Read CHAPTER IX of In Direst Peril , free online book, by David Christie Murray, on ReadCentral.com.

And now it seems to me as if I might go on writing to the end of what remains of my lifetime, and never come to a finish.  But I have to take hold of myself, as it were, with resolution, and to refrain from speaking of a hundred thousand things which interest me in memory.

The story I am bidden to tell is of how and why I came to rob Miss Rossano of forty thousand pounds, and yet not to suffer one whit in her esteem or in my own.  It is an easy thing to say to a man, “You took part in such and such an adventure; you know all about it; take your pen in your hand and write a history of it.”  The trouble is in the selection; and I have found myself so gravely puzzled as to what I shall leave out that I see nothing for it but to set down formally before myself, for my own guidance, the names of the people who are most closely and intimately concerned in what I have to tell; and having done that, I must resolve to restrict my narrative to the history of their sayings and doings.  Such a countless crowd of people surge up into memory that this is more difficult than any one would fancy.  All my old comrades in deliberation, my friends in council, my companions in the war of later on are with me at times as I sit and think over the incidents of this story.  The odd part of it is that a thousand things I had forgotten come back as clearly as if they had happened yesterday, and I should feel a greater pleasure in dwelling upon them than upon the main incidents to which I am bound to confine myself.  Roaring nights by the camp-fire, when a chance-found skin of wine made the time glorious; jolly little touches of mirth and camaraderie here and there; heats of battle, splendors of victory, miseries of retreat-all come back upon me, and the faces of many dead comrades people the air.

But to come to my resolution.  There is Brunow, who was the fatal cause of it all; and the Baroness Bonnar, who made her cat’s-paw of him; and Ruffiano, whom the two betrayed between them; and then there are left the count, and Miss Rossano, and the faithful Hinge.  Then there is the ghost of poor Constance Pleyel, who came like a wraith out of the past and vanished again into the darkness; then there is myself for the centre of the story, whether I like it or not.  Here are now my dramatis persono before me.  The stage of my mind is crowded with auxiliaries, but I dare scarcely glance at them.

And who was Constance Pleyel?  In a sense she was the motive and main-spring of my life, for it was she who embarked me on that career of adventure which has made me what I am.

When I was a very young man indeed I fell in love with Constance Pleyel.  I am not the first man whose life has been set awry by his love for an unworthy woman, nor shall I be the last.  I would very willingly keep silent about that episode in my life, but the story has to be told.  It shall be told with due reticence; for if I cannot respect poor Constance any more, I can at least respect the feelings which made her sacred in my eyes for a year and more in the days of my boyhood.

Months had gone by, and the spring of the year was near at hand.  The count had come back to a condition of health and of mental strength which was no less than astonishing.  I have never ceased to think it wonderful that a man who had been so long buried from the world, from all its interests, and from all knowledge of its affairs, should have been able so readily to take up the lost threads of life.  The most remarkable thing about him, even if on the whole it were the least surprising, was the survival of the patriotic impulse in his mind.  It seemed as if nothing could quench that, and as if all his suffering had served only to lend new fuel to that sacred flame.  By this time he was deep in all our councils, the most active, and at once the wariest and most ardent of our leaders.  I was pledged to the cause of Italy heart and soul, and was, I think, as thoroughly and % passionately devoted to her service as if the call of blood had sounded in me.  I identified myself with the hopes of Miss Rossano and her father, and I was in all things their loyal servant and coadjutor.

I suppose I have made it clear by this time that I had never any very great esteem or affection for Bru-now.  He was in the thick of affairs, and knew as much of our intentions and of our actual movements as any man among us.  It is no credit to me that I was willing to suspect him, and that I distrusted him from the beginning.  I never thought him likely to be guilty of deliberate treason, but I always feared ’his rash and boastful tongue, and I confess that I did something here and there to inspire my comrades with the sense of my own mistrust.  I have not the slightest doubt that he knew of this.  I certainly never took any pains to disguise it from him, and I dare say that in what followed he partly justified his own action in his own mind by my dislike of him and his own dislike of me.

Brunow was a queerish sort of study, and I honestly believe that half the harm he did sprang out of the only little bit of good I was ever able to discover in him.  He would do almost anything to secure anybody’s favorable opinion, and neither his judgment nor his conscience-if he had either one or the other-stood in the way of this amiable weakness.  He was more amenable to flattery than a child, and was moved by it as easily to good as to evil.  The misfortune was that those who would have cared to influence him in the right direction disdained to tickle his foible, while those who fooled him to his own ruin flattered him to the top of his bent.

I can’t help thinking that for a long time the poor feather-head attached a considerable value to my opinion, and that he was anxious in his own way to conciliate my friendship.  He knew what I thought about him, and yet he sought my acquaintance, and did what he could to propitiate me and to secure my good-will; but at last an open breach declared itself between us.  It came about in this wise: 

I was sitting in my chambers one afternoon when the count called upon me.  We had had a rather stormy discussion at our last meeting, and I had had to take sides against him.  He was on fire for immediate action, and I had felt it my duty to plead for delay.  We had parted rather hotly, and he made it his first business to apologize to me for something into which his enthusiasm had hurried him.  This being over, we sat in silence for some time, and I saw at last that something was weighing on his mind.

“I was ungenerous and wrong last night,” he said at last, “and I feel it all the more because I am here to ask you now for a special favor.”

“My dear count,” I said, “we have the same hopes, and we disagree sometimes about the proper means of reaching them.  I think there is no possibility of a quarrel between us.  However much we disagree, we feel no rancor.”

“Rancor!” cried the count.  “Good God! my dear Fyffe, how should there be rancor in my mind to you.”

He held out his hand, and I shook it heartily.  The truest and easiest way of getting to like a man is to do him a service; that makes you wish him well forever afterwards.  I should have honored and esteemed the Count Rossano if he had not been his daughter’s father.  As it was, I had an affection for him which it would not be easy for me to overstate.

“I have so few friends,” said the count, when our reconciliation was complete, “and I am so much in need of advice, that I venture to trouble you, my dear Fyffe, in a matter of great delicacy.”

I told him, I forget precisely in what terms, that I was entirely at his service; and after another hesitating pause he blurted out the truth.

“I have received an offer for my daughter’s hand.  The proposal comes to me from the Honorable Mr. Brunow.  I owe him the same debt I owe to you, and I own that I should be reluctant to hurt his feelings by a refusal.  His offer came to me last night, and took me by surprise.  I should have been less troubled in dealing with it if he had not assured me that, with my consent, he is fairly certain of my daughter’s.  I should be wrong,” he added-“I should be altogether wrong if I claimed any authority over her.  I have not the right to such a voice in her affairs as I should have if she had been bred under my own care.  But Brunow, in spite of the debt I owe him, is not the man I should have chosen for her.  You have known him for many years.  I am gravely troubled, my dear Fyffe.  Tell me what I should do.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that if the count had stabbed-me he would hardly have hurt or amazed me more.  I had heard Brunow’s butterfly protestations about his affection for Miss Rossano, and my eyes had certainly not been less open to his defects of character because he was a rival to my own hopes; but I had never regarded him as being altogether serious.  I knew that he was irretrievably in debt, and I had never really feared until that moment that his opposition would take real form.  A lover is always jealous, and I had envied my rival his faculty of small talk, his cheery, easy temper, and those touches of gallant attention of which practice and nature had made him master.  I had been very angry sometimes at his success in pleasing.  But a certain contempt had always mingled with my anger, and I had never really been afraid of him.  Yet in the count’s declaration of Brunow’s belief that Miss Rossano was not indifferent to him I could see more than a touch of reason.  She was always gay in his presence, always ready to laugh at his genial and charming nonsense-would come out of her gravest humor at any moment to meet his badinage half way.

I was thinking of all these things, and suffering sorely, when the count’s voice recalled me to myself.

“I admit, I know, I feel the delicacy of the situation.”

“I am the last man in the world,” I said, “to be consulted on this question.”

“Surely not that!” cried the count.

“The last man in the world,” I repeated.  “I can have no voice in the matter one way or the other.”

I felt, even as I spoke, that my words and tones alike were too brusque and imperative, but I was wounded to the heart, and alarmed alike for Miss Rossano and myself.  Brunow was certainly not the man to make her happy, whatever fancy he might have inspired in her mind, and yet it was no business of mine to say so.  I was his rival, and my opinion of him was naturally biassed.  For the moment I hated him, but I had self-control enough left to feel that that fact bound me all the more to silence.

“You cannot advise me?” said the count.

“I have no right to advise you,” I responded.

He rose with a strange look at me, and began to walk up and down the room with his fingers at his lips.  I have wounded myself in reading what I have already written about his prison look.  I had learned to know him as so high-minded, so brave and so honorable a gentleman that it pains me even to think of the jail-bird aspect which came upon him at times.  His walk up and down my room became something very like a prowl, and he fell to casting furtive glances at me, biting his finger ends, and murmuring inarticulately below his breath.

“You have some reason for this,” he said, suddenly.  “You do not refuse to help me in such a matter for nothing.”

“I have the best of all reasons,” I answered.  “I cannot advise, because I have no right to advise.”

“I give you the right by asking for advice,” he said, turning round upon me.  “Is it kind to refuse me in this?  I am a stranger to the world-a child, and less than a child.  I owe to this man and to you everything I am and all I have.  But-may I tell you?-I mistrust him.  I do not care to leave my daughter’s happiness in his charge.”

I made a successful struggle to control myself, and I answered him quietly: 

“You must know, sir, that in England young people arrange these matters very much for themselves.  I have no doubt that Miss Rossano will attach full weight to your judgment and counsel.  I am very sorry, but I have no right to advise you even at your own request.”

“I had hoped for another answer,” he responded.  “I had even ventured to think-Ah, well, my dear Fyffe, I cannot help myself, and if you will not help me-”

“I would, sir, if I could,” I answered.

And at this he sat down, gnawing at his finger-nails, and more broken and furtive in manner than I had seen him since the first week of his escape from prison.

“I owe Brunow a great deal,” he said at length, as if he addressed himself rather than me; “but what I owe to one I owe to the other, and I had hoped things would have gone differently.  It was natural, perhaps-I suppose it was natural-that she should think of one of you.”

It was impossible to escape his meaning, and I saw clearly that if I had spoken first I should have found an ally in him.  I do not remember ever to have felt so miserable and so hopeless; but I sat down and filled my pipe and smoked in silence, thinking that perhaps I had thrown a chance away, and that perhaps I had never had one.

While I sat thus, looking out of the window and watching with a curiously awakened interest the traffic in the street below, I felt the count’s hand on my shoulder.

“Tell me, my dear Fyffe,” he said, shaking me gently, “am I utterly mistaken?  I had thought-I had hoped-”

“What had you thought, sir?” I asked, without turning my face towards him.

“I had thought,” he began with hesitation, and then paused-“I had thought that you would have put that question to me, rather than Brunow.  Was I wrong?”

“Brunow has put the question, sir,” I answered, “and he has a right to be answered.  You can guess now, I fancy, why I can give you no advice.”

“That is enough,” said the count.  “Pray understand me, my dear Fyffe.  This is a matter of delicacy in which I am perhaps acting very strangely, but I have thought that you cared for my child.  I had hoped that it was so, and I had hoped that she might care for you.  I had not thought of Mr. Brunow in this way; and if I intrust my daughter’s happiness to his charge, I am afraid.”

“I did not know,” I told him, “that I had betrayed myself.  If you have found out the truth about me, I can’t be blamed for having told you.  I should have spoken to you weeks ago, but you see how I live.”  He cast his eyes about the room and nodded.  “I am as poor as a church-mouse, and I see no way to better my position.”

“I had some hopes,” said the count, “that you might tell me this.  It was that which led me to come here and ask you to advise me.”

A wild and improbable hope sprang into my mind, but it died as soon as it was born.  Perhaps I was absurd enough to fancy the count had seen something in his daughter’s manner which led him to believe that she cared for me, and perhaps he had taken advantage of Brunow’s proposal to awake me to a sense of my own wasted opportunities.  I put that fancy by, for intimate as I had grown to be with Miss Rossano.  I had never discerned the faintest hint in her manner of anything but friendship.  If my fancy had not been already dead, the count’s next words would have killed it outright.

“I have nothing,” he said, “to guide me to my daughter’s feelings, but I am certain of my own.  Mr. Brunow’s declaration took me by surprise, but I had been expecting yours, and should have received it with pleasure.”

“I did my best to form an honest judgment and to act like an honorable man.  Mr. Brunow,” I said, “has known Miss Rossano much longer than I have.  I must not disguise the fact that he has more than once spoken to me of his attachment to her.  He mentioned that months ago, but in such a way that I hardly supposed him to be in earnest.  He has spoken first, and he has a right to an answer.  If when he has received his answer I still have a right to speak, I may do so.”

“That,” said the count, “is not the conclusion at which I hoped you would arrive.  I think I can offer an alternative.  If I ask you to look at this matter like a man of the world, you will have a right to laugh at my presumption.  I was a man of the world once, but that was long ago.  I have lost so much that what is left to me is hidden in a cloud of self-distrust; yet I think I am right in this, and you yourself shall be the judge.”

He paused there for some time, and I could tell by his inward look, and by the occasional motion of his lips, that he was choosing words in which to make his meaning clear to me.  He looked up at last, with his gray face illuminated by the mere ghost of a smile, and reaching both hands across the table towards me, leaned upon them firmly.

“My penetration, blunted as it is, has not been altogether at fault,” he said; “I have hit the truth in your case.  That is so?” I nodded, gloomily enough, I dare say, to signify assent.  “What I propose, my dear Fyffe, is this:  I cannot read my daughter’s mind at all, and so far as I can tell she may have no such preference as leads to marriage for either of you.  She is half English by birth, and wholly English by education.  If she would marry at all she will follow her own inclination, after the fashion of young ladies in this country.  Even if I had had the authority which a life-long watch over her would have given me, I should never have dreamed of using it.  But this is the plain English of the matter.  I would gladly trust my child with you, and I should be sorry to trust her with Mr. Brunow.  That sounds ungrateful to him, for I owe him an enormous service; but there are duties which transcend gratitude, and this is one of them.  I have surprised your sentiments, and have extorted a confession from you.  I ask you now to authorize me to lay before my daughter your case and Mr. Brunow’s side by side.  I will tell her, if you prefer it, precisely what passed between us.  If she should accept neither of you, my own hope and yours will have had at least a chance of fulfilment.  You have no objection to making that proposal?”

I answered truly that I was profoundly grateful for it, and that I had never had so much honor done me.

The count departed well pleased, and I was left to await his news in such anxiety as any man who has not awaited a similar verdict might picture for himself.  I did not stir from my rooms for several days, and at almost every minute of that time I was either at the very height of hope or the very bottom of despair.

The news came in a startling and unexpected way at last.  About four o’clock on the afternoon of the third day a rapid step came up the stair, and somebody knocked with an angry and passionate insistence at the outer door of my chambers.  Hinge, startled by the unusual exigence of the summons, ran to answer it.  I learned from him who my visitor was, for as he opened the door he sang out: 

“Good Lord, Mr. Brunow, what on earth’s the matter?”

“Stand on one side!” cried Brunow, in a loud and angry voice; and scarcely a second later he entered the room I sat in, and, banging the door noisily behind him, faced me, still grasping in his right hand the walking-cane with which he had offered such a startling announcement of his presence.

“You damned traitor!” said Brunow; “you infernal traitor!”

He had hardly spoken, indeed he had hardly turned his white and wrathful face towards me, when I understood precisely what had happened.  Of course an absolute certainty was out of the question, but I felt the next thing to it; and what with the exulting thought that it was possible and the fear that it might not be true, I was so taken aback that I had no answer for this unusual greeting.

“You blackguard!” Brunow stammered, his stick quivering in his hand.

“Come, come,” I answered, rising, and keeping a careful eye on him, for he looked as if he were fit for any sort of mischief, “this is curious language.  Will you be good enough to tell me how you justify it?”

“You know well enough how I justify it!” cried Brunow.  “Your dirty under-plot has succeeded.  You have that for your comfort, but you may take this to flavor it.  I took you for an honest man until a quarter of an hour ago, and now I know that you are as dirty and as despicable a hypocrite and backbiter as any in the world!”

“That is a lie, my dear Brunow, whoever says it!” I responded.  “You will be good enough to tell me at once on what grounds you bring such a charge against me.”

“Oh,” cried Brunow, “I’m not going to debase myself with quarrelling with a man like you!  You have my opinion of you, and you know how you have earned it.  That’s enough for me.  Good-afternoon.”

He turned, but I was at the door before him.

“That may be enough for you, my dear Brunow, but it isn’t enough for me.  You don’t leave this room with my good-will until you have given me some justification for your conduct.”

“I’ll give you none!” he cried.  “You’re a liar and a hypocrite, and I’ve done with you forever!  That ought to be enough for you!  Stand by and let me go, or-” he raised his stick with a threatening gesture, but at that I could afford to smile.  I knew Brunow a great deal too well to think him likely to assault me after having put me on my guard by a threat.

“I wonder,” he said, with his lips quivering and his teeth tight clinched behind them-“I wonder that I don’t thrash you within an inch of your life.”

“I wouldn’t waste much wonder on that question if I were you, Brunow,” I answered.  “You will be able to find an easy explanation.  Tell me on what grounds you come to me with these angry accusations.”

“You pretend you don’t know?” he sneered.  “You can’t guess, you soul of honor!”

“I pretend nothing,” I told him; “but no man uses such language to me without justifying it.  A gentleman having under any fancied sense of wrong used such language will hasten to find reasons for it.”

“You may keep me here,” said Brunow, throwing himself savagely into an arm-chair.  “I won’t bluster with you, but I decline to explain or justify a word I’ve said, and you can take what course you please.”

“Very well,” I answered, turning the key in the lock and then putting it in my pocket, “we shall both have an opportunity of exercising the great gift of patience.”

“Look here,” he cried, suddenly leaping from his chair and shaking his forefinger in ray face, “do you pretend to deny that months and months ago I told you what my feelings were with respect to Miss Rossano?”

“You told me,” I answered, “that you admired her, and that she had a very pretty little income of her own.  You coupled those two facts together in such a way as to make me think you were ready to contract a mercenary marriage.”

“That’s how you choose to put it,” he retorted.  “I could have supposed, without your help, that you’d find some such means of justifying yourself.  Your affection has nothing mercenary in it, of course.  In that respect you’re above suspicion.  A mountebank soldier with a wooden sword to sell that nobody chooses to buy.  A strolling pauper without a penny to his name.”

I don’t quite like to think of what might have happened if this strain of invective had not been interrupted at that moment.  I know now, and I almost knew then, what ground Brunow had for his anger and resentment.  But the words he used were almost too much for my endurance, and I was glad that a ring sounded at the hall bell, and that Hinge, who, I have no doubt at all, was listening outside, answered immediately.  I heard a muffled voice outside, and then Hinge knocked at the inner door; and having in vain tried the handle, said: 

“The Conte di Rossano, if you please.”