Boban Knezevic



Boban Knežević

The Beggar and the Gambler

That day, a beggar came to town. Noone had seen him before, nor did he resemble somebody to anyone. In fact, noone could say for sure where he had appeared from, but everyone knew that precisely this had happened. He didn’t chose a spot on the Central Square, nor near the railway station, he didn’t come near the main public walks, nor any of the four bridges, which were usually favorite begging spots. He went to the town gambling house, directly, as though he knew the way, confidently, as though he had gone this way many times, and settled on the path leading to it. There was not a single person that could claim to have ever seen him anywhere but there. one step from the path and one step from the old bench, leaning against a tree. He begged silently, unimposingly, inconspicuously.

He did not have too much success at first, people mostly pretended not to see him, and they rarely decided to throw him a penny or two, and then one elderly gentleman, unusually lucky that evening, told the many curious bystanders quite matter-of-factly that he had given the beggar a large amount at arrival. And the gifts started – small, larger, and very large. People slowed down or hurried up past the beggar, glanced at him secretly, endeavored to throw their coin as inconspicuously as possible into the hat resting in his half-outstretched arms. There was paper money and foreign coins as well, and the beggar thanked everyone equally, with a barely noticeable nod, movement of his hand or simply a gleam in his eyes, silently, unobtrusively, inconspicuously.

At the end of the third day there was not a single visitor of the town gambling house – bored richmen, gamblers renowned or fresh, mere onlookers and companions, even the croupier – that had not placed at least a penny into the beggar’s worn hat. It became part of the inevitable, silent ritual at arrival – and upon leaving as well, for those who had been at all lucky during the evening.

Still, one gambler, the famous Caskinson, acknowledged as the best open poker player in the state, and the greatest wonder with cards altogether, refused to simply place a coin into the gambler’s hat. He had always claimed to hate the lazy, the weak and insecure, and everyone knew that he picked on them whenever he had the chance. He pulled out a pack of cards and held it out to the beggar saying: “Cut. If you cut the three of clubs, you get nothing. Any other card and the coin is yours.” For a moment it seemed like the beggar had not understood him or had not heard him at all… and then he moved, and reached deep into the deck with a stiff, awkward movement and cut the eight of diamonds. A large silver coin jingled onto the heap in the dirty hat. Caskinson headed toward the gambling house with a satisfied grin. He was followed by an undefinable gaze.

The scene was repeated night after night. The beggar always arrived at the same time, settled by the same tree around which the grass had already started to fade, stayed until late at night, frequently waiting for all the visitors to leave, unmovingly begged for charity, showed gratitude silently, unobtrusively, inconspicuously. And Caskinson played the same game every evening, the beggar always cut deep into the pack and it never turned out to be the three of clubs. Then one day, Caskinson said: “You’re doing well at this, let’s change it a little, shall we? Here, if you cut any three – no coin.” The beggar agreed wordlessly, reached deep into the pack and pulled out a nine. The days went on – gamblers, onlookers and their companions paraded in front of the beggar, slowed down or hurried up their pace, averted their gaze or glanced secretly, sometimes throwing a penny or two into the old, shabby hat. Only Caskinson played the same game, both at arrival and upon leaving now, and the gambler always got a silver coin. Then Caskinson lowered the probability further, choosing all clubs for himself… But the beggar did not heed, silently, unobtrusively, inconspicuously, he cut deep into the pack and pulled out hearts, spades and diamonds.. never clubs.

And it finally had to happen: somebody voiced a thought, others passed it on, the room was suddenly restless and before that minute was up everyone was going over the same fact in their heads: the invincible Caskinson, the best poker, rummy and preference player in the whole state, unbeatable in blackjack and whist, owner of one third of the gambling house itself, is losing a simple cut of the deck every day, twice, from the same man… The though – by silence, covert, ridiculing looks, murmuring whispers – reached Caskinson himself. He greeted it coldly, steadily, professionally… like bad cards.

Still, upon leaving, which was earlier than usual, earlier than ever, he stopped in from of the beggar and pulled out the deck. “Any black card - you lose; any red one – you win”, he pronounced, dryly. Calmly, without a word, the beggar reached deep into the pack and pulled out the four of hearts. He accepted the offered coin. But Caskinson continued to stand there. Their eyes met, Caskinson’s two narrow slits, the two dark charcoals of the beggar. Then the gambler stretched out his hand with the cards. “Again”, he said and a moment later saw the queen of diamonds. A crowd had already gathered, quiet at first, and then more and more clamorous – just in time to witness the miracle: forty times in a row the beggar cut only red cards. Caskinson was almost on his knees. At one moment he turned the deck and checked it – everyone could see a perfectly ordinary, normal, random set of black and red cards. “I have no more coins”, mumbled the gambler. And immediately added: “This is impossible, luck like this cannot exist.”

The beggar shrugged silently, unobtrusively, inconspicuously. He pulled the hat disfigured from the weight within it closer and started to pour the coins into his pockets.

Then a voice was heard from the crowd: “It’s not luck, the boy is a true professional, the best in the world.”

Caskinson lashed the crowd with his eyes, but caught only the cheerful laughter and clamor of all.

“… the best in the world…”

“… he swept Caskinson clean…”

“… showed him…”

“… the greatest…”

“… imagine in a real game…”

“… burried him…”

“… the best…”

Caskinson turned to the beggar. He stood in front of him, so long, so stiffly, until the crowd settled down completely, and the beggar stopped counting the coins and looked up. Caskinson thought he sensed something in that indiscernible look. “Who are you”, he asked him. And immediately after that: “What do you want from me?”

And then the beggar moved. He straightened himself slowly, becoming taller than the gambler by half a head, looking him straight in the eyes. And then, as though it was the first time they were truly looking at him, everyone saw that he was young, that he could be no more than twenty-five years old. And the words he spoke, in a quiet, coherent voice, had the power of thunder: “The answer to that question is worth much, much more than a silver coin… let’s say, the deeds to your four houses and your shares in the gambling house, to begin with; all possessions and real estate to continue; and finally everything else, all hanging on one move, and one move alone: will I cut the three of clubs or not.”

An unpleasant silence that can be caused only by thirty people not breathing. The sound of the sweatdrop sliding down Caskinson’s forehead, across his eye and cheek, down his throat, could be heard plainly… Then the gambler slowly, stiffly, removed several pieces of paper from his inner pocket, opened them carefully and looked them over. He let them fall into the beggar’s hat.

“Everything is signed and prepared…”

“For stake in a gamble, I know”, said the boy. “Once deeds were frequently staked… once… now your word is enough.”

Caskinson tried to fathom the background of these words and at times seemed to recognize flashes of the long-gone past in the boy’s eyes, but he had neither the time nor the ability nor possibility to see the solution. So he took a new deck from his jacket, carefully tore the foil and started to shuffle the cards – he did this the simplest way, for a long time, cautiously, with shaking hands, barely managing to keep the cards from falling through his suddenly buttery fingers – no trace of that magician-like virtuosity with which he had drawn gasps from onlookers and wary looks from rivals. At one moment he hesitated, glanced around as if seeking help, looked at the eastern sky, and his desire for a rooster to crow from somewhere and shatter the illusion was almost tangible. But nothing happened, the mass stood with lowered gazes, the one they all held to be a beggar stood waiting, silently, unobtrusively, inhumanly patiently.

Finally, after an eternity, Caskinson bent down and placed the pack into the dust close to the hat. Then he straightened up and gazed deep into the boy’s eyes. The boy just smiled at him briefly, barely noticeably, bent down and without hesitation turned over the top card – the three of clubs.

Incredulous gasps and squeals of the ladies suddenly filled the place. The boy took the papers from the hat and placed them under his coat. The hat he left. You’ll need it, his look seemed to say.

“Who are you?” roared Caskinson, falling to his knees. But everyone – gamblers, onlookers, croupiers, coquettes and Caskinson himself – knew that he had lost it all… including the right to an answer.

The unknown gambler, bareheaded, in a worn suit started down the path. It seemed to everyone that he was too hasty, like Cinderella at the moment when midnight started to strike, but noone had the strength, the desire or the courage to stop him, to break the spell.

People started to leave. Someone from the group tried to throw a coin into the hat from a large distance, but he missed and the coin hit the tree, and bouncing from it started to roll in the dust.

Caskinson covered it with his hand.

The next morning, a beggar, whom everyone knew, left town. Noone witnessed that, nor did anyone know how it was done, but everyone was sure that precisely this had happened.


© 2004 Project Rastko, TPA Janus & individual copyright owners