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- A Fool and His Money - 50/63 -
"It is most fascinating," I cried. "Adorable! I love flimsy, pink things. They're so intimate. And Poopendyke knows it, bless his ingenuous old soul."
I surprised a queer little gleam of inquiry in her eyes. It flickered for a second and died out.
"Do you really consider him an ingenuous old soul?" she asked. And I thought there was something rather metallic in her voice. I might have replied with intelligence if she had given me a chance, but for some reason she chose to drop the subject. "You _must_ be famished, and I am dying to hear about your experiences. You must not omit a single detail. I--"
There came a gentle, discreet knocking on the half-open door. I started, somewhat guiltily.
Blatchford poked his irreproachable visage through the aperture and then gravely swung the door wide open.
"Breakfast is served, sir,--your ladyship. I beg pardon."
I have never seen him stand so faultlessly rigid. As we passed him on the way out a mean desire came over me to tread on his toes, just as an experiment. I wondered if he would change expression. But somehow I felt that he would say "Thank you, sir," and there would be no satisfaction in knowing that he had had all his pains for nothing.
I shall never forget that enchanted breakfast--never! Not that I can recall even vaguely what we had to eat, or who served it, or how much of the naked truth I related to her in describing the events of the night; I can only declare that it was a singularly light-hearted affair.
At half-past one o'clock I was received by Mrs. Titus in my own study. The Countess came down from her eerie abode to officiate at the ceremonious function--if it may be so styled--and I was agreeably surprised to find my new guest in a most amiable frame of mind. True, she looked me over with what seemed to me an unnecessarily and perfectly frank stare of curiosity, but, on sober reflection, I did not hold it against her. I was still draped in Poopendyke's garments.
At first sight I suppose she couldn't quite help putting me down as one of those literary freaks who typify intellect without intelligence.
As for her two sons, they made no effort to disguise their amazement. (I have a shocking notion that the vowel u might be substituted for the a in that word without loss of integrity!)
The elder of the two young men, Colingraft Titus, who being in the business with his father in New York was permitted to travel most of the time so that he couldn't interfere with it, was taller than I, and an extremely handsome chap to boot. He was twenty-six. The younger, Jasper, Jr., was nineteen, short and slight of build, with the merriest eyes I've ever seen. I didn't in the least mind the grin he bestowed upon me--and preserved with staunch fidelity throughout the whole interview,--but I resented the supercilious, lordly scorn of his elder brother.
Jasper, I learned, was enduring a protracted leave of absence from Yale; the hiatus between his freshman and sophomore years already covered a period of sixteen months, and he had a tutor who appreciated the buttery side of his crust.
Mrs. Titus, after thanking me warmly--and I think sincerely--for all that I had done for Aline, apologised in a perfunctory sort of way for having kept me out of my bed all night, and hoped that I wouldn't catch cold or have an attack of rheumatism.
I soon awoke to the fact that she was in the habit of centralising attention. The usually volatile Countess became subdued and repressed in her presence; the big son and the little one were respectfully quiescent; I confess to a certain embarrassment myself.
She was a handsome woman with a young figure, a good complexion, clear eyes, wavy brown hair, and a rich, low voice perfectly modulated. No doubt she was nearing fifty but thirty-five would have been your guess, provided you were a bachelor. A bachelor learns something about women every day of his life, but not so much that he cannot be surprised the day after.
I endeavoured to set her mind at rest by politely reminding her that I couldn't have slept in the bed any way, having been out all night, and she smilingly assured me that it was a relief to find a literary man who wasn't forever saying flat stupid things.
I took them over the castle--that is, a _part_ of the castle. Mrs. Titus wouldn't climb stairs. She confessed to banting, but drew the line at anything more exhausting. I fear I was too palpably relieved when she declined to go higher than the second story.
"It isn't necessary, Mr. Smart," she said sweetly, "to go into the history of the wretched Rothhoefens, as a Cook's interpreter might do. You see, I know the castle quite well--and I have had all the _late_ news from my daughter."
"Of course!" I agreed. "Stupid of me not to remember that you are descended from--"
"Mother isn't half as stuck up about it as you might think, Mr. Smart," interrupted Jasper, Jr., glibly. "She prefers to let people think her ancestors were Dutch instead of merely German. Dutch ancestors are the proper thing in Jew York."
"Jappie," said his mother severely, "how often must I caution you not to speak of New York as Jew York? Some day you will say it to a Jew. One can't be too careful. Heaven alone knows when one is in the presence of a Jew in these days."
"Oh, I'm not Hebraic," said I quickly. "My ancestors _were_ Dutch. They came over with the original skin grafters."
She looked puzzled for a moment. The Countess laughed. Then Jasper saw the point. Colingraft was the last to see it, and then it was too late for him to smile.
We had tea in the loggia and I dined with the family in the Countess's apartment at eight that night. I think Mrs. Titus was rather favourably impressed when she beheld me in my own raiment. Britton had smoothed out my evening clothes until they almost shone, and I managed to carry myself with unusual buoyancy.
Everything went very well that evening. We were all in fine humour and the dinner was an excellent one. I perpetrated but one unhappy blunder. I asked Mrs. Titus if she knew the Riley-Werkheimers and the Rocks-worths in New York.
"Visually," she said succinctly, and I made haste to change the subject. The Countess looked amused, and Colingraft said something about it being more than likely that we did not have any mutual acquaintances in New York. His sister came to my rescue with a very amusing and exaggerated account of my experience with the Riley-Werkheimers and Rocksworths. Jasper was enthusiastic. Something told me that I was going to like him.
My real troubles began the next day--and at the rather unseemly hour of eight o'clock in the morning. Colingraft came down the hall in a bath-gown and slippers, banged on my bedroom door, and wanted to know why the devil he couldn't have hot water for his bath. He was too full-blooded, and all that sort of thing, he said, to take a cold plunge. Moreover, he wasn't used to taking his tub in a tin-cup. (That was his sarcastic way of referring to my portable, handy bath-tub.) I asked him why he didn't ring for Britton, and he said he did but that Britton was assisting Jasper in a wild chase for a bat which had got into the lad's room during the night.
"Thank your lucky stars it didn't get into Mother's room," he said surlily. I silently thanked them.
He made such a row about his tub that I had to give him the pail of hot water Britton had placed in my bedroom, preparatory to my own bath.
At breakfast Jasper complained about the bats. He couldn't for the life of him see why I didn't have screens in the windows.
Later on Mrs. Titus, who had coffee and toast in her room, joined us in the loggia and announced that the coffee was stone cold. Moreover, she did not like the guest-chamber into which she had been moved by order of the Countess. It was too huge for a bed-chamber, and the iron window shutters creaked all night long.
"But don't you love the view you have of the Danube?" I queried, rather mournfully.
"I don't sit in the window all night, Mr. Smart," she said tartly.
I at once insisted on her resuming possession of my bedroom, and promptly had all of my things moved into the one she had occupied during the night. When the Countess heard of this arrangement she was most indignant. She got me off in a corner and cruelly informed me that I hadn't the vestige of a backbone. She must have said something to her mother, too, for when evening came around I had to move back into my own room, Mrs. Titus sweetly assuring me that under no consideration would she consent to impose upon my good nature and hospitality to such an extent, etc., etc.
During the day, at odd times, Colingraft made lofty suggestions in regard to what could be done with the place to make it more or less inhabitable, and Jasper,--who, by the way, I was beginning to fear I should not like after all,--said he'd just like to have a whack at the thing himself. First thing he'd do would be to turn some of those old, unused rooms into squash and racquet courts, and he'd also put in a swimming-pool and a hot-water plant.
Late in the afternoon, I stole far up into the eastern tower to visit my adorable friend Rosemary. We played house together on the nursery floor and I soon got over my feeling of depression. But even in play I was made to realise that I was not the master of the house. She ruled me with the utmost despotism, but I didn't mind. She permitted me to sip honey from that cunning place in her little neck and managed to call me Unko. My heart grew warm and soft again under the spell of her.
The Countess watched us at play from her seat by the window. She was strangely still and pensive. I had the feeling that she was watching me all the time, and that there was a shadow of anxiety in her lovely eyes. She smiled at our pranks, and yet there was something sad in the smile.
I was young again with Rosemary, and full of glee. She took me out of
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