The Princess had already spent an hour at her toilette. Her hair was carefully arranged and her face massaged. She received her stepdaughter with some show of affection, and bade her sit close to her.
“Jeanne,” she said, “you are now nearly twenty years old. For many reasons I wish to see you married. The Count de Brensault formally proposed for you last night. He is coming at three o’clock this afternoon for his answer.”
Jeanne sat upright in her chair. Her stepmother noticed a new air of determination in the poise of her head, and the firm lines of her mouth.
“The Count might have spared himself the trouble,” she said. “He knows very well what my answer will be. I think that you know, too. It is no, most emphatically and decidedly! I will not marry the Count de Brensault.”
“Before you express yourself so irrevocably,” the Princess said calmly, “I should like you to understand that it is my wish that you accept his offer.”
“In all ordinary matters,” Jeanne answered, “I am prepared to obey you. In this, no! I think that I have the right to choose my husband for myself, or at any rate to approve of whomever you may select. I--do not approve of the Count de Brensault. I do not care for him, and I never could care for him, and I will not marry him!”
The Princess said nothing for several moments. Then she moved toward the door which led into her sleeping chamber, where her maid was still busy, and turned the key in the lock.
“Jeanne,” she said when she returned, “I think it is time that you were told something which I am afraid will be a shock to you. This great fortune of yours, of which you have heard so much, and which has been so much talked about, is a myth.”
“What do you mean?” Jeanne asked, looking at her stepmother with startled eyes.
“Exactly what I say,” the Princess continued. “Your father made huge gifts to his relatives during the last few years of his life, and he left enormous sums in charity. To you he left the remainder of his estate, which all the world believed to amount to at least a million pounds. But when things came to be realized, all his securities seemed to have depreciated. The legacies were paid in cash. The depreciation of his fortune all fell upon you. When everything had been paid, there was something like twenty-five thousand pounds left. More than half of that has gone in your education, and in an allowance to myself since I have had the charge of you. There is a little left in the hands of Monsieur Laplanche, but very little indeed. What there is we owe for your dresses, the rent of this house, and other things.”
“You mean,” Jeanne interrupted bewildered, “that I have no money at all?”
“Practically none,” the Princess answered. “Now you can see why it is so important that you should marry a rich man.”
Jeanne was bewildered. It was hard to grasp these things which her stepmother was telling her.