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" You are ? Well ! there isn't a more charming chatelaine than Blanche
anywhere. She invites me, but I shall go to Baden after the race-week," went
on Strathmore, brushing a fly off the rose Cashmere sleeve of his dressing-gown:
" I shall meet Arrelio there, and you get a man's meaning out of him in chit-
chat as you never do in a conference. If congresses were held en petit comite,
with a supper worthy Careme, they might come to something, instead of end-
ing, as they always do now, in cobwebs and in moonshine. Why do the English
always get cheated and fooled in a European congress, I wonder ? Not be-


cause they can't lie, it is the national metier. Because they lie too much and
too barefacedly, I think; and no gobemouche is ever tricked into even suspecting
them of the truth ! A wise man never lies; I don't mean because he's moral,
but because he's judicious: ' On peu: etre plus fin qu'un autre, mais pas plus
fin que tous les autres.' Somebody always finds out a falsehood, and, once
found out, your credit's gone ! I say, Valdor, do you know my compatriote,
Lady Vavasour?"

" Lady Vavasour ? Bon Dieu ! I think I do ! What a cold-blooded
question to ask any body in that indifferent way ! Who doesn't know her rather? "

" / don't. What sort of woman is she ? "

" Peste, mon cher, you ask a folio. I couldn't tell you. She is divine ! "

"Divine? Well! 'a woman is a dish for the gods if the devil dress her
not,' Shakspeare says; but I think the devil generally has the dressing, and
serves up sauce with it so very piquante that it's all but poison; it's a dish like
mushrooms, dainty, but dangerous; with the beau sexe as with the fungi, it's
fifty to ten one lights on a false one, and pays penalty for one's appetite! Is
she a malicious woman, your divinity ? "

" Malicious? No! Malice is for passe'es women, pinched, sallow, and hun-
grily jealous; for dowagers who nod their wigs over whist and their neighbor's
character; for vielles filles who vacillate between sacraments and scandals!
Malice is a vinegar thing that belongs to a ' certain age! ' it has nothing to do
with her. She's a little tantalizing, if you like "

" Distinction without a difference! I thought she was! And a coquette ? "

" To the last extent! "

Strathmore laughed :

" To the last! I daresay! when women once pass the boundary line they
generally clear the ramparts. I suppose the Marquis gives the latitude he
takes just, at any rate. We're not so often on those points; we take an ell,
but we don't give an inch. That's the beauty of vesting our honor in our
wives; it's so much easier to forbid and dragonize another than ourselves!
What a droll thing, by the way, it is, that an Englishwoman piques herself on
being THOUGHT faithful to her husband, and a Frenchwoman on being thought
unfaithful; their theory's different, but their practice comes to much the same
thing! "

"They're like schismatics in the Churches, they split in semblance and on
a straw's point, but, sous les cartes, agree to persecute and agree to dupe! As
for Lord Vavasour, he's a detestable gourmand, invents sauces, bores you
horribly, and has but one virtue a great conjugal one! he never interferes
with his wife! He's a semi-sovereign with a lot of parasites, a mauvais sujet
with a ton de garnison, and just brains enough to be vicious without enough to
be entertaining."


A very general case, my dear fellow ! Vice is very common, and wit is
very scarce- fifty men can make mischief to one that makes mots. We can fill
our cells with convicts, but not our clubs with casheurs. I wonder government
don't tax good talk; it's quite a luxury, and they might add de luxe, since so
many go without it all their lives, in blessed ignorance of even what it is !
I suppose you know all her movements ? She must be leaving now."

Peste ! don't you know ? I thought you were asked to Vernon9eaux ? "

" Well, if I be, what has that

"To do with it ? She is going there, too. She leaves Paris to-day."

" There ? " The word had a dash of eagerness in it, different to the unin-
terested, careless tone with which Strathmore had asked all his other ques-

" Yes. She and Madame de Ruelle are sworn allies ; they are constantly
together. Go there and you'll see her. Do, Strathmore; parole d'honneur she
is worth the trouble. She is exquisite, and for you, you icicle, she can't be


" Dangerous ! " said Strathmore, with his most contemptuous sneer : " Thank
God, no woman was ever yet dangerous to me; a man must be a fool indeed,
who is snared by the ready-made wiles of a coquette."

" Antony was no fool."

"No, but he was a madman, and that comes to the same thing; besides,
Antony must have had very extraordinary tastes altogether to be in love with
a woman forty years old, and as brown as a berry."

" Yes," said Valdor, pathetically, " I do wish, for his credit, Cleopatra had
been half her years, and a shade or two fairer. Actium would have been very
poetic then."

"Poetic? Pitiable, if you like, as it is now. I say, Valdor to go to a
better theme those steei -grays of Lee Vivian's went for nothing at the sale
yesterday; they were splendid animals, and the pigeon-blue Arab mare, was
knocked down for five thousand francs ! The wine will be worth bidding for,
too; he had some of the best comet-hock in Paris. Poor fellow ! one drinks
his wines at his table one month, and discusses them in a catalogue the next.
Ars longa, vita brevis ! one's connoisseurship survives one's friendship; Orestes
must die, and lolaiis must dine ! Damon must go to the dogs, and Pythias must
season his dishes ! Because our brother's in the Cemetery, that's no reason
why we should neglect our Cayenne ! "

With which remark upon friendship, which was with him as much serious
as satirical (since Strathmore was an egotist by principle and profession, habit
and nature, and had never had any death touch him, as he had never had
any life wound round him), he began to discuss the news of the day with his
guest, and it was not till Valdor had left that he took up the letter from Ver-


nonfeaux again, and drew a sheet of paper to him to answer it now by an
acceptance !

In the little Millefleurs-scented billet lay, unknown to its writer as to him,
the turning point in his life ! God help us ! what avail are experience, pre-
science, prudence, wisdom, in this world, when at every chance step the silliest
trifle, the most common-place meeting, an invitation to dinner, a turn-down the
wrong street, the dropping of a glove, the delay of a train, the introduction to
an unnoticed stranger, will fling down every precaution, and build a fate for us
of which we never dream ? Of what avail for us to erect our sand-castle when
every chance blast of air may blow it into nothing, and drift another into form
that we have no power to move ? Life hinges upon hazard, and at every turn
wisdom is mocked by it, and energy swept aside by it, as the battled dykes are
worn away, and the granite walls beaten down by the fickle ocean waves, which,
never two hours together alike, never two instants without restless motion, are
yet as changeless as they are capricious, as omnipotent as they are fickle, as
cruel as they are countless ! Men and mariners may build their bulwarks, but
hazard and the sea will overthrow and wear away both alike at their will their
wild and unreined will, which no foresight can foresee, no strength can bridle.

Was it not the mere choice between the saddle and the barouche that day
when Ferdinand d'Orleans flung down on second thoughts his riding-whip upon
the console at the Tuileries, and ordered his carriage instead of his horse, that
cost him his life, his son a throne, the Bourbon blood their royalty, and France
for long years her progress and her peace ! Had he taken up the whip instead
of laying it aside, he might be living to-day with the sceptre in his hand, and
the Bee, crushed beneath his foot, powerless to sting to the core of the Lily !
Of all strange things in human life, there is nothing stranger than the domi-
nance of Chance.



WHERE the gray pointed towers of the Chateau of Vernonceaux rose above
the woods among the vine-shadows of Lorraine, the air seemed still perfumed
with the amber, still echoing with the madrigals of Gentil-Bernard, still rustling
with the sweep of robes k la Pompadour, still filled with the mots of abbes
ga/ants, and the laughter of pretty pagans of a century ago. For Vernonceaux
was near to Luneville the Luneville of Stanislas, of Voltaire, of la belle
Bou friers, the replica of Versailles, the pleasant exile of forbidden wit, the
Luneville of a myriad memories !


Vernonceaux stood as secluded in its forests as the castle of the Sleeping
Beauty so tranquil and so shaded, that the gay sinners of Luneville might
have been chained there in enchanted slumber, like the Moorish Court under
the marble pavements of the Alhambra; but if, without, there was a sylvan soli-
tude, broken but by the song of the vintages or the creak of the oxen-drawn
wagon; within, when the Comtesses de Ruelle went there for the summer
months with a choice selection from her ultra-exclusive Paris set, there were as
much luxury, wit, and refined revelry as ever the Marquis de Boufflers, a hun-
dred years before, had presided over at the little palace of Luneville.

No sound broke the silence, save the ring of his horse's feet, as Strathmore
drove the mail-phaeton that had been sent to meet him through the park to
Vernon?eaux, on his way to the visit for which he had abandoned Baden.
There was not a thing in sight save the rich country beyond and the dense forest-
growth about him, until, as a break in the wood brought into view the gray
facade of the building, a riding party rode into the court-yard by opposite gates
to those by which he would enter, looking like some court cavalcade of Wat-
teau, some hunting group of Wouverman's and breaking suddenly in with life,
and coloring, and motion on the solitude of the landscape, as they were thrown
out in strong relief against the ivy-hung walls of the chateau. " I'm in time
for dinner," he thought, noticing how well one of the women rode who was
teasing her horse with sharp strokes of her whip, and making him rear and
swerve, before she sprang from the saddle: the distance was too far for him
to make out who she was, and as he dropped his eye-glass, he wished for a

The saddle-horses were being led off by their grooms, and the first dress-
ing-bell had just rung, when he drove into the court-yard. At the moment of
his arrival all the world was dressing, and Strathmore, as he went straight to
his room, passing along the Gallerie des Dames, consecrated from time imme-
morial to the repose of the beau sexe, heard a handsome brune coming out of
one of the dressing-rooms say to another lady's-maid, apparently her sub-lieu-
tenant in office, " Vavite chercher les camellias roses, dans les serres chaudes.
Madam desire des fleurs naturelles, c'est sa whim comme disent les Anglais.
Ah ma foi ! qu'elle a des caprices, Miladi Vavasour ! "

This name was the first he had heard at Vernonfeaux. As he heard it,
Strathmore, the last man in the world who was ever troubled by regrets or
haunted by forebodings, whoever decended to the weakness of vacillation,
or paid himself so ill a compliment as to imagine any step he took, however
great, however trivial, could by any possibility be unwisely taken, wished for
the moment, on an impulse he could not have explained, that he had gone to
Baden instead, and left the Mask unmasked, the White Domino unknown. It
was the first time a woman had ever influenced him, and he resented the influ-


ence. His prejudice against Lady Vavasour came back in full force as he
heard her maid order the fresh scarlet camellias. The flowers were harmless,
surely, and yet (perhaps it was association with La Dame aux Camellias!'] with
them she reassumed a dangerous aspect, as of a sorceress unscrupulous in her
spells, a coquette merciless in her wiles, a woman who lived upon vanity and
adored but herself, a creature like the Japan lilac, lovely to look on, but to
those who lingered near, who touched or who played with her, certain destruc-
tion ! By what force of argument he could not have told trifles play the
deuce with us, oddly sometimes, but by some irrepressible instinct, all his old
dislike and mistrust of Lady Vavasour came back with that innocent and luck-
less hothouse order !

" Who are here, Diaz do you know ? " he asked the Albanian, as he
dressed after his bath and a cup of coffee.

The inimitable modus operandi of that priceless person had mastered the
whole visiting-list of Vernonfeaux, though he had had, on the whole, but about
three minutes to himself for the process.

" Marquis and Marchioness of Vavasour, please your lordship," began Diaz.

" A stupid pigeon and a clever snarer ! " thought Strathmore, as he held
out his wrist to have his sleeve-links fastened.

" Lady George Dashwood and her sister "

" Pretty precisians, naughty as Messalina, who go to church, like Mar-
guerite, to meditate on Faust ! " reflected Strathmore.

" My Lord Viscount Blocquehedd and M. de Croquis."

" One a fool, who writes slangy, burlesqued travels, that sell because hun-
dreds in coronetted carriages drive up to his publisher's doors to get a copy in
public and enjoy a laugh in private; and the other, a magnificent fellow, who'd
have been fit company for Scipio at Linternum, but who can't send a sheet of
copy to press without a ' caution ' and a chance of Cayenne," thought Strath-
more, perfuming his beard.

" Lady Fitzeden, my lord," pursued Diaz.

" Who gives ball-vouchers for other people's ' unimpeachability,' but
couldn't on oath give one for her own ! " reflected his master.

" Monsignore Villaflor and M. 1'Abbe de Verdreuil."

" A brace of priests, who have intrigues and absolutions in their hands,
make penitents and shrive them, hide the rout under the rochet, and Cupid in
the confessional. I know the race," thought Strathmore.

" M. le Vicomte de Clermont, Lord Arthur Legard, Colonel Dormer, and
M. de la Rennecourt," pursued Diaz, in profound ignorance of his master's
mental commentary.

"Very good fellows all of them; dress better than they talk, shoot with
truer aim than they think, bore one rather at everything but billiards, and



bestow more on their hair than on the brains underneath it, comme il faut but
common-place," said Strathmore to himself, with the contempt of a clever man
for men who are only educated, of an ambitious man for men who are only a
la mode, of a man who but makes society his stepping-stone for men who never
see or soar beyond it.

Madame de Saint-Claire, H. S. H. Helene of Mechlin, and Lord and Lady
Beaudesert, are here too, my lord," added the Albanian, closing the list.
think that is all all I have heard of at present, at least."

"A bas-bleu as mathematical and material as Madame du Chatelet, a
babyish blonde with a mushroom royalty and anursery lisp; a dashing brunette
who smokes cigarettes and has led the Pytchley. Well, there will be change,
at any rate. Blanche hasn't sorted her guests as she sorts her embroidery
silks, in shades that suit; however, good contrasts are effective sometimes.
There's nobody I don't know, except the priests and the Vavasours. That's a
bore; new acquaintances are much pleasanter than familiar ones; the varnish
is fresh, and the gilding is bright, arid the polish is smooth, and you only just
touch the surface with friends an hour old. Nothing wears so badly, and
stands the microscope so ill, as Humanity. I suppose because we are all sham
to one another, and les hommes sa haisent naturellement; so the electro comes
off, and the hatred come out, when we've been some time together," thought
Strathmore, as he left his room to go to the drawing-rooms. No one was yet
down when he was ushered into the salons, and he threw himself down on a
dormeuse with his back to a window opening on the terrace, playing idly with
the snowy curls of a little lion-dog, who, recognizing him, leapt on his knee,
shaking its silver bells in a joyous welcome. Strathmore did not care about
animals in truth, I don't think he cared much about anything except him-
self ! Not that he was an egotist in any petty sense of the word: he would
have shrouded no man's light, profited at no man's cost, taken to no man's
right, but he was self-sustained and self-absorbed; keen personal ambitions
were dominant in him, pure personal interests alone occupied him, and the
instincts and weaknesses kindlier if you like, but more general and less viril
of most men had no part in him. He was kind to a dog, for instance, be-
cause it was helpless, and he would have disdained to be otherwise; but to
care for a dog's fidelity, to regret a dog's death as he had known Erroll do,
were utterly incomprehensible to him.

He sat there some few moments listlessly twisting the ear of the Maltese,
while the clock on the console near gently ticked away the time, and pointed
to a quarter to nine; he did not hear a step approach towards the back of his
chair from the terrace behind, he did not turn and see a figure that stood just
within the window betwixt him and the faint evening light.

" Bon jour, Lord Cecil ! Are you meditating on the Gitana prophecy, or on


the Domino Blanc which ? Or is the Voltura affair absorbing you, pray, to
the utter exclusion of both ! "

That light, mechanic voice that had mocked him from the mask struck on his
ear like the gay, sudden chime of some silvery bell, and, for once in his life,
Strathmore started ! As he rose and swung round, the night under the Czes-
chen limes came back swiftly and vividly to his memory; how had that voice
failed to recall it before ?

With the scarlet coronal of flowers on her lovely amber hair, and the light
of a sunny laughter beaming in her eyes; framed between the gossamer lace
and broidered azure silk of the curtain draperies; a form bright and brilliant
and richly colored as any picture of Watteau's thrown out against the purple
haze of the air, and the dark shadows of evening that were veiling the landscape
beyond; there stood the blonde aux yeux noirs of the Vigil of St. John, the
White Domino of the fete a la Regence Marion, Marchioness of Vavasour !
Strangely enough, he had never even by a random thought connected the two
as one. Involuntarily, unwittingly, he stood a moment dazzled and surprised,
looking at the delicate and glittering picture that was before him, painted in all
its dainty coloring on the sombre canvas of the night; and she laughed softly
to herself for one brief instant she had startled him from his self-possession.
She guessed rightly, that no woman before her had ever boasted so much.

Then Strathmore bent to her with the soft and stately courtesy for which
his race of steel had ever been famed the velvet glove that they habitually
wore over their gauntlets of mail:

" I merit a worse fate than the Gitana predicted me, for my blindness in
not recognizing the veiled picture by its eyes, in not knowing that no two
voices could have a music so rare ! May I ask to be forgiven, though I can
never forgive myself ? "

She smiled as she gave him her hand:

" You may. You rendered me too daring and too generous a service, Lord
Cecil for me not to forgive you weightier offenses than that. I am your
debtor for a heavy debt the debt of my life saved ! Believe me, I am very

The words were few and simple; a young girl out of her convent could not
have spoken more earnestly and touchingly than the woman of the world;
where more florid, profuse, eloquently-studied words would have been set aside
by him as the conventional utterances of necessity, these chr.rmed and won him,
these rang on his ear with the accent of truth.

" To secure so high a price as your gratitude most men would have perilled
much more than I did," he answered her: " But I had not then the incentive
that would tempt the world to any madness at Lady Vavasour's bidding. I had
not seen what I rescued, I did not know whom I served."


She looked up at him from under her black silken lashes as she sank into
the chair he wheeled to her, and smiled:

" You compliment charmingly, Lord Cecil (you remember, I suppose, that
I said I liked bonbons), but then, how much is true? You are a diplomatist:
it is your habit to speak suavely and mean nothing, it is the sptcialite that will
get you the Garter and give you an Earldom."

"Lady Vavasour by everything I have heard of her can surely never
mistrust her own power to convert the most sceptical, and do with all men what
she would ? "

Her attitude, as she sank down into the chair, had all the soft Odalisque-
like grace with which he had first seen her lying amongst her cushions on the
bench of the Bohemian boat; and he confessed to himself that this matchless
and dazzling beauty, at once poetic and voluptuous, at once gifted with the
loveliness of the cerail, and the tournure of the salons, might well play with
men, and make their madness at its will.

"Ah ! " she laughed her airy, silvery laugh ! " but I do not profess to
deal with people who desire age and despise love; they are not in my experi-
ence, or my category. I shall be a long while before I credit any compliment
from you, mon ami. Did I not show you how well I knew your character at
the bal masque ? Was it not sketched, now, as accurately as any one of La

" It was, though it was not drawn altogether en beau. It was so accurate
that it flattered me even by its unflattering points, since it showed that I must
have been a subject of interest and of study to my unerring clairvoyante."

A momentary blush tinged her cheek, making her loveliness lovelier, and
not escaping Strathmore, though he knew how grandes dames can blush, as
they can weep at their will when they need it to embellish their beauty, too
well to be much honored by it. She looked at him with the same glance that
had flashed through her mask.

' Not at all ! You are much too vain ! I only wanted to puzzle you. If

my shafts hit home, it was chance, not effort. Hearsay and penetration made

lairvoyance, as they make all. You were no stranger to me by name. I

had heard plenty of you from others; though we had never happened to meet

it night in Bohemia. Come ! tell me the truth. Do you not think it a

ble escapade to have travelled alone, at night, in that inconsequent manner,
with only my maid ? "

I think it a caprice d'une belle dame? which became her far better than

e common-place and the conventional, which have nothing in common with

Strathmore. And for once he paid a compliment that was sincerely

But why did you so cruelly refuse me your name, and condemn me

' ' un ombre, un rtve, un ;-/,< in seeking to see again the phantom


which had flashed on me, when, had I but known whom I sought, all Europe
would have guided me to its idol ? "

" Very gracefully asked, indeed ! " said Lady Vavasour, with a sign of her
fan, made eloquent in her hand, as in the hand of a Gaditana of Cadiz : " But,
first of all, you never pursued the phantom at all, mon ami. You don't do
those things ! I wasn't a state secret, and I didn't carry despatches: sequitur,
you were courteous to me while we were together because you were well bred,
and I was a woman; but you never thought twice about me after we parted, ex-
cept just that night, when I left you behind to smoke and sleep under the
pines, when, perhaps, you said to yourself : ' Blonde with dark eyes unusual !
Travelling alone, too very odd ! ' and then dismissed me to think of Prince
Michel ! Secondly, I refused you my name, because it was my whim to travel
incognita; and down the river I dispensed with even my courier. I am as
capricious as the winds, you know, and, like the winds, never change my
caprices for any one's will ! "

Before he could answer her the door of the salon was thrown open, and sev-
eral people entered his hostess among others, with that courtly, velvet-shod
churchman, Monsignore Villaflor. Strathmore had to rise, and his place was
taken by the priest, who was a courtier, a connoisseur, and a coureur des ruelles.
The rooms filled; dinner was announced and served as the little chimes of the
clock rang nine, and to Strathmore's lot fell Lady George Dashwood, whose'
soft platitudes had never seemed more wearisome to him than to-night, when

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaOuida, illustrated (Volume 4) → online text (page 9 of 80)