by Mabel Collins
ADVENTURE is said to be sweet to the young; if it was so to Hilary, he must soon have found abundant pleasure in the possession of enough sweets. For the next few days scarcely an hour passed without an event large enough in his eyes to be an adventure.
He was ready at the hour Fleta had named; and had provided against all probable contingencies by taking with him the smallest possible amount of luggage. For aught he knew they might have to climb mountains in the course of this journey. And moreover he knew Fleta’s un-princess-like distaste for superfluities; he would not have been surprised to see her start in her riding habit and take no luggage at all. The difficulty he dreaded was his mother’s surprise at this scant provision of his. But good luck — or was it something else ? — took her away. She was summoned to visit a sick friend at a little distance out of the city, and said good-bye to Hilary before her departure. So Hilary made his preparations without being troubled by criticism.
At noon a lad presented himself at the door of the Estanol’s house, with a note which he said he was to give into Hilary’s own hand. Hilary immediately went to him and took it, as he guessed it was from Fleta. A single line ! — and no signature ! —
“ I am waiting for you outside the north gate”.
Hilary took his valise in his hand, afraid to hire a carriage lest it should not please her that he brought any eyes to note their meeting. He walked out of the city by the quietest side streets he could select, hoping not to meet any of his friends. He met no one he knew, and with a sigh of relief passed out through the gate and walked on to the broad country road beyond it. Drawn up under some trees was a handsome travelling carriage, with four horses and postilions. Hilary was surprised. He had not expected so much luxury. When he reached the carriage he was even more surprised. Fleta was hardly dressed as for a journey; she wore a much richer robe than usual, and [Page 194] her head and shoulders were covered with beautiful black lace. She leaned back in a corner of the roomy carriage, with a voluptuous dreamy expression on her face which was new to Hilary. Opposite her sat Father Amyot. Hilary could not but regard the priest with amazement. Was the town to lose its favourite confessor? How then could all the gossips in it be prevented from hearing of the Princess Fleta’s journey ? But Hilary resolved not to harass himself with conjecture. He entered the carriage and Fleta motioned to him to seat himself at her side.
At her side ! Yes, that was his place. And Father Amyot, the father confessor, beloved and almost worshipped by the people, in whose breast reposed the secrets and the sorrows of the city; Father Amyot, who was the model of piety to all who knew him, sat opposite in the carriage. Did he watch the lovers? Seemingly not. His eyes were lowered and his gaze was apparently fixed on his clasped hands. He sat there like a statue. Once or twice when Hilary glanced at his face, he fancied he must be there unwillingly. Was it so ? Was he Fleta’s tool and servant held by her domineering temper to do her bidding ? Surely not. Father Amyot was too well known as a man of power for the idea to be credible. Hilary checked himself for the hundredth time in these hopeless speculations and determined to enjoy the moment he was in possession of and not trouble about the next one till it came; nor yet endeavour to read others’ hearts. And so this young philosopher went open eyed, as he believed, to his destruction.
The carriage rolled away at a great speed; it was drawn by four beautiful Russian horses, and the postilions were Fleta’s own, and accustomed to her likings. She was a most daring and intrepid rider and nothing pleased her in the way of motion except great speed. She was a lover of animals and her horses were the finest kept in the city. It was strange to Hilary to try and realise her singular independence of position, as today he felt impelled to. For himself he was still to a great extent in leading strings; he had made no position for himself, nor even planned any career; he was dependent on his mother’s fortune, and consequently, to a certain extent, could act only according to her approval. He was still so young that all this seemed natural enough. But Fleta was younger than himself, though it was difficult always to remember it, so dominant was her temper. A glance at her fresh face still so soft in its outlines as to have something childish about it when her expression permitted; at her figure,so slender in spite of its stateliness, recalled the fact that the Princess was indeed only a girl. Did the man who was about to marry her suppose that his young Queen was a creature unformed, fresh from the schoolroom, altogether malleable to his hand ?
During the whole of the afternoon they drove on with scarcely a pause, and with very little conversation to pass the time. Yet for Hilary it flew with swift wings. The mere sensation of his novel [Page 195] position was enough for him as yet. To be beside Fleta and to watch her mysterious face for so long together satisfied for the moment his longing soul. Fleta herself seemed buried in profound thought. She sat silent, her eyes on the country they passed through, but her mind, as far as Hilary could judge, wandering in some remote region. As for Father Amyot, his regard remained fixed upon a small crucifix which he held hidden within his clasped hands, and now and then his lips moved in prayer, while, on that austere face, no expression seemed to have room but that of adoration or contemplation of the divine.
At sundown they stopped at a very small way-side inn. Hilary could not believe they were going to stay here, for it looked little more than a place where men drink and horses are fed. Yet so it was. The carriage was driven round to the side of the small house, the horses taken out of it, and Flea led the way in at a side door, followed by her two companions.
Within they found a motherly, plain and kindly woman, who evidently knew Fleta well; Hilary learned afterwards that this landlady had been a kitchen maid in the royal household. And now he saw strange things indeed. For this inn was in reality nothing but a drinking shop for the drivers who passed along the road. It had no parlour, nor any accommodation for travellers of a better sort. And Fleta knew this, as was evident at once. She drew a hard chair forward, close to the great fire which flamed up the wide open chimney, and sat down seemingly quite at her ease.
“We must have some supper”, she said to the landlady. “Get us what you can. Can you find room for these gentlemen tonight ? ”
The landlady came near to Fleta and spoke in a low voice; the Princess laughed.
“There are no bedrooms in this house, it seems”, she said, aloud, “ in fact, it is not an hotel. Shall we drive on or shall we sit here through the night ?”
“The horses are tired”, said Father Amyot, speaking for the first time since they had left the city.
“True”, said Fleta, absently — for already she appeared to be thinking of something else. “ I suppose, then we must stay here”.
Hilary had never passed, nor ever contemplated passing, a night in such rough fashion. He was fond of comfort, or rather of luxury. But what could he do when his Princess, the greatest lady in the land, set him the example. Any protest would have appeared effeminate, and his pride held him silent. Still, when after a very indifferent supper, they all returned to the hard wooden chairs beside the fire, Hilary for the moment very sincerely wished himself at home in his own comfortable rooms. As he wished this, suddenly he became aware that Fleta’s dark eyes had turned upon him, and he would not look up, for he believed she had read his thought. He wished he could have hidden it from her, for he had no mind to be held as more effeminate than herself. [Page 196]
There was a sort of second kitchen even rougher and more cheerless than the one in which they sat; and there the postilions and other men, the ordinary customers of the house, were crowded together, drinking and talking and singing. Their presence was horrid to Hilary, who was conscious of refined susceptibilities, but Fleta seemed quite indifferent to the noise they made and the odour of their coarse tobacco; or rather it might be that she was unaware of anything outside her own thoughts. She sat, her chin on her hand, looking into the fire; and so graceful and perfect was her attitude that she had the air of being a masterpiece of art placed amid the commonest surroundings. She looked more lovely than ever from the contrast, but yet the incongruity was painful to Hilary.
The silence in the room in which they sat became the more marked from contrast with the increasing noise in the crowded room without. At last, however, the hour came for the house to be closed and the landlady politely showed her customers the door; all except those who were travellers on the road. These, including the postilions, gathered into the chimney corner and became quiet, at last falling sound asleep. To Hilary it seemed now that he was living through a painful dream, and he longed for the awakening — willing to awake, even if that meant that he would be at home and away from Fleta.
At last sleep came to him, and his head drooped forward; he sat there, upright in the wooden chair, fast asleep. When he awoke it was with a sense of pain in every limb, from the posture which he had maintained; and he could scarcely refrain from crying out when he attempted to move. But he instantly remembered that if the others were sleeping he must not wake them. Then he quickly looked round. Father Amyot sat near, looking just as he had looked since they entered the house; he might have been a statue. Fleta’s chair was empty.
Hilary roused himself, sat up and stared at her empty place; then looked all round the kitchen. An idea occurred to him; possibly the landlady had found some resting place for the young Princess. A sense of oppression came over him; the kitchen seemed stifling. He rose with difficulty and stretched himself, then found his way out into the air. It was a glorious morning; the sun had just risen, the world seemed like a beautiful woman seen in her sleep. How sharp the sweet fresh air was ! Hilary drew a deep breath of it. The country in which this lonely little inn stood was exceedingly lovely, and at this moment it wore its most fascinating appearance. A sense of great delight came upon Hilary; the uneasiness of the past night was at an end, and he was glad now and full of youth and strength. He turned and walked away from the house, soon leaving the road and plunging into the dewy grass. There was a stream in the valley, and here he determined to bathe. He soon reached it, and in another moment had hastily undressed, and was plunged in the ice-cold water. An intoxicating sense of vigour came over him as he [Page 197] experienced the keen contact. Never had he felt so full of life as now ! It was not possible to remain long in the water, it was so intensely cold; he sprang out again and stood for a moment on the bank in the brilliant morning sunshine, looking like a magnificent figure carved by the god of the day, his flesh gleaming in the light. Slowly he began at last to put on his dress, feeling as if in some way this meant a partial return and submission to civilization. Something of the savage which lay deep hidden in him had been roused and touched. A fire burned that hitherto he had never felt, and which made him long for pure freedom and un-criticised life. And this was Hilary Estanol! It seemed incredible that a draught of fresh morning air, a plunge into ice-cold water beneath the open sky, should have been enough to unloose the savage in him, which was held fast beneath his conventional and languid self, as it is in all of us, and all those whom we meet in ordinary life. He moved hastily, striding on as though he were hurrying to some end, but it was merely a new pleasure in motion. There was a grove of old yew trees near the stream; a grove which with the superstitious was held to be sacred. That it should be revered was no wonder, so stately were the ancient trees, so deep the shadow they cast. Hilary went towards this grove, attracted by its splendid appearance; as he approached its margin a dim sense of familiarity came over him. Never had he left the city by this road, yet it seemed to him that he had entered the grove of yews by the early morning light already many a time. We are all accustomed to meet with this curious sensation; Hilary laughed at it and put it away. What if he had visited this spot in a dream ? Now it was broad daylight, and he felt himself young and a giant. He plunged into the deep shadow, pleased by the contrast it made to the brilliant light without.
Suddenly his heart leaped within him and his brain reeled. For there before him, stood Fleta; and the brilliant Princess looked like a spirit of the night, so pale and grave and proud was her face and so much a part did she seem of the deep shadow of the wood.
“Is it you ? ” she said with a smile, a smile of mystery and deep unfathomable knowledge.
“Yes it is ! ” he answered, and felt, as he spoke, that he said something in those words which he did not himself understand. They stood side by side for a moment in silence; and then Hilary remembered himself to be alone with this woman, alone with her in the midst of the world. They were separated by the hour from other men and women, for the world still lay asleep; they were separated by the deep shadow of the wood from all moving life that answered to the sun. They were alone — and overwhelmed by this sudden sense of solitude Hilary spoke out his soul.
“Princess”, he said, “ I am ready to be your blind servant, your dumb slave, speaking and seeing only when you tell me. You know well why I am willing to be the tool in your hands. It is because I love you. But [Page 198] you must pay a price for your tool if you would have it! I cannot only worship at your feet. Fleta, you must give yourself to me, absolutely, utterly. Marry that man to whom you are betrothed if you desire to be a queen, but to me you must give your love, yourself. Ah ! Fleta, you cannot refuse me ! ”
Flea stood still a long moment, her eyes upon his face.
“No”, she said, “ I cannot refuse you”.
And to Hilary, for an instant of horror, it seemed to him that in her eyes was a glance of ineffable scorn. Yet there was love in the smile on her lips and in the touch of her hand as she laid it in his.
“The bond is made”, she said, “all that you can take of me is yours. And I will pay you for your love with my love. Only do not forget that you and I are different — that we are after all, two persons — that we cannot love in exactly the same way. Do not forget this !”
Hilary knew not what to answer. As she spoke the last words he recognised his princess, he saw the queen before him. What did she mean ?, Well, he was so unhappy that his love had gone from him to a lady of royal birth. It could not be undone, this folly. He must be content to take that part which a subject may take in the life of a queen, even though he be her lover. The thought brought a pang, a swift stab to his heart and a sigh burst from his lips. Fleta put her hand on his arm.
“Do not be sad so soon”, she said, “ let us wait for trouble. Come let us go out into the sunshine”.
They went out, hand in hand; they wandered down beside the stream and looked into the gleaming waters.
THAT day the journey began early, and was very protracted. Twice during it they halted at little inns to rest the horses and to obtain what food they could. By the evening they had entered upon the most deserted region of the great forest which was one of the prides of the country. The King’s hunting seat, where he now was, stood in a part of this forest, but in quite another region, a long distance from this wild place where Hilary and his companions now were. Hilary had never been within the forest, as few from the city ever penetrated it except as part of the King’s retinue, and then they only saw such tracts of it as were preserved and in order. Of this wilder region practically little was known, and the spirit of adventure within Hilary made him rejoice to find that their journey led them through this unpopulated district. His curiosity as to their destination was not now very acute, for the experiences of the passing moments were all sufficient. It is true that he was conscious of the great gulf fixed between himself and Fleta. He knew her to be his superior in every respect. He knew not only that he must always be separated from her by their difference in station but that he was more vitally separated from her by their difference in [Page 199] thought — and that even now. But he was made happy by a look of love that plunged deep from her eyes into his own now and again, and he was thrilled to the heart when her hand touched his with a light and delicate pressure that he alone could understand. Ah! that secret understanding which separates lovers from all the rest of the world. How sweet it is ! How strange it is, too, for they are overpowered by a mutual sense of sympathy which appears to be a supreme intelligence, giving each the power to look into the other’s heart. Dear moments are they when this is realised, when all life outside the sacred circle in which the two dwell is obscure and dim, while that within is rich, and strong, and sweet. Hilary lived supremely content only in the consciousness of being near this woman whom he loved; for now that he had actually asked her love, and been granted it, nothing else existed for him save that sweet fact. He was indifferent to the hardships, and, indeed, probable dangers, of the journey they were upon, which might have made a more intrepid spirit uneasy; for now he was content to suffer, or even to die, if all conditions were shared with Fleta. All her life could not be shared with him, but all his could be shared with her. When a man reaches this point, and is content to face such a state of things between himself and the woman he loves, he may be reckoned as being in love indeed.
Quite late at night it was when this day’s journey ended, and the splendid horses were really tired out. But a certain point evidently had to be reached, and the postilions pushed on. Fleta at last seemed to grow a little anxious, and several times rose in the carriage to look on ahead; once or twice she inquired of the postilions if they were certain of their way. They answered yes; though how that could be was to Hilary a mystery, for they had been for a long while travelling over mere grass tracts, of which there were many, to his eyes undistinguishable one from the other. But the postilions either had landmarks which he could not detect, or else knew their way very well. At last they stopped; and in the dim light Hilary saw that there was a gate at the side of the track, a gate wide enough to drive through, but of the very simplest construction. It might have defended merely a spot where young trees were planted, or some kind of preserving done; and it was set in a fence of the same character, almost entirely hidden by thick growth of wild shrubs. The Princess Fleta produced from her dress a whistle on which she sounded a clear ringing note, and then everybody sat still and waited. It seemed to Hilary that it was quite a long while that they waited; perhaps it was not really long, but the night was so still, the silence so profound, the feeling of expectancy so strong. He was, for the first time since they started, really very curious as to what would happen next. What did happen at last was this. There was a sound of laughter and footsteps, and presently two figures appeared at the gate; one that of a tall man, the other that of a young, slight girl. The gate was unlocked and thrown [Page 200] wide open, and a moment later the young girl was in the carriage, embracing Flea with the greatest enthusiasm and delight. Hilary hardly knew how everything happened, but presently the whole party was standing together inside the gate, the carriage had driven in and was out of sight. Then, the tall man shut and locked the gate, after which he turned back, and walked on ahead with the young girl at his side, while Hilary followed with Fleta. The moon had risen now, and Hilary could see her beautiful face plainly, wearing on it an unusually gay and happy expression; her lips seemed to smile at her own thoughts. The sweet gladness in her face made Hilary’s heart spring with joy. It could not be rejoining her friends that made her so glad, for they had gone on and left her alone with him.
“Fleta — my princess — no, my Fleta”, he said, “ are you happy to be with me ? I think you are ! ”
“ Yes, I am happy to be with you — but I am not Fleta”.
“ Not Fleta ! ” echoed Hilary, in utter incredulity.
He stopped, and catching his companion’s hand, looked into her face. She glanced up, and her eyes were full of shy coquetry and ready gaiety.
“ I might be her twin sister, might I not, if I am not Fleta herself ? Ah ! no, Fleta’s fate is to live in a court — mine to live in a forest. Live ! — no, it is not life ! ”
What was it in that voice that made his heart grow hot with passion ? Fiercely he exclaimed to himself that it was, it must, be Fleta’s voice. No other woman could speak in such tones — no other woman’s words give him such a sense of maddening joy.
“Oh ! yes”, he said, “ it is life — when one loves, one lives anywhere”.
“ Yes, perhaps, when one loves ! ” was the answer.
“ You told me this morning that you loved me, Fleta!” cried Hilary in despair.
“ Ah! but I am not Fleta”, was the mocking answer. It sounded like mockery indeed as she spoke. And yet the voice was Fleta’s. There was no doubt of that. He looked, he listened, he watched. The voice, the face, the glorious eyes, were Fleta’s. It was Fleta who was beside him, say she what she might.
They had been following the others all this while, and had now reached a clearing in the wood, where was a garden full of sweet flowers, as Hilary could tell at once by the rich scents that came to him on the night air.
“ I am glad we have reached the house”, said his companion, “for I am very tired and hungry. Are not you ? I wonder what we shall have for supper. You know this is an enchanted place which we call the palace of surprises. We never know what will happen next. That is why one can enjoy a holiday here as one can enjoy it no where else. At home there is a frightful monotony about the eating and drinking [Page 201] Everything is perfect, of course, but it is always the same. Now here one is fed like a Russian one day, and a Hungarian the next. There is a perpetual novelty about the menus, and yet they are always good. Is not that extraordinary. And oh ! the wines, great heavens ! what a cellar our sainted father keeps. I can only bless, with all my heart, the long dead founders of his order, who instituted such a system”.
Hilary had regarded his companion with increasing amazement during this speech. Certainly it was unlike Fleta. Was she acting for his benefit ? But at the words “sainted father” another idea thrust that one out of his head. What had become of Father Amyot ? He had not seen him leave the carriage, or approach the house.
“Oh, your holy companion has gone to his brethren”, said the girl, with a laugh. “They have a place of their own where they torture themselves and mortify the flesh. But they entertain us well, and that is what I care for. We will have a dance tonight. Oh ! Hilary, the music here ! It is better than that of any band in the world ! ”
“If you are not, Fleta, how do you know my name ? ”
“Simple creature ! What a question ! Why, Fleta has told me all about you. Did you never hear that the princess had a foster-sister, and that none could ever tell which was which, so like were we — and are we ! Did you never hear that Fleta’s mother was blonde, and dull, and plain, and that Fleta is like none of her own family ? Oh, Hilary, you, fresh from the city, you know nothing!”
A sudden remembrance crossed Hilary’s mind.
“ I have heard”, he said, “ that no one could tell where Fleta had drawn her beauty from. But I believe you draw it from you own beautiful soul! ” .
“ Ah, you still think me Fleta ? I have had some happy hours in the city before now when Fleta has let me play at being a princess. Ah, but the men all thought the princess in a strange, charming, delightful humour on these days. And when next they saw her, that humour was gone, and they were afraid to speak to her. Come in. I am starving !”
They had entered a wide, low doorway, and stood now within the great hall. What a strange hall it was ! The floor was covered with the skins of animals, many of them very handsome skins; and great jars held flowering plants, the scent from which made the air rich and heavy. A wood fire burned on the wide hearth, and before it, still in the dress she had travelled in, stood — Fleta.
The girl who stood at Hilary’s side laughed and clapped her hands as he uttered a cry of amazement, even of horror.
“This is some of your magic, Fleta ! ” he exclaimed involuntarily.
The Princess turned at his words. She was looking singularly grave and stern; her glance gave Hilary a sense of almost fear.
“No”, she answered in a low, quiet voice that had a tone, as Hilary [Page 202] fancied, of pain, “ it is not magic. It is all very natural. This is Adine, my little sister; so like me that I do not know her from myself”.
She drew Adine to her with a gesture which had a protecting tenderness in it. This was the Princess who spoke, queen-like in her kindness. Hilary Stood, unable to speak, unable to think, unable to understand. Before him stood two girls — each Fleta. Only by the difference of expression could he detect any difference between them. One threw him back the most coquettish and charming glance, as she went towards her grave sister. He could feel keenly how vitally different the two were. Yet they stood side by side, and though Fleta said “my little sister” there was no outward difference between them. Adine was as tall, as beautiful — and the same in everything !
“Do not be startled”, said Fleta quietly, “you will soon grow used to the likeness”.
“Though I doubt”, added Adine, with a wicked glance from her brilliant eyes, “whether you will ever tell us apart except, when we are not together”.
“Come”, said Fleta, “ let us go and wash the travel stains off. It is just supper time”.
Flea talked of travel stains, but as Hilary looked at her queenly beauty, he thought she seemed as fresh as though she had but from this moment come from the hands of her maid. However, the two went away arm in arm, Adine turning at the door to have one last glance of amusement at Hilary’s utterly perplexed face. He was left alone, and he remained standing where he was, without power of thought or motion.
Presently some one came and touched him on the shoulder; this was necessary in order to attract his attention. It was the tall man who had come to the gate to meet them. He was very handsome, and with the most cheerful and good-natured expression; his blue eyes were full of laughter.
“Come”, he said, “come and see your room. I am master of the ceremonies here; apply to me for anything you want — even information ! I may, or may not give it, according to the decision of the powers that be. Call me Mark. I have a much longer name, in fact, half-a-dozen much longer ones, and a few titles to boot; but they would not interest you, and in the midst of a forest where nobody has any dignity, a name of one syllable is by far the best”. While he talked on like this, apparently indifferent as to whether Hilary listened or no, he led the way out of the hall and down a wide, carpeted corridor. He opened the last door in this, and ushered Hilary in.
(To be continued.)