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Hidden Knowledge

The London Magazine, February 1913

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Playing With Fire

by Rafael Sabatini

Spencer Baynes was widely known as "The Anachronism," and there can be little doubt—as this story is intended to show—that he thoroughly deserved the by-name.

He was, in a dilettante way, something of a historian, a writer of monographs, who specialised in eighteenth century subjects. And he loved his eighteenth century. He was so profoundly steeped in the lore of it that some of its atmosphere actually clung to him, tempering his point of view, his actions, and, at times, his very speech. By nature—deep down—Spencer Baynes was prone to emotionalism and sensationalism; there was a neurotic seam in his temperament, which, however, he was able to conceal under an iron self-control very rare in men of his type. But, though he succeeded in concealing the real visage of his nature, he by no means succeeded in dissembling the mask itself.

It had been apparent throughout his rather painful interview with his wife on the subject of Frank Montford's excessive attentions to her; it was more marked than ever in the words of finality with which he brought the discussion to a close.

"You are getting yourself talked about," he said, calmly severe, and holding her cloak for her as he spoke. "So now you understand why it must cease. Come; here is your wrap."

But Emily Baynes did not move in response to the invitation. She remained by the overmantel, her left hand, delicately gloved, grasping the edge of it as if to steady her; and she attempted to stifle her indignation at this jealousy of her husband's which she accounted as stupid and humiliating as it was unfounded.

"I—I am getting myself talked about!" she echoed; and then she laughed to express her scorn. "Oh, but that's absurd! It isn't true—it can't be!"

"It only remains," he said stiffly, "that you should not believe me."

His tall, symmetrical figure, the faultless set of his garments, his shaven, young-old face under the dark hair, so very symmetrically grey at the sides, all heightened his histrionic air.

His wife looked at him with increasing dismay. She was small, fair and agreeably plump; pretty, too, with a fading prettiness that even in its freshness had reflected for the discerning something of the trivial, though kindly, little soul within.

"Come," he said again, insistently urging the cloak upon her; "we shall be late."

In the carriage she would have reopened the discussion, but he resisted it.

"My dear child," he said, as largely tolerant in manner as he believed himself to be at heart, "there is really no more to be said. If I am jealous, it is of your good name, which is my name. That, and my certain knowledge that you are giving occasion for talk, have led me to speak as I have spoken. I do not choose to believe that there is the least ground for this talk…but you have been indiscreet, and it is my duty to point out your indiscretion, and desire you to put an end to it. Your good sense, I am sure, must show you that I am right, and so there is no more to be said. That rose in your hair is most becoming."

She did not answer him. She sat back in her corner of the comfortable carriage and sulked.

And that night she danced with Frank Montford, and when the waltz was over she permitted him to lead her into a secluded nook of the conservatory.

It is true that she had sought, at first, to excuse herself. But under Montford's insistence she had consented—partly because she thought the opportunity would be a good one to tell him that his attentions to her must cease.

Montford announced that he had confidences to make. His confidences usually concerned his career and his ambitions, for he was your egotist who has no subject but himself. Failing to appreciate this latter fact, she had conceived herself most delicately and subtly flattered by confidences which she imagined were a tribute to her understanding.

To-night, however, there was that other matter on her mind, and no sooner were they seated in the worst lighted and most secluded spot in that conservatory than she straightway broached the subject. Not a little nervously and plaintively, she set herself to tell him that there must be an end to their sweet friendship. Delicately she was hinting that the odious world began censoriously to couple their two names when the mischief happened.

She had overdone the plaintiveness; and Montford, this clever, rising politician, hope and glory of his party, who was in some things as much a fool as any other utter egotist with a taste for philandering, misunderstood her completely. His arm had been lying behind her, along the back of the cane settle. He moved it forward to encircle her, and with a fatuous murmur he leaned over and kissed her cheek.

She was sitting in a half-crouching attitude, and in that attitude she remained, as if she had been a thing insensible. He had taken her too completely by surprise to give her time to resist; the thing was done before she suspected the intention, And when it was done she sat on, motionless and breathless. For even as he had committed the odious act she had raised her eyes, and seen her husband standing before them. She stared at him under the shock of what had now become a double horror, until Montford, observing her strained expression, looked up for the explanation, found it, and gasped.

Baynes advanced towards them, perfectly master of himself, the faintest of bitter smiles about his thin lips. Here was a situation which a man with eighteenth century habits of mind might carry off better than another. He bowed ceremoniously to his wife, and offered her his arm.

"I thought I should find you here," he said. "Lady Maud is asking for you." Montford he completely ignored.

She rose, took his arm, and departed, helpless and fascinated. It seemed to her that she was in a nightmare. She wanted to cry out, to pour out to him her bitter resentment of the cowardly insult of which she had been the victim, and to demand that he should punish the offender. Yet not a word of this could she bring herself to utter, realising how pitifully obvious it must sound—a guilty woman's lying protest against convicting evidence.

After the things that Spencer had heard, he must now think the worst of her. He must believe that he held proof of how well founded were the scandalous falsehoods he had disbelieved. She looked at him in terror, and found him smiling icily upon her.

"Delightful band they've got," he murmured, like a stranger making conversation. "But of course, the Green Bulgarians are famous. Lady Maud tells me that it is quite a year since she saw you, Emily. I hope she will find that you are looking well. You're a little pale, you know."

She made as if to stop, hanging more heavily upon her husband's arm. But he bore her relentlessly forward until he deposited her, half demented, in a chair beside the harsh-featured, deaf old lady who had so inopportunely sent him in search of her. Then, with a bow, he turned and went back to the conservatory.

He met Montford coming out, hands deep in his pocket, head bent, and eyes on the ground. The rising statesman stood aside without looking up. But Baynes did not pass.

"May I have a word with you, Montford?" he said, conscious—or subconscious—that his voice had the correct, politely sinister, eighteenth century ring.

Montford looked up. He realised that he was confronted by a situation, and that he must brace himself to meet it.

He nodded stiffly.

"Certainly." he snapped. "But this is hardly the place—"

"I have considered that," Baynes cut in. "Come this way, will you?"

He led the statesman up the broad staircase. It was his sister's house and he was at home in it. On the first floor the anachronism ushered his enemy into a small, book-lined room—his brother-in-law's study.

"I think," he said, as he closed the door, "that we can talk here without fear of being disturbed."

Montford screwed his single eyeglass into position, and with hands clasped behind him, head slightly forward, crossed slowly to the fireplace; there he turned and faced the outraged husband.

"Well?" he said.

"I suppose," Baynes inquired, faintly disdainful, "that it would be idle to ask you to cross the channel with me to-morrow morning?"

The glass dropped from Montford's eye and tinkled against one of the studs of his shirt. It hung there, a gleaming disc.

"Quite idle," he said, his voice hard and final. He had caught the other's meaning instantly.

Baynes looked him over and shrugged faintly.

"Now that's a pity," he said. He considered his finger-nails a moment. "My views may be a little out of date, but I have always held the abolition of duelling in England to be not only a mistake, but a mark of absolute degeneracy."

"The practice is the pride and ornament of the nation that retains it," sneered Montford.

But Baynes did not heed him.

"There are certain situations," continued the latter, "that are satisfactorily to be solved —honourably to be solved—in no other way. Such a situation has arisen between us."

"Now look here, Baynes," was the impatient rejoinder, "we may as well be practical. We may as well ignore a solution—as you call it—that is not possible in England."

"I am not so sure," said Baynes, quietly sinister.

"But I am," returned Montford. "So don't talk rot."

Baynes coloured slightly, his eye hardened, his manner became more pronouncedly histrionic.

"There is, of course, the law," he said, and it was his turn to sneer, whilst Montford actually paled. "But," he added slowly, "I do not care to invoke the law where my honour is involved. An encounter between us in England is out of the question, and you will not cross to France with me. You definitely refuse me that satisfaction?"

Montford was at a loss. Above all, he wanted to explain, to clear the air. But explanations for a husband who has caught you kissing his wife do not readily present themselves, even to a politician. He floundered mentally.

"This is all rot, Baynes, you know!" Sonorous and orotund as were the prepared periods he delivered in the House, in private life he had frequent recourse to the terse expressiveness of slang. "The duel is so—so un-English!" he declared.

"I see," said Baynes. "And you imagine that having said that you have snugly cloaked your cowardice, eh?"

Montford reddened violently and clenched his hands.

"Take care, Baynes," he growled. "Don't drive me too far!"

"My difficulty," was the answer, "is to drive you far enough. For you are curiously timid."

"Timid!" cried Montford, goaded now into a towering rage. "You're a coward, Baynes—a bully, let me tell you, although perhaps you don't realise it. You ask me to cross to France with you to fight a duel, knowing that I have never fired a pistol or handled a foil in my life, whilst you are a dead shot and one of the best swordsmen in Europe. What is that but cowardice? You want to murder me under the sham of a fight."

Baynes smiled gently, and rubbed his hands together.

"Very true," he admitted. But if things were more level—the chances more equal, my skill neutralised—would you accept my proposal?"

"Whatever it might be," said Montford rashly, driven by his anger.

"Excellent!" said Baynes, "I am afraid I did your courage an injustice." He opened a drawer of the table by which he stood. "We'll fight the matter out here and now, since that is the case—with these." He produced a pack of cards, and dropped it on the table. "The loser shall shoot himself within twenty-four hours. Do you agree?"

Montford's rage was quenched now by his utter bewilderment. He felt that he was trapped. He stared at Baynes, and remembered vaguely at that moment that he had heard him called the anachronism.

"My God!" he gasped at last. "Can you really be serious?"

"Why not?"

"Why not? Because it's madness, sheer madness!"

"It was sheer madness to kiss my wife."

"But—but—" Montford spluttered, and stopped dead. The he broke out wrathfully: "Good heavens, man, do you suppose that I really care a rap for your wife, or your wife for me? Why, I tell you it was just—just—" He spluttered again. "There is nothing in it, absolutely nothing! I swear there isn't!"

"It naturally follows that when a man kisses another man's wife he invariably tells the husband the precise truth of the matter," said Baynes.

"If you don't believe me, ask your wife. Anyway, I've had enough of you. I'm off." And Montford strode towards the door, exasperation in every line of him.

"Just a moment, Montford. You may as well know the alternative to my proposal. It may interest you. You have thrust me into a position which I will not endure—the position of the poor, deluded husband, the man who is the recipient of the commiseration—the half-mocking commiseration—of the world in which we move. If you want a scandal, you shall have a scandal—a ringing scandal that will break you utterly. I shall carry a horsewhip with me in future, and when next I meet you, wherever it may be, I shall assault and thrash you until you can't stand. That done, I shall instruct my lawyers to file a divorce petition and cite you as co-respondent. Now you can go."

But Montford didn't move. His fingers left the door-knob, which he had already grasped. His jaw fell. His face turned as white as his shirt-front.

"But it's monstrous!" he cried. "What evidence have you got?"

"Enough. at least, to beat up such a scandal as your political career will never survive."

"Oh, you're mad! You'd ruin me!" Montford was genuinely scared.

"Why not?"

"You'd absolutely destroy my career! I should have to leave Parliament! And for what?" he demanded passionately. "Because I may have been a little indiscreet, because I—"

"Really, really, Montford!" Baynes broke in, soothing, suave. "There is no need for so much heat. I have told you what lies before you. If it appals you, as well it may, there is still the alternative I should myself prefer, and to which you have, in a measure, pledged yourself already."

Montford looked in the other's eyes, and saw the man's deadly resolve.

"Very well," he snapped feverishly, "I agree." He came back to the table. "You leave me a choice of evils, and I am driven to take the lesser. But it's madness—stark, wicked madness. If you would only listen to reason, I—"

Baynes interrupted icily. "You quite understand the stake, I think. What shall the game be? Shall we cut best of three, or shall we play three hands at poker?"

"Oh, any blessed thing you like! The whole affair is so hopelessly insane."

"Three hands at poker, then," said Baynes, tearing away the cover of the pack. "It allows for just a modicum of skill. Cut for deal."

Montford cut a deuce, and took the pack. They sat facing each other across the table, Montford livid, his hand shaking; Baynes, always the actor, outwardly calm and collected, inwardly, perhaps, the more over-wrought of the twain.

Baynes drew one card to fill a straight, and failed. Montford took three to a pair of knaves, and, without improving his hand, was the winner.

"One to you," said Baynes. He took up the pack in his turn, and dealt.

Montford drew three cards to a pair of fives without improving; Baynes took one that proved useless, but won the hand on the original two pairs.

"One all." he said, as Montford gathered up the pack. "This decides it."

He was pale, but his hands were steady and his lips still smiled, although somewhat stiffly. Montford, on the other hand, was by now in a pitiable condition. He dared not trust himself to speak, and his hands were so shaky that when presently he took up the pack he sent the cards flying in all directions.

"A little nervous, eh?" was the anachronism's dry comment, whilst Montford groped under the table and about his chair for the cards he had upset.

At last he sat up again, pack in hand. And then, quite suddenly, he revolted, and put the cards down. "I won't do it!" he cried. "I can't! It—it's absurd!"

"As you please," said Baynes. "The divorce court and the scandal if you prefer it that way."

Montford flashed him a glance of utter hatred, and swore viciously, Then he set his teeth, braced himself, took up the cards again, and dealt. He left his hand lying face downwards whilst he waited for Baynes's discards.

"Three!" said Baynes.

Montford dealt them, then slowly picked up his own cards, discarded two, and drew two fresh ones.

"Three tens," Baynes declared, in a confident voice.

Without a word Montford spread his own hand upon the table, revealing three queens to dash the other's confidence. Then he fell back in his chair, limp and faint.

Baynes's pallor increased until his face was as livid as Montford's. But his lips never lost that frozen smile, and his voice preserved its steadiness when at last he broke the horrible silence.

"Ah, Montford, the proverb hasn't come true: 'Lucky at love' you know." He pushed back his chair and rose. He uttered a bitter little laugh.

"Look here, Baynes—for God's sake!" gasped Montford, leaning forward across the table and flinging out an arm in appeal. "Let's forget this. Let's wipe the thing out. It was nonsense—a joke—a—"

Under the haughty stare of Baynes's handsome eyes the statesman babbled off into silence. Then Baynes's smile slowly returned, but laden now with a contempt unutterable. "There are some things," he said, "you are quite incapable of understanding." He crossed to the door, opened it, and let in the strains of the voluptuous waltz from The "Contes d'Hoffmann," which the Green Bulgarians were playing. "Good-night, Montford, and good-bye"

Montford rose to check him.

"Baynes!" he called frantically, "Wait, Baynes!"

The slamming door was his answer. He sat down again, took his head in his hands, and groaned.

Ten minutes later Baynes and his wife were driving home. At another time she might have resisted his desire to leave so early. But to-night she was but too anxious to be alone at home.

They sat in silence throughout the drive. She felt again as she had felt when he was escorting her from the conservatory. She burned to pour out the true explanation of the odious thing he had witnessed. But, as before, the icy barrier about him repelled and held her silent.

Thus they reached home. He bade her good-night in the hall, his manner quiet and courteous, adding that he had some writing to do that would detain him below.

He made no sign of kissing her as usual, but this was more than she could endure. She came to him, and put up her face, smiling half piteously. For a second he considered her, hesitating. Then, abruptly, his arms tightened about her and he kissed her almost fiercely. The next moment he was his cold self again.

"Good-night," he said, in a level voice.

Emily Baynes went to bed, to lie awake with her misery for some hours, and, at last, to fall asleep for a little while. She awakened with a start at a few minutes to five. A sense of evil oppressed her. She rose, took a wrap, and gently opened the door of the dressing-room where her husband habitually slept. By the daylight filtering through the blinds, she saw that the bed had not ben disturbed.

With growing anxiety she went downstairs. From the hall, flooded with the morning sunshine, she passed into the study, where the blinds were down, her husband, entirely oblivious that it was daylight, busily writing at his desk by the light of an electric lamp.

At the sound of the opening door, he turned towards her a face that was white and haggard.

"Spencer!" she cried. "What are you doing? Do you know what time it is?"

The phrases were mechanical. She crossed quickly to his side, and, obeying her impulses, put her arms about his neck.

"Go to bed, dear," she urged him; "you look so tired and worn."

And then, without knowing why, she found herself weeping.

"Why, Emily! What is the matter?" His voice was hoarse, his tone weary.

"Oh, I don't know!" she cried. "I am tired and miserable. I can't sleep. I've been waiting for you to come up. I want to talk to you, to—to explain."

He made a gesture that was almost petulant. It stung her, and the thing so long pent up broke through at last.

"There is something to explain," she cried angrily. "You know there is, and you prevent me by setting up this—this wall of reserve. It—it isn't fair, Spencer. If your mind is full of bitter, ugly, cruel thoughts of me, why don't you utter them, and let me answer? I've been silly, perhaps. I am silly, I know, and—and I'm perhaps too fond of admiration."

"But for what Mr. Montford did to-night nothing that I have ever said or done gave him the slightest pretext. I was actually in the very act of telling him that his attentions to me were giving rise to talk; that I resented this, and that they must cease. Then, without warning, he—he kissed me. Oh-h!" Her little hands were clenched, her face burning with shame and anger at the memory. "I could never make you understand what I felt—my humiliation, my sense of insult, of injury, my utter loathing and abhorrence of that man.

"And then I saw you standing there; and the fear of what you might imagine left me paralysed. I don't know what you may have said to Montford. But I am sorry that you came just then; for nothing that you can have said or done could have lashed him as what I should have said to him had we been alone together for another second."

Her fierce earnestness rang true in every word she uttered; and Baynes had the knowledge that not once in their five years of married life had she told him an untruth. That she was speaking the truth now, the pure and simple truth, he knew beyond all doubting. But the knowledge that should have brought him relief and gladness brought him nothing but an added bitterness. It came too late. His arm crept slowly round her shoulder.

"Emily, dear," he murmured caressingly; and there was a suspicion almost of tears in the voice of this odd man who was in danger of losing his iron mask of self-control.

"Spencer! You didn't really believe that I—that it was other than I have said! You know, Spencer, that there is no one, that there never could be anyone but you—you, my husband!"

He groaned miserably, oppressed now by the full sense of the awful thing he had done—the worse that he stood pledged to do.

If she had only remained in bed, how easy—comparatively—might it not have been for him! If he could only have gone out of life sustained by his resentment and the belief that he was no longer wanted by her! But now! And yet the thing to which he stood committed must be done. His pledge was irrevocable. His honour demanded it. That was no anachronistic notion; it was a notion of all time. He had played a man with a certain stake upon the board. He had lost, and that stake was forfeit. He must pay, however terrible the price, for if he did not he could never respect himself again.

He realised now that he had fooled and blundered the whole thing. He was ending where he should have begun—by hearing his wife's explanation of the incident.

His wife stirred in his arms. Her eyes sought the litter of papers on his desk, half idle, half inquiringly. A little pile of long envelopes was ranged in an orderly manner along one side; the topmost, she saw, was addressed to his solicitors. A vague dread filled her—a dread that would have turned to positive horror had she known that amongst those envelopes was one addressed to herself. She was about to express her dread, to ask a question, when suddenly the doorbell pealed long and insistently, followed by a vigorous knocking.

They were on their feet, looking at each other, startled.

"Who ever can that be—at this time?" he wondered. He turned to his desk, swept the envelopes into a drawer, turned the key, and withdrew it. Then he went out.

She heard him open the front door, heard him utter an exclamation, heard steps in the hall, and a vigorous "Thank God!" in a voice that she recognised as Montford's.

Then the door closed again.

"What is it?" came her husband's level tones.

"I was afraid I might be too late—horribly afraid," said Monrford, who was still in his dress clothes, and prey to an overwhelming agitation. "Look here, Baynes; you mustn't do this thing. I've come to tell you that you can take the other course, if you like. I'll stand the racket."

Only by the greatest effort did Baynes preserve his self-control. Temptation had him by the throat. Then he flung the thing off with loathing. He spoke, dropping his words one by one.

"Really, Montford! Really! Do you come here, disturbing the house at such an hour, to tell me this? I wonder that you dare! The matter is out of your hands. And you have no right to assume that I could or would go back upon what has been done."

Montford made a gesture of exasperation.

"The whole thing was so—so mad, don't you know! We don't live in times when that sort of thing can be done."

"I shall hope to convince you that we do," said Baynes coldly, betraying no slightest sign of the battle in his soul between his old-fangled notions and the almost overwhelmimg temptation that Montford offered him. "I am afraid I am detaining you," he added in dismissal, "and I don't think there is anything more to be said."

Montford hesitated a moment.

"But there is one other thing," he said slowly, looking Baynes straight in the face, "and I think it makes a difference—I cheated."

Baynes started; his eye quickened; a flush crept slowly into his cheek.

"You cheated!" he echoed, his voice trembling.

"Yes," said Montford brazenly. "You remember how I upset the cards, and had to grope for them on the floor? That was my opportunity—and I took it."

In the immensity of his relief—the relief of a man reprieved in sight of the gallows—Baynes could have taken Montford to his arms. But he repressed the impulse, as he had repressed his other feelings.

"Ah!" said he, "And what are you going to do about it?"

"Nothing. You are not to suppose that I am going home to blow my brains out. I am not. You can take what course you like—though Heaven knows you've no real cause to take any."

Baynes reopened the front door for his visitor.

"Be under no apprehension," he said, coldly sarcastic. "After all, it would be a pity to deprive your profession of one who promises to become so great an ornament to it. Good-morning!"

Montford hesitated still a moment; Then, with a shrug, he passed out in silence. Baynes closed the door.

His puzzled wife, standing on the threshold of the study, saw his face transfigured. The haggard look was gone, the eyes were bright, and there was a faint tinge of colour in his cheeks as he came quickly to her, and took her, in deepest thankfulness, to his heart.

She never quite understood the reason of the welcome change that came over him from that day. But, for that matter, neither did he. For he never learned that this Montford, whom he despised for a cheat, was no cheat at all—at least, not in the sense in which he had represented. Monford's only fraud had been his statement that he had cheated. And, after all, there was something heroic in that falsehood, of which he had availed himself as a last resource to save Baynes from the consequences of his anachronistic folly.

Read Who Sabatini Really Was a discussion of Sabatini's character as revealed in this story by Nathan Tims

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