The girl came into the room with a darting movement like a swallow, looked round her with the same birdlike quickness, and then ran across the polished floor to where a young man sat on a sofa with one leg laid along it.
"I have saved you this dance, Quentin," she said, pronouncing the name with a pretty staccato. "You must be lonely not dancing, so I will sit with you. What shall we talk about?"
The young man did not answer at once, for his gaze was held by her face. He had never dreamed that the gawky and rather plain little girl whom he had romped with long ago in Paris would grow into such a being. The clean delicate lines of her figure, the exquisite pure colouring of hair and skin, the charming young arrogance of the eyes—this was beauty, he reflected, a miracle, a revelation. Her virginal fineness and her dress, which was the tint of pale fire, gave her the air of a creature of ice and flame.
"About yourself, please, Saskia," he said. "Are you happy now that you are a grown-up lady?"
"Happy!" Her voice had a thrill in it like music, frosty music. "The days are far too short. I grudge the hours when I must sleep. They say it is sad for me to make my début in a time of war. But the world is very kind to me, and after all it is a victorious war for our Russia. And listen to me, Quentin. To-morrow I am to be allowed to begin nursing at the Alexander Hospital. What do you think of that?"
The time was January 1916, and the place a room in the great Nirski Palace. No hint of war, no breath from the snowy streets, entered that curious chamber where Prince Peter Nirski kept some of the chief of his famous treasures. It was notable for its lack of drapery and upholstering—only a sofa or two and a few fine rugs on the cedar floor. The walls were of a green marble veined like malachite, the ceiling was of darker marble inlaid with white intaglios. Scattered everywhere were tables and cabinets laden with celadon china, and carved jade, and ivories, and shimmering Persian and Rhodian vessels. In all the room there was scarcely anything of metal and no touch of gilding or bright colour. The light came from green alabaster censers, and the place swam in a cold green radiance like some cavern below the sea. The air was warm and scented, and though it was very quiet there, a hum of voices and the strains of dance music drifted to it from the pillared corridor in which could be seen the glare of lights from the great ballroom beyond.
The young man had a thin face with lines of suffering round the mouth and eyes. The warm room had given him a high colour, which increased his air of fragility. He felt a little choked by the place, which seemed to him for both body and mind a hot-house, though he knew very well that the Nirski Palace on this gala evening was in no way typical of the land or its masters. Only a week ago he had been eating black bread with its owner in a hut on the Volhynian front.
"You have become amazing, Saskia," he said. "I won't pay my old playfellow compliments; besides, you must be tired of them. I wish you happiness all the day long like a fairy-tale Princess. But a crock like me can't do much to help you to it. The service seems to be the wrong way round, for here you are wasting your time talking to me."
She put her hand on his. "Poor Quentin! Is the leg very bad?"
He laughed. "O, no. It's mending famously. I'll be able to get about without a stick in another month, and then you've got to teach me all the new dances."
The jigging music of a two-step floated down the corridor. It made the young man's brow contract, for it brought to him a vision of dead faces in the gloom of a November dusk. He had once had a friend who used to whistle that air, and he had seen him die in the Hollebeke mud. There was something macabre in the tune.... He was surely morbid this evening, for there seemed something macabre about the house, the room, the dancing, all Russia.... These last days he had suffered from a sense of calamity impending, of a dark curtain drawing down upon a splendid world. They didn't agree with him at the Embassy, but he could not get rid of the notion.
The girl saw his sudden abstraction.
"What are you thinking about?" she asked. It had been her favourite question as a child.
"I was thinking that I rather wished you were still in Paris."
"Because I think you would be safer."
"Oh, what nonsense, Quentin dear! Where should I be safe if not in my own Russia, where I have friends—oh, so many, and tribes and tribes of relations? It is France and England that are unsafe with the German guns grumbling at their doors....My complaint is that my life is too cosseted and padded. I am too secure, and I do not want to be secure."
The young man lifted a heavy casket from a table at his elbow. It was of dark green imperial jade, with a wonderfully carved lid. He took off the lid and picked up three small oddments of ivory—a priest with a beard, a tiny soldier, and a draught-ox. Putting the three in a triangle, he balanced the jade box on them.
"Look, Saskia! If you were living inside that box you would think it very secure. You would note the thickness of the walls and the hardness of the stone, and you would dream away in a peaceful green dusk. But all the time it would be held up by trifles—brittle trifles."
She shook her head. "You do not understand. You cannot understand. We are a very old and strong people with roots deep, deep in the earth."
"Please God you are right," he said. "But, Saskia, you know that if I can ever serve you, you have only to command me. Now I can do no more for you than the mouse for the lion—at the beginning of the story. But the story had an end, you remember, and some day it may be in my power to help you. Promise to send for me."
The girl laughed merrily. "The King of Spain's daughter," she quoted,
"Came to visit me,
And all for the love
Of my little nut-tree."
The other laughed also, as a young man in the uniform of the Preobrajenski Guards approached to claim the girl. "Even a nut-tree may be a shelter in a storm," he said.
"Of course I promise, Quentin," she said. "Au revoir. Soon I will come and take you to supper, and we will talk of nothing but nut-trees."
He watched the two leave the room, her gown glowing like a tongue of fire in that shadowy archway. Then he slowly rose to his feet, for he thought that for a little he would watch the dancing. Something moved beside him, and he turned in time to prevent the jade casket from crashing to the floor. Two of the supports had slipped.
He replaced the thing on its proper table and stood silent for a moment.
"The priest and the soldier gone, and only the beast of burden left.... If I were inclined to be superstitious, I should call that a dashed bad omen."