By this time I had determined to know the end. I felt that he had told me the truth as far as he had gone; but I felt, also, that he had stopped at the most critical point of her career. I saw, too, that he was familiar with its details.
“Go on, please. Here, try a cigar.” My interest in my heroine had even made me courteous. My aversion to him, too, was wearing off. Perhaps, after all, croupiers were no worse than other people. “Now, one thing more. Why was she in your gambling-house?”
He lighted the cigar, touched his hat with his forefinger, and again seated himself.
“Well, then, monsieur, as you will. I always trust you Americans. When you lose, you pay; when you win, you keep your mouths shut. Besides,”—this was spoken more to himself,—“you have never seen him, and never will. Le voila. One night,—this only a year ago, remember,—in one of the gardens at Baden, a hand touched the baroness’s shoulder.
“It was Frontignac’s.
“The body under the brush-heap had been that of another man dressed in Frontignac’s clothes. The bullet-hole in his head was made by a ball from Frontignac’s pistol. Since then he had been hiding in exile.
“He threatened exposure. She pleaded for her boy and her crippled husband. She could, of course, have handed him over to the nearest gendarme; but that meant arrest, and arrest meant exposure. At their home in Vienna, let me tell you, baccarat had been played nightly as a pastime for their guests. So great was her luck that ‘As lucky as the Baronne Frontignac’ was a byword. Frontignac’s price was this: she must take his fifty louis and play that stake at the Casino that night; when she brought him ten thousand francs he would vanish.
“That night at Baden—I was dealing, and know—she won twelve thousand francs in as many minutes. Here her slavery began. It will continue until Frontignac is discovered and captured; then he will put a second bullet into his own head. When I saw her enter my room I knew he had turned up again. As she staggered out, one of my men shadowed her. I was right; Frontignac was skulking in the garden.”
All my disgust for the croupier returned in an instant. He was still the same bloodless spider of the night before. I could hardly keep my hands off him.
“And you permit this, and let this woman suffer these tortures, her life made miserable by this scoundrel, when a word, even a look, from you would send him out of the country and”—
“Softly, monsieur, softly. Why blame me? What business is it of mine. Do I love the cripple? Have I robbed the bank and murdered my double? This is not my game; it is Frontignac’s. Would you have me kick over his chess board?”
He was so ugly,—outside, I mean: long and lank, flat-chested, shrunken, round-shouldered, stooping when he walked; body like a plank, arms and legs like split rails, feet immense, hands like paddles, head set on a neck scrawny as a picked chicken’s, hair badly put on and in patches, some about his head, some around his jaws, some under his chin in a half moon,—a good deal on the back of his hands and on his chest. Nature had hewn him in the rough and had left him with every axe mark showing.