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Or I recall, with the same sense of youthful satisfaction and
unabated wonder, my wanderings through the Spanish Quarter, where
three centuries of quaint customs, speech, and dress were still
preserved; where the proverbs of Sancho Panza were still spoken in
the language of Cervantes, and the high-flown illusions of the La
Manchian knight still a part of the Spanish Californian hidalgo's
dream. I recall the more modern "Greaser," or Mexican--his index
finger steeped in cigarette stains; his velvet jacket and his
crimson sash; the many-flounced skirt and lace manta of his women,
and their caressing intonations--the one musical utterance of the
whole hard-voiced city. I suppose I had a boy's digestion and
bluntness of taste in those days, for the combined odor of tobacco,
burned paper, and garlic, which marked that melodious breath, did
not affect me.

Perhaps from my Puritan training I experienced a more fearful joy
in the gambling saloons. They were the largest and most comfortable,
even as they were the most expensively decorated rooms in San
Francisco. Here again the gravity and decorum which I have already
alluded to were present at that earlier period--though perhaps from
concentration of another kind. People staked and lost their last
dollar with a calm solemnity and a resignation that was almost
Christian. The oaths, exclamations, and feverish interruptions
which often characterized more dignified assemblies were absent
here. There was no room for the lesser vices; there was little or
no drunkenness; the gaudily dressed and painted women who presided
over the wheels of fortune or performed on the harp and piano
attracted no attention from those ascetic players. The man who had
won ten thousand dollars and the man who had lost everything rose
from the table with equal silence and imperturbability. I never
witnessed any tragic sequel to those losses; I never heard of any
suicide on account of them. Neither can I recall any quarrel or
murder directly attributable to this kind of gambling. It must be
remembered that these public games were chiefly rouge et noir,
monte, faro, or roulette, in which the antagonist was Fate, Chance,
Method, or the impersonal "bank," which was supposed to represent
them all; there was no individual opposition or rivalry; nobody
challenged the decision of the "croupier," or dealer.

I remember a conversation at the door of one saloon which was as
characteristic for its brevity as it was a type of the prevailing
stoicism. "Hello!" said a departing miner, as he recognized a
brother miner coming in, "when did you come down?" "This morning,"
was the reply. "Made a strike on the bar?" suggested the first
speaker. "You bet!" said the other, and passed in. I chanced an
hour later to be at the same place as they met again--their
relative positions changed. "Hello! Whar now?" said the incomer.
"Back to the bar." "Cleaned out?" "You bet!" Not a word more
explained a common situation.

My first youthful experience at those tables was an accidental one.
I was watching roulette one evening, intensely absorbed in the mere
movement of the players. Either they were so preoccupied with the
game, or I was really older looking than my actual years, but a
bystander laid his hand familiarly on my shoulder, and said, as to
an ordinary habitue, "Ef you're not chippin' in yourself, pardner,
s'pose you give ME a show." Now I honestly believe that up to that
moment I had no intention, nor even a desire, to try my own
fortune. But in the embarrassment of the sudden address I put my
hand in my pocket, drew out a coin, and laid it, with an attempt at
carelessness, but a vivid consciousness that I was blushing, upon a
vacant number. To my horror I saw that I had put down a large
coin--the bulk of my possessions! I did not flinch, however; I
think any boy who reads this will understand my feeling; it was not
only my coin but my manhood at stake. I gazed with a miserable
show of indifference at the players, at the chandelier--anywhere
but at the dreadful ball spinning round the wheel. There was a
pause; the game was declared, the rake rattled up and down, but
still I did not look at the table. Indeed, in my inexperience of
the game and my embarrassment, I doubt if I should have known if I
had won or not. I had made up my mind that I should lose, but I
must do so like a man, and, above all, without giving the least
suspicion that I was a greenhorn. I even affected to be listening
to the music. The wheel spun again; the game was declared, the
rake was busy, but I did not move. At last the man I had displaced
touched me on the arm and whispered, "Better make a straddle and
divide your stake this time." I did not understand him, but as I
saw he was looking at the board, I was obliged to look, too. I
drew back dazed and bewildered! Where my coin had lain a moment
before was a glittering heap of gold.

My stake had doubled, quadrupled, and doubled again. I did not
know how much then---I do not know now--it may have been not more
than three or four hundred dollars--but it dazzled and frightened
me. "Make your game, gentlemen," said the croupier monotonously.
I thought he looked at me--indeed, everybody seemed to be looking
at me--and my companion repeated his warning. But here I must
again appeal to the boyish reader in defense of my idiotic
obstinacy. To have taken advice would have shown my youth. I
shook my head--I could not trust my voice. I smiled, but with a
sinking heart, and let my stake remain. The ball again sped round
the wheel, and stopped. There was a pause. The croupier
indolently advanced his rake and swept my whole pile with others
into the bank! I had lost it all. Perhaps it may be difficult for
me to explain why I actually felt relieved, and even to some extent
triumphant, but I seemed to have asserted my grown-up independence--
possibly at the cost of reducing the number of my meals for days;
but what of that! I was a man! I wish I could say that it was a
lesson to me. I am afraid it was not. It was true that I did not
gamble again, but then I had no especial desire to--and there was
no temptation. I am afraid it was an incident without a moral.
Yet it had one touch characteristic of the period which I like to
remember. The man who had spoken to me, I think, suddenly
realized, at the moment of my disastrous coup, the fact of my
extreme youth. He moved toward the banker, and leaning over him
whispered a few words. The banker looked up, half impatiently,
half kindly--his hand straying tentatively toward the pile of coin.
I instinctively knew what he meant, and, summoning my determination,
met his eyes with all the indifference I could assume, and walked
away.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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