Steadying my thoughts with an effort, I read every word of the document over again deliberately, and the stupefaction of my wonder increased. Was I going mad, or sickening for a fever? Or could this startling, this stupendous piece of information be really true? Because,—if indeed it were true, … good heavens!—I turned giddy to think of it, and it was only by sheer force of will that I kept myself from swooning with the agitation of such sudden surprise and ecstasy. If it were true—why then the world was mine! —I was king instead of beggar;—I was everything I chose to be! The letter,—the amazing letter, bore the printed name of a noted firm of London solicitors, and stated in measured and precise terms that a distant relative of my father's, of whom I had scarcely heard, except remotely now and then during my boyhood, had died suddenly in South America leaving me his sole heir.
"The real and personal estate now amounting to something over Five Millions of Pounds Sterling, we should esteem it a favour if you could make it convenient to call upon us any day this week in order that we may go through the necessary formalities together. The larger bulk of the cash is lodged in the Bank of England, and a considerable amount is placed in French government securities. We should prefer going into further details with you personally rather than by letter. Trusting you will call on us without delay, we are, Sir, yours obediently … "
Five Millions! … I, the starving literary hack,—the friendless, hopeless, almost reckless haunter of low newspaper dens—I, the possessor of "over Five Millions of Pounds sterling"! I tried to grasp the astounding fact,—for fact it evidently was,—but could not. It seemed to me a wild delusion, born of the dizzy vagueness which lack of food engendered in my brain. I stared round the room;—the mean miserable furniture,—the fireless grate,—the dirty lamp, —the low truckle bedstead,—the evidences of penury and want on every side;—and then,—then the overwhelming contrast between the poverty that environed me and the news I had just received, struck me as the wildest, most ridiculous incongruity I had ever heard of or imagined,—and I gave vent to a shout of laughter.
"Was there ever such a caprice of mad Fortune!" I cried aloud—" Who would have imagined it! Good God! I! I, of all men in the world to be suddenly chosen out for this luck! By Heaven !—If it is all true I'll make society spin round like a top on my hand before I am many months older!"
And I laughed loudly again; laughed just as I had previously sworn, simply by way of relief to my feelings. Some one laughed in answer,—a laugh that seemed to echo mine. I checked myself abruptly, somewhat startled, and listened. Rain poured outside, and the wind shrieked like a petulant shrew,—the violinist next door was practising a brilliant roulade up and down his instrument,—but there were no other sounds than these. Yet I could have sworn I heard a man's deep-chested laughter close behind me where I stood.
"It must have been my fancy," I murmured, turning the flame of the lamp up higher in order to obtain more light in the room—"I am nervous I suppose,—no wonder! Poor Boffles!—good old chap!" I continued, remembering my friend's draft for fifty pounds, which had seemed such a godsend a few minutes since—" What a surprise is in store for you! You shall have your loan back as promptly as you sent it, with an extra fifty added by way of interest for your generosity. And as for the new Maecenas you are sending to help me over my difficulties,—well, he may be a very excellent old gentleman, but he will find himself quite out of his element this time. I want neither assistance nor advice nor patronage—I can buy them all! Titles, honours, possessions, —they are all purchasable,—love, friendship, position,—they are all for sale in this admirably commercial age and go to the highest bidder! By my soul!—the wealthy 'philanthropist' will find it difficult to match me in power! He will scarcely have more than five millions to waste, I warrant! And now for supper,—I shall have to live on credit till I get some ready cash,—and there is no reason why I should not leave this wretched hole at once and go to one of the best hotels and swagger it!"
I was about to leave the room on the swift impulse of excitement and joy, when a fresh and violent gust of wind roared down the chimney, bringing with it a shower of soot which fell in a black heap on my rejected manuscript where it lay forgotten on the floor as I had despairingly thrown it. I hastily picked it up and shook it free from the noisome dirt, wondering as I did so, what would be its fate now ?— now, when I could afford to publish it myself, and not only publish it but advertise it, and not only advertise it but' push' it, in all the crafty and cautious ways known to the inner circles of 'booming.' I smiled as I thought of the vengeance I would take on all those who had scorned and slighted me and my labour,—how they should cower before me !—how they should fawn at my feet like whipt curs and whine their fulsome adulation! Every stiff and stubborn neck should bend before me; this I resolved upon; for though money does not always conquer everything, it only fails when it is money apart from brains. Brains and money together can move the world,—brains can very frequently do this aloiid I without money, of which serious and proved fact those who) I have no brains should beware! *"Full of ambitious thought, I now and then caught wild
sounds from the violin that was being played next door,— notes like sobbing cries of pain, and anon rippling runs like a careless woman's laughter,—and all at once I remembered I had not yet opened the third letter addressed to me,— the one coroneted in scarlet and gold, which had remained where it was on the table almost unnoticed till now. I took it up and turned it over with an odd sense of reluctance in my fingers, which were slow at the work of tearing the thick envelope asunder. Drawing out an equally thick small sheet of notepaper also coroneted, I read the following lines written in an admirably legible, small and picturesque hand.
I am the bearer of a letter of introduction to you from your former college companion Mr John Carrington, now of Melbourne, who has been good enough to thus give me the means of making the acquaintance of one, who, I understand, is more than exceptionally endowed with the gift of literary genius. I shall call upon you this evening between eight and nine o'clock, trusting to find you at home and disengaged. I enclose my card, and present address, and beg to remain,
Very faithfully yours
The card mentioned dropped on the table as I finished reading the note. It bore a small exquisitely engraved coronet and the words
Prince Lucio Rimanez, while, scribbled lightly in pencil underneath was the address 'Grand Hotel.'
I read the brief letter through again,—it was simple enough, —expressed with clearness and civility. There was nothing remarkable about it,—nothing whatever; yet it seemed to me surcharged with meaning. Why, I could not imagine. A curious fascination kept my eyes fastened on the characteristic bold handwriting, and made me fancy I should like the man who penned it. How the wind roared!—and how that violin next door wailed like the restless spirit of some forgotten musician in torment! My brain swam and my heart ached heavily,—the drip drip of the rain outside sounded like the stealthy footfall of some secret spy upon my movements. I grew irritable and nervous,—a foreboding of evil somehow darkened the bright consciousness of my sudden good fortune. Then an impulse of shame possessed me,— shame that this foreign prince, if such he were, with limitless wealth at his back, should be coming to visit me,—me, now a millionaire,—in my present wretched lodging. Already, before I had touched my riches, I was tainted by the miserable vulgarity of seeking to pretend I had never been really poor, but only embarrassed by a little temporary difficulty! If I had had a sixpence about me, (which I had not) I should have sent a telegram to my approaching visitor to put him off.
"But in any case," I said aloud, addressing myself to the empty room and the storm-echoes—"I will not meet him tonight. I'll go out and leave no message,—and if he comes he will think I have not yet had his letter. I can make an appointment to see him when I am better lodged, and dressed more in keeping with my present position,—in the meantime, nothing is easier than to keep out of this would-be benefactor's way."
As I spoke, the flickering lamp gave a dismal crackle and went out, leaving me in pitch darkness. With an exclamation more strong than reverent, I groped about the room for matches, or failing them, for my hat and coat,—and I was still engaged in a fruitless and annoying search, when I caught a sound of galloping horses' hoofs coming to an abrupt stop in the street below. Surrounded by black gloom, I paused and listened. There was a slight commotion in the basement,—I heard my landlady's accents attuned to nervous civility, mingling with the mellow tones of a deep masculine voice,—then steps, firm and even, ascended the stairs to my landing.
"The devil is in it!" I muttered vexedly—" Just like my wayward luck!—here comes the very man I intended to avoid!"