“For my sins, I suppose it must have been, I lived once in Egypt,” said the gray-haired young-looking man in the club smoking-room, “and if Egypt on the other side of the world is anything like the southern part of Illinois, I can readily understand how the children of Israel found the wilderness preferable. As I remember the story, though, in Pharaoh’s realm they had only one plague at a time, whereas in southern Illinois—however, there may be a better condition of things there now, so there’s nothing to gain by recalling our experiences. I sincerely hope things are better,206 but I scarcely think I have curiosity enough to go back and find out.
“In our village—for I was a part of it, and a part of it was mine—about the same conditions obtained as in all the other small settlements within a hundred miles. We had a railroad station and two trains a day. We had a post-office and one mail a day. We had a general store and a blacksmith’s shop and a tavern, and we had a few private residences. If there was anything else of importance, excepting the farmers’ wagons, that came in with loads that were too heavy for the horses, and too often went back with loads that burdened the farmers, the details have escaped my mind. It was a typical southern Illinois village.
“Small as it was, there were two social sets in town. The married men lived in their own houses, and their wives visited one another and had their small festivities from time to time in the most serene indifference207 to the fact that there were other human beings around. And these others—that is, the unmarried men—lived at the tavern, or hotel, as we preferred to call it, equally indifferent to the occurrence of social functions to which we were not bidden. If, as occasionally happened, one of the married men broke loose for a night or two, and spent his spare time and money at the hotel, he was tolerated, but no more. We felt sorry for him when we thought of his return home, but we had no yearnings toward reciprocity in his effort to break down the barriers.
“In our set there was, it is true, one married woman, but she did not count. At least we thought so till the trouble came. She was the landlord’s wife. Old Stein, as we called him, though he was not over forty, was a placid, easy-going German, who kept the hotel fairly up to the standard of the country, and I think a trifle above it, but he208 hadn’t energy enough, apparently, to make any strenuous effort to improve things. What was good enough for his boarders was good enough for him, and we were demoralized enough by the climate, or whatever it is that tends to the deterioration of mankind thereabout, to make no demand for unusual luxury. As far as we ever noticed, he had no remarkable affection for his wife, but seemed rather too indifferent to her very pronounced hunger for admiration.
“She was a born flirt, but though she carried her flirtations with anybody who would flirt with her, much nearer to the danger line than would be tolerated in a more strait-laced community, it was the general opinion among the boarders that there was no real evil in her, and, moreover, that she was fully capable of taking care of herself in almost any emergency. So, though she would not have been recognized as respectable by any other married woman in town,209 a fact that troubled her not, she was considered all right by our set, and we looked upon her as a good fellow rather than as a woman bound by the ordinary rules of propriety. She was a German by descent, and Stein was German by birth, but Lena was perhaps too thoroughly Americanized in a poor school.
“Naturally trouble came of it. We were accustomed, as the people in most small Western towns were accustomed some years ago, to receiving occasionally a visit from what we used to call a ‘cross-roads gambler.’ These worthies are perhaps the least useful and most ‘ornery’ specimens of humanity to be found in North America. They are professionals without the skill or nerve they need to enable them to hold their own among other professionals. Knowing just enough to cheat, but not enough to cheat deftly, they travel about the country, usually alone, but sometimes in pairs, stopping210 in the smallest settlements for a day or a week at a time, looking for victims. No game is too small for them, though they will play heavily at times, but they manage to live on their little skill by worming their way into friendly games of poker, such as are played all over the country, but perhaps more openly in the West than in the East.
“When Dick Bradley happened along our way and stopped over at our town, we had, though we did not realize it immediately, all the elements of a drama right at hand. It was not long before the drama was enacted, and perhaps it was just as well that we were not a little farther West, for there might have been considerable shooting in the last act. As it was we had a duel, but that was fought with the pasteboards instead of revolvers, and the difference was supposed to be settled by a freeze-out in the great American game.
“Bradley was an ordinary cross-roads211 gambler, and nothing more. He was a little handsomer than the usual run of men, and he dressed rather better than custom demanded in that part of the country. Moreover, he had a free-and-easy way with him—it was a part of his stock in trade—that was attractive to anybody, and I suppose especially so to a woman like Lena. At all events he hadn’t been with us twenty-four hours before there was a violent flirtation going on between the two. We all considered that natural enough, and supposing we knew the woman thoroughly well, we thought no harm of it at first. Stein took no notice of it apparently, and as it was a matter that concerned no one else so closely as it did him, none of us felt called on to say anything.
“Somewhat to our surprise, however, Bradley stayed on for more than a week. It wasn’t his regular business that kept him, for though we played poker every night, as212 a matter of course, in the back room of the hotel, and though he got into the game, equally as a matter of course, he didn’t make enough out of it to make it an object to stay. There were some of us who understood the game and the ordinary tricks of crooked players as well as he did, and he was not long in finding out that he had to play square if he played at all. So, as we never played for big money, the prospect was a poor one for him. Still he stayed. After a few days we all, excepting Stein, began to see that he was staying entirely on Lena’s account. He was a bit cautious at first; more so than she was, but seeing that Stein made no objection to anything she did, but gave her a perfectly free foot, the gambler grew bolder and bolder, until there was no longer any possibility of remaining blind to the fact that a scandal impended. Some of us talked it over very quietly and carefully, but it was agreed that no one213 ought to interfere, since Stein did not see fit to do so.
“We had begun to think that Stein was absolutely indifferent and to regard him with considerable contempt, when one evening he undeceived us, and gave us a great surprise by his manner of doing it. It was early in the evening, and, though we had gathered—perhaps a dozen of us—in the card-room, we had not yet begun playing when Stein came in, and, after fidgeting around for a minute or two in a manner quite unlike his usual phlegmatic way, spoke suddenly to Bradley.
“‘Look here, Bradley,’ he said in his broken English, ‘I must settle things with you. I have talked things with my wife, Lena, already, and she says she will go away with you. If she goes this world is no good to me any more, and you and I must settle if she goes or if she stays. I would kill you, but it would be foolishness to try214 that, for I am not a fighting man and you always carry your gun. Now, what shall we do? Will you go away and leave me my Lena, or will she go with you?’
“The poor Dutchman seemed not to understand in the least what an amazing sort of a speech this was. His voice trembled with his strong emotion, and there were tears in his eyes. The rest of us were struck dumb. I don’t know what the other fellows thought, but I know that there came to me a sort of hungry longing to organize a tar-and-feather party, with Dick Bradley as the principal guest. And, despite my contemptuous pity for the husband who showed so little manhood, I made up my mind that there was going to be fair play, anyhow.
“Bradley was fairly staggered. He flushed and stammered, and, I think, was for a moment about to say that he would go; but he pulled himself together, and seemed to remember that as a bad man215 he had a reputation to sustain. At length he said:
“‘It’s pretty hard to tell what to do, Stein. I’d be willing to fight you for the woman if you wanted to do that, but, as you don’t, I suppose she’d better settle it herself.’
“‘No,’ said the landlord. ‘She is foolish with you now, and she would have no sense about it. You and I will settle it now. And what will you do? Will you go away and leave us?’
“Bradley looked around, as if to see what the crowd thought about it, and perceiving at a glance that our sympathies were all with the other man, he replied:
“‘Well, if you won’t fight, supposing we settle it with the cards. I’ll play you a freeze-out, $1,000 against your wife. What do you say?’
“‘I say no,’ said Stein again, and we began almost to respect him. ‘I will not216 play my wife against your money, but I will play you a freeze-out for $1,000, my money against yours, and if you lose, you will go away. And if I lose, I will go away, and she may do what she likes. Only you will play a square game.’
“‘You bet, by ——, it’ll be a square game,’ said Jack Peters, the biggest man and the best card player in the party. ‘I don’t like your proposition, but that’s your business and not mine. But if you’re going to play, Stein, you may be perfectly sure that Bradley won’t try any cross-roads tricks in this freeze-out.’
“Bradley seated himself at the card table and said: ‘Get out your cards.’ At the same time he pulled out his wad and counted off the thousand. Stein got the cards and chips, and each man taking chips to represent his pile, the money was laid at one side. It did not seem like an even contest, for Stein was not a good player. I was delighted217 to notice, however, after they were fairly well going, that Stein was the cooler of the two. Bradley, I suppose, was a bit rattled by the consciousness that we were watching his play suspiciously.
“Bradley tried at first to force the play, and once or twice caught Stein for considerable money, but the game went on for perhaps twenty minutes without anything like a decisive result. Suddenly, as Stein was about to cut the cards, Jack Peters exclaimed:
“‘Shuffle ’em, Stein!’
“‘Can’t Stein play his own game?’ asked Bradley.
“‘I reckon he can,’ said Peters, ‘but in case the cards should happen to be stacked against him, and I found it out, there’d be a lynching right here in this town to-night. I don’t want that to happen, so I thought I’d make sure.’
“It was an unfair trick, for Bradley had218 not stacked the cards. He hadn’t dared to. But Peters told me afterward that he did it to ‘throw a scare’ into Bradley if he could. He succeeded, for the gambler lost his nerve when he looked around once more, while Stein remained as cool as before. He nodded and shuffled the cards and the game went on.
“The end came suddenly. It was a flush against a full, and Stein held the full and swept the board. There was a moment’s silence, and then Bradley said with a short laugh:
“‘Well, I’ve lost, and I’ll leave town on the morning train. That’ll do, I suppose, won’t it?’
“‘Yes, that’ll do,’ said Stein, gravely. He had won in the outrageous contest, and I expected to see him greatly elated, but instead he seemed curiously depressed. And as the situation was decidedly embarrassing for all hands we went to bed uncommonly219 early that night, so that everybody was up in time next morning to see Bradley go on the early train as he had agreed to do.”
“Well, yes,” said the gray-haired young-looking man, in answer to a question, “that is the end of the story, as far as the poker part of it goes. Of course there was this sequel. It was inevitable, I suppose. Lena followed Bradley a day or two afterward, and Stein drank himself to death.”