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

Chapter XII.

Monday the sixth.—The more I look about me in this strange world, and certainly in this strangest of places, the more do I feel that it is good for me morally to be here. For my weak but well meaning soul, it has the effect of bracing, nerving, cold water. I shall return home strengthened and invigorated. I am not at all sorry to have passed by these furnaces without being scorched. The man who shuts himself up, and turns away his eyes, is discreet, and if he knows himself to be weak all is right. Nay, a greater authority than I has written, he is bound to gird himself up and flee as fast as his poor tottering limbs can carry him. If I were a clergyman—a supposition I very often make, and there was some talk of it when I was a boy—I would ascend my pulpit, and preach eternally on this text. If you feel a spark of courage and strength, face the danger cautiously, practise, do as a man does who goes to a gymnasium and trains his muscles—begin to throw a half stone weight, and increases the amount by degrees. I would thunder this at the congregation until they began to think it was a monomania, as I dare say she, whose eyes will be reading this by-and-by, may herself think. Or with more indulgence she will perhaps say, "My dear, I have heard Dr. Bulmer preach far worse." Well perhaps he has, and I have no business to be dressing myself up in a surplice—en amateur. But I say again this does me good, and it will do me good again to read it, and perhaps years hence strange eyes will fall upon it, and reflect, and own, perhaps a little comically, "Well, he is the first that has got sermons, not out of stones, which would be a limited range of subject; but out of roulette and the card table, and the wolfish eyes of 'hell keepers.'" There, darling, I won't preach again until further notice.

But the truth is, I am in a sort of elation, for I did more than mere rapid preaching this day. Speech may be silvern, silence golden, but action is, after all, a diamond. Going in this night to the roulette table, I see an unusual crowd, and faces showing that stupid interest and admiration which is about as sincere as that of the crowd who stand gaping at the foolhardy Blondin, or the reckless Leotard. Fifty per cent of that crowd has a lingering and secret aspiration, that it might, if a catastrophe were to be, be only present to see it. Here I find they are staring at a tall gay Englishman, a fresh good-looking fellow in some regiment, and whose honest health and loud proclamation of the tub every morning, contrasts with the yellow, dirty faces and the niggardly economy of soap, linen, &c., which they insinuate. His play is of the boldest, not laying the table broadcast with his gold as some foolish ones do; but with a sort of instinct selecting a number here, another there, and "bedding and potting" it, as some one said, with his gold. What I delight in is his contemptuous treatment of the crew of croupiers, whom he treats as though they were mere scavengers or night men, not fit to be addressed, or as you would a dependant. He tosses them his money insolently, and makes them arrange it for him, and if they are awkward, speaks to them with a haughty arrogance that seems to exasperate them. He has won with many pieces on Zero, he has hit the number again and again, and I see the brigands' eyes of the "hell keepers," glancing at him furtively, with anger and dislike, as though they were thinking, "Shall we 'set' him with some of our bullies as he goes home to his hotel, and strip him of what he has robbed us of?" Approving faces are bent on this darling, whom Fortune in one of her caprices dandles for a few seconds in her arms, like some pretty child, and then allows to drop on the pavement. The enamelled faces of the mermaids are turned towards him; and the rustling of their fins and tail is heard, as they come swimming round a new prey. I drew near to him, and heard him tell a friend behind, "I must have got more than a thousand out of them," and a voice that I know says, in its accustomed drawl, "Now is the time then, sack 'em, and you'll have the glory of being the first to break the bank this season." I knew it seemed intrusive, but I could not resist saying, in a low voice, "Now is the time to retire. Luck always changes."

The soapstone face was stretched round to look. "Oh! Grainger's friend," he said. "This is the gentleman I was telling you of, who has the system ——"

"I have no system," I said, coolly.

"I was wrong, then, it seems," he went on. "The gentleman who preaches against the bank one day, and for his infallible system the next."

The young fellow was naturally not attending.

"Confound it!" he said. "The luck is turning. I have got nothing these last three turns. I'll take his advice, and carry off what I have bagged. Come, and let us count. Here's Grainger. Look here, Grainger, my boy!"

It was now about half-past eleven. Soon the mystic proclamation would be heard—"Aux trois derniers!" Grainger's eyes sparkled with an unholy fire of envy—possibly of disappointment, for I would not do him wrong—as he looked on the glittering treasure which the other was holding in his hand as though it were so much mould. But he turned to me suddenly.

"Here, Pollock, let me introduce a friend of mine—the hero of that little story which your brother knows."

I remembered there was a Captain Pollock in the regiment at that time, and I remember, Dora, being ludicrously jealous one night, at your dancing with him.

"Oh, indeed!" said the young fellow who had won. "I recollect. Poor Grainger was left out in the cold. But I tell you what; I'll stand a supper at Chevet's for the whole party—neat meat, neat wines, neat everything. Come, no excuse. The winner pays for all, and we'll count the cash between the courses."

Grainger was delighted. I don't set up to be a Puritan, as you know, Dora, and I always think of that saint with admiration, who used to play cards with a swearing and abandoned crew, and thus gradually acquired an influence over them. There again the complacency peeps out—an almost sacerdotal complacency. Precisely like a saint, am I not? But, again and again I repeat, this is all for your pretty eyes and my own ugly ones.

I went with them. I often say to myself, "On this day or on this night, let us have a little festival," when I have been good and deserve it; when I have been otherwise, I assure you I can be very stern and severe to myself. So we sat down and counted the gold, which was close on nine hundred napoleons. I own to a certain wrench and a yearning as I looked at it, and I think the amount of unconscious greediness—for we are all animals—in the three faces must have been overpowering. Two waiters afar off heard the chink—every ear learns that. They sniffed the dear metal as a vulture does carrion. Hungry gamblers looked up from their drink with ferocious envy. The owner alone was unconcerned.

"Confound the beggars! if I didn't think they'd swindle me, I'd have been as glad to have bank notes."

Here was the supper. D'Eyncourt—who to his other vices added that of gourmandise—spoke little and eat heartily. I confess to doing the same, and most gratefully do I owe my thanks to the Providence who has so restored me as to give me the power of enjoying moderately such things. What have I done to deserve these mercies, and not become like one of the worn-out beings who come here and drink with a faint hope of miraculously recovering their lost stomachs? We were very merry, Grainger specially so, and I suspected that the honest lad had helped his friend with a handful of what he had carried off. But D'Eyncourt's cat-like eyes fell on me several times, as if he was about to say something. He began, in his drawl:

"The more I see of you, Mr. Austen, the more you become a mystery to me."

I have put down some people before now, so I thought I would settle him before he went further.

"Curious," I said, "the more I see of you, the less you are a mystery; in fact, the first day I read you like a book."

Pollock laughed loud. "Hit you on the sternum, my boy, and right, too, though not flattering."

"Austen's mauleys come down hard when they do come down," said Grainger.

"What I was saying," said D'Eyncourt, in his slow impressive way (which I do envy him), as though he had not heard, as if he had stopped speaking to light his cigar, which was now all right—"what I say is, I don't quite understand your rôle—I mean the attitude you have to this bank. If you disapprove it, I should keep away—turn my back on Jericho—let the fiery sword do its work; but I certainly wouldn't shelter myself under their gorgeous roof, sit on their luxurious sofas, read their English newspapers, with such strong convictions. I'd be almost inclined to go to M. Blanc, the head of the thing, and tell him so boldly."

I was not sorry that he had begun in this fashion, and really wished to "tackle" him before them.

"I think," said I, smiling, "we can all imagine M. Blanc's polite and pleasant repartee, if any such well-meaning remonstrant were to present himself. But the fact is, I do not use their Times or their luxurious sofas and chairs; and as for their roof—well, I own to taking that barren advantage of them."

"Had you again—on the nob this time, D'Eyncourt," said the youth, who had already taken more wine than fitted him to be a nice judge of such effects.

"Do leave those low boxing metaphors aside, Mr. Pollock—at least among gentlemen. You mayn't be in such spirits to-morrow night. But"—turning to me—"you are not quixotic enough to expect that a still small voice like yours—I mean your conscience's—could make itself heard in this Babel? Have you such a sense of comical self-delusion that you can place yourself at that large doorway and turn back the mob of scoundrels, blackguards, roughs, cheats, jailbirds, lorettes—aye, and even decent men and women—with your faint expostulation? Do you tell us that?"

"No," I said, firmly; and then, as politely as I could, "but, first of all, suppose it was my whim; I am as much entitled to have that as any one here."

"Scarcely," he said. "As a rule, the gamblers never make themselves ridiculous."

"That's like having you, my friend," said the boy to me.

"But, apart from mere verbal quibbling," I went on, "at the risk of exposing myself to the suspicion of what is called cant—which, of course, is saying something that is moral, or religious, or improving——"

"Excuse me; the sayer being neither moral nor religious, that is cant. And you have saved me the trouble of coming to the point; for I believe that, unconsciously, you are at heart as great a gambler as any of them; and—don't be offended—you know the greatest rock is that air of selfrighteousness —'Take heed that ye deceive not yourselves.'"

"Come, no profane quoting here," said the youth, gravely.

"There is no profanity," I said, laughing; "your quotation is not in Scripture." I was in great vein now, and began to feel myself a match for him. "But supposing, now," I went on, "I succeeded in interposing between two, or one even, and their destruction, why I am foolish enough to think it worth while coming so far for that."

"For Grainger, here?" he sneered. "A brand plucked from the burning. You are the neophyte, it seems, Grainger. Well, there is a class of missionary they call 'soupers,' and who have rather a suspicious class of converts. You're genuine. You're being brought to see the light, aren't you? Seriously," he added, turning to me, "you don't mean to tell us you have touched that rocky ground?"

"Seriously," I replied, impatiently, "I don't care to discuss such things with you."

"With all my heart, though I dare say our friend Grainger has been doing a little bit of the new regeneration—the softening of this stony heart, and all that. (There is a regular dialect for all that, which I profess myself not quite up to.) I can fancy him saying to you, 'What can I do? I am led on—dragged on. I have good intentions. I was virtuous once, and I would give worlds to be back in the old innocent times—the fields, the green, the buttercup—like you, in short.' Ha, ha!"

"Ha, ha!" roared the host. "Devilish good."

It was so like what Grainger had been saying, that I turned sharply and looked at him with surprise. He was looking at D'Eyncourt with quite a wicked glare.

"There is some devilish malignity always in your ideas, D'Eyncourt," he said—a speech that was certainly just and nicely descriptive. For he might certainly guess that I had, in my poor way and by the grace of one greater than I was acting through me, made some impression on Grainger; and this artful ridicule would be precisely a fashion that Satan himself would have suggested for throwing him back.

"Come away," said D'Eyncourt; "we've had enough. Let us go in and see these honest fellows counting their money. I hope they have got a good bag to-night; they work hard enough for it, God knows—harder than many a fellow at home on his sixpence a day, and deserve every coin they get. Good luck to them! I hope they've emptied many a fool's pocket."

As we went out Grainger whispered, "You don't mind what that snarler says. He'd sneer at his dead mother. I'm bad enough, God knows——"

"Don't say a word, Grainger," I said, taking his arm; "his speeches will have very little effect on me."

We walked in to see this curious scene. With all my prejudices, I own that there is no such dramatic scene in the round of modern plays—though, on second thoughts, this is poor praise—as at the end of the long and weary day to find "the band" sitting round and counting their gains. As soon as the last deal is over I know what will come. In rush the hired bullies in their tawdry liveries, carrying brass-bound strong boxes and bags, and a large case. Other emissaries emerge, and all, as it were, fling themselves on the table. Last arrive two or three cold "bank managers," cruel looking men, with the catlike, clean-shaven, pitiless M. B., who, having been at work all day, is now in at the close, to superintend the finish, and, I suppose, gloat over an unusual booty. Everything here is more than characteristic. The henchmen artfully draw a sort of barrier of chairs, pretending to draw them away from the table, in reality a fence against me and other English gentlemen, whom they sapiently think are full of designs for pillage and sack, and note their ridiculously suspicious looks. But the robber naturally thinks every stranger one of his cloth. I would not contaminate my fingers with their gold, nor would I do as I often see some of our virtuous English do—go up obsequiously to "M. Le Croupier," and ask him to change their fifty-pound bank-note, which he does so charmingly, "spilling" out five glistening rows of gold in a second, and giving the full exchange, so different from the cormorant bankers in the town. "That gold, madam, came from the pockets of the tempted, of the falling; it was stolen, perhaps, or should have gone to the destitute or helpless; some of the moisture of a frantic agitation and despair still clings to it: and you can stoop to accept from these men the wretched four sous profit or so on each pound, and chuckle over and talk of their courtesy. No. For my little changings I am content to pay the few sous, and be under no obligations to this vice partnership.

It is really dramatic, the scene now going on. Every one is busy. Servants are under the table, with a lamp, raking up every scrap of paper—the torn cards, flung down in disgust and despair—the broken-down systems, sifting them in the hope, not often deferred, of coining on the stray note or dropped louis. Most carefully do they pry into the emptied rouleau case, for very often at the bottom lurks the forgotten piece. But they all watch each other. Men are busy at the tables gathering up large handfuls of the pure silver pieces, and with amazing dexterity are covering the whole table with squadrons and squares of them—little heaps of five, and the heaps in rows of five, and the rows of five in squares of five. So with the gold—the sovereigns in rows, the napoleons and fredericks all in regiments and apart. The notes are laid out in rows of five also. Another is busy, not breaking up the rouleaux, but weighing them one against the other; and they are regularly laid out in the same way. The banking cashing gentlemen, with spectacles on, printed forms before them, and pen in hand, are ready; when, all being ready, the senior of the place suddenly appears, and, taking a rake, taps every square of silver, and counts aloud as he goes on; in perhaps a minute has totted up the whole. Down go the figures in the forms, and then the hirelings come with the strong boxes and vast pocket-books for the notes, and shovel in all the ill-gotten gains, which are locked securely with three keys and borne away. After a good day, the pinched-faced M. B. goes out smiling and joking with his friend and brother; and, later on, turning into the superb billiard-rooms, I see him astride on a chair watching his friends, full of merry jests, and smoking a cigar. At midnight, he will go home to his pretty villa and placens uxor, who will ask him how the bank fared to-day, and he will tell her gleefully what the winnings were. Of course he has a hundred or so of shares, and gets his seventy and eighty per cent. Think of that; think of all the villanies by which money is swindled from one man's pocket into another! The racing and betting man gets it from those who are as bad as he is, and who can afford it as well; even the housebreaker chooses the rich man's house for his swag; even the bandit will let the poor man free; but these wretches fatten on what produces the widows' tears and fathers' and husbands' curses. But I lose patience when I dwell on this, which, too, I cannot cure. If I was a zealous missionary at home, eager for "my Master's work," as they call it, I would not go out to the blacks, I would come here; I would stand at the door of this place; I would preach in the street, in front of this red sandstone palace—charnel house of infamy—and warn, dissuade, and exhort, passionately, with my whole heart and soul. There would be real saving of souls. Their gendarmes and police—I should have no fear of them. That good bluff king looks on them with no favour, and gives them a respite grudgingly. Utopian, some will say, of course, and smile. Nothing of the kind. But they would not have the courage. I solemnly declare, if I were in that profession, it is the thing I would do. One soul saved from that den, stopped at the threshold, would be worth all the blacks who ever simulated Christianity for a musket or two strings of glass beads. There are men in England—honest, zealous, ardent ministers—who would gladly seize on this idea: I want no copyright in it.