An Interchange of Courtesies

I

“ YOU look so dreary, Rachel, that you get on my nerves. The countess asked me yesterday whether you were homesick, but that was her polite way of cloaking her curiosity.”

Rachel Baring suppressed a sharp rejoinder; she had learned that to argue with her brother was unwise.

“Now of course I know what ails you,” went on Oswald Baring pleasantly. “ You disapprove of my present course; but, as I have often told you, you are not responsible for my misdoings, nor do I admit that they are misdoings. The countess is a splendid type for study; the Austrian great lady has not been much done, and decidedly not as I shall do her. But I must push the thing to a climax; the tale requires a dramatic ending.”

He turned a little absently toward his companion.

“ It is rather a bore for you; but it will soon be over, so do cheer up!”

Oswald Baring patted his sister’s arm encouragingly; he even treated her to his best smile, but Rachel was in no mood for cajolery, this time she would not and could not yield.

“ I should think you must have studied her very thoroughly; you have hardly been apart for the last four weeks. If you haven’t analyzed her by this time, I am afraid you will never do so, especially now that her husband is expected.”

“Oh!” he cried, “for Heaven’s sake, don’t make it personal! On my part it’s nothing but a piece of business, on hers — a game — to pass away the time.”

Miss Baring maintained a frigid silence, and Oswald, having waited an instant for an answer, now resumed his argument, this time with ill-concealed irritation. People had no right to oppose him when he was creating; the slightest jar might spoil a whole day’s work, and Rachel’s revolt was peculiarly disconcerting, for she had supported him so staunchly through other literary anxieties.

“It is you, Rachel, with your North American conscience, who will drag a moral into a fantasy, — very bad art, that, and the ruin of a light touch. Now the position is this,” he went on, his brow clearing, “I have a good idea for a story, an idea which I can’t afford to throw away — everything is sketched out— the characters dissected — there is only one thing missing, and that is my heroine in a passion. In other words: the little countess up to the present lias been playing, but I want to see her once in earnest. Of course the affair will end in mutual compliments. Trust us to come out safely — only — and here is my point to you — don’t spoil it all by interfering. Let the bubble burst; it won’t destroy us.”

She made no answer, and he continued with increased vehemence.

“ I tell you I love her, as an artist! As an artist, she pleases me beyond expression. Her contradictions and lively sallies are exquisite; besides, with all of it, she is such a lady, not the kind one runs across every day, but rather some precious type that has been hoarded up in Hungary for centuries — the type, I mean, not the dear little girl herself!”

Rachel turned away in dumb anger, but Baring ignored her silence and continued.

“Next week, I shall be plunged in grief at losing her; the week after, I shall mournfully begin my tale; after that — unless you bother me — I shall think of nothing but the story; when it is finished, Countess Essie will be to me a dream. There, old girl, have I reassured you? If you knew my joy, old Rachel, at coining on this treasure!”

The man’s fine eyes were eloquent in their appeal for sympathy, but his sister turned her face away abruptly.

“I don’t enjoy seeing you play either the villain or the dupe,” she said.

Oswald waved his hand impatiently.

“Bother your scruples! No one is being duped; there is n’t any villain. Every one is playing fair — every one, that is, except yourself, and you are taking advantage of a delicate situation to upset my nerve and rob me of my assurance. The count arrives to-night. Who knows what may not happen ? At all events, you must be at hand to smooth things over, in case the third act rushes on too fast.”

“I will not do it,” cried the girl hotly. “ I will not be drawn into your plot! ”

Oswald Baring fixed his eyes on his sister. He had not conquered his world without a struggle, and in the struggle he had acquired hardness.

“Your jealousy would be absurd if it were not so selfish,” he said. “You seem to have lost your common sense to-day. I do not recognize you.”

“I don’t recognize you, Oswald,” she retorted bitterly. “I wonder if you know how you alter when you are writing ? ”

Something in Rachel’s face affected her brother’s sensitive perceptions. He caught her arm impulsively.

“Dear old girl,” he cried, “it’s such a splendid subject!”

“Oswald,” she murmured, looking at him wistfully, “what if you were mistaken in your analysis? What if the countess were hurt by the affair?”

“I would not draw back unless dear old Barkworth himself should beg me. He is the only one who would be justified in interfering, for it was he — God bless him — who took my first story! Nothing short of that will move me.”

Baring’s tone this time was sharply hostile.

Rachel pressed her hands together tightly. “ Very well,” she said in a low voice, “I will leave you to your studies. Give my good-night, please, to Countess Lynarsberg; ” and before her astonished brother could protest, the girl had escaped swiftly in the dusk.

Oswald Baring felt the artist’s fury at threatened failure; he also felt the leader’s fury at unexpected opposition. There was, however, but one course open, and that was to hide his annoyance and to amuse the countess. Their farewell interview must be dramatic, given Essie’s temperament and his necessities; besides, he might even gain by Rachel’s deser tion.

II

“So you cannot come this autumn to Vienna? There is not, after all, so ranch to tempt you, — horrid wind, many Jews, a sad court, our best singers and actors mostly dead. No.” said the little countess sorrowfully, “our Vienna is scarcely gay enough for you Americans.”

“After Paris, you mean,” put in Baring maliciously. The lady had disappointed him by her abstraction; he had tried in vain since eight o’clock to rouse her, though now, at last, he seemed to have succeeded, for Countess Lynarsberg turned her small face toward him, her blue eyes flashing. Oswald noted that her eyes had purple lights.

“Paris?” she cried, “but why bring Paris into the question ? Don’t you know that Vienna leads the world in fashions and music — and — and in what we call cosy charm?”

Baring smiled. In comedy she was matchless; would she go through tragedy with equal grace? He longed for some manifestation of emotion; but Countess Elisabeth was provokingly self-contained; indeed, except for furtive glances at the clock, one might have thought her quite oblivious to the situation. They were strolling in the brightly-lighted garden; it wanted but twenty minutes to the count’s expected arrival.

“ Ah!” exclaimed Baring in a low voice, “I am sure you are right! Joy of life, color distinction, irresponsibility, — all these things are included in one word, ‘Gemüthlichkeit.’ One has heard of that mysterious Viennese quality and now — most happily — one has seen it!”

But Essie did not seem to hear the compliment; she was absorbed apparently in meditation. Oswald wondered if he had ceased to please her; at other times she had been flattered by his attentions. She addressed him rather abruptly.

“It is unlucky about your sister’s headache. I like your sister— she is so honest. I wish she liked me. Don’t protest; she does not. She has views, too, on all subjects,” added the countess, growing pensive. “Now you and I and Aloys have no views—at least, if Aloys has, he does not tell them. But your sister” —

Oswald dashed headlong into a more congenial topic. “ Won’t you tell me something more about yourself?” he asked softly. “About your early life in Hungary, your pursuits, your companions? These things interest me immensely.”

But they did not, at that moment, interest Countess Essie, who shook her head absently as she replied,—

“I have no story, and if I had I should not tell you, for then you might put it in a book! No, instead I will relate your own history, as I have fancied it. Shall I ? Yes ? Then listen — this is my idea. You are a grand seigneur — left early orphaned — an extravagant father having cruelly bereft you of your estates. Your prestige is damaged, your position desperate, you look at your beautiful sister and wring your hands!”

“Beautiful?” repeated Oswald interrogatively.

“Yes, beautiful as St. Cecilia, only much more clever. But to return to our little story. Thus are you two left together penniless; you cannot, like many Americans, enter trade; you are in fact, already an artist. Do not protest — you were born one—I know it. And so,” cried the countess, with a fine dramatic gesture, “what you do is to write a splendid book!”

Baring groaned, but his biographer was undaunted.

“Yes, you become at once a very famous author; editors and public worship your success. You take a grand lodging with your sister — many persons call on you each day, ten, I think, except on Sunday, when as a rule you hold a great reception. St. Cecilia told me this — the rest I imagined for myself!”

“Bother St. Cecilia!” cried Baring.

“In two years vou publish Thomas Flint.”

“D— Thomas Flint!” cried Baring again, this time under his breath.

“That book is one of the first novels of the age. Aloys has read it, I am convinced, — that is, if it has appeared in Tauchnitz ? Aloys has a passion for English romances. I have written him about yours. Ah!” broke off the little lady breathlessly, “there he is, alighting from the carriage. Come, let us go to meet him.”

The countess fairly flew across the space which divided her from the hotel entrance. When Oswald reached the spot, she was shaking hands warmly with a tall man, whom our author proceeded to analyze as follows to himself, —

“Well made — good hands — keen eyes — probably kind — a touch of sarcasm in the mouth — and,” as the count raised his hat, “remarkably fine forehead.”

He now joined the Austrians, at a sign from the countess.

“This is Mr. Baring, the great writer, Aloys. Mr. Baring, may I present my husband ? Mr. Baring and his sister have quite rescued me from my loneliness!”

Count Lynarsberg shook hands gravely with the American.

“ And your sister ? ” he inquired, in perfect English. “May I not have the pleasure of meeting her as well?”

“Oh, Miss Rachel has gone upstairs. She fears the dampness; her neuralgia came upon her very sharply.”

Oswald thought he detected a slight tremor in the pretty voice.

“Perhaps you will both join us at supper?” remarked the count, with much suavity.

Baring excused himself discreetly, pleading his sister’s indisposition and his own arrears of work.

He glanced at the countess, but she did not seem to see him, she was looking up so anxiously at her husband. They mounted the stairs together, while Baring watched them; when they disappeared, he lit a cigarette.

“I have her perfectly,” he reflected, as he strolled up and down outside the hotel, smoking. “Only I must recollect in drawing her that she does n’t always act in character; in fact, her sudden changes are her greatest charm. I wonder what is going on between them?” he thought, glancing up curiously at the brilliant windows of the middle sitting-room. “ I fancy Aloys will say a few words to her to-night — not very bad ones, I hope; still, I have misgivings. The eyes are all right — hands ditto — but his mouth does n’t please me quite so well. However, to such a fairy, one could not be very brutal.”

He threw down his cigarette end with a sigh.

“I wish I could see them at this moment, but as I can’t, I may as well go upstairs and invent a scene between them, it must be dramatic, though; that’s the worst of it.”

Then he thought of Rachel.

“Good old Rachel. I will get her that little clock she liked, to-morrow.”

III

The next morning, as Miss Baring was making ready for her early walk, she heard eager voices in the hall. An instant later the chambermaid announced the Countess Lynarsberg, and before the startled Rachel could frame a hasty excuse in German, Essie appeared in person at the door.

“Miss Rachel, will you pardon this indiscretion ? I have to consult you on a matter of importance.”

“I am sorry that I have no sittingroom,” said Rachel, with a touch of stiffness. “Won’t you lake this easy-chair by the window?”

But the visitor did not heed the prof fered courtesy; instead, she walked quickly toward Miss Baring, who saw to her surprise that the countess looked pale and anxious.

“I have come to beg for your kind help, Miss Rachel,” began the Austrian, as she fingered her gold chain nervously; then, drawing from her breast a small blue locket, she held it out beseechingly to her companion.

“Will you swear by this picture of St. Elizabeth never to betray my sacred confidence ?”

Rachel recoiled instinctively.

“I would rather not,” she said, “it would make me most uncomfortable.”

“Ah! you do not like me, Miss Rachel,” cried Countess Elisabeth wistfully, “else you would see that I am frantic.”

And in truth the little beauty seemed transformed. All the brightness had gone out of her, leaving heavy-eyed gloom behind. Rachel was filled with sudden terror. What if Oswald were the cause of this great change? Visions of stormy scenes, recriminations, duels, rose before the startled sister’s eyes. She forgot her brother’s selfishness, her own disapproval. If anything could be done, she would do it.

“Can I help you, countess?” she asked gently.

Her tone seemed to reassure the agitated beauty. “Of course you can, else why should I be here ? But first please swear by my blessed picture. You will not? Holy Mary! what do you Protestants hold sacred?”

She glanced about her vaguely in search of relics.

Miss Baring placed a timid hand on the Bible.

“I swear by this,” she said, feeling in her heart quite like an actress.

Countess Elisabeth heaved a sigh of relief.

“Now listen,”she said, seating herself elose to Rachel, “you must know that Aloys is very angry — angry about your brother and myself. He did not like to find me alone with him last night. He does not believe that it was an accident, caused by the dampness and your neuralgia — in fact, he does not believe a word I say, although I am telling him God’s own truth!”

She paused a moment to put. back a lock of her flaxen hair.

“I am quite untidy,” she remarked in parenthesis, “but you see I had to dismiss my maid this morning, because she dared to say that I looked pale. This coiffure is therefore my own invention, and you must pardon it. Well, to return, Aloys made an ugly scene last night, and I — I cannot bear to be so spoken to,” she said, flushing suddenly, “it gives me no sleep and a bad migraine. Still, if it were over, I might forget it — as it is ” —

And Essie shrugged her shoulders significantly.

“What is it?” asked Rachel, in some apprehension.

“ Only a speeeh he made just before he left me — that this time I should be punished for my folly. Ah! ” cried the countess, with a passionate gesture, “I know very well what that means!”

She buried her blonde head for an instant in her hands.

Rachel felt both embarrassed and excited. Was this what her brother had found so fascinating, this bewildering frankness, this simplicity, this extraordinary indifference to public opinion ? Rachel wondered whether, if she herself had figured in life’s real drama, she, too, would have acquired self-unconsciousness.

“But surely,” she ventured, as the silence grew oppressive, “surely he would not ill-treat you?”

The countess shrugged her shoulders. “Shall I tell you what he will do?” she asked. “He will cut down my allowance — I mean, he will refuse to make up my deficit. Why, I have pledged December’s money already, and here we are only at the end of September.”

Rachel suppressed a pang of disappointment. She had prepared herself for tragic revelations.

“Your husband wishes to guard you very jealously?” she suggested.

“Oh! No, no,” cried Essie bitterly, “you do not understand, Miss Rachel. You are romantic, we are not — Aloys and I — he goes his way and I go mine, only, when he decides to amuse himself for weeks on various hunting parties, then I amuse myself with Cousin Otto or Mr. Baring or any one agreeable whom I run across.”

Rachel winced.

“Ah, these domestic details bore you, and no wonder. They are so prosaic; but let me get at last to my favor. Aloys must be convinced that this affair with Mr. Baring is but smoke, that neither of us has taken it seriously for a moment; otherwise I fear that he will make an esclandre before to-morrow. Your brother will be dragged into a quarrel, you will consume your heart away with anxiety, and I — well, I shall be sent to Hungary with Marie for company, and” — she added half under her breath, “ I shall not be allowed to join him until I fairly cringe to him for pardon.”

Essie glanced sideways at Miss Baring; her picture, she felt, had been extremely vivid.

“He must be very cruel,” said the girl slowly, as she surveyed the fragile little beauty.

“No, not exactly cruel,” replied the victim, faintly smiling, “only proud and obstinate and self-willed. No, I should not call him cruel — not as you mean,” added Essie gloomily. Then she changed the subject.

“Will you help me, Miss Rachel. You have not promised ? ”

“You have not told me what I am to do.”

“Only this: you must speak to Aloys this morning; with a word you could straighten matters out. He will believe you, for he, like your brother, reads people’s characters in their mouths. Now you have a lovely, honest mouth; mine, you see, is less satisfactory, it curves too much and turns down at the corners.” Essie laughed hysterically. “Ah, do not look so frightened. I do not ask you to tell a falsehood. It would be useless, too, for no one would believe you. No, I only ask you to stretch the truth a little, an inch perhaps — an Austrian inch — not more. Tell him that you have been always with us, — you have, you know,” she added apologetically. “You used to sit in the garden, close at hand,”

Rachel hesitated, for deeply hidden under doubts and shyness lay a secret desire to see the Austrian husband.

Hut the visitor was growing impatient; her tired head began to throb more violently; she decided on a new line of attack.

“Aloys is nice,” she said coaxingly, “quite like your brother. He manages words, too, nearly as well. I wonder which would win if they were matched against each other? Yes, you will like Aloys, Miss Rachel; you will do more,— in ten minutes you will go over to his side. Well, no matter, so that you convince him. Ah! Miss Rachel, be soft-hearted!” she cried, raising her small hands piteously, “I am so unhappy!”

“I should think your husband would grant you anything you chose to ask for,” said Rachel in sudden admiration. “Where you have failed, how can I possibly succeed? However, I am ready to try.”

“You blessed St. Cecilia,” exclaimed the countess. “May our Lady reward you a thousandfold! In the meanwhile, I will intercede for you with my gracious patroness, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who has often granted me indulgences. I will burn three candles to her in your name.”

Rachel thrilled at recollections of the Wartburg. This wonderful countess was actually linking her with the Middle Ages.

“And now,” cried Countess Elisabeth briskly, “for our plan of action. Meet me, please, at Arnold’s toy shop at half past eleven.”

“But,” objected Rachel in some confusion, “I thought — I understood — that you were not at present on good terms with your husband?”

Essie frowned.

“Oh! that will not prevent me,” she said; “besides, he is sure to go to Arnold’s to buy a toy for Rudi. I can waylay him in the Allee.”

“Very well,” said Rachel, “I will be there.”

“But,” added the countess, glancing at Rachel’s walking-dress, “you will wear your white frock, won’t you ? And that pretty hat with the feather? With your complexion, you do not need a veil.”

Miss Baring smiled in genuine pleasure, as she put her hand out to her visitor.

“I hope,” she said warmly, “that your troubles will soon lighten.”

Essie paused.

“I don’t mean to complain of Aloys, Miss Rachel,” she said, almost appealingly. “He is quite the nicest person J know, and even when he is angry I like him better than — than — other people who are always amiable. He is what we call a perfect cavalier. In fact, it is just because he is so high-minded that my conduct often seems to him so deplorable. But then,you see,” added the little countess with a sigh, “my great-great-grandmother was a Frenchwoman. Good-by — au revoir—auf Wiedersehen!”

And the little figure vanished as suddenly as it had come.

IV

Two hours later Miss Baring descended cautiously to the appointed meetingplace, where she was greeted with effusion by Countess Lynarsberg, who emerged from a shop across the way, followed by a tall man in white flannels.

“Aloys — Miss Rachel Baring. Will you wait here one moment while I run back to fetch my parasol?”

Without stopping for a reply Countess Essie was off toward the hotel, her small figure looking quite sylph-like under the shadow of the huge old trees.

“My wife much enjoys talking English,” remarked the count, as he surveyed the girl politely, “ She has a pretty accent, but she speaks too fast. Essie is unfortunately nearly always in a hurry.”

His smile was distinctly reassuring.

“Countess Lynarsberg is wonderful, I think,” she said. “Have all Austrians a talent for languages?”

The words escaped without any fixed intention. Rachel felt the hot blood rush to her face.

“Ah, you flatter us, Miss Baring. We all know what nation really leads the world in cleverness. Is not your brother a proof of what I say?”

Rachel glanced furtively at the questioner, whose face, however, did not betray the least emotion.

“What is Mr. Baring’s favorite field, if I may ask?” went on the count, having received no answer to his question.

“He is particularly fond of character drawing,” stammered Rachel; “he has a passion for analysis. He even enjoys dissecting his best friends; and when they find him out they are very angry, but Oswald always pacifies them in the end. He says they are contributing to the joy of nations by just existing and letting themselves be painted!”

Rachel’s courage was rising with her subject; besides, the count’s eyes were sympathetic.

“You see,” she went on confidentially, “Oswald is three parts artist and one part man; this makes him very difficult to live with; difficult, that is, until one learns his point of view. For instance, he lives only in the present. He says his head would go to pieces if he tried to remember the past; so he forgets everything that has ever happened, and, you see, one can’t always manage one’s memory But this cannot possibly interest you?” “It does interest me immensely; you share your brother’s gift of language.”

“Oh, no!” cried Rachel, this time almost gayly, “I can’t write at all. It must be such ecstasy, though, to create! When Oswald comes across a new type, he is beside himself with joy; he does n’t care for anything under the sun, if only he can seize the precious image and dissect it!”

“How interesting,” said the count, “but you, mademoiselle, are you not a painter ?”

“I have tried, but I have so little courage. This shows you that I am no artist.”

“It does not show me that, by any means,” said the count with decision.

Rachel cast a grateful look at the speaker. Somehow he seemed to have divined her secret craving; at least he had the tact to speak to her as Rachel Baring, and not as the sister of her distinguished brother. Suddenly a recollection smote that sister; she gave a gasp, and braced herself for the effort.

“It has been so pleasant for us,” she began a little nervously, “having the countess here with us. We have made so many charming excursions, and we have passed our evenings listening to the music — all but last night, when I was obliged to go indoors.”

The count was silent. Rachel summoned up her last remaining spark of courage.

“Oswald has given me all I have,” she said simply, “if it were not for him, I should be teaching children their alphabet. He has worked night and day to gain his present position — and I, well — I should die if anything went amiss.”

A flash of comprehension passed between them; then Count Lynarsberg held out his hand.

“Will you and Mr. Baring dine with us to-night ? We leave, you know, to-morrow morning for Austria. I hope very much that you will give us the pleasure of your company ?”

Rachel was smiling her acceptance, when she saw the countess approaching, and then, as usual, all her assurance vanished.

“ Ah! ” cried Essie, with forced hilarity, “you are laughing. Has Miss Rachel been telling you some funny stories ?”

“Miss Baring has told me many interesting things about her brother,” replied her husband gravely, “and incidentally she has told me something else, and that is that American ladies make adorable sisters. Mademoiselle, may I kiss your hand ?”

Rachel Baring received the homage shyly, then, on a plea of letters, she fled with tingling pulses to the post.

The count turned toward his wife.

“I am giving a dinner to-night at eight to your friends, Mr. and Miss Baring,” he said. “If I were you I should save myself as much as possible; you are looking tired. I should rest this afternoon — I mean in bed with darkened windows, not on the sofa with a book. When you have finished with Marie, send her to me, please, in the sitting-room.”

He paused, but Essie was speechless,

“ Your luncheon shall be sent up; I will attend to it,” he added carelessly.

Still the little countess made no sound. This time her husband glanced at her. She was staring at him wide-eyed in blank amazement.

“Did you hear me ?” he asked politely.

Essie was seized with sudden panic. She gathered her gloves and parasol hastily together.

“I heard,” she said, not trusting herself to look at him. “I — I — will go.”

“Run along, dear child,” he said, “you have no time to lose. I want you to shine your brightest to-night.”

Essie gasped, then she raised her eyes; the count was smiling at her.

“I will do my best, Aloys,” she murmured, as she retreated in utter bewilderment.

V

The salon was gay with lights and flowers; the clock was striking half-past seven. The count stood at the middle window, gazing absently at the scene be low. A slight sound made him start. He glanced toward the door; surely that was his wife’s step ?

The next moment Countess Elisabeth made her appearance, a vision of soft white lace and Viennese distinction; a tender blue bow in her flaxen hair, another on the left side of her bodice, which was cut low in deference to Anglo-Saxon custom; round her neck she wore a long pearl chain to which was attached her precious turquoise locket.

The count, in one keen glance, saw that she was excited; rest had not brought back her equanimity. He approached her wilh a touch of ceremoniousness.

“You are perfect,” he said. “Marie has improved on my instructions. You should be painted in that frock,” he added more genially, “as a saint — a siren — or better still, a fairy.”

Essie turned her face away abruptly; the next instant she had hidden it against her husband’s arm. To his dismay he felt that she was trembling.

“My dear little girl,” he said uncomfortably, “you are nervous. Shall I get you a glass of cognac ?”

He waited in some perturbation for an answer, but the countess neither spoke nor raised her head. Then with a sudden impulse he bent dowm and pressed his lips to the slim white throat that lay against his black sleeve so appealingly.

Essie started, and looked up at him eagerly, then, stooping, she laid her cheek against his hand.

“Is this comedy, Essie ?” he asked.

For answer she drew his hand to her heart, which was beating much too fast, as he noted with consternation.

“Punish me, Aloys, and have done with it,” she cried passionately. “This sort, of thing will make me ill.”

“Who ever thought of punishing a firefly?” he asked, smiling, as he took the girlish figure in his arms. “But there,” he added, “if you will have it.” And he struck each small white shoulder lightly. “Now look up, my child, and moderate those heartbeats. The affair is closed between us.”

“But you said last night,” began the countess ignoring her husband’s banter.

Aloys released her instantly.

“The affair is closed between us,” he said.

“Between us — yes — but Mr. Baring?”

“ Oh! I shall try not to hurt him more than I have you.”

“But you have hurt me, horribly. Do you think that I am made of iron ?”

“No, I have never thought that,” he said, returning to the window.

Essie followed him, her pulses quivering.

“This dinner, Aloys, is that your threatened revenge ? ”

He turned toward her with a mystifying smile.

“This is my plot,” he began; but she interrupted him.

“There you are again — another mystery! You stifle me with enigmas. I shall be multiplying and subtracting all during dinner!”

“Do that, if you like; but if you stir hand or foot against me, you will find yourself entangled. For years you have spread your invisible meshes to the right and left of me, so that whenever I have made a free step forward, I have heard the wrenching and tearing of countless delicate threads.”

“You hold the threads in your own hands,” she retorted bitterly. “Some day you will have to answer for having drawn them up so tight.”

“Perhaps,” replied the count, “but that is at least better than telling my private woes to strangers. I dread to think what ideas that poor, innocent Miss Baring has received of Austrian manners ! ”

Essie flushed and turned as if to leave him, but he caught her arm and pulled her to him.

“Listen to me, my child,” he said, patting her cheek half jestingly. “You must throw off this air of tragedy, it does not suit you ; besides, I particularly want you to play the hostess graciously tonight, in a manner worthy of our best traditions. Do you understand me?”

“No, I do not,” she cried, as she struggled in vain to free herself. “Am I a bourgeoise, that you speak to me of manners ?”

The count’s arms tightened about her shoulders.

“I am in earnest about to-night,” he said, with sudden sharpness. “I must insist on your doing as I ask you.”

“A request would have been enough, Aloys.”

The count smiled ironically.

“Ah? But with you one never knows. So many oaths by St. Elizabeth, and never one that was binding! No wonder, though, since your patroness herself was not above a falsehood. I never liked the part where she deceived the poor Landgrave with roses! Come, my angel,” he said, bending over the palpitating lace figure, “what can I do to convince you that tragedy is not appropriate on this occasion ? You must get rid of those drooping lids and trembling hands, little girl,” he added, as he kissed her. “What will your friends think of this childish collapse ?”

But Essie pulled herself violently away from the hands that held her.

“I am not a child, Aloys! You have no right to treat me so contemptuously! ”

The count’s expression changed.

“I don’t think that you stand in a position just at present to dictate methods to me.” he said coldly.

“Ah! but your method last night was at least honest; besides, I had brought it on myself; but now” — she broke off with a passionate gesture.

There was a pause, in which Essie crept back nearer to her husband.

“I suppose you will take me home tomorrow and — leave me there ? ”

“I certainly shall not leave you here.”he replied dryly.

“I don’t want to be left here. I don’t want to be left anywhere,” she added under her breath.

The count glanced at the clock.

“Your friends will be here in a few moments,” he observed.

“They are not my friends. I would rather not see them. Let me go to my room — now — instantly. You can say I had a headache. You will do far better without me.”

“There is no question of that, and you know it,” he said impatiently, but she persisted.

“I am unstrung, Aloys, horribly unstrung and nervous. They will see it. Mr. Baring sees everything. You will be angry.”

The count shrugged his shoulders in despair.

“Really, Essie, in your place I should have left things as I found them, instead of returning so persistently to a forbidden subject. I have my reasons for wishing you to control yourself, for washing you to receive your guests with smiling composure. Now tell me, please, how the thing is to be accomplished?”

His tone was both peremptory and persuasive. Essie knew the tone and rejoiced at it.

“If you would be friends with me,” she suggested, “ real friends, just for this evening? Do you think you could manage it ? You could be strict with me again tomorrow, very strict, on the journey and — afterwards ? ”

He smiled in spite of himself, and drawing her to him be smoothed her hair with absent fingers. She raised troubled eyes to his, divining some hidden anxiety.

“ I am sorry you mind things so much,” she murmured, “but if you do, why, then you do — nothing that I could say would alter it.”

“Suppose we leave that.”

“Very well,” she said gloomily, “but you must not think I do not understand.”

“We wall let that pass,” he said again, and she hung her head in silence.

“Hold up your head, my child,” he cried, “don’t spoil your pretty mouth with such expressions. There is no need for them, Essie.”

She lifted her face to him obediently, and he saw that her lips were trembling,

“Where are those smiles, little girl?” he asked.

“If I might cry for five minutes and feel your arms about me ? I could smile a great deal better after that.”

He bent down and kissed her — first on her lips, then on her forehead.

“There is no time for tears. sweetheart,” he said. “Now brace your dear little shoulders. It won’t be for long, and then ” —

She waited breathlessly.

“And then we will run off to Hungary for the autumn,” he added, as he smiled at her.

Countess Elisabeth’s eyes became all at once as bright as stars.

“I — I am very glad, Aloys,” she stammered. “I wall do my best to-night. I” —

She caught his hand to her lips before he could prevent it, then she turned abruptly toward the window.

“They are coming, my heart,” cried her husband. “Johann is opening the outer door.”

VI

The private dining-room which the count had taken was on the ground floor, overlooking the park. Nothing had been spared to make the scene attractive, though the room was pleasant enough in itself. The red of the carpet and curtains contrasted agreeably with the pure white of the woodwork and tiled stove; the round table with its lights and flowers gave a further touch of color to the whole. The menu and wines were beyond criticism; the count’s own man superintended the staff of waiters.

But until now, the third course in the dinner, the talk had failed to flow quite easily; a kind of weight lay upon the company, which even the host’s unceasing efforts could not altogether cast off.

Baring, having spent the day in goading his heroine into a passion, was content now to sit back and admire his original, for the countess, it seemed to him, had never looked so charming. The author was, however, in spirit still with his new creation; he was going over his scenes as he gazed at Essie, who with shining eyes and gentlest manners presided over the table like a dream princess.

He wondered what had caused this singular transformation. By degrees he forgot all else in his desire to solve this problem.

At last the count turned to Baring with determination.

“Will you think it very bad form if I venture to talk shop ? To beg you to do so, rather,” he added smiling. “My shop would consist of live stock and potatoes. You see, I am what you would call a farmer, Miss Baring, and so to me the fine arts are above all things precious and desirable. That is why I dare to introduce the subject of literature to Mr. Baring. Can’t you persuade him to lay aside his scruples?”

Rachel glanced dubiously at her brother. She wondered why the count cared so much to hear him; for her part, she would have preferred any other topic.

“Tell me,” continued the speaker, bending toward her confidentially, “tell me, which does he like best, Mélanie, or The Last Favor?”

“Mélanie,” whispered Rachel.

“No wonder,” replied the count in an aside; “we all know who sat for the charming heroine.”

Rachel looked so confused that even Essie was interested.

“Was it Miss Rachel?” she asked.

Her husband shook his head at her severely.

“Authors’ secrets, my child,” he said, as he smiled at Miss Baring, who now volunteered another bit of information.

“ The one he hates most is Thomas Flint”

“Ah!” exclaimed the count, “what would the rest of us have given to have written the garden scene?”

Baring flashed him a look of sudden gratitude.

“It is the one decent thing in the book,” he said quickly, “but no one ever speaks of it.”

“No, because you probably turn them off. Most people have a wholesome fear of authors. Now I make it a rule to ignore their first rebuffs.”

Baring laughed.

“You are very kind, I am sure,” he said, “but where do you come across so many authors, if your time is mostly spent in ploughing?”

“How can you tell such stories, Aloys ?” cried Countess Elisabeth indignantly. “Never speak to me again of poor St. Elizabeth and her roses! Mr. Baring, he took all the prizes, or honors, or whatever one calls them, at the University, for composition; and since I have known him — now six years — I think he must have read the world’s literature through at least twice.”

The count exchanged a look of amusement with Baring, who, however, instantly resented his host’s manner toward Essie.

“lie patronizes her,” thought the American angrily. “That is the way with these foreign husbands.”

But the count was speaking, and Baring was forced to smother his feelings and listen.

“Don’t exaggerate, dear child,” he was saying, “you don’t understand the subject. Essie thinks that a few Tauchnitz volumes represent a vast field of learning,” he explained, as he turned back to Rachel.

Essie lowered her eyes in silence. The novelist watched her with close attention.

“She is afraid of him,” he thought, with renewed satisfaction. “She is acting the meek little girl in order to conciliate him.”

This pleasing theory considerably raised his sinking spirits.

“Mr. Baring,” the count began blandly, “you should come to Austria-Hungary some day. You would find our people a complex study. You would, I think, find us amusing to analyze.”

Oswald wished the speaker at the bottom of the sea, for touching so dangerous a subject, and then he wished him up again for having praised the right scene in Thomas Flint.

“I know almost nothing about Austria or Austrians, except that the men are famous for their horsemanship. I should be very glad to know more, though,” he added, as he glanced toward the little countess. To his discomfiture he met her eyes, which smiled at him half quizzically.

“Oh, I can hardly be the one to praise my countrymen,” said the count, “nor will I run them down before foreigners; for that you must turn elsewhere.”

Oswald did turn, and so swiftly that he saw the sudden flush on Essie’s face.

“ But,” went on the count composedly, “I could perhaps give you a few points about my countrywomen, — a more pleasing subject, in every way, for our Austrian women are unique, Mr. Baring; I repeat it, they are unique.”

“ Don’t I know it without being told by him?” thought Baring impatiently.

“Yes,” continued the count, sipping his champagne, “they are unique; the product of mixed races and peculiar conditions. They have the fidelity of the German with the passion of the Italian, the brilliancy of the Frenchwoman with the high breeding of the Englishwoman; they are versatile, gracious, affectionate, full of charm.”

“All,” murmured Baring, inwardly groaning, “I can well believe it — I” — He broke off abruptly, having caught Essie’s stare of surprise. He felt it was an order for silence, and he obeyed without a protest. Words had altogether failed him throughout this strange evening. He seemed to himself to be some prisoner of the Holy Office, brought up before three high judges — to answer for his sins or to be condemned to fire; only in this case the judges were fatally attractive. He found himself longing to surprise them, to show them some hitherto unsuspected virtue. He wondered if the heretic had ever wavered — he, himself, felt horribly faint-hearted; his notes began to weigh upon him like lead.

Again the voice went on, and Oswald listened.

“They are, besides, the very spirit of mischief, even their strong regard for good taste does not always restrain them,”— the speaker was now addressing Rachel. “They are children of light, the joy of their husbands and fathers. I doubt if they have their equals even among the wonderful young girls of the New World, for, in spite of some craft in their training, our ladies come out clearsouled from the trial. Their faults are superficial — quite on the surface — their virtues are deep down at the very roots of their dear little hearts. If you ever write them up, Mr. Baring, remember this, — their noblest qualities are carefully hidden, hoarded up for those they love best.”

The two men exchanged a swift look.

In the pause that followed, Countess Elisabeth put her hands before her face.

“You cover me with confusion, Aloys. I have no words —I”—she broke off and, bending suddenly forward, she stretched her hands out across the table to her husband. He took them, smiling.

Baring started.

“Good Heavens,” he thought in dismay, “I have blundered like the veriest beginner.”

“You arc a very chivalrous champion,” he said the next moment, addressing his host with an effort. “The ladies owe you a debt of gratitude.”

“Oswald is not a bad champion himself,” said Rachel, throwing off the reserve which had weighed her down during the dinner. “I could say a few words on that subject if he would let me.”

“Ah!” cried Countess Elisabeth, raising her glass gayly, “since we are all exchanging courtesies, let me propose one, — Miss Rachel Baring — the best of friends — the pearl of sisters — I wish to drink your dear, unselfish health!”

VII

The count and Baring had finished two cigarettes; their talk had been difficult and disjointed, for one of the men, at least, was far away in thought. Suddenly Baring rose and walked to the door.

“I should like to show you a new light I have for cigars,” lie said carelessly. “Will you excuse me for two minutes while I fetch it?”

The count smiled his acquiescence, but as soon as he was alone, his face became intensely sober.

When Baring returned, he carried a thick package in one hand and a candle end in the other.

“This is it,” he said. “I want you to watch the conflagration.”

The count met his eyes with a question.

“Yes,” went on Baring, “I want you to see it through, as a witness.”

He crossed the room rapidly, carrying his two burdens.

“What I am coming to is this,” he said, “that I have decided to destroy the notes for my latest story. They arc all wrong, anyway, so I am going to burn them. See! there they go, every one of them.”

He pushed the manuscript into the mouth of the stove, then he lit the candle end and placed it carefully beneath the thick mass of paper. When it blazed, he shut the door and opened the draught. The furious roar made further speech impossible. Oswald fancied that the God of Fire was gnashing his teeth at the cruel sacrifice, — or was he rather consuming the shameful thing with transport ?

At last Baring moved away from the fire.

“How far that little candle throws its beam — or rather heat,” he added with a laugh. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world! It’s all very well to gloat,” he went on, “but I know I shall regret it bitterly to-morrow; that is why I am burning the thing to ashes, otherwise I should be found here early in the morning, laboriously picking out the charred remains! ”

The count rose slowly and approached him.

For a moment neither spoke, then the Austrian grasped Baring’s hand and wrung it.

“ I don’t see that you have left me anything to do except to envy you. It was magnificent! ”

“Ah,” cried Oswald — “now you are undoing me! You are working my destruction! I want to write you up, you see, I want to — I must — I will! Tell me, will there be any harm in describing an Austrian count?”

The count put his hand almost affectionately on the young man’s shoulder.

“Shall we join the ladies?” he asked, smiling.

Baring looked him straight in the eyes.

“You will not tell her?” he said.

“She shall never know from me,” the count replied gravely.