It is a story that has played out far too often in the streets, clubs and flats of London, and I will not tell it in very great detail. I began, in that first delight of new wealth and freedom, with a sort of carefree recklessness, and never learnt to look where I was going until it was too late. The expensive dinners, expensive clothes, theatregoing, the generosity to hard-up friends, games of cards, whisky and cigarettes of the highest quality, the best of everything for the smart new rooms, cab fares, new hats… It all seemed to whirl away, and one day I was aware, quite suddenly, that I would never keep this up. The situation was almost too bad to save as soon as I knew.
I say almost; I am ashamed to admit it, but my recklessness continued even then—even as I plunged into my overdraft at the bank and placated my creditors with bills of sale on my furniture. I never was very good with numbers.
It was one March evening at the club, when I was attempting to distract myself from my worries in the company of some fellows whom—despite how much their influence had added to my troubles—I still considered my friends, when the turn came. We were discussing cards, a favourite topic with them.
‘Oh, Manders,’ one of them said, ‘we’re going to play at old Raffles’s place tomorrow. Won’t you come too? He wouldn’t mind my inviting you, I’m sure, he’s a very generous chap.’
‘You know him?’ said another—doubtless he had observed my reaction to the name. ‘All the better! You must come.’
I said nothing. I did know Raffles, after all, and I knew that the circles in which we moved did occasionally overlap, but it was a shock all the same. Shortly afterwards I made my excuses and left them, saying vaguely that I hoped I would see them soon.
The next morning things were rather clearer, both without and within. The night had been foggy, but the morning was bright enough; I leant out of the window in Mount Street into weak but determined spring sunshine and attempted to make some sense of it all. I remembered Raffles well, of course; how could I not? I had admired him so much at school; I had seen him once or twice since, and had taken a lively interest in his brilliant cricketing career. These memories returned now with rather more sharpness than previously. The thought of Raffles, the highest ideal of my schoolboy fancy, knowing what I had come to now was too shameful to bear.
The fresh spring air blew soft upon my face, a breeze that had surely originated somewhere sweeter than Mayfair. It occurred to me that, after all, there was no need for Raffles to know so much about me simply because we met once more. We should play one game, then part and in all probability never see each other again; he need never know what my life really was.
Besides, I wanted to see him once more; he would be a reminder of better times and better things…
Between this line of thought and the hope of winning back some of my lost fortune—a piece of folly which lingered long after the painful proof of its falsehood—my mind was made up.
I arrived at the Albany a little earlier than the others.
‘Manders! Of course I remember you—do come in…’
Raffles greeted me with a disarming friendliness. In appearance he was barely altered from when I had last seen him two or three years before, and the association brought on keener memories of what he had once been to me. This and my present shame and disgrace were a potent mental combination. I was torn between gladness and dismay at his questioning me about how I was faring these days; and I was not sure whether to be bitterly disappointed or greatly relieved when the others arrived.
Throughout the game I was similarly distracted. His manner was just what I remembered: that easy and confident charm was as it had been when he was the beloved and respected captain of the eleven, and he played baccarat with the same carefree grace that he had shown on the old school cricket ground. His eyes were as blue and as twinkling, and he watched the proceedings with a little studied smile which drew my own eyes away from the game’s most dramatic turns. Neither did his attentions to me cease with the others’ entrance onto the scene, and I fancied then that his manner towards them was, if anything, a little colder than it was towards me. I have no doubt now that he judged their characters more shrewdly than I ever had.
These thoughts occupied my mind all the evening, and I was barely aware of how much I was losing; an occasional sympathetic glance from Raffles was treasured enough that I forgot to regard its meaning, which was more than he realised. It struck me all at once, when we settled up at the end. All my pleasant dreams and musings were torn away, and in an instant I returned to the worst mental depths of the last months. I went to the desk and wrote them all utterly worthless cheques, my heart full of ice. It was all too clear what the end must be for me now.
And that was it. His leave-taking was as kind and warm as everything else had been, and I hardly heard it. I left his rooms in a whirl of terrible confusion. Taking one last look at him, I headed back into the implacable night.