Unfortunately, Henri was fond of gaming, and his natural impetuosity, which showed itself by an emulation of high standards in his military duties, degenerated into recklessness before the baccarat-table. At the end of eighteen months, play, and an expensive liaison with an actress, had absorbed half his fortune, and his paternal inheritance had been mortgaged as well. The actress was a favorite in certain circles and had been very much courted; and this other form of rivalry, springing from the glitter of the footlights, added so much the more fuel to the prodigalities of the inflammable young officer.
Affairs were in this situation when, immediately after Henri’s triumph at the race-track, a bettor on the opposite side paid one of his wagers by offering to the victor a grand dinner at the Freres-Provencaux.
BIRDS OF PREY
The hero of the night was seated at the middle of one side of the table, in the place of honor. For his ‘vis-a-vis’ he had his lively friend Fanny Dorville, star of the Palais Royal, while at his right sat Heloise Virot, the “first old woman,” or duenna, of the same theatre, whose well known jests and eccentricities added their own piquancy to gay life in Paris. The two artists, being compelled to appear in the after-piece at their theatre that evening, had come to the dinner made up and in full stage costume, ready to appear behind the footlights at the summons of the call-boy.
The other guests were young men accustomed to the surroundings of the weighing-stand and the betting-room, at a time when betting had not yet become a practice of the masses; and most of them felt highly honored to rub elbows with a nobleman of ancient lineage, as was Henri de Prerolles.
Among these persons was Andre Desvanneaux, whose father, a churchwarden at Ste.-Clotilde, had attained a certain social prestige by his good works, and Paul Landry, in his licentiate in a large banking house in Paris. The last named was the son of a ship-owner at Havre, and his character was ambitious and calculating. He cherished, under a quiet demeanor, a strong hope of being able to supply, by the rapid acquisition of a fortune, the deficiencies of his inferior birth, from which his secret vanity suffered severely. Being an expert in all games of chance, he had already accumulated, while waiting for some brilliant coup, enough to lead a life of comparative elegance, thus giving a certain satisfaction to his instincts. He and Henri de Prerolles never yet had played cards together, but the occasion was sure to come some day, and Paul Landry had desired it a long time.
The company, a little silent at first, was becoming somewhat more animated, when a head-waiter, correct, and full of a sense of his own importance, entered the salon, holding out before him with both hands a large tray covered with slender glasses filled with a beverage called “the cardinal’s drink,” composed of champagne, Bordeaux, and slices of pineapple. The method of blending these materials was a professional secret of the Freres-Provencaux.