About nine o'clock of the same night two human beings came out of a cheap restaurant in Sixth Avenue. They were ugly, ill-nourished, devoid of all except the very lowest form of intelligence, and without even that animal exuberance that in itself brings color into life; they were lately vermin-ridden, cold, and hungry in a dirty town of a strange land; they were poor, friendless; tossed as driftwood from their births, they would be tossed as driftwood to their deaths. They were dressed in the uniform of the United States Army, and on the shoulder of each was the insignia of a drafted division from New Jersey, landed three days before.
The taller of the two was named Carrol Key, a name hinting that in his
veins, however thinly diluted by generations of degeneration, ran
blood of some potentiality. But one could stare endlessly at the long,
chinless face, the dull, watery eyes, and high cheek-bones, without
finding suggestion of either ancestral worth or native resourcefulness.
His companion was swart and bandy-legged, with rat-eyes and a much-broken hooked nose. His defiant air was obviously a pretense, a weapon of protection borrowed from that world of snarl and snap, of physical bluff and physical menace, in which he had always lived. His name was Gus Rose.
Leaving the café they sauntered down Sixth Avenue, wielding toothpicks with great gusto and complete detachment.
"Where to?" asked Rose, in a tone which implied that he would not be surprised if Key suggested the South Sea Islands.
"What you say we see if we can getta holda some liquor?" Prohibition was not yet. The ginger in the suggestion was caused by the law forbidding the selling of liquor to soldiers.
Rose agreed enthusiastically.
"I got an idea," continued Key, after a moment's thought, "I got a brother somewhere."
"In New York?"
"Yeah. He's an old fella." He meant that he was an elder brother. "He's a waiter in a hash joint."
"Maybe he can get us some."
"I'll say he can!"
"B'lieve me, I'm goin' to get this darn uniform off me to-morra. Never get me in it again, neither. I'm goin' to get me some regular clothes."
"Say, maybe I'm not."
As their combined finances were something less than five dollars, this
intention can be taken largely as a pleasant game of words, harmless
and consoling. It seemed to please both of them, however, for they
reinforced it with chuckling and mention of personages high in
biblical circles, adding such further emphasis as "Oh, boy!" "You
know!" and "I'll say so!" repeated many times over.
The entire mental pabulum of these two men consisted of an offended nasal comment extended through the years upon the institution—army, business, or poorhouse—which kept them alive, and toward their immediate superior in that institution. Until that very morning the institution had been the "government" and the immediate superior had been the "Cap'n"—from these two they had glided out and were now in the vaguely uncomfortable state before they should adopt their next bondage. They were uncertain, resentful, and somewhat ill at ease. This they hid by pretending an elaborate relief at being out of the army, and by assuring each other that military discipline should never again rule their stubborn, liberty-loving wills. Yet, as a matter of fact, they would have felt more at home in a prison than in this new-found and unquestionable freedom.
Suddenly Key increased his gait. Rose, looking up and following his glance, discovered a crowd that was collecting fifty yards down the street. Key chuckled and began to run in the direction of the crowd; Rose thereupon also chuckled and his short bandy legs twinkled beside the long, awkward strides of his companion.
Reaching the outskirts of the crowd they immediately became an indistinguishable part of it. It was composed of ragged civilians somewhat the worse for liquor, and of soldiers representing many divisions and many stages of sobriety, all clustered around a gesticulating little Jew with long black whiskers, who was waving his arms and delivering an excited but succinct harangue. Key and Rose, having wedged themselves into the approximate parquet, scrutinized him with acute suspicion, as his words penetrated their common consciousness.
"— What have you got outa the war?" he was crying fiercely. "Look arounja, look arounja! Are you rich? Have you got a lot of money offered you?—no; you're lucky if you're alive and got both your legs; you're lucky if you came back an' find your wife ain't gone off with some other fella that had the money to buy himself out of the war! That's when you're lucky! Who got anything out of it except J. P. Morgan an' John D. Rockerfeller?"
At this point the little Jew's oration was interrupted by the hostile impact of a fist upon the point of his bearded chin and he toppled backward to a sprawl on the pavement.
"God damn Bolsheviki!" cried the big soldier-blacksmith, who had delivered the blow. There was a rumble of approval, the crowd closed in nearer.
The Jew staggered to his feet, and immediately went down again before a half-dozen reaching-in fists. This time he stayed down, breathing heavily, blood oozing from his lip where it was cut within and without.
There was a riot of voices, and in a minute Rose and Key found themselves flowing with the jumbled crowd down Sixth Avenue under the leadership of a thin civilian in a slouch hat and the brawny soldier who had summarily ended the oration. The crowd had marvellously swollen to formidable proportions and a stream of more non-committal citizens followed it along the sidewalks lending their moral support by intermittent huzzas.
"Where we goin'?" yelled Key to the man nearest him
His neighbor pointed up to the leader in the slouch hat.
"That guy knows where there's a lot of 'em! We're goin' to show 'em!"
"We're goin' to show 'em!" whispered Key delightedly to Rose, who repeated the phrase rapturously to a man on the other side.
Down Sixth Avenue swept the procession, joined here and there by soldiers and marines, and now and then by civilians, who came up with the inevitable cry that they were just out of the army themselves, as if presenting it as a card of admission to a newly formed Sporting and Amusement Club.
Then the procession swerved down a cross street and headed for Fifth Avenue and the word filtered here and there that they were bound for a Red meeting at Tolliver Hall.
"Where is it?"
The question went up the line and a moment later the answer floated hack. Tolliver Hall was down on Tenth Street. There was a bunch of other sojers who was goin' to break it up and was down there now!
But Tenth Street had a faraway sound and at the word a general groan went up and a score of the procession dropped out. Among these were Rose and Key, who slowed down to a saunter and let the more enthusiastic sweep on by.
"I'd rather get some liquor," said Key as they halted and made their way to the sidewalk amid cries of "Shell hole!" and "Quitters!"
"Does your brother work around here?" asked Rose, assuming the air of one passing from the superficial to the eternal.
"He oughta," replied Key. "I ain't seen him for a coupla years. I been out to Pennsylvania since. Maybe he don't work at night anyhow. It's right along here. He can get us some o'right if he ain't gone."
They found the place after a few minutes' patrol of the street—a shoddy tablecloth restaurant between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Here Key went inside to inquire for his brother George, while Rose waited on the sidewalk.
"He ain't here no more," said Key emerging. "He's a waiter up to Delmonico's."
Rose nodded wisely, as if he'd expected as much. One should not be surprised at a capable man changing jobs occasionally. He knew a waiter once—there ensued a long conversation as they waited as to whether waiters made more in actual wages than in tips—it was decided that it depended on the social tone of the joint wherein the waiter labored. After having given each other vivid pictures of millionaires dining at Delmonico's and throwing away fifty-dollar bills after their first quart of champagne, both men thought privately of becoming waiters. In fact, Key's narrow brow was secreting a resolution to ask his brother to get him a job.
"A waiter can drink up all the champagne those fellas leave in bottles," suggested Rose with some relish, and then added as an afterthought, "Oh, boy!"
By the time they reached Delmonico's it was half past ten, and they were surprised to see a stream of taxis driving up to the door one after the other and emitting marvelous, hatless young ladies, each one attended by a stiff young gentleman in evening clothes.
"It's a party," said Rose with some awe. "Maybe we better not go in. He'll be busy."
"No, he won't. He'll be o'right."
After some hesitation they entered what appeared to them to be the least elaborate door and, indecision falling upon them immediately, stationed themselves nervously in an inconspicuous corner of the small dining-room in which they found themselves. They took off their caps and held them in their hands. A cloud of gloom fell upon them and both started when a door at one end of the room crashed open, emitting a comet-like waiter who streaked across the floor and vanished through another door on the other side.
There had been three of these lightning passages before the seekers mustered the acumen to hail a waiter. He turned, looked at them suspiciously, and then approached with soft, catlike steps, as if prepared at any moment to turn and flee.
"Say," began Key, "say, do you know my brother? He's a waiter here."
"His name is Key," annotated Rose.
Yes, the waiter knew Key. He was up-stairs, he thought. There was a big dance going on in the main ballroom. He'd tell him.
Ten minutes later George Key appeared and greeted his brother with the utmost suspicion; his first and most natural thought being that he was going to be asked for money.
George was tall and weak chinned, but there his resemblance to his brother ceased. The waiter's eyes were not dull, they were alert and twinkling, and his manner was suave, in-door, and faintly superior. They exchanged formalities. George was married and had three children. He seemed fairly interested, but not impressed by the news that Carrol had been abroad in the army. This disappointed Carrol.
"George," said the younger brother, these amenities having been disposed of, "we want to get some booze, and they won't sell us none. Can you get us some?"
"Sure. Maybe I can. It may be half an hour, though."
"All right," agreed Carrol, "we'll wait"
At this Rose started to sit down in a convenient chair, but was hailed to his feet by the indignant George.
" Hey! Watch out, you! Can't sit down here! This room's all set for a twelve o'clock banquet."
"I ain't goin' to hurt it," said Rose resentfully. "I been through the delouser."
"Never mind," said George sternly, "if the head waiter seen me here talkin' he'd romp all over me."
The mention of the head waiter was full explanation to the other two; they fingered their overseas caps nervously and waited for a suggestion.
"I tell you," said George, after a pause, "I got a place you can wait; you just come here with me."
They followed him out the far door, through a deserted pantry and up a pair of dark winding stairs, emerging finally into a small room chiefly furnished by piles of pails and stacks of scrubbing brushes, and illuminated by a single dim electric light. There he left them, after soliciting two dollars and agreeing to return in half an hour with a quart of whiskey.
"George is makin' money, I bet," said Key gloomily as he seated himself on an inverted pail. "I bet he's making fifty dollars a week."
Rose nodded his head and spat.
"I bet he is, too."
"What'd he say the dance was of?"
"A lot of college fellas. Yale College."
They, both nodded solemnly at each other.
"Wonder where that crowda sojers is now?"
"I don't know. I know that's too damn long to walk for me."
"Me too. You don't catch me walkin' that far."
Ten minutes later restlessness seized them.
"I'm goin' to see what's out here," said Rose, stepping cautiously toward the other door.
It was a swinging door of green baize and he pushed it open a cautious inch.
" See anything?"
For answer Rose drew in his breath sharply.
"Doggone! Here's some liquor I'll say!"
Key joined Rose at the door, and looked eagerly.
"I'll tell the world that's liquor," he said, after a moment of concentrated gazing.
It was a room about twice as large as the one they were in—and in it was prepared a radiant feast of spirits. There were long walls of alternating bottles set along two white covered tables; whiskey, gin, brandy, French and Italian vermouths, and orange juice, not to mention an array of syphons and two great empty punch bowls. The room was as yet uninhabited.
"It's for this dance they're just starting," whispered Key; "hear the violins playin'? Say, boy, I wouldn't mind havin' a dance."
They closed the door softly and exchanged a glance of mutual comprehension. There was no need of feeling each other out.
"I'd like to get my hands on a coupla those bottles," said Rose emphatically.
"Do you suppose we'd get seen?"
"Maybe we better wait till they start drinkin' 'em. They got 'em all laid out now, and they know how many of them there are."
They debated this point for several minutes. Rose was all for getting his hands on a bottle now and tucking it under his coat before anyone came into the room. Key, however, advocated caution. He was afraid he might get his brother in trouble. If they waited till some of the bottles were opened it'd be all right to take one, and everybody'd think it was one of the college fellas.
While they were still engaged in argument George Key hurried through the room and, barely grunting at them, disappeared by way of the green baize door. A minute later they heard several corks pop, and then the sound of cracking ice and splashing liquid. George was mixing the punch.
The soldiers exchanged delighted grins.
"Oh, boy!" whispered Rose.
"Just keep low, boys," he said quickly. "Ill have your stuff for you in five minutes."
He disappeared through the door by which he had come.
As soon as his footsteps receded down the stairs, Rose, after a cautious look, darted into the room of delights and reappeared with a bottle in his hand.
"Here's what I say," he said, as they sat radiantly digesting their first drink. "We'll wait till he comes up, and we'll ask him if we can't just stay here and drink what he brings us—see. We'll tell him we haven't got any place to drink it—see. Then we can sneak in there whenever there ain't nobody in that there room and tuck a bottle under our coats. We'll have enough to last us a coupla days—see?"
"Sure," agreed Rose enthusiastically. "Oh, boy! And if we want to we can sell it to sojers any time we want to."
They were silent for a moment thinking rosily of this idea. Then Key reached up and unhooked the collar of his O. D. coat.
"It's hot in here, ain't it?"
Rose agreed earnestly.
"Hot as hell."