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The financier paused in his restless pacing as he heard the door open
and stood perfectly still, with his back to the light. The woman
advanced and also stood still, and they looked at one another with no
great love in their eyes, though she who had entered was well worth
looking at, from a number of points of view. Firstly, she had that
arresting, compelling personality which does not depend upon features,
or coloring, or form, or beauty. A subtle force of character--a
radiating magnetism--breathed from her whole being. When Zara Shulski
came into any assemblage of people conversation stopped and speculation
She was rather tall and very slender; and yet every voluptuous curve of
her lithe body refuted the idea of thinness. Her head was small and her
face small, and short, and oval, with no wonderfully chiseled features,
only the skin was quite exceptional in its white purity--not the purity
of milk, but the purity of rich, white velvet, or a gardenia petal. Her
mouth was particularly curved and red and her teeth were very even, and
when she smiled, which was rarely, they suggested something of great
strength, though they were small and white. And now I am coming to her
two wonders, her eyes and her hair. At first you could have sworn the
eyes were black; just great pools of ink, or disks of black velvet, set
in their broad lids and shaded with jet lashes, but if they chanced to
glance up in the full light then you knew they were slate color, not a
tinge of brown or green--the whole iris was a uniform shade: strange,
slumberous, resentful eyes, under straight, thick, black brows, the
expression full of all sorts of meanings, though none of them peaceful
or calm. And from some far back Spanish-Jewess ancestress she probably
got that glorious head of red hair, the color of a ripe chestnut when it
falls from its shell, or a beautifully groomed bright bay horse. The
heavy plaits which were wound tightly round her head must have fallen
below her knees when they were undone. Her coiffure gave you the
impression that she never thought of fashion, nor changed its form of
dressing, from year to year. And the exquisite planting of the hair on
her forehead, as it waved back in broad waves, added to the perfection
of the Greek simplicity of the whole thing. Nothing about her had been
aided by conscious art. Her dress, of some black clinging stuff, was
rather poor, though she wore it with the air of a traditional empress.
Indeed, she looked an empress, from the tips of her perfect fingers to
her small arched feet.
And it was with imperial hauteur that she asked in a low, cultivated
voice with no accent:
"Well, what is it? Why have you sent for me thus peremptorily?"
The financier surveyed her for a moment; he seemed to be taking in all
her points with a fresh eye. It was almost as though he were counting
them over to himself--and his thoughts ran: "You astonishingly
attractive devil. You have all the pride of my father, the Emperor. How
he would have gloried in you! You are enough to drive any man mad: you
shall be a pawn in my game for the winning of my lady and gain
happiness for yourself, so in the end, Elinka, if she is able to see
from where she has gone, will not say I have been cruel to you."
"I asked you to come down--to discuss a matter of great importance: Will
you be good enough to be seated, my niece," he said aloud with
ceremonious politeness as he drew forward a chair--into which she sank
without more ado and there waited, with folded hands, for him to
continue. Her stillness was always as intense as his own, but whereas
his had a nervous tension of conscious repression, hers had an
unconscious, quiet force. Her father had been an Englishman, but both
uncle and niece at moments made you feel they were silent panthers,
ready to spring.
"So--" was all she said.
And Francis Markrute went on:
"You have a miserable position--hardly enough to eat at times, one
understands. You do not suppose I took the trouble to send for you from
Paris last week, for nothing, do you? You guessed I had some plan in my
"Naturally," she said, with fine contempt. "I did not mistake it for
"Then it is well, and we can come to the point," he went on. "I am sorry
I have had to be away, since your arrival, until yesterday. I trust my
servants have made you comfortable?"
"Quite comfortable," she answered coldly.
"Good: now for what I want to know. You have no doubt in your mind that
your husband, Count Ladislaus Shulski, is dead? There is no possible
mistake in his identity? I believe the face was practically shot away,
was it not? I have taken the precaution to inform myself upon every
point, from the authorities at Monte Carlo, but I wish for your final
"Ladislaus Shulski is dead," she said quietly, in a tone as though it
gave her pleasure to say it. "The woman F�to caused the fray, Ivan
Larski shot him in her arms; he was her lover who paid, and Ladislaus
the _amant du coeur_ for the moment. She wailed over the body like a
squealing rabbit. She was there lamenting his fine eyes when they sent
for me! They were gone for ever, but no one could mistake his curly
hair, nor his cruel, white hands. Ah! it was a scene of disgust! I have
witnessed many ugly things but that was of the worst. I do not wish to
talk of it; it is passed a year ago. F�to heaped his grave with flowers,
and joined the hero, Larski, who was allowed to escape, so all was
"And since then you have lived from hand to mouth, with those others."
And here Francis Markrute's voice took on a new shade: there was a cold
hate in it.
"I have lived with my little brother, Mirko, and Mimo. How could I
desert them? And sometimes we have found it hard at the end of the
quarter--but it was not always as bad as that, especially when Mimo sold
"I will not hear his name!" Francis Markrute said with some excitement.
"In the beginning, if I could have found him I would have killed him, as
you know, but now the carrion can live, since my sister is dead. He is
not worth powder and shot."
The Countess Shulski gave the faintest shrug of her shoulders, while her
eyes grew blacker with resentment. She did not speak. Francis Markrute
stood by the mantelpiece, and lit a cigar before he continued; he knew
he must choose his words as he was dealing with no helpless thing.
"You are twenty-three years old, Zara, and you were married at
sixteen," he said at last. "And up to thirteen at least I know you were
very highly educated--You understand something of life, I expect."
"Life!" she said--and now there was a concentrated essence of bitterness
in her voice. "_Mon Dieu!_ Life--and men!"
"Yes, you probably think you know men."
She lifted her upper lip a little, and showed her even teeth--it was
like an animal snarling.
"I know that they are either selfish weaklings, or cruel, hateful brutes
like Ladislaus, or clever, successful financiers like you, my uncle.
That is enough! Something we women must be always sacrificed to."
"Well, you don't know Englishmen--"
"Yes, I remember my father very well; cold and hard to my darling
mother"--and here her voice trembled a little--"he only thought of
himself, and to rush to England for sport--and leave her alone for
months and months: selfish and vile--all of them!"
"In spite of that I have found you an English husband whom you will be
good enough to take, madame," Francis Markrute announced
She gave a little laugh--if anything so mirthless could be called a
"You have no power over me; I shall do no such thing."
"I think you will," the financier said with quiet assurance, "if I know
you. There are terms, of course--"
She glanced at him sharply: the expression in those somber eyes was
often alert like a wild animal's, about to be attacked; only she had
trained herself generally to keep the lids lowered.
"What are the terms?" she asked.
And as she spoke Francis Markrute thought of the black panther in the
Zoo, which he was so fond of going to watch on Sunday mornings, she
reminded him so of the beast at the moment.
He had been constrained up to this, but now, the question being one of
business, all his natural ease of manner returned, and he sat down
opposite her and blew rings of smoke from his cigar.
"The terms are that the boy Mirko, your half-brother, shall be provided
for for life. He shall live with decent people, and have his talent
He stopped abruptly and remained silent.
Countess Shulski clasped her hands convulsively in her lap, and with all
the pride and control of her voice there was a note of anguish, too,
which would have touched any heart but one so firmly guarded as Francis
"Ah, God!" she said so low that he could only just hear her, "I have
paid the price of my body and soul once for them. It is too much to ask
it of me a second time--"
"That is as you please," said the financier.
He seldom made a mistake in his methods with people. He left nothing to
chance; he led up the conversation to the right point, fired his bomb,
and then showed absolute indifference. To display interest in a move,
when one was really interested, was always a point to the adversary. He
maintained interest could be simulated when necessary, but must never be
shown when real. So he left his niece in silence, while she pondered
over his bargain, knowing full well what would be the result. She got up
from her chair and leaned upon the back of it, while her face looked
white as death in the dying afternoon's light.
"Can you realize what my life was like with Ladislaus?" she hissed. "A
plaything for his brutal pleasures, to begin with; a decoy duck to trap
the other men, I found afterwards; tortured and insulted from morning to
night. I hated him always, but he seemed so kind beforehand--kind to my
darling mother, whom you were leaving to die."--Here Francis Markrute
winced and a look of pain came into his hard face while he raised a hand
in protest and then dropped it again, as his niece went on--"And she
was beginning to be ill even at that time and we were so poor--so I
Then she swept toward the door with her empress air, the rather shabby,
dark dress making a swirl behind her; and as she got there she turned
and spoke again, with her hand on the bronze tracery of the fingerplate,
making, unconsciously, a highly dramatic picture, as a sudden last ray
of the sinking sun shot out and struck the glory of her hair, turning it
to flame above her brow.
"I tell you it is too much," she said, with almost a sob in her voice.
"I will not do it." And then she went out and closed the door.
Francis Markrute, left alone, leant back in his chair and puffed his
cigar calmly while he mused.
What strange things were women! Any man could manage them if only he
reckoned with their temperaments when dealing with them, and paid no
heed to their actual words. Francis Markrute was a philosopher. A number
of the shelves of this, his library, were filled with works on the
subject of philosophy, and a well-thumbed volume of the fragments of
Epicurus lay on a table by his side. He picked it up now and read: "He
who wastes his youth on high feeding, on wine, on women, forgets that he
is like a man who wears out his overcoat in the summer." He had not
wasted his youth either on wine or women, only he had studied both, and
their effects upon the thing which, until lately, had interested him
most in the world--himself. They could both be used to the greatest
advantage and pleasure by a man who apprehended things he knew.
Then he turned to the _Morning Post_ which was on a low stand near, and
he read again a paragraph which had pleased him at breakfast:
"The Duke of Glastonbury and Lady Ethelrida Montfitchet entertained at
dinner last night a small party at Glastonbury House, among the guests
being--" and here he skipped some high-sounding titles and let his eye
feast upon his own name, "Mr. Francis Markrute."
Then he smiled and gazed into the fire, and no one would have recognized
his hard, blue eyes, as he said softly:
"Ethelrida! _belle et blonde!_"
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