AT TEN o'clock in the evening Count de Sagreda walked into his club on the Boulevard des Capucins. There was a bustle among the servants to relieve him of his cane, his highly polished hat and his costly fur coat, which, as it left his shoulders revealed a shirt-bosom of immaculate neatness, a gardenia in his lapel, and all the attire of black and white, dignified yet brilliant, that belongs to a gentleman who has just dined.
The story of his ruin was known by every member of the club. His fortune, which fifteen years before had caused a certain commotion in Paris, having been ostentatiously cast to the four winds, was exhausted. The count was now living on the remains of his opulence, like those shipwrecked seamen who live upon the débris of the vessel, postponing in anguish the arrival of the last hour. The very servants who danced attendance upon him like slaves in dress suits, knew of his misfortune and discussed his shameful plight; but not even the slightest suggestion of insolence disturbed the colorless glance of their eyes, petrified by servitude. He was such a nobleman! He had scattered his money with such majesty!... Besides, he was a genuine member of the nobility, a nobility that dated back for centuries and whose musty odor inspired a certain ceremonious gravity in many of the citizens whose fore-bears had helped bring about the Revolution. He was not one of those Polish counts who permit themselves to be entertained by women, nor an Italian marquis who winds up by cheating at cards, nor a Russian personage of consequence who often draws his pay from the police; he was genuine _hidalgo_, a grandee of Spain. Perhaps one of his ancestors figured in the _Cid_, in _Ruy Blas_ or some other of the heroic pieces in the repertory of the Comédie Française.
The count entered the salons of the club with head erect and a proud gait, greeting his friends with a barely discernible smile, a mixture of hauteur and light-heartedness.
He was approaching his fortieth year, but he was still the _beau_ Sagreda, as he had long been nicknamed by the noctambulous women of Maxim's and the early-rising Amazons of the Bois. A few gray hairs at his temples and a triangle of faint wrinkles at the corner of his brows, betrayed the effects of an existence that had been lived at too rapid a pace, with the vital machinery running at full speed. But his eyes were still youthful, intense and melancholy; eyes that caused him to be called "the Moor" by his men and women friends. The Viscount de la Tresminière, crowned by the Academy as the author of a study on one of his ancestors who had been a companion of Condé, and highly appreciated by the antique dealers on the left bank of the Seine, who sold him all the bad canvases they had in store, called him _Velazquez_, satisfied that the swarthy, somewhat olive complexion of the count, his black, heavy mustache and his grave eyes, gave him the right to display his thorough acquaintance with Spanish art.
All the members of the club spoke of Sagreda's ruin with discreet compassion. The poor count! Not to fall heir to some new legacy. Not to meet some American millionairess who would be smitten with him and his titles!... They must do something to save him.
And he walked amid this mute and smiling pity without being at all aware of it, encased in his pride, receiving as admiration that which was really compassionate sympathy, forced to have recourse to painful simulations in order to surround himself with as much luxury as before, thinking that he was deceiving others and deceiving only himself.
Sagreda cherished no illusions as to the future. All the relatives that might come to his rescue with a timely legacy had done so many years before, upon making their exit from the world's stage. None that might recall his name was left beyond the mountains. In Spain he had only some distant relatives, personages of the nobility united to him more by historic bonds than by ties of blood. They addressed him familiarly, but he could expect from them no help other than good advice and admonitions against his wild extravagance.... It was all over. Fifteen years of dazzling display had consumed the supply of wealth with which Sagreda one day arrived in Paris. The granges of Andalusia, with their droves of cattle and horses, had changed hands without ever having made the acquaintance of this owner, devoted to luxury and always absent. After them, the vast wheat fields of Castilla and the ricefields of Valencia, and the villages of the northern provinces, had gone into strange hands,--all the princely possessions of the ancient counts of Sagreda, plus the inheritances from various pious spinster aunts, and the considerable legacies of other relatives who had died of old age in their ancient country houses.
Paris and the elegant summer seasons had in a few years devoured this fortune of centuries. The recollection of a few noisy love affairs with two actresses in vogue; the nostalgic smile of a dozen costly women of the world; the forgotten fame of several duels; a certain prestige as a rash, calm gambler, and a reputation as a knightly swordsman, intransigent in matters of honor, were all that remained to the _beau_ Sagreda after his downfall.
He lived upon his past, contracting new debts with certain providers who, recalling other financial crises, trusted to a re-establishment of his fortune. "His fate was settled," according to the count's own words. When he could do no more, he would resort to a final course. Kill himself?... never. Men like him committed suicide only because of gambling debts or debts of honor. Ancestors of his, noble and glorious, had owed huge sums to persons who were not their equals, without for a moment considering suicide on this account. When the creditors should shut their doors to him, and the money-lenders should threaten him with a public court scandal, Count de Sagreda, making a heroic effort, would wrench himself away from the sweet Parisian life. His ancestors had been soldiers and colonizers. He would join the foreign legion of Algeria, or would take passage for that America which had been conquered by his forefathers, becoming a mounted shepherd in the solitudes of Southern Chile or upon the boundless plains of Patagonia.
Until the dreaded moment should arrive, this hazardous, cruel existence that forced him to live a continuous lie, was the best period of his career. From his last trip to Spain, made for the purpose of liquidating certain remnants of his patrimony, he had returned with a woman, a maiden of the provinces who had been captivated by the prestige of the nobleman; in her affection, ardent and submissive at the same time, there was almost as much admiration as love. A woman!... Sagreda for the first time realized the full significance of this word, as if up to then he had not understood it. His present companion was a woman; the nervous, dissatisfied females who had filled his previous existence, with their painted smiles and voluptuous artifices, belonged to another species.
And now that the real woman had arrived, his money was departing forever!... And when misfortune appeared, love came with it!... Sagreda, lamenting his lost fortune struggled hard to maintain his pompous outward show. He lived as before, in the same house, without retrenching his budget, making his companion presents of value equal to those that he had lavished upon his former women friends, enjoying an almost paternal satisfaction before the childish surprise and the ingenuous happiness of the poor girl, who was overwhelmed by the brilliant life of Paris.
Sagreda was drowning,--drowning!--but with a smile on his lips, content with himself, with his present life, with this sweet dream, which was to be the final one and which was lasting miraculously long. Fate, which had maltreated him in the past few years, consuming the remainders of his wealth at Monte Carlo, at Ostend and in the notable clubs of the Boulevard, seemed now to stretch out a helping hand, touched by his new existence. Every night, after dining with his companion at a fashionable restaurant, he would leave her at the theatre and go to his club, the only place where luck awaited him. He did not plunge heavily. Simple games of écarté with intimate friends, chums of his youth, who continued their happy career with the aid of great fortunes, or who had settled down after marrying wealth, retaining among their farmer habits the custom of visiting the honorable circle.
Scarcely did the count take his seat, with his cards in his hand, opposite one of these friends, when Fortune seemed to hover over his head, and his friends did not tire of playing, inviting him to a game every night, as if they stood in line awaiting their turn. His winnings were hardly enough to grow wealthy upon; some nights ten _louis_; others twenty-five; on special occasions Sagreda would retire with as many as forty gold coins in his pocket. But thanks to this almost daily gain he was able to fill the gaps of his lordly existence, which threatened to topple down upon his head, and he maintained his lady companion in surroundings of loving comfort, at the same time recovering confidence in his immediate future. Who could tell what was in store for him?...
Noticing Viscount de la Tresminière in one of the salons he smiled at him with an expression of friendly challenge.
"What do you say to a game?"
"As you wish, my dear _Velazquez_."
"Seven francs per five points will be sufficient. I'm sure to win. Luck is with me."
The game commenced under the soft light of the electric bulbs, amid the soothing silence of soft carpets and thick curtains.
Sagreda kept winning, as if his kind fate was pleased to extricate him from the most difficult passes. He won without half trying. It made no difference that he lacked trumps and that he held bad cards; those of his rival were always worse, and the result would be miraculously in harmony with his previous games.
Already, twenty-five golden _louis_ lay before him. A club companion, who was wandering from one salon to the other with a bored expression, stopped near the players interested in the game. At first he remained standing near Sagreda; then he took up his position behind the viscount, who seemed to be rendered nervous and perturbed at the fellow's proximity.
"But that's awful silly of you!" the inquisitive newcomer soon exclaimed. "You're not playing a good game, my dear viscount. You're laying aside your trumps and using only your bad cards. How stupid of you!"
He could say no more. Sagreda threw his cards upon the table. He had grown terribly white, with a greenish pallor. His eyes, opened extraordinarily wide, stared at the viscount. Then he rose.
"I understand," he said coldly. "Allow me to withdraw."
Then, with a quivering hand, he thrust the heap of gold coins toward his friend.
"This belongs to you."
"But, my dear _Velazquez_.... Why, Sagreda!... Permit me to explain, dear count!..."
"Enough, sir. I repeat that I understand."
His eyes flashed with a strange gleam, the selfsame gleam that his friends had seen upon various occasions, when after a brief dispute or an insulting word, he raised his glove in a gesture of challenge.
But this hostile glance lasted only a moment. Then he smiled with glacial affability.
"Many thanks, Viscount. These are favors that are never forgotten.... I repeat my gratitude."
And he saluted, like a true noble, walking off proudly erect, the same as in the most smiling days of his opulence.
* * *
With his fur coat open, displaying his immaculate shirt bosom, Count de Sagreda promenades along the boulevard. The crowds are issuing from the theatres; the women are crossing from one sidewalk to the other; automobiles with lighted interiors roll by, affording a momentary glimpse of plumes, jewels and white bosoms; the news-vendors shout their wares; at the top of the buildings huge electrical advertisements blaze forth and go out in rapid succession.
The Spanish grandee, the _hidalgo_, the descendant of the noble knights of the _Cid_ and _Ruy Blas_, walks against the current, elbowing his way through the crowd, desiring to hasten as fast as possible, without any particular objective in view.
To contract debts!... Very well. Debts do not dishonor a nobleman. But to receive alms?... In his hours of blackest thoughts he had never trembled before the idea of incurring scorn through his ruin, of seeing his friends desert him, of descending to the lowest depths, being lost in the social substratum. But to arouse compassion....
The comedy was useless. The intimate friends who smiled at him in former times had penetrated the secret of his poverty and had been moved by pity to get together and take turns at giving him alms under the pretext of gambling with him. And likewise his other friends, and even the servants who bowed to him with their accustomed respect as he passed by, were in the secret. And he, the poor dupe, was going about with his lordly airs, stiff and solemn in his extinct grandeur, like the corpse of the lengendary chieftain, which, after his death, was mounted on horseback and sallied forth to win battles.
Farewell, Count de Sagreda! The heir of governors and viceroys can become a nameless soldier in a legion of desperadoes and bandits; he can begin life anew as an adventurer in virgin lands, killing that he may live; he can even watch with impassive countenance the wreck of his name and his family history, before the bench of a tribunal.... But to live upon the compassion of his friends!...
Farewell forever, final illusions! The count has forgotten his companion, who is waiting for him at a night restaurant. He does not think of her; it is as if he never had seen her; as if she had never existed. He thinks not at all of that which but a few hours before had made life worth living. He walks along, alone with his disgrace, and each step of his seems to draw from the earth a dead thing; an ancestral influence, a racial prejudice, a family boast, dormant hauteur, honor and fierce pride, and as these awake, they oppress his breast and cloud his thoughts.
How they must have laughed at him behind his back, with condescending pity!... Now he walks along more hurriedly than ever, as if he has at last made up his mind just where he is going, and his emotion leads him unconsciously to murmur with irony, as if he is speaking to somebody who is at his heels and whom he desires to flee.
"Many thanks! Many thanks!"
Just before dawn two revolver shots astound the guests of a hotel in the vicinity of the _Gare Saint-Lazare_,--one of those ambiguous establishments that offers a safe shelter for amorous acquaintances begun on the thoroughfare.
The attendants find in one of the rooms a gentleman dressed in evening clothes, with a hole in his head, through which escape bloody strips of flesh. The man writhes like a worm upon the threadbare carpet.
His eyes, of a dull black, still glitter with life. There is nothing left in them of the image of his sweet companion. His last thought, interrupted by death, is of friendship, terrible in its pity; of the fraternal insult of a generous, light-hearted compassion.