Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 2
"IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN."
WHEN he went ashore, away from the water-front, up through the evil, sodden streets of that part of town, prurient with dirty memories of the past, slimy with food crushed under foot, blotched with tobacco-juice; with a sooty rain dropping thuddingly, mockingly, and the thick, chocolate-brown mud swishing up in streams; with foul invectives in English, Irish, Yiddish, Greek, and Sicilian spotting the air, with crude posters grimacing the faces of the buildings; as he continued his way through that teeming macrocosm of New York, he repeated his boast to himself.
Here, hedged by the water-front on the west, and grim, frowning warehouses on the east, in these little rickety, secretive, red-brick dwellings, with their stealthy, enigmatic back yards, their skulking gables, and furtive, reticent side entrances, was the safe place where one lived, where one had one's lair, he decided; and—energetic, arduous, thoroughly Latin—he kept straight on his way to find and survey what he was pleased to call his place of business, the streets and houses and shops where the bourgeois—to quote him again literally—fattened their swollen livers—and reddened their indecent noses; and he had no difficulty in discovering that New York was a sandwich, with the Fifth Avenue layer of rich meat between slabs of sober, dry, nourishing bread.
The avenue, with its proud, self-conscious sweep picked out in a gentle curve of lights, with its immaculate, slightly snobbish flanking of shops, its gleaming brasses of automobile and motor-bus, its human throng, leisurely and restless in the same breath, its well-fleshed, muscular, imperturbable police that stemmed the tide with a gesture of white-gloved hands, he dismissed at once as dangerous, and therefore impracticable.
But he welcomed the far West Side's strident babel with the ardor of a bridegroom. It was his hunting-ground, foreordained.
For here his shrewd, calculating eyes beheld everything for the profitable and tranquil pursuit of his sinister vocation: the corner saloons with their lurking side entrances, where a man might slip in and out like a rabbit through the tunnels of its warren; the sudden, mysterious alleys cutting wedgewise into mazes of buildings; the deep cellars that gaped like sardonic, toothless maws; the squat, moldy, turgid tenements with the reckless invitation of their fire-escapes; the pawn-brokers' shops, the show-cases garish and pathetic with the cheap luxuries of the poor, and here and there the hard flash of a good diamond, often in an old-fashioned setting.
"Ah, ma p'tite cocotte!" he addressed the unsuspecting town; "I'll bleed you to the marrow!" And when, three hours later, his stoker's dunnage bag still across supple shoulders, he returned in the direction of the little, bedraggled street near the docks that he had picked out for his place of residence, he felt happy and satisfied and pleasurably expectant.
Down the streets he strode, his vulpine mind busy with the easy profits the morrow would bring, with the sun setting in the distant west behind lowering clouds that were like mountains of red-glowing lava; the roofs of the city bathed in purple and peacock light; the windows flashing with a thousand dazzling reflections; with trucks rumbling, trolley-cars shooting south and north, the Elevated clanking and shrieking along its steely spider's web, and motor-cars whirring by on negligent, aristocratic rubber.
He caught a swift gleam and rustle of silk, a faint breath of flower scent, as a woman passed him, and he smiled appreciatively and reminiscently.
A woman? To be sure!
Presently he would find himself a woman; and when he reached the Bowery, when through tattered curtains, with an accompaniment of rattling crockery and fat sizzling in a skillet, he heard high-pitched laughter, then, looking up, saw a girl lean from a window, pretty and pert and fearless, with russet hair piled up like a carved helmet and ice-green eyes beneath level, white brows, he stopped, screwed his face into a smile, and tossed up to her a kiss with the tips of his stumpy fingers—to feel immediately a horny hand clutching his collar from behind and to hear the husky, sepulchral, minatory demand:
"Woddya mean, ye dirty wop, makin' sheep's-eyes at my goil? Woddya mean?" Here Bibi twisted and turned, to the running allegretto of the girl's laughter, and saw the speaker tower above him with two hundred pounds of well-balanced muscle and flesh. "Say! Woddya mean t'rowin' kisses at her?"
And—bing!—bang!—biff!—right on the point of his receding chin so that the teeth rattled like castanets.
"Ah! boug' de saligaud!" Bibi spat like a wildcat.
He jumped sidewise, leaving most of his shirt collar in the other's grasp. Out from his sleeve and into his hand, like a sentient being, flashed the short, broad Apache knife, while the girl in the window screamed:
"Jimmy! Look cut, Jimmy!"
He saw red. He was Bibi l'Tueur—Bibi the Killer.
But, just as the point of his steel danced out with a lethal glimmer and jeer, a policeman's night-stick thudded down on his elbow. His dagger clattered harmlessly in a muddy pool, where it sank with a sucking, blobbing gurgle. A square-toed boot crashed into his shin as, a killer to the last, he turned on his new assailant and jumped at him, thumbs and second fingers ready to strangle and gouge.
And the ultimate result was that, nine hours after his entry into the city which he had boasted to gut like a mackerel, he found himself in the night court, a policeman on either side of him, and the judge, after about two minutes' bored deliberation, saying:
"Six weeks." Then, irritatedly, to the clerk: "Next case, Mr. Hadley!"
A month and a half later he was free once more. Lean he was, with neither money nor weapon, in a strange city; yet as dangerous as a Bengal tiger.
They had not treated him well in prison, nor fed him well.
In Paris, where he had seen the insides of at least two jails, he had even in stripes still been Bibi l'Tueur; and the jailers, familiar with his record—familiar, too, with his gang and his cruelty and his infinite patience in the executing of revenge—had granted him a measure of respect which frequently took the pleasant form of a blue paper package of caporal cigarettes, a drop of cloudy, opalescent absinth, a bottle of white wine.
Here, on the other hand, he had been "the wop," or "Frenchy," or "that dago wot's off his nut," when in moments of crimson rage he started cursing and yelling in metallic Paris argot and bruising his knuckles against the steel walls of his cell, to be at once soothed with a cooling bucket of slops or some other gentle ministration.
Even so he had kept his ears wide open, and he drifted straight from jail to a certain place on the Brooklyn side of the river where criminals foregather, since, penniless, weaponless, and as wary as a jungle beast by the very ferocity of his breeding and life, he had decided that for the time being he must give up his well-calculated plans as to place of residence and operation.
First he would have to find a gang on which to fall back in case of trouble. Doubtless they would hail him as leader.
But when he entered the place, with its cozy, brown boxes, the glistening bar, the smooth-massaged, well-soaped barkeeper in immaculate, virginal white, the pleasant little homy pictures on the clean, calcimined walls; when he found the people who foregathered there, New York criminals, to be sober, rather industrious and conservative men, sipping ginger-ale and other soft drinks, dressed in pin-stripe worsted and bowler hats, with gentle manners and a five-ply business outlook on life, including their own twisted, fantastic share in it, he felt disappointed, and three minutes' conversation changed his disappointment into disgust.
For when he informed them, in his most bombastically careless manner, that he was Bibi the Killer, they smiled languidly and asked him to tell it to the marines; and when, in a sudden fit of rage, perhaps also to show them that he was not bluffing, he jumped with clutching fingers at the throat of a Vermont tory who earned a reasonable livelihood by porch-climbing, he was grievously wounded with a bungstarter, afterward clubbed by a policeman, and sent straight back to jail on the judge's drawling, draconic decree:
"A month. Next case."
In again, out again. And not a chance at his chosen vocation.
He called it bad luck. In reality, that which beat him was the psychology of the melting-pot.
In Paris, in his quartier, he had worn round his bullet-shaped head as true an aura of traditional, romantic glory as a Cecil in England, a Malatesta in Italy, or a Cabot in the city of the bean and the cod. He could do what he pleased. For he was Bibi l'Tueur—and the short Apache knife was his red hand of Ulster.
But New York was snobbishly democratic, even in crime. And businesslike.
A native-born burglar who felt sorry for him and lent him twenty dollars explained it to him. Tried to, rather.
"Don't you see, Frenchy?" he said. "If I have to croak a guy to save my own pelt, I do it. Sure Mike. But I hate like hell to do it. Killing ain't a business. It's an incident—a darned regrettable incident!"
And, to return to the psychology of the melting-pot, somehow the people did not fear him; neither the laborers of many races and tongues against whom he brushed on his truculent way up and down the Bowery; nor the old, red-haired Jewess near the corner of Pell Street, at whose dusty shop he bought a second-hand suit of clothes; neither the Greek who supplied him with oranges and vegetables; nor the fat, elderly Sicilian woman who sublet to him a corner of her back room, including the privileges of the kitchen sink for washing purposes, for two and a half dollars a week, and who took a sort of motherly interest in him—and in whom he confided, as he had always confided in women.
"No, no, caro mio!" she exclaimed, fluttering her grimy, wrinkled hands. "You are wrong, so wrong. My man—he is dead many years—he kill. You betcha life he did. Once he kill, twice—maybe three times. With the stilet'. But he kill for the love, the passion, the great, great, burning hate. For the good reason, the fine reason, the decent reason! But you—a bucarsi esce il sangue—to kill for the sake of the kill? Oh, Madonna!"—and she crossed herself.
Perhaps the real reason why these people did not fear him was the subconscious memory of their great adventure of emigration—never quite understood by the native born. The sudden, keen, pitiless lifting out of the drab, sticky rut of the gray centuries because a ship-agent talks plausibly or because a ship-poster glares in hopeful green and enthusiastic chrome-yellow, and, too, because of the hope of more money, more food, and—perhaps—a dream of liberty. Then the going away from home and country; the leaving of the little inland village where the soul's roots are, where they have always lived, with wife and children and no earthly possessions except the regulation forty dollars and a bundle of threadbare clothes; the steerage journey across an unknown sea to an unknown country.
Yes! The terrible, shining American adventure of the poor foreign emigrant, greater by far than the romantic buccaneering jaunt of Spain's steel-clad knights who, centuries ago, set sail for the New World on their high-pooped frigates mounted with brass cannon—perhaps the sheer, hushed terror of it had scotched the capacity for fear in these people; and fear, the other man's fear, was as necessary for Bibi the Killer's success as the curve and glisten of his dagger.