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IN THE MUSÉE

 

 

IN THE MUSÉE

I

"REDNEY"—who sold chewing-gum and prize packages on the various floors of the old Bowery Musée—stopped at the door of Madame Carlotta's gipsy tent and grinned in at Madame. "Well," he said, "how 's the game goin'? Been holdin' any warm hands lately?"

It was a gipsy tent that might have served as a Turkish cozy corner in a Harlem flat; and Madame Carlotta, plump and comfortable, dressed in a scarlet kimono, among soiled bespangled cushions, looked almost as gipsy-like and nomadic as a fat house cat looks tigerish. She was occupying her spare moments by furtively darning the heels of the Professor's socks, looking down her nose through the glasses of an old-fashioned pince-nez that was poised on her nose tip as if it had slid down there to cling to boneless pudginess in the last feeble grip of exhaustion. It was a nose to discourage anything but a carpenter's vise, and the spring of the pince-nez had been worn weak—reading palms. In private life, of course, she used spectacles.

She looked up at Redney, carefully, mindful of the glasses.

"Yuh 'll sneeze some day," he said, "an' get them goggles stuck in yer throat."

She took them off to ask: "Why ain't you sellin' your things?"

"Nothin' doin'." He had a wooden tray of chewing-gum and prize packages slung before him on straps from his shoulders. "Could n't sell that gang silver dollars at three fer a nickel. They ain't got the price. Bunch o' kikes. Say! The nex' dame yuh get in here, tell her she's goin' to find her fortune in a prize package, will yuh? That 'd help."

She shook her head. "They don't come the way they ust to. The Professor says he don't think we 're more than payin' rent since Feb'u'ry."

Redney made a sound of derision in his nose. "The game 's a dead one, Ev'ry one 's wise to them fakes." He indicated the "exhibits" with a backward jerk of the head.

He was called "Redney" as a dog is called "Spot"; his real name was as unknown as his history. He had arrived at the Musée with the sun-scalded complexion of an amateur tramp; and after "boosting" for a time, on the street, he had obtained the privilege of selling candies inside, on a percentage basis. It was understood that he had previously been traveling with a circus, as a "butcher," selling lemonade and "red-hots." He had a lumpy chin and jaw, but lips that were nimble, full of unexpected muscles, suave and slangy—the lips of a man who has the gift of the gab.

"Movin' pictur' joints an' nickelodeons 've got us on the blink," he said. "We're tryin' to pay too much rent anyway."

She replaced her glasses and resumed her darning desperately. "I don't know whatever we 'll do—if the Musée shuts up—the Professor an' me. We have n't got a penny put by. Oh, dear! I 'm that worried I can't sleep nights." She added, unexpectedly: "You must n't be fightin' with him. He 's worried. That 's what makes him bad-tempered."

Redney and the Professor had come to an open quarrel on the previous day because Redney had wished to call his wares on the floors of the Musée, and the Professor, as floor-manager, had refused to let him "solicit" except silently.

"He seems gay enough to-night," Redney said.

She shook her head again. "I don't know whatever we 'll do."

He suggested: "Yuh don't get along with him any too smooth, yerself, do yuh?"

"Oh, well," she sighed. "You know—old married people—"

He cut in: "When were yuh married?" His tone was dispassionate and inquiring, but there was something under it that startled her.

She gave him a quick look.

He said: "Uh?" His face was blank. "Yuh said yuh were old married people. Yuh must 'a' married young."

"O-oh!" She busied herself in a suspiciously close inspection of the mended socks. "Yes." She doubled a pair together, inside of themselves, in the customary deft way of housewives. "We 've been married a long time."

"Yuh 've said it twice, so it must be true," be remarked, with his usual brazen calm. "Been a gay life, eh? Enjoyed ev'ry minute of it?"

She regarded him with a pathetic doubtfulness of expression, bewildered by worry and not sure of his sarcasm. "Gay?" she said—and got no farther.

There was a look in his eyes that had nothing to do with his words—one of those indescribable significances of scrutiny which do not express thought but show where it is concealed. On the instant, with a shifting of the eyelid, it was gone. "Well, cheer up," he said. "The worst is yet to come." And, shrugging up the tray-straps on his shoulders, he went out, to meet the small attendance of visitors who were following the Professor from the lower end of the hall.

She sat looking after him, blankly, with the socks in her hand, weighed down by an apprehension which his parting words had not allayed.


II

The hall on which he had issued was the width, length, and height of a single Bowery shop—and that is narrow, long, and low. It was dismally lit with a half-dozen gas-jets that did not seem to thrive in the exhausted air; and under these jets, on platforms along the walls, sat a half-dozen entertainers, exhibitors, and living curiosities waiting for the public to be drawn to them by the Professor's "spiel." In a double row down the center of the room were punching machines to tempt the Bowery's strong right arm, blowing machines for the lungs, lifting machines for the back, grip machines for the hands, automatic phonographs, weighing machines, and mutascopes—all waiting in vain for the unwary penny. The owners of the pennies evidently knew by heart the automatic record of their physical prowess. They walked up and down the rows of machines listlessly, with the blasé air of the true Boweryite when he is trying to be amused—that air of wandering about in the vague hope of arriving somewhere else, with the certain knowledge that he will find there nothing new.

The Professor stood upon a platform watching them. Redney watched the Professor.

He was the floor-manager, the lecturer, the announcer, the general "spieler" of the Musée—a black little man in a black little suit of evening clothes that looked as old and rusty as he. He wore them always, and his manner became them always, for he had a dignified, high manner of public ease. He had dyed his mustache—a mustache that writhed up on each side of an overhanging nose as if it felt pinched uncomfortably between the nose and the lip. He had dyed the greasy black strings of hair that were combed across his bald top. He had dyed his rising eyebrows. (He was sandy Scotch by nature and his name was MacFinn.) But every one who knew him understood that he dyed for professional reasons, and not because he wished to disguise his evident age; he had too much tolerant contempt for the world to affect any appearances that were not required of him by his position. He was accustomed to talk down to his audiences patronizingly, with an obvious realization of the fact that they were creatures of a lower order—working, worried people come to him for amusement as they might come to a high priest for religious consolation—and, while he lied to them like a press-agent, he did it for their own good, to take their minds off their troubles—a feat which he performed with ease.

It had been noticeable of late that he had been worried himself, as Madame Carlotta had said—that he had been bad-tempered, as Redney had had cause to observe. The staff of the Musée had supposed that this change in him was due to the "bad business"; and the staff, of course, had been right. But to-night he had broken loose in his lectures in a mildly wild sort of gaiety; and Redney—after listening to him at the lower end of the hall—had come to Madame Carlotta to see whether she was aware of anything that had happened to relieve the anxieties of her husband. Her conversation had convinced him that she was not in the secret. And when he came out of her tent, it was to watch the Professor again and listen.

The pompous little man cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentle-men!" he began, with a sort of benign contempt. "Allow me to in-troduce to your no-tice, Pro-fess-or Hei-namann, the cham-pine altitudinous a-erialist of the world."

Heinamann looked at the public, looked down at the bagged knees of his faded pink tights, and showed no interest in either.

The Professor teetered complacently on heel and toe. "I am in-structed to an-nounce … for the ben-e-fit of those in-dividuals who may happen to be in the vi-cinity of this building at ten a. m. on Mon-day morning … that Professor Hei-namann on that o-casion will perform a daring ah-scension from the roof of this buil-ding to the ex-tra-or-dinary al-titude of some thousands of feet above the sur-face of the earth … if the weather on that o-casion happens to be pro-pitious."

The aerialist was staring at the back of the Professor's head, startled.

"And," the Professor continued, "when the daring navi-ga-tor has de-scentit again from the clouds to ter-ra fir-ma … the vehicle in which he per-formed this en-tirely new and novel ah-scension … will be placed on ex-hibition in this hall for the bene-fit of the Am-erican pub-lic … dur-ing a short en-gage-ment … be-fore the Pro-fessor makes his so-journ to Paris and Lon-don."

That promise caused no excitement among the "visitors." They were accustomed to hearing the impossible promised and then seeing the commonplace performed. It startled Heinamann for the moment only; he had photographs and a history of his life for sale, and he hastened to offer them while the wonder was still new. It puzzled Madame Carlotta, listening in her tent; but she decided that the Professor was making an heroic effort to draw a crowd for Monday. Redney alone, lounging against the wall, saw something in the reckless promise of the speech which the others did not appreciate.

The Professor rarely joked. He had always been a conservative liar on the platform and magnified the past of his "exhibits" without promising too much for the future. And Redney, thoughtfully scratching in the red thatch of his head, was aware that there was, as he would have said, "somethin' doin'."

The Musée had seen its busiest days in the early eighties, when its Civil War relics were still fresh from the factory and there were enough English-speaking immigrants on the East Side to give the Professor a profitable audience. In the nineties, when "Madame Carlotta" joined its staff, it was just beginning to feel the competition of the Yiddish theaters and the penny arcades. A decade later, when Redney came to it, it was already in its hopeless decline. What he called "movin'-pictur' joints" and "nickelodeons" had changed the public taste in amusement. Civil War relics were no longer of interest—even though they had been imperfectly converted into relics of the campaign in Cuba. The living curiosities had outlived curiosity. Even the Musée's "Amateurs' Night"—of the Professor's own origination—had been stolen by its rivals, and the glory of its Friday night contests had departed. A three-story building, with a theater on its ground floor and two large amusement halls above, cannot pay rent and salaries on a feeble trickle of dimes that took a whole evening to fill one of the wooden pools of the till in the box-office. The tragedy was inevitable. The end was foreseen.

And Redney suddenly suspected that it had arrived.

He went downstairs to the box-office to investigate. The Professor proceeded to introduce a "paper wizard" who was waiting to fold a sheet of foolscap into some thousand different shapes, to sell a water-proof shoe-dressing that he had discovered in a "geezer" in Yellowstone Park, and to preside over the transformations of an "Enchanted Palace" of tinsel and tissue paper, "showing seven wonderful scenes from all parts of the universe, and closing with a grand transformation scene in honor to our national hero, Admiral Dewey." And when the paper wizard stepped forward to roll up his sleeves, the Professor looked in on Madame Carlotta.

"What 's that boy doing in your tent all the time?" he demanded. "I don't want him round. I told you that before."

His dislike of the boy was the antipathy of mature dignity for the insulting self-sufficiency of youth. It had been increased by Redney's open contempt for the Professor's eloquence. It had gained purpose and effect when Redney succeeded in so ingratiating himself with Madame Carlotta that she had wished to "give the poor boy a home," and the Professor had refused to let her do it.

She put her hand down flat on the table. "Mac," she said, in a low voice of determination, "I won't stand it. I won't stand it no longer. People are throwin' it up to me the way you treat me—"

"That 's—that 's that boy!"

"And I won't stand it. Here I 've been spendin' ev'ry cent I made—on you an' the flat—ev'ry cent of it. An' now, if anything happens I got nothin'—" She checked herself with the thought that if she quarreled, now, she might not have even him. "I 've done everything fer you, an' you have n't— You won't even tell me," she said, plaintively, "about the Musée, whether it 's goin' to bust up."

He nodded at the charts of palmistry and decorations of hocus-pocus on the walls. "Read it in the cards," he said. "Read it in the cards."

"You 've never treated me right. Never!"

He had found her practising her innocent black arts in a tenement-house, and had procured her her place in the Musée. He was then a lonely old bachelor, and she was the deserted widow of a circus man who had run away from her and taken their child. She had been so grateful to the Professor that she had served him ever since like a bound slave; and he had accepted everything from her with his high-platform air, acknowledging no obligation to anybody, reserved and selfish, above the world and vain.

He said now, narrowing his eyes: "If the Musée shuts up, p'raps he 'll look after you, eh? You were so set on giving him a home, mebbe he 'll give you one. I 've never treated you right! You turn on me the first word a red-headed brat says against me. Mebbe he 'll do better for you. Yes! Eh?"

"I never turned against you," she weakened. "The boy 's nothin' to me, an' you know it." She began to weep. "I 've been that worried— You 've been so bad-tempered— Wh-what are we goin' to do if the place shuts up?"

He made a face that expressed his contempt of these marital quarrels and feminine blubberings. "I 've been trying to hold the place together here for the Boss. I did n't know whether we were going to shut up any more than you did. Now— Well, you 'll have a chance to learn who your friends are to-night. Young gutter-snipe! We 'll be rid of him, anyway."

"Are we goin' to close to-night?"

"That 's not your bus'ness."

"We are!"

"You keep quiet," he ordered. "Do you want them to come here and seize everything for the rent?"

The paper wizard had raised his voice to describe the climax of his grand transformation scene; it was the call of duty to the Professor, and with a final snort he left her and went back to his work. She looked out after him, her eyes so filled with tears that she could not see confronting her the "triumphal arch to Admiral Dewey" with the Philippine Islands in the background. But even through the stupefaction of her anxiety she heard the ridiculous wizard orate: "Many beautiful flowers blossom on these islands, only to fade, wither, and pass away, but the flower of the American navy, his glory 'll never fade in the hearts of his countrymen. Admiral Dewey." A bouquet of paper roses opened into a chromo of the admiral, and, in a dead silence, that should have been filled with an ovation to the hero, the paper wizard bowed himself off. The imperishable glory of the flower of the navy had already faded in the hearts of his countrymen, and Madame Carlotta recognized that the wizard's climax, like everything else in the Musée, was a foredoomed failure.

If the Musée closed—

"Ladiesangelmn," a new voice piped up, "alludin' to these prize packages w'ich I 'm givin' away this ev'nin', I want 'a say each an' ev'ry package consists in the best cough drops, dew drops, lem'nade drops, an' bunbuns made 'r manafactered, war'nted a cure fer all such as coughs, col's, warts, an' toot' aches, an' if any o' youse—"

It was Redney. In defiance of the Professor's orders and the rules of the Musée, he was crying his wares. She watched him from the door of the tent, her fingers at her mouth. He was holding aloft a sample package.

"—has such as coughs, col's, warts, an' toot' aches, I 'd advise him to try one at onct. One fer you?"

The Professor had shouldered his way through the little crowd to him. Redney offered him a package impudently. "In each an' ev'ry package the ladies 'at wraps up these packages—Fi' cents. That 's all. Marked down from ten. Don' want it? Well, run away an' play. I 'm busy."

The Professor had reached a hand out at him, to grip his coat. Redney struck it aside. "Cut it out," he snarled, "er I 'll—"

"Redney! " she cried.

The crowd closed in with the eager expectation of seeing a fight. He waved a package at her, reassuringly. "The ladies 'at wraps up these packages has a habit 'f accident'ly droppin' in gol' watches an' di'mon' ringses, an' if any o' youse gets such as a gol' watch er a di'mon' ring— All right, gran'pa," he cheeked the Professor. "Run away an' play with yerself—I 'm requested t' ask yuh to leave it with gran'pa here. He 's savin' up gol' watches an' di'mon' ringses fer Chris'mas."

The Professor had mounted another platform. "Ladies and gentle-men," he shouted, in a voice trembling with rage, "if you will now kindly step this way—"

"These here packages," Redney overtopped him, "sells fer a dime, ten cents, but on this int'restin' o-casion I 'm sellin' 'em two fer five. Here y' are. Don' mind ol' Baldy there. Two fer five. Two fer five. Soon 's I 'm sold out I 'll take him down off his perch an' wipe the floor with him. Two fer five. Hurry up now, if you want to see the fight. Right y' are. Who 's the nex'? Here it is."

The Bowery knew a bargain; and the prize packages, two fer a nickel, were sold as fast as Redney could hand them out. The Professor, fuming helplessly, watched them go. Several times he called out his invitation to "step this way," but no one obeyed him. At last, when it was almost time for Redney to redeem his promise to wipe the floor with him, he shouted: "We will now proceed downstairs, where some inter-es-ting exhibits are awaiting us," and, leaving Redney to his triumph, he went below with all the dignity of an old dog that has been barked out of countenance by a pup.

When Redney had emptied his tray, he said cheerfully: "Now, frien's, I want to thank yuh fer yer kind attention an' say good-night. The rest o' the show 's waitin' fer yuh downstairs. Hurry up, er yuh 'll miss it. Go on. Go on. NO fight to-night. All bets are off."


III

He waited until the last reluctant small boy had taken to the stairs; then he grinned his way over to Madame's tent, winking at his friends on their platforms, and counting his nickels as he went. "Well," he said, "I 'm sold out. How 're you gettin' on?"

"What 's the matter?" she asked. "What did you do it fer?"

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the hall. "They 're grabbin' everythin' downstairs fer rent. Two fer a nickel 's better 'n nothin' apiece. The game 's up."

"There!" she said. "I knew it!"

She sank back upon her cushions, staring at him with the dumb eyes of disaster realized. He laughed and reached for her cards on the table.

"Now what 'll we do?" she said. "Now!"

He sat down and shuffled the bits of pasteboard and began to lay them out on the table before him.

"Not a cent saved," she said. "Not a cent.… Where is he? The Professor? What 's he goin' to do?"

"Yuh can search me," Redney assured her. "I don' know." He studied the cards. "Say," he said, "yuh been married before."

"What?"

He put his cigarette-stained forefinger on the Queen of Hearts. "Yuh 've been married before. Had a kid, too."

She blinked at him between grief and amazement. He laid out more cards. "He was a circus man, was n't he? What become o' the boy?"

She opened her mouth to speak and remained with it open, leaning forward to see the cards—which he was studying sagely. "Yer name was Carr, eh?" he said. "Lottie Carr. That 's why it 's Madame Carlotta, ain't it?"

She clutched his arm. "What 're you talkin' about?"

"I 'm tellin' yer fortune." He spread more cards. "Huh! He ran off with the kid. A tumbler. Yuh don't say. Got his neck broke in Denver. What become o' the kid?"

She answered, as if in spite of herself, faintly: "I don't know."

"Well, let 's see." He spread more cards. "The kid, eh? Let's see.… How about that? That looks like it. He went on with the troupe. An' then when he would n't tumble he got to sellin' peanuts an' lem'nade. He was darned glad he was quit o' th' ol' man. Let 's see. He come back to N' York." Her hand had tightened on his arm, in a shaking grasp. "An' one day, on the Bow'ry, he seen a sign 'Madame Carlotta' in a Musée. Wonder if it was her?"

He grinned round past his shoulder at her. "Looks like her."

Her poor old face was as if paralyzed in an expression of incredulous amazement and delight. "Ah!" she said in her throat, without moving her lips, open-mouthed. And then, with a shaking jaw, stutteringly, she cried: "B-b-bab!"

"Sure thing," he grinned.

She caught him round the neck and drew him down to her, and in spite of his shamefaced and protesting laughter she almost strangled him with a hug and smothered him in her embraces. "Bab! Bab!" she cried, her hands about his face as if he were a child—patting his cheeks, stroking his hair back from his forehead, kissing and fondling him. "Oh, Bab!" Her tears came with her kisses. "My—my—"

It was too much for her. She burst into sobs, fumbling for her handkerchief.

The boy patted her awkwardly on the back whispering: "Hol' on, mom. That's all right. Don't cry about it."

"Oh, I can't help it," she wept, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her kimono. "I 'm so— Oh, I was so worried. Oh, it did n't seem as if there was any one— Oh, Bab!"

"That 's all right," he said. "I 'd 'a' told yuh long ago only I did n't know whether— I thought p'raps th' ol' guy—"

"Oh, why did n't you? Oh, dear. Oh, I can't stop." She mopped her face frantically. "Oh, I 'm so glad. Oh, Bab!"

He waited until she had regained control of herself, patting her clumsily on the shoulder. "That 's all right," he said. "I thought p'raps the Professor—" The name checked her; she choked down a sob, suddenly recalled to the thought of him. "I did n't know," Redney went on, "whether he 'd want me round—whether you—"

"Bab!" She rose with all the dignity of an old mother. "D' you think I 'd let him—"

"That 's all right, then. All right. It 's up to him, then."

She took off her kimono and threw it among the cushions. "There!" she said. "I 'm done with him. He 's never treated me right. Never! He told me to-night—No! I 'll work no more for him. Bab!" She threw out her arms to him. "Take me away—from—from this—from him. I—"

"Here now," he said, with embarrassed gruffness. "Yuh don't need to throw a fit. Yuh 're comin' back with me an' stay there. I know a better job than this. Yuh won't have to work fer nobody. Get yer hat on. Come on."

The Professor filled the tent door—wiping his forehead weakly with a red handkerchief, unconscious of the fact that she was not alone. "Well," he said, bitterly, you 've got it now. They 've seized everything." He saw Redney, and threw out a hand at him, passionately, shaking the handkerchief. "Get out of here. Get out."

Redney nodded. "I 'm goin'. Come on, mom."

She jabbed in her hat-pins. "That 's my son," she said. "That 's my boy. He 's offered me a home, Now, then!"

The Professor looked from one to the other, with his scowl of anger slowly fading till his face was a gape of staring astonishment.

"You 've never treated me right," she cried. "Never! I 've given you everything—worked fer you an' everything. I 'm not goin' to do it no more."

He sat down among the cushions, blinking, with a sort of stunned look that was pitiable enough to accuse her of inhumanity.

"You 've made my— It 's been a cat an' dog life," she defended herself. "You 've brought it on yerself. I wanted to do what was right. You 've no one but yerself to blame."

He tried to pull himself together, with a return of his pride.

"I don't want to leave you on the street," she said, relentingly. She looked around at Redney. "I s'pose, if he—until he gets work somewhere—"

The Professor drew himself up. "No!" His voice was no more than a croak. "No!" His vanity would not let him—or if not his vanity, then his self-respect. He did not know how dependent he was; we none of us do. He had regarded himself as a masterly, strong spirit, living aloof from the weakness of humanity; and he was willing to let her go without a word of kindliness or reconciliation.

She went. He stood up, dazed and shaken. He stumbled out into the hall to look after her. There, all the living curiosities, exhibitors, and platform entertainers were cursing and despairing together like the passengers on a sinking ship. Their wages were lost; their trunks, their properties, their trained animals and their poor exhibits were all held by the law. They faced bankruptcy and want. And the Professor, the captain of the wreck, stood for a moment pale before that hubbub, and then retreated from it, down the back stairs, into the street.

He wandered about desolately, till fatigue drove him home to his empty rooms. She had been there. Her trunk was gone and all of her small furnishings that could be packed into it. On the back of an envelope, hung on a gas-jet where he could be sure to see it, she had scrawled: "Good-by."

He left it there.

He left it there and left the gas burning, and—as a final expression of his mood—went to bed in his clothes, with his shoes on.


That was some years ago. Every trace of the old Bowery Musée is gone now—gone with the public that used to patronize it and the conditions that kept it alive. A penny savings-bank has been built on its site. Madame Carlotta and young Redney have disappeared together—no one knows where. Only the Professor remains—an old rounder on the Bowery, gray and shabby, sleeping in doss-houses and hawking a china cement—and he, as the chief victim of this tragedy in fakirdom, is still too proud for pity and too absurd for anything else.