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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 3
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The Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 3 Post by :Priscilla Category :Long Stories Author :Wilkie Collins Date :May 2012 Read :1815

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The Black Robe - Before The Story - Chapter 3

BEFORE THE STORY
CHAPTER III

THE moment we were introduced to the drawing-room, my suspicions of the company we were likely to meet with were fully confirmed.

"Cards, billiards, and betting"--there was the inscription legibly written on the manner and appearance of Captain Peterkin. The bright-eyed yellow old lady who kept the boarding-house would have been worth five thousand pounds in jewelry alone, if the ornaments which profusely covered her had been genuine precious stones. The younger ladies present had their cheeks as highly rouged and their eyelids as elaborately penciled in black as if they were going on the stage, instead of going to dinner. We found these fair creatures drinking Madeira as a whet to their appetites. Among the men, there were two who struck me as the most finished and complete blackguards whom I had ever met with in all my experience, at home and abroad. One, with a brown face and a broken nose, was presented to us by the title of "Commander," and was described as a person of great wealth and distinction in Peru, traveling for amusement. The other wore a military uniform and decorations, and was spoken of as "the General." A bold bullying manner, a fat sodden face, little leering eyes, and greasy-looking hands, made this man so repellent to me that I privately longed to kick him. Romayne had evidently been announced, before our arrival, as a landed gentleman with a large income. Men and women vied in servile attentions to him. When we went into the dining-room, the fascinating creature who sat next to him held her fan before her face, and so made a private interview of it between the rich Englishman and herself. With regard to the dinner, I shall only report that it justified Captain Peterkin's boast, in some degree at least. The wine was good, and the conversation became gay to the verge of indelicacy. Usually the most temperate of men, Romayne was tempted by his neighbors into drinking freely. I was unfortunately seated at the opposite extremity of the table, and I had no opportunity of warning him.

The dinner reached its conclusion, and we all returned together, on the foreign plan, to coffee and cigars in the drawing-room. The women smoked, and drank liqueurs as well as coffee, with the men. One of them went to the piano, and a little impromptu ball followed, the ladies dancing with their cigarettes in their mouths. Keeping my eyes and ears on the alert, I saw an innocent-looking table, with a surface of rosewood, suddenly develop a substance of green cloth. At the same time, a neat little roulette-table made its appearance from a hiding-place in a sofa. Passing near the venerable landlady, I heard her ask the servant, in a whisper, "if the dogs were loose?" After what I had observed, I could only conclude that the dogs were used as a patrol, to give the alarm in case of a descent of the police. It was plainly high time to thank Captain Peterkin for his hospitality, and to take our leave.

"We have had enough of this," I whispered to Romayne in English. "Let us go."

In these days it is a delusion to suppose that you can speak confidentially in the English language, when French people are within hearing. One of the ladies asked Romayne, tenderly, if he was tired of her already. Another reminded him that it was raining heavily (as we could all hear), and suggested waiting until it cleared up. The hideous General waved his greasy hand in the direction of the card table, and said, "The game is waiting for us."

Romayne was excited, but not stupefied, by the wine he had drunk. He answered, discreetly enough, "I must beg you to excuse me; I am a poor card player."

The General suddenly looked grave. "You are speaking, sir, under a strange misapprehension," he said. "Our game is lansquenet--essentially a game of chance. With luck, the poorest player is a match for the whole table."

Romayne persisted in his refusal. As a matter of course, I supported him, with all needful care to avoid giving offense. The General took offense, nevertheless. He crossed his arms on his breast, and looked at us fiercely.

"Does this mean, gentlemen, that you distrust the company?" he asked.

The broken-nosed Commander, hearing the question, immediately joined us, in the interests of peace--bearing with him the elements of persuasion, under the form of a lady on his arm.

The lady stepped briskly forward, and tapped the General on the shoulder with her fan. "I am one of the company," she said, "and I am sure Mr. Romayne doesn't distrust _me_." She turned to Romayne with her most irresistible smile. "A gentleman always plays cards," she resumed, "when he has a lady for a partner. Let us join our interests at the table--and, dear Mr. Romayne, don't risk too much!" She put her pretty little purse into his hand, and looked as if she had been in love with him for half her lifetime.

The fatal influence of the sex, assisted by wine, produced the inevitable result. Romayne allowed himself to be led to the card table. For a moment the General delayed the beginning of the game. After what had happened, it was necessary that he should assert the strict sense of justice that was in him. "We are all honorable men," he began.

"And brave men," the Commander added, admiring the General.

"And brave men," the General admitted, admiring the Commander. "Gentlemen, if I have been led into expressing myself with unnecessary warmth of feeling, I apologize, and regret it.

"Nobly spoken!" the Commander pronounced. The General put his hand on his heart and bowed. The game began.

As the poorest man of the two I had escaped the attentions lavished by the ladies on Romayne. At the same time I was obliged to pay for my dinner, by taking some part in the proceedings of the evening. Small stakes were allowed, I found, at roulette; and, besides, the heavy chances in favor of the table made it hardly worth while to run the risk of cheating in this case. I placed myself next to the least rascally-looking man in the company, and played roulette.

For a wonder, I was successful at the first attempt. My neighbor handed me my winnings. "I have lost every farthing I possess," he whispered to me, piteously, "and I have a wife and children at home." I lent the poor wretch five francs. He smiled faintly as he looked at the money. "It reminds me," he said, "of my last transaction, when I borrowed of that gentleman there, who is betting on the General's luck at the card table. Beware of employing him as I did. What do you think I got for my note of hand of four thousand francs? A hundred bottles of champagne, fifty bottles of ink, fifty bottles of blacking, three dozen handkerchiefs, two pictures by unknown masters, two shawls, one hundred maps, _and_--five francs."

We went on playing. My luck deserted me; I lost, and lost, and lost again. From time to time I looked round at the card table. The "deal" had fallen early to the General, and it seemed to be indefinitely prolonged. A heap of notes and gold (won mainly from Romayne, as I afterward discovered) lay before him. As for my neighbor, the unhappy possessor of the bottles of blacking, the pictures by unknown masters, and the rest of it, he won, and then rashly presumed on his good fortune. Deprived of his last farthing, he retired into a corner of the room, and consoled himself with a cigar. I had just arisen, to follow his example, when a furious uproar burst out at the card table.

I saw Romayne spring up, and snatch the cards out of the General's hand. "You scoundrel!" he shouted, "you are cheating!" The General started to his feet in a fury. "You lie!" he cried. I attempted to interfere, but Romayne had already seen the necessity of controlling himself. "A gentleman doesn't accept an insult from a swindler," he said, coolly. "Accept this, then!" the General answered--and spat on him. In an instant Romayne knocked him down.

The blow was dealt straight between his eyes: he was a gross big-boned man, and he fell heavily. For the time he was stunned. The women ran, screaming, out of the room. The peaceable Commander trembled from head to foot. Two of the men present, who, to give them their due, were no cowards, locked the doors. "You don't go," they said, "till we see whether he recovers or not." Cold water, assisted by the landlady's smelling salts, brought the General to his senses after a while. He whispered something to one of his friends, who immediately turned to me. "The General challenges Mr. Romayne," he said. "As one of his seconds, I demand an appointment for to-morrow morning." I refused to make any appointment unless the doors were first unlocked, and we were left free to depart. "Our carriage is waiting outside," I added. "If it returns to the hotel without us, there will be an inquiry." This latter consideration had its effect. On their side, the doors were opened. On our side, the appointment was made. We left the house.

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