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   Chapter 1 THE SPORT OF CHANCE

A Daughter of Raasay By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 21297

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


"Deep play!" I heard Major Wolfe whisper to Lord Balmerino. "Can Montagu's estate stand such a drain?"

"No. He will be dipped to the last pound before midnight. 'Tis Volney's doing. He has angled for Montagu a se'nnight, and now he has hooked him. I have warned the lad, but--"

He shrugged his shoulders.

The Scotchman was right. I was past all caution now, past all restraint. The fever of play had gripped me, and I would listen to nothing but the rattle of that little box which makes the most seductive music ever sung by siren. My Lord Balmerino might stand behind me in silent protest till all was grey, and though he had been twenty times my father's friend he would not move me a jot.

Volney's smoldering eyes looked across the table at me.

"Your cast, Kenn. Shall we say doubles? You'll nick this time for sure."

"Done! Nine's the main," I cried, and threw deuces.

With that throw down crashed fifty ancestral oaks that had weathered the storms of three hundred winters. I had crabbed, not nicked.

"The fickle goddess is not with you to-day, Kenn. The jade jilts us all at times," drawled Volney, as he raked in his winnings carelessly.

"Yet I have noted that there are those whom she forsakes not often, and I have wondered by what charmed talisman they hold her true," flashed out Balmerino.

The steel flickered into Volney's eyes. He understood it for no chance remark, but as an innuendo tossed forth as a challenge. Of all men Sir Robert Volney rode on the crest of fortune's wave, and there were not lacking those who whispered that his invariable luck was due to something more than chance and honest skill. For me, I never believed the charge. With all his faults Volney had the sportsman's love of fair play.

The son of a plain country gentleman, he had come to be by reason of his handsome face, his reckless courage, his unfailing impudence, and his gift of savoir-vivre, the most notorious and fortunate of the adventurers who swarmed at the court of St. James. By dint of these and kindred qualities he had become an intimate companion of the Prince of Wales. The man had a wide observation of life; indeed, he was an interested and whimsical observer rather than an actor, and a scoffer always. A libertine from the head to the heel of him, yet gossip marked him as the future husband of the beautiful young heiress Antoinette Westerleigh. For the rest, he carried an itching sword and the smoothest tongue that ever graced a villain. I had been proud that such a man had picked me for his friend, entirely won by the charm of manner that made his more evil faults sit gracefully on him.

Volney declined for the present the quarrel that Balmerino's impulsive loyalty to me would have fixed on him. He feared no living man, but he was no hothead to be drawn from his purpose. If Lord Balmerino wanted to measure swords with him he would accommodate the old Scotch peer with the greatest pleasure on earth, but not till the time fitted him. He answered easily:

"I know no talisman but this, my Lord; in luck and out of luck to bear a smiling front, content with the goods the gods may send."

It was a fair hit, for Balmerino was well known as an open malcontent and suspected of being a Jacobite.

"Ah! The goods sent by the gods! A pigeon for the plucking-the lad you have called friend!" retorted the other.

"Take care, my Lord," warningly.

"But there are birds it is not safe to pluck," continued Balmerino, heedless of his growing anger.

"Indeed!"

"As even Sir Robert Volney may find out. An eaglet is not wisely chosen for such purpose."

It irritated me that they should thrust and parry over my shoulder, as if I had been but a boy instead of full three months past my legal majority. Besides, I had no mind to have them letting each other's blood on my account.

"Rat it, 'tis your play, Volney. You keep us waiting," I cried.

"You're in a devilish hurry to be quit of your shekels," laughed the Irishman O'Sullivan, who sat across the table from me. "Isn't there a proverb, Mr. Montagu, about a-a careless gentleman and his money going different ways, begad? Don't keep him waiting any longer than need be, Volney."

There is this to be said for the Macaronis, that they plucked their pigeon with the most graceful negligence in the world. They might live by their wits, but they knew how to wear always the jauntiest indifference of manner. Out came the feathers with a sure hand, the while they exchanged choice bon mots and racy scandal. Hazard was the game we played and I, Kenneth Montagu, was cast for the r?le of the pigeon. Against these old gamesters I had no chance even if the play had been fair, and my head on it more than one of them rooked me from start to finish. I was with a vast deal of good company, half of whom were rogues and blacklegs.

"Heard George Selwyn's latest?"[1] inquired Lord Chesterfield languidly.

"Not I. Threes, devil take it!" cried O'Sullivan in a pet.

"Tell it, Horry. It's your story," drawled the fourth Earl of Chesterfield.

"Faith, and that's soon done," answered Walpole. "George and I were taking the air down the Mall arm in arm yesterday just after the fellow Fox was hanged for cutting purses, and up comes our Fox to quiz George. Says he, knowing Selwyn's penchant for horrors, 'George, were you at the execution of my namesake?' Selwyn looks him over in his droll way from head to foot and says, 'Lard, no! I never attend rehearsals, Fox.'"

"'Tis the first he has missed for years then. Selwyn is as regular as Jack Ketch himself. Your throw, Montagu," put in O'Sullivan.

"Seven's the main, and by the glove of Helen I crab. Saw ever man such cursed luck?" I cried.

"'Tis vile. Luck's mauling you fearfully to-night," agreed Volney languidly. Then, apropos of the hanging, "Ketch turned off that fellow Dr. Dodd too. There was a shower, and the prison chaplain held an umbrella over Dodd's head. Gilly Williams said it wasn't necessary, as the Doctor was going to a place where he might be easily dried."

"Egad, 'tis his greatest interest in life," chuckled Walpole, harking back to Selwyn. "When George has a tooth pulled he drops his kerchief as a signal for the dentist to begin the execution."

Old Lord Pam's toothless gums grinned appreciation of the jest as he tottered from the room to take a chair for a rout at which he was due.

"Faith, and it's a wonder how that old Methuselah hangs on year after year," said O'Sullivan bluntly, before the door had even closed on the octogenarian. "He must be a thousand if he's a day."

"The fact is," explained Chesterfield confidentially, "that old Pam has been dead for several years, but he doesn't choose to have it known. Pardon me, am I delaying the game?"

He was not, and he knew it; but my Lord Chesterfield was far too polite to more than hint to Topham Beauclerc that he had fallen asleep over his throw. Selwyn and Lord March lounged into the coffee house arm in arm. On their heels came Sir James Craven, the choicest blackleg in England.

"How d'ye do, everybody? Whom are you and O'Sully rooking to-night, Volney? Oh, I see-Montagu. Beg pardon," said Craven coolly.

Volney looked past the man with a wooden face that did not even recognize the fellow as a blot on the landscape. There was bad blood between the two men, destined to end in a tragedy. Sir James had been in the high graces of Frederick Prince of Wales until the younger and more polished Volney had ousted him. On the part of the coarse and burly Craven, there was enduring hatred toward his easy and elegant rival, who paid back his malice with a serene contempt. Noted duellist as Craven was, Sir Robert did not give a pinch of snuff for his rage.

The talk veered to the new fashion of spangled skirts, and Walpole vowed that Lady Coventry's new dress was covered with spangles big as a shilling.

"'Twill be convenient for Coventry. She'll be change for a guinea," suggested Selwyn gloomily, his solemn face unlighted by the vestige of a smile.

So they jested, even when the play was deepest and while long-inherited family manors passed out of the hands of their owners. The recent French victory at Fontenoy still rankled in the heart of every Englishman. Within, the country seethed with an undercurrent of unrest and dissatisfaction. It was said that there were those who boasted quietly among themselves over their wine that the sun would yet rise some day on a Stuart England, that there were desperate men still willing to risk their lives in blind loyalty or in the gambler's spirit for the race of Kings that had been discarded for its unworthiness. But the cut of his Mechlin lace ruffles was more to the Macaroni than his country's future. He made his jest with the same aplomb at births and weddings and deaths.

Each fresh minute of play found me parted from some heirloom treasured by Montagus long since dust. In another half hour Montagu Grange was stripped of timber bare as the Row itself. Once, between games, I strolled uneasily down the room, and passing the long looking glass scarce recognized the haggard face that looked out at me. Still I played on, dogged and wretched, not knowing how to withdraw myself from these elegant dandies who were used to win or lose a fortune at a sitting with imperturbable face.

Lord Balmerino gave me a chance. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and said in his brusque kindly way-

"Enough, lad! You have dropped eight thou' to-night. Let the old family pictures still hang on the walls."

I looked up, flushed and excited, yet still sane enough to know his advice was good. In the strong sallow face of Major James Wolfe I read the same word. I knew the young soldier slightly and liked him with a great respect, though I could not know that this grave brilliant-eyed young man was later to become England's greatest soldier and hero. I had even pushed back my chair to rise from the table when the cool gibing voice of Volney cut in.

"The eighth wonder of the world; Lord Balmerino in a new r?le-adviser to young men of fashion who incline to enjoy life. Are you by any chance thinking of becoming a ranting preacher, my Lord?"

"I bid him do as I say and not as I have done. To point my case I cite myself as an evil example of too deep play."

"Indeed, my Lord! Faith, I fancied you had in mind even deeper play for the future. A vastly interesting game, this of politics. You stake your head that you can turn a king and zounds! you play the deuce instead."

Balmerino looked at him blackly out of a face cut in frowning marble, but Volney leane

d back carelessly in his chair and his insolent eyes never flickered.

As I say, I sat swithering 'twixt will and will-not.

"Better come, Kenneth! The luck is against you to-night," urged Balmerino, his face relaxing as he turned to me.

Major Wolfe said nothing, but his face too invited me.

"Yes, better go back to school and be birched," sneered Volney.

And at that I flung back into my seat with a curse, resolute to show him I was as good a man as he. My grim-faced guardian angel washed his hands of me with a Scotch proverb.

"He that will to Cupar maun to Cupar. The lad will have to gang his ain gate," I heard him tell Wolfe as they strolled away.

Still the luck held against me. Before I rose from the table two hours later I wrote out notes for a total so large that I knew the Grange must be mortgaged to the roof to satisfy it.

Volney lolled in his chair and hid a yawn behind tapering pink finger-nails. "'Slife, you had a cursed run of the ivories to-night, Kenn! When are you for your revenge? Shall we say to-morrow? Egad, I'm ready to sleep round the clock. Who'll take a seat in my coach? I'm for home."

I pushed into the night with a burning fever in my blood, and the waves of damp mist which enveloped London and beat upon me, gathering great drops of moisture on my cloak, did not suffice to cool the fire that burnt me up. The black dog Care hung heavy on my shoulders. I knew now what I had done. Fool that I was, I had mortgaged not only my own heritage but also the lives of my young brother Charles and my sister Cloe. Our father had died of apoplexy without a will, and a large part of his personal property had come to me with the entailed estate. The provision for the other two had been of the slightest, and now by this one wild night of play I had put it out of my power to take care of them. I had better clap a pistol to my head and be done with it.

Even while the thought was in my mind a hand out of the night fell on my shoulder from behind. I turned with a start, and found myself face to face with the Scotchman Balmerino.

"Whither away, Kenneth?" he asked.

I laughed bitterly. "What does it matter? A broken gambler-a ruined dicer- What is there left for him?"

The Scotch Lord linked an arm through mine. I had liefer have been alone, but I could scarce tell him so. He had been a friend of my father and had done his best to save me from my folly.

"There is much left. All is not lost. I have a word to say to your father's son."

"What use!" I cried rudely. "You would lock the stable after the horse is stolen."

"Say rather that I would put you in the way of getting another horse," he answered gravely.

So gravely that I looked at him twice before I answered:

"And I would be blithe to find a way, for split me! as things look now I must either pistol myself or take to the road and pistol others," I told him gloomily.

"There are worse things than to lose one's wealth--"

"I hear you say it, but begad! I do not know them," I answered with a touch of anger at his calmness.

"--When the way is open to regain all one has lost and more," he finished, unheeding my interruption.

"Well, this way you speak of," I cried impatiently. "Where is it?"

He looked at me searchingly, as one who would know the inmost secrets of my soul. Under a guttering street light he stopped me and read my face line by line. I dare swear he found there a recklessness to match his own and perhaps some trace of the loyalty for which he looked. Presently he said, as the paving stones echoed to our tread:-

"You have your father's face, Kenn. I mind him a lad just like you when we went out together in the '15 for the King. Those were great days-great days. I wonder--"

His unfinished sentence tailed out into a meditative silence. His voice and eyes told of a mind reminiscent of the past and perhaps dreamful of the future. Yet awhile, and he snatched himself back into the present.

"Six hours ago I should not have proposed this desperate remedy for your ills. You had a stake in the country then, but now you are as poor in this world's gear as Arthur Elphinstone himself. When one has naught but life at stake he will take greater risks. I have a man's game to play. Are you for it, lad?"

I hesitated, a prophetic divination in my mind that I stood in a mist at the parting of life's ways.

"You have thrown all to-night-and lost. I offer you another cut at Fortune's cards. You might even turn a king."

He said it with a quiet steadfastness in which I seemed to detect an undercurrent of strenuous meaning. I stopped, and in my turn looked long at him. What did he mean? Volney's words came to my mind. I began to piece together rumours I had heard but never credited. I knew that even now men dreamed of a Stuart restoration. If Arthur Elphinstone of Balmerino were one of these I knew him to be of a reckless daring mad enough to attempt it.

"My Lord, you say I might turn a king," I repeated slowly. "'Tis more like that I would play the knave. You speak in riddles. I am no guesser of them. You must be plain."

Still he hung back from a direct answer. "You are dull to-night, Kenn. I have known you more gleg at the uptake, but if you will call on me to-morrow night I shall make all plain to you."

We were arrived at the door of his lodgings, a mean house in a shabby neighbourhood, for my Lord was as poor as a church mouse despite his title. I left him here, and the last words I called over my shoulder to him were,

"Remember, I promise nothing."

It may be surmised that as I turned my steps back toward my rooms in Arlington Street I found much matter for thought. I cursed the folly that had led me to offer myself a dupe to these hawks of the gaming table. I raged in a stress of heady passion against that fair false friend Sir Robert Volney. And always in the end my mind jumped back to dally with Balmerino's temptation to recoup my fallen fortunes with one desperate throw.

"Fraoch! Dh 'aindeoin co theireadh e!" (The Heath! Gainsay who dare!)

The slogan echoed and reechoed through the silent streets, and snatched me in an instant out of the abstraction into which I had fallen. Hard upon the cry there came to me the sound of steel ringing upon steel. I legged it through the empty road, flung myself round a corner, and came plump upon the combatants. The defendant was a lusty young fellow apparently about my own age, of extraordinary agility and no mean skill with the sword. He was giving a good account of himself against the four assailants who hemmed him against the wall, his point flashing here and there with swift irregularity to daunt their valiancy. At the moment when I appeared to create a diversion one of the four had flung himself down and forward to cling about the knees of their victim with intent to knife him at close quarters. The young man dared not shorten his sword length to meet this new danger. He tried to shake off the man, caught at his white throat and attempted to force him back, what time his sword still opposed the rest of the villains.

Then I played my small part in the entertainment. One of the rascals screamed out an oath at sight of me and turned to run. I pinked him in the shoulder, and at the same time the young swordsman fleshed another of them. The man with the knife scrambled to his feet, a ludicrous picture of ghastly terror. To make short, in another minute there was nothing to be seen of the cutpurses but flying feet scampering through the night.

The young gentleman turned to me with a bow that was never invented out of France. I saw now that he was something older than myself, tall, well-made, and with a fine stride to him that set off the easy grace of his splendid shoulders. His light steady blue eyes and his dark ruddy hair proclaimed him the Highlander. His face was not what would be called handsome: the chin was over-square and a white scar zigzagged across his cheek, but I liked the look of him none the less for that. His frank manly countenance wore the self-reliance of one who has lived among the hills and slept among the heather under countless stars. For dress he wore the English costume with the extra splash of colour that betokened the vanity of his race. "'Fore God, sir, you came none too soon," he cried in his impetuous Gaelic way. "This riff-raff of your London town had knifed me in another gliff. I will be thinking that it would have gone ill with me but for your opportune arrival. I am much beholden to you, and if ever I can pay the debt do not fail to call on Don-er-James Brown."

At the last words he fell to earth most precipitately, all the fervent ring dropping out of his voice. Now James Brown is a common name enough, but he happened to be the first of the name I had ever heard crying a Highland slogan in the streets of London, and I looked at him with something more than curiosity. I am a Scotchman myself on the mother's side, so that I did not need to have a name put to his nationality.

There was the touch of a smile on my face when I asked him if he were hurt. He gave me the benefit of his full seventy three inches and told me no, that he would think shame of himself if he could not keep his head with his hands from a streetful of such scum. And might he know the name of the unknown friend who had come running out of the night to lend him an arm?

"Kenneth Montagu," I told him, laughing at his enthusiasm.

"Well then, Mr. Kenneth Montagu, it's the good friend you've been to me this night, and I'll not be forgetting it."

"When I find myself attacked by footpads I'll just look up Mr. James Brown," I told him dryly with intent to plague.

He took the name sourly, no doubt in an itching to blurt out that he was a Mac-something or other. To a Gaelic gentleman like him the Sassenach name he used for a convenience was gall and wormwood.

We walked down the street together, and where our ways parted near Arlington Street he gave me his hand.

"The lucky man am I at meeting you, Mr. Montagu, while we were having the bit splore down the street. I was just weanying for a lad handy with his blade, and the one I would be choosing out of all England came hot-foot round the corner."

I made nothing of what I had done, but yet his Highland friendliness and flatteries were balm to a sick heart and we parted at my door with a great deal of good-will.

* * *

[1] The author takes an early opportunity to express his obligations to the letters of Horace Walpole who was himself so infinitely indebted to the conversation of his cronies.

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