The Author's Press Series of the Works of Elinor Glyn
THE POINT OF VIEW
The restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Rome was filling up. People were dining rather late—it was the end of May and the entertainments were lessening, so they could dawdle over their repasts and smoke their cigarettes in peace.
Stella Rawson came in with her uncle and aunt, Canon and the Honorable Mrs. Ebley, and they took their seats in a secluded corner. They looked a little out of place—and felt it—amid this more or less gay company. But the drains of the Grand Hotel were known to be beyond question, and, coming to Rome so late in the season, the Reverend Canon Ebley felt it was wiser to risk the contamination of the over-worldly-minded than a possible attack of typhoid fever. The belief in a divine protection did not give him or his lady wife that serenity it might have done, and they traveled fearfully, taking with them their own jaeger sheets among other precautions.
They realized they must put up with the restaurant for meals, but at least the women folk should not pander to the customs of the place and wear evening dress. Their subdued black gowns were fastened to the throat. Stella Rawson felt absolutely excited—she was twenty-one years old, but this was the first time she had ever dined in a fashionable restaurant, and it almost seemed like something deliciously wrong.
Life in the Cathedral Close where they lived in England was not highly exhilarating, and when its duties were over it contained only mild gossip and endless tea-parties and garden-parties by way of recreation.
Canon and the Honorable Mrs. Ebley were fairly rich people. The Uncle Erasmus' call to the church had been answered from inclination—not necessity. His heart was in his work. He was a good man and did his duty according to the width of the lights in which he had been brought up.
Mrs. Ebley did more than her duty—and had often too much momentum, which now and then upset other people's apple carts.
She had, in fact, been the moving spirit in the bringing about of her niece Stella's engagement to the Bishop's junior chaplain, a young gentleman of aesthetic aspirations and eight hundred a year of his own.
Stella herself had never been enthusiastic about the affair. As a man, Eustace Medlicott said absolutely nothing at all to her— though to be sure she was quite unaware that he was inadequate in this respect. No man had meant anything different up to this period of her life. She had seen so few of them she was no judge.
Eustace Medlicott had higher collars than the other curates, and intoned in a wonderfully melodious voice in the cathedral. And quite a number of the young ladies of Exminster, including the Bishop's second daughter, had been setting their caps at him from the moment of his arrival, so that when, by the maneuvers of Aunt Caroline Ebley, Stella found him proposing to her, she somehow allowed herself to murmur some sort of consent.
Then it seemed quite stimulating to have a ring and to be congratulated upon being engaged. And the few weeks that followed while the thing was fresh and new had passed quite pleasantly. It was only when about a month had gone by that a gradual and growing weariness seemed to be falling upon her.
To be the wife of an aesthetic high church curate, who fasted severely during Lent and had rigid views upon most subjects, began to grow into a picture which held out less and less charm for her.
But Aunt Caroline was firm—and the habit of twenty-one years of obedience held.
Perhaps Fate was looking on in sympathy with her unrest. In any case, it appeared like the jade's hand and not chance which made Uncle Erasmus decide to take his holiday early in the year and to decide to spend it abroad—not in Scotland or Wales as was his custom.
Stella, he said, should see the eternal city and Florence before settling down in the autumn to her new existence.
Miss Rawson actually jumped with joy—and the knowledge that Eustace Medlicott would be unable to accompany them, but might join them later on, did not damp her enthusiasm.
Every bit of the journey was a pleasure, from the moment they landed on French soil. They had come straight through to Rome from Paris, where they had spent a week at a small hotel; because of the lateness of the year they must get to their southern point first of all and return northward in a more leisurely manner.
And now anyone who is reading this story can picture this respectable English family and understand their status and antecedents, so we can very well get back to them seated in the agreeable restaurant of the Grand Hotel at Rome—beginning to partake of a modest dinner.
Mrs. Ebley (I had almost written the Reverend Mrs. Ebley!) was secretly enjoying herself—she had that feeling that she was in a place where she ought not to be—through no fault of her own—and so was free to make the most of it, and certainly these well- dressed people were very interesting to glance at between mouthfuls of a particularly well-cooked fish.
Stella was thrilling all over and her soft brown eyes were sparkling and her dazzlingly pink and white complexion glowing with health and excitement, so that even in the Exminster confection of black grenadine she was an agreeable morsel for the male eye to dwell upon.
There were the usual company there: the younger diplomats from the Embassies; a sprinkling of trim Italian officers in their pretty uniforms; French and Austrian ladies; as well as the attractive- looking native and American representatives of the elite of Roman society.
The tables began to fill up before the Ebleys had finished their fish, and numbers of the parties seemed to know one another and nod and exchange words en passant.
But there was one table laid for a single person which remained empty until the entrees were being handed, and Stella, with her fresh interest in the whole scene, wondered for whom it was reserved.
He came in presently—and he really merits a descriptive paragraph all to himself.
He was a very tall man and well made, with broad shoulders and a small head. His evening clothes, though beautifully pressed, with that look which only a thoroughly good valet knows how to stamp upon his master's habiliments as a daily occurrence, were of foreign cut and hand, and his shirt, unstarched, was of the finest pleated cambric.
These trifles, however, were not what rendered him remarkable, but that his light brown hair was worn parted in the middle and waved back a la vierge with a rather saintly expression, and was apparently just cut off in a straight line at the back. This was quite peculiar-looking enough—and in conjunction with a young, silky beard, trimmed into a sharp point with the look of an archaic Greek statue, he presented a type not easily forgotten. The features were regular and his eyes were singularly calm and wise and blue.
It seemed incredible that such an almost grotesque arrangement of coiffure should adorn the head of a man in modern evening dress. It should have been on some Byzantine saint. However, there he was, and entirely unconcerned at the effect he was producing.
The waiters, who probably knew his name and station, precipitated themselves forward to serve him, and with leisurely mien he ordered a recherche dinner and a pint of champagne.
Stella Rawson was much interested and so were her uncle and aunt.
"What a very strange-looking person," Mrs. Ebley said. "Of what nation can he be? Erasmus, have you observed him?"
Canon Ebley put on his pince-nez and gave the newcomer the benefit of a keen scrutiny.
"I could not say with certainty, my dear. A northerner evidently— but whether Swedish or Danish it would be difficult to determine," he announced.
"He does not appear to know he is funny-looking," Stella Rawson said, timidly. "Do you notice, Aunt Caroline, he does not look about him at all, he has never glanced in any direction; it is as if he were alone in the room."
"A very proper behavior," the Aunt Caroline replied severely, "but he cannot be an Englishman—no Englishman would enter a public place, having made himself remarkable like that, and then be able to sit there unaware of it; I am glad to say our young men have some sense of convention. You cannot imagine Eustace Medlicott perfectly indifferent to the remarks he would provoke if he were tricked out so."
Stella felt a sudden sympathy for the foreigner. She had heard so ceaselessly of her fiance's perfections!
"Perhaps they wear the hair like that in his country," she returned, with as much spirit as she dared to show. "And he may think we all look funny, as we think he does. Only he seems to be much better mannered than we are, because he is quite sure of himself and quite unconscious or indifferent about our opinion."
Both her aunt and uncle looked at her with slightly shocked surprise—and she saw it at once and reddened a little.
But this incident caused the remarkable looking foreigner to crystallize in interest for her, especially when, in raising his glass of champagne, she saw that on his wrist there was a bracelet of platinum with a small watch set with very fine diamonds. She could hardly have been more surprised if he had worn a ring in his nose, so unaccustomed was she to any type but that of the curates and young gentlemen of Exminster.
Canon and Mrs. Ebley finished their dinner in disdainful silence and sailed from the room with chilling glances, but as Stella Rawson followed them demurely she raised her soft eyes when she came to the object of her relatives' contempt, and met his serene blue ones—and for some reason thrilled wildly.
There was a remarkable and powerful magnetism in his glance; it was as if a breath of some other world touched her, she seemed to see into possibilities she had never dreamed about. She resented being drawn into a far corner on the right hand of the hall, and there handed an English paper to read for half an hour before being told to go to bed. She was perfectly conscious that she was longing for the stranger to come out of the restaurant, that she might see him again.
But it was not until she was obediently following her aunt's black broche train to the lift up the steps again that the tall man passed them in the corridor. He never even glanced in their direction, and went on as though the space were untenanted—but had hardly got beyond, when he turned suddenly, and walked rapidly to the lift door, passing them again. So that the four entered it presently, and were taken up together.
Stella Rawson was very close to the remarkable looking creature. And again a wild nameless attraction crept over her. She noticed his skin was faintly browned with the sun, but was otherwise as fine as a child's—finer than most children's. And now she could see that three most wonderful pearls were his shirt-studs.
He got out on the second floor, one beneath them, and said, "Pardon," as he passed, but not as a French word, nor yet as if it were English.
During these few seconds Stella was quite aware that he had never apparently looked at her.
"I call such an appearance sacrilegious," Mrs. Ebley said. "A man has no right to imitate one of the blessed apostles in these modern days; it is very bad taste."
Stella Rawson woke the next day with some sense of rebellion. There came with the rest of her post a letter from her betrothed. And although it was just such a letter as any nice girl engaged of her own free will to the Bishop's junior chaplain ought to have been glad to receive, Stella found herself pouting and criticizing every sentence.
"I do wish Eustace would not talk such cant," she said to herself. "Even in this he is unable to be natural—and I am sure I shall not feel a thing like he describes when I stand in St. Peter's. I believe I would rather go into the Pantheon. I seem to be tired of everything I ought to like to-day!" And still rebellious she got up and was taken by her uncle and aunt to the Vatican—and was allowed to linger only in the parts which interested them.
"I never have had a taste for sculpture," Mrs. Ebley said. "People may call it what names they please, but I consider it immoral and indecent."
"A wonder to me," the Uncle Erasmus joined in, "that a prelate— even a prelate of Rome—should have countenanced the housing of all these unclothed marbles in his own private palace."
Stella Rawson stopped for a second in front of an archaic Apollo of no great merit—because it reminded her of the unknown; and she wished with all her might something new and swift and rushing might come into her humdrum life.
After luncheon, for which they returned to the hotel, she wearily went over to the writing-table in the corner of the hall to answer her lover's chaste effusion—and saw that the low armchair beside the escritoire was tenanted by a pair of long legs with singularly fine silk socks showing upon singularly fine ankles—and a pair of strong slender hands held a newspaper in front of the rest of the body, concealing it all and the face. It was the English TIMES, which, as everybody knows, could hide Gargantua himself.
She began her letter—and not a rustle disturbed her peace.
"Dearest Eustace," she had written, "we have arrived in Rome—" and then she stopped, and fixed her eyes blankly upon the column of births, marriages, and deaths. She was staring at it with sightless eyes, when the paper was slowly lowered and over its top the blue orbs of the stranger looked into hers.
Her pretty color became the hue of a bright pink rose. "Mademoiselle," a very deep voice said in English, "is not this world full of bores and tiresome duties; have you the courage to defy them all for a few minutes—and talk to me instead?"
"Monsieur!" Miss Rawson burst out, and half rose from her seat. Then she sat down again—the unknown had not stirred a muscle.
"Good," he murmured. "One has to be courageous to do what is unconventional, even if it is not wrong. I am not desirous of hurting or insulting you—I felt we might have something to say to each other—is it so—tell me, am I right?"
"I do not know," whispered Stella lamely. She was so taken aback at the preposterous fact that a stranger should have addressed her at all, even in a manner of indifference and respect, that she knew not what to do.
"I observed you last night," he went on. "I am accustomed to judge of character rapidly—it is a habit I have acquired during my travels in foreign lands—when I cannot use the standard of my own. You are weary of a number of things, and you do not know anything at all about life, and you are hedged round with those who will see that you never learn its meaning. Tell me—what do you think of Rome—it contains things and aspects which afford food for reflection, is it not so?"
"We have only been to the Vatican as yet," Stella answered timidly—she was still much perturbed at the whole incident, but now that she had begun she determined she might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, and she was conscious that there was a strong attraction in the mild blue eyes of the stranger. His manner had a complete repose and absence of self-consciousness, which usually is only to be found in the people of race—in any nation.
"You were taken to the Sistine Chapel, of course," he went on, "and to the loggia and Bramant's staircase? You saw some statues, too, perhaps?"
"My uncle and aunt do not care much for sculpture," Miss Rawson said, now regaining her composure, "but I like it—even better than pictures."
The stranger kept his steady eyes fixed upon her face all the time.
"I have a nymph in my house at home," he returned. "She came originally from Rome; she is not Greek and she is very like you, the same droop of head—I remarked it immediately—I am superstitious—I suppose you would call what I mean by that word— and I knew directly that some day you, too, would mean things to me. That is why I spoke—do you feel it, too?"
Stella Rawson quivered. The incredible situation paralyzed her. She—the Aunt Caroline's niece, and engaged to Eustace Medlicott, the Bishop's junior chaplain, to be listening to a grotesque- looking foreigner making subtle speeches of an insinuating character, and, far from feeling scandalized and repulsed, to be conscious that she was thrilled and interested—it was hardly to be believed!
"Will you tell me from where you come?" she asked with sweet bashfulness, raising two eyes as soft as brown velvet. "You speak English so very well—one cannot guess."
"I am a Russian," he said simply. "I come from near Moscow—and my name is Sasha Roumovski, Count Roumovski. Yours, I am aware, is Rawson, but I would like to know how you are called—Mary, perhaps? That is English."
"No, my name is not Mary," she answered, and froze a little—but the Russian's eyes continued to gaze at her with the same mild frankness which disarmed any resentment. She felt they were as calm as deep pools of blue water—they filled her with a sense of confidence and security—which she could not account for in any way.
Her color deepened—something in his peaceful expectancy seemed to compel her to answer his late question.
"My Christian name is Stella," she said, rather quickly, then added nervously: "I am engaged to Mr. Eustace Medlicott, an English clergyman—we are going to be married in September next."
"And this is May," was all Count Roumovski replied; then, for the first time since he had addressed her, he turned his eyes from her face, while the faintest smile played round his well-cut mouth.
"A number of things can happen in four months. Are you looking forward to your life as the wife of a priest—but I understand it is different in England to in my country—there I could not recommend the situation to you."
Stella found absolutely no answer to this. She only felt a sudden, wild longing to cry out that the idea of being a curate's wife— even the Bishop's junior young gentleman with eight hundred a year of his own—had never appeared a thrilling picture, and was now causing her a feeling of loathing. She thought she ought to talk no longer to this stranger, and half rose from her seat.
He put out a protesting hand, both had been clasped idly over the Times until then without a movement.
"No—do—not go—I have disturbed you—I am sorry," he pleaded. "Listen, there is a great reception at your Embassy to-morrow night—for one of our Royal Family who is here. You will go, perhaps. If so, I will do so also, although I dislike parties—and there I will be presented to you with ceremony—it will appease that English convention in you, and after that I shall say to you a number of things—but I prefer to sit here and speak behind the Times."
At this instant he raised the paper, and appeared again the stranger almost entirely hidden from view. And Stella saw that her Uncle Erasmus was rapidly approaching her with an envelope in his hand. She seized her pen again and continued her broken sentence to Eustace—her betrothed. Canon Ebley viewed the Times and its holder with suspicion for an instant, but its stillness reassured him, and he addressed his niece.
"Very civil of the Embassy to send us a card for the reception to- morrow night, Stella; I am glad we wrote names when we arrived. Your Aunt Caroline bids you accept, as her spectacles are upstairs."
Miss Rawson did as she was bid, and her uncle waited, fidgeting with his feet. He wished the stranger to put down the Times, which he wanted himself—or, at all events, remove his long legs and hidden body from such a near proximity to his niece; they could not say a word that he could not overhear, Canon Ebley mused.
However, the unknown remained where he was, and turned a page of the paper with great deliberation.
"Your aunt will be ready to go out again now," the Uncle Erasmus announced, as Stella placed her acceptance in the envelope. "You had better go up and put your hat on, my dear."
The Times rustled slightly—and Stella replied a little hurriedly: "I was just finishing a letter, uncle, then I will come."
"Very well," said Canon Ebley, not altogether pleased, as he walked away with the note.
The newspaper was lowered a few inches again, and the wise blue eyes beneath the saintly parted hair twinkled with irresistible laughter, and the deep voice said:
"He would greatly disapprove of our having conversed—the uncle— is it not so? How long are you going to stay in Rome?"
Stella smiled, too—she could not help it.
"A week—ten days, perhaps," she answered, and then rapidly addressed an envelope to the Rev. Eustace Medlicott.
"Perhaps, in that case, I can afford to wait until to-morrow night; unless it amuses you, as it does me, to circumvent people," Count Roumovski said. "We are all masters of our own lives, you know, once we have ceased to be children—it is only convention which persuades us to submit to others' authority."
Stella looked up startled. Was this indeed true? And was it simply convention which had forced her into an engagement with Eustace Medlicott, and now forced her to go up and put on her hat and accompany her uncle and aunt to see the Lateran, when she would have preferred to remain where she was and discuss abstract matters with this remarkable stranger.
"The notion surprises you, one sees," Count Roumovski went on, "but it is true—"
"I suppose it is," said Stella lamely.
"I submit to no authority—I mean, as to the controlling of my actions and wishes. We must all submit to the laws of our country, to do so is the only way to obtain complete personal freedom."
"That sounds like a paradox," said Stella.
"I have just been thinking," he went on, without noticing the interruption, "it would be most agreeable to take a drive in my automobile late this after-noon, when your guardians have returned and are resting. If you feel you would care to come I will wait in this hall from five to six. You need not take the least notice of me, you can walk past, out of the hotel, then turn to the left, and there in the square, where there are a few trees, you will see a large blue motor waiting. You will get straight in, and I will come and join you. Not anyone will see or notice you—because of the trees, one cannot observe from the windows. My chauffeur will be prepared, and I will return you safely to the same place in an hour."
Stella's brown eyes grew larger and larger. Some magnetic spell seemed to be dominating her, the idea was preposterous, and yet to agree to it was the strongest temptation she had ever had in all her life. She was filled with a wild longing to live, to do what she pleased, to be free to enjoy this excitement before her wings should be clipped, and her outlook all gray and humdrum.
"I do not know if they will rest—I cannot say—I—" she blurted out tremblingly.
The stranger had put down the Times, and was gazing into her face with a look almost of tenderness.
"There is no need to answer now," he said softly. "If fate means us to be happy, she will arrange it—I think you will come."
Miss Rawson started to her feet, and absently put her letter to her fiance—which contained merely the sentence that they had arrived in Rome—into its envelope and fastened it up.
"I must go now—good-bye," she said.
"It is not good-bye," the Russian answered gravely. "By six o'clock, we shall be driving in the Borghese Gardens and hearing the nightingales sing."
As Stella walked to the lift with a tumultuously beating heart, she asked herself what all this could possibly mean, and why she was not angry—and why this stranger—whose appearance outraged all her ideas as to what an English gentleman should look like— had yet the power to fascinate her completely. Of course, she would not go for a drive with him—and yet, what would be the harm? After September she would never have a chance like this again. There would be only Eustace Medlicott and parish duties— yes—if fate made it possible, she would go!
And she went on to her room with exhilarating sense of adventure coursing through her veins.
"I have found out the name of the peculiar-looking foreigner who sat near us last night," Canon Ebley said, as they drove to the Lateran in a little Roman Victoria, "it is Count Roumovski; I asked the hall porter—reprehensible curiosity I fear you will think, my dear Caroline, but there is something unaccountably interesting about him, as you must admit, although you disapprove of his appearance."
"I think it is quite dreadful," Mrs. Ebley sniffed, "and I hear from Martha that he has no less than two valets, and a suite of princely rooms and motor cars, and the whole passage on the second floor is filled with his trunks."
Martha had been Mrs. Ebley's maid for twenty-five years, and as Stella well knew was fairly accurate in her recounting of the information she picked up. This luridly extravagant picture, however, did not appal her. And she found herself constantly dwelling upon it and the stranger all the time she followed her relations about in the gorgeous church.
Fate did not seem to be going to smile upon the drive project, however—for Mrs. Ebley, far from appearing tired, actually proposed tea in the hall when they got in—and there sat for at least half an hour, while Stella saw Count Roumovski come in and sit down and leisurely begin a cigarette, as he glanced at an Italian paper. He was so intensely still, always peace seemed to breathe from his atmosphere, but the very sight of him appeared to exasperate the Aunt Caroline more and more.
"I wonder that man is not ashamed to be seen in a respectable place," she snapped, "with his long hair and his bracelet—such effeminacy is perfectly disgusting, Erasmus."
"I really cannot help it, my dear," Canon Ebley replied, irritably, "and I rather like his face."
"Erasmus!" was all Mrs. Ebley could say, and prepared to return to her room. Dinner would be at a quarter to eight, she told Stella at her door, and recommended an hour's quiet reading up of the guide-book while resting to her niece.
It was quarter after six before Miss Rawson descended the stairs to the hall again. She had deliberately made up her mind—she would go and drive with the count. She would live and amuse herself, if it was only for this once in her life, come what might of it! And since he would be presented with all respectable ceremony at the English Embassy the following night, it could not matter a bit—and if it did—! Well, she did not care!
He was sitting there as immovable as before, and she thrilled as she crossed the hall. She was so excited and frightened that she could almost have turned back when she reached the street, but there, standing by the trees, was a large blue motor car, and as she advanced the chauffeur stepped forward and opened the door, and she got in—and before she had time to realize what she had done, Count Roumovski had joined her and sat down by her side.
"You have no wrap," he said. "I thought you would not have, so I had prepared this," and he indicated a man's gray Russian, unremarkable-looking cloak, which, however, proved to be lined with fine sable, "and here, also, is a veil. If you will please me by putting them on, we can then have the auto open and no one will recognize you—even should we meet your uncle and aunt; that is fun, is it not?"
Stella had thrown every consideration to the winds, except the determination to enjoy herself. Years of rebellion at the boredom of her existence seemed to be urging her on. So she meekly slipped into the cloak, and wrapped the veil right over her hat, and they started. Her heart was thumping so with excitement she could not have spoken for a moment.
But as they went rapidly on through the crowded streets, her companion's respectful silence reassured her. There seemed to be some rapport between them, she was conscious of a feeling that he understood her thoughts, and was not misjudging her.
"You are like a little frightened bird," he said presently. "And there is nothing to cause you the least fear. We shall soon come to the lovely gardens, and watch the lowering sun make its beautiful effects in the trees, and we shall hear the nightingales throbbing out love songs—the world is full of rest and peace— when we have had enough passion and strife and want its change— but you do not know anything of it, and this simple drive is causing you tumults and emotions—is it not so?"
"Yes," said Stella, with a feeling that she had burnt all her ships.
"It is because you have never been allowed to be YOU, I suppose," he went on softly. "So doing a natural and simple thing seems frightful—because it would seem so to the rigid aunt. Now, I have been ME ever since I was born—I have done just what seemed best to me. Do you suppose I am not aware that the way my hair is cut is a shock to most civilized persons; and that you English would strongly disapprove of my watch and my many other things. But I like them myself—it is no trouble for one of my valets to draw a straight line with a pair of scissors—and if I must look at the time, I prefer to look at something beautiful. I am entirely uninfluenced by the thoughts or opinions of any people—they do not exist for me except in so far as they interest me and are instructive or amusing. I never permit myself to be bored for an instant."
"How good that must be," Stella ventured to say—her courage was returning.
"Civilized human beings turn existence into a prison," he went on, meditatively, "and loaded themselves with shackles, because some convention prevents their doing what would give them innocent pleasure. If I had been under the dominion of these things we should not now be enjoying this delightful drive—at least, it is delightful to me—to be thus near you and alone out of doors."
Stella did not speak, she was altogether too full of emotion to trust herself to words just yet. They had turned into the Corso by now, and, as ever, it appeared as though it were a holiday, so thronged with pedestrians was the whole thoroughfare. Count Roumovski seemed quite unconcerned, but Miss Rawson shrank back into her corner, a new fear in her heart.
"Do not be so nervous," her companion said gently. "I always calculate the chances before I suggest another person's risking anything for me. They are a million to one that anyone could recognize you in that veil and that cloak; believe me, although I am not of your country, I am at least a gentleman, and would not have persuaded you to come if there had been any danger of complications for you."
Stella clasped her hands convulsively—and he drew a little nearer her.
"Do put all agitating ideas out of your mind," he said, his blue eyes, with their benign expression, seeking hers and compelling them at last to look at him. "Do you understand that it is foolish to spoil what we have by useless tremors. You are here with me— for the next hour—shall we not try to be happy?"
"Yes," murmured Miss Rawson, and allowed herself to be magnetized into calmness.
"When we have passed the Piazza del Popolo and the entrance to the Pincio, I will have the car opened; then we can see all the charming young green, and I will tell you of what these gardens were long ago, and you shall see them with new eyes."
Stella, by some sort of magic, seemed to have recovered her self- possession as his eyes looked into hers, and she chatted to him naturally, and the next half hour passed like some fairy tale. His deep, quiet voice took her into realms of fancy that her imagination had never even dreamed about. His cultivation was immense, and the Rome of the Caesars appeared to be as familiar to him as that of 1911.
The great beauty of the Borghese Gardens was at its height at the end of the day, the nightingales throbbed from the bushes, and the air was full of the fresh, exquisite scents of the late spring, as the day grew toward evening and all nature seemed full of beauty and peace. It can easily be imagined what this drive meant, then, to a fine, sensitive young woman, whose every instinct of youth and freedom and life had been crushed into undeveloped nothingness by years of gray convention in an old-fashioned English cathedral town.
Stella Rawson forgot that she and this Russian were strangers, and she talked to him unrestrainedly, showing glimpses of her inner self that she had not known she possessed. It was certainly heaven, she thought, this drive, and worth all the Aunt Caroline's frowns.
Count Roumovski never said a word of love to her: he treated her with perfect courtesy and infinite respect, but when at last they were turning back again, he permitted himself once more to gaze deeply into her eyes, and Stella knew for the first time in her existence that some silences are more dangerous than words.
"You do not care at all now for the good clergy-man you are affianced to," he said. "No—do not be angry-I am not asking a question, I am stating a fact—when lives have been hedged and controlled and retenu like yours has been, even the feelings lose character, and you cannot be sure of them—but the day is approaching when you will see clearly and—feel much."
"I am sure it is getting very late," said Stella Rawson, and with difficulty she turned her eyes away and looked over the green world.
Count Roumovski laughed softly, as if to himself. And they were silent until they came to the entrance gates again, when the chauffeur stopped and shut the car.
"We have at least snatched some moments of pleasure, have we not?" the owner whispered, "and we have hurt no one. Will you trust me again when I propose something which sounds to you wild?"
"Perhaps I will," Stella murmured rather low.
"When I was hunting lions in Africa I learned to keep my intelligence awake," he said calmly, "it is an advantage to me now in civilization—nothing is impossible if one only keeps cool. If one becomes agitated one instantly connects oneself with all other currents of agitation, and one can no longer act with prudence or sense."
"I think I have always been very foolish," admitted Stella, looking down. "I seem to see everything differently now."
"What we are all striving after is happiness," Count Roumovski said. "Only we will not admit it, and nearly always spoil our own chances by drifting, and allowing outside things to influence us. If you could see the vast plains of snow in my country and the deep forests—with never a human being for miles and miles, you would understand how nature grows to talk to one—and how small the littlenesses of the world appear." Then they were silent again, and it was not until they were rushing up the Via Nazionale and in a moment or two would have reached their destination, that Count Roumovski said:
"Stella—that means star—it is a beautiful name—I can believe you could be a star to shine upon any man's dark night—because you have a pure spirit, although it has been muffled by circumstances for all these years."
Then the automobile drew up by the trees, at perhaps two hundred yards from the hotel, near the baths of Diocletian.
"If you will get out here, it will be best," Count Roumovski told her respectfully, "and walk along on the inner side. I will then drive to the door of the hotel, as usual."
"Thank you, and good-bye," said Stella, and began untying the veil—he helped her at once, and in doing so his hand touched her soft pink cheek. She thrilled with a new kind of mad enjoyment, the like of which she had never felt, and then controlled herself and stamped it out.
"It has been a very great pleasure to me," he said, and nothing more; no "good-bye" or "au revoir" or anything, and he drew into the far corner as she got out of the car, letting the chauffeur help her. Nor did he look her way as he drove on. And Stella walked leisurely back to the hotel, wondering in her heart at the meaning of things.
No one noticed her entrance, and she was able to begin to dress for dinner without even Martha being aware that she had been absent. But as she descended in the lift with her uncle and aunt it seemed as if the whole world and life itself were changed since the same time the night before.
And when they were entering the restaurant a telegram was put into Canon Ebley's hand—it was from the Rev. Eustace Medlicott, sent from Turin, saying he would join them in Rome the following evening.
"Eustace has been preparing this delightful surprise—I knew of it," the Aunt Caroline said, with conscious pride, "but I would not tell you, Stella, dear, in case something might prevent it. I feared to disappoint you."
"Thank you, aunt," Miss Rawson said without too much enthusiasm, and took her seat where she could see the solitary occupant of a small table, surrounded by the obsequious waiters, already sipping his champagne.
He had not looked up as they passed. Nor did he appear once to glance in their direction. His whole manner was full of the same reflective calm as the night before. And, for some unaccountable reason, Stella Rawson's heart sank down lower and lower, until at the end of the repast she looked pale and tired out.
Eustace, her betrothed, would be there on the morrow, and such things as drives in motor cars with strange Russian counts were only dreams and not realities, she now felt.
Next morning it fell about that Stella Rawson was allowed to go into the Musso Nazionale in the Diocletian baths, accompanied only by Martha, her uncle and aunt having decided they would take a rest and write their English letters. The museum was so near, a mere hundred yards, there could be no impropriety in their niece's going there with Martha, even in an exhibition year in Rome.
Stella was still suffering from a nameless sense of depression. Eustace's train would get in at about five o'clock, and he would accompany them to the Embassy. A cousin of her own and Aunt Caroline's was one of the secretaries, and had already been written to about the invitation. So that even if Count Roumovski should be presented to her, and make the whole thing proper and correct, she would have no chance of any conversation. The brilliant sunlight felt incongruous and hurt her, and she was glad to enter the shady ancient baths. She had glanced furtively to right and left in the hotel as she came through the hall, but saw no one who resembled the Russian, and they had walked so quickly through the vestibule she had not remarked a tall figure coming from the staircase, nor had seen him give some rapid order to a respectful servant who was waiting about, and who instantly followed them: but if she had looked up as she paid for the two tickets at the barrier of the museum, she would have seen this same lean man turn swiftly round and retreat in the direction of the hotel.
Martha was sulky and comatose on this very warm morning; she took no interest in sculpture. "Them naked creatures," she called any masterpiece undraped—and she resented being dragged out by Miss Stella, who always had fancies for art.
They walked round the cloisters first, a voyage of discovery to Miss Rawson, who looked a slim enough nymph herself in her lilac cambric frock and demure gray hat shading her big brown eyes.
Then suddenly, from across the garden in the center, she became aware that an archaic Apollo clad in modern dress had entered upon the scene, and the blood rushed to her cheeks, and her heart beat.
Martha puffed with the heat and exercise, and glanced with longing eyes at a comfortable stone bench in the shade.
"Would you like to rest here, Martha, you old dear?" Miss Rawson said. "There is not a creature about, and I will walk round and join you from the other side."
The Aunt Caroline's elderly maid easily agreed to this. It was true there did not seem to be anyone adventurous-looking, and Miss Stella would be more or less under her eye—and she was thoroughly tired with traveling and what not. So Stella found herself happily unchaperoned, except by Baedecker, as she strolled on.
The Russian had disappeared from view, the bushes and vases in the center of the garden plot gave only occasional chances to see people at a distance.
But when Stella had entered the Ludovici collection she perceived him to the right, gazing at the statue of the beautiful Mars.
He turned instantly, as though some one told him she was near—and his calm eyes took in the fact that she was alone. The small room was empty but for the two, and he addressed her as he removed his hat.
"Good morning, mademoiselle," he said gravely. "Mars is a strong attraction. I knew I should presently find you here—so when I caught sight of your spiritual outline across the garden, I came and—waited."
"He is most splendid-looking, is he not," Stella returned, trying to suppress the sudden tingle of pleasure that was thrilling her, "and look how much character there is in his hands."
"Shall we go and study the others, or shall we find a bench in the garden and sit down and talk?" Count Roumovski asked serenely, and then smiled to himself as he noticed his companion's apprehensive glance in the direction where, far away, Martha dozed in peace.
"It would be nice out of doors—but—" and Stella faltered.
"Do not let us be deprived of pleasure by any buts—there is one out there who will warn us when your maid wakes. See—" and he advanced toward the entrance door, "there is a bench by that rose tree where we can be comparatively alone."
Stella struggled no more with herself. After all, it was her last chance—Eustace Medlicott's train got in at five o'clock!
She had a sense of security, too, the complete serenity of her companion inspired confidence. She almost felt she would not care if Aunt Caroline herself slept instead of the elderly maid.
There was some slight change in Count Roumovski's manner to-day— he kept his eyes fixed upon her face, and the things he said were less abstract and more personal. After an entrancing half hour she felt she had seen vivid pictures of his land and his home. But he was a great traveler it appeared, and had not been there often in later years.
"It is so agreeable to let the body move from place to place, and remain in a peaceful aloofness of the spirit all the time," he said at last. "To watch all the rushing currents which dominate human beings when they do not know how to manipulate them. If they did, the millennium would come,—but, meanwhile, it is reserved for the few who have learned them to enjoy this present plane we are on."
"You mean you can control events and shape your life as you please, then?" Stella asked surprised, while she raised her sweet shy eyes to his inquiringly. "I wish I knew how!"
"Shall I try to teach you, mademoiselle?" he said.
"Then you must not look down all the time, even though the contemplation of your long eyelashes gives me a pleasure—I would prefer the eyes themselves—the eyes are the indication of what is passing in the soul, and I would study this moving panorama."
Stella's color deepened, but she met his blue orbs without flinching—so he went on:
"I had the fortune to be born a Russian, which has given me time to study these things. My country does not require my work beyond my being a faithful servant of my Emperor. Since I am not a soldier, I can do as I choose. But you in England are now in a seething caldron, and it would be difficult, no doubt, for you to spend the hours required—although the national temperament would lend itself to all things calm if it were directed."
"But for myself," Stella demanded, "I am not a man, and need not interest myself in the nation's affairs—how can I grow to guide my own—as you seem to do?"
"Never permit yourself to be ruffled by anything to commence with," Count Roumovski began gravely, while the pupils of his eyes appeared to grow larger. "Whatever mood you are in, you connect yourself with the cosmic current of that mood—you become in touch, so to speak, with all the other people who are under its dominion, and so it gains strength because unity is strength. If you can understand that as a basic principle, you can see that it is only a question of controlling yourself and directing your moods with those currents whose augmentation can bring you good. You must never be negative and drift. You can be drawn in any adverse way if you do."
"I think I understand," said Stella, greatly interested.
"Then you must use your critical faculties and make selections of what is best—and you must encourage common sense and distrust altruism. Sanity is the thing to aim at."
"The view of the world has become so distorted upon almost every point which started in good, that nothing but a cultivation of our individual critical faculties can enable us to see the truth—and nine-tenths of civilized humanity have no real opinion of their own at all—they simply echo those of others."
"I feel that is true," said Stella, thinking of her own case.
"It is not because a thing is bad or good that it succeeds—merely how much strength we put into the desire for it," he went on.
"But surely we must believe that good will win over evil," and the brown eyes looked almost troubled, and his softened as he looked at her.
"The very fact of believing that would make it come to pass by all these psychic laws. Whatever we really believe we draw," he said almost tenderly.
"Then, if I were to believe all the difficulties and uncertainties would be made straight and just go on calmly, I should be happy, should I?" she asked, and there was an unconscious pathos in her voice which touched him deeply.
"Certainly," he answered. "You have not had a fair chance— probably you have never been allowed to do a single thing of your own accord—have you?"
"N—no," said Stella.
"In the beginning, were you engaged to this good clergyman of your own wish?" and his eyes searched her face.
She stiffened immediately, the training of years took offense, and she answered rather stiffly:
"I do not think you have the right to ask me such a question, Count Roumovski."
He was entirely unabashed—he stroked his pointed silky beard for a moment, then he said calmly:
"Yes—I have, you agreed that I should teach you how to shape your life as you pleased, you must remember. It is rather essential that I should know the truth of this matter before I can go further—you must see that."
"We can avoid the subject."
"It would be Hamlet without Hamlet, then," he smiled. "One could draw up no scheme of rules and exercises, unless one has some idea of how far the individual was responsible for the present state of things. If it was your wish in the beginning, or if you were coerced makes all the difference."
Stella was silent—only she nervously plucked an offending rose which grew upon a bush beside them: she pulled its petals off and kept her eyes lowered, and Sasha Roumovski smiled a wise smile.
"You have unconsciously answered me," he said, "and your agitation proves that not only are you aware that you did not become engaged of your own wish, but that you are afraid to face the fact and admit that its aspect appals you. You must remember, in your country, where, I understand, divorce is not tres bien vu, especially among the clergy, the affair is for life, and the joy or the gall of it could be infinite."
She raised two beseeching eyes to his face at last.
"Oh, do not let us talk about it," she pleaded. "It is so warm and pleasant here—I want to be happy."
He looked at her for a while with penetrating eyes, then he said gently:
"It is a man's province to take care of a woman," and his attractive voice filled with a new cadence. "I see you are in need of direction. Leave all to me—and forget there is any one else in the world for the moment but our two selves. Did you know that I thought you looked particularly sweet last night, but rather pale?"
"You never looked at me at all," said Stella before she was aware of it, and then blushed crimson at the inference of her speech. He would be able to understand perfectly that she must have been observing him all the time to be conscious of this.
A gleam of gladness came into his eyes.
"I would like to watch you always openly, if I might," he whispered. "Your little face is like a flower in its delicate tints, and your eyes are true and tender and asking so many questions of life,—and sometimes they are veiled and misty, and then they look wise and courageous. I am beginning to know all their changes."
"Then, in that case, monotony will set in," Stella was almost arch—the day was so glorious!
"I am not afraid of that," he said. "I always know what I want and what is worth while. I do not value my three matchless pearls the less because I know their every iridescence—on the contrary, I grow more fond of them and wear them every night in preference to any others."
They were silent for a moment after this. He was examining her minutely with his wise, calm eyes. He was noting the sensitive curve of the pretty full lips, the tender droop of the set of her head, the gracious charm of her little regular features, and the intelligence of her broad brow. With all her simplicity, she looked no fool or weakling. And to think that the narrow code of those who surrounded her should force this sweet young creature into the gray walls of a prison house, when she became the English clergyman's wife; it was too revolting to him. Count Roumovski suddenly made up his mind, trained to instantaneous decision by his bent of studies, and sure and decided in its action. And if Stella had looked up then she would have seen a keen gleam in the peaceful blue of his eyes. He drew her on to talk of her home and her tastes—she loved many things he did, he found—and she was so eager to hear and to learn their meaning. He grew to feel a sort of pride and the pleasure of a teacher when directing an extremely intelligent child. There were no barriers of stupidity into whatever regions the subjects might wander. They spent an hour of pure joy investigating each other's thoughts. And both knew they were growing more than friends.
Then Stella rose suddenly to her feet. A clock struck twelve.
"You said one must not be negative and drift," she announced demurely, "so I am being decided and must now go to Martha again."
"Ivan has not warned us that she is thinking of stirring," Count Roumovski said. "I told him to, and he will let us know in plenty of time; you surely do not breakfast until half-past twelve, do you?"
"Ivan?—who is Ivan?" Stella asked.
"He is a servant of mine who does what he is bid," her companion answered. "To have peace to enjoy oneself one must calculate and arrange for events. Had we only trusted to the probability of your maid's sleeping, I should have had to be on the lookout, and my uneasiness would have communicated itself to you, and we should have had no happy hour—but I made a certainty of safety—and unconsciously you trusted me to know, and so we have been content."
Stella was thrilled. So he had taken all this trouble. He must be a good deal interested in her, then; and feeling sure of this, womanlike, she immediately took advantage of it to insist upon leaving him.
"Very well," he said, when he could not dissuade her. "To-night the wheel of fortune will revolve for us all, and it remains to be seen who will draw a prize and who a blank."
Then he walked by her side to where they saw the quiet servant standing, a motionless sentinel, and here Count Roumovski bowed and turned on his heel, while Stella advanced to the bench on which the comfortable Martha slept.
This latter was full of defence when she awoke. She had not closed an eye, but thought Miss Stella was enjoying "them statues" better without her, which was indeed true, if she had guessed!
Miss Rawson ate very little luncheon—the Russian did not appear— and immediately after it she was taken as a treat to see the Borghese Gardens by her uncle and aunt! It behooved her not to be tired by more sightseeing, since her betrothed would arrive when they returned for tea, and would expect her to be bright and on the alert to please him, Aunt Caroline felt. As for Stella, as that moment approached it seemed to her that the end of all joy had come.
The Rev. Eustace Medlicott, when the stains of travel had been removed from his thin person, came down to tea in the hall of the Grand Hotel with a distinct misgiving in his heart. He did not approve of it as a place of residence for his betrothed. Another and equally well-drained hostelry might have been found for the party he thought, where such evidences of worldly occupations and amusements would not so forcibly strike the eye. Music with one's meals savored of paganism. He was still very emaciated with his Lenten fast. It took him until July, generally, to pick up again; and he was tired with his journey. Stella was not there to greet him, only the Aunt Caroline, and he felt a sense of injury creeping over him. She might have been in time. Nancy Ruggles, the Bishop's second daughter, had given him tea and ministered to his wants in a spirit of solicitous devotion every day since the Ebleys had left Exminster, but Nancy's hair was not full of sunlight, nor did her complexion suggest cream and roses. Things which, to be sure, the Rev. Eustace Medlicott felt he ought not to dwell upon; they were fleshly lusts and should be discouraged.
He had been convinced that celibacy was the only road to salvation for a priest, until Stella Rawson's fair young charms had unconsciously undermined this conviction. But even if he had been able to arrange his conscience to his liking upon the vital point, he felt he must fight bravely against allowing himself or his betrothed to get any pleasure out of the affair. It was better to marry than to burn, he had St. Paul's authority for this—but when he felt emotion toward Stella because of her loveliness, he was afterward very uncomfortable in his thoughts, and it took him at least an hour to throw dust in his own eyes in regard to the nature of his desire for her, which he determined to think was only of the spirit. Love, for him, was no god to be exalted, but a too strong beast to be resisted, and every one of his rites were to be succumbed to shamefacedly and under protest. Thus did he criticize the scheme of his Creator like many another before him.
He sat now in the hall of the Grand Hotel at Rome feeling ill at ease and expressed some mild disapproval of the surroundings to Mrs. Ebley, who fired up at once. She was secretly enjoying herself extremely, and allowed the drains to assume gigantic proportions in her reasons for their choice of abode. So there was nothing more to be said, and Stella, looking rather pale, presently came down the steps from the corridor where their lift was situated, and joined the group in the far corner of the large hall.
She was so slender and fresh and graceful, and, even in the week's sight-seeing in Paris, she seemed to have picked up a new air, though she wore the same gray Sunday dress her fiance was accustomed to see at home—it appeared to be put on differently, and she had altered the doing of her hair. There was no doubt about it, his future wife was a most delectable-looking creature, but these tendencies toward adornment of the person which he observed must be checked at once.
They shook hands with decorous cordiality, and Stella sat down demurely in the vacant chair. She felt as cold as ice toward him, and looked it more or less. It made Mr. Medlicott nervous, although she answered gently enough when he addressed her. Inwardly she was trying to overcome the growing revulsion she was experiencing. Tricks of speech, movements of hands—even the way Eustace's hair grew—were all irritating her. She only longed to contradict every word the poor man said, and she felt wretched and unjust and at war with herself and fate. At last things almost came to a point when he moved his chair so that he should be close to her and a little apart from the others, and whispered with an air of absolute proprietorship:
"My little Stella has changed her sweetly modest way of hairdressing. I hardly think the new style is suitable to my retiring dove."
"Why, it is only parted in the middle and brushed back into a simple knot," Miss Rawson retorted, with sparkling eyes. "How can you be so ridiculous, Eustace—it is merely because it is becoming and more in the fashion that you object, there is nothing the least remarkable in the style itself."
Mr. Medlicott's thin lips grew into a straight line.
"It is that very point—the suggestion of fashion that I object to—the wife of a clergyman cannot be too careful not to make herself attractive or remarkable in any way," he said sententiously, his obstinate chin a little forward.
"But I am not a clergyman's wife yet," said Stella with some feeling, "and can surely enjoy a few things of my age until I am— and doing my hair how I please is one of them."
Mr. Medlicott shrugged his shoulders, he refused to continue this unseemly altercation with his betrothed. He would force her to see reason when once she should be his wife, until then he might have to waive his authority, but should show her by his manner that she had offended him, and judging from the attitudes of the adoring spinsters he had left at Exminster that should be punishment enough.
He turned to the Aunt Caroline now and addressed her exclusively and Stella rebelliously moved her seat back a few inches and looked across the room; and at that moment the tall, odd-looking Russian came in, and retired to a seat far on the other side, exactly opposite them. Here he ordered a hock and seltzer with perfect unconcern, and smoked his cigarette. Miss Rawson could hardly bear it.
"There is that extraordinary man again, Stella," Mrs. Ebley turned to her and said. "I thought he had gone as he was not at luncheon to-day. I am sure your fiance will agree with me that such an appearance is sacrilegious—he must know he looks like a saint— and I am quite sure, from what I have heard from Martha, he is not one at all. He lives in the greatest luxury, Eustace," she continued, turning to the Rev. Mr. Medlicott. "and probably does no good to anyone in the world."
"How can you suppose that, Aunt Caroline," Stella answered with some spirit, "it is surely very uncharitable to judge of people by their appearances and—and what Martha repeats to you."
Mrs. Ebley gasped—never in her whole life had her niece spoken to her in this tone. She to be rebuked! It was unspeakable. She could only glare behind her glasses. What had come to the girl in the last two days—if this manner was the result of travel, far better to have stayed at home!
Here Canon Ebley joined in, hoping to bring peace:
"You have told Eustace what is in store for him to-night, have you not, Caroline, my dear?" he asked. "We have to put on our best and take our ladies to the Embassy to a rout, Eustace," he went on, genially. "There are a Russian Grand Duke and Duchess passing through, it appears, who are going to be entertained."
"There will be no dancing, I suppose," said Mr. Medlicott primly, "because, if so, I am sorry, but I cannot accompany you—it is not that I disapprove of dancing for others," he hastened to add, "but I do not care to watch it myself. And I do not think it wise for Stella to grow to care for it, either."
"It is merely a reception," Mrs. Ebley said, "and it will be a very interesting sight."
Stella sat silent; she was overcome with the whole situation; and her fiance grew more distasteful to her every moment—how had she ever been persuaded to be engaged to such a person!—while the attraction of the strange-looking Russian seemed to increase. In spite of the grotesque hair and unusual beard, there was an air of great distinction about him. His complete unconsciousness and calm were so remarkable. You might take him for an eccentric person, but certainly a gentleman, and with an extraordinary magnetism, she felt. When once you had talked to him, he seemed to cast a spell over you. But, beyond this, she only knew that she was growing more unhappy every moment, and that by her side one man represented everything that was tied and bound in sentiment and feeling and existence, and that across the hall another opened the windows of her reason and imagination, and exhorted her to be free, and herself.
Presently she could bear it no more. She got up rather suddenly, and, saying she was very tired and had letters to write, she left them and went toward the lift.
"Stella is not at all like herself," Mr. Medlicott said, when she had disappeared from view. "I trust she is not sickening with Roman fever."
Meanwhile, Miss Rawson had reached her room and pulled her writing case in front of her. There were one or two girl friends who ought to be written to, but the sheets remained blank—and in about ten minutes there was a gentle knock at the door, and, on opening it, she saw Count Roumovski's discreet-looking servant, who handed her a note respectfully, and then went on his way without a word.
How agreeable it must be to have well-trained servants to do one's bidding like that! she thought, and then went back eagerly to her window to read the missive. It had no beginning or date, and was just a few lines.
I have observed the whole situation, and judged of the character of your fiance. I know how you feel. Do not be depressed—remain calm and trust me, circumstances can always be directed in the hands of a strong man. I will have the honor to be presented to you and to your family soon after you arrive at the Embassy to- night. All is well.
There was no signature, and the writing was rather large and unlike any she had seen before.
Suddenly her feeling of unrest left her, and a lightness of heart took its place. She was living, at all events, and the horizon was not all gray. It seemed almost delightful to be putting on a real evening dress presently, even though it was a rather homely white thing with a pink sash, and to be going down to the restaurant in it with Aunt Caroline in front in her best black velvet and point lace.
That lady's desire to be in time at the party alone determined her to this breach of the rules—and there were Eustace and Uncle Erasmus in their stiff clerical evening coats awaiting them in the corridor—while, as luck would have it, the lift stopped at the second floor to admit the Russian. He got in with his usual air of being unaware that he was not alone—though Stella could feel that he was touching her hand—perhaps unconsciously. He seemed to radiate some kind of joy for her always, and the pink grew to that of a June rose in her cheeks, and her brown eyes shone like two stars.
"That was the man you spoke of in the hall, Mrs. Ebley, was it not?" Eustace Medlicott's intoning voice said, as they went along to the restaurant. "He certainly is a most remarkable person to look at close—but I do not dislike his face, it has noble lines."
"Really, how condescending of you!" Stella almost said aloud. But the Aunt Caroline answered serenely:
"Perhaps I am prejudiced, Eustace, but want of convention always shocks me to such a degree that I cannot appreciate anything else."
Stella almost enjoyed her dinner, she was so excited with the prospect of some unknown coming events, and she had the satisfaction of observing that once Count Roumovski actually turned his head in their direction and met her eyes. His were full of a whimsical smile for the instant he looked, and then he relapsed into his habitual indifference.
The crowd had begun to thicken when they got to the Embassy, and they waited among them for the Royalties' arrival; Stella looking at everything with fresh, interested eyes. When this ceremony was over people began to disperse about the large rooms, and Miss Rawson was conscious that her strange secret acquaintance was in conversation with the Grand Duke and Duchess; she had not seen him come in. The Aunt Caroline noticed this, too, and drew her attention to the fact.
"Look, Stella, that dreadful man is talking to Royalty!" she said. "I suppose he must be a gentleman, after all—one never can tell with foreigners, as their titles mean nothing, and half of them are assumed. Your Uncle Carford had a valet once who afterward was arrested for posing as a Polish count."
"I should think anyone could see this man was a gentleman, Aunt Caroline," Stella answered, "even without his talking to Royalties."
They were soon joined by the secretary cousin, who was charmed to welcome so pretty a relation to Rome, and was profuse in his apologies for not having been able to do more than leave cards upon them as yet.
"We should so like to know the names of the celebrities," Mrs. Ebley said, "especially can you tell us about the very curious- looking person now conversing with her Imperial Highness; he is at our hotel."
"That—Oh! that is by far the most interesting man here—it is the famous Count Roumovski. He is a most celebrated traveler; he has been all over the world and Africa and Asia in unaccessible places. He is a fabulously rich Russian—a real Muscovite from near Moscow, and he does everything and anything he pleases; he gives enormous sums for the encouragement of science. He is immensely intelligent—he lunched at the Embassy to-day."
"Really!" said the Aunt Caroline, somewhat impressed. "His appearance is greatly against him."
"Oh, do you think so?" said the cousin. "I think it adds to his attraction, it is such superlative audacity. No Englishman would have the nerve to cut his hair like that."
"I should hope not," said Mrs. Ebley severely, and dropped the subject.
"To think of this charming rosebud of a girl going to marry Eustace Medlicott—insufferable, conceited prig, I remember him at Oxford," the cousin was musing to himself. "Lord Carford is an old stick-in-the-mud, or he would have prevented that. She is his own niece, and one can see by her frock that the poor child never even goes to London."
At this moment they saw the Russian Count putting his heels together and bowing himself out of the circle of his Royalties; and straight as a dart he came over to where their group was standing, and whispered in the cousin's—Mr. Deanwood's ear—who then asked if he might present Count Roumovski to the Aunt Caroline and the rest.
When this ceremony was over Mrs. Ebley found herself conversing with her whilom object of contempt, and coming gradually under the influence of his wonderful charm, while Stella stood there trembling with the wildest excitement she had yet known. The words of Eustace, her betrothed, talking to her, carried no meaning to her brain, her whole intelligence was strung up to catch what the others were saying.
With great dexterity the Russian presently made the conversation general, and drew her into it, and then he said with composure that the Gardens were illuminated—and, as it was such a very hot night, would mademoiselle like to take a turn that way, to have some refreshment? At the same moment, Mr. Deanwood gave Mrs. Ebley his arm, and they all moved forward—followed by Canon Ebley and the Rev. Eustace Medlicott, with no great joy upon his face.
Stella, meanwhile, felt herself being drawn rapidly ahead, and so maneuvered that in a moment or two they had completely lost sight of the rest of the relations, and were practically alone in a crowd.
"At last!" Count Roumovski whispered, "even I, who am generally calm, was beginning to feel I should rush over, throw prudence to the winds and—" then he stopped abruptly, and Stella felt her heart thump in her throat, while her little hand on his arm was pressed against his side.
They made the pretense of taking some refreshment at the buffet, and then went toward the open doors of the garden. The part all round the house was illuminated, and numbers of people strolled about, the night was deliciously warm. Count Roumovski seemed to know the paths, for he drew his companion to a seat just beyond the radius of the lights, and they sat down upon a bench under a giant tree. He had not spoken a word, but now he leaned back and deliberately looked into her eyes, while his voice, with vibrations of feeling in it which thrilled Stella, whispered in her ear:
"It cannot go on, of course—you agree with me about that, do you not?"
"What cannot go on?" she asked, to gain time to recover her composure.
"This situation," he answered. "I am sure now that I love you—and I want to teach you a number of things, first in importance being that you shall love me."
"Oh, you must not say this," Stella protested feebly.
"Yes, I must, and you will listen to me, little star."
He drew nearer to her, and the amazing power of propinquity began to assert itself. She felt as if the force to resist him were leaving her, she was trembling all over with delicious thrills.
"I made up my mind almost immediately I saw you, sweet child," he went on, "that you were what I have been waiting for all my life. You are good and true—and balanced—or you will be that when I have made your love education. Stella, look at me with those soft eyes, and tell me that I mean something to you already, and that the worthy Mr. Medlicott does not exist any more."
"I—I—but I have only known you for two days," Stella answered confusedly: she was so full of emotion that she dared not trust herself further.
"Does time count, then, so much with conventional people?" he demanded. "For me it has no significance in relation to feeling. If you would only look at me instead of down at those small hands, then you would not be able to tell me these foolish things!"
This was so true that Stella could not deny it, her breath came rather fast; it was the supreme moment her life had yet known.
"You are frightened because the training of your education still holds you and not nature. Your acquired opinion tells you you are engaged to another man, and ought not to listen to me."
"Of course I ought not to," she murmured.
"Of course you ought—how else can you come to any conclusion if you do not hear my arguments—sweet, foolish one!"
She did look at him now with two startled eyes.
"Listen attentively, darling pupil, and sweet love," he said. He was leaning with one arm on the back of the bench supporting his head on his hand, turned quite toward her, who sat with clasped nervous fingers clutching her fan. His other hand lay idly on his knee, his whole attitude was very still. The soft lights were just enough for him to see distinctly her small face and shining hair; his own face was in shadow, but she could feel the magnetism of his eyes penetrating through her very being.
"You were coerced by those in charge of you," he went on in a level voice of argument, which yet broke into notes of tenderness, "you were influenced into becoming engaged to this man who is ridiculously unsuited to you. You, so full of life and boundless joy! You, who will learn all of love's meaning presently, and what it makes of existence, and what God meant by giving it to us mortals. You are intended by nature to be a complete woman if you did but know it—but such a life, tied to that half fish man, would atrophy all that is finest in your character. You would grow really into what they are trying to make you appear—after years of hopelessness and suffering. Do you not feel all this, little star, tell me?"
"Yes," Stella answered, "it is true—I have seemed to feel the cords and the shackles pulling at me often, but never that they were unbearable until I—spoke with you—and you put new thoughts into my head."
"I did well, then. And because of a silly convention you would ruin all your life by going on with these ways—it is unthinkable!" and his deep voice vibrated with feeling. "It is a mistake, that is all, and can be rectified,—if you were already married to this man I would not plead so, because then you would have crossed the Rubicon, and assumed responsibilities which you would have to accept or suffer the consequences. But this preliminary bond can be broken without hurt to either side. A man of the good clergyman's type will not suffer in his emotions at the loss of you—he suffices unto himself for those; his vanity will be wounded—that is all. And surely it is better that should gall for a little than that you should spoil your life. Sweet flower, realize yourself these things—that sunny hair and that beautiful skin and those velvet eyes were made for the joy and glory of a man—not for temptations to a strict priest, who would resent their power as a sin every time he felt himself influenced by their charm. Gods above! he would not know what to do with you, heart of me!"
Stella was thrilling with exquisite emotion, but the influence of her strict and narrow bringing up could not be quite overcome in these few moments. She longed to be convinced, and yet some altruistic sentiment made her feel still some qualms and misgivings. If she should be causing Eustace great pain by breaking her engagement; if it were very wrong to go against her uncle and aunt—especially her Aunt Caroline, her own mother's sister. She clasped her little hands nervously, and looked up in this strong man's face with pathetic, pleading intensity.
"Oh, please tell me, what ought I to do, then—what is right?" she implored. "And because I want so much to believe you, I fear it must be wrong to do so."
He leaned nearer to her and spoke earnestly. His stillness was almost ominous, it gave the impression of such immense self- control, and his voice was as those bass notes of the priests of St. Isaac's in his own northern land.
"Dear, honest little girl," he said tenderly, "I worship your goodness. And I know you will presently see the truth. Love is of God and is imperious, and because she loves him is the only reason why a woman should give her life to a man. Quite apart from the law, which proclaims that each individual must be the arbiter of his own fate, and not succumb to the wishes of others, it would be an ethical sin for you to marry the worthy Mr. Medlicott—not loving him. Surely, you can see this."
"Yes—yes, it would be dreadful," she murmured, "but Aunt Caroline—she caused me to accept him—I mean, she wanted me to so much. I never really felt anything for him myself, and lately— ever since the beginning, in fact, I have been getting more and more indifferent to him."
"Then, surely, it is plain that you must be free of him, darling. Throw all the responsibility upon me, if you will. I promise to take every care of you. And I want you only to promise you will follow each step that I explain to you—" then he broke off, and the seriousness of his tone changed to one of caressing tenderness. "But first I must know for certain, little star, shall I be able to teach you to love me—as I shall love you?"
"Yes," was all Stella could utter, and then, gaining more voice, she went on, "I did not know—I could not guess what that would mean—to love—but—"
He answered her with fond triumph:
"Now you are beginning to understand, darling child—that is enough for me to know for the present. In your country, a man asks a woman to marry him: he says, 'Will you marry me?'—is it not so? of course, I need not say that to you, because you know that is what I mean. When these wearisome thongs are off your wrists you will belong to me, and come with me into my country and be part of my life."
"Ah!" whispered Stella, the picture seemed one of heaven, that was all.
"You must have freedom to assert your individuality, Stella," he continued. "I can but show you the way and give you a new point of view, but I will never try to rule you and drag you to mine. I will never put any chains upon you but those of love. Do they sound as if they would be too heavy, dearest?"
"I think not," she said very low. "I feel as though I were looking into a beautiful garden from the top of an ugly, barren, cold mountain. I shall like to come down and go in among the unknown flowers."
"It will be so glorious for us," he said exultantly, "because we have still all the interesting things to find out about each other,—" And then, her sweet face so very near him, the temptation to caress her became too intense; he quivered and changed his position, clasping his hands.
"Darling," he said hoarsely, "we must soon go back to the company, because, although I count always upon my will to make my actions obey it, still I can hardly prevent myself from seizing you in my arms and kissing your tender lips—and that I must not do—as yet."
Stella drew herself together, the temptation was convulsing her also, though she did not guess it. She looked up into his blue eyes there in the shadow, and saw the deep reverence in them, and she understood and loved him with her soul.
He did not so much as touch her dress; indeed, now that he had won his fight, he moved a little further from her—and resumed his calm voice:
"The first thing we shall do is to stroll back through the people and find the aunt—I will then leave you with her, and soon it will be time to go home. Do not make much conversation with any of them to-night—leave everything to me. I will see the Rev. Mr. Medlicott when we return to the hotel. Whatever they say to you to-morrow, remain firm in your simple determination to break your engagement. Argue with them not at all. I will see your uncle in the morning and demand your hand; they will be shocked, horrified, scandalized—we will make no explanations. If they refuse their consent, then you must be brave, and the day after to-morrow you must come to my sister. She will have arrived by then; she was in Paris, and I telegraphed for her to join me immediately; the Princess Urazov she is called. She will receive you with affection, and you will stay with her until the formalities can be arranged, when we shall be married, and—but I cannot permit myself to think of the joy of that—for the moment."
Stella's eyes, with trust and love, were now gazing into his, and he rose abruptly to his feet.
"You may, when you are alone, again think that it is heartless to go quite contrary to your relations like this, because they have brought you up, but remember that marriage is an act which can mean almost life or death to a woman, and that no human beings have any right to coerce you in this matter. You are of age and so am I, and we are only answerable to God and to the laws of our countries, not to individuals."
"I will try to think of it like that," said Stella, greatly moved, and then, with almost childish irrelevance, which touched him deeply, she asked, "What must I call you, please?"
"Oh, you sweetest star!" he exclaimed, "do not tempt me too strongly—I love you wildly and I want to fold you in my arms—and explain everything with your little head here on my breast—but I must not—must not yet. Call me Sasha—say it now that I may hear its sound in your tender voice—and we must fly, fly back to the lights—or I cannot answer for myself."
She whispered it softly, and a shiver ran through all his tall frame—and he said, with tender masterfulness:
"Say, 'Sasha, I love,'" and this she did, also—and then he almost brusquely placed her hand upon his arm, and led her among the people, and so to her frowning relations, and then he bowed a correct good-night.
No one could have been more surprised than the Reverend Eustace Medlicott at the behavior of his betrothed. Far from showing any contrition for her unseemly absence upon the arm of a perfect stranger, and a foreigner to boot, Stella had returned to the fold of her relations' group with a demure and radiant face, and when Eustace had ventured some querulous reproaches, she had cut him short by saying she had done as she wished and did not intend to listen to any remarks about it.
"You will have to learn more humbleness of mind, my dear child," he retorted sternly. "I cannot allow you to reply to your future husband in this independent tone."
"I shall just answer as I please," said Stella, and felt almost inclined to laugh, he looked so cross and amazed. Then she turned and talked to the cousin, Mr. Deanwood, and took no further notice of him.
Mr. Medlicott burned with annoyance. Stella would really have to be careful or he would not go on with the match—he had no intention of taking to wife a woman who would defy him—there was Nancy Ruggles ready to be his slave—and others besides her. And his career could be just as well assisted by the Bishop's daughter as by Canon Ebley's niece, even though her uncle was a crotchety and unknown Lord, patron of two fat livings. But Stella, with a rebellious little curl loosened on her snowy neck and a rebellious pout upon her cherry lips, was so very alluring a creature to call one's own, the desire of the flesh, which he called by any other name, fought hard with his insulted spirit, though to give in would be too ignominious; she must say she was sorry first, and then he could find it in his heart to forgive her. But the opportunity to show this magnanimity was not vouchsafed to him by fate—for other people were introduced to the party by Mr. Deanwood, and he did not exchange a word alone with his erring fiancee until she said a cold good-night in the hall of the Grand Hotel.
"Stella, remain for a moment, I wish to speak to you," he said in the voice in which he was accustomed to read the burial service.
But she feigned not to hear and followed her Aunt Caroline's black velvet train on to the lift and at that same moment a discreet- looking foreign servant came up and handed him a note.
He read it in surprise—who could be sending him a note at a quarter past twelve at night?
Dear Sir [it ran],
I shall be greatly obliged if you can spare to me half an hour before retiring to your rest to converse upon a matter of importance. I had the honor of making your acquaintance to-night at your Embassy. If you will grant me this favor I will wait upon you immediately in the hall, or, if you prefer, my sitting-room; my servant could conduct you here, and we shall have the advantage of being entirely undisturbed. I remain, sir, Yours truly.
Eustace Medlicott gasped with astonishment. This Russian gentleman was evidently in need of his ministrations and perhaps advice. He would go to his room, certainly, there were still some people in the hall having late coffee and refreshment after the theater.
He indicated by a condescending movement that he was ready to follow the waiting servant, and soon found himself being shown into Count Roumovski's sitting-room. It was luxuriously appointed and represented every appearance of manly comfort. There were quantities of books and papers about and the smell of excellent cigars, and put carelessly aside were various objets d'art which antique dealers had evidently sent for his grand seigneur's approval.
Count Roumovski was standing by the mantelpiece and looked very tall and commanding in his evening dress.
"It is most good of you to come," he said, while he indicated a big arm-chair for his visitor to sit in—he did not offer to shake hands. "It was certainly my duty to have called upon you, my only apology for getting you to ascend here is that the subject I wish to converse with you is too serious for both of us to admit of interruptions."
"Indeed," said Mr. Medlicott, pompously—growing more surprised each moment. "And may I ask the nature of your trouble?"
Count Roumovski did not change his position by the mantelpiece and he kept still as a bronze statue as he spoke in a courteous tone:
"It is not a trouble at all," he began, gravely, "on the contrary, it is a great joy and honor for me. I will state the facts immediately. I understand that for a short while you have been engaged to be married to Miss Stella Rawson, the niece of the respected English clergyman, the Reverend Ebley—"
"Pardon me," interrupted Mr. Medlicott acidly, "but I do not see how my private affairs can interest you, sir, I cannot—"
But the host in turn interrupted him.
"If you will be so good as to listen patiently, you will find that this matter is of vital importance—may I proceed?"
Mr. Medlicott bowed; what more could he do? Count Roumovski went on:
"I understand that Miss Rawson never showed very strong affection for you or great desire for this union—so what I have to ask now is, if you, as a gentleman, will release her from her promise to you and set her free."
"Upon my word, sir, this is too much," Mr. Medlicott exclaimed, starting to his feet, "by what authority do you say these preposterous things? You were only introduced to Miss Rawson and myself to-night. You must be mad!"
"No, I am quite sane. And I say them upon the best authority," Count Roumovski continued, "because I love Miss Rawson myself, and I am deeply honored by believing that in return she loves me—not you at all. Therefore, it is common sense to ask you to release her, and let her be happy with the person she prefers—is it not so?"
Eustace Medlicott had grown white with anger and astonishment as he listened, and now broke in hotly, forgetful of his intoning voice or anything but his outraged dignity.
"When have you had the opportunity to try and undermine the faith of my betrothed, may I ask? Supposing you are saying this seriously and not as some ill-timed jest."
Count Roumovski lifted his eyebrows a little and looked almost with pity at his adversary. "We are not talking in the heroic manner," he replied, unmoved by the other's taunt, "we are, I presume, two fairly intelligent men discussing this affair together—there has been no question of undermining. Miss Rawson and myself found we understood each other very soon after we first met. Surely, you must realize, sir, that love cannot be commanded, it will not come or go at one's bidding. These ridiculous bonds of convention, holding to a promise given when the spirit to keep it is no longer there, can ruin people's lives."
Mr. Medlicott drew himself up, he was not quite so tall as the Russian, but of no mean height, and his intense, ascetic face, emaciated to extreme leanness, now reddened with passion, while the veins stood out upon his high, narrow forehead. He was always very irritable when crossed, and his obstinate nature was strongly combative.
"You forget, sir," he said angrily, "you are insulting my honor."
"Not the least in the world—you do not understand the point," Count Roumovski returned calmly. "Listen for a minute—and I will explain. If Miss Rawson were already your wife I should be, and you would have the right to try and kill me, did your calling permit of that satisfaction of gentlemen, because there is a psychological and physiological reason involved in that case, producing the instinct in man which he is not perhaps conscious of, that he wishes to be sure his wife's legitimate offspring are his own—out of this instinct, civilization has built up the idea of a man's honor—which you can see has a basic principle of sense and justice."
Mr. Medlicott with difficulty restrained himself from interrupting and the Russian went on.
"The situation of betrothed is altogether different: in it there have merely been promises exchanged, promises, for the most part, which no man or woman can honestly engage with any certainty to keep, because feeling toward the other is not within his or her control—both are promising upon a sentiment, not a reality."
"I totally disagree with you," Eustace Medlicott answered angrily, "when men and women make promises to one another they should have wills strong enough to keep them."
"For what sensible reason?" Count Roumovski asked. "In a case where the happiness of both is involved, and where no damage has been incurred by either—"
Mr. Medlicott clasped his hands convulsively but he did not reply—so the Russian went on:
"Surely, you must see that a woman should be free to marry—that is, to give herself and her power to become a mother where she loves—not to be forced to bestow these sacred gifts when her spirit is unwilling—just because she has made the initial mistake of affiancing herself to a man, often through others' influence, who she discovers afterward is distasteful to her. Cannot you realize that it is wise for himself as well as for her that this man release her, before a life of long misery begins for them both?"
Mr. Medlicott never analyzed reasons, and never listened to other people's logic, and if he had any of his own he was too angry to use it. He was simply conscious now that a foreigner had insulted him and appeared to have stolen the affections of his betrothed, and his sacred calling precluded all physical retaliation—which, at the moment, was the only kind that would have given him any satisfaction. He prepared to stalk furiously from the room after he should receive an answer to an all-important question.
"The whole thing is disgraceful," he said, "and I shall inform Miss Rawson's uncle and aunt of your highly insulting words to me, that they may guard her from further importunity upon your part. But I should like to know, in fairness, how far you are stating you have been able to persuade my fiancee to agree to your view?"
"I am sorry you should have become so heated and angry," Count Roumovski returned, "because it stops all sensible discussion. I deeply regret having been forced to inflict pain upon you, but if you would give yourself time to think calmly you would see that, however unfortunate the fact may be for you of Miss Rawson's affections having become fixed on me—these things are no one's fault and beyond human control—Miss Rawson has left the breaking off of her engagement to you in my hands, and has decided that she desires to marry me, as I desire to marry her, as soon as she is free."
"I refuse to listen to another word," Mr. Medlicott flashed, "and I warn you, sir, that I will give no such freedom at your bidding—on the contrary, I shall have my marriage with Miss Rawson solemnized immediately, and try, if there is a word of truth in your preposterous assertion that she loves you, to bring her back to a proper sense of her duty to me and to God, repressing her earthly longings by discipline and self-denial, the only true methods for the saving of her soul. And I and her natural guardians, her uncle and her aunt, will take care that you never see her again."
Count Roumovski raised his eyebrows once more and prepared to light a cigar.
"It is a pity you will not discuss this peacefully, sir," he said, "or apparently even think about it yourself with common sense. If you would do so, you would begin by asking yourself what God gave certain human beings certain attributes for," he blew a few whiffs of smoke, "whether to be wasted and crushed out by the intolerance of others,—or whether to be tended and grow to the highest, as flowers grow with light and air and water."
"What has that got to do with the case?" asked Mr. Medlicott, tapping his foot uneasily.
"Everything," went on the Russian, mildly, "you, I believe, are a priest, and therefore should be better able to expound your Deity's meaning than I, a layman—but you have evidently not the same point of view—mine is always to look at the facts of a case denuded of prejudice—because the truth is the thing to aim at—"
"You would suggest that I am not aiming at the truth," the clergyman interrupted, trembling now with anger, so that he fiercely grasped the back of a high chair, "your words are preposterous, sir."
"Not at all," Count Roumovski continued. "Look frankly at things; you have just announced that you would constitute yourself judge of what is for Miss Rawson's salvation."
"Leave her name out, I insist," the other put in hotly.
"To be concrete, unfortunately, I cannot do so," the Russian said. "I must speak of this lady we are both interested in—pray, try to listen to me calmly, sir, for we are here for the settling of a matter which concerns the happiness of our three lives."
"I do not admit for a moment that you have the right to speak at all," Mr. Medlicott returned, but his adversary went on quietly.
"You must have remarked that Miss Rawson possesses beauty of form, sweet and tender flesh, soft coloring, and a look of health and warmth and life. All these charms tend to create in man a passionate physical love. That is cause and effect. For the sake of the present argument we will, for the moment, leave out all more important questions of the soul and things mental and spiritual. Well, who gave her these attributes? Did you or I—or even her parents, consciously? Or did the Supreme Being, whom you call God, endow her so? Admitted that He did—have you, then, or anyone else, the right to crush out the result of His endowment in a woman; crush her joy of them, force her into a life where their possession is looked upon as a temptation? Seek to marry her— remember that marriage physically means being certainly actuated to do so by their attraction—and yet believing that you sin each time you allow them to influence you." Count Roumovski's level voice took on a note of deep emotion and his blue eyes gleamed. "Why, the degradation is horrible to think of, sir, if you will face the truth—and this is the fate to which you would condemn this young and tender girl for your own selfishness, knowing she does not love you."