The Ball At The Villa
"Do you know the Duchessa?" asked Flora Desimone.
"Yes." It was three o'clock the same afternoon. The duke sat with his wife under the vine-clad trattoria on the quay. Between his knees he held his Panama hat, which was filled with ripe hazelnuts. He cracked them vigorously with his strong white teeth and filliped the broken shells into the lake, where a frantic little fish called agoni
darted in and about the slowly sinking particles. "Why?" The duke was not any grayer than he had been four or five months previous, but the characteristic expression of his features had undergone a change. He looked less Jovian than Job-like.
"I want you to get an invitation to her ball at the Villa Rosa to-night."
"We haven't been here twenty-four hours!" in mild protest.
"What has that to do with it? It doesn't make any difference."
"I suppose not." He cracked and ate a nut. "Where is he?"
"He has gone to Milan. He left hurriedly. He's a fool," impatiently.
"Not necessarily. Foolishness is one thing and discretion is another. Oh, well; his presence here was not absolutely essential. Presently he will marry and settle down and be a good boy." The next nut was withered, and he tossed it aside. "Is her voice really gone?"
"No." Flora leaned with her arms upon the railing and glared at the wimpling water. She had carried the Apple of Discord up the hill and down again. Nora had been indisposed.
"I am glad of that."
She turned the glare upon him.
"I am very glad of that, considering your part in the affair."
"Be careful. Michael is always a prelude to a temper. Have one of these," offering a nut.
She struck it rudely from his hand.
"Sometimes I am tempted to put my two hands around that exquisite neck of yours."
"No, I do not believe it would be wise. But if ever I find out that you have lied to me, that you loved the fellow and married me out of spite...." He completed the sentence by suggestively crunching a nut.
The sullen expression on her face gave place to a smile. "I should like to see you in a rage."
"No, my heart; you would like nothing of the sort. I understand you better than you know; that accounts for my patience. You are Italian. You are caprice and mood. I come from a cold land. If ever I do get angry, run, run as fast as ever you can."
Flora was not, among other things, frivolous or light-headed. There was an earthquake hidden somewhere in this quiet docile man, and the innate deviltry of the woman was always trying to dig down to it. But she never deceived herself. Some day this earthquake would open up and devour her.
"I hate him. He snubbed me. I have told you that a thousand times."
He laughed and rattled the nuts in his hat.
"I want you to get that invitation."
"And if I do not?"
"I shall return immediately to Paris."
"And break your word to me?"
"As easily as you break one of these nuts."
"And if I get the invitation?"
"I shall fulfil my promise to the letter. I will tell her as I promised."
"Out of love for me?"
"Out of love for you, and because the play no longer interests me."
"I wonder what new devilment is at work in your mind?"
"Michael, I do not want to get into a temper. It makes lines in my face. I hate this place. It is dead. I want life, and color, and music. I want the rest of September in Ostend."
"Paris, Capri, Taormina, Ostend; I marvel if ever you will be content to stay in one place long enough for me to get my breath?"
"My dear, I am young. One of these days I shall be content to sit by your great Russian fireplace and hold your hand."
"Hold it now."
She laughed and pressed his hand between her own. "Michael, look me straight in the eyes." He did so willingly enough. "There is no other man. And if you ever look at another woman ... Well!"
"I'll send over for the invitation." He stuffed his pockets with nuts and put on his hat.
Flora then proceeded secretly to polish once more the Apple of Discord which, a deal tarnished for lack of use, she had been compelled to bring down from the promontory.
"Am I all right?" asked Harrigan.
Courtlandt nodded. "You look like a soldier in mufti, and more than that, like the gentleman that you naturally are," quite sincerely.
The ex-gladiator blushed. "This is the reception-room. There's the ballroom right out there. The smoking-room is on the other side. Now, how in the old Harry am I going to get across without killing some one?"
Courtlandt resisted the desire to laugh. "Supposing you let me pilot you over?"
"You're the referee. Ring the gong."
"Come on, then."
"What! while they are dancing?" backing away in dismay.
The other caught him by the arm. "Come on."
And in and out they went, hither and thither, now dodging, now pausing to let the swirl pass, until at length Harrigan found himself safe on shore, in the dim cool smoking-room.
"I don't see how you did it," admiringly.
"I'll drop in every little while to see how you are getting on," volunteered Courtlandt. "You can sit by the door if you care to see them dance. I'm off to see Mrs. Harrigan and tell her where you are. Here's a cigar."
Harrigan turned the cigar over and over in his fingers, all the while gazing at the young man's diminishing back. He sighed. That
would make him the happiest man in the world. He examined the carnelian band encircling the six-inches of evanescent happiness. "What do you think of that!" he murmured. "Same brand the old boy used to smoke. And if he pays anything less than sixty apiece for 'em at wholesale, I'll eat this one." Then he directed his attention to the casual inspection of the room. A few elderly men were lounging about. His sympathy was at once mutely extended; it was plain that they too had been dragged out. At the little smoker's tabouret by the door he espied two chairs, one of which was unoccupied; and he at once appropriated it. The other chair was totally obscured by the bulk of the man who sat in it; a man, bearded, blunt-nosed, passive, but whose eyes were bright and twinkling. Hanging from his cravat was a medal of some kind. Harrigan lighted his cigar, and gave himself up to the delights of it.
"They should leave us old fellows at home," he ventured.
"Perhaps, in most cases, the women would much prefer that."
"Foreigner," thought Harrigan. "Well, it does seem that the older we get the greater obstruction we become."
"What is old age?" asked the thick but not unpleasant voice of the stranger.
"It's standing aside. Years don't count at all. A man is as young as he feels."
"And a woman as old as she looks!" laughed the other.
"Now, I don't feel old, and I am fifty-one."
The man with the beard shot an admiring glance across the tabouret. "You are extraordinarily well preserved, sir. You do not seem older than I, and I am but forty."
"The trouble is, over here you play cards all night in stuffy rooms and eat too many sauces." Harrigan had read this somewhere, and he was pleased to think that he could recall it so fittingly.
"Agreed. You Americans are getting out in the open more than any other white people."
"Wonder how he guessed I was from the States?" Aloud, Harrigan said: "You don't look as though you'd grow any older in the next ten years."
"That depends." The bearded man sighed and lighted a fresh cigarette. "There's a beautiful young woman," with an indicative gesture toward the ballroom.
Harrigan expanded. It was Nora, dancing with the Barone.
"She's the most beautiful young woman in the world," enthusiastically.
"Ah, you know her?" interestedly.
"I am her father!"--as Louis XIV might have said, "I am the State."
The bearded man smiled. "Sir, I congratulate you both."
Courtlandt loomed in the doorway. "Comfortable?"
"Perfectly. Good cigar, comfortable chair, fine view."
The duke eyed Courtlandt through the pall of smoke which he had purposefully blown forth. He questioned, rather amusedly, what would have happened had he gone down to the main hall that night in Paris? Among the few things he admired was a well-built handsome man. Courtlandt on his part pretended that he did not see.
"You'll find the claret and champagne punches in the hall," suggested Courtlandt.
"Not for mine! Run away and dance."
"Good-by, then." Courtlandt vanished.
"There's a fine chap. Edward Courtlandt, the American millionaire." It was not possible for Harrigan to omit this awe-compelling elaboration.
"Edward Courtlandt." The stranger stretched his legs. "I have heard of him. Something of a hunter."
"One of the keenest."
"There is no half-way with your rich American: either his money ruins him or he runs away from it."
"There's a stunner," exclaimed Harrigan. "Wonder how she got here?"
"To which lady do you refer?"
"The one in scarlet. She is Flora Desimone. She and my daughter sing together sometimes. Of course you have heard of Eleonora da Toscana; that's my daughter's stage name. The two are not on very good terms, naturally."
"Quite naturally," dryly.
"But you can't get away from the Calabrian's beauty," generously.
"No." The bearded man extinguished his cigarette and rose, laying a carte-de-visite
on the tabouret. "More, I should not care to get away from it. Good evening," pleasantly. The music stopped. He passed on into the crowd.
Harrigan reached over and picked up the card. "Suffering shamrocks! if Molly could only see me now," he murmured. "I wonder if I made any breaks? The grand duke, and me hobnobbing with him like a waiter! James, this is all under your hat. We'll keep the card where Molly won't find it."
Young men began to drift in and out. The air became heavy with smoke, the prevailing aroma being that of Turkish tobacco of which Harrigan was not at all fond. But his cigar was so good that he was determined not to stir until the coal began to tickle the end of his nose. Since Molly knew where he was there was no occasion to worry.
Abbott came in, pulled a cigarette case out of his pocket, and impatiently struck a match. His hands shook a little, and the flare of the match revealed a pale and angry countenance.
"Hey, Abbott, here's a seat. Get your second wind."
"Thanks." Abbott dropped into the chair and smoked quickly. "Very stuffy out there. Too many."
"You look it. Having a good time?"
"Oh, fine!" There was a catch in the laugh which followed, but Harrigan's ear was not trained for these subtleties of sound, "How are you making out?"
"I'm getting acclimated. Where's the colonel to-night? He ought to be around here somewhere."
"I left him a few moments ago."
"When you see him again, send him in. He's a live one, and I like to hear him talk."
"I'll go at once," crushing his cigarette in the Jeypore bowl.
"What's your hurry? You look like a man who has just lost his job."
"Been steering a German countess. She was wound up to turn only one way, and I am groggy. I'll send the colonel over. By-by."
"Now, what's stung the boy?"
Nora was enjoying herself famously. The men hummed around her like bees around the sweetest rose. From time to time she saw Courtlandt hovering about the outskirts. She was glad he had come: the lepidopterist is latent or active in most women; to impale the butterfly, the moth falls easily into the daily routine. She was laughing and jesting with the men. Her mother stood by, admiringly. This time Courtlandt gently pushed his way to Nora's side.
"May I have a dance?" he asked.
"You are too late," evenly. She was becoming used to the sight of him, much to her amazement.
"I am sorry."
"Why, Nora, I didn't know that your card was filled!" said Mrs. Harrigan. She had the maternal eye upon Courtlandt.
"Nevertheless," said Nora sweetly, "it is a fact."
"I am disconsolate," replied Courtlandt, who had approached for form's sake only, being fully prepared for a refusal. "I have the unfortunate habit of turning up late," with a significance which only Nora understood.
"So, those who are late must suffer the consequences."
"The Barone rather than you."
The music began again, and Abbott whirled her away. She was dressed in Burmese taffeta, a rich orange. In the dark of her beautiful black hair there was the green luster of emeralds; an Indian-princess necklace of emeralds and pearls was looped around her dazzling white throat. Unconsciously Courtlandt sighed audibly, and Mrs. Harrigan heard this note of unrest.
"Who is that?" asked Mrs. Harrigan.
"Flora Desimone's husband, the duke. He and Mr. Harrigan were having quite a conversation in the smoke-room."
"What!" in consternation.
"They were getting along finely when I left them."
Mrs. Harrigan felt her heart sink. The duke and James together meant nothing short of a catastrophe; for James would not know whom he was addressing, and would make all manner of confidences. She knew something would happen if she let him out of her sight. He was eternally talking to strangers.
"Would you mind telling Mr. Harrigan that I wish to see him?"
"Not at all."
Nora stopped at the end of the ballroom. "Donald, let us go out into the garden. I want a breath of air. Did you see her?"
"Couldn't help seeing her. It was the duke, I suppose. It appears that he is an old friend of the duchess. We'll go through the conservatory. It's a short-cut."
The night was full of moonshine; it danced upon the water; it fired the filigree tops of the solemn cypress; it laced the lawn with quivering shadows; and heavy hung the cloying perfume of the box-wood hedges.
"O bellissima notta!
" she sang. "Is it not glorious?"
"Nora," said Abbott, leaning suddenly toward her.
"Don't say it. Donald; please don't. Don't waste your love on me. You are a good man, and I should not be worthy the name of woman if I did not feel proud and sad. I want you always as a friend; and if you decide that can not be, I shall lose faith in everything. I have never had a brother, and in these two short years I have grown to look on you as one. I am sorry. But if you will look back you will see that I never gave you any encouragement. I was never more than your comrade. I have many faults, but I am not naturally a coquette. I know my heart; I know it well."
"Is there another?" in despair.
"Once upon a time, Donald, there was. There is nothing now but ashes. I am telling you this so that it will not be so hard for you to return to the old friendly footing. You are a brave man. Any man is who takes his heart in his hand and offers it to a woman. You are going to take my hand and promise to be my friend always."
"You mustn't, Donald. I can't return to the ballroom with my eyes red. You will never know how a woman on the stage has to fight to earn her bread. And that part is only a skirmish compared to the ceaseless war men wage against her. She has only the fortifications of her wit and her presence of mind. Was I not abducted in the heart of Paris? And but for the cowardice of the man, who knows what might have happened? If I have beauty, God gave it to me to wear, and wear it I will. My father, the padre, you and the Barone; I would not trust any other men living. I am often unhappy, but I do not inflict this unhappiness on others. Be you the same. Be my friend; be brave and fight it out of your heart." Quickly she drew his head toward her and lightly kissed the forehead. "There! Ah, Donald, I very much need a friend."
"All right, Nora," bravely indeed, for the pain in his young heart cried out for the ends of the earth in which to hide. "All right! I'm young; maybe I'll get over it in time. Always count on me. You wouldn't mind going back to the ballroom alone, would you? I've got an idea I'd like to smoke over it. No, I'll take you to the end of the conservatory and come back. I can't face the rest of them just now."
Nora had hoped against hope that it was only infatuation, but in the last few days she could not ignore the truth that he really loved her. She had thrown him and Celeste together in vain. Poor Celeste, poor lovely Celeste, who wore her heart upon her sleeve, patent to all eyes save Donald's! Thus, it was with defined purpose that she had lured him this night into the garden. She wanted to disillusion him.
The Barone, glooming in an obscure corner of the conservatory, saw them come in. Abbott's brave young face deceived him. At the door Abbott smiled and bowed and returned to the garden. The Barone rose to follow him. He had committed a theft of which he was genuinely sorry; and he was man enough to seek his rival and apologize. But fate had chosen for him the worst possible time. He had taken but a step forward, when a tableau formed by the door, causing him to pause irresolutely.
Nora was face to face at last with Flora Desimone.
"I wish to speak to you," said the Italian abruptly.
"Nothing you could possibly say would interest me," declared Nora, haughtily and made as if to pass.
"Do not be too sure," insolently.
Their voices were low, but they reached the ears of the Barone, who wished he was anywhere but here. He moved silently behind the palms toward the exit.
"Let me be frank. I hate you and detest you with all my heart," continued Flora. "I have always hated you, with your supercilious airs, you, whose father...."
"Don't you dare to say an ill word of him!" cried Nora, her Irish blood throwing hauteur to the winds. "He is kind and brave and loyal, and I am proud of him. Say what you will about me; it will not bother me in the least."
The Barone heard no more. By degrees he had reached the exit, and he was mightily relieved to get outside. The Calabrian had chosen her time well, for the conservatory was practically empty. The Barone's eyes searched the shadows and at length discerned Abbott leaning over the parapet.
"I hate you and detest you with all my heart."
"Ah!" said Abbott, facing about. "So it is you. You deliberately scratched off my name and substituted your own. It was the act of a contemptible cad. And I tell you here and now. A cad!"
The Barone was Italian. He had sought Abbott with the best intentions; to apologize abjectly, distasteful though it might be to his hot blood. Instead, he struck Abbott across the mouth, and the latter promptly knocked him down.