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

Chapter XI.

Saturday.—I am getting more and more entertained every hour with the spectacle here. Again I repeat there would seem to be no such dramatic touchstone to bring out human nature and human character. If one had but a window in every forehead! The strangest thing is the utter ignorance and wildness of these poor dupes, who play on without principle or approach to system. So simple, so easily attainable, and yet it occurs to no one. This morning I win eight times in succession. In spirit I mean. I paste the card in here as a little relic, and as a proof of my forecasting powers. The marks show when I played—I mean in spirit.

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My pet will see this at a glance, that the two colours really alternate in equal batches. Had I been one of the players—just to give you an idea of the easy way the money is made—I should have earned enough in ten minutes to have paid all our year's rent.

This morning, when we are all doing our procession at the wells, that agreeable man of God, the Dean of ——, comes up to me, with that smug obsequiousness which he has unconsciously got to exhibit to inferiors, from the habit of always addressing lords and baronets.

"I saw your name," he said, "in the Fremdenliste, and at once thought you must be one of the Edward Austens of Berkshire. Am I right—the member?"

"Yes," I said; "my father was Edward Austen, the member."

"Good gracious! I was sure of it. How wonderful are the ways"—he was going to add "of Providence!" but more decorously substituted, "the ways—ahem—we find people turning up!"

Of course he had not heard of my fall in the world, or, if he had, thought it was one of those genteel bits of ruin which don't affect people of condition. He was a great man at a charity sermon, and very strong "against Rome." We walked up and down together, he chattering all the time, with every now and again a nod and "How d'ye do?" to some one. After which he would get abstracted, and look after that lord uneasily—I think meditating whether there was likely to be a vacancy beside the lord, when he might join in. I remember a sermon by this dignitary of extraordinary warmth and power, on the text, "Go up higher," which, in his own life, he illustrated forcibly; and I believe the true bearing for him of the text was unconsciously this: "he that humbleth himself" was to do so, through the hope of being exalted. I dare say I do him wrong in this, for he was a charitable man; but certainly loved a lord a little too much. He asked me, "to make one of their party" at dinner at the Shepherdess, a mean, obscure place, which some irreverent people always called "that pot-house of a place," but where "the swells" were fond of planning dinners. Is not this the world all over? Some obscure spot or thing is taken up by "ladies of quality"—no matter what discomfort or stupidity follows—the world pronounces it charming, and would give their poor battered souls—the cheapest thing they have—to get there.

I went to the Shepherdess that evening, and found ten people at the dean's table. Only one lord—the salt of the earth—but certainly some "nice people," as he would call them. The dinner was bad enough, as, indeed, Mr. Boxwell, a hearty jovial member of parliament, said plainly.

"In fact, my dear dean, what surprises me altogether is to find you in this queer place at all."

"Find me here," repeated the dean—"find me here! Surely there are the nicest people—Lord ——, Lady ——, and Sir John; why, there is nothing queer about them."

"I don't mean that; but I was thinking of a sermon I have heard of yours, on 'Responsibility,' and all that, and how one preached more by simply not saying a word, than by regular sermons. A capital idea, by the way, which I wish was carried out in all our churches."

"Oh, that's all very well," said the dean.

(I know these conversations amuse my pet, and I try to recollect scraps of them as nearly as possible.)

"In short, it is so droll to find all the good people gathered here—aprons, shovels, white ties, gaiters, high collars, holy faces—all clustered about a common gambling-house. You can call it Kursaal, and all that, and talk of the croupier and such dignified names; but we know, if the great Blanc himself took a scrubby room in St. James's-street, the police would just burst in, and drag him and his croupiers with unnecessary violence before Sir Thomas Henry, who would refuse bail."

I enjoyed this thoroughly. These are my own views, only put so much better. But the dean was a shrewd man, and when he saw we were all listening, said: "Oh, we come for our healths. We are ordered here, sir—our health. Those people have nothing to do with us. And, to tell you the truth, I don't look at it in that way at all. They tell me it is all perfectly fair and above board; and I hear the good they do, the sums they give away in charity, is something incalculable. The widows and the orphans of the place come to them, and never go away empty."

I was astonished to hear such careless language from a man in so responsible a position, and could not resist saying, "But how many a widow and orphan, Mr. Dean, have they made destitute? How many households have they filled with desolation? The ruin they have caused spreads over every land, and many and many are the dismal messengers they have dismissed to English homes with hopeless news. No, their wretched alms, which they are forced to pay, is no compensation for this wholesale pillage."

I spoke warmly, and the dean looked at me with distrust. "That is all very good and sound, and we are all agreed, of course: but we must take things as we find 'em. These people found out the wells here, and worked 'em, and developed 'em. If I was inclined to a little sophistry or casuistry, Mr. Austen, I would ask you, wouldn't the myriads of rheumatic and dyspeptic fathers whom they have restored to health—the thousands of wasting daughters to whose cheeks the what-d'ye-call-'em—Le Wheez'un"—so he pronounced it—"Well has brought back colour; the number of homes it has made happy! Is not all this a sort of compensation for the weak-minded, demoralised gambler, whom they justly punish? And serve 'em right too. Now, Mr. Austen."

"That's putting it very well, dean," said the member, laughing; "and, if I don't mistake, Mr. Austen has benefited amazingly himself by the gambling waters."

"Oh, no," said the dean, "there is too much cant about all this. There, we must take them as we find 'em. My stockbroker, worthy man, gives money to schools, holds plates, and all that—but he gambles on the Exchange, and wins; and who does he win from? From some one who has, perhaps, lost his all. He made a hundred thousand pounds in Italian stock the other day. Some poor wretch sold in the panic, and was destroyed. Well. He bought his stock. Look at the merchants. Look at Lord ——, who made the last bishop, why he games on the turf. My good sir, if we're to go about setting right everything we see or think wrong, why the world might as well stop. We might all shut up. We must give and take."

I was indignant to hear such indifference from one in his sacred position—no heart, no earnestness—and I answered, warmly: "But, Mr. Dean, when we see this place crowded with holy—I mean with officially holy—men, is there not something more expected than giving and taking? What do we hear? Not a word, not a protest, not a denunciation of the wickedness going on about us; no thunderings from the pulpit. I cannot understand it. Surely, if we could suppose a Whitfield, or a Wesley, or a Knox, or a Luther were found here——"

"Heaven forbid!" said the member of parliament. "The place would get too hot for me! Come, we have had enough of this wine and of the Shepherdess; and to show that I quite approve of the dean's good sense, I am going up to the gambling-rooms now, to try what can be done with a napoleon."

As we went out the dean spoke to me very testily, as if he were sore and wincing under my thrust.

"You are a little too highflying, my friend," he said, "and not exactly cut out for a reformer. Believe me there is no harm in following the general consensus of leading men. You see all the distinguished personages here, lay and clerical, neither protest nor approve. They go their own way. Joshua was the only one who succeeded in stopping the sun. Above all, let us look at home, and keep a guard over ourselves. While you are busy giving directions, and helping the old ladies across the street, saving them from the omnibuses, you yourself may be run over."

And these are the pastors for the poor sheep of England; smooth words to make everything comfortable, and macadamise the road to salvation. This man is sure to be a bishop. Well, I shall say no more after this. He has taken no notice of me since.