Phantom Fortune, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 41

Privileged Information.

Lord Hartfield did not arrive at Euston Square until near eleven o’clock at night. A hansom deposited him at the entrance to the Albany just as the clock of St. James’s Church chimed the hour. He found only Maulevrier’s valet. His lordship had waited indoors all the evening, and had only gone out a quarter of an hour ago. He had gone to the Cerberus, and begged that Lord Hartfield would be kind enough to follow him there.

Lord Hartfield was not fond of the Cerberus, and indeed deemed that lively place of rendezvous a very dangerous sphere for his friend Maulevrier; but in the face of Maulevrier’s telegram there was no time to be lost, so he walked across Piccadilly and down St. James’s Street to the fashionable little club, where the men were dropping in after the theatres and dinners, and where sheafs of bank notes were being exchanged for those various coloured counters which represented divers values, from the respectable ‘pony’ to the modest ‘chip.’

Maulevrier was in the first room Hartfield looked into, standing behind some men who were playing.

‘That’s something like friendship,’ he exclaimed, when he saw Lord Hartfield, and then he hooked his arm through his friend’s, and led him off to the dining room.

‘Come and have some supper, old fellow,’ he said, ‘and I can tell you my troubles while you are eating it. James, bring us a grill, and a lobster, and a bottle of Mumms, number 27, you know.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Sorry to find you in this den, Maulevrier,’ said Lord Hartfield.

‘Haven’t touched a card. Haven’t done half an hour’s punting this season. But it’s a kind of habit with me to wander in here now and then. I know so many of the members. One poor devil lost nine thousand one night last week. Bather rough upon him, wasn’t it? All ready money at this shop, don’t you know.’

‘Thank God, I know nothing about it. And now, Maulevrier, what is wrong, and with whom?’

‘Everything is wrong, and with my sister Lesbia.’

‘Good heavens! what do you mean?’

‘Only this, that there is a fellow after her whose very name means ruin to women — a Spanish–American adventurer — reckless, handsome, a gambler, seducer, duellest, dare-devil. The man she is to marry seems to have neither nous nor spunk to defend her. Everybody at Goodwood saw the game that was being played, everybody at Cowes is watching the cards, betting on the result. Yes, great God, the men at the Squadron Club are staking their money upon my sister’s character — even monkeys that she bolts with Montesma — five to three against the marriage with Smithson ever coming off.’

‘Is this true.’

‘It is as true as your marriage with Molly, as true as your loyalty to me. I was told of it all this morning at the Haute Gomme by a man I can rely upon, a really good fellow, who would not leave me in the dark about my sister’s danger when all the smoking-rooms in Pall Mall were sniggering about it. My first impulse was to take the train for Cowes; but then I knew if I went alone I should let my temper get the better of me. I should knock somebody down — throw somebody out of the window — make a devil of a scene. And this would be fatal for Lesbia. I wanted your counsel, your cool head, your steady common-sense. “Not a step forward without Jack,” I said to myself, so I bolted off and sent that telegram. It relieved my feeling a little, but I’ve had a wretched day.’

‘Waiter, bring me a Bradshaw, or an A B C,’ said Lord Hartfield.

He had eaten nothing but a biscuit since breakfast, but he was ready to go off at once, supperless, if there were a train to carry him. Unluckily there was no train. The mail had started. Nothing till seven o’clock next morning.

‘Eat your supper, old fellow,’ said Maulevrier. ‘After all, the danger may not be so desperate as I fancied this morning. Slander is the favourite amusement of the age we live in. We must allow a margin for exaggeration.’

‘A very liberal margin,’ answered Hartfield. ‘No doubt the man who warned you meant honestly, but this scandal may have grown out of the merest trifles. The feebleness of the Masher’s brain is only exceeded by the foulness of the Masher’s tongue. I daresay this rumour about Lady Lesbia has its beginning and end among the Masher species.’

‘I hope so, but — I have seen those two together — I met them at Victoria one evening after Goodwood. Old Kirkbank was shuffling on ahead, carrying Smithson with her, absorbing his attention by fussification about her carriage. Lesbia and that Cuban devil were in the rear. They looked as if they had all the world to themselves. Faust and Marguerite in the garden were not in it for the expression of intense absorbing feeling compared with those two. I’m not an intellectual party, but I know something of human nature, and I know when a man and woman are in love with each other. It is one of the things that never has been, that never can be hidden.’

‘And you say this Montesma is a dangerous man?’

‘Deadly.’

‘Well, we must lose no time. When we are on the spot it will be easy to find out the truth; and it will be your duty, if there be danger, to warn Lesbia and her future husband.

‘I would much rather shoot the Cuban,’ said Maulevrier. ‘I never knew much good come of a warning in such a case: it generally precipitates matters. If I could play écarté with him at the club, find him sporting an extra king, throw my cards in his face, and accept his challenge for an exchange of shots on the sands beyond Cherbourg — there would be something like satisfaction’

‘You say the man is a gambler?’

‘Report says something worse of him. Report says he is a cheat.’

‘We must not be dependent upon society gossip,’ replied Lord Hartfield. ‘I have an idea, Maulevrier. The more we know about this man — Montesma, I think you called him ——’

‘Gomez de Montesma.’

‘The more fully we are acquainted with Don Gomez de Montesma’s antecedents the better we shall be able to cope with him, if we come to handy-grips. It’s too late to start for Cowes, but it is not too late to do something. Fitzpatrick, the political-economist, spent a quarter of a century in South America. He is a very old friend — knew my father — and I can venture to knock at his door after midnight — all the more as I know he is a night-worker. He is very likely to enlighten us about your Cuban hidalgo.’

‘You shall finish your supper before I let you stir. After that you may do what you like. I was always a child in your hands, Jack, whether it was climbing a mountain or crossing the Horse-shoe Fall. I consider the business in your hands now. I’ll go with you wherever you like, and do what you tell me. When you want me to kick anybody, or fight anybody, you can give me the office and I’ll do it. I know that Lesbia’s interests are safe in your hands. You once cared very much for her. You are her brother-in-law now, and, next to me, you are her natural protector, taking into account that her future husband is a cad and doesn’t score.’

‘Meet me at Waterloo at ten minutes to seven to-morrow morning, and we’ll go down to Cowes together. I’m off to find Fitzpatrick. Good night.’

So they parted. Lord Hartfield walked across the Park to Great George Street, where Mr. Fitzpatrick had chambers of a semi-official character, on the first floor of a solemn-looking old house, spacious, gloomy without and within, walls sombre with the subdued colouring of decorations half a century old.

The lighted windows of those first-floor rooms told Lord Hartfield that he was not too late. He rang the bell, which was answered with the briefest delay by a sleepy-looking clerk, who had been taking shorthand notes for Mr. Fitzpatrick’s great book upon ‘Protection versus Free Trade.’ The clerk looked sleepy, but his employer had as brisk an air as if he were just beginning the day; although he had been working without intermission since nine o’clock that evening, and had done a long day’s work before dinner. He was walking up and down the spacious unluxurious room, half office, half library, smoking a cigar. Upon a large table in the centre of the room stood two powerful reading lamps with green shades, illuminating a chaotic mass of books and pamphlets, heaped and scattered all over the table, save just on that spot between the two lamps, which accommodated Mr. Fitzpatrick’s blotting pad and inkpot, a pewter inkpot which held about a pint.

‘How d’ye do, Hartfield? Glad you’ve looked me up at last,’ said the Irishman, as if a midnight call were the most natural thing in the world. ‘Just come from the House?’

‘No; I’ve just come from Westmoreland. I thought I should find you among those everlasting books of yours, late as it is. Can I have a few words alone with you?’

‘Certainly. Morgan, you can go away for a bit.’

‘Home, sir?’

‘Home — well — yes, I suppose it’s late. You look sleepy. I should have been glad to finish the chapter on Beetroot Sugar to-night — but it may stand over for the morning. Be sure you’re early.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the clerk responded with a faint sigh.

He was paid handsomely for late hours, liberally rewarded for his shorthand services; and yet he wished the great Fitzpatrick had not been quite so industrious.

‘Now, my dear Hartfield, what can I do for you?’ asked Fitzpatrick, when the clerk had gone. ‘I can see by your face that you’ve something serious in hand. Can I help you?’

‘You can, I believe, in a very material way. You were five-and-twenty years in Spanish America?’

‘Rather more than less.’

‘Here, there, and everywhere?’

‘Yes; there is not a city in South America that I have not lived in — for something between a day and a year.’

‘You know something about most men of any mark in that part of the world, I conclude?’

‘It was my business to know men of all kinds. I had my mission from the Spanish Government. I was engaged to examine the condition of commerce throughout the colony, the working of protection as against free trade, and so on. Strange, by-the-bye, that Cuba, the last place to foster the slave trade, was of all spots of the earth the first to carry free-trade principles into practical effect, long before they were recognised in any European country.’

‘Strange to me that you should speak of Cuba so soon after my coming in,’ answered Lord Hartfield. ‘I am here to ask you to help me to find out the antecedents of a man who hails from that island.’

‘I ought to know something about him, whoever he is,’ replied Mr. Fitzpatrick, briskly. ‘I spent six months in Cuba not very long before my return to England. Cuba is one of my freshest memories; and I have a pretty tight memory for facts, names and figures. Never could remember two lines of poetry in my life.’

‘Did you ever hear of, or meet with, a man called Montesma — Gomez de Montesma?’

‘Couldn’t have stopped a month in Havana without hearing something about that gentleman,’ answered Fitzpatrick, ‘I hope he isn’t a friend of yours, and that you have not lent him money?’

‘Neither; but I want to know all you can tell me about him.’

‘You shall have it in black and white, out of my Cuban note-book,’ replied the other, unlocking a drawer in the official table; ‘I always take notes of anything worth recording, on the spot. A man is a fool who trusts to memory, where personal character is at stake. Montesma is as well known at Havana as the Morro Fort or the Tacon Theatre. I have heard stories enough about him to fill a big volume; but all the facts recorded there’— striking the morocco cover of the note-book —‘have been thoroughly sifted; I can vouch for them.’

He looked at the index, found the page, and handed the book to Lord Hartfield.

‘Read for yourself,’ he said, quietly.

Lord Hartfield read three or four pages of plain statement as to various adventures by sea and land in which Gomez de Montesma had figured, and the reputation which he bore in Cuba and on the Main.

‘You can vouch for this?’ he said at last, after a long silence.

‘For every syllable.’

‘The story of his marriage?’

‘Gospel truth: I knew the lady.’

‘And the rest?’

‘All true.’

‘A thousand thanks. I know now upon what ground I stand. I have to save an innocent, high-bred girl from the clutches of a consummate scoundrel.’

‘Shoot him, and shoot her, too, if there’s no better way of saving her. It will be an act of mercy,’ said Mr. Fitzpatrick, without hesitation.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31