An extract from:

Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark

ISBN 978-1-898728-11-5

Next morning the sea was like glass, gloriously blue.  The temperature was warming up, the women were in gaily coloured cotton frocks and most of the men were dressed for deck pastimes.  I did happen to possess an old pair of white flannels to enable me to join in.  In my precarious financial state I should have had the sense to split the rest of my time between the games deck and the library, but after lunch, through force of habit, I promenaded the lower deck and there I ran into Gertie.  She looked ravishing–at least she did to me then.

“Ah, Charlie,” she cried.  “I’ve been looking for you all over the ship.  To come and help make up our card party.  We need just one more player.”

Taking me by the arm she led me into the lounge.  Seated at a table were Mr Rowlands, the actor-manager, the other two actresses, Mr Bunford, Mr Hitchcock and, of all people, Dr Novino.

“Now we’ve got seven, so we’re all right for poker school,” observed Rowlands.

“But I’ve never played the game before,” I protested.  I’d imagined some jolly family game like beggar-my-neighbour or sevens, such as we had often played at home.

The Doc chipped in.  “There is nothing to know in poker, Sonny.  It’s just a bit of of bluff.  Come and sit next to me–I’ll soon put you right.”

That settled it for Rowlands.  “Steward, bring the chips,” he called.  “Now give me a pound each and we’ll do the redeeming later.”

Too proud to withdraw at this stage, I handed over a precious gold sovereign.

“A sixpenny ante and no limit–eh?  How about that?”  There were no objections.  Dr Novino explained to me what this meant and also the values of the different hands.  At the Doc’s prompting I did a little bidding on a hand containing three fives and faded out when told to.

Before long however, I was dealt a hand which, after changing two cards, gave me four kings and a queen.  On seeing this the Doc could hardly restrain himself for glee.  At my turn to bid he instructed me, “raise her–well–a shilling.”  I did–and so did the others.  Each time my turn came, he nudged me with his knee.  Six rounds later he affected to appraise the hand afresh and then he said theatrically, “yes, I’d give it one more go”.

In the end there was only Gertie and me in the bidding and a sizeable amount of chips piled in the centre.

Gertie looked at me challengingly.  “Now then, I’m going to raise you–let me see–ten shillings.”

I took a deep breath.  The Doc looked away.  I knew I ought to “see her” at ten shillings!  I didn’t own it!  I’d have willingly thrown in the hand to escape further losses.

But the Doc put his hand on mine.  As if he had come to a weighty decision he whispered, “Don’t throw-in yet.  At least you must see her.”  And then he changed his mind.  “No, no!  Why should you?  Raise her–you must.  Put her up a fiver–I’ll lend it to you.”

Now I, of all people, ought to have been the last to accept that at face value–I knew he was broke.  But events had seized the helm.  I was simply a passenger to everything that subsequently happened.

No one turned a hair when he snatched up the pencil and made out a chit, threw it in the pool and took out £10.  Nobody, that is, except Gertie.

“I’ll be damned!”  she cried, and her face went livid.  “Let the boy play his own game!  He knows what he’s doing by now.  And I’m raising him ten pounds–so you can go ahead and make out another chit if you like!”

With barely a glance at her, the Doc did so.  He didn’t really have much alternative.  “You ought to go once more…”  he croaked, “but there again, perhaps you’d better not.”  Turning to Gertie he said, his voice trembling, “he’ll see you now, my dear.”

“Good!”  she shouted in relief.  “I’ve got four Jacks, thank you.”  She turned them up and reached for the pot.

“Four kings!”  the Doc and I cried in unison.

“And–you’ve–seen–me?  Her face twisted in contempt.  “What guts!”

“Take the money,” commanded the Doc coldly.  The words had no sooner left his mouth when he proceeded to do this himself.

Gertie, looking utterly wretched, got up in tears and left without a word.  Out of sympathy, no doubt, the rest of the company threw in their cards and rose to their feet as well.  I had won over £25–I felt on top of the world.

But I’d reckoned without Gertie.

As we left the room for a drink, the Doc whispered in my ear, “I wouldn’t play again this trip if I were you, Sonny.”  He winked at me–or was it a sharp frown?  “These people are actors.  Usually hard-up–just like me.”  He patted my arm.  “You hold on to what you’ve won.”

I thanked him for his advice and, at the time, I was determined to take it.

But next day after lunch Gertie showed up, just as I was about to join in a game of deck quoits.  I had half a suspicion she’d been lying in wait for me.

She treated me to a charming smile.  “Oh I say, Charlie, we’ve been looking all over for you to continue the game…!”

“Um–I’ve just promised to play in the quoits competition,” I pleaded, blushing.  “Tomorrow perhaps…?”

“Now look, Charlie, we’re one short!  Tomorrow we’ll be in Port Said–and I don’t suppose anyone will feel like playing.  You were a clear winner yesterday, you know that, and you don’t look the type to be so unsporting.”

Someone with more experience than I had then might have been able to extricate himself from this situation.  But I’d have hated to have been thought mean–especially by a woman I found attractive, and from whom I had won a lot of money.  I meekly took my seat at the table.

Mr Bunford and Mr Hitchcock were not there.In their places there were two new faces.  The Doc was there–but the vacant seat to which I was beckoned wasn’t next to him.

Several hands were dealt and won by different players with moderate cards.  Almost an hour passed before any exciting bidding took place.  I remained a passenger until, as tea trays were brought in, I accepted two cards to a set of three and had a full-house.

By now I knew the value of this sort of hand and upped the ante to set the bidding going.  Several players including Gertie came and went out of the hand.  Then Rowlands raised Elsie ten shillings and the next girl made it a pound.  Deciding the hand had cost me enough, I threw it in.

Imagine my astonishment when Rowlands won the pool after raising the bidding by £5.  Inadvertently he twisted the cards in my direction as he scooped up the kitty.  I saw that his five cards had no real value.  It was a piece of bluff that had paid off.

Not long after, having changed three cards, I found myself with fours–four sevens.  It was my turn to open the bidding so I began with a modest shilling.  Rowlands, Gertie and I were soon left to fight it out and by that time the bidding was in pounds.  Gertie threw in a chit for a fiver.  I raised her five, which meant signing a chit for ten, and Rowlands jumped it another five.  Gertie then “saw” Rowlands and I was glad to do likewise.  In view of his previous bluff I was convinced I would still win the pot.  But he calmly put down his hand–four tens!  My heart sank.  During the course of the game I had had occasion to throw in other chits.  Taking these into account, plus the sum of £5 to which the Doc had helped himself out of my previous winnings, I found myself owing £25.  But there were only £19 in my wallet.

“Don’t forget these are yours, Nida,” said Rowlands, pushing me the chits.

I made out an IOU for £6.  “I’ll get a cheque cashed by the purser,” I lied.

Rowlands turned his attention to the dejected Gertie and broke into a laugh.  “What you can’t pay I’ll knock off your wages.”  She had nothing to say to that.

…to be continued.


See also:

Chota Sahib – Foreword

Vocabulary Of The Raj