“Madeline,” said he, lingeringly freeing her hand, “I hardly know what to say nor how to say it. I’m embarrassed, frightfully embarrassed; yet you have been frank with me so I must be frank with you—even though it hurts. I’m distressed to have been such a bungler, such a miserable bungler, such a blind fool, indeed. The false impression must be due to me; assuredly, without the most justifiable cause you would not have drawn the erroneous inference. And a man who is responsible for that inference with a woman of your experience and ability, Madeline, must be more or less a fool, even though his intentions have been absolutely correct.”
“Which leads where, Guy?” she mocked.
“Nowhere,” he replied, “I’m trying to say something, and can’t say it. But you know what it is, Madeline. I’m sorry, supremely sorry. Let us forget this little talk, and go on as though it hadn’t occurred—playing our parts in the present game and besting the other by every means in our power. I can’t accept your offer, because I cannot pay the consideration. It still must be a outrance with us, Madeline; no quarter given and no quarter asked.”
For a space she looked at him with cold repellence, eyes black as night. Then her eyes narrowed and she laughed, a mirthlessly sarcastic laugh, so low that Harleston barely heard it.
“Is red hair then prettier than black, Mr. Harleston?” she asked mockingly; “or is Mrs. Clephane’s character whiter than mine?”
“That is not worthy of you, Madeline,” Harleston reproved. “You’re a good sport; hitherto you’ve taken the count, as well as given it, without the flutter of an eyelash—and over far more serious matters than your humble servant, who hasn’t anything to give him value.”
Again the sarcastic laugh. She knew he was playing the game, two games indeed, the diplomatic and his own. He had never forgot himself nor regarded her for one little instant.
“As a lecturer on morals, Mr. Harleston, you are a wonder,” she mocked; “you have almost succeeded—nay quite, shall I say—in convincing yourself. And when you—a man—do that, what is to be expected of a woman—who is alone in the world? So I must accept your argument, and your conclusions, and be content with my duty—and”—with a sudden ravishing smile—“if I best you, Guy, you will have only yourself to blame. I won’t send Mrs. Clephane a present, nor will I wish you joy of her, nor her of you; but you won’t look for it, and she would think it somewhat presumptuous in me to assume to know you. These red-headed women are the very devil, Guy, after they’ve got you landed—also before, but in a different way.”
“What’s your game, Madeline?” he smiled. It had pleased her suddenly to veer around and resume the play; and far be it from him to balk her. “I’ll admit you have me guessing.”
“I thought you believed me, Guy. My game was you—and I’ve lost.”