ACCORDING to all the rules of the game the party on board the deck of the yacht Fireflight, lying off Corfu that sunny afternoon, ought to have been at Epsom, for it was Derby Day, and they were all sportsmen to a man.
But then, as everybody who is acquainted with him knows, and they are legion, Sir Nichols Brancaster was a law unto himself, and had been all through that long and somewhat shady career of his. Doubtless he would have been at Epsom but for a little misunderstanding with the Jockey Club over the running of a horse some twenty years ago, after which, in the language of Mr. Robey, he had been informed that his appearance on Newmarket Heath—and elsewhere—was superfluous, and that if he did not abstain from attending classic fixtures in future, the consequences might be unpleasant. And Nicholas Brancaster had been wise enough to lay the warning to heart, and though he still took the keenest interest in racing generally, the stewards' enclosure knew him no more.
It had not been exactly an open scandal, for Brancaster was rather too rich and powerful for that, but everybody knew it and nobody minded, least of all Brancaster himself.
He was quite an old man now, as years went, a wicked, cynical old heathen without heart or conscience, who lived entirely for his own amusement, a sort of perpetual occupant of the stage-box, who was quite prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege of looking on at the comedy of life, and even subsidising the incomes of the actors themselves if he found them sufficiently amusing. He rather gloried in his rascality, and when, on one occasion, a famous diplomat spoke of a certain colleague as the biggest rascal in Europe, Brancaster asked him whimsically enough what was the matter with the reputation of Nicholas Brancaster. There was not much in the story, but it indicates the man.
Therefore Brancaster turned his back on London, as usual, and had gone yachting down the Mediterranean with a selection of choice spirits, which was his usual custom at that time of the year. There were one or two old friends of his, a couple of Guardsmen on leave, a young social aspirant of dubious origin, but vast wealth, called Clayton-Green, "and," as the playbills, say, Mr. Samuel Kilgobbin.
Not that anybody ever called him anything but Sammy Kilgobbin, the middle-aged Irishman who was known wherever the English language was spoken from China to Peru. Indeed, there is not a man of any social aspirations at all who does not speak familiarly of Sammy Kilgobbin, even though he only knows that celebrity by sight. Samuel was big and round and fat of face, with the manners of a sporting stockbroker and the morals of a South Sea Islander. He was, perhaps, on the whole, a bigger rascal than Brancaster himself, which is saying a good deal. But there is a well-known axiom to the effect that one man can steal a horse where another can't look over a hedge, and Sammy was one of those fortunate individuals. What he lived on nobody knew, and no one seemed to care. There was nothing the matter with his pedigree, of course, for he came of a good old Irish family, and, from the day he left Eton he had ruffled it with the best of them on an income that represented precisely nothing. But he was always exquisitely turned out, always to be seen in the best company, a popular visitor of the most exclusive country houses, and, strange to say, he had the approval of all his tradesmen, whom he made a point or paying regularly.
He was a fine shot, a wonderful hand in the schooling of hunters, a golfer on the plus mark, and an amateur comedian in the very front rank. He was noisy and witty, perfectly frank in his views of life, which were luridly predatory, and, in fact, was a magnificent specimen of the popular scamp whom every man of the world kept at arm's length and yet was on the friendliest terms with at the same time.
The great big red-faced and highly amusing Irishman was an exceedingly useful chap to know, don't you know. It you wanted a yacht he could find you one. If you craved for something especially choice in the way of cigars, Sammy knew where to find them. If you were a promising actor, needing financial backing, Sammy could produce it; and if you wanted a theatre wherein to install some frivolous favorite of the footlights, then Sammy could arrange that, too. Always at a price, of course, but that was generally understood.
But the backbone of Sam Kilgobbin's income was undoubtedly Sir Nicholas, appropriately called "Old Nick" Brancaster. Something like affection existed between the two men, for they had no illusion on the subject of each other's weaknesses, and, to all practical purposes, Sam was a sort of glorified stage-manager who took a considerable salary for arranging the comedy of life for his patron. Not that Sam was paid any regular stipend, but that sort of thing was understood. It was Sammy who had arranged the present trip, and who had been more or less responsible for the company on deck. For the most part they were cheerful and congenial spirits, with the solitary exception of the somewhat offensive Clayton-Green, and even at that moment Sir Nicholas was lying back in his deck chair contemplating that diminutive bounder under his thick black eyebrows, and wondering why the deuce he had been invited. There would be comedy later on, no doubt, and Brancaster knew the game much too well to spoil it by asking questions.
For the last half-hour or more they had been sitting round the tea-table, and now they had reached the stage of cigars and whiskys and sodas, and had fallen to discuss, in a lazy, inconsequent fashion, what might be the result of the classic race and when they were likely to hear the name of the winner.
"Oh, you'll get that fast enough," Kilgobbin said in that big, oily voice of his. "Ye'll get it at any moment."
"What's that?" Brancaster asked.
"Ye mean to say ye don't understand," Sammy retorted. "Then perhaps you'll tell me why I went to the trouble of having the Fireflight fitted up with wireless."
"I noticed that," Brancaster said. "What did you get out of it, Sammy? Of course I know I shall have to pay, and, I hope you've got a thundering lump in the way of commission."
The little man, Clayton-Green, laughed offensively as he polished his eyeglass. If that mean soul of his was capable of any deep feeling, it was a perfect hatred of the Irishman, who ridiculed him on every possible occasion. And he had never forgotten the time, two years ago, when, by some strange chance, he had found himself the guest of a Scotch duke in his shooting box and when enquiring of Sammy Kilgobbin what he should lay out in the way of tips to the keepers, had been recommended by Sammy to give them nothing on the ground that he was never likely to be asked to that shoot again. It had been rather a cruel and offensive remark to make, but there was no doubt in the keen sardonic humor of it, and Clayton-Green was not likely to hear the last of it. He turned to Sammy now and grinned.
"What do you make out of Brancaster a year, Sammy?" he asked offensively. "He must find your acquaintance expensive."
"And so would ye, ye little divil if ye was half as generous," Kilgobbin retorted good-humoredly. "Bedad, it isn't every one of us whose grandfather made a fortune in the rag trade. What do I cost you a year, Nick, my boy?"
Brancaster smiled and chuckled.
"Upon my word, I never troubled to enquire, Sammy," he said. "Two or three thousand, I suppose. But you're worth it my boy, oh, yes, you're worth it. But what about that wireless? Do you mean to say——"
"I do. I arranged it the day before we sailed. It was one of my happy ideas as I was walking down Bond-street one day. Two or three times they have worried me to equip the Fireflight with wireless, and here was tangible proof that the chance to make a hundred or two in the way of commission, and, bedad, I did. And, thinks I, we'll try it for the first time on Derby Day. And so we shall."
"That's a rattling good notion of yours, Sammy," one of the Guardsmen said. "What you call a paying proposition, eh?"
It was some ten minutes later before the steward came on deck with a sheet of paper in his hand. There had been signs overhead for some little time that something was going on in connection with the wireless, and here was tangible proof that Sammy had not been exaggerating. He took the paper in his hand and bent his big red face over it.
"Well, here ye are," he said. "I'll just read it aloud. Uncas first, Machine Gun second, Bon Enfant third. Wait a minute, here's a bit more. International golf match, Sandwich, 4 o'clock. Taylor and Vardon 3 and 1. Braid did 'The Maiden' in one stroke. Now I call that nice and friendly on the part of those people in Bond-street to throw that last bit of information in. Sort of a gift, perhaps. Well, if it isn't, Brancaster will have to pay."
"Brancaster always does," that individual murmured. "Well, thank God I didn't back anything for this year! It was too open a race for my taste. But who the deuce is Uncas? I never heard of him. He certainly wasn't amongst the starters when we left Southampton. If I had had to make a choice, I should have said that Bon Enfant was a snip. Anybody on the winner by any chance?"
No response came from the little group round the table except from Sammy Kilgobbin, who shook his head solemnly with the air of a man who declines to be deceived by appearances.
"Oh, it's a drame," he said. "Nothin' but a drame. I refuse to belave it. Shure, such a bit of blazin' luck couldn't happen to me."
"You backed him, Sammy?" Clayton-Green asked.
"I did, my boy, I did," Sammy said, still shaking his head almost sorrowfully. "I did it as you might say by accident. It was three months ago that one of 'the boys' gave me the tip, one of 'the boys' that I done a good turn to. 'Have a century on, Captain,' he said, 'ye'll never regret it. Besides, the horse will sure to come to a short price, an' ye'll get some good hedging.' And to make a long story short, and havin' a century I didn't quite know what to do with——"
"One of Brancaster's centuries, I suppose," Clayton-Green said pleasantly.
"It was not," the imperturbable Sam responded. "I won it over a dead certainty betting with a little snipe who was rather like you to look at. But it doesn't matter. I put that money on Uncas and forgot all about it. He never came into the betting at all, and it's any odds that he didn't carry a shilling besides stable money. But it's a drame, I tell ye, nothing but a drame. It's a hideous mistake. If it isn't I've won ten thousand pounds. And I don't believe that the fates would ever allow me to get away with a little wad like that. It's wrong, all wrong. The man who sent off that message has made a bloomer, me boys, if he hasn't he's got the names mixed up. I never was a lucky man, and never shall be. All the money ever earned in my life I've got by my own industry and the exercise of the talents that Providence has given me. And that's why I refuse to believe that I'm in over this."
"Oh, nonsense, Sammy," Brancaster said, encouragingly. "Virtue rewarded occasionally though it seldom starts favorite. Here, let's have another round of liquor up to drink Sammy's good health."
But Kilgobbin still shook his head. "Did ye ever hear tell of a banshee?" he asked.
"An American drink?" Clayton-Green suggested.
"It is not. It's a female spirit that hovers, in times of misfortune, round the house of the real gintry, and so ye'll not have to worry yourself about it, ye little shrimp. The noight me father died, and his father before him, the banshee was heard, for, you see, it's the tradition of my family that death always follows what appears to be a stroke of good fortune. And the night me father died he'd sold a big string of hunters to a bit of a lieutenant who was buying cavalry horses for the British Government. And, bedad, that was his bit of good fortune, but by the same token he died before morning, rest his soul, and that was an end of him."
"And what's the moral of it all, Sammy?" Upton, of the Guards, asked.
"Well, it's loike this me boy. Here's a bit of good fortune come to me, and, bedad, I don't want to die not so long as old Nick here is alive, and I can make a bit out of him. So I'll just tell ye that I'll do. We'll have a bit of hedgin' and get the better of the family banshee this way. I'll wager any of ye a cool thousand pounds that those names are all wrong and that Uncas hasn't won the Derby after all. If he has, then here's a chance for some of ye to make a thousand, and if I am right then I stand on velvet. Now, don't all speak at once."
They didn't. The idea of Sammy Kilgobbin paying any of them, or anybody else for that matter, a thousand pounds if he lost struck them all as a peculiarly exquisite piece of humor. For Sammy made it his invariable rule to pay no one except tradesmen, and therefore there must be a trap somewhere. It was only Clayton-Green who sat up and began to take notice.
From the bottom of his miserable little soul he hated and loathed the big Irishman, and would have paid away a good sum of money he loved so well to get even with him. But he was not blind to the advantage of keeping on the right side of Kilgobbin. It had been a source of perpetual wonder to him ever since he had begun to make his way in society that these men whom he envied so tolerated the exuberant Sammy at all. They all knew, for instance, what he was, they all knew that he was utterly unscrupulous, that he had not a shilling of his own, and that he made no secret of the fact that he was out to get the best of everybody by any means in his power. But, all the same, Sammy was to be seen everywhere. He belonged to some of the best clubs, mainly because his father had belonged to them before him; he was received in the most exclusive houses, and with Cayton-Green's own eyes he had seen that irrepressible Celt hammering a duke in the region of the liver and addressing him without reproof as "Toko." And Clayton-Green would have given a thousand pounds gladly for the privilege of calling any duke by his nickname in the presence of a mixed company.
He knew, too, that Sammy would do anything for money, and he was not blind to the advantage of having Kilgobbin on his own side. Strange as it seemed, it meant so much socially. And here was a possible chance of making money and scoring off the Irishman at the same time. And even if he lost, Sammy would be in his debt, and this fact, doubtless, would render him more civil in the future. He would take the bet, and even if he won and Sammy refused to pay, then he would be none the worse off, and the moral advantages would be all on his side.
"I'll take you," he cried eagerly.
"I wasn't talking to you," Kilgobbin said. "I was offerin' that privilege to me own friends."
"They don't seem anxious," Clayton-Green grinned.
"No, they're not," the second Guardsman observed. "Who would take advantage of a simple soul like Sammy?"
"Well, he offered the bet," Clayton-Green protested. "But one might have known that he didn't mean it."
"Well, then, I do," Kilgobbin said, with a gleam in his eyes. "Never shall it be said that a Kilgobbin went back on his word. Maybe it's a good thing for you and maybe it isn't—not that I meant it for you in any case. When I scatter my hard-earned gold I always do it amongst the right sort. Still, as none of these chaps seem anxious, you can have the bet if you like, and there's an end of it. An even thousand that Uncas has not won the Derby, and another thousand, if you like, that Bon Enfant has. It's upside down those names are, and I'm betting big money on it. And I ain't a philanthropist either. If I'm wrong I win eight thousand, and if I'm right I'm about fifteen hundred in."
"All right," Clayton-Green drawled.
He took from his pocket an elaborate gold-mounted betting book and solemnly made an entry. It was characteristic of Kilgobbin that his record of the transaction was made on the back of an old envelope. He did not appear to be in the least elated, on the contrary, he was quite quiet; and, for him, almost depressed. It was only Brancaster, lying back in his deck chair watching the others from under those thick bushy eyebrows of his, who appeared to extract any sort of amusement from the situation. He made one or two sarcastic remarks to the effect that he would like to know what Clayton-Green proposed to do with the money when he'd got it, a comment that produced a shout of unfeeling laughter, but which did not appear to disturb the serenity of Kilgobbin in the least.
"Well, why not find out if you're right or wrong, Sammy?" Brancaster asked. "Wire back to your sporting pal and ask him to repeat the message."
"And what's the good of that?" Sammy retorted. "The thing is done now, and there's an end of it. Besides, it's past six o'clock, and that place in Bond-street will be closed long before the message gets through. We're sure to pick up an English paper this side of Gib."
Brancaster carried the suggestion no further, and presently the party on deck adjourned for dinner. They turned the yacht homewards in the morning, cruising leisurely along the Mediterranean until they fetched up at Gibraltar at the end on the week and there took their mail and newspapers on board. It was one of the Guardsmen who first got hold of the "Times" and tore the cover off impatiently. He turned the pages over to the sporting columns and laughed unfeelingly.
"Here you are, Sammy, my boy," he said. "Whatever happens, you always fall on your feet. What will you take for that old family banshee of yours? By Gad, I should like to run her permanently as a sporting prophet."
"What are you giving me?" Sammy asked as he helped himself liberally to ham and eggs. "What's doin'?"
"Oh, nothing, old boy, except that you are right and our friend Clayton-Green here is wrong. That pal of yours in Bond-street muddled things up just as you said he had, and somehow got the news of the first three in the Derby all wrong."
"Then, bedad, I'm the poorer by eight thousand pounds," Kilboggin exclaimed. "But I knew it all the time, I felt it in my bones. It wasn't to be expected that an unlucky divil like Sammy Kilgobbin would ever pull off a coup like that. If I had I should have been sorry for it. I should have certainly had a visit from the banshee, and probably by this time should have found a watery grave in the Mediterranean. So I suppose that Bon Enfant won after all?"
"He did. He was first and Uncas was third, just as you said they would be. Still, it's hard luck!"
"Bedad, it's nothing of the koind. Ye see, my boy, I should never have lived to enjoy me good fortune, which means that me friend Clayton-Green would never have been paid. As it is, he's got to pay me. Well, I think I deserve it. Shure, a man ought to be paid for a bit of fine foresight like mine. An' I'll trouble ye for that cheque at your earliest convenience. An' it's glad I am ye can afford to part with it."
On the whole, Clayton-Green took it with a fairly good grace. It was absolutely gall and wormwood to him to know that instead of placing Kilgobbin under an obligation that volatile Irishman had got the better of him, and that in any case, he was some hundreds of pounds in pocket over the whole transaction. Still, the chaff and the laughter went deep enough under Clayton-Green's epidermis, and he was glad enough to make an excuse presently that he had letters to write, and retired to think the thing over in the seclusion of his own cabin. There rankled somewhere in the back of his mind that suspicion that he had been "had" by the wily Sammy, indeed, he was half-inclined to believe that he had been inveigled on to the yacht for that very purpose, but though he turned the matter over in his mind again and again he could find nothing tangible upon which to act. After all, probably it had been a bit of blind chance on Kilgobbin's part, and by the same perverse fate he had been selected as the victim. Well, it served him right; he had rushed in like a fool where angels, in the shape of the other guests, had feared to tread, and he had paid the penalty. He handed over his cheque later on in the day with an air of simulated cheerfulness. He even attempted to congratulate Kilgobbin.
But there was one man on board the Fireflight who was not quite so satisfied, and that man was Brancaster. Later in the evening he crept in his bunk, where he sat up, a pleasing picture in pink silk pyjamas smoking a cigarette and regarding Sammy Kilgobbin shrewdly from under those deep eyebrows of his. They were quite alone together in the cabin.
"Now tell me all about it, Sammy," he said.
"All about what?" Sammy asked innocently.
"My dear chap, you mustn't suppose that I am going to pay for the theatre and the limelights and all the stage essentials without being trusted with the plot of the play. I mean, how did you do it?"
"Niek, old man," Sammy said quite seriously. "Did it ever occur to you that some day I shall be a back number, that some day the bright young spirits in the clubs will shrug their shoulders when my name is mentioned and speak of me as that confounded old bore. Sammy Kilgobbin? 'Quite a good sport in his day, but getting dotty now, don't you know.' And I've got to provide for that time. You may provide for me, on the contrary, you may not. Not but what I've done thundering well out of you, but still——So I've saved up a few thousands, and when I get hold of a mug like Clayton-Green I take out another thousand or two in Government annuities. When I'm fifty-five I reckon I shall have about two thousand a year, which is as much as I shall need then. I don't mind being blackguarded, but I'll be hanged if I live to be pitied."
"You old ruffian, I felt sure you were up to one of your tricks when you told me that you had asked Clayton-Green to join us. Now, come out with it.
"It wasn't so might bad, was it?" Sammy grinned. "The idea occurred to me when that agent asked me to get you to fit up the Fireflight with wireless. And when I thought it all out. I picked on Clayton-Green as the most likely ass for my purpose. Mind you, I arranged to have those names transposed, or, at any rate, placed in wrong order. That little touch about the golf match was a stroke of genius. Hidden underneath it is my code, and in that code I had to have a capital V, and knowing that the International Golf Match was taking place at Sandwich the same day. I chose that because it gave me the V in question. Besides, it made everything look natural. But, Lord bless ye, me boy. I could have had the whole lot of you if I'd liked, but Noblesse Oblige, Nick, Noblesse Oblige."
"A very proper sentiment," Brancaster grinned. "Good-night, Sammy, old man, and many thanks for the comedy."