"Explain yourself, my Lord," replied the prisoner, with majesty; "for though I hear your words, I declare I do not understand them."
"Then you have no religion at all; I like that best," replied Lord de Winter, laughing.
"Certainly that is most in accord with your own principles," replied Milady, frigidly.
"Oh, I confess it is all the same to me."
"Oh, you need not avow this religious indifference, my Lord; your debaucheries and crimes would vouch for it."
"What, you talk of debaucheries, Madame Messalina, Lady Macbeth! Either I misunderstand you or you are very shameless!"
"You only speak thus because you are overheard," coolly replied Milady; "and you wish to interest your jailers and your hangmen against me."
"My jailers and my hangmen! Heyday, madame! you are taking a poetical tone, and the comedy of yesterday turns to a tragedy this evening. As to the rest, in eight days you will be where you ought to be, and my task will be completed."
"Infamous task! impious task!" cried Milady, with the exultation of a victim who provokes his judge.
"My word," said de Winter, rising, "I think the hussy is going mad! Come, come, calm yourself, Madame Puritan, or I'll remove you to a dungeon. It's my Spanish wine that has got into your head, is it not? But never mind; that sort of intoxication is not dangerous, and will have no bad effects."
And Lord de Winter retired swearing, which at that period was a very knightly habit.
Felton was indeed behind the door, and had not lost one word of this scene. Milady had guessed aright.
"Yes, go, go!" said she to her brother; "the effects ARE drawing near, on the contrary; but you, weak fool, will not see them until it is too late to shun them."
Silence was re-established. Two hours passed away. Milady's supper was brought in, and she was found deeply engaged in saying her prayers aloud — prayers which she had learned of an old servant of her second husband, a most austere Puritan. She appeared to be in ecstasy, and did not pay the least attention to what was going on around her. Felton made a sign that she should not be disturbed; and when all was arranged, he went out quietly with the soldiers.
Milady knew she might be watched, so she continued her prayers to the end; and it appeared to her that the soldier who was on duty at her door did not march with the same step, and seemed to listen. For the moment she wished nothing better. She arose, came to the table, ate but little, and drank only water.
An hour after, her table was cleared; but Milady remarked that this time Felton did not accompany the soldiers. He feared, then, to see her too often.
She turned toward the wall to smile — for there was in this smile such an expression of triumph that this smile alone would have betrayed her.
She allowed, therefore, half an hour to pass away; and as at that moment all was silence in the old castle, as nothing was heard but the eternal murmur of the waves — that immense breaking of the ocean — with her pure, harmonious, and powerful voice, she began the first couplet of the psalm then in great favor with the Puritans:
"Thou leavest thy servants, Lord, To see if they be strong; But soon thou dost afford Thy hand to lead them on."
These verses were not excellent — very far from it; but as it is well known, the Puritans did not pique themselves upon their poetry.
While singing, Milady listened. The soldier on guard at her door stopped, as if he had been changed into stone. Milady was then able to judge of the effect she had produced.
Then she continued her singing with inexpressible fervor and feeling. It appeared to her that the sounds spread to a distance beneath the vaulted roofs, and carried with them a magic charm to soften the hearts of her jailers. It however likewise appeared that the soldier on duty — a zealous Catholic, no doubt — shook off the charm, for through the door he called: "Hold your tongue, madame! Your song is as dismal as a 'De profundis'; and if besides the pleasure of being in garrison here, we must hear such things as these, no mortal can hold out."
"Silence!" then exclaimed another stern voice which Milady recognized as that of Felton. "What are you meddling with, stupid? Did anybody order you to prevent that woman from singing? No. You were told to guard her — to fire at her if she attempted to fly. Guard her! If she flies, kill her; but don't exceed your orders."
An expression of unspeakable joy lightened the countenance of Milady; but this expression was fleeting as the reflection of lightning. Without appearing to have heard the dialogue, of which she had not lost a word, she began again, giving to her voice all the charm, all the power, all the seduction the demon had bestowed upon it:
"For all my tears, my cares, My exile, and my chains, I have my youth, my prayers, And God, who counts my pains."
Her voice, of immense power and sublime expression, gave to the rude, unpolished poetry of these psalms a magic and an effect which the most exalted Puritans rarely found in the songs of their brethren, and which they were forced to ornament with all the resources of their imagination. Felton believed he heard the singing of the angel who consoled the three Hebrews in the furnace.
"One day our doors will ope, With God come our desire; And if betrays that hope, To death we can aspire."
This verse, into which the terrible enchantress threw her whole soul, completed the trouble which had seized the heart of the young officer. He opened the door quickly; and Milady saw him appear, pale as usual, but with his eye inflamed and almost wild.
"Why do you sing thus, and with such a voice?" said he.
"Your pardon, sir," said Milady, with mildness. "I forgot that my songs are out of place in this castle. I have perhaps offended you in your creed; but it was without wishing to do so, I swear. Pardon me, then, a fault which is perhaps great, but which certainly was involuntary."
Milady was so beautiful at this moment, the religious ecstasy in which she appeared to be plunged gave such an expression to her countenance, that Felton was so dazzled that he fancied he beheld the angel whom he had only just before heard.
"Yes, yes," said he; "you disturb, you agitate the people who live in the castle."
The poor, senseless young man was not aware of the incoherence of his words, while Milady was reading with her lynx's eyes the very depths of his heart.
"I will be silent, then," said Milady, casting down her eyes with all the sweetness she could give to her voice, with all the resignation she could impress upon her manner.
"No, no, madame," said Felton, "only do not sing so loud, particularly at night."
And at these words Felton, feeling that he could not long maintain his severity toward his prisoner, rushed out of the room.
"You have done right, Lieutenant," said the soldier. "Such songs disturb the mind; and yet we become accustomed to them, her voice is so beautiful."