Gus and I strolled down Knightsbridge in the early afternoon swell. “I must admit, I have never heard of this place,” I said.
“Never ‘eard of Duke’s?” said Gus, affronted. “Why, his Grace is one of the chief patrons of the youth activities associations.”
“If this is an opium den, I shall be very put out.”
“Nay, nay, ‘tis a five-shilling house, you know, a bawd.”
We turned into Dunesborough Lane. An ill-painted sign had been hastily nailed to the side of a dilapidated slum. DUKES, POORVAYERS oF JOY. The lintel was stained with something that may have been wine, but on the odds was probably not.
“Well, this is pretty,” I said.
Gus grinned. “‘Tis the best, lordship.”
I opened the door and we entered. I was surprised to find the interior to be most opulent, if somewhat decadent. Men, young and old, were gathered around the velvet, with whores of various quality clutching their arms as dice were cast upon the tables. The din was extraordinary given the early hour, and as Gus and I threaded our way through the crowd we were nearly deafened.
Accosting a steward, we were directed towards the rear of the structure after inquiring as to the operator. A nondescript door, seemingly out of place amid the luxury, was set into the rear wall of the great room. Beyond it lay the inner workings of the casino, the private salons where gentlemen might entertain young ladies at their leisure, and the cellars stocked full of liquors and ale. The steward went in ahead of us, bidding us take our ease at the door while he consulted with the owner. After a time, a doughty young Chinawoman emerged. “Mister Duke is busy now,” she said in careful English. “He will not see you.”
“SEND THEM IN!” bellowed an inebriated voice from beyond the door.
“Mister Duke is very tired. He cannot see visitors,” said the Chinawoman hastily.
“One moment,” she said, and retreated to the gloomy recesses behind the door. There subsequently ensued an apparently strained conversation, with the low tones of the Chinawoman being punctuated by loud outbursts from the unseen Duke.
At last the Chinawoman returned. “Mister Duke has made a miraculous recovery. He will see you now.”
We followed her deep into the bowels of the casino, arriving at a private apartment adorned in the most shabby style. Seated behind a decrepit desk was an equally decrepit man. His frock coat was worn, and covered with burns, which came from the occasional rain of ash that issued from the pipe clenched betwixt his teeth. He had little hair, and what hair he possessed was white, and twisted and knotted from neglect. Affixed, apparently permanently, to his face were a pair of smoked glasses, and in his manner he was most nervous, constantly twitching and jerking as though beset by spirits. A lotus-eater, in short.
“Who are you and what do you seek?” he barked, nervously looking behind us, as if expecting intruders. “Be quick, and say your peace, for this is the hour and time the bat emerges from his darkened belfry and assaults the unwary.”
“May we sit?” I asked, gesturing to a pair of ratty, worn stools before the desk. Mister Duke agitatedly nodded his assent.
“I much admire your casino,” I said, by way of opening the conversation. “It seems most prosperous.”
“Prosperous?” snorted Duke. “Spare me your kind words. I plow a lonely furrow, my friend.”
“I am Dennis, Viscount of Stokington. If you have heard of me, I should not be much surprised, for I am well-known in the gaming establishments of this great city.”
Duke tapped out his pipe into a bowl with shaking hands. “Stokington, Stokington,” he mused. “Yes, I’ve heard the name.”
“I have a small business proposition for you, your Grace,” I said. “One of extraordinary profitability, one that will raise you up from this lowly station.”
“Shut your mouth, boy,” snarled Duke. “You only reveal your ignorance.”
He sighed, and suddenly seemed ancient, a grayed and mouldering presence in a tomb long since deserted. “I was a great man, once.”
With trembling hands he packed tobacco into his pipe and jerkily struck a match. “A great man, yes. With a great house and a beautiful, charming wife, and children who loved me. Then I went over the edge. Pushed, really. The edge...there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others--the living--are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But I went over, was pushed over. Now I have nothing, save this casino.”
He puffed furiously on his pipe. “Damned Junius.”
I shifted in my seat. “Then perhaps this is your chance to regain some wealth.”
“What do you propose, then?” he asked tiredly.
“In a few days time, a gentleman will come to your casino accompanied by myself. When he does, I wish for you to ensure that he loses. Enormously.”
Duke eyed me through his smoked glasses. “And what profit do I warrant?”
“Keep his losses, for all I care.”
His eyebrows went up. “‘Keep the losses’? What profit do you warrant, then?”
“Satisfaction,” I said.
“Ah, a matter of honour,” he said wryly. He turned to Gus. “And do you approve of this course of action, young fellow whose name I do not possess?”
Gus squirmed. “Iffen his Lordship says it be good, then it be good. And my name, ‘tis Gus. Augustus.”
Duke looked hard at him. “Augustus. A fine name,” he said with some definiteness.
He turned to me. “I find your proposal most reasonable, although I must say I am affronted you would presume me to be the sort of man who cheats.”
“You own a casino.”
He glared at me momentarily. “Touché. However, before I undertake this for you, I wish you to undertake something for me.”
“And that would be?”
He shrugged. “A simple matter. A young musician, a gambler in my casino, has mounted debts to me that he has seen fit not to repay. This fellow is quite wealthy, and so I feel that it would be inopportune for anything…untoward to occur to him before he can settle accounts.”
“--will convince him to make full restitution.”
“I see. It sounds an easy matter. Where can I find him?”
“He has awayed to Newmarket, for the running. His name is Frazier.”
“Very well, I do a favour for you, and you do a favour for me. Most proper. I give you my most humble thanks for your assistance in this matter, Mister Duke.”
He nodded irritably, and with that as our signal to exit, young Gus and I made our adieus. We walked through muddy streets, and as we did so I reflected on Mister Duke’s decline of circumstances. Like a fine coat, the time when he fit had long since passed, and now he withered away in storage. Many a man prospers while another fails, both in the same field. I mentioned this to young Gus. The city had seen fit to provide me with a perfect example, and I pointed to two buildings facing each other across a busy street. One was well-built and well-appointed, the other dilapidated and decayed. “Look here,” I said.
Gus looked at me, baffled. “What?”
“Do you not see?” I huffed in frustration. “Read the signs.”
Gus peered at the two signs. He turned back to me in confusion.
“They both say ‘Baker’s’,” I explained patiently. “One is successful, the other a failure.” I frowned. “Can you not read?”
He bashfully looked at the ground. “Nay,” he whispered.
“Well, we shall have to remedy that,” I said briskly. “In the mean, are there any of your young associates who can read?”
The urchin thought for a moment, then brightened. “Me gel Hil, she knows her letters. Numbers, too.”
“Good, bring her along tomorrow. I have a job for her.”
I resolved at that moment that Gallant Augustus’s illiteracy should not go unmended. After all, reading maketh a full man, and if Gus were to grow to be a good sharper, he would need to be very full of it indeed.
The Life, Times, and Misadventures of Dennis St. Michel, Viscount of Stokington, Soldier, Gambler, Diplomat, Scoundrel, Notorious Rakehell, and Lord of Menacing House, in his Own Words.