Read CHAPTER IX of The Primadonna, free online book, by F. Marion Crawford, on ReadCentral.com.

Three weeks later, when the days were lengthening quickly and London was beginning to show its better side to the cross-grained people who abuse its climate, the gas was lighted again in the dingy rooms in Hare Court.  No one but the old woman who came to sweep had visited them since Mr. Van Torp had gone into the country in March, after Lady Maud had been to see him on the evening of his arrival.

As then, the fire was laid in the grate, but the man in black who sat in the shabby arm-chair had not put a match to the shavings, and the bright copper kettle on the movable hob shone coldly in the raw glare from the incandescent gaslight.  The room was chilly, and the man had not taken off his black overcoat or his hat, which had a broad band on it.  His black gloves lay on the table beside him.  He wore patent leather boots with black cloth tops, and he turned in his toes as he sat.  His aquiline features were naturally of the melancholic type, and as he stared at the fireplace his expression was profoundly sad.  He did not move for a long time, but suddenly he trembled, as a man does who feels the warning chill in a malarious country when the sun goes down, and two large bright tears ran down his lean dark cheeks and were quickly lost in his grizzled beard.  Either he did not feel them, or he would not take the trouble to dry them, for he sat quite still and kept his eyes on the grate.

Outside it was quite dark and the air was thick, so that the chimney-pots on the opposite roof were hardly visible against the gloomy sky.  It was the time of year when spring seems very near in broad daylight, but as far away as in January when the sun goes down.

Mr. Isidore Bamberger was waiting for a visitor, as his partner Mr. Van Torp had waited in the same place a month earlier, but he made no preparations for a cheerful meeting, and the cheap japanned tea-caddy, with the brown teapot and the chipped cups and saucers, stood undisturbed in the old-fashioned cupboard in the corner, while the lonely man sat before the cold fireplace and let the tears trickle down his cheeks as they would.

At the double stroke of the spring door-bell, twice repeated, his expression changed as if he had been waked from a dream.  He dried his cheeks roughly with the back of his hand, and his very heavy black eyebrows were drawn down and together, as if the tension of the man’s whole nature had been relaxed and was now suddenly restored.  The look of sadness hardened to an expression that was melancholy still, but grim and unforgiving, and the grizzled beard, clipped rather close at the sides, betrayed the angles of the strong jaw as he set his teeth and rose to let in his visitor.  He was round-shouldered and slightly bow-legged when he stood up; he was heavily and clumsily built, but he was evidently strong.

He went out into the dark entry and opened the door, and a moment later he came back with Mr. Feist, the man with the unhealthy complexion whom Margaret had seen at the Turkish Embassy.  Isidore Bamberger sat down in the easy-chair again without ceremony, leaving his guest to bring up a straight-backed chair for himself.

Mr. Feist was evidently in a very nervous condition.  His hand shook perceptibly as he mopped his forehead after sitting down, and he moved his chair uneasily twice because the incandescent light irritated his eyes.  He did not wait for Bamberger to question him, however.

‘It’s all right,’ he said, ’but he doesn’t care to take steps till after this season is over.  He says the same thing will happen again to a dead certainty, and that the more evidence he has the surer he’ll be of the decree.  I think he’s afraid Van Torp has some explanation up his sleeve that will swing things the other way.’

‘Didn’t he catch her here?’ asked the elder man, evidently annoyed.  ’Didn’t he find the money on this table in an envelope addressed to her?  Didn’t he have two witnesses with him?  Or is all that an invention?’

‘It happened just so.  But he’s afraid there’s some explanation ­’

‘Feist,’ said Isidore Bamberger slowly, ’find out what explanation the man’s afraid of, pretty quick, or I’ll get somebody who will.  It’s my belief that he’s just a common coward, who takes money from his wife and doesn’t care how she gets it.  I suppose she refused to pay one day, so he strengthened his position by catching her; but he doesn’t want to divorce the goose that lays the golden egg as long as he’s short of cash.  That’s about the measure of it, you may depend.’

‘She may be a goose,’ answered Feist, ’but she’s a wild one, and she’ll lead us a chase too.  She’s up to all sorts of games, I’ve ascertained.  She goes out of the house at all hours and comes home when she’s ready, and it isn’t to meet your friend either, for he’s not been in London again since he landed.’

‘Then who else is it?’ asked Bamberger.

Feist smiled in a sickly way.

‘Don’t know,’ he said.  ‘Can’t find out.’

‘I don’t like people who don’t know and can’t find out,’ answered the other.  ’I’m in a hurry, I tell you.  I’m employing you, and paying you a good salary, and taking a great deal of trouble to have you pushed with letters of introduction where you can see her, and now you come here and tell me you don’t know and you can’t find out.  It won’t do, Feist.  You’re no better than you used to be when you were my secretary last year.  You’re a pretty bright young fellow when you don’t drink, but when you do you’re about as useful as a painted clock ­and even a painted clock is right twice in twenty-four hours.  It’s more than you are.  The only good thing about you is that you can hold your tongue, drunk or sober.  I admit that.’

Having relieved himself of this plain opinion Isidore Bamberger waited to hear what Feist had to say, keeping his eyes fixed on the unhealthy face.

‘I’ve not been drinking lately, anyhow,’ he answered, ’and I’ll tell you one thing, Mr. Bamberger, and that is, that I’m just as anxious as you can be to see this thing through, every bit.’

’Well, then, don’t waste time!  I don’t care a cent about the divorce, except that it will bring the whole affair into publicity.  At soon as all the papers are down on him, I’ll start in on the real thing.  I shall be ready by that time.  I want public opinion on both sides of the ocean to run strong against him, as it ought to, and it’s just that it should.  If I don’t manage that, he may get off in the end in spite of your evidence.’

‘Look here, Mr. Bamberger,’ said Feist, waking up, ’if you want my evidence, don’t talk of dropping me as you did just now, or you won’t get it, do you understand?  You’ve paid me the compliment of telling me that I can hold my tongue.  All right.  But it won’t suit you if I hold my tongue in the witness-box, will it?  That’s all, Mr. Bamberger.  I’ve nothing more to say about that.’

There was a sudden vehemence in the young man’s tone which portrayed that in spite of his broken nerves he could still be violent.  But Isidore Bamberger was not the man to be brow-beaten by any one he employed.  He almost smiled when Feist stopped speaking.

‘That’s all right,’ he said half good-naturedly and half contemptuously.  ‘We understand each other.  That’s all right.’

‘I hope it is,’ Feist answered in a dogged way.  ’I only wanted you to know.’

’Well, I do, since you’ve told me.  But you needn’t get excited like that.  It’s just as well you gave up studying medicine and took to business, Feist, for you haven’t got what they call a pleasant bedside manner.’

Mr. Feist had once been a medical student, but had given up the profession on inheriting a sum of money with which he at once began to speculate.  After various vicissitudes he had become Mr. Bamberger’s private secretary, and had held that position some time in spite of his one failing, because he had certain qualities which made him invaluable to his employer until his nerves began to give away.  One of those qualities was undoubtedly his power of holding his tongue even when under the influence of drink; another was his really extraordinary memory for details, and especially for letters he had written under dictation, and for conversations he had heard.  He was skilful, too, in many ways when in full possession of his faculties; but though Isidore Bamberger used him, he despised him profoundly, as he despised every man who preferred present indulgence to future profit.

Feist lit a cigarette and blew a vast cloud of smoke round him, but made no answer to his employer’s last observation.

‘Now this is what I want you to do,’ said the latter.  ’Go to this Count Leven and tell him it’s a cash transaction or nothing, and that he runs no risk.  Find out what he’ll really take, but don’t come talking to me about five thousand pounds or anything of that kind, for that’s ridiculous.  Tell him that if proceedings are not begun by the first of May his wife won’t get any more money from Van Torp, and he won’t get any more from his wife.  Use any other argument that strikes you.  That’s your business, because that’s what I pay you for.  What I want is the result, and that’s justice and no more, and I don’t care anything about the means.  Find them and I’ll pay.  If you can’t find them I’ll pay somebody who can, and if nobody can I’ll go to the end without.  Do you understand?’

‘Oh, I understand right enough,’ answered Feist, with his bad smile.’  If I can hit on the right scheme I won’t ask you anything extra for it, Mr. Bamberger!  By the bye, I wrote you I met Cordova, the Primadonna, at the Turkish Embassy, didn’t I?  She hates him as much as the other woman likes him, yet she and the other have struck up a friendship.  I daresay I shall get something out of that too.’

‘Why does Cordova hate him?’ asked Bamberger.

‘Don’t quite know.  Thought perhaps you might.’

‘No.’

‘He was attentive to her last winter,’ Feist said.  ’That’s all I know for certain.  He’s a brutal sort of man, and maybe he offended her somehow.’

‘Well,’ returned Isidore Bamberger, ’maybe; but singers aren’t often offended by men who have money.  At least, I’ve always understood so, though I don’t know much about that side of life myself.’

’It would be just one thing more to break his character if Cordova would say something against him,’ suggested Feist.  ’Her popularity is something tremendous, and people always believe a woman who says that a man has insulted her.  In those things the bare word of a pretty lady who’s no better than she should be is worth more than an honest man’s character for thirty years.’

‘That’s so,’ said Bamberger, looking at him attentively.  ’That’s quite true.  Whatever you are, Feist, you’re no fool.  We may as well have the pretty lady’s bare word, anyway.’

‘If you approve, I’m nearly sure I can get it,’ Feist answered.  ’At least, I can get a statement which she won’t deny if it’s published in the right way.  I can furnish the materials for an article on her that’s sure to please her ­born lady, never a word against her, highly connected, unassailable private life, such a contrast to several other celebrities on the stage, immensely charitable, half American, half English ­every bit of that all helps, you see ­and then an anecdote or two thrown in, and just the bare facts about her having had to escape in a hurry from a prominent millionaire in a New York hotel ­fairly ran for her life and turned the key against him.  Give his name if you like.  If he brings action for libel, you can subpoena Cordova herself.  She’ll swear to it if it’s true, and then you can unmask your big guns and let him have it hot.’

’No doubt, no doubt.  But how do you propose to find out if it is true?’

‘Well, I’ll see; but it will answer almost as well if it’s not true,’ said Feist cynically.  ‘People always believe those things.’

‘It’s only a detail,’ said Bamberger, ’but it’s worth something, and if we can make this man Leven begin a suit against his wife, everything that’s against Van Torp will be against her too.  That’s not justice, Feist, but it’s fact.  A woman gets considerably less pity for making mistakes with a blackguard than for liking an honest man too much, Feist.’

Mr. Bamberger, who had divorced his own wife, delivered these opinions thoughtfully, and, though she had made no defence, he might be supposed to know what he was talking about.

Presently he dismissed his visitor with final injunctions to lose no time, and to ‘find out’ if Lady Maud was interested in any one besides Van Torp, and if not, what was at the root of her eccentric hours.

Mr. Feist went away, apparently prepared to obey his employer with all the energy he possessed.  He went down the dimly-lighted stairs quickly, but he glanced nervously upwards, as if he fancied that Isidore Bamberger might have silently opened the door again to look over the banister and watch him from above.  In the dark entry below he paused a moment, and took a satisfactory pull at a stout flask before going out into the yellowish gloom that had settled on Hare Court.

When he was in the narrow alley he stopped again and laughed, without making any sound, so heartily that he had to stand still till the fit passed; and the expression of his unhealthy face just then would have disturbed even Mr. Bamberger, who knew him well.

But Mr. Bamberger was sitting in the easy-chair before the fireplace, and his eyes were fixed on the bright point at which the shiny copper kettle reflected the gaslight.  His head had fallen slightly forward, so that his bearded chin was out of sight below the collar of his overcoat, leaving his eagle nose and piercing eyes above it.  He was like a bird of prey looking down over the edge of its nest.  He had not taken off his hat for Mr. Feist, and it was pushed back from his bony forehead now, giving his face a look that would have been half comic if it had not been almost terrifying:  a tall hat set on a skull, a little back or on one side, produces just such an effect.

There was no moisture in the keen eyes now.  In the bright spot on the copper kettle they saw the vision of the end towards which he was striving with all his strength, and all his heart, and all his wealth.  It was a grim little picture, and the chief figure in it was a thick-set man who had a queer cap drawn down over his face and his hands tied; and the eyes that saw it were sure that under the cap there were the stony features of a man who had stolen his friend’s wife and killed his friend’s daughter, and was going to die for what he had done.

Then Isidore Bamberger’s right hand disappeared inside the breast of his coat and closed lovingly upon a full pocket-book; but there was only a little money in it, only a few banknotes folded flat against a thick package of sheets of notepaper all covered with clear, close writing, some in ink and some in pencil; and if what was written there was all true, it was enough to hang Mr. Rufus Van Torp.

There were other matters, too, not written there, but carefully entered in the memory of the injured man.  There was the story of his marriage with a beautiful, penniless girl, not of his own faith, whom he had taken in the face of strong opposition from his family.  She had been an exquisite creature, fair and ethereal, as degenerates sometimes are; she had cynically married him for his money, deceiving him easily enough, for he was willing to be blinded; but differences had soon arisen between them, and had turned to open quarrelling, and Mr. Van Torp had taken it upon himself to defend her and to reconcile them, using the unlimited power his position gave him over his partner to force the latter to submit to his wife’s temper and caprice, as the only alternative to ruin.  Her friendship for Van Torp grew stronger, till they spent many hours of every day together, while her husband saw little of her, though he was never altogether estranged from her so long as they lived under one roof.

But the time came at last when Bamberger had power too, and Van Torp could no longer hold him in check with a threat that had become vain; for he was more than indispensable, he was a part of the Nickel Trust, he was the figure-head of the ship, and could not be discarded at will, to be replaced by another.

As soon as he was sure of this and felt free to act, Isidore Bamberger divorced his wife, in a State where slight grounds are sufficient.  For the sake of the Nickel Trust Van Torp’s name was not mentioned.  Mrs. Bamberger made no defence, the affair was settled almost privately, and Bamberger was convinced that she would soon marry Van Torp.  Instead, six weeks had not passed before she married Senator Moon, a man whom her husband had supposed she scarcely knew, and to Bamberger’s amazement Van Torp’s temper was not at all disturbed by the marriage.  He acted as if he had expected it, and though he hardly ever saw her after that time, he exchanged letters with her during nearly two years.

Bamberger’s little daughter Ida had never been happy with her beautiful mother, who had alternately spoilt her and vented her temper on her, according to the caprice of the moment.  At the time of the divorce the child had been only ten years old; and as Bamberger was very kind to her and was of an even disposition, though never very cheerful, she had grown up to be extremely fond of him.  She never guessed that he did not love her in return, for though he was cynical enough in matters of business, he was just according to his lights, and he would not let her know that everything about her recalled her mother, from her hair to her tone of voice, her growing caprices, and her silly fits of temper.  He could not believe in the affection of a daughter who constantly reminded him of the hell in which he had lived for years.  If what Van Torp told Lady Maud of his own pretended engagement to Ida was true, it was explicable only on that ground, so far as her father was concerned.  Bamberger felt no affection for his daughter, and saw no reason why she should not be used as an instrument, with her own consent, for consolidating the position of the Nickel Trust.

As for the former Mrs. Bamberger, afterwards Mrs. Moon, she had gone to Europe in the autumn, not many months after her marriage, leaving the Senator in Washington, and had returned after nearly a year’s absence, bringing her husband a fine little girl, whom she had christened Ida, like her first child, without consulting him.  It soon became apparent that the baby was totally deaf; and not very long after this discovery, Mrs. Moon began to show signs of not being quite sane.  Three years later she was altogether out of her mind, and as soon as this was clear the child was sent to the East to be taught.  The rest has already been told.  Bamberger, of course, had never seen little Ida, and had perhaps never heard of her existence, and Senator Moon did not see her again before he died.

Bamberger had not loved his own daughter in her life, but since her tragic death she had grown dear to him in memory, and he reproached himself unjustly with having been cold and unkind to her.  Below the surface of his money-loving nature there was still the deep and unsatisfied sentiment to which his wife had first appealed, and by playing on which she had deceived him into marrying her.  Her treatment of him had not killed it, and the memory of his fair young daughter now stirred it again.  He accused himself of having misunderstood her.  What had been unreal and superficial in her mother had perhaps been true and deep in her.  He knew that she had loved him; he knew it now, and it was the recollection of that one being who had been devoted to him for himself, since he had been a grown man, that sometimes brought the tears from his eyes when he was alone.  It would have been a comfort, now, to have loved her in return while she lived, and to have trusted in her love then, instead of having been tormented by the belief that she was as false as her mother had been.

But he had been disappointed of his heart’s desire; for, strange as it may seem to those who have not known such men as Isidore Bamberger, his nature was profoundly domestic, and the ideal of his youth had been to grow old in his own home, with a loving wife at his side, surrounded by children and grandchildren who loved both himself and her.  Next to that, he had desired wealth and the power money gives; but that had been first, until the hope of it was gone.  Looking back now, he was sure that it had all been destroyed from root to branch, the hope and the possibility, and even the memory that might have still comforted him, by Rufus Van Torp, upon whom he prayed that he might live to be revenged.  He sought no secret vengeance, either, no pitfall of ruin dug in the dark for the man’s untimely destruction; all was to be in broad daylight, by the evidence of facts, under the verdict of justice, and at the hands of the law itself.

It had not been very hard to get what he needed, for his former secretary, Mr. Feist, had worked with as much industry and intelligence as if the case had been his own, and in spite of the vice that was killing him had shown a wonderful power of holding his tongue.  It is quite certain that up to the day when Feist called on his employer in Hare Court, Mr. Van Torp believed himself perfectly safe.