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It was the portrait of the woman who had been introduced to her as Mrs. Dugald. But it bore the name: La Faustina, as Norma.
THE PLOT AGAINST CLAUDIA.
Alas! a thought of saddest weight Presses and will have vent: Had she not scorned his love, her fate Had been so different! Had her heart bent its haughty will To take him for its lord, She had been proudly happy still; Still honored, still adored. --_Monckton Milnes_
Indignation rooted Claudia to the spot.
Instinct had already warned her that she was insulted and degraded by the presence of this strange woman in the house.
Reason now confirmed instinct.
And Claudia was entirely too self-willed and high-spirited to submit to either insult or degradation.
She instantly resolved to demand of Lord Vincent the immediate dismissal of this woman, and to keep her own rooms until her demand was complied with.
This, in fact, was the only truly dignified course of conduct that, under the circumstances, Claudia could have pursued.
With this resolution she withdrew from the drawing rooms, and went upstairs to seek her own apartment.
Here the very accident happened that we mentioned as being so likely to happen to any newcomer to the castle.
As she reached the great hall on the second floor she looked around upon the many doors that opened from its four walls into the many suites of apartments that radiated from it, as from a common center, to the outer walls of the castle keep.
But which was her own door she was puzzled for a moment to decide.
The chandelier that hung from the ceiling gave but a subdued light that helped her but little.
At last she thought she had found her own door; she judged it to be her own because it was partly open and she saw, through the vista of the three rooms, the little coal fire that burned dimly in the last one.
So she silently crossed the hall, walking on the soft deep drugget, into which her footsteps sank noiselessly, as she entered what she supposed to be her own boudoir.
The room was dark, except from the gleam of light that stole in from the chandelier in the hall, and the dull glow of the coal fire that might be dimly seen in the distant dressing room, at the end of the suite.
Claudia, however, had no sooner entered the room and looked around than she discovered that it was not hers. This suite of apartments was arranged upon the same plan as her own--first the boudoir, then the bed chamber, and last the dressing room with the little coal fire; but--the hangings were different; for, where hers had been golden brown, these were rosy red.
And she was about to retire and close the door softly when the sound of voices in the adjoining room arrested her steps.
The first that spoke was the voice of Faustina, in tones of passionate grief and remonstrance. She was saying:
"But to bring her here! here, of all the places in the world! here, under my own very eyes! Ah!"
"My angel, I had a design in bringing her here, a design in which your future honor and happiness is involved," said the voice of Lord Vincent, in such tones of persuasive tenderness as he had never used in speaking to his betrayed and miserable wife.
"My honor and happiness! Ah!" cried the woman with a half-suppressed shriek.
"Faustina, my beloved, listen to me!" entreated the viscount.
"Do not love her! Do not, Malcolm! If you do I warn you that I shall kill her!" wildly exclaimed the woman, interrupting him.
"My angel, I love only you. How can you doubt it?"
"How can I doubt it? Because you have deceived me. Not once, nor twice, nor thrice; but always and in everything, from first to last!"
"Deceived you, Faustina! How can you say so? In what have I ever deceived you? Not in vowing that I love you; for I do! You must know it. How, then, have I deceived you?"
"You promised to make me your viscountess."
"And I will do so. I swear it to you, Faustina."
"Ah, you have sworn so many oaths to me."
"I will keep them all--trust me! I would die for you; would go to perdition for you, Faustina!"
"You will keep all your oaths to me, you say?"
"All of them, Faustina!"
"One of them is, that you will make me your viscountess!"
"Yes, and I will do it, my angel. Who but yourself should share my rank with me? I will make you my viscountess, Faustina."
"How can you do that, even if you wished to do so? She is your viscountess."
"Yes, for a little while; and for a little while only. Until she has served the purpose for which I married her--and no longer," said the viscount.
"Ah! what do you mean?" There was breathless eagerness and ruthless cruelty in the tone and manner in which the woman put this question.
The viscount did not immediately reply.
And Claudia, her blood curdling with horror at what seemed plainly a design against her life, left her position near the door of the boudoir and concealed herself behind the crimson satin hangings; feeling fully justified in becoming an eavesdropper upon conversation that concerned her safety.
"What do you mean?" again whispered the woman, with restrained vehemence.
"'Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck, 'till you approve the deed,'" quoted Lord Vincent.
"But trust me; I am ready to aid you in the deed, and to share with you the danger it must bring, for I love you, Malcolm, I love you! Confide in me! Tell me what you mean," she whispered in low, deep, vehement tones.
"I mean--not what you imagine, Faustina. Turn your face away. Those eyes of yours make my blood run cold. No! We English are not quite so ready with bowl and dagger as you Italians seem to be. We like to keep within bounds."
"I do not understand you, then."
"No, you do not. And you will not understand me any better when I say to you, that I shall get rid of my Indian Princess, not by breaking the law, but by appealing to the law."
"No; it is true; I do not understand you. You seem to be playing with me."
"Listen, then, you bewitching sprite. You reproached me just now with bringing her here, here under your very eyes, you said. Faustina, I brought her here, to this remote hold, that she might be the more completely in my power. That I might, at leisure and in safety, mature my plans for getting entirely rid of her."
"But, Malcolm, why did you marry her at all? Ah, I fear, I fear, it was after all a real passion, though a transient one, that moved you!"
"No; I swear to you it was not! I have never loved woman but you!"
"But why then did you marry her at all?"
"My angel, I told you why. You should have believed me! My marriage was a financial necessity. The earl, my father, chose to take umbrage at what he called my disreputable--"
"Bah!" exclaimed the woman, in contempt.
"Well, let the phrase pass. The Earl of Hurstmonceux chose to take offense at my friendship with your lovely self. And he--did not threaten to stop my allowance unless I would break with you; but he actually and promptly did stop it until I should do so."
"Certainly; but then what was to be done? I had no income; nothing to support myself; much less you, with your elegant tastes."
"I could have gone on the boards again! I did not love you for your
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