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

Chapter X.

Tuesday.—An interval of some days has passed without my writing a line. The fact is, the hours are running by so fast, and so many little events crowd into the day, that I have hardly time to do anything. I have even got a little backward in my letters to my pet. I have been making a sort of study of this mysterious and dangerous science of chances, which is luring all these poor souls to destruction. It is one of the most curious subjects of inquiry, and there can be no doubt that there is more in it than the common vulgar affectation of superior knowledge will admit. If I could but freshen up my old mathematics, I could work the thing out regularly. The doctor tells me that having something of interest thus to amuse and occupy the mind is the real secret of my improvement. I could have told him that. Shall I own to another discovery I have made, viz., that when Mephistopheles is playing for souls, he does it with tolerable fairness. I constantly hear men, Englishmen too, going out with flushed faces, and muttering, "Pack of d—d swindlers—set of cheats!" Now, a very narrow scrutiny compels me to own that their dealings are fair, or seem fair. Shall I go further, and say that they really seem to put themselves at a disadvantage with those they encounter. That, of course, is their business, not mine. I spent four hours the other morning watching the game, and I suppose riddled some half a dozen cards with pin-holes. The result was the same in the main. I see the system like a revelation, adding to it, from experience, this rider: the splendid girt of self-restraint. There they all break down; they cannot halt in time, even for five minutes. One would be tempted to go and whisper this simple recipe to each one of the poor dupes who are rushing down this fatal hill; but it is not my business. Quem Deus vult perdere. I could not save them, though he could. I see at these little seats of extortion—the stalls where they sell photographs and ornaments at literally double the price they can be had anywhere else—I see absolute treatises on the game. One a serious volume at twenty francs; the others little handbooks at a franc, giving "a sure and infallible method for winning." These little impostures were diverting from the solemn tables set out and the grand terms. "The intermittance," "series," and the oracular advice. The qualities requisite for the gambler are to be "courage, vigour, élan, coolness, and insensibility." "System," above all, must be pursued (and so far I go with him); "otherwise," he adds, gravely, "you will indeed remain a simple player (joueur), but you will never become speculateur." He fills pages with his various recipes, but at the end announces that without a capital of some four thousand florins you will not have "a secure base of operation to work from." And yet I see this rubbish in the hands of many a poor fool; and, what is more, I see many a greater fool sitting industriously with his book and two pencils, one red and one black, marking the colours. One dreadful old fellow, who is nearly blind, has a complete apparatus—a little dial, mounted on a pincushion, and bristling all over with red and black-headed pins, which he shifts about, and not for half an hour, perhaps, will the safe combination he so desires, arise, and then he plays his miserable florin. Of course he loses, as indeed I could have told him. I was almost tempted to lay my hand upon his arm and check him; but, as I have said so often, that is not my business.

Sometimes I see a comic incident—the table laden with gold and covered with billets, and the croupier touching each with the magic rake, repeating aloud the sums staked. "L'or va au rouleau!" (This always in a growl, as who should say, "We have you.") "Vin-sang louis au bilyet!" (This in a mournful manner of expostulation, as who should say, "Why not all the bilyet?") And "Mœtyez à la masse!" (This very sharp and short, like the click of a trigger before firing.) An humble fellow has laid down his double Frederick, a good stake, but modest, seeming more than it is among the surrounding magnificence. The dealer is about to begin, when, in a fit of compunction, the man calls out, "Moitié à la masse!" and causes a perfect roar in the gallery. Yet these men had their hundred and two hundred louis, their "maximoom" even, depending on the deal. So they laughed and went to play, when the guillotine was at its hardest work.

The gardens are getting dull enough; I grow tired of the regularity of the music, coming at that one hour. Yet there are people who stay here the whole winter.

A letter from my pet, lying on the table, waiting for me. Very long and full of news. I shall paste it in this place.

"My own dearest Alfred,—God in his infinite mercy be thanked and praised, for the delightful news each one of your dear letters brings us. Such unhoped-for blessing from Homburg, and, indeed, shall I confess it, when I parted from you, I had a horrid, miserable, presentiment, that it was to be the last time I was ever to see that dear face again. I did not let you know the agonies I was suffering. For it was for your own dear health, though I had not the least hope that it would be benefited. But thank God that it is so. Now I shall say no more, on that.

"How charming, how amusing, how interesting is your diary, dearest Alfred! I have read no novel that comes near to it for interest. So acute, so full of observation, such a knowledge of human character. It brings the whole scene before me; these dreadful people, and that terrible play, and what a picture! it comes back on me at nights in dreams, and I see their distorted faces, and the agonies of the poor creatures. And to think of these wicked, cruel, creatures fattening on the innocent! Such life and character, it is too graphic. That figure of the tight-laced man walking about is a portrait, and so is that of that cold-blooded Mr. D'Eyncourt. I have read it over two or three times to our little darlings, at least the portions they are likely to understand, and they laughed so. Mr. ——, our dear friend and benefactor, was greatly amused, and said in a joking way, we should see you turning gambler yourself, you were so violent against them. He took their part and said they were no more than a registered—just like any of our railway or banking-companies, who took the money of widows and orphans, and there was nothing said about it.

"Oh, how strange, how wonderful your meeting Grainger. Poor Grainger! I suppose I may call him now. Indeed I feel for him, and you can tell him so from me, for I have much to reproach myself about him. I was very foolish then and thought that amusing myself with gentlemen was the most entertaining thing in the world, as you said once to me, 'having a number of the scalps hanging at my waist.' Do tell him I hope he has quite forgiven me.

"Dearest, I write the above for you to show to Grainger. Do not, I conjure you, offend him in any way, for I know, which you cannot know, he never has forgiven me, or never will forgive me. I saw enough of him to know that he is vindictive; and indeed he threatened, the very last interview, that he would live to punish you, and me, through you. This, indeed, is making me most uneasy, and I do wish he was not there, or you away. But there is only ten days more, thank Heaven; so be very kind to him, or if you see that is no good, keep him at a distance."

My poor little Dora! What a wonderful head it has, peopled with nightmares. Let me point out to her the inconsistency of her previous little advice:

"Be very kind to him, and keep him at a distance." She must send me a recipe for this mysterious double duty; for, for the life, I don't know how to begin it. There is a smack of the country town in it; but I am afraid for the world its little advice is not of the soundest. Dearest, affection is your strong point, outside that charmed circle, I am afraid—but I won't say any more.

"Mr. B—— joins me in this warning. He says that everything that you have written about Grainger bears out what I fear. The man is trying to get an influence over you for ends of his own. He says it is transparently clear, and is going to write to you himself to be on your guard. He has seen more of the world, dearest, and, as I say, he has entirely based his opinion on these little points, which he says 'were unconsciously revealed' in your diary."

Now, here again I must pause to give a little lecture to my pet. This history was meant entirely for her own gentle eyes; in it I unfold my most secret thoughts and speculations. I confess I did not think it would be exhibited to Mr. ——, benefactor as he is of mine, and as I must call him. Through every mind are coursing the strangest inconsistencies, wishes, plans, ideas, which one would be ashamed to admit the existence of to any one, save the dearest. Outwardly the wise man will not let such interior feelings affect his actions. So in future, I trust my darling won't exhibit my nonsense to any one, especially as it has brought me into discredit with Mr. ——, who, you see, has formed already rather a low opinion of my strength of mind. I am sorry he thinks so poorly of me, yet he is welcome indeed. For never, never can I forget the kindness he has loaded me with. He has saved my life, and saved our little home; for I shall return strong and healthy, please God. Still he does not know me, nor what a discipline I have subjected myself to all my life.

What oddities there are in these various foreign countries, and nothing more odd here than this—Homburg itself is quite Protestant, with about fifty Catholics or so; yet we walk across a few fields and we come upon a purely Catholic little village called Kirdorff, in which it is said there is not a single Protestant. In another direction three miles off, there is a village as purely Huguenot, composed entirely of French Protestants, who talk in some mysterious compound of old French and German. These, I say, seem what a precise English friend called "quite refreshing ethnological eccentricities." From Kirdorff comes news that a German archbishop is to preach and confirm on Sunday. It was a pleasant walk in the fresh air of a morning that seemed to hide its face coquettishly under a thin veil and whisper, "By-and-by you will see my face in all its splendour." A queer little German village of thick raw reds and greens which are so uncomfortable to look at, good houses built of very rude bricks and framework; but a really fine church with two tall spires. In this little spot, whose street winds and turns a great deal, they have tried in their honest simple way to do honour to their visitor. There are green triumphal arches of fir, surmounted each with a cross, and every house is festooned with green garlands of fir. The whole town was literally gathered in this handsome church; not a head was in any window; the men at one side, grim, rather gaunt creatures, and the women at the other side. It had all the air of a little village festival—innocent, pretty, fervent, with the rows of young girls in white and flowers, waiting for confirmation. Now the archbishop, a tall figure with a good massive head, is preaching with extraordinary earnestness, and gestures, and tones, which are really new and dramatic, and which at home might enliven some of our sermons. Then the rude German voices are raised in their favourite hymns, given out with stentorian power, moving slowly and lumberingly, but still with fine effect. I cannot but think if the gang of money changers yonder, whose rival temple I can see from the porch, who if they were driven out, as they shortly will be, would not scruple to set their infamous wheels and tables in this sacred precinct, should no other place be found. The contrast was indeed wonderful; but I am a little staggered by seeing next me a very notorious croupier, with his little boy and a hymn-book in his hand. The respectable name of "the Bank" I suppose has blinded him. I am glad to see all the carriages in Homburg have driven out to this form at Mortfleurs, and I can make out at the top some fair English girls who do not belong to that fold; but who look on with a respectful attention.