By F. Hopkinson Smith
Broadway on dry nights, or rather that part known as the Great White Way, is a crowded thoroughfare, dominated by lofty buildings, the sky-line studded with constellations of colored signs pencilled in fire. Broadway on wet, rain-drenched nights is the fairy concourse of the Wonder City of the World, its asphalt splashed with liquid jewels afloat in molten gold.
Across this flood of frenzied brilliance surge hurrying mobs, dodging the ceaseless traffic, trampling underfoot the wealth of the Indies, striding through pools of quicksilver, leaping gutters filled to the brim with melted rubies—horse, car, and man so many black silhouettes against a tremulous sea of light.
Along this blinding whirl blaze the playhouses, their wide portals aflame with crackling globes, toward which swarm bevies of pleasure-seeking moths, their eyes dazzled by the glare. Some with heads and throats bare dart from costly broughams, the mountings of their sleek, rain-varnished horses glittering in the flash of the electric lamps. Others spring from out street cabs. Many come by twos and threes, their skirts held high. Still others form a line, its head lost in a small side door. These are in drab and brown, with worsted shawls tightly drawn across thin shoulders. Here, too, wedged in between shabby men, the collars of their coats muffling their chins, their backs to the grim policeman, stand keen-eyed newsboys and ragged street urchins, the price of a gallery seat in their tightly closed fists.
Soon the swash and flow of light flooding the street and sidewalks shines the clearer. Fewer dots and lumps of man, cab, and cart now cross its surface. The crowd has begun to thin out. The doors of the theatres are deserted; some flaunt signs of "Standing Room Only." The cars still follow their routes, lunging and pausing like huge beetles; but much of the wheel traffic has melted, with only here and there a cab or truck between which gold-splashed umbrellas pick a hazardous way.
With the breaking of the silent dawn, shadowed in a lonely archway or on an abandoned doorstep the wet, bedraggled body of a hapless moth is sometimes found, her iridescent wings flattened in the mud. Then for a brief moment a cry of protest, or scorn, or pity goes up. The passers-by raise their hands in anger, draw their skirts aside in horror, or kneel in tenderness. It is the same the world over, and New York is no better and, for that matter, no worse.
On one of these rain-drenched nights, some ten years or more ago, when the streets were flooded with jewels, and the sky-line aflame, a man in a slouch hat, a wet mackintosh clinging to his broad shoulders, stood close to the entrance of one of the principal playhouses along this Great White Way. He had kept his place since the doors were opened, his hat-brim, pulled over his brow, his keen eye searching every face that passed. To all appearances he was but an idle looker-on, attracted by the beauty of the women, and yet during all that time he had not moved, nor had he been in the way, nor had he been observed even by the door man, the flap of the awning casting its shadow about him. Only once had he strained forward, gazing intently, then again relaxed, settling into his old position.
Not until the last couple had hurried by, breathless at being late, did he refasten the top button of his mackintosh, move clear of the nook which had sheltered him, and step out into the open.
For an instant he glanced about him, seemed to hesitate, as does a bit of driftwood blocked in the current; then, with a sudden straightening of his shoulders, he wheeled and threaded his way down-town.
At Herald Square, he mounted with an aimless air a flight of low steps, peered though the windows, and listened to the crunch of the presses chewing the cud of the day's news. When others crowded close he stepped back to the sidewalk, raising his hat once in apology to an elderly dame who, with head down, had brushed him with her umbrella.
By the time he reached 30th Street his steps had become slower. Again he hesitated, and again with an aimless air turned to the left, the rain still pelting his broad shoulders, his hat pulled closer to protect his face. No lights or color pursued him here. The fronts of the houses were shrouded in gloom; only a hall lantern now and then and the flare of the lamps at the crossings, he alone and buffeting the storm—all others behind closed doors. When Fourth Avenue was reached he lifted his head for the first time. A lighted window had attracted his attention—a wide, corner window filled with battered furniture, ill-assorted china, and dented brass—one of those popular morgues that house the remains of decayed respectability.
Pausing automatically, he glanced carelessly at the contents, and was about to resume his way when he caught sight of a small card propped against a broken pitcher. "Choice Articles Bought and Sold—Advances Made."
Suddenly he stopped. Something seemed to interest him. To make sure that he had read the card aright, he bent closer. Evidently satisfied by his scrutiny, he drew himself erect and moved toward the shop door as if to enter. Through the glass he saw a man in shirt-sleeves, packing. The sight of the man brought another change of mind, for he stepped back and raised his head to a big sign over the front. His face now came into view, with its well-modelled nose and square chin—the features of a gentleman of both refinement and intelligence. A man of forty—perhaps of forty-five—clean-shaven, a touch of gray about his temples, his eyes shadowed by heavy brows from beneath which now and then came a flash as brief and brilliant as an electric spark. He might have been a civil engineer, or some scientist, or yet an officer on half pay.
"Otto Kling, 445 Fourth Avenue," he repeated to himself, to make sure of the name and location. Then, with the quick movement of a man suddenly imbued with new purpose, he wheeled, leaped the overflowed gutter, and walked rapidly until he reached 13th Street. Half-way down the block he entered the shabby doorway of an old-fashioned house, mounted to the third floor, stepped into a small, poorly furnished bedroom lighted by a single gas-jet, and closed the door behind him. Lifting his wet hat from his well-rounded head, with its smoothly brushed, closely trimmed hair—a head that would have looked well in bronze—he raised the edge of the bedclothes and from underneath the narrow cot dragged out a flat, sole-leather trunk of English make. This he unlocked with a key fastened to a steel chain, took out the tray, felt about among the contents, and drew out a morocco-covered dressing-case, of good size and of evident value, bearing on its top a silver plate inscribed with a monogram and crest. The trunk was then relocked and shoved under the bed.
At this moment a knock startled him.
"Come in," he called, covering the case with a corner of the cotton quilt.
A bareheaded, coarse-featured woman with a black shawl about her shoulders stood in the doorway. "I've come for my money," she burst out, too angry for preliminaries. "I'm gittin' tired of bein' put off. You're two weeks behind."
"Only two weeks? I was afraid it was worse, my dear madame," he answered calmly, a faint smile curling his thin lips. "You have a better head for figures than I. But do not concern yourself. I will pay you in the morning."
"I've heard that before, and I'm gittin' sick of it. You'd 'a' been out of here last week if my husband hadn't been laid up with a lame foot."
"I am sorry to hear about the foot. That must be even worse than my being behind with your rent."
"Well, it's bad enough with all I got to put up with. Of course I don't want to be ugly," she went on, her fierceness dying out as she noticed his unruffled calm, "but these rooms is about all we've got, and we can't afford to take no chances."
"Did you suppose I would let you?"
"Let me what?"
"Let you take chances. When I become convinced that I cannot pay you what I owe you, I will give you notice in advance. I should be much more unhappy over owing you such a debt than you could possibly be in not getting your money."
The answer, so unlike those to which she had been accustomed from other delinquents, suddenly rekindled her anger. "Will some of them friends of yours that never show up bring you the money?" she snapped back.
"Have you met any of them on the stairs?" he inquired blandly.
"No, nor nowhere else. You been here now goin' on three months, and there ain't come a letter, nor nothin' by express, and no man, woman, or child has asked for you. Kinder queer, don't you think?"
"Yes, I do think so; and I can hardly blame you. It IS suspicious—VERY suspicious—alarmingly so," he rejoined with an indulgent smile. Then growing grave again: "That will do, madame. I will send for you when I am ready. Do not lose any sleep and do not let your husband lose any. I will shut the door myself."
When the clatter of her rough shoes had ceased to echo on the stairs he drew the dressing-case from its hiding-place, tucked it inside his mackintosh, turned down the gas-jet, locked the door of the room, retracing his steps until he stood once more in front of Kling's sign. This time he went in.
"I am glad you are still open," he began, shaking the wet from his coat. "I hoped you would be. You are Mr. Kling, are you not?"
"Yes, dot is my name. Vot can I do for you?"
"I passed by your window a short time ago, and saw your card, stating that advances were made on choice articles. Would this be of any use to you?" He took the dressing-case from under his coat and handed it to Kling. "I am not ready to sell it—not to sell it outright; you might, perhaps, make me a small loan which would answer my purpose. Its value is about sixty pounds—some three hundred dollars of your money. At least, it cost that. It is one of Vickery's, of London, and it is almost new."
Kling glanced sharply at the intruder. "I don't keep open often so late like dis. You must come in de morning."
"Cannot you look at it now?"
Something in the stranger's manner appealed to the dealer. He lowered his chin, adjusted his spectacles, and peered over their round silver rims—a way with him when he was making up his mind.
"Vell, I don't mind. Let me see," and opening the case he took out the silver-topped bottles, placing them in a row on the counter behind which he stood. "Yes, dot's a good vun," he continued with a grunt of approval. "Yes—dot's London, sure enough. Yes, I see Vickery's name—whose initials is on dese bottles? And de arms—de lion and de vings on him—dot come from somebody high up, ain't it? Vhere did you get 'em?"
"That is of no moment. What I want to know is, will you either pay me a fair price for it or loan me a fair sum on it?"
"Is it yours to sell?"
"It is." There was no trace of resentment in his voice, nor did he show the slightest irritation at being asked so pointed a question.
"Vell, I don't keep a pawn-shop. I got no license, and if I had I vouldn't do it—too much trouble all de time. Poor vomans, dead-beats, suckers, sneak-thieves—all kind of peoples you don't vant, to come in the door vhen you have a pawn-shop."
"Your sign said advances made."
"The one in the window, or I would not have troubled you."
"Vell, dot means anyting you please. Sometimes I get olt granfadder vatches dot vay, and olt Sheffield plate and tings vich olt families sell vhen everybody is gone dead. Vy do you vant to give dis away? I vouldn't, if I vas you. You don't look like a man vot is broke. I vill put back de bottles. You take it home agin."
"I would if I had any home to take it to. I am a stranger here and am two weeks behind in the rent of my room."
"Is dot so? Vell, dot is too bad. Two weeks behint and no home but a room! I vouldn't think dot to look at you."
"I would not either if I had the courage to look at myself in the glass. Then you cannot help me?"
"I don't say dot I can't. Somebody may come in. I have lots of tings belong to peoples, and ven other peoples come in, sometimes dey buy, and sometimes dey don't. Sometimes only one day goes by, and sometimes a whole year. You leave it vid me. I take care of it. Den I get my little Masie—dat little girl of mine vot I call Beesvings—to polish up all de bottles and make everyting look like new."
"Then I will come in the morning?"
"Yes, but give me your name—someting might happen yet, and your address. Here, write it on dis card."
"No, that is unnecessary. I will take your word for it."
"But vere can I find you?"
"I will find myself, thank you," and he strode out into the rain.
In the days when Otto Kling's shop-windows attracted collectors in search of curios and battered furniture, "The Avenue," as its denizens always called Fourth Avenue between Madison Square Garden and the tunnel, was a little city in itself.
Almost all the needs of a greater one could be supplied by the stores fronting its sidewalks. If tea, coffee, sugar, and similar stimulating and soothing groceries were wanted, old Bundleton, on the corner above Kling's, in a white apron and paper cuffs, weighed them out. If it were butter or eggs, milk, cream, or curds, the Long Island Dairy—which was really old man Heffern, his daughter Mary, and his boy Tom—had them in a paper bag, or on your plate, or into your pitcher before you could count your change. If it were a sirloin, or lamb-chops, or Philadelphia chickens, or a Cincinnati ham, fat Porterfield, watched over from her desk by fat Mrs. Porterfield, dumped them on a pair of glittering brass scales and sent them home to your kitchen invitingly laid out in a flat wicker basket. If it were fish—fresh, salt, smoked, or otherwise—to say nothing of crabs, oysters, clams, and the exclusive and expensive lobster—it was Codman, a few doors above Porterfield's, who had them on ice, or in barrels, the varnished claws of the lobsters thrust out like the hands of a drowning man.
Were it a question of drugs, there was Pestler, the apothecary, with his four big green globes illuminated by four big gas-jets, the joy of the children. A small fellow this Pestler, with a round head and up-brushed hair set on a long, thin stem of a neck, the whole growing out of a pair of narrow shoulders, quite like a tulip from a glass jar.
And then there were Jarvis, the spectacle man, and that canny Scotchman Sanderson, the florist, who knew the difference between roses a week old and roses a day old, and who had the rare gift of so mixing the two vintages that hardly enough dead stock was left over for funerals including those presided over by his fellow conspirator Digwell, the undertaker, who lived over his mausoleum of a back room.
And, of course, there were the bakeshop emitting enticing smells, mostly of currants and burnt sugar, and the hardware store, full of nails and pocket-knives, and old Mr. Jacobs, the tailor, who sat cross-legged on a wide table in a room down four stone steps from the sidewalk, and the grog-shops—more's the pity—one on every corner save Kling's.
Hardly a trace is now left of any one of them, so sudden and overwhelming has been the march of modern progress. Even the little Peter Cooper House, picked up bodily by that worthy philanthropist and set down here nearly a hundred years ago, is gone, and so are the row of musty, red-bricked houses at the lower end of this Little City in Itself. And so are the tenants of this musty old row, shady locksmiths with a tendency toward skeleton keys; ingenious upholsterers who indulged in paper-hanging on the sly; shoemakers who did half-soling and heeling, their day's work set to dry on the window-sill, not to mention those addicted to the use of the piano, banjo, or harp, as well as the wig and dress makers who lightened the general gloom.
And with the disappearance of these old landmarks—and it all took place within less than ten years—there disappeared, also, the old family life of "The Avenue," in which each home shared in the good-fellowship of the whole, all of them contributing to that sane and sustaining stratum, if we did but know it, of our civic structure—facts that but few New Yorkers either recognize or value.
On the block below Kling's in those other days was the quaint Book Shop owned by Tim Kelsey, the hunchback, a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge, much of it as musty and out of date as most of his books; while overtopping all else in importance, so far as this story is concerned, was the shabby, old-fashioned two-story house known the town over as the Express Office of John and Kitty Cleary, sporting above its narrow street-door a swinging sign informing inquirers that trunks were carried for twenty-five cents.
And not only trunks, but all of the movable furniture up and down the avenue, and most of that from the adjacent regions, found their way in and out of the Cleary wagons. Indeed Otto Kling's confidence in Kitty—and Kitty was really the head of the concern—was so great that he always refused to allow any of her rivals to carry his purchases and sales, even at a reduced price, a temptation seldom resisted by the economical Dutchman.
Nor did the friendly relations end here. Not only did Kitty's man Mike hammer up at night the rusty iron shutters protecting Kling's side window, clean away the snow before his store, and lend a hand in the moving of extra-heavy pieces, but he was even known to wash the windows and kindle a fire.
That Mike had delayed or entirely forgotten to hammer up these same iron shutters when the stranger brought in the dressing-case accounted for the fact of Otto Kling's shop having been kept open until so late. It also accounted for the fact that when the same stranger appeared early the next morning (Mike was tending the store) and made his way to where the Irishman sat he found him conning the head-lines of the morning paper. That worthy man-of-all-work, never having laid eyes on him before, at once made a mental note of the intruder's well-cut English clothes, heavy walking-shoes, and short brier-wood pipe, and, concluding therefrom that he was a person of importance, stretched out his hand toward the bell-rope in connection with the breakfast-room above, at the same time saying with great urbanity: "Take a chair, or, if yer cold, come up near the stove. Mr. Kling will be down in a minute. He's up-stairs eatin' his breakfast with his little girl. I'm not his man or I'd wait on ye meself. A little fresh, ain't it, after the wet night we had?"
"I left a dressing-case here last night," ventured the intruder.
Mike's chin went out with a quick movement, his face expressive of supreme disgust at his mistake. "Oh, is it that? Somethin' ye had to sell? Well, then, maybe you'd better call durin' the day."
"No, I will wait—you need not ring. I have nothing else to do, and Mr. Kling may have a great deal. I take it you are from the north of Ireland, either Londonderry or near there. Am I right?"
"I'm from Lifford, within reach of it. How the divil did ye know?"
"I can tell from your brogue. How long have you been in this country?"
"About five years—going on six now. How long have you been here?"
"How long? Well—" Here he bent over the table against which he had been leaning, selected a cup from a group of china, turned it upside down in search of the mark, and then, as if he had momentarily forgotten himself, answered slowly: "Oh, not long—a few months or so. You do not object to my looking these over?" he asked, this time reversing a plate and subjecting it to the same scrutiny.
"No, so ye don't let go of 'em. Fellow come in here last week and broke a teapot foolin' wid it."
The visitor, without replying, continued his cool examination of the collection, consisting of articles of different makes and colors. Presently, gathering up a pair of cups and saucers, he said: "These should be in a glass case or in the safe. They are old Spode and very rare. Ah, here is Mr. Kling! I have amused myself, sir, in looking over part of your stock. You seem to have undervalued these cups and saucers. They are very rare, and if you had a full set of them they would be almost priceless. This is old Spode," he continued, pointing to the cipher on the bottom of each cup.
"Vell, I didn't tink dot ven I bought it."
There was no greeting, no reference to their having met before. One might have supposed that their last talk had been uninterrupted.
"It vas all in a lump, and der vas a soup tureen in de lot—I don't know vot I did vid it. I tink dat's up-stairs. Mike, you go up and ask my little girl Masie if she can find dot big tureen vich I bought from old Mrs. Blobbs who keeps dot old-clothes place on Second Avenue. And you vas sure about dis china?"
"How do you know?"
"From the mark."
"Vot's it vorth?"
"The cups and saucers would bring about two pounds apiece in London. If there were a full dozen they would bring a matter of fifteen or twenty pounds—some hundred dollars of your money."
Kling stepped nearer and peered intently at the stranger. "You give dot for dem?"
The man's eyebrows narrowed. "I am not buying cups at present," he answered, with quiet dignity, "but they are worth what I tell you.
"And now tell me vot dis tureen is vorth?" he asked as Mike reappeared and set it on the table, backing away with the remark that he'd go now, Mrs. Cleary would be wantin' him. Kling moved the relic toward the expert for closer examination.
"Don't trouble yourself, Mr. Kling; I can see it. All I can say is that the old lady must have known better days and must have been terribly poor to have parted with it. What, if I may ask, did you pay her for this?"
"Two dollars. Vas it too much?" The stranger had suddenly become an important personage.
"No—too little. It is old Lowestoft, and"—here he took the lid from the dealer's hand—"yes, without a crack or blemish—yes, old Lowestoft—worth, I should say, ten or more pounds. They are giving large sums for these things in London. Perhaps you have not made a specialty of china."
Otto had now forgotten the tureen and was scrutinizing the speaker, wondering what kind of a man he really was—this fellow who looked and spoke like a person of position, knew the value of curios at sight, and yet who had confessed the night before to being behind with his rent and anxious to sell his belongings to keep off the street. Then the doubt, universal in the minds of second-hand dealers, arose. "Come along vid me and tell me some more. Vot is dot chair?" and he drew out a freshly varnished relic of better days.
The man seized the chair by the back, canted it to see all sides of it, and was about to give his decision when the laughter of a child and the sharp, quick bark of a dog caused him to pause and raise his head. A white fox-terrier with a clothes-pin tail, two scissored ears, and two restless, shoe-button eyes, peering through button-hole lids, followed by a little girl ten or twelve years of age, was regarding him suspiciously.
"He won't hurt you," cried the child. "Come back, you naughty Fudge!"
"I do not intend he shall," said the man, reaching down and picking the dog up bodily by the scruff of his neck. "What is the matter, old fellow?" he continued, twisting the dog's head so that he could look into his eyes. "Wanted to make a meal of me?—too bad. Your little daughter, of course, Mr. Kling? A very good breed of dog, my dear young lady—just a little nervous, and that is in his favor. Now, sir, make your excuses to your mistress," and he placed the terrier in her arms.
The child lifted her face toward his in delight. Most of the men whom Fudge attacked either shrunk out of his way or replied to his attentions with a kick.
"You love dogs, don't you, sir?" she asked. Fudge was now routing his sharp nose under her chin as if in apology for his antics.
"I am afraid I do, and I am glad you do—they are sometimes the best friends one has."
"Yes," broke in Kling, "and so am I glad. Dot dog is more as a brudder to my Masie, ain't he, Beesvings? And now you run avay, dear, and play, and take Fudge vid you and say 'Good morning' to Mrs. Cleary, and maybe dot fool dog of Bobby's be home." He stooped and kissed her, caressing her cheek with his thumb and forefinger, as he pushed her toward the door, and again turned to the stranger. "And now, vot about dot chair you got in your hand?"
"Oh, the chair! I had forgotten that you had asked. Your little daughter drove everything else out of my head. Let me have a closer look." He swung it round to get a nearer view.
"The legs—that is, three of them—are Chippendale. The back is a nondescript of something—I cannot tell. Perhaps from some colonial remnant."
"Vot's it vorth?"
"Nothing, except to sit upon."
Otto laughed—a gurgling, chuckling laugh, his pudgy nose wrinkling like a rabbit's.
"Ain't dot funny!" and he rubbed his fat hands. "Dot's true. Yes, I make it myselluf—and five oders, vich vas sold out of a lot of olt furniture. I got two German men down-stairs puttin' in new legs and new backs; dey can do anyting. Nobody but you find dot out. I guess you know 'bout dot china—I must look into dot. Maybe some mens on Fifth Avenue buy dot china—dey never come in here because dey tink dey find only olt furniture. And now about dot dressing-case. Don't you sell it. I find somebody pay more as I can give, and you pay me for my trouble. I lend you tventy—yes, I lend tventy-five dollars on it. Vill dot be enough?"
"That will be enough for a week, after I pay what I owe."
"Vell, den, ven dot is gone ve tink out someting else, don't ve? I look it all over last night. It is all right—no breaks anyvere. And dot tventy-five only last you a veek! Vy is dot? Vot board do you pay?" His interest in the visitor was increasing.
"Eight dollars with my meals, whenever my landlady is on time."
"Eight dollars! Dot voman's robbin' you. Eight dollars! She is a skin!"
"It was the best I could do," he replied simply.
"Vot does she give you?"
"A small bedroom, my coffee in the morning, and my dinner—both served in my room on a tray."
"Yes, I see; dot's it. She charge about tree dollars for de tray. I find you someting better as dot. Kitty Cleary has a room—you don't know Kitty? Vell, you ought to begin right avay. Dot's vun voman you don't ever see again. She vas in here last night, after you left, looking for her man Mike. She take you for five dollars a veek, maybe, and you get good tings to eat and you get Kitty besides, and dot is vorth more as ten dollars. She lives across de street—you can see one of her vagons—dot big vite horse is hers, and she love dot horse as much as she love her husband John and her boy Bobby, all but dot fool dog of Bobby's, she don't love him. You go over dere and tell her I sent you."
The stranger had relighted his pipe, and was watching the dealer clutching nervously at his spectacles, pushing them far up on his forehead, only to readjust them again on his nose. He had begun to detect behind the fat, round face of the thrifty shopkeeper a certain kindly quality. "And who may this remarkable lady be, this Mrs. Cleary?" he inquired.
"She ain't no lady. She is better as a hundert ladies—she is joost a plain vomans who keeps a express office over dere—Cleary's Express. You don't know it? Vell, dot's your fault. Dot's her boy Bobby outside de door. He has been up vid his fadder to de Grand Central for some sideboards and sofas I been buyin'. You vant to look at 'em ven dey git unloaded. They joost ready to fall to pieces, and if I patch 'em up nobody don't buy 'em. Vot I do is to leave 'em out on de sidewalk for a veek or two and let de dirt and rain get on 'em, den somebody come along and say: 'Dot is genuine. You can see right avay how olt dot is. Dot is because de bottom is out of de sofas, and de back of de behind of de sideboard is busted. So den I get fifty dollars more for repairin' my own furniture. Ain't dot funny? And ven I send it home dey say: 'Oh, ain't dot beautiful! You ought to have seen dot ven I bought it of old Kling! You vouldn't give two dollars for it. All he did vas to scrape it down and revarnish it—and now it is joost as good as new.' Ain't dot funny? Vy, sometimes I have to holt on to my sides for fear dey vill split vid my laughter, and my two German mens dey stuff dere fingers in dere mouths so de customers can't hear. And all de backs new, and de legs made outer udder legs, and de handles I get across at de hardvare store! Oh, I tell you, it's funny! But you know all about it. Maybe you vunce keep a place yourself?"
"No, I have never been in your line of trade."
"Vell, how do you know so much?"
"I know very little, but I have always enjoyed such things."
"Vell, dot's more funny yet. You vould make a lot of money if you did. Ven you get someting for nudding you know it—I don't. You see dem—vot you call 'em—Spodes—and dot tureen, dot—"
"Lowestoft?" suggested the stranger, adjusting the mouthpiece of his pipe.
"Yes, dot Lowestoft. If you come in yesterday and say, 'Have you any olt cups and saucers and olt soup tureens?' I say: 'Yes—help yourselluf. Take your pick for tventy-five cents each for de cups and saucers.' You see, I pay nudding and I get nudding. Dot give me an idea! How vould you like to go round de store vid me and pick out de good vuns? Dot von't take you long—vait a minute—I give you dat money."
"I should not be of the slightest value, and if you are loaning me the twenty-five dollars on any other basis than the worth of the dressing-case, I would rather not take it."
"Oh, I have finished vid de loan. Vot I say I say." He thrust his hand into a side pocket, from which he drew a flat wallet. "And dere is de money. I give you a receipt for de case."
"No, I do not want any receipt. I am quite willing you should keep it until I can either pay this back or you can loan me some more on it."
"Vell, den, I don't vant no receipt for de money. Here comes a customer. Don't you go yet. I know her. She comes most every day. She only vants to look around. Such a lot of peoples only vants to look around. Dey don't know vat dey vant and you never have it. No, it ain't no customer—it's Bobby."
The door was burst open, and a boy in a blue jumper, his cap thrust so far back on his head that it was a wonder it didn't fall off, cried out:
"Say! One of the sideboards is stuck on the iron railing and we can't get it furrards or back. Them two weiss-beers ye got down-stairs can't lift nothin' but full mugs. Send somebody to help." And the door went to with a bang.
Kling was about to call for assistance when Hans—one of the maligned—shuffled in from the rear of the store, carrying a wooden image very much in want of repair.
"Oh, dots awful good you brought dot! Set it here on dis chair—now you go avay and help vid dem sideboards. See here vunce, mister. You see, dey vas makin' de altar over new, and one of de mens come to me last week and he says: 'Mister Kling, come vid me and buy vot ve don't vant. De school is too small, and some of de children got no place to sit down in. Ve got to sell sometings, and maybe now ve don't vant dem images.' And so I buy dem two and some olt vestments dat my Masie make so good as new, vid patches. Now, vot can I do vid dis—?"
Again the door was burst open, shutting off all possibility for conversation. Bobby's voice had now reached the volume of a fog-horn. "What do ye take us fur out here—lobsters? Dad and I can't wait all day. He's got to go down to Lafayette Place for a trunk."
Kling looked at his companion, as if to see what effect the talk had had upon him, and broke out into a suffocating chuckle. "Dot's vot it is all day long—don't you yonder I go crazy? First it is sideboards and den it is vooden saints. Here you, Bobby! Come inside vunce! I vant to ask you sometings."
"Say the rest, Skeesicks," returned the boy, eying the stranger.
"Has your mudder got empty dot room yet?"
"Yep—the shyster got to swearin', and the mother wouldn't stand for it and she fired him. We ain't keepin' no house o' refuge nor no station parlor fer bums. Holy Moses! look at the guy that's been robbin' a church! And see the nose on him all busted! Have ye started them mugs?"
Kling cleared the air with his fat hands as the boy made for the door, and turned to his visitor once more. "Dot boy make me deaf vid his noise like a fire-engine! Now, vunce more. Vat shall I do vid dis image?"
"I give it up," observed the stranger, passing his hand over the head and down its side. "I am not very much on saints—wooden ones, I mean. He seems a good deal out of place here. Why buy such things at all, and why sell them? But that, of course, is not your point of view. I would send it back to the good father, if I were you, and have him put it behind the altar if he is ashamed to put it in front. Holy things belong to holy places. But I am already taking up too much of your time. Thank you very much for the money. It comes at an opportune moment. I shall come in once in a while to see you and, if you are willing, to talk to you."
"But you don't say nudding about Kitty's room. Vait till—oh, dere you are, you darlin' girl! You mind de store, Masie. Now you come vid me and I show you de finest vomans you never see in your whole life!"
Kitty Cleary's wide sidewalk, littered with trunks, and her narrow, choked-up office, its window hung with theatre bills and chowder-party posters, all of which were in full view of Kling's doorway, was the half-way house of any one who had five minutes to spare; it was inside its walls that closer greetings awaited those who, even with the thinnest of excuses, made bold to avail themselves of her hospitality. Drivers from the livery-stable next door, where Kitty kept her own two horses; the policeman on the beat; the night-watchman from the big store on 28th Street, just off duty, or just going on; the newsman in the early morning, who would use her benches on which to rearrange his deliveries—all were welcome as long as they behaved themselves. When they did not—and once or twice such a thing had occurred—she would throw wide the door and, with a quick movement of her right thumb, order them out, a look in her eye convincing the culprits at once that they might better obey.
Never a day passed but there was a pot of coffee simmering away at the back of the kitchen stove. Indeed, hot coffee was Kitty's standby. Many a night when she was up late poring over her delivery book, getting ready for the next day's work, a carriage or cab would drive into the livery-stable next door, and she would send her husband out to bring in the coachman.
"Half froze, he is, waitin' outside Sherry's or Delmonico's, and nobody thinkin' of what he suffers. Go, git him, John, dear, and I'll stir up the fire. They ought to be ashamed of themselves, dancin' till God knows when—and here it is two o'clock and a string of cabs out in the cold. Thank ye, John. In with ye, my lad, and get something to warm ye up," and then the rosy-cheeked, deep-breasted, cheery little woman—she was under forty—her eyes the brighter for her thought, would begin pulling down cups and saucers from her dresser, making ready not only for the "lad," but for John and herself—and anybody else who happened to be within call.
The hospitalities of her family sitting-room, opening out of the kitchen, were reserved for her intimates. These she welcomed at any hour of the day or night, from sunrise to sunset, and even as late as two in the morning, if either business or pleasure necessitated such hours.
Tim Kelsey, the hunchback, often dropped in. Otto Kling, after Masie was abed; Digwell, the undertaker, quite a jolly fellow during off hours; Codman and Porterfield, with their respective wives; and, most welcome of all, Father Cruse, of St. Barnabas's Church around the corner, the trusted shepherd of "The Avenue"—a clear-skinned, well-built man, barely forty, whose muscular body just filled his black cassock so that it neither fell in folds nor wrinkled crosswise, and whose fresh, ruddy face was an index of the humane, kindly, helpful life that he led. For him Kitty could never do enough.
The office, sitting-room, and kitchen, however, were not all that the expressman and his wife possessed in the way of accommodations. Up-stairs were two front bedrooms, one occupied by John and Kitty, and the other by their boy Bobby, while in the extreme rear, over the kitchen, was a single room which was let to any respectable man who could pay for it. These rooms were all reached by a staircase ascending from a narrow hall entered by a separate street-door adjoining that of the office. The door and staircase were convenient for the lodger wishing to stumble up to bed without disturbing his hosts—an event, however, that seldom happened, as Kitty was generally the last person awake in her house.
The horses, as has been said, were kept in the livery-stable next door—the brown mare, a recent purchase, and the old white horse, Jim, the pride of Kitty's heart, in a special stall. The wagons were either backed in the shed in the rear or left overnight close to the curb, with chains on the hind wheels. This was contrary to regulations, and would have been so considered but for the fact that the captain of the precinct often got his coffee in Kitty's back kitchen, as did Tom McGinniss, the big policeman, whose beat reached nearly to the tunnel, both men soothing their consciences with the argument that Kitty's job lasted so late and began so early, sometimes a couple of hours or so before daylight, that it was not worth while to bother about her wagons, when everybody else was in bed, or ought to be.
She was smoothing old Jim's neck, crooning over him, talking to him in her motherly way, telling him what a ruffian he was and how ashamed she was of him for getting the hair worn off under his collar, and he a horse old enough to know better, Bobby's "Toodles," an animated doormat of a dog, sniffing at her skirt, when Otto and his friend hove in sight.
"The top of the mornin' to ye, Otto Kling, and ye never see a better and a finer. And what can I do for ye?—for ye wouldn't be lavin' them gimcracks of yours this time O'day unless there was somethin' up."
"No, I don't got nudding you can do for me, Kitty. It's dis gentlemans wants someting—and so I bring him over."
"That's mighty kind of ye, Otto—wait till I get me book. Careful, Mike." The Irishman had just dumped a trunk on the sidewalk, ready to be loaded on Jim's wagon. "And now," continued his mistress, "go to the office and bring me my order-book—where'll I go for your baggage, sir?"
"That is a matter I will talk about later." He had taken her all in with a rapid glance—her rosy, laughing face, her head covered by a close-fitting hood, the warm shawl crossed over her full bosom and knotted in the back, short skirt, stout shoes, and gray yarn stockings.
"I don't care where it is—Hoboken, Brooklyn—I'll get it. Why, we got a trunk last week clear from Yonkers!"
"I haven't a doubt of it, my good woman"—he was still absorbed in the contemplation of her perfect health and the air of breezy competency flowing out from her, making even the morning air seem more exhilarating—"but you may not want to go for my two trunks."
"Why not?" She was serious now, her brows knitting, trying to solve his meaning.
Kling shuffled up alongside. "It's de room he vants, Kitty. I been tellin' him about it. Bobby says dot odder man skipped an' you don't got nobody now.
"Skipped! I threw him out, me and John, for swearin' every time he stubbed his toe on the stairs," and up went her strong arms in illustration. "And it isn't yer trunks, but me room. Who might ye be wantin' it for?" She had begun to weigh him carefully in return. Up to this moment he had been to her merely the mouthpiece of an order, to be exchanged later for a card, or slip of paper, or a brass check. Now he became a personality. She swept him from head to foot with one of her "sizing-up" examinations, noticing the refinement and thoughtfulness of his clean-shaven face, the white teeth, and the careful trimming of his hair, and the way it grew down on his temples, forming a small quarter whisker.
She noted, too, how the muscles of his face had been tightened as if some effort at self-control had set them into a mask, the real man lying behind his kindly eyes, despite the quick flash that escaped from them now and then. The inspection over—and it had occupied some seconds of time—she renewed the inquiry in a more searching tone, as if she had not heard him aright at first. "And who did ye say wanted me room?"
"I wanted it."
"Yes, but who for?"
"What! To live in?"
"I hope so—I certainly do not want it to die in." A quiet smile trembled for an instant on his lips, momentarily lightening an expression of extreme reserve.
"You won't do no dyin' if I can help it—but ye don't know what kind a room it is. It's not mor'n twice as big as that wagon. And ye want it for yourself? Well, ye don't look it!"
"I am sorry."
"And it's only five dollars a week, and all ye want to eat—all we can give ye."
"I am glad it is not more. I may not be able to pay that for very long, but I will pay the first week in advance, and I will pay the next one in the same way and leave when my money is gone. Can I see the room?"
Again she studied him. This time it was the gray waistcoat, the well-ironed shirt and collar, English scarf, and the blackthorn stick which he carried balanced in the hollow of his arm. If he had been in overalls she would not have hesitated an instant, but she saw that this man was not of her class, nor of any other class about her. "I don't know whether ye can or not," came the frank reply. "I'm thinkin' about it. You don't look as if ye were flat broke. If you're goin' to take me room, I don't want to be watchin' ye, and I won't! Once we know ye're clean and decent, ye can have the run of the place and welcome to it. We had one dead-beat here last month, and that's enough. Out with it now! How is it that a"—she hesitated an instant—"yes, a gentleman like you wants to live over an express office and eat what we can give ye?"
He made a slight movement with his right hand in acknowledgment of the class distinction and answered in a calm, straightforward way: "You have put it quite correctly. I am, as you are pleased to state it, flat broke—quite flat."
"Well, then, how will ye pay me?" Her question, a certain curiosity tinged by a growing interest in for all its directness, implied no suspicion—but rather the man.
"I have just borrowed twenty-five dollars from Mr. Kling on something which, for the present, I can do without."
"No, not exactly. Mr. Kling will explain."
"It vas dot dressin'-case, Kitty, vat I showed you last night—de vun vid dem bottles vid de silver tops—and dey are real—I found dot out after you vent avay."
Kitty's glance softened, and her voice fell to a sympathetic tone. "Oh, that was yours, was it? I might have known I was right about ye when I first see ye. Ye are a gentleman, unless ye are a thief, and I don't belave that—nor nobody can make me belave it."
Once more his hand was raised, and a smile flashed from his eyes and as quickly died out.
"That is very good of you, Mrs. Cleary. No, I am not a thief. And now about the room. Can I see it? But, before you answer, let me tell you that I have only these twenty-five dollars on which I can lay my hands. Some of this I owe to my landlady. The balance I am quite willing to turn over to you, and when it is all gone I will move somewhere else." He drew a silver watch from his pocket. "You must decide at once; it is getting late and I must be moving on."
Kitty squared herself, her hands on her hips—a favorite gesture when her mind was fully made up—looked straight at the speaker as if to reply, then suddenly catching sight of a strapping-looking fellow in blue overalls, a trunk on one shoulder, a carpetbag in his hand, called out: "John, dear, come here! I want ye. Here, Mike! You and Bobby get that steamer baggage out on the sidewalk, and don't be slack about it, for it goes to Hoboken, and there may be a block in the river and the ferry-boats behind time. Wait, I'll lend ye a hand."
"You'll lend nothing, Kitty Cleary! Get out of my way," came her husband's hearty answer. "Ye hurt yer back last week. There's men enough round here to—stop it, I tell ye!" and he loosened her fingers from the lifting-strap.
"I can hist the two of ye, John! Go along wid ye!"
"No, Kitty, darlin'—let go of it," and with a twist of his hand and lurch of his shoulder John shot the trunk over the edge of the wagon, tossed the bag after it, and joined the group, the stranger absorbed in watching the husband and wife.
"And now the trunk's in, what's it you want, Kitty?" asked John squeezing her plump arm, as if in compensation for having had his way.
"John, dear, here's a gentleman who—what's your name?—ye haven't told me, or if ye did I've forgot it."
"Then you're Irish?"
"I am afraid I am—at least, my ancestors were."
"Afraid! Ye ought to be glad. I'm Irish, and so is my John here, and Bobby, and Father Cruse, and Tom McGinniss, the policeman, and the captain up at the station-house—we're all Irish, except Otto, who is as Dutch as sauerkraut! But where was I? Oh, yes! Now, John, dear, this gentleman is on his uppers, he says, and wants to hire our room and eat what we can give him."
The expressman, who stood six feet in his stockings, looked first at his wife, then at Kling, and then at the applicant, and broke out into a loud guffaw. "It's a joke, Kitty. Don't let 'em fool ye. Go on, Otto; try it somewhere else! It's my busy day. Here, Mike!"
"You drop Mike and listen, John! It's no joke—not for Mr. O'Day. You take him up-stairs and show him what we got, and down into the kitchen and the sitting-room and out into the yard. Come, now; hurry! Go 'long with him, Mr. O'Day, and come back to me when ye are through and tell me what you think of it all. And, John, take Toodles with you and lock him up. First thing I know I'll be tramplin' on him. Get out, you varmint!"
John grabbed the wad of matted hair midway between his floppy tail and perpetually moist nose, controlled his own features into a semblance of seriousness, and turned to O'Day. "This way, sir—I thought it was one of Otto's jokes. The room is only about as big as half a box car, but it's got runnin' water in the hall, and Kitty keeps it mighty clean. As to the grub, it ain't what you are accustomed to, maybe, but it's what we have ourselves, and neither of us is starvin', as ye can see," and he thumped his chest. "No, not the big door, sir; the little one. And there's a key, too, for ye, when ye're out late—and ye will be out late, or I miss my guess," and out rolled another laugh.
Kitty looked after the two until they disappeared through the smaller door, then turned and faced Kling. "I know just what's happened, Otto—a baby a month old could see it all. That man is up against it for the first time. He'd rather die than beg, and he'll keep on sellin' his traps until there's nothin' left but the clothes he stands in. He may be a duke, for all ye know, or maybe only a plain Irish gentleman come to grief. Them bottles ye showed me last night had arms engraved on 'em, and his initials. I noticed partic'lar, for I've seen them things before. My father, when he was young, was second groom for a lord and used to tell me about the silver in the house and the arms on the sides of the carriages. What he's left home for the dear God only knows; but it will come out, and when it does it won't be what anybody thinks. And he's got a fine way wid him, and a clear look out of his eye, and I'll bet ye he's tellin' the truth and all of it. Here they come now, and I'm glad they've got rid of that rag baby of Bobby's." She turned to her husband. "And, John, dear, don't forget that sewing-machine—oh, yes, I see, you've got it in the wagon—go on wid ye, then!—Well, Mr. O'Day, how is it? Purty small and cramped, ain't it? And there's a chair missin' that I took downstairs, which I'll put back. And there's a cotton cover belongs to the table. Won't suit, will it?" and a shade of disappointment crossed her face.
"The room will answer very well, Mrs. Cleary. I can see the work of your deft hands in every corner. I have been living in one much larger, but this is more like a home. And do I get my breakfast and dinner and the room for the pound—I mean for the five dollars?"
"You do, and welcome, and somethin' in the middle of the day if ye happen to be around and hungry."
"And can I move in to-day?"
"Then I will go down and pay what I owe and see about getting my boxes. And now, here is your money," and he held out two five-dollar bills.
Kitty stretched her two hands far behind her back, her brown holland over-apron curving inward with the movement. "I won't touch it; ye can have the room and ye can keep your money. When I want it I'll ask fer it. Now tell me where I can get your trunks. Mike will go fer 'em and bring 'em back."
A new, strange look shone out from the keen, searching eyes of O'Day. His interest in the woman had deepened. "And you have no misgivings and are sure you will get your rent?"
"Just as sure as I am that me name is Kitty Cleary, and that is not altogether because you're an Irishman but because ye are a gentleman."
This time O'Day made her a little bow, the lines of his face softening, his eyes sparkling with sudden humor at her speech. He stepped forward, called to the man who was still handling the luggage, and, in the tone of one ordering his groom, said: "Here, Mike!—Did you say his name was Mike?—Go, if you please, to this address, just below Union Square-I will write it on a card—any time to-day after six o'clock. I will meet you there and show you the trunks—there are two of them." Then he turned to Otto, still standing by, a silent and absorbed spectator.
"I have also to thank you, Mr. Kling. It was very kind of you, and I am sure I shall be very happy here. After I am settled I shall come over and see whether I can be of some service to you in going through your stock. There may be some other things that are valuable which you have mislaid. And then, again, I should like to see something more of your little daughter—she is very lovable, and so is her dog."
"Vell, vy don't you come now? Masie don't go to school to-day, and I keep her in de shop. I been tinkin' since you and Kitty been talkin'—Kitty don't make no mistakes: vot Kitty says goes. Look here, Kitty, vun minute—come close vunce—I vant to speak to you."
O'Day, who had been about to give a reason why he could not "come now," and who had halted in his reply in order to hunt his pockets for a card on which to write his address, hearing Kling's last words, withdrew to the office in search of both paper and pencil.
"Now, see here, Kitty! Dot mans is a vunderful man—de most VUNDERFUL man I have seen since I been in 445. You know dem cups and saucers vat I bought off dot olt vomans who came up from Baltimore? Do you know dot two of 'em is vorth more as ten dollars? He find dot out joost as soon as he pick 'em up, and he find out about my chairs, and vich vas fakes and vich vas goot. Vot you tink of my givin' him a job takin' my old cups and my soup tureens and stuff and go sell 'em someveres? I don't got nobody since dot tam fool of a Svede go avay. Vat you tink?"
"He can have my room—that's what I think! You heard what I said to him! That's all the answer you'll get out of me, Otto Kling."
"An' you don't tink dot he'd git avay vid de stuff und ve haf to hunt up or down Second Avenue in the pawn-shops to git 'em back?"
"No, I don't!"
"Den, by golly, I take him on, und I gif him every veek vat he pay you in board."
Kitty broke into one of her derisive laughs. "YOU WILL! Ain't that good of ye? Ye'll give him enough to starve on, that's what it is. Ye ought to be ashamed of yourself, Otto Kling!"
"Vell, but I don't know vat he is vurth yet."
"Well, then, tell him so, but don't cheat him out of everything but his bare board; and that's what ye'd be doin'. Ye know he's pawnin' his stuff; ye know ye got five times the worth of your money in the dressing-case he give up to ye! See here, Otto! Before ye offer him that five dollars a week ye better get on the other side of big John there, where ye'll be safe, and holler it at him over them trunks, or ye'll find yourself flat on your back."
"All right, Kitty, all right! Don't git oxcited. I didn't mean nudding. I do just vat you say. I gif him more. Oh! Here you are! Mr. O'Day, vud you let me speak to you vun minute? Suppose dot I ask you to come into my shop as a clerk, like, and pay you vat I can—of course, you are new und it vill take some time, but I can pay sometings—vud you come?"
O'Day gave an involuntary start and from under his heavy brows there shot a keen, questioning glance. "What would you want me to do?" he asked evenly.
"Vell—vait on de customers, and look over de stock, and buy tings ven dey come in."
"You certainly cannot be serious, Mr. Kling. You know nothing about me. I am an entire stranger and must continue to be. With the exception of my landlady, who, if she knows my name, forgets it every time she comes up for her rent, there is not a human being in New York to whom I could apply for a reference. Are you accustomed to pick up strangers out of the street and take them into your shops—and your homes?" he added, smiling at Kitty, who had been following the conversation closely.
"But you is a different kind of a mans."
No answer came. The man was lost in thought.
"Ye'd better think it over, sir," said Kitty, laying a strong, persuasive hand on his wrist. "It's near by, and ye can have your meals early or late as ye plaze, and the work ain't hard. My Mike does the liftin' and two big fat Dutchies helps."
"But I know nothing about the business, Mrs. Cleary—nothing about any business, for that matter. I should only be a disappointment to Mr. Kling. I would rather keep his friendship and look elsewhere."
Kitty relaxed her hold of his wrist. "Then ye have been lookin' for work?" she asked. The inquiry sprang hot from her heart.
"I have not, so far, but I shall have to very soon."
She threw back her head and faced the two men. "Ye'll look no further, Mr. O'Day. You go over to Otto's and go to work; and it will be to-night after you gets your things stowed away. And ye'll pay him ten dollars a week, Otto, for the first month, and more the second if he earns it, which he will. Now are ye all satisfied, or shall I say it over?"
"One moment, please, Mrs. Cleary. If I may interrupt," he laughed, his reserve broken through at last by the friendly interest shown by the strangers about him, "and what will be the hours of my service?" Then, turning to Otto: "Perhaps you, Mr. Kling, can best tell me."
"Vot you mean?"
"How early must I come in the morning, and until how late must I stay at night?"
The dealer hesitated, then answered slowly, "In de morning at eight o'clock, and"—but, seeing a cloud cross O'Day's face, added: "Or maybe haf past eight vill do."
"And at night?"
"Vell—you can't tell. Sometimes it is more late as udder times—about nine o'clock ven I have packing to do."
O'Day shook his head.
"Vell, den, say eight o'clock."
Again O'Day shook his head slowly and thoughtfully as if some insurmountable obstacle had suddenly arisen before him. Then he said firmly: "I am afraid I must decline your kind offer, Mr. Kling. The latest I could stay on any evening is seven o'clock—some days I might have to leave at six—certainly no later than half past. I suppose you have dinner at seven, Mrs. Cleary?"
Kitty nodded. She was too interested in this new phase of the situation to speak.
"Yes, seven would have to be the hour, Mr. Kling" said O'Day.
"Vell, make it seven o'clock, den."
"And if," he continued in a still more serious voice, "I should on certain days—absent myself entirely, would that matter?"
Otto was being slowly driven into a corner, but he determined not to flinch with Kitty standing by. "No, I tink I git along vid my little Beesvings."
O'Day studied the pavement for an instant, then looked into space as if seeking to clear his mind of every conflicting thought, and said at last, slowly and deliberately: "Very well. Then I will be with you in the morning at nine o'clock. Now, good day, Mrs. Cleary. I know we will get on very well together, and you, too, Mr. Kling. Thank you for your confidence." Then, turning to the Irishman: "Don't forget, Mike, that the street-door is open and that I'm up two flights. You will find the number on this card."
The customary scene took place when Felix, late that afternoon, handed his landlady the overdue rent. Now that the two crisp bills which O'Day owed her lay in her hand, she was ready to pass them back to him if the full payment at all embarrassed him. Indeed, she had never had a more quiet and decent lodger, and she hoped it didn't mean he was "goin' away," and, if she was rather sharp with him the night before, it was because she had been "that nervous of late."
But Felix, ignoring her overtures, only shook his head in a good-natured way. He would begin packing at once, and the express wagon would be here at six. She would know it by the white horse which the man was driving. When his trunks were finished he would put them outside his bedroom door, and please not to forget his mackintosh and leather hat-case which he would leave inside the room.
So the packing began. First the sole-leather trunk, from which he had taken the hapless dressing-case the night before, was pulled out and the heavy black tin box hauled into position and unlocked. With the raising of the scarred and dented top a mass of letters and papers came into view, filling the box to the brim—some tied with red tape, others in big envelopes. In a corner lay some photographs—one in a gilt frame, the edge showing clear of the tissue-paper in which it was wrapped. This he took out and studied long and earnestly, his lips tightly pressed together. Retying the paper, he tucked them all back into place, turned the key, shook the box to see that the lock held tight, picked it up with one hand by its side handle, and, throwing open the door, deposited it on the landing outside. Its leather companion was then placed beside it, the hat-case crowning the whole.
Mike's voice was now heard in the narrow front hall. "How fur is it up, mum? Oh, another flight! Begorra, it's as dark as a coal-hole and about as dirty!" This was followed by: "Oh, is that you, sor? How many pieces have you?"
"Only two, Mike; and the mackintosh and hat-case," answered Felix, who had watched him stumbling up the stairs until his red face was level with the landing. "By the way, mind you don't lose the rubber coat, for, although I never wear an overcoat, this comes in well when it rains."
"I'll never take me eyes off it. I bet ye niver bought that down on the Bowery from a Johnny-hand-me-down!"
"Will you please say to Mrs. Cleary that I may not be in to-night before eleven o'clock?"
"Eleven! Why that's the shank o' the evenin' for her, sor. If it was twelve, or after, she'd be up." Then he bent forward and whispered: "I should think ye would be glad, sor, to get out of this rookery."
Felix nodded in assent, waited until the leather trunk had been dumped into the wagon, watched Mike remount the stairs until he had reached his landing, helped him to load up the balance of his luggage—the tin box on one shoulder, the coat over the other, the hat-case in the free hand—and then walked back to his empty room. Here he made a thoughtful survey of the dismal place in which he had spent so many months, picked up his blackthorn stick, and, leaving the door ajar, walked slowly down-stairs, his hand on the rail as a guide in the dark.
"And you aren't comin' back, sir?" remarked the landlady, who had listened for his steps.
"That, madame, one never can tell."
"Well, you are always welcome."
"Good-by, sir; my husband's out or he would like to shake your hand."
O'Day bowed slightly and stepped into the street, his stick under his arm, his hands hooked behind his back. That he had no immediate purpose in view was evident from the way he loitered along, stopping to look at the store windows or to scrutinize the passing crowd, each person intent on his or her special business. By the time he had reached Broadway the upper floors of the business buildings were dark, but the windows of the restaurants, cigar shops, and saloons had begun to blaze out and a throng of pleasure seekers to replace that of the shoppers and workers. This aspect of New York appealed to him most. There were fewer people moving about the streets and in less of a hurry, and he could study them the closer.
In a cheap restaurant off Union Square he ate a spare and inexpensive meal, whiled away an hour over the free afternoon papers, went out to watch an audience thronging into one of the smaller theatres, and then boarded a down-town car. When he reached Trinity Church the clock was striking, and, as he often did when here at this hour, he entered the open gate and, making his way among the shadows sat down, on a flat tomb. The gradual transition from the glare and rush of the up-town streets to the sombre stillness of this ancient graveyard always seemed to him like the shifting of films upon a screen, a replacement of the city of the living by the city of the dead. High up in the gloom soared the spire of the old church, its cross lost in shadows. Still higher, their roofs melting into the dusky blue vault, rose the great office-buildings, crowding close as if ready to pounce upon the small space protected only by the sacred ashes of the dead.
For some time he sat motionless, listening to the muffled peals of the organ. Then the humiliating events of the last twenty-four hours began crowding in upon his memory: the insolent demands of his landlady; the guarded questions of Kling when he inspected the dressing-case; the look of doubt on both their faces and the changes wrought in their manner and speech when they found he was able to pay his way. Suddenly something which up to that moment he had held at bay gripped him.
"It was money, then, which counted," he said to himself, forgetting for the moment Kitty's refusal to take it. And if money were so necessary, how long could he earn it? Kling would soon discover how useless he was, and then the tin box, emptied of its contents and the last keepsake pawned or sold, the end would come.
None of these anxieties had ever assailed him before. He had been like a man walking in a dream, his gaze fixed on but one exit, regardless of the dangers besetting his steps. Now the truth confronted him. He had reached the limit of his resources. To hope for much from Kling was idle. Such a situation could not last, nor could he count for long either on the friendship or the sympathy of the big-hearted expressman's wife. She had been absolutely sincere, and so had her husband, but that made it all the more incumbent upon him to preserve his own independence while still pursuing the one object of his life with undiminished effort.
A flood of light from the suddenly opened church-door, followed by a burst of pent-up melody, recalled him to himself. He waited until all was dark again, rose to his feet, passed through the gate and, with a brace of his shoulders and quickened step, walked on into Wall Street.
As he made his way along the deserted thoroughfare, where but a few hours since the very air had been charged with a nervous energy whose slightest vibration was felt the world over, the sombre stillness of the ancient graveyard seemed to have followed him. Save for a private watchman slowly tramping his round and an isolated foot-passenger hurrying to the ferry, no soul but himself was stirring or awake except, perhaps, behind some electric light in a lofty building where a janitor was retiring or, lower down, some belated bookkeeper in search of an error.
Leaving the grim row of tall columns guarding the front of the old custom-house, he turned his steps in the direction of the docks, wheeled sharply to the left, and continued up South Street until he stopped in front of a ship-chandler's store.
Some one was at work inside, for the rays of a lantern shed their light over piles of old cordage and heaps of rusty chains flanking the low entrance.
Picking his way around some barrels of oil, he edged along a line of boxes filled with ship's stuff until he reached an inside office, where, beside a kerosene lamp placed on a small desk littered with papers, sat a man in shirt-sleeves. At the sound of O'Day's step the occupant lifted his head and peered out. The visitor passed through the doorway.
"Good evening, Carlin; I hoped you would still be up. I stopped on the way down or I should have been here earlier."
A man of sixty, with a ruddy, weather-beaten face set in a half-moon of gray whiskers, the ends tied under his chin, sprang to his feet. "Ah! Is that you, Mr. Felix? I been a-wonderin' where you been a-keepin' yourself. Take this chair; it's more comfortable. I was thinkin' somehow you might come in to-night, and so I took a shy at my bills to have somethin' to do. I suppose"—he stopped, and in a whisper added: "I suppose you haven't heard anything, have you?"
"No; have you?"
"Not a word," answered the ship-chandler gravely.
"I thought perhaps you might have had a letter," urged Felix.
"Not a line of any kind," came the answer, followed by a sidewise movement of the gray head, as if its owner had long since abandoned hope from that quarter.
"Do you think anything is the matter?"
"Nothin', or I should 'a' 'eard. My notion is that Martha kep' on to Toronto with that sick man she nursed on the steamer. Maybe she's got work stiddy and isn't a-goin' to come back."
"But she would have let you KNOW?" There was a ring of anxiety now, tinged with a certain impatience.
"Perhaps she would, Mr. Felix, and perhaps she wouldn't. Since our mother died Martha gets rather cocky sometimes. Likes to be her own boss and earn her own living. I've often 'eard her say it before I left 'ome, and she HAS earned it, I must say—and she's got to, same as all of us. I suppose you been keepin' it up same as usual—trampin' and lookin'?"
"Yes." This came as the mere stating of a fact.
"And I suppose there ain't nothin' new—no clew—nothin' you can work on?" The speaker felt assured there was not, but it might be an encouragement to suggest its possibility.
"No, not the slightest clew."
"Better give it up, Mr. Felix, you're only wastin' your time. Be worse maybe when you do come up agin it." The ship-chandler was in earnest; every intonation proved it.
O'Day arose from his seat and looked down at his companion. "That is not my way, Carlin, nor is it yours; and I have known you since I was a boy."
"And you are goin' to keep it up, Mr. Felix?"
"Yes, until I know the end or reach my own."
"Well, then, God's help go with ye!"
Into the shadows again—past long rows of silent warehouses, with here and there a flickering gas-lamp—until he reached Dover Street. He had still some work to do up-town, and Dover Street would furnish a short cut along the abutment of the great bridge, and so on to the Elevated at Franklin Square.
He was evidently familiar with its narrow, uneven sidewalk, for he swung without hesitation into the gloom and, with hands hooked behind his back, his stick held, as was his custom, close to his armpit, made his way past its shambling hovels and warehouses. Now and then he would pause, following with his eyes the curve of the great steel highway, carried on the stone shoulders of successive arches, the sweep of its lines marked by a procession of lights, its outstretched, interlocked palms gripped close. The memory of certain streets in London came to him—those near its own great bridges, especially the city dump at Black-friars and the begrimed buildings hugging the stone knees of London Bridge, choking up the snakelike alleys and byways leading to the Embankment.
Crossing under the Elevated, he continued along the side of the giant piers and wheeled into a dirt-choked, ill-smelling street, its distant outlet a blaze of electric lights. It was now the dead hour of the twenty-four—the hour before the despatch of the millions of journals, damp from the presses. He was the only human being in sight.
Suddenly, when within a hundred feet of the end of the street, a figure detached itself from a deserted doorway. Felix caught his stick from under his armpit as the man held out a hand.
"Say, I want you to give me the price of a meal."
Felix tightened his hold on the stick. The words had conveyed a threat.
"This is no place for you to beg. Step out where people can see you."
"I'm hungry, mister." He had now taken in the width of O'Day's shoulders and the length of his forearm. He had also seen the stick.
Felix stepped back one pace and slipped his hand down the blackthorn. "Move on, I tell you, where I can look you over—quick!—I mean it."
"I ain't much to look at." The threat was out of his voice now. "I ain't eaten nothin' since yisterday, mister, and I got that out of a ash-barrel. I'm up agin it hard. Can't you see I ain't lyin'? You ain't never starved or you'd know. You ain't—" He wavered, his eyes glittering, edged a step nearer, and with a quick lunge made a grab for O'Day's watch.
Felix sidestepped with the agility of a cat, struck straight out from the shoulder, and, with a twist of his fingers in the tramp's neck-cloth, slammed him flat against the wall, where he crouched, gasping for breath. "Oh, that's it, is it?" he said calmly, loosening his hold.
The man raised both hands in supplication. "Don't kill me! Listen to me—I ain't no thief—I'm desperate. When you didn't give me nothin' and I got on to the watch—I got crazy. I'm glad I didn't git it. I been a-walkin' the streets for two weeks lookin' for work. Last night I slep' in a coal-bunker down by the docks, under the bridge, and I was goin' there agin when you come along. I never tried to rob nobody before. Don't run me in—let me go this time. Look into my face; you can see for yourself I'm hungry! I'll never do it agin. Try me, won't you?" His tears were choking him, the elbow of his ragged sleeve pressed to his eyes.
Felix had listened without moving, trying to make up his mind, noting the drawn, haggard face, the staring eyes and dry, fevered lips—all evidences of either hunger or vice, he was uncertain which.
Then gradually, as the man's sobs continued, there stole over him that strange sense of kinship in pain which comes to us at times when confronted with another's agony. The differences between them—the rags of the one and the well-brushed garments of the other, the fact that one skulked with his misery in dark alleys while the other bore his on the open highways—counted as nothing. He and this outcast were bound together by the common need of those who find the struggle overwhelming. Until that moment his own sufferings had absorbed him. Now the throb of the world's pain came to him and sympathies long dormant began to stir.
"Straighten up and let me see your face," he said at last, intent on the tramp's abject misery. "Out here where the full light can fall on it—that's right! Now tell me about yourself. How long have you been like this?"
The man dragged himself to his feet.
"Ever since I lost my job." The question had calmed him. There was a note of hope in it.
"What work did you do?"
"I'm a plumber's helper."
"No, a strike—I wouldn't quit, and they fired me."
"What happened then?"
"She went away."
"Who went away?"
"About a month back."
"Did you beat her?"
"No, there was another man."
"Younger than you?"
"How old was she?"
"A girl, then."
"Yes, if you put it that way. She was all I had."
"Have you seen her since?"
"No, and I don't want to."
These questions and answers had followed in rapid succession, Felix searching for the truth and the man trying to give it as best he could.
With the last answer the man drew a step nearer and, in a voice which was fast getting beyond his control, said: "You know now, don't you? You can see it plain as day how long it takes to make a bum of a man when he's up agin things like that. You—" He paused, listened intently, and sprang back, hugging the wall. "What's that? Somebody comin'! My God! It's a cop! Don't tell him—say you won't tell him—say it! SAY IT!"
Felix gripped his wrist. "Pull yourself together and keep still."
The officer, who was idly swinging a club as if for companionship along his lonely beat, stopped short. "Any trouble, sir?" he said as soon as he had Felix's outline and bearing clear.
"No, thank you, officer. Only a friend of mine who needs a little looking after. I'll take care of him."
"All right, sir," and he passed on down the narrow street.
The man gave a long breath and staggered against the wall. Felix caught him by his trembling shoulders. "Now, brace up. The first thing you need is something to eat. There is a restaurant at the corner. Come with me."
"They won't let me in."
"I'll take care of that."
Felix entered first. "What is there hot this time of night, barkeeper?"
"Frankfurters and beans, boss."
"Send a double portion of each to this table," and he pulled out a chair. "Here's a man who has missed his dinner. Is that enough?" and he laid down a dollar bill—one Kling had given him.
"Forty cents change, boss."
"Keep it, and see he gets all he wants. And now here," he said to the tramp, "is another dollar to keep you going," and with a shift of his stick to his left arm Felix turned on his heel, swung back the door, and was lost in the throng.
Kitty was up and waiting for him when he lifted the hinged wooden flap which provided an entrance for the privileged and, guided by the glow of the kerosene lamp, turned the knob of her kitchen door. She was close to the light, reading, the coffee-pot singing away on the stove, the aroma of its contents filling the room.
"I hope I have not kept you up, Mrs. Cleary. You had my message by Mike, did you not?" he asked in an apologetic tone.
"Yes, I got the message, and I got the trunks; they're up-stairs, and if you had given Mike the keys I'd have 'em unpacked by this time and all ready for you. As to my bein' up—I'm always up, and I got to be. John and Mike is over to Weehawken, and Bobby's been to the circus and just gone to bed, and I've been readin' the mornin' paper—about the only time I get to read it. Will ye sit down and wait till John comes in? Hold on 'til I get ye a cup of hot coffee and—"
"No, Mrs. Cleary. I will go to bed, if you do not mind."
"Oh, but the coffee will put new life into ye, and—"
"Thanks, but it would be more likely to put it OUT of me if it kept me awake. Can I reach my room this way or must I go outside?"
"Ye can go through this door—wait, I'll go wid ye and show ye about the light and where ye'll find the water. It's dark on the stairs and ye may stumble. I'll go on ahead and turn up the gas in the hall," she called back, as she mounted the steps and threw wide his room door. "Not much of a place, is it? But ye can get plenty of fresh air, and the bed's not bad. Ye can see for yourself," and her stout fist sunk into its middle. "And there's your trunks and tin chest, and the hat-box is beside the wash-stand, and the waterproof coat's in the closet. We have breakfast at seven o'clock, and ye'll eat down-stairs wid me and John. And now good night to ye."
Felix thanked her for her attention in his simple, straightforward way, and, closing the door upon her, dropped into a chair.
The night's experience had been like a sudden awakening. His anxiety over his dwindling finances and his disappointment over Carlin's news had been put to flight by the suffering of the man who had tried to rob him. There were depths, then, to which human suffering might drive a man, depths he himself had never imagined or reached—horrible, deadly depths, without light or hope, benumbing the best in a man, destroying his purposes by slow, insidious stages.
He arose from his chair and began walking up and down the small room, stopping now and then to inspect a bureau drawer or to readjust one of the curtains shading the panes of glass. In the same absent-minded way he drew out one of the trunks, unlocked it, paused now and then with some garment in his hand only to awake again to consciousness and resume his task, pushing the trunk back at last under the bed and continuing his walk about the narrow room, always haunted by the tramp's haggard, hopeless look.
Again he felt the mysterious sense of kinship in pain that wipes away all distinctions. With it, too, there came suddenly another sense—that of an overwhelming compassion out of which new purposes are born to human souls.
The encounter, then, had been both a blessing and a warning. He would now stand guard against the onslaught of his own sorrows while keeping up the fight, and this with renewed vigor. He would earn money, too, since this was so necessary, laboring with his hands, if need be; and he would do it all with a wide-open heart.
If O'Day's presence was a welcome addition to Kitty's household, it was nothing compared to the effect produced at Kling's. Long before the month was out he had not only earned his entire wages five times over by the changes he had wrought in the arrangement and classification of the stock, but he had won the entire confidence of his employer. Otto had surrendered when an old customer who had been in the habit of picking up rare bits of china, Japanese curios, and carvings at his own value had been confronted with the necessity of either paying Felix's price or going away without it, O'Day having promptly quadrupled the price on a piece of old Dresden, not only because the purchaser was compelled to have it to complete his set but because the interview had shown that the buyer was well aware he had obtained the former specimens at one-fourth of their value.
And the same discernment was shown when he was purchasing old furniture, brass, and so-called Sheffield plate to increase Otto's stock. If the articles offered could still boast of either handle, leg, or back of their original state and the price was fair, they were almost always bought, but the line was drawn at the fraudulent and "plugged-up" sideboards and chairs with their legs shot full of genuine worm-holes; ancient Oriental stuffs of the time of the early Persians (one year out of a German loom), rare old English plate, or undoubted George III silver, decorated with coats of arms or initials and showing those precious little dents only produced by long service—the whole fresh from a Connecticut factory. These never got past his scrutiny. While it was true, as he had told Kling, that he knew very little in the way of trade and commerce—nothing which would be of use to any one—he was a never-failing expert when it came to what is generally known as "antiques" and "bric-a-brac."
Masie—Kling's only child—a slender, graceful little creature with a wealth of gold-yellow hair flying about her pretty shoulders and a pair of blue eyes in which were mirrored the skies of ten joyous springs, had given her heart to him at once. She had never forgotten his gentle treatment of her dog Fudge, whose attack that first morning Felix had understood so well, lifting and putting the refractory animal back in her arms instead of driving him off with a kick. Fudge, whose manners were improving, had not forgotten either and was always under O'Day's feet except when being fondled by the child.
Until Felix came she had had no other companions, some innate reserve keeping her from romping with the children on the street, her sole diversion, except when playing at home among her father's possessions or making a visit to Kitty, being found in the books of fairy-tales which the old hunchback, Tim Kelsey, had lent her. At first this natural shyness had held her aloof even from O'Day, content only to watch his face as he answered her childish appeals. But before the first week had passed she had slipped her hand into his, and before the month was over her arms were around his neck, her fresh, soft cheek against his own, cuddling close as she poured out her heart in a continuous flow of prattle and laughter, her father looking on in blank amazement.
For, while Kling loved her as most fathers love their motherless daughters, Felix had seen at a glance that he was either too engrossed in his business or too dense and unimaginative to understand so winning a child. She was Masie, "dot little girl of mine dot don't got no mudder," or "Beesvings, who don't never be still," but that was about as far as his notice of her went, except sending her to school, seeing that she was fed and clothed, and on such state occasions as Christmas, New Year's, or birthdays, giving her meaningless little presents, which, in most instances, were shut up in her bureau drawers, never to be looked at again.
Kitty, who remembered the child's mother as a girl with a far-away look in her eyes and a voice of surprising sweetness, always maintained that it was a shame for Kling, who was many years her senior, to have married the girl at all.
"Not, John, dear, that Otto isn't a decent man, as far as he goes," she had once said to him, when the day's work was over and they were discussing their neighbors, "and that honest, too, that he wouldn't get away with a sample trunk weighing a ton if it was nailed fast to the sidewalk, and a good friend of ours who wouldn't go back on us, and never did. But that wife of his, John! If she wasn't as fine as the best of em, then I miss my guess. She got it from that father of hers—the clock-maker that never went out in the daytime, and hid himself in his back shop. There was something I never understood about the two of 'em and his killing himself when he did. Why, look at that little Masie! Can't ye see she is no more Kling's daughter than she is mine? Ye can't hatch out hummin'-birds by sittin' on ducks' eggs, and that's what's the matter over at Otto's."