Van Bibber's Burglar by Richard Harding Davis
There had been a dance up town, but as Van Bibber could not find
Her there, he accepted young Travers's suggestion to go over to Jersey
City and see a "go" between "Dutchy" Mack and a colored person
professionally known as the Black Diamond. They covered up all signs
of their evening dress with their great-coats, and filled their
pockets with cigars, for the smoke which surrounds a "go" is trying to
sensitive nostrils, and they also fastened their watches to both key-
chains. Alf Alpin, who was acting as master of ceremonies, was greatly
pleased and flattered at their coming, and boisterously insisted on
their sitting on the platform. The fact was generally circulated among
the spectators that the "two gents in high hats" had come in a
carriage, and this and their patent-leather boots made them objects of
keen interest. It was even whispered that they were the "parties" who
were putting up the money to back the Black Diamond against the
"Hester Street Jackson." This in itself entitled them to respect. Van
Bibber was asked to hold the watch, but he wisely declined the honor,
which was given to Andy Spielman, the sporting reporter of the
Track and Ring, whose watch-case was covered with diamonds, and
was just the sort of a watch a timekeeper should hold.
It was two o'clock before "Dutchy" Mack's backer threw the sponge
into the air, and three before they reached the city. They had another
reporter in the cab with them besides the gentleman who had bravely
held the watch in the face of several offers to "do for" him; and as
Van Bibber was ravenously hungry, and as he doubted that he could get
anything at that hour at the club, they accepted Spielman's invitation
and went for a porterhouse steak and onions at the Owl's Nest, Gus
McGowan's all-night restaurant on Third Avenue.
It was a very dingy, dirty place, but it was as warm as the engine-
room of a steamboat, and the steak was perfectly done and tender. It
was too late to go to bed, so they sat around the table, with their
chairs tipped back and their knees against its edge. The two club men
had thrown off their great-coats, and their wide shirt fronts and silk
facings shone grandly in the smoky light of the oil lamps and the red
glow from the grill in the corner. They talked about the life the
reporters led, and the Philistines asked foolish questions, which the
gentleman of the press answered without showing them how foolish they
"And I suppose you have all sorts of curious adventures," said Van
"Well, no, not what I would call adventures," said one of the
reporters. "I have never seen anything that could not be explained or
attributed directly to some known cause, such as crime or poverty or
drink. You may think at first that you have stumbled on something
strange and romantic, but it comes to nothing. You would suppose that
in a great city like this one would come across something that could
not be explained away something mysterious or out of the common, like
Stevenson's Suicide Club. But I have not found it so. Dickens once
told James Payn that the most curious thing he ever saw In his rambles
around London was a ragged man who stood crouching under the window of
a great house where the owner was giving a ball. While the man hid
beneath a window on the ground floor, a woman wonderfully dressed and
very beautiful raised the sash from the inside and dropped her bouquet
down into the man's hand, and he nodded and stuck it under his coat
and ran off with it.
"I call that, now, a really curious thing to see. But I have never
come across anything like it, and I have been in every part of this
big city, and at every hour of the night and morning, and I am not
lacking in imagination either, but no captured maidens have ever
beckoned to me from barred windows nor 'white hands waved from a
passing hansom.' Balzac and De Musset and Stevenson suggest that they
have had such adventures, but they never come to me. It is all
commonplace and vulgar, and always ends in a police court or with a
'found drowned' in the North River."
McGowan, who had fallen into a doze behind the bar, woke suddenly
and shivered and rubbed his shirt-sleeves briskly. A woman knocked at
the side door and begged for a drink "for the love of heaven," and the
man who tended the grill told her to be off. They could hear her
feeling her way against the wall and cursing as she staggered out of
the alley. Three men came in with a hack driver and wanted everybody
to drink with them, and became insolent when the gentlemen declined,
and were in consequence hustled out one at a time by McGowan, who went
to sleep again immediately, with his head resting among the cigar
boxes and pyramids of glasses at the back of the bar, and snored.
"You see," said the reporter, "it is all like this. Night in a
great city is not picturesque and it is not theatrical. It is sodden,
sometimes brutal, exciting enough until you get used to it, but it
runs in a groove. It is dramatic, but the plot is old and the motives
and characters always the same."
The rumble of heavy market wagons and the rattle of milk carts told
them that it was morning, and as they opened the door the cold fresh
air swept into the place and made them wrap their collars around their
throats and stamp their feet. The morning wind swept down the cross-
street from the East River and the lights of the street lamps and of
the saloon looked old and tawdry. Travers and the reporter went off to
a Turkish bath, and the gentleman who held the watch, and who had been
asleep for the last hour, dropped into a nighthawk and told the man to
drive home. It was almost clear now and very cold, and Van Bibber
determined to walk. He had the strange feeling one gets when one stays
up until the sun rises, of having lost a day somewhere, and the dance
he had attended a few hours before seemed to have come off long ago,
and the fight in Jersey City was far back in the past.
The houses along the cross-street through which he walked were as
dead as so many blank walls, and only here and there a lace curtain
waved out of the open window where some honest citizen was sleeping.
The street was quite deserted; not even a cat or a policeman moved on
it and Van Bibber's footsteps sounded brisk on the sidewalk. There was
a great house at the corner of the avenue and the cross-street on
which he was walking. The house faced the avenue and a stone wall ran
back to the brown stone stable which opened on the side street. There
was a door in this wall, and as Van Bibber approached it on his
solitary walk it opened cautiously, and a man's head appeared in it
for an instant and was withdrawn again like a flash, and the door
snapped to. Van Bibber stopped and looked at the door and at the house
and up and down the street. The house was tightly closed, as though
some one was lying inside dead, and the streets were still empty.
Van Bibber could think of nothing in his appearance so dreadful as
to frighten an honest man, so he decided the face he had had a glimpse
of must belong to a dishonest one. It was none of his business, he
assured himself, but it was curious, and he liked adventure, and he
would have liked to prove his friend the reporter, who did not believe
in adventure, in the wrong. So he approached the door silently, and
jumped and caught at the top of the wall and stuck one foot on the
handle of the door, and, with the other on the knocker, drew himself
up and looked cautiously down on the other side. He had done this so
lightly that the only noise he made was the rattle of the door-knob on
which his foot had rested, and the man inside thought that the one
outside was trying to open the door, and placed his shoulder to it and
pressed against it heavily. Van Bibber, from his perch on the top of
the wall, looked down directly on the other's head and shoulders. He
could see the top of the man's head only two feet below, and he also
saw that in one hand he held a revolver and that two bags filled with
projecting articles of different sizes lay at his feet.
It did not need explanatory notes to tell Van Bibber that the man
below had robbed the big house on the corner, and that if it had not
been for his having passed when he did the burglar would have escaped
with his treasure. His first thought was that he was not a policeman,
and that a fight with a burglar was not in his line of life; and this
was followed by the thought that though the gentleman who owned the
property in the two bags was of no interest to him, he was, as a
respectable member of society, more entitled to consideration than the
man with the revolver.
The fact that he was now, whether he liked it or not, perched on
the top of the wall like Humpty Dumpty, and that the burglar might see
him and shoot him the next minute, had also an immediate influence on
his movements. So he balanced himself cautiously and noiselessly and
dropped upon the man's head and shoulders, bringing him down to the
flagged walk with him and under him. The revolver went off once in the
struggle, but before the burglar could know how or from where his
assailant had come, Van Bibber was standing up over him and had driven
his heel down on his hand and kicked the pistol out of his fingers.
Then he stepped quickly to where it lay and picked it up and said,
"Now, if you try to get up I'll shoot at you." He felt an unwarranted
and ill-timedly humorous inclination to add, "and I'll probably miss
you," but subdued it. The burglar, much to Van Bibber's astonishment,
did not attempt to rise, but sat up with his hands locked across his
knees and said: "Shoot ahead. I'd a damned sight rather you would."
His teeth were set and his face desperate and bitter, and hopeless
to a degree of utter hopelessness that Van Bibber had never imagined.
"Go ahead," reiterated the man, doggedly, "I won't move. Shoot me."
It was a most unpleasant situation. Van Bibber felt the pistol
loosening in his hand, and he was conscious of a strong inclination to
lay it down and ask the burglar to tell him all about it.
"You haven't got much heart," said Van Bibber, finally. "You're a
pretty poor sort of a burglar, I should say."
"What's the use?" said the man, fiercely. "I won't go back—I won't
go back there alive. I've served my time forever in that hole. If I
have to go back again—s'help me if I don't do for a keeper and die
for it. But I won't serve there no more."
"Go back where?" asked Van Bibber, gently, and greatly interested;
"To prison, yes!" cried the man, hoarsely: "to a grave. That's
where. Look at my face," he said, "and look at my hair. That ought to
tell you where I've been. With all the color gone out of my skin, and
all the life out of my legs. You needn't be afraid of me. I couldn't
hurt you if I wanted to. I'm a skeleton and a baby, I am. I couldn't
kill a cat. And now you're going to send me back again for another
lifetime. For twenty years, this time, into that cold, forsaken hole,
and after I done my time so well and worked so hard." Van Bibber
shifted the pistol from one hand to the other and eyed his prisoner
"How long have you been out?" he asked, seating himself on the
steps of the kitchen and holding the revolver between his knees. The
sun was driving the morning mist away, and he had forgotten the cold.
"I got out yesterday," said the man.
Van Bibber glanced at the bags and lifted the revolver. "You didn't
waste much time," he said.
"No," answered the man, sullenly, "no, I didn't. I knew this place
and I wanted money to get West to my folks, and the Society said I'd
have to wait until I earned it, and I couldn't wait. I haven't seen my
wife for seven years, nor my daughter. Seven years, young man; think
of that—seven years. Do you know how long that is? Seven years
without seeing your wife or your child! And they're straight people,
they are," he added, hastily. "My wife moved West after I was put away
and took another name, and my girl never knew nothing about me. She
thinks I'm away at sea. I was to join 'em. That was the plan. I was to
join 'em, and I thought I could lift enough here to get the fare, and
now," he added, dropping his face in his hands, "I've got to go back.
And I had meant to live straight after I got West,—God help me, but I
did! Not that it makes much difference now. An' I don't care whether
you believe it or not neither," he added, fiercely.
"I didn't say whether I believed it or not," answered Van Bibber,
with grave consideration.
He eyed the man for a brief space without speaking, and the burglar
looked back at him, doggedly and defiantly, and with not the faintest
suggestion of hope in his eyes, or of appeal for mercy. Perhaps it was
because of this fact, or perhaps it was the wife and child that moved
Van Bibber, but whatever his motives were, he acted on them promptly.
"I suppose, though," he said, as though speaking to himself, "that I
ought to give you up."
"I'll never go back alive," said the burglar, quietly.
"Well, that's bad, too," said Van Bibber. "Of course I don't know
whether you're lying or not, and as to your meaning to live honestly,
I very much doubt it; but I'll give you a ticket to wherever your wife
is, and I'll see you on the train. And you can get off at the next
station and rob my house to-morrow night, if you feel that way about
it. Throw those bags inside that door where the servant will see them
before the milkman does, and walk on out ahead of me, and keep your
hands in your pockets, and don't try to run. I have your pistol, you
The man placed the bags inside the kitchen door; and, with a
doubtful look at his custodian, stepped out into the street, and
walked, as he was directed to do, toward the Grand Central station.
Van Bibber kept just behind him, and kept turning the question over in
his mind as to what he ought to do. He felt very guilty as he passed
each policeman, but he recovered himself when he thought of the wife
and child who lived in the West, and who were "straight."
"Where to?" asked Van Bibber, as he stood at the ticket-office
window. "Helena, Montana," answered the man with, for the first time,
a look of relief. Van Bibber bought the ticket and handed it to the
burglar. "I suppose you know," he said, "that you can sell that at a
place down town for half the money." "Yes, I know that," said the
burglar. There was a half-hour before the train left, and Van Bibber
took his charge into the restaurant and watched him eat everything
placed before him, with his eyes glancing all the while to the right
or left. Then Van Bibber gave him some money and told him to write to
him, and shook hands with him. The man nodded eagerly and pulled off
his hat as the car drew out of the station; and Van Bibber came down
town again with the shop girls and clerks going to work, still
wondering if he had done the right thing.
He went to his rooms and changed his clothes, took a cold bath, and
crossed over to Delmonico's for his breakfast, and, while the waiter
laid the cloth in the cafe, glanced at the headings in one of the
papers. He scanned first with polite interest the account of the dance
on the night previous and noticed his name among those present. With
greater interest he read of the fight between "Dutchy" Mack and the
"Black Diamond," and then he read carefully how "Abe" Hubbard, alias
"Jimmie the Gent," a burglar, had broken jail in New Jersey, and had
been traced to New York. There was a description of the man, and Van
Bibber breathed quickly as he read it. "The detectives have a clew of
his whereabouts," the account said; "if he is still in the city they
are confident of recapturing him. But they fear that the same friends
who helped him to break jail will probably assist him from the country
or to get out West."
"They may do that," murmured Van Bibber to himself, with a smile of
grim contentment; "they probably will."
Then he said to the waiter, "Oh, I don't know. Some bacon and eggs
and green things and coffee."