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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesPrince Fortunatus - Chapter 22. Prius Dementat
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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 22. Prius Dementat Post by :wealthsource Category :Long Stories Author :William Black Date :May 2012 Read :1433

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Prince Fortunatus - Chapter 22. Prius Dementat


When Maurice Mangan left the train at Winstead, and climbed out of the deep chalk cutting in which the station is buried, and emerged upon the open downs, he found himself in a very different world from that he had left. Far away behind him lay the great city (even now the dusky dome of St. Paul's was visible across the level swathes of landscape), with its miry ways and teeming population and continuous thunder of traffic; while here were the windy skies of a wild March morning and swaying trees and cawing rooks and air that was sweet in the nostrils and soft to the throat. As he light-heartedly strode away across the undulations of blossoming gorse, fragments of song from his favorite poets chased one another through his brain; and somehow they were all connected with the glad opening out of the year--"And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils"--"Along the grass sweet airs are blown, our way this day in spring"--"And in the gloaming o' the wood, the throssil whistled sweet"--Mangan could sing no more than a crow; but he felt as if he were singing; there was a kind of music in the long stride, the quick pulse, the deep inhalations of the delicious air. For all was going to be well now; he was about to consult Francie as to Lionel's sad estate. He did not stay to ask himself whether it were likely that a quiet and gentle girl, living in this secluded neighborhood, could be of much help in such a matter; it was enough that he was going to talk it all over with Miss Francie; things would be clearer then.

Now, as you go up from Winstead Station to Winstead Village, there is a strip of coppice that runs parallel with one part of the highway; and through this prolonged dingle a pathway meanders, which he who is not in a hurry may prefer to the road. Of course Mangan chose this pleasanter way, though he had to moderate his pace now because of the briars; and right glad was he to notice the various symptoms of the new-born life of the world--the pale anemones stirred by the warm, moist breeze, the delicate blossoms of the little wood-sorrel, the budded raceme of the wild hyacinth; while loud and clear a blackbird sang from a neighboring bough. He did not expect to meet any one; he certainly did not expect to meet Miss Francie Wright, who would doubtless be away at her cottages. But all of a sudden he was startled by the apparition of a rabbit that came running towards him, and then, seeing him, bolted off at right angles; and as this caused him to look up from his botanizings, here, unmistakably, was Miss Francie, coming along through the glade. Her pale complexion showed a little color as she drew near; but there was not much embarrassment in the calm, kind eyes.

"This is indeed a stroke of good-fortune," he said, "for I came down for the very purpose of having a talk with you all by yourself--about Lionel. But I did not imagine I should meet you here."

"I am going down to the station," she said. "I expect a parcel by the train you must have come by; and I want it at once."

"May I go with you and carry it for you?" he said, promptly; and of course she could not refuse so civil an offer. The awkward part of the arrangement was that they had to go along through this straggling strip of wood in single file, making a really confidential chat almost an impossibility; whereupon he proposed, and she agreed, that they should get out into the highway; and thereafter they went on to the station by the ordinary road.

But this task he had undertaken proved to be a great deal more difficult and delicate than he had anticipated. To have a talk with Francie--that seemed simple enough; it was less simple, as he discovered, to have to tell Lionel's cousin that the young man had gone and engaged himself to be married. Indeed, he beat about the bush for a considerable time.

"You see," he said, "a young fellow at his time of life, especially if he has been petted a good deal, is very apt to be wayward and restless, and likely to get into trouble through the mere impulsiveness, the recklessness of youth--"

"Mr. Mangan," Miss Francie said, with a smile in the quiet gray eyes, "why do you always talk of Linn as if he were so much younger than you? There is no great difference. You always speak as if you were quite middle-aged."

"I am worse than middle-aged--I am resigned, and read Marcus Aurelius," he said. "I suppose I have taken life too easily. Youth is the time for fighting; there is no fight left in me at all; I accept what happens. Oh, by the way, when my book on Comte comes out, I may have to buckle on my armor again; I suppose there will be strife and war and deadly thrusts; unless, indeed, the Positivists may not consider me worth answering. However, that is of no consequence; it's about Linn I have come down; and really, Miss Francie, I fear he is in a bad way, and that he is taking a worse way to get out of it."

"I am very sorry to hear that," she said, gravely.

"And then he's such a good fellow," Mangan continued. "If he were selfish or cruel or grasping, one might think that a few buffets from the world might rather be of service to him; but as it is I don't understand at all how he has got himself into such a position--or been entrapped into it; you see, I don't know Miss Burgoyne very well--"

"Miss Burgoyne?" she repeated, doubtfully.

"Miss Burgoyne of the New Theatre."

Then Mangan watched his companion, timidly and furtively--which was a strange thing for him, for ordinarily his deep-set gray eyes were singularly intense and sincere.

"Perhaps I ought to tell you at once," he said, slowly, "that--that--the fact is, Lionel is engaged to be married to Miss Burgoyne."

"Lionel--engaged to be married?" she said, quickly, and she looked up. He met her eyes and read them; surely there was nothing there other than a certain pleased curiosity; she had forgotten that this engagement might be the cause of her cousin's trouble; she only seemed to think it odd that Linn was about to be married.

"Yes; and now I am afraid he regrets his rashness, and is in terrible trouble over it--or perhaps that is only one of several things. Well, I had made other forecasts for him," Mangan went on to say, with a little hesitation. "I could have imagined another future for him. Indeed, at one time, I thought that if ever he looked out for a wife it would be--a little nearer home--"

Her eyes were swiftly downcast; but the next instant she had bravely raised them and was regarding him.

"Do you mean me, Mr. Mangan?" she asked.

He did not answer; he left her to understand. Miss Francie shook her head, and there was a slight smile on her lips.

"No, no," she said. "That was never possible at any time. Where was your clear sight, Mr. Mangan? Of course I am very fond of Linn; I have been so all my life; and there's nothing I wouldn't do to save him trouble or pain. But even a stupid country girl may form her ideal--and in my case Lionel never came anywhere near to that. I know he is good and generous and manly--he is quite wonderful, considering what he has come through; but on the other hand--well--oh, well, I'm not going to say anything against Linn--I will not."

"I am sure you will not," said Mangan, quietly; and here they reached the station.

The parcel had not arrived; there was nothing for it but to retrace their steps; and on their way across the common they returned to Lionel and his wretched plight.

"Surely," said Miss Francie, with a touch of indication in her voice--"surely, if Miss Burgoyne learns that he is fretting over this engagement, she will release him at once. No woman could be so shameless as to keep him to an unwilling bargain--"

"I am not so sure about that," Mangan made answer. "She may think she has affection for two, and that all will be well. It is a good match for her. His position in his profession and in society will be advantageous to her. Then she may be vain of her conquest--so many different motives may come in. But the chief point is that Linn doesn't want to be released from this engagement; he declares he will abide by it--if only she doesn't expect him to be very affectionate. It is an extraordinary imbroglio altogether; I am beginning to believe that all the time he has been in love with that Italian girl whom he knew in Naples, and who was in the New Theatre for a while, and that now he has made the discovery, when it is too late, he doesn't care what happens to him. She has gone away; he has no idea where she is; here he is engaged to Miss Burgoyne, and quite willing to marry her; and in the meantime he plays cards heavily to escape from thinking. In fact, he is not taking the least care of himself, and you would be surprised at the change in his appearance already. It isn't like Linn Moore to talk of going to bed when he ought to be setting out for a dinner-party; and the worst of it is, he won't pay any heed to what you say to him. But something must be done; Linn is too good a fellow to be allowed to go to the mischief without some kind of protest or interference."

"If you like," said Miss Francie, slowly, "I will go to Miss Burgoyne. She is a woman; she could not but listen. She cannot want to bring misery on them both."

"No," said he, with a little show of authority. "Whatever we may try--not that. I have heard that Miss Burgoyne has a bit of a temper."

"I am not afraid," said his companion, simply.

"No, no. If that were the only way, I should propose to go to Miss Burgoyne myself," he said. "But, you see, the awkward thing is that neither you nor I have any right to appeal to her, so long as Linn is willing to fulfil the engagement. We don't know her; we could not remonstrate as a friend of her own might. If we were to interfere on his behalf, she would immediately turn to him; and he is determined not to back out."

"Then what is to be done, Mr. Mangan?" she exclaimed, in despair.

"I--I don't quite see at present," he answered her. "I thought I would talk it over with you, Miss Francie. I thought there might be something in that; that the way might seem clearer. But I see no way at all, unless you were to go to him yourself. He would listen to you. Or he might even listen to me, if I represented to him that you were distressed at the condition of affairs. At present he doesn't appear to care what happens to him."

They had crossed the common; they had come to the foot of the wood; and they did not go on to the highway, for Miss Francie suggested that the sylvan path was the more interesting. And so they passed in among the trees, making their way through the straggling undergrowth, while the soft March wind blew moist and sweet all around them, and the blackbirds and thrushes filled the world with their silver melody, and in the more distant woods the ringdoves crooned. Maurice Mangan followed her--in silence. Perhaps he was thinking of Lionel; perhaps he was thinking of the confession she had made in crossing the common; at all events, he did not address her; and when she stooped to gather some hyacinths and anemones he merely waited for her. But as they drew near to the farther end of the coppice the path became clearer, and now he walked by her side.

"Miss Francie," he said (and it was _his eyes that were cast down now), "you were speaking of the ideals that girls in the country may form for themselves--and girls everywhere, I dare say; but don't you think it rather hard?"

"What is?"

"Why, that you should raise up an impossible standard, and that poor common human beings, with all their imperfections and disqualifications, are sent to the right about."

"Oh, no," Miss Francie said, cheerfully. "You don't understand at all. A girl does not form her ideal out of her own head. She is not clever enough to do that; or, rather, she is not stupid enough to try to do that. She takes her ideal from some one she knows--from the finest type of character she has met; so that it is not an impossible standard, for one person, at least, has attained to it."

"And, for the sake of that one, she discards all those unfortunates who, by their age or appearance or lack of position or lack of distinction, cannot hope to come near," he said, rather absently. "Isn't that hard? It makes all sorts of things so hopeless, so impossible. You put your one chosen friend on this pedestal; and then all the others, who might wish to win your regard, they know what the result of comparison would be, and they go away home and hide their heads."

"I don't see, Mr. Mangan," she said, in a somewhat low voice, and yet a little proudly too, "why you should fear comparison with any one--no, not with any one; or imagine that anything could--could displace you in the regard of your friends."

He hesitated again--anxious, eager, and yet afraid. At last he said, rather sadly,

"I wish I knew something of your ideals, and how far away beyond human possibility they are."

"Oh, I can tell you," she said, plucking up heart of grace, for here was an easy way out of an embarrassing position. "My ideal woman is Sister Alexandra, of the East London Hospital. She was down here last Sunday--sweeter, more angelic than ever. That is the noblest type of woman I know. And I was so glad she enjoyed her rare holiday; and when she went away in the evening we had her just loaded with flowers for her ward."

"And the ideal man?"

"Oh," said Miss Francie, hurriedly, "I hardly know about that. Of course, when I--when I spoke of Linn a little while ago, I did not wish to say anything against him--certainly not--no one admires his better qualities more than I do--but--but there may be other qualities--"

They were come to the wooden gate opening on to the highway; he paused ere he lifted the latch.

"Francie," said he, "do you think that some day you might be induced to put aside all your high standards and ideals, and--and--in short, accept a battered old journalist, without money, position, distinction, without any graces, except this, that gratitude might add something to his affection for you?"

Tears sprang into her eyes, and yet there was a smile there, too; she was not wholly frightened--perhaps she had known all along.

"Ah, and you don't understand yet, Maurice!" she said, and she frankly gave him her hand, and her eyes were kind even through her tears. "You don't understand what I have been saying to you, that a girl's ideal is one particular person--her ideal is the man or woman whom she admires and loves the most. Can you not guess?"

"Francie, you will be my wife?" he said to her, drawing her closer to him, his hands clasped round her head.

She did not answer. She was silent for a second or two. And then she said, with averted eyes,

"You spoke of gratitude, Maurice. I know who has the most reason to be grateful--and who will try the hardest to show it."

So that betrothal was completed; and when they passed out from the coppice into the whiter air, behold! the wild March skies had parted somewhat, and there was a shimmer of silver sunlight along the broad highway between the hedges. It was an auspicious omen--or, at least, their full hearts may have thought so; and then, again, there was a wedding chorus all around them from the birds--from the bright-eyed robin perched on the crimson bramble-spray; from the speckled thrush on the swaying elm; from the lark far-hovering over a field of young corn. But in their own happiness they had thought of others; Francie soon came back to Lionel again and his grievous misfortunes; and she was listening with meekness to this tall, clear-eyed man, who could now claim a certain gentle authority over her. They were a long time before they got to the doctor's house.

That same evening Miss Kate Burgoyne invited Lionel to come to her room for a cup of tea when he had dressed for the last act; and accordingly, when he was ready, he strolled along the corridor, rapped with his knuckles, and entered. It turned out that the prima-donna had other visitors: a young lady whom he had never seen before and Mr. Percival Miles. The young gentleman, in faultless evening dress, seemed a little surprised at the easy manner in which Lionel had lounged into the place; and perhaps Lionel was also a little surprised--for this was Mr. Miles's first appearance in the room; but each man merely nodded to the other, in a formal-acquaintance style, as they were in the habit of doing at the Garden Club. At the same moment Miss Burgoyne opened a portion of the curtain, so that she could address her guests.

"Mr. Moore, let me introduce you to my friend, Miss Ingram. Mr. Miles I think you know."

And Lionel was glad enough to turn to the young lady and enter into conversation with her, for the pale young man with the slight yellow moustache was defiantly silent, and had even something fierce about his demeanor. It was no business of Lionel's to provoke a quarrel with this truculent fire-eater, especially in Miss Burgoyne's room. To quarrel about Kate Burgoyne?--the irony of events could go no further than that.

And of course, as the most immediate topic, they spoke of the gale that had been blowing across London all the afternoon and evening; for the southerly winds that had prevailed in the morning had freshened up and increased in violence until a veritable hurricane was now raging, threatening roofs, chimneys, and lamp-posts, to say nothing of the whirled and driven and bewildered foot-passengers.

"I hear there has been a bad accident in Oxford Street," Lionel said to the young lady. "Some scaffolding has fallen--a lot of people hurt. I'm afraid there will be a sad tale to tell from the sea; even now, while we are secure in this big building, thinking only of amusement, I suppose there is many a ship laboring in the gale, or going headlong on to the rocks. Have you far to get home?" he asked.

"Oh, I am going home with Miss Burgoyne," the young lady answered.

But here Miss Burgoyne herself appeared, coming forth in the full splendor of Grace Mainwaring's bridal attire and with all her radiant witcheries of make-up, and the poor lad sitting there, who had never before been so near this vision of delight, seemed quite entranced by its (strictly speaking) superhuman loveliness. He could not take his eyes away from her. He did not think of joining in the conversation. He watched her at the mirror; he watched her making tea; he watched her munching a tiny piece of bread and butter (which was imprudent on her part, after the care she had bestowed on her lips); and always he was silent and spellbound. Miss Burgoyne, on the other hand, was talkative enough.

"Isn't it an awful night!" she exclaimed. "I thought the cab I came down in would be blown over. And they say it's getting worse and worse. I hear there has been a dreadful accident; some of the men were telling Jane about it; have you heard, Mr. Moore?--something about a scaffold. I suppose this theatre is safe enough; I don't feel any shaking. But I know I shall be so nervous going home to-night--I dread it already--"

"Miss Ingram says she is going home with you," Lionel pointed out, carelessly.

"But that is worse!" the prima-donna cried. "Two women are worse than one--they make each other nervous; no, what you want is a man's bluntness of perception--his indifference--and the sense of security you get from his being there. Two frightened women; how are they going to keep each other's courage up?"

It was clearly an invitation; almost a challenge. Lionel only said,

"Why, what have you to fear! The blowing over of a cab is about the last thing likely to happen. If you were walking along the pavement, you might be struck by a falling slate; but you are out in the middle of the road. If you go home in a four-wheeled cab, you will be as safe as you are at this minute in this room."

She turned away from him; at the same moment the pale young gentleman said, rather breathlessly,

"Miss Burgoyne, if you would permit me to accompany you and Miss Ingram home, I should esteem it a great honor--and--and pleasure."

She whipped round in an instant.

"Oh, thank you, Percy--Mr. Miles, I mean," she added, in pretty confusion. "That will be so kind of you. We shall be delighted, I'm sure--very kind of you indeed."

No more was said at the moment, for Miss Burgoyne had been called; and Lionel, as he wended his way to the wings, could only ask himself,

"What is she up to now? She calls me Mr. Moore before her friends, and him Percy, and she contrives to put him into the position of rescuing two distressed damsels. Well, what does it matter? I suppose women are like that."

But Mr. Percival Miles's accompanying those two young ladies through the storm did matter to him, in another way, and seriously. When, the performance being over, he got into evening dress and drove along in a hansom to the Garden Club, he found there two or three of the young gentlemen who were in the habit of lounging about the supper-room, glancing at illustrated papers or chewing toothpicks, until the time for poker had arrived.

"Johnny," he said to one of them, "somehow I feel awfully down in the mouth to-night."

"That's unusual with you, then," was the cheerful reply. "For you are the pluckiest loser I ever saw. But I must say your luck of late has been just something frightful."

"Well, I'm down altogether--in luck, in finances, and spirits; and I'm going to pull myself up a peg. Come and keep me company. I'm going to order a magnum of Perrier Jouet of '74, and I only want a glass or two; you must help me out, or some of those other fellows."

"That's a pretty piece of extravagance!" the other exclaimed. "A magnum--to get a couple of glasses out of it; like an otter taking a single bite from a salmon's shoulder. Never mind, old chap; I'm in. I hate champagne at this time of night; but I don't want you to kill yourself."

As they sat at supper, with this big bottle before them, Lionel said,

"It will be a bad thing for me if young Miles doesn't show up to-night."

"I should have thought it would have been an excellent thing for you if Miles had never entered this club," his companion observed.

"That's true," said Lionel, rather gloomily. "But my only chance now is to get some of my property back, and I can only get it back from him. You fellows are no use to me--not if I were winning all along the line."

"Look here, Moore," said the young man, in a more serious tone, "you may say it's none of my business; but the way you and that fellow Miles have been going on is perfectly awful. If the committee should hear about it, there will be a row, and no mistake!"

"My dear boy," Lionel protested, as he pushed the unnecessary bottle to his neighbor, "the committee have nothing to do with understandings that are settled outside the club. You don't see Miles or me handing checks for L200 or L300 across the table. How can the committee expel you for holding up three fingers or nodding your head?"

"Well, then, you'll excuse me saying it, but he's a young ass, to gamble in that fashion," Johnny remarked, bluntly. "What fun does he get out of it? And it's quite a new thing with him--that's the odd business. I know a man who was at Merton with him; and certainly Miles got into a devil of a scrape--which cut short his career there; but it had nothing to do with gambling. He never was that way inclined at all; it's a new development, since he joined this club. Well, I suppose he can do what he likes. The heir to a baronetcy and such a place as Petmansworth can get just as much as he wants from the Jews."

"My good man, he doesn't need to go to the Jews," said Lionel, with grim irony.

"Where does he get all that money from? Do you think his father is fool enough to encourage him in such extravagance? I should hope not! At the same time I wish I had a father tarred with something of that same brush."

"Where does he get all the money from? So far he has got it from me," Lionel said, with a bit of a shrug. "He doesn't need to go to his father, or to the Jews either, when he can plunder me. And such a run of luck as he has had is simply astounding--"

"It isn't luck at all," the other interrupted. "It's your play. You play too bold a game--too bold when you know he is going to play a bolder. Twice running he caught you last night bluffing on no hand at all; and I don't know what fabulous stakes were up--with your nods and signs. It's no use your trying to bluff that fellow. He won't be bluffed."

"The thing is as broad as it's long, man," Lionel said, impatiently. "If he is determined to see me every time, he must be caught when I have a good hand--it stands to reason. The only thing is that my luck has been so confoundedly bad of late."

"Yes; and when the luck's against you, you go betting on no hands at all--with Miles waiting for you!" his companion exclaimed. "All right; every man must play the game his own way. You don't seem to have found it profitable so far."

"Profitable!" Lionel said, with a dark look in his eyes. "I can tell you I am in a tight corner, and I reckoned on to-night to settle it one way or the other--not with you fellows, I can't get anything worth while out of you, but with Miles. And now he's gone away home with--"

He stopped in time; ladies' names are not mentioned in clubs--at least, not in such clubs as the Garden.

"The odd thing is," continued Johnny, as he lit a cigarette, and definitely refused to have any more of the wine, "the extremely odd thing is that he doesn't seem to care to win from the rest of us. He lets us share our modest little pots as if they weren't worth looking at. It's you he goes for, invariably."

"And he's gone for me to some purpose," Lionel said, morosely. "I'm just about broke--broke five or six times over, if it comes to that--and by that pennyworth of yellow ribbon!"

"You needn't call him names," said Johnny, as he lay back in his chair. "Upon my soul I think Miles is somebody in disguise--a priest--an Inquisitor--somebody with a mission--to punish the sin of gambling. What does he care about the game? Nothing--I'll swear it! He's only watching for you. He's an avenger. He has been sent by some superior power--"

"Then it must have been by the devil," said Lionel, with a sombre expression, "for he has got the devil's own luck at his back. Wait till I get four of a kind when he is betting on a full hand--and then you'll see his corpse laid out!" This was all he could say just then; for here was the young man himself, who must have come back from the Edgeware Road in a remarkably swift hansom.

Almost directly there was an adjournment to the card-room; and the players took their places.

"I propose we have in the joker,"(2) Lionel called aloud, as the cards were dealt for deal.

(Footnote 2: The joker is a fifty-third card, of any kind of device, which is added to the pack; the player to whom it is dealt can make it any card he chooses. For example, if the other four cards he holds are two queens and two sevens, he can make the joker card a third queen, and thus secure for himself a full hand.)

"I don't see the fun of it," objected the young man who had been Lionel's companion at the supper-table. "You never know where you are when the joker is in. What do you say, Miles?"

"Oh, have it in by all means," Percival Miles said, with his eyes fixed on the table.

And perhaps it was that Lionel was anxious and nervous (for much depended on the results of this night's play), but he seemed to feel that the pale young man who sat opposite him appeared to be even more cold and implacable in manner than was usual with him. He began to have superstitious fears--like most gamblers. That was an uncanny suggestion his recent companion had put into his head--that here was an avenger--a deputed instrument--an agent to inflict an awarded punishment. At the same time he tried to laugh at the notion. Punishment--from this stripling of a boy! It was a ludicrous idea, to be sure. When Lionel had in former days accepted his challenge to fight, it was with some kind of impatient resolve to teach him a wholesome lesson and brush him aside. And he had regarded his running after Miss Burgoyne with a sort of good-natured toleration and contempt; there were always those young fools in the wake of actresses. But that he, Lionel, should be afraid of this young idiot? What was there to be afraid of? He was no swashbuckler--this pallid youth with the thin lips, who concentrated all his attention on the cards, and had no word or jest for his neighbors. How could there be anything baleful in the expression of eyes that were curiously expressionless? It was a pretty face (Lionel had at one time thought), but now it seemed capable of a good deal of relentless determination. Lionel had heard of people shivering when brought into contact with the repellent atmosphere that appeared to surround a particular person; but what was there deadly about this young man?

The game at first was not very exciting, though now and again the joker played a merry trick, appearing in some unexpected place, and laying many a good hand low. Indeed, it almost seemed as if Lionel had resolved to recoup himself by steady play; and so far there had been no duel between him and young Miles. That was not distant, however. On this occasion Lionel, who was seated on the left of the dealer--in other words, he being age--when the cards were dealt found himself with two pairs in his hand, aces and queens. It was a pretty show. When the time came for him to declare his intention, he said,

"Well, I'm just going to make this another ten shillings to come in."

That frightened no one; they all came in; what caused them to halt and reflect was that, on Lionel being subsequently asked how many cards he wished to have, he said,

"None, thank you."

Not a syllable was uttered; there were surmises too occult for words. The player on Lionel's left bet an humble two shillings. The next player simply came in. So did the third--who was Mr. Percival Miles. Likewise the dealer; in fact, they were all prepared to pay that modest sum to inspect the age's hand. But Lionel wanted a higher price for that privilege.

"I'm coming in with the little two shillings," said he, "and I will raise you a sovereign."

That promptly sent out the player on his left; his neighbor also retired. Not so the pallid young man with the thin lips.

"And one better," he said, depositing another sovereign.

The dealer incontinently fled. There only remained Lionel and his enemy; and the position of affairs was this--that while Lionel had taken no additional cards, and was presumably in possession of a straight or a flush (unless he was bluffing), Miles had taken one card, and most likely had got two pairs (unless he was finessing). Two pairs against two pairs, then? But Lionel had aces and queens.

"And five better," Lionel said, watching his enemy.

"And five better," said the younger man, stolidly.

And now the onlookers altered their surmises. No one but a lunatic would challenge a player who had declined to take supplementary cards unless he himself had an exceptionally strong hand, or unless he was morally certain that his opponent was bluffing. Had Miles "filled," then, with his one card; and was a straight being played against a straight, or a flush against a flush? Or had the stolid young man started with fours? The subdued excitement with which this duel was now being regarded was enthralling; they forgot to protest against the wild raising of the bets; and when Lionel and his implacable foe, having exhausted all their money, had recourse of nods--merely marking their indebtedness to the pool on a bit of paper lying beside them--the others could only guess at the amount that was being played for. It was Lionel who gave in; clearly that insatiate bloodsucker was not to be shaken off.

"I call you."

"Three nines," was the answer, and Miles laid down on the table a pair of nines and the joker. The other two were worthless; clearly, he had taken the one card as a blind.

"That is good enough--take away the money," Lionel said, calmly; and the younger man, with quite as expressionless a face, raked over the pile of gold, bank-notes, and counters.

There was a general sense of relief; that strain had been too intense.

"Very magnificent, you know," said the player who was next to Lionel, as he placed his ante on the table, "but it isn't poker. I think if you fix a limit you should stick to it. Have your private bets if you like; but let us have a limit that allows everybody to see the fun."

"Oh, certainly, I agree to that," Lionel said, at once. "We will keep to the sovereign limit; and Mr. Miles and I will understand well enough what we are betting when we happen to play against each other."

Thereafter the game went more quietly, though Lionel was clearly playing with absolute carelessness; no doubt his companions understood that he could not hope to retrieve his losses in this moderate play. He seemed tired, too, and dispirited; frequently he threw up his cards without drawing--which was unusual with him.

"Have a drink, old man, to wake you up?" his neighbor said to him, about half-past two.

"No, thanks," he answered, listlessly looking on at the cards.

"A cigarette, then?"

"No, thanks. I think I must give up smoking altogether--my throat isn't quite right."

But an extraordinary stroke of good-luck aroused him. On looking at his cards he found he had been dealt four aces and a ten. Surely the hour of his revenge had sounded at last; for with such a hand he could easily frighten the others out, while he knew that Percival Miles would remain in, if he had anything at all. Accordingly, when it came to his turn he raised before the draw--raised the pool a sovereign; and this caused two of the players to retire, leaving himself, Miles, and the dealer. He took one card--to his astonishment and concealed delight he found it was the joker. Five aces!--surely on such a hand he might bet his furniture, his clothes, his last cigarette. Five aces!--it was nothing but brute force; all that was wanted was to pile on the money; he could well afford to be reckless this time. He saw that Miles also asked for one card, and that the dealer helped himself to two; but what the took was a matter of supreme indifference to him.

It was Percival Miles's turn to bet.

"I will bet a sovereign," said he.

"And I'll stay in with you," remarked the dealer, depositing the golden coin.

"One better," said Lionel.

"And one better," said Miles.

Here the dealer retired, so that these two were left in as before--well, not as before, for Lionel had five aces in his hand! And now they made no pretence of keeping to the limit that had been imposed; their bets were registered on the bit of paper which each had by him; and pertinaciously did these two gladiators hack and slash at each other. Lionel was quite reckless. His enemy had taken one card. Very well. Supposing he had "filled" a flush or a straight, so much the better. Supposing he also had got fours--that, too, was excellent well; for he could have nothing higher than four kings. Strictly speaking, there was only one hand that could beat Lionel's--a straight flush; but then a straight flush is an uncommonly rare thing; and, besides, the appearance of five aces in one's hand seems to convey a sense of quite unlimited power. That five aces are no better than four aces does not strike the possessor of them; he regards the goodly show--and strives to conceal his elation.

But even the onlookers, intensely interested as they were in this fell combat, began to grow afraid when they guessed at the sum that was now in the imaginary pool. The story might get about the club; the committee might shut up the card-room; there might be a talk of expulsion. As for Lionel, he kept saying to himself, "Well, this is a safe thing; and I could go on all night; but I won't take a brutal advantage. As soon as I think I have got back about what this young fellow has already taken from me since he came into the club, I will stop. I don't want to break him. I don't want to send him to the money-lenders."

As for the pale young man across the table, his demeanor was that of a perfect poker-player. The only thing that could be noticed was a slight contraction of his pupils, as if he were concentrating his eyes on the things immediately around him and trying to leave his face quite inscrutable. There was no eagerness in his betting--nor was there any affected resignation; it was entirely mechanical; like clock-work came the raised and raised bet.

"I call you," said Lionel, at last, amid a breathless silence.

Without a word Percival Miles laid his cards on the table, arranging them in sequence; they were five, six, seven, eight, and nine of clubs--not an imposing hand, certainly, but Lionel knew his doom was sealed. He rose from his chair, with a brief laugh that did not sound very natural.

"I think I know when I've had enough," he said. "Good-night!" And "Good-night!" came from one and all of them--though there was an ominous pause until the door was shut behind him.

He went down below, to the supper-room, which was all deserted now; he drew in a chair to a small writing-table and took a sheet of note-paper. On it he scrawled, with rather a feverish hand:

"As I understand it, I owe you L800 on this evening, with L300 from yesterday--L1100 in all. I will try to let you have it to-morrow. L.M."--and that he put in an envelope, which he addressed to "Percival Miles, Esq.," and sent up-stairs by one of the servants. Then he went and got his coat and hat, and left. It was raining hard, and there was a blustering wind, but he called no hansom; the wet and cold seemed grateful to him, for he was hot and excited. And then, somewhat blindly, and bare-throated, he passed through the streaming thoroughfares--caring little how long it took him to reach Piccadilly.

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