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The Prince and the Parvenus


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.

Levett glanced to Wilson's left, where he saw the distinguished colonel of his own regiment. "My dear chap," he replied, "you must be mistaken. It is absolutely impossible."

Wilson, according to later evidence, told him to look for himself. Play went on. By the end of the evening the prince's bank was well depleted; Sir William Gordon-Cumming was nearly £100 to the good.

Wilson and Levett held a hurried conference. Had their eyes deceived them? Was it really possible that this distinguished and upright man was actually cheating? They decided that they had not been mistaken, but Levett, mindful of his own delicate situation, declined to take the matter further against his own superior officer.

Jack Wilson went to his mother, who was equally unhelpful. "For goodness' sake don't let us have a scandal here," she warned him.

Next morning, young Wilson buttonholed his brother-in-law, one Edward Lycett Green, and the two men paced up and down the gravel driveway in the traditional country-house-crisis manner. Lycett Green was soon convinced, and the two agreed that if baccarat were played a second night it should be on a cloth bordered by a firm white line to define the staking area. Jack Wilson ordered a carpenter to nail green baize over a long pantry table and the butler to chalk a line six inches from the edge.

That night, after the racing, there were five watchers: Jack Wilson and his mother, Lycett Green and his wife and Berkeley Levett. Although many months later they claimed they had made no arrangement to watch the colonel's actions, it is hard to imagine that they did not at least exchange occasional glances of complicity. Guests were given large flat carpenters' pencils—rather vulgarly stamped "Tranby Croft"—for keeping records of the play. Several times, the watchers alleged Sir William used his pencil to flick supplementary counters over the line in celebration of the advent of good cards.

It was one such occasion, when an extra £10 of stakes magically appeared, that caused the prince to complain that the counters were not being properly shown. Shortly afterward Lycett Green left the table to scribble a note in the smoking room. The butler delivered it to Mrs. Wilson, who opened it with anxious fingers. She read: ""I have distinctly seen Sir William Gordon-Cumming cheating at cards."

Sir William's two nights' play left him a winner by £225. As he rose from the table, the prince commented sourly on his good fortune. Sir William replied that no one could have failed to win with such good cards.

Next afternoon, in the special train chartered to bring the party back from the races, Lycett Green told Lord Edward Somerset of the previous night's happenings and asked him what to do. Lord Edward consulted his brother, and the two decided to consult the Earl of Coventry, who was, apart from the prince, the highest-ranking noble in the party. Lord Coventry, in the privacy of his bedroom, decided that an accusation against a serving officer was a military matter, and he said he would consult that distinguished soldier, General Owen Williams. "Oven," he said, "something very disagreeable has happened. Will you come to my bedroom?"

Lycett Green told the story once more. The two older men muttered in a corner. Something ought to be done—but what? There was one further person to whom the buck could be passed: the Prince of Wales.

Now, the Prince of Wales had been Gordon-Cumming's friend for 10 years. Together they had raced and gambled, and Sir William had often been a guest at Sandringham. Yet, astonishingly, the prince immediately accepted the truth of the story. As for the right thing to do, there were many precedents: one merely made the dastard sign a paper promising never to play cards again and there was an end of it.

The earl and the general trudged the long corridor to Sir William's room. It was 8 o'clock: the dressing gong had sounded, but the colonel had not yet changed from his racegoing clothes. In a few words Lord Coventry laid the charge. "There is a very disagreeable thing that has occurred in the house. Some of the people here object to your manner in playing baccarat...."

Now Sir William made his first mistake. Whether he was guilty or innocent he should have asked who his accusers were and should have insisted on confronting them. He did neither but demanded to see his old friend, the prince, confident, no doubt, that HRH would pooh-pooh the whole matter.

There were only a few minutes till the dinner gong. Gordon-Cumming, left alone, struggled with shaking hand to fix the studs in his starched shirtfront and to make a tidy knot in his white bow tie; he got to dinner with seconds to spare. Since at least 10 of the 30 diners knew what was afoot, conversation must have been, to say the least, stilted, and after the long meal Coventry and Williams led the colonel to the prince's room, like a delinquent schoolboy to his headmaster.

"I have heard that certain people have brought a foul and abominable charge against me of having cheated at cards," he began. "Your Royal Highness will see what a terrible thing this is for a man who has attempted to lead for 25 years the life of an officer and a gentleman...."

But the prince was adamant: the evidence was so strong, the witnesses so unshakable, he could have no doubt as to the colonel's guilt. The prince retired. General Williams then drafted a document that was soon to become famous:

In consideration of the promise made by the gentlemen whose names are subscribed to preserve silence with reference to an accusation in regard to my conduct at baccarat on the nights of Monday and Tuesday, the 8th and 9th September 1890, at Tranby Croft, I will, on my part, solemnly undertake never to play cards again as long as I live.

Gordon-Cumming took the pen and shakily wrote his name. After he had gone, the prince and the other nine men involved signed too: the prince sealed the document and posted it to his private secretary for safekeeping. Next morning Sir William Gordon-Cumming left Tranby Croft by an early train.

During the next four months Sir William shared his time between his Scottish estates, his regiment, his rich American fiancée and his Paris club. Then, one day in London, the bombshell arrived—an anonymous letter from Paris. It warned him that there was talk about Tranby Croft and the document. Before long, the gossip in London became so intense that the colonel had no choice but to take legal action: his solicitors issued a writ for slander against the Lycett Greens, the Wilsons and Berkeley Levett.

In the four months it took to arrange the trial, the case was eagerly discussed in every newspaper and in every home. People who had never before heard of baccarat learned the rules and tried it for penny stakes. As the trial approached, the public licked its lips in anticipation: the prince himself was subpoenaed to take the witness stand. What was more, one of his mistresses might testify as well, the current rumor being that Lady Brooke—aptly nicknamed "The Babbling Brooke"—had been responsible for spreading the secret.

In June 1891 the trial took place, and no one could get a seat in court without a note signed by the Lord Chief Justice: the cream of society was there, dressed in high fashion that made it seem more like a Mayfair wedding than a trial of truth. Gordon-Cumming was on the stand half the first day and half the next. With clarity and coolness he told of the two nights' play and of the way the charge was made against him. Throughout, he asserted his innocence. He had signed the document, he said, only to avert a public scandal that would involve the Prince of Wales.

After a seven-day trial the jury took only 10 minutes to decide that they didn't believe him; they found for the defendants. The next day, Sir William was expelled from the army and resigned from all his clubs. "Thank God," exclaimed His Highness, "the army and society are now well rid of such a damned blackguard."

But the newspapers and the public were plainly on Gordon-Cumming's side. The real villain, as they saw it, was Albert Edward himself.

The common folk felt the profligate prince had got no more than he deserved, and the landed aristocracy were inclined to agree. Such a thing could never have occurred at a proper country estate, they told each other, and it served Bertie right for mixing with such flagrant parvenus as the Wilsons, upstart nobodies who made their money from shipping—it was almost as bad as being in trade.

Even Sir William's American fiancée—in whom the key to his future solvency rested—stood fast in her love. Despite her millionaire parents' insistence that she break off her engagement, she refused to do so.

The august Times of London was no less severe in its judgment of the prince than anyone else. At the end of a thunderous editorial. The Times expressed a devout wish that HRH would himself promptly sign a pledge never to touch a card again. The prince's mother, Queen Victoria, sent for her son and read him every word of the article. "The Monarchy," she wrote to a German cousin, "is almost in danger."

Possibly so, but in one way or another Britannic majesty managed to muddle through this crisis as it had others. And besides, in a period of singularly boring good behavior, it had provided the gossips with a first-rate scandal. After all, it would be another four years before they could joyfully gasp over that unspeakable Oscar Wilde.