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- Jeanne Of The Marshes - 6/52 -
that when you have been there for a few minutes your only desire will be to escape."
"I am not so sure," the girl answered. "I think that associations always have an effect on me. I can imagine how one might wait there, near the entrance, hear the soft swish of the oars, look down and see the smugglers, hear perhaps the muffled tramp of men marching from the village. Fancy how breathless it must have been, the excitement, the fear of being caught."
Cecil curled his slight moustache dubiously.
"If you can feel all that in my little bit of underground world," he said, "I shall think that you are even a more wonderful person--"
He dropped his voice and leaned toward her, but Jeanne laughed in his face and interrupted him.
"People who own things," she remarked, "never look upon them with proper reverence. Don't you see that my mother is dying for some bridge?"
The Princess was only obeying a faint sign from Forrest. She leaned forward and addressed her host.
"It isn't a bad idea," she declared. "Where are we going to play bridge, Cecil? In some smaller room, I hope. This one is really beginning to get on my nerves a little. There is an ancestor exactly opposite who has fixed me with a luminous and a disapproving eye. And the blank spaces on the wall! Ugh! I feel like a Goth. We are too modern for this place, Cecil."
Their host laughed as he rose and turned towards Jeanne.
"Your mother," he said, "is beginning to be conscious of her environment. I know exactly how she is feeling, for I myself am a constant sufferer. Are you, too, sighing for the gilded salons of civilization?"
"Not in the least," Jeanne answered frankly. "I am tired of mirrors and electric lights and babble. I prefer our present surroundings, and I should not mind at all if some of those disapproving ancestors of yours stepped out of their frames and took their places with us here."
"If they have been listening to our conversation," he said, "I think that they will stay where they are. Like royalty," he continued, "we can boast an octagonal chamber. I fear that its glories are of the past, but it is at least small, and the wallpaper is modern. I have ordered coffee and the card-tables there. Shall we go?"
He led the way out of the gloomy room, chilly and bare, yet in a way magnificent still with its reminiscences of past splendour, across the hall, modernized with rugs and recent furnishing, into a smaller apartment, where cheerfulness reigned. A wood fire burnt in an open grate. Lamps and a fine candelabrum gave a sufficiency of light. The furniture, though old, was graceful, and of French design. It had been the sitting chamber of the ladies of the De la Borne family for generations, and it bore traces of its gentler occupation. One thing alone remained of primevalism to remind them of their closer contact with the great forces of nature. The chamber was built in the tower, which stood exposed to the sea, and the roar of the wind was ceaseless.
"Here at least we shall be comfortable, I think," Cecil remarked, as they all entered. "My frescoes are faded, but they represent flowers, not faces. There are no eyes to stare at you from out of the walls here, Princess."
The Princess laughed gaily as she seated herself before a Louis Quinze card-table, and threw a pack of cards across the faded green baize cloth.
"It is charming, this," she declared. "Shall we challenge these two boys, Nigel? You are the only man who understands my leads, and who does not scold me for my declarations."
"I am perfectly willing," Forrest answered smoothly. "Shall we cut for deal?"
Cecil de la Borne leaned over and turned up a card.
"I am quite content," he remarked. "What do you say, Engleton?"
Engleton hesitated for a moment. The Princess turned and looked at him. He was standing upon the hearthrug smoking, his face as expressionless as ever.
"Let us cut for partners," he drawled. "I am afraid of the Princess and Forrest. The last time I found them a quite invincible couple."
There was a moment's silence. The Princess glanced toward Forrest, who only shrugged his shoulders.
"Just as you will," he answered.
He turned up an ace and the Princess a three.
"After all," he remarked, with a smile, "it seems as though fate were going to link us together."
"I am not so sure," Cecil de la Borne said, also throwing down an ace. "It depends now upon Engleton."
Engleton came to the table, and drew a card at random from the pack. Forrest's eyes seemed to narrow a little as he looked down at it. Engleton had drawn another ace.
"Forrest and I," he remarked. "Jolly low cutting, too. I have played against you often, Forrest, but I think this is our first rubber together. Here's good luck to us!"
He tossed off his liqueur and sat down. They cut again for deal, and the game proceeded.
Jeanne had moved across towards the window, and laid her fingers upon the heavy curtains. Cecil de la Borne, who was dummy, got up and stood by her side.
"Do you know," she said, "although your frescoes are flowers, I feel that there are eyes in this room, too, only that they are looking in from the night. Can one see the sea from here, Mr. De la Borne?"
"It is scarcely a hundred yards away," he answered. "This window looks straight across the German Ocean, and if you look long enough you will see the white of the breakers. Listen! You will hear, too, what my forefathers, and those who begat them, have heard, from the birth of the generations."
The girl, with strained face, stood looking out into the darkness. Outside, the wind and sea imposed their thunder upon the land. Within, there was no sound but the softer patter of the cards, the languid voices of the four who played bridge. A curious little company, on the whole. The Princess of Strurm, whose birth was as sure as her social standing was doubtful, the heroine of countless scandals, ignored by the great heads of her family, impoverished, living no one knew how, yet remaining the legal guardian of a stepdaughter, who was reputed to be one of the greatest heiresses in Europe. The courts had moved to have her set aside, and failed. A Cardinal of her late husband's faith, empowered to treat with her on behalf of his relations, offered a fortune for her cession of Jeanne, and was laughed at for his pains. Whatever her life had been, she remained custodian of the child of the great banker whom she had married late in life. She endured calmly the threats, the entreaties, the bribes, of Jeanne's own relations. Jeanne, she was determined, should enter life under her wing, and hers only. In the end she had her way. Jeanne was entering life now, not through the respectable but somewhat bourgeois avenue by which her great monied relatives would have led her, but under the auspices of her stepmother, whose position as chaperon to a great heiress had already thrown open a great many doors which would have been permanently closed to her in any other guise. The Princess herself was always consistent. She assumed to herself an arrogant right to do as she pleased and live as she pleased. She was of the House of Strurm, which had been noble for centuries, and had connections with royalty. That was enough. A few forgot her past and admitted her claim. Those who did not she ignored....
Then there was Lord Ronald Engleton, an orphan brought up in Paris, a would-be decadent, a dabbler in all modern iniquities, redeemed from folly only by a certain not altogether wholesome cleverness, yet with a disposition which sometimes gained for him friends in most unlikely quarters. He had excellent qualities, which he did his best to conceal; impulses which he was continually stifling.
By his side sat Forrest, the Sphynx, more than middle-aged, a man who had wandered all over the world, who had tried many things without ever achieving prosperity, and who was searching always, with tired eyes, for some new method of clothing and feeding himself upon an income of less than nothing a year. He had met the Princess at Marienbad years ago, and silently took his place in her suite. Why, no one seemed to know, not even at first the Princess herself, who thought him chic, and adored what she could not understand. Curious flotsam and jetsam, these four, of society which had something of a Continental flavour; personages, every one of them, with claim to recognition, but without any noticeable hall-mark....
There remained the girl, Jeanne herself, half behind the curtain now, her head thrust forward, her beautiful eyes contracted with the effort to penetrate that veil of darkness. One gift at least she seemed to have borrowed from the woman who gambled with life as easily and readily as with the cards which fell from her jewelled fingers. In her face, although it was still the face of a child, there was the same inscrutable expression, the same calm languor of one who takes and receives what life offers with the indifference of the cynic, or the imperturbability of the philosopher. There was little of the joy or the anticipation of youth there, and yet, behind the eyes, as they looked out into the darkness, there was something--some such effort, perhaps, as one seeking to penetrate the darkness of life must needs show. And as she looked, the white, living breakers gradually resolved them-selves out of the dark, thin filmy phosphorescence, and the roar of the lashed sea broke like
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