« PreviousContinue »
which we believe touch the welfare of our souls. ... You promise ?"
He waited. Carlos' eyes burned darkly on my face. What were they asking of me? This was nothing. Of course I would respect her scruples—her scruples—if my heart should break. I felt her living intensely by my side; she could be brought no nearer to me by anything they could do, or I could promise. She had already all the devotion of my love and youth, the unreasoning and potent devotion, without a thought or hope of reward. I was almost ashamed to pronounce the two words they expected.
And suddenly the meaning pervading this scene, something that was in my mind already, and that I had hardly dared to look at till now, became clear to me in its awful futility against the dangers, in all its remote consequences. It was a betrothal. The priest—Carlos, too—must have known that it had no binding power. To Carlos it was symbolic of his wishes. Father Antonio was thinking of the papal dispensation. I was a heretic. What if it were refused? But what was that risk to me, who had never dared to hope? Moreover, they had brought her there, had persuaded her; she had been influenced by her fears, impressed by Carlos. What could she care for me? And I repeated :
"I promise. I promise, even at the cost of suffering and unhappiness, never to demand anything from her against her conscience."
Carlos' voice sounded weak. "I answer for him, good father." Then he seemed to wander in a whisper, which we two caught faintly, " He resembles his sister. O Divine- "
And on this ghostly sigh, on this breath, with the feeble click of beads in the nun's hands, a silence fell upon the room, vast as the stillness of a world of unknown faiths, loves, beliefs, of silent illusions, of unexpressed passions and secret motives that live in our unfathomable hearts.
Seraphina had given me a quick glance--the first glance—which I had rather felt than seen. Carlos made an effort, and, raising himself, put her hand in mine.
Father Antonio, trying to pronounce a short allocution, broke down, naive in his emotion, as he had been in his dignity. I could at first catch only the words, “ Beloved child—Holy Fatherpoor priest. ..." He had taken this upon himself; and he would attest the purity of our intentions, the necessity of the case, the assent of the head of the family, my excellent disposition. All the Englishmen had excellent dispositions. He would, personally, go to the foot of the Holy See—on his knees, if necessary. Meantime, a document—he should at once prepare a justificative document. The archbishop, it is true, did not like him on account of the calumnies of that man O'Brien. But there was, beyond the seas, the supreme authority of the Church, unerring and inaccessible to calumnies.
All that time Seraphina's hand was lying passive in my palmwarm, soft, living; all the life, all the world, all the happiness, the only desire—and I dared not close my grasp, afraid of the vanity of my hopes, shrinking from the intense felicity in the audacious act. Father Antonio I must say the word—blubbered. He was now only a tender-hearted, simple old man, nothing more.
"Before God now, Don Juan. ... I am only a poor priest, but invested with a sacred office, an enormous power. Tremble, senor, it is a young girl. ... I have loved her like my own; for, indeed, I have in baptism given her the spiritual life. You owe her protection; it is for that, before God, senor- "
It was as if Carlos had swooned; his eyes were closed, his face like a carving. But gradually the suggestion of a tender and ironic smile appeared on his lips. With a slow effort he raised his arm and his eyelids, in an appeal of all his weariness for my ear. I made a movement to stoop over him, and the floor, the great bed, the whole room, seemed to heave and sway. I felt a slight, a fleeting pressure of Seraphina's hand before it slipped out of mine; I thought, in the beating rush of blood to my temples, that I was going mad.
He had thrown his arm over my neck; there was the calming austerity of death on his lips, that just touched my ear and departed, together with the far-away sound of the words, losing themselves in the remoteness of another world:
* Like an Englishman, Juan." "On my honor, Carlos." His arm, releasing my neck, fell stretched out on the coverlet. Father Antonio had mastered his emotion; with the trail of undried tears on his face, he had become a priest again, exalted above the reach of his earthly sorrow by the august concern of his sacerdoce.
"Don Carlos, my son, is your mind at ease, now ?" Carlos closed his eyes slowly.
"Then turn all your thoughts to heaven." Father Antonio's bass voice rose, aloud, with an extraordinary authority. "You have done with the earth."
The arm of the nun touched the cords of the curtains, and the massive folds shook and fell expanded, hiding from us the priest and the penitent.
M ERAPHINA and I moved towards the door sadly, as if
under the oppression of a memory, as people go back from
the side of a grave to the cares of life. No exultation possessed me. Nothing had happened. It had been a sick man's whim.
"Senorita," I said low, with my hand on the wrought bronze of the door-handle, “Don Carlos might have died in full trust of my devotion to you—without this."
"I know it," she answered, hanging her head.
"Yes, it is you only he has asked. You have remembered it very well, señor. And you—you ask for nothing."
"No," I said; "neither from your heart nor from your conscience—nor from your gratitude. Gratitude from you! As if it were not I that owe you gratitude for having condescended to stand with your hand in mine—if only for a moment—if only to bring peace to a dying man; for giving me the felicity, the illusion of this wonderful instant, that, all my life, I shall remember as those who are suddenly stricken blind remember the great glory of the sun. I shall live with it, I shall cherish it in my heart to my dying day; and I promise never to mention it to you again."
Her lips were slightly parted, her eyes remained downcast, her head drooped as if in extreme attention.
"I asked for no promise," she murmured coldly.
My heart was heavy. "Thank you for that proof of your confidence," I said. "I am yours without any promises. Wholly yours. But what can I offer? What help? What refuge? What protection? What can I do? I can only die for you. Ah, but this was cruel of Carlos, when he knew that I had nothing else but my poor life to give.”
"I accept that," she said unexpectedly.
"Senorita, it is generous of you to accept so worthless a gifta life I value not at all save for one unique memory which I owe to you."
I knew she was looking at me while I swung open the door with a low bow. I did not trust myself to look at her. An unreasonable disenchantment, like the awakening from a happy dream, oppressed me. I felt an almost angry desire to seize her in my arms —to go back to my dream. If I had looked at her then, I believed I could not have controlled myself.
She passed out; and when I looked up there was O'Brien booted and spurred, but otherwise in his lawyer's black, inclining his dapper figure profoundly before her in the dim gallery. She had stopped short. The two maids, huddled together behind her, stared with terrified eyes. The flames of their candles vacillated very much.
I closed the door quietly. Carlos was done with the earth. This had become my affair; and the necessity of coming to an immediate decision almost deprived me of my power of thinking. The necessity had arisen too swiftly; the arrival of that man acted like the sudden apparition of a phantom. It had been expected, however; only, from the moment we had turned away from Carlos' bedside, we had thought of nothing but ourselves; we had dwelt alone in our emotions, as if there had been no inhabitant of flesh and blood on the earth but we two. Our danger had been present, no doubt, in our minds, because we drew it in with every breath. It was the indispensable condition of our contact, of our words, of our thoughts; it was the atmosphere of our feelings; a something as all-pervading and impalpable as the air we drew into our lungs. And suddenly this danger, this breath of our life, had taken this material form. It was material and expected, and yet it had the effect of an evil specter, inasmuch as one did not know where and how it was vulnerable, what precisely it would do, how one should defend one's self.
His bow was courtly; his gravity was all in his bearing, which was quiet and confident: the manner of a capable man, the sort of man the great of this earth find invaluable and are inclined to trust. His full-shaven face had a good-natured, almost a good.