“Of your nuptials!”
“Madam, I can not do so. But for you, much as I owe you, I would like to wring your neck. I would like to take your arms in my hands and crush them, until—”
“Until what?” Her face was strange. I saw a hand raised to her throat.
“Until you told me about Oregon!” said I.
I saw her arms move—just one instant—her body incline. She gazed at me steadily, somberly. Then her hands fell.
“Ah, God! how I hate you both!” she said; “you and her. You were married, after all! Yes, it can be, it can be! A woman may love one man—even though he could give her only a bed of husks! And a man may love a woman, too—one woman! I had not known.”
I could only gaze at her, now more in perplexity than ever. Alike her character and her moods were beyond me. What she was or had been I could not guess; only, whatever she was, she was not ordinary, that was sure, and was to be classified under no ordinary rule. Woman or secret agent she was, and in one or other identity she could be my friend or my powerful enemy, could aid my country powerfully if she had the whim; or damage it irreparably if she had the desire. But—yes—as I studied her that keen, tense, vital moment, she was woman!
A deep fire burned in her eyes, that was true; but on her face was—what? It was not rage, it was not passion, it was not chagrin. No, in truth and justice I swear that what I then saw on her face was that same look I had noted once before, an expression of almost childish pathos, of longing, of appeal for something missed or gone, though much desired. No vanity could contemplate with pleasure a look like that on the face of a woman such as Helena von Ritz.
I fancied her unstrung by excitement, by the strain of her trying labor, by the loneliness of her life, uncertain, misunderstood, perhaps, as it was. I wondered if she could be more unhappy than I myself, if life could offer her less than it did to me. But I dared not prolong our masking, lest all should be unmasked.
“It is nothing!” she said at last, and laughed gaily as ever.
“Yes, Madam, it is nothing. I admit my defeat. I shall ask no more favors, expect no further information from you, for I have not earned it, and I can not pay. I will make no promise that I could not keep.”
“Then we part even!”
“As enemies or friends?”
“I do not yet know. I can not think—for a long time. But I, too, am defeated.”
“I do not understand how Madam can be defeated in anything.”
“Ah, I am defeated only because I have won. I have your secret; you do not have mine. But I laid also another wager, with myself. I have lost it. Ceremony or not—and what does the ceremony value?—you are married. I had not known marriage to be possible. I had not known you—you savages. No—so much—I had not known.”