One of Bob's Tramps
ONE OF BOB'S TRAMPS.
BY F. HOPKINSON SMITH.
I HAD passed him coming up the dingy corridor that led to Bob's law-office, and knew at once that he was one of Bob's tramps.
When he had squeezed himself through the partly opened door and had closed it gently—closed it with a hand held behind his back, like one who had some favor to ask or some confidence game to play—he proved to be a man about fifty years of age, fat and short, with a round head partly bald, and hair quite gray. His face had not known a razor for days. He was dressed in dark clothes, once good, showing a white shirt, and he wore a collar without a cravat. Down his cheeks were uneven furrows, beginning at his spilling, watery eyes, and losing themselves in the stubble-covered cheeks—like old rain-courses dried up—while on his flat nose were perched a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles, over which he looked at us in a dazed, half-bewildered, half-frightened way. In one hand he held his shapeless slouch hat; the other grasped an old violin wrapped in a grimy red silk handkerchief.
For an instant he stood before the door, bent low with unspoken apologies; then placing his hat on the floor, he fumbled nervously in the breast pocket of his coat, from which he drew a letter, penned in an unknown hand and signed with an unknown name. Bob read it, and passed it to me.
"Please buy this violin," the note ran. "It is a good instrument, and the man needs the money. The price is sixty dollars."
"Who gave you this note?" said Bob. He never turns a beggar from his door if he can help it. This reputation makes him the target for half the tramps in town.
"Te leader of te orchestra at te theatre. He say he not know you, but dat you loafe good violin. I come von time before, but vas nobody here." Then, after a pause, his wavering eye seeking Bob's, "Blease you buy him?"
"Is it yours?" I asked, anxious to get rid of him. The note trick had been played that winter by half the tramps in town.
"Yes. Mine vor veefteen year," he answered, slowly, in an unemotional way.
"Why do you want to sell it?" said Bob, his interest increasing, as he caught the pleading look in the man's eyes.
"I don't vant to sell it—I vant to keep it; but I haf notting," his hands opening wide. "Ve vas in Phildelphy, ant ten Scranton, ant ten we get here to Peetsburgh, and all te scenery is by te shereef, ant te manager haf notting. Vor vourteen tays I valk te streets, virst it is te ofercoat ant vatch, and yestertay te ledder case vor veefty cents. If you ton't buy him I must keep valking till I come by New York."
"I've got a good violin," said Bob, softening.
"Ten you don't buy him?" and a look as of a returning pain crossed his hopeless, impassive face. "Vell, I go vay, ten," he said, with a sigh that seemed to empty his heart.
We both looked on in silence as he slowly wrapped the silk rag around it, winding the ends automatically about the bridge and strings, as he had no doubt done a dozen times before that day in his hunt for a customer. Suddenly as he reached the neck he stopped, turned the violin in his hand, and unwound the handkerchief again.
"Tid you oxamine te neck? See how it lays in te hand! Tid you ever see neck like dat? No, you don't see it, never," in a positive tone, looking at us again over the silver rims of his spectacles.
Bob took the violin in his hand. It was evidently an old one and of peculiar shape. The swells and curves of the sides and back were delicately rounded and highly finished. The neck, too, to which the man pointed, was smooth and remarkably graceful, like the stem of an old meerschaum pipe, and as richly colored.
Bob handled it critically, scrutinizing every inch of its surface—he adores a Cremona as some souls do a Madonna—then he walked with it to the window.
"Why, this has been mended!" he exclaimed in surprise and with a trace of anger in his voice. "This is a new neck put on!"
I knew by the tone that Bob was beginning now to see through the game.
"Ah, you vind day oud, do you? Tat is a new neck, sure, ant a goot von, put on py Simon Corunden—not Auguste!—Simon! It is better as efer."
I looked for the guileless, innocent expression with the regulation smile that distinguishes most vagabonds on an errand like this, but his lifeless face was unlit by any visible emotion.
Drawing the old red handkerchief from his pocket in a tired, hopeless way, he began twisting it about the violin again.
"Play something on it," said Bob. He evidently believed every word of the impromptu explanation, and was weakening again. Harrowing sighs—chronic for years—or trickling tears shed at the right moment by some grief-stricken woman never failed to deceive him.
"No, I don't blay. I got no heart inside of me to blay," with a weary movement of his hand. He was now tucking the frayed ends of the handkerchief under the strings.
"Can you play?" said Boh, grown suddenly suspicious, now that the man dare not prove his story.
"Can I blay?" he answered, with a quick lifting of his eyes, and the semblance of a smile lighting up his furrowed face. "I blay mit Strakosch te Mendelssohn Sonata in te olt Academy in Vourteenth Street; ant ven Alboni sing, no von in te virst violins haf te solo but me, and dere is not a pin drop in te house, ant Madame Alboni send me all te flowers tey gif her. Can I blay!"
The tone of voice was masterly. He was a new experience to me, evidently an expert in this sort of thing. Bob looked down into his stagnant, inert face, noting the slightly scornful, hurt expression that lingered about the mouth. Then his tender heart got the better of him.
"I cannot afford to pay sixty dollars for another violin," ho said, his voice expressing the sincerity of his regret.
"I cannot sell him vor less," said the man, in a quick, decided way. It would have been an unfledged amateur impostor who could not have gained courage at this last change in Bob's tone. "Ven I get to New York," he continued, with almost a sob, "I must haf some money more as my railroad ticket to get anudder sheap violin. Te peoples will say it is Grossman come home vidout hees violin—he is broke. No, I no can sell him vor less. Tis cost one hundret ant sefenty-vive dollar ven I buy him."
I was about to offer him five dollars, buy the patched swindle, and end the affair—I had pressing business with Bob that morning—when he stopped me.
"Would you take thirty dollars and my old violin?"
The man looked at him eagerly.
"Vere is your violin?"
"At my house."
"Is it a goot von? Stop a minute—" For the third time he removed the old red silk handkerchief. "Draw te bow across vonce. I know aboud your violin ven I hears you blay."
Bob tucked the instrument under his chin and drew a full, clear, resonant tone.
The watery eyes glistened.
"Yes, I take your violin ant te money," in a decided tone. "You know 'em, ant I tink you loafe 'em too."
The subtle flattery of this last touch was exquisitely done. The man was an artist.
Bob reached for a pad, and with the remark that he was wanted in court or he would go to his house with him, wrote an order, sealed it, and laid three ten-dollar bills on the table.
I felt that nothing now could check Bob. Whatever I might say or do would fail to convince him. "I know how hard a road can be and how sore one's feet can get," he would perhaps say to me, as he had often done before when we blamed him for his generosities.
The man balanced the letter on his hand, reading the inscription in a listless sort of way, picked up the instrument, looked it all over carefully, flecked off some specks of dust from the ringer-board, laid the violin on the office table, thrust the soiled rag into his pocket, caught up the money, and without a word of thanks closed the door behind him.
"Bob," I said, the man's absolute ingratitude and my friend's colossal simplicity irritating me beyond control, "why in the name of common-sense did you throw your money away on a sharp like that? Didn't you see through the whole game? That note was written by himself. Corunden never saw that fiddle in his life. You can buy a dozen of them for five dollars apiece in any pawn-shop in town."
Bob looked at me with that peculiar softening of the eyelids which we know so well. Then he said, thoughtfully: "Do you know what it is to be stranded in a strange city with not a cent in your pocket? Afraid to look a policeman in the face lest he run you in; hungry, unwashed, not a clean shirt for weeks? I don't care if he is a fraud. He sha'n't go hungry if I can help it."
There are some episodes in Bob's life to which he seldom refers.
"Then why didn't he play for you?" I asked, still indignant, yet somewhat touched by an intense earnestness unusual in Bob.
"Yes, I wondered at that," he replied, in a musing tone, but without a shadow of suspicion in his voice.
"You don't think," I continued, "he's such a fool as to go to your house for your violin? I'll bet you he's made a bee-line for a rum-mill; then he'll doctor up another old scraper and try the same game somewhere else. Let me go after him and bring him back."
Bob did not answer. He was tying up a bundle of papers. The violin lay on the green-baize table where the man had put it, the law books pushed aside to give it room. Then he put on his coat and went over to court.
In an hour he was back again—he and I, sitting in the small inner office overlooking the dingy court-yard.
We had talked but a few moments when a familiar shuffling step was heard in the corridor. I looked through the crack in the door, touched Bob's arm, and put my finger to my lips. Bob leaned forward and watched with me through the crack.
The outer office door was being slowly opened in the same noiseless way, and the same man was creeping in. He gave an anxious glance about the room. He had Bob's own violin in his hand;. I knew it by the case.
"Tey all oud," he muttered in an undertone.
For an instant he wavered; looked hungrily towards his old violin, laid Bob's on a chair near the door, stepped on tiptoe to the green-baize table, picked up the Cremona, looked it all over, smoothing the back with his hands, then nestling it under his chin, drew the bow gently across the strings, shut his eyes, and began the Sonata—the one he had played with Alboni—not with its full volume of sound or emphasis, but with echoes, pulsations, tremulous murmurings, faint breathings of its marvellous beauty. The instrument seemed part of himself, the neck welded to his fingers, the bow but a piece of his arm, with a heart-throb down its whole length.
When the Sonata was ended he rubbed his cheek softly against his old comrade, smoothed it once or twice with his hand, laid it tenderly back in its place on the table among the books, picked up Bob's violin from the chair, and gently closed the door behind him.
I looked at Bob. He was leaning against his desk, his eyes on the floor, his whole soul filled with the pathos of the melody. Suddenly he roused himself, sprang past me into the other room, and calling to the man, ran out into the corridor.
"I couldn't catch him," he said, in a dejected tone, coming hack all out of breath, and dropping into a chair.
"What did you want to catch him for?" said I; "he never robbed you of a thing."
"Robbed me!" said Bob, the tears starting to his eyes. "Robbed me! Good God, man! Couldn't you hear? I robbed him!"
We searched for him all that day—Bob with the violin under his arm, I with an apology.
But he was gone.