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Chapter I.

THE SWEETHEART OF A KING.


The scene was not exactly new to me.  Moved by the spirit of adventure,
or by an access of ennui which overtakes me at times, I had several
times visited the gaudy establishment of Mercer, on the fashionable side
of Fifth Avenue in the Fifties.  In either case I had found
disappointment; where the stake is a matter of indifference there can be
no excitement; and besides, I had been always in luck.

But on this occasion I had a real purpose before me, though not an
important one, and I surrendered my hat and coat to the servant at the
door with a feeling of satisfaction.

At the entrance to the main room I met Bob Garforth, leaving. There was
a scowl on his face and his hand trembled as he held it forth to take
mine.

"Harry is inside.  What a rotten hole," said he, and passed on. I smiled
at his remark--it was being whispered about that Garforth had lost a
quarter of a million at Mercer's within the month-- and passed inside.

Gaudy, I have said it was, and it needs no other word.  Not in its
elements, but in their arrangement.

The rugs and pictures and hangings testified to the taste of the man who
had selected them; but they were abominably disposed, and there were too
many of them.

The room, which was unusually large, held two or three leather divans,
an English buffet, and many easy chairs.  A smoking-table, covered,
stood in one corner.

Groups of men were gathered about each of the three roulette wheels
ranged along the farther side.  Through a door to the left could be seen
the poker tables, surrounded by grave or jocular faces.  Above the low
buzz of conversation there sounded the continual droning voices of the
croupiers as they called the winning numbers, and an occasional
exclamation from a "customer."

I made my way to the center wheel and stood at the rear of the crowd
surrounding it.

The ball rolled; there was a straining of necks amid an intense silence;
then, as the little pellet wavered and finally came to a rest in the
hole number twenty-four a fervent oath of disappointment came from some
one in front of me.

The next moment, rising on tiptoe to look over the intervening
shoulders, I found myself looking into the white face of my younger
brother Harry.

"Paul!" he exclaimed, turning quickly away.

I pushed my way through and stood at his side.  There was no sound from
the group of onlookers; it is not to be wondered at if they hesitated to
offend Paul Lamar.

"My dear boy," said I, "I missed you at dinner.  And though this may
occupy your mind, it can scarcely fill your stomach. Haven't you had
enough?"

Harry looked at me.  His face was horribly pale and his eyes bloodshot;
they could not meet mine.

"For Heaven's sake, Paul, let me alone," he said, hardly above a
whisper. "I have lost ninety thousand."

In spite of myself I started. No wonder he was pale!  And yet--

"That's nothing," I whispered back.  "But you are making a show of
yourself.  Just now you were swearing like a sailor.  See how your hand
trembles!  You were not made for this, Harry; it makes you forget that
you're a gentleman.  They are laughing at you.  Come."

"But I say I have lost ninety thousand dollars," said the boy, and there
was wildness in his eye.  "Let me alone, Paul."

"I will repay you."

"No. Let me alone!"

"Harry!"

"I say no!"

His mouth was drawn tight and his eyes glared sullenly as those of a
stubborn child.  Clearly it was impossible to get him away without
making a scene, which was unthinkable.  For a moment I was at a complete
loss; then the croupier's voice sounded suddenly in my ear:

"You are interrupting us, sir."

I silenced him with a glance and turned to my brother, having decided in
an instant on the only possible course.

"Here, let me have your chair.  I will get it back for you. Come!"

He looked at me for a moment in hesitation, then rose without a word and
I took his place.

The thing was tiresome enough, but how could I have avoided it?  The
blood that rushes to the head of the gambler is certainly not food for
the intellect; and, besides, I was forced by circumstances into an
heroic attitude--and nothing is more distasteful to a man of sense.  But
I had a task before me; if a man lays bricks he should lay them well;
and I do not deny that there was a stirring of my pulse as I sat down.

Is it possible for a mind to directly influence the movements of a
little ivory ball?  I do not say yes, but will you say no? I watched the
ball with the eye of an eagle, but without straining; I played with the
precision of a man with an unerring system, though my selections were
really made quite at random; and I handled my bets with the sureness and
swift dexterity with which a chess-master places his pawn or piece in
position to demoralize his opponent.

This told on the nerves of the croupier.  Twice I corrected a
miscalculation of his, and before I had played an hour his hand was
trembling with agitation.

And I won.

The details would be tiresome, but I won; and when, after six hours of
play without an instant's rest, I rose exhausted from my chair and
handed my brother the amount he had lost--I pocketed a few thousands for
myself in addition.  There were some who tried to detain me with
congratulations and expressions of admiration, but I shook them off and
led Harry outside to my car.

The chauffeur, poor devil, was completely stiff from the long wait, and
I ordered him into the tonneau and took the wheel myself.

Partly was this due to pity for the driver, partly to a desire to leave
Harry to his own thoughts, which I knew must be somewhat turbulent.  He
was silent during the drive, which was not long, and I smiled to myself
in the darkness of the early morning as I heard, now and then, an
uncontrollable sigh break through his dry lips. Of thankfulness,
perhaps.

I preceded him up the stoop and into the hall of the old house on lower
Fifth Avenue, near Tenth Street, that had been the home of our
grandfather and our father before us.  There, in the dim light, I halted
and turned, while Evans approached from the inner rooms, rubbing eyes
heavy with sleep.

Good old Evans!  Yet the faithfulness of such a servant has its
disadvantages.

"Well?" said Harry in a thin, high voice.

The boy's nerves were stretched tightly; two words from me would have
produced an explosion.  So I clapped him on the shoulder and sent him
off to bed.  He went sulkily, without looking round, and his shoulders
drooped like those of an old man; but I reflected that that would all be
changed after a few hours of sleep.

"After all, he is a Lamar," I said to myself as I ordered Evans to bring
wine and sandwiches to the library.

It was the middle of the following afternoon before Harry appeared
down-stairs.  He had slept eleven hours.  I was seated in the library
when I heard his voice in the hall:

"Breakfast!  Breakfast for five at once!"

I smiled.  That was Harry's style of wit.

After he had eaten his "breakfast for five" he came in to see me with
the air of a man who was determined to have it out.

I myself was in no mood for talk; indeed, I scarcely ever am in such a
mood, unless it be with a pretty woman or a great sinner. You may regard
that sentence as tautological if you like; I sha'n't quarrel about it.

What I mean to say is that it was with a real effort I set myself to the
distasteful task before me, rendered necessary by the responsibility of
my position as elder brother and head of the family.

Harry began by observing with assumed indifference: "Well, and now
there's the deuce to pay, I suppose."

"As his representative I am not a hard creditor," I smiled.

"I know, I know--" he began impetuously and stopped.

I continued:

"My boy, there is always the deuce to pay.  If not for one thing, then
for another.  So your observation would serve for any other time as well
as now.  The point is this: you are ten years younger than I, and you
are under my care; and much as I dislike to talk, we must reach an
understanding."

"Well?" said Harry, lighting a cigarette and seating himself on the arm
of a chair.

"You have often thought," I continued, "that I have been trying to
interfere with your freedom.  But you are mistaken; I have merely been
trying to preserve it--and I have succeeded."

"When our father and mother died you were fifteen years of age.  You are
now twenty-two; and I take some credit for the fact that those seven
years have left no stain, however slight, on the name of Lamar."

"Do I deserve that?" cried Harry.  "What have I done?"

"Nothing irremediable, but you must admit that now and then I have been
at no small pains to--er--assist you.  But there, I don't intend to
speak of the past; and to tell the truth, I suspect that we are of one
mind.  You regard me as more or less of an encumbrance; you think your
movements are hampered; you consider yourself to be treated as a child
unjustly.

"Well, for my part, I find my duty--for such I consider it--grows more
irksome every day.  If I am in your way, you are no less in mine.  To
make it short, you are now twenty-two years old, you chafe at restraint,
you think yourself abundantly able to manage your own affairs.  Well--I
have no objection."

Harry stared at me.

"You mean--" he began.

"Exactly."

"But, Paul--"

"There is no need to discuss it.  For me, it is mostly selfishness."

But he wanted to talk, and I humored him.  For two hours we sat, running
the scale from business to sentiment, and I must confess that I was more
than once surprised by a flash from Harry. Clearly he was developing,
and for the first time I indulged a hope that he might prove himself fit
for self-government.

At least I had given him the rope; it remained for time to discover
whether or not he would avoid getting tangled up in it. When we had
finished we understood each other better, I think, than we ever had
before; and we parted with the best of feeling.

Three days later I sailed for Europe, leaving Harry in New York.  It was
my first trip across in eighteen months, and I aimed at pleasure.  I
spent a week in London and Munich, then, disgusted with the actions of
some of my fellow countrymen with whom I had the misfortune to be
acquainted, I turned my face south for Madrid.

There I had a friend.

A woman not beautiful, but eminently satisfying; not loose, but liberal,
with a character and a heart.  In more ways than one she was remarkable;
she had an affection for me; indeed, some years previously I had been in
a way to play Albert Savaron to her Francesca Colonna, an arrangement
prevented only by my constitutional dislike for any prolonged or
sustained effort in a world the slave of vanity and folly.

It was from the lips of this friend that I first heard the name of
Desiree Le Mire.

It was late in the afternoon on the fashionable drive.  Long, broad, and
shady, though scarcely cool, it was here that we took our daily carriage
exercise; anything more strenuous is regarded with horror by the ladies
of Spain.

There was a shout, and a sudden hush; all carriages were halted and
their occupants uncovered, for royalty was passing. The coach, a
magnificent though cumbersome affair, passed slowly and gravely by.  On
the rear seat were the princess and her little English cousin, while
opposite them sat the great duke himself

By his side was a young man of five and twenty with a white face and
weak chin, and glassy, meaningless eyes.  I turned to my companion and
asked in a low tone who he was.  Her whispered answer caused me to start
with surprise, and I turned to her with a question.

"But why is he in Madrid?"

"Oh, as to that," said my friend, smiling, "you must ask Desiree."

"And who is Desiree?"

"What!  You do not know Desiree!  Impossible!" she exclaimed.

"My dear," said I, "you must remember that for the past year and a half
I have been buried in the land of pork and gold.  The gossip there is
neither of the poet nor the court.  I am ignorant of everything."

"You would not have been so much longer," said my friend, "for Desiree
is soon going to America.  Who is she?  No one knows. What is she? 
Well, she is all things to some men, and some things to all men.  She is
a courtesan among queens and a queen among courtesans.

"She dances and loves, and, I presume, eats and sleeps.  For the past
two years she has bewitched him"--she pointed down the drive to where
the royal coach was disappearing in the distance --"and he has given her
everything.

"It was for her that the Duke of Bellarmine built the magnificent chalet
of which I was telling you on Lake Lucerne. You remember that Prince
Dolansky shot himself 'for political reasons' in his Parisian palace? 
But for Desiree he would be alive to-day. She is a witch and a
she-devil, and the most completely fascinating woman in the world."

I smiled.

"What a reputation!  And you say she is going to America?"

"Yes.  It is to be supposed that she has heard that every American is a
king, and it is no wonder if she is tired of only one royal lover at a
time.  And listen, Paul--"

"Well?"

"You--you must not meet her.  Oh, but you do not know her power!"

I laughed and pressed her hand, assuring her that I had no intention of
allowing myself to be bewitched by a she-devil; but as our carriage
turned and started back down the long drive toward the hotel I found
myself haunted by the white face and staring eyes of the young man in
the royal coach.

I stayed two weeks longer in Madrid.  At the end of that time, finding
myself completely bored (for no woman can possibly be amusing for more
than a month at a time), I bade my friend au revoir and departed for the
East.  But I found myself just too late for an archeological expedition
into the heart of Egypt, and after a tiresome week or so in Cairo and
Constantinople I again turned my face toward the west.

At Rome I met an old friend, one Pierre Janvour, in the French
diplomatic service, and since I had nothing better to do I accepted his
urgent invitation to join him on a vacation trip to Paris.

But the joys of Paris are absurd to a man of thirty-two who has seen the
world and tasted it and judged it.  Still I found some amusement;
Janvour had a pretty wife and a daughter eight years old, daintily
beautiful, and I allowed myself to become soaked in domestic sentiment.

I really found myself on the point of envying him; Mme. Janvour was a
most excellent housekeeper and manager.  Little Eugenie and I would
often walk together in the public gardens, and now and then her mother
would join us; and, as I say, I found myself on the point of envying my
friend Janvour.

This diversion would have ended soon in any event; but it was brought to
an abrupt termination by a cablegram from my New York lawyers, asking me
to return to America at once.  Some rascality it was, on the part of the
agent of my estate, which had alarmed them; the cablegram was bare of
detail.  At any rate, I could not afford to disregard it, and arranged
passage on a liner sailing from Cherbourg the following day.

My hostess gave me a farewell dinner, which heightened my regret at
being forced to leave, and little Eugenie seemed really grieved at my
departure.  It is pleasant to leave a welcome behind you; that is really
the only necessary axiom of the traveler.

Janvour took me to the railroad station, and even offered to accompany
me to Cherbourg; but I refused to tear him away from his little
paradise.

We stood on the platform arguing the matter, when I suddenly became
aware of that indistinct flutter and bustle seen in public places at
some unusual happening or the unexpected arrival of a great personage.

I turned and saw that which was worthy of the interest it had excited.

In the first place, the daintiest little electric brougham in the world,
fragile and delicate as a toy--a fairy's chariot. Then the fairy herself
descended.  She cannot be described in detail.

I caught a glimpse of glorious golden hair, softly massive; gray-blue
eyes shot with lightning, restless, devouring, implacable, indescribably
beautiful; a skin wondrously fine, with the purity of marble and the
warmth of velvet; nose and mouth rather too large, but perfectly formed
and breathing the fire and power of love.  Really it was rather later
that I saw all this; at the time there was but a confused impression of
elegance and beauty and terrible power.

She passed from the brougham to her railway carriage supremely
unconscious of the hundreds of eyes turned on her, and a general sigh of
satisfaction and appreciation came from the throng as she disappeared
within her compartment.  I turned to Janvour.

"Who is she?"

"What?" he exclaimed in surprise.  "But my dear Lamar, not to know her
argues one a barbarian."

"Nevertheless, I do not know her."

"Well, you will have an opportunity.  She is going to America, and,
since she is on this train, she will, of course, take the same boat as
yourself.  But, my friend, beware!"

"But who is she?"

"Desiree Le Mire."

To Chapter 2

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