THE DICE THROWER

By SIDNEY SOUTHGATE

(Thomas Moult)

(From Colour)

1922

Best British Short Stories

Hunger is the most poignant when it has forced physical suffering to the highest point without impairing the mental functions. Thus it was with Silas Carringer, a young man of uncommonly high spirit, when he found himself a total stranger in a ramshackle Mexican city one rainy night in November. In his possession remained not a single article that he might have pawned for a morsel of food. And he had already stripped his body of every shred of clothing except the few garments he was compelled by an inborn sense of the fitness of things to retain. Bodily starvation, as a consequence, was added to hunger, and his misery was complete.

It chanced that an extraordinary happening awaited Silas Carringer that night in Mexico; otherwise he would either have drowned himself in the river within twenty-four hours or died of pneumonia within three days. He had been without food for seventy hours, and his mental desperation had driven him far in its race with his physical needs to consume the remaining strength of his emaciated body. Pale, weak, and tottering, he took what comfort he could find in the savoury odours which came streaming up from the basement kitchens of the restaurants in the main streets. He lacked the courage to beg or steal. For he had been reared as a gentleman, and was accordingly out of place in the world.

His teeth chattered, his eyes had dark, ugly lines under them, he shambled, stooped, and gasped. He was too desperate to curse his fate—he could only long for food. He could not reason. He could not reflect. He could not understand that there were pitying hands somewhere that might gladly have succoured him. He could think only of the hunger which consumed him, of the food that could give him warmth and comparative happiness.

Staggering along the streets, he came at last to a restaurant a little way from the main thoroughfares. Stopping before the window, he stared greedily at the steaks within, thick and juicy and lined with big, fat oysters lying on ice; at the slices of ham as large as his hat; at the roasted chickens, brown and ready for the table; and he ground his teeth, groaned, and staggered on.

A few steps onward was a drinking saloon. At one side of it was a private door with the words "Family entrance" painted thereon. And in the recess of the door (which was closed) there stood the dark figure of a man.

In spite of his own agony, Carringer saw something which appalled him in the stranger's face as the street light fell upon it; and yet at the same time he was fascinated. Perhaps it was the unspeakable anguish of those features that appealed to the starving man's sympathy, and he came to an uncertain halt at the doorway and stared rudely upon the stranger. At first the man did not notice him, seeming to look straight out into the street with a curious fixity of expression, and the death-like pallor of his face sent a chill through Carringer's limbs, chilled nigh to stone though they were already.

The stranger caught sight of him at last. "Ah," he said slowly, and with peculiar clearness, "the rain has caught you too, without overcoat or umbrella. Stand in this doorway—there is room for two."

The voice was not unkind, though it sounded strangely harsh. It was the first word that had been addressed to Carringer since hunger possessed him, and to be spoken to at all gave him cheer. So he took his place in the doorway beside the mysterious stranger, who at once relapsed into his fixed gaze at nothingness across the street.

"It may rain for a long time," he said presently, stirring himself. "I am cold, and I can feel you trembling and shivering. Let us step inside and drink."

He turned and opened the door. Carringer followed, hope slowly warming his chilled heart. The pale stranger led the way into one of the little private compartments with which the place was fitted. Before sitting down he drew from his pocket a roll of bank bills.

"You are younger than I," he said to Carringer. "Will you go to the bar and buy a bottle of absinthe, and bring also a pitcher of water and some glasses? I don't like the waiters hanging round. Here is a twenty-dollar bill."

Carringer took the money and started down the corridor towards the bar. He clutched the sudden wealth in his hand tightly. It felt warm and comfortable, sending a delicious tingling sensation through his arm. How many glorious meals did not the money represent? He could smell an imaginary steak, broiled, with fat mushrooms and melted butter in the steaming dish. Then he paused and looked stealthily backward to where he had left the stranger. Why not slip away while he had the opportunity—away from the drinking saloon with the money, to the restaurant he had passed half-an-hour ago, and buy something to eat? It was risky, but…. He hesitated, and the coward in him (there are other names than this) triumphed. He went straight to the bar as the stranger had requested, and ordered the liquor.

His step was weaker as he returned to the compartment. The stranger was sitting at the little table, staring at the opposite wall just as he had stared across the street. He wore a wide-brimmed slouch hat, pulled well over his eyes. Carringer could only vaguely take the measure of the man's face.

It was only after Carringer had set the bottle and the glasses on the table and seated himself opposite that the stranger noticed his return. "Oh, you have brought it!" he exclaimed without raising his voice. "How kind of you. Now please close the door."

Carringer was counting out the change from his pocket when the stranger interrupted him. "Keep that," he said. "You will need it, for I am going to win it back in a way that may interest you. Let us drink first, though, and I will explain."

He mixed two drinks of absinthe and water, and the two men lifted their glasses. Carringer had never tasted the liquor before, and it offended his palate at first; but no sooner had it passed down his throat than he began to feel warm again, and the most delicious thrills. He had heard of the absinthe drinkers of Paris, and he wondered no longer at the deadly fascination of the liquor—not realising that his extreme weakness and the emptiness of his stomach made him peculiarly susceptible to its effects.

"This will do us good," murmured the stranger, setting down his glass. "Presently we shall have more. Meanwhile, tell me if you know how to play with the dice."

Carringer replied that he did not.

"I was afraid that you might not," said the stranger. "All the same, please go to the bar and bring a dice-box. I would ring for it," he explained, seeing Carringer glance towards the bell, "but I don't want the waiters coming in and out."

Carringer brought the dice-box, closed the door carefully again, and the play began. It was not one of the simpler games, but had complications in which judgment as well as chance played a part. After a game or two without stakes, the stranger said:

"You have picked it up very quickly. All the same, I will show you that you don't understand it. We will throw for a dollar a game, and in that way I shall win the money that you received in change. Otherwise I would be robbing you, and I imagine that you cannot afford to lose. I mean no offence. I am a plain-spoken man, but I believe in honesty before politeness." Here his face relaxed into a most fearful grin…. "I merely want a little recreation, and you are so good-natured that I am sure you will not object."

"On the contrary," replied Carringer politely, "I shall enjoy it."

"Very well; but let us drink again before we start. I believe I am growing colder."

They drank again. Carringer took the liquor now with relish, for it was something in his stomach at least, and it warmed and soothed him. Then the play commenced. He won.

The pale stranger smiled quietly and opened another game. Again
Carringer won.

Then the stranger pushed back his hat, and fixed his quiet gaze upon his opponent, smiling yet. Carringer obtained a full view of the man's face for the first time, and it appalled him. He had begun to acquire a certain self-possession and ease, and the novelty of the adventure was beginning to pall before the new advances of his terrible hunger, when this revelation of the man's face threw him back into confusion.

It was the extraordinary expression of the face that alarmed him. Never upon the face of a living being had he beheld a pallor so chilling, so death-like. The features were more than pale. They were ghastly as sunless frost. Carringer's powers of observation had been sharpened by the absinthe, and after having detected the stranger in an absent-minded effort on several occasions to stroke a beard which had no existence, he reflected that some of the whiteness of the face might be due to the recent shaving and removal of a full beard. The eyes were black, and his lower lip was purple. The hands were fine, white and thin, and black veins bulged out upon them.

After gazing for a few moments at Carringer, the stranger pulled his hat down over his eyes again. "You are lucky," he said, referring to the success of his opponent. "Suppose we try another drink. There is nothing to sharpen a man's wits like absinthe, and I see that you and I are going to have a delightful game."

After the drink the play proceeded. Carringer won from the first, rarely losing a game. He became greatly excited. Colour flooded his cheeks, and he forgot his hunger. The stranger exhausted the little roll of bills which he had first produced and drew forth another, much larger in amount. There were several thousand dollars in the roll.

At Carringer's right hand were his winnings—something like two hundred dollars. The stakes were raised, and the game went on. Another drink was taken and then fortune turned to the stranger. He began to win easily. Carringer was stung by these reverses, and began to play with all the skill and judgment at his command. He took the lead again. Only once did it occur to him to wonder what he should do with the money if he continued to win. But a sense of honour decided for him that it belonged to the stranger.

As the play went on Carringer's physical suffering returned with increased aggressiveness. Sharp pains darted through him viciously, and he writhed within him and ground his teeth in agony. Could he not order a supper with his winnings, he wondered? No; it was, of course, out of the question.

The stranger did not observe his suffering, for he was now completely absorbed in the game. He seemed puzzled and disconcerted. He played with great care, studying each throw minutely. Not a word escaped him. The two men drank occasionally, and the dice continued to rattle. And the money kept piling up at Carringer's hand.

The pale stranger suddenly began to behave strangely. At moments he would start and throw back his head, listening intently. His eyes would sharpen and flash as he did so; then they sank back into heaviness once more. Carringer saw a strange expression sweep over the man's face on several occasions—an expression of ghastly frightfulness, and the features would become fixed in a peculiar grimace.

He noticed also that his companion was steadily sinking deeper and deeper into a condition of apathy. Occasionally, none the less, he would raise his eyes to Carringer's face after some lucky throw, and he would fix them upon him with a steadiness that made the starving man grow chiller than ever he had been before.

Then came the time when the stranger produced another roll of bills, and braced himself for a bigger effort. With speech somewhat thick, but still deliberate and very quiet, he addressed his young opponent.

"You have won seventy-four thousand dollars, and that is the exact amount I have remaining. We have been playing for several hours, and I am very tired, and so are you. Let us hasten the finish. You have seventy-four thousand dollars, I have seventy-four thousand dollars. Nether of us has a cent beside. Each will now stake his all and throw a final game for it."

Without hesitation Carringer agreed. The bills made a considerable pile upon the table. Carringer threw, and his starving heart beat violently as the pale stranger took up the dice-box with exasperating deliberation. Hours seemed to pass before he threw, but at last the dice rattled on to the table, and the pale stranger had won. The winner sat staring at the dice, and then he leaned slowly back in his chair, settled himself with seeming comfort, raised his eyes to Carringer's and fixed that unearthly stare upon him.

He did not speak. His face showed not a trace of emotion or even of intelligence. He simply stared. One cannot keep one's eyes open very long without winking, but the stranger never winked at all. He sat so motionless that Carringer became filled with a vague dread.

"I will go now," he said, standing back from the table. As he spoke he recollected his position and found himself swaying like a drunken man.

The stranger made no reply, nor did he relax his gaze. Under that gaze the younger man shrank back into his chair, terrified and faint. A deathly silence filled the compartment…. Suddenly he became aware that two men were talking in the next room, and he listened curiously. The walls were of wood, and he heard every word distinctly.

"Yes," said a voice, "he was seen to turn into this street about three hours ago."

"And he must have shaved?"

"He must have shaved. To remove a full beard would naturally make a great change in the man. His extreme pallor attracted attention. As you know, he has been seriously troubled with heart disease lately, and it has greatly altered him."

"Yes, but his old skill remains. Why, this is the most daring bank-robbery we have ever had! A hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars—think of it! How long is it since he came out of prison after that New York affair?"

"Eight years. In that time he has grown a beard, and lived by throwing dice. No human being can come out winner in a game with him."

The two men clinked glasses and a silence fell between them. Then Carringer heard the shuffling of their feet as they passed out, and he sat on, suffering terrible mental and bodily pain.

The silence remained unbroken, save for the sounds of voices far off, and the clink of glasses. The dice-players—the pale man and the starving one—sat gazing at each other, with a hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars piled upon the table between them. The winner made no attempt to gather up the money. He merely sat and stared at Carringer, wholly unmoved by the conversation in the adjoining compartment.

Carringer began to shake with an ague. The cold, unwavering gaze of the stranger sent ice into his veins. Unable to bear it longer, he moved to one side, and was amazed to discover that the eyes of the pale man, instead of following him, remained fixed upon the spot where he had sat.

A great fear came over him. He poured out absinthe for himself with shaking fingers, staring back at his companion all the while, watching him, watching him as he drank alone and unnoticed. He drained the glass, and the poison had a peculiar effect upon him; he felt his heart bounding with alarming force and rapidity, and his breathing came in great, pumping spasms. His hunger was now become a deadly thing, for the absinthe was destroying his vitals. In terror he leaned forward to beg the hospitality of the stranger, but his whisper had no effect. One of the man's hands lay on the table. Carringer placed his own upon it, and drew back quickly, for the hand was as cold as stone!

Then there came into the starving man's face a crafty expression, and he turned eagerly to the money. Silently he grasped the pile of bills with his skeleton fingers, looking stealthily every moment at the stark figure of his companion, mortally dreading lest he should stir.

And yet, instead of hastening from the room with the stolen fortune, he sank back into his chair again. A deadly fascination forced him there, and he sat rigid, staring back into the wide stare of the other man. He felt his breath coming heavier and his heart-beats growing weaker, but he was comforted because his hunger was no longer causing him that acute pain. He felt easier, and actually yawned. If he had dared he would have gone to sleep. The pale stranger still stared at him without ceasing. And Carringer had no inclination for anything but simply to stare back.

* * * * *

The two detectives who had traced the notorious bank robber to the drink saloon moved slowly through the compartments, searching in every nook and cranny of the building. At last they reached a compartment from which no answer came when they knocked.

They pushed the door open with a stereotyped apology on their lips. They beheld two men before them, one of middle age and the other very young, sitting perfectly still, and in the queerest manner imaginable staring at each other across the table. Between the two was a pile of money, and near at hand an empty absinthe bottle, a water pitcher, two glasses, and a dice-box. The dice lay before the elder man as though he had just thrown them.

With a quick movement one of the detectives covered the older man with a revolver and commanded him to put up his hands. But the dice-thrower paid not the slightest heed.

The detectives exchanged startled glances. They stepped nearer, looked closely into the gamesters' faces, and knew in the same instant that they were dead.