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Felix Looms, the well-known author, disappeared - or, rather, he went away - on or about June fifteenth, four years ago. He told his friends, his landlady and his publisher - he had no immediate family - he felt run down and debilitated and he meant to go away for a good long stay. He might try the Orient; then again perhaps he would go to the South Seas. When he came back, which might be in a year or two years or even three, he expected to bring with him the material for a longer and better book than any he had written. Meantime he wanted to cut loose, as he put it, from everything. He intended, he said, to write no letters while he was gone and he expected to receive none.Cobb is remembered best for his humorous stories of Kentucky and is part of the American literary regionalism school. These stories were collected first in the book Old Judge Priest (1915), whose title character was based on a prominent West Kentucky judge named William Pitman Bishop. Writer Joel Harris wrote of these tales, "Cobb created a South peopled with honorable citizens, charming eccentrics, and loyal, subservient blacks, but at their best the Judge Priest stories are dramatic and compelling, using a wealth of precisely rendered detail to evoke a powerful mood."Among his other books are the humorous Speaking of Operations (1916), and anti-prohibition ode to bourbon, Red Likker (1929).
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CHAPTER I: LOCAL COLOR
CHAPTER II: FIELD OF HONOR
CHAPTER III: THE SMART ALECK
CHAPTER IV: BLACKER THAN SIN
CHAPTER V: THE EYES OF THE WORLD
CHAPTER VI: THE GREAT AUK
CHAPTER VII: FIRST CORINTHIANS CHAP. XIII., v.4
CHAPTER VIII: ENTER THE VILLAIN
CHAPTER IX: PERSONA AU GRATIN
CHAPTER X: SMOOTH CROSSING
FELIX LOOMS, THE WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR, disappeared—or, rather, he went away—on or about June fifteenth, four years ago. He told his friends, his landlady and his publisher—he had no immediate family—he felt run down and debilitated and he meant to go away for a good long stay. He might try the Orient; then again perhaps he would go to the South Seas. When he came back, which might be in a year or two years or even three, he expected to bring with him the material for a longer and better book than any he had written. Meantime he wanted to cut loose, as he put it, from everything. He intended, he said, to write no letters while he was gone and he expected to receive none. He gave a power of attorney to a lawyer with whom he had occasional dealings, left in bank a modest balance to meet any small forgotten bills that might turn up after his departure, surrendered his bachelor apartments in the Rubens Studio Building, paid off his housekeeper, said good-bye to a few persons, wrote explanatory notes to a few more; and then quietly—as he did everything in this life—he vanished. Nobody particularly missed him, for he was not a famous author or even a popular one; he was merely well known as a writer of tales dealing in the main with crime and criminals and criminology. People that liked his writings said he was a realist, who gave promise of bigger things. People that did not like his writings said he was a half-baked socialist. One somewhat overcritical reviewer, who had a bad liver and a bitter pen, once compared him to an ambitious but immature hen pullet, laying many eggs but all soft-shelled and all of them deficient in yolk. Personally Felix Looms was a short, slender, dark man, approaching forty, who wore thick glasses and coats that invariably were too long in the sleeves. In company he was self-effacing; in a crowd he was entirely lost, if you know what I mean. He did not know many people and was intimate with none of those he did know. Quite naturally his departure for parts unknown left his own little literary puddle unrippled. Looms went away and he did not come back. His publisher never heard from him again; nor did his lawyer nor the manager of the warehouse where he had stored his heavier belongings. When three years had passed, and still no word came from him, his acquaintances thought—such of them as gave him a thought—that he must have died somewhere out in one of the back corners of the East. He did die too; but it was not in the East. He died within a block and a half of the club of his lawyer and not more than a quarter of a mile from the town house of his publisher. However, that detail, which is inconsequential, will come up later. At about seven-forty-five on the evening of June seventeenth, four years ago, Patrolman Matthew Clabby was on duty—fixed post duty—at the corner of Thirty-fourth Street and Second Avenue. According to the report made by him at the time to his immediate superior and subsequently repeated by him under oath before the grand jury and still later at the trial, his attention was attracted—to use the common formula—by a disturbance occurring on a crosstown trolley car, eastward bound, which had halted just west of the corner. Patrolman Clabby boarded the car to find a small, shabby man endeavouring to break away from a larger and better-dressed man, who held him fast by the collar. In reply to the officer’s questions the large man stated that he had detected the small one in the act of picking his pocket. He had waited, he said, until the other lifted his watch and chain and then had seized him and held him fast and called for help. At least three citizens, passengers on the car, confirmed the main points of the accuser’s story. For added proof there were the watch and chain. They were in the thief’s side coat pocket. With his own large firm hands Patrolman Clabby fished them out from there and confiscated them for purposes of evidence. As for the prisoner, he said nothing at all. The policeman totted down in his little book the names and addresses of the eyewitnesses. This done, he took the small man and led him off afoot to the East Thirty-fifth Street Station, the owner of the watch going along to make a formal charge. Before the desk in the station house this latter person said he was named Hartigan—Charles Edward Hartigan, a private detective by occupation; and he repeated his account of the robbery, with amplifications. The pickpocket gave his name as James Williams and his age as thirty-eight, but declined to tell where he lived, what occupation he followed, or what excuse he had for angling after other people’s personal property on a crosstown car. At this juncture Clabby grabbed one of his prisoner’s hands and ran a finger over its inner surface, seeking for callosities of the palm; then he nodded meaningly to the desk lieutenant. “I guess he’s a dip all right, Loot,” said Clabby; “the inside of his hand is as soft as a baby’s.” “Take him back!” said the lieutenant briefly. Before obeying, Clabby faced the man about and searched him, the search revealing a small amount of money but no objects that might serve for the prisoner’s better identification. So, handling James Williams as casually and impersonally as though he were merely a rather unwieldy parcel, Clabby propelled him rearward along a passageway and turned him over to a turnkey, who turned him into a cell and left him there—though not very long. Within an hour he was taken in a patrol wagon to the night court, sitting at Jefferson Market, where an irritable magistrate held him, on the strength of a short affidavit by Clabby, to await the action of the grand jury. Thereafter for a period James Williams, so far as the processes of justice were concerned, ceased to be a regular human being and became a small and inconspicuous grain in the whirring hopper of the law. He was as one pepper-corn in a crowded bin—one atom among a multitude of similar atoms. Yet the law from time to time took due cognisance of this mote’s existence. For example, on the morning of the eighteenth a closed van conveyed him to the Tombs. For further example, an assistant district attorney, in about a month, introduced Clabby and Hartigan before the July grand jury. It took the grand jury something less than five minutes to vote an indictment charging James Williams with grand larceny; and ten days later it took a judge of General Sessions something less than three-quarters of an hour to try the said Williams. The proceedings in this regard were entirely perfunctory. The defendant at the bar had no attorney. Accordingly the judge assigned to the task of representing him a fledgling graduate of the law school. Hartigan testified; Clabby testified; two eyewitnesses, a bricklayer and a bookkeeper, testified—all for the state. The prisoner could produce no witnesses in his own behalf and he declined to take the stand himself, which considerably simplified matters. Red and stuttering with stage fright, the downy young law-school graduate made a brief plea for his client on the ground that no proof had been offered to show his client had a previous criminal record. Perfunctorily the young assistant district attorney summed up. In a perfunctory way the judge charged the jury; and the jury filed out, and—presumably in a perfunctory fashion also—took a ballot and were back in less than no time at all with a verdict of guilty. James Williams, being ordered to stand up, stood up; being ordered to furnish his pedigree for the record, he refused to do so; being regarded, therefore, as a person who undoubtedly had a great deal to conceal, he was denied the measure of mercy that frequently is bestowed on first offenders. His Honour gave him an indeterminate sentence of not less than three years at hard labour in state prison, and one of the evening newspapers gave him three lines in the appropriate ratio of one line for each year. In three days more James Williams was at Sing Sing, wearing among other things a plain grey suit, a close hair-cut and a number, learning how to make shoes.
Now then, the task for me is to go back and begin this story where properly it should begin. Felix Looms, the well-known writer who went away on or about June fifteenth, and James Williams, who went to jail June seventeenth for picking a pocket, were one and the same person; or perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that James Williams was Felix Looms. Lest my meaning be misunderstood let me add that this is no tale of a reversion to type. It has nothing whatever to do with any suddenly awakened hereditary impulse. In the blend of Felix Looms’ breed no criminal strain persisted. His father was a Congregational preacher from Massachusetts and his mother a district school-teacher from Northern New York. His grandsires, on both sides, were good, clean-strain American stock. So far as we know, never a bad skeleton had rattled its bones in his family’s closet. He himself was a product of strict training in a Christian home, a Yale education and much book reading. The transition from Felix Looms, bookworm, author and sociologist, to James Williams, common rogue and convict, was accomplished deliberately, and, as it were, with malice aforethought. Here was how the thing came about. Secretly, through a period of years, Felix Looms had nursed an ambition to write a great novel of prison life. It is true he had written a number of short stories and at least one novelette dealing with prison life, and, what was more to the point, had sold them after writing them; but they lacked sincerity. There was neither sureness nor assurance about them. He felt this lack; his publishers felt it; and in a way his readers no doubt felt it too, without knowing exactly why they felt it. It is one of the inexplicable mysteries of the trade of writing that no man, however well he handles the tools of that trade, can write convincingly of things about which he personally does not know. A man might aspire, let us say, to write a story with scenes laid in Northern Africa. In preparation for this task he might read a hundred volumes about Northern Africa, its soil, its climate, its natives, its characteristics. He might fairly saturate himself in literature pertaining to Northern Africa; then sit him down and write his story. Concede him to be a good craftsman; concede that the story was well done; that his descriptions were strong, his phrasing graphic, his technic correct—nevertheless, it would lack that quality they call plausibility. Somehow the reader would sense that this man had never seen Northern Africa with his own eyes or breathed its air with his own nostrils. To this rule there are two exceptions: A writer may write of things that happened in a past generation, after the last man of that generation is dead—therefore historical novelists are common; or, provided his imagination be sufficiently plastic, he may write of things that are supposed to happen in the future—he may even describe the inhabitants of the planet Mars and their scheme of existence. None will gainsay him, seeing that no contemporary of his has been to Mars or knows more of the conditions that will prevail a year or a century hence than he knows. But where he deals with the actualities of his own day and time he must know those actualities at first hand, else his best efforts fall to the ground and are of no avail. He simply cannot get away with it. Hearsay evidence always was poor evidence. Felix Looms knew this. In his own case he knew it better than his readers knew it—or even his publisher. Critical analysis of his work had revealed its flaws to him until in his own soul he was ashamed and humiliated, feeling himself to be a counterfeiter uttering a most spurious coinage. So one day he said to himself: “The worst thing in our modern civilisation is a prison. It is wrong and we know it is wrong; and yet we have devised nothing to take its place. A prison is crime’s chemical laboratory; it is a great retort where virulent poisons are distilled. Civilisation maintains it in the hope of checking certain gross evils; yet in it and by it evils as great are born and fostered. And the truth about it has never been told in the form of fiction, which is the most convincing form of telling the truth. Always the trouble has been that the people who have been in prison could not write about it and the people who could write about it have not been in prison. “I know I could write about it, and so I am going to prison. I shall go to prison for one year, perhaps two or possibly three years; and when I come out I shall write a novel about prison life that will make my name live after me, for I shall know my facts at first hand—I shall have the local colour of a prison in my grip as no other man has ever had it who had my powers as a writer. I am going to gamble with this thing—the prison. I will give it a slice out of my life for the sake of the great work I shall do afterward.” Mind you, I am not saying he put his big idea—for surely it was an idea and a big one—in exactly those words; but that was his thought. And when he came to work out the plan he was astonished to find how easy it was to devise and to accomplish. Thanks to his mode of life, his practical isolation in the midst of five million other beings, he needed to confide in but one person; and in Hartigan he found that person. Hartigan, a veteran of the detective business, who knew and kept almost as many intimate secrets as a father confessor, showed surprise just twice—first when Looms confided to him his purpose and again when he learned how generously Looms was willing to pay for his co-operation. Besides, as Looms at their first meeting pointed out and as Hartigan saw for himself, there was no obligation upon him to do anything that was actually wrong. Aboard that crosstown car Looms did really take a watch from Hartigan’s pocket. Whatever the motive behind the act, the act spoke for itself. All that Hartigan told under oath on the witness stand was straight enough. It was what he did not tell that mortised the fabric of their plot together and made the thing dovetail, whole truth with half truth. At the very worst they had merely conspired—he as accessory and Looms as principal—to cheat the state of New York out of sundry years of free board and freedomless lodgings at an establishment wherein probably no other man since it was built had ever schemed of his own free will to abide. So Hartigan, the private detective, having first got his fee, eventually got his watch back and now disappears from this narrative. So Felix Looms, the seeker after local colour, gave up his bachelor apartments in the Rubens Studio Building and went away, leaving no forwarding address behind him. So James Williams, the petty felon, with no known address except the size number in his hat, went up the river to serve an indeterminate sentence of not less than three years.
From the hour he entered the Tombs on that morning of the eighteenth of June, Felix Looms began to store up material against the day when he should transmute it into the written word. Speaking exactly, he began storing it up even sooner than that. The thrill and excitement of the arrest, the arraignment before the cross magistrate in the night court, the night in the station-house cell—all these things provided him with startlingly new and tremendously vivid sensations. Indeed, at the moment his probing fingers closed on Hartigan’s watch the mind pictures began to form and multiply inside his head. Naturally, the Tombs had been most prolific of impressions; the local colour fairly swarmed and spawned there. He had visited the Tombs once before in his life, but he knew now that he had not seen it then. Behind a mask of bars and bolts it had hidden its real organism from him who had come in the capacity of a sightseer; but now, as an inmate, guarded and watched and tended in his cell like a wild beast in a show, he got under the skin of it. With the air he breathed—and it was most remarkably bad air—he took in and absorbed the flavour of the place. He sensed it all—the sordid small intrigues; the playing of favourites by the turnkeys; the smuggling; the noises; the smells; the gossip that ran from tier to tier; the efforts of each man confined there to beat the law, against which each of them presumably had offended. It was as though he could see a small stream of mingled hope and fear pouring from beneath the patterned grill of each cell door to unite in a great flood that roared unendingly off and away to the courts beyond. Mentally Felix Looms sought to put himself in the attitude of the men and women about him—these bona fide thieves and murderers and swindlers and bigamists who through every waking hour plotted and planned for freedom. That was the hardest part of his job. He could sense how they felt without personally being able to feel what they felt. As yet he took no notes, knowing that when he reached Sing Sing he would be stripped skin-bare and searched; but his brain was like a classified card index, in which he stored and filed a thousand and one thoughts. Hourly he gave thanks for a systematic and tenacious memory. And so day by day his copy and his local colour accumulated and the first chapters of his novel took on shape and substance in his mind. Lying on the hard bed in his cell he felt the creative impulse stirring him, quickening his imagination until all his senses fairly throbbed to its big, deep harmonies. The present discomforts of his position, the greater discomforts that surely awaited him, filmed away to nothingness in the vision of the great thing he meant to accomplish. He told himself he was merely about to barter a bit out of his life for that for which a writer lives—the fame that endures; and he counted it a good bargain and an easy one. In the period between his arrest and his conviction Felix Looms had one fear, and one only—that at his trial he might be recognised. He allowed his beard to grow, and on the day the summons came for him to go to court he laid aside his glasses. As it happened, no person was at the trial who knew him; though had such a person been there it is highly probable that he would not have recognised Felix Looms, the smugly dressed, spectacled, close-shaved man of letters, in this shabby, squinting, whiskered malefactor who had picked a citizen’s pocket before the eyes of other citizens. With him to Sing Sing for confinement went four others—a Chinese Tong fighter bound for the death house and the death chair; an Italian wife-murderer under a life sentence; a young German convicted of forgery; and a negro loft robber—five felons all told, with deputies to herd them. Except the negro, Looms was the only native-born man of the five. The Chinaman, an inoffensive-looking little saffron-hided man, was manacled between two deputies. Seeing that the state would presently be at some pains to kill him, the state meantime was taking the very best of care of him. The remaining four were hitched in pairs, right wrist of one to left wrist of the other. A deputy marched with each coupled pair and a deputy marched behind. Looms’ fetter-mate was the Italian, who knew no English—or, at least, spoke none during the journey. A prison van carried them from the Tombs to the Grand Central Station. It was barred and boarded like a circus cage—the van was—and like a circus cage it had small grated vents at each end, high up. A local train carried them from the station to Sing Sing. From start to finish, including the van ride, the journey took a little less than three hours. Three hours to get there, and three years to get back! Felix Looms made a mental note of this circumstance as he sat in his seat next the car window, with the wife-murderer beside him. He liked the line. It would make a good chapter heading. The town of Ossining, where Sing Sing is, is a hilly town, the railroad station being at the foot of a hill, with the town mounting up uneven terraces on one side and the prison squatting flat on the river bank on the other. Arriving at Ossining, special and distinguishing honours were paid to the little yellow Chinaman. In a ramshackle village hack, with his two guards, he rode up a winding street, across a bridge spanning the railroad tracks, and then along a ridge commanding a view of the Hudson to the prison. The four lesser criminals followed the same route, but afoot. They scuffled along through the dust their feet kicked up, and before their walk was done grew very sweaty and hot. The townspeople they met barely turned their heads to watch the little procession as it passed; for to them this was an every-day occurrence—as common a sight as a bread wagon or a postman. It was not a long walk for the four. Quite soon they came to their destination. An iron door opened for them and in they went, two by two. Felix Looms saw how the German forger, who was ahead of him, flinched up against the negro as the door crashed behind them; but to Looms the sound the door made was a welcome sound. Secretly a high exaltation possessed him.
For a fact, this man who meant to learn about prison life at first hand went to the right place when he went to Sing Sing; for Sing Sing, the main part of it, was built in 1825-28, nearly a hundred years ago, when the punishment of imprisonment meant the punishment of soul and body and mind. In 1825 the man who for his misdeeds forfeited his liberty and his civil rights forfeited also the right to be considered in any wise a human being. As an animal he was regarded and as an animal he was treated, and as an animal he became. The institution made a beast not only of him but of the man who was set to keep him. Also, in such by-products as disease and degeneracy the plant was especially prolific. The cell house, the dominating structure within the prison close, must look to-day very much as it looked along toward the end of the third decade of last century. Straight-walled, angular, homely beyond conception, it rises high above the stone stockade that surrounds it. Once its interior was lighted and aired only by narrow windows. You could hardly call them windows—they were like slits; they were like seams. About twenty years ago large inlets were cut into the walls. These inlets admit much air and some light. As the cell house is the core of Sing Sing, so the cell structure is its core. In the exact centre of the building, steel within stone, six levels of cells rise, one level on another, climbing up almost to the roof, from which many hooded, round ventilators stare down like watchful eyes that never sleep. In each tier are two hundred cells, built back to back, each row of cells being faced by narrow iron balconies and reached by narrow wooden stairways. The person who climbs one of those flights of stairs and walks along one of those balconies passes a succession of flat-banded, narrow iron doors. Each door has set into it an iron grill so closely barred that the spaces between the patterns are no larger than the squares of a checkerboard. Not a single cell has a window in it. Even at high noon the interior is wrapped in a sourish, ill-savoured gloom as though the good daylight had addled and turned sour as soon as it got inside this place. The lowermost cells are always damp. Moisture forms on the walls, sweating through the pores of the stone like an exhalation, so that, with his finger for a pen, a man may write his name in the trickling ooze. A cell measures in width three feet four inches; in length, six feet six inches; in height, seven feet and no inches. It has a cubic capacity of about one hundred and fifty feet, which is considerably less than half the cubic space provided by our Government for each individual in army barracks in time of war. It contains for furniture a bunk, which folds back against the wall when not in use, or two bunks, swung one above the other; sometimes a chair; sometimes a stool; sometimes a shelf, and always a bucket. For further details of the sanitary arrangements see occasional grand-jury reports and semioccasional reports by special investigating committees. These bodies investigate and then report; and their reports are received by the proper authorities and printed in the newspapers. Coincidentally the newspapers comment bitterly on the conditions existing at Sing Sing and call on public opinion to rouse itself. Public opinion remaining unroused, the sanitary arrangements remain unchanged. The man who occupies the cell is wakened at six-thirty A. M. At seven-thirty he is marched to the mess hall, where he eats his breakfast. By eight o’clock he is supposed to be at work somewhere, either in the workshop or on a special detail. At noon he goes to the mess hall again. He is given half an hour in which to eat his dinner. For that dinner half an hour is ample. At twelve-thirty he returns to his task, whatever it is. He works until quarter past three. He gets a little exercise then, and at four he is marched to his cell. On his way he passes a table piled with dry bread cut in large slices. He takes as much bread as he wants. Hanging to his cell door is a tin cup, which a guard has just filled with a hottish coloured fluid denominated tea. Being put into his cell and locked in, he eats his bread and drinks his tea; that is his supper. He stays in his cell until between six-thirty and seven-thirty the following morning. He knows Sundays only to hate them. On Sunday he is let out of his cell for breakfast, then goes to religious services, if he so desires, and at eleven o’clock is returned to his cell for the remainder of the day, with his rations for the day. When a legal holiday falls on Monday he stays in his cell from four o’clock on Saturday until six-thirty Tuesday morning, except for the time spent at certain meals and at divine services. This is his daily routine. From the monotony of it there is one relief. Should he persistently misbehave he is sent to a dark cell, from which he emerges half blind and half mad, or quite blind and all mad, depending on the length of time of his confinement therein. This, in brief, is Sing Sing; or at least it is Sing Sing as Sing Sing was when Felix Looms went there. Wardens have been changed since then and with wardens the system is sometimes altered. Physically, though, Sing Sing must always remain the same. No warden can change that.
Had he let it be known that he was a man of clerkly ways and book learning, Felix Looms might have been set to work in the prison office, keeping accounts or filing correspondence; but that was not his plan. So, maintaining his rôle of unskilled labourer, he was sent to the shoe shop to learn to make shoes; and in time, after a fashion, he did learn to make shoes. He attracted no special attention in the shameful community of which he had become a small and inconsequential member. His had been a colourless and unobtrusive personality outside the prison; inside he was still colourless and unobtrusive. He obeyed the rules; he ate of the coarse fare, which satisfied his stomach but killed his palate; he developed indigestion and a small cough; he fought the graybacks that swarmed in his cell and sought to nibble on his body. By day he watched, he learned, he studied, he analysed, he planned and platted out his book; and at night he slept, or tried to sleep. At first he slept poorly. Bit by bit he accustomed himself to the bad air; to the pent closeness of his cell; to the feeling in the darkness that the walls were closing in on him to squeeze him to death—a feeling that beset him for the first few weeks; to the noises, the coughing, the groaning, the choking, which came from all about him; to the padding tread of the guards passing at intervals along the balcony fronting his cell. But for a long time he could not get used to the snoring of his cellmate. Sing Sing being overcrowded, as chronically it is, it had been expedient to put Looms in a cell with another prisoner. To the constituted authorities this prisoner was known by a number, but the inner society of Tier III knew him as The Plumber. The Plumber was a hairy, thick-necked mammal, mostly animal but with a few human qualities too. The animal in him came out most strongly when he slept. As the larger man and by virtue of priority of occupancy he had the lower bunk, while Looms, perforce, took the upper. The Plumber slept always on his back. When his eyes closed his mouth opened; then, hour after hour, unceasingly, he snored a gurgling, rumbling drone. It almost drove Looms crazy—that snoring. In the night he would roll over on his elbow and peer down, craning his neck to glare in silent rage at the spraddled bulk beneath him. He would be seized with a longing to climb down softly and to fix his ten fingers in that fat and heaving throat and hold fast until the sound of its exhaust was shut off forever. After a while, though, he got used to The Plumber’s snoring, just as he had got used to the food and the work and the heavy air and the cell and all. He got used to being caged with a companion in a space that was much too small, really, for either of them. A man can get used to anything—if he has to. He even came to have a sort of sense of comradeship for his cellmate. The Plumber was not a real plumber. By profession he was a footpad, a common highwayman of the city streets, a disciple in practice of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard; but possessed of none of those small graces of person, those prettified refinements of air and manner with which romance has invested these masters of the calling. His title was derived from his method of operation. Dressed in the overalls of an honest workingman and carrying in his pocket a pair of pliers, a wrench and a foot-long scrap of gas pipe, he ranged the darker streets of his own East Side at night on the lookout for business. Spying out a prospective victim, he would first wrap the gas pipe in a handy newspaper; then, stalking his quarry from behind, he would knock him cold with one blow of the gas pipe on the skull, strip the victim’s pockets of what cash they contained, and depart with all possible despatch, casting aside the newspaper as he went. If there was any blood it would be on the newspaper; there would be none on the gas pipe. Should suspicion fall on its owner—why, he was merely a straight-faring artisan, bound homeward, with certain of the tools and impedimenta of his trade on his person. It had been The Plumber’s own idea, this device of the gas pipe and the evening paper, and he was proud of it and derisive of the imitators who had adopted it after he, growing incautious, had been caught, as it were, red-handed and sent up the river. With pride and a wealth of detail he confided these professional secrets to his spectacled little bunkie after he came to know him. A fragment at a time he told Looms of his life, his likes and dislikes, and his associates in crimedom. He taught Looms the tricks of the prison, too—how to pass messages; how to curry the favour of the keepers; how, when so desiring, to smuggle contrabands in and out; how to talk with one’s neighbours while at work or at mess, where silence is demanded, which same is accomplished with the eyes facing straight ahead and the words slipping sidewise from the corners of the mouth, the lips meantime moving but little. Considering the differences in them, they came to be pretty good friends. Evenings and Sundays and holidays The Plumber would take the floor, literally as well as figuratively. He would stand at the door of their cell, shifting from foot to foot like a caged cat-animal in quarters too small for it, and sniffing like an animal through the small squares of the iron lattice; or else he would pace back and forth the length of the cell, constantly scraping his body between the wall and the edge of the upper berth. In these movements he found relief from his restlessness. And while The Plumber walked and talked Looms would lie prone on his bed listening or making notes. For making these notes he used an indelible pencil, and for greater security against discovery he set them down in shorthand. The shorthand was partly of his own devising and partly based on an accepted stenographic system. As fast as he filled one sheet of paper with the minutely done, closely spaced lines he pasted it to another sheet; so that in time he had a long, continuous strip, all written over thickly with tiny, purplish-blue characters. Being folded flat and thin and inclosed in an envelope made of thin leather pilfered from the shoe shop, this cipher manuscript was carried by Looms inside his shirt during the day, and it went under his pillow when he slept. Once a week he was sent to the baths. At such times he hid the precious packet beneath his mattress. The Plumber, of course, had abundant opportunity to examine these notes; but naturally enough he could make nothing of them. Privily he catalogued Looms—or Williams, which he thought was his cell-mate’s name—as a sort of harmless lunatic; in short, a nut. Looms meantime made copy out of The Plumber. He meant to use The Plumber as a character in his book—as one of the principal characters. A criminal of the type of The Plumber ought to furnish much material; and without his suspecting it he did furnish much. At the end of nine months they parted. The Plumber, having completed his term, went forth to sin some more. Thereafter Looms had a cell to himself. Before very long, his record being clean, he was the recipient of a mark of favour from the warden’s office. He became a trusty. As a trusty he was doubly alert to win special privileges for himself. He knew all the tricks and devices of the place by now. Outwardly he was every inch a convict—a commonplace convict if not a typical one. Inwardly he now frequently caught himself slipping into a convict’s mode of thinking—found himself viewing his prison existence, not as an observer of the system but as an integral part and parcel of the prison machine. Drugged by the stupefying monotony of it he felt sometimes as though he had always been a convict. The days passed, leaving no conscious impressions on the retina of his brain. It was as though he rode on an endless band, which circled once in twenty-four hours, never changing its gait or its orbit. It took an effort to rid himself of this feeling. The graybacks which crawled over his body at night, coming out of the cracks of the wall and the folds of his blanket to bite his flesh, no longer made him sick, for they were part of the system too. Not once did he regret what he had done to get himself into Sing Sing.
The first year went by thus, and the second, and Looms entered on the third. He still kept his flat packet of manuscript close and safe, wearing it in its leather envelope next to his skin; but now he added no more notes in his cryptic shorthand code. He told himself he added no more because he already had at his fingers’ ends, waiting to be transcribed into copy, the whole drama of prison life—the poisons it distills; the horrors it breeds; its qualities and its inequalities; its wrongs that might be reformed and its wrongs that can never be reformed. This was what he told himself. The fact remained that for the last seven months of his imprisonment he set down no notes. At the end of the third year he was discharged.
The man who had entered Sing Sing three years before was not the man who came out. The man who went in had been slender and quick of movement, careful of his personal appearance, almost old-maidish in his neatness. He carried himself erectly; he walked with rather a brisk tread. This man had shapely hands. The man who came out resembled the other in that he was small of frame and wore thick-lensed glasses. In nearly every other essential regard he differed from him. Even his height seemed less, for now he moved with a stoop in his shoulders and with his head sunken. His hands dangled at his sides as though they had grown too heavy for the arms on which they were hung. They were the hands of one who has done coarse manual labour—the nails were blunted and broken, the palms bossed with warty calluses. This man walked with a time-killing shamble, scraping his feet along. Beneath the natural sallowness of his skin his face had the bleached, unhealthy look of any living thing that has been kept too long in artificial twilight, away from fresh air and sunshine. By its colour it suggested a pale plant growing in a cellar, a weed sprig that had sprouted beneath a log. It suggested a white grub burrowing in rotted wood. The greatest change of all, however, was in the expression of the face; for now the eyes moved with a furtive, darting movement—a quick scrutiny that lingered on its target for a second only and then flashed away. And when the lips framed words the mouth, from force of training, was pursed at the corner, so that the issuing speech could be heard with greater distinctness by one who stood alongside the speaker than by one who faced him. The clothes Looms had worn when he entered the prison had disappeared; so for his reentrance into the world the authorities gave him a suit of prison-made slops, poorly cut and bunchily sewed. They gave him this suit of clothes, a shirt and a hat and a pair of shoes; also a small sum of money, a ticket back to the point from which he had been brought, and the small articles that had been taken from his person at the time he entered Sing Sing. These and his sheaf of shorthand notes pasted together, folded flat and inclosed in his small leather pack, were all that Felix Looms brought away with him from the prison. Once more he went afoot along the dusty road, followed the ridge along the river, crossed the bridge above the railroad tracks and descended to the station below to wait for a train bound for the city. Persons who were gathered on the platform looked at him—some understandingly; some curiously. He found it easier to evade their eyes than to return their stares. Presently a train came and he boarded it, finding a seat in the smoker. The exaltation that had possessed him when he went to Sing Sing was all gone. A certain indefinable numbness affected his body, his limbs, his mind, making his thoughts heavy and his movements sluggish. For months past he had felt this numbness; but he had felt sure that liberty and the coming of the time for the fulfillment of his great work would dissipate it. He was free now, and still the lassitude persisted. He viewed the prospect of beginning his novel with no particular enthusiasm. He said to himself that disuse of the pen had made him rusty; that the old enthusiasm, which is born of creation, of achievement, of craftsmanship exercised, would return to him as soon as he had put the first word of his book on paper; and that after that the story would pour forth with hardly a conscious effort on his part. It had been so in the past; to a much greater degree it should be so now. Yet, for the moment, he viewed the prospect of starting his novel almost with physical distaste. In this mental fog he rode until the train rolled into the Grand Central Station and stopped. Seeing his fellow passengers getting off he roused himself and followed them as they trailed in straggling lines through the train shed and out into the great new terminal. It was late afternoon of a summer’s day. His plans immediately following his advent into the city had all been figured out long in advance. He meant to seek obscure lodgings until he could secure a few needed additions to his wardrobe. Then he would communicate with his publisher and make to him a private confession regarding his whereabouts during the past three years, and outline to him the book he had in mind to write. Under the circumstances it would be easy to secure a cash advance from any publisher. Thus fortified with ready money Looms would go away to some quiet place in the country and write the book. Mulling these details over in his head he shambled along automatically until suddenly he found himself standing in Forty-second Street. He slipped backward involuntarily, for the crowds that swirled by him daunted him. It seemed to him that they were ten times as thick, ten times as noisy, ten times as hurried as they had been when last he paused in that locality. For a minute, irresolute, he hesitated in the shelter of the station doorway. Then, guided by habit, a thing which often sleeps but rarely dies, he headed westward. He walked as close to the building line as he could squeeze himself, so as to be out of the main channels of sidewalk travel. When he came to Fifth Avenue he mechanically turned north, shrinking aside from contact with the swarms of well-dressed, quick-paced men and women who passed him, bound in the opposite direction. From the asphalt beyond the curbing arose a clamour of wheels and hoofs and feet which dinned unpleasantly in his ears, creating a subconscious sense of irritation. He moved along, dragging his feet, for two blocks; then halted on a corner. A big building rose before him, a building with many open windows. There were awnings and flower boxes at the windows; and, looking in at the window nearest him, he caught sight of well-dressed men and women sitting at tables. With almost a physical jolt he realised that this was a restaurant in which he himself had dined many a time on such an evening as this; somehow, though, those times seemed centuries back of him in a confused previous existence. A uniformed carriage starter, who stood at one of the entrances, began staring at him and he went on up the avenue with his hands rammed deep into his pockets, his head bent between his shoulders, and his heels dragging on the sidewalk. He had a feeling that everybody was staring at him. It nagged and pestered him—this did. He continued his way for four or five blocks, or possibly six, for he took no close note of his progress. Really he had no purpose in this northward progress; a restlessness he could not analyse kept him moving. He came to another building, also with awninged windows. He knew it for a club. Once or twice, he recalled, he had been in that club as a guest of a member, but for the moment he could not think of its name. Sitting at a window facing him were two men and in a spurt of reviving memory he placed one of them as a man he had known slightly—a man named Walcroft, a corporation lawyer with offices downtown. This man Walcroft stared straight into Looms’ face, but in his eyes there was no glint of recognition; only on his face was a half-amused, half-contemptuous expression as though he wondered why a person of so dubious an appearance should be loitering along Fifth Avenue at such an hour. Looms, squinting back at Walcroft through his glasses, felt a poke in the small of the back. He swung round; a policeman approaching from the rear had touched him with a gloved thumb. The look the policeman gave him as they faced each other was at once appraising, disapproving and suspicious. “Move on!” he said briskly. “Keep movin’!” “I’m doing nothing,” said Looms slowly; but as he spoke he backed away a pace or two and his eyes flickered and shifted uneasily, avoiding the policeman’s direct and accusing stare. “That’s the trouble,” said the policeman. “You’re doin’ nothing now, but you’re likely to do something if you stay here. Beat it! You’re in the wrong street!” With an air of finality the policeman turned away. Irresolutely the ex-convict retreated a few yards more, stepping out into the roadway. Was he indeed in the wrong street? Was that why he felt so uncomfortable? Yes, that must be it—he was in the wrong street! Fifth Avenue was not for him any more, even though once he had lived on Fifth Avenue. As he shambled across to the opposite sidewalk he shoved his hand up under his hat, which was too large for him, and scratched his head in a new perplexity. And then to him, in a flash, came a solution of the situation, and with it came inspiration and purpose. It was precisely in that brief moment that Felix Looms, the well-known writer, died, he having been killed instantaneously by the very thing after which he had lusted. The man who had been Felix Looms—Felix Looms, who was now dead—headed eastward through a cross street. He hurried along, moving now with decision and with more speed than he had shown in his loitering course from the station. In turn he crossed Madison Avenue and Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue, so that soon the district of big restaurants and clubs and churches and hotels and apartment houses lay behind him and he had arrived in a less pretentious and more crowded quarter. He reached Third Avenue, with its small shops and its tenements, and the L structure running down the middle of it; he crossed it and kept on. Midway of the next block he came to a place where a building was in course of construction. The ground floor was open to the street, for the façade, which was to be a shop front, had not gone up yet. The slouching pedestrian stopped and looked in searchingly. He saw scattered about over a temporary flooring, which was laid roughly on the basement rafters, a clutter of materials and supplies. He saw a line of gas pipes and water pipes, which protruded their ends from beneath a pile of sheathing, looking rather like the muzzles of a battery of gun barrels of varied bores. At sight of this piping the eyes of the passer-by narrowed earnestly. Over his shoulders, this way and that, he glanced. There was no watchman in sight. The workmen—all good union men, doubtless—had knocked off for the day; but it was not yet dark and probably the night watchman had not come on duty. He looked again, and then he stepped inside the building. In a minute or so he was out. He had one arm pressed closely against his side as though to maintain the position of something he carried hidden beneath his coat. Head down, he walked eastward. Between Third Avenue and Second he found the place for which he sought—a small paved passageway separating two tenements, its street end being stopped with a wooden door-gate which swung unlocked. He entered the alley, slipping into the space just behind the protecting shield of the gate. When he emerged from here the brick paving of the passage where he had tarried was covered with tough paper, torn to ragged fragments. There was a great mess of these paper scraps on the bricks. A small leather envelope, worn slick by much handling, gaped emptily where it had been dropped in an angle of the wall behind the door. The man responsible for this litter continued on his way. His left arm was still held tight against his side, holding upright a fourteen-inch length of gas pipe the man had pilfered from the unfinished building a block away. About the gas pipe was wrapped a roll of sheets of thin paper, pasted together end to end and closely covered with minute characters done in indelible, purplish-blue shorthand ciphers. The sheets, forming as they did a continuous strip, spiralled about the gas pipe snugly, protecting and hiding the entire length of the heavy metal tube.
This was about six o’clock. About nine o’clock Marcus Fishman, a Roumanian tailor, going to his home in Avenue A from a sweatshop in Second Avenue, was stalked by a footpad at a dark spot in East Fifty-first Street, not far from the river, and was knocked senseless by a blow on the head and robbed of eleven dollars and sixty cents. A boy saw the robbery committed and he followed after the disappearing robber, setting up a shrill outcry that speedily brought other pursuers. One of these stopped long enough to pick up a paper-covered gas pipe the fugitive had cast aside. The chase was soon over. As the fleeing footpad turned the corner of Fiftieth Street and First Avenue he plunged headlong into the outspread arms of Policeman Otto Stein, who subdued him after a brief struggle. The tailor’s money was still clutched in his hand. In the Headquarters Rogues’ Gallery the prisoner’s likeness was found; also his measurements were in the Bertillon Bureau, thus identifying him beyond doubt as James Williams, who had been convicted three years before as a pickpocket. Further inquiry developed the fact that Williams had been released that very day from Sing Sing. On his trial for highway robbery, James Williams, as a confirmed and presumably an incorrigible offender, was given no mercy. He got a minimum of five years in state prison at hard labour.
THIS WAR, WHICH STARTED WITH
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