When a young Prussian had shot himself the night before for roulette losses, the event had not thrilled, startled, and impressed the gay Baden gathering one tithe so gravely and so enduringly as did now the unaccountable failure of the great Guards’ Crack.
Men could make nothing of it save the fact that there was “something dark” somewhere. The “painted quid” had done its work more thoroughly than Willon and the welsher had intended; they had meant that the opiate should be just sufficient to make the favorite off his speed, but not to make effects so palpable as these. It was, however, so deftly prepared that under examination no trace could be found of it, and the result of veterinary investigation, while it left unremoved the conviction that the horse had been doctored, could not explain when or how, or by what medicines. Forest King had simply “broken down”; favorites do this on the flat and over the furrow from an overstrain, from a railway journey, from a touch of cold, from a sudden decay of power, from spasm, or from vertigo; those who lose by them may think what they will of “roping,” or “painting,” or “nobbling,” but what can they prove?
Even in the great scandals that come before the autocrats of the Jockey Club, where the tampering is clearly known, can the matter ever be really proved and sifted? Very rarely. The trainer affects stolid unconsciousness or unimpeachable respectability; the hapless stable-boy is cross-examined, to protest innocence and ignorance, and most likely protest them rightly; he is accused, dismissed, and ruined; or some young jock has a “caution” out everywhere against him, and never again can get a mount even for the commonest handicap; but, as a rule, the real criminals are never unearthed, and by consequence are never reached and punished.
The Household, present and absent, were heavily hit. They cared little for the “crushers” they incurred, but their champion’s failure, when he was in the face of Europe, cut them more terribly. The fame of the English riding-men had been trusted to Forest King and his owner, and they, who had never before betrayed the trust placed in them, had broken down like any screw out of a livery stable; like any jockey bribed to “pull” at a suburban selling-race. It was fearfully bitter work; and, unanimous to a voice, the indignant murmur of “doctored” ran through the titled, fashionable crowds on the Baden course in deep and ominous anger.
The Seraph’s grand wrath poured out fulminations against the wicked-doer whosoever he was, or wheresoever he lurked; and threatened, with a vengeance that would be no empty words, the direst chastisement of the “Club,” of which both his father and himself were stewards, upon the unknown criminal. The Austrian and French nobles, while winners by the event, were scarce in less angered excitement. It seemed to cast the foulest slur upon their honor that, upon foreign ground, the renowned English steeple-chaser should have been tampered with thus; and the fair ladies of either world added the influence of their silver tongues, and were eloquent in the vivacity of their sympathy and resentment with a unanimity women rarely show in savoring defeat, but usually reserve for the fairer opportunity of swaying the censer before success.
Cecil alone, amid it all, was very quiet; he said scarcely a word, nor could the sharpest watcher have detected an alteration in his countenance. Only once, when they talked around him of the investigations of the Club, and of the institution of inquiries to discover the guilty traitor, he looked up with a sudden, dangerous lighting of his soft, dark, hazel eyes, under the womanish length of their lashes: “When you find him, leave him to me.”
The light was gone again in an instant; but those who knew the wild strain that ran in the Royallieu blood knew by it that, despite his gentle temper, a terrible reckoning for the evil done his horse might come some day from the Quietist.
He said little or nothing else, and to the sympathy and indignation expressed for him on all sides he answered with his old, listless calm. But, in truth, he barely knew what was saying or doing about him; he felt like a man stunned and crushed with the violence of some tremendous fall; the excitation, the agitation, the angry amazement around him (growing as near clamor as was possible in those fashionable betting-circles, so free from roughs and almost free from bookmakers), the conflicting opinions clashing here and there — even, indeed, the graceful condolence of the brilliant women — were insupportable to him. He longed to be out of this world which had so well amused him; he longed passionately, for the first time in his life, to be alone.
For he knew that with the failure of Forest King had gone the last plank that saved him from ruin; perhaps the last chance that stood between him and dishonor. He had never looked on it as within the possibilities of hazard that the horse could be defeated; now, little as those about him knew it, an absolute and irremediable disgrace fronted him. For, secure in the issue of the Prix de Dames, and compelled to weight his chances in it very heavily that his winnings might be wide enough to relieve some of the debt-pressure upon him, his losses now were great; and he knew no more how to raise the moneys to meet them than he would have known how to raise the dead.
The blow fell with crushing force; the fiercer because his indolence had persisted in ignoring his danger, and because his whole character was so naturally careless and so habituated to ease and to enjoyment.
A bitter, heartsick misery fell on him; the tone of honor was high with him; he might be reckless of everything else, but he could never be reckless in what infringed, or went nigh to infringe, a very stringent code. Bertie never reasoned in that way; he simply followed the instincts of his breeding without analyzing them; but these led him safely and surely right in all his dealings with his fellow-men, however open to censure his life might be in other matters. Careless as he was, and indifferent, to levity, in many things, his ideas of honor were really very pure and elevated; he suffered proportionately now that, through the follies of his own imprudence, and the baseness of some treachery he could neither sift nor avenge, he saw himself driven down into as close a jeopardy of disgrace as ever befell a man who did not willfully, and out of guilty coveting of its fruits, seek it.
For the first time in his life the society of his troops of acquaintance became intolerably oppressive; for the first time in his life he sought refuge from thought in the stimulus of drink, and dashed down neat Cognac as though it were iced Badminton, as he drove with his set off the disastrous plains of Iffesheim. He shook himself free of them as soon as he could; he felt the chatter round him insupportable; the men were thoroughly good-hearted, and though they were sharply hit by the day’s issue, never even by implication hinted at owing the disaster to their faith in him, but the very cordiality and sympathy they showed cut him the keenest — the very knowledge of their forbearance made his own thoughts darkest.
Far worse to Cecil than the personal destruction the day’s calamity brought him was the knowledge of the entire faith these men had placed in him, and the losses which his own mistaken security had caused them. Granted he could neither guess nor avert the trickery which had brought about his failure; but none the less did he feel that he had failed them; none the less did the very generosity and magnanimity they showed him sting him like a scourge.
He got away from them at last, and wandered out alone into the gardens of the Stephanien, till the green trees of an alley shut him in in solitude, and the only echo of the gay world of Baden was the strain of a band, the light mirth of a laugh, or the roll of a carriage sounding down the summer air.
It was eight o’clock; the sun was slanting in the west in a cloudless splendor, bathing the bright scene in a rich golden glow, and tinging to bronze the dark masses of the Black Forest. In another hour he was the expected guest of a Russian Prince at a dinner party, where all that was highest, fairest, greatest, most powerful, and most bewitching of every nationality represented there would meet; and in the midst of this radiant whirlpool of extravagance and pleasure, where every man worth owning as such was his friend, and every woman whose smile he cared for welcomed him, he knew himself as utterly alone, as utterly doomed, as the lifeless Prussian lying in the dead-house. No aid could serve him, for it would have been but to sink lower yet to ask or to take it; no power could save him from the ruin which in a few days later at the farthest would mark him out forever an exiled, beggared, perhaps dishonored man — a debtor and an alien.
Where he had thrown himself on a bench beneath a mountain-ash, trying vainly to realize this thing which had come upon him — and to meet which not training, nor habit, nor a moment’s grave reflection had ever done the slightest to prepare him; gazing, blankly and unconsciously, at the dense pine woods and rugged glens of the Forest that sloped upward and around above the green and leafy nest of Baden — he watched mechanically the toiling passage of a charcoal-burner going up the hillside in distance through the firs.
“Those poor devils envy us!” he thought. “Better be one of them ten thousand times than be trained for the Great Race, and started with the cracks, dead weighted with the penalty-shot of Poverty!”
A soft touch came on his arm as he sat there; he looked up, surprised. Before him stood a dainty, delicate little form, all gay with white lace, and broideries, and rose ribbons, and floating hair fastened backward with a golden fillet; it was that of the little Lady Venetia — the only daughter of the House of Lyonnesse, by a late marriage of his Grace — the eight-year-old sister of the colossal Seraph; the plaything of a young and lovely mother, who had flirted in Belgravia with her future stepson before she fell sincerely and veritably in love with the gallant and still handsome Duke.
Cecil roused himself and smiled at her; he had been by months together at Lyonnesse most years of the child’s life, and had been gentle to her as he was to every living thing, though he had noticed her seldom.
“Well, Petite Reine,” he said kindly, bitter as his thoughts were; calling her by the name she generally bore. “All alone? Where are your playmates?”
“Petite Reine,” who, to justify her sobriquet, was a grand, imperial little lady, bent her delicate head — a very delicate head, indeed, carrying itself royally, young though it was.
“Ah! you know I never care for children!”
It was said so disdainfully, yet so sincerely, without a touch of affectation, and so genuinely, as the expression of a matured and contemptuous opinion, that even in that moment it amused him. She did not wait an answer, but bent nearer, with an infinite pity and anxiety in her pretty eyes.
“I want to know — you are so vexed; are you not? They say you have lost all your money!”
“Do they? They are not far wrong then. Who are ‘they,’ Petite Reine?”
“Oh! Prince Alexis, and the Duc de Lorance, and mamma, and everybody. Is it true?”
“Very true, my little lady.”
“Ah!” She gave a long sigh, looking pathetically at him, with her head on one side, and her lips parted; “I heard the Russian gentleman saying that you were ruined. Is that true, too?”
“Yes, dear,” he answered wearily, thinking little of the child in the desperate pass to which his life had come.
Petite Reine stood by him silent; her proud, imperial young ladyship had a very tender heart, and she was very sorry; she had understood what had been said before her of him vaguely indeed, and with no sense of its true meaning, yet still with the quick perception of a brilliant and petted child. Looking at her, he saw with astonishment that her eyes were filled with tears. He put out his hand and drew her to him.
“Why, little one, what do you know of these things? How did you find me out here?”
She bent nearer to him, swaying her slender figure, with its bright gossamer muslins, like a dainty hare-bell, and lifting her face to his — earnest, beseeching, and very eager.
“I came — I came — please don’t be angry — because I heard them say you had no money, and I want you to take mine. Do take it! Look, it is all bright gold, and it is my own, my very own. Papa gives it to me to do just what I like with. Do take it; pray do!”
Coloring deeply, for the Petite Reine had that true instinct of generous natures — a most sensitive delicacy for others — but growing ardent in her eloquence and imploring in her entreaty, she shook on to Cecil’s knee, out of a little enamel sweetmeat box, twenty bright Napoleons that fell in a glittering shower on the grass.
He started, and looked at her in a silence that she mistook for offense. She leaned nearer, pale now with her excitement, and with her large eyes gleaming and melting with passionate entreaty.
“Don’t be angry; pray take it; it is all my own, and you know I have bonbons, and books, and playthings, and ponies, and dogs till I am tired of them; I never want the money; indeed I don’t. Take it, please take it; and if you will only let me ask Papa or Rock they will give you thousands and thousands of pounds, if that isn’t enough. Do let me!”
Cecil, in silence still, stooped and drew her to him. When he spoke his voice shook ever so slightly, and he felt his eyes dim with an emotion that he had not known in all his careless life; the child’s words and action touched him deeply, the caressing, generous innocence of the offered gift, beside the enormous extravagance and hopeless bankruptcy of his career, smote him with a keen pang, yet moved him with a strange pleasure.
“Petite Reine,” he murmured gently, striving vainly for his old lightness, “Petite Reine, how some man will love you one day! Thank you from my heart, my little innocent friend.”
Her face flushed with gladness; she smiled with all a child’s unshadowed joy.
“Ah! then you will take it! and if you want more only let me ask them for it; papa and Philip never refuse me anything!”
His hand wandered gently over the shower of her hair, as he put back the Napoleons that he had gathered up into her azure bonbonniere.
“Petite Reine, you are a little angel; but I cannot take your money, my child, and you must ask for none for my sake from your father or from Rock. Do not look so grieved, little one; I love you none the less because I refuse it.”
Petite Reine’s face was very pale and grave; a delicate face, in its miniature feminine childhood almost absurdly like the Seraph’s; her eyes were full of plaintive wonder and of pathetic reproach.
“Ah!” she said, drooping her head with a sigh; “it is no good to you because it is such a little; do let me ask for more!”
He smiled, but the smile was very weary.
“No, dear, you must not ask for more; I have been very foolish, my little friend, and I must take the fruits of my folly; all men must. I can accept no one’s money, not even yours; when you are older and remember this, you will know why. But I do not thank you the less from my heart.”
She looked at him, pained and wistful.
“You will not take anything, Mr. Cecil?” she asked with a sigh, glancing at her rejected Napoleons.
He drew the enamel bonbonniere away.
“I will take that if you will give it me, Petite Reine, and keep it in memory of you.”
As he spoke, he stooped and kissed her very gently; the act had moved him more deeply than he thought he had it in him to be moved by anything, and the child’s face turned upward to him was of a very perfect and aristocratic loveliness, far beyond her years. She colored as his lips touched hers, and swayed slightly from him. She was an extremely proud young sovereign, and never allowed caresses; yet she lingered by him, troubled, grave, with something intensely tender and pitiful in the musing look of her eyes. She had a perception that this calamity which smote him was one far beyond the ministering of her knowledge.
He took the pretty Palais Royal gold-rimmed sweetmeat box, and slipped it into his waistcoat pocket. It was only a child’s gift, a tiny Paris toy; but it had been brought to him in a tender compassion, and he did keep it; kept it through dark days and wild nights, through the scorch of the desert and the shadows of death, till the young eyes that questioned him now with such innocent wonder had gained the grander luster of their womanhood and had brought him a grief wider than he knew now.
At that moment, as the child stood beside him under the drooping acacia boughs, with the green, sloping lower valley seen at glimpses through the wall of leaves, one of the men of the Stephanien approached him with an English letter, which, as it was marked “instant,” they had laid apart from the rest of the visitors’ pile of correspondence. Cecil took it wearily — nothing but fresh embarrassments could come to him from England — and looked at the little Lady Venetia.
“Will you allow me?”
She bowed her graceful head; with all the naif unconsciousness of a child, she had all the manner of the veille cour; together they made her enchanting.
He broke the envelope and read — a blurred, scrawled, miserable letter; the words erased with passionate strokes, and blotted with hot tears, and scored out in impulsive misery. It was long, yet at a glance he scanned its message and its meaning; at the first few words he knew its whole as well as though he had studied every line.
A strong tremor shook him from head to foot, a tremor at once of passionate rage and of as passionate pain; his face blanched to a deadly whiteness; his teeth clinched as though he were restraining some bodily suffering, and he tore the letter in two and stamped it down into the turf under his heel with a gesture as unlike his common serenity of manner as the fiery passion that darkened in his eyes was unlike the habitual softness of his too pliant and too unresentful temper. He crushed the senseless paper again and again down into the grass beneath his heel; his lips shook under the silky abundance of his beard; the natural habit of long usage kept him from all utterance, and even in the violence of its shock he remembered the young Venetia’s presence; but, in that one fierce, unrestrained gesture the shame and suffering upon him broke out, despite himself.
The child watched him, startled and awed. She touched his hand softly.
“What is it? Is it anything worse?”
He turned his eyes on her with a dry, hot, weary anguish in them; he was scarcely conscious what he said or what he answered.
“Worse — worse?” he repeated mechanically, while his heel still ground down in loathing the shattered paper into the grass. “There can be nothing worse! It is the vilest, blackest shame.”
He spoke to his thoughts, not to her; the words died in his throat; a bitter agony was on him; all the golden summer evening, all the fair green world about him, were indistinct and unreal to his senses; he felt as if the whole earth were of a sudden changed; he could not realize that this thing could come to him and his — that this foul dishonor could creep up and stain them — that this infamy could ever be of them and upon them. All the ruin that before had fallen on him today was dwarfed and banished; it looked nothing beside the unendurable horror that reached him now.
The gay laughter of children sounded down the air at that moment; they were the children of a French Princess seeking their playmate Venetia, who had escaped from them and from their games to find her way to Cecil. He motioned her to them; he could not bear even the clear and pitying eyes of the Petite Reine to be upon him now.
She lingered wistfully; she did not like to leave him.
“Let me stay with you,” she pleaded caressingly. “You are vexed at something; I cannot help you, but Rock will — the Duke will. Do let me ask them?”
He laid his hand on her shoulder; his voice, as he answered, was hoarse and unsteady.
“No; go, dear. You will please me best by leaving me. Ask none — tell none; I can trust you to be silent, Petite Reine.”
She gave him a long, earnest look.
“Yes,” she answered simply and gravely, as one who accepts, and not lightly, a trust.
Then she went slowly and lingeringly, with the sun on the gold fillet binding her hair, but the tears heavy on the shadow of her silken lashes. When next they met again the luster of a warmer sun, that once burned on the white walls of the palace of Phoenicia and the leaping flame of the Temple of the God of Healing, shone upon them; and through the veil of those sweeping lashes there gazed the resistless sovereignty of a proud and patrician womanhood.
Alone, his head sank down upon his hands; he gave reins to the fiery scorn, the acute suffering which turn by turn seized him with every moment that seared the words of the letter deeper and deeper down into his brain. Until this he had never known what it was to suffer; until this his languid creeds had held that no wise man feels strongly, and that to glide through life untroubled and unmoved is as possible as it is politic. Now he suffered, he suffered dumbly as a dog, passionately as a barbarian; now he was met by that which, in the moment of its dealing, pierced his panoplies of indifference, and escaped his light philosophies.
“Oh, God!” he thought, “if it were anything — anything — except Disgrace!”
In a miserable den, an hour or so before — there are miserable dens even in Baden, that gold-decked rendezvous of princes, where crowned heads are numberless as couriers, and great ministers must sometimes be content with a shakedown — two men sat in consultation. Though the chamber was poor and dark, their table was loaded with various expensive wines and liqueurs. Of a truth they were flush of money, and selected this poor place from motives of concealment rather than of necessity. One of them was the “welsher,” Ben Davis; the other, a smaller, quieter man, with a keen, vivacious Hebrew eye and an olive-tinted skin, a Jew, Ezra Baroni. The Jew was cool, sharp, and generally silent; the “welsher,” heated, eager, flushed with triumph, and glowing with a gloating malignity. Excitement and the fire of very strong wines, of whose vintage brandy formed a large part, had made him voluble in exultation; the monosyllabic sententiousness that had characterized him in the loose-box at Royallieu had been dissipated under the ardor of success; and Ben Davis, with his legs on the table, a pipe between his teeth, and his bloated face purple with a brutal contentment, might have furnished to a Teniers the personification of culminated cunning and of delighted tyranny.
“That precious Guards’ swell!” he muttered gloatingly, for the hundredth time. “I’ve paid him out at last! He won’t take a ‘walk over’ again in a hurry. Cuss them swells! They allays die so game; it ain’t half a go after all, giving ’em a facer; they just come up to time so cool under it all, and never show they are down, even when their backers throw up the sponge. You can’t make ’em give in, not even when they’re mortal hit; that’s the crusher of it.”
“Vell, vhat matter that ven you have hit ’em?” expostulated the more philosophic Jew.
“Why, it is a fleecing of one,” retorted the welsher savagely, even amid his successes. “A clear fleecing of one. If one gets the better of a dandy chap like that, and brings him down neat and clean, one ought to have the spice of it. One ought to see him wince and — cuss ’em all! — that’s just what they’ll never do. No! not if it was ever so. You may pitch into ’em like Old Harry, and those d —— d fine gentlemen will just look as if they liked it. You might strike ’em dead at your feet, and it’s my belief, while they was cold as stone they’d manage to look not beaten yet. It’s a fleecing of one — a fleecing of one!” he growled afresh; draining down a great draught of brandy-heated Roussillon to drown the impatient conviction which possessed him that, let him triumph as he would, there would ever remain, in that fine intangible sense which his coarse nature could feel, though he could not have further defined it, a superiority in his adversary he could not conquer; a difference between him and his prey he could not bridge over.
The Jew laughed a little.
“Vot a child you are, you Big Ben! Vot matter how he look, so long as you have de success and pocket de monish?”
Big Ben gave a long growl, like a mastiff tearing to reach a bone just held above him.
“Hang the blunt! The yellows ain’t a quarter worth to me what it ‘ud be to see him just look as if he knew he was knocked over. Besides, laying again’ him by that ere commission’s piled up hatsful of the ready, to be sure; I don’t say it ain’t; but there’s two thou’ knocked off for Willon, and the fool don’t deserve a tizzy of it. He went and put the paint on so thick that, if the Club don’t have a flare-up about the whole thing ——”
“Let dem!” said the Jew serenely. “Dey can do vot dey like; dey von’t get to de bottom of de vell. Dat Villon is sharp; he vill know how to keep his tongue still; dey can prove nothing; dey may give de sack to a stable-boy, or dey may think themselves mighty bright in seeing a mare’s nest, but dey vill never come to us.”
The welsher gave a loud, hoarse guffaw of relish and enjoyment.
“No! We know the ins and outs of Turf Law a trifle too well to be caught napping. A neater thing weren’t ever done, if it hadn’t been that the paint was put a trifle too thick. The ‘oss should have just run ill, and not knocked over, clean out o’ time like that. However, there ain’t no odds a-crying over spilt milk. If the Club do come a inquiry, we’ll show ’em a few tricks that’ll puzzle ’em. But it’s my belief they’ll let it off on the quiet; there ain’t a bit of evidence to show the ‘oss was doctored, and the way he went stood quite as well for having been knocked off his feed and off his legs by the woyage and sich like. And now you go and put that swell to the grindstone for Act 2 of the comedy; will yer?”
Ezra Baroni smiled, where he leaned against the table, looking over some papers.
“Dis is a delicate matter; don’t you come putting your big paw in it — you’ll spoil it all.”
Ben Davis growled afresh:
“No, I ain’t a-going. You know as well as me I can’t show in the thing. Hanged if I wouldn’t almost lief risk a lifer out at Botany Bay for the sake o’ wringing my fine-feathered bird myself, but I daren’t. If he was to see me in it, all ‘ud be up. You must do it. Get along; you look uncommon respectable. If your coat-tails was a little longer, you might right and away be took for a parson.”
The Jew laughed softly, the welsher grimly, at the compliment they paid the Church; Baroni put up his papers into a neat Russia letter book. Excellently dressed, without a touch of flashiness, he did look eminently respectable — and lingered a moment.
“I say, dear child; vat if de Marquis vant to buy off and hush up? Ten to von he vill; he care no more for monish than for dem macaroons, and he love his friend, dey say.”
Ben Davis took his legs off the table with a crash, and stood up, flushed, thirstily eager, almost aggressive in his peremptory excitement.
“Without wringing my dainty bird’s neck? Not for a million paid out o’ hand! Without crushing my fine gentleman down into powder? Not for all the blunt of every one o’ the Rothschilds! Curse his woman’s face! I’ve got to keep dark now; but when he’s crushed, and smashed, and ruined, and pilloried, and drove out of this fine world, and warned off of all his aristocratic race-courses, then I’ll come in and take a look at him; then I’ll see my brilliant gentleman a worn-out, broken-down swindler, a dying in the bargain!”
The intense malignity, the brutal hungry lust for vengeance that inspired the words, lent their coarse vulgarity something that was for the moment almost tragical in its strength; almost horrible in its passion. Ezra Baroni looked at him quietly, then without another word went out — to a congenial task.
“Dat big child is a fool,” mused the subtler and gentler Jew. “Vengeance is but de breath of de vind; it blow for you one day, it blow against you de next; de only real good is monish.”
The Seraph had ridden back from Iffesheim to the Bad in company with some Austrian officers, and one or two of his own comrades. He had left the Course late, staying to exhaust every possible means of inquiry as to the failure of Forest King, and to discuss with other members of the Newmarket and foreign jockey clubs the best methods — if method there were — of discovering what foul play had been on foot with the horse. That there was some, and very foul too, the testimony of men and angels would not have dissuaded the Seraph; and the event had left him most unusually grave and regretful.
The amount he had lost himself, in consequence, was of not the slightest moment to him, although he was extravagant enough to run almost to the end even of his own princely tether in money matters; but that “Beauty” should be cut down was more vexatious to him than any evil accident that could have befallen himself, and he guessed pretty nearly the terrible influence the dead failure would have on his friend’s position.
True, he had never heard Cecil breathe a syllable that hinted at embarrassment; but these things get known with tolerable accuracy about town, and those who were acquainted, as most people in their set were, with the impoverished condition of the Royallieu exchequer, however hidden it might be under an unabated magnificence of living, were well aware also that none of the old Viscount’s sons could have any safe resources to guarantee them from as rapid a ruin as they liked to consummate. Indeed, it had of late been whispered that it was probable, despite the provisions of the entail, that all the green wealth and Norman Beauty of Royallieu itself would come into the market. Hence the Seraph, the best-hearted and most generous-natured of men, was worried by an anxiety and a despondency which he would never have indulged, most assuredly, on his own account, as he rode away from Iffesheim after the defeat of his Corps’ champion.
He was expected to dinner with one of the most lovely of foreign Ambassadresses, and was to go with her afterward to the Vaudeville, at the pretty golden theater, where a troupe from the Bouffes were playing; but he felt anything but in the mood for even her bewitching and — in an marriageable sense — safe society, as he stopped his horse at his own hotel, the Badischer Hof.
As he swung himself out of saddle, a well-dressed, quiet, rather handsome little man drew near respectfully, lifting his hat — it was M. Baroni. The Seraph had never seen the man in his life that he knew of, but he was himself naturally frank, affable, courteous, and never given to hedging himself behind the pale of his high rank; provided you did not bore him, you might always get access to him easily enough — the Duke used to tell him, too easily.
Therefore, when Ezra Baroni deferentially approached with, “The Most Noble the Marquis of Rockingham, I think?” the Seraph, instead of leaving the stranger there discomfited, nodded and paused with his inconsequent good nature; thinking how much less bosh it would be if everybody could call him, like his family and his comrades, “Rock.”
“That is my name,” he answered. “I do not know you. Do you want anything of me?”
The Seraph had a vivid terror of people who “wanted him,” in the subscription, not the police, sense of the word; and had been the victim of frauds innumerable.
“I wished,” returned Baroni respectfully, but with sufficient independence to conciliate his auditor, whom he saw at a glance cringing subservience would disgust, “to have the opportunity of asking your lordship a very simple question.”
The Seraph looked a little bored, a little amused.
“Well, ask it, my good fellow; you have your opportunity!” he said impatiently, yet good-humored still.
“Then would you, my lord,” continued the Jew with his strong Hebrew–German accent, “be so good as to favor me by saying whether this signature be your own?”
The Jew held before him a folded paper, so folded that one line only was visible, across which was dashed in bold characters, “Rockingham.”
The Seraph put up his eye-glass, stopped, and took a steadfast look; then shook his head.
“No; that is not mine; at least, I think not. Never made my R half a quarter so well in my life.”
“Many thanks, my lord,” said Baroni quietly. “One question more and we can substantiate the fact. Did your lordship indorse any bill on the 15th of last month?”
The Seraph looked surprised, and reflected a moment. “No, I didn’t,” he said after a pause. “I have done it for men, but not on that day; I was shooting at Hornsey Wood most of it, if I remember right. Why do you ask?”
“I will tell you, my lord, if you grant me a private interview.”
The Seraph moved away. “Never do that,” he said briefly; “private interviews,” thought he, acting on past experience, “with women always mean proposals, and with men always mean extortion.”
Baroni made a quick movement toward him.
“An instant, my lord! This intimately concerns yourself. The steps of an hotel are surely not the place in which to speak of it?”
“I wish to hear nothing about it,” replied Rock, putting him aside; while he thought to himself regretfully, “That is ‘stiff,’ that bit of paper; perhaps some poor wretch is in a scrape. I wish I hadn’t so wholly denied my signature. If the mischief’s done, there’s no good in bothering the fellow.”
The Seraph’s good nature was apt to overlook such trifles as the Law.
Baroni kept pace with him as he approached the hotel door, and spoke very low.
“My lord, if you do not listen, worse may befall the reputation both of your regiment and your friends.”
The Seraph swung round; his careless, handsome face set stern in an instant; his blue eyes grave, and gathering an ominous fire.
“Step yonder,” he said curtly, signing the Hebrew toward the grand staircase. “Show that person to my rooms, Alexis.”
But for the publicity of the entrance of the Badischer Hof the mighty right arm of the Guardsman might have terminated the interview then and there, in different fashion. Baroni had gained his point, and was ushered into the fine chambers set apart for the future Duke of Lyonnesse. The Seraph strode after him, and as the attendant closed the door and left them alone in the first of the great lofty suite, all glittering with gilding, and ormolu, and malachite, and rose velvet, and Parisian taste, stood like a tower above the Jew’s small, slight form; while his words came curtly, and only by a fierce effort through his lips.
“Substantiate what you dare to say, or my grooms shall throw you out of that window! Now!”
Baroni looked up, unmoved; the calm, steady, undisturbed glance sent a chill over the Seraph; he thought if this man came but for purposes of extortion, and were not fully sure that he could make good what he said, this was not the look he would give.
“I desire nothing better, my lord,” said Baroni quietly, “though I greatly regret to be the messenger of such an errand. This bill, which in a moment I will have the honor of showing you, was transacted by my house (I am one of the partners of a London discounting firm), indorsed thus by your celebrated name. Moneys were lent on it, the bill was made payable at two months’ date; it was understood that you accepted it; there could be no risk with such a signature as yours. The bill was negotiated; I was in Leyden, Lubeck, and other places at the period; I heard nothing of the matter. When I returned to London, a little less than a week ago, I saw the signature for the first time. I was at once aware that it was not yours, for I had some paid bills, signed by you, at hand, with which I compared it. Of course, my only remedy was to seek you out, although I was nearly certain, before your present denial, that the bill was a forgery.”
He spoke quite tranquilly still, with a perfectly respectful regret, but with the air of a man who has his title to be heard, and is acting simply in hie own clear right. The Seraph listened, restless, impatient, sorely tried to keep in the passion which had been awakened by the hint that this wretched matter could concern or attaint the honor of his corps.
“Well! speak out!” he said impatiently. “Details are nothing. Who drew it? Who forged my name, if it be forged? Quick! give me the paper.”
“With every trust and every deference, my lord, I cannot let the bill pass out of my own hands until this unfortunate matter be cleared up — if cleared up it can be. Your lordship shall see the bill, however, of course, spread here upon the table; but first, let me warn you, my Lord Marquis, that the sight will be intensely painful to you.
“Very painful, my lord,” added Baroni impressively. “Prepare yourself for —”
Rock dashed his hand down on the marble table with a force that made the lusters and statuettes on it ring and tremble.
“No more words! Lay the bill there.”
Baroni bowed and smoothed out upon the console the crumpled document, holding it with one hand, yet leaving visible with the counterfeited signature one other, the name of the forger in whose favor the bill was drawn; that other signature was —“Bertie Cecil.”
“I deeply regret to deal you such a blow from such a friend, my lord,” said the Jew softly. The Seraph stooped and gazed — one instant of horrified amazement kept him dumb there, staring at the written paper as at some ghastly thing; then all the hot blood rushed over his fair, bold face; he flung himself on the Hebrew, and, ere the other could have breath or warning, tossed him upward to the painted ceiling and hurled him down again upon the velvet carpet, as lightly as a retriever will catch up and let fall a wild duck or a grouse, and stood over Baroni where he lay.
Baroni, lying passive and breathless with the violence of the shock and the surprise, yet kept, even amid the hurricane of wrath that had tossed him upward and downward as the winds toss leaves, his hold upon the document, and his clear, cool, ready self-possession.
“My lord,” he said faintly, “I do not wonder at your excitement, aggressive as it renders you; but I cannot admit that false which I know to be a for —”
“Silence! Say that word once more, and I shall forget myself and hurl you out into the street like the dog of a Jew you are!”
“Have patience an instant, my lord. Will it profit your friend and brother-inarms if it be afterward said that when this charge was brought against him, you, my Lord Rockingham, had so little faith in his power to refute it that you bore down with all your mighty strength in a personal assault upon one so weakly as myself, and sought to put an end to the evidence against him by bodily threats against my safety, and by — what will look legally, my lord, like — an attempt to coerce me into silence and to obtain the paper from my hands by violence?”
Faint and hoarse the words were, but they were spoken with quiet confidence, with admirable acumen; they were the very words to lash the passions of his listener into unendurable fire, yet to chain them powerless down; the Guardsman stood above him, his features flushed and dark with rage, his eyes literally blazing with fury, his lips working under his tawny, leonine beard. At every syllable he could have thrown himself afresh upon the Jew and flung him out of his presence as so much carrion; yet the impotence that truth so often feels, caught and meshed in the coils of subtlety — the desperate disadvantage at which Right is so often placed, when met by the cunning science and sophistry of Wrong — held the Seraph in their net now. He saw his own rashness, he saw how his actions could be construed till they cast a slur even on the man he defended; he saw how legally he was in error, how legally the gallant vengeance of an indignant friendship might be construed into consciousness of guilt in the accused for whose sake the vengeance fell.
He stood silent, overwhelmed with the intensity of his own passion, baffled by the ingenuity of a serpent-wisdom he could not refute.
Ezra Baroni saw his advantage. He ventured to raise himself slightly.
“My lord, since your faith in your friend is so perfect, send for him. If he be innocent, and I a liar, with a look I shall be confounded.”
The tone was perfectly impassive, but the words expressed a world. For a moment the Seraph’s eyes flashed on him with a look that made him feel nearer his death than he had been near to it in all his days; but Rockingham restrained himself from force.
“I will send for him,” he said briefly; in that answer there was more of menace and of meaning than in any physical action.
He moved and let Baroni rise; shaken and bruised, but otherwise little seriously hurt, and still holding, in a tenacious grasp, the crumpled paper. He rang; his own servant answered the summons.
“Go to the Stephanien and inquire for Mr. Cecil. Be quick; and request him, wherever he be, to be so good as to come to me instantly — here.”
The servant bowed and withdrew; a perfect silence followed between these two so strangely assorted companions; the Seraph stood with his back against the mantelpiece, with every sense on the watch to catch every movement of the Jew’s, and to hear the first sound of Cecil’s approach. The minutes dragged on; the Seraph was in an agony of probation and impatience. Once the attendants entered to light the chandeliers and candelabra; the full light fell on the dark, slight form of the Hebrew, and on the superb attitude and the fair, frank, proud face of the standing Guardsman; neither moved — once more they were left alone.
The moments ticked slowly away one by one, audible in the silence. Now and then the quarter chimed from the clock; it was the only sound in the chamber.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53