Outside, the prince's carriage waited, drawn by two spirited black horses caparisoned in silver, magnificent thoroughbreds which pawed the ground and champed their bits impatient of delay,—at sight of his master the smart footman in attendance threw the door open, touching his hat respectfully. We stepped in, I preceding my companion at his expressed desire; and as I sank back among the easy cushions I felt the complacent consciousness of luxury and power to such an extent that it seemed as if I had left my days of adversity already a long way behind me. Hunger and happiness disputed my sensations between them, and I was in that vague light-headed condition common to long fasting, in which nothing seemed absolutely tangible or real. I knew I should not properly grasp the solid truth of my wonderful good luck till my physical needs were satisfied, and I was, so to speak, once more in a naturally balanced bodily condition. At present my brain was in a whirl,—my thoughts were all dim and disconnected,—and I appeared to myself to be in some whimsical dream from which I should wake up directly. The carriage rolled on rubber-tyred wheels and made no noise as it went,—one could only hear the even rapid trot of the horses. By-and-by I saw in the semi-darkness my new friend's brilliant dark eyes fixed upon me with a curiously intent expression.
"Do you not feel the world already at your feet?" he queried half playfully, half ironically—" Like a football, waiting to be kicked? It is such an absurd world, you know —so easily moved. Wise men in all ages have done their best to make it less ridiculous,—with no result, inasmuch as it continues to prefer folly to wisdom. A football, or let us say a shuttlecock among worlds, ready to be tossed up anyhow and anywhere, provided the battledore be of gold !''
"You speak a trifle bitterly, prince"—I said—"But no doubt you have had a wide experience among men ?''
"I have," he returned with emphasis—" My kingdom is a vast one."
"You are a ruling power then?" I exclaimed with some astonishment—"Yours is not a title of honour only?"
"Oh, as your rules of aristocracy go, it is a mere title of honour"—he replied quickly—"When I say that my kingdom is a vast one, I mean that I rule wherever men obey the influence of wealth. From this point of view, am I wrong in calling my kingdom vast ?—is it not almost boundless?"
"I perceive you area cynic,"—I said—"Yet surely you : believe that there are some things wealth cannot buy,—honour and virtue for example ?''
He surveyed me with a whimsical smile.
"I suppose honour and virtue do exist—" he answered— "And when they are existent of course they cannot be bought. But my experience has taught me that I can always buy everything. The sentiments called honour and virtue by the majority of men are the most shifty things imaginable,—set sufficient cash down, and they become bribery and corruption in the twinkling of an eye! Curious—very curious. I confess I found a case of unpurchaseable integrity once, but only once. I may find it again, though I consider the chance a very doubtful one. Now to revert to myself, pray do not imagine I am playing the humbug with you or passing myself off under a bogus title. I am a bona-fide prince, believe me, and of such descent as none of your oldest families can boast,—but my dominions are long since broken up and my former subjects dispersed among all nations,—anarchy, nihilism, disruption and political troubles generally, compel me to be rather reticent concerning my affairs. Money I fortunately have in plenty,—and with that I pave my way. Some day when we are better acquainted, you shall know more of my private history. I have various other names and titles besides that on my card—but I keep to the simplest of them, because most people are such bunglers at the pronunciation of foreign names. My intimate friends generally drop my title and call me Lucio simply."
"That is your Christian name—?" I began.
"Not at all—I have no ' Christian' name,"—he interrupted swiftly and with anger—" There is no such thing as ' Christian' in my composition!"
He spoke with such impatience that for a moment I was at a loss for a reply. At last—
"Indeed!" I murmured vaguely.
He burst out laughing.
"'Indeed!' That is all you can find to say! Indeed and
again indeed, the word 'Christian' vexes me. There is no such being alive. You are not a Christian,—no one is really,—people pretend to be,—and in so damnable an act of feigning are more blasphemous than any fallen fiend! Now I make no pretences of the kind,—I have only one faith—"
"And that is?" —
"A profound and awful one!" he said in thrilling tones— "And the worst of it is that it is true,—as true as the workings of the Universe. But of that hereafter,—it will do to talk of when we feel low-spirited and wish to converse of things grim and ghastly,—at present here we are at our destination, and the chief consideration of our lives, (it is the chief consideration of most men's lives) must be the excellence or non-excellence of our food."
The carriage stopped and we descended. At first sight of the black horses and silver trappings, the porter of the hotel and two or three other servants rushed out to attend upon us, but the prince passed into the hall without noticing any of them, and addressed himself to a sober-looking individual in black, his own private valet, who came forward to meet him with a profound salutation. I murmured something about wishing to engage a room for myself in the hotel.
"Oh, my man will see to that for you"—he said lightly— "The house is not full,—at anyrate all the best rooms are not taken; and of course you want one of the best."
A staring waiter, who up to that moment had been noting my shabby clothes with that peculiar air of contempt commonly displayed by insolent menials to those whom they imagine are poor, overheard these words, and suddenly changing the derisive expression of his foxy face, bowed obsequiously as I passed. A thrill of disgust ran through me, mingled with a certain angry triumph,—the hypocritical reflex of this low fellow's countenance, was, I knew, a true epitome of what I should find similarly reflected in the manner and attitude of all 'polite' society. For there the estimate of worth is no higher than a common servant's estimate, and is taken solely from the money standard;—if you are poor and dress shabbily you are thrust aside and ignored,—but if you are rich, you may wear shabby clothes as much as you like, you are still courted and flattered and invited everywhere, though you may be the greatest fool alive or the worst blackguard unhung. With vague thoughts such as these flitting over my mind, I followed my host to his rooms. He occupied nearly a whole wing of the hotel, having a large drawing-room, dining-room and study en suite, fitted up in the most luxurious manner, besides bedroom, bathroom, and dressing-room, with other rooms adjoining, for his valet and two extra personal attendants. The table was laid for supper, and glittered with the costliest glass, silver and china, being furthermore adorned by baskets of the most exquisite fruit and flowers, and in a few moments we were seated. The prince's valet acted as head-waiter, and I noticed that now this man's face, seen in the full light of the electric lamps, seemed very dark and unpleasant, even sinister in expression,—but in the performance of his duties he was unexceptionable, being quick, attentive, and deferential, so much so that I inwardly reproached myself for taking an instinctive dislike to him. His name was Amiel, and I found myself involuntarily watching his movements, they were so noiseless,—his very step suggesting the stealthy gliding of a cat or a tiger. He was assisted in his work by the two other attendants who served as his Jubordinates, and who were equally active and well-trained,— and presently I found myself enjoying the choicest meal I had tasted for many and many a long day, flavoured with such wine as connoisseurs might be apt to dream of, but never succeed in finding. I began to feel perfectly at my ease, and talked with freedom and confidence, the strong attraction I had for my new friend deepening with every moment I passed in his company.
"Will you continue your literary career now you have this little fortune left you?" he inquired, when at the close of supper Amiel set the choicest cognac and cigars before us and respectfully withdrew—" Do you think you will care to go on with it?"
"Certainly I shall,"—I replied—" if only for the fun of the thing. You see, with money I can force my name into notice whether the public like it or not. No newspaper refuses paying advertisements."
"True!—but may not inspiration refuse to flow from a full purse and an empty head ?''
This remark provoked me not a little.
"Do you consider me empty-headed?" I asked with some vexation.
"Not at present. My dear Tempest, do not let either the Tokay we have been drinking, or the cognac we are going to drink, speak for you in such haste! I assure you I do not think you empty-headed,—on the contrary, your head, I believe from what I have heard, has been and is full of ideas, —excellent ideas, original ideas, which the world of conventional criticism does not want. But whether these ideas will continue to germinate in your brain, or whether, with the full purse, they will cease, is now the question. Great originality and inspiration, strange to say, seldom endow the millionaire. Inspiration is supposed to come from above,—money from below! In your case however both originality and inspiration may continue to flourish and bring forth fruit,—I trust they may. It often happens, nevertheless that when bags of money fall to the lot of aspiring genius, God departs and the devil walks in. Have you never heard that ?''
"Never!" I answered smiling.
"Well, of course the saying is foolish, and sounds doubly ridiculous in this age when people believe in neither God nor devil. It implies however that one must choose an up or a down,—genius is the Up, money is the Down. You cannot fly and grovel at the same instant."
"The possession of money is not likely to cause a man to grovel"—I said—"It is the one thing necessary to strengthen his soaring powers and lift him to the greatest heights."
"You think so?" and my host lit his cigar with a grave and pre-occupied air—"Then I'm afraid you don't know much about what I shall call natural psychics. What belongs to the earth tends earthwards, —surely you realize that? Gold most strictly belongs to the earth,—you dig it out of the ground,—you handle it and dispose of it in solid wedges or bars—it is a substantial metal enough. Genius belongs to nobody knows where,—you cannot dig it up or pass it on, or do anything with it except stand and marvel—it is a rare visitant and capricious as the wind, and generally makes sad havoc among the conventionalities of men. It is as I said an 'upper' thing, beyond earthly smells and savours,—and those who have it always live in unknown high latitudes. But money is a perfectly level commodity,—level with the ground ;—when you have much of it, you come down solidly on your fiat soles, and down you stay!"
"Upon my word you preach very eloquently against wealth?" I said—"You yourself are unusually rich,—are you sorry for it?"
"No, I am not sorry because being sorry would be no use"—he returned—" And I never waste my time. But I am telling you the truth—Genius and great riches hardly ever pull together. Now I, for example,—you cannot imagine what great capabilities I had once!—a long time ago—before I became my own master !''
"And you have them still I am sure,"—I averred, looking expressively at his noble head and fine eyes.
The strange subtle smile I had noticed once or twice before lightened his face. "Ah, you mean to compliment me!" he said—"You like my looks,—many people do. Yet after all there is nothing so deceptive as one's outward appearance. The reason of this is, that as soon as childhood is past, we are always pretending to be what we are not,—and thus, with constant practice from our youth up, we manage to make our physical frames complete disguises for our actual selves. It is really wise and clever of us,—for hence each individual is so much flesh-wall through which neither friend nor enemy can spy. Every man is a solitary soul imprisoned in a self-made den,—when he is quite alone he knows and frequently hates himself,—sometimes he even gets afraid of the gaunt and murderous monster he keeps hidden behind his outwardly pleasant body-mask, and hastens to forget its frightful existence in drink and debauchery. That is what I do occasionally,—you would not think it of me, would you?"
"Never!" I replied quickly, for something in his voice and aspect moved me strangely—" You belie yourself, and wrong your own nature.''
He laughed softly.
"Perhaps I do !" he said carelessly—" This much you may believe of me—that I am no worse than most men! Now to return to the subject of your literary career,—you have written a book you say,—well, publish it and see the result—if you only make one 'hit' that is something. And there are ways of arranging that the 'hit' shall be made. What is your story about? I hope it is improper?"
"It certainly is not,"—I replied warmly—" It is a romance dealing with the noblest forms of life and highest ambitions, —I wrote it with the intention of elevating and purifying the thoughts of my readers, and wished if I could, to comfort those who had -uffered loss or sorrow—"
Rimanez smiled compassionately.
"Ah, it won't do!" he interrupted—" I assure you itwon't; it doesn't fit the age. It might go down, possibly, if you could give a 'first-night' of it as it were to the critics, like one of my most intimate friends Henry Irving,—a 'firstnight' combined with an excellent supper and any amount of good drinks going. Otherwise it's no use. If it is to succeed by itself, it must not attempt to be literature,—it must simply be indecent. As indecent as you can make it without offending advanced women,—that is giving you a good wide margin. Put in as much as you can about sexual matters and the bearing of children,—in brief, discourse of men and women simply as cattle who exist merely for breeding purposes, and your success will be enormous. There's not a critic living who won't applaud you,—there's not a school-girl of fifteen who will not gloat over your pages in the silence of her virginal bedroom!"
Such a flash of withering derision darted from his eyes as startled me,—I could find no words to answer him for the moment, and he went on—
"What put it into your head, my dear Tempest, to write a book dealing with, as you say, 'the noblest forms of life'? There are no noble forms of life left on this planet,—it is all low and commercial,—man is a pigmy, and his aims are pigmy like himself. For noble forms of life seek other worlds !—there are others. Then again, people don't want their thoughts raised or purified in the novels they read for amusement—they go to church for that, and get very bored during the process. And why should you wish to comfort folks who, out of their own sheer stupidity generally, get into trouble? They wouldn't comfortyou,—they would not give you sixpence to save you from starvation. My good fellow, leave your quixotism behind you with your poverty. Live your life to yourself,—if you do anything for others they will only treat you with the blackest ingratitude,—so take my advice, and don't sacrifice your own personal interests for any consideration whatever."
He rose from the table as he spoke and stood with his back to the bright fire, smoking his cigar tranquilly,—and I gazed at his handsome figure and face with just the faintest thrill of pained doubt darkening my admiration.
"If you were not so good-looking I should call you heartless"—I said at last—"But your features are a direct contradiction to your words. You have not really that indifference to human nature which you strive to assume,—your whole aspect betokens a generosity of spirit which you cannot conquer if you would. Besides are you not always trying to do good ?''He smiled.
"Always! That is, I am always at work endeavouring to gratify every man's desire. Whether that is good of me, or bad, remains to be proved. Men's wants are almost illimitable,—the only thing none of them ever seem to wish, so far as I am concerned, is to cut my acquaintance!"
"Why, of course not! After once meeting you, how could they!" I said, laughing at the absurdity of the suggestion. He gave me a whimsical side-look.
"Their desires are not always virtuous," he remarked, turning to flick off the ash of his cigar into the grate.
"But of course you do not gratify them in their vices!" I rejoined, still laughing—"That would be playing the part of a benefactor somewhat too thoroughly!"
"Ah now I see we shall flounder in the quicksands of theory if we go any further"—he said—" You forget, my dear fellow, that nobody can decide as to what is vice, or what is virtue. These things are chameleon-like and take different colours in different countries. Abraham had two or three wives and several concubines, and he was the very soul of virtue according to sacred lore,—whereas my Lord TomNoddy in London to-day has one wife and several concubines, and is really very much like Abraham in other particulars, yet he is considered a very dreadful person. 'Who shall decide when doctors disagree!' Let's drop the subject, as we shall never settle it. What shall we do with the rest of the evening? There is a stout-limbed shrewd wench at the Tivoli, dancing her way into the affections of a rickecty little Duke,—shall we go and watch the admirable contortions with which she is wriggling into a fixed position among the English aristocracy? Or are you tired, and would you prefer a long night's rest?"
To tell the truth I was thoroughly fatigued, and mentally as well as physically worn out with the excitements of the day, —my head too was heavy with the wine to which I had so long been unaccustomed.
"Upon my word I think I would rather go to bed than anything,—" I confessed—"But what about my room?"
"Oh, Amiel will have attended to that for you,—we'll ask him." And he touched the bell. His valet instantly appeared.
"Have you got a room for Mr Tempest?"
"Yes, your Excellency. An apartment in this corridor almost facing your Excellency's suite. It is not as well furnished as it might be, but I have made it as comfortable as I can for the night."
"Thanks very much!" I said—"I am greatly obliged to you."
Amiel bowed deferentially."Thank you, sir."
He retired, and I moved to bid my host good-night. He took my proffered hand, and held it in his, looking at me curiously the while.
"I like you, Geoffrey Tempest," he said—"And because I like you, and because I think there are the makings of something higher than mere earthy brute in you, I am going to make you what you may perhaps consider rather a singular proposition. It is this,—that if you don't like me, say so at once, and we will part now, before we have time to know anything more of each other, and I will endeavour not to cross your path again unless you seek me out. But if on the contrary, you do like me,—if you find something in my humour or turn of mind congenial to your own disposition, give me your promise that you will be my friend and comrade for a while, say for a few months at any rate. I can take you into the best society, and introduce you to the prettiest women in Europe, as well as the most brilliant men. I know them all, and I believe I can be useful to you. But if there is the smallest aversion to me lurking in the depths of your nature,"—here he paused,—then resumed with extraordinary solemnity—"in God's name give it full way and let me go,—because I swear to you in all sober earnest that I am not what I seem !''
Strongly impressed by his strange look and stranger manner, I hesitated one moment,—and on that moment, had I but known it, hung my future. It was true,—I had felt a passing shadow of distrust and repulsion for this fascinating yet cynical man, and he seemed to have guessed it. But now every suspicion of him vanished from my mind, and I clasped his hand with renewed heartiness.
"My dear fellow, your warning comes too late!" I said mirthfully—"Whatever you are, or whatever you choose to think you are, I find you most sympathetic to my disposition, and I consider myself most fortunate in knowing you. My old friend Carrington has indeed done me a good turn in bringing us together, and I assure you I shall be proud of your companionship. You seem to take a perverse delight in running yourself down!—but you know the old adage, 'the devil is not so black as he is painted'?"
"And that is true!" he murmured dreamily—" Poor devil! —His faults are no doubt much exaggerated by the clergy! And so we are to be friends?"
"I hope so! I shall not be the first to break the compact!" His dark eyes rested upon me thoughtfully, yet there seemed to be a lurking smile in them as well.
"Compact is a good word"—he said—"So,—a compact we will consider it. I meant to improve your material fortunes,—you can dispense with that aid now; but I think I can still be of service in pushing you on in society. And love —of course you will fall in love, if you have not already done so,—have you?"
"Not I!" I answered quickly and with truth—"I have seen no woman yet who perfectly fulfils my notions of beauty."
He burst out laughing violently.
"Upon my word you are not wanting in audacity!" he said —"Nothing but perfect beauty will suit you, eh? But consider, my friend, you, though a good-looking well-built man, are not yourself quite a Phoebus Apollo!" *
"That has nothing to do with the matter"—I rejoined— "A man should choose a wife with a careful eye to his own personal gratification, in the same way that he chooses horses or wine,—perfection or nothing."
"And the woman?"—Rimanez demanded, his eyes twinkling.
"The woman has really no right of choice,"—I responded, for this was my pet argument and I took pleasure in setting it forth—" She must mate wherever she has the chance of being properly maintained. A man is always a man,—a woman is only a man's appendage, and without beauty she cannot put forth any just claim to his admiration or his support."
"Right!—very right, and logically argued!"—he exclaimed,—becoming preternaturallyserious in a moment—"I myself have no sympathy with the new ideas that are in vogue concerning the intellectuality of woman. She is simply the female of man,—she has no real soul save that which is a reflex of his, and being destitute of logic, she is incapable of forming a correct opinion on any subject. All the imposture of religion is kept up by this unmathematical hysterical creature,—and it is curious, considering how inferior a being she is, what mischief she has contrived to make in the world, upsetting the plans of the wisest kings and counsellors, who as mere men, should undoubtedly have mastered her! And in the present age she is becoming more than ever unmanageable.''
"It is only a passing phase,"—I returned carelessly—" A fad got up by a few unloved and unlovable types of the feminine sex. I care very little for women—I doubt whether I shall ever marry."
"Well you have plenty of time to consider, and amuse yourself with the fair ones en passant"—he said watching me narrowly—"And in the meantime I can take you round the different marriage-markets of the world if you choose, though the largest one of them all is of course this very metropolis. Splendid bargains to be had, my dear friend! —wonderful blonde and brunette specimens going really very cheap. We'll examine them at our leisure. I'm glad you have yourself decided that we are to be comrades,—for I am proud ;—I may say damnably proud ;—and never stay in any man's company when he expresses the slightest wish to be rid of me. Good-night!"
"Good-night!" I responded. We clasped hands again, and they were still interlocked, when a sudden flash of lightning blazed vividly across the room, followed instantaneously by a terrific clap of thunder. The electric lights went out, and only the glow of the fire illumined our faces. I was a little startled and confused,—the prince stood still, quite unconcerned, his eyes shining like those of a cat in the darkness.
"What a storm!" he remarked lightly—" Such thunder in winter is rather unusual. Amiel!"
The valet entered, his sinister countenance resembling a white mask made visible in the gloom.
"These lamps have gone out"—said his master—" It's very odd that civilized humanity has not yet learned the complete management of the electric light. Can you put them in order, Amiel?"
"Yes, your Excellency." And in a few moments, by some dexterous manipulation which I did not understand and could not see, the crystal-cased jets shone forth again with renewed brilliancy. Another peal of thunder crashed overhead, followed by a downpour of rain.
"Really remarkable weather for January,"—said Rimanez, again giving me his hand—" Good-night, my friend! Sleep well."
"If the anger of the elements will permit!" I returned, smiling.
"Oh, never mind the elements. Man has nearly mastered them or soon will do so, now that he is getting gradually convinced there is no Deity to interfere in his business. Amiel, show Mr Tempest to his room."
Amiel obeyed, and crossing the corridor, ushered me into a large, luxurious apartment, richly furnished, and lit up by the blaze of a bright fire. The comforting warmth shone welcome upon me as I entered, and I who had not experienced such personal luxury since my boyhood's days, felt more than ever overpowered by the jubilant sense of my sudden extraordinary good fortune. Amiel waited respectfully, now and then furtively glancing at me with an expression which to my fancy had something derisive in it.
"Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" he inquired.
"No, thank you"—I answered, endeavouring to throw an accent of careless condescension into my voice—for somehow I felt this man must be kept strictly in his place—" you have been very attentive,—I shall not forget it."
A slight smile flickered over his features.
"Much obliged to you, sir. Good-night."
And he retired, leaving me alone. I paced the room up and down more dreamily than consciously, trying to think,— trying to set in order the amazing events of the day, but my brain was still dazed and confused, and the only image of actual prominence in my mind was the striking and remarkable personality of my new friend Rimanez. His extraordinary good looks, his attractive manner, his curious cynicism which was so oddly mixed with some deeper sentiment to which I could not give a name, all the trifling yet uncommon peculiarities of his bearing and humour, haunted me and became indissolubly mingled as it were with myself and all the circumstances concerning me. I undressed before the fire, listening drowsily to the rain, and the thunder which was now dying off into sullen echoes.
"Geoffrey Tempest, the world is before you"—I said, apostrophizing myself indolently—"you are a young man,— you have health, a good appearance, and brains,—added to these you now have five millions of money, and a wealthy prince for your friend. What more do you want of Fate or Fortune? Nothing—except fame! And that you will get easily, for now-a-days even fame is purchasable—like love. Your star is in the ascendant,—no more literary drudgery for you my boy!—pleasure and profit and ease are yours to enjoy for the rest of your life. You are a lucky dog !—at last you have your day!''
I flung myself upon the soft bed, and settled myself to sleep,—and as I dozed off, I still heard the rumble of heavy thunder in the distance. Once I fancied I heard the prince's voice calling "Amiel! Amiel!" with a wildness resembling the shriek of an angry wind,—and at another moment I started violently from a profound slumber under the impression that someone had approached and was looking fixedly at me. I sat up in bed, peering into the darkness, for the fire had gone out;—then I turned on a small electric night-lamp at my side which fully illumined the room,—there was no one there. Yet my imagination played me such tricks before I could rest again that I thought I heard a hissing whisper near me that said—
"Peace! Trouble him njt. I,et the fool in his folly sleep!"