"They tell me I cannot love, cara mia," she was saying now to Angela who sat in pleased silence, studying her form, her colouring, and her animated expression; with all the ardour of an artist who knows how difficult it is to catch the swift and variable flashes of beauty on the face of a pretty woman, who is intelligent as well as personally charming. "They tell me I have no heart at all. Me -- Sylvie! -- no heart! Helas! -- I am all heart! But to love one of those stupid heavy men, who think that just to pull a moustache and smile is sufficient to make a conquest -- ah, no! -- not for me! Yet I am now in love! -- truly! -- ah, you laugh! -- " and she laughed herself, shaking her pretty head, adorned with its delicate "creation" in gossamer and feathers, which was supposed to be a hat -- "Yes, I am in love with the Marquis Fontenelle! Ah! -- le beau Marquis! He is so extraordinary! -- so beautiful! -- so wicked! It must be that I love him, or why should I trouble myself about him?"
She spread out her tiny gloved hands appealingly, with a delightful little shrug of her shoulders, and again Angela laughed.
"He is good-looking, certainly," she said, "He is very like Miraudin. They might almost be brothers."
"Miraudin, ce cher Miraudin!" exclaimed the Comtesse gaily, "The greatest actor in Europe! Yes, truly! -- I go to the theatre to look at him and I almost fancy I am in love with him instead of Fontenelle, till I remember he stage-manages; -- ah! -- then I shudder!- -and my shudder kills my love! After all it is only his resemblance to the Marquis that causes the love, -- and perhaps the shudder!"
"Sylvie, Sylvie!" laughed Angela, "Can you not be serious? What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say," declared Sylvie, "Miraudin used to be the darling of all the sentimental old maids and little school-girls who did not know him off the stage. In Paris, in Rome, in Vienna, in Buda-Pesth -- always a conqueror of ignorant women who saw him in his beautiful 'make-up'! Yes, he was perfectly delightful, -- this big Miraudin, till he became his own manager and his own leading actor as well! Helas! What it is to be a manager! Do you know? It is to keep a harem like a grand Turk; -- and woe betide the woman who joins the company without understanding that she is to be one of the many! The sultana is the 'leading lady'. Poor Miraudin! -- he must have many little faggots to feed his flame! Oh, you look so shocked! But the Marquis is just like him, -- he also stage-manages."
"In what way?"
"Ah, he has an enormous theatre, -- the world! A big stage, -- society! The harem is always being replenished! And he plays his part so well! He has what the wise-acrescall 'perverted morals', -- they are so charming! -- and he will not marry. He says, 'Why give myself to one when I can make so many happy!' And why will not I, Sylvie Hermenstein, be one of those many? Why will I not yield to the embraces of Monsieur le beau Marquis? Not to marry him, -- oh, no! so free a bird could not have his wings clipped! And why will I not see the force of this? -- "
She stopped, for Angela sprang towards her exclaiming,
"Sylvie! Do you mean to tell me that the Marquis Fontenelle is such a villain? -- "
"Tais-toi! Dear little flame of genius, how you blaze!" cried Sylvie, catching her friend by the hand and kissing it, "Do not call Fontenelle a villain -- he is too charming! -- and he is only like a great many other men. He is a bold and passionate person; I rather like such characters, -- and I really am afraid -- afraid -- " here she hesitated, then resumed, "He loves me for the moment, Angela, and I- -I very much fear I love him for a little longer than that! C'est terrible! He is by no means worthy of it, -- no, but what does that matter! We women never count the cost of loving -- we simply love! If I see much of him I shall probably sink into the Quartier Latin of love -- for there is a Quartier Latin as well as a high class Faubourg in the passion, -- I prefer the Faubourg I confess, because it is so high, and respectable, and clean, and grand -- but -- "
"Sylvie," said Angela determinedly, "You must come away from Paris,- -you must not see this man -- "
"That is what I have arranged to do," said Sylvie, her beautiful violet eyes flashing with mirth and malice intermingled, "I am flying from Paris . . . I shall perhaps go to Rome in order to be near you. You are a living safety in a storm, -- you are so serene and calm. And then you have a lover who believes in the ideal and perfect sympathy."
Angela smiled, -- and Sylvie Hermenstein noted the warm and tender flush of pleasure that spread over her fair face.
"Yes, Florian is an idealist," she said, "There is nothing of the brute in him."
"And you think Fontenelle a brute?" queried Sylvie, "Yes, I suppose he is; but I have sometimes thought that all men are very much alike, -- except Florian!" She paused, looking rather dubiously, and with a touch of compassion at Angela, "Well! -- you deserve to be happy, child, and I hope you will be! For myself, I am going to run away from Monsieur le Marquis with as much speed as if I had stolen his watch!"
"It is the best thing you can do," said Angela with a little sigh of relief, "I am glad you are resolved."
Comtesse Sylvie rose from her chair and moved about the studio with a pretty air of impatience.
"If his love for me could last," she said, "I might stay! I would love him with truth and passion, and I would so influence him that he should become one of the most brilliant leading men of his time. For he has all the capabilities of genius, -- but they are dormant, -- and the joys of self-indulgence appeal to him more strongly than high ambition and attainment. And he could not love any women for more than a week or a month at most, -- in which temperament he exactly resembles the celebrated Miraudin. Now I do not care to be loved for a week or a month -- I wish to be loved for always, -- for always!" she said with emphasis, "Just as your Florian loves you."
Angela's eyes grew soft and pensive.
"Few men are like Florian," she said. Again Sylvie looked at her doubtfully, and there was a moment's silence. Then Sylvie resumed.
"Will you help me to give a little lesson to Monsieur le Marquis, Angela?"
"Willingly, if I can. But how?"
"In this way. It is a little drama! To-morrow is Saturday and you 'receive.' 'Tout Paris', artistic Paris, at any rate, flocks to your studio. Your uncle, the Cardinal Bonpre, is known to be with you, and your visitors will be still more numerous. I have promised Fontenelle to meet him here. I am to give him his answer -- "
"To what?" enquired Angela.
"To his proposal."
"Dear me, no!" And Sylvie smiled, but there was a look of pain in her eyes, "He has an idyllic house buried in the Foret St. Germain, and he wants me to take possession . . . you know the rest! He is a villain? Yes -- he is like Miraudin, who has a luxurious flat in Paris and sends each lady of his harem there in turn. How angry you look! But, my dear, I am not going to the house in the Foret, and I shall not meet him here. He will come -- looking charming as usual, and he will wait for me; but I shall not arrive. All I want you to do for me is to receive him very kindly, talk to him very sweetly, and tell him quite suddenly that I have left Paris."
"What good will that do?" enquired Angela, "Could you not write it to him?"
"Of course I could write it to him but -- " Here Sylvie paused and turned away her head. Angela, moved by quick instinct, went to her and put her arm around her waist.
"Now there are tears in your eyes, Sylvie," she said, "You are suffering for this man's heartlessness and cruelty. For it IS heartless, -- it is insulting, and selfish, and cruel to offer you nothing but dishonour if he knows you love him."
Sylvie took out a tiny cobweb of a lace handkerchief and dried her tears.
"No, I will not have him called heartless, or cruel," she said, "He is merely one of his class. There are hundreds like him in Paris. Never mind my tears! -- they are nothing. There are hundreds of women who would accept his proposals, -- and he thinks I must be like them,- -ready to fall into his arms like a ripe peach at a touch! He thinks all I say to him is an assumed affectation of virtue, and that he can easily break down that slight barricade. He tells me I am a charming preacher, but that he could never learn anything from sermons!" She laughed, "Oh, he is incorrigible! But I want you to let him know that for once he is mistaken. Will you? And you shall not have to say even the smallest figment of an untruth, -- your news will be quite correct -- for I leave Paris to-morrow morning."
She was very quiet now as she spoke -- her brilliant eyes were dark with thought, and her delicate face wore a serious, almost melancholy expression.
"Dear Sylvie!" said Angela, kissing her soft cheek, "You really care for this wretched man?"
"I am not sure," she answered with a touch of hesitation in her voice, "I think I do -- and yet despise myself for it! -- but -- who knows what wonders change of air and scene may work! You see, if I go away he will forget at once, and will trouble himself about me no more."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Well, no, I cannot be quite certain, -- you see no woman has ever avoided him, -- it will be quite a new experience for him, and a strange one!" Her laughter rippled out musically on the air. "Positively I do not think he will ever get over it!"
"I begin to understand," said Angela, "You wish to make this callous man of the world realise that a woman may be beautiful, and brilliant, and independent, and yet live a pure, good life amid numerous temptations?"
"Yes, -- I wish him to feel that all women are not to be led away by flattery, or even by the desire to be loved, which is the hardest temptation of all to resist! Nothing so hard as that, Angela! Nothing so hard! I have often thought what a contemptible creature Goethe's Gretchen was to allow herself to be tempted to ruin with a box of jewels! Jewels! Worthless baubles! I would not cross the road to look at the biggest diamond in the world! But to be loved! To feel that you are all in all to one man out of the whole world! That would be glorious! That I have never felt -- that I shall never know!"
Angela looked at her sympathetically, -- what a strange thing it was, she thought, that this pretty creature, with her winsome, bright, bewitching ways, should be craving for love, while she, Angela Sovrani, was elected to the happiness of having the absolute devotion of such an ideal lover as Florian Varillo!
"But I am becoming quite tragic in my remarks," went on Sylvie, resuming her usual gaiety, "Melodramatic, as they say! If I go on in this manner I shall qualify to be the next 'leading lady' to Miraudin! Quelle honneur! Good-bye Angela; -- I will not tell you where I am going lest Fontenelle should ask you, -- and then you would have to commit yourself to a falsehood, -- it is enough to say I have left Paris."
"Shall I see you again soon?" said Angela, holding her by both hands and looking at her anxiously.
"Yes, very soon, before the winter is over at any rate. You sweet, calm, happy Angela! I wonder if anything could ever whip you in a storm!"
"Would you like to see me in a stormy humour?" asked Angela, smiling.
"No, not exactly; -- but, -- you are TOO quiet, -- too secure -- too satisfied in your art and your surroundings; and you do not enter at all into the passions and griefs of other people. You are absorbed in your love and your work, -- a beautiful existence! Only I hope the gods will not wake you up some day!"
"I am not asleep," said Angela, "nor dreaming."
"Yes you are! You dream of beautiful things, -- and the world is full of ugly ones; you dream of love and constancy, and purity, -- and the world is full of spite, and hate, and bribery, and wickedness; you have a world of your own, -- but Angela, it is a glass world! -- in which only the exquisite colours of your own soul are reflected, take care that the pretty globe does not break! -- for if it does you will never be able to put it together again! Adieu!"
"Adieu!" and Angela returned her loving embrace with equal affection, "I will announce your departure to the Marquis Fontenelle to-morrow."
"You will? Sweet Angela! And when you hear from me, and know where I am, you will write me a long, long letter and tell me how he looked, and what he said, and whether he seemed sorry or indifferent, or angry, or ashamed -- or -- "
Before she could finish the sentence the studio door was thrown open, and the servant announced, "Monsieur le Marquis Fontenelle!"