Run to Earth, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 17

Doubtful Society.

Victor Carrington still lived in the little cottage on the outskirts of London. Here, with his mother for his only companion, he led a simple, studious life, which, to any one ignorant of his character, would have seemed the life of a good and honourable man.

The few neighbours who passed to and fro beneath the wall which surrounded the cottage, knew nothing of the inner life of its occupants. They knew only that of all the houses in the neighbourhood this was the quietest. Yet those who happened to pass the house late at night always saw a glimmer of light in an upper chamber, and the blue vapour of smoke rising from one particular chimney.

Those who had occasion to pass the house frequently after dark perceived that the smoke from this chimney was different from the common smoke of common chimneys. Sometimes vivid sparks glittered and flashed upon the darkness. At other times a semi-luminous, green vapour was seen to issue from the mouth of the chimney.

These facts were spoken about by the neighbours; and by and by people discovered that the smoke issued from the chimney of Victor Carrington’s laboratory, where the surgeon was frequently employed, long after midnight, making experiments in the science of chemistry.

The nature of these experiments was known to no one. The few neighbours who had ever conversed with the French surgeon had heard him declare that he was a student of the mysteries of electricity. It was, therefore, supposed that all his experiments were in some manner connected with that wondrous science.

No one for a moment suspected evil of a young man whose life was sober, respectable, and laborious, and who went to the little Catholic chapel every Sunday, with his mother leaning on his arm.

Those who really knew Victor Carrington knew that he was without one ray of belief in a Divine Ruler, and that he laughed to scorn those terrors of heavenly vengeance which will sometimes restrain the hand of the most hardened criminal. He was a wretch who seemed to have been created without those natural qualities which, in some degree, redeem the worst of humanity. He was a creature without a conscience — without a heart.

And yet he seemed the most dutiful and devoted of sons.

Is it possible that filial love could hold any place in a soul so lost as his? It is difficult to solve this enigma.

Victor Carrington was ambitious; and to gain the object of his ambition he was willing to steep his soul in guilt. But he was also cautious and calculating, and he knew that to commit crime with impunity he must so shape his life as to escape suspicion.

He knew that a devoted and affectionate son is always respected by good men and women; and he had studied human nature too closely not to be aware that there is more goodness than wickedness in the world, base though some of earth’s inhabitants may be.

The world is easily hoodwinked; and those who watched the life of the young surgeon were ready to declare that he was a most deserving young man.

He had his reward for this apparent excellence. Patients came to him without his seeking; and at the time of Honoria Eversleigh’s arrival in London he had obtained a small but remunerative practice. The money earned thus enabled him to live. The money he won by his pen in the medical journals he was able to save.

He knew how necessary money was in all the turning-points of life, and he denied himself every pleasure and every luxury in order to save a sum which should serve him in time of need.

Matilda Carrington was one of those quiet women who seem to take no interest in the world around them, and to be happy without the pleasures which delight other women. She lived quite alone, without one female friend or acquaintance, and she saw little of her son, whose midnight studies and medical practice absorbed almost every hour of his existence.

Her life, therefore, was one long solitude, and but for the companionship of her birds and two Angora cats, she would have been almost as much alone as a prisoner in a condemned cell.

There was but one visitor who came often to the cottage, and that was Sir Reginald Eversleigh. The young baronet contrived to exist, somehow or other, upon his income of five hundred a year; but, as he had neither abandoned his old haunts, nor put aside his old vices, the income, which to a good man would have seemed a handsome competence, barely enabled him to stave off the demands of his most pressing creditors by occasional payments on account.

He lived a dark and strange existence, occupying a set of shabby~genteel apartments in a street leading out of the Strand; but spending a great part of his life in a house on the banks of the Thames — a house that stood amidst grounds of some extent, situated midway between Chelsea and Fulham.

The mistress of this house was a lady who called herself a widow, but of whose real position the world knew very little.

She was said to be of Austrian extraction, and the widow of an Austrian officer. Her name was Paulina Durski. She had bade farewell to the fresh bloom of early youth; for at her best she looked thirty years of age. But her beauty was of that brilliant order which does not need the charm of girlhood. She was a woman — a grand, queen-like creature. Those who admired her most compared her to a tall white lily, alike stately and graceful.

She was fair, with that snowy purity of complexion which is so rare a charm. Her hair was of the palest gold — darker than flaxen, lighter than auburn — hair that waved in sunny undulations on the broad white forehead, and imparted an unspeakable innocence to the beautiful face.

Such was Paulina Durski. One charm alone was wanting to render this woman as lovable as she was lovely, and that wan the charm of expression.

There was a lack of warmth in that perfect face. The bright blue eyes were hard; the rosy lips had been trained to smile on friend or foe, on stranger or kinsman, with the same artificial smile.

Hilton House was the name of the villa by the river-bank. It had belonged originally to a nobleman; but, on the decay of his fortunes, had fallen into the hands of a speculator, who intended to occupy it, but who failed almost immediately after becoming its owner. After this man’s bankruptcy, the house had for a long time been tenantless. It was too expensive for some, too lonely for others; and when Madame Durski saw and took a fancy to the place, she was able to secure it for a moderate rent. The grounds and the house had been neglected. The rare and costly shrubs in the gardens were rank and overgrown; the exquisite decorations of the interior were spoiled by damp.

Madame Durski was a person who lived in a certain style; but it speedily became evident that she was very often at a loss for ready money. Her furniture arrived from Paris, and her household came also from that brilliant city. It was the household of a princess; but of a princess not unfamiliar with poverty.

There was a Spanish courier, one Carlo Toas — a strange, silent creature, whose stately and solemn movements seemed fitted for a courtly assembly, rather than for the unceremonious gatherings of modern society. The next person in importance in the household of Madame Durski was an elderly woman, who attended on the fair Austrian widow. She was a native of Paris, and her name was Sophie Elser. There were three other servants, all foreigners, and apparently devoted to their mistress.

The furniture was of a bygone fashion, costly and beautiful of its kind; but it was furniture which had seen better days. The draperies in every chamber were of satin or velvet; but the satin was worn and faded, the velvet threadbare. The pictures, china, plate, the bronzes and knick-knacks which adorned the rooms, all bore evidence of a refined and artistic taste. But much of the china was imperfect, and the plate was of very small extent.

The existence of Paulina Durski was one which might well excite curiosity in the minds of the few neighbours who had the opportunity of observing her mode of life.

This beautiful widow had no female acquaintances, save a humble friend who lived with her, an Englishwoman, who subsisted upon the charity of the lovely Paulina.

This person never quitted her benefactress. She was constant as her shadow; a faithful watch-dog, always at hand, yet never obtrusive. She was a creature who seemed to have been born without eyes and without ears; so careless was the widow of her presence, so reckless what secrets were disclosed in her hearing.

By daylight the life of Madame Durski and her companion, Miss Brewer, seemed the dullest existence ever endured by womankind. Paulina rarely left her own apartment until six in the evening; at which hour, she and Miss Brewer dined together in her boudoir.

They always dined alone. After dinner Paulina returned to her apartment to dress for the evening, while Miss Brewer retired to her own bedroom on the upper story, where she arrayed herself invariably in black velvet.

She had never been seen by the visitors at Hilton House in any other costume than this lustreless velvet. Her age was between thirty and forty. She might once have had some pretensions to beauty; but her face was pinched and careworn, and there was a sharp, greedy look in the small eyes, whose colour was that neutral, undecided tint, that seems sometimes a pale yellowish brown, anon a blueish green.

All day long the two women at Hilton House lived alone. No carriage approached the gates; no foot-passenger was seen to enter the grounds. Within and without all was silent and lifeless.

But with nightfall came a change. Lights shone in all the lower windows, music sounded on the still night air, many carriages rolled through the open gateway — broughams with flashing lamps dashed up to the marble portico, and hack cabs mingled with the more stylish equipages.

There were very few nights on which Paulina Durski’s saloons were not enlivened by the presence of many guests. Her visitors were all gentlemen; but they treated the mistress of the house with as much respect as if she had been surrounded by women of the highest rank. Night after night the same men assembled in those faded saloons; night after night the carriages rolled along the avenue — the flashing lamps illuminated the darkness. Those who watched the proceedings of the Austrian widow had good reason to wonder what the attraction was which brought those visitors so constantly to Hilton House. Many speculations were formed, and the fair widow’s reputation suffered much at the hands of her neighbours; but none guessed the real charm of those nightly receptions.

That secret was known only to those within the mansion; and from those it could not be hidden.

The charm which drew so many visitors to the saloons of Madame Durski was the fatal spell of the gaming-table. The beautiful Paulina opened a suite of three spacious chambers for the reception of her guests. In the outer apartment there was a piano; and it was here Paulina sat — with her constant companion, Matilda Brewer. In the second apartment were small green velvet-covered tables, devoted to whist and écarté. The third, and inner, apartment was much larger than either of the others, and in this room there was a table for rouge et noir.

The door of this inner apartment was papered so as to appear when closed like a portion of the wall. A heavy picture was securely fastened upon this papered surface, and the door was lined with iron. Once closed, this door was not easily to be discovered by the eye of a stranger; and, even when discovered, it was not easily to be opened.

It was secured with a spring lock, which fastened of itself as the door swung to.

This inner apartment had no windows. It was never used in the day-time. It was a secret chamber, hidden in the very centre of the house; and only an architect or a detective officer would have been likely to have discovered its existence. The walls were hung with red cloth, and Madame Durski always spoke of this apartment as the Red Drawing-room. Her servants were forbidden to mention the chamber in their conversation with the neighbours, and the members of the Austrian widow’s household were too well trained to disobey any such orders.

By the laws of England, the existence of a table for rouge et noir is forbidden. All these precautions were therefore necessary to insure safety for the guests of Madame Durski.

Paulina, herself, never played. Sometimes she sat with Miss Brewer in the outer chamber, silent and abstracted, while her visitors amused themselves in the two other rooms; sometimes she seated herself at the piano, and played soft, plaintive German sonatas, or Leider ohne Worte, for an hour at a time; sometimes she moved slowly to and fro amongst the gamblers — now lingering for a few moments behind the chair of one, now glancing at the cards of another.

One of her most constant visitors was Reginald Eversleigh. Every night he drove down to Hilton House in a hack cab. He was generally the first to arrive and the last to depart.

It was also to be observed that almost all the men who assembled in the drawing-rooms of Hilton House were friends and acquaintances of Sir Reginald.

It was he who introduced them to the lovely widow. It was he who tempted them to come night after night, when prudence should have induced them to stay away.

The association between Reginald Eversleigh and Paulina Durski was no new alliance.

Immediately after the death of Sir Oswald Eversleigh, Reginald turned his back upon London, disgusted with the scene of his poverty and humiliation, eager to find forgetfulness of his bitter disappointments in the fever and excitement of a more brilliant city than any to be found in Great Britain. He went to Paris, that capital which he had shunned since the death of Mary Goodwin, but whither he returned eagerly now, thirsting for riot and excitement — any opiate by which he might lull to rest the bitter memories of the past month.

He was familiar with the wildest haunts of that city of dissipation, and he was speedily engulphed in the vortex of vice and folly. If he had been a rich man, this life might have gone on for ever; but without money a man counts for very little in such a circle as that wherein Reginald alone could find delight, and to the inhabitants of that region five hundred a year would seem a kind of pauperism.

Sir Reginald contrived to keep the actual amount of his income a secret locked in his own breast. His acquaintances and associates knew that he was not rich; but they knew no more.

At the French opera-house he saw Paulina Durski for the first time. She was seated in one of the smaller boxes, dressed in pure white, with white camellias in her hair. Her faithful companion, Matilda Brewer, was seated in the shadow of the curtains, and formed a foil for the beautiful Austrian.

Reginald Eversleigh entered the house with a dissipated and fashionable young Parisian — a man who, like his companion, had wasted youth, character, and fortune in the tainted atmosphere of disreputable haunts and midnight assemblies. The two young men took their places in the stalls, and amused themselves between the acts by a scrutiny of the occupants of the house.

Hector Leonce, the Parisian, was familiar with the inmates of every box.

“Do you see that beautiful, fair-haired woman, with the white camellias in her hair?” he said, after he had drawn the attention of the Englishman to several distinguished people. “That is Madame Durski, the young and wealthy widow of an Austrian officer, and one of the most celebrated beauties in Paris.”

“She is very handsome,” answered Reginald, carelessly; “but hers is a cold style of loveliness — too much like a face moulded out of wax.”

“Wait till you see her animated,” replied Hector Leonce. “We will go to her box presently.”

When the curtain fell on the close of the following act the two men left the stalls, and made their way to Madame Durski’s box.

She received them courteously, and Reginald Eversleigh speedily perceived that her beauty, fair and wax-like as it was, did not lack intellectual grace. She talked well, and her manner had the tone of good society. Reginald was surprised to see her attended only by the little Englishwoman, in her dress of threadbare black velvet.

After the opera Sir Reginald and Hector Leonce accompanied Madame Durski to her apartments in the Rue du Faubourg, St. Honoré; and there the baronet beheld higher play than he had ever seen before in a private house presided over by a woman. On this occasion the beautiful widow herself occupied a place at the rouge et noir table, and Reginald beheld enough to enlighten him as to her real character. He saw that with this woman the love of play was a passion: a profound and soul-absorbing delight. He saw the eyes which, in repose, seemed of so cold a brightness, emit vivid flashes of feverish light; he saw the fair blush-rose tinted cheek glow with a hectic crimson — he beheld the woman with her mask thrown aside, abandoned to the influence of her master-passion.

After this night, Reginald Eversleigh was a frequent visitor at the apartments of the Austrian widow. For him, as for her, the fierce excitement of the gaming-table was an irresistible temptation. In her elegantly appointed drawing-rooms he met rich men who were desperate players; but he met few men who were likely to be dupes. Here neither skill nor bribery availed him, and he was dependent on the caprices of chance. The balance was tolerably even, and he left Paris neither richer nor poorer for his acquaintance with Paulina Durski.

But that acquaintance exercised a very powerful influence over his destiny, nevertheless. There was a strange fascination in the society of the Austrian widow — a nameless, indefinable charm, which few were able to resist. A bitter experience of vice and folly had robbed Reginald Eversleigh’s heart and mind of all youth’s freshness and confidence, and for him this woman seemed only what she was, an adventuress, dangerous to all who approached her.

He knew this, and yet he yielded to the fascination of her presence. Night after night he haunted the rooms in the Rue du Faubourg, St. Honoré. He went there even when he was too poor to play, and could only stand behind Paulina’s chair, a patient and devoted cavalier.

For a long time she seemed to be scarcely aware of his devotion. She received him as she received her other guests. She met him always with the same cold smile; the same studied courtesy. But one evening, when he went to her apartments earlier than usual, he found her alone, and in a melancholy mood.

Then, for the first time, he became aware that the life she led was odious to her; that she loathed the hateful vice of which she was the slave. She was wont to be very silent about herself and her own feelings; but that night she cast aside all reserve, and spoke with a passionate earnestness, which made her seem doubly charming to Reginald Eversleigh.

“I am so degraded a creature that, perhaps, you have never troubled yourself to wonder how I became the thing I am,” she said; “and yet you must surely have marvelled to see a woman of high birth fallen to the depths in which you find me; fallen so low as to be the companion of gamesters, a gamester myself. I will tell you the secret of my life.”

Reginald Eversleigh lifted his hand with a deprecating gesture.

“Dear madame, tell me nothing, I implore you. I admire and respect you,” he said. “To me, you must always appear the most beautiful of women, whatever may be the nature of your surroundings.”

“Yes, the most beautiful!” echoed Paulina, with passionate scorn. “You men think that to praise a woman’s beauty is to console her for every humiliation. I have long held that which you call my beauty as the poorest thing on earth, so little, happiness has its possession won for me. I will tell you the story of my life. It is the only justification I have.”

“I am ready to listen. So long as you speak of yourself, your words must have the deepest interest for me.”

“I was reared amongst gamesters, Reginald Eversleigh,” continued Paulina Durski, with the same passionate intensity of manner, “My father was an incorrigible gambler; and before I had emerged from childhood to girlhood, the handsome fortune which should have been mine had been squandered. As a girl the rattle of the dice, the clamour of the rouge et noir table were the most familiar sounds to my ears. Night after night, night after night, I have kept watch at my own window, and have seen the lighted windows of my father’s rooms, and have known that grim poverty was drawing nearer and nearer as the long hours of those sleepless nights went by.”

“My poor Paulina!”

“My mother died young, exhausted by the perpetual fever of anxiety which the gambler’s wife is doomed to suffer. She died, and I was left alone — a woman; beautiful if you will, and, as the world supposed, heiress to a large fortune; for none knew how entirely the wealth which should have been mine had melted away in those nights of dissipation and folly. People knew that my father played, and played desperately; but few knew the extent of his losses. After my mother’s death, my father insisted on my doing the honours of his house. I received his friends; I stood by his chair as he played écarté, or sat by his side and noted the progress of the game at the rouge et noir table. Then first I felt the fatal passion which I can but believe to be a taint in my very blood. Slowly and gradually the fascinating vice assumed its horrible mastery. I watched the progress of the play. I learned to understand that science which was the one all-absorbing pursuit of those around me. Then I played myself, first taking a hand at écarté with some of the younger guests, half in sport, and then venturing a small golden coin at the rouge et noir table, while my admirers praised my daring, as if I had been some capricious child. In those assemblies I was always the only woman, except Matilda Brewer, who was then my governess. My father would have no female guests at these nightly orgies. The presence of women would have been a hindrance to the delights of the gaming-table. At first I felt all the bitterness of my position. I looked forward with unspeakable dread to the dreary future in which I should find destitution staring me in the face. But when once the gamester’s madness had seized upon me, I thought no more of that dreary future; I became as reckless as my father and his guests; I forgot everything in the excitement of the moment. To be lucky at the gaming-table was to be happy; to lose was despair. Thus my youth went by, till the day when my father told me that Colonel Durski had offered me his hand and fortune, and that I had no alternative but to accept him.”

“Oh, then, your first marriage was no love-match?” cried Reginald, eagerly.

“A love-match!” exclaimed Paulina, contemptuously. “No; it was a marriage of convenience, dictated by a father who set less value on his daughter’s happiness than on a good hand of cards. My father told me I must choose between Leopold Durski and ruin. ‘This house cannot shelter you much longer,’ he said. ‘For myself there is flight. I can go to America, and lose my identity in strange cities. I cannot remain in Vienna, to be pointed at as the beggared Count Veschi. But with you for my companion I should be tied hand and foot. As a wanderer and an adventurer, I may prosper alone; but as a wanderer, burdened with a helpless woman, failure would be certain. It is not a question of choice, Paulina,’ he said, resolutely; ‘there is no alternative. You must become the wife of Leopold Durski.’”

“And you consented?”

“I ask you, Reginald Eversleigh, could I refuse? For me, love was a word which had no meaning. Leopold Durski was more than double my age; but in outward seeming he was a gentleman. He was reported to be wealthy; he had a high position at the Austrian Court. I was so utterly helpless, so desolate, so despairing, that it is scarcely strange if I accepted the fate my father pressed upon me, careless as to a future which held no joy for me, beyond the pleasure of the gaming-table. I left the house of one gambler to ally myself to the fortunes of another, for Leopold Durski was my father’s companion and friend, and the same master-passion swayed both. It was strange that my father, himself a ruined gamester, should have become the dupe of a man whose reported wealth was as great a sham as his own. But so it was. I exchanged poverty with one master for poverty with another master. My new life was an existence of perpetual falsehood and trickery. I occupied a splendid house in the most fashionable quarter of Vienna; but that house was maintained by my husband’s winnings at the gaming~table; and it was my task to draw together the dupes whose money was to support the false semblance of grandeur which surrounded me. The dupes came. I had my little court of flatterers; but the courtiers paid dearly for their allegiance to their queen. I was the snare which was set to entrap the birds whose feathers my husband was to pluck. If I had been like other women, my position would have been utterly intolerable to me. I should have found some means of escape from a life so hateful — a degradation so shameful.”

“And you made no attempt to escape?”

“None. I was a gambler; the vice which had degraded my husband had degraded me. We had both sunk to the same level, and I had no right to reproach him for infamy which I shared. We had little affection for each other. Colonel Durski had sought me only because I was fitted to adorn his reception-rooms, and attract the dupes who were to suffer by their acquaintance with him. But if there was little love between us, we at least never quarrelled. He treated me always with studied courtesy, and I never upbraided him for the deception by which he had obtained my hand. My father disappeared suddenly from Vienna, and only after his departure was it discovered that his fortune had long vanished, and that he had for several years been completely insolvent. His creditors tittered a cry of execration; but in great cities the cries of such victims are scarcely heard. My reception-rooms were still thronged by aristocratic guests, and no one cared to remember my father’s infamy. This life had lasted three years, when my husband died and left me penniless. I sold my jewels, and came to this city, where for a year and a half I have lived, as my husband lived in Vienna, on the fortune of the gaming-table. I am growing weary of Paris, and it may be that Paris is growing weary of me. I suppose I shall go to London next. And next? Who knows? Ah, Reginald Eversleigh, believe me there are many moments of my life in which I think that the little walk from here to the river would cut the knot of all my difficulties. To~night I am surrounded with anxieties, steeped in degradation, hemmed in by obstacles that shut me out of all peaceful resting-places. To-morrow I might be lying very quietly in the Morgue.”

“Paulina, for pity’s sake —”

“Ah, me! these are idle words, are they not?” said Madame Durski, with a weary sigh. “And now I have told you my history, Reginald Eversleigh, and it is for you to judge whether there is any excuse for such a creature as I am.”

Sir Reginald pitied this hopeless, friendless, woman as much as it was in him to pity any one except himself, and tried to utter some words of consolation.

She looked up at him, as he spoke to her, with a glance in which he saw a deeper feeling than gratitude.

Then it was that Reginald declared himself the devoted lover of the woman who had revealed to him the strange story of her life. He told her of the influence which she exercised over him, the fascination which he had sought in vain to resist. He declared himself attached to her by an affection which would know no change, come what might. But he did not offer this friendless woman the shelter of his name, the ostensible position which would have been hers had she become his wife.

Even when beneath the sway of a woman’s fascination Reginald Eversleigh was cold and calculating. Paulina Durski was poor, and doubtless deeply in debt. She was a gambler, and the companion of gamblers. She was, therefore, no fitting wife for a man who looked upon marriage as a stepping-stone by which he might yet redeem his fallen fortunes.

Paulina received his declaration with an air of simulated coldness; but Reginald Eversleigh could perceive that it was only simulated, and that he had awakened a real affection in the heart of this desolate woman.

“Do not speak to me of love,” she said; “to me such words can promise no happiness. My love could only bring shame and misery on the man to whom it was given. Let me tread my dreary pathway alone, Reginald — alone to the very end.”

Much was said after this by Reginald and the woman who loved him, and who was yet too proud to confess her love. Paulina Durski was not an inexperienced girl, to be persuaded by romantic speeches. She had acquired knowledge of the world in a hard and bitter school. She could fully fathom the base selfishness of the man who pretended to love her, and she understood why it was that he shrank from offering her the only real pledge of his truth.

“I will speak frankly to you, Paulina,” he said. “I am too poor to marry.”

“Yes,” she answered, bitterly; “I comprehend. You are too poor to marry a penniless wife.”

“And I am not likely to find a rich one. But, believe me, that my love is none the less sincere because I shrink from asking you to ally yourself to misery.”

“So be it, Sir Reginald. I am willing to accept your love for what it is — a wise and prudent affection — such as a man of the world may freely indulge in without fear that his folly may cost him too dearly. You will come to my house; I shall see you night after night amongst the reckless idlers who gather round me; you will pay me compliments all the year round, and bring me bon-bons on New Year’s Day; and some day, when I have grown old and haggard, you will all at once forget the fact of our acquaintance, and I shall see you no more. Let it be so. It is pleasant for a woman to fancy herself beloved, however false the fancy may be. I will shut my eyes, and dream that you love me, Reginald.”

And this was all. No more was ever said of love between these two; but from that hour Reginald was more constant than ever in his attendance on the beautiful widow. The time came when she grew weary of Paris, and when those who had lost money began to shun the seductive delights of her nightly receptions. Reginald Eversleigh was not slow to perceive that the brilliant throng grew thin — the most distinguished guests “conspicuous by their absence.” He urged Paulina to leave Paris for London; and he himself selected the lonely villa on the banks of the Thames, in which he found a billiard-room, lighted from the roof, that was easily converted into a secret chamber.

It was by his advice that Paulina Durski altered her line of conduct on taking up her abode in England, and refrained altogether from any active share in the ruinous amusements for which men frequented her receptions.

“It was all very well for you to take a hand at écarté, or to take your place at the rouge et noir table, in Paris,” Reginald said, when he discussed this question; “but here it will not do. The English are full of childish prejudices, and to see a woman at the gaming-table would shock these prejudices. Let me play for you. I will find the capital, and we will divide the profits of each night’s speculation. For your part, you will have only to look beautiful, and to lure the golden-feathered birds into the net; and sometimes, perhaps, when I am playing écarté with one of your admirers, behind whose chair you may happen to be standing, you may contrive to combine a flattering interest in his play with a substantial benefit to mine.”

Paulina’s eyelids fell, and a crimson flush dyed her face: but she uttered no exclamation of anger or disgust. And yet she understood only too well the meaning of Sir Reginald’s words. She knew that he wished her to aid him in a deliberate system of cheating. She knew this, and she did not withdraw her friendship from this man.

Alas, no! she loved him. Not because she believed him to be good and honourable — not because she was blinded to the baseness of his nature. She loved him in spite of her knowledge of his real character — she yielded to the influence of an infatuation which she was so powerless to resist that she might almost be pardoned for believing herself the victim of a baleful destiny.

“It is my fate,” she murmured to herself, after this last revelation of her lover’s infamy. “It must needs be my fate, since women with less claim to be loved than I possess are so happy as to win the devotion of good and brave men. It is my fate to love a cheat and trickster, on whose constancy I have so poor a hold that a breath may sever the miserable bond that unites us.”

Victor Carrington was one of the first persons whom Reginald Eversleigh introduced to Madame Durski after her arrival in England. She was pleased with the quiet and graceful manners of the Frenchman; but she was at a loss to understand Sir Reginald’s intimate association with a man who was at once poor and obscure.

She told Sir Reginald as much the next time she saw him alone.

“I know that in most of your friendships convenience and self-interest reign paramount over what you call sentimentality; and yet you choose for your friend this Carrington, whom no one knows; and who is, you tell me, even poorer than yourself. You must have a hidden motive, Reginald; and a strong one.”

A dark shade passed over the face of the baronet.

“I have my reasons,” he said. “Victor Carrington was once useful to me — at least he endeavoured to be so. If he failed, the obligation is none the less; and he is a man who will have his bond.”

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