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   Chapter 36 A GATHERING STORM.

The Lost Lady of Lone By Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Sout Characters: 18913

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:02


After a night of sleeplessness and anguish, Valerie arose to a day of duplicity and terror.

The anticipation of the evening was intolerable to her; the prospect of sitting down at her own table between the Duke of Hereward and the Count de Volaski overwhelmed her with a sense of horror and loathing.

Faint, pale, and trembling, she descended to the breakfast-room, where she found the duke already awaiting her.

Shocked at her aspect, he hastened to meet her and lead her to an easy-chair on the right of the breakfast-table.

"You are not able to be out of your bed, Valerie. You should not have attempted to rise," he said, as he carefully seated her.

"I told you last night that I was very ill," she answered coldly, as she sank wearily back on the cushion.

"That infernal dinner party! It has prostrated you quite. I am so grieved; I will not suffer you to be so severely tried again!" said the duke, vehemently.

"And you will write this morning and put off the count's visit," pleaded Valerie.

"No, my dear, I cannot," answered the duke, regretfully.

"Then I cannot come down to dinner. That is all," she said, sullenly closing her eyes.

"I shall be sorry for that; but we must do the best we can without you for the count, having been invited, must be permitted to come."

She languidly drew up to the table, and touched the bell that summoned the footman with the breakfast-tray.

When it was placed upon the table, she poured out two cups of coffee, handed one to the duke, and took the other herself.

When she had drained it, she arose, excused herself, and went back to her own room.

She closed and locked the door, and threw herself upon the bed, groaning:

"Oh! how could Waldemar accept that invitation? How can he bear to sit down with me at the Duke of Hereward's table? Has he no delicacy? No pity? Ah, mercy, what a state is mine! And yet I was not to blame for this! I have not deserved it! I have not deserved it! One of us three must die; I, or Waldemar, or the Duke of Hereward; and I am the one; for, I hate myself for the position I am in! I hate, loathe and utterly abhor myself! I do. I do. I wish the lightning would strike me dead! dead, before I have to meet one of them again!" she moaned, rolling and grovelling on the bed.

There came a soft rap at the door, followed by the kind voice of the duke, saying:

"Valerie, Valerie, my love! How are you? Do you want anything? May I come in?"

"No! I want rest! I do not want you!" she answered, so sharply as to astonish the duke, who spoke again however, deprecatingly and soothingly.

"Is there anything that I can do for you outside, then, my dear?"

"You can go away and let me alone, or you can stand there chattering until you drive me crazy!" she answered, ungratefully.

"Good morning, my love; I will not trouble you again soon," muttered the duke, as he walked away from the duchess' door.

"I never knew such a change as this that has come over her. She is as cross as a catamount! There may be a cause for it. There may-I will send for a physician," he added, as he went down stairs.

Valerie kept her room all day.

Count de Volaski came to dinner at eight o'clock and was received by the duke alone.

He smiled grimly when his host apologized for the absence of the duchess, by explaining the delicate condition of her health since the death of her parents, and the injury she had received from the fatigue and excitement of the dinner-party on the preceding evening.

The duke and the count dined tete-a-tete, and sat long over their wine, although they drank but little. After dinner they played chess together all the evening, and then parted, apparently the best of friends on both sides, really good friends on the duke's.

The next morning a letter was handed Valerie, while she sat at breakfast with the duke.

She recognized the handwriting of Count de Volaski, and put it in her pocket to read when she was alone.

The duke was not suspicious or inquisitive. He asked no questions.

As soon as the duchess found herself alone in her chamber, she locked the door to keep out intruders, and sat down and opened the letter.

Its contents were sufficiently startling. They were as follows:

Russian Legation, Rue St. Honore.

Valerie: You avoid me in vain! You cannot shake me off. I accepted the duke's invitation to dinner last evening for the sake of seeing you again, and for the chance of having a final explanation with you; but you kept away from the dinner. Such expedients will not avail you.

I write now to assure you that I must and will see you, to make an arrangement with you. I write openly, at the risk of having this letter fall into the hands of the duke; for I do not care if it does so fall. I would just as willingly say to him what I now say to you. I am quite willing to provoke a crisis. The present state of things maddens me. I wonder it does not kill you! When you married the Duke of Hereward within six months after my supposed death by the hands of your father, you acted cruelly, but not criminally; now that you know I am living, you must also know that every hour you continue to live under the roof of the Duke of Hereward you are a criminal. I do not require you to come to me. I do not wish to live with you again, although I love you; but I do require you to leave the Duke of Hereward and go away by yourself. I know you now, Valerie. You are as weak as water. You cannot go to the noble gentleman who has been so deeply deceived by you and your parents and tell him the secret that you have kept from him so long. You have not the moral courage to do so. But you can leave him. It is to arrange for your flight and for your future safety that I now demand and insist upon a private interview with you.

Write to me at the poste-restante, and tell me when and where I can see you alone. Should you refuse to grant me this interview, I will myself go to the Duke of Hereward and tell him the whole story. He may not resent your former marriage; but he will never forgive you, living, or your parents in their graves, for the deception that has been practiced upon him. I will wait twenty-four hours for your answer, and then if I fail to receive it, or fail to get a favorable one, I shall come immediately to the Hotel de la Motte and seek an explanation with the duke. I shall direct this letter by the name and title you now bear, so as to prevent mistakes; but it is the last time I shall so address you. And I sign myself, for all eternity,

Your true husband, Waldemar de Volaski.

Valerie read the cruel letter to its close, then dropped it on her lap, and sank back in her chair, helpless, breathless, almost lifeless. Minutes crept into hours, and still she sat there in the same position, without motion, thought, or feeling-stricken, spell-bound, entranced.

She was aroused at length by a rap at her chamber-door.

She started, shuddering, to her feet, and spasm after spasm shook her galvanized frame, as she picked up her letter, found a match, drew it, set fire to the paper, threw it, blazing, down upon the marble hearth, and watched it until it was consumed to a little heap of light ashes.

"There! That can never fall into the Duke of Hereward's hands now!" she said with a bitter laugh.

Meanwhile the rapping continued.

"Well! well! well! well! Can't you be patient!" she exclaimed, very impatiently, as she tottered tremblingly across the room and opened the door.

Her dressing-maid, Mademoiselle Desiree, was there.

"Pardonnez moi, madame; but you ordered me to come to dress you for a drive at twelve. The clock has just struck, madame," said the girl deprecatingly.

Valerie put her hand to her head in a bewildered way, and stared at the speaker a full minute before she could recollect herself sufficiently to reply.

"Yes-yes-yes-yes-I believe so. You can come in."

The girl entered and stood waiting for orders. Receiving none, she ventured to inquire:

"What dress shall madame wear?"

"My-my writing desk! Bring it here to me," answered the lady, as she sank into a chair, and drew a little ivory stand before her.

"I wonder if madame indulges in absinthe in the morning?" was the secret thought of the discreet Mademoiselle Desiree, as she brought the elegant little malachite writing-desk, and placed it before her mistress.

Valerie opened it, took out a piece of note-paper and wrote:

"I cannot write much. I am stricken. I am dying. I hope you are right in what you say. Come here tomorrow at twelve, noon. I will give you the interview you seek."

This note was without date, address or signature, or any word to guide a strange reader to its true meaning. She put it into a sealed envelope, and directed it to Count de Volaski, Poste Restante.

Then she sat back in her chair, exhausted from the slight exertion.

The maid watched her mistress for a little while, and then said:

"Pardon, madame; but it is half-past twelve."

"Yes! I must dress," said Valerie rising.

"What costume will madame wear?"

"Any. It does not signify."

The maid indulged in an imperceptible shrug of her shoulders, and laid out an elegant black rep silk, heavily trimmed with black crape and jet, with mantle, bonnet and vail to match.

"White or black gloves, madame?"

"Black, of course. It is not a wedding reception."

"Pardon, madame," said the girl; and

she added the black gloves to the costume.

Valerie was soon dressed, and then the maid said:

"The carriage waits, madame."

Valerie took the note she had prepared and went down stairs, entered her barouche, and ordered the coachman to drive to the British Legation, Hotel Borghese, Rue Faubourg St. Honore.

When the carriage rolled through the archway into the courtyard, and drew up before the magnificent palace, interesting from having been built for and occupied by the beautiful Princess Pauline Bonaparte, Valerie alighted and handed her letter to the footman, with directions to go and post it while she was making her call.

The man knocked at the door for his mistress, and then hurried away to do her errand.

It was the conventional "dinner call" that brought Valerie to the Hotel Borghese.

An English footman admitted the visitor, conducted her to the private drawing-room of Lady C., and announced her.

Several other ladies, whom Valerie had met at the dinner party, were there on the same duty as herself.

Lady C. advanced from among them to receive the new comer, kissed her on both cheeks, inquired affectionately after her health and then made her sit down in the most comfortable of the easy-chairs at hand.

After courteously saluting the ladies present, Valerie subsided into a dull silence, from which she could not arouse herself; but her voice was not missed, since every visitor seemed anxious to talk rather than listen, and therefore kept up a chattering that would have carried off the palm in a contest with a village sewing-circle or aviary full of excited magpies.

Valerie, the last to enter, was also the first to rise, but Lady C. detained her by a slight signal, and she sat down again, and relapsed into dullness and silence.

One by one the visitors arose and took leave, chattering to the very last.

As soon as the two ladies were left alone together, Lady C. took Valerie's hand, and gazing earnestly in her face, said:

"What is the matter with you, my child? You look pale and ill. Although I am so glad to see you, under any circumstances, I am half inclined to scold you for coming out at all."

For a moment Valerie felt inclined to open her oppressed and suffering heart to this sweet, matronly friend, and tell her the whole, bitter truth, and seek her wise counsel; but again the want of moral courage, which had always been so fatal to her welfare, sealed her lips.

"Well," said Lady C., after a short pause for that answer that never came, "I will not press the question. 'The heart knoweth its own bitterness.'"

"Yes," murmured Valerie, in a very low voice. Then, not to seem indifferent or unsocial, and also, if the truth must be told of her, to gratify a gnawing curiosity, she inquired:

"How goes the expected marriage of your niece, madame?"

"I cannot tell you dear. I have been daily expecting some communication on the subject from de Volaski: but as yet he has made none. After coming to Paris for the purpose, (for of course his office in the embassy is a mere sinecure and a plausible excuse,) he betrays the bashfulness of a girl in pressing his suit; but some men, some of the best and purest of men, are just that way-in love affairs as shy women," said her ladyship.

Valerie smiled bitterly. She thought she understood the reason why the Count de Volaski was in no hurry to press the suit for marriage with a dreaming girl, to whom he had been arbitrarily contracted when he was a boy of fifteen, and she a child of twelve.

"I shall, however, write again to her father. I will not have my sister's daughter wasting her youth in a convent, while waiting for a tardy suitor."

Valerie smiled again, and then arose to take her leave.

Lady C. kissed her affectionately, and promised soon to visit her at the Hotel de la Motte.

"But-how long will you remain there?" inquired her ladyship.

"I do not know. Until some business connected with my father's will shall be arranged, I think. We are there on sufferance only. My cousin, Louis, the present baron, wrote from Algiers, very kindly asking us to occupy the Hotel de la Motte at any time when business or pleasure should call us to Paris. The house was the home of my childhood, and I prefer to live in it as long as I may. The duke, though he would rather live at the 'Trois Freres,' yields to my whim, and so we occupy the Hotel de la Motte, but I do not know for how long a time."

"Until you leave Paris, I presume?"

"Yes, probably," answered Valerie, as with another kiss, she took leave of her kind friend.

"Shall I ever see her sweet face, hear her sweet voice again?" murmured the young duchess, as she passed out to her carriage.

"You posted my letter?" she inquired of the footman who opened the carriage-door.

"Yes, your grace."

"That will do. Home."

The footman repeated the order to the coachman, who drove back to the Hotel de la Motte.

As Valerie entered her morning-room after laying off her bonnet and wrappings, she found the Duke of Hereward there, reading the papers.

He arose and placed a chair for her, saying kindly:

"I hope your drive has done you good, dear; if it has not been so long as to fatigue you."

"I have only been to the Hotel Borghese to call on Lady C.," replied Valerie, sinking into the chair and leaning back.

"Now that I look well at you, I see that you are tired. A very little exertion seems to fatigue you now, Valerie. I do not understand your condition. It makes me anxious. I have asked Velpeau to call and see you. He will look in this afternoon."

"Thanks, you are very kind-too kind to me, as fretful and miserable as I am," replied Valerie, with a momentary compunction-only a momentary one, for the deep fear, horror and despair which had seized her soul left her little sensibility to comparative trifles.

"My poor child," said the duke, looking compassionately on her pale, worn face, "do you not know that I can make all allowance for you? You are suffering very much. I hope Velpeau will be able to do something for you. You know he stands at the head of the medical profession in Paris, which is as much as to say, in the world."

"Yes, I know," said Valerie, indifferently. Then, with sudden earnestness, she exclaimed: "I wish you would do something for me."

"Why, my poor girl, I would do anything in the world for you. Tell me what you want me to do."

"I know you cannot leave Paris now, and so you cannot, yourself, take me to England; but I wish to go there; I wish you to send me there to Hereward Hold, where we passed so many peaceful months."

"To send you there alone, Valerie?" inquired the duke, in surprise.

"No, but with my personal attendants, and with any discreet old lady you may choose to appoint as my companion, if, like an old Spanish husband, you think your young wife may require watching when she is out of your sight," she added, with a relapse into her irritable mood.

"Valerie! you wrong me and yourself by such a thought," said the duke, gravely.

"I know I do, and I know I am a wretch! but I want to go to England. I want to get away from everybody, and be by myself. You promised to do what I wanted done. That is what I want done."

"Do you wish 'to get away' from me, Valerie?"

"Yes, from you and from everybody, except from my servants, who are not my companions, and therefore don't bore me."

"It must be as I thought," said the duke to himself; "all this eccentricity, this nervous irritability has a natural cause, and not an alarming one, and it must be humored."

"Will you keep your promise?" she testily inquired.

"Certainly, my dear child. Anything to please you. You will see Velpeau this afternoon. If after consulting him you still think it necessary to leave Paris for Hereward Hold, I will send you there under proper protection. By the by, you succeed very well in getting away from your friends I think. The Count de Volaski called here while you were away this forenoon. He seemed disappointed in not seeing you. He looks ill. I never saw a man change so within the last few days. I should not wonder if he were on the very verge of a bad fever. I wish you had seen him. He was quite a friend of yours in St. Petersburg, I believe."

"I used to see him every day in the public assemblies to which we were always going. I wish you wouldn't talk about him," gasped Valerie, with a nervous shudder, as she arose and left the room.

"What a little misanthrope she has grown to be; but it is only a temporary affliction. She will get over it in a few weeks," said the duke to himself, as he resumed the reading of his newspaper.

The next day Valerie arose at her usual hour, and breakfasted tete-a-tete with the duke. She knew that this day must decide her fate, and she tried to nerve herself to bear all that it might bring her, even as the frailest women sometimes brace themselves to bear torture and death.

At eleven in the forenoon, the duke left the house to go to the Hotel de Ville to keep an appointment that would detain him until three in the afternoon.

Valerie knew all about this appointment, and had therefore fixed the hour of noon as the safest time for her interview with the count.

Twelve o'clock, therefore, found her dressed in her deepest mourning, and seated in her private drawing-room, awaiting the advent of her most dreaded visitor, Waldemar de Volaski.

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