Over an Absinthe Bottle by W. C. Morrow
Arthur Kimberlin, a young man of very high spirit, found himself a
total stranger in San Francisco one rainy evening, at a time when his
heart was breaking; for his hunger was of that most poignant kind in
which physical suffering is forced to the highest point without
impairment of the mental functions. There remained in his possession
not a thing that he might have pawned for a morsel to eat; and even as
it was, he had stripped his body of all articles of clothing except
those which a remaining sense of decency compelled him to retain. Hence
it was that cold assailed him and conspired with hunger to complete his
misery. Having been brought into the world and reared a gentleman, he
lacked the courage to beg and the skill to steal. Had not an
extraordinary thing occurred to him, he either would have drowned
himself in the bay within twenty-four hours or died of pneumonia in the
street. He had been seventy hours without food, and his mental
desperation had driven him far in its race with his physical needs to
consume the strength within him; so that now, pale, weak, and
tottering, he took what comfort he could find in the savory odors which
came steaming up from the basement kitchens of the restaurants in
Market Street, caring more to gain them than to avoid the rain. His
teeth chattered; he shambled, stooped, and gasped. He was too desperate
to curse his fatehe could only long for food. He could not reason; he
could not understand that ten thousand hands might gladly have fed him;
he could think only of the hunger which consumed him, and of food that
could give him warmth and happiness.
When he had arrived at Mason Street, he saw a restaurant a little
way up that thoroughfare, and for that he headed, crossing the street
diagonally. He stopped before the window and ogled the steaks, thick
and lined with fat; big oysters lying on ice; slices of ham as large as
his hat; whole roasted chickens, brown and juicy. He ground his teeth,
groaned, and staggered on.
A few steps beyond was a drinking-saloon, which had a private door
at one side, with the words Family Entrance painted thereon. In the
recess of the door (which was closed) stood a man. In spite of his
agony, Kimberlin saw something in this man's face that appalled and
fascinated him. Night was on, and the light in the vicinity was dim;
but it was apparent that the stranger had an appearance of whose
character he himself must have been ignorant. Perhaps it was the
unspeakable anguish of it that struck through Kimberlin's sympathies.
The young man came to an uncertain halt and stared at the stranger. At
first he was unseen, for the stranger looked straight out into the
street with singular fixity, and the death-like pallor of his face
added a weirdness to the immobility of his gaze. Then he took notice of
the young man.
Ah, he said, slowly and with peculiar distinctness, the rain has
caught you, too, without overcoat or umbrella! Stand in this
doorwaythere is room for two.
The voice was not unkind, though it had an alarming hardness. It was
the first word that had been addressed to the sufferer since hunger had
seized him, and to be spoken to at all, and have his comfort regarded
in the slightest way, gave him cheer. He entered the embrasure and
stood beside the stranger, who at once relapsed into his fixed gaze at
nothing across the street. But presently the stranger stirred himself
It may rain a long time, said he; I am cold, and I observe that
you tremble. Let us step inside and get a drink.
He opened the door and Kimberlin followed, hope beginning to lay a
warm hand upon his heart. The pale stranger led the way into one of the
little private booths with which the place was furnished. Before
sitting down he put his hand into his pocket and drew forth a roll of
You are younger than I, he said; won't you go to the bar and buy
a bottle of absinthe, and bring a pitcher of water and some glasses? I
don't like for the waiters to come around. Here is a twenty-dollar
Kimberlin took the bill and started down through the corridor
towards the bar. He clutched the money tightly in his palm; it felt
warm and comfortable, and sent a delicious tingling through his arm.
How many glorious hot meals did that bill represent? He clutched it
tighter and hesitated. He thought he smelled a broiled steak, with fat
little mushrooms and melted butter in the steaming dish. He stopped and
looked back towards the door of the booth. He saw that the stranger had
closed it. He could pass it, slip out the door, and buy something to
eat. He turned and started, but the coward in him (there are other
names for this) tripped his resolution; so he went straight to the bar
and made the purchase. This was so unusual that the man who served him
looked sharply at him.
Ain't goin' to drink all o' that, are you? he asked.
I have friends in the box, replied Kimberlin, and we want to
drink quietly and without interruption. We are in Number 7.
Oh, beg pardon. That's all right, said the man.
Kimberlin's step was very much stronger and steadier as he returned
with the liquor. He opened the door of the booth. The stranger sat at
the side of the little table, staring at the opposite wall just as he
had stared across the street. He wore a wide-brimmed, slouch hat, drawn
well down. It was only after Kimberlin had set the bottle, pitcher, and
glasses on the table, and seated himself opposite the stranger and
within his range of vision, that the pale man noticed him.
Oh! you have brought it? How kind of you! Now please lock the
Kimberlin had slipped the change into his pocket, and was in the act
of bringing it out when the stranger said,
Keep the change. You will need it, for I am going to get it back in
a way that may interest you. Let us first drink, and then I will
The pale man mixed two drinks of absinthe and water, and the two
drank. Kimberlin, unsophisticated, had never tasted the liquor before,
and he found it harsh and offensive; but no sooner had it reached his
stomach than it began to warm him, and sent the most delicious thrill
through his frame.
It will do us good, said the stranger; presently we shall have
more. Meanwhile, do you know how to throw dice?
Kimberlin weakly confessed that he did not.
I thought not. Well, please go to the bar and bring a dice-box. I
would ring for it, but I don't want the waiters to be coming in.
Kimberlin fetched the box, again locked the door, and the game
began. It was not one of the simple old games, but had complications,
in which judgment, as well as chance, played a part. After a game or
two without stakes, the stranger said,
You now seem to understand it. Very wellI will show you that you
do not. We will now throw for a dollar a game, and in that way I shall
win the money that you received in change. Otherwise I should be
robbing you, and I imagine you cannot afford to lose. I mean no
offence. I am a plain-spoken man, but I believe in honesty before
politeness. I merely want a little diversion, and you are so
kind-natured that I am sure you will not object.
On the contrary, replied Kimberlin, I shall enjoy it.
Very well; but let us have another drink before we start. I believe
I am growing colder.
They drank again, and this time the starving man took his liquor
with relishat least, it was something in his stomach, and it warmed
and delighted him.
The stake was a dollar a side. Kimberlin won. The pale stranger
smiled grimly, and opened another game. Again Kimberlin won. Then the
stranger pushed back his hat and fixed that still gaze upon his
opponent, smiling yet. With this full view of the pale stranger's face,
Kimberlin was more appalled than ever. He had begun to acquire a
certain self-possession and ease, and his marvelling at the singular
character of the adventure had begun to weaken, when this new incident
threw him back into confusion. It was the extraordinary expression of
the stranger's face that alarmed him. Never upon the face of a living
being had he seen a pallor so death-like and chilling. The face was
more than pale; it was white. Kimberlin's observing faculty had been
sharpened by the absinthe, and, after having detected the stranger in
an absent-minded effort two or three times to stroke a beard which had
no existence, he reflected that some of the whiteness of the face might
be due to the recent removal of a full beard. Besides the pallor, there
were deep and sharp lines upon the face, which the electric light
brought out very distinctly. With the exception of the steady glance of
the eyes and an occasional hard smile, that seemed out of place upon
such a face, the expression was that of stone inartistically cut. The
eyes were black, but of heavy expression; the lower lip was purple; the
hands were fine, white, and thin, and dark veins bulged out upon them.
The stranger pulled down his hat.
You are lucky, he said. Suppose we try another drink. There is
nothing like absinthe to sharpen one's wits, and I see that you and I
are going to have a delightful game.
After the drink the game proceeded. Kimberlin won from the very
first, rarely losing a game. He became greatly excited. His eyes shone;
color came to his cheeks. The stranger, having exhausted the roll of
bills which he first produced, drew forth another, much larger and of
higher denominations. There were several thousand dollars in the roll.
At Kimberlin's right hand were his winnings,something like two
hundred dollars. The stakes were raised, and the game went rapidly on.
Another drink was taken. Then fortune turned the stranger's way, and he
won easily. It went back to Kimberlin, for he was now playing with all
the judgment and skill he could command. Once only did it occur to him
to wonder what he should do with the money if he should quit winner;
but a sense of honor decided him that it would belong to the stranger.
By this time the absinthe had so sharpened Kimberlin's faculties
that, the temporary satisfaction which it had brought to his hunger
having passed, his physical suffering returned with increased
aggressiveness. Could he not order a supper with his earnings? No; that
was out of the question, and the stranger said nothing about eating.
Kimberlin continued to play, while the manifestations of hunger took
the form of sharp pains, which darted through him viciously, causing
him to writhe and grind his teeth. The stranger paid no attention, for
he was now wholly absorbed in the game. He seemed puzzled and
disconcerted. He played with great care, studying each throw minutely.
No conversation passed between them now. They drank occasionally, the
dice continued to rattle, the money kept piling up at Kimberlin's hand.
The pale man began to behave strangely. At times he would start and
throw back his head, as though he were listening. For a moment his eyes
would sharpen and flash, and then sink into heaviness again. More than
once Kimberlin, who had now begun to suspect that his antagonist was
some kind of monster, saw a frightfully ghastly expression sweep over
his face, and his features would become fixed for a very short time in
a peculiar grimace. It was noticeable, however, that he was steadily
sinking deeper and deeper into a condition of apathy. Occasionally he
would raise his eyes to Kimberlin's face after the young man had made
an astonishingly lucky throw, and keep them fixed there with a
steadiness that made the young man quail.
The stranger produced another roll of bills when the second was
gone, and this had a value many times as great as the others together.
The stakes were raised to a thousand dollars a game, and still
Kimberlin won. At last the time came when the stranger braced himself
for a final effort. With speech somewhat thick, but very deliberate and
quiet, he said,
You have won seventy-four thousand dollars, which is exactly the
amount I have remaining. We have been playing for several hours. I am
tired, and I suppose you are. Let us finish the game. Each will now
stake his all and throw a final game for it.
Without hesitation, Kimberlin agreed. The bills made a considerable
pile on the table. Kimberlin threw, and the box held but one
combination that could possibly beat him; this combination might be
thrown once in ten thousand times. The starving man's heart beat
violently as the stranger picked up the box with exasperating
deliberation. It was a long time before he threw. He made his
combinations and ended by defeating his opponent. He sat looking at the
dice a long time, and then he slowly leaned back in his chair, settled
himself comfortably, raised his eyes to Kimberlin's, and fixed that
unearthly stare upon him. He said not a word; his face contained not a
trace of emotion or intelligence. He simply looked. One cannot keep
one's eyes open very long without winking, but the stranger did. He sat
so motionless that Kimberlin began to be tortured.
I will go now, he said to the strangersaid that when he had not
a cent and was starving.
The stranger made no reply, but did not relax his gaze; and under
that gaze the young man shrank back in his own chair, terrified. He
became aware that two men were cautiously talking in an adjoining
booth. As there was now a deathly silence in his own, he listened, and
this is what he heard:
Yes; he was seen to turn into this street about three hours ago.
And he had shaved?
He must have done so; and to remove a full beard would naturally
make a great change in a man.
But it may not have been he.
True enough; but his extreme pallor attracted attention. You know
that he has been troubled with heart-disease lately, and it has
affected him seriously.
Yes, but his old skill remains. Why, this is the most daring
bank-robbery we ever had here. A hundred and forty-eight thousand
dollarsthink of it! How long has it been since he was let out of
Eight years. In that time he has grown a beard, and lived by
dice-throwing with men who thought they could detect him if he should
swindle them; but that is impossible. No human being can come winner
out of a game with him. He is evidently not here; let us look farther.
Then the two men clinked glasses and passed out.
The dice-playersthe pale one and the starving onesat gazing at
each other, with a hundred and forty-eight thousand dollars piled up
between them. The winner made no move to take in the money; he merely
sat and stared at Kimberlin, wholly unmoved by the conversation in the
adjoining room. His imperturbability was amazing, his absolute
Kimberlin began to shake with an ague. The cold, steady gaze of the
stranger sent ice into his marrow. Unable to bear longer this
unwavering look, Kimberlin moved to one side, and then he was amazed to
discover that the eyes of the pale man, instead of following him,
remained fixed upon the spot where he had sat, or, rather, upon the
wall behind it. A great dread beset the young man. He feared to make
the slightest sound. Voices of men in the bar-room were audible, and
the sufferer imagined that he heard others whispering and tip-toeing in
the passage outside his booth. He poured out some absinthe, watching
his strange companion all the while, and drank alone and unnoticed. He
took a heavy drink, and it had a peculiar effect upon him: he felt his
heart bounding with alarming force and rapidity, and breathing was
difficult. Still his hunger remained, and that and the absinthe gave
him an idea that the gastric acids were destroying him by digesting his
stomach. He leaned forward and whispered to the stranger, but was given
no attention. One of the man's hands lay upon the table; Kimberlin
placed his upon it, and then drew back in terrorthe hand was as cold
as a stone.
The money must not lie there exposed. Kimberlin arranged it into
neat parcels, looking furtively every moment at his immovable
companion, and in mortal fear that he would stir! Then he sat
back and waited. A deadly fascination impelled him to move back into
his former position, so as to bring his face directly before the gaze
of the stranger. And so the two sat and stared at each other.
Kimberlin felt his breath coming heavier and his heart-beats growing
weaker, but these conditions gave him comfort by reducing his anxiety
and softening the pangs of hunger. He was growing more and more
comfortable and yawned. If he had dared he might have gone to sleep.
Suddenly a fierce light flooded his vision and sent him with a bound
to his feet. Had he been struck upon the head or stabbed to the heart?
No; he was sound and alive. The pale stranger still sat there staring
at nothing and immovable; but Kimberlin was no longer afraid of him. On
the contrary, an extraordinary buoyancy of spirit and elasticity of
body made him feel reckless and daring. His former timidity and
scruples vanished, and he felt equal to any adventure. Without
hesitation he gathered up the money and bestowed it in his several
I am a fool to starve, he said to himself, with all this money
ready to my hand.
As cautiously as a thief he unlocked the door, stepped out, reclosed
it, and boldly and with head erect stalked out upon the street. Much to
his astonishment, he found the city in the bustle of the early evening,
yet the sky was clear. It was evident to him that he had not been in
the saloon as long as he had supposed. He walked along the street with
the utmost unconcern of the dangers that beset him, and laughed softly
but gleefully. Would he not eat nowah, would he not? Why, he could
buy a dozen restaurants! Not only that, but he would hunt the city up
and down for hungry men and feed them with the fattest steaks, the
juiciest roasts, and the biggest oysters that the town could supply. As
for himself, he must eat first; after that he would set up a great
establishment for feeding other hungry mortals without charge. Yes, he
would eat first; if he pleased, he would eat till he should burst. In
what single place could he find sufficient to satisfy his hunger? Could
he live sufficiently long to have an ox killed and roasted whole for
his supper? Besides an ox he would order two dozen broiled chickens,
fifty dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, ten dozen eggs, ten hams, eight
young pigs, twenty wild ducks, fifteen fish of four different kinds,
eight salads, four dozen bottles each of claret, burgundy, and
champagne; for pastry, eight plum-puddings, and for dessert, bushels of
nuts, ices, and confections. It would require time to prepare such a
meal, and if he could only live until it could be made ready it would
be infinitely better than to spoil his appetite with a dozen or two
meals of ordinary size. He thought he could live that long, for he felt
amazingly strong and bright. Never in his life before had he walked
with so great ease and lightness; his feet hardly touched the
groundhe ran and leaped. It did him good to tantalize his hunger, for
that would make his relish of the feast all the keener. Oh, but how
they would stare when he would give his order, and how comically they
would hang back, and how amazed they would be when he would throw a few
thousands of dollars on the counter and tell them to take their money
out of it and keep the change! Really, it was worth while to be so
hungry as that, for then eating became an unspeakable luxury. And one
must not be in too great a hurry to eat when one is so hungrythat is
beastly. How much of the joy of living do rich people miss from eating
before they are hungrybefore they have gone three days and nights
without food! And how manly it is, and how great self-control it shows,
to dally with starvation when one has a dazzling fortune in one's
pocket and every restaurant has an open door! To be hungry without
moneythat is despair; to be starving with a bursting pocketthat is
sublime! Surely the only true heaven is that in which one famishes in
the presence of abundant food, which he might have for the taking, and
then a gorged stomach and a long sleep.
The starving wretch, speculating thus, still kept from food. He felt
himself growing in stature, and the people whom he met became pygmies.
The streets widened, the stars became suns and dimmed the electric
lights, and the most intoxicating odors and the sweetest music filled
the air. Shouting, laughing, and singing, Kimberlin joined in a great
chorus that swept over the city, and then
* * * * *
The two detectives who had traced the famous bank-robber to the
saloon in Mason Street, where Kimberlin had encountered the stranger of
the pallid face, left the saloon; but, unable to pursue the trail
farther, had finally returned. They found the door of booth No. 7
locked. After rapping and calling and receiving no answer, they burst
open the door, and there they saw two menone of middle age and the
other very youngsitting perfectly still, and in the strangest manner
imaginable staring at each other across the table. Between them was a
great pile of money, arranged neatly in parcels. Near at hand were an
empty absinthe bottle, a water-pitcher, glasses, and a dice-box, with
the dice lying before the elder man as he had thrown them last. One of
the detectives covered the elder man with a revolver and commanded,
Throw up your hands!
But the dice-thrower paid no attention. The detectives exchanged
startled glances. They looked closer into the faces of the two men, and
then they discovered that both were dead.