A THOUSAND AND ONE AFTERNOONS IN CHICAGO
It was a day in the spring of 1921. Dismal shadows, really Hechtian shadows, filled the editorial "coop" in The Chicago Daily News building. Outside the rain was slanting down in the way that Hecht's own rain always slants. In walked Hecht. He had been divorced from our staff for some weeks, and had married an overdressed, blatant creature called Publicity. Well, and how did he like Publicity? The answer was written in his sullen eyes; it was written on his furrowed brow, and in the savage way he stabbed the costly furniture with his cane. The alliance with Publicity was an unhappy one. Good pay? Oh yes, preposterous pay. Luncheons with prominent persons? Limitless luncheons. Easy work, short hours, plenteous taxis, hustling associates, glittering results. But—but he couldn't stand it, that was all. He just unaccountably, illogically, and damnably couldn't stand it. If he had to attend another luncheon and eat sweet-breads and peach melba and listen to some orator pronounce a speech he, Hecht, had written, and hear some Magnate outline a campaign which he, Hecht, had invented ... and that wasn't all, either.... Gentlemen, he just couldn't stand it.
Well, the old job was open.
Ben shuddered. It wasn't the old job that he was thinking about. He had a new idea. Something different. Maybe impossible.
And here followed specifications for "One Thousand and One Afternoons." The title, I believe, came later, along with details like the salary. Hang the salary! I doubt if Ben even heard the figure that was named. He merely said "Uh-huh!" and proceeded to embellish his dream—his dream of a department more brilliant, more artistic, truer (I think he said truer), broader and better than anything in the American press; a literary thriller, a knock-out ... and so on.
So much for the mercenary spirit in which "One Thousand and One Afternoons" was conceived.
A week or so later Ben came in again, bringing actual manuscript for eight or ten stories. He was haggard but very happy. It was clear that he had sat up nights with those stories. He thumbed them over as though he hated to let them go. They were the first fruits of his Big Idea—the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter. His was to be the lens throwing city life into new colors, his the microscope revealing its contortions in life and death. It was no newspaper dream at all, in fact. It was an artist's dream. And it had begun to come true. Here were the stories.... Hoped I'd like 'em.
"One Thousand and One Afternoons" were launched in June, 1921. They were presented to the public as journalism extraordinary; journalism that invaded the realm of literature, where in large part, journalism really dwells. They went out backed by confidence in the genius of Ben Hecht. This, if you please, took place three months before the publication of "Erik Dorn," when not a few critics "discovered" Hecht. It is not too much to say that the first full release of Hecht's literary powers was in "One Thousand and One Afternoons." The sketches themselves reveal his creative delight in them; they ring with the happiness of a spirit at last free to tell what it feels; they teem with thought and impressions long treasured; they are a recital of songs echoing the voices of Ben's own city and performed with a virtuosity granted to him alone. They announced to a Chicago audience which only half understood them the arrival of a prodigy whose precise significance is still unmeasured.
"Erik Dorn" was published. "Gargoyles" took form. Hecht wrote a play in eight days. He experimented with a long manuscript to be begun and finished within eighteen hours. "One Thousand and One Afternoons" continued to pour out of him. His letter-box became too small for his mail. He was bombarded with eulogies, complaints, arguments, "tips," and solicitations. His clipping bureau rained upon him violent reviews of "Dorn." His publishers submerged him with appeals for manuscript. Syndicates wired him, with "name your own terms." New York editors tried to steal him. He continued to write "One Thousand and One Afternoons." He became weary, nervous and bilious; he spent four days in bed, and gave up tobacco. Nothing stopped "One Thousand and One Afternoons." One a day, one a day! Did the flesh fail, and topics give out, and the typewriter became an enemy? No matter. The venturesome undertaking of writing good newspaper sketches, one per diem, had to be carried out. We wondered how he did it. We saw him in moods when he almost surrendered, when the strain of juggling with novels, plays and with contracts, revises, adblurbs, sketches, nearly finished "One Thousand and One Afternoon." But a year went by, and through all that year there had not been an issue of The Chicago Daily News without a Ben Hecht sketch. And still the manuscripts dropped down regularly on the editor's desk. Comedies, dialogues, homilies, one-act tragedies, storiettes, sepia panels, word-etchings, satires, tone-poems, fuges, bourrees,—something different every day. Rarely anything hopelessly out of key. Stories seemingly born out of nothing, and written—to judge by the typing—in ten minutes, but in reality, as a rule, based upon actual incident, developed by a period of soaking in the peculiar chemicals of Ben's nature, and written with much sophistication in the choice of words. There were dramatic studies often intensely subjective, lit with the moods of Ben himself, not of the things dramatized. There were self-revelations characteristically frank and provokingly debonaire. There was comment upon everything under the sun; assaults upon all the idols of antiquity, of mediaevalism, of neo-boobism. There were raw chunks of philosophy, delivered with gusto and sometimes with inaccuracy. There were subtle jabs at well-established Babbitry. And besides, of the thousand and one Hechts visible in the sketches, there were several that appear rarely, if at all, in his novels: The whimsical Hecht, sailing jocosely on the surface of life; the witty Hecht, flinging out novel word-combinations, slang and snappy endings; Hecht the child-lover and animal-lover, with a special tenderness for dogs; Hecht the sympathetic, betraying his pity for the aged, the forgotten, the forlorn. In the novels he is one of his selves, in the sketches he is many of them. Perhaps this is why he officially spoke slightingly of them at times, why he walked in some days, flung down a manuscript, and said: "Here's a rotten story." Yet it must be that he found pleasure in playing the whole scale, in hopping from the G-string to the E-, in surprising his public each day with a new whim or a recently discovered broken image. I suspect, anyhow, that he delighted in making his editor stare and fumble in the Dictionary of Taboos.
Ben will deny most of this. He denies everything. It doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter much, Ben, that your typing was sometimes so blind or that your spelling was occasionally atrocious, or that it took three proof-readers and a Library of Universal Knowledge to check up your historical allusions.
* * * * *
The preface is proving horribly inadequate. It is not at all what Ben wants. It does not seem possible to support his theory that "One Thousand and One Afternoons," springing from a literary passion so authentic and continuing so long with a fervor and variety unmatched in newspaper writing, are hack-work, done for a meal ticket. They must have had the momentum of a strictly artistic inspiration and gained further momentum from the need of expression, from pride in the subtle use of words, from an ardent interest in the city and its human types. Yes, they are newspaper work; they are the writings of a reporter emancipated from the assignment book and the copy-desk; a reporter gone to the heaven of reporters, where they write what they jolly well please and get it printed too! But the sketches are also literature of which I think Ben cannot be altogether ashamed; else why does he print them in a book, and how could Mr. Rosse be moved to make the striking designs with which the book is embellished? Quite enough has been said. The author, the newspaper editor, the proof-readers and revisers have done their utmost with "One Thousand and One Afternoons." The prefacer confesses failure. It is the turn of the reader. He may welcome the sketches in book form; he may turn scornfully from them and leave them to moulder in the stock-room of Messrs. Covici-McGee. To paraphrase an old comic opera lyric:
"You never can tell about a reader; Perhaps that's why we think them all so nice. You never find two alike at any one time And you never find one alike twice. You're never very certain that they read you, And you're often very certain that they don't. Though an author fancy still that he has the strongest will It's the reader has the strongest won't."
Yet I think that the book will succeed. It may succeed so far that Mr. Hecht will hear some brazen idiots remarking: "I like it better than 'Dorn' or 'Gargoyles'." Yes, just that ruinous thing may happen. But if it does Ben cannot blame his editor.
HENRY JUSTIN SMITH.
Chicago, July 1, 1922
A Self-Made Man
An Iowa Humoresque
An Old Audience Speaks
Clocks and Owl Cars
Coral, Amber and Jade
Coeur De Lion and The Soup and Fish
Dapper Pete and The Sucker Play
Don Quixote and His Last Windmill
"Fa'n Ta Mig!"
Jazz Band Impressions
Meditation in E Minor
Mrs. Rodjezke's Last Job
Mrs. Sardotopolis' Evening Off
Notes For A Tragedy
On A Day Like This
Queen Bess Feast
Satraps At Play
Sergt. Kuzick's Waterloo
Ten-Cent Wedding Rings
The Auctioneer's Wife
The Dagger Venus
The Great Traveler The Indestructible Masterpiece
The Little Fop
The Man From Yesterday
The Man Hunt
The Man With A Question
The Soul of Sing Lee
The Thing In The Dark
The Watch Fixer
The Way Home
Thumbs Up and Down
To Bert Williams
Where The "Blues" Sound
Why did Fanny do this? The judge would like to know. The judge would like to help her. The judge says: "Now, Fanny, tell me all about it."
All about it, all about it! Fanny's stoical face stares at the floor. If Fanny had words. But Fanny has no words. Something heavy in her heart, something vague and heavy in her thought—these are all that Fanny has.
Let the policewoman's records show. Three years ago Fanny came to Chicago from a place called Plano. Red-cheeked and black-haired, vivid-eyed and like an ear of ripe corn dropped in the middle of State and Madison streets, Fanny came to the city.
Ah, the lonely city, with its crowds and its lonely lights. The lonely buildings busy with a thousand lonelinesses. People laughing and hurrying along, people eager-eyed for something; summer parks and streets white with snow, the city moon like a distant window, pretty gewgaws in the stores—these are a part of Fanny's story.
The judge wants to know. Fanny's eyes look up. A dog takes a kick like this, with eyes like this, large, dumb and brimming with pathos. The dog's master is a mysterious and inexplicable dispenser of joys and sorrows. His caresses and his beatings are alike mysterious; their reasons seldom to be discerned, never fully understood.
Sometimes in this court where the sinners are haled, where "poised and prim and particular, society stately sits," his honor has a moment of confusion. Eyes lift themselves to him, eyes dumb and brimming with pathos. Eyes stare out of sordid faces, evil faces, wasted faces and say something not admissible as evidence. Eyes say: "I don't know, I don't know. What is it all about?"
These are not to be confused with the eyes that plead shrewdly for mercy, with eyes that feign dramatic naivetes and offer themselves like primping little penitents to his honor. His honor knows them fairly well. And understands them. They are eyes still bargaining with life.
But Fanny's eyes. Yes, the judge would like to know. A vagueness comes into his precise mind. He half-hears the familiar accusation that the policeman drones, a terribly matter-of-fact drone.
Another raid on a suspected flat. Routine, routine. Evil has its eternal root in the cities. A tireless Satan, bored with the monotony of his role; a tireless Justice, bored with the routine of tears and pleadings, lies and guilt.
There is no story in all this. Once his honor, walking home from a banquet, looked up and noticed the stars. Meaningless, immutable stars. There was nothing to be seen by looking at them. They were mysteries to be dismissed. Like the mystery of Fanny's eyes. Meaningless, immutable eyes. They do not bargain. Yet the world stares out of them. The face looks dumbly up at a judge.
No defense. The policeman's drone has ended and Fanny says nothing. This is difficult. Because his honor knows suddenly there is a defense. A monstrous defense. Since there are always two sides to everything. Yes, what is the other side? His honor would like to know. Tell it, Fanny. About the crowds, streets, buildings, lights, about the whirligig of loneliness, about the humpty-dumpty clutter of longings. And then explain about the summer parks and the white snow and the moon window in the sky. Throw in a poignantly ironical dissertation on life, on its uncharted aimlessness, and speak like Sherwood Anderson about the desires that stir in the heart. Speak like Remy de Gourmont and Dostoevsky and Stevie Crane, like Schopenhauer and Dreiser and Isaiah; speak like all the great questioners whose tongues have wagged and whose hearts have burned with questions. His honor will listen bewilderedly and, perhaps, only perhaps, understand for a moment the dumb pathos of your eyes.
As it is, you were found, as the copper who reads the newspapers puts it, in a suspected flat. A violation of section 2012 of the City Code. Thirty days in the Bastile, Fanny. Unless his honor is feeling good.
These eyes lifted to him will ask him questions on his way home from a banquet some night.
"How old are you?"
"Make it twenty-two," his honor smiles. "And you have nothing to say? About how you happened to get into this sort of thing? You look like a good girl. Although looks are often deceiving."
"I went there with him," says Fanny. And she points to a beetle-browed citizen with an unshaven face. A quaint Don Juan, indeed.
"Ever see him before?"
A shake of the head. Plain case. And yet his honor hesitates. His honor feels something expand in his breast. Perhaps he would like to rise and holding forth his hand utter a famous plagiarism—"Go and sin no more." He chews a pen and sighs, instead.
"I'll give you another chance," he says. "The next time it'll be jail. Keep this in mind. If you're brought in again, no excuses will go. Call the next case."
Now one can follow Fanny. She walks out of the courtroom. The street swallows her. Nobody in the crowds knows what has happened. Fanny is anybody now. Still, one may follow. Perhaps something will reveal itself, something will add an illuminating touch to the incident of the courtroom.
There is only this. Fanny pauses in front of a drug-store window. The crowds clutter by. Fanny stands looking, without interest, into the window. There is a little mirror inside. The city tumbles by. The city is interested in something vastly complicated.
Staring into the little mirror, Fanny sighs and—powders her nose.
THE AUCTIONEER'S WIFE
An auctioneer must have a compelling manner. He must be gabby and stentorian, witheringly sarcastic and plaintively cajoling. He must be able to detect the faintest symptoms of avarice and desire in the blink of an eyelid, in the tilt of a head. Behind his sing-song of patter as he knocks down a piece of useless bric-a-brac he must be able to remain cool, remain calculating, remain like a hawk prepared to pounce upon his prey. Passion for him must be no more than a mask; anger, sorrow, despair, ecstasy no more than the devices of salesmanship.
But more than all this, an auctioneer must know the magic password into the heart of the professional or amateur collector. He must know the glittering phrases that are the keys to their hobbies. The words that bring a gleam to the eye of the Oriental rug collector. The words that fire the china collector. The stamp collector. The period furniture collector. The tapestry enthusiast. The first edition fan. And so on.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I desire your expert attention for a moment. I have here a curious little thing of exquisite workmanship said to be from the famous collection of Count Valentine of Florence. This delicately molded, beautifully painted candelabra has illuminated the feasts of the old Florentines, twinkled amid the gay, courtly rioting of a time that is no more. Before the bidding for this priceless souvenir is opened I desire, ladies and gentlemen, to state briefly——"
* * * * *
Nathan Ludlow is an auctioneer who knows all the things an auctioneer must know. His eye is piercing. His tongue can roll and rattle for twelve hours at a stretch. His voice is the voice of the tempter, myriad-toned and irresistible.
It was evening. An auspicious evening. It was the evening of Mr. Ludlow's divorce. And Mr. Ludlow sat in his room at the Morrison Hotel, a decanter of juniper juice at his elbow. And while he sat he talked. The subjects varied. There were tales of Ming vases and Satsuma bargains, of porcelains and rugs. And finally Mr. Ludlow arrived at the subject of audiences. And from this subject he progressed with the aid of the juniper juice to the subject of wives. And from the subject of wives he stepped casually into the sad story of his life.
"I'll tell you," said Mr. Ludlow. "Tonight I'm a free man. Judge Pam gave me, or gave her, rather, the divorce. I guess he did well. Maybe she was entitled to it. Desertion and cruelty were the charges. But they don't mean anything. The chief complaint she had against me was that I was an auctioneer."
Mr. Ludlow sighed and ran his long, artist's fingers over his eagle features and brushed back a Byronic lock of hair from his forehead.
"It was four years ago we met," he resumed, "in the Wabash Avenue place. I noticed her when the bidding on a rocking chair started. A pretty girl. And as is often the case among women who attend auctions—a bug, a fan, a fish. You know, the kind that stiffen up when they get excited. The kind that hang on your words and breathe hard while you cut loose with the patter, and lose their heads when you swing into the going-going-gone finale.
"Well, she didn't get the rocking chair. But she was game and came back on a Chinese rug. I began to notice her considerably. My words seemed to have an unusual effect on her. Then I could see that she was not only the kind of fish that lose their heads at auctions, but the terrible kind that believe everything the auctioneer says. You know, they believe that the Oriental rugs really came from the harem of the caliph and that the antique bed really was the one in which DuBarry slept and that the Elizabethan tablecloth really was an Elizabethan tablecloth. They are kind of goofily romantic and they fall hard for everything and they spend their last penny on a lot of truck, you know. Not bad stuff and probably a good deal more useful and lasting than the originals would have been."
* * * * *
Mr. Ludlow smiled a bit apologetically. "I'm not confessing anything you don't know, I hope," he said. "Well, to go on about the missus. I knew I had her from that first day. I wasn't vitally interested, but when she returned six days in succession it got kind of flattering. And the way she looked at me and listened to me when I pulled my stuff—say, I could have knocked down a bouquet of paper roses for the original wreath worn by Venus, I felt so good. That's how I began to think that she was an inspiration to me and how I figured that if I could have somebody like her around I'd soon have them all pocketed as auctioneers.
"I forget just how it was we met, but we did. And I swear, the way she flattered me would have been enough to turn the head of a guy ten times smarter than me and forty times as old. So we got married. That's skipping a lot. But, you know, what's it all amount to, the courting and the things you say and do before you get married? So we got married and then the fun started.
"At first I could hardly believe what the drift of it was. But I hope to die if she wasn't sincere in her ideas about me as an auctioneer. I didn't get it, as I say, and that's where I made my big mistake. I let her come to the auctions and told her not to bid. But when I'd start my patter on some useless piece of 5-and l0-cent store bric-a-brac and give it an identity and hint at Count Rudolph's collection and so on, she was off like a two-year-old down a morning track.
"I didn't know how to fix it or how to head her out of it. For a month I didn't have the heart to disillusion her. I let her buy. Damn it, I never saw such an absolute boob as she was. She'd pick out the most worthless junk I was knocking down and go mad over it and buy it with my good money. It got so that I realized I was slipping. I'd get a promise from her that she wouldn't come into the auction, but I never could be sure. And if I felt like cutting loose on some piece of junk and knocking it down with a lot of flourishes I knew sure as fate that the missus would be there and that she would be the fish that caught fire first and most and that I'd be selling the thing to myself.
"Well, after the first two months of my married life I realized that I'd have to talk turkey to the missus. She was costing me my last nickel at these auctions and the better auctioneer I was the more money I lost, on account of her being so susceptible to my line of stuff. It sounds funny, but it's a fact. So I told her. I made a clean breast. I told her what a liar I was and how all the stuff I pulled from the auction stand was the bunk and how she was a boob for falling for it. And so on and so on. Say, I sold myself to her as the world's greatest, all around, low down, hideous liar that ever walked in shoe leather. And that's how it started. This divorce today is kind of an anti-climax. We ain't had much to do with each other ever since that confession."
Mr. Ludlow stared sorrowfully into the remains of a glass of juniper juice.
"I'll never marry again," he moaned. "I ain't the kind that makes a good husband. A good husband is a man who is just an ordinary liar. And me? Well, I'm an auctioneer."
The fog tiptoes into the streets. It walks like a great cat through the air and slowly devours the city.
The office buildings vanish, leaving behind thin pencil lines and smoke blurs. The pavements become isolated, low-roofed corridors. Overhead the electric signs whisper enigmatically and the window lights dissolve.
The fog thickens till the city disappears. High up, where the mists thin into a dark, sulphurous glow, roof bubbles float. The great cat's work is done. It stands balancing itself on the heads of people and arches its back against the vanished buildings.
* * * * *
I walk along thinking about the way the streets look and arranging adjectives in my mind. In the heavy mist people appear detached. They no longer seem to belong to a pursuit in common. Usually the busy part of the city is like the exposed mechanism of some monstrous clock. And people scurry about losing themselves in cogs and springs and levers.
But now the monstrous clock is almost hidden. The stores and offices and factories that form the mechanism of this clock are buried behind the fog. The cat has eaten them up. Hidden within the mist the cogs still turn and the springs unwind. But for the moment they seem non-existent. And the people drifting hurriedly by in the fog seem as if they were not going and coming from stores, offices and factories. As if they were solitaries hunting something in the labyrinths of the fog.
Yes, we are all lost and wandering in the thick mists. We have no destinations. The city is without outlines. And the drift of figures is a meaningless thing. Figures that are going nowhere and coming from nowhere. A swarm of supernumeraries who are not in the play. Who saunter, dash, scurry, hesitate in search of a part in the play.
This is a curious illusion. I stop and listen to music. Overhead a piano is playing and a voice singing. A song-boosting shop above Monroe and State streets. A ballad of the cheap cabarets. Yet, because it is music, it has a mystery in it.
The fog pictures grow charming. There is an idea in them now. People are detached little decorations etched upon a mist. The cat has eaten up the monstrous clock and people have rid themselves of their routine, which was to tumble and scurry among its cogs and levers. They are done with life, with buying and selling and with the perpetual errand. And they have become a swarm of little ornaments. Men and women denuded of the city. Their outlines posture quaintly in the mist. Their little faces say, "The clock is gone. There is nothing any more to make us alive. So we have become our unconnected selves."
* * * * *
Beside me in the fog a man stands next to a tall paper rack. I remember that this is the rack where the out-of-town papers are on sale. The papers are rolled up and thrust like rows of little white dolls in the rack. I wonder that this should be a newspaper stand. It looks like almost anything else in the fog.
A pretty girl emerges from the background of fog. She talks to the man next to the rack.
"Have you a Des Moines newspaper?" she asks.
The man is very businesslike. He fishes out a newspaper and sells it. At the sight of its headlines the girl's eyes light up. It is as if she had met a very close friend. She will walk along feeling comforted now. Chicago is a stranger. Its fog-hidden buildings and streets are strangers and its crowds criss-crossing everywhere are worse than strangers. But now she has Des Moines under her arm. Des Moines is a companion that will make the fog seem less lonely. Later she will sit down in a hotel room and read of what has happened in Des Moines buildings and Des Moines streets. These will seem like real happenings, whereas the happenings that the Chicago papers print seem like unrealities.
This is Dearborn Street now. Dark and cozy. People are no longer decorations but intimate friends. When it is light and one can see the cogs of the monstrous clock go round and the springs unwind one thinks of people as a part of this mechanism. And so people grow vague in one's mind and unhuman or only half-human.
But now that the mechanism is gone, people stand out with an insistent humanness. People sitting on lunch-counter stools, leaning over coffee cups. People standing behind store counters. People buying cigars and people walking in and out of office buildings. They are very friendly. Their tired faces smile, or at least look somewhat amused and interested. They are interested in the fog and in the fact that one cannot see three feet ahead. And their faces say to each other, "Here we are, all alike. The city is only a make-believe. It can go away but we still remain. We are much more important than the big buildings."
* * * * *
I hear an odd tapping sound on the pavement. It is faint but growing nearer. In another moment a man tapping on the pavement with a cane passes. A blind man. And I think of a plot for a fiction story. If a terrible murder were committed in a marvelous fog that hid everything the chief of police would summon a blind man. And the blind man could track the murderer down in the fog because he alone would be able to move in the thick, obliterating mists. And so the blind man, with his cane tapping, tapping over the pavements and able by long practice to move without sight, would slowly close in on the murderer hemmed in by darkness.
A newsboy cries from the depth of nowhere: "Paper here. Trains crash in fog. Paper."
* * * * *
A friend and I sat in an office. He has been dictating letters, but he stops and stares out of the window. His eyes grow speculative. He says:
"Wouldn't it be odd if it were always like this? I think I'd like it better, wouldn't you? But I suppose they'd invent lights able to penetrate mist and the town would be as garish as ever in a few years. But I like the fog because it slows things up. Things are too damn fast to suit me. I like 'em slow. Like they used to be a century ago."
We talk and my friend becomes reminiscent on the subject of stage coaches and prairie schooners and the days before there were railroads, telephones, electricity and crowds. He has never known such a time, but from what he has read and imagined about it—yes, it would be better.
* * * * *
When I come out it is mid-afternoon. The fog has gone. The city has popped back and sprawls triumphantly into space. For a moment it seems as if the city had sprung up in an hour. Then its sturdy walls and business windows begin to mock at the memory of the fog in my mind. "Fogs do not devour us," they say. "We are the ones who do the devouring. We devour fogs and people and days." Marvelous buildings.
Overhead the sky floats like a gray and white balloon, as if it were a toy belonging to the city.
DON QUIXOTE AND HIS LAST WINDMILL
Sherwood Anderson, the writer, and I were eating lunch in the back room of a saloon. Against the opposite wall sat a red-faced little man with an elaborate mustache and a bald head and a happy grin. He sat alone at a tilted round table and played with a plate of soup.
"Say, that old boy over there is trying to wigwag me," said Anderson. "He keeps winking and making signs. Do you know him?"
I looked and said no. The waiter appeared with a box of cigars.
"Mr. Sklarz presents his compliments," said the waiter, smiling.
"Who's Sklarz?" Anderson asked, helping himself to a cigar. The waiter indicated the red-faced little man. "Him," he whispered.
We continued our meal. Both of us watched Mr. Sklarz casually. He seemed to have lost interest in his soup. He sat beaming happily at the walls, a contagious elation about him. We smiled and nodded our thanks for the cigars. Whereupon after a short lapse, the waiter appeared again.
"What'll you have to drink, gentlemen?" the waiter inquired.
"Nothing," said Anderson, knowing I was broke. The waiter raised his continental eyebrows understandingly.
"Mr. Sklarz invites you, gentlemen, to drink his health—at his expense."
"Two glasses," Anderson ordered. They were brought. We raised them in silent toast to the little red-faced man. He arose and bowed as we drank.
"We'll probably have him on our hands now for an hour," Anderson frowned. I feared the same. But Mr. Sklarz reseated himself and, with many head bowings in our direction, returned to his soup.
"What do you make of our magnanimous friend?" I asked. Anderson shrugged his shoulders.
"He's probably celebrating something," he said. "A queer old boy, isn't he?"
* * * * *
The waiter appeared a third time.
"What'll it be, gentlemen?" he inquired, smiling. "Mr. Sklarz is buying for the house."
For the house. There were some fifteen men eating in the place. Then our friend, despite his unassuming appearance, was evidently a creature of wealth! Well, this was growing interesting. We ordered wine again.
"Ask Mr. Sklarz if he will favor us by joining us at our table for this drink," I told the waiter. The message was delivered. Mr. Sklarz arose and bowed, but sat down again. Anderson and I beckoned in pantomime. Mr. Sklarz arose once more, bowed and hesitated. Then he came over.
As he approached a veritable carnival spirit seemed to deepen around us. The face of this little man with the elaborate black mustache was violent with suppressed good will and mirth. He beamed, bowed, shook hands and sat down. We drank one another's health and, as politely as we could, pressed him to tell us the cause for his celebration and good spirits. He began to talk.
He was a Russian Jew. His name was Sklarz. He had been in the Russian army years ago. In Persia. From a mountain in Persia you could see three great countries. In Turkey he had fought with baggy-trousered soldiers and at night joined them when they played their flutes outside the coffee-houses and sang songs about women and war. Then he had come to America and opened a box factory. He was very prosperous and the factory in which he made boxes grew too small.
So what did he do but take a walk one day to look for a larger factory. And he found a beautiful building just as he wanted. But the building was too beautiful to use for a factory. It should be used for something much nicer. So what did he do then but decide to open a dance-hall, a magnificent dance-hall, where young men and women of refined, fun-loving temperaments could come to dance and have fun.
* * * * *
"When does this dance-hall open?" Anderson asked. Ah, in a little while. There were fittings to buy and put up first. But he would send us special invitations to the opening. In the meantime would we drink his health again? Mr. Sklarz chuckled. The amazing thing was that he wasn't drunk. He was sober.
"So you're celebrating," I said. Yes, he was celebrating. He laughed and leaned over the table toward us. His eyes danced and his elaborate mustache made a grotesque halo for his smile. He didn't want to intrude on us with his story, but in Persia and Turkey and the Urals he had found life very nice. And here in Chicago he had found life also very nice. Life was very nice wherever you went. And Anderson quoted, rather imperfectly, I thought:
Oh, but life went gayly, gayly In the house of Idah Dally; There were always throats to sing Down the river bank with spring.
Mr. Sklarz beamed.
"Yes, yes," he said, "down the river benk mit spring." And he stood up and bowed and summoned the waiter. "See vat all the gentlemen vant," he ordered, "and give them vat they vant mit my compliments." He laughed, or, rather, chuckled. "I must be going. Excuse me," he exclaimed with a quick little bow. "I have other places to call on. Good-by. Remember me—Sam Sklarz. Be good—and don't forget Sam Sklarz when there are throats to zing down the river benk mit spring."
We watched him walk out. His shoulders seemed to dance, his short legs moved with a sprightly lift.
"A queer old boy," said Anderson. We talked about him for a half hour and then left the place.
* * * * *
Anderson called me up the next morning to ask if I had read about it in the paper. I told him I had. A clipping on the desk in front of me ran:
"Sam Sklarz, 46 years old and owner of a box factory on the West Side, committed suicide early this morning by jumping into the drainage canal. Financial reverses are believed to have caused him to end his life. According to friends he was on the verge of bankruptcy. His liabilities were $8,000. Yesterday morning Sklarz cashed a check for $700, which represented the remains of his bank account, and disappeared. It is believed that he used the money to pay a few personal debts and then wandered around in a daze until the end. He left no word of explanation behind."
THE MAN HUNT
They were hunting him. Squads of coppers with rifles, detectives, stool pigeons were hunting him. And the people who had read the story in the newspapers and looked at his picture, they too, were hunting him.
Tommy O'Connor looked out of the smeared window of the room in which he sat and stared at the snow. A drift of snow across the roofs. A scribble of snow over the pavement.
There were automobiles racing through the streets loaded with armed men. There were crowds looking for a telltale face in their own midst. Guards, deputies, coppers were surrounding houses and peering into alleys, raiding saloons, ringing doorbells. The whole city was on his heels. The city was like a pack of dogs sniffing wildly for his trail. And when they found it they would come whooping toward him for a leap at his throat.
Well, here he was—waiting. It was snowing outside. There was no noise in the street. A man was passing. One of the pack? No. Just a man. The man looked up. Tommy O'Connor took his face slowly away from the window. He had a gun in his pocket and his hand was holding it. But the man was walking away. Huh! If the guy knew that Lucky Tommy O'Connor was watching him from a window he'd walk a little faster. If the guy knew that Lucky O'Connor, who had busted his way out of jail and was being hunted by a million people with guns, was sitting up here behind the window, he'd throw a fit. But he didn't know. He was like the walls and the windows and the snow outside—quiet and peaceful.
"Nice boy," grinned Tommy O'Connor. Then he began to fidget. He ought to go out and buy a paper. See what was doing. See what became of Mac and the rest of the boys. Maybe they'd all been nabbed. But they couldn't do him harm. On account nobody knew where he was. No pal. No dame. Nobody knew he was sitting here in the room looking at the snow and just thinking. The papers were probably full of cock-and-bull stories about his racing across the country and hiding in haystacks and behind barns. Kid stuff. Maybe he should ought to of left town. But it felt better in town. Some rube was always sure to pick out a stranger beating it down a empty road. And there was no place to hide. Long, empty stretches, where anybody could see you for a mile.
Better in town. Lots of walls, alleys, roofs. Lots of things like that. No hare-and-hounds effect like in the country. But the papers were probably full of a lot of bunk. He'd take a walk later and buy a few. Better sit still now. There was nothing harder to find than a man sitting still.
* * * * *
Tommy O'Connor yawned. Not much sleep the night before. Well, he'd sleep tonight. Worrying wasn't going to help matters. What if they did come? Let them come. Fill up the street and begin their damn shooting. They didn't think Lucky Tommy was sucker enough to let them march him up on a scaffold and break his neck on the end of a rope. Fat chance. Not him. That sort of stuff happened to other guys, not to Lucky Tommy.
Snowing outside. And quiet. Everybody at work. Funny about that. Tommy O'Connor was the only free man in the city. There was nobody felt like him right now—nobody. Where would he be exactly this time a week from now? If he could only look ahead and see himself at four o'clock next Monday afternoon. But he was free now. No breaking his neck on the end of a rope. If worst came to worst—if worst came to worst—O'Connor's fingers took a grip on the gun in his pocket. They were hunting him. Up and down the streets everywhere. Racing around in taxis, with rifles sticking out of the windows. Well, why didn't they come into this street? All they had to do was figure out: Here's the street Tommy O'Connor is hiding in. And that looks like the house. And then somebody would yell out: "There he is! Behind that window! That's him!" Why didn't this happen?
* * * * *
Christmas, maybe, he'd call on the folks. No. Rube stuff. A million coppers would be watching the house. But he might drop them a letter. Too bad he didn't have any paper, or he might write a lot of letters. To the chief of police and all the head hunters. Some more rube stuff, that. They could tell by the postmark what part of the city he was hiding in and they'd be on him with a whoop.
Funny how he had landed in this room. No plans, no place in particular to head for. That was the best way. Like he'd figured it out and it turned out perfect. Grab the first auto and ride like hell and keep on changing autos and riding around and around in the streets and crawling deeper into the city until the trail was all twisted and he was buried. But he ought to shave his mustache off. Hell. What for? If they came whooping into the street they'd find him, mustache or no mustache. But what if he wanted to buy some papers?
It was getting darker now. The snow was letting up. Just dribbling. Better if it would snow a lot. Then he could sit and have something to watch—snow falling on the street and turning things white. That was on account of his headache he was thinking that way. Eats might help, but he wasn't hungry. Scared? No. Just waiting. Hunters winding in and out like the snow that was falling. People were funny. They got a big thrill out of hunting a live man who was free in the streets.
He'd be walking some day. Strolling around the streets free as any of them. Maybe not in town. Some other town. Take a walk down State Street. Drop in at a movie. Kid stuff. Walk over to Mac's saloon and kind of casually say "Hello, fellows." And walk out again. God, they'd never hang him. If the worst came to the worst—if the worst came to the worst—but they'd never hang him.
* * * * *
Dark now. But the guys hunting him weren't going to sleep. Lights were going on in the windows. Better light up the room. People might notice a dark window. But a lighted one would look all right. It was not snowing any more. Just cold.
Well, he'd go out in a while. Stretch his legs and buy the papers and give them a reading. And then take a walk. Just walk around and take in the streets and see if there was anybody he knew. No. Rube stuff, that. Better stick where he was.
Lucky Tommy walked around in the room. The drawn window blind held his eye. Wagons were passing. What for? Yes, and there was a noise. Like people coming. Turn out the light, then. He'd take a look.
Tommy O'Connor peeled back the blind carefully. Dark. Lights in windows. Some guys on the corner. Hunting him? Sure. And they were coming his way. Straight down the street. They were looking up. What for? A gun crept out of Tommy O'Connor's pocket. He pressed himself carefully against the wall. He waited. The minutes grew long. But this was the hunt closing in. They were coming. Black figures of men floating casually down the street. All right—let them come.
Lucky Tommy O'Connor's eyes stared rigidly out of the smeared window at a vague flurry of figures that seemed to be coming, coming his way.
There was never a man as irritating as Winkelberg. He was an encyclopedia of misfortune. Everything which can happen to a man had happened to him. He had lost his family, his money and his health. He was, in short, a man completely broken—tall, thin, with a cadaverous face, out of which shone two huge, lusterless eyes. He walked with an angular crawl that reminded one of the emaciated flies one sees at the beginning of winter dragging themselves perversely along as if struggling across an illimitable expanse of flypaper.
It was one of Winkelberg's worst habits to appear at unexpected moments. But perhaps any appearances poor Winkelberg might have made would have had this irritating quality of unexpectedness. One was never looking forward to Winkelberg, and thus the sight of his wan, determined smile, his lusterless eyes and his tenacious crawl was invariably an uncomfortable surprise.
* * * * *
I will be frank. It was Winkelberg's misfortune which first attracted me. I listened to his story avidly. He talked in slow words and there was intelligence in the man. He was able to perceive himself not only as a pain-racked, starving human, but he glimpsed with his large, tired eyes his relation to things outside himself. I remember he said, and without emotion: "There is nobody to blame. Not even myself. And if I cannot blame myself how can I blame the world? The city is like that. I am no good. I am done. Something worn out and useless. People try to take care of the useless ones and they would like to. There are institutions. I was kicked out of two of them. They said I was a faker. Somehow I don't appeal to charitably inclined people."
Later I understood why. It was because of the man's smile—a feeble, tenacious grimace that seemed to be offering a sardonic reproof. It could never have been mistaken for a courageous smile. The secret of its aggravating quality was this: In it Winkelberg accused himself of his uselessness, his feebleness, his poverty. It was as if he were regarding himself continually through the annoyed eyes of others and addressing himself with the words of others: "You, Winkelberg, get out of here. You're a nuisance. You make me uncomfortable because you're poor and diseased and full of gloom. Get out. I don't want you around. Why the devil don't you die?"
And the aggravating thing was that people looked at Winkelberg's smile as into a mirror. They saw in it a reflection of their own attitude toward the man. They felt that Winkelberg understood what they thought of him. And they didn't like that. They didn't like to feel that Winkelberg was aware that deep inside their minds they were always asking: "Why doesn't this Winkelberg die and have it over with?" Because that made them out as cruel, heartless people, not much different in their attitude toward their fellow men from predatory animals in their attitude toward fellow predatory animals. And somehow, although they really felt that way toward Winkelberg, they preferred not to believe it. But Winkelberg's smile was a mirror which would not let them escape this truth. And eventually Winkelberg's smile became for them one of those curious mirrors which exaggerate images grotesquely. Charitably inclined people, as well as all other kinds of inclined people, prefer their Winkelbergs more egoistic. They prefer that unfortunate ones be engrossed in their misfortunes and not go around wearing sardonic, philosophical smiles.
* * * * *
Winkelberg dragged along for a year. He was past fifty. Each time I saw him I was certain I would never see him again. I was certain he would die—drop dead while crawling across his flypaper. But he would appear. I would pretend to be vastly busy. He would sit and wait. He never asked alms. I would have been relieved if he had. Instead he sat and smiled, and his smile said: "You are afraid I am going to ask you for money. Don't worry. I won't ask you for money. I won't bother you at all. Yes, I agree with you, I ought to be dead. It would be better for everybody."
We would talk little. He would throw out a hint now and then that perhaps I could use some of his misfortunes for material. For instance, the time his two children had been burned to death. Or the time he had fallen off the street car while in a sick daze and injured his spine for life, and how he had settled with the street car company for $500 and how he had been robbed on the way to the bank with the money two weeks later.
I refused consistently this offer of "material." This offended Winkelberg. He would shake his head and then he would nod his head understandingly and his smile would say:
"Yes, yes. I understand. You don't want to get involved with me. Because you don't want me to have any more claims on your sympathy than I've got. I'm sorry."
Toward the end Winkelberg's visits grew more frequent. And he became suddenly garrulous. He wished to discuss things. The city. The various institutions. Politics. Art. This phase of Winkelberg was the most unbearable. He was willing to admit himself a social outcast. He was reconciled to the fact that he would starve to death and that everybody who had ever seen him would feel it had been a good thing that he had finally died. But this final plea came from him. He wanted nothing except to talk and hear words in order to relieve the loneliness of his days. He would like abstract discussions that had nothing to do with Winkelberg and the Winkelberg misfortunes. His smile now said: "I am useless, worn out and better off dead. But never mind me. My mind is still alive. It still thinks. I wish it didn't. I wish it crawled around like my body. But seeing that it does, talk to me as if it were a mind belonging to somebody else and not to the insufferable Winkelberg."
I grew suspicious finally. I began to think there was something vitally spurious about this whole Winkelberg business. And I said to myself: "The man's a downright fake. If anybody were as pathetic and impossible and useless as this Winkelberg is he would shoot himself. Winkelberg doesn't shoot himself. So he becomes illogical. Unreal."
* * * * *
A woman I know belongs to the type that becomes charitable around Christmas time. She makes a glowing pretense of aiding the poor. As a matter of fact, she really does aid them, although she regards the poor as a sort of social and spiritual asset. They afford her the double opportunity of appearing in the eyes of her neighbors as a magnanimous soul and of doing something which reflects great credit upon her character. But, anyway, she "does good," and we'll let it go at that.
I told this woman about Winkelberg. I became poignant and moving on the subject of Winkelberg's misfortunes, his trials, sufferings and, above all, his Spartan stoicism. It pleased me to do this. I felt that I was making some amends and that the thing reflected credit upon my character.
So she went to the room on the South Side where Winkelberg sleeps. And they told her there that Winkelberg was dead. He had died last week. She was upset when she told me about it. She had come too late. She might have saved him.
It was a curious thing—but when she told me that Winkelberg was dead I felt combatively that it was untrue. And now since I know certainly that Winkelberg is dead and buried I have developed a curious state of mind. I look up from my desk every once in a while expecting to see him. In the streets I sometimes find myself actually thinking: "I'll bump into him when I turn the corner."
I have managed to discover the secret of this feeling. It is Winkelberg's smile. Winkelberg's smile was the interpretation of the world's attitude toward him, including my own. And thus whenever his name comes to mind his smile appears as if it were the thought in my head. And in Winkelberg's smile I hear myself saying: "He is better off dead."
A SELF-MADE MAN
"Over there," said Judge Sabath, "is a man who has been a juror in criminal cases at least a dozen times."
His honor pointed to a short, thin man with a derby on the back of his head and a startling mustache, concealing almost half of his wizened face. The man was sitting a bit childishly on a window ledge in the hall of the Criminal Court building swinging his legs and chewing rhythmically on a plug of tobacco.
"They let him go this morning while picking a jury for a robbery case before me," said the judge. "He tried to stay on, but neither side wanted him. You might get a story out of him. I think he's broken-hearted."
* * * * *
The short, thin man with the derby, swinging his legs from the window ledge said his name was Martin.
"That's true," he said, "what the judge said. I been a juror fourteen times. I was on five murders and four big robberies and then I was on five different assorted kinds of crimes."
"How do you like being a juror, Mr. Martin?"
"Well, sir, I like it a lot. I can say that out of the fourteen times I been a juror I never lost a case."
Mr. Martin aimed at the new cuspidor—and missed.
"There's some jurors as loses nearly every case they're on. They give in first crack. But take the Whitely murder trial I was on. That was as near as I ever come to losing a case. But I managed to hang the jury and the verdict was one of disagreement. Whitely was innocent. Anybody could have told that with half an eye."
"How long have you been serving on juries, Mr. Martin?"
"Going nigh on twenty-three years. I had my first case when I was a young man. It was a minor case—a robbery. I won that despite my youth and inexperience. In those days the cases were much harder than now on account of the lawyers. The old-fashioned lawyer was the talkingest kind of a nuisance I ever had to deal with. He always reminded me of somebody talking at a mark for two dollars a week.
"I don't refer to the orators. I mean the ones who talk during the case itself and who slow things up generally by bothering the witnesses to death with a lot of unnecessary questions. Although the orators are pretty bad, too. There's many a lawyer who has lost out with me on account of the way he made faces in the windup. One of my rules as a juror, a successful one, I might say, is, 'Always mistrust a lawyer who talks too fancy.'"
* * * * *
"Judge Sabath just said that they let you go in his court this morning."
"H'm," snorted Mr. Martin. "That was the lawyer. He's mad at me because he lost a case two years ago that I was on. I won it and he holds a grudge. That's like some lawyers. They don't like the man who licks them.
"But you were asking about the qualifications of an all-around juryman. I'll give 'em to you. First and foremost you want a man of wide experience in human nature. I spend most of my time in the courts when I ain't serving as juror studyin' human nature. You might say that all human nature is the same. But it's my experience that some is more so than others.
"Well, when you know human nature the next step is to figure out about lawyers. Lawyers as a whole is the hardest nut the juror has to crack. To begin with, they're deceivin', and if you let them they'll take advantage of your credulity. There's Mr. Erbstein, for instance, the criminal lawyer. He's a pretty smart one, but I won a case from him only four years ago and he's never forgiven me. I was juror in a manslaughter trial he was trying to run. He thought himself pretty foxy, but when it came to a showdown I put it all over him. There was a guy who was foreman of the jury that time who said I had it all over Mr. Erbstein as an argufier and that my arguments made his look like ten cents. I won easily on five ballots and Mr. Erbstein has never forgave me.
* * * * *
"But I'll go on about the qualifications. First of all, I never read newspapers. Never. No juror should ought to know anything about anything that's going on. I found that out in my youth when I first started in. The first question they ask you is, 'What have you heard about this case and what have you read or said about it?' That's the first one. Well, the right answer is 'nothing.'
"If you can say nothing and prove you're right they'll gobble you up as a juror. For that reason I avoid all newspapers, and right now I don't know what big crimes or cases have been committed at all. I have a clean, unprejudiced mind and I keep it that way.
"Nextly," said Mr. Martin, trying a new sight on the cuspidor, "I don't belong to any lodges whatsoever. They're a handicap. Because if the defendant is a Mason and you are a Elk he would rather have a brother Mason be juror than a strange Elk. So I don't belong to any of them and I don't go to church. I also have no convictions whatsoever about politics and have no favorites of any kind in the matter of authors or statesmen or anything. What I try to do is to keep my mind clean and unprejudiced on all subjects."
"Why do you like serving as a juror?"
Mr. Martin stared.
"Why?" he repeated. "Because it's every man's duty, naturally. And besides," he went on, narrowing his eyes into shrewd slits, "I've just been luckier than most people. Most people only get called a few times during their life. But I get called regularly every year and sometimes twice a year and sometimes four and five times a year for service. Of course, I ain't boasting, but the city has recognized my merits, no doubt, as a juror, knowing all the cases I've won, and it perhaps shows a little partiality to me for that reason. But I feel that I have earned it and I would like nothing said about it or any scandal started."
"What do you think of this Taylor death mystery in Los Angeles, Mr. Martin?"
"Ha, ha," said Mr. Martin, "there you're tryin' to catch me. You thought you could put that over on me without my seein' through it, didn't you? That's just the way the lawyers try to trap me when I'm sittin' on one of my cases. I ain't ever heard of this Taylor death mystery, not reading the papers, you see."
"That's too bad, Mr. Martin. It's quite a story." Mr. Martin sighed and slipped from the window ledge, shaking down his wrinkled, high-water pants.
"Yes," he sighed, a sudden wistfulness coming into his rheumy eyes. "Things have been pretty slow around here. Chicago used to be the place for a juror—none better. But I been thinkin' of going west. Not that I heard anything, mind you, about any of these cases." Mr. Martin glowered virtuously. "I never read the papers, sir, and have no prejudices whatsoever.
"But I've just been feelin' lately that there are wider opportunities in the west for a man of my experience and record than are left around here."
TO BERT WILLIAMS
"Well," said Mr. Bert Williams, in his best "Under the Bamboo Tree" dialect, "If you like mah singin' and actin' so much, how come, you bein' a writer, you don't write somethin' about youah convictions on this subjeck? Oh! It's not youah depahtment! Hm! Tha's jes' mah luck. I was always the mos' unluckiest puhson who ever trifled with misfohtune. Not his depahtment! Tha'—tha's jes' it. I never seems to fall jes' exactly in the ri-right depahtment.
"May I ask, without meanin' to be puhsonal, jes' what is your depahtment? Murder! Oh, you is the one who writes about murders and murderuhs foh the paper! Nothin' else? Is tha' so? Jes' murders and murderuhs and—and things like tha'? Well, tha' jes' shows how deceivin' looks is, fo' when you came in heah I says to mahself, I says, 'this gen'le-man is a critic of the drama.' And when I sees you have on a pair o' gloves I added quickly to mahself, 'Yes, suh, chances are he is not only a critic of the drama, but likewise even possuhbly a musical critic.' Yes, suh, all mah life I have had the desire to be interviewed by a musical critic, but no matter how hard I sing or how frequently, no musical critic has yet taken cognizance o' me. No, suh, I get no cognizance whatsoever.
"Not meanin' to disparage you, suh, or your valuable depahtment. Foh if you is in charge o' the murder and murderuh's depahtment o' yo' paper possuhbly some time you may refer to me lightly between stabbin's or shootin's in such wise as to say, foh instance, 'the doomed man was listenin' to Mr. Williams' latest song on the phonograph when he received the bullet wound. Death was instantaneous, the doomed man dyin' with a smile on his lips. Mr. Williams' singin' makes death easy—an' desirable.'
"What, suh? You is! Sam, fetch the gen'leman some o' the firewater, the non-company brand, Sam. All right, say when. Aw, shucks, that ain't enough to wet a cat's whiskers. Say when again. There, tha's better. Here, Sam. You got to help drink this. It's important. The gen'leman says if I will wait a little while, jes' a little while, he is goin' to alter his depahtment on the newspaper. Wasn't that it? Oh, I see. In the magazine. Very well. Here's to what you says about me some day in the magazine. An' when you writes it don't forget to mention somewhere along in it how when I was playin' in San Francisco and Sarah Bernhardt was playin' there, and this was years ago, don' forget to mention along with what you write about mah singin' and actin' that I come to mah dressing room one evenin', in Frisco, and there's the hugest box o' flowers you ever saw with mah name on it. An' I open it up and, boy! There plain as the nose on your face is a card among the flowers readin', 'to a fellow artist, from Sarah Bernhardt.' And—whilst we are, so to speak, on the subjeck—you can put in likewise what Eleanora Duse said o' me. You know who she is, I suppose, the very most superlative genius o' the stage, suh. Yes, suh, the very most. An' she says o' me when she went back to Italy, how I was the best artist on the American stage.
"Artist! Tha' always makes Sam laugh, don't it, Sam, when he heahs me refuhed to as artist. An'—have another beaker o' firewater, suh. It's strictly non-company brand. An' here's how again to tha' day you speak of when you write this article about me. An', boy, make it soon, 'cause this life, this sinful theat'ical life, is killin' me fast. But I'll try an' wait. Here's howdy."
* * * * *
He didn't wait. And today a lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed black face drift among the shades in the Valhalla where the Great Actors sit reading their press notices to one another. The Great Actors who have died since the day of Euripides—they sit around in their favorite make-ups in the Valhalla reserved for all good and glorious Thespians.
A company of ladies and gentlemen that would make Mr. Belasco's heart stop beating! The Booths and Barretts from antiquity down, the Mrs. Siddonses and Pattis, the Cyranos, Hamlets, buffoons and heroes. All of them in their favorite make-ups, in their favorite cap and bells, their favorite swords, their favorite doublet and hose—all of them sit around in the special Valhalla of the Great Actors reading their press notices to one another and listening to the hosannas of such critics as have managed to pry into the anterior heaven.
And today Bert Williams makes his entrance. Yes, suh, it took that long to find just the right make-up. To get just the right kind of ill-fitting white gloves and floppy shoes and nondescript pants. But it's an important entrance. The lazy crooked grin is a bit nervous. The dolorous eyes peer sadly through the opening door of this new theater.
Lawdy, man, this is got a Broadway first night backed off the boards. Rejane, Caruso, Coquelin, Garrick and a thousand others sittin' against the towering walls, sittin' with their eyes on the huge door within' to see who's a-comin' in now.
All right, professor, jes' a little music. Nothin' much. Anything kind o' sad and fidgetylike. Tha's it, that-a-boy. There's no use worryin'—much. 'Member what Duse said as I was the greatest artist, an 'member how Sarah Bernhardt sent me roses in Frisco an' says, 'To a fellow artist'? Yes, suh, they can't do mo' than walk out on me. An' ah's been walked out on befo'.
All right, professor. Tha's it. Now I'll stick my hand inside the door and wiggle mah fingers kind o' slow like. Jes' like that. An' I'll come on slow. Nothin' to worry about—much.
* * * * *
A wrinkled white-gloved hand moving slowly inside the door of the Valhalla. Sad, fidgety music. Silence in the great hall. This is another one coming on—another entrance. A lazy, crooked grin and a dolorous-eyed black face. Floppy shoes and woebegone pants.
Bravo, Mr. Williams! The great hall rings with hand-clapping. The great hall begins to fill with chuckles. There it is—the same curious grin, the lugubrious apology of a grin, the weary, pessimistic child of a grin.
The Great Actors, eager-eyed and silent, sit back on their thrones. The door of the Valhalla of Great Actors swings slowly shut. No Flo Ziegfeld lighting this time, but a great shoot of sunshine for a "garden." And the music different, easier to sing to, somehow. Music of harps and flutes. And a deep voice rises.
Yes, I would have liked to have been there in the Valhalla of the Great Actors, when Bert Williams came shuffling through the towering doors and stood singing his entrance song to the silent, eager-eyed throng of Rejanes, Barretts and Coquelins—
Ah ain't ever done nothin' to nobody, Ah ain't ever got nothin' from nobody—no time, nohow. Ah ain't ever goin' t' do nothin' for nobody— Till somebody—
This is a deplorable street, a luxurious couch of a street in which the afternoon lolls like a gaudy sybarite. Overhead the sky stretches itself like a holiday awning. The sun lays harlequin stripes across the building faces. The smoke plumes from the I. C. engines scribble gray, white and lavender fantasies against the shining air.
A deplorable street—a cement and plate glass Circe. We walk—a long procession of us. It is curious to note how we adjust ourselves to backgrounds. In other streets we are hurried, flurried, worried. We summon portentous frowns to our faces. Our arms swinging at our sides proclaim, "Make way, make way! We are launched upon activities vital to the commonwealth!"
But here—the sun bursts a shower of little golden balloons from the high windows. The green of a park makes a cool salaam to the beetle-topped traffic of automobiles. Rubber tires roll down the wide avenue and make a sound like the drawn-out striking of a match. Marble columns, fountains, incompleted architectural elegancies, two sculptured lions and the baffling effulgence of a cinder-veiled museum offer themselves like pensively anonymous guests. And we walk like Pierrots and Pierrettes, like John Drews and Jack Barrymores and Leo Ditrichsteins; like Nazimovas, Patricia Collinges and Messalinas on parole.
* * * * *
I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street. And not only I but everybody I ever knew or heard of was in this street, strutting up and down as if there were no vital projects demanding their attention, as if life were not a stern and productive routine. And where was the Rotary Club? Not a sign of the Rotary Club. One billboard would have saved me; the admonitions that "work is man's duty to his nation," that my country needed me as much in peace as in war, would have scattered the insidious spell of this street and sent me back to the typewriter with at least a story of some waiter in a loop beanery who was once a reigning prince of Patagonia.
But there was no sign, no billboard to inspire me with a sense of duty. So we strutted—the long procession of us—a masquerade of leisure and complacency. Here was a street in which a shave and a haircut, a shine and a clean collar exhilarated a man with a feeling of power and virtue. As if there were nothing else to the day than to decorate himself for the amusement of others.
There were beggars in the street but they only add by way of contrast to the effulgence of our procession. And, besides, are they beggars? Augustus Caesar attired himself in beggar's clothes one day each year and asked alms in the highways of Rome.
* * * * *
I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something—actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.
Fauns, Pierrots, Launcelots, Leanders—we walk, expectantly waiting for our scenes to materialize. Here the little steno in the green tarn is Lais of Corinth, the dowager alighting from the electric is Zenobia. Illusions dress the entire procession. Semiramis, Leda, and tailored nymphs; dryad eyes gleam from powder-white masks. Or, if the classics bore you, Watteau and the rococo pertness of the Grand Monarch. And there are Gothic noses, Moorish eyebrows, Byzantine slippers. Take your pick, walk up and down and wait for your cue.
There are two lives that people lead. One is the real life of business, mating, plans, bankruptcies and gas bills. The other is an unreal life—a life of secret grandeurs which compensate for the monotony of the days. Sitting at our desks, hanging on to straps in the street cars, waiting for the dentist, eating in silence in our homes—we give ourselves to these secret grandeurs. Day-dreams in which we figure as heroes and Napoleons and Don Juans, in which we triumph sensationally over the stupidities and arrogances of our enemies—we think them out detail by detail. Sometimes we like to be alone because we have a particularly thrilling incident to tell ourselves, and when our friends say good-by we sigh with relief and wrap ourselves with a shiver of delight in the mantles of imagination. And we live for a charming hour through a fascinating fiction in which things are as they should be and we startle the world with our superiorities.
* * * * *
This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are—browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of windows and the squeal of "L" trains.
But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe—a street of heroes and heroines. Actors all. Great and irresistible egoists. Do we want riches? Then we have only to raise our finger. Slaves will attend with sesterces and dinars. A street of joyous Caligulas and Neros, with here and there a Ghengis Khan, an Attila.
The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze coming from the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes—and observe how unnecessary are plots. Here in this Circe of streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.
Here is one who has just swum the Hellespont, one who has subdued Cleopatra; here one whose eyes are just launching a thousand ships. What a street!
The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believes in the Avenue lingers. But the "L" trains crowd up, the street cars crowd up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.
And see, the afternoon has been squandered. There were things which should have been done. I blush indignantly at the memory of my thoughts during the shining hours in the Avenue. For I spent the valuable moments conversing with the devil. I imagined him coming for me and for two hours I elaborated a dialogue between him and myself in which I gave him my immortal soul and he in turn promised to write all the stories, novels and plays I wanted. All I would have to do was furnish the paper and leave it in a certain place and call for it the next morning and it would be completed—anything I asked for, a story, novel or play; a poem, a world-shattering manifesto—anything.
Alas, I am still in possession of my immortal soul!
COEUR DE LION AND THE SOUP AND FISH
For they're hangin' Danny Deever—
The voice of Capt. MacVeigh of the British army rose defiantly in the North La Salle Street hall bedroom. The herculean captain, attired in a tattered bathrobe, underwear, socks and one slipper, patted the bottom of the iron with his finger and then carefully applied it to a trouser leg stretched on an ironing board in front of him.
Again the voice:
For they're hangin' Danny Deever; You can hear the death march play, And they're ta ta ta da They're taking him away, Ta da ta ta—
The captain was on the rocks. Sic transit gloria mundi. Or how saith the poet, "The lion and the lizard keep the courts where Jamshid gloried and drank deep." Bust, was the captain. "Dying, Egypt, dying, ebbs the crimson life blood fast." Flatter than a hoecake was the captain.
"Farewell, my bluebell, farewell to thee," sang the captain as the iron crept cautiously over the great trouser leg of his Gargantuan full-dress suit. African mines blown up. Two inheritances shot. A last remittance blah. Rent bills, club bills, grocery bills, tailor bills, gambling bills. "Ho, Britons never will be slaves," sang the intrepid captain. Fought the bloody Boers, fought the Irawadi, fought the bloody Huns, and what was it Lady B. said at the dinner in his honor only two years ago? Ah, yes, here's to our British Tartarin, Capt. MacVeagh. But who the devil was Tartarin?
Never mind. "There's a long, long trail a-windin' and ta da ta ta ta tum," sang Capt. MacVeagh and he took up the other trouser leg. Egad, what a life! Not a sou markee left. Not a thin copper, not a farthing! "Strike me blind, me wife's confined and I'm a blooming father," sang Capt. MacVeagh, "For they're hangin' Danny Deever, you can hear the death march play——"
* * * * *
This was the last phalanx. This thing on the ironing board was Horatius at the bridge holding in check the hordes of false Tarquin. Everything gone but this. Not even a pair of pants or a smoking coat. Not a blooming thing left but this—a full-dress suit beginning to shine a bit in the rear.
"The shades of night were falling fast when through an Alpine village passed"—egad, what a primitive existence. Like an Irunti in the Australian bush. Telling time by the sun. It must be approachin' six, thought the captain as his voice trailed off.
Beautiful thought. "Mabel, little Mabel, with her face against the pane, sits beside the window, looking at the rain." That was Capt. MacVeagh of the British army, prisoner in a La Salle Street hall bedroom. No clothes to wear, nothing but the soup and fish. So he must sit and wait till evening came, till a gentleman could put on his best bib and tucker, and then—allons! Freshly shaved, pink jowled, swinging his ebony stick, his pumps gleaming with a new coat of vaseline, off for the British Officers' Club!
All day long the herculean captain sulked in his tent—an Achilles with a sliver in his heel. But come evening, come the gentle shades of darkness, and presto! Like a lily of the field, who spun not nor toiled; like a knight of the boulevards, this servant of the king leaped forth in all his glory. The landlady was beginning to lose her awe of the dress suit, the booming barytone and the large aristocratic pink face of her mysterious boarder. And she was pressing for back rent. But the club was still tolerant.
"A soldier o' the legion lay dyin' in Algiers," chanted the captain, and with his shoulders back he strode into the wide world. A meal at the club, and gadzooks but his stomach was in arms! Not a bite since the last club meal. God bless the club!
"Get a job?" repeated the captain to one of the members, "I would but the devil take it, how can a man go around asking for a job in a dress suit? And I'm so rotten big that none of my friends can loan me a suit. And my credit is gone with at least twelve different tailors. I'm sort o' taboo as a borrower. Barry, old top, if you will chase the blighter after another highball, I'll drink your excellent health."
"There's a job if you want it that you can do in your dress suit," said his friend Barry. "If you don't mind night work."
"Not at all," growled Capt. MacVeagh.
"Well," said the friend, "there's a circus in town and they want a man to drive the chariot in the chariot race. It's only a little circus. And there's only three chariots in the race. You get $10 for driving and $25 a night if you win the race. And they give you a bloomin' toga to put on over your suit, you know, and a ribbon to tie around your head. And there you are."
"Righto !" cried the captain, "and where is this rendezvous of skill and daring? I'm off. I'll drive that chariot out of breath."
Capt. MacVeagh got the job. Capt. MacVeagh won the first race. Clad in a flapping toga, a ribbon round his forehead, the hero of the British army went Berserker on the home stretch and, lashing his four ponies into a panic, came gloriously down the last lap, two lengths ahead and twenty-five marvelous coins of the realm to the good.
That night at the club Capt. MacVeagh stood treat. British wassail and what not. The twenty-five dollars melted pleasantly and the captain fell off in a happy doze as rosy fingered Aurora touched the city roof-tops.
But, alas, the wages of sin! For the captain was not so good when he mounted his chariot the second night. A beehive buzzed in his head and huge, globular disturbances seemed to fill the air. And, standing waveringly on his feet as the giddy chariot bounced down the track, the captain let forth a sudden yell and sailed off into space. The chariot ponies and hero of the British army had gone crashing into the side lines.
* * * * *
"When they brought him to the hospital in the ambulance," explained the captain's friend, "they had taken the toga off him, of course, and the old boy was in his dress clothes. This kind o' knocked their eyes out, so what do they do but give him the most expensive suite in the place and the prettiest nurse and the star surgeon. And they mend and feed him up for two weeks. We all called on him and brought him a few flowers. The lad was surely in clover.
"The hospital authorities had nothing to go on but this dress suit as evidence. And when the nurse asked him what he wanted done with the suit, saying it was a bit torn from the accident, MacVeagh waves his hand and answers, 'Oh, throw the blasted thing out of the window or give it to the janitor.' And she did. I always thought it quite a story."
"But how did it end? What became of the captain when they found out he couldn't pay his bill and all that? And where's he now?"
"You'll have to end the thing to suit yourself," said the captain's friend. "All I know is that after almost forgetting about MacVeagh I got a letter from him from London yesterday. A rather mysterious letter on Lady Somebody's stationery. It read something like this: 'The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Thanks for the flowers. And three cheers, me lad, for the British Empire.'"
They had been poor all their lives. The neighbors said: "It's a wonder how the Sikoras get along."
They lived in a rear flat. Four rooms that were dark and three children that were noisy. The three children used Wabansia Avenue as a playground. Dodging wagons and trucks was a diversion which played havoc with their shoes, but increased their skill in dodging wagons and trucks.
The neighbors said: "Old man Sikora is pretty sick. It's a wonder where they'll get money to pay the doctor."
Then old man Sikora, who wasn't so old (but poverty and hard work with a pick give a man an aged look), was taken to the county hospital. The Sikora children continued to dodge wagons and trucks and Mrs. Sikora went out three days a week to do washing. And the milkman and the grocer came around regularly and explained to Mrs. Sikora that they, too, had to live and she must pay her bills.
Then the neighbors said: "Did you hear about it? Old man Sikora died last night in the hospital. What will poor Mrs. Sikora do now? They ain't got a thing."
And old man Sikora was brought home because his widow insisted upon it. The neighbors came in and looked at the body and wept with Mrs. Sikora, and the children sat around after school and looked uncomfortably at the walls. And some one asked: "How you going to bury him, Mrs. Sikora?"
"Oh," said Mrs. Sikora, "I'm going to have a good funeral."
* * * * *
There was an insurance policy for $500. The Sikoras had kept it up, scraping together the $10 premiums when the time came. Mrs. Sikora took the policy to the husband of a woman whose washing she had done. The husband was in the real estate business.
"I need money to bury my man," she said. "He died last night in the hospital."
She was red-eyed and dressed in black and the real estate man said: "What do you want?"
When Mrs. Sikora explained he gave her $400 for the policy and she went to an undertaker. Her eyes were still red with crying. They stared at the luxurious fittings of the undertaker's parlors. There were magnificent palms in magnificent jardinieres, and plush chairs and large, inviting sofas and an imposing mahogany desk and a cuspidor of shining brass. Mrs. Sikora felt thrilled at the sight of these luxuries.
Then the undertaker came in and she explained to him.
The neighbors said: "Are you going to Mr. Sikora's funeral? It's going to be a big funeral. I got invited yesterday."
Wabansia Avenue was alive with automobiles. Innumerable relatives of Mr. and Mrs. Sikora arrived in automobiles, their faces staring with surprise out of the limousine windows as if they were seeing the world from a new angle. There were also neighbors. These were dressed even more impressively than the relatives. But everybody, neighbors and relatives, had on their Sunday clothes. And the unlucky ones who hadn't been invited leaned out of the windows of Wabansia Avenue and looked enviously at the entourage.
There was a band—fifteen pieces. And there was one open automobile filled with flowers, filled to overflowing. The band stopped in front of the Sikora flat, or rather in front of the building, for the Sikora flat was in the rear and Mrs. Sikora didn't want the band to stop in the alley. Then the envious ones leaning out of the windows couldn't see the band and that would be a drawback.
The band played, great, sad songs. The cornets and trombones sent a muted shiver through the street. The band stopped playing and the people leaning out of the windows sighed. Ah, it was a nice funeral!
Inside the Sikora house four men stood up beside the handsome black coffin and sang. Mrs. Sikora in a voluminous black veil listened with tears running from her face. Never had she heard such beautiful singing before—all in time and all the notes sweet and inspiring. She wept some more and solicitous arms raised her to her feet. Solicitous arms guided her out of the flower-filled room as six men lifted the black coffin and carried it into the street.
* * * * *
Slowly the automobiles rolled away. And behind the open car heaped with flowers rode Mrs. Sikora. The dolorous music of the band filled her with a gentle ecstasy. The flower scents drifted to her and when her eyes glanced furtively out of the back window of the limousine she could see the procession reaching for almost a half block. All black limousines filled with faces staring in surprise at the street.
And in front of the flower car in an ornamental hearse rode Mr. Sikora. The wheels of the hearse were heavily tired. They made no sound and the chauffeur was careful that his precious burden should not be joggled.
Slowly through the loop the procession picked its way. Crowds of people paused to stare back at the staring ones in the automobiles and to listen to the—fine music that rose above the clamor of the "L" trains and the street cars and the trucks.
The sun lay over the cemetery. The handsome black coffin went out of sight. The fifteen musicians began to play once more and Mrs. Sikora, weeping anew, allowed solicitous arms to help her back into the limousine and with a sigh she leaned back and closed her eyes and let herself weep while the music played, while the limousine rolled smoothly along. It was like a dream, a strange thing imagined or read about somewhere.
* * * * *
The neighbors sniffed indignantly. "Did you hear about Mrs. Sikora?" they said. These were the same ones who had leaned enviously out of the Wabansia Avenue windows.
"She spent all her insurance money on a crazy funeral," the neighbors said, "and did you hear about it? The Juvenile Court is going to take her children away because she can't support them. The officer was out to see her yesterday and she's got no money to pay her bills. She spent the whole money—it was something like $2,000—on the funeral. Huh!"
Mrs. Sikora, weeping, explained to the Juvenile Court officer.
"My man died," she said, "and—and I spent the money for the funeral. It was not for myself, but for him I spent the money."
It will turn out all right, some day. And in the meantime Mrs. Sikora, when she is washing clothes for someone, will be able when her back aches too much to remember the day she rode in the black limousine and the band played and the air was filled with the smell of flowers.
DAPPER PETE AND THE SUCKER PLAY
Dapper Pete Handley, the veteran con man, shook hands all around with his old friends in the detective bureau and followed his captors into the basement. Another pinch for Dapper Pete; another jam to pry out of. The cell door closed and Pete composed his lean, gambler's face, eyed his manicured nails and with a sigh sat down on the wooden cell bench to wait for his lawyer.
"Whether I'm guilty of this or not," said Dapper Pete, "it goes to show what a sucker a guy is—even a smart guy. This ain't no sermon against a life of crime I'm pulling, mind you. I'm too old to do that and my sense of humor is workin' too good. I'm only sayin' what a sucker a guy is—sometimes. Take me."
Dapper Pete registered mock woe.
"Not that I'm guilty, mind you, or anything like that. But on general principles I usually keep out of the way of the coppers. Especially when there's been a misunderstanding concerning some deal or other. Well, how I happen to be here just goes to show what a sucker a guy is—even me."
* * * * *
Pressed for the key to his self-accusation, Dapper Pete continued:
"I come straight here from Grand Island, Neb. I had a deal on in Grand Island and worked it for a couple of months. And after I finished there was trouble and I left. I knew there would be warrants and commotion, the deal having flopped and a lot of prominent citizens feeling as if they had been bilked. You know how them get-rich-quick investors are. If they don't make 3,000 per cent profit over night they raise a squawk right away. And wanna arrest you.
"So I lit out and came to Chicago and when I got here some friends of mine tipped me off that there was considerable hunt for me. Well, I figured that the Nebraska coppers had let out a big holler and I thought it best to lay kind of low and keep out of trouble. That was only last week, you see.
"So I get the bright idea. Layin' around town with nothin' to do but keep out of sight ain't the cinch it sounds. You get so sick and tired of your own company that you're almost ready to throw your arms around the first harness bull you meet.
"But," smiled Dapper Pete, "I restrained myself."
There was time out while Pete discussed the irresponsibility, cruelty and selfishness of policemen in general. After which he continued with his original narrative:
"It was like this," he said. "I made up my mind that I would take in a few of the points of interest in the city I ain't ever got around to. Being a Chicagoan, like most Chicagoans I ain't ever seen any of our natural wonders at all. So first day out I figured that the place no copper would ever look for me would be like the Field Museum and in the zoo and on the beach and like that.
"So, first of all, I join a rubberneck crowd in one of the carryalls with a megaphone guy in charge. And I ride around all day. I got kind of nervous owing to the many coppers we kept passing and exchanging courtesies with. But I stuck all day, knowing that no sleuth was going looking for Dapper Pete on a rubberneck wagon.
"Well, then I spent three days in the Field Museum, eyeing the exhibits. Can you beat it? I walk around and walk around rubbering at mummies and bones and—well, I ain't kiddin', but they was among the three most interesting days I ever put in. And I felt pretty good, too, knowin' that no copper would be thinking of Dapper Pete as being in the museums.
"Then after that I went to the zoo and, rubbered at the animals and birds. And I sat in the park and watched comical ball games and golf games and the like. And then I went on some of those boats that run between no place and nowhere—you get on at a pier and ride for a half hour and get off at a pier and have to call a taxi in order to find your way back to anywhere. You get me?
"I'm tellin' you all this," said Dapper Pete cautiously, "with no reference to the charges involved and for which I am pinched and incarcerated for, see? But I thought you might make a story out of the way a guy like me with all my experience dogin' coppers can play himself for a sucker.
"Well, pretty soon I pretty near run out of rube spots to take in. And then I think suddenly of the observation towers like on the Masonic Temple and the Wrigley Building. I headed for them right away, figuring to take a sandwich or so along and spend the day leisurely giving the city the once over from my eerie perch.
"And when I come home that night and told my friends about it they was all excited. They all agreed that I had made the discovery of the age and all claimed to feel sorry they wasn't hiding out from the coppers, just for the sake of bein' able to lay low on top of a loop building. It does sound pretty good, even now.
"I was on my fifth day and was just walking in on the Masonic Temple observation platform when things began to happen. You know how the city looks from high up. Like a lot of toys crawling around. And it's nice and cool and on the whole as good a place to lay low in as you want. And there's always kind of comical company, see? Rubes on their honeymoon and sightseers and old maids and finicky old parties afraid of fallin' off, and gals and their Johns lookin' for some quiet place to spoon."
* * * * *
Dapper Pete sighed in memory.
"I am sitting there nibbling a sandwich," he went on, "when a hick comes along and looks at me."
"'Hello, pardner,' he says. 'How's the gas mine business?'
"And I look at him and pretend I don't savvy at all. But this terrible looking rube grins and walks up to me, so help me God, and pulls back his lapel and shows me the big star.
"'You better come along peaceabul,' he says. 'I know you, Pete Handley,' just like that. So I get up and follow this hick down the elevator and he turns me over to a cop on State Street and I am given the ride to the hoosegow. Can you beat it?"
"But who was the party with the star and why the pinch?" I asked Dapper Pete. That gentleman screwed his lean, gambler's face into a ludicrous frown.
"Him," he sighed, "that was Jim Sloan, constable from Grand Island, Neb. And they sent him here about two weeks ago to find me. See? And all this rube does is ride around in rubberneck wagons and take in the museums and parks, having no idee where I was. He figured merely on enjoyin' himself at Nebraska's expense.
"And he was just on the observation tower lookin' over the city in his rube way when I have to walk into him. Yes, sir, Pete Handley, and there ain't no slicker guy in the country, walkin' like a prize sucker right into the arms of a Grand Island, Neb., constable. It all goes to show," sighed Dapper Pete, "what a small world it is after all."
Man's capacity for faith is infinite. He is able to believe with passion in things invisible. He can achieve a fantastic confidence in the Unknowable. Here he sits on the breakwater near the Municipal Pier, a fishpole in his hand, staring patiently into the agate-colored water. He can see nothing. The lake is enormous. It contains thousands of square miles of water.
And yet this man is possessed of an unshakable faith that by some mysterious legerdemain of chance a fish, with ten thousand square miles of water to swim in safely, will seek out the little minnow less than an inch in length which he has lowered beside the breakwater. And so, the victim of preposterous conviction, he sits and eyes the tip of his fishpole with unflagging hope.
It is warm. The sun spreads a brightly colored but uncomfortable woolen blanket over their heads. A tepid breeze, reminiscent of cinders, whirl idly over the warm cement. Strung along the pier are a hundred figures, all in identical postures. They sit in defiance of all logic, all mathematics. For it is easy to calculate that if there are a half million fish in Lake Michigan and each fish displaces less than five cubic inches of water there would be only two and a half million cubic inches of fish altogether lost in an expanse containing at least eight hundred billion cubic inches of water. Therefore, the chance of one fish being at any one particular spot are one in four hundred thousand. In other words, the odds against each of these strangely patient men watching the ends of their fishpoles—the odds against their catching a fish—are four hundred thousand to one.
* * * * *
It is therefore somewhat amazing to stand and watch what happens along the sunny breakwater. Every three minutes one of the poles jerks out of the water with a wriggling prize on the hook.
"How are they coming?" we ask.
"Oh, so, so," answers one of the fishermen and points mutely to a string of several dozen perch floating under his feet in the water.
Thus does man, by virtue of his faith, rise above the science of mathematics and the barriers of logic. Thus is his fantastic belief in things unseen and easily disproved vindicated. He catches fish where by the law of probabilities there should be no fish. With the whole lake stretching mockingly before him he sits consumed with a preposterous, a fanatical faith in the little half-inch minnow dangling at the end of his line.
The hours pass. The sun grows hotter. The piles of stone and steel along the lake front seem to waver. From the distant streets come faint noises. On a hot day the city is as appealing as a half-cooled cinder patch. Poor devils in factories, poor devils in stores, in offices. One must sigh thinking of them. Life is even vaster than the lake in which these fishermen fish. And happiness is mathematically elusive as the fish for which the fishermen wait. And yet—
An old man with a battered face. A young man with a battered face. Silent, stoical, battered-looking men with fishpoles. A hundred, two hundred, they sit staring into the water of the lake as if they were looking for something. For fish? Incredible. One does not sit like this watching for something to become visible. Why? Because then there would be an air of suspense about the watcher. He would grow nervous after an hour, when the thing remained still invisible, and finally he would fall into hysterics and unquestionably shriek.
And these men grow calmer. Then what are they looking at, hour after hour, under the hot sun? Nothing. They are letting the rhythm of water and sky lull them into a sleep—a surcease from living. This is a very poetical thing for a hundred battered-looking men to attempt. Yet life may be as intimidating to honest, unimaginative ones as to their self-styled superiors.
There are many types fishing. But all of them look soiled. Idlers, workers, unhappy ones—they come to forget, to let the agate eye of the lake stare them into a few hours of oblivion.
But there is something else. Long ago men hunted and fished to keep alive. They fought with animals and sat with empty stomachs staring at the water, not in quest of Nirvanas but of fish. So now, after ages and ages have passed, there is left a vague memory of this in the minds of these fishermen. This memory makes them still feel a certain thrill in the business of pursuit. Even as they sit, stoical and inanimate, forgetful of unpaid bills, unfinished and never-to-be-finished plans—there comes this curious thrill. A mouth tugs at the little minnow. The pole jerks electrically in the hand. Something alive is on the hook. And the fisherman for an instant recovers his past. He is Ab, fighting with an evening meal off the coast of Wales, two glacial periods ago. His body quivers, his muscles set, his eyes flash.