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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe New Tenant - Chapter 29. The Scene Changes
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The New Tenant - Chapter 29. The Scene Changes Post by :ngood Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1670

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The New Tenant - Chapter 29. The Scene Changes

CHAPTER XXIX. THE SCENE CHANGES

The midday sun had risen into a sky of deep cloudless blue, and a silence almost as intense as the silence of night rested upon the earth. No one was abroad, no one seemed to have anything particular to do. Far away on the vine-covered slopes a few peasants were lazily bending over their work, the bright garments of their picturesque attire standing out like little specks of brilliant coloring against the dun-colored background. But in the quaint old-fashioned town itself no one was astir. One solitary Englishman made his way alone and almost unnoticed through the queer zig-zag streets, up the worn grey steps by the famous statute of Minerva, and on to the terraced walk, fronting which were the aristocratic villas of the little Italian town.

It was a solitude which was pleasing to him, for it was very evident that he was no curious tourist, or casual visitor of any sort. His eyes were full of that eager half-abstracted look which so clearly denotes the awakening of old associations, quickened into life by familiar surroundings; and, indeed, it was so. To Bernard Maddison, every stone in that quietly sleeping, picturesque old town spoke with a language of its own. The very atmosphere, laden with the sultry languorous heat of a southern sun, seemed charged with memories. Their influence was strong upon him, and he walked like a man in a dream, until he reached what seemed to be his destination, and here he paused.

He had come to the end of the terraced walk, the evening promenade of the whole town. Before him was a small orange grove, whose aromatic odor, faintly penetrating the still air, added one more to his stock of memories. On his right hand was a grey stone wall, worn and tottering with age, and overhung with green creepers and shrubs, reaching over and hanging down from the other side, and let into it, close to him, was a low nail-studded door of monastic shape, half hidden by a luxurious drooping shrub, from amongst the foliage of which peeped out star-like clusters of soft scarlet flowers.

For many moments he stood before that door, with his hand resting upon the rusty latch, lingering in a sort of apathy, as though he were unwilling to disturb some particular train of thought. Then a mellow-sounding bell from a convent in the valley below startled him, and immediately he lifted the latch before him. There was no other fastening, and the door opened. He stepped inside, and carefully reclosed it.

He was in a garden, a garden of desolation, which nature seemed to have claimed for her own and made beautiful. It was a picture of luxuriant overgrowth. The grass on the lawns had become almost a jungle. It had grown up over the base of the deep grey stone basins of exquisite shape and carving, the tiny statuettes tottering into ruin, and the worn old sun-dial, across which the slanting rays of the sun still glanced. Weeds, too, had crept up around them in picturesque toils, weeds which had started to destroy, but remained to adorn with all the sweet abandon of unrestrained growth. Some of them had put forth brilliant blossoms of many hues, little spots of exquisite coloring against the sombre hue of the stonework and the deep green of the leaves. Everywhere nature had triumphed over science and skill. Everything was changed, and nature had shown herself a more perfect gardener than man. The gravel paths were embedded with soft green moss, studded with clumps of white and purple violets, whose faint fragrance, mingled with the more exotic scent of other plants, filled the warm air with a peculiar dreamy perfume. Nowhere had the hand of man sought to restrain or to develop. Nature had had her own way, and had made for herself a fair garden.

A little overcome by the heat, and a little, too, by swiftly stirring memories, Bernard Maddison sank down upon a low iron seat, under the shade of a little clump of almond trees, and covered his face with his hands. And there came to him, as he sat there, something more vivid than an ordinary day-dream, something so real and minutely played out, that afterwards it possessed for him all the freshness and significance of a veritable trance. It seemed, indeed, as if some mysterious force had drawn aside the curtain of the past in his mind, and had bidden him look out once more upon the moving figures in a living drama.

* * * * *

The warm sunlight faded from the sky, the summer heat died out of the air, the soft velvety mantle of a southern night lay upon the brooding land. Many stars were burning in the deep-blue heavens, and the horned moon, golden and luminous, hung low down in the west.

Pale, and with the fever of a great anger burning in his dry eyes, a man sat at the open window of the villa yonder, watching. Around him were scattered all the signs of arduous brain labor, books, manuscripts, classical dictionaries, and works of reference. But his pen had fallen from his hand, and he was doing nothing. He sat there idle, gazing out upon the fantastic shapes and half-veiled gloom of this fair garden. Its rich balmy odors, and the fainter perfume of rarer plants which floated languidly in through the open window, were nothing to him. He was barely conscious of the sweet delights of the voluptuous summer night. He was watching with his eyes fixed upon the east, where morning would soon be breaking.

It came at last--what he was waiting for. There was a slight click of the latch from the old postern door in the wall, and the low murmur of voices--a man's, pleading and passionate, and a woman's, half gay, half mocking. Then the door opened and shut, and a tall fair lady walked leisurely up toward the villa.

She wore no hat, but a hooded opera-cloak was thrown loosely over her shoulders, and as she strolled up the path, pausing every now and then to carelessly gather a handful of the drooping lilies, whose perfume made faint the heavy night air, its folds parted, and revealed brief glimpses of soft white drapery and flashing jewels on her bosom and in her hair. Her feet, too, were cased in tiny white satin slippers, which seemed scarcely to press the ground, so lightly and gracefully she walked. Altogether she was very fair to look upon--the fairest sight in all that lovely garden.

Not so seemed to think the man who stood back in the shadow of the window, waiting for her. His white face was ghastly with passion, and his fingers were nervously interlaced in the curtains. It was only with a supreme effort that he at last flung them from him, and moved forward as though to meet her.

She saw him standing there, pale and rigid, like a carved statue, save for the passion which burned in his eyes, and for a moment she hesitated. Then, with the resigned air of one who makes up her mind to face something disagreeable, she shrugged her shoulders, and throwing away the handful of lilies she had gathered, advanced toward him.

They neither of them spoke until they stood face to face. Then, as his motionless form prevented her stepping through the window, and barred her further progress, she came to a standstill, and addressed him lightly.

"Yours is a strange welcome home, _mon ami_," she said. "Why do you stand there looking so fierce?"

He pointed with shaking fingers away toward the east, where a faint gleam of daylight was lightening the sky.

"Where have you been?" he asked harshly. "Can you not see that it is morning? All night long I have sat here watching for you. Where have you been?"

"You know very well where I have been," she answered carelessly. "To the ball at the Leon d'Or. I told you that I was going."

"Told me! You told me! Did I not forbid it? Did I not tell you that I would not have you go?"

"Nevertheless, I have been," she answered lightly. "It was an engagement, and I never break engagements."

"An engagement? You, with no chaperon, to go to a common ball at a public room! An engagement. Yes, with your lover, I presume."

She looked at him steadily, and yawned in his face.

"You are in a bad temper, I fear," she said. "At least, you are very rude. Let me pass, will you? I am tired of standing here."

He was beside himself with passion, and for a second or two he did not speak. But when at last the words came, they were clear and distinct enough.

"Into this house you shall never pass again," he said. "You have disregarded my wishes, you have disobeyed my orders, and now you are deceiving me. You are trifling with my honor. You are bringing shame upon my name. Go and keep your assignations from another roof. Mine has sheltered your intrigues long enough!"

The hand which had kept together her opera-cloak relinquished its grasp, and it fell back upon her shoulders. The whole beauty of her sinuous figure, in its garb of dazzling white, stood revealed. The moonlight gleamed in her fair hair, bound up with one glittering gem, shone softly upon her white swelling throat and bare arms, and flashed in her dark eyes, suddenly full of passion. Her right hand was nervously clasped around a little morsel of lace handkerchief which she had drawn from the folds of her corsage, and which seemed to make the air around heavy with a sweet perfume.

"You are angry, and you do not know what you are saying," she said. "It is true that you forbade me to go to-night--but you forbid everything. I cannot live your life. It is too dull, too _triste_. It is cruel of you to expect it. Let me go in now. If you want to scold, you can do so to-morrow."

She stepped forward, but he laid his hands upon her dainty shoulders and pushed her roughly back.

"Never!" he cried savagely. "Go and live what life you choose. This is no home for you. Go, I say!"

She looked at him, her lovely eyes turned pleadingly upwards, and her lips trembling.

"You are mad!" she said. "Am I not your wife? You have no right to keep me here. And my boy, too. Let me pass."

He did not move, nor did he show any sign of yielding. He stood there with his hand stretched out in a threatening gesture toward her, his face pale and mute as marble, but with the blind rage still burning in his dark eyes.

"What is the boy, or what am I to you?" he cried hoarsely. "Begone, woman!"

Still she did not seem to understand.

"Where would you have me go?" she asked. "Is not this my home? What have I----"

"Go to your lover!" he interrupted fiercely. "Tell him that your husband is no longer your tool. He will take you in."

A burning color streamed into her delicate cheeks, and a sudden passion blazed in her eyes. She drew herself up to her full height and turned upon him with the dignity of an empress.

"Listen to me one moment," she said. "Ask yourself whether you have ever tried to make my life a happy one. Did I ever pretend to care for books and solitude? Before I married you I told you that I was fond of change and gaiety and life, and you promised me that I should have it. Ask yourself how you have kept that promise. You deny me every pleasure, and drive me to seek them alone. I am weary of your jealous furies, and your evil temper. As God looks down upon us at this moment, I have been a faithful wife to you; but if you will add to all your cruelties this cowardly, miserable indignity, then I will never willingly look upon your face again, and what sin I do will be on your head, not mine. Will you stand aside and let me pass?"

"Never!" he answered. "Never!"

She drew her mantle round her shoulders, and turned her back upon him with a contemptuous gesture.

"You have made me what I shall be," she said. "The sin be with you. For several weary years you have made me miserable. Now you have made me wicked."

She walked away into the perfumed darkness, and presently he heard the gate close behind her. He listened frantically, hoping to hear her returning steps. It was in vain. All was silent. Then he felt his limbs totter, and he sank back on a couch, and buried his face amongst the cushions.

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