The Countess Decides
THE COUNTESS DECIDES.
By ROBERT BARR.
THE arrival of the Countess caused a subdued flutter in the society which frequented the edge of the desert. The Ptolemy Park Hotel, as everyone knows, occupies a depression in the sand a short distance from the Great Pyramid. It is rather a fashionable resort, and you may live somewhat better at the Park than on the sand which is there, as the ancient humorist remarked. It became known that the Countess of Croydon had taken a suite of rooms at the hotel, and the inhabitants thereof wondered whether they would be permitted a sight of this great lady, for she was said to be extremely eccentric, fairly young, admittedly beautiful, and undoubtedly rich. Although she owned a desirable town house, she had never occupied it, and London Society knew nothing of her personality. At last this mysterious young lady was about to issue from her seclusion and brave the publicity of a popular hotel. Naturally the guests of the Ptolemy Park were anxious to see a person so much talked of, and bets stood at ten to one that she would not come. The knowing ones, predicting disappointment, said that on several previous occasions the Countess had been announced to appear at certain social functions in London, but invariably had failed at the last moment. Her apartments had unquestionably been taken, and rooms were at a premium, because the Season had just begun with more than ordinary promise. Cairo was buzzing with excitement over the opening of the great dam at Assouan, and was crowded with distinguished visitors on their way to the ceremony. If Cairo could be likened to a social dam, the Ptolemy Park Hotel might be said to receive the irrigating result of the overflow; and those who had not secured accommodation in advance now applied in vain at the cashier's desk.
The arrival of the Countess was much less imposing than had been generally expected; but then Lord Warlingham himself had come by tramcar a few days before, so it was universally agreed that members of the nobility could not always be counted upon to indulge in the display popularly supposed to pertain to their rank. The Countess drove up to the main entrance in an ordinary hotel carriage, hired for the trip at Cairo. Her sole attendant was one exceedingly plain maid, who inquired tartly of the gold-laced individual who came to open the carriage door if the rooms of the Countess of Croydon were ready, and was obsequiously assured that they were. Gold-lace led the way, and the Countess, looking neither to the right nor the left, followed. The guests had an excellent view of her, and even the women admitted that she was more than handsome, carrying herself with an air of distinction. They agreed, however, that she was not so young as she appeared to be, and hinted that the plain maid must understand the art of making up in a manner that would do credit to an actress. The next problem was: Would she appear at dinner, or would the meals be served in her own sitting-room? The puzzle was solved long before dinner was announced. Every afternoon the denizens of the hotel gathered in the ample hall, in the reading-room, and elsewhere for tea; in fact, for all the difference of living, each one might have been at the Metropole in Brighton, rather than at the base of the Pyramids. Tea was a joyous festival, with much laughter, gossip, and cigarettes in the hall. If you objected to tobacco, you enjoyed your cup in the drawing-room.
The Countess came down the broad stairway with some slight degree of hesitation, as if she feared the multitude of inquiring eyes about to be turned upon her. A tall gentleman, who happened to be passing, looked up at her, then paused and actually appeared to be waiting for her. He spoke with a half-laughing diffidence that almost amounted to a stutter, as he fumbled with his eyeglass.
"Although I have never had the pleasure of meeting you, I believe we are by way of being related to each other. My name is Warlingham."
The lady stopped on the lower step, and a look of startled annoyance came for a moment into her eyes. There was a note of indifference, but nevertheless of inquiry, in her voice when at last she said—
"Yes. I think I was not mistaken when I ventured to suggest that our families are connected."
"Very remotely, I fear."
"I am told that the kinship of cousinship extends to the forty-second degree," replied his Lordship, with that depreciatory, audible smile of his which gave him the air of a bashful boy making his first venture towards conversation, although he must have been well past his fortieth year.
The lady laughed nervously.
"I think that when the kinship reaches the forties, the adjective remote becomes justified," she said.
"Possibly. Still, as like clings to like, remoteness has affinity for remoteness; and we are so remote from England that I venture to claim our distant relationship as warrant for my escorting you to a tea-table."
The lady descended the remaining step. Her awkwardness at the unexpected encounter vanished, and they walked together down the hall, at that moment thronged with tea-drinkers. Every one of the small tables was occupied, but Lord Warlingham guided his fair cousin towards a couple of wicker chairs that were empty, although a lone man sat at the table beside them. Lord Warlingham seemed the most popular person in the assembly; women smiled at him as he passed, and men nodded in cheerful comradeship.
In a low voice, his Lordship said to bis companion, quite with the confidential manner of an old acquaintance—
"Do you care to be introduced to people, or would you rather not?"
"Oh, I don't mind in the least, if they are nice people."
"Is the recluse to become a woman of fashion?"
"For the time being, at least," replied the Countess, with a slight laugh.
The lone man, when the two approached, rose hastily as if to leave the table to them, but the genial Warlingham begged him to resume his place. Turning to his cousin, he said—
"May I introduce to you Mr. Sanderstead, C.E., F.R.G.S., and so forth, with more letters after bis name than there are in it? Lady Croydon."
Sanderstead murmured something as he bowed, his dark face flushing as if he resented the flippancy of the introducer. The lady, noticing his gaunt appearance and tanned cheeks, thought that he was likely one of those newly returned from the finished war; but as they all sat down at the wicker table, Warlingham rattled on and explained.
"Sanderstead and I represent the two opposite poles of human existence. He has just completed the great Nile dams, and is down here to learn what the ancient and honourable Pyramids have to say about it. I represent the useless but ornamental Pyramid, while he represents the useful but unbeautiful dam. He is the ant, I am the grasshopper. He is the bee, and I am——"
"The honeysuckle," broke in the engineer.
"Thanks. I was going to say the butterfly, but I accept the amendment as adding a modern and musical touch."
The Countess seemed to understand intuitively that Sanderstead did not quite relish his Lordship's frivolous badinage, so she turned the direction of the conversation, saying to the latter—
"I supposed, from an item in the newspaper, that you were residing in Cairo this season."
"Yes; but I left there to get out of the rush that has taken place because of the ceremonies at Assouan. Still, this spot is actually Cairo. The Pyramids occupy the relative position with regard to the chief city of Egypt that the Crystal Palace holds with respect to London."
"Really? I hope you haven't fireworks every Thursday night."
"Dear lady, we have fireworks every day from a blazing sun."
"And have you come here to avoid the rush?" she asked of Sanderstead.
"Practically, yes. But not the social rush dreaded by Warlingham. The rush of Nile water has been in my ears this long time past, and I am resting in the eternal silence of the Pyramids."
"How romantic!" exclaimed the Countess.
"Indeed, madam, it is nothing of the sort," put forth his Lordship. "Sanderstead is troubled with the affliction that haunts the criminal. He flees from the scene of his crime. He has throttled Father Nile and has extinguished the roar that for centuries broke the stillness of the desert, He found a joyous, ambulating, laughing cataract—life embodied in a dancing torrent; he has left in its place a graveyard of motionless waters. Not to put too fine a point upon it, Sanderstead is a murderer."
The engineer smiled grimly, but made no comment on the other's rhapsody.
"Aren't you going up for the opening ceremony?" asked the girl, turning to Sanderstead.
"No. The work is done, and that leaves me free for a short time. Now is the opportunity for the ornamental personages, as our friend called them, to take a hand and make speeches. I have been urging Warlingham to go, and almost persuaded him; for he cannot work, so he should not be ashamed to do the ornamental."
"Ah! persuasion was possible yesterday; it is out of the question to-day," said Warlingham in a low voice, with a speaking glance at his handsome companion. She, however, took no notice of either tone or look, but asked with candour apparently innocent—
"Why not to-day? Isn't there plenty of time?"
"It is not a question of time," sighed his Lordship.
"If it is a question of money, Warlingham, I can help you out. I was paid off, you know," said the engineer.
This was an unkind remark, because his Lordship was well known to be in constant lack of the necessity named; so Warlingham flushed slightly and replied with some asperity—
"Thanks, dear boy; but why should I wish to see that curse of so-called modern progress you have placed on a noble river?"
"I didn't curse it, I merely dammed it," replied Sanderstead.
The Countess rose.
"The Pyramids have been waiting a long time for me," she said. "I am going out to view them in the afternoon light."
"It will be the case of age before beauty," said his Lordship, also rising. "May I accompany the beauty to the age?"
Sanderstead, also standing, took his share of the smile with which the lady favoured both; but apparently remembering the adage about three being too many, so far as company is concerned, he sat down again when they had taken their departure, muttering to himself—
"A case of beauty and the beast, I should say," which showed he was already envious of the good fortune of the nobleman.
Lord Warlingham made the most of his opportunity. When we reach forty, we know what we want, and lose no time in schoolboy dalliance. He was charmingly urbane, qualified by a slight tinge of sentimentality, and was wide enough awake to see that he made a favourable impression. He regretted that he had not looked up this delightful, if very distant, relative long since, and he resolved to visit Cairo next day and learn something definite regarding her income, even if he had to cable for the information to his legal advisers in London. They would know the importance of the facts and the need of their client. Meanwhile, with the deftness of much experience he laid the foundation upon which might be builded either a frivolous flirtation or a serious courtship. It was quite evident that the girl knew as little of fashionable life as if she had just emerged from a convent, and this gave him hope that she had heard nothing of his adventures in quest of an heiress, if she happened to be of a romantic turn of mind, which his slight acquaintance with her caused him to think highly probable.
He regretted that in a heedless moment he had introduced her to Sanderstead, for if his own stay in Cairo were prolonged, or if he went there day after day until his message came from London, he left the field open. If the lady were merely the daughter of a rich nobody, he might rely on the glamour of his title to keep her safe during his absences; but the girl had a title in her own right, so one of his chief assets was discounted. He had seen the young lady's eyes sparkle when the great work up the river was mentioned, and he noticed the look of interest with which she had regarded this newspaper-famed miracle-worker. It was quite possible that she had some silly notions about men who could do things. Many women had. Besides, he could not conceal from himself the fact that the worn engineer had a certain gaunt, bronzed handsomeness which the women of the hotel admired; and besides, he was ten years younger than Warlingham, although perhaps that might not count.
As the days passed, the Countess became the acknowledged leader of society at the Ptolemy Park, and the young lady quite palpably enjoyed her reign hugely, which she had every right to do, because her Paris gowns were numerous and resplendent. It was unaccountable that one so well qualified to shine in polite society should have been a recluse for so long, and predictions were freely made that she would never return to her hermit life.
The man who had helped to conquer the Nile allowed no grass to grow under his feet in his attempt to conquer the lady, even if grass grew in the desert, which it did not. The frequent absences of Lord Warlingham, who quite correctly stated that annoying matters of business called him to Cairo, and even to Alexandria, gave Richard Sanderstead opportunities of which he was quick to take advantage. These opportunities vanished when the submarine cable at last fulfilled its destiny. The news was well worth the money it cost, for the lady's income proved to be between £14,000 and £15,000 a year. Even a man with the expensive tastes of Warlingham could do with that, as he remarked to himself. Nevertheless, two words at the end of the cablegram disquieted him. They were: "Wait letter." He wondered what the letter could contain that it needed this courier of caution. Perhaps there was insanity in the Croydon family, which might account for the lady's avoidance of publicity. Still, she showed no sign of it, and, anyhow, that would not matter if the money were right. Hard cash has no delusions, whatever may be the mental attributes of its owner. Perhaps, however, the money might be tied up in some annoying manner, which would be a more serious, but probably not an insurmountable difficulty. He would chance it and wait no letter. That confounded engineer was making the running, and his advances were far from being discouraged by their object. Hang it all! when the letter arrived, it might be too late; whereas when he secured her, he could always find a way of retreat if the contents of the letter made retreat necessary. The nobility often sued for divorce, but never for breach of promise. The latter was a form of litigation monopolised by the lower classes, so he was safe in any case.
The moon was growing older, and the nights were becoming like chastened silvery days. The Countess declared that she never before knew what moonlight really was, and Lord Warlingham urged her to view the Pyramids as Melrose should be viewed. As the night was chilly, he advised wraps, and his attitude was one of fond protection, which is not without its influence upon the feminine heart. The moon shone upon the right-hand cheek of the Sphinx, bestowing additional mystery upon that inscrutable face. It lit the eastern side of the Great Pyramid, and thither the two bent their steps. Their conference was disturbed now and then by unexpected Arabs who seemed to rise out of the sand to demand contributions; but one glance at his Lordship's countenance sent them to earth again. They knew him these many days, and had made no money out of him, so even their insistent clamour was stilled when they recognised the Englishman whose imperturbability had always baffled them. Their unlooked-for advent somewhat startled the lady, but Warlingham made some jocular allusion about those classical Johnnies, don't you know, who sprang full armed from the earth like "I forget the beggars' names," he added, "but you know the chaps I mean"; and so the pair came unmolested to the eastern base of the Great Pyramid, and he helped her over broken stones up a step or two, where they sat together facing the distant Nile and the still more distant moon. He sat very near to her and tried to capture her hand, but at that moment came the necessity of gathering her wraps more closely about her, and he gave up the quest for the moment. Even so blasé a man as Lord Warlingham never had a better setting for a proposal than was his fortune in this case. The glamour of the moon filled the lustrous eyes of the lady beside him. Behind them rose this great monument of Egypt's power; Egypt, whose queen was a very goddess of love; Egypt, at one time the treasury of the world, and, before his Lordship's mind, even at that moment floated the golden glow of fifteen thousand sovereigns per annum. In front of them stretched the languorous East. Every requirement of situation was satisfied; and, after all, she was deucedly pretty, as his Lordship admitted when he glanced sideways at her as she sat near him on the elevated fifth step of the Great Pyramid. The influence of past ages was upon her. She gazed to the East as the Sphinx gazed to the North, and as silently. Hitherto she had spoken almost pertly, one might say, were not such a saying inexcusable when she held the rank she did. A real countess cannot speak pertly; a king can do no wrong. Lord Warlingham drew a deep breath as he recognised the perfection of his stage management—a deep breath which he modified into a tender sigh. He wished he knew the girl's Christian name, so that he might begin tenderly; but as he was ignorant on that point, he was compelled to use her title, which he recognised was bad form, as if a friend had addressed him as "your Lordship."
"Countess," he began solemnly, "on our first meeting you held that our relationship was a very distant one."
She almost gasped, and the enchantment of the Orient faded from her face as she turned it upon him. A humorous Western twinkle came into her eyes and somewhat chilled the sentimentality so well portrayed by his deep, tremulous voice.
"Well, if we are relations, we are certainly very close ones at this moment." Whereat she shifted a little further along the fifth step toward the south. "To tell the truth, I had forgotten you were here. " She laughed lightly.
This might have discouraged a less adept lover, but it merely proclaimed to Lord Warlingham that he must put his best foot forwards. It also banished from his mind those two words on the cablegram in his pocket, "Wait letter," which had been rather haunting him during the evening.
"Countess, I was never more serious in my life. We have known each other but a short time, yet this brief period has been to me a—a——"
"‘An interval of bliss hitherto undreamed in my—in my intercourse with your siren sex.' Is that what you wish to say? My dear cousin Warlingham, is this—is this a proposal that is on the way?"
The lady clasped her hands and leaned towards him, the witchery of mischief in her dancing eyes. Lord Warlingham was aghast. He had never met anything like this before. Yet, to his credit be it said that he held himself well in hand, and did not take quite justifiable offence at the flippant reception of what he knew was a great honour on his part.
"Cousin," he said, with a solemnity equal to that of the Pyramid behind him, "you are pleased to laugh at me. To me, however, it is the most fateful moment of my existence. I freely admit that I have led a somewhat aimless life. This has doubtless been my own fault. Yet not entirely. If a man has a guiding star, his course through——"
"Oh! I read somewhere that one corner of this Pyramid points to the North Star. Do you know if that is true?"
"I must confess I have not the slightest idea."
"Let us find out. It must be one of the southern corners, of course."
She was about to spring from the fifth step, but he laid a restraining hand upon hers, which, in this instance, had not the opportunity to seek refuge in adjusting the wraps.
"Never mind the North Star," he said.
"But it is a fixed star; just the one to be a reliable guide for an erratic man. Are you sure it isn't the star you are longing for?"
"I am quite sure. The star I am longing for shines from your eyes. As I said in the beginning, you spoke of our distant relationship. I wish to make our relationship the closest bond that can bind two human beings together."
"You speak a great deal about our mythical relationship, Lord Warlingham. I have lived all my life in Devonshire; you have lived much of your life in London. Well, the Great Western Railway has a speedy and excellent service. Why did you never look up your lone cousin before?"
"How could I know?"
"How could you know what? Did you think we had nothing to eat in the house? Or do you mean that I am so transcendently beautiful and charming. You ought to know that people say I am decidedly eccentric. Some give it a harsher term. What is it you could not know?"
"I could not know that you were the one of all this world for me, until I had met you?"
"I see." The lady nodded several times, while he gazed at her with ill-concealed apprehension. "This, then, is a proposal, as I suspected? Well, I have never had a proposal, and naturally I am somewhat at a loss how to act. I am, nevertheless, delighted to think that the first time I have appeared, as it were, in public, I have been honoured by so distinguished a person as Lord Warlingham."
"I ask you to be my wife. What is your answer?" His Lordship was piqued by her nonchalant reception of what she had described as an honour, and not being a schoolboy, as has been remarked, he thought it best to bring the question to a definite issue.
"Should a person answer immediately? It is so important, you know. In penny novelettes they always ask for time. Do you ever read penny novelettes?"
"No," he replied gruffly.
"They are very interesting."
"I suppose they are." For the first time during this unsatisfactory conversation, the fear penetrated through his Lordship's armour of self-conceit that this accursed dam-builder had won the fortune while he was waiting for information regarding its extent. He leaned over towards her and said in a low voice—
"Am I too late?"
"I don't think so," she replied brightly, glaring up at the moon, which had risen perceptibly since they had taken their seats. "It cannot be more than half past ten, or perhaps eleven. But don't you think it is getting more and more chilly?"
"Yes," said his Lordship, with a sigh that was genuine. "It has been chilly from the first."
The Countess laughed merrily.
"Does that refer to me or to the thermometer? You are rather bright at times. You remind me of the moon—the glorious moon. There is a compliment for you. Do you remember that song in 'Pinafore'
"Fair moon, to thee I sing,
Sweet regent of the heavens"?
"Yes. I remember it," he replied gloomily, "and in the words of the last two lines of your verse, I wonder why everything is at sixes and at sevens."
"How long ago 'Pinafore' seems!" she said with a sigh, folding her hands on her lap. "I suppose that it is the Pyramids that call it to mind."
"Madam, you have not answered my question."
"Neither I have. I shall make up for the delay by giving you the choice of two answers. The first is 'No'; the second is 'Wait.’"
"Why should I wait?"
"No reason at all. Then 'No' is your answer."
"That is a very good reason, so I shall wait."
"Just as you please. Let us get to the hotel, or even my chaperonage will not protect you from gossiping tongues. Come."
Before he could move to her assistance, she had run lightly over the rocky declivity and was standing on the sand awaiting his more cautious descent. Then they walked back to the hotel together.
The result of this conference was exceedingly unsatisfactory to Lord Warlingham; and the more he thought of it, the less he liked it. On several following nights he tried to induce the Countess to accompany him again to their former trysting-place, but the lady seemed to have lost interest in the moonlight. One evening she had dinner served in her own room and, although he waited for her in the hall, she did not put in an appearance. He went to the table d'hôte alone and afterwards searched in vain for the lady. He thought, at first, that she had not come down; but as he wandered about the place, he noticed that Sanderstead also was missing, and he muttered maledictions under his breath. At this moment a waiter approached and handed him a letter, which he tore open and read with some eagerness. Then he stared out of the window on the moonlit road.
"Well, I'm blessed!" he said.
His impatience fell away from him like a discarded cloak, and he sat down in one of the armchairs, lighting a cigar.
"Just in the nick of time!" he muttered, with a sigh of great relief.
The Countess, after an early dinner, slipped down the stair, through the hall, and out of the hotel. All the guests were at table d'hôte, and she hoped thus to depart unseen. But on this occasion she had to deal with a man of mathematical mind, who left nothing to chance, as did the easy-going Warlingham. As the waiter placed a plate of chicken before Richard Sanderstead, he whispered, unheard by even the next neighbour: "Just gone out, sir." Sanderstead rose at once and very quietly left the chattering table. Half a dinner is better than no meal.
The Countess walked straight south, across the desert, looking neither to the right nor the left, deep in thought, with head down. It was a rough road, yet she walked fast. Once or twice she half thought she heard other footsteps than her own, and at last a distinct crunch on the gravel brought her suddenly out of her reverie. She turned quickly and stood still, startled. The moonlight fell full on the spare figure and swart, determined face of the man at that moment in her mind.
"Why are you following me?"
"Because your excursion, unwise in daylight, is doubly dangerous at night," replied Sanderstead.
"Who made you my guardian?"
"I am self-appointed."
"I ask you to return."
"Willingly, if you come with me."
"Then so do I."
"Do you mean to say that you will force your company on me when I forbid it?"
"I shall not force my company on you; but I'll follow you to Khartoum if you go that far."
"A gentleman would not do so."
"Some would and some wouldn't; all depends."
"I wish to be alone with my thoughts."
"I shall not disturb them. I didn't begin this conversation."
"Oh, very well," she replied, with offended dignity, turning from him and walking rapidly to the south again, as if she hoped to outdistance him; but he kept the space undiminished between them, with no show of effort. They had gone thus perhaps a mile when Sanderstead sprang forward and passed her. Before she could protest she was somewhat taken aback by seeing a horseman emerge at a gallop from behind a sand-dune and draw up before them, the beautiful horse, at a word, bracing its slender fore-legs and standing like a bronze statue. The Arab had his rifle ready, but catching the gleam of Sanderstead's revolver, he placed his own weapon peacefully athwart the saddle. Sanderstead spoke quietly in Arabic, and the horseman answered with something more of deference in his tone than his attitude had at first betokened. Sanderstead strode forward and patted the lovely arched neck of the horse, complimenting its owner on its possession. With a touch of the heel and a sweeping salutation the Arab disappeared as speedily as he had come.
"What did he say?" she asked breathlessly.
"Oh, he just asked the way to Piccadilly Circus."
The Countess drew herself up; and as the moonlight now flooded her, while he had his back to it, he saw the deep frown that marred her fair face.
"Sir, you are insulting. If you think because we are alone you can treat me like a child, you are mistaken."
"Alone!" he laughed, then checked himself. "By Jove! you do look like a countess, after all!" he cried, with unfeigned admiration, as he gazed upon the girl. Her defiant manner changed instantly.
"What do you mean by that?" she gasped.
"It was merely an expression of my esteem for you. I think it is time to turn, you know. We will leave Khartoum for another night."
"You expected me to lose myself; but you forget we are in a land that has Pyramids for finger-posts."
"Where are they?"
She swept a glance around the northern horizon. Although the moon shone with undiminished brightness, the air in the distance seemed thickened, or else she had travelled further than she thought. There were no Pyramids in sight.
"I'll soon lead you to them," cried the Countess, undaunted, as she set out resolutely toward the north.
And she did. When their dim outline appeared, she pointed in triumph, crying: "There!"
"You followed your shadow," he said; "an excellent guide until the moon gets low. I've been following a shadow, too, which I wish to change into substance. Countess, I love you. Will you marry me?"
"How abrupt you are! and what a stand-and-deliver tone! Is that because you carry a pistol?"
"I am not nearly so abrupt as you imagine. I have been meditating this appeal for a long time; and as the Pyramids begin to appear, my opportunity begins to vanish."
"You know nothing of me."
"I know enough."
"That does not sound in the least complimentary. I will give you an answer as abrupt as your question. Yes, I will marry you—if you are rich."
"If I am rich? Are you so fond of money as all that?"
"Ah! I said you knew nothing of me."
"Let us sit down here and discuss the question."
In the desert are numerous hollows, some deep and some shallow. On the edge of one of these they sat down in the sand, like a pair of children at the seaside.
"Rich!" he reiterated. "What do you call rich?"
"I don't know," she answered dreamily, her chin resting on her hand, contemplating him with a steady gaze that he found somewhat disconcerting.
"Are you rich?" he asked.
"Don't you know I am?"
"I have heard it so stated."
"Then why did you ask?"
"I wished to learn your idea of riches. How much have you got?"
"I don't know," she repeated in the same nonchalant tone.
"You have some idea. Make a guess."
"One hundred thousand pounds," she hazarded.
"Oh! is that all? I have a hundred and twenty thousand."
"Have you, really?"
"That is to say, for the past five years or so I have earned an average of thirty thousand pounds per annum. That equals the income of one hundred and twenty thousand pounds, or thereabouts, in Consols."
"Oh! that's not quite the same thing. If a bridge you were building collapsed upon you, there was an end of your hundred and twenty thousand."
"The bridges I build don't collapse."
"I am so glad."
"But banks containing money do. I think we're about equal on the money question."
"I don't really care about riches, yet they have been the bugbear of my life. I distrust everyone. I refuse to be married for my money, therefore I demand equality of wealth. I thought this little dip into society, such as it is, might dissolve my difficulties. It has not done so."
"Why don't you give your money away?"
"I know something of the comfort of wealth, and I don't know the value of what I might get in exchange. It would be a case of flying to others that I know not of."
"Look at me and see if you think it would be worth while."
"How conceited you are! I have been doing nothing else but look at you."
"And the distrust continues?"
"Not while I look. If I gave my money away, what could I do until the undoubted man came along?"
"You would make an admirable actress."
The chin raised from her hand, and the dreamy expression gave place to one of alert alarm.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you are so beautiful—the whole theatre would fall in love with you."
"I don't believe that is what you mean."
"I assure you it is. Don't let money stand between us. Tie it up in a hard knot so that I can't touch it, and marry me."
"Excellent plan! As if the man I married could not get every penny he wanted from me! However, I'll think over it and let you know. Come; we must be journeying."
"Better take the plunge now, Countess."
"No. I distrust—myself. Here we are building on a foundation of sand; surely an engineer knows how unstable that is; and we are constructing a house of moonbeams, also unsubstantial. I must think in the clear light of day and in a modern room furnished by Maple. Come along."
In the hall of the hotel she met Lord Warlingham pacing up and down. She had asked Sanderstead to allow her to enter the hotel alone, which, somehow, the young man regarded as an encouraging omen. Warlingham stopped in his perambulations and faced her. The usual welcoming smile on his lips was absent.
"Madam," he said, "I wish a few words with you in private."
"Not to-night," she almost whispered, shrinking from him.
"It must be to-night and now," he said harshly. "If you imagine that it is to be a repetition of my proposal, you may calm your fears. It is a matter of business."
"Very well. Come to my sitting-room."
They went upstairs together, her waiting-maid following her with the wraps and glancing sourly at her escort.
"I wish to speak with you alone. Please ask your maid to leave the room."
"You may speak quite freely before Parker. Won't you sit down?"
But his Lordship remained standing. The Countess sank into an armchair with a sigh of weariness.
"It shall be as you please, but I advise you to hear me alone. Servants gossip."
"Parker never does," said the girl, with her eyes closed.
And, indeed, Parker looked forbidding enough as she stood behind the chair of her mistress, seeming the last one on earth to indulge in confidences.
"I have received a letter from London, and with your permission will read an extract.
"‘It is well known that the Countess intended to winter in Egypt; but we are credibly informed that she changed her mind at the last moment, as she has so often done before, and we believe she is still at her place in Devonshire. If there is anyone in Cairo calling herself the Countess of Croydon, her claim to that title should be subjected to critical scrutiny?'
"Now, madam, what have you to say? Are you the Countess of Croydon?"
The young lady's eyes had opened as he read. Parker's countenance remained unmoved, as if she were a feminine Sphinx.
"What is the rest of the letter?" asked the girl.
"That is neither here nor there."
"It is quite evidently there. May I suggest that it is an inventory of the Countess's possessions? Are you chagrined to learn that your proposal was wasted on the undeserving?"
"I ask you if you are the Countess of Croydon?"
"I reply that I never said I was."
"That reply will not do, madam. The honour of my family is at stake."
"Your family has nothing to do with me."
"I begin to suspect that my family has indeed nothing to do with one who pretended to be a member of it."
"Your memory fails you. I disclaimed all relationship when you asserted it."
"I asserted it under the supposition that you were the Countess."
"Very well. No harm is done. I did not take advantage of your offer. I never said I was the Countess; and so long as I pay my hotel bill, no one has a right to interfere."
"You are very much mistaken. Such masquerading is not to be tolerated."
"I am leaving here the day after to-morrow, and I sail from Suez a week from to-day. I ask you to say nothing of this until I am gone."
"Then this confession must be made in my own way, and I must choose the person who is to set the gossips a-prattling."
"I agree, so long as it is done at once."
"Parker, go down and ask Mr. Sanderstead to come here."
The maid departed, and the alleged Countess leaned back in her chair.
"Who are you?" asked his Lordship, but the girl made no reply. A moment later, Sanderstead came in.
"Will you read to Mr. Sanderstead the extract from your London letter that you read to me?"
"Mr. Sanderstead has nothing to do with my correspondence. You were to make your confession, as I understood your proposal."
"Lord Warlingham has discovered that I am not the Countess of Croydon."
"Oh, is that all," said Sanderstead. "I knew it almost from the beginning."
The lady sat up now, very wide awake.
"How did you know it?" she asked in surprise.
"Well, you had none of those middle-class deficiencies of manner which I have often deplored in the titled persons I have met. I recognised at once that you were a lady."
"Then that is what you hinted at twice this evening. I wish to say before you both that I meant no harm, and did not see at the first what complications might ensue. I may say at once that I had the Countess's permission to do what I have done; indeed, it was owing to her urging that I did it. I can prove that to you, Lord Warlingham, in her own handwriting. Often I have persuaded her to emerge into the world, and as often she has refused at the last moment, much to my disappointment. On this occasion I confess I wept when I found her determined not to go to Egypt. With great generosity she insisted that I should take her place. I admit that I have done wrong technically, perhaps, but I deny that I have done any real harm, and I have asked Lord Warlingham to say nothing until I sail from Suez, a week from to-day."
"Of course, nothing will be said either then or after," proclaimed Sanderstead stoutly.
Lord Warlingham stood silent for a moment; then, his anger being somewhat cleared away, he echoed—
The lady sprang to her feet with radiant face.
"You are both very good to me. Lord Warlingham, I ask your forgiveness, and I deeply appreciate your promise of silence. Won't you shake hands with the adventuress and say you are sorry I sail so soon?"
"Indeed, madam," said Warlingham, cordially taking her hand, "I do say so with all my heart, and I wish you well."
"And are you sorry, Mr. Sanderstead?" she cried, with a touch of fear and pathos in the eyes she turned upon him.
"No, I am not."
The lady caught her breath, and the colour left her cheeks.
"Oh, I say, Sanderstead!" protested his Lordship.
"Why should I be sorry when I sail on the same steamer, if the lady permits me?" He took her hand and raised it to his lips.
Lord Warlingham beamed upon them with a smile half tender, half comical. He was an experienced man and knew the signs.
"Is this a case of 'Bless you, my children'?" he asked.
"Again, if the lady permits."
The colour came back redoubled and brought with it a smile to the lady's lips.
Yet she was the Countess, after all.
- Copyright, 1903, by Robert Barr, in the United States of America.