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

Chapter IV.

Eleven o'clock at night.—I cannot endure this terrible spectacle any more, and shall not go to that place again. What I have seen to-night is almost awful. I went in to those rooms, now lit up, rich in colours, and glittering like a king's palace. Such a crowd, and such a contrast! First, I had gone on the terrace, and looked down on the charming gardens, where the innocent were at the little tables, each surrounded with its group, sipping coffee; the music playing in the pavilion. Then I turn round and look at the blazing windows, at the great door behind me, which yawns like a cavern. I hear the faint "click-click" and "rattle-rattle," and that vast and quiet group, crowded together. They are serious and earnest; but there are delighted and festive groups, wandering about—happy families, charming young girls, good-natured papas and mammas looking on with delight; and now one of the young girls comes tripping back with "Charles," in such delight, showing something shining in her hand. The great soft couches round are lined with festive-looking people. Every one is "circulating," and there is an air of animation and motion over all. Some curiosity makes me linger, and share it also—a wish to describe to my little darling at home such a strange and singular phase of manners and character. I draw near to that other table—the one I had not seen in the morning, and which is consecrated to roulette. It glitters all over with pieces, sown thickly, sown broadcast, dotted here, there, and everywhere, in perfect spasms of distribution. They contend with each other, this yellow, fiery-eyed, and dirty man, and the keen but pretty girl with the powder an inch thick on her face, and her pink silk gathered up about her. They grudge each other room, do these combatants; they glare savagely underneath; the old lady in black silk guides, with a trembling hand, her single piece to some number dimly seen, but whose place she guesses at. As the ball flies round in its tiny circus, every arm, with long stretched wrists, lunges out, eager to be on; piece jostles piece. "Give us standing room," they say, no matter whether they be lost or won. Then comes the sudden leap and metallic click as the ball stumbles into its bed; then the waterfall comes spouting down from the centre—the heavy streams of coin, directed and lighting with pleasant jingling on its fellows. No one seems daunted by defeat. I see one man who has been frantically piling his gold here, there, and everywhere, and, by some strange and devilish perversity, is not allowed to win—no, not once—while little, mean, cautious fiddlers, with their shillings and francs, fare admirably. I see him biting his lips as his nervous fingers turn over the half-dozen little gold pieces, in that agonising uncertainty which I note so often, whether to play the bold game now, risk all, or save this little wreck for another season. And all to be decided within a second. When it is gone, a pause, and then that rueful walking away off the stage, while others rush into his place. Or another. His all seems gone; when, after an undecided council, his hand seeks his breast-pocket—a note to be changed—something that he has no right to meddle with! Then the girls, young, pretty, and not innocent of fear; then the ladies—good sensible wives at home, but transformed by coming to these places—gradually come in, greedy harpies, and ready, if they lose, to turn cat-like on their husbands. All this wreck, this shocking wreck, caused by this factory of wickedness! I have had enough for one day and for one night. I wish I had not seen it, for it makes me wretched; and yet it is worth seeing as a spectacle of infamy. What I have written, too, will interest my pet at home; and, as I know she hoards up every scrap of my writing, perhaps one day others will find it, and read it, and it may act as a warning. There! I am going to bed infinitely better. God be praised for his mercy! and for my pet's sake I will say over her little prayer, which she will be saying about the same time:

"O Lord! Thou who dost guide the ship over the waters, and bring safe to its journey's end the fiery train, look on me in this distant land. Save me from harm of soul and body; give me back health and strength, that I may serve Thee more faithfully, and be able to bring others dependent on me to serve Thee also, and add to Thy glories! Amen."

Sunday.—How sweet and delicious are the mornings here; what soft airs blow gently from these luxuriant trees and mountains! One really grows fonder of the place every moment. The mornings are the most charming; ever so pastoral, and yet it will seem but the pastoral of the theatre or the opera—sham trees and shepherdesses; and I feel all the time that the corrupting Upas garden spreads its fatal vanities over all. These pretty wells, enchanting walks, innocent flowers, music, lights, trees, ferns, what not—they could hardly be, without this support. The odious and plundering vice keeps up and pays for all, even for the innocent blessings of nature; and I doubt whether one is not accessory before the act to those results in accepting any benefit from so contaminated a source, and lending one's countenance in return to their doings. But this is too much refining, and my pet at home will smile at such scruples. I must not set up to be a saint, and I shall do more practical work if, by word or example, I can save some light and careless soul from the temptation. Some way I seem to myself to be grown a little too virtuous since I came here; but in presence of this awful destroyer it is hard not to be serious.

Another of the baits to purchase the good-will of the decent is the reading room, flooded literally with journals of all climes. Squire John Bull is paid special attention to, by half a dozen of his favourite Times, Pall-Mall, Morning Herald even—though what put that journal in the heads of the administration it would be hard to tell—and the veteran Galignani. But a glass door between the Times and squire, who is stingy at heart, and resents postage, and at the same time having to subscribe to his club at home, where he have all these papers for nothing—British flesh and blood could not stand that; so he and his wife—I knew him at once by his gold glass and complacent air as he reads—come every morning at eleven o'clock, and sit and devour their cheap news till one or two. The greediness and selfishness displayed as to getting papers by those people is inconceivable. I do say there is more of the little mean vices engendered in that room than one could possibly conceive in so small a space. The moment he enters there is the questing eye looking round with suspicion and eagerness until he sees the mainsail of his Times fluttering in another Briton's hand, an old enemy—i.e. one who is a slow reader, and who reads every word. He himself is a slow reader, and reads every word; but that is nothing to the point. A look of dislike and anger spreads over his face; but there is the other copy, also "in hand"—in the hand of a dowager, with glasses also—"that beast of a woman," he tells his wife. The person in whose hands he likes to see his Times is a young "thing," a "chit of a girl," who just skims over a column or two, reads the Court Circular portion, and the account of the latest opera. Indeed, he thinks that she has no business to be reading at all. He prowls about, looking at the owners of other papers, as who should say, "Ugh, you!" Now some one lays down a paper, and he rushes at it, anticipating another cormorant by a second: it is only the old journal, not yesterday's. Then, with eyes of discontent, he goes up to the reader in possession of the Times, and says, bitterly, "I'll trouble you when you have done with that;" to which the answer is a grunt. And then he draws a chair close opposite to him, and if glaring can hurry, or restless moving of the chair, or impatient ejaculation, he could not fail. When he does secure it, what a read he has, and how he does take it out of the others! If he could he would have three or four—one to sit on, one lying near him. And yet he is not a bad man, I am sure, at home; but the very atmosphere of this place, perverts everything. Yet the French and Germans in this room take the thing tranquilly. They read their little newspaper quietly and swiftly, with a little faint eagerness to get possession of the Figaro, or some diverting paper; but no one glares at his neighbour. My Dora at home will send me out a paper, so I shall be independent of these rascals and their pitiful bribes.

Two o'clock.—The dogs in the street drawing the little milk carts, harnessed so prettily, and drawing so "willingly." Honest Tray, with his broad jaws well open, and he himself panting from the heat, looks up every now and again to the neat German girl who walks by him. When she wants him to go on, she leads him gently by his great yellow ear, as if it was a bridle. When there are two together they trot on merrily; but the work is too much for the poor paws of a single one. When they are waiting, I notice she draws them into the shade, and they lie down there, in their harness.

I must tell you, dearest, about the people here, for this is a great place in which to study human nature and character. All the tribes of the earth seem to come here and take a new sort of shape as they stay. It is a paradise for women, and for pretty women, and therefore if my pet were here,—but I must not turn that pretty head. Neither should I like her to be exposed to the bold, free-and-easy study of some of the gentry who walk about here, and survey beauty leisurely. In England, did any venture to "stare," as we would call it, in such a fashion, we should be tempted to fetch him a good stroke across his insolent face. But here, in this scattering of all the licentious free laws of Europe, it is tolerated and invited even. Yes, women are actually proud of this questionable sort of attention, and they give a look in return, though only a second's length, as if to challenge fresh attention. And yet it must be owned our own decent, decorous dames and girls, they look a poor race here; they seem to want style, which is with beauty, colour, everything save expression. There is, indeed, a charming-looking girl, who walks about here with a sister, and has an air of enjoyment and delight truly refreshing in the fade indifference which prevails. She has the most mysterious likeness to my Dora at home: I am glad she is here, as she will be a little photograph of one who is so dear to me. The same expression, the same aristocratic look that she has. Petite, with an exquisitely-shaped head, the richest and glossiest dark hair, the most refined outline of face; I am struck with her more and more. What contrasts to her the Americans, dressed to extravagance in theatrical "costumes," as they call laces and flounces, and the shortest of dresses, and the highest of heels, some certainly two or three inches high! Their faces are surprisingly round and full and brilliant, their figures good and handsome, which is a surprise; but when they open their full lips out streams the twang, nasal and horny. I shall see more of them, however, at a ball to be given presently. I know some little details of dress, &c., will amuse. What will my pet say to a rich black silk Watteau dress, all looped and curtained up, all over embroidery, with a crimson Spanish petticoat seen below, and the black all lit up here and there with the most delicate little lines and edging of crimson? It is as delicate as a Cardinal's undress. What will I say? I hear my pet answer. It would cost half a year's salary. Then what will she say to a faint amber-coloured summer dress, all looped and hanging in festoons, with a pale blue and white petticoat? This is, indeed, dressing in water colour, and both are American. There is another, a sort of pale sprite of a fairy, so white and delicate are her cheeks, so lustrous her eyes, so artificial the effect. She is all eternal smiles and giggling, and writhing and twistings of the neck, a favourite part of American pantomime. Her dress is becomingly short, and the oft-quoted Sir John Suckling's line is abolished, and ladies feet do not, like little mice, "run in and out;" but rather arrogantly display themselves peacock-like, as ostentatiously as they can. We might find patterns here for the plumage of all the birds of the air, from the flamingo downward; with a good deal of damaged ware, which I would not for the world my pet saw, but this is only more of the work of the Mephistopheles company yonder. To think, again I say, that these pure blessings, these life-giving springs, sent to give strength and innocence, all to be turned into fresh agents for attracting villany and vice. Was there ever such diabolical perversity!