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A Turn of Luck by Anna Kingsford

 

"Messieurs, faites votre jeu! . . . Le jeu est fait! . . . Rien ne va plus! . . . Rouge gagne et la couleur! . . . Rouge gagne, la couleur perd! . . . Rouge perd et la couleur! . . . "

Such were the monotonous continually recurring sentences, always spoken in the same impassive tones, to which I listened as I stood by the tables in the gaming-rooms of Monte Carlo. Such are the sentences to which devotees of the fickle goddess, Chance, listen hour after hour as the day wears itself out from early morning to late evening in that beautiful, cruel, enchanting earthly paradise, whose shores are washed by the bluest sea in the world, whose gardens are dotted with globes of golden fruit, and plumed with feathery palms, and where, as you wander in and out among the delicious shadowy foliage, you hear, incessantly, the sound of guns, and may, now and then, catch sight of some doomed creature with delicate white breast and broken wing, dropping, helpless and bleeding, into the still dark waters below the cliff. A wicked place! A cruel place! Heartless, bitter, pitiless, inhuman! And yet, so beautiful!

I stood, on this particular afternoon, just opposite a young man seated at one of the rouge et noir tables. As my glance wandered from face to face among the players, it was arrested by his,—a singularly pallid, thin, eager face; remarkably eager, even in such a place and in such company as this. He seemed about twenty-five, but he had the bowed and shrunken look of an invalid, and from time to time he coughed terribly, the ominous cough of a person with lungs half consumed by tubercle. He had not the air of a man who gambles for pleasure; nor, I thought, that of a spendthrift or a "ne'er-do-weel;" disease, not dissipation, had hollowed his cheeks and set his hands trembling, and the unnatural light in his eyes was born of fever rather than of greed. He played anxiously but not excitedly, seldom venturing on a heavy stake, and watching the game with an intentness which no incident diverted. Suddenly I saw a young girl make her way through the throng towards him. She was plainly dressed, and had a sweet, sad face and eyes full of tenderness. She touched him on the shoulder, stooped over him, and kissed him in the frankest, simplest manner possible on the forehead. "Viens," she whispered, "je m'etouffe ici, il fait si frais dehors; sortons." He did not answer; his eyes were on the cards. "Rouge perd, et la couleur," said the hard official voice.

With a sigh, he rose, coughed, passed his hand over his eyes, and took his wife's arm.—(I felt sure she was his wife.) They passed slowly through the rooms together, and I lost sight of them. But not of his face—nor of hers. Sitting by the fountain outside the gaming saloons half an hour afterwards, I fell to musing about this strange couple. So young,—she scarcely more than a child, and he so ill and wasted! He had played with the manner of an old habitue, and she seemed used to finding him at the tables and leading him away. I made up my mind that I had stumbled on a romance, and resolved to hunt it down. At the table d'hote dinner in my hotel that evening I met a friend from Nice to whom I confided my curiosity. "I know," said he, "the young people of whom you speak; they are patients of Dr S. of Monaco, one of my most intimate acquaintances. He told me their story." "They," I interpolated,—" is the wife, then, also ill?" My friend smiled a little. "Not ill exactly, perhaps," he answered. "But you must have seen,—she will very shortly be a mother. And she is very young and delicate." "Tell me their story," I said, "since you know it. It is romantic, I am certain." "It is sad," he said, "and sadness suffices, I suppose, to constitute romance. The young man's name is Georges Saint-Cyr, and his family were `poor relations' of an aristocratic house. I say `were,' because they are all dead,— his father, mother, and three sisters. The father died of tubercle, so did his daughters; the son, you see, inherits the same disease and will also die of it at no very distant time. Georges Saint-Cyr never found anybody to take him up in life. He was quite a lad when he lost his widowed mother, and his health was, even then, so bad and fitful that be could never work. He tried his best; but what chef can afford to employ a youth who is always sending in doctor's certificates to excuse his absence from his desk, and breaking down with headache or swooning on the floor in office-hours? He was totally unfit to earn his living, and the little money he had would not suffice to keep him decently. Moreover, in his delicate condition he positively needed comforts which to other lads would have been superfluous. Still he managed to struggle on for some five years, getting copying-work and what-not to do in his own rooms, till he had contrived, by the time he was twenty-two, to save a little money. His idea was to enter the medical profession and earn a livelihood by writing for scientific journals, for he had wits and was not without literary talent. He was lodging then in a cheap quarter of Paris not far from the Ecole de Medecine. Well, the poor boy passed his baccalaureat and entered on his first year. He got through that pretty well, but then came the hospital work; and then, once more he broke down. The rising at six o'clock on bitter cold winter mornings, the going out into the bleak early air sometimes thick with snow or sleet, the long attendance day after day in unwholesome wards and foetid post-mortem rooms; the afternoons spent over dissecting,—all these things contributed to bring about a catastrophe. He fell sick and took to his bed, and as he was quite alone in the world, his tutor, who was a kind-hearted man, undertook to see him through his illness, both as physician and as friend. And when, after a few weeks, Georges was able to get about again, the professor, seeing how lonely the young man was, asked him to spend his Sundays and spare evenings with himself and his family in their little apartment au ca'nquieme of the rue Cluny. For the professor was, of course, poor, working for five francs a lesson to private pupils; and a much more modest sum for class lectures such as those which Georges attended. But all this mattered nothing to Georges. He went gladly the very next Sunday to Dr. Le Noir's, and there he met the professor's daughter—whom you have seen. She was only just seventeen, and prettier then than she is now I doubt not, for her face is anxious and sorrowful now, and anxiety and sorrow are not becoming. You don't wonder that the young student fell in love with her. The father, engrossed in his work, did not see what was going on, and so Pauline's heart was won before the mischief could be stopped. The young people themselves went to him hand in hand one evening and told him all about it. Madame Le Noir had long been dead, and the professor had two sons studying medicine. His daughter was, perhaps, rather in his way; he loved her much, but she was growing fast into womanhood, and he did not quite know what to do with her. Saint-Cyr was well-born and he was clever. If only his health were to take a turn for the better, all might go well. But then, if not? He looked at the young man's pale face and remembered what his stethoscope had revealed. Still, in such an early stage these physical warnings often came to nothing. Rest, and fresh air, and happiness, might set him up and make a healthy man of him yet. So he gave a preliminary assent to the engagement, but forbade the young people to consider the affair settled—for the present. He wanted to see how Georges got on. It was early spring then. Hope and love and the April sunshine agreed with the young man. He was much stronger by June, and did well at the hospital and at his work. He had reached the end of his fin d'aunee examinations; a year's respite was before him now before beginning to pass for his doctorate. Le Noir thought that if he could pass the next winter in the south of France he would be quite set up, and lost no time in imparting this idea to Georges. But Georges was not just then in funds; his time had been lately wholly taken up with his studies, and he had been unable to do any literary hacking. When he told the professor that he could not afford to spend a winter on the Riviera, Le Noir looked at him fixedly a minute or two and then said:—'Pauline's dot will be 10,000 francs. It comes to her from her mother. With care that ought to keep you both till you have taken your doctorate and can earn money for yourself. Will you marry Pauline this autumn and take her with you to the south?' Well, you can fancy whether this proposal pleased Georges or not. At first he refused, of course; he would not take Pauline's money; it was her's; he would wait till he could earn money of his own. But the professor was persuasive, and when he told his daughter of the discussion, she went privately into her father's study where Georges sat, pretending to read chemistry, and settled the matter. So the upshot of it was that late in October, Pauline became Madame Saint-Cyr, and started with her husband for the Riviera.

"The winter turned out a bitter one. Bitter and wild and treacherous over the whole of Europe. Snow where snow had not been seen time out of mind; biting murderous winds that nothing could escape. My friend Dr S. says the Riviera is not always kind to consumptives, even when at its best; and this particular season saw it at its worst. Georges Saint-Cyr caught a violent chill one evening at St Raphael, whither he and his wife had gone for the sake of the cheapness rather than to any of the larger towns on the littoral; and in a very short time his old malady was on him again,—the fever, the cough, the weakness,—in short, a fresh poussee, as the doctors say. Pauline nursed him carefully till March set in; then he recovered a little, but he was fair from convalescent. She wrote hopefully to her father; so did Georges; indeed both the young man and his wife, ignorant of the hold which the disease had really got upon him, thought things to be a great deal better than they actually were. But as days went on and the cough continued, they made up their minds that St Raphael did not suit Georges, and resolved to go on to Nice. March was already far advanced; Nice would not be expensive now. So they went, but still Georges got no better. He even began to get weaker; the cough `tore' him, he said, and he leaned wearily on his wife's arm when they walked out together. Clearly he would not be able to return to Paris and to work that spring. Pauline, too, was not well, the long nursing had told on her, and she had, besides, her own ailments, for already the prospect of motherhood had defined itself. She wrote to her father that Georges was still poorly and that they should not return home till May. But before the first ten days of April had passed, something of the true state of the case began to dawn on Saint-Cyr. `I shall never again be strong enough to work hard,' he said to himself, `and I must work hard if I am to pass my doctorate examinations. Meantime, all Pauline's dot will be spent. I may have to wait months before I can do any consecutive work; perhaps, even, I shall be unable to make a living by writing. I am unfit for any study. How can I get money—and get it quickly— for her sake and for the child's?'

"Then the thought of the tables at Monte Carlo flashed into his mind. Eight thousand francs of Pauline's dot remained; too small a sum in itself to be of any permanent use, but enough to serve as capital for speculation in rouge et noir. With good luck such a sum might produce a fortune. The idea caught him and fascinated his thoughts sleeping and waking. In his dreams he beheld piles of gold shining beside him on the green cloth, and by day as he wandered feebly along the Promenade des Anglais with Pauline he grew silent, feeding his sick heart with this new fancy. One day he said to his wife:—'Let us run over to Monte Carlo and see the playing; it will amuse us; and the gardens are lovely. You will be delighted with the place. Everybody says it is the most beautiful spot on the Riviera.' So they went, and were charmed, but Georges did not play that day. He stood by the tables and watched, while Pauline, too timid to venture into the saloons, and a little afraid of 'le jeu,' sat by the great fountain in the garden outside the casino. Georges declared that evening as they sat over their tea at Nice that he had taken a fancy for beautiful Monaco, and that he would rather finish the month of April there than at Nice. Pauline assented at once, and the next day they removed to the most modest lodgings they could find within easy access of the gardens. Then; very warily and gently, Saint-Cyr unfolded to Pauline his new-born hopes. She was terribly alarmed at first and sobbed piteously. 'It is so wicked to gamble, Georges,' she said;—' no blessing can follow such a plan as yours. And I dare not tell papa about it.' 'It would be wicked, no doubt,' said Georges, 'to play against one's friend or one's neighbor, as they do in clubs and private circles, because in such cases if one is lucky, someone else is beggared, and the money one puts in one's pocket leaves the other players so much the poorer. But here it is quite another thing. We play against a great firm, an administration, whom our individual successes do not affect, and which makes a trade of the whole concern. Scruples are out of place under such circumstances. Playing at Monte Carlo hurts nobody but oneself, and is not nearly so reprehensible as the legitimate "business" that goes on daily at the Bourse.' 'Still,' faltered Pauline, `such horrid persons do play,—such men,— such women! It is not respectable.' `It is not respectable for most people certainly,' he said, `because other ways of earning are open to them. The idle come here, the dissolute, the good-for-nothings. I know all that. But we are quite differently placed; and have no other means of getting money to live with. At those tables, Pauline, I shall be working for you as sincerely and honestly as though I were buying up shares or investing in foreign railroads. It is the name and tradition of the thing that frightens you. Look it in the face and you will own that it is simply . . . speculation.' `Georges,' said Pauline, you know best. Do as you like, dear; I understand nothing, and you were always clever.'

"So Saint-Cyr had his way, and went to work accordingly, without loss of time, a little shyly at first, not daring to venture on any considerable stake. So he remained for a week at the roulette tables; because at the rouge et noir one can only play with gold. The week came to an end and found him neither richer nor poorer. Then he grew bolder and ventured into the deeper water. He played on rouge et noir, with luck the first day or two, but after that fortune turned dead against him. He said nothing of it to Pauline, who came every day into the rooms at intervals to seek him and say a few words, sometimes leading him out for air when he looked weary, or beguiling him away on pretence of her own need for companionship or for a walk. No doubt the poor girl suffered much; anxiety, loneliness, and a lingering shame which she could not suppress, paled her cheeks, and made her thin and careworn. She dared not ask how things were going, but her husband's silence and the increased sickliness of his aspect set her heart beating heavily with dread. Alone in her room she must have wept much during all this sad time, for my friend Dr S. says that when she made her first call upon his services he noted the signs of tears upon her face, and taxed her with the fact, getting from her the reply that she 'often cried.'

"Little by little, being a kind and sympathetic man, he drew from her the story I have told you. Georges became his patient also, but was always reticent in regard to `le jeu.' Dr S. tried to dissuade him from visiting the tables, on the ground that the atmosphere in the saloons would prove poisonous to him and perhaps even fatal. But although, in deference to this counsel, the young man shortened somewhat the duration of his `sittings,' and spent more time under the trees with Pauline, he did not by any means abandon, his `speculation,' hoping always, no doubt, as all losers hope, to see the luck turn and to take revenge on Fortune."

"And the luck has not turned yet in Saint-Cyr's case, I suppose?" said I.

"No," answered my friend. "I fear things are going very ill with him and poor Pauline's dot."

As he spoke he rose from the dinner-table, and we strolled out together upon the moonlight terrace of the hotel. "In ten minutes," said I, "my train starts. I am going back to Nice tonight. Despite all its loveliness, Monte Carlo is hateful to me, and I do not care to sleep under its shadow. But before I go, I have a favour to ask of you. Let me know the sequel of the story you have told me tonight. I want to know how it ends—in triumph or in tragedy. Dr S. will always be able to keep you informed whether you remain here or not. Write to me as soon as there is anything to tell, and you will do me a signal kindness. You see you are such an admirable raconteur that you have interested me irresistibly in your subject and must pay the penalty of talent!"

He laughed, broke off the laugh in a sigh, then shook hands with me, and we parted.

About two months later, after my return to England, I had from my friend the following letter:—

"You have, I do not doubt, retained your interest in the fortunes of the two young people who so much attracted you at the tables last April. Well, I have just seen my friend Dr S. in Lyons, and he has related to me the saddest tale you can imagine concerning Georges and Pauline. Here it is, just as he gave it, and while it is fresh in my memory. It seems that all through the month of April and well into May, Saint-Cyr's ill luck stuck to him. He lost daily, and at last only a very slender remnant of his wife's money was left to play with. Week by week, too, he grew more wasted and feeble, fading with his fading fortune. As for Pauline, although she did not complain about herself, Dr S. saw reason to feel much anxiety on her account. Grief and sickened hope and the wear of the terrible life she and Georges were leading combined to break down her strength. Phthisis, too, although not a contagious malady in the common sense of the term, is apt to exercise on debilitated persons constantly exposed to the companionship of its victims an extremely baleful effect, and to this danger Pauline was daily and nightly subjected. She became feverish, a sensation of unwonted languor took possession of her, and sleep, nevertheless, became almost impossible. Georges, engrossed in his play, observed but little the deterioration of his wife's health; or, perhaps, attributed it to her condition and to nervousness in regard to her approaching trial. Things were in this state, when, one day towards the close of May Georges took his customary seat at the rouge et noir table. The weather had suddenly become extremely hot, and the crowd in the `salles de jeu' had considerably diminished. Only serious and veteran habitues were left, staking their gold, for the most part, with the coolness and resolution of long experience. Pauline remained in her room, she felt too ill to rise, and attributed her indisposition to the heat. Very sick at heart, George entered the gaming-rooms alone, and laid out on the green cloth the last of his capital. Then occurred one of those strange and compete reversions of luck that come to very few men. Georges won continuously, without a break, throughout the entire day. After an hour or two of steady success, he grew elated, and began to stake large sums,—with a recklessness that might have appalled others than the old stagers who sat beside him. But his temerity brought golden returns, every stake reaped a fruitful harvest, and louis d'or accumulated in tall piles at his elbow. Before the rooms closed he had become a rich man, and had won back Pauline's dowry forty times over. Men turned to look at him as he left the tables, his face white with fatigue, his eyes burning like live coals, and his gait unsteady as a drunkard's. Outside in the open air, everything appeared to him like a dream. He could not collect his thoughts; his brain whirled; he had eaten nothing all day, fearing to quit his place lest he should change his luck or lose some good coup, and now extreme faintness overcame him. Stooping over the great basin of the fountain in front of the Casino he bathed his face with his hands, and eagerly drew in the cool evening breeze of the Mediterranean, just sweeping up sweet and full of refreshment over the parched rock of Monte Carlo. Then he made his way home, climbed with toil the high narrow staircase, and entered the little apartment he shared with Pauline. In the sitting room he paused a minute, poured out a glass of wine and drank it at a draught, to give himself courage to tell her his good news like a man. His hand turned the key of his bedroom; his heart beat so wildly that its throbbing deafened him; he could not hear his own voice as he cried: `Pauline—darling!— we are rich! my luck has turned!' . . . But then he stopped, stricken by a blow worse than the stroke of death. Before him stood Dr S., and a woman whom he did not recognise, bending over the bed upon which Pauline lay, pallid and still, with hands folded upon her breast. Georges flung his porte-monnaie, stuffed with notes, upon the foot of the bed, and sank down on his knees beside it, his eyes fixed upon his young wife's face. Dr S. touched him upon the shoulder.

Du courage, Saint-Cyr,' he whispered. `She has gone . . . first.' The kindly words meant that the separation would not be for long. The woman in charge by the couch of the dead girl wept aloud, but there were no tears yet in the eyes of Georges. `And the child?' he asked at length, vaguely comprehending what had happened. They lifted the sheet gently, and showed him a little white corpse lying beside its mother. 'I am glad the child is dead, too,' said Georges Saint-Cyr.

"He would not have her buried by the Mediterranean;—no—nor would he let the corpse be taken home for burial. The desire for flight was upon him, and he said he must carry his dead with him till be himself should die. That night he left Monte Carlo for Rome, bearing with him those dear remains of wife and child; and the good doctor seeing his desperation and full of pity for so vast a woe, went with him. 'Perhaps,' he told me, `had I not gone, Georges would not himself have reached Rome alive.' They traveled night and day, for the young man would not rest an instant. His design was to have the body of his wife burned in the crematorium of the Eternal City, and Dr S. was, fortunately, able to obtain for him the fulfilment of his desire. Then Saint-Cyr enclosed the ashes of his beloved in a little silver box, slung it about his neck and bade his friend farewell. I asked the doctor where he went. `Northward,' he answered, `but I did not ask his plans. He gave me no address; he had money in plenty, and it matters little where he went, for death was in his face as he wrung my hand at parting, and he cannot live to see the summer out."

That was the end of the letter. And for my part, with the sole exception of Georges Saint-Cyr, I never heard of any man who became rich over the tables of Monte Carlo.

 
 
 

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