A Lady of Quality

第55章 In which Sir John Oxon finds again a trophy (2)

This gleam was in his eyes each time she found herself drawn to them,and it seemed as though she could look nowhere without encountering his gaze.He followed her from room to room,placing himself where she could not lift her eyes without beholding him;when she walked a minuet with a royal duke,he stood and watched her with such a look in his face as drew all eyes towards him.

"'Tis as if he threatens her,"one said."He has gone mad with disappointed love."But 'twas not love that was in his look,but the madness of long-thwarted passion mixed with hate and mockery;and this she saw,and girded her soul with all its strength,knowing that she had a fiercer beast to deal with,and a more vicious and dangerous one,than her horse Devil.That he kept at first at a distance from her,and but looked on with this secret exultant glow in his bad,beauteous eyes,told her that at last he felt he held some power in his hands,against which all her defiance would be as naught.Till this hour,though she had suffered,and when alone had writhed in agony of grief and bitter shame,in his presence she had never flinched.Her strength she knew was greater than his;but his baseness was his weapon,and the depths of that baseness she knew she had never reached.

At midnight,having just made obeisance before Royalty retiring,she felt that at length he had drawn near and was standing at her side.

"To-night,"he said,in the low undertone it was his way to keep for such occasions,knowing how he could pierce her ear--"to-night you are Juno's self--a very Queen of Heaven!"She made no answer.

"And I have stood and watched you moving among all lesser goddesses as the moon sails among the stars,and I have smiled in thinking of what these lesser deities would say if they had known what I bear in my breast to-night."She did not even make a movement--in truth,she felt that at his next words she might change to stone.

"I have found it,"he said--"I have it here--the lost treasure--the tress of hair like a raven's wing and six feet long.Is there another woman in England who could give a man a lock like it?"She felt then that she had,in sooth,changed to stone;her heart hung without moving in her breast;her eyes felt great and hollow and staring as she lifted them to him.

"I knew not,"she said slowly,and with bated breath,for the awfulness of the moment had even made her body weak as she had never known it feel before--"I knew not truly that hell made things like you."Whereupon he made a movement forward,and the crowd about surged nearer with hasty exclamations,for the strange weakness of her body had overpowered her in a way mysterious to her,and she had changed to marble,growing too heavy of weight for her sinking limbs.And those in the surrounding groups saw a marvellous thing--the same being that my Lady Dunstanwolde swayed as she turned,and falling,lay stretched,as if dead,in her white and silver and flashing jewels at the startled beholders'feet.

She wore no radiant look when she went home that night.She would go home alone and unescorted,excepting by her lacqueys,refusing all offers of companionship when once placed in her equipage.There were,of course,gentlemen who would not be denied leading her to her coach;John Oxon was among them,and at the last pressed close,with a manner of great ceremony,speaking a final word.

"'Tis useless,your ladyship,"he murmured,as he made his obeisance gallantly,and though the words were uttered in his lowest tone and with great softness,they reached her ear as he intended that they should."To-morrow morning I shall wait upon you."Anne had forborne going to bed,and waited for her return,longing to see her spirit's face again before she slept;for this poor tender creature,being denied all woman's loves and joys by Fate,who had made her as she was,so lived in her sister's beauty and triumphs that 'twas as if in some far-off way she shared them,and herself experienced through them the joy of being a woman transcendently beautiful and transcendently beloved.To-night she had spent her waiting hours in her closet and upon her knees,praying with all humble adoration of the Being she approached.She was wont to pray long and fervently each day,thanking Heaven for the smallest things and the most common,and imploring continuance of the mercy which bestowed them upon her poor unworthiness.For her sister her prayers were offered up night and morning,and ofttimes in hours between,and to-night she prayed not for herself at all,but for Clorinda and for his Grace of Osmonde,that their love might be crowned with happiness,and that no shadow might intervene to cloud its brightness,and the tender rapture in her sister's softened look,which was to her a thing so wonderful that she thought of it with reverence as a holy thing.

Her prayers being at length ended,she had risen from her knees and sat down,taking a sacred book to read,a book of sermons such as 'twas her simple habit to pore over with entire respect and child-like faith,and being in the midst of her favourite homily,she heard the chariot's returning wheels,and left her chair,surprised,because she had not yet begun to expect the sound.

"'Tis my sister,"she said,with a soft,sentimental smile.

"Osmonde not being among the guests,she hath no pleasure in mingling with them."She went below to the room her ladyship usually went to first on her return at night from any gathering,and there she found her sitting as though she had dropped there in the corner of a great divan,her hands hanging clasped before her on her knee,her head hanging forward on her fallen chest,her large eyes staring into space.

Frances Hodgson Burnett