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

Chapter V.

Monday.—I am not sorry I adopted that resolution of forswearing the Kursaal, its reading-rooms, &c., though I did see Mr. Lewis, the clergyman of the English chapel, going in and sitting down, and reading his Galignani. Can he know what he is doing? He is on the spot, a resident, and it is, as it were, in his parish; at all events it is his concern. I even saw him enter from the colonnade, go Tip the steps into the great tavern entrance and pass through. He was looking for some one. Still, if I were to refine on the matter, this garden where I am now, is theirs, kept by their gardeners. This very seat on which I sit, was paid for by them. What do you say, Dora? Send me some little bit of casuistry to help me over the matter . . . .

What scenes I do see, even so far off as I am now; hints, as it were, of a whole history. Thus have I come in late to a theatre, and, standing in the box lobby, have peeped in through the little glass window in the door. That glimpse has a strange mystery, from the fact of all having been worked up to a point. The situation seems changed, while we who look are in quite another region—a long way behind, as it were. I have noticed a fair-haired youth with a gold "pinch-nose," and who is certainly not more than twenty, and on his arm is a charming little French girl of seventeen, round and rosy, and dressed in the most piquant way imaginable. I soon found out that they are just married, not further back than a month. They were supremely happy, like children running from one thing to another, and enjoying everything with a charming happiness and animation. He wore a straw-coloured silk coat and white hat. She, a most coquettish little hat and a pink and white short dress. On the first day I had noticed them standing at the mouth of what I call the "yawning cave," hesitating gently, she looking in with the strangest air of curiosity, half in amazement, half in awe. Then I see them go in, and somehow that seems, by a sort of instinct, to be for me the beginning of something that would end tragically. The look of supreme happiness seemed, I suppose, to imply a contrast and supplement of disaster. In half an hour I saw them come back, she triumphant, fluttering—he with a complacent and boyish smile, looking at something bright in his hand. She skipped and danced and clapped her hands. I supposed they had won. They were children, and I had a surprising interest in them—I know not why . . . . I dined to-day at the Four Seasons Hotel, which at these places, is always said to be a most gay and festive looking hotel, with orange trees in front, and a kind of scene-painting air. So an old gentleman, who had been all round the watering places, told me. He could not account for it, he said, but "there it was." I accounted for it to him by the invincible power of names. Give a girl, I said, a pretty and romantic name, like Geraldine, or Dorcas, or Violet, and she will be sure in some degree to fall into the key of that pretty music. He did not seem to see it, but grunted and moved away from me. Another man said, "he supposed it paid," which did not touch the matter. Their table d'hôtes are certainly the most festive way of eating a dinner. There is such variety in the faces, such pretty, intellectual, stupid, heavy faces—faces, indeed, that seem to have been turned all day long towards that dinner, and wistfully expecting it. A long narrow room, yet so bright and airy, and looking on the street; I can fancy nothing so cheerful. Every one is in good humour; and even the waiters have a festive air, principally, I believe, from their being boys and boyish, as is the custom here, and not the mouldy, ancient, clumsy-legged, clumsy-fingered veterans who do duty with us. And what a good dinner—what a choice of wine, instead of our limited sherry, and claret, and "Bass." The little flasks dot the table down. The affenthaler ordinary, but good; the yellow hocks, infinite in variety; the better Assmanhauser, and the hockheimer sparkling, all at such moderate prices. I see complete families pour in, and take up position in line, father, stout mother, pleasant daughters, and the conceited son. Then the dinner sets in like a torrent; all those pleasan German dishes. Those vegetables which we know not of in England, and best of all, those delicious fowls, wherewith arrives the late but welcome salad. It does seem to me that it arrives at the precise and fitting moment, with a pleasant sense of expectancy going before it, he and his friend, the fowl. My dear Dora will hardly think that this can be her old invalid that is speaking.

On this day I find myself seated next to the little husband and wife of the morning, who come in full of delight and satisfaction and smiling, they know not why. I confess I am glad to be near so much innocence, and also on account of a little scheme I have in view. With such a pair, it is not difficult to begin a conversation. They were glad of the sympathy. My dear Dora knows that my stock of French is tolerably respectable, and that I can put it to fair use. They spoke together, and told me everything about themselves. They were not rich, but had enough. They were enjoying themselves so. It was the most delicious place in the world. "It was Heaven itself," she said; "and do you know," she added, "all the money we made—that is, he made—to-day, and so easily—eight napoleons; and out of it he bought me this sweet little brooch." And she showed on her breast what was certainly a very charming little ornament. This naïveté and her agreeable prattle began to interest me a great deal; but I could see there was in him a certain boyish self-sufficiency—a latent idea that this gaming success was chiefly owing to his own cleverness. He talked very wisely about the principles. I quietly ventured to hint that luck might change, as it did so often and so fatally. But he only laughed. Just as dinner was nearly over, a friend sent in to him; he went out, and I was left with the charming little wife. Something inspired me to seize the opportunity and give a little warning to this interesting young creature.

"Your husband," I said, "seems quite excited about his success; but may I give you a piece of advice? This beginning ends always in the same way. You know not how fatal is this spell, once it gets any influence. This rage for play, if it takes possession of any one, destroys all else—love, happiness, everything else. I know it, and every one here knows it." This way of putting it was a little artful, and I saw it had great effect. The pretty face looked a little scared. I went on. "I speak sincerely and in your interest, though I am a mere stranger; and I do advise you and warn you to take care and not encourage your husband in this pursuit. There is no harm done as yet, and be content with your little spoils." This may seem a little too indulgent, too complacent, to the evil practice, against which I have sworn war to the knife, to the death, and from which, with the blessing of Heaven, I shall rescue many. But such a foe it is pardonable to meet with craft like his own.

He had come back, but I saw she had grown thoughtful. It was something to do a little bit of good, even in this cheap way. I see them at night, hovering about the yawning entrance to the cave, she, with a little hesitation, whispering him earnestly, and looking in with trepidation. They do not see me. They walk away, but, alas, come back, and enter.