Gamblers by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

The great English carnival of gamblers is over for a month or two; the bookmakers have retired to winter quarters after having waxed fat during the year on the money risked by arrant simpletons. The bookmaker’s habits are peculiar; he cannot do without gambling, and he contrives to indulge himself all the year round in some way or other. When the Newmarket Houghton meeting is over, Mr. Bookmaker bethinks him of billiards, and he goes daily and nightly among interesting gatherings of his brotherhood. Handicaps are arranged day by day and week by week, and the luxurious, loud, vulgar crew contrive to pass away the time pleasantly until the spring race meetings begin. But hundreds of the sporting gentry have souls above the British billiard-room, and for them a veritable paradise is ready. The Mediterranean laps the beautiful shore at Monte Carlo and all along the exquisite Eiviera–the palms and ferns are lovely–the air is soft and exhilarating, and the gambler pursues his pleasing pastime amid the sweetest spots on earth. From every country in the world the flights of restless gamblers come like strange flocks of migrant birds. The Russian gentleman escapes from the desolate plains of his native land and luxuriates in the beautiful garden of Europe; the queer inflections of the American’s quiet drawl are heard everywhere as he strolls round the tables; Roumanian boyards, Parisian swindlers, Austrian soldiers, Hungarian plutocrats, flashy and foolish young Englishmen–all gather in a motley crowd; and the British bookmaker’s interesting presence is obtrusive. His very accent–strident, coarse, impudent, unspeakably low–gives a kind of ground-note to the hum of talk that rises in all places of public resort, and he recruits his delicate health in anticipation of the time when he will be able to howl once more in English betting-rings.

But I am not so much concerned with the personality of the various sorts of gamblers, and I assuredly have no pity to spare for the gentry who lose their money. A great deal of good useful compassion is wasted on the victims who are fleeced in the gambling places. Victims! What do they go to the rooms for? Is it not to amuse themselves and to pass away time amid false exhilaration? Is it not to gain money without working for it? The dupe has in him all the raw material of a scoundrel; and even when he blows his stupid brains out I cannot pity him so much as I pity the dogged labourer who toils on and starves until his time comes for going to the workhouse. I am rather more inclined to study the general manifestations of the gambling spirit. I have in my mind’s eye vivid images of the faces, the figures, the gestures of hundreds of gamblers, and I might make an appalling picture-gallery if I chose; but such a nightmare in prose would not do much good to any one, and I prefer to proceed in a less exciting but more profitable manner. We please ourselves by calling to mind the days when “society” gambled openly and constantly; and we like to fancy that we are all very good and spotless now-a-days and free from the desire for unnatural excitement. Well, I grant that most European societies in the last century were sufficiently hideous in many respects. The English aristocrat, male or female, cared only for cards, and no noble lady dreamed of remaining long in an assembly where piquet and ecarte were not going on. The French seigneur gambled away an estate in an evening; the Russian landowner staked a hundred serfs and their lives and fortunes on the turn of a card; little German princelings would play quite cheerfully for regiments of soldiers. The pictures which we are gradually getting from memoirs and letters are almost too grotesque for belief, and there is some little excuse for the hearty optimists who look back with complacency on the past, and thank their stars that they have escaped from the domain of evil. For my own part, when I see the mode of life now generally followed by most of our European aristocracies, I am quite ready to be grateful for a beneficent change, and I have again and again made light of the wailings of persons who persist in chattering about the good old times. But I am talking now about the spirit of the gambler; and I cannot say that the human propensity to gamble has in any way died out. Its manifestations may in some respects be more decorous than they used to be; but the deep, masterful, subtle tendency is there, and its force is by no means diminished by the advance of a complicated civilisation. Often and often I have mused quietly amid scenes where gamblers of various sorts were disporting themselves–in village inns where solemn yokels played shove-halfpenny with statesmanlike gravity; in sunny Italian streets where lazy loungers played their queer guessing game with beans; in noisy racing-clubs where the tape clicks all day long; on crowded steamboats when Tynesiders and Cockneys yelled and cursed and shouted their offers as the slim skiffs stole over the water and the straining athletes bent to their work; on Atlantic liners when hundreds of pounds depended on the result of the day’s run; on the breezy heath where half a million gazers watched as the sleek Derby horses thundered round. As I have gazed on these spectacles, I have been forced to let the mind wander into regions far away from the chatter of the gamesters. Again and again I have been compelled to think with a kind of melancholy over the fact that man is not content until he is taken out of himself. Our wondrous bodies, our miraculous power of looking before and after, our infinite capacities for enjoyment, are not enough for us, and the poor feeble human creature spends a great part of his life in trying to forget that he is himself. At the best, our days pass as in the dim swiftness of a dream. The young man suddenly thinks, “It is but yesterday that I was a child;” the middle-aged man finds the gray hairs streaking his head before he has realised that his youth is gone; the old man lives so completely in the past that he is taken only by a gentle shock of surprise when he finds that the end is upon him. Swiftly, like some wild hunt of shadows, the generations fleet away–nothing stays their frantic speed; and to the true observer no fictitious flight of spirits on the Brocken could be half so weird as the passage of one generation of the children of men. As we grow old, the appalling brevity of time impresses itself more and more on the consciousness of calm and thoughtful men; yet nine-tenths of our race spend the best part of their days in trying to make their ghostly sweeping flight from eternity to eternity seem more rapid than it really is. That hot and fevered youth who stands in the betting-ring and nervously pencils his race-card never thinks that the time of weakness and sadness and weariness is coming on; that gray and tremulous old man who bends over the roulette-table never thinks that he will speedily drop into a profundity deeper than ever plummet sounded. The gliding ball does not swing round in its groove faster than the old man’s soul fares towards the darkness; and yet he clenches his jaw and engages in the most trivial of pursuits as if he had an eternity before him. The youth and the dotard have alike succeeded in passing out of themselves, and their very souls will not return to the body until the delirious spell has ceased to act. All men alike seem to have, more or less, this craving for oblivion. Long ago I remember seeing a company of farmers who had come to market in the prosperous times; they were among the wildest of their set, and they settled down to cards when business was done. Day after day those bucolic gentlemen sat on; when one of them lay down on a settle to snatch a nap, his place was taken by another, and at the end of the week some of the original company were still in the parlour, having gambled furiously all the while without ever washing or undressing. Time was non-existent for them, and their consciousness was exercised only in watching the faces of the cards and counting up points. But the dull-witted farmers were qu
ite equalled by the polished scholar, the great orator, the brilliant wit, Charles Fox. It was nothing to Fox if he sat for three days and three nights at a stretch over the board of green cloth. His fortune went; he might lose at the rate of ten thousand pounds in the twenty-four hours; but he had succeeded in forgetting himself, and his loss of time and fortune counted as nothing. The light, careless gipsy shares the disposition of the matchless orator and the dull farmer. You may see a gipsy enter the tossing-ring at a fair; he loses all his money, but he goes on staking everything he possesses, and, if the luck remains adverse, he will continue tossing until his pony, his cart, his lurcher-dog, his very clothes are all gone. The Chinaman will play for his life; the Red Indian recklessly piles all he owns in the world upon the rough heap of goods which his tribe wager on the result of a pony race. Look high, look low, and we see that the gamblers actually form the majority of the world’s inhabitants; and we must go among the men of abstractions–the men who can achieve oblivion by dint of their own thinking power–before we find any class untouched by the strange taint. Observe that venerable looking man who slowly paces about in one of the luxurious dwelling-places which are sacred to leisure; you may see his type at Bath, Buxton, Leamington, Scarborough, Brighton, Torquay, all places, indeed, whither flock the men whose life-work is done. That venerable gentleman has fulfilled his task in the world, his desires have been gratified so far as fortune would allow, and one would think that most pursuits of the competitive sort must have lost interest for him. Yet he–even he–cannot get rid of the tendency to gamble; and he studies the financial news with the eagerness of a boy who follows the fortunes of Quentin Durward or D’Artagnan or Rebecca. If English railway shares fall, he is exultant or depressed, according to the operations of his broker; he may be roused into almost hysterical delight by a rise in “Nitrates” or “Chilians,” or any of the thousands of securities in which stockbrokers deal. What is it to the old man if Death smiles gently on him, and will soon touch his heart with ice? There is no past for him; he has forgotten the raptures of youth, the strength of manhood, the depression of failure, the gladness of success, and he drugs his soul into forgetfulness by dwelling on a gambler’s chances. So long as the one doubtful boon of forgetfulness is secured, it seems to matter very little what may be the stake at disposal. The English racing-man picks out a promising colt or filly; he finds that he has a swift and good animal, and he resolves to bring off some vast gambling coup. Patiently, cunningly, month after month, the steps in the plan are matured; the horse runs badly until the official handicappers think it is worthless, and the gambler at last finds that he has some great prize almost at his mercy. Then with slow dexterity the horse is backed to win. If the owner shows any eagerness, his purpose is balked once and for all; he may have to employ half-a-dozen agents to bet for him, until at last he succeeds in wagering so much money that he will gain, say, one hundred thousand pounds by winning his race. The fluttering jackets come nearer and nearer to the judge’s box; some of the jockeys are using their whips and riding desperately; the horse on which so much depends draws to the front; but the owner never moves a muscle. Of course we have seen men shrieking themselves almost into apoplexy at the close of a race; but the hardened gambler is deadly cool. In the last stride the animal so carefully–and fraudulently–prepared is beaten by a matter of a few inches, and the chance of picking up a hundred thousand pounds is gone; but the owner remains impassive, and as soon as settling-day is over, he endeavours to forget the matter. I have seen an old man watching a race on which he had planned to win sixty thousand pounds; his horse was beaten in the last two strides, and the old gentleman never so much as stirred or spoke. No doubt he was really transported out of himself; but nothing in the world seemed capable of altering the composure of his wizened features. On the other hand, there is one man who is known to possess some four millions in cash, besides an immense property; this man never bets more than two pounds at a time, yet from his wild fits of excitement it might be supposed that his colossal wealth was at stake.

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So the whole army of the gamblers pass in their mad whirlwind march toward the region of night; they are delirious, they are creatures of contradictions–they are fiercely greedy, lavishly generous, wary in many things, reckless of life, ready to take any advantage, yet possessed by a diseased sense of honour. Some of them think that a man is better and happier when he feels all his faculties working rather than when he goes off into blind transports of excitement or fear or doubt. I think that the man who is conscious to his very finger-tips is better than the wild creature whose senses are all blurred. I hold that the student or thinker who faces life with a calm and calculated desire for true knowledge is better off than the insensate being whose hours are passed in a sordid nightmare. But I see little chance of ever making men care little for the gambler’s pleasure, and I humbly own to the existence of an ugly mystery which only adds yet another to the number of dark puzzles whereby we are surrounded. I observe that desperate efforts are made to put down gambling by law rather than by culture, religion, true and gentle morality. As well try to put down the passions of love and fear–as well try to interdict the beat of the pulses! We may deplore the gambler’s existence as much as we like; but it is a fact, and we must accept it.

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