THE story came from the victim himself. He offered it, not as an exposition of wondrous facts encircled by holly and mistletoe, but merely as an instance of sure-enough bard luck.
The man who told it had been a law-breaker in most of the States of the Mississippi Valley in which laws were being broken at the time he happened along. He dealt largely in games of chance, with the element of chance removed. At the old settlers' reunion he toiled carelessly above a folding-table—really a sewing-table, given as a premium by the fashion magazine for one new subscriber. The properties were three halves of the common English walnut and a very small sphere of soft rubber. At the district fair he sold buggy-whips and bought them back at increased prices, and then sold other whips and did not buy them back, involving himself in a series of complicated transactions which left the purchasers bewildered, as the livery rig disappeared up the pike.
Chicago was headquarters for the practitioners of graft long before the word got into politics and began to symbolize a cheaper form of indirect larceny. The lean years came after the close of the Columbian Exposition, the long strike by the railroad men, and corn twenty cents a bushel delivered at the elevator. Let him tell about it.
"I landed in with the first snowstorm, and my roll was a lone wrapper around an old glove. If they haven't got it, you can't take it away from 'em. Clark Street was bottled up—a reporter waitin' in every hallway to spot a stud game and then write about the carnival of crime. The pawnshops were goin' along, but everything else was cold.
"My one idea all the time I'd been out on the circuit had been to bring home, over and above rent, coal and groceries, the price of a piano which was already wearin' a ticket with my name on it. Susie was going on nine, and everybody that heard her sing said she belonged on the stage. My wife had picked out a teacher that charged five an hour.
"Well, instead of a piano, I slipped Susie the 'Swiss Family Robinson,' and my wife told the teacher that we'd decided to wait and take her to Paris. Say, do you remember that winter? Many a one that had got used to squarin' up to a porter-house was holdin' a blue ticket and waitin' his turn at the soup-kitchen. Hunt up friend to tap for paltry case-note and he'd beat you to it.
"About the time the chain followed the watch, Susie began to wonder what she'd get for Christmas, and I was wonderin' just as hard as she was. We'd worked up the Santa Claus thing, and it was all on the level with her. Got home one night and wife, without sayin' a word, hands me letter addressed to Santa Claus. I'd taken the kid along State Street and showed her the windows, and now she was puttin' in an order for the big doll with the blond hair and the lace dress that we'd stopped and looked at for so long, because it didn't cost anything. The Santa Claus orders had always gone through, but this doll proposition made it look as if we'd have to take her aside and do a little explaining. We talked it over and wife started to fill up, and that settled it. I remembered that a money order was comin' from Kansas City, and I made the bluff that I'd bring home the doll.
"Next morning I went down to the department store. The price was fourteen dollars. I told the girl I'd look around and come back. Say, nobody in the world had fourteen dollars that day! A million people jammin' around those big stores, spendin' a nickel at a time. I went to everybody I ever knew, and the speech was all right, but—well, you remember that winter.
"Can you see me—Christmas Eve—drillin' up and down in front of doll department—gettin' ready to do my first sneak? High class for twenty years and windin' up in the door-mat division. The twin sister of the one in the window was standin' on a table right by the aisle. It was a swell doll, all right. It was smilin' at me and holdin' out both hands. I waited till the girl was around the corner, and then quick!—under the coat and started to beat it to the street. I never had stopped to figure out that a doll costin' fourteen dollars was necessarily something more than plain doll. I squeezed it flat against me and it let out a 'Ma-ma' that was the humanest thing you ever heard. People jumped and turned to look at me, and I started to run. The faster I run the harder I squeezed, and the more I squeezed the louder it called for help. A floorwalker headed me off at the swingin' doors, and then I took my first ride in the blue wagon.
"We had an awful time squarin' it with Susie. We told her that Santa Claus broke his sleigh tryin' to get across the Madison Street Bridge and that papa had been in Cleveland visiting his cousin. The department store threatened to make trouble for a while, but I knew a couple of aldermen."