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Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort and started walking toward Washington Square. The sun was warm, even though it was November, and everything looked like Sunday morning–the buses, and the well-dressed people walking slowly in couples and the quiet buildings with the windows closed.

Michael held Frances’ arm tightly as they walked downtown in the sunlight. They walked lightly, almost smiling, because they had slept late and had a good breakfast and it was Sunday. Michael unbuttoned his coat and let it flap around him in the mild wind. They walked, without saying anything, among the young and pleasant-looking people who somehow seem to make up most of the population of that section of New York City.
“Look out,” Frances said, as they crossed Eighth Street. “You’ll break your neck.”
Michael laughed and Frances laughed with him.
“She’s not so pretty, anyway,” Frances said. “Anyway, not pretty enough to take a chance breaking your neck looking at her.”
Michael laughed again. He laughed louder this time, but not as solidly. “She wasn’t a bad-looking girl. She had a nice complexion. Country-girl complexion. How did you know I was looking at her?” Frances cocked her head to one side and smiled at her husband under the tip-tilted brim of her hat. “Mike, darling . . .” she said.
Michael laughed, just a little laugh this time. “Okay,” he said. “The evidence is in. Excuse me. It was the complexion. It’s not the sort of complexion you see much in New York. Excuse me.”
Frances patted his arm lightly and pulled him along a little faster toward Washington Square.
“This is a nice morning,” she said. “This is a wonderful morning. When I have breakfast with you it makes me feel good all day.”
“Tonic,” Michael said. “Morning pickup. Rolls and coffee with Mike and you’re on the alkali side, guaranteed.”
“That’s the story. Also, I slept all night, wound around you like a rope.”
“Saturday night,” he said. “I permit such liberties only when the week’s work is done.”
“You’re getting fat,” she said.
“Isn’t it the truth? The lean man from Ohio.”
“I love it,” she said, “an extra five pounds of husband.”
“I love it, too,” Michael said gravely.
“I have an idea,” Frances said.
“My wife has an idea. That pretty girl.”
“Let’s not see anybody all day,” Frances said. “Let’s just hang around with each other. You and me. We’re always up to our neck in people, drinking their Scotch, or drinking our Scotch, we only see each other in bed . . .”
“The Great Meeting Place,” Michael said. “Stay in bed long enough and everybody you ever knew will show up there.”
“Wise guy,” Frances said. “I’m talking serious.”
“Okay, I’m listening serious.”
“I want to go out with my husband all day long. I want him to talk only to me and listen only to me.”
“What’s to stop us?” Michael asked. “What party intends to prevent me from seeing my wife alone on Sunday? What party?”
“The Stevensons. They want us to drop by around one o’clock and they’ll drive us into the country.”
“The lousy Stevensons,” Mike said. “Transparent. They can whistle. They can go driving in the country by themselves. My wife and I have to stay in New York and bore each other tˆte-…-tˆte.”
“Is it a date?”
“It’s a date.”
Frances leaned over and kissed him on the tip of the ear.
“Darling,” Michael said. “This is Fifth Avenue.”
“Let me arrange a program,” Frances said. “A planned Sunday in New York for a young couple with money to throw away.”
“Go easy.”
“First let’s go see a football game. A professional football game,” Frances said, because she knew Michael loved to watch them. “The Giants are playing. And it’ll be nice to be outside all day today and get hungry and later we’ll go down to Cavanagh’s and get a steak as big as a blacksmith’s apron, with a bottle of wine, and after that, there’s a new French picture at the Filmarte that everybody says… Say, are you listening to me?”
“Sure,” he said. He took his eyes off the hatless girl with the dark hair, cut dancer-style, like a helmet, who was walking past him with the self-conscious strength and grace dancers have. She was walking without a coat and she looked very solid and strong and her belly was flat, like a boy’s, under her skirt, and her hips swung boldly because she was a dancer and also because she knew Michael was looking at her. She smiled a little to herself as she went past and Michael noticed all these things before he looked back at his wife. “Sure,” he said, “we’re going to watch the Giants and we’re going to eat steak and we’re going to see a French picture. How do you like that?”
“That’s it,” Frances said flatly. “That’s the program for the day. Or maybe you’d just rather walk up and down Fifth Avenue.”
“No,” Michael said carefully. “Not at all.”
“You always look at other women,” Frances said. “At every damn woman in the city of New York.”
“Oh, come now,” Michael said, pretending to joke. “Only pretty ones. And, after all, how many pretty women are there in New York? Seventeen?”
“More. At least you seem to think so. Wherever you go.”
“Not the truth. Occasionally, maybe, I look at a woman as she passes. In the street. I admit, perhaps in the street I look at a woman once in a while. . . .”
“Everywhere,” Frances said. “Every damned place we go. Restaurants, subways, theaters, lectures, concerts.”
“Now, darling,” Michael said. “I look at everything. God gave me eyes and I look at women and men and subway excavations and moving pictures and the little flowers of the field. I casually inspect the universe.”
“You ought to see the look in your eye,” Frances said, “as you casually inspect the universe on Fifth Avenue.”
“I’m a happily married man.” Michael pressed her elbow tenderly, knowing what he was doing. “Example for the whole twentieth century, Mr. and Mrs. Mike Loomis.”
“You mean it?”
“Frances, baby . . .”
“Are you really happily married?”
“Sure,” Michael said, feeling the whole Sunday morning sinking like lead inside him. “Now what the hell is the sense in talking like that?”
“I would like to know.” Frances walked faster now, looking straight ahead, her face showing nothing, which was the way she always managed it when she was arguing or feeling bad.
“I’m wonderfully happily married,” Michael said patiently. “I am the envy of all men between the ages of fifteen and sixty in the state of New York.”
“Stop kidding,” Frances said.
“I have a fine home,” Michael said. “I got nice books and a phonograph and nice friends. I live in a town I like the way I like and I do the work I like and I live with the woman I like. Whenever something good happens, don’t I run to you? When something bad happens, don’t I cry on your shoulder?”
“Yes,” Frances said. “You look at every woman that passes.”
“That’s an exaggeration.”
“Every woman.” Frances took her hand off Michael’s arm. “If she’s not pretty you turn away fairly quickly. If she’s halfway pretty you watch her for about seven steps. . . .”
“My Lord, Frances!”
“If she’s pretty you practically break your neck . . .”
“Hey, let’s have a drink,” Michael said, stopping.
“We just had breakfast.”
“Now, listen, darling,” Mike said, choosing his words with care, “it’s a nice day and we both feel good and there’s no reason why we have to break it up. Let’s have a nice Sunday.”
“I could have a fine Sunday if you didn’t look as though you were dying to run after every skirt on Fifth Avenue.”
“Let’s have a drink,” Michael said.
“I don’t want a drink.”
“What do you want, a fight?”
“No,” Frances said, so unhappily that Michael felt terribly sorry for her. “I don’t want a fight. I don’t know why I started this. All right, let’s drop it. Let’s have a good time.”
They joined hands consciously and walked without talking among the baby carriages and the old Italian men in their Sunday clothes and the young women with Scotties in Washington Square Park.
“I hope it’s a good game today,” Frances said after a while, her tone a good imitation of the tone she had used at breakfast and at the beginning of their walk. “I like professional football games. They hit each other as though they’re made out of concrete. When they tackle each other,” she said, trying to make Michael laugh, “they make divots. It’s very exciting.”
“I want to tell you something,” Michael said very seriously. “I have not touched another woman. Not once. In all the five years.”
“All right,” Frances said.
“You believe that, don’t you?”
“All right.”
They walked between the crowded benches, under the scrubby citypark trees.
“I try not to notice it,” Frances said, as though she were talking to herself. “I try to make believe it doesn’t mean anything. Some men’re like that, I tell myself, they have to see what they’re missing.”
“Some women’re like that, too,” Michael said. “In my time I’ve seen a couple of ladies.”
“I haven’t even looked at another man,” Frances said, walking straight ahead, “since the second time I went out with you.”
“There’s no law,” Michael said.
“I feel rotten inside, in my stomach, when we pass a woman and you look at her and I see that look in your eye and that’s the way you looked at me the first time, in Alice Maxwell’s house. Standing there in the living room, next to the radio, with a green hat on and all those people.”
“I remember the hat,” Michael said.
“The same look,” Frances said. “And it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel terrible.”
“Sssh, please, darling, sssh. . . .”
“I think I would like a drink now,” Frances said.
They walked over to a bar on Eighth Street, not saying anything, Michael automatically helping her over curbstones and guiding her past automobiles. He walked, buttoning his coat, looking thoughtfully at his neatly shined heavy brown shoes as they made the steps toward the bar. They sat near a window in the bar and the sun streamed in, and there was a small cheerful fire in the fireplace. A little Japanese waiter came over and put down some pretzels and smiled happily at them.
“What do you order after breakfast?” Michael asked.
“Brandy, I suppose,” Frances said.
“Courvoisier,” Michael told the waiter. “Two Courvoisier.”
The waiter came with the glasses and they sat drinking the brandy in the sunlight. Michael finished half his and drank a little water.
“I look at women,” he said. “Correct. I don’t say it’s wrong or right, I look at them. If I pass them on the street and I don’t look at them, I’m fooling you, I’m fooling myself.”
“You look at them as though you want them,” Frances said, playing with her brandy glass. “Every one of them.”
“In a way,” Michael said, speaking softly and not to his wife, “in a way that’s true. I don’t do anything about it, but it’s true.”
“I know it. That’s why I feel bad.”
“Another brandy,” Michael called. “Waiter, two more brandies.”
“Why do you hurt me?” Frances asked. “What’re you doing?”
Michael sighed and closed his eyes and rubbed them gently with his fingertips. “I love the way women look. One of the things I like best about New York is the battalions of women. When I first came to New York from Ohio that was the first thing I noticed, the million wonderful women, all over the city. I walked around with my heart in my throat.”
“A kid,” Frances said. “That’s a kid’s feeling.”
“Guess again,” Michael said. “Guess again. I’m older now, I’m a man getting near middle age, putting on a little fat and I still love to walk along Fifth Avenue at three o’clock on the east side of the street between Fiftieth and Fifty-seventh streets, they’re all out then, making believe they’re shopping, in their furs and their crazy hats, everything all concentrated from all over the world into eight blocks, the best furs, the best clothes, the handsomest women, out to spend money and feeling good about it, looking coldly at you, making believe they’re not looking at you as you go past.”
The Japanese waiter put the two drinks down, smiling with great happiness.
“Everything is all right?” he asked.
“Everything is wonderful,” Michael said.
“If it’s just a couple of fur coats,” Frances said, “and forty-five-dollar hats . . .”
“It’s not the fur coats. Or the hats. That’s just the scenery for that particular kind of woman. Understand,” he said, “you don’t have to listen to this.”
“I want to listen.”
“I like the girls in the offices. Neat, with their eyeglasses, smart, chipper, knowing what everything is about, taking care of themselves all the time.” He kept his eye on the people going slowly past outside the window. “I like the girls on Forty-fourth Street at lunchtime, the actresses, all dressed up on nothing a week, talking to the good-looking boys, wearing themselves out being young and vivacious outside Sardi’s, waiting for producers to look at them. I like the salesgirls in Macy’s, paying attention to you first because you’re a man, leaving lady customers waiting, flirting with you over socks and books and phonograph needles. I got all this stuff accumulated in me because I’ve been thinking about it for ten years and now you’ve asked for it and here it is.”
“Go ahead,” Frances said.
“When I think of New York City, I think of all the girls, the Jewish girls, the Italian girls, the Irish, Polack, Chinese, German, Negro, Spanish, Russian girls, all on parade in the city. I don’t know whether it’s something special with me or whether every man in the city walks around with the same feeling inside him, but I feel as though I’m at a picnic in this city. I like to sit near the women in the theaters, the famous beauties who’ve taken six hours to get ready and look it. And the young girls at the football games, with the red cheeks, and when the warm weather comes, the girls in their summer dresses . . .” He finished his drink. “That’s the story. You asked for it, remember. I can’t help but look at them. I can’t help but want them.”
“You want them,” Frances repeated without expression. “You said that.”
“Right,” Michael said, being cruel now and not caring, because she had made him expose himself. “You brought this subject up for discussion, we will discuss it fully.”
Frances finished her drink and swallowed two or three times extra. “You say you love me?”
“I love you, but I also want them. Okay.”
“I’m pretty, too,” Frances said. “As pretty as any of them.”
“You’re beautiful,” Michael said, meaning it.
“I’m good for you,” Frances said, pleading. “I’ve made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I’d do any damn thing for you.”
“I know,” Michael said. He put his hand out and grasped hers.
“You’d like to be free to . . .” Frances said.
“Sssh.”
“Tell the truth.” She took her hand away from under his.
Michael flicked the edge of his glass with his finger. “Okay,” he said gently. “Sometimes I feel I would like to be free.”
“Well,” Frances said defiantly, drumming on the table, “anytime you say . . .”
“Don’t be foolish.” Michael swung his chair around to her side of the table and patted her thigh.
She began to cry, silently, into her handkerchief, bent over just enough so that nobody else in the bar would notice. “Someday,” she said, crying, “you’re going to make a move . . .”
Michael didn’t say anything. He sat watching the bartender slowly peel a lemon.
“Aren’t you?” Frances asked harshly. “Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren’t you?”
“Maybe,” Michael said. He moved his chair back again. “How the hell do I know?”
“You know,” Frances persisted. “Don’t you know?”
“Yes,” Michael said after a while. “I know.”
Frances stopped crying then. Two or three snuffles into the handkerchief and she put it away and her face didn’t tell anything to anybody. “At least do me one favor,” she said.
“Sure.”
“Stop talking about how pretty this woman is, or that one. Nice eyes, nice breasts, a pretty figure, good voice,” she mimicked his voice. “Keep it to yourself. I’m not interested.”
“Excuse me.” Michael waved to the waiter. “I’ll keep it to myself.”
Frances flicked the corner of her eyes. “Another brandy,” she told the waiter.
“Two,” Michael said.
“Yes, ma’am, yes, sir,” said the waiter, backing away.
Frances regarded him coolly across the table. “Do you want me to call the Stevensons?” she asked. “It’ll be nice in the country.”
“Sure,” Michael said. “Call them up.”
She got up from the table and walked across the room toward the telephone. Michael watched her walk, thinking, What a pretty girl, what nice legs.
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Serge Kapitonich Ahineev, the writing master, was marrying his daughter to the teacher of history and geography. The wedding festivities were going off most successfully. In the drawing room there was singing, playing, and dancing. Waiters hired from the club were flitting distractedly about the rooms, dressed in black swallowtails and dirty white ties. There was a continual hubub and din of conversation. Sitting side by side on the sofa, the teacher of mathematics, the French teacher, and the junior assessor of taxes were talking hurriedly and interrupting one another as they described to the guests cases of persons being buried alive, and gave their opinions on spiritualism. None of them believed in spiritualism, but all admitted that there were many things in this world which would always be beyond the mind of man. In the next room the literature master was explaining to the visitors the cases in which a sentry has the right to fire on passers-by. The subjects, as you perceive, were alarming, but very agreeable. Persons whose social position precluded them from entering were looking in at the windows from the yard.
Just at midnight the master of the house went into the kitchen to see whether everything was ready for supper. The kitchen from floor to ceiling was filled with fumes composed of goose, duck, and many other odors. On two tables the accessories, the drinks and light refreshments, were set out in artistic disorder. The cook, Marfa, a red-faced woman whose figure was like a barrel with a belt around it, was bustling about the tables.
“Show me the sturgeon, Marfa,” said Ahineev, rubbing his hands and licking his lips. “What a perfume! I could eat up the whole kitchen. Come, show me the sturgeon.”
Marfa went up to one of the benches and cautiously lifted a piece of greasy newspaper. Under the paper on an immense dish there reposed a huge sturgeon, masked in jelly and decorated with capers, olives, and carrots. Ahineev gazed at the sturgeon and gasped. His face beamed, he turned his eyes up. He bent down and with his lips emitted the sound of an ungreased wheel. After standing a moment he snapped his fingers with delight and once more smacked his lips.
“Ah-ah! the sound of a passionate kiss. . . . Who is it you’re kissing out there, little Marfa?” came a voice from the next room, and in the doorway there appeared the cropped head of the assistant usher, Vankin. “Who is it? A-a-h! . . . Delighted to meet you! Sergei Kapitonich! You’re a fine grandfather, I must say!”
“I’m not kissing,” said Ahineev in confusion. “Who told you so, you fool? I was only . . . I smacked my lips . . . in reference to . . . as an indication of. . . pleasure . . . at the sight of the fish.”
“Tell that to the marines!” The intrusive face vanished, wearing a broad grin.
Ahineev flushed.
“Hang it!” he thought, “the beast will go now and talk scandal. He’ll disgrace me to all the town, the brute.”
Ahineev went timidly into the drawing room and looked stealthily round for Vankin. Vankin was standing by the piano, and, bending down with a jaunty air, was whispering something to the inspector’s sister-in-law, who was laughing.
“Talking about me!” thought Ahineev. “About me, blast him! And she believes it . . . believes it! She laughs! Mercy on us! No, I can’t let it pass . . . I can’t. I must do something to prevent his being believed. . . . I’ll speak to them all, and he’ll be shown up for a fool and a gossip.”
Ahineev scratched his head, and still overcome with embarrassment, went up to the French teacher.
“I’ve just been in the kitchen to see after the supper,” he said to the Frenchman. “I know you are fond of fish, and I’ve a sturgeon, my dear fellow, beyond everything! A yard and a half long! Ha, ha, ha! And, by the way . . . I was just forgetting. . . . In the kitchen just now, with that sturgeon . . . quite a little story! I went into the kitchen just now and wanted to look at the supper dishes. I looked at the sturgeon and I smacked my lips with relish . . . at the piquancy of it. And at the very moment that fool Vankin came in and said: . . . ‘Ha, ha, ha! . . . So you’re kissing here!’ Kissing Marfa, the cook! What a thing to imagine, silly fool! The woman is a perfect fright, like all the beasts put together, and he talks about kissing! Queer fish!”
“Who’s a queer fish?” asked the mathematics teacher, coming up.
“Why he, over there–Vankin! I went into the kitchen . . .”
And he told the story of Vankin. “. . . He amused me, queer fish! I’d rather kiss a dog than Marfa, if you ask me,” added Ahineev. He looked round and saw behind him the junior assessor of taxes.
“We were talking of Vankin,” he said. “Queer fish, he is! He went into the kitchen, saw me beside Marfa, and began inventing all sorts of silly stories. ‘Why are you kissing?’ he says. He must have had a drop too much. ‘And I’d rather kiss a turkeycock than Marfa,’ I said, ‘And I’ve a wife of my own, you fool,’ said I. He did amuse me!”
“Who amused you?” asked the priest who taught Scripture in the school, going up to Ahineev.
“Vankin. I was standing in the kitchen, you know, looking at the sturgeon. . . .”
And so on. Within half an hour or so all the guests knew the incident of the sturgeon and Vankin.
“Let him tell away now!” thought Ahineev, rubbing his hands. “Let him! He’ll begin telling his story and they’ll say to him at once, ‘Enough of your improbable nonsense, you fool, we know all about it!”
And Ahineev was so relieved that in his joy he drank four glasses too many. After escorting the young people to their room, he went to bed and slept like an innocent babe, and next day he thought no more of the incident with the sturgeon. But, alas! man proposes, but God disposes. An evil tongue did its evil work, and Ahineev’s strategy was of no avail. Just a week later–to be precise, on Wednesday after the third lesson–when Ahineev was standing in the middle of the teacher’s room, holding forth on the vicious propensities of a boy called Visekin, the headmaster went up to him and drew him aside:
“Look here, Sergei Kapitonich,” said the headmaster, “you must excuse me. . . . It’s not my business; but all the same I must make you realize. . . . It’s my duty. You see, there are rumors that you are romancing with that . . . cook. . . . It’s nothing to do with me, but . . . flirt with her, kiss her . . . as you please, but don’t let it be so public, please. I entreat you! Don’t forget that you’re a schoolmaster.”
Ahineev turned cold and faint. He went home like a man stung by a whole swarm of bees, like a man scalded with boiling water. As he walked home, it seemed to him that the whole town was looking at him as though he were smeared with pitch. At home fresh trouble awaited him.
“Why aren’t you gobbling up your food as usual?” his wife asked him at dinner. “What are you so pensive about? Brooding over your amours? Pining for your Marfa? I know all about it, Mohammedan! Kind friends have opened my eyes! O-o-o! . . . you savage !”
And she slapped him in the face. He got up from the table, not feeling the earth under his feet, and without his hat or coat, made his way to Vankin. He found him at home.
“You scoundrel!” he addressed him. “Why have you covered me with mud before all the town? Why did you set this slander going about me?”
“What slander? What are you talking about?”
“Who was it gossiped of my kissing Marfa? Wasn’t it you? Tell me that. Wasn’t it you, you brigand?”
Vankin blinked and twitched in every fiber of his battered countenance, raised his eyes to the icon and articulated, “God blast me! Strike me blind and lay me out, if I said a single word about you! May I be left without house and home, may I be stricken with worse than cholera!”
Vankin’s sincerity did not admit of doubt. It was evidently not he who was the author of the slander.
“But who, then, who?” Ahineev wondered, going over all his acquaintances in his mind and beating himself on the breast. “Who, then?”

The boy sitting opposite him was his enemy.

The boy sitting opposite him was called Tigo, and he wore a green silk jacket with an orange stripe on each sleeve. The jacket told Danny that Tigo was his enemy. The jacket shrieked, “Enemy, enemy!”

“This is a good piece,” Tigo said, indicating the gun on the table.” This runs you close to forty-five bucks, you try to buy it in a store. That’s a lot of money.”

The gun on the table was a Smith & Wesson .38 Police Special.

It rested exactly in the center of the table, its sawed-off, two-inch barrel abruptly terminating the otherwise lethal grace of the weapon. There was a checked walnut stock on the gun, and the gun was finished in a flat blue. Alongside the gun were three .38 Special cartridges.

Danny looked at the gun disinterestedly. He was nervous and apprehensive, but he kept tight control of his face. He could not show Tigo what he was feeling. Tigo was the enemy, and so he presented a mask to the enemy, cocking one eyebrow and saying, “I seen pieces before. There’s nothing special about this one.” “Except what we got to do with it,” Tigo said. Tigo was studying him with large brown eyes. The eyes were moist-looking. He was not a bad-looking kid, Tigo, with thick black hair and maybe nose that was too long, but his mouth and chin were good. You could usually tell a cat by his mouth and his chin. Tigo would not turkey out of this particular rumble. Of that, Danny was sure. “Why don’t we start?” Danny asked. He wet his lips and looked across at Tigo.

“You understand,” Tigo said, “I got no bad blood for you.” “I understand.”

“This is what the club said. This is how the club said we should settle it. Without a big street diddlebop, you dig? But I want you to know I don’t know you from a hole in the wall-except you wear a blue and gold jacket.”

“And you wear a green and orange one,” Danny said,” and that’s enough for me.”

“Sure, but what I was trying to say…”

“We going to sit and talk all night, or we going to get this thing rolling?” Danny asked.

“What I’m tryin to say,” Tigo went on, “is that I just happened to be picked for this, you know? Like to settle this thing that’s between the two clubs I mean, you got to admit your boys shouldn’t have come in our territory last night.”

“I got to admit nothing,” Danny said flatly.

“Well, anyway, they shot at the candy store. That wasn’t right. There’s supposed to be a truce on.”

“Okay, okay,” Danny said.

“So like… like this is the way we agreed to settle it. I mean, one of us and… and one of you. Fair and square. Without any street boppin’, and without any law trouble.”

“Let’s get on with it,” Danny said.

“I’m trying to say, I never even seen you on the street before this. So this ain’t nothin’ personal with me. Whichever way it turns out, like…”

“I never seen you neither,” Danny said.

Tigo stared at him for a long time. “That’s cause you’re new around here. Where you from originally?”

“My people come down from the Bronx.”

“You got a big family?”

“A sister and two brothers, that’s all.”

“Yeah, I only got a sister.” Tigo shrugged. “Well.” He sighed. “So.” He sighed again. “Let’s make it, huh?”

“I’m waitin’,” Danny said.

Tigo picked up the gun, and then he took one of the cartridges from the table top. He broke open the gun, slid the cartridge into the cylinder, and then snapped the gun shut and twirled the cylinder. “Round and round she goes,” he said, “and where she stops, nobody knows. There’s six chambers in the cylinder and only one cartridge. That makes the odds five-to-one that the cartridge’ll be in firing position when the cylinder stops whirling. You dig?”

“I dig.”

“I’ll go first,” Tigo said.

Danny looked at him suspiciously. “Why?”

“You want to go first?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’m giving you a break.” Tigo grinned. “I may blow my head off first time out.”

“Why you giving me a break?” Danny asked.

Tigo shrugged. “What the hell’s the difference?” He gave the cylinder a fast twirl.

“The Russians invented this, huh?” Danny asked.

“Yeah.”

“I always said they was crazy bastards.”

“Yeah, I always…” Tigo stopped talking. The cylinder was stopped now. He took a deep breath, put the barrel of the .38 to his temple, and then squeezed the trigger.

The firing pin clicked on an empty chamber.

“Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?” he asked. He shoved the gun across the table. “Your turn, Danny.”

Danny reached for the gun. It was cold in the basement room, but he was sweating now. He pulled the gun toward him, then left it on the table while he dried his palms on his trousers. He picked up the gun then and stared at it.

“It’s a nifty piece,” Tigo said. “I like a good piece.”

“Yeah, I do too,” Danny said. “You can tell a good piece just by the way it feels in your hand.”

Tigo looked surprised. “I mentioned that to one of the guys yesterday, and he thought I was nuts.

“Lots of guys don’t know about pieces,” Danny said, shrugging. “I was thinking,” Tigo, said, “when I get old enough, I’ll join the Army, you know? I’d like to work around pieces.”

“I thought of that, too. I’d join now only my old lady won’t give me permission. She’s got to sign if I join now.”

“Yeah, they’re all the same,” Tigo said smiling. “Your old lady born here or the old country?”

“The old country,” Danny said.

“Yeah, well you know they got these old-fashioned ideas.”

“I better spin,” Danny said.

“Yeah,” Tigo agreed.

Danny slapped the cylinder with his left hand. The cylinder whirled, whirled, and then stopped. Slowly, Danny put the gun to his head. He wanted to close his eyes, but he didn’t dare. Tigo, the enemy, was watching him. He returned Tigo’s stare, and then he squeezed the trigger.

His heart skipped a beat, and then over the roar of his blood he heard the empty click. Hastily, he put the gun down on the table.

“Makes you sweat, don’t it?” Tigo said.

Danny nodded, saying nothing. He watched Tigo. Tigo was looking at the gun.

“Me now, huh?” Tigo said. He took a deep breath, then picked up the .38. He twirled the cylinder, waited for it to stop, and then put the gun to his head.

“Bang!” Tigo said, and then he squeezed the trigger. Again the firing pin clicked on an empty chamber. Tigo let out his breath and put the gun down.

“I thought I was dead that time,” he said.

“I could hear the harps,” Danny said.

“This is a good way to lose weight, you know that?” Tigo laughed nervously, and then his laugh became honest when he saw Danny was laughing with him. “Ain’t it the truth?” You could lose ten pounds this way.”

“My old lady’s like a house,” Danny said laughing. “She ought to try this kind of a diet.” He laughed at his own humor, pleased when Tigo joined him.

“That’s the trouble,” Tigo said. “You see a nice deb in the street, you think it’s crazy, you know? Then they get to be our people’s age, and they turn to fat.” He shook his head.

“You got a chick?” Danny asked.

“Yeah, I got one.”

“What’s her name?”

“Aw, you don’t know her.”

“Maybe I do,” Danny said.

“Her name is Juana.” Tigo watched him. “She’s about five-two, got these brown eyes…”

“I think I know her,” Danny said. He nodded. “Yeah, I think I know her.”

“She’s nice, ain’t she?” Tigo asked. He leaned forward, as if Danny’s answer was of great importance to him.

“Yeah she’s nice,” Danny said.

“Yeah. Hey maybe sometime we could…” Tigo cut himself short. He looked down at the gun, and his sudden enthusiasm seemed to ebb completely. “It’s you turn,” he said.

“Here goes nothing,” Danny said. He twirled the cylinder, sucked in his breath, and then fired.

The emptily click was loud in the stillness of the room.

“Man!” Danny said.

“We’re pretty lucky, you know?” Tigo said.

“So far.”

“We better lower the odds. The boys won’t like it if we…” He stopped himself again, and then reached for one of the cartridges on the table. He broke open the gun again, slipped in the second cartridge into the cylinder. “Now we got two cartridges in here,” he said. “Two cartridges, six chambers. That’s four-to-two. Divide it, and you get two-to-two.” He paused. “You game?”

“That’s… that’s what we’re here for, ain’t it?”

“Sure.”

“Okay then.”

“Gone,” Tigo said, nodding his head. “You got courage, Danny.”

“You’re the one needs the courage,” Danny said gently. “It’s your spin.”

“Tigo lifted the gun. Idly, he began spinning the cylinder.

“You live on the next block, don’t you?” Danny asked.

“Yeah.” Tigo kept slapping the cylinder. It spun with a gently whirring sound.

“That’s how come we never crossed paths, I guess. Also, I’m new on the scene.”

“Yeah, well you know, you get hooked up with one club, that’s the way it is.”

“You like the guys on you club?” Danny asked, wondering why he was asking such a stupid question, listening to the whirring of the cylinder at the same time.

“They’re okay.” Tigo shrugged. “None of them really send me, but that’s the club on my block, so what’re you gonna do, huh?” His hand left the cylinder. It stopped spinning. He put the gun to his head.

“Wait!” Danny said.

Tigo looked puzzled. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I just wanted to say… I mean…” Danny frowned. “I don’t dig too many of the guys on my club, either.”

Tigo nodded. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then Tigo shrugged, and fired.

The empty click filled the basement room.

“Phew,” Tigo said.

“Man, you can say that again.”

Tigo slid the gun across the table.

Danny hesitated an instant. He did not want to pick up the gun. He felt sure that this time the firing pin would strike the percussion cap of one of the cartridges. He was sure that this time he would shoot himself.

“Sometimes I think I’m turkey,” he said to Tigo, surprised that his thoughts had found voice.

“I feel that way sometimes, too,” Tigo said.

“I never told that to nobody,” Danny said. “The guys on my club would laugh at me, I ever told them that.”

“Some things you got to keep to yourself. There ain’t nobody you can trust in this world.”

“There should be somebody you can trust,” Danny said. “Hell, you can’t tell nothing to your people. They don’t understand.” Tigo laughed. “That’s an old story. But that’s the way things are. What’re you gonna do?”

“Yeah. Still, sometimes I think I’m turkey.”

“Sure, sure,” Tigo said. “It ain’t only that, though. Like sometimes… well, don’t you wonder what you’re doing stomping some guy in the street? Like … you know what I mean? Like … who’s the guy to you? What you got to beat him up for? ‘Cause he messed with somebody else’s girl?” Tigo shook his head. “It gets complicated sometimes.”

“Yeah, but …” Danny frowned again. “You got to stick with the club. Don’t you?”

“Sure, sure … hell yes.” Again, their eyes locked.

“Well, here goes.” Danny said. He lifted the gun. “It’s just …” He shook his head, and then twirled the cylinder. The cylinder spun, and then stopped. He studied the gun, wondering if one of the cartridges would roar from the barrel when he squeezed the trigger.

Then he fired.

Click.

“I didn’t think you was going through with it,” Tigo said.

“I didn’t neither.”

“You got heart, Danny,” Tigo said. He looked at the gun. He picked it up and broke it open.

“What you doing?” Danny asked.

“Another cartridge,” Tigo said. “Six chambers, three cartridges. That makes it even money. You game?”

“You?” “The boys said… ” Tigo stopped talking. “Yeah, I’m game,” he added, his voice curiously low.

“It’s your turn, you know.”

“I know,” Danny watched as Tigo picked up the gun.

“You ever been rowboating on the lake?”

Tigo looked across the table at Danny, his eyes wide. “Once,” he said. “I went with Juana.”

“Is it … is it any kicks?”

“Yeah. Yeah, its grand kicks. You mean you never been?”

“No,” Danny said.

“Hey, you got to tryin, man,” Tigo said excitedly. “You’ll like it. Hey, you try it.”

“Yeah, I was thinking maybe this Sunday I’d … ” He did not complete the sentence.

“My spin,” Tigo said wearily. He twirled the cylinder. “Here goes a good man,” he said, and he put the revolver to his head and squeezed the trigger.

Click.

Danny smiled nervously. “No rest for the weary,” he said. “But Jesus you’ve got the heart. I don’t know if I can go through with it.”

Sure, you can,” Tigo assured him. “Listen, what’s there to be afraid of?” He slid the gun across the table.

“We keep this up all night?” Danny asked.

“They said … you know … ”

“Well, it ain’t so bad. I mean, hell, we didn’t have this operation, we wouldn’ta got a chance to talk, huh?” He grinned feebly.

“Yeah,” Tigo said, his face splitting in a wide grin. “It ain’t been so bad, huh?”

“No, it’s been … well, you know, these guys on the club, who can talk to them?”

He picked up the gun. “We could …” Tigo started.

“What?”

“We could say … well … like we kept shootin’ an’ nothing happened, so …” Tigo shrugged. “What the hell! We can’t do this all night, can we?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let’s make this the last spin. Listen, they don’t like it, they can take a flying leap, you know?”

“I don’t think they’ll like it. We’re supposed to settle this for the clubs.”

“Screw the clubs!” Tigo said. “Can’t we pick our own …” The word was hard coming. When it came, his eyes did not leave Danny’s face. “… friends?”

“Sure we can,” Danny said vehemently. “Sure we can! Why not?”

“The last spin,” Tigo said. “Come on, the last spin.”

“Gone,” Danny said. “Hey you know, I’m glad they got this idea. You know that? I’m actually glad!” He twirled the cylinder. “Look, you want to go on the lake this Sunday? I mean with your girl and mine? We could get two boats. Or even one if you want.” “Yeah, one boat,” Tigo Said. “Hey, your girl’ll like Juana, I mean it. She’s a swell chick.”

The cylinder stopped. Danny put the gun to his head quickly.

“Here’s to Sunday,” he said. He grinned at Tigo, and Tigo grinned back, and then Danny fired.

The explosion rocked the small basement room, ripping away half of Danny’s head, shattering his face. A small cry escaped Tigo’s throat, and a look of incredulous shock knifed his eyes. Then he put his head on the table and began weeping.

Back to Top

 

When love with uncommon force

Demands complete surrender

Old Age must an idea perforce

Lose domain it had before;

Years bind such outward sinews

Of Time as Autumn limns the eye:

Seasons like ages fall to disuse

And with Spring proves a lie.

 

Stone walls do not a prison make

Nor what lies an Age tells

I cannot with good sense take

When Love made me break the walls-

Bonds of my nine month ordeal,

I shall no wise exchange for another

Though be cast in gold and silver, a deal

Fit for dumb and the stupid in hell.

Benny
Original

To Althea from prison by Richard Lovelace,1642

When love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fettered to her eye,
The gods that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round,
With no allaying Thames,
Our careless heads with roses bound,
Our hearts with loyal flames;
When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
When healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the deep
Know no such liberty.

When like committed linnets I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King:
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlarged winds, that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage:
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.

 

 

 

 

Boar- pen drawing

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled–but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good-will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

He had a weak point–this Fortunato–although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity–to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack–but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially: I was skillful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting party-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

I said to him: “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day! But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”

“How?” said he. “Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”

“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”

“Amontillado!”

“I have my doubts.”

“Amontillado!”

“And I must satisfy them.”

“Amontillado!”

“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn, it is he. He will tell me– ”

“Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”

“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”

“Come, let us go.”

“Whither?”

“To your vaults.”

“My friend, no. I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi–”

“I have no engagement–come.”

“My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre.”

“Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado.”

Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself of my arm. Putting on a mask of black silk, and drawing a roquelaure closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo.

There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.

The gait of my friend was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he strode.

“The pipe,” said he.

“It is farther on,” said I; “but observe the white webwork which gleams from these cavern walls.”

He turned towards me, and looked into my eyes with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication.

“Nitre?” he asked, at length.

“Nitre,” I replied. “How long have you had that cough?”

“Ugh! ugh! ugh!–ugh! ugh! ugh!–ugh! ugh! ugh!–ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh! ugh!”

My poor friend found it impossible to reply. for many minutes.

“It is nothing,” he said at last.

“Come,” I said, with decision, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi–”

“Enough,” he said: “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”

“True–true.” I replied; “and indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily–but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps.”

Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.

“Drink,” I said, presenting him the wine.

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.

“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”

“And I to your long life.”

He again took my arm, and we proceeded.

“These vaults,” he said, “are extensive.”

“The Montresors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”

“I forget your arms.”

“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel.”

“And the motto?”

Nemo me impune lacessit.”

“Good!” he said.

The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc. We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs. I paused again, and this time I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.

“The nitre!” I said; “see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough–”

“It is nothing,” he said; “let us go on. But first, another draught of the Medoc.”

I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grâve. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed, and threw the bottle upward with a gesticulation I did not understand.

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement–a grotesque one.

“You do not comprehend?” he said.

“Not I,” I replied.

“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”

“How?”

“You are not of the masons.”

“Yes, yes,” I said, “yes, yes.”

“You? Impossible! A mason?”

“A mason,” I replied.

“A sign,” he said.

“It is this,” I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaure.

“You jest,” he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Amontillado.”

“Be it so,” I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak, and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and, descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.

At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use within itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.

It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavored to pry into the depth of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.

“Proceed,” I said; “herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchesi–”

“He is an ignoramus,” interrupted my friend, as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In an instant he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fetteredhim to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key, I stepped back from the recess.

“Pass your hand,” I said, “over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed it is verydamp. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power.”

“The Amontillado!” ejaculated my friend, not yet recovered from his astonishment.

“True,” I replied; “the Amontillado.”

As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building-stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the masonwork, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated–I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I reëchoed–I aided–I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still.

It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said:

“Ha! ha! ha!–he! he! he!–a very good joke indeed–an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo–he! he! he!–over our wine–he! he! he!”

“The Amontillado!” I said.

“He! he! he!–he! he! he!–yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo–the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone.”

“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”

But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud:

“Fortunato!”

No answer. I called again:

“Fortunato!”

No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick–on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I reërected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the look-out for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard. To-morrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honour of being owned by Jim.
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its colour within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the Queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out of the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her, rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she cluttered out of the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mme Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One Eight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 78 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task dear friends–a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”
At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please, God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice-what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with a sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy Your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men-who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
(Ack:classicshorts.com)