Imagens da página
PDF

BORN TO SORROW.

Chap. XVI.

"WHERE LOVE IS GREAT, THE LITTLEST D0UBT8 ARE FEARS."

Meanwhile Time has been weaving that wondrous cable of his with all those parti-coloured itranda of joy and woe, sorrow and grief, despair and death; and many a change for good and evil has taken place in the fortunes of our characters. The spring-flowers have faded long on the pleasant country-side; the summerrose has shed its bloom in solitary sweetness; and autumn has begun to paint the leaves with hectic flush—the badge of the waning year. Sportsmen are beginning to think of the deadly "First," and there is grief and mourning amidst the feathered game; formany a fluttering victim will sally from cover in the morning of that fatal day, never to return. The happy Londoner begins to feel the full force of the idea that his summer holiday is coming to an end, and that he must once more leave the delights of the watering-place, the well-loved plunge into briny Old Ocean, and the happy, laiy, do-nothing existence on the beach, for the dust, fog, and kindred discomforts of his own metropolis. Time has been weaving his cable tteaddy, persistently as Fate, and has from that famous wallet which he carries on his back extracted a few crumbs of kind oblivion for Charley Dalton. Tempered with the waters of Lethe has been the meal of the crumbs of oblivion to the young fellow; and the excitement sod novelty of continental travel, and knocking about among sharp-shooters of everykind, have contributed much to efface the memory of the cruel blow he had suffered. Of course some kind friend had sent him a paper with the details of Ella's marriage in it; and he had sworn a good deal over it, and then had lighted a cigar, and leaned over the taffrail of his yacht, gazing into the still, blue waters of the Mediterranean, where every star was mirrored, and thought that perhaps, after all, he was better as it was. Poor girl! he wished her all the joy in life, and hoped that the sky of her future would be as pure and cloudless as the Italian sky above him. Here we shall leave him for the present, idling about in the Mediterranean,

making feeble pretence of sketching at Rome, and haunting the pleasant young artists' studios, the favourite of that genial, beer-drinking, long-haired tribe—shooting snipe in the Cumbrian marshes, and spending lazy days amid the ruins of Tibur and Tivoli, refreshing his mind with quotations from the classic poets— not very correct ones, I fear—and making sad bungling in the quantity. Here I shall leave the genial-hearted young fellow, and return to our friends in London.

Mrs. Grantley's large house in Poitmansquare was open to the nobility and gentry of London, to come and take their pleasure therein, to eat and drink and be merry—and you may be right sure that there was no lack of guests. Read a play of Shakspeare's called "Timon of Athens," and you will have an idea, if mayhap you have not observed for yourself, how ready and delighted are people in all the grades of society—" gentleman, apothecary, ploughman, thief"—to sit down to eat and drink, and rise up to play at the expense of others. From the baron of high degree, who eats off gold-plate and drinks of the red, red wine, to the thief who eats the humble cow-heel, and quaffs the unpretending but enlivening "dog's-nose," it is the way of them—they are all the same. And now, if a fine mansion in the most select part of London, hedged in on all sides by the odour of sacred aristocracy — if carriages, and a beautiful horse, a present from Oaklands (" Gulnare "), a magnificent chestnut, to ride about in the park—if a well-appointed table, and a bevy of guests to adorn it—if a stall at the Italian—if invitations to every imaginable kind of entertainment, water-parties to Richmond with amateur-crews, breakfast-parties in the grounds of Lady Hauton, croquet-parties, balls, picnics, routs, drums—if all these things can make glad the heart of young wife, then ought her life to have been one long, blissful dream. Then, as for dress and jewellery, her make-up was declared by able judges to be the best in wide London; and people often entreated an invitation to parties, where Mrs. Grantley was to assist, simply for the pleasure of seeing her. She was like the princess in "Love's Labour Lost"—a lady walled about with diamonds! With all this, was she happy? I am inclined to think not. In the first place there was a secret between her husband and her—and what wife rests and is happy till that be discovered? Ah! Benedict, before yon pass the irrevocable church-portal, before you make up your mind "to abjure sack and live cleanly," and take unto yourself a wife, be sure that there exists no skeleton in any cupboard of the capacious mansion into which you receive your fair young bride. You have heard of a certain Bluebeard and his inquisitive little wife, have you not i you may be sure that your own Mary will never rest till the dread secret is made patent to the light of day.

"Come, Harry, that's a dear old boy, tell me who that woman was that called on you at the Hall that day, when you looked so dreadfully careworn and miserable?" would Ella say, in a coaxing voice, and a pretty little imperious way of entreaty, which was irresistible in other things. "I am sure there can be no harm telling me all about it; besides, I am horribly jealous 1"

Her husband's brow would cloud over, and he would reply, almost sternly, "Ella, my love, you know I refuse you nothing. I try to make you as happy as I can; but this thing I cannot tell you, believe me, and please don't worry me by asking again. Come, we shall be too late for Lady Sbendryn's party if we don't make haste. What a fearful swell you look, in those amethysts 1 I declare it is I that shall become jealous of you, and watch you like an ogre! I have seen several captains with their whiskers casting sly glances. Ayez garde, ma petite!"

That night Ella would be distraite and anxious, and very apt to cut all attempts at conversation short with the hapless young Waroffice clerks entrusted to her care; and when the ball was over, she would return short, curt replies to her husband's inquiries as to how she had enjoyed the dancing, and seemed to shrink from him during the next day. Ah 1 too surely was that middle-wall of separation growing up between two loving hearts; and though at the present so slight that it seemed an illusion, an airy nothing, in after-years it was to grow up into the solid masonry which would debar the interchange of love and respect, and keep them painfully distant. And with all this, Ella was horrified to find that her husband was a gambler. Devotedly, madly attached to the gambling-table he had been before his marriage; and the men of his regiment called him "lucky Grantley!" for he scarcely ever rose from the ^carte-table without carrying off some portion of the evening's booty; and many a callow "gryph" cursed the luckless hour which presented him as a foe to the lucky Captain, who took his losses and his gains so coolly, and played such a steady, unerring game. Wellknown, too, was Grantley at all the West-end hells, and the card-tables of the clubs; and the men would often crowd round the table where the "cool Captain" sat, to get, if possible, an inkling of the marvellous skill of his game.

"That's where it is; you can't rile himl'

would complain the luckless losers. "Win or lose it's all the same with him; he takes it all with that infernally cool smile of his I"

When he married he had confessed this failing to the unsuspecting Ella, and had promised to forswear anything like cards and dice and heavy play for the future: he would restrict himself to a quiet hand at whist to oblige the master of the house; or, as a great indulgence, would playa pool of billiards with an old Indian veteran; and the happy girl implicitly believed him. Alas! the flimsiness of these good resolutions! Very like the Borealis race are they, "evanishing amid the storm" of temptation and opportunity. Ella had forgotten that the pavement of a certain place is made of these good resolutions, "a hall of lost footsteps," indeed; and she little knew the fascination which the love of gambling exercises over the unhappy victim.

The delegates of the Temperance League may rave and rant from their platforms of the power which drink exercises over the tempted, and how impossible it is to resist the terrible craving for liquor. I would not hesitate to lay these gentlemen large sums of money that the power of drink is as the empty air when compared with the lust of gain—the all-absorbing, selfish, burning desire to win money 1 A gambler's life, look you, is one long, hopeless delusion. He never loses hope. What if he lose heavily one night? he may, in common possibility, make a great coup next night, and win back all his own, and more to boot; and it is only when his hair is grey and his nerves shattered, it is only when his hands shake so much that he can scarcely hold the cards, that he is reduced to hang about the tables—as we often see him at Baden or Hombourg—a miserable, decrepit old veteran, hanging about "in the rear ward of fashion," and pitifully entreating some lucky speculator to lend or give him a few francs to try his hand. "I used to break the bank once, monsieur. Ah, Dieu I if I could only begin, I might manage it now 1"

Piteous, piteous to see this hoary sinner, with a tear in his bleared old eye, and his feeble hands grasping unconsciously at the glittering rouleaux—as the desperate souls on the banks of the sunless river clutch at old Charon's boat —while the impassible croupiers rake in the coin, and gently hint to the ruined gambler that his absence from the table would be no great loss.

"Pardon, monsieur, but you really must not interrupt the players 1"

They are very glad to see you, with your pockets lined, at the Kursaal; but, penniless, it is a different matter. You must make wayfor the moneyed ones; and, as for your misery, to indulge in these feelings "is not the wear," as Lucio says, at Baden.

Grantley had kept his promise indifferently well in his first stay in town after the return from the pleasant Rhine-tour of the honeymoon: but temptation gathers all the greater force from being delayed; and he very eoon found himself gliding back to the old habits. Lounging in the big bay-window of his club with some brother-officers, he would feel an almost uncontrollable desire to walk into the card-room and see the players. "This is very ilow!'' he would say, with a yawn, when his eye was tired with watching the motley stream of life passing and repassing in the London streets.

"Uncommon slow!" would be the drawled answer of his friend. "I am bored to death with all these fellows, passing up and down, and with spotting and bowing to all those punted old women in their carriages 1 Tell you whit, Grantley, let's go and have a hand at e'carte. Ob, I forgot—married man, and don't play. What a bore 1"

Nothing easier than for Grantley to have refused, and borne the graceless young fellow's claf: but in vain. The old auri sacra fames T2J coming back, and he longed for the painted pack, just as the old huntsman, when his sporting-days are over, feels a feverish desire to rush after the streaming bunt.

"Well, only one game, to kill time; bat mind, I am not going to play high—not Hade of coin like you young fellows."

And one game of e'carte would lead on to another, till Grantley was put on his mettle, and allowed the hair-brained young men to double and treble the stakes, and would rise a winner of considerable sums, and be in a fair way to become again a thorough-paced gambler. And how the hypocrite would dissemble to his wifel

"Yes, I have been at the club, Ella, and met some fellows from my old regiment, and of course we bad lots to talk about; and the time wore on almost without my perceiving it."

Aye, and almost without his perceiving it Bis was beginning to distrust her husband. Slightly to parody the proverb, "Distrust was entering at the door while Love was flying out through the window;" or, "Trust me all in all, or not at all," was the wife's motto. Halfconfidence was already doing its best to separate the hearts that once beat only for each other's mutual happiness. Wilfully blind as the had been to the dear one's faults, determined as she was to see no flaw in the idol which she had set up to cherish and worship, id firmly as she adhered to her marriage-vow, pve and unstained as when she knelt by Grantley's side in the cathedral at Turlminster, 'till she could not be oblivious to the fact that her husband stayed out much longer of nights fen he should—that on his return he was much too excited and flushed to augur the spending of a quiet evening in harmless talk— that the was often compelled to go without his protecting arm to the myriad resorts of fashion, where there was no lack of temptation, and incitement to that harmless flirtation which we used to decry so in Spain, but now deem rather more fashionable than otherwise in England— that system by which a married lady is allowed to Wc half-a-dozen young men dangling

about her, quoting pages from Alfred de Musset or Owen Meredith, handing her to her carriage, adorning her box at the opera, hanging over the rails in the park to chat with her, and stroke her horse's mane, and forfeits not aught of her name or good fame, but is allowed the title of exemplary and virtuous wife. Perchance there is no harm in it; but still, to all outward appearance, it looks far from proper; and people will talk. Give them a bare inch of truth, and they will soon manufacture an ell of slanderous lies. This gauntlet Ella bad to run, almost alone and undefended; and when the carrion flies, attracted by her marvellous beauty, came buzzing about her, daring to lower their voice in speaking to her, she had nothing to defend her but the innate purity of her heart: from this the idle set of danglers soon fled abashed, as did the rabble rout in "Comus" from the fair, shining presence of the lady. Nevertheless, the world of society was beginning to shake its head ominously, and to declare that it really was too bad of Grantley to leave his young, inexperienced wife so much alone 1

"Not that she is anything but proper, my dear," would Mrs. Backbite whisper: "but then, how many cases have we seen when such things have terminated fatally? You remember poor Mrs. Vavasour? There was a wretched business 1 Vavasour used to neglect her most shamefully, and always made her go out by herself, while he was at the House till three or four in the morning. What was tbe consequence? They had barely been married a year when Mrs. Vavasour was talked about. Young Charley Forester, of the War-office, was never from her side; and the end of it all was that she went off with him, and left Vavasour to curse his folly. I didn't pity the man a bit: he might have attended more to his wife and less to the House."

There is some truth in this. If the wife be left too much alone, what wonder that the voice of the tempter should make her swerve from her duty?

At the time of which I am writing, all the gambling circles of London were ringing with the name of a certain Italian nobleman (Count della Croce), whose success at the gamblingtable and in the ring was a matter of everydaytalk. It was impossible to play a good hand, or make a brilliant cannon at billiards, without someone saying, "Ah, you should see Delia Croce play. They say he is never beaten 1 It'* certain that he has landed heaps of money since he has been in England; and his horse, "Tootletum," won the Leger the other day, putting about seven thousand into his pocket. Daresay, though, he is a refugee, or something of that kind, and lives on his wits. They are all Counts in Italy, you know I"

"I suppose he plays fairly 1" said Grantley, who formed one of the knot of men at the "Army and Navy" who were discussing the foreigner.

"Oh, of course he does," went on tbe speaker. "JJy-the-bye, he is coming to dinner here to-night with Grafton, so you will have an j opportunity of watching his play, and trying your luck with hiin yourself. Better take care, though, and keep the stakes low, or you may find yourself sold!"

"Well, I think I will stay and dine," said Grantley, carelessly, "and see how the fellow plays: I may pick up a wrinkle."

And after this determination he sent a note to Ella not to wait dinner for him, as he had met some old friends, and they wouldn't hear of his deserting them at once. When she got the note I am afraid she said something very naughty about these horrid clubs; but, as she had to go out that evening, she thought no more about it. It was only another brick in the wall of separation.

The dinner was as good as the cook of the "Army and Navy" could make it—and he was no mean performer in his way—the wines were such as make the tongue of man eloquent and brighten his eyes with fire; and Grantley, as he sat sipping his coffee with his friend, felt a thrill of savage pleasure in the forthcoming game: he wanted some excitement to keep off remorse, and its attendant furies. The renowned Count had been dining too in the same room; so he had plenty of time to examine the stranger well. Thoroughly Italian in feature, Delia Croco was certainly a handsome man, with dark, lazy-looking eyes sleeping under their long lashes, and an olive, clear complexion, and that nervous twitching about the corners of the mouth which proclaims the inveterate gambler. He might have been any age: his was one of those deceptive faces which might be twenty or fifty—so smooth and unwrinkled. He might have been any profession, from a nobleman to an exiled refugee; for, by dint of long and careful practice, he had managed to bring the muscles of his face into perfect subjection; and no 6ign of trouble or joy ever excited that perfectly calm face and impassive demeanour. Careful observance, though,, would have detected a quick, shifting movement of the eye, restlessly looking behind him, which clever detectives will tell you is the sure mark of a thief! It seemed as if the man was ever dreading to hear the footsteps of the ministers of justice at his heels. Abstemious to a fault was the Italian, never allowing himself more than one glass of wine at his dinner, and steadily refusing all the temptations of his more convivial friends.

"Wants to keep his eye in and his brain cool," said the men at his table. "There will be somebody's pocket lightened before the night is over1"

Delia Croce simply smiled, and went on with his cigar. He did not trouble himself to contradict the soft imputation.

"We have got a man here I would back against you, Count, if I can only persuade him to play."

"I shall be delighted, I am sure," answered the Count. "I like playing with a good man."

The introduction was soon performed, and

each player had gauged the other's character at a glance. Delia Croce, with a bow that would have done honour to a Colonna, said, "Very proud to make the acquaintance of a player of whom I have heard such great things as Captain Grantley!"

The whist-room at the club was soon full, as the news spread that Delia Croce and Grantley were going to play; and the game proceeded for low stakes at Grantley's wish. It was a fine sight to see these two men, like two wary fencers, watching each other's weak point: but they were too well matched to allow of much advantage on either side. After they had played for some little time, and Delia Croce was winning slightly, Grantley proposed that the stakes should be doubled.

"As Monsieur pleases," bowed his opponent, urbanely; and the battle went on.

Grantley was losing fast: he was five hundred to the bad, and the bystanders saw that a change was working in his face.

"Now he is getting riled!" thought they; "and the game will soon be up with him!"

They were wrong. Sternly as Grantley's mouth contracted, and black as grew his brow, it was not the loss he felt, but the assurance that the Italian was playing unfairly. He bided his time, however, and for a short period nothing was Heard but the monotonous shuffling of the cards and the ticking of the clock, as the two men watched each other's movements like lynxes. Suddenly Grantley's face brightened: he had never taken his eyes off the Italian's hand for a moment, and, quick as the expert gambler was, it escaped not his opponent's eye that he had changed his cards, and glanced at the uppermost.

"StopI" thundered Grantley, rising with the speed of thought; and, to the intense wonderment of the bystanders, he rushed upon Delia Croce, and held his band firm as a vice, while he whispered into his ear, "Don't move, or I'll strangle you 1" Then turning to the assembled company, he said, in a clear voice, "Gentlemen, I regret to say that this fellow has played unfairly, and cheated all of us! Let there be no disturbance: perhaps one of you will be kind enough to lock the door for a moment, while I expose this man's trick. Now, Signor, be kind enough to open your hand."

He wrenched the Italian's hand open, and there, sure enough, were the proofs of his guilt, needing no explanation of any kind. By an excessively clever sleight-of-hand he had changed the cards, and hence his continual success.

To do him credit, Delia Croce's calmness did not desert him at that trying moment. He summoned enough courage to glance back defiantly at the crowd of excited men, most of whom he had won money from, and to say, quietly, "Some foolish error. Our friend the Captain is a trifle too hasty. I will explain it all."

Calm as his face was, his breast raged with all the passions of hell. Qb, how gladly would he bare killed every man in that room, could he only get free, and prevent the exposure! But he saw no trace of pity or belief in the scornful eyes which were bent upon him from all quarters. Every man in that room was convinced of bis treachery, and glad to have the opportunity of revenging themselves for their losses. Up came Grafton, with his face pale as death, bis voice trembling: "Grantley, for heaven's sake be sure of this, I hope you don't think that I—"

He could go no further: tears of downright shame were in his eyes.

"Of course it is no fault of yours, Grafton, we all know. I need not say, gentlemen, that you will acquit Mr. Grafton of all knowledge of this thing V

"Ofcourse—certainly!" resounded through the room.

"-Vow, Count della Croce, I don't wish to make a scene, but I have a great mind to give you a downright thrashing! This much let me tell you — if I ever catch you with a card in your hand in this or any other club in London, nothing shall hinder me from kicking you out! At present, what I advise you is this, and I am sure the gentlemen present will agree with me in what I say—return me all that you have cheated me out of this erening, and do these gentlemen all the reparation in your power, and make yourself scarce in London; for, as sure as I catch you playing again, that moment will I post you up as cheat and thief!"

The Italian sulkily pushed all the glittering heap by his side over to Grantley, and then, like a wild animal enclosed by the hunters on every side, prepared to leave the room, while every man in the place shrank from him with gestures of contempt and anger j for, wild as they were, honour was to them dear as their life: but, before he went, he muttered something about " satisfaction" through his teeth. Grantley heard it, and laughed scornfully. "Do you mean to say that you expect me to give you the satisfaction due to a gentleman? I would not sully my hands with so much as laying a finger upon you, sir, much less stand before you to be shot down like a dog! I daresay you would like that well enough, and consider yourself very well avenged. I have seen Ben, and you have too, I daresay, for less than you have done, stripped of every rag of clothing, and half-killed! But we are gentlemen here—not betting-men. Now go, or it may be too late for you yet!"

The perspiration stood out like beads on the Italian's white forehead, and he fetched his breath in short gasping sobs, so great was the conflict of passion within; for Luigi della Croce was bynomeansacoward physically, and, had it chanced that he and Grantley were alone in that room, would have fought to the last drop of his blood ; but, to be publicly disgraced Wore the men who had often sat at his table, and to whose families he had the entre, was too much.

"Earl Percy sees my fall!" might have been the bitter cry of his heart—" and then to be refused satisfaction, to be treated like some rascally thimble-rigger!"

He had not intended cheating; indeed, it must be said for his credit, that his play was generally fair when he had foemen to contend with unworthy of his prowess: but now, when the game was turning against him, when he saw that in the end Grantley's superb skill and finished play must win the victory, he bad listened in an evil moment to the Tempter, and forfeited the good old name of the family which had been a watchword at Venice for many a century—a family which had rivalled the Viscontis of Milan. Henceforth it would be useless his trying to play honestly. The fame of these things spread like wildfire, and, ere the week was over, men would be talking generally how Della Croce cheated at ecarte, and was kicked out of the club! As these thoughts surged through the disgraced man's brain, he kept his eye still fixed on Grantley, as if striving to imprint his features on his memory; and, as he looked, he swore to he revenged. He halh ta'en a deadly oath that, wherever he met this Grantley, on sea or land, by day or night, then and there he would kill him! The searching scrutiny completed, Della Croce turned short on his heel, and left the room—not without a courtly bow to Grantley.

"Addio, Captain Grantley; you may hear of me again!"

Every man there drew a long breath when he was gone, and turned with an air of relief to Grantley, who was now as cool and unconcerned as though nothing but one of the most everyday occurrences had happened.

"So there is an end of your wonderful prodigy I" he said, coolly. "I am rather sorry for the fellow, too. He did play uncommonly well, and that's a fact. I don't know when I have tackled a better man, and couldn't make out at first what his game was."

"Well, I wouldn't stand in your shoes for a trifle, mind you, Grantley," said Grafton. "Since I have known the man be has shot three poor fellows in fair fight—so they said: but I have an idea that Delia Croce has a pretty little trick of firing before the handkerchief drops. He will hardly dare to show his face in London for a time. I expect he will bolt to Baden, or one of those places where the Prince of Darkness himself would be tolerated if he had lots of coin!"

"Oh, I don't fear the fellow!" said Grantley. "I do not think he is coward enough to commit a murder: he would much rather do it in the duelling way, if I would only allow him. And now I think I shall go home, afterall this—a wiser man, perhaps, if not a better man. Good-night, you fellows; good night, Grafton: I am sorry that the man was an acquaintance of yours; but of course you knew nothing about it."

"All I hope is that no wrong will come of this," said Grafton. "I know Delia Croce will

« AnteriorContinuar »