Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Gordon-Cumming of the Scots Guards stroked his heavy, curling mustache nervously. "I beg your pardon, sir," he said, "but there is another tenner here you have overlooked." He glanced up at the royal personage who held the bank in this game of baccarat.
"I wish," said the Prince of Wales petulantly, as he tossed another �10 across the table, "that you would put your stake in a more conspicuous place."
The occasion was a house party for the 1890 Doncaster Races at the country estate of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Wilson. Wilson was a well-to-do shipowner of the nearby city of Hull, his wife, Mary, one of the most talented social climbers of the day. To Tranby Croft, their rambling pile of a house on the outskirts of the city, Mary had managed to attract a distinguished crowd of 30 guests, including HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.
In previous years the prince had stayed with his friend Christopher Sykes, but the cost of entertaining not only HRH but his valets, equerries, current mistress, current mistress' husband and their maid and valet had sent Sykes into bankruptcy, and Mary Wilson was happy to fill the breach. As she shuffled the place cards to plan the seating at her great dining table, she must have been pleased at her illustrious harvest of names. Besides the 48-year-old prince there were the ninth Earl of Coventry, the fourth Earl of Craven, a goodly sprinkling of other noble names and the handsomest and most eligible bachelor in London, Sir William Gordon-Cumming. Laird of 36,000 Scottish acres, Sir William could trace his ancestry beyond Charlemagne and at 42 he was at the very top of the social tree.
At that time baccarat, a card game of Italian origin, was all the rage among the more sporting members of Britain's top society. It is akin to blackjack, except that the number nine assumes the importance of blackjack's 21. The banker's hand of two or three cards competes against two other hands; the other players may bet on these against the bank. Bets are placed before the first card is dealt, and there is no later increase in betting. Like others who considered this wild game too sportive to be quite proper, Arthur Wilson had banned it from his house. But when his royal guest arrived with his own personal baccarat counters, he had little choice but to allow the game to be played.
Early in the play after dinner on the first night of the house party, Jack Wilson, the 22-year-old son of the house, thought he noticed something distinctly odd as he glanced around the table. At one deal, he later recounted, Sir William Gordon-Cumming had put a fiver up as his stake—one red counter; yet, when the bank lost, the baronet had three such counters—�15 worth—sitting before him.
Young Wilson watched at the next deal. Sir William again staked �5. The cards were turned up—a 9 and a court card, a natural and thus unbeatable. Wilson saw, so he said, a glint of red as Sir William eased open his hands. Hey presto! Now there was �20. Once more the prince paid out.
Wilson turned to his neighbor, a 27-year-old subaltern in the Scots Guards called Berkeley Levett. "My God, Berkeley," he muttered, "this is too hot."
"What on earth do you mean?" asked Levett.
"The man next to me is cheating," said Wilson quietly.