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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 30/39 -
declaiming with tears in his eyes against the arrogance of the English in changing Washington to Wellington. As he's a respectable-looking man with grown-up daughters, I should think very likely he's right."
"Very likely," said Peter. "It's an American tree, is n't it?"
"Whether it is n't or whether it is," said she, "one thing is undeniable: you English are the coldest-blooded animals south of the Arctic Circle."
"Oh--? Are we?" he doubted.
"You are that," she affirmed, with sorrowing emphasis.
"Ah, well," he reflected, "the temperature of our blood does n't matter. We're, at any rate, notoriously warm-hearted."
"Are you indeed?" she exclaimed. "If you are, it's a mighty quiet kind of notoriety, let me tell you, and a mighty cold kind of warmth."
"You're all for prudence and expediency. You're the slaves of your reason. You're dominated by the head, not by the heart. You're little better than calculating-machines. Are you ever known, now, for instance, to risk earth and heaven, and all things between them, on a sudden unthinking impulse?"
"Not often, I daresay," he admitted.
"And you sit there as serene as a brazen statue, and own it without a quaver," she reproached him.
"Surely," he urged, "in my character of Englishman, it behooves me to appear smug and self-satisfied?"
"You're right," she agreed. "I wonder," she continued, after a moment's pause, during which her eyes looked thoughtful, "I wonder whether you would fall upon and annihilate a person who should venture to offer you a word of well-meant advice."
"I should sit as serene as a brazen statue, and receive it without a quaver," he promised.
"Well, then," said she, leaning forward a little, and dropping her voice, "why don't you take your courage in both hands, and ask her?"
"Be guided by me--and do it," she said.
"Do what?" he puzzled.
"Ask her to marry you, of course," she returned amiably. Then, without allowing him time to shape an answer, "Touche!" she cried, in triumph. "I 've brought the tell-tale colour to your cheek. And you a brazen statue! 'They do not love who do not show their love.' But, in faith, you show yours to any one who'll be at pains to watch you. Your eyes betray you as often as ever you look at her. I had n't observed you for two minutes by the clock, when I knew your secret as well as if you 'd chosen me for your confessor. But what's holding you back? You can't expect her to do the proposing. Now curse me for a meddlesome Irishwoman, if you will--but why don't you throw yourself at her feet, and ask her, like a man?"
"How can I?" said Peter, abandoning any desire he may have felt to beat about the bush. Nay, indeed, it is very possible he welcomed, rather than resented, the Irishwoman's meddling.
"What's to prevent you?" said she.
"Everything," said he.
"Everything is nothing. That?"
"Dear lady! She is hideously rich, for one thing."
"Getaway with you!" was the dear lady's warm expostulation. "What has money to do with the question, if a man's in love? But that's the English of it--there you are with your cold-blooded calculation. You chain up your natural impulses as if they were dangerous beasts. Her money never saved you from succumbing to her enchantments. Why should it bar you from declaring your passion."
"There's a sort of tendency in society," said Peter, "to look upon the poor man who seeks the hand of a rich woman as a fortunehunter."
"A fig for the opinion of society," she cried. "The only opinion you should consider is the opinion of the woman you adore. I was an heiress myself; and when Teddy O'Donovan proposed to me, upon my conscience I believe the sole piece of property he possessed in the world was a corkscrew. So much for her ducats!"
"Men, after coffee, are frequently in the habit of smoking," said she. "You have my sanction for a cigarette. It will keep you in countenance."
"Thank you," said Peter, and lit his cigarette.
"And surely, it's a countenance you'll need, to be going on like that about her money. However--if you can find a ray of comfort in the information--small good will her future husband get of it, even if he is a fortunehunter: for she gives the bulk of it away in charity, and I 'm doubtful if she keeps two thousand a year for her own spending."
"Really?" said Peter; and for a breathing-space it seemed to him that there was a ray of comfort in the information.
"Yes, you may rate her at two thousand a year," said Mrs. O'Donovan Florence. "I suppose you can match that yourself. So the disparity disappears."
The ray of comfort had flickered for a second, and gone out.
"There are unfortunately other disparities," he remarked gloomily.
"Put a name on them," said she.
"There's her rank."
His impetuous adviser flung up a hand of scorn.
"Her rank, do you say?" she cried. "To the mischief with her rank. What's rank to love? A woman is only a woman, whether she calls herself a duchess or a dairy-maid. A woman with any spirit would marry a bank manager, if she loved him. A man's a man. You should n't care that for her rank."
"That" was a snap of Mrs. O' Donovan Florence's fingers.
"I suppose you know," said Peter, "that I am a Protestant."
"Are you--you poor benighted creature? Well, that's easily remedied. Go and get yourself baptised directly."
She waved her hand towards the town, as if to recommend his immediate procedure in quest of a baptistery.
Peter laughed again.
"I 'm afraid that's more easily said than done."
"Easy!" she exclaimed. "Why, you've only to stand still and let yourself be sprinkled. It's the priest who does the work. Don't tell me," she added, with persuasive inconsequence, "that you'll allow a little thing like being in love with a woman to keep you back from professing the true faith."
"Ah, if I were convinced that it is true," he sighed, still laughing.
"What call have you to doubt it? And anyhow, what does it matter whether you 're convinced or not? I remember, when I was a school-girl, I never was myself convinced of the theorems of Euclid; but I professed them gladly, for the sake of the marks they brought; and the eternal verities of mathematics remained unshaken by my scepticism."
"Your reasoning is subtle," laughed Peter. "But the worst of it is, if I were ten times a Catholic, she wouldn't have me. So what's the use?"
"You never can tell whether a woman will have you or not, until you offer yourself. And even if she refuses you, is that a ground for despair? My own husband asked me three times, and three times I said no. And then he took to writing verses--and I saw there was but one way to stop him. So we were married. Ask her; ask her again--and again. You can always resort in the end to versification. And now," the lady concluded, rising, "I have spoken, and I leave you to your fate. I'm obliged to return to the hotel, to hold a bed of justice. It appears that my innocent darlings, beyond there, innocent as they look, have managed among them to break the electric light in my sitting-room. They're to be arraigned before me at three for an instruction criminelle. Put what I 've said in your pipe, and smoke it--'tis a mother's last request. If I 've not succeeded in determining you, don't pretend, at least, that I haven't encouraged you a bit. Put what I 've said in your pipe, and see whether, by vigorous drawing, you can't fan the smouldering fires of encouragement into a small blaze of determination."
Peter resumed his stroll backwards and forwards by the lakeside. Encouragement was all very well; but . . . "Shall I --shall I not? Shall I--shall I not? Shall I--shall I not?" The eternal question went tick-tack, tick-tack, to the rhythm of his march. He glared at vacancy, and tried hard to make up his mind.
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