Karloff came around to music. The dramatist's wife should play Tosti's _Av_aria_ , Miss Annesley should play the obligato on the violin and the prima- donna should sing; but just at present the dramatist should tell them al_bout his new military play which was to be produced in December.
"Count, I beg to decline," laughed the dramatist. "I should hardly dare t_ell my plot before two such military experts as we have here. I should b_old to write the play all over again, and now it is too late."
Whenever Betty's glance fell on her father's face, the gladness in her own wa_omewhat dimmed. What was making that loved face so care- worn, the mind s_istless, the attitude so weary? But she was young; the spirits of youth neve_low long in one direction. The repartee, brilliant and at the same time wit_very sting withdrawn, flashed up and down the table like so many fireflies o_ wet lawn in July, and drew her irresistibly.
As the courses came and passed, so the conversation became less and les_eneral; and by the time the ices were served the colonel had engaged hi_ost, and the others divided into twos. Then coffee, liqueurs and cigars, whe_he ladies rose and trailed into the little Turkish room, where the
"distinguished-looking butler" supplied them with the amber juice.
A dinner is a function where everybody talks and nobody eats. Some have eate_efore they come, some wish they had, and others dare not eat for fear o_osing some of the gossip. I may be wrong, but I believe that half of thes_istless appetites are due to the natural confusion of forks.
After the liqueurs my butler concluded that his labor was done, and he offere_p a short prayer of thankfulness and relief. Heavens, what mad, fantasti_mpulses had seized him while he was passing the soup! Supposing he _had_pilled the hot liquid down Karloff's back, or poured out a glass of burgund_or himself and drained it before them all, or slapped his late colonel on th_ack and asked him the state of his liver? It was maddening, and he marvele_t his escape. There hadn't been a real mishap. The colonel had only scowle_t him; he was safe. He passed secretly from the house and hung around th_ow-window which let out on the low balcony. The window was open, an_ccasionally he could hear a voice from beyond the room, which was dark.
It was one of those nights, those mild November nights, to which the novelist_f the old regime used to devote a whole page; the silvery pallor on th_andscape, the moon-mists, the round, white, inevitable moon, the stirrin_reezes, the murmur of the few remaining leaves, and all that. But these bus_ays we have not the time to read nor the inclination to describe.
Suddenly upon the stillness of the night the splendor of a human voice brok_orth; the prima-donna was trying her voice. A violin wailed a note. A han_an up and down the keys of the piano. Warburton held his breath and waited.
He had heard Tosti's _Ave Maria_ many times, but he never will forget th_anner in which it was sung that night. The songstress was care-free and amon_ersons she knew and liked, and she put her soul into that magnificent an_ysterious throat of hers, And throbbing all through the song was the vibrant, loving voice of the violin. And when the human tones died away and th_nstruments ceased to speak, Warburton felt himself swallowing rapidly. The_ame Schumann's _Traumerei_ on the strings, Handel's _Largo_ , Grieg'_Papillon_ , and a _ballade_ by Chaminade. Then again sang the prima-donna; old folksy songs, sketches from the operas grand and light, _Faust_ , _Th_arber of Seville_ , _La Fille de Madame Angot_. In all his days Warburton ha_ever heard such music. Doubtless he _had_ —even better; only at this perio_e was in love. The imagination of love's young dream is the most stretchabl_hing I know of. Seriously, however, he was a very good judge of music, and _m convinced that what he heard was out of the ordinary.
But I must guide my story into the channel proper.
During the music Karloff and Colonel Annesley drifted into the latter's study.
What passed between them I gathered from bits recently dropped by Warburton.
"Good God, Karloff, what a net you have sprung about me!" said the colonel, despairingly.
"My dear Colonel, you have only to step out of it. It is the eleventh hour; i_s not too late." But Karloff watched the colonel eagerly.
"How in God's name can I step out of it?"
"Simply reimburse me for that twenty thousand I advanced to you in good faith, and nothing more need be said." The count's Slavonic eyes were half-lidded.
"To give you back that amount will leave me a beggar, an absolute beggar, without a roof to shelter me. I am too old for the service, and besides, I a_hysically incapacitated. If you should force me, I could not meet my not_ave by selling the house my child was born in. Have you discounted it?"
"No. Why should I present it at the bank? It does not mature till next Monday, and I am in no need of money."
"What a wretch I am!"
Karloff raised his shoulders resignedly.
"Or my ducats," whimsically quoted the count. "Come, Colonel; do not wast_ime in useless retrospection. He stumbles who looks back. I have bee_hinking of your daughter. I love her, deeply, eternally."
"You love her?"
"Yes. I love her because she appeals to all that is young and good in me; because she represents the highest type of womanhood. With her as my wife, why, I should be willing to renounce my country, and your indebtedness woul_e crossed out of existence with one stroke of the pen."
The colonel's haggard face grew light with sudden hopefulness.
"I have been," the count went on, studying the ash of his cigar, "till thi_ight what the world and my own conscience consider an honorable man. I hav_ever wronged a man or woman personally. What I have done on the order of dut_oes not agitate my conscience. I am simply a machine. The mora_esponsibility rests with my czar. When I saw your daughter, I deepl_egretted that you were her father."
The colonel grew rigid in his chair.
"Do not misunderstand me. Before I saw her, you were but the key to what _esired. As her father the matter took on a personal side. I could not ver_onscientiously make love to your daughter and at the same time—" Karloff lef_he sentence incomplete.
"And Betty?"—in half a whisper.
"Has refused me,"—quietly. "But I have not given her up; no, I have not give_er up."
"What do you mean to do?"
Karloff got up and walked about the room. "Make her my wife,"— simply. H_tooped and studied the titles of some of the books in the cases. He turned t_ind that the colonel had risen and was facing him with flaming eyes.
"I demand to know how you intend to accomplish this end," the colonel said.
"My daughter shall not be dragged into this trap."
"To-morrow night I will explain everything; to-night, nothing,"— imperturbably.
"Karloff, to-night I stand a ruined and dishonored man. My head, once held s_roudly before my fellow-men, is bowed with shame. The country I have fough_nd bled for I have in part betrayed. But not for my gain, not for my gain.
No, no! Thank God that I can say that! Personal greed has not tainted me.
Alone, I should have gone serenely into some poor house and eked out a_xistence on my half-pay. But this child of mine, whom I love doubly, for he_other's sake and her own,—I would gladly cut off both arms to spare her _ingle pain, to keep her in the luxury which she still believes rightfully t_e hers. When the fever of gaming possessed me, I should have told her. I di_ot; therein lies my mistake, the mistake which has brought me to thi_orrible end. Virginius sacrificed his child to save her; I will sacrifice m_onor to save mine from poverty. Force her to wed a man she does not love? No.
To-morrow night we shall complete this disgraceful bargain. The plans are al_inished but one. Now leave me; I wish to be alone."
"Sir, it is my deep regret—"
"Go; there is nothing more to be said."
Karloff withdrew. He went soberly. There was nothing sneering nor contemptuou_n his attitude. Indeed, there was a frown of pity on his face. He recognize_hat circumstances had dragged down a noble man; that chance had tricked hi_f his honor. How he hated his own evil plan! He squared his shoulders, determined once more to put it to the touch to win or lose it all.
He found her at the bow-window, staring up at the moon. As I remarked, thi_oom was dark, and she did not instantly recognize him.
"I am moon-gazing," she said.
"Let me sigh for it with you. Perhaps together we may bring it down." Ther_as something very pleasing in the quality of his tone.
"Ah, it is you, Count? I could not see. But let us not sigh for the moon; i_ould be useless. Does any one get his own wish-moon? Does it not always han_o high, so far away?"
"The music has affected you?"
"As it always does. When I hear a voice like madam's, I grow sad, and a pit_or the great world surges over me."
"Pity is the invisible embrace which enfolds all animate things. There is pit_or the wretched, for the fool, for the innocent knave, for those who ar_riminals by their own folly; pity for those who love without reward; pit_hat embraces … even me."
"Has it ever occurred to you that there are two beings in each of us; tha_etween these two there is a continual conflict, and that the victor finall_rints the victory on the face? For what lines and haggards a man's face bu_he victory of the evil that is in him? For what makes the aged ruddy an_mooth of face and clear of eye but the victory of the good that is in him? I_s so. I still love you; I still have the courage to ask you to be my wife.
Shall there be faces haggard or ruddy, lined or smooth?"
She stepped inside. She did not comprehend all he said, and his face was i_he shadow—that is to say, unreadable.
"I am sorry, very, very sorry."
"How easily you say that!"
"No, not easily; if only you knew how hard it comes, for I know that i_nflicts a hurt,"—gently. "Ah, Count, why indeed do I not lov_ou?"—impulsively, for at that time she held him in genuine regard. "Yo_epresent all that a woman could desire in a man."
"You could learn,"—with an eager step toward her.
"You do not believe that; you know that you do not. Love has nothing to learn; the heart speaks, and that is all. My heart does not speak when I see you, an_ shall never marry a man to whom it does not. You ask for something which _an not give, and each time you ask you only add to the pain."
"This is finality?"
"Eh, well; then I must continue on to the end."
She interpreted this as a plaint of his coming loneliness.
"Here!" she said. She held in her hands two red roses. She thrust one towar_im. "That is all I may give you."
For a moment he hesitated. There were thorns, invisible and stinging.
He accepted it, kissed it gravely, and hid it.
"This is the bitterest moment in my life, and doubly bitter because I lov_ou."
When the portiere fell behind him, she locked her hands, grieving that all sh_ould give him was an ephemeral flower. How many men had turned from her i_his wise, even as she began to depend upon them for their friendships! Th_ark room oppressed her and she stepped out once more into the silver o_oonshine. Have you ever beheld a lovely woman fondle a lovely rose? She dre_t, pendent on its slender stem, slowly across her lips, her eyes shinin_istily with waking dreams. She breathed in the perfume, then cupped th_lower in the palm of her hand and pressed it again and again to her lips. _ong white arm stretched outward and upward toward the moon, and when i_ithdrew the hand was empty.
Warburton, hidden behind the vines, waited until she was gone, and then hunte_n the grass for the precious flower. On his hands and knees he groped. Th_ew did not matter. And when at last he found it, not all the treasures of th_abled Ophir would have tempted him to part with it. It would be a souveni_or his later days.
As he rose from his knees he was confronted by a broad-shouldered, elderly ma_n evening clothes. The end of a cigar burned brightly between his teeth.
"I'll take that flower, young man, if you please."
Warburton's surprise was too great for sudden recovery.
"It is mine, Colonel," he stammered.
The colonel filliped away his cigar and caught my butler roughly by the arm.
"Warburton, what the devil does this mean—a lieutenant of mine peddling sou_round a gentleman's table?"