“What a pity!” again said the Duchess to her husband, whose sole response was a shrug of his shoulders as he glanced at his brother-in-law.
At the end of his strength, and with a streaming brow, the gypsy leader lowered his bow, and the music ceased.
Henri de Prerolles, resuming his sang-froid, drew the hand of Mademoiselle de Vermont through his arm, and escorted her to her place among the other ladies.
“Bravo, General!” said Madame de Lisieux. “You have won your decoration, I see,” she added, indicating the rosebud which adorned his buttonhole.
“What shall we call this new order, ladies?” asked Madame de Nointel of the circle.
“The order of the Zibeline,” Valentine replied, with a frank burst of laughter.
“What?—do you know—” stammered the author of the nickname, blushing up to her ears.
“Do not disturb yourself, Madame! The zibeline is a little animal which is becoming more and more rare. They never have been found at all in my country, which I regret,” said Mademoiselle de Vermont graciously.
The hour was late, and the Duchess arose to depart. The Chevalier de Sainte-Foy, exercising his function as a sort of chamberlain, went to summon the domestics. Meanwhile Valentine spoke confidentially to Henri.
“General,” said she, “I wish to ask a favor of you.”
“I am at your orders, Mademoiselle.”
“I am delighted with the success of this little dinner,” Valentine continued, “and I wish to give another after Easter. My great desire is to have Mademoiselle Gontier—with whom I should like to become better acquainted—recite poetry to us after dinner. Would you have the kindness to tell her of my desire?”
“I!” exclaimed the General, amazed at such a request.
“Yes, certainly. If you ask her, she will come all the more willingly.”
“You forget that I am not in the diplomatic service, Mademoiselle.”
“My request annoys you? Well, we will say no more about it,” said Zibeline. “I will charge Monsieur de Samoreau with the negotiations.”
They rejoined the Duchess, Zibeline accompanying her to the vestibule, always evincing toward her the same pretty air of deference.
The drive home was silent. The Duke and the Duchess had agreed not to pronounce the name of Mademoiselle de Vermont before Henri, who racked his brain without being able to guess what strange motive prompted the young girl to wish to enter into closer relations with the actress.
A letter from Eugenie was awaiting him. He read:
“Two weeks have
elapsed since you have been to see me. I do not
whether you love me still, but I do ask you, in case you love
another, to tell me so frankly.
“So I am summoned to the confessional, and am expected to accuse myself of that which I dare not avow even to my own heart! Never!” said Henri, crushing the note in his hand. “Besides, unless I deceive myself, Ariadne has not been slow in seeking a consoling divinity! Samoreau is at hand, it appears. He played the part of Plutus before; now he will assume that of Bacchus,” thought the recreant lover, in order to smother his feeling of remorse.