As soon as the immediate game we were watching was finished, the players rose, and greeted Lucio with a good deal of eagerness and effusion. I instinctively guessed from their manner that they looked upon him as an influential member of the club, a person likely to lend them money to gamble with, and otherwise to oblige them in various ways, financially speaking. He introduced me to them all, and I was not slow to perceive the effect my name had upon most of them. I was asked if I would join in a game of baccarat, and I readily consented. The stakes were ruinously high, but I had no need to falter for that. One of the players near me was a fair-haired young man, handsome in face and of aristocratic bearing,—he had been introduced to me as Viscount Lynton. I noticed him particularly on account of the reckless way he had of doubling his stakes suddenly and apparently out of mere bravado, and when he lost, as he mostly did, he laughed uproariously as though he were drunk or delirious. On first beginning to play I was entirely indifferent as to the results of the game, caring nothing at all as to whether I had losses or gains. Lucio did not join us, but sat apart, quietly observant, and watching me, so I fancied, more than anyone. And as chance would have it, all the luck came my way, and I won steadily. The more I won the more excited I became, till presently my humour changed and I was seized by a whimsical desire to lose. I suppose it was the touch of some better impulse in my nature that made me wish this for young Lynton's sake. For he seemed literally maddened by my constant winnings, and continued his foolhardy and desperate play,— his young face grew drawn and sharply thin, and his eyes glittered with a hungry feverishness. The other gamesters, though sharing in his run of ill-luck, seemed better able to stand it, or perhaps they concealed their feelings more cleverly, —anyhow I know I caught myself very earnestly wishing that this devil's luck of mine would desert me and set in the young Viscount's direction. But my wishes were no use,—again and again I gathered up the stakes, till at last the players rose, Viscount Lynton among them.
"Well, I'm cleaned out!" he said, with a loud forced laugh. "You must give me my chance of a revanche to-morrow, Mr Tempest!"
He called a waiter at the end of the room to bring him a brandy-and-soda, and meanwhile I was surrounded by the rest of the men, all of them repeating the Viscount's suggestion of a 'revanche,' and strenuously urging upon me the necessity of returning to the club the next night in order to give them an opportunity of winning back what they had lost. I readily agreed, and while we were in the midst of talk, Lucio suddenly addressed young Lynton.
"Will you make up another game with me?" he inquired. "I'll start the bank with this,"—and he placed two crisp notes of five hundred pounds each on the table.
There was a moment's silence. The Viscount was thirstily drinking his brandy-and-soda, and glanced over the rim of his tall tumbler at the notes with covetous bloodshot eyes,—then he shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "I can't stake anything," he said; "I've already told you I'm cleaned out,— 'stony-broke,' as the slang goes. It's no use my joining."
"Sit down, sit down, Lynton !" urged one man near him. "I'll lend you enough to go on with."
"Thanks, I'd rather not!" he returned, flushing a little. "I'm too much in your debt already. Awfully good of you all the same. You go on, you fellows, and I'll watch the play."
"Let me persuade you, Viscount Lynton," said Lucio, looking at him with his dazzling inscrutable smile—"just for the fun of the thing! If you do not feel justified in staking money, stake something trifling and merely nominal, for the sake of seeing whether the luck will turn''—and here he took up a counter—"This frequently represents fifty pounds,—let it represent for once something that is not valuable like money, —your soul, for example!" A burst of laughter broke from all the men. Lucio laughed softly with them.
"We all have, I hope, enough instruction in modern science to be aware that there is no such thing as a soul in existence" —he continued. "Therefore, in proposing it as a stake for this game at baccarat, I really propose less than one hair of your head, because the hair is a something, and the soul is a nothing! Come! will you risk that non-existent quantity for the chance of winning a thousand pounds?"
The Viscount drained off the last drop of brandy, and turned upon us, his eyes flashing mingled derision and defiance.
"Done !" he exclaimed; whereupon the party sat down.
The game was brief, and in its rapid excitement almost breathless. Six or seven minutes sufficed and Lucio rose, the winner. He smiled as he pointed to the counter which had represented Viscount Lynton's last stake.
"I have won !" he said quietly. "But you owe me nothing, my dear Viscount, inasmuch as you risked—Nothing! We played this game simply for fun. If souls had any existence of course I should claim yours;—I wonder what I should do with it by the way !'' He laughed good-humoured] y. '' What nonsense, isn't it!—and how thankful we ought to be that we live in advanced days like the present, when such silly superstitions are being swept aside by the march of progress and pure Reason! Good-night! Tempest and I will give you your full revenge to-morrow,—the luck is sure to change by then, and you will probably have the victory. Again—good-night!''
He held out his hand,—there was a peculiar melting tenderness in his brilliant dark eyes,—an impressive kindness in his manner. Something—I could not tell what—held us all for the moment spellbound as if by enchantment, and several of the players at other tables, hearing of the eccentric stake that had been wagered and lost, looked over at us curiously from a distance. Viscount Lynton, however, professed himself immensely diverted, and shook Lucio's proffered hand heartily.
"You are an awfully good fellow !" he said, speaking a little thickly and hurriedly—"and I assure you seriously if I had a soul I should be very glad to part with it for a thousand pounds at the present moment. The soul wouldn't be an atom of use to me and the thousand pounds would. But I feel convinced I shall win to-morrow."
"I am equally sure you will!" returned Lucio affably; "In the meantime, you will not find my friend here, Geoffrey Tempest, a hard creditor,—he can afford to wait. But in the case of the lost soul,"—here he paused, looking straight into the young man's eyes,—" of course /cannot afford to wait!"
The Viscount smiled vaguely at this pleasantry, and almost immediately afterwards left the club. As soon as the door had closed behind him, several of the gamesters exchanged sententious nods and glances.
"Ruined!" said one of them in a sotto-voce.
"His gambling debts are more than he can ever pay"— added another—" And I hear he has lost a clear fifty thousand on the turf.''
These remarks were made indifferently, as though one should talk of the weather,—no sympathy was expressed,—no pity wasted. Every gambler there was selfish to the core, and as I studied their hardened faces, a thrill of honest indignation moved me,—indignation mingled with shame. I was not yet altogether callous or cruel-hearted, though as I look back upon those days which now resemble a wild vision rather than a reality, I know that I was becoming more and more of a brutal egoist with every hour I lived. Still I was so far then from being utterly vile, that I inwardly resolved to write to Viscount Lynton that very evening, and tell him to consider his debt to me cancelled, as I should refuse to claim it. While this thought was passing through my mind, I met Lucio's gaze fixed steadily upon me. He smiled,—and presently signed to me to accompany him. In a few minutes we had left the club, and were out in the cold night air under a heaven of frostily sparkling stars. Standing still for a moment, my companion laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Tempest, if you are going to be kind-hearted or sympathetic to undeserving rascals, I shall have to part company with you!" he said, with a curious mixture of satire and seriousness in his voice—" I see by the expression of your face that you are meditating some silly disinterested action of pure generosity. Now you might just as well flop down on these paving stones and begin saying prayers in public. You want to let Lynton off his debt,—you are a fool for your pains. He is a born scoundrel,—and has never seen his way to being anything else,—why should you compassionate him? From the time he first went to college till now, he has been doing nothing but live a life of degraded sensuality,—he is a worthless rake, less to be respected than an honest dog!"
"Yet some one loves him I daresay!" I said.
"Some one loves him!" echoed Lucio, with inimitable disdain—"Bah! Three ballet girls live on him if that is what you mean. His mother loved him,—but she is dead,—he broke her heart. He is no good I tell you,—let him pay his debt in full, even to the soul he staked so lightly. If I were the devil now, and had just won the strange game we played to-night, I suppose according to priestly tradition, I should be piling up the fire for Lynton in high glee,—but being what I am, I say let the man alone to make his own destiny,—let things take their course,—and as he chose to risk everything, so let him pay everything."
We were by this time walking slowly into Pali-Mall,—I was on the point of making some reply, when catching sight of a man's figure on the opposite side of the way, not far from the Marlborough Club, I uttered an involuntary exclamation."Why there he is!" I said—" there is Viscount Lynton!" Lucio's hand closed tightly on my arm."You don't want to speak to him now surely!""No. But I wonder where he's going? He walks rather unsteadily."
"Drunk, most probably!"
And Lucio's face presented the same relentless expression of scorn I had so often seen and marvelled at.
We paused a moment, watching the Viscount strolling aimlessly up and down in front of the clubs,—till all at once he seemed to come to a sudden resolution, and stopping short, he shouted,
A silent-wheeled smart vehicle came bowling up immediately. Giving some order to the driver, he jumped in. The cab approached swiftly in our direction,—just as it passed us the loud report of a pistol crashed on the silence.
"Good God!" I cried reeling back a step or two—"He has shot himself!''
The hansom stopped,—the driver sprang down,—clubporters, waiters, policemen and no end of people starting up from Heaven knows where, were on the scene on an instant, —I rushed forward to join the rapidly gathering throng, but before I could do so, Lucio's strong arm was thrown round me, and he dragged me by main force away.
'' Keep cool, Geoffrey !" he said—''Do you want to be called up to identify? And betray the club and all its members? Not while I am here to prevent you! Check your mad impulses, my good fellow,—they will lead you into no end of difficulties. If the man's dead, he's dead and there's an end of it."
"Lucio! You have no heart!" I exclaimed, struggling violently to escape from his hold—" How can you stop to reason in such a case! Think of it! / am the cause of all the mischief!—it is my cursed luck at baccarat this evening that has been the final blow to the wretched young fellow's fortunes,—I am convinced of it!—I shall never forgive myself—"
"Upon my word, Geoffrey, your conscience is very tender!" he answered, holding my arm still more closely, and hurrying me away despite myself—" You must try and toughen it a little if you want to be successful in life. Your 'cursed luck' you think, has caused Lynton's death? Surely it is a contradiction in terms to call luck 'cursed,'—and as for the Viscount, he did not need that last game at baccarat to emphasize his ruin. You are not to blame. And for the sake of the club, if for nothing else, I do not intend either you or myself to be mixed up in a case of suicide. The coroner's verdict always disposes of these incidents comfortably in two words— 'Temporary insanity.'''
I shuddered. My soul sickened as I thought that within a few yards of us was the bleeding corpse of the man I had so lately seen alive and spoken with,—and notwithstanding Lucio's words, I felt as if I had murdered him.
"' Temporary insanity,' " repeated Lucio again, as if speaking to himself—"All remorse, despair, outraged honour, wasted love, together with the scientific modern theory of Reasonable Nothingness—Life a Nothing, God a Nothing,— when these drive the distracted human unit to make of himself also a nothing, 'temporary insanity' covers up his plunge into the infinite with an untruthful pleasantness. However, after all, it is as Shakespeare says, a mad world!"
I made no answer. I was too overcome by my own miserable sensations. I walked along almost unconscious of movement, and as I stared bewilderedly up at the stars they danced before my sight like fireflies whirling in a mist of miasma. Presently a faint hope occurred to me.
"Perhaps," I said, "he has not really killed himself? It may be only an attempt ?''
"He was a capital shot"—returned Lucio composedly,— "That was his one quality. He had no principles—but he was a good marksman. I cannot imagine his missing aim."
"It is horrible! An hour ago alive, … and now … I tell you, Lucio, it is horrible !''
"What is? Death? It is not half so horrible as Life lived wrongly"—he responded, with a gravity that impressed me in spite of my emotion and excitement—" Believe me, the mental sickness and confusion of a wilfully degraded existence are worse tortures than are contained in the priestly notions of Hell. Come, come, Geoffrey, you take this matter too much to heart,—you are not to blame. If Lynton has given himself the 'happy dispatch' it is really the best thing he could do,—he was of no use to anybody, and he is well out of it. It is positively weak of you to attach importance to such a trifle. You are only at the beginning of your career"
"Well, I hope that career will not lead me into any more such tragedies as the one enacted to-night,"—I said passionately—" If it does, it will be entirely against my will."
Lucio looked at me curiously.
"Nothing can happen to you against your will,"—he replied; "I suppose you wish to imply that I am to blame for introducing you to the club? My good fellow, you need not have gone there unless you had chosen to do so! I did not bind and drag you there! You are upset and unnerved,— come into my room and take a glass of wine,—you will feel more of a man afterwards.''
We had by this time reached the hotel, and I went with him passively. With equal passiveness I drank what he gave me, and stood, glass in hand, watching him with a kind of morbid fascination as he threw off his fur-lined overcoat and confronted me, his pale handsome face strangely set and stern, and his dark eyes glittering like cold steel.
"That last stake of Lynton's, … to you—" I said falteringly—" His soul"
"Which he did not believe in, and which you do not believe in!" returned Lucio regarding me fixedly. "Why do you now seem to tremble at a mere sentimental idea? If fantastic notions such as God, the Soul, and the Devil were real facts, there would perhaps be cause for trembling, but being only the brainsick imaginations of superstitious mankind, there is nothing in them to awaken the slightest anxiety or fear."
"But you"—I began—"you say you believe in the soul?"
"I? I am brainsick!" and he laughed bitterly—"Have you not found that out yet? Much learning hath driven me mad, my friend! Science has led me into such deep wells of dark discovery, that it is no wonder if my senses sometimes reel,—and I believe—at such insane moments—in the Soul!" «
I sighed heavily.
"I think I will go to bed," I answered. "lam tired out, —and absolutely miserable!"
'' Alas, poor millionaire !'' said Lucio gently,—"I am sorry, I assure you, that the evening has ended so disastrously."
"So am I!" I returned despondently.
"Imagine it!" he went on, dreamily regarding me—"If my beliefs,—my crack-brained theories,—were worth anything,—which they are not—I could claim the only positive existing part of our late acquaintance Viscount Lynton! But, —where and how to send in my account with him? If I were Satan now … "
I forced a faint smile.
"You would have cause to rejoice!" I said.
He moved two paces towards me, and laid his hands gently on my shoulders.
"No, Geoffrey"—and his rich voice had a strange soft music in it—".No, my friend! If I were Satan, I should probably lament!—for every lost soul would of necessity remind me of my own fall, my own despair,—and set another bar between myself and heaven! Remember,—the very Devil was an Angel once !''
His eyes smiled, and yet I could have sworn there were tears in them. I wrung his hand hard,—I felt that notwithstanding his assumed coldness and cynicism, the fate of young Lynton had affected him profoundly. My liking for him gained new fervour from this impression, and I went to bed more at ease with myself and things in general. During the few minutes I spent in undressing I became even able to contemplate the tragedy of the evening with less regret and greater calmness,—for it was certainly no use worrying over the irrevocable,—and, after all, what interest had the Viscount's life for me? None. I began to ridicule myself for my own weakness and disinterested emotion,—and presently, being thoroughly fatigued, fell sound asleep. Towards morning however, perhaps about fourt)r five o'clock, I woke suddenly as though touched by an invisible hand. I was shivering violently, and my body was bathed in a cold perspiration. In the otherwise dark room there was something strangely luminous, like a cloud of white smoke or fire. I started up, rubbing my eyes,—and stared before me for a moment, doubting the evidence of my own senses. For, plainly visible and substantially distinct, at a distance of perhaps five paces from my bed stood three Figures, muffled in dark garments and closely hooded. So solemnly inert they were,—so heavily did their sable draperies fall about them that it was impossible to tell whether they were men or women,—but what paralyzed me with amazement and terror was the strange light that played around and above them, —the spectral, wandering chill radiance that illumined them like the rays of a faint wintry moon. I strove to cry out,— but my tongue refused to obey me—and my voice was strangled in my throat. The Three remained absolutely motionless,— and again I rubbed my eyes, wondering if this were a dream or some hideous optical delusion. Trembling in every limb, I stretched my hand towards the bell, intending to ring violently for assistance,—when—a Voice, low and thrilling with intense anguish caused me to shrink back appalled, and my arm fell nerveless at my side.
The word struck the air with a harsh reproachful clang, and I nearly swooned with the horror of it. For now one of the Figures moved, and a face gleamed out from beneath its hooded wrappings—a face white as whitest marble and fixed into such an expression of dreadful despair as froze my blood. Then came a deep sigh that was more like a death-groan, and again the word "Misery I" shuddered upon the silence!
Mad with fear and scarcely knowing what I did, I sprang from the bed, and began desperately to advance upon these fantastic masqueraders, determined to seize them and demand the meaning of this practical and untimely jest,—when suddenly all three lifted their heads and turned their faces on me, —such faces !—indescribably awful in their pallid agony,—and a whisper more ghastly than a shriek, penetrated the very fibres of my consciousness—"Misery!"
With a furious bound I flung myself upon them,—my hands struck empty space! Yet there—distinct as ever—they stood, glowering down upon me, while my clenched fists beat impotently through and beyond their seeming corporeal shapes! And then—all at once—I became aware of their eyes,—eyes that watched me pitilessly, stedfastly, and disdainfully,—eyes, that like witch-fires, seemed to slowly burn terrific meanings into my very flesh and spirit. Convulsed and almost frantic with the strain on my nerves, I abandoned myself to despair,—this ghastly sight meant death I thought,—my last hour had surely come! Then—I saw the lips of one of those dreadful faces move … some superhuman instinct in me leaped to life, … in some strange way I thought I knew, or guessed the horror of what that next utterance would be, … and with all my remaining force I cried out,—
"No! No! Not that eternal Doom! Not yet!" Fighting the vacant air, I strove to beat back those intangible awful Shapes that loomed above me, withering up my soul with the fixed stare of their angry eyes, and with a choking call for help, I fell, as it were, into a pit of darkness where I lay, mercifully unconscious.