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    VI. Rake's Progress

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    Chapter 6
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    Many toasts were uproariously honored, the health of each member of the party in turn, then the country of each: France and England first, out of courtesy to the ladies, Italy next, since this beautiful and extraordinary meeting of distinguished people (as Mellin remarked in a short speech he felt called upon to make) took place in that wonderful land, then the United States. This last toast the gentlemen felt it necessary to honor by standing in their chairs.

    [Song: The Star-Spangled Banner--without words--by Mr. Cooley and chorus.]

    When the cigars were brought, the ladies graciously remained, adding tiny spirals of smoke from their cigarettes to the layers of blue haze which soon overhung the table. Through this haze, in the gentle light (which seemed to grow softer and softer) Mellin saw the face of Helene de Vaurigard, luminous as an angel's. She was an angel--and the others were gods. What could be more appropriate in Rome? Lady Mount-Rhyswicke was Juno, but more beautiful. For himself, he felt like a god too, Olympic in serenity.

    He longed for mysterious dangers. How debonair he would stroll among them! He wished to explore the unknown; felt the need of a splendid adventure, and had a happy premonition that one was coming nearer and nearer. He favored himself with a hopeful vision of the apartment on fire, Robert Russ Mellin smiling negligently among the flames and Madame de Vaurigard kneeling before him in adoration. Immersed in delight, he puffed his cigar and let his eyes rest dreamily upon the face of Helene. He was quite undisturbed by an argument, more a commotion than a debate, between Mr. Pedlow and young Cooley. It ended by their rising, the latter overturning a chair in his haste.

    "I don't know the rudiments, don't I!" cried the boy. "You wait! Ole Sneydie and I'II trim you down! Corni says he'll play, too. Come on, Mellin."

    "I won't go unless Helene goes," said Mellin. "What are you going to do when you get there?"

    "Alas, my frien'!" exclaimed Madame de Vaurigard, rising, "is it not what I tol' you? Always you are never content wizout your play. You come to dinner an' when it is finish' you play, play, play!"

    "Play?" He sprang to his feet. "Bravo! That's the very thing I've been wanting to do. I knew there was something I wanted to do, but I couldn't think what it was."

    Lady Mount-Rhyswicke followed the others into the salon, but Madame de Vaurigard waited just inside the doorway for Mellin.

    "High play!" he cried. "We must play high! I won't play any other way.--I want to play high!"

    "Ah, wicked one! What did I tell you?"

    He caught her hand. "And you must play too, Helene."

    "No, no," she laughed breathlessly.

    "Then you'll watch. Promise you'll watch me. I won't let you go till you promise to watch me."

    "I shall adore it, my frien'!"

    "Mellin," called Cooley from the other room. "You comin' or not?"

    "Can't you see me?" answered Mellin hilariously, entering with Madame de Vaurigard, who was rosy with laughter. "Peculiar thing to look at a man and not see him."

    Candles were lit in many sconces on the walls, and the card-table had been pushed to the centre of the room, little towers of blue, white and scarlet counters arranged upon it in orderly rows like miniature castles.

    "Now, then," demanded Cooley, "are the ladies goin' to play?"

    "Never!" cried Madame de Vaurigard.

    "All right," said the youth cheerfully; "you can look on. Come and sit by me for a mascot."

    "You'll need a mascot, my boy!" shouted Pedlow. "That's right, though; take her."

    He pushed a chair close to that in which Cooley had already seated himself, and Madame de Vaurigard dropped into it, laughing. "Mellin, you set there," he continued, pushing the young man into a seat opposite Cooley. "We'll give both you young fellers a mascot." He turned to Lady Mount-Rhyswicke, who had gone to the settee by the fire. "Madge, you come and set by Mellin," he commanded jovially. "Maybe he'll forget you ain't a widow again."

    "I don't believe I care much about bein' anybody's mascot to-night," she answered. There was a hint of anger in her tired monotone.

    "What?" He turned from the table and walked over to the fireplace. "I reckon I didn't understand you," he said quietly, almost gently. "You better come, hadn't you?"

    She met his inscrutable little eyes steadily. A faint redness slowly revealed itself on her powdered cheeks; then she followed him back to the table and took the place he had assigned to her at Mellin's elbow.

    "I'll bank," said Pedlow, taking a chair between Cooley and the Italian, "unless somebody wants to take it off my hands. Now, what are we playing?"

    "Pokah," responded Sneyd with mild sarcasm.

    "Bravo!" cried Mellin. "That's my game. Ber-ravo!"

    This was so far true: it was the only game upon which he had ever ventured money; he had played several times when the wagers were allowed to reach a limit of twenty-five cents.

    "You know what I mean, I reckon," said Pedlow. "I mean what we are playin' fer?"

    "Twenty-five franc limit," responded Cooley authoritatively. "Double for jacks. Play two hours and settle when we quit."

    Mellin leaned back in his chair. "You call that high?" he asked, with a sniff of contempt. "Why not double it?"

    The fat man hammered the table with his fist delightedly. "'He's game,' she says. 'He's the gamest little Indian ever come down the big road!' she says. Was she right? What? Maybe she wasn't! We'll double it before very long, my boy; this'll do to start on. There." He distributed some of the small towers of ivory counters and made a memorandum in a notebook. "There's four hundred apiece."

    "That all?" inquired Mellin, whereupon Mr. Pedlow uproariously repeated Madame de Vaurigard's alleged tribute.

    As the game began, the intelligent-looking maid appeared from the dining-room, bearing bottles of whisky and soda, and these she deposited upon small tables at the convenience of the players, so that at the conclusion of the first encounter in the gentle tournament there was material for a toast to the gallant who had won it.

    "Here's to the gamest Indian of us all," proposed the fat man. "Did you notice him call me with a pair of tens? And me queen- high!"

    Mellin drained a deep glass in honor of himself. "On my soul, Chan' Pedlow, I think you're the bes' fellow in the whole world," he said gratefully. "Only trouble with you--you don't want to play high enough."

    He won again and again, adding other towers of counters to his original allotment, so that he had the semblance of a tiny castle. When the cards had been dealt for the fifth time he felt the light contact of a slipper touching his foot under the table.

    That slipper, he decided (from the nature of things) could belong to none other than his Helene, and even as he came to this conclusion the slight pressure against his foot was gently but distinctly increased thrice. He pressed the slipper in return with his shoe, at the same time giving Madame de Vaurigard a look of grateful surprise and tenderness, which threw her into a confusion so evidently genuine that for an unworthy moment he had a jealous suspicion she had meant the little caress for some other.

    It was a disagreeable thought, and, in the hope of banishing it, he refilled his glass; but his mood had begun to change. It seemed to him that Helene was watching Cooley a great deal too devotedly. Why had she consented to sit by Cooley, when she had promised to watch Robert Russ Mellin? He observed the pair stealthily.

    Cooley consulted her in laughing whispers upon every discard, upon every bet. Now and then, in their whisperings, Cooley's hair touched hers; sometimes she laid her hand on his the more conveniently to look at his cards. Mellin began to be enraged. Did she think that puling milksop had as much as a shadow of the daring, the devilry, the carelessness of consequences which lay within Robert Russ Mellin? "Consequences?" What were they? There were no such things! She would not look at him--well, he would make her! Thenceforward he raised every bet by another to the extent of the limit agreed upon.

    Mr. Cooley was thoroughly happy. He did not resemble Ulysses; he would never have had himself bound to the mast; and there were already sounds of unearthly sweetness in his ears. His conferences with his lovely hostess easily consoled him for his losses. In addition, he was triumphing over the boaster, for Mr. Pedlow, with a very ill grace and swearing (not under his breath), was losing too. The Countess, reiterating for the hundredth time that Cooley was a "wicked one," sweetly constituted herself his cup-bearer; kept his glass full and brought him fresh cigars.

    Mellin dealt her furious glances, and filled his own glass, for Lady Mount-Rhyswicke plainly had no conception of herself in the role of a Hebe. The hospitable Pedlow, observing this neglect, was moved to chide her.

    "Look at them two cooing doves over there," he said reproachfully, a jerk of his bulbous thumb indicating Madame de Vaurigard and her young protege. "Madge, can't you do nothin' fer our friend the Indian? Can't you even help him to sody?"

    "Oh, perhaps," she answered with the slightest flash from her tired eyes. Then she nonchalantly lifted Mellin's replenished glass from the table and drained it. This amused Cooley.

    "I like that!" he chuckled. "That's one way of helpin' a feller! Helene, can you do any better than that?"

    "Ah, this dear, droll Cooley!"

    The tantalizing witch lifted the youth's glass to his lips and let him drink, as a mother helps a thirsty child. "Bebe!" she laughed endearingly.

    As the lovely Helene pronounced that word, Lady Mount-Rhyswicke was leaning forward to replace Mellin's empty glass upon the table.

    "I don't care whether you're a widow or not!" he shouted furiously. And he resoundingly kissed her massive shoulder.

    There was a wild shout of laughter; even the imperturbable Sneyd (who had continued to win steadily) wiped tears from his eyes, and Madame de Vaurigard gave way to intermittent hysteria throughout the ensuing half-hour.

    For a time Mellin sat grimly observing this inexplicable merriment with a cold smile.

    "Laugh on!" he commanded with bitter satire, some ten minutes after play had been resumed--and was instantly obeyed.

    Whereupon his mood underwent another change, and he became convinced that the world was a warm and kindly place, where it was good to live. He forgot that he was jealous of Cooley and angry with the Countess; he liked everybody again, especially Lady Mount-Rhyswicke. "Won't you sit farther forward?" he begged her earnestly; "so that I can see your beautiful golden hair?"

    He heard but dimly the spasmodic uproar that followed. "Laugh on!" he repeated with a swoop of his arm. "I don't care! Don't you care either, Mrs. Mount-Rhyswicke. Please sit where I can see your beautiful golden hair. Don't be afraid I'll kiss you again. I wouldn't do it for the whole world. You're one of the noblest women I ever knew. I feel that's true. I don't know how I know it, but I know it. Let 'em laugh!"

    After this everything grew more and more hazy to him. For a time there was, in the centre of the haze, a nimbus of light which revealed his cards to him and the towers of chips which he constantly called for and which as constantly disappeared--like the towers of a castle in Spain. Then the haze thickened, and the one thing clear to him was a phrase from an old-time novel he had read long ago:

    "Debt of honor."

    The three words appeared to be written in flames against a background of dense fog. A debt of honor was as promissory note which had to be paid on Monday, and the appeal to the obdurate grandfather--a peer of England, the Earl of Mount-Rhyswicke, in fact--was made at midnight, Sunday. The fog grew still denser, lifted for a moment while he wrote his name many times on slips of blue paper; closed down once more, and again lifted--out-of-doors this time--to show him a lunatic ballet of moons dancing streakily upon the horizon.

    He heard himself say quite clearly, "All right, old man, thank you; but don't bother about me," to a pallid but humorous Cooley in evening clothes; the fog thickened; oblivion closed upon him for a seeming second....
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