The Luck of the Irish/Chapter 1

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THE LUCK OF THE IRISH

 

CHAPTER I

UPON a certain June afternoon, toward the end of the month, had you looked into the cellar of Burns, Dolan & Co.'s plumbing-shop you would have found a certain young Irishman by the name of William Grogan eying mechanically, yet professionally, the glowing end of his soldering-iron. There was a fixity in his gaze, a lack-luster in his eye, familiar to all psychologists of dreams. The iron fell upon the drain-pipe scientifically, because William had reduced the building of dreams to a fine art. Having set his hands to their appointed task, they proceeded to go on automatically, leaving his spirit free to roam as it listed. He was like that Hindu Yogi who could set his body grinding corn, take his soul out and go visiting with it.

William belonged to the supreme order of rainbow-chasers. All horizons were merely circles of linked pots of gold. It follows naturally that he possessed a fleet of serviceable magic carpets; and he sailed with superb confidence toward his rainbow-ends. If this or that one vanished, presto! he promptly arched another. It cost nothing. He was twenty-four, and that is the high noon of the rainbow-chaser. Beyond this age one begins to look back at the wrecks.

In parenthesis, before I go any further, do you believe in magic carpets, in our times better known as day-dreams? I mean, do you believe in letting yourself drift on the wings of a pleasant fancy at odd moments during a dull workaday? If you know anything about the preciousness of these little intervals between actions, when you stand or sit motionless and gaze beyond the horizon into that future which presently or by and by is to roll over the rim of the world with fulfilment—why, then, come along. For this is a story of a rainbow, part of which was found.

There are two kinds of poets, professional and instinctive; and William was a poet by instinct. He could not express himself in words; his rhymes were visions. He was by trade a journeyman plumber; inclination as well as necessity had driven him into it. He found Romance in lead pipes, sheet tin, gas and water mains. To his mind there was nothing quite so marvelous as the amazing cobweb of pipes and mains that stretched across the great city a few feet under the surface. Who but a poet would have stripped in fancy the masonry from the cloud-touching monoliths, and viewed the naked pipings, twisting and elbowing, bending and rearing, more wonderful than any magic beanstalk—water and power and light!

Born in New York, thrown upon the streets at nine, at an age which poets (the professional kind) love to call tender, but which in reality is tough, William was, at twenty-four, a thoroughly metropolitan product. He was keen mentally, shrewd in his outlook, philosophical as all men are who in youth knew rude buffets, hunger, and cold. He was kindly, generous, quick-tempered, and quick-forgiving; and he was not above defending his "honor and territory," when occasion required, by the aid of his fists. An idea, entering his head, generally remained there; and when he offered his friendship his heart's blood went with it. He was Irish.

He talked in the argot of the streets; not because he knew no better, but because habit is not only insidious, but tentacled. It was only when he began to attend night-school that he was made to realize that he was not a purist; and, being ambitious, he strove to curb this passion for unorthodox English. On guard, he spoke sensibly and correctly; but if he became excited, embarrassed, or angry, he spoke in argot because simple English seemed to lack what he called punch. Strange lingo! All nations possess it, all nations that have vagabonds and thieves and happy-go-luckies; and William was a happy-go-lucky.

The carpet he was sailing on at this precise moment was the choicest Ispahan in his possession, his Ardebil: a home all his own some day, a garden to play in, a wife and a couple of kids.

Presently the smell of sizzling resin brought him back to port. That was the one fault with his ships of wool: they were always bringing him back to port before he really got anywhere. He thrust the iron into the cup of the gasolene furnace, and sighed. June was outside; and somewhere clouds were being mirrored in the streams winding along the flower-laden lips of green meadows, birds were singing, and gay little butterflies were fulfilling their brief destinies in the clover-fields. He knew that such things were going on, because he had read about them.

"Aw, and me here in this cellar!" he murmured.

He directed his gaze toward the basement window above him, toward the brilliant sunshine which broke in dazzling lances against the glass in the shop across the street. He was very fond of this window. It was the one bright spot in his rather dull and grimy existence in the employ of Burns, Dolan & Co., steam-fitting and fixtures.

Day after day, in rainy or sunshiny weather, he viewed the ever-changing panorama of boots and shoes: fat ones and slim ones, the smart and the trig, the run-down and the patched. He saw youth and age pass; confidence and hesitance, success and failure, joy and hopelessness. The step of each passer-by was to him a wonderful story whose plot was ever in embryo. Whence did they come, these myriads of feet, and whither did they go? The eternal stream which flowed past that little window! There was ebb and flood all through the day, and the real marvel of it was that each pair of shoes was going somewhere, had a destination and a destiny. Out of this pair or that William constructed the character of the owner; and he often builded better than he knew. He saw this strange world of his through the eyes of a Balzac; but he could only visualize, he could not transcribe his deductions or marshal them coherently. He knew that this man drank for the joy of it, that that one had something to forget; he knew when old man Hennessy had just lost his job and Heinie Stahl had found one. Here was a young woman going to meet her lover, here was one who carried a heartache; all in the step. And there was the broad, flat, shapeless shoe belonging to all sorts and conditions of women, from Tony Cipriano's thrifty wife, always bearing children, down to the wheezing, gin-soaked virago who scrubbed floors for her ten-cent pieces. Nor did he ever grow tired of the angular legs of childhood; these were the leaven of humor in a grim procession of tragedies. Wasn't that the baker's kid that just went by, hippity-hoppity, headed for the soda-fountain?

Out of this fantastical world of shod feet, one pair became of peculiar interest. They were feminine; and it was but natural that William should build him a romance. Their regularity of appearance first appealed to him; later he added little characteristics. She was young, sensible, and a wage-earner like himself. She was young, because there was always a spring to her step; sensible, because she wore low shoes in the summer and stout boots in the winter. There was no nonsense, no embroidered silks; old-fashioned lisle and wool were good enough for her. That she was a wage-earner there could be no doubt. At eight o'clock each morning, Saturday and Sunday excepted, she walked east with confident step. Never had he seen it drag or falter. It was a small and shapely foot, alluring, but not enticing. Perhaps the picture lasted three seconds; eastward at eight in the morning and westward at four in the afternoon, four or thereabouts. He pondered over these hours for some time before he fell upon the truth of the matter. She was one of the teachers in the public school near by. Saturdays minus and the gap of July and August could in no other way be explained.

For three years now these little feet had twinkled past the basement window. The odd part of this singular one-sided romance, William was never tempted to run up to see what the young woman looked like. He was canny for an Irishman. He rather preferred his dream. There were lots of homely young women with pretty feet. He hadn't many illusions left, this young philosopher of the soldering-iron, and he wanted to keep this one. Besides, what good would it do to "pipe her fiz"? If he spoke to her she might put him down as a masher and walk to school by another route. Let it be as it was, her world outside there in the sunshine and his in this smelly cellar. But, nevertheless, he often wished he knew a girl such as he imagined this one to be. One thing was certain: anywhere in the world, in any kind of leather, he would recognize those feet. And thereby hangs this tale.

I have forgotten to mention that William was an orphan. Once upon a time this condition had embarrassed him considerably; it had forced him to make his bed in empty halls and areaways, in stables, in dry-goods boxes; but as he prospered he outgrew this sense of isolation and this style of habitation. His father and mother had died within a few months of each other. The father, a sober, industrious Hercules, had been killed out in the railroad-yards where he had served as section-boss. The widow had received his last pay-envelope, and that had been sufficient to pay for his casket. Naturally, this casket had to have silver handles and a silver plate with his name and sundry encomiums engraved upon it lest in the final census he be overlooked. When the widow died the kindly neighbors saw to it that her casket was just as fine, which entailed a noisy valedictory of the Grogan household effects. Hence, on the night following her burial, William found himself under a counterpane of stars, lonely and distressed, but cheered occasionally by the thought that he would not have to go to school any more. William's inheritance was therefore but slightly in excess of what it had been upon his arrival: the clothes on his back and a growing boy's appetite.

To-day, however, all these difficulties were vague memories. I doubt if he ever looked back. He was of the breed who are always looking forward, hunting for stepping-stones. He drank a social glass of beer occasionally, smoked strong tobacco, weighed a hundred and ninety pounds, was as tough and sturdy as a coastal oak, and marched along the straight road, because if his hands were steeped in grime, his heart was clean.

Fifteen lonely metropolitan years, some of them fields of muck, others narrow and dangerous as tight-ropes, still others like the trail up the Matterhorn; and to come through unscathed, with a sound body and a sane mind! The truth is, William was born with a strong sense of humor, which, as a life-raft, has carried more human beings into safe harbors than the ten thousand decalogues of the ten thousand creeds. There was an ironic edge to this humor, however. Men who are born and bred in New York and begin life in the streets never quite lose the gamin's sardonical outlook.

I wish I could truthfully state that William was handsome. The clay was rich and beautiful, but the finishing touches would have barred him from a niche correspondingly as prominent as that given the Apollo in the Vatican. In repose his countenance was rugged; animated, it became merry and smile-provoking. There was a generous sprinkling of paprika on his pug-nose and on the adjacent sides of his cheeks; and his hair was so red that, given the proper foreground and perspective, he might easily have been mistaken for a Turner sunset. Perhaps the Master, having given William a perfect body, considered it unwise (for William's welfare) to add a perfect face. Even then, in one particular, he had relented. When you looked into William's eyes, you forgot the red hair and freckles. These eyes were as blue as Ionian seas, kindly and mirthful, and there was something electric in them, something which mysteriously flashed blue fires like the sea-water in the famed Blue Grotto of Capri; the eyes of a fighter who could also lose himself in fine dreams.

He read a good deal, borrowing his books from the great public library; and his head was filled with an odd jumble of classics and trash, truth and untruth; and his faith in what he read was boundless. But humanity could not fool him.

Out of this reading he wove a second magic carpet, nearly as attractive as his Ardebil. He longed to travel, to see Europe, Africa, Asia, all those queer places he had read about. He yearned for trains, steamships, donkeys, rickshaws, camels and elephants, jungles and snow-caps, deserts and South Sea islands. He wanted to shake down cocoanuts by hand, pick oranges and bananas; he wanted a parrot that could talk like Long John Silver's—"Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"

"A fat chance!" he always murmured upon dispersing these tantalizing visions. "A home-run in the last half of the ninth inning!" Hadn't it taken him six years to save up eight hundred dollars? And how far would that carry him? About as far as the Hoboken docks.

Four o'clock! She'd be dancing by in a moment or two. Next week she would be going away on her vacation. He set the drain-pipe in the corner and put out the furnace. He pressed some "scrap" into his corn-cob pipe and waited. There she was! One, two, three and she was gone. Tan shoes and stockings and a bit of blue skirt. It was all over in three seconds, like one of those moving-pictures.

"H-e-y, Bill!" some one called, from up-stairs.

"Ye-ah. What's wanted?"

"Letter for you. Shall I throw it down?"

"I'll be up."

A letter? Who could be writing to him? He never had any bills; he paid as he went along. He rammed his unlighted pipe into his hip pocket and mounted the stairs. The young girl who acted as bookkeeper, stenographer, and cashier thrust the letter into his hand.

"Oh, you William!" she cried. "Some girl we don't know anything about."

"Aw!" He studied the envelope doubtfully. "Hargreave, Bell & Davis, attorneys and counselors at law. Say, Susie, have I been buying a sewing-machine, or have I fallen for some nifty book-agent's gab? I don't know any lawyers."

"Open it and see," advised Susie.

The letter was coldly brief. William Grogan was requested to call upon "the undersigned at his earliest convenience." Nothing more than that. William read it over four or five times, and it grew colder and colder with each reading. Lawyers, and after him.

"Where's Burns?" he demanded.

"In the office." Susie returned to her little grilled desk.

William walked down to the rear end of the shop and rapped on the office door. Ordinarily he would have entered without formality.

"Say, Mr. Burns, what kind of bunk is this?" He laid the letter upon his employer's desk.

"Humph!" said Burns, who was practically Dolan & Co. also. "What have you been doing?"

"Who, me? Nothing. They haven't lifted me out of the cradle yet."

"Got any relatives?"

William scratched his head and blinked ruminatively. "Nobody but an uncle in St. Louis, my mother's brother; an old crab, who got sore because mother didn't marry the flannel-mouth he'd picked out for her. Never saw him nor heard from him."

"Well, you take to-morrow morning off and look into it. If there is any money, Bill, you bring it to me. There's nothing to these lawyers. You bring it to me."

"Sure, Mr. Burns. But it's a pipe there's no dough. Maybe they expect me to settle for the funeral; that 'd be my luck."

"Maybe it's a breach-of-promise suit."

"Aw, I couldn't get into the Old Ladies' Home without a jimmy."

"Well, go and see the sharps, and then come to me. Take your mother's marriage certificate along, while you're about it. You got it?"

"Ye-ah. I was only nine when she died, but she was some mother."

"They all are, son, they all are. Haven't put your name on any paper?"

"Haven't had a pen in my hand since I quit night-school last winter."

"You never can tell," said Burns, gravely. "But if you've got tied up any way, I'll see what I can do. See you to-morrow." Burns chuckled as William went out. It was a great world.

William, in a distinctly restless frame of mind, left the shop and walked homeward. He was filled with foreboding. Some lawyers wanted to see him, and cold-blooded ones, too, if letters counted. Burns always said that if you went to court for anything, the lawyers got it. What had he done, anyhow? He combed his near-past thoroughly; but aside from two or three pinochle games over at the engine-house (two bits the corner), his record was as spotless and shiny as new sheet-tin. Oh, well, why borrow trouble? They couldn't get blood out of a turnip, and besides, Burns would see to it that he got a square deal.

Whenever he was worried or in the doldrums, William hied him forth to the near-by moving-picture theater. For an hour and a half he could lose himself completely. He could cast off trouble in the lobby, even if that little old man of the sea jumped on his back again as he went out. It was something to have cheated trouble out of an hour and a half.

Eight o'clock that night found him in his accustomed seat. With his toil-bitten hand propping his chin, he gazed in rapt wonder at a caravan of camels as they came superciliously down the sand-hills of the Libyan desert. Instantly the scene changed. He saw the bewildering peoples of the bazaars. Turbans and tarbooshes, flowing robes and sandaled feet, fruit-sellers and water-carriers, tourists in spotless white linen and sun-helmets; and presently through this swarm came the heroine on a scraggy little donkey. The villain pointed her out to his minions, and stealthily they pursued her until she was safe and happy in her lover's arms.

William wasn't much interested in the exploits of this heroine, whose salary was large enough to support a South American republic; nor was he certain that the Libyan desert and the bazaars were not located south-by-east from Los Angeles. But the camels were real; aye, real enough to whisk him away on one of his carpets from Bagdad, overseas, to that wonderful world he was never to see, much as the Irish soul of him hungered for it.

During the short intermission he idly studied the people about him. At his left sat a pretty young woman, in cool but sensible summer clothes. He spoke to her.

"It's a great business."

"Yes, it is," she replied, fingering the single-sheet program.

"A dime, and you can go anywhere in the world. I've always wanted to see the Orient."

He said nothing more, and gave his attention to the screen where the announcements of coming features were being projected. And because he stopped where he did he aroused a mild curiosity in his neighbor. She recognized that here was no masher type, a phase of the moving-picture theater that had caused her annoyance more than once. He was just a comfortable, every-day sort of young man, who had had a thought and had expressed it aloud to her merely because she happened to be sitting next to him.

A few minutes later she heard him laugh uproariously at the antics of a slap-stick comedian. She laughed, too, not so loudly, perhaps, but quite as heartily and humanly as this unknown red-headed young man. When the comedy was over he tipped back the seats for her, and presently she lost sight of him in the crowd. She forgot all about him, even as William forgot all about her.

The next morning when he entered the outer office of Hargreave, Bell & Davis, a small boy, not at all impressed by the visitor's ready-made tie and celluloid collar, jumped up and confronted him, coldly and alertly.

"Whadjuh want?" he demanded.

"Whadjuh got?" countered William, fiercely.

"Bertie!" called the girl at the typewriter, warningly.

"Oh, so his name is Bertie, huh? Well, Bertie, I eat 'em alive when they call 'em that. I want to see your boss."

"Nothin' leakin' in these offices," flung back the boy, observing William's hands and sniffing the faint odor of gasolene.

"My name is Grogan," said William, giving the honors to the boy because he was in a hurry.

"Oh! Middle door; Mr. Bell," said the girl, her eyes full of sudden interest.

The boy shuffled to the door and opened it. "Mister Grogan," he announced, with fine irony.

"Show him in at once."

As he was passing through the doorway, William turned and lightly blew a kiss toward the boy, who, thorough sportsman that he was, recognized this red-head as a brother.

"Mr. Grogan?"

"Yes."

"Be seated." Mr. Bell was a middle-aged man. "You had an uncle in St. Louis?"

"Ye-ah; Michael Regan."

The lawyer nodded. "Your mother's name?"

"Amelia. Michael was her brother."

"Have you absolute legal proof that you are Amelia Regan's son?"

"Sure!" William produced the marriage certificate, pleased that Burns had suggested bringing it.

Mr. Bell adjusted his glasses. "This is Amelia Regan's certificate of marriage, but that doesn't prove you're her son, Mr. Grogan."

"Turn it over," advised William, wetting his lips and stretching his neck out of his collar, which had grown suddenly tight.

"Ah!"

On the reverse side of the certificate was the date of William's arrival into this mortal coil, briefly witnessed by the doctor, the parish priest, the father, and two neighbors.

"That's legal enough for anybody. We knew all about you, Mr. Grogan, but the legal end of it had to be satisfied. You're the man we're after."

"Say, what am I up against?" asked William, huskily.

"Your uncle died a month gone. He left his lumber business to his partner, but all his ready cash he willed to you unconditionally. Through us he kept track of you, your work, and your habits. I am, therefore, empowered to turn over to you the sum of twenty-eight thousand seven hundred and fifty-six dollars and thirty-one cents. And I have the certified check in my safe at this very moment." Mr. Bell beamed upon his client, awaiting the outburst of joy.

But no outburst came. William's mouth opened and his derby hat slipped from his hands and wabbled about on the floor at his feet.

The dinosaurus has been dead for some time; but if one had poked its head through the window at that moment and yammered at William, he wouldn't have been surprised; he would have accepted its advent as a part of the nightmare.