But little was known of his family or the origin of its wealth; it was only known that his father had suddenly become the late King’s dearest friend, and commonly surmised that Deroulede gold had on more than one occasion filled the emptied coffers of the First Gentleman of France.
Deroulede had not sought the present quarrel. He had merely blundered in that clumsy way of his, which was no doubt a part of the inheritance bequeathed to him by his bourgeois ancestry.
He knew nothing of the little Vicomte’s private affairs, still less of his relationship with Adele, but he knew enough of the world and enough of Paris to be acquainted with the lady’s reputation. He hated at all times to speak of women. He was not what in those days would be termed a ladies’ man, and was even somewhat unpopular with the sex. But in this instance the conversation had drifted in that direction, and when Adele’s name was mentioned, every one became silent, save the little Vicomte, who waxed enthusiastic.
A shrug of the shoulders on Deroulede’s part had aroused the boy’s ire, then a few casual words, and, without further warning, the insult had been hurled and the cards thrown in the older man’s face.
Deroulede did not move from his seat. He sat erect and placid, one knee crossed over the other, his serious, rather swarthy face perhaps a shade paler than usual: otherwise it seemed as if the insult had never reached his ears, or the cards struck his cheek.
He had perceived his blunder, just twenty seconds too late. Now he was sorry for the boy and angered with himself, but it was too late to draw back. To avoid a conflict he would at this moment have sacrificed half his fortune, but not one particle of his dignity.
He knew and respected the old Duc de Marny, a feeble old man now, almost a dotard whose hitherto spotless blason, the young Vicomte, his son, was doing his best to besmirch.
When the boy fell forward, blind and drunk with rage, Deroulede leant towards him automatically, quite kindly, and helped him to his feet. He would have asked the lad’s pardon for his own thoughtlessness, had that been possible: but the stilted code of so-called honour forbade so logical a proceeding. It would have done no good, and could but imperil his own reputation without averting the traditional sequel.
The panelled walls of the celebrated gaming saloon had often witnessed scenes such as this. All those present acted by routine. The etiquette of duelling prescribed certain formalities, and these were strictly but rapidly adhered to.
The young Vicomte was quickly surrounded by a close circle of friends. His great name, his wealth, his father’s influence, had opened for him every door in Versailles and Paris. At this moment he might have had an army of seconds to support him in the coming conflict.
Deroulede for a while was left alone near the card table, where the unsnuffed candles began smouldering in their sockets. He had risen to his feet, somewhat bewildered at the rapid turn of events. His dark, restless eyes wandered for a moment round the room, as if in quick search for a friend.