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IN THE PALACE OF THE KING
A LOVE STORY OF OLD MADRID
F. MARION CRAWFORD
To my old friend
GEORGE P. BRETT
New York, October, 1906
* * * * *
Two young girls sat in a high though very narrow room of the old Moorish palace to which King Philip the Second had brought his court when he finally made Madrid his capital. It was in the month of November, in the afternoon, and the light was cold and grey, for the two tall windows looked due north, and a fine rain had been falling all the morning. The stones in the court were drying now, in patches, but the sky was like a smooth vault of cast lead, closing over the city that lay to the northward, dark, wet and still, as if its life had shrunk down under ground, away from the bitter air and the penetrating damp.
The room was scantily furnished, but the few objects it contained, the carved table, the high-backed chairs and the chiselled bronze brazier, bore the stamp of the time when art had not long been born again. On the walls there were broad tapestries of bold design, showing green forests populated by all sorts of animals in stiff attitudes, staring at one another in perpetual surprise. Below the tapestry a carved walnut wainscoting went round the room, and the door was panelled and flanked by fluted doorposts of the same dark wood, on which rested corbels fashioned into curling acanthus leaves, to hold up the cornice, which itself made a high shelf over the door. Three painted Italian vases, filled with last summer’s rose leaves and carefully sealed lest the faint perfume should be lost, stood symmetrically on this projection, their contents slowly ripening for future use. The heap of white ashes, under which the wood coals were still alive in the big brazier, diffused a little warmth through the chilly room.
The two girls were sitting at opposite ends of the table. The one held a long goose-quill pen, and before her lay several large sheets of paper covered with fine writing. Her eyes followed the lines slowly, and from time to time she made a correction in the manuscript. As she read, her lips moved to form words, but she made no sound. Now and then a faint smile lent singular beauty to her face, and there was more light in her eyes, too; then it disappeared again, and she read on, carefully and intently, as if her soul were in the work.
She was very fair, as Spaniards sometimes are still, and were more often in those days, with golden hair and deep grey eyes; she had the high features, the smooth white throat, and the finely modelled ears that were the outward signs of the lordly Gothic race. When she was not smiling, her face was sad, and sometimes the delicate colour left her clear cheek and she grew softly pale, till she seemed almost delicate. Then the sensitive nostrils quivered almost imperceptibly, and the curving lips met closely as if to keep a secret; but that look came seldom, and for the most part her eyes were quiet and her mouth was kind. It was a face that expressed devotion, womanly courage, and sensitiveness rather than an active and dominating energy. The girl was indeed a full-grown woman, more than twenty years of age, but the early bloom of girlhood was on her still, and if there was a little sadness in the eyes, a man could guess well enough that it rose from the heart, and had but one simple source, which was neither a sudden grief nor a long-hidden sorrow, but only youth’s one secret–love. Maria Dolores de Mendoza knew all of fear for the man she loved, that any woman could know, and much of the hope that is love’s early life; but she knew neither the grief, nor the disappointment, nor the shame for another, nor for herself, nor any of the bitterness that love may bring. She did not believe that such things could be wrung from hearts that were true and faithful; and in that she was right. The man to whom she had given her heart and soul and hope had given her his, and if she feared for him, it was not lest he should forget her or his own honour. He was a man among men, good and true; but he was a soldier, and a leader, who daily threw his life to the battle, as Douglas threw the casket that held the Bruce’s heart into the thick of the fight, to win it back, or die. The man she loved was Don John of Austria, the son of the great dead Emperor Charles the Fifth, the uncle of dead Don Carlos and the half brother of King Philip of Spain–the man who won glory by land and sea, who won back Granada a second time from the Moors, as bravely as his great grandfather Ferdinand had won it, but less cruelly, who won Lepanto, his brother’s hatred and a death by poison, the foulest stain in Spanish history.
It was November now, and it had been June of the preceding year when he had ridden away from Madrid to put down the Moriscoes, who had risen savagely against the hard Spanish rule. He had left Dolores de Mendoza an hour before he mounted, in the freshness of the early summer morning, where they had met many a time, on a lonely terrace above the King’s apartments. There were roses there, growing almost wild in great earthen jars, where some Moorish woman had planted them in older days, and Dolores could go there unseen with her blind sister, who helped her faithfully, on pretence of taking the poor girl thither to breathe the sweet quiet air. For Inez was painfully sensitive of her affliction, and suffered, besides blindness, all that an over-sensitive and imaginative being can feel.
She was quite blind, with no memory of light, though she had been born seeing, as other children. A scarlet fever had destroyed her sight. Motherless from her birth, her father often absent in long campaigns, she had been at the mercy of a heartless nurse, who had loved the fair little Dolores and had secretly tormented the younger child, as soon as she was able to understand, bringing her up to believe that she was so repulsively ugly as to be almost a monster. Later, when the nurse was gone, and Dolores was a little older, the latter had done all she could to heal the cruel wound and to make her sister know that she had soft dark hair, a sad and gentle face, with eyes that were quite closed, and a delicate mouth that had a little half painful, half pathetic way of twitching when anything hurt her,–for she was easily hurt. Very pale always, she turned her face more upwards than do people who have sight, and being of good average woman’s height and very slender and finely made, this gave her carriage an air of dignity that seemed almost pride when she was offended or wounded. But the first hurt had been deep and lasting, and she could never quite believe that she was not offensive to the eyes of those who saw her, still less that she was sometimes almost beautiful in a shadowy, spiritual way. The blind, of all their sufferings, often feel most keenly the impossibility of knowing whether the truth is told them about their own looks; and he who will try and realize what it is to have been always sightless will understand that this is not vanity, but rather a sort of diffidence towards which all people should be very kind. Of all necessities of this world, of all blessings, of all guides to truth, God made light first. There are many sharp pains, many terrible sufferings and sorrows in life that come and wrench body and soul, and pass at last either into alleviation or recovery, or into the rest of death; but of those that abide a lifetime and do not take life itself, the worst is hopeless darkness. We call ignorance ‘blindness,’ and rage ‘blindness,’ and we say a man is ‘blind’ with grief.
Inez sat opposite her sister, at the other end of the table, listening. She knew what Dolores was doing, how during long months her sister had written a letter, from time to time, in little fragments, to give to the man she loved, to slip into his hand at the first brief meeting or to drop at his feet in her glove, or even, perhaps, to pass to him by the blind girl’s quick fingers. For Inez helped the lovers always, and Don John was very gentle with her, talking with her when he could, and even leading her sometimes when she was in a room she did not know. Dolores knew that she could only hope to exchange a word with him when he came back, and that the terrace was bleak and wet now, and the roses withered, and that her father feared for her, and might do some desperate thing if he found her lover talking with her where no one could see or hear. For old Mendoza knew the world and the court, and he foresaw that sooner or later some royal marriage would be made for Don John of Austria, and that even if Dolores were married to him, some tortuous means would be found to annul her marriage, whereby a great shame would darken his house. Moreover, he was the King’s man, devoted to Philip body and soul, as his sovereign, ready to give his life ten times for his sovereign’s word, and thinking it treason to doubt a royal thought or motive. He was a rigid old man, a Spaniard of Spain’s great days, fearless, proud, intolerant, making Spain’s honour his idol, capable of gentleness only to his children, and loving them dearly, but with that sort of severity and hardness in all questions where his authority was concerned which can make a father’s true affection the most intolerable burden to a girl of heart, and which, where a son is its object, leads sooner or later to fierce quarrels and lifelong estrangement. And so it had happened now. For the two girls had a brother much older than they, Rodrigo; and he had borne to be treated like a boy until he could bear no more, and then he had left his father’s house in anger to find out his own fortune in the world, as many did in his day,–a poor gentleman seeking distinction in an army of men as brave as himself, and as keen to win honour on every field. Then, as if to oppose his father in everything, he had attached himself to Don John, and was spoken of as the latter’s friend, and Mendoza feared lest his son should help Don John to a marriage with Dolores. But in this he was mistaken, for Rodrigo was as keen, as much a Spaniard, and as much devoted to the honour of his name as his father could be; and though he looked upon Don John as the very ideal of what a soldier and a prince should be, he would have cut off his own right hand rather than let it give his leader the letter Dolores had been writing so long; and she knew this and feared her brother, and tried to keep her secret from him.
Inez knew all, and she also was afraid of Rodrigo and of her father, both for her sister’s sake and her own. So, in that divided house, the father was against the son, and the daughters were allied against them both, not in hatred, but in terror and because of Dolores’ great love for Don John of Austria.
As they sat at the table it began to rain again, and the big drops beat against the windows furiously for a few minutes. The panes were round and heavy, and of a greenish yellow colour, made of blown glass, each with a sort of knob in the middle, where the iron blowpipe had been separated from the hot mass. It was impossible to see through them at all distinctly, and when the sky was dark with rain they admitted only a lurid glare into the room, which grew cold and colourless again when the rain ceased. Inez had been sitting motionless a long time, her elbow on the table, her chin resting upon her loosely clasped white hands, her blind face turned upward, listening to the turning of the pages and to the occasional scratching of her sister’s pen. She sighed, moved, and let her hands fall upon the table before her in a helpless, half despairing way, as she leaned back in the big carved chair. Dolores looked up at once, for she was used to helping her sister in her slightest needs and to giving her a ready sympathy in every mood.
“What is it?” she asked quickly. “Do you want anything, dear?”
“Have you almost finished?”
The girl’s voice would almost have told that she was blind. It was sweet and low, but it lacked life; though not weak, it was uncertain in strength and full of a longing that could never be satisfied, but that often seemed to come within possible reach of satisfaction. There was in the tones, too, the perpetual doubt of one from whom anything might be hidden by silence, or by the least tarn of words. Every passing hope and fear, and every pleasure and pain, were translated into sound by its quick changes. It trusted but could not always quite promise to believe; it swelled and sank as the sensitive heart beat faster or slower. It came from a world without light, in which only sound had meaning, and only touch was certainty.
“Yes,” answered Dolores. “I have almost finished–there is only half a page more to read over.”
“And why do you read it over?” asked Inez. “Do you change what you have written? Do you not think now exactly as you did when you wrote?”
“No; I feel a great deal more–I want better words! And then it all seems so little, and so badly written, and I want to say things that no one ever said before, many, many things. He will laugh–no, not that! How could he? But my letter will seem childish to him. I know it will. I wish I had never written it I Do you think I had better give it to him, after all?”
“How can I tell?” asked Inez hopelessly. “You have never read it to me. I do not know what you have said to him.”
“I have said that I love him as no man was ever loved before,” answered Dolores, and the true words seemed to thrill with a life of their own as she spoke them.
Then she was silent for a moment, and looked down at the written pages without seeing them. Inez did not move, and seemed hardly to breathe. Then Dolores spoke again, pressing both her hands upon the paper before her unconsciously.
“I have told him that I love him, and shall love him for ever and ever,” she said; “that I will live for him, die for him, suffer for him, serve him! I have told him all that and much more.”
“More? That is much already. But he loves you, too. There is nothing you can promise which he will not promise, and keep, too, I think. But more! What more can you have said than that?”
“There is nothing I would not say if I could find words!”
There was a fullness of life in her voice which, to the other’s uncertain tones, was as sunshine to moonlight.
“You will find words when you see him this evening,” said Inez slowly. “And they will be better than anything you can write. Am I to give him your letter?”
Dolores looked at her sister quickly, for there was a little constraint in the accent of the last phrase.
“I do not know,” she answered. “How can I tell what may happen, or how I shall see him first?”
“You will see him from the window presently. I can hear the guards forming already to meet him–and you–you will be able to see him from the window.”
Inez had stopped and had finished her speech, as if something had choked her. She turned sideways in her chair when she had spoken, as if to listen better, for she was seated with her back to the light.
“I will tell you everything,” said Maria Dolores softly. “It will be almost as if you could see him, too.”
Inez spoke the one word and broke off abruptly, and rose from her chair. In the familiar room she moved almost as securely as if she could see. She went to the window and listened. Dolores came and stood beside her.
“What is it, dear?” she asked. “What is the matter? What has hurt you? Tell me!”
“Nothing,” answered the blind girl, “nothing, dear. I was thinking–how lonely I shall be when you and he are married, and they send me to a convent, or to our dismal old house in Valladolid.”
A faint colour came into her pale face, and feeling it she turned away from Dolores; for she was not speaking the truth, or at least not half of it all.
“I will not let you go!” answered Dolores, putting one arm round her sister’s waist. “They shall never take you from me. And if in many years from now we are married, you shall always be with us, and I will always take care of you as I do now.”
Inez sighed and pressed her forehead and blind eyes to the cold window, almost withdrawing herself from the pressure of Dolores’ arm. Down below there was tramping of heavy feet, as the companies of foot guards took their places, marching across the broad space, in their wrought steel caps and breastplates, carrying their tasselled halberds on their shoulders. An officer’s voice gave sharp commands. The gust that had brought the rain had passed by, and a drizzling mist, caused by a sudden chill, now completely obscured the window.
“Can you see anything?” asked Inez suddenly, in a low voice. “I think I hear trumpets far away.”
“I cannot see–there is mist on the glass, too. Do you hear the trumpets clearly?”
“I think I do. Yes–I hear them clearly now.” She stopped. “He is coming,” she added under her breath.
Dolores listened, but she had not the almost supernatural hearing of the blind, and could distinguish nothing but the tramping of the soldiers below, and her sister’s irregular breathing beside her, as Inez held her breath again and again in order to catch the very faint and distant sound.
“Open the window,” she said almost sharply, “I know I hear the trumpets.”
Her delicate fingers felt for the bolts with almost feverish anxiety. Dolores helped her and opened the window wide. A strain of distant clarions sounding a triumphant march came floating across the wet city. Dolores started, and her face grew radiant, while her fresh lips opened a little as if to drink in the sound with the wintry air. Beside her, Inez grew slowly pale and held herself by the edge of the window frame, gripping it hard, and neither of the two girls felt any sensation of cold. Dolores’ grey eyes grew wide and bright as she gazed fixedly towards the city where the avenue that led to the palace began, but Inez, bending a little, turned her ear in the same direction, as if she could not bear to lose a single note of the music that told her how Don John of Austria had come home in triumph, safe and whole, from his long campaign in the south.
Slowly it came nearer, strain upon strain, each more clear and loud and full of rejoicing. At first only the high-pitched clarions had sent their call to the window, but now the less shrill trumpets made rich harmonies to the melody, and the deep bass horns gave the marching time to the rest, in short full blasts that set the whole air shaking as with little peak of thunder. Below, the mounted officers gave orders, exchanged short phrases, cantered to their places, and came back again a moment later to make some final arrangement–their splendid gold-inlaid corslets and the rich caparisons of their horses looking like great pieces of jewelry that moved hither and thither in the thin grey mist, while the dark red and yellow uniforms of the household guards surrounded the square on three sides with broad bands of colour. Dolores could see her father, who commanded them and to whom the officers came for orders, sitting motionless and erect on his big black horse–a stern figure, with close-cut grey beard, clad all in black saving his heavily gilded breastplate and the silk sash he wore across it from shoulder to sword knot. She shrank back a little, for she would not have let him see her looking down from an upper window to welcome the returning visitor.
“What is it? Do you see him? Is he there?” Inez asked the questions in a breath, as she heard her sister move.
“No–our father is below on his horse. He must not see us.” And she moved further into the embrasure.
“You will not be able to see,” said Inez anxiously. “How can you tell me–I mean, how can you see, where you are?”
Dolores laughed softly, but her laugh trembled with the happiness that was coming so soon.
“Oh, I see very well,” she answered. “The window is wide open, you know.”
Inez leaned back against the wall beside the window, letting her hand drop in a hopeless gesture. The sample answer had hurt her, who could never see, by its mere thoughtlessness and by the joy that made her sister’s voice quaver. The music grew louder and louder, and now there came with it the sound of a great multitude, cheering, singing the march with the trumpets, shouting for Don John; and all at once as the throng burst from the street to the open avenue the voices drowned the clarions for a moment, and a vast cry of triumph filled the whole air.
“He is there! He is there!” repeated Inez, leaning towards the window and feeling for the stone sill.
But Dolores could not hear for the shouting. The clouds had lifted to the westward and northward; and as the afternoon sun sank lower they broke away, and the level rays drank up the gloom of the wintry day in an instant. Dolores stood motionless before the window, undazzled, like a statue of ivory and gold in a stone niche. With the light, as the advancing procession sent the people before it, the trumpets rang high and clear again, and the bright breastplates of the trumpeters gleamed like dancing fire before the lofty standard that swayed with the slow pace of its bearer’s horse. Brighter and nearer came the colours, the blazing armour, the standard, the gorgeous procession of victorious men-at-arms; louder and louder blew the trumpets, higher and higher the clouds were lifted from the lowering sun. Half the people of Madrid went before, the rest flocked behind, all cheering or singing or shouting. The stream of colour and light became a river, the river a flood, and in the high tide of a young victor’s glory Don John of Austria rode onward to the palace gate. The mounted trumpeters parted to each side before him, and the standard-bearer ranged his horse to the left, opposite the banner of the King, which held the right, and Don John, on a grey Arab mare, stood out alone at the head of his men, saluting his royal brother with lowered sword and bent head. A final blast from the trumpets sounded full and high, and again and again the shout of the great throng went up like thunder and echoed from the palace walls, as King Philip, in his balcony above the gate, returned the salute with his hand, and bent a little forward over the stone railing.
Dolores de Mendoza forgot her father and all that he might say, and stood at the open window, looking down. She had dreamed of this moment; she had seen visions of it in the daytime; she had told herself again and again what it would be, how it must be; but the reality was beyond her dreams and her visions and her imaginings, for she had to the full what few women have in any century, and what few have ever had in the blush of maidenhood,–the sight of the man she loved, and who loved her with all his heart, coming home in triumph from a hard-fought war, himself the leader and the victor, himself in youth’s first spring, the young idol of a warlike nation, and the centre of military glory.
When he had saluted the King he sat still a moment on his horse and looked upward, as if unconsciously drawn by the eyes that, of all others, welcomed him at that moment; and his own met them instantly and smiled, though his face betrayed nothing. But old Mendoza, motionless in his saddle, followed the look, and saw; and although he would have praised the young leader with the best of his friends, and would have fought under him and for him as well as the bravest, yet at that moment he would gladly have seen Don John of Austria fall dead from his horse before his eyes.
Don John dismounted without haste, and advanced to the gate as the King disappeared from the balcony above. He was of very graceful figure and bearing, not short, but looking taller than he really was by the perfection of his proportions. The short reddish brown hair grew close and curling on his small head, but left the forehead high, while it set off the clear skin and the mobile features. A very small moustache shaded his lip without hiding the boyish mouth, and at that time he wore no beard. The lips, indeed, smiled often, and the expression of the mouth was rather careless and good-humoured than strong. The strength of the face was in the clean-cut jaw, while its real expression was in the deep-set, fiery blue eyes, that could turn angry and fierce at one moment, and tender as a woman’s the next.
He wore without exaggeration the military dress of his time,–a beautifully chiselled corslet inlaid with gold, black velvet sleeves, loose breeches of velvet and silk, so short that they did not descend half way to the knees, while his legs were covered by tight hose and leather boots, made like gaiters to clasp from the knee to the ankle and heel. Over his shoulder hung a short embroidered cloak, and his head covering was a broad velvet cap, in which were fastened the black and yellow plumes of the House of Austria.
As he came near to the gate, many friends moved forward to greet him, and he gave his hand to all, with a frank smile and words of greeting. But old Mendoza did not dismount nor move his horse a step nearer. Don John, looking round before he went in, saw the grim face, and waved his hand to Dolores’ father; but the old man pretended that he saw nothing, and made no answering gesture. Some one in the crowd of courtiers laughed lightly. Old Mendoza’s face never changed; but his knees must have pressed the saddle suddenly, for his black horse stirred uneasily, and tried to rear a little. Don John stopped short, and his eyes hardened and grew very light before the smile could fade from his lips, while he tried to find the face of the man whose laugh he had heard. But that was impossible, and his look was grave and stern as he went in under the great gate, the multitude cheering after him.
From her high window Dolores had seen and heard also, for she had followed every movement he made and every change of his expression, and had faithfully told her sister what she saw, until the laugh came, short and light, but cutting. And Inez heard that, too, for she was leaning far forward upon the broad stone sill to listen for the sound of Don John’s voice. She drew back with a springing movement, and a sort of cry of pain.
“Some one is laughing at me!” she cried. “Some one is laughing because I am trying to see!”
Instantly Dolores drew her sister to her, kissing her tenderly, and soothing her as one does a frightened child.
“No, dear, no! It was not that–I saw what it was. Nobody was looking at you, my darling. Do you know why some one laughed? It hurt me, too. He smiled and waved his hand to our father, who took no notice of him. The laugh was for that–and for me, because the man knew well enough that our father does not mean that we shall ever marry. Do you see, dear? It was not meant for you.”
“Did he really look up at us when you said so?” asked Inez, in a smothered voice.
“Who? The man who laughed?”
“No. I mean–“
“Don John? Yes. He looked up to us and smiled–as he often does at me–with his eyes only, while his face was quite grave. He is not changed at all, except that he looks more determined, and handsomer, and braver, and stronger than ever! He does each time I see him!”
But Inez was not listening.
“That was worth living for–worth being blind for,” she said suddenly, “to hear the people shout and cheer for him as he came along. You who can see it all do not understand what the sound means to me. For a moment–only for a moment–I saw light–I know I saw a bright light before my eyes. I am not dreaming. It made my heart beat, and it made my head dizzy. It must have been light. Do you think it could be, Dolores?”
“I do not know, dear,” answered the other gently.
But as the day faded and they sat together in the early dusk, Dolores looked long and thoughtfully at the blind face. Inez loved Don John, though she did not know it, and without knowing it she had told her sister.
* * * * *
When Don John had disappeared within the palace the people lingered a little while, hoping that something might happen which would be worth seeing, and then, murmuring a little in perfectly unreasonable disappointment, they slowly dispersed. After that old Mendoza gave his orders to the officers of the guards, the men tramped away, one detachment after another, in a regular order; the cavalry that had ridden up with Don John wheeled at a signal from the trumpets, and began to ride slowly back to the city, pressing hard upon the multitude, and before it was quite dark the square before the palace was deserted again. The sky had cleared, the pavement was dry again, and the full moon was rising. Two tall sentinels with halberds paced silently up and down in the shadow.
Dolores and her sister were still sitting in the dark when the door opened, and a grey-haired servant in red and yellow entered the room, bearing two lighted wax candles in heavy bronze candlesticks, which he set upon the table. A moment later he was followed by old Mendoza, still in his breastplate, as he had dismounted, his great spurs jingling on his heavy boots, and his long basket-hilted sword trailing on the marble pavement. He was bareheaded now, and his short hair, smooth and grizzled, covered his energetic head like a close-fitting skull cap of iron-grey velvet. He stood still before the table, his bony right hand resting upon it and holding both his long gloves. The candlelight shone upward into his dark face, and gleamed yellow in his angry eyes.
Both the girls rose instinctively as their father entered; but they stood close together, their hands still linked as if to defend each other from a common enemy, though the hard man would have given his life for either of them at any moment since they had come into the world. They knew it, and trembled.
“You have made me the laughing-stock of the court,” he began slowly, and his voice shook with anger. “What have you to say in your defence?”
He was speaking to Dolores, and she turned a little pale. There was something so cruelly hard in his tone and bearing that she drew back a little, not exactly in bodily fear, but as a brave man may draw back a step when another suddenly draws a weapon upon him. Instantly Inez moved forward, raising one white hand in protest, and turning her blind face to her father’s gleaming eyes.
“I am not speaking to you,” he said roughly, “but you,” he went on, addressing Dolores, and the heavy table shook under his hand. “What devil possessed you that you should shame me and yourself, standing at your window to smile at Don John, as if he were the Espadero at a bull fight and you the beauty of the ring–with all Madrid there to look on, from his Majesty the King to the beggar in the road? Have you no modesty, no shame, no blood that can blush? And if not, have you not even so much woman’s sense as should tell you that you are ruining your name and mine before the whole world?”
“Father! For the sake of heaven do not say such words–you must not! You shall not!”
Dolores’ face was quite white now, as she gently pushed Inez aside and faced the angry man. The table was between them.
“Have I said one word more than the very truth?” asked Mendoza. “Does not the whole court know that you love Don John of Austria–“
“Let the whole world know it!” cried the girl bravely. “Am I ashamed to love the best and bravest man that breathes?”
“Let the whole world know that you are willing to be his toy, his plaything–“
“His wife, sir!” Dolores’ voice was steady and clear as she interrupted her father. “His wife,” she repeated proudly; “And to-morrow, if you and the King will not hinder us. God made you my father, but neither God nor man has given you the right to insult me, and you shall not be unanswered, so long as I have strength and breath to speak. But for you, I should be Don John of Austria’s wife to-day–and then, then his ‘toy,’ his ‘plaything’–yes, and his slave and his servant–what you will! I love him, and I would work for him with my hands, as I would give my blood and my life for his, if God would grant me that happiness and grace, since you will not let me be his wife!”
“His wife!” exclaimed Mendoza, with a savage sneer. “His wife–to be married to-day and cast off to-morrow by a turn of the pen and the twisting of a word that would prove your marriage void, in order that Don John may be made the husband of some royal widowed lady, like Queen Mary of the Scots! His wife!” He laughed bitterly.
“You have an exalted opinion of your King, my father, since you suppose that he would permit such deeds in Spain!”
Dolores had drawn herself up to her full height as she spoke, and she remained motionless as she awaited the answer to what she had said. It was long in coming, though Mendoza’s dark eyes met hers unflinchingly, and his lips moved more than once as if he were about to speak. She had struck a blow that was hard to parry, and she knew it. Inez stood beside her, silent and breathing hard as she listened.
“You think that I have nothing to say,” he began at last, and his tone had changed and was more calm. “You are right, perhaps. What should I say to you, since you have lost all sense of shame and all thought of respect or obedience? Do you expect that I shall argue with you, and try to convince you that I am right, instead of forcing you to respect me and yourself? Thank Heaven, I have never yet questioned my King’s thoughts, nor his motives, nor his supreme right to do whatsoever may be for the honour and glory of Spain. My life is his, and all I have is his, to do with it all as he pleases, by grace of his divine right. That is my creed and my law–and if I have failed to bring you up in the same belief, I have committed a great sin, and it will be counted against me hereafter, though I have done what I could, to the best of my knowledge.”
Mendoza lifted his sheathed sword and laid his right hand upon the cross-bar of the basket hilt.
“God–the King–Spain!” he said solemnly, as he pressed his lips to it once for each article of his faith.
“I do not wish to shake your belief,” said Dolores coldly. “I daresay that is impossible!”
“As impossible as it is to make me change my determination,” answered Mendoza, letting his long sword rest on the pavement again.
“And what may your determination be?” asked the girl, still facing him.
Something in his face forewarned her of near evil and danger, as he looked at her long without answering. She moved a little, so as to stand directly in front of Inez. Taking an attitude that was almost defiant, she began to speak rapidly, holding her hands behind her and pressing herself back against her sister to attract the latter’s attention; and in her hand she held the letter she had written to Don John, folded into the smallest possible space, for she had kept it ready in the wrist of her tight sleeve, not knowing what might happen any moment to give her an opportunity of sending it.
“What have you determined?” she asked again, and then went on without waiting for a reply. “In what way are you going to exhibit your power over me? Do you mean to take me away from the court to live in Valladolid again? Are you going to put me in the charge of some sour old woman who will never let me out of her sight from morning till morning?” She had found her sister’s hand behind hers and had thrust the letter into the fingers that closed quickly upon it. Then she laughed a little, almost gaily. “Do you think that a score of sour old duennas could teach me to forget the man I love, or could prevent me from sending him a message every day if I chose? Do you think you could hinder Don John of Austria, who came back an hour ago from his victory the idol of all Spain, the favourite of the people–brave, young, powerful, rich, popular, beloved far more than the King himself, from seeing me every day if he chose, so long as he were not away in war? And then–I will ask you something more–do you think that father, or mother, or king, or law, or country has power to will away the love of a woman who loves with all her heart and soul and strength? Then answer me and tell me what you have determined to do with me, and I will tell you my determination, too, for I have one of my own, and shall abide by it, come what may, and whatsoever you may do!”
She paused, for she had heard Inez softly close the door as she went out. The letter at least was safe, and if it were humanly possible, Inez would find a means of delivering it; for she had all that strange ingenuity of the blind in escaping observation which it seems impossible that they should possess, but of which every one who has been much with them is fully aware. Mendoza had seen Inez go out, and was glad that she was gone, for her blind face sometimes disturbed him when he wished to assert his authority.
“Yes,” he said, “I will tell you what I mean to do, and it is the only thing left to me, for you have given me no choice. You are disobedient and unruly, you have lost what little respect you ever had–or showed–for me. But that is not all. Men have had unruly daughters before, and yet have married them well, and to men who in the end have ruled them. I do not speak of my affection for you both, since you have none for me. But now, you are going beyond disobedience and lawlessness, for you are ruining yourself and disgracing me, and I will neither permit the one nor suffer the other.” His voice rose harshly. “Do you understand me? I intend to protect my name from you, and yours from the world, in the only way possible. I intend to send you to Las Huelgas to-morrow morning. I am in earnest, and unless you consent to give up this folly and to marry as I wish, you shall stay there for the rest of your natural life. Do you understand? And until to-morrow morning you shall stay within these doors. We shall see whether Don John of Austria will try to force my dwelling first and a convent of holy nuns afterwards. You will be safe from him, I give you my word of honour,–the word of a Spanish gentleman and of your father. You shall be safe forever. And if Don John tries to enter here to-night, I will kill him on the threshold. I swear that I will.”
He ceased speaking, turned, and began to walk up and down the small room, his spurs and sword clanking heavily at every step. He had folded his arms, and his head was bent low.
A look of horror and fear had slowly risen in Dolores’ face, for she knew her father, and that he kept his word at every risk. She knew also that the King held him in very high esteem, and was as firmly opposed to her marriage as Mendoza himself, and therefore ready to help him to do what he wished. It had never occurred to her that she could be suddenly thrust out of sight in a religious institution, to be kept there at her father’s pleasure, even for her whole life. She was too young and too full of life to have thought of such a possibility. She had indeed heard that such things could be done, and had been done, but she had never known such a case, and had never realized that she was so completely at her father’s mercy. For the first time in her life she felt real fear, and as it fell upon her there came the sickening conviction that she could not resist it, that her spirit was broken all at once, that in a moment more she would throw herself at her father’s feet and implore mercy, making whatever promise he exacted, yet making it falsely, out of sheer terror, in an utter degradation and abasement of all moral strength, of which she had never even dreamed. She grew giddy as she felt it coming upon her, and the lights of the two candles moved strangely. Already she saw herself on her knees, sobbing with fear, trying to take her father’s hand, begging forgiveness, denying her love, vowing submission and dutiful obedience in an agony of terror. For on the other side she saw the dark corridors and gloomy cells of Las Huelgas, the veiled and silent nuns, the abomination of despair that was before her till she should die and escape at last,–the faint hope which would always prevent her from taking the veil herself, yet a hope fainter and fainter, crossed by the frightful uncertainty in which she should be kept by those who guarded her. They would not even tell her whether the man she loved were alive or dead, she could never know whether he had given up her love, himself in despair, or whether, then, as years went by, he would not lose the thread that took him back to the memory of her, and forget–and love again.
But then her strong nature rose again, and the vision of fear began to fade as her faith in his love denied the last thought with scorn. Many a time, when words could tell no more, and seemed exhausted just when trust was strongest, he had simply said, “I love you, as you love me,” and somehow the little phrase meant all, and far more than the tender speeches that sometimes formed themselves so gracefully, and yet naturally and simply, because they, too, came straight from the heart. So now, in her extreme need, the plain words came back to her in his voice, “I love you, as you love me,” with a sudden strength of faith in him that made her live again, and made fear seem impossible. While her father slowly paced the floor in silence, she thought what she should do, and whether there could be anything which she would not do, if Don John of Austria were kept a prisoner from her; and she felt sure that she could overcome every obstacle and laugh at every danger, for the hope of getting to him. If she would, so would he, since he loved her as she loved him. But for all the world, he would not have her throw herself upon her father’s mercy and make false promises and sob out denials of her love, out of fear. Death would be better than that.
“Do as you will with me, since you have the power,” she said at last, quite calmly and steadily.
Instantly the old man stopped in his walk, and turned towards her, almost as if he himself were afraid now. To her amazement she saw that his dark eyes were moist with tears that clung but half shed to the rugged lids and rough lashes. He did not speak for some moments, while she gazed at him in wonder, for she could not understand. Then all at once he lifted his brown hands and covered his face with a gesture of utter despair.
“Dolores! My child, my little girl!” he cried, in a broken voice.
Then he sat down, as it overcome, clasped his hands on the hilt of his sword, and rested his forehead against them, rocking himself with a barely perceptible motion. In twenty years, Dolores had never understood, not even guessed, that the hard man, ever preaching of wholesome duty and strict obedience, always rebuking, never satisfied, ill pleased almost always, loved her with all his heart, and looked upon her as the very jewel of his soul. She guessed it now, in a sudden burst of understanding; but it was so new, so strange, that she could not have told what she felt. There was at best no triumph at the thought that, of the two, he had broken down first in the contest. Pity came first, womanly, simple and kind, for the harsh nature that was so wounded at last. She came to his side, and laid one hand upon his shoulder, speaking softly.
“I am very, very sorry that I have hurt you,” she said, and waited for him to speak, pressing his shoulder with a gentle touch.
He did not look up, and still he rocked himself gently, leaning on his sword. The girl suffered, too, to see him suffering so. A little while ago he had been hard, fierce, angry, cruel, threatening her with a living death that had filled her with horror. It had seemed quite impossible that there could be the least tenderness in him for any one–least of all for her.
“God be merciful to me,” he said at length in very low tones. “God forgive me if it is my fault–you do not love me–I am nothing to you but an unkind old man, and you are all the world to me, child!”
He raised his head slowly and looked into her face. She was startled at the change in his own, as well as deeply touched by what he said. His dark cheeks had grown grey, and the tears that would not quite fall were like a glistening mist under the lids, and almost made him look sightless. Indeed, he scarcely saw her distinctly. His clasped hands trembled a little on the hilt of the sword he still held.
“How could I know?” cried Dolores, suddenly kneeling down beside him. “How could I guess? You never let me see that you were fond of me–or I have been blind all these years–“
“Hush, child!” he said. “Do not hurt me any more–it must have been my fault.”
He grew more calm, and though his face was very grave and sad, the natural dark colour was slowly coming back to it now, and his hands were steady again. The girl was too young, and far too different from him, to understand his nature, but she was fast realizing that he was not the man he had always seemed to her.
“Oh, if I had only known!” she cried, in deep distress. “If I had only guessed, I would have been so different! I was always frightened, always afraid of you, since I can remember–I thought you did not care for us and that we always displeased you–how could we know?”
Mendoza lifted one of his hands from the sword hilt, and took hers, with as much gentleness as was possible to him. His eyes became clear again, and the profound emotion he had shown subsided to the depths whence it had risen.
“We shall never quite understand each other,” he said quietly. “You cannot see that it is a man’s duty to do what is right for his children, rather than to sacrifice that in order to make them love him.”
It seemed to Dolores that there might be a way open between the two, but she said nothing, and left her hand in his, glad that he was kind, but feeling, as he felt, that there could never be any real understanding between them. The breach had existed too long, and it was far too wide.
“You are headstrong, my dear,” he said, nodding at each word. “You are very headstrong, if you will only reflect.”
“It is not my head, it is my heart,” answered Dolores. “And besides,” she added with a smile, “I am your daughter, and you are not of a very gentle and yielding disposition, are you?”
“No,” he answered with hesitation, “perhaps not.” Then his face relaxed a little, and he almost smiled too.
It seemed as if the peace were made and as if thereafter there need not be trouble again. But it was even then not far off, for it was as impossible for Mendoza to yield as it would have been for Dolores to give up her love for Don John. She did not see this, and she fancied that a real change had taken place in his disposition, so that he would forget that he had threatened to send her to Las Huelgas, and not think of it again.
“What is done cannot be undone,” he said, with renewed sadness. “You will never quite believe that you have been everything to me during your life. How could you not be, my child? I am very lonely. Your mother has been dead nearly eighteen years, and Rodrigo–“
He stopped short suddenly, for he had never spoken his son’s name in the girl’s hearing since Rodrigo had left him to follow his own fortunes.
“I think Rodrigo broke my heart,” said the old man, after a short pause, controlling his voice so that it sounded dry and indifferent. “And if there is anything left of it, you will break the rest.”
He rose, taking his hand from hers, and turning away, with the roughness of a strong, hard man, who has broken down once under great emotion and is capable of any harshness in his fear of yielding to it again. Dolores started slightly and drew back. In her the kindly impression was still strong, but his tone and manner wounded her.
“You are wrong,” she said earnestly. “Since you have shown me that you love me, I will indeed do my best not to hurt you or displease you. I will do what I can–what I can.”
She repeated the last words slowly and with unconscious emphasis. He turned his face to her again instantly.
“Then promise me that you will never see Don John of Austria again, that you will forget that you ever loved him, that you will put him altogether out of your thoughts, and that you will obediently accept the marriage I shall make for you.”
The words of refusal to any such obedience as that rose to the girl’s lips, ready and sharp. But she would not speak them this time, lest more angry words should answer hers. She looked straight at her father’s eyes, holding her head proudly high for a moment. Then, smiling at the impossibility of what he asked, she turned from him and went to the window in silence. She opened it wide, leaned upon the stone sill and looked out. The moon had risen much higher now, and the court was white.
She had meant to cut short the discussion without rousing anger again, but she could have taken no worse way to destroy whatever was left of her father’s kindlier mood. He did not raise his voice now, as he followed her and spoke.
“You refuse to do that?” he said, with an already ominous interrogation in his tone.
“You ask the impossible,” she answered, without looking round. “I have not refused, for I have no will in this, no choice. You can do what you please with me, for you have power over my outward life–and if you lacked it, the King would help you. But you have no power beyond that, neither over my heart nor over my soul. I love him–I have loved him long, and I shall love him till I die, and beyond that, forever and ever, beyond everything–beyond the great to-morrow of God’s last judgment! How can I put him out of my thoughts, then? It is madness to ask it of me.”
She paused a moment, while he stood behind her, getting his teeth and slowly grinding the heel of one heavy boot on the pavement.
“And as for threatening me,” she continued, “you will not kill Don John, nor even try to kill him, for he is the King’s brother. If I can see him this evening, I will–and there will be no risk for him. You would not murder him by stealth, I suppose? No! Then you will not attack him at all, and if I can see him, I will–I tell you so, frankly. To-morrow or the next day, when the festivities they have for him are over, and you yourself are at liberty, take me to Las Huelgas, if you will, and with as little scandal as possible. But when I am there, set a strong guard of armed men to keep me, for I shall escape unless you do. And I shall go to Don John. That is all I have to say. That is my last word.”
“I gave you mine, and it was my word of honour,” said Mendoza. “If Don John tries to enter here, to see you, I will kill him. To-morrow, you shall go to Las Huelgas.”
Dolores made no answer and did not even turn her head. He left her and went out. She heard his heavy tread in the hall beyond, and she heard a bolt slipped at the further door. She was imprisoned for the night, for the entrance her father had fastened was the one which cut off the portion of the apartment in which the sisters lived from the smaller part which he had reserved for himself. These rooms, from which there was no other exit, opened, like the sitting-room, upon the same hall.
When Dolores knew that she was alone, she drew back from the window and shut it. It had served its purpose as a sort of refuge from her father, and the night air was cold. She sat down to think, and being in a somewhat desperate mood, she smiled at the idea of being locked into her room, supperless, like a naughty child. But her face grew grave instantly as she tried to discover some means of escape. Inez was certainly not in the apartment–she must have gone to the other end of the palace, on pretence of seeing one of the court ladies, but really in the hope of giving Don John the letter. It was more than probable that she would not be allowed to enter when she came back, for Mendoza would distrust her. That meant that Dolores could have no communication with any one outside her rooms during the evening and night, and she knew her father too well to doubt that he would send her to Las Huelgas in the morning, as he had sworn to do. Possibly he would let her serving-woman come to her to prepare what she needed for the journey, but even that was unlikely, for he would suspect everybody.
The situation looked hopeless, and the girl’s face grew slowly pale as she realized that after all she might not even exchange a word with Don John before going to the convent–she might not even be able to tell him whither they were sending her, and Mendoza might keep the secret for years–and she would never be allowed to write, of course.
She heard the further door opened again, the bolt running back with a sharp noise. Then she heard her father’s footsteps and his voice calling to Inez, as he went from room to room. But there was no answer, and presently he went away, bolting the door a second time. There could be no more doubt about it now. Dolores was quite alone. Her heart beat heavily and slowly. But it was not over yet. Again the bolt slipped in the outer hall, and again she heard the heavy steps. They came straight towards the door. He had perhaps changed his mind, or he had something more to say; she held her breath, but he did not come in. As if to make doubly sure, he bolted her into the little room, crossed the hall a last time, and bolted it for the night, perfectly certain that Dolores was safely shut off from the outer world.
For some minutes she sat quite still, profoundly disturbed, and utterly unable to find any way out of her difficulty, which was, indeed, that she was in a very secure prison.
Then again there was a sound at the door, but very soft this time, not half as loud in her ears as the beating of her own heart. There was something ghostly in it, for she had heard no footsteps. The bolt moved very slowly and gently–she had to strain her ears to hear it move. The sound ceased, and another followed it–that of the door being cautiously opened. A moment later Inez was in the room–turning her head anxiously from side to side to hear Dolores’ breathing, and so to find out where she was. Then as Dolores rose, the blind girl put her finger to her lips, and felt for her sister’s hand.
“He has the letter,” she whispered quickly. “I found him by accident, very quickly. I am to say to you that after he has been some time in the great hall, he will slip away and come here. You see our father will be on duty and cannot come up.”
Dolores’ hand trembled violently.
“He swore to me that he would kill Don John if he came here,” she whispered. “He will do it, if it costs his own life! You must find him again–go quickly, dear, for the love of Heaven!” Her anxiety increased. “Go–go, darling–do not lose a moment–he may come sooner–save him, save him!”
“I cannot go,” answered Inez, in terror, as she understood the situation. “I had hidden myself, and I am locked in with you. He called me, but I kept quiet, for I knew he would not let me stay.” She buried her face in her hands and sobbed aloud in an agony of fear.
Dolores’ lips were white, and she steadied herself against a chair.
* * * * *
Dolores stood leaning against the back of the chair, neither hearing nor seeing her sister, conscious only that Don John was in danger and that she could not warn him to be on his guard. She had not believed herself when she had told her father that he would not dare to lift his hand against the King’s half brother. She had said the words to give herself courage, and perhaps in a rush of certainty that the man she loved was a match for other men, hand to hand, and something more. It was different now. Little as she yet knew of human nature, she guessed without reasoning that a man who has been angry, who has wavered and given way to what he believes to be weakness, and whose anger has then burst out again, is much more dangerous than before, because his wrath is no longer roused against another only, but also against himself. More follies and crimes have been committed in that second tide of passion than under a first impulse. Even if Mendoza had not fully meant what he had said the first time, he had meant it all, and more, when he had last spoken. Once more the vision of fear rose before Dolores’ eyes, nobler now; because it was fear for another and not for herself, but therefore also harder to conquer.
Inez had ceased from sobbing now, and was sitting quietly in her accustomed seat, in that attitude of concentrated expectancy of sounds which is so natural to the blind, that one can almost recognize blindness by the position of the head and body without seeing the face. The blind rarely lean back in a chair; more often the body is quite upright, or bent a little forward, the face is slightly turned up when there is total silence, often turned down when a sound is already heard distinctly; the knees are hardly ever crossed, the hands are seldom folded together, but are generally spread out, as if ready to help the hearing by the sense of touch–the lips are slightly parted, for the blind know that they hear by the mouth as well as with their ears–the expression of the face is one of expectation and extreme attention, still, not placid, calm, but the very contrary of indifferent. It was thus that Inez sat, as she often sat for hours, listening, always and forever listening to the speech of things and of nature, as well as for human words. And in listening, she thought and reasoned patiently and continually, so that the slightest sounds had often long and accurate meanings for her. The deaf reason little or ill, and are very suspicious; the blind, on the contrary, are keen, thoughtful, and ingenious, and are distrustful of themselves rather than of others. Inez sat quite still, listening, thinking, and planning a means of helping her sister.
But Dolores stood motionless as if she were paralyzed, watching the picture that “he could not chase away. For she saw the familiar figure of the man she loved coming down the gloomy corridor, alone and unarmed, past the deep embrasures through which the moonlight streamed, straight towards the oak door at the end; and then, from one of the windows another figure stood out, sword in hand, a gaunt man with a grey beard, and there were few words, and an uncertain quick confounding of shadows with a ray of cold light darting hither and thither, then a fall, and then stillness. As soon as it was over, it began again, with little change, save that it grew more distinct, till she could see Don John’s white face in the moonlight as he lay dead on the pavement of the corridor.
It became intolerable at last, and she slowly raised one hand and covered her eyes to shut out the sight.
“Listen,” said Inez, as Dolores stirred. “I have been thinking. You must see him to-night, even if you are not alone with him. There is only one way to do that; you must dress yourself for the court and go down to the great hall with the others and speak to him–then you can decide how to meet to-morrow.”
“Inez–I have not told you the rest! To-morrow I am to be sent to Las Huelgas, and kept there like a prisoner.” Inez uttered a low cry of pain.
“To a convent!” It seemed like death.
Dolores began to tell her all Mendoza had said, but Inez soon interrupted her. There was a dark flush in the blind girl’s face.
“And he would have you believe that he loves you?” she cried indignantly. “He has always been hard, and cruel, and unkind, he has never forgiven me for being blind—he will never forgive you for being young! The King! The King before everything and every one–before himself, yes, that is well, but before his children, his soul, his heart–he has no heart! What am I saying–” She stopped short.
“And yet, in his strange way, he loves us both,” said Dolores. “I cannot understand it, but I saw his face when there were tears in his eyes, and I heard his voice. He would give his life for us.”
“And our lives, and hearts, and hopes to feed his conscience and to save his own soul!”
Inez was trembling with anger, leaning far forward, her face flushed, one slight hand clenched, the other clenching it hard. Dolores was silent. It was not the first time that Inez had spoken in this way, for the blind girl could be suddenly and violently angry for a good cause. But now her tone changed.
“I will save you,” she said suddenly, “but there is no time to be lost. He will not come back to our rooms now, and he knows well enough that Don John cannot come here at this hour, so that he is not waiting for him. We have this part of the place to ourselves, and the outer door only is bolted now. It will take you an hour to dress–say three-quarters of an hour. As soon as you get out, you must go quickly round the palace to the Duchess Alvarez. Our father will not go there, and you can go down with her, as usual–but tell her nothing. Our father will be there, and he will see you, but he will not care to make an open scandal in the court. Don John will come and speak to you; you must stay beside the Duchess of course–but you can manage to exchange a few words.”
Dolores listened intently, and her face brightened a little as Inez went on, only to grow sad and hopeless again a moment later. It was all an impossible dream.
“That would be possible if I could once get beyond the door of the hall,” she said despondently. “It is of no use, dear! The door is bolted.”
“They will open it for me. Old Eudaldo is always within hearing, and he will do anything for me. Besides, I shall seem to have been shut in by mistake, do you see? I shall say that I am hungry, thirsty, that I am cold, that in locking you in our father locked me in, too, because I was asleep. Then Eudaldo will open the door for me. I shall say that I am going to the Duchess’s.”
“You will cover yourself entirely with my black cloak and draw it over your head and face. We are of the same height–you only need to walk as I do–as if you were blind–across the hall to the left. Eudaldo will open the outer door for you. You will just nod to thank him, without speaking, and when you are outside, touch the wall of the corridor with your left hand, and keep close to it. I always do, for fear of running against some one. If you meet any of the women, they will take you for me. There is never much light in the corridor, is there? There is one oil lamp half way down, I know, for I always smell it when I pass in the evening.”
“Yes, it is almost dark there–it is a little lamp. Do you really think this is possible?”
“It is possible, not sure. If you hear footsteps in the corridor beyond the corner, you will have time to slip into one of the embrasures. But our father will not come now. He knows that Don John is in his own apartments with many people. And besides, it is to be a great festival to-night, and all the court people and officers, and the Archbishop, and all the rest who do not live in the palace will come from the city, so that our father will have to command the troops and give orders for the guards to march out, and a thousand things will take his time. Don John cannot possibly come here till after the royal supper, and if our father can come away at all, it will be at the same time. That is the danger.”
Dolores shivered and saw the vision in the corridor again.
“But if you are seen talking with Don John before supper, no one will suppose that in order to meet him you would risk coming back here, where you are sure to be caught and locked up again. Do you see?”
“It all depends upon whether I can get out,” answered Dolores, but there was more hope in her tone. “How am I to dress without a maid?” she asked suddenly.
“Trust me,” said Inez, with a laugh. “My hands are better than a serving-woman’s eyes. You shall look as you never looked before. I know every lock of your hair, and just how it should be turned and curled and fastened in place so that it cannot possibly get loose. Come, we are wasting time. Take off your slippers as I have done, so that no one shall hear us walking through the hall to your room, and bring the candles with you if you choose–yes, you need them to pick out the colours you like.”
“If you think it will be safer in the dark, it does not matter,” said Dolores. “I know where everything is.”
“It would be safer,” answered Inez thoughtfully. “It is just possible that he might be in the court and might see the light in your window, whereas if it burns here steadily, he will suspect nothing. We will bolt the door of this room, as I found it. If by any possibility he comes back, he will think you are still here, and will probably not come in.”
“Pray Heaven he may not!” exclaimed Dolores, and she began to go towards the door.
Inez was there before her, opening it very cautiously.
“My hands are lighter than yours,” she whispered.
They both passed out, and Inez slipped the bolt back into its place with infinite precaution.
“Is there light here?” she asked under her breath.
“There is a very small lamp on the table. I can just see my door.”
“Put it out as we pass,” whispered Inez. “I will lead you if you cannot find your way.”
They moved cautiously forward, and when they reached the table, Dolores bent down to the small wick and blew out the flame. Then she felt her sister’s hand taking hers and leading her quickly to the other door. The blind girl was absolutely noiseless in her movements, and Dolores had the strange impression that she was being led by a spirit through the darkness. Inez stopped a moment, and then went slowly on; they had entered the room though Dolores had not heard the door move, nor did she hear it closed behind her again. Her own room was perfectly dark, for the heavy curtain that covered the window was drawn; she made a step alone, and cautiously, and struck her knee against a chair.
“Do not move,” whispered Inez. “You will make a noise. I can dress you where you stand, or if you want to find anything, I will lead you to the place where it is. Remember that it is always day for me.”
Dolores obeyed, and stood still, holding her breath a little in her intense excitement. It seemed impossible that Inez could do all she promised without making a mistake, and Dolores would not have been a woman had she not been visited just then by visions of ridicule. Without light she was utterly helpless to do anything for herself, and she had never before then fully realized the enormous misfortune with which her sister had to contend. She had not guessed, either, what energy and quickness of thought Inez possessed, and the sensation of being advised, guided, and helped by one she had always herself helped and protected was new.
They spoke in quick whispers of what she was to wear and of how her hair was to be dressed, and Inez found what was wanted without noise, and almost as quickly as Dolores could have done in broad daylight, and placed a chair for her, making her sit down in it, and began to arrange her hair quickly and skilfully. Dolores felt the spiritlike hands touching her lightly and deftly in the dark–they were very slight and soft, and did not offend her with a rough movement or a wrong turn, as her maid’s sometimes did. She felt her golden hair undone, and swiftly drawn out and smoothed without catching, or tangling, or hurting her at all, in a way no woman had ever combed it, and the invisible hands gently divided it, and turned it upon her head, slipping the hairpins into the right places as if by magic, so that they were firm at the first trial, and there was a faint sound of little pearls tapping each other, and Dolores felt the small string laid upon her hair and fastened in its place,–the only ornament a young girl could wear for a headdress,–and presently it was finished, and Inez gave a sigh of satisfaction at her work, and lightly felt her sister’s head here and there to be sure that all was right. It felt as if soft little birds were just touching the hair with the tips of their wings as they fluttered round it. Dolores had no longer any fear of looking ill dressed in the blaze of light she was to face before long. The dressing of her hair was the most troublesome part, she knew, and though she could not have done it herself, she had felt that every touch and turn had been perfectly skilful.
“What a wonderful creature you are!” she whispered, as Inez bade her stand up.
“You have beautiful hair,” answered the blind girl, “and you are beautiful in other ways, but to-night you must be the most beautiful of all the court, for his sake–so that every woman may envy you, and every man envy him, when they see you talking together. And now we must be quick, for it has taken a long time, and I hear the soldiers marching out again to form in the square. That is always just an hour and a half before the King goes into the hall. Here–this is the front of the skirt.”
“No–it is the back!”
Inez laughed softly, a whispering laugh that Dolores could scarcely hear.
“It is the front,” she said. “You can trust me in the dark. Put your arms down, and let me slip it over your head so as not to touch your hair. No—hold your arms down!”
Dolores had instinctively lifted her hands to protect her headdress. Then all went quickly, the silence only broken by an occasional whispered word and by the rustle of silk, the long soft sound of the lacing as Inez drew it through the eyelets of the bodice, the light tapping of her hands upon the folds and gatherings of the skirt and on the puffed velvet on the shoulders and elbows.
“You must be beautiful, perfectly beautiful to-night,” Inez repeated more than once.
She herself did not understand why she said it, unless it were that Dolores’ beauty was for Don John of Austria, and that nothing in the whole world could be too perfect for him, for the hero of her thoughts, the sun of her blindness, the immeasurably far-removed deity of her heart. She did not know that it was not for her sister’s sake, but for his, that she had planned the escape and was taking such infinite pains that Dolores might look her best. Yet she felt a deep and delicious delight in what she did, like nothing she had ever felt before, for it was the first time in her life that she had been able to do something that could give him pleasure; and, behind that, there was the belief that he was in danger, that she could no longer go to him nor warn him now, and that only Dolores herself could hinder him from coming unexpectedly against old Mendoza, sword in hand, in the corridor.
“And now my cloak over everything,” she said. “Wait here, for I must get it, and do not move!”
Dolores hardly knew whether Inez left the room or not, so noiselessly did the girl move. Then she felt the cloak laid upon her shoulders and drawn close round her to hide her dress, for skirts were short in those days and easily hidden. Inez laid a soft silk handkerchief upon her sister’s hair, lest it should be disarranged by the hood which she lightly drew over all, assuring herself that it would sufficiently hide the face.
“Now come with me,” she whispered. I will lead you to the door that is bolted and place you just where it will open. Then I will call Eudaldo and speak to him, and beg him to let me out. If he does, bend your head and try to walk as I do. I shall be on one side of the door, and, as the room is dark, he cannot possibly see me. While he is opening the outer door for you, I will slip back into my own room. Do you understand? And remember to hide in an embrasure if you hear a man’s footsteps. Are you quite sure you understand?”
“Yes; it will be easy if Eudaldo opens. And I thank you, dear; I wish I knew how to thank you as I ought! It may have saved his life–“
“And yours, too, perhaps,” answered Inez, beginning to lead her away. “You would die in the convent, and you must not come back–you must never come back to us here–never till you are married. Good-by, Dolores–dear sister. I have done nothing, and you have done everything for me all your life. Good-by–one kiss–then we must go, for it is late.”
With her soft hands she drew Dolores’ head towards her, lifted the hood a little, and kissed her tenderly. All at once there were tears on both their faces, and the arms of each clasped the other almost desperately.
“You must come to me, wherever I am,” Dolores said.
“Yes, I will come, wherever you are. I promise it.”
Then she disengaged herself quickly, and more than ever she seemed a spirit as she went before, leading her sister by the hand. They reached the door, and she made Dolores stand before the right hand panel, ready to slip out, and once more she touched the hood to be sure it hid the face. She listened a moment. A harsh and regular sound came from a distance, resembling that made by a pit-saw steadily grinding its way lengthwise through a log of soft pine wood.
“Eudaldo is asleep,” said Inez, and even at this moment she could hardly suppress a half-hysterical laugh. “I shall have to make a tremendous noise to wake him. The danger is that it may bring some one else,—the women, the rest of the servants.”
“What shall we do?” asked Dolores, in a distressed whisper.
She had braced her nerves to act the part of her sister at the dangerous moment, and her excitement made every instant of waiting seem ten times its length. Inez did not answer the question at once. Dolores repeated it still more anxiously.
“I was trying to make up my mind,” said the other at last. “You could pass Eudaldo well enough, I am sure, but it might be another matter if the hall were full of servants, as it is certain that our father has given a general order that you are not to be allowed to go out. We may wait an hour for the man to wake.”
Dolores instinctively tried the door, but it was solidly fastened from the outside. She felt hot and cold by turns as her anxiety grew more intolerable. Each minute made it more possible that she might meet her father somewhere outside.
“We must decide something!” she whispered desperately. “We cannot wait here.”
“I do not know what to do,” answered Inez. “I have done all I can; I never dreamt that Eudaldo would be asleep. At least, it is a sure sign that our father is not in the house.”
“But he may come at any moment! We must, we must do something at once!”
“I will knock softly,” said Inez. “Any one who hears it will suppose it is a knock at the hall door. If he does not open, some one will go and wake him up, and then go away again so as not to be seen.”
She clenched her small hand, and knocked three times. Such a sound could make not the slightest impression upon Eudaldo’s sound sleep, but her reasoning was good, as well as ingenious. After waiting a few moments, she knocked again, more loudly. Dolores held her breath in the silence that followed. Presently a door was opened, and a woman’s voice was heard, low but sharp.
“Eudaldo, Eudaldo! Some one is knocking at the front door!”
The woman probably shook the old man to rouse him, for his voice came next, growling and angry.
“Witch! Hag! Mother of malefactors! Let me alone–I am asleep. Are you trying to tear my sleeve off with your greasy claws? Nobody is knocking; you probably hear the wine thumping in your ears!”
The woman, who was the drudge and had been cleaning the kitchen, was probably used to Eudaldo’s manner of expressing himself, for she only laughed.
“Wine makes men sleep, but it does not knock at doors,” she answered. “Some one has knocked twice. You had better go and open the door.”
A shuffling sound and a deep yawn announced that Eudaldo was getting out of his chair. The two girls heard him moving towards the outer entrance. Then they heard the woman go away, shutting the other door behind her, as soon as she was sure that Eudaldo was really awake. Then Inez called him softly.
“Eudaldo? Here–it was I that knocked–you must let me out, please–come nearer.”
“Dona Inez?” asked the old man, standing still.
“Hush!” answered the girl. “Come nearer.” She waited, listening while he approached. “Listen to me,” she continued. “The General has locked me in, by mistake. He did not know I was here when he bolted the door. And I am hungry and thirsty and very cold, Eudaldo–and you must let me out, and I will run to the Duchess Alvarez and stay with her little girl. Indeed, Eudaldo, the General did not mean to lock me in, too.”
“He said nothing about your ladyship to me,” answered the servant doubtfully. “But I do not know–” he hesitated.
“Please, please, Eudaldo,” pleaded Inez, “I am so cold and lonely here–“
“But Dona Dolores is there, too,” observed Eudaldo.
Dolores held her breath and steadied herself against the panel.
“He shut her into the inner sitting-room. How could I dare to open the door! You may go in and knock–she will not answer you.”
“Is your ladyship sure that Dona Dolores is within?” asked Eudaldo, in a more yielding tone.
“Absolutely, perfectly sure!” answered Inez, with perfect truth. “Oh, do please let me out.”
Slowly the old man drew the bolt, while Dolores’ heart stood still, and she prepared herself for the danger; for she knew well enough that the faithful old servant feared his master much more than he feared the devil and all evil spirits, and would prevent her from passing, even with force, if he recognized her.
“Thank you, Eudaldo–thank you!” cried Inez, as the latch turned. “And open the front door for me, please,” she said, putting her lips just where the panel was opening.
Then she drew back into the darkness. The door was wide open now, and Eudaldo was already shuffling towards the entrance. Dolores went forward, bending her head, and trying to affect her sister’s step. No distance had ever seemed so long to her as that which separated her from the hall door which Eudaldo was already opening for her. But she dared not hasten her step, for though Inez moved with perfect certainty in the house, she always walked with a certain deliberate caution, and often stopped to listen, while crossing a room. The blind girl was listening now, with all her marvellous hearing, to be sure that all went well till Dolores should be outside. She knew exactly how many steps there were from where she stood to the entrance, for she had often counted them.
Dolores must have been not more than three yards from the door, when Inez started involuntarily, for she heard a sound from without, far off–so far that Dolores could not possibly have heard it yet, but unmistakable to the blind girl’s keener ear. She listened intently–there were Dolores’ last four steps to the open doorway, and there were others from beyond, still very far away in the vaulted corridors, but coming nearer. To call her sister back would have made all further attempt at escape hopeless–to let her go on seemed almost equally fatal–Inez could have shrieked aloud. But Dolores had already gone out, and a moment later the heavy door swung back to its place, and it was too late to call her. Like an immaterial spirit, Inez slipped away from the place where she stood and went back to Dolores’ room, knowing that Eudaldo would very probably go and knock where he supposed her sister to be a prisoner, before slipping the outer bolt again. And so he did, muttering an imprecation upon the little lamp that had gone out and left the small hall in darkness. Then he knocked, and spoke through the door, offering to bring her food, or fire, and repeating his words many times, in a supplicating tone, for he was devoted to both the sisters, though terror of old Mendoza was the dominating element in his existence.
At last he shook his head and turned despondently to light the little lamp again; and when he had done that, he went away and bolted the door after him, convinced that Inez had gone out and that Dolores had stayed behind in the last room.
When she had heard him go away the last time, the blind girl threw herself upon Dolores’ bed, and buried her face in the down cushion, sobbing bitterly in her utter loneliness; weeping, too, for something she did not understand, but which she felt the more painfully because she could not understand it, something that was at once like a burning fire and an unspeakable emptiness craving to be filled, something that longed and feared, and feared longing, something that was a strong bodily pain but which she somehow knew might have been the source of all earthly delight,–an element detached from thought and yet holding it, above the body and yet binding it, touching the soul and growing upon it, but filling the soul itself with fear and unquietness, and making her heart cry out within her as if it were not hers and were pleading to be free. So, as she could not understand that this was love, which, as she had heard said, made women and men most happy, like gods and goddesses, above their kind, she lay alone in the darkness that was always as day to her, and wept her heart out in scalding tears.
In the corridor outside, Dolores made a few steps, remembering to put out her left hand to touch the wall, as Inez had told her to do; and then she heard what had reached her sister’s ears much sooner. She stood still an instant, strained her eyes to see in the dim light of the single lamp, saw nothing, and heard the sound coming nearer. Then she quickly crossed the corridor to the nearest embrasure to hide herself. To her horror she realized that the light of the full moon was streaming in as bright as day, and that she could not be hid. Inez knew nothing of moonlight.
She pressed herself to the wall, on the side away from her own door, making herself as small as she could, for it was possible that whoever came by might pass without turning his head. Nervous and exhausted by all she had felt and been made to feel since the afternoon, she held her breath and waited.
The regular tread of a man booted and spurred came relentlessly towards her, without haste and without pause. No one who wore spurs but her father ever came that way. She listened breathlessly to the hollow echoes, and turned her eyes along the wall of the embrasure. In a moment she must see his gaunt figure, and the moonlight would be white on his short grey beard.
* * * * *
Dolores knew that there was no time to reflect as to what she should do, if her father found her hiding in the embrasure, and yet in those short seconds a hundred possibilities flashed through her disturbed thoughts. She might slip past him and run for her life down the corridor, or she might draw her hood over her face and try to pretend that she was some one else,–but he would recognize the hood itself as belonging to Inez,–or she might turn and lean upon the window-sill, indifferently, as if she had a right to be there, and he might take her for some lady of the court, and pass on. And yet she could not decide which to attempt, and stood still, pressing herself against the wall of the embrasure, and quite forgetful of the fact that the bright moonlight fell unhindered through all the other windows upon the pavement, whereas she cast a shadow from the one in which she was standing, and that any one coming along the corridor would notice it and stop to see who was there.
There was something fateful and paralyzing in the regular footfall that was followed instantly by the short echo from the vault above. It was close at hand now she was sure that at the very next instant she should see her father’s face, yet nothing came, except the sound, for that deceived her in the silence and seemed far nearer than it was. She had heard horrible ghost stories of the old Alcazar, and as a child she had been frightened by tales of evil things that haunted the corridors at night, of wraiths and goblins and Moorish wizards who dwelt in secret vaults, where no one knew, and came out in the dark, when all was still, to wander in the moonlight, a terror to the living. The girl felt the thrill of unearthly fear at the roots of her hair, and trembled, and the sound seemed to be magnified till it reechoed like thunder, though it was only the noise of an advancing footfall, with a little jingling of spurs.
But at last there was no doubt. It was close to her, and she shut her eyes involuntarily. She heard one step more on the stones, and then there was silence. She knew that her father had seen her, had stopped before her, and was looking at her. She knew how his rough brows were knitting themselves together, and that even in the pale moonlight his eyes were fierce and angry, and that his left hand was resting on the hilt of his sword, the bony brown fingers tapping the basket nervously. An hour earlier, or little more, she had faced him as bravely as any man, but she could not face him now, and she dared not open her eyes.
“Madam, are you ill, or in trouble?” asked a young voice that was soft and deep.
She opened her eyes with a sharp cry that was not of fear, and she threw back her hood with one hand as the looked.
Don John of Austria was there, a step from her, the light full on his face, bareheaded, his cap in his hand, bending a little towards her, as one does towards a person one does not know, but who seems to be in distress and to need help. Against the whiteness without he could not see her face, nor could he recognize her muffled figure.
“Can I not help you, Madam?” asked the kind voice again, very gravely.
Then she put out her hands towards him and made a step, and as the hood fell quite back with the silk kerchief, he saw her golden hair in the silver light. Slowly and in wonder, and still not quite believing, he moved to meet her movement, took her hands in his, drew her to him, turned her face gently, till he saw it well. Then he, too, uttered a little sound that was neither a word nor a syllable nor a cry–a sound that was half fierce with strong delight as his lips met hers, and his hands were suddenly at her waist lifting her slowly to his own height, though he did not know it, pressing her closer and closer to him, as if that one kiss were the first and last that ever man gave woman.
A minute passed, and yet neither he nor she could speak. She stood with her hands clasped round his neck, and her head resting on his breast just below the shoulder, as if she were saying tender words to the heart she heard beating so loud through the soft black velvet. She knew that it had never beaten in battle as it was beating now, and she loved it because it knew her and welcomed her; but her own stood still, and now and then it fluttered wildly, like a strong young bird in a barred cage, and then was quite still again. Bending his face a little, he softly kissed her hair again and again, till at last the kisses formed themselves into syllables and words, which she felt rather than heard.
“God in heaven, how I love you–heart of my heart–life of my life–love of my soul!”
And again he repeated the same words, and many more like them, with little change, because at that moment he had neither thought nor care for anything else in the world, not for life nor death nor kingdom nor glory, in comparison with the woman he loved. He could not hear her answers, for she spoke without words to his heart, hiding her face where she heard it throbbing, while her lips pressed many kisses on the velvet.
Then, as thought returned, and the first thought was for him, she drew back a little with a quick movement, and looked up to him with frightened and imploring eyes.
“We must go!” she cried anxiously, in a very low voice. “We cannot stay here. My father is very angry–he swore on his word of honour that he would kill you if you tried to see me to-night!”
Don John laughed gently, and his eyes brightened. Before she could speak again, he held her close once more, and his kisses were on her cheeks and her eyes, on her forehead and on her hair, and then again upon her lips, till they would have hurt her if she had not loved them so, and given back every one. Then she struggled again, and he loosed his hold.
“It is death to stay here,” she said very earnestly.
“It is worse than death to leave you,” he answered. “And I will not,” he added an instant later, “neither for the King, nor for your father, nor for any royal marriage they may try to force upon me.”
She looked into his eyes for a moment, before she spoke, and there was deep and true trust in her own.
“Then you must save me,” she said quietly. “He has vowed that I shall be sent to the convent of Las Huelgas to-morrow morning. He locked me into the inner room, but Inez helped me to dress, and I got out under her cloak.”
She told him in a few words what she had done and had meant to do, in order to see him, and how she had taken his step for her father’s. He listened gravely, and she saw his face harden slowly in an expression she had scarcely ever seen there. When she had finished her story he was silent for a moment.
“We are quite safe here,” he said at last, “safer than anywhere else, I think, for your father cannot come back until the King goes to supper. For myself, I have an hour, but I have been so surrounded and pestered by visitors in my apartments that I have not found time to put on a court dress–and without vanity, I presume that I am a necessary figure at court this evening. Your father is with Perez, who seems to be acting as master of ceremonies and of everything else, as well as the King’s secretary–they have business together, and the General will not have a moment. I ascertained that, before coming here, or I should not have come at this hour. We are safe from him here, I am sure.”
“You know best,” answered Dolores, who was greatly reassured by what he said about Mendoza.
“Let us sit down, then. You must be tired after all you have done. And we have much to say to each other.”
“How could I be tired now?” she asked, with a loving smile; but she sat down on the stone seat in the embrasure, close to the window.
It was just wide enough for two to sit there, and Don John took his place beside her, and drew one of her hands silently to him between both his own, and kissed the tips of her fingers a great many times. But he felt that she was watching his face, and he looked up and saw her eyes–and then, again, many seconds passed before either could speak. They were but a boy and girl together, loving each other in the tender first love of early youth, for the victor of the day, the subduer of the Moors, the man who had won back Granada, who was already High Admiral of Spain, and who in some ten months from that time was to win a decisive battle of the world at Lepanto, was a stripling of twenty-three summers–and he had first seen Dolores when he was twenty and she seventeen, and now it was nearly two years since they had met.
He was the first to speak, for he was a man of quick and unerring determinations that led to actions as sudden as they were bold and brilliant, and what Dolores had told him of her quarrel with her father was enough to rouse his whole energy at once. At all costs she must never be allowed to pass the gates of Las Huelgas. Once within the convent, by the King’s orders, and a close prisoner, nothing short of a sacrilegious assault and armed violence could ever bring her out into the world again. He knew that, and that he must act instantly to prevent it, for he knew Mendoza’s character also, and had no doubt but that he would do what he threatened. It was necessary to put Dolores beyond his reach at once, and beyond the King’s also, which was not an easy matter within the walls of the King’s own palace, and on such a night. Don John had been but little at the court and knew next to nothing of its intrigues, nor of the mutual relations of the ladies and high officers who had apartments in the Alcazar. In his own train there were no women, of course. Dolores’ brother Rodrigo, who had fought by his side at Granada, had begged to be left behind with the garrison, in order that he might not be forced to meet his father. Dona Magdalena Quixada, Don John’s adoptive mother, was far away at Villagarcia. The Duchess Alvarez, though fond of Dolores, was Mistress of the Robes to the young Queen, and it was not to be hoped nor expected that she should risk the danger of utter ruin and disgrace if it were discovered that she had hidden the girl against the King’s wishes. Yet it was absolutely necessary that Dolores should be safely hidden within an hour, and that she should be got out of the palace before morning, and if possible conveyed to Villagarcia. Don John saw in a moment that there was no one to whom he could turn.
Again he took Dolores’ hand in his, but with a sort of gravity and protecting authority that had not been in his touch the first time. Moreover, he did not kiss her fingers now, and he resolutely looked at the wall opposite him. Then, in a low and quiet voice, he laid the situation before her, while she anxiously listened.
“You see,” he said at last, “there is only one way left. Dolores, do you altogether trust me?”
She started a little, and her fingers pressed his hand suddenly.
“Trust you? Ah, with all my soul!”
“Think well before you answer,” he said. “You do not quite understand–it is a little hard to put it clearly, but I must. I know you trust me in many ways, to love you faithfully always, to speak truth to you always, to defend you always, to help you with my life when you shall be in need. You know that I love you so, as you love me. Have we not often said it? You wrote it in your letter, too–ah, dear, I thank you for that. Yes, I have read it–I have it here, near my heart, and I shall read it again before I sleep–“
Without a word, and still listening, she bent down and pressed her lips to the place where her letter lay. He touched her hair with his lips and went on speaking, as she leaned back against the wall again.
“You must trust me even more than that, my beloved,” he said. “To save you, you must be hidden by some one whom I myself can trust–and for such a matter there is no one in the palace nor in all Madrid–no one to whom I can turn and know that you will be safe–not one human being, except myself.”
“Except yourself!” Dolores loved the words, and gently pressed his hand.
“I thank you, dearest heart–but do you know what that means? Do you understand that I must hide you myself, in my own apartments, and keep you there until I can take you out of the palace, before morning?”
She was silent for a few moments, turning her face away from him. His heart sank.
“No, dear,” he said sadly, “you do not trust me enough for that–I see it–what woman could?”
Her hand trembled and started in his, then pressed it hard, and she turned her face quite to him.
“You are wrong,” she said, with a tremor in her voice. “I love you as no man was ever loved by any woman, far beyond all that all words can say, and I shall love you till I die, and after that, for ever–even if I can never be your wife. I love you as no one loves in these days, and when I say that it is as you love me, I mean a thousand fold for every word. I am not the child you left nearly two years ago. I am a woman now, for I have thought and seen much since then–and I love you better and more than then. God knows, there is enough to see and to learn in this court–that should be hidden deep from honest women’s sight! You and I shall have a heaven on this earth, if God grants that we may be joined together–for I will live for you, and serve you, and smooth all trouble out of your way–and ask nothing of you but your love. And if we cannot marry, then I will live for you in my heart, and serve you with my soul, and pray Heaven that harm may never touch you. I will pray so fervently that God must hear me. And so will you pray for me, as you would fight for me, if you could. Remember, if you will, that when you are in battle for Spain, your sword is drawn for Spain’s honour, and for the honour of every Christian Spanish woman that lives–and for mine, too!”
The words pleased him, and his free hand was suddenly clenched.
“You would make cowards fight like wolves, if you could speak to them like that!” he said.
“I am not speaking to cowards,” she answered, with a loving smile. “I am speaking to the man I love, to the best and bravest and truest man that breathes–and not to Don John of Austria, the victorious leader, but to you, my heart’s love, my life, my all, to you who are good and brave and true to me, as no man ever was to any woman. No–” she laughed happily, and there were tears in her eyes–“no, there are no words for such love as ours.”
“May I be all you would have me, and much more,” he said fervently, and his voice shook in the short speech.
“I am giving you all I have, because it is not belief, it is certainty. I know you are all that I say you are, and more too. And I trust you, as you mean it, and as you need my trust to save me. Take me where you will. Hide me in your own room if you must, and bolt and bar it if need be. I shall be as safe with you as I should be with my mother in heaven. I put my hands between yours.”
Again he heard her sweet low laughter, full of joy and trust, and she laid her hands together between his and looked into his eyes, straight and clear. Then she spoke softly and solemnly.
“Into your hands I put my life, and my faith, and my maiden honour, trusting them all to you alone in this world, as I trust them to God.”
Don John held her hands tightly for a moment, still looking into her eyes as if he could see her soul there, giving itself to his keeping. But he swore no great oath, and made no long speech; for a man who has led men to deeds of glory, and against whom no dishonourable thing was ever breathed, knows that his word is good.
“You shall not regret that you trust me, and you will be quite safe,” he said.
She wanted no more. Loving as she did, she believed in him without promises, yet she could not always believe that he quite knew how she loved him.
“You are dearer to me than I knew,” he said presently, breaking the silence that followed. “I love you even more, and I thought it could never be more, when I found you here a little while ago–because you do really trust me.”
“You knew it,” the said, nestling to him. “But you wanted me to tell you. Yes–we are nearer now.”
“Far nearer–and a world more dear,” he answered. “Do you know? In all these months I have often and often again wondered how we should meet, whether it would be before many people, or only with your sister Inez there–or perhaps alone. But I did not dare hope for that.”
“Nor I. I have dreamt of meeting you a hundred times–and more than that! But there was always some one in the way. I suppose that if we had found each other in the court and had only been able to say a few words, it would have been a long time before we were quite ourselves together–but now, it seems as if we had never been parted at all, does it not?”
“As if we could never be parted again,” he answered softly.
For a little while there was silence, and though there was to be a great gathering of the court, that night, all was very still where the lovers sat at the window, for the throne room and the great halls of state were far away on the other side of the palace, and the corridor looked upon a court through which few persons had to pass at night. Suddenly from a distance there came the rhythmical beat of the Spanish drums, as some detachment of troops marched by the outer gate. Don John listened.
“Those are my men,” he said. “We must go, for now that they are below I can send my people on errands with orders to them, until I am alone. Then you must come in. At the end of my apartments there is a small room, beyond my own. It is furnished to be my study, and no one will expect to enter it at night. I must put you there, and lock the door and take the key with me, so that no one can go in while I am at court–or else you can lock it on the inside, yourself. That would be better, perhaps,” he added rather hurriedly.
“No,” said the girl quietly. “I prefer that you should have the key. I shall feel even safer. But how can I get there without being seen? We cannot go so far together without meeting some one.”
He rose, and she stood up beside him.
“My apartments open upon the broad terrace on the south side,” he said. “At this time there will be only two or three officers there, and my two servants. Follow me at a little distance, with your hood over your face, and when you reach the sentry-box at the corner where I turn off, go in. There will be no sentinel there, and the door looks outward. I shall send away every one, on different errands, in five minutes. When every one is gone I will come for you. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly.” She nodded, as if she had made quite sure of what he had explained. Then she put up her hands, as if to say good-by. “Oh, if we could only stay here in peace!” she cried.
He said nothing, for he knew that there was still much danger, and he was anxious for her. He only pressed her hands and then led her away. They followed the corridor together, side by side, to the turning. Then he whispered to her to drop behind, and she let him go on a dozen paces and followed him. The way was long, and ill lighted at intervals by oil lamps hung from the vault by small chains; they cast a broad black shadow beneath them, and shed a feeble light above. Several times persons passed them, and Dolores’ heart beat furiously. A court lady, followed by a duenna and a serving-woman, stopped with a winning smile, and dropped a low courtesy to Don John, who lifted his cap, bowed, and went on. They did not look at Dolores. A man in a green cloth apron and loose slippers, carrying five lighted lamps in a greasy iron tray, passed with perfect indifference, and without paying the least attention to the victor of Granada. It was his business to carry lamps in that part of the palace–he was not a human being, but a lamplighter. They went on, down a short flight of broad steps, and then through a wider corridor where the lights were better, though the night breeze was blowing in and made them flicker and flare.
A corporal’s guard of the household halberdiers came swinging down at a marching step, coming from the terrace beyond. The corporal crossed his halberd in salute, but Don John stopped him, for he understood at once that a sentry had been set at his door.
“I want no guard,” he said. “Take the man away.”
“The General ordered it, your Highness,” answered the man, respectfully.
“Request your captain to report to the General that I particularly desire no sentinel at my door. I have no possessions to guard except my reputation, and I can take care of that myself.” He laughed good-naturedly.
The corporal grinned–he was a very dark, broad-faced man, with high cheek bones, and ears that stuck out. He faced about with his three soldiers, and followed Don John to the terrace–but in the distance he had seen the hooded figure of a woman.
Not knowing what to do, for she had heard the colloquy, Dolores stood still a moment, for she did not care to pass the soldiers as they came back. Then she turned and walked a little way in the other direction, to gain time, and kept on slowly. In less than a minute they returned, bringing the sentinel with them. She walked slowly and counted them as they went past her–and then she started as if she had been stung, and blushed scarlet under her hood, for she distinctly heard the big corporal laugh to himself when he had gone by. She knew, then, how she trusted the man she loved.
When the soldiers had turned the corner and were out of sight, she ran back to the terrace and hid herself in the stone sentry-box just outside, still blushing and angry. On the side of the box towards Don John’s apartment there was a small square window just at the height of her eyes, and she looked through it, sure that her face could not be seen from without. She looked from mere curiosity, to see what sort of men the officers were, and Don John’s servants; for everything connected with him or belonging to him in any way interested her most intensely. Two tall captains came out first, magnificent in polished breastplates with gold shoulder straps and sashes and gleaming basket-hilted swords, that stuck up behind them as their owners pressed down the hilts and strutted along, twisting their short black moustaches in the hope of meeting some court lady on their way. Then another and older man passed, also in a soldier’s dress, but with bent head, apparently deep in thought. After that no one came for some time–then a servant, who pulled something out of his pocket and began to eat it, before he was in