Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 11

XITHE THIEVES' BALL.

The approach to the floor of the Flamingo Feather was past a bakery, a pawnshop, a drink parlor, all decorous and dreary. Then there was a door distinguished by a bracket extending a black, iron basket in which a yellow electric bulb glowed. Over the street, this and a single iron feather painted flame color made a flaunt of festivity. From the door stretched a hall, tinted Pompeian red and reaching toward gents' smoking rooms and the placarded penetralia of ladies; upward led iron stairs to the ballroom, let by the hour or evening, at rates proclaimed on a card.

I realized, as I entered, that I had heard of this place—or at least of its sister ballrooms—scores of times. For here revelled those indefinite, intriguing organizations named, by their members, "The Apollo Pleasure Club" and "The Brothers of Byzas" (whoever he was) and "the Ten Terpsichoreans," who from their handbill, pasted on the Pompeian wall, evidently hoped to enroll, at a dollar per gent (ladies with escort free) several hundred paying guests. In fact, few of the coming social functions, advertised in this hall, appeared to be exclusive. Yet I might be in error.

Judging from to-night's bill, which simply said—"Special—To-night: Mask and Costume Ball; Get your tickets in Advance—Special"—one might assume a catholicity of welcome not sustained by the manner of two tall—and masked—gentlemen in the hall beside a little table at the foot of the stairs.

I did not doubt that to-night, at least, there had been an exercise of selection by whomsoever (they were not named on the notice) sold tickets in advance. And here, at the foot of the stairs, was a second inspection. Each masker, or at least one in every group, lifted his cover when passing the table. Jerry did that for the two of us; of course he had tickets and we were passed and, after checking our outer garments, we climbed to the ballroom where jazz was playing.

Jerry was a courtier in doublet and jerkin; he was Sir Walter Raleigh as much as any one else. I was a monk, Erasmus for choice, in robe and cowl; both of us, as I've suggested, wore masks; about us everywhere were maskers, wigged Colonials, Barbara Frietchies, Mary Pickfords, Cæsars, Cromwells, Charlie Chaplins; then there were Aphrodites, devils and sailors, sashed pirates, queens and kings addicted not so much to any particular personage or period as to an impression of the generically royal in their garb. Many, of both sexes, went in for mere fantastic innovation, concealing electric batteries under silk bodice or skirt, switching on green, red and blue lights in their hair, on their shoulders and elbows while they danced.

They betrayed a penchant for weaponry, too, keeping in decent concealment the short, blue-barrelled automatics of contemporary pattern but evidencing long, decorative—and yet not entirely useless—daggers, rapiers and curved cutlasses.

I had picked my costume partly on the presumption that it had enjoyed a smaller popularity than other offerings at Leventhal's, lessor of garments; partly I was influenced by its exceptional qualities for concealment. There appeared to have been, among the gentlemen who would have been supposed to have obtained one of those tickets in advance, a peterman similar to me in height and familiarly known as "Beets"—I am not sure of the spelling, perhaps an "a" appertained—who had affected the monastic in earlier revels. He was, fortunately, a taciturn individual; so nobody expected me to talk much; and nobody talked much to me.

It was nearly eleven o'clock when we arrived, so the ball was already rolling; "the thieves' ball," the papers dubbed it afterwards; yet, of the three hundred persons in the hall at the hour of the swiftest rolling, not fifty actually were thieves. Not fifty were either thieves or worse; not if you counted both sexes, the shoplifters and lay "wires", along with the "guns" and "gervers."

So much I had gathered from Jerry during the afternoon. The actual go-getter in any society is in the small minority; he, or she, supports a host of hangers-on; it is only the armchair dreamer who flatters himself that he who holds him up, who blows his safe, who forges his name, must be a fugitive, hiding and cowering between his sallies forth with gat, with "soup" or with pen. Of course, the gunman or the gerver goes about his business, keeps his hours, surrounds himself by friends and family even as you and I. He might frequent the Drake or the Blackstone for his pleasure, also, but it would be too suggestive of business. He, too, requires his leisure; so here he was with his friends at the Flamingo Feather.

Maybe a dozen knew what was on that night; not more than that, Jerry told me. He vanished, Jerry did, after we'd been there an hour, leaving me alone with ladies.

I danced, to mighty good music, with a crowned queen of Tudorish bodice, modified by electric lights on the sleeves; with a green-robed girl of red hair with amber lights on her comb; with a white-shouldered Cleopatra, lithe and soft in my arms.

I danced again with Cleopatra and, after midnight, a couple of times more and was having a better time with each encore. Also I was getting acclimated to the diverting atmosphere of that ball. Its manners, of course, were various and, as I explained to myself the different developments, each masker made for himself a personal interpretation of his rôle according to his costume; consequently I witnessed the Puritanical portrayed in contrast with the piratical between which extremes the private lighting plants extemporized pirouettes of their own.

There was plenty of cheek-to-cheek proximity of partners; plenty of knee to knee. Occasionally a floor committeeman pried a couple a few inches farther apart; but surely it is better to see that done than to observe the need ignored.

Jerry, unless he returned in some new costume, remained away from the floor; and I gave up momentarily expecting him. I got to having a good time on my own account, especially with Cleopatra.

I could not see her face between her brow and lips. Through her mask, I got glimpse enough of her irises to see that they were blue. Her forehead was smooth and white and pretty; intelligent looking, too. Her lips were bowed and smiled pleasantly and were not too much carmined; she had a fine little chin, pretty and also firm. She'd a lovely neck and shoulders, smooth as satin; and she'd small, strong little hands with beautiful, pink nails, and slender, shapely feet.

I'm not given to noticing quite so much about a girl; but with this one, I couldn't help it. She was an alluring little crook. I suppose the vizor had something to do with it; the hidden always beckons a fellow on; but what kept me coming was the thought,—what was she doing there? What was her line or her lay? If she were merely a guest of this ball, whose guest was she?

Naturally, at a masque—and most naturally at that masque—people dispensed with introductions. She was Cleopatra and no one gave her a modern name; as Cleopatra she lacked a Cæsar, though many were present. She lacked even an Anthony; a Magellanic mariner seemed to be her rallying point. I don't know why I called the gentleman Magellan; if he'd been huskier I'd have called him Columbus. Somehow I've always imagined Magellan quick and slight and more given to liquor than Columbus. This mariner was; given to liquor, I mean. Cleopatra bothered about him for a time and then blithely abandoned him, much to my benefit.

"What shall I call you?" she asked me. So far, we had got on without names.

"Erasmus," I said, to try her as much as anything.

To my amazement, she knew the old boy. "Holbein would be thrilled by you." And, as she danced with my arm about her, I could feel that she was sizing me up anew. I had said "Erasmus" as I might have said Claude or Skeezix; but since she knew Erasmus, naturally she wondered how I knew. Beets, my predecessor in these garments, would not have known; but Cleopatra had known for some time that I was not Beets.

About that time came a diversion; in fact, the diversion. Sir Walter Raleigh, escorting an Elizabethan lady, appeared on the floor. Both were masked; but under the garb of Raleigh were the limbs of Jerry; and I knew the Elizabethan lady, too. Here was Christina, come to the ball.

I looked again at her Raleigh, with rapier at his side, dagger at his waist. Not Jerry, I told myself, with pulses thrilling; here was Keeban. This was what I was to expect; Keeban, to show off, had carried Christina to the ball. That day, she had won the last of her money; this night he had regained her, he was to take her away; but before going, here was his flourish, his defiance, his display!

He put his arm about her, and, as they began to dance, I heard in the buzz of voices the whisper of his name. Here was Harry Vine, they were saying; here was Christina. Between them, they'd more than half a million; he'd put over his job just as he schemed it. Nobody could beat that boy; if they tried to, the sod for them.

It looked like madness for them to be here tonight; but madness marks the big job.

Here was Keeban, Harry Vine. He had boasted that he would bring his woman, whom some thought had gone away from him. Surely he had arranged his get-away with her; but before he used it, here he was proving that she was his.

But she wasn't his! At least, so Jerry had told me. She'd come with him, but she was, in fact, no longer his. Something more was on tonight than that rapiered and daggered Raleigh expected. I danced with Cleopatra, watching them dance, and also I looked now for the reappearance of the other Raleigh, who was Jerry.

The number ended; now clapping; now encore. My arms circled Cleopatra; I clasped her. Keeban clasped Christina.

As I watched his arm go around her, so exactly as Jerry's clasped his partner in the dance, I got another jerk. Maybe he was Jerry! Maybe what was to happen between Jerry and his "friend", his brother, had happened outside. I sent that thought out of my head and watched them.

What a pair they made, she young, lithe, full of life, perfect in her soft proportions. I thought of how I had seen her singing that night before the shooting and how she received me—like Récamier, on her couch—afterwards. But here she was dancing another theme. And he, dancing with her, was quick, graceful, courtly. Clearly they had done this dance often together. Some one cried out a request and they went into a fancy figure.

The rest of us cleared a circle in the center of the hall; we danced slowly about the perimeter while they in the middle twined arms, turned, confronted each other, flung each other away and circled back to clasp again, dancing.

They had become so professional now, that, watching their steps, I forgot for the moment that he was the murderer of old Win and she had been old Win's wife, in the plot for the Scofield money. Jerry had told me that, when the plot turned to murder of her husband, she had tried to stop it. Had they fallen out? Well, I should see. This was a time not to think, but to watch.

Some one switched the lights off. It proved the signal for those who had lights in their hair and on their dresses to gather inside the circle and give their soft, colored glows to Christina and Harry, dancing together.

He seized her, tossed her away, caught her again and, before again he tossed her, she altered the figure. As he caught at her, she eluded him and, laughing, she snatched at the sheath on his belt. She had his dagger; and the lights—blood-red, green and amber—glinted on the flashing blade as she bared it, drew back and thrust at him.

He caught her wrist, as girls about me gasped; he held and twisted at her hand but she broke his hold and darted away from him. He stood a moment, staring; then he grinned at her who, off at the edge of the circle, again was dancing as if that thrust at him, his snatch just in time, his twist and her breakaway all were part of the figure. But they weren't. He knew; I knew; many others knew. There, in that flash of shining steel, she had stabbed at him to kill him.

Why? Jerry's words to me gave at least a clue. He was her man, who had been a "gun" but who had become a "gorilla"; he had shot Win Scofield in her sight, slaughtered him before her. She had tried to stop that killing; and his murder of the old man in his house had been Harry Vine's answer. Also he had served notice for her to come back to him; so she had done so,—to kill him.

This was what Jerry meant I should see; this was the vengeance of Shirley. Not vengeance alone; also an attempt at self-protection. She knew, going back to a "gorilla", that sooner or later he would kill her. Perhaps she expected death from him only a little later that night. So she had struck there before them all and, failing, made her life surely forfeit. Now, without doubt, Keeban—Harry Vine—would kill her.

Not there, surrounded by that circle, as she would have slain him, had her thrust gone home. A girl kills a man that way; but not a man his woman. This rapiered Raleigh knew that. He made no motion to attack her; he merely watched her, and he grinned while she danced and tried to play it was all pretense.

Now her partner started toward her; and everybody watched him, and watched her, and nobody interfered. Nobody thought that, when he caught her, immediately and there he would kill her. I, at least, did not even imagine that. He was moving to capture her now and to carry her away; and, to these maskers in the circle, that was all his own affair as, to them, her stroke at him had been her business. I realized that had she sent the dagger home, no one would have touched her as no one, after she had failed and was doomed, would raise a hand to help her now.

She knew it also; and she looked to no one for aid. She merely danced away, his dagger in her hand, smiling and still playing at pretense.

Fingers circled my wrist; they were Cleopatra's. Small, strong, intense fingers they were, half holding, half warning me.

I had not been aware that I betrayed, through my mask and cowl, the impulse which heated me. Of course I wanted to help that girl who had struck and failed; I wanted to seize him who grinned and stole upon her, and of course I knew I could not; and those slim fingers circling my wrist doubly warned me. Here was business between two persons—girl and man—which was their own. She still had chance to strike again and kill him, if she could; he had his right to capture.

She circled circled away and he followed about the edge of the ring, not gaining upon her. Suddenly he snatched a cape from the shoulders of a watcher; he wound it about his left arm and, with that arm forward to take her stab, he darted on her.

He did it so quickly, so surely, that it seemed prearranged. For the moment, it seemed that the motion must have been practiced and it was all play. Then he was on her; she made a stab and he caught it on that bundled cape. With his other hand, he had her wrist; he had her. No acting in that; no possible pretense.

It was not play; he had her! The circle knew it was not play; some of them would surely save her. I must have jerked again; for Cleopatra's fingers pressed tighter on my wrist.

"Where's Jerry?" I thought. "What's he doing?"

The light was lessening. A girl switched off the glows which burned upon her head and dress; another did the same; another. "Lights!" somebody called; but before the room lights could go on, other dancers had darkened the colored bulbs they wore.

The dagger rang on the floor; and, as she dropped it, Christina surprised her partner out of his hold on her. She darted back. The circle behind her opened and closed. She was through and the circle was all dark. Then some one screamed.

At that instant, I was sure it was Christina; I was sure he had her again. Then, I did not know. There was a whistle outside. "The bulls—bulls—bulls."

Cleopatra's fingers freed my wrist. I groped for her but she was gone. "Bulls—the bulls" men and girls said. No one cried again for lights; no one turned them on. In the dark, I felt streams of escape in opposite directions. Outside somebody was shooting; came shouts; now the clanging of patrol cars. Surprise was gone.

I felt myself sucked into an eddy of escape repulsed from one side and cast upon the other. We reached air and iron stairs. Pistols flashed before us; our van cleared the way. I came down to the alley pavement and stumbled over a man shot or fallen. I crossed the alley and reached a passage. A girl's hand led me through and, a block down, we found refuge.

I didn't know the girl. I never saw her face. It was dark and she left the shed before me. I dropped my robe there; and when I walked out, the circle of capture had closed and was still contracting, not expanding. The police took, altogether, thirty-six persons,—twenty, girls, sixteen men.

The "bulls" booked them all but proved able to hold nobody. They showed prison records against seven but nothing then "out" against any one. The pick-up, as shown on the picture pages, included a Tudor queen, two of the lighting plants, a pirate, a Turk, a Cæsar but not Cleopatra; not even Magellan. Not the Elizabethan Christina, not Ralegh, either Jerry or Keeban.

The raid was made to get Jerry and Christina; for some one had tipped it that they'd be at the Flamingo Feather. The tip told even the time.

I kept wondering about that tip and who gave it. Not Jerry, I thought; but where, during the end of that evening, was Jerry? And I considered that it was only after he had gone that Keeban had come in,—or the man in mask whom I'd called Keeban, and who did that dagger dance with Christina.

She'd told me, at that time when she lay on her bed like Madame Récamier, that Jerry had killed old Win; she showed no knowledge at all of Keeban.

You'll understand I kept my thoughts to myself; and I kept to myself that I'd danced at the Flamingo Feather that night of "the thieves' ball," which was raided. The newspapers, always keen for the colorful, played up the pictures they took of those twenty girls and sixteen "crooks" in costume; but the papers did not even know of that dagger dance. Much less could they give news of the final consequence of it.

In my mind, when I thought of it, Keeban had caught Christina. In my mind, he had her somewhere wholly in his power; at his own time, in his own manner, he would punish her. Imagining this, I would get up and walk about; I felt I had to do something. But where were they? Where was Jerry? If he were not the Raleigh who had returned; if he were not the man who had danced, where had he gone? What had happend to him?

I learned, during those days, the completer truth of what Jerry had told me of the underworld. It wasn't a place; not at all. For the places, they all remained. There was the Flamingo Feather, dull and drab by daylight with its door beyond the bakery, the pawnshop, the soft-drink parlor; its light was out; its iron basket rusted and filled with wet, melting snow. At night "The Apollo Club"—giggling clerks—consorted there; and then "The Brothers of Byzas", who, if he was like his kin, was a teamster, apparently.

Gone, gone from the Flamingo Feather were my friends of the masque, vanished as wholly as yesterday's snow from the basket over the door.

Nor could Klangenberg's help me. There was the door within which stood shelves heaped with delicatessen; but a strange child pondered over the keys of the cash register which invited "come again." He knew nothing of Klangenberg who had "gone away." Not even the "dyke-keeper" remained.

Exploring the alley alone, I penetrated to the hooded stairs atop which Jerry had greeted me. Now an old wigged woman, crippled and fluent of Yiddish, kept vigil there.

I sought Leventhal, the lessor of my Erasmus garb cast off in that shed and never recovered. I came offering cash to pay for the robe. He took the money, shaking his head; he would remember neither the robe nor me. There was no tracing, through him, of others who wore his clothes that night. They were vanished like Villon's lovers:

Alas for lovers! Pair by pair
The wind has blown them all away;
The young and yare, the fond and fair,
Where are the Snows of Yesterday?

Young and yare; that was Cleopatra! Where was she? Who was she? More than who, whose might she be? Well, what good for me to wonder and worry? What good to feel, by remembrance, the softness of her hand in mine when we danced; and then the iron warning of her fingers on my wrist! What good to see in mind the beauty of her shoulder and the smallness of her foot. They were gone, all gone; and, if I looked at the whole business sensibly, I would see that somehow, in ways not yet entirely clear, I had been of service in the game of getting for Christina and her man insurance of five hundred thousand with which they had got away; or he had, after taking it from her.