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but - well, full of suggestion, and one feels a volcano surging and
steaming just below the mask she wears, and has an insane desire to wake
it up! That kind of woman simply can't help it."

A third voice broke in on the conversation - an older voice - the voice of
a man who had lived and observed much.

"I saw her often as a child," he said, "a perilously wilful child,
determined upon her own way, and possessed of her own fancies about
this, that, and the other, which were seldom, if ever, the ideas of
anyone else. There was always plenty of excitement where she was - always
that same disturbing air! Even with her pigtails and pinafores, one
could see the woman in her eyes. But she was a provoking little
creature, always dreaming of impossible romances. Her father had his
hands full."

"As her husband will have, poor devil! If he's man enough to hold her,
all right. If he is not," with a significant shrug of the shoulders,
"it's his own lookout!"

"That old French _roué_ hold her? You're dreaming! She won't be faithful
to him a week - if he has a handsome valet, or a half-way manly groom!
How could she?" And they laughed coarsely.

The Boy gave them a look that should have annihilated all three, but
they weren't noticing the Boy. He could have throttled them! How dared
such lips as these pollute his darling's name! And yet these were
society men - they could dance with her, clasp her to them, and look into
those "witch eyes" - oh, the ignominy of it!

He looked across at Opal. How beautiful she was in her pale green gown,
her white shoulders and arms glistening beneath the electric light with
the sheen of polished marble, her red-brown hair glowing with its fiery
lure, while even across the room her eyes sparkled like diamonds,
lighting up her whole face. She was certainly enjoying herself - this
Circe who had tempted him across the seas. She seemed possessed of the
very spirit of mischief - and Paul forgot himself.

The orchestra was playing a Strauss waltz - it fired his blood. He walked
across the room with his masterful, authoritative air - the manner of a
man born to command. "Miss Ledoux," he said, and the crowd around her
instinctively made way for him, "this is our waltz, I believe!" and
whirled her away before she could answer.

Ah! it was delicious, that waltz! In perfect rhythm they clung together,
gliding about the polished floor, her bare shoulder pressing his arm,
her head with its bewildering perfume so near his lips, their hearts
throbbing fiercely in the ecstasy of their nearness - which was Love.

Oh to go on forever! forever!

The sweet cadence of the music died away, and they looked into each
other's eyes, startled.

"You seem to be acquiring the habit," she pouted, but her lips quivered,
and in response he whispered in her ear, "Whose waltz was it,
sweetheart?"

"I don't know, Paul - nor care!"

That was enough.

They left the room together.




CHAPTER XIII


In a secluded corner adjoining the ballroom, Paul and Opal stood hand in
hand, conscious only of being together, while their two hearts beat a
tumultuous acknowledgment of that =world-old= power whose name, in
whatever guise it comes to us, is Love!

"I said I wouldn't, Paul!" at last she said.

"Wouldn't what?"

"See you again - like this!"

Paul smiled tenderly.

"My darling," he whispered, "what enchantment have you cast over me that
all my resolutions to give you up fade away at the first glimpse of your
face? I resolve to be brave and remember my duty - until I see you - and
then I forget everything but you - I want nothing but you!"

"What do you want with me, Paul?"

"Opal!" he cried impetuously. "After seeing these gay Lotharios making
eyes at you all the evening, can you ask me that? I want to take you
away and hide you from every other man's sight - that's what I want! It
drives me crazy to see them look at you that way! But you have such a
way of keeping a fellow at arm's length when you want to," he went on,
ruefully, "in spite of the magic call of your whole tempting
personality. You know '_Die Walküre_,' don't you? - but of course you do.
If I believed in the theory of reincarnation, I should feel sure that
you were Brünhilde herself, surrounded by the wall of fire!"

"I wish I were! I wish every woman had some such infallible way of
_proving_ every man who seeks her!"

"You have, Opal! You have your own womanly instincts - every woman's
impassable wall of fire, if she will only hide behind them. _You_ could
never love unworthily!"

"But, Paul, don't you know? Haven't they told you? I shall probably
marry the Count de Roannes!"

Paul was astounded.

"Opal! No! No! Not that, surely not that! I heard it, yes - a moment ago.
But I could not believe it. The idea was too horrible. It could not be
true!"

"But it is true, Paul! It is all too true!"

"It is a crime," he fairly groaned.

She shrank from him. "Don't say that, Paul!"

"But you know it is true! Opal, just think! If you give your sweet self
to him - and that is all you can give him, as you and I know - if you give
yourself to him, I say, I - I shall go mad!"

"Yet women have loved him," she began, bravely, attempting to defend
herself. "Women - some kinds of women - really love him now. He has a
power of - compelling - love - even yet!"

"And such women," Paul cried hoarsely, "are more to be honored than you
if you consent to become his property with no love in your heart! Don't
plead extenuating circumstances. There can be no extenuating
circumstances in all the world for such a thing."

She winced as though he had struck her, for she knew in her heart that
what he said was true, brutally true. The Boy was only voicing her own
sentiments - the theory to which she had always so firmly clung.

As Paul paused, a sudden realization of his own future overwhelmed him
and locked his lips. He smiled sadly. Who was he that he should talk
like that? Was not he, too, pleading extenuating circumstances? True, he
was a man and she was a woman, and the world has two distinct
standards - but - no less than she - he was selling himself for gain.

"Paul, Paul! I'm afraid you don't understand! It isn't _money_. Surely
you don't think that! It isn't money - it is honor - _honor_, do you hear?
My dead mother's honor, and my father's breaking heart!"

The secret was out, at last. This, then, was the shadow that had cast
its gloom over the family ever since he had come in contact with them.
It was even worse than he had thought. That she - the lovely Opal - should
have to sacrifice her own honor to save her mother's!

Honor! honor! how many crimes are committed in thy name!

"Tell me about it," he said sympathetically.

And she told him, sparing herself details, as far as possible, of the
storm of scandal about to burst upon the family - a storm from which only
the sacrifice of herself could save the family name of Ledoux, and her
mother's memory. It might, or might not, be true, but the Count de
Roannes claimed to be able - and ready - to bring proof. And, if it were
true, she was not a Ledoux at all, and her father was not her father at
all, except in name. No breath of ill-fame had ever reached her mother's
name before. They had thought she had happily escaped the curse of her
mother before her. But the Count claimed to know, and - well, he wanted
her - Opal - and, of course, it _was_ possible, and of course he would do
anything to protect the good name of his wife, if Opal became his wife,
and - -

"So, you see, Paul - in the end, I shall have to - submit!"

She had not told it at all well, she thought, but Paul little cared how
the story was told.

"I do not see it that way at all, Opal. It seems to me - well,
diabolical, and may God help you, dear girl, when you, with your
high-keyed sensitive nature, first wake to the infamy of it! I have no
right to interfere - no right at all. Not even my love for you, which is
stronger than myself, gives me that right. For I am betrothed! I tell
you this because I see where my folly has led us. There is only one
thing to do. We must part - and at once. I am sorry" - then he thought of
that first meeting on board the liner, "no, I am _not_ sorry we met! I
shall never be that! But I am going to be a man. I am going to do my
duty. Help me, Opal - help me!"

It was the old appeal of the man to the helpmeet God had created for
him, and the woman in her responded.

"Paul, I will!" and her little fingers closed over his.

"Of course he loves you - in his way, but - - "

"Don't, Paul, don't! He has never once pretended that - he has been too
wise."

"He will break your spirit, dear - it's his nature. And then he will
break your heart!"

She raised her head, defiantly.

"Break my spirit, Paul? He could not. And as for my heart - that will
never be his to break!"

Their eyes met with the old understanding that needs no words. Then she
pointed to the heavens.

"See the stars, Paul, smiling down so calmly. How can they when hearts
are aching? When I was a child, I loved the stars. I fancied, too, that
they loved me, and I would run out under their watchful eyes, singing
for very joy, sure they were guiding my life and that some day I would
be happy, gloriously happy. Somehow, Paul, I always expected to be
happy - always! - till now! Now the stars seem to mock me. I must have
been born under a baleful conjunction, I guess. Oh, I told you, Paul,
that Opals were unlucky. I warned you - didn't I warn you? I may have
tempted you, too, but - I didn't mean to do it!"

"Bless your dear heart, girl, you weren't to blame!"

"But you said - that night - about the tiger - - "

"Forgive me, Opal, I was not myself. I was - excited. I didn't mean
that."

After a moment, she said, musingly, "It is just as I said, Paul. I was
born to go to the devil, so it is well - well for you, I mean - and
perhaps for me - that you and I cannot marry." He shook his head, but she
went on, unheeding. "Paul, if I am destined to be a disgrace to
someone - and they say I am - I'd rather bring reproach upon his name than
on yours!"

"But why marry at all, if you feel like that? Why, it's - it's damnable!"

"Don't you see, Paul, I am foreordained to evil - marked a bad woman from
the cradle! Marriage is the only salvation, you know, for girls with my
inheritance. It's the sanctuary that keeps a woman good and 'happy ever
after.'"

"It would be more apt, in my opinion, to drive one to forbidden wine! A
marriage like that, I mean - for one like you."

"But at least a married woman has a _name_ - whatever she may do.
She's - protected. She isn't - - "

But Paul would hear no more.

"Opal, _we_ were made for each other from the beginning - surely we were.
Some imp has slipped into the scheme of things somewhere and turned it
upside down."

He paused. She looked up searchingly into his eyes.

"Paul, do you love me?"

"Yes, dearest!"

"Are you sure?"

"As sure as I am of my own existence! With all my heart, Opal - with all
my soul!"

"Then we mustn't see each other any more!"

"Not any more. You are right, Opal, not any more!"

"But what shall we do, Paul? We shall be sure to meet often. You expect
to stay the summer through, do you not? And we are not going to New
Orleans for several weeks yet - and then?"

"We are going West, Father Paul and I - out on the prairies to rough it
for a while. We were going before long, anyway, and a few weeks sooner
or later won't make any difference. And then - home, back over the sea
again, to face life, to work, to try to be - strong, I suppose."

Paul paused and looked at her passionately.

"Why are you so alluring to-night, Opal?"

Her whole body quivered, caught fire from the flame in his eyes. What
was there about this man that made her always so conscious she was a
woman? Why could she never be calm in his presence, but was always so
fated to _feel, feel, feel!_

Her voice trembled as she looked up at him and answered, "Am I wicked,
Paul? I wanted to be happy to-night - just for to-night! I wanted to
forget the fate that was staring me so relentlessly in the face. But - I
couldn't, Paul!"

Then she glanced through the curtains into the ballroom and shuddered.

"The Count is looking for me," she said. The Boy winced, and she went on
rapidly, excitedly. "We must part. As well now as any time, I suppose,
since it has to be. But first, Paul, let me say it once - just once - _I
love you!_"

He snatched her to him - God! that any one else should ever have the
right!

"And I - worship you, Opal! Even that seems a weak word, to-night.
But - you understand, don't you? I didn't know at sea whether it was love
or what it was that had seized me as nothing ever had before. But I know
now! And listen, Opal - this isn't a vow, nor anything of that kind - but
I feel that I want to say it. I shall always love you just this
way - always - I feel it, I know it! - as long as I live! Will you
remember, darling? - remember - everything?"

"Yes - yes! And you, Paul?"

"Till death!" And his lips held hers, regardless of ten thousand Counts
and their claims upon her caresses.

And they clung together again in the anguish of parting that comes at
some time, or another into the lives of all who know love.

Then like mourners walking away from the graves of their loved ones,
they returned to the ballroom, with the dull ache of buried happiness in
their hearts.




CHAPTER XIV


Out - far out - in the great American West, the Boy wandered. And Paul
Verdayne, understanding as only he could understand, felt how little use
his companionship and sympathy really were at this crisis of the Boy's
life.

All through the month of August they travelled, the Boy looking upon the
land he had been so eager to see with eyes that saw nothing but his own
disappointment, and the barrenness of his future. The hot sun beat down
upon the shadeless prairies with the intensity of a living flame. But it
seemed as nothing to the heat of his own passion - his own fiery
rebellion against the decree of destiny - altogether powerless against
the withering despair that had choked all the aspirations and ambitions
which, his whole life long, he had cultivated and nourished in the soil
of his developing soul.

He thought again and again of the glories so near at hand - the glories
that had for years been the goal of his ambition. He pictured the
pageant to come - the glitter of armor and liveries, the splendor and
sparkle of jewels and lights, and all the dazzling gorgeousness of royal
equipments - the throngs of courtiers and beautiful women bowing before
him, proud of the privilege of doing him homage - him, a mere boy - yet
the king - the absolute monarch of his little realm, and supreme in his
undisputed sway over the hearts of his people - his people who had
worshipped his beautiful mother and, if only for her sake, made an idol
of her son. He saw himself crowned by loving hands with the golden
circlet he loved and reverenced, and meant to redeem from the stigma of
a worthless father's abuse and desecration; he saw his own young hands,
strong, pure, and undefiled by any form of bribery or political
corruption, wielding the sceptre that should - please God! - bring
everlasting honor and fame to the little principality. He saw all this,
and yet it did not thrill him any more! It was all Dead Sea fruit, dust
and ashes in his hand. He wanted but one thing now - and his whole
kingdom did not weigh one pennyweight against it.

But in spite of his preoccupation the freedom and massiveness of the
West broadened the Boy's mental vision. He absorbed the spirit of the
big world it typified, and he saw things more clearly than in the
crowded city. And yet he suffered more, too. He could not often talk
about his sorrow and his loss, but he felt all the time the unspoken
sympathy in Verdayne's companionship, and was grateful for the
completeness of the understanding between them.

Once, far out in a wide expanse of sparsely settled land, the two came
upon a hut - a little rough shanty with a sod roof, and probably but two
tiny rooms at most. It was nearing evening, and the red rays of the
setting sun fell upon a young woman, humbly clad, sitting on a bench at
the doorway, and cuddling upon her knee a little baby dressed in coarse,
but spotlessly white garments. A whistle sounded on the still air, and
through the waving grain strode a stalwart man, an eager, expectant
light in his bronzed face. The girl sprang to meet him with an
inarticulate cry of joy, and wife and baby were soon clasped close to
his breast.

Paul could not bear it. He turned away with a sob in his throat and
looked into Verdayne's eyes with such an expression of utter
hopelessness that the older man felt his own eyes moisten with the
fervor of his sympathy. That poor, humble ranchman possessed something
that was denied the Boy, prince of the blood though he was.

And the two men talked of commonplace subjects that night in subdued
tones that were close to tears. Both hearts were aching with the
consciousness of unutterable and irreparable loss.

* * * * *

Through the long nights that followed, out there in the primitive, Paul
thought of the hideousness of life as he saw it now, with a loathing
that time seemed only to increase. He pictured Opal - his love - as the
wife of that old French libertine, till his soul revolted at the very
thought. Such a thing was beyond belief.

Once he said to Verdayne, thinking of the conversation he had had with
Opal on the night of the ball at the Plaza,

"Father Paul, who was Lord Hubert Aldringham? The name sounds so
familiar to me - yet I can't recall where I heard it."

"Why, he was my uncle, Boy, my mother's brother. A handsome, wicked,
devil-may-care sort of fellow to whom nothing was sacred. You must have
heard us speak of him at home, for mother was very fond of him."

"And you, Father Paul?"

"I - detested him, Boy!"

And then the Boy told him something that Opal had said to him of the
possibility - nay, the probability - of Lord Hubert's being her own
grandfather. Verdayne was pained - grieved to the heart - at the terrible
significance of this - if it were true. And there was little reason,
alas, to doubt it! How closely their lives were woven together - Paul's
and Opal's! How merciless seemed the demands of destiny!

What a juggler of souls Fate was!

* * * * *

And the month of August passed away. And September found the two men
still wandering in an aimless fashion about the prairie country, and yet
with no desire for change. The Boy was growing more and more
dissatisfied, less and less resigned to the decrees of destiny.

At last, one dull, gray, moonless night, when neither could woo coveted
sleep to his tired eyes, the Boy said to his companion, "Father Paul,
I'm going to be a man - a man, do you hear? I am going to New
Orleans - you know Mr. Ledoux asked us to come in September - and I'm
going to marry Opal, whatever the consequences! I will not be bound to a
piece of flesh I abhor, for the sake of a mere kingdom - not for the sake
of a world! I will not sell my manhood! I will not sacrifice myself, nor
allow the girl I love to become a burnt-offering for a mother's sin. I
will not! Do you remember away off there," and he pointed off to the
south of them, "the little shack, and the man and the woman and - the
baby? Father Paul, I want - that! And I'm going to have it, too! Do you
blame me?"

And Verdayne threw his arm around the Boy's neck, and said, "Blame you?
No, Boy, no! And may God bless and speed you!"

And the next day they started for the South.




CHAPTER XV


It was early in the morning, a few days later, when Paul Verdayne and
his young friend reached New Orleans. Immediately after breakfast - he
would have presented himself before had he dared - the Boy called at the
home of the Ledouxs. Verdayne had important letters to write, as he
informed the Boy with a significant smile, and begged to be allowed to
remain behind.

And the impatient youth, blessing him mentally for his tact, set forth
alone.

The residence that he sought was one of the most picturesque and
beautiful of the many stately old mansions of the city. It was enclosed
by a high wall that hid from the passers-by all but the most tantalizing
glimpses of a fragrant, green tropical garden, and gave an air of
exclusiveness to the habitation of this proud old family. As the Boy
passed through the heavy iron gate, and his eye gazed in appreciation
upon the tints of foliage no autumn chills had affected, and the glints
of sun and shadow that only heightened the splendor of blossom, and
shrub, and vine, which were pouring their incense upon the air, he felt
that he was indeed entering the Garden of Eden - the Garden of Eden with
no French serpents to tempt from him the woman that had been created his
helpmeet.

He found Opal, and a tall, handsome young man in clerical vestments,
sitting together upon the broad vine-shaded veranda. The girl greeted
him cordially and introduced him to the priest, Father Whitman.

At first Paul dared not trust himself to look at Opal too closely, and
he did not notice that her face grew ashen at his approach. She had
recovered her usual self-possession when he finally looked at her, and
now the only apparent sign of unusual agitation was a slight flush upon
her cheek - an excited sparkle in her eye - which might have been the
effect of many causes.

He watched the priest curiously. How noble-looking he was! He felt sure
that he would have liked him in any other garb. What did his presence
here portend?

Paul had supposed that Opal was a Catholic; indeed had been but little
concerned what she professed. She had never appeared to him to be
specially religious, but, if she was, that absurd idea of self-sacrifice
for a dead mother she had never known might appeal to the love of
penance which is inherent in all of Catholic faith, and she might not
surrender to her great love for him.

The priest rose.

"Must you go, Father?" asked Opal.

"Yes!... I will call to-morrow, then?"

"Yes - tomorrow! And" - she suddenly threw herself upon her knees at his
feet - "your blessing, Father" she begged.

The priest laid a hand upon her head, and raised his eyes to Heaven.
Then, making the sign of the cross upon her forehead, he took her hands
in his, and gently raised her to her feet. She clung to his hands
imploringly.

"Absolution, Father," she pleaded.

He hesitated, his face quivering with emotions his eyes lustrous with
tears, a world of feeling in every line of his countenance.

"Child," he said hoarsely, "child! Don't tempt me!"

"But you _must_ say it, you know, or what will happen to me?"

The priest still hesitated, but her eyes would not release him till he
whispered, "_Absolvo te_, my daughter, and - God bless you!"

And releasing her hands, he bowed formally to Paul and hurried down the
broad stone steps and through the gate.

Opal watched him, a smile, half-remorseful and half-triumphant, upon her
face.

"What does it all mean?" asked Paul as he laid his hand upon her arm.

She laughed nervously. "Oh - nothing! Only - when I see one of those
long, clerical cassocks, I am immediately seized with an insane desire
to find the _man_ inside the priest!"

"Laudable, certainly! And you always succeed, I suppose?"

"Yes, usually! - why not?" And she laughed again. "Don't, Paul! I don't
want to quarrel with you!"

"We won't quarrel, Opal," he said. But the thought of the priest annoyed
him.

He seated himself beside her. "Have you no welcome for me?" he said.

She looked up at him, her eyes sweetly tender.

"Of course, Paul! I'm very glad to see you again - if you are a bad boy!"

He looked at her in amazement. "I, bad? - No," he said. And they laughed
again. But it was not the care-free laughter they had known at sea.
There was a strained note in the tones of the girl that grated strangely
upon the Boy's sensitive ear. What had happened? he wondered. What was
the new barrier between them? Was it the priest? Again the thought of
the priest worried him.

"Where is my friend, the Count de Roannes?" he ventured at last.

"He sailed for Paris last week."

Paul's heart leaped. Surely then their legal betrothal had not taken
place.

"What happened, Opal?"

"The inevitable!"

And again his heart bounded for joy! The inevitable! Surely that meant
that the girl's better nature had triumphed, had shown her the ignominy
of such a union in time to save her. He looked at her for further
information, but seeing her evident embarrassment, forbore to pursue the


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Online LibraryAnonymousOne Day A sequel to 'Three Weeks' → online text (page 7 of 12)