in those of stolen marriages, which are illegal and disreputable.
It was not long, therefore, before the Duke or Hereward called at the Hotel de la Motte, and requested a private interview with the baron, which was promptly and politely accorded.
The duke then and there made known to the baron the state of his affections, and formally solicited the hand of Mademoiselle Valerie de la Motte in marriage.
The "mad duke" was not then mad; he had not squandered his princely fortune; his dukedom was one of the wealthiest as well as one of the oldest in the United Kingdom; the marriage he offered the baron's daughter was one of the most brilliant (under royalty) in Europe.
The baron did not hesitate a moment, but promptly accepted the proposals of the duke in behalf of his daughter.
The Duke of Hereward hurried away, the happiest man in Europe.
The Baron de la Motte went and informed his daughter that she must prepare to receive the middle-aged suitor as her future husband.
Now, Valerie, in a languid way, liked the Duke of Hereward better than any one else in the whole world except her mother, but she did not like him in the character of a husband. The idea of marriage even with him was abhorrent to her. In her first surprise and dismay at the announcement of the duke's proposal for her hand, and her father's acceptance of that proposal, she betrayed all the unconquerable antipathy she felt to the contemplated marriage; but in vain she wept and pleaded to be left in peace; to be left to die; to be sent to a convent; to be disposed of in any way rather than in marriage!
The baron was no longer a tender and compassionate father, but a ruthless and implacable tyrant.
Valerie's life had been a purgatory before, it was a hell now. She was covered with reproach, contumely and threats by her father; she was lectured and mourned over by her mother; and when her mother at length took sides with her father, in urging her to this marriage, the very ground seemed to have slidden from beneath her feet; she had not a friend in the world to whom to turn in her distress.
Meanwhile the Duke of Hereward was impatiently awaiting the promised summons to the Hotel de la Motte to meet Mademoiselle Valerie as his future wife.
Valerie believed that her young lover-husband had been slain in the duel with her father; and that she was free to bestow her hand, if she could not give her broken heart; she was worn out with the ignominious reproaches heaped upon her by her father; by the tears and sighs lavished upon her by her mother; by all the humiliation and degradations of her daily life, and by the dreariness and desolation of her home. She longed for peace and rest; she would gladly have sought them in a convent had she been permitted to do so, or in the grave, had she dared.
I repeat that she did not dislike the Duke of Hereward; but on the contrary, she liked him better than any one else in the world except her mother, and so it followed that at length she began to look upon a marriage with him as the only possible refuge from the horrors of her home.
What wonder, then, that, goaded and taunted by her father, implored by her mother, solicited by the handsome duke, believing her young lover to be dead, slain by the hands of her father, longing to escape from the persecutions of her family, prostrated in body and mind, broken in heart and in spirit, Valerie at last succumbed to the pressure brought to bear upon her, and accepted the refuge of the Duke of Hereward's love, although the very next moment, in honor of herself and him, she would willingly have recalled her decision, if she could have done so.
From the moment that her acceptance of the duke's proposal was announced to her parents, the domestic sky cleared; her ruthless tyrant became again her tender father; her weeping mother brightened into smiles; she herself was once more the petted daughter of the house, and her lover showed himself the proudest and happiest of men; and Valerie de la Motte would have been at peace but for her consciousness of the secret that they were all keeping from the duke.
"Mamma, he ought to be told, he is so good, so noble, so confiding. I feel like a wretch in deceiving him; he ought to be told of my fault before he commits himself by marrying me," she pleaded with her mother.
"Valerie, you frighten me half to death! Do not dream of such a folly as telling the duke anything about your mad imprudence in running away with the young Russian! It would make a great and terrible scandal! Your father would kill you, I do believe! Besides, for that fault, committed while you were in our keeping and under our authority, you are accountable only to me and to your father. Your betrothed husband has nothing to do with it. No good would come of your telling it; no harm can come of your keeping it. The wild partner of your imprudence is dead and buried, the saints be praised! and so he can never rise up to trouble your peace. While you are here with us, and under our authority, you must obey us, and hold your peace, and keep your secret," said the baroness.
"Come weal, come woe, my honor requires that this secret should be told to the noble and confiding gentleman who is about to make me his wife," murmured Valerie.
"Your honor, Mademoiselle, is in the keeping of your father, until, by giving you in marriage, he passes it into the keeping of your husband. You are not to concern yourself about it. If your father should deem that your 'honor' demands your secret to be confided to your betrothed husband, he will divulge it to him: if he does not divulge it, then rest assured honor does not require him to do so. Now let us hear no more about it."
Valerie sighed and yielded, but she was not satisfied.
The betrothal was immediately announced to the world, and the marriage, which soon followed, was celebrated in the church of Notre Dame with the greatest eclat.
Directly after the wedding the duke took his bride on a long tour, extending over Europe and into Asia; and after an absence of several months, carried her to England, and settled down for the autumn on his English patrimonial estate, Hereward Hold, (for Castle Lone was then a ruin and Inch Lone a wilderness, which no one had yet dreamed of rebuilding and restoring.)
The youthful duchess, in her quiet English home, was like Louise la Valliere in the Convent of St. Cyr, "not joyous, but content."
She tried to make her noble husband happy, by fulfilling all the duties of a wife—except one. She knew a wife should have no secrets from her husband, yet, in her fear of disturbing the sweet domestic peace, in which her wearied spirit rested, she kept from him the secret of her first wild marriage.
At the meeting of Parliament in February, the Duke of Hereward took his beautiful young wife to London, and established her in their magnificent town-house—Hereward House, Kensington.
At the first Royal drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, the young duchess was presented to the queen, and soon after she commenced her career as a woman of fashion by giving a grand ball at Hereward House.
The Duke of Hereward was very fond and very proud of his lovely young bride, whose beauty soon became the theme of London clubs—though invidious critics insisted that she was much too pale and grave ever to become a reigning belle.