‘That’s funny, not a grain of lead’: A Strange Story from Monte Carlo: c. 1890s

gambling dice and cards

At the tables were sitting girls who had better been playing drafts in their schoolrooms, and hawkeyed beldames who seemed ready to stake the price of their coffins on the winning number. Only when they won did a muscle relax in their tired faces. The presiding croupiers were a perpetual lesson in the art of concealing emotions. But as they were never allowed to join in a stake, they shovelled the money like so many beans. What perfect flunkies they would have made for the Sphinx! “Messieurs failes vos jeux,” sang the croupiers, and a minute later came the warning signal, “rien no va plus!” followed in a few long seconds by the announcement of the winning number, red or black, odd or even, and the swift scraping in of the lost stakes. And so it would be all afternoon and into the night and the next day again and the day after . . . crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win….

[The narrator then speaks to a long-time gambler.]

I asked him what the pleasures of memory meant to him, and he confessed that they were considerable. I asked him if he believed in any gambling superstition, whether he thought sitting round a gambling-table ever produced any result one could compare with spiritualism; for instance, the result of touching a dead gambler’s blood, which we had witnessed an hour or two before.

“No,” he said, “but I have come to the conclusion that it often makes a difference to the luck at a table who is sitting at it. Some people cause others to win. That is how it works out.” I asked him if in all his experience he could think of an instance when a psychic influence had been at work. He sat back thinking. Then he said quietly: “I do not answer your question. I cannot say yes or no, so I say nothing.” “Then you must have met something that was inexplicable,” I pressed. “Perhaps,” he answered; “but I have never told anybody.” I knew my only chance of hearing it was to say nothing leading the conversation elsewhere, so I just waited. He got up and began walking again.

When we came in front of the pigeon-shooting green, which juts like a tiny grass-green arena into the sea, he stopped and pointed to a corner of the fence. A pigeon popped out of a trap, took flight, and fell to an invisible gun. Another flew out, but fell the wrong side of the fence into the open sea, where fishermen were waiting to retrieve it from boats. Each marksman was allowed two shots to bring the pigeon down. It seemed deadly monotonous. Then my friend spoke: “That is where the first incident happened.”

I knew now I had only to keep silent to hear what he had to say.

“I used to shoot pigeons a good deal in company with a friend of mine. When we lost at the tables we often made good by winning the prize for shooting. I sometimes won, but my friend never. Whatever he gambled at, he lost, roulette, chemin-de-fer, baccarat, and dice. He fell into the hands of the sharpers, a gang who induced him for a long time to believe that he was winning. Then they played him with loaded dice and he lost a fortune. One evening I was with him and the dice fell six times the same against him and every time for double or quits. He challenged the dice and they agreed to saw the ivory cubes asunder. A third party was called in and in breathless silence the dice were broken up. My friend picked up each piece with a face whiter than ivory himself, but there was no suspicion of a fraud to be found. If they had been playing with loaded dice they had substituted others. Sleight of hand can work wonders. I have no doubt my friend’s challenge had been perfectly justified, but he was up against the deliberate wickedness of this world. For a moment he turned over the fragments of the dice. The scoundrel who had been playing with him smiled and murmured: ‘C’est dréle, Pas un grain deplomb’ (‘That’s funny, not a grain of lead’). My friend put down his bank-book and went out. That evening he killed himself.

“After I had seen to his burying I felt miserable and went for a long trip. When I returned I instinctively made my way to Monte Carlo. I could not change my thoughts or get my friend out of my mind, so I decided to return to the scenes of our long companionship. I immediately found that my luck had improved at the tables. Then a very strange thing happened. I sent for my guns and entered for the grand prix at pigeon-shooting. I found myself in winning fettle. You always know at the tables or on the green if you are in a successful mood.

On the first day I killed fourteen pigeons out of fifteen. The second day saw me in the running for the championship. If you miss five birds you have to withdraw from the shooting, and soon only four guns were left. In the end two of us were left. We had each shot twenty-four out of twenty-six. Then the other missed and I only had to kill one bird to win. Seconds are long on such occasions and my eye was caught by a little sailing boat out to sea. I could not get my eye off it and out flew the pigeon, not like an easy owl but like a flighting snipe. Ping! I missed my first shot and he swerved. Then I fired to the other side. Ping! I thought, in fact I was sure, I had missed, but no, I had just done the trick. As he flew over the fence he suddenly shot low as though something rose in his path, struck the top of the fence, and fell stone-dead on the right side of the line.

I was heartily congratulated by everyone on my prowess. I can tell you it was one of the good moments of my life and, as the retriever brought back my last bird, I strolled to the man in charge to see where I had hit my lucky bird. The dog man was handling the pigeon all over. I asked him if I hit the head or the body. He began plucking the feathers. When the bird was bare he looked up with a perplexed grin and said: ‘C’est dréle, par un grain de plomb! ’ As soon as I heard the fatal words I walked away feeling sick. I did not shoot a pigeon again for many a long day, not until I was absolutely in want of money. And for months I tried to get those words out of my head.

“Years passed, but I never would let my mind dwell too long on the reason why that last pigeon could have shied and knocked its brains on the fence for my special benefit. It was possible that my last shot passed close overhead and drove it downward with the shock it caused in the air. I have heard of duck being killed by the sheer force of a gun’s explosion without being struck by the pellets. So I attributed my good fortune to a combination of natural reasons and my own skill. And the years passed. I went on gambling and gambling, and I must say I had begun to forget my companion of other days. But one evening at Monte Carlo sitting at a table I caught sight of a face opposite which instantly telegraphed my friend’s back to me.

It was the scoundrel who had cheated him at dice of all his money and indirectly of his life. He was obviously down on his luck, shabbily dressed and playing small stakes with furtive apprehension. I know that look so well. A man often has it the first time he throws a stake. He generally has it when he throws his last. I could see that he had not recognized me, but to my horror, when I had a run of luck, he took special notice and came up to address me. He began talking about a system of his own in which he suggested that I should take a share. However, my own was working very well that day and I played on till I had won five thousand francs.

“When I came back to my hotel I was surprised to be told that a friend of mine was waiting in my room for me, and even more so to find that this ugly customer had followed me out of the Casino and somehow discovered where I was staying, for while I strolled home he had skipped ahead and imposed on the concierge with some trumped-up tale. Anyhow, he had been admitted and was there, staking his life and liberty on the chance of making me disgorge a little of my winnings. As he had a revolver pointing at me from the moment I entered my room, I would have been inclined to buy him off as cheaply as I could. But I remembered what he did not, that I had a blood feud with him of many years’ standing.

My revolver was in my outside pocket and we fired about simultaneously. I missed him, shattering the window behind, but he hit me in the shoulder. His pellet ran under my shoulder-blade like a knife. We stood facing each other and aiming. I was trying to fire, but something held me like a vice, and I could not. Every second I expected he would shoot me through the head. I could see his fingers twitching round the stock of his gun. But as I covered him I noticed a horrible look come into his features, and if I was held, he was held doubly. Though I had missed him clean, a look of fear shot through his eyes, not the fear of a coward or a fool, or even the fear of one man of another, but the veritable fear of the devil for the Evil One when he cheats them at the end. He was staring over my shoulder into the empty bedroom behind me with glazed eyes and a tremor running through his body. He never said a word but fell back dead!

“Just then the concierge and the police threw open the door and I found myself arrested. I declined to tell my story except in the presence of a British consul, and was taken first to a doctor, who found my wound slight, and then to the guardhouse, where I was detained for the night, but I must confess I never slept with a lighter conscience. In the morning there was an inquiry before the authorities and I saw from the first that I had matters in my own hand. It was shown that I had left the Casino a winner and my assailant a heavy loser, that he had made his way on a false excuse into my room and that I had been found wounded. There was every suspicion that he had provoked the quarrel.

I was only anxious that the affair should be taken down in black and white for my future good name, and I was quite ready to be accused and saddled with an act of justifiable manslaughter. The magistrates after consultation with the police said that they would be delighted to release me, but that they would be much obliged if for the purposes of their report I would tell them exactly how I had killed the deceased. I pointed to my revolver lying on the commissary’s desk.

‘No, monsieur,’ I was politely told, and they all shook their heads mysteriously. ‘No, monsieur, you may have fired, but you must have killed him in some other way.’ I looked bewildered. Then the commissary went on in a quiet voice to say that they had found no bullet-hole, and he ended: ‘C’est dréle, pas un grain de plomb!’

But whether from loss of blood or excitement, I had fainted.”

Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Now that is what Mrs Daffodil calls a story with a frisson! The world of gamblers is full of many such thrilling and grewsome superstitions, such as the use as a lucky charm of a hangman’s rope or some artifact from a murderer, so beloved of society ladies. That speculative person over at Haunted Ohio has written of “Dicing with Death,” about dead men’s hands and other dire talismans of gamblers.  Mrs Daffodil herself never gambles, having seen an otherwise blameless butler who was fond of a flutter descend, first into debt, and then to Australia.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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