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'How hungry I am!' said Esther. Then she added seriously : And for six months I have not had a decent meal that I can remember.'
Argentine beamed as she handed the omelette to the beau Monsieur, and entreated Mademoiselle to try the good cyder.
'Quelle bonne sauce, l'amour !' Argentine said to Babette, who was mixing the salad.
'Qui fait le monde à la ronde,' quoted Babette.
For a few days Esther accepted gratefully the sunshine, the good food, the clean clothes. In a word she gloated. But dominating every sense was the astounding revelation of our paladin's loyalty and fidelity. The passion for these comes to most of us with advancing years, when, too late, alas! we may realise, with what poignant self-reproach, that such transcendent qualities in others have not been appreciated or even apprehended. Esther, after the loss of father and fortune, had seen more than one old acquaintance suddenly afflicted with short-sight when she approached. But Harry had remained faithful!
Our paladin stuck to his resolution of sleeping at the inn : an observance of the proprieties warmly approved by the little doctor, who himself, so he said, was of the most respectable. soon Esther asked herself whither the primrose path was leading. Her forehead puckered distressfully whenever she thought of the future. Was Harry still her Harry? Being a paladin he held his tongue. A weaker or a stronger man might have said : 'Tell me everything. Has the worst that can happen to a woman happened to you? If so, as true friends, let's face even that together.'
The worst, let us hasten to say, had not happened. Esther had been on the brink of the precipice more than once. Importunity had almost beguiled her. Sometimes she wondered how she had escaped. What power had sustained her when the darkness encompassed her, when hunger tore at her vitals ? At such awful moments she had thought of Sabrina-Sabrina who had starved, making the farther shore 'gainst wind and tide.
She could read interrogation in Harry's blue eyes.
Did he love her still ? Did she love him ? Can women ask themselves such questions? Do they not always know? She divined that he loved her, but she could not measure his love. Estimated by what he had done, it seemed deep as the sea, high as heaven. Yes : he loved her, and he stood, the hero at last, upon
the apex of the world's pyramid of true lovers, high above her. In her humility she grovelled at the base.
Did she love him ?
The cruel question obsessed her, for, admittedly, she was in love with love, enchanted with kind looks, words, and actions, the petits soins which have held thousands of sweet women bond to men unworthy of them. This feeling, so strong that she feared to analyse it, was sexless. If a woman had befriended her she would have thrilled with the same immeasurable gratitude and satisfaction; but this fact, we may well believe, she had not yet grasped. Harry, as a youth, she had once loved : her first love. Surely she must still love the man grown to mighty stature who loved her. You must remember that it was not possible for her to know what is plain to us. Impulsive, free from vanity and selfconsciousness, how could she conceive of her Harry posing, like a model, for the mere gratification of saying to himself : 'Behold, I am not as other publicans and sinners'?
No: he had rushed hot-foot upon her trail because he loved her.
Outwardly, she behaved with charming grace and gratitude. They made excursions to Dreux and Evreux and Chartres, and listening to her he could scarce believe that this was not his own girl of Palace Gardens, only wiser, riper, and a more entertaining companion. Life without her, even in a lotus land, began to appear a desert. He wondered why he had found Alice Godolphin so amusing, not recollecting that the dancer had danced her way into his fancy to the good old tune set by flattery. She had told him, upon the first night they met, that he was the best-looking man in town and ' Awfully clever, I'm sure !'
Esther flattered him also, quite unconsciously. Abased, she looked up with a tender gleam in her eyes which set our paladin ablaze.
‘God help me! I love her more than ever!'
The exclamation broke from & tortured First Secretary of Legation alarmed by the new and bewildering character of his own sensations.
After dinner they sat together upon the terrace overlooking the river, listening to the tinkle of the fountain and the soft voices of the night. They talked little, but each was conscious of the sweet intimacy, the penetrating charm, which darkness quickens. Twice Harry took Esther's hand in his. But he refrained from
kissing it! At his touch the siren trembled. By the light of the stars he caught a glimpse of a heaving bosom.
'If life could always flow on like this,' she murmured.
At that, fearing to be too rash, unable to reply with a phrase which would satisfy the exigencies of an enchanting moment and at the same time not arouse expectations which a chivalrous gentleman might not be able to satisfy, our paladin had replied with, we fear, banality:
' It's getting rather chilly. Perhaps we ought to go indoors.'
Next morning she blushed when he appeared, and for the first time exhibited constraint in his presence and a nervousness which he divined he alone could put to flight. He said boldly : 'I slept badly,' and she replied : “So did I.' Then they sighed. Each dreaded speech, and yet silence maddened them. For Esther saw how it was with him, and knew that she could pay her debt to her lover: every shilling in the pound, and compound interest beside!
He, for his part, while shaving that morning, had almost made up his mind to plunge blindly into honourable marriage. No man of his acquaintance-except, possibly, the friend in the Foreign Office spoken of already as a love-in-a-cottage simpleton-would so plunge. The very word indicated a descent. And he might be leaping head first into horrors. By this time it was obvious that Esther would sooner talk of anything under the sun and stars rather than those years which lay like a pea-soup fog between them. She had prattled gaily enough of some of her experiences in the hat shop-experiences at which our paladin had—well, sniffed. Not that the sniff was audible, but his nose-such a nice straight nose !—had been cocked at a higher angle. A stranger might have suspected that something was wrong with the drains. And he said with muffled indignation:
* That you should have gone through this !'
' 'No doubt. If
had married me! Five times I asked you. And when I was at Eton I used to say that I'd never ask a woman twice : I did indeed.'
'Eton boys put on too much side. If I had married you, Harry, where would you have been to-day? First Secretary at Buenos Ayres? I think not. Would your uncle have increased your allowance ? Not he!”
'I told you once that money is not everything.
I'm ashamed to say that I accepted the statement with salt. You are a paladin.'
He smiled and stroked his moustache. At last the scales were falling from her pretty eyes.
‘Money or no money, I wanted you.'
And then, swiftly, she had changed the subject. And afterwards, during the pleasant days that followed, she had seemed to divine that the time had not come for the last word, and that such a time must be fixed by him.
When would that time come ?
They breakfasted together as usual, but Babette shook her head when her dishes returned to the kitchen. Name of a dog! What was the matter? Had Monsieur quarrelled with his so charming Mees?
Two days before, the trained nurse had bidden Esther good-bye. Before she went, she said with an illuminating smile : 'I shall assist at the wedding, Mademoiselle, if it takes place here.'
• The wedding ?
‘ Ah, Mademoiselle, we have all rejoiced. Monsieur is très correct, hein ? But when you were ill--! Oh-là-là!'
–– What do
'He was not ashamed, even before us, to show how he adored you. And, always, you were miserable if he was away. And morning and evening you embrace him.'
. Good gracious!'
call him “Brownie.' 'I behaved like a child, and he treated me as such.'
'Never, never in my life, have I seen so pretty and so sad a sight as you, Mademoiselle, on Monsieur's knee !'
Evidently I looked upon Monsieur as my father.'
That, alas ! jumped to the eyes. But Monsieur, he look at you, Mademoiselle, as if you were a peach that he was forbidden to eat. The forbidden fruit-hein ?'
Esther blushed, laughed, and kissed her nurse on both cheeks. After this confidential talk, and its bewildering revelations, she told herself that surely she did love Harry, because she had acclaimed him as her own when her poor wits wandered away.
you mean ?'
They spent the next day or two in that dear sweet country, well named by our neighbours le pays du tendre, through which meanders the gentle stream of Courtship. Of its pure waters Esther drank deep, her paladin holding out the chalice, and refilling it twenty times a day. She saw him at his best, the preux chevalier on his knees before his lady, the very perfect knight, a Galahad. It seemed to be his will to treat her with a respect, & veneration, a delicacy absolutely enchanting. She told him again and again that he was 'wonderful.' Honestly, without a scintilla of doubt, he believed it, for he had almost made up his mind to marry her. Something had to be accomplished first an interview with his uncle--but he regarded Esther as his future wife.
Why did he not tell her so, and have done with it?
It is not easy to reply. Your procrastinator will let the heavens fall rather than deny himself the darling luxury of anticipation. Our Harry fell asleep smiling, and dreamed of the glow on Esther's face when her god stood revealed in all his glory; and the interview with Lord Camber, if successfully accomplished, would be the crown of his high enterprise. Unhappily, he did not think of her, nor compute what suspense might be to a woman of her character and temperament.
An incident, very trifling in itself, presented our paladin in a less kind light. Babette wished to know if her services as cook would be required during the winter. A situation in Rouen had been offered. What should she say?
* One must think of the winter, we others.'
The 'we' pierced, not to mention the preceding words. Esther shivered, thinking of the snow and hail. Ah, yes, it behoved all women to think of, to provide against—the winter. Knowing that Harry's leave would expire in November, she was about to answer that most assuredly Babette's services would not be wanted after that month. But she had been trained in a school where no understrapper dares answer for a superior. As a shop-girl in the Great Emporium, at Southampton, the necessity of referring the most simple question to a paragon in a frock-coat had been scourged into her.
'I will speak to Monsieur,' she replied.
I should like to cook for Mademoiselle for ever and ever. Mademoiselle comprehends that?'
Esther kissed her rosy cheeks.