Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter II. Prince Albert's Card Debts
It was half past twelve, and every table at the Berkeley Bridge Club was occupied. On the threshold of the principal room a visitor, who was being shown around, was asking questions of the secretary.
"Is there any gambling here?" he inquired.
The secretary shrugged his shoulders.
"I am afraid that some of them go a little beyond the club points," he answered. "You see that table against the wall? They are playing shilling auction there."
The table near the wall was, perhaps, the most silent. The visitor looked at it last and most curiously.
"Who is the dissipated-looking boy playing there?" he asked.
"Prince Albert of Trent," the secretary answered.
"And who is the little man, rather like Napoleon, who sits in the easy-chair and watches?"
"The Baron de Grost."
"Never heard of him," the visitor declared.
"He is a very rich financier who has recently blossomed out in London," the secretary said. "One sees him everywhere. He has a good-looking wife, who is playing in the other room."
"A good-looking wife," the visitor remarked, thoughtfully. "But, yes! I thank you very much, Mr. Courtledge for showing me round. I will find my friends now."
He turned away, leaving Courtledge alone, for a minute or two, on the threshold of the card room. The secretary's attention was riveted upon the table near the wall, and the frown on his face deepened. Just as he was moving off, the Baron de Grost rose and joined him.
"They are playing a little high in here this evening," the latter remarked quietly.
"I wish I had been in the club when they started," he said, gloomily. "My task is all the more difficult now."
The Baron de Grost looked pensively, for a moment, at the cigarette which he was carrying.
"By the bye, Mr. Courtledge," he asked, with apparent irrelevance, "what was the name of the tall man with whom you were talking just now?"
"Count von Hern. He was brought in by one of the attaches at the German Embassy."
Baron de Grost passed his arm through the secretary's and led him a little way through the corridor.
"I thought I recognized our friend," he remarked. "His presence here this evening is quite interesting."
"Why this evening?"
Baron de Grost avoided the question.
"Mr. Courtledge," he said, "I think that you will allow me to ask you something without thinking me impertinent. You know that my wife and I have taken some interest in Prince Albert. It is on his account, is it not, that you look so gloomy to-night, as though you had an execution in front of you?"
"I am afraid," he announced, "that we have come to the end of our tether with that young man. It's a pity, too, for he isn't a bad sort, and it will do the club no good if it gets about. But he hasn't settled up for a fortnight, and the matter came before the committee this afternoon. He owes one man over seven hundred pounds."
The Baron de Grost listened gravely.
"Are you going to speak to him to-night?" he asked.
"I must. I am instructed by the committee to ask him not to come to the club again until he has discharged his obligations."
De Grost smoked thoughtfully for a few moments.
"Well," he said, "I suppose there is no getting out of it. Don't rub it in too thick, though. I mean to have a talk with the boy afterwards, and if I am satisfied with what he says, the money will
be all right."
Courtledge raised his eyebrows.
"You know, of course, that he has a very small income and no expectations?"
"I know that," Baron de Grost answered. "At the same time, it is hard to forget that he really is a member of the royal house, even though the kingdom is a small one."
"Not only is the kingdom a small one," Courtledge remarked, "but there are something like five lives between him and the succession. However, It's very good-natured of you, Baron, to think of lending him a hand. I'll let him down as lightly as I can. You know him better than any one; I wonder if you could make an excuse to send him out of the room? I'd rather no one saw me talking to him."
"Quite easy," said the Baron. "I'll manage it."
The rubber was just finishing as De Grost re-entered the room. He touched the young man, who had been the subject of their conversation, upon the shoulder.
"My wife would like to speak to you for a moment," he said. "She is in the other room."
Prince Albert rose to his feet. He was looking very pale, and the ash-tray in front of him was littered with cigarette ends.
"I will go and pay my respects to the Baroness," he declared. "It will change my luck, perhaps. Au revoir!"
He passed out of the room and all eyes followed him.
Has the Prince been losing again to-night?" the Baron asked.
One of the three men at the table shrugged his shoulders.
"He owes me about five hundred pounds," he said, "and to tell you the truth, I'd really rather not play any more. I don't mind high points, but his doubles are absurd."
"Why not break up the table?" the Baron suggested. "The boy can scarcely afford such stakes."
He strolled out of the room in time to meet the Prince, who was standing in the corridor. A glance at his face was sufficient - the secretary had spoken. He would have hurried off, but the Baron intercepted him.
"You are leaving, Prince?" he asked.
"Yes!" was the somewhat curt reply.
"I will walk a little way with you, if I may," De Grost continued. "My wife brought Lady Brownloe, and the brougham only holds two comfortably."
Prince Albert made no reply. He seemed just then scarcely capable of speech. When they had reached the pavement, however, the Baron took his arm.
"My young friend," he inquired, "how much does it all amount to?"
The Prince turned towards him with darkening face.
"You knew, then," he demanded, "that Mr. Courtledge was going to speak to me of my debts?"
"I was sorry to hear that it had become necessary," the Baron answered. "You must not take it too seriously. You know very well that at a club like the Berkeley, which has such a varied membership, card debts must be settled on the spot."
"Mine will be settled before mid-day to-morrow," the young man declared, sullenly. "I am not sure that it may not be to-night."
De Grost was silent for a moment. They had turned into Piccadilly. He summoned a taxicab.
"Do you mind coming round to my house and talking to me, for a few minutes?" he asked.
The young man hesitated.
"I'll come round later on," he suggested. "I have a call to make first."
De Grost held open the door of the taxicab.
"I want a talk with you," he said, "before you make that call."
"You speak as though you knew where I was going, the Prince remarked.
His companion made no reply, but the door of the taxicab was still open and his hand had fallen ever so slightly upon the other's shoulder. The Prince yielded to the stronger will. He stepped inside.
They drove in silence to Porchester Square. The Baron led the way through into his own private sanctum, and closed the door carefully. Cigars, cigarettes, whiskey and soda, and liqueurs were upon the sideboard.
"Help yourself, Prince," he begged, "and then, if you don't mind, I am going to ask you a somewhat impertinent question."
The Prince drank the greater part of a whiskey and soda and lit a cigarette. Then he set his tumbler down and frowned.
"Baron de Grost," he said, "you have been very kind to me since I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance. I hope you will not ask me any question that I cannot answer."
"On the contrary," his host declared, "the question which I shall ask will be one which it will be very much to your advantage to answer. I will put it as plainly as possible. You are going, as you admit yourself, to pay your card debts to-night or to-morrow morning, and you are certainly not going to pay them out of your income. Where is the money coming from?"
Albert of Trent seemed suddenly to remember that after all he was of royal descent. He drew himself up and bore himself, for a moment, as a Prince should.
"Baron de Grost," he said, "you pass the limits of friendship when you ask such a question. I take the liberty of wishing you good-night."
He moved towards the door. The Baron, however, was in the way - a strong, motionless figure, and his tone, when he spoke again, was convincing.
"Prince," he declared, "I speak in your own interests. You have not chosen to answer my question. Let me answer it for you. The money to pay your debts, and I know not how much besides, was to come from the Government of a country with whom none of your name or nationality should willingly have dealings."
The Prince started violently. The shock caused him to forget his new-found dignity.
"How, in the devil's name, do you know that?" he demanded.
"I know more," the Baron continued. "I know the consideration which you were to give for this money."
Then the Prince began plainly to show the terror which had crept into his heart - the terror and the shame. He looked at his host like a man dazed with hearing strange things.
"It comes to nothing," he said, in a hard, unnatural tone. "It is a foolish bargain, indeed. Between me and the throne are four lives. My promise is not worth the paper it is written upon. I shall never succeed."
"That, Prince, is probably where you are misinformed," the Baron replied. "You are just now in disgrace with your family, and you hear from them only what the newspapers choose to tell."
"Has anything been kept back from me?" the Prince asked.
"Tell me this first," De Grost insisted. "Am I not right in assuming that you have signed a solemn undertaking that, in the event of your succeeding to the throne of your country, you will use the whole of your influence towards concluding a treaty with a certain Power, one of the provisions of which is that that Power shall have free access to any one of your ports in the event of war with England?"
There was a moment's silence. The Prince clutched the back of the chair against which he was leaning.
"Supposing it were true?" he muttered. "It is, after all, an idle promise.
The Baron shook his head slowly.
"Prince," he said, "it is no such idle promise as it seems. The man who is seeking to trade upon your poverty knew more than he would tell you. You may have read in the newspapers that your two cousins are confined to the palace with slight colds. The truth has been kept quiet, but it is none the less known to a few of us. The so-called cold is really a virulent attack of diphtheria, and, according to to-night's reports, neither Prince Cyril nor Prince Henry are expected to live."
"Is this true?" the Prince gasped.
"It is true," his host declared. "My information can be relied upon."
The Prince sat down suddenly. He was looking whiter than ever, and very scared.
"Even then," he murmured, "there is John."
"You have been out of touch with your family for some months," De Grost reminded his visitor. "One or two of us, however, know what you, probably, will soon hear. Prince John has taken the vows and solemnly resigned, before the Archbishop, his heirship. He will be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church in a week or two, and will go straight to a monastery."
"It's likely enough," the Prince gasped. "He always wanted to be a monk."
"You see now," the Baron continued, "that your friend's generosity was not so wonderful a thing. Count von Hern was watching you to-night at the Bridge Club. He has gone home; he is waiting now to receive you. Apart from that, the man Nisch, with whom you have played so much, is a confederate of his, a political tout, not to say a spy."
"The brute!" Prince Albert muttered. "I am obliged to you, Baron, for having warned me," he added, rising slowly to his feet. "I shall sign nothing. There is another way."
De Grost shook his head.
"My young friend," he said, "there is another way, indeed, but not the way you have in your mind at this moment. I offer you an alternative. I will give you notes for the full amount you owe to-night, so that you can, if you will, go back to the club direct from here and pay everything - on one condition."
"You must promise to put your hand to no document which the Count von Hern may place before you, and pledge your word that you have no further dealings with him."
"But why should you do this for me?" the Prince exclaimed. "I do not know that I shall ever be able to pay you."
"If you succeed to the throne, you will pay me," the Baron de Grost said. "If you do not succeed, remember that I am a rich man, and that I shall miss this money no more than the sixpence which you might throw to a crossing-sweeper."
The Prince was silent. His host unlocked a small cabinet and took from it a bundle of notes.
"Tell me the whole amount you owe," he insisted, "every penny, mind."
"Sixteen hundred pounds," was the broken reply.
De Grost counted a little roll and laid it upon the table.
"There are two thousand pounds," he said. "Listen, Prince. A name such as you bear carries with it certain obligations. Remember that, and try and shape your life accordingly. Take my advice - go back to your own country and find some useful occupation there, even if you only rejoin your regiment and wear its uniform. The time may come when your country will require you, for her work comes sooner or later to every man. You are leading a rotten life over here, a life which might have led to disaster and dishonor, a life, as you know, which might have ended in your rooms to-night with a small bullet hole in your forehead. Brave men do not die like that. Take up the money, please."
The Baron de Grost sent a cipher dispatch to Paris that night, and received an answer which pleased him.
"It is a small thing," he read, "but it is well done. Particulars of a matter of grave importance will reach you to-morrow." letter.