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

Chapter VIII.

It is a busy time indeed. There is clatter, rattle, click-click, sudden pause, almost awful, a low proclamation, and then the setting in of chink and jingle; such crowds—half a dozen deep about the table; while outside promenade as thickly the well-dressed girls and ladies; the stupid men who are pouring into pretty ears their insipid jests, but which they are not to be blamed for thinking racy from the hearty reception they meet; the eager and amused first visitors, delighted and confounded with everything, and chuckling with a stupid complacency over the privilege of being allowed to enjoy those lights and gorgeous chambers, soft sofas, and amusement, all for nothing! There are mean minds to whom this element is a sort of whet. (I hear my dear pet at home say, as she reads, that I am getting a little bitter; but this place does help to give one a mean estimate of human nature.) But I look round and try to make out Grainger. I wander from one table to the other. Certainly on this night of excitement there can be no such study as these human faces and expressions, especially at the moment the cards are being dealt. Not at chapel or church, if the Doctor Seraphicus himself were preaching, could we find five seconds of such absorbed expectancy and attention. The heart, soul, all, are in the faces. Suddenly, as the verdict sounds—light, positive light, drifts over some, and a positive shadow over others; shocking, shocking, yet so interesting. Talk of a play! I could look on here from morning to night. It has endless variety, and I must be very straight-laced if I could not do so with that object, the study of human character, merely in view. By the way, the doctor said I was to relax, and amuse myself in every way. I suppose he meant to gamble, but that prescription, my good quack, won't do for me. I have certainly been moping a little. There I see a greater crowd—faces all looking at one face, gutteral whispers—"way"—so the Germans call "oui"—"zest luay!" I can understand—a hero of the night—a worn, lorn creature—a sad, highbrowed, bald, gentlemanly man, fighting the desperate fight, standing up to the very teeth of the bank. He was playing what seems the forlorn hope—"le maximoom" twelve thousand francs, every time; and a fat, clean, snowy cushion of notes was before him, delicately marked in faint blue, and as thick as the leaves of a book. On this night, Mephistopheles is playing one of his most cruel freaks, and one which he is very fond of. This votary has been winning during the previous few days, and, it is said, has carried off some six or eight thousand pounds. The pinch-faced ecclesiastical looking overseer walks about uneasily, and has regarded him with dislike all but openly expressed. But to-night I can see the bale of notes shifting across from one colour to the other, ruthlessly seized on, counted over with an ostentatious particularity, note after note laid out in splendid piles, and the trifling balance tossed back contemptuously. Then I see him gathering up his dwindling notes, turn them over with a pitiable irresolution, and then lay them down on another colour. Again is proclamation made; away they flutter, drawn in by the merciless far-stretching croupier's claw; and I see his yellow fingers working nervously at his forehead, which is as yellow. Then comes the sudden scrape as the chair is pushed back, and he is gone. No one cares for the unsuccessful, and no eye of sympathy, rather a look of impatient contempt, follows him.

But Grainger! Then it was my eye fell upon him, seated close by, a few gold pieces before him, his face distorted with impatience, fury, and hate. Indeed, it seemed another Grainger, or that a new soul had entered into him. It almost startled me; but still I recollected what I had laid out for myself. I went round softly and touched him: he looked back savagely.

"Well?" he said.

"Come away, do; I want to speak to you."

"Is that all? Then don't worry me now."

"Do listen to me, Grainger. Come, do."

"Confound it, leave me alone, will you. What the devil do you mean?" Such demoniac fury!

The clergyman was right after all. I had been only deceiving myself, and with a bitter disappointment I turned away. In an instant I was attracted by a sudden confusion and din of voices, all speaking together. There was Grainger standing up, his arms swinging, and gesticulating; his mouth pouring out angry French. Three croupiers were as vehemently expostulating, and pointing, and emphasising with their rakes. They have not paid him, he says. They have cheated—swindled him! The "gallery," as they call the people standing round, take different sides; and now steals up, as if from behind a tree, that methodist-looking inspector, whose skin is drawn so tight, and whose clothes are so brushed, by machinery I think. He quietly whispers Grainger, no one can learn what he says; but I see his head nodding like the bill of a sparrow. That man's soul, I suspect, is as tight as his skin and clothes. I suppose he is worth his six or seven hundred a year to the administration. What he says seems to awe Grainger—already the gamblers are impatient at all this tapage about a few wretched louis, when there are little hillocks of gold, metallic ant-hills, rising all over the table.

The croupier seizes the moment. The cards are being dealt, and after that there can be no more row. Here again Mephistopheles and his crew have such an advantage. For in analogous relations, the crowd is sure to take part with one of themselves, but no one here knows what the next coup may bring; and in that expectancy, selfishness grows impatient and sides with the bank. I admire the dexterity with which the meaner human passions are thus turned to profit, and every little broil composed.

I turn away not a little disgusted. Certainly the strangest and most dramatic of scenes, and not unprofitable to study. See here, for instance, a little dingy shop-woman, with her two children over yonder on the sofa, perhaps selling candles and tobacco; in her brown thread gloves she has her "little florin." The dull anxiety in her German face is surprising. Down goes the piece on "manque," and I see her look away as the ball spins round. Her heart, I am sure, almost stops. She hears, but does not see, the result. The smile of delight is exquisite—she tries again—again succeeds—and again succeeds. Now she is over at the sofa showing her three prizes lying in the brown thread gloves. How she had clutched at them over the shoulder of the genteel player sitting, and who shakes her off impatiently, and half gives an execration. He has forty louis before him; but she was afraid that if she was not prompt, he or some other greedy player would seize on her little treasure. Then she returns full of triumph, flushed with victory. She watches and waits a favourable opportunity; but Mephistopheles has seen her with one of his grins—she loses her first piece, a palpable agony flits across her face. She tries again. Zero! Her little piece is in prison; something like agony is in that dull face. The next turn it is gone, she is trying again, but will lose. Oh, if she had been only content to remain as she was! The very air must be dense with ejaculations of this sort wrung from a thousand disappointed hearts.

Over yonder I see the young girl sitting disconsolate, and with such a wistful look towards the table. She is waiting for him. He is playing—Mephistopheles needn't trouble himself about that business. It is in fair train of itself, and will move on to his wishes, of its own motion.

As I go out on the cool terrace some one touches my arm.

"I owe you a hearty apology," he said, "for my roughness. Once we begin there, we lose all restraint."

I answered coldly, "that it was no matter."

"But it is matter," he said angrily; "I gave you a right to speak to me, and I met you most unworthily. I had some excuse, for the interruption brought about the row that you saw. I suppose your well-meant caution cost me only ten louis; but say you are not angry."

There was something very winning in his manner, and I could not resist him.

"But I thought you were going to give this up?" I said. "You led me to hope I had some influence."

During our absence a strange metamorphosis had taken place in the gardens. They had become crammed, and below us was a dense mass of merry figures, but now all lit up. In the daytime I had noted trees dotted about that seemed like palm-trees with drooping branches. It was a rare "administration" device to line these with gas-pipes, and hang white globes over them, up and down. When they treat our poor human nature as they do, it is only, all of course, that they should deal with the glorious fruits of the earth in the same fashion. Gas and paint, and gilding, and gewgaws, these make up this sunlight, and grass greens, and variegated colours of nature. To the fresh breath of Heaven, they prefer the miasma of their crowded gaming-room. I daresay, M. D——, the superintendent, finds it suits his lungs better than the most bracing mountain atmosphere, and I suppose goes to Baden or Spa for his holiday. However, here I see the whole garden lit up with these trumpery illuminated gas arches and stars, and meagre hearts, and such things, and the crowd amused and delighted like children, as they are. Qu'il est beau! Vraiment c'est magnifique! and how generous and liberal this administration! All for nothing; says old paterfamilias—the same who sits on the Times, while he reads the Daily News, and little dreams that his eldest, Charles, has already paid this generous board some five-and-twenty napoleons "on the red," which alone would defray the cost of several of these festivities. But when the band begins the last galop with éclat and animation, and some half a dozen cheap Bengal lights are stuck in the trees, poor innocent trees! and made to fizz and blaze, then the enthusiasm bursts out; a perfect roar of childish delight rises, and we hear again how "beau," how "magnifique," this conduct is on the part of the administration. I am far from joining in these praises; I think them shabby and contemptible to a degree, with their few jets of gas, and their newspapers, and their chairs, for which nearly every one has to pay more or less handsomely. Nay, I have discovered that there is not a young girl, the most blushing, blooming, and innocent, who comes here, that does not coax papa for three florins or so, "just to try my luck, my dear," and which is swept into the hands of these monsters. Now, even Thomas, the valet, and poor Cox, the ladies' maid, they have stolen up and contributed their two hard earned gulden. Ah, M. D——, with the pinched nose and the drum-tight skin, decent and respectable as you are, gérant en chef of the company, or what you call yourself, do you think that if we had you in England, you would not be committed for trial summarily, and your correct demeanour would only go to influence the verdict of the jury. This fellow, I can see, observes the look of dislike with which I measure him—there is a rapport in these things as well as in likings—and I can see he is thinking, "You are coming into our net, my boy; we shall strip you, and that will teach you not to be offensive to the administration. You want a lesson."

Talking to Grainger last night, on the only subject on which he can talk fluently, a short stumpy man with a jet, glossy, hair-dresser beard and moustache, a little hat, and coat very short, also comes up and says languidly, "How do, Grainger?" He then sat down in front of us, leant back, drawing at his cigar with half-closed eyes, and moving his cane up and down between his knees in a sort of slow dance.

"Well, D'Eyncourt," said Grainger, "I went back to those infernal tables, in spite of the advice of my good friend, which I had determined to follow."

"Pretended to determine to follow," he answered, with a slow drawl. "Tell the truth always, and shame—our friends inside yonder."

I never saw a face I disliked more, it was so tallowy, and then the little eyes were quite flat and oval, and exactly of the pattern we see in a pig. I was going to say "cat;" but the head had not the character which a cat has. He had a sort of Turkish air, and I had often remarked him as he looked at ladies passing by, with an inert blinking, as though he were saying, "I bring you to me; if I chose to exert myself, you could not resist, but you are not worth it." He was a solitary man, though sometimes I saw him seated with a family of girls about him, his head back, his pig's eyes blinking at them, the words dropping languidly from his mouth, as who should say, "I just serve you out a few marbles, you are not worth more, and mind—I am doing this to amuse myself."

He had been a traveller, and the glossy locks were said to take a good deal of time to keep in that rich and glossy state.

"You say very queer things," said Grainger. "Only that we know you."

"No you don't; I want no excuse of that sort. I say what I like."

"Then some one will be punishing you one of these days."

The only answer was a sleepy look of contempt, which seemed to make Grainger uneasy.

"My friend here," he said, "believes in systems; my friend Austen, who has come here for his health."

The other never looked at me a second, or seemed to acknowledge this ambiguous introduction. "You have always played on a system," he drawled out, "and with such success!"

"I never lost, but when I did. Curse them all! They are the devil's own mousetraps and spring-guns."

"You know best about him," said the other. "But you have stumbled on a truth for once—of course too late. You point a moral here; the good show you to their sons as a warning. If I was the administration, I'd pay you to go away or to keep out of sight."

"You speak to me in a very strange way. If I didn't owe you money——"

"Say nothing then about it, as the situation must continue."

I felt, indeed, for Grainger; there was something so studied in this insolence; and I could not resist whispering a question: "Is it a large sum?"

A rueful nod was the reply, and a smile, a dull smile, melted over the tallow face.

"And so you have taken up a system—the last resource? Well, well."

"I did not say I had," replied Grainger. "My friend here, Mr. Austen, believes in it. Let me introduce him, Mr. D'Eyncourt."

Grainger seemed to find some revenge in this little stroke. I was provoked, and did not wish to know this man.

"Well, what is the system?" he said, without looking at me.

"I have nothing of the kind; only I noticed that everybody who lost to-night seemed to play very wildly, now on this, on that, without any guide."

"And pray what is the guide you have found out?"

"There can be nothing that you can call a guide; but it seems to me common sense that if one colour has been coming up a great many times, we may naturally begin to look out for the other."

"Oh, that's common sense is it?" he said, taking his cigar out of his mouth. "It may be so, I never pretend to say what is common sense or not. Still there are thousands who have thought of what you have said, thousands; in fact, every beginner invariably makes that discovery, after he has won three or four florins."

"You quite mistake. I am no beginner."

"Well, say a napoleon. It's the regular speech. The regulation discovery. Take my advice, keep your napoleon, and let your system go."

"I really don't understand," I said coldly. "I have never played, and with the grace of Heaven never shall indulge in what I think wrong and sinful."

He looked at me curiously. "I have nothing of course to do with that. In the church, I see."

"But for the mere theory," I went on, "I am right. I know something of mathematics, of the common chances of every day life, and every man of science will tell you that a rule is better than no rule."

"You are wrong, my dear friend," said Grainger; "utterly. Your man of science is a donkey in these matters. It is one of the invariable delusions of this place. You will find out in time."

"Look at this card," I said, warmly, "which I marked as the game went on, from curiosity, just to test the thing."

"From curiosity, just to test the thing," said D'Eyncourt. "Yes?"

"Well, see, it falls into the shape—exactly as I said. There is a proof."

"Oh! the card and pin," said he, with an air of superiority I could have struck him for. "Everybody appeals to that. Really this uniformity is delicious."

"Come away, Grainger," I said, feeling I could hardly control myself. "Let us have some supper."

As we walked away, Grainger said, "My dear friend, he's right. You can't understand these things so well. Your experience don't go beyond a sixpenny roulette table on a race-course. But here we do things en grand, you see."

"I am right," I said coldly.

"I wish you were. Well, when do you go on to Frankfort?"

When we got home I found a letter on the table from the German gentleman. He has at last returned, and will see me to-morrow morning. This looks like business. No letter for some days from my pet, which makes me a little uneasy. Not that I shall be uneasy—no matter what she may think, as she reads this. For I use these little "trials of the third class," as I call them, as so many opportunities for wholesome discipline, for keeping the mind straight and steady, hardening it to imaginary woes, strengthening and giving a tone to the judgment. I am right also, in my judgment, whatever that languid upstart may think.