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ARNOLD SPEAKS OUT
Ruth was still alone, and her welcome was almost pathetic. She stretched out her arms--long, thin arms they seemed in the tight black sleeves of her worn gown. She had discarded her carefully mended gloves and her hands were bare.
"Arnold," she murmured, "how long you have been away!"
He threw himself on the grass by her side.
"Silly little woman!" he answered. "Don't tell me that you are not enjoying it?"
"It is all wonderful," she whispered, "but can't you see that I am out of place? When could we go, Arnie?"
"Are you so anxious to get away?" he asked, lazily.
"In a way, I should be content to stay here for ever," she answered. "If you and I only could be here--why, Arnold, it is like Heaven! Just close your eyes as I have been doing--like that. Now listen. There isn't any undernote, none of that ceaseless, awful monotony of sound that seems like the falling of weary men's feet upon the eternal pavement. Listen--there is a bird singing somewhere in that tree, and the water goes lapping and lapping and lapping, as though it had something pleasant to say but were too lazy to say it. And every now and then, if you listen very intently, you can hear laughing voices through the trees there from the river, laughter from people who are happy, who are sailing on somewhere to find their city of pleasure. And the perfumes, Arnold! I don't know what the rose garden is like, but even from here I can smell it. It is wonderful."
"Yet you ask me when we are going," he reminded her.
She shivered for a moment.
"It is not my world," she declared. "I am squeezed for a moment into a little corner of it, but it is not mine and I have nothing to do with it. She is so beautiful, that woman, and so gracious. She talks to me out of pity, but when I first came she looked at me and there was a challenge in her eyes. What did it mean, Arnold? Is she fond of you? Is she going to be fond of you?"
He laughed, a little impatiently.
"My dear Ruth," he said, "she is my employer's wife. She has been kind to me because I think that she is naturally kind, and because lately she has not found among her friends many people of her own age. Beyond that, there is nothing; there is never likely to be anything. She mixes in a world where she can have all the admiration she desires, and all the friends."
"Yet she looks at you," Ruth persisted, in a troubled tone, "as though she had some claim; as though I, even poor I, were an interloper for the tiny share I might have of your thoughts or sympathy. I do not understand it."
He touched her hand lightly with his.
"You are too sensitive, dear," he said, "and a little too imaginative. You must remember that she is half a foreigner. Her moods change every moment, and her expression with them. She was curious to see you. I have tried to explain to her what friends we are. I am sure that her interest is a friendly one."
A motor horn immediately behind startled them both. They turned their heads. A very handsome car, driven by a man in white livery, had swept up the little drive and had come to a standstill in front of the hall door. From the side nearest to them Count Sabatini descended, and stood for a moment looking around him. The car moved on towards the stables. Sabatini came slowly across the lawn.
"Who is it?" she whispered. "How handsome he is!"
"He is Mrs. Weatherley's brother--Count Sabatini," Arnold replied.
He came very slowly and, recognizing Arnold, waved his gray Homburg hat with a graceful salute. He was wearing cool summer clothes of light gray, with a black tie, boots with white linen gaiters, and a flower in his coat. Even after his ride from London he looked immaculate and spotless. He greeted Arnold kindly and without any appearance of surprise.
"I heard that you were to be here," he said. "My sister told me of her little plot. I hope that you approve of my bungalow?"
"I think that it is wonderful," Arnold answered. "I have never seen anything of the river before--this part of it, at any rate."
Sabatini turned slightly towards Ruth, as though expecting an introduction. His lips were half parted; he had the air of one about to make a remark. Then suddenly a curious change seemed to come over his manner. His natural ease seemed to have entirely departed. He stood stiff and rigid, and there was something forbidding in his face as he looked down at the girl who had glanced timidly towards him. A word--it was inaudible but it sounded like part of a woman's name--escaped him. He had the appearance, during those few seconds, of a man who looks through the present into a past world. It was all over before even they could appreciate the situation. With a little smile he had leaned down towards Ruth.
"You will do me the honor," he murmured, "of presenting me to your companion?"
Arnold spoke a word or two of introduction. Sabatini pulled up a chair and sat down at once by the girl's side. He had seen the stick and seemed to have taken in the whole situation in a moment.
"Please be very good-natured," he begged, turning to Arnold, "and go and find my sister. She will like to know that I am here. I am going to talk to Miss Lalonde for a time, if she will let me. You don't mind my being personal?" he went on, his voice soft with sympathy. "I had a very dear cousin once who was unable to walk for many years, and since then it has always interested me to find any one suffering in the same way."
There was a simple directness about his speech which seemed to open the subject so naturally that Ruth found herself talking without effort of her accident, and the trouble it had brought. They drifted so easily into conversation that Arnold left them almost at once. He had only a little distance to go before he found Fenella returning. She was carrying a great handful of roses which she had just gathered, and to his relief there was no expression of displeasure in her face. Perhaps, though, he reflected with a sinking heart, she had understood!
"Your brother has just arrived," he announced. "I think that he has motored down from London. He wished me to let you know that he was here."
"Where is he?" she asked.
"He is on the lawn, talking to Miss Lalonde," Arnold replied.
"I will go to them presently," she said. "In the meantime, you are to make yourself useful, if you please," she added, holding out the roses. "Take these into the house, will you, and give them to one of the women."
He took them from her.
"With pleasure! And then, if you will excuse us,--"
"I excuse no word which is spoken concerning your departure," she declared. "To-night I give a little fête. We change our dinner into what you call supper, and we will have the dining table moved out under the trees there. You and your little friend must stop, and afterwards my brother will take you back to London in his car, or I will send you up in my own."
"You are too kind," Arnold answered. "I am afraid--"
"You are to be afraid of nothing," she interrupted, mockingly. "Is that not just what I have been preaching to you? You have too many fears for your height, my friend."
"We will put it another way, then. I was thinking of Miss Lalonde. She is not strong, and I think it is time we were leaving. If you could send us so far as the railway station--"
"There are no trains that leave here," she asserted; "at least, I never heard of them. I shall go and talk to her myself. We shall see. No, on second thoughts, she is too interested. You and I will walk to the house together. That is one thing," she continued, "which I envy my brother, which makes me admire him so much. I think he is the most charmingly sympathetic person I ever met. Illness of any sort, or sickness, seems to make a woman of him. I never knew a child or a woman whose interest or sympathy he could not win quickly."
"It is a wonderful thing to say of any man, that," Arnold remarked.
"Wonderful?" she repeated. "Why, yes! So far as regards children, at any rate. You know they say--one of the writers in my mother's country said--that men are attracted by beauty, children by goodness; and women by evil. It is of some such saying that you are thinking. Now I shall leave these flowers in the hall and ring the bell. Tell me, would you like me to show you my books?"
She laid her fingers upon the white door of her little drawing-room and looked at him.
"If you do not mind," he replied, "I should like to hear what Ruth says about going."
This time she frowned. She stood looking at him for a moment. Arnold's face was very square and determined, but there were still things there which she appreciated.
"You are very formal, to-day," she declared. "You give too many of your thoughts to your little friend. I do not think that you are treating me kindly. I should like to sit with you in my room and to talk to you of my books. Look, is it not pretty?"
She threw open the door. It was a tiny little apartment, in which all the appointments and the walls were white, except for here and there a little French gilded furniture of the best period. A great bowl of scarlet geraniums stood in one corner. Though the windows were open, the blinds were closely drawn, so that it was almost like twilight.
"You won't come for five minutes?" she begged.
"Yes!" he answered, almost savagely. "Come in and shut the door. I want to talk to you--not about your books. Yes, let us sit down--where you will. That couch is big enough for both of us."
The sudden change in his manner was puzzling. The two had changed places. The struggle was at an end, but it was scarcely as a victim that Arnold leaned towards her.
"Give me your hands," he said.
"Arnold!" she whispered.
He took them both and drew her towards him.
"What is it you want?" he asked. "Not me--I know that. You are beautiful, you know that I admire you, you know that a day like this is like a day out of some wonderful fairy story for me. I am young and foolish, I suppose, just as easily led away as most young men are. Do you want to make me believe impossible things? You look at me from the corners of your eyes and you laugh. Do you want to make use of me in any way? You're not a flirt. You are a wife, and a good wife. Do you know that men less impressionable than I have been made slaves for life by women less beautiful than you, without any effort on their part, even? No, I won't be laughed at! This is reality! What is it you want?" He leaned towards her. "Do you want me to kiss you? Do you want me to hold you in my arms? I could do it. I should like to do it. I will, if you tell me to. Only afterwards--"
"I shall do what I should have done if your husband hadn't taken me into his office--I should enlist," he said. "I mayn't be particularly ambitious, but I've no idea of hanging about, a penniless adventurer, dancing at a woman's heels. Be honest with me. At heart I do believe in you, Fenella. What is it you want?"
She leaned back on the couch and laughed. It was no longer the subtle, provoking laugh of the woman of the world. She laughed frankly and easily, with all the lack of restraint to which her twenty-four years entitled her.
"My dear boy," she declared, "you have conquered. I give in. You have seen through me. I am a fraud. I have been trying the old tricks upon you because I am very much a woman, because I want you to be my slave and to do the things I want you to do and live in the world I want you to live in, and I was jealous of this companion for whose sake you would not accept my invitation. Now I am sane again. I see that you are not to be treated like other and more foolish young men. My brother wants you. He wants you for a companion, he wants you to help him in many ways. He has been used to rely upon me in such cases. I have my orders to place you there." She pointed to her feet. "Alas, that I have failed!" she added, laughing once more. "But, Arnold, we shall be friends?"
"Willingly," he answered, with an immense sense of relief. "Only remember this. I may have wisdom enough to see the lure, but I may not always have strength enough not to take it. I have spoken to you in a moment of sanity, but--well, you are the most compellingly beautiful person I ever saw, and compellingly beautiful women have never made a habit of being kind to me, so please--"
"Don't do it any more," she interrupted. "Is that it?"
"As you like."
"Now I am going to put a piece of scarlet geranium in your buttonhole, and I am going to take you out into the garden and hand you over to my brother, and tell him that my task is done, that you are my slave, and that he has only to speak and you will go out into the world with a revolver in one hand and a sword in the other, and wear any uniform or fight in any cause he chooses. Come!"
"You know," Arnold said, as they left the room, "I don't know any man I admire so much as your brother, but I am almost as frightened of him as I am of you."
"One who talks of fear so glibly," she answered, "seldom knows anything about it."
"There are as many different sorts of fear as there are different sorts of courage," he remarked.
"How we are improving!" she murmured. "We shall begin moralizing soon. Presently I really think we shall compare notes about the books we have read and the theatres we have been to, and before we are gray-headed I think one of us will allude to the weather. Now isn't my brother a wonderful man? Look at that flush upon Miss Lalonde's cheeks. Aren't you jealous?"
Sabatini rose to his feet and greeted his sister after his own fashion, holding both her hands and kissing her on both cheeks.
"If only," he sighed, "our family had possessed morals equal to their looks, what a race we should have been! But, my dear sister,--a question of taste only,--you should leave Doucet and Paquin at home when you come to my bungalow."
"You men never altogether understand," she replied. "Nothing requires a little artificial aid so much as nature. It is the piquancy of the contrast, you see. That is why the decorations of Watteau are the most wonderful in the world. He knew how to combine the purely, exquisitely artificial with the entirely simple. Now to break the news to Miss Lalonde!"
Ruth turned a smiling face towards her.
"It is to say that our fête day is at an end," she said, looking for her stick.
"Fête days do not end at six o'clock in the afternoon," Fenella replied. "I want you to be very kind and give us all a great deal of pleasure. We want to make a little party--you and Mr. Chetwode, my brother, myself and Mr. Weatherley--and dine under that cedar tree, just as we are. We are going to call it supper. Then, afterwards, you will have a ride back to London in the cool air. Either my brother will take you, or we will send a car from here."
"It is a charming idea," Sabatini said. "Miss Lalonde, you will not be unkind?"
She hesitated only for a moment. They saw her glance at her frock, the little feminine struggle, and the woman's conquest.
"If you really mean it," she said, "why, of course, I should love it. It is no good my pretending that if I had known I should have been better prepared," she continued, "because it really wouldn't have made any difference. If you don't mind--"
"Then it is settled!" Sabatini exclaimed. "My young friend Arnold is now going to take me out upon the river. I trust myself without a tremor to those shoulders."
Arnold rose to his feet with alacrity.
"You get into the boat-house down that path," Sabatini continued. "There is a comfortable punt in which I think I could rest delightfully, or, if you prefer to scull, I should be less comfortable, but resigned."
"It shall be the punt," Arnold decided, with a glance at the river. "Won't any one else come with us?"
Fenella shook her head.
"I am going to talk to Miss Lalonde," she said. "After we have had an opportunity of witnessing your skill, Mr. Chetwode, we may trust ourselves another time. Au revoir!"
They watched the punt glide down the stream, a moment or two later, Sabatini stretched between the red cushions with a cigarette in his mouth, Arnold handling his pole like a skilled waterman.
"You like my brother?" Fenella asked.
The girl looked at her gratefully.
"I think that he is the most charming person I ever knew in my life," she declared.
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