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The Princess was far from suspecting, even then, that she had been deceived about her companion's identity as well as tricked at the last, when Inez escaped from her. She would have laughed at the idea that any blind person could have moved as confidently as Inez, or could afterwards have run the length of the next corridor in what had seemed but an instant, for she did not know of the niche behind the pillar, and there were pilasters all along, built into the wall. The construction of the high, springing vault that covered the whole throne room required them for its solidity, and only the one under the centre of the arch was built as a detached pillar, in order to give access to the gallery. Seen from either end of the passage, it looked exactly like the rest, and few persons would have noticed that it differed from them, even in passing it.
Doņa Ana stood looking in the direction she supposed the girl to have taken. An angry flush rose in her cheek, she bit her lips till they almost bled, and at last she stamped once before she turned away, so that her little slipper sent a sharp echo along the corridor. Pursuit was out of the question, of course, though she could run like a deer; some one might meet her at any turning, and in an hour the whole palace would know that she had been seen running at full speed after some unknown person. It would be bad enough if she were recognized walking alone at night at a distance from her own apartments. She drew her veil over her face so closely that she could hardly see her way, and began to retrace her steps towards the principal staircase, pondering as to what she should say to Mendoza when he discovered that she had allowed his daughter to escape. She was a woman of manlike intelligence and not easily unbalanced by a single reverse, however, and before she had gone far her mind began to work clearly. Dolores, she reasoned, would do one of two things. She would either go straight to Don John's apartments, wait for him, and then tell him her story, in the hope that he would protect her, or she would go to the Duchess Alvarez and seek protection there. Under no circumstances would she go down to the throne room without her court dress, for her mere appearance there, dressed as she was, would produce the most profound astonishment, and could do her no possible good. And as for her going to the Duchess, that was impossible, too. If she had run away from Doņa Ana, she had done so because the idea of not seeing Don John for two days was intolerable, and she meant to try and see him at once. The Duchess was in all probability with the Queen, in the latter's private apartments, as Dolores would know. On the whole, it seemed far more likely that she had done the rashest thing that had suggested itself to her, and had gone directly to the man she loved,--a man powerful enough to protect her against all comers, at the present time, and quite capable of facing even the King's displeasure.
But the whole object of Doņa Ana's manoeuvre had been to get possession of Dolores' person, as a means of strongly influencing Don John's actions, in order thus to lead him into a false position from which he should not be able to escape without a serious quarrel with King Philip, which would be the first step towards the execution of the plot elaborated by Doņa Ana and Perez together. Anything which could produce an open difference between the brothers would serve to produce two parties in Spain, of which the one that would take Don John's side would be by far the stronger. His power would be suddenly much increased, an organized agitation would be made throughout the country to set him on the throne, and his popularity, like Cæsar's, would grow still more, when he refused the crown, as he would most certainly do. But just then King Philip would die suddenly of a fever, or a cold, or an indigestion, as the conspirators thought best. There would be no direct male heir to the throne but Don John himself, the acknowledged son of the Emperor Charles; and even Don John would then be made to see that he could only serve his country by ruling it, since it cried out for his rule and would have no other. It was a hard and dangerous thing to lead King Philip; it would be an easy matter to direct King John. An honest and unsuspicious soldier would be but as a child in such skilful hands. Doņa Ana and Perez would rule Spain as they pleased, and by and by Don John should be chosen Emperor also by the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, and the conspirators would rule the world, as Charles the Fifth had ruled it. There was no limit to their ambition, and no scruple would stand between them and any crime, and the stake was high and worth many risks.
The Princess walked slowly, weighing in the balance all there was to lose or gain. When she reached the head of the main staircase, she had not yet altogether decided how to act, and lest she should meet some one she returned, and walked up and down the lonely corridor nearly a quarter of an hour, in deep thought. Suddenly a plan of action flashed upon her, and she went quickly on her way, to act at once.
Don John, meanwhile, had read the letter she had sent him by the dwarf jester. When the King had retired into his own apartments, Don John found himself unexpectedly alone. Mendoza and the guard had filed into the antechamber, the gentlemen in waiting, being temporarily at liberty, went to the room leading out of it on one side, which was appropriated to their use. The sentries were set at the King's door, and Mendoza marched his halberdiers out again and off to their quarters, while the servants disappeared, and the hero of the day was left to himself. He smiled at his own surprise, recollecting that he should have ordered his own attendants to be in waiting after the supper, whereas he had dismissed them until midnight.
He turned on his heel and walked away to find a quiet place where he might read the paper which had suddenly become of such importance, and paused at a Moorish niche, where Philip had caused a sacred picture to be placed, and before which a hanging silver lamp shed a clear light.
The small sheet of paper contained but little writing. There were half a dozen sentences in a clear hand, without any signature--it was what has since then come to be called an anonymous letter. But it contained neither any threat, nor any evidence of spite; it set forth in plain language that if, as the writer supposed, Don John wished to marry Dolores de Mendoza, it was as necessary for her personal safety as for the accomplishment of his desires, that he should make no attempt to see her for at least two days, and that, if he would accept this advice, he should have the support of every noble and minister at court, including the very highest, with the certainty that no further hindrance would be set in his way; it added that the letter he had burned had contained the same words, and that the two flowers had been intended to serve as a signal which it was now too late to use. It would be sufficient if he told the bearer of the present letter that he agreed to take the advice it contained. His assent in that way would, of course, be taken by the writer to mean that he promised, on his word. That was all.
He did not like the last sentence, for it placed him in an awkward position, as a man of honour, since he had already seen Dolores, and therefore could not under any circumstances agree to take advice contrary to which he had already acted. The most he could now say to the dwarf would be that he could give no answer and would act as carefully as possible. For the rest, the letter contained nothing treasonable, and was not at all what he had expected and believed it to be. It appeared to be written in a friendly spirit, and with the exception of his own brother and Mendoza, he was not aware that he had an enemy in Spain, in which he was almost right. Nevertheless, bold and frank as he was by nature, he knew enough of real warfare to distrust appearances. The writer was attached to the King's person, or the letter might have been composed, and even written in an assumed hand, by the King himself, for Philip was not above using the methods of a common conspirator. The limitation of time set upon his prudence was strange, too. If he had not seen her and agreed to the terms, he would have supposed that Dolores was being kept out of his way during those two days, whereas in that time it would be possible to send her very far from Madrid, or to place her secretly in a convent where it would be impossible to find her. It flashed upon him that in shutting up Dolores that evening Mendoza had been obeying the King's secret orders, as well as in telling her that she was to be taken to Las Huelgas at dawn. No one but Philip could have written the letter--only the dwarf's fear of Philip's displeasure could have made him so anxious that it should be read at once. It was all as clear as daylight now, and the King and Mendoza were acting together. The first letter had been brought by a woman, who must have got out through the window of the study, which was so low that she could almost have stepped from it to the terrace without springing. She had watched until the officers and the servants had gone out and the way was clear. Nothing could have been simpler or easier.
He would have burnt the letter at the lamp before the picture, had he not feared that some one might see him do it, and he folded it again and thrust it back under his doublet. His face was grave as he turned away, for the position, as he understood it, was a very desperate one. He had meant to send Dolores to Villagarcia, but it was almost impossible that such a matter should remain unknown, and in the face of the King's personal opposition, it would probably ruin Quixada and his wife. He, on his side, might send Dolores to a convent, under an assumed name, and take her out again before she was found, and marry her. But that would be hard, too, for no places were more directly under the sovereign's control than convents and monasteries. Somewhere she must go, for she could not possibly remain concealed in his study more than three or four hours.
Suddenly he fancied that she might be in danger even now. The woman who had brought the first letter had of course left the window unfastened. She, or the King, or any one, might get in by that way, and Dolores was alone. They might have taken her away already. He cursed himself for not having looked to see that the window was bolted. The man who had won great battles felt a chill at his heart, and he walked at the best of his speed, careless whether he met any one or not. But no place is more deserted than the more distant parts of a royal palace when there is a great assembly in the state apartments. He met no one on his way, and entered his own door alone. Ten minutes had not elapsed since the King had left the supper-room, and it was almost at that moment that Doņa Ana met Mendoza.
Dolores started to her feet as she heard his step in the next room and then the key in the lock, and as he entered her hands clasped themselves round his neck, and her eyes looked into his. He was very pale when he saw her at last, for the belief that she had been stolen away had grown with his speed, till it was an intolerable certainty.
"What is it? What has happened?" she cried anxiously. "Why are you so white? Are you ill?"
"I was frightened," he said simply. "I was afraid you were gone. Look here!"
He led her to the window, and drew the curtain to one side. The cool air rushed in, for the bolts were unfastened, and the window was ajar. He closed it and fastened it securely, and they both came back.
"The woman got out that way," he said, in explanation. "I understand it all now--and some one might have come back."
He told her quietly what had happened, and showed her the letter, which she read slowly to the end before she gave it back to him.
"Then the other was not a love letter, after all," she said, with a little laugh that had more of relief in it than amusement, though she did not know it herself.
"No," he answered gravely. "I wish I had read it. I should at least have shut the window before leaving you!"
Careless of any danger to herself, she sat looking up into his anxious face, her clasped hands lying in his and quite covered by them, as he stood beside her. There was not a trace of fear in her own face, nor indeed of any feeling but perfect love and confidence. Under the gaze of her deep grey eyes his expression relaxed for a moment, and grew like hers, so that it would have been hard to say which trusted the other the more.
"What does anything matter, since we are together now?" she asked. "I am with you, can anything happen to me?"
"Not while I am alive," he answered, but the look of anxiety for her returned at once. "You cannot stay here."
"No--you will take me away. I am ready--"
"I do not mean that. You cannot stay in this room, nor in my apartments. The King is coming here in a few minutes. I cannot tell what he may do--he may insist on seeing whether any one is here, listening, for he is very suspicious, and he only comes here because he does not even trust his own apartments. He may wish to open the door--"
"I will lock it on the inside. You can say that it is locked, and that you have not the key. If he calls men to open it, I will escape by the window, and hide in the old sentry-box. He will not stay talking with you till morning!"
She laughed, and he saw that she was right, simply because there was no other place where she could be even as safe as where she was. He slowly nodded as she spoke.
"You see," she cried, with another little laugh of happy satisfaction, "you must keep me here whether you will or not! You are really afraid--frightened like a boy! You! How men would stare if they could see you afraid!"
"It is true," he answered, with a faint smile.
"But I will give you courage!" she said. "The King cannot come yet. Perez can only have just gone to him, you say. They will talk at least half an hour, and it is very likely that Perez will persuade him not to come at all, because he is angry with you. Perhaps Perez will come instead, and he will be very smooth and flattering, and bring messages of reconciliation, and beg to make peace. He is very clever, but I do not like his face. He makes me think of a beautiful black fox! Even if the King comes himself, we have more than half an hour. You can stay a little while with me--then go into your room and sit down and read, as if you were waiting for him. You can read my letter over, and I will sit here and say all the things I wrote, over and over again, and you will know that I am saying them--it will be almost as if I were with you, and could say them quite close to you--like this--I love you!"
She had drawn his hand gently down to her while she was speaking, and she whispered the last words into his ear with a delicate little kiss that sent a thrill straight to his heart.
"You are not afraid any more now, are you?" she asked, as she let him go, and he straightened himself suddenly as a man drawing back from something he both fears and loves.
He opened and shut his hands quickly two or three times, as some nervous men do, as if trying to shake them clear from a spell, or an influence. Then he began to walk up and down, talking to her.
"I am at my wit's end," he said, speaking fast and not looking at her face, as he turned and turned again. "I cannot send you to Villagarcia--there are things that neither you nor I could do, even for each other, things you would not have me do for you, Dolores. It would be ruin and disgrace to my adopted mother and Quixada--it might be worse, for the King can call anything he pleases high treason. It is impossible to take you there without some one knowing it--can I carry you in my arms? There are grooms, coachmen, servants, who will tell anything under examination--under torture! How can I send you there?"
"I would not go," answered Dolores quietly.
"I cannot send you to a convent, either," he went on, for he had taken her answer for granted, as lovers do who trust each other. "You would be found in a day, for the King knows everything. There is only one place, where I am master--"
He stopped short, and grew very pale again, looking at the wall, but seeing something very far away.
"Where?" asked Dolores. "Take me there! Oh, take me where you are master--where there is no king but you, where we can be together all our lives, and no one can come between us!"
He stood motionless, staring at the wall, contemplating in amazement the vastness of the temptation that arose before him. Dolores could not understand, but she did what a loving women does when the man she loves seems to be in a great distress. She came and stood beside him, passing one arm through his and pressing it tenderly, without a word. There are times when a man needs only that to comfort him and give him strength. But even a woman does not always know them.
Very slowly he turned to her, almost as if he were trying to resist her eyes and could not. He took his arm from hers and his hands framed her face softly, and pushed the gold hair gently back on her forehead. But she grew frightened by degrees, for there was a look in his eyes she had never seen there, and that had never been in them before, neither in love nor in battle. His hands were quite cold, and his face was like a beautiful marble, but there was an evil something in it, as in a fallen angel's, a defiance of God, an irresistible strength to do harm, a terror such as no man would dare to meet.
"You are worth it," he said in a tone so different from his natural voice that Dolores started, and would have drawn back from him, but could not, for his hands held her, shaking a little fiercely.
"What? What is it?" she asked, growing more and more frightened--half believing that he was going mad.
"You are worth it," he repeated. "I tell you, you are worth that, and much more, and the world, and all the world holds for me, and all earth and heaven besides. You do not know how I love you--you can never guess--"
Her eyes grew tender again, and her hands went up and pressed his that still framed her face.
"As I love you--dear love!" she answered, wondering, but happy.
"No--not now. I love you more. You cannot guess--you shall see what I will do for your sake, and then you will understand."
He uttered an incoherent exclamation, and his eyes dazzled her as he seized her in his arms and pressed her to him so that she could have cried out. And suddenly he kissed her, roughly, almost cruelly, as if he meant to hurt her, and knew that he could. She struggled in his arms, in an unknown terror of him, and her senses reeled.
Then all at once, he let her go, and turned from her quickly, leaving her half fainting, so that she leaned against the wall and pressed her cheek to the rough hanging. She felt a storm of tears, that she could not understand, rising in her heart and eyes and throat. He had crossed the room, getting as far as he could from her, and stood there, turned to the wall, his arms bent against it and his face buried in his sleeve. He breathed hard, and spoke as if to himself in broken words.
"Worth it? My God! What are you not worth?"
There was such a ring of agony and struggling in his voice that Dolores forgot herself and stood up listening, suddenly filled with anxiety for him again. He was surely going mad. She would have gone to him again, forgetting her terror that was barely past, the woman's instinct to help the suffering man overruling everything else. It was for his sake that she stayed where she was, lest if she touched him he should lose his senses altogether.
"Oh, there is one place, where I am master and lord!" he was saying. "There is one thing to do--one thing--"
"What is the thing?" she asked very gently. "Why are you suffering so? Where is the place?"
He turned suddenly, as he would have turned in his saddle in battle at a trumpet call, straight and strong, with fixed eyes and set lips, that spoke deliberately.
"There is Granada," he said. "Do you understand now?"
"No," she answered timidly. "I do not understand. Granada? Why there? It is so far away--"
He laughed harshly.
"You do not understand? Yes, Granada is far away--far enough to be another kingdom--so far that John of Austria is master there--so far that with his army at his back he can be not only its master, but its King? Do you understand now? Do you see what I will do for your sake?"
He made one step towards her, and she was very white.
"I will take you, and go back to-morrow. Do you think the Moors are not men, because I beat them? I tell you that if I set up my standard in Granada and call them to me, they will follow me--if I lead them to the gate of Madrid. Yes--and so will more than half the Spanish army, if I will! But I do not want that--it is not the kingdom--what should I care for that? Could I not have taken it and held it? It is for you, dear love--for your sake only--that we may have a world of our own--a kingdom in which you are queen! Let there be war--why should I care? I will set the world ablaze and let it burn to its own ashes, but I will not let them take you from me, neither now, nor ever, while I am alive!"
He came quickly towards her now, and she could not draw back, for the wall was behind her. But she thrust out her hands against him to keep him off. The gesture stopped him, just when he would have taken her in his arms.
"No, no!" she cried vehemently. "You must not say such things, you must not think such thoughts! You are beside yourself, and you will drive me mad, too!"
"But it will be so easy--you shall see--"
She cut his words short.
"It must not be easy, it must not be possible, it must not be at all! Do you believe that I love you and that I would let you do such deeds? Oh, no! That would not be love at all--it would be hate, it would be treason to you, and worse treason than yours against your brother!"
The fierce light was sinking from his face. He had folded his arms and stood very still, listening to her.
"You!" she cried, with rising energy. "You, the brave soldier, the spotless man, the very soul of honour made flesh and blood! You, who have but just come back in triumph from fighting your King's enemies--you against whom no living being has ever dared to breathe a slander or a slighting word. Oh, no, no, no, no! I could not bear that you should betray your faith and your country and yourself, and be called traitor for my sake! Not for ten lives of mine shall you ruin yours. And not because I might love you less if you had done that deed. God help me! I think I should love you if you committed any crime! The shame is the more to me--I know it. I am only a woman! But rather than let my love ruin you, make a traitor of you and lose you in this world and the next, my soul shall go first--life, soul, honour, everything! You shall not do it! You think that you love me more than I love you, but you do not. For to save you as you are, I love you so dearly that I will leave you--leave you to honour, leave you to your King, leave you to the undying glory of the life you have lived, and will live, in memory of my love!"
The splendid words rang from her lips like a voice from heaven, and her eyes were divinely lightened. For they looked up, and not at him, calling Heaven to witness that she would keep her promise. As her open hand unconsciously went out, he took it tenderly, and felt her fingers softly closing on his own, as if she would lift him to himself again, and to the dear light of her own thoughts. There was silence for a moment.
"You are better and wiser than I," he said, and his tone told her that the madness was past.
"And you know that I am right? You see that I must leave you, to save you from me?"
"Leave me--now?" he cried. "You only said that--you meant me to understand--you did not mean that you would leave me now?"
"I do mean it," she said, in a great effort. "It is all I can do, to show you how I love you. As long as I am in your life you will be in danger--you will never be safe from yourself--I see it all now! I stand between you and all the world would give you--I will not stand between you and honour!"
She was breaking down, fight as she would against the pain. He could say nothing, for he could not believe that she really was in earnest.
"I must!" she exclaimed suddenly. "It is all I can do for you--it is my life--take it!"
The tears broke from her eyes, but she held her head high, and let them fall unheeded.
"Take it!" she repeated. "It is all I have to give for yours and your honour. Good-by--oh, love, I love you so dearly! Once more, before I go--"
She almost, fell into his arms as she buried her face on his shoulder and clasped his throat as she was wont. He kissed her hair gently, and from time to time her whole frame shook with the sobs she was choking down.
"It kills me," she said in a broken voice. "I cannot--I thought I was so strong! Oh, I am the most miserable living woman in the world!"
She broke away from him wildly and threw herself upon a chair, turning from him to its cushion and hiding her face in her hands, choking, pressing the furious tears back upon her eyes, shaking from head to foot.
"You cannot go! You cannot!" he cried, falling on his knees beside her and trying to take her hands in his. "Dolores--look at me! I will do anything--promise anything--you will believe me! Listen, love--I give you my word--I swear before God--"
"No--swear nothing--" she said, between the sobs that broke her voice.
"But I will!" he insisted, drawing her hands down till she looked at him. "I swear upon my honour that I will never raise my hand against the King--that I will defend him, and fight for him, and be loyal to him, whatever he may do to me--and that even for you, I will never strike a blow in battle nor speak a word in peace that is not all honourable, through and through,--even as I have fought and spoken until now!"
As she listened to his words her weeping subsided, and her tearful eyes took light and life again. She drew him close, and kissed him on the forehead.
"I am so glad--so happy!" she cried softly. "I should never have had strength to really say good-by!"
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