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The Case of Penn Harding—and the Fifth Buddha!
Penn Harding, newspaperman—late of the Chicago Tribune, though now “at leisure” as the Thespians term it!—stood on the dingy sidewalk of “Honky-tonk Row” this October evening at 13 minutes of 6, and stared at the huge red-painted cloth sign that surmounted the gaudily bedecked South State Street store which was confronting him. Its hastily and crudely made letters proclaimed
and the top and bottom lines, judging from the different tint of the paint and slope of the letters, had been added only this very day.
Inside, past that sign, lay no story. But inside Penn Harding lay—alas!—a more than well-defined trace of what is known as “auction-buyer’s complex,” that dread psychosis which causes a practical man to bid on a three-legged giraffe, the skeleton of a Brontosaurus, or a grain of rice carved into the semblance of “Schnozzle” Durante, And thus he stood fighting with himself whether to go in. Or whether to go on. Which are two entirely and extremely different things—when it comes to Fate!
As a newspaperman, capable of earning, at most, only a newspaperman’s salary, because of the known disinclination of publishers to enrich their hirelings, and as a man, moreover, about to try tonight to steal the heart of the only and lovely daughter of a steel manufacturer who despised all newspapermen—in fact, detested them more than even good housekeepers detest certain flat insectivora possessing highly colonizational tendencies with respect to beds, Penn Harding should, in reality have been hurrying home to his rooming-house to shave, dress and make himself otherwise one hundred and one per cent presentable—for his great theft. Instead of strolling, stick in hand, idly along “Honky-tonk Row,” with its cheap-john jewelry stores, its pawn shops, its to-cent “burleycue” shows, and its dimly lit taverns offering whiskey at 10 cents—and gin at 5!
Indeed, because within that store which now confronted him, the fifth and last of a certain Five Blinded Buddhas—as they may well be called—was shortly to be offered to the crowd standing therein, and was moreover to be bid for, Penn Harding, with his auction-buyer’s complex, and his plans for stealing Bradley Edgecomb’s bewitching daughter, should really have been, at this moment, anywhere else in the world—in the center of the Sargasso Sea, for instance—or at the South Pole—or on the Great Australian Desert—or in Kokomo, Indiana—or in a diver’s suit at the bottom of the Drainage Canal.
Particularly in view of the lugubrious happening which tonight was to envelop one, Mr. Sol Levinstein, auctioneer, who had done the very un-auctionary deed of keeping one of his own sales items—or Blinded Buddha No. 1, as it may conveniently be termed—and having it soldered to his watchchain!
Or, for instance, in view of the singular adventure which was to befall tonight one Ivan Kossakoff—known to the Chicago police only as “The Strangler”—and who that very day, shortly after noontime, had bought the second of the Five Blinded Buddhas.
Or in view, furthermore, of the peculiar adventure, dismal or droll, depending exactly upon how one would look at it—which was to befall tonight one Mr. Cedric van Allen, civil engineer from North Africa, who but an hour ago had bought the third of the Five Blinded Buddhas.
Or in view, indeed, of the quite surprising adventure which was tonight to befall one Tim Waldo, burglar and second-story man, late of Melbourne, Australia—who but 30 minutes before had bought the fourth of the Five Blinded Buddhas.
But having no televisic gifts like this for seeing into the future, much less into the past, and knowing absolutely nothing of the famous rule promulgated by certain old Chinese sages—the rule known as “Tzei gwon kei cheng”—which a white man would naturally consider a very unreliable rule anyway!—Penn Harding allowed his complex to be titillated. By a crude canvas sign! Stretched across a store rented for 3 days, at $3 a day, by a fly-by-night auctioneer selling shoddy goods turned out in the sweatshops of Shanghai.
In short, Penn Harding let slip away from him entirely that determination last within himself—namely: to board a home-going street car and leave Honky-tonk Row to its eternal pursuit of capturing mankind’s loose dimes. And instead, threaded his way inside the store and past the outer fringe of onlookers.
And taking up an unimpregnable position between a laborer, in overalls, and a dainty little man in a brown derby hat, commenced listening to the monotonous drone of the auctioneer.
The latter was a bald-headed man, about 46, with a hook nose, and though he spoke fluently and smoothly, he let slip an occasional slightly accented word which corroborated the nose; he was conducting his operations on a crude wooden platform above the heads of the crowd, with only a plank counter to work from; platform and counter being lighted by a single cluster of incandescent bulbs hanging above them; and judging from the denuded appearance of the white plank shelves behind him, operations had been fairly successful on this, the last day.
Following Harding’s entrance, there ensued several sessions of spirited bidding, all of which he watched silently, though in rising unrest of spirit, for the true “auction-buyer” has to be brought to the correct emotional pitch; though as it has been stated, when thus brought to such a pitch, he will bid on the whip with which Simon Legree whipped Uncle Tom, the lost Mona Lisa, or a decrepit parrot guaranteed to talk Esperanto with an Irish brogue.
In turn Harding saw a huge vase—almost brother to an umbrella stand—a big, bronze Chinese dragon, and finally a gold-threaded tapestry tablecloth, with strange Chinese characters worked in it, drop into the clutches of various prosaic-looking individuals in the motley audience. And as he felt deep and profound regrets stirring within him, like fumes from off a brewer’s fermenting vat, he knew from long-past experience that that was the standardized symptom that he himself was about to bid. For something!
Which something now proceeded to introduce itself. For, as the tapestry tablecloth was disposed of, the man on the platform lost no time in reaching automatically back for another vase to the shelf of vases directly behind him. But then, as though remembering something which had entirely skipped his memory, he reached instead in the other direction, and from a small, battered japanned tin try on an empty shelf took something no larger than a cork.
“Gentlemen,” he asked, “do any of you believe in good luck?”
No one vouchsafed an answer.
The auctioneer rubbed the small article he had taken from the tray between his two hands, breathed on it, rubbed it some more, and then held it up, where it revealed itself as a tiny object—about one inch high— of hammered or cast metal, in view of the fact that it now shone quite resplendently under the overhanging high-power tungsten lights.
“Gentlemen,” he announced, “I have here something that did not come to me in the ordinary channels of trade. And it is something with which I hope to appeal to the occult part of your natures—occult, remember, I said!—and not superstitious—yes—the occult part of your natures—rather than to the artistic part, which has responded so splendidly tonight to this vast collection of Or-ree-ental coo-re-osities gathered from the entire world. Ahem.” He moved his article around so that all might see. “I have here what might appear to be just a common, ordinary silver image of Buddha, but which, in fact, is one of five of the most unusual Buddhas that I—at least—have ever come across.”
He squinted at it with a speculative and, it is to be admitted, slightly puzzled eye; and thence to the crowd.
“You will have an opportunity, gentlemen, in a few more seconds, to notice that this is not an ordinary, standard Japanese or Chinese Buddha, for its hands are crossed over its eyes. But that it is Chinese is quite plain, from the distinctly Chinese character that is cut on its stomach. And the Chinese, I might say, use these little images of Buddha as pocket-pieces and refer to them as ‘how-sei-geis’—which phrase means, in their language, ‘Good luck bringers.’ But what the particular significance is, of the Chinese character cut into the image, or of the image having its hands over its eyes, I cannot say.”
He leaned down and handed it to a tired-looking man in front of him.
“Pass it around, will you, brother?”
He looked up.
“The intrinsic value of this little item, I’ll admit,” he went on, “is little or nothing—even though our good friend Roosevelt did, a few years ago, remonetize silver—for it weighs not so much as an old-time silver dollar. Its labor value, you will likewise claim, is little, representing only a morning’s work on the part of a Chinese sand-caster—yes, my friends, such things are cast in sand, exactly as the old square-holed Chinese brass coins used to be—cast from a little mold made from a clay model. Just that labor—plus the cutting of the peculiar Chinese character on the front of the image. Ten cents, all in all, you will say, at Shanghai native rates of pay—of 20 cents per day—about which I just had something to tell you before this last gentleman came in. And—yes—pass it right on back of you, brother.”
The man in front of Harding passed the tiny object back into his hands. He looked it over curiously, beholding only the characteristic squatting figure of Buddha, the famed Japanese and Chinese god, legs crossed beneath it, a bit fat in the belly, to be sure, for a god supposed to be a mystic instead of a gourmand, its hands clasped tightly over its eyes, and an intricate Chinese character carved, though very crudely, upon its very naked belly. It was pitted, here and there, by tiny holes made, undoubtedly, by bits of the coarser sand in which it had been cast, and had been smoothed a bit in other places by a file or rasp. Exactly as would a cast-iron casting of a pulley or a gear wheel be treated.
“Wow,” went on the auctioneer, feeling across his vest with the blank, groping motion a man uses to take out his watch which, for some reason, is not there, “I want to say—”
But at this juncture, the phone on the wall back of him rang. He nodded his own excusal from his crowd, and turning about, lifted the receiver.
“Yes? Sol Levinstein speaking. who? Oh—Ike? Yes—yes—I see. Yes—put on a little piece of chain, Ike—say three quarters of an inch—extending out from the main chain—yes, that’s right—and link the Buddha to the end of that extension. Yes—permanently, Ike—by a soldered eye-hook and closed link. Otherwise I’ll be losing it as I did the elk’s tooth charm. No—it hasn’t. It’s just a Chinese good luck pocket piece. Yes. A how-sei-gei, they call them. What’s that? Do I need luck? I’ll tell the world I can use some luck. That’s why I’m having you put the fool thing on securely so’s I can’t lose it—or even auction it off! Thanks. Eight o’clock you’ll send it over? Oh—nine o’clock? Sure. I’ll be here. Good-bye, Ike.”
He hung up and turned back and faced his crowd again.
“Well, well,” he went on, manifestly pleased with the occurrence which had just taken place. “What you folks are looking at is what I was just talking about. To a jeweler friend of mine across town who happened in here this morning for a minute or two around eleven o’clock. And now you all know that I believe in my own wares. For five of those Buddha pocket-pieces came to me, as I told you, outside the ordinary channels of trade; each the same—sure—each with the same Chinese character cut on its tummy. Yes, pass it along, brother, so that all may see. Just a little cheap image of Buddha, you’ll all say—representing some Shanghai sandcaster’s individual eccentricity—his idea of how Buddha should look! But not cheap, my friends, and not valueless. For what Sol Levinstein is willing to rivet to his own watchchain ain’t cheap. No sir! And believe it or not, after my friend took mine away with him, I put the other four pieces in the window with nothing but a card reading simply, ‘Chinese Good Luck Pieces—Price $5’—and up to an hour ago three of the pieces sold at that price.” He paused to let this fact sink into the minds of his hearers. “But because,” he went on unremittingly, “we are closing out here tonight, and the remaining one may not sell from the show window in the few hours left, I wish to put this last pocket-piece up for auction. So now, gentlemen, what do you say? I don’t ask you to believe what I myself believe. But only what the Chinese themselves believe. They’re a wise old race, you know. So—I appeal to your sporting instincts. The Chinese say that the how-sei-gei always brings its owner good luck. Now, are any of you having trouble in your business, in your profession, in your love affairs—”
And here Penn Harding pricked up his ears. He knew something about love troubles. And he knew full well that tonight was the critical night when the Fourth Estate had to “do its stuff,” as the phrase went—at least so far as Neva Edgecomb went! Had to demonstrate, in short, whether a Chicago newspaperman, held in high contempt by a certain rich steelmaker, could coolly walk off with that rich steelmaker’s daughter.
“...in your family, in your finances?” the auctioneer was continuing. “If so, do you want to change your luck? I’ll say you do. All right. Will you take a chance, exactly as three other men today did—four other men, by golly, since I myself kept an item I could have gotten five good dollars for—with this little odd trinket—a blind Buddha?”
“What am I offered, gentlemen?”
No one answered. A boy in front of the wooden platform handed up the silver how-sei-gei, which the auctioneer placed carefully facing the audience.
“Not one bid?” he commented ruefully. “And three long minutes—a twentieth of an hour—I spiel to you. When I might have been selling you four other items. Ach!” he sighed. “Well—will somebody invest in some bulk silver? Uncle Sam guarantees to redeem it for you at his treasury.” He weighed the image carefully in the palm of his hand. “Will somebody bid even two dollars—and change his luck—” His gaze fell on a dyspeptic-looking man in the front row. “How about you, my friend? You’ve stood by while a lot of good things went. Will you bid me two dollars?”
“Like hell I will,” said the dyspeptic-looking man promptly. “Because I work right up the street here—and I seen them four pocket-pieces in that window early today priced at 50 cents apiece!”
“Oh—you did, did you?” said the auctioneer, very discomfitedly.
“Yes, I did,” the other replied, defiantly, but with plenty of assurance.
“Well, you’re all wet, my friend, and—”
“Th’ hell I’m all wet! I can prove it by the guy who was along with me, He works across the street.”
“Oh, he does, does he? Well, then, if you saw these pocket-pieces for 50 cents—suppose you give us a bid for this one at 50 cents. Is that fair—or is that fair?”
“I wouldn’t bid a lousy cent in a gyp joint like this,” the dyspeptic-looking man flung back. “The game around this place is to talk 99 cents worth of fake valoo into a 1-cent article. Good-bye!” And turning on his heel, the recalcitrant one wove his way out of the group. And out of the store.
The auctioneer, more discomfited than ever, looked around.
“That guy who went out of here is crazy,” he affirmed, though not convincingly at all. “Fifty cents? Why, I wouldn’t look at fifty cents. Would I have a fifty-cent article on my own watch chains? Fifty cents? For a genooine silver, hand-cast Buddha pocket-piece? However—tell you all what I’ll do. I’ll take it on—as a starting bid. Anybody bid fifty?”
“Well, for cryin’ out loud! Well—if you all feel that way about it—will somebody bid a nickel then? Just a dinky five-cent nickel?”
Penn Harding’s fist closed a little tighter on the silver handle of the stick he always carried. The ferment within him had arrived. In short, he had a sudden desire to own that how-sei-gei.
“I’ll bid your nickel,” he announced.
“My good-looking friend in the wide-brimmed, gray felt hat bids a nickel,” said the auctioneer quickly. “Now, who bids a dime?”
“A dime,” came from one of the auction fans, with a patch on the back of his coat, who had turned in the doorway on his own way out.
“A quarter,” said Harding quickly, digging down in his pocket for his loose change.
“Thirty cents,” grunted a big man with a cigar between his teeth.
“Well—I actually hear thirty cents!” said the man on the platform, sarcastically.
He glanced at a clock far up the store.
Its hands pointed to the hour of six. He had been talking himself hoarse all the afternoon, and he was hungry, as well. He rubbed his hand impatiently over his bald pate. “Come, come, gentlemen, things are going too slow. Do I hear—say—a higher bid—seventy-five?”
Harding was becoming more than ever determined to possess that silver how-sei-gei. For Fate was converging upon him now from two directions, like twin wolves! He needed luck tonight—and how! And within Chromosome No. 37, of the various chromosomes which had made him exactly what he was—and which chromosome is known to send people to auctions, lay walled the very characteristic that sends them there.
“Forty cents,” he snapped.
A pause followed.
“Forty-five cents,” same faintly from some undecided person in the rear of the crowd.
Harding hesitated. For at heart he was a sane man. And sanity can come to the surface of any man for a second at a time. “Fifty cents,” he snapped, with a tone of finality in his voice calculated to deceive anyone.
“Fifty, I hear,” came from the auctioneer, almost like an echo. “Do—do I hear that seventy-five?”
“Do I hear that seventy-five cents?”
Still no answer from the crowd, which by this time was apparently convinced that the article in question was at most a poor investment for anyone’s money, but had, moreover, been speciously “talked up.”
“Do I hear sixty?”
Not an answer.
“Sixty—sixty—sixty cents,” the hook-nosed man warbled parrot-like, from his white pine pulpit, “My good-lookin’ friend yonder with the broad-brimmed gray hat started the ball rolling with a nickel bid. Unless you bid, gentlemen, he takes it.”
Still there was no response.
“Going at fifty cents, then. A genuine Chinese cast-silver image of Buddha with his hands over his eyes—a real how-sei-gei—going at fifty.” He raised his wooden mallet and swung it above his head. “Going—going—”
“Wait a minute—hold on there!” cried a deep voice in the doorway. “A Buddha—with its hands over its eyes, eh? Never heard of such a thing! Let me have a look, please. And put me down for a dollar.”
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