"Cette amoureuse ardeur qui dans les coeurs s'excite N'est point, comme l'on scait, un effet du merite; Le caprice y prend part, et, quand quelqu'un nous plaist, Souvent nous avons peine a dire pourquoy c'est. Mais on vois que l'amour se gouverne autrement."
DUC DE PUYSANGE, somewhat given to women, and now and then to good-fellowship, but a man of excellent disposition.
MARQUIS DE SOYECOURT, his cousin, and loves de Puysange's wife.
DUKE OF ORMSKIRK.
DUCHESSE DE PUYSANGE, a precise, but amiable and patient, woman.
ANTOINE, LACKEYS to de Puysange, Etc.
Paris, mostly within and about the Hotel de Puysange.
HEART OF GOLD
PROEM:—Necessitated by a Change of Scene
You are not to imagine that John Bulmer debated an exposure of de Soyecourt. "Live and let live" was the Englishman's axiom; the exuberant Cazaio was dead, his men were either slain or dispersed, and the whole tangle of errors—with judicious reservations—had now been unravelled to Gaston's satisfaction. And Claire de Puysange was now Duchess of Ormskirk. Why, then, meddle with Destiny, who appeared, after all, to possess a certain sense of equity?
So Ormskirk smiled as he presently went about Paris, on his own business, and when he and Louis de Soyecourt encountered each other their friendliness was monstrous in its geniality.
They were now one and all in Paris, where Ormskirk's marriage had been again, and more publicly, solemnized. De Puysange swore that his sister was on this occasion the loveliest person affordable by the resources of the universe, but de Soyecourt backed another candidate; so that over their wine the two gentlemen presently fell into a dispute.
"Nay, but I protest to you she is the most beautiful woman in all Paris!" cried the Marquis de Soyecourt, and kissed his finger-tips gallantly.
"My dear Louis," the Duc de Puysange retorted, "her eyes are noticeable, perhaps; and I grant you," he added, slowly, "that her husband is not often troubled by—that which they notice."
"—And the cleverest!"
"I have admitted she knows when to be silent. What more would you demand of any woman?"
"And yet—" The little Marquis waved a reproachful forefinger.
"Why, but," said the Duke, with utter comprehension, "it is not for nothing that our house traces from the great Jurgen—"
He was in a genial midnight mood, and, on other subjects, inclined to be garrulous; for the world, viewed through a slight haze, of vinous origin, seemed a pleasant place, and inspired a kindly desire to say diverting things about the world's contents. He knew the Marquis to be patient, and even stolid, under a fusillade of epigram and paradox; in short, de Puysange knew the hour and the antagonist for midnight talk to be at hand. And a saturnalia of phrases whirled in his brain, demanding utterance.
He waved them aside. Certain inbred ideas are strangely tenacious of existence, and it happened to be his wife they were discussing. It would not be good form, de Puysange felt, for him to evince great interest in this topic....
"And yet," de Puysange queried, as he climbed democratically into a public hackney coach, "why not? For my part, I see no good and sufficient reason for discriminating against the only woman one has sworn to love and cherish and honor. It is true that several hundred people witnessed the promise, with a perfect understanding of the jest, and that the keeping of this oath involves a certain breach of faith with society. Eh bien! let us, then, deceive the world—and the flesh—and the devil! Let us snap our fingers at this unholy trinity, and assert the right, when the whim takes us, to make unstinted love to our own wives!"
He settled back in the fiacre to deliberate. "It is bourgeois? Bah! the word is the first refuge of the unskilful poseur! It is bourgeois to be born, to breathe, to sleep, or eat; in which of the functions that consume the greater part of my life do I differ from my grocer? Bourgeois! why, rightly considered, to be a human being at all is quite inordinately bourgeois! And it is very notably grocer-like to maintain a grave face and two establishments, to chuckle privily over the fragments of the seventh commandment, to repent, upon detection, and afterward—ces betes-la!—to drink poison. Ma foi, I infinitely prefer the domestic coffee!"
The Duc de Puysange laughed, and made as though to wave aside the crudities of life. "All vice is bourgeois, and fornication in particular tends to become sordid, outworn, vieux jeu! In youth, I grant you, it is the unexpurgated that always happens. But at my age—misericorde!—the men yawn, and les demoiselles—bah! les demoiselles have the souls of accountants! They buy and sell, as my grocer does. The satiation of carnal desires is no longer a matter of splendid crimes and sorrows and kingdoms lost; it is a matter of business."
The harsh and swarthy face relaxed. With, a little sigh the Duc de Puysange had closed his fevered eyes. About them were a multitude of tiny lines, and of this fact he was obscurely conscious, in a wearied fashion, when he again looked out on the wellnigh deserted streets, now troubled by a hint of dawn. His eyes were old; they had seen much. Two workmen shambled by, chatting on their way to the day's work; in the attic yonder a drunken fellow sang, "Ah, bouteille ma mie," he bellowed, "pourquoi vous vuidez-vous?"
De Puysange laughed. "I suppose I have no conscience, but at least, I can lay claim to a certain fastidiousness. I am very wicked,"—he smiled, without mirth or bitterness,—"I have sinned notably as the world accounts it; indeed, I think, my repute is as abominable as that of any man living. And I am tired,—alas, I am damnably tired! I have found the seven deadly sins deadly, beyond, doubt, but only deadly dull and deadly commonplace. I have perseveringly frisked in the high places of iniquity, I have junketed with all evil gods, and the utmost they could pretend to offer any of their servitors was a spasm. I renounce them, as feeble-minded deities, I snap my fingers, very much as did my progenitor, the great Jurgen, at all their over-rated mysteries."
His glance caught and clung for a moment to the paling splendor of the moon that hung low in the vacant, dove-colored heavens. A faint pang, half-envy, half-regret, vexed the Duke with a dull twinge. "I wish too that by living continently I could have done, once for all, with this faded pose and this idle making of phrases! Eheu! there is a certain proverb concerning pitch so cynical that I suspect it of being truthful. However,—we shall see."
De Puysange smiled. "The most beautiful woman in all Paris? Ah, yes, she is quite that, is this grave silent female whose eyes are more fathomless and cold than oceans! And how cordially she despises me! Ma foi, I think that if her blood—which is, beyond doubt, of a pale-pink color,—be ever stirred, at all, it is with loathing of her husband. Well, life holds many surprises for madame, now that I become quite as virtuous as she is. We will arrange a very pleasant comedy of belated courtship; for are we not bidden to love one another? So be it,—I am henceforth the model pere de famille."
Now the fiacre clattered before the Hotel de Puysange.
The door was opened by a dull-eyed lackey, whom de Puysange greeted with a smile, "Bon jour, Antoine!" cried the Duke; "I trust that your wife and doubtless very charming children have good health?"
"Beyond question, monseigneur," the man answered, stolidly.
"That is excellent hearing," de Puysange said, "and it rejoices me to be reassured of their welfare. For the happiness of others, Antoine, is very dear to the heart of a father—and of a husband." The Duke chuckled seraphically as he passed down the hall. The man stared after him, and shrugged.
"Rather worse than usual," Antoine considered.
Next morning the Duchesse de Puysange received an immoderate armful of roses, with a fair copy of some execrable verses. De Puysange spent the afternoon, selecting bonbons and wholesome books,—"for his fiancee," he gravely informed the shopman.
At the Opera he never left her box; afterward, at the Comtesse de Hauteville's, he created a furor by sitting out three dances in the conservatory with his wife. Mademoiselle Tiercelin had already received his regrets that he was spending that night at home.
The month wore on.
"It is the true honeymoon," said the Duke.
In that event he might easily have found a quieter place than Paris wherein to spend it. Police agents had of late been promised a premium for any sturdy beggar, whether male or female, they could secure to populate the new plantation of Louisiana; and as the premium was large, genteel burgesses, and in particular the children of genteel burgesses, were presently disappearing in a fashion their families found annoying. Now, from nowhere, arose and spread the curious rumor that King Louis, somewhat the worse for his diversions in the Parc-aux-Cerfs, daily restored his vigor by bathing in the blood of young children; and parents of the absentees began to manifest a double dissatisfaction, for the deduction was obvious.
There were riots. In one of them Madame de Pompadour barely escaped with her life, [Footnote: This was on the afternoon of the famous ball given by the Pompadour in honor of the new Duchess of Ormskirk.] and the King himself on his way to Compiegne, was turned back at the Porte St. Antoine, and forced to make a detour rather than enter his own capital. After this affair de Puysange went straight to his brother-in-law.
"Jean," said he, "for a newly married man you receive too much company. And afterward your visitors talk blasphemously in cabarets and shoot the King's musketeers. I would appreciate an explanation."
Ormskirk shrugged. "Merely a makeshift, Gaston. Merely a device to gain time wherein England may prepare against the alliance of France and Austria. Your secret treaty will never be signed as long as Paris is given over to rioters. Nay, the Empress may well hesitate to ally herself with a king who thus clamantly cannot govern even his own realm. And meanwhile England will prepare herself. We will be ready to fight you in five years, but we do not intend to be hurried about it."
"Yes," de Puysange assented;—"yet you err in sending Cumberland to defend Hanover. You will need a better man there."
Ormskirk slapped his thigh. "So you intercepted that last despatch, after all! And I could have sworn Candale was trustworthy!"
"My adored Jean," replied de Puysange, "he has been in my pay for six months! Console yourself with the reflection that you overbid us in Noumaria."
"Yes, but old Ludwig held out for more than the whole duchy is worth. We paid of course. We had to pay."
"And one of course congratulates you upon securing the quite essential support of that duchy. Still, Jean, if there were any accident—" De Puysange was really unbelievably ugly when he smiled. "For accidents do occur.... It is war, then?"
"My dear fellow," said Ormskirk, "of course it is war. We are about to fly at each other's throats, with half of Europe to back each of us. We begin the greatest game we have ever played. And we will manage it very badly, I dare say, since we are each of us just now besotted with adoration of our wives."
"At times," said de Puysange, with dignity, "your galimatias are insufferable. Now let us talk like reasonable beings. In regard to Pomerania, you will readily understand that the interests of humanity—"
Still the suggestion haunted him. It would be a nuance too ridiculous, of course, to care seriously for one's wife, and yet Helene de Puysange was undeniably a handsome woman. As they sat over the remains of their dinner,—a deux, by the Duke's request,—she seemed to her husband quite incredibly beautiful. She exhaled the effects of a water-color in discreet and delicate tinctures. Lithe and fine and proud she was to the merest glance; yet patience, a thought conscious of itself, beaconed in her eyes, and she appeared, with urbanity, to regard life as, upon the whole, a countrified performance. De Puysange liked that air; he liked the reticence of every glance and speech and gesture,—liked, above all, the thinnish oval of her face and the staid splendor of her hair. Here was no vulgar yellow, no crass and hackneyed gold ... and yet there was a clarified and gauzier shade of gold ... the color of the moon by daylight, say.... Then, as the pleasures of digestion lapsed gently into the initial amenities of sleep, she spoke.
"Monsieur," said she, "will you be pleased to tell me the meaning of this comedy?"
"Madame," de Puysange answered, and raised his gloomy eyebrows, "I do not entirely comprehend."
"Ah," said she, "believe me, I do not undervalue your perception. I have always esteemed your cleverness, monsieur, however much"—she paused for a moment, a fluctuating smile upon her lips,—"however much I may have regretted its manifestations. I am not clever, and to me cleverness has always seemed to be an infinite incapacity for hard work; its results are usually a few sonnets, an undesirable wife, and a warning for one's acquaintances. In your case it is, of course, different; you have your statesmanship to play with—"
"And statesmen have no need of cleverness, you would imply, madame?"
"I do not say that. In any event, you are the Duc de Puysange, and the weight of a great name stifles stupidity and cleverness without any partiality. With you, cleverness has taken the form of a tendency to intoxication, amours, and—amiability. I have acquiesced in this. But, for the past month—"
"The happiest period of my life!" breathed the Duke.
"—you have been pleased to present me with flowers, bonbons, jewels, and what not. You have actually accorded your wife the courtesies you usually preserve for the ladies of the ballet. You have dogged my footsteps, you have attempted to intrude into my bedroom, you have talked to me as—well, very much as—"
"Much as the others do?" de Puysange queried, helpfully. "Pardon me, madame, but, in one's own husband, I had thought this very routine might savor of originality."
The Duchess flushed, "All the world knows, monsieur, that in your estimation what men have said to me, or I to them, has been for fifteen years a matter of no moment! It is not due to you that I am still—"
"A pearl," finished the Duke, gallantly,—then touched himself upon the chest,—"cast before swine," he sighed.
She rose to her feet. "Yes, cast before swine!" she cried, with a quick lift of speech. She seemed very tall as she stood tapping her fingers upon the table, irresolutely; but after an instant she laughed and spread out her fine hands in an impotent gesture. "Ah, monsieur," she said, "my father entrusted to your keeping a clean-minded girl! What have you made of her, Gaston?"
A strange and profoundly unreasonable happiness swept through the Duke's soul as she spoke his given name for the first time within his memory. Surely, the deep contralto voice had lingered over it?—half-tenderly, half-caressingly, one might think.
The Duke put aside his coffee-cup and, rising, took his wife's soft hands in his. "What have I made of her? I have made of her, Helene, the one object of all my desires."
Her face flushed. "Mountebank!" she cried, and struggled to free herself; "do you mistake me, then, for a raddle-faced actress in a barn? Ah, les demoiselles have formed you, monsieur,—they have formed you well!"
"Pardon!" said the Duke. He released her hands, he swept back his hair with a gesture of impatience. He turned from his wife, and strolled toward a window, where, for a little, he tapped upon the pane, his murky countenance twitching oddly, as he stared into the quiet and sunlit street. "Madame," he began, in a level voice, "I will tell you the meaning of the comedy. To me,—always, as you know, a creature of whims,—there came, a month ago, a new whim which I thought attractive, unconventional, promising. It was to make love to my own wife rather than to another man's. Ah, I grant you, it is incredible," he cried, when the Duchess raised her hand as though to speak,—"incredible, fantastic, and ungentlemanly! So be it; nevertheless, I have played out my role. I have been the model husband; I have put away wine and—les demoiselles; for it pleased me, in my petty insolence, to patronize, rather than to defy, the laws of God and man. Your perfection irritated me, madame; it pleased me to demonstrate how easy is this trick of treating the world as the antechamber of a future existence. It pleased me to have in my life one space, however short, over which neither the Recording Angel nor even you might draw a long countenance. It pleased me, in effect, to play out the comedy, smug-faced and immaculate,—for the time. I concede that I have failed in my part. Hiss me from the stage, madame; add one more insult to the already considerable list of those affronts which I have put upon you; one more will scarcely matter."
She faced him with set lips. "So, monsieur, your boasted comedy amounts only to this?"
"I am not sure of its meaning, madame. I think that, perhaps, the swine, wallowing in the mire which they have neither strength nor will to leave, may yet, at times, long—and long whole-heartedly—" De Puysange snapped his fingers. "Peste!" said he, "let us now have done with this dreary comedy! Beyond doubt de Soyecourt has much to answer for, in those idle words which were its germ. Let us hiss both collaborators, madame."
"De Soyecourt!" she marveled, with, a little start. "Was it he who prompted you to make love to me?"
"Without intention," pleaded the Duke. "He twitted me for my inability, as your husband, to gain your affections; but I do not question his finest sensibilities would be outraged by our disastrous revival of Philemon and Baucis."
"Ah—!" said she. She was smiling at some reflection or other.
There was a pause. The Duc de Puysange drummed upon the window-pane; the Duchess, still faintly smiling, trifled with the thin gold chain that hung about her neck. Both knew their display of emotion to have been somewhat unmodern, not entirely a la mode.
"Decidedly," spoke de Puysange, and turned toward her with a slight grimace, "I am no longer fit to play the lover; yet a little while, madame, and you must stir my gruel-posset, and arrange the pillows more comfortably about the octogenarian."
"Ah, Gaston," she answered, and in protest raised her slender fingers, "let us have no more heroics. We are not well fitted for them, you and I."
"So it would appear," the Duc de Puysange conceded, not without sulkiness.
"Let us be friends," she pleaded. "Remember, it was fifteen years ago I made the grave mistake of marrying a very charming man—"
"Merci!" cried the Duke.
"—and I did not know that I was thereby denying myself the pleasure of his acquaintance. I have learned too late that marrying a man is only the most civil way of striking him from one's visiting-list." The Duchess hesitated. "Frankly, Gaston, I do not regret the past month."
"It has been adorable!" sighed the Duke.
"Yes," she admitted; "except those awkward moments when you would insist on making love to me."
"But no, madame," cried he, "it was precisely—"
"O my husband, my husband!" she interrupted, with a shrug of the shoulders; "why, you do it so badly!"
The Duc de Puysange took a short turn about the apartment. "Yet I married you," said he, "at sixteen—out of a convent!"
"Mon ami," she murmured, in apology, "am I not to be frank with you? Would you have only the connubial confidences?"
"But I had no idea—" he began.
"Why, Gaston, it bored me to the very verge of yawning in my lover's countenance. I, too, had no idea but that it would bore you equally—"
"Hein?" said the Duke.
"—to hear what d'Humieres—"
"He squints!" cried the Duc de Puysange.
"—or de Crequy—"
"That red-haired ape!" he muttered.
"—or d'Arlanges, or—or any of them, was pleased to say. In fact, it was my duty to conceal from my husband anything which might involve him in duels. Now that we are friends, of course it is entirely different."
The Duchess smiled; the Duke walked up and down the room with the contained ferocity of a caged tiger.
"In duels! in a whole series of duels! So these seducers besiege you in platoons. Ma foi, friendship is a good oculist! Already my vision improves."
"Gaston!" she cried. The Duchess rose and laid both hands upon his shoulders. "Gaston—?" she repeated.
For a heart-beat the Duc de Puysange looked into his wife's eyes; then he sadly smiled and shook his head. "Madame," said the Duke, "I do not doubt you. Ah, believe me, I have comprehended, always, that in your keeping my honor was quite safe—far more safe than in mine, as Heaven and most of the fiends well know. You have been a true and faithful wife to a worthless brute who has not deserved it." He lifted her fingers to his lips. De Puysange stood very erect; his heels clicked together, and his voice was earnest. "I thank you, madame, and I pray you to believe that I have never doubted you. You are too perfect to err—Frankly, and between friends." added the Duke, "it was your cold perfection which frightened me. You are an icicle, Helene."
She was silent for a moment. "Ah!" she said, and sighed; "you think so?"
"Once, then—?" The Duc de Puysange seated himself beside his wife, and took her hand.
"I—it was nothing." Her lashes fell, and dull color flushed through her countenance.
"Between friends," the Duke suggested, "there should be no reservations."
"But it is such a pitiably inartistic little history!" the Duchess protested. "Eh bien, if you must have it! For I was a girl once,—an innocent girl, as given as are most girls to long reveries and bright, callow day-dreams. And there was a man—"
"There always is," said the Duke, darkly.
"Why, he never even knew, mon ami!" cried his wife, and laughed, and clapped her hands. "He was much older than I; there were stories about him—oh, a great many stories,—and one hears even in a convent—" She paused with a reminiscent smile. "And I used to wonder shyly what this very fearful reprobate might be like. I thought of him with de Lauzun, and Dom Juan, and with the Duc de Grammont, and all those other scented, shimmering, magnificent libertines over whom les ingenues—wonder; only, I thought of him, more often than of the others, I made little prayers for him to the Virgin. And I procured a tiny miniature of him. And, when I came out of the convent, I met him at my father's house. [Footnote: She was of the Aigullon family, and sister to d'Agenois, the first and very politic lover of Madame de la Tournelle, afterward mistress to Louis Quinze under the title of Duchesse de Chateauroux. The later relations between the d'Aigullons and Madame du Barry are well-known.] And that was all."
"All?" The Duc de Puysange had raised his swart eyebrows, and he slightly smiled.
"All," she re-echoed, firmly. "Oh, I assure you he was still too youthful to have any time to devote to young girls. He was courteous—no more. But I kept the picture,—ah, girls are so foolish, Gaston!" The Duchess, with a light laugh, drew upward the thin chain about her neck. At its end was a little heart-shaped locket of dull gold, with a diamond sunk deep in each side. She regarded the locket with a quaint sadness. "It is a long while since I have seen that miniature, for it has been sealed in here," said she, "ever since—since some one gave me the locket"
Now the Duc de Puysange took this trinket, still tepid and perfumed from contact with her flesh. He turned it awkwardly in his hand, his eyes flashing volumes of wonderment and inquiry. Yet he did not appear jealous, nor excessively unhappy. "And never," he demanded, some vital emotion catching at his voice—"never since then—?"
"I never, of course, approved of him," she answered; and at this point de Puysange noted—so near as he could remember for the first time in his existence,—the curve of her trailing lashes. Why but his wife had lovely eyelashes, lashes so unusual that he drew nearer to observe them more at his ease. "Still,—I hardly know how to tell you—still, without him the world was more quiet, less colorful; it held, appreciably, less to catch the eye and ear. Eh, he had an air, Gaston; he was never an admirable man, but, somehow, he was invariably the centre of the picture."
"And you have always—always you have cared for him?" said the Duke, drawing nearer and yet more near to her.
"Other men," she murmured, "seem futile and of minor importance, after him." The lashes lifted. They fell, promptly. "So, I have always kept the heart, mon ami. And, yes, I have always loved him, I suppose."
The chain had moved and quivered in his hand. Was it man or woman who trembled? wondered the Duc de Puysange. For a moment he stood immovable, every nerve in his body tense. Surely, it was she who trembled? It seemed to him that this woman, whose cold perfection had galled him so long, now stood with downcast eyes, and blushed and trembled, too, like any rustic maiden come shamefaced to her first tryst.
"Helene—!" he cried.
"But no, my story is too dull," she protested, and shrugged her shoulders, and disengaged herself—half-fearfully, it seemed to her husband. "Even more insipid than your comedy," she added, with a not unkindly smile. "Do we drive this afternoon?"
"In effect, yes!" cried the Duke. He paused and laughed—a low and gentle laugh, pulsing with unutterable content. "Since this afternoon, madame—"
"Is cloudless?" she queried.
"Nay, far more than that," de Puysange amended; "it is refulgent."
What time the Duchess prepared her person for the drive the Duke walked in the garden of the Hotel de Puysange. Up and down a shady avenue of lime-trees he paced, and chuckled to himself, and smiled benignantly upon the moss-incrusted statues,—a proceeding that was, beyond any reasonable doubt, prompted by his happiness rather than by the artistic merits of the postured images, since they constituted a formidable and broken-nosed collection of the most cumbrous, the most incredible, and the most hideous instances of sculpture the family of Puysange had been able to accumulate for, as the phrase is, love or money. Amid these mute, gray travesties of antiquity and the tastes of his ancestors, the Duc de Puysange exulted.
"Ma foi, will life never learn to improve upon the extravagancies of romance? Why, it is the old story,—the hackneyed story of the husband and wife who fall in love with each other! Life is a very gross plagiarist. And she—did she think I had forgotten how I gave her that little locket so long ago? Eh, ma femme, so 'some one'—'some one' who cannot be alluded to without a pause and an adorable flush—presented you with your locket! Nay, love is not always blind!"
The Duke paused before a puff-jawed Triton, who wallowed in an arid basin and uplifted toward heaven what an indulgent observer might construe as a broken conch-shell. "Love! Mon Dieu, how are the superior fallen! I have not the decency to conceal even from myself that I love my wife! I am shameless, I had as lief proclaim it from the house-tops. And a month ago—tarare, the ignorant beast I was! Moreover, at that time I had not passed a month in her company,—eh bien, I defy Diogenes and Timon to come through such a testing with unscratched hearts. I love her. And she loves me!"
He drew a deep breath, and he lifted his comely hands toward the pale spring sky, where the west wind was shepherding a sluggish flock of clouds. "O sun, moon, and stars!" de Puysange said, aloud: "I call you to witness that she loves me! Always she has loved me! O kindly little universe! O little kings, tricked out with garish crowns and sceptres, you are masters of your petty kingdoms, but I am master of her heart!
"I do not deserve it," he conceded, to a dilapidated faun, who, though his flute and the hands that held it had been missing for over a quarter of a century, piped, on with unimpaired and fatuous mirth. "Ah, heart of gold—demented trinket that you are, I have not merited that you should retain my likeness all these years! If I had my deserts—parbleu! let us accept such benefits as the gods provide, and not question the wisdom of their dispensations. What man of forty-three may dare to ask for his deserts? No, we prefer instead the dealings of blind chance and all the gross injustices by which so many of us escape hanging"....
"So madame has visitors? Eh bien, let us, then, behold these naughty visitors, who would sever a husband from his wife!"
From within the Red Salon came a murmur of speech,—quiet, cordial, colorless,—which showed very plainly that madame had visitors. As the Duc de Puysange reached out his hand to draw aside the portieres, her voice was speaking, courteously, but without vital interest.
"—and afterward," said she, "weather permitting—"
"Ah, Helene!" cried a voice that the Duke knew almost as well, "how long am I to be held at arm's-length by these petty conventionalities? Is candor never to be permitted?"
The half-drawn portiere trembled in the Duke's grasp. He could see, from where he stood, the inmates of the salon, though their backs were turned. They were his wife and the Marquis de Soyecourt. The Marquis bent eagerly toward the Duchesse de Puysange, who had risen as he spoke.
For a moment she stayed as motionless as her perplexed husband; then, with a wearied sigh, the Duchess sank back into a fauteuil. "You are at liberty to speak," she said, slowly, and with averted glance—"what you choose."
The portiere fell; but between its folds the Duke still peered into the room, where de Soyecourt had drawn nearer to the Duke's wife. "There is so little to say," the Marquis murmured, "beyond what my eyes have surely revealed a great while ago—that I love you."
"Ah!" the Duchess cried, with a swift intaking of the breath which was almost a sob. "Monsieur, I think you forget that you are speaking to the wife of your kinsman and your friend."
The Marquis threw out his hands in a gesture which was theatrical, though the trouble that wrung his countenance seemed very real. He was, as one has said, a slight, fair man, with the face of an ecclesiastic and the eyes of an aging seraph. A dull pang shot through the Duke as he thought of the two years' difference in their ages, and of his own tendency to embonpoint, and of the dismal features which calumniated him. Yonder porcelain fellow was in appearance so incredibly young!
"Do you consider," said the Marquis, "that I do not know I act an abominable part? Honor, friendship and even decency!—ah, I regret their sacrifice, but love is greater than these petty things!"
The Duchess sighed. "For my part," she returned, "I think differently. Love is, doubtless, very wonderful and beautiful, but I am sufficiently old-fashioned to hold honor yet dearer. Even—even if I loved you, monsieur, there are certain promises, sworn before the altar, that I could not forget." She looked up, candidly, into the flushed, handsome face of the Marquis.
"Words!" he cried, with vexed impatiency.
"An oath," she answered, sadly,—"an oath that I may not break."
There was hunger in the Marquis' eyes, and his hands lifted. Their glances met for a breathless moment, and his eyes were tender, and her eyes were resolute, but very, very compassionate.
"I love you!" he said. He said no more than this, but none could doubt he spoke the truth.
"Monsieur," the Duchess replied, and the depths of her contralto voice were shaken like the sobbing of a violin, and her hands stole upward to her bosom, and clasped the gold heart, as she spoke,—"monsieur, ever since I first knew you, many years ago, at my father's home, I have held you as my friend. You were more kind to the girl, Monsieur de Soyecourt, than you have been to the woman. Yet only since our stay in Poictesme yonder have I feared for the result of our friendship. I have tried to prevent this result. I have failed." The Duchess lifted the gold heart to her lips, and her golden head bent over it. "Monsieur, before God, if I had loved you with my whole being,—if I had loved you all these years,—if the sight of your face were to me to-day the one good thing life holds, and the mere sound of your voice had power to set my heart to beating—beating"—she paused for a little, and then rose, with a sharp breath that shook her slender body visibly,—"even then, my Louis, the answer would be the same; and that is,—go!"
"Helene—!" he murmured; and his outstretched hands, which trembled, groped toward her.
"Let us have no misunderstanding," she protested, more composedly; "you have my answer."
De Soyecourt did not, at mildest, lead an immaculate life. But by the passion that now possessed him the tiny man seemed purified and transfigured beyond masculinity. His face was ascetic in its reverence as he waited there, with his head slightly bowed. "I go," he said, at last, as if picking his way carefully among tumbling words; then bent over her hand, which, she made no effort to withdraw. "Ah, my dear!" cried the Marquis, staring into her shy, uplifted eyes, "I think I might have made you happy!"
His arm brushed the elbow of the Duke as de Soyecourt left the salon. The Marquis seemed aware of nothing: the misery of both the men, as de Puysange reflected, was of a sort to be disturbed by nothing less noticeable than an earthquake.
"If I had loved you all these years," murmured the Duc de Puysange. His dull gaze wandered toward the admirable "Herodias" of Giorgione which hung there in the corridor: the strained face of the woman, the accented muscles of her arms, the purple, bellying cloak which spread behind her, the livid countenance of the dead man staring up from the salver,—all these he noted, idly. It seemed strange that he should be appraising a painting at this particular moment.
"Well, now I will make recompense," said the Duke.
He came into the room, humming a tune of the boulevards; the crimson hangings swirled about him, the furniture swayed in aerial and thin-legged minuets. He sank into a chair before the great mirror, supported by frail love-gods, who contended for its possession. He viewed therein his pale and grotesque reflection, and he laughed lightly. "Pardon, madame," he said, "but my castles in the air are tumbling noisily about my ears. It is difficult to think clearly amid the crashing of the battlements."
"I do not understand." The Duchess had lifted a rather grave and quite incurious face as he entered the salon.
"My life," laughed the Duc de Puysange, "I assure you I am quite incorrigible. I have just committed another abominable action; and I cry peccavi!" He smote himself upon the breast, and sighed portentously. "I accuse myself of eavesdropping."
"What is your meaning?" She had now risen to her feet.
"Nay, but I am requited," the Duke reassured her, and laughed with discreetly tempered bitterness. "Figure to yourself, madame! I had planned for us a life during which our new-born friendship was always to endure untarnished. Eh bien, man proposes! De Soyecourt is of a jealous disposition; and here I sit, amid my fallen aircastles, like that tiresome Marius in his Carthaginian debris."
"De Soyecourt?" she echoed, dully.
"Ah, my poor child!" said the Duke and, rising, took her hand in a paternal fashion, "did you think that, at this late day, the disease of matrimony was still incurable? Nay, we progress, madame. You shall have grounds for a separation—sufficient, unimpeachable grounds. You shall have your choice of desertion, infidelity, cruelty in the presence of witnesses—oh, I shall prove a yeritabie Gilles de Retz!" He laughed, not unkindlily, at her bewilderment.
"You heard everything?" she queried.
"I have already confessed," the Duke reminded her. "And speaking as an unprejudiced observer, I would say the little man really loves you. So be it! You shall have your separation, you shall marry him in all honor and respectability; and if everything goes well, you shall be a grand duchess one of these days—Behold a fact accomplished!" De Puysange snapped his fingers and made a pirouette; he began to hum, "Songez de bonne a suivre—"
There was a little pause.
"You, in truth, desire to restore to me my freedom?" she asked, in wonder, and drew near to him.
The Duc de Puysange seated himself, with a smile. "Mon Dieu!" he protested, "who am I to keep lovers apart? As the first proof of our new-sworn friendship, I hereby offer you any form of abuse or of maltreatment you may select."
She drew yet nearer to him. Afterward, with a sigh as if of great happiness, her arms clasped about his neck. "Mountebank! do you, then, love me very much?"
"I?" The Duke raised his eyebrows. Yet, he reflected, there was really no especial harm in drawing his cheek a trifle closer to hers, and he found the contact to be that of cool velvet.
"You love me!" she repeated, softly.
"It pains me to the heart," the Duke apologized—"it pains me, pith and core, to be guilty of this rudeness to a lady; but, after all, honesty is a proverbially recommended virtue, and so I must unblushingly admit I do nothing of the sort."
"Gaston, why will you not confess to your new friend? Have I not pardoned other amorous follies?" Her cheeks were warmer now, and softer than those of any other woman in the world.
"Eh, ma mie," cried the Duke, warningly, "do not be unduly elated by little Louis' avowal! You are a very charming person, but—'de gustibus—'"
"Gaston—!" she murmured.
"Ah, what is one to do with such a woman!" De Puysange put her from him, and he paced the room with quick, unequal strides.
"Yes, I love you with every nerve and fibre of my body—with every not unworthy thought and aspiration of my misguided soul! There you have the ridiculous truth of it, the truth which makes me the laughing-stock of well bred persons for all time. I adore you. I love you, I cherish you sufficiently to resign you to the man your heart has chosen. I—But pardon me,"—and he swept a white hand over his brow, with a little, choking laugh,—"since I find this new emotion somewhat boisterous. It stifles one unused to it."
She faced him, inscrutably; but her eyes were deep wells of gladness. "Monsieur," she said, "yours is a noble affection. I will not palter with it, I accept your offer—"
"Madame, you act with your usual wisdom," said the Duke.
"—Upon condition," she continued,—"that you resume your position as eavesdropper."
The Duke obeyed her pointing finger. When he had reached the portieres, the proud, black-visaged man looked back into the salon, wearily. She had seated herself in the fauteuil, where the Marquis de Soyecourt had bent over her and she had kissed the little gold locket. Her back was turned toward, her husband; but their eyes met in the great mirror, supported by frail love-gods, who contended for its possession.
"Comedy for comedy," she murmured. He wondered what purblind fool had called her eyes sea-cold?
"I do not understand," he said. "You saw me all the while—Yes, but the locket—?" cried de Puysange.
"Open it!" she answered, and her speech, too, was breathless.
Under his heel the Duc de Puysange ground the trinket. The long, thin chain clashed and caught about his foot; the face of his youth smiled from the fragment in his not quite steady hands. "O heart' of gold! O heart of gold!" he said, with, a strange meditative smile, now that his eyes lifted toward the glad and glorious eyes of his wife; "I am not worthy! Indeed, my dear, I am not worthy!"
As Played at Manneville, September 18, 1750
"L'on a choisi justement le temps que je parlois a mon traiste de fils. Sortons! Je veux aller querir la justice, et faire donner la question a toute ma maison; a servantes, a valets, a fils, a fille, et a moi aussi."
PRINCE DE GATINAIS, an old nobleman, who affects yesterday's fashion.
Louis QUILLAN, formerly LOUIS DE SOYECOURT, son to the Prince, and newly become GRAND DUKE OF NOUMARIA.
VANRINGHAM, valet to the Prince.
NELCHEN THORN, daughter to Hans Thorn, landlord of the Golden Pomegranate, and loves Louis Quillan.
And In the Proem, DUKE OF OSMSKIRK.
The Dolphin Room of the Golden Pomegranate, an inn at Manneville-en-Poictesme.
PROEM:-To Present Mr. Vanringham as Nuntius
However profoundly the Duc de Puysange now approved of the universe and of its management, it is not to be supposed that in consequence he intended to overlook de Soyecourt's perfidy. De Puysange bore his kinsman no malice; indeed, he was sincerely fond of the Marquis, sympathized with him at bottom, and heartily regretted that the excellence of poor Louis' taste should be thus demonstrably counterbalanced by the frailty of his friendship. Still, one cannot entirely disregard the conventions: Louis had betrayed him, had before the eyes of de Puysange made love to de Puysange's wife. A duel was the inevitable consequence, though of course the Duke did not intend to kill poor Louis, who might before long be very useful to French statesmanship. So the Duke sent Ormskirk to arrange a meeting.
A floridly handsome man in black was descending the stairway of the Hotel de Soyecourt at the moment the Duke of Ormskirk stepped cheerily from his coach. This person saluted the plump nobleman with due deference, and was accorded in return a little whistling sound of amazement.
"Mr. Vanringham, as I live—and in Paris! Man, will you hare-brained Jacobites never have done with these idiotic intrigues? Nay, in sincerity, Mr. Vanringham, this is annoying."
"My Lord Duke," said the other, "I venture to suggest that you forget I dare no longer meddle with politics, in light of my recent mishap at Tunbridge. Something of the truth leaked out, you comprehend—nothing provable, thank God!—but while I lay abed Captain Audaine was calling daily to inquire when would my wound be healed sufficiently for me to have my throat cut. I found England unsalubrious, and vanished."
Ormskirk nodded his approval. "I have always esteemed your common-sense. Now, let us consider—yes, I might use you here in Paris, I believe. And the work is light and safe,—a trifle of sedition, of stirring up a street riot or two."
Vanringham laughed. "I might have recognized your hand in the late disturbances, sir. As matters stand, I can only thank your Grace and regret that I have earlier secured employment. I've been, since April, valet to the old Prince de Gatinais, Monsieur de Soyecourt's father."
"Yet lackeyship smacks, however vaguely, of an honest livelihood. You disappoint me, Mr. Vanringham."
"Nay, believe me, I yet pilfer a cuff-button or perhaps a jewel, when occasion offers, lest any of my talents rust. For we reside at Beaujolais yonder, my Lord Duke, where we live in retirement and give over our old age to curious chemistries. It suits me well enough. I find the air of Beaujolais excellent, my duties none too arduous, and the girls of the country-side neither hideous nor obdurate. Oho, I'm tolerably content at Beaujolais—the more for that 'tis expedient just now to go more softly than ever Ahab did of old."
"Lest your late associates get wind of your whereabouts? In that I don't question your discretion, Mr. Vanringham. And out of pure friendliness I warn you Paris is a very hotbed of hot-headed Jacobites who would derive unmerited pleasure from getting a knife into your ribs."
"Yet on an occasion of such importance—" Vanringham began; then marvelled in reply to the Duke's look of courteous curiosity: "You han't heard, sir, that my master's son is unexpectedly become the next Grand Duke of Noumaria!"
"Zounds!" said his Grace of Ormskirk, all alert, "is old Ludwig dead at last? Why, then, the damned must be holding a notable carnival by this, in honor of his arrival. Hey, but there was a merry rascal, a thorough-paced—" He broke off short. He laughed. "What the devil, man! Monsieur de Soyecourt is Ludwig's nephew, I grant you, on the maternal side, but Ludwig left a son. De Soyecourt remains de Soyecourt so long as Prince Rudolph lives,—and Prince Rudolph is to marry the Elector of Badenburg's daughter this autumn, so that we may presently look for any number of von Freistadts to perpetuate the older branch. Faith, you should study your Genealogischer Hofkalender more closely, Mr. Vanringham."
"Oh, but very plainly your Grace has heard no word of the appalling tragedy that hath made our little Louis a reigning monarch—"
With gusto Francis Vanringham narrated the details of Duke Ludwig's last mad freak [Footnote: In his Journal Horace Calverley gives a long and curious account of the disastrous masque at Breschau of which he, then on the Grand Tour, had the luck to be an eye-witness. His hints as to the part played in the affair by Kaunitz are now, of course, largely discredited by the later confessions of de Puysange.] which, as the world knows, resulted in the death of both Ludwig and his son, as well as that of their five companions in the escapade,—with gusto, for in progress the soul of the former actor warmed to his subject. But Ormskirk was sensibly displeased.
"Behold what is termed a pretty kettle of fish!" said the Duke, in meditation, when Vanringham had made an end. "Plainly, Gaston cannot fight the rascal, since Hop-o'-my-thumb is now, most vexatiously, transformed into a quasi-Royal Personage, Assassination, I fear, is out of the question. So all our English plans will go to pot. A Frenchman will reign in Noumaria,—after we had not only bought old Ludwig, but had paid for him, too! Why, I suppose he gave that damnable masquerade on the strength of having our money,—good English money, mark you, Mr. Vanringham, that we have to squeeze out of honest tax-payers to bribe such, rascals with, only to have them, cheat us by cooking themselves to a crisp! This is annoying, Mr. Vanringham."
"I don't entirely follow your Grace—"
"It is not perhaps desirable you should. Yet I give you a key. It is profoundly to be deplored that little Louis de Soyecourt, who cannot draw a contented breath outside of his beloved Paris, should be forced to marry Victoria von Uhm, in his cousin's place,—yes, for Gaston will arrange that, of course,—and afterward be exiled to a semi-barbarous Noumaria, where he must devote the rest of his existence to heading processions and reviewing troops, and signing proclamations and guzzling beer and sauerkraut. Nay, beyond doubt, Mr. Vanringham, this is deplorable. 'Tis an appalling condition of affairs: it reminds me of Ovid among the Goths, Mr. Vanringham!"
"I'm to understand, then—?" the valet stammered.
"You are to understand that I am more deeply your debtor than I could desire you to believe; that I am going to tell the Marquis de Soyecourt all which I have told you, though I must reword it for him, as eloquently as may be possible; and that I even now feel myself to be Ciceronic." The Duke of Ormskirk passed on with a polite nod.
* * * * *
Next day they gossiped busily at Versailles over the sudden disappearance of Louis de Soyecourt. No more was heard of him for months. The mystery was discussed, and by the wits embroidered, and by the imaginative annotated, but it was never solved until the following September.
For it was in September that, upon the threshold of the Golden Pomegranate, at Manneville in Poictesme, Monsieur Louis Quillan paused, and gave the contented little laugh which had of late become habitual with him. "We are en fete to-night, it appears. Has the King, then, by any chance dropped in to supper with us, Nelchen?"
Silently the girl bestowed a provisional pat upon one fold of the white table-cloth and regarded the result with critical approval. All being in blameless order, she moved one of the candlesticks the width of a needle. The table was now garnished to the last resource of the Golden Pomegranate: the napery was snow, the glassware and the cutlery shone with a frosty glitter, and the great bowl of crimson roses afforded the exact splurge of vainglorious color and glow she had designed. Accordingly, being now at leisure, Nelchen now came toward Monsieur Quillan, lifting her lips to his precisely as a child might have done.
"Not quite the King, my Louis. None the less I am sure that Monseigneur is an illustrious person. He arrived not two hours ago—" She told how Monseigneur had come in a coach, very splendid; even his lackeys were resplendent. Monseigneur would stay overnight and would to-morrow push on, to Beauseant. He had talked with her,—a kindly old gentleman, but so stately that all the while she had been the tiniest thought afraid of him. He must be some exalted nobleman, Nelchen considered,—a marquis at the very least.
Meantime diminutive Louis Quillan had led her to the window-seat beneath the corridor, and sat holding one plump trifle of a hand, the, while her speech fluttered bird-like from this topic to that; and be regarded Nelchen Thorn with an abysmal content. The fates, he considered, had been commendably generous to him.
So he leaned back from her a little, laughing gently, and marked what a quaint and eager child it was. He rejoiced that she was beautiful, and triumphed still more to know that even if she had not been beautiful it would have made slight difference to him. The soul of Nelchen was enough. Yet, too, it was desirable this soul should be appropriately clad, that she should have, for instance, these big and lustrous eyes,—plaintive eyes, such as a hamadryad would conceivably possess, since they were beyond doubt the candid and appraising eyes of some woodland creature, and always seemed to find the world not precisely intimidating, perhaps, yet in the ultimate a very curious place where one trod gingerly. Still, this Nelchen was a practical body, prone to laughter,—as in nature, any person would be whose mouth was all rotund and tiny scarlet curves. Why, it was, to a dimple, the mouth which Francois Boucher bestowed on his sleek goddesses! Louis Quillan was sorry for poor Boucher painting away yonder at a noisy garish Versailles, where he would never see that perfect mouth the artist had so often dreamed of. No, not in the sweet flesh at least; lips such as these were unknown at Versailles....
And but four months ago he had fancied himself to be in love with Helene de Puysange, he remembered; and, by and large, he still considered Helene a delightful person. Yes, Helene had made him quite happy last spring: and when they found she was with child, and their first plan failed, she had very adroitly played out their comedy to win back Gaston in time to avoid scandal. Yes, you could not but admire Helene, yet, even so....
"—and he asked me, oh, so many questions about you, Louis—"
"About me?" said Louis Quillan, blankly. He was all circumspection now.
"About my lover, you stupid person. Monseigneur assumed, somehow, that I would have a lover or two. You perceive that he at least is not a stupid person." And Nelchen tossed her head, with a touch of the provocative.
Louis Quillan did what seemed advisable. "—and, furthermore, your stupidity is no excuse for rumpling my hair," said Nelchen, by and by.
"Then you should not pout," replied Monsieur Quillan. "Sanity is entirely too much to require of any man when you pout. Besides, your eyes are so big and so bright they bewilder one. In common charity you ought to wear spectacles, Nelchen,—in sheer compassion toward mankind."
"Monseigneur, also, has wonderful eyes, Louis. They are like the stars,—very brilliant and cool and incurious, yet always looking at you as though you were so insignificant that the mere fact of your presuming to exist at all was a trifle interesting."
"Like the stars!" Louis Quillan had flung back the shutter. It was a tranquil evening in September, with no moon as yet, but with a great multitude of lesser lights overhead. "Incurious like the stars! They do dwarf one, rather. Yet just now I protest to you, infinitesimal man that I am, I half-believe le bon Dieu loves us so utterly that He has kindled all those pretty tapers solely for our diversion. He wishes us to be happy, Nelchen; and so He has given us the big, fruitful, sweet-smelling world to live in, and our astonishing human bodies to live in, with contented hearts, and with no more vain desires, no loneliness—Why, in a word, He has given us each other. Oh, beyond doubt, He loves us, my Nelchen!"
For a long while the girl was silent. Presently she spoke, half-hushed, like one in the presence of sanctity. "I am happy. For these three months I have been more happy than I had thought was permissible on earth. And yet, Louis, you tell me that those stars are worlds perhaps like ours,—think of it, my dear, millions and millions of worlds like ours, and on each world perhaps a million of lovers like us! It is true that among them all no woman loves as I do, for that would be impossible. Yet think of it, mon ami, how inconsiderable a thing is the happiness of one man and of one woman in this immensity! Why, we are less than nothing, you and I! Ohe, I am afraid, hideously afraid, Louis,—for we are such little folk and the universe is so big. And always the storms go about it, and its lightnings thrust at us, and the waters of it are clutching at our feet, and its laws are not to be changed—Oh, it is big and cruel, my dear, and we are adrift in it, we who are so little!"
He again put forth his hand toward her. "What a morbid child it is!" said Louis Quillan. "I can assure you I have resided in this same universe just twice as long as you, and I find that upon the whole the establishment is very creditably conducted. There arrives, to be sure, an occasional tornado, or perhaps an earthquake, each with its incidental inconveniences. On the other hand, there is every evening a lavishly arranged sunset, like gratis fireworks, and each morning (I am credibly informed) a sunrise of which poets and energetic people are pleased to speak highly; while every year spring comes in, like a cosmical upholsterer, and refurnishes the entire place, and makes us glad to live. Nay, I protest to you, this is an excellent world, my Nelchen! and likewise I protest to you that in its history there was never a luckier nor a happier man than I."
Nelchen considered. "Well," she generously conceded; "perhaps, after all, the stars are more like diamonds."
Louis Quillan chuckled. "And since when were you a connoisseur of diamonds, my dear?"
"Of course I have never actually seen any. I would like to, though—yes, Louis, what I would really like would be to have a bushelful or so of diamonds, and to marry a duke—only the duke would have to be you, of course,—and to go to Court, and to have all the fine ladies very jealous of me, and for them to be very much in love with you, and for you not to care a sou for them, of course, and for us both to see the King." Nelchen paused, quite out of breath after this ambitious career in the imaginative.
"To see the King, indeed!" scoffed little Louis Quillan. "Why, we would see only a very disreputable pockmarked wornout lecher if we did."
"Still," she pointed out, "I would like to see a king. Simply because I never have done so before, you conceive."
"At times, my Nelchen, you are effeminate. Eve ate the apple for that identical reason. Yet what you say is odd, because—do you know?—I once had a friend who was by way of being a sort of king."
Nelchen gave a squeal of delight. "And you never told me about him! I loathe you."
Louis Quillan did what seemed advisable. "—and, furthermore, your loathsomeness is no excuse for rumpling my hair," said Nelchen, by and by.
"But there is so little to tell. His father had married the Grand Duke of Noumaria's daughter,—over yonder between Silesia and Badenburg, you may remember. And so last spring when the Grand Duke and the Prince were both killed in that horrible fire, my friend quite unexpectedly became a king—oh, king of a mere celery-patch, but still a sort of king. Figure to yourself, Nelchen! they were going to make my poor friend marry the Elector of Badenburg's daughter,—and Victoria von Uhm has perfection stamped upon her face in all its odious immaculacy,—and force him to devote the rest of his existence to heading processions and reviewing troops, and signing proclamations, and guzzling beer and sauerkraut. Why, he would have been like Ovid among the Goths, my Nelchen!"
"But he could have worn such splendid uniforms!" said Nelchen. "And diamonds!"
"You mercenary wretch!" said he. Louis Quillan then did what seemed advisable; and presently he added, "In any event, the horrified man ran away."
"That was silly of him," said Nelchen Thorn. "But where did he run to?"
Louis Quillan considered. "To Paradise," he at last decided. "And there he found a disengaged angel, who very imprudently lowered herself to the point of marrying him. And so he lived happily ever afterward. And so, till the day of his death, he preached the doctrine that silliness is the supreme wisdom."
"And he regretted nothing?" Nelchen said, after a meditative while.
Louis Quillan began to laugh. "Oh, yes! at times he profoundly regretted Victoria von Uhm."
Then Nelchen gave him a surprise, for the girl bent toward him and leaned one hand upon each shoulder. "Diamonds are not all, are they, Louis? I thank you, dear, for telling me of what means so much to you. I can understand, I think, because for a long while I have tried to know and care for everything that concerns you."
The little man had risen to his feet. "Nelchen—!"
"Hush!" said Nelchen Thorn; "Monseigneur is coming down to his supper."
It was a person of conspicuous appearance, both by reason of his great height and leanness as well as his extreme age, who now descended the straight stairway leading from the corridor above. At Court they would have told you that the Prince de Gatinais was a trifle insane, but he troubled the Court very little, since he had spent the last twenty years, with brief intermissions, at his chateau near Beaujolais, where, as rumor buzzed it, he had fitted out a laboratory, and had devoted his old age to the study of chemistry. "Between my flute and my retorts, my bees and my chocolate-creams," the Prince was wont to say, "I manage to console myself for the humiliating fact that even Death has forgotten my existence." For he had a child's appetite for sweets, and was at this time past eighty, though still well-nigh as active as Antoine de Soyecourt had ever been, even when—a good half-century ago—he had served, with distinction under Louis Quatorze.
To-night the Prince de Gatinais was all in steel-gray, of a metallic lustre, with prodigiously fine ruffles at his throat and wrists. You would have found something spectral in the tall, gaunt old man, for his periwig was heavily powdered, and his deep-wrinkled countenance was of an absolute white, save for the thin, faintly bluish lips and the inklike glitter of his narrowing eyes, as he now regarded the couple waiting hand in hand before him, like children detected in mischief.
Little Louis Quillan had drawn an audible breath at first sight of the newcomer. Monsieur Quillan did not speak, however, but merely waited.
"You have fattened," the Prince de Gatinais said, at last, "I wish I could fatten. It is incredible that a man who eats pounds of sugar daily should yet remain a skeleton." His voice was guttural, and a peculiar slur ran through his speech, caused by the loss of his upper front teeth at Ramillies.
Louis Quillan came of a stock not lightly abashed. "I have fattened on a new diet, monsieur,—on happiness. But, ma foi! I am discourteous. Permit me, my father, to present Mademoiselle Nelchen Thorn, who has so far honored me as to consent to become my wife. 'Nelchen, I present to you my father, the Prince de Gatinais."
"Oh—?" observed Nelchen, midway in her courtesy.
But the Prince had taken her fingers and he kissed them quite as though they had been the finger-tips of the all-powerful Pompadour at Versailles yonder. "I salute the future Marquise de Soyecourt. You young people will sup with me, then?"
"No, monseigneur, for I am to wait upon the table," said Nelchen, "and Father is at Sigean overnight, having the mare shod, and there is only Leon, and, oh, thank you very much indeed, monseigneur, but I had much rather wait on the table."
The Prince waved his hand. "My valet, mademoiselle, is at your disposal. Vanringham!" he called.
From the corridor above descended a tall red-headed fellow in black. "Monseigneur—?"
"Go!" quickly said Louis de Soyecourt, while the Prince spoke with his valet,—"go, Nelchen, and make yourself even more beautiful if such a thing be possible. He will never resist you, my dear—ah, no, that is out of nature."
"You will find more plates in the cupboard, Monsieur Vanringham," remarked Nelchen, as she obediently tripped up the stairway, toward her room in the right wing. "And the knives and forks are in the second drawer."
So Vanringham laid two covers in discreet silence; then bowed and withdrew by the side door that led to the kitchen. The Prince had seated himself beside the open fire, where he yawned and now looked up with a smile.
"Well, Louis," said the Prince de Gatinais—"so Monsieur de Puysange and I have run you to earth at last. And I find you have determined to defy me, eh?"
"I trust there is no question of defiance," Louis de Soyecourt equably returned. "Yet I regret you should have been at pains to follow me, since I still claim the privilege of living out my life in my own fashion."
"You claim a right which never existed, my little son. It is not demanded of any man that he be happy, whereas it is manifestly necessary for a gentleman to obey his God, his King, and his own conscience without swerving. If he also find time for happiness, well and good; otherwise, he must be unhappy. But, above all, he must intrepidly play out his allotted part in the good God's scheme of things, and must with due humbleness recognize that the happiness or the unhappiness of any man alive is a trivial consideration as against the fulfilment of this scheme."
"You and Nelchen are much at one there," the Marquis lightly replied; "yet, for my part, I fancy that Providence is not particularly interested in who happens to be the next Grand Duke of Noumaria."
The Prince struck with his hand upon the arm of his chair. "You dare to jest! Louis, your levity is incorrigible. France is beaten, discredited among nations, naked to her enemies. She lies here, between England and Prussia, as in a vise. God summons you, a Frenchman, to reign in Noumaria, and in addition affords you a chance to marry that weathercock of Badenburg's daughter. Ah, He never spoke more clearly, Louis. And you would reply with a shallow jest! Why, Badenburg and Noumaria just bridge that awkward space between France and Austria. Your accession would confirm the Empress,—Gaston de Puysange has it in her own hand, yonder at Versailles! I tell you it is all planned that France and Austria will combine, Louis! Think of it,—our France on her feet again, mistress of Europe, and every whit of it your doing, Louis,—ah, my boy, my boy, you cannot refuse!"
Thus he ran on in a high, disordered voice, pleading, clutching at his son with a strange new eagerness which now possessed the Prince de Gatinais. He was remembering the France which he had known; not the ignoble, tawdry France of the moment, misruled by women, rakes, confessors, and valets, but the France of his dead Sun King; and it seemed to Louis de Soyecourt that the memory had brought back with it the youth of his father for an instant. Just for a heart-beat, the lank man towered erect, his cheeks pink, and every muscle tense.
Then Louis de Soyecourt shook his head. In England's interest, as he now knew, Ormskirk had played upon de Soyecourt's ignorance and his love of pleasure, as an adept plays upon the strings of a violin; but de Soyecourt had his reason, a gigantic reason, for harboring no grudge against the Englishman.
"Frankly, my father, I would not give up Nelchen though all Europe depended upon it. I am a coward, perhaps; but I have my chance of happiness, and I mean to take it. So Cousin Otto is welcome to the duchy. I infinitely prefer Nelchen."
"Otto! a general in the Prussian army, Frederick's property, Frederick's idolater!" The old Prince now passed from an apex of horror to his former pleading tones. "But, then, it is not necessary you give up Nelchen. Ah, no, a certain latitude is permissible in these matters, you understand. She could be made a countess, a marquise,—anything you choose to demand, my Louis. And you could marry Princess Victoria just the same—"
"Were you any other man, monsieur," said Louis de Soyecourt, "I would, of course, challenge you. As it is, I can only ask you to respect my helplessness. It is very actual helplessness, sir, for Nelchen has been bred in such uncourtly circles as to entertain the most provincial notions about becoming anybody's whore."
Now the Prince de Gatinais sank back into the chair. He seemed incredibly old now. "You are right," he mumbled,—"yes, you are right, Louis. I have talked with her. With her that would be impossible. These bourgeois do not understand the claims of noble birth."
The younger man had touched him upon the shoulder. "My father,—" he began.
"Yes, I am your father," said the other, dully, "and it is that which puzzles me. You are my own son, and yet you prefer your happiness to the welfare of France, to the very preservation of France. Never in six centuries has there been a de Soyecourt to do that. God and the King we served ... six centuries ... and to-day my own son prefers an innkeeper's daughter..." His voice trailed and slurred like that of one speaking in his sleep, for he was an old man, and by this the flare of his excitement had quite burned out, and weariness clung about his senses like a drug. "I will go back to Beaujolais ... to my retorts and my bees ... and forget there was never a de Soyecourt in six centuries, save my own son...."
"My father!" Louis de Soyecourt cried, and shook him gently. "Ah, I dare say you are right, in theory. But in practice I cannot give her up. Surely you understand—why, they tell me there was never a more ardent lover than you. They tell me—And you would actually have me relinquish Nelchen, even after you have seen her! Yet remember, monsieur, I love her much as you loved my mother,—that mettlesome little princess whom you stole from the very heart of her court.[Footnote: The curious may find further details of the then Marquis de Soyecourt's abduction of the Princess Clotilda in the voluminous pages of Hulot, under the year 1708.] Ah, I have heard tales of you, you conceive. And Nelchen means as much to me as once my mother meant to you, remember—She means youth, and happiness, and a tiny space of laughter before I, too, am worm's-meat, and means a proper appreciation of God's love for us all, and means everything a man's mind clutches at when he wakens from some forgotten dream that leaves him weeping with sheer adoration of its beauty. Ho, never was there a kinder father than you, monsieur. You have spoiled me most atrociously, I concede; and after so many years you cannot in decency whip about like this and deny me my very life. Why, my father it is your little Louis who is pleading with you,—and you have never denied me anything! See, now, how I presume upon your weakness. I am actually bullying you into submission—bullying you through your love for me. Eh, we love greatly, we de Soyecourts, and give all for love. Your own life attests that, monsieur. Now, then, let us recognize the fact we are de Soyecourts, you and I. Ah, my father,—"
Thus he babbled on, for the sudden languor of the Prince had alarmed him, and Louis de Soyecourt, to afford him justice, loved his father with a heartier intensity than falls to the portion of most parents. To arouse the semi-conscious man was his one thought. And now he got his reward, for the Prince de Gatinais opened his keen old eyes, a trifle dazedly, and drew a deep breath which shook his large frail body through and through.
"Let us recognize that we are de Soyecourts, you and I," he repeated, in a new voice. "After all, I cannot drag you to Noumaria by the scruff of your neck like a truant school-boy. Yes, let us recognize the fact that we are de Soyecourts, you and I."
"Heh, in that event," said the Marquis, "we must both fall upon our knees forthwith. For look, my father!"
Nelchen Thorn was midway in her descent of the stairs. She wore her simple best. All white it was, and yet the plump shoulders it displayed were not put to shame. Rather must April clouds and the snows of December retire abashed, as lamentably inefficient analogues, the Marquis meditated; and as she paused starry-eyed and a thought afraid, it seemed to him improbable that even the Prince de Gatinais could find it in his heart greatly to blame his son.
"I begin to suspect," said the Prince, "that I am Jacob of old, and that you are a very young cherub venturing out of Paradise through motives of curiosity. Eh, my dear, let us see what entertainment we can afford you during your visit to earth." He took her hand and led her to the table.
Vanringham served. Never was any one more blithe than the lean Prince de Gatinais. The latest gossip of Versailles was delivered, with discreet emendations; he laughed gayly; and he ate with an appetite. There was a blight among the cattle hereabouts? How deplorable! witchcraft, beyond doubt. And Louis passed as a piano-tuner?—because there were no pianos in Manneville. Excellent! he had always given Louis credit for a surpassing cleverness; now it was demonstrated. In fine, the Prince de Gatinais became so jovial that Nelchen was quite at ease, and Louis de Soyecourt became vaguely alarmed. He knew his father, and for the Prince to yield thus facilely was incredible. Still, his father had seen Nelchen, had talked with Nelchen....
Now the Prince rose. "Fresh glasses, Vanringham," he ordered; and then: "I give you a toast. Through desire of love and happiness, you young people have stolen a march on me. Eh, I am not Sgarnarelle of the comedy! therefore, I drink cheerfully to love and happiness, I consider Louis is not in the right, but I know that he is wise, my daughter, as concerns his soul's health, in clinging to you rather than to a tinsel crown. Of Fate I have demanded—like Sgarnarelle of the comedy,—prosaic equity and common-sense; of Fate he has in turn demanded happiness; and Fate will at her convenience decide between us. Meantime I drink to love and happiness, since I, too, remember. I know better than to argue with Louis, you observe, my Nelchen; we de Soyecourts are not lightly severed from any notion we may have taken up. In consequence I drink to your love and happiness!"
They drank. "To your love, my son," said the Prince de Gatinais,—"to the true love of a de Soyecourt." And afterward he laughingly drank: "To your happiness, my daughter,—to your eternal happiness."
Nelchen sipped. The two men stood with drained glasses. Now on a sudden the Prince de Gatinais groaned and clutched his breast.
"I was always a glutton," he said, hoarsely. "I should have been more moderate—I am faint—"
"Salts are the best thing in the world," said Nelchen, with fine readiness. She was half-way up the stairs. "A moment, monseigneur,—a moment, and I fetch salts." Nelchen Thorn had disappeared into her room.
The Prince sat drumming upon the table with his long white fingers. He had waved the Marquis and Vanringham aside. "A passing weakness,—I am not adamant," he had said, half-peevishly.
"Then I prescribe another glass of this really excellent wine," laughed little Louis de Soyecourt. At heart he was not merry, and his own unreasoning nervousness irritated him, for it seemed to the Marquis, quite irrationally, that the atmosphere of the cheery room was, without forerunnership, become tense and expectant, and was now quiet with much the hush which precedes the bursting of a thunder-storm. And accordingly he laughed.
"I prescribe another glass, monsieur," said he. "Eh, that is the true panacea for faintness—for every ill. Come, we will drink to the most beautiful woman in Poictesme—nay, I am too modest,—to the most beautiful woman in France, in Europe, in the whole universe! Feriam sidera, my father! and confound all mealy-mouthed reticence, for you have both seen her. Confess, am I not a lucky man? Come, Vanringham, too, shall drink. No glasses? Take Nelchen's, then. Come, you fortunate rascal, you shall drink to the bride from the bride's half-emptied glass. To the most beautiful woman—Why, what the devil—?"
Vanringham had blurted out an odd, unhuman sound. His extended hand shook and jerked, as if in irresolution, and presently struck the proffered glass from de Soyecourt's grasp. You heard the tiny crash, very audible in the stillness, and afterward the irregular drumming of the old Prince's finger-tips. He had not raised his head, had not moved.
Louis de Soyecourt came to him, without speaking, and placed one hand under his father's chin, and lifted the Prince's countenance, like a dead weight, toward his own. Thus the two men regarded each the other. Their silence was rather horrible.
"It was not in vain that I dabbled with chemistry all these years," said the guttural voice of the Prince de Gatinais, "Yes, the child is dead by this. Let us recognize the fact we are de Soyecourts, you and I."
But Louis de Soyecourt had flung aside the passive, wrinkled face, and then, with a straining gesture, wiped the fingers that had touched it upon the sleeve of his left arm. He turned to the stairway. His hand grasped the newelpost and gripped it so firmly that he seemed less to walk than by one despairing effort to lift an inert body to the first step. He ascended slowly, with a queer shamble, and disappeared into Nelchen's room.
"What next, monseigneur?" said Vanringham, half-whispering.
"Why, next," said the Prince de Gatinais, "I imagine that he will kill us both. Meantime, as Louis says, the wine is really excellent. So you may refill my glass, my man, and restore to me my vial of little tablets"....
He was selecting a bonbon from the comfit-dish when his son returned into the apartment. Very tenderly Louis de Soyecourt laid his burden upon a settle, and then drew the older man toward it. You noted first how the thing lacked weight: a flower snapped from its stalk could hardly have seemed more fragile. The loosened hair strained toward the floor and seemed to have sucked all color from the thing to inform that thick hair's insolent glory; the tint of Nelchen's lips was less sprightly, and for the splendor of her eyes Death had substituted a conscientious copy in crayons: otherwise there was no change; otherwise she seemed to lie there and muse on something remote and curious, yet quite as she would have wished it to be.
"See, my father," Louis de Soyecourt said, "she was only a child, more little even than I. Never in her brief life had she wronged any one,—never, I believe, had she known an unkind thought. Always she laughed, you understand—Oh, my father, is it not pitiable that Nelchen will never laugh any more?"
"I entreat of God to have mercy upon her soul," said the old Prince de Gatinais. "I entreat of God that the soul of her murderer may dwell eternally in the nethermost pit of hell."
"I would cry amen," Louis de Soyecourt said, "if I could any longer believe in God."
The Prince turned toward him. "And will you kill me now, Louis?"
"I cannot," said the other. "Is it not an excellent jest that I should be your son and still be human? Yet as for your instrument, your cunning butler—Come, Vanringham!" he barked. "We are unarmed. Come, tall man, for I who am well-nigh a dwarf now mean to kill you with my naked hands."
"Vanringham!" The Prince leaped forward. "Behind me, Vanringham!" As the valet ran to him the old Prince de Gatinais caught a knife from the table and buried it to the handle in Vanringham's breast. The lackey coughed, choked, clutched his assassin by each shoulder; thus he stood with a bewildered face, shuddering visibly, every muscle twitching. Suddenly he shrieked, with an odd, gurgling noise, and his grip relaxed, and Francis Vanringham seemed to crumple among his garments, so that he shrank rather than fell to the floor. His hands stretched forward, his fingers spreading and for a moment writhing in agony, and then he lay quite still.
"You progress, my father," said Louis de Soyecourt, quietly. "And what new infamy may I now look for?"
"A valet!" said the Prince. "You would have fought with him—a valet! He topped you by six inches. And the man was desperate. Your life was in danger. And your life is valuable."
"I have earlier perceived, my father, that you prize human life very highly."
The Prince de Gatinais struck sharply upon the table. "I prize the welfare of France. To secure this it is necessary that you and no other reign in Noumaria. But for the girl you would have yielded just now. So to the welfare of France I sacrifice the knave at my feet, the child yonder, and my own soul. Let us remember that we are de Soyecourts, you and I."
"Rather I see in you," began the younger man, "a fiend. I see in you a far ignobler Judas—"
"And I see in you the savior of France. Nay, let us remember that we are de Soyecourts, you and I. And for six centuries it has always been our first duty to serve France. You behold only a man and a woman assassinated; I behold thousands of men preserved from death, many thousands of women rescued from hunger and degradation. I have sinned, and grievously; ages of torment may not purge my infamy; yet I swear it is well done!"
"And I—?" the little Marquis said.
"Why, your heart is slain, my son, for you loved this girl as I loved your mother, and now you can nevermore quite believe in the love God bears for us all; and my soul is damned irretrievably: but we are de Soyecourts, you and I, and accordingly we rejoice and drink to France, to the true love of a de Soyecourt! to France preserved! to France still mighty among her peers!"
Louis de Soyecourt stood quite motionless. Only his eyes roved toward his father, then to the body that had been Nelchen's. He began to laugh as he caught up his glass. "You have conquered. What else have I to live for now? To France, you devil!"
"To France, my son!" The glasses clinked. "To the true love of a de Soyecourt!"
And immediately the Prince de Gatinais fell at his son's feet. "You will go into Noumaria?"
"What does that matter now?" the other wearily said. "Yes, I suppose so. Get up, you devil!"
But the Prince de Gatinais detained him, with hands like ice. "Then we preserve France, you and I! We are both damned, I think, but it is worth while, Louis. In hell we may remember that it was well worth while. I have slain your very soul, my dear son, but that does not matter: France is saved." The old man still knelt, looking upward. "Yes, and you must forgive me, my son! For, see, I yield you what reparation I may. See, Louis,—I was chemist enough for two. Wine of my own vintage I have tasted, of the brave vintage which now revives all France. And I swear to you the child did not suffer, Louis, not—not much. See, Louis! she did not suffer." A convulsion tore at and shook the aged body, and twitched awry the mouth that had smiled so resolutely. Thus the Prince died.
Presently Louis de Soyecourt knelt and caught up the wrinkled face between both hands. "My father—!" said Louis de Soyecourt. Afterward he kissed the dead lips tenderly. "Teach me how to live, my father," said Louis de Soyecourt, "for I begin to comprehend—in part I comprehend." Throughout the moment Nelchen Thorn was forgotten: and to himself he too seemed to be fashioned of heroic stuff.
THE DUCAL AUDIENCE
As Played at Breschau, May 3, 1755
"Venez, belle, venez, Qu'on ne scauroit tenir, et qui vous mutinez. Void vostre galand! a moi pour recompence Vous pouvez faire une humble et douce reverence! Adieu, l'evenement trompe un peu mes souhaits; Mais tous les amoureux ne sont pas satisfaits."
GRAND DUKE OF NOUMARIA, formerly LOUIS DE SOYECOURT, tormented beyond measure with the impertinences of life. COMTE DE CHATEAUROUX, cousin to the Grand Duchess, and complies with circumstance. A COACHMAN and two FOOTMEN.
GRAND DUCHESS OF NOUMARIA, a capable woman. BARONESS VON ALTENBURG, a coquette.
The Palace Gardens at Breschau.
THE DUCAL AUDIENCE
PROEM:—In Default of the Hornpipe Customary to a Lengthy Interval between Acts
Louis de Soyecourt fulfilled the promise made to the old Prince de Gatinais, so that presently went about Breschau, hailed by more or less enthusiastic plaudits, a fair and blue-eyed, fat little man, who smiled mechanically upon the multitude, and looked after the interests of France wearily, and (without much more ardor) gave over the remainder of his time to outrivalling his predecessor, unvenerable Ludwig von Freistadt, who until now had borne, among the eighteen grand dukes (largely of quite grand-ducal morals) that had earlier governed in Noumaria, the palm for indolence and dissipation.
At moments, perhaps, the Grand Duke recollected the Louis Quillan who had spent three months in Manneville, but only, I think, as one recalls some pleasurable acquaintance; Quillan had little resembled the Marquis de Soyecourt, rake, tippler and exquisite of Versailles, and in the Grand Duke you would have found even less of Nelchen Thorn's betrothed. He was quite dead, was Quillan, for the man that Nelchen loved had died within the moment of Nelchen's death. He, the poor children! his Highness meditated. Dead, both of them, both murdered four years since, slain in Poictesme yonder.... Eh bien, it was not necessary to engender melancholy.
So his Highness amused himself,—not very heartily, but at least to the last resource of a flippant and unprudish age. Meantime his grumbling subjects bored him, his duties bored him, his wife bored him, his mistresses bored him after the first night or two, and, above all, he most hideously bored himself. But I spare you a chronique scandaleuse of Duke Louis' reign and come hastily to its termination, as more pertinent to the matter I have now in hand.
Suffice it, then, that he ruled in Noumaria five years; that he did what was requisite by begetting children in lawful matrimony, and what was expected of him by begetting some others otherwise; and that he stoutened daily, and by and by decided that the young Baroness von Altenburg—not excepting even her lovely and multifarious precursors,—was beyond doubt possessed of the brightest eyes in all history. Therefore did his Highness lay before the owner of these eyes a certain project, upon which the Baroness was in season moved to comment.
"The idea," said the Baroness, "is preposterous!"
"Admirably put!" cried the Grand Duke. "We will execute it, then, the first thing in the morning."
"—and, besides, one could take only a portmanteau—"
"And the capacity of a portmanteau is limited," his Highness agreed. "Nay, I can assure you, after I had packed my coronet this evening there was hardly room for a change of linen. And I found it necessary to choose between the sceptre and a tooth-brush."
"Ah, Highness" sighed the Baroness von Altenburg, "will you never be serious? You plan to throw away a duchy, and in the act you jest like a school-boy."
"Ma foi!" retorted the Grand Duke, and looked out upon the moonlit gardens; "as a loyal Noumarian, should I not rejoice at the good-fortune which is about to befall my country? Nay, Amalia, morality demands my abdication," he added, virtuously, "and for this once morality and I are in complete accord."
The Baroness von Altenburg was not disposed to argue the singularity of any such agreement, the while that she considered Louis de Soyecourt's latest scheme.
He had, as prologue to its elucidation, conducted the Baroness into the summer-house that his grandfather, good Duke Augustus, erected in the Gardens of Breschau, close to the Fountain of the Naiads, and had en tete-a-tete explained his notion. There were post-horses in Noumaria; there was also an unobstructed road that led you to Vienna, and thence to the world outside; and he proposed, in short, to quiet the grumbling of the discontented Noumarians by a second, and this time a final, vanishment from office and the general eye. He submitted that the Baroness, as a patriot, could not fail to weigh the inestimable benefit which would thus accrue to her native land.
Yet he stipulated that his exit from public life should be made in company with the latest lady on whom he had bestowed his variable affections; and remembering this proviso, the Baroness, without exactly encouraging or disencouraging his scheme, was at least not prone to insist on coupling him with morality.
She contented herself with a truism. "Indeed, your Highness, the example you set your subjects is atrocious."
"And yet they complain!" said the Grand Duke,—"though I swear to you I have always done the things I ought not to have done, and have left unread the papers I have signed. What more, in reason, can one ask of a grand duke?"
"You are indolent—" remonstrated the lady.
"You—since we attempt the descriptive," said his Highness,—"are adorable."
"—and that injures your popularity—"
"Which, by the way, vanished with my waist."
"—and moreover you create scandals—"
"'The woman tempted me,'" quoted the Grand Duke; and added, reflectively, "Amalia, it is very singular—"
"Nay, I am afraid," the Baroness lamented, "it is rather notoriously plural."
But the Grand Duke waved a dignified dissent, and continued, "—that I could never resist green eyes of a peculiar shade."
The Baroness, becoming vastly interested in the structure of her fan, went on, with some severity, "Your reputation—"
"De mortuis—" pleaded the Grand Duke.
"—is bad; and you go from bad to worse."
"By no means," said his Highness, "since when I was nineteen—"
"I will not believe it even of you!" cried the Baroness von Altenburg.
"I assure you," his Highness protested, gravely, "I was then a devil of a fellow! She was only twenty, and she, too, had big green eyes—"
"And by this late period," said the lady, "has in addition an infinity of grandchildren."
"I happen to be barely forty!" the Grand Duke said, with dignity.
"In which event the Almanachen dating, say, from 1710—"
"Are not unmarred by an occasional misprint. Truly I lament the ways of all typographers, and I will explain the cause of their depravity, in Vienna."
"But I am not going to Vienna."
"'And Sapphira,'" murmured his Highness, "'fell down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost!' So beware, Amalia!"
"I am not afraid, your Highness,—"
"Nor in effect am I. Then we will let Europe frown and journalists moralize, while we two gallop forward on the road that leads to Vienna and heaven?"
"Or—" the Baroness helpfully suggested.
"There is in this case no possible 'or.' Once out of Noumaria, we leave all things behind save happiness."
"Among these trifles, your Highness, is a duchy."
"Hein?" said the Grand Duke; "what is it? A mere dot on the map, a pawn in the game of politics. I give up the pawn and take—the queen."
"That is unwise," said the Baroness, with composure, "and, besides, you are hurting my hand. Apropos of the queen—the Grand Duchess—"
"Will heartily thank God for her deliverance. She will renounce me before the world, and in secret almost worship me for my consideration."
"Yet a true woman," said the Baroness, oracularly, "will follow a husband—"
"Till his wife makes her stop," said the little Grand Duke, his tone implying that he knew whereof he spoke.
"—and if the Grand Duchess loved you—"
"Oh, I think she would never mention it," said the Grand Duke, revolving in his mind this novel idea. "She has a great regard for appearances."
"She will be Regent"—and the Grand Duke chuckled. "I can see her now,—St. Elizabeth, with a dash of Boadicea. Noumaria will be a pantheon of the virtues, and my children will be reared on moral aphorisms and rational food, with me as a handy example of everything they should avoid. Deuce take it, Amalia," he added, "a father must in common decency furnish an example to his children!"