The Face and the Mask/Playing with Marked Cards


"I'm bothered about that young fellow," said Mellish early one morning, to the professional gambler, Pony Rowell.


"He comes here night after night, and he loses more than he can afford, I imagine. He has no income, so far as I can find out, except what he gets as salary, and it takes a mighty sight bigger salary than his to stand the strain he's putting on it."

"What is his business?"

"He is cashier in the Ninth National Bank. I don't know how much he gets, but it can't be enough to permit this sort of thing to go on."

Pony Rowell shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't think I would let it trouble me, if I were you, Mellish."

"Nevertheless it does. I have advised him to quit, but it is no use. If I tell the doorkeeper not to let him in here, he will merely go somewhere else where they are not so particular."

"I must confess I don't quite understand you, Mellish, long as I have known you. In your place, now, I would either give up keeping a gambling saloon or I would give up the moral reformation line of business. I wouldn't try to ride two horses of such different tempers at the same time."

"I've never tried to reform you, Pony," said Mellish, with reproach in his voice.

"No; I will give you credit for that much sense."

"It's all right with old stagers like you and me, Pony, but with a boy just beginning life, it is different. Now it struck me that you might be able to help me in this."

"Yes, I thought that was what you were leading up to," said Rowell, thrusting his hands deep in his trousers' pockets. "I'm no missionary, remember. What did you want me to do?"

"I wanted you to give him a sharp lesson. Couldn't you mark a pack of cards and get him to play high? Then, when you have taken all his ready money and landed him in debt to you so that he can't move, give him back his cash if he promises not to gamble again."

Rowell looked across at the subject of their conversation. "I don't think I would flatter him so much as to even stock the cards on him. I'll clean him out if you like. But it won't do any good, Mellish. Look at his eyes. The insanity of gambling is in them. I used to think if I had $100,000, I would quit. I'm old enough now to know that I wouldn't. I'd gamble if I had a million."

"I stopped after I was your age."

"Oh, yes, Mellish, you are the virtuous exception that proves the rule. You quit gambling the way the old woman kept tavern," and Rowell cast a glance over the busy room.

Mellish smiled somewhat grimly, then he sighed. "I wish I was out of it," he said. "But, anyhow, you think over what I've been talking about, and if you can see your way to giving him a sharp lesson I wish you would."

"All right I will, but merely to ease your tender conscience, Mellish. It's no use, I tell you. When the snake has bitten, the victim is doomed. Gambling isn't a simple thing like the opium habit."

Reggie Forme, the bank cashier, rose at last from the roulette table. He was flushed with success, for there was a considerable addition to the sum he had in his pockets when he sat down. He flattered himself that the result was due to the system he had elaborately studied out.

Nothing lures a man to destruction quicker than a system that can be mathematically demonstrated. It gives an air of business to gambling which is soothing to the conscience of a person brought up on statistics. The system generally works beautifully at first; then a cog slips and you are mangled in the machinery before you know where you are. As young Forme left the table he felt a hand on his shoulder, and looking around, met the impassive gaze of Pony Rowell.

"You're young at the business, I see," remarked the professional quietly.

"Why do you think that?" asked the youngster, coloring, for one likes to be taken for a veteran, especially when one is an amateur.

"Because you fool away your time at roulette. That is a game for boys and women. Have you nerve enough to play a real game?"

"What do you call a real game?"

"A game with cards in a private room for something bigger than half- dollar points."

"How big?"

"Depends on what capital you have. How much capital can you command?"

The cashier hesitated for a moment and his eyes fell from the steady light of Rowell's, which seemed to have an uncomfortable habit of looking into one's inmost soul.

"I can bring $1,000 here on Saturday night."

"All right. That will do as a starter. Is it an appointment then?"

"Yes, if you like. What time?"

"I generally get here pretty late, but I can make an exception in your case. What do you say to 10 o'clock?"

"That will suit me."

"Very well, then. Don't fool away any of your money or nerve until I come. You will need all you have of both."

The professional gambler and the amateur began their series of games a few minutes after ten in a little private room. The young man became more and more excited as the play went on. As for Pony, he was cool under any circumstances. Before an hour had passed the $1,000 was transferred from the possession of Forme into the pockets of the professional, and by midnight the younger man was another $1,000 in Rowell's debt.

"It isn't my practice," said Rowell slowly, "to play with a man unless he has the money in sight. I've made an exception in your case, as luck was against you, but I think this has gone far enough. You may bring me the $1,000 you owe any day next week. No particular hurry, you know."

The young fellow appeared to be dazed. He drew his hand across his brow and then said mechanically, as if he had just heard his opponent's remark:

"No hurry? All right. Next week. Certainly. I guess I'll go home now."

Forme went out, leaving Rowell idly shuffling the cards at the small table. The moment the young man had disappeared all Rowell's indolence vanished. He sprang up and put on his overcoat, then slipped out by the rear exit into the alley. He had made up his mind what Forme would do. Mentally he tracked him from the gambling rooms to the river and he even went so far as to believe he would take certain streets on his way thither. A gambler is nothing if not superstitious and so Rowell was not in the least surprised when he saw the young man emerge from the dark stairway, hesitate for a moment between the two directions open to him, and finally choose the one that the gambler expected him to take. The cold streets were deserted and so Rowell had more difficulty in following his late victim unperceived than he would have had earlier in the evening. Several times the older man thought the pursued had become aware of the pursuit, for Forme stopped and looked around him; once coming back and taking another street as if trying to double on the man who was following him.

Rowell began to realize the difficulty of the task he had set for himself, and as he had never had any faith in it anyhow, he began to feel uncomfortable and to curse the tender heart of Mellish. If the youngster got the idea into his head that he was followed he might succeed in giving his pursuer the slip, and then Rowell would find himself with the fool's death on his conscience, and what was to him infinitely worse, with a thousand dollars in his pocket that had been unfairly won. This thought made him curse Mellish afresh. It had been entirely against his own will that he had played with marked cards, but Mellish had insisted that they should take no chances, and the veteran knew too well the uncertainties of playing a fair game where a great object lesson was to be taught. It would make them look like two fools, Mellish had said, if Forme won the money. In answer to this Rowell had remarked that they were two fools anyhow, but he had finally succumbed to Mellish as the whole scheme was Mellish's. As Rowell thought bitterly of these things his attention was diverted from the very matter he had in hand. Few men can pursue a course of thought and a fellow-creature at the same time. He suddenly realized that young Forme had escaped him. Rowell stood alone in the dimly-lighted silent street and poured unuttered maledictions on his own stupidity. Suddenly a voice rang out from a dark doorway.

"What the devil are you following me for?"

"Oh, you're there, are you?" said Pony calmly.

"I'm here. Now what do you want of me? Aren't you satisfied with what you have done to-night?"

"Naturally not, or I wouldn't be fool-chasing at such an hour as this."

"Then you admit you have been following me?"

"I never denied it."

"What do you want of me? Do I belong to myself or do you think I belong to you, because I owe you some money?"

"I do not know, I am sure, to whom you belong," said Rowell with his slow drawl. "I suspect, however, that the city police, who seem to be scarce at this hour, have the first claim upon you. What do I want of you? I want to ask you a question. Where did you get the money you played with to-night?"

"It's none of your business."

"I presume not. But as there are no witnesses to this interesting conversation I will venture an opinion that you robbed the bank."

The young man took a step forward, but Pony stood his ground, using the interval to light another cigarette.

"I will also venture an opinion, Mr. Rowell, and say that the money came as honestly into my pocket as it did into yours."

"That wouldn't be saying much for it. I have the advantage of you, however, because the nine points are in my favor. I have possession."

"What are you following me for? To give me up?"

"You admit the robbery, then."

"I admit nothing."

"It won't be used against you. As I told you, there are no witnesses. It will pay you to be frank. Where did you get the money?"

"Where many another man gets it. Out of the bank."

"I thought so. Now, Forme, you are not such a fool as you look—or act. You know where all that sort of thing leads to. You haven't any chance. All the rules of the game are against you. You have no more show than you had against me to-night. Why not chuck it, before it is too late?"

"It is easy for you to talk like that when you have my money in your pocket."

"But that simply is another rule of the game. The money of a thief is bound to go into someone else's pocket. Whoever enjoys the cash ultimately, he never does. Now if you had the money in your pocket what would you do?"

"I would go back to Mellish's and have another try."

"I believe you," said Rowell with, for the first time, some cordiality in his voice. He recognized a kindred spirit in this young man. "Nevertheless it would be a foolish thing to do. You have two chances before you. You can become a sport as I am and spend your life in gambling rooms. Or you can become what is called a respectable business man. But you can't be both. In a very short time you will not have the choice. You will be found out and then you can only be what I am—probably not as successful as I have been. If you add bank robbery to your other accomplishments then you will go to prison or, what is perhaps worse, to Canada. Which career are you going to choose?"

"Come down to plain facts. What do you mean by all this talk? If I say I'll quit gambling do you mean that you will return to me the thousand dollars and call the other thousand square?"

"If you give me your word of honor that you will quit."

"And if I don't, what then?"

"Then on Monday I will hand over this money to the bank and advise them to look into your accounts."

"And suppose my accounts prove to be all right, what then?"

Rowell shrugged his shoulders. "In that remote possibility I will give the thousand dollars to you and play you another game for it."

"I see. Which means that you cheated to-night."

"If you like to put it that way."

"And what if I denounced you as a self-confessed cheat?"

"It wouldn't matter to me. I wouldn't take the trouble to deny it. Nobody would believe you."

"You're a cool hand, Pony, I admire your cheek. Still, you've got some silly elements in you."

"Oh, you mean my trying to reform you? Don't make any mistake about that. It is Mellish's idea, not mine. I don't believe in you for a moment."

The young man laughed. He reflected for a few seconds, then said: "I'll take your offer. You give me back the money and I will promise never to gamble again in any shape or form."

"You will return the cash to the bank, if you took it from there?"

"Certainly. I will put it back the first thing on Monday morning."

"Then here is your pile," said Rowell, handing him the roll of bills.

Forme took it eagerly and, standing where the light struck down upon him, counted the bills, while Rowell looked on silently with a cynical smile on his lips.

"Thank you," said the young man, "you're a good fellow, Rowell."

"I'm obliged for your good opinion. I hope you found the money correct?"

"Quite right," said Forme, flushing a little. "I hope you did not mind my counting it. Merely a business habit, you know."

"Well, stick to business habits, Mr. Forme. Good night."

Rowell walked briskly back to Mellish's. Forme walked toward the railway station and found that there was a train for Chicago at 4 in the morning. He had one clear day and part of another before he was missed, and as it turned out all trace of him was lost in the big city. The bank found about $6,000 missing. Two years after, news came that Forme had been shot dead in a gambling hall in Southern Texas.

"We are two first-class fools," said Rowell to Mellish, "and I for one don't feel proud of the episode, so we'll say nothing more about it. The gambling mania was in his blood. Gambling is not a vice; it is a disease, latent in all of us."

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.