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THE COMPANY OF DEATH

CHAPTER I

FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS

WHEN a man comes to set pen to paper, and, casting back his memory some forty years, attempts to piece together the varied chain of circumstances which, acting

reacting upon his youthful impulse, brought him from what he was to what he is, he can hardly fail to be struck, as the tangle of recollection is unravelled, by the reflection that human destiny hinges upon the merest trifles of existence. The temptation is strong, no doubt, to plunge at the very outset into things of moment, to waive the petty details which by their unimportance may tend to obscure the greater issues, and with careless bravery of language to embark with a bound upon such interest as may arrest attention. Yet so bold a course, diverting notice from those seeming trifles, is in reality but the shirking of a plain difficulty: the strain which is involved upon the memory by the placing of events in their due sequence. In my own case, indeed, though the incidents which I am about to describe cover and are bounded by no more than the history of a ten days' struggle, to begin at the commencement is to dwell upon an almost forgotten matter of such trifling import as to appear unworthy of the memorable events which follow. How the quarrel began, and on what grounds, it is now difficult for me to recollect exactly. At the time it left so little impression on my mind that were it not for the extraordinary influence which it subsequently exerted on my

A

“ Poco a poco se

career I should make no endeavour to recall it. A flagon of wine and a bitter saying ! va lejos," as the Spaniards have it. “Little by little one goes far.”

We were, I remember, engaged in discussing the disturbed condition of the city, and it may be that my nerves were wrought to an unusual pitch of tension. Alas for the heroics of young passion! I can only suppose that the spectacle of the misery and injustice of the new sphere into which I had been thrown counted for more than I then realised in firing my youthful brain. At twenty-two the meaning of the word Liberty carries with it no aftermath of disillusion. Ere I knew where I was, my course blazed upon me in a sudden wind and roar of light, and I went in and found myself walking not only unscathed but with positive exhilaration in the midst of it. But that was later, and great events have small beginnings: in this case my unthinking quarrel with Ercole. A flagon of wine, a bitter saying, and hey presto! Destiny laid its finger on me. As I look back with chastened judgment on my doubtings and my self-tormentings, I could never wish it otherwise. I am contented with my part.

The wine was one of a dozen flagons which I had brought with me from Freiburg, and at the suggestion of von Reinhold I had risen with alacrity to go in search of it. We had sat late that night, and a draught of honest Rhenish would go far towards dispelling the sense of uneasiness which weighed upon us. Trouble was in the air; one might have said that the Palace itself, in the stillness which had come over it, was prophetic in the knowledge of impending danger. To my young blood, with the thrill of our conversation still upon me, the sharp contrast between those gloomy haunted passages and the warm brilliance of the room which I had quitted seemed redolent of evil presage. The very suits of mail which hung upon the walls of the long corridors might have been shuddering with apprehension as I passed by them on my way to the inner guard-room, where for better security I had

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