Chapter 24


Lying sick in the Hotel Iturbide, I was attended by an American doctor named Parsons, which whom I stuck up a warm friendship. He was certainly a “live wire”. The faculty had just devised as new source of income by inventing appendicitis. Parsons heard of this and wired to the States for a partner who could perform the operation. He then proceeded to advise immediate operation every time one of his many wealthy patients had a stomach-ache. At a thousand Mexican dollars a time, it did not take many months to pile up a fortune.

The English colony in Mexico City was disliked and despised. The consul was habitually constipated and the vice-consul habitually drunk. It is a curious fact that all over the world these qualities never vary. A wide field is open the philosophical speculation.

I came to frequent the American colony and club. I remember being introduced to a new but already popular and respected member, “Meet Mr. Tewkesbury,” and, a loud whisper, “Thorne, you know, who got away from Chi with a quarter of a million plunks.” At this club I met some really charming ranchers, who invited me to stay with them and convalesce. Their place was near Guanajato, a great centre for silver mines. Guanajato possessed an unique curiosity: some eccentric millionaire had built a theatre, sparing no expense to make it the most gorgeous building of its kind in the world. The stalls, for instance, were upholstered in real velvet, embroidered with real gold thread. For some reason, I think because the President had declined to open it, the owner felt himself insulted and kept it shut up. It was never opened at all except as a show place for visitors like myself, and finally was somehow burnt to the ground.

Mexico City was full of American professional gamblers and confidence men. I saw a good deal of two of these; a lank grey Yankee named McKee and his genial jackal Wilson, or some such name. After a few days' acquaintance Wilson approached me with the following proposal. It appeared that the manager of a mine near St. Luis Potosi had stolen a quantity of gold dust. He had got scared and dared not bolt. Wilson thought that if we offered him a thousand dollars, each putting up half, he would be willing to hand over the compromising sacks, value five thousand or so. Not for nothing had I read the works of “Pitcher of The Pink 'Un”, and other authorities on the gentle art of parting a fool and his money. I joyfully accepted Wilson's proposal. “Bring your five hundred right along,” I said, “and I'll go and put {208} the job through. I know you're too busy to leave the city.” He agreed and returned an hour later, not with the cash, but with his partner. They apologized profusely for mistaking me for a mug. “Look here,” said McKee, “the innocence of your face is a fortune. I know a rich man here who is crazy on gambling. You shall rook him at Brazilian poker. (In this game one backs one's hand as in ordinary poker, but the hands are of two cards with the option of taking a third, as in baccarat.) We'll signal you what he holds. With your face, he'll never get wise to the stunt.”

The psychology of these people really interested me. They had no experience of the kind of man who knows all the tricks but refuses to cheat. Their world was composed entirely of sharps and flats. It is the typical American conception; the use of knowledge is to get ahead of the other fellow, and the question of fairness depends on the chance of detection. We see this even in amateur sport. The one idea is to win. Knowledge for its own sake, pleasure for its own sake, seem to the American mere frivolity, “Life is real, life is earnest.” One of themselves told me recently that the American ideal is attainment, while that of Europe is enjoyment. There is much truth in this, and the reason is that in Europe we have already attained everything, and discovered that nothing is worth while. Unless we live in the present, we do not live at all.

Mexico was foul of gambling houses and I used to play a great deal. The chief game was Monte, in which the dealer exposes two cards; the punter can back which he pleases; bets being placed, the dealer skins the pack, and the first card with duplicates one of the two exposed cards wins for it. The bank's percentage is that if the first card skinned decides (is “in the door”, as they say), it only pays three quarters of the stake.

The son of one of the prominent members of the old Golden Dawn went to the bad and became a professional crook. Him I once frequented to study the psychology of hawk and pigeon.

First let me insist that the nave is always a fool. Prosperity is a function of biological success and (facts being facts) the habit of lying begets credulity. My friend never profited except now and then for a few lucky weeks, though he scooped in that time enough to keep a man with a grain of good sense for the rest of his life.

The confidence trick is protean, but in all its forms the essence is to get the victim off his guard. Observe how this fact confirms by general theory that surrender of the will to the guidance of the emotions is destructive of judgment. The first act in every trick is what is called the “come on” or the “build up”. Its crudest form is providing to a stranger that you trust him by asking him to go away for five minutes with your watch and money. From this has been developed an amazing structure of subtle strategy. The shrewest bankers have been looted for tens of thousands. The general plan {209} is to bring about, in an apparently natural way, a series of incidents in which the chief of the confederates shows to advantage. His victim is induced to admire his keen sense of humour, his generosity, fairness, integrity, and so on in various emergencies. When the swindler fees sure that his victim trusts him implicitly, he proceeds to the next act. A scheme is suggested by which they shall both make a fortune, and in one of a million ways a situation is brought about in which it is hard for the victim to avoid putting up his cash. He could hardly show suspicion, even if he felt it, without giving outrageous offence for which he could produce no excuse. His common decency is concerned and at the same time a strong appeal made to his interests. He produces the goods — and hears no more of the matter.

I could give the details of half a hundred schemes of this sort. Their ingenuity extorts my intellectual admiration, and yet there is always a fundamental flaw that, in the hands of such men, a million melts more quickly than a thousand would with anyone else. In every swell bar and hotel one can see plenty such — all well dressed and well groomed, laughing and joking, and throwing their money about, and all the time ninety per cent feel a sinking in the pit of the stomach as the thought hammers persistently at the back of their brains, “How shall I pay my bill?” at the best; and, overshadowing lesser worries, “What about when my luck turns?” “When will my own confidence in the imbecility of my fellow men be enlightened by their robbing me of the stake I risked, my liberty?”

A delicious ride by electric tram from the city beings one to Tacubaya, a luxurious pleasure resort with a big casino. The play is at long tables stacked with thousands of silver dollars. One night I noticed the electric chandelier beginning to swing. Crashing sounds came from without. Suddenly the lights went out! It was an earthquake. Attendants rushed in with lighted candles. It could hardy have been dark for two minutes; the room was almost empty and most of the cash had vanished.

I had been playing a modified martingale with happier results than my stupidity deserved. But, one night, luck ran against me and my stake had increased to the limit allowed by the house. There was a slight delay — I think someone had called for a fresh pack of cards — I found myself walking nervously up and down. Somewhat as had happened in the chess congress at Berlin, I had a vision of myself from somewhere outside. “Look at that young fool,” I seemed to be saying; “that stake he has there is about a month's income.” The cards were dealt. I had won, but “in the door”, so that I only got seventy-five per cent. I picked up my winnings, walked out and have never gambled again; except once at Monte Carlo for the fun of the thing, some years later. I made it a rule to take five pounds to the casino and quit, when it was gone, for the day. As luck would have it, on the fourth day I kept on winning. I had an appointment for lunch. Remembering this, I {210} suddenly awoke to the fact that I had won over three hundred an fifty pounds. That was good enough for me. After lunch I packed up and escaped to Nice, with a vow never again to set foot in the principality.

All this time I had not forgotten my project of climbing the mountains of Mexico. Somehow, my Indian girl knew that I was keen on them; and one day she called me up to the roof of the house and pointed out two snowcapped peaks. As I have already said, my judgment of heights and distances was surprisingly accurate. Mexico being about seven thousand feet above the sea, I judged these peaks to be from eleven to twelve thousand, and their distance from the city some eight to ten miles. I proposed to myself to stroll out and climb them one day. “From theirsummits,” I said to myself, “I may be able to see the big mountains eighty miles away.” The scheme miscarried. I was looking at the big mountains themselves! I had made no allowance for the clearness of the air. People whose experience is confined to Europe have no means of judging correctly. As I found later, the Himalayas are to Mexican peaks as these are to the Alps. In north India one sees a mountain apparently within a day's march, yet four days later that mountain will hardly have changed its apparent size and distance.

I do not know why I made no attempts on the peaks. Perhaps it was from an obscure feeling of comradeship. I preferred to wait till Eckenstein joined me, which he was to do towards the end of the year.


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