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The Cloven Heart by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

I

IT was morning in the rose-hedged garden. The gardener, a dark-visaged old man, with strangely gleaming, deep-sunken eyes, and quick, adder-like movements, had just unearthed from among the roots of a stunted bitter-almond tree a small wooden box. It lay in the hollow of his hand. The carved lid was fastened with hasps of rusty metal. He was showing it to his companion.

She was a tall, slender woman, clad in a coarse, loose-sleeved robe, which aimed to hide but rather emphasized the fine outlines of her figure. Her blue eyes, beneath heavy, black-fringed lids, were sad— the eyes of one who had lived through an infinity of suffering or unsatisfied longing. Her forehead was banded with white linen; a veil, drawn over her head and under her throat, shaded her face, which was young, calm, and singularly joyless.

She looked silently on while the old man brushed the mould from the box with his fingers and pried open the rotting lid. A handful of ancient gold coins lay within; underneath them were some jewels in tarnished silver setting, and a ring of clumsy workmanship, on whose dull-blue signet-stone was cut an odd device—a rosary drawn through a cleft heart.

The woman eyed the gold incuriously. “It may be used in payment for glass in the oriel,” she said, lifting her eyes to a crumbling tower of the building which flanked the garden.

The gardener stooped, laying hold of the gnarled almond-tree to set it in its place—for a heavy wind had overblown it in the night. But he straightened himself abruptly, arrested by a half-whisper which dropped from the woman's lips. It was spoken in a strange tongue, with long, caressing syllables and curious inflections.

The shadow of a crumbling tower fell over the spot where they stood. At the farther end of the large garden three young girls were walking to and fro along a sunlighted walk. Their low voices sounded in the distance like the murmur of bees.

With head averted the gardener listened while the mistress spoke long and rapidly. Her speech had in it the subtle monotony of the Eastern juggler's incantation when he causes a seed to swell and burst and spring into a tree before the eyes of the spectator, waving his hand the while, and fanning the budding leaves with a branch of faded palm.

When she had concluded the old man replied briefly in the same tongue. There was a tone of awed entreaty in his voice. A fire shot into her blue eyes, and her slight form stiffened haughtily. He crouched to her feet and kissed the hem of her coarse gown. She dropped the antique coins into his outstretched palm and turned away.

The young girls made a deep obeisance as she passed them. She entered the high Gothic doorway, and moved slowly towards a dim point of light which shone in the shadows beyond a fretwork of marble. Her hands, grasping the jewels, were covered by her long, flowing sleeves.

II

A carriage stopped before a tall brick mansion fronting on a side street of the city. A sign above the arched entrance showed the house to be a hotel; a crowd of well-dressed idlers on the veranda testified to its importance. These looked down curiously as the carriage drew up at the steps, and its single occupant—a woman—leaned forward. The electric light—for it was long past the close of the short winter day —fell upon her muffled figure and veiled face. The maskers in the street, excited by the mumming and merriment of the Carnival, pressed against the carriage wheels. The obsequious attendant who had come out of the hotel laid his hand on the carriage door. He was thrust aside by the proprietor, who assisted his guest to alight. His manner indicated that special orders had been given for her reception. He offered her his arm with a show of gallantry; she waved him aside without speaking, and signed him to precede her up the broad steps. She followed him with an air in which timidity and assurance were strangely blended.

The room into which she was conducted was large, and richly though quietly furnished. It was faintly illuminated by candles burning in silver sconces. The polished floor was overlaid with heavy rugs; the carved furniture was of a quaint, old-fashioned pattern.

On a low couch placed within a curtained alcove was spread a profusion of women's garments, exquisite in color and texture.

The woman, on entering, closed the door and walked to one of the gilt-framed mirrors set in the wall. She removed her veil and gazed long and fixedly at her own image, which looked back at her with steady, unsmiling eyes. Her bosom heaved. She snatched the veil across her face and stumbled towards the door; but her eyes caught the gleam of silk and lace on the couch, and she stopped, trembling, and began to unloose the clasps of her dark mantle.

III

A little before midnight the gayly decorated salon hard by began to fill, and presently a carnival rout was in full swing there. It differed little in outward appearance from other pre-Lenten revels. There were few maskers, and these were gravely decorous beneath their masks and dominoes. The inexperienced observer would have failed to detect an almost imperceptible undercurrent—the innuendo lurking beneath the jest, the covert meaning behind a rapid interchange of glances, the quick signal given and returned in the passing crowd.

A group of young men in faultless evening-dress stood, during an interval of the dance, near the ball-room door. Most of them had a blasé expression; nearly all showed signs of recent dissipation. One only—a clean-shaven, handsome, ruddy-faced young fellow of twenty-five or so—seemed fresh and unworn. He was apparently unknown to the others, who looked at him with an amused contempt not unmixed with envy.

He had been dancing—a little awkwardly, it is true, but with an abandon and gallantry which made the tired nerves of his dancer thrill as they had not thrilled for many a long year. He was looking about him now eagerly, as if making mental choice of a partner for the waltz whose lazy tones were beginning to pulse upon the air.

At that moment a woman came down the narrow entrance-hall, unwinding from her head, as she approached the door, a filmy lace scarf. It was the same woman who had alighted at dusk from her carriage at the door of the hotel in a neighboring street.

She was extraordinarily and strangely beautiful in her ball-dress. This was composed of heavy, dull-yellow satin, foamy about the foot with lace so old as to be nearly the same color. A band of gold was fastened about the slim waist with an agraffe of diamonds sunk deep in unpolished silver. Clasps of the same jewels held together the narrow shoulder-bands of the low corsage, which left her perfect neck and arms bare. Her black hair was cut close, giving a singularly proud look to her erect, well-shaped head. Her blue eyes wore a startled, half-expectant expression, her red lips were parted, her bosom rose and fell pantingly.

An open murmur of admiration greeted this dazzling apparition. She pressed forward as if to taste it to the full, though at the same time a burning blush suffused her pale face and dyed her neck and bosom. It was as if the Angel of the Flesh shrank from that which the spirit within ardently desired. She stopped abruptly, passing her hands along her arms like one who draws down a long sleeve.

This movement was so constantly and apparently so unconsciously repeated during the evening that the spectators remarked it and commented wonderingly upon it.

Several of the young men near the ball-room door sprang forward to meet her. But it was the clean-shaven young stranger who first reached her side. He made scant ceremony of invitation, but placing his arm about her waist, he drew her into the circle of dancers. She quivered visibly at his touch, and again the red passed like a wave over her white skin. Then a soft yielding smile dawned into her eyes, and her slight form swayed to his embrace.

The onlookers followed their movements with cynical, fascinated eyes. They danced with the charming, untaught grace of children. The waltz, at first rhythmic and languid, grew hurried. The dancers swept by in circles, which changed like the figures in a kaleidoscope. The sound of so many light feet on the smooth floor was like the shoreward rush of foamy waves. The air throbbed. When the music ceased, with a shrill clash, the frenzied waltzers reeled in their places, looking about them with dazed eyes, and laughing foolishly.

The woman in the dull-yellow gown and the clean-shaven stranger were no longer among them. They had passed, dancing, through one of the long, open windows, to the veranda outside. There was a tangled close below, where the shadows of the vines on the walks were heavy in the starlight.

A mocking-bird was singing in the Spanish-dagger tree in a corner of the close. It fell suddenly silent.

IV

In the old garden it was still dark, though a hint of dawn thrilled the air.

There was a whir of wheels on the road outside; a carriage stopped, and then crawled away, its lights shining like baleful fires in the darkness.

Two persons came in at the small wicket cut in the high, enclosing wall. They were the gardener and the woman. Her forehead was banded with linen, and her coarse, dark robe trailed on the dew-wet walk.

The old man trembled so that he could hardly dig a place at the foot of the bitter-almond tree to receive the little carved box. The woman threw into the box, with a gesture of loathing, the jewels which she carried in her hands, and the money left from that which the gardener had obtained in exchange for the antique coins. He heaped the sod upon the box and pressed it down with his foot. Then he stood still with his arms hanging at his side, his face turned to hers in the darkness.

The moments passed; the moist leaves rustled to the chill breeze; a bird in an orange-tree twittered dreamily.

At length she spoke—always in the curious foreign tongue; but the glow and the heart-beat were gone from it, and the sound of it was dull and lifeless. She seemed to be relating some story in which there was shame and anguish for them both; for she twisted her hands wildly as she spoke, and the old man wept, with his arms hanging at his side.

When she had finished she writhed to his feet and lay prone with her face on the ground, her dark mantle covering her like a pall.

He lifted her, and sought with soothing whispers to draw her towards the wicket. But she put him aside, suddenly imperious. A single word of command came from her ashen lips.

The old gardener put his hand to his bosom and drew forth a small packet. He laid it in her palm, and, prostrating himself, he placed her sandalled foot upon his neck. Then he arose, and passed, without a backward glance, through the gate in the wall. The woman crossed the garden and entered the Gothic doorway. She felt her way towards the small point of light which burned steadily in the thick darkness beyond the fretwork of marble.

The next day—it was Ash-Wednesday—the dim aisles rang with cries of mourning. For the young Mistress had died during the night in the great hall. There they had found her kneeling, quite stiff and cold, with her forehead pressed against the marble fretwork.

The awe-struck young girls gathered about the bier and gazed, weeping, upon her beautiful, saint-like face.

The bell in the crumbling tower tolled the livelong day.

V

At sunset of the same day a clean-shaven young man, on the farther side of the old city, walked up and down a flower-set alleyway. His dark gown brushed the low hedge; the shadow of lichened walls fell athwart his path. He was reading from a small book, but ever and anon a vague smile came into his dark eyes, and he drew a ring from its hiding-place in his bosom and looked furtively at it.

On its dull-blue signet-stone was graven a string of prayer-beads drawn through a cloven heart.

 
 
 

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