The Dice

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THE DICE


AUTHOR OF "THE MAN WHO KNEW," "THE SECOND-CLASS PASSENGER." ETC.

ILLUSTRATED FROM A DRAWING BY W. T. BENDA

THROUGHOUT the brief afternoon, from the time that the troops opened fire on the people till the cold night of Russian winter smothered the fighting, Pavel had nurtured a fanatic enthusiasm. He was of the of the fair breed that is by instinct law-abiding, a youth of the slow Gothic stem, long-suffering and thorough, and it needed the barricades in the streets, the doors torn out, the sledges overturned, the songs and the shouting, to fire him to the point of fighting against the livery of authority. The taint of rebellion that ran like a quick flame through the universities of Russia had furnished him only with a creed and a bundle of phrases; it needed action to inform him with faith.

He stood, panting and blinking, at the mouth of an alley, into which he had been forced when a sally of Cossacks drove a lane through the mob. He was realizing the day's work, driving his dazed brain back to its normal processes. His right hand was tingling, and he peered at it in the shadow of the alley: the crutch of it was black and burned with the back-spit of his cheap revolver. Half the buttons were gone from his student's uniform, and his cap was missing, too. He laughed, suddenly, at the contrast of his small troubles with those of the men and women whose bodies lay at that moment huddled about the streets. There were some not a dozen feet from him—the Cossacks had passed that way, and the dragoons, slashing feverishly at a mob which, for once, fought back. There had been some saddles emptied, Pavel remembered, with a return of exultation. he had seen one officer's fair head very clearly over the sights of his revolver, and it had been a good, thrilling, clean shot.

It was at this moment that he heard the voice, whining with a querulous note, very like the whimper of a chained dog. It came from among those still citizens who lay in the road, stark black against the snow. Pavel reconnoitred. From a far quarter beyond the houses there was yet the noise of war, the distant clatter of shod hoofs on cobbles, shots and screams, but this road was clear. He adjusted his revolver in his side pocket, to be handy if he needed it, and moved over towards the voice. He stepped gingerly over a dead woman, who sprawled with hands that clutched at the snow, and found his man. It was very dark, for the street lamps were all broken, and at first he could only see that the man, throttling his groans to a whine, was struggling to rise on his elbow. Dead bodies were all around.

"Have courage, brother," said Pavel, kneeling beside him.

The wounded man gasped an oath and fell back on the snow.

It was some quality in the voice, perhaps, or possibly a mere precaution, that drove the student to lean closer and look well. He made out a white, aquiline face, no older than his own, but it was not this that held him. The shoulder-straps on the long coat were of heavy gold; a broad scabbard was slung from the belt. It was a soldier, this groaner; more, it was an officer. Pavel started back sharply, divided between instinctive terror and honest hatred. He could never have told which was the stronger. He was staring dumbly at the man on the ground, and then he realized, with another start and a strange shrinking, that the man was smiling.

"I cannot hurt you," he heard, in a voice which still ran chill with easy contempt. "Just now I am harmless. So have courage yourself."

It tailed off into a groan. Pavel could see well enough now and he watched the handsome face knit in a spasm of agony.

"Where are you hit?" he asked, as he began to recover himself.

"Neck," snapped the other. It was odd to note the sharp irritation that armed the weak voice—like the threshing of a boxed snake.

"Get a doctor," he continued, "or go and tell my sergeant. I shall die if I lie here."

Pavel was squatting back on his heels, and he shook his head decisively.

"No," he said calmly. "I will help you if I can do it at no danger to myself, but I will not show myself to-night either to a doctor or your sergeant. Do you not see I am—I am——"

"Ah, you are one of them!" The young officer turned his head with an effort and looked up at him. "Perhaps it was you that shot me, eh?"

Pavel nodded. "Perhaps," he answered.

"Well," said the other, "if you leave me here as I am, you will have killed me—and not in open fight. Does that appeal to you at all? It will be a murder. But possibly you do not draw the line at murder? You gentlemen of the barricades are not troubled with scruples, I believe."

"Now, look here," said Pavel, "When you call us murderers, you lie. If you think that men who see the light——"

The other interrupted acidly.

"Oh, look round you, man," he cried, feebly, but with spirit enough. Pavel stared, but there was compulsion in the mere tone, and he looked about uncomprehendingly. There was nought but the naked snow on the empty street, the dark houses, and the unresentful bodies of the dead.

"Well?" demanded the wounded man, "is this a theatre for your speechifying? Can you do nothing but babble on such a night as this? By the Lord, I don't wonder some of you are hard to convince. Such a stupidity! Oh, my neck!"

He groaned frankly, withholding none of the torment that racked him, and his extremity stirred Pavel to aid. His head was clear enough; he would not invite scorn with talk. He could do something to serve the moment's need.

"Listen!" he said. "You can have no doctor, or I should hang to-morrow. Don't trouble to offer your word; I shouldn't take it. But I can take you to a room and a bed, if you wish. What comes after must arrange itself. The alternative is to lie here—and freeze. Which will you have?"

"How will you take me?" asked the officer.

Pavel rose to his feet and bent over him. "Like this," he replied, and lifted him easily. The wounded man bit on a cry of pain, and suddenly his slender body became limp in the student's arms. He had fainted.

It was not far to the room. None accosted them on the way; the dead and the maimed were commonplaces of the street in those days, and, for certain reasons of which Pavel was aware, the door of the house was unwatched by a dvornik. He laid his burden on the bed and dragged off his boots; as he got ready the brandy to restore him, he took a good look at his captive.

The wounded man was very young; Pavel saw his boyishness with a wise pity, not reflecting that he himself lacked a month or two of twenty-one. He wore the uniform of an officer of dragoons, beautifully laced, and his spurs were obvious silver. There was a foppishness in the tunic's cut that somehow was not ridiculous. The clearcut young face, obtruding caste and high breeding in every line, was such that luxury seemed appropriate to its setting. As the brandy stung his throat, the eyes opened; he came from his swoon to all his faculties at one step. He surveyed the poor little room, with its coarse furnishings: lonely amid its bareness, with a kind of complacent amusement.

"Whose room is this?" he asked presently.

Pavel put the brandy on the table and sat down on the edge of the bed.

"It was the room of one Stepan Duraf," he replied. "He was cut down by your dragoons this afternoon, so none will know that you lie in his bed."

"But the dvornik?" asked the officer. For a dvornik watches every door in Russia; he is the policeman on each threshold.

"The dvornik also died," explained Pavel. "Stepan shot him at two o'clock. So you see, I am safe."

The wounded man smiled. "I suppose you won't tell me your name?" he suggested.

"Naturally not," answered the student. "I am taking risks enough as it is. What is yours?"

"If you will get my cigarette case out, there are cards in it." Pavel complied.

"Thanks," continued the other. "Here you are, then."

Pavel carried the pasteboard over to the lamp. "Prince Constantine Obrievitch," he read aloud. He looked over to the officer. "I never met a Prince before," he said simply.

The Prince laughed. "The introduction is not complete," he said. "It is one-sided. It is like being presented to a royalty. You hear your own name but never that of the High Mightiness. You might be the Tsar. And, do you know, I think my wound is thawed. It's bleeding."

Pavel came over to him quickly. "If I were the Tsar, I suppose you'd simply have to bleed," he said. "As it is, I can probably do something."

He worked with bandages over the hideous wound in the neck, while the Prince groaned and strove to still his shuddering.

"Nasty place to be hit—the neck," he said faintly, when the thing was done. "There are all kinds of arteries in it, and such things, and the bullet's still there, somewhere. I say," he continued, in a tone of anxiety and remonstrance, "couldn't you manage to get a doctor here, somehow?"

Pavel shook his head. "You ask too much," he said. "You don't understand the matter. You're a Prince, and walk where you please. I'm not."

He was fumbling in a little cupboard as he spoke, and now he turned with some black bread in his hand.

"This should have been Stepan's supper," he remarked. "It will serve for us. Stepan would never have grudged it; he was a good sort. Will you have some?"

The Prince refused. "Well," said Pavel, "I will, at any rate. This and the brandy and a dice-box—there was nothing else in the cupboard."

He sat down on the bed again and commenced to eat.

"Dice?" queried the Prince.

"Yes," said Pavel. "Stepan was fond of the dice. Last night he threw three casts, his left hand against his right, for the dvornik's life. The right hand won. Thus he shifted his responsibility."

He went on eating. The Prince watched him, and a sparkle, as of hope or fun or malice, lit his eyes.

"You think the responsibility was really shifted?" he asked at length.

"Why not?" said Pavel. "Here was a life at stake, and God looking on. Do sparrows fall by chance? Why, then, should the dice or the dvornik fall fortuitously?"

"Well," said the Prince deliberately, "I will play you for my life. Your responsibility is not less than your friend's. Do you also shift it."

Pavel ceased eating. "I don't understand you," he said.

"Look at it sensibly," urged the Prince. His voice was already stronger. "I am shot in an ugly place, and I think I am going to die of it. At this moment, I am all athrill with a fever. The bullet is lodged inside, in a nest of vital parts; it needs a doctor to pull me through; it needs a doctor now. It may be that I ought to die—that I belong where you and your fellows have tried to send me. And then, it is as likely that you are wrong. Who is to judge? Will you take such an authority?"

Pavel heard him in a grave silence, and, as he stopped, nodded. "I see," he said. "What is to be the arrangement?"

"This," answered the Prince, with a slow flush of excitement reddening his face. "Three throws apiece, aces to count as seven each. If I win, you go out at once and bring me either a doctor or my sergeant. If I lose, you do as you please—stay here and let things take care of themselves. Fetch the dice and throw first."

Pavel sat for some seconds in thought.

"It is fair," he said, and brought the dicebox. He placed it on the pillow while he wheeled the table to the bedside, and then propped the Prince's shoulders with a folded coat so that he might see the results.

He took the box, rattled it, and, with an expert turn of the wrist, strewed the three bone cubes forth. Five, five, six—sixteen in all. He pushed the six aside and collected the two fives into the box. Again he threw, and the Prince craned in his bandages,

"What is it? What is it?" he was crying.

Pavel pushed the cubes nearer to him with his forefinger. A six again and a four. The student picked up the four for the final cast and threw at once. A six again—eighteen in all.

"That will be hard to beat," said the Prince, in a voice of dead calm. "You must throw for me, my friend. This leaning forward hurts me."

Pavel threw, and two sixes and a deuce were the result.

"Leave the sixes," said the Prince, and Pavel threw again with one dice. It was scarcely better—a trey.

"What shall I pick up for the last throw?" he asked. He was quite calm; this was a thing he understood.

"Pick them all up," commanded the Prince. "Throw them all; let the luck speak at the top of its voice or not at all. Throw me three aces."

Pavel swept up the cubes, rattled them well, and spilled them out on the table. The Prince was lying back looking at the ceiling, and Pavel stood without speaking.

"What is it?" asked the wounded man at last.

"Three aces," said Pavel quietly, "and I hang."

He turned to the door at once, and the Prince lay watching him as he went, with a face of calm, unemotional interest. His heavy feet descended the stairs, and once they hesitated; the Prince, listening, smiled. But they went on.

Pavel walked steadily through the still streets, tracking the troops by ear. He found the dragoons bivouacked about their fires in the square before the Governor's palace, asked for the sergeant, delivered his message, and was then arrested. He was held for an hour or two among the soldiers, who offered him vodka and stared not unkindly at this live enemy. Then, when the guard was changed, he was marched off and regularly lodged in the gaol. He had company enough there, for the net had been filled to bursting, and the great stone corridors were crowded with men from whom the fever of rebellion had leaked forth, giving place to the anguish of fear and repentance.

"Where did they catch you?" he was asked as he was thrust in among them.

"In the company of Prince Constantine Obrievitch," he answered.

"The gambler?" queried some one; "the young man who lost a million roubles in two nights?"

"I believe so," said Pavel. "In fact, I feel sure of it. But his luck has changed."

He abode in the gaol for twelve weeks. He learned what only a Russian gaol in time of trouble can teach—and that is not to be written in a story. From time to time, batches of the prisoners were taken away; they had been tried in their absence, sentenced behind their backs, and had now to face the music. None came back. Pavel had little curiosity about his own fate; he knew he should achieve it soon enough. There were dice in the prison, and he played day and night till he lost his boots and had nothing further to stake. Then one day a warder thrust in a head and called him by name.

"Only one," wondered the others. "What is the idea? Are they going to burn men alive that they call them one at a time?"

Pavel was led across the courtyard, and as he went he looked hard at the sky. But there was no platoon awaiting him, no gallows black against the snow-clouds. He was conducted into the Governor's room, and there, sitting limp in a chair, but smart and imperturbable yet, was Prince Constantine.

The Prince nodded to him. "They dug it out, you see," he said. "You were not a minute too soon. I don't know why, seeing it was fair play, but I have been feeling sorry for you."

"I have been wondering how you were," said Pavel.

The Prince smiled. "More," he went on, "I have done what I could for you. You know your sentence is to the mines?"

"I didn't know," said Pavel. He paled at the thought of it.

"Yes," continued the other. "The mines, but I didn't like the idea. I have not much influence in these matters, but I have so arranged it that you will not go to the mines. You will be shot. It's not so bad, is it? And you certainly paid up like a gentleman."

Pavel bowed to him. "Thank you," he answered heartily. "Thank you. You certainly win like a gentleman."

The Prince rose carefully from his chair and held out his hand.

"We are well matched for a game," he said. "Good-bye, and better luck next time."

Pavel grinned. He saw the joke, and took the hand cordially.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.