THE SPORT OF CHANCE
"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.
"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 rôle 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.