Sir Percy bowed very low, with all the graceful flourish and elaborate gesture the eccentric customs of the time demanded.
He had not said a word, since the first exclamation of warning with which he had drawn his friend's attention to the young girl in the doorway.
Noiselessly, as she had come, Juliette glided out of the room again, leaving behind her an atmosphere of wild flowers, of the bouquet she had gathered, then scattered in the woods.
There was silence in the room for a while. Déroulède was locking up his desk and slipping the keys into his pocket.
"Shall we join my mother for a moment, Blakeney?" he said, moving towards the door.
"I shall be proud to pay my respects," replied Sir Percy; "but before we close the subject, I think I'll change my mind about those papers. If I am to be of service to you I think I had best look through them, and give you my opinion of your schemes."
Déroulède looked at him keenly for a moment.
"Certainly," he said at last, going up to his desk. "I'll stay with you whilst you read them through."
"La! not to-night, my friend," said Sir Percy lightly; "the hour is late, and madame is waiting for us. They'll be quite safe with me, an you'll entrust them to my care."
Déroulède seemed to hesitate. Blakeney had spoken in his usual airy manner, and was even now busy readjusting the set of his perfectly-tailored coat.
"Perhaps you cannot quite trust me?" laughed Sir Percy gaily. "I seemed too lukewarm just now."
"No; it's not that, Blakeney!" said Déroulède quietly at last. "There is no mistrust in me, all the mistrust is on your side."
"Faith!--" began Sir Percy.
"Nay! do not explain. I understand and appreciate your friendship, but I should like to convince you how unjust is your mistrust of one of God's purest angels, that ever walked the earth."
"Oho! that's it, is it, friend Déroulède? Methought you had foresworn the sex altogether, and now you are in love."
"Madly, blindly, stupidly in love, my friend," said Déroulède with a sigh. "Hopelessly, I fear me!"
"She is the daughter of the late Duc de Marny, one of the oldest names in France; a Royalist to the backbone--"
"Hence your overwhelming sympathy for the Queen!"
"Nay! you wrong me there, friend. I'd have tried to save the Queen, even if I had never learned to love Juliette. But you see now how unjust were your suspicions."
"Had I any?"
"Don't deny it. You were loud in urging me to burn those papers a moment ago. You called them useless and dangerous and now--"
"I still think them useless and dangerous, and by reading them would wish to confirm my opinion and give weight to my arguments."
"If I were to part from them now I would seem to be mistrusting her."
"You are a mad idealist, my dear Déroulède!"
"How can I help it? I have lived under the same roof with her for three weeks now. I have begun to understand what a saint is like."
"And 'twill be when you understand that your idol has feet of clay that you'll learn the real lesson of love," said Blakeney earnestly. "Is it love to worship a saint in heaven, whom you dare not touch, who hovers above you like a cloud, which floats away from you even as you gaze? To love is to feel one being in the world at one with us, our equal in sin as well as in virtue. To love, for us men, is to clasp one woman with our arms, feeling that she lives and breathes just as we do, suffers as we do, thinks with us, loves with us, and, above all, sins with us. Your mock saint who stands in a niche is not a woman if she have not suffered, still less a woman if she have not sinned. Fall at the feet of your idol an you wish, but drag her down to your level after that--the only level she should ever reach, that of your heart."
Who shall render faithfully a true account of the magnetism which poured forth from this remarkable man as he spoke: this well-dressed, foppish apostle of the greatest love that man has ever known. And as he spoke the whole story of his own great, true love for the woman who once had so deeply wronged him seemed to stand clearly written in the strong, lazy, good-humoured, kindly face glowing with tenderness for her.
Déroulède felt this magnetism, and therefore did not resent the implied suggestion anent the saint whom he was still content to worship.
A dreamer and an idealist, his mind held spellbound by the great social problems which were causing the upheaval of a whole country, he had not yet had the time to learn the sweet lesson which Nature teaches to her elect--the lesson of a great, a true, human and passionate love. To him, at present, Juliette represented the perfect embodiment of his most idealistic dreams. She stood in his mind so far above him that if she proved unattainable, he would scarce have suffered. It was such a foregone conclusion.
Blakeney's words were the first to stir in his heart a desire for something beyond that quasi-mediæval worship, something weaker and yet infinitely stronger, something more earthly and yet almost divine.
"And now, shall we join the ladies?" said Blakeney after a long pause, during which the mental workings of his alert brain were almost visible, in the earnest look which he cast at his friend. "You shall keep the papers in your desk, give them into the keeping of your saint, trust her all in all rather than not at all, and if the time should come that your heaven-enthroned ideal fall somewhat heavily to earth, then give me the privilege of being a witness to your happiness."
"You are still mistrustful, Blakeney," said Déroulède lightly. "If you say much more I'll give these papers into Mademoiselle Marny's keeping until to-morrow."