The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXXII

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXXII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXXII.

A CHASTISEMENT.

When she went to her room, there was Caley taking from a portmanteau the Highland dress which had occasioned so much. A note fell, and she handed it to her mistress. Florimel opened it, grew pale as she read it, and asked Caley to bring her a glass of water. No sooner had her maid left the room than she sprang to the door and bolted it. Then the tears burst from her eyes, she sobbed despairingly, and but for the help, of her handkerchief would have wailed aloud. When Caley returned she answered to her knock that she was lying down and wanted to sleep. She was, however, trying to force further communication from the note. In it the painter told her that he was going to set out the next morning for Italy, and that her portrait was at the shop of certain carvers and gilders, being fitted with a frame for which he had made drawings. Three times she read it, searching for some hidden message to her heart: she held it up between her and the light, then before the fire till it crackled like a bit of old parchment; but all was in vain: by no device, intellectual or physical, could she coax the shadow of a meaning out of it beyond what lay plain on the surface. She must, she would see him again.

That night she was merrier than usual at dinner; after it sang ballad upon ballad to please Liftore; then went to her room and told Caley to arrange for yet a visit the next morning to Mr. Lenorme's studio. She positively must, she said, secure her fathers portrait ere the ill-tempered painter — all men of genius were hasty and unreasonable — should have destroyed it utterly, as he was certain to do before leaving; and with that she showed her Lenorme's letter. Caley was all service, only said that this time she thought they had better go openly. She would see Lady Bellair as soon as Lady Lossie was in bed and explain the thing to her.

The next morning, therefore, the two drove to Chelsea in the carriage. When the door opened Florimel walked straight up to the study. There she saw no one, and her heart, which had been fluttering strangely, sank and was painfully still, while her gaze went wandering about the room. It fell upon the pictured temple of Isis: a thick dark veil had fallen and shrouded the whole figure of the goddess, leaving only the outline: and the form of the worshipping youth had vanished utterly: where he had stood, the tessellated pavement, with the serpent of life twining through it, and the sculptured walls of the temple, shone out clear and bare, as if Hyacinth had walked out into the desert to return no more. Again the tears gushed from the heart of Florimel: she had sinned against her own fame — had blotted out a fair memorial record that might have outlasted the knight of stone under the Norman canopy in Lossie church. Again she sobbed, again she choked down a cry that had else become a scream.

Arms were around her. Never doubting whose the embrace, she leaned her head against his bosom, stayed her sobs with the one word "Cruel!" and slowly opening her tearful eyes, lifted them to the face that bent over hers. It was Liftore's. She was dumb with disappointment and dismay. It was a hateful moment. He kissed her forehead and eyes, and sought her mouth. She shrieked aloud. In her very agony at the loss of one to be kissed by another! and there! It was too degrading! too horrid!

At the sound of her cry some one started up at the other end of the room. An easel with a large canvas on it fell, and a man came forward with great strides. Liftore let her go, with a muttered curse on the intruder, and she darted from the room into the arms of Caley, who had had her ear against the other side of the door. The same instant Malcolm received from his lordship a well-planted blow between the eyes, which filled them with flashes and darkness. The next the earl was on the floor. The ancient fury of the Celt had burst up into the nineteenth century and mastered a noble spirit. All Malcolm could afterward remember was, that he came to himself dealing Liftore merciless blows, his foot on his back and his weapon the earl's whip. His lordship, struggling to rise, turned up a face white with hate and impotent fury. "You damned flunkie!" he panted. "I'll have you shot like a mangy dog."

"Meantime I will chastise you like an insolent nobleman," said Malcolm, who had already almost recovered his self-possession. "You dare to touch my mistress!" And with the words he gave him one more stinging cut with the whip. "Stand off, and let it be man to man!" cried Liftore, with a fierce oath, clenching his teeth in agony and rage.

"That it cannot be, my lord; but I have had enough, and so I hope has your lordship," said Malcolm; and as he spoke he threw the whip to the other end of the room and stood back. Liftore sprang to his feet and rushed at him. Malcolm caught him by the wrist with a fisherman's grasp. "My lord, I don't want to kill you. Take a warning, and let ill be, for fear of worse," he said, and threw his hand from him with a swing that nearly dislocated his shoulder.

The warning sufficed. His lordship cast him one scowl of concentrated hate and revenge, and leaving the room hurried also from the house.

At the usual morning hour Malcolm had ridden to Chelsea, hoping to find his friend in a less despairing and more companionable mood than when he left him. To his surprise and disappointment, he learned that Lenorme had sailed by the packet for Ostend the night before. He asked leave to go into the study. There on its easel stood the portrait of his father as he had last seen it disfigured with a great smear of brown paint across the face. He knew that the face was dry, and he saw that the snear was wet: he would see whether he could not, with turpentine and a soft brush, remove the insult. In this endeavor he was so absorbed, and by the picture itself was so divided from the rest of the room, that he neither saw nor heard anything until Florimel cried out.

Naturally, those events made him yet more dissatisfied with his sisters position. Evil influences and dangers were on all sides of her, the worst possible outcome being that, loving one man, she should marry another, and him such a man as Liftore! Whatever he heard in the servants' hall, both tone and substance, only confirmed the unfavorable impression he had had from the first of the bold-faced countess. The oldest of her servants had, he found, the least respect for their mistress, although all had a certain liking for her, which gave their disrespect the heavier import. He must get Florimel away somehow. While all was right between her and the painter he had been less anxious about her immediate surroundings, trusting that Lenorme would ere long deliver her. But now she had driven him from the very country, and he had left no clew to follow him up by. His housekeeper could tell nothing of his purposes. The gardener and she were left in charge as a matter of course. He might be back in a week or a year: she could not even conjecture.

Seeming possibilities, in varied mingling with rank absurdities, kept passing through Malcolm's mind as, after Liftore's punishment, he lifted the portrait, set it again upon its easel and went on trying to clean the face of it — with no small promise of success. But as he made progress he grew anxious lest, with the defilement, he should remove some of the color as well: the painter alone, he concluded at length, could be trusted to restore the work he had ruined.

He left the house, walked across the road to the river-bank and gave a short sharp whistle. In an instant Davy was in the dinghy, pulling for the shore. Malcolm went on board the yacht, saw that all was right, gave some orders, went ashore again and mounted Kelpie.