Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 3
ONE day in August he discovered the truth of it. It was a little after six in the evening, and, following a wave of heat that had come down like crackling, red-hot spears, a rain-storm swept over from Jersey, driving the people to take shelter wherever they could.
The ideal weather to "turn the trick of Père Antoine," grinned Bibi I'Tueur, cracking his fingers to limber them for the grip and twist of the garrote.
Watching from a well-chosen strategical position in a dark doorway on Sixth Avenue, just above the Jefferson Market Court, where a mad, exuberant alley runs into an ancient maze of buildings at an exaggerated angle, to come out near Greenwich Avenue in a fantastic hodgepodge of mews, studios, and little shops where nobody ever buys, he saw a well-dressed, plump business man on a breathless gallop toward the Eighth Street Elevated Station.
Bibi did his work rapidly and neatly. He did not even have to use his knife—which made no difference to him either way, as it was money he wanted that night, and not the acrid tang of human blood.
Out of his hiding-place as quick and straight as a bullet! Foot crashing against chin; right hand squeezing the man's windpipe; left frisking his pockets—and off he was into the alley which he had thoroughly investigated earlier in the day.
But, running, twisting, turning, gliding, doubling, he found to his sorrow and discomfiture that, contrary to Paris, where the people would have helped him—him, Bibi l'Tueur!—here everybody's hand was against his.
A hue and cry.
"There he goes!"—echoed in a dozen languages; and they came from all directions—Poles and Calabrians and Russian Jews and Greeks and Slovaks—they were about him and pulled him down as hounds pull down a stag.
And—back to night court!
Only it so happened that the judge before whom he was brought this time was Moses C. Mandelson—who was a Jew, a scholar, and a self-made man; thus, by the same three tokens, a doer and a dreamer.
His was a strange theory, a stranger practise—for night courts. He held that judging was not synonymous with condemning, but with being just; and he had contempt, even hatred, for the buckram orthodoxy of precedent. The law to him was elastic, thus kindly.
He listened to the tale of the witnesses, the testimony of the policemen, and Bibi's surly replies.
"You are a Frenchman?" he asked.
Mandelson cupped his chin in his hands, studied the finger-print cards which had been brought from the little back room; then suddenly he looked up and spoke in a more peculiar—a more eccentric, his critics called it—manner than he had ever done in all his career.
"My friend," he said—and addressing the prisoners as his friends was another one of his oddities which he explained to his intimates by demanding how he could presume to judge people unless he felt friendly toward them—"the court will try to discover the bead of gold in the bottom of the blackened crucible which is your soul." (Did we mention that Mandelson was a Jew and a dreamer?)
He rose with a swish of his black, silken robe.
"Court temporarily suspended," he announced to the room in general, the scribbling reporters, the policemen waiting for their cases to be called, the special writers greedy for "sob" copy, the social-settlement workers, and the morbid habitués.
Then, again to Bibi:
"Follow me." And he stepped down from the dais and led the way to his private office, where, it was said, he judged more cases than in court; where, too, he smoked very excellent cigars.
"Your honor—please!" Detective Fitzgerald, who had made the arrest, tried to stop him. "The guy's dangerous, your honor! Better let me—"
"The court is able to take care of itself," smiled the judge, and he entered his office, followed by the Apache, and closed the door.
There they were—alone—judge and killer.
Instinctively, like a rangy, dusty, guilty-looking alley cat that senses the friendly intent of a stranger's outstretched hand, Bibi knew that the other was contemplating a kindly deed of some sort.
Wherefore he despised him.
On the other hand, he saw no reason why he should not take advantage of the little man's evident insanity, and so, sitting down across from the judge on the other side of the flat-top desk, he took an additional leaf out of the alley-cat's book of conduct.
He changed his growl into a purr.
Trusting, he looked, and confiding, and he tried his best to squeeze a tear from his wicked, arrogant eyes.
"My friend," said Mandelson, "I am sorry that it is my duty to judge you, to punish you. I do not like to punish people. I do not enjoy it. Why"—and there was an expression of utter seriousness in the man's fine brown eyes—"why do you force me to? Tell me."
Bibi pounced upon his cue. He said the regular thing.
A chance! That's all he wanted, he said in fair English. Just one more chance! And he'd keep straight—yes—straight for all time to come.
"Give me another chance," he begged, lowering his eyes before the other's steady gaze, and thinking how easy it would be to jump up, strangle the judge, and then—away—through the back window! But no. Outside there were policemen on watch, and—
"So you are a Frenchman," came Mandelson's low voice.
"And—from all I can gather—an apache?"
Bibi looked up, suspicious, wary. Apache! The other knew the word, then, doubtless knew what it meant. So that was the reason why he was willing to be friendly and conciliatory! Because he was afraid—afraid of him, Bibi I'Tueur!
"Yes," he snarled. "I am an apache—and a killer, a killer!" and he stuck out his chin at a malevolent angle and went on, in sharp, bawdy-gutter French:
"Et ben, mon p'tit boug'? Qu'est-tu nous chantes?"
But Mandelson did not seem to be aware of the implied threat in the man's words or attitude.
Very casually he lit a cigar, as casually spoke:
"There is work for a killer these days, my friend."
Rapidly Bibi reconsidered. Why? Was it possible that this man, this simple, innocent-looking man, wanted to—well—hire him and his dagger to turn a trick, perhaps to murder an enemy?
All right. He was ready to oblige.
But before he had a chance to frame an appropriate question, the judge went on:
"I suppose you know that, three days ago, war broke out between France and Germany? That the invader is overrunning your country? That France is calling all men capable of bearing arms to the colors—to defend the motherland?"
Bibi scratched his head. To be sure, he had heard vaguely about this war. But the news had made no impression on him. Less important it had seemed than his daily drinks and cigarettes, and he wondered what the judge meant by dragging in such an outside subject.
"Yes," he replied, a little surprised, "I know that there is war."
"Very well." The judge spoke as if giving judgment. "You will enlist in the French army. I shall remand you to the Tombs overnight, and early to-morrow morning Detective Fitzgerald will take you to the French consul-general." He ashed his cigar. "You say that you are a killer. Then"—and suddenly his voice leaped up extraordinarily strong and a slow flame eddied up in his eyes—you will kill for a decent cause! You will kill for France, for humanity, for civilization! Come, my friend!" He stretched out a white, womanish hand. "Here's your chance—to make good, to redeem yourself, for all time to come. It will help you—make you—the discipline, the danger—if need be, the supreme sacrifice! Come, my friend!"
Bibi had been thinking rapidly.
The war? Now he came to consider it, it was a rather good joke on the Paris bourgeois, whom he hated and whom he took to be his lawful prey of which fate had robbed him. They were being mustered now, and he smiled at the picture in his mind: how they were drilling their fat bodies into tight, blue uniforms; how they rubbed their obese shoulders raw with the steel of the musket and the taut, dry leather of the haversack.
But—to fight for them, side by side with them? Perhaps to die for them and their pig of a government?
Mais non alors!
Let them croak, these bourgeois, and if in the process they took a goodish number of German bourgeois down to hell with them, so much the better.
For—long live the proletariat!—such, if any, was his political dogma.
But he knew that these were not views he could mention to the judge.
"I cannot fight," he said. "I was in the army three months. I was discharged."
And the surprising thing was that, so far, he had spoken the truth. Twelve years earlier he had been drafted to do his three years, and had been mustered into one of the "convict" regiments that see service in Algiers, Tunis, and the Sahara. Three months he had been with the colors. Then he had been discharged.
Only, he did not explain to the judge that, after a particularly heinous and unmentionable offense, even the convict regiment had been considered tainted by his presence, and that the colonel, facing him in front of the battalion, had said:
"You are driven out of the army—like a mangy, vicious cur. With infamy and contempt. Your comrades do not want you. I do not want you. The regiment does not want you. France does not want you!"
A speech which had affected him not at all.
"Why were you discharged? Can you prove it?" asked the judge just a little suspiciously, the doer in him getting the best of the dreamer.
And Bibi l'Tueur lied, because he had no alternative.
He replied that he had been discharged for physical disabilities, and then he decided on a master bluff, praying in his heart that the other's knowledge of French, if any, might be embryonic. He put his hand in his pocket, and brought out a greasy, creased, official-looking document, stamped with the seal of the French Republic, and made out in his name. It was given as "Robert—dit Bibi—Laripette."
"Look," he said grandiosely, throwing it on the table; and he was in luck.
Mandelson's knowledge of French was elemental. He glanced through the paper, recognizing it as genuine with his trained, observing legal perception, and making out certain words by their similarity with English and the vague memory of a book entitled "French Self-Taught in Twelve Lessons," which he had studied years back.
"Décharge de l'armee," doubtless meant "discharged from the army"; and "pour toujours"—Toujours? Of course. He remembered. It meant "always."
Discharged from the army for always. The meaning was clear. And the next moment, leaning across the desk, Bibi had put his hand across the bottom line of the document where it read "Avec infâmie"—with disgrace.