“I shall guard her well,” said Zibeline, “for she would be sure to be put to rout by your bayonets.”
“Not by mine!” gallantly exclaimed Lenaieff. “I should immediately lower my arms before her!”
“You!—perhaps! But between General de Prerolles and myself the declaration of war is without quarter. Is it not, General?” said Valentine, laughing.
“It is the only declaration that fate permits me to make to you, Mademoiselle,” Henri replied, rather dryly, laying emphasis on the double sense of his words.
This rejoinder, which nothing in the playful attack had justified, irritated the Duchess, but Valentine appeared to pay no attention to it, and at ten o’clock, when a gypsy band began to play in the long gallery, she arose.
“Although we are a very small party,” she said, “would you not like to indulge in a waltz, Mesdames? The gentlemen can not complain of being crowded here,” she added, with a smile.
M. de Lisieux and M. de Nointel, as well as Edmond Delorme, hastened to throw away their cigarettes, and all made their way to the long gallery. The Baron de Samoreau and the Chevalier de Sainte-Foy remained alone together.
The Duchess took the occasion to speak quietly to her brother.
“I assure you that you are too hard with her,” she said. “There is no need to excuse yourself for not marrying. No one dreams of such a thing—she no more than any one else. But she seems to have a sentiment of friendship toward you, and I am sure that your harshness wounds her.”
A more experienced woman than Madame de Montgeron, who had known only a peaceful and legitimate love, would have quickly divined that beneath her brother’s brusque manner lurked a budding but hopeless passion, whence sprang his intermittent revolt against the object that had inspired it.
This revolt was not only against Zibeline’s fortune; it included her all-pervading charm, which penetrated his soul. He was vexed at his sister for having brought them together; he was angry with himself that he had allowed his mind to be turned so quickly from his former prejudices; and, however indifferent he forced himself to appear, he was irritated against Lenaieff because of the attentions which that gentleman showered upon Zibeline, upon whom he revenged himself by assuming the aggressive attitude for which the Duchess had reproached him.
In a still worse humor after the sisterly remonstrance to which he had just been compelled to listen, he seated himself near the entrance of the gallery, where the gypsy band was playing one of their alluring waltzes, of a cadence so different from the regular and monotonous measure of French dance music.
The three couples who were to compose this impromptu ball, yielded quickly to the spell of this irresistible accompaniment.
“Suppose Monsieur Desvanneaux should hear that we danced on the eve of Palm Sunday?” laughingly pro-tested Madame de Lisieux.