Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 9

IXI SEEK THE UNDERWORLD.

For sketching a situation, no one ever touched Shakespeare; and he has a line which certainly described my state of dignity during the next days. It's in "Julius Cæsar"; Anthony has just been saying, in some well chosen words which escape me for the moment, how important and prominent a citizen Cæsar was before his last meeting with Brutus, whereas afterwards there was "none so poor to do him reverence."

That's the description which struck me. Lord knows, I was no Cæsar, not even in Chicago; so my fall was not so far, yet the reception at bottom was much the same.

Of course, you call the incorrigible habits of house servants "reverence" I still had some from them; at least, they kept calling me "sir" and "Mr. Stephen" and somebody sneaked in when nobody else was looking, and turned down my bed, and Warner drew my bath and saw to my shirts. Down at the office, Miss Severns continued to take my letters in a resigned sort of way; but, in general, I was the joke of everybody that knew I still believed in Jerry.

For a while the police watched me, on the theory that Jerry, after having worked me for ten thousand following his attack on Dorothy Crewe, would probably come back and get me to give him twenty now; but he didn't. So the "bulls" left me alone to go wandering off, as soon as I dared, into the northwest morass of Chicago in search of Klangenberg.

I had that territory as part of my sales district in the days after I had finished college, when father was starting me out in the bean business.

Previously I had gathered, in a theoretical way, that people who went to Princeton or elsewhere to college in the east, and their parents, sisters and other relatives could not provide the number of appetites, locally and in the surrounding States, to account for everything we sold. Not at all; it was perfectly plain that we must sell to any number of people of sorts one would never meet in the general round of sleeping and breakfasting on Astor Street, driving to the office, lunching at the club, and dining on the Drive and dancing at the Casino. In fact, father took occasion to impress upon me that the caviar and truffle trade of Fanneal and Company would barely pay club dues; what bought motors and butlers and opera boxes was the business in beans—plain baked beans, with or without tomato sauce. And the habit of dinner dances, jaunts to England and the Continent had become family pleasures to the Fanneals solely because a large proportion of the populace living on streets which only by error would ever be listed in mother's address book had taken to the taste of our soups and spaghetti in preference to the purées and macaroni put out under other brands.

Naturally this started me out upon my first unconducted tour of the tenement highways in a chastened and interested frame of mind.

My generation began growing up just in the ebb of the worst lot of social bunk which ever spread over this nation. The last wave of the muck which taught that, if anybody had a million, he took it from the poor by some scheme of social pickpocketing was just subsiding. Some of it splashed over my youthful boots; I remember, particularly, a cheerful cartoon which the Bolshevists still brandish probably, and which pictured a lot of us dancing on a ballroom floor which was supported on the bent backs of bowed-over men, women and children. To give it a dramatic touch, the muscular fist of a revolutionist below had broken through the floor and thrust up into the ballroom to the consternation of the degenerate dancers, meant to be us.

One thing is to be said for the experiments in Russia recently; they've made that sort of tosh ridiculous; they've at least suggested, to the brain open to any sort of observation, that the direction and the judgment and the initiative exercised by a man who organizes and builds up a business and keeps it going are in themselves productive factors just as necessary as labor itself and entitled, fairly, to big reward.

Father always taught me that this was where we got ours; we earned it. So when I explored Halsted Street, I did not suffer from any parlor-socialist conviction of personal guilt for housing conditions and juvenile delinquency simply because I was selling these people soup at a profit, net to us, of seven eighths of a cent a can. Naturally I took things as they were, thought about them as little as possible, gave a little more to the United Charities and the Salvation Army, and kept as far away as I could after my city salesman period was past.

Here I was going back again and with a decidedly new interest in these streets of narrow, dingy, clapboard, three-story dwellings, of drab and dun brick fronts, serving for a shop on the ground level and a dozen tenements above; of "lofts" and ancient cottages—ancient for Chicago—moved back, end to end, behind the buildings now holding the edge of the sidewalk.

I came to a place where the street, following this generation's level of the city, stands above the ground of original days; the walks and roadway are graded up, leaving the disconsolate, paint-specked homes of the first customers of Fanneal and Company down on the dirt where were thrown fifty years ago, as now, our empty cans and papers. The land is so low that the street rises almost even with the second floors; one has to descend rickety steps to reach the doors of gray, ill-lit emporiums of every sort which witness, by their very being, to the amazing force of the proclivity to patronize a neighbor. Half a league from Marshall Field's, preposterous, mediæval peddlers whined under windows shut to the chill smokiness of December city haze; women raised the sash and, after bargaining, bought. Half a block from a motor factory, a blacksmith hand-pumped his bellows to blow coals into heat for shoeing a huckster's horse; fortune tellers beckoned and won business.

I came upon Klangenberg's and descended into an environment of delicatessen where a madonna of the gray shawl—did Raphael or Leonardo ever paint one; if they didn't, it was because they didn't see one—was watching a patented pointer waver before the divisions of a cent on the automatic calculator above the scale which weighed her purchase of pig's feet. A boy picked them up with unclean hands, wrapped them untidily and made change, almost in one motion, on a register which printed a receipt and said with flashing light, "come again; thank you."

The place was heated by a stove before which sat a male model for Rembrandt, if he wanted to paint the "Dyke-keeper" or somebody else strong and dour looking who might wind himself in a muffler.

This was not Klangenberg; at least it was not the complainer about pineapples who had spoken to me of "Kidnapped" and "Westward Ho." Accordingly, after the Madonna had climbed to the street, I asked the boy for the proprietor.

The "dyke-keeper" turned about, as though his interest in me began with my voice.

"Who wants to see him?" said the boy.

For the emergency—if you don't feel there was one, it's my failure to give you the dyke-keeper—I improvised and benefited by borrowing from Klangenburg himself.

"I've come to see him about his complaint on those pineapples," I said.

"What pineapples?" the youth asked.

"I want to see him personally," I replied. "Is he here?"

"Maybe," said the boy and locked the cash register before vanishing rearward. Once he reappeared, evidently to view me for the purpose of checking up on my description; he said nothing but after another minute he came back and told me, "He'll see you day after to-morrow."

"What time?" I said.

"This time will do."

I thanked him, while he unlocked the cash register for the resumption of business.

One matter was off my mind when I went away; this was my qualm as to whether I ought to inform the police of Jerry's connection with Klangenberg. They would pick up mighty small change at that address, I thought; and when I returned two days later, I was sure of it.

Though I entered the door at the precise time of my appointment, neither the boy nor the dyke-keeper was there; a little girl of ten years tended the cash register and piled the computing scales with noodles. This child gave me no particular attention until she had cleared the shop of customers, when she said, "That's the door back there."

I went through it to an area between the shop and an old moved-over frame building. Some one—I didn't know who—relieved the child in the shop, for she came out to me and led me through a shed where a horse was stabled. We sidled about another shed and climbed a tunnel of wooden stairs, built on the outside of a clapboard house, and roofed and walled against the weather.

"That's the door," the child said, when we came to the top; obviously she was speaking, as well as guiding, by instructions. She halted and I went on and knocked at the door.

"Come in," said Jerry's voice; and I opened and found Jerry before me.