“I remember to this day the grasp of Prince Roman’s bony, wrinkled hand closing on my small inky paw, and my uncle’s half-serious, half-amused way of looking down at his trespassing nephew.
“They moved on and forgot that little boy. But I did not move; I gazed after them, not so much disappointed as disconcerted by this prince so utterly unlike a prince in a fairy tale. They moved very slowly across the room. Before reaching the other door the Prince stopped, and I heard him—I seem to hear him now—saying: ’I wish you would write to Vienna about filling up that post. He’s a most deserving fellow—and your recommendation would be decisive.’
“My uncle’s face turned to him expressed genuine wonder. It said as plainly as any speech could say: What better recommendation than a father’s can be needed? The Prince was quick at reading expressions. Again he spoke with the toneless accent of a man who has not heard his own voice for years, for whom the soundless world is like an abode of silent shades.
“And to this day I remember the very words: ’I ask you because, you see, my daughter and my son-in-law don’t believe me to be a good judge of men. They think that I let myself be guided too much by mere sentiment.’”
Outside the large single window the crepuscular light was dying out slowly in a great square gleam without colour, framed rigidly in the gathering shades of the room.
It was a long room. The irresistible tide of the night ran into the most distant part of it, where the whispering of a man’s voice, passionately interrupted and passionately renewed, seemed to plead against the answering murmurs of infinite sadness.
At last no answering murmur came. His movement when he rose slowly from his knees by the side of the deep, shadowy couch holding the shadowy suggestion of a reclining woman revealed him tall under the low ceiling, and sombre all over except for the crude discord of the white collar under the shape of his head and the faint, minute spark of a brass button here and there on his uniform.
He stood over her a moment, masculine and mysterious in his immobility, before he sat down on a chair near by. He could see only the faint oval of her upturned face and, extended on her black dress, her pale hands, a moment before abandoned to his kisses and now as if too weary to move.
He dared not make a sound, shrinking as a man would do from the prosaic necessities of existence. As usual, it was the woman who had the courage. Her voice was heard first—almost conventional while her being vibrated yet with conflicting emotions.
“Tell me something,” she said.
The darkness hid his surprise and then his smile. Had he not just said to her everything worth saying in the world—and that not for the first time!
“What am I to tell you?” he asked, in a voice creditably steady. He was beginning to feel grateful to her for that something final in her tone which had eased the strain.