Five men of better nerve never dealt cards than the five who sat playing poker the other night in one of those up-town club-rooms that are so quietly kept as to be entirely unknown to the police and the general public. The game proved to be phenomenal.
The play was high. The party had played together once a week, for a long time, and the limit had always been one dollar at the beginning of the evening, though occasionally it had gone as high as ten before morning. This particular night, however, the cards ran remarkably well, and by midnight the limit was ignored if not forgotten. Two of the players had laid their pocketbooks alongside their chips. They had not played so before, but the gambling fever had come upon them with the excitement of good hands, one against another, until the friendly contest had become a struggle for blood. Fours had been shown several times since midnight, and beaten once, while straight flushes had twice won important money. Deck after deck had been called for, and tossed aside in turn after a few deals, till the carpet was strewn thickly with the discarded pasteboards, but there was no change in the remarkable run of the cards. Pat fulls and flushes showed in deal after deal, and the luck in the draw was so extraordinary and so evenly distributed that they all grew cautious of betting on any ordinary hand, and a bluff had not been tried for an hour. Yet no one had offered a remark, though the play grew higher and harder. It was as if each man feared to break the run by mentioning it. At length the Colonel spoke.
“The devil himself is playing with his picture books to-night, I think,” he said, with a short laugh, as he lost two stacks of blues on a seven full.
It had been the Doctor’s deal, and he looked up quickly. Gazing at the Colonel, he said:
“The hands are certainly remarkable. I never saw so many big ones at one sitting.” The words were simple, but there was a curious tone, half of question, in his voice. There had not been such nervous tension in the party before, but they were all men of experience, and had seen trouble between friends resulting from careless words on many different occasions.
The Colonel detected the tone and answered quickly and gracefully:
“That’s so, Doc. I’ve beaten some strong hands myself to-night.”
“A new pack, Sam,” said the Editor, who was the next to deal. The imperturbable darky by the sideboard produced one instantly, and the Editor shuffled it carefully. Then he offered it to the other players in turn. They all refused to touch it, and, shuffling the deck himself once more, he laid it down for the cut and began to deal. It was a little thing, but so far out of the ordinary as to mark the fact that they were fencing now with bare blades, and from that on, there was a strict observance of the punctilio of the game.
One by one the cards fell in five symmetrical little piles, as perfect as Herrmann could have made them, for the Editor was deft with his fingers, but one after another of the players passed out and a jack pot was made. The big hands had failed to appear.
It was the Congressman’s deal, and he doubled his ante and took the cards. The Colonel sat next and pushed out four blue chips—twenty dollars. The others all came in, the Congressman making good and dealing without a word. There was a hundred dollars in the pot, and there came that curious certainty to all of them which sometimes comes to experienced players, that a mighty struggle was at hand.
The Colonel made a pretense of looking at his hand, but in reality looked only at the first two cards. They were both aces. He passed.
The Lawyer sat next. He found a four flush and a pair of tens; so he passed.
The Doctor was next player. He held a pat straight, king high. He opened the pot for twenty dollars.
The Editor came in on three deuces, and the Congressman with a pair of queens put up his money. The others came up promptly.
The Colonel, having first call, looked over his hand carefully. The last card was an ace also, and he called for one, holding up a seven. The four hearts in the Lawyer’s hand were the queen, ten, nine, and eight. He promptly discarded the other ten, and drew one card. The Doctor, of course, stood pat, and the Editor drew two. The Congressman also drew to the strength of his hand.
With all the players in, the Doctor felt that a straight was a doubtful hand, but he put up twenty and waited. The Editor looked anxiously for the fourth deuce, but, finding neither that nor a pair, laid down his cards.
Three sixes had fallen to the Congressman’s queens, and he raised it twenty. Thereupon they all looked keenly at the Colonel. Not a muscle moved in his stern, handsome face, as he saw the raise, and went fifty better.
It was ninety dollars for the Lawyer to come in. He simply made good, and looked anxiously to see if there would be another raise. They criticised his play afterward, claiming that he should have raised back, but he defended it by saying that there were two players yet to hear from. The first of these resigned. A king straight was no hand for that struggle. The Congressman was still confident of his full hand, however, for he had drawn three sixes, and he came back at the Colonel with fifty more.
The Colonel raised him a hundred. It looked as if it would be a duel between him and the Congressman, but the Lawyer was still to hear from. He raised it a hundred. The Congressman made good, and the Colonel raised again.
The Lawyer counted his chips carefully, and finding exactly the right amount, covered the last raise. Then, opening his pocketbook, he drew out a hundred-dollar bill and pushed that to the middle of the table.
Once more the Congressman made good, and the Colonel raised it a hundred. The Lawyer came back, and the Congressman dropped out.
The Colonel raised it a hundred. The Lawyer made it another, and there was over twenty-five hundred dollars on the table.
The struggle of the evening had come, and the three who had dropped out were not less excited than the two players. To all appearance they were far more so, for the Colonel looked as calm as if on parade, and the Lawyer’s only sign of agitation was his heightened color. None of them thought much of that, for he was of plethoric habit and flushed easily.
The Colonel raised it a hundred. The Lawyer fumbled in his pocketbook for a moment, and, drawing out a fresh roll of bills, raised it two hundred. The Colonel raised it five hundred. The Lawyer came back at him with five hundred more. The Colonel raised it a thousand. The Lawyer flipped up the ends of the bills he was holding in his hand, and, counting them rapidly, found a little over two thousand dollars. Separating the odd money, he extended his hand with the twenty centuries in it, and was in the act of speaking, when he checked himself as suddenly as if he had been shot.
“I raise—” he began, and then was stricken dumb. The bills were still in his grasp, and, instead of laying them down, he sat for a moment as rigid as a statue, while his face grew white.
The silence was intense. The Colonel was the only one in the party who showed no excitement, but the Lawyer, who had watched him up to that moment with the most acute scrutiny, no longer looked at him at all. Instead, he slowly withdrew his hand, picked up his cards, which he had laid, face down, before him, and looked them over again.
“What is that for?” thought the Editor. “He is not looking to see what he holds. He knows perfectly well. And he hasn’t been bluffing. What stopped him, I wonder?”
No one spoke, however, as the Lawyer laid his cards down again and looked once more into his pocketbook.
“Aha!” thought the Editor. “It’s the amount that staggers him. That’s queer, too. I’ve seen him play higher than this at the tables.”
It seemed to be the amount, however; for the Lawyer, finding no more money in his pocketbook, counted out a thousand dollars from the roll in his hand and, laying that on the pile in the middle of the table, said:
“I call you.”
His hand shook perceptibly, and for the first time the Colonel’s face relaxed. He smiled grimly as he laid down four aces.
The Lawyer’s face had been pale, but it grew almost ghastly as he showed his hand. He had caught the jack of hearts in the draw and had won the pot.
The Doctor watched him curiously, even more so than the others, though the entire party was surprised. To his professional eye it looked as if the excitement would culminate in a fainting fit. That for a moment was indeed imminent; then the magnificent nerve which had made the Lawyer famous stood him in good stead, and he rallied by a supreme effort. Once more his hand was as steady as clockwork as he reached out and drew the great pile of chips and gold and bank bills toward him.
It was not, however, until after he had done a strange thing that he could command himself sufficiently to speak. And while he was doing it the others looked on in silence. They had seen four aces beaten by a straight flush, but even the excitement of that was in abeyance. Some strange climax was coming, and none could even guess what it would be.
First he counted out from the pile twenty one-hundred-dollar bills, and, folding them together with the money he had held back on the last bet, he placed the roll in his pocketbook, and, closing that carefully, put it into his inside pocket and drew a long breath—almost a gasp—as if of relief. Next he counted out two thousand more and pushed it over toward the Colonel, who looked at it and at him in wonder. The remainder of the pot—a goodly sum—lay in a confused heap in front of him, and before speaking he looked at it steadily for a space wherein one might count fifty. At length he said, raising his hand, as if registering an oath:
“I am done with poker. I have nothing to say against the game. You all know how well I love to play. To my mind there is no other sport that equals it. None, I believe, so shows the skill and the mettle of a man as this does. Yet, loving the game as well and admiring it as much as I do, I give it up from this moment, forever. I have stepped across the border line of dishonor to-night. The money I have just put back in my pocket was given to me last evening by a client to be paid out this morning, and if I had lost I could not immediately have replaced it. I had it in my possession simply because I had not had the opportunity to deposit it, and in the excitement of the game I forgot that it was not my own. The fascination that could make me do a thing like that is one that I dare not risk again. Then, as the last two thousand I bet was not my own, I cannot touch the money I won with it. I have returned it to the Colonel, and, as you, sir, would never have betted against dishonest money, it is as if it had never been at stake, and consequently it is yours.”
The Colonel bowed and picked up the bills.
“As to the rest of this,” continued the Lawyer, pointing to the pile which he had not yet disturbed, “I am in doubt. I certainly won it, but I am embarrassed at quitting a friendly game with such heavy winnings. It is not a question of right, but of delicacy, and I prefer to put it to you, as to a jury, whether I owe you satisfaction in any way.”
He paused, and still no other man spoke. It was as if each one was waiting for the others. So the Lawyer spoke again.
“What am I to do?” he said. “I am in the hands of my friends.”
They all looked at the Colonel. He was the oldest in the party.
“I am no man’s censor,” said he, seeing that he was expected to speak. “Neither do I care to consider the morals of the question, but I have seen a man blow his brains out over a card table after he had done what you have done, and lost, as you, fortunately, did not. I said then that he did well, and I say now that you have done well. Having won with money that was not your own, even though you did it inadvertently, you could not touch your winnings. But as to that which you won with your own money—Are you very sure that you will never play again?”
“Absolutely,” said the Lawyer.
“Then pocket your money. We have played together, we five, for more than a year now, and I doubt if you are much ahead of the game, even counting your winnings to-night.”
He extended his hand, and the Lawyer grasped it nervously. One after another, the three others shook hands with him also, and the game was over.