I fell over against her in a quite well-acted faint, which delighted her heart and nearly frightened it out of her, too, at the same time. When I came to and got calm, she was eager to know what I thought of her jewel.
'What do I think of it? I think it is the most exquisite thing I ever saw.'
'Do you really? How nice of you to say that! But it is a love, now isn't it?'
'Well, I should say so! I'd rather own it than the equator.'
'I thought you would admire it,' she said. 'I think it is so lovely. And there isn't another one in all these latitudes. People have come all the way from the open Polar Sea to look at it. Did you ever see one before?'
I said no, this was the first one I had ever seen. It cost me a pang to tell that generous lie, for I had seen a million of them in my time, this humble jewel of hers being nothing but a battered old New York Central baggage check.
'Land!' said I, 'you don't go about with it on your person this way, alone and with no protection, not even a dog?'
'Ssh! not so loud,' she said. 'Nobody knows I carry it with me. They think it is in papa's treasury. That is where it generally is.'
'Where is the treasury?'
It was a blunt question, and for a moment she looked startled and a little suspicious, but I said:
'Oh, come, don't you be afraid about me. At home we have seventy millions of people, and although I say it myself that shouldn't, there is not one person among them all but would trust me with untold fish-hooks.'
This reassured her, and she told me where the hooks were hidden in the house. Then she wandered from her course to brag a little about the size of the sheets of transparent ice that formed the windows of the mansion, and asked me if I had ever seen their like at home, and I came right out frankly and confessed that I hadn't, which pleased her more than she could find words to dress her gratification in. It was so easy to please her, and such a pleasure to do it, that I went on and said--
'Ah, Lasca, you are a fortune girl!--this beautiful house, this dainty jewel, that rich treasure, all this elegant snow, and sumptuous icebergs and limitless sterility, and public bears and walruses, and noble freedom and largeness and everybody's admiring eyes upon you, and everybody's homage and respect at your command without the asking; young, rich, beautiful, sought, courted, envied, not a requirement unsatisfied, not a desire ungratified, nothing to wish for that you cannot have--it is immeasurable good-fortune! I have seen myriads of girls, but none of whom these extraordinary things could be truthfully said but you alone. And you are worthy--worthy of it all, Lasca--I believe it in my heart.'
It made her infinitely proud and happy to hear me say this, and she thanked me over and over again for that closing remark, and her voice and eyes showed that she was touched. Presently she said:
'Still, it is not all sunshine--there is a cloudy side. The burden of wealth is a heavy one to bear. Sometimes I have doubted if it were not better to be poor--at least not inordinately rich. It pains me to see neighbouring tribesmen stare as they pass by, and overhear them say, reverently, one to another, "There--that is she--the millionaire's daughter!" And sometimes they say sorrowfully, "She is rolling in fish-hooks, and I--I have nothing." It breaks my heart. When I was a child and we were poor, we slept with the door open, if we chose, but now--now we have to have a night-watchman. In those days my father was gentle and courteous to all; but now he is austere and haughty and cannot abide familiarity. Once his family were his sole thought, but now he goes about thinking of his fish-hooks all the time. And his wealth makes everybody cringing and obsequious to him. Formerly nobody laughed at his jokes, they being always stale and far-fetched and poor, and destitute of the one element that can really justify a joke--the element of humour; but now everybody laughs and cackles at these dismal things, and if any fails to do it my father is deeply displeased, and shows it.