“I am such a very old friend,” Mr. Sabin said. “I knew her when she was a child.”
Mr. Brott nodded.
“It is very strange,” he said, “that you should have come together again in such a country as America, and in a small town too.”
“Lenox,” Mr. Sabin said, “is a small place, but a great center. By the bye, is there not some question of an impending marriage on the part of the Countess?”
“I have heard—of nothing of the sort,” Mr. Brott said, looking up startled. Then, after a moment’s pause, during which he studied closely his companion’s imperturbable face, he added the question which forced its way to his lips.
Mr. Sabin looked along his cigarette and pinched it affectionately. It was one of his own, which he had dexterously substituted for those which his host had placed at his disposal.
“The Countess is a very charming, a very beautiful, and a most attractive woman,” he said slowly. “Her marriage has always seemed to me a matter of certainty.”
Mr. Brott hesitated, and was lost.
“You are an old friend of hers,” he said. “You perhaps know more of her recent history than I do. For a time she seemed to drop out of my life altogether. Now that she has come back I am very anxious to persuade her to marry me.”
A single lightning-like flash in Mr. Sabin’s eyes for a moment disconcerted his host. But, after all, it was gone with such amazing suddenness that it left behind it a sense of unreality. Mr. Brott decided that after all it must have been fancy.
“May I ask,” Mr. Sabin said quietly, “whether the Countess appears to receive your suit with favour?”
Mr. Brott hesitated.
“I am afraid I cannot go so far as to say that she does,” he said regretfully. “I do not know why I find myself talking on this matter to you. I feel that I should apologise for giving such a personal turn to the conversation.”
“I beg that you will do nothing of the sort,” Mr. Sabin protested. “I am, as a matter of fact, most deeply interested.”
“You encourage me,” Mr. Brott declared, “to ask you a question—to me a very important question.”
“It will give me great pleasure,” Mr. Sabin assured him, “if I am able to answer it.”
“You know,” Mr. Brott said, “of that portion of her life concerning which I have asked no questions, but which somehow, whenever I think of it, fills me with a certain amount of uneasiness. I refer to the last three years which the Countess has spent in America.”
Mr. Sabin looked up, and his lips seemed to move, but he said nothing. Mr. Brott felt perhaps that he was on difficult ground.
“I recognise the fact,” he continued slowly, “that you are the friend of the Countess, and that you and I are nothing more than the merest acquaintances. I ask my question therefore with some diffidence. Can you tell me from your recent, more intimate knowledge of the Countess and her affairs, whether there exists any reason outside her own inclinations why she should not accept my proposals of marriage?”