The Man Who Could Not Lose
by Richard Harding Davis
Public Domain Books
On arriving at the theatre they found their host had reserved a stage-box, and as there were but four in their party, and as, when they entered, the house lights were up, their arrival drew upon them the attention both of those in the audience and of those on the stage. The theatre was crowded to its capacity, and in every part were people who were habitual race-goers, as well as many racing men who had come to town for the Suburban. By these, as well as by many others who for three days had seen innumerable pictures of him, Carter was instantly recognized. To the audience and to the performers the man who always won was of far greater interest than what for the three-hundredth night was going forward on the stage. And when the leading woman, Blanche Winter, asked the comedian which he would rather be, “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo or the Man Who Can Not Lose?” she gained from the audience an easy laugh and from the chorus an excited giggle.
When, at the end of the act, Carter went into the lobby to smoke, he was so quickly surrounded that he sought refuge on Broadway. From there, the crowd still following him, he was driven back into his box. Meanwhile, the interest shown in him had not been lost upon the press agent of the theatre, and he at once telephoned to the newspaper offices that Plunger Carter, the book-maker breaker, was at that theatre, and if that the newspapers wanted a chance to interview him on the probable out-come of the classic handicap to be run on the morrow, he, the press agent, would unselfishly assist them. In answer to these hurry calls, reporters of the Ten o’Clock Club assembled in the foyer. How far what later followed was due to their presence and to the efforts of the press agent only that gentleman can tell. It was in the second act that Miss Blanche Winter sang her topical song. In it she advised the audience when anxious to settle any question of personal or national interest to “Put it up to the Man in the Moon.’” This night she introduced a verse in which she told of her desire to know which horse on the morrow would win the Suburban, and, in the chorus, expressed her determination to “Put it up to the Man in the Moon.”
Instantly from the back of the house a voice called: “Why don’t you put it up to the Man in the Box?” Miss Winter laughed-the audience laughed; all eyes were turned toward Carter. As though the idea pleased them, from different parts of the house people applauded heartily. In embarrassment, Carter shoved back his chair and pulled the curtain of the box between him and the audience. But he was not so easily to escape. Leaving the orchestra to continue unheeded with the prelude to the next verse, Miss Winter walked slowly and deliberately toward him, smiling mischievously. In burlesque entreaty, she held out her arms. She made a most appealing and charming picture, and of that fact she was well aware. In a voice loud enough to reach every part of the house, she addressed herself to Carter:
“Won’t you tell ME?” she begged.
Carter, blushing unhappily, shrugged his shoulders in apology.
With a wave of her hand Miss Winter designated the audience. “Then,” she coaxed, reproachfully, “won’t you tell THEM?”
Again, instantly, with a promptness and unanimity that sounded suspiciously as though it came from ushers well rehearsed, several voice echoed her petition: “Give us all a chance!’’ shouted one. “Don’t keep the good things to yourself! “ reproached another. “ I want to get rich, TOO!” wailed a third. In his heart, Carter prayed they would choke. But the audience, so far from resenting the interruptions, encouraged them, and Carter’s obvious discomfort added to its amusement. It proceeded to assail him with applause, with appeals, with commands to “speak up.”
The hand-clapping became general-insistent. The audience would not be denied. Carter turned to Dolly. In the recesses of the box she was enjoying his predicament. His friends also were laughing at him. Indignant at their desertion, Carter grinned vindictively. “All right,” he muttered over his shoulder. “Since you think it’s funny, I’ll show you !” He pulled his pencil from his watch-chain and, spreading his programme on the ledge of the box, began to write.
From the audience there rose a murmur of incredulity, of surprise, of excited interest. In the rear of the house the press agent, after one startled look, doubled up in an ecstasy of joy. “We’ve landed him !” he gasped. “We’ve landed him He’s going to fall for it!”
Dolly frantically clasped her husband by the coat-tail.
“Champ!” she implored, “what are you doing?”
Quite calmly , quite confidently, Carter rose. Leaning forward with a nod and a smile, he presented the programme to the beautiful Miss Winter. That lady all but snatched at it. The spot-light was full in her eyes. Turning her back that she might the more easily read, she stood for a moment, her pretty figure trembling with eagerness, her pretty eyes bent upon the programme. The house had grown suddenly still, and with an excited gesture, the leader of the orchestra commanded the music to silence A man, bursting with impatience, broke the tense quiet. “Read it!” he shouted.
In a frightened voice that in the sudden hush held none of its usual confidence, Miss Winter read slowly: “ The favorite cannot last the distance. Will lead for the mile and give way to Beldame. Proper takes the place. First Mason will show. Beldame will win by a length.”
Before she had ceased reading, a dozen men had struggled to their feet and a hundred voice were roaring at her. “Read that again !" the chorused. Once more Miss Winter read the message, but before she had finished half of those in the front rows were scrambling from their seats and racing up the aisles. Already the reporters were ahead of them, and in the neighborhood not one telephone booth was empty. Within five minutes, in those hotels along the White Way where sporting men are wont to meet, betting commissioners and hand-book men were suddenly assaulted by breathless gentlemen, some in evening dress, some without collars, and some without hats, but all with money to bet against the favorite. And, an hour later, men, bent under stacks of newspaper “extras,” were vomited from the subway stations into the heart of Broadway, and in raucous tones were shrieking, “Winner of the Suburban,” sixteen hours before that race was run. That night to every big newspaper office from Maine to California, was flashed the news that Plunger Carter, in a Broadway theatre, had announced that the favorite for the Suburban would be beaten, and, in order, had named the three horses that would first finish.
Up and down Broadway, from rathskellers to roof-gardens, in cafes and lobster palaces, on the corners of the cross-roads, in clubs and all-night restaurants, Carter’s tip was as a red rag to a bull.
Was the boy drunk, they demanded, or had his miraculous luck turned his head? Otherwise, why would he so publicly utter a prophecy that on the morrow must certainly smother him with ridicule. The explanations were varied. The men in the clubs held he was driven by a desire for notoriety, the men in the street that he was more clever than they guessed, and had made the move to suit his own book, to alter the odds to his own advantage. Others frowned mysteriously. With superstitious faith in his luck, they pointed to his record. “Has he ever lost a bet? How do WE know what HE knows?" they demanded. “Perhaps it’s fixed and he knows it!”
The “wise” ones howled in derision. “A Suburban FIXED!” they retorted. “You can fix ONE jockey, you can fix TWO; but you can’t fix sixteen jockeys! You can’t fix Belmont, you can’t fix Keene. There’s nothing in his picking Beldame, but only a crazy man would pick the horse for the place and to show, and shut out the favorite! The boy ought to be in Matteawan.
Still undisturbed, still confident to those to whom he had promised them, Carter sent a wire. Nor did he forget his old enemy, “Sol" Burbank. “ If you want to get some of the money I took,” he telegraphed, “wipe out the Belmont entry and take all they offer on Delhi. He cannot win.”
And that night, when each newspaper called him up at his flat, he made the same answer. “The three horses Will finish as I said. You can state that I gave the information as I did as a sort of present to the people of New York City.”
In the papers the next morning “Carter’s Tip” was the front- page feature. Even those who never in the racing of horses felt any concern could not help but take in the outcome of this one a curious interest. The audacity of the prophecy, the very absurdity of it, presupposing, as it did, occult power, was in itself amusing. And when the curtain rose on the Suburban it was evident that to thousands what the Man Who Could Not Lose had foretold was a serious and inspired utterance.
This time his friends gathered around him, not to benefit by his advice, but to protect him. “They’ll mob you!” they warned. “They’ll tear the clothes off your back. Better make your getaway now.”
Dolly, with tears in her eyes, sat beside him. Every now and again she touched his hand. Below his box, as around a newspaper office on the night when a president is elected, the people crushed in a turbulent mob. Some mocked and jeered, some who on his tip had risked their every dollar, hailed him hopefully. On every side policemen, fearful of coming trouble, hemmed him in. Carter was bored extremely, heartily sorry he had on the night before given way to what he now saw as a perverse impulse. But he still was confident, still undismayed.
To all eyes, except those of Dolly, he was of all those at the track the least concerned. To her he turned and, in a low tone, spoke swiftly. “I am so sorry,” he begged. “But, indeed, indeed, I can’t lose. You must have faith in me.”
“In you, yes,” returned Dolly in a whisper, “but in your dreams, no!”
The horses were passing on their way to the post. Carter brought his face close to hers.
“I’m going to break my promise,” he said, “and make one more bet, this one with you. I bet you a kiss that I’m right.”
Dolly, holding back her tears, smiled mournfully. “Make it a hundred,” she said.
Half of the forty thousand at the track had backed Delhi, the other half, following Carter’s luck and his confidence in proclaiming his convictions, had backed Beldame. Many hundred had gone so far as to bet that the three horses he had named would finish as he had foretold. But, in spite of Carter’s tip, Delhi still was the favorite, and when the thousands saw the Keene polka-dots leap to the front, and by two lengths stay there, for the quarter, the half, and for the three- quarters, the air was shattered with jubilant, triumphant yells. And then suddenly, with the swiftness of a moving picture, in the very moment of his victory, Beldame crept up on the favorite, drew alongside, drew ahead passed him, and left him beaten. It was at the mile.
The night before a man had risen in a theatre and said to two thousand people: “The favorite will lead for the mile, and give way to Beldame.” Could they have believed him, the men who now cursed themselves might for the rest of their lives have lived upon their winnings. Those who had followed his prophecy faithfully, superstitiously, now shrieked in happy, riotous self-congratulation. “At the MILE!” they yelled. “He TOLD you, at the MILE!” They turned toward Carter and shook Panama hats at him. “Oh, you Carter!” they shrieked lovingly.
It was more than a race the crowd was watching now, it was the working out of a promise. And when Beldame stood off Proper’s rush, and Proper fell to second, and First Mason followed three lengths in the rear, and in that order they flashed under the wire, the yells were not that a race had been won, but that a prophecy had been fulfilled.
Of the thousands that cheered Carter and fell upon him and indeed did tear his clothes off his back, one of his friends alone was sufficiently unselfish to think of what it might, mean to Carter.
“Champ!” roared his friend, pounding him on both shoulders. “You old wizard! I win ten thousand! How much do you win?”
Carter cast a swift glance at Dolly. he said, “I win much more than that.”
And Dolly, raising her eyes to his, nodded and smiled contentedly.