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- The Law of the Land - 30/49 -
regarding you. Since I do know these things, for you to dare to come to me in this way seems to me the worst of effrontery."
Still Eddring stood uncomprehending, stunned. "I--I do that?" he whispered, half to himself. "Did you think--could you believe--"
"I could believe nothing else."
"Who told you these things?" blazed he at length, as at last his heart once more sent the blood back through his veins.
"If you wish to know, I will tell you. It was Henry Decherd. I imagine he could furnish proof enough." She spoke defiantly, if perhaps wearily.
"Henry Decherd!" exclaimed Eddring. "Henry Decherd! Miss Lady, is it possible that you can stand alive under the sun of heaven and say these things to me? Is he here? Tell me, what right--"
But now the anger of Miss Lady herself was blazing, and all the cruelty of her sex was in her tone as she answered. "I need not tell you," said she, "but I will. Mr. Decherd is the only friend of my former life who cared enough for me to follow and find me. And so he has the right--"
"For what? Tell me, is there any truth in this newspaper paragraph-- 'There is talk about the marriage of the mysterious Louise Loisson'? Don't tell me that he--that Decherd--" He gazed steadily into her eyes, but saw there that which made him forget all his purposes, forced him to remember nothing in the world but his sudden personal misery. And so for an instant he stood and suffered--until the sheer bigness of his soul began to reassert itself. All his love for her came back, and he forgot even his deadly hurt in the great wave of pity and tenderness which swept over him.
"Miss Lady," said he simply, after a time, "for myself it doesn't make so much difference, after all, I am one of the unlucky. But for you, as you say, it is at least your due that you should have honest men for your friends, and an honest man for your husband. I wanted you to trust me. I loved you. I wanted you to believe in me. I wanted you to _marry_ me, Miss Lady--I _will_ say it--and I wanted to tell you that long ago, before you left us. That is over now. You are unjust and cruel beyond all toleration--beyond all belief. You could by no possibility ever love me. But listen. You shall never marry Henry Decherd."
Ah, but it was a sweet and wonderful thing to see La Belle Louise dance; a strange and wonderful thing. She was so light, so strong, so full of grace, so like a bird in all her motions. She swam through the air as though her feet scarce touched the floor, her loose silken skirts resembling wings. Now on one side of the lighted stage, now back again, nodding, beckoning, courtesying to something which she saw--this spectacle must have moved any one of us to applause, as it did these thousands who came to witness it. The stage has no traditions of any dance like this of La Belle Louise. It is now danced no more, this dance which a maid or a lily or a tall white stork might understand, each after its own fashion.
Scores of times had La Belle Louise given this dance, each time with but trifling variations, each time to thunders of applause, with an art so free of effort that it was above all art. But what had now, for the first time, come to La Belle Louise? Did her bosom labor in the physical exertion of these measured steps? Was the quality of lightness and freedom lacking? Was the self-absorption, the abandonment, the impersonal, bird-like quality less to-night than before? And was the subtile, cruelly just sense of the public right in its hesitation, in its half-applause? Had there been actual change in the dancing of La Belle Louise?
The dancer looked from side to side, as though in search of some face or figure; as though in fear, in distress. Was she actually panting when she left the stage--she, La Belle Louise, the ethereal, the spirituelle, the very imponderable dream of the dance itself? This might have been; for presently she cast herself into the arms of Madame Delchasse in a state bordering upon actual panic.
"Auntie!" she cried, "I can not dance! I am done with it! I shall never dance again. I can not! I can not!" She trembled as though in actual fear or suffering as she spoke.
"Now, now, my cherished!" said the old French lady, gathering her to her ample bosom, "what is it that has come to you? You have illness? Come, we'll go at 'ome."
The dancer was slow in laying aside her silken skirts and putting on her street attire. Madame waited some time before thrusting her head through the half-open door, "See! my dearie," she cried, "I have the surprise for you. Monsieur shall ride home with you. He has ordered for to-night the second carriage, which I shall myself take--since you are so soon to ride with monsieur all the time, is it not?"
The head of madame disappeared. The girl, when at last ready to depart, sat with her gaze fixed on the door; yet she started when presently there came a knock. Henry Decherd entered.
"Louise!" he cried, "Louise!" and would have caught her in his arms. She repulsed him and stood back, pale and trembling.
"Oh, I say," protested Decherd, "one would think I had no right."
"You have no right to touch me," she replied. "You shall not. Go on away with auntie in the other carriage. I will follow you home."
"Come, now," said Decherd, approaching; "this sort of thing won't do. I don't understand what you mean."
"No, you don't understand a girl," she said.
"At least I understand how a girl ought to treat the man she is to marry."
"Marry!" said Miss Lady, whispering to herself. "Marry!" There was silence between them for a time, but she turned to him at length.
"I shall never dance again," said she. "Neither to-morrow, nor at any other time, shall I set foot upon the stage again."
"You will not need to do so, when once we are married," said he. "I shall be willing--but tell me, what's the matter to-night? You are only tired. You will wake up again."
"Wake up!" cried she, "that is the very word. I feel as though I had suddenly awakened, this very night." She pressed her hands to her reddening cheeks. "Can't you see?" she cried. "To-night for the first time I felt them! I felt their eyes. I _felt_ them, out there in front, as though there were many; as though there were more than one. I felt that they were women-that they were _men!_"
"Well, they have been there all the time," said Decherd. "It's odd you should just realize that."
"I never did before," said she. "It kills me. Why, can't you see? I have been selling myself--my body, my face, my eyes, _myself,_ a little at a time, a little to each of them. I've been selling myself. They paid to see _me._ Now I can dance no more. Yes, you are right, I am awake at last; and I tell you I am some one else. I have been in a dream, it seems to me, for years. But now I can see."
"Well, let the dancing go," said Decherd, rising and coming toward her. "Never mind about that."
"Let everything go!" cried Miss Lady, fiercely. "Let everything go! Marry you? Why, sir, if indeed you understood a girl, you would not want me to come to you feeling as I do now. Can't you see that a girl must _depend_ on the man she loves? I have tried to feel sure. I have tried to see you clearly. Now, to-night, it is just as it was that time years ago when you spoke to me; something comes between us. I can not see you clearly. I can not understand. And so long as that is true, I can never, never marry you. I can not talk about it. Go! I do not want to see you!"
A sudden alarm seized upon Henry Decherd. "Listen," he said; "listen to me. I can not have you talk this way. Why, you know this sort of thing is absolutely wrong."
"Everything's wrong!" cried Miss Lady, burying her face in her hands as she sank on a couch. "Everything is wrong! I am ashamed, I can not tell you why. I don't know why, but I have changed, all at once. I'm not myself any more. I'm some one else. I don't know _who_ I am! I never knew. Oh, shall I never know--shall I never understand why I am not myself!"
Decherd caught her hands. "We shall not wait," said he, "we'll be married to-morrow." His voice trembled in a real emotion, although on his face there sat an uneasiness not easily read. "Dearest, forget all this," he repeated. "Go home and sleep, and to-morrow--"
Her eyes flashed in the swift, imperious anger wherewith upon the instant sex may dominate sex, leaving no argument or answer. Yet in the next breath the girl turned away, her anger faded into anxiety. She wavered, softened in her attitude.
"Oh, he told me, he told me!" murmured she to herself. "I can not--I can not!" She seemed unconscious of Decherd's presence. But soon she forgot her own soliloquy. Once more she looked Decherd squarely in the face.
"I can not marry you," she said. "I _will_ not!"
"I'll not allow you to make a fool of yourself, or of me," said Decherd. "What do you mean--who is 'he'?"
He had his answer on the moment, not from her lips, but by one of those strange freaks of fate which often set us wondering in our commonplace lives.
There came a tap at the door, and a call boy offered a card. "It's against orders, I know, ma'am," he began, "but then--"
Decherd, full of suspicion, sprang at the messenger and caught the card before Miss Lady saw it. His swift glance gave him small comfort.
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