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   Chapter 31 THE ABBESS' STORY.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 16165

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"'Not the Duke of Hereward!'" echoed Salome, astonishment now overcoming every other emotion in her bosom.

The abbess bowed her head in grave assent.

"'One whom you thought numbered with the dead, full twenty years ago?'" continued Salome, quoting the lady's own words, and gazing on her face.

"Full twenty-five years ago, my daughter, or longer still," murmured the abbess.

"This man is young. He could not have been grown up to manhood twenty-five years ago."

"He is well preserved, as the selfish and heartless are too apt to be; but he is not young."

"And he is not the Duke of Hereward?"

"Most certainly not the Duke of Hereward."

"Then in the name of all the holy saints, madam, who is he?" demanded Salome, in ever increasing amazement.

"He is the Count Waldemar de Volaski, once my betrothed husband, but who forsook me, as I have told you, for another and a fairer woman," gravely replied the abbess.

"Once your betrothed husband, madam! Great Heaven! are you sure of this?" exclaimed Salome, in consternation.

"Yes, sure of it," answered the abbess, slowly bending her head.

"But-pardon me-I thought that he had been killed in a duel by the lover of the woman whom he had won."

"Even so thought I. The news of his falsehood and of his death at the hands of the wronged lover, came to me in my convent retreat at the same time, and I heard no more of him from that day to this, when I have again seen him in the flesh. The saints defend us!"

"And you are absolutely certain that he was Count Waldemar?"

"I am absolutely certain."

"Mother Genevieve, did you know the woman who was with him?"

"No, not at all. I never saw or heard of her before. She seems to belong to the demi-monde, for she dresses like a princess, and talks like a peasant. Let us not speak of her," said the lady, coldly.

"We must speak of her, for I think I know who she is."

"You recognize her, then?"

"I cannot say that I do; at least, not by her person. I never saw her face before; but I have heard her voice under circumstances that rendered it impossible for me ever to forget its tones; and from her voice I believe her to be Rose Cameron, a Highland peasant girl of Ben Lone."

"Stop!" exclaimed the mother-superior, suddenly raising her hand. "You do not mean to intimate that she is the girl whom you overheard talking with the young Duke of Hereward at midnight, under your balcony, on the night before the murder of Sir Lemuel Levison?"

"She is the very same woman, as he is the very same man, who planned, if they did not perpetrate the robbery-who caused, if they did not commit, the murder; and their names are John Scott, Duke of Hereward, and Rose Cameron."

"My daughter, in regard to the girl you may be quite right; but in respect to the man you are utterly wrong."

"Should I not know my own betrothed husband?" demanded Salome, impatiently.

"Should I not know mine?" inquired the abbess, very patiently.

Salome made a gesture of desperate perplexity, and then there was a silent pause, during which the two women sat gazing in each other's faces in silent wonder.

Suddenly Salome started up in wild excitement and began pacing the narrow cell with rapid steps, exclaiming:

"There have been strange cases of counterparts in persons of this world so exact as to have deceived the eyes of their most intimate friends. If this should be a case in point! Great Heaven, if it should! If this Count Waldemar de Volaski should be such a perfect counterpart of the Duke of Hereward as to have deceived even my eyes and ears! Oh, what joy! Oh, what rapture! What ecstacy to find 'the princely Hereward' as stainless in honor as he is noble in name; and this most unprincipled Volaski the real guilty party! But-the marriage certificate in Hereward's own name! The letters to his so-called 'wife,' Rose Cameron, in Hereward's own handwriting! Ah, no! there is no hope! not the faintest beam of hope! And yet-"

She suddenly paused in her wild walk, and looked toward the abbess.

That lady was still sitting on the stool, at the foot of the cot, with her hands folded on her lap, and her eyes cast down upon them as in deep thought or prayer.

Salome sat down beside her, and inquired in a low tone:

"Mother Genevieve, was the Count Waldemar de Volaski ever in Scotland? Has he been there within the last twelve months?"

The lady lifted her eyes to the face of the inquirer, and slowly replied:

"My daughter, how should I know? Have I not said that, until this day, when I have seen him in the flesh standing in this room, I had believed him to have been in purgatory for twenty-five years or more?"

"True! true!" sighed Salome.

The abbess folded her hands, cast down her eyes, and resumed her meditations or prayers.

"You heard that he was killed in a duel, you say?" persevered Salome.

"Yes; the news of his treachery, and the news of his death at the hands of the Duke of Hereward reached me at the same moment in this convent, where I was then passing the first year of mourning for my parents. It was that news which decided me to take the vail and devote my life and fortune to the service of the Lord," said the lady, reverently bending her head.

Salome sat staring stonily as one petrified. She was absolutely speechless and motionless from amazement for the space of a minute or more. Then suddenly recovering her powers, she exclaimed:

"Mother! Mother Genevieve! For Heaven's sake! Did I understand you? From whose hand did you hear Count Waldemar received his death in a duel?"

"From the hand of the deeply injured husband, of course."

"But-who was he? Who? You mentioned a name!" wildly exclaimed Salome.

"Did I mention a name? Ah! what inadvertence! I never intended to let that name slip out. I am very sorry to have done so. Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! Mea maxima culpa!" muttered the abbess, bending her head and smiting her bosom.

"Mother Genevieve! Oh, do not trifle with me! do not torture me! I heard a name! Did I hear aright? Oh, I hope I did not! What name did you murmur? Tell me! tell me! who met Count Waldemar in a duel?" demanded Salome.

"I have no choice but to tell you now, though I would willingly have kept the fact from you. It was the Duke of Hereward, the late duke of course, the deeply-wronged lover of that fair woman, who met, and, as I heard, killed Count Waldemar de Volaski. But there were wrongs on both sides, deep, deadly wrongs on every side!" moaned the lady, clasping her hands convulsively and lowering her eyes.

"The Duke of Hereward! Heaven of heavens! the Duke of Hereward! Yes! I heard aright the first time; but I could not believe my own ears! The father of my betrothed!" murmured Salome, sinking back in her seat.

The abbess gravely bent her head.

"What of the frail woman? She was not-oh! no, she could not have been the mother of the present duke?"

"No," murmured the abbess, in a low voice.

"Mother Genevieve!" exclaimed Salome, suddenly, "will you tell me all you know of this terrible story?"

"My daughter, my past is dead and buried these many years; so I would leave it until the last great day of the Resurrection. Nevertheless, as the story of my life is interwoven with that of the princely line in whom you feel so deep an interest, I will relate it."

"Thanks, good mother," said Salome, nestling to her side and preparing to listen.

"Not here, and not now, my child, can I enter upon the long, sorrowful, shameful story-a story of pride, despotism and cruelty on one side; of passion, wilfulness and recklessness on the other; of selfishness, sin and ruin on all sides! Daughter, in almost every tale of sin and suffering you will find that there has always been sin on one side and suffering on the other; but in this story all sinned deeply, all suffered fearfully!"

"Except yourself, sweet mother. You never sinned," said Salome, taking the thin, pale hand of the lady and pressing it to her lips.

"Mea culpa! I sin every hour of my life!" cried the abbess, crossing

herself.

"We all do; but you did not sin there," said the girl.

"I had no part-no active part, I mean-in that tale of guilt and woe. I was a pupil here in this convent then, waiting to be brought out and married to my betrothed. No, I had no part in that tragedy."

"Except the passive part of suffering."

"Ay, except the passive part of suffering; but hark, my child! the vesper bell is ringing; it calls us to our evening worship: let us go to the choir, and there forget all our earthly cares and seek the peace of Heaven," said the pale lady, slowly rising from her seat.

"When will you tell me the story, good mother?" pleaded Salome, in a low and deprecating tone.

"The vesper bell is ringing. The rules of the house must not be disturbed by your individual necessities. After the evening service comes the evening meal. Then, for me, my hour of rest in my cell; and for you, the duty of seeing your infant charge put to bed. When all these matters have been properly attended to, come to me in my cell. You will find me there. We shall be uninterrupted until the midnight mass; and in the interim I will tell you the story of a life that 'was lost, but is found, was dead, but is alive'-Benedicite, my daughter!" said the abbess, spreading her hands upon the bowed head of the girl, and solemnly blessing her.

Then she glided away.

Salome soon followed her, and joined the procession of nuns to the chapel.

As soon as she took her seat in the choir, she looked through the screen over the congregation below, to see if the strangers were in the chapel; but she saw them not.

When the vesper service was over, she took her tea with the nuns in their refectory; and then returned to the play-room in the Infants' Asylum.

The nurses were engaged in giving the little ones their supper, and putting them to bed.

Salome took up her own little Marie Perdue, to undress her.

As she divested the child of her little slip, something rolled out of its bosom and dropped upon the floor.

One of the nurses picked it up and handed it to Salome.

It was a small, hard substance, wrapped in tissue paper.

Salome unrolled it and found a ring, set with a large solitaire diamond. With a cry of surprise and pain, she recognized the jewel. It was her late father's ring! While she gazed upon it in a trance of wonder, the paper in which it had been wrapped, caught by a breeze from the open window, fluttered under her eyes. She saw that there was writing on the paper, and she took it up and read it.

"The ring must be sold for the benefit of the child and of the house that has protected her. She must be educated to become a nun."

There was no signature to this paper.

Salome rolled it around the ring again, and put it in her bosom, then she sent one of the nurses to call Sister Francoise.

When the old nun came into her presence, she inquired:

"Sister Francoise, you showed a lady and gentleman through the asylum, this afternoon; they came into this room; they stopped and noticed little Marie Perdue particularly. Did they ask any questions or make any remarks concerning her? I have an especial reason for asking."

"Oh, yes, sister! they did ask many questions-when she came, how long she had been, who took care of her, what was her name, and many more; and as I answered them to the best of my knowledge, I could not help seeing that they knew more about the child than I did," answered the nun, nodding her head.

"Did the gentleman or lady give anything to the child?"

"Not that I saw, which I thought unkind of them, considering all the interest they showed in words; for, as I say of all the fine ladies who come here and fondle the infants, what's the use of all the fondling if they never put a sou out, or a stitch in?"

"That will do, sister; I only wanted to know," answered the young lady, as she determined to keep her own counsel, and confide the news of the surreptitiously offered ring to the abbess only.

When she had rocked her child to sleep, laid it on its little cot, and placed two novices on duty to watch over the slumbers of the children, she left the dormitory by the rectangular passage that led to the nuns' house, and repaired at once to the cell occupied by the abbess.

It was a plain little den, in no respect better than those tenanted by her humble nuns, twelve feet long, by nine broad, with bare walls, and bare floor, and a small grated window at the farther end, opposite the narrow, grated door by which the cell was entered. It was furnished poorly with a narrow cot bed, a wooden stool, and a small stand, upon which lay the office-book of the abbess, and above which hung the crucifix.

As Salome entered the cell, the abbess arose from her knees and signed for her visitor to be seated.

Salome sat down on the foot of the cot, and the abbess drew the stool and placed herself near.

Then Salome saw the lady-superior was even paler and graver than usual; and anxious as the young lady felt to hear the abbess' story, she thought she would give her more time to recover, and even assist her in doing so, by diverting her thoughts to the new incident of the ring, which she produced and laid upon the mother's lap, saying:

"That was found by me in the bosom of little Marie Perdue's dress. It was donated to the house, for the benefit of the child. Here is the scrap of writing in which it was rolled."

The abbess silently took up the ring and the paper, and examined the first and read the last, saying:

"Such mysterious donations to the children are not uncommon, and are generally supposed to be offered by the unknown parents. This, however, is by far the most valuable present that has ever been made by any one to the institution, and must be worth at least a thousand Napoleons. It was made by the visitors of this morning, I suppose?"

"Yes, madam, it was."

"I see, I understand. Take charge of it, my daughter, until we can deliver it to the sister-treasurer," directed the lady-superior, as she replaced the ring in its wrapper and returned both to Salome.

"But, mother, I wish myself to become the purchaser of this ring. I have a thousand pounds with me. I will give them for the ring."

"My daughter!" exclaimed the abbess in surprise. "Why should you wish to possess this bauble? It can be of no use to you in the life you are about to enter, even if the rules of our order would permit you to retain it, which you know they would not."

"Mother! it was my father's ring! It was a part of the property stolen from him on the night of his murder," solemnly answered Salome.

"Holy saints! can that be true?" exclaimed the abbess.

"As true as truth. I know the ring well. He always wore it on his finger. Inside the setting is his monogram, 'L.L.,' and his crest, a falcon," answered Salome, once more unwrapping the ring and offering it to the inspection of the lady-superior.

"I see! I see! It is so. Ah, Holy Virgin! that it should have been offered by Count Waldemar, or by him whom you overheard conspiring with his female companion under the windows on the night of your father's murder!" cried the abbess, covering her face with a fold of her black vail.

"Count Waldemar, or the duke of Hereward, I know not which, I know not whom. Oh! mother, this mystery grows deeper, this confusion more confounded."

"Take back your ring, my child, and keep it without price. It was your father's, and it is yours. We cannot receive stolen goods even as alms offered to our orphans," said the abbess, dropping her vail and returning the jewel.

"I will take it and keep it because it was my dear father's; but I will give a full equivalent for its value. No one could object to that," said Salome, as she replaced the ring in her bosom. "And now, Mother Genevieve, will you tell me the promised story? It may possibly throw some light even upon this dark mystery."

The pale abbess bowed assent, and immediately began the narrative, which, for the Sake of convenience, we prefer to render in our own words.

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