THE woman was alone in a wilderness of beautiful rooms. A thousand electric lights shone upon the polished floor of the white-and-gold ball-room. The ante-room was delicately fragrant with the perfume of roses; even the great staircase was banked with flowers. Servants in the livery of a great House were standing motionless in a long line; a little subdued whispering passed from one to the other. At the head of the stairs waited Jean Moussin, prince of major-domos, to-night, unlike himself, white and anxious.
"What does it mean, Monsieur Moussin?" a black-robed lady's-maid whispered in his ear. "Ten o'clock has struck, we are all prepared, and no one comes. There is not a carriage in the courtyard; the silence is as of the grave. What does it mean, Monsieur Moussin?"
Jean Moussin was grey about the face, and his voice shook. The honour of the House was his honour.
"Run away, foolish child!" he exclaimed. "You will be busy enough immediately. The clocks are fast. Run back, and do not chatter!"
The major-domo walked restlessly to and fro. The sound of carriage-wheels in the courtyard would have seemed the sweetest music to him. How wide the door would have stood open; how low his bow! But from without there came no sound at all. In the music-room behind the ball-room someone was playing the violin.
A servant touched him on the shoulder.
"Madame la Comtesse would speak with you, Monsieur Moussin!"
"I attend Madame," the old man murmured.
At once he turned to obey this summons. He passed with bowed head through the stately reception-room, around which only a short half hour ago he had gazed with pride and pleasure. The perfume of the flowers, the soft splendour of the tapestry (a King's legacy), the glittering vista of the ball-room beyond—all these things now went for nothing. There was a ghostliness about these silent rooms, the great, empty floor polished so perfectly for the feet of the dancers. Madame la Comtesse stood alone.
She herself was the most beautiful thing there, save that in her face, as she moved forward to meet Moussin, was the look of a frightened child. She was radiant in white and pearls; in her eyes and features the undimmed splendour of youth; in her carriage and swift, graceful gestures the charm and dignity of the woman of culture and fashion. Moussin bowed low before her and stood silent.
"Moussin," she exclaimed, "what is the meaning of this? I do not understand. Are all the clocks wrong? Has anything happened outside?"
"Madame," he answered, slowly, "the clocks are right. It is a quarter past ten."
She moved impetuously to one of the six high windows and raised the blind. Beneath was a courtyard—empty. The gates were thrown wide open, and servants stood on either side—waiting. Outside in the street the stream of vehicles flowed steadily on. She dropped the blind.
"Moussin," she said, "you made no mistake in the date?"
Moussin shook his head sorrowfully.
"Madame," he said, "I have examined the card. The date is correct. Many of the journals, too, have announced that Madame receives to-night. Ah!"
He sprang to the window. The sound of wheels echoed up from the courtyard. Alas, it was but a single brougham! No other carriages followed it. The long line of vehicles which in the old days had blocked the street was absent. Moussin also let fall the blind and turned dejectedly around.
"Madame," he said, "would it not be well if I announced to this single visitor that Madame la Comtesse is indisposed and does not receive to-night?"
She shook her head. She had not the blood of a race of conquerors in her veins for nothing. She moved towards the reception-room.
"By no means, Moussin! I will see who this daring visitor may be. Besides," she added, resting her small white hand tenderly for a moment upon his shoulder, "it would be useless. All Paris will know of this to-morrow."
Moussin hurried forward. A little sob caught in his throat. Up the stairs a tall, well-groomed young Englishmen made his wondering way. A dozen servants sprang forward to receive his coat and hat. Save for those violins somewhere in the background, there was a great hush everywhere. And this, he had been told, was to be the greatest function of the Season in Paris—the reappearance into Society of the beautiful young widow of Armand, Count of Bordière.
Moussin bowed low before him, and remained deaf to his whispered interrogation.
"Lord Herbert Wentworth!"
She moved a step forward to meet him. He, of all other men, to come thus. He held her fingers and looked straight into her eyes. It was his way, this.
"Muriel!" he exclaimed. "What does it mean?"
"It means that you have stumbled into a tragedy, my dear Lord Herbert," she answered. "Will you give me your arm?"
They walked slowly up the long, still ball-room.
"But what does it mean?" he repeated. "Have I mistaken the date? I have come over from London to be here—crossed this afternoon. All Paris was talking last week about your reception to-night."
"It means—I do not know exactly what it means," she answered. "Hush!"
They entered the music-room. The musicians were standing about talking in little groups. Martoni—the great Martoni—was lounging in an easy-chair, smoking a cigarette. He rose at once at their entrance. She looked upon them coldly.
"Signor Martoni," she said, "will you be good enough to play?"
He was obviously amazed.
"But—the audience, Madame!"
"Your audience is here," she answered.
From the music-chamber they passed back into a small ante-room leading from the ball-room. The sound of the violin pursued them. Martoni, who played only for thousands, played for them.
She motioned her companion to sit by her side.
"I will tell you what I know," she said, quietly. "Afterwards I must ask you to go away. This afternoon, Armand's aunt, the Princess of Nemurs, was here. She asked me some questions."
"My married life, as you know," she continued, speaking with perfect self-possession, "was a magnificent failure. It appears to me now that Armand paused only in the midst of a career of dissipation to secure my wealth, by marriage, and immediately returned to—the irregularities of his former life. I bore all that I considered a self-respecting woman should bear—nay, more—but there were limits, and he reached them. I objected to provide the wardrobe and jewellery for his little dancers. My father and his father before him worked hard and honestly for their wealth, and it seemed to me sacrilegious to see it squandered in such a fashion. So, as you know, I left my husband."
"You were right," he murmured. "I will not speak ill of the dead, but men knew him for what he was."
"I lived alone and quietly. I did my best to avoid all scandal. You yourself know, Lord Herbert, that I did not wholly succeed."
"I admit nothing of the sort," he answered, firmly. "In Paris they would gossip of the angels."
For the first time her voice shook a little. Lower and lower grew the music of the violins. To him its song seemed to have become blended with the story she told, for, though her words were cold and measured, he, at any rate, was conscious of the passion surging underneath.
"My dear friend," she said, "I will accept your belief in me as a blessed gift. I will not tell you the story of that man Lessault as I have had to tell it to-day to the Princess.
She asked you to tell her?" he exclaimed.
"She asked me for the truth. She said that there had been talk. It was better for her to know. To every word I spoke she listened with a cold smile. When I had finished I had a horrible fear. I was not sure whether she believed me. And other callers came. She went away without a word. And to-night—see?"
There was a crash from the violin. Madame stretched out her hand. She pointed to the empty rooms. The hot colour flushed in the young Englishman's cheeks. He would have spoken, but she stopped him imperiously.
"Armand's relations all hated me for leaving him," she said, slowly. "I allowed him five thousand pounds a-year, and they called it beggary. Then there was his last strange wish, the only wish he expressed about me, that I should live in Paris—that, after my year of mourning was over, that I should come back amongst his friends. I detested it! I wished to go back to America—or England; but after those last words of his, how could I? Cannot you see, Lord Herbert, what I am forced to think? This is his revenge – his and theirs. Oh, it is such a hateful thought! I wanted to think kindly of him, and the Princess was always gracious to me. Yet -"
He interrupted her.
"It looks pretty bad," he admitted, cheerfully, "although I never thought the Princess would stoop to such a thing. But, after all, every tragedy has its lucky side for someone, and I should never have had this tête-à-tête with you if your rooms had been crowded with guests."
"Your tête-à-tête appears to be assured," Madame la Comtesse remarked, with a faint smile. "You may even look forward to taking me in to supper."
"Oh but I am serious—very serious, Muriel!" he said, suddenly leaning towards her. "You know why I came the moment you would see me. I have been very patient, but I cannot wait any longer."
"Do you mean that you want to go?" she asked, looking at him with wide-open eyes
"You know what I mean!" he answered, vigorously. "I want you to marry me."
She drew a little away from him.
"After this?" she murmured, waving her fan towards the ball-room.
He laughed scornfully.
"In England," he said, "there will be nothing of this sort to fear. I do not think that anyone whom the Duchess of Middlesex bids to her house will hesitate about coming, and there is no one whom my mother cares for as she does for you."
She was silent. He saw that her composure was broken at last. She was trembling all over.
"Herbert," she whispered, "I—but this hurts me. I cannot bear to come to you now. People will say that you married me out of pity—or for my money."
He bent over her and kissed her.
"Let them say what they will, dear," he whispered. "What do I care so long as the woman I love—?"
They sprang guiltily apart. They looked at one another, and the Countess's hands flew to her hair. He pulled up the blind.
"Why, all Paris is here!" he cried. "Look!"
A carriage was standing before the door. The courtyard and street were blocked with an endless succession of vehicles. Across the ball-room floor came old Moussin, stumbling with haste and with the tears streaming down his face.
"Madame, Madame!" he exclaimed, "it is the printer! He should be guillotined, the miscreant! The cards said eleven till two, not ten, and I—idiot that I am! - I looked not at the time. It wants still a quarter of an hour, and the streets are impassable—a sight marvellous indeed! Madame will receive?"
"Certainly, Moussin," she answered, calmly. "I am prepared."
She moved forward. Lord Herbert stayed by her side.
"But you!" she exclaimed. "How is it that you are here an hour before your time?"
"I never looked at the card," he admitted. "I arrived at nine, and I simply hurried here."
"It was good fortune indeed," she murmured, with a faint, sweet smile. "You have had your tête-à-tête, and you have helped me through a bad half-hour. Please stand a little further away from me, and look as though you had just arrived."
Moussin, erect and dignified, bowed low at the entrance. Never had he possessed more of the grand manner, never had his voice sounded more full and imposing.
" Monsieur et Madame le Prince et Princesse de Nemurs!" he announced. "Madame la Duchesse de Genares! His Excellency the Duke of Estferel!"
Moussin paused, for he had need of his breath. Behind, the staircases were packed. The courtyard and street were blocked. The guests of Madame la Comtesse had arrived.