"i am sorry to say," said the comte de st denis, "that it has been a while since i hunted."
"but surely you have not forgotten how," mademoiselle cecile laughed.
"no, no, of course not." the comte chose his words carefully. "but i must have grown rusty. no doubt if i accompanied you tomorrow my ineptitude would embarrass me and hinder you."
"no doubt," the baron responded dryly.
"oh but sir," mademoiselle cecile looked steadily at the comte "you simply must conserve your strength tomorrow. for my sake, if not your own."
"i bow to your judgment, mademoiselle." the comte turned in the direction of his host. "if you don't mind my asking, sir, what exactly do you hunt in this remote area? i may be mistaken, but it seems unlikely that you have keepers, or any system to keep a supply of game."
"gamekeepers - what a thought!" for the first time the comte heard the baron actually laugh. "no sir, one of the many advantages of living outside the confines is that one get to hunt truly wild animals. animals that have no fear - only contempt - for humans."
"and you hunt them without recourse to - what for lack of a better term i shall term supernatural - resources?"
mademoiselle cecile laughed but did not respond.
"there is no such thing as the supernatural, sir," the baron replied in a milder voice than the traveler expected. "there are only the known and the unknown."
"and no one can know everything, can they?" added cecile.
"i suppose not."
"but here," said the baron. "is gruz, no doubt to rescue you and us from these fruitless and tiresome speculations. gruz, i take it our guest's repast is prepared and ready?"
"in that case, sir, i bid you good night. gruz will accompany you and then see you to your room. we will see you again tomorrow evening, when the sun has gone down."
the traveler rose from the couch. he was a little embarrassed to find himself suddenly overcome with weariness and unsteady on his feet. gruz took his arm unobtrusively and guided him out of the room.
a blast of cold air - from outside? - revived him when they were in the corridor. it was very dark in the corridor. the traveler looked back over his shoulder. no light seemed to be coming from the room they had left.
gruz stared at him and pointed him back down the corridor with his candle.
it was the most perfect day for a horse race that paris had ever seen.
the glittering world had made the milliners and haberdashers of the continent prosperous beyond their wildest dreams overnight , in their mad quest to have the latest cut of the finest cloth at any price, so as each to outshine their fellow on this most glorious of days.
however, one class of personage was miserably unhappy. the baron de t--------, and the other bookmakers of paris were having one of the worst cup days in memory. word had leaked out that the fix was in - the comte de g-----------'s horse, jebadar, would win in a walk, as a result of the foreign minister's gratitude to the comte de g-------- for his good offices in arranging the secret treaty with the sultan of y---------. (the treaty itself remained a secret known only to the foreign minister and his most trusted underlings, but the gesture of gratitude had been irrevocably compromised. when the baron de t---------, on behalf of the fraternity of bookmakers, had made a personal appeal to the foreign minister he had been rebuffed in a manner that bordered on insult, and had bowed and withdrawn rather than press the affair to a conclusion which would certainly have proved most unhappy for the minister).
but on the morning of the race the baron de t------ was determined to put a good face on things and to enjoy the spectacle and fine weather at least. he was lounging insouciantly at his favorite spot under an elm tree a hundred yards from the main gate, when he was hailed by his old friend the marquis de a-------. the marquis was accompanied by aristide b------, a young man from the provinces. the most distant provinces, as a quick glance at the cut of his clothes revealed to the baron, who, however, being a perfect gentleman, repressed a smile.
the marquis de a-------, who was not a bookmaker, and who, though an inveterate gambler on the turn of cards, did not wager on the sport of kings, was in a mood in harmony with the glorious day. after greetings had been exchanged and introductions made, the marquis turned a bemused countenance from the young man to the baron, and announced:
"my young cousin has had some good fortune lately - something about silver being found in his african possessions - and he wishes to increase that good fortune by wagering on the main race."
barely concealing his annoyance, the baron nodded politely to the young man. "on jebadar, no doubt."
"oh, no, monsieur, i am determined to wager all on assyrian prince."
"on assyrian prince!" the baron glanced at the marquis with the barest raising of his eyebrow.
"i have explained the situation to him." the marquis announced. "but he is determined to press on. i also explained that no one bookmaker, not even yourself, could guarantee a wager of the size he wishes to make. he is hoping to use your good offices to help him spread his wager among the brethren."
"and he is determined to wager "all", is he?" the baron's customary sangfroid was almost unequal to his astonishment. "do you have a reason for this, young man?"
"indeed i do, monsieur. the archangel jehudiel appeared to me in a dream last night, and told me that today i would see the most beautiful woman in the world, and that i should stake my entire fortune on assyrian prince in the cup."
"i see. and have you seen the most beautiful woman in the world?"
"not as yet, monsieur. but i have faith in the archangel."
just then a small commotion and excited murmuring broke out among the fops and neer-do-wells mingling just outside the main gate. a small white carriage, in the round antique style., had pulled up and its single occupant was stepping lightly to the ground.
it was mademoiselle cecile, in a simple white dress, her pale hair and green eyes flashing in the sun beneath a tiny blue parasol.