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alone," said Lady Vincent, as she sat her empty cup upon the waiter.
Sally took the service from the room.
And the viscountess wheeled her chair around to the fire, placed her feet upon the fender, and yielded her wearied and distracted spirit up to the healing and soothing influences of night and solitude. As she sat there, the words of a beautiful hymn glided into her memory. Often before this evening, lying alone and wakeful upon her bed,-- feeling the great blessing night brought her, in isolating her entirely from her evil companions, and drawing her into a purer sphere, feeling all the sweet and holy influences of night around her,--she had soothed her spirit to rest repeating the words of Mr. Longfellow's hymn:
"From the cool cisterns of the midnight air My spirit drinks repose; The fountains of perpetual peace flows there, From those deep cisterns flows.
Oh, Holy Night! from thee I learn to bear What souls have borne before, Thou lay'st thy fingers on the lips of care And they complain no more.
Peace! Peace! Orestes-like I breathe this prayer, Descend with broad-winged flight, The welcome, the thrice prayed-for, the most fair, The best beloved Night!"
She repeated it now. And it soothed her like a benediction,
A solitary night in her own boudoir would not seem to promise much enjoyment; yet Claudia was happier, because more peaceful now than she had ever seen since her first arrival at Castle Cragg.
She sat on, letting the hours pass calmly and silently over her, until the clock struck ten. Then to her surprise she heard a knocking at the outer hall door, followed by the sound of an arrival, and of many footsteps hastening up the stairs.
Claudia arose to her feet in astonishment, and at the same moment heard the voice of the viscount without, saying in ruffianly tones:
"Burst open the door then! Don't you see it is locked on the inside?" And with a violent kick the door of Claudia's boudoir, which certainly was not locked, was thrown open, and Lord Vincent, with inflamed cheeks and blood-shot eyes, strode into the room, followed by Mrs. Dugald, Mrs. MacDonald, and old Cuthbert.
"Keep the door, sir! Let no one pass out!" roared the viscount to his butler, who immediately shut the door and placed himself against it.
"My lord!" exclaimed Claudia, in indignant amazement, "what is the meaning of this violence?"
"It means, my lady, that you are discovered, run to earth, entrapped, cunning vixen as you are!" exclaimed the viscount, with an air of vindictive triumph.
Mrs. Dugald laughed scornfully.
Mrs. MacDonald turned up her chin contemptuously.
Old Cuthbert groaned aloud.
Claudia looked from one to the other, and then said:
"My lord, you and your friends appear to have been supping on very bad wine; I would counsel you to retire and sleep off its effects."
"Ha, ha, my lady! You take things coolly! I compliment you on your self-possession!" sneered the viscount.
Her heart nearly bursting with anger, Claudia threw herself into her chair, and with difficulty controlling her emotions, said:
"Will your lordship do me the favor to explain your errand in this room, and then retire with your party as speedily as possible?"
"Certainly, my lady, that is but reasonable, and is also just what I intended to do," said the viscount, bowing with mock courtesy.
And he drew a letter from his pocket and held it in his hand, while he continued to speak, addressing himself now to the whole party assembled in Lady Vincent's boudoir.
"It is necessary to premise, friends, that my marriage with this lady was a hasty, ill-advised, and inconsiderate one; unacceptable to my family, unfortunate for myself, humiliating in its results. For some weeks past my suspicions were aroused to the fact that all was not right between the viscountess and another member of my establishment. Cuthbert, keep that door! Let no one rush past!"
"Ah, me laird; dinna fash yoursel'! I'll keep it!" groaned the old man, putting his back firmly against the door.
"Lord Vincent," exclaimed Claudia haughtily, "I demand that you retract your words. You know them to be as false--as false as-- yourself. They could not be falser than that!"
"I will prove every word that I have spoken to be true!" replied the viscount. Then continuing his story, he said: "This morning certain circumstances strengthened my suspicions. Among others the persistence with which her ladyship, though in good health, and with no other engagement at hand, resolved and adhered to her resolution to remain at home and miss the rare opportunity of seeing Mr. and Mrs. Dean in their great parts of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Suspecting that her ladyship had some unlawful design in thus denying herself an amusement of which I know her to be excessively fond, and preferring to spend the evening at home, of which I know she is excessively tired, I ordered my faithful old servant, Cuthbert, to watch--not his mistress, Lady Vincent, but another individual--"
Here old Cuthbert interrupted the speaker with deep groans.
Claudia remained sitting in her chair, with her face as pale as death, her teeth firmly set, and her eyes fiercely fixed upon the face of the man who was thus maligning her honor.
"How well my suspicions were founded, and how faithfully old Cuthbert has performed his duty, you will soon see. It appears that we had but just started on our drive, when Cuthbert, watching the motions of the suspected person, saw him steal towards Lady Vincent's apartments. The old man glided after him, and, unseen himself, saw him, the miscreant, enter Lady Vincent's boudoir."
"It is as false as Satan! Oh, you infamous wretch, what form of punishment would be ignominious enough for you!" cried Claudia, springing to her feet, her eyes flaming with consuming wrath.
But the viscount approached and laid his hand upon her shoulder, and forced her down into her seat again.
And Claudia, too proud to resist, where resistance would be but a vain, unseemly struggle, dropped into her chair and sat perfectly still--a marble statue, with eyes of flame.
The viscount, with fiendish coolness, continued:
"Cuthbert watched and listened on the outside of the door for some time, and then, thinking that the intruder had no intention of leaving the room, he went and wrote a note, and sent it by one of the grooms, mounted on a swift horse, to me. Ladies, you both saw the boy enter the theater and hand me this note. Your interest was aroused, but I only told you that I was summoned in haste to my lady's apartments, and begged you to come with me--"
"And I thought her ladyship was perhaps ill, and needed experienced help, or I should certainly not have followed your lordship into this room," said Mrs. MacDonald, who, however, made no motion to withdraw.
Mrs. Dugald's insulting laugh rang through the room.
"I beg pardon, madam; I know this is not a pleasant scene for a lady to take part in, but I needed witnesses, and necessity has no law. If you will permit me, I will read the note I received," said the viscount, with a diabolical sneer, as he unfolded the paper. He read as follows:
"'It is a' as your lairdship suspicioned. If your lairdship will come your ways hame at ance, you will find the sinful pair in me leddy's boudoir.'"
The note had neither name nor date.
"You know," pursued Lord Vincent, "that we hurried home; you saw me speak aside with Cuthbert in the hall; in that short interview he informed me that he had remained upon the watch, and that the villain had not yet left Lady Vincent's apartments; that he was still within them!"
"Oh, Cuthbert! I believed you to be an honest old man! It is awful to find you in league with these wretches!" exclaimed Claudia, in sorrowful indignation.
"Ou, me leddy! I'd rather these auld limbs o' mine had been streaket in death, ere I had to use them in siccan uncanny wark! But the Lord's will be dune!" groaned the old man, is such sincere grief that Claudia was thoroughly perplexed.
And all this time the viscount was continuing his cool, devlish monologue.
"It was for this reason, ladies, that I burst open the door and called you in; and it was to prevent the escape of the fellow that I placed Cuthbert on guard at the door. Now, my lady, that you understand the cause of the 'violence' of which you just now complained, you will please to permit me to search the room. You cannot complain that I have acted with unseemly haste. I have proceeded with great deliberation. In fact, your accomplice has had abundant time to escape, if he had the means."
"Lord Vincent, these outrages shall cost you your life!" exclaimed Claudia, in the low, deep, stern key of concentrated passion.
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