HENRY SETON MERRIMAN
I. A WAIF ON THE STEPPE
II. BY THE VOLGA
IV. DON QUIXOTE
V. THE BARON
VI. THE TALLEYRAND CLUB
VII. OLD HANDS
IX. THE PRINCE
X. THE MOSCOW DOCTOR
XII. AT THORS
XIV. A WIRE-PULLER
XV. IN A WINTER CITY
XVI. THE THIN END
XVIII. IN THE CHAMPS ELYSEES
XIX. ON THE NEVA
XX. AN OFFER OF FRIENDSHIP
XXI. A SUSPECTED HOUSE
XXII. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY
XXIII. A WINTER SCENE
XXVII. IN THE WEB
XXVIII. IN THE CASTLE OF THORS
XXXI. A DANGEROUS EXPERIMENT
XXXII. A CLOUD
XXXIII. THE NET IS DRAWN
XXXIV. AN APPEAL
XXXV. ON THE EDGE OF THE STORM
XXXVI. A TROIS
XXXVII. A DEUX
XXXVIII. A TALE THAT IS TOLD
XXXIX. HUSBAND AND WIFE
XL. STEPAN RETURNS
XLII. THE STORM BURSTS
XLIII. BEHIND THE VEIL
A WAIF ON THE STEPPE
"In this country charity covers no sins!"
The speaker finished his remark with a short laugh. He was a big, stout man; his name was Karl Steinmetz, and it is a name well known in the Government of Tver to this day. He spoke jerkily, as stout men do when they ride, and when he had laughed his good-natured, half-cynical laugh, he closed his lips beneath a huge gray mustache. So far as one could judge from the action of a square and deeply indented chin, his mouth was expressive at that time—and possibly at all times—of a humorous resignation. No reply was vouchsafed to him, and Karl Steinmetz bumped along on his little Cossack horse, which was stretched out at a gallop.
Evening was drawing on. It was late in October, and a cold wind was driving from the north-west across a plain which for sheer dismalness of aspect may give points to Sahara and beat that abode of mental depression without an effort. So far as the eye could reach there was no habitation to break the line of horizon. A few stunted fir-trees, standing in a position of permanent deprecation, with their backs turned, as it were, to the north, stood sparsely on the plain. The grass did not look good to eat, though the Cossack horses would no doubt have liked to try it. The road seemed to have been drawn by some Titan engineer with a ruler from horizon to horizon.
Away to the south there was a forest of the same stunted pines, where a few charcoal-burners and resin-tappers eked out a forlorn and obscure existence. There are a score of such settlements, such gloomy forests, dotted over this plain of Tver, which covers an area of nearly two hundred square miles. The remainder of it is pasture, where miserable cattle and a few horses, many sheep and countless pigs, seek their food pessimistically from God.
Steinmetz looked round over this cheerless prospect with a twinkle of amused resignation in his blue eyes, as if this creation were a little practical joke, which he, Karl Steinmetz, appreciated at its proper worth. The whole scene was suggestive of immense distance, of countless miles in all directions—a suggestion not conveyed by any scene in England, by few in Europe. In our crowded island we have no conception of a thousand miles. How can we? Few of us have travelled five hundred at a stretch. The land through which these men were riding is the home of great distances—Russia. They rode, moreover, as if they knew it—as if they had ridden for days and were aware of more days in front of them.
The companion of Karl Steinmetz looked like an Englishman. He was young and fair and quiet. He looked like a youthful athlete from Oxford or Cambridge—a simple-minded person who had jumped higher or run quicker than anybody else without conceit, taking himself, like St. Paul, as he found himself and giving the credit elsewhere. And one finds that, after all, in this world of deceit, we are most of us that which we look like. You, madam, look thirty-five to a day, although your figure is still youthful, your hair untouched by gray, your face unseamed by care. You may look in your mirror and note these accidents with satisfaction; you may feel young and indulge in the pastimes of youth without effort. But you are thirty-five. We know it. We who look at you can see it for ourselves, and, if you could only be brought to believe it, we think no worse of you on that account.
The man who rode beside Karl Steinmetz with gloomy eyes and a vague suggestion of flight in his whole demeanor was, like reader and writer, exactly what he seemed. He was the product of an English public school and university. He was, moreover, a modern product of those seats of athletic exercise. He had little education and highly developed muscles—that is to say, he was no scholar but essentially a gentleman—a good enough education in its way, and long may Britons seek it!
This young man's name was Paul Howard Alexis, and Fortune had made him a Russian prince. If, however, anyone, even Steinmetz, called him prince, he blushed and became confused. This terrible title had brooded over him while at Eton and Cambridge. But no one had found him out; he remained Paul Howard Alexis so far as England and his friends were concerned. In Russia, however, he was known (by name only, for he avoided Slavonic society) as Prince Pavlo Alexis. This plain was his; half the Government of Tver was his; the great Volga rolled through his possessions; sixty miles behind him a grim stone castle bore his name, and a tract of land as vast as Yorkshire was peopled by humble-minded persons who cringed at the mention of his Excellency.
All this because thirty years earlier a certain Princess Natasha Alexis had fallen in love with plain Mr. Howard of the British Embassy in St. Petersburg. With Slavonic enthusiasm (for the Russian is the most romantic race on earth) she informed Mr. Howard of the fact, and duly married him. Both these persons were now dead, and Paul Howard Alexis owed it to his mother's influence in high regions that the responsibilities of princedom were his. At the time when this title was accorded to him he had no say in the matter. Indeed, he had little say in any matters except meals, which he still took in liquid form. Certain it is, however, that he failed to appreciate his honors as soon as he grew up to a proper comprehension of them.
Equally certain is it that he entirely failed to recognize the enviability of his position as he rode across the plains of Tver toward the yellow Volga by the side of Karl Steinmetz.
"This is great nonsense," he said suddenly. "I feel like a Nihilist or some theatrical person of that sort. I do not think it can be necessary, Steinmetz."
"Not necessary," answered Steinmetz in thick guttural tones, "but prudent."
This man spoke with the soft consonants of a German.
"Prudent, my dear prince."
"Oh, drop that!"
"When we sight the Volga I will drop it with pleasure. Good Heavens! I wish I were a prince. I should have it marked on my linen, and sit up in bed to read it on my nightshirt."
"No, you wouldn't, Steinmetz," answered Alexis, with a vexed laugh. "You would hate it just as much as I do, especially if it meant running away from the best bear-shooting in Europe."
Steinmetz shrugged his shoulders.
"Then you should not have been charitable—charity, I tell you, Alexis, covers no sins in this country."
"Who made me charitable? Besides, no decent-minded fellow could be anything else here. Who told me of the League of Charity, I should like to know? Who put me into it? Who aroused my pity for these poor beggars? Who but a stout German cynic called Steinmetz?"
"Stout, yes—cynic, if you will—German, no!"
The words were jerked out of him by the galloping horse.
"Then what are you?"
Steinmetz looked straight in front of him, with a meditation in his quiet eyes which made a dreamy man of him.
"Yes, I know. In Germany you are a German, in Russia a Slav, in Poland a Pole, and in England any thing the moment suggests."
"Exactly so. But to return to you. You must trust to me in this matter. I know this country. I know what this League of Charity was. It was a bigger thing than any dream of. It was a power in Russia—the greatest of all—above Nihilism—above the Emperor himself. Ach Gott! It was a wonderful organization, spreading over this country like sunlight over a field. It would have made men of our poor peasants. It was God's work. If there is a God—bien entendu—which some young men deny, because God fails to recognize their importance, I imagine. And now it is all done. It is crumbled up by the scurrilous treachery of some miscreant. Ach! I should like to have him out here on the plain. I would choke him. For money, too! The devil—it must have been the devil—to sell that secret to the Government!"
"I can't see what the Government wanted it for," growled Alexis moodily.
"No, but I can. It is not the Emperor; he is a gentleman, although he has the misfortune to wear the purple. No, it is those about him. They want to stop education; they want to crush the peasant. They are afraid of being found out; they live in their grand houses, and support their grand names on the money they crush out of the starving peasant."
"So do I, so far as that goes."
"Of course you do! And I am your steward—your crusher. We do not deny it, we boast of it, but we exchange a wink with the angels—eh?"
Alexis rode on in silence for a few moments. He sat his horse as English foxhunters do—not prettily—and the little animal with erect head and scraggy neck was evidently worried by the unusual grip on his ribs. For Russians sit back, with a short stirrup and a loose seat, when they are travelling. One must not form one's idea of Russian horsemanship from the erect carriage affected in the Newski Prospect.
"I wish," he said abruptly, "that I had never attempted to do any good; doing good to mankind doesn't pay. Here I am running away from my own home as if I were afraid of the police! The position is impossible."
Steinmetz shook his shaggy head.
"No. No position is impossible in this country—except the Czar's—if one only keeps cool. For men such as you and I any position is quite easy. But these Russians are too romantic—too exaltes—they give way to a morbid love of martyrdom: they think they can do no good to mankind unless they are uncomfortable."
Alexis turned in his saddle and looked keenly into his companion's face.
"Do you know," he said, "I believe you founded the Charity League?"
Steinmetz laughed in his easy, stout way.
"It founded itself," he said; "the angels founded it in heaven. I hope a committee of them will attend to the eternal misery of the dog who betrayed it."
"I trust they will, but in the meantime I stick to my opinion that it is unnecessary for me to leave the country. What have I done? I do not belong to the League; it is composed entirely of Russian nobles; I don't admit that I am a Russian noble."
"But," persisted Steinmetz quietly, "you subscribe to the League. Four hundred thousand rubles—they do not grow at the roadside."
"But the rubles have not my name on them."
"That may be, but we all—they all—know where they are likely to come from. My dear Paul, you cannot keep up the farce any longer. You are not an English gentleman who comes across here for sporting purposes; you do not live in the old Castle of Osterno three months in the year because you have a taste for mediaeval fortresses. You are a Russian prince, and your estates are the happiest, the most enlightened in the empire. That alone is suspicious. You collect your rents yourself. You have no German agents—no German vampires about you. There are a thousand things suspicious about Prince Pavlo Alexis if those that be in high places only come to think about it. They have not come to think about it—thanks to our care and to your English independence. But that is only another reason why we should redouble our care. You must not be in Russia when the Charity League is picked to pieces. There will be trouble—half the nobility in Russia will be in it. There will be confiscations and degradations: there will be imprisonment and Siberia for some. You are better out of it, for you are not an Englishman; you have not even a Foreign Office passport. Your passport is your patent of nobility, and that is Russian. No, you are better out of it."
"And you—what about you?" asked Paul, with a little laugh—the laugh that one brave man gives when he sees another do a plucky thing.
"I! Oh, I am all right! I am nobody; I am hated of all the peasants because I am your steward and so hard—so cruel. That is my certificate of harmlessness with those that are about the Emperor."
Paul made no answer. He was not of an argumentative mind, being a large man, and consequently inclined to the sins of omission rather than to the active form of doing wrong. He had an enormous faith in Karl Steinmetz, and, indeed, no man knew Russia better than this cosmopolitan adventurer. Steinmetz it was who pricked forward with all speed, wearing his hardy little horse to a drooping semblance of its former self. Steinmetz it was who had recommended quitting the travelling carriage and taking to the saddle, although his own bulk led him to prefer the slower and more comfortable method of covering space. It would almost seem that he doubted his own ascendency over his companion and master, which semblance was further increased by a subtle ring of anxiety in his voice while he argued. It is possible that Karl Steinmetz suspected the late Princess Natasha of having transmitted to her son a small hereditary portion of that Slavonic exaltation and recklessness of consequence which he deplored.
"Then you turn back at Tver?" enquired Paul, at length breaking a long silence.
"Yes; I must not leave Osterno just now. Perhaps later, when the winter has come, I will follow. Russia is quiet during the winter, very quiet. Ha, ha!"
He shrugged his shoulders and shivered. But the shiver was interrupted. He raised himself in his saddle and peered forward into the gathering darkness.
"What is that," he asked sharply, "on the road in front?"
Paul had already seen it.
"It looks like a horse," he answered—"a strayed horse, for it has no rider."
They were going west, and what little daylight there was lived on the western horizon. The form of the horse, cut out in black relief against the sky, was weird and ghostlike. It was standing by the side of the road, apparently grazing. As they approached it, its outlines became more defined.
"It has a saddle," said Steinmetz at length. "What have we here?"
The beast was evidently famishing, for, as they came near, it never ceased its occupation of dragging the wizened tufts of grass up, root and all.
"What have we here?" repeated Steinmetz.
And the two men clapped spurs to their tired horses.
The solitary waif had a rider, but he was not in the saddle. One foot was caught in the stirrup, and as the horse moved on from tuft to tuft it dragged its dead master along the ground.
BY THE VOLGA
"This is going to be unpleasant," muttered Steinmetz, as he cumbrously left the saddle. "That man is dead—has been dead some days; he's stiff. And the horse has been dragging him face downward. God in heaven! this will be unpleasant."
Paul had leaped to the ground, and was already loosening the dead man's foot from the stirrup. He did it with a certain sort of skill, despite the stiffness of the heavy riding-boot, as if he had walked a hospital in his time. Very quickly Steinmetz came to his assistance, tenderly lifting the dead man and laying him on his back.
"Ach!" he exclaimed; "we are unfortunate to meet a thing like this."
There was no need of Paul Alexis' medical skill to tell that this man was dead; a child would have known it. Before searching the pockets Steinmetz took out his own handkerchief and laid it over a face which had become unrecognizable. The horse was standing over them. It bent its head and sniffed wonderingly at that which had once been its master. There was a singular, scared look in its eyes.
Steinmetz pushed aside the enquiring muzzle.
"If you could speak, my friend," he said, "we might want you. As it is, you had better continue your meal."
Paul was unbuttoning the dead man's clothes. He inserted his hand within the rough shirt.
"This man," he said, "was starving. He probably fainted from sheer exhaustion and rolled out of the saddle. It is hunger that killed him."
"With his pocket full of money," added Steinmetz, withdrawing his hand from the dead man's pocket and displaying a bundle of notes and some silver.
There was nothing in any of the other pockets—no paper, no clue of any sort to the man's identity.
The two finders of this silent tragedy stood up and looked around them. It was almost dark. They were ten miles from a habitation. It does not sound much; but a traveller would be hard put to place ten miles between himself and a habitation in the whole of the British Islands. This, added to a lack of road or path which is unknown to us in England, made ten miles of some importance.
Steinmetz had pushed his fur cap to the back of his head, which he was scratching pensively. He had a habit of scratching his forehead with one finger, which denoted thought.
"Now, what are we to do?" he muttered. "Can't bury the poor chap and say nothing about it. I wonder where his passport is? We have here a tragedy."
He turned to the horse, which was grazing hurriedly.
"My friend of the four legs," he said, "it is a thousand pities that you are dumb."
Paul was still examining the dead man with that callousness which denotes one who, for love or convenience, has become a doctor. He was a doctor—an amateur. He was a Caius man.
Steinmetz looked down at him with a little laugh. He noticed the tenderness of the touch, the deft fingering which had something of respect in it. Paul Alexis was visibly one of those men who take mankind seriously, and have that in their hearts which for want of a better word we call sympathy.
"Mind you do not catch some infectious disease," said Steinmetz gruffly. "I should not care to handle any stray moujik one finds dead about the roadside; unless, of course, you think there is more money about him. It would be a pity to leave that for the police."
Paul did not answer. He was examining the limp, dirty hands of the dead man. The fingers were covered with soil, the nails were broken. He had evidently clutched at the earth and at every tuft of grass, after his fall from the saddle.
"Look here, at these hands," said Paul suddenly. "This is an Englishman. You never see fingers this shape in Russia."
Steinmetz stooped down. He held out his own square-tipped fingers in comparison. Paul rubbed the dead hand with his sleeve as if it were a piece of statuary.
"Look here," he continued, "the dirt rubs off and leaves the hand quite a gentlemanly color. This"—he paused and lifted Steinmetz's handkerchief, dropping it again hurriedly over the mutilated face—"this thing was once a gentleman."
"It certainly has seen better days," admitted Steinmetz, with a grim humor which was sometimes his. "Come, let us drag him beneath that pine-tree and ride on to Tver. We shall do no good, my dear Alexis, wasting our time over the possible antecedents of a gentleman who, for reasons of his own, is silent on the subject."
Paul rose from the ground. His movements were those of a strong and supple man, one whose muscles had never had time to grow stiff. He was an active man, who never hurried. Standing thus upright he was very tall—nearly a giant. Only in St. Petersburg, of all the cities of the world, could he expect to pass unnoticed—the city of tall men and plain women. He rubbed his two hands together in a singularly professional manner which sat amiss on him.
"What do you propose doing?" he asked. "You know the laws of this country better than I do."
Steinmetz scratched his forehead with his forefinger.
"Our theatrical friends the police," he said, "are going to enjoy this. Suppose we prop him up sitting against that tree—no one will run away with him—and lead his horse into Tver. I will give notice to the police, but I will not do so until you are in the Petersburg train. I will, of course, give the ispravnik to understand that your princely mind could not be bothered by such details as this—that you have proceeded on your journey."
"I do not like leaving the poor beggar alone all night," said Paul. "There may be wolves—the crows in the early morning."
"Bah! that is because you are so soft-hearted. My dear fellow, what business is it of ours if the universal laws of nature are illustrated upon this unpleasant object? We all live on each other. The wolves and the crows have the last word. Tant mieux for the wolves and the crows! Come, let us carry him to that tree."
The moon was just rising over the line of the horizon. All around them the steppe lay in grim and lifeless silence. In such a scene, where life seemed rare and precious, death gained in its power of inspiring fear. It is different in crowded cities, where an excess of human life seems to vouch for the continuity of the race, where, in a teeming population, one life more or less seems of little value. The rosy hue of sunset was fading to a clear green, and in the midst of a cloudless sky, Jupiter—very near the earth at that time—shone intense, and brilliant like a lamp. It was an evening such as only Russia and the great North lands ever see, where the sunset is almost in the north and the sunrise holds it by the hand. Over the whole scene there hung a clear, transparent night, green and shimmering, which would never be darker than an English twilight.
The two living men carried the nameless, unrecognizable dead to a resting-place beneath a stunted pine a few paces removed from the road. They laid him decently at full length, crossing his soil-begrimed hands over his breast, tying the handkerchief down over his face.
Then they turned and left him, alone in that luminous night. A waif that had fallen by the great highway without a word, without a sign. A half-run race—a story cut off in the middle; for he was a young man still; his hair, all dusty, draggled, and bloodstained, had no streak of gray; his hands were smooth and youthful. There was a vague suspicion of sensual softness about his body, as if this might have been a man who loved comfort and ease, who had always chosen the primrose path, had never learned the salutary lesson of self-denial. The incipient stoutness of limb contrasted strangely with the drawn meagreness of his body, which was contracted by want of food. Paul Alexis was right. This man had died of starvation, within ten miles of the great Volga, within nine miles of the outskirts of Tver, a city second to Moscow, and once her rival. Therefore it could only be that he had purposely avoided the dwellings of men; that he was a fugitive of some sort or another. Paul's theory that this was an Englishman had not been received with enthusiasm by Steinmetz; but that philosopher had stooped to inspect the narrow, tell-tale fingers. Steinmetz, be it noted, had an infinite capacity for holding his tongue.
They mounted their horses and rode away without looking back. But they did not speak, as if each were deep in his own thoughts. Material had indeed been afforded them, for who could tell who this featureless man might be? They were left in a state of hopeless curiosity, as who, having picked up a page with "Finis" written upon it, falls to wondering what the story may have been.
Steinmetz had thrown the bridle of the straying horse over his arm, and the animal trotted obediently by the side of the fidgety little Cossacks.
"That was bad luck," exclaimed the elder man at length, "d—d bad luck! In this country the less you find, the less you see, the less you understand, the simpler is your existence. Those Nihilists, with their mysterious ways and their reprehensible love of explosives, have made honest men's lives a burden to them."
"Their motives were originally good," put in Paul.
"That is possible; but a good motive is no excuse for a bad means. They wanted to get along too quickly. They are pig-headed, exalted, unpractical to a man. I do not mention the women, because when women meddle in politics they make fools of themselves, even in England. These Nihilists would have been all very well if they had been content to sow for posterity. But they wanted to see the fruits of their labors in one generation. Education does not grow like that. It requires a couple of generations to germinate. It has to be manured by the brains of fools before it is of any use. In England it has reached this stage; here in Russia the sowing has only begun. Now, we were doing some good. The Charity League was the thing. It began by training their starved bodies to be ready for the education when it came. And very little of it would have come in our time. If you educate a hungry man, you set a devil loose upon the world. Fill their stomachs before you feed their brains, or you will give them mental indigestion; and a man with mental indigestion raises hell or cuts his own throat."
"That is just what I want to do—fill their stomachs. I don't care about the rest. I'm not responsible for the progress of the world or the good of humanity," said Paul.
He rode on in silence; then he burst out again in the curt phraseology of a man whose feeling is stronger than he cares to admit.
"I've got no grand ideas about the human race," he said. "A very little contents me. A little piece of Tver, a few thousand peasants, are good enough for me. It seems rather hard that a fellow can't give away of his surplus money in charity if he is such a fool as to want to."
Steinmetz was riding stubbornly along. Suddenly he gave a little chuckle—a guttural sound expressive of a somewhat Germanic satisfaction.
"I don't see how they can stop us," he said. "The League, of course, is done; it will crumble away in sheer panic. But here, in Tver, they cannot stop us."
He clapped his great hand on his thigh with more glee than one would have expected him to feel; for this man posed as a cynic—a despiser of men, a scoffer at charity.
"They'll find it very difficult to stop me," muttered Paul Alexis.
It was now dark—as dark as ever it would be. Steinmetz peered through the gloom toward him with a little laugh—half tolerance, half admiration.
The country was here a little more broken. Long, low hills, like vast waves, rose and fell beneath the horses' feet. Ages ago the Volga may have been here, and, slowly narrowing, must have left these hills in deposit. From the crest of an incline the horsemen looked down over a vast rolling tableland, and far ahead of them a great white streak bounded the horizon.
"The Volga!" said Steinmetz. "We are almost there. And there, to the right, is the Tversha. It is like a great catapult. Gott! what a wonderful night! No wonder these Russians are romantic. What a night for a pipe and a long chair! This horse of mine is tired. He shakes me most abominably."
"Like to change?" enquired Paul curtly.
"No; it would make no difference. You are as heavy as I, although I am wider! Ah! there are the lights of Tver."
Ahead of them a few lights twinkled feebly, sometimes visible and then hidden again as they rode over the rolling hillocks. One plain ever suggests another, but the resemblance between the steppes of Tver and the great Sahara is at times startling. There is in both that roll as of the sea—the great roll that heaves unceasingly round the Capes of Good Hope and Horn. Looked at casually, Tver and Sahara's plains are level, and it is only in crossing them that one realizes the gentle up and down beneath the horses' feet.
Soon Steinmetz raised his head and sniffed in a loud Teutonic manner. It was the reek of water; for great rivers, like the ocean, have their smell. And the Volga is a revelation. Men travel far to see a city, but few seem curious about a river. Every river has, nevertheless, its individuality, its great silent interest. Every river has, moreover, its influence, which extends to the people who pass their lives within sight of its waters. Thus the Guadalquivir is rapid, mysterious, untrammelled—breaking frequently from its boundary. And it runs through Andalusia. The Nile—the river of ages—runs clear, untroubled through the centuries, between banks untouched by man. The Rhine—romantic, cultivated, artificial, with a rough subcurrent and a muddy bed—through Germany. The Seine and the Thames—shallow—shallow—shallow. And we—who live upon their banks!
The Volga—immense, stupendous, a great power, an influence two thousand four hundred miles long. Some have seen the Danube, and think they have seen a great river. So they have; but the Russian giant is seven hundred miles longer. A vast yellow stream, moving on to the distant sea—slow, gentle, inexorable, overwhelming.
All great things in nature have the power of crushing the human intellect. Russians are thus crushed by the vastness of their country, of their rivers. Man is but a small thing in a great country, and those who live by Nile, or Guadalquivir, or Volga seem to hold their lives on condition. They exist from day to day by the tolerance of their river.
Steinmetz and Paul paused for a moment on the wooden floating bridge and looked at the great river. All who cross that bridge, or the railway bridge higher up the stream, must do the same. They pause and draw a deep breath, as if in the presence of something supernatural.
They rode on without speaking through the squalid town—the whilom rival and the victim of brilliant Moscow. They rode straight to the station, where they dined in, by the way, one of the best railway refreshment rooms in the world. At one o'clock the night express from Moscow to St. Petersburg, with its huge American locomotive, rumbled into the station. Paul secured a chair in the long saloon car, and then returned to the platform. The train waited twenty minutes for refreshments, and he still had much to say to Steinmetz; for one of these men owned a principality and the other governed it. They walked up and down the long platform, smoking endless cigarettes, talking gravely.
Steinmetz stood on the platform and watched the train pass slowly away into the night. Then he went toward a lamp, and taking a pocket-handkerchief from his pocket, examined each corner of it in succession. It was a small pocket-handkerchief of fine cambric. In one corner were the initials S.S.B., worked neatly in white—such embroidery as is done in St. Petersburg.
"Ach!" exclaimed Steinmetz shortly; "something told me that that was he."
He turned the little piece of cambric over and over, examining it slowly, with a heavy Germanic cunning. He had taken this handkerchief from the body of the nameless rider who was now lying alone on the steppe twelve miles away.
Steinmetz returned to the large refreshment room, and ordered the waiter to bring him a glass of Benedictine, which he drank slowly and thoughtfully.
Then he went toward the large black stove which stands in the railway restaurant at Tver. He opened the door with the point of his boot. The wood was roaring and crackling within. He threw the handkerchief in and closed the door.
"It is as well, mon prince," he muttered, "that I found this, and not you."
"All that there is of the most brilliant and least truthful in Europe," M. Claude de Chauxville had said to a lady earlier in the evening, apropos of the great gathering at the French Embassy, and the mot had gone the round of the room.
In society a little mot will go a long way. M. le Baron de Chauxville was, moreover, a manufacturer of mots. By calling he was attache to the French Embassy in London; by profession he was an epigrammatist. That is to say, he was a sort of social revolver. He went off if one touched him conversationally, and like others among us, he frequently missed fire.
Of course, he had but little real respect for the truth. If one wishes to be epigrammatic, one must relinquish the hope of being either agreeable or veracious. M. de Chauxville did not really intend to convey the idea that any of the persons assembled in the great guest chambers of the French Embassy that evening were anything but what they seemed.
He could not surely imagine that Lady Mealhead—the beautiful spouse of the seventh Earl Mealhead—was anything but what she seemed: namely, a great lady. Of course, M. de Chauxville knew that Lady Mealhead had once been the darling of the music-halls, and that a thousand hearts had vociferously gone out to her from sixpenny and even threepenny galleries when she answered to the name of Tiny Smalltoes. But then M. de Chauxville knew as well as you and I—Lady Mealhead no doubt had told him—that she was the daughter of a clergyman, and had chosen the stage in preference to the school-room as a means of supporting her aged mother. Whether M. de Chauxville believed this or not, it is not for us to enquire. He certainly looked as if he believed it when Lady Mealhead told him—and his expressive Gallic eyes waxed tender at the mention of her mother, the relict of the late clergyman, whose name had somehow been overlooked by Crockford. A Frenchman loves his mother—in the abstract.
Nor could M. de Chauxville take exception at young Cyril Squyrt, the poet. Cyril looked like a poet. He wore his hair over his collar at the back, and below the collar-bone in front. And, moreover, he was a poet—one of those who write for ages yet unborn. Besides, his poems could be bought (of the publisher only; the railway bookstall men did not understand them) beautifully bound; really beautifully bound in white kid, with green ribbon—a very thin volume and very thin poetry. Meddlesome persons have been known to state that Cyril Squyrt's father kept a prosperous hot-sausage-and-mashed-potato shop in Leeds. But one must not always believe all that one hears.
It appears that beneath the turf, or on it, all men are equal, so no one could object to the presence of Billy Bale, the man, by Gad! who could give you the straight tip on any race, and looked like it. We all know Bale's livery stable, the same being Billy's father; but no matter. Billy wears the best cut riding-breeches in the Park, and, let me tell you, there are many folk in society with a smaller recommendation than that.
Now, it is not our business to go round the rooms of the French Embassy picking holes in the earthly robes of society's elect. Suffice it to say that every one was there. Miss Kate Whyte, of course, who had made a place in society and held it by the indecency of her language. Lady Mealhead said she couldn't stand Kitty Whyte at any price. We are sorry to use such a word as indecency in connection with a young person of the gentler sex, but facts must sometimes be recognized. And it is a bare fact that society tolerated, nay, encouraged, Kitty Whyte, because society never knew, and always wanted to know, what she would say next. She sailed so near to the unsteady breeze of decorum that the safer-going craft hung breathlessly in her wake in the hope of an upset.
Every one, in fact, was there. All those who have had greatness thrust upon them, and the others, those who thrust themselves upon the great—those, in a word, who reach such as are above them by doing that which should be beneath them. Lord Mealhead, by the way, was not there. He never is anywhere where the respectable writer and his high-born reader are to be found. It is discreet not to enquire where Lord Mealhead is, especially of Lady Mealhead, who has severed more completely her connection with the past. His lordship is, perchance, of a sentimental humor, and loves to wander in those pasteboard groves where first he met his Tiny—and very natural, too.
There was music and the refreshments. It was, in fact, a reception. Gaul's most lively sons bowed before Albion's fairest daughters, and displayed that fund of verve and esprit which they rightly pride themselves upon possessing, and which, of course, leave mere Englishmen so far behind in the paths of love and chivalry.
When not thus actively engaged they whispered together in corners and nudged each other, exchanging muttered comments, in which the word charmante came conveniently to the fore. Thus, the lightsome son of republican Gaul in society.
It is, however, high time to explain the reason of our own presence—of our own reception by France's courteous representative. We are here to meet Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, and, moreover, to confine our attention to the persons more or less implicated in the present history.
Mrs. Sydney Bamborough was undoubtedly the belle of the evening. She had only to look in one of the many mirrors to make sure of that fact. And if she wanted further assurance a hundred men in the room would have been ready to swear to it. This lady had recently dawned on London society—a young widow. She rarely mentioned her husband; it was understood to be a painful subject. He had been attached to several embassies, she said; he had a brilliant career before him, and suddenly he had died abroad. And then she gave a little sigh and a bright smile, which, being interpreted, meant "Let us change the subject."
There was never any doubt about Mrs. Sydney Bamborough. She was aristocratic to the tips of her dainty white fingers—composed, gentle, and quite sure of herself. Quite the grand lady, as Lady Mealhead said. But Mrs. Sydney Bamborough did not know Lady Mealhead, which may have accounted for the titled woman's little sniff of interrogation. As a matter of fact, Etta Sydney Bamborough came from excellent ancestry, and could claim an uncle here, a cousin there, and a number of distant relatives everywhere, should it be worth the while.
It was safe to presume that she was rich from the manner in which she dressed, the number of servants and horses she kept, the general air of wealth which pervaded her existence. That she was beautiful any one could see for himself—not in the shop-windows, among the presumably self-selected types of English beauty, but in the proper place—namely, in her own and other aristocratic drawing-rooms.
She was talking to a tall, fair Frenchman—in perfect French—and was herself nearly as tall as he. Bright brown hair waved prettily back from a white forehead, clever, dark gray eyes and a lovely complexion—one of those complexions which, from a purity of conscience or a steadiness of nerve, never change. Cheeks of a faint pink, an expressive, mobile mouth, a neck of dazzling white. Such was Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, in the prime of her youth.
"And you maintain that it is five years since we met," she was saying to the tall Frenchman.
"Have I not counted every day?" he replied.
"I do not know," she answered, with a little laugh, that little laugh which tells wise men where flattery may be shot like so much conversational rubbish. Some women are fathomless pits, the rubbish never seems to fill them. "I do not know, but I should not think so."
"Well, madam, it is so. Witness these gray hairs. Ah! those were happy days in St. Petersburg."
Mrs. Sydney Bamborough smiled—a pleasant society smile, not too pronounced and just sufficient to suggest pearly teeth. At the mention of St. Petersburg she glanced round to see that they were not overheard. She gave a little shiver.
"Don't speak of Russia!" she pleaded. "I hate to hear it mentioned. I was so happy. It is painful to remember."
Even while she spoke the expression of her face changed to one of gay delight. She nodded and smiled toward a tall man who was evidently looking for her, and took no notice of the Frenchman's apologies.
"Who is that?" asked the young man. "I see him everywhere lately."
"A mere English gentleman, Mr. Paul Howard Alexis," replied the lady.
The Frenchman raised his eyebrows. He knew better. This was no plain English gentleman. He bowed and took his leave. M. de Chauxville of the French Embassy was watching every movement, every change of expression, from across the room.
In evening dress the man whom we last saw on the platform of the railway station at Tver did not look so unmistakably English. It was more evident that he had inherited certain characteristics from his Russian mother—notably, his great height, a physical advantage enjoyed by many aristocratic Russian families. His hair was fair and inclined to curl, and there the foreign suggestion suddenly ceased. His face had the quiet concentration, the unobtrusive self-absorption which one sees more strongly marked in English faces than in any others. His manner of moving through the well-dressed crowd somewhat belied the tan of his skin. Here was an out-of-door, athletic youth, who knew how to move in drawing-rooms—a big man who did not look much too large for his surroundings. It was evident that he did not know many people, and also that he was indifferent to his loss. He had come to see Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, and that lady was not insensible to the fact.
To prove this she diverged from the path of veracity, as is the way of some women.
"I did not expect to see you here," she said.
"You told me you were coming," he answered simply. The inference would have been enough for some women, but not for Etta Sydney Bamborough.
"Well, is that a reason why you should attend a diplomatic soiree, and force yourself to bow and smirk to a number of white-handed little dandies whom you despise?"
"The best reason," he answered quietly, with an honesty which somehow touched her as nothing else had touched this beautiful woman since she had become aware of her beauty.
"Then you think it worth the bowing and the smirking?" she asked, looking past him with innocent eyes. She made an imperceptible little movement toward him as if she expected him to whisper. She was of that school. But he was not. His was not the sort of mind to conceive any thought that required whispering. Some persons in fact went so far as to say that he was hopelessly dull, that he had no subtlety of thought, no brightness, no conversation. These persons were no doubt ladies upon whom he had failed to lavish the exceedingly small change of compliment.
"It is worth that and more," he replied, with his ready smile. "After all, bowing and smirking come very easily. One soon gets accustomed to it."
"One has to," she replied with a little sigh. "Especially if one is a woman, which little mishap comes to some of us, you know. I wonder if you could find me a chair."
She was standing with her back to a small sofa capable of holding three, but calculated to accommodate two. She did not of course see it. In fact she looked everywhere but toward it, raising her perfectly gloved fingers tentatively for his arm.
"I am tired of standing," she added.
He turned and indicated the sofa, toward which she immediately advanced. As she sat down he noted vaguely that she was exquisitely dressed, certainly one of the best dressed women in the room. Her costume was daring without being startling, being merely black and white largely, boldly contrasted. He felt indefinitely proud of the dress. Some instinct in the man's simple, strong mind told him that it was good for women to be beautiful, but his ignorance of the sex being profound he had no desire to analyze the beauty. He had no mental reservation with regard to her. Indeed it would have been hard to find fault with Etta Sydney Bamborough, looking upon her merely as a beautiful woman, exquisitely dressed. In a cynical age this man was without cynicism. He did not dream of reflecting that the lovely hair owed half its beauty to the clever handling of a maid, that the perfect dress had been the all-absorbing topic of many of its wearer's leisure hours. He was, in fact, young for his years, and what is youth but a happy ignorance? It is only when we know too much that Gravity marks us for her own.
Mrs. Sydney Bamborough looked up at him with a certain admiration. This man was like a mountain breeze to one who has breathed nothing but the faded air of drawing-rooms.
She drew in her train with a pretty curve of her gloved wrist.
"You look as if you did not know what it was to be tired; but perhaps you will sit down. I can make room."
He accepted with alacrity.
"And now," she said, "let me hear where you have been. I have only had time to shake hands with you the last twice that we have met! You said you had been away."
"Yes; I have been to Russia."
Her face was steadily beautiful, composed and ready.
"Ah! How interesting! I have been in Petersburg. I love Russia." While she spoke she was actually looking across the room toward the tall Frenchman, her late companion.
"Do you?" answered Paul eagerly. His face lighted up after the manner of those countenances that belong to men of one idea. "I am very much interested in Russia."
"Do you know Petersburg?" she asked rather hurriedly. "I mean—society there?"
"No. I know one or two people in Moscow."
She nodded, suppressing a quick little sigh which might have been one of relief had her face been less pleasant and smiling.
"Who?" she asked indifferently. She was interested in the lace of her pocket-handkerchief, of which the scent faintly reached him. He was a simple person, and the faint odor gave him a distinct pleasure—a suggested intimacy.
He mentioned several well-known Muscovite names, and she broke into a sudden laugh.
"How terrible they sound," she said gayly, "even to me, and I have been to Petersburg. But you speak Russian, Mr. Alexis?"
"Yes," he answered. "And you?"
She shook her head and gave a little sigh.
"I? Oh, no. I am not at all clever, I am afraid."
Paul had been five months in England when he met Mrs. Sydney Bamborough. Since his hurried departure from Tver a winter had come and gone, leaving its mark as winters do. It left a very distinct mark on Russia. It was a famine winter. From the snow-ridden plains that lie to the north of Moscow, Karl Steinmetz had written piteous descriptions of an existence which seemed hardly worth the living. But each letter had terminated with a prayer, remarkably near to a command, that he, Paul Howard Alexis, should remain in England. So Paul stayed in London, where he indulged to the full a sadly mistaken hobby. This man had, as we have seen, that which is called a crank, or a loose screw, according to the fancy of the speaker. He had conceived the absurd idea of benefiting his fellow-beings, and of turning into that mistaken channel the surplus wealth that was his. This, moreover, if it please you, without so much as forming himself into a society.
This is an age of societies, and, far from concealing from the left hand the good which the right may be doing, we publish abroad our charities on all hands. We publish in a stout volume our names and donations. We even go so far as to cultivate an artificial charity by meat and drink and speeches withal. When we have eaten and drunk, the plate is handed round, and from the fulness of our heart we give abundantly. We are cunning even in our well-doing. We do not pass round the plate until the decanters have led the way. And thus we degrade that quality of the human heart which is the best of all.
But Paul Howard Alexis had the good fortune to be rich out of England, and that roaring lion of modern days, organized charity, passed him by. He was thus left to evolve from his own mind a mistaken sense of his duty toward his neighbor. That there were thousands of well-meaning persons in black and other coats ready to prove to him that revenues gathered from Russia should be spent in the East End or the East Indies, goes without saying. There are always well-meaning persons among us ready to direct the charity of others. We have all met those virtuous persons who do good by proxy. But Paul had not. He had never come face to face with the charity broker—the man who stands between the needy and the giver, giving nothing himself, and living on his brokerage, sitting in a comfortable chair, with his feet on a Turkey carpet in his office on a main thoroughfare. Paul had met none of these, and the only organized charity of which he was cognizant was the great Russian Charity League, betrayed six months earlier to a government which has ever turned its face against education and enlightenment. In this he had taken no active part, but he had given largely of his great wealth. That his name had figured on the list of families sold for a vast sum of money to the authorities of the Ministry of the Interior seemed all too sure. But he had had no intimation that he was looked upon with small favor. The more active members of the League had been less fortunate, and more than one nobleman had been banished to his estates.
Although the sum actually paid for the papers of the Charity League was known, the recipient of the blood money had never been discovered. It was a large sum, for the government had been quick to recognize the necessity of nipping this movement in the bud. Education is a dangerous matter to deal with; England is beginning to find this out for herself. For on the heels of education socialism ever treads. When at last education makes a foothold in Russia, that foothold will be on the very step of the autocratic throne. The Charity League had, as Steinmetz put it, the primary object of preparing the peasant for education, and thereafter placing education within his reach. Such proceedings were naturally held by those in high places to be only second to Nihilism.
All this, and more which shall transpire in the course of this narration, was known to Paul. In face of the fact that his name was prominently before the Russian Ministry of the Interior, he proceeded all through the winter to ship road-making tools, agricultural implements, seeds, and food.
"The prince," said Steinmetz to those who were interested in the matter, "is mad. He thinks that a Russian principality is to be worked on the same system as an English estate."
He would laugh and shrug his shoulders, and then he would sit down and send a list of further requirements to Paul Howard Alexis, Esquire, in London.
Paul had met Mrs. Sydney Bamborough on one or two occasions, and had been interested in her. From the first he had come under the influence of her beauty. But she was then a married woman. He met her again toward the end of the terrible winter to which reference has been made, and found that a mere acquaintanceship had in the meantime developed into friendship. He could not have told when and where the great social barrier had been surmounted and left behind. He only knew in an indefinite way that some such change had taken place, as all such changes do, not in intercourse, but in the intervals of absence. It is a singular fact that we do not make our friends when they are near. The seed of friendship and love alike is soon sown, and the best is that which germinates in absence.
That friendship had rapidly developed into something else Paul became aware early in the season; and, as we have seen from his conversation, Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, innocent and guileless as she was, might with all modesty have divined the state of his feelings had she been less overshadowed by her widow's weeds.
She apparently had no such suspicion, for she asked Paul in all good faith to call the next day and tell her all about Russia—"dear Russia."
"My cousin Maggie," she added, "is staying with me. She is a dear girl. I am sure you will like her."
Paul accepted with alacrity, but reserved to himself the option of hating Mrs. Sydney Bamborough's cousin Maggie, merely because that young lady existed and happened to be staying in Upper Brook Street.
At five o'clock the next afternoon he presented himself at the house of mourning, and completely filled up its small entrance-hall.
He was shown into the drawing-room, where he discovered Miss Margaret Delafield in the act of dragging her hat off in front of the mirror over the mantelpiece. He heard a suppressed exclamation of amused horror, and found himself shaking hands with Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.
The lady mentioned Paul's name and her cousin's relationship in that casual manner which constitutes an introduction in these degenerate days. Miss Delafield bowed, laughed, and moved toward the door. She left the room, and behind her an impression of breeziness and health, of English girlhood and a certain bright cheerfulness which acts as a filter in social muddy waters.
"It is very good of you to come—I was moping," said Mrs. Sydney Bamborough. She was, as a matter of fact, resting before the work of the evening. This lady thoroughly understood the art of being beautiful.
Paul did not answer at once. He was looking at a large photograph which stood in a frame on the mantelpiece—the photograph of a handsome man of twenty-eight or thirty, small-featured, fair, and shifty looking.
"Who is that?" he asked abruptly.
"Do you not know? My husband."
Paul muttered an apology, but he did not turn away from the photograph.
"Oh, never mind," said Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, in reply to his regret that he had stumbled upon a painful subject. "I never—"
"No," she went on, "I won't say that."
But, so far as conveying what she meant was concerned, she might just as well have uttered the words.
"I do not want a sympathy which is unmerited," she said gravely.
He turned and looked at her, sitting in a graceful attitude, the incarnation of a most refined and nineteenth-century misfortune. She raised her eyes to his for a moment—a sort of photographic instantaneous shutter, exposing for the hundredth part of a second the sensitive plate of her heart. Then she suppressed a sigh—badly.
"I was married horribly young," she said, "before I knew what I was doing. But even if I had known I do not suppose I should have had the strength of mind to resist my father and mother."
"They forced you into it?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Bamborough. And it is possible that a respectable and harmless pair of corpses turned in their respective coffins somewhere in the neighborhood of Norwood.
"I hope there is a special hell reserved for parents who ruin their daughters' lives to suit their own ambition," said Paul, with a sudden concentrated heat which rather startled his hearer.
This man was full of surprises for Etta Sydney Bamborough. It was like playing with fire—a form of amusement which will be popular as long as feminine curiosity shall last.
"You are rather shocking," she said lightly. "But it is all over now, so we need not dig up old grievances. Only I want you to understand that that photograph represents a part of my life which was only painful—nothing else."
Paul, standing in front of her, looked down thoughtfully at the beautiful upturned face. His hands were clasped behind him, his firm mouth set sternly beneath the great fair mustache. In Russia the men have good eyes—blue, fierce, intelligent. Such eyes had the son of the Princess Alexis. There was something in Etta Bamborough that stirred up within him a quality which men are slowly losing—namely, chivalry. Steinmetz held that this man was quixotic, and what Steinmetz said was usually worth some small attention. Whatever faults that poor knight of La Mancha who has been the laughing-stock of the world these many centuries—whatever faults or foolishness may have been his, he was at all events a gentleman.
Paul's instinct was to pity this woman for the past that had been hers; his desire was to help her and protect her, to watch over her and fight her battles for her. It was what is called Love. But there is no word in any spoken language that covers so wide a field. Every day and all day we call many things love which are not love. The real thing is as rare as genius, but we usually fail to recognize its rarity. We misuse the word, for we fail to draw the necessary distinctions. We fail to recognize the plain and simple truth that many of us are not able to love—just as there are many who are not able to play the piano or to sing. We raise up our voices and make a sound, but it is not singing. We marry and we give in marriage, but it is not loving. Love is like a color—say, blue. There are a thousand shades of blue, and the outer shades are at last not blue at all, but green or purple. So in love there are a thousand shades, and very, very few of them are worthy of the name.
That which Paul Howard Alexis felt at this time for Etta was merely the chivalrous instinct that teaches men their primary duty toward women—namely, to protect and respect them. But out of this instinct grows the better thing—Love.
There are some women whose desire it is to be all things to all men instead of every thing to one. This was the stumbling-block in the way of Etta Bamborough. It was her instinct to please all at any price, and her obedience to such instinct was often unconscious. She hardly knew perhaps that she was trading upon a sense of chivalry rare in these days, but had she known she could not have traded with a keener comprehension of the commerce.
"I should like to forget the past altogether," she said. "But it is hard for women to get rid of the past. It is rather terrible to feel that one will be associated all one's life with a person for whom no one had any respect. He was not honorable or—"
She paused; for the intuition of some women is marvellous. A slight change of countenance had told her that charity, especially toward the dead, is a commendable quality.
"The world," she went on rather hurriedly, "never makes allowances—does it? He was easily led, I suppose. And people said things of him that were not true. Did you ever hear of him in Russia—of the things they said of him?"
She waited for the answer with suppressed eagerness—a good woman defending the memory of her dead husband—a fair lioness protecting her cub.
"No; I never hear Russian gossip. I know no one in St. Petersburg, and few in Moscow."
She gave a little sigh of relief.
"Then perhaps poor Sydney's delinquencies have been forgotten," she said. "In six months every thing is forgotten now. He has only been dead six months, you know. He died in Russia."
All the while she was watching his face. She had moved in a circle where everything is known—where men have faces of iron and nerves of steel to conceal what they know. She could hardly believe that Paul Alexis knew so little as he pretended.
"So I heard a month ago," he said.
In a flash of thought Etta remembered that it was only within the last four weeks that this admirer had betrayed his admiration. Could this be that phenomenon of the three-volume novel, an honorable man? She looked at him with curiosity—without, it is to be feared, much respect.
"And now," she said cheerfully, "let us change the subject. I have inflicted enough of myself and my affairs upon you for one day. Tell me about yourself. Why were you in Russia last summer?"
"I am half a Russian," he answered. "My mother was Russian, and I have estates there."
Her surprise was a triumph of art.
"Oh! You are not Prince Pavlo Alexis?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, I am."
She rose and swept him a deep courtesy, to the full advantage of her beautiful figure.
"My respects—mon prince," she said; and then, quick as lightning, for she had seen displeasure on his face, she broke into a merry laugh.
"No, I won't call you that; for I know you hate it. I have heard of your prejudices, and if it is of the slightest interest to you, I think I rather admire them."
It is to be presumed that Mrs. Sydney Bamborough's memory was short. For it was a matter of common knowledge in the diplomatic circles in which she moved that Mr. Paul Howard Alexis of Piccadilly House, London, and Prince Pavlo Alexis of the province of Tver, were one and the same man.
Having, however, fully established this fact, from the evidence of her own ears, she conversed very pleasantly and innocently upon matters, Russian and English, until other visitors arrived and Paul withdrew.
Among the visitors whom Paul left behind him in the little drawing-room in Brook Street was the Baron Claude de Chauxville, Baron of Chauxville and Chauxville le Duc, in the Province of Seine-et-Marne, France, attache to the French Embassy to the Court of St. James; before men a rising diplomatist, before God a scoundrel. This gentleman remained when the other visitors had left, and Miss Maggie Delafield, seeing his intention of prolonging a visit of which she had already had sufficient, made an inadequate excuse and left the room.
Miss Delafield, being a healthy-minded young English person of that simplicity which is no simplicity at all, but merely simple-heartedness, had her own ideas of what a man should be, and M. de Chauxville had the misfortune to fall short of those ideas. He was too epigrammatic for her, and beneath the brilliancy of his epigram she felt at times the presence of something dark and nauseous. Her mental attitude toward him was contemptuous and perfectly polite. With the reputation of possessing a dangerous fascination—one of those reputations which can only emanate from the man himself—M. de Chauxville neither fascinated nor intimidated Miss Delafield. He therefore disliked her intensely. His vanity was colossal, and when a Frenchman is vain he is childishly so.
M. de Chauxville watched the door close behind Miss Delafield with a queer smile. Then he turned suddenly on his heels and faced Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.
"Your cousin," he said, "is a typical Englishwoman—she only conceals her love."
"For you?" enquired Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.
The baron shrugged his shoulders.
"Possibly. One can never tell. She conceals it very well if it exists. However, I am indifferent. The virtue of the violet is its own reward, perhaps, for the rose always wins."
He crossed the room toward Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, who was standing near the mantelpiece. Her left hand was hanging idly by her side. He took the white fingers and gallantly raised them to his lips, but before they had reached that fount of truth and wisdom she jerked her hand away.
M. de Chauxville laughed—the quiet, assured laugh of a man who has read in books that he who is bold enough can win any woman, and believes it. He was of those men who treat and speak of women as a class—creatures to be dealt with successfully according to generality and maxim. It is a singular thing, by the way, that men as a whole continue to disbelieve in a woman's negative—singular, that is, when one reflects that the majority of men have had at least one negative which has remained a negative, so far as they were concerned, all the woman's life.
"I am aware," said M. de Chauxville, "that the rose has thorns. One reason why the violet is hors de concours."
Etta smiled—almost relenting. She was never quite safe against her own vanity. Happy the woman who is, and rare.
"I suspect that the violet is innocent of any desire to enter into competition," said Etta.
"Knowing," suggested De Chauxville, "that although the race is not always to the swift, it is usually so. Please do not stand. It suggests that you are waiting for me to go or for some one else to come."
"Then prove it by taking this chair. Thus. Near the fire, for it is quite an English spring. A footstool. Is it permitted to admire your slippers—what there is of them? Now you look comfortable."
He attended to her wants, divined them, and perhaps created them with a perfect grace and much too intimate a knowledge. As a carpet knight he was faultless. And Etta thought of Paul, who could do none of these things—or would do none of them—Paul, who never made her feel like a doll.
"Will you not sit down?" she said, indicating a chair, which he did not take. He selected one nearer to her.
"I can think of nothing more desirable."
"Than what?" she asked. Her vanity was like a hungry fish. It rose to everything.
"A chair in this room."
"A modest desire," she said. "Is that really all you want in this world?"
"No," he answered, looking at her.
She gave a little laugh and moved rather hurriedly.
"I was going to suggest that you could have both at certain fixed periods—whenever—I am out."
"I am glad you did not suggest it."
"Why?" she asked sharply.
"Because I should have had to go into explanations. I did not say all."
Mrs. Bamborough was looking into the fire, only half listening to him. There was something in the nature of a duel between these two. Each thought more of the next stroke than of the present party.
"Do you ever say all, M. de Chauxville?" she asked.
The baron laughed. Perhaps he was vain of the reputation that was his, for this man was held to be a finished diplomatist. A finished diplomatist, be it known, is one who is a dangerous foe and an unreliable friend.
"Perhaps—now that I reflect upon it," continued the clever woman, disliking the clever man's silence, "the person who said all would be intolerable."
"There are some things which go without it," said De Chauxville.
"Ah?" looking lazily back at him over her shoulder.
He was cautious, for he was fighting on a field which women may rightly claim for their own. He really loved Etta. He was trying to gauge the meaning of a little change in her tone toward him—a change so subtle that few men could have detected it. But Claude de Chauxville —accomplished steersman through the shoals of human nature, especially through those very pronounced shoals who call themselves women of the world—Claude de Chauxville knew the value of the slightest change of manner, should that change manifest itself more than once.
The ring of indifference, or something dangerously near it, in Etta's voice had first been noticeable the previous evening, and the attache knew it. It had been in her voice whenever she spoke to him then. It was there now.
"Some things," he continued, in a voice she had never heard before, for this man was innately artificial, "which a woman usually knows before they are told to her."
"What sort of things, M. le Baron?"
He gave a little laugh. It was so strange a thing to him to be sincere that he felt awkward and abashed. He was surprised at his own sincerity.
"That I love you—hum. You have known it long?"
The face which he could not see was not quite the face of a good woman. Etta was smiling.
"No—o," she almost whispered.
"I think you must have known it," he corrected suavely. "Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"
It was very correctly done, Claude de Chauxville had regained control over himself. He was able to think about the riches which were evidently hers. But through the thought he loved the woman.
The lady lowered the feather screen which she was holding between her face and the fire. Regardless of the imminent danger in which she was placing her complexion, she studied the glowing cinders for some moments, weighing something or some persons in her mind.
"No, my friend," she answered in French, at length.
The baron's face was drawn and white. Beneath his trim black mustache there was a momentary gleam of sharp white teeth as he bit his lip.
He came nearer to her, leaning one hand on the back of her chair, looking down. He could only see the beautifully dressed hair, the clean-cut profile. She continued to look into the fire, conscious of the hand close to her shoulder.
"No, my friend," she repeated. "We know each other too well for that. It would never do."
"But when I tell you that I love you," he said quietly, with his voice well in control.
"I did not know that the word was in your vocabulary—you, a diplomat."
"And a man—you put the word there—Etta."
The hand-screen was raised for a moment in objection—presumably to the Christian name of which he had made use.
He waited; passivity was one of his strong points. It had frightened men before this.
Then, with a graceful movement, she swung suddenly round in her chair, looking up at him. She broke into a merry laugh.
"I believe you are actually in earnest!" she cried.
He looked quietly down into her face without moving a muscle in response to her change of humor.
"Very clever," he said.
"What?" she asked, still smiling.
"The attitude, the voice, every thing. You have known all along that I am in earnest, you have known it for the last six months. You have seen me often enough when I was—well, not in earnest, to know the difference."
Etta rose quickly. It was some lightning-like woman's instinct that made her do so. Standing, she was taller than M. de Chauxville.
"Do not let us be tragic," she said coldly. "You have asked me to marry you; why, I don't know. The reason will probably transpire later. I appreciate the honor, but I beg to decline it. Et voila tout. All is said."
He spread out apologetic hands.
"All is not said," he corrected, with a dangerous suavity. "I acknowledge the claim enjoyed by your sex to the last word. In this matter, however, I am inclined to deny it to the individual."
Etta Sydney Bamborough smiled. She leaned against the mantelpiece, with her chin resting on her curved fingers. The attitude was eminently calculated to show to full advantage a faultless figure. She evidently had no desire to cheapen that which she would deny. She shrugged her shoulders and waited.
De Chauxville was vain, but he was clever enough to conceal his vanity. He was hurt, but he was man enough to hide it. Under the passivity which was his by nature and practice, he had learned to think very quickly. But now he was at a disadvantage. He was unnerved by his love for Etta—by the sight of Etta before him daringly, audaciously beautiful—by the thought that she might never be his.
"It is not only that I love you," he said, "that I have a certain position to offer you. These I beg you to take at their poor value. But there are other circumstances known to both of us which are more worthy of your attention—circumstances which may dispose you to reconsider your determination."
"Nothing will do that," she replied; "not any circumstance."
Etta was speaking to De Chauxville and thinking of Paul Alexis.
"I should like to know since when you have discovered that you never could under any circumstances marry me," pursued M. de Chauxville. "Not that it matters, since it is too late. I am not going to allow you to draw back now. You have gone too far. All this winter you have allowed me to pay you conspicuous and marked attentions. You have conveyed to me and to the world at large the impression that I had merely to speak in order to obtain your hand."
"I doubt," said Etta, "whether the world at large is so deeply interested in the matter as you appear to imagine. I am sorry that I have gone too far, but I reserve to myself the right of retracing my footsteps wherever and whenever I please. I am sorry I conveyed to you or to any one else the impression that you had only to speak in order to obtain my hand, and I can only conclude that your overweening vanity has led you into a mistake which I will be generous enough to hold my tongue about."
The diplomatist was for a moment taken aback.
"Mais—" he exclaimed, with indignant arms outspread; and even in his own language he could find nothing to add to the expressive monosyllable.
"I think you had better go," said Etta quietly. She went toward the fire-place and rang the bell.
M. de Chauxville took up his hat and gloves.
"Of course," he said coldly, his voice shaking with suppressed rage, "there is some reason for this. There is, I presume, some one else—some one has been interfering. No one interferes with me with impunity. I shall make it my business to find out who is this—"
He did not finish: for the door was thrown open by the butler, who announced:
Paul came into the room with a bow toward De Chauxville, who was going out, and whom he knew slightly.
"I came back," he said, "to ask what evening next week you are free. I have a box for the 'Huguenots.'"
Paul did not stay. The thing was arranged in a few moments, and as he left the drawing-room he heard the wheels of De Chauxville's carriage.
Etta stood for a moment when the door had closed behind the two men, looking at the portiere which had hidden them from sight, as if following them in thought. Then she gave a little laugh—a queer laugh that might have had no heart in it, or too much for the ordinary purposes of life. She shrugged her shoulders and took up a magazine, with which she returned to the chair placed for her before the fire by Claude de Chauxville.
In a few minutes Maggie came into the room. She was carrying a bundle of flannel.
"The weakest thing I ever did," she said cheerfully, "was to join Lady Crewel's working guild. Two flannel petticoats for the young by Thursday morning. I chose the young because the petticoats are so ludicrously small."
"If you never do anything weaker than that," said Etta, looking into the fire, "you will not come to much harm."
"Perhaps not; what have you been doing—something weaker?"
"Yes. I have been quarrelling with M. de Chauxville."
Maggie held up a petticoat by the selvage (which a male writer takes to be the lower hem), and looked at her cousin through the orifice intended for the waist of the young.
"If one could manage it without lowering one's dignity," she said, "I think that that is the best thing one could possibly do with M. de Chauxville."
Etta had taken up the magazine again. She was pretending to read it.
"Yes; but he knows too much—about every-body," she said.
THE TALLEYRAND CLUB
It has been said of the Talleyrand Club that the only qualifications required for admittance to its membership are a frock-coat and a glib tongue. To explain the whereabouts of the Talleyrand Club were only a work of supererogation. Many hansom cabmen know it. Hansom cabmen know more than they are credited with.
The Talleyrand, as its name implies, is a diplomatic club, but ambassadors and ministers enter not its portals. They send their juniors. Some of these latter are in the habit of stating that London is the hub of Europe and the Talleyrand smoking-room its grease-box. Certain is it that such men as Claude de Chauxville, as Karl Steinmetz, and a hundred others who are or have been political scene-shifters, are to be found in the Talleyrand rooms.
It is a quiet club, with many members and sparse accommodation. Its rooms are never crowded, because half of its members are afraid of meeting the other half. It has swinging glass doors to its every apartment, the lower portion of the glass being opaque, while the upper moiety affords a peep-hole. Thus, if you are sitting in one of the deep, comfortable chairs to be found in all these small rooms, you will be aware from time to time of eyes and a bald head above the ground glass. If you are nobody, eyes and bald head will prove to be the property of a gentleman who does not know you, or knows you and pretends that he does not. If you are somebody, your solitude will depend upon your reputation.
There are quite a number of bald heads in the Talleyrand Club—bald heads surmounting youthful, innocent faces. The innocence of these gentlemen is quite remarkable. Like a certain celestial, they are "childlike and bland"; they ask guileless questions; they make blameless mistakes in respect to facts, and require correction, which they receive meekly. They know absolutely nothing, and their thirst for information is as insatiable as it is unobtrusive.
The atmosphere is vivacious with the light sound of many foreign tongues; it bristles with the ephemeral importance of cheap titles. One never knows whether one's neighbor is an ornament to the Almanac de Gotha, or a disgrace to a degenerate colony of refugees.
Some are plain Messieurs, Senores, or Herren. Bluff foreigners with upright hair and melancholy eyes, who put up philosophically with a cheaper brand of cigar than their souls love. Among the latter may be classed Karl Steinmetz—the bluffest of the bluff—innocent even of his own innocence.
Karl Steinmetz in due course reached England, and in natural sequence the smoking-room—room B on the left as you go in—of the Talleyrand.
He was there one evening after an excellent dinner taken with humorous resignation, smoking the largest cigar the waiter could supply, when Claude de Chauxville happened to have nothing better or nothing worse to do.
De Chauxville looked through the glass door for some seconds. Then he twisted his waxed mustache and lounged in. Steinmetz was alone in the room, and De Chauxville was evidently—almost obviously—unaware of his presence. He went to the table and proceeded to search in vain for a newspaper that interested him. He raised his eyes casually and met the quiet gaze of Karl Steinmetz.
"Ah!" he exclaimed.
"Yes," said Steinmetz.
Steinmetz nodded gravely.
"Yes," he repeated.
"One never knows where one has you," Claude de Chauxville went on, seating himself in a deep arm-chair, newspaper in hand. "You are a bird of passage."
"A little heavy on the wing—now," said Steinmetz.
He laid his newspaper down on his stout knees and looked at De Chauxville over his gold eye-glasses. He did not attempt to conceal the fact that he was wondering what this man wanted with him. The baron seemed to be wondering what object Steinmetz had in view in getting stout. He suspected some motive in the obesity.
"Ah!" he said deprecatingly. "That is nothing. Time leaves its mark upon all of us. It was not yesterday that we were in Petersburg together."
"No," answered Steinmetz. "It was before the German Empire—many years ago."
De Chauxville counted back with his slim fingers on the table—delightfully innocent.
"Yes," he said, "the years seem to fly in coveys. Do you ever see any of our friends of that time—you who are in Russia?"
"Who were our friends of that time?" parried Steinmetz, polishing his glasses with a silk handkerchief. "My memory is a broken reed—you remember?"
For a moment Claude de Chauxville met the full, quiet, gray eyes.
"Yes," he said significantly, "I remember. Well—for instance, Prince Dawoff?"
"Dead. I never see him—thank Heaven!"
"I never see; she keeps a gambling house in Paris."
"And little Andrea?"
"Never sees me. Married to a wholesale undertaker, who has buried her past."
"Et en detail."
"The Count Lanovitch," pursued De Chauxville, "where is he?"
"Banished for his connection with the Charity League."
"Catrina is living in the province of Tver—we are neighbors—she and her mother, the countess."
De Chauxville nodded. None of the details really interested him. His indifference was obvious.
"Ah! the Countess Lanovitch," he said reflectively, "she was a foolish woman."
M. de Chauxville laughed. This clumsy German ex-diplomat amused him immensely. Many people amuse us who are themselves amused in their sleeve.
"And—er—the Sydney Bamboroughs," said the Frenchman, as if the name had almost left his memory.
Karl Steinmetz lazily stretched out his arm and took up the Morning Post. He unfolded the sheet slowly, and having found what he sought, he read aloud:
"'His Excellency the Roumanian Ambassador gave a select dinner-party at 4 Craven Gardens, yesterday. Among the guests were the Baron de Chauxville, Feneer Pasha, Lord and Lady Standover, Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, and others.'"
Steinmetz threw the paper down and leant back in his chair.
"So, my dear friend," he said, "it is probable that you know more about the Sydney Bamboroughs than I do."
If Claude de Chauxville was disconcerted he certainly did not show it. His was a face eminently calculated to conceal whatever thought or feeling might be passing through his mind. Of an even white complexion—verging on pastiness—he was handsome in a certain statuesque way. His features were always composed and dignified; his hair, thin and straight, was never out of order, but ever smooth and sleek upon his high, narrow brow. His eyes had that dulness which is characteristic of many Frenchmen, and may perhaps be attributed to the habitual enjoyment of too rich a cuisine and too many cigarettes.
De Chauxville waved aside the small contretemps with easy nonchalance.
"Not necessarily," he said, in cold, even tones. "Mrs. Sydney Bamborough does not habitually take into her confidence all who happen to dine at the same table as herself. Your confidential woman is usually a liar."
Steinmetz was filling his pipe; this man had the evil habit of smoking a wooden pipe after a cigar.
"My very dear De Chauxville," he said, without lookup, "your epigrams are lost on me. I know most of them. I have heard them before. If you have anything to tell me about Mrs. Sydney Bamborough, for Heaven's sake tell it to me quite plainly. I like plain dishes and unvarnished stories. I am a German, you know; that is to say, a person with a dull palate and a thick head."
De Chauxville laughed again in an unemotional way.
"You alter little," he said. "Your plainness of speech takes me back to Petersburg. Yes, I admit that Mrs. Sydney Bamborough rather interested me. But I assume too much; that is no reason why she should interest you."
"She does not, my good friend, but you do. I am all attention."
"Do you know anything of her?" asked De Chauxville perfunctorily, not as a man who expects an answer or intends to believe that which he may be about to hear.
"You are likely to know more?"
Karl Steinmetz shrugged his heavy shoulders, and shook his head doubtfully.
"I am not a lady's man," he added gruffly; "the good God has not shaped me that way. I am too d—d fat. Has Mrs. Sydney Bamborough fallen in love with me? Has some imprudent person shown her my photograph? I hope not. Heaven forbid!"
He puffed steadily at his pipe, and glanced quickly at De Chauxville through the smoke.
"No," answered the Frenchman quite gravely. Frenchmen, by the way, do not admit that one may be too middle-aged, or too stout, for love. "But she is au mieux with the prince."
The Frenchman snapped out the word, watching the other's benevolent countenance. Steinmetz continued to smoke placidly and contentedly.
"My master," he said at length. "I suppose that some day he will marry."
De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders. He touched the button of the electric bell, and when the servant appeared, ordered coffee. He selected a cigarette from a silver case with considerable care, and having lighted it smoked for some moments in silence. The servant brought the coffee, which he drank thoughtfully. Steinmetz was leaning back in his deep chair, with his legs crossed. He was gazing into the fire, which burnt brightly, although it was nearly May. The habits of the Talleyrand Club are almost continental. The rooms are always too warm. The silence was that of two men knowing each other well.
"And why not Mrs. Sydney Bamborough?" asked Steinmetz suddenly.
"Why not, indeed?" replied De Chauxville. "It is no affair of mine. A wise man reduces his affairs to a minimum, and his interest in the affairs of his neighbor to less. But I thought it would interest you."
The tone of the big man in the arm-chair was not dry. Karl Steinmetz knew better than to indulge in that pastime. Dryness is apt to parch the fount of expansiveness.
De Chauxville's attention was apparently caught by an illustration in a weekly paper lying open on the table near to him. Your shifty man likes something to look at. He did not speak for some moments. Then he threw the paper aside.
"Who was Sydney Bamborough, at any rate?" he asked, with a careless assumption of a slanginess which is affected by society in its decadent periods.
"So far as I remember," answered Steinmetz, "he was something in the Diplomatic Service."
"Yes, but what?"
"My dear friend, you had better ask his widow when next you sit beside her at dinner."
"How do you know that I sat beside her at dinner?"
"I did not know it," replied Steinmetz, with a quiet smile which left De Chauxville in doubt as to whether he was very stupid or exceedingly clever.
"She seems to be very well off," said the Frenchman.
"I am glad, as she is going to marry my master."
De Chauxville laughed almost awkwardly, and for a fraction of a second he changed countenance under Steinmetz's quiet eyes.
"One can never know whom a woman intends to marry," said he carelessly, "even if they can themselves, which I doubt. But I do not understand how it is that she is so much better off, or appears to be, since the death of her husband."
"Ah, she is much better off, or appears to be, since the death of her husband," said the stout man, in his slow Germanic way.
De Chauxville rose, stretched himself and yawned. Men are not always, be it understood, on their best behavior at their club.
"Good-night," he said shortly.
"Good-night, my very dear friend."
After the Frenchman had left, Karl Steinmetz remained quite motionless and expressionless in his chair, until such time as he concluded that De Chauxville was tired of watching him through the glass door. Then he slowly sat forward in his chair and looked back over his shoulder.
"Our friend," he muttered, "is afraid that Paul is going to marry this woman. Now, I wonder why?"
These two had met before in a past which has little or nothing to do with the present narrative. They had disliked each other with a completeness partly bred of racial hatred, partly the outcome of diverse interests. But of late years they had drifted apart. There was no reason why the friendship, such as it was, should not have lapsed into a mere bowing acquaintance. For these men were foreigners, understanding fully the value of the bow as an interchange of masculine courtesy. Englishmen bow badly.
Steinmetz knew that the Frenchman had recognized him before entering the room. It was to be presumed that he had deliberately chosen to cross the threshold, knowing that a recognition was inevitable. Karl Steinmetz went farther. He suspected that De Chauxville had come to the Talleyrand Club, having heard that he was in England, with the purpose in view of seeking him out and warning him against Mrs. Sydney Bamborough.
"It would appear," murmured the stout philosopher, "that we are about to work together for the first time. But if there is one thing that I dislike more than the enmity of Claude de Chauxville it is his friendship."
Karl Steinmetz lifted his pen from the paper before him and scratched his forehead with his forefinger.
"Now, I wonder," he said aloud, "how many bushels there are in a ton. Ach! how am I to find out? These English weights and measures, this English money, when there is a metrical system!"
He sat and hardly looked up when the clock struck seven. It was a quiet room this in which he sat, the library of Paul's London house. The noise of Piccadilly reached his ears as a faint roar, not entirely unpleasant, but sociable and full of life. Accustomed as he was to the great silence of Russia, where sound seems lost in space, the hum of a crowded humanity was a pleasant change to this philosopher, who loved his kind while fully recognizing its little weaknesses.
While he sat there still wondering how many bushels of seed made a ton, Paul Alexis came into the room. The younger man was in evening dress. He looked at the clock rather eagerly.
"Will you dine here?" he asked, and Steinmetz wheeled around in his chair. "I am going out to dinner," he explained further.
"Ah!" said the elder man.
"I am going to Mrs. Sydney Bamborough's."
Steinmetz bowed his head gravely. He said nothing. He was not looking at Paul, but at the pattern of the carpet. There was a short silence. Then Paul said, with entire simplicity:
"I shall probably ask her to marry me."
"And she will probably say yes."
"I am not so sure about that," said Paul, with a laugh. For this man was without conceit. He had gradually been forced to admit that there are among men persons whose natural inclination is toward evil, persons who value not the truth, nor hold by honesty. But he was guileless enough to believe that women are not so. He actually believed that women are truthful and open and honorable. He believes it still, which is somewhat startling. There are a few such dullards yet. "I do not see why she should," he went on gravely. He was standing by the empty fire-place, a manly, upright figure; one who was not very clever, not brilliant at all, somewhat slow in his speech, but sure, deadly sure, in the honesty of his purpose.
Karl Steinmetz looked at him and smiled openly, with the quaint air of resignation that was his.
"You have never seen her, eh?" enquired Paul.
Steinmetz paused, then he told a lie, a good one, well told, deliberately.
"We are going to the opera, Box F2. If you come in I shall have pleasure in introducing you. The sooner you know each other the better. I am sure you will approve."
"I think you ought to marry money."
"Oh," he answered, "because every-body does who can. There is Catrina Lanovitch, an estate as big as yours, adjoining yours. A great Russian family, a good girl who—is willing."
Paul laughed, a good wholesome laugh.
"You are inclined to exaggerate my manifold and obvious qualifications," he said. "Catrina is a very nice girl, but I do not think she would marry me even if I asked her."
"Which you do not intend to do."
"Then you will make an enemy of her," said Steinmetz quietly. "It may be inconvenient, but that cannot be helped. A woman scorned—you know. Shakspere or the Bible, I always mix them up. No, Paul; Catrina Lanovitch is a dangerous enemy. She has been making love to you these last four years, and you would have seen it if you had not been a fool! I am afraid, my good Paul, you are a fool, God bless you for it!"
"I think you are wrong," said Paul rather curtly; "not about me being a fool, but about Catrina Lanovitch. If you are right, however, it only makes me dislike her instead of being perfectly indifferent to her."
His honest face flushed up finely, and he turned away to look at the clock again.
"I hate your way of talking about women, Steinmetz," he said. "You're a cynical old beast, you know."
"Heaven forbid, my dear prince! I admire all women—they are so clever, so innocent, so pure-minded. Do not your English novels prove it, your English stage, your newspapers, so high-toned? Who supports the novelist, the play-wright, the actor, who but your English ladies?"
"Better than being cooks—like your German ladies," retorted Paul stoutly. "If you are German this evening. Better than being cooks."
"I doubt it! I very much doubt it, my friend. At what time shall I present myself at Box F2 this evening?"
"About nine—as soon as you like."
Paul looked at the clock. The pointers lagged horribly. He knew that the carriage was certain to be at the door, waiting in the quiet street with its great restless horses, its two perfectly trained men, its gleaming lamps and shining harness. But he would not allow himself the luxury of being the first arrival. Paul had himself well in hand. At last it was time to go.
"See you later," he said.
"Thank you—yes," replied Steinmetz, without looking up.
So Paul Howard Alexis sallied forth to seek the hand of the lady of his choice, and as he left his own door that lady was receiving Claude de Chauxville in her drawing-room. The two had not met for some weeks—not indeed since Etta had told the Frenchman that she could not marry him. Her invitation to dine, couched in the usual friendly words, had been the first move in that game commonly called "bluff." Claude de Chauxville's acceptance of the same had been the second move. And these two persons, who were not afraid of each other, shook hands with a pleasant smile of greeting, while Paul hurried toward them through the busy streets.
"Am I forgiven—that I am invited to dinner?" asked De Chauxville imperturbably, when the servant had left them alone.
Etta was one of those women who are conscious of their dress. Some may protest that a lady moving in such circles would not be so. But in all circles women are only women, and in every class of life we meet such as Etta Bamborough. Women who, while they talk, glance down and rearrange a flower or a piece of lace. It is a mere habit, seemingly small and unimportant; but it marks the woman and sets her apart.
Etta was standing on the hearthrug, beautifully dressed—too beautifully dressed, it is possible, to sit down. Her maid had a moment earlier confessed that she could do no more, and Etta had come down stairs a vision of luxury, of womanly loveliness. Nevertheless, there appeared to be something amiss. She was so occupied with a flower at her shoulder that she did not answer at once.
"Forgiven for what?" she asked at length, in that preoccupied tone of voice which tells wise men that only questions of dress will be considered.
De Chauxville shrugged his shoulders in his graceful Gallic way.
"Mon Dieu!" he exclaimed. "For a crime which requires no excuse, and no explanation other than a mirror."
She looked up at him innocently.
"Yours. Have you forgiven me for falling in love with you? It is, I am told, a crime that women sometimes condone."
"It was no crime," she said. She had heard the wheels of Paul's carriage. "It was a misfortune. Please let us forget that it ever happened."
De Chauxville twirled his neat mustache, looking keenly at her the while.
"You forget," he said. "But I—will remember."
She did not answer, but turned with a smile to greet Paul.
"I think you know each other," she said gracefully when she had shaken hands, and the two men bowed. They were foreigners, be it understood. There were three languages in which they could understand each other with equal ease.
"Where is Maggie?" exclaimed Mrs. Bamborough. "She is always late."
"When I am here," reflected De Chauxville. But he did not say it.
Miss Delafield kept them waiting a few minutes, and during that time Etta Sydney Bamborough gave a very fine display of prowess with the double-stringed bow. When a man attempts to handle this delicate weapon, he usually makes, if one may put it thus crudely, an ass of himself. He generally succeeds in snapping one and probably both of the strings, injuring himself most certainly in the process.
Not so, however, this clever lady. She had a smile and an epigram for Claude de Chauxville, a grave air of sympathetic interest in more serious affairs for Paul Alexis. She was bright and amusing, guileless and very worldly wise in the same breath—simple for Paul and a match for De Chauxville, within the space of three seconds. Withal she was a beautiful woman beautifully dressed. A thousand times too wise to scorn her womanhood, as learned fools are prone to do in print and on platform in these wordy days, but wielding the strongest power on earth, to wit, that same womanhood, with daring and with skill. A learned woman is not of much account in the world. A clever woman moves as much of it as lies in her neighborhood—that is to say, as much as she cares to rule. For women love power, but they do not care to wield it at a distance.
Paul was asked to take Mrs. Sydney Bamborough down to dinner by the lady herself.
"Mon ami," she said in a quiet aside to De Chauxville, before making her request, "it is the first time the prince dines here."
She spoke in French. Maggie and Paul were talking together at the other end of the room. De Chauxville bowed in silence.
At dinner the conversation was necessarily general, and, as such, is not worth reporting. No general conversation, one finds, is of much value when set down in black and white. It is not even grammatical nowadays. To be more correct, let us note that the talk lay between Etta and M. de Chauxville, who had a famous supply of epigrams and bright nothings delivered in such a way that they really sounded like wisdom. Etta was equal to him, sometimes capping his sharp wit, sometimes contenting herself with silvery laughter. Maggie Delafield was rather distraite, as De Chauxville noted. The girl's dislike for him was an iron that entered the quick of his vanity anew every time he saw her. There was no petulance in the aversion, such as he had perceived with other maidens who were only resenting a passing negligence or seeking to pique his curiosity. This was a steady and, if you will, unmaidenly aversion, which Maggie conscientiously attempted to conceal.
Paul, it is to be feared, was what hostesses call heavy in hand. He laughed where he saw something to laugh at, but not elsewhere, which in some circles is considered morose and in bad form. He joined readily enough in the conversation, but originated nothing. Those topics which occupied his mind did not present themselves as suitable to this occasion. His devotion to Etta was quite obvious, and he was simple enough not to care that it should be so.