Chapter 23




Alathea looked perfectly lovely when she came into the salon dressed for dinner. It is the first time I have seen her in anything pertaining to the evening. She had a gauzy tea-gown on, of a shade of blue like her eyes. Her nut brown hair was beautifully done, with the last "look" like Coralie's, showing her tiny head. Whether she likes it or no, I must give her some pearl earrings, and my mother's pearls. That will be a moment! But I had better wait a little while. Her eyes were shining with excitement or resentment, or a mixture of both. She was purely feminine. She intended to attract me I am certain, her subconscious mind did at all events, even though she would not have admitted it to herself. She was smarting still about Suzette. The situation fills her with distrust and uneasiness, but I know now, after analysing every point, when I could not sleep last night, that she is not really indifferent to me. And it is because she is not, that she is angry.

I registered a vow that I would make her love me without explaining about Suzette, fate can let her find out for herself.

I had not come to the comforting conclusion that she is not indifferent at the beginning of the evening though, so the sense of self-confidence and triumph did not uplift me then. I was still worried at the events of the afternoon.

I had troubled to put on a tail coat and white waistcoat, not a dinner jacket as usual, and had even a buttonhole of a gardenia, found by Burton for this great occasion!

I looked into her eyes with my one blue one, which is I suppose, as blue as her own. She instantly averted her glance.

"I cannot offer you my arm, milady," I said rather sarcastically, "So we will have to go in after each other."

She bowed and led the way.

The table was too beautifully decorated, and the dinner a masterpiece! while the champagne was iced to perfection, and the Burgundy a poem! The pupils of Alathea's eyes before the partridge came, were black as night. Burton discreetly marshalled Antoine out of the room each time after the dishes were handed.

"When will you get your new eye?" my wife--I like to write that!--asked in the first interval when we were alone, "and your new leg?"

"I suppose they will both be restored to me in a day or two. It will be so wonderful to walk again."

"I should think so."

Then something seemed to strike her suddenly, of how hateful it must all have been for me. Her hard expression changed and she almost whispered:

"It--will seem like a new life."

"I mean to make a new life, if you will help me. I want to get away from all the old useless days. I want to do things which are worth while."

"Shall you soon go into Parliament?"

"I suppose it will take a year or two, but we shall begin to pave the way directly we go back to England, and I hope that will be for Christmas."

She avoided looking at me. I could never catch her eye, but her adorable little profile was good enough to contemplate, the crisp curl by her ear delighted me, and another in the nape of her neck filled me with wild longings to kiss it, and the pearly skin beneath it!

I think I deserve great praise for the way I acted, for the whole thing was acting. I was cold, and as haughty and aloof as she was herself, but I used every art I knew of to draw her out and make her talk.

She is such a lady that she fell into the stride and spoke politely as if to some stranger who had taken her into dinner at a party.

At last we talked of the Duchesse, and we discussed her interesting character, such a marvel of the ancien régime!

"She is so very good and charitable," Alathea said, "and has always a twinkle in her eye which carries her through things."

"You laugh sometimes, too?" I asked with assumed surprise. "That is delightful! I adore the 'twinkle in the eye,' but I was afraid you would never unbend far enough so that we could laugh together!"

I think this offended her.

"Life would be impossible without a sense of humor, even if it is a grim one."

"Well, nothing need be grim any more, and we can both smile at the rather absurd situation between us, which, however, suits us both admirably. You will never interfere with me, or I with you."

"No--" There was a tone in this which let me feel that her thoughts had harked back to Suzette.

"The Duchesse is going to have a little tea party for us on Saturday, you know, so that you may be introduced as my wife."

Alathea became embarrassed at once.

"Will people know my real name?"

"No--we shall tell no stories, but we shall not be communicative. You will be introduced as an old English friend of the Duchesse's."

She looked at me for an instant and there was gratitude in her expression.

"Alathea, I want you to forget all about the troubles which must have clouded your life. They are all over now, and some day, perhaps you will introduce me to your mother and little sister."

"I will, of course when they come back from the South. My mother has often been so ill."

"I want you to feel that I would do anything for them. Are you sure they have all they want?"

She protested.

"Indeed--yes, far more. You have given too much already."

She raised her head with that indescribable little gesture of hauteur, which becomes her so beautifully. I could read her mind. It said, "I loathe receiving anything from him, with that woman in the background!"

When we went into the salon I wondered what she would do. I did not speak. She took my crutch and shook up my cushion, taking great care not to touch me. I could not look up. I knew that a powerful electric current would pass from my eye to hers, if I did, and that she would see that I was only longing to take her to my heart.

I remained silent and gazed into the fire. She sat down quietly on the sofa at the side, so that I would have to turn my head to look at her. Thus we remained for quite five minutes, speechless. The air throbbed with emotion. I dared not move.

At last she said, "Would you care that I should read to you again, or play?"

"Play for a little." My voice was chilly. I was quite determined the iciness should come from me first, not her, for a few days.

She went to the piano, and she began the Debussy she had played that afternoon when I had first asked her to play--I never can remember its name--and when she had finished she stopped.

"What made you play that now?" I asked.

"I felt like it."

"It wrenches my nerves. What makes you feel all unrestful and rebellious and defiant, Alathea, am I not keeping the bargain?"

"Yes, of course."

"You are bored to death then?"

"No, I am wondering."

"Wondering what?"

She did not answer. I could not see her without getting up out of my chair.

"Please come here," I asked in an indifferent cold voice. "You know it is so difficult for me to move."

She came back and sat down upon the sofa again. The light of the apricot lamp fell softly on her hair.

"Now tell me about what you were wondering."

Her mouth grew stubborn and she did not speak.

"It is so unlike you to do these very female things, beginning sentences and not going on. I never saw anyone so changed; once I looked upon you as the model for all that was balanced, and unlike your sex. It was I who used to feel nervous and ineffectual, now, ever since we have been engaged, you seem to be disturbed, and to have lost your serenity. Don't you think as it is the first evening that we are alone together that it would be a wise thing to try and get at each other's point of view? Tell me the truth Alathea, what has caused the alteration in you?"

Now she looked straight at me, and there was defiance in her expressive eyes.

"That is just what I was wondering about. It is true, I seem to have lost my serenity, I am self-conscious--I am conscious of you."

A delicious sensation of joy flowed through me, and the feeling of triumph began which is with me still. If she is conscious of me--!

"Do you mind if I smoke?" I asked with complete casualness to hide my emotions. She shook her head, and I lit a cigarette.

"You were uneasy because you did not trust me, you thought underneath there might be some trap, and that I would seize you once you belonged to me. There was a moment when I might have felt inclined to do so, though I would never have broken my word, but you have cured me of all that, and there is nothing to prevent our being quite good acquaintances,--even if your prejudice does not ever allow you to be friends."

For a second a blank look came into her expression. I was banking on my knowledge of the psychology of a human mind, the predatory instinct must inevitably be aroused in her by my attitude of indifference, if I can only act well enough and keep it up! I should certainly win in a fairly short space of time. But she is so attractive, I do not yet know if I shall have the strength of mind to do so.

"Are you not going to give me some regular work to do each day?" she asked with a tone of mock respect in her voice. "None of the letters have been answered lately, or the bills paid."

"Yes. I scrambled through them all myself while I was waiting, but if you will look over the book again, we might finally send it to a publisher."

"Very well."

"I don't want you to feel that you have ever to stay in or do any work you don't feel inclined for. We shall have lots of time, for the rest of our lives. No doubt to-morrow you would wish to spend with your mother, if she is going away."

"I said good-bye to her this morning. There is no need for me to go back. I came prepared to stay. Unless of course you would rather be alone, then I can go out for a walk." This last with a peculiar tone in the words.

"Naturally you will want to go for walks, and drives, and shopping. You don't imagine that I shall expect you to be a prisoner, just waiting on my beck and call!"

"Yes, that is how I took the bargain. It is quite unfair otherwise. I am here as a paid dependant and receiving really too high wages for any possible work I can give in return. I would not have entered into it otherwise or on any other terms. I loathe to receive favors."

"Madame Lucifer!"

She flashed blue sparks at me!

"I am not forced to command you to work you know," I went on "that is not part of the bargain, the bargain is entirely concerned with my not asking you to give me any favors, personal favors, like affection, or caresses, etcetera, or that I shall ever expect you to be really my wife."

She frowned.

"Well, you may put your mind entirely at rest, you have been so awfully disagreeable to me for so long, ever since we were at Versailles in the summer, that you don't attract me at all now, except your intellect and your playing. So if you will talk sometimes and play sometimes, that will be all right. I don't desire anything else. Now, assured about this, can't you be at ease and restful again?"

I know why she wore glasses. She cannot control the expression of her eyes! The pupils dilate and contract and tell one wonderful things! I know that this attitude of mine is having a powerful effect upon her, the feminine in her hates to feel that she has lost power over me--even over my senses. I could have laughed aloud, I was so pleased with my success, but I did not dare to look at her much, or I could never have kept the game up. She was more delectable than I can ever describe.

"It would interest me so much to know why your hands used to be so red," I asked after a little pause. "They are getting so much whiter now."

"I had work to do, dishes to wash, our old nurse was too ill, as well as my mother, and my little brother then--" there was a break in her soft voice. "I do not like red hands any more than you do. They distressed my father always. I will try to take care of them now."

"Yes--do."

The evening post had come in, and been put by Burton discreetly on a side table. He naturally thought such mundane things could not interest me on my wedding night. I caught sight of the little pile and asked Alathea to bring them to me.

She did. One from Coralie was lying on top and one immediately under it from Solonge de Clerté! Alathea saw that they were both in female writing. The rest were bills and business.

"Do you permit me to open them?" I asked punctiliously.

"Of course," and she reddened. "Are you not master here? How absurd to ask me!"

"It is not; you are Lady Thormonde, even if you are not my wife, and have a right to courtesy."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Why did you put--'To Alathea from her husband' on the bracelets? You are 'Sir Nicholas' and not my husband."

"It was a bêtise, a slip of the pen; I admit you are right," and indifferently I opened Coralie's effusion, smiling over it. I put up my hand as if to shade my eye, and looked at Alathea through the fingers. She was watching me with an expression of slightly anxious interest. I could almost have believed that she was jealous!

My triumph increased.

I removed my hand and appeared only to be intent upon Coralie's letter.

"Perhaps we each have friends which might bore the other, so when you want to have parties tell me, and I will arrange to go out, and when I want to, I will tell you. In that way we can never have any jars."

"Thank you, but I have no friends except the Duchesse, or very humble people who don't want to come to parties."

"But you will be making plenty of new friends now. I have some which you will meet out in the world which I daresay you won't care about, and some who come and dine with me sometimes, who probably you would dislike."

"Yes,--I know."

"How do you know?" I asked innocently, affecting surprise.

"I used to hear them when I was typing."

I smiled. I did not defend them.

"If you should chance to meet, would you be civil to them?"

"Of course, 'Coralie,' 'Odette,' and 'Alice,' the Duchesse has often described them all! It was 'Coralie' who came to talk to you at Versailles in the park, was it not?"

Her voice was contemptuously amused and indifferent, but her little nostrils quivered. Underneath she was disturbed I knew.

"Yes, Coralie is charming, she knows more about how to put clothes on becomingly than any other woman."

"Do they dine often? Because I could perhaps arrange to go and have my music lesson with Monsieur Trani on those evenings, twice a week or oftener?"

"You would refuse to meet them?" I pretended to be annoyed.

"Certainly not, one does not do ridiculous things like that. I will meet whoever you wish. I only thought it might spoil your pleasure if I were there, unless of course you have told them that I am only a permanent secretary masquerading under the name of your wife--so that they need not restrain themselves."

Her face had become inscrutable. She was quite calm now. I grew uncertain again for a moment. Had I carried the bluff far enough?

"They have all quite charming manners, but as you infer they might not be so amused to come to the dinner of a married man. I think the last part of your speech was rather a reflection upon my sense of being a gentleman though. I of course have not informed anyone of our quaint relations.--But remember you told me once you did not think I was a gentleman, so I must not be offended now."

She did not speak, she was looking down and her eyelashes made a shadow on her cheeks. Her mouth was sad.

Suddenly something pathetic about her touched me. She is such a gallant little fighter. She has had such an ugly cruel life, and Oh! God she is growing to love me, and soon shall I be able to tell her that I worship the ground she walks on, and appreciate her proud spirit and great self-respect? But I cannot chance anything. I must go on and follow what I know to be sound psychological reasoning.

I felt my will weakening then, she looked so perfectly exquisite there in the corner of the sofa. We were alone.--It was nearly ten o'clock at night, the flowers were scenting the air, the lights were soft, the dinner had been perfection. After all I am a man, and she legally belongs to me. I felt the blood rushing wildly in my veins. I had to clench my hands and shut my eye.

"I expect you are tired now," I said a little breathlessly. "So I will say good-night--Milady, and hope that you will sleep well the first night in your new home."

I got up and she came forward quickly to hand me my crutch.

"Good-night," she whispered quite low, but she never looked at me, then she turned and went slowly from the room, never glancing back. And when she had gone instead of going to bed I once more sank into my chair. I felt queerly faint, my nerves are not sound yet I expect.

Well, what a strange wedding night!

Burton's face was a mask when he came to undress me. Among the many strange scenes he has witnessed and assisted at, after forty years spent in ministering to the caprices of the aristocracy, I believe he thinks this is the strangest!

When I was in bed and he was about to go, I suddenly went into a peal of bitter laughter. He stopped near the door.

"Beg pardon, Sir Nicholas?" he said as though I had called to him.

"Aren't women the weirdest things in the world, Burton!"

"They are indeed, Sir Nicholas," and he smiled. "One and all, from Mam'zelle to ladies like her Ladyship, they do like to feel that a man belongs to themselves."

"You think that is it, Burton?"

"Not a doubt of it, Sir Nicholas."

"How do you know them so well, never having married, you old scallywag!"

"Perhaps that's why, Sir. A married man looses his spirit like--and his being able to see!"

"I seem lonely, don't I Burton," and I laughed again.

"You do, Sir Nicholas, but if I may make so bold as to say so, I don't think you will be so very long. Her Ladyship sent out for a cup of tea directly she got to her room."

And with an indescribable look of blank innocence in his dear old eyes, this philosopher, and profound student of women, respectfully left the room!




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