Meantime the aforesaid tournament went on in the centre of the sheet of ice, and Zibeline, without mingling with the other skaters, contented herself with skirting the borders of the lake, rapidly designing a chain of pierced hearts on the smooth surface, an appropriate symbol of her own superiority.
Annoyed to see himself eclipsed by a stranger, the General threw a challenging glance in her direction, and, striking out vigorously in a straight line, he sped swiftly toward the other end of the lake.
Stung to the quick by his glance, Mademoiselle de Vermont darted after him, passed him halfway along the course, and, wheeling around with a wide, outward curve, her body swaying low, she allowed him to pass before her, maintaining an attitude which her antagonist might interpret as a salute, courteous or ironic, as he chose.
By this time the crowd was gradually diminishing. The daylight was waning, and a continued sound of closing gates announced the retreat of the gay world toward Paris.
Zibeline alone, taking advantage of the free field, lingered a few moments to execute some evolutions in the deepening twilight, looking like the heroines in the old ballads, half-visible, through the mists, \ to the vivid imagination of the Scottish bards.
Henri de Prerolles had entered his sister’s carriage, in company with Madame Desvanneaux and Madame Thomery, and during the drive home, these two gentle dames—for the daughter was worthy of the mother—did not fail to sneer at the fair stranger, dilating particularly upon the impropriety of the challenging salute she had given to the General, with whom she was unacquainted.
“But my brother could hardly request his seconds to call upon her for that!” laughingly said the Duchess who, it seemed, had decided to defend the accused one in all attacks made upon her.
“Look! Here she comes! She is passing us again. One would think she was deliberately trying to do it!” exclaimed Madame Desvanneaux, just before their carriage reached the Arc de Triomphe.
Zibeline’s sleigh, which had glided swiftly, and without hindrance, along the unfrequented track used chiefly by equestrians, had indeed overtaken the Duchess’s carriage. Turning abruptly to the left, it entered the open gateway belonging to one of the corner houses of the Rond-Point de l’Etoile.
“Decidedly, the young lady is very fond of posing,” said the General, with a shrug, and, settling himself in his corner, he turned his thoughts elsewhere.
Having deposited her two friends at their own door, the Duchess ordered the coachman to take her home, and at the foot of the steps she said to her brother:
“Will you dine with us to-night?”
“No, not to-night,” he replied, “but we shall meet at the theatre.”
And, crossing the court, he entered his little bachelor apartment, which he had occupied from time to time since the days when he was only a sub-lieutenant.