The Princess rarely allowed herself to show surprise. At this moment, however, she was completely overcome.
“What is it you want, then, child?” she demanded.
“I should like,” Jeanne answered, “to buy Mr. De la Borne’s house upon the island, and live there, with just a couple of maids, and my books. I should like some friends, of course, but I should like to find them for myself, amongst the country people, people whom I could trust and believe in, not people whose clothes and manners and speech are all hammered out into a type, and whose real self is so deeply buried that you cannot tell whether they are honest or rogues. That is what I should like, stepmother, and if you wish to earn my gratitude, that is how you will let me live.”
The Princess stared at the child as though she were a lunatic.
“Jeanne,” she exclaimed weakly, “what has become of you?”
“Nothing,” Jeanne answered, “only you asked me a question, and I felt an irresistible desire to answer you truthfully. It would have come sooner or later.”
Andrew turned slowly toward the girl, who stood looking at her stepmother with flushed cheeks and quivering lips.
“Miss Le Mesurier,” he said, “on one condition I will sell you the island, but on only one.”
“And that is?” she asked.
The Princess recovered herself just in time, and sailed in between them.
“Mr. De la Borne,” she said, “my daughter is too young for such conversations. For two years she is under my complete guidance. She must obey me just as though she were ten years older and married, and I her husband. The law has given me absolute control over her. You understand that yourself, don’t you, Jeanne?”
“Yes,” Jeanne answered quietly, “I understand.”
“Go indoors, please,” the Princess said. “I have something to say to Mr. De la Borne.”
“And I, too,” Jeanne said. “Let me stay and say it. I will not be five minutes.”
The Princess pointed toward the door.
“I will not have it,” she said coldly. “Cecil, take my daughter indoors. I insist upon it.”
She turned away unwillingly. The Princess took Andrew by the arm and led him to a more distant seat.
“Now, if you please, my dear Mr. Andrew,” she said, “will you tell me what it is that you have done to my foolish little girl?”
The Princess arranged her skirts so that they drooped gracefully, and turned upon her companion with one of those slow mysterious smiles, which many people described but none could imitate.
“Mr. De la Borne,” she said, “I can talk to you as I could not talk to your brother, because you are an older and a wiser man. You may not have seen much of the world, but you are at any rate not a young idiot like Cecil. Will you listen to me, please?”
“It seems to me,” Andrew answered drily, “that I am already doing so.”