By BARRY PAIN.
MRS. INGELBY and her niece lived at The White House in the middle of the village High Street; but the house stood far back from the street, with a walled garden shaded by many shrubberies in front of it. Mrs. Ingelby loved shade and privacy. For this reason she would have built herself a house further away from the village, were it not that she liked one thing better still, and this was the thing to which she had always been used. She had been born in The White House, and she would die in it. In the course of nature this would happen in a few years, for she was of a great age.
This night, in the drawing-room, a rather elderly maid—she had been with Mrs. Ingelby for the last twenty years—lit the wax candles on the card-table, and put the new packs in their appointed order with the whist-markers. This was in the days before the world knew bridge, and Mrs. Ingelby would have scorned to learn it in any case. She had always played whist, and therefore she would continue to play it. Her game had no modern innovations in it, was fairly sound, but far from being perfect. She preferred a "dummy" game, and always took dummy herself. "Then," she said, "there can be no discussions." She knew her own weakness. In the course of her whist experience there had been some very emphatic discussions, and she herself had done most of the discussing.
Her husband, a man of mild and forbearing temper, would stick with a plaintive obstinacy to his side of the question. His last words before he died were: "Admitting that I did not see the call, my dear, I must still maintain that it was highly injudicious in you to call at all." Her last words to him were: "Stuff and nonsense!"
She mourned his death in solitude for many months, and then her niece Marjory came to live with her. Marjory said that she wished to play whist. Mrs. Ingelby hesitated. Was it decent? As she was doing it merely to oblige the child, she decided that it was decent. She sent for the doctor to dine with her that night, and played whist afterwards until nearly eleven o'clock. She won ninepence, and went to bed triumphant. After that, the question of propriety was not raised again, and there was a whist-party every week. There was always someone in the village who could be asked to make a third at the table. As a matter of fact, she would far sooner have played with her own butler than not have played at all. In the game of cards her youth was renewed. The struggle for life was all over with her now, and she was in a quiet backwater of old age without temptations or ambitions, with no risks to take, and with nothing to scheme over. At the card-table the delightful struggle began again—she was once more in the full current, triumphing or vanquished.
Mrs. Ingelby walked with some slight difficulty, but without further support than her stick, into the drawing-room, followed by Marjory and the vicar. Mrs. Ingelby wore black silk and no jewels. She might have exchanged the lace on her dress for diamonds, and got some very fair diamonds for it, but she loved lace, and accused precious stones of vulgarity. Marjory, a girl of eighteen, wore grey and looked demure, but with humorous possibilities about her. She was quite the prettiest girl in the village, and fully aware of it. The vicar, who came last, was a pleasant and scholarly man. He preached good sermons and he liked good port. As an angler, his fame was great: the trout they hi«i been eating at dinner had been the victims of his skill.
"How would it be," said Mrs. Ingelby, as if she were making an entirely new proposition, "if I were to take dummy?"
The idea was well received, as usual. "Then," said Mrs. Ingelby, as the maid placed the cushions in her chair for her, "shall we say threepenny points?"
It was, and had always been, threepenny points; but it was just as well to mention it in case of accidents.
"Jane, have you placed the ash-tray and match-box for Mr. Vaughan?" Jane had, and having for the moment done all that she could, Jane retired, not to reappear until ten o'clock, when she brought in a tray, and Mrs. Ingelby took one glass of very weak whisky-and-soda, always under protest. These little things were arranged and fixed. The vicar and Marjory and Jane all knew their parts.
And now a silence reigned, and the battle raged on the green cloth. But to-night it could hardly be called a battle. The vicar and Marjory held all the cards. Mrs. Ingelby struggled hard but ineffectually; no amount of skill could have saved her from defeat.
There was a pause at the end of the first rubber.
"The cards have been remarkable," said Mrs. Ingelby, "very remarkable. Very remarkable, indeed. This kind of thing cannot possibly continue, and so decided an inequality of fortune deprives the game of much of its interest, to my mind."
"Well, now, your revenge?" said Mr. Vaughan.
"Yes," said Mrs. Ingelby, "I think there will be time for it; and, as I said, luck like yours cannot last. Two trebles and the rub. I think that's right. Marjory, it is your deal."
Then the terrible thing happened. Half-way through Marjory's deal Mrs. Ingelby stood up. "We will not continue this game," she said. "I am afraid I must believe the evidence of my own eyes. You are not dealing fairly. You are cheating!"
"Impossible!" said the vicar.
Marjory only said that she was sorry and blushed slightly.
"I think," said Mrs. Ingelby to Marjory, "you had better leave us. Go to your own room."
Without a word Marjory went out. It was extremely embarrassing for the vicar. He also had risen to go.
"Pray sit down again," said Mrs. Ingelby. "This is a serious matter. I hardly know what I should do."
"Can't understand it," said the vicar. "The girl wasn't playing for points; and even if she had been, it was only the other day that you complained that she gave away her money as fast as she got it. Surely you must have made some mistake!"
"I made none. Apart from the fact that she did not deny it, I felt pretty sure that she had neutralised the cut. I know something of conjuring tricks myself. At each round my card fell from the bottom of the pack, and not from the top. It was done fairly well, and quickly; but not quickly enough to deceive my eyes, old though they are."
"Then I'll tell you what," said the vicar. "It must have been done for a joke. I should say no more about it."
"On the contrary," said Mrs. Ingelby, "I shall say a great deal more about it. I trust that it was only a joke; but Marjory must be made to understand that there are some subjects that do not admit of jokes, and that whist is one of them."
And then a tray was brought in, and Mrs. Ingelby said that she would not have any, thank you; and Mr. Vaughan mixed it for her.
One afternoon in the following week, Marjory called at the Vicarage. Could the vicar come over and dine that night and play whist afterwards?
"Certainly!" said the vicar. "Delighted. Many thanks. and are you going to be allowed to be one of the whist-party, my dear?"
"Oh, yes!" she said. "I am entirely forgiven."
"Look here!" said the vicar. "I am not a curious man, as a rule, but I wish you'd tell me what on earth you did it for. By the way, I must return to your aunt the points that I received over that first rubber. I had forgotten that."
"Oh, no, you mustn't!" said Marjory. "I never cheated at all in the first rubber."
"Well," said the vicar, "this beats me. The luck was all with us, and you were doing splendidly. Why on earth should you——?"
"Don't you see?" Marjory broke in. "It was because the luck was all on our side. She manages herself beautifully, and doesn't complain much; but if she hasn't won a game all the evening, she is perfectly miserable, and doesn't sleep all night. I was giving her the loveliest hand when she found me out. Spades would have been the trumps, and she had the four honours and a little one, and a long suit in diamonds. I have done it before often, and have never been found out."
"Well, you must have made your partner lose threepences."
"Yes," said Marjory cheerfully. "That doesn't matter a bit, does it? Whereas, if old ladies get upset and can't sleep, that is very bad for their health."
"And, naturally, when you told her this, she forgave you?"
Marjory's eyes opened wide. "Told her it? Told her that she'd been treated as a child and allowed to win? How could I, or anyone else, be so cruel? You must never breathe a word of it to her. I found she had decided to take it merely as a stupid joke, and to imagine that when the game was over I had intended to own up, anyhow. So that was how I left it."
"So you ask a man in my position to assist you in this fraud?"
"It's a pious fraud," said Marjory.
"Well, possibly I may. But what about to-night?"
"To-night," said Marjory, "will be just like the other nights. I shall play fairly for the first rubber. If my aunt loses that, I think her luck's very likely to improve afterwards. There are lots of ways of doing it, and I have been taught them all."
"Then," said the vicar, "you're a card-sharper, my dear; but I believe you're not such a bad sort of girl, in spite of it."