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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesIn The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 8
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In The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 8 Post by :onlineleben Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :1708

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In The Palace Of The King: A Love Story - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

The court had been still at supper when Adonis had summoned Don Antonio Perez to the King, and the Secretary, as he was usually called, had been obliged to excuse his sudden departure by explaining that the King had sent for him unexpectedly. He was not even able to exchange a word with Dona Ana, who was seated at another of the three long tables and at some distance from him. She understood, however, and looked after him anxiously. His leaving was not signal for the others, but it caused a little stir which unhinged the solemn formality of the supper. The Ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire presently protested that he was suffering from an unbearable headache, and the Princess of Eboli, next to whom he was seated, begged him not to stand upon ceremony, since Perez was gone from the room, but to order his coach at once; she found it hot, she said, and would be glad to escape. The two rose together, and others followed their example, until the few who would have stayed longer were constrained to imitate the majority. When Mendoza, relieved at last from his duty, went towards the supper-room to take the place that was kept for him at one of the tables, he met Dona Ana in the private corridor through which the officers and ladies of the household passed to the state apartments. He stood still, surprised to see her there.

"The supper is over," she said, stopping also, and trying to scrutinize the hard old face by the dim light of the lamps. "May I have a word with you, General? Let us walk together to your apartments."

"It is far, Madam," observed Mendoza, who suspected at once that she wished to see Dolores.

"I shall be glad to walk a little, and breathe the air," she answered. "Your corridor has arches open to the air, I remember." She began to walk, and he was obliged to accompany her. "Yes," she continued indifferently, "we have had such changeable weather to-day! This morning it almost snowed, then it rained, then it, began to freeze, and now it feels like summer! I hope Dolores has not taken cold? Is she ill? She was not at court before supper."

"The weather is indeed very changeable," replied the General, who did not know what to say, and considered it beneath his dignity to lie except by order of the King.

"Yes--yes, I was saying so, was I not? But Dolores--is she ill? Please tell me." The Princess spoke almost anxiously.

"No, Madam, my daughters are well, so far as I know."

"But then, my dear General, it is strange that you should not have sent an excuse for Dolores' not appearing. That is the rule, you know. May I ask why you ventured to break it?" Her tone grew harder by degrees.

"It was very sudden," said Mendoza, trying to put her off. "I hope that your Grace will excuse my daughter."

"What was sudden?" enquired Dona Ana coldly. "You say she was not taken ill."

"Her--her not coming to court." Mendoza hesitated and pulled at his grey beard as they went along. "She fully intended to come," he added, with perfect truth.

Dona Ana walked more slowly, glancing sideways at his face, though she could hardly see it except when they passed by a lamp, for he was very tall, and she was short, though exquisitely proportioned.

"I do not understand," she said, in a clear, metallic voice. "I have a right to an explanation, for it is quite impossible to give the ladies of the court who live in the palace full liberty to attend upon the Queen or not, as they please. You will be singularly fortunate if Don Antonio Perez does not mention the matter to the King."

Mendoza was silent, but the words had their effect upon him, and a very unpleasant one, for they contained a threat.

"You see," continued the Princess, pausing as they reached a flight of steps which they would have to ascend, "every one acknowledges the importance of your services, and that you have been very poorly rewarded for them. But that is in a degree your own fault, for you have refused to make friends when you might, and you have little interest with the King."

"I know it," said the old soldier, rather bitterly. "Princess," he continued, without giving her time to say more, "this is a private matter, which concerns only me and my daughter. I entreat you to overlook the irregularity and not to question me further. I will serve you in any way in my power--"

"You cannot serve me in any way," answered Dona Ana cruelly. "I am trying to help you," she added, with a sudden change of tone. "You see, my dear General, you are no longer young. At your age, with your name and your past services, you should have been a grandee and a rich man. You have thrown away your opportunities of advancement, and you have contented yourself with an office which is highly honourable--but poorly paid, is it not? And there are younger men who court it for the honour alone, and who are willing to be served by their friends."

"Who is my successor?" asked Mendoza, bravely controlling his voice though he felt that he was ruined.

The skilful and cruel woman began to mount the steps in silence, in order to let him suffer a few moments, before she answered. Reaching the top, she spoke, and her voice was soft and kind.

"No one," she answered, "and there is nothing to prevent you from keeping your post as long as you like, even if you become infirm and have to appoint a deputy--but if there were any serious cause of complaint, like this extraordinary behaviour of Dolores--why, perhaps--"

She paused to give her words weight, for she knew their value.

"Madam," said Mendoza, "the matter I keep from you does not touch my honour, and you may know it, so far as that is concerned. But it is one of which I entreat you not to force me to speak."

Dona Ana softly passed her arm through his.

"I am not used to walking so fast," she said, by way of explanation. "But, my dear Mendoza," she went on, pressing his arm a little, "you do not think that I shall let what you tell me go further and reach any one else--do you? How can I be of any use to you, if you have no confidence in me? Are we not relatives? You must treat me as I treat you."

Mendoza wished that he could.

"Madam," he said almost roughly, "I have shut my daughter up in her own room and bolted the door, and to-morrow I intend to send her to a convent, and there she shall stay until she changes her mind, for I will not change mine"

"Oh!" ejaculated Dona Ana, with a long intonation, as if grasping the position of affairs by degrees. "I understand," she said, after a long time. "But then you and I are of the same opinion, my dear friend. Let us talk about this."

Mendoza did not wish to talk of the matter at all, and said nothing, as they slowly advanced. They had at last reached the passage that ended at his door, and he slackened his pace still more, obliging his companion, whose arm was still in his, to keep pace with him. The moonlight no longer shone in straight through the open embrasures, and there was a dim twilight in the corridor.

"You do not wish Dolores to marry Don John of Austria, then," said the Princess presently, in very low tones. "Then the King is on your side, and so am I. But I should like to know your reason for objecting to such a very great marriage."

"Simple enough, Madam. Whenever it should please his Majesty's policy to marry his brother to a royal personage, such as Queen Mary of Scotland, the first marriage would be proved null and void, because the King would command that it should be so, and my daughter would be a dishonoured woman, fit for nothing but a convent."

"Do you call that dishonour?" asked the Princess thoughtfully. "Even if that happened, you know that Don John would probably not abandon Dolores. He would keep her near him--and provide for her generously--"

"Madam!" cried the brave old soldier, interrupting her in sudden and generous anger, "neither man nor woman shall tell me that my daughter could ever fall to that!"

She saw that she had made a mistake, and pressed his arm soothingly.

"Pray, do not be angry with me, my dear friend. I was thinking what the world would say--no, let me speak! I am quite of your opinion that Dolores should be kept from seeing Don John, even by quiet force if necessary, for they will certainly be married at the very first opportunity they can find. But you cannot do such things violently, you know. You will make a scandal. You cannot take your daughter away from court suddenly and shut her up in a convent without doing her a great injury. Do you not see that? People will not understand that you will not let her marry Don John--I mean that most people would find it hard to believe. Yes, the world is bad, I know; what can one do? The world would say--promise me that you will not be angry, dear General! You can guess what the world would say."'

"I see--I see!" exclaimed the old man, in sudden terror for his daughter's good name. "How wise you are!"

"Yes," answered Dona Ana, stopping at ten paces from the door, "I am wise, for I am obliged to be. Now, if instead of locking Dolores into her room two or three hours ago, you had come to me, and told me the truth, and put her under my protection, for our common good, I would have made it quite impossible for her to exchange a word with Don John, and I would have taken such good care of her that instead of gossiping about her, the world would have said that she was high in favour, and would have begun to pay court to her. You know that I have the power to do that."

"How very wise you are!" exclaimed Mendoza again, with more emphasis.

"Very well. Will you let me take her with me now, my dear friend? I will console her a little, for I daresay she has been crying all alone in her room, poor girl, and I can keep her with me till Don John goes to Villagarcia. Then we shall see."

Old Mendoza was a very simple-hearted man, as brave men often are, and a singularly spotless life spent chiefly in war and austere devotion had left him more than ignorant of the ways of the world. He had few friends, chiefly old comrades of his own age who did not live in the palace, and he detested gossip. Had he known what the woman was with whom he was speaking, he would have risked Dolores' life rather than give her into the keeping of Dona Ana. But to him, the latter was simply the wife of old Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, the Minister of State, and she was the head of the Queen's household. No one would have thought of repeating the story of a court intrigue to Mendoza, but it was also true that every one feared Dona Ana, whose power was boundless, and no one wished to be heard speaking ill of her. To him, therefore, her proposition seemed both wise and kind.

"I am very grateful," he said, with some emotion, for he believed that she was helping him to save his fortune and his honour, as was perhaps really the case, though she would have helped him to lose both with equally persuasive skill could his ruin have served her. "Will you come in with me, Princess?" he asked, beginning to move towards the door.

"Yes. Take me to her room and leave me with her."

"Indeed, I would rather not see her myself this evening," said Mendoza, feeling his anger still not very far from the surface. "You will be able to speak more wisely than I should."

"I daresay," answered Dona Ana thoughtfully. "If you went with me to her, there might be angry words again, and that would make it much harder for me. If you will leave me at the door of her rooms, and then go away, I will promise to manage the rest. You are not sorry that you have told me, now, are you, my dear friend?"

"I am most grateful to you. I shall do all I can to be of service to you, even though you said that it was not in my power to serve you."

"I was annoyed," said Dona Ana sweetly. "I did not mean it--please forgive me."

They reached the door, and as she withdrew her hand from his arm, he took it and ceremoniously kissed her gloved fingers, while she smiled graciously. Then he knocked three times, and presently the shuffling of Eudaldo's slippers was heard within, and the old servant opened sleepily. On seeing the Princess enter first, he stiffened himself in a military fashion, for he had been a soldier and had fought under Mendoza when both were younger.

"Eudaldo," said the General, in the stern tone he always used when giving orders, "her Excellency the Princess of Eboli will take Dona Dolores to her own apartments this evening. Tell the maid to follow later with whatever my daughter needs, and do you accompany the ladies with a candle."

But at this Dona Ana protested strongly. There was moonlight, there were lamps, there was light everywhere, she said. She needed no one. Mendoza, who had no man-servant in the house but Eudaldo, and eked out his meagre establishment by making use of his halberdiers when he needed any one, yielded after very little persuasion.

"Open the door of my daughter's apartments," he said to Eudaldo. "Madam," he said, turning to the Princess, "I have the honour to wish you good-night. I am your Grace's most obedient servant. I must return to my duty."

"Good-night, my dear friend," answered Dona Ana, nodding graciously.

Mendoza bowed low, and went out again, Eudaldo closing the door behind him. He would not be at liberty until the last of the grandees had gone home, and the time he had consumed in accompanying the Princess was just what he could have spared for his supper. She gave a short sigh of relief as she heard his spurred heels and long sword on the stone pavement. He was gone, leaving Dolores in her power, and she meant to use that power to the utmost.

Eudaldo shuffled silently across the hall, to the other door, and she followed him. He drew the bolt.

"Wait here," she said quietly. "I wish to see Dona Dolores alone."

"Her ladyship is in the farther room, Excellency," said the servant, bowing and standing back.

She entered and closed the door, and Eudaldo returned to his big chair, to doze until she should come out.

She had not taken two steps in the dim room, when a shadow flitted between her and the lamp, and it was almost instantly extinguished. She uttered an exclamation of surprise and stood still. Anywhere save in Mendoza's house, she would have run back and tried to open the door as quickly as possible, in fear of her life, for she had many enemies, and was constantly on her guard. But she guessed that the shadowy figure she had seen was Dolores. She spoke, without hesitation, in a gentle voice.

"Dolores! Are you there?" she asked.

A moment later she felt a small hand on her arm.

"Who is it?" asked a whisper, which might have come from Dolores' lips for all Dona Ana could tell.

She had forgotten the existence of Inez, whom she had rarely seen, and never noticed, though she knew that Mendoza had a blind daughter.

"It is I--the Princess of Eboli," she answered in the same gentle tone.

"Hush! Whisper to me."

"Your father has gone back to his duty, my dear--you need not be afraid."

"Yes, but Eudaldo is outside--he hears everything when he is not asleep. What is it, Princess? Why are you here?"

"I wish to talk with you a little," replied Dona Ana, whispering now, to please the girl. "Can we not get a light? Why did you put out the lamp? I thought you were in another room."

"I was frightened. I did not know who you were. We can talk in the dark, if you do not mind. I will lead you to a chair. I know just where everything is in this room."

The Princess suffered herself to be led a few steps, and presently she felt herself gently pushed into a seat. She was surprised, but realizing the girl's fear of her father, she thought it best to humour her. So far Inez had said nothing that could lead her visitor to suppose that she was not Dolores. Intimate as the devoted sisters were, Inez knew almost as much of the Princess as Dolores herself; the two girls were of the same height, and so long as the conversation was carried on in whispers, there was no possibility of detection by speech alone. The quick-witted blind girl reflected that it was strange if Dona Ana had not seen Dolores, who must have been with the court the whole evening, and she feared some harm. That being the case, her first impulse was to help her sister if possible, but so long as she was a prisoner in Dolores' place, she could do nothing, and she resolved that the Princess should help her to escape.

Dona Ana began to speak quickly and fluently in the dark. She said that she knew the girl's position, and had long known how tenderly she loved Don John of Austria, and was loved by him. She sympathized deeply with them both, and meant to do all in her power to help them. Then she told how she had missed Dolores at court that night.

Inez started involuntarily and drew her breath quickly, but Dona Ana thought it natural that Dolores should give some expression to the disappointment she must have felt at being shut up a prisoner on such an occasion, when all the court was assembled to greet the man she loved.

Then the Princess went on to tell how she had met Mendoza and had come with him, and how with great difficulty she had learned the truth, and had undertaken Dolores' care for a few days; and how Mendoza had been satisfied, never suspecting that she really sympathized with the lovers. That was a state secret, but of course Dolores must know it. The King privately desired the marriage, she said, because he was jealous of his brother and wished that he would tire of winning battles and live quietly, as happy men do.

"Don John will tell you, when you see him," she continued. "I sent him two letters this evening. The first he burned unopened, because he thought it was a love letter, but he has read the second by this time. He had it before supper."

"What did you write to him?" asked Inez, whispering low.

"He will tell you. The substance was this: If he would only be prudent, and consent to wait two days, and not attempt to see you alone, which would make a scandal, and injure you, too, if any one knew it, the King would arrange everything at his own pleasure, and your father would give his consent. You have not seen Don John since he arrived, have you?" She asked the question anxiously.

"Oh no!" answered the blind girl, with conviction. "I have not seen him. I wish to Heaven I had!"

"I am glad of that," whispered the Princess. "But if you will come with me to my apartments, and stay with me till matters are arranged--well--I will not promise, because it might be dangerous, but perhaps you may see him for a moment."

"Really? Do you think that is possible?" In the dark Inez was smiling sadly.

"Perhaps. He might come to see me, for instance, or my husband, and I could leave you together a moment."

"That would be heaven!" And the whisper came from the heart.

"Then come with me now, my dear, and I will do my best," answered the Princess.

"Indeed I will! But will you wait one moment while I dress? I am in my old frock--it is hardly fit to be seen."

This was quite true; but Inez had reflected that dressed as she was she could not pass Eudaldo and be taken by him for her sister, even with a hood over her head. The clothes Dolores had worn before putting on her court dress were in her room, and Dolores' hood was there, too. Before the Princess could answer, Inez was gone, closing the door of the bedroom behind her. Dona Ana, a little taken by surprise again, was fain to wait where she was, in the dark, at the risk of hurting herself against the furniture. Then it struck her that Dolores must be dressing in the dark, for no light had come from the door as it was opened and shut. She remembered the blind sister then, and she wondered idly whether those who lived continually with the blind learned from them to move easily in the dark and to do everything without a light. The question did not interest her much, but while she was thinking of it the door opened again. A skirt and a bodice are soon changed. In a moment she felt her hand taken, and she rose to her feet.

"I am ready, Princess. I will open the door if you will come with me. I have covered my head and face," she added carelessly, though always whispering, "because I am afraid of the night air."

"I was going to advise you to do it in any case, my dear. It is just as well that neither of us should be recognized by any one in the corridors so far from my apartments."

The door opened and let in what seemed a flood of light by comparison with the darkness. The Princess went forward, and Eudaldo got upon his legs as quickly as he could to let the two ladies out, without looking at them as they crossed the hall. Inez followed her companion's footfall exactly, keeping one step behind her by ear, and just pausing before passing out. The old servant saw Dolores' dress and Dolores' hood, which he expected to see, and no more suspected anything than he had when, as he supposed, Inez, had gone out earlier.

But Inez herself had a far more difficult part to perform than her sister's. Dolores had gone out alone, and no one had watched her beyond the door, and Dolores had eyes, and could easily enough pretend that she could not see. It was another matter to be blind and to play at seeing, with a clever woman like the Princess at one's elbow, ready to detect the slightest hesitation. Besides, though she had got out of the predicament in which it had been necessary to place her, it was quite impossible to foresee what might happen when the Princess discovered that she had been deceived, and that catastrophe must happen sooner or later, and might occur at any moment. The Princess walked quickly, too, with a gliding, noiseless step that was hard to follow. Fortunately Inez was expected to keep to the left of a superior like her companion, and was accustomed to taking that side when she went anywhere alone in the palace. That made it easier, but trouble might come at one of the short flights of steps down and up which they would have to pass to reach the Princess's apartments. And then, once there, discovery must come, to a certainty, and then, she knew not what.

She had not run the risk for the sake of being shut up again. She had got out by a trick in order to help her sister, if she could find her, and in order to be at liberty the first thing necessary was to elude her companion. To go to the door of her apartments would be fatal, but she had not had time to think what she should do. She thought now, with all the concentration of her ingenuity. One chance presented itself to her mind at once. They most pass the pillar behind which was the concealed entrance to the Moorish gallery above the throne room, and it was not at all likely that Dona Ana should know of its existence, for she never came to that part of the palace, and if Inez lagged a little way behind, before they reached the spot, she could slip noiselessly behind the pillar and disappear. She could always trust herself not to attract attention when she had to open and shut a door.

The Princess spoke rarely, making little remarks now and then that hardly required an answer, but to which Inez answered in monosyllables, speaking in a low voice through the thick veil she had drawn over her mantle under her hood, on pretence of fearing the cold. She thought it a little safer to speak aloud in that way, lest her companion should wonder at her total silence.

She knew exactly where she was, for she touched each corner as she passed, and counted her steps between one well-known point and the next, and she allowed the Princess to gain a little as they neared the last turning before reaching the place where she meant to make the attempt. She hoped in this way, by walking quite noiselessly, and then stopping suddenly just before she reached the pillar, to gain half a dozen paces, and the Princess would take three more before she stopped also. Inez had noticed that most people take at least three steps before they stop, if any one calls them suddenly when they are walking fast. It seems to need as much to balance the body when its speed is checked. She noticed everything that could be heard.

She grew nervous. It seemed to her that her companion was walking more slowly, as if not wishing to leave her any distance behind. She quickened her own pace again, fearing that she had excited suspicion. Then she heard the Princess stop suddenly, and she had no choice but to do the same. Her heart began to beat painfully, as she saw her chance slipping from her. She waited for Dona Ana to speak, wondering what was the matter.

"I have mistaken the way," said the Princess, in a tone of annoyance. "I do not know where I am. We had better go back and turn down the main staircase, even if we meet some one. You see, I never come to this part of the palace."

"I think we are on the right corridor," said Inez nervously. "Let me go as far as the corner. There is a light there, and I can tell you in a moment." In her anxiety to seem to see, she had forgotten for the moment to muffle her voice in her veil.

They went on rapidly, and the Dona Ana did what most people do when a companion offers to examine the way,--she stood still a moment and hesitated, looking after the girl, and then followed her with the slow step with which a person walks who is certain of having to turn back. Inez walked lightly to the corner, hardly touching the wall, turned by the corner, and was out of sight in a moment. The Princess walked faster, for though she believed that Dolores trusted her, it seemed foolish to give the girl a chance. She reached the corner, where there was a lamp,--and she saw that the dim corridor was empty to the very end.

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