“Charley Ryle” was an instance of the truth of this statement. He lived well, kept good horses, subscribed liberally to charities, owned a charming house at Hampton-court, and was considered a highly respectable person with a large business in the city. There were some fifty men in London, however, who did not believe in his respectability. Though he was personally unknown to most of them, still, the name “Charley Ryle” was a synonym for that never-palling amusement—that Pierian spring of delicious excitement, which never runs dry—Play.
Mr. Ryle’s “city” was a house in Jermyn-street—a very pleasant house when you were once inside it, a house where the choicest cigars and wines were presented free of charge to Mr. Ryle’s friends, and where a little chicken-hazard was occasionally—indeed, almost always—to be achieved if the “friends” wished it.
The double doors swung open at the entrance of Pierrepoint and Dacre, and a smiling face having scanned the party through a little wicket, an inner door opened and admitted them into the sanctum.
“H-here we are!” exclaimed Randon, “The sacred atmosphere of p-play surrounds us. W-waiter! b-bwing me some ch-cham-pagne and s-s-soda. I fe-feel in l-luck to-night. I own, I f-fwankly own, I feel in gug-great l- luck!”
There were only some six men in the place. One a guardsman; one a younger son, who was losing with the calmness of despair; one a rich importer of wines; two light cavalry officers; and a white-haired attaché to the Australian embassy.
A sombre figure was lying on a sofa, smoking cigarettes. He nodded to Dacre carelessly. The innocent Australian looked at him with interest. He was of the middle height, of sallow complexion, clean-shaved as to his cheeks, with a long drooping moustache like that affected by a mandarin with a taste for dandyism. Hair closely cropped à la malcontent, lips thin and tightly compressed, and stony blue eyes. He was dressed in a blue surtout, his shirt front was narrowly frilled, and he wore no apparent jewellery save a heavy signet ring on the fore finger of his left hand.
“Who is he?” asked Bob.
“Baron Gablentz, the most reckless and fortunate gambler in Europe. At Dresden he was the terror of the Adelige-Resource; at the English Club at St. Petersburg, he and General Tschenyhagen between them cleared poor Saltash out of fifty thou.; Chabôt trembles when he enters the Kursaal at Wiesbaden; the croupiers of Hombourg grow pale as they watch him calmly staking his rouleaux. He was ordered to leave Berlin at the instance of the old Duke of Schweinwurstel, from whose grand-nephew, the young Prince William, he won a hundred thousand thalers at a sitting. Gablentz would not abate a farthing of the debt, and before he left, obtained a promise that the duke should pay him five thousand thalers a-year. Don’t play with him, my boy! He is too heavy metal for fellows like you and I.”
“What do you say to a little quiet écarté?” asked Leamington.
“When at Rome, I suppose one must follow the Romans. If guinea points will be enough, I’ll play with you,” returned Dacre.”
“Five pounds on the game?”
“As you please.”
And they sat down together at one of the little tables in the first room.
“This way!” cries Ponsonby, pushing open another door.
“Ah! Berry, how goes it?”
“Badly,” replied a lad, whose smooth cheeks betokened his youth. “Lost five hundred pounds just now. Pull up again, I suppose. Seven was the main. I threw five, and now it’s three to two!”
“Going in, Mr. C-Cal-verly?” says Randon. “I own, I f-wankly own, I c-can’t resist the t-t-temptation. In p-ponies, my d-dear Berry!”
“I’m with you!” says Bob, recklessly.
“Anybody else?” cries the ingenuous youth, his blue eyes blazing with excitement.
Ponsonby and Welterwate went in, of course, while Miniver remarked that he preferred waiting till he got hold of the “bones” himself.
The dice fell on the table.
“Crabs! by the L-L-Lord Harry!” says Randon. “I f-fwankly own I n-never s-saw such luck!”
“Give me some sodawater; I shall go home,” says Berry, rising.
Bob sat down in his place, and the game went merrily on.
The Australian won all before him. He had never played hazard before, and it is one of the peculiar charms of that pleasing method of getting rid of superfluous cash that a novice always wins.
“Why, you are a terrible fellow, Bob,” says Miniver, as he handed over an I.O.U. “You’ll clean me out completely!”
“Nine’s the main!”
“Eight, by Jove!”
“Here, take the box, Fitz; my luck’s turned.”
“It will, if you talk like that,” said old Grosmith, who was an inveterate believer in chance.
“My turn? Well, I own, I f-fwankly own, it is hard. Five!”
“Five it is!”
“Th-that’s another f-fifty, old boy. T-try again. Seven!”
“I won’t bet any more.”
“Twelve! Just missed the nick. Why didn’t you play, Calverly?”
And then Bob did play, and won, and played again, and lost; and then won—and then lost with amazing pertinacity. His throat felt dry, and he called for champagne to cool it, and then somebody in a mist gave him a “good cigar,” and he smoked it; and then it seemed to him that he was looking on at a play through a fog, and that one of the principal characters was a Mr. Robert Calverly, who was giving very illegible I.O.U.’s to everybody. By-and-bye Ponsonby went away, and then Miniver, and his last recollection was a vision of little Fitz-Frederick writing a cheque at a side-table, and Randon, after throwing a succession of mains, rattling the box gaily, and exclaiming, with wonderful flourishes in the way of articulation, that “He n-n-never s-s-saw any-anything l-lul-like it. He ow-ow-owned, f-f-f-fuf-fuf-fwankly owned, that he n-nev-never h-had s-such lul-lul-luck in his life. He owned, f-f-fwankly owned, he was a b-bu-bold p-player. But still, my d-dear f-fellow—s-seven again! By Jove; another p- pony! Well, I own, I f-f-f-fwankly own—” (da capo).
In the meantime Cyril had lost five-and-twenty pounds, and, being less elated than the others, had determined to lose no more. He found Dacre piling up a little heap of sovereigns and shillings, and Leamington looking for his hat in the anteroom. Gablentz had gone, and the room was heavy with tobacco smoke.
“Where’s the Meliboeus of the antipodes?” asked Dacre, looking up.
“Hard at it in the next room. I believe he’s lost over a thousand pounds.”
“Well, I suppose he can afford it. Young men will be young men, my dear boy. I hope you have not dipped into the whirlpool of destruction.”
“No; I only lost a pony.”
“Too much, Cyril; too much. You should be careful, my dear fellow. You know I am in loco parentis just now, so excuse these humble words of warning.”
“It’s all very fine, Rupert, but you come here and win a hatful of money, and then lecture me for playing hazard.”
“Hazard and écarté are two vastly different things. One exercises the faculties, and sharpens the perceptions; the other only lightens the pocket.”
“There’s something in that.”
“Ha, ha! Come along old fellow, we will go home. I kept the cab waiting, and can drop you in South Audley-street.”
“In Audley-street! what should I want—”
He stopped just in time.
“Or Dym-street, if you prefer it.”
“I know all about it, my dear boy. Oh, you’re a sly young dog!”
“All about what?” says Cyril.
“About that little friend of yours that we saw in the cab one day.” They had reached the outer door by this time, and Cyril’s first impulse was to hurl his friend into the street. Civilisation asserted her sway, however.
He took a cigar out of his case, and twisted it between his fingers with assumed indifference.
“My dear Dacre, what do you mean?”
“I mean, my dear boy, that you have picked up a very pretty little woman. ‘Mrs. Chatteris’ does credit to your taste.”
Cyril was fairly at bay. His secret was evidently discovered. Should he deny or confess? Had the two men been alone in the field or wilderness, instead of standing on the steps of a London house in the grey of early dawn, with a London cabman within earshot, it might have gone hardly for Rupert Dacre. Cyril stopped in the act of lighting his cigar, and shot one glance at his tormentor. The calm eyes were calm as ever, and there was no pity in the smiling mouth.
“Upon my word, when the little thing called herself Mrs. Chatteris, I thought it was your wife.”
The contempt in his tone was so evident that Cyril blushed.
“My dear fellow, do you think I am a fool?” said he.