The Social Aspirations of Captain McBane

It was only eleven o’clock, and Delamere, not being at all sleepy, and feeling somewhat out of sorts as the combined results of his afternoon’s debauch and the snubbing he had received at Clara’s hands, directed the major’s coachman, who had taken charge of the trap upon its arrival, to drive him to the St. James Hotel before returning the horses to the stable. First, however, the coachman left Ellis at his boardinghouse, which was near by. The two young men parted with as scant courtesy as was possible without an open rupture.

Delamere hoped to find at the hotel some form of distraction to fill in an hour or two before going home. Ill fortune favored him by placing in his way the burly form of Captain George McBane, who was sitting in an armchair alone, smoking a midnight cigar, under the hotel balcony. Upon Delamere’s making known his desire for amusement, the captain proposed a small game of poker in his own room.

McBane had been waiting for some such convenient opportunity. We have already seen that the captain was desirous of social recognition, which he had not yet obtained beyond the superficial acquaintance acquired by association with men about town. He had determined to assault society in its citadel by seeking membership in the Clarendon Club, of which most gentlemen of the best families of the city were members.

The Clarendon Club was a historic institution, and its membership a social cult, the temple of which was located just off the main street of the city, in a dignified old colonial mansion which had housed it for the nearly one hundred years during which it had maintained its existence unbroken. There had grown up around it many traditions and special usages. Membership in the Clarendon was the sine qua non of high social standing, and was conditional upon two of three things⁠—birth, wealth, and breeding. Breeding was the prime essential, but, with rare exceptions, must be backed by either birth or money.

Having decided, therefore, to seek admission into this social arcanum, the captain, who had either not quite appreciated the standard of the Clarendon’s membership, or had failed to see that he fell beneath it, looked about for an intermediary through whom to approach the object of his desire. He had already thought of Tom Delamere in this connection, having with him such an acquaintance as one forms around a hotel, and having long ago discovered that Delamere was a young man of superficially amiable disposition, vicious instincts, lax principles, and a weak will, and, which was quite as much to the purpose, a member of the Clarendon Club. Possessing mental characteristics almost entirely opposite, Delamere and the captain had certain tastes in common, and had smoked, drunk, and played cards together more than once.

Still more to his purpose, McBane had detected Delamere trying to cheat him at cards. He had said nothing about this discovery, but had merely noted it as something which at some future time might prove useful. The captain had not suffered by Delamere’s deviation from the straight line of honor, for while Tom was as clever with the cards as might be expected of a young man who had devoted most of his leisure for several years to handling them, McBane was past master in their manipulation. During a stormy career he had touched more or less pitch, and had escaped few sorts of defilement.

The appearance of Delamere at a late hour, unaccompanied, and wearing upon his countenance an expression in which the captain read aright the craving for mental and physical excitement, gave him the opportunity for which he had been looking. McBane was not the man to lose an opportunity, nor did Delamere require a second invitation. Neither was it necessary, during the progress of the game, for the captain to press upon his guest the contents of the decanter which stood upon the table within convenient reach.

The captain permitted Delamere to win from him several small amounts, after which he gradually increased the stakes and turned the tables.

Delamere, with every instinct of a gamester, was no more a match for McBane in self-control than in skill. When the young man had lost all his money, the captain expressed his entire willingness to accept notes of hand, for which he happened to have convenient blanks in his apartment.

When Delamere, flushed with excitement and wine, rose from the gaming table at two o’clock, he was vaguely conscious that he owed McBane a considerable sum, but could not have stated how much. His opponent, who was entirely cool and collected, ran his eye carelessly over the bits of paper to which Delamere had attached his signature. “Just one thousand dollars even,” he remarked.

The announcement of this total had as sobering an effect upon Delamere as though he had been suddenly deluged with a shower of cold water. For a moment he caught his breath. He had not a dollar in the world with which to pay this sum. His only source of income was an allowance from his grandfather, the monthly installment of which, drawn that very day, he had just lost to McBane, before starting in upon the notes of hand.

“I’ll give you your revenge another time,” said McBane, as they rose. “Luck is against you tonight, and I’m unwilling to take advantage of a clever young fellow like you. Meantime,” he added, tossing the notes of hand carelessly on a bureau, “don’t worry about these bits of paper. Such small matters shouldn’t cut any figure between friends; but if you are around the hotel tomorrow, I should like to speak to you upon another subject.”

“Very well, captain,” returned Tom somewhat ungraciously.

Delamere had been completely beaten with his own weapons. He had tried desperately to cheat McBane. He knew perfectly well that McBane had discovered his efforts and had cheated him in turn, for the captain’s play had clearly been gauged to meet his own. The biter had been bit, and could not complain of the outcome.

The following afternoon McBane met Delamere at the hotel, and bluntly requested the latter to propose him for membership in the Clarendon Club.

Delamere was annoyed at this request. His aristocratic gorge rose at the presumption of this son of an overseer and ex-driver of convicts. McBane was good enough to win money from, or even to lose money to, but not good enough to be recognized as a social equal. He would instinctively have blackballed McBane had he been proposed by someone else; with what grace could he put himself forward as the sponsor for this impossible social aspirant? Moreover, it was clearly a vulgar, cold-blooded attempt on McBane’s part to use his power over him for a personal advantage.

“Well, now, Captain McBane,” returned Delamere diplomatically, “I’ve never put anyone up yet, and it’s not regarded as good form for so young a member as myself to propose candidates. I’d much rather you’d ask some older man.”

“Oh, well,” replied McBane, “just as you say, only I thought you had cut your eye teeth.”

Delamere was not pleased with McBane’s tone. His remark was not acquiescent, though couched in terms of assent. There was a sneering savagery about it, too, that left Delamere uneasy. He was, in a measure, in McBane’s power. He could not pay the thousand dollars, unless it fell from heaven, or he could win it from someone else. He would not dare go to his grandfather for help. Mr. Delamere did not even know that his grandson gambled. He might not have objected, perhaps, to a gentleman’s game, with moderate stakes, but he would certainly, Tom knew very well, have looked upon a thousand dollars as a preposterous sum to be lost at cards by a man who had nothing with which to pay it. It was part of Mr. Delamere’s creed that a gentleman should not make debts that he was not reasonably able to pay.

There was still another difficulty. If he had lost the money to a gentleman, and it had been his first serious departure from Mr. Delamere’s perfectly well understood standard of honor, Tom might have risked a confession and thrown himself on his grandfather’s mercy; but he owed other sums here and there, which, to his just now much disturbed imagination, loomed up in alarming number and amount. He had recently observed signs of coldness, too, on the part of certain members of the club. Moreover, like most men with one commanding vice, he was addicted to several subsidiary forms of iniquity, which in case of a scandal were more than likely to come to light. He was clearly and most disagreeably caught in the net of his own hypocrisy. His grandfather believed him a model of integrity, a pattern of honor; he could not afford to have his grandfather undeceived.

He thought of old Mrs. Ochiltree. If she were a liberal soul, she could give him a thousand dollars now, when he needed it, instead of making him wait until she died, which might not be for ten years or more, for a legacy which was steadily growing less and might be entirely exhausted if she lived long enough⁠—some old people were very tenacious of life! She was a careless old woman, too, he reflected, and very foolishly kept her money in the house. Latterly she had been growing weak and childish. Some day she might be robbed, and then his prospective inheritance from that source would vanish into thin air!

With regard to this debt to McBane, if he could not pay it, he could at least gain a long respite by proposing the captain at the club. True, he would undoubtedly be blackballed, but before this inevitable event his name must remain posted for several weeks, during which interval McBane would be conciliatory. On the other hand, to propose McBane would arouse suspicion of his own motives; it might reach his grandfather’s ears, and lead to a demand for an explanation, which it would be difficult to make. Clearly, the better plan would be to temporize with McBane, with the hope that something might intervene to remove this cursed obligation.

“Suppose, captain,” he said affably, “we leave the matter open for a few days. This is a thing that can’t be rushed. I’ll feel the pulse of my friends and yours, and when we get the lay of the land, the affair can be accomplished much more easily.”

“Well, that’s better,” returned McBane, somewhat mollified⁠—“if you’ll do that.”

“To be sure I will,” replied Tom easily, too much relieved to resent, if not too preoccupied to perceive, the implied doubt of his veracity.

McBane ordered and paid for more drinks, and they parted on amicable terms.

“We’ll let these notes stand for the time being, Tom,” said McBane, with significant emphasis, when they separated.

Delamere winced at the familiarity. He had reached that degree of moral deterioration where, while principles were of little moment, the externals of social intercourse possessed an exaggerated importance. McBane had never before been so personal.

He had addressed the young aristocrat first as “Mr. Delamere,” then, as their acquaintance advanced, as “Delamere.” He had now reached the abbreviated Christian name stage of familiarity. There was no lower depth to which Tom could sink, unless McBane should invent a nickname by which to address him. He did not like McBane’s manner⁠—it was characterized by a veiled insolence which was exceedingly offensive. He would go over to the club and try his luck with some honest player⁠—perhaps something might turn up to relieve him from his embarrassment.

He put his hand in his pocket mechanically⁠—and found it empty! In the present state of his credit, he could hardly play without money.

A thought struck him. Leaving the hotel, he hastened home, where he found Sandy dusting his famous suit of clothes on the back piazza. Mr. Delamere was not at home, having departed for Belleview about two o’clock, leaving Sandy to follow him in the morning.

“Hello, Sandy,” exclaimed Tom, with an assumed jocularity which he was very far from feeling, “what are you doing with those gorgeous garments?”

“I’m a-dustin’ of ’em, Mistuh Tom, dat’s w’at I’m a-doin’. Dere’s somethin’ wrong ’bout dese clo’s er mine⁠—I don’ never seem ter be able ter keep ’em clean no mo’. Ef I b’lieved in dem ole-timey sayin’s, I’d ’low dere wuz a witch come here eve’y night an’ tuk ’em out an’ wo’ ’em, er tuk me out an’ rid me in ’em. Dere wuz somethin’ wrong ’bout dat cakewalk business, too, dat I ain’ never unde’stood an’ don’ know how ter ’count fer, ’less dere wuz some kin’ er dev’lishness goin’ on dat don’ show on de su’face.”

“Sandy,” asked Tom irrelevantly, “have you any money in the house?”

“Yas, suh, I got de money Mars John give me ter git dem things ter take out ter Belleview in de mawnin.”

“I mean money of your own.”

“I got a qua’ter ter buy terbacker wid,” returned Sandy cautiously.

“Is that all? Haven’t you some saved up?”

“Well, yas, Mistuh Tom,” returned Sandy, with evident reluctance, “dere’s a few dollahs put away in my bureau drawer fer a rainy day⁠—not much, suh.”

“I’m a little short this afternoon, Sandy, and need some money right away. Grandfather isn’t here, so I can’t get any from him. Let me take what you have for a day or two, Sandy, and I’ll return it with good interest.”

“Now, Mistuh Tom,” said Sandy seriously, “I don’ min’ lettin’ you take my money, but I hopes you ain’ gwine ter use it fer none er dem rakehelly gwines-on er yo’n⁠—gamblin’ an’ bettin’ an’ so fo’th. Yo’ grandaddy’ll fin’ out ’bout you yit, ef you don’ min’ yo’ P’s an’ Q’s. I does my bes’ ter keep yo’ misdoin’s f’m ’im, an’ sense I b’en tu’ned out er de chu’ch⁠—thoo no fault er my own, God knows!⁠—I’ve tol’ lies ’nuff ’bout you ter sink a ship. But it ain’t right, Mistuh Tom, it ain’t right! an’ I only does it fer de sake er de fam’ly honuh, dat Mars John sets so much sto’ by, an’ ter save his feelin’s; fer de doctuh says he mus’n’ git ixcited ’bout nothin’, er it mought bring on another stroke.”

“That’s right, Sandy,” replied Tom approvingly; “but the family honor is as safe in my hands as in grandfather’s own, and I’m going to use the money for an excellent purpose, in fact to relieve a case of genuine distress; and I’ll hand it back to you in a day or two⁠—perhaps tomorrow. Fetch me the money, Sandy⁠—that’s a good darky!”

“All right, Mistuh Tom, you shill have de money; but I wants ter tell you, suh, dat in all de yeahs I has wo’ked fer yo’ gran’daddy, he has never called me a ‘darky’ ter my face, suh. Co’se I knows dere’s w’ite folks an’ black folks⁠—but dere’s manners, suh, dere’s manners, an’ gent’emen oughter be de ones ter use ’em, suh, ef dey ain’t ter be fergot enti’ely!”

“There, there, Sandy,” returned Tom in a conciliatory tone, “I beg your pardon! I’ve been associating with some Northern white folks at the hotel, and picked up the word from them. You’re a high-toned colored gentleman, Sandy⁠—the finest one on the footstool.”

Still muttering to himself, Sandy retired to his own room, which was in the house, so that he might be always near his master. He soon returned with a time-stained leather pocketbook and a coarse-knit cotton sock, from which two receptacles he painfully extracted a number of bills and coins.

“You count dat, Mistuh Tom, so I’ll know how much I’m lettin’ you have.”

“This isn’t worth anything,” said Tom, pushing aside one roll of bills. “It’s Confederate money.”

“So it is, suh. It ain’t wuth nothin’ now; but it has be’n money, an’ who kin tell but what it mought be money agin? De rest er dem bills is greenbacks⁠—dey’ll pass all right, I reckon.”

The good money amounted to about fifty dollars, which Delamere thrust eagerly into his pocket.

“You won’t say anything to grandfather about this, will you, Sandy,” he said, as he turned away.

“No, suh, co’se I won’t! Does I ever tell ’im ’bout yo’ gwines-on? Ef I did,” he added to himself, as the young man disappeared down the street, “I wouldn’ have time ter do nothin’ e’se ha’dly. I don’ know whether I’ll ever see dat money agin er no, do’ I ’magine de ole gent’eman wouldn’ lemme lose it ef he knowed. But I ain’ gwine ter tell him, whether I git my money back er no, fer he is jes’ so wrop’ up in dat boy dat I b’lieve it’d jes’ break his hea’t ter fin’ out how he’s be’n gwine on. Doctuh Price has tol’ me not ter let de ole gent’eman git ixcited, er e’se dere’s no tellin’ w’at mought happen. He’s be’n good ter me, he has, an’ I’m gwine ter take keer er him⁠—dat’s w’at I is, ez long ez I has de chance.”

Delamere went directly to the club, and soon lounged into the card-room, where several of the members were engaged in play. He sauntered here and there, too much absorbed in his own thoughts to notice that the greetings he received were less cordial than those usually exchanged between the members of a small and select social club. Finally, when Augustus, commonly and more appropriately called “Gus,” Davidson came into the room, Tom stepped toward him.

“Will you take a hand in a game, Gus?”

“Don’t care if I do,” said the other. “Let’s sit over here.”

Davidson led the way to a table near the fireplace, near which stood a tall screen, which at times occupied various places in the room. Davidson took the seat opposite the fireplace, leaving Delamere with his back to the screen.

Delamere staked half of Sandy’s money, and lost. He staked the rest, and determined to win, because he could not afford to lose. He had just reached out his hand to gather in the stakes, when he was charged with cheating at cards, of which two members, who had quietly entered the room and posted themselves behind the screen, had secured specific proof. A meeting of the membership committee was hastily summoned, it being an hour at which most of them might be found at the club. To avoid a scandal, and to save the feelings of a prominent family, Delamere was given an opportunity to resign quietly from the club, on condition that he paid all his gambling debts within three days, and took an oath never to play cards again for money. This latter condition was made at the suggestion of an elderly member, who apparently believed that a man who would cheat at cards would stick at perjury.

Delamere acquiesced very promptly. The taking of the oath was easy. The payment of some fifteen hundred dollars of debts was a different matter. He went away from the club thoughtfully, and it may be said, in full justice to a past which was far from immaculate, that in his present thoughts he touched a depth of scoundrelism far beyond anything of which he had as yet deemed himself capable. When a man of good position, of whom much is expected, takes to evil courses, his progress is apt to resemble that of a well-bred woman who has started on the downward path⁠—the pace is all the swifter because of the distance which must be traversed to reach the bottom. Delamere had made rapid headway; having hitherto played with sin, his servant had now become his master, and held him in an iron grip.