“I know that he is a most unmitigated scoundrel,” says the major. “The sort of man, sir, that would sell his mother for a five-pound note.”
This description was not very encouraging to poor Bob, who had—so to speak—put his fortune into his hands.
“But what am I to do?”
“Well,” said the Hon. John, puffing at his cigar with irritating self-complacency, “I don’t know, my boy. It appears to me that for a young man—a colt in fact—you have got yourself into as nice a mess as the heart of man could devise.”
“Shall I take the horse out of his hands?”
The Major deliberated, with his eyes shut, for some moments. “No,” said he, at last. “I wouldn’t do that. I know the boy that Docketer has picked up. As arrant a young villain in the matter of horseflesh as could be found in all Newmarket, I believe—but grateful. He told me that the horse was all right. He rode him for Lundy, you know, and I think that as long as you keep him there, you are pretty safe. Though you can never tell,” he added, ruefully, “never!”
“Then you advise me to say nothing about it?” asked Bob.
“Precisely—keep your eyes open, that is all. By the way, it’s hardly a fair question, but are you in for much?”
“About seven thousand.”
He had got used to the sum by this time, and it did not frighten him at all.
Honest Jack Ponsonby started.
“Seven thousand! By Jove, you’ve put the pot on with a vengeance! Pray, how much did you give for the brute?”
The Honourable’s lips formed themselves into whistling shape, but he stopped short.
“Cash or bill?”
“Well, it was rather a queer transaction,” said Bob, rolling in his seat a little uneasily. “You see, I owed some money.”
“Of course—go on.”
“And I had got no remittances from home.”
“Well—and—well, I went to Dacre to borrow some.”
“Did’nt get it, of course?” said the Major, parenthetically nodding to Slasher of ‘Ours,’ who, being engaged to be married, and wishing to write to his ladylove, had crossed the room for a dictionary, to see if ‘adore’ was spelt with two d’s or one.
“Well, no, he hadn’t got it, he said. Dacre’s a very good fellow, you know, Ponsonby,” added Bob, seeing a suspicious twinkle in the other’s eye, “and I am sure he would have lent it me if he had it to lend.”
“But as he had’nt, he sold you a horse, eh?”
“Oh dear, no!” says poor Bob, delightedly. “He took me down to Ryle’s—Charlie Ryle, you know.”
“I know,” said the Major, and there was a world of significance in his nod.
“Well, Ryle said he hadn’t the money, but that he knew a friend of his, a betting man in fact, who lent money, and who might let me have what I wanted.”
“How much did you want?”
“Well, I’d borrowed fifteen hundred from him before, and he’d paid the bill away, you know, and the people were pressing for payment, so I asked him for two thousand.”
“So you’d borrowed fifteen hundred before. Any security?”
“Dacre backed the bill for me, if you mean that.”
“Oh! I see. Go on!”
“Well,” went on Bob, who began to get a little uneasy at the stolidity of his friend, “you see, that when we got down to the place and saw the horse, and I liked him, and the money wasn’t forth-coming, and I was in a fix don’t you see, Ryle said that he’d back my bill if I took the horse, just to humour the fellow, you know.”
And the Major took his little legs off the chair and nearly swallowed a mouthful of smoke.
“Why, there’s nothing extraordinary in that,” says Bob, with an odd feeling of foolishness coming over him. “I know lots of fellows in Melbourne lend money like that.”
“That’s a horse of another colour,” said the Honourable. “But go on. How much did you give the bill for?”
“Four thousands pounds.”
“And you got the Cardinal and Ryle’s cheque for two thousand, I suppose!”
“No wine, nor statuettes, nor old curiosities, nor anything of that sort?”
“What do you mean, Ponsonby?”
The Honourable John laughed, Bob grew uneasy.
“It was all right enough,” he said. “I did it myself, you know, of my own free will.”
“Yes, that’s just the beauty of it!” says the Major, between his paroxysms.
“You don’t think I’ve been done!” cries Bob. “Because I havn’t, you know; I think I’ve got my money’s worth in the horse.”
The Major suddenly became grave.
“Excuse me laughing, Bob, in this unfeeling way, but, upon my soul, you have been plucked as nicely as any fellow I ever knew; Ryle backs Dacre’s bill—Ryle lends you money—Ryle takes you to Docketer, and Docketer sells you Ryle’s horse.”
“Yes. Why, everybody knows that Ryle got him from poor old Lundy. I thought you did too.”
Bob shook his head dolefully. He was not very vain, but he had some share of vanity, and he was put out of conceit with himself; he was also affectionate and trustful, and he believed in Dacre.
“I see it now,” he said, “but I would not have believed it. I know as much about swindling, and so on, as most fellows, but I never suspected any of the fellows one meets here.”
This was true. Master Bob was no fool. Indeed in the matter of horse dealing or cattle buying, he was as sharp as most men, but with the frequenters of the horse-yards he was on his guard. He looked for nothing but honesty and fair dealing from the well-dressed gentlemanly men he met in Dacre’s society, and least of all, did he suspect the “good fellow” Dacre himself to have been so treacherous. He hung his head.
The cheerful Jack saw his confusion, and good humouredly came to the rescue.
“Never mind, my boy,” he said, “most young fellows make mistakes. When you are as old a stager as I am at this sort of game”—and he nodded his trim little head at life generally—“you’ll find that it isn’t all beer and skittles. Come, don’t be down hearted about it. You’ve wasted a month or two, and spent some money—that is about all. You boys do rush your fences so, you know. If you’d only take it easy, you’d get on much better. Look at me! Hard as nails,—and yet I’ve been in the service ever since I left school, and lived the pace all through. But, then, I do the thing by rule of thumb—tub, and walk, and ride, and don’t drink hot-stopping, and don’t smoke before breakfast, don’t you see. What’s the consequence? Out of debt,—cheerful as a bird,—and game as a pebble. You go and play old gooseberry with your constitution, you know, pitch your liver to Old Harry, and make ducks and drakes of your nervous system;—why, bless my SOUL, you know, you’ll be dead in two-two’s! You will indeed.”
And, exhausted by this long and somewhat incoherent speech, the good-natured little Major drained a fizzing brandy-and-soda at a gulp.
“My nervous system’s all right, old fellow,” said he.
“Not it! You’ve got an eye like an oyster,—but that doesn’t matter now. Let’s see how much you’re in for. You owe two thousand, and you’ve got seven thousand on the horse—is that it?”
“Well, the two thousand is gone. When’s the bill due?”
“Very well. Now what odds have you got about the Cardinal?”
“Pretty long at first, of course; but he’s been going up a bit lately.”
“Exactly—that’s Docketer’s doing. What’s your average?”
“About 20 to 1, take it all round. I did get 100 to 1 at the beginning, you know.”
“So that if he wins, by any remote chance, you pocket how much? Twenty sevens is a hundred and forty. Why, by Jove, you’ll win a hundred thousand pounds.”
“Yes,” says Bob, with a watery smile; “but I am afraid he won’t win.”
“Then you’d better hedge, my boy. It is no use dropping a pot of money over the beast, you know. Why, by Jove, sir, you could bring up a small family virtuously and happily, and settle down, and breed race horses, upon a hundred thousand pounds!” cries poor Jack (youngest of seven Desboroughs); “you could indeed, you know.”
There was something in the sentence which jarred upon Bob’s feelings. Settle down! He didn’t care to settle down, unless with some one who was not for him, but for Cyril Chatteris. In the pang of the sudden thought he struck the table with his hand.
“No!” he cried; “I won’t! I won’t hedge a sixpence. The odds are heavy, I know, but I’ll run the risk; and if I pull off—”
“You’ll never bet again, eh?” says the Major. “Don’t say that, old fellow, because you’ll break it, you know—you will indeed.”
“No, I mean it!” cries Bob, with another blow at an open copy of the Observer, and old Martinet, who was drinking sangaree and smoking savagely over the Bombay Times at another table, knitted his bushy brows, and sulkily wondered “why, in the deevil’s name, Poonsonby was etairnally deesputin’ with his racin’ freens?”