Picture is: Gwendolen Harleth at the roulette table(illustration to Daniel Deronda).
Written for NYC Midnight’s short story challenge 2020.
My brief was as follows:
Genre: Fairy Tale
Character: A train conductor
Time limit: 8 days
Word Count: 2,500 words
Once upon a time there was a steam train that carried the richest gamblers and chancers from Nirshal, the capital city of Bhupal, to gambling city of Richanchi.
Gambling was banned everywhere in Bhupal except in Richanchi. Thanks to the limited supply of casinos (one) and the high taxes, only the richest and most desperate could afford to play.
Upon that train worked a conductor called William. He was fairly tall. Fairly handsome. Fairly funny. Fairly smart. Fairly popular. Very honest. That made him perfect for this job. These carriages were full of the richest frauds, bounders and blackguards for hundreds of miles. Bribes flowed toward William constantly. But money meant little to him. He had modest taste and always made ends meet. He was a master at saying no courteously and making people feel flattered by his refusals.
William was fairly happy with his lot in life. He wasn’t married, but he was fairly sure that it would happen eventually. Even if he only seemed to meet the rich scoundrels, he was fairly sure that it would work itself out.
It was Lunar New Year again, a big weekend for the casino. There were extra carriages attached to the train and they’d all been refurbished for the occasion.
William stood on the platform near the engine and exchanged a few pleasantries with the driver, whom he knew fairly well. He watched the patrons board the train in their fine gowns and tuxedos. Shimmering silk and luxurious wool. Necklaces and watches that were encrusted with gems. So many sequins that if you squinted, the throng looked like a sparkling ocean slipping onto the train’s carriages.
“Is that man wearing a codpiece?” the driver asked, snorting.
“I’m fairly sure he is,” said William, “All aboard!”
Soon the train was departing the station and beginning its eight hours journey to Richanchi. A steam cloud rose out of the engine. The trailing carriages slid underneath it as the engine pulled them out of the city and into the rolling countryside. William began checking the tickets. The kitchen were already preparing the food service. The bar and service staff were arranging and delivering drinks. Both were purposefully situated at the front of the train, so that the mouthwatering smells of the braising pork and the sweet fragrances of the cocktails would drift through the train.
“Tickets please,” William declared in each carriage.
There was no need to check . The whole station had been been reserved exclusively for the casino passengers. But like so much of this process, it was part of the ritual and the fun for the guests.
Each carriage was floored with padded, purple carpets that were so luscious they showed deep scars where bags and trolleys had been pulled over them. The seats were organised in sets of four around large, cedar wood tables that were trimmed with a silver band.
The windows had thick, purple, black-out curtains and cedar paneling between the glass. The luggage racks were brass with ornamental motifs on the joints.
William smiled as he checked and punched holes through the thick ply tickets, printed with ink so rich it left his fingertips smudged black, then slid them into the vanity slots on top of the seats. He ducked under the crystal chandeliers as he made his way through the train.
Soon he had checked all the tickets, greeted all the customers, and was working his way back to the front of the train. The guests were getting tipsy. Voices were being raised. Braggadocio and boasts punctuated every conversation. The evening was going fairly well.
William noticed a passenger who did not appear to be engaged in the joviality. She sat quietly, looking out into the mountains as light rain started to fall on the window panes.
She was fairly young, and sat with three women who appeared to be her sisters. They were all older. Worn and weathered. Layered in foundation, concealer, mascara and liners. They wore baroque dresses with high collars to pull in their slack necks and uncouth, thick gold necklaces with brashly cut precious stones set on them.
“Do we look like triplets?” they yelled at William when they saw him pause at their table.
“Is this a trick question?” replied William, smiling. He had learnt that the most tactful way to answer a question that sounded like a trap, was with another question.
“No,” wailed one of the women, “what do you think?”
“I think you ladies know how to have a good time,” said William.
“So diplomatic, we are triplets,” another revealed.
“And who is this?” asked William, gesturing toward the quieter girl.
“Oh, that’s just Diana, our younger sister.”
Diana turned to William and gave him a polite, but distant smile. This gave him the chance to take her in. She was wearing a modest, simple dress in red, a small pearl necklace and pearl earings. Her hair was brushed behind her ears and plaited. Although William was sure that her outfit cost a fortune, it looked tasteful and reserved on this train.
“Don’t get any ideas,” said one of the sisters, “she’s single but she’s a handful. Get yourself a nice girl.” Diana rolled her eyes and turned back to the window.
“She’s not going to gamble, she’s in too much debt,” cackled another one of the sisters, “She has to work at the casino for four seasons to pay it off.” Diana turned back to William and squeezed her lips together, as if to say, now you know.
William smiled back warmly. He had heard rumours of debt bonded passengers but he had never knowingly met one. Everyone just looked so wealthy. William supposed that when rich people lost all their money, they still kept the trappings of wealth in a way regular people never could – keeping up appearances.
“Well ladies,” started William, “If you need any more drinks, just tell the staff. Food service will come out shortly.”
After the dinner service the patrons were starting to enter a sleepy drunkenness and the atmosphere calmed.
William was speaking with the bartender when he felt someone enter the carriage. “Diana?” said William, “If you want refreshments I can have one of the staff bring it to your seat.
“I needed to stretch my legs,” she said. It was the first time that William had heard her voice. It was light but resigned.
“I’ll take this customer,” William said to the bartender, “You have a break.” He turned to Diana, “What can I get you?”
“Just a tonic water and lime, please.”
“Don’t you want anything stronger?”
“No. I don’t drink. I don’t want to be like my sisters.”
William kept the conversation running with his standard patter but it soon died out. Something about this girl made him break his professional veneer, “I had heard about passengers in your position, but I never really believed it.”
She smirked, the first natural expression William had seen her make, “All of the staff at the casino are in my position. They don’t need to employ any floor staff anymore. They actually have a waiting-list.”
“All of them are former gamblers?”
“Yes,” she paused for a moment, “It’s part of the fun for the gamblers. A gallows humour. Seeing the less astute players serving them. It isn’t about the money. It’s about prestige – for most of them.”
“What was it about for you?”
Diana averted her eyes, “For me it was about having enough money to escape my sisters. Working at the casino is not as demeaning as living with their restrictions.”
William was about to probe some more, but realised he was late for his carriage rounds. “I’m sorry, I have to go.” She smiled and sipped on her tonic. William was fairly disappointed.
Soon the engine was groaning and slowing as it approached the casino’s platform. The station was in fact the entrance to the casino. It was a marvel. High ceilings of stained glass and copper brackets that had oxidised into an attractive green. The platform itself was made of marble and sparkled from its recent polishing.
William watched the passengers disembark, encrusted in precious stones, silks and a mild hangover then proceeded with his checks of the train. Normally, when he had finished these checks, he would go to a guesthouse in the city, half a mile away from the casino, and spend the night at an inn in front of an open fire, with an ale and a pie and the rest of his colleagues from the train. But today he decided to enter the casino too, as was his privilege, as one of the train company’s employees.
He was unsurprised by what he found inside. A grand casino floor with dozens of high stakes tables for different games. Hundreds of staff, who he now knew were forced to work here, weaved between the large tables, carrying jeroboams of sparkling wine and silver buckets of ice.
William didn’t know how to play any of the games, but the roulette wheel looked the most intriguing. It seemed to be simply a game of luck. No illusion of skill like some of the card games. He watched the game for a few minutes. It seemed fun. He could see the appeal.
“Sir, I believe you work as the train conductor?” A man in a black suit had approached him while he was lost in the scenes at the roulette table.
“I am yes.”
“Well we welcome you. I don’t believe you’ve joined us before. All train staff receive one-thousand roubles complimentary credit to spend in the casino. You can use it to play the games or at the bar. You may leave with anything you win. But you must use the credit itself in the house, or return the unused change to us.”
“Thank you very much,” said William, “I think I will partake in the roulette.”
“A fine choice, sir,” said the man in the suit who then merged into the din of the casino.
William approached the roulette table as someone else gave way. The croupier changed and Diana stepped in to replace the former. She didn’t notice him. She was too busy trying to ignore her three sisters who had jostled into the other side of the table to play while she worked.
He placed a chip on the table, Diana looked toward him, recognised him, but controlled her expression, “Sir, there is a minimum bet on this table and all tables in the house.”
“Ah,” William corrected his bet. Five-hundred roubles on red. Happy Lunar New Year.
The ball landed black. One bet left. Five-hundred roubles on red, again. The ball landed on red. Back to one-thousand roubles.
William shrugged and put all one thousand roubles on even. The ball landed on two. As Diana pushed the winning chips over to him, she gave him a curious look.
He kept playing. Making different bets. He didn’t even understand the odds of most of the bets. He lost some but won more. Soon he was up ten-thousand roubles. He kept winning. At one-hundred-thousand roubles drinks were mysteriously arriving at his side. Soon over one-million rouble chips were in front of him. He noticed only a few people were still playing, most were watching him. He was enjoying the limelight and feeling a little tipsy from the champagne that he wasn’t sure if he was paying for.
He placed one-million roubles on number seventeen, leaving a few thousand in front of him. Everyone around the table was shocked. There were no other bets. “En plein,” said Diana, announcing the thirty-five-to-one bet with wide eyes. She spun the wheel and dropped in the ball. She looked carefully when it settled, blinked, looked again, then announced, “Seventeen.” She paid out 35 million roubles, plus returning William’s one-million rouble stake.
William felt a hand on his shoulder, “May we have a word, Sir, away from the table?” It was the man in the suit, flanked by two other men in suits.
“Of course,” said William. They stepped to the edge of the floor.
“We don’t have sufficient funds to pay your winnings, we need to come to an… arrangement,” said the man opening his hands. “Is there anything we can offer you as an alternative? Unlimited accommodation for life perhaps?”
The alcohol that William had been drinking was still soaking into his body. He was careening over the boundary of tipsy towards drunkenness.
“I think there is something you could offer,” said William.
“Name it,” said the man. They discussed it for a while, until he said, “Two golden train tickets is too much. One golden ticket, a lifetime’s access to the Emperor’s Suite and unlimited breakfast, dinner and drinks for you and a guest, forever, sir. It’s quite the deal.” William was no negotiator and didn’t understand that the casino were desperate and would have folded if he pushed. So he accepted joyously and shortly he found himself being presented with a voucher describing his unlimited access to the hotel and a golden train ticket.
“I presume it’s your name to be engraved on the ticket?”
“No,” said William, “please write the name, Diana.”
The man’s eyebrows raised and he smirked, “As you wish.”
They walked back to the roulette table together. The man in the suit snapped his fingers and a croupier appeared from nowhere to replace Diana. Diana came around to speak to the group. A small crowd, including Diana’s sisters, formed around William, to hear what he had agreed.
“This golden ticket is for you, Diana,” said William proudly. “It allows you to travel anywhere as much as you like, whenever you like. Most importantly it frees you. You no longer have to work here, or for your sisters.”
The crowd was silent as he handed it over. Diana looked at the man in the suit, “How many chips is it worth?”
“I’ll give you two-million for it.”
Diana handed the ticket to him. Her sisters broke the silence with uncontrollable laughter. Then she turned, ignored everyone, and started placing her chips on the table. William watched ashen faced. The sisters approached him and spoke around withheld laughter.
“She’s addicted,” said one of them. “How do you think she got into so much debt? She’s the daughter of a King.” “Did she give you the old sob story about working for her evil sisters?” “We were keeping her locked up for her own protection, but then she got too old. We couldn’t do it anymore.” “You big sop, I hope you got something else for your thirty-six-million roubles.”
After a short time Diana rejoined them. “Is it gone?” asked one of the sisters.
“All of it?” asked another.
“Are you ready to go home now?”
“Yes,” Diana said.
“I am too,” said William.