“Well, perhaps you will not be so unkind to me as your brother,” said she. “Come to me,” and as she spoke she held out her arms.
The little girl came to her without hesitation, and began to smooth the silken tresses which were coiled and wreathed around Ravina’s head.
“Pretty, pretty,” she murmured, “beautiful lady.”
“You see, Paul Sergevitch, that your little daughter has taken to me at once,” remarked Ravina.
“She takes after her father, who was always noted for his good taste,” returned Paul, with a bow; “but take care, madam, or the little puss will have your necklace off.”
The child had indeed succeeded in unclasping the glittering ornament, and was now inspecting it in high glee.
“That is a curious ornament,” said Paul, stepping up to the child and taking the circlet from her hand.
It was indeed a quaintly fashioned ornament, consisting as it did of a number of what were apparently curved pieces of sharp-pointed horn set in gold, and depending from a snake of the same precious metal.
“Why, these are claws,” continued he, as he looked at them more carefully.
“Yes, wolves’ claws,” answered Ravina, taking the necklet from the child and reclasping it round her neck. “It is a family relic which I have always worn.”
Katrina at first seemed inclined to cry at her new plaything being taken from her, but by caresses and endearments Ravina soon contrived to lull her once more into a good temper.
“My daughter has certainly taken to you in a most wonderful manner,” remarked Paul, with a pleased smile. “You have quite obtained possession of her heart.”
“Not yet, whatever I may do later on,” answered the woman, with her strange cold smile, as she pressed the child closer towards her and shot a glance at Paul which made him quiver with an emotion that he had never felt before. Presently, however, the child grew tired of her new acquaintance, and sliding down from her knee, crept from the room in search of her brother Alexis.
Paul and Ravina remained silent for a few instants, and then the woman broke the silence.
“All that remains for me now, Paul Sergevitch, is to trespass on your hospitality, and to ask you to lend me some disguise, and assist me to gain the nearest post town, which, I think, is Vitroski.”
“And why should you wish to leave this at all,” demanded Paul, a deep flush rising to his cheek. “You are perfectly safe in my house, and if you attempt to pursue your journey there is every chance of your being recognized and captured.”
“Why do I wish to leave this house?” answered Ravina, rising to her feet and casting a look of surprise upon her interrogator. “Can you ask me such a question? How is it possible for me to remain here?”
“It is perfectly impossible for you to leave; of that I am quite certain,” answered the man, doggedly. “All I know is, that if you leave Kostopchin, you will inevitably fall into the hands of the police.”
“And Paul Sergevitch will tell them where they can find me?” questioned Ravina, with an ironical inflection in the tone of her voice.
“I never said so,” returned Paul.
“Perhaps not,” answered the woman, quickly, “but I am not slow in reading thoughts; they are sometimes plainer to read than words. You are saying to yourself, ‘Kostopchin is but a dull hole after all; chance has thrown into my hands a woman whose beauty pleases me; she is utterly friendless, and is in fear of the pursuit of the police; why should I not bend her to my will?’ That is what you have been thinking, — is it not so, Paul Sergevitch?”
“I never thought, that is ——” stammered the man.
“No, you never thought that I could read you so plainly,” pursued the woman, pitilessly; “but it is the truth that I have told you, and sooner than remain an inmate of your house, I would leave it, even if all the police of Russia stood ready to arrest me on its very threshold.”
“Stay, Ravina,” exclaimed Paul, as the woman made a step towards the door. “I do not say whether your reading of my thoughts is right or wrong, but before you leave, listen to me. I do not speak to you in the usual strain of a pleading lover, — you, who know my past, would laugh at me should I do so; but I tell you plainly that from the first moment that I set eyes upon you, a strange new feeling has risen up in my heart, not the cold thing that society calls love, but a burning resistless flood which flows down like molten lava from the volcano’s crater. Stay, Ravina, stay, I implore you, for if you go from here you will take my heart with you.”
“You may be speaking more truthfully than you think,” returned the fair woman, as, turning back, she came close up to Paul, and placing both her hands upon his shoulders, shot a glance of lurid fire from her eyes. “Still, you have but given me a selfish reason for my staying, only your own self-gratification. Give me one that more nearly affects myself.”
Ravina’s touch sent a tremor through Paul’s whole frame which caused every nerve and sinew to vibrate. Gaze as boldly as he might into those steel-blue eyes, he could not sustain their intensity.
“Be my wife, Ravina,” faltered he. “Be my wife. You are safe enough from all pursuit here, and if that does not suit you I can easily convert my estate into a large sum of money, and we can fly to other lands, where you can have nothing to fear from the Russian police.”
“And does Paul Sergevitch actually mean to offer his hand to a woman whose name he does not even know, and of whose feelings towards him he is entirely ignorant?” asked the woman, with her customary mocking laugh.
“What do I care for name or birth,” returned he, hotly, “I have enough for both, and as for love, my passion would soon kindle some sparks of it in your breast, cold and frozen as it may now be.”
“Let me think a little,” said Ravina; and throwing herself into an armchair she buried her face in her hands and seemed plunged in deep reflection, whilst Paul paced impatiently up and down the room like a prisoner awaiting the verdict that would restore him to life or doom him to a shameful death.
At length Ravina removed her hands from her face and spoke.
“Listen,” said she. “I have thought over your proposal seriously, and upon certain conditions, I will consent to become your wife.”
“They are granted in advance,” broke in Paul, eagerly.
“Make no bargains blindfold,” answered she, “but listen. At the present moment I have no inclination for you, but on the other hand I feel no repugnance for you. I will remain here for a month, and during that time I shall remain in a suite of apartments which you will have prepared for me. Every evening I will visit you here, and upon your making yourself agreeable my ultimate decision will depend.”
“And suppose that decision should be an unfavorable one?” asked Paul.
“Then,” answered Ravina, with a ringing laugh, “I shall, as you say, leave this and take your heart with me.”
“These are hard conditions,” remarked Paul. “Why not shorten the time of probation?”
“My conditions are unalterable,” answered Ravina, with a little stamp of the foot. “Do you agree to them or not?”
“I have no alternative,” answered he, sullenly; “but remember that I am to see you every evening.”
“For two hours,” said the woman, “so you must try and make yourself as agreeable as you can in that time; and now, if you will give orders regarding my rooms, I will settle myself in them with as little delay as possible.”
Paul obeyed her, and in a couple of hours three handsome chambers were got ready for their fair occupant in a distant part of the great rambling house.