A SEQUEL TO "THREE WEEKS"
Original Publication Date 1909, by The Macaulay Company
NEW YORK THE MACAULAY COMPANY 1912
THE SCHILLING PRESS NEW YORK
FOREWORD TO MY AMERICAN FRIENDS
Now after spending some very pleasant weeks in your interesting country, I feel sure that this book will find many sympathetic readers in America. Quite naturally it will be discussed; some, doubtless, will censure it—and unjustly; others will believe with me that the tale teaches a great moral lesson.
Born as the Boy was born, the end which Fate forced upon him, to me, was inevitable. Each word and act of the three weeks of his parents' love-idyl must reflect in the character and life of the child. Little by little the baby King grew before my mental vision until I saw at last there was no escape from his importunity and I allowed the insistent Boy—masterful even from his inception—to shape himself at his own sweet will. Thus he became the hero of my study.
This is not a book for children or fools—but for men and women who can grasp the underlying principle of morality which has been uppermost in my mind as I wrote. Those who can see beyond the outburst of passion—the overmastering belief in the power of love to justify all things, which the Boy inherited so naturally from his Queen mother—will understand the forces against which the young Prince must needs fight a losing battle. The transgression was unavoidable to one whose very conception was beyond the law—the punishment was equally inevitable.
In fairness to this book of mine—and to me—the great moral lesson I have endeavored to teach must be considered in its entirety, and no single episode be construed as the book's sole aim. The verdict on my two years' work rests with you, dear Reader, but at least you may be sure that I have only tried to show that those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.
The Prince tore the missive fiercely from its envelope, and scowled at the mocking glint of the royal crown so heavily embossed at the top of the paper. What a toy it was, he thought, to cost so much, and eventually to mean so little! Roughly translated, the letter ran as follows:
"Your Royal Highness will be gratified to learn that at last a satisfactory alliance has been arranged between the Princess Elodie of Austria and your royal self. It is the desire of both courts and councils that the marriage shall be solemnized on the fifteenth of the May following your twenty-first birthday, at which time the coronation ceremony takes place that is to place the crown of the kingdom upon the head of the son of our beloved and ever-to-be-regretted Imperatorskoye. The Court and Council extend greetings and congratulations upon the not far distant approach of both auspicious events to your Royal Highness, which cannot fail to afford the utmost satisfaction in every detail to the ever-beautiful-and-never-to-be-sufficiently beloved Prince Paul.
"Imperator-to-be, we salute thee. We kiss thy feet."
The letter was sealed with the royal crest and signed by the Regent—the Boy's uncle—the Grand Duke Peter, his mother's brother, who had been his guardian and protector almost from his birth. The young prince knew that his uncle loved him, knew that the Grand Duke desired nothing on earth so much as the happiness of his beloved sister's only son—and yet at this crisis of the Boy's life, even his uncle was as powerless to help as was Paul Verdayne, the Englishman.
"The Princess Elodie!" he grumbled. "Who the devil is this Princess Elodie, anyway? Austrian blood has no particular charm for me! They might at least have told me something a little more definite about the woman they have picked out to be the mother of my children. A man usually likes to look an animal over before he purchases!"
Known to London society as Monsieur Zalenska, the Prince had come up to town with the Verdaynes, and was apparently enjoying to the utmost the frivolities of London life.
At a fashionable garden party he sat alone, in a seclusion he had long sought and had finally managed to secure, behind a hedge of hawthorn where none but lovers, and men and women troubled as he was troubled, cared to conceal themselves.
The letter, long-expected and dreaded, had finally crossed the continent to his hand. It was only the written confirmation of the sentence Fate had pronounced upon him, even as it had pronounced similar sentences upon princes and potentates since the beginning of thrones and kingdoms.
While the Prince—or Paul Zalenska, as I will now call him—sat in his brooding brown study, clutching the imperial letter tightly in his young hand, his attention was arrested by the sound of voices on the other side of the hawthorn hedge.
He listened idly, at first, to what seemed to be a one-sided conversation, in a dull, emotionless feminine voice—a discourse on fashion, society chit-chat, and hopeless nonentities, interspersed with bits of gossip. Could women never talk about anything else? he thought impatiently.
But his displeasure did not seem to affect the course of things at all. The voice, completely unconscious of the aversion it aroused in the invisible listener, continued its dreary, expressionless monotone.
"What makes you so silent, Opal? You haven't said a word to-day that you didn't absolutely have to say. If all American girls are as dreamy as you, I wonder why our English lords are so irresistibly attracted across the water when in search of brides!"
And then the Boy on the other side of the hedge felt his sluggish pulse quicken, and almost started to his feet, impelled by a sudden thrill of delight; for another voice had spoken—a voice of such infinite charm and sweetness and vitality, yet with languorous suggestion of emotional heights and depths, that he felt a vague sense of disappointment when the magnetic notes finally died away.
"Brides?" the voice echoed, with a lilt of girlish laughter running through the words. "You mean 'bribes,' don't you? For I assure you, dear cousin, it is the metallic clink of American gold, and nothing else, that lures your great men over the sea. As for my silence, ma belle, I have been uncommunicative because there really seemed nothing at all worth saying. I can't accustom myself to small-talk—I can't even listen to it patiently. I always feel a wild impulse to fly far, far away, where I can close my ears to it all and listen to my own thoughts. I'm sorry if I disappoint you, Alice—I seem to disappoint everybody that I would like to please—but I assure you, laugh at my dreams as you may, to me my dream-life is far more attractive and beautiful than what you term Life. Forgive me if I hurt you, cousin. I'm peculiarly constituted, perhaps, but I don't like this twaddle, and I can't help it! Everything in England is so beautiful, and yet its society seems so—so hopelessly unsatisfactory to one who longs to live!"
"To live, Opal? We are not dead, surely! What do you mean by life?"
And so her name was Opal! How curiously the name suited the voice! The Boy, as he listened, felt that no other name could possibly have matched that voice—the opal, that glorious gem in which all the fires of the sun, the iridescent glories of the rainbow, and the cold brilliance of ice and frost and snow seemed to blend and crystallize. All this, and more, was in that mysteriously fascinating voice.
"To live, Alice?" echoed the voice again. "To live? Why, to live is to feel!—to feel every emotion of which the human soul is capable, to rise to the heights of love, and knowledge, and power; to sink—if need be—to the deepest depths of despair, but, at all costs, at all hazards, to live!—to experience in one's own nature all the reality and fullness of the deathless emotions of life!"
The voice sank almost to the softness of a whisper, yet even then was vibrant, alive, intense.
"Ah, Alice, from my childhood up, I have dreamed of life and longed for it. What life really is, each must decide for himself, must he not? Some, they say, sleep their way through a dreamless existence, and never, never wake to realities. Alice, I have sometimes wondered if that was to be my fate, have wondered and wondered until I have cried out in real terror at the hideous prospect! Surely Fate could not be so cruel as to implant such a desperate desire in a soul that never was to know its fulfilment. Could it, Alice? Tell me, could it?"
The Boy held his breath now.
Who was this girl, anyhow, who seemed to express his own thoughts as accurately as he himself could have done? He was bored no longer. He was roused, stirred, awakened—and intensely interested. It was as though the voice of his own soul spoke to him in a dream.
The cold, lifeless voice now chimed in again. In his impatience the Boy clenched his fists and shut his teeth together hard. Why didn't she keep still? He didn't want to miss a single note he might have caught of the voice—that other! Why did this nonentity—for one didn't have to see her to be sure that she was that—have to interrupt and rob him of his pleasure?
"I don't understand you, Opal," she was saying. (Of course she didn't, thought the Boy—how could she?) "I am sure that I live. And yet I have never felt that way—thank goodness! It's vulgar to feel too deeply, Mamma used to say, and as I have grown older, I can see that she was right. The best people never show any excess of emotion. That is for tragedy queens, operatic stars, and—the women we do not talk about! Ladies cultivate repose!"
("Repose!—mon Dieu!" thought Paul, behind the hedge. He wished that she would!)
"And yet, Alice, you are—married!"
"Married?—of course!—why not?" and the eavesdropper fancied he could see the wide-open gaze of well-bred English surprise that accompanied the words. "One has to marry, of course. That is what we are created for. But one doesn't make a fuss about it. It's only a custom—a ceremony—and doesn't change existence much for most women, if they choose sensibly. Of course there is always the chance of a mesalliance! A woman has to risk that."
"And you don't—love?"
The Boy was struck by a note that was almost horror in the opaline voice so near him.
"Love? Why, Opal, of course we do! It's easy to love, you know, when a man is decent and half-way good to one. I am sure I think a great deal of Algernon; but I dare say I should have thought as much of any other man I had happened to marry. That is a wife's duty!"
"Duty!—and you call that love?" The horror in the tones had now changed to scorn.
"You have strange ideas of life, Opal. I should be afraid to indulge them if I were you—really I should! You have lived so much in books that you seem to have a very garbled idea of the world. Fiction is apt to be much of a fairy tale, a crazy exaggeration of what living really consists of!"
"Afraid? Why should I be afraid? I am an American girl, remember, and Americans are afraid of nothing—nothing! Come, cousin, tell to me, if you can, why I should be afraid."
"Oh, I don't know! really I don't!" There was a troubled, perplexed note in the English voice now. "Such notions are apt to get girls into trouble, and lead them to some unhappy fate. Too much 'life'—as you call it—must mean suffering, and sorrow, and many tears—and maybe, sin!"
There was a shocked note in the voice of the young English matron as she added the last word, and her voice sank to a whisper. But Paul Zalenska heard, and smiled.
"Suffering, and sorrow, and many tears," repeated the American girl, musingly, "and maybe—sin!" Then she went on, firmly, "Very well, Alice, give me the suffering and sorrow, and many tears—and the sin, too, if it must be, for we are all sinners of greater or less degree—but at any rate, give me life! My life may still be far off in the future, but when the time comes, I shall certainly know, and—I shall live!"
"You are a peculiar girl, Opal, and—we don't say those things in England."
"No, you don't say those things, you cold English women! You do not even feel them! As for sin, Alice, to my mind there can be no worse sin under heaven than you commit when you give yourself to a man whom you do not love better than you could possibly love any other. Oh, it is a sin—it must be—to sell yourself like that! It's no wonder, I think, that your husbands are so often driven to 'the women we do not talk about' for—consolation!"
"Opal! Opal! hush! What are you saying? You really—but see! isn't that Algernon crossing the terrace? He is probably looking for us."
"And like a dutiful English wife, you mustn't fail to obey, I suppose! Lead the way, cousin mine, and I'll promise to follow you with due dignity and decorum."
And the rustle of silken skirts heralded the departure of the ladies away from the hedge and beyond Paul's hearing.
Then he too started at an eager, restless pace for the centre of the crowd. He had quite forgotten the future so carefully arranged for him, and was off in hot pursuit of—what? He did not know! He only knew that he had heard a voice, and—he followed!
As he rejoined the guests, he looked with awakened interest into every face, listened with eager intensity to every voice. But all in vain. It did not occur to him that he might easily learn from his hostess the identity of her American guest; and even if the thought had presented itself to him, he would never have acted upon it. The experience was his alone, and he would have been unwilling to share it with any one.
He was no longer bored as earlier in the afternoon, and he carried the assurance of enthusiasm and interest in his every glance and motion. People smiled at the solitary figure, and whispered that he must have lost Verdayne. But for once in his life, the Boy was not looking for his friend.
But neither did he find the voice!
Usually among the first to depart on such occasions as these, this time he remained until almost all the crowd had made their adieux. And it was with a keen sense of disappointment that he at last entered his carriage for the home of the Verdaynes. He was hearing again and again in the words of the voice, as it echoed through his very soul, "When my time comes, I shall certainly know, and I shall—live!"
The letter in his pocket no longer scorched the flesh beneath. He had forgotten its very existence, nor did he once think of the Princess Elodie of Austria. What had happened to him?
Had he fallen in love with a—voice?
It was May at Verdayne Place, and May at Verdayne Place was altogether different from May in any other part of the world. The skies were of a far deeper and richer blue; the flowers reached a higher state of fragrant and rainbow-hued perfection; the sun shining through the green of the trees was tempered to just the right degree of shine and shadow. To an Englishman, home is the beginning and the end of the world, and Paul Verdayne was a typical Englishman.
To be sure, it had not always been so, but Paul had outlived his vagabond days and had become thoroughly domesticated; yet there had been a time in his youth when the wandering spirit had filled his soul, when the love of adventure had lent wings to his feet, and the glory of romance had lured him to the lights and shadows of other skies than these. But Verdayne was older now, very much older! He had lived his life, he said, and settled down!
In the shade of the tall trees of the park, two men were drinking in the beauties of the season, in all the glory and splendor of its ever-changing, yet ever-enduring loveliness. One of them was past forty, the ripeness of middle age and the general air of a well-spent, well-directed, and fully-developed life lending to his face and form an unusual distinction—even in that land of distinguished men. His companion was a boy of twenty, straight and tall and proud, carrying himself with the regal grace of a Greek god. He was a strong, handsome, healthy, well-built, and well-instructed boy, a boy at whom any one who looked once would be sure to look the second time, even though he could not tell exactly wherein the peculiar charm lay. Both men were fair of hair and blue-eyed, with clear, clean skins and well-bred English faces, and the critical observer could scarcely fail to notice how curiously they resembled each other. Indeed, the younger of the pair might easily have been the replica of the elder's youth.
When they spoke, however, the illusion of resemblance disappeared. In the voice of the Boy was a certain vibrant note that was entirely lacking in the deeper tones of the man—not an accent, nor yet an inflection, but still a quality that lent a subtle suggestion of foreign shores. It was an expressive voice, neither languorous nor unduly forceful, but strangely magnetic, and adorably rich and full, and musical, thrilling its hearers with its suggestion of latent physical and spiritual force.
On the afternoon of which I write, those two were facing a crisis that made them blind to everything of lesser import. Paul Verdayne—the man —realized this to the full. His companion—the Boy—was dimly but just as acutely conscious of it. The question had come at last—the question that Paul Verdayne had been dreading for years.
"Uncle Paul," the Boy was saying, "what relation are you to me? You are not really my uncle, though I have been taught to call you so after this quaint English fashion of yours. I know it is something of a secret, but I know no more! We are closer comrades, it seems to me—you and I—than any others in all the world. We always understand each other, somehow, almost without words—is it not so? I even bear your name, and I am proud of it, because it is yours. But why must there be so much mystery about our real relationship? Won't you tell me just what I am to you?"
The question, long-looked-for as it was, found the elder man all unprepared. Is any one ever ready for any dire calamity, however certainly expected? He paced up and down under the tall trees of the park and for a time did not answer. Then he paused and laid his hand upon the shoulder of the Boy with a tenderness of touch that proved better than any words how close was the bond between them.
"Tell you what you are to me! I could never, never do that! You are everything to me, everything!"
The Boy made a motion as if to speak, but the man forestalled him.
"We're jolly good friends, aren't we—the very best of companions? In all the world there is no man, woman or child that is half so near and dear to me as you. Men don't usually talk about these things to one another, you know, Boy; but, though I am a bachelor, you see, I feel toward you as most men feel toward their sons. What does the mere defining of the relationship matter? Could we possibly be any more to each other than we are?"
Paul Verdayne seated himself on a little knoll beneath the shade of a giant oak. The Boy looked at him with the wistfulness of an infinite question in his gaze.
"No, no, Boy! Some time, perhaps—yes, certainly—you shall know all, all! But that time has not yet come, and for the present it is best that things should rest as they are. Trust us, Boy—trust me—and be patient!"
"Patient!" The Boy laughed a full, ringing laugh, as he threw himself on the grass at his companion's feet. "I have never learned the word! Could you be patient, Uncle Paul, when youth was all on fire in your heart, with your own life shrouded in mystery? Could you, I say, be patient then?"
Verdayne laughed indulgently as his strong fingers stroked the Boy's brown curls.
"Perhaps not, Boy, perhaps not! But it is for you," he continued, "for you, Boy, to make the best of that life of yours, which you are pleased to think clouded in such tantalizing mystery. It is for you to develop every God-given faculty of your being that all of us that love you may have the happiness of seeing you perform wisely and well the mission upon which you have been sent to this kingdom of yours to accomplish. Boy! every true man is a king in the might of his manhood, but upon you is bestowed a double portion of that universal royalty. This is a throne-worshipping world we are living in, Paul, and it means even more than you can realize to be a prince of the blood!"
The Boy looked around the park apprehensively. What if someone heard? For this straight young sapling, who was only the "Boy" to Paul Verdayne, was to the world at large an heir to a throne, a king who had been left in infancy the sole ruler of his kingdom.
His visits to Verdayne Place were incognito. He did like to throw aside the purple now and then and be the real live boy he was at heart. He did enjoy to the full his occasional opportunities, unhampered by the trappings and obligations of royalty.
"A prince of the blood!" he echoed scornfully. "Bah!—what is that? Merely an accident of birth!"
"No, not an accident, Paul! Nothing in the world ever is that. Every fragment of life has its completing part somewhere, given its place in the scheme of the universe by intricate design—always by design! As for the duties of your kingdom, my Prince, it is not like you to take them so lightly."
"I know! I know! Yet everybody might have been born a prince. It is far more to be a man!"
"True enough, Boy! yet everybody might not have been born to your position. Only you could have been given the heritage that is yours! My Boy, yours is a mission, a responsibility, from the Creator of Life Himself. Everybody can follow—but only God's chosen few can lead! And you—oh, Boy! yours is a birthright above that of all other princes—if you only knew!"
The young prince looked wistfully upward into the eyes of the elder man.
"Tell me, Uncle Paul! Dmitry always speaks of my birth with a reverence and awe quite out of proportion to its possible consequence—poor old man. And once even the Grand Duke Peter spoke of my 'divine origin' though he could not be coaxed or wheedled into committing his wise self any further. Now you, yourself the most reserved and secretive of individuals when it pleases you to be so, have just been surprised into something of the same expression. Do you wonder that I long to unravel the mystery that you are all so determined to keep from me? I can learn nothing at home—absolutely nothing! They glorify my mother—God bless her memory! Everyone worships her! But they never speak of you, and they are silent, too, about my father. They simply won't tell me a thing about him, so I don't imagine that he could have been a very good king! Was he, Uncle Paul? Did you know him?"
"I never knew the king, Boy!—never even saw him!"
"But you must have heard—"
"Nothing, Boy, that I can tell you—absolutely nothing!"
Verdayne had risen again and was once more pacing back and forth under the trees, as was his wont when troubled with painful memories.
"But my mother—you knew her!"
"Yes, yes—I knew your mother!"
"Tell me about her!"
A dull, hopeless agony came into the eyes of the older man. And so his Gethsemane had come to him again! Every life has this garden to pass through—some, alas! again and yet again! And Paul Verdayne had thought that he had long since drained his cup of misery to the dregs. He knew better now.
"Yes, I will tell you of your mother, Boy," he said, and there was a strained, guarded note in his voice which his companion's quick ear did not fail to catch. "But you must be patient if you wish to hear what little there is, after all, that I can tell you. You must remember, my Boy, that it is a long time since your mother—died—and men of my age sometimes—forget!"
"I will remember," the Boy said, gently.
But as he looked up into the face of his friend, something in his heart told him that Paul Verdayne did not forget! And somehow the older man felt confident that the Boy knew, and was strangely comforted by the silent sympathy between them which both felt, but neither could express.
"Your mother, Boy, was the noblest and most beautiful woman that ever graced a throne. Everyone who knew her must have said that! You are very like her, Paul—not in appearance, a mistake of Fate to be everlastingly deplored, but in spirit you are her living counterpart. Ah! you have a great example to live up to, Boy, in attempting to follow her footsteps! There was never a queen like her—never!"
The young prince followed with the deepest absorption the words of the man who had known his mother, hanging upon the story with the breathless interest of a child in some fairy tale.
"She knew life as it is given few women to know it. She was not more than thirty-five, I think, when you were born, but she had crowded into those years more knowledge of the world, in all its myriad phases, than others seem to absorb during their allotted three score and ten. And her knowledge was not of the world alone, but of the heart. She was full of ideals of advancement, of growth, of doing and being something worthy the greatest endeavor, exerting every hope and ambition to the utmost for the future splendor of her kingdom—your kingdom now. How she loved you!—what splendid achievements she expected of you! how she prayed that you might be grand, and great, and true!"
"Did you always know her?"
"Always?—no. Only for three weeks, Boy!"
"Three weeks!—three little weeks! How strange, then, that you should have learned so much about her in that short space of time! She must indeed have made a strong impression upon you!"
"Impression, you say? Boy, all that I am or ever expect to become—all that I know or ever expect to learn—all that I have done or ever expect to accomplish—I owe to your mother. She was the one inspiration of my life. Until I knew her, I was a nonentity. It was she who awakened me—who taught me how to live! Three weeks! Child! child!—"
He caught himself sharply and bit his lip, forcing back the impetuous words he had not meant to say. The silence of years still shrouded those mysterious three weeks, and the time had not yet come when that silence could be broken. What had he said? What possessed the Boy to-day to cling so persistently to this hitherto forbidden subject?
"Where did you meet her, Uncle?"
"Lucerne!" echoed the Boy, his blue eyes growing dreamy with musing. "That says nothing to me—nothing! and yet—you will laugh at me, I know, but I sometimes get the most tantalizing impression that I remember my mother. It is absurd, of course—I suppose I could not possibly remember her—and yet there is such a haunting, vague sense of close-clinging arms, of an intensely white and tender face bending over me—sometimes in the radiance of day and again in the soft shadows of night, but always, always alight with love—of kisses, soft and warm, and yet often tearful—and of black, lustrous hair, over which there always seems to shine a halo—a very coronet of triumphant motherhood."
Verdayne's lips moved, but no sound came from them to voice the passionate cry in his heart, "My Queen, my Queen!"
"I suppose it is only a curious dream! It must be, of course! But it is a very real vision to me, and I would not part with it for the world. Uncle, do you know, I can never look upon the pictured face of a Madonna without being forcibly reminded of this vision of my mother—the mother I can see only in dreams!"
Verdayne found it growing harder and harder for him to speak.
"I do not think that strange, Boy. Others would not understand it, but I do. She was so intensely a mother that the spirit of the great Holy Mother must have been at all times hovering closely about her! Her deepest desires centred about her son. You were the embodiment of the greatest, sweetest joys—if not the only real joys—of her strangely unhappy life, and her whole thought, her one hope, was for you. In your soul must live all the unrealized hopes and crucified ideals of the woman who, always every inch a queen, was never more truly regal than in the supreme hour that crowned her your mother."
"And am I like her, Uncle Paul? Am I really like her?"
"So much so, Boy, that she sometimes seems to live again in you. Like her, you believe so thoroughly in the goodness and greatness of a God—in the beauty and glory of the world fraught with lessons of life and death—in the omnipotence of Fate—in the truth and power and grandeur of overmastering love. You believe in the past, in all the dreams and legends of the Long Ago still relived in the Now, in the capabilities of the human mind, the kingship of the soul. Your voice is hers, every tone and cadence is as her own voice repeating her own words. Be glad, Paul, that you are like your mother, and hope that with the power to think her thoughts and dream lier dreams, you may also have the power to love as she loved, and, if need be, die her death!"
"But you think the same thoughts, Uncle Paul. You believe all I believe!"
"Because she taught me, Paul—because she taught me! I slept the sleep of the blind and deaf and soulless until her touch woke my soul into being. You have always been alive to the joy of the world and the beauty of living. Your soul was born with your body and lived purposefully from the very beginning of things. You were born for a purpose and that purpose showed itself even in infancy."
A silence fell between the two men. A long time they sat in that sympathetic communion, each busy with his own thoughts. The older Paul was lost in memories of the past, for his life lay all behind him—the younger Paul was indulging in many dreams of a roseate future, for his life was all ahead of him.
It was a friendship that the world often wondered about—this strange intimacy between Paul Verdayne, the famous Member of Parliament, and the young man from abroad who called himself Paul Zalenska. None knew exactly where Monsieur Zalenska came from, and as they had long ago learned the futility of questioning either of the men about personal affairs, had at last reconciled themselves to never finding out. Everyone suspected that the Boy was a scion of rank—and some went so far as to say of royalty, but beyond the fact that every May he came with his faithful, foreign-looking attendant to Verdayne Place and spent the summer months with the Verdayne family, nothing definite was actually known. His elderly attendant certainly spoke some beastly foreign jargon and went by the equally beastly foreign name of Vasili. He was known to worship his young master and to attend him with the most marked servility, but he was never questioned, and had he been, would certainly have told no tales.
The parents of Paul Verdayne—Sir Charles and Lady Henrietta—were very fond of their young guest, and made much of his annual visits. As for Paul himself, he never seemed to be perfectly happy anywhere if the young fellow were out of his sight.
He had made himself very much distinguished, had this Paul Verdayne. He had found out how to get the most out of his life and accomplish the utmost good for himself and his England with the natural endowments of his energetic and ambitious personality. He had become a famous orator, a noted statesman, a man of brain as well as brawn. People were glad to listen when he talked. He inspired them with the idea—so nearly extinct in this day and age of the world—that life after all was very much worth the living. He stirred languid pulses with a dormant enthusiasm. He roused torpid brains to thought. He had ideas and had also a way of making other people share those ideas. England was proud of Paul Verdayne, as she had good reason to be. And he was only forty-three years old even now. What might he not accomplish in the future for the land to which he devoted all his talents, his tireless, well-directed activities?
He had given himself up so thoroughly to political interests that he had not taken time to marry. This was a great disappointment to his mother, Lady Henrietta, who had set her heart upon welcoming a daughter-in-law and a houseful of merry, romping grandchildren before the sun of her life had gone down forever. It was also a secret source of disappointment to certain younger feminine hearts as well, who in the days of his youth, and even in the ripeness of later years, had regarded Paul Verdayne with eyes that found him good to look upon. But the young politician had never been a woman's man. He was chivalrous, of course, as all well-bred Englishmen are, but he kept himself as aloof from all society as politeness would permit, and the attack of the most skillfully aimed glances fell harmless, even unheeded, upon his impenetrable armor. He might have married wherever he had willed, but Society and her fair votaries sighed and smiled in vain, and finally decided to leave him alone, to Verdayne's infinite relief.
As for the Boy, he was always, as I have said, a mystery, always a topic for the consideration of the gossips. Every year since he was a little fellow six years old he had come to Verdayne Place for the summer; at first, accompanied by his nurse, Anna, and a silver-haired servant, curiously named Dmitry. Later the nurse had ceased to be a necessity, and the old servant had been replaced by Vasili, a younger, but no less devoted attendant. As the Boy grew older, he had learned to hunt and took long rides with his then youthful host across the wide stretch of English country that made up the Verdayne estates and those of the neighboring gentry. Often they cruised about in distant waters, for the young fellow from his earliest years shared with the elder an absorbing love of nature in all her varied and glorious forms; and in February, always in February, Verdayne found time to steal away from England for a brief visit to that far-off country in the south of Europe from which the Boy came. Many remembered that Verdayne, like an uncle of his, Lord Hubert Aldringham, had been much given to foreign travel in his younger days and had made many friends and acquaintances among the nobility and royalty of other lands, and although it was strange, they thought it was not at all improbable that the lad was connected with some one of those great families across the Channel.
As for Paul and the Boy, they knew not what people thought or said, and cared still less. There was too strong a bond of camaraderie between them to be disturbed by the murmurings of a wind that could blow neither of them good or ill.
And the Boy was now twenty years of age.
Suddenly Paul Zalenska broke their long silence.
"Do you know, Uncle, I sometimes have a queer feeling of fear that my father must have done something terrible in his life—something to make strong men shrink and shudder at the thought—something—criminal! Oh, I dare not think of that!" he went on hastily. "I dare not—I dare not! I think the knowledge of it would drive me mad!"
His voice sank to a half-whisper and there was a note of horror in his words.
"But, what a king he must have been!—what a miserable apology for all that royalty should be by every law, human or divine! Why isn't his name heralded over the length and breadth of the kingdom in paeans of praise? Why isn't the whole world talking of his valor, his beneficence, his statesmanship? What is a king created a king for, if not to make history?"
He fought silently for a moment to regain his self-control, forcing the hideous idea from him and at last speaking with an air of finality beyond his years.
"No, I won't think of it! May the King of the world endow me with the strength of the gods and the wisdom of the ancient seers, that I may make up by my efficiency for all my father's deplorable lack, and become all that my mother meant me to be when she gave me to the world!"
He stretched out his arms in a passionate appeal to Heaven, and Paul Verdayne, looking up at him, realized as he had never before that the Boy certainly had within him the stuff of which kings should be made.
The Boy was not going to disappoint him. He was going to justify the high hopes cherished for him so long. He was going to be a man after his mother's own heart.
"Uncle," went on the Boy, wrought up to a high pitch of emotion, and throwing himself down again at Verdayne's feet, "I feel with Louis XVI, 'I am too young to reign!' Why haven't I ever had a father to teach and train me in the way I should go? Every boy needs a good father, princes most of all, so much more is expected of us poor royal devils than of more ordinary and more fortunate mortals! I know I shouldn' be complaining like this—certainly not to you, Uncle Paul, who have been all most fathers are to most boys! But there are times, you know, when you persist in keeping me at arm's length as you keep everyone else! When you put up that sign, 'Thus far and no further!' I feel myself almost a stranger! Won't you let me come nearer? Won't you take down that barrier between us and let me have a father—at least, in name? I'm tired of calling you 'Uncle' who uncle never was and never could be! You're far more of a father—really you are! Let me call you in name what you have always been in spirit. Let me say 'Father Paul!' I like the sound of it, don't you? 'Father Paul!'—'Father Paul!'"
Paul Verdayne felt every drop of blood leave his face. He felt as if the Boy had inadvertently laid a cold hand upon his naked heart, chilling, paralyzing its every beat. What did he mean? The Boy was just then looking thoughtfully at the setting sun and did not see the change that his words called into his companion's face—thank heaven for that!—but what could he mean?
"You can call yourself my 'Father Confessor,' you know, if you entertain any scruples as to the propriety of a staid old bachelor's fathering a stray young cub like me—that will make it all right, surely! You will let me, won't you? In all the world there is no one so close to me as you, and such dreams as I may happily bring to fulfillment will be, more than you know, because of your guidance, your inspiration. You are the father of my spirit, whoever may have been the father of my flesh! Let it be hereafter, then, not 'Uncle,' but 'Father Paul'!"
And the older man, rising and standing by the Boy, threw his arm around the young shoulders, and gazing far off to the distant west, felt himself shaken by a strange emotion as he answered, "Yes, Boy, hereafter let it be 'Father Paul!'"
And as the sun travelled faster and faster toward the line of its crossing between the worlds of night and day, its rays reflected a new radiance upon the faces of the two men who sat in the silent shadows of the park, feeling themselves drawn more closely together than ever before, thinking, thinking, thinking-in the eyes of the man a great memory, in the eyes of the Boy a great longing for life!
* * * * *
The two friends ran up to London for the theatre that night, to see a famous actor in a popular play, but neither was much interested in the performance. Something had kindled in the heart of the man a reminiscent fire and the Boy was thinking his own thoughts and listening, ever listening.
"I'm several kinds of a fool," he thought, "but I'd like to hear that voice again and get a glimpse of the face that goes with it. I dare say she is anything but attractive in the flesh—if she is really in the flesh at all, which I am beginning to doubt—so I should be disenchanted if I were to see her, I suppose. But I'd like to know!" Yet, after all, he could not comprehend how such a voice could accompany an unattractive face. The spirit that animated those tones must needs light up the most ordinary countenance with character, if not with beauty, he thought; but he saw no face in the vast audience to which he cared to assign it. No, she wasn't there. He was sure of that.
But as they left the building and stood upon the pavement, awaiting their carriage, his blood mounted to his face, dyeing it crimson. In the sudden silence that mysteriously falls on even vast crowds, sometimes, he heard that voice again!
It was only a snatch of mischievous laughter from a brougham just being driven away from the curb, but it was unmistakably the voice. Had the Boy been alone he would have followed the brougham and solved the mystery then and there.
The laugh rang out again on the summer evening air. It was like a lilt of fairies' merriment in the moonlit revels of Far Away! It was the note of a siren's song, calling, calling the hearts and souls of men! It was—But the Boy stopped and shook himself free from the "sentimental rot" he was indulging in.
He turned with a question on his lips, but Verdane had noticed nothing and the Boy did not speak.
Still that laugh thrilled and mocked him all the way to Berkeley Square and lured him on and on through the night's mysterious dreams.
In the drawing room of her mansion on Grosvenor Square, Lady Alice Mordaunt was pouring tea, and talking as usual the same trifling commonplaces that had on a previous occasion excited her cousin's disdain. Opposite her sat her mother, Lady Fletcher, a perfect model of the well-bred English matron, while Opal Ledoux, in the daintiest and fluffiest of summer costumes, was curled up like a kitten in a corner of the window-seat, apparently engrossed in a book, but in reality watching the passers-by.
From her childhood up she had lived in a Castle of Dreams, which she had peopled with the sort of men and women that suited her own fanciful romantic ideas, and where she herself was supposed to lie asleep until her ideal knight, the Prince Charming of the story, came across land and sea to storm the Castle and wake her with a kiss.
It was made up of moonbeams and rays of sunshine and rainbow-gleams—this dream—woven by fairy fingers into so fragile a cobweb that it seemed absurd to think it could stand the winds and torrents of Grown-Up Land; but Opal, in spite of her eighteen years, was still awaiting the coming of her ideal knight, though the stage setting of the drama, and her picture of just how the Prince Charming of her dreams was to look, and what he would say, had changed materially with the passing of the years.
If sometimes she wove strange lines of tragedy throughout the dreams, out of the threads of shadow that flitted across the sunshine of her life, she did not reject them. She felt they belonged there and did not shrink, even when her young face paled at the curious self-pity the passing of the thought invoked.
Hers was a strange mixture, made up of an unusual intermingling of many bloods. Born in New Orleans, of a father who was a direct descendant of the early French settlers of Louisiana, and of a Creole mother, who might have traced her ancestry back to one of the old grandees of Spain, she yet clung with a jealous affection to the land of her birth and called herself defiantly "a thorough-bred American!" Her mother had died in giving her birth, and her father, while she was still too young to remember, had married a fair Englishwoman who had tried hard to be a mother to the strange little creature whose blood leaped and danced within her veins with all the fire and romance of foreign suns. Gay and pleasure-mad as she usually appeared, there was always the shadow of a heartache in her eye, and one felt the possibility of a tragedy in her nature. In fact one felt intuitively sorry—almost afraid—for her lest her daring, adventurous spirit should lead her too close to the precipice along the rocky pathway of life.
She was thinking many strange thoughts as she sat looking out of the window. Her English cousins, related to her only through her stepmother, yet called kin for courtesy's sake, had given up trying to understand her complexities, as she had likewise given up trying to explain herself. If they were pleased forever to consider her in the light of a conundrum, she thought, why—let them!
After a while the ladies at the tea-table began to chat in more confidential tones. Opal was not too oblivious to her surroundings to notice, nor to grasp the fact that they were discussing her, but that knowledge did not interest her. She was so used to being considered a curiosity that it had ceased to have any special concern for her. She only hoped that they would sometime succeed in understanding her better than she had yet learned to understand herself. It might have interested her, however, had she overheard this particular conversation, for it shed a great light upon certain shades of character she had discovered in herself and often wondered about, but had never had explained to her.
But she did not hear.
"I am greatly concerned about Opal," Lady Alice was saying. "She is the most difficult creature, Mamma—you've no idea how peculiar—with the most dangerous, positively immoral ideas. I do wish she were safely married, for then—well, there is really no knowing what might happen to a girl who thinks and talks as she does. I used to think it might be a sort of American pose—put on for startling effect, you know—but I begin to think she actually means it!"
"Yes, she means it," replied Lady Fletcher, lowering her voice discreetly, till it was little more than a whisper. "She has always had just such notions. It gives Amy a great deal of trouble and worry to keep her straight. You know—or perhaps you didn't know, for we don't talk of these things often, especially when they are in one's family—but there is a bad strain in her blood and they are always looking for it to crop out somewhere. Her mother married happily—and escaped the curse—but for several generations back the women of her family have been of peculiar temperament and—they've usually gone wrong sometime in their lives. It seems to be in the blood. They can't help it. Mr. Ledoux told Amy all about it at the time of their marriage, and that is the reason they have tried to keep Opal as secluded as possible from the usual free-and-easy associations of American girls, and are so anxious to marry her off wisely."
"And speedily," put in Alice—"the sooner the better!"
Lady Fletcher gave an uneasy glance in Opal's direction before she continued.
"You are too young to have heard the story, Alice, but her grandmother—a black-eyed Spanish lady of high rank—was made quite unpleasantly notorious by her associations with a brother of Lady Henrietta Verdayne. He was an unprincipled roue—this Lord Hubert Aldringham—a libertine who openly boasted of the conquests he had made abroad. Being appointed to many foreign posts in the diplomatic service, he was naturally on intimate terms with people of rank and royalty. They say he was very fascinating, with the devil's own eye, and ten times as devilish a heart—"
Alice was shocked.
"I am only repeating what they said, child," apologized the elder woman meekly. "Women will be fools, you know, over a handsome face and a tender voice—some women, I mean—and that's what Opal has to fight against."
"Poor Opal," murmured Alice, "I did not know!"
"Some even go so far as to say—"
Again Lady Fletcher looked up apprehensively, but Opal was still absorbed in her dreams.
"To say—what, Mother?"
"Well, of course it's only talk—nobody can actually know, I suppose, and I wouldn't, of course, be quoted as saying anything for the world, dear knows; but they say that it is more than probable that Opal's mother was ... Lord Hubert's own daughter!"
"Oh, Mother! If it is true—if it could be true—what a fight for her!"
"Yes, and the worst of it is with Opal, she won't fight. She has been rigidly trained in the principles of virtue and propriety from her very birth, and yet she horrifies every one at times by shocking ideas—that no one knows where she gets, nor, worse yet, where they may lead!"
"But she is good, Mother. She has the noblest ideas of charity and kindness and altruism, of the advancement of all that's good and true in the world, of the attainment of knowledge, of the beauties and consolation of religion. It's fine to hear her talk when she's inspired—not a bit preachy, you know—she's certainly far enough from that—but more like reading some beautiful poem you can but half understand, or listening to music that makes you wish you were better, whether you take in its full meaning or not."
This was a long speech for Lady Alice. Her mother looked at her in amazement. There certainly must be something out of the ordinary in this peculiar American cousin to wake Alice from her customary languor.
Alice smiled at her mother's surprise.
"Strange, isn't it, Mother?" she asked, half ashamed of her unusual enthusiasm. "But it's true. She'd help some good man to be a power in the world. I feel it so often when she talks. I didn't know women ever thought such things as she does. I-I-I believe we can trust her, Mother, to steer clear of everything!"
"I hope so, Alice; I am sure I hope so, but—I don't know. I am afraid it was a mistake to keep her so much alone. It gives her more unreal ideas of life than actual contact with the world would have done."
Opal Ledoux left the window and sauntered down the long drawing-room toward the table where the speakers were sitting.
"What are you talking about?—me?"
The cousins were surprised and showed it by blushing guiltily.
Opal laughed merrily.
"Dreary subject for a dreary day! I hope you found it more interesting than I have!" And she stretched her small figure to its utmost height, which was not a bit above five foot, and shrugged her shoulders lazily.
"What are you reading, Opal?" asked Lady Fletcher, in an effort to change the subject, looking with some interest at the volume that the girl carried.
"Don't ask me—all twaddle and moonshine! I ought not to waste my valuable time with such trash. There isn't a real character in the book, not one. When I write a book, and I presume I shall some time, if I live long enough, I shall put people into it who have real flesh and blood in them and who do startling things. But I'll have to live it all first!"
"Live the startling things, Opal? God forbid!"
"Surely! Why not?"
And Opal dropped listlessly into a chair, tossed the offending book on a table, and taking a cup of tea from the hand of her cousin, began to sip it with an air of languid indifference, which sat strangely on her youthful, almost childlike figure.
"By the way, Alice," she asked carelessly, "who was the young man who stared at us so rudely last night as we drove away from the theatre?"
"I saw no young man staring, Opal. Where was he?"
"Why, he stood on the pavement, waiting, I suppose, for his carriage, and as we drove away he looked at me as though he thought I had no right to live, and still less to laugh—I believe I was laughing—and as we turned the corner I peeped back through the curtain, and he still stood there in the full glare of the light, staring. It's impolite, cousins—very! Gentlemen don't stare at girls in America!"
"What did he look like, Opal?" asked Lady Fletcher.
"Like a Greek god!" answered the girl, without a second's hesitation.
Both women gasped, simultaneously. They were dismayed.
"Oh, don't be shocked! He had the full panoply of society war-paint on. He was certainly properly clothed, but as to his being in his right mind, I have my doubts—serious doubts! He stared!"
"I hope you didn't stare at him, Opal!"
"Well, I did! What could he expect? And I laughed at him, too! But I don't believe he saw me at all, more's the pity. I am quite sure he would have fallen in love with me if he had!"
Opal was thoroughly enjoying herself now. She did enjoy shocking people who were so delightfully shockable!
"Why, 'Opal'?" and her mimicry was irresistible. "Don't you think I'm a bit lovable, cousin?—not a bit? You discourage me! I'm doomed to be a spinster, I suppose! Ah, me! And I'd far rather be the spinster's cat! Cats aren't worried about the conventions and all that sort of thing. Happy animals! While we poor two-footed ones they call human—only we aren't really more than half so—have to keep our claws well hidden and purr hypocritically, no matter how roughly the world rubs our fur the wrong way, nor how wild we are to scratch and spit and bristle! Wouldn't you like to be a cat, Alice?"
"Goodness, child! What an idea! I am very well contented, Opal, with the sphere of life into which I have been placed!"
"Happy, happy Alice! May that state of mind endure forever! But come! Haven't you an idea, either of you, who my Knight of the Stare can be?"
"You didn't describe him, Opal."
Opal opened her eyes in wide surprise.
"Didn't I? Why, I thought I did, graphically! A Greek god, dressed en regle. What more do you want? I am sure anyone ought to recognize him by that."
Her listeners looked at her in real consternation, which she was quick to see. Her eyes danced.
"Well, if you insist upon details, I can supply a few, I guess, if I try. I am really dying of curiosity to know who he is and why he stared. Of course I didn't look at him very closely. It wouldn't have been—er—what do you call it?—proper. And of course I could not see clearly at night, anyway. But I did notice he was about six feet tall. Imagine me, poor little me, looking up to six feet! With broad shoulders; an athletic, muscular figure, like a young Hercules; a well-shaped head, like Apollo's, covered with curls of fair hair; a smooth, clear skin, with the tint of the rose in his cheek that deepened to blood-red when his blue eyes, in which the skies of all the world seemed to be mirrored, stared with an expression like that of a man upon whom the splendor of some glorious Paradise was just dawning. He looked like an Englishman, yet something in his attitude and general appearance made me think that he was not. His hands—"
"Opal! Opal! What do you mean? How could you see so much of a young man in so short a time? And at night, too?"
"You wanted a detailed description. I was trying to give it to you. As I told you at the start, I couldn't see much. But anyway, he stared!"
"And I dare say he wasn't the only one who stared!" put in Lady Alice in dry tones of reprehension. "I can't imagine who it could be, can you, mother?"
"Not unless it was that strange young Monsieur Zalenska—Paul Zalenska, I believe he calls himself—Paul Verdayne's guest. I rather think, from the description, that it must have been he!"
"Zalenska? What a name! I wonder if he won't let me call him 'Paul!'" said the incorrigible Opal, musingly. "I shall ask him the first time I see him. Paul's a pretty name! I like that—but I'll never, never be able to twist my tongue around the other. He'd get out of hearing before I could call him and that would never do at all! But 'Monsieur,' you say? Why 'Monsieur'? He certainly doesn't look at all like a Frenchman!"
"No one knows what he is, Opal; nor who. That is, no one but the Verdaynes. He has always made a mystery of himself."
Opal clapped her small hands childishly.
"Charming! My ideal knight in the flesh! But how shall I attract him?"
She knitted her brows and pondered as seriously as though the fate of nations depended upon her decision.
"Shall I send him my card, Alice, and ask him to call? Or would it be better to make an appointment with him for the Park? Perhaps a 'personal' in the News would answer my purpose—do you think he reads the News, or would the Times be better? Come, cousins, what do you think? I am so young, you know! Please advise me."
She clasped her hands in a charming gesture of helpless appeal and the ladies looked at one another in horrified silence. What unheard of thing would this impossible girl propose next! They would be thankful when they saw her once more safely embarked for the "land of the free," and out from under their chaperonage, they hoped, forever. They realized that she was quite beyond their restraining powers. Had she no sense of decency at all?
The door opened, callers were announced, and the day was saved.
Opal straightened up, put on what she called her "best dignity" and comported herself in so very well-bred and amiable a manner that her cousins quite forgave all her past delinquencies and smiled approval upon the charming courtesy she extended to their guests. She could be such a lady when she would! No one could resist her! And yet they felt themselves sitting upon the crater of a volcano liable to erupt at any moment. One never felt quite safe with Opal.
But, much to their surprise and relief, everything went beautifully, and the guests departed, delighted with Lady Alice's "charming American cousin, so sweet, so dainty, so witty, so brilliant, and altogether lovely—really quite a dear, you know!"
But for all that, Lady Alice Mordaunt and Lady Fletcher were far from feeling easy over their guest, and ardently wished that the girl's father would cut short his visit to France and return to take her back with him to America. And while these two worthy ladies worried and fretted, Opal Ledoux laughed and dreamed.
And in a big mansion over in Berkeley Square Monsieur Paul Zalenska wondered—and listened.
It was a whole two weeks after the Boy's experience at the theatre, and though the echoes of that mysterious voice still rang through all his dreams at night, and most of his waking hours, he had not heard its lilt again.
Paul Verdayne smiled to himself to note the youngster's sudden interest in society. He had not—strange as it may seem—been told a word of the experience, but he was not curious. He certainly knew the world, if anyone knew it, and though he was sure he recognized the symptoms, he had too much tact to ask, "Who is the girl?"
"Let the Boy have his little secrets," he thought, remembering his own callow days. "They will do him good."
And though the Boy felt an undue sense of guilt, he continued to keep his lips closed and his eyes and ears open, though it often seemed so utterly useless to do so. Sometimes he wondered if he had dropped to sleep, there behind the hawthorn hedge that afternoon, and dreamed it all.
Verdayne and the Boy were sitting at luncheon at the Savoy. Sir Charles and Lady Henrietta had gone down to Verdayne Place for a week, and the two men were spending most of their time away from the lonely house in Berkeley Square.
That day they were discussing the Boy's matrimonial prospects as proposed by the Grand Duke Peter—indeed, they were usually discussing them. The Boy had written, signifying his acceptance and approval of the arrangements as made. Nothing else was expected of him for the present, but his nature had not ceased its revolt against the decree of Fate, and Paul Verdayne shared his feeling of repugnance to the utmost. Perhaps Verdayne felt it even more acutely than the young Prince himself, for he knew so much better all that the Boy was sacrificing. But he also knew, as did the poor royal victim himself, that it was inevitable.
"I don't wonder at the court escapades that occasionally scandalize all Europe," said the Boy. "I don't wonder at all! The real wonder is that more of the poor slaves to royalty do not snap the chains that bind them, and bolt for freedom. It would be like me,—very like me!"
And Verdayne could say nothing. He knew of more reasons than one why it would be very like the Boy to do such a thing, and he sighed as he thought that some time, perhaps, he might do it. And yet he could not blame him!
"Father Paul," went on the Boy, his thoughts taking a new turn, "you are a bachelor—a hopeless old bachelor—and you have never told me why. Of course there's a woman or two in it! We have talked about everything else under the sun, I think—you and I—but, curiously enough, we have never talked of love! Yet I feel sure that you believe in it. Don't you, Father Paul? Come now, confess! I am in a mood for sentiment to-day, and I want to hear what drove you to a life of single blessedness—what made my romantic old pal such a confirmed old celibate! I don't believe that you object to matrimony on general principles. Tell me your love-story, please, Father Paul."
"What makes you so certain that I have had one, Boy?"
"Oh, I don't know just why, but I am certain! It's there in your lips when you smile, in your eyes when you are moved, in your voice when you allow yourself to become reminiscent. You are full of memories that you have never spoken of to me. And now, Father Paul—now is the accepted time!"
For a moment Verdayne was nonplussed. What could he reply? There was only one love-story in his life, and that one would end only with his own existence, but he could not tell that story to the Boy—yet! Suddenly, however, an old, half-forgotten memory flashed across his mind. Of course he had a love-story. He would tell the Boy the story of Isabella Waring.
So, as they sat together over their coffee and cigarettes, Verdayne told his young guest about the Curate's daughter, who had all unconsciously wielded such an influence over the events of his past life. He told of the girl's kindness to him when he had broken his collarbone; of her assistance so freely offered to his mother; of her jolly, lively spirits, her amiable disposition and general gay good-fellowship; and then of the unlucky kiss that had aroused the suspicion and august displeasure of Lady Henrietta, and had sent her erring son a wanderer over the face of Europe—to forget!
He painted his sadness at leaving home—and Isabella—in pathetic colors. Indeed, he became quite affecting when he pictured his parting with Isabella, and when in repeating his parting words, he managed to get just the right suspicion of a tremble into his voice, he really felt quite proud of his ability as a story-teller.
The Boy was plainly touched.
"What foolishness to think that such a love as yours could be cured merely by sending you abroad!" he said.
"Just what I thought, Boy—utter folly!"
"Of course it didn't cure you, Father Paul. You didn't learn to forget, did you? Oh, it was cruel to send you away when you loved her like that! I didn't think it of Aunt Henrietta—I didn't indeed!"
"Oh, you mustn't blame mother, Boy. She meant it for the best, just as your Uncle Peter now means it for the best for you and yours. She thought I would forget."
"Was she very, very beautiful, Father Paul? But of course she was, if you loved her!"
"She was pretty, Boy—at least I thought so."
"Big or little?"
"I like tall, magnificent women. There's something majestic about them. I hope the Princess Elodie"—and the Boy made a wry face—"will be quite six foot tall. I could never love a woman small either in body or mind. I am sure I should have liked your Isabella, Father Paul. Majestic women of majestic minds for me, for there you have the royal stamp of nature that makes some women born to the purple. Yes, I am sure I should have liked Isabella. Tell me more."
Paul Verdayne smiled. He should hardly have considered Isabella Waring in any degree "majestic"—but he did not say so.
"She was charmingly healthy and robust—athletic, you know, and all that—with light fluffy hair. I believe she used to wear it in a net. Blue eyes, of course—thoroughly English, you know—and a fine comrade. Liked everything that I liked, as most girls at that age didn't, naturally. Of course, mother couldn't appreciate her. She wasn't her style at all. And she naturally thought—mother did, I mean—that when she sent me away 'for my health'"—the Boy smiled—"that I'd forget all about her."
Verdayne began to think he wasn't telling it well after all. He looked out of the window. It was getting hard to meet the frank look in the Boy's blue eyes.
"Forget!" and there was a fine scorn in the tones of the young enthusiast. "But you didn't! you didn't! I'm sure you didn't!"
The romantic story appealed strongly to the Boy's mood.
"But why didn't you marry her when you came back, Father Paul? Did she die?"
"No, she didn't die. She is still living, I believe."
"Then why didn't you marry her, Father Paul? Did they still oppose it? Surely when you came home and they saw you had not forgotten, it was different. Tell me how it was when you came home."
And Paul Verdayne, in a voice he tried his best to make very sad and heart-broken, replied with downcast eyes, "When I came home, Boy, I found Isabella Waring ready to marry a curate, and happy over the prospect of an early wedding. So, you see, my share in her life was over."
The Boy's face fell. He had not anticipated this ending to the romance. How could any woman ever have proved faithless to his Father Paul! And how could he, poor man, still keep his firm, dauntless belief in the goodness and truth of human nature after so bitter an experience as this! It shocked his sense of right and justice—this story. He wished he had not asked to hear it.
"Thank you for telling me, Father Paul. It was kind of you to open your past life to me like this, and very unkind of me to ask what I should have known would cost you such pain to tell. I am truly sorry for it all, Father Paul. Thank you again—and forgive me!"
"It's a relief to open one's heart, sometimes, to one who can sympathize," replied Verdayne, with a deep sigh. But he felt like a miserable hypocrite.
Poor Isabella Waring! He had hardly given her a passing thought in twenty years. And now he had vilified her to help himself out of a tight corner. Well, she was always a good sort. She wouldn't mind being used—or even misused—to help out her "old pal" this way. Still it made him feel mean, and he was glad when the Boy dropped the subject and turned again to his own difficulties.
But the mind of the young prince was restive, that day. Nothing held his attention long. It seemed, like his eye, to be roving hither and thither, seeking something it never could find.
"You have been to America, Father Paul, haven't you?" he asked.
America? Yes, Verdayne had been to America. It was in America that he had passed one season of keenest anguish. He had good reason to remember it—such good reason that in all their wanderings about the world he had never seen fit to take the Boy there.
But something had aroused the young fellow's passing interest, and now nothing would satisfy him save that he must hear all about America; and so, for a full hour, as best he could, Verdayne described the country of the far West as he remembered it.
"Nothing in America appealed to me so strongly as the gigantic prairies," he said at last. "You were so deeply moved by our trip to Africa, Boy, that you must remember the impression of vastness and infinity the great desert made upon us. Well, in the glorious West of America it is as if the desert had sprung to life, and from every grain of sand had been born a blade of grass, waving and fluttering with the joy of new birth. Oh, it is truly wonderful, Paul! Once I went there with the soil of my heart scorched as dry and lifeless as the burning sands of Sahara, but in that revelation of a new creation, some pulse within me sprang mysteriously into being again. It could never be the same heart that it once was, but it would now know the semblance of a new existence. And I took up the burden of life again—albeit a strange, new life—and came home to fight it out. The prairies did all that for me, Boy!" He paused for a moment, and then spoke in a sadder tone. "It was soon after that, Paul, that I first found you."
Paul Zalenska thought that he understood. That, of course, was after Isabella Waring had wrecked his life. Cruel, heartless Isabella! He had never even heard her name before to-day, but he hated her, wherever she might be!
"There is a legend they tell out there that is very pretty and appropriate," went on Verdayne, dreamily. "They say that when the Creator made the world, He had indiscriminately strewn continents and valleys, mountains and seas, islands and lakes, until He came to the western part of America, and despite His omnipotence, was puzzled to know what new glories He could possibly contrive for this corner of the earth. Something majestic and mighty it must be, He thought, and yet of an altogether different beauty from that in the rest of the universe—something individual, distinctive. The seas still overflowed the land, as they had through past eternities, awaiting His touch to call into form and being the elements still sleeping beneath the water—the living representation of His thought. Suddenly stretching out His rod, He bade the waters recede—and they did so, leaving a vast extent of grassy land where the majestic waves had so lately rolled and tossed. And it is said that the land retains to this day the memory of the sea it then was, while the grasses wave with a subtle suggestion of the ocean's ebb and flow beneath the influence of a wind that is like no other wind in the world so much as an ocean breeze; while the gulls, having so well learned their course, fly back and forth as they did before the mystic change from water into earth. Indeed, the first impression one receives of the prairie is that of a vast sea of growing vegetation!"
The Boy's eyes sparkled. This was the fanciful Father Paul that he loved best of all.
"Some time we must go there, Father Paul. Is it not so?"
"Yes, Boy, some time!"
Rebellious thoughts were flitting through the brain of Paul Zalenska as he rode forth the next morning, tender and fanciful ones, too, as he watched the sun's kisses fall on leaf and flower and tree, drying with their soft, insistent warmth the tears left by the dew of night, and wooing all Nature to awake—to look up with glorious smiles, for the world, after all, is beautiful and full of love and laughter.
Why should not Paul be happy? Was he not twenty, and handsome, and rich, and popular, and destined for great things? Was there a want in the world that he could not easily have satisfied, had he so desired? And was he not officially betrothed to the Princess Elodie of Austria—
"Damn the Princess Elodie!" he thought, with more emphasis than reverence, and he rode along silently, slowly, a frown clouding his fresh, boyish brow, face to face with the prose of the existence he would fain have had all romance and poetry.
It had all been arranged for him by well-meaning minds—minds that could never see how the blessing they had intended to bestow might by any chance become a curse.
The Boy came of age in February next—February nineteenth—but it had been the strongly expressed wish of his mother that his coronation should not take place until May.
For was it not in May that she had met her Paul?
She had felt, from the birth of the young Prince, a presentiment of her own early death, and had formed many plans and voiced many preferences for his future. No one knew what personal reasons the Imperatorskoye had for the wish, but she had so definitely and unmistakably made the desire known to all her councillors that none dreamed of disobeying the mandate of their deceased and ever-to-be-lamented Queen. Her slightest wish had always been to them an Unassailable law.
So the coronation ceremonies were to take place in the May following the Prince's birthday, and the Regent had arranged that the marriage should also be celebrated at that time. Of course, the Boy had acquiesced. He saw no reason to put it off any longer. It was always best to swallow your bitterest pill first, he thought, and get the worst over and the taste out of your mouth as soon as possible.
Until that eventful time, the Prince was free to go where he pleased, and to do whatever he wished. He had insisted upon this liberty, and the Regent, finding him in all other respects so amenable to his leading, gladly made the concession. This left him a year—that is, nearly a year, for it was June now—of care-free bachelorhood; a year for one, who was yet only a dreamy boy, to acquire the proper spirit for a happy bridegroom; a year of Father Paul!
He rode along aimlessly for a short distance, scarcely guiding his horse, and only responding to the greetings of acquaintances he chanced to meet with absent-minded, though still irreproachable, courtesy. He was hardly thinking at all, now—at least consciously. He was simply glad to be alive, as Youth is glad—in spite of any possible, or impossible, environment.
Suddenly his eyes fell upon a feminine rider some paces in advance, who seemed to attract much attention, of which she was—apparently —delightfully unconscious. Paul marked the faultless proportions of her horse.
"What a magnificent animal!" he thought. Then, under his breath, he added, "and what a stunning rider!"
She was only a girl—about eighteen or nineteen, he should judge by her figure and the girlish poise of her small head—but she certainly knew how to ride. She sat her horse as though a part of him, and controlled his every motion as she would her own.
"Just that way might she manage a man," Paul thought, and then laughed aloud at the absurdity of the thought. For he had never seen the girl before.
Paul admired a good horsewoman—they are so pitifully few. And he followed her, at a safe distance, with an interest unaccountable, even to him. Finally she drew rein before one of the houses facing the Row, dismounted, and throwing the train of her habit gracefully over her arm, walked to the door with a brisk step. Paul instantly likened her to a bird, so lightly tripping over the walk that her feet scarcely seemed to touch the ground. She was a wee thing—certainly not more than five foot tall—and petite, almost to an extreme. The Boy had expressed a preference, only a few days before, for tall, magnificent women. Now he suddenly discovered that the woman for a man to love should by all means be short and small. He wondered why it had never occurred to him in that light before, and thought of Jacques' question about Rosalind, "What stature is she of?" and Orlando's reply, "As high as my heart!"
The girl who had aroused this train of thought had reached the big stone steps by this time, and suddenly turning to look over her shoulder, just as he passed the gate, met his gaze squarely. Gad! what eyes those were!—full of mystery and magnetism, and—possibilities!
For an instant their eyes clung together in that strange mingling of glances that sometimes holds even utter strangers spell-bound by its compelling force.
Then she turned and entered the house, and Paul rode on.
But that glance went with him. It tormented him, troubled him, perplexed him. He felt a mad desire to turn back, to follow her into that house, and compel her to meet his eyes again. Did she know the power of her own eyes? Did she know a look like that had almost the force of a caress?
He told himself that they were the most beautiful eyes that he had ever seen—and yet he could not have told the color of them to save his soul. He began to wonder about that. It vexed him that he could not remember.
"Eyes!" he thought, "those are not eyes! They are living magnets, drawing a fellow on and on, and he never stops to think what color they are—nor care!"
And then he pulled himself up sharply, and declared himself a madman for raving on the street in broad daylight over the mere accidental meeting with a pair of pretty eyes. He—the uncrowned king of a to-be-glorious throne! He—the affianced husband of the Princess Elodie of—Hell! He refused to think of it! And again the horse he rode and the Park trees heard a bit of Paul Zalenska's English profanity that should have made them hide in shame over the depravity of youth.
But the strangest thing of all was that the Boy, for the nonce, was not thinking of—nor listening for—the voice!
He turned as he reached the end of the Row and rode slowly back. But the horses and groom had already gone from the gate. And inwardly cursing his slowness, he started on a trot for Berkeley Square.
He was not very far from the Verdayne house, when, turning a sudden corner, he came upon the girl again, riding at a leisurely pace in the opposite direction. Startled by his unexpected appearance, she glanced back over her shoulder as she passed, surprising him—and perhaps herself, too, for girls do that sometimes—by a ringing and tantalizing laugh!
That laugh! Wonder upon wonders, it was the voice!
It was she—Opal!
He wheeled his horse sharply, but swift as he was, she was yet swifter and was far down the street before he was fairly started in pursuit. His one desire of the moment was to catch and conquer the sprite that tempted him.
Her veil fluttered out behind her on the breeze, like a signal of no-surrender, and once—only once—she looked back over her shoulder. She was too far ahead for him to catch the glint of her eye, but he heard the echo of that laugh—that voice—and it spurred him on and on.
Suddenly, by some turn known only to herself, she eluded him and escaped beyond his vision—and beyond his reach. He halted his panting horse at the crossing of several streets, and swore again. But though he looked searchingly in every possible direction, there was no trace of the fugitive to be seen. It was as though the earth had opened and swallowed horse and rider in one greedy gulp.
Baffled and more disappointed than he cared to own, Paul rode slowly back to Berkeley Square, his heart bounding with the excitement of the chase and yet thoroughly vexed over his failure, at himself, his horse, the girl.
At the house he found letters from the Regent awaiting him, recalling to him his position and its unwelcome responsibilities. One of them enclosed a full-length photograph of his future bride.
Fate had certainly been kind to him by granting his one expressed wish. The Princess Elodie was what he had desired, "quite six-foot tall." Yet he pushed the portrait aside with an impatient gesture, and before his mental vision rose a little figure tripping up the steps, with a backward glance that still seemed to pierce his very soul.
He was not thinking, as he certainly should have been, of the Princess Elodie! And he had not even noticed whether she had any eyes or not!
He looked again at the picture of the Austrian princess, lying face upward upon the pile of letters. With disgust and loathing he swept the offending portrait into a drawer, and summoning Vasili, began to make a hasty toilet.
Vasili had never seen his young master in such bad humor. He was unpardonably late for luncheon, but that would not disturb him, surely not to such an extent as this!
He was greatly disturbed by something. There was no denying that.
He had found the voice, but—
It was the next morning at the breakfast table that Paul Zalenska, listlessly looking over the "Society Notes" in the Times, came upon this significant notice:
"Mr. Gilbert Ledoux and daughter, Miss Opal Ledoux, of New Orleans, accompanied by Henri, Count de Roannes, of Paris, have taken passage on the Lusitania, which sails for New York on July 3rd."
It was she, of course!—who else could it be? Surely there could not be more than one Opal in America!
"Father Paul, I notice that the Lusitania is to sail for America on the third of July. Can't we make it?"
Verdayne smiled quietly at the suddenness of the proposal, but was not unduly surprised. He remembered many unaccountable impulses of his own when his life was young and his blood was hot. He remembered too with a tender gratitude how his father had humored him and—was he not "Father Paul"?
"I see no reason why not, Boy."
"You see, I have already lost a whole month out of my one free year. I am unwilling to waste a single hour of it, Father Paul—wouldn't you be? And we must see America together, you and I, before I go back to—prison!"
"Certainly, Boy, certainly. My time is yours—when you want it, and where you want it, the whole year through!"
"I know that, Father Paul, and—I thank you!"
It was more difficult to arrange matters with Lady Henrietta. She was not so young as she once was and she still adored her son, as only the mother of but one child can adore, and could not bear the idea of having him away from her. Old and steady as he had now become, he was still her boy, the idol of her heart. Yet she felt, as her son did, that the Boy was entitled to the few months of liberty left him, and she did not greatly object, though there was a wistful look in her eyes as they rested on her son that told how keenly she felt every separation from him.
As for Sir Charles, he had not lost the knowing twinkle of the eye. Moreover, he knew far better than his wife how real was the claim their young guest had upon their son. And he bade them go with a hearty grasp of the hand and a bluff Godspeed.
So it was settled that Verdayne and the Boy, attended only by Vasili, were to sail for America on the third of July, and passage was immediately secured on the Lusitania.
* * * * *
On the morning of the day appointed, Paul Zalenska from an upper deck watched the party he had been awaiting, as they mounted the gang-plank.
Gilbert Ledoux he scarcely noticed. The Count de Roannes, too, interested him no longer when, with a hasty glance, he had assured himself that the Frenchman was as old as Ledoux and not the gay young dandy in Opal's train that he had feared to find him.
He had eyes alone for the girl, and he watched her closely as she tripped up the gang-plank, clinging to her father's arm and chattering gayly in that voice he so well remembered.
She was not so small at close range as she had appeared at a distance, but possessed an exquisite roundness of figure and softness of outline well in proportion to the shortness of her stature.
He had been proud of his kingship—very proud of his royal blood and his mission to his little kingdom. But of late he had known some rebellious thoughts, quite foreign to his mental habit.
And to-day, as he looked at Opal Ledoux, he thought, "After all, how much of a real man can I ever be? What am I but a petty pawn on the chessboard of the world, moved hither and yon, to gain or to lose, by the finger of Fate!"
As Opal Ledoux passed him, she met his glance, and slightly flushed by the rencontre, looked back over her shoulder at him and—smiled! And such a smile! She passed on, leaving him tingling in every fibre with the thrill of it.
It was Fate. He had felt it from the very first, and now he was sure of it.
How would it end? How could it end?
Paul Zalenska was very young—oh, very young, indeed!
The next day Verdayne and his young companion were introduced to Mr. Ledoux and his guest.
Gilbert Ledoux, a reserved man evidently descended from generations of thinking people, was apparently worried, for his face bore unmistakable signs of some mental disturbance. Paul Zalenska was struck by the haunted expression of what must naturally have been a grave countenance. It was not guilt, for he had not the face of a man pursued by conscience, but it certainly was fear—a real fear. And Paul wondered.
As for the Count de Roannes, the Boy dismissed him at once as unworthy of further consideration. He was brilliantly, even artificially polished—glaringly ultra-fashionable, ostentatiously polite and suave. In the lines of his bestial face he bore the records of a lifetime's profligacy and the black tales of habitual self-indulgence. Paul hated him instinctively and wondered how a man of Ledoux's unmistakable refinement could tolerate him for a moment.
It was not until the middle of the following afternoon that Opal Ledoux appeared on deck, when her father, with an air of pride, mingled with a certain curious element of timidity, presented to her in due form both the Englishman and his friend.
The eyes of the two young people flashed a recognition that the lips of each tacitly denied as they responded conventionally to the introduction.
Paul noticed that the shadow of her father's uneasiness was reflected upon her in a somewhat lesser but all too evident degree. And again he wondered.
A few moments of desultory conversation that was of no interest to Paul—and then the Count proposed a game of ecarte, to which Verdayne and Ledoux assented readily enough.
But not so our Boy!
Ecarte! Bah! When did a boy of twenty ever want to play cards within sound of the rustle of a petticoat?—and such a petticoat!
When the elderly gallant noted the attitude of the young fellow he cast a quick glance of suspicion at Opal. He would have withdrawn his proposal had he been able to find any plausible excuse. But it was too late. And with an inward invective on his own blundering, he followed the other gentlemen to the smoking-room.
And Paul and Opal were at last face to face—and alone!
He turned as the sound of the retreating steps died away and looked long and searchingly into her face. If the girl intended to ignore their former meeting, he thought, he would at once put that idea beyond all question. She bore his scrutiny with no apparent embarrassment. She was an American girl, and as she would have expressed it, she was "game!"
"Well?" she said at last, questioningly.
"Yes," he responded, "well—well, indeed, at last!"
She bowed mockingly.
"And," he went on, "I have been searching for you a long time, Opal!"
He had not intended to say that, but having said it, he would not take it back.
Then she remembered that she had said that she would call him "Paul" the first time she met him, and she smiled.
"Searching for me? I don't understand."
"Of course not! Neither do I! Why should we? The best things in life are the things we don't—and can't—understand. Is it not so?"
"Perhaps!" doubtfully. She had never thought of it in just that light before, but it might be true. It was human nature to be attracted by mystery. "But you have been looking for me, you say! Since when?—our race?" And her laugh rang out on the air with its old mocking rhythm.
And the Boy felt his blood tingle again at the memory of it.
"But what did you say, Monsieur Zalenska—pardon me—Paul, I mean," and she laughed again, "what did you say as you rode home again?"
The Boy shook his head with affected contrition.
"Unfit to tell a lady!" he said.
And the girl laughed again, pleased by his frankness.
"Vowed eternal vengeance upon my luckless head, I suppose!"
"Oh, not so bad as that, I think," said Paul, pretending to reflect upon the matter—"I am sure it was not quite so bad as that!"
"It would hardly have done, would it, to vow what you were not at all sure you would ever be able to fulfil? Take my advice, and never bank a sou upon the move of any woman!"
"You're not a woman," he laughed in her eyes; "you're just an abbreviation!"
But Opal was not one whit sensitive upon the subject of her height. Not she!
"Well, some abbreviations are more effective than the words they stand for," she retorted. "I shall cling to the flattering hope that such may be my attraction to the reader whose 'only books are woman's looks!'"
"But why did you run away?"
"Just—because!" Then, after a pause, "Why did you follow?"
"I don't know, do you? Just—because, I suppose!"
And then they both laughed again.
"But I know why you ran. You were afraid!" said Paul.
Her eyes flashed and there was a fine scorn in her tones.
"Afraid—of what, pray?"
"Of being caught—too easily! Come, now—weren't you?"
"I wouldn't contradict you for the world, Paul."
She lingered over his name with a cadence in her tone that made it almost a caress. It thrilled him again as it had from the beginning.
"But I'll forgive you for running away from me, since I am so fortunate as to be with you now where you can't possibly run very far! Strange, isn't it, how Fate has thrown us together?"
There was a dry sarcasm in the tones, and a mockery in the glance, that told him she was not blind to his manoeuvres. Their eyes met and they laughed again. Truly, life just then was exceedingly pleasant for the two on the deck of the Lusitania.
"But I was looking for you before that, Opal—long before that—weeks!"
The girl was truly surprised now and turned to him wonderingly. Then, without question, he told her of his overhearing her at the garden party—what a long time ago it seemed!—and his desire, ever since, to meet her.
He told her, too, of his hearing her laugh at the theatre that night; but the girl was silent, and said not a word of having seen him there. Confidences were all right for a man, she thought, but a girl did well to keep some things to herself.
He did not say that he was deliberately following her to America, but the girl had her own ideas upon the subject and smiled to herself at the lively development of affairs since that tiresome garden party she had found so unbearable. Here was an adventure after her own heart.
And yet Opal Ledoux had much on her mind just then. The Boy had read the signs upon her face correctly. She was troubled.
For a long time they sat together, and looking far out over the vast expanse of dancing blueness, they spoke of life—and the living of it. And both knew so little of either!
It was a strange talk for the first one—so subtly intimate, with its flashes of personality and freedom from conventions, that it seemed like a meeting of old friends, rather than of strangers. Some intimacies are like the oak, long and steady of growth; others spring to full maturity in an hour's time. And these two had bridged the space of years in a few moments of converse. They understood each other so well.
This same idea occurred to them simultaneously, as she looked up at him with eyes glowing with a quick appreciation of some well-expressed and worthy thought. Something within him stirred to sudden life—something that no one else had ever reached.
He looked into her eyes and thought he had never looked into the eyes of a woman before. She smiled—and he was sure it was the first time he had ever seen a woman smile!
"I am wild to be at home again," she was saying, "fairly crazy for America! How I love her big, broad, majestic acres—the splendid sweep of her meadows—the massive grandeur of her mountain peaks—the glory of her open skies! You too, I believe, are a wanderer on strange seas. You can hardly fail to understand my longing for the homeland!"
"I do understand, Opal. I am on my first visit to your country. Tell me of her—her institutions, her people! Believe me, I am greatly interested!"
And he was—in her! Nothing else counted at that moment. But the girl did not understand that—then!
For half an hour, perhaps, she lost herself in an eloquent eulogy of America, while the Boy sat and watched her, catching the import of but little that she said, it must be confessed, but drinking in every detail of her expressive countenance, her flashing, lustrous eyes, her red, impulsive lips and rounded form, and her white, slender hands, always employed in the expression of a thought or as the outlet for some passing emotion. He caught himself watching for the occasional glimpses of her small white teeth between the rose of her lips. He saw in her eyes the violet sparks of smouldering fires, kindled by the volcanic heart sometimes throbbing and threatening so close to the surface. When the eruption came!—Fascinated he watched the rise and sweep of her white arm. Every line and curve of her body was full of suggestion of the ardent and restless and impulsive temperament with which nature had so lavishly endowed her. She was alive with feeling—alive to the finger-tips with the joy of life, the fullness of a deep, emotional nature.
It occurred to Paul that nature had purposely left her body so small, albeit so beautifully rounded, that it might devote all its powers to the building therein of a magnificent, flaming soul—that her inner nature might always triumph. But Opal had never been especially conscious of a soul—scarcely of a body. She had not yet found herself.
Paul's emotions were in such chaotic rebellion that the thunder of his heart-beats mingled with the pulse hammering through his brain and made him for the first time in his life curiously deaf to his own thoughts.
As she met his eye, expressing more than he realized of the storm within, her own fell with a sudden sense of apprehension. She rose and looked far out over the restless waves with a sudden flush on her dimpled cheek, a subtle excitement in her rapid words.
"As for our men, Paul, they are only human beings, but mighty with that strength of physique and perfect development of mind that makes for power. They are men of dauntless purpose. They are men of pure thoughts and lofty ideals. They know what they want and bend every ambition and energy to its attainment. Of course I speak of the average American—the type! The normal American is a born fighter. Yes, that is the key-note of American supremacy! We never give up! never! In my country, what men want, they get!"
She raised her hand in a quaint, expressive gesture, and the loose sleeve fell back, leaving her white arm bare. He sprang to his feet, his eyes glowing.
"And in my country, what men want, they take!" he responded fiercely—almost brutally and without a second's warning Paul threw his arms about her and crushed her against his breast. He pressed his lips mercilessly upon her own, holding them in a kiss that seemed to Opal would never end.
"How—how dare you!" she gasped, when at last she escaped his grasp and faced him in the fury of outraged girlhood. "I—I—hate you!"
"Dare? When one loves one dares anything!" was his husky response. "I shall have had my kiss and you can never forget that! Never! never!"
And Paul's voice grew exultant.
Opal had heard of the brutality, the barbarism of passion, but her life had flowed along conventional channels as peacefully as a quiet river. She had longed to believe in the fury of love—in that irresistible attraction between men and women. It appealed to her as it naturally appeals to all women who are alive with the intensity of life. But she had seen nothing of it.
Now she looked living Passion in the face for the first time, and was appalled—half frightened, half fascinated—by the revelation. That kiss seemed to scorch her lips with a fire she had never dreamed of. With the universal instinct of shamed womanhood, she pressed her handkerchief to her lips, rubbing fiercely at the soiled spot. He divined her thought and laughed, with a note of exultation that stirred her Southern blood.
In defiance she raised her eyes and searched his face, seeking some solution of the mystery of her own heart's strange, rebellious throbbing. What could it mean?
Paul took another step toward her, his face softening to tenderness.
"What is it, Opal?" he breathed.
"I was—trying—to understand you."
"I don't understand myself sometimes—certainly not to-day!"
"I thought you were a gentleman!"
(I wonder if Eve didn't say that to Adam in the garden!)
"I have been accustomed to entertain that same idea myself," he said, "but, after all, what is it to be a gentleman? All men can be gentle when they get what they want. That's no test of gentility. It takes circumstances outside the normal to prove man's civilization. When his desires meet with opposition the brute comes to the surface—that's all."
Another rush of passion lighted his eyes and sought its reflection in hers. Opal turned and fled.
* * * * *
In the seclusion of her stateroom Opal faced herself resolutely. A sensation of outrage mingled with a strange sense of guilt. Her resentment seemed to blend with something resembling a strange, fierce joy. She tried to fight it down, but it would not be conquered.
Why was he so handsome, so brilliant, this strange foreign fellow whom she felt intuitively to be more than he claimed to be? What was the secret of his power that even in the face of this open insult she could not be as angry as she knew she should have been?
She looked in the mirror apprehensively. No, there was no sign of that terrible kiss. And yet she felt as though all the world must have seen had they looked at her—felt that she was branded forever by the burning touch of his lips!
It was not until the dinner hour on the following day that Paul and Opal met again. One does not require an excuse for keeping to one's stateroom during an ocean voyage—especially during the first few days—and the girl, though in excellent health and a capital sailor, kept herself secluded.
She wanted to understand herself and to understand this stranger who was yet no stranger. For a girl who had looked upon life as she had she felt woefully unsophisticated. But the Boy? He was certainly not a man of the world, who through years of lurid experience had learned to look upon all women as his legitimate quarry. If he had been that sort, she told herself, she would have been on her guard instinctively from the very first. But she knew he was too young for that—far too young—- and his eyes were frank and clear and open, with no dark secrets behind their curtained lids. But what was he—and who?
When the day was far spent, she knew that she was no nearer a solution than she had been at dawn, so she resolved to join the group at table and put behind her the futile labor of self-examination. She would not, of course, deign to show any leniency toward the offender—indeed not! She would not vouchsafe one unnecessary word for his edification.
But she took elaborate care with her toilet, selected her most becoming gown and drove her maid into a frenzy by her variations of taste and temper.