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A GAME OF PRIMERO
At a table in the immediate center of the room a rotund gentleman in doublet and breeches of cinnamon brown taffeta and voluminous lace cuffs at the wrists was presiding over a game of Spanish primero.
A simple game enough, not difficult of comprehension, yet vastly exciting, if one may form a judgment of its qualities through watching the faces of the players.
The rotund gentleman dealt a card face downwards to each of his opponents, who then looked at their cards and staked on them, by pushing little piles of gold or silver forward.
Then the dealer turned up his own card, and gave the amount of the respective stakes to those players whose cards were of higher value than his own, whilst sweeping all other moneys to swell his own pile.
A simple means, forsooth, of getting rid of any superfluity of cash.
"Art winning, Endicott?" queried Lord Walterton as, he stood over the other man, looking down on the game.
Endicott shrugged his fat shoulders, and gave an enigmatic chuckle.
"I pay King and Ace only," he called out imperturbably, as he turned up a Queen.
Most of the stakes came to swell his own pile, but he passed a handful of gold to a hollow-eyed youth who sat immediately opposite to him, and who clutched at the money with an eager, trembling grasp.
"You have all the luck to-night, Segrave," he said with an oily smile directed at the winner.
"Make your game, gentlemen," he added almost directly, as he once more began to deal.
"I pay knave upwards!" he declared, turning up the ten of clubs.
"Mine is the ten of hearts," quoth one of the players.
"Ties pay the bank," quoth Endicott imperturbably.
"Mine is a queen," said Segrave in a hollow tone of voice.
Endicott with a comprehensive oath threw the entire pack of cards into a distant corner of the room.
"A fresh pack, mistress!" he shouted peremptorily.
Then as an overdressed, florid woman, with high bullhead fringe and old-fashioned Spanish farthingale, quickly obeyed his behests, he said with a coarse laugh:
"Fresh cards may break Master Segrave's luck and improve yours, Sir Michael."
"Before this round begins," said Sir James Overbury who was standing close behind Lord Walterton, also watching the game, "I will bet you, Walterton, that Segrave wins again."
"Done with you," replied the other, "and I'll back mine own opinion by taking a hand."
The florid woman brought him a chair, and he sat down at the table, as Endicott once more began to deal.
"Five pounds that Segrave wins," said Overbury.
"A queen," said Endicott, turning up his card. "I pay king and ace only."
Everyone had to pay the bank, for all turned up low cards; Segrave alone had not yet turned up his.
"Well! what is your card, Master Segrave?" queried Lord Walterton lightly.
"An ace!" said Segrave simply, displaying the ace of hearts.
"No good betting against the luck," said young Walterton lightly, as he handed five sovereigns over to his friend, "moreover it spoils my system."
"Ye play primero on a system!" quoth Sir Michael Isherwood in deep amazement.
"Yes!" replied the young man. "I have played on it for years ... and it is infallible, 'pon my honor."
In the meanwhile the doors leading to the second room had been thrown open; serving men and women advanced carrying trays on which were displayed glasses and bottles filled with Rhenish wine and Spanish canary and muscadel, also buttered ale and mead and hypocras for the ladies.
Editha did not occupy herself with serving but the florid woman was most attentive to the guests. She darted in and out between the tables, managing her unwieldy farthingale with amazing skill. She poured out the wines, and offered tarts and dishes of anchovies and of cheese, also strange steaming beverages lately imported into England called coffee and chocolate.
The women liked the latter, and supped it out of mugs, with many little cries of astonishment and appreciation of its sugariness.
The men drank heavily, chiefly of the heady Spanish wines; they ate the anchovies and cheese with their fingers, and continually called for more refreshments.
Play was of necessity interrupted. Groups of people eating and drinking congregated round the tables. The men mostly discussed various phases of the game; there was so little else for idlers to talk about these days. No comedies or other diversions, neither cock-fighting nor bear-baiting, and abuse of my Lord Protector and his rigorous disciplinarian laws had already become stale.
The women talked dress and coiffure, the new puffs, the fanciful pinners.
But at the center table Segrave still sat, refusing all refreshment, waiting with obvious impatience for the ending of this unwelcome interval. When first he found himself isolated in the crowd, he had counted over with febrile eagerness the money which lay in a substantial heap before him.
"Saved!" he muttered between his teeth, speaking to himself like one who is dreaming, "saved! Thank God! ... Two hundred and fifty pounds ... only another fifty and I'll never touch these cursed cards again ... only another fifty...."
He buried his face in his hands; the moisture stood out in heavy drops on his forehead. He looked all round him with ever-growing impatience.
"My God! why don't they come back! ... Another fifty pounds ... and I can put the money back ... before it has been missed.... Oh! why don't they come back!"
Quite a tragedy expressed in those few muttered words, in the trembling hands, the damp forehead. Money taken from an unsuspecting parent, guardian or master, which? What matter? A tragedy of ordinary occurrence even in those days when social inequalities were being abolished by act of Parliament.
In the meanwhile Lord Walterton, halting of speech, insecure of foothold, after his third bumper of heady sack, was explaining to Sir Michael Isherwood the mysteries of his system for playing the noble game of primero.
"It is sure to break the bank in time," he said confidently, "I am for going to Paris where play runs high, and need not be carried on in this hole and corner fashion to suit cursed Puritanical ideas."
"Tell me your secret, Walterton," urged worthy Sir Michael, whose broad Shropshire acres were heavily mortgaged, after the rapine and pillage of civil war.
"Well! I can but tell you part, my friend," rejoined the other, "yet 'tis passing simple. You begin with one golden guinea ... and lose it ... then you put up two and lose again...."
"Passing simple," assented Sir Michael ironically.
"But after that you put up four guineas."
"And lose it."
"Yea! yea! mayhap you lose it ... but then you put up eight guineas ... and win. Whereupon you are just as you were before."
And with a somewhat unsteady hand the young man raised a bumper to his lips, whilst eying Sir Michael with the shifty and inquiring eye peculiar to the intoxicated.
"Meseems that if you but abstain from playing altogether," quoth Sir Michael impatiently, "the result would still be the same.... And suppose you lose the eight guineas, what then?"
"Oh! 'tis vastly simple--you put up sixteen."
"But if you lose that?"
"Put up thirty-two...."
"But if you have not thirty-two guineas to put up?" urged Sir Michael, who was obstinate.
"Nay! then, my friend," said Lord Walterton with a laugh which soon broke into an ominous hiccough, "ye must not in that case play upon my system."
"Well said, my lord," here interposed Endicott, who had most moderately partaken of a cup of hypocras, and whose eye and hand were as steady as heretofore. "Well said, pardi! ... My old friend the Marquis of Swarthmore used oft to say in the good old days of Goring's Club, that 'twas better to lose on a system, than to play on no system at all."
"A smart cavalier, old Swarthmore," assented Sir Michael gruffly, "and nathless, a true friend to you, Endicott," he added significantly.
"Another deal, Master Endicott," said Segrave, who for the last quarter of an hour had vainly tried to engage the bank-holder's attention.
Nor was Lord Walterton averse to this. The more the wine got into his head, the more unsteady his hand became, the more strong was his desire to woo the goddess whose broken-nosed image seemed to be luring him to fortune.
"You are right, Master Segrave," he said thickly, "we are wasting valuable time. Who knows but what old Noll's police-patrol is lurking in this cutthroat alley? ... Endicott, take the bank again.... I'll swear I'll ruin ye ere the moon--which I do not see--disappears down the horizon. Sir Michael, try my system.... Overbury, art a laggard? ... Let us laugh and be merry--to-morrow is the Jewish Sabbath--and after that Puritanic Sunday ... after which mayhap, we'll all go to hell, driven thither by my Lord Protector. Wench, another bumper ... canary, sack or muscadel ... no thin Rhenish wine shall e'er defile this throat! Gentlemen, take your places.... Mistress Endicott, can none of these wenches discourse sweet music whilst we do homage to the goddess of Fortune? ... To the tables ... to the tables, gentlemen ... here's to King Charles, whom may God protect ... and all in defiance of my Lord Protector!"
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