The Room in the Dragon Volant by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Chapter V. Supper at the Belle Etoile
The French army were in a rather savage temper just then. The English, especially, had but scant courtesy to expect at their hands. It was plain, however, that the cadaverous gentleman who had just apostrophized the heraldry of the Count's carriage, with such mysterious acrimony, had not intended any of his malevolence for me. He was stung by some old recollection, and had marched off, seething with fury.
I had received one of those unacknowledged shocks which startle us, when, fancying ourselves perfectly alone, we discover on a sudden that our antics have been watched by a spectator, almost at our elbow. In this case the effect was enhanced by the extreme repulsiveness of the face, and, I may add, its proximity, for, as I think, it almost touched mine. The enigmatical harangue of this person, so full of hatred and implied denunciation, was still in my ears. Here at all events was new matter for the industrious fancy of a lover to work upon.
It was time now to go to the table-d'hote. Who could tell what lights the gossip of the supper-table might throw upon the subject that interested me so powerfully!
I stepped into the room, my eyes searching the little assembly, about thirty people, for the persons who specially interested me. It was not easy to induce people, so hurried and overworked as those of the Belle Etoile just now, to send meals up to one's private apartments, in the midst of this unparalleled confusion; and, therefore, many people who did not like it might find themselves reduced to the alternative of supping at the table-d'hote or starving.
The Count was not there, nor his beautiful companion; but the Marquis d'Harmonville, whom I hardly expected to see in so public a place, signed, with a significant smile, to a vacant chair beside himself. I secured it, and he seemed pleased, and almost immediately entered into conversation with me.
"This is, probably, your first visit to France?" he said.
I told him it was, and he said:
"You must not think me very curious and impertinent; but Paris is about the most dangerous capital a high-spirited and generous young gentleman could visit without a Mentor. If you have not an experienced friend as a companion during your visit--." He paused.
I told him I was not so provided, but that I had my wits about me; that I had seen a good deal of life in England, and that I fancied human nature was pretty much the same in all parts of the world. The Marquis shook his head, smiling.
"You will find very marked differences, notwithstanding," he said. "Peculiarities of intellect and peculiarities of character, undoubtedly, do pervade different nations; and this results, among the criminal classes, in a style of villainy no less peculiar. In Paris the class who live by their wits is three or four times as great as in London; and they live much better; some of them even splendidly. They are more ingenious than the London rogues; they have more animation and invention, and the dramatic faculty, in which your countrymen are deficient, is everywhere. These invaluable attributes place them upon a totally different level. They can affect the manners and enjoy the luxuries of people of distinction. They live, many of them, by play."
"So do many of our London rogues."
"Yes, but in a totally different way. They are the habitues of certain gaming-tables, billiard-rooms, and other places, including your races, where high play goes on; and by superior knowledge of chances, by masking their play, by means of confederates, by means of bribery, and other artifices, varying with the subject of their imposture, they rob the unwary. But here it is more elaborately done, and with a really exquisite finesse. There are people whose manners, style, conversation, are unexceptionable, living in handsome houses in the best situations, with everything about them in the most refined taste, and exquisitely luxurious, who impose even upon the Parisian bourgeois, who believe them to be, in good faith, people of rank and fashion, because their habits are expensive and refined, and their houses are frequented by foreigners of distinction, and, to a degree, by foolish young Frenchmen of rank. At all these houses play goes on. The ostensible host and hostess seldom join in it; they provide it simply to plunder their guests, by means of their accomplices, and thus wealthy strangers are inveigled and robbed."
"But I have heard of a young Englishman, a son of Lord Rooksbury, who broke two Parisian gaming tables only last year."
"I see," he said, laughing, "you are come here to do likewise. I, myself, at about your age, undertook the same spirited enterprise. I raised no less a sum than five hundred thousand francs to begin with; I expected to carry all before me by the simple expedient of going on doubling my stakes. I had heard of it, and I fancied that the sharpers, who kept the table, knew nothing of the matter. I found, however, that they not only knew all about it, but had provided against the possibility of any such experiments; and I was pulled up before I had well begun by a rule which forbids the doubling of an original stake more than four times consecutively."
"And is that rule in force still?" I inquired, chapfallen.
He laughed and shrugged, "Of course it is, my young friend. People who live by an art always understand it better than an amateur. I see you had formed the same plan, and no doubt came provided."
I confessed I had prepared for conquest upon a still grander scale. I had arrived with a purse of thirty thousand pounds sterling.
"Any acquaintance of my very dear friend, Lord R----, interests me; and, besides my regard for him, I am charmed with you; so you will pardon all my, perhaps, too officious questions and advice."
I thanked him most earnestly for his valuable counsel, and begged that he would have the goodness to give me all the advice in his power.
"Then if you take my advice," said he, "you will leave your money in the bank where it lies. Never risk a Napoleon in a gaming house. The night I went to break the bank I lost between seven and eight thousand pounds sterling of your English money; and my next adventure, I had obtained an introduction to one of those elegant gaming-houses which affect to be the private mansions of persons of distinction, and was saved from ruin by a gentleman whom, ever since, I have regarded with increasing respect and friendship. It oddly happens he is in this house at this moment. I recognized his servant, and made him a visit in his apartments here, and found him the same brave, kind, honorable man I always knew him. But that he is living so entirely out of the world, now, I should have made a point of introducing you. Fifteen years ago he would have been the man of all others to consult. The gentleman I speak of is the Comte de St. Alyre. He represents a very old family. He is the very soul of honor, and the most sensible man in the world, except in one particular."
"And that particular?" I hesitated. I was now deeply interested.
"Is that he has married a charming creature, at least five-and-forty years younger than himself, and is, of course, although I believe absolutely without cause, horribly jealous."
"And the lady?"
"The Countess is, I believe, in every way worthy of so good a man," he answered, a little dryly. "I think I heard her sing this evening."
"Yes, I daresay; she is very accomplished." After a few moments' silence he continued.
"I must not lose sight of you, for I should be sorry, when next you meet my friend Lord R----, that you had to tell him you had been pigeoned in Paris. A rich Englishman as you are, with so large a sum at his Paris bankers, young, gay, generous, a thousand ghouls and harpies will be contending who shall be the first to seize and devour you."
At this moment I received something like a jerk from the elbow of the gentleman at my right. It was an accidental jog, as he turned in his seat.
"On the honor of a soldier, there is no man's flesh in this company heals so fast as mine."
The tone in which this was spoken was harsh and stentorian, and almost made me bounce. I looked round and recognized the officer whose large white face had half scared me in the inn-yard, wiping his mouth furiously, and then with a gulp of Magon, he went on:
"No one! It's not blood; it is ichor! it's miracle! Set aside stature, thew, bone, and muscle--set aside courage, and by all the angels of death, I'd fight a lion naked, and dash his teeth down his jaws with my fist, and flog him to death with his own tail! Set aside, I say, all those attributes, which I am allowed to possess, and I am worth six men in any campaign, for that one quality of healing as I do--rip me up, punch me through, tear me to tatters with bomb-shells, and nature has me whole again, while your tailor would fine--draw an old coat. Parbleu! gentlemen, if you saw me naked, you would laugh! Look at my hand, a saber-cut across the palm, to the bone, to save my head, taken up with three stitches, and five days afterwards I was playing ball with an English general, a prisoner in Madrid, against the wall of the convent of the Santa Maria de la Castita! At Arcola, by the great devil himself! that was an action. Every man there, gentlemen, swallowed as much smoke in five minutes as would smother you all in this room! I received, at the same moment, two musket balls in the thighs, a grape shot through the calf of my leg, a lance through my left shoulder, a piece of a shrapnel in the left deltoid, a bayonet through the cartilage of my right ribs, a cut-cut that carried away a pound of flesh from my chest, and the better part of a congreve rocket on my forehead. Pretty well, ha, ha! and all while you'd say bah! and in eight days and a half I was making a forced march, without shoes, and only one gaiter, the life and soul of my company, and as sound as a roach!"
"Bravo! Bravissimo! Per Bacco! un gallant' uomo!" exclaimed, in a martial ecstasy, a fat little Italian, who manufactured toothpicks and wicker cradles on the island of Notre Dame; "your exploits shall resound through Europe! and the history of those wars should be written in your blood!"
"Never mind! a trifle!" exclaimed the soldier. "At Ligny, the other day, where we smashed the Prussians into ten hundred thousand milliards of atoms, a bit of a shell cut me across the leg and opened an artery. It was spouting as high as the chimney, and in half a minute I had lost enough to fill a pitcher. I must have expired in another minute, if I had not whipped off my sash like a flash of lightning, tied it round my leg above the wound, whipt a bayonet out of the back of a dead Prussian, and passing it under, made a tourniquet of it with a couple of twists, and so stayed the haemorrhage and saved my life. But, sacrebleu! gentlemen, I lost so much blood, I have been as pale as the bottom of a plate ever since. No matter. A trifle. Blood well spent, gentlemen." He applied himself now to his bottle of vin ordinaire.
The Marquis had closed his eyes, and looked resigned and disgusted, while all this was going on.
"Garcon," said the officer, for the first time speaking in a low tone over the back of his chair to the waiter; "who came in that traveling carriage, dark yellow and black, that stands in the middle of the yard, with arms and supporters emblazoned on the door, and a red stork, as red as my facings?"
The waiter could not say.
The eye of the eccentric officer, who had suddenly grown grim and serious, and seemed to have abandoned the general conversation to other people, lighted, as it were accidentally, on me.
"Pardon me, Monsieur," he said. "Did I not see you examining the panel of that carriage at the same time that I did so, this evening? Can you tell me who arrived in it?"
"I rather think the Count and Countess de St. Alyre."
"And are they here, in the Belle Etoile?" he asked.
"They have got apartments upstairs," I answered.
He started up, and half pushed his chair from the table. He quickly sat down again, and I could hear him sacre-ing and muttering to himself, and grinning and scowling. I could not tell whether he was alarmed or furious.
I turned to say a word or two to the Marquis, but he was gone. Several other people had dropped out also, and the supper party soon broke up. Two or three substantial pieces of wood smoldered on the hearth, for the night had turned out chilly. I sat down by the fire in a great armchair of carved oak, with a marvelously high back that looked as old as the days of Henry IV.
"Garcon," said I, "do you happen to know who that officer is?"
"That is Colonel Gaillarde, Monsieur."
"Has he been often here?"
"Once before, Monsieur, for a week; it is a year since."
"He is the palest man I ever saw."
"That is true, Monsieur; he has been often taken for a revenant."
"Can you give me a bottle of really good Burgundy?"
"The best in France, Monsieur."
"Place it, and a glass by my side, on this table, if you please. I may sit here for half-an-hour."
I was very comfortable, the wine excellent, and my thoughts glowing and serene. "Beautiful Countess! Beautiful Countess! shall we ever be better acquainted?"