Tit-Bits, July 30, 1910
A LESSON IN PIQUET.
Lord Dreever, meanwhile, having left the waterside, lit a cigarette, and proceeded to make a reflective tour of the grounds. He felt aggrieved with the world. Molly’s desertion in the canoe with Jimmy did not trouble him. He had other sorrows. One is never at one’s best and sunniest when one has been forced by a ruthless uncle into abandoning the girl one loves and becoming engaged to another to whom one is indifferent. Something of a jaundiced tinge stains one’s outlook on life in such circumstances. Moreover, Lord Dreever was not by nature an introspective young man, but, examining his position as he walked along, he found himself wondering whether it was not a little unheroic. He came to the conclusion that perhaps it was.
Of course, Uncle Thomas could make it so deucedly unpleasant for him if he kicked. That was the trouble. If only he had even, say, a couple of thousand a year of his own, he might make a fight for it. But, dash it, Uncle Tom could cut off supplies to such a frightful extent if there was trouble that he would have to go on living at Dreever indefinitely, without so much as a fearful quid to call his own. Imagination boggled at the prospect. In the summer and autumn, when there was shooting, his lordship was not indisposed to a stay at the home of his fathers. But all the year round! Better a broken heart inside the radius than a sound one in the country in the winter.
“But, by Gad,” mused his lordship, “if I had as much as a couple—yes, dash it, even a couple of thousand a year, I’d chance it and ask Katie to marry me, dashed if I wouldn’t!”
He walked on, drawing thoughtfully at his cigarette. The more he reviewed the situation the less he liked it. There was only one bright spot in it, and that was the feeling that now money must surely get a shade less tight. Extracting the precious ore from Sir Thomas hitherto had been like pulling back-teeth out of a bulldog. But now, on the strength of this infernal engagement, surely he might reasonably be expected to scatter largesse to some extent.
His lordship was just wondering whether, if approached in a softened mood, the other might not disgorge something quite big, when a large, warm rain-drop fell on his hand. From the bushes round about came an ever-increasing patter. The sky was leaden.
He looked round him for shelter. He had reached the rose-garden in the course of his perambulations. At the far end was a summer-house. He turned up his coat-collar and ran.
As he drew near he heard a slow and dirge-like whistling proceeding from the interior. Plunging in out of breath, just as the deluge began, he found Hargate seated at the little wooden table with an earnest expression on his face. The table was covered with cards. Hargate had not yet been compelled to sprain his wrist, having adopted the alternative of merely refusing invitations to play billiards.
“Halloa, Hargate!” said his lordship. “Isn’t it coming down, by Jove!”
Hargate glanced up, nodded without speaking, and turned his attention to the cards once more. He took one from the pack in his left hand, looked at it, hesitated for a moment as if doubtful whereabouts on the table it would produce the most artistic effect, and finally put it face upward. Then he moved another card from the table and put it on top of the other one. Throughout the performance he whistled painfully.
His lordship regarded him with annoyance.
“That looks frightfully exciting,” he said, disparagingly. “What are you playing at? Patience?”
Hargate nodded again—this time without looking up.
“Oh, don’t sit there looking like a frog,” said Lord Dreever, irritably. “Talk, man.”
Hargate gathered up the cards and proceeded to shuffle them in a meditative manner, whistling the while.
“Oh, stop it!” said his lordship.
Hargate nodded, and stopped.
“Look here,” said Lord Dreever, “this is boring me stiff. Let’s have a game at something. Anything to pass away the time. Hang this rain! We shall be cooped up here till dinner at this rate. Ever played piquet? I could teach it you in five minutes.”
A look almost of awe came into Hargate’s face—the look of one who sees a miracle performed before his eyes. For years he had been using all the large stock of diplomacy at his command to induce callow youths to play piquet with him, and here was this admirable young man, this pearl among young men, positively offering to teach him the game. It was too much happiness. What had he done to deserve this? He felt as a toil-worn lion might feel if some antelope, instead of making its customary bee-line for the horizon, were to trot up and insert its head between his jaws.
“I—I shouldn’t mind being shown the idea,” he said.
He listened attentively while Lord Dreever explained at some length the principles which govern the game of piquet. Every now and then he asked a question. It was evident that he was beginning to grasp the idea of the game.
“What exactly is re-piquing?” he asked, as his lordship paused.
“It’s like this,” said his lordship, returning to his lecture.
“Yes, I see now,” said the neophyte.
They began playing. Lord Dreever, as was only to be expected in a contest between teacher and student, won the first two hands. Hargate won the next.
“I’ve got the hang of it all right now,” he said, complacently. “It’s a simple sort of game. Make it more exciting, don’t you think, if we played for something?”
“All right,” said Lord Dreever, slowly; “if you like.”
He would not have suggested it himself, but after all, dash it, if the man simply asked for it—— It was not his fault if the winning of a hand should have given the fellow the impression that he knew all that there was to be known about piquet. Of course, piquet was a game where skill was practically bound to win. But—— After all, Hargate probably had plenty of money. He could afford it.
“All right,” said his lordship again. “How much?”
“Something fairly moderate? Ten bob a hundred?”
There is no doubt that his lordship ought at this suggestion to have corrected the novice’s notion that ten shillings a hundred was fairly moderate. He knew that it was possible for a poor player to lose four hundred points in a twenty minutes’ game, and usual for him to lose two hundred. But he let the thing go.
“Very well,” he said.
Twenty minutes later Hargate was looking somewhat ruefully at the score-sheet. “I owe you eighteen shillings,” he said. “Shall I pay you now, or shall we settle up in a lump after we’ve finished?”
“What about stopping now?” said Lord Dreever. “It’s quite fine out.”
“No; let’s go on. I’ve nothing to do till dinner, and I don’t suppose you have.”
His lordship’s conscience made one last effort. “You’d much better stop, you know, Hargate, really,” he said. “You can lose a frightful lot at this game.”
“My dear Dreever,” said Hargate, stiffly, “I can look after myself, thanks. Of course, if you think you are risking too much, by all means——”
“Oh, if you don’t mind,” said his lordship, outraged. “I’m only too frightfully pleased. Only remember I warned you.”
“I’ll bear it in mind. By the way, before we start, care to make it a sovereign a hundred?”
Lord Dreever could not afford to play piquet for a sovereign a hundred, or, indeed, to play piquet for money at all; but after his adversary’s innuendo it was impossible for a young gentleman of spirit to admit the humiliating fact. He nodded.
“About time, I fancy,” said Hargate, looking at his watch an hour later, “that we were going in to dress for dinner.”
His lordship made no reply. He was wrapped in thought.
“Let’s see, that’s twenty pounds you owe me, isn’t it?” continued Hargate. “Shocking bad luck you had.”
They went out into the rose-garden.
“Jolly everything smells after the rain,” said Hargate, who seemed to have struck a conversational patch. “Freshened everything up.”
His lordship did not appear to have noticed it. He seemed to be thinking of something else. His air was pensive and abstracted.
“There’s just time,” said Hargate, looking at his watch again, “for a short stroll. I want to have a talk with you.”
“Oh!” said Lord Dreever.
His air did not belie his feelings. He looked pensive, and he was pensive. It was deuced awkward, this twenty pounds business.
Hargate was watching him covertly. It was his business to know other people’s business, and he knew that Lord Dreever was impecunious, and depended for supplies entirely on a prehensile uncle. For the success of the proposal he was about to make he relied on this fact.
“Who’s this man Pitt?” asked Hargate.
“Oh, pal of mine,” said his lordship. “Why?”
“I can’t stand the fellow.”
“I think he’s a good chap,” said his lordship. “In fact,” remembering Jimmy’s Good Samaritanism, “I know he is. Why don’t you like him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t.”
“Oh!” said his lordship, indifferently. He was in no mood to listen to the likes and dislikes of other men.
“Look here, Dreever,” said Hargate, “I want you to do something for me. I want you to get Pitt out of the place.”
Lord Dreever eyed him curiously.
“Eh?” he said. Hargate repeated his remark.
“You seem to have mapped out quite a programme for me,” said Lord Dreever.
“Get him out of it,” continued Hargate, vehemently. Jimmy’s prohibition against billiards had hit him hard. He was suffering the torments of Tantalus. The castle was full of young men of the kind to whom he most resorted—easy marks, every one—and here he was, simply through Jimmy, careened like a disabled battleship. It was maddening. “Make him go. You invited him here. He doesn’t expect to stop indefinitely, I suppose? If you left, he’d have to, too. What you must do is to go back to London to-morrow. You can easily make some excuse. He’ll have to go with you. Then you can drop him in London and come back. That’s what you must do.”
A delicate pink flush might have been seen to spread itself over Lord Dreever’s face. He began to look like an angry rabbit. He had not a great deal of pride in his composition, but the thought of the ignominious rôle which Hargate was sketching out for him stirred what he had to its shallow bottom.
Talking on, Hargate managed to add the last straw.
“Of course,” he said, “that money you lost to me at piquet—what was it? Twenty? Twenty pounds, wasn’t it? Well, we would look on that as cancelled, of course. That will be all right.”
His lordship exploded.
“Will it?” he cried, pink to the ears. “Will it, by George? I’ll pay you every frightful penny of it to-morrow—and then you can clear out, instead of Pitt. What do you take me for, I should like to know?”
“A fool, if you refuse my offer.”
“I’ve a jolly good mind to give you a most frightful kicking.”
“I shouldn’t try if I were you. It’s not the sort of game you’d shine at. Better stick to piquet.”
“If you think I can’t pay you your rotten money——”
“I do. But if you can, so much the better. Money is always useful.”
“I may be a fool in some ways——”
“You understate it, my dear man.”
“But I’m not a cad.”
“You’re getting quite rosy, Dreever. Wrath is good for the complexion.”
“And if you think you can bribe me, you never made a bigger mistake in your life.”
“Yes, I did,” said Hargate, “when I thought you had some glimmerings of intelligence. But if it gives you any pleasure to behave like the juvenile lead in a melodrama, by all means do. Personally, I shouldn’t have thought the game would be worth the candle. But if your keen sense of honour compels you to pay the twenty pounds, all right. You mentioned to-morrow? That will suit me. So we’ll let it go at that.”
He walked off, leaving Lord Dreever filled with that comfortable glow which comes to the weak man who for once has displayed determination. He felt that he must not go back from his dignified standpoint. That money would have to be paid, and on the morrow. Hargate was the sort of man who could, and would, make it exceedingly unpleasant for him if he failed. A debt of honour was not a thing to be trifled with.
But he felt quite safe. He knew he could get the money when he pleased. It showed, he reflected, philosophically, how out of evil cometh good. His greater misfortune, the engagement, would, as it were, neutralize the loss, for it was ridiculous to suppose that Sir Thomas, having seen his ends accomplished, and being presumably in a spacious mood in consequence, would not be amenable to a request for a mere twenty pounds.
He went on into the hall. He felt strong and capable. He had shown Hargate the stuff there was in him. He was Spennie Dreever, the man of blood and iron, the man with whom it was best not to trifle. But it was really, come to think of it, uncommonly lucky that he was engaged to Molly. He recoiled from the idea of attempting, unfortified by that fact, to extract twenty pounds from Sir Thomas for a card debt.
In the hall he met Saunders.
“I have been looking for your lordship,” said the butler.
“Eh? Well, here I am.”
“Just so, your lordship. Miss McEachern entrusted me with this note to deliver to you in the event of her not being hable to see you before dinner personally, your lordship.”
He started to go upstairs, opening the envelope as he went. What could the girl be writing to him about? Surely she wasn’t going to start sending him love-letters or any of that frightful rot? Deuced difficult it would be to play up to that sort of thing.
He stopped on the landing to read the note, and at the first line his jaw fell. The envelope fluttered to the ground.
“Oh, my sainted aunt!” he moaned, clutching at the banisters. “Now I am in the soup!”
There are doubtless men so constructed that they can find themselves accepted suitors without any particular whirl of emotion. King Solomon probably belonged to this class, and even Henry VIII. must have become a trifle blasé in time. But to the average man the sensations are complex and overwhelming. A certain stunned feeling is perhaps predominant. Blended with this is relief—the relief of a general who has brought a difficult campaign to a successful end, or a member of a forlorn hope who finds that the danger is over and that he is still alive. To this must be added a newly-born sense of magnificence. Our suspicion that we were something rather out of the ordinary run of men is suddenly confirmed. Our bosom heaves with complacency, and the world has nothing more to offer.
With some there is an alloy of apprehension in the metal of their happiness, and the strain of an engagement sometimes brings with it even a faint shadow of regret. “She makes me buy things,” one swain, in the third quarter of his engagement, was overheard to moan to a friend. “Two new ties only yesterday.” He seemed to be debating within himself whether human nature could stand the strain.
But, whatever tragedies may cloud the end of the period, its beginning at least is bathed in sunshine.
Jimmy, regarding his lathered face in the glass as he dressed for dinner that night, marvelled at the excellence of this best of all possible worlds.
No doubts disturbed him. That the relations between Mr. McEachern and himself offered a permanent bar to his prospects he did not believe. For the moment he declined to consider the existence of the ex-constable at all. In a world that contained Molly there was no room for other people. They were not in the picture. They did not exist.
To him, musing contentedly over the goodness of life, there entered, in the furtive manner habitual to that unreclaimed buccaneer, Spike Mullins. It may have been that Jimmy read his own satisfaction and happiness into the faces of others, but it certainly seemed to him that there was a sort of restrained joyousness about Spike’s demeanour. The Bowery boy’s shuffles on the carpet were almost a dance. His face seemed to glow beneath his crimson hair.
“Well,” said Jimmy, “and how goes the world with young Lord FitzMullins? Spike, have you ever been best man?”
“What’s dat, boss?”
“Best man at a wedding. Chap who stands by the bridegroom with a hand on the scruff of his neck to see that he goes through with it. Fellow who looks after everything, crowds the money on to the minister at the end of the ceremony, and then goes off and marries the first bridesmaid and lives happily ever after.”
Spike shook his head.
“I ain’t got no use for gettin’ married, boss.”
“Spike the misogynist! You wait, Spike. Some day love will awake in your heart, and you’ll start writing poetry.”
“I’se not dat kind of mug, boss,” protested the Bowery boy. “I ain’t got no use for goils. It’s a mutt’s game.”
This was rank heresy. Jimmy laid down the razor from motives of prudence, and proceeded to lighten Spike’s reprehensible darkness.
“Spike, you’re an ass,” he said. “You don’t know anything about it. If you had any sense at all, you’d understand that the only thing worth doing in life is to get married. You bone-headed bachelors make me ill. Think what it would mean to you, having a wife. Think of going out on a cold winter’s night to crack a crib, knowing that there would be a cup of hot soup waiting for you when you got back, and your slippers all warmed and comfortable. And then she’d sit on your knee, and you’d tell her how you shot the policeman, and you’d examine the swag together! Why, I can’t imagine anything cosier. Perhaps there would be little Spikes running about the house. Can’t you see them jumping with joy as you slid in through the window and told the great news? ‘Fahzer’s killed a pleeceman!’ cry the tiny, eager voices. Sweets are served out all round in honour of the event. Golden-haired little Jimmy Mullins, my godson, gets a dime for having thrown a stone at a plain-clothes detective that afternoon. All is joy and wholesome revelry. Take my word for it, Spike, there’s nothing like domesticity.”
“Dere was a goil once,” said Spike, meditatively. “Only I was never her steady. She married a cop.”
“She wasn’t worthy of you, Spike,” said Jimmy, sympathetically. “A girl capable of going to the bad like that would never have done for you. You must pick some nice, sympathetic girl with a romantic admiration for your line of business. Meanwhile, let me finish shaving, or I shall be late for dinner. Great doings on to-night, Spike.”
Spike became animated.
“Sure, boss! Dat’s just what——”
“If you could collect all the blue blood that will be under this roof to-night, Spike, into one vat, you’d be able to start a dyeing works. Don’t try, though. They mightn’t like it. By the way, have you seen anything more—of course you have. What I mean is, have you talked at all with that valet man—the one you think is a detective?”
“Why, boss, dat’s just——”
“I hope, for his own sake, he’s a better performer than my old friend Galer. That man is getting on my nerves, Spike. He pursues me like a smell-dog. I expect he’s lurking out in the passage now. Did you see him?”
“Did I! Boss! Why——”
Jimmy inspected Spike gravely.
“Spike,” he said, “there’s something on your mind. You’re trying to say something. What is it? Out with it.”
Spike’s excitement vented itself in a rush of words.
“Gee, boss! There’s bin doin’s to-night for fair. Me coco’s still buzzin’. Sure t’ing! Why, say, when I was to Sir Tummas’s dressing-room dis afternoon——”
“Surest t’ing you know. Just before de storm come on, when it was all as dark as could be. Well, I was——”
“In Sir Thomas’s dressing-room! What——”
Spike looked somewhat embarrassed. He grinned apologetically and shuffled his feet.
“I’ve got dem, boss,” he said, with a smirk.
“Got them? Got what?”
He plunged his hand in his pocket and drew forth, in a glittering mass, Lady Julia Blunt’s rope of diamonds.
This is a good place to point out the value of money in 1910 compared to today. Various online calculators suggest values in the range of £170,000 to £200,000 as the current equivalent of “a couple of thousand a year.” Spennie and Katie should be able to get along just fine on that pittance. Similarly, Hargate’s piquet winnings of £20 would be nearly a hundred times that amount today.
inside the radius: The Hackney Carriages (London) Act of 1853 defined a radius of four miles from Charing Cross within which local cab fares were defined by law. Since 1851, London cabbies must pass an examination about “the Knowledge” of streets and public buildings within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Whichever is being referred to here, the idea expressed is that of central London.
piquet: a very old two-player card game; rules at this link
torments of Tantalus: a figure in Greek myth, one of the inhabitants of Tartarus, the deepest portion of the Underworld. He was condemned to stand in a pool of water underneath a fruit tree; whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised beyond his grasp; whenever he stooped for water, the pool receded, making it impossible to drink. The word ‘tantalize’ is derived from his name.
man of blood and iron: a title usually applied to Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898), first chancellor of Germany.
King Solomon probably belonged to this class: See Biblia Wodehousiana.
this best of all possible worlds: Jimmy’s philosophy is taken from Gottfried Leibniz, but more famously lampooned by Voltaire as preached by Dr. Pangloss in Candide.
—Notes by Neil Midkiff