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

Chapter XIII.

Tuesday.—At the same time looking over what I have written, I should not perhaps, in strict justice, whelm all in indiscriminate censure—I mean the subordinates downwards—since seeing this croupier in the church, and who was saying his prayers. He may have come to think it a mere mechanical function—a simple clerkship in a bank; and certainly association and habit blunt the soul. But are there not clergy here, good men, as I know, to tell him, that all who touch pitch must be defiled, to thunder in his ears that evil got moneys must not be handled on any pretext, to ring out the awful words of Scripture against gamesters and others—to tell him he must give up all rather than be connected with such sin? I felt an interest in the man and would almost be tempted myself——but this is mere folly and quixotism, and I am so carried away by pity for the victims, that I begin to talk nonsense and impossibilities. What could poor I do? I must say, I admire Grainger for his selfdenial, I never see him in the rooms. Sometimes, indeed, he comes, drawn in by the irresistible temptation; but when he sees my warning finger his head droops, and he slips away quietly. ....

Such an adventure this evening. Surely this is the place for disciplining the mind. I had strolled into the rooms about ten o'clock, the most delightful hour of the night, to have what I call "my quiet game at humanity." I had my card—the menials are beginning to know me and ply me with large corking pins, of which I have a supply for my pet—when I saw D'Eyncourt's face opposite. He was with a lady—a young girl, French or English, decent or otherwise, for no one can tell here. I have done some charming country English girls cruel injustice by mistaking them for what they were not; and en revanche, I have done other creatures too much honour by taking them for what they were certainly not. But everything seems inverted here. I see a scrubby, dowdy, schoolmaster-looking man, with a shambling walk, and wonder what business he has dining in the grand Kursaal, when he is revealed as Lord ——, who has the palace at the corner of —— Street, London, and one hundred and fifty thousand pounds a year to keep it up. I see a distingué gentlemanly man, with the true air of high breeding about his hands, &c., and he proves to be an impostor who was turned out of the Arlington for cheating at whist. With all I have learnt, and all I have seen, I own myself at times quite at fault. The women are shabby, second-hand tilings; creatures of whom we heard such strange stories ten years ago, reappear here with stories stranger still. There is Captain Darling, whom every one knew as the possessor of a good estate in Scotland, a "club man," a "racing man," and for a time member of parliament and director of companies. He is now reduced to these places, and makes a few florins "out of the tables." Over on that sofa I see what has amused me and many more, going on. That little piquant widow, Mrs. Dyaper, rosy and dark eyed, and about whom "there were such stories," two years ago. She has come out as the domestic, almost bereaved, lady, doing worsted knitting on a chair in a corner, but not alone; for to the delight of friends and lookers-on, she has entangled a grave, even mouldy, doctor of fifty, in large practice in London, one of those elderly dry "professional" men, who are about as fitted for going into love as for going on the stage. This is really a dismal business to watch, especially the stages in beautifying himself—one day a pair of canary kid gloves, brighter linen, and brighter boots. It will all end in wreck. It is likely he has sisters at home to whom he will return, altered, savage, perhaps, and bent in carrying out his scheme.

And yet as I looked on at this infatuation and its victim, one thing occurred to me, that the gambler's dulness and want of instinct was on a par with their infatuation. They seemed to go to work in the wildest and most spasmodic manner. A few minutes' superficial study of the game, showed me at once that it must be subject to certain rude laws, not of course to be brought under control, or calculation, but certainly valuable as a sort of rough guide.

Again I go in, for a short study. It is curious to see how often zero begins to come up. The ordinary doctrine of chances would be that the colours should come up alternately, and I do observe that they virtually observe that law, that is, come up in short batches. Of course, I could see there were what were called runs, which set in suddenly and defied all management or calculation; but this was abnormal and unnatural, and must be passed by. Again for half an hour I tested this little system, putting down, in imagination, on the colour I had worked out, and it almost invariably came up, and I won, in imagination luckily. Here was I, a mere novice, hitting on something like the secret of this devil's mystery, and yet so dull and blinded were the victims that not one of them could see his way to success, and by some fiendish provision seemed tempted to lay his money on precisely what was certain to lose. What a scene, what a life! Is there anything anywhere among the drunkards, spendthrifts, what not, like this cold, desperate, leisurely progress down the steep hill of ruin? It is a pass, along which only one can walk, and down which the victim is driven slowly backward until he gets to the edge, when he must go over. The croupiers are a study in themselves. There are such varied patterns, young and old, some middle-aged, one or two very handsome, most of them stout, and full about the neck. All, however, have that wary, questing, roving eye (and some of them very fine ones) that looks out of the corners sharply. Some are far more prompt and skilful than the others; one or two are absolutely stupid, make mistakes in counting, &c., and on a crowded board, are tedious in paying off claims; others send out the money clumsily and in a rude indistinct way, the pieces getting confused with others; some are prompt and unerring, sending forth the shower with the nicest aim, taking exactly the right aim, and pouring them out with precision; one is a dismal ascetic looking fellow who sings his "faites le jeu," in the most lugubrious key, as if it was "Voi ch' intrate," &c., or "Come and be killed, gentlemen!" Another has a venomous twinkle in his eye, and sends the ball spinning with quite a savage rapidity, as who should say, "Make an end of this." He proclaims the result with enjoyment and rakes in the money sharply, and with a lurch. Even in the tones in which they proclaim the result, I notice different favorite keys. Twenty-one seeming to be announced slowly and sadly, "Vaint-ay-orne;" on the contrary, "eight" comes out, short and sharp like the snapping cap: "Whit!" "Oonze" is a gloomy song; "Trente-cinq," and "Vin-cat" cheerful and hilarious. One man likes to check the state of the board as he sweeps in, and says to himself, "one florin on manque," two louis "rendus," and such soliloquising; but I notice this is not of rigour. At night there is yet greater excitement, and a kind of pleasant enjoyment abroad. The bank seems to be losing, and every one to be winning. The room is brilliant and every one seemed in good humour. There is a vast rush to the tables, so that it was with difficulty I could carry out my little calculations, now become the regular amusement of the night. It was amazing, I say again—the fashion in which my theory was supported. I declare solemnly that I must have won fifty pounds during the half-hour I was watching. An easy way to make a livelihood, indeed.

I have spoken of a charming family I met at the table d'hôte, and who seemed to take a deep interest in what they believed was my history. Two more innocent and engaging girls it would be impossible to conceive, so naïve, so good-natured, so engaging. Their remarks were delightful, and their father seemed to dote on them. They were well brought up, good and pious, yet very gay, and with some esprit. They knew my pet perfectly from what I had said, and are just the girls she would love. I had not met them for two or three days, when, to my surprise, I saw them entering the gambling-rooms, with that air of delighted mystery which always attends the first visit. I say I was surprised, for they had always spoken with a sort of dread of the place; and their father had said: "No, my dear girls, draw on papa for any money you like, but don't let us get it in that way." Behind them, however, was a face which explained it all—that of D'Eyncourt. I saw it bent down between the two gentle faces, pouring in some whispered platitude—this sham pasha, and he promises to be soon as bloated as that despot of Egypt. It gave me a sort of chill to see this evil influence commenced. The sow-like eyes blinked at me with a sort of suspicion and dislike. He did not relish my acquaintance with these charming girls. No man, indeed, I have remarked, does relish the introduction of another man upon his little stage, or to his actresses.

"Papa," said one, who I think is Constance, "has given us a Frederick to play with, and we wish so much to win. Mr. D'Eyncourt says he will play for us."

"But if you lose," I said, "you will be disappointed and put out. If I was you I would go to those little booths at the Brunnen, and buy some of the agates or onyxes, and then you will have a little souvenir of the place."

He spoke. "What a goody, goody arrangement! Dear me! This is dropping the word. Now what shall we go on first? The roulettes. Let us try the colour. There, monsieur, s'il vous plait. The way those stupid idlers block up the place is unpardonable. There are two double florins down, and my own louis beside it."

Such is the malaria, as I may call it, of this dreadful game, that over those gentle faces suddenly spread a sort of anxiety and trouble, with a questioning eagerness, which I believe firmly was only instinctive, but which made me quite shudder. Without reflection almost I said:

"Don't, I conjure you! Take it up again. You will be sorry if you don't. You won't even win—though that is the next misfortune to losing."

They looked irresolute, but click! the silence and the proclamation followed. Again the gentle, almost rustic, faces were turned with a painful wistfulness. Their hearts, I know, were fluttering. But the verdict, a prolonged "Dooze! Rouge-pairymank!" They knew their fate from his impatient look. The mortification and disappointment could not be described.

"Never mind," he said, feeling in his pockets, "we shall beat them yet. I shall put down for you now on the same thing."

"You will only lose," I said; "if you do play, play with some method."

"I know how to play pretty well," he said, angrily. "'Pon my word, it is only these croakings that are bringing us ill luck. I wish to Heaven you would leave the young ladies alone!"

"O no," said Constance, warmly; "we didn't mean—— Here, if Mr. Austen will only put down for me—and Kate, you will follow Mr. D'Eyncourt's advice."

I looked at her irresolutely. "I must tell you," I said, "I don't play, and have determined not to play."

"And yet you come here and affect to study the system, and tell people to put on that and on that. That is consistent!"

I did not answer him; but said quietly to her: "If you must do it, then wait a little. Let two or three go by, for it begins to look like a run."

Down came the double click and the stillness. Manque again.

"Confound it!" said D'Eyncourt, again plunging at his pocket, the first intuitive motion with every loser. "It is all this croaking," he said, impatiently. "'Pon my word, I don't understand. Come away with me to the other table."

"Indeed I will not," said Constance. "You can do so if you like, and Kate also; but we shall go on winning together."

The next time she lost. "Go on winning" repeated she.

"Don't be alarmed," I said; "we shall just lie by a little until it goes into shape again."

So we did, and the next time we did win. It was certainly wonderful. At the end of twenty minutes she had fifteen double florins in her small hand—those fine handsome pieces, which it is a satisfaction to feel. Mr. D'Eyncourt "was out" a good many napoleons, and the other girl's disconsolate face showed how mortified and disappointed she was. They are to go away home in a few days later, and I am never likely to meet them again; but I have no doubt the first shades of jealousy and coldness that have ever darkened their young lives have been caused by this fatal night. As for Mr. D'Eyncourt, he cannot be a gentleman, and if he gives me any more of his remarks I shall speak quite plainly to him.

Midnight.—What have I done! There, I have entered my room, and there on the table have I—O humiliation that I should write it!—poured down twenty of those heavy silver pieces! I am bewildered—they seem to dazzle me. Again what have I done? Where are my resolutions? O shame! shame! All my boastings, my pride, my contempt for this wickedness; and then to have given way like the rest: after the prayer that I had said so devoutly! I tremble as I look at those pieces, and feel a sort of flutter at my heart—I ought to detest, and yet they seem to invite. O what weak, miserable, helpless creatures the best of us are! How we swagger and boast, and how little there is in us! They seem—if it be not profane to say so—like the thirty pieces—

I have been walking up and down, scarcely able to compose myself to go to bed. There they lie—so heavy, so solid, so musical in their tone. "Zwei Gulden" and a great head on the obverse; one a "Ludwig," another a "Herzog v. Nassau." And yet, after all, it was no such great fall; for I saw round me the gentle, the good, the innocent, the smiling; and as for the mere putting down a florin, there is no absolute crime. Where I was culpable was in the weakness, the abandonment of what I had proposed so solemnly. And it has not turned out ill, so there is no harm done.

When I look back and analyse my state of mind, then, I can extenuate a good deal. The crowd round me, their eagerness, their success in winning, the enjoyment, the excitement, the absence of care, the enjoying faces looking into their hands, the close of a pleasant day, the general air of festivity—all this seemed to draw me in, to absorb me, to impart a sudden thrill. All seemed to say, "Come and join us, be one of us; you are losing the chance of money."

For a time I forget everything, resolutions and all; and if I had only gone on——

.... Now, on the other hand, there is such a thing as making too serious an affair of what has not sufficient importance. As I say, there has been no harm done. This money I shall just seal up, and send in to Mr. B., the clergyman, for the new English chapel—or for the poor, I am not certain which. I ought in all propriety to contribute to the church, and must have done so in any case: so query, would not this be a legitimate advantage to take? It would set free other money. On the whole, I rather lean to the cause of the poor. They shall profit. After all, there are people who would laugh if I accused myself of such a crime; and even my pet at home would smile, and say, "O, I should have so liked that little money!" No, no. Indeed, I do her wrong. Indeed, she would not. And therefore I think I shall not let her see these leaves. Or I shall cross out much of it. Now to go to bed more composed than I was.