Night was the revealing hour for the magician of Bagdad. When the million lights flashed and throngs of men and women crowded the thoroughfares in long, undulating lines like moving, black snakes, Bill Porter came into his own.
He owned the city, its people were his subjects. He went into their midst, turning upon them the shrewd microscope of his gleaming understanding. Sham, paltry deceit, flimsy pose, were blown away as veils before a determined wind. The souls stood forth, naked and pathetic. The wizard had his way.
At every corner, adventure waited on his coming. A young girl would skim stealthily around the corner, or an old “win” would crouch in a doorway. Here were mysteries for Porter to solve. He did not stand afar and speculate. He always made friends with his subjects.
He learned their secrets, their hopes, their disappointments. He clasped the hand of Soapy, the bum, and Dulcie herself told him why she went totally bankrupt on six dollars a week. New York was an enchanted labyrinth, yielding at every twist the thrill of the unexpected the wonderful.
Into this kingdom of his, Bill Porter introduced me.
Jaunty, whimsical, light-hearted, he came for me one of the first nights of my visit. He wore a little Cecil Brunner rose in his buttonhole. With a sheepish wink, he pulled another from his pocket.
“Colonel, I have bought you a disguise. Wear this and they will not know you are from the West.”
“Damn it, I don’t want the garnishings.” But when Bill had a notion he carried it out. The pink bud was fastened to my coat. “I’ve noticed that the bulls look at you with a too favorable eye. This token will divert suspicion from us.”
“Where are we going?”
“Everywhere and nowhere. We may find ourselves in Hell’s Kitchen or we may land in Heaven’s Vestibule. Prepare yourself for thrills and perils. We go where the magnet draweth.”
It was nearing midnight. We started down Fifth Avenue and were sauntering along somewhere between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth. Dozens of women with white, garish faces had flitted by.
“Ships that pass in the night,” Porter whispered. “There are but two rocks in their courses—the cops and their landladies. Battered and storm-tossed, aren’t they? They haunt me.”
Out from the shadow came a ragged wisp of a girl. She looked about 17.
“She’s been skimming the tranquil bogs of country life.”
“Aw, shucks, she’s an old timer.”
“First trip,” Porter nudged me. She hasn’t learned how to steer her bark in the deeps of city life yet.”
“That’s her game. She’s just flying that sail for effect.”
“No, you’re mistaken. You investigate and we’ll see who’s correct. I’ll stand here and hold the horses.” Porter had a way of pulling things out of the past and snapping them at me.
As we came up, the girl dodged into a doorway, making a pretense of tying her shoe. She looked up at me, fright darting in her wide, young eyes. “You’re a plainclothes man?” Her voice was low but it shrilled in her fear.
“Please don’t take me in. I never did this before.”
“I’m not a policeman, but I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.”
Bill came over. “You’ve frightened the lady. Ask her if she would like to dine with us.”
More frightened than before, the girl drew back. “I dare not go with you !”
“You dare go anywhere with us.” Porter addressed her as though she were truly the princess and he the Knight Errant.
There was nothing personal in his interest. He had one indomitable passion—he wished to discover the secret and hidden things in the characters of the men and women about him. He wanted no second-hand or expurgated versions. He was a scientist and the quivering heart of humanity was the one absorbing subject under his scrutiny.
We went to Mouquin’s. The little, thin, white creature had never been there before. Her eyes were luminous with excitement. Porter made her feel so much at ease, it disconcerted me a trifle. I wanted the girl to know that she was in the presence of greatness.
“He’s a great writer,” I whispered to her. Porter turned a withering sneer at me. “I’m nothing of the sort,” he contradicted. “Oh, but I believe it,” she said. “I’d like to see what you write. Is it about wonderful people and money and everything grand?”
“Yes,” Porter answered. “It’s about girls like you and all the strange things that happen to you.”
“But my life isn’t fine. It’s just mean and scraping and hungry, and fine things never happened to me until tonight. Ever since I can remember it’s been the same.”
Porter had started her on the revelation. He was correct. She was but a little country girl. She had tired of the monotony and came to life.
There was nothing remarkable about her. I couldn’t see a story there. The only spark she showed was when the dinner came and then a look of inspired joyousness lighted her face. It seemed to me that Porter must surely be disappointed.
“When I see a shipwreck, I like to know what caused the disaster,” he said.
“Well, what did you make of that investigation?”
“Nothing but the glow that wrapped her face when the soup came ! That’s the story.”
“What’s behind that look of rapture? Why should any girl’s face glow at the prospect of a plate of soup in this city, where enough food to feed a dozen armies is wasted every night? Yes, it’s more of a story than will ever be written!”
Each one that he met yielded a treasure to him. Into the honkatonks, the dance halls, the basement cafes he took me. The same indomitable purposes guided him. No wonder that New York threw off its disguise before the Peerless Midnight Investigator.
“I scent an idea tonight, colonel. Let us go forth and track it down.” It was another evening and I had dined with him at the Caledonia Hotel.
We started down Sixth Avenue. The rain splashed sideways and downways. Puny lights flickered up from basement doors. The mingled odor of stale beer, cabbage and beans simmered up. We went down into many of these paltry halls, with the sawdust on the floor and the chipped salt cellars and the scratched up, bare tables.
“It’s not here. Let us go to O’Reilly’s. I don’t like the fragrance of these dago joints.” At Twenty-second street Porter pulled down his umbrella. “We’ll find it in here.”
At the bar were a score of men. The tables here and there were but shelves for the elbows of gaudily dressed, cheaply jeweled women.
We took a vacant table. As Porter sat down every woman in the room sent an admiring glance at him.
“For God’s sake, Bill, you won’t eat in this stench, will you?”
“Just beer and a sandwich. Look over there, colonel. I see my idea.”
In one corner sat two girls, pretty, shabby, genteel, the stark, piercing glare of hunger in their eyes. Porter beckoned to them.
The girls came over and sat at our table. It was the cheapest kind of a dance hall in this basement under the saloon. A fellow with an accordion was pounding a tune with an old rattle-bang piano ; a few tawdry-looking couples moved with grotesque rhythm in the middle of the floor. At the tables about a score of men sat erect and stupid—some of them half drunk ; others bawling out harsh snatches of songs. The noisy guffaw of the place was more disturbing than the reeking exhalation of its breath.
Porter handed the dirty scrap of paper that passed as a menu to the girls. Their eyes seemed to pounce on it. One of them was rather gracefully built, but so thin I had the odd feeling that she might break at any moment like an egg shell. She tried to scan the card indifferently, but her cavernous eyes, their black accentuated by the daubs of rouge on the transparent cheeks, were burning with eagerness. She caught me looking at her and turned to the rather short, fair-
haired girl at her side.
“Suppose you order, Mame.” There was no pretense to Mame. She was hungry and she spotted a chance to eat. “Say, Mister,” she leaned toward Porter, “can I order what I want?”
“I don’t think you better. You see, ladies, I haven’t the price.” He ordered four beers.
I couldn’t follow the drift of this experiment. Porter had picked out these two from the dozens of tell-tale painted faces. He knew his magic circle. But I didn’t like the bore of hungry eyes. Mame was absorbed in watching a blowsy, puffy-cheeked woman amiably gathering in drippy spoonfuls of cabbage. It bothered me. I slipped my purse to Porter.
“My God, Bill, buy them a feed.” He sneaked it back to me.
“Wait. There’s a story here.” He paid the bill. It was about 20 cents. He spoke a moment to the manager. Whatever he wanted, the manager was ready to give.
“Would you ladies like to come out and get a square meal?” Mame looked nervously about the room. Sue stood up. “Thank you,” she said. “It would be quite agreeable.”
We started toward the Caledonia Hotel, where Porter had his study. “We’re making a mistake, Sue. We’ll all get pinched. The instant we step into a hash house with these gents, the bulls’ll nab us. We better beat it. We’re makin’ an awful mistake.”
“We’re nuthin’ but mistakes anyhow. If there’s a chance to eat I’m gonna take it.” Sue’s talk vas a curious blend of dignity, bitterness and slang.
“You’re making no mistake.”
Porter led the way at a quick pace. “Where we are going the foot of a bull has never thumped.”
It was after one o’clock when we reached the hotel. Porter ordered a beefsteak, potatoes, coffee, and a crab salad. He served it on the table where so many of his masterpieces were written. In that outlandish situation, w r ith Mame sitting on a box, Sue in an easy chair, and Porter with a towel over his arm like a waiter serving us, one of those stories came into being that morning.
“Do you make much coin?” When he talked to them he was one of them. He adopted their language and their thought.
“Ain’t nuthin’ to be made.”
Mame was stowing in the beefsteak and swallowing it with scarcely a pause. “All we can git is enough to pay two dollars a week for a room. An’ if we’re lucky we eat and if we ain’t we starve, ‘cept we meet sporty gents like yerselves.”
“You don’t know what it is to be hungry,” Sue added quietly. She was ravenously hungry, and it was with an obvious jerk of her will that she kept herself from the greedy quickness of Mame. “You ain’t suffered as we have.”
“I guess we ain’t.” Bill winked at me. “It’s kind o’ hard to get a footing here, I suppose.”
“Well, you guessed it that time. Sure is. If you come through with yer skin, you’re lucky. And if you’re soft, you die.” Sue sat back and looked at her long white hands.
“That’s what Sadie done. Her and me come from Vermont together. We thought we could sing. We got a place in the chorus and for a while we done fine. Then the company laid off and it came summer and there was nuthin’ we could do.
“We couldn’t get work anywhere and we were hungry everlastin’. Poor Sadie kept a-moonin’ around and thinkin’ about Bob Parkins and prayin’ he’d turn up for her like he said he would. She was plumb nutty about him and when we left he sed he’d come and git her if she didn’t make good.
“After a while I couldn’t stand it no longer and I went out to git some grub. I didn’t give a darn how I got it. But Sadie wouldn’t come. She said she couldn’t break Bob’s heart. He was bound to come. I came back in a coupla weeks. I’d made a penny. I thought I’d stake Sade to the fare back home. She was gone. She’d give up hopin’ for Bob, and just made away with herself. Took the gas route in that very room where we used to stay.”
Porter was pouring out the coffee and taking in every word.
“I guess Bob never showed up, did he?”
“Yes, he turned up one day. Said he’d been lookin’ high and low for us. Been to every boarding house in the town searchin’ for Sade. I hated to tell him. Gee, he never said a word for the longest time.
“Then he asked me all about Sade and if she’d carried on and why she hadn’t let him know. I told him everything. All he said was ‘Here, Sue, buy yerself some grub’.
“He gave me five dollars and me and Mame paid the rent and we been eatin’ on it since. That was a week ago. I haven’t seen Bob since. He was awful cut up about it.”
Sue talked on in short, jerky sentences, but Porter was no longer paying the slightest attention to her. Suddenly he got up, went over to a small table and came back with a copy of “Cabbages and Kings.”
“You might read this when you get time and tell me what you think of it.”
The supper was finished. Porter seemed anxious to be rid of us all. The girls were quite pleased to leave. The little one looked regretfully at the bread and meat left on the table.
“You got plenty for breakfast!”
There was a paper on the chair. I shoved the food into it and tied it up. “Take it with you.” Sue was embarrassed.
“Mame! For Gawd’s sake, ain’t you greedy!” Mame laughed.
“Rainy day like to come any time for us.”
Porter was preoccupied. He scarcely noticed that they were gone. The idea had been tracked. It possessed him. He already smelled the fragrance of mignonette.
Sue had yielded her story to the magician. It went through the delicate mill of his mind. It came out in the wistful realism of “The Furnished Room.”