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- A Fool and His Money - 20/63 -
I made a mental note of the shortage and then admiringly said that I didn't see how any man, even a count could help adoring a woman who held a cigarette to her lips as she did.
"Oh," said she coolly, "his friends were willing worshippers, all of them. There wasn't a man among them who failed to make violent love to me, and with the Count's permission at that. You must not look so shocked. I managed to keep them at a safe distance. My unreasonable attitude toward them used to annoy my husband intensely."
"Pooh! He didn't care what became of me. There was one particular man whom he favoured the most. A dreadful man! We quarrelled bitterly when I declared that either he or I would have to leave the house--forever. I don't mind confessing to you that the man I speak of is your friend, the gentle Count Hohendahl, some time ogre of this castle."
I shuddered. A feeling of utter loathing for all these unprincipled scoundrels came over me, and I mildly took the name of the Lord in vain.
With an abrupt change of manner, she arose from her chair and began to pace the floor, distractedly beating her clinched hands against her bosom. Twice I heard her murmur: "Oh, God!"
This startling exposition of feeling gave me a most uncanny shock. It came out of a clear sky, so to say, at a moment when I was beginning to regard her as cold-blooded, callous, and utterly without the emotions supposed to exist in the breast of every high-minded woman. And now I was witness to the pain she suffered, now I heard her cry out against the thing that had hurt her so pitilessly. I turned my head away, vastly moved. Presently she moved over to the window. A covert glance revealed her standing there, looking not down at the Danube that seemed so far away but up at the blue sky that seemed so near.
I sat very still and repressed, trying to remember the harsh, unkind things I had said to her, and berating myself fiercely for all of them. What a stupid, vainglorious ass I was, not to have divined something of the inward fight she was making to conquer the emotions that filled her heart unto the bursting point.
The sound of dry, suppressed sobs came to my ears. It was too much for me. I stealthily quit my position by the mantel-piece and tip-toed toward the door, bent on leaving her alone. Half-way there I hesitated, stopped and then deliberately returned to the fireplace, where I noisily shuffled a fresh supply of coals into the grate. It would be heartless, even unmannerly, to leave her without letting her know that I was heartily ashamed of myself and completely in sympathy with her. Wisely, however, I resolved to let her have her cry out. Some one a great deal more far-seeing than I let the world into a most important secret when he advised man to take that course when in doubt.
For a long while I waited for her to regain control of herself, rather dreading the apology she would feel called upon to make for her abrupt reversion to the first principles of her sex. The sobs ceased entirely. I experienced the sharp joy of relaxation. Her dainty lace handkerchief found employment. First she would dab it cautiously in one eye, then the other, after which she would scrutinise its crumpled surface with most extraordinary interest. At least a dozen times she repeated this puzzling operation. What in the world was she looking for? To this day, that strange, sly peeking on her part remains a mystery to me.
She turned swiftly upon me and beckoned with her little forefinger. Greatly concerned, I sprang toward her. Was she preparing to swoon? What in heaven's name was I to do if she took it into her pretty head to do such a thing as that? Involuntarily I shot a quick look at her blouse. To my horror it was buttoned down the back. It would be a bachelor's luck to--But she was smiling radiantly. Saved!
"Look!" she cried, pointing upward through the window. "Isn't she lovely?"
I stopped short in my tracks and stared at her in blank amazement. What a stupefying creature she was!
She beckoned again, impatiently. I obeyed with alacrity. Obtaining a rather clear view of her eyes, I was considerably surprised to find no trace of departed tears. Her cheek was as smooth and creamy white as it had been before the deluge. Her eyelids were dry and orderly and her nose had not been blown once to my recollection. Truly, it was a marvellous recovery. I still wonder.
The cause of her excitement was visible at a glance. A trim nurse-maid stood in the small gallery which circled the top of the turret, just above and to the right of us. She held in her arms the pink-hooded, pink-coated Rosemary, made snug against the chill winds of her lofty parade ground. Her yellow curls peeped out from beneath the lace of the hood, and her round little cheeks were the colour of the peach's bloom.
"Now, _isn't_ she lovely?" cried my eager companion.
"Even a crusty bachelor can see that she is adorable."
"I am not a crusty bachelor," I protested indignantly, "and what's more, I am positive I should like to kiss those red little cheeks, which is saying a great deal for me. I've never voluntarily kissed a baby in my life."
"I do not approve of the baby-kissing custom," she said severely. "It is extremely unhealthy and--middle-class. Still," seeing my expression change, "I sha'n't mind your kissing her once."
"Thanks," said I humbly.
It was plain to be seen that she did not intend to refer to the recent outburst. Superb exposition of tact!
Catching the nurse's eye, she signalled for her to bring the child down to us. Rosemary took to me at once. A most embarrassing thing happened. On seeing me she held out her chubby arms and shouted "da-da!" at the top of her infantile lungs. _That_ had never happened to me before.
I flushed and the Countess shrieked with laughter. It wouldn't have been so bad if the nurse had known her place. If there is one thing in this world that I hate with fervour, it is an ill-mannered, poorly-trained servant. A grinning nurse-maid is the worst of all. I may be super-sensitive and crotchety about such things, but I can see no excuse for keeping a servant--especially a nurse-maid--who laughs at everything that's said by her superiors, even though the quip may be no more side-splitting than a two syllabled "da-da."
"Ha, ha!" I laughed bravely. "She--she evidently thinks I look like the Count. He is very handsome, you say."
"Oh, that isn't it," cried the Countess, taking Rosemary in her arms and directing me to a spot on her rosy cheek. "Kiss right there, Mr. Smart. There! Wasn't it a nice kiss, honey-bunch? If you are a very, very nice little girl the kind gentleman will kiss you on the other cheek some day. She calls every man she meets da-da," explained the radiant young mother. "She's awfully European in her habits, you see. You need not feel flattered. She calls Conrad and Rudolph and Max da-da, and this morning in the back window she applied the same handsome compliment to your Mr. Poopendyke."
"Oh," said I, rather more crestfallen than relieved.
"Would you like to hold her, Mr. Smart? She's such a darling to hold."
"No--no, thank you," I cried, backing off.
"Oh, you will come to it, never fear," she said gaily, as she restored Rosemary to the nurse's arms. "Won't he, Blake?"
"He will, my lady," said Blake with conviction. I noticed this time that Blake's smile wasn't half bad.
At that instant Jinko, the chow, pushed the door open with his black nose and strolled imposingly into the room. He proceeded to treat me in the most cavalier fashion by bristling and growling.
The Countess opened her eyes very wide.
"Dear me," she sighed, "you must be very like the Count, after all. Jinko never growls at any one but him."
* * * * *
At dinner that evening I asked Poopendyke point blank if he could call to mind a marriage in New York society that might fit the principals in this puzzling case.
He hemmed and hawed and appeared to be greatly confused.
"Really, sir, I--I--really, I--"
"You make it a point to read all of the society news," I explained; "and you are a great hand for remembering names and faces. Think hard."
"As a matter of fact, Mr. Smart, I _do_ remember this particular marriage very clearly," said he, looking down at his plate.
"You do?" I shouted eagerly. The new footman stared. "Splendid! Tell me, who is she--or was she?"
My secretary looked me steadily in the eye.
"I'm sorry, sir, but--but I can't do it. I promised her this morning I wouldn't let it be dragged out of me with red hot tongs."
I RECEIVE VISITORS
She was indeed attended by faithful slaves.
* * * * * * * *
The east wing of the castle was as still as a mouse on the day my house party arrived. Grim old doors took on new padlocks, keyholes were carefully stopped up; creaking floors were calked; windows were picketed by uncompromising articles of furniture deployed to keep my ruthless refugee from adventuring too close to the danger zone; and adamantine
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