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The agonized cry that had been first heard in the hall had come from Inez's lips. When she had fled from her father, she had regained her hiding-place in the gallery above the throne room. She would not go to her own room, for she felt that rest was out of the question while Dolores was in such danger; and yet there would have been no object in going to Don John's door again, to risk being caught by her father or met by the King himself. She had therefore determined to let an hour pass before attempting another move. So she slipped into the gallery again, and sat upon the little wooden bench that had been made for the Moorish women in old times; and she listened to the music and the sound of the dancers' feet far below, and to the hum of voices, in which she often distinguished the name of Don John. She had heard all,--the cries when it was thought that he was coming, the chamberlain's voice announcing the King, and then the change of key in the sounds that had followed. Lastly, she had heard plainly every syllable of her father's speech, so that when she realized what it meant, she had shrieked aloud, and had fled from the gallery to find her sister if she could, to find Don John's body most certainly where it lay on the marble floor, with the death wound at the breast. Her instinct--she could not have reasoned then--told her that her father must have found the lovers together, and that in sudden rage he had stabbed Don John, defenceless.
Dolores' tears answered her sister's question well enough when the two girls were clasped in one another's arms at last. There was not a doubt left in the mind of either. Inez spoke first. She said that she had hidden in the gallery.
"Our father must have come in some time after the King," she said, in broken sentences, and almost choking. "Suddenly the music stopped. I could hear every word. He said that he had done it,--that he had murdered Don John,--and then I ran here, for I was afraid he had killed you, too."
"Would God he had!" cried Dolores. "Would to Heaven that I were dead beside the man I love!"
"And I!" moaned Inez pitifully, and she began to sob wildly, as Dolores had sobbed at first.
But Dolores was silent now, as if she had shed all her tears at once, and had none left. She held her sister in her arms, and soothed her almost unconsciously, as if she had been a little child. But her own thoughts were taking shape quickly, for she was strong; and after the first paroxysm of her grief, she saw the immediate future as clearly as the present. When she spoke again she had the mastery of her voice, and it was clear and low.
"You say that our father confessed before the whole court that he had murdered Don John?" she said, with a question. "What happened then? Did the King speak? Was our father arrested? Can you remember?"
"I only heard loud cries," sobbed Inez. "I came to you--as quickly as I could--I was afraid."
"We shall never see our father again--unless we see him on the morning when he is to die."
"Dolores! They will not kill him, too?" In sudden and greater fear than before, Inez ceased sobbing.
"He will die on the scaffold," answered Dolores, in the same clear tone, as if she were speaking in a dream, or of things that did not come near her. "There is no pardon possible. He will die to-morrow or the next day."
The present truth stood out in all its frightful distinctness. Whoever had done the murder--since Mendoza had confessed it, he would be made to die for it,--of that she was sure. She could not have guessed what had really happened; and though the evidence of the sounds she had heard through the door would have gone to show that Philip had done the deed himself, yet there had been no doubt about Mendoza's words, spoken to the King alone over Don John's dead body, and repeated before the great assembly in the ball-room. If she guessed at an explanation, it was that her father, entering the bedchamber during the quarrel, and supposing from what he saw that Don John was about to attack the King, had drawn and killed the Prince without hesitation. The only thing quite clear was that Mendoza was to suffer, and seemed strangely determined to suffer, for what he had or had not done. The dark shadow of the scaffold rose before Dolores' eyes.
It had seemed impossible that she could be made to bear more than she had borne that night, when she had fallen upon Don John's body to weep her heart out for her dead love. But she saw that there was more to bear, and dimly she guessed that there might be something for her to do. There was Inez first, and she must be cared for and placed in safety, for she was beside herself with grief. It was only on that afternoon by the window that Dolores had guessed the blind girl's secret, which Inez herself hardly suspected even now, though she was half mad with grief and utterly broken-hearted.
Dolores felt almost helpless, but she understood that she and her sister were henceforth to be more really alone in what remained of life than if they had been orphans from their earliest childhood. The vision of the convent, that had been unbearable but an hour since, held all her hope of peace and safety now, unless her father could be saved from his fate by some miracle of heaven. But that was impossible. He had given himself up as if he were determined to die. He had been out of his mind, beside himself, stark mad, in his fear that Don John might bring harm upon his daughter. That was why he had killed him--there could be no other reason, unless he had guessed that she was in the locked room, and had judged her then and at once, and forever. The thought had not crossed her mind till then, and it was a new torture now, so that she shrank under it as under a bodily blow; and her grasp tightened violently upon her sister's arm, rousing the half-fainting girl again to the full consciousness of pain.
It was no wonder that Mendoza should have done such a deed, since he had believed her ruined and lost to honour beyond salvation. That explained all. He had guessed that she had been long with Don John, who had locked her hastily into the inner room to hide her from the King. Had the King been Don John, had she loved Philip as she loved his brother, her father would have killed his sovereign as unhesitatingly, and would have suffered any death without flinching. She believed that, and there was enough of his nature in herself to understand it.
She was as innocent as the blind girl who lay in her arms, but suddenly it flashed upon her that no one would believe it, since her own father would not, and that her maiden honour and good name were gone for ever, gone with her dead lover, who alone could have cleared her before the world. She cared little for the court now, but she cared tenfold more earnestly for her father's thought of her, and she knew him and the terrible tenacity of his conviction when he believed himself to be right. He had proved that by what he had done. Since she understood all, she no longer doubted that he had killed Don John with the fullest intention, to avenge her, and almost knowing that she was within hearing, as indeed she had been. He had taken a royal life in atonement for her honour, but he was to give his own, and was to die a shameful death on the scaffold, within a few hours, or, at the latest, within a few days, for her sake.
Then she remembered how on that afternoon she had seen tears in his eyes, and had heard the tremor in his voice when he had said that she was everything to him, that she had been all his life since her mother had died--he had proved that, too; and though he had killed the man she loved, she shrank from herself again as she thought what he must have suffered in her dishonour. For it was nothing else. There was neither man nor woman nor girl in Spain who would believe her innocent against such evidence. The world might have believed Don John, if he had lived, because the world had loved him and trusted him, and could never have heard falsehood in his voice; but it would not believe her though she were dying, and though she should swear upon the most sacred and true things. The world would turn from her with an unbelieving laugh, and she was to be left alone in her dishonour, and people would judge that she was not even a fit companion for her blind sister in their solitude. The King would send her to Las Huelgas, or to some other distant convent of a severe order, that she might wear out her useless life in grief and silence and penance as quickly as possible. She bowed her head. It was too hard to bear.
Inez was more quiet now, and the two sat side by side in mournful silence, leaning against the parapet. They had forgotten the dwarf, and he had disappeared, waiting, perhaps, in the shadow at a distance, in case he might be of use to them. But if he was within hearing, they did not see him. At last Inez spoke, almost in a whisper, as if she were in the presence of the dead.
"Were you there, dear?" she asked. "Did you see?"
"I was in the next room," Dolores answered. "I could not see, but I heard. I heard him fall," she added almost inaudibly, and choking.
Inez shuddered and pressed nearer to her sister, leaning against her, but she did not begin to sob again. She was thinking.
"Can we not help our father, at least?" she asked presently. "Is there nothing we can say, or do? We ought to help him if we can, Dolores--though he did it."
"I would save him with my life, if I could. God knows, I would! He was mad when he struck the blow. He did it for my sake, because he thought Don John had ruined my good name. And we should have been married the day after to-morrow! God of heaven, have mercy!"
Her grief took hold of her again, like a material power, shaking her from head to foot, and bowing her down upon herself and wringing her hands together, so that Inez, calmer than she, touched her gently and tried to comfort her without any words, for there were none to say, since nothing mattered now, and life was over at its very beginning. Little by little the sharp agony subsided to dull pain once more, and Dolores sat upright. But Inez was thinking still, and even in her sorrow and fright she was gathering all her innocent ingenuity to her aid.
"Is there no way?" she asked, speaking more to herself than to her sister. "Could we not say that we were there, that it was not our father but some one else? Perhaps some one would believe us. If we told the judges that we were quite, quite sure that he did not do it, do you not think--but then," she checked herself--"then it could only have been the King."
"Only the King himself," echoed Dolores, half unconsciously, and in a dreamy tone.
"That would be terrible," said Inez. "But we could say that the King was not there, you know--that it was some one else, some one we did not know--"
Dolores rose abruptly from the seat and laid her hand upon the parapet steadily, as if an unnatural strength had suddenly grown up in her. Inez went on speaking, confusing herself in the details she was trying to put together to make a plan, and losing the thread of her idea as she attempted to build up falsehoods, for she was truthful as their father was. But Dolores did not hear her.
"You can do nothing, child," she said at last, in a firm tone. "But I may. You have made me think of something that I may do--it is just possible--it may help a little. Let me think."
Inez waited in silence for her to go on, and Dolores stood as motionless as a statue, contemplating in thought the step she meant to take if it offered the slightest hope of saving her father. The thought was worthy of her, but the sacrifice was great even then. She had not believed that the world still held anything with which she would not willingly part, but there was one thing yet. It might be taken from her, though her father had slain Don John of Austria to save it, and was to die for it himself. She could give it before she could be robbed of it, perhaps, and it might buy his life. She could still forfeit her good name of her own free will, and call herself what she was not. In words she could give her honour to the dead man, and the dead could not rise up and deny her nor refuse the gift. And it seemed to her that when the people should hear her, they would believe her, seeing that it was her shame, a shame such as no maiden who had honour left would bear before the world. But it was hard to do. For honour was her last and only possession now that all was taken from her.
It was not the so-called honour of society, either, based on long-forgotten traditions, and depending on convention for its being--not the sort of honour within which a man may ruin an honest woman and suffer no retribution, but which decrees that he must take his own life if he cannot pay a debt of play made on his promise to a friend, which allows him to lie like a cheat, but ordains that he must give or require satisfaction of blood for the imaginary insult of a hasty word--the honour which is to chivalry what black superstition is to the true Christian faith, which compares with real courage and truth and honesty, as an ape compares with a man. It was not that, and Dolores knew it, as every maiden knows it; for the honour of woman is the fact on which the whole world turns, and has turned and will turn to the end of things; but what is called the honour of society has been a fiction these many centuries, and though it came first of a high parentage, of honest thought wedded to brave deed, and though there are honourable men yet, these are for the most part the few who talk least loudly about honour's code, and the belief they hold has come to be a secret and a persecuted faith, at which the common gentleman thinks fit to laugh lest some one should presume to measure him by it and should find him wanting.
Dolores did not mean to hesitate, after she had decided what to do. But she could not avoid the struggle, and it was long and hard, though she saw the end plainly before her and did not waver. Inez did not understand and kept silence while it lasted.
It was only a word to say, but it was the word which would be repeated against her as long as she lived, and which nothing she could ever say or do afterwards could take back when it had once been spoken--it would leave the mark that a lifetime could not efface. But she meant to speak it. She could not see what her father would see, that he would rather die, justly or unjustly, than let his daughter be dishonoured before the world. That was a part of a man's code, perhaps, but it should not hinder her from saving her father's life, or trying to, at whatever cost. What she was fighting against was something much harder to understand in herself. What could it matter now, that the world should think her fallen from her maiden estate? The world was nothing to her, surely. It held nothing, it meant nothing, it was nothing. Her world had been her lover, and he lay dead in his room. In heaven, he knew that she was innocent, as he was himself, and he would see that she was going to accuse herself that she might save her father. In heaven, he had forgiven his murderer, and he would understand. As for the world and what it said, she knew that she must leave it instantly, and go from the confession she was about to make to the convent where she was to die, and whence her spotless soul would soon be wafted away to join her true lover beyond the earth. There was no reason why she should find it hard to do, and yet it was harder than anything she had ever dreamed of doing. But she was fighting the deepest and strongest instinct of woman's nature, and the fight went hard.
She fancied the scene, the court, the grey-haired nobles, the fair and honourable women, the brave young soldiers, the thoughtless courtiers, the whole throng she was about to face, for she meant to speak before them all, and to her own shame. She was as white as marble, but when she thought of what was coming the blood sprang to her face and tingled in her forehead, and she felt her eyes fall and her proud head bend, as the storm of humiliation descended upon her. She could hear beforehand the sounds that would follow her words, the sharp, short laugh of jealous women who hated her, the murmur of surprise among the men. Then the sea of faces would seem to rise and fall before her in waves, the lights would dance, her cheeks would burn like flames, and she would grow dizzy. That would be the end. Afterwards she could go out alone. Perhaps the women would shrink from her, no man would be brave enough to lead her kindly from the room. Yet all that she would bear, for the mere hope of saving her father. The worst, by far the worst and hardest to endure, would be something within herself, for which she had neither words nor true understanding, but which was more real than anything she could define, for it was in the very core of her heart and in the secret of her soul, a sort of despairing shame of herself and a desolate longing for something she could never recover.
She closed her tired eyes and pressed her hand heavily upon the stone coping of the parapet. It was the supreme effort, and when she looked down at Inez again she knew that she should live to the end of the ordeal without wavering.
"I am going down to the throne room," she said, very quietly and gently. "You had better go to our apartment, dear, and wait for me there. I am going to try and save our father's life--do not ask me how. It will not take long to say what I have to say, and then I will come to you."
Inez had risen now, and was standing beside her, laying a hand upon her arm.
"Let me come, too," she said. "I can help you, I am sure I can help you."
"No," answered Dolores, with authority. "You cannot help me, dearest, and it would hurt you, and you must not come."
"Then I will stay here," said Inez sorrowfully. "I shall be nearer to him," she added under her breath.
"Stay here--yes. I will come back to you, and then--then we will go in together, and say a prayer--his soul can hear us still--we will go and say good-by to him--together."
Her voice was almost firm, and Inez could not see the agony in her white face. Then Dolores clasped her in her arms and kissed her forehead and her blind eyes very lovingly, and pressed her head to her own shoulders and patted it and smoothed the girl's dark hair.
"I will come back," she said, "and, Inez--you know the truth, my darling. Whatever evil they may say of me after to-night, remember that I have said it of myself for our father's sake, and that it is not true."
"No one will believe it," answered Inez. "They will not believe anything bad of you."
"Then our father must die."
Dolores kissed her once more and made her sit down, then turned and went away. She walked quickly along the corridors and descended the second staircase, to enter the throne room by the side door reserved for the officers of the household and the maids of honour. She walked swiftly, her head erect, one hand holding the folds of her cloak pressed to her bosom, and the other, nervously clenched, and hanging down, as if she were expecting to strike a blow.
She reached the door, and for a moment her heart stopped beating, and her eyes closed. She heard many loud voices within, and she knew that most of the court must still be assembled. It was better that all the world should hear her--even the King, if he were still there. She pushed the door open and went in by the familiar way, letting the dark cloak that covered her court dress fall to the ground as she passed the threshold. Half a dozen young nobles, grouped near the entrance, made way for her to pass.
When they recognized her, their voices dropped suddenly, and they stared after her in astonishment that she should appear at such a time. She was doubtless in ignorance of what had happened, they thought. As for the throng in the hall, there was no restraint upon their talk now, and words were spoken freely which would have been high treason half an hour earlier. There was the noise, the tension, the ceaseless talking, the excited air, that belong to great palace revolutions.
The press was closer near the steps of the throne, where the King and Mendoza had stood, for after they had left the hall, surrounded and protected by the guards, the courtiers had crowded upon one another, and those near the further door and outside it in the outer apartments had pressed in till there was scarcely standing room on the floor of the hall. Dolores found it hard to advance. Some made way for her with low exclamations of surprise, but others, not looking to see who she was, offered a passive resistance to her movements.
"Will you kindly let me pass?" she asked at last, in a gentle tone, "I am Dolores de Mendoza."
At the name the group that barred her passage started and made way, and going through she came upon the Prince of Eboli, not far from the steps of the throne. The English Ambassador, who meant to stay as long as there was anything for him to observe, was still by the Prince's side. Dolores addressed the latter without hesitation.
"Don Ruy Gomez," she said, "I ask your help. My father is innocent, and I can prove it. But the court must hear me--every one must hear the truth. Will you help me? Can you make them listen?"
Ruy Gomez looked down at Dolores' pale and determined features in courteous astonishment.
"I am at your service," he answered. "But what are you going to say? The court is in a dangerous mood to-night."
"I must speak to all," said Dolores. "I am not afraid. What I have to say cannot be said twice--not even if I had the strength. I can save my father--"
"Why not go to the King at once?" argued the Prince, who feared trouble.
"For the love of God, help me to do as I wish!" Dolores grasped his arm, and spoke with an effort. "Let me tell them all, how I know that my father is not guilty of the murder. After that take me to the King if you will."
She spoke very earnestly, and he no longer opposed her. He knew the temper of the court well enough, and was sure that whatever proved Mendoza innocent would be welcome just then, and though he was far too loyal to wish the suspicion of the deed to be fixed upon the King, he was too just not to desire Mendoza to be exculpated if he were innocent.
"Come with me," he said briefly, and he took Dolores by the hand, and led her up the first three steps of the platform, so that she could see over the heads of all present.
It was no time to think of court ceremonies or customs, for there was danger in the air. Ruy Gomez did not stop to make any long ceremony. Drawing himself up to his commanding height, he held up his white gloves at arm's length to attract the attention of the courtiers, and in a few moments there was silence. They seemed an hour of torture to Dolores. Ruy Gomez raised his voice.
"Grandees! The daughter of Don Diego de Mendoza stands here at my side to prove to you that he is innocent of Don John of Austria's death!"
The words had hardly left his lips when a shout went up, like a ringing cheer. But again he raised his hand.
"Hear Doņa Maria Dolores de Mendoza!" he cried.
Then he stepped a little away from Dolores, and looked towards her. She was dead white, and her lips trembled. There was an almost glassy look in her eyes, and still she pressed one hand to her bosom, and the other hung by her side, the fingers twitching nervously against the folds of her skirt. A few seconds passed before she could speak.
"Grandees of Spain!" she began, and at the first words she found strength in her voice so that it reached the ends of the hall, clear and vibrating. The silence was intense, as she proceeded.
"My father has accused himself of a fearful crime. He is innocent. He would no more have raised his hand against Don John of Austria than against the King's own person. I cannot tell why he wishes to sacrifice his life by taking upon himself the guilt. But this I know. He did not do the deed. You ask me how I know that, how I can prove it? I was there, I, Dolores de Mendoza, his daughter, was there unseen in my lover's chamber when he was murdered. While he was alive I gave him all, my heart, my soul, my maiden honour; and I was there to-night, and had been with him long. But now that he is dead, I will pay for my father's life with my dishonour. He must not die, for he is innocent. Grandees of Spain, as you are men of honour, he must not die, for he is one of you, and this foul deed was not his."
She ceased, her lids drooped till her eyes were half closed and she swayed a little as she stood. Roy Gomez made one long stride and held her, for he thought she was fainting. But she bit her lips, and forced her eyes to open and face the crowd again.
"That is all," she said in a low voice, but distinctly, "It is done. I am a ruined woman. Help me to go out."
The old Prince gently led her down the steps. The silence had lasted long after she had spoken, but people were beginning to talk again in lower tones. It was as she had foreseen it. She heard a scornful woman's laugh, and as she passed along, she saw how the older ladies shrank from her and how the young ones eyed her with a look of hard curiosity, as if she were some wild creature, dangerous to approach, though worth seeing from a distance.
But the men pressed close to her as she passed, and she heard them tell each other that she was a brave woman who could dare to save her father by such means, and there were quick applauding words as she passed, and one said audibly that he could die for a girl who had such a true heart, and another answered that he would marry her if she could forget Don John. And they did not speak without respect, but in earnest, and out of the fulness of their admiration.
At last she was at the door, and she paused to speak before going out.
"Have I saved his life?" she asked, looking up to the old Prince's kind face. "Will they believe me?"
"They believe you," he answered. "But your father's life is in the King's hands. You should go to his Majesty without wasting time. Shall I go with you? He will see you, I think, if I ask it."
"Why should I tell the King?" asked Dolores. "He was there--he saw it all--he knows the truth."
She hardly realized what she was saying.
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