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- Jeanne Of The Marshes - 30/52 -


CHAPTER III

The Princess was enjoying a few minutes of well-earned repose. She had lunched with Jeanne at Ranelagh, where they had been the guests of a lady who certainly had the right to call herself one of the leaders of Society. The newspapers and the Princess' confidences to a few of her friends had done all that was really necessary. Jeanne was accepted, and the Princess passed in her wake through those innermost portals which at one time had come perilously near being closed upon her. She was lying on a sofa in a white negligee gown. Jeanne had just brought in a pile of letters, mostly invitations. The Princess glanced them through, and smiled as she tossed them on one side.

"How these people amuse one!" she exclaimed. "Eighteen months ago I was in London alone, and not a soul came near me. To-day, because I am the guardian of a young lady whom the world believes to be a great heiress, people tumble over one another with their invitations and their courtesies."

Jeanne looked up.

"Why do you say 'believes to be?'" she asked quickly. "I am a great heiress, am I not?"

The Princess smiled, a slow, enigmatic smile, which might have meant anything, but which to Jeanne meant nothing at all.

"My dear child," she said, "of course you are. The papers have said so, Society has believed them. If I were to go out and declare right and left that you had nothing but a beggarly twenty thousand pounds or so, I should not find a soul to believe me. Every one would believe that I was trying to scare them off, to keep you for myself, or some one of my own choice. Really it is a very odd world!"

Jeanne was looking a little pensive. Her stepmother sometimes completely puzzled her.

"Who are the trustees of my money?" she asked, a little abruptly.

The Princess raised her eyebrows.

"Bless the child!" she exclaimed. "What do you know about trustees?"

"When I am of age," Jeanne said calmly, "which will happen sometime or other, I suppose, it will interest me to know exactly how much money I have and how it is invested."

The Princess looked a little startled.

"My dear Jeanne," she exclaimed, "pray don't talk like that until after you are married. Your money is being very well looked after. What I should like you to understand is this. You are going to meet to-night at dinner the man whom I intend you to marry."

Jeanne raised her eyebrows.

"I had some idea," she murmured, "of choosing a husband for myself."

"Impossible!" the Princess declared. "You have had no experience, and you are far too important a person to be allowed to think of such a thing. To-night at dinner you will meet the Count de Brensault. He is a Belgian of excellent family, quite rich, and very much attracted by you. I consider him entirely suitable, and I have advised him to speak to you seriously."

"Thank you," Jeanne said, "but I don't like Belgians, and I do not mean to marry one."

The Princess laughed, a little unpleasantly.

"My dear child," she said, "you may make a fuss about it, but eventually you will have to marry whom I say. You must remember that you are French, not English, and that I am your guardian. If you want to choose for yourself, you will have to wait three or four years before the law allows you to do so."

"Then I will wait three or four years," Jeanne answered quietly. "I have no idea of marrying the Count de Brensault."

The Princess raised herself a little on her couch.

"Child," she said, "you would try any one's patience. Only a month or so ago you told me that you were quite indifferent as to whom you might marry. You were content to allow me to select some one suitable." "A few months," Jeanne answered, "are sometimes a very long time. My views have changed since then."

"You mean," the Princess said, "that you have met some one whom you wish to marry?"

"Perhaps so," Jeanne answered. "At any rate I will not marry the Count de Brensault."

The Princess' face had darkened.

"I do not wish to quarrel with you, Jeanne," she said, "but I think that you will. Whom else is it that you are thinking of? Is it our island fisherman who has taken your fancy?"

"Does that matter?" Jeanne answered calmly. "Is it not sufficient if I say that I will not marry the Count de Brensault."

"No, it is not quite sufficient," the Princess remarked coldly. "You will either marry the man whom I have chosen, or give me some definite and clear reason for your refusal."

"One very definite and clear reason," Jeanne remarked, "is that I do not like the Count de Brensault. I think that he is a noisy, forward, and offensive young man."

"His income is nearly fifty thousand a year," the Princess remarked, "so he must be forgiven a few eccentricities of manner."

"His income," Jeanne said, "scarcely matters, does it? If my money is ever to do anything for me, it should at least enable me to choose a husband for myself."

"That's where you girls always make such absurd mistakes," the Princess remarked. "You get an idea or a liking into your mind, and you hold on to it like wax. You forget that the times may change, new people may come, the old order of things may pass altogether away. Suppose, for instance, you were to lose your money?"

"I should not be sorry," Jeanne answered calmly. "I should at least be sure that I was not any longer an article of merchandise. I could lead my own life, and marry whom I pleased."

The Princess laughed scornfully.

"Men do not take to themselves penniless brides nowadays," she remarked.

"Some men--" Jeanne began.

The Princess interrupted her.

"Bah!" she said. "You are thinking of your island fisherman again. I see by the papers that he has gone away. He is very wise. He may be a very excellent person, but the whole world could not hold a less suitable husband for you."

Jeanne smiled.

"Well," she said, "we shall see. I certainly do not think that he will ever ask me to marry him. He is one of those whom my gold does not seem to attract."

"He is clumsy," the Princess remarked. "A word of encouragement would have brought him to your feet."

"If I had thought so," Jeanne remarked, "I would have spoken it."

The Princess looked across at her stepdaughter searchingly.

"Tell me the truth, Jeanne," she said. "Have you been idiot enough to really care for this man?"

"That," Jeanne answered, "is a subject which I cannot discuss with any one, not even you."

"It is all very well," the Princess answered, "but whatever happens, I must see that you do not make an idiot of yourself. It is very important indeed, for more reasons than you know of."

Jeanne looked up.

"Such as--?" she asked.

The Princess hesitated. There were two evils before her. It was not possible to escape from both. She found herself weighing the chances of each of them, their nearness to disaster.

"Well," she said, "great fortunes even like yours are not above the chances of the money-markets. Your fortune, or a great part of it, might go. What would happen to you then? You would be a pauper."

Jeanne smiled.

"I can see nothing terrifying in that," she answered, "but at the same time I do not think that a fortune such as mine is a very fluctuating affair."

"You are right, of course," the Princess said. "You will be one of the richest young women in the country. There is nothing to prevent it. It is a good thing that you have me to look after you."

Jeanne leaned a little forward in her chair, and looked steadfastly at her stepmother.

"I suppose," she said, "that you are right. You know the world, at any rate, and you are clever. But often you puzzle me. Why at first did you want me to marry Major Forrest?"

The Princess' face seemed suddenly to harden.


Jeanne Of The Marshes - 30/52

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