The rays of the September sun flooded the great halls of the old chateau of the Dukes of Charmerace, lighting up with their mellow glow the spoils of so many ages and many lands, jumbled together with the execrable taste which so often afflicts those whose only standard of value is money. The golden light warmed the panelled walls and old furniture to a dull lustre, and gave back to he fading gilt of the First Empire chairs and couches something of its old brightness. It illumined the long line of pictures on the walls, pictures of dead and gone Charmeraces, the stern or debonair faces of the men, soldiers, statesmen, dandies, the gentle or imperious faces of beautiful women. It flashed back from armour of brightly polished steel, and drew dull gleams from armour of bronze. The hues of rare porcelain, of the rich inlays of Oriental or Renaissance cabinets, mingled with the hues of the pictures, the tapestry, the Persian rugs about the polished floor to fill the hall with a rich glow of colour. But of all the beautiful and precious things which the sun-rays warmed to a clearer beauty, the face of the girl who sat writing at a table in front of the long windows, which opened on to the centuries-old turf of the broad terrace, was the most beautiful and the most precious. It was a delicate, almost frail, beauty. Her skin was clear with the transparent lustre of old porcelain, and her pale cheeks were only tinted with the pink of the faintest roses. Her straight nose was delicately cut, her rounded chin admirably moulded. A lover of beauty would have been at a loss whether more to admire her clear, germander eyes, so melting and so adorable, or the sensitive mouth, with its rather full lips, inviting all the kisses. But assuredly he would have been grieved by the perpetual air of sadness which rested on the beautiful face--the wistful melancholy of the Slav, deepened by something of personal misfortune and suffering. Her face was framed by a mass of soft fair hair, shot with strands of gold where the sunlight fell on it; and little curls, rebellious to the comb, strayed over her white forehead, tiny feathers of gold.
She was addressing envelopes, and a long list of names lay on her left hand. When she had addressed an envelope, she slipped into it a wedding-card. On each was printed:
"M. Gournay-Martin has the honour to inform
you of the marriage of his daughter
Germaine to the Duke of Charmerace."
She wrote steadily on, adding envelope after envelope to the pile ready for the post, which rose in front of her. But now and again, when the flushed and laughing girls who were playing lawn-tennis on the terrace, raised their voices higher than usual as they called the score, and distracted her attention from her work, her gaze strayed through the open window and lingered on them wistfully; and as her eyes came back to her task she sighed with so faint a wistfulness that she hardly knew she sighed. Then a voice from the terrace cried, "Sonia! Sonia!" "Yes. Mlle. Germaine?" answered the writing girl.
"Tea! Order tea, will you?" cried the voice, a petulant voice, rather harsh to the ear. "Very well, Mlle. Germaine," said Sonia; and having finished addressing the envelope under her pen, she laid it on the pile ready to be posted, and, crossing the room to the old, wide fireplace, she rang the bell.
She stood by the fireplace a moment, restoring to its place a rose which had fallen from a vase on the mantelpiece; and her attitude, as with arms upraised she arranged the flowers, displayed the delightful line of a slender figure. As she let fall her arms to her side, a footman entered the room.
"Will you please bring the tea, Alfred," she said in a charming voice of that pure, bell-like tone which has been Nature's most precious gift to but a few of the greatest actresses. "For how many, miss?" said Alfred.
"For four--unless your master has come back."
"Oh, no; he's not back yet, miss. He went in the car to Rennes to lunch; and it's a good many miles away. He won't be back for another hour."
"And the Duke--he's not back from his ride yet, is he?"
"Not yet, miss," said Alfred, turning to go.
"One moment," said Sonia. "Have all of you got your things packed for the journey to Paris? You will have to start soon, you know. Are all the maids ready?"
"Well, all the men are ready, I know, miss. But about the maids, miss, I can't say. They've been bustling about all day; but it takes them longer than it does us."
"Tell them to hurry up; and be as quick as you can with the tea, please," said Sonia. Alfred went out of the room; Sonia went back to the writing-table. She did not take up her pen; she took up one of the wedding-cards; and her lips moved slowly as she read it in a pondering depression.
The petulant, imperious voice broke in upon her musing.
"Whatever are you doing, Sonia? Aren't you getting on with those letters?" it cried angrily; and Germaine Gournay-Martin came through the long window into the hall.
The heiress to the Gournay-Martin millions carried her tennis racquet in her hand; and her rosy cheeks were flushed redder than ever by the game. She was a pretty girl in a striking, high- coloured, rather obvious way--the very foil to Sonia's delicate beauty. Her lips were a little too thin, her eyes too shallow; and together they gave her a rather hard air, in strongest contrast to the gentle, sympathetic face of Sonia.
The two friends with whom Germaine had been playing tennis followed her into the hall: Jeanne Gautier, tall, sallow, dark, with a somewhat malicious air; Marie Bullier, short, round, commonplace, and sentimental.
They came to the table at which Sonia was at work; and pointing to the pile of envelopes, Marie said, "Are these all wedding-cards?"
"Yes; and we've only got to the letter V," said Germaine, frowning at Sonia.
"Princesse de Vernan--Duchesse de Vauvieuse--Marquess--Marchioness? You've invited the whole Faubourg Saint-Germain," said Marie, shuffling the pile of envelopes with an envious air.
"You'll know very few people at your wedding," said Jeanne, with a spiteful little giggle. "I beg your pardon, my dear," said Germaine boastfully. "Madame de Relzieres, my fiance's cousin, gave an At Home the other day in my honour. At it she introduced half Paris to me--the Paris I'm destined to know, the Paris you'll see in my drawing-rooms."
"But we shall no longer be fit friends for you when you're the Duchess of Charmerace," said Jeanne.
"Why?" said Germaine; and then she added quickly, "Above everything, Sonia, don't forget Veauleglise, 33, University Street--33, University Street."
"Veauleglise--33, University Street," said Sonia, taking a fresh envelope, and beginning to address it.
"Wait--wait! don't close the envelope. I'm wondering whether Veauleglise ought to have a cross, a double cross, or a triple cross," said Germaine, with an air of extreme importance. "What's that?" cried Marie and Jeanne together.
"A single cross means an invitation to the church, a double cross an invitation to the marriage and the wedding-breakfast, and the triple cross means an invitation to the marriage, the breakfast, and the signing of the marriage-contract. What do you think the Duchess of Veauleglise ought to have?"
"Don't ask me. I haven't the honour of knowing that great lady," cried Jeanne. "Nor I," said Marie.
"Nor I," said Germaine. "But I have here the visiting-list of the late Duchess of Charmerace, Jacques' mother. The two duchesses were on excellent terms. Besides the Duchess of Veauleglise is rather worn-out, but greatly admired for her piety. She goes to early service three times a week."
"Then put three crosses," said Jeanne.
"I shouldn't," said Marie quickly. "In your place, my dear, I shouldn't risk a slip. I should ask my fiance's advice. He knows this world."
"Oh, goodness--my fiance! He doesn't care a rap about this kind of thing. He has changed so in the last seven years. Seven years ago he took nothing seriously. Why, he set off on an expedition to the South Pole--just to show off. Oh, in those days he was truly a duke." "And to-day?" said Jeanne.
"Oh, to-day he's a regular slow-coach. Society gets on his nerves. He's as sober as a judge," said Germaine.
"He's as gay as a lark," said Sonia, in sudden protest.
Germaine pouted at her, and said: "Oh, he's gay enough when he's making fun of people. But apart from that he's as sober as a judge."
"Your father must be delighted with the change," said Jeanne.
"Naturally he's delighted. Why, he's lunching at Rennes to-day with the Minister, with the sole object of getting Jacques decorated."
"Well; the Legion of Honour is a fine thing to have," said Marie.
"My dear! The Legion of Honour is all very well for middle-class people, but it's quite out of place for a duke!" cried Germaine.
Alfred came in, bearing the tea-tray, and set it on a little table near that at which Sonia was sitting.
Germaine, who was feeling too important to sit still, was walking up and down the room. Suddenly she stopped short, and pointing to a silver statuette which stood on the piano, she said, "What's this? Why is this statuette here?"
"Why, when we came in, it was on the cabinet, in its usual place," said Sonia in some astonishment.
"Did you come into the hall while we were out in the garden, Alfred?" said Germaine to the footman.
"No, miss," said Alfred.
"But some one must have come into it," Germaine persisted.
"I've not heard any one. I was in my pantry," said Alfred.
"It's very odd," said Germaine.
"It is odd," said Sonia. "Statuettes don't move about of themselves."
All of them stared at the statuette as if they expected it to move again forthwith, under their very eyes. Then Alfred put it back in its usual place on one of the cabinets, and went out of the room.
Sonia poured out the tea; and over it they babbled about the coming marriage, the frocks they would wear at it, and the presents Germaine had already received. That reminded her to ask Sonia if any one had yet telephoned from her father's house in Paris; and Sonia said that no one had.
"That's very annoying," said Germaine. "It shows that nobody has sent me a present to-day." Pouting, she shrugged her shoulders with an air of a spoiled child, which sat but poorly on a well-developed young woman of twenty- three.
"It's Sunday. The shops don't deliver things on Sunday," said Sonia gently.
But Germaine still pouted like a spoiled child.
"Isn't your beautiful Duke coming to have tea with us?" said Jeanne a little anxiously. "Oh, yes; I'm expecting him at half-past four. He had to go for a ride with the two Du Buits. They're coming to tea here, too," said Germaine.
"Gone for a ride with the two Du Buits? But when?" cried Marie quickly.
"He can't be," said Marie. "My brother went to the Du Buits' house after lunch, to see Andre and Georges. They went for a drive this morning, and won't be back till late to-night." "Well, but--but why did the Duke tell me so?" said Germaine, knitting her brow with a puzzled air.
"If I were you, I should inquire into this thoroughly. Dukes--well, we know what dukes are--it will be just as well to keep an eye on him," said Jeanne maliciously.
Germaine flushed quickly; and her eyes flashed. "Thank you. I have every confidence in Jacques. I am absolutely sure of him," she said angrily.
"Oh, well--if you're sure, it's all right," said Jeanne.
The ringing of the telephone-bell made a fortunate diversion.
Germaine rushed to it, clapped the receiver to her ear, and cried: "Hello, is that you, Pierre? . . . Oh, it's Victoire, is it? . . . Ah, some presents have come, have they? . . . Well, well, what are they? . . . What! a paper-knife--another paper-knife! . . . Another Louis XVI. inkstand--oh, bother! . . . Who are they from? . . . Oh, from the Countess Rudolph and the Baron de Valery." Her voice rose high, thrilling with pride.
Then she turned her face to her friends, with the receiver still at her ear, and cried: "Oh, girls, a pearl necklace too! A large one! The pearls are big ones!"
"How jolly!" said Marie.
"Who sent it?" said Germaine, turning to the telephone again. "Oh, a friend of papa's," she added in a tone of disappointment. "Never mind, after all it's a pearl necklace. You'll be sure and lock the doors carefully, Victoire, won't you? And lock up the necklace in the secret cupboard. . . . Yes; thanks very much, Victoire. I shall see you to-morrow."
She hung up the receiver, and came away from the telephone frowning.
"It's preposterous!" she said pettishly. "Papa's friends and relations give me marvellous presents, and all the swells send me paper-knives. It's all Jacques' fault. He's above all this kind of thing. The Faubourg Saint-Germain hardly knows that we're engaged."
"He doesn't go about advertising it," said Jeanne, smiling.
"You're joking, but all the same what you say is true," said Germaine. "That's exactly what his cousin Madame de Relzieres said to me the other day at the At Home she gave in my honour-wasn't it, Sonia?" And she walked to the window, and, turning her back on them, stared out of it.
"She HAS got her mouth full of that At Home," said Jeanne to Marie in a low voice. There was an awkward silence. Marie broke it:
"Speaking of Madame de Relzieres, do you know that she is on pins and needles with anxiety? Her son is fighting a duel to-day," she said.
"With whom?" said Sonia.
"No one knows. She got hold of a letter from the seconds," said Marie.
"My mind is quite at rest about Relzieres," said Germaine. "He's a first-class swordsman. No one could beat him."
Sonia did not seem to share her freedom from anxiety. Her forehead was puckered in little lines of perplexity, as if she were puzzling out some problem; and there was a look of something very like fear in her gentle eyes.
"Wasn't Relzieres a great friend of your fiance at one time?" said Jeanne.
"A great friend? I should think he was," said Germaine. "Why, it was through Relzieres that we got to know Jacques."
"Where was that?" said Marie.
"Here--in this very chateau," said Germaine.
"Actually in his own house?" said Marie, in some surprise.
"Yes; actually here. Isn't life funny?" said Germaine. "If, a few months after his father's death, Jacques had not found himself hard- up, and obliged to dispose of this chateau, to raise the money for his expedition to the South Pole; and if papa and I had not wanted an historic chateau; and lastly, if papa had not suffered from rheumatism, I should not be calling myself in a month from now the Duchess of Charmerace."
"Now what on earth has your father's rheumatism got to do with your being Duchess of Charmerace?" cried Jeanne.
"Everything," said Germaine. "Papa was afraid that this chateau was damp. To prove to papa that he had nothing to fear, Jacques, en grand seigneur, offered him his hospitality, here, at Charmerace, for three weeks."
"That was truly ducal," said Marie.
"But he is always like that," said Sonia.
"Oh, he's all right in that way, little as he cares about society," said Germaine. "Well, by a miracle my father got cured of his rheumatism here. Jacques fell in love with me; papa made up his mind to buy the chateau; and I demanded the hand of Jacques in marriage." "You did? But you were only sixteen then," said Marie, with some surprise.
"Yes; but even at sixteen a girl ought to know that a duke is a duke. I did," said Germaine. "Then since Jacques was setting out for the South Pole, and papa considered me much too young to get married, I promised Jacques to wait for his return."
"Why, it was everything that's romantic!" cried Marie.
"Romantic? Oh, yes," said Germaine; and she pouted. "But between ourselves, if I'd known that he was going to stay all that time at the South Pole--"
"That's true," broke in Marie. "To go away for three years and stay away seven--at the end of the world."
"All Germaine's beautiful youth," said Jeanne, with her malicious smile.
"Thanks!" said Germaine tartly.
"Well, you ARE twenty-three. It's the flower of one's age," said Jeanne.
"Not quite twenty-three," said Germaine hastily. "And look at the wretched luck I've had. The Duke falls ill and is treated at Montevideo. As soon as he recovers, since he's the most obstinate person in the world, he resolves to go on with the expedition. He sets out; and for an age, without a word of warning, there's no more news of him--no news of any kind. For six months, you know, we believed him dead."
"Dead? Oh, how unhappy you must have been!" said Sonia.
"Oh, don't speak of it! For six months I daren't put on a light frock," said Germaine, turning to her.
"A lot she must have cared for him," whispered Jeanne to Marie.
"Fortunately, one fine day, the letters began again. Three months ago a telegram informed us that he was coming back; and at last the Duke returned," said Germaine, with a theatrical air. "The Duke returned," cried Jeanne, mimicking her.
"Never mind. Fancy waiting nearly seven years for one's fiance. That was constancy," said Sonia.
"Oh, you're a sentimentalist, Mlle. Kritchnoff," said Jeanne, in a tone of mockery. "It was the influence of the castle."
"What do you mean?" said Germaine.
"Oh, to own the castle of Charmerace and call oneself Mlle. Gournay- Martin--it's not worth doing. One MUST become a duchess," said Jeanne.
"Yes, yes; and for all this wonderful constancy, seven years of it, Germaine was on the point of becoming engaged to another man," said Marie, smiling.
"And he a mere baron," said Jeanne, laughing.
"What? Is that true?" said Sonia.
"Didn't you know, Mlle. Kritchnoff? She nearly became engaged to the Duke's cousin, the Baron de Relzieres. It was not nearly so grand."
"Oh, it's all very well to laugh at me; but being the cousin and heir of the Duke, Relzieres would have assumed the title, and I should have been Duchess just the same," said Germaine triumphantly.
"Evidently that was all that mattered," said Jeanne. "Well, dear, I must be off. We've promised to run in to see the Comtesse de Grosjean. You know the Comtesse de Grosjean?" She spoke with an air of careless pride, and rose to go.
"Only by name. Papa used to know her husband on the Stock Exchange when he was still called simply M. Grosjean. For his part, papa preferred to keep his name intact," said Germaine, with quiet pride.
"Intact? That's one way of looking at it. Well, then, I'll see you in Paris. You still intend to start to-morrow?" said Jeanne.
"Yes; to-morrow morning," said Germaine.
Jeanne and Marie slipped on their dust-coats to the accompaniment of chattering and kissing, and went out of the room.
As she closed the door on them, Germaine turned to Sonia, and said: "I do hate those two girls! They're such horrible snobs."
"Oh, they're good-natured enough," said Sonia.
"Good-natured? Why, you idiot, they're just bursting with envy of me--bursting!" said Germaine. "Well, they've every reason to be," she added confidently, surveying herself in a Venetian mirror with a petted child's self-content.