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   Chapter 5 THE VICTIM

The Second Class Passenger: Fifteen Stories By Perceval Gibbon Characters: 19071

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Cobb was crossing the boulevard, and was actually evading a taxi-cab at the moment when he sighted the little comedy which he made haste to interrupt. Upon the further pavement, Savinien, whom he once believed in as a poet, had stopped in the shelter of a shop door, an unlighted cigarette between his lips, and was prospecting his vast person with gentle little slaps for a match. The current of the pavement rippled by him; the great expanse of his back was half turned to it, so that he and his search were in a kind of privacy, and the situation was favorable to the two inconspicuous men who approached him from either side. The one, with an air of hurry, ran against him at the instant, when he was exploring his upper waistcoat pocket, staggered and caught at him with mumbled apologies; the other, with the sure and suave movement of an expert, slid an arm between the two bodies, withdrew it, and was making off.

"Hi!" shouted Cobb, as the taxi shaved past him, and came across with a rush. People stopped to see what he was shouting at, and a group of them, momentarily blocking the pavement, made it easy for the lanky Cobb to bowl the fleeing pickpocket against the wall and lay secure hands on him.

"You come along with me," said Cobb, who always forgot his French when he was excited.

The thief, helpless under the grip on the nape of his neck, whined and stammered. He was a rat of a man, white-faced, pale-eyed, with a sagging, uncertain mouth.

"M'sieur!" he whimpered. "But I have got nothing! It is a mistake.

The other man--"

Cobb thrust him at the end of a long arm to where Savinien stood, the cigarette still unlighted. The other man, of course, was gone.

"Hullo, Savinien," said Cobb. "You know you've been robbed, don't you? I just caught this fellow as he was bolting. See what you've lost, won't you?"

"Lost!" Savinien stared, a little stupidly, Cobb thought, and suddenly smiled. He was bulky to the point of grotesqueness, with a huge white torpid face and a hypochondriac stoop of the shoulders, and the hand that traveled over his waistcoat, from pocket to pocket, looked as if it had been shaped out of dough.

"Well!" said Cobb impatiently, stilling the thief's whimpering protests with a quick grip of the hand that held him.

"My watch," murmured Savinien, still smiling though he were pleased and relieved to be the victim of a theft. "But let him go."

"Let him go! Oh no," said Cobb. "I'll hand him over to the police and we'll get the watch out of him."

"The watch is nothing," said Savinien. "Let him go before there arrives an agent, or it will be too late."

He came a pace nearer as he spoke, and nodded at Cobb confidentially, as though there were reasons for his request which he could not explain before the on-lookers.

"But--" began Cobb.

"Let him go," urged Savinien. "It is necessary. Afterwards, I will explain to you." He put his shapeless soft hand on Cobb's arm which held the thief.

"Let him go."

"You are serious?" demanded Cobb. "He's to go, is he? With your watch? All right!"

He let go the scraggy neck which he held in the fork of his hand. They were, by this time, ringed about by spectators, but the thief was not less expert with crowds than with pockets. He was no sooner loose than he seemed to merge into the folk about, to pass through and beyond them like a vapor. Heads turned, feet shuffled. Savinien came about ponderously like a battleship in narrow waters, but the thief was gone.

"Tiens!" ejaculated someone, and there was laughter.

Savinien's arm insinuated itself through Cobb's elbow.

"Let us go where we can sit down," said the poet. "You are puzzled- not? But I will explain you all that."

"It wasn't a bet, was it?" asked Cobb.

The poet laughed gently. "That possibility alarms you?" he suggested. "But it was not a bet; it is more vital than that. I will tell you when we sit down."

At Savinien's slow pace they came at last to small marble-topped tables under a striped awning. Savinien, with loud gasps, let himself down upon an exiguous chair, rested both fat hands upon the head of his stick, and smiled ruefully across the table at Cobb. A tinge of blue had come out around his lips.

"Even to walk," he gasped, "that discomposes me, as you see. It is terrible."

"Take it easy," counseled Cobb.

An aproned waiter served them, Cobb with beer, Savinien with a treacly liqueur in a glass the size of a thimble. When he was a little restored from his exertions, he laid his arm on the table, with the little glass held between his thumb and forefinger, and remained in this attitude.

"Go ahead," said Cobb. "Tell me why you are distributing watches to the deserving poor in this manner."

"It is not benevolence," replied Savinien. "It is simply that I have a need of some misfortune to balance things."

There was a muffled quality in his voice, as though it were subdued by the bulk from which it had to emerge; but his enunciation was as clean and dexterous as in the days when he had made a vogue for his poems by reading them aloud. It was the voice of a poet issuing from the mouth of a glutton.

"To balance things," he repeated. "Fortune, my dear Cobb, is a pendulum; the higher it rises on the side of happiness, the further it returns on the side of disaster. And with me, who cannot take your arm for a promenade along the pavement without a tightness in the neck and a flutter of my heart, who may not go upstairs quicker than a step a minute, disaster has only one shape. It arrives and I am extinguished! It is for that reason that I fear a persistence of good luck. Of late, the luck that dogs me has been incredible.

"Listen, now, to this! Three days ago, being in a difficulty, I go in search of Rigobert. You know Rigobert, perhaps?"

"Yes," said Cobb. "That is, I have lent him money!"

"Precisely," agreed Savinien. "The sum which he owed me was no more than two hundred and fifty francs but I had not much hope of him. I went leisurely upon the way towards his studio, and at the corner by the Madeleine I entered the post office to obtain a stamp for a letter I had to send. The first thing which I perceived as I opened the door was the back of Rigobert, as he sprawled against the counter, signing his name upon a form while the clerk counted out money to him. Hundred franc notes, my friend-noble new notes, ten in number, a thousand francs in all, which Rigobert received for his untidy autograph upon a blue paper. As for me, I planted myself there at his back in an attitude of expectancy and determination to await his leisure. He was cramming the money into his trousers pocket as he turned round and beheld me. He was embarrassed. He, the universal debtor, the bottomless pit of loans and obligations, to be discovered thus.

"You!" he exclaimed.

"I!" I replied, and took him very firmly by the arm and mentioned my little affair to him. He was not pleased, Rigobert, but for the moment he was empty of excuses. When he suggested that we should go to a cafe, to change one of the notes, that he might pay me my two hundred and fifty, I agreed, for I had him by the arm, but I could see that he was gathering his faculties, and I was wary. A bon rat bon chat!

"I wasted till his note was changed. 'Now, my friend,' I said. 'The hour is come.'"

"He looked at me attentively; he is very naive, in reality. Then, very slowly, he put one hand in his pocket and drew out the whole bundle of money. It looked opulent, it looked fulsome.

"'Savinien,' he said. 'I will do even more than you ask. Two-fifty, is it not? See, now, here is five hundred, and I will toss you whether I pay you five hundred or nothing.'"

"He balanced a coin on his thumb-nail, and smiled at me sidelong. I drew myself up with dignity to repudiate his proposal, but at that instant there came to me-who can say what it was?-a whim, a nudge from the thumb of Providence, a momentary lunacy! I relaxed my attitude."

"'Very well,' I replied. 'But first permit me to examine the coin.'"

"With Rigobert, that is not an insult. He handed me the coin without a word-an honest cart-wheel, a five-franc piece."

"'Toss, then,' I said, returning it to him. 'Face!' I called, as he spun it up. It twinkled in the air like a humming-bird, a score of francs to each flick of its wings, and his palm intercepted it as it fell. I leaned across to see; behind Rigobert's shoulder the waiter leaned likewise. The poor fellow had really no chance to practice those little tricks in which he is eminent. I had won. I drew the money across to me."

"'Peste!' remarked Rigobert, in a tone of dejection, and looked with an appearance of horror at what remained to him of his thousand francs. The waiter beamed at me and rubbed his hands. I ordered him in a strong voice to bring two more consommations."

"'Look here,' said Rigobert. 'Lend me that five hundred, will you?

Or, at any rate--'"

"He paused, and his eye lit again with hope."

"'Tell you what,' he said. 'I'll toss you once more-five hundred against five hundred. This'-he laid his hand on his remaining money -'is no use to me. I simply can't do with less than a thousand. Is it agreed?"

"I desired to refuse; I am not a gambler; I come of prudent people.

But again it came, that inspired impulse, that courageous folly."

"'It is agreed,' I replied."

"He meant to win, that time. He sat back to it, he concentrated himself. He cast a look at me, the glance of a brigand. I was

imperturbable. Again the waiter hurried to see the venture. Rigobert frowned."

"'You call "face," eh?' he asked, balancing the coin."

"'I call when the coin is in the air,' I replied."

"He grunted, and spun it up. 'Pile!' I called this time. Down it came to his hand. Once more the eyes of the waiter and myself rushed to it; the result was capable of no adjustment. I felt my heart bump painfully. The broad coin lay on his hand, pile uppermost. I drew the rest of the money to me."

"'A thousand thanks,' I croaked from a throat constricted with surprise. Rigobert swore."

Cobb laughed. "Is that all that is troubling you?" he asked.

"All!" Savinien shrugged his immense shoulders desolately. "All! That was merely the commencement," he said. "And even that did not finish there."

"I hope Rigobert didn't get any of it back," said Cobb.

"He did his best," replied Savinien. "In a minute or two he collected his wits and addressed himself to the situation. It was worth seeing. He shook his depression from him like a dog shaking water from its coat, and sat up. Enterprise, determination, ruthlessness were eloquent in his countenance; I felt like a child before such a combination of qualities. Then he began to talk. He has an air, that brigand; he can cock his head so as to deceive a bailiff; he can wear a certain nobility of countenance; and with it all he can importune like a beggar. He has a horrid and plausible fluency; he is deaf to denials; he drugs you with words and robs you before you recover consciousness. He had got the length of quoting my own verses to me, and I felt myself going, when deliverance arrived. A stout man paused on the pavement, surveying us both, then came towards us.

"'Monsieur Rigobert,' he said, with that fashion of politeness which one dreads, 'I am on my way to your address.'"

"'Do not let me detain you,' replied Rigobert unpleasantly.

"'But,' said the other, 'this was the day you appointed, M'sieur. You said, 'Bring your bill to me on the 13th, and I will pay it.' Here is the bill.'"

"He plunged his hand into his breast pocket and fumbled with papers. Rigobert examined me rapidly. But the spell was broken, and I was myself again master of my emotions, and of the thousand francs. He saw that it was hopeless-and rose.

"'Monsieur,' he said to the tradesman, 'this is not a time to talk to me of business. I have just suffered a painful bereavement.'"

"He made a gesture with his hand, mournful and resigned, and walked away, while the tradesman gazed after him. And there was I-rich and safe! I felt a warmth that pervaded me. I settled my hat on my head and reached for my cane. It was then that the truly significant thing occurred-the clue, as it were. My hand, as I took my cane, brushed against my liqueur glass upon the table; it fell, rolled to the edge, and disappeared. The waiter dived for it, while I waited to pay for the breakage. His foolish German face came up over the edge of the table, crumpled in a smile.

"'It is all right,' he said. 'The glass is not broken.'"

"It was then, my friend, that I began to perceive how things were with me. Dimly at first, but, as the day proceeded, with growing clearness. I became aware that I stood in the shadow of some strange fate. Small ills, chances of trifling misfortune, stood aloof, and let me pass unharmed; I was destined to be the prey of a mightier evil. When I light my cigarette, do my matches blow out in the wind? No, they burn with the constancy of an altar candle. If I leave my gloves in a cab, as happened yesterday, do I lose them? No, the cabman comes roaring down the street at my back to catch me and restore them. A thousand such providences make up my day. This morning, just before I encountered you, the chief and most signal of them all occurred."

"Go on," said Cobb.

"It was, in fact, impressive," said Savinien. "There is, not far from here, a shop where I am accustomed to buy my cigarettes. A small place, you know, a hole in the wall, with a young ugly woman behind the counter. One enters, one murmurs 'Maryland,' one receives one's yellow packet, one pays, one salutes, one departs. There is nothing in the place to invite one to linger; never in my life have I said more than those two words-'Maryland' on entering and 'Madame' on leaving-to the good creature of the shop. I do not know her name, nor she mine. Ordinarily she is reading when I enter; she puts down her book to serve me as one might put down a knife and fork; it must often happen that she interrupts herself in the middle of a word. She gets as far as:

"'Jean ki--' then I enter. 'Maryland,' I murmur, receive my packet, and pay. 'Madame!' I raise my hat and depart. Not till then does she know the continuation:-'ssed Marie,' or 'cked the Vicomte,' whichever it may be. Not a luxurious reader, that one, you see.

"Well, this morning I enter as usual. There she sits, book in hand. 'Maryland' I murmur. For the first time in my experience of her she does not at once lay the book, face downwards, on the counter, and turn to the shelf behind her to reach me my cigarettes. No, the good creature is absorbed. 'Pardon,' I say, rather louder. She looks up, and it is clear she is impatient at being disturbed. 'Maryland,' I request. She puts down the book and fumbles for a packet. But I am curious to know what book it is that holds her so strongly, what genius of a romancer has aimed so surely at her intelligence. I turn the book round with a finger. The shop, the shelves, the horse's face of Madame the proprietress swim before me. I could dance; I could weep; I could embrace the lady in the pure joy of an artist appreciated and requited. For of all the books ever printed upon paper, that book is mine. My verses! My songs of little lives, they grasp at her and will not let go, like importunate children; she is not easily nor willingly free of them when affairs claim her. Nunc dimittis!"

"What did you do?" inquired Cobb. "Give her a watch, or what?"

"My friend," said Savinien, "I was careful. To do a foolish or a graceless thing would have been to dethrone for her a poet. There was need of a spacious and becoming gesture. I opened her book at the fly-leaf, and reached across to the comptoir for a pen. She turned at that and stared, possibly fearful, poor creature, that it was the till that attracted me. I took the pen and splashed down on the fly- leaf of the book my name in full-a striking signature! Then without a further word that might make an anti-climax, I took my cigarettes and departed. I was so thrilled, so exalted, that it was five minutes before I remembered to be afraid."

"For my fortune was becoming bizarre, you know. It was making me ridiculous even to myself. I have told you but the salient incidents of it; I do not desire to weary you with the facts of the broken braces, the spurious two-franc piece, or the lost door-key. But it is becoming sinister; it needed a counter-poise before it became so pronounced that nothing but sudden death would suffice. The thief steals my watch and I am relieved; he is departing with my best wishes for his success; all promises well, till you arrive at the charge, with your comb erect, and seize him. It is all of a piece. Yes, I know it is funny, but it alarms me. I offer it, therefore, my watch-a sacrifice. Perhaps it likes watches. If so, I have got off cheaply, for, to tell the truth, it was not much of a watch."

He raised the minute glass and drank, setting it down again with a flourish.

"And now I must be going," he said. "It is a strange story-not? But

I don't like it; I don't like it at all."

"Adieu," said Cobb, rising also. "I don't think I'd worry, if I were you. And I won't interfere again."

"On no account," said Savinien, seriously.

Cobb watched him move away, plodding along the pavement heavily, huge and portentous. The back of his head bulged above the collar, with no show of neck between. He was comical and pathetic; he seemed too vast in mere flesh to be the sport of a thing so freakish as luck. To think that such a bulk had a weak heart in it-and that deeper still in its recesses there moved and suffered the soul of a poet!

"Queer yarn," mused Cobb.

It was on the following morning, while Cobb was dressing, that the messenger arrived-a little man in black, with a foot-rule sticking out of his coat-pocket. He looked like an elderly man-servant who had descended to trade. He had a letter for Cobb, addressed in Savinien's pyrotechnic hand, and handed it to him without speaking.

"My dear friend," it said, "I fear the worst. On my return to my rooms here, the first thing I saw was my watch, reposing on my bedside table. It appears that when I made my toilet in the morning I forgot to put it in my pocket. The thief, after all, got nothing. I am lost. In despair, Your Cesar Savinien."

"Yes?" said Cobb. "You want an answer?" For the little artisan in black was waiting.

"An answer!" The other stared. "But--then monsieur does not know?"

"What?"

"He must have been going down to post that note when he had written it," said the little man. "We found it in his hand."

"Eh?" Cobb almost recoiled in the shock of his surprise and horror.

"D'you mean to tell me that after all, he-he is--"

The little man in black uttered a professional sigh. "The concierge found him in the morning," he replied. "It is said that he suffered from his heart, that poor Monsieur."

"Good Lord!" said Cobb.

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