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THE gilded youth about town arrived at the years of discretion for the most part avoided John Heatherdane, not because there was anything definite against him, but because elder men dropped certain hints which were not to be disregarded. As a matter of fact, Heatherdane was exceedingly well connected, himself a man without visible means of support, but always perfectly dressed, always with a certain amount of ready money, and always to be met with in the right quarters, from Monte Carlo in the spring to Perthshire in the shooting season. He was an agreeable, pleasant-spoken young man, with some considerable talent as an amateur actor—indeed, he had once toured the States with a No. 1 Company in a popular comedy. This may perhaps have accounted for the fact that Heatherdane was always a welcome guest in some of the best country houses where theatricals were indulged in.
Just now, he was in London, with Christmas perilously near, and without a shilling, literally, to his name. And one cannot stay even as a guest in a country house without money and retain the respect of the domestic staff. As it behoved him, therefore, to be careful, he had accepted Bruno Brice's invitation to dine at the King's Restaurant that evening without any suggestion of his usual superciliousness. For, sooth to say, the aforesaid Bruno was a good bit of an ass, but like so many young men of means and limited intellect, he had a shrewd notion of taking care of his money. He was a sort of glorified ant, in this respect, and Heatherdane had very little hope of personal aggrandisement at Mr. Brice's expense. Still, the spirit of the festive season was in the air, the champagne was excellent, and young Mr. Brice began to expand under its mellow influence. Perhaps he might find "the needful," and thus enable Heatherdane to accept the invitation to Laxton Hall that his soul longed for—money forthcoming.
"Look here, old man," Brice said, with that sort of proud familiarity he was pleased to use when addressing his companion—"look here, do you do anything in the way of cards?"
"Very little," Heatherdane said, with truth, for, sooth to say, he had a poor card memory, and the manipulation of the fascinating pasteboard spelt a danger that he did not care to face. "But what do you mean by cards?"
"Real gambling," Brice said, eagerly. "Sort of little Monte Carlo. Petit Chevaux and Baccarat and all that sort of thing in a snug little house I know of."
"Oh, You do, do you?" Heatherdane said. "What a dog! Do you mean to say that some of you boys have a little gambling den of your own? It's a jolly dangerous game, my dear fellow. Police raids, and all that sort of thing."
"Oh, we don't mind them," Brice grinned. "Monty Carson has got a flat on the ground floor of Queen's Mansions, No. 5. And there we have a little flutter most nights. Why, Heaven bless you, I've seen a couple of thousand quid on the baccarat table a score of times. Plenty of champagne, and one or two chorus girls, just to give the thing a tone, you know. We run it ourselves, and the servants know nothing about it. If you like to drop in any night before Christmas exodus we shall be glad to see you, and I flatter myself that we can show you a thing or two."
Heatherdane uttered some complimentary superlatives, and the fatuous youth went into details. When he had finished Heatherdane knew all about the private gambling hell in Queen's Mansions, and, moreover, he was acquainted with the particular sort of ring at the doorbell which would gain him admission to the little paradise where these budding young men of the world were wont to foregather. They were all young, and mightily inexperienced, and as Heatherdane wended his way homewards to the small house in John Street, where he occupied a sitting and bedroom on the ground floor, he was already half-way towards a successful solution of the little difficulty that stood between him and a jovial Christmas at Laxton Hall.
Probably not half a dozen people in London were aware of Heatherdane's private address. He lived plainly enough in that dingy little house where he occupied a front sitting-room on the ground floor that led into a bedroom through folding doors. Here he was looked after by an elderly female who ran the house for the benefit of Heatherdane and other lodgers, and who regarded her ground floor gentleman as a young man of steady and studious habits.
He generally breakfasted about midday, after which he troubled no one in the house, and he contrived to pay his rent regularly, so that he appeared in the role of the model lodger.
But it was not often that he was at home as early as that. He took off his dress coat and got into his shooting jacket, after which he mixed himself a whisky and soda and lighted a cigarette. It seemed to him that there was a providential opportunity of replenishing an exchequer which was practically empty. Brice's proud confidence on the subject of the gambling establishment and his attempt to pose as a knowing card had paved the way to a coup which Heatherdane determined to work out before he retired to that perfect rest which is generally supposed to accompany a clean conscience, and, before he had consumed his second whisky and soda, he could see his way quite clearly. The thing must he done at the very latest on the night before Christmas Eve, and the sports secured, otherwise a telegram of regret must go to Laxton Hall and the frisky hostess there at the eleventh hour. And Heatherdane emphatically did not want that to happen.
He waited patiently till the following Thursday night, when he knew that a great gathering of the clans prior to the Christmas rush from town was to take place somewhere about midnight in the ground flat which was No. 5. Queen's Mansions. That night, Heatherdane dined somewhat coarsely in his rooms on a greasy chop and what his landlady was pleased to call a souffle. He told her, somewhat expansively, that he was not feeling particularly well, and that it was his intention to go to bed directly after dinner. Whereupon he retired somewhat ostentatiously to his couch, and when the house was closed, and his landlady, with the other humdrum lodgers, were safely secluded, he turned on his electric light and proceeded to dress himself. When this was accomplished he crept noiselessly through the hall to the front door, and let himself out into the street, which was already deserted, for John Street was a respectable neighbourhood inhabited, for the most part by staid business men, and eleven o'clock generally finds it in darkness.
Meanwhile, the select circle which had gathered there under the auspices of the Honourable Monty Carson were enjoying themselves according to their wont, and none the less keenly because, like a set of school boys robbing an apple orchard, they were engaged in a distinctly illegal operation. Anyhow, a dozen or more of them had gathered round a long Baccarat table, at the head of which sat Mr. Monty Carson, acting the role of banker. At the sideboard a gilded youth, who had brilliantly distinguished himself by gambling away £50,000 in the last six months, was opening champagne recklessly, the room was adrift with cigarette smoke, and every man at the table had a pile of notes at his elbow. But it was nothing in comparison with a pile which rested in front of the banker. Altogether, there could not have been less than £3,000 displayed before the admiring eyes of the various footlight favourites there. It was just when the play was at its height, and money was changing hands fast and furiously, when the host raised his head suddenly. "Eh, what's that I hear?" he asked.
"Someone at the door, old top," Brice suggested. "Better go and see who it is."
With that Carson crossed to the door and threw it open. There entered, without waiting for the polite invitation, a tall man with a black moustache and short clipped beard, who was dressed in some sort of uniform. He had on his head a blue cloth cap with a shiny, patent leather peak, and an undress jacket of military cut. Without waiting to exchange any words with Carson, the stranger forced his way into the dining-room, where the play was proceeding. There was a cool, masterly air about him that left the people sitting round the table anxious and uneasy. There was no mistaking the suggestion of the policeman that the intruder carried with him as if it had been a garment. His eyes were grim, and yet, at the same time, not entirely devoid of humour.
"Good evening, Mr. Carson," the stranger said, pleasantly. "Permit me to introduce myself. Inspector Wellsdon, of Scotland Yard. You seem to be having some sort of game."
One of the women screamed, and the prodigal son by the sideboard uttered something that sounded like an oath.
"I beg your pardon," the inspector said. "Is that you, Mr. Coventry? I thought we had met before."
"I—I don't remember you," the man called Coventry stammered.
"Then the pleasure is mine. Unless I am greatly mistaken, sir, you used to be on the committee of the Comus Club. It's a good time ago, but I think, if my memory is correct, that you were bound over in connection with a gambling scheme like this. Oh, no, you don't, my friend. You stay where you are."
For Coventry had made a bolt for the door, only to be restrained by the inspector's hand. Pale and trembling and mattering something under his breath the baffled gambler reclined against the sideboard. Very quietly, the inspector locked the door and dropped the key in his pocket. Then he turned, quite pleasantly, to the rest.
"I am exceedingly sorry to trouble you, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "but you must all be aware of the fact that you are breaking the law. You can't get away from that Baccarat board and those little horses on the table in the window. Rather high stakes gentlemen? There must be some hundreds of pounds in the bank. You see, you can't do this sort of thing in London. From information received——"
The Honourable Monty Carson laughed. "Oh, that's all right, inspector," he said. "We're not going to deny it. You can call in your men if you like—I suppose you've got some waiting outside, but you don't mean to say that we shall all have to come to Bow street?"
"I didn't say anything of the kind," the inspector said. "All you gentlemen are quite well known to the police in his division, and, I think, if you give me your cards, that I can manage to make things as pleasant as possible."
"Good old inspector," Brice giggled. "Only I might as well remind you that the girls were only looking on."
"Oh, there will be no charge against the ladies," the inspector said, gallantly. "And—um—yes—I don't see why I should inconvenience you any further. I've got a couple of men in plain clothes down the street, but I'd much rather not call them in if I can help it. So I shall just ask you gentlemen to be good enough to do what I tell you, and if there is no violence I don't think you will have anything to worry about. Of course, you will all have to appear at Bow Street in due course, and answer to the charge of keeping a common gambling house."
"You don't call this a common gambling house?" the Honourable Monty laughed. As a matter of fact, he was enjoying the situation. It would be something to talk about, something to add to a reputation which was already sufficiently lurid. "Now look here, inspector, we're not going to make a fuss. We're all of us sportsmen and can recognise when things go against us. Now just sit down and have a glass of champagne with us—eh, what? Christmas time and all that, don't you know."
With that the speaker rose to his feet and proceeded to gather up the pile of notes that lay before him. Following his example one or two of the more prudent ones began to collect their currency, when the inspector interfered.
"Not quite so fast, gentlemen," he said, "not quite so fast. That money belongs to me for the moment—that is, it belongs to the authorities. I take it all and seal it up, making a note of what each gentleman here has, so that when the police court proceedings are over the various sums of money will be restored to their owners again. Also, it is my duty to seize all these gambling instruments. And now I don't think there's any more to be said. Stop! What about the servants?"
"I can assure you my servants know nothing at all about it," Carson said earnestly. "I have only a man and his wife here, who are old family retainers, and they're generally in bed by ten o'clock."
With a wave of his hand the inspector signified that he was satisfied, so far as the servants were concerned. Then, very solemnly, he proceeded to gather up the various sums of money lying on the table, and placed each of these in official-looking envelopes, which he afterwards sealed, and then endorsed with the amount and the signature of the owner. When this ceremony was completed the envelopes were dropped into the inspector's black bag, which he somewhat ostentatiously locked.
"I think that's about all," he said. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I will wish you good-night. You will quite understand that there is to be no more of this sort of thing. Ladies, your obedient servant. And a Merry Christmas to you all."
With that the inspector picked up his bag and walked quietly out of the room. He paused in the darkened hall long enough to remove his official-looking peaked cap and replace it by a bowler, which he took from the recesses of his bag. Then, very quietly, he turned into the street, which was now deserted save for an occasional passer-by, and made his way rapidly in the direction of the Strand. Here he was lost amongst the crowd that seem to invade that street night and day. Then, when he had reached his destination, he inserted a silent latchkey into a well-oiled lock, and fumbled his way into a sitting-room on the ground floor. He listened intently for a moment or two to assure himself that the house was wrapped in slumber; then, locking the door, he pitched his bowler hat on one side and, removing his black moustache and close-cropped beard, disclosed the satisfied, cynical, amused features of Mr. John Heatherdane.
He stripped off the uniform coat and trousers and carefully placed them at the bottom of a big wardrobe in his bedroom. Then he returned to his arm-chair, and, over a cigarette and the inevitable whisky and soda proceeded to review the events of the evening.
"It's dead safe," he told himself. "No one is likely to suspect me out of that crowd. And they won't say anything. Of course, when they don't get their summonses, they will realise that someone has sold them something gorgeous in the way of a pup; but they'll be too deadly afraid of being laughed at to make anything in the shape of a fuss. Besides, if they did suspect me, I could easily prove to them that I hadn't been out of the house all day. 'Pon my word, there's something in being an actor after all."
And with that Mr. John Heatherdane carefully locked up his spoils and went virtuously to bed, having first drafted a most grateful telegram to the fair lady at Laxton Hall.
His Christmas was going to be all right.
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