This section is from the book "The Skeleton Key", by Bernard Capes. Also available from Amazon: The Skeleton Key.
Kennett laughed, and then frowned, and turned away to chalk his cue. The two men were in the billiard-room, playing a hundred up before dinner.
' Well,' he said, stooping to a losing hazard,' I hope a fellow may be a good fellow, and yet not tell all that's in him'.
'Of course he may,' answered Bickerdike. 'Le Sage, I'm sure, is a very good fellow, a very decent old boy, and rare company when he chooses-I can answer for that. But there's a difference between telling all that's in.one and not telling anything.'
'Well, perhaps he thinks,' said the other impatiently, ' that if he onte opened the sluice he'd drain the dammed river. Do let him alone and attend to the game'.
Bickerdike responded, unruffled. He had found his friend in a curiously touchy state--irritable, and nervous, and moody. He had known him to be so before, though never, perhaps, so conspicuously. Hugo was temperamentally high-strung, and always subject to alternations of excitement and despondence; but he had not yet exhibited so unbalanced a temper as he seemed inclined to display on this occasion. He was wild, reckless, dejected, but seldom normal, appearing possessed by a spirit which in turns exalted or depressed him. What was wrong with the boy? His friend, covertly pondering the handsome young figure, found sufficient solution in the commonplace. He was in one of his nervous phases, that was all. They would afflict men subject to them at any odd time, and without apparent provocation. It was one of the mysteries of our organic being--a question of misfit somewhere between spirit and matter. No one looking at the young soldier would have thought him anything but a typical example of his kind-- constitutionally flawless, mentally insensitive. He belonged to a crack regiment, and was popular in it; was tall, shapely-built, attractive, with a rather girlish complexion and umber-gold hair--a ladies' man, a pattern military man, everything nice. And yet that demon of nerve worked in him to his perfection's undoing. Perhaps it was the prick of conscience, like a shifting grit in one's shoe, now here, now there, now gone-for the boy had quite fine impulses- for a spoilt boy, a spoilt child of Fortune-and spoilt, Like Byron by his mother, in the ruinous way. His father, the General, alternately indulgent and tyrannical, was the worst of parents for him ; he had lost his mother long ago ; his one sister, flippant, independent-undervalued, it may be, and conscious of it-offered no adequate substitute for that departed influence. And so the good in Hugo was to his own credit, and stood perhaps for more than it might have in another man.
His father, Sir Calvin-he had got his K.C.B., by the way, after Tel-el-Kebir in '82, in reward for some signal feat of arms, and at the expense of his trigger-finger--was as proud as sin of his comely lad, and blind to all faults in him which did not turn upon opposition to himself. He designed great connexions for the young man, and humoured his own selfishness in the prospect. He was a martinet of fifty-five, with a fine surface polish and a heart of teak beneath it, a patrician of the Claudian breed, irascible, much subject to gout for his past misdeeds, and an ardent devotee of the game of chess, at which he could hold his own with some of the professed masters. It was that devotion which had brought him fortuitously acquainted with the French Baron- a sort of technical friendship, it might be called-- and which had procured the latter an occasional invitation of late to Wildshott. Le Sage came for chess, but he proved very welcome for himself.
There was a sort of soothing tolerance about him, the well-informed urbanity of a polished man of the world, which was as good as a lenitive to the splenetic invalid. But nobody, unless it were Sir Calvin himself, appeared to know anything concerning him; whether he were rich or indigent; what, if dependent on his wits, he did for a living; what was the meaning or value of his title in an Englishman, if English he were; whether, in short, he were a shady Baron of the chevalier d'industrie order, or a reputable Baron, with only some eccentricities to mark him out from the common. One of these, not necessarily questionable, was his sly ^communicativeness; another was his fondness for half-crowns. He invariably, whether with Sir Calvin or others, made that stake, no more and no less, .a condition of his playing at all, and for the most part he carried it off. Vivian Bickerdike soon learned all that there was to be told about him, and he was puzzled and interested :-'intrigued,' as they would say in the horrible modern phrase. But being a young man of caution, in addition to great native curiosity, he kept his wits active, and his suspicions, if he had any, close.
The game proceeded-badly enough on the part of Hugo, who was generally a skilful player. He fouled or missed so many shots that his form presently became a scandal. ' Phew!' whistled his opponent, after a peculiarly villainous attempt; 'what's gone wrong with you? '
The young man laughed vexedly; then, in a sudden transition to violence, threw his cue from him so that it clattered on the floor.
'I can't play for nuts,' he said. 'You must get somebody else'.
'Hugh,' said his friend, after a moment or two of silence, 'there's something weighing on your mind'.
'Is there?' cried the other jeeringly. ' I wonder'.
'What is it? You needn't tell me'.
' O! thank you for that. I tell you what, Viv: I dreamed last night I was sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and smoking a cigarette, and the sparks dropped all about. Didn't I? That's what I feel, anyhow. Nerves, all nerves, my boy. O! shut up that long mug, and talk of something else. I told you I was off colour when I wrote'.
' I know you did, and I came down'.
'Good man. You'll be in at the kill. There's going to be a most infernal explosion--pyrotechnics galore. Or isn't there? Never mind'.
He appeared to Bickerdike to be in an extraordinary state, verging on the hysterical. But no more was said, and in a few moments they parted to dress for dinner.
M. le Baron, coming up to his room about the same time and for the same purpose, was witness of a little stage comedy, which, being for all his bulk a light treader, he surprised? The actors were his valet Louis and an under-housemaid, the latter of whom was at the moment depositing a can of hot water in the washing basin. He saw the lithe, susceptible little Gascon steal from his task of laying ready his master's dress clothes, saw him stalk his quarry like a cat, pounce, enfold the jimp waist, heard the startled squeal that followed, a smack like a hundred kisses, a spitting sacre chien! from the discomfited assailant, as he staggered back with a face of fury and a hand held to his ear, and, seeing, stood to await the upshot, a questioning smile upon his Hps. Both parties realised his presence at the same instant, and checked the issue of hot words which was beginning to join between them. The girl, giving a defiant toss to her chin, hurried past Le Sage and out of the room ; M. Louis Cabanis returned to his business with the expression of a robbed wild-cat.
Le Sage said nothing until he was being presently helped on with his coat, and then suddenly challenging the valet, eye to eye, he nodded, and congratulated him:--
' That is better, my friend. It is not logical, you know, for the injurer to nurse the grievance'.
The Gascon looked at his master gravely.
'Will you tell me who is the injurer, Monsieur?'
'Surely,' answered Le Sage, 'it cannot be she, in these first few hours of your acquaintance?'
'But if she had appeared to encourage me, Monsieur ?'
The Baron laughed.
'The only appearance to be trusted in a pretty woman, Louis, is her prettiness.' 'Monsieur, is her ravishing loveliness.
'Well, well, Louis, as you will. Only bear it no grudge'.
He turned away from a parting keen scrutiny of the dark, handsome face, and left the room, softly carolling. The little episode had amused rather than surprised him. Certainly it had seemed to point, in respect of time, to a quite record enslavement on the Gascon's part; but then the provocation to that passionate impressionable nature ! For the girl had been really amazingly pretty, with that cast of feature, that Hebe-like beauty of hair and eye and complexion about whose fascination no two properly constituted minds could disagree. She was a domestic servant-and she was a young morning goddess, fresh from the unsullied dawn of Nature, a Psyche, a butterfly, a Cressid like enough. 'If I were younger,' thought Le Sage, 'even I!' and he carolled as he went down to dinner.