Like all residences where the owners receive much company, the Hotel de Montgeron had a double porte-cochere. Just as the Swiss opened the outer gate to allow the departure of Mademoiselle de Vermont, the two carriages crossed each other on the threshold. In fact, Henri had had hardly time to cross the courtyard to mount to his own apartments before his brother-in-law and his sister stopped him at the foot of the steps. He rejoined them to say good-night.
“Won’t you come and take a cup of tea with us in the little salon?” they asked.
“Willingly,” was his response. He followed them, and all three seated themselves beside a table which was already laid, and upon which the boiling water sang in the kettle.
“Leave us,” said the Duchess to the butler. “I will serve tea myself. Did Mademoiselle de Vermont bring you home?” she asked, when the servant had retired.
“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.”