THE REASON WHY
BY ELINOR GLYN
Author of "His Hour," "Three Weeks," etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY EDMUND FREDERICK
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"Not by a glance or a turn of his head did he let his bride see how wildly her superlative attraction had kindled the fire in his blood"
"The whole expression of her face changed as he came and leaned upon the piano"
"With his English self-control and horror of a scene, he followed his wife to the door"
"'Zara!' he said distractedly ...'Can I not help you?'"
THE REASON WHY
People often wondered what nation the great financier, Francis Markrute, originally sprang from. He was now a naturalized Englishman and he looked English enough. He was slight and fair, and had an immaculately groomed appearance generally—which even the best of valets cannot always produce. He wore his clothes with that quiet, unconscious air which is particularly English. He had no perceptible accent—only a deliberate way of speaking. But Markrute!—such a name might have come from anywhere. No one knew anything about him, except that he was fabulously rich and had descended upon London some ten years previously from Paris, or Berlin, or Vienna, and had immediately become a power in the city, and within a year or so, had grown to be omnipotent in certain circles.
He had a wonderfully appointed house in Park Lane, one of those smaller ones just at the turn out of Grosvenor Street, and there he entertained in a reserved fashion.
It had been remarked by people who had time to think—rare cases in these days—that he had never made a disadvantageous friend, from his very first arrival. If he had to use undesirables for business purposes he used them only for that, in a crisp, hard way, and never went to their houses. Every acquaintance even was selected with care for a definite end. One of his favorite phrases was that "it is only the fool who coins for himself limitations."
At this time, as he sat smoking a fine cigar in his library which looked out on the park, he was perhaps forty-six years old or thereabouts, and but for his eyes—wise as serpents'—he might have been ten years younger.
Opposite to him facing the light a young man lounged in a great leather chair. The visitors in Francis Markrute's library nearly always faced the light, while he himself had his back to it.
There was no doubt about this visitor's nation! He was flamboyantly English. If you had wished to send a prize specimen of the race to a World's Fair you could not have selected anything finer. He was perhaps more Norman than Saxon, for his hair was dark though his eyes were blue, and the marks of breeding in the creature showed as plainly as in a Derby winner. Francis Markrute always smoked his cigars to the end, if he were at leisure and the weed happened to be a good one, but Lord Tancred (Tristram Lorrimer Guiscard Guiscard, 24th Baron Tancred, of Wrayth in the County of Suffolk) flung his into the grate after a few whiffs, and he laughed with a slightly whimsical bitterness as he went on with the conversation.
"Yes, Francis, my friend, the game here is played out; I am thirty, and there is nothing interesting left for me to do but emigrate to Canada, for a while at least, and take up a ranch."
"Wrayth mortgaged heavily, I suppose?" said Mr. Markrute, quietly.
"Pretty well, and the Northern property, too. When my mother's jointure is paid there is not a great deal left this year, it seems. I don't mind much; I had a pretty fair time before these beastly Radicals made things so difficult."
The financier nodded, and the young man went on: "My forbears got rid of what they could; there was not much ready money to come into and one had to live!"
Francis Markrute smoked for a minute thoughtfully.
"Naturally," he said at last. "Only the question is—for how long? I understand a plunge, if you settle its duration; it is the drifting and trusting to chance, and a gradual sinking which seem to me a poor game. Did you ever read de Musset's 'Rolla'?"
"The fellow who had arrived at his last night, and to whom the little girl was so kind? Yes: well?"
"You reminded me of Jacques Rolla, that is all."
"Oh, come! It is not as bad as that!" Lord Tancred exclaimed—and he laughed. "I can collect a few thousands still, even here, and I can go to Canada. I believe there is any quantity of money to be made there with a little capital, and it is a nice, open-air life. I just looked in this afternoon on my way back from Scotland to tell you I should be going out to prospect, about the end of November and could not join you for the pheasants on the 20th, as you were good enough to ask me to do."
The financier half closed his eyes. When he did this there was always something of importance working in his brain.
"You have not any glaring vices, Tancred," he said. "You are no gambler either on the turf or at cards. You are not over addicted to expensive ladies. You are cultivated, for a sportsman, and you have made one or two decent speeches in the House of Lords. You are, in fact, rather a fine specimen of your class. It seems a pity you should have to shut down and go to the Colonies."
"Oh, I don't know! And I have not altogether got to shut down," the young man said, "only the show is growing rather rotten over here. We have let the rabble—the most unfit and ignorant—have the casting vote, and the machine now will crush any man. I have kept out of politics as much as I can and I am glad."
Francis Markrute got up and lowered the blind a few inches—a miserable September sun was trying to shine into the room. If Lord Tancred had not been so preoccupied with his own thoughts he would have remarked this restlessness on the part of his host. He was no fool; but his mind was far away. It almost startled him when the cold, deliberate voice continued:
"I have a proposition to make to you should you care to accept it. I have a niece—a widow—she is rather an attractive lady. If you will marry her I will pay off all your mortgages and settle on her quite a princely dower."
"Good God!" said Lord Tancred.
The financier reddened a little about the temples, and his eyes for an instant gave forth a flash of steel. There had been an infinite variety of meanings hidden in the exclamation, but he demanded suavely:
"What point of the question causes you to exclaim 'Good God'?"
The sang-froid of Lord Tancred never deserted him.
"The whole thing," he said—"to marry at all, to begin with, and to marry an unknown woman, to have one's debts paid, for the rest! It is a tall order."
"A most common occurrence. Think of the number of your peers who have gone to America for their wives, for no other reason."
"And think of the rotters they are—most of them! I mayn't be much catch, financially; but I have one of the oldest names and titles in England—and up to now we have not had any cads nor cowards in the family, and I think a man who marries a woman for money is both. By Jove! Francis, what are you driving at? Confound it, man! I am not starving and can work, if it should ever come to that."
Mr. Markrute smoothed his hands. He was a peculiarly still person generally.
"Yes, it was a blunder, I admit, to put it this way. So I will be frank with you. My family is also, my friend, as old as yours. My niece is all I have left in the world. I would like to see her married to an Englishman. I would like to see her married to you of all Englishmen because I like you and you have qualities about you which count in life. Oh, believe me!"—and he raised a protesting finger to quell an interruption—"I have studied you these years; there is nothing you can say of yourself or your affairs that I do not know."
Lord Tancred laughed.
"My dear old boy," he said, "we have been friends for a long time; and, now we are coming to hometruths, I must say I like your deuced cold-blooded point of view on every subject. I like your knowledge of wines and cigars and pictures, and you are a most entertaining companion. But, 'pon my soul I would not like to have your niece for a wife if she took after you!"
"You think she would be cold-blooded, too?"
"Undoubtedly; but it is all perfectly preposterous. I don't believe you mean a word you are saying—it is some kind of a joke."
"Have you ever known me to make such jokes, Tancred?" Mr. Markrute asked calmly.
"No, I haven't, and that is the odd part of it. What the devil do you mean, really, Francis?"
"I mean what I say: I will pay every debt you have, and give you a charming wife with a fortune."
Lord Tancred got up and walked about the room. He was a perfectly natural creature, stolid and calm as those of his race, disciplined and deliberate in moments of danger or difficulty; yet he never lived under self-conscious control as the financier did. He was rather moved now, and so he walked about. He was with a friend, and it was not the moment to have to bother over disguising his feelings.
"Oh, it is nonsense, Francis; I could not do it. I have knocked about the world as you know, and, since you are aware of everything about me, you say, you have probably heard some of my likings—and dislikings. I never go after a woman unless she attracts me, and I would never marry one of them unless I were madly in love with her, whether she had money or no; though I believe I would hate a wife with money, in any case—she'd be saying like the American lady of poor Darrowood: 'It's my motor and you can't have it to-day.'"
"You would marry a woman then—if you were in love, in spite of everything?" Francis Markrute asked.
"Probably, but I have never been really in love; have you? It is all story-book stuff—that almighty passion, I expect. They none of them matter very much after a while, do they, old boy?"
"I have understood it is possible for a woman to matter," the financier said and he drew in his lips.
"Well, up to now I have not," Lord Tancred announced, "and may the day be far off when one does. I feel pretty safe!"
A strange, mysterious smile crept over Mr. Markrute's face.
"By the way, also, how do you know the lady would be willing to marry me, Francis? You spoke as if I only had to be consulted in the affair."
"So you have. I can answer for my niece; she will do as I wish, and, as I said before, you are rather a perfect picture of an English nobleman, Tancred. You have not found women recalcitrant, as a rule—no?"
Lord Tancred was not inordinately vain, though a man, and he had a sense of humor—so he laughed.
"'Pon my word it is amusing, your turning into a sort of matrimonial agent. Can't you see the fun of the thing yourself?"
"It seems quite natural to me. You have every social advantage to offer a woman, and a presentable person; and my niece has youth, and some looks, and a large fortune. But we will say no more about it. I shall be glad to be of any service I can to you, anyway, in regard to your Canadian scheme. Come and dine to-night; I happen to have asked a couple of railway magnates with interests out there, and you can get some information from them."
And so it was arranged, and Lord Tancred got up to go; but just at the door he paused and said with a laugh:
"And shall I see the niece?"
The financier had his back turned, and so he permitted the flicker of a smile to come over his mouth as he answered:
"It might be; but we have dismissed the subject of the niece."
And so they parted.
At the sound of the closing of the door Mr. Markrute pressed the button of a wonderful trifle of Russian enamel and emeralds, which lay on his writing table, and a quiet servant entered the room.
"Tell the Countess Shulski I wish to speak to her here immediately, please," he said. "Ask her to descend at once."
But he had to walk up and down several times, and was growing impatient, before the door opened and a woman came slowly into the room.
The financier paused in his restless pacing as he heard the door open and stood perfectly still, with his back to the light. The woman advanced and also stood still, and they looked at one another with no great love in their eyes, though she who had entered was well worth looking at, from a number of points of view. Firstly, she had that arresting, compelling personality which does not depend upon features, or coloring, or form, or beauty. A subtle force of character—a radiating magnetism—breathed from her whole being. When Zara Shulski came into any assemblage of people conversation stopped and speculation began.
She was rather tall and very slender; and yet every voluptuous curve of her lithe body refuted the idea of thinness. Her head was small and her face small, and short, and oval, with no wonderfully chiseled features, only the skin was quite exceptional in its white purity—not the purity of milk, but the purity of rich, white velvet, or a gardenia petal. Her mouth was particularly curved and red and her teeth were very even, and when she smiled, which was rarely, they suggested something of great strength, though they were small and white. And now I am coming to her two wonders, her eyes and her hair. At first you could have sworn the eyes were black; just great pools of ink, or disks of black velvet, set in their broad lids and shaded with jet lashes, but if they chanced to glance up in the full light then you knew they were slate color, not a tinge of brown or green—the whole iris was a uniform shade: strange, slumberous, resentful eyes, under straight, thick, black brows, the expression full of all sorts of meanings, though none of them peaceful or calm. And from some far back Spanish-Jewess ancestress she probably got that glorious head of red hair, the color of a ripe chestnut when it falls from its shell, or a beautifully groomed bright bay horse. The heavy plaits which were wound tightly round her head must have fallen below her knees when they were undone. Her coiffure gave you the impression that she never thought of fashion, nor changed its form of dressing, from year to year. And the exquisite planting of the hair on her forehead, as it waved back in broad waves, added to the perfection of the Greek simplicity of the whole thing. Nothing about her had been aided by conscious art. Her dress, of some black clinging stuff, was rather poor, though she wore it with the air of a traditional empress. Indeed, she looked an empress, from the tips of her perfect fingers to her small arched feet.
And it was with imperial hauteur that she asked in a low, cultivated voice with no accent:
"Well, what is it? Why have you sent for me thus peremptorily?"
The financier surveyed her for a moment; he seemed to be taking in all her points with a fresh eye. It was almost as though he were counting them over to himself—and his thoughts ran: "You astonishingly attractive devil. You have all the pride of my father, the Emperor. How he would have gloried in you! You are enough to drive any man mad: you shall be a pawn in my game for the winning of my lady and gain happiness for yourself, so in the end, Elinka, if she is able to see from where she has gone, will not say I have been cruel to you."
"I asked you to come down—to discuss a matter of great importance: Will you be good enough to be seated, my niece," he said aloud with ceremonious politeness as he drew forward a chair—into which she sank without more ado and there waited, with folded hands, for him to continue. Her stillness was always as intense as his own, but whereas his had a nervous tension of conscious repression, hers had an unconscious, quiet force. Her father had been an Englishman, but both uncle and niece at moments made you feel they were silent panthers, ready to spring.
"So—" was all she said.
And Francis Markrute went on:
"You have a miserable position—hardly enough to eat at times, one understands. You do not suppose I took the trouble to send for you from Paris last week, for nothing, do you? You guessed I had some plan in my head, naturally."
"Naturally," she said, with fine contempt. "I did not mistake it for philanthropy."
"Then it is well, and we can come to the point," he went on. "I am sorry I have had to be away, since your arrival, until yesterday. I trust my servants have made you comfortable?"
"Quite comfortable," she answered coldly.
"Good: now for what I want to know. You have no doubt in your mind that your husband, Count Ladislaus Shulski, is dead? There is no possible mistake in his identity? I believe the face was practically shot away, was it not? I have taken the precaution to inform myself upon every point, from the authorities at Monte Carlo, but I wish for your final testimony."
"Ladislaus Shulski is dead," she said quietly, in a tone as though it gave her pleasure to say it. "The woman Feto caused the fray, Ivan Larski shot him in her arms; he was her lover who paid, and Ladislaus the amant du coeur for the moment. She wailed over the body like a squealing rabbit. She was there lamenting his fine eyes when they sent for me! They were gone for ever, but no one could mistake his curly hair, nor his cruel, white hands. Ah! it was a scene of disgust! I have witnessed many ugly things but that was of the worst. I do not wish to talk of it; it is passed a year ago. Feto heaped his grave with flowers, and joined the hero, Larski, who was allowed to escape, so all was well."
"And since then you have lived from hand to mouth, with those others." And here Francis Markrute's voice took on a new shade: there was a cold hate in it.
"I have lived with my little brother, Mirko, and Mimo. How could I desert them? And sometimes we have found it hard at the end of the quarter—but it was not always as bad as that, especially when Mimo sold a picture—"
"I will not hear his name!" Francis Markrute said with some excitement. "In the beginning, if I could have found him I would have killed him, as you know, but now the carrion can live, since my sister is dead. He is not worth powder and shot."
The Countess Shulski gave the faintest shrug of her shoulders, while her eyes grew blacker with resentment. She did not speak. Francis Markrute stood by the mantelpiece, and lit a cigar before he continued; he knew he must choose his words as he was dealing with no helpless thing.
"You are twenty-three years old, Zara, and you were married at sixteen," he said at last. "And up to thirteen at least I know you were very highly educated—You understand something of life, I expect."
"Life!" she said—and now there was a concentrated essence of bitterness in her voice. "Mon Dieu! Life—and men!"
"Yes, you probably think you know men."
She lifted her upper lip a little, and showed her even teeth—it was like an animal snarling.
"I know that they are either selfish weaklings, or cruel, hateful brutes like Ladislaus, or clever, successful financiers like you, my uncle. That is enough! Something we women must be always sacrificed to."
"Well, you don't know Englishmen—"
"Yes, I remember my father very well; cold and hard to my darling mother"—and here her voice trembled a little—"he only thought of himself, and to rush to England for sport—and leave her alone for months and months: selfish and vile—all of them!"
"In spite of that I have found you an English husband whom you will be good enough to take, madame," Francis Markrute announced authoritatively.
She gave a little laugh—if anything so mirthless could be called a laugh.
"You have no power over me; I shall do no such thing."
"I think you will," the financier said with quiet assurance, "if I know you. There are terms, of course—"
She glanced at him sharply: the expression in those somber eyes was often alert like a wild animal's, about to be attacked; only she had trained herself generally to keep the lids lowered.
"What are the terms?" she asked.
And as she spoke Francis Markrute thought of the black panther in the Zoo, which he was so fond of going to watch on Sunday mornings, she reminded him so of the beast at the moment.
He had been constrained up to this, but now, the question being one of business, all his natural ease of manner returned, and he sat down opposite her and blew rings of smoke from his cigar.
"The terms are that the boy Mirko, your half-brother, shall be provided for for life. He shall live with decent people, and have his talent properly cultivated—"
He stopped abruptly and remained silent.
Countess Shulski clasped her hands convulsively in her lap, and with all the pride and control of her voice there was a note of anguish, too, which would have touched any heart but one so firmly guarded as Francis Markrute's.
"Ah, God!" she said so low that he could only just hear her, "I have paid the price of my body and soul once for them. It is too much to ask it of me a second time—"
"That is as you please," said the financier.
He seldom made a mistake in his methods with people. He left nothing to chance; he led up the conversation to the right point, fired his bomb, and then showed absolute indifference. To display interest in a move, when one was really interested, was always a point to the adversary. He maintained interest could be simulated when necessary, but must never be shown when real. So he left his niece in silence, while she pondered over his bargain, knowing full well what would be the result. She got up from her chair and leaned upon the back of it, while her face looked white as death in the dying afternoon's light.
"Can you realize what my life was like with Ladislaus?" she hissed. "A plaything for his brutal pleasures, to begin with; a decoy duck to trap the other men, I found afterwards; tortured and insulted from morning to night. I hated him always, but he seemed so kind beforehand—kind to my darling mother, whom you were leaving to die."—Here Francis Markrute winced and a look of pain came into his hard face while he raised a hand in protest and then dropped it again, as his niece went on—"And she was beginning to be ill even at that time and we were so poor—so I married him."
Then she swept toward the door with her empress air, the rather shabby, dark dress making a swirl behind her; and as she got there she turned and spoke again, with her hand on the bronze tracery of the fingerplate, making, unconsciously, a highly dramatic picture, as a sudden last ray of the sinking sun shot out and struck the glory of her hair, turning it to flame above her brow.
"I tell you it is too much," she said, with almost a sob in her voice. "I will not do it." And then she went out and closed the door.
Francis Markrute, left alone, leant back in his chair and puffed his cigar calmly while he mused.
What strange things were women! Any man could manage them if only he reckoned with their temperaments when dealing with them, and paid no heed to their actual words. Francis Markrute was a philosopher. A number of the shelves of this, his library, were filled with works on the subject of philosophy, and a well-thumbed volume of the fragments of Epicurus lay on a table by his side. He picked it up now and read: "He who wastes his youth on high feeding, on wine, on women, forgets that he is like a man who wears out his overcoat in the summer." He had not wasted his youth either on wine or women, only he had studied both, and their effects upon the thing which, until lately, had interested him most in the world—himself. They could both be used to the greatest advantage and pleasure by a man who apprehended things he knew.
Then he turned to the Morning Post which was on a low stand near, and he read again a paragraph which had pleased him at breakfast:
"The Duke of Glastonbury and Lady Ethelrida Montfitchet entertained at dinner last night a small party at Glastonbury House, among the guests being—" and here he skipped some high-sounding titles and let his eye feast upon his own name, "Mr. Francis Markrute."
Then he smiled and gazed into the fire, and no one would have recognized his hard, blue eyes, as he said softly:
"Ethelrida! belle et blonde!"
While the financier was contentedly musing in his chair beside the fire, his niece was hurrying into the park, wrapped in a dark cloak and thick veil. She had slipped out noiselessly, a few minutes after she left the library. The sun had completely set now and it was damp and cold, with the dead leaves, and the sodden autumn feeling in the air. Zara Shulski shivered, in spite of the big cloak, as she peered into the gloom of the trees, when she got nearly to the Achilles statue. The rendezvous had been for six o'clock; it was now twenty minutes past, and it was so bad for Mirko to wait in the cold. Perhaps they would have gone on. But no; she caught sight of two shabby figures, close up under the statue, when she got sufficiently near.
They came forward eagerly to meet her. And even in the half light it could be seen that the boy was an undersized little cripple of perhaps nine or ten years old but looking much younger; as it could also be seen that even in his worn overcoat and old stained felt hat the man was a gloriously handsome creature.
"What joy to see you, Cherisette!" exclaimed the child. "Papa and I have been longing and longing all the day. It seemed that six would never come. But now that you are here let me eat you—eat you up!" And the thin, little arms, too long for the wizened body, clasped fondly round her neck as she lifted him, and carried him toward a seat where the three sat down to discuss their affairs.
"I know nothing, you see, Mimo," the Countess Shulski said, "beyond that you arrived yesterday. I think it was foolish of you to risk it. At least in Paris Madame Dubois would have let you stay and owe a week's rent. But here—among these strangers—"
"Now do not scold us, Mentor," the man answered, with a charming smile. "Mirko and I felt the sun had fled when you went last Thursday. It rained and rained two—three—days, and the Dubois canary got completely on our nerves; and, heavens above! the Grisoldi insisted upon cooking garlic in his food at every meal!—we had thought to have broken him of the habit, you remember?—and up, up it came from his stove. Body of Bacchus! It killed inspiration. I could not paint, my Cherisette, and Mirko could not play. And so we said: 'At least—at least the sun of the hair of our Cherisette must shine in the dark England; we, too, will go there, away from the garlic and the canary, and the fogs will give us new ideas, and we shall create wonderful things.' Is it not so, Mirko mio?"
"But, of course, Papa," the boy echoed; and then his voice trembled with a pitiful note. "You are not angry with us, darling Cherisette? Say it is not so?"
"My little one! How can you! I could never be angry with my Mirko, no matter what he did!" And the two pools of ink softened from the expression of the black panther into the divine tenderness of the Sistine Madonna, as she pressed the frail, little body to her side and pulled her cloak around it.
"Only I fear it cannot be well for you here in London, and if my uncle should know, all hope of getting anything from him may be over. He expressly said if I would come quite alone, to stay with him for these few weeks, it would be to my advantage; and my advantage means yours, as you know. Otherwise do you think I would have eaten of his hateful bread?"
"You are so good to us, Cherisette," the man Mimo said. "You have, indeed, a sister of the angels, Mirko mio; but soon we shall be all rich and famous. I had a dream last night, and already I have begun a new picture of grays and mists—of these strange fogs!"
Count Mimo Sykypri was a confirmed optimist.
"Meanwhile you are in the one room, in Neville Street, Tottenham Court Road. It is, I fear, a poor neighborhood."
"No worse than Madame Dubois'," Mimo hastened to reassure her, "and London is giving me new ideas."
Mirko coughed harshly with a dry sound. Countess Shulski drew him closer to her and held him tight.
"You got the address from the Grisoldi? He was a kind little old man, in spite of the garlic," she said.
"Yes, he told us of it, as an inexpensive resting place, until our affairs prospered, and we came straight there and wrote to you at once."
"I was greatly surprised to receive the letter. Have you any money at all now, Mimo?"
"Indeed, yes!" And Count Sykypri proudly drew forth eight bits of French gold from his pocket. "We had two hundred francs when we arrived. Our little necessities and a few paints took up two of the twenty-franc pieces, and we have eight of them left! Oh, quite a fortune! It will keep us until I can sell the 'Apache.' I shall take it to a picture dealer's to-morrow."
Countess Shulski's heart sank. She knew so well of old how long eight twenty-franc pieces would be likely to last! In spite of Mirko's care and watching of his father that gentleman was capable of giving one of them to a beggar if the beggar's face and story touched him, and any of the others could go in a present to Mirko or herself—to be pawned later, when necessity called. The case was hopeless as far as money was concerned with Count Sykypri.
Her own meager income, derived from the dead Shulski, was always forestalled for the wants of the family—the little brother whom she had promised her dead and adored mother never to desert.
For when the beautiful wife of Maurice Grey, the misanthropic and eccentric Englishman who lived in a castle near Prague, ran off with Count Mimo Sykypri, her daughter, then aged thirteen, had run with her, and the pair had been wiped off the list of the family. And Maurice Grey, after cursing them both and making a will depriving them of everything, shut himself up in his castle, and steadily drank himself to death in less than a year. And the brother of the beautiful Mrs. Grey, Francis Markrute, never forgave her either. He refused to receive her or hear news of her, even after poor little Mirko was born and she married Count Sykypri.
For on the father's side, the Markrute brother and sister were of very noble lineage; even with his bar sinister the financier could not brook the disgrace of Elinka. He had loved her so—the one soft side of his adamantine character. Her disgrace, it seemed, had frozen all the tenderness in his nature.
Countess Shulski was silent for a few moments, while both Mimo and Mirko watched her face anxiously. She had thrown back her veil.
"And supposing you do not sell the 'Apache,' Mimo? Your own money does not come in until Christmas; mine is all gone until January, and it is the cold winter approaching—and cold is not good for Mirko. What then?"
Count Sykypri moved uneasily. A tragic look grew in his handsome face; his face that was a mirror of all passing emotions; his face that had been able to express love and romance, devotion and tenderness, to wile a bird from off a tree or love from the heart of any woman. And even though Zara Shulski knew of just how little value was anything he said or did yet his astonishing charm always softened her irritation toward his fecklessness. So she repeated more gently:
Mimo got up and flung out his arms in a dramatic way.
"It cannot be!" he said. "I must sell the 'Apache!' Besides, if I don't: I tell you these strange, gray fogs are giving me new, wonderful thoughts—dark, mysterious—two figures meeting in the mist! Oh! but a wonderful combination that will be successful in all cases."
Mirko pressed his arm round his sister's neck and kissed her cheek, while he cooed love words in a soft Slavonic language. Two big tears gathered in Zara Shulski's deep eyes and made them tender as a dove's.
She drew out her purse and counted from it two sovereigns and some shillings which she slipped into Mirko's small hand.
"Keep these, pet, for an emergency," she said. "They are all I have, but I will—I must—find some other way for you soon: and now I shall have to go. If my uncle should suspect I am seeing you I might be powerless to help further."
They walked with her to the Grosvenor Gate, and reluctantly let her leave them; and then they watched her, as she sped across the road between the passing taxi-cabs. When they saw the light from the opening door and her figure disappearing between the tall servants who had come to open it, the two poor, shabby figures walked on with a sigh, to try to find an omnibus which would put them down somewhere near their dingy bedroom in Neville Street, Tottenham Court Road. And as they reached the Marble Arch there came on a sharp shower of icy rain.
Countess Shulski, however poorly dressed, was a person to whom servants were never impertinent; there was something in her bearing which precluded all idea of familiarity. It did not even strike Turner, or James, that her clothes were what none of the housemaids would have considered fit to wear when they went out. The remark the lordly Turner made, as he arranged some letters on the hall table, was:
"A very haughty lady, James—quite a bit of the Master about her, eh?"
But she went on to the lift, slowly, and to her luxurious bedroom, her heart full of pain and rage against fate. Here she sat down before the fire, and, resting her chin on her two hands, gazed steadily into the glowing coals.
What pictures did she see of past miseries there in the flames? Her thoughts wandered right back to the beginning. The stern, peculiar father, and the gloomy castle. The severe governesses—English and German—and her adorable, beautiful mother, descending upon the schoolroom like a fairy of light, always gay and sweet and loving. And then of that journey to a far country, where she saw an old, old, dying gentleman in a royal palace, who kissed her, and told her she would grow as beautiful as her grandmother with the red, red hair. And there in the palace was Mimo, so handsome and kind in his glittering aide-de-camp's uniform, who after that often came to the gloomy castle, and, with the fairy mother, to the schoolroom. Ah! those days were happy days! How they three had shrieked with laughter and played hide-and-seek in the long galleries!
And then the blank, hideous moment when the angel fairy had gone, and the stern father cursed and swore, and Uncle Francis' face looked like a vengeful fiend's. And then a day when she got word to meet her mother in the park of the castle. How she clung to her and cried and sobbed to be taken, too! And they—Mimo and the mother—always so kind and loving and irresponsible, consented. And then the flight; and weeks of happiness in luxurious hotels, until the mother's face grew pinched and white, and no letters but her own—returned—came from Uncle Francis. And ever the fear grew that if Mimo were absent from her for a moment Uncle Francis would kill him. The poor, adored mother! And then of the coming of Mirko and all their joy over it; and then, gradually, the skeleton of poverty, when all the jewels had been sold and all Mimo's uniform and swords; and nothing but his slender income, which could not be taken from him, remained. How he had worked to be a real artist, there in Paris! Oh! poor Mimo. He had tried, but everything was so against a gentleman; and Mirko such a delicate baby, and the mother's lovely face so often sad. And then the time of the mother's first bad illness—how they had watched and prayed, and Mimo had cried tears like a child, and the doctor had said the South was the only thing to help their angel's recovery. So to marry Ladislaus Shulski seemed the only way. He had a villa in the sun at Nice and offered it to them; he was crazy about her—Zara—at that time, though her skirts were not quite long, nor her splendid hair done up.
When her thoughts reached this far, the black panther in the Zoo never looked fiercer when Francis Markrute poked his stick between its bars to stir it up on Sunday mornings.
The hateful, hateful memories! When she came to know what marriage meant, and—a man! But it had saved the sweet mother's life for that winter. And though it was a strain to extract anything from Ladislaus, still, in the years that followed, often she had been able to help until his money, too, was all gone—on gambling and women.
And then the dear mother died—died in cold and poverty, in a poor little studio in Paris—in spite of her daughter's and Mimo's frantic letters to Uncle Francis for help. She knew now that he had been far away, in South Africa, at the time, and had never received them, until too late; but then, it seemed as if God Himself had forsaken them. And now came the memory of her solemn promise. Mirko should never be deserted—the adored mother could die in peace about that. Her last words came back now—out of the glowing coals:
"I have been happy with Mimo, after all, my Cherisette, with you and Mimo and Mirko. It was worth while—" And so she had gasped—and died.
And here the tears gathered and blurred the flaming coals. But Zara's decision had come. There was no other way. To her uncle's bargain she must consent.
She got up abruptly and flung her hat on the bed—her cloak had already fallen from her—and without further hesitation she descended the stairs.
Francis Markrute was still seated in his library; he had taken out his watch and was calculating the time. It was twenty-five minutes to eight; his guests would be coming to dine at eight o'clock and he had not begun to dress. Would his niece have made up her mind by then?
That there could be any doubt about the fact that she would make up her mind as he wished never entered his head. It was only a question of time but it would be better, for every reason, if she arrived at the conclusion at once.
He rose from his chair with a quiet smile as she entered the room. So she had come! He had not relied upon his knowledge of a woman's temperament in vain.
She was very pale. The extra whiteness showed even on her gardenia skin, and her great eyes gleamed sullenly from beneath her lowering brows of ink.
"If the terms are for the certain happiness of Mirko I consent," she said.
The four men—the two railway magnates, Francis Markrute, and Lord Tancred—had all been waiting a quarter of an hour before the drawing-room fire when the Countess Shulski sailed into the room. She wore an evening gown of some thin, black, transparent, woolen stuff, which clung around her with the peculiar grace her poorest clothes acquired. Another woman would have looked pitifully shabby in such a dress, but her distinction made it appear to at least three of the men as the robe of a goddess. Francis Markrute was too annoyed at the delay of her coming to admire anything; but even he, as he presented his guests to her, could not help remarking that he had never seen her look more wonderful, nor more contemptuously regal.
They had had rather a stormy scene in the library, half an hour before. Her words had been few, but their displeasure had been unconcealed. She would agree to the bare bargain, if so be this strange man were willing, but she demanded to know the reason of his willingness.
And when she was told it was a business matter between the two men, and that she would be given a large fortune, she expressed no more surprise than a disdainful curl of the lips.
For her, all men were either brutes—or fools like poor Mimo.
If she had known that Lord Tancred had already refused her hand and that her uncle was merely counting upon his own unerring knowledge of human nature—and Lord Tancred's nature in particular—she might have felt humiliated, instead of full of impotent rage.
The young man, for his part, had arrived exactly on the stroke of eight, a rare effort of punctuality for him. Some underneath excitement to see his friend Markrute's niece had tingled in his veins from the moment he had left the house.
What sort of a woman could it be who would be willing to marry a perfect stranger for the sake of his title and position? The quarter-of-an-hour's wait had not added to his calm. So when the door had eventually opened for her entry he had glanced up with intense interest, and had then drawn in his breath as she advanced up the room. The physical part of the lady at all events was extremely delectable.
But when he was presented and his eyes met hers he was startled by the look of smoldering, somber hate he saw in them.
What could it all mean? Francis must have been romancing. Why should she look at him like that, if she were willing to marry him? He was piqued and interested.
She spoke not a word as they went down to dinner, but he was no raw youth to be snubbed thus into silence. His easy, polished manner soon started a conversation upon the usual everyday things. He received "Yes" and "No" for answers. The railway magnate on her other side was hardly more fortunate, until the entrees were in full swing, then she unfroze a little; the elderly gentleman had said something which interested her.
The part which particularly irritated Lord Tancred was that he felt sure she was not really stupid—who could be stupid with such a face? And he was quite unaccustomed to being ignored by women. A like experience had not occurred to him in the whole of his life.
He watched her narrowly. He had never seen so white a skin; the admirably formed bones of her short, small face caused, even in a side light, no disfiguring shadows to fall beside the mouth and nose, nor on the cheeks; all was velvety smooth and rounded. The remote Jewish touch was invisible—save in the splendor of the eyes and lashes. She filled him with the desire to touch her, to clasp her tightly in his arms, to pull down that glorious hair and bury his face in it. And Lord Tancred was no sensualist, given to instantly appraising the outward charm of women.
When the grouse was being handed, he did get a whole sentence from her; it was in answer to his question whether she liked England.
"How can one say—when one does not know?" she said. "I have only been here once before, when I was quite a child. It seems cold and dark."
"We must persuade you to like it better," he answered, trying to look into her eyes which she had instantly averted. The expression of resentment still smoldered there, he had noticed, during their brief glance.
"Of what consequence whether I like it or no," she said, looking across the table, and this was difficult to answer! It seemed to set him upon his beam-ends. He could not very well say because he had suddenly begun to admire her very much! At this stage he had not decided what he meant to do.
An unusual excitement was permeating his being; he could not account for how or why. He had felt no sensation like it, except on one of his lion hunts in Africa when the news had come into camp that an exceptionally fine beast had been discovered near and might be stalked on the morrow. His sporting instincts seemed to be thoroughly awakened.
Meanwhile Countess Shulski had turned once more to Sir Philip Armstrong, the railway magnate. He was telling her about Canada and she listened with awakening interest: how there were openings for every one and great fortunes could be made there by the industrious and persevering.
"It has not come to a point, then, when artists could have a chance, I suppose?" she asked. Lord Tancred wondered at the keenness in her voice.
"Modern artists?" Sir Philip queried. "Perhaps not, though the rich men are beginning to buy pictures and beautiful things, too; but in a new country it is the man of sinew and determination, not the dreamer, who succeeds."
Her head then drooped a little; her interest now seemed only mechanical, as she answered again, "Yes" and "No."
Lord Tancred wondered and wondered; he saw that her thoughts were far away.
Francis Markrute had been watching things minutely while he kept up his suave small talk with Colonel Macnamara on his right hand. He was well pleased with the turn of events. After all, nothing could have been better than Zara's being late. Circumstance often played into the hand of an experienced manipulator like himself. Now if she only kept up this attitude of indifference, which, indeed, she seemed likely to do—she was no actress, he knew—things might be settled this very night.
Lord Tancred could not get her to have a single continued conversation for the remainder of dinner; he was perfectly raging with annoyance, his fighting blood was up. And when at the first possible moment after the dessert arrived she swept from the room, her eyes met his as he held the door and they were again full of contemptuous hate.
He returned to his seat with his heart actually thumping in his side.
And all through the laborious conversation upon Canada and how best to invest capital, which Francis Markrute with great skill and apparently hearty friendship prolonged to its utmost limits, he felt the attraction and irritation of the woman grow and grow. He no longer took the slightest interest in the pros and cons of his future in the Colony, and when, at last, he heard the distant tones of Tschaikovsky's Chanson Triste as they ascended the stairs he came suddenly to a determination. She was sitting at the grand piano in the back part of the room. A huge, softly shaded lamp shed its veiled light upon her white face and rounded throat; her hands and arms, which showed to the elbow, seemed not less pale than the ivory keys, and those disks of black velvet gazed in front of them, a whole world of anguish in their depths.
For this was the tune that her mother had loved, and she was playing it to remind herself of her promise and to keep herself firm in her determination to accept the bargain, for her little brother Mirko's sake.
She glanced at Lord Tancred as he entered. Count Ladislaus Shulski had been a very handsome man, too. She did not know enough of the English type to judge of Lord Tancred morally. She only saw that he was a splendid, physical creature who would be strong—and horrible probably—like the rest.
The whole expression of her face changed as he came and leaned upon the piano. The sorrow died out of her eyes and was replaced by a fierce defiance; and her fingers broke into a tarantella of wild sounds.
"You strange woman!" Lord Tancred said.
"Am I strange?" she answered through her teeth. "It is said by those who know that we are all mad—at some time and at some point. I have, I think, reason to be mad to-night." And with that she crashed a final chord, rose from her seat, and crossed the room.
"I hope, Uncle Francis, your guests will excuse me," she said, with an imperial, aloof politeness, "but I am very tired. I will wish you all a good-night." She bowed to them as they expressed their regrets, and then slowly left the room.
"Goodnight, madame," Lord Tancred said, at the door. "Some day you and I will cross swords."
But he was rewarded by no word, only an annihilating glance from her sullen eyes, and he stood there and gazed at her as she passed up the stairs.
"An extraordinary and beautiful woman—your niece—eh, my dear Markrute?" he heard one of the pompous gentlemen say, as he returned to the group by the fire, and it angered him—he could not have told why.
Francis Markrute, who knew his moments, began now to talk about her, casually; how she was an interesting, mysterious character; beautiful? well, no, not exactly that—a superlative skin, fine eyes and hair, but no special features.
"I will not admit that she is beautiful, my friend," he said. "Beauty suggests gentleness and tenderness. My niece reminds me of the black panther in the Zoo, but one could not say—if she were tamed."
Such remarks were not calculated to allay the growing interest and attraction Lord Tancred was feeling. Francis Markrute knew his audience; he never wasted his words. He abruptly turned the conversation back to Canada again, until even the two magnates on their own ground were bored and said goodnight. The four men came downstairs together. As the two others were being assisted into their coats by Turner and his satellites the host said to Lord Tancred:
"Will you have a cigar with me, Tancred, before you go on to your supper party?" And presently they were both seated in mammoth armchairs in the cozy library.
"I hope, my dear boy, you have all the information you want about Canada," Mr. Markrute said. "You could not find two more influential people than Sir Philip and the Colonel. I asked—" but Lord Tancred interrupted him.
"I don't care a farthing more about Canada!" he flashed out. "I have made up my mind. If you really meant what you said to-day, I will marry your niece, and I don't care whether she has a penny or no."
The financier's plans had indeed culminated with a rush!
But he expressed no surprise, merely raised his eyebrows mildly and puffed some blue rings of smoke, as he answered:
"I always mean what I say, only I do not care for people to do things blindly. Now that you have seen my niece are you sure she would suit you? I thought, after all, perhaps not, to-night: she is certainly a difficult person. It would be no easy task for any man to control her—as a wife."
"I don't care for tame women," Lord Tancred said. "It is that very quality of difficulty which has inspired me. By George! did you ever see such a haughty bearing? It will take a man's whole intelligence to know which bit to use."
"She may close her teeth on whatever bit you use, and bolt with it. Do not say afterwards that I let you take her blindly."
"Why does she look at me with such hate?" Lord Tancred was just going to ask—and then he stopped himself. It was characteristic of him that now he had made up his mind he would not descend to questions or details—he would find all out later for himself—but one thing he must know: had she really consented to marry him? If so, she had her own reasons, of course, and desire for himself was not among them; but, somehow, he felt sure they were not sordid or paltry ones. He had always liked dangerous games—the most unbroken polo ponies to train in the country, the freshest horses, the fiercest beasts to stalk and kill—and why not a difficult wife? It would add an adorable spice to the affair. But as he was very honest with himself he knew, underneath, that it was not wholly even this instinct, but that she had cast some spell over him and that he must have her for his own.
"You might very well ask her history," Francis Markrute said. He could be so gracious when he liked, and he really admired the wholehearted dash with which Lord Tancred had surrendered; there was something big and royal about it—he himself never gambled in small sums either. "So as I expect you won't," he continued, "I will tell you. She is the daughter of Maurice Grey, a brother of old Colonel Grey of Hentingdon, whom everybody knew, and she has been the widow of an unspeakable brute for over a year. She was an immaculate wife, and devoted daughter before that. The possibilities of her temperament are all to come."
Lord Tancred sprang from his chair, the very thought of her and her temperament made him thrill. Was it possible he was already in love, after one evening?
"Now we must really discuss affairs, my dear boy," the financier went on. "Her dower, as I told you, will be princely."
"That I absolutely refuse to do, Francis," Lord Tancred answered. "I tell you I want the woman for my wife. You can settle the other things with my lawyer if you care to, and tie it all up on her. I am not interested in that matter. The only thing I really wish to know is if you are sure she will marry me?"
"I am perfectly sure." The financier narrowed his eyes. "I would not have suggested the affair to-day if I had had any doubt about that."
"Then it is settled, and I shall not ask why. I shall not ask any thing. Only when may I see her again and how soon can we be married?"
"Come and lunch with me in the city to-morrow, and we will talk over everything. I shall have seen her, and can then tell you when to present yourself. And I suppose you can have the ceremony at the beginning of November?"
"Six whole weeks hence!" Lord Tancred said, protestingly. "Must she get such heaps of clothes? Can't it be sooner? I wanted to be here for my Uncle Glastonbury's first shoot on the 2nd of November, and if we are only married then, we shall be off on a honeymoon. You must come to that shoot, by-the-way, old boy, it is the pleasantest of the whole lot he has; one day at the partridges, and a dash at the pheasants; but he only asks the jolliest parties to this early one, for Ethelrida's birthday, and none of the bores."
"It would give me great pleasure to do so," Francis Markrute said. And he looked down so that Lord Tancred should not see the joy in his eyes.
Then they shook hands most heartily, and the newly made fiance said good-night, with the happy assurance in his ears that he might claim his bride in time to be back from a week's honeymoon for the Glastonbury shoot.
When he had gone Francis Markrute's first act was to sit down and write a four-figure check for the Cripple Children's Hospital: he believed in thankofferings. Then he rubbed his hands softly together as he went up to his bed.
Then Lord Tancred left the house in Park Lane he did not go on to the supper party at the Savoy he had promised to attend. That sort of affair had bored him, now for several years. Instead, he drove straight back to his rooms in St. James' Street, and, getting comfortably into his pet chair, he steadily set himself to think. He had acted upon a mad impulse; he knew that and did not argue with himself about it, or regret it. Some force stronger than anything he had hitherto known had compelled him to come to the decision. And what would his future life be like with this strange woman? That could not be exactly guessed. That it would contain scenes of the greatest excitement he did not doubt. She would in all cases look the part. His mother herself—the Lady Tancred, daughter of the late and sister of the present Duke of Glastonbury—could not move with more dignity: a thought which reminded him that he had better write to his parent and inform her of his intended step. He thought of all the women he had loved—or imagined he had loved—since he left Eton. The two affairs which had convulsed him during his second year at Oxford were perhaps the most serious; the Laura Highford, his last episode, was fortunately over and had always been rather tiresome. In any case none of those ladies of the world—or other world—had any reasons to reproach him, and he was free and happy. And if he wished to put down a large stake on the card of marriage he was answerable to no one.
During the last eight hundred years, ever since Amaury Guiscard of that house of Hauteville whose daring deeds gave sovereigns to half Europe, had come over with his Duke William, and had been rewarded by the gift of the Wrayth lands—seized from the Saxons—his descendants had periodically done madly adventurous things. Perhaps the quality was coming out in him!
Then he thought of his lady, personally, and not of the extraordinariness of his action. She was exasperatingly attractive. How delicious it would be when he had persuaded her to talk to him, taught her to love him, because she certainly must love him—some day! It was rather cold-blooded of her to be willing to marry him, a stranger; but he was not going to permit himself to dwell upon that. She could not be really cold-blooded with that face: its every line bespoke capability of exquisite passion. It was not the least cunning, or calculating, either. It was simply adorable. And to kiss! But here he pulled himself together and wrote to his mother a note, short and to the point, which she received by the first post next morning at her small, house in Queen Street, Mayfair; and then he went to bed. The note ran:
"My Dear Mother:
"I am going to be married at last. The lady is a daughter of Maurice Grey (a brother of old Colonel Grey of Hentingdon who died last year), and the widow of a Pole named Shulski, Countess Shulski she is called."
(He had paused here because he had suddenly remembered he did not know her Christian name!)
"She is also the niece of Francis Markrute whom you have such an objection to—or had, last season. She is most beautiful and I hope you will like her. Please go and call to-morrow. I will come and breakfast with you about ten.
"Your affectionate son, Tancred."
And this proud English mother knew here was a serious letter, because he signed it "Tancred." He usually finished his rare communications with just, "love from Tristram."
She leaned back on her pillows and closed her eyes. She adored her son but she was, above all things, a woman of the world and given to making reasonable judgments. Tristram was past the age of a foolish entanglement; there must be some strong motive in this action. He could hardly be in love. She knew him so well, when he was in love! He had shown no signs of it lately—not, really, for several years—for that well conducted—friendship—with Laura Highford could not be called being in love. Then she thought of Francis Markrute. He was so immensely rich, she could not help a relieved sigh. There would be money at all events. But she knew that could not be the reason. She was aware of her son's views about rich wives. She was aware, too, that with all his sporting tastes and modern irreverence of tradition, underneath he was of a proud, reserved nature, intensely proud of the honor of his ancient name. What then could be the reason for this engagement? Well, she would soon know. It was half-past eight in the morning, and Tristram's "about ten" would not mean later than, half-past, or a quarter to eleven. She rang the bell for her maid, and told her to ask the young ladies to put on dressing-gowns and come to her.
Soon Lord Tancred's two sisters entered the room.
They were nice, fresh English girls, and stood a good deal in awe of their mother. They kissed her and sat down on the bed. They felt it was a momentous moment, because Lady Tancred never saw any one until her hair was arranged—not even her own daughters.
"Your brother Tristram is going to be married," she said and referred to the letter lying on the coverlet, "to a Countess Shulski, a niece of that Mr. Markrute whom one meets about."
"Oh! Mother!" and "Really!" gasped Emily and Mary.
"Have we seen her?"
"Do we know her?"
"No, I think we can none of us have seen her. She certainly was not with Mr. Markrute at Cowes, and no one has been in town, except this last week for Flora's wedding. I suppose Tristram must have met her in Scotland, or possibly abroad. He went to Paris, you remember, at Easter, and again in July."
"I wonder what she is like," said Emily.
"Is she young?" asked Mary.
"Tristram does not say," replied Lady Tancred, "only that she is beautiful."
"We are so surprised," both girls gasped together.
"Yes, it is unexpected, certainly," agreed their mother, "but Tristram has judgment; he is not likely to have chosen any one of whom I should disapprove. You must be ready to call with me, directly after lunch. Tristram is coming to breakfast, so you can have yours now—in your room. I must talk to him."
And the girls, who were dying to ask a hundred thousand questions, felt that they were dismissed, and, kissing their dignified parent, they retired to their own large, back room, which they shared, in common with all their pleasures and little griefs, together.
"Isn't it too wonderful, Em?" Mary said, when they were back there, both curled up in the former's bed waiting for their breakfast. "One can see Mother is very much moved; she was so stern. I thought Tristram was devoted to Laura Highford, did not you?"
"Oh! he has been sick of that for ages and ages. She nags at him—she is a cat anyway and I never could understand it, could you, Mary?"
"Men have to be like that," said Mary, wisely, "they must have some one, I mean, to play with, and they are afraid of girls."
"How I hope she will like us, don't you?" Emily said. "Mr. Markrute is very rich and perhaps she is, too. How lovely it will be if they are able to live at Wrayth. How lovely to have it opened again—to go and stay there!"
"Yes, indeed," said Mary.
Lady Tancred awaited her son in the small front morning-room. She was quite as much a specimen of an English aristocrat as he was, with her brushed-back, gray hair, and her beautiful, hard, fine-featured face. She was supremely dignified, and dressed well and with care. She had been brought up in the school which taught the repression of all emotion—now, alas! rapidly passing away—so that she did not even tap her foot from the impatience which was devouring her, and it was nearly eleven o'clock before Tristram made his appearance!
He apologized charmingly, and kissed her cheek. His horse, Satan, had been particularly fresh, and he had been obliged to give him an extra canter twice round the Row, before coming in, and was breakfast ready?—as he was extremely hungry! Yes, breakfast was ready, and they went into the dining-room where the old butler awaited them.
"Give me everything, Michelham," said his lordship, "I am ravenous. Then you can go. Her ladyship will pour out the coffee."
The old servant beamed upon him, with a "glad to see your lordship's well!" and, surrounding his plate with hot, covered, silver dishes, quietly made his exit, and so they were alone.
Lady Tancred beamed upon her son, too. She could not help it. He looked so completely what he ought to look, she thought—magnificently healthy and handsome, and perfectly groomed. No mother could help being proud of him.
"Tristram, dear boy, now tell me all about it," she said.
"There is hardly anything to tell you, Mother, except that I am going to be married about the 25th of October—and—you will be awfully nice to her—to Zara—won't you?" He had taken the precaution to send round a note, early in the morning, to Francis Markrute, asking for his lady's full name, as he wished to tell his family; so the "Zara" came out quite naturally! "She is rather a peculiar person, and—er—has very stiff manners. You may not like her at first."
"No, dear?" said Lady Tancred hesitatingly, "Stiff manners you say? That at least is on the right side. I always deplore the modern free-and-easy-ness."
"Oh, there is nothing free-and-easy about her!" said Tristram, helping himself to a cutlet, while he smiled almost grimly. His sense of humor was highly aroused oven the whole thing; only that overmastering something which drew him was even stronger than this.
Then he felt that there was no use in allowing his mother to drag information from him; he had better tell her what he meant her to know.
"You see, Mother, the whole thing has been arranged rather suddenly. I only settled upon it last night myself, and so told you at once. She will be awfully rich, which is rather a pity in a sense—though I suppose we shall live at Wrayth again, and all that—- but I need not tell you I am not marrying her for such a reason."
"No, I know you," Lady Tancred said, "but I cannot agree with you about its being a pity that she is rich. We live in an age when the oldest and most honored name is useless without money to keep up its traditions, and any woman would find your title and your position well worth all her gold. There are things you will give her in return which only hundreds of years can produce. You must have no feeling that you are accepting anything from her which you do not equalize. Remember, it is a false sentiment."
"Oh, I expect so—and she is well bred, you know, so she won't throw it in my teeth." And Lord Tancred smiled.
"I remember old Colonel Grey," his mother continued; "years ago he drove a coach; but I don't recollect his brother. Did he live abroad, perhaps?"
This was an awkward question. The young fiance was quite ignorant about his prospective bride's late father!
"Yes," he said hurriedly. "Zara married very young, she is quite young now—only about twenty-three. Her husband was a brute, and now she has come to live with Francis Markrute. He is an awfully good fellow, Mother, though you don't like him; extremely cultivated, and so quaintly amusing, with his cynical views on life. You will like him when you know him better. He is a jolly good sportsman, too—for a foreigner."
"And of what nation is Mr. Markrute, Tristram, do you know?" Lady Tancred asked.
Really, all women—even mothers—were tiresome at times with their questions!
"'Pon my word, I don't." And he laughed awkwardly. "Austrian, perhaps, or Russian. I have never thought about it; he speaks English so well, and he is a naturalized Englishman, in any case."
"But as you are marrying into the family, don't you think it would be more prudent, dear, to gather some information on the subject?" Lady Tancred hazarded.
And then she saw the true Tancred spirit come out, which she had often vainly tried to combat in her husband during her first years of married life, and had desisted in the end. Tristram's strong, level eyebrows joined themselves in a frown, and his mouth, clean-shaven and chiseled, shut like a vice.
"I am going to do what I am going to do, Mother," he said. "I am satisfied with my bargain, and I beg of you to accept the situation. I do not demand any information, and I ask you not to trouble yourself either. Nothing any one could say would change me—Give me some more coffee, will you, please."
Lady Tancred's hand trembled a little as she poured it out, but she did not say anything, and there was silence for a minute, while his lordship went on with his breakfast, with appetite unimpaired.
"I will take the girls and call there immediately after lunch," she said presently, "and I am to ask for the Countess Shulski. You pronounce it like that, do you not?"
"Yes. She may not be in, and in any case, perhaps, for to-day only leave cards. To-morrow or next day I'll go with you, Mother. You see, until the announcement comes out in the Morning Post, everything is not quite settled—I expect Zara would like it better if you did not meet until after then."
That was probably true, he reflected, since he had not even exchanged personal pledges with her yet himself!
Then, as his mother looked stiffly repulsed, his sense of humor got the better of him, and he burst into a peal of laughter, while he jumped up and kissed her with the delightful, caressing boyishness which made her love him with a love so far beyond what she gave to her other children.
"Darling," she murmured, "if you are so happy as to laugh like that I am happy, too, and will do just what you wish." Her proud eyes filled with mist and she pressed his hand.
"Mum, you are a trump!" he said, and he kissed her again and, holding her arm, he led her back into the morning-room.
"Now I must go and change these things," he announced, as he looked down at his riding clothes. "I am going to lunch with Markrute in the City to discuss all the points. So good-bye for the present. I will probably see you to-night. Call a taxi," he said to Michelham who at that moment came into the room with a note. He had kissed his mother and was preparing to leave, when just as he got to the door he turned and said:
"Don't say a word to any one, to-day, of the news—let it come out in the Morning Post, to-morrow. I ask it—please?"
"Not even to Cyril? You have forgotten that he is coming up from Uncle Charles' to go back to Eton," his mother said, "and the girls already know."
"Oh! Cyril. By Jove! I had forgotten! Yes, tell him; he is a first class chap, he'll understand, and, I say"—and he pulled some sovereigns from his pocket—"do give him these from me for this term."
Then with a smile he went.
And a few minutes afterwards a small, slender boy of fourteen, with only Eton's own inimitable self-confidence and delicious swagger printed upon his every line, drove up to the door, and, paying for the taxi in a lordly way, came into his mother's morning-room. There had been a gap in the family after Tristram's appearance, caused by the death, from diphtheria, of two other boys; then came the two girls of twenty and nineteen respectively and, lastly, Cyril.
His big, blue eyes rounded with astonishment and interest when he heard the important news. All he said was:
"Well, she must be a corker, if Tristram thinks her good enough. But what a beastly nuisance! He won't go to Canada now, I suppose, and we shan't have that ranch."
Francis Markrute also saw his niece at breakfast—or rather—just after it. She was finishing hers in the little upstairs sitting-room which he had allotted to her for her personal use, when he tapped at the door and asked if he might come in.
She said "yes," and then rose, with the ceremonious politeness she always used in her dealings with him—contemptuous, resentful politeness for the most part.
"I have come to settle the details of your marriage," he said, while he waved her to be seated again and took a chair himself. At the word "marriage" her nostrils quivered, but she said nothing. She was always extremely difficult to deal with, on account of these silences of hers. She helped no one out. Francis Markrute knew the method himself and admired it; it always made the other person state his case.
"You saw Lord Tancred last night. You can have no objection to him on the ground of his person, and he is a very great gentleman, my niece, as you will find."
"I have arranged with him for you to be married in October—about the 25th, I suppose. So now comes the question of your trousseau. You must have clothes to fit you for so great a position. You had better get them in Paris." Then he paused, struck by the fact which he had only just noticed, that the garments she had been wearing and those she now wore were shabby enough. He realized the reason he had not before remarked this—her splendid carriage and air of breeding—and it gave him a thrill of pride in her. After all, she was his own niece.
"It will be a very great joy to dress you splendidly," he said. "I would have done so always, if I had not known where the money would go; but we are going to settle all that now, and every one can be happy."
It was not in her nature to beg and try to secure favors for her brother and Mimo without paying for them. She had agreed upon the price—herself. Now all she had to do was to obtain as much as possible for this.
"Mirko's cough has come back again," she said quietly. "Since I have consented I want him to be able to go into the warmth without delay. They are here in London now—he and his father—in a very poor place."
"I have thought it all out," Francis Markrute answered while he frowned, as he always did, at the mention of Mimo. "There is a wonderfully clever doctor at Bournemouth where the air is perfect for those delicate in the lungs. I have communicated with him; and he will take the child into his own house, where he will be beautifully cared for. There he can have a tutor, and when he is stronger he can return to Paris, or to Vienna, and have his talent for the violin cultivated. I want you to understand," he continued, "that if you agree to my terms your brother will not be stinted in any way."
And her thoughts said, "And Mimo?" but she felt it wiser not to ask anything about him just then. To have Mirko cared for by a really clever doctor, in good air, with some discipline as to bedtime, and not those unwholesome meals, snatched at odd hours at some restaurant, seemed a wonderfully good thing. If the little fellow would only be happy separated from his father; that was the question!
"Are there children in the house?" she asked. Mirko was peculiar, and did not like other little boys.
"The doctor has an only little girl of about your brother's age. He is nine and a half, is it not so? And she is delicate, too, so they could play together."
This sounded more promising.
"I would wish to go down and see the doctor first—and the home," she said.
"You shall do so, of course, when you like. I will set aside a certain sum every year, to be invested for him, so that when he grows up he will have a competence—even a small fortune. I will have a deed drawn out for you to sign; it shall be all en regle."
"That is well," she said. "And now give me some money, please, that I may relieve their present necessities until my brother can go to this place. I do not consent to give myself, unless I am certain that I free those I love from anxieties. I should like, immediately, a thousand francs. Forty pounds of your money, isn't it?"
"I will send the notes up in a few minutes," Francis Markrute said. He was in the best of tempers to-day. "Meanwhile, that part of the arrangement being settled, I must ask you to pay some attention to the thought of seeing your fiance."
"I do not wish to see him," she announced.
Her uncle smiled.
"Possibly not, but it is part of the bargain. You can't marry the man without seeing him. He will come and call upon you this afternoon, and, no doubt, will bring you a ring. I trust to your honor not to show so plainly your dislike that no man could carry through his side. Please remember your brother's welfare depends upon your actual marriage. If you cause Lord Tancred to break off the match the bargain between you and me is void."
The black panther's look again appeared in her eyes, and an icy stillness settled upon her. But she began to speak rather fast, with a catch in the breath between the sentences.
"Then, since you wish this so much for your own ends, which I cannot guess, I tell you, arrange for me to go to Paris, alone, away from him, until the wedding day. He must hate the thought as much as I do. We are probably both only marionettes in your hands. Explain to the man that I will not go through the degradation of the pretence of an engagement, especially here in this England, where, Maman said, they parade affections, and fiances are lovers. Mon Dieu! I will play my part—for the visits of ceremony to his family, which I suppose must take place even here—but beyond that, after to-day, I will not see him alone nor have any communication with him. Is it understood?"
Francis Markrute looked at her with growing admiration. She was gorgeously attractive in this mood. He obtained endless pleasure out of life by his habit of abstract observation. He was able to watch people in the throes of emotion, like a master seeing his hunters being put through their paces.
"It shall be understood," he said. He knew it was wiser to insist upon no more; her temper would never brook it. He knew he could count upon her honor and her pride to fulfill her part of the bargain if she were not exasperated beyond bearing.
"I will explain everything to Lord Tancred at luncheon," he said, "that you will receive him this afternoon, and that then you are going to Paris, and will not return until the wedding. You will concede the family interviews that are absolutely necessary, I suppose?"
"I have already said so; only let them be few and short."
"Then I will not detain you longer now. You are a beautiful woman, Zara," Francis Markrute said, as he rose and kissed her hand. "None of the royal ladies, your ancestresses, ever looked more like a queen." And he bowed himself out of the room, leaving her in her silence.
When she was alone she clenched her hands and walked up and down for a few moments, and her whole serpentine body writhed with passionate anger and pain.
Yes, she was a beautiful woman, and had a right to her life and joys like another—and now she was to be tied, and bound again to a husband!
"Les Infames!" she hissed aloud. "But for that part, I will not bear it! Until the wedding I will dissemble as best I can—but afterwards—!"
And if Lord Tancred could have seen her then he would have known that all the courage he had used when he faced the big lion would be needed soon again.
But before a servant brought up the envelope with the notes she had calmed herself and was preparing to go out. The good part of the news must be told to the two poor ones in their Tottenham Court Road retreat.
As she sped along in the taxi—her uncle had placed one of his several motors at her disposal, but it was not for such localities—she argued with herself that it would be wiser not to give Mimo all the money at once. She knew that that would mean not only the necessary, instantaneous move to a better lodging, but an expensive dinner at the nearest restaurant as well, and certainly bonbons and small presents for Mirko, and new clothes; twice as much would be spent, if credit could be obtained; and then there would be the worry of the bills and the anxiety. If only Mirko would consent to be parted from his fond and irresponsible parent for a time it would be so much better for his health, and his chance of becoming of some use in the world. Mimo always meant so kindly and behaved so foolishly! With the money she personally would get for her bargain Mimo should, somehow, be made comfortable in some studio in Paris where he could paint those pictures which would not sell, and might see his friends—he had still a few who, when his clothes were in a sufficiently good state, welcomed him and his charming, debonair smile. Mimo could be a delightfully agreeable guest, even though he was changed by years and poverty.
And Mirko would be in healthy surroundings; surely it was worth it, after all!
The taxi drew up in the mean street and she got out, paid the man, and then knocked at the dingy door.
A slatternly, miserable, little general servant opened it. No, the foreign gentleman and the little boy were not in, they said they would be back in a few minutes—would the lady step up and wait? She followed the lumpy, untidy figure upstairs to a large attic at the top. It was always let as a studio, apparently. It had a fine northern light from a big window, and was quite clean, though the wretched furniture spoke of better days.
Cleanliness was one of Count Sykypri's peculiarities; he always kept whatever room he was in tidy and clean. This orderly instinct seemed at variance with all the rest of his easy-going character. It was the fastidiousness of a gentleman, which never deserted him. Now Zara recognized the old traveling rug hung on two easels, to hide the little iron beds where he and Mirko slept. The new wonder, which would be bound to sell, was begun there on a third easel. It did not look extremely promising at its present stage. Mirko's violin and his father's, in their cases, were on a chair beside a small pile of music; the water-jug had in it a bunch of yellow chrysanthemums probably bought off a barrow.
The Countess Shulski had been through many vicissitudes with these two since her husband's death, but seldom—only once perhaps—had they gone down to such poverty-stricken surroundings. Generally it was some small apartment in Paris, or Florence, that they occupied, with rather scanty meals when the end of the quarter came. During Count Shulski's life she had always either lived in some smart villa at Nice, or led a wandering existence in hotels; and for months at a time, in later years, when he disappeared, upon his own pleasures bent, he would leave her in some old Normandy farmhouse, only too thankful to be free from his hateful presence. Here Mimo and Mirko would join her, and while they painted and played, she would read. Her whole inner life was spent with books. Among the shady society her husband had frequented she had been known as "The Stone." She never unbent, and while her beauty and extraordinary type attracted all the men she came across they soon gave up their pursuit. She was quite hopeless, they said—and half-witted, some added! No woman could sit silent like that for hours, otherwise. Zara thought of all these things, as she sat on the rickety chair in the Neville Street lodging. How she had loathed that whole atmosphere! How she loathed bohemians and adventurers, no words could tell.
While her mother had lived there had been none of them about. For all her personal downfall, Elinka, Markrute's sister, and an emperor's daughter, remained an absolute grande dame—never mixing or mingling with any people but her own belongings.
But now that she was dead, poor Mimo had sometimes gone for company into a class other than his own.
As yet Zara's thoughts had not turned upon her new existence which was to be. She had drawn a curtain over it in her mind. She knew but vaguely about life in England, she had never had any English friends. One or two gamblers had often come to the Nice villa, but except that they were better looking types and wore well made clothes, she had classed them with the rest of her husband's acquaintances. She had read numbers of English classics but practically no novels, so she could not very well picture a state of things she was ignorant about. Sufficient for the day was the evil thereof.
She was getting slightly impatient when at last the two came in.
They had been told of her arrival; she knew that by their glad, hurried mounting of the stairs and the quick opening of the door.
"Cherisette, Angel! But what joy!" And Mirko hurled himself into her arms, while Mimo kissed her hand. He never forgot his early palace manners.
"I have brought you good news," she said, as she drew out two ten-pound notes. "I have made my uncle see reason. Here is something for the present. He has such a kind and happy scheme for Mirko's health. Listen, and I will tell you about it."
They clustered around her while she explained in the most attractive manner she could the picture of the boy's future, but in spite of all that, his beautiful little face fell as he grasped that he was to leave his father.
"It will only be for a time, darling," Zara said, "just until you get quite well and strong, and learn some lessons. All little boys go to school, and come home for the holidays. You know Maman would have wished you to be educated like a gentleman."
"But I hate other boys, and you have taught me so well. Oh! Cherisette, what shall I do? And to whom play my violin, who will understand?"
"Oh, but Mirko mio, it is a splendid offer! Think, dear child, a comfortable home and no anxieties," Mimo said. "Truly your sister is an angel, and you must not be so ungrateful. Your cough will get quite well; perhaps I can come and lodge in the town, and we could walk together."
But Mirko pouted. Zara sighed and clasped her hands.
"If you only knew how hard it has been to obtain this much," she said, with despair in her voice. "Oh, Mirko, if you love me you will accept it! Can't you trust me that I would not ask you to go where they are hard or cruel? I am going down to the place to-morrow, to see it and judge for myself. Won't you be good and try to please me?"
Then the little cripple fell to sobbing and kissing her, nestling in her arms with his curly head against her neck.
But in the end she comforted him, the never varying gentleness toward him which she showed would have soothed the most peevish invalid.
So at last she was able to feel that her sacrifice, of which they must always remain ignorant, would not be all in vain; Mirko appeared reconciled to his fate, and would certainly benefit by more healthy surroundings. Instinct told her there would be no use even suggesting to her uncle that the child should stay with Mimo, the situation would have become an impasse if the boy had held out, and between them they would have had only this forty pounds until Christmas—and then very little more—and the life of hand-to-mouth poverty would have gone on and on, while here were comfort and probable health, with a certainty of welfare, and education, and a competence in the future. And who knows but Mirko might grow into a great artist one day!
This possible picture she painted in glowing colors until the child's pathetic, dark eyes glistened with pleasure.
Then she became practical; they must change their lodging and find a better one. But here Mimo interfered. They were really very comfortable where they were, he urged, humble though it looked, and changing was unpleasant. If they were able to buy some linen sheets and a new suit of clothes for each it would be much better to stay for the present, until Mirko's going to Bournemouth should be completely settled. "And even then," Count Sykypri said, "it will do for me. No one cooks garlic here, and there is no canary!"
Neither Lord Tancred nor Francis Markrute was late at the appointment in the city restaurant where they were to lunch, and they were soon seated at a table in a corner where they could talk without being interrupted. They spoke of ordinary things for a moment. Then Lord Tancred's impatience to get at the matter which interested him became too great to wait longer, so he said laconically:
"I saw her this morning and had a talk"—the financier said, as he placed some caviare on his toast. "You must not overlook the fact, which I have already stated to you, that she is a most difficult problem. You will have an interesting time taming her. For a man of nerve, I cannot imagine a more thrilling task. She is a woman who has restricted all her emotion for men, and could lavish it all upon the man, I imagine. In any case that is 'up to you,' as our friends, the Americans, say—"
Lord Tancred thrilled as he answered:
"Yes, it shall be 'up to me.' But I want to find out all about her for myself. I just want to know when I may see her, and what is the programme?"
"The programme is that she will receive you this afternoon, about tea-time, I should say; that you must explain to her you realize you are engaged. You need not ask her to marry you; she will not care for details like that—she knows it is already settled. Be as businesslike as you can—and come away. She has made it a condition that she sees you as little as possible until the wedding. The English idea of engaged couples shocks her, for, remember, it is, on her side, not a love-match. If you wish to have the slightest success with her afterwards be careful now. She is going to Paris, immediately, for her trousseau. She will return about a week before the wedding, when you can present her to your family."
Tristram smiled grimly and then the two men's eyes met and they both laughed.
"Jove! Francis!" Lord Tancred exclaimed, "isn't it a wonderful affair! A real dramatic romance, here in the twentieth century. Would not every one think I was mad, if they knew!"
"It is that sort of madmen who are often the sanest," Francis Markrute answered. "The world is full of apparently sane fools." Then he passed on to a further subject. "You will re-open Wrayth, of course," he said. "I wish my niece to be a Queen of Society, and to have her whole life arranged with due state. I wish your family to understand that I appreciate the honor of the connection with them, and consider it a privilege, and a perfectly natural thing—since we are foreigners of whom you know nothing—that we should provide the necessary money for what we wish."
Lord Tancred listened; he thought of his mother's similar argument at breakfast.
"You see," the financier went on reflectively, "in life, the wise man always pays willingly for what he really wants, as you are doing, for instance, in your blind taking of my niece. Your old nobility in England is the only one of any consequence left in the world. The other countries' system of the titles descending to all the younger sons, ad infinitum, makes the whole thing a farce after a while. A Prince in the Caucasus is as common as a Colonel in Kentucky, and in Austria and Germany there are poor Barons in the streets. There was a time in my life when I could have had a foreign title, but I found it ridiculous, and so refused it. But in England, in spite of your amusing radicalism the real thing still counts. It is a valid asset—a tangible security for one's money—from a business point of view. And Americans or foreigners like myself and my niece, for instance, are securing substantial property and equal return, when we bring large fortunes in our marriage settlements to this country. What satisfaction comparable to the glory of her English position as Marchioness of Darrowood could Miss Clara D. Woggenheimer have got out of her millions, if she had married one of her own countrymen, or an Italian count? Yet she gives herself the airs of a benefactress to poor Darrowood and throws her money in his teeth, whereas Darrowood is the benefactor, if there is a case of it either way. But to me, a sensible business man, the bargain is equal. You don't go to an art dealer's and buy a very valuable Rembrandt for its marketable value, and then, afterwards, jibe at the picture and reproach the art dealer. Money is no good without position, and here in England you have had such hundreds of years of freedom from invasion, that you have had time, which no other country has had, to perfect your social system. Let the Radicals and the uninformed of other lands rail as they will, your English aristocracy is the finest body of thinkers and livers in the world. One hears ever of the black sheep, the few luridly glaring failures, but never of the hundreds of great and noble lives which are England's strength."