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In the slow swirl of Columbus Circle, at the southwest corner of Central Park, two seedy, sinister individuals could hold an exceedingly private conversation without drawing attention to themselves. There were others like us on the scene, in that month of June, 1913, cast up from the obscurest depths of New York. We could revolve there for five or ten minutes, in company with other elements of the city’s life, to be eliminated by degrees, sucked into other currents, forming new combinations or reacting to the old ones.
In silence we shuffled along a few paces, though not exactly side by side. Lovey was just sufficiently behind me to be able to talk confidentially into my ear. My own manner was probably that of a man anxious to throw off a dogging inferior. Even among us there are social degrees.
“Yer’ll be sorry,” Lovey warned me, reproachfully.
“Very well, then,” I jerked back at him over my shoulder; “I shall be sorry.”
“If I didn’t know it was a good thing I wouldn’t ’a’
wanted to take ye in on it—not you, I wouldn’t; and dead easy.”
“I don’t care for it.”
“Ye’re only a beginner—”
“I’m not even that.”
“No, ye’re not even that; and this’d larn ye. Just two old ladies—lots of money always in the ’ouse—no resistance—no weepons nor nothink o’ that kind; and me knowin’ every hinch of the ground through workin’ for ’em two years ago—”
“And suppose they recognized you?”
“That’s it. That’s why I must have a pal. If they’d git a look at any one it’d have to be at you. But you don’t need to be afraid, never pinched before nor nothink. Once yer picter’s in the rogues’ they’ll run ye in if ye so much as blow yer nose. You’d just get by as an unknown man.”
“And if I didn’t get by?”
“Oh, but you would, sonny. Ye’re the kind. Just look at ye! Slim and easy-movin’ as a snake, y’are. Ye’d go through a man’s clothes while he’s got ’em on, and he wouldn’t notice ye no more’n a puff of wind. Look at yer ’and.”
I held it up and looked at it. A year ago, a month ago, I should have studied it with remorse. Now I did it stupidly, without emotions or regrets.
It was a long, slim hand, resembling the rest of my person. It was strong, however, with big, loosely articulated knuckles and muscular thumbs—again resembling the rest of my person. At the Beaux Arts, and in an occasional architect’s office, it had been spoken of as a “drawing” hand; and Lovey was now pointing out its advantages for other purposes. I laughed to myself.
“Ye’re too tall,” Lovey went on, in his appraisement. “That’s ag’in’ ye. Ye must be a good six foot. But lots o’ men are too tall. They gits over it by stoopin’ a bit; and when ye stoops it frightens people, especially women. They ain’t near as scared of a man that stands straight up as they’ll be of one that crouches and wiggles away. Kind o’ suggests evil to ’em, like, it does. And these two old ladies—”
As we reached the corner of the Park I rounded slowly on my tempter. Not that he thought of his offer as temptation, any more than I did; it was rather on his part a touch of solicitude. He was doing his best for me, in return for what he was pleased to take as my kindness to him during the past ten days.
He was a small, wizened man, pathetically neat in spite of cruel shabbiness. It was the kind of neatness that in our world so often differentiates the man who has dropped from him who has always been down. The gray suit, which was little more than a warp with no woof on it at all, was brushed and smoothed and mended. The flannel shirt, with turned-down collar, must have been chosen for its resistance to the show of dirt. The sky-blue tie might have been a more useful selection, but even that had had freshness steamed and pressed into it whenever Lovey had got the opportunity. Over what didn’t so directly meet the eye the coat was tightly buttoned up.
The boots were the weakest point, as they are with all of us. They were not noticeably broken, but they were wrinkled and squashed and down at the heel. They looked as if they had been worn by other men before having come to the present possessor; and mine looked the same. When I went into offices to apply for work it was always my boots that I tried to keep out of sight; but it
was precisely what the eye of the fellow in command seemed determined to search out and judge me by.
You must not think of Lovey as a criminal. He had committed petty crimes and he had gone to jail for them; but it had only been from the instinct of self-preservation. He worked when he got a job; but he never kept a job, because his habits always fired him. Then he lived as he could, lifting whatever small object came his way—an apple from a fruit-stall, a purse a lady had inadvertently laid down, a bag in a station, an umbrella forgotten in a corner—anything! The pawnshops knew him so well that he was afraid to go into them any more—except when he was so tired that he wanted to be sent to the Island for a month’s rest. In general, he disposed of his booty for a few pennies to children, to poverty-stricken mothers of families, to pals in the saloons. As long as a few dollars lasted he lived, as he himself would have said, honestly. When he was driven to it he filched again; but only when he was driven to it.
It was ten days now since he had begun following me about, somewhat as a stray dog will follow you when you have given him a bone and a drink of water. For a year and more I had seen him in one or another of the dives I hung about. The same faces always turn up there, and we get to have the kind of acquaintance, silent, haunted, tolerant, that binds together souls in the Inferno. In general, it is a great fraternity; but now and then—often for reasons no one could fathom—some one is excluded. He comes and goes, and the others follow him with resentful looks and curses. Occasionally he is kicked out, which was what happened to Lovey whenever his weakness afforded the excuse.
It was when he was kicked out of Stinson’s that I had
picked him up. It was after midnight. It was cold. The sight of the abject face was too much for me.
“Come along home with me, Lovey,” I had said, casually; and he came.
Home was no more than a stifling garret, and Lovey slept on the floor like a dog. But in the morning I found my shoes cleaned as well as he could clean them without brush or blacking, my clothes folded, and the whole beastly place in such order as a friendly hand could bring to it. Lovey himself was gone.
Twice during the interval he had stolen in in the same way and stolen out. He asked no more than a refuge and the privilege of sidling timidly up to me with a beseeching look in his sodden eyes when we met in bars. Once, when by hook or by crook he had got possession of a dollar, he insisted on the honor of “buying me a drink.”
On this particular afternoon I had met him by chance in the region of Broadway between Forty-second Street and Columbus Circle. I can still recall the shy, half-frightened pleasure in his face as he saw me advancing toward him. He might have been a young girl.
“Got somethin’ awful good, sonny, to let ye in on,” were the words with which he stopped me.
I turned round and walked back with him to the Circle, and round it.
“No, Lovey,” I said decidedly, when we had got to the corner of the Park, “it’s not good enough. I’ve other fish to fry.”
A hectic flush stole into the cheeks, which kept a marvelous youth and freshness. The thin, delicate features, ascetic rather than degraded, sharpened with a frosty look of disappointment.
“Well, just as you think best, sonny,” he said, resignedly.
He asked, abruptly, however, “When did ye have yer last meal?”
“The day before yesterday.”
“And when d’ye expect to have yer next?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Sometime; possibly to-night.”
“Possibly to-night— ’Ow?”
“I tell you I don’t know. Something will happen. If it doesn’t—well, I’ll manage.”
He had found an opening.
“Don’t ye see ye carn’t go on like that? Ye’ve got to live.”
“Oh no, I haven’t.”
“Don’t say that, sonny,” he burst out, tenderly. “Ye’ve got to live! Ye must do it—for my sake—now. I suppose it’s because we’re—we’re Britishers together.” He looked round on the circling crowd of Slavs, Mongolians, Greeks, Italians, aliens of all sorts. “We’re different from these Yankees, ain’t we?”
Admitting our Anglo-Saxon superiority, I was about to say, “Well, so long, Lovey,” and shake him off, when he put in, piteously, “I suppose I can come up and lay down on yer floor again to-night?”
“I wish you could, Lovey,” I responded. “But—but the fact is I—I haven’t got that place any more.”
“Where’ve ye gone?”
“Where did ye sleep last night?”
I described the exact spot in the lumber-yard near Greeley’s Slip. He knew it. He had made use of its hospitality himself on warm summer nights such as we were having.
“Goin’ there again to-night?”
I said I didn’t know.
He gazed at me with a kind of timid daring. “You wouldn’t be—you wouldn’t be goin’ to the Down and Out Club?”
“Why should you ask me that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. See you talkin’ to one of those fellas oncet. Chap named Pyncheon. Worse than missions and ’vangelists, they are.”
“Did you ever think of going there yourself?”
“Oh, Lord love ye! I’ve thought of it, yes. But I’ve fought it off. Once ye do that ye’re done for.”
“Well, I don’t believe I’m done for—” I began; but he interrupted me coaxingly.
“I say, sonny. I’ll go to Greeley’s Slip. Then if you’ve nothin’ else on ’and, you come there, too—and we’ll be fellas together. But don’t—don’t—go to the Down and Out!”
As I walked away from him I had his “fellas together” amusingly, and also pathetically, in my heart. Lovey was little better than an outcast. I knew him by no name but that which some pothouse wag had fixed on him derisively. From hints he had dropped I gathered that he had had a wife and daughters somewhere in the world, and intuitively I got the impression that without being a criminal he had been connected with a crime. As to his personal history he had never confided to me any of the details beyond the fact that in his palmy days he had been in a ’at-shop in the Edgware Road. I fancied that at some time or another in his career his relatives in London—like my own in Canada—had made up a lump sum and bidden him begone to the land of reconstruction.
There he had become what he was—an outcast. There I was becoming an outcast likewise. We were “fellas together.” I was thirty-one and he was fifty-two. My comparative youth helped me, in that I didn’t look older than my age; but he might easily have been seventy.
Having got rid of him, I drifted diagonally across the Park, but with a certain method in the seeming lack of method in taking my direction. Though I had an objective point, I didn’t dare to approach it otherwise than by a roundabout route. It is probable that no gaze but that of the angels was upon me; but to me it seemed as if every glance that roved up and down the Park must spot my aim.
For this reason I assumed a manner meant to throw observation off the scent. I loitered to look at young people on horseback or to stare at some specially dashing motor-car. I strolled into by-paths and out of them. I passed under the noses of policemen in gray-blue uniforms and tried to infuse my carriage with the fact which Lovey had emphasized, that I had never yet been pinched. I had never yet, so far as I knew, done anything to warrant pinching; and that I had no intentions beyond those of the ordinary law-abiding citizen was what I hoped my swagger would convey.
Though I was shabby, I was not sufficiently so to be unworthy to take the air. The worst that could be said of me was that I was not shabby as the working-man is at liberty to be. Mine was the suspicious, telltale shabbiness of the gentleman—far more damning than the grime and sweat of a chimney-sweep.
Now that I was alone again, I had a return of the sensation that had been on me since waking in the morning—that I was walking in the air. I felt that I bounced like
a bubble every time I stepped. The day before I had been giddy; now I was only light. It was as if at any minute I might go up. Unconsciously I ground my footsteps into the gravel or the grass to keep myself on the solid earth.
It was not the first time I had gone without food for twenty-four hours, but it was the first time I had done it for forty-eight. Moreover, it was the first time I had ever been without some prospect of food ahead of me. With a meal surely in sight on the following day I could have waited for it. More easily I could have waited for a drink or two. Drink kept me going longer than food, for in spite of the reaction after it the need of it had grown more insistent. Had I been offered my choice between food and life, on the one hand, and drink and death, on the other, I think I should have chosen drink and death.
But now there was no likelihood of either. I had husbanded my last pennies after my last meal, to make them spin out to as many drinks as possible. I had begged a few more drinks, and cadged a few more. But I had come to my limit in all these directions. Before I sought the shelter of Greeley’s Slip a hint had been given me at Stinson’s that I might come in for the compliments showered on Lovey ten days previously. Now as I walked in the Park the craving inside me was not because I hadn’t eaten, but because I hadn’t drunk that day.
Two or three bitter temptations assailed me before I reached Fifth Avenue. One was in the form of a pretty girl of eight or ten, who came mincing down a flowery path, holding a quarter between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Satan must have sent her. I could have snatched the quarter and made my escape, only that I lacked the nerve. Then there was a newsboy counting
his gains on a bench. They were laid out in rows before him—pennies, nickels, and dimes. I stood for a minute and looked down at him, estimating the ease with which I could have stooped and swept them all into my palm. He looked up and smiled. The smile didn’t disarm me; I was beyond the reach of any such appeal. It was again that I didn’t have the nerve. Lastly an old woman, a nurse, was dealing out coins to three small children that they might make purchases of a blind man selling bootlaces and pencils. I could have swiped them all as neatly as a croupier pulls in louis d’or with his rake—but I was afraid.
These were real temptations, as fierce as any I ever faced. By the time I had reached the Avenue I was in a cold perspiration, as much from a sense of failure as from the effort at resistance. I wondered how I should ever carry out the plans I had in mind if I was to balk at such little things as this.
The plans I had in mind still kept me from making headway as the crow flies. I went far up the Avenue; I crossed into Madison Avenue; I went up that again; I crossed into Park Avenue. I crossed and recrossed and crisscrossed and descended, and at last found myself strolling by a house toward which I scarcely dared to turn my eyes, feeling that even for looking at it I might be arrested.
I slackened my pace so as to verify all the points which experts had underscored in my hearing. There was the vacant lot which the surrounding buildings rendered so dark at night. There was the low, red-brown fence inclosing the back premises, over which a limber, long-legged fellow like me could leap in a second. There were the usual numerous windows—to kitchen, scullery, pantry,
laundry—of any good-sized American house, some one of which was pretty sure to be left unguarded on a summer night. There were the neighboring yards, with more low fences, offering excellent cover in a get-away, with another vacant lot leading out on another street a little farther down.
I had so many times strolled by the house as I was doing now, and had so many times rehearsed its characteristics, that I made the final review with some exactitude before passing on my way.
My way was not far. There was nothing to do but to go back into the Park. As it was nearly six o’clock, it was too late to search for a job that day, and I should have had no heart for doing so in any case. I had found a job that morning—that of handling big packing-cases in a warehouse—but I was too exhausted for the work. When in the effort to lift one onto a truck I collapsed and nearly fainted, I was told in a choice selection of oaths to beat it as no good.
I sat on a bench, therefore, waiting for the dark and thinking of the house of which I had just inspected the outside. It was not a house picked at random. It was one that had possessed an interest for me during all the three years I had been in New York. I had, in fact, brought a letter of introduction to its owner from the man under whom I had worked in Montreal. Chiefly through my own carelessness, nothing came of that, but I never failed, when I passed this way, to stare at the dwelling as one in which I might have had a footing.
The occupant was also a well-known architect in New York. In the architects’ offices in which I found employment I heard him praised, criticized, condemned. His work was good or bad according to the speaker’s point of
view. I thought it tolerably good, with an over-emphasis on ornament.
It was an odd fact that, in starting out on what was clear in my mind as a new phase in my career, no other house suggested itself as a field of operations. As to this one I felt documented, and that was all. I had no sense of horror at what I was about to do; no remorse from the position from which I had fallen. I suppose my mind was too sick for that, and my body too imperatively clamorous. I had said to Lovey that I didn’t have to live—but I did. I had seen that very morning that I did. I had stood at the edge of Greeley’s Slip and watched the swirling of the brown-green water with a view to making an end of it. One step and I should be out of all this misery and disgrace! The world would be rid of me; my family would be rid of me; I should be rid of myself, which would be best of all. Had I been quite sure as to the last point, I think I could have done it. But I wasn’t quite sure. I was far from quite sure. I could imagine the step over the edge of Greeley’s Slip as a step into conditions worse than those I was enduring now; and so I had drawn back. I had drawn back and wandered up-town, in the hope of securing a job that would give me a breakfast.
I wonder if you have ever done that? I wonder if you have ever gone from dock to station and from station to shop and from shop to warehouse, wherever heavy, unskilled labor may be in demand, and extra hands are treated with a brutality that slaves would kick against, in the hope of earning fifty cents? I wonder if in your grown-up life you have ever known a minute when fifty cents stood for your salvation? I wonder if with fifty cents standing for your salvation you ever saw the day
when you couldn’t get it? No? Then you will hardly understand how natural, how much a matter of course, the thing had become which I was resolved to do.
It was no sudden idea. I had been living in the company of men who took such feats for granted. Their talk had amazed me at first, but I had grown used to it. I had grown used to the thing. I had come to find a piquancy in the thought of it.
Then Lovey’s suggestions had not been thrown away on me. True, he was out for small game, while I, if I went in for it, would want something bigger and more exciting; but the basic idea was the same. Lovey could make a haul and live for weeks on the fruit of it; I might do the same and live for months. And if I didn’t pull it off successfully, if I was nabbed and sent away—why, then there would be some let-up in the struggle which had become so infernal. Even if I got a shot through the heart—and the tales I heard were full of such accidents—the tragedy would not lack its element of relief. It might be out of one hell into another—but it would at least be out of one.
Not that I hadn’t found a bitter pleasure in the life! I had. I found it still. In one of Dostoyevsky’s novels an old rake talks of the joys of being in the gutter. Well, there are such joys. They are not joys that civilization knows or that aspiration would find legitimate; but one reaches a point at which it is a satisfaction to be oneself at one’s worst. Where all the pretenses with which poor human nature covers itself up are cast aside the soul can stalk forth nakedly, hideously, and be unashamed. In the presence of each other we were always unashamed. We could kick over all standards, we could drop all poses, we could flout all duties, we could own to all crimes, and
be “fellas together.” As I went lower and lower down it became to me a kind of acrid delight, of positively intellectual delight, to know that I was herding with the most degraded, and that there was no baseness or bestiality to which I was not at liberty to submit myself.
If there had never been any reactions from this state of mind!—but God!
It was a disadvantage to me that I was not like my cronies. I couldn’t open my lips without betraying the fact that I belonged to another sphere. Though the broken-down man of education is not unknown in the underworld, he is comparatively rare. He is comparatively rare and under suspicion, like a white swan in a flock of black ones. I might be open-handed, ingratiating, and absurdly fellow-well-met, but I was always an outsider. They would take my drinks, they would return me drinks, we would swap stories and experiences with all outward show of equality; but no one knew better than myself that I was not on a footing with the rest of them. Women took to me readily enough, but men were always on their guard. Try as I would I never found a mate among them, I never made a friend. Therefore, now that I was down and out, I had no one of whom to ask a good turn, no one who would have done me a good turn, but poor, useless old Lovey sneaking in the shade.
I was in a measure between two worlds. I had been ejected from one without having forced a way into the other. When I say ejected I mean the word. The bitterest moment in my life was on that night when my eldest brother came to his door in Montreal and gave me fifty dollars, with the words:
“And now get out! Don’t let any of us ever see your face or hear your name again.”
As I stumbled down the steps he gave me a kick that didn’t reach me and which I had lost the right to resent. He himself went back to the dinner-party his wife was entertaining inside, and of which the talk and laughter reached me as I stood humbly on the door-step. From the other side of the street I looked back at the lighted windows. It was the last touch of connection with my family.
But it had been a kindly, patient family. My father was one of the best known and most highly honored among Canadian public men. As he had married an American, I had a good many cousins in New York, though I had not made myself known to any of them since coming there to live. I didn’t want them. Had I met one of them in the street, I should have passed without speaking; but, as it happened, I never met one. I saw their names in the papers, and that was all.
My father and mother had had five children, of whom I was the fourth. My two brothers were married, prosperous and respected—one a lawyer in Montreal, the other a banker in Toronto. My elder sister was married to a colonel in the British army; the younger one—the only member of the family younger than myself—still lived at home.
We three sons were all graduates of McGill, in addition to which I had been sent to the Beaux Arts in Paris. Out of that I had come with some degree of credit; and there had been a year in which I was in sight—oh, very distant sight!—of the beginning of the fulfilment of my childhood’s ambition to revolutionize the art of architecture in Canada. But in the second year that vision went out; and in the third came the night on my brother Jerry’s door-step.
I had nothing to complain of. The family had borne with me—and borne with me. When we reached the time when I was supposed to be earning my own living and my father’s allowance came to an end, my mother, who had some money of her own, kept it up. She would be keeping it up still if she knew where I was—but she didn’t know. From the moment of leaving Montreal I decided to carry out Jerry’s injunction. They should neither see my face nor hear my name again. I didn’t stop to consider how cruel this would be to the best mother a man ever had—to say nothing of the best father—or rather, when I did stop to consider it it seemed to me that I was taking the kindest course. I had no confidence in myself or in the future. New surroundings and associations would not give me a new heart, whatever hopes those who wished me well might be building on the change. For a new heart I needed something which I hadn’t got and saw no means of getting.