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An essay by Charles Lever

Gambling For The Million

Title:     Gambling For The Million
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

Nothing shows what a practical people we are more than our establishment of insurances against railroad accidents. The spirit of commercial enterprise, by which a man charters himself for a railroad voyage with an insured cargo of his bones, ligaments, cartilage, and adipose tissue, abundantly proves that we are nature's own traders and shopkeepers.

Any ordinary people less imbued with Liverpool and Manchester notions would have bestirred themselves how to prevent, or at least lessen, the number of those casualties. They would have set to work to see what provisions could be adopted to give greater security to travel. We, on the contrary are too business-like to waste time on this inquiry. We are convinced that, let us build ships ever so strong, there will still be shipwrecks. So we feel assured that a certain number of railway accidents, as they are called, will continue to occur--be as broad gauge as you will! We accept the situation, therefore, as the French say, and insure; that is to say, we book a bet at very long odds--say, three to a thousand--that we shall be rolled up, cut in two, flattened into a thin sheeting, and ground into an impalpable powder, between Croydon and Brighton. If we arrive safe, the assurance office pockets a few shillings; if we win our wager, our executor receives a thousand pounds.

It is about the grimmest kind of gambling ever man heard of; and yet we see folk of the most unquestionable propriety--dignitaries of the Church, judges, civil and uncivil servants of the Crown, and scores of others, whom nothing would tempt into the Cursaal at Ems or Baden, as coolly as possible playing this terrific game, and backing themselves heavily for a dorsal paralysis, a depressed fracture of the cranium, or at least a compound dislocation of the hip-joint.

Now, if the Protestant Church entertained what the Romanists call cases of conscience, I should like greatly to ask, Is this right? Is it justifiable to make a contingent profit out of your cerebral vertebrae or your popliteal space?

We have long been derided and scoffed at for making connubialism marketable, and putting a price on a wife's infidelity, but it strikes me this is something worse; for what, after all, is a rib--a false rib, too--compared with the whole bony skeleton?

"Allah is Allah," said the Turkish admiral to Lady Hester Stanhope, "but I have got two anchors astern," showing that, with all his fatalism, he did not despise what are technically called human means. So the reverend Archdeacon, going down for his sea-baths, might say, "I'm not quite sure they'll carry me safely, but it shall not be all misfortune--I'll take out some of it in money."

The system, however, has its difficulties; for though it is a round game, the stakes are apportioned with reference to the rank and condition of the winner--as, for instance, the Solicitor-General's collarbone is worth a shoemaker's whole body, and a Judge's patella is of more value than a dealer in marine stores and his rising family. This is a tremendous pull against the company, who not only give long, but actually incalculable odds; for while Mr Briggs of the second class can be crumpled up for two hundred pounds, the Hon. Sackville de Cressy in the coupe cannot be even concussed under a thousand; while if the noble Duke in the express carriage be only greatly alarmed, the cost may be positively astounding.

This I certainly call hard--very hard. When you book a bet at Newmarket you never have to consider the rank of your opponent, save as regards his solvency. He may be a peer--he is very probably a publican--it is perfectly immaterial to you; but not so here. The company is positively staking against the incommensurable. They have no means of knowing whether that large broad-shouldered man yonder is or is not a royal duke; and when the telegraph announces a collision, it may chance that the news has declared what will send every shareholder into bankruptcy, or only graze them without hurting anybody.

We all know how a number of what are technically termed serious people went to Exeter Hall to listen to the music of the 'Traviata,' what no possible temptation would have induced them to hear within the walls of a theatre. I will not question the propriety of a matter only to be settled by a reference to conscience; but as the music and the words--for the airs were sung--were the same, the hearers were not improbably in the enjoyment of as emotional an amusement as though they had gone for it to the Queen's Theatre. Now, may not these railway insurances be something of the same kind? May it not be a means by which deans and canons and other broad-hatted dignitaries may enjoy a little gambling without "going in" for Blind Hooky or Roulette? Regard for decorum would prevent their sojourning at Homburg or Wiesbaden. They could not, of course, be seen "punting" at the play-table at Ems; but here is a legitimate game which all may join in, and where, certainly, the anxiety that is said to impart the chief ecstasy to the gamester's passion rises to the very highest It is heads and tails for a smashing stake, and ought to interest the most sluggish of mortals.

What a useful addition, then, would it be for one's Bradshaw to have a tabular view of the "odds" on the different lines, so that a speculative individual, desiring to provide for his family, might know where to address himself with best chance of an accident! One can imagine an assurance company puffing its unparalleled advantages and unrivalled opportunity, when four excursion trains were to start at five minutes' intervals, and the prospect of a smash was little short of a certainty. "Great attraction! the late rains have injured the chief portion of the line, so that a disaster is confidently looked for every hour. Make your game, gentlemen--make your game; nothing received after the bell rings."

[The end]
Charles Lever's Essay: Gambling For The Million