Tales of To-day and Other Days/A Case of Conscience
A Case of Conscience.
I HAD gone into the club upon leaving the opera and stopped in front of the baccarat table. I was observing matters from my perch on one of those high chairs that are placed there for the accommodation of such players as may have been unable to find room at the board and of simple onlookers like myself. It was what was called, in club parlance, a stiff game. The banker, a good-looking young man in evening dress with a gardenia in his buttonhole, had lost about three thousand louis, but his features, those of a man about town of twenty-five, were set impassibly to conceal all evidence of emotion. All was that the corner of the mouth that kept letting fall the fateful words: "I deal—cards—baccarat—That's a point" would not have chewed so fiercely the end of an unlighted cigar had not the cold fever of the game weighed heavily on his heart. Facing him a white-haired individual, a professional gambler, was acting as croupier, and this person took no pains to conceal his vexation at the run of ill-luck which, at every deal, was reducing the dimensions of the pile of coin and counters before him. On the other hand the most cheerful complacency illumined the visages of the punters who were seated around the table as they deposited their stakes on the cloth and marked the run of the cards on bits of paper with their lead pencils, that evidence of belief in the efficacy of "combinations" that the least superstitious cannot help putting their trust in as soon as they touch a card. There can be no doubt there is some inexplicable attraction that exercises a most potent sway over the inner nature in the spectacle of every conflict, even if it be only a battle between a seven and eight or an ace and king, for there we all were, forty-nine beside myself, standing about those gamesters and watching that game, quite unconscious that the night was waning. What philosopher is there who will explain this phenomenon, that every night in Paris there are so many people stricken with immobility after the clock has struck twelve, just where they happen to be, no matter where, anywhere except in their own homes where they might find rest from their labors and their pleasures? Speaking for myself I do not regret that I yielded that night to the deleterious delight of noctambulism, for if I had been virtuous and gone home at a respectable hour, I should not have encountered my friend Frémiot, the painter, sitting all alone at his small table in the salon where supper is served and about to take a cup of bouillon, and he would not have offered to give me a seat in his carriage and set me down at my own door, and I should not have heard him tell a gambling story which I set down in black and white the very next morning as well as I knew how and which he has given me, also, permission to tell through the medium of my pen.
"What the devil were you doing at the club at midnight and after," he asked me, "since you were not taking supper?"
"I was watching them play," I replied. "I left little Lautrec in a nice way. His losses were up among the sixty thousand——"
Just as I uttered this sentence the coupé gave a jolt. I had a good view of Frémiot in profile, as he was lighting his cigarette, with that air of his, à la Francis the First,—the Francis of Titian in the Louvre,—the beauty of which his forty-five years, good measure, have only served to fill out, and, as it were, solidify. Is it not singular enough that with his shoulders of a life-guardsman, his redundancy of form and that mask of self-indulgent, almost gluttonous, sensuality, this giant is yet the most delicate, the most nicely appreciative of our painters of flowers? It is proper to add that the voice that issues from this gladiator's chest is most musically sweet, and his hands,—I took note of them afresh as they were manipulating the little taper and the cigarette,—are of a slenderness that is almost womanlike. Besides, I know by experience that this man-at-arms is a person of exquisite feeling, and I was not greatly astonished by the mournful confidence that my remarks about gambling had involuntarily elicited. There was abundant time, as it fortunately happened, for him to impart this confidence to me in all its details. As we approached the Seine the fog grew denser and our horses had to proceed at a walk, while my companion abandoned himself entirely to remembering, viva voce, for my benefit, a history that was now of very ancient date. Doubtless this impression of the past, to which the artist was yielding, was augmented by the fantastic, shadowy outlines of other coupés meeting ours in that nauseous fog that was almost black, and through which the, gas-lamps cast shafts of light here and there, for his voice gradually fell and became very low and gentle, as if he were going back in spirit far, very far from me, who kept interrupting him from time to time, just sufficiently to keep his memory on the alert.
"For my part," he began, "I never played but once, and, if you will believe me, at this day I cannot even stand by and watch people playing. There are times, you know, when one's nerves are not in the very best condition, and then, the mere sight of a playing-card compels me to leave the room. Ah! that one single game of mine conjures up such terrible memories. . . ."
"Who is there that has not memories of that description?" I interrupted. "Was not I present when our poor friend Paul Durieu engaged in a quarrel in that very club that we have just left on account of a doubtful trick? and then came that absurd duel, and we buried him four days after I had shaken hands with him, there, right in front of that gambling-table. Cards always carry a bit of tragedy in their train, and crime, and dishonor, and suicide. Still, all that does not keep people from going back to them, just as in Spain they go back to the bull-fights, for all the disemboweled horses, the wounded picadors and the slaughtered bull."
"That may be so," replied Frémiot, "but no one ought to be the cause in his own person of one of those tragedies, and that is just what happened to me. Oh! the circumstances connected with it were quite simple . . . . but when I shall have told you them you will understand how it is that the most innocent round game causes me that same little chill of horror that a man who had unintentionally killed some one while cleaning his weapon would feel when passing a shooting-gallery. It was the very year that I was admitted as a member of the club, in 1875, and that was also the year of my first success at the Salon. . . . ."
"Your Ophelia among the Flowers? Don't I remember it? I can see before me now the cluster of pink roses beside the blonde tresses, roses that were so delicately, tenderly pink, and then over the heart those black roses, as if they had been dipped in blood. Who owns that picture now?"
"An American," said the painter with a sigh, "and he paid forty thousand francs for it, while I sold it at the time for fifteen hundred. Ah! in those days I was not the lucky artist of whom your alter ego Claude Latcher unkindly said; 'Happy Frémiot! his occupation consists in looking all day long at a bunch of lilacs which brings him in ten thousand francs.'—Between you and me he would have done as well to select some other person than an old friend as the subject of his witticisms. But if I mention money," he continued, touching me on the arm to keep me from answering him and defending my old friend Claude, "believe me that it is not with any idea of making a merit of my commercial value. No; I only speak of it because those fifteen hundred francs have something to do with my adventure. You must consider that I had never had such a sum in my possession at once. Times were so hard with me at the beginning. I came up to Paris with a yearly allowance from my native town of a thousand francs, and for six years I lived on it contentedly, or nearly so."
"But you couldn't have done it!" I exclaimed.
"Oh! yes; it was entirely possible," he replied, with evident pride. "A few chums and I went to housekeeping together. One of our number had a little friend who had been a cook,—pardon me, but it is the truth,—and she used to get us up two meals a day for forty-five francs a month. Room rent was fifteen francs. We had no servants; I used to make my own bed. There you have it; sixty francs procured me the necessaries of life. I was togged out like a chimney-sweep, and I never thought of such a thing as taking the omnibus. My comrades lived in the same way, and we were not so very badly off, after all. There was Tardif the sculptor, Sudre the animal painter, Rivals the engraver, and then the one who was more fortunate in his belongings than any of us, the 'Cantinier' of our 'Cantinière,' as we used to call them, Ladrat."
"Ladrat? Ladrat?" said I, rummaging my memory, "I know that name."
"You have seen it in the newspapers," rejoined the painter, upon whose countenance appeared a pained look;" but I am coming to him. This Ladrat, who carried off all the prizes at the Art School, was even in those days the victim of the most horrible of vices: he drank. What would you have? In the life that we led, almost that of laborers, where there was too little restraint, mingling constantly as we did with models and workingmen, we were exposed to many low temptations, and to that particular one more than any other. Ladrat had succumbed to it. I have to tell you that in order that presently you may not judge me too severely. It was this terrible habit, indeed, that was the cause of his losing his prix de Rome: he got so drunk that the composition which he had begun with the hand of a master he finished recklessly, à la diable. In short, in 1875 he was the only one of our number who had remained an inhabitant of Bohemia, and in the lowest part of Bohemia. He had degenerated into what we call a 'tapeur,' a man who goes from studio to studio, borrowing a hundred sous here and something more there without any intention of ever paying. A life like that often lasts for years."
"Was he accustomed, at least, to express his gratitude by insulting his benefactor a bit?" I asked, "like a man whom I used to know and who never came to my room without asking me for 'something for the little chapel'—that was his invariable formula—and then insulting me by way of keeping on good terms with his dignity? He comes in one day and finds me busy correcting proof for an article that was about to appear. He begs. I give him something. 'Monsieur,' he says, slipping the piece of silver into his pocket, 'if you wish to know whether a writer has talent or not, all you have to do is to find out whether his copy is accepted at the newspaper offices. If it is accepted, his sentence is pronounced; he is a man of mediocrity. Good-by.' There was a man for you."
"No," said Frémiot, "that was not Ladrat's way. He would thank you, burst into tears, swear that he would go to work and then go out to the café and get blind-drunk on absinthe. Then he would be ashamed and keep out of the way for some days. Besides, the loans that he asked for were always ridiculously small in amount. I was not a little astonished, therefore, on returning to my house one afternoon to find a letter from him in which he requested a loan of no less a sum than two hundred francs. I had not seen anything of him for six months, and he told me a long story how he had been struggling against his vice during those six months, that he had quit drinking, that he had tried to work, that his strength had given out, that his wife was ill—he was living with his cantinière still; in a word, one of those pitiful begging letters that it makes your heart ache to receive."
"When you believe them," I insinuated, "for one receives so many communications of that description during ten years of life in Paris, and out of the whole lot there won't be two that have a word of truth in them."
"It is better to take the chance of being duped in all the other cases than to allow those two to pass unheeded," said the painter. "Moreover, I had no reason to question Ladrat's truthfulness at the time. It so happened that I had received the fifteen hundred francs for the Ophelia that very day. I have always been very exact in money matters. I was not in debt to the extent of a centime and I had a sum about equivalent to the amount requested lying in my drawer. My studio was equipped and my wardrobe supplied for several years to come. I remember taking mental account of my financial position as I was brushing my coat to go out to one of my first dinners in society, a dinner where I was received as something of a lion, and to which I brought the appetite of a famished man and the self-sufficiency of a schoolboy. Under such circumstances the genuineness of the wines and of the compliments is taken for granted with equal confidingness. At all events, I compared my own situation with that of my former chum of the South and experienced one of those benevolent impulses that are as natural to youth as activity and good spirits; I took ten louis and put them in an envelope and addressed it to Ladrat, then I summoned my concierge. If this man had only been on hand my old comrade would have had the money that same evening, but as it was he happened to be out on some errand. 'It will do as well to-morrow,' I said to myself, and went out, leaving the envelope lying on my table in readiness for him. I was so firmly resolved in mind to do the action that I experienced in advance that mean little feeling of vanity and self-laudation that is always inspired by the consciousness that one is doing a generous deed. It is not a very creditable sentiment, that vanity is not, but it is very human. To this vanity was presently added another one, and this was of an excessively gross description. At the house where I dined I found myself seated between two very stylish women, who seemed to endeavor to outdo each other in the flattering attentions which they lavished on me. To make my story short, I left about eleven o'clock, completely overmastered by one of those attacks of fatuousness which make a man think that he owns the earth, and I brought up at our club, under the guidance of one of my fellow-guests who had offered me his services to do the honors, for I knew none of the members and had not set foot in the building in the six weeks since I had been elected a member. A couple of painters had put up my name, and the prospect of the approaching annual exposition was the only thing that had determined me to allow it to be voted on.
"We entered the main saloon, and so unsophisticated was I that I had to ask my conductor the name of the game that had collected such a crowd of men about the table. He laughed, and in two words explained to me the rules of baccarat. 'Doesn't it tempt you?' he asked. 'Why shouldn't it?' I laughingly replied, 'but I have no money about me.' Then he explained to me, still laughing all the while, how I might obtain any sum that I desired, upon parole, up to three thousand francs, simply by going to the cashier and signing a note, with the understanding that the note was to be taken up within twenty-four hours. Since then I have learned that the young man tempted me to play so that he might play himself upon a beginner's luck. I should have been tempted without his assistance, however; it was one of those moments for me when I might have shouted as once another man shouted to his boatman in the storm: 'You carry Cæsar and his fortunes!' Oh! a very small Cæsar it was, and a very small fortune, for I seated myself at the table, saying to my companion: 'I am going to sign a note for five louis, and if I lose, I shall go home!'"
"And you lost, and you remained. My pocket-book could tell just the same story," I replied with a laugh, "for I also remember making good resolutions like yours and then breaking them."
"The matter was not so simple as that," rejoined Frémiot. "My tempter, who had taken a seat beside me, tells me to wait until I get a hand. I obey him. The hand comes to me, I throw down a nine. I had staked my five louis. 'Go paroli,' whispers my adviser. I follow his instructions. I throw down an eight. Again I double, there comes a seven, and I win. In a word, from nine to eight and from eight to seven I win six times hand-running. At the seventh hand, counseled by my companion still, I bet only a louis. I lose, but I have something like sixty louis in front of me. My friend, who is a winner to about the same extent, rises and says to me: 'If you are wise, you will do as I do.' But I no longer heeded what he told me; I had experienced a sensation that was too strong to allow me to part with it thus. I am not what you call a great analyst, and I do not spend my life in taking account of my thoughts and feelings, so you will pardon me if I do not go into details and if I make use of metaphors to express what was passing in my mind. During the brief moments when I had been winning all my being had been invaded and possessed, as it were, by a sudden access of delirious pride. I was excited and raised aloft by a sort of exalted notion of my own personality. I have experienced a similar feeling when swimming through a heavy sea. That vast, moving mass of water that threatens you, that holds you suspended on its crest, and that you vanquish by sheer muscular strength, yes, that is the exact counterpart of what play was to me in this first period–the period of winning–for I won again in the same proportions as before, and then still again. I laid large amounts only on my own hand, and on that of the others my stakes were insignificant, but each time that I touched the cards my luck was so marvelous that at first a deep silence prevailed about me, succeeded, when I threw down, by something like a thrill of admiration. If it had not been for that admiration, perhaps I might have had the courage to quit. Alas! I have always had the self-esteem of Satan himself, and it has got me into a hundred scrapes, and will get me into many another before I die. I know it, I confess it, but there is no use talking; when the gallery has its eyes on me, I can't endure to have people say: 'He has backed down.' To be like that when the scene is laid upon the bridge of Arcola is sublime, but at a baccarat table, while awaiting the turn of a card, it is idiotic, and yet it was owing to nothing in the world but that childish vanity that, after having cut such a dash with my good luck, I was unwilling to submit to the bad when I saw it coming my way. For I did see it; there came a moment when I understood that I was going to lose, and the sort of clear-sightedness of victory that had made me take up my cards with absolute confidence all at once grew dim. It was written that in the course of one sitting I was to become acquainted with all the emotions that gambling affords its devotees, for after having known the intoxicating delight of winning I had the cold, cutting intoxication of losing. Ah! it is all the same. You know the celebrated mot: 'At cards, after the pleasure of winning comes the pleasure of losing.' I know of no other expression that so well depicts that morbid eagerness, that mixture of hope and despair, of cool calculation and rash daring. We look to vanquish adverse fortune and are certain of ourselves being vanquished. Our reasoning faculties desert us and we play a game that we know to be absurd. And the chips disappear; first the white, then the red, then the blue, and we put our name to more notes.
"After having had the self-control for ten long years to think twice before spending thirty-five sous for cab-hire, as I had done, we make bets of five hundred francs without hesitating. But I will sum up the situation for you in very few words: I had entered the club at eleven o'clock; when I turned the key in my door at two I had lost and owed the whole sum of three thousand francs that I had obtained upon my credit, and, as I told you, it was nearly all that I possessed in the world."
"Well, well!" said I, "if you did not become a confirmed gambler after such a shaking up as that, it was because you hadn't it in you. It was enough to ruin a man forever."
"You are right," rejoined Frémiot, "when I awoke the following morning after the lethargic slumber that always succeeds such sensations, the scene of the preceding night arose before my mind in its entirety and I had but two ideas in my head: to secure my revenge that same evening and to utilize the experience that I had acquired in the combination of my bets. I mentally reviewed certain deals, where I had lost and where I should have won. All at once my eyes fell on the envelope that was lying on the table addressed to Ladrat. An involuntary calculation passed through my head which made it clear to me that the gift of that money would be a foolish sacrifice. After paying the three thousand francs that I owed I would have scarcely anything left. To get together a stake sufficient to allow me to return to the place that evening, and I felt that I could not avoid returning, I should have to borrow from the picture-dealer; sell some of my studies for what they would bring. I could scrape together fifty louis in this way, and out of those fifty louis I was going to divert ten for that drone, that sot, that liar!–for I wished to prove to myself that his letter was nothing more than a tissue of falsehoods; I took it up and reread it. Ah! its accents again penetrated my heart. But no; I would not listen to that voice, and I jumped hurriedly from my bed to write a note of refusal–and I made it curt and cold, so that the breach between my old comrade and my pity might be irreparable. Once the note was dispatched I experienced a feeling of shame and remorse, but I stifled it as well as I could among the occupations that the day had in store for me. 'Besides,' I said to myself, by way of quieting my conscience, 'if I win there will be plenty of time to send Ladrat the money to-morrow–and win I shall.'"
"And you won?" I said to him as he ceased.
"Yes," he replied, in a voice that was quite unlike his own; "but the next day it was too late. Immediately upon receiving my note Ladrat, who had not been lying to me, was doubtless seized with the madness of despair. He and his companion formed the fatal resolution of suffocating themselves. They were found dead in their bed; and it was I–do you understand, I,–who gave the order to break down the door. I had come there with the two hundred francs. Yes, it was too late. That is how it is that you remember having read that name of Ladrat in the newspapers. Now can you understand why it is that the mere sight of a card is horrible to me?"
"Nonsense," said I, "if you had sent him the money the night before it might have saved him for a month or two, but he would have relapsed, his vice would have reconquered him, and his end would have been the same."
"That may be true," replied the painter, "but one ought never to be that last drop of water that causes the vase to overflow."