Authors: A. E. W. Mason
It was Mr. Ricardo's habit as soon as the second week of August came
round to travel to Aix-les-Bains, in Savoy, where for five or six weeks
he lived pleasantly. He pretended to take the waters in the morning, he
went for a ride in his motor-car in the afternoon, he dined at the
Cercle in the evening, and spent an hour or two afterwards in the
baccarat-rooms at the Villa des Fleurs. An enviable, smooth life
without a doubt, and it is certain that his acquaintances envied him.
At the same time, however, they laughed at him and, alas with some
justice; for he was an exaggerated person. He was to be construed in
the comparative. Everything in his life was a trifle overdone, from the
fastidious arrangement of his neckties to the feminine nicety of his
little dinner-parties. In age Mr. Ricardo was approaching the fifties;
in condition he was a widower—a state greatly to his liking, for he
avoided at once the irksomeness of marriage and the reproaches justly
levelled at the bachelor; finally, he was rich, having amassed a
fortune in Mincing Lane, which he had invested in profitable securities.
Ten years of ease, however, had not altogether obliterated in him the
business look. Though he lounged from January to December, he lounged
with the air of a financier taking a holiday; and when he visited, as
he frequently did, the studio of a painter, a stranger would have
hesitated to decide whether he had been drawn thither by a love of art
or by the possibility of an investment. His "acquaintances" have been
mentioned, and the word is suitable. For while he mingled in many
circles, he stood aloof from all. He affected the company of artists,
by whom he was regarded as one ambitious to become a connoisseur; and
amongst the younger business men, who had never dealt with him, he
earned the disrespect reserved for the dilettante. If he had a grief,
it was that he had discovered no great man who in return for practical
favours would engrave his memory in brass. He was a Maecenas without a
Horace, an Earl of Southampton without a Shakespeare. In a word,
Aix-les-Bains in the season was the very place for him; and never for a
moment did it occur to him that he was here to be dipped in agitations,
and hurried from excitement to excitement. The beauty of the little
town, the crowd of well-dressed and agreeable people, the rose-coloured
life of the place, all made their appeal to him. But it was the Villa
des Fleurs which brought him to Aix. Not that he played for anything
more than an occasional louis; nor, on the other hand, was he merely a
cold looker-on. He had a bank-note or two in his pocket on most
evenings at the service of the victims of the tables. But the pleasure
to his curious and dilettante mind lay in the spectacle of the battle
which was waged night after night between raw nature and good manners.
It was extraordinary to him how constantly manners prevailed. There
were, however, exceptions.
For instance. On the first evening of this particular visit he found
the rooms hot, and sauntered out into the little semicircular garden at
the back. He sat there for half an hour under a flawless sky of stars
watching the people come and go in the light of the electric lamps, and
appreciating the gowns and jewels of the women with the eye of a
connoisseur; and then into this starlit quiet there came suddenly a
flash of vivid life. A girl in a soft, clinging frock of white satin
darted swiftly from the rooms and flung herself nervously upon a bench.
She could not, to Ricardo's thinking, be more than twenty years of age.
She was certainly quite young. The supple slenderness of her figure
proved it, and he had moreover caught a glimpse, as she rushed out, of
a fresh and very pretty face; but he had lost sight of it now. For the
girl wore a big black satin hat with a broad brim, from which a couple
of white ostrich feathers curved over at the back, and in the shadow of
that hat her face was masked. All that he could see was a pair of long
diamond eardrops, which sparkled and trembled as she moved her
head—and that she did constantly. Now she stared moodily at the
ground; now she flung herself back; then she twisted nervously to the
right, and then a moment afterwards to the left; and then again she
stared in front of her, swinging a satin slipper backwards and forwards
against the pavement with the petulance of a child. All her movements
were spasmodic; she was on the verge of hysteria. Ricardo was expecting
her to burst into tears, when she sprang up and as swiftly as she had
come she hurried back into the rooms. "Summer lightning," thought Mr.
Near to him a woman sneered, and a man said, pityingly: "She was
pretty, that little one. It is regrettable that she has lost."
A few minutes afterwards Ricardo finished his cigar and strolled back
into the rooms, making his way to the big table just on the right hand
of the entrance, where the play as a rule runs high. It was clearly
running high tonight. For so deep a crowd thronged about the table that
Ricardo could only by standing on tiptoe see the faces of the players.
Of the banker he could not catch a glimpse. But though the crowd
remained, its units were constantly changing, and it was not long
before Ricardo found himself standing in the front rank of the
spectators, just behind the players seated in the chairs. The oval
green table was spread out beneath him littered with bank-notes.
Ricardo turned his eyes to the left, and saw seated at the middle of
the table the man who was holding the bank. Ricardo recognised him with
a start of surprise. He was a young Englishman, Harry Wethermill, who,
after a brilliant career at Oxford and at Munich, had so turned his
scientific genius to account that he had made a fortune for himself at
the age of twenty-eight.
He sat at the table with the indifferent look of the habitual player
upon his cleanly chiselled face. But it was plain that his good fortune
stayed at his elbow tonight, for opposite to him the croupier was
arranging with extraordinary deftness piles of bank-notes in the order
of their value. The bank was winning heavily. Even as Ricardo looked
Wethermill turned up "a natural," and the croupier swept in the stakes
from either side.
"Faites vos jeux, messieurs. Le jeu est fait?" the croupier cried, all
in a breath, and repeated the words. Wethermill waited with his hand
upon the wooden frame in which the cards were stacked. He glanced round
the table while the stakes were being laid upon the cloth, and suddenly
his face flashed from languor into interest. Almost opposite to him a
small, white-gloved hand holding a five-louis note was thrust forward
between the shoulders of two men seated at the table. Wethermill leaned
forward and shook his head with a smile. With a gesture he refused the
stake. But he was too late. The fingers of the hand had opened, the
note fluttered down on to the cloth, the money was staked.
At once he leaned back in his chair.
"Il y a une suite," he said quietly. He relinquished the bank rather
than play against that five-louis note. The stakes were taken up by
The croupier began to count Wethermill's winnings, and Ricardo, curious
to know whose small, delicately gloved hand it was which had brought
the game to so abrupt a termination, leaned forward. He recognised the
young girl in the white satin dress and the big black hat whose nerves
had got the better of her a few minutes since in the garden. He saw her
now clearly, and thought her of an entrancing loveliness. She was
moderately tall, fair of skin, with a fresh colouring upon her cheeks
which she owed to nothing but her youth. Her hair was of a light brown
with a sheen upon it, her forehead broad, her eyes dark and wonderfully
clear. But there was something more than her beauty to attract him. He
had a strong belief that somewhere, some while ago, he had already seen
her. And this belief grew and haunted him. He was still vaguely
puzzling his brains to fix the place when the croupier finished his
"There are two thousand louis in the bank," he cried. "Who will take on
the bank for two thousand louis?"
No one, however, was willing. A fresh bank was put up for sale, and
Wethermill, still sitting in the dealer's chair, bought it. He spoke at
once to an attendant, and the man slipped round the table, and, forcing
his way through the crowd, carried a message to the girl in the black
hat. She looked towards Wethermill and smiled; and the smile made her
face a miracle of tenderness. Then she disappeared, and in a few
moments Ricardo saw a way open in the throng behind the banker, and she
appeared again only a yard or two away, just behind Wethermill. He
turned, and taking her hand into his, shook it chidingly.
"I couldn't let you play against me, Celia," he said, in English; "my
luck's too good tonight. So you shall be my partner instead. I'll put
in the capital and we'll share the winnings."
The girl's face flushed rosily. Her hand still lay clasped in his. She
made no effort to withdraw it.
"I couldn't do that," she exclaimed.
"Why not?" said he. "See!" and loosening her fingers he took from them
the five-louis note and tossed it over to the croupier to be added to
his bank. "Now you can't help yourself. We're partners."
The girl laughed, and the company at the table smiled, half in
sympathy, half with amusement. A chair was brought for her, and she sat
down behind Wethermill, her lips parted, her face joyous with
excitement. But all at once Wethermill's luck deserted him. He renewed
his bank three times, and had lost the greater part of his winnings
when he had dealt the cards through. He took a fourth bank, and rose
from that, too, a loser.
"That's enough, Celia," he said. "Let us go out into the garden; it
will be cooler there."
"I have taken your good luck away," said the girl remorsefully.
Wethermill put his arm through hers.
"You'll have to take yourself away before you can do that," he
answered, and the couple walked together out of Ricardo's hearing.
Ricardo was left to wonder about Celia. She was just one of those
problems which made Aix-les-Bains so unfailingly attractive to him. She
dwelt in some street of Bohemia; so much was clear. The frankness of
her pleasure, of her excitement, and even of her distress proved it.
She passed from one to the other while you could deal a pack of cards.
She was at no pains to wear a mask. Moreover, she was a young girl of
nineteen or twenty, running about those rooms alone, as unembarrassed
as if she had been at home. There was the free use, too, of Christian
names. Certainly she dwelt in Bohemia. But it seemed to Ricardo that
she could pass in any company and yet not be overpassed. She would look
a little more picturesque than most girls of her age, and she was
certainly a good deal more soignee than many, and she had the
Frenchwoman's knack of putting on her clothes. But those would be all
the differences, leaving out the frankness. Ricardo wondered in what
street of Bohemia she dwelt. He wondered still more when he saw her
again half an hour afterwards at the entrance to the Villa des Fleurs.
She came down the long hall with Harry Wethermill at her side. The
couple were walking slowly, and talking as they walked with so complete
an absorption in each other that they were unaware of their
surroundings. At the bottom of the steps a stout woman of fifty-five
over-jewelled, and over-dressed and raddled with paint, watched their
approach with a smile of good-humoured amusement. When they came near
enough to hear she said in French: