Idalia/Volume 1/Chapter 2

 

CHAPTER II.

HAVING BROKEN HIS BREAD.

"What did you think of that man?" said Lord Polemore to Victor Vane that evening over his coffee in the drawing-rooms, out of the Duke's hearing.

Think of him? think of him? Well!—I think he will die a violent death."

"Good gracious!" said the peer, with a little shiver. "Why?"

"I never analyse!" laughed Victor, softy. "I think so,—because I think so. He will get shot in a duel, perhaps, for saying some barbaric truth or other in the teeth of policy."

"Who is that you are prophesying for with such charmingly horrible romance?" asked a very pretty woman.

"Fellow we met on the moor," answered Polemore. "Queer fellow! Beggar, you know—holes in the carpets, rats in the rooms,—and yet, on my honour, Venice goblets and Mexican gold! Absurd!"

"What! a beggar with holes in his coat and rats in his pockets with Venice glass and Mexican ingots!" cried the beautiful blonde, who had been listening languidly.

"No, no! Not that sort of beggar, you know," interposed the peer. "Man that lives in a lot of ruins. Messenger fellow—lunched with him to-day. Wretched place; only fit for bats; no household, no cook, no anything; odious dungeon! And yet, on my word, if the fellow isn't ridiculous enough to serve up his dry bread on gold salvers, and pour his small beer into Cinque Cento glasses!"

"Come! we had very fair wine considering it was a Barmecide's feast," laughed Vane.

"Height of absurdity, you know!" went on Polemore, waxing almost eloquent under the spurs of the twinges of envy he had felt while at luncheon. "Fancy, Lady Augusta! here's a man nothing but a courier, he says himself always racing up and down Europe with bags; so hard up that he has to shoot for himself everything that he eats, and living in a wretched rat-hole I wouldn't turn a dog into; yet keeps gold and silver things, fit for a prince, and tells you bombastical stories about his ancestors having been caciques of Mexico! For my part, I don't doubt he stole them all!"

"Bravo! Bravissimo!" laughed Victor Vane. "And what is much more, Lady Augusta, this Border savage wears deer-skins in the rough, 'lifts' cattle when the moon's dark, and has a fricassee of young children boiling in a cauldron. Quite â l'antique, you see!"

"But who is the creature?" asked the lady, a little bewildered, a little interested, and a good deal amused.

"Oh—let me see—ah! he calls himself Fulke Erceldoune," said Polemore, with an air of never having heard the title, and of having strong reasons far believing it a false one.

A man standing near, turned at the name.

"Fulke? You are talking of Fuike Erceldoune? Best fellow in the world, and has the handsomest strain of black-tan Gordon setters, bred on the Begent and Rake cross, going anywhere."

"Oh—ah—do you know him, then?" murmured Polemore, a little discomfited.

"Rather! First steeple-chaser in the two countries; tremendous pots always on him. Know him!—ask the Shire men. Saved my life, by the way, last year—fished me out of the Gulf of Spezzia, when I was all but spent; awful tempest at the time; very nearly drowned himself. Is he here, do you say?"

"He's at that wretched rat-hole of his," grumbled Polemore, sorely in wrath.

"King's Rest? Didn't know that. Go and see him to-morrow."

"What remarkably conflicting statements!" murmured Lady Augusta, with languid amusement. "A beggar and a savage!—a preux chevalier and a paladin of chivalry! Singular combination this—what is it?—Fulke Erceldoune."

"Nay," laughed Vane, "it was a combination common enough in the old days of chivalry, and our friend seems to me better suited to the Cinque Cento than the present century. Just the sort of man to have been a Knight Templar with Cœur de Lion, or an adventurer with Pizarro, with no capital and no credit but his Toledo blade."

"Trash!" said the absent man's defender, with impatient disdain that almost roused him into energy, "Erceldoune is a splendid fellow. Lady Augusta. I only wish you could see him ride to hounds. In saddle; in sport; on a yacht deck in a storm; with any big game you like—pigs, bisons, tigers; swimming in the Turkish waters in mid-winter; potting lions with the Kabyles and the Zouaves—put him where you will, he's never at a loss, never beaten, and can do more than twenty men put together. Dash and science, you know; when you get the two together, they always win. As for money—all the good old names are impoverished now, and it's the traders only who have any gilding."

With which fling at Polemore—whose fathers were of the Cottonocracy—the champion, something disgusted at having been entrapped into such a near approach to anything like interest and excitement, turned away, and began to murmur pretty nothings, in the silkiest and sleepiest of tones, into the ear of a Parisian marquise.

"Extreme readiness to break your neck, and extreme aptitude for animal slaughter, always appear to be the English criterion of your capabilities and your cardinal virtues," murmured Vane, with his low light laugh, while Polemore, sulkily aggrieved, muttered to himself:

"Man that's a beggar to keep Mexican things and have his bare bones served up on gold dishes—ridiculous, preposterous! If he's so poor, he must be in debt; and if he's in debt he ought to sell them, out of common honesty. Cheats his creditors—clearly cheats his creditors!"

And so—having broken his bread and eaten his salt—they talked of him: there are a few rude nomad Arab virtues that have died out with civilisation; and the Sheikh will keep faith and return your hospitalities better than Society.

That evening, a Dalmatian, who was the body-servant of Victor Vane, a very polished and confidentially useful person, rode over to the little station nearest Lord Fitzallayne and sent a telegram, which he read from a slip of paper, to Paris. It ran thus, save that it was in a polyglot jumble of languages which would have defied any translation without a key:

"The Border Eagle flies eastward. Clip the last feather of the wing. Only La Picciola. Idalia or pearls of lead, as you like. Take no steps till beyond the King's. Then make sure, even if —— White coats in full muster; Crescent horns up; Perfide, as usual, brags but won't draw. N.B. The Eagle will give you beak and talons."

Which, simply translated, meant—

"Erceldoune, Queen's Courier, will take the F. O. bags into the Principalities. Relieve him of the last despatches he has with him. We only want the smallest bag. I leave you to choose how to manage this; either with a successful intrigue or a sure rifle-shot. Do not stop him till he is beyond Turin. Secure the papers, even if you have to take his life to get them. The Austrians are in strong force everywhere; matters in Turkey, as regards the Principalities, are against us; England, as usual, bullies, but will not be drawn into a war. N.B. This Erceldoune will give you trouble, and fight hard."

And being, translated by the recipient in all its intricacies of implication and command, would mean far more.

The tired telegraph clerk, who yawned and did nothing all day long in the little out-of-the-world Border station, save when he sent a message for the lodge to town, rubbed his heavy eyes, stared, told off the jumbled Babel of phrases with bewildered brain, and would barely have telegraphed them all in due order and alphabet but for the dexterous care of the Dalmatian.

While the message was being spelled out, the night-express dashed into the station, with red lamps gleaming through the late moonless night, and its white steam cloud flung far out on the gloom, flashing on its way from Edinburgh across the Border land,—a tall man, dressed in a dark loose coat of soft Canadian furs, with a great cheroot in his mouth, ran up the station stairs, and threw down his gold:

"First class to town;—all right."

He took his ticket, flung open a door of an unoccupied carriage, and threw himself into a seat with the rapidity of one used never to idle time and never to be kept waiting by others, and the train, with a clash and a clang, darted out into the darkness, plunging down into the gloom as into the yawning mouth of Avernus, its track faintly told by the wraith-like smoke of the wreathing steam and the scarlet gleam of the signal-lamps.

The Dalmatian had looked after him with some curiosity:

"Who is that?" he asked the clerk.

"Erceldoune, of the King's Rest. He is a Queen's messenger, you know, always rushing about at unearthly times, like a wandering Jew. I say, what the dickens is that word; Arabic, ain't it?"

The Dalmatian, with a smile, looked after the train, then turned and spelt out the words.

"Such gibberish! If that ain't a rum start somehow or other, I'm a Dutchman," thought the telegraphist, with a yawn, retnrning to his dog-eared green-covered shilliug novel, relating the pungent adventures of a soiled dove of St. John's Wood, and showing beyond all doubt—if anybody ever doubted it yet—that virtue, after starving on three-halfpence a shirt, will be rewarded with pneumonia and the parish shell, while vice eats her truffles, drinks her wines, and retires with fashionable toilettes, and a competence, to turn repentant and respectable at leisure. Meanwhile, the night-express rushed on through silent hills, and sleeping hamlets, over dark water-pools and through bright gaslit cities, and above head the electric message flashed, outstripping steam, and flying, like a courier of the air, towards France before the man it menaced.

With noon on the morrow the best-known messenger in the service reported himself at the Foreign Oilice, received despatches for Paris, Turin, and Jassy, and started with the F. O. bags as usual express.

Had any prophet told him that as he lay back in the mail-train, with a curled silver Eastern pipe coming out of his waving beard, and papers of critical European import in the white bags lying at his feet, Chance was drifting him at its wanton caprice as idly and as waywardly as the feathery smoke it floated down on the wind, Erceldoune would have contemptuously denied that Chance could ever affect a life justly balanced and rightly held in rein. He would have said Chance was a deity for women, fatalists, and fools; a Fetish worshipped by the blind. The Border chiefs of the King's Rest had believed in the might of a strong arm and in the justice cleft by a long two-edged sword, and left weaklings to bow to Hazard:—and the spirit of their creed was still his.

Yet he might have read a lesson from the death of the moorland eagle;—one chance shot from the barrel hid in the heather, and power, strength, liberty, keen sight, and lordly sovereignty of solitude were over, and the king-bird reeled and fell!

But to draw the parable would not have been at all like his vigorous nature;—a state courier has not much habitude or taste for Oriental metaphors and highly-spiced romances, and he had too much of the soldier, the Shikari, the man of the world and the Arab combined, to leave him anything whatever of the poet or the dreamer. Men of action may hare grave, but they never have visionary thoughts, and life with Erceldoune was too gallant, strong, and rapid a stream—ever in incessant motion, though calm enough, as deep waters mostly are— to leave him leisure or inclination to loiter lingeringly or dreamily upon its banks. Reflection was habitual to him, imagination was alien to him.

By midnight he reached Paris, and left his despatches at the English Embassy. There was no intense pressure of haste to get Turin-wards so long as he was in the far Eastern Principalities by the Friday, and he waited for the early mail train to the South, instead of taking a special one, as he would otherwise have done, to get across the Alps. If a few hours were left under his own control in a city, Erceldoune never slept them away; he slept in a railway carriage, a travelling carriage, on deck, in a desert, on a raft rushing down some broad river that made the only highway through Bulgarian or Roumelian forests—anywhere where novelty, discomfort, exposure, or danger would hare been likely to banish sleep from most men; but in a city he neglected it with an independence of that necessity of life which is characteristic of the present day. There is a cafê, whether in the Rue Lafitte, Rivoli, Castiglione, or La Paix, matters not; here, in the great gilded salon, with its innumerable mirrors and consoles and little oval tables, or in the little cabinets, with their rosewood and gilding, and green velvet and rose satin, if there be a bouquet to be tossed down on the marble slab, and the long eyes of a Laure or Agläe to flash over the wines, while a pretty painted fan taps an impatient rataplan or gives a soft blow on the ear—may be found after midnight a choice but heterogeneous gathering. Secretaries of all the legations, Queens messengers, Charivari writers. Eastern travellers, great feuilletonists, great artists, princes if they have any wit beneath their purples, authors of any or all nations—all, in a word, that is raciest, wittiest, and, in their own sense, most select in Paris, are to be met with at the Café Minuit, if you be of the initiated. If you be not, you may enter the café of course, since it is open to all the world, and sup there off what you will, but you will still remain virtually outside it.

Erceldoune was well known here: it is in such republics only that a man is welcomed for what he is, and what he has done—not for what he is worth. He was as renowned in Paris because he was so utterly unlike the Parisians, as he was renowned in the East because he so closely resembled the Arabs; and he entered the Café Minuit for the few hours which lay between his arrrival at the Embassy and his departure for Turin.

None of his own special set had dropped in just then; indeed, there were but few of them in Paris. As he sat at his accustomed table, glancing through a journal, and with the light from the gaselier above shed full on his face—a face better in unison with drooping desert-palms, and a gleaming stand of rifles, and the dusky glow of a deep sunset on Niger or on Nile, for its setting and background, than with the gilt arabesques and florid hues and white gaslight of a French café—a new comer, who had entered shortly afterwards and seated himself at the same table, addressed him on some topic of the hour, and pushed him an open case of some dainty scented cigarettes.

Erceldoune courteously declined them: he always smoked his own Turkish tobacco, and would as soon have used cosmetiques as perfumed cigars; and, answering the remark, looked at the speaker. He was accustomed to read men thoroughly and rapidly, even if they carried their passports in cipher. What he saw opposite him was a gracefully made man, of most picturesque and brilliant beauty of a purely foreign type, with the eyes long, dark, and melting, and features perfectly cut as any cameo's — a man who might hare sat to a painter for Lamoral d'Egmont, or for one of Fra Moreale's reckless nobly-born Free Lances, and might have passed for five-and-thirty at the most, till he who should have looked closely at the lines in the rich reckless beauty, and caught a certain look in the lustrous half-veiled eyes, would have allotted him, justly, fifteen full years more.

Erceldoune gave him one glance, and though there was little doubt about his type and his order, he had known men of both by the hundreds.

"Paris is rather empty, monsieur? Sapristi! The asphalte in August would be too much for a salamander," pursued the stranger, over his bouillabaisse. He spoke excellent French, with a mellifluous southern accent, not of France.

Erceldoune assented. Like all travellers or men used to the world, he liked a stranger full as well as a friend for a companion—perhaps rather the better; but he was naturally silent, and seldom spoke much, save when strongly moved or much prepossessed by those whom he conversed with: then he would be eloquent enough, but that was rare.

"Thousands come to Paris this time of the year, but only to pass through it, as I daresay you are doing yourself, monsieur?" went on the Greek, if such he were, as Erceldoune judged him by the eyes and the features, worthy of Phidias' chisel, rarely seen without some Hellenic blood.

"For the season the city is tolerably full; travellers keep it so, as you say," answered Erceldoune, who was never to be entrapped into talking of himself.

"It is a great mistake for people to travel in flocks, like swallows and sheep," said his vivacious neighbour, whose manners were very careless, graceful and thoroughly polished, if they had a dash of the Bohemian, the Adventurer, and the Free Lance. "A terrible mistake! Overcrowds the inns, the steamers, and the railway carriages; thins the soups, doubles the price of wines, and teaches guides to look on themselves as luxuries, to be paid for accordingly; makes a Nile sunset ridiculous by being witnessed by a mob; and turns Luxor and Jupiter Ammon into dust and prose by having a tribe of donkeys and dragomen rattled over their stones. A fearful mistake! If you are social and gregarious, stay in a city; but if you are speculative and Ishmaelesque, travel in solitude. Eh, monsieur?"

"If you can find it. But you have to travel far to get into solitudes in these days. Have you seen this evening's Times?"

"A thousand thanks! Wonderful thing, your Times! Does the work in England that secret police do in Vienna, spies and bayonets do here, and confetti to the populace and galleys to the patriots do in Rome,"

Scarcely! The Timet would rather say it prevents England's having need of any of those continental argnments," said Erceldoune, as he tossed the brandy into his coffee.

The other laughed, as from under his lashes he flashed a swift glance at the Queen's Messenger. He would have preferred it if there had been less decision about the broad, bold, frank brow, and less power in the length of limb stretched out, and the supple wrist, as it lay resting on the marble slab of the café-table.

"Basta! Governments should give the people plenty to eat and plenty to laugh at; they would never be troubled with insurrections then, or hear anything more about ’liberty!' A sleek, well-fed, happy fellow never turned patriot yet; he who takes a dagger for his country only takes it because he has no loaf of bread to cut with it, or feels inclined to slit his own throat Make com and meat cheap, and you may play tyrant as you like."

"A sound policy, and a Tery simple one."

"All bound things are simple, monsieur! It is the sham and rotten ones that want an intricate scaffolding to keep them from lulling; the perfect arch stands without girders. 'Panem et Circenses’ will always be the first article of good guvernments; when the people are in good humour they never seethe into maleontents."

"Then I suppose you would hold that cheap provisions and low taxes would make as hear no more of this present cry of 'nationalities?'" His companion was piquant in his discourse and polished in Ids style, but he did not particularly admire him; and when he did not admire people, he had a way of holding them at arm's length.

"’Nationalities?' Ridiculous prejudices! Myths that would die to-morrow, only ministers like to keep a handy reason on the shelf to make a raid on their neighbour, or steal an inch or two of frontier when the spirit moves them," laughed the other, and his laugh was a soft silvery chime, very pleasant to the ear. "Pooh! a man's nationalities are where he gets the best wage and the cheapest meat, Specially in these prosaic profoundly practical times, when there is no chivalry, no dash, no colour; when the common-place thrives; when we turn Egyptian mummies into railway fuel, and find Pharaoh's dust make a roaring fire ; when we change crocuses into veratrin for our sore-throats, violets into sweet-meats for our eating! A detestable age, truly. Fancy the barbarism of crystallising and crunching a violet! The flower of Clémence Isauze, and all the poets after her, condemned to the degradation of becoming a bonbon! Can anything be more typical of the prosaic atrocity of this age? Impossible!"

"With such acute feelings, you must find the dinner^card excessively restricted. With so much sympathy for a violet, what must be your philanthropy for a pheasant!" said Erceldoune, quietly, who was not disposed to pursue the Monody of a Violet in the Café Minuit, though the man to a certain extent amused him.

At that moment the foreigner rose a little hastily, left his ice-cream unfinished, and, with a gay graceful adieu, went out of the salon, which was now filling. handsome fellow, and talks well," thought Erceldoune, wringing the amber Moselle from his long moustaches, when he was left alone at the marble table in the heat, and light, and movement of the glittering caf6. "I know the Maternity well enough, and he is one of the best of the members, I dare say. He did not waste much of his science on me; he saw it would be profitless work. On my word, the wit and ability and good manners those men fritter away in their order would make them invaluable in a Chancellerie, and fit them for any State office in the world."

The First Secretary of the English Legation and a French diplomatist entered and claimed his attention at that instant, and he gave no more thought to the champion of the crystallised flowers, whom, justly or wrongly as it might chance, he had classed with the renowned Legion of Chevaliers d’Industrie, and whose somewhat abrupt departure he had attributed either to his own hick of promise as a plausible subject for experimentalising upon, or to the appearance on the scene of some mouchard of the Secret Bureau, whom the yiracions bewHiler of the fate of sugared violets in this age of prose did not care to encounter.

Erceldoune thought no more of him then and thenceforward: he would have thought more had the mirrors of the Café Minuit been Paracelsus' or Agrippa's mirours of grammarye.

The long console-glass, with its curled gas-branches and its rose-hued draperies, and its reflex of the gilding, the glitter, the silver, the damask, the fruit, the wines, and the crowds of the Paris cafe, would have been darkened with night-shadows and deep forest foliage, and the tumult of close struggles for life or death, and the twilight hush of cloistered aisles, and the rich glow of Eastern waters, and the silent gloom of ancient God-forgotten cities; and, from out the waving, shadowy, changing darkness of ally there would have looked a woman's face, with fathomless, luminous eyes, and hair with a golden light upon it, and a proud, weary sorceress smile on the line—the face of a temptress or of an angel?

Bat the mirror had no magic of the future; the glass reflected nothing save the gas-jets of the ormalu sconces; and Fulke Ercddoune sat there in Paris that night, drinking his iced Rhine wines, and smoking his curled Arabian meerschaum, knowing nothing of what lay before him, a blind wanderer in the twilight, a traveller in strange countries, as we are at best in life.