« AnteriorContinuar »
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 hire killed every man in tbat room, could he only get free, and prevent tlie 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, his 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 Till acquit Mr. Grafton of all knowledge of this thing Y
"Of course—certainly!" resounded through the room.
"Now, Count della Croce, I don't wish to make a scene, but I have a great mind to give you a downright thrashing! This math let me tell you—if 1 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 adrise 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 evening, and do these gentlemen all the reparation in your power, and make yourself scarce in London; ior, as sure as I catch you playing axain, that moment will I post you up as cheat and ihfef !*'
The Julian 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 features of contempt and anger; 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 Bay 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! 1 daresay you would like that well enough, and consider yourself very well avenged. I have seen men, and you have too, I daresay, for Jess 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 by no means a coward physically, and, bad 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 before the men who had often sat at his table, and to whose families he had the entre", was too mncb.
"Earl Percy sees my fall I" might have been the bitter cry of his heart—" and then to he refused satisfaction, to be treated like some rascally thimble-rigger 1"
He had not intended cheating; indeed, it must be said for his credit, tbat 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 roust win the victory, he had 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 sXecarte, 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 be revenged. He hath 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!" 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 fir8twhat 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 he has shot three poor fellows in fair fight—so they said: but I have an idea that Della 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 gohome,afterall this—awiser 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 not stick at anything. He is the sort of fellow I should much prefer being friend to than foe. He might be deputing some of his cousins, the organ-grinders, to shoot me some fine night 1"
Grantley preserved a religious silence about all this to his wife, hoping that she might not hear it. But a thing with which the town rang was not likely to escape the ears of a lady who went out so much; and it was not long before she heard all about the occurrence, and her husband's share in it, and a flood of light was thrown upon the wife's happy ignorance. Yet she would not taunt him with it: she would suffer in silence, at all events, and not let him know that she was aware of his deceit. Alas! the pillow whereon rested the fair young head was wet with bitter tears often now; and often, after returning from some feverish excitement, she would tear off her silk and jewellery with a weary gesture, and sigh, "Ah, me! I wonder if there are many wives of a year as miserable as I am I"
It is easy enough to doubt the love of one who never entrusts a secret to our keeping, never makes a confidante of the nearest one on earth; and Ella Grantley began to ask herself whether the man who, in the first place, refused to let her share his secrets, and then deceived her grossly, could love her at all! It might have- been happier far for her had she accepted Charley, after all 1 He would have had no secrets from her: but to think thus was treason to her marriage-vow. No: she had sworn to honour and obey—that she must do, let what happen.
God pity the poor wife who, after the first blush of the honeymoon dies out, finds that the man to whom she has entrusted her life's happiness is unworthy of the sacred charge! What is she to do i With a man it is different. The blow, of course, is equally as great, when he finds that the wife of his bosom is different from the wife of his fancy, when the fairy chateaux en Espagne which he has been building, as abodes of love and happiness, crumble to dust, and there remain but the naked conviction that there is no sympathy, no community of tastes, no oneness of spirit between himself and the woman he has taken to be his helpmeet. But he has other incentives to steel his heart— ambition; there is a great name to make, though the wife be not fit to share it. Art, with all her fair creations, the magic touch of the pencil, may transfer his glowing fancies to the canvas; the pen may adorn the written page; there are new countries for him to discover, new inventions for him to render patent and useful to mankind. All these things may soothe him in his great sorrow: but for the wife, poor heart, there are none of these things. In silence she must bear the great burden of her woe, and hide the secret of her great mistake from the eyes of the prying vulgar; for, mark you, " 'tis caviare to the general" to remove the veil which shrouds married life, and make its hidden things matters of every-day talk. Heaven help the woman who has made this great, irretrievable mistake! Heaven keep her from
temptation, and grant her strength to struggle through the dark, starless path of life, innocent and undefiled I
Chap. XVII. "he Comes Too Late Who Comes To Be
It was universally allowed that the "Wife's Trials" was a decided success. People talked of nothing else at clubs and dinner-tables and meetings of every kind; but the wonderful actress, whose performance was so life-like, and whose beauty was so magnificent—cartesde-visite of the wonderful Madame Brabazon were seen in every window, in every imaginable position: "The wife in her happiness," "The wife in her misery." taken from the last scene, where she knelt before her repentant husband. Music - sellers advertised "The Brabazon Waltz," and the "Song of the Deserted Wife," and the "Wife's Trials Quadrille," and all the imaginable forms of musical performance, which the genius of Godfrey or Coote could turn the new play to; and so great was the furore that even dressmakers turned the thing to advantage, and brought out the" Brabazon Coiffure"; whilst the host of pennybook writers issued shoals of tales founded on the plot, to delight the people in general; and I would warrant you that if you descended into the kitchen of the town-house about that time you would see cook and housemaid deeply intent on the story of "The Wife's Sorrow," illustrated, and No. 2 issued with No. 1—the only two numbers, by the way, which would ever appear.
Lawrence Hilton had enough to do at this time to keep the green-room sacred, as was his determination. Had Nathalie wanted a husband at that time she would but have to hold out her hand, and choose from the motley crowd of men who were desperately, madly in love with her. From the clerk in the City, who attended with the most assiduous regularity and expended all his fortune in the hiring of opera-glasses wherewith to get a nearer view of his divinity, but who still had to sing
"Thou art so near and yet so far,"
to the mighty swell in the West-end Club, who made desperate efforts to get into the green-room, whose large, resplendent form might be seen looming in his box every night, whose joyous bouquet fell with unfailing aim at the beautiful actress's feet, sometimes enclosing a little scented billet, in which he entreated her to smile upon him—all were in love with her. It is a remarkable fact that little Tommy Potts, who sent that picture of his "Fisherman off Deal" to the Academy, and got great Kvsos for it—little Tommy Potts, the great gun of the "Free and Easy Club," and the oracle of the smoke room, was observed about this time to become almost spruce in his general appearance, that he had bis hair cropped and his mighty beard trimmed, and that he spoke often, in a low mysterious voice, of his intention of trying his luck with the Brabazon, which saying was received with a roar by his artist brethren. "You needn't laugh, you fellows! though I am no beauty I wouldn't change with you: no, not even with you, Finerty, though you do think Adonis was a fool to you. And perhaps the Brabazon means cutting the boards, and going in for a quiet home, "be it ever so humble," pa know; and I could offer her a decent little box if I only sell my big picture "Antony and Cleopatra."
Whether little Potts prosecuted his suit history does not mention; certain it is, though, that he sent to the favourite actress, entreating her to sit for him, and that she returned answer that she felt obliged, but hated all this publicity. Tommy would show this letter sometimes, when particularly maudlin, to his confrires, and ny, mysteriously, "This is from her, my boys! but death alone shall divulge my secret."
And the object of all this adoration pursued the even tenor of her way unmoved, amid the din of admiration which heralded every night's performance. There is no occupation so exciting that, in course of time, it would not become common and uninteresting to the performer: and so it is with the stage, and so it was with Nathalie. All very well, when the first excitement of new scenes and new people was freih upon her; but by enacting the same r'>k night after night she became exceeding weary of it, and sighed for fresh occupation; and she so worked upon Hilton's impulsive temperament that she persuaded him to withdraw the "Wife's Trials" for a time at least, and to substitute "Macbeth" instead, she taking the part of Lady Macbeth; and so it was not long before the town was informed that after an unprecedented run of 300 nights, the popular drama of "The Wife's Trials" would be withdrawn and " Macbeth" be substituted, the part of Lady Macbeth by the renowned Madame Brabazon. It is not my intention to follow Nathalie through every new character in which she astonished the theatre-going world; suffice it to say that in Lady Macbeth the lost none of her former popularity. There was a sternness of purpose in which she represented the guilty Thane's spouse; and as she strode across the stage with one beautiful white arm bared, people began to deplore the loss of Siddons less, and, like the Doctor, in "Gil Bias" ceased to lament the lessened size of peaches since their youth.
To the worthy production of Shakspeare's terrible tragedy, Hilton too, in his managerial capacity, did wonderful justice. Never was a finer scene put on any stage than the one in which the witches brew their hell-broth, and Locke's incantation music was chanted by a large troup of sister-witches, clothed in dark garments and bearing in their hands long staves; and, in the second scene, where the lady enters,
and holds that terrible soliloquy, they could not help shuddering as she spoke the words—
"Hoik!—I laid their daggers ready, He could not miss them.—Had lie not resembled My father as he slept, I had dunc't."
And in that night scene, when the conseiencestricken woman walks in her sleep, murmuring, as she " washed her hands,"
"Out, damned spot! Out, I say! Ycl who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
And then that distracted cry, as she looks at her hands,
"Here's the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh! oh! oh!"
In that scene the actors who played the Doctor of Physic and the waiting gentlewoman trembled with more than assumed fright as they listened to the night-walker's words, and were right glad when the scene was over. It needed not Lawrence Hilton's care and protection to assure Nathalie now. She felt quite at home on the boards, and trod them with as perfect ease as though she had been "to the manner born." Ever and anon, in the course of her acting, Bhe would direct her glances to that box where she had seen Grantley and his young wife, on her first appearance; but in vain. She never saw that face which haunted her to distraction there again. Grantley steadily refused to go to the "Thespian," and Ella could only wonder at the strange freak which had taken her husband's fancy. There was one humble heart though, which paid its silent devotion to the new actress, and that was the son of the persons with whom Nathalie lodged, and I question if in any of the fulsome compliments which were paid her by the world of London, there lurked half as much real passionate devotion as dwelt in the young lover's breaBt. No very romantic lover, though; he was only an underpaid clerk in an attorney's office, but his liking was ever with the stage, and when one famous star fell from the firmament, and gave place to a brighter one still, young William Tibbett changed his allegiance too, and swore fealty to the new queen. Regular as the night came did that humble young man wait at the door of the "Thespian" to escort Nathalie home, too gratified if she would condescend to exchange a common word of civility with him, and rendered happy as a king when his enslaver thanked him for his kindness. Recollect, he was only a boy of eighteen, and did not earn as many shillings a week, and, to boot, was head over ears in love. The onlyjconsolation accorded him was that he could purchase as many cartes of his beloved one as he could afford, and add them to the gallery he had already formed. He never thought for an instant that the proud, fierce, handsome lodger would condescend to notice him, but that she would marry some great nobleman or other, and be a fine lady all the days of her life, he felt certain ; and often, when her character was discussed among the clerks of his office, young Tibbets would stand up like a Bayard for her, and inform them that it was like their precious cheek to talk in that way of a perfectly virtuous woman. And what if the unbelieving heathens did put their fingers to their nose and cry "Walker 1" his faith in his heroine's purity and goodness was not a whit weakened. Nor was he the only admirer that Nathalie had: young Viscount Darlington, of the Guards, chose to fall madly in love with the theatrical star, and presented himself to Hilton, entreating an introduction.
"I tell you I am fearfully hit in that quarter, Hilton," would the noble guardsman cry, forgetting in his excitement the drawl and lisp of his class—" and I won't rest till I see her."
"Your lordship will forgive me," the manager would reply, "but I really cannot break through my rule. Don't be so foolish, my lord; it will do no good in the world, I can assure you."
So Darlington had to content himself, like all the untitled lovers, with worshipping from afar, and grew very moody and miserable, hanging about the club in a melancholy way, and shunning the delights of society in every way. I believe he actually tried to perpetrate verses, but that was the turning point of his madness; and after that, when he saw it was no use, he reformed his habits like a sensible young viscount, and forgot the actress in the pursuit of some new " Will-'o-the-Wisp."
But there was one man of the crowd who hung about the favourite, whom she did really seem to care for, and that was a man of foreign aspect, scrupulously dressed, and people called him Count Delia Croce. Something in his dark, quiet face seemed to attract Nathalie, for she allowed the manager to introduce him, and graciously bowed as the Count murmured some words of flattery in the soft Italian. Tbis was a mystery that very few people could understand—why the woman who had steadfastly set her face against acquaintances of any kind should thus suddenly have smiled upon the Italian. Now it so happened that it had come to Nathalie's ears that the same Delia Croce had, a little time ago, been accused of cheating in a London club, and had been detected by a Captain Grantley. How she discovered it, it is impossible to tell; but it struck the woman's quick perception that this man, disgraced by Grantley, was in the same position as herself, and might assist her in the great scheme of revenge. At any rate it very soon became evident that the dark stranger was becoming au pris with Madame Brabazon, and his face was seldom missed in the theatre while she was acting, and at the stage-door when she had finished. Once or twice he had formed a third in the walk home, and had taken leave of Nathalie at her door, promising to see her again on the morrow. Why he had not left London was a puzzle; for he dared not be seen by any of his former associates, and kept away from his
old gambling haunts. Safe of course he was from any legal punishment, but he could scarcely endure to pass by the men who had courted him once, and to see their averted eyes and scornful faces; and at every fresh insult he ground his'teeth savagely, and cursed the name of the Englishman who had wrought this. One night a note was brought into his box by the box-keeper. He tore it open, and read as follows:—
"Count Della Croce,
"I have a matter of vital importance to tell you. If you will come home with inc after the play, I will tell it you.
"Que diable fait-il dans cette galere?" muttered he, as he crushed the note in bis finger, and bowed to Nathalie as she glanced up to his box. "What can this woman have to tell me r Luigi Della Croce, you are the very devil amongst the fair ones!" and he stroked his heavy moustache, placidly. That night the new actress had extracted from him all the story of his exposure by Grantley, and, in turn, told him all the necessary details of her own life.
"We are both on equal terms, then, it seems signora," said the Italian coolly. "This manfiends destroy him!—has offended both you and me. We are both desirous of revenge—bitterer the better—and we cannot do better than cooperate our forces to that end: two heads may prove better than one, and it will go hard yet if I don't humble that meddling fool's pride! No one crosses Luigi Della Croce's path, and finds himself the safer for it, and I shall bide my time."
"I would sacrifice anything to revenge myself on this man," answered Nathalie. "I have sworn an oath that I will not rest till that revenge is fulfilled."
And then followed a long, earnest consultation, which the reader shall not be entrusted with at present; and the end of it was that when Nathalie showed the Count out that evening, her face wore a strangely triumphant expression; and, as she looked on the miniature of her child, she murmured, wildly, "I shall be revenged ! miopreciosa/ I shall be revenged yet, all in good time." She bowed her face between her hands, and let her memory stray back—far back from the present scenes of excited life, far back, till she saw in her mind's eye the home of her youth, and right plainly, as in a mirror, the beautiful little cottage where her widowed father dwelt; she, the light and hope of his home, she saw herself fairest among the fair girls who thronged to the festa in their gay holiday attire; and then she heard the music of the military band, and saw that dark handsome Captain, who fixed his eyes upon her so tenderly; she remembers—ah! how clearly, through the long mist of years—the sound of his voice as be sang delicious little love-songs in that window