When I opened my eyes it was one o'clock in the day. The cards lay on the table in a heap, and on the carpet in a greater one, the dead bottles in their midst. The candles were burnt out; their holders were foul with smoke and grease. As I sat up on the couch on which I had thrown myself at nine o clock in the morning in the desperation of fatigue, and stretched the sleep out of my limbs and rubbed it out of my brain the afternoon strove through the drawn blinds palely. The half-light gave such a sombre and appropriate touch to the profligate scene that it would have moved a moralist to a disquisition of five pages. But whatever my errors, that accusation was never urged against me, even by my friends. You may continue in your reading, therefore, in no immediate peril. The ashes were long since grey in the grate; there was an intolerable reek of wine-dregs and stale tobacco in the air; and the condition of the furniture, stained and broken and tumbled in all directions contributed the final disorder to the room. Indeed the only article in it, allowing no exception to myself, that had emerged from the orgy of the night without an impediment to its dignity was the picture of my grandfather, that pious, learned nobleman, hanging above the mantelpiece. A chip off a corner of his frame might be urged even against him; but what was that in comparison with the philosophical severity with which he gazed upon the scene? In the grave eyes, the grim mouth, the great nose of his family, he retained the contemplative grandeur which had enabled him to give to the world in ten ponderous tomes a Commentary on the Analects of Confucius. The space they had occupied on my book-shelf, between the Newgate Calendar and the History of Jonathan Wild the Great, was now unfilled, since these memorials of the great mind of my ancestor had lain three weeks with the Jews.
By the time my wits had returned I was able to recall the fact that the previous night, whose evidences I now regarded, was the last I should enjoy. It was the extravagant ending to a raffish comedy. Finis was already written in my history. As I sat yawning on my couch I was a thing of the past; I had ceased to be; to-morrow at this hour I should be forgotten by the world. I had had my chin off the bridle for ten years, and had used that period to whirl my heels without regard to the consequences. I had played high, drunk deep, paid my court to Venus, gained the notoriety of the intrigue and the duel – in fact, I had taken every degree in rakishness with the highest honours. I had spent or lost every penny of my patrimony, and fourteen thousand pounds besides; I could no longer hold my creditors at bay; various processes were out against me; the Jews had my body, as surely as the devil had my soul. But it was more particularly a stroke of ill-fortune that had hastened on the evil day. The single hair whereon the sword over my head had been suspended must have been severed sooner or later, even had it not suddenly snapped at four of the clock of the previous afternoon. At that hour I had killed a cornet of the Blues within a hundred yards of the Cocoa Tree, in the presence of my greatest enemy. Lord knows it was in fair fight, marred it is true by a little heat on the side of both; but the only witness of the deed, and he an accidental one, was Humphrey Waring, my rival and my enemy. He of all men was best able to turn such a misadventure on my part to account. The moment poor Burdock sank sobbing to death in Waring's arms, and he cried with his grim laugh, "You will need to run pretty swift, my lord, to prove your alibi," I knew that fate had reserved for the last the cruellest trick of all she had it in her power to play.
Possessed by the knowledge that I must inevitably perish in a rope, or less fortunately in a debtor's jail, for the instant the hand of the law was laid on my coat, the state of my affairs would never permit it to be removed. I went home and hastily summoned a few choice spirits to my lodgings in Jermyn Street that evening; and I spent the last night of my freedom in that society, expecting at every cast of the cards and every clink of the bottle to hear the boots of the "traps" from Bow Street upon the stairs. Yet all night long they never came, and here it was one o'clock in the afternoon, and I still in the enjoyment of my liberty. And now, as I sat in the sanity of daylight, refreshed by an excellent sleep, I felt myself still to be my own man. Therefore I called to François my valet to draw up the window-blinds, and to have the goodness to bring me a bottle of wine.
This blackguard of an Irishman bore in baptism the name of Terence, but I called him François, because one holds that to be as indubitably the name of a valet as Dick of an ostler, and Thomas of a clergyman. Besides, I have such an hereditary instinct for polite letters, that I would as lief have called him after his own honoured patronymic as by that of our excellent Flaccus himself. François waded through the kings and queens and aces on the carpet, let the daylight in, and then withdrew to fetch a clean glass and a bottle of Tokay.
"The last bottle, me lord," says he.
"We drain the last bottle on the last day," says I. "Can aught be more fitting? Finis coronal opus!"
As this was the last time I should take the cup of pleasure to my lips, I made the utmost of it; sipped it carefully, turned it over on my tongue, held the glass up to the light, meditated on my past a little, on my present case, and what lay before me. I suppose it was a particular generous quality of the wine that kindled a new warmth in my spirit. Why, I asked myself, should I sit here, tamely waiting on my fate? Why should I be content to have my person contaminated with the dirty hands that would hale it to an ignominious death, or a thing less bearable? Why should I not cheat the Jews and my evil fortune in this last hour? Nothing could be easier than to leave the law in the lurch.
This course was so consonant to the desperation of my temper and affairs, that I had no sooner entered on the second glass of this last bottle, than I was fully convinced of its propriety. It was surely more fitting that a gentleman should select the hour and the manner of his exit from the world, than submit like a common ruffian to the dictation of the law in these important matters. To die by the hand of oneself is not the highest sort of death, it is true; but I am one who would advance, although the ancient and best writers are against me in this matter, that there are occasions when a man may best serve his dignity by renouncing that which has ceased to be a cherished object to him. In this, at least, I have Cato the younger with me.
Indeed I had already taken this resolve rather than submit my pride to those inconveniences that so depress the spirit, when a third glass of wine put me in mind of a thing the most importunate of any. There was a certain lady. Nothing can be more ludicrous than to consider of a ruined gamester broken by Fortune on her wheel, pausing in his last extremity for such a reason. But there it was. I could have wished to see the tears of defiance once again on her cheeks. In spite of the world, in spite of her family, of my evil history, of my cunning, plausible enemy, she had given me her proud little heart. She was the one person I might have turned to in this black hour, who would not have requited me with a sneer or a cold glance. Her stern old father had no sooner discovered how her affections stood committed towards me, and had learned the colour of my reputation, than he had whisked her away from town to his seat in the remote west country, and had vowed upon his soul to have me ducked in a ditch if I so much as showed my nose in those parts.
These thoughts of dear, insolent little Cynthia had induced reflections that I could well have done without. It was plain that this last cast of the cards had left the game in the hands of Mr. Humphrey Waring. He had long had the ear of the old duke, Cynthia's father, and no man knew better how to push the advantages my misfortunes had given him over me. He would marry the greatest heiress in the west country, hate him as she might, whilst Jack Tiverton, the worthless rogue on whom she doted, or, if it please you better, the Right Honourable Anthony Gervas John Plowden-Pleydell, fifth Earl of Tiverton, that ill-fated nobleman, rotted in durance, or writhed in a rope at Tyburn, or spilt his brains on the carpet of his lodgings. But for all that I had a mind to attempt a little more mischief before I perished. Why not go to poor little town-bred Cynthia, immured in the country like a bird in a cage, and throw her obstinate old father and her cunning suitor into such a fright as they would not be likely to forget? Indeed, why not?
However, when I came to reflect on this scheme more carefully, I found that I had hardly zest enough for it. My ruin was too complete. Besides, it might cost Cynthia dear. I should have been well pleased to look on my pretty young miss once again and watch the tears course down her cheeks in the stress of our farewell, for I would have you know that I am a man of sentiment when in the humour. But it would be a hollow business and little of a kindness to the child to have her weep for such a broken profligate. I should purchase the discomfort of my enemies at too high a price.
Yet I must come to a decision speedily. Every instant I expected to hear the law upon the stairs. Should I spare it any further trouble there and then, or make an attempt to break out of town and lead it a dance across the country? The drawback in the first course was its somewhat arbitrary nature. It was so final and so certain that chance would have no opportunity. The drawback to the second was that I had not a guinea in the world. That morning I had staked my last and lost it. However, as I weighed the pros and cons with a whimsical deliberation I was taken with a fortunate expedient. Chance had been the ruling passion of my life. It had brought me to this pass. Why should I not employ it to solve this problem? I summoned M. François.
"Take two pistols," I said, "into the next chamber, but load one only. Cock them both, however, but use particular care that nothing shall suggest which is charged and which is not. Then bring them here and lay them side by side upon this table, still remembering not to betray the fatal one."
M. François bowed, and solemnly carried away the weapons from the sideboard. I awaited his return with an emotion akin to pleasure. I had tasted most of the delights that chance could afford me; but even I, who had staked houses, lands, servants, furniture, and every guinea of my fortune, had not yet gambled with my life. Thus, when I came to play the greatest stake that is in the power of any man to play, it was but fitting that I should enjoy some little exhilaration in that act.
M. François returned in rather more than two minutes with the pistols, and set them on the table on the top of the cards. They were both cocked, and it was impossible to distinguish one from the other. M. Francis coughed in his well-bred manner, and then sighed deeply.
"I beg your pardon, my lord," he said, at the verge of tears, "and I am sure your lordship will overlook the liberty on an occasion – on an occasion that is not likely to occur again. But may I say, my lord, with what deep regret I take farewell of your lordship? I am sure there could not have been a better, kinder master."
"François, I subscribe heartily to that," says I, "and I am sure there could not have been a bigger blackguard of a servant. And may I say, François, that I never took a deeper pleasure in anything than in parting with you; and I may even add that if a minute hence I am called elsewhere, I go with the less irresolution, because I am firm in the opinion that wherever it may be, I cannot be worse served than I have been at your hands."
"Your lordship is more than kind," says François humbly.
"No thanks, I beg," says I. "But, François, if chance, who hath served me nearly as ill as you have and for a rather longer period, sees fit to arrange that I shall perish by my own hand, I do not doubt that you will desire some small memento, some small souvenir of so fortunate an occasion."
"Your lordship is more than kind," says François, more humbly than before.
"You overwhelm me, François," says I. "If there is any little knick-knack your fancy turns to, you have only to mention it. The Jews will but claim it otherwise, and I would almost as lief it fell into your hands as into theirs."
"As your lordship so emboldens me," says M. François, "I should most greatly cherish the picture of your grandfather, that wise good nobleman, that hangs above the mantelpiece, for I am sure I could devise no more fitting memorial of his grandson."
"François," says I, "would I did not know you for a rogue, for the chastity of your taste does you so much honour it honours me. But would you bereave me of the last badge of my respectability? Friends, fortune, estate, the consideration of the world, all are gone, and you would now deny me the solace of my heritage. Yet I commend your wisdom even here, since if you rob others as you have robbed myself, you will presently be able to purchase half the kingdom of Ireland, and set up among the landed gentry. You will then, I doubt not, find an ancestor or two come not amiss. And if of my grandfather's pattern so much the better, for their virtue will purchase you more credit than any of your own. But I would recommend myself that you took a few ancestors over with the property. They would cost less in a lump. Besides, they tell me they are cheaper in Ireland than anywhere else, except France, where they are even more common than matrimony."
M. François was gathering himself to make a proper reply to this harangue, when suddenly we both heard the long-expected footfalls on the stairs.
"Secure that door," said I. "I will not be taken until chance hath arbitrated on my destination."
Saying this, without the hesitation of an instant I picked up one of the pistols lying side by side among the cards. François slipped to the door and turned the key. Then he went to the mantelpiece, took down the picture, and placed it under his arm.
"Farewell, my lord," he said, "I leave you with inexpressible regret."
He ran to the window, cast it open, and with the most astonishing skill and agility, squeezed himself through the opening, my grandfather and all; and the roof being well within his reach, he first laid the picture on the tiles, then drew himself up after it, and showed the cleanest pair of heels to the law as ever I saw. And I was so taken with the ready wit and contrivance of the rogue, that although I had the cocked pistol pressed to my temple, I could not pull the trigger for the life of me. For I stood all a-shake with very laughter, so that the cold muzzle of the weapon tapped now against my forehead, now against my nose, now against my cheekbone, till I vow it was a miracle the hammer did not descend. But in the middle of all this the door was tried and shaken, followed by a fierce tap on the panel, and then came the clear tones of a woman.
"Open – open the door. Jack, it is I!"
At the sound of that voice the pistol fell from my hands altogether. Striking the carpet with a thud, it exploded under my feet and knocked a great hole in the wainscot. For an instant the room was full of smoke, gunpowder, and a mighty noise; but the moment I recovered my courage I unfastened the door and confronted the cause of it – Cynthia Carew! She too was the victim of a not unnatural bewilderment, and as pale as linen.
"Ods sputterkins!" she cried. "What a taking you have put me in! I am all of a twitter. Whose brains have you spilt? Not your own, I'll warrant me, for you never had any. Give me a kiss now, and get me some ratafia to compose me, and we'll let it pass."
"Cynthia," I gasped, but giving her the first of these requisites, "how came you here, in heaven's name?
"Ratafia!" she cried, "ratafia, or I perish."
"There's never a drop in the place," says I. "No, nor cherry-brandy, nor aromatic vinegar neither."
"Another kiss then," says Cynthia, pressing her white cheek against me, and casting her arms about my neck.
I led her within and set her down on the couch. She bore all the evidences of having made a long journey. So far from being dressed in the modishness that was wont to charm St. James's Park, she was covered by a long, dun-coloured cloak, wore a country hat, if I'm a judge of 'em, in which the feathers were crumpled; her shoes were muddy, and she carried a strange look of fear and uneasiness that I had never seen about her before. I procured a clean glass and filled it with wine from the last bottle and made her drain it, for she looked so pale and overborne.
"Now," says I, "how came you here? and what brings you?"
"Oh, Jack," says she, "I am run away." She suddenly broke forth into a flood of tears.
"The devil you are!" says I.
"Yes," says she, sobbing as though her heart would break, "and I'm not sorry neither."
"You wouldn't confess it an you were," says I.
"No, I wouldn't," she sobbed.
I must admit that the sight of the sweet chit was the one thing in all the world that had the power to please me at that hour, yet there was not a thing that could have happened to leave me in so sore a case. Here had my prettiness come and thrown herself on my protection – on the protection of a man utterly ruined, whom the law was already dogging for his liberty, if not his life. In sooth I must send her back again. It was no sort of a reception, especially when one fell to consider the heroical fashion of her coming to me. But what else was one to do? I was at my last gasp, without so much as a guinea, or a roof for my head, since to stay in that house was to court arrest, nor had I a friend in the world to whom I would dare to recommend her.
"Cynthia," says I, "I dote upon the sight of you; I am filled with joy to see you sitting there, but – but – "
How could I tell the child!
"But – but?" She sobbed no more. Mopping her tears, she crumpled the sopping handkerchief in her little fist, sat perfectly upright in her seat, and stared so straight at me that I felt the blood hum in my ears.
"But – but!" says I again – devil take me if I could tell her.
"But – but?" says she on her part; and it was wonderful to see her blue eyes come open and her proud lips spring together like the snap of a watch-case.
"Well, Cynthia, dear, it is simply this," says I, going headlong into it. "You find me a ruined gamester, without a friend or a guinea in the world, who even at this moment is being hunted for his debts, and, if I dared say it to you, something worse. Now there is but one way out of it. You cannot stay here; there is not a friend to whom I may confide you; child, you must go back to your father."
Instead of growing red, the colour that shone I am sure in my face, she grew as pale as snow, and her eyes sparkled with a grim beauty that discomposed me more than it charmed me. She rose from the couch, lifted her chin out of her white throat, and kicked the kings and queens and knaves on the carpet in all directions.
"Never," she cried. "I will not go back to my father. I said I would not marry this Mr. Waring; whereon my lord said he would lock me in my room until I was of another mind. And he did lock me in it; and I broke out of it; and I will not go back, no, not if I must subsist on crusts picked from the kennel, and the clothes rot off my body, and I sleep o' nights in a dry ditch or the porch of a church."
"Faith!" says I, "that's well spoke, monstrous well spoke."
"I hate this Mr. Waring," says the little fury. "May I be crost in love, if I do not."
"And if I do not too," says I, "may my heart smoke in purgatory. But come tell me, is it for himself you hate him, or is it for love of me?"
"A plague take all catechisms," says she. "But I will tell you for another kiss."
I think two persons in love could never have been in a worse plight than Cynthia and I. There seemed no course open to us, other than to flee together, we knew not whither. Before even this could be considered, however, we had to find the means.
"What money have you left in your poke?" I asked her.
"Twelvepence exactly and a halfpenny over."
I whistled long and shrill. "Which is twelve-pence exactly and a halfpenny more than there is in mine. At nine o'clock this morning I staked my all, including three periwigs, nine pairs of silk breeches, stockings, five cambric brocaded waistcoats, silver-buckled shoes, sword, duelling pistols, house and furniture, the Odes of Horace, and my man-cook – staked 'em on the queen of hearts and lost 'em. Think on it, my pretty – lost 'em on the queen of hearts."
"I care not for that," says Cynthia. "I will not go back, and so you must make the best of me."
"But, child, what can I do when I'm taken?"
"You must not be taken."
"In that case," says I, "the only chance we have is to get away from here at once, furnished with the clothes we stand in, and the sum of twelve-pence halfpenny."
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