« AnteriorContinuar »
All betting London was in a ferment of excitement; knots of disreputable men were gathered at the corners of the street, whose vocation no one would be in the slightest degree ignorant of, after a single glance at the cut of their clothes—the white hat and black band, which was once the sign of a Radical, in the palmy days of the madman Henry Hunt; the face under that hat, which seems to have reached the acme of human sharpness and human cunning; the bird's-eye fogle, the closely-cut suit of tweed, and the tight trowsers— all that make up the character which I must be forgiven for calling "horsy;" for no other word can express it half as neatly.
What a wonderful insight into human character does Charles Dickens possess, when he says that these men seem to have been imbued with the very spirit of the animals they attend to, and when he makes "Rob, the grinder," querulously wonder why horses and dogs and sporting pigeons should do men such harm— innocent things like them!
Hoarse mysterious whispers are circulated amongst these men, and secret offers of "five to four on 'Paddle your own Canoe,'" or of "taking the odds against' Lord Strathmore's *%,'" are bandied freely about; for in a few days the greatest race in sporting England will be ran, and the mingled fun and misery which make np the great play of the " Derby Day" be enacted.
The horse that Grantley had laid so much pioney on seemed to be in everyone's mouth, in that sporting circle, and men would remove the eternal bit of straw from between their lips to give utterance to the wish "that they might die if they wouldn't back 'Peep o' Day' with Challoner on his back, agin the whole bilin' of 'em at any odds." And the knowing ones winked mysteriously, and hinted that they might have seen him take his gallop, and that nothing on four legs could ever hope to touch him. And clean through the blazing May-day the devoted band remained at their corner, talking still in mysterious confidential whispers,
and monotonously giving and taking the odds, while the noble owner of this much-praised animal was amusing himself in the same way in some more aristocratic region.
It was getting dusk in the streets of London, when Grantley left his club, and strolled carelessly down Piccadilly, apparently as heedless of the life surging round him as if he saw no one. The pace was getting a very killing one with him now. He couldn't conceal from himself that he had been losing greatly lately, and that he looked forward with feverish anxiety to Peep o' Day's running first to set him all right again. He passed a knot of sporting men, who were reading the latest intelligence, and heard the running fire of whispered remarks that rose as he went by:
"He'll make a good thing of it if Peep o' Day does the trick. He has put a most tremendous pot of money on, and, by George, if anything does happen wrong, won't it be a come-down for him i"
It was sickening, and this was the reward he was attaining to—to have his name and prospects canvassed by every dirty snob in the street. "Devil's own get the devil's wages," came home forcibly enough to him then, by way of proverb. He strolled on, though, as careless and haughty as the best of his "swell" class, and pursued his way till he reached a small mean-looking house, with an undefinable air of something wrong clinging to it—a house in which the blinds were all down as close as though it held the dead—and gave a gentle tap at the door.
London people are very incurious as a class; but even they, as they passed, turned and looked with astonishment at the swell gentleman, and wondered what his business might be in that out-of-the-way spot.
The door was opened by a dark Jeweylooking man, with a quantity of Mosaic jewellery in the shape of rings and charms, and whose face, in contrast with the captain's high-bred features, looked ludicrously different. Grantley whispered some talisman and was admitted to an inner sanctum, where were assembled some half-dozen men, who were so intently occupied over a green table that they scarcely raised their heads as Grantley entered} but kept on repeating, in a monotonous way, such words as "I mark the king," "Your deal," and remarks to the like effect.
It really is too bad. I must apologise for leading my readers into such bad company; but it is no use my concealing the fact that the house was one of the most notorious gambling hells in wicked London, and the men in the room were playing unlimited loo. It is not worth my while to try and do a little bit of word-painting here, in the style of the great novelists, or in the language of that life-like play "Rouge-et-Noir," so you must imagine for yourselves the frenzied gestures, the clenched hands, the muttered imprecation, as large sums changed hands, and the illconcealed cry of joy as a lucky player pocketed his gains. Any ordinary observer who didn't enjoy the insight into these things that the novelists aforesaid do, might imagine that the proceeding was one of the most common everyday kind, for there was certainly nothing of the Maurice d'Arhel sensation here.
"Ah! you are come at last, Grantley. Now I'll trouble you to give me my revenge. I feel rather like winning to-night. You know the cards are with me."
"As you like, my lord," answered Grantley, calmly, " and 1 think we'll treble the stakes."
"Now or never!" thought he, as he sat down with his opponent to begin the "unlimited."
The good-tempered-looking young nobleman (who had not left Christ-church very long, and was seeing life in this ingenuous way) seemed to have spoken with the spirit of prophecy, for they had not played long before Grantley had to write a cheque of some magnitude.
"There, now we will leave off if you like, Grantley," said the mere lad, his adversary j " I havn't now much more than I dropped the other night."
It was kindly meant, but fell very short.
"The night is very young yet," said Grantley, "and you are surely not afraid"
"That I shall have to use my latch-key?" laughed the young fellow. "Oh dear me, no. Let us double again, if you like."
And the stakes were doubled, and again Grantley lost, with a terrible curse on his- ill luck trembling on his lips.
"I'll have some brandy before we begin again," he said, hoarsely, "I am off my play to-night, that's certain."
And all this time did no compunction cross his mind that he was breaking his plighted word to bis wife?—that she was sitting wearily, sadly, waiting his arrival, with the bitter tears which she could not repress falling on her cheek, and the weary heart-wrung moan escaping her lips: "I know he has broken his word and is gambling again"?
Does any one of ray readers remember a ■ong, by Mr. Henry Russell, which used to be a great favourite with the people onoe, before the reign of the besotted comic songs, such as "Champagne Charlie" and "Slap Bang," at
tracted their fickle allegiance? A good many people used to laugh at that song, and called it overdrawn "all stuff and nonsense j" but I believe it was much more true to life than would be agreeable for some gentlemen who shake the elbow to suppose. It was the old old story of the ruling passion—a passion before which love and honesty, and manly feeling and Christian charity, pale their fires—a passion which makes the votaries to the full, aye more infatuated than were those wretched dupes whom the Horse) Venus held in her fell bondage.
It might have been the chance recollection of his suffering wife that made Grantley's hand shake, and his nerve weak to-night; but he certainly played as badly as the merest tyro who might be handling the cards for the first time; and luck—that Bona Dea of the gambling mysteries—seemed entirely to have deserted him. And yet the coolness of the man was wonderful. He remained cool and impassive, taking his immense losses in a calm way which Campbell's "stoic of the woods" would have admired immensely.
Men came dropping in from the Opera and the House "to finish their night," and he talked to them carelessly and with the utmost nonchalance:
"Tietjens was in great form, I suppose, as Lucia—and Gardoni as good as ever? Did Disraeli say anything about the new Reformbill? and was Lowe as savage as ever?" and all that kind of thing, while the passions of hell were raging at his heart, and something very like ruin was staring him in the face, and when other men as luckless as himself were wildly cursing their lossee, or drinking brandy furiously to drown all reflection.
Would his luck never turn? Was there no chance of his making some great coup yet, and winning something back out of his immense losses?
It didn't matter to the young nobleman who was winning his money so much. He was certainly one of the richest peers in the list of those who adorn the pages of the "golden book." A thousand or so would not make any difference in the rent-roll of young Viscount Salford; but to him he couldn't conceal from his mind that this kind of game, if carried on long and equally unfortunate, must end in utter ruin, and the consequences. Even now pictures crossed his mind of the breaking up of his establishment; the seedy half-pay kind of life*' some foreign watering-place, where he would be obliged to herd amongst the Englishmen who had been "unfortunate"—that is, had cheated their creditors; and where he would be compel'^ to exercise the arts of a bird of prey to kwp body and soul together. And then the bou«e and furniture in the hands of the greasy villanous Children of Israel, with their long dirty talonB, handling and appraising all the sumptuous furniture of the great house in Portmsnstreet, where, even now, his wife sat waiting and weeping—through all the weary watches «W' waiting and weeping.
You all remember the old-fashioned story of the man who played with the strange-looking adversary who always kept hie foot carefully concealed; and who, after winning every earthly possession, kindly offered to play the unfortunate hero for his soul 1 It is an absurd fable, of coarse—anilis fabella—a mere old-wife's tale; but still Grantley to-night seemed to be playing for no lower stake. His opponent certainly was not the devil, but merely a good-humoured, rosy, good-looking young Englishman, with immense breadth in his shoulders, and a smile that showed his white teeth continually, and who, to tell truth, was almost frightened himself at the way in which he waa winning from the great Grantley, and rather expected to lose it all before they separated; but I very much question, if the fable before-mentioned were to have become reality, whether Grantley would have hesitated. An evil demon seemed to be continually whispering in his ear: "Go on! You must get jour old luck soon!" and he went on doubling and trebling the stakes recklessly, and lost— still lost.
"This will be a hot night's work for Grantley," whispered the men about the table, "As for Salford, he will be able to get that pair of ponies he promised Coralie for the Park."
Here I shall leave him for a moment, and take me with you out of the polluted place into tba fresh air of the London street, which seems like a whiff of Paradise after the stifling Kambling-rooro. Enjoy the night-air while you may. Take a good long breath of the balmy May night; for I shall have to take you indoors again witki this magic wand of mine, and the change, I ana inclined to think, will not be for the better—beautifully calm and quiet after the noise and turmoil and ever-passing stream of life that crowded it during the day.
One solitary policeman turns his bull's-eye fall upon us, and eyes us suspiciously; then, apparently satisfied, resumes his walk, and iiuses upon the chances in life which have turned night into day for him.
A faint sound of revelry comes from higher °P the street, where a knot of drunken clerks "e making night hideous by the declaration that they are all "magnificent bricks," and bound to have a spree that night.
All very well for that night, perhaps; but lot so well when they wake next morning with » head-ache, which makes the small amount of "tin that they possess boil like molten lead, •nd makes their hands shake as they hold the P*n, and their eyes stationary in their foolish young heads, like those of a cod-fish.
And at the corners of the street, perhaps, a Rhoatly figure, in unwomanly attire, with hollow painted cheek, and bold defiant face, yet shiver!n8 in this warm night, and huddling herself 'Mo the shadow of a door-way as we pass. Not all unwomanly yet, perhaps, though she is homeless and friendless—the despised of the "tapised—the forlorn creature whom Christian charity, in all its rarity, never visits. And further on> some other woman, worse still, reeling
along, and cursing the whole world—" a terrible woman: so hideous, so reckless, so fierce I—a woman who has been steeped in infamy from her girlhood!—a woman whose past is a catalogue of crimes, whose future seems a hopeless hell!—the woman who has never forgotten God, because she has never known Him!—who hat never repented, because evil has been her good from childhood."
Such a woman, so admirably photographed by Mr. Kingaley, crosses our path as we move along the deserted street, and we can only shudder as we hear her ribald curses, and wonder if at any time she knew a mother's love, or lisped a prayer at a mother's knee.
Down an alley, a festering horrid lane, with heaps of filthy garbage corrupting the air, and bringing cholera and fever in its every breath, and into a small house where, like the other one, the blinds are down, and mystery broods over the neighbourhood. I must make use of the fern-weed to obtain entrance; for those that have not the talismanic herb, or the wooden leg of Asmodeus, a strange hard-sounding password is necessary. Inside, a scene that would look well painted by Ostade or Teniers, if England possessed such painters, sat three men, each—at least from a casual glance—of different nationality. As to the one who sat smoking a short pipe, and drinking spirits out of an apology for a glass, there could be no mistake. Bill Sykes was written in every lineament of the brutal close-shaven face, in the small cruel eyes with murder in every glance of them, in the thick gladiator bull-neck, in the bull-dogjowl—a man evidently of immense strength, well-set thick form, and arms whose muscles the close-fitting canvas jacket did not in the least conceal—a roan, in fact, with whom, if necessity compelled, you would be readier, as the Scotch have it, "to crack wi' than fecht wi':" though you would be excessively sorry to do either: when I add that every time he opened his mouth he garnished his hoarse remarks with the most dreadful allusions to his blood and heart and liver, I shall have completed his portrait.
The man who sat near him, and was amusing himself by chaffing him, was evidently an Irishman; there was no mistaking the half-cunning, half-simple expression of his features, which a decided cast in one of his grey eyes only heightened. An air of devil-may-care, reckless drollery characterized his every movement, and served to make the grim surliness of the animal he addressed more striking through comparison. Any sporting man could have told you his tporting name, under which he generally figured in the prize-ring as a promising man in the light-weights, and that would be " The Tipperary Bantam," but any attempt to ascertain his family name (he had probably forgotten it himself) would only lead us into a confused mass of aliases as they figured on the charge-sheets and the " true-bills" of the county-courts, where he had played a prominent part through a little weakness be had for breaking into people's bouses.
The third (who was treated with some respect by his companions) was a foreign-looking man, with pale, regular features, slight form, and an air that once had been noble, but now bore the unmistakable brand of disgrace. Very strange though, to find a man of even slight pretensions to gentility in such company! Look closer at him, as he lurks in the shadow, and scowls at his mates, and you will recognize Count della Croce. What his business there was, we shall not be kept long in suspense ere we know.
He was just going to make an observation to the sulky English ruffian, when a low tap was heard at the door, and the latter jumped to his feet with a tremendous curse.
"Arrah, now, and don't be making a fool of yerself," roared the Irishman, with a rich oily Corkonian accent: "shure it's only the bit of a gossoon."
The bit of a gossoon was a small boy, certainly not five feet in height, but with a face of aged cunning mingled with impudence. A mass of rags of every colour, evidently the remnant of various articles of clothing, hung loosely about him, and he spoke in a hoarse whisper, that might have been produced by exposure to all weathers, or ardent spirits, or a mixture of both.
"Well, Barney, what luck? Did ye spot him?" asked the "Tipperary Bantam."
"That I did," said the urchin, with a grin: "Coz vy? I crep' along in the shadow, don't yer see? and the swell's been and gone into Bellingham's" (which was the gambling-house).
'* Did he see yer?" growled Mr. Sykes. "Cob if he did he'd safe to be fly. Did yer watch the *ouse?'"
"In course I did," said the boy, "and watched all the swells a coming out; and I '11 take my Dicky there's only the swell and another there now."
"D'ye hear that, Count?" said Mr. Sykes, addressing the Italian. "Now's our time. Surely we are a match for them two fellows— and if we ain't, this will do their business," affectionately handling, as be spoke, a murderous life-preserver, and regarding it with a villanous grin.
"Mind one thing," said Della Croce: "leave the man I showed you to me. With the other fellow you can do as you like. I dare say you will get enough off* him to pay you for the night's work."
There was a contemptuous disdain still lingering about the disgraced man as he spoke to the two ruffians he had in his pay, and to whose level he was almost reducing himself in the lowest depths of crime and misery—the descendant of the Viscontis herding with the dregs of wicked London! But it was to make one loved stroke for revenge, even when the smart of the wound still rankled in his breast— even while sporting circles had not ceased talkingof his disgrace and disappearance: for this h,e bad, been content to live among scenes and
peoples from whom his refined nature revolteJ; had suffered to be called mate and companion by every house-breaker and law-breaker he had come into contact with. Could he but take the news to Nathalie, that their mutual foe was foully murdered outside a gaming-house, that would be the crowning point of a glorious train of vengeance. She would marry him, love him, be his slave for ever—so she had assured htm; and Delia Croce, with the impulsive nature of his country, had learnt to love Nathalie after a fashion, and associated her case with his, till mutual sympathy led to a warmer feeling.
"It's all settled, then," said Sykes (I call him Sykes, with all due reverence tothe master-mind that created the blood-thirsty master-ruffian), "and, so long as we get off all right with tbe swag, you may take the captain swell all to yourself; though I'm thinking you mayn't find him quite so easy to manage."
"If the Hobbies come up we shall find it a thrifle more difficult still, laughed the Irishman. "Though bedad I wouldn't give much for any Bobby's nob after tbe least taste in life of that sapling ye have in yer hand, Misther Sykes I"
"Never fear me," growled the ruffian addressed. "I haven't got my ticket for nothing; and by heaven I'll leave my mark before they send me out again I"
Beautiful and harmless aspiration I Does it not show the wisdom of our truly paternal government, in allowing Mr. Sykes and his brethren tickets-of-leave, that they may come back to their dearly-beloved native country, and pursue their trifling little amusements of garotting, and the like, unharmed and unsuspected?
One gets quite a breath of fresh air in turning to Scene III. of the series I have been introducing to you in this chapter: and, as for the contrast—well, such things may be easily found in broad London; every species of wickedness may be discovered in the metropolis', if not every species of good.
It is past one, and Ella Grantley has not dared to go to bed. She sits up, watching and waiting, jumping up in expectation at every footstep that comes up the street, and sinking down with a moan of weary disappointment as the footsteps die away in the distance, and still ber husband comes not. And who shall say what rain regrets crossed her mind as she reflected on the one great, irretrievable mistake she had commited in marrying this man, contrary to tbe wishes of her friends, contrary, perhaps, to all dictates of prudence; because, forsooth, he wai handsome and plausible, and had the report ot a brave soldier 1 There was no warning voice, she sighed, at the time, to warn her, no warning sigh from the storm that was lurking on the horizon, no finger-post on the road to speak ot the dangers in the journey. All seemed smooth and calm; and yet, after one short year's voyage, what a shipwreck bad she made of all her dearly-cherished hopes and joys! An then there was Charley—was it wrong to thuiK regretfully of what «be might have been M4 she listened to that honest young fellow's vows? Was it treason to her marriage-vow to wonder what he might be doing, how he had borne his great disappointment? For Ella had enough of woman's cunning to know that her refusal had almost made him desperate. Probably he had married, and was happy with his wife, and —and—a great gush of tears came to her aid at that juncture, and she wept long and bitterly. Ah! pitiful that tears should stain those glorious eyes — that the innocent young heart should be breaking thus early, when some wives have not quite awaked from the blissful dream of married love. Was that his footstep? Surely he is coming! Ah, now she will surprise him! She will pretend to have fallen asleep at her post, and he may feel some pang of remorse when he finds that she has kept the weary watches for him !" Disillusion 1 disenchantment!" It is only a servant, to inquire whether she wants anything more that night, and if John is to wait up for the Captain?
To Ella's imagination even the face of the servant seemed to wear a compassionate expression, and her voice seemed to be lowered into a tone of feeling, and she would, in all likelihood, discuss the Captain's irregularities with the other servants. Wearied and disgusted, Ella fell asleep—poor heart 1 And, as to the prison-captives home-scenes and bright visions of liberty shine transiently in dreams, so to the gambler's wife the old familiar Hall came back with all winning associations, and she saw her mother and the squire, and her sister Katie, and seemed to sob herself to rest on the mother's true bosom, telle est la vie—it isn't all sunshine in this world of ours!
A Struggle In The Dark.
While this cheerful and harmless trio are rehearsing the effect of the little piece of "still We" they intend playing, we may as well return to the gentlemen whom they have marked out as their victims so coolly, for the benefit of one of whom Mr. Sykes so tenderly prepared that uRly bludgeon of his. The gambling-room where he left them has considerably thinned; the only two players are Grantley and theyoung nobleman, still as intent upon their lawless play 88 they were an hour ago, Grantley's face, wild and haggard in its expression, the deep lines furrowed into his brow, the painful twitching of a« much of his lips as the heavy moustache shows. All augur that the "little game" is not progressing favourable with him. It is juadness now what was simply greed of gain before; and he hates his adversary, who is so courteous and so genial, with the hate of hell. To think that, after all, the great Grantley •hould be fairly pigeoned, cleaned out, by a mere lad, who had only just made his first voyage in the perilous sea of gaming!
He must sell his commission instantly: that would fetch some couple of thousands, and might stave off the impending ruin—just as men throw down houses and walls to prevent a fire spreading—and then, if that horse only were to run first next Derby, if he might only be gladdened with the sight uf those familiar black-andred colours gleaming in the van of the mighty rush of horses, then of course it would be all right, and he would try to leave off gambling altogether! On the other hand, suppose that some foul play should injure the horse he had risked so much on, supposing that some cursed mischance should lose him the race—he had heard of cases, not few, nor very far between, considering the "men of honour" who took share in them, when a ball, judiciously administered to a horse whose winning was a certainty, had effectually ruined all the prospects of winning — supposing all this, then would come utter, certain ruin! O cursed day that he first touched card! O cursed companion that first led him into the ways of evil, and taught him to be cunning at the gaming-table, and applauded his early successes in the making of that little game which is such a sad amusement! Well might the chronicler Froissarl say of gamblers as well as of the English people, "lis s'amusaient triste." And not a thought of his wife, not a thought of Nathalie crossed his infatuated mind. As for the latter, it was, perhaps, a blessing that he had no time to spare for the pricks of conscience the memory of that injured woman and of her vow of vengeance caused him. One excitement had completely swallowed up another. It is no wonder that the record of the career of great criminals like Redpath should be distinguished by reckless extravagance and mad dissipation. It requires some overpowering, superior stimulus to conquer the feeling of dread, some mighty agent, to drown the voice of conscience —which I think is never entirely stifled, only muffled sometimes—and not a dread of the violence hanging over his head. No kind angel had whispered to him that Fate, in the shape of the ragged imp, had been dogging his steps from the club to the gaming-house, untiring, unfoiled, lurking in shadow of houses and in doorways, till the quarry was well-marked home—that murder and robbery were guarding the portals of the very house he was in. The bad and the good fare alike in this: no evilboding fear crosses the mind of the good, honest, cheery citizen when he gaily kisses his hand to his smiling wife on the doorstep, on his way to the station to catch the morning-train: he little dreams, as he snaps his fingers to the crowing child in her hands, that on this side of the grave he shall behold wife and child again never; and that they shall see him perhaps a mangled, sickening mass, which the eye of love, cunning as it is, will fail to identify! And perhaps 'tis a wise dispensation. Bethink you, what a world this would be, did every creature know his own fate — did each man behold velutt in specula the fogs and sorrows of his