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It was the night preceding the events recorded in the last chapter. The household of St. Clair was wrapt in slumber. In one apartment of the palace was Alaric St. Valerie, tossing uneasily on his pillow, and ever and anon murmuring in his sleep the name of his idolised Estelle. Far away, in a room situated in the opposite wing of the ducal residence, lay the fair and faultless figure of the too captivating duchess. The chamber was slightly illuminated by an elegant night-lamp, which hung suspended by a chain from the centre of the ceiling. The ceiling itself was ornamented in the most profuse and costly Eastern fashion ; whilst the walls, plentifully embellished with gold and silver trimmings, here and there rounded off into a little isolated niche, in which reposed the figures of saints carved in stone or richest parian marble.
The beautiful Estelle lay slumbering on her pillow, than which her neck and bosom seemed scarcely less white and delicate in texture, when the door of the room was softly opened—a figure was seen gliding noiselessly towards the centre of the chamber—and the dark person of the Nubian slave stood listening to the irregular breathings of his dreaming mistress.
Pausing for a moment, as though fearful lest the sleeper should awaken, and discover his stealthy purpose, he moved slowly, his eye still fixed upon the unconscious slumberer, towards a small cabinet that stood at the head of the luxurious bedstead. With subtle, snake-like caution, softly insinuating his hand beneath the pillow upon which reposed the head of the brilliant enchantress, he drew thence a small key, which, brandishing in the air, he was about to insert in the lock of the cabinet, when a slight movement of Estelle's caused him to draw back, and crouch his figure behind the rich embroidered curtains, with which the couch was massively and profusely hung.
"Where am I going?” murmured the sleeper, throwing her arms uneasily across the counterpane. "Where am I going? Hist! pause! There are eyes watching us--eyes which
The dreamer paused with a slight shudder; and then proceeded in incoherent sentences.
“This feeling—tis so strange, so exciting! Hark! I hear footsteps. He follows us-here-there-everywhere—the dead come back-" another shudder. “The ghost of a living form, come back to snatch the cup of happiness from—"
The words died away upon the dreamer's lips, and the chamber was once more wrapt in the stillness of repose.
The dark figure of the Nubian slave emerged from behind the shadow of the curtains. There was a look of triumph in his eye as he proceeded to unlock the above-mentioned cabinet, and abstract thence certain papers, which, after carefully perusing, he placed securely in his girdle. Relocking the rifled chest, he was about to restore the key to the sanctuary from which he had purloined it, when a second movement on the part of the sleeper warned him to be wary. Withdrawing a little to the side of the bed, he waited, while the unsuspecting fair one, lost amongst the misty shadows that people the fairy realms of dreamland, and unconscious of so proximate a witness to the subject most present to her thoughts, lisped forth in a delighted tone the name
“Alaric St. Valerie."
A malicious smile lighted up the countenance of the dark mulatto; and replacing the key beneath the pillow, he stole a hasty glance at the features of his slumbering mistress, and glided noiselessly from the apartment
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
On the morning of that day, at whose eventful sun-setting expired the noble Lord St. Valerie, sat the unconscious Alaric, musing in an apartment of the ducal palace of St. Clair. The object of his thoughts was, as usual, the beautiful Estelle. The passion of our hero for his seducing mistress, unchecked by duty or any higher principle, had grown and grown to so inordinate a degree, that he felt he could no longer exist without the full and sole possession of his idol. He determined at once to seek the ultimatum of his fate--to know whither his future tended-be it weal or woe. To this course he was the more inclined from the fact that of late the manner of the hitherto proud and haughty duchess had undergone so decided and singular a change. The old arrogant exterior, which delighted in assuming superiority over, in many instances, her more than equals, and in trampling under foot those placed in the social scale a grade beneath her, had departed ; leaving her subdued, thoughtful, and sometimes even disposed to despondent
melancholy. She sought less after conquest, took decreased pains to subdue the hearts and enslave the fancies of the opposite sex. Sometimes it seemed as though the adulation by which she was everywhere surrounded, generated in her mind a sentiment of disgust. In the society of Alaric St. Valerie alone she appeared to find enjoyment; then, and then only, her manner softened, her eyelids drooped, and her whole behaviour was that of a woman standing in the presence of one to whom her heart acknowledged fealty. Were these signs real—asked Alaric of himself—had he succeeded in eliciting her interest ? Did she really love him? Joy unutterable, should the answer be in the affirmative, despair unto death, if the contingency prove a negative. His stormy passion knew no limit, he could not keep it within the bounds of sanity or prudence; it was a mad exotic, and bore appalling evidence of the hothouse atmosphere in which it had been born and nurtured. Sitting alone in an apartment of the palace, and musing upon the probabilities for and against the successful issue of his suit, he determined at once to seek the duchess, and elicit from her own lips the last and crowning sentence of his destiny.
He found her in a large tapestried chamber, filled with books and old ancestral relics. She was pacing restlessly up and down when he entered, but paused as he approached her, and addressing him in a joyous tone of voice, said
“Good morning, St. Valerie ! I trust you are not disabled by the fatigues of last night's pleasure.”
“You mean the fête by moonlight ?" replied St. Valerie. “Ah, no! it was delightful sport, and calculated rather to invigorate than depress the system."
“I am glad you liked it," said Estelle ; "I projected the party, thinking it would assimilate with
artistic tastes.” Graced by the presence of Estelle St. Clair, what entertainment could do other than assimilate to the liking of Alaric St. Valerie ?” said her gallant companion.
Alas !” said Estelle, colouring beneath his passionate glance, “the compliment is too flattering to be grounded on sincerity.”
"And if it were so grounded," said St. Valerie, drawing nearer to his interlocutor, and speaking with impulsive earnestness; "would it convey one thrill of pleasure to the heart of the beautiful Duchess of the Emeralds ?”
Estelle's lips trembled ; the blood forsook her cheeks, and then rushed suddenly to her brow and temples. She commanded herself, however, and replied, with forced gaiety-
“I cannot say, Alaric St. Valerie. It may be the heart of the beautiful duchess,' is inaccessible to the peculiar kind of pleasure to which your speech alludes."
“ It cannot be !” said St. Valerie, passionately. “The heart is more than human that can resist a devotion so absorbing and complete as mine."
A sickly pallor began to overspread the features of the beautiful Si Clair, her eyes assumed a strange and glazed expression, and leaning against a marble bust near which she stood, as if for support, she said evasively
“Ah, St. Valerie ! You are riddling.”
“ It is an enigina easily solved,” said our hero, with enthusiasın. means that I love thee, beautiful Estelle ! that my heart acknowledges but one idol-it is thou ! That with thee I inherit life—without thee, death! That in thy hands rests the fiat of my destiny-thou hast but to speak to consign me to misery, or joy everlasting, ineffable! Which shall it be—despair or happiness? Oh, speak! speak! or I shall die of this yearning impatience, of my unsatisfied desire.” And with a gesture of wild abandonment, he threw himself upon his knees, and seized the two hands of his companion franticly in his own.
The pallor increased upon the faultless features of the too captivating Estelle. The blood seemed no longer to circulate within its given channels—the hue of health had departed from the parched and pursedup lips, the cheeks were colourless--and as the young man knelt in the exuberance of his too fervid passion, before the object of his unreasoning idolatry, he seemed to be bowing at the footstool of some departed saint, whose memory, by holy canon, had been to man perpetuated in consecrated marble.
“Ah, you love me!" she murmured, the words imperfectly articulated between her firm-set teeth.
“Passionately ! idolatrously! with a love that knows no limit, and acknowledges no obstacle, that burns in ever-increasing vitality, at the very centre of my being. It has grown and grown, gathering fresh fuel in its onward progress, till it has expanded into a huge furnace of wild tempestuous longing, from which there is no escape, save in the gratification of its inordinate desire. Listen to me, Estelle! the saint despises not the delicious homage of his worshipper. Break not the heart that vibrates only to the utterance of the magical word Estelle : Mercy-mercy! Estelle ! Estelle!! Estelle !!!"
And the youth, frantic with passion, threw himself prostrate at the feet of his chosen idol.
“What would you ?” said Estelle, still leaning her body immobile against the marble statue.
“Be mine—be mine!” said Alaric, starting to his feet. “Be mine, Estelle! Let us submit to those formulas, after which we may defy even fate itself to rend two loving hearts asunder.”
“ Two loving hearts !” she murmured.