The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 100/Court-Cards

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Featured in Volume 17, Number 100 of The Atlantic Monthly. (February 1866)

COURT-CARDS.

What a hand the Major has dealt me! Do look over my shoulder, Madam, and see these cards! What quaint, odd, old-time figures they are! I wonder if the kings and queens of by-gone centuries were such grotesque-looking objects as these. Look at that Queen of Spades! Why, Dr. Slop's abdominal sesquipedality was sylph-like grace to the Lambertian girth she displays. And note the pattern of her dress, if dress it can be called,—that rotund expanse of heraldic, bar-sinistered, Chinese embroidery. Look at that Jack of Diamonds! What a pair of collar-bones he must have! That little feat of Atlas would be child's-play to him; for he could step off with a whole orrery on those shoulders. And his hands! what Liliputian phalanges, which Beau Brummel, or D'Orsay, or any other professional dandy might die envying! As for the King of Hearts, he looks as much like a pet of the fair sex as Boanerges or Bung the Beadle. And what strange anatomical proportions they exhibit, with their gigantic heads, abortive necks, and the calves of their legs protuberant around their tibias and fibulas, alike before and behind! And then they are all left-handed! Were these the gay gallants and fair dames of the golden age of chivalry? Were these shapeless things the forms and costumes of the princes and princesses of ancient France? Why, the dark-skinned old-clo' men, who hang their cast-off raiment in Brattle Street, would be mobbed, if they paraded such vestments at their doors; and Papanti would break his fiddle-bow over the head of any awkward lout who should unfortunately assume such an ungainly position.

But the power they wield! Ah, my dear Madam, kings and queens may be backed like a whale or humped like a camel, but down goes the world on its marrow-bones, and worships them for Venuses and Adonises. And as for this particular reigning family, these four great branches of the Hearts, Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs, Diana, fresh from the bath, never looked so enticing to the eager eyes of a losing player as their Brobdignagian dames, nor Apollo himself so beautiful as the ugly mugs of their lumbering kings. The Baroness Bernstein would bend her old back over the table to greet their wall-eyed monarchs, and forget young Harry was by; and little Nell's grandfather would bow beneath the midnight candle to caress those greasy Gorgons, while she, sweet little girl, was waiting his return in loneliness. All the other crowned heads of Christendom are titled nobodies beside these mighty potentates. The General of the Jesuits wields, they say, wonderful power; but his sceptre is a bulrush beside the truncheon which these kings of the earth hold in their grasp. And here, yes, here in Republican America, the thousands who scout Napoleon, frown on Victoria, and pity the Pope, do nightly homage to this mighty dynasty, and find grace and loveliness in their bottle noses and crooked legs. And—must I confess it, Madam?—do not I, democratic Asmodeus, when I play my quiet rubber at so much a corner, look chopfallen at the deuces and treys which I despondently arrange in numerical order, and welcome, with beating heart, those same crowned heads, as they lift themselves before me? Oh, it is not gambling, Madam. Only something to make it interesting, so that the Major and I shall keep our minds on the game.

And do we not all play our little game in the world,—sometimes with all that makes it bright to us at stake? What is the paltry sum beside me to that which we all of us hold in our hands, to be decided by the deal of Fortune? You don't play whist. And yet, Madam, I have seen you at a game of chance, in which you have risked your peace, your happiness, your future, upon what another should deal out to you. You don't understand me? In the great game of life, Frank offered you his hand, and you took it. I hope it held court-cards. We are all players. The lean and sanctified bigot, who looks in holy horror on this printed pasteboard, as though it were the legitimate offspring of the Devil and Dr. Faustus, plays his own pious game at winning souls, and risks—charity. The griping money-catcher, who shudders at the thought of losing gold in spendthrift play, takes his own close and cunning game at winning wealth, and risks—esteem. The ambitious aspirant, who scorns such empty things as cards, plays boldly at his daring game at winning position, and risks—honor. The bright-eyed girl throws heart and soul into the enchanting game of love, and risks—virtue. Charity, esteem, honor, virtue,—are not these great stakes to offer, beside which my modest risk sinks into very insignificance? Ah, we all play, and with what varied success! How many poor, unlucky wights turn up deuces all their life, while others, born under luckier stars, hold a fistful of kings and queens! How many eyes grow dim over the faint chances of small digits, while others sparkle in the reflected light of those regal robes! Ah, my dear Madam, not only in dank forecastles, in foul taverns, in luxurious club-houses, or elegant saloons, does Fortune deal out her winning or losing cards. She spreads them before us on the green cloth of life's table, in that game which counts up its gains or losses in another world.

Did you ever see an aëronaut, when he has risen high above the earth, scatter, with lavish hand, a host of little cards, which flutter down upon us, twisting and turning, in showers of glittering colors? He but typifies the hand of Fate, which deals to us, brilliant with the hopes that tint them in rainbow beauty, the cards of life's eager game. We gather them up joyfully; but, alas! how rapidly their fictitious beauty fades, and what miserable pasteboard affairs they become to us, as, one by one, we lay them down, and see our treasures dwindling away from us with them, as they go!

Somebody must win? Yes, Madam, somebody gets the court-cards. We all get them sometimes; and we too often play them very wrongly. We throw away our kings and our queens. We pass by the opportunities to score, while some happier child of fortune bears off all the honors. But not always. Fortune rarely pursues any of us with unremitting ill-will. She sends us all court-cards, and we have only to trust on and wait for the change that is to bring, at last, success. Let us never throw up our hands in despair. Somebody—he must have been a tailor, or with sartorial proclivities—has said that there is a silver lining to every cloud. And so we all of us hold hands, which, among deuces and treys, have some court-cards. Let us not then inveigh against the goddess who blindly distributes them. Be it our aim to play those well which fall to our share, and not recklessly cast them away, because we find fewer of those broad-shouldered, goggle-eyed, party-colored gentry than we hoped for. No! let us tuck them carefully away under our thumbs, and make the most of them.

Perhaps Asmodeus may have pined in grief, playing his little deuces and never winning the great stake of fame;—but who shall tell? May not his hopeful heart break forth some day with regnant power which shall bear away the prize? Frank, you know, has toiled day and night for wealth to buy comfort and ease for his modest home. He has made his little ventures, and has seen his dreams of grand results fade from him, day by day. Let him venture on. By-and-by his vessels shall come home laden with noble freights; and his name shall be favorably known on 'Change, and be printed in the lists of men who pay heavy taxes on swelling fortunes; and you shall have your jewels and trinkets with the best. Pinxit, who has been starving in his garret, and whose walls are lined with dusty canvas, shall lay on colors which shall charm the world; his old, neglected frames shall be brought out, and the world shall find Apollos in his men, and Venuses in his women, which before were only meaner beauties; Vanitas shall loiter round his easel and command his pencil with ready gold; and Art-Journals shall rehearse his praises in strange, cabalistic words. Scripsit, who has digested his paltry rasher in moody silence, shall touch the hearts of men with new-born words of flame; and the poor epic, which once had served a clownish huckster's vulgar need, shall travel far and wide, in blue and gold, and lie on tables weighed with words familiar in all mouths. Patrista, who, thirsting for his country's good, has been, perforce, content to see all others rise and sway the crowd, while he has toiled in vain, shall shake the nation with his eloquence, and from his chair of state, whence go abroad the statutes he has framed, shall read again his earlier works, now rescued from the past to teach the young. Reporters on his words shall hang, from every window shall his sapient visage smile, and even the London Times shall think it worth the while to underrate him.

And then, my dear Madam, we rarely play alone. The melancholy unfortunates reduced to solitaire are few indeed. We have partners, Madam, to share our losses and our gains,—partners to mourn over our poor little lost deuces, and rejoice when royalty holds its court under our thumbs. Have not I beloved Mrs. Asmodeus, the lovely, kind, clever partner of my varied fortune? Did she not deal to me, one summer eve, the best bower in the pack, who reigns over all the kings and queens in or out of Christendom, and whose sway remains supreme through all the changing suits of time and fortune? He does not sport the garb of those elder knaves, it is true, though he is knavish enough when occasion offers,—he is at this moment inspecting a new jack-knife, and will, I fear, whittle off one of his dear, chubby fingers,—but he outranks all the crowned monarchs in the world. Whom do I mean? Whom, but Thomas the First, Thomas the Only, my first-born, royal son? When that king of your own heart was taken from you,—when the little frocks, richer than ermine robes, were hid away in sacred recesses,—when the little toys, mightier than jewelled sceptres, were garnered up and kept as holy relics,—when the house no longer echoed to the tones of the sweet childish voice, and the silence of the grave settled over earth,—when the glare of day was hateful and the darkness of night fearful, and life, without the darling one, was living death,—had you not then a partner, a kind, tender, sympathizing partner, who took you to his heart, and bowed his head with you, and knit you closer to him by a bond the strongest life can weave, the bond of sorrow shared? And look farther back into the past, before sorrow came, and when light-hearted, beaming, hoping joy dwelt within you. When you used to catch Frank's eye with those tiny boots and flowing skirts, as you gracefully swept by him, had you not a partner to share those throbbing emotions? Were not all the hopes, dreams, and doubts, which then awoke, new-born within you, reëchoed and fondly shared? Did he not bear away, for days and nights, the brightness of your smile, the bend of your angelic head, and the trip of the tiny boots? And when the Heaven-sent moment came for the tongue to tell what the heart had so long cherished in silence, was there not a partner before you who dealt out words which filled your soul with rapture, and helped you to win the dearest prize that earth affords,—a mutual love? And look farther on into the distant future, when the tiny boots shall have long been cast aside, and the flowing silks shall have sunken into inexpansive, sober gray,—when the early joys and the early sorrows shall fade into the dim, half-remembered past,—when time shall have blanched the curly locks which first caught your girlish fancy, and lined the fair brow you once kissed in its manly beauty,—when the bloom of your own youth shall have passed away, and, in its stead, you see the faded remnants of your queenly prime,—when round you gather the fair youths and maidens who are living over the joys and sorrows which once moved your tired heart, and which you then shall look upon with that sad philosophy which tells you that the day has come when earthly interests can never sway you more,—will you not then have a partner who will share the memories of the past, and, heart to heart, will tread with you the slow decline, and win the prize outranking all,—eternal peace?

Yes, Madam, Jack has his messmate in the tarry bunk; Dick has his pal in the hidden haunt; the Major winks to the Colonel in the luxurious club; and Madame smiles on Monsieur in the brilliant drawing-room. Castor and Pollux pitched their quoits, Damon and Pythias ran their races, Strephon and Chloë ogled and blushed, and Darby and Joan tottered hand in hand along, in olden times; and all over the world, to-day, the never-ending game of human passion is played and shared by eager, restless, trembling hearts.

I declare, while I have been chatting aside with you, I have trumped the Major's ace, and lost the odd trick and the game! What a thunder-cloud he looks like! Ah, Madam, let us hope that we may all play the cards which Fortune shall deal to us, so as never to lose the prize we covet! And when they are at last thrown by, and the game of life is over, may we have won those riches which neither moth nor rust will corrupt! May kingly honor and queenly virtue guide us on, and lead us to those courts above, where they forever reign in sublime power!

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.