Let your heroic treatment of the last cream tarts be my example."
So saying, the Prince drew out his purse and took from it a small bundle of bank-notes.
"You see, I was a week or so behind you, but I mean to catch you up and come neck and neck into the winning-post," he continued. "This," laying one of the notes upon the table, "will suffice for the bill. As for the rest - "
He tossed them into the fire, and they went up the chimney in a single blaze.
The young man tried to catch his arm, but as the table was between them his interference came too late.
"Unhappy man," he cried, "you should not have burned them all! You should have kept forty pounds."
"Forty pounds!" repeated the Prince. "Why, in heaven's name, forty pounds?"
"Why not eighty?" cried the Colonel; "for to my certain knowledge there must have been a hundred in the bundle."
"It was only forty pounds he needed," said the young man gloomily. "But without them there is no admission. The rule is strict. Forty pounds for each. Accursed life, where a man cannot even die without money!"
The Prince and the Colonel exchanged glances. "Explain yourself," said the latter. "I have still a pocket-book tolerably well lined, and I need not say how readily I should share my wealth with Godall. But I must know to what end: you must certainly tell us what you mean."
The young man seemed to awaken; he looked uneasily from one to the other, and his face flushed deeply.
"You are not fooling me?" he asked. "You are indeed ruined men like me?"
"Indeed, I am for my part," replied the Colonel.
"And for mine," said the Prince, "I have given you proof. Who but a ruined man would throw his notes into the fire? The action speaks for itself."
"A ruined man - yes," returned the other suspiciously, "or else a millionaire."
"Enough, sir," said the Prince; "I have said so, and I am not accustomed to have my word remain in doubt."
"Ruined?" said the young man. "Are you ruined, like me? Are you, after a life of indulgence, come to such a pass that you can only indulge yourself in one thing more? Are you" - he kept lowering his voice as he went on - "are you going to give yourselves that last indulgence? Are you going to avoid the consequences of your folly by the one infallible and easy path? Are you going to give the slip to the sheriff's officers of conscience by the one open door?"
Suddenly he broke off and attempted to laugh.
"Here is your health!" he cried, emptying his glass, "and good night to you, my merry ruined men."
Colonel Geraldine caught him by the arm as he was about to rise.
"You lack confidence in us," he said, "and you are wrong. To all your questions I make answer in the affirmative. But I am not so timid, and can speak the Queen's English plainly. We too, like yourself, have had enough of life, and are determined to die. Sooner or later, alone or together, we meant to seek out death and beard him where he lies ready. Since we have met you, and your case is more pressing, let it be to-night - and at once - and, if you will, all three together. Such a penniless trio," he cried, "should go arm in arm into the halls of Pluto, and give each other some countenance among the shades!"
Geraldine had hit exactly on the manners and intonations that became the part he was playing. The Prince himself was disturbed, and looked over at his confidant with a shade of doubt. As for the young man, the flush came back darkly into his cheek, and his eyes threw out a spark of light.
"You are the men for me!" he cried, with an almost terrible gaiety. "Shake hands upon the bargain!" (his hand was cold and wet). "You little know in what a company you will begin the march! You little know in what a happy moment for yourselves you partook of my cream tarts! I am only a unit, but I am a unit in an army. I know Death's private door. I am one of his familiars, and can show you into eternity without ceremony and yet without scandal."
They called upon him eagerly to explain his meaning.