Learning to sin
Messrs. Kelson and Curtis did not live in Pacific Avenue where the Popes hold sway, nor yet in California Street where the Crockers are wont to entertain their millionaire friends. Where they lived, there were no massive granite steps flanked with equally massive pillars—such as herald the approach to the Nob Hill palaces; no rare glass bow-windows looking out on to flower bedecked lawns; no vast betiled hall, with rotundas in the centre; no highly polished oak staircases; no frescoed ceilings; no tufted, cerulean blue silk draperies; and no sweet perfumery—only the smell, if one may so suddenly sink to a third-class expression—only the smell of rank tobacco and equally rank lager beer. No, Messrs. Kelson and Curtis resided within a stone's throw of the five cent baths in Rutter Street—and that was the nearest they ever got to bathing. Their suite of apartments consisted of one room, about ten by eight feet, which served as a dining-room, drawing-room, study, boudoir, kitchen, bedroom, and—from sheer force of habit, I was about to add bathroom; but as I have already hinted cold water on half-empty stomachs and chilly livers is uninviting; besides, soap costs something. Their furniture was antique but not massive; nor could any of it be fairly reckoned superfluous. All told, it consisted of a bedstead (three six-foot planks on four sugar cubes; the bedclothes—a pair of discarded overalls, a torn and much emaciated blanket, a woolly neck wrap, a yellow vest, and the garments they stood in); a small round and rather rickety deal table; and one chair. Of the very limited number of culinary utensils, the frying-pan was by far the most important. Its handle served as a poker, and its pan, as well as for frying, roasting and boiling, did duty for a teapot and a slop-basin. They had no crockery. They had only one thing in abundance—namely, air; for the lower frame of the window having long lacked glass in it, a couple of pages of the Examiner, fixed in it, flapped dismally every time the wind came blowing down 216th Street.
They had not lived there always. In the palmy days of work, before the firm smashed, they had aspired to what might properly be called diggings; and, moreover, had "digged" in respectable surroundings. It was the usual thing—the thing that is happening always, every hour of the day, in all the great cities of the world—starvation, through lack of employment. Civilization still shuts its eyes to everyday poverty. Who knows? Who cares? Who is responsible? No one. Is there a remedy? Ah! that is a question that requires time. Time—always time! Time for the politician, and time for the starving ones! Half the world thinks, whilst half the world dies; and the cause of it all is time—too much, a damned sight too much—time!
But Kelson and Curtis could not grumble. They had their room—bare, dirty and well-ventilated—for next to nothing. Fifty cents a week! And they could furnish it as they pleased. Fancy that! What a privilege! They were glad of it all the same—glad of it in preference to the streets; and probably, when asleep, they thought of it as home. But on leaving Hamar's, that evening, they had fully resolved to convert their little room into a cemetery. What else could they do? What can any one do who has no money and no prospect of getting any, and who has reached the pitch of acute hunger? He has passed the stage of wanting work, because, if work were offered to him, he would not be in a fit state to do it—he would be too weak. Too weak to work! What a phenomenon! Yes—to all those who have never missed a day's meals. To others—no! They can understand—and understand only too well—the really poor who have long ceased to eat, cannot work—they are beyond it.
When Curtis and Kelson staggered down the stairs of the house where Hamar lodged, they realized that unless something turned up pretty soon, it would be too late—they would be past the stage of caring for anything—too feeble to do anything but lie on the ground and pray that death would come quickly.
"Home?" Kelson inquired, as they emerged on to the pavement.
"Hell!" Curtis answered, and Kelson, taking it for granted that the terms were synonymous, at once headed for their garret.
"Don't walk so confoundedly fast," Curtis gasped; "this pain in my side is like a hundred stitches rolled in one. It fairly doubles me up. Ease down a bit, for heaven's sake!"
Kelson obeyed, and presently came to a dead halt before a dingy-looking restaurant. Both men leaned against the window and gazed wolfishly at the food. A warm, fœtid rush of air from under the grating at their feet tickled their nostrils and mocked their hunger with a mockery past endurance. Arranged on the window-sill was a miscellaneous collection of very smeary plates and dishes, containing an even more miscellaneous collection of food. A half-consumed ham, with more than a mere suspicion of dirt on its yellowish-white fat; some concoction in a bowl that might have been brawn made from some peculiarly liverish pig, or—from one of the many homeless mongrels that roam the streets at night; a pile of noxious-looking mussels, side by side with a glistening mass of particularly yellow whelks; a round of what purported to be beef—very fat and very underdone; some black shiny sausages, and a score or so of luridly red polonies. A similar assortment was to be seen on the counter behind which lolled an anæmic girl, in a dirty cotton blouse, and a much soiled sky-blue skirt.
A month ago such an exhibition would have been an offence in the fastidious eyes of Messrs. Kelson and Curtis; but now it was otherwise. Their stomachs would have refused nothing short of garbage.
"Matt!" Curtis's hands had left off clutching at his belt and were now hanging by his side; the fingers twitching to and fro in a manner that fascinated Kelson. "Matt! Is there any logic in our starving?"
"None, excepting that we haven't a cent between us!" Kelson rejoined.
"I know that," Curtis went on slowly, "but—I mean—why should we starve when all this grub is within two inches of us! It's unreasonable—it's intolerable."
"Doesn't the smell of it satisfy you?" Kelson replied, attempting to force a smile, and failing dismally.
"D—n the smell!" Curtis cried. "It's the ham I want. I'd give my soul for a good munch at it. And just look at that tea, too! Don't you see it steaming over there? What wouldn't I give for just one cup! Ten minutes more and it may be too late. The pain will come on again—and it will be very doubtful if I shall ever get home. I'm close on the stage when one begins to digest one's own stomach. Curse it! I won't starve any longer! Matt! she's in there all by herself!"
"So I've been thinking," Kelson murmured, glancing uneasily up and down the street. "Still she's a girl, Ed!"
"That's just it!" Curtis whispered; "it is because she is a girl. If she were a man, in our present condition we shouldn't stand a chance. Come! It's this or dying in the gutters. It's our one and only chance. Let's go in—have a feed—take what we can and make a bolt for it. If she tries to stop us we can settle her right enough."
"Without being too rough! There's no need to be too rough with her, Ed."
"I shouldn't stick at much!" Curtis answered. "Occasions like these don't admit of chivalry. Come along! It's the ham I'm after."
Curtis shuffled forward as he spoke, and the next moment Kelson and he were standing in front of the counter.
The girl eyed Curtis very dubiously and it is more than likely would have refused to serve him had he been alone. But her expression changed on looking at Kelson. Kelson was one of those individuals who seldom fail to meet with the approval of women—there was a something in him they liked. Probably neither he nor they could have defined that something; but there it was, and it came in extremely handy now.
"What do you want?" she inquired shortly.
"Ham! Give me some of that ham over there, miss, and a cup of tea! Bread too!" Curtis cried eagerly. "Do you know what it is to have a twist on, miss? I have one on now—so please give us a full twenty-five cents' worth."
Kelson said nothing, but his eyes glistened, and the girl wondered as she passed him the polonies.
Both men ate as they had never eaten before, and as they would not have eaten now had they paid any attention to the advice of hunger experts. However, they survived, and when they could eat no more they leaned back in their chairs to enjoy the sensation of returning—albeit, slowly returning—strength.
Curtis was the first to make a move. "Matt," he murmured, "we've about sat our sit. We'd better be off. You go and say a few nice words to the girl and make pretence of paying. I'll secure the ham—there's still a good bit left—and anything else I can grab. The moment I do this, throw these chairs on the ground so that the girl will fall over them when she makes a dash for me, which she is certain to do. We will then head straight away for 216th Street. Don't look so scared or she will think there is something up. She has never taken her eyes off you since we sat down!"
"She's rather a nice girl!" Kelson said. "I wish I didn't look quite such a blackguard—and—I wish I hadn't to be quite such a blackguard. Who'll pay for all this? Will she?"
"We shan't, anyway," Curtis sneered. "Come, this is no time to be sentimental. It was a question of life and death with us, and we've only done what any one else would do in our circumstances. The girl won't lose much! Are you ready?"
Curtis rose, and Kelson, who was accustomed to obey him, reluctantly followed suit. A look almost suggestive of fear came into the girl's eyes as they encountered those of Curtis, and she shot a swift glance at an inner door. Then Kelson spoke, and as she turned her head towards him, her lips parted in a sort of smile.
"Nice night, miss, isn't it?" Kelson said, halting half-way between the counter and the chairs. "Aren't you a bit lonely here all by yourself?"
"Sometimes," the girl laughed. "But my mother's in the room there," and she nodded in the direction of the closed door. "And one can't be dull when she's about. She's that there active as a rule, there's no keeping her quiet—only just at present"—here she glanced apprehensively at Curtis—"she's recovering from ague. Gets it every year about this time. Your friend seems to have kind of taken a fancy to our ham!"
Kelson looked at Curtis and his heart thumped. Curtis's right hand was getting ready to spring at the ham, whilst his left was creeping stealthily along the counter in the direction of a loaf of bread. Kelson slowly realized that an acute crisis in both their lives was at hand, and that it depended on him how it would end. He had never thought it possible to feel as mean as he felt now. Besides, his natural sympathy with women tempted him to stand by the girl and prevent Curtis from robbing her. He was still deliberating, when he saw two long dark objects, with lightning rapidity, swoop down on the plates and dishes. There was a loud clatter, and the next moment the whole place seemed alive with movement.
A voice which in his confusion he did not recognize at once shouted—and seemingly from far away—"Quick, you fool, quick! Fling down the chairs and grab those sausages!" Whilst from close beside him—almost, he fancied, in his ears—came a wild shriek of "Mother! Mother! We are being robbed!"
Had the girl appealed to him to help her it is more than likely that Kelson, who was even yet undecided what course to adopt, would have offered her his aid; but the instant she acted on the defensive his mind was made up; a mad spirit of self-preservation swept over him—and dashing the chairs on the ground at her feet, he seized the sausages, and flew after Curtis.
Ten minutes later, Curtis and Kelson, their arms full of spoil, clambered up the staircase of their lodgings, and reeled into their room.
"Look!" Curtis gasped, sinking into the chair. "Look and see if we are followed!"
"There's no one about!" Kelson whispered, peering cautiously out of the window. "Not a soul! I don't believe after that first rush across Rutter Street, any one noticed us. To leave off running was far the best thing to do. You are a perfect genius, Ed. I wonder if this sort of thing—er—thieving—is dormant in most of us? I say, old fellow, I wish I hadn't looked at that book of Hamar's. Do you know, directly I took it up, an extraordinary sensation of cunning came over me; and I declare, when I put it down, I felt it would take very little to make me a criminal!"
"We're both criminals now—in the eyes of the law—anyway!" Curtis said. "And now we've got so far there's no alternative but to go on! It's easier for a hundred camels to pass through the eye of a needle than for a clerk to get work, that's a fact. The markets are hopelessly overstocked—no one wants us! No one helps us! No one even thinks about us. The labouring man gets pity and cents galore—we get nothing!—nothing but rotten pay whilst we work, and when we're out of work, dosshouses or kerbstones. D—n clerks, I say. D—n everything! There's no justice in creation—there's no justice in anything—and the only people who prate of it are those who have never known what it is to want. Say, when shall we take the next lot?"
"When we're obliged, not before!" Kelson said. "Or rather, you do as you like—and I'll do the same."
"Well, I'm not going to commit suicide anyhow," Curtis sneered. "We haven't the money to buy poison—and I've no mind to drown myself or cut my throat—they're too painful! If we don't go on doing what we've done to-night, what are we going to do?"
"Trust to luck," Kelson sighed.
"All right—you trust to luck—but I won't trust any more in Providence, and that's a fact," Curtis retorted. "We've been done enough. Now I'm for doing other people. Good-night."
He tumbled into the makeshift bed as he spoke; and in a few minutes, worn out after the unwonted exertions of the evening, both men were fast asleep.
They were at breakfast next morning—real déjeuner à la carte—sausages, bread, water—and they were doing ample justice to it, when some one rapped at the door. For a few seconds there was silence. Their hearts stood still. Had they been followed, after all? Was it the police? Some one spoke—and they breathed again. It was Hamar.
"This looks like starving, I must say!" Hamar exclaimed, as he sniffed his way into the room and sat on the bed. "Why, from what you fellows told me last night I thought you were cleared out. And here you are, stuffing like roosters! You look a bit surprised to see me, but you'll look more surprised, I reckon, when I tell you what brings me here. You remember that book?"
Kelson and Curtis nodded.
"Well," Hamar went on. "I read it after you left last night, and I've come to the conclusion that there's something in it that may be of use to us."
"Us!" Curtis ejaculated.
"Yes! Us!" Hamar mimicked. "It contains full particulars of how we can get in touch with certain Occult Powers—that can give us money or anything else we want!"
"Rot, of course!" Curtis said.
"You say that now. But, listen to me," Hamar replied. "Since I've read that book, I believe there's a lot more in Occultism than people imagine. You may recollect the name of the author of the book—Thomas Maitland? Well! to begin with, he impresses me as being truthful; and he not only believed in Magic but he practised it. If he hadn't gone into details I shouldn't think anything of it, but he's so darned thorough, and tells you exactly what you've got to do to get in touch with the Occult Powers and to practise sorcery. He learned it all from that old MS. he found, written by an Atlantean; and the Atlanteans, he says, were adepts in every form of Occultism. I tell you, this chap himself scoffed at it at first; and it was more out of curiosity, he says, than because he was convinced, that he began to experiment. He afterwards came to the conclusion that the Atlanteans were no fools. What they had written about the Occult was absolutely correct—there was another world, and it was possible to get in touch with it. Now, if Thomas Maitland was able to practise sorcery, why can't we? There was a gap of close on twenty thousand years between his time and that of Atlantis, and there's not much more than two hundred years between his day and ours. But, of course, if you're going to pooh-pooh the whole thing I won't trouble to tell you any more!"
"Well, Leon," Kelson ejaculated, "magic and sorcery do seem a trifle out of date, don't they? Could any one look out of the window at what is going on in the streets below, and at the same time believe in fairies and hobgoblins? Still the book made a bit of an impression on me, so that I'm inclined to agree with you. Anyway, go ahead! Ed is agreeable, aren't you, Ed?"
Curtis gave a sulky nod. "I'm not averse to anything that may put us in the way of a livelihood," he said.
Hamar, somewhat appeased, briefly informed them of the tests and other preliminaries necessary for the acquirement of the Black Art, and without more ado proposed that they—the three of them—should form a Syndicate and call it the Sorcery Company Limited. "To begin with," he said, "we might sell tricks and spells, and later on tackle something more subtle. Why, we could soon knock all the jugglers and doctors on the head—and make a huge fortune."
"That is to say if it isn't all humbug!" Curtis observed.
"Well—do you or don't you think it worth trying?" Hamar cut in. "You call me a Jew—but Jews, you know, have a tolerably cool head, and a keen faculty for business. They don't touch anything unless it is pretty certain to bring them in money. Will you try?"
"Y-e-s!" Curtis said slowly; "I'll try."
"And you, Matt?" Hamar queried. "We must have three."
"I don't mind trying," Kelson replied. "I expect it will be only a try."
"That settles it, then!" Hamar cried. "Now, we'll get to business. To begin with we're all wholly occupied with things of this world—money chiefly!"
"Sometimes music!" Curtis said sententiously.
"And sometimes girls," Kelson joined in. "Music's a pose on Ed's part. I don't believe he really cares a bit for it. He's far too material."
"Just what I want him to be!" Hamar laughed. "Girls are material enough too—especially when you take them out to supper. Anyhow, money is our first consideration, isn't it?"
To this there was general assent.
"The preliminary requirement is fixed then," Hamar said. "Now for the week of wild oats! Lying, stealing, cheating—anything to counteract the code of Moses! Let's take them in turn. Lying won't trouble us much. Every one lies. Lying is the stock-in-trade of doctors, lawyers, sky pilots, storekeepers—"
"And dentists!" Curtis chimed in.
"And shop girls!" Kelson added.
"All women—rich as well as poor!" Hamar went on. "Lying is woman's birthright. She lies about her age, her looks, her clothes—everything. With a lie she sends callers away, and when she is in the mood, entertains them with lies. Women are born liars, but they are not the only liars. In these days of keen competition every one lies—every editor, publisher, undertaker, piano-tuner, dustman—they couldn't live if they didn't. Moreover lying is natural to us all. Every child lies as soon as it can speak; and education merely teaches him to lie the more effectually. Lying comes just as natural as sweating—"
"Or kissing," Kelson interrupted.
"Or any of the other so-called vices," Hamar continued. "So we can manage that all right. As to cheating—having nothing to cheat with—according to instructions we've got to keep in with each other, so present company is excepted—we must pass over that. Now—how about thieving!"
"Never done any yet, so can't say," Curtis exclaimed.
"Nor I either," Kelson put in rather hurriedly.
"Well, I didn't suppose you had!" Hamar laughed; "though, after all, more than half the world does thieve—all employers steal labour from their employés, all tradesmen steal a profit—the wholesale man from the middleman—the middleman from the retailer. Every Government thieves. Look at England—righteous England! At one time or another she has stolen land in every part of the world. But theft is an ugly word. When statesmen steal it's called diplomacy, when the rich steal it's called kleptomania or business, and it's only when the poor steal that stealing is termed theft. We who have every excuse—we who are starving—will be content with—that is to say—we will only take—just enough to keep us alive—a few lumps of sugar, a handful of raisins, or a loaf of bread. How about that?"
"I might manage that," Curtis said. "I might—but I don't want to get caught."
"And you, Matt?"
"I don't mind stealing food so much," Kelson said. "In the face of so much wealth—and waste too—it seems a bigger sin to starve than to steal a loaf of bread."
"The lying and stealing are fixed then," Hamar laughed. "What you have to do, too, is to make the most of every opportunity you can find of doing people—present company excepted—bad turns."
"I don't see how—in our present condition—we can do any one much harm," Curtis remarked. "We haven't even the means to buy a tin sword, let alone a bomb or pistol. If we wish them ill, perhaps, that will do instead."
"Possibly—but don't be such an ass as to wish any one any good!" Hamar said. "Do your best to carry out the injunctions I have given you, and we will meet here, this day week, to discuss the tests."