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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Great Secret - Chapter XXIV. A PRACTICAL WOMAN
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The Great Secret - Chapter XXIV. A PRACTICAL WOMAN Post by :Mick_Sawyer Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :April 2012 Read :2135

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The Great Secret - Chapter XXIV. A PRACTICAL WOMAN

Mrs. Van Reinberg on the steamer was a somewhat formidable person; Mrs. Van Reinberg in her own house was despotism personified. Her word was law, her rule was absolute. Consequently, when she swept out on to the sunny piazza, where a little party of us were busy discussing our plans for the day, we all turned towards her expectantly. We might propose, but Mrs. Van Reinberg would surely dispose. We waited to hear what she might have to say.

"I want to talk to Mr. Courage," she declared. "All the rest of you go away!"

They obeyed her at once. We were alone in less than a minute. Mrs. Van Reinberg established herself in a low wicker chair, and I took up my position within a few feet of her, leaning against the wooden rail.

"I am entirely at your service, Mrs. Van Reinberg," I declared. "What is it to be about--Adele?"

"No! not Adele," she answered. "I leave you and Adele to arrange your own affairs. You can manage that without any interference from me."

I smiled and waited for her to proceed. She was evidently thinking out her way. Her brows were knitted, her eyes were fixed upon a distant spot in the forest landscape of orange and red. Yet I was very sure that at that moment, the wonderful autumnal tints, which she seemed to be so steadily regarding, held no place in her thoughts.

"Mr. Courage," she said at last, "you are a sensible man, and a man of honor. I should like to talk to you confidentially."

I murmured something about being flattered, but I do not think that she heard me.

"I should like," she continued, "to have you understand certain things which are in my mind just now, and which concern also--Mr. de Valentin."

I nodded. The Prince's identity was an open secret, but his incognito was jealously observed.

"I wonder," she said slowly, looking for the first time directly towards me, "whether you have ever seriously considered the question of the American woman--such as myself, for instance!"

I was a little puzzled, and no doubt I looked it. Mrs. Van Reinberg proceeded calmly. It was made clear to me that, for the present, at any rate, my role was to be simply that of listener.

"My own case," she said, "is typical. At least I suppose so! I speak for myself; and there are others in the house, at the present moment, who profess to feel as I do, and suffer--as I have done. In this country, we are taught that wealth is power. We, or rather our husbands, acquire or inherit it; afterwards we set ourselves to test the truth of that little maxim. We begin at home. In about three years, more or less, we reach our limitations. Then it begins to dawn upon us that, whatever else America is good for, it's no place for a woman with ambitions. We're on the top too soon, and when we're there it doesn't amount to anything."

"Which accounts," I remarked, "for the invasion of Europe!"

Mrs. Van Reinberg leaned her fair, little head upon her white be-ringed fingers, and looked steadily at me. I had never for a moment under-estimated her, but she had probably never so much impressed me. There was something Napoleonic about this slow unfolding of her carefully thought-out plans.

"Naturally," she answered. "What, however, so few of us are able to realize is our utter and miserable failure in what you are pleased to call that invasion."

"Failure!" I repeated incredulously. "I do not understand that. One hears everywhere of the social triumphs of the American woman."

Mrs. Van Reinberg's eyes shone straight into mine. Her face expressed the most unmitigated contempt.

"Social triumphs!" she repeated scornfully. "What clap-trap! I tell you that a season in London or Paris, much more Vienna, is enough to drive a real American woman crazy. Success, indeed! What does it amount to?"

She paused for a moment to take breath. I realized then that the woman whom I had known was something of a fraud, a puppet hung out with the rags of a European manner, according to the study and observation of the shrewd, little lady who pulled the strings. It was Mrs. Van Reinberg of London and Paris whom I had met upon the steamer; it was Mrs. Van Reinberg of New York who was talking to me now, and she was speaking in her own language.

"Look here, Mr. Courage," she said, leaning towards me with her elbows upon her knees, and nothing left of that elegant pose which she had at first assumed. "I suppose I've got my full share of the American spirit, and I tell you I'm a bad hand at taking a back seat anywhere, or even a front one on sufferance. And yet, wherever we go in Europe, that's what we've got to put up with! You think we're mad on titles over here! We aren't, but we are keen on what a title brings over your side. Take your Debrett--there are I don't know how many baronets and lords and marquises and earls, and all the rest of it. Do you realize that whatever public place I'm in, or even at a friend's dinner-party, the homely, stupid wives of those men have got to go in before me, and if they don't--why I know all the time it's a matter of courtesy? That's what makes me mad! Don't you dare to smile at me now. I'm in deadly earnest. In this country, so far as society goes, I'm at the top. You may say it doesn't amount to much, and you're right. But it makes it all the worse when I'm in Europe, and see the sort of women I have to give place to. Say, don't you sit there, Mr. Courage, and look at me as though I were a woman with some cranky grievance to talk about. It's got beyond that, let me tell you!"

"I can assure you, Mrs. Van Reinberg--" I began.

"Now listen here, Mr. Courage," she interrupted. "I'm not the sort of woman to complain at what I don't try to alter. What's the good of having a husband whose nod is supposed to shake the money markets of the world, if you don't make use of him?"

I nodded sagely.

"You are quite right," I said. "Money, after all, is the greatest power in the world to-day. Money will buy anything!"

"I guess so, if it's properly spent," Mrs. Van Reinberg agreed. "Only very few of my country-people have any idea how to use it to get what they want. They go over the other side and hire great houses, and bribe your great ladies to call themselves their friends, and bribe your young men with wonderful entertainments to come to their houses. They spend, spend, spend, and think they are getting value for their money. Idiots! The great lady whom they are proud to entertain one night is as likely as not to cut them the next. Half the people who go to their parties go out of curiosity, and half to meet their own friends. Not one to see them! Not one because it does them the slightest good to be seen there. They are there in the midst of it all, and that is all you can say. Their motto should be 'on sufferance.' That's what I call going to work the wrong way."

"You have," I suggested, "some other scheme?"

She drew her chair a little closer to mine, and looked around cautiously.

"I have," she admitted. "That is what we are all here for--to discuss it and make our final plans."

"And Prince Victor?" I murmured.

"Precisely! He is in it, of course. I may as well tell you that he's dead against my making a confidant of you; but I've a sort of fancy to hear what you might have to say about it. You see I'm a practical woman, and though I've thought this scheme out myself, and I believe in it, there are times when it seems to me a trifle airy. Now you're a kind of level-headed person, and living over there, your point of view would be interesting."

"I should be glad to hear anything you might have to tell me, Mrs. Van Reinberg," I said slowly; "but you must please remember that I am an Englishman."

"Oh! we don't want to hurt your old country," she declared. "I consider that for all the talk about kinship, and all that sort of thing, she treats us--I mean women like myself--disgracefully. But that's neither here nor there. I've finished with England for the present. We're going to play a greater game than that!"

Mrs. Van Reinberg had dropped her voice a little. There was a somewhat uncomfortable pause. I could see that, even at the last moment, she realized that, in telling me these things, she was guilty of what might well turn out to be a colossal indiscretion. I myself was almost in a worse dilemma. If I accepted her confidence, I was almost, if not quite, bound in honor to respect it. If, as I suspected, it fitted in with the great scheme, if it indeed formed ever so small a part of these impending happenings in which Guest so firmly believed, what measure of respect were we likely to pay to it? None at all! If I stopped her, I should be guilty, from Guest's point of view, of incredible folly; if I let her go on, it must be with the consciousness that I was accepting her confidences under wholly false pretences. It was a big problem for a man like myself, new to the complexities of life. I could only think of Guest's words: "Conscience! For Heaven's sake, man, lock it up until we have done our duty."

I leaned against the wooden rail of the piazza, looking across the grounds. Within a dozen yards or so of us, several of Mrs. Van Reinberg's guests, with a collection of golf sticks, were clambering into a huge automobile. Beyond the pleasure gardens was a range of forest-covered hills, yellow and gold now with the glory of the changing foliage. In the valley was a small steeplechase course, towards which several people were riding. The horse which had been saddled for me was still being led about a little way down the avenue. With the exception that there was no shooting party, it was very much like the usual sort of gathering at an English country house. And yet it all seemed wholly unreal to me! I felt a strong inclination--perhaps a little hysterical--to burst out laughing. This was surely a gigantic joke, planned against the proverbial lack of humor of my countrymen! I was not expected to take it seriously! And yet, in a moment, I remembered certain established facts, of which these things were but the natural sequel. I remembered, too, a certain air of seriousness, and a disposition towards confidential talk, manifested among the older members of the party. Mrs. Van Reinberg's suppressed but earnest voice again broke the silence. She called me back to her side.

"Mr. Courage," she said, "you are going to marry Adele?"

"I hope so," I answered confidently, glancing away to where she stood talking to Mr. de Valentin on the piazza steps.

"I shall treat you then," she declared, "as one of the family. To-night, after dinner, we are going to hold the meeting for which this houseful of people was really brought together. I invite you to come to it. Afterwards you will understand everything! Now I must hurry off, and so must you! Your horse is getting the fidgets."

She swept off down the piazza. Mr. de Valentin came forward eagerly to meet her. I saw his face darken as she whispered in his ear.

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Dinner that night was a somewhat oppressive meal. Several new guests had arrived, some of whom bore names which were well known to me. There was a sense of some hidden excitement, which formed an uneasy background to the spasmodic general conversation. The men especially seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease."Poor father," Adele whispered to me, "he would give a good many of his dollars not to be in this."I glanced across at our host, who had come down from New York specially in his magnificent private car, which was now awaiting his return on a siding of the little station.
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Mr. de Valentin led the way to a secluded corner of the smoke-room, and laid a well-filled cigarette case upon the table. He beckoned to the steward."You will take something?" he asked.I ordered a whisky and soda and lit a cigarette. I had tasted nothing like them since I had left England. Mr. de Valentin leaned across the table towards me."Mr. Courage," he said, "I am going to ask you to accept a confidence from me. You are an English gentleman, and although I have not the honor to be myself an Englishman, my associations with your country have always been
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