The Burr McIntosh Monthly, May 1910
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
THERE was not a great deal of Mr. James (“Spider”) Buffin—he weighed a hundred and five pounds—but his acquaintances objected strongly to all that there was. James, indeed, did not court popularity. He had not that winsome, debonair manner which characterizes the Social Pet. He was small and ugly. His eyes, which were green, wore a chronic look of suspicion and secretiveness. In fact, the superficial observer, who judged only by appearances, would have summed him up on sight as a tough young blackguard.
The superficial observer would have been quite right. He was.
James’ profession was pocket-picking, his hobby Revenge. Curiously enough, it was through the latter, not the former, that he first fell foul of Officer Kelly, whose beat took him through those regions which James most frequented.
It was James’ practice to refresh body and mind after the labors of the day by a visit to one of those dance-halls where a man may dance if he will, or, if he be, as James was, rather a critic than a mere executant, sit and sip and smoke and observe the revels. He had just settled himself in a corner of that popular rendezvous of the younger set of the Bowery, Shamrock Hall in Merlin Street, where there came to the next table Mr. Robert (“Nigger”) Sloan. The two were not known to each other, but, good-fellowship being in the air, Mr. Sloan waived etiquette, and alluding to an Italian who had just pirouetted past, remarked genially that there sure was some class to the way that wop hit it up. Mr. Buffin said yup, there sure was. You would have said that all Nature smiled.
Alas! The next moment the sky was covered with black clouds and the storm broke. For Mr. Buffin, continuing in this view of criticism, rather injudiciously gave it as his opinion that one of the lady dancers had two left feet.
For a moment Mr. Sloan did not see which lady was alluded to.
“De goil in de pink skoit,” said Mr. Buffin, facilitating the other’s search by pointing with a much-chewed cigarette.
It was at this moment that Nature’s smile was shut off as if by a switch; for the lady in the pink skirt had been in receipt of Mr. Sloan’s respectful devotion for the past eight days.
The march of events now became rapid.
Mr. Sloan, rising, asked Mr. Buffin who he thought he, Mr. Buffin, was.
Mr. Buffin, extinguishing his cigarette and placing it behind his ear, replied that he was the guy who could bite his, Mr. Sloan’s, head off.
Mr. Sloan said: “Huh?”
Mr. Buffin said: “Sure.”
Mr. Sloan called Mr. Buffin a pie-faced, rubber-necked four-flusher.
Mr. Buffin called Mr. Sloan a coon.
And that was where the trouble really started. It was secretly a great grief to Mr. Sloan that his skin was of so swarthy a hue, especially as his parentage was wrapped in obscurity, thus rendering it impossible for him to confound criticism by producing an undeniably Caucasian father and mother. To be permitted to address Mr. Sloan as “Nig” was a sign of the closest friendship. A stranger who called him coon was more than asking for trouble. He was clamoring for it.
It was no time for airy persiflage. Mr. Sloan, leaning towards Mr. Buffin, promptly bit him in the cheek. And when Mr. Sloan bit, he bit. He did not nibble. Mr. Buffin, seizing a beer-mug, bumped it on Mr. Sloan’s skull. And then Authority, in the person of the bouncer, a massive individual with thews of steel, swooped down and deposited both warriors on the side-walk.
James, that artist in Revenge, did not act hurriedly. Making himself scarce at the moment, he “laid for” Mr. Sloan, and, meeting him on a dark night in Avenue A, attended to his needs with a black-jack.
It was here that Officer Kelly first came prominently into his life. Just as James, with the satisfying feeling that his duty had been done, was preparing to depart, Officer Kelly, who had been a distant spectator of the affair, charged up and seized him.
It was intolerable that he should interfere in a purely private falling-out between one gentleman and another, but there was nothing to be done. The policeman weighed close upon two hundred pounds, and could have eaten Mr. Buffin. The latter, inwardly seething, went quietly, and in due season was stowed away at the Government’s expense for the space of sixty days.
Physically, there is no doubt that his detention did him good. The regular hours and the substitution of bean soup for his wonted beverages improved his health thirty per cent., and the lock-step alone developed an entirely new set of muscles, whose presence hitherto he had never so much as suspected. It was mentally that he suffered to some extent. His was one of those just-as-good cheap-substitute minds, incapable of harboring more than one idea at a time, and during those sixty days of quiet seclusion it was filled with an ever-growing resentment against Officer Kelly. Every day, as he moved about his appointed tasks, he brooded on his wrongs. Every night was to him but the end of another day that kept him from settling down to the serious business of Revenge. To be haled to prison for correcting a private enemy with a black-jack,—that was what stung. In the privacy of his cell he dwelt unceasingly on the necessity for revenge. The thing began to take on to him the aspect almost of a Holy Mission, a sort of crusade.
The days slipped by, bringing Winter to the Bowery. And with it Mr. Buffin. He returned to his old haunts one Friday night, thin but in excellent condition. One of the first acquaintances he met was Officer Kelly. The policeman, who had a good memory for faces, recognized him, and stopped.
“So ye’re out, young feller?” he said genially. When not in the active discharge of his professional duties the policeman was a kindly man. He bore Mr. Buffin no grudge.
“Sure,” said Mr. Buffin.
“Feeling fine, I guess?”
“Goin’ around to see some of the boys and pass them the time of day, I reckon?”
“Well, you keep clear of that bunch down to Groome Street, young feller. They’re no good. And if you get mixed in with them, first thing ye know, ye’ll be in trouble agin. An’ ye’ll be wantin’ to keep out of that now.”
“If ye niver git into throuble,” said the policeman sententiously, “ye’ll niver have to git out of it.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Buffin. If he had a fault as a conversationalist, it was a certain tendency to monotony, a certain lack of sparkle and variety in his small-talk.
Officer Kelly, with a dignified but friendly wave of the hand, as who should say, “You have our leave to depart,” went on his way, swinging his locust-stick, while Mr. Buffin, raging, shuffled off in the opposite direction, thinking as hard as his limited mental equipment would allow him.
His thoughts, which were many and confused, finally composed themselves into some order. He arrived at a definite conclusion, which was that, if the great settlement was to be carried through successfully, it must be done when the policeman was off duty. Till then he had pictured himself catching Officer Kelly in an unguarded moment on his beat. This, he now saw, was out of the question. On his beat the policeman had no unguarded moments. There was a quiet alertness in his poise, a sinister suggestion in the way he dangled his club which were danger-signals in themselves. Every movement of the man said, like the notice board at a level-crossing, “Stop, Look and Listen.”
There was only one thing for Mr. Buffin to do. Greatly as it would go against the grain, he must foregather with the man, win his confidence, put himself in a position where he would be able to find out what the bearer of that very unpleasant locust-stick did with himself when he laid aside that weapon.
The policeman offered no obstacle to the move. A supreme self-confidence was his leading characteristic. Few New York policemen are diffident, and Mr. Kelly was no exception. It never occurred to him that there could be an ulterior motive behind Mr. Buffin’s advances. He regarded Mr. Buffin much as one regards a dog which one has had to chastise. One does not expect the dog to lie in wait and bite. Officer Kelly did not expect Mr. Buffin to lie in wait and bite.
So every day, as he strolled on his beat, there sidled up to him the meagre form of Spider Buffin. Every day there greeted him the Spider’s “Good morning, Mr. Kelly.” Till the sight of Officer Kelly walking high and disposedly along the sidewalk with Spider Buffin shuffling along at his side listening with rapt interest to his views on Life and Deportment, became a familiar sight in Merlin Street.
Mr. Buffin played his part well. In fact, too well. It was on the seventh day that, sidling along in the direction of his favorite place of refreshment, he found himself tapped on the shoulder. At the same moment an arm, linking itself in his, brought him gently to a halt. Beside him were standing two of the most eminent of the great Groome Street Gang, Otto the Sausage and Rabbit Butler. It was the finger of the Rabbit that had tapped his shoulder. The arm linked in his was the arm of Otto the Sausage.
“Say, Spider,” said Mr. Butler, “Bat wants to see you a minute.”
The Spider’s legs felt boneless. There was nothing in the words to alarm a man, but his practised ear had seemed to detect a certain unpleasant dryness in the speaker’s tone. Bat Jarvis, the Napoleon of the Bowery, the all-powerful leader of the Groome Street Gang, was a man whose company the Spider had always avoided with some care.
The Great Bat, seated in state at a neighboring hostelry, fixed his visitor with a cold and questioning eye.
“Say, Spider,” he said, “what’s doin’?”
Mr. Buffin looked nervous and interrogative.
“Cop Kelly pinched Porky Binns dis mornin’,” proceeded Bat.
The Spider’s heart turned to water.
“You an’ Cop Kelly,” observed Bat dreamily, “have bin mighty thick these days.”
Mr. Buffin did not affect to misunderstand. Bat Jarvis was looking at him in that nasty way. Otto the Sausage was looking at him in that nasty way. Rabbit Butler was looking at him in that nasty way. This was an occasion where manly frankness was the quality most to be aimed at. To be misunderstood in the circles in which Mr. Buffin moved meant something more than the mere risk of being treated with cold displeasure.
He began to explain with feverish eagerness.
“Sure, Bat,” he stammered, “on the level it’s all right. Dere ain’t nuttin’ doin’. Not the way youse mean. Dere’s nuttin’ to make a raw crack about.”
Mr. Jarvis hinted that, though he lived in New York, his native state was Missouri.
“I’m layin’ for him, Bat,” babbled Mr. Buffin. “Dat’s right. On de level. I’m just rubberin’ to dope out where he chases when he’s off duty. He pinched me, so I’m layin’ for him. Sure, dat’s right.”
Mr. Jarvis perpended. Rabbit Butler respectfully gave it as his opinion that it would be well to put Mr. Buffin through it. There was nothing like being on the safe side. By putting Mr. Buffin through it, argued Rabbit Butler, they would stand to win either way. If he had “snitched” to Officer Kelly about Porky Binns, he would deserve it. If he had not—well, it would prevent him doing so on some future occasion. Play for safety, was Mr. Butler’s advice, seconded by Otto the Sausage. Mr. Buffin, pale to the lips, thought he had never met two more unpleasant persons.
The Great Bat, having sucked at his cigarette for a while in silence, delivered judgment. The prisoner should have the benefit of the doubt this time. His story, however unplausible, might possibly be true. Officer Kelly undoubtedly had pinched him. That was in his favor.
“Youse can beat it dis time,” he said. “But if you start in snitchin’, Spider, youse knows what’s comin’ to youse.”
Mr. Buffin withdrew, quaking.
Matters had now come to a head. Unless he very speedily gave proof of his pure and noble intentions, life would become extremely unsafe for him. He must act at once. The thought of what would happen should another of the Groome Streeters be pinched before he, Mr. Buffin, could prove himself innocent of the crime of friendliness with Officer Kelly, turned him cold.
Fate played into his hands. On the very next morning, Mr. Kelly, all unsuspecting, asked him to go to his home with a message for his wife.
“Tell her,” said Mr. Kelly, “a newspaper gent has slipped me over seats for the play tonight, an’ I’ll be home at a quarter of siven.”
Mr. Buffin felt as Cromwell must have felt at Dunbar when the Scots left their stronghold on the hills and came down to the open plain.
The Winter had set in with some severity that year, and Mr. Buffin’s toes, as he stood in the shadows close to the entrance of the up-town villa where Officer Kelly lived when off duty, were soon thoroughly frozen. He did not dare to stamp his feet, for at any moment now the victim might arrive. And when the victim weighs two hundred pounds against the high priest’s one hundred and five, it behooves the latter to be circumspect, if the sacrifice is to be anything like a success. So Mr. Buffin waited and froze in silence. It was a painful process, and he added it to the black score which already stood against Officer Kelly. Never had his thirst for revenge been more tormenting. It is doubtful if a strictly logical and impartial judge would have held Mr. Kelly to blame for the fact that Bat Jarvis’ suspicions (and all that those suspicions entailed) had fallen upon Mr. Buffin; but the Spider did so. He felt fiercely resentful against the policeman for placing him in such an unpleasant and dangerous position. As his thoughts ran on the matter, he twisted his fingers tighter round his black-jack.
As he did so there came from down the road the brisk tramp of feet and a cheerful whistling of “The Wearing of the Green.” A lugubrious song as a rule, but, as rendered by Officer Kelly returning home with theatre-tickets, it has all the joyousness of a march-tune.
Every muscle in Mr. Buffin’s body stiffened. He gripped his black-jack and waited. The road was deserted. In another moment—
And then, from nowhere, dark, indistinct forms darted out like rats. The whistling stopped in the middle of a bar. A deep-chested Irish oath rang out, and then a confused medley of sound, the rasping of feet, a growling, almost canine, a sharp yelp, gasps, and over all the vast voice of Officer Kelly threatening slaughter.
For a moment, Mr. Buffin stood incapable of motion. The thing had been so sudden, so unexpected. And then, as he realized what was happening, there swept over him in a wave a sense of intolerable injustice. It is not easy to describe his emotions, but they resembled most nearly those of an inventor whose patent has been infringed or an author whose idea has been stolen. For weeks—and weeks that had seemed like years—he had marked down Officer Kelly for his prey. For weeks he had tortured a mind all unused to thinking into providing him with schemes for accomplishing his end. He had outraged his nature by being civil to a policeman. He had risked his life by incurring the suspicions of Bat Jarvis. He had bought a black-jack. And he had waited in the cold till his face was blue and his feet blocks of ice. And now—now—after all this—a crowd of irresponsible strangers, with no rights in the man whatsover—probably, if the truth were known, filled with mere ignoble desire for his small change, had dared to rush in and jump his claim before his very eyes.
With one passionate cry Mr. Buffin, forgetting his frozen feet, lifted his black-jack in air, and galloped down the road to protect his property.
“That’s the dope,” said a voice. “Pour some more into him, Sweeney, boy.”
Mr. Buffin opened his eyes. A familiar taste was in his mouth. Somebody of liberal ideas seemed to be pouring whisky down his throat. Could this be Heaven? He raised his head, and a sharp pain shot through it. And with the pain came recollection. He remembered now, dimly, as if it had all happened in another life, the mad rush down the road, the momentary pause in the conflict, and then its noisy renewal on a more impressive scale. He remembered striking out left and right with his black-jack. He remembered the cries of the wounded, the pain of his frozen feet, and finally the crash of something hard and heavy on his head.
He sat up, and found himself the center of a little crowd. There was Officer Kelly, dishevelled but intact; three other policemen, one of whom was kneeling by his side with a small bottle in his hand; and, in the grip of the two who were standing, two youths.
One was Otto the Sausage, the other was Rabbit Butler.
The kneeling policeman was proferring the bottle once more. Mr. Buffin snatched at it. He felt that it was just what at that moment he needed most.
He did what he could. The magistrate asked for his evidence. He said he had none. He said he thought there must be some mistake. With a twisted smile in the direction of the prisoners, he said that he did not remember having seen either of them at the combat. He didn’t believe they were there at all. He didn’t believe they were capable of such a thing. If there was one man who was less likely to assault a policeman than Otto the Sausage, it was Rabbit Butler. The Bench reminded him that both these innocents had actually been discovered in Officer Kelly’s grasp. Mr. Buffin smiled a harassed smile, and wiped a drop of perspiration from his brow.
Officer Kelly was enthusiastic. He described the affair from start to finish. But for Mr. Buffin he would have been killed entirely. But for Mr. Buffin there would have been no prisoners in court that day. The world was full of men with more or less golden hearts, but there was only one Mr. Buffin. Might he shake hands with Mr. Buffin?
The magistrate ruled that he might. More, he would shake hands with him himself. Summoning Mr. Buffin behind his desk, he proceeded to do so. If there were more men like Mr. Buffin, New York would be a better place. It was the occasional discovery in our midst of ethereal natures like that of Mr. Buffin which made one so confident for the future of the race.
The paragon shuffled out. It was bright and sunny in the street, but in Mr. Buffin’s heart there was no sunlight. He was not a quick thinker, but he had come quite swiftly to the conclusion that New York was no longer the place for him. Bat Jarvis had been in court, listening with grave attention to the evidence, and for one moment Mr. Buffin had happened to catch his eye. No medical testimony as to the unhealthiness of New York could have moved him more.
Once around the corner, he ran. It hurt his head to run, but there were things behind him that could hurt his head more.
Near Forty-second Street he stopped. To leave town he must have money. He felt in his pockets. Slowly, one by one, he pulled forth his little valuables. His knife—his revolver—the magistrate’s gold watch. He inspected them sadly. They must all go.
He went into a pawn-broker’s shop on the corner. A few moments later, with money in his pocket, he hurried on and dived into Grand Central Station.
For more on Burr McIntosh and his Monthly, see the endnotes to “How Kid Brady Fought for His Eyes” elsewhere on this site.
A slightly shorter version of the story, reset in London, appeared in Nash’s Magazine the same month.
Printer’s error corrected above:
In para.20, "and due season was stowed away at the Government’s expense" was corrected by adding "in" before "due"