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

Chapter XIV.

Wednesday.—Arose after one of those weary nights with heart very sore, having awakened in great trouble. A sense as if a great blow had fallen on me: and a short way off, on the table, I could see the fatal silver pile. Yet I looked at it, not with disgust, but with a strange interest, much as a woman does on a faithless admirer whom she still loves. There they were piled up in that almost picturesque disorder into which piles of money fall, and then came the unworthy consolation, of which I feel ashamed, and yet which has force, namely, "that it turned out well on the whole," and there was no harm done. And yet had there been loss there should not have been a bit of difference. . . . . Yes, it shall go to the poor—the Lutheran and the Catholic poor, in equal shares, and I must add a couple of pieces to make it round, and as a little penalty. Somehow these early grey hours of the morning do make one feel so wretched. It is the only drawback of early rising. Have something on your mind, rise betimes, and walk a little through a lonely town, and you will see your trouble laid in the blackest colours. After breakfast, towards noon, it fades out. Rising for a journey, at, say, five, makes me utterly miserable and low spirited. Now I must train myself a little. Another man would let this prey on him: I shall put it away from me: it is no use, it is unmanly, whining over anything that cannot be recalled. Why, when we see the Bishop of ——'s nieces "putting down," the Bishop himself reading the Times just outside, it cannot be the unpardonable sin exactly.

See how a little fall of this sort brings its own inconveniences. The dean, who has not noticed me for a long time, stopped me in the walk.

"Fie! fie!" he said. "Is this the end of the good thoughts and pious sentiments? Ah! Did I not warn you, my friend?"

Now, my dear Dora and darling, you see I set all this down as a little lesson. And I am not ashamed of it. I answered him without anger:

"I deserve your reproof, Mr. Dean. We are not all perfect, and you have often, I dare say, repeated in the pulpit a number of times, A just man will fall. Over such a fall, however, there is no ground for congratulation, or, as the vulgar would say, chuckling." On that I turned away.

Receive a telegram from the merchant, at Frankfort, saying he will be at his house at four, and sign the papers, if I bring them and an English witness. I am not sorry to hear this, for it was hanging over me that I might be kept here for an immense time. I should be glad to be home, my health is almost restored, and I have no doubt an easy journey, with a little lingering at some of the noble and curious towns on the road, would be more profitable than the waters. I feel a "flurry" beginning in this place. It is living in a heated ballroom; but who shall I get as a witness? I know no one. Grainger came in as I was writing. The very man. And yet I don't like quite admitting him to that confidence. It is too familiar; but as I shall be leaving now very soon, it really makes no matter. To-morrow I shall seriously begin to think of fixing the day of departure—the next day still think of it—the third day fix it; the fourth day unfix, and put it off two days. Then begin to think again. In this way, said an old officer to me—at dinner, of course, the invariable time we form acquaintances—you discount and get value for every hour of your time. Each of these stages is a reprieve; otherwise the time slips away, and you are going before you have begun to enjoy yourself. Grainger was delighted to come. An expedition to Frankfort, he said, was the only thing that kept him up "in this hole." Accordingly we set off. I had some misgivings about taking him; but the reflection occurred that I might be saving him from temptation, and that bringing him back to taste these more innocent joys of life, might touch some old chord. Then really, pet of mine—comic as the notion may seem to you—I appeared to myself to be acting as a sort of special missionary to this place; really as benighted as were the Fee Jee Islanders. I know I am weak enough at home, dear, and anything but missionary like; but still this will be laying up a little treasury, a small deposit account on which I may hereafter draw, and say to myself, "Well, that time at Homburg, I did, or tried to do, some little good, and succeeded." What a strange old town. So quaint, so original, so fine, so ancient. I could have lingered on hours there, but I felt there was business before me, and I had no right to make holiday of it. We went straight to the merchant's house, and found him in. He was evidently a ci-devant Jew; he could not disguise those features, and a hard Jew also. I produced the deeds and papers. The signing was done speedily, and the money paid down. It was to be lodged in the Frankfort Bank in my name. Nothing could be more satisfactory. My friend, Mr. Bernard, directed me so to do until he sent me instructions as to its disposal, and there I think he will own, I have worked it favourably for him to the end. He will not object either to the little benefice I have made out for him, uninstructed. I dare say he will be more pleased at that, trifling as it is, just as the barrister or doctor does not like to have the shillings kept back out of his guineas. I was greatly pleased with Grainger. Grainger seemed a little surprised at my knowledge of business and savoir-faire, dealing so easily with a Jew banker, who is supposed to be up to all the tracasseries of money.

"Why," he said as we went out, "one would think you had been brought up in Frankfort, and were accustomed to meet these chaps. I couldn't have held my own to that cormorant as you did; but I have got cowed, I suppose."

"My dear Grainger," I said, "if you want to know the secret, it will come from a little self-reliance: I have something I can depend upon here. A man will swing himself across a precipice by a thin rope which you will be afraid of, simply because he knows and has tried its strength. There is the whole mystery, Grainger; and if I could only bring you to rely on your own heart, which is true, I know, and not be led here and there passively, the helpless victim of every idle whim and inclination——" He said nothing. I could see he was sunk in thought. In this way, by a sort of implied contrast, and not by officious ill-judged canting and preaching, which some of the "good people" would have thought the best, I know enough of the world to have discovered that we work these things out for ourselves best. We came home in great spirits.

"What will you do with all that money?" he said.

"We shall go straight and lodge it at the bank," I answered. And we did so.

"My God!" he said, in a low voice, "if I had that money, I should be ashamed to own to you the frightful idea that would occur to me. What a humiliation!"

"You would hardly be able to pass the kursaal without going in," I said gravely. "Well, there is no humiliation in being tempted—the best and bravest have been. The crime, the humiliation is in another direction. I don't think the worse of you, Grainger, for that confession."

Coming from the railway I meet the young husband and wife, he walking in front "brutally," both so changed. He had an angry and determined look that was almost ferocious. She was pale and scarcely able to walk. Their luggage very small, and I daresay, shrunk away, like the rest of their means, followed them on a man's shoulder. There was a splendid achievement on the side of Mephistopheles and Co. Sweet morsels for them—stripping the young and the innocent—surely the vengeance of Heaven should overtake such wretches—fire should come down from heaven, or rather by a simpler process, it is no sin to wish that a common earthly conflagration would break out in the night and engulf their gaudy salons des jeux, their tables, rakes, devilish engines—and above all their ill-gotten pillage—their heaps of notes and stores of gold.

Of course a sharp friend, or the smooth dean, if he heard me, would remind me about those few bits of silver won the other night. There are people always ready with a "tu quoque." I have not the slightest scruple about that now. I may say I did it to show my power. I did it of my own motion. I take it, Mr. Dean, the distinction is this, and it would do you no harm for your next sermon. One is tempted and yields—that is a fall. One does the same action, not from temptation or yielding, but purposely, with one's eyes open—that is another matter, Mr. Dean. I can indeed smile at myself when in that little trouble the other night; very natural and excusable. The poor, at all events, will be able to congratulate themselves.

A letter from my darling Dora, to whom I shall write about my little despoiling of the Philistines. Of course she will look grave at first, like some of the soi-disant "good people;" but she could not be expected to understand the matter. She is good indeed; nor will I use the vulgar comparison, significant of a covetous mind, "as good as gold." My sweet Dora! I have half a mind to buy her a trinket out of a few florins of "the winnings," and not tell her at first until it is round her pretty neck. No. I suppose I had better let the poor have every florin that I promised to them.

How prettily she turns her letters. There's where a woman's strength is, if they knew it—nature, simplicity. A little bunch of violets tumbles out. It has travelled all the way from Datchley. "I send it to you," she says, "to show you that my cough and cold are quite gone, for I gathered them myself." Sir Richard Steele could not have put it more prettily.

There is also an official letter, with the seal of our bank, which I know very well. When you are at a long distance from home, in the midst of a little carnival, home news are received for the first moment with joy—then with mistrust. You know what is coming. It is like the moment before the ball leaps into its cell. (How these odious associations cling to me!) It is from Maxwell, the manager—I know his cruel cold hand. He writes as stiffly as if he did not know me. He tells "Dear Sir" that he is instructed by the Board to require my return, at furthest, within a week from the receipt of this note, as they understand I am now perfectly restored to health. He was directed to say the Board were a little surprised at my not showing more alacrity in corresponding to the very great indulgence with which I had been treated—an indulgence which was intended for an urgent case of sickness, and not to promote amusement. They must peremptorily insist on my return by the day named.

Upon my word this is quite a new tone! And what have I done to merit such language—the language almost of a Russian to his serf—language which none of them, if I were in my old situation of a gentleman, none of them dare to address to me? In these offices they are always glad to be "down" on the gentleman. But there is something behind this. . . . To be sure. Did not the dean say he had a nephew or cousin in the bank whom he hoped I would be kind to? Ah, this gentleman wants my place, and the dean has written to him about me. I have a good mind to throw up the whole thing, write them back a resignation, and have done with them and their bank. What right have they to assume I am staying here for pleasure? And the fallacy of it, into which their dull minds have fallen! They do not see that this very amusement was the cure prescribed, and which I came officially to seek. I have a good mind to let them have their beggarly place. One hundred and thirty pounds a year! Why, only yesterday, I saw four times that sum earned in one minute! and it will take me just four long weary years of life to earn that beggarly sum. That villain Maxwell—this is his work. He has plotted this; he has never forgiven my foiling him that time, and getting away in spite of him. And now I have to return to submit to his tyranny and slavery. It was that, I solemnly believe, that helped to make me ill before. Well, this is all folly; I must submit and suffer. After all, how much have I to be thankful for! . . . I shall start to-morrow evening; pack up in the morning. It will be a relief to get away, for I am getting nervous and excited in presence of these temptations. And yet I feel not a little pride, for I have steered my little bark successfully, on the whole, and have defied Satan and his works. As for those few pieces of silver, I can smile at that now. I shall enjoy myself to-night.

I go in among them once more this evening, and own to my pet, that so far from any scruples detaining me, I entered with something of the severe, stern, purpose with which a policeman enters a low den of thieves and looks round searchingly to see that no villany is hatching. He is not contaminated by that association, for he is doing his duty. So do I feel among them, but not of them—with those croupiers, the Fagings, Sikeses, and Dodgers of the place, pursuing genteelly what is no better than "cracking a crib." I would the Fagins and others, one half less penal servitude than these rascals. . . . Certainly it is the most curious spectacle, far above any human interest. And such wretched, little, mean, low glimpses. The woman who pillages a wretched florin and goes through a perfect row, is insulted by the croupiers, is hustled by the servants—all to get a miserable one-and-eight-pence! A gold piece drops on the ground; the owner will not hear of any one stooping to look for it, and sternly keeps the space clear about it till the servant comes with a light. That fellow, too, would never succeed in finding it; it would travel up his sleeve, unless there was an honourable understanding of a deduction for his service of at least ten per cent. These familiars thrive and fatten on the gamblers; spoils pour in on them, in every conceivable way. One encumbers the successful gambler with obtrusive help about his hat—a florin; another has a bag of old gloves, which he pins down round the table, when the play begins. These dirty symbols keep places—a service to be remunerated with florins. I look at the man on thee high stool behind, who is the detective, and whose duty it is to watch and measure and pay, and, above all, support his understrappers with the air of a sort of disinterested bystander, who must interfere, at the last moment, with his impartial testimony. This is rather too good. What a set!—so harmonious and consistent in all their associations! "Gang " is the ruder but more appropriate word. Not one of them, I can see, likes me; they look at me with distrust; they know what I think of them, how I could expose them, and strip them of some of their gains, if I chose. The "black" man, as I call him, who is something between a "betting man" and an upper turnkey, overheard me directing the young girl how to win, and the look of distrust and dislike he gave me was indescribable. He would like to have called up two of his bullies in the gold lace, to have hustled me out—if he dared. . . . At this moment they were beside me, and he is staring impudently into their faces—that gross stare which only a Frenchman can give.

"Oh, Mr. Austen! You will help me, as you did the other night!"

I looked a little grave. "That was under protest," I said; "and for one night only, as they say of the actors."

"But it is not that; it is not for the money; it is for your miraculous system. It is like magic."

"Give me your money," I said, "and we will see. But you will understand—I merely do this as an experiment, to oblige a young lady."

The usual luck followed. I waited till the colour had turned up four times in succession, and then laid on the opposite. We won—only a few francs—but quite sufficient for her. I cannot say how elated I was at this control of mere chance.

Ten o'clock.—O shame, humiliation! that I should have been such a dupe and fool! I could beat, lash myself. But I must write—write, if only to justify myself. That man did it on purpose, I know he did; and that I should have trusted him! . . . After they had gone, I somehow felt myself in great spirits—a sort of elation and a sense of happiness I have not known for a long time. Grainger comes up. I think he had been drinking a little.

"Every one," he says, "is talking of your great luck. There is no system going like yours."

"It is only the system of good sense, Grainger," I say, in my banal stupidity.

"Then why not help me," he went on, "as you helped that young girl?"

"Because," I said; "that is a different matter. You are bound to me not to play."

"Well, leave me out of the business; but I think you are bound to do something for yourself and your family. A man that wants a hundred pounds, and could turn it by an hour's work, is sacrificing a little too much to his principles; it's selfish, my friend."

He said no more, but—shall I own it?—those vile words began to ring in my ear like a chime—"selfish! selfish!"—so it seemed. A dazzling prospect seemed to rush in on me. All our little debts, overdue—baker and butcher, the clothes for the children, for which my poor pet had to go, with humiliation, to that coarse Wilcox, "to beg for a little time." Selfish! It was so—to expose my darling to that! I might come home, not rich—no, I did not want a hundred pounds, or two hundred, but even forty, thirty, twenty. What a surprise, what an aid that would be! And it would be some enjoyment to diminish the huge gains coining to them, even by what I should be able to take from them. I know not what came over me at that moment. The walls of restraint seemed to topple down, as at the sound of a trumpet. For a second the whole seemed harmless and allowable. I saw cheerful faces round, smiles of enjoyment, for every one seemed to be winning, stooping down eagerly and picking up money with laughter and a sort of exultation. I could not resist, and, stretching over a sitting player, who was very impatient, I laid down my five-franc piece as the ball began to spin. I had no nervousness, but even a sort of assured confidence. I had chosen the most judicious moment conceivable; red had "gone" already six times, and I had even nearly lost a chance. I was thinking how curious it would be if I was to trace further wealth to that solitary little piece, when the click came, the ball was at home, and then the pause—"Rouge pair et passe!" In went my silver piece, swept in venomously. It was like a blow; it chilled my heart, and seemed like an omen. Worse, I saw D'Eyncourt opposite with the two young girls, smiling and pointing. With the usual instinct, my hand flew nervously to my pocket, as if fearful of being late—my fingers were trembling and convulsively grasped three heavy pieces. That would bring all back with a handsome benefice. D'Eyncourt was watching and smiling, and I saw him take the young girl's money from her, and put it down on the contrary division to mine.

Red again! Another numbing shock! What I felt was, not repentance or disappointment, but anger, something like rage even, and a determination not to be beaten. I am amazed at myself, when I think that my next step was to lay down two napoleons with faltering touch. It seemed to me I could not lay them down fast enough. Round went the ball with its monotonous burr; then the click, and that croupier, with a satanic sneer, announces red again!

Dare I own to myself, think for a moment, what I have done? It seems to make my brain quiver. Oh! oh! what a fall! Ten bright golden pieces! That would pay and pay again all her little bills. Oh, wretch! Selfish! selfish! What am I to do? Go back at once—to-morrow—to-night! Get away from this hellish place—walk—travel third class—submit to every privation, and thus get some of it back. Get some of it back! Oh, how my pulse flutters! Yes, what I did before! Why not now? The luck may be for me. Yes, there is time still, now. I must not be childish or rediculous. What if I venture, I say, two gold louis, and solemnly vow and swear before Heaven, on my bended knees, not to go beyond that? There is little or no difference between ten and twelve. One man, last week, on two florins, won his thirty napoleons. I saw him. . . . Now I just say to myself, very calmly, "Let me look into this matter quietly. I am not a fool—an impulsive, ridiculous soul. What is ten pounds after all? To be racked by remorse, my equilibrium upset, all for ten pounds!"

"Consider, sir," said Johnson, "what a trifle this will appear to you in a year!"

After all, I am not quite a child, to be brought to account for spending its pocket money—and I that have scraped, and coined my poor brain and wits, into many a ten pounds, for my family—it is hard that I should be brought to book for what a hundred men in my case would do, and say nothing about. It was foolish and impulsive; but, God knows, if we are to be brought to book for every trifle, life would be simply wretched. . . . What I do blame myself for, is my not keeping my judgment steadily in hand. These interruptions, and the sneering looks of that man, made me forget the unerring law I had discovered. . . . It is amazing the mysterious power of Zero. . . . I saw it all through to-night, though I stupidly would not recognise it. At times, it struck me, there was a fitfulness when the laws I have discovered were suspended. Then a flash of instinct or genius must take its place. But for these distractions I could have coined money to-night. But I do not want that. I shall only just get back my own.

Midnight.—Surely there must be demons in the air. And yet I return here quite calm, in no fury. They drove me to it. I felt them holding my hand, forcing it to my pocket. After twenty had gone, not she opposite—no, nor all the clergy and bishops in the world, with their smooth platitudes—would have stopped me. Oh! don't let me think of it! Don't—don't! Let me go out—go anywhere! Oh, Heaven! Sixty—sixty pieces gone! Was I mad? Did I know what I was doing?

O for this monster, that enters into the soul of a man, and makes him forget all, every restraint in the sense of this succession of defeats! Here is the devilish, the demoniac part of the whole—the perversity with which defeat clings to you, do what you will. Was it not an artful, cruel, and monstrous device of the arch enemy to have selected that precise moment when I had begun, to make this turn against me? O Heaven! to think that I should be sitting with only a few scraps of silver in my pocket, and sixty golden pieces flung away in this blind, wicked, sinful fashion—sixty precious pieces, that I might have sent home! O vile, miserable, weak, abandoned, contemptible wretch, where are your prayers, your complacent superiority and scruples! And O, greatest villany of all, that I should not be dwelling on the piece of news now before me, in her gentle, trembling writing!

"I have sad news for you, dearest, which I have been concealing, in the hope that it might turn to better. Our little Dora has been ill, oh, so cruelly ill! I thought she would have been taken from us. But God is so good: I believe chiefly because you are good and self-denying, and He would not afflict you. But she is out of danger, and will be well soon. I must tell you all we had to do to save her. The doctor here said we must get Baxter, our doctor, from Birmingham, as he would not be answerable; and the two visits and consultations came to near fifty pounds. And, O dearest, I was obliged to take up that money we had kept for the rent. So, what we are to do I know not. But where the life of our darling is at stake, I would beg and go to jail, and do anything. Besides, I know you are so clever, and can make such friends, you will find money somehow. But God will bless you for your self-denial in the midst of sin. You have walked through the fire, like the great Three of scripture, and have not been harmed. I am indeed proud of you! That will stand you in grace and salvation——"

Yes, that is all very fine. "God bless my self-denial!" How easy it is to bring in these fine pious words; it becomes almost a conventional shape of cant. She is good and well brought up, and all that; but I would like to see the most pious of them all exposed as I have been, so cruelly, miserably, and vilely tried. Why their faith and piety would all parch up like a bit of paper before the fire. It is easy to preach far away in a dull, god-speed village, where you are not worth being tempted. I'd like to hear our smooth Bulmer and our smug bishop, with his oily phrases. O it is easy for them!

For this is all the regular jargon which she has picked up from——. The poorest creature among us is able to preach and advise, and point out the right way; and there is no such agreeable pastime or one that so ministers to the vanity of wretched human nature. A broken down jail bird, in jail, will find a satisfaction in giving his advice and experience. Above all, what a satisfaction in being able to say "I told you so!" "I warned you!" "I foresaw all this!" I believe that to be the most exquisite morsel for the envious crew; and it means at the bottom, "and I am delighted that I was proved to be right!" They would not sacrifice the triumph of that, to save you.

O, what platitudes I am talking! what useless rubbish I am picking up! what use can it be to me now? And I do not mean this, Heaven knows, to her—no, no, no, a thousand times no. She that did so much for me, that stood by me, at that critical time, when every influence was brought to bear—relations, friends. That I should have breathed a thought, a word, against my sweet divinity! O, "angels are painted fair to look like you!" But can a tried, harassed, persecuted man like me be held accountable for every fretful thought? I have not yet finished her dear letter, it shall soothe me.

"You may call me anything you please, invent any names for me. O, I shall expect one of the 'Blue letters,' as I call them. I know the next will bring me good news, good news that you are starting. And O, I do grieve that I am obliged to tell you anything that will distress you; but what can I do? Mr. Bernard says, 'He will rush to the tables now, and sacrifice his principles to get this money for you, if he has not done so already, and lost heavily.' At this I could not help making him an indignant speech, that I knew you too well. In fact I said you would die sooner than move a hair's breadth towards what you believe to be wrong. And that is my firm belief, dearest. He only laughed, and said good-humouredly 'we would see.' After all he means well. Later came in Mr. Bulmer, the clergyman, who asked a great deal about you; and said he would give anything if you were home again out of that fearful place. No one knew the danger of it. Then I did a wrong thing I know, for which you will be angry with me; but I could not resist taking out your diary and reading him a little extract, especially your magnificent denunciation of the horrors of that gambling. I read as well as I could, and I could see that he was a little jealous. I know he did not like you at that time, and he was on the side of my relations, and he showed his old feeling by saying that it was all very fine, very elegant, no doubt; but that the instant you returned he would put a simple question to you, 'Had you ever put down a sixpence?'"

What folly, how childish! always making me ridiculous, hawking me about in this way! These women's tongues know no discretion, babbling and chattering to everyone. What business has he with me. He'll put his question, will he? What answer will he get, does he fancy? "My good and reverend sir, pray attend to your own concerns. What was the instance of that horse which you sold to Mr. ——? Was that a bit of sharp practice or not?" A fine pass I am reduced to—everybody thinks they can lecture me. What right has he or any other, call him Bernard, or any name? Suppose I did put down some money, it is my own concern, and that of my own too scrupulous conscience. Suppose I did lose even. That is my business—distinctly mine, and no one else's. I shall have to bear the consequences. . . . O, Heaven, there it is—consequences! I must begin again.

I can think of this no more. O my lost gold, my precious money, that those robbers have stripped me of! The vile, scheming miscreants, that fatten and thrive on the poor. O what shall I do—what is to become of me! And what stupid folly to abandon my only safeguard, the system I was preaching of to others! What madness! If I had only stopped when I had begun to lose, and then waited for a new opening. But they shall give it to me all back, every coin of it, and with interest!