THE MAGIC SKIN
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Ellen Marriage
To Monsieur Savary, Member of Le Academie des Sciences.
[omitted: a drawing representing the serpentine
path made by the tip of a stick when flourished.]
STERNE Tristram Shandy, ch. cccxxii.
THE MAGIC SKIN
I. THE TALISMAN
Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the
Palais Royal just as the gaming houses opened, agreeably to the law
which protects a passion by its very nature easily excisable. He mounted
the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by the number
36, without too much deliberation.
"Your hat, sir, if you please?" a thin, querulous voice called out. A
little old man, crouching in the darkness behind a railing, suddenly
rose and exhibited his features, carved after a mean design.
As you enter a gaming house the law despoils you of your hat at the
outset. Is it by way of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting
some pledge or other, is not an infernal compact implied? Is it done to
compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards those who are about
to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our social
sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you happen to have
written it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the measurement of
your skull required for the compilation of statistics as to the cerebral
capacity of gamblers? The executive is absolutely silent on this point.
But be sure of this, that though you have scarcely taken a step towards
the tables, your hat no more belongs to you now than you belong to
yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune, your cap, your cane, your
As you go out, it will be made clear to you, by a savage irony, that
Play has yet spared you something, since your property is returned. For
all that, if you bring a new hat with you, you will have to pay for the
knowledge that a special costume is needed for a gambler.
The evident astonishment with which the young man took a numbered tally
in exchange for his hat, which was fortunately somewhat rubbed at the
brim, showed clearly enough that his mind was yet untainted; and the
little old man, who had wallowed from his youth up in the furious
pleasures of a gambler's life, cast a dull, indifferent glance over
him, in which a philosopher might have seen wretchedness lying in the
hospital, the vagrant lives of ruined folk, inquests on numberless
suicides, life long penal servitude and transportations to Guazacoalco.
His pallid, lengthy visage appeared like a haggard embodiment of the
passion reduced to its simplest terms. There were traces of past anguish
in its wrinkles. He supported life on the glutinous soups at Darcet's,
and gambled away his meagre earnings day by day. Like some old hackney
which takes no heed of the strokes of the whip, nothing could move him
now. The stifled groans of ruined players, as they passed out, their
mute imprecations, their stupefied faces, found him impassive. He was
the spirit of Play incarnate. If the young man had noticed this sorry
Cerberus, perhaps he would have said, "There is only a pack of cards in
that heart of his."
The stranger did not heed this warning writ in flesh and blood, put
here, no doubt, by Providence, who has set loathing on the threshold of
all evil haunts. He walked boldly into the saloon, where the rattle of
coin brought his senses under the dazzling spell of an agony of greed.
Most likely he had been drawn thither by that most convincing of Jean
Jacques' eloquent periods, which expresses, I think, this melancholy
thought, "Yes, I can imagine that a man may take to gambling when he
sees only his last shilling between him and death."
There is an illusion about a gambling saloon at night as vulgar as that
of a bloodthirsty drama, and just as effective. The rooms are filled
with players and onlookers, with poverty stricken age, which drags
itself thither in search of stimulation, with excited faces, and revels
that began in wine, to end shortly in the Seine... Continue reading book >>