The Strand Magazine/Volume 1/Issue 3/The Piece of Gold
The Piece of Gold.
From the French of François Coppée.
[François Coppée, who was born in January, 1842, is known chiefly as a poet, and is, indeed, considered by some critics as the greatest poet now alive in France. For many years he acted as librarian to the Senate, but since 1878 he has held the post of Keeper of the Records at the Comédie-Française, at which theatre several of his plays have been produced. His poems have gained for him the glory of the Legion of Honour; but his short prose tales are full of the same fine qualities which are conspicuous in his verse.]
HEN Lucien Hem saw his last hundred-franc note gripped by the bank-keeper's rake, and rose from the roulette-table, where he had lost the last fragments of his little fortune, collected for this supreme struggle, he felt giddy, and thought he was going to fall.
With dizzy head and tottering legs, he went and threw himself down upon the broad leathern settee surrounding the play-table.
For some minutes he gazed vacantly on the clandestine gambling-house in which he had squandered the best years of his youth; recognised the ravaged faces of the gamblers, crudely lit by the three large shaded lamps; listened to the light jingle of gold on the cloth-covered table; felt that he was ruined, lost; recollected that he had at home the pair of regulation pistols which his father, General Hem, then a simple captain, had used so well in the attack of Zaatcha; then, overcome by fatigue, he sank into a profound sleep.
When he arose, with a clammy mouth, he saw by the clock that he had slept for barely half an hour, and felt an imperious need for breathing the night air. The clock-hands marked a quarter before midnight. While rising and stretching his arms, Lucien remembered that it was Christmas Eve, and, by an ironic trick of memory, he saw himself a little child, putting its shoes into the chimney before going to bed.
At that moment old Dronski—a pillar of the gaming house, the classic Pole, wearing the threadbare hooded woollen cloak, ornamented all over with grease stains—approached Lucien, and muttered a few words in his grizzled beard: "Lend me a five-franc piece, monsieur. It's now two days since I have stirred out of the club, and for two days the 'seventeen' has never turned up. Laugh at me, if you like, but I'll suffer my hand to be cut off if that number does not turn up on the stroke of midnight."
Lucien Hem shrugged his shoulders. He had not even enough in his pocket to meet this tax, which the frequenters of the place called "The Pole's hundred sous." He passed into the antechamber, took his hat and fur coat, and descended the stairs with feverish rapidity.
Since four o'clock, when Lucien had shut himself up in the gaming-house, snow had fallen heavily, and the street—a street in the centre of Paris, very narrow, and built with high houses on either side—was completely white.
In the calm sky, blue-black, the cold stars glittered.
The ruined gambler shuddered under his furs, and walked away, his mind still teeming with thoughts of despair, and more than ever turning to the remembrance of the box of pistols which awaited him in one of his drawers; but after moving forward a few steps, he stopped suddenly before a heart-wringing sight.
On a stone bench, placed according to old custom near the monumental door of a mansion, a little girl of six or seven years of age, dressed in a ragged black frock, was sitting in the snow. She was sleeping, in spite of the cruel cold, in an attitude of frightful fatigue and exhaustion: her poor little head and tiny shoulder pressed as if they had sunk into an angle of the wall, and reposing on the icy stone. One of her wooden shoes had fallen from her foot, which hung helplessly and lugubriously before her.
With a mechanical gesture, Lucien put his hand to his waistcoat pocket, but a moment afterwards he recollected that he had not been able to find even a forgotten piece of twenty-sous, and had been obliged to leave the club without giving the customary "tip" to the club attendant; yet, moved by an instinctive feeling of pity, he approached the little girl, and might, perhaps, have taken her in his arms and given her a night's lodging, when in the wooden shoe which had slipped from her foot he saw something glitter.
He stooped: it was a gold coin.
Some charitable person, doubtless some lady, had passed by, had seen on this Christmas night the little wooden shoe lying in front of the sleeping child, and, recalling the touching legend, had placed there, with a secret hand, a magnificent offering, so that this poor abandoned one might believe in presents made for the infant Saviour, and preserve, in spite of her misfortune, some confidence and some hope in the goodness of Providence.
"He stole the gold piece from the fallen shoe!"
A gold piece! It was several days of rest and riches for the beggar, and Lucien was on the point of waking her to tell her this, when he heard near his ear, as in an hallucination, a voice—the voice of the Pole, with its coarse drawling accent, almost whispering: "It's now two days since I stirred out of the club, and for two days the 'seventeen' has never turned up; I'll suffer my hand to be cut off, if that number does not turn up on the stroke of midnight."
Then this young man of three-and- twenty, descended from a race of honest men, who bore a proud military name, and who had never swerved from the path of honour, conceived a frightful idea; he was seized with a mad, hysterical, monstrous desire. After glancing on all sides, to make sure that he was alone in the deserted street, he bent his knee, and carefully outstretching his trembling hand, he stole the gold piece from the fallen shoe!
Hurrying then, with all his speed, he returned to the gambling-house, scaled the stairs two and three at a stride, and entering the accursed play-room as the first stroke of midnight was sounding, placed the piece of gold on the green cloth, and cried:—
"I stake on the seventeen!"
The seventeen won.
With a turn of the hand Lucien pushed the thirty-six louis on to the "red."
The "red" won.
He left the seventy-two louis on the same colour; the "red" again won.
Twice he "doubled"—three times—always with the same success. He had now before him a pile of gold and notes, and began to scatter stakes all over the board; the "dozen," the "column," the "number," all the combinations succeeded with him. His luck was unheard of, supernatural. It might have been imagined that the little ivory ball dancing in the roulette was magnetised, fascinated by the eyes of this player and obedient to him. In a dozen stakes he had recovered the few wretched thousand-franc notes, his last resources, which he had lost at the beginning of the evening.
Now, punting with two or three hundred louis at a time, and aided by his fantastic vein of luck, he was on the way to regaining, and more besides, the hereditary capital he had squandered in so few years, and reconstituting his fortune.
In his eagerness to return to the gaming-table, he had not taken off his fur coat. Already he had crammed the large pockets with bundles of notes and rouleaux of gold pieces; and, not knowing where to heap his winnings, he now loaded the inner and exterior pockets of his frock-coat, the pockets of his waistcoat and trousers, his cigar-case, his handkerchief—everything that could be made to hold his money.
And still he played, and still he won, like a madman, like a drunken man! And he threw handfuls of louis on to the "picture," at hazard, with a gesture of certainty and disdain!
Only something like a red-hot iron was in his heart, and he thought of nothing but of the little mendicant sleeping in the snow whom he had robbed.
"Is she still at the same spot! Surely she must be still there! Presently—yes, when one o'clock strikes—I swear it! I will quit this place. I will take her sleeping in my arms and carry her to my home; I will put her into my warm bed; I will bring her up, give her a dowry, love her as if she were my own daughter, care for her always, always!"
But the clock struck one, and then a quarter, and then a half, and then three-quarters.
And Lucien was still seated at the infernal table.
At length, one minute before two o'clock, the keeper of the bank rose abruptly, and said in a loud voice:
"The bank is broken, gentlemen—enough for to-day."
With a bound Lucien was on his feet. Roughly pushing aside the gamblers who surrounded him and regarded him with envious admiration, he hurried away quickly, sprang down the stairs and ran all the way to the stone bench. In the distance, by the light of a lamp, he saw the little girl.
"God be praised!" he said; "she is still there."
He approached her, he took her hands.
"Oh! how cold she is, poor little one!"
He took her under the arms and raised her, so that he might carry her; her head fell back without her awaking.
"How soundly children of her age sleep!
He pressed her against his bosom to warm her, and, seized by a vague inquietude, and, with a view to rousing her out of this heavy slumber, he kissed her eyelids.
Then it was that he perceived with terror that these eyelids were half open, showing half the eyeballs—glassy, lightless, motionless. Upon his brain flashed a horrible suspicion. He placed his mouth close to that of the little girl; no breath came from it.
While with the gold piece which he had stolen from this mendicant, Lucien had won a fortune at the gaming table, the homeless child had died—died of cold!
Seized by the throat by the most frightful of agonies, Lucien tried to utter a cry, and, in the effort which he made, awoke from his nightmare on the club settee, on which he had gone to sleep a little before midnight, and where the attendant who had quitted the house last had left him out of charity.
The misty dawn of a December morning was greying the window-panes.
Lucien went out into the street, pledged his watch, took a bath, breakfasted, and then went to the recruiting-office, and signed an engagement as volunteer in the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs d'Afrique.
At the present time Lucien Hem is a lieutenant; he has only his pay to live upon, but he contrives to make it suffice, being a very steady officer and never touching a card. It appears even that he has found the means of saving, for the other day, at Algiers, one of his comrades who was following him, at a few paces distant, in one of the hilly streets of the Kasba, saw him give something in charity to a little Spanish girl sleeping in a doorway, and had the indiscretion to see what it was that Lucien had given to the child.
Great was his surprise at the poor lieutenant's generosity.
Lucien Hem had put into the hand of the poor child a piece of gold!