There was a character in one of the tales of Pushkin, I believe, who never gambled at cards, not because he was afraid of losing, but because he was weary of winning. There is a sort of satiety about always winning, it seems, that is as poignant as the disappointment of constantly losing. I never understood the truth of this until I came to know Antonio Ferarra.
We were undergraduates in Paris together. That was before the war, when Paris was still Paris, wealthy, glittering, not the collection of grimy suburbs it has since become. He was a silent, somber young man with indifferent manners and a sallow, expressionless face touched, if anything, with sadness. No one knew him very well. He was not the sort of person who permits anyone to know him well. Although he was with our set he was not of it, if you can grasp the subtle difference. That he was Italian was obvious; that he was rich was certain. And none of the rest of us were either. Our pleasures were not his. For one thing, he would never play cards.
Card games were a passion with us that year, and gambling had all the allurements of any other vice. But although he would share a bottle with us of nights, Ferarra would never join the game. And whatever his reasons were, lack of funds were not among them, for he always had plenty of money.
It used to annoy Deauville that Ferarra refused to join us at cards. One day, flushed and bitter over his losses, he turned on the Italian and insulted him viciously. Stung out of his indifference at last, Ferarra looked him straight in the eye. “Well, I will play a hand with you, then, if that’s the way you want it,” he said in level, measured tones. There was an undercurrent of menace in his words, which Deauville failed to notice; probably, he would have paid no attention even if he had noticed it.
I never saw a game like that, and I hope never to see another. Deauville lost everything he owned, even his watch and chain and fob, all of his next year’s allowance, and the gold-headed walking stick that had belonged to his great-grandfather. So did two of Deauville’s cronies, both younger than he, and the sons of dukes. They gambled recklessly, growing heated; later, they played coldly, cautiously. But nothing did them any good: Ferarra won every hand, and his opponents came from the table at dawn, ruined men.
The Italian gathered up his winnings casually, folding and tucking the notes-of-hand into his pocket. Then he said coolly, into the numb silence of the room where penniless men sat, staring at nothing, “Now, perhaps, you understand why I never play cards.”
Deauville shot himself that morning and one of the duke’s son drowned himself in the Seine.
The mystery of Antonio Ferarra preyed on my mind for days thereafter. I could, quite literally, think of nothing else. I began to cultivate his company, although he remained indifferent to mine. Then, one night after the opera, in a little bistro on the Left Bank, I got him drunk on absinthe. Yes, absinthe was outlawed even then, but there remained places where it could be bought.
Feverish and yet lethargic, he fell into a talkative mood which was unusual for one generally so close-mouthed. I steered the conversation around to cards.
“I suppose you wonder why I never play,” he muttered, staring broodingly into his empty glass.
“I have wondered about it indeed,” I replied. “For the one time I saw you play you enjoyed excellent luck.”
“Luck?” He blinked at me owlishly. The he laughed. “It has nothing to do with luck, man, nothing at all to do with luck. I know the winning cards, that’s all. My grandfather whispered them to me on his death-bed; he learned them the same way, from his grandfather, or great-grandfather, I forget which it was. Who had learned the secret from his own, who learned it from a certain priest at Notre Dame, a Brother Michael. Where Brother Michael got the secret from, I cannot guess. Perhaps he heard it from the lips of hell . . .”
“The winning cards,” I repeated.
“Yes, of course,” he muttered impatiently. “In every game there are winning cards; even a fool like you must know that!” He turned to look me in the face. “Come, what’s your favorite game of cards?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “I am rather fond of faro.” I admitted it reluctantly, although why I felt reluctant to name the game I cannot say, any more than I know why I felt, quite suddenly, very uneasy.
He hung his head in his hands, black hair tousled. He was by now very drunk indeed. “Faro, faro,” he mumbled. “Ah, yes . . . the winning cards are three, seven, ace,” he said distinctly.
These happened to be the last words I ever heard from his lips, for he passed out not long thereafter and I never saw him again after that night. When I inquired at his rooms, I learned that he had left the university.
Three, seven, ace. Were they really the winning cards at faro? I have never cared -- or dared? -- to find out. Perhaps I am a coward, or more superstitious than I wish to admit even to myself. But I enjoy the game to much to always win at it, for without the suspense, without the chance of win or lose, the game for me would lose its savor.
But I looked up Ferrara’s family. He was of the minor nobility, and his grandfather had been born in 1813, and his grandfather in 1721. I traced the family back to that Ferarra who had first learned the winning cards from this Brother Michael of Notre Dame. And then I looked the priest up, too, and found him easily enough, under a slightly different version of the name, but the dates matched. No, I have never since cared to play the winning cards, although they are engraved upon my memory. Three, seven, ace . . . try them yourself sometime, if you chance to be playing faro and don’t mind winning. As for myself, I don’t wish to test Brother Michael’s wisdom, for if there were ever any secrets in the world that were unknown to Nostradamus, history has failed to record them.
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If you love fantasy and role-playing games, come on over to my page. I'm the creator of Tunnels and Trolls and a huge fantasy fan.