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- A Fool and His Money - 40/63 -
Our luncheon was not as gay nor as unconventional as others that had preceded it. The Countess vainly tried to make it as sprightly as its predecessors, but gave over in despair in the face of my taciturnity. Her spirits drooped. She became strangely uneasy and, I thought, preoccupied.
"What is on your mind, Countess?" I asked rather gruffly, after a painful silence of some duration.
She regarded me fixedly for a moment. She seemed to be searching my thoughts. "You," she said very succinctly. "Why are you so quiet, so funereal?" I observed a faint tinge of red in her cheeks and an ominous steadiness in her gaze. Was there anger also?
I apologised for my manners, and assured her that my work was responsible. But her moodiness increased. At last, apparently at the end of her resources, she announced that she was tired: that after we had had a cigarette she would ask to be excused, as she wanted to lie down. Would I come to see her the next day?
"But don't think of coming, Mr. Smart," she declared, "if you feel you cannot spare the time away from your work."
I began to feel heartily ashamed of my boorishness. After all, why should I expend my unpleasant humour on her?
"My dear Countess," I exclaimed, displaying a livelier interest than at any time before, "I shall be delighted to come. Permit me to add that my work may go hang."
Her face brightened. "But men must work," she objected.
"Not when women are willing to play," I said.
"Splendid!" she cried. "You are reviving. I feel better. If you are going to be nice, I'll let you stay."
"Thanks. I'll do my best."
She seemed to be weighing something in her mind. Her chin was in her hands, her elbows resting on the edge of the table. She was regarding me with speculative eyes.
"If you don't mind what the servants are saying about us, Mr. Smart, I am quite sure I do not."
I caught my breath.
"Oh, I understand everything," she cried mischievously, before I could stammer anything in reply. "They are building a delightful romance around us. And why not? Why begrudge them the pleasure? No harm can come of it, you see."
"Certainly no harm," I floundered.
"The gossip is confined to the castle. It will not go any farther. We can afford to laugh in our sleeves, can't we?"
"Ha, ha!" I laughed in a strained effort, but not into my sleeve. "I rejoice to hear you say that you don't mind. No more do I. It's rather jolly."
"Fancy any one thinking we could possibly fall in love with each other," she scoffed. Her eyes were very bright. There was a suggestion of cold water in that remark.
"Yes, just fancy," I agreed.
"But, of course, as you say, if they can get any pleasure out of it, why should we object? It's a difficult matter keeping a cook any way."
"Well, we are bosom friends once more, are we not? I am so relieved."
"I suppose Poopendyke told you the--the gossip?"
"Oh, no! I had it from my maid. She is perfectly terrible. All French maids are, Mr. Smart. Beware of French maids! She won't have it any other way than that I am desperately in love with you. Isn't she delicious?"
"Eh?" I gasped.
"And she confides the wonderful secret to every one in the castle, from Rosemary down to Jinko."
"'Pon my soul!" I murmured.
"And so now they all are saying that I am in love with you," she laughed. "Isn't it perfectly ludicrous?"
"Perfectly," I said without enthusiasm. My heart sank like lead. Ludicrous? Was that the way it appeared to her? I had a little spirit left. "Quite as ludicrous as the fancy Britton has about me. He is obsessed by the idea that I am in love with you. What do you think of that?"
She started. I thought her eyes narrowed for a second. "Ridiculous," she said, very simply. Then she arose abruptly. "Please ring the bell for Hawkes."
I did so. Hawkes appeared. "Clear the table, Hawkes," she said. "I want you to read all these newspaper clippings, Mr. Smart," she went on, pointing to a bundle on a chair near the window. We crossed the room. "Now that you know who I am, I insist on your reading all that the papers have been saying about me during the past five or six weeks."
I protested but she was firm. "Every one else in the world has been reading about my affairs, so you must do likewise. No, it isn't necessary to read all of them. I will select the most lurid and the most glowing. You see there are two sides to the case. The papers that father can control are united in defending my action; the European press is just the other way. Sit down, please. I'll hand them to you."
For an hour I sat there in the window absorbing the astonishing history of the Tarnowsy abduction case. I felt rather than observed the intense scrutiny with which she favoured me.
At last she tossed the remainder of the bundle unread, into a corner. Her face was aglow with pleasure.
"You've read both sides, and I've watched you--oh, so closely. You don't believe what the papers over here have to say. I saw the scowls when you read the translations that Mr. Poopendyke has typed for me. Now I know that you do not feel so bitterly toward me as you did at first."
I was resolved to make a last determined stand for my original convictions.
"But our own papers, the New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago journals,--still voice, in a way, my principal contention in the matter, Countess. They deplore the wretched custom among the idle but ambitious rich that made possible this whole lamentable state of affairs. I mean the custom of getting a title into the family at any cost."
"My dear Mr. Smart," she said seriously, "do you really contend that all of the conjugal unhappiness and unrest of the world is confined to the American girls who marry noblemen? Has it escaped your notice that there are thousands of unhappy marriages and equally happy divorces in America every year in which noblemen do not figure at all? Have you not read of countless cases over there in which conditions are quite similar to those which make the Tarnowsy fiasco so notorious? Are not American women stealing their children from American husbands? Are all American husbands so perfect that Count Tarnowsy would appear black among them? Are there no American men who marry for money, and are there no American girls given in marriage to wealthy suitors of all ages, creeds and habits? Why do you maintain that an unfortunate alliance with a foreign nobleman is any worse than an unhappy marriage with an ordinary American brute? Are there no bad husbands in America?"
"All husbands are bad," I said, "but some are more pre-eminently evil than others. I am not finding fault with Tarnowsy as a husband. He did just what was expected of him. He did what he set out to do. He isn't to be blamed for living up to his creed. There are bad husbands in America, and bad wives. But they went into the game blindly, most of them. They didn't find out their mistake until after the marriage. The same statement applies to husbands and wives the world over. I hold a brief only against the marriage wherein the contracting parties, their families, their friends, their enemies, their bankers and their creditors know beforehand that it's a business proposition and not a sacred compact. But we've gone into all this before. Why rake it up again."
"But there are many happy marriages between American girls and foreign noblemen--dozens of them that I could mention."
"I grant you that. I know of a few myself. But I think if you will reflect for a moment you'll find that money had no place in the covenant. They married because they loved one another. The noblemen in such cases are _real_ noblemen, and their American wives are _real_ wives. There are no Count Tarnowsys among them. My blood curdles when I think of _you_ being married to a man of the Tarnowsy type. It is that sort of a marriage that I execrate."
"The buy and sell kind?" she said, and her eyes fell. The colour had faded from her cheeks.
"Yes. The premeditated murder type."
She looked up after a moment. There was a bleak expression in her eyes.
"Will you believe me if I say to you that I went into it blindly?"
"God bless my soul, I am sure of it," I cried earnestly. "You had never been in love. You did not know."
"I have told you that I believed myself to be in love with Maris. Doesn't--doesn't that help matters a little bit?"
I looked away. The hurt, appealing look was in her eyes. It had come at last, and, upon my soul, I was as little prepared to repel it as when I entered the room hours ago after having lived in fear of it for hours before that. I looked away because I knew that I should do something rash if I were to lose my head for an instant.
She was like an unhappy pleading child. I solemnly affirm that it was tender-heartedness that moved me in this crucial instant. What man
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