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SING SING NIGHTS
In the large, square death-cell a sudden peculiar quiet had fallen upon four men of different nationalities. McCaigh, the American —he whom the newspapers, during the progress of the strange trial, had dignified with the appellation of “The Iron Man”—paced slowly up and down, his wide-set grey eyes roaming vacantly from the heavy oaken door, with its tiny barred window, to the solitary electric lamp which cast its shaded rays over a chamber fitted only with stout mission rockers, square mission table, couch and rug. A chamber it was which in its time had seen many a guest of high and low degree—a chamber which for years in Sing Sing prison had housed on their last nights those unfortunates who, formerly swinging off into all-engulfing blackness at the end of a hempen rope, were now more scientifically and expeditiously dispatched from an intricately wired chair connected to a 2,200-volt transformer.
Eastwood, the Englishman, the youngest of the four, sat back in his prison-made rocker uneasily drumming on his chair, arm, and staring half-fascinatedly at Shanahan, the red-haired guard, who was assigned to sit with them and watch them on this, their last night on earth. His delicately chiselled face, whitened from over-confinement and the long rigours of a trial, seemed even whiter than ever to-night in the rays of the prison lamp; but in spite of its pallor it held an unmistakable handsomeness; in the eye gleamed forth the light of fighting idealism.
Krenwicz, the one really foreign-looking man of the three, lay on a long couch puffing away at a cigarette. His was the lean, bearded, ascetic face of an intelligent Russian of forty-five or less—the Russian suggesting old Czarist days, now gone—and his eyes were eyes which had seen trouble, had seen life in its shadows and its high lights, and yet eyes in which shone forth the smiling, dancing devils that proclaimed the incontrovertible philosophy of the tent-maker of Naishapur. From where Krenwicz in his coarse homespun blue prison suit lay, a passing glimpse through the crack of the oaken door carried one’s gaze far down a corridor to a large room, now lighted faintly by a tiny green bulb, which housed a slightly raised platform bearing a devilish-looking chair replete with nickel, copper, leather and rubber fittings. But the sight of that which on the morrow at dawn was to end the career of him and his two companions, McCaigh the American, and Eastwood the Englishman, evidently failed to ruffle the composure of the lean man with the Russian face, for he smiled and puffed away at his cigarette, tossing the half-smoked paper tube into a brass cuspidor bolted to the cement floor.
Indeed, of all the four men there, Shanahan, the death guard, the Irishman from County Cork, appeared to be the most ill at ease. His beefy, florid face looked troubled; he shifted his huge bulk back and forth in the heavy armchair; at times he mopped away at his flaming red pompadour with a mighty, muscular arm.
McCaigh, the man who was pacing the floor, was the first to break the silence that had descended upon the group.
“Well, gentlemen,” he said, rather calmly, with that nonchalant smile which during the trial had given him the appellation of “The Iron Man,” but which appeared forced in comparison to Krenwicz’s quite spontaneous one, “we’ve got something like nine hours to live. What shall we do with ourselves on this glorious evening which the State of New York has so kindly consented that we spend in each other’s company?”
“Most o’ the boys w’at goes over th’ line,” put in Shanahan nervously, “plays car‑rds.” He paused. “There’s a deck o’ car‑rds—chips, too—in that there table drawer.”
He stopped, a little overawed by the air of calmness which hung over these three—to him—fine gentlemen of a higher stratum in life than that to which he was accustomed.
Again silence fell upon them. Eastwood, the young Englishman, rose from his chair, went over to the table and poured himself a stiff drink from the decanter with glasses which stood there. Swallowing it down, he turned his face to McCaigh.
“I’ll jolly well say,” he pronounced in finely modulated tones, “that your State of New York is certainly treating us like gentlemen on this, our last night.”
Again silence. It was evident that conversation did not thrive. The mission clock on the stone wall ticked away, its ticks sounding like miniature rifle shots in a great forest. Finally Krenwicz spoke, flicking off the ashes of his eleventh cigarette on to the floor. His words bore not the slightest trace of an accent.
“Do any of you gentlemen anticipate a possible intervention by the governor?”
Shanahan spoke up.
“Boys, I don’t want to disappoint yeze, but Governor Willets, when he does annything, does it quicker than th’ lasth minut. I wish he’d help yeze out, for yezes is gentlemin, all right, all right; but whin it gets midnight th’ night before the—before th’ electicution—well, boys, don’t raise anny false hopes in your hearts. I been in this j’int f’r eliven years now.”
“Shanahan is doubtlessly correct,” said Eastwood, dropping back into his chair. “We go.” His voice grew hard. “And to me the going is all a pleasure. And furthermore, if it were all to be done over again I’d do it myself just exactly as I did.”
“And I, by God!” muttered McCaigh.
“Gentlemen, and I,” said Krenwicz, and his laughing eyes suddenly darkened into cruel shadows.
“And as soon as the old switch is pulled—” put in McCaigh, but stopped. Outside in the corridor were the sound of voices, the jangle of keys. A second later the oaken door swung open, and there stood revealed in the opening a blue-uniformed turnkey, accompanied by an elderly grey-haired man of around sixty years of age, finely clad in rich clothing of brown. Across his arm was a light overcoat. His face was keen, his eyes were grave, judicial.
Shanahan was the first to spring to his feet.
“It’s—it’s his Excellency—it’s Governor Willets,” he breathed.
An air of suffocating tenseness dropped like a mantle over the occupants.
With a glance at the oaken door, the governor stepped into the room, surveying the three condemned men curiously. The turnkey beckoned to Shanahan, the death watch.
“The governor wishes to speak to Eastwood, McCaigh, and Krenwicz in private.”
Shanahan backed out into the corridor. The oaken door with its single square aperture swung to. Its bolts shot together with an ominous click. And the highest official in the State of New York was locked in the same room with three men condemned to be ferried by Charon across the dark river Styx within nine hours. He gazed curiously, abstractedly about him. McCaigh, Eastwood, Krenwicz—who now sat on the couch,—waited expectantly. The governor paused but a moment, then dropped into Shanahan’s chair, nearest the door.
“Gentlemen,” he broke the silence, “you know evidently that I am Governor Willets, Governor of the State of New York. You know, therefore, that I have the power of pardoning those who deserve pardon. Intervention has been sought for in your cases along many lines, wires—both political and diplomatic—have been pulled, levers have been worked along a number of angles. But, frankly, absolutely nothing has developed that has warranted my using my executive authority in the direction of clemency.”
The faces of the three men reflected a variety of emotions. Krenwicz’s, calm; Eastwood’s, a half suggestion of keen disappointment; and McCaigh’s, an elusive hope that somehow—some way—something was nevertheless to develop.
After a pause Governor Willets went on:
“Now, gentlemen, I am going to be brief. What I shall say I shall be able to say in five minutes. You, Eastwood; you, Krenwicz; you, McCaigh, are all going to pay the death-penalty at dawn in the morning for the murder of Howard Creynell on the night of June 11.” Over the faces of the three hearers a look of strange, almost identical, bitter defiance went. The governor proceeded imperturbably.
“Let me review that case briefly,” he said. “On the night of June the eleventh Howard Creynell, of the Authors and Artists Club of New York City, was shot and killed at his rooms in the Belgravia at eleven-fifteen in the evening, just after he opened the door of his apartment and snapped on the library lamp. A police patrol wagon returning from a vice raid in Upper Manhattan passed the Belgravia just in time for the officers to surround the place. You, McCaigh, a man bred and born to our laws and the penalties for their breaking, author of The Riddle of the Onyx Hand, The Washington Square Enigma, and others of our most intriguing and best-selling mystery novels, not to mention scores of novelettes in the better type of our magazines, were caught as you dropped from the fire-escape in the courtway at the bottom, your revolver still in your hand. At the trial, later, you admitted that you had been perched upon that fire-escape at the window of his library for hours.”
Governor Willets turned to Eastwood.
“And you, Eastwood of London, at the first rush of the police were caught standing back of that huge Japanese screen; you, a man as well known in literary matters on this side of the water as in your own great home metropolis of England; author of over a thousand short stories so bizarre and odd that you have won fame from the very daring originality of your conceptions; a man whose stories have been printed on this side of the ocean as much as on your own side; a man who had the honor of winning the 5,000-guinea prize offered by the Mercury for the strangest short story of the year. You, Eastwood, had in your hand a revolver which held several discharged shells, as well as a skeleton or common pass-key with which you had gained access to those rooms, and back of which screen you must have stood for hours in the dark.”
He turned to Krenwicz. “And you, Krenwicz, a man who came over to this country as a lad from darkest Russia in the steerage, a man who learned to speak our language so well that he was enabled to embark on a brilliant journalistic career that placed him on newspapers from coast to coast; a man who graduated from the journalistic field to accomplishing such a swift-moving novel as that one of yours which ran in the Hearstmopolitan—The Jade Vase—wasn’t that the title of it?—a man who did one successful play, The Daughter of Chow Chin, and who was engaged before this trial to do another, this time for the prominent and beautiful Chinese actress, Sara Ying of San Francisco; you, Krenwicz”—he shook his head sadly—“you, Krenwicz, who had achieved all that at the comparatively youthful age of forty-five—you had been sitting in a big armchair in the dark, facing the lamp, where you could kill Howard Creynell the moment he should snap on the light. You did not know that Eastwood sat back of that screen across the room—that he had dozed off during the time that you had entered through the kitchenette door; nor did you know that McCaigh was perched upon the dark fire-escape, waiting likewise for Howard Creynell to return and snap on the lamp. You had told Parkins, Creynell’s man, that you were Creynell’s cousin from Syracuse, and that you wanted to sit in the kitchenette and smoke—to surprise Creynell when he returned home. When Parkins left, you crept into the library and into the big armchair. And you surprised Creynell all right, all right! You gave yourself up immediately to the police that swarmed into the room, handing over your revolver with its two or three chambers discharged.”
The governor went on inexorably. “At the court trial, which the Supreme Court of New York State has decreed was free from technical error and the verdict of which they have refused to set aside, something came out, why two of you murdered Creynell. Yes,” he added, looking oddly from face to face, “but two of you did it, for there were only two bullet wounds in Creynell’s body. No bullet was found in the walls or furniture of that room, no shots but two were heard by the occupants of the Belgravia that night. No third bullet escaped that night. There were but two—and only two—fired. In the tense excitement, one of you three thought he fired, but he did not. Two of you, we definitely know, used revolvers which already had not one but a number of used shells in their chambers.”
The governor paused and then changed his tack suddenly. “At the trial it came out why two of America’s, and one of England’s, best and cleverest writers tried to kill one of our leading club men, himself only an amateur—a dilettante—in fiction and art. Creynell, while drunk that afternoon at the Authors and Artists Club, and playing cards with the three of you, had openly bragged that he had an assignation with a woman—a mere girl—who had become madly infatuated with him. He did not give her name, and possibly—but not necessarily—that is why I presume it has never come out at the trial. You three, however, testified at the trial that he had introduced this girl to you the night before in the foyer of the New Amsterdam theater at the première of Krenwicz’s play, The Daughter of Chow Chin. She was young, innocent, in the flower of maidenhood. Creynell, drunk in the card game, told you all that he had promised to marry her, but that he intended only to avail himself of her mad infatuation for him at a Fifty-fifth Street house of unsavory reputation. You three testified at the trial that you knew he was already married, that he was merely ruining her. You testified that to each of you came the shock, the realization, that this viper—as you termed him—must be killed to protect this girl as well as others.” He paused. “McCaigh, Creynell once ruined a girl whom you loved. You cherished a smoldering hatred of him for that. As for you, Krenwicz, Creynell had dragged down a poor Russian girl from the Russian quarter. That girl was your cousin. You hated him for that. You, Eastwood, were simply a mad idealist who, as you said, wished to rid the earth of a viper. And each of you, unknown to the others, prepared to go to Creynell’s rooms that night and end his career.”
The governor paused and then went on, “You know, gentlemen, the result of the trial as well as I. Not one of you would admit that he was not the man who fired one of the two fatal shots. Stubborn, or idealistic, each of you is going to the chair because he will not claim absolution on that one score. You prejudiced the jury by refusing to divulge the identity of the girl in the case. You claimed that all of you had seen her, talked with her, but that Creynell had been careful not to give her name in the introduction. That is poppy-cock. Two of you murdered Creynell—yes, murdered, gentlemen, for you cannot take the law into your hands in this state while I am governor of it. No matter what Creynell was, it was up to you either to warn the girl and allow her then to do what she pleased in the matter, or to expose Creynell by some process of law. Not to kill him. Not to murder him. Not to shoot him down in cold blood.
“No, gentlemen, you can never, never secure a pardon from me. It was out-and-out murder—perhaps justified to you three, but certainly not to the law.” He rose. He glanced at his watch. “I must go now.” He took from the breast pocket of his brown suit a crisp folded document and tossed it on the table. “McCaigh, Eastwood, Krenwicz—one of you failed to fire on the night of June the eleventh. That man, whoever he is, need not go to the chair if he will absolve himself. I have here a pardon, filled out—signed by myself. It is blank on the top line. That blank is for you three to fill in—to help you to decide which two among you fired, and which one did not. You three know. I do not. The law does not. The police do not. And the dead man, if he knows, cannot tell.” He turned and pressed a button at the side of the oaken door. “In ten minutes I will have returned to your cell the death guard. On my way out I shall leave a sealed letter with the warden. That letter, which he will open a few minutes before the—er—electrocution, will apprise him of the fact that one of you has in the meantime received an official pardon and that the document is in the possession of its rightful recipient.” He paused. “And in the next ten minutes, gentlemen, I would suggest that you realize you are facing destiny. Indeed, you had better come to a clean-cut decision of some sort instead of claiming glory.” The governor’s voice had grown bitingly sarcastic.
At the impact of the button, the turnkey’s face appeared in the opening. A second later the door swung open.
“In ten minutes,” said the governor authoritatively, “send in the death watch.” The door closed behind him. The bolts shot into their sockets. His footsteps could be heard echoing down the cement corridor. The three men were alone.
McCaigh, the American, was the first to speak. “Fight it out among you two,” he said. “I don’t know whether I fired or not. It’s all hazy. But I intended to. So what’s the difference? The damn snake! That girl—a goddess in embryo, if ever there was one. I’d kill Creynell over again if I had my wishes.”
The lean Russian spoke. “I think I fired,” he declared very slowly, “but I do not know for a certainty, due to the tension of the moment and the roar of shots so close to my ears. But even if I had not, I would go to the chair gladly for the extreme honor of having killed Creynell, the garter-snake of the snake tribe. I, personally, do not consider myself in the argument. I am finished.”
And Eastwood, the idealist, the man whose home lay far across the seas, spoke, his words tumbling over each other. “I was back of that Japanese screen, yes. And I would have given him every chamber in the gun, gladly. I do not know whether I killed him, or even whether I fired—but I hope to God that I did. One thing is certain. It is an honor to be electrocuted for killing him, and I claim that honor. Fight it out, you chaps, among yourselves.”
Then McCaigh, the Iron Man, spoke. “Gentlemen, we have thrashed out this same irritating question to an appreciable extent at the trial, and to an exhausting extent before our lawyers. We could not then determine that two should take the blame of the two shots, and that one should escape. Yet here before us is a pardon. It means life for one of us. We cannot deliberately tear that thing up. Creynell is gone—the snake is crushed. And that was the end to be attained.” He paused. “No one will ask that his name be filled out upon this document. But one must. The thing to be accomplished was accomplished. You, Krenwicz, or you, Eastwood, fill in your name.”
Silence. Then Eastwood, the idealist, spoke.
“The ten minutes is nearly up,” he said. “McCaigh is right. No need for all to die. Creynell is dead. Not one of us knows on account of the excited state of his mind that night and the rapid shots as the light went on, whether or no his own weapon responded fully to the pressure of finger against trigger—whether, in fact, he fired one of the two fatal shots.” He paused again. “We might play your American game of draw-poker—we might even draw straws! But we three are not of the rabble. And so I have a wonderful contest to propose. In a few seconds Shanahan, ignorant prison guard, returns to the death watch. You, Krenwicz, have not only written many stories, but you are the author as well of a novel and a successful play. I doubt if there is a mystery writer in America or England who weaves into his plots a love story of such sheer fineness as do you. And you, McCaigh, while not a playwright, have proven yourself such an ingenious craftsman in the literary field that your future was assured, had—had all this not happened. As for me—well, I too have done something in my small way, perhaps, whether worth while or not I do not know, although I fear that my poor efforts have been vastly overrated by my indulgent critics. And so, because of all this, I propose that each of us do his mightiest story now, on his death night; that we spin our stories in words this time, instead of in ink; that our sole audience shall be ignorant Shanahan, death watch. Let us spin our three stories until morning, if needs be; till the coming of the grey dawn, and—and—the death chair. The story that most entertains Shanahan—that Shanahan votes is the best story—shall place its teller’s name on the blank pardon, and the rest go to the electric chair.”
A silence fell, while Eastwood’s remarkable proposition filtered into the minds of his hearers.
Then it was broken by McCaigh, the Iron Man. “Eureka!” he cried. “A contest that is a gentlemen’s contest.”
“A game,” said Krenwicz, “a splendid, absorbing game for three gentlemen on their last night on earth. A contest of wits, brilliancy, invention.” He turned and surveyed the other two with a half-smile. “And if Eastwood, McCaigh and Krenwicz stick like cobblers to their lasts, it will be a strange joust that will be tilted out in the arena of a prison guard’s mind—the Knights of Romance, of Mystery, of Love, of Fantasy, struggling to down each other!” He paused again. “Agreed, gentlemen? A fictional pantechnicon it shall be for—Shanahan?”
“Agreed,” said the two others in unison. “The decision shall rest with Shanahan.”
No sooner had they spoken than the burly prison guard himself inserted his key into the lock and entered. He carefully locked the door behind him, and looked puzzledly around the room. Krenwicz had already risen and had placed the pardon in the drawer of the table.
“Shanahan,” he said slowly, twirling the decanter of whiskey about on its base, “this—this is our last night. The governor has so decreed. And we have decided to entertain each other, if not Mr. Shanahan, by the subtle art of the fictionist. Get me, Shanahan? And to settle a little something between ourselves, we want you at dawn to announce which of the three has told what seems to you the most engaging story. Will you do it?”
“Will I do ut?” grunted Shanahan. “That will I, byes. ’Tis Shanahan w’at is a great story reader. ’Tis Shanahan w’at has rid ahl th’ magazines an’ buks he c’n get his hands ferninst.” He dropped into a chair. “An’ ’tis Shanahan what will tell yeze at dawn which wan of ye has spinned th’ bistest yarn.” He leaned back in his chair with a sigh of relief. “An’ ’tis glad I am that yeze byes is goin’ to spind your last night so calm. Yeze is dead game.”
Eastwood spoke, a little hesitantly. “I trust, of course, gentlemen, that being a stranger to your shores, should I lay my story in London, that city which perchance I may never see again, that city so dear to my heart and so far away, and shall moreover weave into it as characters those who are my countrymen, I will in no way be violating the terms of our agreement”—he turned to Shanahan—“nor that I shall in any way confuse Mr. Shanahan?”
“By no manes,” said that gentleman, smiling. “Did I not live in Lunnon when I hustled freight on th’ East Indy Docks, a braw lad out o’ County Cork? ’Tis the city I know like a buk mesilf.”
“I think that answers your question, Eastwood,” said Krenwicz kindly. “After all, what matters it where a story is laid? Does not the true story-teller—the artist—make alive the little spot on earth’s surface where he lays his story? So lay your story, Eastwood, where your heart desires.”
A pause followed the establishing of these preliminary understandings. Each man stepped to the table in turn and poured himself out a small drink of the fiery liquid. Eastwood looked at Shanahan as he sank into the nearest chair.
“Will you select the first story-teller, Shanahan?” He looked at the others curiously. “The best story, gentlemen—think of it! It means love—happiness—lights—life. How—how our art must exert itself to-night!”
Shanahan gazed embarrassedly about him. “Well, Misther McCaigh, sippose you till us the first yarn.”
McCaigh, the American, bit his lips, then smiled gamely. He surveyed Shanahan carefully from head to foot. “Shanahan,” he said slowly, “I think I can tickle your fancy, and even mystify you a bit as well. At least I shall try my best to do so. Like Eastwood, I regret that I have not lingered long enough in your great city of New York, nor yet lived in London, to stage my story here among New York’s sky-scrapers or there among London’s quaint streets. So I shall therefore allow my little mystery drama to play itself out on the boards of another London—that city of America a thousand miles to the west of us, which has so often been called the London of the West—where I was born and reared. That city I see you have already guessed is Chicago, great roaring metropolis of millions of souls, with its four hundred and fifty solid square miles of seething humanity and unseen melodrama always lurking around the corner.” He paused. “Just what shall be the title of my tale in this peculiar Sing Sing nights entertainment I do not know, for it is a story that will never have to be named for an editor; and so I shall call it just ‘The Strange Adventure of the Giant Moth.’ ” An attentive silence fell upon the little group. “And if you will now step forth with me to a quiet uptown corner in Chicago, far from the roar and clamor of its business section, I shall take the liberty of introducing you to one to whom I would hesitate ordinarily to introduce any gentleman—a quaint blade of half-Chinese parentage, by name ‘Moonface’ Eddy Chang, who will play an amusing part, if not an important one, in my little tale.” Whereupon McCaigh, with that inscrutable smile of his, began:
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