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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 3
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In The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 3 Post by :juicetee6 Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2721

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In The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

Dolores stood leaning against the back of the chair, neither hearing nor seeing her sister, conscious only that Don John was in danger and that she could not warn him to be on his guard. She had not believed herself when she had told her father that he would not dare to lift his hand against the King's half brother. She had said the words to give herself courage, and perhaps in a rush of certainty that the man she loved was a match for other men, hand to hand, and something more. It was different now. Little as she yet knew of human nature, she guessed without reasoning that a man who has been angry, who has wavered and given way to what he believes to be weakness, and whose anger has then burst out again, is much more dangerous than before, because his wrath is no longer roused against another only, but also against himself. More follies and crimes have been committed in that second tide of passion than under a first impulse. Even if Mendoza had not fully meant what he had said the first time, he had meant it all, and more, when he had last spoken. Once more the vision of fear rose before Dolores' eyes, nobler now; because it was fear for another and not for herself, but therefore also harder to conquer.

Inez had ceased from sobbing now, and was sitting quietly in her accustomed seat, in that attitude of concentrated expectancy of sounds which is so natural to the blind, that one can almost recognize blindness by the position of the head and body without seeing the face. The blind rarely lean back in a chair; more often the body is quite upright, or bent a little forward, the face is slightly turned up when there is total silence, often turned down when a sound is already heard distinctly; the knees are hardly ever crossed, the hands are seldom folded together, but are generally spread out, as if ready to help the hearing by the sense of touch--the lips are slightly parted, for the blind know that they hear by the mouth as well as with their ears--the expression of the face is one of expectation and extreme attention, still, not placid, calm, but the very contrary of indifferent. It was thus that Inez sat, as she often sat for hours, listening, always and forever listening to the speech of things and of nature, as well as for human words. And in listening, she thought and reasoned patiently and continually, so that the slightest sounds had often long and accurate meanings for her. The deaf reason little or ill, and are very suspicious; the blind, on the contrary, are keen, thoughtful, and ingenious, and are distrustful of themselves rather than of others. Inez sat quite still, listening, thinking, and planning a means of helping her sister.

But Dolores stood motionless as if she were paralyzed, watching the picture that "he could not chase away. For she saw the familiar figure of the man she loved coming down the gloomy corridor, alone and unarmed, past the deep embrasures through which the moonlight streamed, straight towards the oak door at the end; and then, from one of the windows another figure stood out, sword in hand, a gaunt man with a grey beard, and there were few words, and an uncertain quick confounding of shadows with a ray of cold light darting hither and thither, then a fall, and then stillness. As soon as it was over, it began again, with little change, save that it grew more distinct, till she could see Don John's white face in the moonlight as he lay dead on the pavement of the corridor.

It became intolerable at last, and she slowly raised one hand and covered her eyes to shut out the sight.

"Listen," said Inez, as Dolores stirred. "I have been thinking. You must see him to-night, even if you are not alone with him. There is only one way to do that; you must dress yourself for the court and go down to the great hall with the others and speak to him--then you can decide how to meet to-morrow."

"Inez--I have not told you the rest! To-morrow I am to be sent to Las Huelgas, and kept there like a prisoner." Inez uttered a low cry of pain.

"To a convent!" It seemed like death.

Dolores began to tell her all Mendoza had said, but Inez soon interrupted her. There was a dark flush in the blind girl's face.

"And he would have you believe that he loves you?" she cried indignantly. "He has always been hard, and cruel, and unkind, he has never forgiven me for being blind---he will never forgive you for being young! The King! The King before everything and every one--before himself, yes, that is well, but before his children, his soul, his heart--he has no heart! What am I saying--" She stopped short.

"And yet, in his strange way, he loves us both," said Dolores. "I cannot understand it, but I saw his face when there were tears in his eyes, and I heard his voice. He would give his life for us."

"And our lives, and hearts, and hopes to feed his conscience and to save his own soul!"

Inez was trembling with anger, leaning far forward, her face flushed, one slight hand clenched, the other clenching it hard. Dolores was silent. It was not the first time that Inez had spoken in this way, for the blind girl could be suddenly and violently angry for a good cause. But now her tone changed.

"I will save you," she said suddenly, "but there is no time to be lost. He will not come back to our rooms now, and he knows well enough that Don John cannot come here at this hour, so that he is not waiting for him. We have this part of the place to ourselves, and the outer door only is bolted now. It will take you an hour to dress--say three-quarters of an hour. As soon as you get out, you must go quickly round the palace to the Duchess Alvarez. Our father will not go there, and you can go down with her, as usual--but tell her nothing. Our father will be there, and he will see you, but he will not care to make an open scandal in the court. Don John will come and speak to you; you must stay beside the Duchess of course--but you can manage to exchange a few words."

Dolores listened intently, and her face brightened a little as Inez went on, only to grow sad and hopeless again a moment later. It was all an impossible dream.

"That would be possible if I could once get beyond the door of the hall," she said despondently. "It is of no use, dear! The door is bolted."

"They will open it for me. Old Eudaldo is always within hearing, and he will do anything for me. Besides, I shall seem to have been shut in by mistake, do you see? I shall say that I am hungry, thirsty, that I am cold, that in locking you in our father locked me in, too, because I was asleep. Then Eudaldo will open the door for me. I shall say that I am going to the Duchess's."

"Yes--but then?"

"You will cover yourself entirely with my black cloak and draw it over your head and face. We are of the same height--you only need to walk as I do--as if you were blind--across the hall to the left. Eudaldo will open the outer door for you. You will just nod to thank him, without speaking, and when you are outside, touch the wall of the corridor with your left hand, and keep close to it. I always do, for fear of running against some one. If you meet any of the women, they will take you for me. There is never much light in the corridor, is there? There is one oil lamp half way down, I know, for I always smell it when I pass in the evening."

"Yes, it is almost dark there--it is a little lamp. Do you really think this is possible?"

"It is possible, not sure. If you hear footsteps in the corridor beyond the corner, you will have time to slip into one of the embrasures. But our father will not come now. He knows that Don John is in his own apartments with many people. And besides, it is to be a great festival to-night, and all the court people and officers, and the Archbishop, and all the rest who do not live in the palace will come from the city, so that our father will have to command the troops and give orders for the guards to march out, and a thousand things will take his time. Don John cannot possibly come here till after the royal supper, and if our father can come away at all, it will be at the same time. That is the danger."

Dolores shivered and saw the vision in the corridor again.

"But if you are seen talking with Don John before supper, no one will suppose that in order to meet him you would risk coming back here, where you are sure to be caught and locked up again. Do you see?"

"It all depends upon whether I can get out," answered Dolores, but there was more hope in her tone. "How am I to dress without a maid?" she asked suddenly.

"Trust me," said Inez, with a laugh. "My hands are better than a serving-woman's eyes. You shall look as you never looked before. I know every lock of your hair, and just how it should be turned and curled and fastened in place so that it cannot possibly get loose. Come, we are wasting time. Take off your slippers as I have done, so that no one shall hear us walking through the hall to your room, and bring the candles with you if you choose--yes, you need them to pick out the colours you like."

"If you think it will be safer in the dark, it does not matter," said Dolores. "I know where everything is."

"It would be safer," answered Inez thoughtfully. "It is just possible that he might be in the court and might see the light in your window, whereas if it burns here steadily, he will suspect nothing. We will bolt the door of this room, as I found it. If by any possibility he comes back, he will think you are still here, and will probably not come in."

"Pray Heaven he may not!" exclaimed Dolores, and she began to go towards the door.

Inez was there before her, opening it very cautiously.

"My hands are lighter than yours," she whispered.

They both passed out, and Inez slipped the bolt back into its place with infinite precaution.

"Is there light here?" she asked under her breath.

"There is a very small lamp on the table. I can just see my door."

"Put it out as we pass," whispered Inez. "I will lead you if you cannot find your way."

They moved cautiously forward, and when they reached the table, Dolores bent down to the small wick and blew out the flame. Then she felt her sister's hand taking hers and leading her quickly to the other door. The blind girl was absolutely noiseless in her movements, and Dolores had the strange impression that she was being led by a spirit through the darkness. Inez stopped a moment, and then went slowly on; they had entered the room though Dolores had not heard the door move, nor did she hear it closed behind her again. Her own room was perfectly dark, for the heavy curtain that covered the window was drawn; she made a step alone, and cautiously, and struck her knee against a chair.

"Do not move," whispered Inez. "You will make a noise. I can dress you where you stand, or if you want to find anything, I will lead you to the place where it is. Remember that it is always day for me."

Dolores obeyed, and stood still, holding her breath a little in her intense excitement. It seemed impossible that Inez could do all she promised without making a mistake, and Dolores would not have been a woman had she not been visited just then by visions of ridicule. Without light she was utterly helpless to do anything for herself, and she had never before then fully realized the enormous misfortune with which her sister had to contend. She had not guessed, either, what energy and quickness of thought Inez possessed, and the sensation of being advised, guided, and helped by one she had always herself helped and protected was new.

They spoke in quick whispers of what she was to wear and of how her hair was to be dressed, and Inez found what was wanted without noise, and almost as quickly as Dolores could have done in broad daylight, and placed a chair for her, making her sit down in it, and began to arrange her hair quickly and skilfully. Dolores felt the spiritlike hands touching her lightly and deftly in the dark--they were very slight and soft, and did not offend her with a rough movement or a wrong turn, as her maid's sometimes did. She felt her golden hair undone, and swiftly drawn out and smoothed without catching, or tangling, or hurting her at all, in a way no woman had ever combed it, and the invisible hands gently divided it, and turned it upon her head, slipping the hairpins into the right places as if by magic, so that they were firm at the first trial, and there was a faint sound of little pearls tapping each other, and Dolores felt the small string laid upon her hair and fastened in its place,--the only ornament a young girl could wear for a headdress,--and presently it was finished, and Inez gave a sigh of satisfaction at her work, and lightly felt her sister's head here and there to be sure that all was right. It felt as if soft little birds were just touching the hair with the tips of their wings as they fluttered round it. Dolores had no longer any fear of looking ill dressed in the blaze of light she was to face before long. The dressing of her hair was the most troublesome part, she knew, and though she could not have done it herself, she had felt that every touch and turn had been perfectly skilful.

"What a wonderful creature you are!" she whispered, as Inez bade her stand up.

"You have beautiful hair," answered the blind girl, "and you are beautiful in other ways, but to-night you must be the most beautiful of all the court, for his sake--so that every woman may envy you, and every man envy him, when they see you talking together. And now we must be quick, for it has taken a long time, and I hear the soldiers marching out again to form in the square. That is always just an hour and a half before the King goes into the hall. Here--this is the front of the skirt."

"No--it is the back!"

Inez laughed softly, a whispering laugh that Dolores could scarcely hear.

"It is the front," she said. "You can trust me in the dark. Put your arms down, and let me slip it over your head so as not to touch your hair. No---hold your arms down!"

Dolores had instinctively lifted her hands to protect her headdress. Then all went quickly, the silence only broken by an occasional whispered word and by the rustle of silk, the long soft sound of the lacing as Inez drew it through the eyelets of the bodice, the light tapping of her hands upon the folds and gatherings of the skirt and on the puffed velvet on the shoulders and elbows.

"You must be beautiful, perfectly beautiful to-night," Inez repeated more than once.

She herself did not understand why she said it, unless it were that Dolores' beauty was for Don John of Austria, and that nothing in the whole world could be too perfect for him, for the hero of her thoughts, the sun of her blindness, the immeasurably far-removed deity of her heart. She did not know that it was not for her sister's sake, but for his, that she had planned the escape and was taking such infinite pains that Dolores might look her best. Yet she felt a deep and delicious delight in what she did, like nothing she had ever felt before, for it was the first time in her life that she had been able to do something that could give him pleasure; and, behind that, there was the belief that he was in danger, that she could no longer go to him nor warn him now, and that only Dolores herself could hinder him from coming unexpectedly against old Mendoza, sword in hand, in the corridor.

"And now my cloak over everything," she said. "Wait here, for I must get it, and do not move!"

Dolores hardly knew whether Inez left the room or not, so noiselessly did the girl move. Then she felt the cloak laid upon her shoulders and drawn close round her to hide her dress, for skirts were short in those days and easily hidden. Inez laid a soft silk handkerchief upon her sister's hair, lest it should be disarranged by the hood which she lightly drew over all, assuring herself that it would sufficiently hide the face.

"Now come with me," she whispered. I will lead you to the door that is bolted and place you just where it will open. Then I will call Eudaldo and speak to him, and beg him to let me out. If he does, bend your head and try to walk as I do. I shall be on one side of the door, and, as the room is dark, he cannot possibly see me. While he is opening the outer door for you, I will slip back into my own room. Do you understand? And remember to hide in an embrasure if you hear a man's footsteps. Are you quite sure you understand?"

"Yes; it will be easy if Eudaldo opens. And I thank you, dear; I wish I knew how to thank you as I ought! It may have saved his life--"

"And yours, too, perhaps," answered Inez, beginning to lead her away. "You would die in the convent, and you must not come back--you must never come back to us here--never till you are married. Good-by, Dolores--dear sister. I have done nothing, and you have done everything for me all your life. Good-by--one kiss--then we must go, for it is late."

With her soft hands she drew Dolores' head towards her, lifted the hood a little, and kissed her tenderly. All at once there were tears on both their faces, and the arms of each clasped the other almost desperately.

"You must come to me, wherever I am," Dolores said.

"Yes, I will come, wherever you are. I promise it."

Then she disengaged herself quickly, and more than ever she seemed a spirit as she went before, leading her sister by the hand. They reached the door, and she made Dolores stand before the right hand panel, ready to slip out, and once more she touched the hood to be sure it hid the face. She listened a moment. A harsh and regular sound came from a distance, resembling that made by a pit-saw steadily grinding its way lengthwise through a log of soft pine wood.

"Eudaldo is asleep," said Inez, and even at this moment she could hardly suppress a half-hysterical laugh. "I shall have to make a tremendous noise to wake him. The danger is that it may bring some one else,---the women, the rest of the servants."

"What shall we do?" asked Dolores, in a distressed whisper.

She had braced her nerves to act the part of her sister at the dangerous moment, and her excitement made every instant of waiting seem ten times its length. Inez did not answer the question at once. Dolores repeated it still more anxiously.

"I was trying to make up my mind," said the other at last. "You could pass Eudaldo well enough, I am sure, but it might be another matter if the hall were full of servants, as it is certain that our father has given a general order that you are not to be allowed to go out. We may wait an hour for the man to wake."

Dolores instinctively tried the door, but it was solidly fastened from the outside. She felt hot and cold by turns as her anxiety grew more intolerable. Each minute made it more possible that she might meet her father somewhere outside.

"We must decide something!" she whispered desperately. "We cannot wait here."

"I do not know what to do," answered Inez. "I have done all I can; I never dreamt that Eudaldo would be asleep. At least, it is a sure sign that our father is not in the house."

"But he may come at any moment! We must, we must do something at once!"

"I will knock softly," said Inez. "Any one who hears it will suppose it is a knock at the hall door. If he does not open, some one will go and wake him up, and then go away again so as not to be seen."

She clenched her small hand, and knocked three times. Such a sound could make not the slightest impression upon Eudaldo's sound sleep, but her reasoning was good, as well as ingenious. After waiting a few moments, she knocked again, more loudly. Dolores held her breath in the silence that followed. Presently a door was opened, and a woman's voice was heard, low but sharp.

"Eudaldo, Eudaldo! Some one is knocking at the front door!"

The woman probably shook the old man to rouse him, for his voice came next, growling and angry.

"Witch! Hag! Mother of malefactors! Let me alone--I am asleep. Are you trying to tear my sleeve off with your greasy claws? Nobody is knocking; you probably hear the wine thumping in your ears!"

The woman, who was the drudge and had been cleaning the kitchen, was probably used to Eudaldo's manner of expressing himself, for she only laughed.

"Wine makes men sleep, but it does not knock at doors," she answered. "Some one has knocked twice. You had better go and open the door."

A shuffling sound and a deep yawn announced that Eudaldo was getting out of his chair. The two girls heard him moving towards the outer entrance. Then they heard the woman go away, shutting the other door behind her, as soon as she was sure that Eudaldo was really awake. Then Inez called him softly.

"Eudaldo? Here--it was I that knocked--you must let me out, please--come nearer."

"Dona Inez?" asked the old man, standing still.

"Hush!" answered the girl. "Come nearer." She waited, listening while he approached. "Listen to me," she continued. "The General has locked me in, by mistake. He did not know I was here when he bolted the door. And I am hungry and thirsty and very cold, Eudaldo--and you must let me out, and I will run to the Duchess Alvarez and stay with her little girl. Indeed, Eudaldo, the General did not mean to lock me in, too."

"He said nothing about your ladyship to me," answered the servant doubtfully. "But I do not know--" he hesitated.

"Please, please, Eudaldo," pleaded Inez, "I am so cold and lonely here--"

"But Dona Dolores is there, too," observed Eudaldo.

Dolores held her breath and steadied herself against the panel.

"He shut her into the inner sitting-room. How could I dare to open the door! You may go in and knock--she will not answer you."

"Is your ladyship sure that Dona Dolores is within?" asked Eudaldo, in a more yielding tone.

"Absolutely, perfectly sure!" answered Inez, with perfect truth. "Oh, do please let me out."

Slowly the old man drew the bolt, while Dolores' heart stood still, and she prepared herself for the danger; for she knew well enough that the faithful old servant feared his master much more than he feared the devil and all evil spirits, and would prevent her from passing, even with force, if he recognized her.

"Thank you, Eudaldo--thank you!" cried Inez, as the latch turned. "And open the front door for me, please," she said, putting her lips just where the panel was opening.

Then she drew back into the darkness. The door was wide open now, and Eudaldo was already shuffling towards the entrance. Dolores went forward, bending her head, and trying to affect her sister's step. No distance had ever seemed so long to her as that which separated her from the hall door which Eudaldo was already opening for her. But she dared not hasten her step, for though Inez moved with perfect certainty in the house, she always walked with a certain deliberate caution, and often stopped to listen, while crossing a room. The blind girl was listening now, with all her marvellous hearing, to be sure that all went well till Dolores should be outside. She knew exactly how many steps there were from where she stood to the entrance, for she had often counted them.

Dolores must have been not more than three yards from the door, when Inez started involuntarily, for she heard a sound from without, far off--so far that Dolores could not possibly have heard it yet, but unmistakable to the blind girl's keener ear. She listened intently--there were Dolores' last four steps to the open doorway, and there were others from beyond, still very far away in the vaulted corridors, but coming nearer. To call her sister back would have made all further attempt at escape hopeless--to let her go on seemed almost equally fatal--Inez could have shrieked aloud. But Dolores had already gone out, and a moment later the heavy door swung back to its place, and it was too late to call her. Like an immaterial spirit, Inez slipped away from the place where she stood and went back to Dolores' room, knowing that Eudaldo would very probably go and knock where he supposed her sister to be a prisoner, before slipping the outer bolt again. And so he did, muttering an imprecation upon the little lamp that had gone out and left the small hall in darkness. Then he knocked, and spoke through the door, offering to bring her food, or fire, and repeating his words many times, in a supplicating tone, for he was devoted to both the sisters, though terror of old Mendoza was the dominating element in his existence.

At last he shook his head and turned despondently to light the little lamp again; and when he had done that, he went away and bolted the door after him, convinced that Inez had gone out and that Dolores had stayed behind in the last room.

When she had heard him go away the last time, the blind girl threw herself upon Dolores' bed, and buried her face in the down cushion, sobbing bitterly in her utter loneliness; weeping, too, for something she did not understand, but which she felt the more painfully because she could not understand it, something that was at once like a burning fire and an unspeakable emptiness craving to be filled, something that longed and feared, and feared longing, something that was a strong bodily pain but which she somehow knew might have been the source of all earthly delight,--an element detached from thought and yet holding it, above the body and yet binding it, touching the soul and growing upon it, but filling the soul itself with fear and unquietness, and making her heart cry out within her as if it were not hers and were pleading to be free. So, as she could not understand that this was love, which, as she had heard said, made women and men most happy, like gods and goddesses, above their kind, she lay alone in the darkness that was always as day to her, and wept her heart out in scalding tears.

In the corridor outside, Dolores made a few steps, remembering to put out her left hand to touch the wall, as Inez had told her to do; and then she heard what had reached her sister's ears much sooner. She stood still an instant, strained her eyes to see in the dim light of the single lamp, saw nothing, and heard the sound coming nearer. Then she quickly crossed the corridor to the nearest embrasure to hide herself. To her horror she realized that the light of the full moon was streaming in as bright as day, and that she could not be hid. Inez knew nothing of moonlight.

She pressed herself to the wall, on the side away from her own door, making herself as small as she could, for it was possible that whoever came by might pass without turning his head. Nervous and exhausted by all she had felt and been made to feel since the afternoon, she held her breath and waited.

The regular tread of a man booted and spurred came relentlessly towards her, without haste and without pause. No one who wore spurs but her father ever came that way. She listened breathlessly to the hollow echoes, and turned her eyes along the wall of the embrasure. In a moment she must see his gaunt figure, and the moonlight would be white on his short grey beard.

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