« НазадПродовжити »
“ She will come in her turn."
She rose, and pouring out a glass of lemonade, presented it to him : he drank it eagerly, and, for a time, the recollection of Sister Louise seemed weakened.
It was midnight ; a pale lamp burned in his chamber; there was a whispering and rustling by his bed-side, a retreating footstep, then all again was still.
"William,” said Lord Altamont faintly, “give me water !"
William had gone to rest ; but the curtain was gently withdrawn, and a cup of cooling beverage was presented : he seized the hand that held it, and looked up; a muffled form and a black mask met his view.
« You have kept your word,” he exclaimed solemnly : “I am in sickness and in sorrow, and you have not failed me.”
The charity sister made no answer, but gave him the cup and smoothed his pillow.
“ You will not leave me?”.
“ Nor to-morrow either !” he wildly replied. “ Give me your hand, and then I shall be sure of you ; you shall not run away and leave me as she did ! Did you never see her? O yes, you saw her in her winding-sheet by her father's corpse. Here, take back your hand - I thought it had been her's, it is so smooth and small-take it away, for I have sworn never to touch the hand of woman more lYou are weeping, are you? I hear you sob—ha! ha! it is very well you wear a mask to hide your crocodile tears. Women can weep and weep_they can smile too, and stab while they smile. I dare say, you and your cousin murdered your husband.”
“ Horrible!" ejaculated the sister. His mutterings gradually became unintelligible, and still under the influence of a powerful narcotic, he again sank to sleep.
About seven in the morning the patient awoke; William was moving gently about the room, and there was a very audible and unusual sound at the bed-side.
“ William, for Heaven's sake, tell me what noise this is close to me here."
“ It is the charity sister, my lord, snoring," replied William, at the same time shaking her without much ceremony. “ Awake, mistress, if you please ; you disturb my lord.”
A fat, healthy, good-humoured looking woman awoke en sursaut : “ Only think of my sleeping at my post!” she said, drawing back the bed-curtain, and presenting her “shining morning face” to Lord Altamont; " what would Sister Louise say to me! How do you feel yourself, sir, this morning ?”
“ Was it a dream ?” exclaimed Lord Altamont: “Has she not then been here—that lady in the mask ?" “ No dream at all,” replied Sister Marie, “I relieved her about an
hour since ; and, for your comfort, I can tell you, she has gone to ask our superior leave to allow her to nurse you altogether : such a request is against the rules, but Sister Louise can do what she pleases with our lady."
About mid-day the masked sister returned to take up her station at the inn. She found her patient better, free from delirium, the fever abated, and very thankful for the exertion she had made in his favour.
“ If,” said he, “ you will pass an occasional hour with me during the day, it is all I ask.”
She bowed her head in token of acquiescence; but as Lord Altamont was in a state of extreme weakness, she prohibited all further conversation.
Sister Louise, therefore, spent several hours each day with her patient, watchful, zealous, and studying his comfort in all things, but never officious or intrusive; she had the air of a person who was simply performing her duty, but performing it in the true spirit of charity, gently, easily, and kindly.
“How shall I ever repay you?” Lord Altamont would exclaim in the warmth of his gratitude.
“ By getting well,” she would reply, “and by never failing to remember, that what I do for you, I would do for the poorest, the meanest, the most ignorant, and the most thankless of my fellowcreatures."
Sometimes Louise would bring her painting or embroidery into the sick chamber and converse with her patient while so employed ; at others she would read to him. Every day Lord Altamont became more and more interested in his mysterious nurse-smile not, gentle reader ! love had apparently nothing to do in the affair on either side: perhaps you are one of those who cannot believe that pure friendship can exist between persons of a different sex-I only reply, that if you find it impossible to believe in such friendship you are clearly not worthy to enjoy it.
Lord Altamont was convalescent, and was able to be removed in his easy chair from his bed-room to his sitting-room. He was just entering into that delicious state which succeeds illness; in which every sense, relieved from unnatural oppression, becomes imbued with an unusual power of enjoyment; in which even the freshness of the breeze, and the fragrance of a flower, unlock a secret source, not of pleasure only, but of happiness.
One day Louise was working very industriously at her embroidery frame near the window of the little sitting-room. Lord Altamont, reclined on a couch, was idly sketching some patterns for her work; gradually he dropped his pencil, and his eyes and thoughts became unconsciously rivetted on the object before him. Her mask was a domino, not covering the mouth and lower part of the face, but over these fell a broad, full frill of black lace; the beautiful but fragile form, the thin white hand, the extreme fairness of the throat, the exquisite loveliness of the mouth and teeth, which could only be deeply shaded not entirely concealed by the dark folds of lace, by turns attracted his silent admiration. The contour of the lower part of the face wanted roundness, and she was evidently very pale; her head
dress entirely concealed her hair, and all that could be observed of her eyes was, that they were large and dark, but not bright.
“What strange fatality,” thought Lord Altamont, « could have brought this young creature (for in spite of her ten years' residence here she is certainly very young) into this singular and doubtful situation?” Several ideas crossed his mind, all of which he rejected. He was startled from his reverie by her suddenly raising her head, and saying,
“ In another fortnight, my lord, you will be quite off our sick-list, and well enough to pursue your journey.”
“So," he replied, “ the moment I am well I am to be dispatched about my business ?”
“ I do not know," said Louise, smiling, “ whether your journey be on business or pleasure; but neither, I should think, would be forwarded by a longer residence in our valley : you have found health here, and that is as much as in reason you can expect."
" Ah, Louise !" Lord Altamont replied, a you know not that the world and I have shaken hands and parted: we are nothing to each other. In my country I have still some duties left, both public and private, and except when these duties call me there, there is no spot I would rather retreat to than this."
Louise sat in silence and apparently in thought for a few minutes, then said timidly,
“My lord, you have often been pleased to express yourself warmly for the few services which, in the course of my calling, I have been enabled to render you, and have often asked me if it were not possible to make me some return; and now, I have a favour to ask.”
“ Name it, Louise !" cried Lord Altamont, eagerly.
“ And yet," she continued, “I fear you will think my request both singular and impertinent.”
“ Fear no such thing, my kind and gentle nurse, but name it at once."
Louise paused, as if to gather courage ; at length she said :“ During the first night of your illness, my lord, you were in a state of slight delirium, and allowed certain expressions to escape, which I cannot suppose were merely the effects of your wandering imagination. Your deep melancholy, your desire for seclusion, and even what you have just now said, produce in me a strange anxiety to learn the nature of the grief that oppresses you.” As Lord Altamont made no reply, she continued: “I do not attempt to justify my motives for making this request; indeed, I should find it difficult to explain them: woman's curiosity, a friendly interest towards yourself, and a sympathy which, unhappy as has been my own destiny, I naturally feel towards the unhappy."
“ Say no more, Louise ; your request, from whatever motives arising, shall be granted. I cannot but feel gratified at the interest it implies ; give me till to-morrow, and I will tell you all—fear no halfconfidence.”
“ Thank you, my dear lord,” said Louise warmly; "and now we will talk of something else.”
The morrow came: Lord Altamont could not help feeling some surprise at the request of Louise, and some pain in granting it; but his resolution was taken. “ She is a singular being," he observed ; “ who knows but she may find, or, perhaps, has already found, some clue to the object of my search."
When, therefore, Louise was seated, as usual, at her work, and had, by a gesture, ventured to remind him of his promise, he began at once his melancholy tale without hesitation or preface.
In the course of it he condemned no one but himself; he was full of generosity and delicacy towards the erring and ill-fated Beauvilliers; he passed slightly over the conduct of his sister; and Rosabelle herself he represented as only being too perfect to live in a misjudging and sinning world. “ Had her mind," he exclaimed, “ been less pure, her conduct would have been more guarded. We were all incapable of appreciating the high tone of her moral worth ; Beauvilliers himself understood it best; for he dared not use against her the opportunity her confiding simplicity had afforded him.”
Louise never once interrupted Lord Altamont; she listened with the most profound attention. He could now and then perceive the colour rise and suffuse even the marble whiteness of her throat; and once or twice he thought a tear forced its way. As he approached the conclusion he became exhausted, and his agony, when describing the loss of his injured Rosabelle, and his long and now almost hopeless search, was evidently too much, and Louise became alarmed. When he had finished, he expressed a wish of being conveyed back to his room, and refused to see any one during the remainder of that day.
On the following he was more composed : Louise did not herself venture to renew the subject, but Lord Altamont was impatient to do so; and seemed to feel a mournful gratification in opening his heart upon it, and in drawing forth the soothing observations of his friend, her hopes, and her schemes.
“ My lord,” said Louise, after listening to a fit of self-condemnation, “ you are too severe upon your own conduct. All around you were in some degree to blame, not even excepting, (I know I am speaking high treason,) not even excepting Lady Altamont herself.
Your great error lay in not having sifted the truth by every means within your power, before throwing a stain upon the reputation of your wife, and attempting the life of a fellow-creature. This precaution you certainly did not observe to its full extent, for to that wife herself you ought to have appealed; a few minutes of personal explanation with her would probably have prevented all this fatal mischief.”
“But in what," asked his lordship impatiently, “ do you think Lady Altamont was to blame ?"
“ The whole of her conduct was imprudent,” replied Louise; “ it was her duty generally to have studied and conformed to the manners of the people among whom she was to live ; it was her duty particularly to have avoided all intimate intercourse with a man who had once presumed to address her in the language of forbidden passion. I agree with you in attributing her very faults to the purity of her mind and the goodness of her heart, yet still those faults existed ;
and I should speak more accurately were I to trace them, less to the excess of her virtues, than to the deficiency of one in particular, without which, as in this instance, good itself is in danger of degenerating into evil: the self-watching and all-regulating principle, (prudence, discretion, call it as you will,) was absent-and how frequently is it absent from the most noble and highly-gifted minds ! its presence might, perhaps, render those minds too elevated and powerful. In this, therefore, as in all its dispensations, Providence is wise and just.
“I blame Lady Altamont again, in not waiting your return after the fatal duel, and hearing from your own lips the motives that urged you to a step so rash and decisive.” Louise paused, and as Lord Altamont made no answer, she resumed: “ But what can have become of her ? Did you not say that she took your portrait ?".
“ Yes," replied Lord Altamont.
“ No, I wish I had it would have been at least a consolation ; it might even have been useful in tracing her ; but I never could prevail upon her to sit for her portrait.”
Louise appeared thoughtful for a short time, then said: “ You know, my lord, that I draw and paint a little; you have only seen me practising on flowers, but I consider myself a greater adept in heads and figures: you have described Lady Altamont so accurately, and her image is so strongly impressed on my imagination, that I think, with your assistance and correction, I might be enabled to produce a sketch sufficiently resembling to be interesting to you, and perhaps, as you have hinted, to be useful in tracing
Lord Altamont instantly seized on the idea, and to work they immediately went. He soon perceived that Louise was more of an artist than he imagined; he could not, however, help smiling at her first rough sketch, which was almost a caricature ; but by degrees an exact outline was gained. He described the costume en paysanne, in which he had first seen Rosabelle at Clairville, and the expression was to suit that dress and that moment.
“Let me gaze upon her as she was before I came as a blight upon her happiness and beauty! O Rosabelle! what art thou now? I should fear to look on thee—a wan and withered flower, if not already trampled to the grave !"
“ Now,” said Louise, laying down her pencil, “ I think my idea is complete; if I find it gets confused, I will again apply to you; but if not, you shall not see the portrait until it is finished, which I will take care it shall be by the time you are ready to depart.”
On the following day Lord Altamont was able to go out a little on horseback, and his restoration to health soon became rapid and decisive; with health came hope once more, and though it seemed to have little or no foundation, it still clung round his heart more tenaciously than ever. He spent the greater part of the day in out-ofdoor exercise, exploring the romantic scenery in every direction; and the visits of Louise became confined to an hour in the evening, usually accompanied by Annette. She had returned to her accus