BY ELINOR GLYN
INTRODUCTION TO MY AMERICAN READERS
I feel now, when my "Three Weeks" is to be launched in a new land, where I have many sympathetic friends, that, owing to the misunderstanding and misrepresentation it received from nearly the entire press and a section of the public in England, I would like to state my view of its meaning. (As I wrote it, I suppose it could be believed I know something about that!) For me "the Lady" was a deep study, the analysis of a strange Slav nature, who, from circumstances and education and her general view of life, was beyond the ordinary laws of morality. If I were making the study of a Tiger, I would not give it the attributes of a spaniel, because the public, and I myself, might prefer a spaniel! I would still seek to portray accurately every minute instinct of that Tiger, to make a living picture. Thus, as you read, I want you to think of her as such a study. A great splendid nature, full of the passionate realisation of primitive instincts, immensely cultivated, polished, blase. You must see her at Lucerne, obsessed with the knowledge of her horrible life with her brutal, vicious husband, to whom she had been sacrificed for political reasons when almost a child. She suddenly sees this young Englishman, who comes as an echo of something straight and true in manhood which, in outward appearance at all events, she has met in her youth in the person of his Uncle Hubert. She perceives in him at once the Soul sleeping there; and it produces in her a strong emotion. Then I want you to understand the effect of Love on them both. In her it rose from caprice to intense devotion, until the day at the Farm when it reached the highest point—a desire to reproduce his likeness. How, with the most passionate physical emotion, her mental influence upon Paul was ever to raise him to vast aims and noble desires for future greatness. In him love opened the windows of his Soul, so that he saw the fine in everything.
The immense rush of passion in Venice came from her knowledge that they soon must part. Notice the effect of the two griefs on Paul. The first, with its undefined hope, making him do well in all things—even his prowess as a hunter—to raise himself to be more worthy in her eyes; the second and paralysing one of death, turning him into adamant until his soul awakens again with the returning spring of her spirit in his heart, and the consolation of the living essence of their love in the child.
The minds of some human beings are as moles, grubbing in the earth for worms. They have no eyes to see God's sky with the stars in it. To such "Three Weeks" will be but a sensual record of passion. But those who do look up beyond the material will understand the deep pure love, and the Soul in it all, and they will realise that to such a nature as "the Lady's," passion would never have run riot until it was sated—she would have daily grown nobler in her desire to make her Loved One's son a splendid man.
And to all who read, I say—at least be just! and do not skip. No line is written without its having a bearing upon the next, and in its small scope helping to make the presentment of these two human beings vivid and clear.
The verdict I must leave to the Public, but now, at all events, you know, kind Reader, that to me, the "Imperatorskoye" appears a noble woman, because she was absolutely faithful to the man she had selected as her mate, through the one motive which makes a union moral in ethics—Love.—ELINOR GLYN.
Now this is an episode in a young man's life, and has no real beginning or ending. And you who are old and have forgotten the passions of youth may condemn it. But there are others who are neither old nor young who, perhaps, will understand and find some interest in the study of a strange woman who made the illumination of a brief space.
Paul Verdayne was young and fresh and foolish when his episode began. He believed in himself—he believed in his mother, and in a number of other worthy things. Life was full of certainties for him. He was certain he liked hunting better than anything else in the world—for instance. He was certain he knew his own mind, and therefore perfectly certain his passion for Isabella Waring would last for ever! Ready to swear eternal devotion with that delightful inconsequence of youth in its unreason, thinking to control an emotion as Canute's flatterers would have had him do the waves.
And the Creator of waves—and emotions—no doubt smiled to Himself—if He is not tired by now of smiling at the follies of the moles called human beings, who for the most part inhabit His earth!
Paul was young, as I said, and fair and strong. He had been in the eleven at Eton and left Oxford with a record for all that should turn a beautiful Englishman into a perfect athlete. Books had not worried him much! The fit of a hunting-coat, the pace of a horse, were things of more importance, but he scraped through his "Smalls" and his "Mods," and was considered by his friends to be anything but a fool. As for his mother—the Lady Henrietta Verdayne—she thought him a god among men!
Paul went to London like others of his time, and attended the theatres, where perfectly virtuous young ladies display nightly their innocent charms in hilarious choruses, arrayed in the latest modes. He supped, too, with these houris—and felt himself a man of the world.
He had stayed about in country houses for perhaps a year, and had danced through the whole of a season with all the prettiest debutantes. And one or two of the young married women of forty had already marked him out for their prey.
By all this you can see just the kind of creature Paul was. There are hundreds of others like him, and perhaps they, too, have the latent qualities which he developed during his episode—only they remain as he was in the beginning—sound asleep.
That fall out hunting in March, and being laid up with a sprained ankle and a broken collar-bone, proved the commencement of the Isabella Waring affair.
She was the parson's daughter—and is still for the matter of that!—and often in those days between her games of golf and hockey, or a good run on her feet with the hounds, she came up to Verdayne Place to write Lady Henrietta's letters for her. Isabella was most amiable and delighted to make herself useful.
And if her hands were big and red, she wrote clearly and well. The Lady Henrietta, who herself was of the delicate Later Victorian Dresden China type, could not imagine a state of things which contained the fact that her god-like son might stoop to this daughter of the earthy earth!
Yet so it fell about. Isabella read aloud the sporting papers to him—Isabella played piquet with him in the dull late afternoons of his convalescence—Isabella herself washed his dog Pike—that king of rough terriers! And one terrible day Paul unfortunately kissed the large pink lips of Isabella as his mother entered the room.
I will draw a veil over this part of his life.
The Lady Henrietta, being a great lady, chanced to behave as such on the occasion referred to—but she was also a woman, and not a particularly clever one. Thus Paul was soon irritated by opposition into thinking himself seriously in love with this daughter of the middle classes, so far beneath his noble station.
"Let the boy have his fling," said Sir Charles Verdayne, who was a coarse person. "Damn it all! a man is not obliged to marry every woman he kisses!"
"A gentlemen does not deliberately kiss an unmarried girl unless he intends to make her his wife!" retorted Lady Henrietta. "I fear the worst!"
Sir Charles snorted and chuckled, two unpleasant and annoying habits his lady wife had never been able to break him of. So the affair grew and grew! Until towards the middle of April Paul was advised to travel for his health.
"Your father and I can sanction no engagement, Paul, before you return," said Lady Henrietta. "If, in July, on your twenty-third birthday, you still wish to break your mother's heart—I suppose you must do so. But I ask of you the unfettered reflection of three months first."
This seemed reasonable enough, and Paul consented to start upon a tour round Europe—not having spoken the final fatal and binding words to Isabella Waring. They made their adieux in the pouring rain under a dripping oak in the lane by the Vicarage gate.
Paul was six foot two, and Isabella quite six foot, and broad in proportion. They were dressed almost alike, and at a little distance, but for the lady's scanty petticoat, it would have been difficult to distinguish her sex.
"Good-bye, old chap," she said, "We have been real pals, and I'll not forget you!"
But Paul, who was feeling sentimental, put it differently.
"Good-bye, darling," he whispered with a suspicion of tremble in his charming voice. "I shall never love any woman but you—never, never in my life."
Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree.
And now we are getting nearer the episode. Paris bored Paul—he did not know its joys and was in no mood to learn them. He mooned about and went to the races. His French was too indifferent to make theatres a pleasure, and the attractive ladies who smiled at his blue eyes were for him defendues. A man so recently parted from the only woman he could ever love had no right to look at such things, he thought. How young and chivalrous and honest he was—poor Paul!
So he took to visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau and Compiegne with a guide-book, and came to the conclusion it was all "beastly rot."
So he turned his back upon France and fled to Switzerland.
Do you know Switzerland?—you who read. Do you know it at the beginning of May? A feast of blue lakes, and snow-peaks, and the divinest green of young beeches, and the sombre shadow of dark firs, and the exhilaration of the air.
If you do, I need not tell you about it. Only in any case now, you must see it through the eyes of Paul. That is if you intend to read another page of this bad book.
It was pouring with rain when he drove from the station to the hotel. His temper was at its worst. Pilatus hid his head in mist, the Buergenstock was invisible—it was chilly, too, and the fire smoked in the sitting-room when Paul had it lighted.
His heart yearned for his own snug room at Verdayne Place, and the jolly voice of Isabella Waring counting point, quint and quatorze. What nonsense to send him abroad. As if such treatment could be effectual as a cure for a love like his. He almost laughed at his mother's folly. How he longed to sit down and write to his darling. Write and tell how he hated it all, and was only getting through the time until he saw her six feet of buxom charms again—only Paul did not put it like that—indeed, he never thought about her charms at all—or want of them. He analysed nothing. He was sound asleep, you see, to nuances as yet; he was just a splendid English young animal of the best class.
He had promised not to write to Isabella—or, if he must, at least not to write a love-letter.
"Dear boy," the Lady Henrietta had said when giving him her fond parting kiss, "if you are very unhappy and feel you greatly wish to write to Miss Waring, I suppose you must do so, but let your letter be about the scenery and the impressions of travel, in no way to be interpreted into a declaration of affection or a promise of future union—I have your word, Paul, for that?"
And Paul had given his word.
"All right, mother—I promise—for three months."
And now on this wet evening the "must" had come, so he pulled out some hotel paper and began.
"MY DEAR ISABELLA:
"I say—you know—I hate beginning like this—I have arrived at this beastly place, and I am awfully unhappy. I think it would have been better if I had brought Pike with me, only those rotten laws about getting the little chap back to England would have been hard. How is Moonlighter? And have they really looked after that strain, do you gather? Make Tremlett come down and report progress to you daily—I told him to. My rooms look out on a beastly lake, and there are mountains, I suppose, but I can't see them. There is hardly any one in the hotel, because the Easter visitors have all gone back and the summer ones haven't come, so I doubt even if I can have a game of billiards. I am sick of guide-books, and I should like to take the next train home again. I must dress for dinner now, and I'll finish this to-night."
Paul dressed for dinner; his temper was vile, and his valet trembled. Then he went down into the restaurant scowling, and was ungracious to the polite and conciliating waiters, ordering his food and a bottle of claret as if they had done him an injury. "Anglais," they said to one another behind the serving-screen, pointing their thumbs at him—"he pay but he damn."
Then Paul sent for the New York Herald and propped it up in front of him, prodding at some olives with his fork, one occasionally reaching his mouth, while he read, and awaited his soup.
The table next to him in this quiet corner was laid for one, and had a bunch of roses in the centre, just two or three exquisite blooms that he was familiar with the appearance of in the Paris shops. Nearly all the other tables were empty or emptying; he had dined very late. Who could want roses eating alone? The menu, too, was written out and ready, and an expression of expectancy lightened the face of the head waiter—who himself brought a bottle of most carefully decanted red wine, feeling the temperature through the fine glass with the air of a great connoisseur.
"One of those over-fed foreign brutes of no sex, I suppose," Paul said to himself, and turned to the sporting notes in front of him.
He did not look up again until he heard the rustle of a dress.
The woman had to pass him—even so close that the heavy silk touched his foot. He fancied he smelt tuberoses, but it was not until she sat down, and he again looked at her, that he perceived a knot of them tucked into the front of her bodice.
A woman to order dinner for herself beforehand, and have special wine and special roses—special attention, too! It was simply disgusting!
Paul frowned. He brought his brown eyebrows close together, and glared at the creature with his blue young eyes.
An elderly, dignified servant in black livery stood behind her chair. She herself was all in black, and her hat—an expensive, distinguished-looking hat—cast a shadow over her eyes. He could just see they were cast down on her plate. Her face was white, he saw that plainly enough, startlingly white, like a magnolia bloom, and contained no marked features. No features at all! he said to himself. Yes—he was wrong, she had certainly a mouth worth looking at again. It was so red. Not large and pink and laughingly open like Isabella's, but straight and chiselled, and red, red, red.
Paul was young, but he knew paint when he saw it, and this red was real, and vivid, and disconcerted him.
He began his soup—hers came at the same time; she had only toyed with some caviare by way of hors d'oeuvre, and it angered him to notice the obsequiousness of the waiters, who passed each thing to the dignified servant to be placed before the lady by his hand. Who was she to be served with this respect and rapidity?
Only her red wine the maitre d'hotel poured into her glass himself. She lifted it up to the light to see the clear ruby, then she sipped it and scented its bouquet, the maitre d'hotel anxiously awaiting her verdict the while. "Bon," was all she said, and the weight of the world seemed to fall from the man's sloping shoulders as he bowed and moved aside.
Paul's irritation grew. "She's well over thirty," he said to himself. "I suppose she has nothing else to live for! I wonder what the devil she'll eat next!"
She ate a delicate truite bleu, but she did not touch her wine again the while. She had almost finished the fish before Paul's sole au vin blanc arrived upon the scene, and this angered him the more. Why should he wait for his dinner while this woman feasted? Why, indeed. What would her next course be? He found himself unpleasantly interested to know. The tenderest selle d'agneau au lait and the youngest green peas made their appearance, and again the maitre d'hotel returned, having mixed the salad.
Paul noticed with all these things the lady ate but a small portion of each. And it was not until a fat quail arrived later, while he himself was trying to get through two mutton chops a l'anglaise, that she again tasted her claret. Yes, it was claret, he felt sure, and probably wonderful claret at that. Confound her! Paul turned to the wine list. What could it be? Chateau Latour at fifteen francs? Chateau Margaux, or Chateau Lafite at twenty?—or possibly it was not here at all, and was special, too—like the roses and the attention. He called his waiter and ordered some port—he felt he could not drink another drop of his modest St. Estephe!
All this time the lady had never once looked at him; indeed, except that one occasion when she had lifted her head to examine the wine with the light through it, he had not seen her raise her eyes, and then the glass had been between himself and her. The white lids with their heavy lashes began to irritate him. What colour could they be? those eyes underneath. They were not very large, that was certain—probably black, too, like her hair. Little black eyes! That was ugly enough, surely! And he hated heavy black hair growing in those unusual great waves. Women's hair should be light and fluffy and fuzzy, and kept tidy in a net—like Isabella's. This looked so thick—enough to strangle one, if she twisted it round one's throat. What strange ideas were those coming into his head? Why should she think of twisting her hair round a man's throat? It must be the port mounting to his brain, he decided—he was not given to speculating in this way about women.
What would she eat next? And why did it interest him what she ate or did not eat? The maitre d'hotel again appeared with a dish of marvellous-looking nectarines. The waiter now handed the dignified servant the finger-bowl, into which he poured rose-water. Paul could just distinguish the scent of it, and then he noticed the lady's hands. Yes, they at least were faultless; he could not cavil at them; slender and white, with that transparent whiteness like mother-of-pearl. And what pink nails! And how polished! Isabella's hands—but he refused to think of them.
By this time he was conscious of an absorbing interest thrilling his whole being—disapproving irritated interest.
The maitre d'hotel now removed the claret, out of which the lady had only drunk one glass.
(What waste! thought Paul.)
And then he returned with a strange-looking bottle, and this time the dignified servant poured the brilliant golden fluid into a tiny liqueur-glass. What could it be? Paul was familiar with most liqueurs. Had he not dined at every restaurant in London, and supped with houris who adored creme de menthe? But this was none he knew. He had heard of Tokay—Imperial Tokay—could it be that? And where did she get it? And who the devil was the woman, anyway?
She peeled the nectarine leisurely—she seemed to enjoy it more than all the rest of her dinner. And what could that expression mean on her face? Inscrutable—cynical was it? No—absorbed. As absolutely unconscious of self and others as if she had been alone in the room. What could she be thinking of never to worry to look about her?
He began now to notice her throat, it was rounded and intensely white, through the transparent black stuff. She had no strings of pearls or jewels on—unless—yes, that was a great sapphire gleaming from the folds of gauze on her neck. Not surrounded by diamonds like ordinary brooches, but just a big single stone so dark and splendid it seemed almost black. There was another on her hand, and yet others in her ears.
Her ears were not anything so very wonderful! Not so very! Isabella's were quite as good—and this thought comforted him a little. As far as he could see beyond the roses and the table she was a slender woman, and he had not noticed on her entrance if she were tall or short. He could not say why he felt she must be well over thirty—there was not a line or wrinkle on her face—not even the slight nip in under the chin, or the tell-tale strain beside the ears.
She was certainly not pretty, certainly not. Well shaped—yes—and graceful as far as he could judge; but pretty—a thousand times No!
Then the speculation as to her nationality began. French? assuredly not. English? ridiculous! Equally so German. Italian? perhaps. Russian? possibly. Hungarian? probably.
Paul had drunk his third glass of port and was beginning his fourth. This was far more than his usual limit. Paul was, as a rule, an abstemious young man. Why he should have deliberately sat and drank that night he never knew. His dinner had been moderate—distinctly moderate—and he had watched a refined feast of Lucullus partaken of by a woman who only tasted each plat!
"I wonder what she will have to pay for it all?" he thought to himself. "She will probably sign the bill, though, and I shan't see."
But when the lady had finished her nectarine and dipped her slender fingers in the rose-water she got up—she had not smoked, she could not be Russian then. Got up and walked towards the door, signing no bill, and paying no gold.
Paul stared as she passed him—rudely stared—he knew it afterwards and felt ashamed. However, the lady never so much as noticed him, nor did she raise her eyes, so that when she had finally disappeared he was still unaware of their colour or expression.
But what a figure she had! Sinuous, supple, rounded, and yet very slight.
"She must have the smallest possible bones," Paul said to himself, "because it looks all curvy and soft, and yet she is as slender as a gazelle."
She was tall, too, though not six feet—like Isabella!
The waiters and maitre d'hotel all bowed and stood aside as she left, followed by her elderly, stately, silver-haired servant.
Of course it would have been an easy matter to Paul to find out her name, and all about her. He would only have had to summon Monsieur Jacques, and ask any question he pleased. But for some unexplained reason he would not do this. Instead of which he scowled in front of him, and finished his fourth glass of port. Then his head swam a little, and he went outside into the night. The rain had stopped and the sky was full of stars scattered in its intense blue. It was warm, too, there, under the clipped trees, Paul hoped he wasn't drunk—such a beastly thing to do! And not even good port either.
He sat on a bench and smoked a cigar. A strange sense of loneliness came over him. It seemed as if he were far, far away from any one in the world he had ever known. A vague feeling of oppression and coming calamity passed through him, only he was really as yet too material and thoroughly, solidly English to entertain it, or any other subtle mental emotion for more than a minute. But he undoubtedly felt strange to-night; different from what he had ever done before. He would have said "weird" if he could have thought of the word. The woman and her sinuous, sensuous black shape filled the space of his mental vision. Black hair, black hat, black dress—and of course black eyes. Ah! if he could only know their colour really!
The damp bench where he sat was just under the ivy hanging from the balustrade of the small terrace belonging to the ground-floor suite at the end.
There was a silence, very few people passed, frightened no doubt by the recent rain. He seemed alone in the world.
The wine now began to fire his senses. Why should he remain alone? He was young and rich and—surely even in Lucerne there must be—. And then he felt a beast, and looked out on to the lake.
Suddenly his heart seemed to swell with some emotion, a faint scent of tuberoses filled the air—and from exactly above his head there came a gentle, tender sigh.
He started violently, and brusquely turned and looked up. Almost indistinguishable in the deep shadow he saw the woman's face. It seemed to emerge from a mist of black gauze. And looking down into his were a pair of eyes—a pair of eyes. For a moment Paul's heart felt as if it had stopped beating, so wonderful was their effect upon him. They seemed to draw him—draw something out of him—intoxicate him—paralyse him. And as he gazed up motionless the woman moved noiselessly back on to the terrace, and he saw nothing but the night sky studded with stars.
Had he been dreaming? Had she really bent over the ivy? Was he mad? Yes—or drunk, because now he had seen the eyes, and yet he did not know their colour! Were they black, or blue, or grey, or green? He did not know, he could not think—only they were eyes—eyes—eyes.
The letter to Isabella Waring remained unfinished that night.
Paul's head ached a good deal next morning and he was disinclined to rise. However, the sun blazed in at his windows, and a bird sang in a tree.
His temper was the temper of next day—sodden, and sullen, and ashamed. He even resented the sunshine.
But what a beautiful creature he looked, as later he stepped into a boat for a row on the lake! His mother, the Lady Henrietta, had truly reason to be proud of him. So tall and straight, and fair and strong. And at the risk of causing a second fit among some of the critics, I must add, he probably wore silk socks, and was "beautifully groomed," too, as all young Englishmen are of his class and age. And how supple his lithe body seemed as he bent over the oars, while the boat shot out into the blue water.
The mountains were really very jolly, he thought, and it was not too hot, and he was glad he had come out, even though he had eaten no breakfast and was feeling rather cheap still. Yes, very glad.
After he had advanced a few hundred yards he rested on his oars, and looked up at the hotel. Then wonder came back to him, where was she to-day—the lady with the eyes? Or had he dreamed it—and was there no lady at all?
It should not worry him anyway—so he rowed ahead, and ceased to speculate.
The first thing he did when he came in for lunch was to finish his letter to Isabella.
"P. S.—Monday," he added. "It is finer to-day, and I have had some exercise. The view isn't bad now the mist has gone. I shall do some climbing, I think. Take care of yourself, dear girl. Good-bye.
It was with a feeling of excitement that he entered the restaurant for dejeuner. Would she be there? How would she seem in daylight?
But the little table where she had sat the night before was unoccupied. There were the usual cloth and glass and silver, but no preparations for any specially expected guest upon it. Paul felt annoyed with himself because his heart sank. Had she gone? Or did she only dine in public? Perhaps she lunched in the sitting-room beyond the terrace, where he had seen her eyes the night before.
The food was really very good, and the sun shone, and Paul was young and hungry, so presently he forgot about the lady and enjoyed his meal.
The appearance of the Buergenstock across the lake attracted him, as afterwards he smoked another cigar under the trees. He would hire an electric launch and go there and explore the paths. If only Pike were with him—or—Isabella!
This idea he put into execution.
What a thing was a funicular railway. How steep and unpleasant, but how quaint the tree-tops looked when one was up among them. Yes— Lucerne was a good deal jollier than Paris. And he roamed about among the trees, never noticing their beautiful colours. Presently he paused to rest. He was soothed—even peaceful. If he had Pike he could really be quite happy, he thought.
What was that rustle among the leaves above him? He looked up, and started then as violently almost as he had done the night before. Because there, peeping at him from the tender green of the young beeches, was the lady in black. She looked down upon him through the parted boughs, her black hat and long black veil making a sharp silhouette against the vivid verdure, her whole face in tender shadow and framed in the misty gauze.
Paul's heart beat violently. He felt a pulse in his throat—for a few seconds.
He knew he was gazing into her eyes, and he thought he knew they were green. They looked larger than he had imagined them to be. They were set so beautifully, too, just a suspicion of rise at the corners. And their expression was mocking and compelling—and—But she let go the branches and disappeared from view.
Paul stood still. He was thrilling all over. Should he bound in among the trees and follow her? Should he call out and ask her to come back? Should he—? But when he had decided and gained the spot where she must have stood, he saw it was a junction of three paths, and he was in perfect ignorance which one she had taken. He rushed down the first of them, but it twisted and turned, and when he had gone far enough to see ahead—there was no one in sight. So he retraced his steps and tried the second. This, too, ended in disappointment. And the third led to an opening where he could see the descending funiculaire, and just as it sank out of view he caught sight of a black dress, almost hidden by a standing man's figure, whom he recognised as the elderly silver-haired servant.
Paul had learnt a number of swear-words at Eton and Oxford. And he let the trees hear most of them then.
He could not get down himself until the train returned, and by that time where would she be? To go by the paths would take an eternity. This time circumstance had fairly done him.
Presently he sauntered back to the little hotel whose terrace commands the lake far below, and eagerly watching the craft upon it, he thought he caught sight of a black figure reclining in an electric launch which sped over the blue water.
Then he began to reason with himself. Why should the sight of this woman have caused him such violent emotion? Why? Women were jolly things that did not matter much—except Isabella. She mattered, of course, but somehow her mental picture came less readily to his mind than usual. The things he seemed to see most distinctly were her hands—her big red hands. And then he unconsciously drifted from all thought of her.
"She certainly looks younger in daylight," he said to himself. "Not more than thirty perhaps. And what strange hats with that shadow over her eyes. What is she doing here all alone? She must be somebody from the people in the hotel making such a fuss—and that servant—Then why alone?" He mused and mused.
She was not a demi-mondaine. The English ones he knew were very ordinary people, but he had heard of some of the French ladies as being quite grande dame, and travelling en prince. Yet he was convinced this was not one of them. Who could she be? He must know.
To go back to the hotel would be the shortest way to find out, and so by the next descending train he left the Buergenstock.
He walked up and down under the lime-trees outside the terrace of her rooms for half an hour, but was not rewarded in any way for his pains. And at last he went in. He, too, would have a dinner worth eating, he thought. So he consulted the maitre d'hotel on his way up to dress, and together they evolved a banquet. Paul longed to question the man about the unknown, but as yet he was no actor, and he found he felt too much about it to do it naturally.
He dressed with the greatest care, and descended at exactly half-past eight. Yes, the table was laid for her evidently—but there were giant carnations, not roses, in the silver vase to-night. How quickly the waiters seemed to bring things! And what a frightful lot there was to eat! And dawdle as he would, by nine o'clock he had almost finished. Perhaps it would be as well to send for a newspaper again. Anything to delay his having to rise and go out. An anxious, uncomfortable gnawing sense of expectancy dominated him. How ridiculous for a woman to be so late! What cook could do justice to his dishes if they were thus to be kept waiting? She couldn't possibly have ordered it for half past nine, surely! Gradually, as that hour passed and his second cup of coffee had been sipped to its finish, Paul felt a sickening sense of anger and disappointment. He got up abruptly and went out. In the hall, coming from the corridor of her rooms, he met the lady face to face.
Then rage with himself seized him. Why had he not waited? For no possible reason could he go back now. And what a chance to look at her missed—and all thrown away.
He sat sullenly down in the hall, resisting the temptation to go into the beautiful night. At least he would see her on her way back. But he waited until nearly eleven, and she never appeared, and then the maddening thought came to him—she had probably passed to her rooms along the terrace outside, under the lime-tree.
He bounded up, and stalked into the starlight. He could see through the windows of the restaurant, and no one was there. Then he sat on the bench again, under the ivy—but all was darkness and silence; and thoroughly depressed, Paul at last went to bed.
Next day was so gloriously fine that youth and health sang within him. He was up and away quite early. Not a thought of this strange lady should cross his mind for the entire day, he determined as he ate his breakfast. And soon he started for the Rigi in a launch, taking the English papers with him. Intense joy, too! A letter from Isabella!
Such a nice letter. All about Pike and Moonlighter, and the other horses—and Isabella was going to stay with a friend at Blackheath, where she hoped to get better golf than at home—and Lady Henrietta had been gracious to her, and given her Paul's address, and there had been a "jolly big party" at Verdayne Place for Sunday, but none of his "pals." At least if there were, they were not in church, she added naively.
All this Paul read in his launch on the way to the Rigi, and for some unexplained reason the information seemed about things a long way off, and less thrilling than usual. He had a splendid climb, and when he got back to Lucerne in the evening he was thoroughly tired, and so hungry he flew down to his dinner.
It was nearly nine o'clock; at least if she came to-night he would be there to see her. But of course it did not matter if she came or not, he had conquered that ridiculous interest. He would hardly look until he reached his table. Yes, there she was, but dipping her white fingers in the rosewater at the very end of her repast.
And again, in spite of himself, a strange wild thrill ran through Paul, and he knew it was what he had been subconsciously hoping for all day—and oh, alas! it mattered exceedingly.
The lady never glanced at him. She swept from the room, her stately graceful movements delighting his eye. He could understand and appreciate movement—was he not accustomed to thoroughbreds, and able to judge of their action and line?
How blank the space seemed when she had gone—dull and unspeakably uninteresting. He became impatient with the slowness of the waiters, who had seemed to hurry unnecessarily the night before. But at last his meal ended, and he went out under the trees. The sky was so full of stars it hardly seemed dark. The air was soft, and in the distance a band played a plaintive valse tune.
There were numbers of people walking about, and the lights from the hotel windows lit up the scene. Only the ivy terrace was in shadow as he again sat down on the bench.
How had she got in last night? That he must find out—he rose, and peered about him. Yes, there was a little gate, a flight of steps, a private entrance into this suite, just round the corner.
And as he looked at it, the lady, wrapped in a scarf of black gauze, passed him, and standing aside while the silver-haired servant opened the little door with a key, she then entered and disappeared from view.
It seemed as if the stars danced to Paul. His whole being was quivering with excitement, and now he sat on the bench again almost trembling.
He did not move for at least half an hour; then the clocks chimed in the town. No, there was no hope; he would see her no more that night. He rose listlessly to go back to bed, tired out with his day's climb. And as he stood up, there, above the ivy again, he saw her face looking down upon him.
How had she crossed the terrace without his hearing her? How long had she been there? But what matter? At least she was there. And those eyes looking into his out of the shadow, what did they say? Surely they smiled at him. Paul jumped on to the bench. Now he was almost level with her face—almost—and his was raised eagerly in expectation. Was he dreaming, or did she whisper something? The sound was so soft he was not quite sure. He stretched out his arms to her in the darkness, pulling himself by the ivy nearer still. And this time there was no mistake.
"Come, Paul," she said. "I have some words to say to you."
And round to the little gate Paul flew.
Paul was never quite sure of what happened that evening—everything was so wonderful, so unusual, so unlike his ordinary life. The gate was unlocked he found when he got there, but no one appeared to be inside, and he bounded up the steps and on to the terrace. Silence and darkness—was she fooling him then? No, there she was by one of the windows; he could dimly see her outline as she passed into the room beyond, through some heavy curtains. That was why no light came through to the terrace. He followed, dropping them after him also, and then he found himself in a room as unlike a hotel as he could imagine. It may have had the usual brocade walls and gilt chairs of the "best suite," but its aspect was so transformed by her subtle taste and presence, it seemed to him unique, and there were masses of flowers—roses, big white ones—tuberoses—lilies of the valley, gardenias, late violets. The light were low and shaded, and a great couch filled one side of the room beyond the fireplace. Such a couch! covered with a tiger-skin and piled with pillows, all shades of rich purple velvet and silk, embroidered with silver and gold—unlike any pillows he had ever seen before, even to their shapes. The whole thing was different and strange—and intoxicating.
The lady had reached the couch, and sank into it. She was in black still, but gauzy, clinging black, which seemed to give some gleam of purple underneath. And if he had not been sure that in daylight he had thought they were green, he would have sworn the eyes which now looked into his were deepest violet, too.
"Come," she said. "You may sit here beside me and tell me what you think."
And her voice was like rich music—but she had hardly any accent. She might have been an Englishwoman almost, for that matter, and yet he somehow knew that she was not. Perhaps it was she pronounced each word; nothing was slurred over. Without her hat she looked even more attractive, and certainly younger. But what was age or youth? And what was beauty itself, when a woman whose face was neither young nor beautiful could make him feel he was looking at a divine goddess, and thrilling as he had never dreamt of doing in his short life?
If any one had told Paul this was going to happen to him, this experience, he would have laughed them to scorn. To begin with, he was rather shy with ladies as a rule, and had not learnt a trick of entreprenance. It took him quite a while to know one well enough to even talk at ease. And yet here he was, embarked upon an adventure which savoured of the Arabian Nights.
He came forward and sat down, and he could feel the pulse beating in his throat. It all seemed perfectly natural at the time, but afterwards he wondered how she had known his name was Paul—and how it had all come to pass.
"For three days you have thought of me, Paul—is it not so?" she said, half closing her lids.
But he could only blurt out "Yes!" while he devoured her with his eyes.
"We are both—how shall I say—drifting—holiday-making—trying to forget. And we must talk a little together, n'est-ce pas? Tell me?"
"Oh, yes!" said Paul.
"You are beautiful, you know, Paul," she went on. "So tall and straight like you English, with curly hair of gold. Your mother must have loved you as a baby."
"I suppose she did," said Paul.
"She is well? Your mother, the stately lady?"
"Very well—do you know her?" he asked, surprised.
"Long ago I have seen her, and I knew you at once, so like you are—and to your uncles, especially the Lord Hubert."
"Uncle Hubert is a rotter!"
"A—rotter?" inquired the lady. "And what is that?" And she smiled a divine smile.
Paul felt ashamed. "Oh! well, it is a rotter, you know—that is—like Uncle Hubert, I mean."
She laughed again. "You do not explain well, but I understand you. And so you only resemble the Uncle Hubert on the outside—that is good."
Paul felt jealous. Lord Hubert Aldringham's reputation—for some things—was European. "I hope so," he said with emphasis. "And you knew him well then, too?"
"I never said so," replied the lady. "I saw him once—twice perhaps—years ago—at the marriage of a princess. There, it has made you frown, we will speak no more of the Uncle Hubert!" and she leant back and laughed.
Paul felt very young. He wanted to show her he was grown up, and he wanted a number of things which had never even formed themselves in his imagination before. But she went on talking.
"And your cotelettes were tough, Paul, and you were so cross that first evening, and hated me! And oh! Paul, you had far too much wine for a boy like you!"
He reddened to the roots of his fair wavy hair, and then he hung his head.
"I know I did—it was beastly of me—but I was so—upset—I—"
"Look at me," she said, and she bent forward over him—a gliding feline movement infinitely sinuous and attractive.
Then he looked, his big blue eyes still cloudy with a mist of shame.
"You must tell me why you were upset, baby—Paul!"
How often she said his name! lingering over it as if it were music. It thrilled him every time.
Then he gained courage.
"But how did you know anything about it—or what I had—or what I drank? You never once raised your eyelids all the time!"
"Perhaps I can see through them when I want to—who knows!" and she laughed.
"And you wanted to—wanted to see through them?"
He was gazing at her now, and she suddenly looked down, while the most beautiful transparent pink flushed her soft white cheeks, turning her into a tender girl almost. The change was so sudden, it startled Paul, and emboldened him.
"You wanted to!" he repeated in a glad voice. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes," she whispered, and she looked up at him, but this time there was mischief in her eyes.
"Is that why you sighed then among the ivy? What made you sigh?"
She paused a moment, and then she said slowly: "A number of things. You seemed so young, and so beautiful, and so—asleep."
"Indeed I wasn't asleep!" Paul exclaimed. "It would take a great deal more port than that to make me go to sleep. I was thinking of—" And then he saw she had not meant that kind of sleep, and felt a fool—and wondered.
She helped him out.
"All this time you have not told me why you were upset—upset enough to drink bad port. That was naughty of you, Paul."
"I was upset—over you. I was angry because I was so interested—" and he reddened again.
She leant back among the purple cushions, her figure so supple in its lines, it made him think of a snake. She half closed her eyes again—and she spoke low in a dreamy voice:
"It was fate, Paul. I knew it when I entered the room. I felt it again among the green trees, and so I ran from you—but to-night it is plus fort que moi—so I called you to come in."
"I am so glad—so glad," said Paul.
She remained silent. Her eyes in their narrowed lids gleamed at him, seeming to penetrate into his very soul. And now he noticed her mouth again. It neither drooped nor smiled, it was straight, and chiselled and strong, and small rather, and the lower lip was rounded and slightly cleft in the centre. A most appetising red flower of a mouth.
By this time Paul was more or less intoxicated with excitement, he had lost all sense of time and place. It seemed as if he had known her always—that there never had been a moment when she had not filled the whole of his horizon.
They were both silent for a couple of minutes. As far as he could gather from her inscrutable face, she was weighing things—what things?
Suddenly she sprang up, one of those fine movements of hers full of cat-like grace.
"Paul," she said, "listen," and she spoke rather fast. "You are so young, so young—and I shall hurt you—probably. Won't you go now—while there is yet time? Away from Lucerne, back to Paris—even back to England. Anywhere away from me."
She put her hand on his arm, and looked up into his eyes. And there were tears in hers. And now he saw that they were grey.
He was moved as never yet in all his life.
"I will not!" he said. "I may be young, but to-night I know—I want to live! And I will chance the hurt, because I know that only you can teach me—just how—"'
Then his voice broke, and he bent down and covered her hand with kisses.
She quivered a little and drew away. She picked up a great bunch of tuberoses, and broke off all their tops. "There, take them!" she said, pressing them into his hands, and those against his heart. "Take them and go—and dream of me. You have chosen. Dream of me to-night and remember—there is to-morrow."
Then she glided back from him, and before he realised it she had gone noiselessly away through another door.
Paul stood still. The room swam; his head swam. Then he stumbled out on to the terrace, under the night sky, the white blossoms still pressed against his heart.
He must have walked about for hours. The grey dawn was creeping over the silent world when at last he went back to the hotel and to his bed.
There he slept and dreamt—never a dream! For youth and health are glorious things. And he was tired out.
The great sun was high in the heavens when next he awoke. And the room was full of the scent of tuberoses, scattered on the pillow beside him. Presently, when his blue eyes began to take in the meaning of things, he remembered and bounded up. For was not this the commencement of his first real day?
The problem which faced Paul, when he had finished a very late breakfast, was how he should see her soon—the lady in black.
He could not go and call like an ordinary visitor, because he did not know her name! That was wonderful—did not even know her name, or anything about her, only that his whole being was thrilling with anxiety to see her again.
The simplest thing to do seemed to descend into the hall and look at the Visitors' List, which he promptly did.
There were only a few people in the hotel; it was not hard, therefore, guessing at the numbers of the rooms, to arrive at the conviction that "Mme. Zalenska and suite" might be what he was searching for. Zalenska—she was possibly Russian after all. And what was her christian name? That he longed to know.
As he stood staring, his fair forehead puckered into a frown of thought, the silver-haired servant came up behind him and said, with his respectful, dignified bearing:
"De la part de Madame," handing Paul a letter the while.
What could it contain?
But this was not the moment for speculation—he would read and see.
He turned his back on the servant, and walked towards the light, while he tore open the envelope. It had the most minute sphinx in the corner, and the paper was un-English, and rather thin.
This was what he read:
"Paul, I am young to-day, and we must see the blue lake and the green trees. Come to the landing towards the station, and I will call for you in my launch. And you shall be young, too, Paul—and teach me! Give Dmitry the answer."
"The answer is, 'Yes, immediately'—tell Madame," Paul said.
And then he trod on air until he arrived at the landing she had indicated. Soon the launch glided up, he saw her there reclining under an awning of striped green.
It was a well-arranged launch, the comfortable deck-chairs were in the bows, and the steering took place from a raised perch behind the cabin, so the two were practically alone. The lady was in grey to-day, and it suited her strangely. Her eyes gleamed at him, full of mischief, under her large grey hat.
Paul drew his chair a little forward, turning it so that he could look at her without restraint.
"How good of you to send for me," he said delightedly.
She smiled a radiant smile. "Was it? I am capricious, I did not think of the good for you, only I wanted you—to please myself. I wish to be foolish to-day, Paul, and see your eyes dance, and watch the light on your curls."
Paul frowned; it was as if she thought him a baby.
Then the lady leant back and laughed, the sound was of golden bells.
"Yes, you are a baby!" she said, answering his thoughts. "A great, big, beautiful baby, Paul."
If Paul had been a girl he would have pouted.
She turned from him and gazed over the lake; it was looking indescribably beautiful, with the colours of the springtime.
"Do you see the green of those beeches by the water, Paul? Look at their tenderness, next the dark firs—and then the blue beyond—and see, there is a copper beech, he is king of them all! I would like to build a chalet up in some part like that, and come there each year in May—to read fairy-tales."
For the first time in his life Paul saw with different eyes—just the beauty of things—and forgot to gauge their sporting possibilities. An infinite joy was flooding his being, some sensation he had not dreamed about even, of happiness and fulfilment.
She appeared to him more alluring than ever, and young and gay—as young as Isabella! And then his thoughts caused him to take in his breath with a hiss—Isabella—how far away she seemed. Of course he could never love any one else—but—
"Don't think of it, then," the lady whispered. "Be young like me, and live under the blue sky."
How was it she knew his thoughts always? He blushed while he stammered: "No—I won't think of it—or anything but you—Princess."
"Daring one!" she said, "who told you to call me that? The hotel people have been talking, I suppose."
"No," said Paul, surprised, "I called you Princess just because you seem like one to me—but now I guess from what you say, you are not plain Madame Zalenska."
Her eyes clouded for a second. "Madame Zalenska does to travel with—but you shall call me what you like."
He grew emboldened.
"I suddenly feel I want so much—I want to know why your eyes were so mocking through the trees on the Buergenstock? They drove me nearly mad, you know, and I raced about after you like a dog after a hare!"
"I thought you would—you did not control the expression when you gazed up at me! And so I was the true hare—and ran away!"
She looked down suddenly and was silent for some moments, then she turned the conversation from these personal things. She led his thoughts into new channels—made him observe the trees and sky, and the wonderful beauty of it all, and with lightning flashes took him into unknown speculations on emotions and the meaning of things.
A new existence seemed to open to Paul's view. And all the while she lay back in her chair almost motionless, only her wonderful eyes lit up the strange whiteness of her face. There was not a touch of mauvaise honte, or explanation of the unusualness of this situation in her manner. It had a perfect, quiet dignity, as if to look into the eyes of an unknown young man at night over an ivy terrace, and then spend a day with him alone, were the most natural things in the world to do.
Paul felt she was a queen whose actions must be left unquestioned.
Presently they came to a small village, and here she would land and lunch. And from somewhere behind the cabin Dmitry appeared, and was sent on ahead, so that when they walked into the little hotel a simple repast was waiting for them.
By this time Paul was absolutely enthralled. Never in his whole life had he spent such a morning. His imagination was expanded. He saw new vistas. His brain almost whirled. Was it he—Paul Verdayne—who was seated opposite this divine woman, drinking in her voice, and listening to her subtle curious thoughts?
And what were the commonplace, ordinary things which had hitherto occupied his mind? How had he ever wasted a moment on them?
It was his first awakening.
When it came to the end—this delightful repast—he called the waiter, and wanted to pay the bill; small enough in all conscience. But a new look appeared round the lady's mouth—imperious, with an instantaneous flash in her eyes—a pure, steel-grey they were to-day.
"Leave it to Dmitry," she said quickly. "I never occupy myself with money. They displease me, these details—and why spoil my day?"
But Paul was an Englishman, and resented any woman's paying for his food. His mouth changed, too, and looked obstinate.
"I say, you know—" he began.
Then she turned upon him.
"Understand at once," she said haughtily. "Either you leave me unjarred by your English conventionalities, or you pay these miserable francs and go back to Lucerne alone!"
Paul shrugged his shoulders. He was angry, but could not insist further.
When they got outside, her voice grew caressing again as she led the way to a path up among the young beeches.
"Paul—foolish one!" she said. "Do you not think I understand and know you—and your quaint English ways? But imagine how silly it is. I am quite aware that you have ample money to provide me with a feast of Midas—all of gold—if necessary, and you shall some day, if you really wish. But to stop over paltry sums of francs, to destroy the thread of our conversation and thoughts—to make it all banal and everyday! That is what I won't have. Dmitry is there for nothing else but to eviter for me these details. It is my holiday, my pleasure-day, my time of joy. I felt young, Paul. You would not make one little shadow for me—would you, ami?"
No voice that he had ever dreamt of possessed so many tones in it as hers—even one of pathos, as she lingered over the word "shadow," All his annoyance melted. He only felt he would change the very mainspring of his life if necessary to give her pleasure and joy.
"Of course I would not make a shadow,—surely you know that," he said, moved. "Only you see a man generally pays for a woman's food."
"When she belongs to him—but I don't belong to you, baby Paul. You, for the day, belong to me—and are my guest!"
"Very well, then, we won't talk about it," he said, resigned by the caress in her words. To belong to her! That was something, if but for one day.
"Only it must never come up again, this question", she insisted. "Should we spend more hours on this lake, or other lakes—or mountains, or rivers, or towns—let us speak never of money, or paying. If you only knew of how I hate it! the cruel yellow gold! I have heaps of it—heaps of it! and for it human beings have always paid so great a price. Just this once in life let it bring happiness and peace."
He wondered at the concentrated feeling she expressed. What could the price be? And what was her history?"
"So it is over, our little breeze," she said gently, after a pause. "And you will tease me no more, Paul?"
"I would never tease you!" he exclaimed tenderly. And, if he had dared, he would have taken her hand.
"You English are so wonderful! Full of your prejudices," she said in a contemplative way. "Bulldog tenacity of purpose, whether you are right or wrong. Things are a custom, and they must be done, or it is not 'playing the game,'" and she imitated a set English voice, her beautiful mouth pursed up, until Paul had to use violent restraint with himself to keep from kissing it. "A wonderful people—mostly gentlemen and generally honest, but of a common sense that is disastrous to sentiment or romance. If you were not so polished, and lazy and strong—and beautiful to look at, one would not consider you much beyond the German."
"Not consider us beyond a beastly German!" exclaimed Paul indignantly.
And the lady laughed like a child.
"Oh! you darling Paul!" she said. "You dear, insular, arrogant Englishman! You have no equal in the world!"
Paul was offended.
"If you had said an Austrian now—but a German—" he growled sulkily.
"The Austrians are charming," allowed the lady, "but they err the other way; they have not enough common sense, they are only great gentlemen. Also, they are naturally awake, whereas you English are naturally asleep, and you yourself are the Sleeping Beauty, Paul."
They had climbed up the path now some two hundred feet, and all around them were stripling beeches of an unnaturally exquisite green, as fresh and pure and light almost as leaves of the forced lily of the valley.
The whole world throbbed with youth and freshness, and here and there, wide of the path, by a mossy stone, a gentian raised its azure head, "small essences of sky;" the lady called them.
"Let us sit down on this piece of rock," Paul said. "I want to hear why I am the Sleeping Beauty. It is so long since I read the story. But wasn't it about a girl, not a man—and didn't she get wakened up by a—kiss?"
"She did!" said the lady, leaning back against a tree behind her; "but then it was just her faculties which were asleep, not her soul. Could a kiss wake a soul?"
"I think so," Paul whispered. He was seated on a part of the rock which jutted out a little lower than her resting-place, and he was so close as to be almost touching her. He could look up under the brim of that tantalising hat, which so often hid her from his view as they walked. He was quivering with excitement at this moment, the result of the thought of a kiss—and his blue eyes blazed with desire as they devoured her face.
"Yes—it is so," said the lady, a low note in her voice. "Because Huldebrand gave Undine a soul with a kiss."
"Tell me about it," implored Paul. "I am so ignorant. Who was Huldebrand, and what did he do?"
So she began in a dreamy voice, and you who have read De la Motte Fouque's dry version of this exquisite legend would hardly have recognised the poetry and pathos and tender sentiment she wove round those two, and the varied moods of Undine, and the passion of her knight. And when she came to the evening of their wedding, when the young priest had placed their hands together, and listened to their vows—when Undine had found her soul at last, in Huldebrand's arms—her voice faltered, and she stopped and looked down.
"And then?" said Paul, and his breath came rather fast. "And then?"
"He was a man, you see, Paul; so when he had won her love, he did not value it—he threw it away."
"Oh, no! I don't believe it!" Paul exclaimed vehemently. "It was just this brute Huldebrand. But you don't know men—to think they do not value what they win—you don't know them, indeed!"
She looked down straight into his face, as he gazed up at her, and to his intense surprise he could have sworn her eyes were green now! as green as emeralds. And they held him and fascinated him and paralysed him, like those of a snake.
"I do not know men?" she said softly. "You think not, Paul?"
But Paul could hardly speak, he buried his face in her lap, like a child, and kept it there, kissing her gloved hands. His straw hat, with its Zingari ribbon, lay on the grass beside him, and a tiny shaft of sunlight glanced through the trees, gilding the crisp waves of his brushed-back hair into dark burnished gold.
The lady moved one hand from his impassioned caress, and touched the curl with her finger-tips. She smiled with the tenderness a mother might have done.
"There—there!" she said. "Not yet." Then she drew her hand away from him and leant back, half closing her eyes.
Paul sat up and stared around. Each moment of the day was providing new emotions for him. Surely this was what Columbus must have felt, nearing the new world. He pulled himself together. She was not angry then at his outburst, and his caress—though something in her face warned him not to err again.
"Tell me the rest," he said pleadingly. "Why did he not value Undine's love, and what made the fool throw it away?"
"Because he possessed it, you see," said the lady. "That was reason enough, surely."
Then she told him of the ceasing of Undine's wayward moods after she had received her soul—of her docility—of her tenderness—of Huldebrand's certainty of her love. Then of his inevitable weariness. And at last of the Court, and the meeting again with Hildegarde, and of all the sorrow that followed, until the end, when the fountains burst their stoppings and rushed upwards, wreathing themselves into the figure of Undine, to take her Love to death with her kiss.
"Oh! he was wise!" Paul said. "He chose to die with her kiss. He knew at last then—what he had thrown away."
"That one learns often, Paul, when it has grown—too late! Come, let us live in the sunshine. Live while we may."
And the lady rose, and giving him her hand, she almost ran into the bright light of day, where even no tender shadows fell.
Their return journey was one of quiet. The lady talked little, she leant back and looked away across the blue lake, often apparently unconscious of his presence. This troubled Paul. Had he wearied her? What should he do? He was growing aware of the fact that she was not a bit like his mother, or Isabella, or any of the other women whom he knew—people whose moods he had never even speculated about—if they had any—which he doubted.
Why wouldn't she speak? Had she forgotten him? He felt chilled and saddened.
At last, as they neared a small bay where another tempting little chalet-hotel mirrored itself in the clear water, he spoke. A note in his voice—his charming young voice—as of a child in distress.
"Are—are you cross with me?"
Then she came back from her other world. "Cross with you? Foolish one! No, I am dreaming. And I forgot that you could not know yet, or understand. English Paul! who would have me make conversation and chatter commonplaces or he feels a gene! See, I will take you where I have been into this infinite sky and air"—she let her hand fall on his arm and thrilled him—"look up at Pilatus. Do you see his head so snowy, and all the delicate shadows upon him, and his look of mystery? And those dark pines—and the great chasms, and the wild anger the giants were in when they hurled these huge rocks about? I have been with them, and you and I seem such little people, Paul. We cannot throw great rocks about—we are only two small ants in this grand world."
Paul's face was puzzled, he did not believe in giants. His mind was not accustomed yet to these flights of speech, he felt stupid and irritated with himself, and in some way humiliated. The lady leant over him, her face playfully tender.
"Great blue eyes!" she said. "So pretty, so pretty! What matter whether they can see or no?" And she touched his lids with her slender fingers.
Paul quivered in his chair.
"You know!" he gasped. "You make me mad—I——But won't you teach me to see? No one wants to be blind! Teach me to see with your eyes, lady—my lady."
"Yes, I will teach you!" she said. "Teach you a number of things. Together we will put on the hat of darkness and go down into Hades. We shall taste the apples of the Hesperides—we will rob Mercure of his sandals—and Gyges of his ring. And one day, Paul—when together we have fathomed the meaning of it all—what will happen then, enfant?"
Her last word, "enfant," was a caress, and Paul was too bewildered with joy to answer her for a moment.
"What will happen?" he said at last. "I shall just love you—that's all!"
Then he remembered Isabella Waring, and suddenly covered his face with his hands.
They stopped for tea at the quaint chalet-hotel, and after it they wandered to pick gentians. The lady was sweet and sympathetic and gay; she ceased startling him with wild fancies; indeed, she spoke of simple everyday things, and got him to tell her of his home and Oxford, and his horses and his dogs. And when they arrived at the subject of Pike, her sympathy drew Paul nearer to her than ever. Of course she would love Pike if she only knew him! Who could help loving a dog like Pike? And his master waxed eloquent. Then, when he looked away, the lady's weird chameleon eyes melted upon him in that strange tenderness which might have been a mother's watching the gambols of her babe.
The shadows were quite deep when at last they decided to return to Lucerne—a small bunch of heaven's own blue flower the only trophy of the day.
Paul had never enjoyed himself so much in his twenty-three years of life. And what would the evening bring? Surely more joy. This parting at the landing could not be good-night!
But as the launch glided nearer and nearer his heart fell, and at last he could bear the uncertainty no longer.
"And for dinner?" he said. "Won't you dine me, my Princess? Let me be your host, as you have been mine all to-day."
But a stiffness seemed to fall upon her suddenly—she appeared to have become a stranger again almost.
"Thank you, no. I cannot dine," she said. "I must write letters—and go to sleep."
Paul felt an ice-hand clutching his heart. His face became so blank as to almost pale before her eyes.
She leant forward, and smiled. "Will you be lonely, Paul? Then at ten o'clock you must come under the ivy and wish me good-night."
And this was all he could gain from her. She landed him to walk back to the hotel at the same place from which they had embarked, and the launch struck out again into the lake.
He walked fast, just to be near enough to see her step ashore on to the hotel wharf, but he could not arrive in time, and her grey figure disappearing up the terrace steps was all his hungry eyes were vouchsafed.
The weariness of dinner! What did it matter what the food was? What did it matter that a new family of quite nice English people had arrived, and sat near? A fresh young girl and a youth, and a father and mother. People who would certainly play billiards and probably bridge. What did anything matter in the world? Time must be got through, simply got through until ten o'clock—that was all.
At half-past nine he strode out and sat upon the bench. His thoughts went back in a constant review of the day. How she had looked, where they had sat, what she had said. Why her eyes seemed green in the wood and blue on the water. Why her voice had all those tones in it. Why she had been old and young, and wise and childish. Then he thought of the story of Undine and the lady's strange, snake's look when she had said: "I do not know men?—You think not, Paul?"
His heart gave a great bound at the remembrance. He permitted himself no speculation as to where he was drifting. He just sat there thrilling in every limb and every sense and every quality of his brain.
As the clocks chimed the hour something told him she was there above him, although he heard no sound.
Not a soul was in sight in this quiet corner. He bounded on to the bench to be nearer—if she should come. If she were there hiding in the shadows. This was maddening—unbearable. He would climb the balustrade to see. Then out of the blackest gloom came a laugh of silver. A soft laugh that was almost a caress. And suddenly she crept close and leant down over the ivy.
"Paul," she whispered. "I have come, you see, to wish you—good-night!"
Paul stood up to his full height. He put out his arms to draw her to him, but she eluded him and darted aside.
He gave a great sigh of pain.
Slowly she came back and bent over and over of her own accord—so low that at last she was level with his face. And slowly her red lips melted into his young lips in a long, strange kiss.
Then, before Paul could grasp her, or murmur one pleading word, she was gone.
And again he found himself alone, intoxicated with emotion under the night sky studded with stars.
Rain, rain, rain! That was not an agreeable sound to wake to when one had not had more than a few hours' sleep, and one's only hope of the day was to see one's lady again.
So Paul thought despairingly. What would happen? No lake, or mountain climb, was possible—but see her he must. After that kiss—that divine, enthralling, undreamed-of kiss. What did it mean? Did she love him? He loved her, that was certain. The poor feeble emotion he had experienced for Isabella was completely washed out and gone now.
He felt horribly ashamed of himself when he thought about it. His parents were perfectly right, of course; they had known best, and fortunately Isabella had not perhaps believed him, and was not a person of deep feeling anyway.
But the extreme discomfort of the thought of her made him toss in his bed. What ought he to do? Rush away from Lucerne? To what good? The die was cast, and in any case he was not bound to Isabella in any way. But at least he ought to write to her and tell her he had made a mistake. That was the only honest thing to do. A terrible duty, and he must brace himself up to accomplish it.
He breakfasted in his sitting-room, his thoughts scourging him the while, and afterwards, with a bulldog determination, he faced the writing-table and began.
He tore up at least three sheets to start with—no Greek lines of punishment in his boyhood had ever appeared such a task as this. He found himself scribbling profiles on the paper, chiselled profiles with inky hair—but no words would come.
"Dear Isabella," he wrote at last. No—"My dear Isabella," then he paused and bit the pen. "I feel I ought to tell you something has happened to me. I see my parents were right when—" "Oh! dash it all," he said to himself, "it's a beastly sneaking thing to do to put it like that," and he scratched the paragraph out and began again. "I have made a mistake in my feelings for you; I know now that they were those of a brother—" "O Lord, what am I to say next, it does sound bald, this!" The poor boy groaned and ran his hands through his curly hair, then seized the pen again, and continued—"as such I shall love you always, dear Isabella. Please forgive me if I have caused you any pain. It was all my fault, and I feel a beastly cad.—Your very unhappy PAUL."
This was not a masterpiece! but it would have to do. So he copied it out on a fresh piece of paper. Then, when it was all finished and addressed he ran down and posted it himself in the hall, with some of the emotions Alexander may have experienced when he burnt his ships.
The clock struck eleven. At what time would he see the lady—his lady he called her now. Some instinct told him she did not wish the hotel people to be aware of their acquaintance. He felt it wiser not to send a note. He must wait and hope.
Rain or not, he was too English to stay indoors all day. So out he went and into the town. The quaint bridge pleased him; he tried to think how she would have told him to use his eyes. He must not be stupid, he said to himself, and already he began to perceive new meanings in things. Coming back, he chanced to stop and look in at the fur shop under the hotel. There were some nice skins there, and what caught his attention most was a really splendid tiger. A magnificent creature the beast must have been. The deepest, most perfectly marked, largest one he had ever seen. He stood for some time admiring it. An infinitely better specimen than his lady had over her couch. Should he buy it for her? Would she take it? Would it please her to think he had remembered it might be what she would like?
He went into the shop. It was not even dear as tigers go, and his parents had given him ample money for any follies.
"Confound it, Henrietta! The boy must have his head!" Sir Charles Verdayne had said. "He's my son, you know, and you can't expect to cure him of one wench unless you provide him with shekels to buy another." Which crudely expressed wisdom had been followed, and Paul had no worries where his banking account was concerned.
He bought the tiger, and ordered it to be sent to his rooms immediately.
Then there was lunch to be thought of. She would not be there probably, but still he had a faint hope.
She was not there, nor were any preparations made for her; but when one is twenty-three and hungry, even if deeply in love, one must eat. The English people had the next table beyond the sacred one of the lady. The girl was pretty and young, and laughing. But what a doll! thought Paul. What a meaningless wax doll! Not worth—not worth a moment's glancing at.
And the pink and white fluffy girl was saying to herself: "There is Paul Verdayne again. I wish he remembered he had met me at the De Courcys', though we weren't introduced. I must get Percy to scrape up a conversation with him. I wish mamma had not made me wear this green alpaca to-day." But Paul's blue eyes gazed through and beyond her, and saw her not. So all this prettiness was wasted.
And directly after lunch he returned to his sitting room. The tiger would probably have arrived, and he wanted to further examine it. Yes, it was there. He pulled it out and spread it over the floor. What a splendid creature—it reminded him in some way of her—his lady.
Then he went into his bedroom and fetched a pair of scissors, and proceeded to kneel on the floor and pare away the pinked-out black cloth which came beyond the skin. It looked banal, and he knew she would not like that.
Oh! he was awaking! this beautiful young Paul.
He had scarcely finished when there was a tap at the door, and Dmitry appeared with a note. The thin, remembered paper thrilled him, and he took it from the servant's hand.
"Paul—I am in the devil's mood to-day. About 5 o'clock come to me by the terrace steps."
That was all—there was no date or signature. But Paul's heart beat in his throat with joy.
"I want the skin to go to Madame," he said. "Have you any means of conveying it to her without the whole world seeing it go?"
The stately servant bowed. "If the Excellency would help him to fold it up," he said, "he would take it now to his own room, and from thence to the appartement numero 3."
It is not a very easy thing to fold up a huge tiger-skin into a brown paper parcel tied with string. But it was accomplished somehow and Dmitry disappeared noiselessly with it and an answer to the note:
"I will be there, sweet lady.
"Your own PAUL."
And he was.
A bright fire burnt in the grate, and some palest orchid-mauve silk curtains were drawn in the lady's room when Paul entered from the terrace. And loveliest sight of all, in front of the fire, stretched at full length, was his tiger—and on him—also at full length—reclined the lady, garbed in some strange clinging garment of heavy purple crepe, its hem embroidered with gold, one white arm resting on the beast's head, her back supported by a pile of the velvet cushions, and a heap of rarely bound books at her side, while between her red lips was a rose not redder than they—an almost scarlet rose. Paul had never seen one as red before.
The whole picture was barbaric. It might have been some painter's dream of the Favourite in a harem. It was not what one would expect to find in a sedate Swiss hotel.
She did not stir as he stepped in, dropping the heavy curtains after him. She merely raised her eyes, and looked Paul through and through. Her whole expression was changed; it was wicked and dangerous and provocante. It seemed quite true, as she had said—she was evidently in the devil's mood.
Paul bounded forward, but she raised one hand to stop him.
"No! you must not come near me, Paul. I am not safe to-day. Not yet. See, you must sit there and we will talk."
And she pointed to a great chair of Venetian workmanship and wonderful old velvet which was new to his view.
"I bought that chair in the town this morning at the curiosity shop on the top of Weggisstrasse, which long ago was the home of the Venetian envoy here—and you bought me the tiger, Paul. Ah! that was good. My beautiful tiger!" And she gave a movement like a snake, of joy to feel its fur under her, while she stretched out her hands and caressed the creature where the hair turned white and black at the side, and was deep and soft.
"Beautiful one! beautiful one!" she purred. "And I know all your feelings and your passions, and now I have got your skin—for the joy of my skin!" And she quivered again with the movements of a snake.
It is not difficult to imagine that Paul felt far from calm during this scene—indeed he was obliged to hold on to his great chair to prevent himself from seizing her in his arms.
"I'm—I'm so glad you like him," he said in a choked voice. "I thought probably you would. And your own was not worthy of you. I found this by chance. And oh! good God! if you knew how you are making me feel—lying there wasting your caresses upon it!"
She tossed the scarlet rose over to him; it hit his mouth.
"I am not wasting them," she said, the innocence of a kitten in her strange eyes—their colour impossible to define to-day. "Indeed not, Paul! He was my lover in another life—perhaps—who knows?"
"But I," said Paul, who was now quite mad, "want to be your lover in this!"
Then he gasped at his own boldness.
With a lightning movement she lay on her face, raised her elbows on the tiger's head, and supported her chin in her hands. Perfectly straight out her body was, the twisted purple drapery outlining her perfect shape, and flowing in graceful lines beyond—like a serpent's tail. The velvet pillows fell scattered at one side.
"Paul—what do you know of lovers—or love?" she said. "My baby Paul!"
"I know enough to know I know nothing yet which is worth knowing," he said confusedly. "But—but—don't you understand, I want you to teach me—"
"You are so sweet, Paul! when you plead like that I am taking in every bit of you. In your way as perfect as this tiger. But we must talk—oh! such a great, great deal—first."
A rage of passion was racing through Paul, his incoherent thoughts were that he did not want to talk—only to kiss her—to devour her—to strangle her with love if necessary.
He bit the rose.
"You see, Paul, love is a purely physical emotion," she continued. "We could speak an immense amount about souls, and sympathy, and understanding, and devotion. All beautiful things in their way, and possible to be enjoyed at a distance from one another. All the things which make passion noble—but without love—which is passion— these things dwindle and become duties presently, when the hysterical exaltation cools. Love is tangible—it means to be close—close— to be clasped—to be touching—to be One!"
Her voice was low—so concentrated as to be startling in contrast to the drip of the rain outside, and her eyes—half closed and gleaming—burnt into his brain. It seemed as if strange flames of green darted from their pupils.
"But that is what I want!" Paul said, unsteadily.
"Without counting the cost? Tears and—cold steel—and blood!" she whispered. "Wait a while, beautiful Paul!"
He started back chilled for a second, and in that second she changed her position, pulling the cushions around her, nestling into them and drawing herself cosily up like a child playing on a mat in front of the fire, while with a face of perfect innocence she looked up as she drew one of her great books nearer, and said in a dreamy voice:
"Now we will read fairy-tales, Paul."
But Paul was too moved to speak. These rapid changes were too much for him, greatly advanced though he had become in these short days since he had known her. He leant back in his chair, every nerve in his body quivering, his young fresh face almost pale.
"Paul," she cooed plaintively, "to-morrow I shall be reasonable again, perhaps, and human, but to-day I am capricious and wayward, and mustn't be teased. I want to read about Cupid and Psyche from this wonderful 'Golden Ass' of Apuleius—just a simple tale for a wet day—and you and—me!"
"Read then!" said Paul, resigned.
And she commenced in Latin, in a chanting, tender voice. Paul had forgotten most of the Latin he knew, but he remembered enough to be aware that this must be as easy as English to her as it flowed along in a rich rhythmic sound.
It soothed him. He seemed to be dreaming of flowery lands and running streams. After a while she looked up again, and then with one of her sudden movements like a graceful cat, she was beside him leaning from the back of his chair.
"Paul!" she whispered right in his ear, "am I being wicked for you to-day? I cannot help it. The devil is in me—and now I must sing."
"Sing then!" said Paul, maddened with again arising emotion.
She seized a guitar that lay near, and began in a soft voice in some language he knew not—a cadence of melody he had never heard, but one whose notes made strange quivers all up his spine. An exquisite pleasure of sound that was almost pain. And when he felt he could bear no more, she flung the instrument aside, and leant over his chair again—caressing his curls with her dainty fingers, and purring unknown strange words in his ear.
Paul was young and unlearned in many things. He was completely enthralled and under her dominion—but he was naturally no weakling of body or mind. And this was more than he could stand.
"You mustn't be teased. My God! it is you who are maddening me!" he cried, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Do you think I am a statue, or a table, or chair—or inanimate like that tiger there? I am not, I tell you!" and he seized her in his arms, raining kisses upon her which, whatever they lacked in subtlety, made up for in their passion and strength. "Some day some man will kill you, I suppose, but I shall be your lover—first!"
The lady gasped. She looked up at him in bewildered surprise, as a child might do who sets a light to a whole box of matches in play. What a naughty, naughty toy to burn so quickly for such a little strike!
But Paul's young, strong arms held her close, she could not struggle or move. Then she laughed a laugh of pure glad joy.
"Beautiful, savage Paul," she whispered. "Do you love me? Tell me that?"
"Love you!" he said. "Good God! Love you! Madly, and you know it, darling Queen."
"Then," said the lady in a voice in which all the caresses of the world seemed melted, "then, sweet Paul, I shall teach you many things, and among them I shall teach you how—to—LIVE."
And outside the black storm made the darkness fall early. And inside the half-burnt logs tumbled together, causing a cloud of golden sparks, and then the flames leapt up again and crackled in the grate.
At dinner that night the lady came in after Paul was seated. She was all in black velvet, stately and dignified and fine. She passed his chair and took her seat, not the faintest sign of recognition on her face. And although he was prepared for this, for some reason his heart sank for a moment. Her demeanour was the same as on the first night he had seen her, hardly raising her eyes, eating little of the most exquisite food, and appearing totally unconscious of her neighbours or their ways.
She caused a flutter of excitement at the English table, the only other party, except two old men in a corner, who had dined so late, and they were half-way through their repast before she began hers. Paul was annoyed to see how they stared—stared at his lady. But what joy it was to sit there and realise that she was his—his very own! And only four nights ago he had been a rude stranger, too, criticising her every movement, and drinking too much port with annoyance over it all. And now his whole life was changed. He saw with new eyes, and heard with new ears, even his casual observation was altered and sharpened, so that he noticed the texture of the cloth and the quality of the glass, and the shape of the room and its decoration.
And how insupportably commonplace the good English family seemed! That bread-and-butter miss with her pink cheeks and fluffy hair, without a hat! Women's hair should be black and grow in heavy waves. He was certain of that now. How like them to come into a foreign restaurant hatless, just because they were English and must impose their customs! He sat and mused on it all, as he looked at his velvet-clad Queen. A sense of complete joy and satisfaction stealing over him, his wild excitement and emotion calmed for the time.
The delightful sensation of sharing a secret with her—a love-secret known only to themselves. Think, if these Philistines guessed at it even! their faces. And at this thought Paul almost laughed aloud.
With passionate interest he absorbed every little detail about his lady. How exactly she knew what suited her. How refined and grande dame and quiet it all was, and what an air of breeding and command she had in the poise of her little Greek head.
What did it matter what age she was, or of what nation? What did anything matter since she was his? And at that thought his heart began to beat again and cause him to speculate as to his evening.
Would she let him come back to the terrace room after dinner, or must he get through the time as best he could? When he had left her, half dazed with joy and languor, no arrangements had been made—no definite plans settled. But of course she could not mean him not to wish her good-night—not now. For one second before she left the room their eyes met, she raised a red rose, which she had taken from the silver vase, casually to her lips, and then passed out, but Paul knew she had meant the kiss for him, and his whole being was uplifted.
It was still pouring with rain. No possible excuse to smoke on the terrace. It might be wiser to stay in the hall. Surely Dmitry would come with some message before very long, if he was patient and waited her pleasure. But ten o'clock struck and there was no sign. Only the English youth, Percy Trevellian, had got into conversation with him, and was proposing billiards to pass the time.
Paul loved billiards—but not to-night. Heavens! what an idea! Go off to the billiard-room—now—to-night!
He said he had a headache, and answered rather shortly in fact, and then, to escape further importunity, went up to his sitting-room, there to await the turn of events, leaving poor little Mabel Trevellian gazing after him with longing eyes.
"Did you see at dinner how he stared at that foreign person, mamma?" she said. "Men are such fools! Clarkson told me, as she fastened my dress to-night, she'd heard she was some Grand Duchess, or Queen, travelling incognito for her health. Very plain and odd-looking, didn't you think so, mamma? And quite old!"
"No, dear. Most distinguished. Not a girl, of course, but quite the appearance of a Princess," said Mabel's mother, who had seen the world.
Paul meanwhile paced his room—an anxious excitement was now his portion. Surely, surely she could not mean him not to see her—not to say one little good-night. What should he do? What possible plan invent? As eleven chimed he could bear it no longer. Rain or no, he must go out on the terrace!
"Those mad English!" the porter said to himself, as he watched Paul's tall figure disappear in the dripping night.
And there till after twelve he paced the path under the trees. But no light showed; the terrace gate was locked. It was chilly and wet and miserable, and at last he crept back utterly depressed, to bed. But not to sleep. Even his youth and health were not proof against the mad emotions of the day. He tossed and turned, a thousand questions singing in his brain. Was it really he who had been chosen by this divine woman for her lover? And if so, why was he alone now instead of holding her in his arms? What did it all mean? Who was she? Where would it end? But here he refused to think further. He was living at all events—living as he had never dreamed was possible.
And yet, poor Paul, he was only on the rim of all that he was soon to know of life.
At last he fell asleep, one sentence ringing in his ears—"Tears and—cold steel—and blood!" But if he was young, he was a gallant gentleman, and Fear had no place in his dreams.
Next day they went to the Buergenstock to stay. It was all arranged with consummate simplicity. Paul was to start for a climb, he told his valet, and for a week they would leave Lucerne. Mme. Zalenska was not very well, it appeared, and consented to try, at the suggestion of the amiable manager—inspired by Dmitry—a few days in higher air. There would not be a soul in their hotel on top of the Buergenstock probably, and she could have complete rest.
They did not arrive together, Paul was the first. He had not seen her. Dmitry had given him his final instructions, and he awaited her coming with passionate impatience.
He had written to her, on awaking, a coherent torrent of love, marvellously unlike the letter which had gone to poor Isabella only a few days before. In this to his lady he had said he could not bear it now, the uncertainty of seeing her, and had suggested the Buergenstock crudely, without any of the clever details which afterwards made it possible.
He—Paul Verdayne, not quite twenty-three years old, and English—to suggest without a backward thought or a qualm that a lady whom he had known five days should come and live with him and be his love! None of his friends accustomed to his bashful habits would have believed it. Only his father perhaps might have smiled.
As for the Lady Henrietta, she would have fainted on the spot. But fortune favoured him—they did not know.
No excitement of the wildest day's hunting had ever made his pulses bound like this! Dmitry had arranged everything. Paul was a young English secretary to Madame, who had much writing to do. And in any case it is not the affair of respectable foreign hotels to pry into their clients' relationship when a large suite has been engaged.