Under Two Flags, by Ouida

Chapter 7.

After a Richmond Dinner.

It was the height of the season, and the duties of the Household were proportionately and insupportably heavy. The Brigades were fairly worked to death, and the Indian service, in the heat of the Afghan war, was never more onerous than the campaigns that claimed the Guards from Derby to Ducal.

Escorts to Levees, guards of honor to Drawing rooms, or field-days in the Park and the Scrubs, were but the least portion of it. Far more severe, and still less to be shirked, were the morning exercise in the Ride; the daily parade in the Lady’s Mile; the reconnaissances from club windows, the vedettes at Flirtation Corner; the long campaigns at mess-breakfasts, with the study of dice and baccarat tactics, and the fortifications of Strasburg pate against the invasions of Chartreuse and Chambertin; the breathless, steady charges of Belgravian staircases when a fashionable drum beat the rataplan; the skirmishes with sharpshooters of the bright-eyed Irregular Lancers; the foraging duty when fair commanders wanted ices or strawberries at garden parties; the ball-practice at Hornsey Handicaps; the terrible risk of crossing the enemy’s lines, and being made to surrender as prisoners of war at the jails of St. George’s, or of St. Paul’s, Knightsbridge; the constant inspections of the Flying Battalions of the Ballet, and the pickets afterward in the Wood of St. John; the anxieties of the Club commissariats, and the close vigilance over the mess wines; the fatigue duty of ballrooms, and the continual unharnessing consequent on the clause in the Regulations never to wear the same gloves twice; all these, without counting the close battles of the Corner and the unremitting requirements of the Turf, worked the First Life and the rest of the Brigades, Horse and Foot, so hard and incessantly that some almost thought of changing into the dreary depot of St. Stephen’s; and one mutinous Coldstreamer was even rash enough and false enough to his colors to meditate deserting to the enemy’s camp, and giving himself up at St. George’s —“because a fellow once hanged is let alone, you know!”

The Household were very hard pressed through the season — a crowded and brilliant one; and Cecil was in request most of all. Bertie, somehow or other, was the fashion — marvelous and indefinable word, that gives a more powerful crown than thrones, blood, beauty, or intellect can ever bestow. And no list was “the thing” without his name; no reception, no garden party, no opera-box, or private concert, or rose-shadowed boudoir, fashionably affiche without being visited by him. How he, in especial, had got his reputation it would have been hard to say, unless it were that he dressed a shade more perfectly than anyone, and with such inimitable carelessness in the perfection, too, and had an almost unattainable matchlessness in the sangfroid of his soft, languid insolence, and incredible, though ever gentle, effrontery. However gained, he had it; and his beautiful hack Sahara, his mail-phaeton with two blood grays dancing in impatience over the stones, or his little dark-green brougham for night-work, were, one or another of them, always seen from two in the day till four or five in the dawn about the park or the town.

And yet this season, while he made a prima donna by a bravissima, introduced a new tie by an evening’s wear, gave a cook the cordon with his praise, and rendered a fresh-invented liqueur the rage by his recommendation, Bertie knew very well that he was ruined.

The breach between his father and himself was irrevocable. He had left Royallieu as soon as his guests had quitted it and young Berkeley was out of all danger. He had long known he could look for no help from the old lord, or from his elder brother, the heir; and now every chance of it was hopelessly closed; nothing but the whim or the will of those who held his floating paper, and the tradesmen who had his name on their books at compound interest of the heaviest, stood between him and the fatal hour when he must “send in his papers to sell,” and be “nowhere” in the great race of life.

He knew that a season, a month, a day, might be the only respite left him, the only pause for him, ‘twixt his glittering luxurious world and the fiat of outlawry and exile. He knew that the Jews might be down on him any night that he sat at the Guards’ mess, flirted with foreign princesses, or laughed at the gossamer gossip of the town over iced drinks in the clubs. His liabilities were tremendous, his resources totally exhausted; but such was the latent recklessness of the careless Royallieu blood, and such the languid devil-may-care of his training and his temper, that the knowledge scarcely ever seriously disturbed his enjoyment of the moment. Somehow, he never realized it.

If any weatherwise had told the Lisbon people of the coming of the great earthquake, do you think they could have brought themselves to realize that midnight darkness, that yawning desolation which were nigh, while the sun was still so bright and the sea so tranquil, and the bloom so sweet on purple pomegranate and amber grape, and the scarlet of odorous flowers, and the blush of a girl’s kiss-warmed cheek?

A sentimental metaphor with which to compare the difficulties of a dandy of the Household, because his “stiff” was floating about in too many directions at too many high figures, and he had hardly enough till next pay-day came round to purchase the bouquets he sent and meet the club-fees that were due! But, after all, may it not well be doubted if a sharp shock and a second’s blindness, and a sudden sweep down under the walls of the Cathedral or the waters of the Tagus, were not, on the whole, a quicker and pleasanter mode of extinction than that social earthquake —“gone to the bad with a crash”? And the Lisbonites did not more disbelieve in, and dream less of their coming ruin than Cecil did his, while he was doing the season, with engagements enough in a night to spread over a month, the best known horses in the town, a dozen rose-notes sent to his clubs or his lodgings in a day, and the newest thing in soups, colts, beauties, neckties, perfumes, tobaccos, or square dances waiting his dictum to become the fashion.

“How you do go on with those women, Beauty,” growled the Seraph, one day after a morning of fearful hard work consequent on having played the Foot Guards at Lord’s, and, in an unwary moment, having allowed himself to be decoyed afterward to a private concert, and very nearly proposed to in consequence, during a Symphony in A; an impending terror from which he could hardly restore himself of his jeopardized safety. “You’re horribly imprudent!”

“Not a bit of it,” rejoined Beauty serenely. “That is the superior wisdom and beautiful simplicity of making love to your neighbor’s wife — she can’t marry you!”

“But she may get you into the D. C.,” mused the Seraph, who had gloomy personal recollection of having been twice through that phase of law and life, and of having been enormously mulcted in damages because he was a Duke in future, and because, as he piteously observed on the occasion, “You couldn’t make that fellow Cresswell see that it was they ran away with me each time!”

“Oh, everybody goes through the D. C. somehow or other,” answered Cecil, with philosophy. “It’s like the Church, the Commons, and the Gallows, you know — one of the popular Institutions.”

“And it’s the only Law Court where the robber cuts a better figure than the robbed,” laughed the Seraph; consoling himself that he had escaped the future chance of showing in the latter class of marital defrauded, by shying that proposal during the Symphony in A, on which his thoughts ran, as the thoughts of one who has just escaped from an Alpine crevasse run on the past abyss in which he had been so nearly lost forever. “I say, Beauty, were you ever near doing anything serious — asking anybody to marry you, eh? I suppose you have been — they do make such awful hard running on one” and the poor hunted Seraph stretched his magnificent limbs with the sigh of a martyred innocent.

“I was once — only once!”

“Ah, by Jove! And what saved you?”

The Seraph lifted himself a little, with a sort of pitying, sympathizing curiosity toward a fellow-sufferer.

“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Bertie, with a sigh as of a man who hated long sentences, and who was about to plunge into a painful past. “It’s ages ago; day I was at a Drawing room; year Blue Ruin won the Clearwell for Royal, I think. Wedged up there, in that poking place, I saw such a face — the deuce, it almost makes me feel enthusiastic now. She was just out — an angel with a train! She had delicious eyes — like a spaniel’s you know — a cheek like this peach, and lips like that strawberry there, on the top of your ice. She looked at me, and I was in love! I knew who she was — Irish lord’s daughter — girl I could have had for the asking; and I vow that I thought I would ask her — I actually was as far gone as that; I actually said to myself, I’d hang about her a week or two, and then propose. You’ll hardly believe it, but I did. Watched her presented; such grace, such a smile, such a divine lift of the lashes. I was really in love, and with a girl who would marry me! I was never so near a fatal thing in my life ——”

“Well?” asked the Seraph, pausing to listen till he let the ice in his sherry-cobbler melt away. When you have been so near breaking your neck down the Matrimonial Matterhorn, it is painfully interesting to hear how your friend escaped the same risks of descent.

“Well,” resumed Bertie, “I was very near it. I did nothing but watch her; she saw me, and I felt she was as flattered and as touched as she ought to be. She blushed most enchantingly; just enough, you know; she was conscious I followed her; I contrived to get close to her as she passed out, so close that I could see those exquisite eyes lighten and gleam, those exquisite lips part with a sigh, that beautiful face beam with the sunshine of a radiant smile. It was the dawn of love I had taught her! I pressed nearer and nearer, and I caught her soft whisper as she leaned to her mother: ‘Mamma, I’m so hungry! I could eat a whole chicken!’ The sigh, the smile, the blush, the light, were for her dinner — not for me! The spell was broken forever. A girl whom I had looked at could think of wings and merry-thoughts and white sauce! I have never been near a proposal again.”

The Seraph, with the clarion roll of his gay laughter, flung a hautboy at him.

“Hang you, Beauty! If I didn’t think you were going to tell one how you really got out of a serious thing; it is so awfully difficult to keep clear of them nowadays. Those before-dinner teas are only just so many new traps! What became of her — eh?”

“She married a Scotch laird and became socially extinct, somewhere among the Hebrides. Served her right,” murmured Cecil sententiously. “Only think what she lost just through hungering for a chicken; if I hadn’t proposed for her — for one hardly keeps the screw up to such self-sacrifice as that when one is cool the next morning — I would have made her the fashion!”

With which masterly description in one phrase of all he could have done for the ill-starred debutante who had been hungry in the wrong place, Cecil lounged out of the club to drive with half a dozen of his set to a water-party — a Bacchanalian water-party, with the Zu–Zu and her sisters for the Naiads and the Household for their Tritons.

A water-party whose water element apparently consisted in driving down to Richmond, dining at nine, being three hours over the courses, contributing seven guineas apiece for the repast, listening to the songs of the Café Alcazar, reproduced with matchless elan by a pretty French actress, being pelted with brandy cherries by the Zu–Zu, seeing their best cigars thrown away half-smoked by pretty pillagers, and driving back again to town in the soft, starry night, with the gay rhythms ringing from the box-seat as the leaders dashed along in a stretching gallop down the Kew Road. It certainly had no other more aquatic feature in it save a little drifting about for twenty minutes before dining, in toy boats and punts, as the sun was setting, while Laura Lelas, the brunette actress, sang a barcarolle.

“Venice, and her people, only born to bloom and droop.”

“Where be all those

Dear dead women, with such hair too; what’s become of all the gold

Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old;”

It did not set Cecil thinking, however, after Browning’s fashion, because, in the first place, it was a canon with him never to think at all; in the second, if put to it he would have averred that he knew nothing of Venice, except that it was a musty old bore of a place, where they worried you about visas and luggage and all that, chloride of lim’d you if you came from the East, and couldn’t give you a mount if it were ever so; and, in the third, instead of longing for the dear dead women, he was entirely contented with the lovely living ones who were at that moment puffing the smoke of his scented cigarettes into his eyes, making him eat lobster drowned in Chablis, or pelting him with bonbons.

As they left the Star and Garter, Laura Lelas, mounted on Cecil’s box-seat, remembered she had dropped her cashmere in the dining room. A cashmere is a Parisian’s soul, idol, and fetich; servants could not find it; Cecil, who, to do him this justice, was always as courteous to a comedienne as to a countess, went himself. Passing the open window of another room, he recognized the face of his little brother among a set of young Civil Service fellows, attaches, and cornets. They had no women with them; but they had brought what was perhaps worse — dice for hazard — and were turning the unconscious Star and Garter unto an impromptu Crockford’s over their wine.

Little Berk’s pretty face was very flushed; his lips were set tight, his eyes were glittering; the boy had the gambler’s passion of the Royallieu blood in its hottest intensity. He was playing with a terrible eagerness that went to Bertie’s heart with the same sort of pang of remorse with which he had looked on him when he had been thrown like dead on his bed at home.

Cecil stopped and leaned over the open window.

“Ah, young one, I did not know you were here. We are going home; will you come?” he asked, with a careless nod to the rest of the young fellows.

Berkeley looked up with a wayward, irritated annoyance.

“No, I can’t,” he said irritably; “don’t you see we are playing, Bertie?”

“I see,” answered Cecil, with a dash of gravity, almost of sadness in him, as he leaned farther over the windowsill with his cigar in his teeth.

“Come away,” he whispered kindly, as he almost touched the boy, who chanced to be close to the casement. “Hazard is the very deuce for anybody; and you know Royal hates it. Come with us, Berk; there’s a capital set here, and I’m going to half a dozen good houses to-night, when we get back. I’ll take you with me. Come! you like waltzing, and all that sort of thing, you know.”

The lad shook himself peevishly; a sullen cloud over his fair, picturesque, boyish face.

“Let me alone before the fellows,” he muttered impatiently. “I won’t come, I tell you.”

“Soit!”

Cecil shrugged his shoulders, left the window, found the Lelas’ cashmere, and sauntered back to the drags without any more expostulation. The sweetness of his temper could never be annoyed, but also he never troubled himself to utter useless words. Moreover, he had never been in is life much in earnest about anything; it was not worth while.

“A pretty fellow I am to turn preacher, when I have sins enough on my own shoulders for twenty,” he thought; as he shook the ribbons and started the leaders off to the gay music of Laura Lelas’ champagne-tuned laughter.

The thoughts that had crossed his mind when he had looked on his brother’s inanimate form had not been wholly forgotten since; he felt something like self-accusation whenever he saw, in some gray summer dawn, as he had seen now, the boy’s bright face, haggard and pale with the premature miseries of the gamester, or heard his half-piteous, half-querulous lamentations over his losses; and he would essay, with all the consummate tact the world had taught him, to persuade him from his recklessness, and warn him of the consequences. But little Berk, though he loved his elder after a fashion, was wayward, selfish, and unstable as water. He would be very sorry sometimes, very repentant, and would promise anything under the sun; but five minutes afterward he would go his own way just the same, and be as irritably resentful of interference as a proud, spoiled, still-childish temper can be. And Cecil — the last man in the world to turn mentor — would light a cheroot, as he did to-night, and forget all about it. The boy would be right enough when he had had his swing, he thought. Bertie’s philosophy was the essence of laissez-faire.

He would have defied a Manfred, or an Aylmer of Aylmer’s Field, to be long pursued by remorse or care if he drank the right cru and lived in the right set. “If it be very severe,” he would say, “it may give him a pang once a twelvemonth — say the morning after a whitebait dinner. Repentance is generally the fruit of indigestion, and contrition may generally be traced to too many truffles or olives.”

Cecil had no time or space for thought; he never thought; would not have thought seriously, for a kingdom. A novel, idly skimmed over in bed, was the extent of his literature; he never bored himself by reading the papers, he heard the news earlier than they told it; and as he lived, he was too constantly supplied from the world about him with amusement and variety to have to do anything beyond letting himself be amused; quietly fanned, as it were, with the lulling punka of social pleasure, without even the trouble of pulling the strings. He had naturally considerable talents, and an almost dangerous facility in them; but he might have been as brainless as a mollusk, for any exertion he gave his brain.

“If I were a professional diner-out, you know, I’d use such wits as I have: but why should I now?” he said on one occasion, when a fair lady reproached him with this inertia. “The best style is only just to say yes or no — and be bored even in saying that — and a very comfortable style it is, too. You get amused without the trouble of opening your lips.”

“But if everybody were equally monosyllabic, how then? You would not get amused,” suggested his interrogator, a brilliant Parisienne.

“Well — everybody is, pretty nearly,” said Bertie; “but there are always a lot of fellows who give their wits to get their dinners — social rockets, you know — who will always fire themselves off to sparkle instead of you, if you give them a white ball at the clubs, or get them a card for good houses. It saves you so much trouble; it is such a bore to have to talk.”

He went that night, as he had said, to half a dozen good houses, midnight receptions, and after-midnight waltzes; making his bow in a Cabinet Minister’s vestibule, and taking up the thread of the same flirtation at three different balls; showing himself for a moment at a Premier’s At-home, and looking eminently graceful and preeminently weary in an ambassadress’ drawing room, and winding up the series by a dainty little supper in the gray of the morning, with a sparkling party of French actresses, as bright as the bubbles of their own Clicquot.

When he went upstairs to his own bedroom, in Piccadilly, about five o’clock, therefore, he was both sleepy and tired, and lamented to that cherished and ever-discreet confidant, a cheroot, the brutal demands of the Service; which would drag him off, in five hours’ time, without the slightest regard to his feelings, to take share in the hot, heavy, dusty, searching work of a field-day up at the Scrubs.

“Here — get me to perch as quick as you can, Rake,” he murmured, dropping into an armchair; astonished that Rake did not answer, he saw standing by him instead the boy Berkeley. Surprise was a weakness of raw inexperience that Cecil never felt; his gazette as Commander-inChief, or the presence of the Wandering Jew in his lodgings would never have excited it in him. In the first place, he would have merely lifted his eyebrows and said, “Be a fearful bore!” in the second he would have done the same, and murmured, “Queer old cad!”

Surprised, therefore, he was not, at the boy’s untimely apparition; but his eyes dwelt on him with a mild wonder, while his lips dropped but one word:

“Amber–Amulet?”

Amber–Amulet was a colt of the most marvelous promise at the Royallieu establishment, looked on to win the next Clearwell, Guineas, and Derby as a certainty. An accident to the young chestnut was the only thing that suggested itself as of possibly sufficient importance to make his brother wait for him at five o’clock on a June morning.

Berkeley looked up confusedly, impatiently:

“You are never thinking but of horses or women,” he said peevishly; “there may be others things in the world, surely.”

“Indisputably there are other things in the world, dear boy; but none so much to my taste,” said Cecil composedly, stretching himself with a yawn. “With every regard to hospitality and the charms of your society, might I hint that five o’clock in the morning is not precisely the most suitable hour for social visits and ethical questions?”

“For God’s sake, be serious, Bertie! I am the most miserable wretch in creation.”

Cecil opened his closed eyes, with the sleepy indifference vanished from them, and a look of genuine and affectionate concern on the serene insouciance of his face.

“Ah! you would stay and play that chicken hazard,” he thought, but he was not one who would have reminded the boy of his own advice and its rejection; he looked at him in silence a moment, then raised himself with a sigh.

“Dear boy, why didn’t you sleep upon it? I never think of disagreeable things till they wake me with my coffee; then I take them up with the cup and put them down with it. You don’t know how well it answers; it disposes of them wonderfully.”

The boy lifted his head with a quick, reproachful anger, and in the gaslight his cheeks were flushed, his eyes full of tears.

“How brutal you are, Bertie! I tell you I am ruined, and you care no more than if you were a stone. You only think of yourself; you only live for yourself!”

He had forgotten the money that had been tossed to him off that very table the day before the Grand Military; he had forgotten the debts that had been paid for him out of the winnings of that very race. There is a childish, wayward, wailing temper, which never counts benefits received save as title-deeds by which to demand others. Cecil looked at him with just a shadow of regret, not reproachful enough to be rebuke, in his glance, but did not defend himself in any way against the boyish, passionate accusation, nor recall his own past gifts into remembrance.

“‘Brutal’! What a word, little one. Nobody’s brutal now; you never see that form nowadays. Come, what is the worst this time?”

Berkeley looked sullenly down on the table where his elbows leaned; scattering the rose-notes, the French novels, the cigarettes, and the gold essence-bottles with which it was strewn; there was something dogged yet agitated, half-insolent yet half-timidly irresolute, upon him, that was new there.

“The worst is soon told,” he said huskily, and his teeth chattered together slightly, as though with cold, as he spoke. “I lost two hundred to-night; I must pay it, or be disgraced forever; I have not a farthing; I cannot get the money for my life; no Jews will lend to me, I am under age; and — and”— his voice sank lower and grew more defiant, for he knew that the sole thing forbidden him peremptorily by both his father and his brothers was the thing he had now to tell —“and — I borrowed three ponies of Granville Lee yesterday, as he came from the Corner with a lot of banknotes after settling-day. I told him I would pay them tomorrow; I made sure I should have won to-night.”

The piteous unreason of the born gamester, who clings so madly to the belief that luck must come to him, and sets on that belief as though a bank were his to lose his gold from, was never more utterly spoken in all its folly, in all its pitiable optimism, than now in the boy’s confession.

Bertie started from his chair, his sleepy languor dissipated; on his face the look that had come there when Lord Royallieu had dishonored his mother’s name. In his code there was one shameless piece of utter and unmentionable degradation — it was to borrow of a friend.

“You will bring some disgrace on us before you die, Berkeley,” he said, with a keener inflection of pain and contempt than had ever been in his voice. “Have you no common knowledge of honor?”

The lad flushed under the lash of the words, but it was a flush of anger rather than of shame; he did not lift his eyes, but gazed sullenly down on the yellow paper of a Paris romance he was irritably dog-earing.

“You are severe enough,” he said gloomily, and yet insolently. “Are you such a mirror of honor yourself? I suppose my debts, at the worst, are about one-fifth of yours.”

For a moment even the sweetness of Cecil’s temper almost gave way. Be his debts what they would, there was not one among them to his friends, or one for which the law could not seize him. He was silent; he did not wish to have a scene of discussion with one who was but a child to him; moreover, it was his nature to abhor scenes of any sort, and to avert even a dispute, at any cost.

He came back and sat down without any change of expression, putting his cheroot in his mouth.

“Tres cher, you are not courteous,” he said wearily; “but it may be that you are right. I am not a good one for you to copy from in anything except the fit of my coats; I don’t think I ever told you I was. I am not altogether so satisfied with myself as to suggest myself as a model for anything, unless it were to stand in a tailor’s window in Bond Street to show the muffs how to dress. That isn’t the point, though; you say you want near 300 pounds by tomorrow — today rather. I can suggest nothing except to take the morning mail to the Shires, and ask Royal straight out; he never refuses you.”

Berkeley looked at him with a bewildered terror that banished at a stroke his sullen defiance; he was irresolute as a girl, and keenly moved by fear.

“I would rather cut my throat,” he said, with a wild exaggeration that was but the literal reflection of the trepidation on him; “as I live I would! I have had so much from him lately — you don’t know how much — and now of all times, when they threaten to foreclose the mortgage on Royallieu —”

“What? Foreclose what?”

“The mortgage!” answered Berkeley impatiently; to his childish egotism it seemed cruel and intolerable that any extremities should be considered save his own. “You know the lands are mortgaged as deeply as Monti and the entail would allow them. They threatened to foreclose — I think that’s the word — and Royal has had God knows what work to stave them off. I no more dare face him, and ask him for a sovereign now than I dare ask him to give me the gold plate off the sideboard.”

Cecil listened gravely; it cut him more keenly than he showed to learn the evils and the ruin that so closely menaced his house; and to find how entirely his father’s morbid mania against him severed him from all the interests and all the confidence of his family, and left him ignorant of matters even so nearly touching him as these.

“Your intelligence is not cheerful, little one,” he said, with a languid stretch of his limbs; it was his nature to glide off painful subjects. “And — I really am sleepy! You think there is no hope Royal would help you?”

“I tell you I will shoot myself through the brain rather than ask him.”

Bertie moved restlessly in the soft depths of his lounging-chair; he shunned worry, loathed it, escaped it at every portal, and here it came to him just when he wanted to go to sleep. He could not divest himself of the feeling that, had his own career been different — less extravagant, less dissipated, less indolently spendthrift — he might have exercised a better influence, and his brother’s young life might have been more prudently launched upon the world. He felt, too, with a sharper pang than he had ever felt it for himself, the brilliant beggary in which he lived, the utter inability he had to raise even the sum that the boy now needed; a sum so trifling, in his set, and with his habits, that he had betted it over and over again in a clubroom, on a single game of whist. It cut him with a bitter, impatient pain; he was as generous as the winds, and there is no trial keener to such a temper than the poverty that paralyzes its power to give.

“It is no use to give you false hopes, young one,” he said gently. “I can do nothing! You ought to know me by this time; and if you do, you know too that if the money was mine it would be yours at a word — if you don’t, no matter! Frankly, Berk, I am all down-hill; my bills may be called in any moment; when they are I must send in my papers to sell, and cut the country, if my duns don’t catch me before, which they probably will; in which event I shall be to all intents and purposes — dead. This is not lively conversation, but you will do me the justice to say that it was not I who introduced it. Only — one word for all, my boy; understand this: if I could help you I would, cost what it might, but as matters stand — I cannot.”

And with that Cecil puffed a great cloud of smoke to envelope him; the subject was painful, the denial wounded him by whom it had to be given full as much as it could wound him whom it refused. Berkeley heard it in silence; his head still hung down, his color changing, his hands nervously playing with the bouquet-bottles, shutting and opening their gold tops.

“No — yes — I know,” he said hurriedly; “I have no right to expect it, and have been behaving like a cur, and — and — all that, I know. But — there is one way you could save me, Bertie, if it isn’t too much for a fellow to ask.”

“I can’t say I see the way, little one,” said Cecil, with a sigh. “What is it?”

“Why — look here. You see I’m not of age; my signature is of no use; they won’t take it; else I could get money in no time on what must come to me when Royal dies; though ‘tisn’t enough to make the Jews ‘melt’ at a risk. Now — now — look here. I can’t see that there could be any harm in it. You are such chums with Lord Rockingham, and he’s as rich as all the Jews put together. What could there be in it if you just asked him to lend you a monkey for me? He’d do it in a minute, because he’d give his head away to you — they all say so — and he’ll never miss it. Now, Bertie — will you?”

In his boyish incoherence and its disjointed inelegance the appeal was panted out rather than spoken; and while his head drooped and the hot color burned in his face, he darted a swift look at his brother, so full of dread and misery that it pierced Cecil to the quick as he rose from his chair and paced the room, flinging his cheroot aside; the look disarmed the reply that was on his lips, but his face grew dark.

“What you ask is impossible,” he said briefly. “If I did such a thing as that, I should deserve to be hounded out of the Guards tomorrow.”

The boy’s face grew more sullen, more haggard, more evil, as he still bent his eyes on the table, his glance not meeting his brother’s.

“You speak as if it would be a crime,” he muttered savagely, with a plaintive moan of pain in the tone; he thought himself cruelly dealt with and unjustly punished.

“It would be the trick of a swindler, and it would be the shame of a gentleman,” said Cecil, as briefly still. “That is answer enough.”

“Then you will not do it?”

“I have replied already.”

There was that in the tone, and in the look with which he paused before the table, that Berkeley had never heard or seen in him before; something that made the supple, childish, petulant, cowardly nature of the boy shrink and be silenced; something for a single instant of the haughty and untamable temper of the Royallieu blood that awoke in the too feminine softness and sweetness of Cecil’s disposition.

“You said that you would aid me at any cost, and now that I ask you so wretched a trifle, you treat me as if I were a scoundrel,” he moaned passionately. “The Seraph would give you the money at a word. It is your pride — nothing but pride. Much pride is worth to us who are penniless beggars!”

“If we are penniless beggars, by what right should we borrow of other men?”

“You are wonderfully scrupulous, all of a sudden!”

Cecil shrugged his shoulders slightly and began to smoke again. He did not attempt to push the argument. His character was too indolent to defend itself against aspersion, and horror of a quarrelsome scene far greater than his heed of misconstruction.

“You are a brute to me!” went on the lad, with his querulous and bitter passion rising almost to tears like a woman’s. “You pretend you can refuse me nothing; and the moment I ask you the smallest thing you turn on me, and speak as if I were the greatest blackguard on earth. You’ll let me go to the bad tomorrow rather than bend your pride to save me; you live like a Duke, and don’t care if I should die in a debtor’s prison! You only brag about ‘honor’ when you want to get out of helping a fellow; and if I were to cut my throat to-night you would only shrug your shoulders, and sneer at my death in the clubroom, with a jest picked out of your cursed French novels!”

“Melodramatic, and scarcely correct,” murmured Bertie.

The ingratitude to himself touched him indeed but little; he was not given to making much of anything that was due to himself — partly through carelessness, partly through generosity; but the absence in his brother of that delicate, intangible, indescribable sensitive-nerve which men call Honor, an absence that had never struck on him so vividly as it did to-night, troubled him, surprised him, oppressed him.

There is no science that can supply this defect to the temperament created without it; it may be taught a counterfeit, but it will never own a reality.

“Little one, you are heated, and don’t know what you say,” he began very gently, a few moments later, as he leaned forward and looked straight in the boy’s eyes. “Don’t be down about this; you will pull through, never fear. Listen to me; go down to Royal, and tell him all frankly. I know him better than you; he will be savage for a second, but he would sell every stick and stone on the land for your sake; he will see you safe through this. Only bear one thing in mind — tell him all. No half measures, no half confidences; tell him the worst, and ask his help. You will not come back without it.”

Berkeley listened; his eyes shunning his brother’s, the red color darker on his face.

“Do as I say,” said Cecil, very gently still. “Tell him, if you like, that it is through following my follies that you have come to grief; he will be sure to pity you then.”

There was a smile, a little sad, on his lips, as he said the last words, but it passed at once as he added:

“Do your hear me? will you go?”

“If you want me — yes.”

“On your word, now?”

“On my word.”

There was an impatience in the answer, a feverish eagerness in the way he assented that might have made the consent rather a means to evade the pressure than a genuine pledge to follow the advice; that darker, more evil, more defiant look was still upon his face, sweeping its youth away and leaving in its stead a wavering shadow. He rose with a sudden movement; his tumbled hair, his disordered attire, his bloodshot eyes, his haggard look of sleeplessness and excitement in strange contrast with the easy perfection of Cecil’s dress and the calm languor of his attitude. The boy was very young, and was not seasoned to his life and acclimatized to his ruin, like his elder brother. He looked at him with a certain petulant envy; the envy of every young fellow for a man of the world. “I beg your pardon for keeping you up, Bertie,” he said huskily. “Good-night.”

Cecil gave a little yawn.

“Dear boy, it would have been better if you could have come in with the coffee. Never be impulsive; don’t do a bit of good, and is such bad form!”

He spoke lightly, serenely; both because such was as much his nature as it was to breathe, and because his heart was heavy that he had to send away the young one without help, though he knew that the course he had made him adopt would serve him more permanently in the end. But he leaned his hand a second on Berk’s shoulder, while for one single moment in his life he grew serious.

“You must know I could not do what you asked; I could not meet any man in the Guards face to face if I sunk myself and sunk them so low. Can’t you see that, little one?”

There was a wistfulness in the last words; he would gladly have believed that his brother had at length some perception of his meaning.

“You say so, and that is enough,” said the boy pettishly; “I cannot understand that I asked anything so dreadful; but I suppose you have too many needs of your own to have any resources left for mine.”

Cecil shrugged his shoulders slightly again, and let him go. But he could not altogether banish a pang of pain at his heart, less even for his brother’s ingratitude than at his callousness to all those finer, better instincts of which honor is the concrete name.

For the moment, thought — grave, weary, and darkened — fell on him; he had passed through what he would have suffered any amount of misconstruction to escape — a disagreeable scene; he had been as unable as though he were a Commissionaire in the streets to advance a step to succor the necessities for which his help had been asked; and he was forced, despite all his will, to look for the first time blankly in the face the ruin that awaited him. There was no other name for it: it would be ruin complete and wholly inevitable. His signature would have been accepted no more by any bill-discounter in London; he had forestalled all, to the uttermost farthing; his debts pressed heavier every day; he could have no power to avert the crash that must in a few weeks, or at most a few months, fall upon him. And to him an utter blankness and darkness lay beyond.

Barred out from the only life he knew, the only life that seemed to him endurable or worth the living; severed from all the pleasures, pursuits, habits, and luxuries of long custom; deprived of all that had become to him as second nature from childhood; sold up, penniless, driven out from all that he had known as the very necessities of existence; his very name forgotten in the world of which he was now the darling; a man without a career, without a hope, without a refuge — he could not realize that this was what awaited him then; this was the fate that must within so short a space be his. Life had gone so smoothly with him, and his world was a world from whose surface every distasteful thought was so habitually excluded, that he could no more understand this desolation lying in wait for him than one in the fullness and elasticity of health can believe the doom that tells him he will be a dead man before the sun has set.

As he sat there, with the gas of the mirror branches glancing on the gold and silver hilts of the crossed swords above the fireplace, and the smoke of his cheroot curling among the pile of invitation cards to all the best houses in town, Cecil could not bring himself to believe that things were really come to this pass with him. It is so hard for a man who has the magnificence of the fashionable clubs open to him day and night to beat into his brain the truth that in six months hence he may be lying in the debtors’ prison at Baden; it is so difficult for a man who has had no greater care on his mind than to plan the courtesies of a Guards’ Ball or of a yacht’s summer-day banquet, to absolutely conceive the fact that in a year’s time he will thank God if he have a few francs left to pay for a wretched dinner in a miserable estaminet in a foreign bathing-place.

“It mayn’t come to that,” he thought; “something may happen. If I could get my troop now, that would stave off the Jews; or, if I should win some heavy pots on the Prix de Dames, things would swim on again. I must win; the King will be as fit as in the Shires, and there will only be the French horses between us and an absolute ‘walk over.’ Things mayn’t come to the worst, after all.”

And so careless and quickly oblivious, happily or unhappily, was his temperament, that he read himself to sleep with Terrail’s “Club des Valets de Coeur,” and slept in ten minutes’ time as composedly as though he had inherited fifty thousand a year.

That evening, in the loose-box down at Royallieu, Forest King stood without any body-covering, for the night was close and sultry, a lock of the sweetest hay unnoticed in his rack, and his favorite wheaten-gruel standing uncared-for under his very nose; the King was in the height of excitation, alarm, and haughty wrath. His ears were laid flat to his head, his nostrils were distended, his eyes were glancing uneasily with a nervous, angry fire rare in him, and ever and anon he lashed out his heels with a tremendous thundering thud against the opposite wall, with a force that reverberated through the stables and made his companions start and edge away. It was precisely these companions that the aristocratic hero of the Soldiers’ Blue Ribbon scornfully abhorred.

They had just been looking him over — to their own imminent peril; and the patrician winner of the Vase, the brilliant six-year-old of Paris, and Shire and Spa steeple-chase fame, the knightly descendant of the White Cockade blood and of the coursers of Circassia, had resented the familiarity proportionately to his own renown and dignity. The King was a very sweet-tempered horse, a perfect temper, indeed, and ductile to a touch from those he loved; but he liked very few, and would suffer liberties from none. And of a truth his prejudices were very just; and if his clever heels had caught — and it was not his fault that they did not — the heads of his two companions, instead of coming with that ponderous crash into the panels of his box, society would certainly have been no loser, and his owner would have gained more than had ever before hung in the careless balance of his life.

But the iron heels, with their shining plates, only caught the oak of his box-door; and the tete-a-tete in the sultry, oppressive night went on as the speakers moved to a prudent distance; one of them thoughtfully chewing a bit of straw, after the immemorial habit of grooms, who ever seem as if they had been born into this world with a cornstalk ready in their mouths.

“It’s almost a pity — he’s in such perfect condition. Tip-top. Cool as a cucumber after the longest pipe-opener; licks his oats up to the last grain; leads the whole string such a rattling spin as never was spun but by a Derby cracker before him. It’s almost a pity,” said Willon meditatively, eyeing his charge, the King, with remorseful glances.

“Prut-tush-tish!” said his companion, with a whistle in his teeth that ended with a “damnation!” “It’ll only knock him over for the race; he’ll be right as a trivet after it. What’s your little game; coming it soft like that, all of a sudden? You hate that ere young swell like p’ison.”

“Aye,” assented the head groom with a tigerish energy, viciously consuming his bit of straw. “What for am I— head groom come nigh twenty years; and to Markisses and Wiscounts afore him — put aside in that ere way for a fellow as he’s took into his service out of the dregs of a regiment; what was tied up at the triangles and branded D, as I know on, and sore suspected of even worse games than that, and now is that set up with pride and sich-like that nobody’s woice ain’t heard here except his; I say what am I called on to bear it for?”: and the head groom’s tones grew hoarse and vehement, roaring louder under his injuries. “A man what’s attended a Duke’s ‘osses ever since he was a shaver, to be put aside for that workhus blackguard! A ‘oss had a cold — it’s Rake what’s to cure him. A ‘oss is entered for a race — it’s Rake what’s to order his morning gallops, and his go-downs o’ water. It’s past bearing to have a rascally chap what’s been and gone and turned walet, set up over one’s head in one’s own establishment, and let to ride the high ‘oss over one, roughshod like that!”

And Mr. Willon, in his disgust at the equestrian contumely thus heaped on him, bit the straw savagely in two, and made an end of it, with a vindictive “Will yer be quiet there; blow yer,” to the King, who was protesting with his heels against the conversation.

“Come, then, no gammon,” growled his companion — the “cousin out o’ Yorkshire” of the keeper’s tree.

“What’s yer figure, you say?” relented Willon meditatively.

“Two thousand to nothing — come! — can’t no handsomer,” retorted the Yorkshire cousin, with the air of a man conscious of behaving very nobly.

“For the race in Germany?” pursued Mr. Willon, still meditatively.

“Two thousand to nothing — come!” reiterated the other, with his arms folded to intimate that this and nothing else was the figure to which he would bind himself.

Willon chewed another bit of straw, glanced at the horse as though he were a human thing to hear, to witness, and to judge, grew a little pale; and stooped forward.

“Hush! Somebody’ll spy on us. It’s a bargain.”

“Done! And you’ll paint him, eh?”

“Yes — I’ll — paint him.”

The assent was very husky, and dragged slowly out, while his eyes glanced with a furtive, frightened glance over the loose-box. Then — still with that cringing, terrified look backward to the horse, as an assassin may steal a glance before his deed at his unconscious victim — the head groom and his comrade went out and closed the door of the loose-box and passed into the hot, lowering summer night.

Forest King, left in solitude, shook himself with a neigh; took a refreshing roll in the straw, and turned with an appetite to his neglected gruel. Unhappily for himself, his fine instincts could not teach him the conspiracy that lay in wait for him and his; and the gallant beast, content to be alone, soon slept the sleep of the righteous.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/ouida/under-two-flags/chapter7.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 21:06