"A visitor to you, Miss," Edward Masterman said as she opened the door of Helena's private sitting-room. "That Hungarian Count from the Embassy you've been frequently seeing for the last several months."
Linda Arden and her daughter, engrossed in a conversation, were both startled. The famous actress slightly raised a brow, showing nothing but a vague irritation, but Helena's deep blush betrayed her thoughts. Linda noticed it and nodded to Masterman:
"Let him in, Edward – Helena, I'm going to post my letter to Mary, will be back in half an hour."
She smiled at Helena and left. The girl heard polite greeting exchange "Good afternoon, Count Andrenyi – How do you do, Mrs. Arden?", and in a minute Masterman escorted Count Andrenyi into the room.
"Good afternoon, Helena," the young count smiled and bowed.
"Please do be seated," she replied awkwardly, gesturing to the ottoman and the armchairs. Count Andrenyi had an idea some time ago that they should call each other their first names, but she was still reluctant to call him Rudolph. She was even reluctant about where their close acquaintance was going to lead.
"No, no… it's fine," he shook his head. "How are you feeling these days?"
"Er… Quite well, thank you. The nightmares are scarce, and the headaches are not as violent as before."
"I'm glad," the Count said simply, leaning against the ottoman. A nervous smile appeared on his lips, then faded:
"I have some news. In about two months, I'm going back to Budapest."
"Already?" Helena exclaimed.
"What do you mean – 'already'?" his well-articulated voice showed surprise, but a strange gleam of – hope? joy? – lightened in his gray eyes. "I've been in the USA for nearly a year."
Helena could barely hide her sadness. Count Andrenyi had been her closest friend and companion, and now he was going to Europe. They would have to exchange letters, nothing more, they would be separated by a wide ocean… She was sure, of course, that nothing was serious between them… Or better to say, she was sure that she was unsure about their relationship. But anyway, it would be dreadful to lose it.
"Goodness, time flies," the girl tried to hide her thoughts behind a light coquettish smile.
"Yes, yes, time really flies," the Count hurriedly nodded. "Therefore, can I bother you for – for a moment, a minute? There is one question… I don't want to delay asking it."
"Of course, you can ask whatever you want," Helena smiled reassuringly.
He stood on one knee in front of her:
"Helena, darling, you're the sweetest and loveliest girl I ever met. It would break my heart to be separated from you. I've loved you since the moment I saw you at that party. You were so gentle and attentive to me during these months that I dared to hope that my love wasn't unrequited. Now that my leaving is approaching fast, I can't hide it any longer. Dear Helena, will you marry me?"
Helena blushed, then paled.
"Oh… it's very s-s-sudden," she stuttered. "I… am… I am… quite at a loss."
How dreadfully clichéd it sounds, she thought, but I have to say something after all.
"Helena, can I hope this is not a no?" Count Andrenyi exclaimed, taking her hand in his.
Helena sighed and made up her mind.
"I am very sorry to pain you, sir, but it is a no. I can't marry you."
The Count looked so broken than the girl's heart almost stopped:
"Can you at least tell me why you declined? Please, be honest – if I utterly disgust you, say so."
His beautiful eyes, full of hurt and confusion, met hers. Helena knew she couldn't lie to him.
"Swear to me you won't tell anyone about this secret," she whispered.
"I swear on my honor," he nodded. Helena swallowed and began to explain:
"Rudolph…" it was the first time she used his name without hesitation. "I think I have grown very fond of you. I can't say it is love, but I would have accepted you – if it wasn't for one thing. The thing is that my family and friends are planning a revenge on Cassetti."
"That criminal who was the cause of your sister's family's death," the Count whispered. She nodded and continued:
"They are going to kill him – I don't know how yet, but I am going to help them. There are twelve of us, as Colonel Arbuthnot (you remember him, right?) suggested – the honest, just jury who are going to declare Cassetti guilty and perform the execution.
"But Cassetti lives under an alias now. An alias of a law-abiding man. We can probably be caught and executed for it ourselves. And even if we're not… I wouldn't want you to live with a murderess."
There was a long, torturous pause. And then Count Andrenyi rose and clasped Helena in his arms.
"You won't have to spill blood," he said. "I will be one of the jury instead of you."
"What?" Helena cried, barely believing her ears. She thought he would hate her now!
"Darling, Cassetti is a ruthless, cruel murderer. He had dozen of victims before and maybe after poor Daisy. If it wasn't for his money and the jury's greed, he would have been electrocuted long ago. But I will not allow you to kill even a beast like him. It's not a sweet young maiden's task. I will kill the dragon (well, Cassetti – there're no big difference), save you from your nightmare, and answer for it before anyone! I've never been more honest and determined before."
"Oh – but…"
"Helena, if this has stopped you from saying yes, maybe you'll reconsider your answer now?" the Count asked, a glimmer of hope back in his eyes. "Don't think of Cassetti. Think of yourself and… and me."
The girl bit her lip, her soul a whirlwind of emotions. Did she love him? Could she link her life with him? Was she too confused to answer now? But, as she had already truthfully told him, she had grown very much attached to him. He brought something like a new sunlight into her life – a new sunlight in the cloudy nightmares.
"Yes," she breathed. "I'm saying yes now."
The happiest of smiles lit on Count Andrenyi's face, as he leaned closer to her and cupped her cheek with his hand.
…Linda Arden returned to the sitting-room to see her daughter in the arms of Count Andrenyi, their lips locked in a deep kiss.
She smiled gently and rushed back to the post – for a nice bit of cash from a star like her, the postman could still return her letter, if it hadn't been sent yet.
It hadn't. Linda tore open the envelope and wrote a hurried and excited post scriptum:
Mary, I have almost sent the letter, fortunately, I have time to add some news. I know it will cheer your crushed spirits up a lot. My little Helena is apparently going to be married to Count Rudolph Andrenyi, whom I've told you about! I've just caught the couple in what they used to call a compromising position! Thankfully I was smart enough to leave them alone! Oh, Mary, I can't believe it! It seems only yesterday Helena was a small schoolgirl with braided hair…
Please come to Washington and bring Colonel and Greta with you – as soon as you can, dear!
I still am unable to believe Helena's so happy! The poor child had sunk into grief during these years. I feared she would go mad. Thank goodness! I'm late to a meeting, I will tell you the rest when you return. Send me a telegram from London when you leave.