Fatal Zero. A Diary Kept at Homburg. by Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald
Chapter III

Chapter III.

The Briton—I know him by his talking loud about my "breakfast." How often do I hear the florid, white-whiskered Briton, suffering from the heat acutely, tell his friend and tell me—for he does not care who hears him, and prefers an audience—that "he'd speak to Gungl, at the Hesse, about giving some more of that wild deer," or "that he was going to get his cutlets, and very odd the Times was so late;" or else what seems the standard grumble, about "kreutzers and their informal money. Look, I say, what can you make of such things as these?" And he does seem to think that wherever the Englishman goes, his money, meats, steaks, joints, beds, clubs, Times, &c., should go with him, and be the money, meat, steaks of the country. (My dearest Dora, will you know me after this, or do you suppose it is your poor invalid that is writing? Such a change in me already—to be affecting to be funny!) But I go on. Then I see the great doctor of the place, Seidler, whose book, Homburg and its Springs, is in every bookseller's. He is walking about here, talking to the English, who hang on his words, and his carriage and horses wait at the end of the walk—a good advertisement, for every stranger asks whose it is. The Briton with the white whiskers, I remark, is great on Seidler. At dinner he tells every one what "Seidler said to me this morning. Seidler made me cut off a tumbler of the kayserbrowning, and told me if I had taken it another day he would not have answered for it. Egad! I was working away, and if he hadn't stopped me," &c. Seidler, I can see, is looked on as a magician who can do as he likes with the springs, and mysteriously check their whole efficiency if you offend him. Any one who takes them without consulting him goes to destruction at once; or else they do the patient no good at all. We might as well be quaffing common spring water. A third of a tumbler, he will say, every half-hour in the morning, or a tumbler at seven, and half a tumbler at a quarter to ten. The idea seems to be, that, delayed till ten, the prescription would have no efficacy; and I see the fresh white-whiskered man, watch in hand, counting the moments. I go myself to Seidler, and believe him to be clever; and he certainly hit off my case at once. But these little tricks the English themselves force on him, as their maladies are so tricky and fanciful. He says, three weeks of the water, and, of course, of Seidler—three tumblers of the former, and one interview with the latter per diem—"will make a new man of me." And I believe him. My dear, shall I confess it, I can bear this separation, and am not craving to be back. It will be better in the end I should be here. But after ten days I know I shall get restless and eager to see your pretty face. Now, dear, I stop this log, for I have to go to the baths. To-morrow I go into Frankfort on the business, having heard from the merchant, who has fixed an hour to see me. He talks of some difficulty, but I shall work hard, and do everything to show our gratitude to our dear benefactor. And if I can conclude the matter on more favourable terms, and save him some money, I shall lessen my obligation a little. I find a gentleman whom I met in the walks, and who seems to have a sort of interest in me, is going back to London to-night. I shall send him what I have written so far, and he will post it in London to Dora.

Saturday.—The first portion of the log has gone off. She will have it by Monday, and I know it will amuse them. She will read it out.

At twelve to-day, I pass by the grand red granite building, of a rich handsome stone, and which is Homburg. It is in the centre of the town in the street, but has a garden in front; with a row of orange trees, considered the noblest in the world. There is really something grand in the air of these magnificent strangers, each in his vast green box, and standing, I suppose, thirty feet high. The greatest and most tender care is taken of them: men are watering, washing, cleaning, coifféing these aristocrats, morning, noon, and night. They are allowed to appear abroad during the hot months only, and when the cooler period sets in, they are tenderly moved to a vast palace far off in the woods, built expressly for them, where they live together all the winter, with fires, and blanketing, and matting, and everything luxurious. The story runs that they were lost, one by one, by a certain landgrave, or elector, or grand duke, who staked them against a hundred pounds a piece; and now that brings me to what I have been indirectly fencing off, and which fills me with a certain dread, as I think of it. I never felt such a sensation, as when, after passing through the noble passage floored with marble, three or four hundred feet long, where a whole town might promenade, I found myself in a vast cool shaded hall that seemed like the banqueting-room of a palace. It was of noble proportions, a carved ceiling, and literally one mass of gorgeous fresco painting and gold. Noble chandeliers of the most elegant design hang down the middle, the arches in the ceiling are animated with figures of nymphs and cupids, with gardens and terraces, and the portico furnishing is rich and solid, and in the most exquisite taste. From these open other rooms, seen through arches and beyond the folds of lace curtains, and each decorated in a different taste—one, snowy white and gold, another, pale pink and gold. The floors are parquet in the prettiest patterns. Servants in rich green and gold liveries glide about, and the most luxurious soft couches in crimson velvets line the walls. What art has done is indeed perfect and most innocent; but where nature and humanity gathers round, standing in two long groups down the room, it almost appals. For I hear the music, the faint, prolonged "a-a-a-rr." Then the clatter and sudden rattle and chinking of silver on silver, of gold on gold, and the low short sentences of those who preside over the rite, and—silence again. As I join the group and look over shoulders, then I see that strange human amphitheatre, that oval of eager and yet impassive faces, all looking down on the bright green field—the cloth of gold, indeed. What a sight! the four magicians, with their sceptres raised. The piles of gold, the rouleaux, the rich coils of dollars like glittering silver snakes, and more dangerous than a snake—the fluttering notes nestling in little velvet-lined recesses, and peeping out through the gilt bars of their little cages. There is something awful in this spectacle, and yet there is a silent fascination—something, I suppose, that must be akin to the spectacle at an execution.

The preparation, the prompt covering of the green ground in those fatal divisions, the notes here, the little glittering pile of yellow pieces, the solid handsome dollars, whose clinking seems music, the lighter florins, the double Fredericks, and the fat sausage-like rouleaux, which these wonderful and dexterous rakes adjust so delicately! Now the cards are being dealt slowly, while the most perfect stillness reigns, and every eye is bent on those hands. I hear him at the end of the first row give a sort of grunt, "ung!" then begin his second, and end with a judgment or verdict. There is a general rustle and turning away of faces, stooping forward, a marking of paper, and the four fatal rakes begin sweeping in greedily gold and notes and silver—all in confusion, a perfect rabble—while, this fatal work over, two skilful hands begin to spout money, as it were, to the ends of the earth. On the fortunate heaps left undisturbed come pouring down whole Danae showers of silver and gold; and to the rouleaux come rolling over softly companion rouleaux. Now do eager fingers stretch out and clutch their prize. Other faces, yellow and contorted, their fingers to their lips, look on dismally. Then it begins again; figures are stooping forward to lay on; and so the wretched formula goes on, repeated—for I made the calculation—some seven hundred times that day. But it never seems to flag, and every time has the air of fresh, and fresher, novelty. It begins to sicken me, and that air of stern concentrated attention, of sacrifice even, depresses me; and when I think that if a return could be got of the agitation, palpitations, hopes, fears, despair, exultation, going on during these seven hundred operations, it would represent a total of human agony inconceivable. Then I see how it can be again multiplied through the twelve months of this wicked year. Then I think of the prospective miseries to others at a distance, to wives and to children—lives wretched, lives unsettled—miserable deaths. I say, I think of all this, and ask, is it too much to call these men special ministers of Mephistopheles—a band under the decent respectable name of a Bank, organised to destroy souls by a machinery, the like of which for completeness exists not on this earth? I say, there is nothing on earth approaching this company, whose men and emissaries ought to wear cock's feathers and red and black dresses, for their complete and successful exertions for destruction and corruption. They distil their poison over that green board, and it is carried away to all countries—to England, France, America, Belgium, Germany, whence the victims return again and again, bringing fresh ones, like true decoys. They hang men; they punish and imprison for far less crimes; but on the heads of these wretches is the ruin of thousands of bodies and souls, the spiritual death, and the actual corporeal death of thousands more, who have hung themselves to the fair trees planted in sweet bowers by the "administration," or stifled themselves with charcoal in front of this fatal palace, and who have actually dabbled with their brains over the vile green table on which they have lost all. A banking company! all fair, give and take, and such phrases! Satan says the same in his dealings.

And here is this functionary in the trim suit—a pink-faced, hard, cat-eyed sinner, who steals about, and watches everybody, and his own agents also more than any one else. A capital officer they tell me, skilful and wary at the accounts. To him the shareholders will one day present a piece of plate, or hard cash, which he would prefer, in acknowledgment of his exertions in their interest. Oh, that some fitting punishment could be devised for those who thus fatten on the blood of the innocent! I should not come here. I should not breathe this tainted air—look on this painted vice, and their wretched shabby baits, to win the approbation of the decent and the moral, like myself. Here are your English newspapers of every kind and degree. Pray read all day long in these charming rooms, and sit on those soft couches, or out here in these charming gardens while our music plays for you. Do understand, nothing is expected from you in return. You, charming English ladies, so fair and pretty, you can work with those innocent fingers; and your nice highspirited brothers, they would like to get up cricket, would they? Here is a nice field; we shall have it mowed and got ready, and to-morrow shall come from Frankfort the finest bats, stumps, balls—everything complete. Do you give the order; get them from London, if you like. We shall pay. There is shooting, too—quite of the best. We shall be proud to find the guns and dogs, and even the powder. It will do us an honour. Get up a little fête; a dance in the Salons des Princes. We shall light it up for you, and find the servants. So do these tricksters try to impose on us, with their sham presents, for which our Toms and Charleses—good-natured elder brothers—must pay, and pay secretly, in many a visit to these tables. They have built us a superb theatre—one of the handsomest of its size in Europe. How kind, how considerate! yet they charge us a napoleon for a stall, if there is any one worth hearing. Presents, indeed! we know the poor relative who comes with a twopenny-halfpenny pot of jam, and expects to get a handsome testimonial in return. Everything about our "administration" is in keeping; and I almost grieve that I should have come to such a place. This resolution, at least, I can make: never to let the light of an honest man's face beam on their evil doings.

I feel I am rather warm on this matter, but it does seem to me that the whole has been too gently dealt with hitherto, and treated too indulgently. Even these conquerors, who, we are told, have given them notice that they are to be chasséd, have shown too much respect. They talk of equities—a lease. Do we hold to leases with, pirates? Do we make treaties with Bill Sykes? Had I been the king, I would have marched two regiments into their glittering halls, seized their infamous tools, broken the rakes across the soldiers' knees, torn up their cards, smashed into firewood the roulette board and its numbers, impounded their gold and silver and sent it to the hospitals, and, locking the doors and leaving sentries, have marched off M. A. and M. B., the admirable men of business, in a file of soldiers. I should have these fellows tried, and put to hard labour for the rest of their lives. As it is, a culpable weakness has given them three or four years more to pursue their vile work, and gather, say, twenty thousand precious souls into Satan's own bag net.