“Well,” said Henri, “in proposing to do so she mentioned my discreet age, which appeared to her to make the thing all right! If I had declined her invitation, I should have seemed to pose as a compromising person! That is the reason why I accepted.”
“You did quite right. What do you really think of her?”
“She is very different from what I had fancied her: I find her frank, intellectual, full of originality. I have only one fault to mention: she is too rich.”
“Well, surely, you do not expect her to ruin herself to please you.”
“I should think not! Besides, what would be the object?”
“To permit you to fall in love with her.”
“Oh, that is what you are thinking of, is it?”
“Certainly, for, if need be, perhaps you would make a sacrifice to your feelings.”
“In what way?”
“In the toleration of a few remaining millions which she might retain, so that when you marry her neither of you will be reduced to absolute beggary!”
“Marry her!—I?” cried the General, astonished.
“What is there to prevent your doing so?”
“The past, my dear sister. To speculate upon my title and my rank in order to make a wealthy marriage? To quit my nomad’s tent for a fixed residence other than that where the Prerolles have succeeded one another from generation to generation? Never! Of all our ancient prejudices, that is the only one I cherish. Besides, I am free at present to serve my country under any form of government which it may please her to adopt. But, with his hereditary estates lost, through his own fault, shall he who has nothing left to him but his name form a mere branch of another family? He has no right to do so.”
This declaration was categorical. Madame de Montgeron bent her head; her jesting vein was quenched in a moment.
After a moment of silence the Duke spoke.
“There are scruples that one does not discuss,” he said. “But, on the other hand, if I do not deceive myself, there are others which can be adjusted to suit circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” said the General.
“The subject is rather delicate—especially to mention before you, my dear Jeanne.”
“I was just about to propose that I should retire,” said the Duchess. “Good-night, Henri!” And she bent to kiss him.
“You are not vexed?” said her brother, embracing her tenderly.
“What an idea! Good-night!”
“Am I always to be considered as occupying the stool of repentance?” Henri inquired, as soon as his sister had left the room.
“Yes, but you will not be offended if I interrogate you a little, after the manner of a judge?” said the Duke.
“Quite the contrary. Go on; I will listen.”
“Had you not just now expressed yourself very distinctly in disfavor of any project of marriage because of perfectly unimpeachable principles, I should not permit myself to make any allusion to your private life. Every man is his own master in his choice of liaisons, and on that head is answerable only to his own conscience. In these days, moreover, art is on a level with birth, and talent with military glory. You see that I am quite modern in my ideas! However—”