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Chapter 9 NOTHING MORE SERIOUS THAN A HOUSE PARTY

  • Standing just within the door, smiling and rubbing the gray bristles on hi_ip, was the Colonel. In the center of the room stood a woman dressed in gray.
  • Maurice recognized the dress; it belonged to Mademoiselle of the Veil, who wa_ow sans veil, sans hat. A marvelous face was revealed to Maurice, a face o_hat peculiar beauty which poets and artists are often minded to deny, but fo_he love of which men die, become great or terrible, overturn empires an_hange the map of the world.
  • Her luxuriant hair, which lay in careless masses about the shapely head an_ntelligent brow, was a mixture of red and brown and gold, a variety whic_ever ceases to charm; skin the pallor of ancient marble, with the shadow o_ose lying below the eyes, the large, gray chatoyant eyes, which answere_very impulse of the brain which ruled them. The irregularity of her feature_as never noticeable after a glance into those eyes. At this moment both eye_nd lips expressed a shade of amusement.
  • Maurice, who was astonished never more than a minute at a time, immediatel_ecovered. His toilet was somewhat disarranged, and the back of his head _row's nest, but, nevertheless, he placed a hand over his heart and offered _ow obeisance.
  • "Good morning, gentlemen," she said, in a voice which Maurice would have know_nywhere. "I hope the journey has caused you no particular annoyance."
  • "The annoyance was not so particular, Madame," said Fitzgerald stiffly, "as i_as general."
  • "And four of my troopers will take oath to that!" interjected the Colonel.
  • "Will Madame permit me to ask when will the opera begin?" asked Maurice.
  • "I am glad," said she, "that you have lost none of your freshness."
  • Maurice was struck for a moment, but soon saw that the remark was innocent o_ny inelegance of speech. Fitzgerald was gnawing his mustache and looking ou_f the corner of his eyes—into hers.
  • "My task, I confess, is a most disagreeable one," she resumed, lightly beatin_er gauntlets together; "but when one serves high personages one is suppose_ot to have any sentiments." To Fitzgerald she said: "You are the son of th_ate Lord Fitzgerald."
  • "For your sake, I regret to say that I am."
  • "For my sake? Worry yourself none on that point. As the agent of her Highnes_ am inconsiderable."
  • "Madame," said Maurice, "will you do us the honor to inform us to whom we ar_ndebted for this partiality to our distinguished persons?"
  • "I am Sylvia Amerbach," quietly.
  • "Amerbach?" said Maurice, who was familiar with the great names of th_ontinent. "Pardon me, but that was once a famous name in Prussia."
  • "I am distantly related to that house of princes," looking at her gauntlets.
  • "Well, Madame, since your business doubtless concerns me, pray, begin;" an_itzgerald leaned against the mantelpiece and fumbled with the rim of hi_onocle.
  • Maurice walked to one of the windows and perched himself on the broad sill. H_egan to whistle softly:
  • Voici le sabre de mon pere! Tu vas le mettre a ton cote… .
  • Beyond the window, at the edge of the forest, he saw a sentinel pacin_ackward and forward. Indeed, no matter which way he looked, the autumna_cenery had this accessory. Again, he inspected the bars. These wer_omparatively new. It was about thirty feet to the court below. On the whole, the outlook was discouraging.
  • "Count," said the distant relative of the house of Amerbach, "how shall _egin?"
  • "I am not a diplomat, Madame," answered the Colonel. "If, however, you wis_he advice of a soldier, I should begin by asking if my lord the Englishma_as those consols about his person."
  • "Fie, count!" she cried, laughing; "one would say that was a prelude t_obbery."
  • "So they would. As for myself, I prefer violence to words. If we take thes_retty papers by violence, we shall still have left our friend the Englishma_is self-respect. And as for words, while my acquaintance with our friend i_light, I should say that they would only be wasted here."
  • The whistle from the window still rose and fell.
  • "Monsieur, I have it in my power to make you rich."
  • "I am rich," replied Fitzgerald.
  • "In honors?"
  • "Madame, the title I have is already a burden to me." Fitzgerald laughed, which announced that the cause of the duchess was not getting on very well.
  • Once or twice he raised the tortoiseshell rim to his eye, but dropped it; force of habit was difficult to overcome.
  • "Your father nourished a particular rancor against the late duke."
  • "And justly, you will admit."
  • "Her Highness has offered you five millions for slips of paper worth no mor_han the ink which decorates them."
  • "And I have refused. Why? Simply because the matter does not rest with me. Yo_ave proceeded with a high hand, Madame, or rather your duchess has. Nothin_ill come of it. Had there been any possibility of my considering you_roposals, this kidnaping would have destroyed it."
  • She smiled. Maurice saw the smile and stopped whistling long enough to scratc_is chin, which was somewhat in need of a razor. He had seen many women smil_hat way. He had learned to read it. It was an inarticulate "perhaps."
  • "The rightful successor to the throne—"
  • "Is Madame the duchess," Fitzgerald completed. "I haven't the slightest doub_f that. One way or the other, it does not concern me. I came here simply t_ulfill the wishes of my father; and my word, Madame, fulfill them I shall.
  • You are holding me a prisoner, but uselessly. On the twentieth th_ertificates fall due against the government. If they are not presented eithe_or renewal or collection, the bankruptcy scheme of your duchess will fal_hrough just the same. I will tell you the truth, Madame. My father neve_xpected to collect the moneys so long as Leopold sat on the throne."
  • The whistle grew shrill.
  • "This officer here," continued Fitzgerald, while the Colonel made a comica_rimace, "suggests violence. I shall save him the trouble. I have seen much o_he world, Madame—the hard side of it—and, knowing it as I do, it is scarcel_robable that I should carry about my person the equivalent of four million_f crowns."
  • "Well, Madame," said the Colonel, pushing his belt closer about his hips, as _oldier always does when he is on the point of departure, "what he says i_rue, every word of it. I see nothing more to do at present."
  • Mademoiselle of the Veil was paying not so much attention to the Colonel'_ords as she was to Maurice's whistle.
  • "Monsieur," she said, coldly, "have you no other tune in your repertory?"
  • "Pardon me!" exclaimed Maurice. "I did not intend to annoy you." He steppe_own out of the window.
  • "You do not annoy me; only the tune grows rather monotonous."
  • "I will whistle anything you may suggest," he volunteered.
  • She did not respond to this flippancy, though the pupils of her gray eyes gre_arge with anger. She walked the length of the room and back.
  • "Count, what do you think would be most satisfactory to her Highness, unde_he circumstances?"
  • "I have yet to hear of her Highness' disapproval of anything you undertake."
  • "Messieurs, your parole d'honneur, and the freedom of the chateau i_ours—within the sentry lines. I wish to make your recollections of the Re_hateau rather pleasant than otherwise. I shall be most happy if you wil_onor my table with your presence."
  • The Colonel coughed, Maurice smoothed the back of his head, and Fitzgeral_aught up his monocle.
  • "My word, Madame," said Maurice, "is not worth much, being that of a diplomat, but such as it is it is yours. However, my clothes are scarcely presentable,"
  • which was true enough. Several buttons were missing, and the collar hung by _hread.
  • "That can be easily remedied," said she. "There are several new hussa_niforms in the armory."
  • "O, Madame, and you will permit me to wear one of those gay uniforms of ligh_lue and silver lace?"
  • The Colonel looked thoughtfully at Maurice. He was too much a banterer himsel_o miss the undercurrent of raillery. He eyed Madame discreetly; he saw tha_he had accepted merely the surface tones.
  • "And you will wear one, too, Jack?" said Maurice.
  • "No, thank you. I pass my word, Madame; I do not like confinement."
  • "Well, then, the count will shortly return and establish you in bette_uarters. Let us suppose you are my guests for a—a fortnight. Since both of u_re right, since neither your cause nor mine is wrong, an armistice! Ah! _orgot. The east corridor on the third floor is forbidden you. Should yo_istake and go that way, a guard will direct you properly. Messieurs, til_inner!" and with a smile which illumined her face as a sudden burst o_unshine flashes across a hillside, she passed out of the room, followed b_er henchman, who had not yet put aside the thoughtful repose of hi_ountenance.
  • "A house party," said Maurice, when he could no longer hear their footsteps.
  • "And what the deuce have they got so valuable in the east corridor on th_hird floor?"
  • "It's small matter to me," said Fitzgerald tranquilly. "The main fact is tha_he has given up her game."
  • Said Maurice, his face expressing both pity and astonishment: "My dear, dea_ohn! Didn't you see that woman's eyes, her hair, her chin, her nose?"
  • "Well?"
  • "True; you haven't had any experience with petticoats. This woman will ren_eaven and earth rather than relinquish her projects, or rather those of he_istress. I should like to see this duchess, who shows a fine discernment i_he selection of her assistants. Beware of the woman who is frankly you_nemy. If she is frank, it is because she is confident of the end; if not, sh_s frank in order to disarm us of the suspicion of cunning. I would give muc_o know the true meaning of this house party."
  • "Hang me if I can see what difference it makes. She can not do anything eithe_y frankness or by cunning."
  • "She gathered us in neatly, this red-haired Amazon."
  • "Red-haired!" in a kind of protest.
  • "Why, yes; that's the color, isn't it?" innocently.
  • "I thought it a red-brown. It's too bad that such a woman should be mixed u_n an affair like this."
  • "Woman will sacrifice to ambition what she never will sacrifice to love. Hush; I hear the Colonel returning."
  • They were conducted to the opposite wing of the chateau, to a room on th_econd floor. Its windows afforded an excellent view of the land which la_outh. Hills rolled away like waves of gold, dotted here and there wit_ineyards. Through the avenue of trees they could see the highway, and beyond, the river, which had its source in the mountains ten miles eastward.
  • The room itself was in red, evidently a state chamber, for it contained tw_anopied beds. Several fine paintings hung from the walls, and between the tw_indows rose one of those pier glasses which owe their existence to the firs_mpire of France. On one of the beds Maurice saw the hussar uniform. On th_resser were razors and mugs and a pitcher of hot water.
  • "Ah," he said, with satisfaction.
  • "The boots may not fit you," said the Colonel, "but if they do not we wil_anage some way."
  • "I shall not mind the fortnight," said Maurice. "By the way, Colonel, I notic_hat French seems to prevail instead of German. Why is that?"
  • "It is the common language of politeness, and servants do not understand it.
  • As for myself, I naturally prefer the German tongue; it is blunt and hones_nd lacks the finesse of the French, which is full of evasive words an_eanings. However, French predominates at court. Besides, heaven help th_oreigner who tries to learn all the German tongues to be found in the empire_f the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg. Luncheon will be served to you in the dinin_all; the first door to the right at the foot of the grand staircase. I shal_end you a trooper to act as valet."
  • "Spare me, Colonel," said Maurice, who did not want any one between him an_he Englishman when they were alone.
  • "I have never had a valet," said Fitzgerald; "he would embarrass me."
  • "As you please," said the Colonel, a shade of disappointment in his tones.
  • "After all, you are soldiers, where every man is for himself. Make yourselve_t home;" and he withdrew.
  • Maurice at once applied lather and razor, and put on the handsome uniform, which fitted him snugly. The coat was tailless, with rows of silver button_unning from collar to waist. The breast and shoulders and sleeves wer_overed with silver lace, and Maurice concluded that it must be nothing les_han a captain's uniform. The trousers were tight fitting, with broad stripe_f silver; and the half boots were of patent leather. He walked backward an_orward before the pier-glass.
  • "I say, Fitz, what do you think of it?"
  • "You're a handsome rascal, Maurice," answered the Englishman, who had watche_is young friend, amusement in his sober eyes. "Happily, there are no youn_omen present."
  • "Go to! I'll lay odds that our hostess is under twenty-five."
  • "I meant young women of sixteen or seventeen. Women such as Madame have lon_ince passed the uniform fever."
  • "Not when it has lace, my friend, court lace. Well, forward to the dinin_all."
  • Both were rather disappointed to find that Madame would be absent unti_inner. Fitzgerald could not tell exactly why he was disappointed, and he wa_ngry with himself for the vague regret. Maurice, however, found consolatio_n the demure French maid who served them. Every time he smiled she made _ourtesy, and every time she left the room Maurice nudged Fitzgerald.
  • "Smile, confound you, smile!" he whispered. "There's never a maid but has he_tore of gossip, and gossip is information."
  • "Pshaw!" said Fitzgerald, helping himself to cold ham and chicken.
  • "Wine, Messieurs?" asked the maid.
  • "Ah, then Madame offers the cellars?" said Maurice.
  • "Yes, Messieurs. There is chambertin, champagne, chablis, tokayer and sherry."
  • "Bring us some chambertin, then."
  • "Oui, Messieurs."
  • "Hurry along, my Hebe," said Maurice.
  • The maid was not on familiar terms with the classics, but she told the butle_n the pantry that the smooth-faced one made a charming Captain.
  • "Keep your eyes open," grumbled the butler; "he'll be kissing you next."
  • "He might do worse," was the retort. Even maids have their mirrors, and her_old a pretty story. When she returned with the wine she asked: "And shall _our it, Messieurs?"
  • "No one else shall," declared Maurice. "When is the duchess to arrive?"
  • "I do not know, Monsieur," stepping in between the chairs and filling th_lasses with the ruby liquid.
  • "Who is Madame Sylvia Amerbach?"
  • "Madame Sylvia Amerbach," placing the bottle on the table and going to th_ideboard. She returned with a box of "Khedives."
  • Fitzgerald laughed at Maurice's disconcertion.
  • "Where has Madame gone?"
  • "To the summer home of Countess Herzberg, who is to return with Madame."
  • "Oho!" cried Maurice, in English. "A countess! What do you say to that, m_nglishman?"
  • "She is probably old and plain. Madame desires a chaperon."
  • "You forget that Madame desires nothing but those certificates. And th_haperon does not live who could keep an eye on Madame Sylvia Amerbach."
  • The mention of the certificates brought back all the Englishman's discomfort, and he emptied his glass of wine not as a lover of good wine should. Soon the_ose from the table. The maid ran to the door and held it open. Fitzgeral_urried through, but Maurice lingered a moment. He put his hand under th_orcelain chin and looked into the china-blue eyes. Fitzgerald turned.
  • "What was that noise?" he asked, as Maurice shouldered him along the hall.
  • "What noise?"
  • Madame came back to the chateau at five, and dinner was announced at eight.
  • The Countess Herzberg was young and pretty, the possessor of a beautiful mout_nd a charming smile. The Colonel did the honors at the table. Maurice almos_ancied himself in Vienna, the setting of the dining room was so perfect. Th_ntire room was paneled in walnut. On the mantel over the great fireplac_tood silver candlesticks with wax tapers. The candlestick in the center o_he table was composed of twelve branches. The cuisine was delectable, th_ines delicious. Madame and the countess were in evening dress. The Colone_as brimming with anecdote, the countess was witty, Madame was a sister t_spasia.
  • Maurice, while he enjoyed this strange feast, was puzzled. It was ver_rregular, and the Colonel's gray hairs did not serve to alter this fact. Wha_as the meaning of it? What lay underneath?
  • Sometimes he caught Fitzgerald in the act of staring at Madame when he_ttention was otherwise engaged; at other times he saw that Madame wa_eturning this cursory investigation. There was, however, altogether _ifferent meaning in these surreptitious glances. In the one there wer_nterest, doubt, admiration; in the other, cold calculation. At no time di_he conversation touch politics, and the crown was a thousand miles away—i_urface indications went for aught.
  • Finally the Colonel rose. "A toast—to Madame the duchess, since this is he_ery best wine!"
  • Maurice emptied his glass fast enough; but Fitzgerald lowered his eyes an_ade no movement to raise his glass. The pupils in Madame's eyes grew small.
  • "That is scarcely polite, Monsieur," she said.
  • "Madame," he replied gently, "my parole did not include toasts to he_ighness. My friend loves wine for its own sake, and seldom bothers his hea_bout the toast as long as the wine is good. Permit me to withdraw the duches_nd substitute yourself."
  • "Do so, if it will please you. In truth, it was bad taste in you, count, t_uggest it."
  • "It's all the same to me;" and the Colonel refilled his glass and nodded.
  • The countess smiled behind her fan, while Maurice felt the edge of the mil_eproach which had been administered to him.
  • "I plead guilty to the impeachment. It was very wrong. Far from it that _hould drink to the health of the Philistines. Madame the countess was beatin_e down with her eyes, and I did not think."
  • "I was not even looking at you!" declared the countess, blushing.
  • The incident was soon forgotten; and at length Madame and the countess rose.
  • Said the first: "We will leave you gentlemen to your cigars; and when the_ave ceased to interest you, you will find us in the music room."
  • "And you will sing?" said Maurice to the countess.
  • "If you wish." She was almost beautiful when she smiled, and she smiled o_aurice.
  • "I confess," said he, "that being a prisoner, under certain circumstances, i_ fine life."
  • "What wicked eyes he has," said the countess, as she and Madame entered th_usic room.
  • "Do not look into them too often, my dear," was the rejoinder. "I have aske_ot other sacrifice than that you should occupy his attention and make hi_all in love with you."
  • "Ah, Madame, that will be easy enough. But what is to prevent me from fallin_n love with him? He is very handsome."
  • "You are laughing!"
  • "Yes, I am laughing. It will be such an amusing adventure, a souvenir for m_ld age—and may my old age forget me."
  • The men lit their cigars and smoked in silence.
  • "Colonel," said Maurice at last, "will you kindly tell me what all thi_eans?"
  • "Never ask your host how old his wine is. If he is proud of it, he will tel_ou." He blew the smoke under the candle shades and watched it as it darte_pward. "Don't you find it comfortable? I should."
  • "Conscience will not lie down at one's bidding."
  • "I understood that you were a diplomat?" The Colonel turned to Fitzgerald. "_ope that, when you are liberated, you will forget the manner in which yo_ere brought here."
  • "I shall forget nothing," curtly.
  • "The devil! I can not fight you; I am too old."
  • Fitzgerald said nothing, and continued to play with his emptied wine-glass.
  • "The Princess Alexia," went on the Colonel, "has a bulldog. I have alway_ondered till now what the nationality of the dog was. The bulldog neithe_orsakes nor forgives; he is an Englishman."
  • This declaration was succeeded by another interval of silence. The Englishma_as thinking of his father; the thoughts of Maurice were anywhere but at th_hateau; the Colonel was contemplating them both, shrewdly.
  • "Well, to the ladies, gentlemen; it is half after nine."
  • The countess was seated at the piano, improvising. Madame stood before th_ireplace, arranging the pieces on a chess board. In the center of the roo_as a table littered with books, magazines and illustrated weeklies.
  • "Do you play chess, Monsieur?" said Madame to Fitzgerald.
  • "I do not."
  • "Well, Colonel, we will play a game and show him how it is done."
  • Fitzgerald drew up a chair and sat down at Madame's elbow. He followed ever_ove she made because he had never seen till now so round and shapely an arm, hands so small and white, tipped with pink filbert nails. He did not learn th_ame so quickly as might be. He, like Maurice, was pondering over the unusua_osition in which he found himself; but analysis of any sort was not hi_orte; so he soon forgot all save the delicate curve of Madame's chin an_hroat, the soft ripple of her laughter, the abysmal gray of her eyes.
  • "Monsieur le Capitaine," said the countess, "what shall I sing to you?"
  • "To me?" said Maurice. "Something from Abt."
  • Her fingers ran lightly over the keys, and presently her voice rose in song, _ong low, sweet, and sad. Maurice peered out of the window into the shades o_ight. Visions passed and repassed the curtain of darkness. Once or twice th_ountess turned her head and looked at him. It was not only a handsome fac_he saw, but one that carried the mark of refinement… . Maurice was thinkin_f the lonely princess and her grave dark eyes. He possessed none of tha_ower from which princes derive benefits; what could he do? And why should h_nterest himself in a woman who, in any event, could never be anything to him, scarcely even a friend? He smiled.
  • If Fitzgerald was not adept at analysis, he was. Nothing ever entered his min_r heart that he could not separate and define. It was strange; it was almos_aughable; to have fenced as long and adroitly as he had fenced, and then t_e disarmed by one who did not even understand the foils! Surrender? Why not?… By and by his gaze traveled to the chess players. There was another game tha_hess being played there, though kings and queens and knights and bishops wer_till the sum of it.
  • "Are you so very far away, then?" The song had ceased; the countess wa_ooking at him curiously.
  • "Thank you," he said; "indeed, you had taken me out of myself."
  • "Do you like chestnuts?" she asked suddenly.
  • "I am very fond of them."
  • "Then I shall fetch some." It occurred to her that the room was very warm; sh_anted a breath of air—alone.
  • "Checkmate!" cried the Colonel, joyfully.
  • "Do you begin to understand?" asked Madame.
  • "A little," admitted Fitzgerald, who did not wish to learn too quickly. "_ike to watch the game."
  • "So do I," said Maurice, who had approached the table. "I should like to kno_hat the game is, too."
  • Both Madame and the Colonel appeared to accept the statement and not th_nnuendo. Madame placed the figures on the board.
  • Maurice strolled over to the table and aimlessly glanced through the Vienn_llustrated weeklies. He saw Franz Josef in characteristic poses, full-pag_ngravings of the military maneuvers and reproductions of the notabl_aintings. He picked up an issue dated June. A portrait of the new Austria_mbassador to France attracted his attention. He turned the leaf. What he sa_n the following page caused him to widen his eyes and let slip an ejaculatio_oud enough to be heard by the chess players. Madame seemed on the point o_ising. Maurice did not lower his eyes nor Madame hers.
  • "Checkmate in three moves, Madame!" exclaimed the Colonel; "it is wonderful."
  • "What's the matter, Maurice?" asked Fitzgerald.
  • "Jack, I am a ruined man."
  • "How? What?" nearly upsetting the board.
  • "I just this moment remember that I left my gas burning at the hotel, and i_s extra."
  • The Colonel and Fitzgerald lay back in their chairs and roared with laughter.
  • But Madame did not even smile.