By Rafael Sabatini
CHAPTER I. POT-VALIANCE
Then drink it thus, cried the rash young fool, and splashed the contents of his cup full into the face of Mr. Wilding even as that gentleman, on his feet, was proposing to drink to the eyes of the young fool's sister.
The moments that followed were full of interest. A stillness, a brooding, expectant stillness, fell upon the company—and it numbered a round dozen—about Lord Gervase's richly appointed board. In the soft candlelight the oval table shone like a deep brown pool, in which were reflected the gleaming silver and sparkling crystal that seemed to float upon it.
Blake sucked in his nether-lip, his florid face a thought less florid than its wont, his prominent blue eyes a thought more prominent. Under its golden periwig old Nick Trenchard's wizened countenance was darkened by a scowl, and his fingers, long, swarthy, and gnarled, drummed fretfully upon the table. Portly Lord Gervase Scoresby—their host, a benign and placid man of peace, detesting turbulence—turned crimson now in wordless rage. The others gaped and stared—some at young Westmacott, some at the man he had so grossly affronted—whilst in the shadows of the hall a couple of lacqueys looked on amazed, all teeth and eyes.
Mr. Wilding stood, very still and outwardly impassive, the wine trickling from his long face, which, if pale, was no paler than its habit, a vestige of the smile with which he had proposed the toast still lingering on his thin lips, though departed from his eyes. An elegant gentleman was Mr. Wilding, tall, and seeming even taller by virtue of his exceeding slenderness. He had the courage to wear his own hair, which was of a dark brown and very luxuriant; dark brown too were his sombre eyes, low-lidded and set at a downward slant. From those odd eyes of his, his countenance gathered an air of superciliousness tempered by a gentle melancholy. For the rest, it was scored by lines that stamped it with the appearance of an age in excess of his thirty years.
Thirty guineas' worth of Mechlin at his throat was drenched, empurpled and ruined beyond redemption, and on the breast of his blue satin coat a dark patch was spreading like a stain of blood.
Richard Westmacott, short, sturdy, and fair-complexioned to the point of insipidity, watched him sullenly out of pale eyes, and waited. It was Lord Gervase who broke at last the silence—broke it with an oath, a thing unusual in one whose nature was almost woman-mild.
"As God's my life!" he spluttered wrathfully, glowering at Richard. "To have this happen in my house! The young fool shall make apology!"
"With his dying breath," sneered Trenchard, and the old rake's words, his tone, and the malevolent look he bent upon the boy increased the company's malaise.
"I think," said Mr. Wilding, with a most singular and excessive sweetness, "that what Mr. Westmacott has