Van Bibber’s Burglar by Richard Harding Davis

Story type: Literature

There had been a dance up town, but as Van Bibber could not find Her there, he accepted young Travers’s suggestion to go over to Jersey City and see a “go” between “Dutchy” Mack and a colored person professionally known as the Black Diamond. They covered up all signs of their evening dress with their great-coats, and filled their pockets with cigars, for the smoke which surrounds a “go” is trying to sensitive nostrils, and they also fastened their watches to both key- chains. Alf Alpin, who was acting as master of ceremonies, was greatly pleased and flattered at their coming, and boisterously insisted on their sitting on the platform. The fact was generally circulated among the spectators that the “two gents in high hats” had come in a carriage, and this and their patent-leather boots made them objects of keen interest. It was even whispered that they were the “parties” who were putting up the money to back the Black Diamond against the “Hester Street Jackson.” This in itself entitled them to respect. Van Bibber was asked to hold the watch, but he wisely declined the honor, which was given to Andy Spielman, the sporting reporter of the Track and Ring, whose watch-case was covered with diamonds, and was just the sort of a watch a timekeeper should hold.

It was two o’clock before “Dutchy” Mack’s backer threw the sponge into the air, and three before they reached the city. They had another reporter in the cab with them besides the gentleman who had bravely held the watch in the face of several offers to “do for” him; and as Van Bibber was ravenously hungry, and as he doubted that he could get anything at that hour at the club, they accepted Spielman’s invitation and went for a porterhouse steak and onions at the Owl’s Nest, Gus McGowan’s all-night restaurant on Third Avenue.

It was a very dingy, dirty place, but it was as warm as the engine- room of a steamboat, and the steak was perfectly done and tender. It was too late to go to bed, so they sat around the table, with their chairs tipped back and their knees against its edge. The two club men had thrown off their great-coats, and their wide shirt fronts and silk facings shone grandly in the smoky light of the oil lamps and the red glow from the grill in the corner. They talked about the life the reporters led, and the Philistines asked foolish questions, which the gentleman of the press answered without showing them how foolish they were.

“And I suppose you have all sorts of curious adventures,” said Van Bibber, tentatively.

“Well, no, not what I would call adventures,” said one of the reporters. “I have never seen anything that could not be explained or attributed directly to some known cause, such as crime or poverty or drink. You may think at first that you have stumbled on something strange and romantic, but it comes to nothing. You would suppose that in a great city like this one would come across something that could not be explained away something mysterious or out of the common, like Stevenson’s Suicide Club. But I have not found it so. Dickens once told James Payn that the most curious thing he ever saw In his rambles around London was a ragged man who stood crouching under the window of a great house where the owner was giving a ball. While the man hid beneath a window on the ground floor, a woman wonderfully dressed and very beautiful raised the sash from the inside and dropped her bouquet down into the man’s hand, and he nodded and stuck it under his coat and ran off with it.

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“I call that, now, a really curious thing to see. But I have never come across anything like it, and I have been in every part of this big city, and at every hour of the night and morning, and I am not lacking in imagination either, but no captured maidens have ever beckoned to me from barred windows nor ‘white hands waved from a passing hansom.’ Balzac and De Musset and Stevenson suggest that they have had such adventures, but they never come to me. It is all commonplace and vulgar, and always ends in a police court or with a ‘found drowned’ in the North River.”

McGowan, who had fallen into a doze behind the bar, woke suddenly and shivered and rubbed his shirt-sleeves briskly. A woman knocked at the side door and begged for a drink “for the love of heaven,” and the man who tended the grill told her to be off. They could hear her feeling her way against the wall and cursing as she staggered out of the alley. Three men came in with a hack driver and wanted everybody to drink with them, and became insolent when the gentlemen declined, and were in consequence hustled out one at a time by McGowan, who went to sleep again immediately, with his head resting among the cigar boxes and pyramids of glasses at the back of the bar, and snored.

“You see,” said the reporter, “it is all like this. Night in a great city is not picturesque and it is not theatrical. It is sodden, sometimes brutal, exciting enough until you get used to it, but it runs in a groove. It is dramatic, but the plot is old and the motives and characters always the same.”

The rumble of heavy market wagons and the rattle of milk carts told them that it was morning, and as they opened the door the cold fresh air swept into the place and made them wrap their collars around their throats and stamp their feet. The morning wind swept down the cross- street from the East River and the lights of the street lamps and of the saloon looked old and tawdry. Travers and the reporter went off to a Turkish bath, and the gentleman who held the watch, and who had been asleep for the last hour, dropped into a nighthawk and told the man to drive home. It was almost clear now and very cold, and Van Bibber determined to walk. He had the strange feeling one gets when one stays up until the sun rises, of having lost a day somewhere, and the dance he had attended a few hours before seemed to have come off long ago, and the fight in Jersey City was far back in the past.

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The houses along the cross-street through which he walked were as dead as so many blank walls, and only here and there a lace curtain waved out of the open window where some honest citizen was sleeping. The street was quite deserted; not even a cat or a policeman moved on it and Van Bibber’s footsteps sounded brisk on the sidewalk. There was a great house at the corner of the avenue and the cross-street on which he was walking. The house faced the avenue and a stone wall ran back to the brown stone stable which opened on the side street. There was a door in this wall, and as Van Bibber approached it on his solitary walk it opened cautiously, and a man’s head appeared in it for an instant and was withdrawn again like a flash, and the door snapped to. Van Bibber stopped and looked at the door and at the house and up and down the street. The house was tightly closed, as though some one was lying inside dead, and the streets were still empty.

Van Bibber could think of nothing in his appearance so dreadful as to frighten an honest man, so he decided the face he had had a glimpse of must belong to a dishonest one. It was none of his business, he assured himself, but it was curious, and he liked adventure, and he would have liked to prove his friend the reporter, who did not believe in adventure, in the wrong. So he approached the door silently, and jumped and caught at the top of the wall and stuck one foot on the handle of the door, and, with the other on the knocker, drew himself up and looked cautiously down on the other side. He had done this so lightly that the only noise he made was the rattle of the door-knob on which his foot had rested, and the man inside thought that the one outside was trying to open the door, and placed his shoulder to it and pressed against it heavily. Van Bibber, from his perch on the top of the wall, looked down directly on the other’s head and shoulders. He could see the top of the man’s head only two feet below, and he also saw that in one hand he held a revolver and that two bags filled with projecting articles of different sizes lay at his feet.

It did not need explanatory notes to tell Van Bibber that the man below had robbed the big house on the corner, and that if it had not been for his having passed when he did the burglar would have escaped with his treasure. His first thought was that he was not a policeman, and that a fight with a burglar was not in his line of life; and this was followed by the thought that though the gentleman who owned the property in the two bags was of no interest to him, he was, as a respectable member of society, more entitled to consideration than the man with the revolver.

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The fact that he was now, whether he liked it or not, perched on the top of the wall like Humpty Dumpty, and that the burglar might see him and shoot him the next minute, had also an immediate influence on his movements. So he balanced himself cautiously and noiselessly and dropped upon the man’s head and shoulders, bringing him down to the flagged walk with him and under him. The revolver went off once in the struggle, but before the burglar could know how or from where his assailant had come, Van Bibber was standing up over him and had driven his heel down on his hand and kicked the pistol out of his fingers. Then he stepped quickly to where it lay and picked it up and said, “Now, if you try to get up I’ll shoot at you.” He felt an unwarranted and ill-timedly humorous inclination to add, “and I’ll probably miss you,” but subdued it. The burglar, much to Van Bibber’s astonishment, did not attempt to rise, but sat up with his hands locked across his knees and said: “Shoot ahead. I’d a damned sight rather you would.”

His teeth were set and his face desperate and bitter, and hopeless to a degree of utter hopelessness that Van Bibber had never imagined.

“Go ahead,” reiterated the man, doggedly, “I won’t move. Shoot me.”

It was a most unpleasant situation. Van Bibber felt the pistol loosening in his hand, and he was conscious of a strong inclination to lay it down and ask the burglar to tell him all about it.

“You haven’t got much heart,” said Van Bibber, finally. “You’re a pretty poor sort of a burglar, I should say.”

“What’s the use?” said the man, fiercely. “I won’t go back–I won’t go back there alive. I’ve served my time forever in that hole. If I have to go back again–s’help me if I don’t do for a keeper and die for it. But I won’t serve there no more.”

“Go back where?” asked Van Bibber, gently, and greatly interested; “to prison?”

“To prison, yes!” cried the man, hoarsely: “to a grave. That’s where. Look at my face,” he said, “and look at my hair. That ought to tell you where I’ve been. With all the color gone out of my skin, and all the life out of my legs. You needn’t be afraid of me. I couldn’t hurt you if I wanted to. I’m a skeleton and a baby, I am. I couldn’t kill a cat. And now you’re going to send me back again for another lifetime. For twenty years, this time, into that cold, forsaken hole, and after I done my time so well and worked so hard.” Van Bibber shifted the pistol from one hand to the other and eyed his prisoner doubtfully.

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“How long have you been out?” he asked, seating himself on the steps of the kitchen and holding the revolver between his knees. The sun was driving the morning mist away, and he had forgotten the cold.

“I got out yesterday,” said the man.

Van Bibber glanced at the bags and lifted the revolver. “You didn’t waste much time,” he said.

“No,” answered the man, sullenly, “no, I didn’t. I knew this place and I wanted money to get West to my folks, and the Society said I’d have to wait until I earned it, and I couldn’t wait. I haven’t seen my wife for seven years, nor my daughter. Seven years, young man; think of that–seven years. Do you know how long that is? Seven years without seeing your wife or your child! And they’re straight people, they are,” he added, hastily. “My wife moved West after I was put away and took another name, and my girl never knew nothing about me. She thinks I’m away at sea. I was to join ’em. That was the plan. I was to join ’em, and I thought I could lift enough here to get the fare, and now,” he added, dropping his face in his hands, “I’ve got to go back. And I had meant to live straight after I got West,–God help me, but I did! Not that it makes much difference now. An’ I don’t care whether you believe it or not neither,” he added, fiercely.

“I didn’t say whether I believed it or not,” answered Van Bibber, with grave consideration.

He eyed the man for a brief space without speaking, and the burglar looked back at him, doggedly and defiantly, and with not the faintest suggestion of hope in his eyes, or of appeal for mercy. Perhaps it was because of this fact, or perhaps it was the wife and child that moved Van Bibber, but whatever his motives were, he acted on them promptly. “I suppose, though,” he said, as though speaking to himself, “that I ought to give you up.”

“I’ll never go back alive,” said the burglar, quietly.

“Well, that’s bad, too,” said Van Bibber. “Of course I don’t know whether you’re lying or not, and as to your meaning to live honestly, I very much doubt it; but I’ll give you a ticket to wherever your wife is, and I’ll see you on the train. And you can get off at the next station and rob my house to-morrow night, if you feel that way about it. Throw those bags inside that door where the servant will see them before the milkman does, and walk on out ahead of me, and keep your hands in your pockets, and don’t try to run. I have your pistol, you know.”

The man placed the bags inside the kitchen door; and, with a doubtful look at his custodian, stepped out into the street, and walked, as he was directed to do, toward the Grand Central station. Van Bibber kept just behind him, and kept turning the question over in his mind as to what he ought to do. He felt very guilty as he passed each policeman, but he recovered himself when he thought of the wife and child who lived in the West, and who were “straight.”

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“Where to?” asked Van Bibber, as he stood at the ticket-office window. “Helena, Montana,” answered the man with, for the first time, a look of relief. Van Bibber bought the ticket and handed it to the burglar. “I suppose you know,” he said, “that you can sell that at a place down town for half the money.” “Yes, I know that,” said the burglar. There was a half-hour before the train left, and Van Bibber took his charge into the restaurant and watched him eat everything placed before him, with his eyes glancing all the while to the right or left. Then Van Bibber gave him some money and told him to write to him, and shook hands with him. The man nodded eagerly and pulled off his hat as the car drew out of the station; and Van Bibber came down town again with the shop girls and clerks going to work, still wondering if he had done the right thing.

He went to his rooms and changed his clothes, took a cold bath, and crossed over to Delmonico’s for his breakfast, and, while the waiter laid the cloth in the cafe, glanced at the headings in one of the papers. He scanned first with polite interest the account of the dance on the night previous and noticed his name among those present. With greater interest he read of the fight between “Dutchy” Mack and the “Black Diamond,” and then he read carefully how “Abe” Hubbard, alias “Jimmie the Gent,” a burglar, had broken jail in New Jersey, and had been traced to New York. There was a description of the man, and Van Bibber breathed quickly as he read it. “The detectives have a clew of his whereabouts,” the account said; “if he is still in the city they are confident of recapturing him. But they fear that the same friends who helped him to break jail will probably assist him from the country or to get out West.”

“They may do that,” murmured Van Bibber to himself, with a smile of grim contentment; “they probably will.”

Then he said to the waiter, “Oh, I don’t know. Some bacon and eggs and green things and coffee.”

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