Her attitude had become tense—her face did not flush, it became very pale. She remained perfectly silent for a moment. I felt just the same as I used to do before going over the top—a queer kind of excitement—a wonder if I'd come through or not.
As she did not answer I went on. "I would not expect anything from you except a certain amount of your company. There would not be any question of living with me as a wife—I would promise even to keep in check that side which you once saw and which I was so sorry about. I would settle lots of money on you, and give anything to your family you might wish. I would not bother you, you would be quite free—only I would like you to take interest in my work in a way—and to play to me—even if you would not talk to me."
My voice broke a little at the end of this; I was conscious of it, and of how weak it was of me. Her hands clasped together suddenly—and she appeared as though she was going to speak, then remained silent.
"Won't you answer me at all?" I pleaded.
"It is such a strange proposal—I would wish to refuse it at once——"
"It is quite bald, I know," I interrupted quickly. "I want to buy you—that is all—you can name the price. I know if you consented it would merely be for the same reason which makes you work. I presume it is for your family, not for yourself; therefore, I am counting upon that to influence you. Whatever you would want for your family I should be delighted to give you."
She twisted her locked hands—the first sign of real emotion I have seen in her.
"You would marry me—without knowing anything about me? It is very strange—."
"Yes. I think you are extremely intelligent—if you would consent to talk to me sometimes. I want to go into Parliament—when I am patched up and more decent looking, and I believe you would be of the greatest help to me."
"You mean the whole thing simply as a business arrangement?"
"I have already stated that."
She started to her feet.
"The bargain," I went on, "would be quite a fair one. I am offering to buy a thing which is not for sale—therefore, I am willing to pay whatever would tempt the owner to part with it. I am not mixing up any sentiment in the affair. I want the brain of you for my scheme of life, and the laws of the quaintly civilized society to which we belong, do not permit me to hire it—I must buy it outright. I put it to you net—is there any way we can effect this deal?"
Her lips were quivering—.
"You would say this, no matter what you might hear of my family?"
"I am quite unconcerned as to their history. I have observed you, and you possess all the qualities which I want in the partner who can help me to live my new life. For me you are just a personality—" (thus I lied valiantly!) "not a woman."
"Can I believe you?" she asked a little breathlessly.
"You are thinking of that day when I kissed you—" her lips told me by their sudden drawing in, that she was agitated.
"Well—I expect really that you know men well enough, Miss Sharp, to know that they have sudden temptations—but that a strong will can overcome them. I was very much moved about your grief that afternoon, and the suppressed emotion, and the exasperation you had caused me, unbalanced me—I am quite unlikely ever to feel again—if you will marry me, I will give you my word I will never touch you, or expect anything, of you except what you agree to give in the bargain. You can lead your own life—and I can lead mine."
I felt suddenly that these last words were not very wise—for they aroused in her mind the thought that I should go on having friends like Suzette. I hastened to add—
"You will have my deepest respect, and as my wife shall be treated with every courtesy and honour."
She sat down again and raised her hands to her eyes as though to remove her glasses, and then remembered and dropped them.
"I see that you would rather not answer to-day, Miss Sharp—you might prefer to go now and think about it?"
"Thank you." She turned and walked back into the little salon without a word more, and when she went I closed my eye exhausted with the great strain.
But I did not feel altogether hopeless until Burton came in to tell me lunch was ready and said that Alathea had gone.
"The young lady said as how she would not be back she expected, and she took her own pens and things in her bag. She was as white as a lily, give you my word, Sir Nicholas."
I am ashamed to say that I felt a little faint then. Had I overstepped the mark, and should I never see her again?
A whole party of the fluffies were coming to dinner, and we were to have a very gay evening. I ordered my one horse Victoria and went for a drive in the Bois, to calm myself, and the trees with their early autumn tints seemed to mock at me. I could see too much beauty in them, and it hurt. Everything hurt! This was certainly the worst afternoon I have had to bear since I came to on No-Man's Land near Langemarke. But I suppose at dinner I played the game, for Coralie and the rest congratulated me.
"Getting quite well, Nicholas! And of a chic! Va!"
We played poker afterwards and the stakes were high, and I was the winner the whole time, until I could see anxiety creep into more than one eye (pair of eyes! I have got so accustomed to writing of eyes in the singular that I forget!) We had quantities of champagne and some exotic musicians Maurice had procured for me, and a nude Hindoo dancer.
Everyone went more or less mad.
They left about four in the morning, all rather drunk, if one must write it. But the more I had drunk the more hideously sober and filled with anguish I seemed to become, until when I had called the last cheery good-night and was at last alone in my bed, I felt as if the end had come, and that death would be the next and only good thing which could happen to me.
I have never before had this strange detached sense in such measure as this night. As of a hungry agonized spirit standing outside its wretched body, and watching its feeble movements, conscious of their futility, conscious of being chained to the miserable thing, and only knowing rebellion and agony.
Burton gave me a sleeping draught, and I slept far into the next day to awake more unhappy than ever, obsessed with self-contempt and degradation.
In the afternoon, I received a note from Maurice, telling me that he had inadvertently heard that a fellow in the American Red Cross had seen Miss Sharp's passport, when she had been sent down to Brest for them, and the name on it was Alathea Bulteel Sharp, and judging that the second name sounded as if it might be a well-known English one, he hastened to tell me, in case it should be a clue. I could not think where I had heard it before, or with what memory it was connecting in my brain. I had a feeling it was something to do with George Harcourt. I puzzled for a while, and then I looked back over the pages of my journal, and there found what I had written of his conversation—Bobby Bulteel—Hartelford's brother—cheating at cards—and married to Lady Hilda Marchant——
Of course!—The whole thing became plain to me! This would account for everything. I hobbled up and got down the peerage. I turned to the Hartelford title, and noted the brothers—the Hon'bles—John Sinclair, Charles Henry, and Robert Edgar. This last must be "Bobby" Then I read the usual things—"Educated at Eton and Christchurch, etc., etc." "Left the Guards in 1893." "Married in 1894—Lady Hilda Farwell, only daughter of the Marquess of Braxted (title extinct) and divorced wife of William Marchant, Esquire." "Issue—"
"Alathea—born 1894, John Robert born 1905, and Hilda born 1907."
So the whole tragic story seemed to unfold itself before me.
Alathea is the child of that great love and sacrifice of her Mother—I read again the words George had used: "She adored the fellow who had every charm." All the world might cast him out, but that one faithful woman gave up home and name and honour, to follow him in his disgrace. That was love indeed, however misplaced! I looked again at the dates and made a calculation of the time divorces took then, and I saw that my little darling girl could only have escaped illegitimacy by perhaps a few hours!
What had her life been? I pictured it. They must have hidden diminished heads in hole and corner places during the dreary years. Such a man as Bobby Bulteel must have been, as George said, a weakling. The Hartlefords were poor as church mice, and were not likely to assist a scapegrace, who had dishonoured them. I remembered hearing that on the old Lord Braxted's death years ago, Braxted was sold to the Merrion-Walters, Ironfounders from Leeds. No doubt the old man had cut his daughter off without the traditional shilling, but even so, some hundreds a year must have been theirs. What then did the poverty of Alathea suggest? That some constant drain must be going on all the time. Could the scapegrace still be a gambler, and that could account for it? This seemed the most probable explanation.
Then all over me there rushed a mad worship for my little love. Her splendid unselfishness, her noble self-sacrifice, her dignity, her serenity. I could have kissed the ground under her feet.
I made Burton spend untold time telephoning to the Embassy, and then to Versailles to Colonel Harcourt—would he not dine with me? He was sorry he was engaged but he would lunch the next day. Then when the long evening was in front of me alone—I could hardly bear it. And, driven to desperation at last, when Burton was undressing me, I said to him:
"Did you ever know anything of the Hartlefords, Burton—Bulteel is the family name?"
"Can't say as I did personally, Sir Nicholas," he answered, "but of course, when I was a young boy taking my first fourth-footman's place, before I came to your father, Sir Guy, at Her Grace of Wiltshire's, I could not help hearing of the scandal about the cheating at cards. The whole nobility and gentry was put to about it, and nothing else was talked of at dinner."
"Try and tell me what you remember of the story."
So Burton held forth in his own way for a quarter of an hour. There had been no possible doubt of the crime, it was the week after the Derby, and Bulteel had lost heavily it was said. He was caught red-handed and got off abroad that night, and the matter would have been hushed up probably but for the added sensation of Lady Hilda's elopement with him. That set society by the ears, and the thing was the thrill of the season. Mr. Marchant had been "all broken-up" by it, and delayed the divorce so that as far as Burton could remember, Captain Bulteel could not marry Lady Hilda for more than a year afterwards. All this coincided with what I already knew. Lord Braxted too, "took on fearful," and died of a broken heart it was said, leaving every cent to charity. The entail had been cut in the generation before and the title became extinct at his death.
I did not tell Burton then of my discovery, and lay long hours in the dark, thinking and thinking.
What did the Duchesse's attitude mean? In the eyes of the Duchesse de Courville-Hautevine, nee Adelaide de Mont Orgeuil—to cheat at cards would be the worst of all the cardinal sins. Such a man as Bobby Bulteel must be separated from his kind. She knew Lady Hilda probably (the Duchesse often stayed in England with my mother) and she probably felt a disapproving pity for the poor lady. The great charity of her mind would be touched by suffering, if the suffering was apparent, and perhaps she had some affection for the girl Alathea. But no affection could bridge the gulf which separated the child of an outcast from her world. The sins of the father would inevitably be visited upon the children by an unwritten law, and although she might love Alathea herself, she could not countenance her union with me. The daughter of a man who had cheated at cards should go into a convent. I instinctively felt somehow that this would be her viewpoint.
Does Alathea know this tragedy about her father? Has she had to live always under this curse? Oh! The pity of it all.
Morning found me more restless and miserable than I have ever been, and it brought no sign of my love!
George Harcourt was called suddenly to Rome that morning and so even hearing him talk further about the Bulteels was denied me for the time. I passed some days of the cruelest unrest. There was no sign of Alathea. I allowed Maurice to drag me out into the world and spent my evenings among my kind.
A number of my old pals have been killed lately, such an irony when the war seems to be drawing to a close! There is still an atmosphere of tension and unrestfulness in the air, though.
After an awful week George Harcourt came back and dropped in to see me. I opened fire at once, and asked him to tell me all that he knew of the Bulteels, especially his old brother officer Bobby.
"I have a particular reason for asking, George," I said.
"Very curious your speaking of them, Nicholas, because there has just been the devil of a fuss in the French Foreign Legion about that infernal blackguard; it came to my knowledge in my work."
"Has he been cheating at cards again?"
"Tell me from the beginning."
So he started—many of the bits I already knew. Lady Hilda had been a great friend of his and he dwelt upon the life of suffering she had had.
"There were a few years of frantic love and some sort of happiness, I expect, and then funds began to give out, and Bobbie's insane desire to gamble led him into the shadiest society, at Baden-Baden and Nice, and other warm spots. Poor Hilda used to go about with him then in a shamed, defiant way, running from any old friend, or staring over his head. I happened upon them once or twice in my wanderings; then I lost sight of them for some years, and the next thing was someone told me the poor woman had broken down and was a nervous wreck, and two children had been born in quick succession, when the first one was about eleven years old, and the whole family were in miserable straits. I think relations paid up that time—with the understanding that never again were they to be applied to. And since then I have heard nothing until the other day it came to my ears that the eldest girl—she must be over twenty now, was supporting the entire family. One of the children died lately, and now Bobby has put the cap on it. I am sorry for them, but Bobby is impossible."
Oh! My poor little girl, what a life! How I longed to take her out of it!
He went on.
"Strange how certain instincts show themselves under every condition. Bobby was no physical coward, and to talk to and mix with casually, the most perfect gentleman you ever met. Awfully well read and a topper at classics and history, and sang like a bird. He had the grand manner, and could attract any woman, though to give the devil his due—I believe for some years he was faithful to Lady Hilda."
"I should think so!" I said indignantly. "After accepting her great sacrifice!"
"Nothing lasts, my dear boy, that is not fundamental. Bobby was a rotter through and through, and so he couldn't even behave decently to the woman who had given up everything for him, once her charm went. But—that something in human beings which is unaccountable, when they are well bred, made him join the French Foreign Legion immediately war broke out, and behave with great gallantry."
"What brought on the last episode?"
"He was probably bored in the dull post where he was, with not much fighting to do lately, and resorted to his old game to cover up losses, which he could not pay, and had the bad luck to be caught for the second time. I told you he was a fool and did not know how to calculate the price of his follies."
"When did you hear of this?"
"Only last night on my return, and there will be a disgusting scandal, and the old story will be raked up and it is pretty beastly for Englishmen."
"Can money keep it quiet, George?"
"I expect so, but who would be fool enough to pay for such a fellow?"
"I would, and will, if you can manage it without letting my name appear."
"My dear boy, how does it interest you? Why should you do such a quixotic thing? It is twenty-five thousand francs."
"Only twenty-five thousand francs! I'll give you the cheque this minute George, if you can, in your own way, free the poor devil."
"But Nicholas—you must be mad my dear boy!—Or you have some strong motive I do not know of."
"Yes, I have—I want this chap freed from disaster, not for his sake, but for the sake of the family. What must that poor lady have gone through, and that poor girl!"
George looked at me with his whimsical cynical eye.
"It's awfully decent of you, Nicholas," was all he said though, and I reached for my cheque-book, and wrote a cheque for thirty thousand francs with my stylo.
"You may need the extra five thousand, George—to make sure of the thing, and I count on you to patch it up as soon as you can."
He left after that, promising to see into the affair at once, and telephone me the result—and when he had gone I tried to think over what it all means?
Alathea did not know of this when I asked her to marry me last week. She must never know that I am paying, even if that makes matters easy enough for her to refuse me. The reason of her long silence is because this fresh trouble has fallen upon them, I am sure. I feel so awfully, not being able to comfort her. The whole burden upon those young shoulders.—
Just as I wrote that yesterday, Burton came in to say that Miss Sharp was in the little salon, and wished to see me, and I sent him to pray her to come in. I rose from my chair to bow to her when she entered, she never shakes hands. I was awfully pained to see the change in her. Her poor little white face was thin and woebegone and even her lips pale, and her air was not so proud as usual.
"Won't you sit down," I said with whatever of homage I could put into my voice.
She was so humbled and miserable, that I knew she would even have taken off her glasses if I had asked her to, but of course I would not do that.
She seemed to find it hard to begin. I felt troubled for her and started.
"I am awfully glad that you have come back."
She locked her hands together, in the shabby, black suede gloves.
"I have come to tell you that if you will give me twenty-five thousand francs this afternoon, I will accept your offer, and will marry you."
I held out my hand in my infinite joy, but I tried to control all other exhibition of emotion.
"That is awfully good of you—I can't say how I thank you," I said in a voice which sounded quite stern. "Of course I will give you anything in the world you want." And again I reached for my cheque-book and wrote a cheque for fifty thousand and handed it to her.
She looked at it, and went crimson.
"I do not want all that, twenty-five thousand is enough. That is the price of the bargain."
I would not let this hurt me.
"Since you have consented to marry me, I have the right to give you what I please—you may need more than you have suggested, and I want everything to be smooth and as you would wish."
She trembled all over.
"I—I cannot argue now, I must go at once; but I will think over what I must say about it."
"If you are going to be my wife, you must know that all that is mine will be yours; so how can a few thousand francs more or less now make any difference, though if you have any feeling concerning it, you can pay me back out of your first month's dress allowance!" and I tried to smile.
She started to her feet.
"When shall I see you again?" I pleaded.
"In two days."
"When will you marry me?"
"Whenever you arrange."
"Must you go now?"
"Yes—I must—I am grateful for your generosity, I will fulfill my side of the bargain."
"And I mine."
I tried to rise, and she handed me my crutch, and then went towards the door, there she turned.
"I will come on Friday at ten o'clock as usual, Good-bye," and she bowed and left me.
What a remarkable way to become an engaged man!! But only joy filled me at that moment. I wanted to shout and sing—and thank God!
Alathea will be mine, and surely it will only be a question of time before I can make her love me, my little girl!
I rang for Burton. I must have rung vigorously for he came in hurriedly.
"Burton," I said, "Congratulate me, my old friend—Miss Sharp has promised to marry me."
For once Burton's imperturbability deserted him, he almost staggered and put his hand to his head.
"God bless my soul, Sir Nicholas," he gasped, and then went on, "Beg pardon, Sir, but that is the best piece of news I ever did hear in my life."
And his dear old eyes were full of tears while he blew his nose vigorously.
"It will be a very quiet wedding, Burton. We shall have it at the Consulate, and I suppose at the church in the Rue d'Agesseau, if Miss Sharp is a Protestant—I have never asked her."
"The wedding don't so much matter, Sir Nicholas. It is having the young lady always here to look after you."
"Without her glasses, Burton!"
"As you say Sir, without them horn things." And there was a world of understanding in his faithful eyes.
He left the room presently with the walk of a boy, so elated was he, and I was left alone, thrilling in every nerve with triumph. How I long for Friday I cannot possibly say.
In the afternoon Maurice and Alwood Chester, and Madame de Clerte came to see me, and all exclaimed at my improved appearance.
"Why you look like a million dollars, Nicholas," Alwood said, "What is up, old bird?"
"I am getting well, that is all."
"We are going to have a party on Sunday to introduce you to the loveliest young girl in Paris," Solonge announced. "The daughter of a friend of mine without a great dot, but that does not matter for you, Nicholas. We think that you should marry and marry a jeune fille francaise!"
"That is sweet of you. I have shown how I appreciate young girls, have not I?"
"For that—no!" she laughed, "But the time has come—."
I felt amused, what will Alathea think of these, my friends? Solonge is the best of them.
Maurice had an air of anxiety underneath his watchful friendliness. He's fine enough to feel atmospheres, or whatever it is that comes from people, not in words. He felt that some great change had taken place in me, and he was not sure what aspect it would have in regard to himself. He came back after he had seen Madame de Clerte to her coupe!—She has essence also now,—and his rather ridiculous, kindly, effeminate, little dark face was appealing.
"Eh bien, mon ami?" he said.
"There is something, Nicholas, what? Was the clue of any use to you?"
"Yes, thank you a thousand times, Maurice, I could trace the whole thing. Miss Sharp comes of a very distinguished family, which I know all about. Her uncle is a miserable Earl! That is respectable enough, especially a tenth Earl! And her maternal grandfather was a 'Marquess.'"
"Vrai, mon vieux?"
Maurice was duly interested.
"You were right then about the breeding, it always does show."
I had difficulty in not telling him my news, but I thought it wiser to remain silent until after Friday! Friday! Day of days!
Maurice suspected that there was something beyond in all this, and was not sure which course would be the best to pursue; one of sympathy or unconsciousness. He decided upon the latter and presently left me.
Then I telephoned to Cartier to hare some rings sent up to look at. I have a feeling that I must be very discreet about giving Alathea presents, or she will be resentful and even suspect that my bargain is not entirely a business one. I am afraid I seemed a little too pleased at our interview; I must be indifferently aloof on Friday.
I suppose I had better not give her my mother's pearls until after the ceremony. I wonder if there will be a fuss when I suggest her going to the Rue de la Paix for clothes? I apprehend that there will be a stubborn resistance to almost everything I would wish to do.
How will the Duchesse take it! Probably philosophically, once it is an accomplished fact.
At that moment Burton brought me in a note from that very lady! I opened it eagerly, and its contents made me smile.
The Duchesse wrote to remind me of a request I once made her, that if a certain family were in trouble that I would assist them to any amount. Twenty-five thousand francs were now absolutely necessary on the moment, if I could send them to her by bearer, I would know that I was doing a good deed!
For the third time that day I reached for my cheque-book and wrote a cheque, but for only the sum asked on this occasion, and then when Burton had brought me note paper, I sent a little word with it, to the Duchesse, and when I was alone again I laughed aloud.
Three people determined upon it must surely save the scapegrace!—I wonder which of the three will get there first!
I would not go out anywhere to dinner, I wanted to be alone to think over the whole strange turn of fate. Do strong desires influence events? Or are all these things settled beforehand? Or is there something in reincarnation, which Alathea believes in, and the actions of one life cause that which looks like fate in the next? We shall have many talks on this subject, I hope.
I wonder, how long it will take for my little love to come voluntarily into my arms?——?
I wonder how long I shall go on writing in this Journal? I suppose once I should be happy it would not be necessary; well the moment has not yet come, in in spite of my being the fiance of the woman I desire.
At ten o'clock I was waiting for her in the sitting-room, and I was thinking of that other time when I waited in anxiety, in case she did not return at all. I was very excited, but it was more the exhilaration I used to feel when we were going to have some stunning marauding expeditions over No-Man's Land. The old zest was in my veins.
I heard Alathea's ring, and after she had taken off her hat she came into the room. I believed that her anxieties must be assuaged because George Harcourt had telephoned late on Thursday night to say that he had been successful, and that he had four thousand francs to hand back to me, the affair having been concluded for twenty-six thousand. So what was my surprise to see Alathea's face below her glasses more woebegone than ever! At first it gave me a stab of pain. Does she really hate me so? She did not mention the money, so I wonder if it is that she does not yet know her father is cleared? I bowed as coldly as I used always to do, and she asked me if I had a chapter ready for her to type? I answered that I had not, because I had been too busy with other things to have composed anything.
"I think we had better discuss the necessary arrangements for our marriage before we can settle down to our old work," I said.
"I shall have to have your full name and your father's and mother's and all that, you know, to make it legal. My lawyer will attend to all the formalities—they are quite considerable, I believe. He arrives from London on Monday. I got him a passport by pulling a lot of strings."
She actually trembled. It seemed as if the idea of all this had not come to her, some of the value of her sacrifice would be diminished if the family skeleton should be laid bare, I could see she felt, so I reassured her.
"Believe me, I do not wish you to tell me anything about your family. As long as you can give just sufficient facts to satisfy the law, I have no curiosity to see them unless I can be of use."
"I think a fortnight is the quickest that everything can be settled in.—Will you marry me on the seventh of November, Miss Sharp?"
"Do you care for the church ceremony, or will the one at the Consulate do?"
"I should think that would be quite enough for us."
The ring cases were all lying upon the table by me—I pointed to them.
"I wonder if you would choose an engagement ring?" and I began opening the lids. "It is customary, you know," I went on as she started reluctantly. I intended to be firm with her in all the points where I had rights.
"Don't you think it is a little ridiculous?" she asked. "A ring for a mere business arrangement?"
I would not allow myself to be hurt, but I was conscious that I felt a little angry.
"You would prefer not to choose a ring then? Very well, I will decide for you," and I took up one really magnificent single stone diamond, set as only Cartier can set stones.
"This is the last thing in modernity," and I handed it to her. "A hard white diamond of egregious size, it cannot fail to be a reminder of our hard business bargain, and I shall ask you to be good enough to wear it."
I suppose she saw that I was not pleased, for she drew in her lips a little, but she took the ring.
Her hands seemed very restless as she held it, they were certainly not nearly so red as they formerly were.
"Am I to put it on now?"
She did so, only she put it on her right third finger, her cheeks growing pink.
"Why do you do that?" I asked.
"Put the ring on the wrong hand."
She changed it reluctantly, then she burst out:
"I suppose I ought to thank you for such a very splendid gift, but I can't, because I would much rather not have it, please do let us keep to business in every way, and please don't give me any more presents. I am going to be just your secretary, with my wages commuted into some lump sum, I suppose."
I felt more angry, and I think she saw it. I remained silent, which forced her to speak.
"Do you intend that I shall live here, in the flat?"
"Of course. Will you please choose which of the two guest rooms you would prefer, they both have bathrooms, and you will have the decoration re-done as you wish."
My exasperation augmented.
"Will you also please engage a maid, and go and order every sort of clothes which you ought to have. I know by the way you were dressed when I saw you in the Bois that Sunday, that your taste is perfect."
She stiffened as I spoke. It was quite plain to be seen that she loathed taking anything from me, but I had no intention of ceding a single point where I had the right to impose my will.
"You see you will be known as my wife, therefore you must dress according to the position, and have everything my mother used to have. Otherwise, people would not respect you, and only think that you were invidiously placed."
Her cheeks flamed again at the last words.
"It is difficult to picture it all," she said; "Tell me exactly what you expect of me daily."
"I expect that when you have breakfasted, in your room if you wish, that you will come and talk to me, perhaps do a little writing, or go out to drive, or what you wish, and that we shall lunch, and in the afternoon do whatever turns up. You will want to go out and see your friends and do what you please. And perhaps you will play to me as often as you feel inclined, and after dinner we can go to the theatre, or read, or do whatever you like. And as soon as my treatments with these doctors are concluded, and I have my new leg and eye, and we shall hope war is finished, we can travel, or go back to England, and then I shall begin taking up a political career, and I shall hope you will take a real interest in that and help me as though I were your brother."
"You will order the clothes to-day?"
She was subdued now, the programme was not very formidable, except that it contained daily companionship with me.
"Have you told the Duchesse de Courville-Hautevine yet that we are engaged?" I asked after a moment's pause.
Discomfort grew in her manner.
"Do you think that she will not approve of the marriage?"
"She may not."
"Perhaps you would rather that I told her?"
"As you please."
"I want you to understand something quite clearly, Alathea." She started when I said her name, "and that is that I expect you to treat me with confidence, and tell me anything which you think that I ought to know, so that we neither of us can be put in a false position, beyond that, believe me, I have no curiosity. I desire a companionship of brain, and a sort of permanent secretary who does not feel hostile all the time, that is all."
I could see that she was controlling herself with all her will, and that she was overwrought and intensely troubled. I knew that some barrier was between us which I could not at present surmount. All she said after a minute was:
"How did you know that my name was 'Alathea'?"
"I heard your little sister call you that the day I saw you in the Bois. I think it a very beautiful name."
Her discomfort seemed to come to a climax, for after a little she spoke.
"The twenty-five thousand francs beyond the twenty-five I asked you for, I cannot return to you. I feel very much about it, and that you should pay for my clothes, and give me presents. It is the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life,—to take all this."
"Do not let it bother you, I am quite content with the bargain. Perhaps you would rather go now after we have selected which room you will have."
She gave me my crutch, and I led the way and she followed. I knew instinctively that she would choose the room which was furthest from mine. She did!
"This will do," she said immediately we entered it.
"The look-out is not so nice, it only gets the early morning sun," I ventured to remark.
"It is quieter."
"It was rather arranged for a man, and is perhaps severe. Do you wish anything changed?"
She did not appear to take any more interest in it than if it had been a hotel room. She had given it the merest glance, although it is quite a little masterpiece in its way, of William and Mary—even the panelling being English, and of the time, and the old rose silk window and bed curtains.
"I don't want anything altered, thank you."
It seemed a strange moment, to be talking thus calmly to the woman who, in a fortnight, will be my wife. I feel that a volcano is really working under our feet, and that adds to the excitement!
When we got back to the sitting-room I offered to send the carriage for her to go and do her shopping, but she refused, and I thought it was wiser to let her go. We shall have years to talk in presently, and there is always the danger of our coming to an open rupture, and the bargain being off, if we see much of one another now.
"Good-bye," she said a little nervously, and I bowed and said "Good-bye," and she went from the room.
And when she had gone I laughed aloud, and began to analyse the situation.
George Harcourt has paid the gambling debt, therefore the fifty thousand I gave Alathea cannot have been used for that. Some fresh worry is perhaps upon the wretched family. The obvious thing for me to do is to go and see the Duchesse, and yet I have some strange sort of wish that it should be Alathea herself who tells me everything, and not that she becomes aware, by inference, that I must know. I feel that our future happiness depends upon her giving up all this stubborn pride. What is at the back of her mind? I do not know. That resentment and dislike of me has only become crystallized since the Suzette affair. I am sure she thinks that Suzette is my mistress still, and this insults her, but she reasons that with the bargain as it is, she has not the smallest right to object. She is furious with herself to think that it should matter to her. That is a thought! Why indeed should it matter if she is utterly indifferent to me? Is it possible? Can it be that? No—I dare not think of it, but, in any case it will be the most thrilling situation, once she is my wife.
I believe it would be wisest for me not to go to the Duchesse's but simply to write her a note telling her of my news, then anything she may tell me will be gratuitous.
I had just finished doing this when once again a letter was brought in from that lady, and this time it was to thank me for my cheque, and to tell me that it had been the means of preventing a most disagreeable scandal and bringing peace to a family!
Sardonic mirth overcame me. So three separate people seem to be under the impression that they have paid this gambler's debts! Each apparently unaware that there was anyone else in the running! It looks as if "Bobby" had wolfed the lot! Does Alathea know, and is this the extra cause of her worry?
I sent my note back by the Duchesse's messenger, who still waited, and went to my luncheon.
In about an hour the telephone rang—a request from the Hotel de Courville that I should repair there immediately without fail.
"Her Grace spoke herself," Burton said, "and said it was most important, Sir Nicholas."
"Very well, order the carriage. By the way. Burton, did you congratulate Miss Sharp?"
"I did make so bold, Sir Nicholas, as to tell the young lady how very glad I was, but she took it queer like, she stiffened up and said it was only a business arrangement, to be able to write your letters and do your work without people talking about it. That seemed funny to me, so I said nothing more."
"Burton it is funny for the moment, Miss Sharp is only marrying me for some reason for her family, the same one which forces her to work, but I hope I can make her think differently about it some day."
"Pardon the liberty I am taking, Sir Nicholas, but perhaps she don't like the idea of Mam'zelle, and don't know she's gone for good."
"That is probably the case."
Burton's wise old face expressed complete understanding, as he left the room, and presently I was on my way to the Hotel de Courville, a sense of exhilaration and of excitement and joy in my heart!
The Duchesse was playing impatiently with her glasses when I was announced by the servant of ninety! Her face expressed some strong feeling. I was not sure if it was tinged with displeasure or no. She helped me to sit down, and then she began at once.
"Nicholas, explain yourself. You tell me you are engaged to your secretary! So this has been going on all the time, and you have not told me. I, who was your mother's oldest friend!"
"Dear Duchesse, you are mistaken, it has only just been settled. No one was more surprised at my offer than Miss Sharp herself."
"You know her real name, Nicholas? And her family history? You have guessed, of course, from my asking you for the twenty-five thousand francs, that they were in some difficulty?"
"Yes, I know Alathea is the daughter of the Honorable Robert and Lady Hilda Bulteel."
"She has told you all of the story, perhaps?—but you cannot know what the money was for, because the poor child does not know it herself. It is more just that I should inform you, since you are going to marry into the family."
"Thank you, Duchesse."
She then began, and gave me a picture of her old friendship with Lady Hilda, and of the dreadful calamity which had befallen in her going off with Bobby Bulteel.
"It was one of those cases of mad love, Nicholas, which fortunately seem to have died out of the modern world, though for the truth I must say that one more seduisant than ce joli Bulteel, I have never met! One could not, of course, acknowledge them for a crime like that, but I have ever been fond of poor Hilda and that sweet little child. She was born here, in this hotel. Poor Hilda came to me in her great trouble, and I was in deep mourning myself then for my husband,—the house is large, and it could all pass quietly."
I reached forward and took the Duchesse's hand and kissed it, and she went on:
"Alathee is my godchild, one of my names is Alathee. The poor little one, she adored her father, in all those first years. They wandered much and only came to Paris at intervals, and each time they came, a little poorer, a little more troubled, and then after a lapse I heard those two were born at Nice—wretched little decadents, when my poor Hilda was a mass of nerves and disillusion. Alathee was eleven then. It was, par hazard, when she was about fourteen that she heard of her father's crime. She was the gayest, most sweet child before that, through all their poverty, but from that moment her character was changed. It destroyed something in her spirit, one must believe. She set firmly to education, decided she would be a secretary, cultivated herself, worked, worked, worked! She worshipped her mother, and resented immensely her father's treatment of her."
"She must always have had a wonderful character."
"For that, yes," and the Duchesse paused a moment, then went on:
"Quite a tremendous character, and as Bobby sank and poor Hilda became more ill, and wretched, that child has risen in strength, and supported them all. Since the war came they have almost lived upon her earnings. The father is without conscience, and of a selfishness unspeakable! His money all went to him for his use, and Alathee was left to supplement the mother's wretched two or three thousand francs a year. And now that brute has again cheated at cards, and poor Hilda came to me in her great distress, and remembering your words, Nicholas, I called upon you. It would have been too cruel for the poor woman to have had to suffer again. Hilda took the money and gave it to this infamous husband, and the affair was settled that night. Alathee knows nothing about it."
Light was dawning upon me. The admirable Bobby has evidently played upon the feelings of both wife and daughter!
"Duchesse, why did you not wish me to know the real name, and would not help me at all about 'Miss Sharp,'—won't you now tell me your reason?"
The Duchesse shaded her eyes from the fire with a hand-screen, and it came between us, and I could not see her face, but her voice changed.
"I was greatly surprised to find the girl in your flat one day. I had not understood with whom she was working. I was not pleased about it, frankly, Nicholas, because one cannot help knowing of your existence and your friends, and I feared your interest for a secretary might be as for them, and I disliked that my godchild should run such a risk. When jeunes filles of the world have to take up menial positions they are of course open to such situations, and have to expect difficulties. I wished to protect her as well as I could."
Suddenly I saw myself, and the utterly rotten life I had led, that this, my old friend, even, could not be sure of my chivalry. I loathed the lax, cheap honor of the world and its hypocrisy. I could not even be indignant with the Duchesse, judging me from that standpoint. She was right, but I did tell her that men had a slightly different angle in looking upon such things in England, where women worked, and were respected in all classes, and that the idea of making love to any secretary would never have entered my head. It was the intelligence and the dignity of Alathea herself which had made me desire her for a companion.
"It is well that you are English, Nicholas. No Frenchman of family could have married the daughter of a man who had cheated at cards."
"Even if the girl was good and splendid like Alathea, Duchesse?"
"For that, no, my son, we have little left but our traditions, and our names, and those things matter to us. No, frankly, I could not have permitted the union had you been my son."
So I had been right in my analysis of what would be the bent of my old friend's mind.
"You are pleased now, though, dear Duchesse?" I pleaded.
"It seems impossible, from my point, and I would not have encouraged it, but since it is done, I can but wish my dear Alathee and you, my dear boy true happiness."
Again I took and kissed her kind hand.
"In England, especially in this war time, questions are not asked, n'est ce pas? She can be 'Sharp' simply and not Bulteel, then it may pass. For the girl, herself, you have a rare jewel, Nicholas—unselfish, devoted, true, but the will of the devil! You shall not be able to turn her as you wish, if her ideas go the other way!"
"Duchesse, the situation is peculiar, there is no question of love in it. Alathea is marrying me merely that she may give money to her family. I am marrying that I may have a secretary without scandal. We are not going to be really husband and wife."
The Duchesse dropped her fire-screen, her clever-eyes were whimsical and sparkling.
"Tiens!" she said, and never has the delicious word conveyed so much meaning! "You believe that truly Nicholas? Alathee is a very pretty girl when properly dressed—"
"And without glasses!"
"As you say, without glasses, which I hear cover her fine eyes when in your society!"
"I asked her to marry me under those terms, and it was only upon those terms she accepted me."
The Duchesse laughed.
"A nice romance! Well, my son, I wish you joy!"
"Duchesse," and I leaned forward, "do you really think I can make her love me? Am I too awful? Is there a chance?"
The Duchesse patted my arm and her face shone with kindliness.
"Of course, foolish boy!" And she broke into French, using the "thee" and "thou" again affectionately. 'I was very handsome!—that which remained,—and all would look the same as ever when the repairing should be complete!'
"So very tall and fine, Nicholas, and hair of a thickness, and what is best of all, that air of a great gentleman. Yes, yes, women will always love thee, sans eye, sans leg, do not disturb thyself!"
"Don't tell her I love her, Duchesse," I pleaded. "We have much to learn of each other. If she did not believe it was a bargain equal on both sides, she would not marry me at all!"
The Duchesse agreed about this.
"Whatever she has promised she will perform, but why she does not love thee already I cannot tell."
"She dislikes me, she thinks I am a rotter, and I expect she was right, but I shall not be in the future, and then perhaps she will change."
When I left the Hotel de Courville it had been arranged that the Duchesse would receive my wife with honour, her world only knowing that I had married an English "Miss Sharp."
I heard no more of my fiancee until next morning, when she telephoned. Did I wish her to come that day?
Burton answered that I hoped she would, about eleven o'clock.
I intended to tell her that I thought that it might be wiser now if she did not come again until the wedding, as once we were engaged I would not allow her to run the risk of meeting anyone and giving a false impression. I think the strain would be too great in any case.
I did not come in to the salon until she was there, and she rose as I entered. She was whiter than ever, and very stern.
"I have been thinking," she said, before I could speak, "that if I promise to fulfill the bargain, and live here in the flat with you, going through the ceremony at the Consulate is quite unnecessary. Your caprice of having me for your wife merely in name in England, may pass, and it seems ridiculous to be tied. I am quite indifferent to what anyone thinks of me. I would prefer it like that."
"Why?" I asked, and wondered for a moment what had occurred.
"There are so many stupid law things, if there is a marriage, and if you have the same from me without, surely you see that it is better."
I first thought that it was this fear of my knowing her family history which was at the root of this suggestion, but then I remembered that she would know that I would hear it in any case from the Duchesse. What then could it be?
I felt cruel, I was not going to make things too easy for her. If she has the will of the devil, she has also the pride!
"If you are indifferent to such an invidious position as your new idea would place us in, I am not, I do not wish my friends to think that I am such a cad as presumably to have taken advantage of your being my secretary."
"You wish to go on with the marriage then?"
She clasped her hands together suddenly, as if she could control herself no longer, and I thought of what she had said to Burton about feeling that she could not fight any more. I would not allow myself to sympathize with her. I was longing in every nerve of my being to take her into my arms, and tell her that I loved her, and knew everything, but I would not do this. I cannot let her master me, or we shall never have any peace. I will not tell her that I love her until her pride is broken, and I have made her love me and come to me voluntarily.
She was silent.
"I have informed the Duchesse de Courville that we are engaged. I saw her yesterday."
She started perceptibly.
"She has told you my real name?"
"I have known that for some time. I thought I had made it plain to you that I am not interested about the subject, we need not mention it again, you have only to talk to old Robert Nelson, my lawyer, when he comes on Monday. He will tell you the settlements I propose to make, and you can discuss with him as to whether or not you think them satisfactory. Perhaps you on your side will tell me what reason you have strong enough to make a girl of your natural self-respect, willing to take the position of my apparent mistress?"
She burst out for a second, throwing out her hands, then controlling herself.
"No, I won't tell you.—I will tell you nothing, I will just stick to the bargain if I must. You have no right to my thoughts, only my actions!"
I bowed; disagreeable as she was, there was a distinctly pleasant zest in fighting!
"Perhaps of your courtesy, you will take off those glasses now, since I am aware that you only wear them to conceal your eyes, and not that they are necessary for your sight."
She flushed with annoyance.
"And if I refuse?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I shall think it very childish of you."
With a petulance which I had never seen in her she tossed her head.
"I don't care, at present I will not."
I frowned but did not speak. This will be discussed between us later. My fighting spirit is up, she shall obey me!
"Did you order the clothes yesterday?"
"Enough, I hope."
"Well, now, I have a suggestion to make which I am sure will please you, and that is that you will appoint some meeting place with Mr. Nelson for Tuesday morning, since you do not trust my good taste far enough even to let me know your home address. Perhaps at the Hotel de Courville, if the Duchesse will permit, and that then we do not meet until the seventh of November at the ceremony. Mr. Nelson will arrange with you all the law of the thing and what witnesses you must have, and everything, and this will save these useless discussions, and give you a little breathing space."
This seemed to subdue her, and she agreed less defiantly.
"And now I will not detain you longer," I said stiffly. "Au revoir until the seventh of November at whatever hour is arranged, or if we must meet before at the signing of the contract," and I bowed.
She bowed also, and walked haughtily to the door, and left.
And greatly exhilarated, I decided to go and lunch with Maurice at the Ritz.
As I came from the lift, Madame Bizot's daughter came out of the concierge's lodge with her baby, and it was making its same little cooing, gurgling noises that caused me so to feel that time when Alathea first began to interest me. I stopped and spoke to the mother, a comely young woman, and the little creature put out its tiny hand and clasped one of my fingers, and over me there came a weird thrill. Shall I ever hear noises like that, and have a son of Alathea's and mine to take my hand. Well the game of her subjection is interesting enough anyway, and rather ashamed of my emotion, I went on into the Victoria and was crawled to the Ritz.
Here I ran into a fellow in the Flying Corps, who told me that Nina's boy, Johnnie, had been killed the night before, in his first fight with a Boche plane. I do not know that any of the tragedies of the war have affected me more. My poor Nina! She really loved her son. I telegraphed to her at once my fondest sympathies, and the thought of her grief would not leave me all the way, war-hardened as I am.
I did not tell Maurice of my approaching wedding. I have a plan that he shall only know when I ask him to come to the Hotel de Courville to be presented to my wife.
The Fluffies have returned from Deauville, and Coralie and Alice joined us at luncheon. They have the most exquisite new garments, and were full of sparkle and gaiety. Alice's wedding, to the rich neutral, seems really to be coming off. Her air was one of subdued modesty and gentleness, and when I congratulated her she made the tenderest acceptance of it, which would have done justice to a young virgin of the ancien regime! Coralie met my eye with her shrewd small ones, and we looked away! After lunch we sat in the hall for a little, Maurice taking Alice to try on her clothes, so Coralie and I were left alone.
"You are looking quite well now Nicholas," she whispered, "Why don't you ask me to come and dine with you, at your adorable flat,—alone?"
"You would be bored with me before the evening was over."
"Arrange it, and try! Always there are the others, except that night at Versailles. There is an air with you Nicholas,—one has forgotten all about your eye. I have thought and thought of you.—You have interfered with all my pleasures in life!"
"I am going back to England quite soon, Coralie, won't you come now to the rue de la Paix and let me buy you a little souvenir of all the lovely times we have had together in the last year?"
So she came, and selected a gem of an opera glass. An opera glass is discreet, it can be accepted by anyone; even a woman determined to impress my mind with her dignity and charm, as Coralie was attempting to do, upon our expedition. She had made up her mind that I should no longer be just a benefit to the three of them, but her own especial property, and she is clever enough to see that I am in a mood to admire dignity and discretion! I spent a most amusing hour with her, enjoying myself in the spirit of watching a good play at the Comedie Francais. At about four o'clock, when we returned to the Ritz, Coralie was baffled. I could see that she was keener than ever, and beginning to be a little worried and unsure of herself!
As I drove back to my flat, taking a roundabout way through the Bois, I mused and analysed things. And what is the psychological reason for some presents being quite correct to give and some not? It all goes back to the re-creative instinct and through what this manifests itself. Gifts which have any relation to the body, to give it pleasure, or to decorate it, are the expressions of the sex relationship, and so presumably the subconscious mind, which only sees the truth in everything, only feels harmonious when these gifts are given by either parents or relations, as a dower, so to speak, or the husband or prospective husband. Hence through the ages, the unconscious relegation of certain presents as acceptable only from certain people. Any present which gives pleasure to the mind alone is the tribute of friendship, but those to touch the body are presumably not. I could give Coralie an opera glass as a mark of my esteem, but a bracelet which she would wear on her arm would have another meaning!
Alathea resents every present, those for the body because they suggest my possession of her, those for the mind because she feels no friendship for me at all!
What will she do I wonder during the fortnight of our engagement? I feel that I can afford to wait with patience and certainty. But the thought that I do not even know my fiancee's address, and that she is resentful and defiant, and rebellious at everything, and yet intends to marry me, on the seventh of November, is really almost humorous!
And now it behooves me to put my house in order, and map out exactly what I mean to do!
The days go slowly on, my preparations are complete. My good friend Nelson arrived on Monday and took charge of the affair. He was entirely aware of the Bulteel story, it was the great scandal of twenty-five years ago. He expressed no opinion as to my marrying into such a family, but went about the business end with diligence. I made a very nice settlement upon Alathea, more than he thought was necessary. Then he spoke of arrangements for possible children, and fixed that, too. I wonder what she will say when she reads that part! I have settled with the Duchesse, who is entering into the spirit of the thing with her usual delicious whimsical understanding, that some time soon after the wedding she shall ask about ten of our principal mutual friends to come in the afternoon, and she will present Alathea to them, and if anyone makes comments upon the matter, she will say that she is the daughter of an old English friend, and even if Coralie recognizes her as the girl who was with me at Versailles, she will not dare to say a word about any protegee of the Duchesse's. She is much too afraid of offending her, being received at the Hotel de Courville herself on sufferance only because of her birth and family. As for Maurice, I can manage him! Now I am beginning to wonder what Alathea would prefer to do? I don't want to see her until the ceremony, but I suppose I must.
The Duchesse has arranged that I should meet my fiancee in her sitting-room and sign the contract there on the day before the wedding, five days from now. Alathea, she tells me is like a frozen image, but faithful to her promise to me, my dear old friend has not made any comment or tried to aid matters. I think she rejoices that I shall have such an interesting time in the breaking down of the barrier.
Nina writes heartbrokenly; Johnnie was very dear to her; sorrow seems to have brought out all that is best in her. She says she feels that she just drifted along, taking all good and happiness for granted, and not doing enough for other people, and that now she is going to devote her life to making Jim happy and contented, and hopes some day, not too far off, to have another child to care for. Darling old Nina! She always was the best sort in the world.
Of Suzette I have heard nothing, although Burton says he caught sight of her on the stairs just whisking into the flat above mine, which has been taken by a lovely actress, a cousin of hers, who has married a rich retired Jew antiquaire!
There are still possibilities of complications here!
But I feel quite serene, Alathea will be mine. She cannot get away from me. I can insidiously, from day to day, carry out my plan of winning her, and the tougher the fight is, the more it will be worth while afterwards!
To-day was really wonderful! Mr. Nelson has presumably seen Alathea and her family several times. I have refused to hear anything about it, and he arrived with her alone at the Hotel de Courville. I had understood that her mother was coming with her, but she was ill and did not turn up.
The Duchesse and I were talking when the two were announced. Alathea was in a nice little grey frock and had her glasses on. I think she knew the Duchesse would not approve of that camouflage, because there was an air of defiance about her, her rebellious Cupid's bow of a mouth was shut sternly, she was even quite repellant,—she has never attracted me more!
The Duchesse was sweet to her and made no remark about the glasses, but was called back to the ward almost immediately for a little, and while she was gone Mr. Nelson read over the settlement.
"I think you are giving me a great deal too much," Alathea said annoyedly. "I shall feel uncomfortable,—and chained."
"I intend my wife to have this." I answered quietly. "So I am afraid you will have to agree."
She pulled in her lips but said no more until the part about the children came, when she started to her feet, her cheeks crimson.
"What is this ridiculous clause?" she asked angrily.
Old Mr. Nelson looked unspeakably shocked. "It is customary in all marriage settlements, my dear young lady," he said reprovingly, and Alathea looked at me with suspicion, but she said nothing, and the Duchesse, returning then to the room, all was soon signed, sealed and delivered! Mr. Nelson withdrew, saying he would call for Miss Bulteel next day for the wedding.
When we were alone the Duchesse kissed us both.
"I hope for your happiness, my children," she said. "I know you both, and your droll characters, the time will come when you may know each other, and in any case, I feel that you will both remember that tenue, a recognition of correct behaviour, helps all situations in life, and the rest is in the hands of the Bon Dieu."
Then she left us again, and Alathea sat stiffly down upon an uncompromising little Louis XV canape out of my reach. I did not move or speak, indeed I lit a cigarette casually.
Alathea's face was a study! I watched her lazily. How had I ever thought her plain? Even in those first days, disguised with the horn spectacles, and the tornback hair, the contour of her little face is so perfectly oval, and her neck so round and long, but not too long. There is not the least look of scragginess about her, just extreme slenderness, a small-boned creature of perhaps five foot four or five, with childish outline. To-day in the becoming little grey frock, and even with the glasses on she is lovely, perhaps she seems so to me because I now know that the glasses are not necessary. The expression of her mouth said, "Am I being tricked? Does the man mean to seize me when he gets me alone? Shall I run away and have done with it?"
She was restless, her old serenity seems to have deserted her.
"I wanted to ask you," I began calmly, "What you would like to do immediately after the wedding. I mean would you prefer that we went to Versailles? The passport business makes everything so difficult, or would you rather go down to the Riviera? Or just stay at the flat?"
"I don't care in the least," she replied ungraciously.
"Then if you don't care, we will stay at the flat, because if I do not interrupt my treatment I shall be the sooner well to go to England. Have you engaged a maid?"
"You will give orders that your trunks are sent in in the morning, then, and that she has everything ready for you."
All this time her face was turned away from me as much as possible. For one second a fear came to me that after all perhaps it is real hate she has for me, which will be unsurmountable, and I was impelled to ask her:
"Alathea, do you detest the idea of marrying me so much that you would rather break the whole thing?"
She turned and faced me now, and I feel sure blue fire was coming from those beautiful eyes, could I have seen them!
"It is not a question of what I would wish or not, nor of my feelings in any way. I am going through with the ceremony, and shall be your permanent secretary, because I am under great monetary obligations to you, and wish for security for my family in the future. You put it to me that you wanted to buy me, and I could name the price—you have overpaid it. I shall not go back upon my promise, only I want to feel perfectly sure that you will expect nothing more of me than what we have arranged."
"I shall expect nothing more; your sense of the fitness of things will suggest to you not to make either of us look ridiculous in public by your being over disagreeable to me, we shall carry on with a semblance of mutual respect, I hope."
The temptation to burst out and tell her of my feelings was extraordinary. I absolutely trembled with the control it required not to rise from my chair and go and take her hands; but I restrained every sign and appeared as indifferent as she is. The Duchesse came back in a few moments and I said I would go.
I did not even then shake hands with Alathea, and the Duchesse came out into the passage with me, to see me safe into the lift, she is always so kind to anything crippled.
"Nicholas," she whispered, "Her manner to you is very cruel, but do not be discouraged!—I feel that it is more promising than if she were kind. She has also had a dreadful time with the father, who has now been transferred to the poste in the desert in Africa. One must hope for good, and her poor mother is going off to Hyeres with little Hilda and their faithful old maid, the only servant they had, so after the wedding you will have your bride all to yourself!"
"Perhaps the thought of that is what is making her so reluctant and icy to-day!"
The Duchesse laughed as she handed me my crutch and closed the lift door. "Time will tell, my son!" and she waved her hand as I disappeared below.
And now I am alone before the crackling fire in my sitting-room,—and I wonder how many men have spent the eve of their marriages in so quiet a manner? I feel no excitement even. I have re-read this journal, it is a pretty poor literary effort, but it does chronicle my emotions, and the gradual growing influence Alathea has been exercising upon me. By putting down what happens between us each day like this, I can then review progress once a week, and can take stock of little shades which would not be remembered otherwise.
* * * * *
At that moment the telephone rang, and George Harcourt asked if he might come round and smoke a cigar.
"Your pre-war ones are so good, Nicholas," he said. He was in at the Ritz, from Versailles, for the night.
I answered "Yes." I like to talk to old George, I don't know why I call him old always, he is forty-eight perhaps, and absolutely well preserved, and women love him passionately, more perhaps than when he was young.
When we were settled in two comfortable arm chairs before the fire, he held forth as usual. He had arranged the affairs of Bobby Bulteel only in the nick of time. "I have all the receipts, Nicholas, to hand to you," he said.
"The wretched creature was overcome with gratitude. We had a long chat, and he plans to clear out and start life afresh in the Argentine as soon as War is over and he can be released from his commission. He is bound to end in hell with his temperament, but it won't matter so long as poor Lady Hilda is not dragged down too. He agreed to leave the family here unmolested now, and not return for years to them, when he does retire from the army."
Then I told my old friend that I intended to marry the daughter on the morrow. He was very surprised.
"I could not imagine what your interest could be, Nicholas, unless it had something to do with a woman, but where did you ever meet the girl, my dear boy?"
"You might come to the wedding, George," I said.
He promised he would, then he smoked for a minute or two in silence. "Pretty terrible thing, marriage," and he puffed blue rings with perfect precision. "I have never been able to face it. What has made you slip into the mesh?"
"Because I think I have found someone who will be a good companion and not bore me."
"You are not in love then? It is a sensible arrangement, and in that way you have a chance of happiness; also the girl has had a hard life, and may be grateful for comfort and kindness."
"What do you suppose men really want, George?"
"The continuous stimulation of the hunting instinct, of course. It is satiety which kills everything, but what a small percentage of women know how to keep it alive, on the mental side!"
I waited for him to go on.
"You see, dear boy, love which is only the camouflaged aspect of the creative instinct, cannot really hold, but a clever woman acts as a spur to the mind, keeps it hunting in the abstract, as well as gratifying, not too generously, the physical desires. Unfortunately it has never been my good fortune to encounter such a being, so I have never been able to remain faithful. You are very much in luck if Bobby's girl shows intelligence. She ought to be a remarkable creature because she was born at the white heat of passion on both parents' side, and self-sacrifice and devotion added on the mother's."
"She is, George."
"My best wishes, Nicholas. I think you are wise, probably wounded as you are, it will be nice for you to have an agreeable companion," and he sighed.
"You have quite finished with Violetta?"
"Now that is the odd part," and he actually removed his cigar from his lips. "I thought I had, but when I went to see her with the certain intention of deceiving her and backing out gracefully,—that vixen Carmencita was drawing me so strongly!—I found Violetta quite tranquil. She said she had realized that I was cooling off, and her rule was to hold nothing which did not wish to stay, so she was quite prepared to part from me. She was very tender, she looked beautiful, and you know when it came to saying farewell, I found myself quite unable to do so! I had prepared a lot of lies about my not being justified in giving the time from my work, but before I could tell them Violetta had forestalled me by assuring me that she knew I must really stick closer to my office, and she would no longer expect much of my company. You know, Nicholas, I suddenly found her charm renewed tenfold, and I could only congratulate myself upon the fact that the affair with Carmencita had not gone far enough to amount to anything, and now I am in pursuit of Violetta again, and 'pon my soul, Nicholas, if she only keeps me wondering, I believe I shall be really in love!"
"Shall you marry, George?"
He looked almost bashful.
"It is just possible,—Violetta is a widow."
Then our eyes met and we both laughed aloud.
"You can contemplate happiness, George with your widow, because you feel that she now knows how to handle you, and I contemplate happiness with my little girl, because I respect her character and adore every inch of her, and by Jove! old man, I believe we shall both get what we are looking for!"
Then our talk drifted to politics and the war, and it was just about midnight before old George left, and when he had gone I opened the window wide, and looked out on the night, there was a half moon almost set, and the air was still, and very warm for the beginning of November. There are nights like that, mysterious and electric when all sorts of strange forces seem to be abroad. And something of romance in me exalted my spirit, and I found myself saying a prayer that I might be true to my trust, and have strength enough of will to wait patiently until my Alathea comes voluntarily into my arms.
And how I wonder what she is thinking about, there at Auteuil?
I went along into the room which is to be hers to-morrow, and I saw that it was all arranged, except the flowers, which would come in fresh in the morning. And then I hobbled back to my own room and rang for Burton. The faithful creature waits for me no matter how late I am.
When I was safely in bed, he came over to me, and his dear old face showed emotion.
"I do indeed wish you happiness, Sir Nicholas, to-morrow will be the best day of my life."
We shook hands silently, and he left me, still writing in this journal!
I feel no excitement, rather as if another act in the drama of life was ended, that is all, and that to-morrow I am starting upon a new one which will decide whether the end of the play shall be tragedy or content?
I am not going to describe the wedding in this Journal. A civil ceremony is not interesting in its baldness. I had literally no emotions, and Alathea looked as pale as her white frock. She wore a little sable toque and a big sable cloak I had sent her the night before, by Nelson. The ring was the new diamond hoop set in platinum. No more gold fetters for modern girls!
Old George and Mr. Nelson were our witnesses, and the whole thing was over in a few minutes, and we were being congratulated. Burton was by far the happiest face there, as he helped me into the automobile, lent by the Embassy. Alathea had just shaken hands with Mr. Nelson and been wished joy by George. I wonder what he thought of the glasses, which even for the wedding she had not taken off!
"May you know every happiness, Lady Thormonde," he said. "Take care of Nicholas and make him quite well, he is the best fellow on earth."
Alathea thanked him coldly. He is such a citizen of the world that he showed no surprise, and finally we were off on our way to the flat.
Here Madame Bizot and her daughter, and the baby, awaited us! And in the creature's tiny hand was a bunch of violets. This was the first time Alathea smiled. She bent and kissed the wee face. These people know and love her. I stayed behind a few moments to express my substantial appreciation of their friendly interest. Burton had been beside the chauffeur to help me in and out, and while we had been driving Alathea had not spoken a word. She had turned from me, and her little body was drawn back as far in the corner as possible.
My own emotions were queer. I did not feel actually excited. I felt just as I used when we were going to take up a new position on the line where great watchfulness would be necessary to succeed.
The maid Alathea had engaged arrived in the morning, and I had had the loveliest flowers put in all the rooms. Pierre intended to outdo himself for the wedding dejeuner, I knew, and Burton had been able to find somewhere a really respectable looking footman, not too obviously wounded.
Alathea handed me my crutch as we got out of the lift. Perhaps she thinks this is going to be one of her new duties!
We went straight into the sitting-room and I sat down in my chair. Her maid, named Henriette, had taken her cloak and hat in the hall, and I suppose from sheer nervousness, and to cover the first awkward moments, Alathea buried her face in the big bowl of roses on a table near another arm chair, before she sat down in it.
"What lovely flowers!" she said. They were the first words she had spoken to me directly.
"I wondered what would be your favorites. You must tell me for the future. I just had roses because they happen to be mine."
"I like roses best too."
I was silent for quite two minutes. She tried to keep still, then I spoke, and I could hear a tone of authority in my voice.
"Alathea, again I ask you please to remove your glasses, as I told you before, I know that you wear them only so that I may not see your eyes, not for sight or light or anything. To keep them on is a little undignified and ridiculous now, and irritates me very much."
She colored and straightened herself.
"To remove my glasses was not part of the bargain. You should have made it a condition if you had wanted to impose it. I do not admit that you have the least right to ask me to take them off, and I prefer to wear them."
"For what possible reason?"
"I will not tell you."
I felt my temper rising. If I had not been a cripple I could not have resisted the temptation to rise and seize her in my arms, tear the d—— d things off! and punish her with a thousand kisses. As it was, I felt an inward rage. What a fool I had been not to have actually made the removal of them a sine qua non before I signed the contract!
"It is very ungenerous of you, and shows a spirit of hostility which I think we agreed that you would drop."
The desire to punish her physically, beat her, make her obey me, was the only thing I felt. A nice emotion for a wedding day!
"Do you mean to wear them all the time, even when we go out in the world?" I asked when I could control my voice.
"Very well then, I consider you are breaking the bargain in spirit, if not in the letter. You, yourself, said you were going to be my permanent secretary—no secretary in the world would insist upon doing something she knew to be a great irritation to her employer."
"You are only lowering yourself in my estimation by showing this obstinacy. Since we have now to live together, I would rather not have to grow to despise you for childishness."
She started to her feet, and with violence threw the glasses on to the table. Her beautiful eyes flashed at me; the lashes are that peculiar curly kind, not black, but soft and dusky, a little lighter near the skin. It is the first time I have ever seen such eyelashes on a woman's lids. One sees them quite often on little boys, especially little vagabonds in the street. The eyes themselves are intensely blue, and with everything of passion and magnetism, and attraction, in them. It is no wonder she wore glasses while having to face the world by herself! A woman with eyes like that would not be safe alone in any avocation where men could observe her. I have never seen such expressive, fascinating eyes in my life. I thrilled in every fibre of my being, and with triumph also to think that our first battle should be won!
"Thank you," I said, making my voice very calm. "I had grown so to respect your balance and serenity, I should have been sorry to have to change my opinion."
I could see that she was palpitating with fury at having been made to obey. I felt it wise to turn the conversation.
"I suppose lunch will be ready soon."
She went towards the door then, and left me. I wondered what she would say when she got to her room and found the three sapphire bangles waiting for her on the dressing table!
I had written on a card inside the lid of the box:
"To Alathea with her husband's best wishes."
Burton announced lunch before she returned to the sitting-room. I sent him to say that it was ready, and a moment after she came in. She had the case in her hand which she put down on the table, and her cheeks were very pink, her eyes she kept lowered.
"I wish you would not give me presents," she gasped a little breathlessly, coming close up to my chair. "I do not care to receive them, you have loaded me with things—the sables, the diamond ring, the clothes, everything, and now these."
I took the case and opened it, removing the bangles.
"Give me your wrist," I said sternly.
She looked at me too surprised at my tone to speak.
I put out my hand and took her bare arm, her sleeves were to the elbows, and I deliberately put the three bracelets on while she stood petrified.
"I have had enough of your disagreeable temper," I said in the same voice. "You will wear these, and anything else I choose to give you, though your rudeness will soon remove my desire to give you anything."
She was absolutely flabbergasted, but I had touched her pride.
"I apologize if I have seemed rude," she said at last. "I—suppose you have the right really—only—" And her whole slender body quivered with a wave of rebellion.
"Let us say no more about the matter, but go into lunch, only you will find that I am not such a weakling, as you no doubt supposed you would have to deal with." I hobbled up from my chair, Burton discreetly not having entered the room. Alathea gave me my crutch, and we went in to the dining-room.
While the servants were in there I led the conversation upon the war news, and ordinary subjects, and she played the game, but when we were alone with the coffee, I filled her glass with Benedictine, which she had refused when Burton handed the liqueurs. She had taken no wine at all.
"Now drink whatever toast you like," I told her. "I am going to drink one to the time when you don't hate me so much and we can have a little quiet friendship and peace."
She sipped her glass, and her eyes became inscrutable. What she was thinking of I do not know.
I find myself watching those eyes all the time. Every reflection passes through them, they are as expressive of all shades of emotion as the eyes of a cat, though the beautiful Madonna tenderness I have never seen again since the day when she held the child in her arms, and I was rude to her.
When we went back into the salon I knew that I was passionately in love with her. Her restiveness is absolutely alluring, and excites all my hunting instinct. She looks quite lovely, and the subtle magnetism which drew me the first days, even when she appeared poor and shabby, and red of hand, is stronger than ever—I felt that I wanted to crush her in my arms and devour her, the blood thumped in my temples, I had to use every atom of my will with myself, and lay back in my chair and closed my eye.
She went straight to the piano and began to play. It seemed as though she were talking, telling me of the passion in her soul. She played weird Russian dances and crashed agonizing chords, then she played laments, and finally a soft and soothing thing of McDowell's, and every note had found an echo in me, and I had followed, it almost seemed, all her pain.
"You play divinely, child," I said, when she had finished. "I am going to rest now, will you give me some tea later on?"
"Yes," and her voice was quite meek, while she helped me with my crutch, and I went to the door of my room.
"I would like you to wear nice soft teagowns. My eye gets so wearied with everything bright after a while. I hope—you have got all you want, and that your room is comfortable?"
I bowed and went on into my room and shut the door. Burton was waiting to help me to lie down.
"It has been a very tiring day for you, Sir Nicholas," he said, "and for her Ladyship also."
"Go and have a rest yourself, Burton, you have been up since cock crow, the new man Antoine can call me at five." And soon I was in a land of blissful dreams.
Of course it was the very irony of fate that Suzette should have selected this very afternoon to come in and thank me for the Villa which she was just now going down to see—!
Antoine opened the door to her while Burton was out. I heard afterwards that she told him she had an appointment with me when he had hesitated about letting her in. She was quite quietly dressed and had no great look of the demi-monde, and a new footman, blunted with war service, was probably impervious even to the very strong scent which she was saturated with—that perfume which I had never been able entirely to cure her liking for, and which she reverted to using always when she went away from me, and had to be corrected of again and again when she returned.
Antoine came to my room by the passage, and said "a lady was in the salon to see me by appointment."
For a moment I was not suspicious. I thought it might be Coralie, and fearing Alathea might be somewhere about, and it might be awkward for her, I hastened to rise and go in to see and get rid of the inopportune guest. I told Antoine he must never let anyone in again without permission.
It was just growing dim in the salon, about half-past four o'clock, and a figure rose from the sofa by the fire as I entered.
"Mon chou—mon petit cheri!" I heard, simultaneously with a softly closing sound of the door behind the screen, which masks the entrance to the room from the hall—Antoine leaving I supposed at the time, probably it was Alathea I surmised afterwards!
"Suzette!" I exclaimed angrily. "Why do you come here?"
She flew to me and held out her arms, expressing affection and grateful thanks. She had come for no other reason only just to express her friendly appreciation! To get rid of her was all I desired. I never was more angry, but to show it would have been the poorest game. I did not tell her it was my wedding day. I just said I was expecting some relatives, and that I knew she would understand and would go at once.
"Of course," she said, and shook me by the hand. I was still standing with my crutch. She was passing to see her cousin Madame Angier, in the flat above, and could not resist the temptation to come in.
"It must be the very last time, Suzette," I said. "I have given you all that you wanted, and I would rather not see you again."
She pouted, but agreed, and I drew her to the door and saw her into the corridor, and even followed her to the front door. She was chatting all the time. I did not answer. I was speechless with rage, and could have sworn aloud, when at last I heard the door shut between us, then I strode back into my room, praying that Alathea had been unaware of my visitor.
Nemesis, on one's wedding day!
I waited until five and then went back into the sitting-room to my chair, and Antoine brought in the tea, and turned on the lights, and a moment or two afterwards Alathea came in. Her eyes were stony, and as she advanced up the room she sniffed the air disgustedly, her fine nostrils quivering. Suzette's pungent perfume was no doubt still present to one coming from outside!
Hauteur, contempt and disgust, expressed themselves in my little darling's blue eyes. There was nothing to be said—qui s'excuse s'accuse—!
She wore a soft lavender frock, and was utterly delectable, and when I reflected that but for this impassable barrier, which my own action in the past had been the means of erecting between us, I might now have made her love me, and that on this, our wedding day, she might have been coming into my arms. I could have groaned aloud.
"May I open the window," she said with the air of an offended Empress.
"Yes, do, open it wide," and then I laughed aloud cynically. I could as easily have cried.
Alathea would not of course have spoken about her suspicions, to do so would have inferred that she took an interest in me beyond that of a secretary; every impression she always has given me is that nothing in my life can matter to her one jot. But I know that this affair of Suzette does matter to her, that she resents it bitterly, that it is the cause of her smouldering anger with me. She resents it because she is a woman, and, how I wish I might believe that it is because she is not as indifferent towards me as she pretends.
She poured out the tea. I expect my face looked like the devil, I did not speak, I knew I was frowning angrily. A rising wind blew the curtain out and banged the window. She got up and shut it, then she threw some cedar dust on the fire from the box which it is kept in on a table near. She had seen Burton do this no doubt. I love the smell of cedar burning.
Then she came back and poured out the tea and we both drank it silently.
The room looked so comfortable and home like, with its panelling of old pitch pine, cleaned of its paint and mellowed and waxed, so that it seems like deep amber, showing up the greyish pear-wood carvings. One might have been in some room in old England of about 1699. Everything looked the setting for a love scene. The glowing lamps, apricot shaded, and the firelight, and the yellow roses everywhere, and two human beings who belonged to one another and were young, and not cold of nature, sitting there with faces of stone, and in each one's heart bitterness. Again I laughed aloud.
The mocking sound seemed to disturb my bride. She allowed her tea cup to rattle as she put it down nervously.
"Would you like me to read to you," she asked icily.
And I said "Yes."
And presently her beautiful cultivated voice was flowing along. It was an article in the Saturday Review she had picked up, and I did not take in what it was about. I was gazing into the glowing logs, and trying to see visions, and gain any inspiration of how to find a way out of this tangle of false impression. I must wait and see, and endeavor when we get more accustomed to one another—somehow to let Alathea know the truth.
When she finished the pages she stopped.
"I think he is quite right," she said, but I had not heard what the argument was, so I could only say "Yes!"
"Will it interest you going to England?" I then asked.
"I dare say."
"I have a place there you know. Shall you care to live in it after the war is over?"
"I believe it is the duty of people to live in their homes if they have inherited them as a trust."
"And I can always count upon you to do your duty."
"I hope so."
Then I exerted myself and talked to her about politics and what were my views and aims. She entered into this stiffly, and so an hour passed, but all the time I could feel that her inner self was disturbed, and more resentful and rebellious than ever. We had been two puppets making conversation all the time, neither had said anything naturally.
At last the pretense ended, and we went to our separate rooms to dress for dinner.
Burton had returned by now, and I told him of the detestable thing which had happened, at which he was much concerned.
"Best of her sort was Mam'zelle, Sir Nicholas, but I've always said they bring trouble, every one of them,—if I may make so bold!"
And as I hobbled back into the salon to meet my wife for our first dinner alone, once more I heartily agreed with him!
Alathea looked perfectly lovely when she came into the salon dressed for dinner. It is the first time I have seen her in anything pertaining to the evening. She had a gauzy tea-gown on, of a shade of blue like her eyes. Her nut brown hair was beautifully done, with the last "look" like Coralie's, showing her tiny head. Whether she likes it or no, I must give her some pearl earrings, and my mother's pearls. That will be a moment! But I had better wait a little while. Her eyes were shining with excitement or resentment, or a mixture of both. She was purely feminine. She intended to attract me I am certain, her subconscious mind did at all events, even though she would not have admitted it to herself. She was smarting still about Suzette. The situation fills her with distrust and uneasiness, but I know now, after analysing every point, when I could not sleep last night, that she is not really indifferent to me. And it is because she is not, that she is angry.
I registered a vow that I would make her love me without explaining about Suzette, fate can let her find out for herself.
I had not come to the comforting conclusion that she is not indifferent at the beginning of the evening though, so the sense of self-confidence and triumph did not uplift me then. I was still worried at the events of the afternoon.
I had troubled to put on a tail coat and white waistcoat, not a dinner jacket as usual, and had even a buttonhole of a gardenia, found by Burton for this great occasion!
I looked into her eyes with my one blue one, which is I suppose, as blue as her own. She instantly averted her glance.
"I cannot offer you my arm, milady," I said rather sarcastically, "So we will have to go in after each other."
She bowed and led the way.
The table was too beautifully decorated, and the dinner a masterpiece! while the champagne was iced to perfection, and the Burgundy a poem! The pupils of Alathea's eyes before the partridge came, were black as night. Burton discreetly marshalled Antoine out of the room each time after the dishes were handed.
"When will you get your new eye?" my wife—I like to write that!—asked in the first interval when we were alone, "and your new leg?"
"I suppose they will both be restored to me in a day or two. It will be so wonderful to walk again."
"I should think so."
Then something seemed to strike her suddenly, of how hateful it must all have been for me. Her hard expression changed and she almost whispered:
"It—will seem like a new life."
"I mean to make a new life, if you will help me. I want to get away from all the old useless days. I want to do things which are worth while."
"Shall you soon go into Parliament?"
"I suppose it will take a year or two, but we shall begin to pave the way directly we go back to England, and I hope that will be for Christmas."
She avoided looking at me. I could never catch her eye, but her adorable little profile was good enough to contemplate, the crisp curl by her ear delighted me, and another in the nape of her neck filled me with wild longings to kiss it, and the pearly skin beneath it!
I think I deserve great praise for the way I acted, for the whole thing was acting. I was cold, and as haughty and aloof as she was herself, but I used every art I knew of to draw her out and make her talk.
She is such a lady that she fell into the stride and spoke politely as if to some stranger who had taken her into dinner at a party.
At last we talked of the Duchesse, and we discussed her interesting character, such a marvel of the ancien regime!
"She is so very good and charitable," Alathea said, "and has always a twinkle in her eye which carries her through things."
"You laugh sometimes, too?" I asked with assumed surprise. "That is delightful! I adore the 'twinkle in the eye,' but I was afraid you would never unbend far enough so that we could laugh together!"
I think this offended her.
"Life would be impossible without a sense of humor, even if it is a grim one."
"Well, nothing need be grim any more, and we can both smile at the rather absurd situation between us, which, however, suits us both admirably. You will never interfere with me, or I with you."
"No—" There was a tone in this which let me feel that her thoughts had harked back to Suzette.
"The Duchesse is going to have a little tea party for us on Saturday, you know, so that you may be introduced as my wife."
Alathea became embarrassed at once.
"Will people know my real name?"
"No—we shall tell no stories, but we shall not be communicative. You will be introduced as an old English friend of the Duchesse's."
She looked at me for an instant and there was gratitude in her expression.
"Alathea, I want you to forget all about the troubles which must have clouded your life. They are all over now, and some day, perhaps you will introduce me to your mother and little sister."
"I will, of course when they come back from the South. My mother has often been so ill."
"I want you to feel that I would do anything for them. Are you sure they have all they want?"
"Indeed—yes, far more. You have given too much already."
She raised her head with that indescribable little gesture of hauteur, which becomes her so beautifully. I could read her mind. It said, "I loathe receiving anything from him, with that woman in the background!"
When we went into the salon I wondered what she would do. I did not speak. She took my crutch and shook up my cushion, taking great care not to touch me. I could not look up. I knew that a powerful electric current would pass from my eye to hers, if I did, and that she would see that I was only longing to take her to my heart.
I remained silent and gazed into the fire. She sat down quietly on the sofa at the side, so that I would have to turn my head to look at her. Thus we remained for quite five minutes, speechless. The air throbbed with emotion. I dared not move.
At last she said, "Would you care that I should read to you again, or play?"
"Play for a little." My voice was chilly. I was quite determined the iciness should come from me first, not her, for a few days.
She went to the piano, and she began the Debussy she had played that afternoon when I had first asked her to play—I never can remember its name—and when she had finished she stopped.
"What made you play that now?" I asked.
"I felt like it."
"It wrenches my nerves. What makes you feel all unrestful and rebellious and defiant, Alathea, am I not keeping the bargain?"
"Yes, of course."
"You are bored to death then?"
"No, I am wondering."
She did not answer. I could not see her without getting up out of my chair.
"Please come here," I asked in an indifferent cold voice. "You know it is so difficult for me to move."
She came back and sat down upon the sofa again. The light of the apricot lamp fell softly on her hair.
"Now tell me about what you were wondering."
Her mouth grew stubborn and she did not speak.
"It is so unlike you to do these very female things, beginning sentences and not going on. I never saw anyone so changed; once I looked upon you as the model for all that was balanced, and unlike your sex. It was I who used to feel nervous and ineffectual, now, ever since we have been engaged, you seem to be disturbed, and to have lost your serenity. Don't you think as it is the first evening that we are alone together that it would be a wise thing to try and get at each other's point of view? Tell me the truth Alathea, what has caused the alteration in you?"
Now she looked straight at me, and there was defiance in her expressive eyes.
"That is just what I was wondering about. It is true, I seem to have lost my serenity, I am self-conscious—I am conscious of you."
A delicious sensation of joy flowed through me, and the feeling of triumph began which is with me still. If she is conscious of me—!