Ebooks, Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Free books and stories online to read now ~ Main Page




The Card Sharp by Richard Harding Davis


I had looked forward to spending Christmas with some people in Suffolk, and every one in London assured me that at their house there would be the kind of a Christmas house party you hear about but see only in the illustrated Christmas numbers. They promised mistletoe, snapdragon, and Sir Roger de Coverley. On Christmas morning we would walk to church, after luncheon we would shoot, after dinner we would eat plum pudding floating in blazing brandy, dance with the servants, and listen to the waits singing "God rest you, merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay."

To a lone American bachelor stranded in London it sounded fine. And in my gratitude I had already shipped to my hostess, for her children, of whose age, number, and sex I was ignorant, half of Gamage's dolls, skees, and cricket bats, and those crackers that, when you pull them, sometimes explode. But it was not to be. Most inconsiderately my wealthiest patient gained sufficient courage to consent to an operation, and in all New York would permit no one to lay violent hands upon him save myself. By cable I advised postponement. Having lived in lawful harmony with his appendix for fifty years, I thought, for one week longer he might safely maintain the status quo. But his cable in reply was an ultimatum. So, on Christmas eve, instead of Hallam Hall and a Yule log, I was in a gale plunging and pitching off the coast of Ireland, and the only log on board was the one the captain kept to himself.

I sat in the smoking-room, depressed and cross, and it must have been on the principle that misery loves company that I foregathered with Talbot, or rather that Talbot foregathered with me. Certainty, under happier conditions and in haunts of men more crowded, the open-faced manner in which he forced himself upon me would have put me on my guard. But, either out of deference to the holiday spirit, as manifested in the fictitious gayety of our few fellow-passengers, or because the young man in a knowing, impertinent way was most amusing, I listened to him from dinner time until midnight, when the chief officer, hung with snow and icicles, was blown in from the deck and wished all a merry Christmas.

Even after they unmasked Talbot I had neither the heart nor the inclination to turn him down. Indeed, had not some of the passengers testified that I belonged to a different profession, the smoking-room crowd would have quarantined me as his accomplice. On the first night I met him I was not certain whether he was English or giving an imitation. All the outward and visible signs were English, but he told me that, though he had been educated at Oxford and since then had spent most of his years in India, playing polo, he was an American. He seemed to have spent much time, and according to himself much money, at the French watering-places and on the Riviera. I felt sure that it was in France I had already seen him, but where I could not recall. He was hard to place. Of people at home and in London well worth knowing he talked glibly, but in speaking of them he made several slips. It was his taking the trouble to cover up the slips that first made me wonder if his talking about himself was not mere vanity, but had some special object. I felt he was presenting letters of introduction in order that later he might ask a favor. Whether he was leading up to an immediate loan, or in New York would ask for a card to a club, or an introduction to a banker, I could not tell. But in forcing himself upon me, except in self-interest, I could think of no other motive. The next evening I discovered the motive.

He was in the smoking-room playing solitaire, and at once I recalled that it was at Aix-les-Bains I had first seen him, and that he held a bank at baccarat. When he asked me to sit down I said: "I saw you last summer at Aix-les-Bains."

His eyes fell to the pack in his hands and apparently searched it for some particular card.

"What was I doing?" he asked.

"Dealing baccarat at the Casino des Fleurs."

With obvious relief he laughed.

"Oh, yes," he assented; "jolly place, Aix. But I lost a pot of money there. I'm a rotten hand at cards. Can't win, and can't leave 'em alone." As though for this weakness, so frankly confessed, he begged me to excuse him, he smiled appealingly. "Poker, bridge, chemin de fer, I like 'em all," he rattled on, "but they don't like me. So I stick to solitaire. It's dull, but cheap." He shuffled the cards clumsily. As though making conversation, he asked: "You care for cards yourself?"

I told him truthfully I did not know the difference between a club and a spade and had no curiosity to learn. At this, when he found he had been wasting time on me, I expected him to show some sign of annoyance, even of irritation, but his disappointment struck far deeper. As though I had hurt him physically, he shut his eyes, and when again he opened them I saw in them distress. For the moment I believe of my presence he was utterly unconscious. His hands lay idle upon the table; like a man facing a crisis, he stared before him. Quite improperly, I felt sorry for him. In me he thought he had found a victim; and that the loss of the few dollars he might have won should so deeply disturb him showed his need was great. Almost at once he abandoned me and I went on deck. When I returned an hour later to the smoking-room he was deep in a game of poker.

As I passed he hailed me gayly.

"Don't scold, now," he laughed; "you know I can't keep away from it."

From his manner those at the table might have supposed we were friends of long and happy companionship. I stopped behind his chair, but he thought I had passed, and in reply to one of the players answered: "Known him for years; he's set me right many a time. When I broke my right femur 'chasin,' he got me back in the saddle in six weeks. All my people swear by him."

One of the players smiled up at me, and Talbot turned. But his eyes met mine with perfect serenity. He even held up his cards for me to see. "What would you draw?" he asked.

His audacity so astonished me that in silence I could only stare at him and walk on.

When on deck he met me he was not even apologetic. Instead, as though we were partners in crime, he chuckled delightedly.

"Sorry," he said. "Had to do it. They weren't very keen at my taking a hand, so I had to use your name. But I'm all right now," he assured me. "They think you vouched for me, and to-night they're going to raise the limit. I've convinced them I'm an easy mark."

"And I take it you are not," I said stiffly.

He considered this unworthy of an answer and only smiled. Then the smile died, and again in his eyes I saw distress, infinite weariness, and fear.

As though his thoughts drove him to seek protection, he came closer.

"I'm 'in bad,' doctor," he said. His voice was frightened, bewildered, like that of a child. "I can't sleep; nerves all on the loose. I don't think straight. I hear voices, and no one around. I hear knockings at the door, and when I open it, no one there. If I don't keep fit I can't work, and this trip I got to make expenses. You couldn't help me, could you--couldn't give me something to keep my head straight?"

The need of my keeping his head straight that he might the easier rob our fellow-passengers raised a pretty question of ethics. I meanly dodged it. I told him professional etiquette required I should leave him to the ship's surgeon.

"But I don't know HIM," he protested.

Mindful of the use he had made of my name, I objected strenuously:

"Well, you certainly don't know me."

My resentment obviously puzzled him.

"I know who you ARE," he returned. "You and I--"With a deprecatory gesture, as though good taste forbade him saying who we were, he stopped. "But the ship's surgeon!" he protested, "he's an awful bounder! Besides," he added quite simply, "he's watching me."

"As a doctor," I asked, "or watching you play cards?"

"Play cards," the young man answered. "I'm afraid he was ship's surgeon on the P. & O. I came home on. There was trouble that voyage, and I fancy he remembers me."

His confidences were becoming a nuisance.

"But you mustn't tell me that," I protested. "I can't have you making trouble on this ship, too. How do you know I won't go straight from here to the captain?"

As though the suggestion greatly entertained him, he laughed.

He made a mock obeisance.

"I claim the seal of your profession," he said. "Nonsense," I retorted. "It's a professional secret that your nerves are out of hand, but that you are a card-sharp is NOT. Don't mix me up with a priest."

For a moment Talbot, as though fearing he had gone too far, looked at me sharply; he bit his lower lip and frowned.

"I got to make expenses," he muttered. "And, besides, all card games are games of chance, and a card-sharp is one of the chances. Anyway," he repeated, as though disposing of all argument, "I got to make expenses."

After dinner, when I came to the smoking-room, the poker party sat waiting, and one of them asked if I knew where they could find "my friend." I should have said then that Talbot was a steamer acquaintance only; but I hate a row, and I let the chance pass.

"We want to give him his revenge," one of them volunteered.

"He's losing, then?" I asked.

The man chuckled complacently.

"The only loser," he said.

"I wouldn't worry," I advised. "He'll come for his revenge."

That night after I had turned in he knocked at my door. I switched on the lights and saw him standing at the foot of my berth. I saw also that with difficulty he was holding himself in hand.

"I'm scared," he stammered, "scared!"

I wrote out a requisition on the surgeon for a sleeping-potion and sent it to him by the steward, giving the man to understand I wanted it for myself. Uninvited, Talbot had seated himself on the sofa. His eyes were closed, and as though he were cold he was shivering and hugging himself in his arms.

"Have you been drinking?" I asked.

In surprise he opened his eyes.

"I can't drink," he answered simply. "It's nerves and worry. I'm tired."

He relaxed against the cushions; his arms fell heavily at his sides; the fingers lay open.

"God," he whispered, "how tired I am!"

In spite of his tan--and certainly he had led the out-of-door life--his face showed white. For the moment he looked old, worn, finished.

"They're crowdin' me," the boy whispered. "They're always crowdin' me." His voice was querulous, uncomprehending, like that of a child complaining of something beyond his experience. "I can't remember when they haven't been crowdin' me. Movin' me on, you understand? Always movin' me on. Moved me out of India, then Cairo, then they closed Paris, and now they've shut me out of London. I opened a club there, very quiet, very exclusive, smart neighborhood, too--a flat in Berkeley Street--roulette and chemin de fer. I think it was my valet sold me out; anyway, they came in and took us all to Bow Street. So I've plunged on this. It's my last chance!"

"This trip?"

"No; my family in New York. Haven't seen 'em in ten years. They paid me to live abroad. I'm gambling on THEM; gambling on their takin' me back. I'm coming home as the Prodigal Son, tired of filling my belly with the husks that the swine do eat; reformed character, repentant and all that; want to follow the straight and narrow; and they'll kill the fatted calf." He laughed sardonically. "Like hell they will! They'd rather see ME killed."

It seemed to me, if he wished his family to believe he were returning repentant, his course in the smoking-room would not help to reassure them. I suggested as much.

"If you get into 'trouble,' as you call it," I said, "and they send a wireless to the police to be at the wharf, your people would hardly--"

"I know," he interrupted; "but I got to chance that. I GOT to make enough to go on with--until I see my family."

"If they won't see you?" I asked. "What then?"

He shrugged his shoulders and sighed lightly, almost with relief, as though for him the prospect held no terror.

"Then it's 'Good-night, nurse,'" he said. "And I won't be a bother to anybody any more."

I told him his nerves were talking, and talking rot, and I gave him the sleeping-draft and sent him to bed.

It was not until after luncheon the next day when he made his first appearance on deck that I again saw my patient. He was once more a healthy picture of a young Englishman of leisure; keen, smart, and fit; ready for any exercise or sport. The particular sport at which he was so expert I asked him to avoid.

"Can't be done!" he assured me. "I'm the loser, and we dock to-morrow morning. So tonight I've got to make my killing."

It was the others who made the killing.

I came into the smoking-room about nine o'clock. Talbot alone was seated. The others were on their feet, and behind them in a wider semicircle were passengers, the smoking-room stewards and the ship's purser.

Talbot sat with his back against the bulkhead, his hands in the pockets of his dinner coat; from the corner of his mouth his long cigarette-holder was cocked at an impudent angle. There was a tumult of angry voices, and the eyes of all were turned upon him. Outwardly at least he met them with complete indifference. The voice of one of my countrymen, a noisy pest named Smedburg, was raised in excited accusation.

"When the ship's surgeon first met you," he cried, "you called yourself Lord Ridley."

"I'll call myself anything I jolly well like," returned Talbot. "If I choose to dodge reporters, that's my pidgin. I don't have to give my name to every meddling busybody that--"

"You'll give it to the police, all right," chortled Mr. Smedburg. In the confident, bullying tones of the man who knows the crowd is with him, he shouted: "And in the meantime you'll keep out of this smoking-room!"

The chorus of assent was unanimous. It could not be disregarded. Talbot rose and with fastidious concern brushed the cigarette ashes from his sleeve. As he moved toward the door he called back: "Only too delighted to keep out. The crowd in this room makes a gentleman feel lonely."

But he was not to escape with the last word.

His prosecutor pointed his finger at him.

"And the next time you take the name of Adolph Meyer," he shouted, "make sure first he hasn't a friend on board; some one to protect him from sharpers and swindlers--"

Talbot turned savagely and then shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, go to the devil!" he called, and walked out into the night.

The purser was standing at my side and, catching my eye, shook his head.

"Bad business," he exclaimed.

"What happened?" I asked.

"I'm told they caught him dealing from the wrong end of the pack," he said. "I understand they suspected him from the first--seems our surgeon recognized him--and to-night they had outsiders watching him. The outsiders claim they saw him slip himself an ace from the bottom of the pack. It's a pity! He's a nice-looking lad."

I asked what the excited Smedburg had meant by telling Talbot not to call himself Meyer.

"They accused him of travelling under a false name," explained the purser, "and he told 'em he did it to dodge the ship's news reporters. Then he said he really was a brother of Adolph Meyer, the banker; but it seems Smedburg is a friend of Meyer's, and he called him hard! It was a silly ass thing to do," protested the purser. "Everybody knows Meyer hasn't a brother, and if he hadn't made THAT break he might have got away with the other one. But now this Smedburg is going to wireless ahead to Mr. Meyer and to the police."

"Has he no other way of spending his money?" I asked.

"He's a confounded nuisance!" growled the purser. "He wants to show us he knows Adolph Meyer; wants to put Meyer under an obligation. It means a scene on the wharf, and newspaper talk; and," he added with disgust, "these smoking-room rows never helped any line."

I went in search of Talbot; partly because I knew he was on the verge of a collapse, partly, as I frankly admitted to myself, because I was sorry the young man had come to grief. I searched the snow-swept decks, and then, after threading my way through faintly lit tunnels, I knocked at his cabin. The sound of his voice gave me a distinct feeling of relief. But he would not admit me. Through the closed door he declared he was "all right," wanted no medical advice, and asked only to resume the sleep he claimed I had broken. I left him, not without uneasiness, and the next morning the sight of him still in the flesh was a genuine thrill. I found him walking the deck carrying himself nonchalantly and trying to appear unconscious of the glances--amused, contemptuous, hostile--that were turned toward him. He would have passed me without speaking, but I took his arm and led him to the rail. We had long passed quarantine and a convoy of tugs were butting us into the dock.

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

"Doesn't depend on me," he said. "Depends on Smedburg. He's a busy little body!"

The boy wanted me to think him unconcerned, but beneath the flippancy I saw the nerves jerking. Then quite simply he began to tell me. He spoke in a low, even monotone, dispassionately, as though for him the incident no longer was of interest.

"They were watching me," he said. "But I knew they were, and besides, no matter how close they watched I could have done what they said I did and they'd never have seen it. But I didn't."

My scepticism must have been obvious, for he shook his head.

"I didn't!" he repeated stubbornly. "I didn't have to! I was playing in luck--wonderful luck--sheer, dumb luck. I couldn't HELP winning. But because I was winning and because they were watching, I was careful not to win on my own deal. I laid down, or played to lose. It was the cards they GAVE me I won with. And when they jumped me I told 'em that. I could have proved it if they'd listened. But they were all up in the air, shouting and spitting at me. They believed what they wanted to believe; they didn't want the facts."

It may have been credulous of me, but I felt the boy was telling the truth, and I was deeply sorry he had not stuck to it. So, rather harshly, I said:

"They didn't want you to tell them you were a brother to Adolph Meyer, either. Why did you think you could get away with anything like that?"

Talbot did not answer.

"Why?" I insisted.

The boy laughed impudently.

"How the devil was I to know he hadn't a brother?" he protested. "It was a good name, and he's a Jew, and two of the six who were in the game are Jews. You know how they stick together. I thought they might stick by me."

"But you," I retorted impatiently, "are not a Jew!"

"I am not," said Talbot, "but I've often SAID I was. It's helped--lots of times. If I'd told you my name was Cohen, or Selinsky, or Meyer, instead of Craig Talbot, YOU'D have thought I was a Jew." He smiled and turned his face toward me. As though furnishing a description for the police, he began to enumerate:

"Hair, dark and curly; eyes, poppy; lips, full; nose, Roman or Hebraic, according to taste. Do you see?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"But it didn't work," he concluded. "I picked the wrong Jew."

His face grew serious. "Do you suppose that Smedburg person has wirelessed that banker?"

I told him I was afraid he had already sent the message.

"And what will Meyer do?" he asked. "Will he drop it or make a fuss? What sort is he?"

Briefly I described Adolph Meyer. I explained him as the richest Hebrew in New York; given to charity, to philanthropy, to the betterment of his own race.

"Then maybe," cried Talbot hopefully, "he won't make a row, and my family won't hear of it!"

He drew a quick breath of relief. As though a burden had been lifted, his shoulders straightened.

And then suddenly, harshly, in open panic, he exclaimed aloud:

"Look!" he whispered. "There, at the end of the wharf--the little Jew in furs!"

I followed the direction of his eyes. Below us on the dock, protected by two obvious members of the strong-arm squad, the great banker, philanthropist, and Hebrew, Adolph Meyer, was waiting.

We were so close that I could read his face. It was stern, set; the face of a man intent upon his duty, unrelenting. Without question, of a bad business Mr. Smedburg had made the worst. I turned to speak to Talbot and found him gone.

His silent slipping away filled me with alarm. I fought against a growing fear. How many minutes I searched for him I do not know. It seemed many hours. His cabin, where first I sought him, was empty and dismantled, and by that I was reminded that if for any desperate purpose Talbot were seeking to conceal himself there now were hundreds of other empty, dismantled cabins in which he might hide. To my inquiries no one gave heed. In the confusion of departure no one had observed him; no one was in a humor to seek him out; the passengers were pressing to the gangway, the stewards concerned only in counting their tips. From deck to deck, down lane after lane of the great floating village, I raced blindly, peering into half-opened doors, pushing through groups of men, pursuing some one in the distance who appeared to be the man I sought, only to find he was unknown to me. When I returned to the gangway the last of the passengers was leaving it.

I was about to follow to seek for Talbot in the customs shed when a white-faced steward touched my sleeve. Before he spoke his look told me why I was wanted.

"The ship's surgeon, sir," he stammered, "asks you please to hurry to the sick-bay. A passenger has shot himself!"

On the bed, propped up by pillows, young Talbot, with glazed, shocked eyes, stared at me. His shirt had been cut away; his chest lay bare. Against his left shoulder the doctor pressed a tiny sponge which quickly darkened.

I must have exclaimed aloud, for the doctor turned his eyes.

"It was HE sent for you," he said, "but he doesn't need you. Fortunately, he's a damned bad shot!"

The boy's eyes opened wearily; before we could prevent it he spoke.

"I was so tired," he whispered. "Always moving me on. I was so tired!"

Behind me came heavy footsteps, and though with my arm I tried to bar them out, the two detectives pushed into the doorway. They shoved me to one side and through the passage made for him came the Jew in the sable coat, Mr. Adolph Meyer.

For an instant the little great man stood with wide, owl-like eyes, staring at the face on the pillow.

Then he sank softly to his knees. In both his hands he caught the hand of the card-sharp.

"Heine!" he begged. "Don't you know me? It is your brother Adolph; your little brother Adolph!"