Concerning the Colour of Men's Hair
"Very well; have it your own way. I am in love--infernally in love!"
"Oh, you'll write the better poetry," said I, by way of consolation.
He ruffled his hair with his hand and smoked furiously. George Featherly, standing with his back to the mantelpiece, smiled unkindly.
"If it's the old affair," said he, "you may as well throw it up, Bert. She's leaving Paris tomorrow."
"I know that," snapped Bertram.
"Not that it would make any difference if she stayed," pursued the relentless George. "She flies higher than the paper trade, my boy!"
"Hang her!" said Bertram.
"It would make it more interesting for me," I ventured to observe, "if I knew who you were talking about."
"Antoinette Mauban," said George.
"De Mauban," growled Bertram.
"Oho!" said I, passing by the question of the `de'. "You don't mean to say, Bert--?"
"Can't you let me alone?"
"Where's she going to?" I asked, for the lady was something of a celebrity.
George jingled his money, smiled cruelly at poor Bertram, and answered pleasantly:
"Nobody knows. By the way, Bert, I met a great man at her house the other night--at least, about a month ago. Did you ever meet him--the Duke of Strelsau?"
"Yes, I did," growled Bertram.
"An extremely accomplished man, I thought him."
It was not hard to see that George's references to the duke were intended to aggravate poor Bertram's sufferings, so that I drew the inference that the duke had distinguished Madame de Mauban by his attentions. She was a widow, rich, handsome, and, according to repute, ambitious. It was quite possible that she, as George put it, was flying as high as a personage who was everything he could be, short of enjoying strictly royal rank: for the duke was the son of the late King of Ruritania by a second and morganatic marriage, and half-brother to the new King. He had been his father's favourite, and it had occasioned some unfavourable comment when he had been created a duke, with a title derived from no less a city than the capital itself. His mother had been of good, but not exalted, birth.
"He's not in Paris now, is he?" I asked.
"Oh no! He's gone back to be present at the King's coronation; a ceremony which, I should say, he'll not enjoy much. But, Bert, old man, don't despair! He won't marry the fair Antoinette-- at least, not unless another plan comes to nothing. Still perhaps she--" He paused and added, with a laugh: "Royal attentions are hard to resist--you know that, don't you, Rudolf?"
"Confound you!" said I; and rising, I left the hapless Bertram in George's hands and went home to bed.
The next day George Featherly went with me to the station, where I took a ticket for Dresden.
"Going to see the pictures?" asked George, with a grin.
George is an inveterate gossip, and had I told him that I was off to Ruritania, the news would have been in London in three days and in Park Lane in a week. I was, therefore, about to return an evasive answer, when he saved my conscience by leaving me suddenly and darting across the platform. Following him with my eyes, I saw him lift his hat and accost a graceful, fashionably dressed woman who had just appeared from the booking-office. She was, perhaps, a year or two over thirty, tall, dark, and of rather full figure. As George talked, I saw her glance at me, and my vanity was hurt by the thought that, muffled in a fur coat and a neck-wrapper (for it was a chilly April day) and wearing a soft travelling hat pulled down to my ears, I must be looking very far from my best. A moment later, George rejoined me.
"You've got a charming travelling companion," he said. "That's poor Bert Bertrand's goddess, Antoinette de Mauban, and, like you, she's going to Dresden--also, no doubt, to see the pictures. It's very queer, though, that she doesn't at present desire the honour of your acquaintance."
"I didn't ask to be introduced," I observed, a little annoyed.
"Well, I offered to bring you to her; but she said, "Another time." Never mind, old fellow, perhaps there'll be a smash, and you'll have a chance of rescuing her and cutting out the Duke of Strelsau!"
No smash, however, happened, either to me or to Madame de Mauban. I can speak for her as confidently as for myself; for when, after a night's rest in Dresden, I continued my journey, she got into the same train. Understanding that she wished to be let alone, I avoided her carefully, but I saw that she went the same way as I did to the very end of my journey, and I took opportunities of having a good look at her, when I could do so unobserved.
As soon as we reached the Ruritanian frontier (where the old officer who presided over the Custom House favoured me with such a stare that I felt surer than before of my Elphberg physiognomy), I bought the papers, and found in them news which affected my movements. For some reason, which was not clearly explained, and seemed to be something of a mystery, the date of the coronation had been suddenly advanced, and the ceremony was to take place on the next day but one. The whole country seemed in a stir about it, and it was evident that Strelsau was thronged. Rooms were all let and hotels overflowing; there would be very little chance of my obtaining a lodging, and I should certainly have to pay an exorbitant charge for it. I made up my mind to stop at Zenda, a small town fifty miles short of the capital, and about ten from the frontier. My train reached there in the evening; I would spend the next day, Tuesday, in a wander over the hills, which were said to be very fine, and in taking a glance at the famous Castle, and go over by train to Strelsau on the Wednesday morning, returning at night to sleep at Zenda.
Accordingly at Zenda I got out, and as the train passed where I stood on the platform, I saw my friend Madame de Mauban in her place; clearly she was going through to Strelsau, having, with more providence than I could boast, secured apartments there. I smiled to think how surprised George Featherly would have been to know that she and I had been fellow travellers for so long.
I was very kindly received at the hotel--it was really no more than an inn--kept by a fat old lady and her two daughters. They were good, quiet people, and seemed very little interested in the great doings at Strelsau. The old lady's hero was the duke, for he was now, under the late King's will, master of the Zenda estates and of the Castle, which rose grandly on its steep hill at the end of the valley a mile or so from the inn. The old lady, indeed, did not hesitate to express regret that the duke was not on the throne, instead of his brother.
"We know Duke Michael," said she. "He has always lived among us; every Ruritanian knows Duke Michael. But the King is almost a stranger; he has been so much abroad, not one in ten knows him even by sight."
"And now," chimed in one of the young women, "they say he has shaved off his beard, so that no one at all knows him."
"Shaved his beard!" exclaimed her mother. "Who says so?"
"Johann, the duke's keeper. He has seen the King."
"Ah, yes. The King, sir, is now at the duke's hunting-lodge in the forest here; from here he goes to Strelsau to be crowned on Wednesday morning."
I was interested to hear this, and made up my mind to walk next day in the direction of the lodge, on the chance of coming across the King. The old lady ran on garrulously:
"Ah, and I wish he would stay at his hunting--that and wine (and one thing more) are all he loves, they say--and suffer our duke to be crowned on Wednesday. That I wish, and I don't care who knows it."
"Hush, mother!" urged the daughters.
"Oh, there's many to think as I do!" cried the old woman stubbornly.
I threw myself back in my deep armchair, and laughed at her zeal.
"For my part," said the younger and prettier of the two daughters, a fair, buxom, smiling wench, "I hate Black Michael! A red Elphberg for me, mother! The King, they say, is as red as a fox or as--"
And she laughed mischievously as she cast a glance at me, and tossed her head at her sister's reproving face.
"Many a man has cursed their red hair before now," muttered the old lady--and I remembered James, fifth Earl of Burlesdon.
"But never a woman!" cried the girl.
"Ay, and women, when it was too late," was the stern answer, reducing the girl to silence and blushes.
"How comes the King here?" I asked, to break an embarrassed silence. "It is the duke's land here, you say."
"The duke invited him, sir, to rest here till Wednesday. The duke is at Strelsau, preparing the King's reception."
"Then they're friends?"
"None better," said the old lady.
But my rosy damsel tossed her head again; she was not to be repressed for long, and she broke out again:
"Ay, they love one another as men do who want the same place and the same wife!"
The old woman glowered; but the last words pricked my curiosity, and I interposed before she could begin scolding:
"What, the same wife, too! How's that, young lady?"
"All the world knows that Black Michael--well then, mother, the duke--would give his soul to marry his cousin, the Princess Flavia, and that she is to be the queen."
"Upon my word," said I, "I begin to be sorry for your duke. But if a man will be a younger son, why he must take what the elder leaves, and be as thankful to God as he can;" and, thinking of myself, I shrugged my shoulders and laughed. And then I thought also of Antoinette de Mauban and her journey to Strelsau.
"It's little dealing Black Michael has with--" began the girl, braving her mother's anger; but as she spoke a heavy step sounded on the floor, and a gruff voice asked in a threatening tone:
"Who talks of "Black Michael" in his Highness's own burgh?"
The girl gave a little shriek, half of fright--half, I think, of amusement.
"You'll not tell of me, Johann?" she said.
"See where your chatter leads," said the old lady.
The man who had spoken came forward.
"We have company, Johann," said my hostess, and the fellow plucked off his cap. A moment later he saw me, and, to my amazement, he started back a step, as though he had seen something wonderful.
"What ails you, Johann?" asked the elder girl. "This is a gentleman on his travels, come to see the coronation."
The man had recovered himself, but he was staring at me with an intense, searching, almost fierce glance.
"Good evening to you," said I.
"Good evening, sir," he muttered, still scrutinizing me, and the merry girl began to laugh as she called--
"See, Johann, it is the colour you love! He started to see your hair, sir. It's not the colour we see most of here in Zenda."
"I crave your pardon, sir," stammered the fellow, with puzzled eyes. "I expected to see no one."
"Give him a glass to drink my health in; and I'll bid you good night, and thanks to you, ladies, for your courtesy and pleasant conversation."
So speaking, I rose to my feet, and with a slight bow turned to the door. The young girl ran to light me on the way, and the man fell back to let me pass, his eyes still fixed on me. The moment I was by, he started a step forward, asking:
"Pray, sir, do you know our King?"
"I never saw him," said I. "I hope to do so on Wednesday."
He said no more, but I felt his eyes following me till the door closed behind me. My saucy conductor, looking over her shoulder at me as she preceded me upstairs, said:
"There's no pleasing Master Johann for one of your colour, sir."
"He prefers yours, maybe?" I suggested.
"I meant, sir, in a man," she answered, with a coquettish glance.
"What," asked I, taking hold of the other side of the candlestick, "does colour matter in a man?"
"Nay, but I love yours--it's the Elphberg red."
"Colour in a man," said I, "is a matter of no more moment than that!' --and I gave her something of no value.
"God send the kitchen door be shut!" said she.
"Amen!" said I, and left her.
In fact, however, as I now know, colour is sometimes of considerable moment to a man.