Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book I. A Chapter from the Youth of Monsieur Michael Lanyard
IV. The Fool and His Money
One reflected rather bitterly on the many and obvious oversights of a putatively all-wise Providence, in especial on its failure so to fashion the body of man as to enable him on occasion to discipline his own flesh in the most ignominious manner imaginable.
Lanyard could have kicked himself; that is to say, he wanted to, and thought it rather a pity he couldn't, and publicly, at that. For the freak he had just indulged was rank quixotism, something which had as much place in the code of a man of his calling as milk of human kindness in the management of a pawnshop.
On second thought, he wasn't so sure. It might have been that quixotism had inspired his infatuate gesture, but it might quite as conceivably have been everyday vanity or plain cussedness: a noble impulse to serve a pretty lady in distress, a spontaneous device to engage her interest, or a low desire to plague a personality as antipathetic to his own as that of a rattlesnake.
In point of simple fact (he decided), his impelling motive had been a mixture of all three.
In all three respects, furthermore, it proved notably successful; in the two last named without delay.
The Princess Sofia at once took note of Lanyard, with wonder, some misgivings, and a hint of admiration. For he was not only a personable person in those days, with a suggestion of devil-may-care in his air that measurably lifted the curse of his superficial foppishness, but he was putting a spoke in Prince Victor's wheel. And whosoever did that, by chance, out of sheer voluptuousness, or with malice prepense, won immediate title to Sofia's favourable regard. If she couldn't thwart Victor herself, she would be much obliged to anybody who could and did; and she was nothing loath to betray her bias by looking kindly upon her self-appointed champion.
A whispered communication from Lady Diantha did nothing to abate her overt approbation.
As for Victor, his face of leaden gray took on a tinge of green; he quaked with rage, and the glare he loosed on Lanyard made that young man wonder if he were mistaken in believing that the eyes of the prince shone in that dusky room with something nearly akin to the phosphorescence to be seen in the eyes of an animal at night.
The notion was amusing: Lanyard paid it the tribute of a quiet smile, in direct acknowledgment of which Prince Victor snarled:
"Six thousand guineas!"
"And a hundred," Lanyard added.
Brief pause prefaced a bid designed to squelch him completely:
In a fatigued voice he uttered: "One hundred more."
This time Lanyard contented himself with nodding to the auctioneer; and the lips of the latter had barely parted to parrot the bid when Victor sprang to his feet, his features working, his limbs shaking so that the legs of the chair beside him, whose back he seized, chattered on the floor, while the high-pitched voice broke into a screech:
And Lanyard said: "And one."
"Twenty thousand one hundred guineas!" chanted the auctioneer. "Are there any more bids? You, sir--?" He aimed a respectful bow at Prince Victor, who snubbed him with a sign of fury. "Going--going--gone! Sold to Monsieur Lanyard for twenty thousand and one hundred guineas!"
And Lanyard had the satisfaction of seeing Prince Victor, after a vain effort to master his emotion, snatch up his topper, clap it on his head, and make for the door with footsteps whose stuttering haste was in poor accord with the dignity of his exalted station.
But it was debatable whether this satisfaction plus the possession of a questionable Corot was worth its cost. And Lanyard wasn't in the humour, now that the heat of contest began to abate, to look to Princess Sofia for promise of further reward. Even if he could have been guilty of such impertinence, indeed, he must have forborne for very shame. After all (he told himself) he hadn't figured very creditably, permitting petty prejudice to sway him as it had. He felt singularly sure he had played the gratuitous ass in this affair, and he didn't in the least desire to see the reflection of a like conviction in the eyes of a pretty young woman with a flair for the ridiculous.
He dissembled his diminished self-esteem, however, most successfully, as he proceeded to the desk of the auctioneer's clerk, filled in a cheque for the amount of his purchase, and gave instructions for its delivery.
Whether by intention or inadvertence, he was followed from the auction room by the Princess Sofia and Lady Diantha Mainwaring; and just outside the entrance he found Prince Victor waiting with all the air of a gentleman impatient for a cab to happen along and pick him up out of the drizzle.
But in view of the fact that he made no overtures to a passing hansom, which swerved in to the curb in response to a signal of Lanyard's cane, this last concluded that the prince was up to his reputedly favourite game of waylaying his rebel wife.
If such were the case, Lanyard had no wish to witness a public wrangle between the two. So he stepped briskly up on the carriage-block, and only hesitated when he saw that the prince, utterly ignoring the presence of the princess and Lady Diantha, was edging forward and cocking an alert ear to catch the address which Lanyard was on the point of giving the cabby.
Hugely diverted, the adventurer looked round with a quirk of his brows, and amiably commented:
"Monsieur's interest is so flattering! If he really must know, I'm going home now, to my rooms in Halfmoon Street. Au revoir, monsieur le prince!"
He beamed benignly upon that convulsed countenance, and saw crestfallen Prince Victor slink away, to the music of smothered laughter from the ladies in the doorway--toward which Lanyard was careful not to look.
Then, in high feather with himself, he chirped to the driver and hopped into the hansom.