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It is hard for a widowed father to raise a daughter all by himself. Still, as Herr Kruger smiled dotingly at the young lady making a deep and playful curtsy before him, he congratulated himself that he had not done too badly. It did not occur to him that the deceptively simple white gown that draped her bosom and hips and lent her the undoubted aura of the elegant female had been selected (and paid for) by her maternal aunt, the Countess Hermione von Rossner.
Having a thatch of stiff, adamantly straight hair?once red, now thankfully turned a distinguished white?he could hardly take credit for his daughter's luxurious sable curls. Her long, small bones and her ivory complexion, like her dark eyes, were a gift from her late Mama. Her schooling had been arranged by her Aunt Hermione at a select ladies? seminary, but still she was Herr Kruger's daughter, and she did him credit. He admired beauty above anything except perhaps money, and Maria was undeniably a beauty.
"It will do," he admitted judiciously. "You will be the belle of the ball. Do not let it go to your head?the competition is not formidable. Where is the party held this evening, by the by? I hope it is not one of those damnably dull English do's."
In this year of our Lord, 1814, the party might be hosted by any country, for all the western powers were assembled in Vienna for the Congress that was to redivide among them those territories recently snatched back from the deposed Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was at the time forcibly residing at Elba. Indeed it seemed to an idle observer such as Kruger that the main purpose of the Congress was to entertain the multinational visitors. Therewere balls and masquerade parties, carousels and carnivals, military demonstrations, rides in the Wienerwald, there were concerts and petits soupers enough to satisfy the most hardened hedonist. Even Herr Kruger occasionally wished for a respite.
"No, it is one of our Austrian parties this evening, Papa. Metternich is a wicked flirt, but he does toss delightful parties. There will be gallons of lovely champagne, and hundreds of lovely gallants to dance the new waltz with me," Maria replied airily, as she lifted the hem of her skirt, to twirl about the saloon in the intoxicating rhythm of the waltz. Raising her empty fingers, she took an imaginary sip from an imaginary glass.
"Count Rechberg will have plenty of competition, eh?" he asked, with a little wary light in his impish eyes.
"Enough to bring him up to scratch, but not too much. I don't mean to let him slip through my fingers. At twenty-one, it is time I secure myself a good parti, as the English call it. Odd they use the French word for it, no??
"The English often use the French word when they wish to cloak a vulgarity in style. Young ladies there do not jilt their lovers; they give them their congé. Their prostitutes are called demi-reps, and their gossip they term on dits," he informed her.
"That is true," she nodded. "Their pregnant ladies were always said to be enceinte, and when one is wished elsewhere, he is said to be de trop. I like them though. Their men are serious, not Kavaliers, like you, Papa, showering us with compliments, but dependable. I would as soon put my trust in an Englishman as in anyone."
"Yes, fair play, justice?all that I grant them. And with it a total lack of humor. They have some wit, and indulge in childish horseplay, but they do not have what I would call a sense of humor. There are many excellent English melords about Vienna these days, with the Congress in progress. You might give Rechberg the slip and nab one, eh?" he asked, mentioning it in a casual way, though he regarded her closely for a reaction.
"For marriage, one is better with her own. Rechberg is about to declare himself. I shan't say no. You approve, Papa? He is well born, wealthy, no more a libertine than any of the others."
"We shall see. Let us not speak of serious matters when we are on our way to a party," he hedged. Kruger liked to be happy, and he liked those he loved to be happy. In him, this attitude went beyond any intrinsic merit to become a positive flaw in his character. He disliked to perform an unpleasant duty, and it would be extremely unpleasant indeed to have to tell his daughter that Rechberg had that same afternoon paid the ceremonial call, only to back off when he learned the minimal size of Maria's dowry.
Something would be worked out, he assured himself. Maria was young?she would fall in love with someone else, who would love her enough to overlook her lack of funds. In his own mind, he could see no gentleman but an Englishman being so foolish as to actually follow this impractical course. An Austrian would know better. A Frenchman would no more marry a portionless girl than he would give up his wine. It began to look as though Maria must marry herself a humorless melord and go back to England.
At least she liked that foggy, frigid little island. Some glamour, nostalgia, allure hung about it in her mind, for it was there she had grown from an awkward, coltish adolescent into womanhood: Kruger had been attached to the Austrian embassy as assistant to Prince Esterhazy, and had a wide circle of English acquaintances. She had made her bows at Almack?s, that dull, prestigious social club where one gambled for pennies, drank lemonade, and dared not flirt for fear of offending the patronesses. Ah?it was so dreadfully English, that Almack's. A father could not be entirely happy to think of his daughter being confined to it for the rest of her days, so he did not think of it.
"I see you wear your Mama's diamonds," he said, looking closely at the necklace around Maria's ivory neck.
"I do not want to be outsparkled by the other ladies. Should I wear a bracelet too, do you think??
"Better to err on the side of underadornment. An excess of sparkle is vulgar. In fact, you should wear no jewelry at all. Stand out by being different."
"No jewels!" she exclaimed, and laughed, showing a flash of white teeth that turned her face, a trifle haughty in repose, into a beautiful, sunny rhapsody. The sound of her laughter too pleased his ear. It was deep, throaty, a woman's laugh. His little Maria was no longer a girl.
"Come, do as your Papa tells you," he said, with a joking severity. He walked to her, unfastened the necklace and carried it off to the vault himself, as carefully as though it were made of real diamonds. It was not likely anyone would know the difference, so well had Eynard fashioned the paste facsimiles, but there was one English nobleman who had lately been observing Maria through his quizzing glass with increasing frequency.
This gentleman, unfortunately, had the reputation of a connoisseur. If it should be arranged, for example, that Lord Moncrief stand up with Maria for a waltz, or take her to dinner, he would not fail to observe that her ?diamond? necklace was made of strass glass. He was immensely wealthy, this Moncrief, and not so insular as most of his countrymen. One could tolerate to have him for a son-in-law, as he spoke French and German well.
"The door knocker?that will be your Aunt Hermione," he said as he returned to the saloon.
The Countess entered, an aging relict of neither grace nor beauty, but of a staggeringly large fortune. She had approximately twenty-five thousand pounds worth of jewelry plastered over her gaunt anatomy. Her hair, on those rare occasions when one's eyes were abused by a sight of it, was an ugly brindled shade, and extremely scanty. White scalp peeped out from the thin covering. For this reason, she more usually concealed it beneath a turban. Why such a large turban was required on so small a head, Kruger had never discovered.
On this evening, the turban was gold, the feather protruding from it green, held with a large emerald pin. A sagging, iridescent green gown covered her body. In lieu of bosom, she wore two clusters of diamond brooches, one on either side. An ivory slatted fan, with which she would soon be playfully beating him, hung from her wrist.
She smiled gaily up at him, revealing a full complement of yellow teeth, which were thin and sharp. "Countess, charming, as usual," he said, with a ritual nod of his head, then he took her hand and raised it to his lips.
"Naughty boy!" she said, giving him a tap with the fan. "Does she know?" were her next words.
"Know? Know what?" he asked, with a repressive frown.
"Peter, you cannot mean you were going to let the poor girl go without telling her! Oh that is shabby behavior!?
"What is it? What has happened?" Maria asked in alarm.
"Nothing, my pet. Nothing for you to worry about," Kruger answered, glaring at Hermione. "Folks are saying Rechberg is not so well-to-do as we had supposed. That is all. There is talk of an heiress he has been seen about with."
"That's impossible!" Maria exclaimed. "He said only last night... Papa, has he spoken to you? Has he discussed marriage??
"I don't see why you had to bring it up at this time!" Kruger charged, turning to the Countess with an angry, flushed face. "He did speak to me, Maria. His financial situation is such that I cannot approve of the match at this time. That is all. If he brings himself around, then we shall see."
"But his family is wealthy, Papa! We could live on my portion till he inherits," Maria said. This news of Rechberg's financial position did not come as a total surprise. One knew that he lived high, and had not a large income at the present moment. His expectations, however, were excellent. It was not like her father not to think of the future.
"We shall speak of it another time. You can do better than a gambling clothes horse," Kruger told her, terminating the subject.
Maria exchanged a questioning glance with her aunt, a glance that spoke the promise of a heart-to-heart talk in the close future. But when the talk occurred, some half hour later in the ladies? room at the party, the Countess had nothing to add to Kruger's statement.
"Your Papa has decided you can do better," was all that could be got out of her.
It was a perfectly wretched evening. Count Rechberg was there, pretending he did not see her. He nodded at her once across the room, with a face that might have been carved from ice. He did not ask her to dance, nor even to have a glass of punch with him. His dancing attendance on his new heiress told those present which of them had done the jilting. The ignominy was as hard to bear as the pain. How dare he treat her so? And to cap her shame, her replacement was the daughter of an ale-maker, who was fast becoming wealthy with the amount of his product sold at the thirsty Congress. This was what he preferred to herself.
She danced till her head was dizzy, drank a great deal of champagne, flirted with all the officers and diplomatic aides, and went home and cried.