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   Chapter 20 No.20

Never-Fail Blake By Arthur Stringer Characters: 13743

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Three of the busiest portions of New York, varying with the various hours of the day, may safely be said to lie in that neighborhood where Nassau Street debouches into Park Row, and also near that point where Twenty-third Street intercepts Fourth Avenue, and still again not far from where Broadway and Fifth Avenue meet at the southeast corner of Madison Square.

About these three points, at certain hours of the day and on certain days of the week, an observant stranger might have noticed the strangely grotesque figure of an old cement seller. So often had this old street-peddler duly appeared at his stand, from month to month, that the hurrying public seemed to have become inured to the grotesqueness of his appearance. Seldom, indeed, did a face turn to inspect him as he blinked out at the lighted street like a Pribiloff seal blinking into an Arctic sun. Yet it was only by a second or even a third glance that the more inquisitive might have detected anything arresting in that forlornly ruminative figure with the pendulous and withered throat and cheek-flaps.

To the casual observer he was merely a picturesque old street-peddler, standing like a time-stained statue beside a carefully arrayed exhibit of his wares. This exhibit, which invariably proved more interesting than his own person, consisted of a frame of gas-piping in the form of an inverted U. From the top bar of this iron frame swung two heavy pieces of leather cemented together. Next to this coalesced leather dangled a large Z made up of three pieces of plate glass stuck together at the ends, and amply demonstrating the adhesive power of the cementing mixture to be purchased there.

Next to the glass Z again were two rows of chipped and serrated plates and saucers, plates and saucers of all kinds and colors, with holes drilled in their edges, and held together like a suspended chain-gang by small brass links. At some time in its career each one of these cups and saucers had been broken across or even shattered into fragments. Later, it had been ingeniously and patiently glued together. And there it and its valiant brothers in misfortune swung together in a double row, with a cobblestone dangling from the bottom plate, reminding the passing world of remedial beneficences it might too readily forget, attesting to the fact that life's worst fractures might in some way still be made whole.

Yet so impassively, so stolidly statuesque, did this figure stand beside the gas-pipe that to all intents he might have been cemented to the pavement with his own glue. He seldom moved, once his frame had been set up and his wares laid out. When he did move it was only to re-awaken the equally plethoric motion of his slowly oscillating links of cemented glass and chinaware. Sometimes, it is true, he disposed of a phial of his cement, producing his bottle and receiving payment with the absorbed impassivity of an automaton.

Huge as his figure must once have been, it now seemed, like his gibbeted plates, all battered and chipped and over-written with the marks of time. Like his plates, too, he carried some valiant sense of being still intact, still stubbornly united, still oblivious of every old-time fracture, still bound up into personal compactness by some power which defied the blows of destiny.

In all seasons, winter and summer, apparently, he wore a long and loose-fitting overcoat. This overcoat must once have been black, but it had faded to a green so conspicuous that it made him seem like a bronze figure touched with the mellowing patina of time.

It was in the incredibly voluminous pockets of this overcoat that the old peddler carried his stock in trade, paper-wrapped bottles of different sizes, and the nickels and dimes and quarters of his daily trafficking. And as the streams of life purled past him, like water past a stone, he seemed to ask nothing of the world on which he looked out with such deep-set and impassive eyes. He seemed content with his lot. He seemed to have achieved a Nirvana-like indifferency towards all his kind.

Yet there were times, as he waited beside his stand, as lethargic as a lobster in a fish-peddler's window, when his flaccid, exploring fingers dug deeper into one of those capacious side-pockets and there came in contact with two oddly shaped wristlets of polished steel. At such times his intent eyes would film, as the eyes of a caged eagle sometimes do. Sometimes, too, he would smile with the half-pensive Castilian smile of an uncouth and corpulent Cervantes.

But as a rule his face was expressionless. About the entire moss-green figure seemed something faded and futile, like a street-lamp left burning after sunrise. At other times, as the patrolman on the beat sauntered by in his authoritative blue stippled with its metal buttons, the old peddler's watching eyes would wander wistfully after the nonchalant figure. At such times a meditative and melancholy intentness would fix itself on the faded old face, and the stooping old shoulders would even unconsciously heave with a sigh.

As a rule, however, the great green-clad figure with its fringe of white hair-the fringe that stood blithely out from the faded hat brim like the halo of some medieval saint on a missal-did not permit his gaze to wander so far afield.

For, idle as that figure seemed, the brain behind it was forever active, forever vigilant and alert. The deep-set eyes under their lids that hung as loose as old parchment were always fixed on the life that flowed past them. No face, as those eyes opened and closed like the gills of a dying fish, escaped their inspection. Every man who came within their range of vision was duly examined and adjudicated. Every human atom of that forever ebbing and flowing tide of life had to pass through an invisible screen of inspection, had in some intangible way to justify itself as it proceeded on its unknown movement towards an unknown end. And on the loose-skinned and haggard face, had it been studied closely enough, could have been seen a vague and wistful note of expectancy, a guarded and muffled sense of anticipation.

Yet to-day, as on all other days, nobody stopped to study the old cement-seller's face. The pink-cheeked young patrolman, swinging back on his beat, tattooed with his ash night-stick on the gas-pipe frame and peered indifferently down at the battered and gibbeted crockery.

"Hello, Batty," he said as he set the exhibit oscillating with a push of the knee. "How 's business?"

"Pretty good," answered the patient and guttural voice. But the eyes that seemed as calm as a cow's eyes did not look at the patrolman as he spoke.

He had nothing to fear. He knew that he had his license. He knew that under the faded green of his overcoat was an oval-shaped street-peddler's badge. He also knew, which the patrolman did not, that under

the lapel of his inner coat was a badge of another shape and design, the badge which season by season the indulgent new head of the Detective Bureau extended to him with his further privilege of a special officer's license. For this empty honor "Batty" Blake-for as "Batty" he was known to nearly all the cities of America-did an occasional bit of "stooling" for the Central Office, a tip as to a stray yeggman's return, a hint as to a "peterman's" activities in the shopping crowds, a whisper that a till tapper had failed to respect the Department's dead-lines.

Yet nobody took Batty Blake seriously. It was said, indeed, that once, in the old regime, he had been a big man in the Department. But that Department had known many changes, and where life is unduly active, memory is apt to be unduly short.

The patrolman tapping on the gas-pipe arch with his idle night-stick merely knew that Batty was placid and inoffensive, that he never obstructed traffic and always carried a license-badge. He knew that in damp weather Batty limped and confessed that his leg pained him a bit, from an old hurt he 'd had in the East. And he had heard somewhere that Batty was a sort of Wandering Jew, patroling the whole length of the continent with his broken plates and his gas-pipe frame and his glue-bottles, migrating restlessly from city to city, striking out as far west as San Francisco, swinging round by Denver and New Orleans and then working his way northward again up to St. Louis and Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Remembering these things the idle young "flatty" turned and looked at the green-coated and sunken-shouldered figure, touched into some rough pity by the wordless pathos of an existence which seemed without aim or reason.

"Batty, how long 're yuh going to peddle glue, anyway?" he suddenly asked.

The glue-peddler, watching the crowds that drifted by him, did not answer. He did not even look about at his interrogator.

"D' yuh have to do this?" asked the wide-shouldered youth in uniform.

"No," was the peddler's mild yet guttural response.

The other prodded with his night-stick against the capacious overcoat pockets. Then he laughed.

"I'll bet yuh 've got about forty dollars stowed away in there," he mocked. "Yuh have now, have n't yuh?"

"I don' know!" listlessly answered the sunken-shouldered figure.

"Then what 're yuh sellin' this stuff for, if it ain't for money?" persisted the vaguely piqued youth.

"I don' know!" was the apathetic answer.

"Then who does?" inquired the indolent young officer, as he stood humming and rocking on his heels and swinging his stick by its wrist-thong.

The man known as Batty may or may not have been about to answer him. His lips moved, but no sound came from them. His attention, apparently, was suddenly directed elsewhere. For approaching him from the east his eyes had made out the familiar figure of old McCooey, the oldest plain-clothes man who still came out from Headquarters to "pound the pavement."

And at almost the same time, approaching him from the west, he had caught sight of another figure.

It was that of a dapper and thin-faced man who might have been anywhere from forty to sixty years of age. He walked, however, with a quick and nervous step. Yet the most remarkable thing about him seemed to be his eyes. They were wide-set and protuberant, like a bird's, as though years of being hunted had equipped him with the animal-like faculty of determining without actually looking back just who might be following him.

Those alert and wide-set eyes, in fact, must have sighted McCooey at the same time that he fell under the vision of the old cement seller. For the dapper figure wheeled quietly and quickly about and stooped down at the very side of the humming patrolman. He stooped and examined one of the peddler's many-fractured china plates. He squinted down at it as though it were a thing of intense interest to him.

As he stooped there the humming patrolman was the witness of a remarkable and inexplicable occurrence. From the throat of the huge-shouldered peddler, not two paces away from him, he heard come a hoarse and brutish cry, a cry strangely like the bawl and groan of a branded range-cow. At the same moment the gigantic green-draped figure exploded into sudden activity. He seemed to catapult out at the stooping dapper figure, bearing it to the sidewalk with the sheer weight of his unprovoked assault.

There the struggle continued. There the two strangely diverse bodies twisted and panted and writhed. There the startlingly agile dapper figure struggled to throw off his captor. The arch of gas-pipe went over. Glue-bottles showered amid the shattered glass and crockery. But that once placid-eyed old cement seller struck to the unoffending man he had so promptly and so gratuitously attacked, stuck to him as though he had been glued there with his own cement. And before the patrolman could tug the combatants apart, or even wedge an arm into the fight, the exulting green-coated figure had his enemy on his back along the curb, and, reaching down into his capacious pocket, drew out two oddly shaped steel wristlets. Forcing up his captive's arm, he promptly snapped one steel wring on his own wrist, and one on the wrist of the still prostrate man.

"What 're yuh tryin' to do?" demanded the amazed officer, still tugging at the great figure holding down the smaller man. In the encounter between those two embattled enemies had lurked an intensity of passion which he could not understand, which seemed strangely akin to insanity itself.

It was only when McCooey pushed his way in through the crowd and put a hand on his shoulder that the old cement seller slowly rose to his feet. He was still panting and blowing. But as he lifted his face up to the sky his body rumbled with a Jove-like sound that was not altogether a cough of lungs overtaxed nor altogether a laugh of triumph.

"I got him!" he gasped.

About his once placid old eyes, which the hardened tear-ducts no longer seemed able to drain of their moisture, was a look of exultation that made the gathering street-crowd take him for a panhandler gone mad with hunger.

"Yuh got who?" cried the indignant young officer, wheeling the bigger man about on his feet. As the cement seller, responding to that tug, pivoted about, it was noticeable that the man to whom his wrist was locked by the band of steel duly duplicated the movement. He moved when the other moved; he drew aside when the other drew aside, as though they were now two parts of one organism.

"I got him!" calmly repeated the old street-peddler.

"Yuh got who?" demanded the still puzzled young patrolman, oblivious of the quiescent light in the bewildered eyes of McCooey, close beside him.

"Binhart!" answered Never-Fail Blake, with a sob. "I 've got Binhart!"

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