Fatal Zero. A Diary Kept at Homburg. by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald
Chapter VI

Chapter VI.

Tuesday.—But I must leave these minor things quite out of sight, to come to the strangest thing that has happened, the most mysterious and inconceivable. Who could have dreamt of it? And yet I am not sorry. Dora, dear, prepared for something dramatic! Let me begin calmly. Last night, after the young pair had gone in, I was sitting under the long glass colonnade of the terrace, looking down on the crowd in those gardens, lit up by the twinkling lamps, and which have such a charm for me. Along that colonnade are about a hundred little tables, all crowded with eager and lively people, sipping drinks, taking iced beer, champagne, happy winners, and more dismal losers. The waiters are flying up and down, hurrying to and fro, shouting orders; while below, among the green trees and flowers, are the crowds seated, and on the right the illuminated kiosque, with the delicious Prussian band pouring out their strains. "Ravishing" is but a poor word for these accomplished musicians, who belong to the Thirty-fourth Regiment, and are led by the skilful "chapel-master," Parlow. Their vast strength and breath of sound, their rich instruments, with every instrument made the most of, their exquisite taste, volume, clearness, distinctness, and mastery of the most difficult passages, makes their performance almost entrancing. Hear them play three overtures—William Tell, Tännhauser, and Oberon—and the musician will be amazed as well as enraptured, the marvellous violin passages of the last being performed like so much child's play—just as an accomplished pianoforte player runs up and down the keys. Hear them, too, in some fantasia on airs from L'Africaine or Faust, and revel in the taste and feeling of the solo, and the dramatic bursts and crashes, and the "hurrying" and lingering of the time, as though they were an opera orchestra. When we think of our creatures—those groups of hodmen and mechanics who form what is by courtesy termed "a military band," those mere grinders and sawyers of music, who play as though they would dig or hammer—when we think, I say, of our "crack" regiments, our Guards, formed out of the very pink of professionals, and see how mediocre is the result, one must feel a little humiliation and some envy, and should be glad to come this distance to hear those Prussians. I can hear them, too, with a safe conscience, for they do not belong to the administration.

But I am putting off this wonderful surprise. I am sitting there, listening, close, also, to the mouth of the cave, which has still for me that sense of mystery, when I hear some angry voices, and two men are coming down the steps in excitement. One is tall, and in a white Panama hat, and very excited. I hear him say, "It is always the way when I listen to your infernal talk. I'd have had a hundred in my hand now but for you. I'd like to pitch you down these steps, on your face! Go—leave me alone!"

The voice seemed familiar to me, so cold and grating, with all its excitement, that I seemed to recal it perfectly. Unconsciously I started up to be quite certain, and, on the noise, he turned and looked at me. He knew me; I knew him. His face turned livid, and a spasm of fury passed over it.

"Grainger!"

"Austen!"

He advanced towards me, and for a moment I thought he meant some violence. But he suddenly checked himself, and then walked away, down the terrace. Then, as suddenly turned back and came up to me.

After a pause, "So," he went on, "you are here. Did you know that I was here?"

"No, Grainger," I answered; "I did not."

"What, no new scheme on hand? No, I should say not; for you had better wait, my friend, until you know whether the old account has been closed."

"The only scheme I have," I answered, "is to get back some health, which is nearly gone from me."

"Ay. But do you know all that has gone from me—all that you took from me? Eh?—stole from me! What do you say? Answer!"

Again there was something so threatening in his manner, that I half moved back, as if to defend myself.

"Oh, don't be afraid," he said; "we dare not do these things in this place. Here kellner, come here, will you! Bring some red wine here, strong and good, and don't be an hour, with your 'V'la, monsieur,' and all that humbug. Come, sit down, Mr. Austen; you may as well; I am not going to be violent, so you needn't be afraid. I want to let you know something which you ought to know."

"Grainger," I said, "when all that took place, you had your opportunity. I met you fairly and——"

"Met me fairly!" he repeated, his eyes dropping on me with a flash, "can you say that?" Then he laughed. "My good friend that is all so long ago. An old story like that must not be exhumed. Let it rot away in the ground. Dead leaves, my boy. If you don't rake 'em up, I promise you I shan't. There. Come! let us have something, as earnest. You shall pay for me, who was the loser, and I think the injured man."

Something in this phrase struck me, and I felt there was some truth in what he said. He was the defeated party; I was the victor, and ought to be generous. "What shall it be," I said, "champagne?" "Do you take me for an American?" he said, with a laugh. "No, sir; cognac. Now let us talk. I have forgiven and forgotten all that—though it ruined me. She had a sort of infatuation over me, that girl—I mean, Mrs. Austen. If she had come here I would have followed her. I'd have played my body and soul, that is if I had seen a chance. You had it all your own way. How does she look—does she hate me? Come! And yet a good deal is on her gentle head. This is my life now, poor me; a 'hell,' to many others. You saw what I was then, a gentleman, at least well off, respected—own that! Well, I had to leave the army; I did something I ought not to have done, from sheer desperation. Yes, I did, and sank lower and lower, and all this was your joint work; but I don't want to blame you. By Jove, it is I who am raking up the dead leaves after all! Ah! here's the cognac."

I felt a pity for him. There was truth in what he said. Since you, Dora, had been saved from him, all these troubles had come upon him. He had grown desperate; he was at least privileged to speak as he pleased, and have that slight consolation. I saw, too, that he was altered. At that time he was considered by the women a good-looking man, his face having a little of that rude gauntness which is not unpleasing. He had large eyes, and a black irregular beard and moustache. Now he had grown careless in his dress. I knew how much that portended, and felt a deep pity for him.

"Grainger," I said, "it was hard for you, for I know you loved her. But I declare solemnly here, that my loving her had nothing to do with it, and you know yourself, Grainger, the marriage with you could not have been for her happiness after that business——"

His brow contracted. "I know what you mean," he said. "That was false, false in everything. False, as I sit here, and hope to be—well I have not much hope of that."

"They said it was true," I said; "but even to have such a rumour, and a fair innocent young girl, admit yourself, Grainger, it could not be."

He answered in a low voice, "It was all false, a lie, an invention. There was the sting. Of course, I could not prove it; but suppose it untrue, what punishment would you say was enough for those who did me so horrid an injury—would a whole life be too long to devote to punishing the doer of such an injury?"

"I suppose you mean me?" I said.

"I did mean you then," he said. "I suppose, if there had been opportunity, of course I could have killed you. But that is all over, all past and gone. Nothing could make Roly Poly as he was before. The egg-shell is broken, and the yolk run out. So tell me about yourself, and about her. What brings you here?"

There was something so frank, so generous, so valorous in this way of taking the thing, that with an involuntary motion I put out my hand and grasped his. Shall I say, too, I felt a sudden twinge of conscience; and had all along a dim foreboding that the story might not have been true, or at least, have got its colouring of truth, from what might have been interested motives on my side? I was too much concerned, perhaps, to be impartial, and if he was innocent, then some share in this work might be laid to my account. What was plainly my duty was to try and compensate in some way, at least by kindness—for I had not much else at my command—for so cruel a wrong as this. I complied heartily with his wish; told him all that brought me here, and the business I was about, He listened attentively. Then we wandered back, step by step, slowly and agreeably too, till we got to the old, old days, where we called up all those scenes,—Dora, the military balls, the pleasant nights, and pleasant days; what seemed like pictures or scenes out of a beautiful play seen in childhood—misty, indistinct, but delightful to think over. He spoke charmingly, regretfully, and even tenderly.

"Those were happy and innocent days," he said. "Scarcely happy after all for me, though there is a sort of happiness in such suffering. Yet compared with all I have gone through since——! Still in this life," he added, nodding at the cave behind us, "there is an excitement, too—it helps one to forget."

"But think, how will it end?" I said, with some excitement. "It cannot have the slow progress of what you call a life. It must hurry on suddenly to destruction. Oh, Grainger, stop, I implore of you, before it be too late!"

"But if it be too late," he said, "and was too late years ago? But I don't know if I saw any road—it is all a jungle, or my eyes have got dim. Still, since you have talked to me, and brought before me those days, I don't feel quite so bad. We will speak of those things again—her name to me may have some power, at least, and if you will not think it a trouble or a bore while you are here——"

I wrung his hand warmly. "I would take it as a favour," I said; "oh, let me help you in some way, and if I have injured you, let me at least try and keep you from this life, which must end in misery and ruin."

"Well, we shall see," he said.

Two people came out of the cave a little hurriedly. It was the youthful husband walking first, by himself, his hands in his pockets, his face flushed. She was tripping behind him, with the most dismal depicted expression on her face. In a moment that small hand, it had a tiny black mitten on, was on his arm. It seemed to receive an impatient welcome there, and dropped again.

Grainger followed my eyes, "Ah!" he said, "the old story!"

Hers met mine, and they seemed to say, "Oh, how right you were;" I knew I was—an instinct told me I should be so. After all, bred in a country town, as I was, my dear Dora, I have learnt to judge a little of human nature. It comes by a sort of instinct. I wish I had been wrong in this mistake; but the same instinct whispers to me that this is but the end of the first act. Poor little pair!

"That was the way it was with me at first," said Grainger; "I know that story pretty well. I have seen it here over and over again. Will you come in with me and see me try my hand—a new face brings new luck. And yet to-night it seems to jar upon me—you have brought me back into the old days. But still what can I do. As well tell a man who has sold himself to brandy, not to drink. Besides, what would be the use? I may as well finish, as I have begun. I have nothing to look to now."

"I cannot tell you how this pains me, Grainger," I said, really distressed. "O, if my words could but have some little effect! Do—as you say the holy influence of the past is upon you—just for this night abstain. Even for Dora's sake, whom you once so loved, and who would rejoice to know that her name even had that little power left. If you knew its effect on me!"

A very curious look came into his face. He turned it off with a laugh. "Well, a night doesn't make much difference. I'm a fool, I know. There, we'll walk about instead."

I felt almost a thrill of pleasure at this unexpected success. My pet's name is, indeed, an amulet to conjure with. After so many years, and at so many hundred miles distance, to have such a power! And I think I may fairly claim a small share of the credit. Earnestness and sincerity go some way: perhaps, too, that little magnanimity. There was some little tact in my reception of him; others might have grown confused or angry. Here am I praising myself; but I am in such good spirits. Put up your gentle prayer for him, Dora.

Wednesday.—I found Grainger last night really entertaining and amusing. Hitherto a good many of the people here have been like the figures in front of the old grinding organs, revolving, and glittering, and eccentric to look at, but still without names or characters. Grainger knows them all, names, dates, and addresses. There was the great banker, there was the great speculator, the man who could change paper into gold by a touch, by a word even, and who was now wandering about here, as poor as I or my companion. Did I see that ascetical-looking-man? that was the Bishop of Gravesend; or that woman in orange and black, the famous Phryne Coralie, English by birth, but who had risen to the highest rank in whatever "carrière" she followed. There was the great singer, who had shrieked and declaimed the tragedy queens of opera, who had denounced the craven Pollio many thousand nights in her life, who had bearded wicked Counts de Luna as many times more, who had sang in the garden turning over the stage jewels with grinning Mephistopheles and enraptured Faust; and here she was taking an ice. Here on the terrace is the smaller lady, who sits on a lower throne, but has far more subjects and adorers. Here is that Baker, known to every one who comes to these places, who dogs lords and ladies, and makes them stand while he pours in his little adulatory small shot; and here is quite a happy hunting ground for those ladies of good connexion and title even, whose wings have been a little burnt as they fluttered through town drawing-rooms, but who find them quite sufficient to support them here, the atmosphere is so dense.

He is infinitely amusing is Grainger, his stories and his scandal, which I can quite conceive to be perfectly true. I can see he has got into spirits as he tells these things; and though it is rather light and unprofitable food for the mind, it takes off his mind from things more dangerous. What we said last night has left a deep impression: and to think of one so clever, so observant, so brilliant even, to have been shipwrecked in this way, indirectly through our doing! I must ask my dear pet to write me out something kind and sympathetic, which I can show to this poor waif and comfort him. That little heart has done the mischief, and she must make up a little, and I lay a husband's despotic commands on her. For I have set my heart on bringing this man back into the path of decency and order, and feel a conviction I shall succeed, if I could get but some power and influence over him. I say again, my pet must pray.

Sunday.—How strange is a Sunday in this place! There is an English church, a chaplain, and a regular round of duty; but I think there would be less affectation in ignoring altogether such religious machinery. It is at variance with the place, quite an anachronism. For even in the relations of religion to the state—I mean to the "administration" there used to enter something grotesque and curious. When the use of the Lutheran church was graciously conceded to English worshippers it was an article strictly insisted on, "that there should be no preaching against going to the Bank"—pleasant euphuism for gambling. This was a serious warning. Later on, as the church and chaplain had to be kept up by voluntary contributions and "a book," which was sent round to the visitors, the company found that this was telling a little indirectly on their interests. Testy fathers grew impatient at these applications: "infernal begging place," "have to pay my own man at home"—complaints which were, of course, nothing to the Bank. But when it was added, "I shall take care not to come back here again," it took another shape. Like the "refait" at their own game, it told, on the whole, against the player. So it was conveyed to the chaplain that in their zeal for the advancement of religion the administration would be happy to pay him his salary, and a handsome one too; the collecting by a book was scarcely dignified, &c. This tempting offer had to be declined, possibly with reluctance; but was a little too strong. The wages of preaching to be furnished by the wages of sin! By-and-by, too, it might have been required that a word or two should be delicately insinuated in favour of the harmlessness of the game.