Story type: Literature
Across our two dishes of spaghetti, in a corner of Provenzano’s restaurant, Jeff Peters was explaining to me the three kinds of graft.
Every winter Jeff comes to New York to eat spaghetti, to watch the shipping in East River from the depths of his chinchilla overcoat, and to lay in a supply of Chicago-made clothing at one of the Fulton street stores. During the other three seasons he may be found further west–his range is from Spokane to Tampa. In his profession he takes a pride which he supports and defends with a serious and unique philosophy of ethics. His profession is no new one. He is an incorporated, uncapitalized, unlimited asylum for the reception of the restless and unwise dollars of his fellowmen.
In the wilderness of stone in which Jeff seeks his annual lonely holiday he is glad to palaver of his many adventures, as a boy will whistle after sundown in a wood. Wherefore, I mark on my calendar the time of his coming, and open a question of privilege at Provenzano’s concerning the little wine-stained table in the corner between the rakish rubber plant and the framed palazzio della something on the wall.
“There are two kinds of graft,” said Jeff, “that ought to be wiped out by law. I mean Wall Street speculation, and burglary.”
“Nearly everybody will agree with you as to one of them,” said I, with a laugh.
“Well, burglary ought to be wiped out, too,” said Jeff; and I wondered whether the laugh had been redundant.
“About three months ago,” said Jeff, “it was my privilege to become familiar with a sample of each of the aforesaid branches of illegitimate art. I was /sine que grata/ with a member of the housebreakers’ union and one of the John D. Napoleons of finance at the same time.”
“Interesting combination,’ said I, with a yawn. “Did I tell you I bagged a duck and a ground-squirrel at one shot last week over in the Ramapos?” I knew well how to draw Jeff’s stories.
“Let me tell you first about these barnacles that clog the wheels of society by poisoning the springs of rectitude with their upas-like eye,” said Jeff, with the pure gleam of the muck-raker in his own.
“As I said, three months ago I got into bad company. There are two times in a man’s life when he does this–when he’s dead broke, and when he’s rich.
“Now and then the most legitimate business runs out of luck. It was out in Arkansas I made the wrong turn at a cross-road, and drives into this town of Peavine by mistake. It seems I had already assaulted and disfigured Peavine the spring of the year before. I had sold $600 worth of young fruit trees there–plums, cherries, peaches and pears. The Peaviners were keeping an eye on the country road and hoping I might pass that way again. I drove down Main street as far as the Crystal Palace drugstore before I realized I had committed ambush upon myself and my white horse Bill.
“The Peaviners took me by surprise and Bill by the bridle and began a conversation that wasn’t entirely disassociated with the subject of fruit trees. A committee of ’em ran some trace-chains through the armholes of my vest, and escorted me through their gardens and orchards.
“Their fruit trees hadn’t lived up to their labels. Most of ’em had turned out to be persimmons and dogwoods, with a grove or two of blackjacks and poplars. The only one that showed any signs of bearing anything was a fine young cottonwood that had put forth a hornet’s nest and half of an old corset-cover.
“The Peaviners protracted our fruitless stroll to the edge of town. They took my watch and money on account; and they kept Bill and the wagon as hostages. They said the first time one of them dogwood trees put forth an Amsden’s June peach I might come back and get my things. Then they took off the trace chains and jerked their thumbs in the direction of the Rocky Mountains; and I struck a Lewis and Clark lope for the swollen rivers and impenetrable forests.
“When I regained intellectualness I found myself walking into an unidentified town on the A., T. & S. F. railroad. The Peaviners hadn’t left anything in my pockets except a plug of chewing–they wasn’t after my life–and that saved it. I bit off a chunk and sits down on a pile of ties by the track to recogitate my sensations of thought and perspicacity.
“And then along comes a fast freight which slows up a little at the town; and off of it drops a black bundle that rolls for twenty yards in a cloud of dust and then gets up and begins to spit soft coal and interjections. I see it is a young man broad across the face, dressed more for Pullmans than freights, and with a cheerful kind of smile in spite of it all that made Phoebe Snow’s job look like a chimney- sweep’s.
“‘Fall off?’ says I.
“‘Nunk,’ says he. ‘Got off. Arrived at my destination. What town is this?’
“‘Haven’t looked it up on the map yet,’ says I. ‘I got in about five minutes before you did. How does it strike you?’
“‘Hard,’ says he, twisting one of his arms around. ‘I believe that shoulder–no, it’s all right.’
“He stoops over to brush the dust off his clothes, when out of his pocket drops a fine, nine-inch burglar’s steel jimmy. He picks it up and looks at me sharp, and then grins and holds out his hand.
“‘Brother,’ says he, ‘greetings. Didn’t I see you in Southern Missouri last summer selling colored sand at half-a-dollar a teaspoonful to put into lamps to keep the oil from exploding?’
“‘Oil,’ says I, ‘never explodes. It’s the gas that forms that explodes.’ But I shakes hands with him, anyway.
“‘My name’s Bill Bassett,’ says he to me, ‘and if you’ll call it professional pride instead of conceit, I’ll inform you that you have the pleasure of meeting the best burglar that ever set a gum-shoe on ground drained by the Mississippi River.’
“Well, me and this Bill Bassett sits on the ties and exchanges brags as artists in kindred lines will do. It seems he didn’t have a cent, either, and we went into close caucus. He explained why an able burglar sometimes had to travel on freights by telling me that a servant girl had played him false in Little Rock, and he was making a quick get-away.
“‘It’s part of my business,’ says Bill Bassett, ‘to play up to the ruffles when I want to make a riffle as Raffles. ‘Tis loves that makes the bit go ’round. Show me a house with a swag in it and a pretty parlor-maid, and you might as well call the silver melted down and sold, and me spilling truffles and that Chateau stuff on the napkin under my chin, while the police are calling it an inside job just because the old lady’s nephew teaches a Bible class. I first make an impression on the girl,’ says Bill, ‘and when she lets me inside I make an impression on the locks. But this one in Little Rock done me,’ says he. ‘She saw me taking a trolley ride with another girl, and when I came ’round on the night she was to leave the door open for me it was fast. And I had keys made for the doors upstairs. But, no sir. She had sure cut off my locks. She was a Delilah,’ says Bill Bassett.
“It seems that Bill tried to break in anyhow with his jimmy, but the girl emitted a succession of bravura noises like the top-riders of a tally-ho, and Bill had to take all the hurdles between there and depot. As he had no baggage they tried hard to check his departure, but he made a train that was just pulling out.
“‘Well,’ says Bill Bassett, when we had exchanged memories of our dead lives, ‘I could eat. This town don’t look like it was kept under a Yale lock. Suppose we commit some mild atrocity that will bring in temporary expense money. I don’t suppose you’ve brought along any hair tonic or rolled gold watch-chains, or similar law-defying swindles that you could sell on the plaza to the pikers of the paretic populace, have you?’
“‘No,’ says I, ‘I left an elegant line of Patagonian diamond earrings and rainy-day sunbursts in my valise at Peavine. But they’re to stay there until some of those black-gum trees begin to glut the market with yellow clings and Japanese plums. I reckon we can’t count on them unless we take Luther Burbank in for a partner.’
“‘Very well,’ says Bassett, ‘we’ll do the best we can. Maybe after dark I’ll borrow a hairpin from some lady, and open the Farmers and Drovers Marine Bank with it.’
“While we were talking, up pulls a passenger train to the depot near by. A person in a high hat gets off on the wrong side of the train and comes tripping down the track towards us. He was a little, fat man with a big nose and rat’s eyes, but dressed expensive, and carrying a hand-satchel careful, as if it had eggs or railroads bonds in it. He passes by us and keeps on down the track, not appearing to notice the town.
“‘Come on,’ says Bill Bassett to me, starting after him.
“‘Where?’ I asks.
“‘Lordy!’ says Bill, ‘had you forgot you was in the desert? Didn’t you see Colonel Manna drop down right before your eyes? Don’t you hear the rustling of General Raven’s wings? I’m surprised at you, Elijah.’
“We overtook the stranger in the edge of some woods, and, as it was after sun-down and in a quiet place, nobody saw us stop him. Bill takes the silk hat off the man’s head and brushes it with his sleeve and puts it back.
“‘What does this mean, sir?’ says the man.
“‘When I wore one of these,’ says Bill, ‘and felt embarrassed, I always done that. Not having one now I had to use yours. I hardly know how to begin, sir, in explaining our business with you, but I guess we’ll try your pockets first.’
“Bill Bassett felt in all of them, and looked disgusted.
“‘Not even a watch,’ he says. ‘Ain’t you ashamed of yourself, you whited sculpture? Going about dressed like a head-waiter, and financed like a Count! You haven’t even got carfare. What did you do with your transfer?’
“The man speaks up and says he has no assets or valuables of any sort. But Bassett takes his hand-satchel and opens it. Out comes some collars and socks and a half a page of a newspaper clipped out. Bill reads the clipping careful, and holds out his hand to the held-up party.
“‘Brother,’ says he, ‘greetings! Accept the apologies of friends. I am Bill Bassett, the burglar. Mr. Peters, you must make the acquaintance of Mr. Alfred E. Ricks. Shake hands. Mr. Peters,’ says Bill, ‘stands about halfway between me and you, Mr. Ricks, in the line of havoc and corruption. He always gives something for the money he gets. I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Ricks–you and Mr. Peters. This is the first time I ever attended a full gathering of the National Synod of Sharks– housebreaking, swindling, and financiering all represented. Please examine Mr. Rick’s credentials, Mr. Peters.’
“The piece of newspaper that Bill Bassett handed me had a good picture of this Ricks on it. It was a Chicago paper, and it had obloquies of Ricks in every paragraph. By reading it over I harvested the intelligence that said alleged Ricks had laid off all that portion of the State of Florida that lies under water into town lots and sold ’em to alleged innocent investors from his magnificently furnished offices in Chicago. After he had taken in a hundred thousand or so dollars one of these fussy purchasers that are always making trouble (I’ve had ’em actually try gold watches I’ve sold ’em with acid) took a cheap excursion down to the land where it is always just before supper to look at his lot and see if it didn’t need a new paling or two on the fence, and market a few lemons in time for the Christmas present trade. He hires a surveyor to find his lot for him. They run the line out and find the flourishing town of Paradise Hollow, so advertised, to be about 40 rods and 16 poles S., 27 degrees E. of the middle of Lake Okeechobee. This man’s lot was under thirty-six feet of water, and, besides, had been preempted so long by the alligators and gars that his title looked fishy.
“Naturally, the man goes back to Chicago and makes it as hot for Alfred E. Ricks as the morning after a prediction of snow by the weather bureau. Ricks defied the allegation, but he couldn’t deny the alligators. One morning the papers came out with a column about it, and Ricks come out by the fire-escape. It seems the alleged authorities had beat him to the safe-deposit box where he kept his winnings, and Ricks has to westward ho! with only feetwear and a dozen 15-and-a-half English pokes in his shopping bag. He happened to have some mileage left in his book, and that took him as far as the town in the wilderness where he was spilled out on me and Bill Bassett as Elijah III. with not a raven in sight for any of us.
“Then this Alfred E. Ricks lets out a squeak that he is hungry, too, and denies the hypothesis that he is good for the value, let alone the price, of a meal. And so, there was the three of us, representing, if we had a mind to draw syllogisms and parabolas, labor and trade and capital. Now, when trade has no capital there isn’t a dicker to be made. And when capital has no money there’s a stagnation in steak and onions. That put it up to the man with the jimmy.
“‘Brother bushrangers,’ says Bill Bassett, ‘never yet, in trouble, did I desert a pal. Hard by, in yon wood, I seem to see unfurnished lodgings. Let us go there and wait till dark.’
“There was an old, deserted cabin in the grove, and we three took possession of it. After dark Bill Bassett tells us to wait, and goes out for half an hour. He comes back with a armful of bread and spareribs and pies.
“‘Panhandled ’em at a farmhouse on Washita Avenue,’ says he. ‘Eat, drink and be leary.’
“The full moon was coming up bright, so we sat on the floor of the cabin and ate in the light of it. And this Bill Bassett begins to brag.
“‘Sometimes,’ says he, with his mouth full of country produce, ‘I lose all patience with you people that think you are higher up in the profession than I am. Now, what could either of you have done in the present emergency to set us on our feet again? Could you do it, Ricksy?’
“‘I must confess, Mr. Bassett,’ says Ricks, speaking nearly inaudible out of a slice of pie, ‘that at this immediate juncture I could not, perhaps, promote an enterprise to relieve the situation. Large operations, such as I direct, naturally require careful preparation in advance. I–‘
“‘I know, Ricksy,’ breaks in Bill Bassett. ‘You needn’t finish. You need $500 to make the first payment on a blond typewriter, and four roomsful of quartered oak furniture. And you need $500 more for advertising contracts. And you need two weeks’ time for the fish to begin to bite. Your line of relief would be about as useful in an emergency as advocating municipal ownership to cure a man suffocated by eighty-cent gas. And your graft ain’t much swifter, Brother Peters,’ he winds up.
“‘Oh,’ says I, ‘I haven’t seen you turn anything into gold with your wand yet, Mr. Good Fairy. ‘Most anybody could rub the magic ring for a little left-over victuals.’
“‘That was only getting the pumpkin ready,’ says Bassett, braggy and cheerful. ‘The coach and six’ll drive up to the door before you know it, Miss Cinderella. Maybe you’ve got some scheme under your sleeve- holders that will give us a start.’
“‘Son,’ says I, ‘I’m fifteen years older than you are, and young enough yet to take out an endowment policy. I’ve been broke before. We can see the lights of that town not half a mile away. I learned under Montague Silver, the greatest street man that ever spoke from a wagon. There are hundreds of men walking those streets this moment with grease spots on their clothes. Give me a gasoline lamp, a dry-goods box, and a two-dollar bar of white castile soap, cut into little–‘
“‘Where’s your two dollars?’ snickered Bill Bassett into my discourse. There was no use arguing with that burglar.
“‘No,’ he goes on; ‘you’re both babes-in-the-wood. Finance has closed the mahogany desk, and trade has put the shutters up. Both of you look to labor to start the wheels going. All right. You admit it. To-night I’ll show you what Bill Bassett can do.’
“Bassett tells me and Ricks not to leave the cabin till he comes back, even if it’s daylight, and then he starts off toward town, whistling gay.
“This Alfred E. Ricks pulls off his shoes and his coat, lays a silk handkerchief over his hat, and lays down on the floor.
“‘I think I will endeavor to secure a little slumber,’ he squeaks. ‘The day has been fatiguing. Good-night, my dear Mr. Peters.’
“‘My regards to Morpheus,’ says I. ‘I think I’ll sit up a while.’
“About two o’clock, as near as I could guess by my watch in Peavine, home comes our laboring man and kicks up Ricks, and calls us to the streak of bright moonlight shining in the cabin door. Then he spreads out five packages of one thousand dollars each on the floor, and begins to cackle over the nest-egg like a hen.
“‘I’ll tell you a few things about that town,’ says he. ‘It’s named Rocky Springs, and they’re building a Masonic temple, and it looks like the Democratic candidate for mayor is going to get soaked by a Pop, and Judge Tucker’s wife, who has been down with pleurisy, is getting some better. I had a talk on these liliputian thesises before I could get a siphon in the fountain of knowledge that I was after. And there’s a bank there called the Lumberman’s Fidelity and Plowman’s Savings Institution. It closed for business yesterday with $23,000 cash on hand. It will open this morning with $18,000–all silver– that’s the reason I didn’t bring more. There you are, trade and capital. Now, will you be bad?’
“‘My young friend,’ says Alfred E. Ricks, holding up his hands, ‘have you robbed this bank? Dear me, dear me!’
“‘You couldn’t call it that,’ says Bassett. “Robbing” sounds harsh. All I had to do was to find out what street it was on. That town is so quiet that I could stand on the corner and hear the tumblers clicking in that safe lock–“right to 45; left twice to 80; right once to 60; left to 15”–as plain as the Yale captain giving orders in the football dialect. Now, boys,’ says Bassett, ‘this is an early rising town. They tell me the citizens are all up and stirring before daylight. I asked what for, and they said because breakfast was ready at that time. And what of merry Robin Hood? It must be Yoicks! and away with the tinkers’ chorus. I’ll stake you. How much do you want? Speak up. Capital.’
“‘My dear young friend,’ says this ground squirrel of a Ricks, standing on his hind legs and juggling nuts in his paws, ‘I have friends in Denver who would assist me. If I had a hundred dollars I–‘
“Basset unpins a package of the currency and throws five twenties to Ricks.
“‘Trade, how much?’ he says to me.
“‘Put your money up, Labor,’ says I. ‘I never yet drew upon honest toil for its hard-earned pittance. The dollars I get are surplus ones that are burning the pockets of damfools and greenhorns. When I stand on a street corner and sell a solid gold diamond ring to a yap for $3.00, I make just $2.60. And I know he’s going to give it to a girl in return for all the benefits accruing from a $125.00 ring. His profits are $122.00. Which of us is the biggest fakir?’
“‘And when you sell a poor woman a pinch of sand for fifty cents to keep her lamp from exploding,’ says Bassett, ‘what do you figure her gross earnings to be, with sand at forty cents a ton?’
“‘Listen,’ says I. ‘I instruct her to keep her lamp clean and well filled. If she does that it can’t burst. And with the sand in it she knows it can’t, and she don’t worry. It’s a kind of Industrial Christian Science. She pays fifty cents, and gets both Rockefeller and Mrs. Eddy on the job. It ain’t everybody that can let the gold-dust twins do their work.’
“Alfred E. Ricks all but licks the dust off of Bill Bassett’s shoes.
“‘My dear young friend,’ says he, ‘I will never forget your generosity. Heaven will reward you. But let me implore you to turn from your ways of violence and crime.’
“‘Mousie,’ says Bill, ‘the hole in the wainscoting for yours. Your dogmas and inculcations sound to me like the last words of a bicycle pump. What has your high moral, elevator-service system of pillage brought you to? Penuriousness and want. Even Brother Peters, who insists upon contaminating the art of robbery with theories of commerce and trade, admitted he was on the lift. Both of you live by the gilded rule. Brother Peters,’ says Bill, ‘you’d better choose a slice of this embalmed currency. You’re welcome.’
“I told Bill Bassett once more to put his money in his pocket. I never had the respect for burglary that some people have. I always gave something for the money I took, even if it was only some little trifle for a souvenir to remind ’em not to get caught again.
“And then Alfred E. Ricks grovels at Bill’s feet again, and bids us adieu. He says he will have a team at a farmhouse, and drive to the station below, and take the train for Denver. It salubrified the atmosphere when that lamentable boll-worm took his departure. He was a disgrace to every non-industrial profession in the country. With all his big schemes and fine offices he had wound up unable even to get an honest meal except by the kindness of a strange and maybe unscrupulous burglar. I was glad to see him go, though I felt a little sorry for him, now that he was ruined forever. What could such a man do without a big capital to work with? Why, Alfred E. Ricks, as we left him, was as helpless as turtle on its back. He couldn’t have worked a scheme to beat a little girl out of a penny slate-pencil.
“When me and Bill Bassett was left alone I did a little sleight-of- mind turn in my head with a trade secret at the end of it. Thinks I, I’ll show this Mr. Burglar Man the difference between business and labor. He had hurt some of my professional self-adulation by casting his Persians upon commerce and trade.
“‘I won’t take any of your money as a gift, Mr. Bassett,’ says I to him, ‘but if you’ll pay my expenses as a travelling companion until we get out of the danger zone of the immoral deficit you have caused in this town’s finances to-night, I’ll be obliged.’
“Bill Bassett agreed to that, and we hiked westward as soon as we could catch a safe train.
“When we got to a town in Arizona called Los Perros I suggested that we once more try our luck on terra-cotta. That was the home of Montague Silver, my old instructor, now retired from business. I knew Monty would stake me to web money if I could show him a fly buzzing ’round the locality. Bill Bassett said all towns looked alike to him as he worked mainly in the dark. So we got off the train in Los Perros, a fine little town in the silver region.
“I had an elegant little sure thing in the way of a commercial slugshot that I intended to hit Bassett behind the ear with. I wasn’t going to take his money while he was asleep, but I was going to leave him with a lottery ticket that would represent in experience to him $4,755–I think that was the amount he had when we got off the train. But the first time I hinted to him about an investment, he turns on me and disencumbers himself of the following terms and expressions.
“‘Brother Peters,’ says he, ‘it ain’t a bad idea to go into an enterprise of some kind, as you suggest. I think I will. But if I do it will be such a cold proposition that nobody but Robert E. Peary and Charlie Fairbanks will be able to sit on the board of directors.’
“‘I thought you might want to turn your money over,’ says I.
“‘I do,’ says he, ‘frequently. I can’t sleep on one side all night. I’ll tell you, Brother Peters,’ says he, ‘I’m going to start a poker room. I don’t seem to care for the humdrum in swindling, such as peddling egg-beaters and working off breakfast food on Barnum and Bailey for sawdust to strew in their circus rings. But the gambling business,’ says he, ‘from the profitable side of the table is a good compromise between swiping silver spoons and selling penwipers at a Waldorf-Astoria charity bazar.’
“‘Then,’ says I, ‘Mr. Bassett, you don’t care to talk over my little business proposition?’
“‘Why,’ says he, ‘do you know, you can’t get a Pasteur institute to start up within fifty miles of where I live. I bite so seldom.’
“So, Bassett rents a room over a saloon and looks around for some furniture and chromos. The same night I went to Monty Silver’s house, and he let me have $200 on my prospects. Then I went to the only store in Los Perros that sold playing cards and bought every deck in the house. The next morning when the store opened I was there bringing all the cards back with me. I said that my partner that was going to back me in the game had changed his mind; and I wanted to sell the cards back again. The storekeeper took ’em at half price.
“Yes, I was seventy-five dollars loser up to that time. But while I had the cards that night I marked every one in every deck. That was labor. And then trade and commerce had their innings, and the bread I had cast upon the waters began to come back in the form of cottage pudding with wine sauce.
“Of course I was among the first to buy chips at Bill Bassett’s game. He had bought the only cards there was to be had in town; and I knew the back of every one of them better than I know the back of my head when the barber shows me my haircut in the two mirrors.
“When the game closed I had the five thousand and a few odd dollars, and all Bill Bassett had was the wanderlust and a black cat he had bought for a mascot. Bill shook hands with me when I left.
“‘Brother Peters,’ says he, ‘I have no business being in business. I was preordained to labor. When a No. 1 burglar tries to make a James out of his jimmy he perpetrates an improfundity. You have a well-oiled and efficacious system of luck at cards,’ says he. ‘Peace go with you.’ And I never afterward sees Bill Bassett again.”
“Well, Jeff,” said I, when the Autolycan adventurer seemed to have divulged the gist of his tale, “I hope you took care of the money. That would be a respecta–that is a considerable working capital if you should choose some day to settle down to some sort of regular business.”
“Me?” said Jeff, virtuously. “You can bet I’ve taken care of that five thousand.”
He tapped his coat over the region of his chest exultantly.
“Gold mining stock,” he explained, “every cent of it. Shares par value one dollar. Bound to go up 500 per cent. within a year. Non- assessable. The Blue Gopher mine. Just discovered a month ago. Better get in yourself if you’ve any spare dollars on hand.”
“Sometimes,” said I, “these mines are not–“
“Oh, this one’s solid as an old goose,” said Jeff. “Fifty thousand dollars’ worth of ore in sight, and 10 per cent. monthly earnings guaranteed.”
He drew out a long envelope from his pocket and cast it on the table.
“Always carry it with me,” said he. “So the burglar can’t corrupt or the capitalist break in and water it.”
I looked at the beautifully engraved certificate of stock.
“In Colorado, I see,” said I. “And, by the way, Jeff, what was the name of the little man who went to Denver–the one you and Bill met at the station?”
“Alfred E. Ricks,” said Jeff, “was the toad’s designation.”
“I see,” said I, “the president of this mining company signs himself A. L. Fredericks. I was wondering–“
“Let me see that stock,” said Jeff quickly, almost snatching it from me.
To mitigate, even though slightly, the embarrassment I summoned the waiter and ordered another bottle of the Barbera. I thought it was the least I could do.