Chapter XXII

Jack Ralstone Follows His Luck

An hour or so after leaving King Street, Ralstone was walking slowly along St. James’s Street, Piccadilly. He stopped now at one house, then at another, looked up at their sedate, and in some cases shabby, fronts, and went on. He jingled the guineas in his pockets, and when he stopped again it was opposite a modest-looking house on the front-door of which was a brass plate bearing the inscription “C. Jones, Coal Merchant.” Not a window was lighted. A harmless-looking place indeed, the household doubtless keeping proper hours for it was nearly eleven o’clock. But Jack Ralstone knew better. Once through its portals the visitor, if he had sufficient imagination and sufficient foolishness, could picture the “potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” The house, in fact, was one of the most notorious gaming-hells in London. Here roulette, or “roly-poly,” as the punters called it, was nightly played.

“No. I’ll not risk ‘roly-poly,’” muttered Ralstone. “I’ve heard that it can be worked in favour of the bank.”

Some of the revolving tables were fitted with a spring, which could he worked by the foot and the ball made to roll into the compartment marked zero, when of course all the players lost.

Ralstone had made up his mind to follow his luck, which he considered had been all in his favour since he had been in London. True, he had spent all his winnings over Spring v. Neate​—​some £500​—​in two months, but he had had a good run for his money. He put on one side the £100 owed him by Weare, the moneylender, and Sir Phineas Tenbury’s £4,000. He had won the most lovable girl in the world, and this piece of good luck counterbalanced everything.

At the same time he regretted his recklessness. If he hadn’t been such a spendthrift he would have had enough money to take Nyra and himself, with Quamina thrown in, to Barbados​—​that was, if his duel with Tenbury could be brought off in time and successfully. His fear, however, was that Tenbury meant to back out, and that neither the £4,000 nor the fight would be forthcoming.

Ralstone was far too impetuous to wait for uncertainties to decide themselves. He wanted to take the money to Nyra at once. It would be such a proof of his sincerity. And he had but £20 in the world, all that remained of Walsham’s loan!

He had two courses open to him. He might go to a moneylender or to a gaming-house. The first meant delay; security (he hadn’t any to offer, and he wouldn’t bring a friend into his difficulties) and the possibility of being landed in the King’s Bench prison if he could not meet the repayment, which was extremely likely. The second might bring him a fortune or​—​sudden death. But there was the element of luck, and luck appealed to him just now. Besides, £20 was such a paltry sum, it might as well be nothing at all. So here he was prowling about the purlieus of St. James’s Palace, where gambling hells most abounded.

No den in St. James’s Street appealed to him, for what reason he could not quite determine, save that they were all more or less shady, and he crossed the road into St. James’s Square and went eastward. He was inclined to favour what was known as the “Dandy House” at the corner of Bury Street and Jermyn Street. Outwardly, it was of a higher class than the blackleg establishments of St. James’s Street, but in principle it was exactly the same. Here Ralstone knew that he might meet some of his brother Corinthians. He had a repugnance to rubbing shoulders against raffish. men, who for all their fine clothes were bullies and little better than thieves.

Like all the dens where gambling was carried on, the exterior of the “Dandy House” was very modest and unpretentious. Laws against keeping a common gaming-house were in force, but, unless there was a direct complaint, rarely acted upon. To enter was easy enough, as Ralstone found, but in the centre of the hall he was brought up by a door, in which was a small spy-hole. He had to wait while he was being inspected by the Cerberus on the other side, and his appearance being deemed satisfactory, he was admitted and ushered up a staircase. At the top was another gate, but this was open sesame after his approval down below. Then followed the swinging back of an iron door on the landing, and he found himself in the saloon.

The apartment was of considerable size, with plain panelled walls, and lighted in the centre by a crystal chandelier, holding some twenty or thirty candles, which, with the assistance of the prismatic pendants, threw a glare upon the centre of a long, oblong, green baize-covered table about six yards long by two and a half broad. Some eighteen inches from each end were two spaces, one red and the other black, about three feet and a half long by two feet and a half broad. Rouge et noir was the game played.

The table was surrounded by men, some sitting, others standing, whose eyes were fixed intently on the table and on the croupiers, who acted as dealers. The game was the essence of simplicity, and of course in favour of the bank. All you had to do was to stake your money on the colour you fancied and the croupiers did the rest.

The cards were valued thus: court cards as ten pips, aces for one, and the rest as marked. The dealer started with the black space, throwing out the cards one by one and stopping as soon as the pips exceeded thirty. When this came about he called out “One.” Then he passed to the red, and if the cards he dealt on this side exceeded the number of pips on the black, red lost, and the croupiers raked in the red stakes.

Frequently both colours turned up thirty-one. This, was called a one après. The money staked on each side was drawn in, and the players could either halve their stakes with the bank or trust to the chance of the next event. But to the man who staked on the winning colour in the succeeding round, no profit came. He only got back the money he had originally ventured. The bank, on the other hand, took all the stakes of the losers, so that every time a thirty-one après happened, half the money on the table went into its coffers. Obviously it was to the advantage of the bank every time an après was called.

Ralstone did not join in the play at once. He could have done so without much risk, as the stakes could be as low as five shillings, rising to £20, which was the maximum, save under certain conditions. If anyone put down a £50 or a £100 note, it must be placed face upwards, and the bank had the option of accepting or rejecting it. Jack was at first more interested in the gamblers and spectators, and looked around to see if anyone he knew was present.

It was easy to tell the “pigeons” from the “hawks.” The majority of the former were young men, with more money than brains, and what they had of the last was muddled by the drinks, which were freely handed about and for which no charge was made. The “hawks” were apparently well dressed until you looked closely at the cloth of their coats, worn threadbare by constant brushing, and at the colour of their linen. Some had their hair and whiskers dyed, and their low-crowned beaver hats were for the most part the worse for wear and limp of brim. A few were playing, and when they grabbed their winnings the croupier pushed towards them, they noisily proclaimed the fact. They were probably decoys.

Others of a different type lounged about, apparently bent upon killing time, and paid little attention to the table. They had their eyes fixed upon every stranger who entered, and summed him up with the accuracy of long practice. Their duty was to encourage the coy and timid ones, and to whisper how they had been winners, how many times red or black had been lucky in succession, and how they regretted the chances they had missed.

A waiter came up to Ralstone with a tray of glasses filled with champagne. Jack refused the drink.

“There’s nothing to pay, sir. The establishment’s liberal​—​most liberal. It’s really Liberty Hall here,” a voice from behind was heard saying.

Ralstone turned round sharply. He recognised the small pointed chin, the high cheek-bones, the narrow forehead, and the long, thin face. The speaker was Weare, the moneylender and gambling sharper. Directly his eyes fell on Ralstone he started and would have slunk away. Jack gripped his arm.

“Not so fast, Mr. Weare. I fancy we have a little matter of business​—​hardly one of honour​—​to thrash out. You owe me £100, which I’m going to ask you to pay. What’s your answer?”

“’Pon my word, sir, I don’t understand you; you must mistake me for some one else.”

“Impossible. I should think, Mr. Weare, you’re the last man in the world to have a double. I repeat that you owe me £100 on a bet you made at ‘The Angel and Sun,’ outside Bath, on the Andover fight. If you doubt me, suppose we take a coach to Tom Belcher’s. He was there, you know, and heard all that passed.”

Weare looked horribly uncomfortable. Not long since Tom Belcher had kicked him out of his house, “The Castle,” Holborn, for some shady transaction in which he had swindled one of Tom’s best customers. Weare wouldn’t face Belcher on any account.

“I think I’ve some recollection of the bet you speak of now that you remind me. I’m very sorry. It quite slipped my memory.”

“Really? In spite of my reminder on the ring side after the fight. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the hiding I gave to your champion, Thurtell? If you have, I should be very pleased to refresh your memory in your own person. Suppose we adjourn to the quietude of St. James’s Square? We’re not likely to be interfered.with there at this time of night.”

“Oh dear, no. I​—​I remember you now, sir. Of course you shall have your money. I’ll make a memorandum to send it you to-morrow. Where are you staying?”

Weare went through a parade of taking out a pocket-book with a flourish and biting the end of a very worn lead pencil.

“You needn’t trouble,” rejoined Ralstone coldly. “I mean to be paid now.”

“My dear sir, I can’t do it​—​I really can’t. I’ve very little money on me.”

“You do yourself an injustice, Mr. Weare. I happen to know that you never go anywhere without carrying your entire exchequer with you. Ready money enables you to complete a money-lending transaction on the spot; no doubt very useful to reckless gamblers who’ve come to the bottom of their pockets, and I dare say it enables you to exact a usurious profit. At least, so I hear from some of the Bow Street runners. So you see you’ve a reputation to keep up. Look here,” went on Ralstone, suddenly changing his tone, “unless you fork out I shall be forced to upset the harmony of this place. I shall denounce you first and punch your head afterwards. I dare say I shall get support from the decent men here. They’re not all blacklegs, I expect.”

“Pray do nothing so rash,” returned Weare agitatedly. “I’ll try to find something on account and send you the rest.”

“Very well, that’ll do. Say fifty pounds.”

“Oh dear, no. I can’t manage a farthing more than twenty-five pounds, and that’ll leave me nothing to go on with.”

“Rather a new sensation for you, I fancy. I don’t want to be hard. Hand over the twenty-five pounds and forward the balance to me at the ‘Tavistock.’”

Weare’s long, thin face became thinner and more shrunken, but he was driven into an awkward corner, and had no alternative. He put his hand beneath his coat and appeared to be struggling to reach the small of his back. The result of his wriggling was the production of a small, thin pocket-book. How many notes it contained Weare was careful not to let Ralstone see, but he extracted five five-pound notes, which he grudgingly held out.

“Thanks,” said Ralstone. “That leaves seventy-five pounds you owe. Hope you’ll keep your word and send the balance to-morrow.”

And he strolled to the table, leaving Weare scowling and muttering. It may here be noted that Weare’s practice of carrying his capital with him in various secret pockets concealed about his person led to his undoing. Four months later​—​in the month of November​—​he was lying dead in a lane near Elstree, butchered by Thurtell and his gang, to get the money which they knew he had somewhere in his dress.

Ralstone stood a few minutes watching the game and noting the number of times in succession the black or the red won. He was elated by the stroke of good fortune which had sent him against Weare. His luck had pursued him, and he was tempted to pursue it. When a waiter approached him with champagne he tossed off a glass. It was vile-doctored stuff, and a small quantity was guaranteed to bring on semi-intoxication in the shortest possible time, but Jack did not know this.

Black had won no less than seven times running. There was odd magic in the number seven, Ralstone had heard. It was time red had its turn. He threw down a guinea on the red. He was successful, and wished he had placed twenty times the amount. This would have given him all the money he wanted, and he would then have left the saloon. But the champagne had not destroyed all his caution, and at the next deal he contented himself with staking five guineas. Again he won.

“Your luck’s in, sir. Don’t spoil a good chance by a faint heart,” whispered his neighbour, a very dark, curly-haired man with heavy, bloated features. He was quite six feet high and very muscular. He had some friends with him who addressed him as Probert.

“Oh, my heart’s good enough,” said Jack with a careless laugh. “It’s my luck that’s the thing.”

“Well, sir, I drink to it. You’re game, I can see, and I like pluck, whether it’s with cards, women or wine. You’ll have a glass with me?”

The waiter was just behind them. Ralstone hesitated, but his throat was parched. The champagne he had drunk had given him a craving for more. And the fever of gambling was in his veins. He seized a glass and accepted Probert’s challenge.

At the next deal he plunged. It was to be his last venture, win or lose. He staked his winnings, his original stakes, and added twenty pounds. He stood to make a hundred pounds. The croupier began to throw out cards to black​—​three tens and one ace, thirty-one! Ralstone held his breath and his pulse quickened. The dealer seemed unconsciously slow in dealing to red, but it was not so. Ralstone’s anxiety had deceived him. Two tens and a nine appeared; all depended upon the fourth card. It proved to be the two. Red and black had each scored thirty-one! It was an après, and the stakes on both sides were drawn into a space at the end of the table marked off from the red and black by a yellow line.

Ralstone could now either halve his stake with the bank or leave it and take his chance of the next deal. In the first case he would lose half his money, in the second he would, if lucky, get back his stake, but he would gain nothing. He elected to do the second.

It took some little time to return the money of those who had decided to put up with losing half their stakes, and then the excitement increased. Ralstone’s stake was by far the highest on the table. He watched the dealer closely, not that he suspected anything wrong, but on the pack depended his fate. His eye, trained by snipe and wild duck shooting, and strengthened by his practice in the fencing-room, was exceptionally quick, and rarely played him false. The dealer went on mechanically. The black worked out at thirty, the red at thirty-three. Ralstone had lost. The croupier extended his rake to sweep in his gains.

“Stop!” suddenly yelled Ralstone. “This is cheating. I saw the croupier shift the bottom card to the top of the pack. The red and black were both thirty. The last card he should have thrown to the red is this.”

He was standing close to the dealer. Quick as thought his hand went out to the pack from which the cards had been dealt. He lifted the top card before anyone could prevent him, and threw it on the table face upward. It was an ace. If it had been dealt, red would have won.

Instantly there was a terrific uproar. Ralstone, his brain inflamed by the hocussed wine, made a grab at the gold and notes the croupier was raking in, but only succeeded in scattering the money. At the same moment a pair of powerful arms pinned him from behind, and the shrill voice of Weare was heard shrieking. “Out with him. He’s a spy. He’s sent by the Bow Street Robin Redbreasts.”

Professional punters, decoys, blacklegs and friends of the proprietor were in the majority. They pressed round the audacious visitor, bent on acting upon Weare’s cry. But they had reckoned without Ralstone’s strength and activity. Suddenly raising his foot, he stuck it against the edge of the table to obtain leverage, shot his body back with all his force, and using his elbows like wedges, cleaved his way through the seething mass. In less than a minute he had shaken himself free, and his chest heaving, his eyes glaring and his lips white and set he stood awaiting the onrush.

But it did not come. Blacklegs are not bruisers, and what they lacked in courage they made up for in shouts and oaths. Presently the crowd parted, a man elbowed his way through. It was Probert, with whom Ralstone had hobnobbed. He was followed by a couple of men evidently emboldened by Probert’s example. They meant mischief. Instantly Ralstone was on his guard.

Probert made a rush. His attitude and the way he held his hands told Jack that though he knew a little about boxing, that knowledge did not amount to much. He opened with a rush, and launched a heavy blow at Ralstone’s head. Jack ducked, received it on his shoulder and retaliated by a smasher full in Probert’s face, of much the same character as that which some forty years later floored Jem Mace when he fought Tom King. Ralstone’s fist, hardened by use, caught the man on the nose and between the eyes, and accentuated by the weight of his body infused into the blow, sent him crashing to the ground, and there he lay, not insensible, but unable to move. His comrades did not wait to try further conclusions with so doughty a fighter and precipitately retreated.

The hubbub increased ,and some one began to blow out the lights in the chandelier. At this juncture Ralstone was joined by one of the players, a young man of gentlemanly appearance.

“You’d better get out quick,” he whispered. “You were right. The scoundrel cheated you, but you’ve no remedy. The croupier has vanished with the swag, and if the room’s darkened you won’t have a dog’s chance. The blackguards mean mischief. They’re collecting the empty bottles, and you’ll have a devil of a volley in half a minute.”

Ralstone appreciated the wisdom of this advice. He wheeled round, and as he was turning, caught sight of Weare with a champagne bottle creeping towards him, so as to get a better aim. Jack Ralstone had not been a cricketer for nothing. He saw the missile coming; he caught it neatly and returned it as though he was aiming to get a batsman out. The bottle struck the moneylender on the temple, and he went down like a cricket stump. Then Ralstone and his companion dashed for the door, upset the custodian as though he were a ninepin, and fled down the stairs three at a time. The guardian of the lobby door, a burly fellow with a fighter’s broken nose, would have stopped them, but they were ready for him.

“Keep the door open,” shouted Ralstone. “The place is on fire!”

The man did not ask any questions, but bolted upstairs to see for himself. The two fugitives darted into the street, made for Shepherd’s Market, and, once in the maze of passages which then existed, were safe from pursuit. They found their way into the Haymarket, and walked rapidly towards Charing Cross.

“Did you lose much?” asked Ralstone, when they could talk freely.

“Cleaned out. And you?”

“Almost the same. I went in with twenty pounds. I spotted that thief Weare and extracted twenty-five pounds out of a hundred-pound bet he owed me​—​it was like drawing blood from a stone​—​started play and, despite winning at first, I’ve lost forty pounds out of my capital.”

“You squeezed twenty-five pounds out of Weare! Damne, you worked a miracle. How did you manage it?”

“Frightened him. Threatened to punch his head and tell to the room why.”

“By Gad, that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Just before the last deal​—​the après, you know, that finished the lot of us​—​I twigged Weare whispering to the croupier, and glancing at you. You were so intent on watching the cards you didn’t notice. He was arranging the trick to get his own back.”

“And he got it with a vengeance. He won’t be seen in public for a week, I’ll swear. By the way, do you know the fellow they called Probert, who made a dead set at me?”

“I don’t know any good of him. A boaster and bragger, and, I’m told, a close pal of that man Thurtell, who’s to be seen often at that den. It’s a wonder he wasn’t there to-night.”

A friend of Thurtell Probert was indeed, for it was in the pond of his garden at Elstree that the body of Weare was thrown after being murdered.

On the whole, in spite of his being fleeced, Ralstone had reason to congratulate himself, for he had wiped out the score against him which had started at the Andover fight. Thurtell​—​Weare​—​and now Probert, who probably saw him at the “Fives Court” row, and who might have been one of the gang that so brutally attacked him. One debtor remained​—​Sir Phineas Tenbury.

At Charing Cross Ralstone parted from his companion, each wishing the other better luck, and went on to the “Tavistock,” feeling somewhat giddy, for the fumes of the doctored champagne were not completely dissipated. He was not in a condition to think over things, and he had no sooner thrown himself into bed than he was in a heavy sleep.

The next morning brought painful recollection. He came to the conclusion that he had made an ass of himself​—​at all events as far as losing his money was concerned. The problem of raising sufficient to help Nyra still faced him. Walsham would probably lend him another fifty pounds, but this was not nearly enough. A hundred pounds would hardly do what he wanted.

“If it weren’t for that long-legged blackamoor she mightn’t want to leave England at all. Why should she? I can see what’s in her mind. She wants to keep the fellow from doing that infernal stepfather of mine an injury. I’ll swear Quamina will finish the job in workmanlike style if he has half a chance. But Simon’s safe enough where he is. What does the negro know about England? He’d never find his way down to Somersetshire. I don’t think I need bother over the Squire.”

And he dismissed Simon Halstead (towards whom, in spite of Nyra’s moving story, he had a spark of kindly feeling, for he had nothing personally to complain of​—​it was rather the other way about) from his mind.

But Nyra was different. Looking at his duel with Sir Phineas seriously, it might mean his own death. He had not hitherto troubled to regard it in this light, but now, as things had turned out, it had to be reckoned with.

“While I’m near at hand I defy Tenbury to harm my darling, but supposing I was heavily grassed, and the sponge had to be thrown up? God knows what would happen then. She must be got out of the country before the last act comes. It’s the only way.”

He was slowly dressing while these thoughts were chasing each other, and at the end of his toilet he had made up his mind what his next step should be. It was a desperate project which at odd times had flitted across his brain.

Within the next hour he was at Tom Spring’s house, The Weymouth Arms, Weymouth Street, Portman Square. Spring, who was in the bar, greeted the visitor heartily, and surveyed him with a critical eye.

“You’re not much the worse, sir, for your turn up with that blackguard Thurtell and the ugly work that followed. I got together a lot of our chaps when we heard what was going on, and we went out to lend you a hand, but the mischief was done. You ought to have taken my advice, sir.”

“Of course I ought, Tom. Anyhow, I shan’t go against it another time, and, as a matter of fact, I’m here to seek it.”

In a few words he disclosed his project. It was to issue a challenge to any one who chose to take it up. He meant to back himself, and he meant to win.

“The long and short of it is, Spring, I want five hundred pounds in as short a time as possible, and I look to you to help me to get it.”

“’Tain’t so easy as you think, Mr. Ralstone,” said Spring, shaking his head. “You’re not in the same class as the old ’uns. Besides, I don’t think they’d care to fight a gentleman.”

“I should take another name.”

“That wouldn’t make a bit of difference. You’d be known just the same. What about the stakes? If you pulled ’em off it wouldn’t mean more than fifty pounds. The nobs wouldn’t put down more than twenty-five pounds on an unknown man.”

“I’d easily get some of my friends to subscribe a decent sum.”

“I know you Corinthian gentlemen stick to one another. It’s the other side I’m thinking about. And, according to you, the pull’s to come out of the betting. You can’t guarantee you’ll win. The best man in the world can’t. And there mustn’t be the slightest suspicion of a ‘cross.’”

“What are you talking about, Tom?” cried Ralstone indignantly. “A ‘cross’​—​I should think not indeed.”

“That’s what I’m saying. Now, look ’ee here. There’s a man down Wapping way that the East Enders are bragging about. I’ve not seen him, but I’m told he’s a glutton for punishment and as full of tricks as a monkey. He’s on for a match, but his backers can’t spring more’n twenty-five pounds. I don’t say you’d beat him, but you’ve got more than a fighting chance. I’ll make inquiries about him if you like.”

“I wish you would, Tom. The sooner the better.”

And after half an hour’s sparring with Spring, during which Tom pointed out a few defects, but pronounced his pupil on the whole to be greatly improved in the strength of his punches and in his quickness in getting away, Jack departed much comforted.