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- The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 39/39 -

tone. Then she made a little moue. "Of course, I have known that you were your friend Felix Wildmay, from the outset."

"Oh," said Peter, in a feeble sort of gasp, looking bewildered. "You have known that from the outset?" And his brain seemed to reel.

"Yes," said she, "of course. Where would the fun have been, otherwise? And now you are going away, back to her shrine, to renew your worship. I hope you will find the courage to offer her your hand."

Peter's brain was reeling. But here was the opportunity of his life.

"You give me courage," he pronounced, with sudden daring. "You are in a position to help me with her. And since you know so much, I should like you to know more. I should like to tell you who she is."

"One should be careful where one bestows one's confidences," she warned him; but there was something in her eyes, there was a glow, a softness, that seemed at the same time to invite them.

"No," he said, "better than telling you who she is, I will tell you where I first saw her. It was at the Francais, in December, four years ago, a Thursday night, a subscription night. She sat in one of the middle boxes of the first tier. She was dressed in white. Her companions were an elderly woman, English I think, in black, who wore a cap; and an old man, with white moustache and imperial, who looked as if he might be a French officer. And the play--."

He broke off, and looked at the Duchessa. She kept her eyes down.

"Yes--the play?" she questioned, in a low voice, after a little wait.

"The play was Monsieur Pailleron's 'Le monde ou l'on s'ennuie'," he said,

"Oh," said she, still keeping her eyes down. Her voice was still very low. But there was something in it that made Peter's heart leap.

"The next time I saw her," he began . . .

But then he had to stop. He felt as if the beating of his heart must suffocate him.

"Yes--the next time?" she questioned.

He drew a deep breath. He began anew--

"The next time was a week later, at the Opera. They were giving Lohengrin. She was with the same man and woman, and there was another, younger man. She had pearls round her neck and in her hair, and she had a cloak lined with white fur. She left before the opera was over. I did not see her again until the following May, when I saw her once or twice in London, driving in the Park. She was always with the same elderly Englishwoman, but the military-looking old Frenchman had disappeared. And then I saw her once more, a year later, in Paris, driving in the Bois."

The Duchessa kept her eyes down. She did not speak.

Peter waited as long as flesh-and-blood could wait, looking at her.

"Well?" he pleaded, at last. "That is all. Have you nothing to say to me?"

She raised her eyes, and for the tiniest fraction of a second they gave themselves to his. Then she dropped them again.

"You are sure," she asked, "you are perfectly sure that when, afterwards, you met her, and came to know her as she really is --you are perfectly sure there was no disappointment?"

"Disappointment!" cried Peter. "She is in every way immeasurably beyond anything that I was capable of dreaming. Oh, if you could see her, if you could hear her speak, if you could look into her eyes--if you could see her as others see her--you would not ask whether there was a disappointment. She is . . . No; the language is not yet invented, in which I could describe her."

The Duchessa smiled, softly, to herself.

"And you are in love with her--more or less?" she asked.

"I love her so that the bare imagination of being allowed to tell her of my love almost makes me faint with joy. But it is like the story of the poor squire who loved his queen. She is the greatest of great ladies. I am nobody. She is so beautiful, so splendid, and so high above me, it would be the maddest presumption for me to ask her for her love. To ask for the love of my Queen! And yet--Oh, I can say no more. God sees my heart. God knows how I love her."

"And it is on her account--because you think your love is hopeless--that you are going away, that you are going back to England?"

"Yes," said he.

She raised her eyes again, and again they gave themselves to his. There was something in them, there was a glow, a softness . . .

"Don't go," she said.

Up at the castle--Peter had hurried down to the villa, dressed, and returned to the castle to dine--he restored the snuff-box to Cardinal Udeschini.

"I am trebly your debtor for it," said the Cardinal.

The Cardinal's Snuff-Box - 39/39

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