The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A Gambler’s Death

Anybody who was at C—— school some twelve years since, must recollect Jack Attwood: he was the most dashing lad in the place, with more money in his pocket than belonged to the whole fifth form in which we were companions.

When he was about fifteen, Jack suddenly retreated from C— — and presently we heard that he had a commission in a cavalry regiment, and was to have a great fortune from his father, when that old gentleman should die. Jack himself came to confirm these stories a few months after, and paid a visit to his old school chums. He had laid aside his little school-jacket and inky corduroys, and now appeared in such a splendid military suit as won the respect of all of us. His hair was dripping with oil, his hands were covered with rings, he had a dusky down over his upper lip which looked not unlike a moustache, and a multiplicity of frogs and braiding on his surtout which would have sufficed to lace a field-marshal. When old Swishtail, the usher, passed in his seedy black coat and gaiters, Jack gave him such a look of contempt as set us all a-laughing: in fact it was his turn to laugh now; for he used to roar very stoutly some months before, when Swishtail was in the custom of belaboring him with his great cane.

Jack’s talk was all about the regiment and the fine fellows in it: how he had ridden a steeple-chase with Captain Boldero, and licked him at the last hedge; and how he had very nearly fought a duel with Sir George Grig, about dancing with Lady Mary Slamken at a ball. “I soon made the baronet know what it was to deal with a man of the n — th,” said Jack. “Dammee, sir, when I lugged out my barkers, and talked of fighting across the mess-room table, Grig turned as pale as a sheet, or as —”

“Or as you used to do, Attwood, when Swishtail hauled you up,” piped out little Hicks, the foundation-boy.

It was beneath Jack’s dignity to thrash anybody, now, but a grown-up baronet; so he let off little Hicks, and passed over the general titter which was raised at his expense. However, he entertained us with his histories about lords and ladies, and so-and-so “of ours,” until we thought him one of the greatest men in his Majesty’s service, and until the school-bell rung; when, with a heavy heart, we got our books together, and marched in to be whacked by old Swishtail. I promise you he revenged himself on us for Jack’s contempt of him. I got that day at least twenty cuts to my share, which ought to have belonged to Cornet Attwood, of the n — th dragoons.

When we came to think more coolly over our quondam schoolfellow’s swaggering talk and manner, we were not quite so impressed by his merits as at his first appearance among us. We recollected how he used, in former times, to tell us great stories, which were so monstrously improbable that the smallest boy in the school would scout them; how often we caught him tripping in facts, and how unblushingly he admitted his little errors in the score of veracity. He and I, though never great friends, had been close companions: I was Jack’s form-fellow (we fought with amazing emulation for the LAST place in the class); but still I was rather hurt at the coolness of my old comrade, who had forgotten all our former intimacy, in his steeple-chases with Captain Boldero and his duel with Sir George Grig.

Nothing more was heard of Attwood for some years; a tailor one day came down to C— — who had made clothes for Jack in his school-days, and furnished him with regimentals: he produced a long bill for one hundred and twenty pounds and upwards, and asked where news might be had of his customer. Jack was in India, with his regiment, shooting tigers and jackals, no doubt. Occasionally, from that distant country, some magnificent rumor would reach us of his proceedings. Once I heard that he had been called to a court-martial for unbecoming conduct; another time, that he kept twenty horses, and won the gold plate at the Calcutta races. Presently, however, as the recollections of the fifth form wore away, Jack’s image disappeared likewise, and I ceased to ask or think about my college chum.

A year since, as I was smoking my cigar in the “Estaminet du Grand Balcon,” an excellent smoking-shop, where the tobacco is unexceptionable, and the Hollands of singular merit, a dark-looking, thick-set man, in a greasy well-cut coat, with a shabby hat, cocked on one side of his dirty face, took the place opposite me, at the little marble table, and called for brandy. I did not much admire the impudence or the appearance of my friend, nor the fixed stare with which he chose to examine me. At last, he thrust a great greasy hand across the table, and said, “Titmarsh, do you forget your old friend Attwood?”

I confess my recognition of him was not so joyful as on the day ten years earlier, when he had come, bedizened with lace and gold rings, to see us at C—— school: a man in the tenth part of a century learns a deal of worldly wisdom, and his hand, which goes naturally forward to seize the gloved finger of a millionnaire, or a milor, draws instinctively back from a dirty fist, encompassed by a ragged wristband and a tattered cuff. But Attwood was in nowise so backward; and the iron squeeze with which he shook my passive paw, proved that he was either very affectionate or very poor. You, my dear sir, who are reading this history, know very well the great art of shaking hands: recollect how you shook Lord Dash’s hand the other day, and how you shook OFF poor Blank, when he came to borrow five pounds of you.

However, the genial influence of the Hollands speedily dissipated anything like coolness between us and, in the course of an hour’s conversation, we became almost as intimate as when we were suffering together under the ferule of old Swishtail. Jack told me that he had quitted the army in disgust; and that his father, who was to leave him a fortune, had died ten thousand pounds in debt: he did not touch upon his own circumstances; but I could read them in his elbows, which were peeping through his old frock. He talked a great deal, however, of runs of luck, good and bad; and related to me an infallible plan for breaking all the play-banks in Europe — a great number of old tricks; — and a vast quantity of gin-punch was consumed on the occasion; so long, in fact, did our conversation continue, that, I confess it with shame, the sentiment, or something stronger, quite got the better of me, and I have, to this day, no sort of notion how our palaver concluded. — Only, on the next morning, I did not possess a certain five-pound note which on the previous evening was in my sketch-book (by far the prettiest drawing by the way in the collection) but there, instead, was a strip of paper, thus inscribed:—

IOU Five Pounds. JOHN ATTWOOD, Late of the N— th Dragoons.

I suppose Attwood borrowed the money, from this remarkable and ceremonious acknowledgment on his part: had I been sober I would just as soon have lent him the nose on my face; for, in my then circumstances, the note was of much more consequence to me.

As I lay, cursing my ill fortune, and thinking how on earth I should manage to subsist for the next two months, Attwood burst into my little garret — his face strangely flushed — singing and shouting as if it had been the night before. “Titmarsh,” cried he, “you are my preserver! — my best friend! Look here, and here, and here!” And at every word Mr. Attwood produced a handful of gold, or a glittering heap of five-franc pieces, or a bundle of greasy, dusky bank-notes, more beautiful than either silver or gold:— he had won thirteen thousand francs after leaving me at midnight in my garret. He separated my poor little all, of six pieces, from this shining and imposing collection; and the passion of envy entered my soul: I felt far more anxious now than before, although starvation was then staring me in the face; I hated Attwood for CHEATING me out of all this wealth. Poor fellow! it had been better for him had he never seen a shilling of it.

However, a grand breakfast at the Café Anglais dissipated my chagrin; and I will do my friend the justice to say, that he nobly shared some portion of his good fortune with me. As far as the creature comforts were concerned I feasted as well as he, and never was particular as to settling my share of the reckoning.

Jack now changed his lodgings; had cards, with Captain Attwood engraved on them, and drove about a prancing cab-horse, as tall as the giraffe at the Jardin des Plantes; he had as many frogs on his coat as in the old days, and frequented all the flash restaurateurs’ and boarding-houses of the capital. Madame de Saint Laurent, and Madame la Baronne de Vaudrey, and Madame la Comtesse de Jonville, ladies of the highest rank, who keep a société choisie and condescend to give dinners at five-francs a head, vied with each other in their attentions to Jack. His was the wing of the fowl, and the largest portion of the Charlotte-Russe; his was the place at the écarté table, where the Countess would ease him nightly of a few pieces, declaring that he was the most charming cavalier, la fleur d’Albion. Jack’s society, it may be seen, was not very select; nor, in truth, were his inclinations: he was a careless, daredevil, Macheath kind of fellow, who might be seen daily with a wife on each arm.

It may be supposed that, with the life he led, his five hundred pounds of winnings would not last him long; nor did they; but, for some time, his luck never deserted him; and his cash, instead of growing lower, seemed always to maintain a certain level: he played every night.

Of course, such a humble fellow as I, could not hope for a continued acquaintance and intimacy with Attwood. He grew overbearing and cool, I thought; at any rate I did not admire my situation as his follower and dependant, and left his grand dinner for a certain ordinary, where I could partake of five capital dishes for ninepence. Occasionally, however, Attwood favored me with a visit, or gave me a drive behind his great cab-horse. He had formed a whole host of friends besides. There was Fips, the barrister; heaven knows what he was doing at Paris; and Gortz, the West Indian, who was there on the same business, and Flapper, a medical student — all these three I met one night at Flapper’s rooms, where Jack was invited, and a great “spread” was laid in honor of him.

Jack arrived rather late — he looked pale and agitated; and, though he ate no supper, he drank raw brandy in such a manner as made Flapper’s eyes wink: the poor fellow had but three bottles, and Jack bade fair to swallow them all. However, the West Indian generously remedied the evil, and producing a napoleon, we speedily got the change for it in the shape of four bottles of champagne.

Our supper was uproariously harmonious; Fips sung the good “Old English Gentleman;” Jack the “British Grenadiers;” and your humble servant, when called upon, sang that beautiful ditty, “When the Bloom is on the Rye,” in a manner that drew tears from every eye, except Flapper’s, who was asleep, and Jack’s, who was singing the “Bay of Biscay O,” at the same time. Gortz and Fips were all the time lunging at each other with a pair of single-sticks, the barrister having a very strong notion that he was Richard the Third. At last Fips hit the West Indian such a blow across his sconce, that the other grew furious; he seized a champagne-bottle, which was, providentially, empty, and hurled it across the room at Fips: had that celebrated barrister not bowed his head at the moment, the Queen’s Bench would have lost one of its most eloquent practitioners.

Fips stood as straight as he could; his cheek was pale with wrath. “M-m-ister Go-gortz,” he said, “I always heard you were a blackguard; now I can pr-pr-peperove it. Flapper, your pistols! every ge-ge-genlmn knows what I mean.”

Young Mr. Flapper had a small pair of pocket-pistols, which the tipsy barrister had suddenly remembered, and with which he proposed to sacrifice the West Indian. Gortz was nothing loth, but was quite as valorous as the lawyer.

Attwood, who, in spite of his potations, seemed the soberest man of the party, had much enjoyed the scene, until this sudden demand for the weapons. “Pshaw!” said he, eagerly, “don’t give these men the means of murdering each other; sit down and let us have another song.” But they would not be still; and Flapper forthwith produced his pistol-case, and opened it, in order that the duel might take place on the spot. There were no pistols there! “I beg your pardon,” said Attwood, looking much confused; “I— I took the pistols home with me to clean them!”

I don’t know what there was in his tone, or in the words, but we were sobered all of a sudden. Attwood was conscious of the singular effect produced by him, for he blushed, and endeavored to speak of other things, but we could not bring our spirits back to the mark again, and soon separated for the night. As we issued into the street Jack took me aside, and whispered, “Have you a napoleon, Titmarsh, in your purse?’ Alas! I was not so rich. My reply was, that I was coming to Jack, only in the morning, to borrow a similar sum.

He did not make any reply, but turned away homeward: I never heard him speak another word.

Two mornings after (for none of our party met on the day succeeding the supper), I was awakened by my porter, who brought a pressing letter from Mr. Gortz:—

“DEAR T. — I wish you would come over here to breakfast. There’s a row about Attwood. — Yours truly,

“SOLOMON GORTZ.”

I immediately set forward to Gortz’s; he lived in the Rue du Helder, a few doors from Attwood’s new lodging. If the reader is curious to know the house in which the catastrophe of this history took place, he has but to march some twenty doors down from the Boulevard des Italiens, when he will see a fine door, with a naked Cupid shooting at him from the hall, and a Venus beckoning him up the stairs. On arriving at the West Indian’s, at about mid-day (it was a Sunday morning), I found that gentleman in his dressing-gown, discussing, in the company of Mr Fips, a large plate of bifteck aux pommes.

“Here’s a pretty row!” said Gortz, quoting from his letter; — “Attwood’s off — have a bit of beefsteak?”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed I, adopting the familiar phraseology of my acquaintances:—“Attwood off? — has he cut his stick?”

“Not bad,” said the feeling and elegant Fips —“not such a bad guess, my boy; but he has not exactly CUT HIS STICK.”

“What then?”

“WHY, HIS THROAT.” The man’s mouth was full of bleeding beef as he uttered this gentlemanly witticism.

I wish I could say that I was myself in the least affected by the news. I did not joke about it like my friend Fips; this was more for propriety’s sake than for feeling’s: but for my old school acquaintance, the friend of my early days, the merry associate of the last few months, I own, with shame, that I had not a tear or a pang. In some German tale there is an account of a creature most beautiful and bewitching, whom all men admire and follow; but this charming and fantastic spirit only leads them, one by one, into ruin, and then leaves them. The novelist, who describes her beauty, says that his heroine is a fairy, and HAS NO HEART. I think the intimacy which is begotten over the wine-bottle, is a spirit of this nature; I never knew a good feeling come from it, or an honest friendship made by it; it only entices men and ruins them; it is only a phantom of friendship and feeling, called up by the delirious blood, and the wicked spells of the wine.

But to drop this strain of moralizing (in which the writer is not too anxious to proceed, for he cuts in it a most pitiful figure), we passed sundry criticisms upon poor Attwood’s character, expressed our horror at his death — which sentiment was fully proved by Mr. Fips, who declared that the notion of it made him feel quite faint, and was obliged to drink a large glass of brandy; and, finally, we agreed that we would go and see the poor fellow’s corpse, and witness, if necessary, his burial.

Flapper, who had joined us, was the first to propose this visit: he said he did not mind the fifteen francs which Jack owed him for billiards, but he was anxious to GET BACK HIS PISTOL. Accordingly, we sallied forth, and speedily arrived at the hotel which Attwood inhabited still. He had occupied, for a time, very fine apartments in this house: and it was only on arriving there that day that we found he had been gradually driven from his magnificent suite of rooms au premier, to a little chamber in the fifth story:— we mounted, and found him. It was a little shabby room, with a few articles of rickety furniture, and a bed in an alcove; the light from the one window was falling full upon the bed and the body. Jack was dressed in a fine lawn shirt; he had kept it, poor fellow, TO DIE IN; for in all his drawers and cupboards there was not a single article of clothing; he had pawned everything by which he could raise a penny — desk, books, dressing-case, and clothes; and not a single halfpenny was found in his possession.2

2 In order to account for these trivial details, the reader must be told that the story is, for the chief part, a fact; and that the little sketch in this page was TAKEN FROM NATURE. The latter was likewise a copy from one found in the manner described.

He was lying as I have drawn him,3 one hand on his breast, the other falling towards the ground. There was an expression of perfect calm on the face, and no mark of blood to stain the side towards the light. On the other side, however, there was a great pool of black blood, and in it the pistol; it looked more like a toy than a weapon to take away the life of this vigorous young man. In his forehead, at the side, was a small black wound; Jack’s life had passed through it; it was little bigger than a mole.

3 This refers to an illustrated edition of the work.

“Regardez un peu,” said the landlady, “messieurs, il m’a gâté trois matelas, et il me doit quarante quatre francs.”

This was all his epitaph: he had spoiled three mattresses, and owed the landlady four-and-forty francs. In the whole world there was not a soul to love him or lament him. We, his friends, were looking at his body more as an object of curiosity, watching it with a kind of interest with which one follows the fifth act of a tragedy, and leaving it with the same feeling with which one leaves the theatre when the play is over and the curtain is down.

Beside Jack’s bed, on his little “table de nuit,” lay the remains of his last meal, and an open letter, which we read. It was from one of his suspicious acquaintances of former days, and ran thus:—

“Où es tu, cher Jack? why you not come and see me — tu me dois de l’argent, entends tu? — un chapeau, une cachemire, a box of the Play. Viens demain soir, je t’attendrai at eight o’clock, Passage des Panoramas. My Sir is at his country.

“Adieu à demain.

“Fifine.

“Samedi.”

I shuddered as I walked through this very Passage des Panoramas, in the evening. The girl was there, pacing to and fro, and looking in the countenance of every passer-by, to recognize Attwood. “ADIEU À DEMAIN!”— there was a dreadful meaning in the words, which the writer of them little knew. “Adieu à demain!”— the morrow was come, and the soul of the poor suicide was now in the presence of God. I dare not think of his fate; for, except in the fact of his poverty and desperation, was he worse than any of us, his companions, who had shared his debauches, and marched with him up to the very brink of the grave?

There is but one more circumstance to relate regarding poor Jack — his burial; it was of a piece with his death.

He was nailed into a paltry coffin and buried, at the expense of the arrondissement, in a nook of the burial-place beyond the Barrière de l’Etoile. They buried him at six o’clock, of a bitter winter’s morning, and it was with difficulty that an English clergyman could be found to read a service over his grave. The three men who have figured in this history acted as Jack’s mourners; and as the ceremony was to take place so early in the morning, these men sat up the night through, AND WERE ALMOST DRUNK as they followed his coffin to its resting-place.

MORAL.

“When we turned out in our great-coats,” said one of them afterwards, “reeking of cigars and brandy-and-water, d — e, sir, we quite frightened the old buck of a parson; he did not much like our company.” After the ceremony was concluded, these gentlemen were very happy to get home to a warm and comfortable breakfast, and finished the day royally at Frascati’s.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07