The door opened,—and from the dense obscurity enshrouding me I could just perceive a tall shadowy figure standing on the threshold. I remember well the curious impression the mere outline of this scarcely discerned form made upon me even then, suggesting at the first glance such a. stately majesty of height and bearing as at once riveted my attention,—so much so indeed that I scarcely heard my landlady's introductory words "A gentleman to see you, sir," —words that were quickly interrupted by a murmur of dismay at finding the room in total darkness. "Well to be sure! The lamp must have gone out!" she exclaimed,—then addressing the personage she had ushered thus far, she added— "I'm afraid Mr. Tempest isn't in after all, sir, though I certainly saw him about half-an-hour ago. If you don't mind waiting here a minute I'll fetch a light and see if he has left any message on his table."
She hurried away, and though I knew that of course I ought to speak, a singular and quite inexplicable perversity of humour kept me silent and unwilling to declare my presence. Meanwhile the tall stranger advanced a pace or two, and a rich voice with a ring of ironical amusement in it called me by my name—
"Geoffrey Tempest, are you there?"
Why could I not answer? The strangest and most unnatural obstinacy stiffened my tongue,—and, concealed in the gloom of my forlorn literary den I still held my peace. The majestic figure drew nearer, till in height and breadth it seemed to suddenly overshadow me, and once again the voice called—
"Geoffrey Tempest, are you there?"
For very shame's sake I could hold out no longer,—and with a determined effort I broke the extraordinary dumb spell that had held me like a coward in silent hiding, and came forward boldly to confront my visitor.
"Yes I am here," I said—" And being here I am ashamed to give you such a welcome as this. You are Prince Rimanez of course;—I have just read your note, which prepared me for your visit, but I was hoping that my landlady, finding the room in darkness, would conclude I was out, and show you downstairs again. You see I am perfectly frank!"
"You are indeed!" returned the stranger, his deep tones still vibrating with the silvery clang of veiled satire—" So frank that I cannot fail to understand you. Briefly, and without courtesy, you resent my visit this evening and wish I had not come!"
This open declaration of my mood sounded so brusque that I made haste to deny it though I knew it to be true. Truth, even in trifles, always seems unpleasant!
"Pray do not think me so churlish,"—I said—"The fact is I only opened your letter a few minutes ago, and before I could make any arrangements to receive you, the lamp went out, with the awkward result that I am forced to greet you in this unsociable darkness, which is almost too dense to shake hands in."
"Shall we try?" my visitor enquired, with a sudden softening of accent that gave his words a singular charm—" Here is my hand,—if yours has any friendly instinct in it, the twain will meet,—quite blindly and without guidance!"
I at once extended my hand, and it was instantly clasped in a warm and somewhat masterful manner. At that instant a light flashed on the scene,—my landlady entered, bearing what she called 'her best lamp' alit, and set it on the table. I believe she uttered some exclamation of surprise at seeing me,—she may have said anything or nothing,—I did not hear or heed, so entirely was I amazed and fascinated by the appearance of the man whose long slender hand still held mine. I am myself an average good height, but he was fully half a head taller than I, if not more than that,—and as I looked straightly at him, I thought I had never seen so much beauty and intellectuality combined in the outward personality of any human being. The finely shaped head denoted both power and wisdom, and was nobly poised on such shoulders as might have befitted a Hercules,—the countenance was a pure oval, and singularly pale, this complexion intensifying the almost fiery brilliancy of the full dark eyes, which had in them a curious and wonderfully attractive look of mingled mirth and misery. The mouth was perhaps the most telling feature in this remarkable face,—set in the perfect curve of beauty, it was yet firm, determined, and not too small, thus escaping effeminacy,—and I noted that in repose it expressed bitterness, disdain and even cruelty. But with the light of a smile upon it, it signified, or seemed to signify, something more subtle than any passion to which we can give a name, and already with the rapidity of a lightning flash, I caught myself wondering what that mystic undeclared something might be. At a glance I comprehended these primary details of my new acquaintance's eminently prepossessing appearance, and when my hand dropped from his close grasp I felt as if I had known him all my life! And now face to face with him, in the bright lamp-light I remembered my actual surroundings,—the bare cold room, the lack of fire, the black soot that sprinkled the nearly carpetless floor,—my own shabby clothes and deplorable aspect, as compared with this regal-looking individual who carried the visible evidence of wealth upon him in the superb Russian sables that lined and bordered his long overcoat which he now partially unfastened and threw open with a carelessly imperial air, the while he regarded me, smiling.
"I know I have come at an awkward moment," he said— "I always do! It is my peculiar misfortune. Well-bred people never intrude where they are not wanted,—and in this particular I'm afraid my manners leave much to be desired. Try to forgive me if you can, for the sake of this,"—and he held out a letter addressed to me in my friend Carrington's familiar handwriting. "And permit me to sit down while you read my credentials."
He took a chair and seated himself. I observed his handsome face and easy attitude with renewed admiration.
"No credentials are necessary," I said with all the cordiality I now really felt—"I have already had a letter from Carrington in which he speaks of you in the highest and most
grateful terms. But the fact is well!—really, Prince, you
must excuse me if I seem confused or astonished … I had expected to see quite an old man … "
And I broke off, somewhat embarrassed by the keen glance of the brilliant eyes that met mine so fixedly.
"No one is old, my dear sir, nowadays!" he declared lightly—" even the grandmothers and grandfathers are friskier at fifty than they were at fifteen. One does not talk of age at all now in polite society,—it is ill-bred, even coarse. Indecent things are unmentionable—age has become an indecent thing. It is therefore avoided in conversation. You expected to see an old man you say? Well, you are not disappointed—I am old. In fact you have no idea how very old I am!"
I laughed at this piece of absurdity.
"Why you are younger than I,"—I said—"or if not, you look it."
"Ah, my looks belie me!" he returned gaily—" I am like several of the most noted fashionable beauties,—much riper than I seem. But come, read the introductory missive I have brought you,—I shall not be satisfied till you do."
Thus requested, and wishing to prove myself as courteous as I had hitherto been brusque, I at once opened my friend's note and read as follows,—
The bearer of this, Prince Rimanez, is a very distinguished scholar and gentleman, allied by descent to one of the oldest families in Europe, or for that matter, in the world. You, as a student and lover of ancient history, will be interested to know that his ancestors were originally princes of Chaldea, who afterwards settled in Tyre,—from thence they went to Etruria and there continued through many centuries, the last scion of the house being the very gifted and genial personage who, as my good friend, I have the pleasure of commending to your kindest regard. Certain troublous and overpowering circumstances have forced him into exile from his native province, and deprived him of a great part of his possessions, so that he is to a considerable extent a wanderer on the face of the earth, and has travelled far and seen much, and has a wide experience of men and things. He is a poet and musician of great skill, and though he occupies himself with the arts solely for his own amusement, I think you will find his practical knowledge of literary matters eminently useful to you in your difficult career. I must not forget to add that in all matters scientific he is an absolute master. Wishing you both a cordial friendship, I am, dear Geoffrey,
The signature of 'Boffles' had evidently been deemed out of place this time and somehow I was foolishly vexed at its omission. There seemed to be something formal and stiff in the letter, almost as if it had been written to dictation, and under pressure. What gave me this idea I know not. I glanced furtively at my silent companion,—he caught my stray look and returned it with a curiously grave fixity. Fearing lest my momentary vague distrust of him had been reflected in my eyes I made haste to speak—
"This letter, prince, adds to my shame and regret that I should have greeted you in so churlish a manner this evening. No apology can condone my rudeness,—but you cannot imagine how mortified I felt, and still feel, to be compelled to receive you in this miserable den,—it is not at all the sort of place in which I should have liked to welcome you … " And I broke off with a renewed sense of irritation, remembering how actually rich I now was, and that in spite of this I was obliged to seem poor. Meanwhile the prince waived aside my remarks with a light gesture of his hand.
"Why be mortified?" he demanded. "Rather be proud that you can dispense with the vulgar appurtenances of luxury. Genius thrives in a garret and dies in a palace,—is not that the generally accepted theory?"
"Rather a worn-out and mistaken one I consider,"—I replied—"Genius might like to try the effect of a palace for once,—it usually dies of starvation."
"True !—but in thus dying, think how many fools it afterwards fattens! There is an all-wise Providence in this, my dear sir! Schubert perished of want,—but see what large profits all the music-publishers have made since out of his compositions! It is a most beautiful dispensation of nature, —that honest folk should be sacrificed in order to provide for the sustenance of knaves !''
He laughed, and I looked at him in a little surprise. His remark touched so near my own opinions that I wondered whether he were in jest or earnest.
"You speak sarcastically of course?" I said—"You do not really believe what you say ?''
"Oh do I not!" he returned, with a flash of his fine eyes that was almost lightning-like in its intensity—" If I could not believe the teaching of my own experience, what would be left to me? I always realize the 'needs must' of things— how does the old maxim go—' needs must when the devil drives.' There is really no possible contradiction to offer to the accuracy of that statement. The devil drives the world, whip in hand,—and oddly enough (considering that some belated folk still fancy there is a God somewhere) succeeds in managing his team with extraordinary ease!" His brow clouded, and the bitter lines about his mouth deepened and hardened,—anon he laughed again lightly and continued— "But let us not moralize,—morals sicken the soul both in church and out of it,—every sensible man hates to be told what he could be and what he won't be. I am here to make friends with you if you permit,—and to put an end to ceremony, will you accompany me back to my hotel where I have ordered supper?"
By this time I had become indescribably fascinated by his easy manner, handsome presence and mellifluous voice,— the satirical turn of his humour suited mine,—I felt we should get on well together,—and my first annoyance at being discovered by him in such poverty-stricken circumstances somewhat abated.
"With pleasure!" I replied—"But first of all, you must allow me to explain matters a little. You have heard a good deal about my affairs from my friend John Carrington, and I know from his private letter to me that you have come here out of pure kindness and goodwill. For that generous intention I thank you! I know you expected to find a poor wretch of a literary man struggling with the direst circumstances of disappointment and poverty,—and a couple of hours ago you would have amply fulfilled that expectation. But now, things have changed,—I have received news which completely alters my position,—in fact I have had a very great and remarkable surprise this evening … "
"An agreeable one I trust?" interposed my companion suavely.
"Judge for yourself!" And I handed him the lawyer's letter which informed me of my suddenly acquired fortune.
He glanced it through rapidly,—then folded and returned it to me with a courteous bow.
"I suppose I should congratulate you,"—he said—"And I do. Though of course this wealth which seems to content you, to me appears a mere trifle. It can be quite conveniently run through and exhausted in about eight years or less, therefore it does not provide absolute immunity from care. To be rich, really rich, in my sense of the word, one should have about a million a year. Then one might reasonably hope to escape the workhouse !''
He laughed,—and I stared at him stupidly, not knowing how to take his words, whether as truth or idle boasting. Five Millions of money a mere trifle! He went on without apparently noticing my amazement—
"The inexhaustible greed of a man, my dear sir, can never be satisfied. If he is not consumed by desire for one thing, he is for another, and his tastes are generally expensive. A few pretty and unscrupulous women for example, would soon relieve you of your five millions in the purchase of jewels alone. Horse-racing would do it still more quickly. No, no,—you are not rich,—you are still poor,—only your needs are no longer so pressing as they were. And in this I confess myself somewhat disappointed,—for I came to you hoping to do a good turn to some one for once in my life, and to play the foster-father to a rising genius—and here I am—forestalled,—as usual! It is a singular thing do you know, but nevertheless a fact, that whenever I have had any particular intentions towards a man I am always forestalled! It is really rather hard upon me?" He broke off and raised his head in a listening attitude.
"What is that?" he asked.
It was the violinist next door playing a well-known "Ave Maria." I told him so.
"Dismal,—very dismal!" he said with a contemptuous shrug. "I hate all that kind of mawkish devotional stuff. Well!—millionaire as you are, and acknowledged lion of society as you shortly will be, there is no objection I hope, to the proposed supper? And perhaps a music-hall afterwards if you feel inclined,—what do you say?"
He clapped me on the shoulder cordially and looked straight into my face,—those wonderful eyes of his, suggestive of both tears and fire, fixed me with a clear masterful gaze that completely dominated me. I made no attempt to resist the singular attraction which now possessed me for this man whom I had but just met,—the sensation was too strong and too pleasant to be combated. Only for one moment more I hesitated, looking down at my shabby attire.
"I am not fit to accompany you, prince," I said—" I look more like a tramp than a millionaire."
He glanced at me and smiled.
"Upon my life, so you do!" he averred.—" But be satisfied you are in this respect very like many another Croesus. It is only the poor and proud who take the trouble to dress well,—they and the dear 'naughty' ladies generally monopolize tasteful and becoming attire. An ill-fitting coat often adorns the back of a Prime Minister,—and if you see a woman clad in clothes vilely cut and coloured, you may be sure she is eminently virtuous, renowned for good works, and probably a duchess." He rose, drawing his sables about him.
"What matter the coat if the purse be full!" he continued gaily.—" Let it once be properly paragraphed in the papers that you are a millionaire, and doubtless some enterprising tailor will invent a 'Tempest' ulster coloured softly like your present garb, an artistic mildewy green! And now come along,—your solicitor's communication should have given you a good appetite, or it is not so valuable as it seems,— and I want you to do justice to my supper. I have my own chef with me, and he is not without skill. I hope, by the way, you will at least do me this much service,—that pending legal discussion and settlement of your affairs, you will let me be your banker ?''
This offer was made with such an air of courteous delicacy and friendship, that I could do no more than accept it gratefully, as it relieved me from all temporary embarrassment. I hastily wrote a few lines to my landlady telling her she would receive the money owing to her by post next day,—then, thrusting my rejected manuscript, my only worldly possession, into my coat-pocket, I extinguished the lamp, and with the new friend I had so suddenly gained, I left my dismal lodgings and all its miserable associations for ever. I little thought the day would come when I should look back to the time spent in that small mean room as the best period of my life,—when I should regard the bitter poverty I then endured, as the stern but holy angel meant to guide me to the highest and noblest attainment,—when I should pray desperately with wild tears to be as I was then, rather than as I am now! Is it well or ill for us I wonder, that the future is hidden from our knowledge? Should we steer our ways clearer from evil if we knew its result? It is a doubtful question,—at anyrate my ignorance for the moment was indeed bliss. I went joyfully out of the dreary house where I had lived so long among disappointments and difficulties, turning my back upon it with such a sense of relief as could never be expressed in words,— and the last thing I heard as I passed into the street with my companion was a plaintive long-drawn wail of minor melody, which seemed to be sent after me like a parting cry, by the unknown and invisible player of the violin.