The Master of Stair/Book 1/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV
THE AVOWAL

The afternoon service at Westminster Abbey had commenced; Delia Featherstonehaugh sat in the cloisters and listened to the lift of the singing. The place was yellow with the late sunshine; through the open arches glittered the untrodden snow under the faint blue of an English winter sky.

Save for the sound of the organ and the half-muffled singing there was such silence that the whirr past of a bird became a notable thing. Delia gazed down the shadowy cloisters into their dimness, barred with the gold of the sunshine. She noted the slender stone ribbings rising perfectly to join like hands in prayer, somewhere in the mystery of the dark roof, and the Tudor roses each with its golden counterpart on the gray flagstone, and she sighed, for no reason save the stillness of it all.

Close under her feet was the brass gravestone of a bishop, who had been dust for three hundred years; his Latin titles, shining in the sun, measured many paces; against the wall near by was a tablet to the memory of one three years dead, and this was all it bore beside her name: "Dear childe."

Faintly through the Abbey walls came the choir's singing as disembodied, as grave as angels'; Delia's hands slipped out of her muff and onto the stone beside her; her lips parted and her head sank back against the gray old wall; under her red coat her heart was heaving passionately.

Suddenly the singing grew louder; she heard the first outburst of the Cantate Domino:

"O sing unto the Lord a new song—for He hath done marvelous things."

She sat up and looked round; a man was entering the cloisters from the Abbey, as he closed the door behind him the singing sank again to faintness.

Delia sat upright, motionless, looking toward the new-comer; it was Mr. Wedderburn.

The cloister echoed to his firm footstep as he came toward her; his riding-cloak was over his arm; he swung his hat and whip in his hand; seeing her he gave a little start, then came on and halted, his figure between her and the winter sunlight:

"Delia!" he said, and he half-smiled

She could find no words to answer him; she turned her face away and stared down at her own still hand.

"You often come here?" he asked.

"Yes."

He came nearer and leaned against the wall beside her easily, as if it were the most likely thing that they should have met thus.

"I am on my way to 'The Sleeping Queen,'" he said, "to see your brother—but I have time upon my hands."

She looked up at him; the sunshine touched his face and his plain dark attire.

He smiled again.

"Will you be sorry when I leave for France?" he said.

The brown eyes widened.

"Why do you ask?" she murmured faintly.

"My faith—I wondered."

"Why, sir, do you, can you care whether it matters to me or no?" cried Delia, a little wildly.

"Yes, I care," he answered.

There was a pause; the singing had ceased. Delia bent her head and rested unseeing eyes upon the bishop's tombstone.

"You take, sir, a curious tone for a stranger," she said at last.

"I would not have us strangers, Delia—did not you say, the same King, the same faith, the same cause?"

She turned as some one standing on defense.

"What do you mean?"

A slight smile crossed his face; it might have been sadness or contempt; he leaned heavily against the Abbey wall and his shadow was over Delia.

"What do I mean?" he repeated; he looked at her in a very gentle manner. "I mean I should like to be in your thoughts sometimes—"

She rose, and her muff fell unnoticed between them.

"Am I in yours?" she asked slowly.

"You have the sweetest face I have ever met," he said quietly, "Is it likely I should forget you?"

She went very pale and put her hands together in a bewildered way; he surveyed her gravely with a half-sad interest, standing very much at his ease and carelessly while she was tense and painfully still.

"Delia," he smiled. "Delia."

She stepped back.

"What is it you want with me?" she said.

He moved from his place. "Do you care for me?" he asked. "Could you ever care for me?"

She fell back before him. "Oh, why do you ask?" she cried.

His eyes rested on her with a curious expression as of yearning.

"Because I care for you," he answered. "Don't you understand, Delia?"

The first notes of the anthem were sounding through the silence as she answered faintly:

"It cannot be you mean this. . . ."

She sat down heavily and clasped her trembling hands very tightly.

"Well—but if I did mean it?" he inquired.

"If you did mean it?" she whispered, looking up. "Ah, if you did mean it—"

Her voice died away, she sat silent as if terrified; and now the sun left him and lay behind her head halo-wise and sparkled in her brown eyes.

Mr. Wedderburn, looking very intently down at her, bent a little nearer.

"Sweetheart—ye shall answer me," he said. "Nay, ye shall—"

"Ah, what will you force me to say?" she answered desperately. "What do you want?"

He bent till the ringlets on his breast touched her shoulder; he very delicately smiled into her pale face.

"Delia, answer me."

"Ah, my heart, I cannot!" she cried, with wild eyes on his face.

"Surely I am answered," said Mr. Wedderburn, and a slight flush passed over his pallor. "Surely you think of me as I of you, Delia—"

With a little cry she rose up against the wall.

"Indeed, I love you," she said, breathing hard. "Ah, indeed—indeed—"

Then she sank down again, hiding her face in her fluttering hands.

He looked at her curiously, his lips touched with his little lazy half-smile.

"I do not deserve it, Delia," he said; then in a strange voice: "You and I—by such ways to this! You and I—look up and speak to me."

She dropped her hands and looked at him.

"I may speak," she said hoarsely, "but never shall I tell how utterly I love you—beyond all reason—all measure. Ah, since I first saw you the world has stopped about me, and there has been nothing but this one thought of you!"

He caught his breath.

"Why—are these things possible?" he asked. "And you do not know me."

She rose and turned to him in a triumphant passion, her hand lightly on her heart.

"No, I only love you," she said. "And that makes it seem as if you had been one with my life from the first. Ah, can you think of time?"

"God knows, of nothing," he answered; he held his ungloved hand out as if to take hers, but she fell back.

"Ah, don't touch me," she said unsteadily. "Not yet—not yet. I am so happy, that I am afraid, and if you touch me you may break the spell, and my dream go away."

He laughed gently.

"But this is no dream, sweetheart, do you not hear the anthem yonder in the church? And all around us the graves? There are no graves in dreams."

"Nor surely often such joy on earth," whispered Delia. "As mine—as mine—yet what have I said? Shame should hold me silent—but you have disarmed me and laid me defenseless at your feet—ah, leave me, for I have said too much!"

He laid his hand very lightly on her shoulder.

"You make mine unworthiness a heavy thing," he said somberly. "If you are sincere—Delia—"

She thought he doubted her, and her pure face paled and flushed.

"Alas! you had not said that had I been silent longer," she cried. "You carried my heart too soon to value it—yet if you love me—"

"Delia—if I love you?"

"You will not doubt that my very soul is yours—ah, Heaven—forever!"

"I wonder," he said musingly. "Nay, do not turn your face away, for it is lovely to look upon—and mine—you say forever."

"Yes," she said trembling.

He seated himself beside her and took her cold hands in his; this time she did not resist; complete silence was about them; the Abbey service was over; long shadows filled the cloisters and the sunlight had faded to a mere stain on the wall. Loose gray clouds sped over the sky, and a chill little wind blew in and out the arches.

Delia rose, drawing her hand away, her face was hidden under the shadow of her hat, her figure a shadow among shadows. He rose beside her; his footfall echoed through the emptiness.

"My sweet child," he said, in a voice fallen very low and soft.

She turned without a word and her head lifted slowly, he saw her eyes were glittering with tears.

"Kiss me," he said gently.

She shrank back.

"Ah, no," she pleaded. "Not that—I love you so—" her voice fell brokenly. "I mean—I—"

"Why, surely, you may kiss me, Delia?" he answered.

Further still into the shadows she withdrew.

"Love is not kisses," she said faintly.

"Some think so, Delia," he smiled.

"I—I would not," she faltered.

He picked up his hat and whip.

"Sweetheart—I must go."

"Yes," she said softly. "But I have the thought of you, which is company enough."

He looked at her a moment through the twilight.

"Now will that thought last till next we meet?" he asked.

"Why you know," she said wonderingly, "do we not love each other?"

"Yet you will not kiss me?"

She drooped again in shyness.

"I have said enough—without," she murmured.

"Then, Delia—farewell."

She glanced at him timidly.

"I—do not use your name," she whispered. "And yet I know it and yet I am afraid—and know not—"

"Why, you shall call me by it now," he answered. "And next time it shall be nothing else—John."

"John!" she echoed, bewildered. "But your name is Andrew."

He stared a second, then laughed.

"But those I love do use my second name."

"Yet I mislike it," she said. "And ever in my thoughts you are Andrew."

"Why do you mislike the name of John?" he asked.

"It is linked for me with the Master of Stair," said Delia. "He is our enemy and hateful to me—I would not call you by the name of that accursed man."

"Then call me what you will," he answered swiftly. "There are strange names you will use to me yet—God knows! Farewell!"

"Ah, stay—for I have something to say," she whispered.

He stopped, waiting; they stood in so dark a shadow that she could only see the outline of his figure.

"About the Macdonalds of Glencoe," she said. "I would ask you to help me save them."

Her voice fell very tenderly.

"I have a great reason to wish to save them," she continued. "There is one among them whom I thought—ah, I thought—" She laughed happily—"I thought I cared for till I met you—no one knew—but I believed I cared—yet it was only pity and loneliness—yet did I vow to save him—and now—do not you see? Out of loyalty to that old vow of mine, I am pledged to save him still."

He was silent. She drew timidly a little closer.

"You understand?" she asked anxiously.

"I understand," he said gloomily. "That you should ask me! I have no power."

"’Twill be a service to the King," she answered. "Ah, as you love me—"

He took the words from her lips.

"As I love you, I will do it," he said recklessly. "Now will you kiss me?"

She held out her hands.

"If you ask it," she said passionately.

He took her hands in his and stared down into her surrendered face; then suddenly let her go.

"No," he said, "I will wait till you do offer it. Farewell."

He turned away abruptly into the darkness.

She listened to his footsteps till they had died into the distance, then she turned and went slowly toward the Abbey.

She entered it on tiptoe; there were lights burning on the altar, but it was empty; she passed lightly down the chancel till she reached the door that led into the little chapel of St. Faith. With hushed heart she entered; here she could think she was in a church undefiled by another faith; the reformer's hand had passed this corner by; two candles burnt on the low altar; the air was close and heavy; from the dark walls leaned wild angel face with parted lips and blown-back hair, as if they strained out of the stone to cry aloud to those beneath.

Delia sank to her knees on the stone floor, and her fingers fumbled with the rosary at her breast. She was uplifted, carried out of herself; as though those candles could burn forever, till the angels' heads should speak and bursting from their stone, pull the church about them in a great shout for judgment. Delia felt her senses swoon within her; she shook and shuddered as she knelt.

"Ah, God, make me worthy of that man's love!" she prayed passionately. "For I have not deserved this happiness!"