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Young Love—And a Skull
MY name is Jerry Hammond. J. Hammond, yeggman in the vernacular of gangsterdom and the underworld, safe-cracker in everyday English. Also gentleman—and take that last or leave it! So now I’m placed in the general scheme of things. Yeggman, boxman, peterman, ironworker, blaster—there are more names for the racket that has kept wrinkles out of the lining of my interior for a good eight years than there are fleas on a cat’s ear when he’s being dipped to his whiskers in insecticide. I know how to cook dynamite in a pail of hot water over a one-hole gas burner, and take off from the bottom a half-ounce of pure nitro-glycerine, known among us users of the stuff as soup. Or how to crumble the dynamite into wood-alcohol and bring the nitro-glycerine out—and straight to the top!—with cold distilled water. I know how to drill into an ordinary fire-proof safe and lay my nitro-glycerine, fused and timed, all ready for the touch-off that will bring the door away. I know how to get to the inside of a chilled-steel receptacle with no more noise than a cockroach, drunk after emerging from an uncorked gin-bottle in a garbage can, would make as he sneaked back to Mrs. C., waiting up to biff him on the beezer for leaving her to mind the youngsters while he went skyhooting. I can saw past the bolts of any cast-iron contraption, using two saws at the same time, one in each mitt. Or I can blowpipe an entry to an armourplated vault, and leave any driller, who’s had no more sense than to try and blow it open, to scuttle off faster than a hold-up man at the wheel of a sports Dusenberg, when he hears the radio outfit on it squawking— “Calling all cars!”
A lone wolf, me for I have never worked with a gang, though I could have been top dog in more than one crowd where brains count. Also, I have never been caught at the game, and consequently have never been up before any hard-hearted Horatio on the bench. There’s not a line of “pedigree,” as the crooks call police record, against me in any detective bureau in America. Further to that, in all the jobs I have pulled off I have never carried a gun, except for a wooden one with which to put fear into any chance onlooker at my operations. In fact, a famous old safe-cracker who knew me well used to call me “Wooden Gun.” My point of view was that if the wooden gun couldn’t get me out of a jam, I’d sooner put up my hands and take a sentence than rob some woman of her man, and a pack of kids of their living.
But, as I said, I have never had to put up my hands, and that for many reasons. The old wooden gun pulled me out of a few scrapes, but the main reason, now I come to weigh things up, I put down as imported French rubber gloves, thin and supple as the skin of a new-born child, yet you couldn’t chop the finger off one with an ordinary axe, nor rub the finger-tip through on a pad of sandpaper. Yes, I think I must put that down as the main reason, for it only takes one little finger-print on a piece of nitro-smoked metal to send the safe-cracker up for a long stretch in the penitentiary. And the other reason for my immunity—I have always played a lone hand. For it only needs one ally, seeing the job through with you, and then, well-heeled with a wad of notes and full to the back teeth, bragging between hiccups in a saloon within hearing of a Pinkerton detective, to put the minions of the law on the trail of Old-Man-Back-Of-The-Job. And there is still one more reason, which I will explain fully before I start my tale, and which prevented me from ever yearning for a dainty damsel to soothe the old fevered brow—and then go passing out all she knows to the nearest district attorney, so that she can be free to freeze on to a new man who can buy her a better fur coat. I’m where I am to-day, free, white, and thirty-five, because of these things, and because I have always planned and surveyed every job from three to six months in advance—and then, if I so much as suspected a possible let-down over it, I’ve ditched it and gone on for something easier. I’ve left the big and tough chances alone: better a mere thousand dollars out of an easy job, and a chance to lie up somewhere for a half-year in comfort, than ten thousand out of a tough project, and the whole to pay away to some gangster’s lawyer for saving a long spell in Joliet or some other state institution for all of us who buck against society.
I am, as may have appeared, strong on the gangster dialect, the language of crookdom, but it happens that I am just as strong on good English—perfect English, in fact, at need. My grandmother, who brought me up, was a lady, one of the finest ladies I have ever known, in fact. She had me well educated by her own efforts, put all her earnings into assuring that I should be fitted to face the world and take an honourable place in it, and, by means of a paltry inheritance which fell to her, she put me part way through college, intending that I should graduate as a dental surgeon. But the money gave out a year and a half before I was due to take my diploma: grandmother died, too, in the summer of ’29, and I squeezed one more term out of the sale of her effects. Then came the great financial panic, with the world going dizzy—but there is no need for me to recapitulate all that ancient history. What I am trying to put over is that when all was over, Jerry Hammond, D.D.S., with white starched coat and drills complete, became, as you might say, a user of other kinds of drills.
And now I have to explain how it was that, in addition to being a lone wolf in my vocation, never once did I look at the damsels who might have played havoc with my affections—and probably helped to send me up for one of the long terms that often come of friendships or alliances with them. For all that belongs to my college days.
Good days they were, too. My especial chum was a lanky, solemn-looking divinity student named Phil Dottworth, who used to be a leading figure in all theatricals that were got up, and one of the best hands at make-up who ever mistook his profession—though, for that matter, he may have become quite a good parson after his ordination. It was Phil who managed to get a gaudy pair of pyjama trousers hauled up the flagstaff on the parade ground and broken out to fly in the breeze in place of Old Glory on a certain important occasion, and he, too, who managed to smuggle a prairie owl into the professorial desk just before old Professor Hoyte was due to begin his lecture. The owl broke the professor’s spectacles when he opened the desk, and we got no lecture from him that morning. These are two instances which go to prove that Phil was not as solemn as he looked, by a long way.
Phil and I and another half-dozen students made a clique, into which came some six or seven girls, including old Professor Hoyte’s daughter Elsie, whom nobody knew by that name, since she was always called Princess. The rags we organized would fill a book, and, as far as the girls were concerned, Princess was easily the leader, and easily the most admired. Justly so, for she was the sweetest and loveliest and—well, I think we all loved her. Healthy, happy boys and girls we were, old enough to realize love as something big and serious, and young enough to be a little reverent over it. Hard up, every one of us, but not less cheery for that, and I can look back on the times Phil and I and the Princess spent together as some of the happiest I have ever known, and the happiest and proudest day of them all was the one in which Princess owned that she cared for me as much as I cared for her.
What could come of our young love we did not know—I doubt if we thought much about it, being just happy together. If I thought of it, probably my mind ran on a decent practice somewhere after I had got my diploma, and a little home with my Princess beside me, but I think we were more concerned with present happiness than future possibilities. She and I paired in all the parties and rags that our little clique organized, and all went well until my last term was half-way through, when I realized that, still a year and a half short of getting the diploma and turning out as a fully-fledged dental surgeon, I had to give it all up and trust to a vague and most unpromising future to bring me and my Princess together again.
Our problem was badly complicated by the Princess’s mother, a semi-invalid with social aspirations, who did all she could to separate us two and throw my Princess at a youngster whom I will call just Wally, son and heir of a big manufacturer out west, and far too superior to belong to our clique of merrymakers. He dressed perfectly, ran a splendid sports Stutz, and did all that he could to ingratiate himself with the Princess, mainly through Mrs. Hoyte, while he sneered at me and my pretensions. One day he sneered too loudly in Phil Dottworth’s hearing, and Phil hammered hell out of him and so far spoilt his looks that neither Mrs. Hoyte nor the Princess saw anything of him for another month. He was big and consequential, but Phil had speed and skill and was one of the best boxers who ever kept out of the professional ring, and Wally soon found that he had met more than his match. This was in my last term, when the Princess and I knew that a long parting was not far ahead of us, and for that reason we made the most of our time together.
Then came my last day of all, and to celebrate it we had a party in Phil’s rooms, to which, most surprisingly to me, Wally was invited. What was more surprising still, he accepted the invitation, and, so far as could be seen with regard to the scrap they had had, it was a case of forgive and forget on both sides. But I felt sure that Phil had something up his sleeve in giving such an invitation: he was not the sort to put himself to trouble for nothing. The party was his farewell to college, too, for he was due for ordination at the term’s end.
We were all very merry, although it was an occasion of farewells, and down in my heart I felt far from merry, since I knew that it might be a very long time before I should see my Princess again. She too, I knew, felt it, though we both played up and kept the others from seeing what the parting meant to us both. From time to time Wally eyed her in a way that made me itch to repeat the treatment Phil had handed out to him, but he gave me no chance, keeping well away from me.
Mischief or concerted planning—I am not sure which it was—set Slim Cornish, one of our clique, to guying Phil over his ordination.
“A fine cleric you’ll make, you old bean pole,” Slim told him. “I bet you couldn’t bury a man without giving him half the marriage service before you got the coffin out of sight.”
“There’s no subject handy to work on,” Phil said, “and I couldn’t possibly work without a lay figure. That is—” he looked across at Wally— “maybe there’s a subject I wouldn’t mind reading the funeral service over, but he gives no sign of turning his toes up.”
“Well, let’s test you out on the marriage service,” Slim suggested. “Bet you couldn’t go through it on a couple without losing yourself.”
“That’s a whiz,” Phil said promptly. “Get that third book from the end of the top shelf there and turn up the marriage service in it, and if you check me as I go through it from memory I’ll bet you five dollars I don’t make five mistakes.”
“Bet’s on,” said Slim, and reached down the book. He turned up the marriage service in it. “Go ahead,” he bade. “I’ll check you on it.”
“Yeah, but I got to have lay figures,” Phil objected. “Can’t do it on nothing, old hoss. I know! You, Jerry, and the Princess—spot of rehearsal for you for when you celebrate the real thing. Come along here and stand up before me—get the right side of her, Jerry.”
We complied, and as I saw Wally’s black look at me I wondered if the whole thing were being worked for his benefit, and if, in fact, he had been invited to the party for this very purpose, for all of us knew how he tried to force his attentions on the girl, and how her mother backed him up because his father had more money than he could count. We two stood up before Phil, while Slim Cornish held the book and followed the words of the service, and we made the appropriate responses, both in our hearts wishing that it were no mere rehearsal. Right to the end Phil took it, and he put a punch into the final benediction that marked him as cut out for a parson, for, as I have said, he was a born actor.
“That’s that,” he said after he had finished. “How come, Slim?”
“Two errors only, so you win,” Slim answered. “That is, if you know how to fill in a certificate of marriage.”
“Here, gimme a sheet of paper,” Phil ordered, and reached for his fountain-pen. “I’ll win that five dollars or bust.” And he made out the certificate, which he handed to the Princess.
“Look it over,” he bade, “and let Slim gaze at it and weep. It’s all in order, sound as you’d get anywhere—five dollars, please, Slim.”
He pocketed the money and grinned at me. Wally, I saw, was fuming in the background, and the rest of the party looked amused.
“Pity my ordination hasn’t come through yet,” Phil said to me. “If it had, you two would be so well tied up that only Reno could separate you—unless the movie stars have found a place where divorce goes through slicker than under Colorado law. Anyhow—boys and girls, let us drink to the happy pair, and give them a drink, too, for standing it so well. You sure made the responses ring true, Jerry.”
“I wish they had been,” I said.
“But you’ve one more trick to take yet,” he pointed out. “It’s your business to kiss the bride at the end of the job. Hop to it.”
I needed no second invitation, and my Princess’s lips met my own with just as much fervour as if the ceremony had been real And, I noticed, she folded the “certificate” Phil had given her and put it away in her handbag—as a memento, I guessed. But, for me, the memento that counted was her kiss. I can feel it on my lips yet.
And the only one that did not drink to us right heartily was Wally, who scowled apart from the rest. I grew more and more convinced that Phil had invited him solely to witness this little play, and had arranged the dialogue that led up to it beforehand, with Slim as his coadjutor. And I knew that in Wally’s place I myself would have felt pretty sick over it, as he looked for the rest of the evening.
When it was all over, I took the Princess as far as the gateway of her home. It was our parting, we did not know for how long, and she put her arms about my neck with no restraint and looked up at me.
“I shall always remember,” she told me.
“Darling, if only that—to-night—had been real!” I said.
“Our day may come,” she said hopefully. “I know you’re going off in bitter disappointment at this break in your career, but I feel sure that some day, somehow, you’ll win through, and then—I shall be waiting. Whatever happens, my Jerry, I shall not forget.”
“And as for me, Princess,” I said, “no other girl or woman shall take your place as long as we both live. Whatever comes to me, that holds good. I’ve given you all my love, and there’s none left for any other. If you wait, I’ll come back when I’ve won through.”
Old sentiment, I know, but we were both so young, then, that it did not seem old to us. And I left her there by the gate under the stars and went my way, the long way that took me into many strange places and stranger adventures, but never once did I forget that promise to her, nor look at any other woman to love her. Few men can say that of themselves, I know: few are made that way, but of the few I am one.
Now, to make the story complete, I must tell what happened to her after I had gone, though it did not come to my knowledge till a long while after—till I got to Kamehameha Park in Honolulu, to be exact. For a little while her letters came through to me, rather pitiful letters towards the end, for she never received one of mine. Her mother saw to that: from that sweet lady’s point of view, Jerry Hammond was an undesirable, and she wanted to cut her daughter off from him. She succeeded, too, by the help of circumstance.
Professor Hoyte, my Princess’s father, was a born gambler, though nobody guessed it. To all appearances he was the usual college don, upright and stiff, but with the very devil’s own temper at times, and a gift for sarcasm that could make any unlucky student whom he made a target squirm helplessly under the lash of his tongue. All to himself, and unknown even to his wife and daughter, he had a taste for plotting curves on squared paper, the said curves representing the rise and fall of various stocks, including quite a few wild-cat propositions. If he had been satisfied with the squared paper and the curves, all would have been well, but he took to making investments on the strength of his curves. He appears to have won a bit at first, and, encouraged by the luck, to have increased his speculations more and more.
That, I suppose, is a story that has been told a thousand times and more. It led Professor Hoyte down the hill that so many gamblers have descended, and ended, for him, with a bullet through his brain in his study one winter morning, and the squared papers showing his fatal curves on the desk beside which his body had fallen. He had gambled away every penny, and even gone to a moneylender on the strength of forthcoming salary. Mrs. Hoyte and the Princess were left practically destitute, six months or a bit more after my college career had terminated. I have already said that Mrs. Hoyte was a semi-invalid. Under the shock of her husband’s suicide she went all to pieces for a while, and then so far recovered that the Princess was able to look after her. All that while, Wally had never ceased his attentions to the girl: he was on the spot in their trouble, and as far as he could he smoothed the way for the stricken widow and her daughter, never letting himself get far from that daughter’s sight. She had written to me time and again and won no reply, and, naturally, thought I had forgotten my promise and her too. But, loyal soul that she was, she waited and waited, hoping against hope for some word from me, though, since as shall be told I landed in a South American jail, my letters ceased. She went on hoping until one day Wally took to her a cutting from a San Francisco paper, in which was announced my marriage to an heiress of the Pacific slope, a quarter-column slip which enumerated the celebrities at the wedding, and gave me beyond question as a student of the college at which I had gone through my unfinished training. It was no other than myself, unmistakably, and the Princess had to believe it.
I have that cutting to-day. It was never printed in the ordinary way, nor did it appear in any newspaper. Some linotyper set the slugs, and then the quarter-column was “pulled” as a proof and carefully trimmed to look like a genuine cutting from a paper—there is even a rule between it and the supposed adjoining column down one side. I have said that Wally was a rich youth: he was out to get the Princess, and did not care what means he used to that end.
And so he won. His money meant comfort for the ailing mother, and her persuasions were added to his. My Princess married him, rather more than two years after she and I had said good-bye at the gate under the stars, that night of our “marriage” by Phil Dottworth. I could not blame her over it: as far as she knew, I had forgotten all about her; she was next to penniless, and her mother a suffering woman who needed the care and luxury that only money can provide. She did what she thought best, but I know that in her heart she never forgot.
Now mark how old lady Fate takes a hand in things sometimes, and maybe hands out what people deserve for their trickery. Wally and the Princess were married, gorgeously, and set off on their wedding trip. They went from the ceremony straight through to San Francisco by car, there to board a cruising steamer due to make the trip through the Panama Canal and run around among the West Indies. Going up the gangplank to the steamer, Wally slipped, missed his footing and hold altogether, and made a drop of about thirty feet on to the hard concrete of the quayside, for the tide was at the full and the ship riding high. He was picked up and taken to hospital, and thence to a swell nursing home, with a damaged spine—the wedding trip was off, and for good, as it turned out. He left that nursing home, nine months later, on a wheeled carriage, a helpless, querulous log of a man to whom the Princess was tied for life; no husband, but a subject for nursing, from then on to the day of his death. I, knowing all, do not pity him.
She played up nobly, kept patience with him, nursed and tended him, and even took charge of business affairs for him at need. Having made her bed, she lay on it uncomplainingly, and, after her mother’s death, gave up herself to caring for him. Women do these things far more often than men: the average man, in such a position, would lose patience after a few months and run off with some other woman, but a woman seizes such a chance to prove the angel in herself, as did the Princess—my Princess, as I still thought her, for I knew nothing of these things then. Fate was so to twist things as to give me the knowledge, long later, but all I knew then was that her letters had ceased. Being beyond reach of newspapers that would give local affairs of her home town, I did not even know of the professor’s suicide or of her marriage for a long while, though news of the latter event reached me before I had finished with the series of adventures that befell me in Central and South America, in those little republics that sit like flies on a ceiling between Mexico and Columbia—the republic of Columbia, that is.
Well, that is the story of the Princess, the story of my first and only love affair, which kept me lone wolf all through the years between that mock marriage by Phil Dottworth and the end of my campaign against Tillary Steevens—but Whoa! I’m getting ahead of myself. There is much to tell, including the why and how of my going to Honolulu in a curious way, and on a curious errand. The way was one by which I could save at least half of a certain hundred and fifty dollars round-trip passage money entrusted to me by a man in Chicago, since I was flat broke and needed it. And the errand being a confidential one for the donor of this magnificent largess. No less, in fact, than Tillary Steevens, recognized for years as one of the foremost mystery-story writers in America—if not the foremost. For, to be sure, I know Tillary Steevens. I knew him, moreover, ever since I was thirteen, and he about the same age—though I must put in here that our acquaintance languished during my college days, and in fact until I returned from Pueblo San Diego and bade farewell for ever to mestizo statesmen, the breed of fleas they disseminate, the possibility of becoming His Excellency the President, and Señorita Carmen de Alvarado. All these I bade good-bye without a tear, and returned to embark on that remarkable affair in which Tillary Steevens figured, together with a skull—and jawbone! Wherefore I went to Honolulu..
He lived in a house that I know well, since I have visited it more than once, and studied it with a discerning and interested eye. 363, Fullerton Parkway, was the address, and there Steevens lived with one man-of-all-work—has lived, till lately. It is a grand old-time mansion with curved window-panes, and curving stone balustrades down high front steps of black marble. There is a pool and billiard-room on the top floor, a chandelier with a million pendent crystals in the high-ceilinged main reception-room, and a dirt-floored basement devoted to Steeven’s particular fool hobby—mushroom-growing! And Steevens himself—who has not seen his portrait in the newspapers? Pointed brown beard—in fact, he told me once in conversation that he was emulating a certain D. H. Lawrence, and I knew that, like Lawrence, he was covering up a pitifully weak chin that had marked him as an abnormality, even as Lawrence’s marked him, from boyhood onward. His moustache was of the same colour as the beard, and he wore a red-framed monocle in his eye, with a black ribbon nearly a foot wide pendant from it. Add to these personal possessions a velvet jacket, flowing black tie, and, when he appeared among his fellow-men, a wide-brimmed grey velour hat and a cane big enough for use in stunning an elephant, by the look of it.
My errand for Tillary Steevens in Honolulu—the errand which eventually made the big change in my life—was confidential—damned confidential, in fact. For it was to get hold of and bring back a skull. Rather, a skull plus lower jaw, to state the case fully. It was, moreover, a sconce with a strange history, for it had been owned—worn, I ought to say—some thirty or forty years ago by an English Shakespearean actor, who died insane and also penniless with the delusion that he himself was Hamlet. Psychiatrists, I believe, can explain a delusion of this sort. The man had played the part so many times that he had lived himself into it, and the woes and eccentricities of the Prince of Denmark, so far as his mentality was concerned, became his own. And past question he was insane on this point long before the fact was recognized; it was, in most ways, a perfectly harmless delusion, and the business of certifying a man as insane is complicated and difficult, while, since a certain decision in the courts, doctors are very reluctant to become parties to the procedure, for fear of damages being subsequently claimed by relatives of the supposedly insane but possibly sane man. Beyond doubt this actor, Sylvanus Axton by name, was insane long before he was certified, and, to himself, was Hamlet and no other.
His will had been drawn up and signed by him in good legal form before he was certified, and therefore it was not contested, although it contained a number of, to say the least of them, doubtful propositions. One clause demanded that his heart should be removed from his body after his death, enclosed in a silver casket, and buried with fitting ceremonies at Elsinore, but I believe the executors ruled this out on the ground that it would involve difficulties with a foreign state. Another clause declared that “the skull of myself, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” shall “bring great luck to each and every one of its succeeding possessors” and called for immediate preparation in a London medical college, in the natural form as it would have been uncovered by the two grave-diggers, and its shipment then to the Theatre League of Chicago for incorporation in their new Museum of Drama. Chicago, it seems, had always liked Axton tremendously—more so, even, than his home city London had; and had always turned out for him. And so, in the days when Axton’s mind was breaking up, it was to Chicago that it turned as a recipient of his own skull—or Hamlet’s skull—whichever way one wants to put it! Anyway, the sconce and jaw were sent in due course to the Theatre League of Chicago—the Theatre League finally blew up—all the things in its museum were sold—the sconce and jaw reached a curio agent—and then, in turn, became the property of a man on Tillary Steevens’s own street, who subsequently treasured them like hell because they really did seem to bring him good luck. And Tillary loved luck; in fact he loved anything treasured by anybody else; and there came not long ago the day when Tillary not only coveted the skull—rather, skull and jawbone—but needed them. But of that, more anon—as the scribblers say.
A queer proposition, Jerry Hammond doing a confidential errand for the famous Tillary Steevens!
For Jerry Hammond is a thief.
But a straight-from-the-shoulder thief—who takes his liberty—and his life—in his hands on any kind of a thieving job.
While Tillary Steevens is also a thief! A thief who has stolen every one of the twenty-six successful mystery novels that have been published under his name in the last eleven years to date. Stolen them bag and baggage from a man who has been dead now for thirty years. A man whom I knew—or at least knew a lot about. And because every novel Tillary Steevens has had published has been stolen—then all the rich perquisites that have come out of each book are therefore stolen too: the screen sales—the dozen different foreign translation rights—the British sales—the radio-broadcast rights—the newspaper syndications—all the huge side money that goes into the purse of a smug, respectable, so-called “novelist” living on a smug, respectable boulevard in a smug, would-be-respected city.
And the curious thing about Tillary Steevens and his great theft—the greatest theft of its kind, probably, in all the history of larceny!—is that the man who penned all those fine books Steevens is publishing to-day, very slightly doctored to fit present-day conditions, left me—in the long, long ago—his entire estate. An estate which, unfortunately, amounted to but $8 cash and a Bible!
So—it seems that Tillary is robbing me! I should be proud, perhaps, to be able to say that Tillary Steevens, with such literary carpentryship talents as he evidently has, is my friend. Whereas, strangely, the only man after whose name I can tack the words “Real Friend” is describable only by the words “ignorant, uncouth, illiterate Negro.” In short, one Laughing Sam—from Alabam’! Though Laughing Sam knew little of Alabama, since he was brought from there, by his mammy, to Georgia or some such place when he was only five.
And I call Laughing Sam friend supreme—because he saved me from a South American gallows. By a double risking of his life—and not a single risking. He saved me from strangling to death, on the end of a hempen rope, in a dark execution chamber below water-level. And for an offence that I never committed—and which those who hoped to hang me know, even to-day, that I never committed.
And so it was to Laughing Sam that I went when the day came on which I desired to get the goods on Tillary Steevens. And show him up before the world as the whited sepulchre, the hypocritical buzzard, the contemptible thief, that he is. And show the world exactly how he stole all his—but perhaps I should first state how and where I met Laughing Sam—from Alabam’—before I present the case, and cite the proofs, that Tillary Steevens is the world’s worst Literary Fraud—bar none.
And so I’ll begin—with Laughing Sam!
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