CHAPTER XVI—Dealing with that which was done in the Panelled Parlour
He followed her to the Panelled Parlour, the one to which she had taken Osmonde on the day of their bliss, the one in which in the afternoon she received those who came to pay court to her over a dish of tea. In the mornings none entered it but herself or some invited guest. ’Twas not the room she would have chosen for him; but when he said to her, “’Twere best your ladyship took me to some private place,” she had known there was no other so safe.
When the door was closed behind them, and they stood face to face, they were a strange pair to behold—she with mad defiance battling with mad despair in her face; he with the mocking which every woman who had ever trusted him or loved him had lived to see in his face when all was lost. Few men there lived who were as vile as he, his power of villainy lying in that he knew not the meaning of man’s shame or honour.
“Now,” she said, “tell me the worst.”
“’Tis not so bad,” he answered, “that a man should claim his own, and swear that no other man shall take it from him. That I have sworn, and that I will hold to.”
“Your own!” she said—“your own you call it—villain!”
“My own, since I can keep it,” quoth he. “Before you were my Lord of Dunstanwolde’s you were mine—of your own free will.”
“Nay, nay,” she cried. “God! through some madness I knew not the awfulness of—because I was so young and had known naught but evil—and you were so base and wise.”
“Was your ladyship an innocent?” he answered. “It seemed not so to me.”
“An innocent of all good,” she cried—“of all things good on earth—of all that I know now, having seen manhood and honour.”
“His Grace of Osmonde has not been told this,” he said; “and I should make it all plain to him.”
“What do you ask, devil?” she broke forth. “What is’t you ask?”
“That you shall not be the Duchess of Osmonde,” he said, drawing near to her; “that you shall be the wife of Sir John Oxon, as you once called yourself for a brief space, though no priest had mumbled over us—”
“Who was’t divorced us?” she said, gasping; “for I was an honest thing, though I knew no other virtue. Who was’t divorced us?”
“I confess,” he answered, bowing, “that ’twas I—for the time being. I was young, and perhaps fickle—”
“And you left me,” she cried, “and I found that you had come but for a bet—and since I so bore myself that you could not boast, and since I was not a rich woman whose fortune would be of use to you, you followed another and left me—me!”
“As his Grace of Osmonde will when I tell him my story,” he answered. “He is not one to brook that such things can be told of the mother of his heirs.”
She would have shrieked aloud but that she clutched her throat in time.