There was no lack of hawks to pounce upon this innocent pigeon. Even Welterwate had refused to “lay” any more against the Cardinal. “Calverly would take bets all day long,” exclaimed that ingenuous young man, “and it ain’t right to see a feller put in a hole, you know.” Ponsonby had warned in vain, and Dacre, after pretending to argue, had himself booked three or four “good things,” three or four times over.
The fact was that Bob had an “opinion,” and was backing his opinion with severe conscientiousness. If he won, he would be not only released from all embarrassments, but be placed considerably on the windy side of care; if he lost, he would have to pay some five thousand pounds, or proclaim himself a defaulter. But he comforted himself with the assurance that he was sure to win. “They don’t know what the horse can do,” he said to himself, as on all sides rose the clamour of bookmakers and the Babel of betting. “He has never been fairly tried yet; and, unless I am mistaken, he can show them all the way home in a canter.” With which flattering unction laid to his soul, he was impervious to advice and to irony. Moreover, his rejection by the woman he loved sat heavily on him. He did not talk about it, or mourn desolately in lonely places; he did not write poetry, or meditate suicide. He was too proud to let people see that he was miserable. But he became reckless, and careless. He was oftener mixed up in the revels of such jeunesse dorée as he claimed acquaintance with than heretofore. He paid more visits to the fascinating rooms of his accommodating friend, Mr. Ryle, and had achieved an entrée behind the scenes of minor theatres, where he would present bouquets and other matters to ill-educated fourth-rate actresses, and fancy himself in love with their pert airs and artificial graces. He became known as a “man upon town,” and several gentlemen who lived by the application of their natural abilities to the science of whist, began to cultivate the acquaintance of the young fellow, and find it both agreeable and remunerative. His brown face was growing haggard, his brown hands white and shaky, and his once springy step languid and slow. He felt no desire to get rid of any excess of animal vigour by violent bodily exercise. Mr. Crosschopper, the bullet-headed pugilist who taught “gents,” what he was pleased to call the “noblearter selfderfense,” did not find his pupil so ready to come up again, after the customary knockings down; and Mr. Wulchur, the dog-fancier, explained to his sympathising circle that his patron had lost all interest in dogs, let them rat never so wisely.
Dacre noticed this abandonment to the pleasures of the minute, and was pleased to be pleasantly jocose thereon.
“Why, Bob, my boy, I believe you’re in love!”
“No, I am not,” says Bob, with an attempt at a cheerful laugh.
Dacre knocked the ash off his cigar tenderly, and took a long look at the supine form of his protegé.
“You look very like it. You used to be somewhat of a domestic turn, my Robert—a man given to admiration of tea-table virtues, and a never tiring squire of dames. You used to be unpleasantly severe in your moral code, too; and were quite an Australian John Knox in the way of denouncing those social amusements that ‘sin against the strength of youth.’ Now, you plunge headlong into bachelor gaiety, and eschew the company of those wise virgins who are keeping their matrimonial lamps so steadily burning. When a young gentleman of your turn of mind evinces a sudden dislike to ‘lovely woman,’ as good society presents her, he must be in love. Who is she?”
“Exactly. Nonsense, of course, which, likewise, is the end of all things. Love is nonsense—so philosophers tell us.”
“They have never been in love then,” groaned Bob, goaded to admit something.
“Oh, dear me, yes they have! That is the reason they speak so positively on the subject. It is painful while it lasts, but one gets over it. In old days one had time to fall in love with a woman. Now we all live so fast that I do not believe a man has time to know whom he ought to have married until his eldest son goes to college. Are you sure that you have fixed upon the right ‘object,’ my dear boy? Many young men of your impressionable temperament fancy themselves in love, and get married; and then, by Jove, sir, bricks without straw are nothing to it!”
Bob rolled about upon his sofa uneasily. He was eager to make someone his confidant, yet he did not know how to begin.
“What would you do now, Dacre, if you wanted to marry a girl?”
“Marry her”—said Dacre, with his eyes shut.
“Well—but—hang it—suppose she refused you?”
“Ask her again.”
“Suppose she was in love with somebody else?”
“Cut him out.”
“But suppose she loved him better?”
“In that improbable case, I should let her alone; because I should feel convinced that a merciful Providence had intervened to save me from marrying a woman of bad taste and worse judgment.”
Despite his heart-sickness, poor Bob laughed.
“You have got a good idea of your own value,” he said.
“My dear boy, I have ‘lived my life,’ as the German fellow says; and I have found out that one can marry ninety-nine women out of a hundred, if one only has pluck and opportunity.”
“But suppose a man falls in love with the hundredth?” says Bob.
“That is his misfortune. But even then, judicious manoeuvring may win her. You fellows are so confoundedly frightened! Women are merely human beings, my lovesick swain, and they don’t mind being made love to as long as you do it according to their own idea of the tender passion. It is no use beating about the bush, you know. Why don’t you go to your Beloved and tell her that you insist upon marrying her.”
Bob’s hair nearly stood on end at this daring proposal.
“My dear Dacre!”
“Of course I don’t know the young woman, so I can’t advise you as to your course of action; but you may depend upon it that, with the average ‘girl of the period,’ a little strength of mind is not out of place. Women, as a rule, hate bashful suitors.”
“Were you ever in love, Dacre?”
“Yes, once; and if I had married the girl I should have been ruined for life.”
“Wouldn’t she have you?” asked Bob, who was becoming interested.
“Oh, yes! She would have had me fast enough. She was governess to one of my sisters—Lady Ellesmere that is now, you know—and I was at college. Fortunately my father stopped the thing in time, and sent me to Germany.”
“Did you never see her again?”
“She wrote me a letter, all about love and duty, and so on, and forbade me to try and discover her. Of course I did try; but—contrary to the usual practice of women—she meant what she said, and left no address.”
“Did you never see her again?”
“Yes. She writes books now, and put me into one under the name of Launcelot Lisle. The critics said the character was ‘evidently drawn from the life.’ ’Gad, so it was.”
“She must be a clever girl,” said Bob.
“Girl! My dear fellow, do you know Miss Meutriére?”
“What! the fat woman with the big eyes?”
“The same. I don’t care about her now, you know, and she hates me.”
“Then you never could have loved each other,” said Bob, positively. Dacre laughed.
“Hallo! my boy, are you going to moralise? By Jove; perhaps you are right though. What does it matter? When one reaches fifty a good dinner is better than all the love in the world.”
Dacre rose and put his hand, not unkindly, upon the young man’s shoulder. Perhaps the conversation had touched some tender chord in that cynical heart of his, and set it vibrating to the old tune he had so long forgotten.
“Tell me who the woman is, old fellow. I daresay your case is not desperate.”
“Miss Ffrench,” said Bob.
Dacre started. Despite his suspicions, he had not expected that so sudden a conclusion had been arrived at.
“And did she refuse you?”
“No; but” (here he gave a great gulp) “I think that she loves her cousin.”
“Hum! She did not say so?”
“No; not in so many words—but—”
And Bob recounted what had passed between himself and Kate.
“So you left her?” said Dacre, when the story was finished. “You did not go back again, eh?”
“No: but as I shut the door I waited a minute, and I thought I heard a sob.”
“Did you? Ah! well, cheer up, you are not in such bad case after all.”
“Don’t you think so?”
“I’ll tell you what, old fellow, I will give you one piece of comfort.”
“This. Kate Ffrench will never marry Cyril Chatteris.”
“Ah! never mind. Will you trust me with your interest in the matter?”
Bob grasped his friend’s hand.
“My dear Dacre, of course.”
“Come, then, let us go and have dinner. Talking about love always makes me hungry.”