The Face and the Mask/High Stakes

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The snow was gently sifting down through the white glare of the electric light when Pony Rowell buttoned his overcoat around him and left the Metropolitan Hotel, which was his home. He was a young man, not more than thirty, and his face was a striking one. It was clean cut and clean shaven. It might have been the face of an actor or the face of a statesman. An actor's face has a certain mobility of expression resulting from the habit of assuming characters differing widely. Rowell's face, when you came to look at it closely, showed that it had been accustomed to repress expression rather than to show emotion of any kind. A casual look at Pony Rowell made you think his face would tell you something; a closer scrutiny showed you that it would tell you nothing. His eyes were of a piercing steely gray that seemed to read the thoughts of others, while they effectually concealed his own. Pony Rowell was known as a man who never went back on his word. He was a professional gambler.

On this particular evening he strolled up the avenue with the easy carriage of a man of infinite leisure. He hesitated for a moment at an illy-lighted passage-way in the middle of a large building on a side street, then went in and mounted a stair. He rapped lightly at a door. A slide was shoved back and a man inside peered out at him for a moment. Instantly the door was opened, for Pony's face was good for admittance at any of the gambling rooms in the city. There was still another guarded door to pass, for an honest gambling-house keeper can never tell what streak of sudden morality may strike the police, and it is well to have a few moments' time in which to conceal the paraphernalia of the business. Of course, Mellish's gambling rooms were as well known to the police as to Pony Rowell, but unless some fuss was made by the public, Mellish knew he would be free from molestation.

Mellish was a careful man, and a visitor had to be well vouched for, before he gained admission. There never was any trouble in Mellish's rooms. He was often known to advise a player to quit when he knew the young gambler could not afford to lose, and instances were cited where he had been the banker of some man in despair. Everybody liked Mellish, for his generosity was unbounded, and he told a good story well.

Inside the room that Pony Rowell had penetrated, a roulette table was at its whirling work and faro was going on in another spot. At small tables various visitors were enjoying the game of poker.

"Hello, Pony," cried Bert Ragstock, "are you going to give me my revenge to-night?"

"I'm always willing to give anyone his revenge." answered Pony imperturbably, lighting a fresh cigarette.

"All right then; come and sit down here."

"I'm not going to play just yet. I want to look on for a while."

"Nonsense. I've been waiting for you ever so long already. Sit down."

"You ought to know by this time, Bert, that when I say a thing I mean it. I won't touch a card till the clock begins to strike 12. Then I'm wid ye."

"Pshaw, Pony, you ought to be above that sort of thing. That's superstition, Rowell. You're too cool a man to mind when you touch a card. Come on."

"That's all right. At midnight, I said to myself, and at midnight it shall be or not at all."

The old gamblers in the place nodded approval of this resolution. It was all right enough for Bert Ragstock to sneer at superstition, because he was not a real gambler. He merely came to Mellish's rooms in the evening because the Stock Exchange did not keep open all night. Strange to say Ragstock was a good business man as well as a cool gambler. He bemoaned the fate that made him so rich that gambling had not the exhilarating effect on him which it would have had if he had been playing in desperation.

When the clock began to chime midnight Pony Rowell took up the pack and began to shuffle.

"Now, old man," he said, "I'm going in to win. I'm after big game to-night."

"Right you are." cried Bert, with enthusiasm. "I'll stand by you as long as the spots stay on the cards."

In the gray morning, when most of the others had left and even Mellish himself was yawning, they were still at it. The professional gambler had won a large sum of money; the largest sum he ever possessed. Yet there was no gleam of triumph in his keen eyes. Bert might have been winning for all the emotion his face showed. They were a well matched pair, and they enjoyed playing with each other.

"There," cried Pony at last, "haven't you had enough? Luck's against you. I wouldn't run my head any longer against a brick wall, if I were you."

"My dear Pony, how often have I told you there is no such thing as luck. But to tell the truth I'm tired and I'm going home. The revenge is postponed. When do I meet the enemy again?"

Pony Rowell shuffled the cards idly for a few moments without replying or raising his eyes. At last he said:

"The next time I play you, Bert, it will be for high stakes."

"Good heavens, aren't you satisfied with the stakes we played for to- night?"

"No. I want to play you for a stake that will make even your hair stand on end. Will you do it?"

"Certainly. When?"

"That I can't tell just yet. I have a big scheme on hand. I am to see a man to-day about it. All I want to know is that you promise to play."

"Pony, this is mysterious. I guess you're not afraid I will flunk out.I'm ready to meet you on any terms and for any stake."

"Enough said. I'll let you know some of the particulars as soon as I find out all I want myself. Good-night."

"Good-night to you, rather," said Bert, as Mellish helped him on with his overcoat. "You've won the pile: robbing a poor man of his hard-earned gains!"

"Oh, the poor man does not need the money as badly as I do. Besides, I'm going to give you a chance to win it all back again and more."

When Ragstock had left, Pony still sat by the table absent-mindedly shuffling the cards.

"If I were you," said Mellish, laying his hand on his shoulder, "I would put that pile in the bank and quit."

"The faro bank?" asked Pony, looking up with a smile.

"No, I'd quit the business altogether if I were you. I'm going to myself."

"Oh, we all know that. You've been going to quit for the last twenty years. Well, I'm going to quit, too, but not just yet. That's what they all say, of course, but I mean it."

In the early and crisp winter air Pony Rowell walked to the Metropolitan Hotel and to bed. At 3 that afternoon the man he had an appointment with, called to see him.

"You wanted to see me about an Insurance policy," the visitor began. An agent is always ready to talk of business. "Now, were you thinking of an endowment scheme or have you looked into our new bond system of insurance? The twenty-pay-life style of thing seems to be very popular."

"I want to ask you a few questions," said Pony. "If I were to insure my life in your company and were to commit suicide would that invalidate the policy?"

"Not after two years. After two years, in our company, the policy is incontestable."

"Two years? That won't do for me. Can't you make it one year?"

"I'll tell you what I will do," said the agent, lowering his voice, "I can ante-date the policy, so that the two years will end just when you like, say a year from now."

"Very well. If you can legally fix it so that the two years come to an end about this date next year I will insure in your company for $100,000."

The agent opened his eyes when the amount was mentioned.

"I don't want endowments or bonds, but the cheapest form of life insurance you have, and——"

"Straight life is what you want."

"Straight life it is, then, and I will pay you for the two years or say, to make it sure, for two years and a half down, when you bring me the papers."

Thus it was that with part of the money he had won, Pony Rowell insured his life for $100,000, and with another part he paid his board and lodging for a year ahead at the Metropolitan Hotel.

The remainder he kept to speculate on.

During the year that followed he steadily refused to play with Bert Ragstock, and once or twice they nearly had a quarrel about it—that is as near as Pony could come to having a row with anybody, for quarrelling was not in his line. If he had lived in a less civilized part of the community Pony might have shot, but as it was quarrels never came to anything, therefore he did not indulge in any.

"A year from the date of our last game? What nonsense it is waiting all that time. You play with others, why not with me? Think of the chances we are losing," complained Bert.

"We will have a game then that will make up for all the waiting," answered Rowell.

At last the anniversary came and when the hour struck that ushered it in Pony Rowell and Bert Ragstock sat facing each other, prepared to resume business on the old stand.

"Ah," said Bert, rubbing his hands, "it feels good to get opposite you once more. Pony, you're a crank. We might have had a hundred games like this during the past year, if there wasn't so much superstition about you."

"Not quite like this. This is to be the last game I play, win or lose. I tell you that now, so that there won't be any talk of revenge if I win."

"You don't mean it! I've heard talk like that before."

"All right. I've warned you. Now I propose that this be a game of pure luck. We get a new pack of cards, shuffle them, cut, then you pull one card and I another. Ace high. The highest takes the pot. Best two out of three. Do you agree?"

"Of course. How much is the pile to be?"

"One hundred thousand dollars."

"Oh, you're dreaming."

"Isn't it enough?"

"Thunder! You never saw $100,000."

"You will get the money if I lose."

"Say, Pony, that's coming it a little strong. One hundred thousand dollars! Heavens and earth! How many business men in this whole city would expect their bare word to be taken for $100,000?"

"I'm not a business man. I'm a gambler."

"True, true. Is the money in sight?"

"No; but you'll be paid. Your money is not in sight. I trust you. Can't you trust me?

"It isn't quite the same thing, Pony. I'll trust you for three times the money you have in sight, but when you talk about $100,000 you are talking of a lot of cash."

"If I can convince Mellish here that you will get your money, will you play?"

"You can convince me just as easily as you can Mellish. What's the use of dragging him in?"

"I could convince you in a minute, but you might still refuse to play. Now I'm bound to play this game and I can't take any risks. If my word and Mellish's isn't good enough for you, why, say so."

"All right," cried Bert. "If you can convince Mellish that you will pay if you lose I'll play you."

Rowell and Mellish retired into an inner room and after a few minutes reappeared again.

Mellish's face was red when he went in. He was now a trifle pale.

"I don't like this, Bert," Mellish said, "and I think this game had better stop right here."

"Then you are not convinced that I am sure of my money?"

"Yes, I am, but——"

"That's enough for me. Get out your new pack."

"You've given your word, Mellish," said Pony, seeing the keeper of the house was about to speak. "Don't say any more."

"For such a sum two out of three is too sudden. Make it five out of nine," put in Bert.

"I'm willing."

The new pack of cards was brought and the wrappings torn off.

"You shuffle first; I'll cut," said Rowell. His lips seemed parched and he moistened them now and then, which was unusual for so cool a gambler. Mellish fidgeted around with lowered brow. Bert shuffled the cards as nonchalantly as if he had merely a $5 bill on the result. When each had taken a card, Bert held an ace and Pony a king. Pony shuffled and the turn up was a spot in Pony's hand and queen in that of his opponent. Bert smiled and drops began to show on Pony's forehead in spite of his efforts at self-control. No word was spoken by either players or onlookers. After the next deal Pony again lost. His imperturbability seemed to be leaving him. He swept the cards from the table with an oath. "Bring another pack," he said hoarsely.

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Bert smiled at him across the table. He thought, of course, that they were playing for even stakes.

Mellish couldn't stand it any longer. He retired to one of the inner rooms. The first deal with the new pack turned in Pony's favor and he seemed to feel that his luck had changed, but the next deal went against him and also the one following.

"It's your shuffle," said Rowell, pushing the cards towards his opponent. Bert did not touch the cards, but smiled across at the gambler.

"What's the matter with you? Why don't you shuffle?"

"I don't have to," said Bert, quietly, "I've won five."

Rowell drew his hand across his perspiring brow and stared at the man across the table. Then he seemed to pull himself together.

"So you have," he said, "I hadn't noticed it. Excuse me. I guess I'll go now."

"Sit where you are and let us have a game for something more modest. I don't care about these splurges myself and I don't suppose you do—now."

"Thanks, no. I told you this was my last game. As to the splurge, if I had the money I would willingly try it again. So long."

When Mellish came in and saw that the game was over he asked where Pony was.

"He knew when he had enough, I guess," answered Bert. "He's gone home."

"Come in here, Bert. I want to speak with you," said Mellish.

When they were alone Mellish turned to him.

"I suppose Pony didn't tell you where the money is to come from?"

"No, he told you. That was enough for me."

"Well, there's no reason why you should not know now. I promised silence till the game was finished. He's insured his life for $100,000 and is going to commit suicide so that you may be paid."

"My God!" cried Bert, aghast. "Why did you let the game go on?"

"I tried to stop it, but I had given my word and you——"

"Well, don't let us stand chattering here. He's at the Metropolitan, isn't he? Then come along. Hurry into your coat."

Mellish knew the number of Rowell's room and so no time was lost in the hotel office with inquiries. He tried the door, but, as he expected, it was locked.

"Who's that?" cried a voice within.

"It's me—Mellish. I want to speak with you a moment."

"I don't want to see you."

"Bert wants to say something. It's important. Let us in."

"I won't let you in. Go away and don't make a fuss. It will do no good. You can get in ten minutes from now."

"Look here, Pony, you open that door at once, or I'll kick it in. You hear me? I want to see you a minute, and then you can do what you like," said Bert, in a voice that meant business.

After a moment's hesitation Rowell opened the door and the two stepped in. Half of the carpet had been taken up and the bare floor was covered with old newspapers. A revolver lay on the table, also writing materials and a half-finished letter. Pony was in his shirt sleeves and he did not seem pleased at the interruption.

"What do you want?" he asked shortly.

"Look here, Pony," said Bert, "I have confessed to Mellish and I've come to confess to you. I want you to be easy with me and hush the thing up. I cheated. I stocked the cards."

"You're a liar," said Rowell, looking him straight in the eye.

"Don't say that again," cried Ragstock, with his fingers twitching. "There's mighty few men I would take that from."

"You stocked the cards on me? I'd like to see the man that could do it!"

"You were excited and didn't notice it."

"You're not only a liar, but you're an awkward liar. I have lost the money and I'll pay it. It would have been ready for you now, only I had a letter to write. Mellish has told you about the insurance policy and my will attached to it. Here they are. They're yours. I'm no kicker. I know when a game's played fair."

Bert took the policy and evidently intended to tear it in pieces, while Mellish, with a wink at him, edged around to get at the revolver. Ragstock's eye caught the name in big letters at the head of the policy, beautifully engraved. His eyes opened wide, then he sank into a chair and roared with laughter. Both the other men looked at him in astonishment.

"What's the matter?" asked Mellish.

"Matter? Why, this would have been a joke on Pony. It would do both of you some good to know a little about business as well as of gambling. The Hardfast Life Insurance Company went smash six months ago. It's the truth this time, Pony, even if I didn't stock the cards. Better make some inquiries in business circles before you try to collect any money from this institution. Now, Pony, order up the drinks, if anything can be had at this untimely hour. We are your guests so you are expected to be hospitable. I've had all the excitement I want for one night. We'll call it square and begin over again."

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.