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   Chapter 29 THE STRANGER IN THE CHAPEL.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 17372

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"The Duke of Hereward in the congregation?" echoed the abbess, with a troubled look.

"Yes, there in the middle aisle, in the third pew from the altar," replied Salome, in trembling tones.

"No matter. You have nothing to fear, my daughter; you will be protected. He has everything to fear; he is a felon before the law, and he may be prosecuted. Compose yourself, my child, and give your mind to heavenly subjects. See, the priest is coming in," murmured the abbess, who immediately crossed herself, and lowered her eyes in devotion.

Salome, though trembling in every limb, and feeling faint, almost to falling, followed the mother-superior's example, and tried to concentrate her mind in worship.

The solemn procession of the service entered the chancel-the priests in their sacerdotal vestments, the boys in their white robes. The officiating priest took his station before the altar, with his assistants on each side. And the impressive celebration of the high mass commenced.

But, ah! Salome could not confine her attention to the service! Her eyes, guard them carefully as she might, would wander from her missal toward the stalwart form and stately head of the stranger in that third pew front; her thoughts would wander back to the past, forth to the future, or, if they stayed upon the present at all, it was but in connection with that stranger.

Father F--, the great English priest, preached the sermon, from the text: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men." He preached with all the force, fervor and eloquence inspired by the Divine words, and he was heard with rapt attention by all the cloistered nuns and all the common congregation-by all within the sound of his voice, perhaps, except one-the most sorrowful one on that glad day. Salome tried in vain to follow the golden thread of his discourse.

But how little she was able to do, may be known from the deep sigh of relief she heaved when it was all over.

As soon as the benediction was pronounced, the nuns arose to leave their screened choir, and the congregation got up to go out from the chapel.

Salome lingered behind the sisterhood, and watched the handsome stranger in the third pew front-a stranger to every one present except herself.

He also lingered behind all his companions, and turned and looked intently up into the screened choir.

Salome saw his full face for the first time since his appearance there-and she saw that it was deadly, ghastly pale, with white lips and glassy eyes. He gazed into the screened choir as into vacancy.

Salome knew that he could see nothing there, yet she shrank back and stood in the deepest shadow, until she saw him pick up his hat and glide from the chapel, the last man that went out.

"Ah, what could have changed him so?" she thought-"love, fear, remorse-what?"

He had nothing to fear from her. If no one should take vengeance on him until she should do so, then would he go unpunished to his grave, and his sin would never have found him out in this world. Nay, sooner than to have hurt him in life, liberty, honor, or estate, she, herself, would have borne the penalty of all his crimes. Yet of those crimes what an unspeakable horror she had, though for the criminal what an unutterable pity-what an undying love.

While she stood there, gazing through the choir-screen upon the spot whence the stranger had disappeared, her bosom, torn by these conflicting passions of horror, pity, love, she felt a soft touch on her shoulder, and turning, saw the mother-superior at her side.

"My daughter, why do you loiter here?" she tenderly inquired.

Salome's pale face flushed, as she replied:

"Oh, mother, I was watching him until he left the church."

"My daughter, it was a deadly sin to do so!" gravely replied the abbess.

"He could not see me, mother," sighed Salome, in a tremulous voice.

"That was well. Come now to your own room, daughter, and do not tremble so. You have nothing to fear, except from your own weak and sinful nature," said the abbess, as she drew the girl's arm within her own and led her from the choir.

"Am I so weak and sinful, mother?" inquired Salome, after a silence which had lasted until the two had reached the door of the Infants' Asylum, where Salome now lodged.

"As every human being is! and especially as every woman is in all affairs of the heart," gravely returned the abbess.

"Can you spare me a few minutes, mother? Will you come in and let me talk to you a little while? Have you time? I want to talk to you. Oh! I wish we had mother-confessors for women-for girls, I mean, instead of father-confessors. Can you come in and let me talk to you, mother, for a little while?"

"Surely, daughter," said the abbess, gently as with her own hand she opened the door and led her votaress into the room.

Salome offered the one chair to the lady-superior, and then took the foot-stool at her feet, and laid her head upon her knees.

"Now speak to me freely, child. Tell me what you wish and how I can help you," said the abbess, kindly.

"Oh, mother! mother! I wish to be rid of the sin of loving him, for I love him still. In spite of all, I love him still!" exclaimed Salome, breaking down in a passion of tears and sobs.

The abbess laid her hands upon the bowed young head, and kept them so in silence until the storm of grief had passed. Then she said:

"Child you must fast and pray, and so combat the 'inordinate and sinful affections of the flesh.' Bethink you what you do in suffering them. You make an idol of that monster of iniquity who was an accomplice in the murder of your father-"

Salome uttered a low cry, and hid her face in her hands. The abbess went on steadily, almost pitilessly:

"A man who, having already a living wife, of whom he had grown tired and ashamed, married you, and so would have ruined you in soul and body."

Salome groaned deeply, and then suddenly broke forth in passionate exclamations:

"I know it! I know it? I know it from the evidence of my own senses, no less than from the testimony of others! I know it, but I cannot feel it, mother! I cannot feel it? My mind adjudges him guilty; my mind condemns him upon unquestionable proof; but my heart holds him guiltless; in the face of all the proofs, my heart acquits him! I know him to be a criminal; but I feel him to be one of the greatest, best and noblest of mankind! In spite of all I have heard and seen with my own ears and eyes, corroborated by the testimony of others-in spite of everything past, I feel, I feel that if he should now come and take my hand in his, and whisper to me, I should believe all that he might tell me, and go with him whithersoever he might choose to lead me! Mother, save me from myself!"

The abbess laid her hands again upon the throbbing head that lay on her lap, as she answered, mournfully:

"Said I not that you have nothing to fear except from your weak and sinful self. Child, you have nothing else on earth to dread. You are to be protected from yourself alone."

"And from him! Oh, mother, keep the great temptation from me!"

"He shall be kept from you, if, indeed, he should presume to seek you here," said the abbess.

"He will seek me, mother! He came to seek me, and for nothing else. He has by some means found out my retreat, and he has come to seek me! Be sure that he will present himself here to-morrow, if not to-day."

"In that case, we shall know how to deal with him, even though he is the Duke of Hereward; for he has, and can have, no lawful claim on you. So far from that, he is in deadly danger from you. He is liable to prosecution by you; for you are not his wife; you are only a lady whom he entrapped by a felonious marriage ceremony, and sought to ruin. It is amazing," added the abbess, reflectively, "that a nobleman of his exalted rank and illustrious fame should have stooped so low as to stain his honor with so deep a crime, and to risk the infamy and destruction its discovery must have brought upon him."

"It is amazing and incredible! That is why, in the face of the evidence of my own eyes and ears, the testimony of other eye and ear witnesses, and of my own certain knowledge, based upon proof as sure as ever formed the foundation of any knowledge, I still feel in my heart of heart that he is guiltless, stainless, noble, pure and true as the prince of noblemen should be," sighed Salome, adding word upon word of eulogy, as if she could not say enough.

"In the face of all positive proof, and of the convictions of your judgment, your heart tells you that this criminal is innocent," said the abbess, incisively.

"In the fac

e of all, my heart assures me that he is pure, true, and noble!" exclaimed Salome.

"Do you believe your heart?" gravely inquired the elder lady.

"No; for is it not written: 'The heart is deceitful, and desperately wicked.' No, I do not believe my weak and sinful heart, which I know would betray me into the hands of my lover, if I should be so unfortunate as to meet him."

"You shall not meet him; you shall be saved from him," answered the abbess.

At that moment a bell was heard to ring throughout the building.

"That calls us to the refectory-to our happy Christmas festival. Come, my daughter," said the lady, rising.

"I cannot go! Oh, indeed I cannot go, mother. I am utterly unnerved by what has happened. I hope you will pardon and excuse me," pleaded Salome.

"What! Will you not join us at our Christmas feast?" kindly persisted the abbess.

"Indeed, it is impossible! I will rest on my cot for a few minutes, and then I will go and take my poor little Marie Perdue on my bosom and rock her to sleep. I hear her fretting now; and when I hush her cries, she also soothes my heartache."

"I will send you something; and I will come to you, before vespers," said the abbess, kindly, as she glided away from the room.

Salome lay alone on the cot, with closed eyes and folded hands, praying for light to see her duty and strength to do it.

She expected, in answer to her earnest prayers, that scales should fall from her eyes, and impressions pass from her heart, and that she should see her love in monstrous shape and colors, and be able to thrust him from her heart. Instead of which, she saw him purer, truer, nobler, than ever before. With this perception came a sweet, strange peace and trust which she could not comprehend, and did not wish to cast off.

She arose and went into the infants' dormitory, and took up the youngest and feeblest of the babes-the one which, on her very first visit, had so appealed to her sympathies, and which she had adopted as her own.

This child, like many others in the asylum, had no known story.

A few days before Christmas, late in the evening, a bell had been rung at the main door of the Infants' Asylum.

The portress who answered it found there a basket containing an infant a few weeks old. It was cleanly dressed and warmly wrapped up in flannel; but it had no scrap of writing, no name, nor mark upon its clothing by which it might ever be identified.

The portress took it into the dormitory, where it was tenderly received and cared for by the sisters on duty there.

The case was too common a one to excite more than a passing interest.

On the next day after the arrival of the infant, it happened that the mother-superior brought Salome there on her first visit, when the misery of the motherless and forsaken infant so moved the sympathies of the young lady that she immediately took it to her own bosom.

Subsequently, since she had devoted herself to the care of these deserted babies, she took an especial interest in this youngest and most helpless of their number.

She named it Marie Perdue, and stood godmother at its baptism.

It lay in her arms often during the day, and slept at her bosom during the night. It had grown to know its nurse, and to recognize her presence and caresses by those soft, low sounds, half cooing and half complaining, with which very young babes first try to utter their emotions or their wants.

Now, as she took little Marie Perdue from the cot, the child greeted her with sweet smiles and soft coos, and nestled lovingly to her bosom. And peace deepened in Salome's heart.

She sat down in a low nursing-chair, fed the child with warm milk and water until it was satisfied, and then rocked it and sang to it in a low, melodious voice, until it fell asleep.

She was still rocking and singing when the rosy-cheeked and cheery young Sister Felecitie came in.

"Our holy mother was going to send your dinner in here, Miss Levison; but I think it must be so dismal to eat one's dinner alone on Christmas day, so I pleaded to be allowed to plead with you that you will come and dine with us young sisters at the second table, which is just as good as the first, I assure you, only it is served an hour later. Will you come? Say yes!" urged the merry and kind-hearted girl.

"I will come, thank you; though I did too moodily decline the invitation of the abbess," said Salome, rising and placing her sleeping charge upon its little cot.

"Now! what did I tell you about the children and the dolls! Look there!" gleefully exclaimed Sister Felecitie, pointing to a row of cots where about a dozen infants lay asleep, clasping their dolls tightly.

"Yes, the tiny mimic mothers really do love their doll babies," Salome confessed with a smile.

As they went out of the dormitory they passed into the children's day-room, where about twenty infants, from one to two years old, were at play-some sitting on mats or creeping on all fours, because they could not yet stand; some walking around chairs and holding on to support themselves; and some running here and there, in full possession of the use of their limbs.

All rejoiced in the possession of little dolls.

"Look at them!" exclaimed Sister Felecitie, gleefully.

"We tried the least little ones with other toys: but, bless you, nothing else pleases them so well as dolls. We once tried the little yearlings with rattles, which we thought, it being noisy nuisances, would please them better; but save us! If any one doubts the doctrine of original sin and total depravity, they should have seen the three year-old babies fling down their rattles in a passion and go for the other babies' dolls, to seize and take them by force and violence; and the corresponding rage and resistance of the latter."

"All that was very natural," said Salome, with a smile.

"Oh, yes, natural, and perhaps something else too, beginning with a 'd.' They call children 'little angels.' Yes. I know they are, when they are sound asleep," exclaimed the sister, laughing.

"If they are not angels, they have angels with them. I feel they have, for when I am in their sphere, I possess my soul in peace."

As the young lady said this, the children noticed her presence for the first time, and all who could walk ran to her, clustered around her and thrust their dolls upon her, for inspection and approval.

All this Salome bestowed freely with many caresses and gentle, playful words.

Then the children sitting on the mats reached out their dolls at arm's-length, and screamed to have them noticed.

Salome made her way to these little sitters, while all the other children, clinging to her skirt, attended her, impeding her progress.

It was a great confusion.

The merry little sister laughed aloud.

"Now!" she said, gayly. "You are in their sphere, do you possess your soul in peace?"

"Something even better. My soul goes out to them, delighting in their innocent delight!" answered Salome.

And after she had patted their heads and praised their dolls, and pleased them all with loving notice, she followed her conductress from the children's play-room through the long rectangular passage that led to the nun's refectory.

The sisterhood, abstemious nearly all the days of the year, feasted on certain high holidays.

The Christmas dinner, laid for the young nuns in the refectory, would have satisfied the most fastidious epicure. But I doubt if any epicure could have enjoyed it half as well as did these abstemious young women, whose appetites were only let loose on certain high days and holidays.

Salome wondered at herself, who but two hours before had given way to a storm of passionate sobs and tears, yet now felt a strange peace of mind that enabled her to enter sincerely into the happiness of those around her.

In the afternoon, the convent was visited by a large number of benevolent people in the neighborhood, who brought their Christmas offerings to the poor and needy of the house.

These visitors were shown through all the various departments of charity, and left their offerings in each before they went away.

"I do wish one thing," said little Sister Felecitie, as she lingered near Salome, after the departure of the visitors.

"What do you wish, dear?" inquired the latter.

"Why, then, that the good people who give to our poor, whatever else they give, would always give the children dolls and the old people tobacco. The children never can have too many dolls, nor the old people enough tobacco."

"But is not the use of tobacco a vicious habit?"

"I hope not. It makes the poor old souls so happy."

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