Bibi - His Mark/Chapter 5
THUS, greeted in "Tim Sully's Silver Glen—Come One, Come All—Big Tim Is Waiting For You" with the proprietor's smiling: "Sure. We'll show the judge that he ain't backin' the wrong horse, won't we?" Bibi l'Tueur, first as bottle-washer, then, as his natural Latin skill asserted itself, promoted to bus-boy, and finally to full-fledged boiled-shirt-and-swallow-tail waiter, found it impossible—physically, if not morally—to depart from the straight and narrow path.
Bibi the Killer became Bibi the Worker.
For, unobtrusively, benignly, yet very effectively, he was being trailed and watched, day and night; first only by Fitzgerald and Kirk, then, as the tale of the "dry nursing" as the Irishman insisted on calling it was bruited about, by a dozen enthusiastic, grinning volunteers from Second Branch Headquarters, until Bibi, whose shrewd primitive ferocity kept him from taking chances without at least an even break to get away with it, simply did not have an opportunity to go wrong.
And so the days swung into weeks and the weeks into months, while his money accumulated and his body filled out, blotting the thin, sharp lines of sensuous cruelty that ran from nostrils to mouth with the solid red meats of Tim Sully's generous kitchen, while his feet, carrying the extra weight, lost their furtive, gliding tread, while his heart, flushed and congested with a crimson brutality that found no outlet, was like that of a caged bird of prey, a vulture, or a kite scenting the acrid reek of carrion—and while, across the Atlantic, with Belgium giving her little all and Britain her big all, France fought yet again the world's battle for freedom and civilization and the blessed average decencies, heroic, uncomplaining, stuffing the mouth of her sufferings and her glory with the tortured flesh of her maimed and the clotted black blood of her dead sons.
Which was of supreme indifference to Bibi.
"To be carved into cat's meat because of a fat pig of a government that is being sucked white by fat pigs of bourgeois—ah—nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu!"—was his lucid comment on affairs to a Spanish waiter from Barcelona who, a true Catalan, thus lawless, recalcitrant, insurgent, agreed to the sentiment with a flash of even, white teeth and a spreading of thin, brown hands.
Bibi could hardly keep his hands from gripping and clutching and strangling when he bent politely over the left shoulder of a well-fed stockbroker or plump lawyer and heard his purring:
"Here, garson, let's have a Bronx before I take a look at the menu."
But he walked along the straight path of rectitude. He could not help himself—until, one day, he became aware unwittingly that, parallel with class-hatred, runs that other strange, conquering prejudice called class consciousness.
It was early in the afternoon and he was going to work, feeling in his bones, as usual, that somewhere in back of him Fitzgerald or one of Fitzgerald's grinning volunteers was shadowing him. In front of the New York Herald, at the corner of Thirty-Fifth Street, his way was barred by a tight crowd, reading the latest news from the front smeared in big, black type on the bulletin boards, and discussing them according to the particular European back-stairs down which they had been kicked into the New World.
Bibi, too, obeyed the mob instinct, stopped, and read:
- Prussian Guards defeated by French "convict" troops!
He smiled. "'Convict' troops." Doubtless a good many of them were his former pals and side-kicks from the quartier, back of the Halles Centrales. Perhaps members of his old gang: Anatol' Chapin and Eloi l'Michet and that little chap—what was his name?—who used to go round with Thérèse la Rouge until one night, in a fit of jealousy, Thérèse tried to burn out his eyes with a bottle of vitriol, and Pierre l'Rongeur, and—
He shrugged his shoulders. Bon sang!—he thought—what fools! To fight, to die. He would like to see himself in their place, up on the front, at night, when all the cats were gray. The first thing he'd do would be to shoot the colonel in the back and—
"Na ja! So 'ne amerikanische Lüge! Chust one of dem damned Yankee lies!" a thick, guttural voice rose from the crowd. "Frenchmen don't fight. And dose abaches? Vy—dose is the convict troops, and I haf lifed in Baris, and I tell you dere ain't one of dem—not one single one—vot I could not lick mit mine right hand tied behint mine back!"
"Ah! Boug' d'Dieu, d'sang-Dieu!"
Bibi's voice peaked up like the bellow of a wounded tiger. Forgetting the detective who was trailing him, rather, not caring what might happen to him, he pushed into the crowd, bullet head foremost, elbows working right and left, until he faced the German, a large man with a close-cropped blond beard, handsome blue eyes, and a smile of beatific bliss curling his lips. For he was in America. He was safe. He could say what he pleased. This was a free country, and the people about him, muttering, doubtless pro-Ally in the majority, why—they wouldn't take advantage of their numerical superiority to ram his words down his throat. Idiots! With their Anglo-Saxon mania about fair play and free speech!
Which may or may not have been the thoughts in the German's head. If they were, he had no time to crystallize them—nor to reconsider them. For, suddenly, like a throwing weight released from a catapult, Bibi l'Tueur hurtled through the air, his knees crashing into the German's loins, his feet into his shins, while his hands clawed at the windpipe, and the words spewed out, foaming, lashing, mad:
"Ah, sal' 'spèce d'Alboche! Here's one apache who—"
"Aisy, me lad! Aisy turns the thrick!" cut in Fitzgerald's smooth, silken voice, and Bibi was so utterly surprised at the fact that the plain-clothes man's blackjack was not thudding down on his head that he lost his garrotte hold and the German ran away and down Thirty-Fifth Street, leaving no trace behind him except a handful of blond hair that was clinging to Bibi's grip.
"What are you going to do with me?" asked the latter truculently, as the Irishman led him away.
The other grinned.
"I'll buy ye a drink," he replied; and, steering him into the nearest saloon and sitting down in a box across two large glasses of beer, he stretched out a large hand.
"Put it here, ye little murtherin' villain of a French woild-cat!" he said. "Ye may be a damned rotten egg, but—by all the dear saints!—ye're a pathriot!"
Unblushingly, Bibi accepted drink and compliment. He knew in his own heart that Fitzgerald was mistaken.
Patriotism? Love of country?
Name of a little pink rabbit! It wasn't that, he said to himself. It was only that his old gang of the Rue de Turbigo was out there in Picardy, killing, killing—Anatol' Chapin and Eloi l'Michet and Pierre l'Rongeur and le p'tit homme à Thérèse—and how many others?
His own people! His own class! Nom d'Dieu!—and it would have taken a greater philosopher than Bibi to comprehend that patriotism and class consciousness are one and the same thing at root—that the former is only a splendid accretion, an ennobling, an empyrean soaring of the latter.
As before, he was watched by Fitzgerald and Bill Kirk and the other headquarters men. As before, there were moments when his heart was bloated and turgid with evil, unreasoning hate. As before, he despised that pig of a government, French or American or what-not, and pitied the boys of the old quartier as half-wits who did not know what they were doing. Yet when, one day in late April, 19 15, he read in the Courrier des Etats-Unis, that Pierre l'Rongeur had been decorated for exceptional bravery under fire, he smiled and rubbed his hands.
"Ah, these dirty, dirty bourgeois!" he said to the Spanish waiter at the Silver Glen. "It takes us—the apaches—to show them how to fight, how to kill, eh?"
That same evening, Tim Sully took him aside and pointed to a corner table.
"See those two gents over there?" he asked. "They're French, like yourself. Big guns back home, I've been told, come here to buy munitions and—perhaps"—his blue eyes twinkled—"to interview our statesmen on the question how long it 'll take until the American mule loses her patience and kicks the guy who's tweaking her long-sufferin' tail. Wait on them well, sonny."
Bibi suppressed the jeering comment that was on the tip of his tongue. He crossed the restaurant, bowed, and put the menu card in front of the two men. One was tall and clean shaven, very Norman and aristocratic in his calm, rather bovine, blond way, while the other was a typical Paris lawyer, with his carefully trimmed black beard, full cheeks, deep, intelligent eyes, strong, hairy, high-veined hands.
Bibi l'Tueur was familiar with both their types. Often, back home in Paris, when strolling along the boulevards on a sunny afternoon, had he wished that one of their kidney might be rash enough to come into the twisted maze of streets and alleys back of the Halles Centrales some dark night—and then—
"Yes, sir," he bowed as the taller man gave the order. "Clear soup? Yes, sir. First hors-d'œuvres? Bien!" And, to the bearded man's sudden question: "Yes, sir. I am a Frenchman. What? Why am I not over there, fighting for France—the—what? the motherland?"
He took a deep breath and lowered his voice to a purr:
"Ah, specimen of a dirty bourgeois! I mock myself of the motherland! I am a son of the quartier! Back in the Rue de Turbigo they used to call me Bibi the Killer!"
At which the other smiled simply, shrugged his expressive Gallic shoulders. and continued with his order, a hearty, artistic French meal running the culinary gamut from soup to cheese.
It was the tall, angular, blond Norman—before the war had swept him into the service of government he had been a professor of psychology at the University of Nancy—who interpreted the situation correctly.
"Class consciousness," was his academic dictum to his friend, Maître Toussaint Leblanc of the Paris bar, pointing at Bibi who, the immaculate waiter once more, was tossing together vinegar and chili sauce and chopped chives in the right proportions for the Russian salad dressing. "An apache—and proud of the fact—contemptuously, haughtily proud!"
"And why not, bourgeois?" came Bibi's impudent, sibilant query as, with appropriate flourish of snowy napkin and servile bending of spine, he placed the salad in front of him.
"Because, my friend," replied the professor, soberly, "you have only the right to be proud of what you—you yourself—are doing. You have no right to bask in the warmth and glory of a borrowed halo, no right to be proud of your class, be they bourgeois or apaches, unless you conform with—shall we call them?—the duties, the privileges, the customs of your class."
"I am Bibi the—"
"The Killer! So you told me. But, my poor friend, whom do you kill, hein? Are you assassinating people by giving them too much of this salad dressing—which is exquisitely blended, though perhaps a suspicion of garlic would not hurt it? Or are you murdering them by committing such gastronomic crimes as to serve red vintage Burgundy with their filet de sole or a flowery, heady white Chablis with their roast lamb? Oh là là, mon pauvre vieux—you are not Bibi the Killer, the pride of the quartier. You are Bibi the Perfect Waiter—for which I, personally, am grateful."
Bibi laughed, though the truth of the words rankled and itched, and his two countrymen joined in the laugh.
Utterly French, utterly logical, they saw no reason why they should not cover Bibi's shortcomings with the wide charity of their personal laxity, and by the time they were sipping their green chartreuse a sort of sardonic and tolerant friendship had sprung up between bourgeois and apache, between the boulevards and the Rue de Turbigo.