It was dusk of an April day, and Fifth Avenue was crowded. A young man, who had emerged from a large hotel, stood in the stream of traffic and gazed irresolutely up and down the thoroughfare. He wore a long, cheap rain-coat, and his head was covered by a steamer-cap of an old design, with two flaps tied in a knot across the top, behind which an overabundant crop of dull black hair pushed forth.
His thin, sallow face was unshaven, and his eyes were rimmed by round steel spectacles that gave him an almost owlish expression. An air of dejection hung about him, as he loitered by the curb—not the imaginative depression of youth, soon to float off like a cloud before the sun of life, but rather the settled gloom of repeated failure, as if the conviction of final doom had already begun to penetrate deeply into his manhood.
He looked first up the avenue, then down, vacant of purpose, seeing nothing in the moving pageant. Finally, as if aroused by certain curious
glances that the less hurried passers-by cast on him, he bestirred himself and moved on down the avenue, his shoulders stooped, his legs trailing wearily.
Thus he proceeded for several blocks, never raising his head, stopping mechanically at the street crossings, resuming his discouraged pace as the crowd moved on. Once he plunged his hand into his coat pocket, to assure himself of some possession, and then withdrew it with a bitter smile for his unconscious anxiety.
When in this vacant promenade he had reached the lower part of the avenue, where the crowd was less dense, and less gay and rich in appearance, he lifted his head and looked musingly into the misty space before him.
“Well,” he muttered, with tightening lips, “it’s only one more throw-down. I ought to be used to ’em by now!”
Nevertheless, his face relapsed into its melancholy expression as he turned into one of the side streets with the unconscious precision of the animal following a beaten path to its hole.
He crossed several of the shabbier commercial avenues, which were crowded with traffic and blocked by men and women returning from the day’s work. Compared with these tired laborers, he seemed to have a large leisure—the freedom
of absolute poverty. His thoughts had turned to supper. Should he buy a roll and a piece of pie at the bakery on the next corner, or—mad venture!—dissipate his last resources at the saloon opposite, where the Italian wife of the Irish proprietor offered appetizing nourishment for a quarter?
Meditating upon this important decision, the young man entered his own block. At one end the elevated trains rattled; at the other, heavy drays lumbered past in an unbroken file on their way to the ferries; but between the two there was a strip of quiet, where the dingy old houses were withdrawn from the street, and in front of them a few dusty shrubs struggled for life in the bare plots of earth.
In the middle of this block there was an unusually animated scene. A group of children had huddled together about some object of interest. A horse must have fallen on the pavement, the young man thought dully, or there was a fight, or a policeman had made a capture.
He hurried his lagging steps, moved by a boyish curiosity. As he drew nearer, he perceived that the circle was too small to contain a horse or a good scrap. The center of interest must be some unfortunate human being. He shouldered his way through the crowd.
“What’s up?” he asked of a small boy.
“A drunk,” was the laconic reply.
Looking over the heads of the boys, the young man could see the figure of a stoutish, well-dressed man lying prone on the pavement. His black coat was spattered with mud, his gray hair rumpled. His eyes were closed, and through the open lips his tongue protruded.
“Say, he’s bad!” the boy observed knowingly. “Just look at him!”
A convulsion shook the prostrate figure. The face began to twitch, and one arm waved violently, beating the air. One or two more mature passers-by who had been attracted by the disturbance drew off, with the selfish city excuse that the proper authorities would come in time and attend to the nuisance. Not so the idle young man.
“He isn’t drunk!” he exclaimed, pushing his way into the circle and stooping over the figure. He had seen too many plain “drunks” in his newspaper days to be deceived in the symptoms.
“There he goes again!” the boys shouted.
“He has some sort of fit. Here, one of you give me a hand, and we’ll get him off the street!”
The boys readily helped the young man to drag the prostrate figure to the nearest steps, and one of them ran to the corner after a policeman.
When the officer arrived, the young man, who had steadied the stranger through another convulsion, said:
“You’ll have to call an ambulance. We’d better carry him somewhere—can’t let him lie here in the street like a dog. We can take him to my room.”
He motioned toward the next house, and with the officer’s assistance carried the sick man into the rear room on the first floor, which he unlocked. Then the policeman drove the curious boys out of the house and went off to summon the ambulance. Left alone, the young man dipped a towel in his water-pitcher, wet the sick man’s brow, then wiped his face and cleaned the foam and dirt from his beard and lips.
The stranger, lying with half-closed eyes, looked to be rather more than sixty years of age. Judging from the quality of his clothes, and from his smooth hands, he was a well-to-do business man. Presently his eyelids began to twitch, then the whole face; the right leg shot out and beat the air; then the right arm began to wave, and foam oozed from his lips.
“I wish they’d hurry that ambulance!” the young man thought, as he wiped the sick man’s face again with the damp towel. “He won’t last long, at this rate!”
This convulsion gradually passed off as the others had, and the stranger lay once more as if dead, his eyes almost wholly closed. The young man went to the door and listened nervously, then returned to the prostrate form, unbuttoned the coat, and felt for the heart. Immediately the sick man opened his eyes, and, looking directly into the eyes of the man bending over him, tried to raise his hand, as if he would protect himself from a blow.
“It’s all right!” the young man said reassuringly. “I was just feeling for your heart, friend.”
The sick man’s lips twitched desperately; and finally, in the faintest whisper, he managed to stammer:
“Wh-who are you?”
“One Edgar Brainard,” the young man replied promptly. “Let me unfasten this vest and make you more comfortable.”
“N-n-no!” the sick man gasped suspiciously.
He managed to clutch Brainard’s wrist with his wavering right hand; his left lay quite powerless by his side. His eyes closed again, but the lips moved silently, as if he were trying to frame sounds.
“He’s going this time, sure!”
The young man slipped his wrist from the feeble grasp, inserted a pillow under the sick man’s head, and sat back to wait.