Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 10

Keeban by Edwin Balmer
And Learn the Ways of Its Logic

XAND LEARN THE WAYS OF ITS LOGIC.

He had just risen from a bed upon which he had been seated,—a plain, white, iron bed with a red quilt. He looked me over and, welcoming me, waved me to a chair, a plain, wooden chair, not new.

The room was ordinary with striped, cheap paper on the walls; it had a floor of soft wood with a circle of rag carpet; besides the bed and chair, there was a washtand boasting of a bowl and pitcher. Altogether these were the furnishings which a person reared on Astor Street knows to exist but which he has seen only when he has happened to pass an express wagon heaped with the effects of a Halsted Street moving or when, detouring by some strange road, he comes upon the fruit of an "eviction."

By some amazing transmutation, the man before me fitted the furnishings as he fitted the too "tailored" suit, too narrow in lapels, too belted at the waist, too conspicuously "patch pocketed." He wore a shirt of too obvious silk and overdecorated shoes; and he wore them as if he had been bred to aspire to them and to nothing else.

A look at him and I knew why the police, in all the time they had searched since the robbery of Dorothy Crewe, had never picked him up. They had been searching for an Astor Street resident in some such garments as Jerry had worn by the river; they had expected him, when casting off his accustomed clothes, to don rough, contrasting attire; no one would have expected him to outdo, in his garb, himself as he had appeared before. I, least of all.

Now I understood that this must be his costume when in daytime he had to risk the streets; and I believed that a dozen detectives might meet him, give another glance at his face, but after looking him over, they would laugh at themselves for suspecting him. "Here's a Halsted Street flash," they would say, "trying to make himself look like an Astor Street swell. Jerry Fanneal, of Astor Street, would never do that." An officer, bringing in such a man, would make himself the smile of his station.

You would think that I would have said to myself, "This is Keeban." But the fact was I didn't suspect him; I was sure at once that he was Jerry. Noticing him more closely, I observed that he had carried his change of caste even into the cut of his hair. No longer was it "feathered" in back in the manner of a University Club barber; he was clipped and shaven on the neck with his hair thickening toward the top till it became almost a tossing mane on the crown.

"This is your room, Jerry?" I said, I'd been wondering all the time where and how he'd been living.

"Mine just now," he replied, looking up and down me. His eyes seemed to find satisfaction in the sight of me; but he did not give me his hand; he did not come closer to me than ordinary nearness in the room made inevitable. I realized that he was deliberately holding away from me and I realized why. Here he was not only hiding from the police, with his life hanging upon every risk of recognition, but here he was also playing the part of Keeban; and he could enter no more deadly undertaking than this of impersonating Keeban, Harry Vine, and going out among Keeban's people.

Of course he could have attained this perfection of nuance only through constant keeping to it and he would be foolish to endanger it by jumping in and out of character with each opening of his door.

"We can talk here?" I asked.

"What is it?"

It was so much, so many things, that I could lump them all only in the obvious, emotional statement, "I've come to see you."

"Why?"

Since he seemed to demand a practical reason, "Shirley Scofield is being paid the insurance money to-day."

He knew that. "Yes, she got a bunch of it this morning, some yesterday and some a couple of days ago. That's why you tried to look me up day before yesterday, was it?"

"Partly," I said.

"That's all right about her getting the money."

"You mean she wasn't in the scheme to get the money?"

He spoke to me now like Jerry of Astor Street days, I was always slower of wit than he and he was used to telling me obvious things as he did now. "Of course she was after the money, Steve." He stopped a moment and then said, "But not that way."

"What way?"

"By the 'bump off'; she wasn't up to it. That was shoved on her, Steve; and she's sore."

"At whom?"

He tapped his chest. "Our friend. Sit down, Steve."

I sat on the chair; he on the bed.

"He's traveling fast, Steve."

"Who?"

Again he said, "Our friend. So far as I can trace him back, he hadn't been worse than a 'gun' up to that job on Dorothy Crewe; that was a borderland act for him. He started it out like a 'gun' and finished up rough. With Win Scofield, he was all the way a 'gorilla'!"

"Gunman you mean by 'gun'?" I asked.

"Almost the opposite, Steve. A 'gun's' a guy who gives action to his brain instead of to his cannon; he gets by without the shootings. A gorilla's a guy that goes in for the rough stuff. A girl doesn't worry when she's got a good 'gun' for her gentleman friend; she's personally as safe with him as with any church warden. He hasn't any hankering for doing a croak; and he hasn't any habit of getting out of his troubles that way. But when a guy that a girl goes with takes to being a gorilla, the skirt's got to watch her step with him. She knows it."

"Where is he now, Jerry?"

"Do you suppose I know?"

"You must know more than I do."

"That's right." He tossed me a box of cigarettes. "Smoke if you want. Nobody'll come for a while. I allowed us a little time, particularly so you may become better acquainted with my friend—" again he tapped his chest—"Keeban, my childhood companion, more recently the robber of Dorothy Crewe and the bumper off of old Win Scofield. He seems not to be indigenous to Chicago soil, Steve. Assuming that he was—and therefore is—a twin of mine, it is likely that my parents were merely visiting here when they loosed me in the park, and you and I met, old Top. Anyway, they must have moved on to New York, for my friend made his reputation there.

"I haven't been able to gather anything about my own people—no more than you can judge from him and me. Maybe they turned us both loose at the same time and I walked into the hands of a wholesale grocer while a gerver picked him up."

"Gerver?"

"Safe-blower, Steve. My friend seems to have made his start as a 'peterman' and then branched out. He'll blow a peter yet, they say, to keep his hand in; and he packs with him, when he thinks he'll find trouble, the peterman's tube of his trade—a little, corked bottle of soup for emergencies, Steve. Nitro-glycerine, that's all. Interesting idea, what?"

"The nitro?"

"No, that the difference between us is the direction we wandered when we got loose—or were turned loose—twenty-five years ago in Lincoln Park. I walked straight into the bean business and he into blowing safes. Was that all there was to it—the angle our feet took across the grass in the park? What do you think, Steve?"

I shook my head.

"A man likes to think with Shakespeare that he is master of his fate," Jerry went on, "and that fault or strength is in himself, not in his stars. There is no bunch of bunk I hate worse than that environment is to blame for crime and the individual has almost nothing to do with it."

"Give Shakespeare credit for thinking it out further," I said. 'Julius Cæsar' always was a favorite of mine and one thing I knew. "He said, 'Men at some time are masters of their fates: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'"

Jerry nodded. "That's right. My friend's clever; he can see now, if he couldn't when he was younger. Then there's something else—a twist in his brain that's not in mine? Yet I don't know: maybe we're identical, inwardly as well as outside. Maybe the difference is that I never knew what it was to want without being able, lawfully, to get. The cards are stacked in this game of civilization which we play."

That hit one of my pet ideas, as I've mentioned; so I objected, "No, they're not."

"I remember what you think, Steve. I liked to think it too; but now I've gone from the side the cards favor to the side that gets the worst of the deal. What in the devil is law, Steve?"

"Law?" I said.

Again he laughed. "You said that, old Top, as though I'd asked 'What is the sun?' It shines on you so, Steve; to ask about it is to you the acme of foolish questions; but it's not to the man who's brought up under the cloud. What is law? I never even looked up a dictionary definition till I got talking to some of my present friends; now here's just what Webster says: 'A rule of conduct established by an authority able to enforce its will.' That's all there is to it—a set of rules drawn up by the first men on the ground, who've grabbed everything in sight, and who naturally want to perpetuate and increase their possessions. Hence they fix up a lot of rules in their favor which they call law. If you come along later, and are boob enough to believe it's best to work with them, you're a good lawful citizen; if you carry a few ideas of your own, and mean to get ahead without asking anybody's permission, you're a lawbreaker."

That peeved me; he saw it and smiled.

"I'm quoting, Steve; quoting."

"Quoting who?"

"Oh, philosophers with any number of aliases. There's no philosopher like a flat-worker or a good gopher man. In the first place, they've plenty of time to think; their hours of actual effort are short, if rather intense; and between them are periods of leisure which may become decidedly protracted, if they're picked up. Those who complain that the ancient Greek art of dialectics is declining simply confess the constriction of their acquaintance. Socrates—so I am convinced, Steve—was a burglar who'd served about two terms when he got so good that Plato picked him up, covered his past and wrote him down. Possibly you noticed in the delicatessen the other day a friend of mine not lacking in muscular development——"

"Oh, the dyke-keeper!" I said.

"What?"

I explained.

Jerry smiled; he knew my ways. "Any time you're overwhelmed with fear that logic languishes, Steve, start a little argument with him. Now imagine a little boy, like me in my white dress the day you picked me up, walking into hands like his for education."

"Oh, that's what you're getting to!"

"You've guessed it. Soon you're likely to meet my friend Keeban again—under circumstances which I confess I can't completely foresee; yet whatever they are, it can't be anything but a help to better understand his point of view.

"Now here we are or were, Steve—my brother and I. I walked into the bean business, with its logic, such as it is. What is the end and aim of Fanneal and Company, Steve?"

"Why," I said, "why to——"

"To what?"

"To sell good food."

"Why?"

"Why, for people to eat?"

"Your effort is to increase the consumption of food, isn't it?"

"Of course."

"You do it for profit, don't you?"

"Of course."

"Now which is the fact—that most people, here in this country, eat too much or too little?"

"Too much."

"Which is a decided detriment to health and longevity, is it not?"

"Yes."

"Then the actual result of your business, which you steadily push for your own profit, is to lessen health and shorten life?"

I laughed now. But he was at me, "Why the laugh, Steve?"

"That's bunk and you know it."

"Where's it bunk, Steve? Where's the flaw? Where, if anywhere, did the fallacy creep in? Now let us leap to the safe-blowing business. What, my foster-brother Stephen, is the fundamental curse of this country at this time? I'm not asking you a question which seeks any strange or heathen answer. Let us take only the answer that the pulpit itself offers, let us quote not only Christ but the economists and sociologists of our own and other leading conservative universities. What has ruined more families, softened and destroyed the fiber of more individuals, especially the young—who above all should be preserved—than the accumulation of wealth? What else, Steve?"

I had no answer.

"Now where do men keep their accumulations of wealth?"

"In safes."

"Exactly. So, in safes, lies the greatest danger to the individual and to society. Consequently, what else does he do, who removes the contents of the safe and dissipates it, than protect the accumulator and society from the increasing menace of that wealth which, left in the accumulator's hands, would grow grow till it destroyed all? Who is the friend of society, Steve—he who confesses to increasing the staggering sum of degenerative diseases brought on by overeating which he encourages for his own profit, or he who, at tremendous risk to himself, and with no hope of public favor when he succeeds, yet sets himself to strike and strike again and again at the very source of danger and decay?"

Jerry caught his breath. "Let us remain for a moment, Steve, not in the school of Astor Street but in that of my brother, Keeban.

"I've often wondered, particularly during these last days, what went through his head when he first discovered me. He got a hint of my existence, you know, when we were at Princeton. He could have guessed where I was; and maybe he came out a time or two, to look me over. I wonder what he thought of me. I was to him a 'toff,' I suppose; to him, I was running with those whom he despised. For hate and contempt comes into all this, Steve. You've got to work up your feelings to carry on any kind of war, and particularly the most personal war of all; you've got to talk atrocities and have your hymn of hate. So probably he started hating me.

"But he was curious about me, too, I bet. Of course he saw a big chance to make a great clean-up by suddenly becoming me some day—or night. There I was, identical with him; I bet, while he was watching and waiting, he wondered a lot about me.

"He even had a girl like mine; you saw that Christina looked like Dot. He came on here with Christina about six months ago and Win Scofield met her at a cabaret and went crazy over her. We know what happened from the Scofield point of view. From Christina's and my friend's—well, he told her to go to it, pick up a million or so and get out. Or maybe she'd do it nicely and legally, assert cruelty and get a divorce with whopping alimony in the most proper way.

"Then Fred and Kenyon thought they'd stop anything like that; they whipsawed the old man out of his control of the company when he was away and had him on an allowance when he got home. They thought they were awfully smart. All they did was sentence their father; that's all. Meanwhile my friend turned some of his attention back to me, letting the well-known mill of the gods do its bit of grinding on the Scofield affair.

"Harrison Crewe was arriving in dear old Chicago with a nice necklace for daughter Dorothy. The newspapers not only appraised it but advertised its first appearance with all details. I was to escort daughter and necklace first to the Sparlings' where there would be a wedding, after which the line of march would be down the Boulevard to the Drake. Probably my friend was still in Chicago; if he'd been called to New York on business, he must have jumped the Century and come back again with opportunity pounding on his door like that.

"Well, he arrived and we know what he did."

Jerry looked down and then suddenly up at me. "Seen Dot recently, Steve?"

I nodded.

"She still thinks it was me?"

I had to nod again.

"You've seen her since—" his voice hardened and he finished, "the Scofield bump off?"

"Yes."

"That was me, too?"

"She thinks, you see," I said, "you're no longer yourself."

"Kind of her," said he. "Very. Well, I'd gathered as much from the papers. I don't blame her. Where were we?"

"He'd got the necklace."

"Oh, yes; and Fred and Ken Scofield were informing their father's wife that, after cutting off the old man with an allowance, they were also going to let his insurance lapse. Now, about that time, a queer thing was happening with that young wife—queer if you keep on staring at just what you see from Astor Street. Christina got a hankering for decency."

"You mean she liked Win Scofield?"

"She liked being his wife—if only for the novelty. The old man, for himself, was nothing to her. She was crazy about Keeban."

"Yet married Win Scofield."

"'My friend' told her to. Probably he was coming to one of the times when he was getting tired of her, anyway; he took her up, off and on; off times, he picked up with other girls. So, till he wanted her again, he thought he'd park her with the Scofield family and let her gather half a million for him."

"What did she think when she first saw you?"

"Oh, she knew about me, sure enough. Part of 'my friend's' plan in planting her in society must have been to help his scheme with me; she was his inside wire on that job and went through with her end so smoothly that no one suspected, no one even mentioned her; she wasn't even "Among those present" printed in the paper after the Sparling affair. Undoubtedly she'd have gone right through with the arrangement rigged on old Win, if 'my friend' had stuck to original prospectus; but Fred and Ken didn't make that possible. And 'my friend', from his point of view, was left with no other course than to croak old Win. If he was to maintain any sort of discipline, he simply had to do it."

"Discipline of whom? Shirley?"

"For one, among others. My brother," said Jerry, avoiding his previous euphonism of "friend" and speaking with a queer timbre of pride, "had a leadership to maintain and improve, a certain record of success to conserve. A man in his position must, above every one else, save his face; he can let no one smile at him. Here he had let his girl go to old Win Scofield to make him some money and Win's sons had made it impossible, unless somebody croaked Win; so Win had to be croaked; not merely for the money, but to save 'my friend's' face.

"Now Shirley, on the square, tried to stop that; from the time I spoke to you, she was never against you. It's right for her to have the insurance money that's paid; she was not in the scheme of the croaking; nobody can ever show she was."

"She accused you to me," I said.

Jerry nodded. "I've seen the papers. You'll see something else to-night. Win Scofield's widow has her money; and Harry Vine, my friend and yours, Steve—Keeban, we called him—he's saving his face. At the Flamingo Feather, the affair will be."

"Flamingo Feather?"

"You don't know it? Well, neither did I a few weeks ago. I dreamed, no more than you, that such a spot existed; yet to-night it's my place of fate. For 'my friend's' friends go there to-night, Steve, to see what he can show them. It's a date; he's got to be present. The Flamingo Feather's a hall, Steve—one of those halls that the police raid with the reserves in force, with half a dozen wagons, or leave severely alone. There's a masque ball on there to-night—with fancy figures and favors. There's a celebration on, you see; and something to expect."

"You going?"

"I? He'll be there, I said. Do you want to chance it, Steve?"