Madame de Nailles was not mistaken in her stepdaughter; she was very far advanced beyond her age, thanks to the cruel wrong that had been done her by the loss of her trust in her elders and her respect for them. Her heart had had its past, though she was still hardly more than a child—a sad past, though its pain was being rapidly effaced. She now thought about it only at intervals. Time and circumstances were operating on her as they act upon us generally; only in her case more quickly than usual, which produced in her character and feelings phenomena that might have seemed curious to an observer. She was something of a woman, something of a child, something of a philosopher. At night, when she was dancing with Wermant, or Cymier, or even Talbrun, or on horseback, an exercise which all the Blues were wild about, she was an audacious flirt, a girl up to anything; and in the morning, at low tide, she might be seen, with her legs and feet bare, among the children, of whom there were many on the sands, digging ditches, making ramparts, constructing towers and fortifications in wet sand, herself as much amused as if she had been one of the babies themselves. There was screaming and jumping, and rushing out of reach of the waves which came up ready to overthrow the most complicated labors of the little architects, rough romping of all kinds, enough to amaze and disconcert a lover.
But no one could have guessed at the thoughts which, in the midst of all this fun and frolic, were passing through the too early ripened mind of Jacqueline. She was thinking that many things to which we attach great value and importance in this world are as easily swept away as the sand barriers raised against the sea by childish hands; that everywhere there must be flux and reflux, that the beach the children had so dug up would soon become smooth as a mirror, ready for other little ones to dig it over again, tempting them to work, and yet discouraging their industry. Her heart, she thought, was like the sand, ready for new impressions. The elegant form of M. de Cymier slightly overshadowed it, distinct among other shadows more confused.
And Jacqueline said to herself with a smile, exactly what her father and Madame de Nailles had said to each other:
“Countess!—who knows? Ambassadress! Perhaps—some day—”
A PUZZLING CORRESPONDENCE
“But I can not see any reason why we should not take Jacqueline with us to Italy. She is just of an age to profit by it.”
These words were spoken by M. de Nailles after a long silence at the breakfast-table. They startled his hearers like a bomb.
Jacqueline waited to hear what would come next, fixing a keen look upon her stepmother. Their eyes met like the flash of two swords.
The eyes of the one said: “Now, let us hear what you will answer!” while the other strove to maintain that calmness which comes to some people in a moment of danger. The Baroness grew a little pale, and then said, in her softest tones: