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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPaul Patoff - Chapter 20
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Paul Patoff - Chapter 20 Post by :chrissimplot Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :2413

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Paul Patoff - Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

Hermione found herself placed in quite as embarrassing a position as Paul, and before long she began to feel that she had lost herself in a sort of labyrinth of new sensations. She hardly trusted herself to think or to reflect, so confusing were the questions which constantly presented themselves to her mind. It seems an easy matter for a woman to say, I love this man, or, I love that man, and to know that she speaks truly in so saying. With some natures first love is a fact, a certainty against which there is no appeal, and beside which there is no alternative. To see, with them, is practically to love, and to love once is to love forever. We may laugh over "love at first sight," as we call it, but history and every-day life afford so many instances of its reality that we cannot deny its existence. But the conditions in which it is found are rare. To love each other at first sight, both the persons must be impulsive; each must find in the other exactly what each has long sought and most earnestly desired, and each must recognize the discovery instantaneously. I suppose, also, that unless such love lasts it does not deserve the name; but in order that it may be durable it is necessary that the persons should realize that they have not been deceived in their estimate of each other, that they should possess in themselves the capacity for endurance, that their tastes should change little and their hearts not at all. People who are at once very impulsive and very enduring are few in the world and very hard to mate; wherefore love at first sight, but of a lasting nature, is a rare phenomenon.

Hermione did not belong to this class, and she had certainly not loved Paul during the first few days of their acquaintance. Her nature was relatively slow and hard to rouse. A season in society had produced no impression upon her; and if Paul had stayed only a week, or even a fortnight, at Carvel Place he might have fared no better than all the other men who had been presented to her, had talked and danced with her, and had gone away, leaving her life serenely calm as before. But Paul had been very assiduous, and had lost no time. Moreover, he loved her, and was in earnest about it; so that when, on that memorable day in the park, he had spoken at last, she had accepted his speech and had sealed her answer.

She believed that she loved him with all her heart, but she was new to love, and the waking sentiment was not yet a passion. It was only a sensation, and though its strength was great enough to influence Hermione's life, it had not yet acquired any great stability. A more impulsive nature would have been more suddenly moved, but Hermione's love needed time for its development, and the time had been very short. Since she had admitted that she loved Paul, she had not seen him until the eve of his brother's reappearance; and now, owing to Madame Patoff's skillful management, she talked with Alexander more frequently than with Paul. Alexander was apparently doing his best to make her love him, and the world said that he was succeeding. Hermione herself was startled when she tried to understand her own feelings, for she saw that a great change had taken place in her, and she could neither account for it nor assure herself where it would end. It would be unjust to blame her, or to say that she was unfaithful. She did not waver in her determination to marry Paul, but she tried to put it off as long as possible, struggling to clear away her doubts, and trying hard to feel that she was acting rightly. After all, it is easy to comprehend the confusion which arises in a young girl's mind when placed in such a position. We say too readily that a woman who wavers and hesitates is treating a man badly. Men are so quick to jump at the conclusion that women love them that they resent violently the smallest signs of hesitation in the other sex. They do not see that a woman needs time to decide, just as a man does; and they think it quite enough that they themselves have made up their minds, as if women existed only to submit themselves to the choice of men, and had no manner of right to question that choice when once made.

Paul could not imagine why Hermione hesitated, and she herself would certainly have refused to account for the delay she caused, by admitting that Alexander had made an impression upon her heart. But she felt the charm the man exercised, and her life was really influenced by it. The strange adventure which had so long kept him a prisoner in Laleli's house lent him an atmosphere of romantic interest, and his own nature increased the illusion. The brilliant young officer, with his almost supernatural beauty, his ready tongue, his sweet voice, and his dashing grace, was well calculated to make an impression upon any woman; to a young girl who had grown up in very quiet surroundings, who had hitherto regarded Paul Patoff as the ideal of all that a man should be, the soldier brother seemed like a being from another world. At the same time Hermione was reaching the age when she could enjoy society, because she began to feel at home in it, because the first dazzling impression of it had given way to a quieter appreciation of what it offered, and lastly because she herself was surrounded by many admirers, and had become a personage of more importance than she had ever thought possible before. Under such circumstances a young girl's impressions change very rapidly. She feels the disturbing influence and enjoys the moment, but while it lasts she feels also that she is unfit to decide upon the greatest question of her life. She needs time, because she can employ very little of the time she has in serious thought, and because she doubts whether all her previous convictions are not shaken to their foundations. She dreads a mistake, and is afraid that in speaking too quickly she may speak untruly. It is the desire to be honest which forbids her to continue in the course she had chosen before this new phase of her life began, or to come to any new decision involving immediate action, especially immediate marriage.

Herein lies the great danger to a young girl who has promised to marry a man before she has seen anything of the world, and who suddenly begins to see a great deal of the world before the marriage actually takes place. She is just enough attached to the man to feel that she loves him, but the bonds are not yet so close as to make her know that his love is altogether the dominating influence of her life. Unless this same man whom she has chosen stands out as conspicuously in the new world she has entered as in the quiet home she has left, there is great danger that he may fall in her estimation; and in those early stages of love, estimation is a terribly important element. By estimation I do not mean esteem. There is a subtle difference between the two; for though our estimation may be high or low, our esteem is generally high. When a young girl is old enough to be at home in society, she sets a value on every man, and perhaps on every woman, whom she meets. They take their places in the scale she forms, and their places are not easily changed. Among them the man she has previously promised to marry almost inevitably finds his rank, and she is fortunate if he is among the highest; for if he is not, she will not fail to regret that he does not possess some quality or qualities which she supposes to exist in those men whom she ranks first among her acquaintance. Where criticism begins, sympathy very often ends, and with it love. Then, if she is honest, a woman owns that she has made a mistake, and refuses to abide by her engagement, because she feels that she cannot make the man happy. Or if her ideas of faith forbid her from doing this, she marries him in spite of her convictions, and generally makes him miserable for the rest of his days. When a girl throws a man over, as the phrase goes, the world sets up a howl, and vows that she has treated him very badly; but it always seems to me that by a single act of courage she has freed herself and the man who loves her from the fearful consequences of a marriage where all the love would have been on one side, and all the criticism on the other. It is not always a girl's own fault when she does not know her own mind, and when she has discovered her mistake she is wise if she refuses to persist in it. There is more to be said in favor of breaking off engagements than is generally allowed, and there is usually far too much said against the woman who has the courage to pursue such a course.

In comparing the two brothers, as she undoubtedly did, Hermione was not aware that she was making any real comparison between them. What she felt and understood was that when she was with Paul she was one person, and when she was with Alexander she was quite another; and the knowledge of this fact confused her, and made her uncertain of herself. With Paul she was, in her own feelings, the Hermione he had known in England; with Alexander she was some one else,--some one she did not recognize, and who should have been called by another name. Until she could unravel this mystery, and explain to herself what she felt, she was resolved not to take any further steps in regard to her marriage.

Pera, at this time, was indulging itself in its last gayeties before the beginning of the summer season, when every one who is able to leave the town goes up the Bosphorus, or to the islands. The weather was growing warm, but still the dancing continued with undiminished vigor. Among other festivities there was to be a masked ball, a species of amusement which is very rare in Constantinople; but somebody had suggested the idea, one of the great embassies had taken it up, and at last the day was fixed and the invitations were issued. It was to be a great affair, and everybody went secretly about the business of composing costumes and disguises. There was much whispering and plotting and agreeing together in schemes of mystification. The evening came, everybody went, and the ball was a great success.

Hermione had entirely hidden her costume with a black domino, which is certainly the surest disguise which anyone can wear. Its wide folds reached to the ground, and completely hid her figure, while even her hands were rendered unrecognizable by loose black gloves. Paul had been told what she was to wear; but he probably knew her by some sign, agreed upon beforehand, from all the other black dominos; for a number of other ladies had chosen the same over-garment to hide the brilliant costumes until the time came for unmasking. He came up to her immediately, and offered his arm, proposing to walk through the rooms before dancing; but Hermione would not hear of it, saying that if she were seen with him at first she would be found out at once.

"Do not be unreasonable," said she, as she saw the disappointed look on his face. "I want to mystify ever so many people first. Then I will dance with you as much as you like."

"Very well," said Paul, rather coldly. "When you want me, come to me."

Hermione nodded, and moved away, mixing with the crowd under the hundreds of lights in the great ball-room. Paul sighed, and stood by the door, caring little for what went on. He was not a man who really took pleasure in society, though he had cultivated his social faculties to the utmost, as being necessary to his career. The fact that all the ladies were masked dispensed him for the time from the duty of making the round of the room and speaking to all his acquaintances, and he was glad of it. But Hermione was bent upon enjoying her first masked ball, and all the freedom of moving about alone. She spoke to many men whom she knew, using a high, squeaking voice which in no way recalled her natural tones. In the course of half an hour she found Alexander Patoff talking earnestly with a lady in a white domino, whom she recognized, to her surprise, as her aunt Chrysophrasia. Alexander evidently had no idea of her identity, for he was speaking in low and passionate tones, while Miss Dabstreak, who seemed to enter into the spirit of the mystification with amazing readiness, replied in the conventional squeak. She had concealed her hands in the loose sleeves of her domino, and as she was of about the same height as Hermione, it was absolutely impossible to prove that she was not Hermione herself.

"Hermione," exclaimed Alexander, just as the real Hermione came up to him, "I cannot bear to hear you talk in that voice! What is the use of keeping up this ridiculous disguise? Do you not see that I am in earnest?"

"Perfectly," squeaked Chrysophrasia. "So am I. But somebody might hear my natural voice, you know."

Hermione started, and drew back a little. It was a strange position, for Alexander was evidently under the impression that he was making love to herself, and her aunt was amused by drawing him on. She hesitated, not knowing what she ought to do. It was clear that, unless she made herself known to him, he might remain under the impression that she had accepted his love-making. She waited to see what would happen. But Chrysophrasia had probably detected her, for presently the white domino moved quickly away towards the crowd. Alexander sprang forward, and would have followed, but Hermione crossed his path, and laid her hand on his sleeve.

"Will you give me your arm, Alexander?" she said, quietly, in her natural way.

He stopped short, stared at her, and then broke into a short, half-angry laugh. But he gave her his arm, and walked by her side, with an expression of bewilderment and annoyance on his beautiful face. Hermione was too wise to say that she had overheard the conversation, and Alexander was ashamed to own that he had made a mistake, and taken some one else for her. But by making herself known Hermione had effectually annulled whatever false impression Chrysophrasia had made upon him.

"Do you know who that lady in the white domino is, with whom I was talking a moment ago? Did you see her?" he asked, rather nervously.

"It is our beloved aunt Chrysophrasia," said Hermione, calmly.

"Good heavens! Aunt Chrysophrasia!" exclaimed Alexander, in some horror.

"Why 'good heavens'?" inquired Hermione. "Have you been doing anything foolish? I am sure you have been making love to her. Tell me about it."

"There is nothing to tell. But what a wonderful disguise! How many dances will you give me? May I have the cotillon?"

"You may have a quadrille," answered Hermione.

"A quadrille, two waltzes, and the cotillon. That will do very well. As nobody knows you in that domino, we can dance as often as we please, and you will only be seen with me in the cotillon. What is your costume? I am sure it is something wonderful."

"How you run on!" exclaimed the young girl. "You do not give one the time to refuse one thing before you take another!"

"That is the best way, and you know it," answered Alexander, laughing. "A man should never give a woman time to refuse. It is the greatest mistake that can be imagined."

"Did aunt Chrysophrasia refuse to dance with you?" inquired Hermione.

Alexander bit his lip, and a faint color rose in his transparent skin.

"Aunt Chrysophrasia is a hard-hearted old person," he replied, evasively; but he almost shuddered at the thought that under the white domino there had lurked the green eyes and the faded, sour face of his aesthetic relative.

"To think that even she should have resisted you!" exclaimed Hermione, wickedly.

"Better she than you," said Alexander, lowering his tone as they passed near a group of persons who chattered loudly in feigned voices. "Better she than you, dear cousin," he repeated, gently. "To be refused anything by you"----

"They do things very well here," interrupted Hermione, pretending not to hear. "They have such magnificent rooms, and the floor is so good."

"Hermione, why do you"----

"Because," said Hermione quickly, before he could finish his sentence, "because you say too much, cousin Alexander. I interrupt you because you go too far, and because the only possible way of checking you is to cut you short."

"And why must you check me? Am I rude or rough with you? Do I say anything that you should not hear? You know that I love you; why may I not tell you so? I know. You will say that Paul has spoken before me. But do you love Paul? Hermione, can you own to yourself that you love him,--not as a brother, but as the man you would choose to marry? He does not love you as I love you."

"Hush!" exclaimed the young girl. "You must not. I will go away and leave you."

"I will follow you."

"Why will you torment me so?" Perhaps her tone of voice did not express all the annoyance she meant to show, for Alexander did not desist. He only changed his manner, growing suddenly as soft and yielding as a girl.

"I did not mean to annoy you," he said. "You know that I never mean to. You must forgive me, you must be kind to me, Hermione. You have the stronger position, and you should be merciful. How can I help saying something of what I feel?"

"You should not feel it, to begin with," answered his cousin.

"Will you teach me how I may not love you?" His voice dropped almost to a whisper, as he bent down to her and asked the question. But Hermione was silent for a moment, not having any very satisfactory plan to propose. Half reluctant, she sat down by him upon a sofa in the corner of an almost empty room. There were tall plants in the windows, and the light was softened by rose-colored shades.

"It must be a hard lesson to learn," said Alexander, speaking again. "But if you will teach me, I will try and learn it; for I will do anything you ask me. You say I must not love you, but I love you already. When I am with you I am carried away, like a boat spinning down the Neva in the springtime. Can the river stop itself in order that what lives in it may not move any more? Can it say to the skiff, 'Go no further,' when the skiff is already far from the shore, at the mercy of the water?"

"The boatman must pull hard at his oars," laughed Hermione. "Have you never seen a caique pull through the Devil's Stream on the Bosphorus, at Bala Hissar? It is hard work, but it generally succeeds."

"A man may fight against the devil, but he cannot struggle against what he worships. Or, if he can, you must teach me how to do it, and give me some weapon to fight with."

"You must rely on yourself for that. You must say, 'I will not,' and it will be very easy. Besides," she added, with another laugh, in which there was a rather nervous ring,--"besides, you know all this is only a comedy, or a pastime. You are not in earnest."

"I wish I were not," answered Alexander, softly. "You tell me to rely upon myself. I rely on you. I love you, and that makes you stronger than me."

Hermione believed him, and perhaps she was right. She felt, and he made her feel, that she dominated him, and could turn him whither she would. Her pride was flattered, and though she promised herself that she would make him give up his love for her by the mere exertion of a superior common sense, she was conscious that the task was not wholly distasteful. She enjoyed the sensation of being the stronger, of realizing that Alexander was wholly at her feet and subject to her commands. That he should have gradually grown so intimate as to speak so freely to her is not altogether surprising. They were own cousins, and called each other by their Christian names. They met daily, and were often together for many consecutive hours, and Madame Patoff did her best to promote this state of things. Hermione had become accustomed to his devotion, for he had advanced by imperceptible stages. When he first said that he loved her, she took it as she might have taken such an expression from her brother,--as the exuberant expression of an affection purely platonic, not to say brotherly. When he had repeated it more earnestly, she had laughed at him, and he had laughed with her in a way which disarmed all her suspicions. But each time that he said it he laughed less, until she realized that he was not jesting. Then she reproached herself a little for having let the intimacy grow, and determined to persuade him by gentle means that he had made a mistake. She felt that she was responsible for his conduct, because she had not been wise enough to stop him at the outset, and she therefore felt also that it would be unjust to make a violent scene, and that it was altogether out of the question to speak to Paul about the matter. To tell the truth, she was not sorry that it was out of the question, and this was the most dangerous element in her intimacy with Alexander. When a young woman who has not a profound experience of the world undertakes to convince a man by sheer argument that he ought not to love her, the result is likely to be unsatisfactory, and she stands less chance of persuading than of being persuaded. A man who persuades a woman that she is able to influence him, and that he is wholly at her mercy, has already succeeded in making himself interesting to her; and she will not readily abandon the exercise of her power, since she is provided with the too plausible excuse that she is doing him good, and consequently is herself doing right.

"I wish you would really listen to me, and take my advice," said Hermione, after a pause. "There is so much that is good in you,--so much that is far better than this foolish love-making."

Alexander Patoff smiled softly, and his brown eyes gazed dreamily at hers, that just showed through the openings in the black domino.

"If there is anything good in me, you have put it there," he answered. "Do not take it away; do not give me the physic of good advice."

"I think you need it more than usual to-night," said his cousin. "You are more than usually foolish, you know."

"You are more than usually wise. But if you tell me to do anything to-night, I will do it."

"Then go away and dance with some one else," laughed Hermione. To her surprise, Alexander rose quietly, and with one gentle glance turned away. Then she repented.

"Alexander!" she exclaimed, almost involuntarily.

"Yes," he answered, coming back, and seating himself again by her side.

"I did not tell you to come back," she said, amused at his docility.

"No--but I came," he replied. "You called me. I thought you had forgotten something. Shall I go away again?"

"No. You may stay, if you will be good," said she, leaning back and looking away from him.

"I promise. Besides, you admitted a moment ago that I was very good. Perhaps I am too good, and that is the reason why you sent me away."

"I did not say you were good. I said there was some good in you. You always take everything for granted."

"I will take all you grant," said he.

"I grant nothing. It is you who fancy that I do. You have altogether too much imagination."

"I never need it with you, even if I have it," answered Alexander. "You are infinitely beyond anything I ever imagined in my wildest dreams."

"So are you," laughed Hermione. "Only--it is in a different way."

"Why do you think I like you so much?" asked her cousin, suddenly changing his tone.

"Because you ought not to," she answered without hesitation.

"Then you think that as soon as any one tells me that I should not like a thing, I make up my mind to like it and to have it? No, that is not the reason I love you."

"It was 'liking,' not 'loving,' a moment ago," observed Hermione. "Please always say 'liking.' It is a much better word."

"Perhaps. It leaves more to the imagination, of which you say I have so much. The reason I like you so much, Hermione, is because you are so honest. You always say just what you mean."

"Yes. The difficulty lies in making you understand what I mean."

"As the Frenchman said when a man misunderstood him. You furnish me with an argument; you are not bound to furnish me with an understanding. No, I am afraid that would be asking the impossible. It is easier for a woman to talk than for a man to know what she thinks."

"I thought you said I was honest. Please explain," returned Hermione.

"Honesty does not always carry conviction. I mean that you are evidently most wonderfully honest, from your own point of view. If I could make my opinion yours, everything would be settled very soon."

"In what way?"

"Why should I tell you? I have told you so often, and you will not believe me. If I say it, you will send me away again. I do not say it,--another proof of my goodness to-night."

"I am deeply sensible," answered Hermione, with a laugh. "Come, I will give you one dance, and then you must go."

So they left their seat, and went into the ball-room just as the musicians began to play Nur fuer Natur; and the enchanting strains of the waltz carried them away in the swaying movement, and did them no manner of good. Just such conversations had taken place before, and would take place again so long as Hermione maintained the possibility of converting Alexander to the platonic view of cousinly affection. But each time some chance expression, some softer tone of voice, some warmer gleam of light in the Russian's brown eyes, betrayed that he was gaining ground rather than losing anything of the advantage he had already obtained.

Half an hour later Hermione laid her hand on Paul's arm, and looked up rather timidly into his eyes through the holes in her domino. His expression was very cold and hard, but it changed as he recognized her.

"At last," he said happily, as he led her away.

"At last," she echoed, with a little sigh. "Do you want to dance?" she asked. "It is so hot; let us go and sit down somewhere."

Almost by accident they came to the place where Hermione had sat with Alexander. There was no one there, and they installed themselves upon the same sofa.

"I thought you were never coming," said Paul. "After all, what does it matter whether people see us together or not? I never can understand what amusement there is, after the first five minutes, in rushing about in a domino and trying to mystify people."

"No," answered Hermione, "it is not very amusing. I would much rather sit quietly and talk with some one I know and who knows me."

"I want to tell you something to-night, dear," said Paul, after a short silence. "Do you mind if I tell you now?"

"No bad news?" asked Hermione, rather nervously.

"No. It is simply this: I have made up my mind that I must speak to your father to-morrow. Do not be startled, darling. This position cannot last. I am not acting an honorable part, and he expects me to ask him the question. I know you have objected to my going to him for a long time, but I feel that the thing must be done. There can be no good objection to our marriage,--Mr. Carvel made Griggs understand that. Tell me, is there any real reason why I should not speak?"

Hermione turned her head away. Under the long sleeves of her domino her small hands were tightly clasped together.

"Is there any reason, dear?" repeated Paul, very gently. But as her silence continued his lips set themselves firmly, and his face grew slowly pale.

"Will you please speak, darling?" he said, in changed tones. "I am very nervous," he added, with a short, harsh laugh.

"Oh--Paul! Don't!" cried Hermione. Her voice seemed to choke her as she spoke. Then she took courage, and continued more calmly: "Please, please wait a little longer,--it is such a risk!"

Paul laughed again, almost roughly.

"A risk! What risk? Your father has done all but give his formal consent. What possible danger can there be?"

"No. Not from him,--it is not that!"

"Well, what is it? Hermione, what in the name of Heaven is the matter? Speak, darling! Tell me what it is. I cannot bear this much longer." Indeed, the man's suppressed passion was on the very point of breaking out, and the blue light quivered in his eyes, while his face grew unnaturally pale.

"Oh, Paul--I cannot tell you--you frighten me so," murmured Hermione in broken tones. "Oh, Paul! Forgive me--forgive me!"

At that moment Gregorios Balsamides passed before their corner, a lady in a red hood and a red mask leaning on his arm.

"Hush!" exclaimed Paul, under his breath, as the couple came near them. But Gregorios only nodded familiarly to Paul, stared a moment at his pale face, glanced at the black domino, and went on with his partner. "I do not want to frighten you, dearest," continued Paul, when no one could hear them. "And what have I to forgive? Do not be afraid, and tell me what all this means."

"I must," answered Hermione, her strength returning suddenly. "I must, or I should despise myself. You must not go to my father, Paul--because I--I am not sure of myself."

She trembled visibly under her domino, as she spoke the last words almost in a whisper, hesitating and yet forcing herself to tell the truth. Paul glanced uneasily at the black drapery which veiled all her head and figure, and with one hand he grasped the carved end of the sofa, so that it cracked under the pressure. For some seconds there was an awful silence, broken only by low sounds which told that Hermione was crying.

"You mean--that you do not love me," said Paul at last, very slowly, steadying his voice on every syllable.

The young girl shook her head, and tried to speak. But the words would not come. Meanwhile the strong man's anger was slowly rising, very slowly but very surely, so that Hermione felt it coming, as a belated traveler on the sands sees the tide creeping nearer to the black cliff.

"Hermione," he said, very sternly, "if you mean that you are no longer willing to marry me, say so plainly. I will forgive you if I can, because I love you. But please do not trifle with me. I can bear the worst, but I cannot bear waiting."

"Do not talk like that, Paul!" cried his cousin in an agonized voice, but recovering her power of speech before the pent-up anger he seemed to be controlling. "Let us wait, Paul; let us wait and be sure. I cannot marry you unless I am sure that I love you as I ought to love you. I do love you, but I feel that I could love you so much more--as--as I should like to love my--the man I marry. Have patience,--please have patience for a little while."

Paul's white lips opened and shut mechanically as he answered her.

"I am very patient. I have been patient for long. But it cannot last forever. I believed you loved me and had promised to marry me. If you have made a mistake, it is much to be regretted. But I must really beg you to make up your mind as soon as possible."

"Oh, pray do not talk like that. You are so cold. I am so very unhappy!"

"What would you have me say?" asked Paul, his voice growing clearer and harder with every word. "Will you answer me one question? Will you tell me whether you have learned to care so much for another man that your liking for him makes you doubt?"

"I am afraid"--She stopped, then suddenly exclaimed, "How can you ask me such a question?"

"What are you afraid of?" inquired Paul, in the same hard tone. "You always tell the truth. You will tell it now. Has any other man come between you and me?"

It was of no use for her to hesitate. She could command Alexander and give him any answer she chose, but Paul's strong nature completely dominated her. She bent her head in assent, and the Yes she spoke was almost inaudible.

"And you ask time to choose between us?" asked Paul, icily. "Yes, I understand. You shall have the time,--as long as you please to remain in Constantinople. I am much obliged to you for being so frank. May I give you my arm to go into the next room?"

"How unkind you are!" said Hermione, making an effort to rise. But her strength failed her, and she fell back into her seat. "Excuse me," she faltered. "Please wait one moment,--I am not well."

Paul looked at her, and hesitated. But her weakness touched him, and he spoke more gently as he turned to her.

"May I get you a glass of water, or anything?"

"Thanks, nothing. It will be over in a moment,--only a little dizziness."

For a few seconds they remained seated in silence. Then Hermione turned her head, and looked at her cousin's white face. Her small gloved hand stole out from under her domino and rested on his arm. He took no notice of the action; he did not even look at her.

"Paul," she said, very gently, "you will thank me some day for having waited."

A contemptuous answer rose to his lips, but he was ashamed of it before it was spoken, and merely raised his eyebrows as he answered in perfectly monotonous tones:

"I believe you have done what you think best."

"Indeed I have," replied Hermione, rising to her feet.

He offered her his arm, and they went out together. But when supper-time came, and with it the hour for unmasking, Hermione was not to be seen; and Alexander, who had counted upon her half-given assent to dance the cotillon with him, leaned disconsolately against a door, wondering whether it could be worth while to sacrifice himself by engaging any one in her place.

But Paul did not go home. He was too angry to be alone, and above all too deeply wounded. Besides, his position required that he should stay at least until supper was over, and it was almost a relief to move about among the gorgeous costumes of all kinds which now issued from the black, white, and red dominos, as a moth from the chrysalis. He spoke to many people, saying the same thing to each, with the same mechanical smile, as men do when they are obliged day after day to accomplish a certain social task. But the effort was agreeable, and took off the first keen edge of his wrath.

He had no need to ask the name of the man who had come between him and the woman he loved. For weeks he had watched his brother and Hermione, asking himself if their intimacy meant anything, and then driving away the tormenting question, as though it contained something of disloyalty to her. Now he remembered that for weeks this thing she had spoken must have been in her mind, since she had always entreated him to wait a little longer before speaking with her father. It had appeared such an easy matter to her to wait; it was such a hard matter for him,--harder than death it seemed now. For it was all over. He believed that she had spoken her last word that night, and that in speaking of waiting still longer she had only intended to make it less troublesome to break it off. She had admitted that another man had come between them. Was anything further needed? It followed, of course, that she loved this other man--Alexander--better than himself. For the present he could see only one side of the question, and he repeated to himself that all was over, saying it again and again in his heart, as he went the rounds of the room, asking each acquaintance he met concerning his or her plans for the summer, commenting on the weather, and praising the successful arrangement of the masked ball.

But Paul was ignorant of two things, in his present frame of mind. He did not know that Hermione had been perfectly sincere in what she had said, and he did not calculate upon his own nature. It was a simple matter, in the impulse of the first moment, to say that all was at an end, that he gave her up, even as she had rejected him, with a sort of savage pleasure in the coldness of the words he spoke. He could not imagine, after this interview, that he could ever think of her again as his possible wife, and if the idea had presented itself he would have cast it behind him as a piece of unpardonable weakness. All his former cynical determination to trust only in what he could do himself, for the satisfaction of his ambition, returned with renewed strength; and as he shook hands with the people he met, he felt that he would never again ask man or woman for anything which he could not take by force. He did not know that in at least one respect his nature had changed, and that the love he had lavished on Hermione was a deep-rooted passion, which had grown and strengthened and spread in his hard character, as the sculptor adapts the heavy iron framework in the body and limbs of a great clay statue. In the first sudden revulsion of his feeling, he thought he could pluck away his love and leave it behind him like an old garment, and the general contempt with which he regarded his surroundings after he left Hermione reminded him almost reassuringly of his old self. If his old self still lived, he could live his old life as before, without Hermione, and above all, without love. There was a bitter comfort in the thought that once more he was to look at all things, at success in everything, at his career, his aims both great and small, surrounded by obstacles which could be overcome only by main force, as prizes to be wrested from his fellows by his own unaided exertions.

He had forgotten that Hermione had been the chiefest aim of his existence for several months, and at the same time he did not realize that he loved her in such a way as to make it almost impossible for him to live without her. It was not in accordance with his character to relinquish without a struggle, and a very desperate struggle, that for which he had labored so long, and an outsider would have prophesied that whosoever would take from Paul Patoff the woman he loved would find that he had attempted a dangerous thing. Mere senseless anger does not often last long, and before an hour had passed Paul began to feel those suspicious little thrusts of pain in the breast and midriff which warn us that we miss some one we love. For a long time he tried to persuade himself that he was deceived, because he did not believe himself capable of such weakness. But the feeling was unmistakable.

The dancing was at its height, for all those who did not mean to stay until the end of the cotillon had gone home, so that the more distant rooms were already deserted. Almost unconsciously Paul strayed to the spot where he had sat with Hermione. He looked towards the sofa where they had been seated, and he saw a strange sight.

Alexander Patoff was there, half sitting, half lying, on the small sofa, unaware of his brother's presence. His face was turned away, and he was passionately kissing the cushions,--the very spot against which Hermione's head had rested. Paul stared stupidly at him for a moment, as though not comprehending the action, which indeed was wild and incomprehensible enough; then he seemed to understand, and strode forward in bitter anger. His brother, he thought, had seen them there together, had been told what had passed, and had chosen this passionate way of expressing his joy and his gratitude to Hermione. Alexander heard his brother's footsteps, and, starting, looked wildly round; then recognizing Paul, he sprang to his feet, and a faint color mounted to his pale cheeks.

"Fool!" cried Paul, bitterly, as he came forward. But Alexander had already recovered himself, and faced him coolly enough.

"What is the matter? What do you mean?" he asked, contemptuously.

"You know very well what I mean," retorted his brother, fiercely. "You know very well why you are making a fool of yourself,--kissing a heap of cushions, like a silly schoolboy in love."

"My dear fellow, you are certainly quite mad. I waltzed too long just now, and was dizzy. I was trying to get over it, that was all. My nerves are not so sound in dancing as they were before I was caught in that trap. Really, you have the most extraordinary ideas."

Paul was confused by the smooth lie. He did not believe his brother, but he could not find a ready answer.

"You do not know who sat there a little while ago?" he asked, sternly.

"Not the remotest idea," replied Alexander. "Was it that adorable red mask, who would not leave Balsamides even for a moment? Bah! You must think me very foolish. Come along and have some supper before we go home. I have no partner, and have had nothing to eat and very little to drink."

Paul was obliged to be content with the answer; but he understood his brother well enough to know that if there had been nothing to conceal, Alexander would have been furious at the way in which he was addressed. His conviction remained unchanged that his brother had known what passed, and was so overcome with joy that he had kissed the sofa whereon Hermione had sat. The two men left the room together, but Paul presently slipped away, and went home.

Strange to say, what he had seen did not have the effect of renewing his resentment against Hermione so much as of exciting his anger against his brother. He now felt for the first time that though he might give her up to another, he could not give her up to Alexander. The feeling was perhaps only an excuse suggested by the real love for her which filled him, but it was strongly mixed with pride, and with the old hostility which during so many years had divided the two brothers.

To give her up, and to his own brother,--the thing was impossible, not to be thought of for a moment. As he walked quickly home over the rough stones of the Grande Rue, he realized all that it meant, and stopped short, staring at the dusky houses. He was not a man of dramatic instincts. He did not strike his forehead, nor stamp his foot, nor formulate in words the resolution he made out there in the dark street. He merely thrust his hands deeper into the pockets of his overcoat, and walked on; but he knew from that moment that he would fight for Hermione, and that his mood of an hour ago had been but the passing effect of a sudden anger. He regretted his hard speech and bitter looks, and he wished that he had merely assented to her proposal to wait, and had said no more about it until the next day. Hermione might talk of not marrying him, but he would marry her in spite of all objections, and especially in spite of Alexander.

Had she spoken thoughtlessly? In the light of his stronger emotion it seemed so to him, and it was long before he realized that she had suffered almost as much in making this sacrifice to her honesty as he had suffered himself. But she had indeed been in earnest, and had done courageously a very hard thing. She was conscious that she had made a great mistake, and she wanted to avert the consequences of it, if there were to be any consequences, before it was too late. She had allowed Alexander to become too fond of her, as their interview that evening had shown; and though she knew that she did not love him, she knew also that she felt a growing sympathy for him, which was in some measure a wrong to Paul. This sympathy had increased until it began to frighten her, and she asked herself where it would end, while she yet felt that she had no right to inflict pain on Alexander by suddenly forcing him to change his tone. Her mind was very much confused, and as she could not imagine that a real and undivided love admitted of any confusion, she had simply asked Paul to wait, in perfect good faith, meaning that she needed time to decide and to settle the matter in her own conscience. He had pressed her with questions, and had finally extorted the confession that another man had come between them. She had not meant to say that, but she was too honest to deny the charge. Paul had instantly taken it for granted that she already loved this other man better than himself, and had treated her as though everything were over between them.

The poor girl was in great trouble when she went home that night. Although nothing had been openly discussed, she knew that her engagement to Paul was tacitly acknowledged. She asked herself how he would treat her when they met; whether they should meet at all, indeed, for she feared that he would refuse to come to the house altogether. She wondered what questions her father would put to her, and how Madame Patoff would take the matter. More than all, she hesitated in deciding whether she had done well in speaking as she had spoken, seeing what the first results had been.

She shut herself in her room, and just as she was, in the beautiful Eastern dress which she was to have shown at the ball when the masking was over, she sat down upon a chair in the corner, and leaned her tired head against the wall. But for the disastrous ending of the evening, she would doubtless have sat before her glass, and looked with innocent satisfaction at her own beautiful face. But the dark corner suited her better, in her present mood. Her cheek rested against the wall, and very soon the silent tears welled over and trickled down, staining the green wall paper of the hotel bedroom, as they slowly reached the floor and soaked into the dusty carpet. She was very miserable and very tired, poor child, and perhaps she would have fallen asleep at last, just as she sat, had she not been roused by sounds which reached her from the next room, and which finally attracted her attention. Madame Patoff slept there, or should have been sleeping at that hour, for she was evidently awake. She seemed to be walking up and down, up and down eternally, between the window and the door. As she walked, she spoke aloud from time to time. At first she always spoke just as she was moving away from the door, and consequently, when her back was turned towards the place where Hermione sat on the other side of the wall, her words were lost, and only incoherent sounds reached the young girl's ears. Presently, however, she stopped just behind the door, and her voice came clear and distinct through the thin wooden panel:--

"I wish he were dead. I wish he were dead. Oh, I wish I could kill him myself!" Then the voice ceased, and the sound of the footsteps began again, pacing up and down.

Hermione started, and sat upright in her chair, while the tears dried slowly on her cheeks. The habit of considering her aunt to be insane was not wholly lost, and it was natural that she should listen to such unwonted sounds. For some time she could hear the voice at intervals, but the words were indistinct and confused. Her aunt was probably very ill, or under the influence of some hallucination which kept her awake. Hermione crept stealthily near the door, and listened intently. Madame Patoff continued to walk regularly up and down. At last she heard clear words again:--

"I wish I could kill him; then Alexis could marry her. Alexis ought to marry her, but he never will. Cannot Paul die!"

Hermione shrank from the door in horror. She was frightened and shaken, and after the events of the evening her aunt's soliloquies produced a much greater effect upon her than would have been possible six hours earlier. Her first impulse was not to listen more, and she hastily began to undress, making a noise with the chairs, and walking as heavily as she could. Then she listened a moment, and all was still in the next room. Her aunt had probably heard her, and had feared lest she herself should be overheard. Hermione crept into bed, and closed her eyes. At the end of a few minutes the steps began again, and after some time the indistinct sounds of Madame Patoffs voice reached the young girl's ears. She seemed to speak in lower tones than before, however, for the words she spoke could not be distinguished. But Hermione strained her attention to the utmost, while telling herself that it was better she should not hear. The nervous anxiety to know whether Madame Patoff were still repeating the same phrases made her heart beat fast, and she lay there in the dark, her eyes wide open, her little hands tightening on the sheet, praying that the sounds might cease altogether, or that she might understand their import. Her pulse beat audibly for a few seconds, then seemed to stop altogether in sudden fear, while her forehead grew damp with terror. She thought that any supernatural visitation would have been less fearful than this reality, and she strove to collect her senses and to compose herself to rest.

At last she could bear it no longer. She got up and groped her way to the door of her aunt's room, not meaning to enter, but unable to withstand the desire to hear the words of which the incoherent murmur alone came to her in her bed. She reached the door, but in feeling for it her outstretched hand tapped sharply upon the panel. Instantly the footsteps ceased. She knew that Madame Patoff had heard her, and that the best thing she could do was to ask admittance.

"May I come in, aunt Annie?" she inquired, in trembling tones.

"Come in," was the answer; but the voice was almost as uncertain as her own.

She opened the door. By the light of the single candle--an English reading-light with a reflecting hood--she saw her aunt's figure standing out in strong relief against the dark background of shadow. Madame Patoff's thick gray hair was streaming down her back and over her shoulders, and she held a hairbrush in her hand, as though the fit of walking had come upon her while she was at her toilet. Her white dressing-gown hung in straight folds to the floor, and her dark eyes stared curiously at the young girl. Hermione was more startled than before, for there was something unearthly about the apparition.

"Are you ill, aunt Annie?" she asked timidly, but she was awed by the glare in the old lady's eyes. She glanced round the room. The bed was in the shadow, and the bed-clothes were rolled together, so that they took the shape of a human figure. Hermione shuddered, and for a moment thought her aunt must be dead, and that she was looking at her ghost. The girl's nerves were already so overstrained that the horrible idea terrified her; the more, as several seconds elapsed before Madame Patoff answered the question.

"No, I am not ill," she said slowly. "What made you ask?"

"I heard you walking up and down," explained Hermione. "It is very late; you generally go to sleep so early"----

"I? I never sleep," answered the old lady, in a tone of profound conviction, keeping her eyes fixed upon her niece's face.

"I cannot sleep, either, to-night," said Hermione, uneasily. She sat down upon a chair, and shivered slightly. Madame Patoff remained standing, the hairbrush still in her hand.

"Why should you not sleep? Why should you? What difference does it make? One is just as well without it, and one can think all night,--one can think of things one would like to do."

"Yes," answered the young girl, growing more and more nervous. "You must have been thinking aloud, aunt Annie. I thought I heard your voice."

Madame Patoff moved suddenly and bent forward, bringing her face close to her niece's, so that the latter was startled and drew back in her chair.

"Did you hear what I said?" asked the old lady, almost fiercely, in low tones.

Sometimes a very slight thing is enough to turn the balance of our beliefs, especially when all our feelings are wrought to the highest pitch of excitement. In a moment the conviction seized Hermione that her aunt was mad,--not mad as she had once pretended to be, but really and dangerously insane.

"I did not understand what you said," answered the young girl, too frightened to own the truth, as she saw the angry eyes glaring into her face. It seemed impossible that this should be the quiet, sweet-tempered woman whom she was accustomed to talk with every day. She certainly did the wisest thing, for her aunt's face instantly relaxed, and she drew herself up again and turned away.

"Go to bed, child," she said, presently. "I dare say I frightened you. I sometimes frighten myself. Go to bed and sleep. I will not make any more noise to-night."

There was something in the quick change, from apparent anger to apparent gentleness, which confirmed the idea that Madame Patoff's brain was seriously disturbed. Hermione rose and quietly left the room. She locked her door, and went to bed, hoping that she might sleep and find some rest; for she was worn out with excitement, and shaken by a sort of nervous fear.

Sleep came at last, troubled by dreams and restless, but it was sleep, nevertheless. Several times she started up awake, thinking that she again heard her aunt's low voice and the regular fall of her footsteps in the next room. But all was still, and her weary head sank back on the pillow in the dark, her eyelids closed again in sheer weariness, and once more her dreams wove fantastic scenes of happiness, ending always in despair, with the suddenness of revulsion which makes the visions of the night ten times more agonizing while they last than the worst of our real troubles.

But the morning brought a calmer reflection; and when Hermione was awake she began to think of what had passed. The horror inspired by her aunt's words and looks faded before the greater anxiety of the girl's position with regard to Paul. She tried to go over the interview in her mind. Her conscience told her that she had done right, but her heart said that she had done wrong, and its beating hurt her. Then came the difficult task of reconciling those two opposing voices, which are never so contradictory as when the heart and the conscience fall out, and argue their cause before the bewildered court of justice we call our intelligence. First she remembered all the many reasons she had found for speaking plainly to Paul on the previous night. She had said to herself that she did not feel sure of her love, allowing tacitly that she expected to feel sure of it before long. But until the matter was settled she could not let him hurry the marriage nor take any decisive step. If he had only been willing to wait another month, he might have been spared all the suffering she had seen in his face; she herself could have escaped it, too. But he had insisted, and she had tried to do right in telling him that she was not ready. Then he had been angry and hurt, and had coldly told her that she might wait forever, or something very like it, and she had felt that the deed was done. It was dreadful; yet how could she tell him that she was ready? Half an hour earlier, on that very spot, she had suffered Alexander to speak as he had spoken, only laughing kindly at his expressions of love; not rebuking him and leaving him, as she should have done, and would have done, had she loved Paul with her whole heart.

And yet this morning, as she lay awake and thought it all over, something within her spoke very differently, like an incoherent cry, telling her that she loved him in spite of all. She tried to listen to what it said, and then the answer came quickly enough, and told her that she had been unkind, that she had given needless pain, that she had broken a man's life for an over-conscientious scruple which had no real foundation. But then her conscience returned to the charge, refuting the slighting accusation, so that the confusion was renewed, and became worse than before. For the sake of discovering something in support of her action, she began to think about Alexander; and finding that she remembered very accurately what they had said to each other, her thoughts dwelt upon him. It was pleasant to think of his beautiful face, his soft voice, and his marvelous dancing. It was a fascination from which she could not easily escape, even when he was absent; and there was a charm in the memory of him, in thinking of how she would turn him from being a lover to being a friend, which drew her mind away from the main question that occupied it, and gave her a momentary sensation of peace.

Suddenly the two men came vividly before her in profile, side by side. The bold, manly features and cold glance of the strong man contrasted very strangely with the exquisitely chiseled lines of his brother's face, with the soft brown eyes veiled under long lashes, and the indescribable delicacy of the feminine mouth. Paul wore the stern expression of a man superior to events and very careless of them. Alexander smiled, as though he loved his life, and would let no moment of it pass without enjoying it to the full.

It was but the vision of an instant, as she closed her eyes, and opened them again to the faint light which came in through the blinds. But Hermione felt that she must choose between the two men, and it was perhaps the first time she had quite realized the fact. Hitherto Alexander had appeared to her only as a man who disturbed her previous determinations. If she had hesitated to marry Paul while the disturbance lasted, it was not because she had ever thought of taking his brother instead. Now it seemed clear that she must accept either the one or the other, for the comparison of the two had asserted itself in her mind. In that moment she felt that she was worse than she had ever been before; for the fact that she compared the two men as possible husbands showed her that she set no value on the promises she had made to Paul.

To choose,--but how to choose? Had she a right to choose at all? If she refused to marry Paul, was she not bound to refuse any one else,--morally bound in honor? The questions came fast, and would not be answered. Just then her aunt moved in the next room, and the thought of her possible insanity returned instantly to Hermione's mind. She determined that it was best to speak to her father about it. He was the person who ought to know immediately, and he should decide whether anything should be done. She made up her mind to go to him at once, and she rang for her maid.

But before she was dressed she had half decided to act differently, to wait at least a day or two, and see whether Madame Patoff would talk to herself again during the night. To tell her father would certainly be to give an alarm, and would perhaps involve the necessity of putting her aunt once more under the care of a nurse. John Carvel could not know, as Hermione knew, that the old lady's resentment against Paul was caused by her niece's preference for him, and it would not be easy for the young girl to explain this. But Hermione wished that she might speak to Paul himself, and warn him of what his mother had said. She sighed as she thought how impossible that would be. Nevertheless, in the morning light and in the presence of her maid, while her gold-brown hair was being smoothed and twisted, and the noises from the street told her that all the world was awake, the horror of the night disappeared, and Hermione almost doubted whether her aunt had really spoken those words at all. If she had, it had been but the angry out-break of a moment, and should not be taken too seriously.

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