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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man On The Box - Chapter 16. The Previous Affair
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The Man On The Box - Chapter 16. The Previous Affair Post by :larryh Category :Long Stories Author :Harold Macgrath Date :May 2012 Read :1090

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The Man On The Box - Chapter 16. The Previous Affair

CHAPTER XVI. THE PREVIOUS AFFAIR

Mrs. Chadwick had completed her toilet and now stood smiling in a most friendly fashion at the reflection in the long oval mirror. She addressed this reflection in melodious tones.

"Madam, you are really handsome; and let no false modesty whisper in your ear that you are not. Few women in Washington have such clear skin, such firm flesh, such color. Thirty-eight? It is nothing. It is but the half-way post; one has left youth behind, but one has not reached old age. Time must be very tolerant, for he has given you a careful selection. There were no years of storm and poverty, of violent passions; and if I have truly loved, it has been you, only you. You are too wise and worldly to love any one but yourself. And yet, once you stood on the precipice of dark eyes, pale skin, and melancholy wrinkles. And even now, if he were to speak... Enough! Enough of this folly. I have something to accomplish to-night." She glided from the boudoir into the small but luxurious drawing-room which had often been graced by the most notable men and women in the country.

Karloff threw aside the book of poems by De Banville, rose, and went forward to meet her.

"Madam,"--bending and brushing her hand with his lips, "Madam, you grow handsomer every day. If I were forty, now, I should fear for your single blessedness."

"Or, if I were two-and-twenty, instead of eight-and-thirty,"-- beginning to draw on her long white gloves. There was a challenge in her smile.

"Well, yes; if you were two-and-twenty."

"There was a time, not so long ago," she said, drawing his gaze as a magnet draws a needle, "when the disparity in years was of no matter."

The count laughed. "That was three years ago; and, if my memory serves me, you smiled."

"Perhaps I was first to smile; that is all."

"I observe a mental reservation,"--owlishly.

"I will put it plainly, then. I preferred to smile over your protestations rather than see you laugh over the possibility and the folly of my loving you."

"Then it was possible?"--with interest.

"Everything is possible ... and often absurd."

"How do you know that I was not truly in love with you?"--narrowing his eyes.

"It is not explanatory; it can be given only one name--instinct, which in women and animals is more fully developed than in man. Besides, at that time you had not learned all about Colonel Annesley, whose guests we are to be this evening. Whoever would have imagined a Karloff accepting the hospitalities of an Annesley? Count, hath not thy rose a canker?"

"Madam!" Karloff was frowning.

"Count, you look like a paladin when you scowl; but scowling never induces anything but wrinkles. That is why we women frown so seldom. We smile. But let us return to your query. Supposing I had accepted your declarations seriously; supposing you had offered me marriage in that burst of gratitude; supposing I _had committed the folly of becoming a countess: what a position I should be in to-day!"

"I do not understand,"--perplexedly.

"No?"--shrugging. She held forth a gloved arm. "Have you forgotten how gallantly you used to button my gloves?"

"A thousand pardons! My mind was occupied with the mystery of your long supposition." He took the arm gracefully and proceeded to slip the pearl buttons through their holes. (Have you ever buttoned the gloves of a handsome woman? I have. And there is a subtile thrill about the proceeding which I can not quite define. Perhaps it is the nearness of physical beauty; perhaps it is the delicate scent of flowers; perhaps it is the touch of the cool, firm flesh; perhaps it is just romance.) The gaze which she bent upon his dark head was emotional; yet there was not the slightest tremor of arm or fingers. It is possible that she desired him to observe the steadiness of her nerves. "What did you mean?" he asked.

"What did I mean?"--vaguely. Her thought had been elsewhere.

"By that supposition."

"Oh! I mean that my position, had I married you, would have been rather anomalous to-day." She extended the other arm. "You are in love."

"In love?" He looked up quickly.

"Decidedly; and I had always doubted your capacity for that sentiment."

"And pray tell me, with whom am I in love?"

"Come, Count, you and I know each other too well to waste time in beating about the bushes. I do not blame you for loving her; only, I say, it must not be."

"Must not be?" The count's voice rose a key.

"Yes, must not be. You must give them up--the idea and the girl. What! You, who contrive the father's dishonor, would aspire to the daughter's hand? It is not equable. Love her honorably, or not at all. The course you are following is base and wholly unworthy of you."

He dropped the arm abruptly and strode across the room, stopping by a window. He did not wish her to see his face at that particular instant. Some men would have demanded indignantly to know how she had learned these things; not so the count.

"There is time to retrieve. Go to the colonel frankly, pay his debts out of your own pockets, then tell the girl that you love her. Before you tell her, her father will have acquainted her with his sin and your generosity. She will marry you out of gratitude."

Karloff spun on his heels. His expression was wholly new. His eyes were burning; he stretched and crumpled his gloves.

"Yes, you are right, you are right! I have been trying to convince myself that I was a machine where the father was concerned and wholly a man in regard to the girl. You have put it before me in a bold manner. Good God, yes! I find that I am wholly a man. How smoothly all this would have gone to the end had she not crossed my path! I _am base, I, who have always considered myself an honorable man. And now it is too late, too late!"

"Too late? What do you mean? Have you dared to ask her to be your wife?" Had Karloff held her arm at this moment, he would have comprehended many things.

"No, no! My word has gone forth to my government; there is a wall behind me, and I can not go back. To stop means worse than death. My property will be confiscated and my name obliterated, my body rot slowly in the frozen north. Oh, I know my country; one does not gain her gratitude by failure. I must have those plans, and nowhere could I obtain such perfect ones."

"Then you will give her up?" There was a broken note.

The count smiled. To her it was a smile scarce less than a snarl.

"Give her up? Yes, as a mother gives up her child, as a lioness her cub. She _has refused me, but nevertheless she shall be my wife. Oh, I am well-versed in human nature. She loves her father, and I know what sacrifices she would make to save his honor. To-night!--" But his lips suddenly closed.

"Well, to-night? Why do you not go on?" Mrs. Chadwick was pale. Her gloved hands were clenched. A spasm of some sort seemed to hold her in its shaking grasp.

"Nothing, nothing! In heaven's name, why have you stirred me so?" he cried.

"Supposing, after all, I loved you?"

He retreated. "Madam, your suppositions are becoming intolerable and impossible."

"Nothing is impossible. Supposing I loved you as violently and passionately as you love this girl?"

"Madam,"--hastily and with gentleness, "do not say anything which may cause me to blush for you; say nothing you may regret to-morrow."

"I am a woman of circumspection. My suppositions are merely argumentative. Do you realize, Count, that I could force you to marry me?"

Karloff's astonishment could not be equaled. "Force me to marry you?"

"Is the thought so distasteful, then?"

"You are mad to-night!"

"Not so. In whatever manner you have succeeded in this country, your debt of gratitude is owing to me. I do not recall this fact as a reproach; I make the statement to bear me on in what I have to submit to your discerning intelligence. I doubt if there is another woman, here or abroad, who knows you so well as I. Your personal honor is beyond impeachment, but Russia is making vast efforts to speckle it. She will succeed. Yes, I could force you to marry me. With a word I could tumble your house of cards. I am a worldly woman, and not without wit and address. I possess every one of your letters, most of all have I treasured the extravagant ones. To some you signed your name. If you have kept mine, you will observe that my given name might mean any one of a thousand women who are named 'Grace.' Shall you marry me? Shall I tumble your house of cards? I could go to Colonel Annesley and say to him that if he delivers these plans to you, I shall denounce him to the secret service officers. I might cause his utter financial ruin, but his name would descend to his daughter untarnished."

"You would not dare!" the count interrupted.

"What? And you know me so well? I have not given you my word to reveal nothing. You confided in my rare quality of silence; you confided in me because you had proved me. Man is not infallible, even when he is named Karloff." She lifted from a vase her flowers, from which she shook the water. "Laws have been passed or annulled; laws have died at the executive desk. Who told you that this was to be, or that, long before it came to pass? In all the successful intrigues of Russia in this country, whom have you to thank? Me. Ordinarily a woman does not do these things as a pastime. There must be some strong motive behind. You asked me why I have stirred you so. Perhaps it is because I am neither two-and-twenty nor you two-score. It is these little barbs that remain in a woman's heart. Well, I do not love you well enough to marry you, but I love you too well to permit you to marry Miss Annesley."

"That has the sound of war. I _did love you that night,"--not without a certain nobility.

"How easily you say 'that night'! Surely there was wisdom in that smile of mine. And I nearly tumbled into the pit! I must have looked exceedingly well... _that night!_"--drily.

"You are very bitter to-night. Had you taken me at my word, I never should have looked at Miss Annesley. And had I ceased to love you, not even you would have known it."

"Is it possible?"--ironically.

"It is. I have too much pride to permit a woman to see that I have made a mistake."

"Then you consider in the present instance that you have not made a mistake? You are frank."

"At least I have not made a mistake which I can not rectify. Madam, let us not be enemies. As you say, I owe you too much. What is it you desire?"--with forced amiability.

"Deprive Colonel Annesley of his honor, that, as you say, is inevitable; but I love that girl as I would a child of my own, and I will not see her caught in a net of this sort, or wedded to a man whose government robs him of his manhood and individuality."

"Do not forget that I hold my country first and foremost,"--proudly.

"Love has no country, nor laws, nor galling chains of incertitude. Love is magnificent only in that it gives all without question. You love this girl with reservations. You shall not have her. You shall not have even me, who love you after a fashion, for I could never look upon you as a husband; in my eyes you would always be an accomplice."

"It is war, then?"--curtly.

"War? Oh, no; we merely sever our diplomatic relations," she purred.

"Madam, listen to me. I shall make one more attempt to win this girl honorably. For you are right: love to be love must be magnificent. If she accepts me, for her sake I will become an outcast, a man without a country. If she refuses me, I shall go on to the end. Speak to the colonel, Madam; it is too late. Like myself, he has gone too far. Why did you open the way for me as you did? I should have been satisfied with a discontented clerk. You threw this girl across my path, indirectly, it is true; but nevertheless the fault is yours."

"I recognize it. At that time I did not realize how much you were to me."

"You are a strange woman. I do not understand you."

"Incompatibility. Come, the carriage is waiting. Let us be gone."

"You have spoilt the evening for me," said the count, as he threw her cloak across her shoulders.

"On the contrary, I have added a peculiar zest. Now, let us go and appear before the world, and smile, and laugh, and eat, and gossip. Let the heart throb with a dull pain, if it will; the mask is ours to do with as we may."

They were, in my opinion, two very unusual persons.

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