“Most men,” began Pontifex, “however roughly the world has used them, can recall a period in their lives when they were absolutely happy, when each night closed with the collection of new pleasures tasted, when the progress of each day was cheered by the experience of unlooked-for novelties and when the awakening to another dawn was a pure physical delight unmarred by those cankering anxieties for the fortune of the hour which are the burden of the poor, the ambitious, and the intriguing. To most men, also, this gold time comes, when the cares of a mother, or the coquettish attention of sisters, aid to shield the young and eager soul from the blighting influences of wordly debaucheries. Fortunate is he among us who can look back on youth spent on the innocent enjoyments of the country, or who possesses a mind moulded in its adolescence by the fingers of well-mannered and pious women.
“My first initiation into the business of living took place under different auspices. The only son of a rich widow who lived but for the gratification of a literary and political ambition, I was thrown when still a boy into the society men thrice my age, and was tolerated as a clever impertinence in all those witty and wicked circles in which virtuous women are conspicuous by their absence. My father indifferently in Paris or London, and, patronized by dandies, artists, and scribblers who form, in both cities, male world of fashionable idleness, I was suffered at six to ape the vices of sixty. Indeed, so long as I was reported be moving only in that set to which my father chose to ally himself, he never cared to inquire how I spent the extravagant allowance which his indifference rather than his generosity permitted me to waste. You can guess the result of such a training. The admirer of men whose success in love and play were the theme of common talk—for six months; the worshipper of artists whose genius was to revolutionize Europe—only they died of late hours and tobacco; the pet of women whose daring beauty made their names famous for three years; I discovered at twenty years of age that the pleasurable path I had trodden so gaily led to a hospital or a debtors’ prison, that love meant money, friendship and endorsement on a bill, and that the rigid exercise of a profound and calculating selfishness alone rendered tolerable a life at once so deceitful and so barren. In this view of the world I was supported by those middle-aged Mephistopheles (survivors of the storms which had wrecked so many argosies), whose cynical well-bred worshippers of self who realize in the nineteenth century that notion of the devil which was vented by the early Christians. With these good gentlemen lived, emulating their cynicism, rivalling their sarcasms, and neutralizing the superiority which their experience gave them, by the exercise of that potentiality for present enjoyment which is the privilege of youth.
“In this society I was progressing rapidly to destruction, then an event occurred which rudely saved me. My father died suddenly, in London, and, to the astonishment of the world, left—nothing. His expenditure had been large, but he left no debts, his income must have been proportioned his expenses. The source of this income, however, was impossible to discover. An examination of his banker’s book showed only that large sums (always in notes or gold) had been lodged and drawn upon, but no record of speculations or of investments could be found among his papers. My relatives stared, shook their heads, and insulted me with their pity. The sale of furniture, books, plate, and horses, brought enough money to pay the necessary expenses, the funeral, and leave me heir to some £800. My friends of the smoking- room and the supper-table philosophized on Monday, cashed my IOU’s on Tuesday, were satirical on Wednesday, and ‘cut’ me on Thursday. My relatives said ‘something must be done’, and invited me to stay at their houses until that vague substantiality should be realized. One suggested a clerkship in the War-office, another Stool in a banking-house, while a third generously offered to use his interest at head-quarters to procure for me a commission in a marching regiment. Their offers were generously made, but then, stunned by the rude shock of sudden poverty, and with a mind debauched by a life of extravagance and selfishness, I was incapable of manly action. To all proposals I replied with sullen disdain, and desirous only of avoiding those who had known me in my prosperity, I avowed my resolution of claiming my inheritance and vanishing to Australia.
“A young man with money and a taste for bric-a-brac soon gathers about him a strange collection of curiosities, and at the sale of my possessions I was astonished to find how largely I had been preyed upon by jews, print-sellers, picture-dealers, and vendors of spurious antiques. The ‘valuable paintings’, the curious ‘relics’, the inlaid and be-jewelled ‘arms’, and the rare ‘impressions’ of old prints were purchased by the ‘trade’ for a third of the price which I had paid for them, doubtless to be resold to another man of taste as artless and as extravagant as myself. Of the numberless articles which had littered my bachelor-house, I retained but some three or four of the most portable, which might serve as remembrances of a luxury I never hoped to again enjoy. Among these was a copperplate engraving, said to be one of the first specimens of that art. The print bore the noted name of Tommaso Finiguerra, and was dated 1469. It was apparently a copy of a ‘half-length’ portrait of a woman dressed in the fashion of that age, and holding in her hand a spray of rue. The name of this grande dame was not given—indeed, as I need hardly say, the absence of aught but the engraver’s signature constituted the chief value of the print.
“I felt constrained to preserve this purchase for many, reasons. Not only had I, one idle day, ‘discovered’ it, as I imagined, on the back shelves of a print-shop, and regarded it as the prize of my artistic taste; not only had it occupied the place of honour over my mantel-shelf, and been a silent witness of many scenes which yet lingered fondly in my memory; not only had I seemed to hold communion with when, on some lonely evening, I was left to reflect upon the barrenness of my existence, but the face possessed a charm of expression which, acknowledged by all, had become for me a positive fascination. The original must have been woman of strange thoughts and (I fancied) of a strange history. The pose of the head was defiant, the compressed lips wore a shadowy smile of disdain, and the eyes—large full, and shaded by heavy lashes—seemed to look through and away from you with a glance that was at once proud timid, as though they contemplated and dared some terror, of whose superior power they were conscious. We have all, I presume, seen portraits which by accident or design, bear upon them a startling expression, rarely seen in the face of the original, but which is felt to be a more youthful interpreter of character than is the enforced composure which self-control has rendered habitual. So with the portrait of which I speak. The unknown woman—or girl, she did not seem to be more than three-and-twenty—revealed in the wonderful glance with which she had so long looked down upon me, a story of pride, of love, of shame, perhaps of sin. One could imagine that in another instant the terror would fade from those lovely eyes, the smile return to that disdainful lip, and the delicate bosom, which now sweelled with that terror which catches the breath and quickens the pulse, would sink into its wonted peacefulness, rise and fall with accustomed equanimity beneath its concealing laces. But that instant never came. The work of the artist was unchangeable, and the soul which looked out of the windows of that lovely body still shuddered with a foreknowledge of the horror which it had expected four hundred years ago.
“I tried in vain to discover the name and history of this strange portrait. The artists or men of taste to whom I applied had neither seen another copy of the print, nor heard of the original painting. It seemed that the fascinating face had belonged to some nameless one, who had carried with her to the grave the knowledge of whatever mystery had burdened her life on earth. At least, hopeless of discovering the truth, I amused myself by speculating on what might, perchance, have been the history of this unknown beauty. I compared her features with the descriptions left to us of women famous for their sorrows. I invented a thousand wild tales which might account for the look of doom upon her fair face, and at last my excited imagination half induced to believe that the mysterious print was a forged antique, and represented, in truth, some living woman to whom I had often spoken, and with whom my fortunes were indissolubly connected.
“A wickeder lie was never uttered than that favourite statement of colonial politicians—more ignorant or more impudent than others of their class—that in Australia no man need starve who is willing to work. I have been Willing to work, and I have absolutely starved for days together. The humiliation through which I was passed must, I fancy, be familiar to many. During the first six months of my arrival I was a honorary member of the Melbourne Club, the guest of those officials to whom I brought letters of introduction, the temporary lion of South Yarra tea parties, and the butt of the local Punch on account of the modish cut of my pantaloons. I met men who ‘knew my people’, and was surprised to find that the mention of a titled friend secured for me considerable attention among the leaders of such secondhand fashion as is boasted by the colony. In this genial atmosphere I recovered my independence. Indeed, had my social derelictions been worse than those incurred by poverty, I was assured that society could find it in its colonial heart to forgive them all. I was Hugh Pontifex, who had supped with the Marquis of Carabas, and brought letters of introduction from Lord Crabs. Had Judas Iscariot arrived armed with such credentials South Yarra would have auburnized his red hair, and had him to dinner. To my surprise, instead of being cast among new faces, and compelled to win for myself an independent reputation, I found that I was among old friends whom I had long thought dead or in jail. To walk down Collins-street was like pulling up the Styx. On either side I saw men who had vanished from the Upper World sooner than I. Tomkins was there to explain that queer story of the concealed ace. Jenkins talked to me for an hour concerning the Derby which ruined him. Hopkins had another wife in addition to the one whom he left at Florence, while Wilkins assured me on his honour that he had married the lady with whom he had eloped, and introduced me to her during a dinner-party at a trading magnate’s. The game was made in the same old fashion, only the stakes were not so high. The porcelain was of the same pattern, only a little cracked.
“For six months life was vastly pleasant. Then my term of honorary membership finally expired, and I left the Club to live at Scott’s. By and by my money ran short. I drew a bill on England, and the letter which informed me of its payment contained a stern command to draw no more. I went on to visit the ‘station’ of an acquaintance, and on return to town found that my hotel bill was presented weekly. I retired into cheaper lodgings, and became affiliated to a less aristocratic club. Forced to associate with men of another ‘set’, I felt that my first friends remembered to forget me. My lampooned trowsers began to wear out, and I wonder how I could have been once so reckless in the purchase boots. I applied to Wilkins for a loan, then to Tomkins and to Hopkins. I found that I could not repay them and so avoided those streets where they were to be met. I discarded gloves, and smoked a short pipe publicly at noonday. I removed to a public-house, and talking with my creditor-land-lord at night, not unfrequently drank much brandy. I discovered that it is possible to be drunk before dinner. I applied for a clerkship, a messengership, a ‘billet’ in the Civil Service; I went on the stage as a ‘super’, I went up the country as a schoolmaster, I scribbled for the newspapers, I wrote verses for the Full and Plenty eating-house. I starved in ‘genteel’ poverty until fortune luckily put me in the way of prosperity by suggesting Coachdriving and Billiard-marking. Thanks to an education at a public school, a licensed youth, a taste for pleasure, and the society of the ‘best men about London’, I found myself at three-and-twenty master of two professions, driving and billiard-playing. You will understand now that my digression concerning pictures was necessary to convince you that all this time I never sold the mysterious print.
“One Sunday evening, towards the end of August, when the windy winter had not yet begun to melt into sudden and dusty spring, I was walking up Bourke-street. You, Falx, who have made a study of Melbourne city, know what a Curious appearance the town presents on Sunday evening. The deserted road, barren of all vehicles save a passing cab, serves as a promenade for hundreds of servant-maids, shop boys, and idlers, while the pavement is crowded with young men and women of the lower middle class, who under pretence of ‘going to church’, or of ‘smoking a cigar’, contrive to indulge their mutual propensities for social enjoyment. Those sewing-girls, who, at 6 o’clock in the evening, are to be nightly seen debouching from Flinders-lane Little Collins-street, frequent these Sunday evening promenades, and, in all the pride of clean petticoats and kid gloves, form fitting companions for the holiday-making barbers, or soft-goods clerks, who—daring rakes!—seek a sekly intrigue at the Peacock, on the unsavoury strength of ‘Sunday’ cigar. Examining these groups as I walked, I found yself abreast of Nissen’s Cafe, impeding the egress of a lady. I turned with an apology, but the words melted on my lips, when, beneath the black bonnet of the stranger, I found the counterpart of the unknown print.
“For an instant surprise rendered me incapable of action, and then, with beating heart and bewildered brain, I followed the fleeting figure. She went down Bourke-street, and turned to the left into Swanston-street. When she reached the corner where the Town-hall now stands, a man suddenly crossed the moon-lit street, and joined her. This man was wrapped in one of those Inverness cloaks which the slowly-travelling fashion of the day had then made imperative to the well-being of Melbourne dandies. A slouch hat of the operatic brigand type shaded his face, but in the brief glance that I caught of him I fancied that I recognized those heavy brows, that blunt nose, and that thin and treacherous mouth. The two met, evidently by appointment, and went onwards together. It was useless to follow. I turned and went home.
“I passed the next day in a condition of mind which it is impossible to describe. So strange a coincidence as this had surely never happened to man before. A woman has her portrait engraved the year 1469; I purchase the engraving, try in vain to discover the name of the original, and meet her face to face in the prosaic Melbourne of 1863. I longed for the night to come that I might wander through the streets in search of her. I felt a terrible yearning tug at my heart strings. I burned to meet her wild sad eyes again. I shuddered when I thought that in my wildest dreams I had never sunk that pictured face so deep beneath the social waters as this incarnation of it seemed to have been plunged. For two nights I roamed the streets in vain. On the morning of the third day a paragraph in the Herald explained why my search had been fruitless. The body of a woman had been ‘found in the Yarra’. Society—and especially unmarried society—has, as a matter of course, its average of female suicides, and as a rule respectable folks don’t hear much about them. The case of this unfortunate girl, however, was different. She was presumed to have been murdered, and the police made investigations. The case was sufficiently celebrated in the annals of Melbourne crime to excuse a repetition of details. Suffice it to say, that against the man persons who were presumed to have been inculpated in the destruction of the poor girl no proof was forthcoming. The journals aired Edgar Poe and the Mystery of Marie Roget for a day or so, but no one was sent for trial, and an open verdict left the detectives at liberty to exercise their ingenuity without prejudice. There was some rumor of a foreigner who was implicated in the deed, but as the friends of the poor outcast knew of no such person, and as my evidence as seeing a man of such appearance join the deceased was in reality of little value (for I was compelled to admit that I had never seen the woman before in my life, and that my glimpse of her companion was but momentary), the supposition was treated with contempt and the ‘case’ dismissed from the memory of the public.
“It did not fade so easily from my mind. To speak truth, indeed, I was haunted by the hideous thing which I had been sent to ‘view’ upon the coarse table of that wretched dead-house which then disgraced our city. The obscene and cruel fate of the unhappy woman whose portrait had so long looked down upon me filled me not only with horror, but with apprehension. It seemed to me as if I myself was implicated in her fate, and bound to avenge her murder. The fact of my having speculated so long upon her fortunes, and then having found her but to lose her before a word could pass between us, appeared to give me the right to seek to know more of her. The proud queen of many a fantastic dream-revel; the sad Chatelaine of many an air-built castle; had this portrait leapt to life beneath my glances as bounded to earth the nymph from beneath the chisel of Pygmalion? Had the lost one who passed me like a ghost in the gloaming come out of the grave in which they had placed her four hundred years ago? What meant this resurrection of buried beauty? What was the mysterious portent of this living presentment of a dead and forgotten sin? I saw the poor creature buried. I wept—no unmanly tears, I trust—over her nameless grave. And then I learned her history. ’Twas no romance, unless the old story of a broken home and the cold comfort of the atony-hearted streets may be called romantic. She was presumed to have been well- born—she had been a wife, her husband had left her, she was beautiful and poor—for the rest ask Mother Carey, who deals in chickens. She can tell you entertaining histories of fifty such.
“At the inquest I met Warrend—you know old Tom, Marston?—and he sought me out, and took me home with him. We had been schoolfellows; but though my taste for pritns and pictures had now and then brought me into his company, I had seen but little of him. He was—as we know—kindly, tender, and generous. He offered me his help. He was in good practice, and could afford to give me shelter beneath his bachelor roof. He wrote for The Argus, knew the editor, would try to procure work for me. That meeting, Noah, laid the foundation of such independence as I now claim. Shaken in health by my recent privations, and bled in mind by the horrible and inexplicable mystery which I seemed to have stumbled, I was for some weeks seriously ill. Warrend saw that something preyed upon my spirits, and pressed me to unbosom myself. I told him the story, and produced the print.
“I must beg your grace for what I am about to tell you. You may regard the story as unworthy of credit, or sneer at it as the result of a ‘coincidence’. It is simply true, for all that.”
“Warrend became grave.”
“I have a copy of that print,” said he, in a tone altogether without the pride usual in a collector. “I think a unique copy. It is the portrait of a woman round whose life a mystery spun itself. See here.”
“He opened the portfolio, and took out the engraving. It was an exact copy of mine, but was a proof after letters, and bore in the quaint characters of the time the name, JEHANNE LA GAILLARDE.”
“I fell back upon the sofa as if I had been struck in the face. The name of the poor girl whom I had buried was Jenny Gay! ‘Warrend,’ said I, ‘there is something unholy about this. I met a week ago the living original of this portrait, and now you, a man whose name re-echoes that the Italian artist who engraved it, tell me that you know the mystery of her life. What is it, then?—for before you speak I know I figure in the scene!’
“Warrend, or Finiguerra, took from the book-shelf a lit volume published by Vander Berghen, of Brussels, in 1775 and handed it to me. It was called Le Coeur de Jehanne la Gaillarde, and appeared to be a collection of letters. In the advertisement was a brief memoir of the woman whose face had so long puzzled me. I glanced at it, and turned sick with nameless terror. Jehanne la Gaillarde was a woman whose romantic amours had electrified the Paris of Louis XI. She was murdered by being thrown into the Seine. ‘All attempts to discover the murderer were vain, but at length a young man named Hugue Grandprête, who, though he had never seen the celebrated beauty, had fallen in love with her picture, persuaded himself that the murderer was none than the Sieur de la Forêt (the husband of the beautiful Jehanne), who, a man of an ill-life, had been compelled to fly from Paris. Grandprête communicated his suspicions to none but his intimate friends, followed De la Forêt to Padua and killed him.’ As I read this romance of a man who name which reflected my own, I shuddered, for a thrill of recollection ligthed up the darkness of the drama as a flash of lightning illumes the darkness of a thunder cloud. The face of the man in the cloak was recalled to me as that of a certain gambling lieutenant who was cashiered by a court-martial so notorious that the sun of India and the Snows of the Crimea have scarce burned out or covered the memory of his regiment’s nickname.
“As Jehanne la Gaillarde was the double of Jenny Gay; as Hugue Grandprête lived again in Hugh Pontifex; as the Italian artist was recalled to life in the person of the man at my side, so Bernhard de la Forêt worked once more his wicked will on Mirth in the person of the cashiered gambler, Bernard Forrester. If this was a ‘coincidence’, it was terribly complete.
“But ’twas a mere coincidence, after all,” said Marston, gently. “You do not think that men’s souls return to earth enact again the crimes which stained them?”
“I know not. But there are in decimal arithmetic repeated incidences called repetends. Continue the generation of numbers through all time, you have these repetends forever occurring. Can you explain this mystery of numbers? No. Neither can I explain the mystery of my life. Good night. I have wearied you.”
“Stay,” cried I, rashly, “the parallel is not yet complete. You have not met Forrester!”
“No,” cried Pontifex, his large eyes blazing with no by fire, “I have prayed that I might not meet him. I live In Melbourne at the scene of his crime, because it seems the leasst likely place to again behold him. If, by accident, in the streets I catch sight of one who resembles him I hurry. But I shall meet him one day, and then my doom will be upon me, and I shall kill him as I killed him in Padua four hundred years ago!”