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   Chapter 6 JOAN GOES INTO SOCIETY

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 26930

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Joan did not telegraph to Alec. She destroyed each of half a dozen attempts, and ended by taking refuge in silence. It was impossible to say what she had to say in the bald language of a telegram. Merely to announce her departure from Paris would put her in the false position of having accepted Alec's proposal apparently without reserve, which was exactly what she meant not to do, and any other explanation of the journey would bewilder him.

Her friend Léontine, housemaid at the Chope de la Sorbonne, did not fail to tell her of Alec's call the day she left Paris for Barbizon. There was no mistaking Léontine's description, which was impressionist to a degree. It was evident, then, that he not only possessed her address, as shown by the letter, but knew of her absence. So she reasoned that if he did not hear from her within forty-eight hours he would assume that she was still away from home. By that time she would be in Delgratz, and, although she felt some uneasiness at the prospect, she was brave enough not to shirk meeting him.

They were not children that they should be afraid of speaking their thoughts, nor lovesick romanticists, apt to be swayed wholly by sentiment, and she could trust Alec to see the folly of rushing into a union that might imperil his career. In the depths of her heart she confessed herself proud and happy at the prospect of becoming his wife; but she would never consent to a marriage that was not commended by prudence. Better, far better, they should part forever than that the lapse of a few months should prove how irretrievably she had ruined him.

This might be sound commonsense, but it was not love, yet all this, and more, Joan said to Felix Poluski, and the little man had nodded his head with grins of approval. Meanwhile, he sang and was busy.

Count Julius, posted now in the Pole's mottled history, had demanded absolute anonymity before he carried the negotiations for the picture any further. Felix gave the pledge readily, since Joan could not be in Delgratz a day ere she suspected the truth. At any rate, Marulitch was satisfied; he introduced Felix to a well-known dealer in the Rue St. Honoré, and thenceforth disappeared from the transaction. Joan herself entered into the necessary business arrangements, about which there was nothing hidden or contraband. The terms proposed were liberal, considering her poor status in the art world; but they were quite straightforward. She was given return tickets to Delgratz for herself and her maid; Felix was similarly provided for; five hundred dollars was paid in advance, and a written guaranty was handed to her that a similar sum, together with hotel expenses, would be forthcoming in exchange for a copy of the Byzantine Saint Peter.

Of course, reviewing matters calmly in the train, she hardly expected that the second portion of the contract would be fulfilled. She knew quite well that the conspirators hoped to turn her presence in the Kosnovian capital to their own account, and when their scheme was balked they would devise some means of wriggling out of the bargain. But she laughed at the notion that she, an unknown student, should have suddenly become a pawn in the game of empire. There was an element of daring, almost of peril, in the adventure that fascinated her. It savored of those outlandish incidents recorded in novels of a sensational type, wherein fur coated, sallow faced, cigarette smoking scoundrels plotted the destruction of dynasties, and used fair maidens as decoys for susceptible Kings. Certainly, Felix Poluski, judged by his past, was no bad prototype of a character in that class of fiction; regarded in his present guise, as he sat opposite her in the dining car of the Orient Express, he looked the most harmless desperado that ever preyed on a quivering world.

His face seemed to be smaller and more wrinkled than usual. From Joan's superior height his hump was accentuated till it showed above the top of his head, and the girl was conscious, though she resolutely closed her eyes to the fact, that the admiring glances with which she was favored by some of her fellow passengers were somewhat modified by the humorous incongruity of Poluski's appearance.

At first, they tacitly avoided any reference to Alec or Delgratz. Their talk dealt with art and artists, and Joan had a good deal to say about the delights of painting in the open air.

Felix blinked at her sagely. "Behold, then, the beginning of the end!" he cackled.

"The end of what?" she asked, with some kindling of suspicion, since her queer little friend's tricks of conversation were not new to her.

"Of your career as an artist. Barbizon is fatal to true emotion. It induces a fine sense of the beauty of sunsets, of diffused light in sylvan solitudes, of blues that are greens and browns that are reds. In a word, the study of nature inclines one toward truth, whereas art is essentially a gracious lie. That is why the Greeks were the greatest artists: because they were most pleasing liars. They understood the crassness of humanity. Long before Browning wrote Fra Lippo Lippi they realized that

"We're made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see;

And so they are better painted-better to us,

Which is the same thing."

Joan laughed, and the cheery sound of her mirth seemed to startle the staid folk in the car.

At a neighboring table a middle aged couple were dining, the woman dignified and matronly, the man small, slight, with a curiously bloated aspect which, on analysis, seemed to arise from puffy cheeks and thick, sensual lips. He said something that caused his companion to turn and look at Joan; for the woman is yet unborn who will hear another woman described as pretty and not want to decide for herself how far the statement is justified.

So the eyes of the two met, and Joan saw a worn, kindly face, endowed with a quiet charm of expression and delicacy of contour that offered a marked contrast to the man's unprepossessing features. Both women were too well bred to stare, and Joan instantly brought her wits to bear on Poluski's quip; but that fleeting glimpse had thrilled her with subtle recognition of something grasped yet elusive, of a knowledge that trembled on the lip of discovery, like a half remembered word murmuring in the brain but unable to make itself heard.

"Do you ever say what you really mean, Felix?" she asked.

"Far too often, my belle. That is why I am only a copyist.

"I am a painter who cannot paint;

In my life, a devil rather than saint.

"Believe me, we artists err ridiculously when we depart from the Greek standard. Your Whistler never achieved fame until he stopped reproducing bits of nature and devoted his superb talent to caricature."

"Caricature! Whistler!" she repeated.

"Name of a good little gray man! what else? Not portraits, surely? Wise that he was, he left those to the snapshot photographer; for even the camera can be given the artistic kink by the toucher-up. Have you forgotten, then, the rage of a stolid Englishman when he saw his wife as Whistler painted her? Oh, yes, art lies outrageously and lives long, like other fables."

"But Whistler might have been bluntly accurate, a thing that is not always pleasing. For instance," and here her voice sank a little, "it might not be altogether gratifying to my pride if some one was to analyze mercilessly the precise reasons of my present journey."

"Tiens! Let us do it. It will serve to pass the time."

She laughed and blushed. "Wait a little. We have many hours before us."

"You will never have a more appreciative audience, if only you could make your voice heard above this din."

"What are you driving at? Please tell me."

"You have seen the two people sitting over there?" and he twisted eyebrows and mouth awry, with a whimsical leer of caution.

"Yes; what of them?"

"Do you know them?"

"No."

"Not even the lady?"

"She reminds me of some one-why do you ask?"

"I am surprised at you, Joan. Those charming eyes of yours should be keener. True, there is nothing feminine about Alec, and he has not suffered, like his mother. Still, there is a resemblance."

"Felix, are you in earnest?"

"Absolutely. I, at least, have not the Greek temperament. Our friends across the gangway are none other than Prince and Princess Michael Delgrado. You will discover no prophecy of Alec in his father; but he is his mother's own son, despite her weak chin and air of resignation."

Joan was dismayed, utterly astonished; the color ebbed from her cheeks. "Are they going to Delgratz?" she almost whispered.

"I suppose so. It is one of the oddest things about our lives how they run in grooves. Just now all the tiny furrows of our separate existences are converging on the Danube. We are like ships foredoomed to collision, that hurry remorselessly from the ends of the earth to the preordained crash."

"Oh, Felix, if you knew of this why did you bring me here?"

"Who am I to resist when the gods beckon? I love you, Joan, and I hate Kings; but it is decreed that you shall be a Queen, so I fold my arms and bow my head like the meekest of mortals."

"I shall quit the train at the next stopping place."

"But why? If Alec and you are to wed, it is only fit and proper that his parents should grace the ceremony."

"You harp on marriage when there may be no marriage. If Alec was not a King, it might be different; but the world will scoff when it hears that his chosen bride came to him from lodgings in the Place de la Sorbonne. What will Princess Delgrado think, now that she has seen me here, rushing off to Delgratz the instant I was summoned? Felix, I must return to Paris. Happily, I have some two thousand francs due within a week, and I can then refund the cost of our tickets, and perhaps the railway people will allow something for the incompleted journey."

"Calm yourself, ma petite! You count like the proprietress of my favorite café! And to what purpose? It would be a pity to act in that foolish way. There is no compulsion on you to marry Alec, and the Byzantine Saint Peter still hangs in the cathedral. Let any one so much as hint that you are throwing yourself at Alec's head, and I shall have the hinter dynamited. No, no, my Joan, we may yield to higher powers; but we do not abandon our pilgrimage because it is shared by an old scamp of a father whose sole anxiety is to fleece his son. Come, now, finish your dinner in peace, and let me explain to you why it is that Alexis III. and not Michael V. reigns in Delgratz. You don't glean many facts about monarchs from newspapers. If I brought you to a certain wineshop in the Rue Taitbout any evening after dinner you would hear more truth about royalty in half an hour than you will read in half a year."

Joan, conscious of a telltale pallor, was leaning forward with an elbow on the table and shielding her face with widespread fingers propped against cheek and forehead. In the noise and flurry of the train it was easy to tune the voice to such a note that it must be inaudible to those at the adjacent tables; but Poluski seemed to be careless whether or not he was overheard, and the girl fancied that Princess Delgrado had caught the words "Alexis," "Michael," "Delgratz." Certainly the Princess turned again and looked at her, while she did not fail to glance swiftly at the misshapen figure visible only in profile.

"Not so loud, Felix," murmured Joan. "Come to my compartment when you have smoked a cigarette. By that time I shall have recovered my wits, and I may be able to decide what to do for the best."

"Wrong again!" he laughed. "Obey your heart, not your brain, mignonne." (He bent nearer, and his extraordinarily bright gray eyes peered up into hers.) "That is how Alec won his throne. He is all heart. Those who paved the way for him were all brain. They plotted, and contrived, and spun their web with the murderous zeal of a spider; but, poof! in buzzes bluebottle Alec, and where are the schemers? Ah, my angel, if you knew everything you would be cheery as I and marry your King with a light conscience."

The two persons who were the unwitting cause of Joan's sudden misgivings rose and quitted the dining car. No one seemed to be aware of their identity. Even the brown-liveried attendants did not give them any more attention than was bestowed on the other passengers, and the girl realized that the parents of a King, even such a newly fledged King as Alec, did not usually travel with this pronounced lack of state.

"Are you quite sure they are the Prince and Princess?" she asked, scanning Poluski's wrinkled face to learn if he had not been playing some sorry jest.

"Quite sure," said he.

"But--"

"You wonder why they condescend to mix with the common horde? Learn then, my Joan, that a French booking clerk is a skeptic who can be convinced only by the sight of money. Consider the number of brokendown royalties in Paris, and picture, if you can, the scowl of disbelief that would cloud the official features of the Gare de l'Est if Prince Michael asked for a special train to Delgratz; booked it on the nod, so to speak. It could not be done, Joan, not if one substituted 'Archangel' for 'Prince.' As it is, the senior Delgrado has probably touched a friend for the money to buy the tickets."

"Yet their

names would be recognized."

Felix called an attendant. "The lady and gentleman who sat at the opposite table were the Count and Countess Polina?"

"I cannot say, monsieur. Shall I inquire?"

"No need, thank you. To be precise, since you demand it," went on Poluski when the man had gone, "I asked who they were the moment we left Paris. I saw them on the platform, and the absence of any display showed that they were traveling incognito. I doubt very much if Alec knows of their journey. Can you guess why I think that?"

Joan shook her head wearily. "I am living in a land of dreams," she sighed. "I do not understand the why or wherefore of anything?"

"Listen, then, and you will see that your dreamland is a prosaic place, after all. There is a man in Paris who receives letters daily from Kosnovia, and they tell of events that are not printed for the multitude. Last night, when I was certain we should go to Delgratz, I sought him and heard the latest news. Your Alec means to economize. He has promulgated the absurd theory that the people's taxes should be spent for the people's benefit, and he says that no King is worth more than five thousand pounds a year, while many of his contemporaries would be dear at the price. He has also set up this ridiculous maximum as a standard, and intends to reduce the official salary list to about half its present dimensions.

"This fantasy has reached his father's ears, and the old gentleman is hurrying to Delgratz to check the madness ere it is too late. It is a simple bit of arithmetic: if a King, who works like a horse, is to receive only five thousand a year, what is the annual value of his father, who does nothing but lounge about the boulevards? No wonder old Michael is off hotfoot to the White City!"

Despite her perplexities, Joan had to laugh, and Felix bent nearer to clinch his argument.

"You and I must stand by Alec, my dear. I too am breathing a new atmosphere. I fought against Kings because they were tyrants; but I am ready to fight for one who is a deliverer. What do you fear, you? The world? Has the world ever done anything for you that its opinion should be considered? It will fawn or snarl as it thinks best fitted to its own ends; but help or pity? Never! Its votaries in Delgratz will strive to rend Alec when they realize that their interests are threatened. We must be there, you and I, you to aid him in winning the fickle mob, and I to watch those secret burrowings more dangerous to thrones than open revolt. It is a sacred mission, my Joan! They who named you were wiser than they knew. You were christened a King's helpmate, while I, Felix Poluski, am fated to be the most amazing product of modern civilization,-an anarchist devoted to a monarchy.

"It came on me yesterday morning in the Louvre. I saw my principles crucified for the good of humanity. Through the eyes of the Virgin I looked into a heaven of achievement, and I care not what the means so long as good results. One honest King is worth a million revolutionaries, and God, who made Alec a King, also made him honest."

Excited, exuberant, bubbling over with that very emotionalism at which he had scoffed a few minutes earlier, Felix leaned back in his chair and sang a quatrain in his singularly sweet and penetrating tenor.

Instantly every head was turned and necks were craned. A waiter, serving coffee, was so electrified that he poured no small quantity into the lap of an indignant German. Joan, too wrathful for mere words, dared not rush away instantly to her compartment, though she would have given a good deal at that moment to be safe in its kindly obscurity. And the worst thing was that she saw the coffeepot incident, and was forced to laugh till the tears came.

Cries of "Bravo!" "Again!" mingled with the iron-clamped syllables of Teutonic protest, and she distinctly heard a well bred English voice say:

"Foreign music hall artists! I told you so, though the girl looks an American. But, by gad! can't that humpbacked johnny sing!"

"Felix, how could you?" she managed to gasp at last.

"I'm sorry. I forgot we were not in Paris. But there are some here who appreciate good music. If you don't mind, I'll give them Béranger's 'Adieu to Mary Stuart.' You remember, it goes this way-"

Joan fled, making play with her handkerchief. The fast speeding train threw her from side to side of the corridor during a hurried transit; but the exquisite lines followed her clearly.

Felix sang like a robin till the mood exhausted itself. Then, deaf to enthusiastic plaudits and cries for "More!" he lit a long thin cigar and smoked furiously. Passing Joan's berth later, he knocked.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"I, the Humming Bee."

"Leave me to-night, Felix. I must think."

"Better sleep. Thinking creates wrinkles. Look on me as a horrible example."

He went away, bassooning some lively melody, but grinning the while, and if his thoughts took shape they would run:

"The struggle has ended ere it began, sweet maid. You are in love; but have not yet waked up to that astonishing fact. Now, why did the good God give me a big heart and a small head and a twisted spine? Why not have made me either a man or an imp?"

Joan could not face strangers in the dining car after Poluski's strange outburst. She remained in her own cramped quarters all next day, ate some meals there as best she could, and kept Felix at arm's length so far as confidence or counsel was concerned. On the platform at Vienna, where the train was made up afresh, she encountered Princess Delgrado. To her consternation, the older woman stopped and spoke.

"I am sorry I missed the delightful little concert your friend provided in the dining car last night," she said in French, and her voice had that touch of condescension with which a society leader knows how to dilute her friendliness when addressing a singer or musician. "My husband and I retired early, to our great loss, I hear. Are you traveling beyond Vienna? If so, and you give us another musical this evening--"

"There is some mistake," faltered Joan, unconsciously answering in English. "People who do not know Monsieur Poluski often take him for an operatic artiste. He is a painter. He sings only to amuse himself, and seldom waits to consider whether the time and place are well chosen."

"But, gracious me!" cried the Princess, amazed to find that Joan spoke English as to the manner born. "Some one said you were Polish. I doubted my eyes when I looked at you; but your companion-well, he might be anything."

"Both he and I earn our bread by painting pictures," said Joan. "Indeed, we are now bound for Delgratz to carry out a commission."

"Delgratz! How extraordinary! I too am going there. It is so disturbed at present that it is the last place in the world I should have suspected of artistic longings. May I ask who has sent for you?"

Luckily, in the bustle and semiobscurity of the station, Princess Delgrado did not pay much heed to the furious blushing of the pretty girl who had aroused her interest. It was impossible to regard one whom she now believed to be an American like herself as being in any way concerned with the intrigues that centered in the capital of Kosnovia, and she attributed Joan's confusion to the pardonable error that arose from the talk Prince Michael brought from the smoking car.

But what was Joan to answer? She could not blurt out to Alec's mother the contents of that exceedingly plainspoken epistle now reposing in her pocket. For one mad instant she wondered what would happen if she said:

"I am being sent to Delgratz by people who wish to drive Alec out of the kingdom, and I am really considering whether or not I ought to marry him."

Then she lifted her head valiantly, with just that wood-nymph flinging back of rebellious hair that Alec was thinking of while riding to his Castle of Care after a long day in the saddle.

"There is nothing unusual in my being chosen to copy a picture," she said. "Art connoisseurs care little for politics. To them a new Giotto is vastly more important than a new King, and I am told that both are to be found in Delgratz nowadays."

Prince Michael strolled up. He was pleased that his wife had made the acquaintance of the charming unknown, whom he had looked for in vain during the day.

"Ah," he said, with polite hat flourish, "I feared we had lost the pleasant company of which I heard--"

"You were misinformed," broke in his wife hastily in English. "This young lady is visiting Delgratz for art purposes. The gentleman who sang last night is the celebrated painter, Monsieur-Monsieur--"

"Felix Poluski," said Joan.

Prince Michael started as though a scorpion had found a crack in his patent boots.

"Poluski-Felix Poluski!" he cried. "I know that name; but he was fond of using strange colors on his palette if I remember rightly."

Felix, owing to his small stature, was compelled to dodge among the crowd on the platform like a child. He appeared now unexpectedly, and Michael's exclamation was not lost on him.

"Excellent, Monseigneur!" he said. "You always had a turn for epigram. I am glad to find that you have not forgotten the brave days of old when you and I used to spout treason together, you because you hungered after a dynasty, and I because I preferred dynamite. Odd thing, both words mean power, strength, sovereignty; the difference lies only in the method of application. But that was in our hot youth, Michael--"

"Imbecile!" hissed the Prince, his red face blanching, as once before when a man spoke of the perils that hedge a throne in the Balkans. "This is Vienna. I shall be recognized!"

Felix snapped his fingers. "They don't care that for you, Monseigneur-never did! You could have come and gone as you pleased any time during these thirty years. If any one is feared here, it is I. But, my veteran, why this display of wrath? You know me well enough. Didn't you see me last night?"

"No-that is, I did not recollect. Your face was hidden."

"Ah, you had something better to look at. Well, who goes to Delgratz? Get aboard, all!"

During this brief but illuminating conversation the Princess and Joan could do nothing else but gaze from one man to the other in mute surprise, and Joan was grieved beyond measure that Felix should treat Alec's father with such scant courtesy. Even while they were making for the steps of the sleeping cars, she managed to whisper tremulously to the Princess:

"Please don't be angry with Monsieur Poluski. His brusk manner often gets him into trouble. Forgive me for saying it, but your son knows him well, and is very fond of him, and I am sure Felix would do anything that lay in his power to help-to help King Alexis III."

"My son! Do you also know him?"

"Yes."

"Have you met him in Paris?"

"Yes."

"But I have never seen you at the Rue Boissière."

"No. We met at Rudin's, and sometimes in the Louvre."

"And does he know that you are coming to Delgratz?"

"No. I assure you--"

The Princess hesitated. It was not in her kind heart to think evil of this singularly frank looking and attractive girl. "Will you tell me your name?" she said, turning with one foot on the step; for they were about to enter separate carriages.

"Joan Vernon."

"I suppose it is idle to ask, but you are not married?"

"No, nor likely to be for a very long time."

"Aboard!" cried a guard, marveling that women could find so much to say at the very last moment.

"Well," said the Princess, "I hope to see you at dinner. If not, in Delgratz."

Joan took good care that no one except her maid and an attendant saw her again that evening. She felt bruised and buffeted as though she had been carried among rocks by some irresistible current. Even her mind refused to act. The why and the wherefore of events were dim and not to be grasped. Over and over again she regretted the impulse that led her to take this journey. Felix, as friend and artistic tutor, was invaluable; but in the guise of mentor for a young woman who had her own way to make in the world, and nothing more to depend on than her artistic faculties and a small income from a trust fund, he was a distinct failure. What would Alec think of it all? And what would Alec's mother say when her son told her that Joan Vernon was the woman he meant to marry?

So Joan grew miserable, and developed a headache, and wept a little over perplexities that were very real though she could not define them. And Felix dined alone, and smoked in dumb reverie, and when Prince Michael, warmed with wine and cheered by the knowledge that a wearisome journey was drawing to a close, unbent so far as to ask him to sing, the little man shook his head.

"You'll hear me singing in Delgratz, Monseigneur," he said. "I shall have something to think about then, and I sing to think, just as you live to eat. At present, there isn't a note in the box. Now, if madame can spare you, just sit down there, and you and I will talk of old times. For instance, poor Amélie Constant-she died the other day--"

"Ah, bah!" growled Michael. "That is not interesting. Old times of that sort generally mean times one would rather forget. Au 'voir, M'sieur Poluski. We shall meet across the Danube. If your principles permit, come and see me at court."

"My principles carry me into strange company, Monseigneur," said Felix gravely.

* * *

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