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   Chapter 35 FACE TO FACE.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 18032

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


"Madame, permit me to present to you Count de Volaski, of St. Petersburg-Count, the Duchess of Hereward," said Lord C., with old-time courtesy and formality.

The gentleman bowed low; the lady courtesied; nothing but the close compression of his lips beneath the golden mustache, and the paler shade on her pale cheeks, betrayed the "whirlwind of emotion" which swept through both their hearts; and these indications of disturbance were too slight to attract any attention.

Neither spoke, neither dared to speak. It was as much as each could do to maintain a conventional calmness through the terrible ordeal of such an introduction.

Lord C., happily unconscious of anything wrong, did the very best thing he could have done under the circumstances. Scarcely allowing the count and the duchess time to exchange their bow and courtesy, he turned to her companion and said:

"Duke, the Count de Volaski. Count, the Duke of Hereward."

Both gentlemen bowed; but one, the count, quivered from head to foot in the presence of his unconscious but successful rival.

"By the way, Count," said the duke, pleasantly, "the duchess, when Mademoiselle de la Motte, passed a year at the court of St. Petersburg with her parents. It is a wonder that you have not met before. Although, indeed, you may have done so," he added, as with an after-thought.

"We have met before," replied the Count de Volaski, in a low and measured tone.

"Of course! Of course! You are quite old friends," said the duke, gayly.

Fortunately, then a diversion was made. The heavy, purple satin curtains vailing the arch between the drawing-rooms and dining saloon were drawn aside by invisible hands, and a very dignified and officer-looking personage, in a powdered wig, clerical black suit, and gold chain, appeared, and with a low bow and with low tones, said:

"My lord and lady are served."

"Count, will you take the duchess in to dinner?-Duke, Lady C. will thank you for your arm," said the host, as, with a nod and a smile, he moved off in search of that particular ambassadress whom custom, or etiquette, or policy, required him to escort to the dining-room.

The Duke of Hereward with a polite wave of the hand, left his duchess in the charge of her appointed attendant, and went to meet Lady C., who was advancing toward him.

Count Volaski bowed, and silently offered his arm to the young duchess.

She did not take it; she could not; she stood as one paralyzed.

He was stronger, firmer, calmer; perhaps because he really felt less than she did. He took her hand and drew it within his own, and led her to her place in the little procession that was going to the dining-room.

He placed her in her chair at the table, and took his seat at her side.

Then the self-control of their order, the self-control instilled as a virtue by their education, and standing now in the place of all virtues, enabled them to maintain a superficial calmness that conducted them safely through the trying ordeal of this dinner-table.

Count de Volaski entered freely into the conversation of the guests. The Duchess of Hereward spoke but little; hers was a passive self-control, not an active one; she could force herself to be, or seem, composed; she could not force herself to talk; but her deep mourning dress was a good excuse for her extreme quietness, which was naturally ascribed to her recent and double bereavement.

The dinner was a long, long agony to her; the courses seemed almost endless in duration and numberless in succession; but at length the hostess arose and gave the signal for the ladies to retire and leave the gentlemen to their wine and politics.

The gentlemen all stood up while the ladies passed out to the drawing-room.

Valerie would willingly have gone off to hide herself in some bay-window or other nook or corner of the vast drawing-room, and taken up a book or a piece of music as an excuse for her reserve; but as they passed through the curtained archway leading from the dining-saloon to the drawing-room, Lady C., with the kindest intentions toward the supposed mourner, and with the motherly grace for which her ladyship was noted, drew Valerie's arm within her own and began a conversation, to draw her mind from the contemplation of her bereavements.

"What do you think of the young Russian count who brought you in to dinner, my dear?" inquired Lady C.

"I-he is a Pole," answered Valerie, in a low voice.

"Yes, I am aware that he is a Pole by birth; but he is a thorough Russian in politics and principles; has been in the service of the Czar since the age of fifteen.-Here, my love, sit beside me," added her ladyship, as she sank gracefully down upon a sofa and drew her young guest to her side.

Valerie submitted in silence.

"Oh, by the way, however, I think I heard some one say that you had met the count at the court of St. Petersburg?" pursued Lady C.

"I-have met him," answered Valerie, in the same level tone.

"I am boring you, I fear, with this young Russian, my dear, but-"

"Oh no," softly interrupted Valerie.

"I was about to explain that I feel some interest in him from the fact that he is betrothed to my niece-"

"Betrothed! Your niece!" exclaimed Valerie, surprised out of the apathy of her despair.

"Yes, my love. Is there anything wonderful in that? It is a way these continental people have of doing things, you see. The Count Waldemar and my niece were betrothed to each other in their childhood. There is a very great attachment between them-at least on her part. The child seems to think that there is but one man in the world and his name is Waldemar de Volaski."

"But-I did not know-I thought-I did not think-the count had ever been in England," incoherently murmured Valerie.

"Nor has he; but what has that to do with it?" smiled her ladyship.

"Your niece-"

"Oh, I see! Because I am an Englishwoman my niece must be one, you think. You are mistaken, dear; she is French. My sister Anne married a Frenchman, the Marquis de St. Cyr. They had two children-Alphouse, a colonel in the Chasseurs d'Afrique, now in Algiers; and Aimee, now in the Convent of St. Rosalie. It was when the late Count de Volaski was here as the minister from Russia, that the acquaintance between the two families commenced and ripened into intimacy and the intimacy into friendship. Then Waldemar and Aimee were betrothed."

"How many years ago was that?" faintly inquired Valerie.

"Oh, about six-the young man was then about fifteen; the girl not more than twelve."

"They could not have known their own minds at that age," murmured Valerie.

"Oh, that was not at all necessary in a French betrothal," laughed the lady; "but, however, Aimee, child as she was, certainly knew her mind. The love of her betrothed husband was, and is, the religion of her life. I presume that Count Waldemar is equally constant; and that he will now press for a speedy marriage. My brother-in-law is down on his estates in Provence, just now; but I shall write and ask his permission to withdraw Aimee from her convent, in anticipation of her marriage, for of course she will be married from this house."

"But-her mother?"

"Oh! I should have told you; her mother, my dear sister Anne, passed away about a year after the betrothal of her daughter. The marquis took her loss very much to heart, and has never married again. The motherless girl has passed her life in a convent; but I hope to have her out soon. Here, my love, is an album containing portraits of my sister and brother-in-law and their children, taken at various times. You cannot mistake them, and they may interest you," said Lady C., taking a photographic volume from a gilded stand near, and laying it upon her guest's lap.

Valerie received it with a nod of thanks, and the lady glided away to give some of her attention to her other guests.

"The young English duchess is lovely, but too sad," said an embassadress, as the hostess joined her.

"Ah! yes, poor child! lost her father and mother within a few weeks of each other," answered Lady C.

"But that was six months ago; she ought to have recovered some cheerfulness by this time," remarked old Madame Bamboullet, who was a walking register of all the births, deaths and marriages of high life in Paris for the last half century.

"Well, you see she has not done so; but here come the gentlemen," observed Lady C., as a rather straggling procession from the dining-room entered.

The host, Lord C., went up to the embassadress to whom it was his cue to be most attentive.

The Duke of Hereward sought out his hostess, and entered into a bantering conversation with her.

Count Waldemar de Volaski came directly up to Valerie where she sat alone on the sofa in a distant corner of the room. The little gilded stand stood before her, and the photographic album lay open upon it. Her eyes were fixed upon the album, and were not raised to see the new-comer; but the sudden accession of pallor

on her pale face betrayed her recognition of him.

He drew a chair so close to her sofa that only the little gilded stand stood between them. His back was toward the company; his face toward her; his elbows, with unpardonable rudeness, were placed upon the stand, and his hands supported his chin, as he stared into her pale face with its downcast eyes.

"Valerie," he said.

She did not look up.

"Valerie de Volaski!" he muttered.

"My wife!"

She shuddered, but did not lift her eyes.

She shrank into herself, as it were, and her eyes fell lower than before.

"Is it thus we two meet at last?" he demanded, in low, stern, measured tones, pitched to meet her ear alone. "Is it thus I find you, after all that has passed between us, bearing the name and title of another man who calls himself your husband, oh! shame of womanhood!"

"They told me our marriage was not legal, was not binding!" she panted under her breath.

"It should have been religiously, sacredly binding up on you as it was upon me, until we could have made it legal. It is amazing that you could have dreamed of marriage with another man!" muttered Volaski.

"But they told me you were dead. They told me you were dead!" she gasped, as if she were in her own death throes.

"Even if they had told you truly-even if I had been dead-dead by the hand of your father-could that circumstance have excused you for rushing with such indecent haste to the altar with another man? It was but a poor tribute to the memory of the husband of your choice (if he had been dead) to marry again within six months."

"Oh, mercy! Oh, my heart! my heart! They forced me into that marriage, Waldemar! They forced me into that marriage! I was as helpless as an infant in the hands of my father and my mother!" she panted, in a voice that was the more heart-rending from half suppression.

"Valerie! love! wife!" murmured Volaski, in low and tender tones, as he essayed to take her hand.

But she snatched it from him hastily, gasping:

"Do not speak to me in that way! Do not call me love or wife!"

"No man on earth has a better right to speak to you in this way than I have. No other man in the world has the right to call you love or wife but me! You are my wife!" grimly answered the young count.

"I am the wife of the Duke of Hereward. Oh, Heaven, that I were a corpse instead!" gasped Valerie.

"'The wife of the Duke of Hereward!' Have you then forgotten our betrothal at St. Petersburg? Our flight from Warsaw to St. Vito? Our marriage at the little chapel of Santa Maria? Our short, blissful honeymoon in the vine-dresser's cottage under the Apennines?" he inquired, bitterly.

"I have forgotten nothing! Oh, Heaven! Oh, earth! Oh, Waldemar! that I could die! that I could die!" she wailed in low, heartbroken tones.

It was well for her that the corner sofa stood in the shade, far removed from the seats of the other guests in that long drawing-room.

"Valerie! love! wife!" he murmured again.

"Oh, Waldemar, if I were your wife, as I truly believed myself then to have been, oh, why did you not defend and protect me from all the world, even from my father-even from myself? Oh, why did you suffer me to be torn from your protection, to be deceived with a false story of your death, and forced into this marriage? Oh, Waldemar! if I were indeed and in truth your lawful wife, as I believed myself to be, why, oh why did you permit all these evils to happen to me? Ah, what a position is mine! What a position! I cannot bear it! I will not bear it! I will not live! I will kill myself! I ought to kill myself! It is the only way out of this!" she wailed, wringing her hands.

"I will kill that Duke of Hereward!" hissed Volaski, through his clenched teeth.

"Hush! For mercy's sake, hush! Put away such thoughts from your heart! I, the only wrong-doer, should be the only victim! Whatever wrong has been done, the Duke of Hereward has been blameless. He knew nothing of my former marriage; if he had, I do not believe he would have married me, even if I had been a princess."

"He was deceived, then?" coldly inquired the count.

"He was; but not willingly by me. I was forced to be silent about my marriage."

"You were 'forced' from my protection! 'forced' to conceal the fact of your marriage with me! and 'forced' to marry the Duke of Hereward under false colors. Could force on one side, and feebleness on the other, be carried any further than this?" muttered Volaski, between his teeth.

"I knew how helpless, in the hands of my parents, I was," wailed Valerie.

"Well, you are a duchess! Do you love the Duke of Hereward?"

"Oh, mercy! what shall I say? He deserves all my love, honor, and duty!"

"Does he get his deserts?" mockingly inquired Volaski.

"Ah! wretch that I am, why do I live?-I give him honor and duty; but love! love is not mine to give!" she murmured, in almost inaudible tones.

Their conversation-if an interview so emotional, so full of "starts and flaws" could be called so-had been carried on in a very low tone, while the count turned over the leaves of the photographic album, as if examining the portraits, but really without seeing one.

They were, however, so absorbed that neither perceived the approach of a footman until the man actually set down a small golden tray with two little porcelain cups of tea on the stand between them, and retired.

Valerie looked up with a sudden shudder of terror. Had the company, or any one of their number, overheard any part of the fatal interview? No, the company were drinking tea, at the other end of the room.

And now the Duke of Hereward, with a tea-cup in his hand, sauntered toward them, saying, as he reached the stand:

"Lady C. has just been telling me that you are showing the duchess some interesting family pictures there-among the rest, those of your belle fiancee. When shall I congratulate you, Count?"

"Not yet; I will advise your grace of my marriage," answered the count, gravely.

"Something gone wrong in that direction," thought the duke, but his good humor was invincible.

"If you have no engagement for to-morrow evening, I hope you will come and dine with us en famille, for we do not see much company, the duchess and myself."

Valerie cast an imploring look on the count, silently praying him to decline the invitation; but Volaski did not understand the meaning of the look, or did not care to do so, for he immediately accepted the invitation in the following unequivocal terms:

"I have no engagement for to-morrow; and I shall be very happy to come and dine with you."

"So be it then," said the duke, frankly. "Now, Valerie, my love, bid the count good-evening. It is time to go."

The young duchess arose wearily from the sofa, and slightly courtesied her adieux.

The count stood up and bowed with a profound reverence that seemed ironical to her sensitive mind.

The guests were now all taking leave of their host and hostess.

The Duke and Duchess of Hereward were among the last to go.

"I am very sorry that I brought you out this evening, love. I saw-indeed, every one saw, and could not help seeing-that this dinner-party has been a great trial to you. It will not bear an encore. You must have time to recover your cheerfulness, dearest, before you are again brought into a large company," said the duke, kindly, as soon as they were seated together in their carriage.

"Did people attribute my dullness to-to-to-," began Valerie, by way of saying something, but her voice faltered and broke down.

"To your recent double bereavement?-certainly they did, my love. They knew

'No crowds

Make up for parents in their shrouds,'

and were not cruel enough to criticise your filial grief, my Valerie."

"I am glad of that; but I am very sorry you have invited the Count de Volaski to dinner to-morrow."

"Oh, why?"

"Because I do not like company."

"He is only one guest and will dine with us quietly. He will amuse you."

"No, he will not; he will bore me. I wish you would write and put him off."

"Impossible, my dear Valerie! What earthly excuse could I make for such an unpardonable piece of rudeness?"

"Tell him that I am ill, out of spirits, anything you like so that you tell him not to come."

"My dearest one, you certainly are ill and out of spirits, and very morbid besides. So much the more reason why you should be gently aroused and amused. Dinner parties weary and distress you; but the count's visit will relieve and amuse you."

"Oh! I do think I ought to know what is good for me and what I want better than any one else," exclaimed Valerie, speaking impatiently to the duke for the first time during their married life.

"But you don't, love; that is all. The count is coming to dine with us to-morrow. That is settled. Now, here we are at home," said the duke, as the carriage rolled through the massive archway and entered the court-yard of the magnificent Hotel de la Motte.

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