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true stories

there was a change, however, in this sense: that if the baroness had been a great deal in acton's thoughts before, she was now never out of them. from the first she had been personally fascinating; but the fascination now had become intellectual as well. he was constantly pondering her words and motions; they were as interesting as the factors in an algebraic problem. this is saying a good deal; for acton was extremely fond of mathematics. he asked himself whether it could be that he was in love with her, and then hoped he was not; hoped it not so much for his own sake as for that of the amatory passion itself. if this was love, love had been overrated. love was a poetic impulse, and his own state of feeling with regard to the baroness was largely characterized by that eminently prosaic sentiment--curiosity. it was true, as acton with his quietly cogitative habit observed to himself, that curiosity, pushed to a given point, might become a romantic passion; and he certainly thought enough about this charming woman to make him restless and even a little melancholy. it puzzled and vexed him at times to feel that he was not more ardent. he was not in the least bent upon remaining a bachelor. in his younger years he had been--or he had tried to be-of the opinion that it would be a good deal "jollier" not to marry, and he had flattered himself that his single condition was something of a citadel. it was a citadel, at all events, of which he had long since leveled the outworks. he had removed the guns from the ramparts; he had lowered the draw-bridge across the moat. the draw-bridge had swayed lightly under madame munster`s step; why should he not cause it to be raised again, so that she might be kept prisoner? he had an idea that she would become-in time at least, and on learning the conveniences of the place for making a lady comfortable--a tolerably patient captive. but the draw-bridge was never raised, and acton`s brilliant visitor was as free to depart as she had been to come. it was part of his curiosity to know why the deuce so susceptible a man was not in love with so charming a woman. if her various graces were, as i have said, the factors in an algebraic problem, the answer to this question was the indispensable unknown quantity. the pursuit of the unknown quantity was extremely absorbing; for the present it taxed all acton`s faculties.

toward the middle of august he was obliged to leave home for some days; an old friend, with whom he had been associated in china, had begged him to come to newport, where he lay extremely ill. his friend got better, and at the end of a week acton was released. i use the word "released" advisedly; for in spite of his attachment to his chinese comrade he had been but a half-hearted visitor. he felt as if he had been called away from the theatre during the progress of a remarkably interesting drama. the curtain was up all this time, and he was losing the fourth act; that fourth act which would have been so essential to a just appreciation of the fifth. in other words, he was thinking about the baroness, who, seen at this distance, seemed a truly brilliant figure. he saw at newport a great many pretty women, who certainly were figures as brilliant as beautiful light dresses could make them; but though they talked a great deal--and the baroness`s strong point was perhaps also her conversation--madame munster appeared to lose nothing by the comparison. he wished she had come to newport too. would it not be possible to make up, as they said, a party for visiting the famous watering-place and invite eugenia to join it? it was true that the complete satisfaction would be to spend a fortnight at newport with eugenia alone. it would be a great pleasure to see her, in society, carry everything before her, as he was sure she would do. when acton caught himself thinking these thoughts he began to walk up and down, with his hands in his pockets, frowning a little and looking at the floor. what did it prove-for it certainly proved something--this lively disposition to be "off" somewhere with madame munster, away from all the rest of them? such a vision, certainly, seemed a refined implication of matrimony, after the baroness should have formally got rid of her informal husband.

"mine was a business proposition, not a marriage proposal," she interrupted, coldly angry. "i wonder if somewhere in this world there is one man who could accept me for a comrade."
"but you are a woman just the same," he began, "and there are certain conventions, certain decencies--"
she sprang up and stamped her foot.
"do you know what i'd like to say?" she demanded.
"yes," he smiled, "you'd like to say, 'damn petticoats!'"
she nodded her head ruefully.
"that's what i wanted to say, but it sounds different on your lips. it sounds as though you meant it yourself, and that you meant it because of me. well, i am going to bed. but do, please, think over my proposition, and let me know in the morning. there's no use in my discussing it now. you make me so angry. you are cowardly, you know, and very egotistic. you are afraid of what other fools will say. no matter how honest your motives, if others criticized your actions your feelings would be hurt. and you think more about your own wretched feelings than you do about mine. and then, being a coward--all men are at heart cowards--you disguise your cowardice by calling it chivalry. i thank heaven that i was not born a man. good-night. do think it over. and don't be foolish. what berande needs is good american hustle. you don't know what that is. you are a muddler. besides, you are enervated. i'm fresh to the climate. let me be your partner, and you'll see me rattle the dry bones of the solomons. confess, i've rattled yours already."
"i should say so," he answered. "really, you know, you have. i never received such a dressing-down in my life. if any one had ever told me that i'd be a party even to the present situation. . . . yes, i confess, you have rattled my dry bones pretty considerably."
"but that is nothing to the rattling they are going to get," she assured him, as he rose and took her hand. "good-night. and do, do give me a rational decision in the morning."


it must have been a long night for armand. when i entered his room at nine on the following morning he was frightfully pale, but seemed calm. he smiled and held out his hand. his candles were burned out; and before leaving he took a very heavy letter addressed to his father, and no doubt containing an account of that night's impressions.


***


many there be even now that hope in their hearts and desire to wed penelope, the bedfellow of odysseus: but when such an one shall make trial of the bow and see the issue, thereafter let him woo some other fair-robed achaean woman with his bridal gifts and seek to win her. so may our lady wed the man that gives most gifts, and comes as the chosen of fate.

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