“Still just as much,” she said with irritation.
When the servant had gone out, a moment of silence fell between them, a glacial coldness. Paul had risen. She continued her sketch, with her head still bowed.
He took a few paces in the studio; then, having come back to the table, he asked quietly, astonished to feel himself so calm:
“It was the Duc de Mora who was to have dined here?”
“Yes. I was bored—a day of spleen. Days of that kind are bad for me.”
“Was the duchess to have come?”
“The duchess? No. I don’t know her.”
“Well, in your place I would never receive in my house, at my table, a married man whose wife I did not meet. You complain of being deserted; why desert yourself? When one is without reproach, one should avoid the very suspicion of it. Do I vex you?”
“No, no, scold me, Minerva. I have no objection to your ethics. They are honest and frank, yours; they do not blink uncertain, like those of Jenkins. I told you, I need some one to guide me.”
And tossing over to him the sketch which she had just finished:
“See, that is the friend of whom I was speaking to you. A profound and sure affection, which I was foolish enough to allow to be lost to me, like the bungler I am. She it was to whom I appealed in moments of difficulty, when a decision required to be taken, some sacrifice made. I used to say to myself, ‘What will she think of this?’ just as we artists may stop in the midst of a piece of work to refer it mentally to some great man, one of our masters. I must have you take her place for me. Will you?”
Paul did not answer. He was looking at the portrait of Aline. It was she, herself to the letter; her pure profile, her mocking and kindly mouth, and the long curl like a caress on the delicate neck. Felicia had ceased to exist for him.
Poor Felicia, endowed with superior talents, she was indeed like those magicians who knot and unknot the destinies of men, without possessing any power over their own happiness.
“Will you give me this sketch?” he said in a low, quivering voice.
“Most willingly. She is nice—isn’t she? Ah! her indeed, if you should meet, love her, marry her. She is worth more than all the rest of womankind together. And yet, failing her—failing her——”
And the beautiful sphinx, tamed, raised to him, moist and laughing, her great eyes, in which an enigma had ceased to be indecipherable.
“A tremendous success! Barye has never done anything so good before.”
“And the bust of the Nabob! What a marvel. How happy Constance Crenmitz is! Look at her trotting about!”
“What! That little old lady in the ermine cape is the Crenmitz? I thought she had been dead twenty years ago.”