Fatal Zero/XV

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

Chapter XV.

Thursday.—I never slept till four this morning. I had the hum of that cursed wheel in my ears. Was there ever man so cruelly persecuted, or made to fight the battle of life so pitilessly? I come here for a little holiday, which I have not had for years, and to pick up some wretched scraps of health; and when I succeed a little, I find my house struck with affliction, and all my means melting away. That child—and Dora's piteous, foolish letter! But what do I say—she is left to me. Wicked tongue that should be cropped out! Am I not ungrateful, brutishly ungrateful, when she remains to me! After all, I have something to be thankful for, deeply thankful for. And a few napoleons loss is not such a crime. Wiser and holier men have lost thousands. No, it is not that. "Cursed!" Oh, what words it has taught me! Well, accursed—there! that is more decent. It is very fine for a sick, worried, badgered soul to be picking his words. I leave that to the complacently virtuous at home, who have nothing to trouble them, and are never tried, and can pray smoothly on a soft hassock. I should like to see these smug pharisees with bills pouring in, they going home without a farthing to meet the bills, and a small bag with a hundred pounds in gold, forgotten by some one on the railway cushion beside them. Not notes which can be stopped or identified. There is the test to put these holy men to. Try a starving curate with it, and insure him against detection.

Another letter lying on the table which I had passed over. Why do they persecute me in this way with their long screeds! Yet I know the hand—Maxwell's—yes. What does he say? More of his underhand work—his stabbing in the dark; but I warn them to take care, for there is a point when the baited soul will turn.

"Sir,—The directors of this bank have learned with surprise that a responsible officer of theirs, entrusted with a serious mission, has become actually notorious for his assiduous attendance at the gambling tables of the place you are now in. When there is considered the extraordinary delay in remitting the large sum of money which was to have been lodged at this bank to Mr. Bernard's credit, very grave and serious suspicions arise as to your behaviour. I am instructed therefore to request you will cease to bring any fresh scandals on the untarnished name of the house, and at once return. The stories that have reached them, would almost justify them in immediate dismissal; but they forbear further action, until it be seen whether you can offer any explanation."

Return! But whither am I to turn for money? Sixty pounds! why it will be to return home and face bailiffs. He told me last time he could give me no more time, and that, on another occasion, I must be punctual. I could no more make out sixty pounds than I could fly. I had better go home at once and face them all. It will be over the sooner. As for any good I have gained by coming to this place, it is all gone now by this worry and affliction. My nerves seem all gone, and my heart last night was almost leaping up every moment I could lie down. God help us all. At any rate, I will get out of this place.

Four o'clock.—I just met Grainger coming out of the room, his hand full of gold. He was exulting an instant, was about making me say to him, "Where is your resolution, your promise?" when I checked myself. What right had I—and indeed, I felt that all this was delusion and I had no right to set up as a preacher.

"Don't blow me up," he said gently, "I can't help it. I have tried and tried. Besides you know, you yourself. By the way, D'Eyncourt says he saw you lose fifty louis last night."

"Where is he?" I said, fiercely; "bring me to him, and I will teach him to invent falsehoods about me."

"Well, you lost something, didn't you? But don't be cast down. I am very sorry for you, very; and I tell you what, here are six naps, all I can afford, and go back and try again."

I turned away with horror. "Never," I said, "I have sunk low enough, God knows; I have done with it and with this place, and if I could only get away home at once, this moment—oh that I had never come!"

He looked at me gravely, then gently took my arm and led me out. "Now my good friend," he said, "forgive me if I speak freely to you. You make too much of this. What is it after all? A few napoleons! Did you never drop money in the street, or have your purse taken out of your pocket? We get over that soon enough. 'It can't be helped,' 'must be endured,' and all that. But a few pieces lost here seems a calamity, like a house burnt down, or a murder. Now you are so sensible and rational and all that, I am sure you will look at it in this way——"

"It is not that," I say, "but——"

"Well, I am glad of it. What is it then—bad news from home? What she? Dora ill?"

Dora! A curious light, and more curious expectancy was in his eyes. I could pass over his speaking of her as "Dora," for I knew he was not conscious of what he was saying. And, indeed, we might have some indulgence. I told him what was the real state of the case. He has a fair heart, and he showed sympathy.

"Well, you have had your share of trials," he said, "but as for this little loss at the tables, you must see how little it enters into the matter. How would you bear with me if I gave you a piece of advice? I know those tables well—they take freaks at times, and then they destroy us all. But in the average state of things, something is to be done with them. You fail once, but you can try again."

"Never," I said. "Never, indeed!"

"Well, you are foolish, I tell you. You have lost so much—take these three naps; if you lose them, it will add very little to your other loss; while these very three might actually win you back your own money. Ay, not only that, but ten times as much."

"Ah, if I had only my own back I should be happy, and ask nothing else."

"Why there are numbers of instances. There was that Jenkinson, that went in with a florin, which I declare solemnly within a quarter of an hour had mounted to a thousand francs. Why there was Lord A., whose one napoleon I saw, myself, grow into ten fat rouleaux as large as sausages. It is not all ill-luck recollect. Some one told me what Whately the archbishop said about 'a rashly cautious man.' There is often as much folly in over caution as in recklessness. Here, then—you are so proud, you will be under no compliment—give me one louis, and I'll go in and play for you. I feel a conviction I can do something."

But he could not persuade me, and I walked away on a miserable stroll up into the woods. As he said so justly, what was the loss of a few gold pieces compared with the heavier trials at home? Dora sick, worried, wearing nearly out, fighting a miserable battle. But still—O the shame and degradation of the thought—that wretched loss of gold would come up, and, I am convinced, is the real oppression on my mind at this moment. Could there be a better proof of the corruption and demoralisation of that vile temple of Satan?

These words of Grainger's are not so foolish after all. As he says, it cannot always go one way; and this did not occur to his mind, that it would amount to quite a suspension of the laws of chance, if there was to be ill-luck always against the players, or even against the player himself on different days. As the ball cannot drop into say number twenty-six, ten times running, or even three times, so a player cannot always be failing. He loses now, but may win next time. This is a sound analysis, though a little too refined for Grainger's intellect. Still his reasoning was just about risking one piece more or two. It makes the loss very little more, but might abolish the loss itself altogether. Oh, my poor sweet little pieces, if I had them back what a relief, what joy, what a new life, even as an earnest of hope of better things coming. There is the table d'hôte bell. But I have no heart to dine.

Eleven o'clock, p.m.—Heaven is very good—too good to me. I go to bed more cheerful. Something drew me into those vile rooms after my wandering about miserable and purposeless; indeed it was to escape from myself during those weary hours. I felt a sort of thrill and sinking at my heart. I drew near and looked at the fatal table; it was another winning night, and every one in spirits and excitement, and picking up gold and silver. My trembling fingers were really drawn by an overpowering instinct to my pocket, and, literally without my knowledge, I found I had my only stake in my hand ready to put down. Then there was a new combination. I remarked there was an alternation, a zigzag going backwards and forwards, and taking advantage of this, I was impelled irresistibly to put down. I won, and breathed. I won again, and went on, and have now got back six out of my ten. O, God is very good—too good! I meet Grainger going out.

"Well done," he said, "I saw you, though I did not wish to show myself, for fear of making you nervous. Your moves were bold, and worthy of a general, and your retreat just in time."

"To-morrow I know I shall get back the rest, perhaps more. Even a few louis more would be something, but I should be quite content."

I went back again.

One o'clock p.m.—As I went out of the Kursaal down the steps on to the terrace, I could hardly keep myself from giving a cry. My heart so light, so airy, so bounding, so full of hope. I had to walk round and round those gardens before I could trust myself to sit down calmly, and take out what I had in my pocket. O my sweet darling pieces, there they are on the table before me, all come home to me again, rescued from the vile harpies who would destroy us all, wreck the happiness of families for a single double florin. Let me look again, and set them out on the table before me, eight, nine, ten. Then, again, one, two, three, four, five, and five double florins, which make six louis, and nearly another louis in single florins, nearly seven louis profit. Nearly the sixth of our rent. O, Heaven is good—too good to me. I do not deserve such bounty; for only think what it would have been had I lost all that! What would have been my state of agony and despair! Safe, rescued, restored, I have done with them now for ever, for ever. Ministers of Mephistopheles, you did your best with me, but you have come out of the fight rather the worse, I think. You had nearly been successful, but you will not find us all victims. Some of us are your match. I feel so well and happy, I shall feast royally, that is, treat myself to a little bottle of Hockheimer. I have been so low, I want it.

To-day has quite an air of a festival. I see the singing Diva. The little lady with the marble face and projecting chin is singing, and I think after my victories two or three florins' worth of sweet music will be welcome. I so love music, though not this opera. I had wished for the melodious Traviata, often promised and denied by this tricky administration. To-night it is Crispino, a sparkling little comic opera, full of pretty tunes, and well suited to the tricks and caprices of the little lady whom we call a Diva, for the lack of a better one. I must say I am a little dazzled by what the administration have done in the way of a theatre. A more gorgeous and elegant little temple of its size it would not be possible to frame. Well filled, charming dresses, and elegant people. I see near me, in the stalls, a little party whom I have noticed often; a young girl, so strangely like my Dora at home, that it makes me start; the same rich dark hair, the same refined turn in the face, the same look of sparkling gaiety and enjoyment which was Dora's attraction, with large heavy Italian earrings that seemed almost Indian in shape. A dull Englishman beside her talked and whispered the whole time, and prevented her attending to the music—I dare say thought he was recommending himself vastly. I could wish she had snubbed him as he deserved. I am in such spirits and shall go out now, have a cup of coffee and chocolate, and then walk about the gardens in the balmy night air, looking up at the illuminated terrace. I have grown quite fond of that pacing up and down in these gardens so late. Such dreams and speculations have floated before me there as I look up to the calm and placid sky over the trees!

I can almost smile at myself and my awful state yesterday. I am far too sensitive, and I am sure if any of these good and proper people here—had they lost money even that did not belong to them—would take it quietly enough. Their withers would not be wrung on such provocation, and they would make some complacent excuses to themselves. Some would say I was scrupulous, too scrupulous; which would be according to their imperfect lights. How can they tell, or what can they know? I pierce deeper, and can tell them it was another matter, some thousand miles away, I was thinking of. It was my Dora and home that was present to me—her dear letter and distresses. "A dark cloud," she wrote, in her graphic style, "which will pass away." This was what was overshadowing me. This unselfish motive, as indeed, without vanity, I may call it. I was not thinking of a trumpery loss, and of such poor contemptible enemies, whose game is in my hands, and who are almost children to me at their own weapons and machinery, which take in a few fools, and them only. And, by the way, how curious the analogy here, even to morals and virtue. What a testimony to the great and good advice, which so often goes in at one ear and out at the other, not to be dispirited at a reverse, but "bide your time." Even to their debasing chicanery that golden rule applies. Valuable lesson, indeed; though I had a distinct idea there could be no doubt about it. There is a uniformity in all these dispensations which applies universally; and thus, à la Jaques, we find good in everything.

What a thing the sense of power is! Poor "huckaback" minds of the common cheap pattern, never can look beyond the immediate moment. Defeat or repulse for a time is with them defeat for ever. They cannot understand the masterly policy of retreat preparatory to an advance—the "reculer pour mieux sauter." The timid and ignorant dabbler in the funds sells on a fall; the spirited speculator holds and buys more. So with your common vulgar players, who fly disheartened by a loss. The rascals who hold the tables know this well. They thought I would have done the same. I am tempted to try and give them a lesson once and for ever. It would be a bit of triumph to show them my skill fairly, and I do not see that I am bound to show them any quarter. They would have shown me none yesterday. Our government gives the criminal no quarter, and takes his spoil from him. I dare say when I go home and tell my story, I shall have to meet reproaches, and even a wounded surprise from Dora. "If you could do all this I think a few pounds for our pressing necessities could have been no great sin." No great sin! Certainly not, my pet; and your gentle soul is scarcely trained enough to appreciate these niceties. The example is something; but you would hardly follow me if I said that by way of punishment to them it would be no such harm.

With light heart I went in again. I saw a ruefulness and distrust in the pinched face of M. B. He knew that I knew him and his ways. He knew, too—for these men note the most trifling incidents of the day—that I had got back from them everything they had tricked me out of, and more. I could see the mortification in his eyes. Studying the game more carefully, it is amazing what fresh lights and instincts break in on me. If I had but time I could develop the whole into a science, whose certainty and accuracy would be assured. But your pedant, even if he knew its rules, would infallibly break down; because, like the skilful general, there are moments when you must fling away rule and trust to instinct—a glorious instinct, quite as infallible. I felt it all to-day, and scarcely ever was at fault. The strangest "power" I see is that of Zero, and there is one man present, who I admit, has some of this instinct with a true knowledge of the laws and seasons that relate to this Zero. I see too plainly the most amazing results could be obtained. . . . . I am half provoked with myself for not obeying the silent supernatural invitations I received a dozen times to-day—it is like flinging away the blessings of nature, ever bountiful. If they challenge me in this way so persistently—well, before I go, a few minutes—as an experiment——

Midnight.—O wretched, miserable, weak fool, I deserve it all, every bit of it! It was blind, cursed folly, and madness! O, what is to become of me now? All gone! All this money—I don't know how much, and what does it matter now? O, I must hold my very heart—I cannot breathe. O wicked, wicked, vile scoundrel! What am I to do? Nothing left—all gone—and I cannot fly from this place! O den of thieves and worse than murderers, you have undone me at last! Let me see, now, let me turn out these pockets. Yes, five, six florins, and three wretched kreutzers; and one—yes, and another—just two napoleons left. O you fool, you base, mean, pitiful scoundrel! What is to become of me now? Their devilish seduction—letting me win at first, then a little loss, and that desperate doubling to get all back! My brains, my wits, all fled, and I saw nothing but the cursed green board. If I had had a hundred more it must have followed, for it was a necessity I should get it back. O, it will never come back, and I am ruined and disgraced for ever. Let me die. I cannot show my face.

Thus the whole of that day went by—I, with a sort of restless demon locked up in me, which would not allow me to remain quiet three minutes in one position. If I sit for a few minutes, flutter, flutter, begins every nerve in my whole system. My heart throbs as if from machinery, and the only thing, it seems, that can save me, is to leap up and walk—walk furiously, in any direction. Passing by objects swiftly,—trees, men, and women—that gives me a relief, that headlong motion disturbs the beat of the pendulum, and whirling wheels. I have not time to think from the physical action. Oh, such a long, long day! O the leaden wings of the hours dragging on like the foreshadowed eternity! . . . I dared not go near that terrible red-stone palace. I shrank from it as from a burning furnace, whose glow spread for half a mile round—from itself, from its gardens, from the very look, seen so far off. I was carrying the raging glowing embers of a stove within me. Oh, the miles I paced up and down and round those streets, something drawing me, and I struggling against the influence, to the red sandstone palace.

But at last the noon was past—the evening came; and then I knew the lamps had been brought in there, and the true business begun. The brigands and ruffians who had stopped me and pillaged me, had other prey now. Oh, those hours!—then the night! . . .