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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Eagle's Shadow - Chapter 23
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The Eagle's Shadow - Chapter 23 Post by :schauerdk Category :Long Stories Author :James Branch Cabell Date :July 2011 Read :2761

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The Eagle's Shadow - Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

Mrs. Saumarez laughed bitterly.

"No," she said, "Billy cared for me, you know, a long time ago. And this morning he told me he still cared. Billy doesn't pretend to be a clever man, you see, and so he can afford to practice some of the brute virtues, such as constancy and fidelity."

There was a challenging flame in her eyes, but Kennaston let the stab pass unnoticed. To do him justice, he was thinking less of himself, just now, than of how this news would affect Margaret; and his face was very grave and strangely tender, for in his own fashion he loved Margaret.

"It's nasty, very nasty," he said, at length, in a voice that was puzzled. "Yet I could have sworn yesterday----" Kennaston paused and laughed lightly. "She was an heiress yesterday, and to-day she is nobody. And Mr. Woods, being wealthy, can afford to gratify the virtues you commend so highly and, with a fidelity that is most edifying, return again to his old love. And she welcomes him--and the Woods millions--with open arms. It is quite affecting, is it not, Kathleen?"

"You needn't be disagreeable," she observed.

"My dear Kathleen, I assure you I am not angry. I am merely a little sorry for human nature. I could have sworn Woods was honest. But rogues all, rogues all, Kathleen! Money rules us in the end; and now the parable is fulfilled, and Love the prodigal returns to make merry over the calf of gold. Confess," Mr. Kennaston queried, with a smile, "is it not strange an all-wise Creator should have been at pains to fashion this brave world about us for little men and women such as we to lie and pilfer in? Was it worth while, think you, to arch the firmament above our rogueries, and light the ageless stars as candles to display our antics? Let us be frank, Kathleen, and confess that life is but a trivial farce ignobly played in a very stately temple." And Mr. Kennaston laughed again.

"Let us be frank!" Kathleen cried, with a little catch in her voice. "Why, it isn't in you to be frank, Felix Kennaston! Your life is nothing but a succession of poses--shallow, foolish poses meant to hoodwink the world and at times yourself. For you do hoodwink yourself, don't you, Felix?" she asked, eagerly, and gave him no time to answer. She feared, you see, lest his answer might dilapidate the one fortress she had been able to build about his honour.

"And now," she went on, quickly, "you're trying to make me think you a devil of a fellow, aren't you? And you're hinting that I've accepted Billy because of his money, aren't you? Well, it is true that I wouldn't marry him if he were poor. But he's very far from being poor. And he cares for me. And I am fond of him. And so I shall marry him and make him as good a wife as I can. So there!"

Mrs. Saumarez faced him with an uneasy defiance. He was smiling oddly.

"I have heard it rumoured in many foolish tales and jingling verses," said Kennaston, after a little, "that a thing called love exists in the world. And I have also heard, Kathleen, that it sometimes enters into the question of marriage. It appears that I was misinformed."

"No," she answered, slowly, "there is a thing called love. I think women are none the better for knowing it. To a woman, it means to take some man--some utterly commonplace man, perhaps--perhaps, only an idle _poseur such as you are, Felix--and to set him up on a pedestal, and to bow down and worship him; and to protest loudly, both to the world and to herself, that in spite of all appearances her idol really hasn't feet of clay, or that, at any rate, it is the very nicest clay in the world. For a time she deceives herself, Felix. Then the idol topples from the pedestal and is broken, and she sees that it is all clay, Felix--clay through and through--and her heart breaks with it."

Kennaston bowed his head. "It is true," said he; "that is the love of women."

"To a man," she went on, dully, "it means to take some woman--the nearest woman who isn't actually deformed--and to make pretty speeches to her and to make her love him. And after a while--" Kathleen shrugged her shoulders drearily. "Why, after a while," said she, "he grows tired and looks for some other woman."

"It is true," said Kennaston--"yes, very true that some men love in that fashion."

There ensued a silence. It was a long silence, and under the tension of it Kathleen's composure snapped like a cord that has been stretched to the breaking point.

"Yes, yes, yes!" she cried, suddenly; "that is how I have loved you and that is how you've loved me, Felix Kennaston! Ah, Billy told me what happened last night! And that--that was why I--" Mrs. Saumarez paused and regarded him curiously. "You don't make a very noble figure, just now, do you?" she asked, with careful deliberation. "You were ready to sell yourself for Miss Hugonin's money, weren't you? And now you must take her without the money. Poor Felix! Ah, you poor, petty liar, who've over-reached yourself so utterly!" And again Kathleen began to laugh, but somewhat shrilly, somewhat hysterically.

"You are wrong," he said, with a flush. "It is true that I asked Miss Hugonin to marry me. But she--very wisely, I dare say--declined."

"Ah!" Kathleen said, slowly. Then--and it will not do to inquire too closely into her logic--she spoke with considerable sharpness: "She's a conceited little cat! I never in all my life knew a girl to be quite so conceited as she is. Positively, I don't believe she thinks there's a man breathing who's good enough for her!"

Kennaston grinned. "Oh, Kathleen, Kathleen!" he said; "you are simply delicious."

And Mrs. Saumarez coloured prettily and tried to look severe and could not, for the simple reason that, while she knew Kennaston to be flippant and weak and unstable as water and generally worthless, yet for some occult cause she loved him as tenderly as though he had been a paragon of all the manly virtues. And I dare say that for many of us it is by a very kindly provision of Nature that all women are created capable of doing this illogical thing and that most of them do it daily.

"It is true," the poet said, at length, "that I have played no heroic part. And I don't question, Kathleen, that I am all you think me. Yet, such as I am, I love you. And such as I am, you love me, and it is I that you are going to marry, and not that Woods person."

"He's worth ten of you!" she cried, scornfully.

"Twenty of me, perhaps," Mr. Kennaston assented, "but that isn't the question. You don't love him, Kathleen. You are about to marry him for his money. You are about to do what I thought to do yesterday. But you won't, Kathleen. You know that I need you, my dear, and--unreasonably enough, God knows--you love me."

Mrs. Saumarez regarded him intently for a considerable space, and during that space the Eagle warred in her heart with the one foe he can never conquer. Love had a worthless ally; but Love fought staunchly.

By and bye, "Yes," she said, and her voice was almost sullen; "I love you. I ought to love Billy, but I don't. I shall ask him to release me from my engagement. And yes, I will marry you if you like."

He raised her hand to his lips. "You are an angel," Mr. Kennaston was pleased to say.

"No," Mrs. Saumarez dissented, rather forlornly; "I'm simply a fool. Otherwise, I wouldn't be about to marry you, knowing you as I do for what you are--knowing that I haven't one chance in a hundred of any happiness."

"My dear," he said, and his voice was earnest, "you know at least that what there is of good in me is at its best with you."

"Yes, yes!" Kathleen cried, quickly. "That is so, isn't it, Felix? And you do care for me, don't you? Felix, are you sure you care for me--quite sure? And are you quite certain, Felix, that you never cared so much for any one else?"

Mr. Kennaston was quite certain. He proceeded to explain his feelings toward her at some length.

Kathleen listened with downcast eyes and almost cheated herself into the belief that the man she loved was all that he should be. But at the bottom of her heart she knew he wasn't.

I think we may fairly pity her.

Kennaston and Mrs. Saumarez chatted very amicably for some ten minutes. At the end of that period, the twelve forty-five express bellowing faintly in the distance recalled the fact that the morning mail was in, and thereupon, in the very best of humours, they set out for the house. I grieve to admit it, but Kathleen had utterly forgotten Billy by this, and was no more thinking of him than she was of the Man in the Iron Mask.

She was with Kennaston, you see; and her thoughts, and glances, and lips, and adoration were all given to his pleasuring, just as her life would have been if its loss could have saved him from a toothache. He strutted a little, and was a little grateful to her, and--to do him justice--received the tribute she accorded him with perfect satisfaction and equanimity.

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CHAPTER XXIVMargaret came out of the summer-house, Billy Woods followed her, in a very moist state of perturbation. "Peggy----" said Mr. Woods. But Miss Hugonin was laughing. Clear as a bird-call, she poured forth her rippling mimicry of mirth. They train women well in these matters. To Margaret, just now, her heart seemed dead within her. Her lover was proved unworthy. Her pride was shattered. She had loved this clumsy liar yonder, had given up a fortune for him, dared all for him, had (as the phrase runs) flung herself at his head. The shame of it was a physical sickness,
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CHAPTER XXII"Well!" Mr. Woods observed, lengthening the word somewhat. In the intimate half-light of the summer-house, he loomed prodigiously big. He was gazing downward in careful consideration of three fat tortoise-shell pins and a surprising quantity of gold hair, which was practically all that he could see of Miss Hugonin's person; for that young lady had suddenly become a limp mass of abashed violet ruffles, and had discovered new and irresistible attractions in the mosaics about her feet. Billy's arms were crossed on his breast and his right hand caressed his chin meditatively. By and bye, "I wonder, now," he reflected,
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