"the eternal problem of man," said sir richmond. "can our wills prevail?"
there came a little pause.
miss grammont smiled an enquiry at miss seyffert. "if you are," said belinda.
"i wish i could imagine your world," said miss grammont, rising, "of two hundred and fifty millions of fully developed human beings with room to live and breathe in and no need for wars. will they live in palaces? will they all be healthy? . . . machines will wait on them. no! i can't imagine it. perhaps i shall dream of it. my dreaming self may be cleverer."
she held out her hand to sir richmond. just for a moment they stood hand in hand, appreciatively. . . .
"well!" said dr. martineau, as the door closed behind the two americans, "this is a curious encounter."
"that young woman has brains," said sir richmond, standing before the fireplace. there was no doubt whatever which young woman he meant.
we heard the sound of a piano. prudence rang. the piano was silent. a woman who looked more like a companion than a servant opened the door. we went into the drawing-room, and from that to the boudoir, which was then just as you have seen it since. a young man was leaning against the mantel-piece. marguerite, seated at the piano, let her fingers wander over the notes, beginning scraps of music without finishing them. the whole scene breathed boredom, the man embarrassed by the consciousness of his nullity, the woman tired of her dismal visitor. at the voice of prudence, marguerite rose, and coming toward us with a look of gratitude to mme. duvernoy, said:
"come in, and welcome."
"ah, i remember," said marguerite, with a smile. "it was not you who were absurd; it was i who was mischievous, as i still am, but somewhat less. you have forgiven me?" and she held out her hand, which i kissed.
"it is true," she went on; "you know i have the bad habit of trying to embarrass people the first time i meet them. it is very stupid. my doctor says it is because i am nervous and always ill; believe my doctor."
"but you seem quite well."
"oh! i have been very ill."
"who told you?"
"every one knew it; i often came to inquire after you, and i was happy to hear of your convalescence."
"they never gave me your card."
"i did not leave it."
"was it you, then, who called every day while i was ill, and would never leave your name?"
"yes, it was i."
"then you are more than indulgent, you are generous. you, count, wouldn't have done that," said she, turning toward m. de n., after giving me one of those looks in which women sum up their opinion of a man.
"i have only known you for two months," replied the count.
"and this gentleman only for five minutes. you always say something ridiculous."
women are pitiless toward those whom they do not care for. the count reddened and bit his lips.
i was sorry for him, for he seemed, like myself, to be in love, and the bitter frankness of marguerite must have made him very unhappy, especially in the presence of two strangers.
"you were playing the piano when we came in," i said, in order to change the conversation. "won't you be so good as to treat me as an old acquaintance and go on?"
"oh," said she, flinging herself on the sofa and motioning to us to sit down, "gaston knows what my music is like. it is all very well when i am alone with the count, but i won't inflict such a punishment on you."
"you show me that preference?" said m. de n., with a smile which he tried to render delicately ironical.
"don't reproach me for it. it is the only one." it was fated that the poor man was not to say a single word. he cast a really supplicating glance at marguerite.
"well, prudence," she went on, "have you done what i asked you to do?"
"all right. you will tell me about it later. we must talk over it; don't go before i can speak with you."
"we are doubtless intruders," i said, "and now that we, or rather i, have had a second introduction, to blot out the first, it is time for gaston and me to be going."
"not in the least. i didn't mean that for you. i want you to stay."
the count took a very elegant watch out of his pocket and looked at the time. "i must be going to my club," he said. marguerite did not answer. the count thereupon left his position by the fireplace and going up to her, said: "adieu, madame."
marguerite rose. "adieu, my dear count. are you going already?"
"yes, i fear i am boring you."
"you are not boring me to-day more than any other day. when shall i be seeing you?"
"when you permit me."
it was cruel, you will admit. fortunately, the count had excellent manners and was very good-tempered. he merely kissed marguerite's hand, which she held out to him carelessly enough, and, bowing to us, went out.
as he crossed the threshold, he cast a glance at prudence. she shrugged her shoulders, as much as to say:
"what do you expect? i have done all i could."
"nanine!" cried marguerite. "light m. le comte to the door."
we heard the door open and shut.
"at last," cried marguerite, coming back, "he has gone! that man gets frightfully on my nerves!"
"my dear child," said prudence, "you really treat him too badly, and he is so good and kind to you. look at this watch on the mantel-piece, that he gave you: it must have cost him at least three thousand francs, i am sure."
and mme. duvernoy began to turn it over, as it lay on the mantel-piece, looking at it with covetous eyes.
"my dear," said marguerite, sitting down to the piano, "when i put on one side what he gives me and on the other what he says to me, it seems to me that he buys his visits very cheap."
"the poor fellow is in love with you."
"if i had to listen to everybody who was in love with me, i shouldn't have time for my dinner."
and she began to run her fingers over the piano, and then, turning to us, she said:
"what will you take? i think i should like a little punch."
"are you unwell, madame? you denied yourself to visitors."
"i am well, monsieur."
"perhaps you were going out?"
"not at all."
"you expected some one?"
"if my visit is indiscreet you must blame monsieur le marquis. i had already accepted your mysterious denial, when he himself came up, and introduced me into the sanctuary."
"monsieur de listomere is not in my confidence on this point. it is not always prudent to put a husband in possession of certain secrets."
the firm and gentle tones in which the marquise said these words, and the imposing glance which she cast upon rastignac made him aware that he had posed in his cravat a trifle prematurely.
"madame, i understand you," he said, laughing. "i ought, therefore, to be doubly thankful that monsieur le marquis met me; he affords me an opportunity to offer you excuses which might be full of danger were you not kindness itself."
the marquise looked at the young man with an air of some surprise, but she answered with dignity:—
"monsieur, silence on your part will be the best excuse. as for me, i promise you entire forgetfulness, and the pardon which you scarcely deserve."