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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.
SERAPHINA 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.
"It was his wish," I said. "And I deferred."
"It was his wish," she repeated.
"Remember he had asked you for no promise."
"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 gift— a 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 goodhumored expression, which I have come to think must have depended on the cast of his features, on the setting of his eyes— on some peculiarity not under his control, or else he could not have preserved it so well. In certain occasions, as this one, for instance, it affected me as a refinement of cynicism; and, generally, it was startling, like the assumption of a mask inappropriate to the action and the speeches of the part.
He had journeyed in his customary manner overland from Havana, arriving unexpectedly at night, as he had often done before; only this time he had found the little door, cut out in one of the sides of the big gate, bolted fast. It was his knocking I had heard, as I hurried after the priest. The major-domo, who had been called up to let him in, told me afterwards that the senor in, tendente had put no question whatever to him as to this, and had gone on, as usual, towards his own room. Nobody knew what was going on in Carlos' chamber, but, of course, he came upon the two girls at the door. He said nothing to them either, only just stopped there and waited, leaning with one elbow on the balustrade with his good-tempered, gray eyes fixed on the door. He had fully expected to see Seraphina come out presently, but I think he did not count on seeing me as well. When he straightened himself up after the bow, we two were standing side by side.
I had stepped quickly towards her, asking myself what he would do. He did not seem to be armed; neither had I any weapon about me. Would he fly at my throat? I was the bigger, and the younger man. I wished he would. But he found a way of making me feel all his other advantages. He did not recognize my existence. He appeared not to see me at all. He seemed not to be aware of Seraphina's startled immobility, of my firm attitude; but turning his good-humored face towards the two girls, who appeared ready to sink through the floor before his gaze, he shook his forefinger at them slightly.
This was all. He was not menacing; he was almost playful; and this gesture, marvelous in its economy of effort, disclosed all the might and insolence of his power. It had the unerring efficacy of an act of instinct. It was instinct. He could not know how he dismayed us by that shake of the finger. The tall girl dropped her candlestick with a clatter, and fled along the gallery like a shadow. La Chica cowered under the wall. The light of her candle just touched dimly the form of a negro boy, waiting passively in the background with O'Brien's saddle-bags over his shoulder.
"You see," said Seraphina to me, in a swift, desolate murmur. "They are all like this—all, all."
Without a change of countenance, without emphasis, he said to her in French:
"Votre pere sans doute, senorita."
And she intrepidly, "You know very well. Sefior Intendente, that nothing can make him open his eyes."
"So it seems," he muttered between his teeth, stooping to pick up the dropped candlestick. It was lying at my feet. I could have taken him at a disadvantage, then; I could have felled him with one blow, thrown myself upon his back. Thus may an athletic prisoner set upon a jailer coming into his cell, if there were not the prison, the locks, the bars, the heavy gates and the walls, all the apparatus of captivity, and the superior weight of the idea chaining down the will, if not the courage.
It might have been his knowledge of this, or his absolute disdain of me. The unconcerned manner he busied himself—his head within striking distance of my fist—in lighting the extinguished candle from the trembling Chica's humiliated me beyond expression. He had some difficulty with that, till he said to her just audibly, "Calm thyself, nina," and she became rigid in her appearance of excessive terror.
He turned, then, towards Seraphina, candlestick in hand, courteously saying in Spanish:
"May I be allowed to help light you to your door, since that silly Juanita—I think it was Juanita—has taken leave of her senses? She is not fit to remain in your service—any more than this one here."
With a gasp of desolation, La Chica began to sob limply against the wall. I made one step forward; and, holding the candle well up, as though for the purpose of examining my face carefully, he never looked my way, while he and Seraphina were exchanging a few phrases in French which I did not understand well enough to follow.