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- The Point of View - 3/18 -
Stella found absolutely no answer to this. She only felt a sudden, wild longing to cry out that the idea of being a curate's wife-- even the Bishop's junior young gentleman with eight hundred a year of his own--had never appeared a thrilling picture, and was now causing her a feeling of loathing. She thought she ought to talk no longer to this stranger, and half rose from her seat.
He put out a protesting hand, both had been clasped idly over the Times until then without a movement.
"No--do--not go--I have disturbed you--I am sorry," he pleaded. "Listen, there is a great reception at your Embassy to-morrow night--for one of our Royal Family who is here. You will go, perhaps. If so, I will do so also, although I dislike parties--and there I will be presented to you with ceremony--it will appease that English convention in you, and after that I shall say to you a number of things--but I prefer to sit here and speak behind the Times."
At this instant he raised the paper, and appeared again the stranger almost entirely hidden from view. And Stella saw that her Uncle Erasmus was rapidly approaching her with an envelope in his hand. She seized her pen again and continued her broken sentence to Eustace--her betrothed. Canon Ebley viewed the Times and its holder with suspicion for an instant, but its stillness reassured him, and he addressed his niece.
"Very civil of the Embassy to send us a card for the reception to- morrow night, Stella; I am glad we wrote names when we arrived. Your Aunt Caroline bids you accept, as her spectacles are upstairs."
Miss Rawson did as she was bid, and her uncle waited, fidgeting with his feet. He wished the stranger to put down the Times, which he wanted himself--or, at all events, remove his long legs and hidden body from such a near proximity to his niece; they could not say a word that he could not overhear, Canon Ebley mused.
However, the unknown remained where he was, and turned a page of the paper with great deliberation.
"Your aunt will be ready to go out again now," the Uncle Erasmus announced, as Stella placed her acceptance in the envelope. "You had better go up and put your hat on, my dear."
The Times rustled slightly--and Stella replied a little hurriedly: "I was just finishing a letter, uncle, then I will come."
"Very well," said Canon Ebley, not altogether pleased, as he walked away with the note.
The newspaper was lowered a few inches again, and the wise blue eyes beneath the saintly parted hair twinkled with irresistible laughter, and the deep voice said:
"He would greatly disapprove of our having conversed--the uncle-- is it not so? How long are you going to stay in Rome?"
Stella smiled, too--she could not help it.
"A week--ten days, perhaps," she answered, and then rapidly addressed an envelope to the Rev. Eustace Medlicott.
"Perhaps, in that case, I can afford to wait until to-morrow night; unless it amuses you, as it does me, to circumvent people," Count Roumovski said. "We are all masters of our own lives, you know, once we have ceased to be children--it is only convention which persuades us to submit to others' authority."
Stella looked up startled. Was this indeed true? And was it simply convention which had forced her into an engagement with Eustace Medlicott, and now forced her to go up and put on her hat and accompany her uncle and aunt to see the Lateran, when she would have preferred to remain where she was and discuss abstract matters with this remarkable stranger.
"The notion surprises you, one sees," Count Roumovski went on, "but it is true--"
"I suppose it is," said Stella lamely.
"I submit to no authority--I mean, as to the controlling of my actions and wishes. We must all submit to the laws of our country, to do so is the only way to obtain complete personal freedom."
"That sounds like a paradox," said Stella.
"I have just been thinking," he went on, without noticing the interruption, "it would be most agreeable to take a drive in my automobile late this after-noon, when your guardians have returned and are resting. If you feel you would care to come I will wait in this hall from five to six. You need not take the least notice of me, you can walk past, out of the hotel, then turn to the left, and there in the square, where there are a few trees, you will see a large blue motor waiting. You will get straight in, and I will come and join you. Not anyone will see or notice you--because of the trees, one cannot observe from the windows. My chauffeur will be prepared, and I will return you safely to the same place in an hour."
Stella's brown eyes grew larger and larger. Some magnetic spell seemed to be dominating her, the idea was preposterous, and yet to agree to it was the strongest temptation she had ever had in all her life. She was filled with a wild longing to live, to do what she pleased, to be free to enjoy this excitement before her wings should be clipped, and her outlook all gray and humdrum.
"I do not know if they will rest--I cannot say--I--" she blurted out tremblingly.
The stranger had put down the Times, and was gazing into her face with a look almost of tenderness.
"There is no need to answer now," he said softly. "If fate means us to be happy, she will arrange it--I think you will come."
Miss Rawson started to her feet, and absently put her letter to her fiance--which contained merely the sentence that they had arrived in Rome--into its envelope and fastened it up.
"I must go now--good-bye," she said.
"It is not good-bye," the Russian answered gravely. "By six o'clock, we shall be driving in the Borghese Gardens and hearing the nightingales sing."
As Stella walked to the lift with a tumultuously beating heart, she asked herself what all this could possibly mean, and why she was not angry--and why this stranger--whose appearance outraged all her ideas as to what an English gentleman should look like-- had yet the power to fascinate her completely. Of course, she would not go for a drive with him--and yet, what would be the harm? After September she would never have a chance like this again. There would be only Eustace Medlicott and parish duties-- yes--if fate made it possible, she would go!
And she went on to her room with exhilarating sense of adventure coursing through her veins.
"I have found out the name of the peculiar-looking foreigner who sat near us last night," Canon Ebley said, as they drove to the Lateran in a little Roman Victoria, "it is Count Roumovski; I asked the hall porter--reprehensible curiosity I fear you will think, my dear Caroline, but there is something unaccountably interesting about him, as you must admit, although you disapprove of his appearance."
"I think it is quite dreadful," Mrs. Ebley sniffed, "and I hear from Martha that he has no less than two valets, and a suite of princely rooms and motor cars, and the whole passage on the second floor is filled with his trunks."
Martha had been Mrs. Ebley's maid for twenty-five years, and as Stella well knew was fairly accurate in her recounting of the information she picked up. This luridly extravagant picture, however, did not appal her. And she found herself constantly dwelling upon it and the stranger all the time she followed her relations about in the gorgeous church.
Fate did not seem to be going to smile upon the drive project, however--for Mrs. Ebley, far from appearing tired, actually proposed tea in the hall when they got in--and there sat for at least half an hour, while Stella saw Count Roumovski come in and sit down and leisurely begin a cigarette, as he glanced at an Italian paper. He was so intensely still, always peace seemed to breathe from his atmosphere, but the very sight of him appeared to exasperate the Aunt Caroline more and more.
"I wonder that man is not ashamed to be seen in a respectable place," she snapped, "with his long hair and his bracelet--such effeminacy is perfectly disgusting, Erasmus."
"I really cannot help it, my dear," Canon Ebley replied, irritably, "and I rather like his face."
"Erasmus!" was all Mrs. Ebley could say, and prepared to return to her room. Dinner would be at a quarter to eight, she told Stella at her door, and recommended an hour's quiet reading up of the guide-book while resting to her niece.
It was quarter after six before Miss Rawson descended the stairs to the hall again. She had deliberately made up her mind--she would go and drive with the count. She would live and amuse herself, if it was only for this once in her life, come what might of it! And since he would be presented with all respectable ceremony at the English Embassy the following night, it could not matter a bit--and if it did--! Well, she did not care!
He was sitting there as immovable as before, and she thrilled as she crossed the hall. She was so excited and frightened that she could almost have turned back when she reached the street, but there, standing by the trees, was a large blue motor car, and as she advanced the chauffeur stepped forward and opened the door, and she got in--and before she had time to realize what she had done, Count Roumovski had joined her and sat down by her side.
"You have no wrap," he said. "I thought you would not have, so I had prepared this," and he indicated a man's gray Russian, unremarkable-looking cloak, which, however, proved to be lined with fine sable, "and here, also, is a veil. If you will please me
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