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قراءة كتاب The Playground of Satan

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‏اللغة: English
The Playground of Satan

The Playground of Satan

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دار النشر: Project Gutenberg
الصفحة رقم: 2

America brought mahogany to Poland. And in his clumsy, violent way, he made love to the reigning Countess of Ruvno, toasting her in that Hungarian wine which looks like liquid sunshine and makes your feet like lead. Some of the same vintage still lingered in the cellars when one smaller than Napoleon crossed the Polish borders a hundred years later.

Napoleon, remembering the good cheer, paused here again to take breath on his homeward flight. But this time there was neither toasting nor courting. The Countess, in solitude, wept for her gallant husband, whose body lay at Beresina, his gay tongue frozen forever, his blue eyes staring up at the stars in the fixed gaze of death. So the great man sat at the dead one's board, silent and sullen, surrounded by the weary, ragged remnants of his staff. Those who were in Ruvno that night said that he paced his room, restless and sleepless, till daybreak. Then he went his way, no longer a conquerer, but a fugitive.

A century later, Ruvno belonged to another widow and her son Ian, ruddy of face and broad in the shoulder. They were both up to date. They spoke English and French, and followed the fashions of western Europe. But their hearts and souls were with Poland, not only because they loved her, but because, too, race is stronger than love and hatred and death itself.

Ian spent most of his time on the Ruvno estate, and his mother's patrimony in Lithuania; but Ruvno was his heart's beloved. The Lithuanian estate was let on a long lease. He had a lively sense of his responsibilities, knowing that two watchful neighbors, Russia and Prussia, were ever working to denationalize the country and stamp out his race. His many acres were well cultivated, the peasants who worked on them well cared for. Though the Russian government forbade Polish schools, he and his mother saw to it that the children on their land learned to read and write their mother tongue. The Agricultural Society that had spread its branches all over Poland, despite opposition from Russian bureaucracy, had no more energetic member than he. Modern machinery and methods were rapidly replacing the old throughout the country, which was prosperous and enterprising. Ian did his share of this good work with intelligence and cheerfulness.

He thoroughly enjoyed his life; was a keen hunter; had no hankering after urban pleasures; knew no debt, confined his distractions to racing, in which he was moderate, and to a very occasional supper party after the opera, in Warsaw, Paris or Vienna.

To his mother he felt bound by a degree of affection and sympathy which rarely survive a son's early childhood. Other women bored him. His name had not been linked with one, of good repute or bad. Indeed, his circumspection with the opposite sex had become a joke among his friends, who teased him about it and searched for some well-hidden passion. But they did not find one, and contented themselves with dubbing him a woman-hater; which he was not. He knew he must marry some day; for what would become of Ruvno without an heir? But as the pleasant years slipped by, he told himself there was still time. And far down in his heart he had always relied upon Vanda.

Did he love her? The question rapped him as he left the rose garden for the paddock. He thought not. He liked to have her in the house, driving with his mother, keeping her company, helping her to entertain visitors during the shooting season, or going with her to Warsaw for shopping and the play. He knew she was fond of him; accepted her affection as he accepted so many other things which were daily facts in his existence. In the rare moments when he thought about marriage at all he comforted himself with the reflection that she was there, ready for the asking when the inevitable day came. It never crossed his mind that she might refuse. It would be so comfortable, one day, to wed her. Life would be the same as before. His mother would go on living with them; Vanda would wear the family jewels; the rooms that had been his own nurseries would be reopened and refurnished. And in due time little people would play and sleep in them as he and Vanda had done.

He was shy of other girls; they bored him; he never knew what to talk about. And he would have had to woo anybody but Vanda; no girl with any self-respect would marry him without preliminaries in which compliments and attention played a large part. Vanda did not ask to be wooed. They had met daily for years. And she was so suitable; so comely and well-bred, so thoroughly sound in her ideas of life, marriage and society. She would not want to drag him off to Monte Carlo and Paris every year. She loved the country, and Ruvno; knew his life and would not expect him to change it. Another bride might have all kinds of ideas in her head, might not like the place, or his mother, from whom he refused to be parted, whatever happened. Therefore her remarks about the Skarbeks worried him; if she noticed a difference in Vanda, then a difference there must be. He had not noticed it; but then he was particularly interested in some alterations that he was making in the Home Farm and had not paid much attention to her and to Minnie Burton, the English girl who was staying with them. He and Minnie "got on" very well; she was a good horsewoman and a good comrade; rode about with him and Vanda, quite content to talk of whatever work happened to be going on at Ruvno, or not to talk at all. He had been to England a good deal, spent a couple of years at Oxford after leaving Theresarium and made friends with Minnie's two brothers, who were coming to Ruvno for shooting in a month's time. She was to return home with them.

Thus the summer had been passing very pleasantly. Crops were promising, the weather kept fine. Life had never seemed fairer, he and the two girls had agreed that very morning, on their way back to breakfast after an early canter.

And now, the aspect was subtly changed. He looked up at the sky; it was still clear. There would be no rain; his hay was safe. What meant this feeling of vague unrest? Vanda? The idea was absurd. Both brothers could not be coming after her. Roman and Joseph were as different as any two men of one class and race can be. No; they were after horses, or Roman wanted to buy an estate in the neighborhood. He had often spoken of it; all he needed was the cash. Perhaps he had won plenty at Monte Carlo and was coming to spend it. Joseph, with his business head, was meeting him to see he did not spend foolishly. That was the whole thing in a nutshell. Anyway, they would be here before long.

Near the paddock he met Vanda. He was glad; he wanted to watch her face.

"Not so fast," he called out as she was running past with a nod. "Where are you going?"

"Aunt Natalie. I promised to give her an address and forgot all about it. My filly is better. I've just been there."

"You're very smart to-day," he remarked.

She looked down at her skirts.

"It's a hundred years old. You've seen it dozens of times."

"And very bonny," he added. And so she was. She had pretty brown hair and soft brown eyes, carried herself well and bore the marks of the healthy outdoor life they all led at Ruvno. A sweet wholesome girl, he thought, not for the first time, but with more interest than ever before. He did not guess that under her quiet manner lay a capacity for a deep passion; and pride to quell it.

She blushed at his compliment; he rarely gave her one.

"The Skarbeks are coming," he said, watching her closely. She