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   Chapter 30 THE HAUNTER.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 16750

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02

The vesper bell called them to the chapel, and the conversation ceased.

Salome joined the procession and entered the choir.

As soon as she had taken her seat she looked through the screen upon the congregation assembled in the public part of the church. A great dread seized her that she should see again the man whose presence had so disturbed her in the morning.

Heaven! he was there!-not where he sat before, but in one of the end pews, facing the choir, so that she had a full view of his ghastly face and glassy eyes.

A sudden superstitious fear fell upon her. She almost thought the figure was his ghost, or was some optical illusion conjured up by her own imagination.

She wished to test its reality by the eyes of another. She wished to whisper to the abbess, and point him out, and ask her if she, too, saw him; but she dared not do this. The vesper hymn was pealing forth from the choir, and all the sisterhood, except herself, were singing.

She was their soprano, and she had to join them. She began first in a tremulous voice, but soon the spell of the music took hold of her, and carried her away, far, far above all earthly thoughts and cares, and she sang, as her hearers afterward declared, "like a seraph."

At the end of the service she whispered to the abbess, calling her attention to the pallid stranger in the end pew; but when both turned to look, the man had vanished!

"Mother, I do not know whether that ghostly figure was a real man, after all!" whispered Salome, in an awe-stricken tone.

"My good child, what do you mean?" inquired the abbess, uneasily.

"Mother, I feel as if I were haunted!" said Salome, with a shudder.

"Come! your nerves have been overtasked. You must have a composing draught, and go to bed," said the superior, decisively.

"It may be that I am nervous and excitable, and that I have conjured up this image in my brain-such a ghastly, ghostly image, mother! It could not have been real, though I thought nothing else this morning than that it was real. But this evening-oh! madam, if you had seen it, with its blanched face and glazed eyes, like a sceptre risen from the grave!"

"I have not seen the man yet, either this morning or this evening," said the elder lady, as she drew the younger's arm within her own.

"No, you have never seen him. I have no one's eyes but my own to test the matter. You have never seen him, and that is another reason why I think of the man as ghostly or unreal," whispered Salome.

They were now in the long passage leading from the chapel to the cells.

"I will take you again to your own little room in the Infants' Asylum," murmured the lady, as she turned with her protegee into the rectangular passage leading to the asylums.

She took Salome to the door of the house, gave her a benediction, and left her.

"Out there I have trouble, here I shall have peace," muttered the young woman, as she entered the children's dormitory, where every tiny cot was now occupied by a little, sleeping child.

Salome prepared to retire, and in a few moments she also was at rest, with her little Marie Perdue in her arms.

Christmas had come on Saturday that year. The next day being Sunday, there was another high mass to be celebrated in the chapel.

Salome, as usual, joined the nuns' procession to the choir, where the sisterhood, as was their custom, took their seats some few minutes before the entrance of the priest and his attendants.

With a heart almost pausing in its pulsations, Salome bent forward to peer through the screen upon the congregation, to see if by any chance the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) sat among them.

With a half-suppressed cry, she recognized his form, seated in the opposite corner of the church, from the spot he had last occupied.

"He shifts his place every time he appears," she said to herself.

And now, being determined that other eyes should see him as well as her own, she touched the abbess' arm and whispered:

"Pray look before the priest enters. There is the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) sitting quite alone in the corner pew, on the left hand side of the altar. Do you see him now?"

The abbess followed the direction with her eyes, and answered:

"No, I do not see any one there."

"Why, he is sitting alone in the left hand corner pew. Surely, you must see him now?" said Salome, bending forward to look again at the stranger.

The next instant she sank back in her seat, nearly fainting.

The pew was empty!

"There is really no one there, my child. Your eyes have deceived you," murmured the abbess, gently.

"He was there a moment since, but he has vanished! Oh! mother, what is the meaning of this?" gasped the girl, turning pale as death.

"The meaning is that your nervous system is shattered, and you are the victim of optical illusions. Or else-if there was a man really in that pew-he may have passed out through that little corner door leading to the vestry. But hush! here comes the priest," said the abbess, as the procession entered the chancel, preceded by the solemn notes of the organ.

Since "Miss Levison" was obliged to keep her place in the choir, it was well that she was an enthusiast in music, and thus able to lose all sense of care and trouble in the exercise of her divine art.

But for the music she would scarcely have got through the morning service.

And very much relieved she felt when the benediction was at length pronounced, and she was at liberty to leave the chapel.

"Oh, madam, this mystery is killing me! I have seen, or fancied I have seen, the Duke of Hereward in the church three times; yet no one else has been able to see him! If it was the duke, he has come here for some fixed purpose. He has, probably, by means of those expert London detectives, traced me out, and discovered my residence under this sacred roof. He has followed me here to give me trouble!" said Salome, as soon she found herself alone with the superior.

"My child," said the lady, "I must reiterate that you have nothing-he has everything to fear! I do not know, of course, for even you are not sure that you have really seen him. If you have, he is in this immediate neighborhood. If he is, why, then, the fact must be known to nearly every one outside the convent walls. The Duke of Hereward is not a man whose presence could be ignored. To-morrow, therefore, I will cause inquiries to be made, and we shall be sure to find out whether he is really here or not."

"Thanks, good mother, thanks. It will be a great relief to have this question decided in any way," said Salome, gratefully.

The mother-superior smiled, gave the benediction, and retired.

At vespers that evening, Salome looked all over the church in anxious fear of seeing the form that haunted her imagination; but her "ghost" did not appear, and, after all, she scarcely knew whether she was relieved or disturbed by his absence.

The next day, Monday, the abbess set diligent inquiries on foot to discover whether the Duke of Hereward, or any other stranger of any name or title whatever, had been seen in the neighborhood of St. Rosalie's for many days. Winter was not the season for strangers there.

After this, the Duke of Hereward (or his ghost) was seen no more in the chapel.

Every time Salome accompanied the sisterhood to the chapel, she peered through the choir-screen, in much anxiety as to whether she should see the duke, or his apparition, among the congregation below; but she never saw him there again, nor could she decide, in the conflict between her love and her sense of duty, whether she most desired or deplored his absence.

So the days passed into weeks, and nothing more was heard or seen of the Duke of Hereward.

The Christmas holidays came to an end after Twelth-Day; the pupils returned to the school, and the academy buildings grew gay with the exuberance of young life.

Salome, who, during many years of her childhood and youth, had shared this bright and cheery school-life, now saw nothing of it.

The academy buildings, as has been explained before this, were situated on the opposite side of the court-yard from the asylums and entirely cut off from communication with them.

Salome, devoted to her duties in the Infants' Asylum, was more completely secluded from the world than even the cloistered nuns them

selves; for the nuns were the teachers of the academy, and in daily communication with their pupils and frequent correspondence with their patrons, saw and heard much of the busy life without.

So the weeks passed slowly into months, and the winter into spring, yet nothing more was seen or heard of the Duke of Hereward.

Salome lost the habit of looking for him, and gradually recovered her tranquility. In the work to which she had consecrated herself-the care of helpless and destitute infancy-she grew almost happy.

Already she seemed as dead to the world as though the "black vail" had fallen like a pall over her head. No newspapers ever drifted into the asylum, nor did any visitor come to bring intelligence of the good or evil of the life beyond the convent walls.

Her year of probation was passing away. At its close she would take the white vail and enter upon the second stage of her chosen vocation-her year of novitiate-at the end of which she would assume the black vail of the cloistered nun, which would seal her fate.

She knew that before taking that final step she must make some disposition of that vast inheritance which, in her flight from her home, she had left without one word of explanation or instruction. She was assured that her fortune was in the hands of honest men, and there she was content to leave it for the present. She had in her possession about a thousand pounds in money and several thousand pounds in diamonds-ample means for self-support and alms-giving.

And so she was satisfied for the present to leave her financial affairs as they were, until the time should come when it would be absolutely necessary for her to give attention to them.

Meanwhile, had she forgotten him who had once been the idol of her worship?

Ah, no! however diligently her eyes, her hands, her feet were employed in the service of the little children she loved so tenderly, her thoughts were with him. She loved him still! It seemed to her at once the sin and the curse of her life that she loved him still. She prayed daily to be delivered from "inordinate and sinful affections," but in this case prayer seemed of little use; for the more she prayed the more she loved and trusted him. It was a mystery she could not make out.

So the spring bloomed into summer, and the world outside became so disturbed and turbulent with "wars and rumors of wars," that its tumult was heard even within the peaceful convent sanctuary.

The news of the abdication of Her Most Catholic Majesty, Isabella II of Spain, fell like a thunderbolt upon the little community of the faithful in the convent; and nowhere, in the political conclaves of Prussia or of France, was the Spanish succession discussed with more intensity of interest than among the simple sisterhood of St. Rosalie.

Who would now fill the throne of the Western Caesars, left vacant by the abdication of their daughter, the Queen Isabella?

These were the topics which filled the minds and employed the tongues of the quiet nuns, whenever and wherever their rules permitted them to indulge in conversation.

No sound of this disturbance however penetrated the peaceful sphere of the Infants' Asylum, which, indeed, seemed to be the innermost retreat, or the holy of holies in the sanctuary.

Salome lived within it, the chief ministering angel, dispensing blessings all around her, and growing daily into deeper peace, until one fatal morning, when a great shock fell upon her.

It was a beautiful, bright morning near the end of June, and the day in regular rotation on which the mother-superior of the convent made her official rounds of inspection in the Infants' Asylum.

She arrived early, and, accompanied by Salome, went over every department of the asylum, from attic to cellar, from dormitory to recreation grounds, and found all well, and approved and delighted in the well-being.

After her long walk she sat down to rest in the children's play-room, and directed Salome to take a seat by her side.

The room was full of little children. Not seated in orderly rows, as we have too often seen in Infant Asylums on exhibition days; but moving about everywhere as freely as their little limbs would carry them, and making quite as much noise as their health and well-being certainly required.

Among them was little Marie Perdue, now a bright, fair, blue-eyed cherub of seven months old, seated on a mat, and tossing about with screams of delight a number of small, gay-hued India-rubber balls.

The abbess was watching the children with pleased attention, when one of the lay sisters entered and put a card in her hands, saying that the gentleman and lady were waiting at the porter's wicket, and desired permission to see the interior of the Infant Asylum.

"Certainly, they are welcome," said the abbess. "Go and tell Sister Francoise to be their guide."

The lay sister left the room, and the abbess gave her attention again to the children, making occasional remarks on their health, beauty, playfulness, and so forth, which were all sympathetically responded to by Salome, until they heard the sounds of approaching voices and footsteps, and the visiting party, escorted by Sister Francoise.

Then the abbess and her companion ceased speaking, and lowered their eyes to the floor until the strangers should pass them.

But the strangers lingered on their way, noticing individual children for beauty, or brightness, or some other trait which seemed to attract.

The gentleman, speaking French with an English accent, asked questions in too low a tone to reach the ears of the abbess and her companion; but the lady kept silence.

At length, as the visitors drew nearer, they came upon little Marie Perdue, sitting on her mat, engaged in tossing about her gay-colored balls, and laughing with delight.

"Whose child is that?" asked the gentleman, in a voice that thrilled to the heart of Salome.

She forgot herself, and looked up quickly, but the form of Sister Francoise, standing, concealed the figure of the speaker, who seemed to be stooping over the child.

"Ay! wha's bairn is it?" inquired another voice, that fell with ominous familiarity on her ear, as she turned her head a little and saw the female visitor, a tall, handsome blonde, with bold, blue eyes and a cataraet of golden hair falling on her shoulders.

Sister Francoise did not understand the language of the woman, and turned with a helpless and appealing look to the gentleman, who still speaking French with the slightly defective English accent, replied:

"Madame asks whose child is that?"

"Oh, pardon! We do not know, Monsieur. It was left at our doors on the eighteenth of December last," replied Sister Francoise.

"A very fine child! Its name?"

"Marie Perdue."

"'Marie Perdue?' What? 'Marie Perdue?' What's 'Perdue?'" querulously inquired the tall, blonde beauty.

"'Thrown away,' 'lost,' 'abandoned,'" answered the gentleman, in a low voice.

As he spoke he stood up and turned around.

Salome uttered a low, half-suppressed cry, and covered her face with both hands.

The abbess impulsively looked up to see what was the matter, and-echoed the cry!

There was dead silence in the room for a minute, and then Salome lifted up her head and cautiously looked around.

The visitors had gone, and the children, who with child-like curiosity had suspended their play to gaze upon the strangers, were now re-commencing their noise with renewed vehemence.

Salome still trembling in every limb, turned toward her companion.

The abbess sat with clasped hands, lowered eyelids, and face as pale as death.

Salome, too much absorbed in her own emotion to notice the strange condition of the abbess, touched her on the shoulder and eagerly whispered:

"Mother, did you observe the visitors?"

"Yes," breathed the lady, in a very low tone, without lifting her eyelids.

"Did you notice-the man?" Salome continued.

"I did," murmured the abbess, in an almost inaudible voice, as she devoutly made the sign of the cross.

"Do you know who he was?"

"I do."

"He was like our Christmas visitor in the chapel! He was the Duke of Hereward!"

"Nay," said the abbess, in a stern solemn voice. "He was not the Duke of Hereward. He was one whom I had reckoned as numbered with the dead full twenty years ago!"

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