Then, calling her dogs, she would proceed to a little farmhouse, and, sitting down under the mulberry trees, wait until the farmer's wife brought her some newly baked bread and a cup of milk, warm from the cows. Then she would remain idly there, surrounded by chickens, ducks, and great, greedy geese, which she fed, breaking the bread between her white fingers, while Duna and Bundas crouched at her feet, pricking up their ears, and watching these winged denizens of the farmyard, which Marsa forbade them to touch. Finally the Tzigana would slowly wend her way home, enter the villa, sit down before the piano, and play, with ineffable sweetness, like souvenirs of another life, the free and wandering life of her mother, the Hungarian airs of Janos Nemeth, the sad "Song of Plevna," the sparkling air of "The Little Brown Maid of Budapest," and that bitter; melancholy romance, "The World holds but One Fair Maiden," a mournful and despairing melody, which she preferred to all others, because it responded, with its tearful accents, to a particular state of her own heart.
The girl was evidently concealing some secret suffering. The bitter memory of her early years? Perhaps. Physical pain? Possibly. She had been ill some years before, and had been obliged to pass a winter at Pau. But it seemed rather some mental anxiety or torture which impelled the Tzigana to seek solitude and silence in her voluntary retreat.
The days passed thus in that villa of Maisons-Lafitte, where Tisza died. Very often, in the evening, Marsa would shut herself up in the solitude of that death-chamber, which remained just as her mother had left it. Below, General Vogotzine smoked his pipe, with a bottle of brandy for company: above, Marsa prayed.
One night she went out, and through the sombre alleys, in the tender light of the moon, made her way to the little convent in the Avenue Egle, where the blue sisters were established; those sisters whom she often met in the park, with their full robes of blue cloth, their white veils, a silver medallion and crucifix upon their breasts, and a rosary of wooden beads suspended at their girdles. The little house of the community was shut, the grating closed. The only sign of life was in the lighted windows of the chapel.
Marsa paused there, leaning her heated brow against the cold bars of iron, with a longing for death, and a terrible temptation to end all by suicide.
"Who knows?" she murmured. "Perhaps forgetfulness, deep, profound forgetfulness, lies within these walls." Forgetfulness! Marsa, then, wished to forget? What secret torture gave to her beautiful face that expression so bitter, so terrible in its agony?
She stood leaning there, gazing at the windows of the chapel. Broken words of prayers, of muttered verses and responses, reached her like the tinkling of far-off chimes, like the rustling of invisible wings. The blue sisters, behind those walls, were celebrating their vesper service.
Does prayer drive away anguish and heartrending memories?
Marsa was a Catholic, her mother having belonged to the minority of Tzigani professing the faith of Rome; and Tisza's daughter could, therefore, bury her youth and beauty in the convent of the blue sisters.
The hollow murmur of the verses and prayers, which paused, began again, and then died away in the night like sighs, attracted her, and, like the trees of the forest, gave her an impression of that peace, that deep repose, which was the longed-for dream of her soul.
But, suddenly, the Tzigana started, removed her gaze from the light streaming through the blue and crimson glass, and hurried away, crying aloud in the darkness:
"No! repose is not there. And, after all, where is repose? Only in ourselves! It can be found nowhere, if it is not in the heart!"
Then, after these hours of solitude, this longing for the cloister, this thirsting for annihilation and oblivion, Marsa would experience a desire for the dashing, false, and frivolous life of Paris. She would quit Maisons, taking with her a maid, or sometimes old Vogotzine, go to some immense hotel, like the Continental or the Grand, dine at the table d'hote, or in the restaurant, seeking everywhere bustle and noise, the antithesis of the life of shade and silence which she led amid the leafy trees of her park. She would show herself everywhere, at races, theatres, parties—as when she accepted the Baroness Dinati's invitation; and, when she became nauseated with all the artificiality of worldly life, she would return eagerly to her woods, her dogs and her solitude, and, if it were winter, would shut herself up for long months in her lonely, snow-girt house.
And was not this existence sweet and pleasant, compared with the life led by Tisza in the castle of the suburbs of Moscow?
In this solitude, in the villa of Maisons-Lafitte, Andras Zilah was again to see Marsa Laszlo. He came not once, but again and again. He was, perhaps, since the death of Prince Tchereteff, the only man General Vogotzine had seen in his niece's house, and Marsa was always strangely happy when Andras came to see her.
"Mademoiselle is very particular when Prince Zilah is coming to Maisons," said her maid to her.
"Because Prince Zilah is not a man like other men. He is a hero. In my mother's country there is no name more popular than his."
"So I have heard Count Menko say to Mademoiselle."
If it were the maid's wish to remove all happiness from her mistress's face, she had met with complete success.
At the name of Menko, Marsa's expression became dark and threatening. Prince Andras had noticed this same change in the Tzigana's face, when he was speaking to her at Baroness Dinati's.
The Prince had forgotten no detail of that first fascinating interview, at which his love for the Tzigana was born. This man, who had hardly any other desire than to end in peace a life long saddened by defeat and exile, suddenly awoke to a happy hope of a home and family joys. He was rich, alone in the world, and independent; and he was, therefore, free to choose the woman to be made his princess. No caste prejudice prevented him from giving his title to the daughter of Tisza. The Zilahs, in trying to free their country, had freed themselves from all littleness; and proud, but not vain, they bore but slight resemblance to those Magyars of whom Szechenyi, the great count, who died of despair in 1849, said: "The overweening haughtiness of my people will be their ruin."
The last of the Zilahs did not consider his pride humiliated by loving and wedding a Tzigana. Frankly, in accents of the deepest love and the most sincere devotion, Andras asked Marsa Laszlo if she would consent to become his wife. But he was terrified at the expression of anguish which passed over the pale face of the young girl.
Marsa, Princess Zilah! Like her mother, she would have refused from a Tchereteff this title of princess which Andras offered her, nay, laid at her feet with passionate tenderness. But—Princess Zilah!
She regarded with wild eyes the Prince, who stood before her, timid and with trembling lips, awaiting her reply. But, as she did not answer, he stooped over and took her hands in his.
"What is it?" he cried; for Marsa's fingers were icy.
It cost the young girl a terrible effort to prevent herself from losing consciousness.
"But speak to me, Marsa," exclaimed Andras, "do not keep me in suspense."
He had loved her now for six months, and an iron hand seemed to clutch the heart of this man, who had never known what it was to fear, at the thought that perhaps Marsa did not return his love.
He had, doubtless, believed that he had perceived in her a tender feeling toward himself which had emboldened him to ask her to be his wife. But had he been deceived? Was it only the soldier in him that had pleased Marsa? Was he about to suffer a terrible disappointment? Ah, what folly to love, and to love at forty years, a young and beautiful girl like Marsa!
Still, she made him no answer, but sat there before him like a statue, pale to the lips, her dark eyes fixed on him in a wild, horrified stare.
Then, as he pressed her, with tears in his voice, to speak, she forced her almost paralyzed tongue to utter a response which fell, cruel as a death-sentence, upon the heart of the hero:
Andras stood motionless before her in such terrible stillness that she longed to throw herself at his feet and cry out: "I love you! I love you! But your wife—no, never!"
She loved him? Yes, madly-better than that, with a deep, eternal passion, a passion solidly anchored in admiration, respect and esteem; with an unconquerable attraction toward what represented, to her harassed soul, honor without a blemish, perfect goodness in perfect courage, the immolation of a life to duty, all incarnate in one man, radiant in one illustrious name—Zilah.
And Andras himself divined something of this feeling; he felt that Marsa, despite her enigmatical refusal, cared for him in a way that was something more than friendship; he was certain of it. Then, why did she command him thus with a single word to despair? "Never!" She was not free, then? And a question, for which he immediately asked her pardon by a gesture, escaped, like the appeal of a drowning man, from his lips:
"Do you love some one else, Marsa?"
She uttered a cry.
"No! I swear to you—no!"
He urged her, then, to explain what was the meaning of her refusal, of the fright she had just shown; and, in a sort of nervous hysteria which she forced herself to control, in the midst of stifled sobs, she told him that if she could ever consent to unite herself to anyone, it would be to him, to him alone, to the hero of her country, to him whose chivalrous devotion she had admired long before she knew him, and that now—And here she stopped short, just on the brink of an avowal.
"Well, now? Now?" demanded Andras, awaiting the word which, in her overstrung condition, Marsa had almost spoken. "Now?"
But she did not speak these words which Zilah begged for with newly awakened hope. She longed to end this interview which was killing her, and in broken accents asked him to excuse her, to forgive her—but she was really ill.
"But if you are suffering, I can not, I will not leave you."
"I implore you. I need to be alone."
"At least you will permit me to come to-morrow, Marsa, and ask for your answer?"
"My answer? I have given it to you."
"No! No! I do not accept that refusal. No! you did not know what you were saying. I swear to you, Marsa, that without you life is impossible to me; all my existence is bound up in yours. You will reflect there was an accent in your voice which bade me hope. I will come again to-morrow. Tomorrow, Marsa. What you have said to-day does not count. Tomorrow, to-morrow; and remember that I adore you."
And she, shuddering at the tones of his voice, not daring to say no, and to bid him an eternal farewell, let him depart, confident, hopeful, despite the silence to which she obstinately, desperately clung. Then, when Andras was gone, at the end of her strength, she threw herself, like a mad woman, down upon the divan. Once alone, she gave way utterly, sobbing passionately, and then, suddenly ceasing, with wild eyes fixed upon vacancy, to mutter with dry, feverish lips:
"Yet—it is life he brings to me—happiness he offers me. Have I no right to be happy—I? My God! To be the wife of such a man! To love him—to devote myself to him-to make his existence one succession of happy days! To be his slave, his thing! Shall I marry him? Or—shall I kill myself? Kill myself!" with a horrible, agonizing laugh. "Yes, that is the only thing for me to do. But—but—I am a coward, now that I love him—a coward! a coward! a miserable wretch!" And she fell headlong forward, crouching upon the floor in a fierce despair, as if either life or reason was about to escape from her forever.
CHAPTER IX. "O LIBERTY! O LOVE! THESE TWO I NEED!"
When Zilah came the next day he found Marsa perfectly calm. At first he only questioned her anxiously as to her health.
"Oh! I am well," she replied, smiling a little sadly; and, turning to the piano at which she was seated, she began to play the exquisitely sad romance which was her favorite air.
"That is by Janos Nemeth, is it not?" asked the Prince.
"Yes, by Janos Nemeth. I am very fond of his music; it is so truly Hungarian in its spirit."
The music fell upon the air like sighs—like the distant tones of a bell tolling a requiem—a lament, poetic, mournful, despairing, yet ineffably sweet and tender, ending in one deep, sustained note like the last clod of earth falling upon a new-made grave.
"What is that called, Marsa?" said Andras.
She made no reply.
Rising, he looked at the title, printed in Hungarian; then, leaning over the Tzigana till his breath fanned her cheek, he murmured:
"Janos Nemeth was right. The world holds but one fair maiden."
She turned very pale, rose from the piano, and giving him her hand, said:
"It is almost a madrigal, my dear Prince, is it not? I am going to be frank with you. You love me, I know; and I also love you. Will you give me a month to reflect? A whole month?"
"My entire life belongs to you now," said the Prince. "Do with it what you will."
"Well! Then in a month I will give you your answer," she said firmly.
"But," said Andras, smiling beneath his blond moustache, "remember that I once, took for my motto the verses of Petoefi. You know well those beautiful verses of our country:
O Liberty! O Love! These two I need. My chosen meed, To give my love for Liberty, My life for Love.
"Well," he added, "do you know, at this moment the Andras Zilah of 'forty-eight would almost give liberty, that passion of his whole life, for your love, Marsa, my own Marsa, who are to me the living incarnation of my country."
Marsa was moved to the depths of her heart at hearing this man speak such words to her. The ideal of the Tzigana, as it is of most women, was loyalty united with strength. Had she ever, in her wildest flights of fancy, dreamed that she should hear one of the heroes of the war of independence, a Zilah Andras, supplicate her to bear his name?
Marsa knew Yanski Varhely. The Prince had brought him to see her at Maisons-Lafitte. She was aware that Count Varhely knew the Prince's most secret thoughts, and she was certain that Andras had confided all his hopes and his fears to his old friend.
"What do you think would become of the Prince if I should not marry him?" she asked him one day without warning.
"That is a point-blank question which I hardly expected," said Yanski, gazing at her in astonishment. "Don't you wish to become a Zilah?"
Any hesitation even seemed to him insulting, almost sacrilegious.
"I don't say that," replied the Tzigana, "but I ask you what would become of the Prince if, for one reason or another—"
"I can very easily inform you," interrupted Varhely. "The Prince, as you must be aware, is one of those men who love but once during their lives. Upon my word of honor, I believe that, if you should refuse him, he would commit some folly, some madness, something—fatal. Do you understand?"
"Ah!" ejaculated Marsa, with an icy chill in her veins.
"That is my opinion," continued Yanski, harshly. "He is wounded. It remains with you to decide whether the bullet be mortal or not."
Varhely's response must have had great weight in Marsa Laszlo's reflections, full of anguish, fever, revolt and despair as they were, during the few weeks preceding the day upon which she had promised to tell Prince Andras if she would consent to become his wife or not. It was a yes, almost as curt as another refusal, which fell at last from the lips of the Tzigana. But the Prince was not cool enough to analyze an intonation.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "I have suffered so much during these weeks of doubt; but this happiness makes amends for all."
"Do you know what Varhely said to me?" asked Marsa.
"Yes, I know."
"Well, since the Zilahs treat their love-affairs as they do their duels, and risk their whole existence, so be it! I accept. Your existence for mine! Gift for gift! I do not wish you to die!"
He did not try to understand her; but he took her burning hands between his own, and covered them with kisses. And she, with trembling lip, regarded, through her long eyelashes, the brave man who now bent before her, saying: "I love you."
Then, in that moment of infinite happiness, on the threshold of the new life which opened before her, she forgot all to think only of the reality, of the hero whose wife she was to be. His wife! So, as in a dream, without thinking, without resisting, abandoning herself to the current which bore her along, not trying to take account of time or of the future, loving, and beloved, living in a sort of charmed somnambulism, the Tzigana watched the preparations for her marriage.
The Prince, with the impatience of a youth of twenty, had urged an early day for their union. He announced his engagement to the society, at once Parisian and foreign, of which he formed a part; and this marriage of the Magyar with the Tzigana was an event in aristocratic circles. There was an aroma of chivalrous romance about this action of Prince Andras, who was rich enough and independent enough to have married, if he had wished, a shepherdess, like the kings of fairy tales.
"Isn't it perfectly charming?" exclaimed the little Baroness Dinati, enthusiastically. "Jacquemin, my dear friend, I will give you all the details of their first meeting. You can make a delicious article out of it, delicious!"
The little Baroness was almost as delighted as the Prince. Ah! what a man that Zilah was! He would give, as a wedding-gift to the Tzigana, the most beautiful diamonds in the world, those famous Zilah diamonds, which Prince Joseph had once placed disdainfully upon his hussar's uniform when he charged the Prussian cuirassiers of Ziethen, sure of escaping the sabre cuts, and not losing a single one of the stones during the combat. It was said that Marsa, until she was his wife, would not accept any jewels from the Prince. The opals in the silver agraffe were all she wanted.
"You know them, don't you, Jacquemin? The famous opals of the Tzigana? Put that all in, every word of it."
"Yes, it is chic enough." answered the reporter. "It is very romantic, a little too much so; my readers will never believe it. Never mind, though, I will write it all up in my best manner."
The fete on board the steamer, given by the Prince in honor of his betrothal, had been as much talked of as a sensational first night at the Francais, and it added decidedly to the romantic prestige of Andras Zilah. There was not a marriageable young girl who was not a little in love with him, and their mothers envied the luck of the Tzigana.
"It is astonishing how jealous the mammas are," said the Baroness, gayly. "They will make me pay dearly for having been the matchmaker; but I am proud of it, very proud. Zilah has good taste, that is all. And, as for him, I should have been in love with him myself, if I had not had my guests to attend to. Ah, society is as absorbing as a husband!"
Upon the boat, Paul Jacquemin did not leave the side of the matchmaker. He followed her everywhere. He had still to obtain a description of the bride's toilettes, the genealogy of General Vogotzine, a sketch of the bridegroom's best friend, Varhely, and a thousand other details.
"Where will the wedding take place?" he asked the Baroness.
"At Maisons-Lafitte. Oh! everything is perfect, my dear Jacquemin, perfect! An idyl! All the arrangements are exquisite, exquisite! I only wish that you had charge of the supper."
Jacquemin, general overseer of the Baroness's parties in the Rue Murillo, did not confess himself inferior to any one as an epicure. He would taste the wines, with the air of a connoisseur, holding his glass up to the light, while the liquor caressed his palate, and shutting his eyes as if more thoroughly to decide upon its merits.
"Pomard!" would slowly fall from his lips, or "Acceptable Musigny!" "This Chambertin is really very fair!" "The Chateau Yquem is not half bad!" etc., etc. And the next morning would appear in the reports, which he wrote himself under various pseudonyms: "Our compliments to our friend Jacquemin, if he had anything to do with the selection of the wines, in addition to directing the rehearsals of the Baroness's operetta, which latter work he most skilfully accomplished. Jacquemin possesses talents of all kinds; he knows how to make the best of all materials. As the proverb says, 'A good mill makes everything flour.'"
Jacquemin had already cast an eye over the menu of the Prince's fete, and declared it excellent, very correct, very pure.
The steamer was at last ready to depart, and Prince Zilah had done the honors to all his guests. It started slowly off, the flags waving coquettishly in the breeze, while the Tzigani musicians played with spirit the vibrating notes of the March of Rakoczy, that triumphant air celebrating the betrothal of Zilah, as it had long ago saluted the burial of his father.
CHAPTER X. "IS FATE SO JUST?"
"We are moving! We are off!" cried the lively little Baroness. "I hope we shan't be shipwrecked," retorted Jacquemin; and he then proceeded to draw a comical picture of possible adventures wherein figured white bears, icebergs, and death by starvation. "A subject for a novel,—'The Shipwreck of the Betrothed.'"
As they drew away from Paris, passing the quays of Passy and the taverns of Point-du-jour, tables on wooden horses were rapidly erected, and covered with snowy cloths; and soon the guests of the Prince were seated about the board, Andras between Marsa and the Baroness, and Michel Menko some distance down on the other side of the table. The pretty women and fashionably dressed men made the air resound with gayety and laughter, while the awnings flapped joyously in the wind, and the boat glided on, cutting the smooth water, in which were reflected the long shadows of the aspens and willows on the banks, and the white clouds floating in the clear sky. Every now and then a cry of admiration would be uttered at some object in the panorama moving before them, the slopes of Suresnes, the black factories of Saint-Denis with their lofty chimneys, the red-roofed villas of Asnieres, or the heights of Marly dotted with little white houses.
"Ah! how pretty it is! How charming!"
"Isn't it queer that we have never known anything about all this? It is a veritable voyage of discovery."
"Ladies and gentlemen," cried, above the other voices, Jacquemin, whom Zilah did not know, and to whom the Baroness had made him give a card of invitation, "we are now entering savage countries. It is Kamtschatka, or some such place, and there must be cannibals here."
The borders of the Seine, which were entirely fresh to them, and which recalled the pictures of the salon, were a delightful novelty to these people, accustomed to the dusty streets of the city.
Seated between the Prince and the Japanese, and opposite Varhely and General Vogotzine, the Baroness thoroughly enjoyed her breakfast. Prince Andras had not spared the Tokay—that sweet, fiery wine, of which the Hungarians say proudly: "It has the color and the price of gold;" and the liquor disappeared beneath the moustache of the Russian General as in a funnel. The little Baroness, as she sipped it with pretty little airs of an epicure, chatted with the Japanese, and, eager to increase her culinary knowledge, asked him for the receipt for a certain dish which the little yellow fellow had made her taste at a dinner given at his embassy.
"Send it to me, will you, Yamada? I will have my cook make it; nothing gives me so much pleasure as to be able to offer to my guests a new and strange dish. I will give you the receipt also, Jacquemin. Oh! it is such an odd-tasting dish! It gives you a sensation of having been poisoned."
"Like the guests in Lucrezia Borgia," laughed the Parisian Japanese.
"Do you know Lucrezia Borgia?"
"Oh, yes; they have sung it at Yokohama. Oh! we are no longer savages, Baroness, believe me. If you want ignorant barbarians, you must seek the Chinese."
The little Japanese was proud of appearing so profoundly learned in European affairs, and his gimlet eyes sought an approving glance from Paul Jacquemin or Michel Menko; but the Hungarian was neither listening to nor thinking of Yamada. He was entirely absorbed in the contemplation of Marsa; and, with lips a little compressed, he fixed a strange look upon the beautiful young girl to whom Andras was speaking, and who, very calm, almost grave, but evidently happy, answered the Prince with a sweet smile.
There was a sort of Oriental grace about Marsa, with her willowy figure, flexible as a Hindoo convolvulus, and her dark Arabian eyes fringed with their heavy lashes. Michel Menko took in all the details of her beauty, and evidently suffered, suffered cruelly, his eyes invincibly attracted toward her. In the midst of these other women, attired in robes of the last or the next fashion, of all the colors of the rainbow, Marsa, in her gown of black lace, was by far the loveliest of them all. Michel watched her every movement; but she, quiet, as if a trifle weary, spoke but little, and only in answer to the Prince and Varhely, and, when her beautiful eyes met those of Menko, she turned them away, evidently avoiding his look with as much care as he sought hers.
The breakfast over, they rose from the table, the men lighting cigars, and the ladies seeking the mirrors in the cabin to rearrange their tresses disheveled by the wind.
The boat stopped at Marly until it was time for the lock to be opened, before proceeding to Maisons-Lafitte, where Marsa was to land. Many of the passengers, with almost childish gayety, landed, and strolled about on the green bank.
Marsa was left alone, glad of the silence which reigned on the steamer after the noisy chatter of a moment ago. She leaned over the side of the boat, listening idly to the swish of the water along its sides.
Michel Menko was evidently intending to approach her, and he had made a few steps toward her, when he felt a hand laid upon his shoulder. He turned, thinking it was the Prince; but it was Yanski Varhely, who said to the young man:
"Well, my dear Count, you did right to come from London to this fete. Not only is Zilah delighted to see you, but the fantastic composition of the guests is very curious. Baroness Dinati has furnished us with an 'ollapodrida' which would have pleased her husband. There is a little of everything. Doesn't it astonish you?"
"No," said Michel. "This hybrid collection is representative of modern society. I have met almost all these faces at Nice; they are to be seen everywhere."
"To me," retorted Yanski, in his guttural voice, "these people are phenomena."
"Phenomena? Not at all. Life of to-day is so complicated that the most unexpected people and events find their place in it. You have not lived, Varhely, or you have lived only for your idol, your country, and everything amazes you. If you had, like me, wandered all over the world, you would not be astonished at anything; although, to tell the truth"—and the young man's voice became bitter, trenchant, and almost threatening—"we have only to grow old to meet with terrible surprises, very hard to bear."
As he spoke, he glanced, involuntarily perhaps, at Marsa Laszlo, leaning on the railing just below him.
"Oh! don't speak of old age before you have passed through the trials that Zilah and I have," responded Varhely. "At eighteen, Andras Zilah could have said: 'I am old.' He was in mourning at one and the same time for all his people and for our country. But you! You have grown up, my dear fellow, in happy times. Austria, loosening her clutch, has permitted you to love and serve our cause at your ease. You were born rich, you married the most charming of women"—
"That is, it is true, the sorrow of your life," continued Varhely. "It seems to me only yesterday that you lost the poor child."
"It is over two years, however," said Michel, gravely. "Two years! How time flies!"
"She was so charming," said old Yanski, not perceiving the expression of annoyance mingled with sadness which passed over the young man's face. "I knew your dear wife when she was quite small, in her father's house. He gave me an asylum at Prague, after the capitulation signed by Georgei. Although I was an Hungarian, and he a Bohemian, her father and I were great friends."
"Yes," said Menko, rapidly, "she often spoke of you, my dear Varhely. They taught her to love you, too. But," evidently seeking to turn the conversation to avoid a subject which was painful to him, "you spoke of Georgei. Ah! our generation has never known your brave hopes; and your grief, believe me, was better than our boredom. We are useless encumberers of the earth. Upon my word, it seems to me that we are unsettled, enfeebled, loving nothing and loving everything, ready to commit all sorts of follies. I envy you those days of battle, those magnificent deeds of 'forty-eight and 'forty-nine. To fight thus was to live!"
But even while he spoke, his thin face became more melancholy, and his eyes again sought the direction of Prince Andras's fiancee.
After a little more desultory conversation, he strolled away from Varhely, and gradually approached Marsa, who, her chin resting on her hand, and her eyes lowered, seemed absorbed in contemplation of the ceaseless flow of the water.
Greatly moved, pulling his moustache, and glancing with a sort of uneasiness at Prince Andras, who was promenading on the bank with the Baroness, Michel Menko paused before addressing Marsa, who had not perceived his approach, and who was evidently far away in some day-dream.
Gently, hesitatingly, and in a low voice, he at last spoke her name:
The Tzigana started as if moved by an electric shock, and, turning quickly, met the supplicating eyes of the young man.
"Marsa!" repeated Michel, in a humble tone of entreaty.
"What do you wish of me?" she said. "Why do you speak to me? You must have seen what care I have taken to avoid you."
"It is that which has wounded me to the quick. You are driving me mad. If you only knew what I am suffering!"
He spoke almost in a whisper, and very rapidly, as if he felt that seconds were worth centuries.
She answered him in a cutting, pitiless tone, harsher even than the implacable look in her dark eyes. "You suffer? Is fate so just as that? You suffer?"
Her tone and expression made Michel Menko tremble as if each syllable of these few words was a blow in the face.
"Marsa!" he exclaimed, imploringly. "Marsa!"
"My name is Marsa Laszlo; and, in a few days, I shall be Princess Zilah," responded the young girl, passing haughtily by him, "and I think you will hardly force me to make you remember it."
She uttered these words so resolutely, haughtily, almost disdainfully, and accompanied them with such a flash from her beautiful eyes that Menko instinctively bowed his head, murmuring:
But he drove his nails into the palm of his clenched hand as he saw her leave that part of the boat, and retire as far from him as she could, as if his presence were an insult to her. Tears of rage started into the young man's eyes as he watched her graceful figure resume its former posture of dreamy absorption.
CHAPTER XI. A RIVER FETE
Close alongside of the Prince's boat, waiting also for the opening of the lock, was one of those great barges which carry wood or charcoal up and down the Seine.
A whole family often lives on board these big, heavy boats. The smoke of the kitchen fire issues from a sort of wooden cabin where several human beings breathe, eat, sleep, are born and die, sometimes without hardly ever having set foot upon the land. Pots of geranium or begonia give a bit of bright color to the dingy surroundings; and the boats travel slowly along the river, impelled by enormous oars, which throw long shadows upon the water.
It was this motionless barge that Marsa was now regarding.
The hot sun, falling upon the boat, made its brown, wet sides sparkle like the brilliant wings of some gigantic scarabee; and, upon the patched, scorched deck, six or seven half-naked, sunburned children, boys and girls, played at the feet of a bundle of rags and brown flesh, which was a woman, a young woman, but prematurely old and wasted, who was nursing a little baby.
A little farther off, two men-one tough and strong, a man of thirty, whom toil had made forty, the other old, wrinkled, white-haired and with skin like leather, father and grandfather, doubtless, of the little brats beyond—were eating bread and cheese, and drinking, turn by turn, out of a bottle of wine, which they swallowed in gulps. The halt was a rest to these poor people.
As Marsa watched them, she seemed to perceive in these wanderers of the river, as in a vision, those other wanderers of the Hungarian desert, her ancestors, the Tzigani, camped in the puszta, the boundless plain, crouched down in the long grass beneath the shade of the bushes, and playing their beautiful national airs. She saw the distant fires of the bivouac of those unknown Tzigani whose daughter she was; she seemed to breathe again the air of that country she had seen but once, when upon a mournful pilgrimage; and, in the presence of that poor bargeman's wife, with her skin tanned by the sun, she thought of her dead, her cherished dead, Tisza.
Tisza! To the gipsy had doubtless been given the name of the river on the banks of which she had been born. They called the mother Tisza, in Hungary, as in Paris they called the daughter the Tzigana. And Marsa was proud of her nickname; she loved these Tzigani, whose blood flowed in her veins; sons of India, perhaps, who had descended to the valley of the Danube, and who for centuries had lived free in the open air, electing their chiefs, and having a king appointed by the Palatine—a king, who commanding beggars, bore, nevertheless, the name of Magnificent; indestructible tribes, itinerant republics, musicians playing the old airs of their nation, despite the Turkish sabre and the Austrian police; agents of patriotism and liberty, guardians of the old Hungarian honor.
These poor people, passing their lives upon the river as the Tzigani lived in the fields and hedges, seemed to Marsa like the very spectres of her race. More than the musicians with embroidered vests did the poor prisoners of the solitary barge recall to her the great proscribed family of her ancestors.
She called to the children playing upon the sunbeaten deck: "Come here, and hold up your aprons!"
They obeyed, spreading out their little tattered garments. "Catch these!" she cried.
They could not believe their eyes. From the steamer she threw down to them mandarins, grapes, ripe figs, yellow apricots, and great velvety peaches; a rain of dainties which would have surprised a gourmand: the poor little things, delighted and afraid at the same time, wondered if the lady, who gave them such beautiful fruit, was a fairy.
The mother then rose; and, coming toward Marsa to thank her, her sunburnt skin glowing a deeper red, the poor woman, with tears in her tired eyes, and a wan smile upon her pale lips, touched, surprised, happy in the pleasure of her children, murmured, faltering and confused:
"Ah! Madame! Madame! how good you are! You are too good, Madame!"
"We must share what we have!" said Marsa, with a smile. "See how happy the children are!"
"Very happy, Madame. They are not accustomed to such things. Say 'Thank you,' to the beautiful lady. Say 'Thank you,' Jean; you are the oldest. Say like this: 'Thank-you-Ma-dame.'"
"Thank-you-Ma-dame" faltered the boy, raising to Marsa big, timid eyes, which did not understand why anybody should either wish him ill or do him a kindness. And other low, sweet little voices repeated, like a refrain: "Thank-you-Ma-dame."
The two men, in astonishment, came and stood behind the children, and gazed silently at Marsa.
"And your baby, Madame?" said the Tzigana, looking at the sleeping infant, that still pressed its rosy lips to the mother's breast. "How pretty it is! Will you permit me to offer it its baptismal dress?"
"Its baptismal dress?" repeated the mother.
"Oh, Madame!" ejaculated the father, twisting his cap between his fingers.
"Or a cloak, just as you please," added Marsa.
The poor people on the barge made no reply, but looked at one another in bewilderment.
"Is it a little girl?" asked the Tzigana.
"No, Madame, no," responded the mother. "A boy."
"Come here, jean," said Marsa to the oldest child. "Yes, come here, my little man."
Jean came forward, glancing askance at his mother, as if to know whether he should obey.
"Here, jean," said the young girl, "this is for your baby brother."
And into the little joined hands of the boy, Marsa let fall a purse, through whose meshes shone yellow pieces of gold.
The people of the barge thought they were dreaming, and stood open-mouthed in amazement, while Jean cried out:
"Mamma, see, mamma! Mamma! Mamma!"
Then the younger bargeman said to Marsa:
"Madame, no, no! we can not accept. It is too much. You are too good. Give it back, Jean."
"It is true, Madame," faltered his wife. "It is impossible. It is too much."
"You will cause me great pain if you refuse to accept it," said Marsa. "Chance has brought us together for a moment, and I am superstitious. I would like to have the little children pray that those I love—that the one I love may be happy." And she turned her eyes upon Prince Andras, who had returned to the deck, and was coming toward her.
The lock was now opened.
"All aboard!" shouted the captain of the steamer.
The poor woman upon the barge tried to reach the hand of Marsa to kiss it.
"May you be happy, Madame, and thank you with all our hearts for your goodness to both big and little."
The two bargemen bowed low in great emotion, and the whole bevy of little ones blew kisses to the beautiful lady in the black dress, whom the steamer was already bearing away.
"At least tell us your name, Madame," cried the father. "Your name, that we may never forget you."
A lovely smile appeared on Marsa's lips, and, in almost melancholy accents, she said:
"My name!" Then, after a pause, proudly: "The Tzigana!"
The musicians, as she spoke, suddenly struck up one of the Hungarian airs. Then, as in a flying vision, the poor bargemen saw the steamer move farther and farther away, a long plume of smoke waving behind it.
Jacquemin, hearing one of those odd airs, which in Hungary start all feet moving and keeping time to the music, exclaimed:
"A quadrille! Let us dance a quadrille! An Hungarian quadrille!"
The poor people on the barge listened to the music, gradually growing fainter and fainter; and they would have believed that they had been dreaming, if the purse had not been there, a fortune for them, and the fruit which the children were eating. The mother, without understanding, repeated that mysterious name: "The Tzigana."
And Marsa also gazed after them, her ears caressed by the czardas of the musicians. The big barge disappeared in the distance in a luminous haze; but the Tzigana could still vaguely perceive the little beings perched upon the shoulders of the men, and waving, in sign of farewell, pieces of white cloth which their mother had given them.
A happy torpor stole over Marsa; and, while the guests of the Baroness Dinati, the Japanese Yamada, the English heiresses, the embassy attaches, all these Parisian foreigners, led by Jacquemin, the director of the gayety, were organizing a ballroom on the deck, and asking the Tzigani for polkas of Fahrbach and waltzes of Strauss, the young girl heard the voice of Andras murmur low in her ear:
"Ah! how I love you! And do you love me, Marsa?"
"I am happy," she answered, without moving, and half closing her eyes, "and, if it were necessary for me to give my life for you, I would give it gladly."
In the stern of the boat, Michel Menko watched, without seeing them, perhaps, the fields, the houses of Pecq, the villas of Saint-Germain, the long terrace below heavy masses of trees, the great plain beside Paris with Mont Valerien rising in its midst, the two towers of the Trocadero, whose gilded dome sparkled in the sun, and the bluish-black cloud which hung over the city like a thick fog.
The boat advanced very slowly, as if Prince Andras had given the order to delay as much as possible the arrival at Maisons-Lafitte, where the whole fete would end for him, as Marsa was to land there. Already, upon the horizon could be perceived the old mill, with its broad, slated roof. The steeple of Sartrouville loomed up above the red roofs of the houses and the poplars which fringe the bank of the river. A pale blue light, like a thin mist, enveloped the distant landscape.
"The dream is over," murmured Marsa.
"A far more beautiful one will soon begin," said Andras, "and that one will be the realization of what I have waited for all my life and never found—love."
Marsa turned to the Prince with a look full of passionate admiration and devotion, which told him how thoroughly his love was returned.
The quadrille had ended, and a waltz was beginning. The little Japanese, with his eternal smile, like the bronze figures of his country, was dancing with a pre-raphaelite English girl.
"How well you dance," she said.
"If we only had some favors," replied the Japanese, showing his teeth in a grin, "I would lead the cotillon."
The boat stopped at last at Maisons-Lafitte. The great trees of the park formed a heavy mass, amid which the roof of the villa was just discernible.
"What a pity it is all over," cried the Baroness, who was ruddy as a cherry with the exercise of dancing. "Let us have another; but Maisons-Lafitte is too near. We will go to Rouen the next time; or rather, I invite you all to a day fete in Paris, a game of polo, a lunch, a garden party, whatever you like. I will arrange the programme with Yamada and Jacquemin."
"Willingly," responded the Japanese, with a low bow. "To collaborate with Monsieur Jacquemin will be very amusing."
As Marsa Laszlo was leaving the boat, Michel Menko stood close to the gangway, doubtless on purpose to speak to her; and, in the confusion of landing, without any one hearing him, he breathed in her ear these brief words:
"At your house this evening. I must see you."
She gave him an icy glance. Michel Menko's eyes were at once full of tears and flames.
"I demand it!" he said, firmly.
The Tzigana made no reply; but, going to Andras Zilah, she took his arm; while Michel, as if nothing had happened, raised his hat.
General Vogotzine, with flaming face, followed his niece, muttering, as he wiped the perspiration unsteadily from his face:
"Fine day! Fine day! By Jove! But the sun was hot, though! Ah, and the wines were good!"
CHAPTER XII. A DARK PAGE
As Marsa departed with Vogotzine in the carriage which had been waiting for them on the bank, she waved her hand to Zilah with a passionate gesture, implying an infinity of trouble, sadness, and love. The Prince then returned to his guests, and the boat, which Marsa watched through the window of the carriage, departed, bearing away the dream, as she had said to Andras. During the drive home she did not say a word. By her side the General grumbled sleepily of the sun, which, the Tokay aiding, had affected his head. But, when Marsa was alone in her chamber, the cry which was wrung from her breast was a cry of sorrow, of despairing anger:
"Ah, when I think—when I think that I am envied!"
She regretted having allowed Andras to depart without having told him on the spot, the secret of her life. She would not see him again until the next day, and she felt as if she could never live through the long, dull hours. She stood at the window, wrapped in thought, gazing mechanically before her, and still hearing the voice of Michel Menko hissing like a snake in her ear. What was it this man had said? She did not dare to believe it. "I demand it!" He had said: "I demand it!" Perhaps some one standing near had heard it. "I demand it!"
Evening came. Below the window the great masses of the chestnut-trees and the lofty crests of the poplars waved in the breeze like forest plumes, their peaks touched by the sun setting in a sky of tender blue, while the shadowy twilight crept over the park where, through the branches, patches of yellow light, like golden and copper vapors, still gave evidence of the god of day.
Marsa, her heart full of a melancholy which the twilight increased, repeated over and over again, with shudders of rage and disgust, those three words which Michel Menko had hurled at her like a threat: "I demand it!" Suddenly she heard in the garden the baying of dogs, and she saw, held in check by a domestic, Duna and Bundas, bounding through the masses of flowers toward the gate, where a man appeared, whom Marsa, leaning over the balcony, recognized at once.
"The wretch!" she exclaimed between her clenched teeth. It was Menko.
He must have debarked before reaching Paris, and have come to Maisons-Lafitte in haste.
Marsa's only thought, in the first moment of anger, was to refuse to see him. "I can not," she thought, "I will not!" Then suddenly her mind changed. It was braver and more worthy of her to meet the danger face to face. She rang, and said to the domestic who answered the bell: "Show Count Menko into the little salon."
"We shall see what he will dare," muttered the Tzigana, glancing at the mirror as if to see whether she appeared to tremble before danger and an enemy.
The little salon into which the young Count was introduced was in the left wing of the villa; and it was Marsa's favorite room, because it was so quiet there. She had furnished it with rare taste, in half Byzantine and half Hindoo fashion—a long divan running along the wall, covered with gray silk striped with garnet; Persian rugs cast here and there at random; paintings by Petenkofen—Hungarian farms and battle-scenes, sentinels lost in the snow; two consoles loaded with books, reviews, and bric-a-brac; and a round table with Egyptian incrustations, covered with an India shawl, upon which were fine bronzes of Lanceray, and little jewelled daggers.
This salon communicated with a much larger one, where General Vogotzine usually took his siesta, and which Marsa abandoned to him, preferring the little room, the windows of which, framed in ivy, looked out upon the garden, with the forest in the distance.
Michel Menko was well acquainted with this little salon, where he had more than once seen Marsa seated at the piano playing her favorite airs. He remembered it all so well, and, nervously twisting his moustache, he longed for her to make her appearance. He listened for the frou-frou of Marsa's skirts on the other side of the lowered portiere which hung between the two rooms; but he heard no sound.
The General had shaken hands with Michel, as he passed through the large salon, saying, in his thick voice:
"Have you come to see Marsa? You have had enough of that water-party, then? It was very pretty; but the sun was devilish hot. My head is burning now; but it serves me right for not remaining quiet at home."
Then he raised his heavy person from the armchair he had been sitting in, and went out into the garden, saying: "I prefer to smoke in the open air; it is stifling in here." Marsa, who saw Vogotzine pass out, let him go, only too willing to have him at a distance during her interview with Michel Menko; and then she boldly entered the little salon, where the Count, who had heard her approach, was standing erect as if expecting some attack.
Marsa closed the door behind her; and, before speaking a word, the two faced each other, as if measuring the degree of hardihood each possessed. The Tzigana, opening fire first, said, bravely and without preamble:
"Well, you wished to see me. Here I am! What do you want of me?"
"To ask you frankly whether it is true, Marsa, that you are about to marry Prince Zilah."
She tried to laugh; but her laugh broke nervously off. She said, however, ironically:
"Oh! is it for that that you are here?"
"It was perfectly useless, then, for you to take the trouble: you ask me a thing which you know well, which all the world knows, which all the world must have told you, since you had the audacity to be present at that fete to-day."
"That is true," said Michel, coldly; "but I only learned it by chance. I wished to hear it from your own lips."
"Do I owe you any account of my conduct?" asked Marsa, with crushing hauteur.
He was silent a moment, strode across the room, laid his hat down upon the little table, and suddenly becoming humble, not in attitude, but in voice, said:
"Listen, Marsa: you are a hundred times right to hate me. I have deceived you, lied to you. I have conducted myself in a manner unworthy of you, unworthy of myself. But to atone for my fault—my crime, if you will—I am ready to do anything you order, to be your miserable slave, in order to obtain the pardon which I have come to ask of you, and which I will ask on my knees, if you command me to do so."
The Tzigana frowned.
"I have nothing to pardon you, nothing to command you," she said with an air more wearied than stern, humiliating, and disdainful. "I only ask you to leave me in peace, and never appear again in my life."
"So! I see that you do not understand me," said Michel, with sudden brusqueness.
"No, I acknowledge it, not in the least."
"When I asked you whether you were to marry Prince Andras, didn't you understand that I asked you also another thing: Will you marry me, me—Michel Menko?"
"You!" cried the Tzigana.
And there was in this cry, in this "You!" ejaculated with a rapid movement of recoil-amazement, fright, scorn, and anger.
"You!" she said again. And Michel Menko felt in this word a mass of bitter rancor and stifled hatred which suddenly burst its bonds.
"Yes, me!" he said, braving the insult of Marsa's cry and look. "Me, who love you, and whom you have loved!"
"Ah, don't dare to say that!" she cried, drawing close to the little table where the daggers rested amid the objects of art. "Don't be vile enough to speak to me of a past of which nothing remains to me but disgust! Let not one word which recalls it to me mount to your lips, not one, you understand, or I will kill you like the coward you are!"
"Do so, Marsa!" he cried with wild, mad passion. "I should die by your hand, and you would not marry that man!"
Afraid of herself, wresting her eyes from the glittering daggers, she threw herself upon the divan, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and watched, with the look of a tigress, Michel, who said to her now, in a voice which trembled with the tension of his feelings: "You must know well, Marsa, that death is not the thing that can frighten a man like me! What does frighten me is that, having lost you once, I may lose you forever; to know that another will be your husband, will love you, will receive your kisses. The very idea that that is possible drives me insane. I feel myself capable of any deed of madness to prevent it. Marsa! Marsa! You did love me once!"
"I love honor, truth, justice," said Marsa, sternly and implacably. "I thought I loved you; but I never did."
"You did not love me?" he said.
This cruel recalling of the past, which was the remorse of her life, was like touching her flesh with a red-hot iron.
"No, no, no! I did not love you! I repeat, I thought I loved you. What did I know of life when I met you? I was suffering, ill; I thought myself dying, and I never heard a word of pity fall from any other lips than yours. I thought you were a man of honor. You were only a wretch. You deceived me; you represented yourself to me as free—and you were married. Weakly—oh, I could kill myself at the very thought!—I listened to you! I took for love the trite phrases you had used to dozens of other women; half by violence, half by ruse, you became my lover. I do not know when—I do not know how. I try to forget that horrible dream; and when, deluded by you, thinking that what I felt for you was love, for I did think so, I imagined that I had given myself for life to a man worthy of the deepest devotion, ready for all sacrifices for me, as I felt myself to be for him; when you had taken me, body and soul, I learn by what? by a trifling conversation, by a chance, in a crowded ballroom—that, this Michel Menko, whose name I was to bear, who was to be my husband; this Count Menko, this man of honor, the one in whom I believed blindly, was married! Married at Vienna, and had already given away the name on which he traded! Oh, it is hideous!" And the Tzigana, whose whole body was shuddering with horror, recoiled instinctively to the edge of the divan as at the approach of some detested contact.
Michel, his face pale and convulsed, had listened to her with bowed head.
"All that you say is the truth, Marsa; but I will give my life, my whole life, to expiate that lie!"
"There are infamies which are never effaced. There is no pardon for him who has no excuse."
"No excuse? Yes, Marsa; I have one! I have one: I loved you!"
"And because you loved me, was it necessary for you to betray me, lie to me, ruin me?"
"What could I do? I did not love the woman I had married; you dawned on me like a beautiful vision; I wished, hoping I know not what impossible future, to be near you, to make you love me, and I did not dare to confess that I was not free. If I lied to you, it was because I trembled at not being able to surround you with my devotion; it was because I was afraid to lose your love, knowing that the adoration I had for you would never die till my heart was cold and dead! Upon all that is most sacred, I swear this to you! I swear it!"
He then recalled to her, while she sat rigid and motionless with an expression of contempt and disdain upon her beautiful, proud lips, their first meetings; that evening at Lady Brolway's, in Pau, where he had met her for the first time; their conversation; the ineffaceable impression produced upon him by her beauty; that winter season; the walks they had taken together beneath the trees, which not a breath of wind stirred; their excursions in the purple and gold valleys, with the Pyrenees in the distance crowned with eternal snow. Did she not remember their long talks upon the terrace, the evenings which felt like spring, and that day when she had been nearly killed by a runaway horse, and he had seized the animal by the bridle and saved her life? Yes, he had loved her, loved her well; and it was because, possessing her love, he feared, like a second Adam, to see himself driven out of paradise, that he had hidden from Marsa the truth. If she had questioned one of the Hungarians or Viennese, who were living at Pau, she could doubtless have known that Count Menko, the first secretary of the embassy of Austria-Hungary at Paris, had married the heiress of one of the richest families of Prague; a pretty but unintelligent girl, not understanding at all the character of her husband; detesting Vienna and Paris, and gradually exacting from Menko that he should live at Prague, near her family, whose ancient ideas and prejudices and inordinate love of money displeased the young Hungarian. He was left free to act as he pleased; his wife would willingly give up a part of her dowry to regain her independence. It was only just, she said insolently, that, having been mistaken as to the tastes of the man she had married for reasons of convenience rather than of inclination, she should pay for her stupidity. Pay! The word made the blood mount to Menko's face. If he had not been rich, as he was, he would have hewn stone to gain his daily bread rather than touch a penny of her money. He shook off the yoke the obstinate daughter of the Bohemian gentleman would have imposed upon him, and departed, brusquely breaking a union in which both husband and wife so terribly perceived their error.
Marsa might have known of all this if she had, for a moment, doubted Menko's word. But how was she to suspect that the young Count was capable of a lie or of concealing such a secret? Besides, she knew hardly any one at Pau, as her physicians had forbidden her any excitement; at the foot of the Pyrenees, she lived, as at Maisons-Lafitte, an almost solitary life; and Michel Menko had been during that winter, which he now recalled to Marsa, speaking of it as of a lost Eden, her sole companion, the only guest of the house she inhabited with Vogotzine in the neighborhood of the castle.
Poor Marsa, enthusiastic, inexperienced, her heart enamored with chivalrous audacity, intrepid courage, all the many virtues which were those of Hungary herself; Marsa, her mind imbued from her infancy with the almost fantastic recitals of the war of independence, and later, with her readings and reflections; Marsa, full of the stories of the heroic past-must necessarily have been the dupe of the first being who, coming into her life, was the personal representative of the bravery and charm of her race. So, when she encountered one day Michel Menko, she was invincibly attracted toward him by something proud, brave, and chivalrous, which was characteristic of the manly beauty of the young Hungarian. She was then twenty, very ignorant of life, her great Oriental eyes seeing nothing of stern reality; but, with all her gentleness, there was a species of Muscovite firmness which was betrayed in the contour of her red lips. It was in vain that sorrow had early made her a woman; Marsa remained ignorant of the world, without any other guide than Vogotzine; suffering and languid, she was fatally at the mercy of the first lie which should caress her ear and stir her heart. From the first, therefore, she had loved Michel; she had, as she herself said, believed that she loved him with a love which would never end, a very ingenuous love, having neither the silliness of a girl who has just left the convent, nor the knowledge of a Parisienne whom the theatre and the newspapers have instructed in all things. Michel, then, could give to this virgin and pliable mind whatever bent he chose; and Marsa, pure as the snow and brave as her own favorite heroes, became his without resistance, being incapable of divining a treachery or fearing a lie. Michel Menko, moreover, loved her madly; and he thought only of winning and keeping the love of this incomparable maiden, exquisite in her combined gentleness and pride. The folly of love mounted to his brain like intoxication, and communicated itself to the poor girl who believed in him as if he were the living faith; and, in the madness of his passion, Michel, without being a coward, committed a cowardly action.
No: a coward he certainly was not. He was one of those nervous natures, as prompt to hope as to despair, going to all extremes, at times foolishly gay, and at others as grave and melancholy as Hamlet. There were days when Menko did not value his life at a penny, and when he asked himself seriously if suicide were not the simplest means to reach the end; and again, at the least ray of sunshine, he became sanguine and hopeful to excess. Of undoubted courage, he would have faced the muzzle of a loaded cannon out of mere bravado, at the same time wondering, with a sarcastic smile upon his lips, 'Cui bono'?
He sometimes called heroism a trick; and yet, in everyday life, he had not much regard for tricksters. Excessively fond of movement, activity, and excitement, he yet counted among his happiest days those spent in long meditations and inactive dreams. He was a strange combination of faults and good qualities, without egregious vices, but all his virtues capable of being annihilated by passion, anger, jealousy, or grief. With such a nature, everything was possible: the sublimity of devotion, or a fall into the lowest infamy. He often said, in self-analysis: "I am afraid of myself." In short, his strength was like a house built upon sand; all, in a day, might crumble.
"If I had to choose the man I should prefer to be," he said once, "I would be Prince Andras Zilah, because he knows neither my useless discouragements, apropos of everything and nothing, nor my childish delights, nor my hesitations, nor my confidence, which at times approaches folly as my misanthropy approaches injustice; and because, in my opinion, the supreme virtue in a man is firmness."
The Zilahs were connected by blood with the Menkos, and Prince Andras was very fond of this young man, who promised to Hungary one of those diplomats capable of wielding at once the pen and the sword, and who in case of war, before drawing up a protocol, would have dictated its terms, sabre in hand. Michel indeed stood high with his chief in the embassy, and he was very much sought after in society. Before the day he met Marsa, he had, to tell the truth, only experienced the most trivial love-affairs.
He did not speak of his wife at Pau any more than he did on the boulevards. She lived far away, in the old city of Prague, and troubled Michel no more than if she had never existed. Perhaps he had forgotten, really forgotten, with that faculty of forgetfulness which belongs to the imaginative, that he was married, when he encountered Marsa, the candid, pure-hearted girl, who did not reflect nor calculate, but simply believed that she had met a man of honor.
So, what sudden revolt, humiliation, and hatred did the poor child feel when she learned that the man in whom she had believed as in a god had deceived her, lied to her! He was married. He had treated her as the lowest of women; perhaps he had never even loved her! The very thought made her long to kill herself, or him, or both. She, unhappy, miserable woman, was ruined, ruined forever!
She had certainly never stopped to think where the love she had for Michel would lead her. She thought of nothing except that Michel was hers, and she was his, and she believed that their love would last forever. She did not think that she had long to live, and her existence seemed to her only a breath which any moment might cease. Why had she not died before she knew that Menko had lied?
All deception seemed hideous to Marsa Laszlo, and this hideousness she had discovered in the man to whom she had given herself, believing in the eternity as well as in the loyalty of his love.
It was at a ball, at the English embassy, after her return from Pau, that, while smiling and happy, she overheard between two Viennese, strangers to her, this short dialogue, every word of which was like a knife in her heart: "What a charming fellow that Menko is!" "Yes; is his wife ugly or a humpback? or is he jealous as Othello? She is never seen." "His wife! Is he married?" "Yes: he married a Blavka, the daughter of Angel Blavka, of Prague. Didn't you know it?"
Marsa felt her head reel, and the sudden glance she cast at the speakers silenced, almost terrified them. Half insane, she reached home, she never knew how. The next day Michel Menko presented himself at her apartments in the hotel where she was living; she ordered him out of her presence, not allowing him to offer any excuse or explanation.
"You are married, and you are a coward!"
He threw himself at her knees, and implored her to listen to him.
"But our love, Marsa? For I love you, and you love me."
"I hate and scorn you. My love is dead. You have killed it. All is over. Go! And let me never know that there exists a Michel Menko in the world! Never! Never! Never!"
He felt his own cowardice and shame, and he disappeared, not daring again to see the woman whose love haunted him, and who shut herself away from the world more obstinately than ever. She left Paris, and in the solitude of Maisons-Lafitte lived the life of a recluse, while Michel tried in vain to forget the bitterness of his loss. The Tzigana hoped that she was going to die, and bear away with her forever the secret of her betrayal. But no; science had been mistaken; the poor girl was destined to live. In spite of her sorrow and anguish, her beauty blossomed in the shade, and she seemed each day to grow more lovely, while her heart became more sad, and her despair more poignant.
Then death, which would not take Marsa, came to another, and gave Menko an opportunity to repair and efface all. He learned that his wife had died suddenly at Prague, of a malady of the heart. This death, which freed him, produced a strange effect upon him, not unmingled with remorse. Poor woman! She had worthily borne his name, after all. Unintelligent, cold, and wrapped up in her money, she had never understood him; but, perhaps, if he had been more patient, things might have gone better between them.
But no; Marsa was his one, his never-to-be-forgotten love. As soon as he heard of his freedom, he wrote her a letter, telling her that he was able now to dispose of his future as he would, imploring her to pardon him, offering her not his love, since she repelled it, but his name, which was her right—a debt of honor which he wished her to acquit with the devotion of his life. Marsa answered simply with these words: "I will never bear the name of a man I despise."
The wound made in her heart by Menko's lie was incurable; the Tzigana would never forgive. He tried to see her again, confident that, if he should be face to face with her, he could find words to awaken the past and make it live again; but she obstinately refused to see him, and, as she did not go into society, he never met her. Then he cast himself, with a sort of frenzy, into the dissipation of Paris, trying to forget, to forget at any cost: failing in this, he resigned his position at the embassy, and went away to seek adventure, going to fight in the Balkans against the Russians, only to return weary and bored as he had departed, always invincibly and eternally haunted by the image of Marsa, an image sad as a lost love, and grave as remorse.
CHAPTER XIII. "MY LETTERS OR MYSELF"
It was that past, that terrible past, which Michel Menko had dared to come and speak of to the Tzigana. At first, she had grown crimson with anger, as if at an insult; now, by a sudden opposite sentiment, as she listened to him recalling those days, she felt an impression of deadly pain as if an old wound had been reopened. Was it true that all this had ever existed? Was it possible, even?
The man who had been her lover was speaking to her; he was speaking to her of his love; and, if the terrible agony of memory had not burned in her heart, she would have wondered whether this man before her, this sort of stranger, had ever even touched her hand.
She waited, with the idle curiosity of a spectator who had no share in the drama, for the end of Menko's odious argument: "I lied because I loved you!"
He returned again and again, in the belief that women easily forgive the ill-doing of which they are the cause, to that specious plea, and Marsa asked herself, in amazement, what aberration had possession of this man that he should even pretend to excuse his infamy thus.
"And is that," she said at last, "all that you have to say to me? According to you, the thief has only to cry 'What could I do? I loved that money, and so I stole it.' Ah," rising abruptly, "this interview has lasted too long! Good-evening!"
She walked steadily toward the door; but Michel, hastening round the other side of the table, barred her exit, speaking in a suppliant tone, in which, however, there was a hidden threat:
"Marsa! Marsa, I implore you, do not marry Prince Andras! Do not marry him if you do not wish some horrible tragedy to happen to you and me!"
"Really?" she retorted. "Do I understand that it is you who now threaten to kill me?"
"I do not threaten; I entreat, Marsa. But you know all that there is in me at times of madness and folly. I am almost insane: you know it well. Have pity upon me! I love you as no woman was ever loved before; I live only in you; and, if you should give yourself to another—"
"Ah!" she said, interrupting him with a haughty gesture, "you speak to me as if you had a right to dictate my actions. I have given you my forgetfulness after giving you my love. That is enough, I think. Leave me!"
"I have hoped for a long time that I was forever delivered from your presence. I commanded you to disappear. Why have you returned?"
"Because, after I saw you one evening at Baroness Dinati's (do you remember? you spoke to the Prince for the first time that evening), I learned, in London, of this marriage. If I have consented to live away from you previously, it was because, although you were no longer mine, you at least were no one else's; but I will not—pardon me, I can not—endure the thought that your beauty, your grace, will be another's. Think of the self-restraint I have placed upon myself! Although living in Paris, I have not tried to see you again, Marsa, since you drove me from your presence; it was by chance that I met you at the Baroness's; but now—"
"It is another woman you have before you. A woman who ignores that she has listened to your supplications, yielded to your prayers. It is a woman who has forgotten you, who does not even know that a wretch has abused her ignorance and her confidence, and who loves—who loves as one loves for the first time, with a pure and holy devotion, the man whose name she is to bear."
"That man I respect as honor itself. Had it been another, I should already have struck him in the face. But you who accuse me of having lied, are you going to lie to him, to him?"
Marsa became livid, and her eyes, hollow as those of a person sick to death, flamed in the black circles which surrounded them.
"I have no answer to make to one who has no right to question me," she said. "But, should I have to pay with my life for the moment of happiness I should feel in placing my hand in the hand of a hero, I would grasp that moment!"
"Then," cried Menko, "you wish to push me to extremities! And yet I have told you there are certain hours of feverish insanity in which I am capable of committing a crime."
"I do not doubt it," replied the young girl, coldly. "But, in fact, you have already done that. There is no crime lower than that of treachery."
"There is one more terrible," retorted Michel Menko. "I have told you that I loved you. I love you a hundred times more now than ever before. Jealousy, anger, whatever sentiment you choose to call it, makes my blood like fire in my veins! I see you again as you were. I feel your kisses on my lips. I love you madly, passionately! Do you understand, Marsa? Do you understand?" and he approached with outstretched hands the Tzigana, whose frame was shaken with indignant anger. "Do you understand? I love you still. I was your lover, and I will, I will be so again."
"Ah, miserable coward!" cried the Tzigana, with a rapid glance toward the daggers, before which stood Menko, preventing her from advancing, and regarding her with eyes which burned with reckless passion, wounded self-love, and torturing jealousy. "Yes, coward!" she repeated, "coward, coward to dare to taunt me with an infamous past and speak of a still more infamous future!"
"I love you!" exclaimed Menko again.
"Go!" she cried, crushing him with look and gesture. "Go! I order you out of my presence, lackey! Go!"
All the spirit of the daughters of the puszta, the violent pride of her Hungarian blood, flashed from her eyes; and Menko, fascinated, gazed at her as if turned to stone, as she stood there magnificent in her anger, superb in her contempt.
"Yes, I will go to-day," he said at last, "but tomorrow night I shall come again, Marsa. As my dearest treasure, I have preserved the key of that gate I opened once to meet you who were waiting for me in the shadow of the trees. Have you forgotten that, also? You say you have forgotten all."
And as he spoke, she saw again the long alley behind the villa, ending in a small gate which, one evening after the return from Pau, Michel opened, and came, as he said, to meet her waiting for him. It was true. Yes, it was true. Menko did not lie this time! She had waited for him there, two years before, unhappy girl that she was! All that hideous love she had believed lay buried in Pau as in a tomb.
"Listen, Marsa," continued Menko, suddenly recovering, by a strong effort of the will, his coolness, "I must see you once again, have one more opportunity to plead my cause. The letters you wrote to me, those dear letters which I have covered with my kisses and blistered with my tears, those letters which I have kept despite your prayers and your commands, those letters which have been my only consolation—I will bring them to you to-morrow night. Do you understand me?"
Her great eyes fixed, and her lips trembling horribly, Marsa made no reply.
"Do you understand me, Marsa?" he repeated, imploring and threatening at once.
"Yes," she murmured at last.
She paused a moment; then a broken, feverish laugh burst from her lips, and she continued, with stinging irony:
"Either my letters or myself! It is a bargain pure and simple! Such a proposition has been made once before—it is historical—you probably remember it. In that case, the woman killed herself. I shall act otherwise, believe me!"
There was in her icy tones a threat, which gave pleasure to Michel Menko. He vaguely divined a danger. "You mean?" he asked.
"I mean, you must never again appear before me. You must go to London, to America; I don't care where. You must be dead to the one you have cowardly betrayed. You must burn or keep those letters, it little matters to me which; but you must still be honorable enough not to use them as a weapon against me. This interview, which wearies more than it angers me, must be the last. You must leave me to my sorrows or my joys, without imagining that you could ever have anything in common with a woman who despises you. You have crossed the threshold of this house for the last time. Or, if not—Ah! if not—I swear to you that I have energy enough and resolution enough to defend myself alone, and alone to punish you! In your turn, you understand me, I imagine?"
"Certainly," said Michel. "But you are too imprudent, Marsa. I am not a man to make recoil by speaking of danger. Through the gate, or over the wall if the gate is barricaded, I shall come to you again, and you will have to listen to me."
The lip of the Tzigana curled disdainfully.
"I shall not even change the lock of that gate, and besides, the large gate of the garden remains open these summer nights. You see that you have only to come. But I warn you neither to unlock the one nor to pass through the other. It is not I whom you will find at the rendezvous."
"Still, I am sure that it would be you, blarsa, if I should tell you that to-morrow evening I shall be under the window of the pavilion at the end of the garden, and that you must meet me there to receive from my hand your letters, all your letters, which I shall bring you."
"Do you think so?"
"I am certain of it."
"Because you will reflect."
"I have had time to reflect. Give me another reason."
"Another reason is that you can not afford to leave such proofs in my hands. I assure you that it would be folly to make of a man like me, who would willingly die for you, an open and implacable enemy."
"I understand. A man like you would die willingly for a woman, but he insults and threatens her, like the vilest of men, with a punishment more cruel than death itself. Well! it matters little to me. I shall not be in the pavilion where you have spoken to me of your love, and I will have it torn down and the debris of it burned within three days. I shall not await you. I shall never see you again. I do not fear you. And I leave you the right of doing with those letters what you please!"
Then, surveying him from head to foot, as if to measure the degree of audacity to which he could attain, "Adieu!" she said.
"Au revoir!" he rejoined coldly, giving to the salutation an emphasis full of hidden meaning.
The Tzigana stretched out her hand, and pulled a silken bellcord.
A servant appeared.
"Show this gentleman out," she said, very quietly.
CHAPTER XIV. "HAVE I THE RIGHT TO LIE?"
Then the Tzigana,'s romance, in which she had put all her faith and her belief, had ended, like a bad dream, she said to herself: "My life is over!"
What remained to her? Expiation? Forgetfulness?
She thought of the cloister and the life of prayer of those blue sisters she saw under the trees of Maisons-Lafitte. She lived in the solitude of her villa, remaining there during the winter in a melancholy tete-a-tete with old Vogotzine, who was always more or less under the effect of liquor. Then, as death would not take her, she gradually began to go into Parisian society, slowly forgetting the past, and the folly which she had taken for love little by little faded mistily away. It was like a recovery from an illness, or the disappearance of a nightmare in the dawn of morning. Now, Marsa Laszlo, who, two years before, had longed for annihilation and death, occasionally thought the little Baroness Dinati right when she said, in her laughing voice: "What are you thinking of, my dear child? Is it well for a girl of your age to bury herself voluntarily and avoid society?" She was then twenty-four: in three or four years she had aged mentally ten; but her beautiful oval face had remained unchanged, with the purity of outline of a Byzantine Madonna.
Then—life has its awakenings—she met Prince Andras: all her admirations as a girl, her worship of patriotism and heroism, flamed forth anew; her heart, which she had thought dead, throbbed, as it had never throbbed before, at the sound of the voice of this man, truly loyal, strong and gentle, and who was (she knew it well, the unhappy girl!) the being for whom she was created, the ideal of her dreams. She loved him silently, but with a deep and eternal passion; she loved him without saying to herself that she no longer had any right to love. Did she even think of her past? Does one longer think of the storm when the wind has driven off the heavy, tear-laden clouds, and the thunder has died away in the distance? It seemed to her now that she had never had but one name in her heart, and upon her lips—Zilah.
And then this man, this hero, her hero, asked her hand, and said to her, "I love you."
Andras loved her! With what a terrible contraction of the heart did she put to herself the formidable question: "Have I the right to lie? Shall I have the courage to confess?"
She held in her grasp the most perfect happiness a woman could hope for, the dream of her whole life; and, because a worthless scoundrel had deceived her, because there were, in her past, hours which she remembered only to curse, effaced hours, hours which appeared to her now never to have existed, was she obliged to ruin her life, to break her heart, and, herself the victim, to pay for the lie uttered by a coward? Was it right? Was it just? Was she to be forever bound to that past, like a corpse to its grave? What! She had no longer the right to love? no longer the right to live?
She adored Andras; she would have given her life for him. And he also loved her; she was the first woman who had ever touched his heart. He had evidently felt himself isolated, with his old chivalrous ideas, in a world devoted to the worship of low things, tangible successes, and profitable realities. He was, so to speak, a living anachronism in the midst of a society which had faith in nothing except victorious brutalities, and which marched on, crushing, beneath its iron-shod heels, the hopes and visions of the enthusiastic. He recalled those evenings after a battle when, in the woods reddened by the setting sun, his father and Varhely said to him: "Let us remain to the last, and protect the retreat!" And it seemed to him that, amid the bestialities of the moment and the vulgarities of the century, he still protected the retreat of misunderstood virtues and generous enthusiasms; and it pleased him to be the rear guard of chivalry in defeat.
He shut himself up obstinately in his isolation, like Marsa in her solitude; and he did not consider himself ridiculously absurd or foolishly romantic, when he remembered that his countrymen, the Hungarians, were the only people, perhaps, who, in the abasement of all Europe before the brutality of triumph and omnipotent pessimism, had preserved their traditions of idealism, chivalry, and faith in the old honor; the Hungarian nationality was also the only one which had conquered its conquerors by its virtues, its persistence in its hopes, its courage, its contempt of all baseness, its extraordinary heroism, and had finally imposed its law upon Austria, bearing away the old empire as on the croup of its horse toward the vast plains of liberty. The ideal would, therefore, have its moments of victory: an entire people proved it in history.
"Let this world boast," said Andras, "of the delights of its villainy, and grovel in all that is low and base. Life is not worth living unless the air one breathes is pure and free! Man is not the brother of swine!"
And these same ideas, this same faith, this same dreamy nature and longing for all that is generous and brave, he suddenly found again in the heart of Marsa. She represented to him a new and happy existence. Yes, he thought, she would render him happy; she would understand him, aid him, surround him with the fondest love that man could desire. And she, also, thinking of him, felt herself capable of any sacrifice. Who could tell? Perhaps the day would come when it would be necessary to fight again; then she would follow him, and interpose her breast between him and the balls. What happiness to die in saving him! But, no, no! To live loving him, making him happy, was her duty now; and was it necessary to renounce this delight because hated kisses had once soiled her lips? No, she could not! And yet—and yet, strict honor whispered to Marsa, that she should say No to the Prince; she had no right to his love.
But, if she should reject Andras, he would die, Varhely had said it. She would then slay two beings, Andras and herself, with a single word. She! She did not count! But he! And yet she must speak. But why speak? Was it really true that she had ever loved another? Who was it? The one whom she worshipped with all her heart, with all the fibres of her being, was Andras! Oh, to be free to love him! Marsa's sole hope and thought were now to win, some day, forgiveness for having said nothing by the most absolute devotion that man had ever encountered. Thinking continually these same thoughts, always putting off taking a decision till the morrow, fearing to break both his heart and hers, the Tzigana let the time slip by until the day came when the fete in celebration of her betrothal was to take place. And on that very day Michel Menko appeared before her, not abashed, but threatening. Her dream of happiness ended in this reality—Menko saying: "You have been mine; you shall be mine again, or you are lost!"