A gentleman was strolling down a side street in Paris, on his way back from the house of one Madame de Verchoureux. He walked mincingly, for the red heels of his shoes were very high. A long purple cloak, rose-lined, hung from his shoulders and was allowed to fall carelessly back from his dress, revealing a full-skirted coat of purple satin, heavily laced with gold; a waistcoat of flowered silk; faultless small clothes; and a lavish sprinkling of jewels on his cravat and breast. A three-cornered hat, point-edged, was set upon his powdered wig, and in his hand he carried a long beribboned cane. It was a little enough protection against footpads, and although a light dress sword hung at the gentleman's side its hilt was lost in the folds of his cloak, not quickly to be found. At this late hour, and in this deserted street, it was the height of foolhardiness to walk unattended and flaunting jewels, but the gentleman seemed unaware of his recklessness. He proceeded languidly on his way, glancing neither to left nor to right, apparently heedless of possible danger.
But as he walked down the street, idly twirling his cane, a body hurled itself upon him, shot like a cannon-ball from a dark alley that yawned to the right of the magnificent gentleman. The figure clutched at that elegant cloak, cried out in a startled voice, and tried to regain his balance.
His Grace of Avon swirled about, gripping his assailant's wrists and bearing them downwards with a merciless strength belied by his foppish appearance. His victim gave a whimper of pain and sank quivering to his knees.
"M'sieur! Ah, let me go! I did not mean—I did not know—I would not—Ah, m'sieur, let me go!"
His Grace bent over the boy, standing a little to one side so that the light of an adjacent street lamp fell on that white agonized countenance. Great violet-blue eyes gazed wildly up at him, terror in their depths.
"'Surely you are a little young for this game?" drawled the Duke. "Or did you think to take me unawares?"
The boy flushed, and his eyes grew dark with indignation.
"I did not seek to rob you! Indeed, indeed I did not! I—I was running away! I—oh, m'sieur, let me go!"
"In good time, my child. From what were you running, may I ask? From another victim?"
"No! Oh, please let me go! You—you do not understand ! He will have started in pursuit! Ah, please, please, milor'!"
The Duke's curious, heavy-lidded eyes never wavered from the boy's face. They had widened suddenly, and become intent.
"And who, child, is 'he'?"
"My—my brother. Oh, please——"
Round the corner of the alley came a man, full-tilt. At sight of Avon he checked. The boy shuddered, and now clung to Avon's arm.
"Ah!" exploded the new-comer. "Now, by God, if the whelp has sought to rob you, milor' he shall pay for it! You scoundrel! Ungrateful brat! You shall be sorry, I promise you! Milor', a thousand apologies! The lad is my young brother. I was beating him for his laziness when he slipped from me——"
The Duke raised a scented handkerchief to his thin nostrils.
"Keep your distance, fellow," he said haughtily. "Doubtless beating is good for the young."
The boy shrank closer to him. He made no attempt to escape, but his hands twitched convulsively. Once again the Duke's strange eyes ran over him, resting for a moment on the copper-red curls that were cut short and ruffled into wild disorder.
"As I remarked, beating is good for the young. Your brother, you said?" He glanced now at the swarthy, coarse-featured young man.
"Yes, noble sir, my brother. I have cared for him since our parents died, and he repays me with ingratitude. He is a curse, noble sir, a curse!"
The Duke seemed to reflect.
"How old is he, fellow?"
"He is nineteen, milor'."
The Duke surveyed the boy.
"Nineteen. Is he not a little small for his age?"
"Why, milor', if—if he is it is no fault of mine! I—I have fed him well. I pray you, do not heed what he says! He is a viper, a wild-cat, a veritable curse!"
"I will relieve you of the curse," said his Grace calmly.
The man stared, uncomprehending.
"I suppose he is for sale?"
A cold hand stole into the Duke's, and clutched it.
"Sale, milor'? You——"
"I believe I will buy him to be my page. What is his worth? A louis? Or are curses worthless? An interesting problem."
The man's eyes gleamed suddenly with avaricious cunning.
"He is a good boy, noble sir. He can work. Indeed, he is worth much to me. And I have an affection for him. I——"
"I will give you a guinea for your curse."
"Ah, but no, milor'! He is worth more! Much, much more!"
"Then keep him," said Avon, and moved on.
The boy ran to him, clinging to his arm.
"Milor', take me! Oh please take me! I will work well for you! I swear it! Oh, I beg of you, take me!"
His Grace paused.
"I wonder if I am a fool?" he said in English. He drew the diamond pin from his cravat, and held it so that it winked and sparkled in the light of the lamp. "Well, fellow? Will this suffice?"
The man gazed at the jewel as though he could hardly believe his eyes. He rubbed them, and drew nearer, staring.
"For this," Avon said, "I purchase your brother, body and soul. Well?"
"Give it me!" whispered the man, and stretched out his hand. "The boy is yours, milor'."
Avon tossed the pin to him.
"I believe I requested you to keep your distance," he said. "You offend my nostrils. Child, follow me." On he went, down the street, with the boy at a respectful distance behind him.
They came at last to the Rue St.-Honoré, and to Avon's house. He passed in with never a glance behind him to see whether his new possession followed or not, and walked across the courtyard to the great nail-studded door. Bowing lackeys admitted him, looking in surprise at the shabby figure who came in his wake.
The Duke let fall his cloak, and handed his hat to one of the footmen.
"Mr. Davenant?" he said.
"In the library, your Grace."
Avon sauntered across the hall to the library door. It was opened for him, and he went in, nodding to the boy to follow.
Hugh Davenant sat by the fire, reading a book of poems. He glanced up as his host came in, and smiled.
"Well, Justin?" Then he saw the shrinking child by the door. "Faith, what have we here?"
"You may well ask," said the Duke. He came to the fire, and stretched one elegantly shod foot to the blaze. "A whim. That dirty and starved scrap of humanity is mine." He spoke in English, but it was evident that the boy understood, for he flushed, and hung his curly head.
"Yours?" Davenant looked from him to the boy. "What mean you, Alastair? Surely—you cannot mean—your son?"
"Oh, no!" His Grace smiled in some amusement. "Not this time, my dear Hugh. I bought this little rat for the sum of one diamond."
"But—but why, in heaven's name?"
"I have no idea," said his Grace placidly. "Come here, rat."
The boy came to him timidly, and allowed Justin to turn his face to the light.
"Quite a pretty child," the Duke remarked. "I shall make him my page. So entertaining to possess a page, body and soul."
Davenant rose, and took one of the boy's hands in his.
"I suppose you will explain, some time or another," he said. "For the present, why not feed the poor child?"
"You are always so efficient," sighed the Duke. He turned to the table, on which a cold supper was laid, awaiting him. "Wonderful. You might almost have known that I should bring home a guest. You may eat, little rat."
The boy looked up at him shyly.
"Please, milor', I can wait. I—I would not eat your supper. I would rather wait, if—if you please."
"I do not please, my child. Go and eat." He sat down as he spoke, twirling his quizzing glass. After a moment's hesitation the boy went to the table and waited for Hugh to carve him a leg of chicken. Having supplied his wants, Hugh came back to the fire.
"Are you mad, Justin?" he asked, faintly smiling.
"I believe not."
"Then why have you done this? What do you, of all men, want with a child of his age?"
"I thought it might be an amusement. As you doubtless know, I am suffering from ennui. Louise wearies me. This—" he waved one white hand towards the famished boy—"is a heaven-sent diversion."
"You surely do not intend to adopt the child?"
"You are going to make him as your son?" persisted Hugh incredulously.
The Duke's eyebrows rose, rather superciliously.
"My dear Hugh! A child from the gutter? He shall be my page."
"And what interest will that afford you?"
Justin smiled, and his glance travelled to the boy.
"I wonder?" he said softly.
"You have some special reason?"
"As you so sapiently remark, my dear Hugh, I have some special reason."
Davenant shrugged his shoulders, and allowed the subject to drop. He sat watching the child at the table, who presently finished his repast, and came to the Duke's side.
"If you please, sir, I have finished."
Avon put up his eyeglass.
"Have you?" he said.
The boy knelt suddenly and, to Davenant's surprise, kissed the Duke's hand.
"Yes, sir. Thank you."
Avon disengaged himself, but the boy knelt still, looking up into the handsome face with humble eyes. The Duke took a pinch of snuff.
"My esteemed child, there sits the man you had best thank." He waved his hand towards Davenant. "I should never have thought of feeding you."
"I—I thanked you for saving me from Jean, milor'," the boy answered.
"You are reserved for a worse fate," said the Duke sardonically. "You now belong to me—body and soul."
"Yes, sir. If you please," murmured the boy, and sent him a swift glance of admiration from beneath his long lashes.
The thin lips curled a little.
"The prospect is no doubt pleasing?"
"Yes, sir. I—I would like to serve you."
"But then, you do not know me very well," said Justin, with a slight chuckle. "I am an inhuman taskmaster, eh, Hugh?"
"You are not the man to care for a child of his age," said Hugh quietly.
"True, very true. Shall I give him to you?"
A trembling hand touched his great cuff.
Justin looked across at his friend.
"I do not think I shall, Hugh. It is so entertaining, and so—er—novel, to be a gilded saint in the eyes of—er—unfledged innocence. I shall keep the boy for just so long as he continues to amuse me. What is your name, my child?"
"How delightfully brief I" Always a faint undercurrent of sarcasm ran beneath the surface of the Duke's smooth voice. "Léon. No more, no less. The question is—Hugh will of course have the answer ready—what next to do with Léon?"
"Put him to bed," said Davenant.
"Naturally—And do you think—a bath?"
"By all means."
"Ah yes!" sighed the Duke, and struck a handbell at his side.
A lackey came in answer to the summons, bowing deeply.
"Your Grace desires?"
"Send me Walker," said Justin.
The lackey effaced himself, and presently a neat individual came in, grey-haired and prim.
"Walker! I had something to say to you. Yes, I remember. Walker, do you observe this child?"
Walker glanced at the kneeling boy.
"Ay, your Grace."
"He does. Marvellous," murmured the Duke. "His name, Walker, is Léon. Strive to bear it in mind."
"Certainly, your Grace."
"He requires several things, but first a bath."
"Ay, your Grace."
"Secondly, a bed."
"Yes, your Grace."
"Thirdly, a nightgown."
"Yes, your Grace."
"Fourthly, and lastly, a suit of clothes. Black."
"Black, your Grace."
"Severe and funereal black, as shall befit my page. You will procure them. No doubt you will prove yourself equal to this occasion. Take the child away, and show him the bath, the bed, and the nightgown. And then leave him alone."
"Very good, your Grace."
"And you, Léon, rise. Go with the estimable Walker. I shall see you to-morrow."
Léon came to his feet, and bowed.
"Yes, Monseigneur. Thank you."
"Pray, do not thank me again," yawned the Duke. "It fatigues me." He watched Léon go out, and turned to survey Davenant.
Hugh looked full into his eyes.
"What does this mean, Alastair?"
The Duke crossed his legs, and swung one foot.
"I wonder?" he said pleasantly. "I thought that you would be able to tell me. You are always so omniscient, my dear."
"Some scheme you have in mind, I know," Hugh said positively. "I have known you long enough to be sure of that. What do you want with that child?"
"You are sometimes most importunate," complained Justin. "Never more so than when you become virtuously severe. Pray spare me a homily."
"I have no intention of lecturing you. All I would say is that it is impossible for you to take that child as your page."
"Dear me!" said Justin, and gazed pensively into the fire.
"For one thing, he is of gentle birth. One can tell that from his speech, and his delicate hands and face. For another—his innocence shines out of his eyes."
"How very distressing!"
"It would be very distressing if that innocence left him—because of you," Hugh said, a hint of grimness in his rather dreamy voice.
"Always so polite," murmured the Duke.
"If you wish to be kind to him——"
"My dear Hugh! I thought you said you knew me?"
Davenant smiled at that.
"Well, Justin, as a favour to me, will you give me Léon, and seek a page elsewhere?"
"I am always sorry to disappoint you, Hugh. I desire to act up to your expectations on all possible occasions. So I shall keep Léon. Innocence shall walk behind Evil—you see, I forestall you—clad in sober black."
"Why do you want him? At least tell me that?"
"He has Titian hair," said Justin blandly. "Titian hair has ever been one of—my—ruling—passions." The hazel eyes glinted for a moment, and were swiftly veiled. "I am sure you will sympathize with me."
Hugh rose and walked to the table. He poured himself out a glass of burgundy, and sipped it for a time in silence.
"Where have you been this evening?" he asked at length.
"I really forget. I believe I went first to De Touronne's house. Yes, I remember now. I won. Strange."
"Why strange?" inquired Hugh.
Justin nicked a grain of snuff from his great cuff.
"Because, Hugh, in the days, not so long since, when it was—ah—common knowledge that the noble family of Alastair was on the verge of ruin—yes, Hugh, even when I was mad enough to contemplate marriage with the present—er—Lady Merivale—I could only lose."
"I've seen you win thousands in a night, Justin."
"And lose them the following night. Then, if you remember, I went away with you to—now, where did we go? Rome! Of course!"
The thin lips sneered a little.
"Yes. I was the—ah—rejected and heart-broken suitor. I should have blown my brains out to be quite correct. But I was past the age of drama. Instead I proceeded—in due course—to Vienna. And I won. The reward, my dear Hugh, of vice."
Hugh tilted his glass, watching the candle-light play on the dark wine.
"I heard," he said slowly, "that the man from whom you won that fortune—a young man, Justin——"
"—with a blameless character."
"Yes. That young man—so I heard—did blow his brains out."
"You were misinformed, my dear. He was shot in a duel. The reward of virtue. The moral is sufficiently pointed, I think?"
"And you came to Paris with a fortune."
"Quite a considerable one. I bought this house."
"Yes. I wonder how you reconcile it with your soul?"
"I haven't one, Hugh. I thought you knew that."
"When Jennifer Beauchamp married Anthony Merivale you had something approaching a soul."
"Had I?" Justin regarded him with some amusement.
Hugh met his look.
"And I wonder too what Jennifer Beauchamp is to you now?"
Justin held up one beautiful white hand.
"Jennifer Merivale, Hugh. She is the memory of a failure, and of a spell of madness."
"And yet you have never been quite the same since."
Justin rose, and now the sneer was marked.
"I told you half an hour ago, my dear, that it was my endeavour to act up to your expectations. Three years ago —in fact, when I heard from my sister Fanny of Jennifer's marriage—you said with your customary simplicity that although she would not accept my suit, she had made me. Voilà tout."
"No." Hugh looked thoughtfully across at him. "I was wrong, but——"
"My dear Hugh, pray do not destroy my faith in you!"
"I was wrong, but not so much wrong. I should have said that Jennifer prepared the way for another woman to make you."
Justin closed his eyes.
"When you become profound, Hugh, you cause me to regret the day that saw me admit you into the select ranks of my friends."
"You have so many, have you not?" said Hugh, flushing.
"Parfaitement." Justin walked to the door. "Where there is money there are also—friends."
Davenant set down his glass.
"Is that meant for an insult?" he said quietly.
Justin paused, his hand on the door-knob.
"Strange to say, it was not. But by all means call me out."
Hugh laughed suddenly.
"Oh, go to bed, Justin! You are quite impossible!"
"So you have often told me. Good night, my dear." He went out, but before he had shut the door bethought himself of something, and looked back, smiling. "A propos, Hugh, I have got a soul. It has just had a bath, and is now asleep."
"God help it!" Hugh said gravely.
"I am not sure of my cue. Do I say amen, or retire cursing?" His eyes mocked, but the smile in them was not unpleasant. He did not wait for an answer, but shut the door, and went slowly up to bed.