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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER I THE TRANSFER
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At eleven o'clock of a moist night in December, Gregory Parr was making his way far westward on Twenty-third Street. At his right hand stretched that famous old row of dignified dwellings with pilasters and little front yards, and ahead of him was Tenth Avenue, the stronghold of the Irish. The wet pavements glistened under the street lamps, and the smell of influenza was in the air. The street was deserted except for a cross-town car at long intervals, hurling itself blithely through the night on a flat wheel.

Greg was on his way to the Brevard Line pier at the foot of the street to take passage on the great Savoia, premier steamship of her day and on this particular trip the "Christmas ship." The Savoia ran as true to the hour as a railway train, and was scheduled to leave at one A.M. in order to make the best rail connections. There was no reason why Greg should have walked to the pier except that at the last moment his heart was loath to leave little old New York, and even the least interesting of her streets called to him. As he walked he communed with himself somewhat after this fashion: "Lord! I didn't know the old burg meant so much to me till I made up my mind to leave it! After all maybe I'm a fool to pull up stakes here. I know the folks on this side; their ways are my ways. I speak New York. Perhaps in London I'll be like a fish in the grass." But his baggage was on the pier and he had paid a deposit on his ticket. It never occurred to him that he could still change his mind. On such trifles do the weightiest human decisions turn!

He crossed Tenth Avenue and passed through the long block beyond with its escarpments of dark factories on either hand. At Eleventh Avenue the street opened into a plaza with the ferry houses facing him from the other side, and a long line of steamship piers stretching south, of which the Brevard pier was the nearest. Over the pier sheds Greg saw the masthead light of the Savoia gleaming brightly and heard the soft murmur of escaping steam. On the corner was a little waterfront hotel, the Brevard House, with inviting brilliantly lighted bar. Greg was irresistibly drawn to enter. "One last drink to my own town," he said to himself.

Within, the bar was absolutely typical, and therefore dear to Greg. There was the very red and well-wiped mahogany counter, finished with a round cornice to lean the elbows on, and with a brass rail below for feet. Behind the counter the usual elaborate structure of mahogany and plate glass reared itself to the ceiling, a super-mantel-piece as it were, while between counter and mirrors moved a pink-cheeked young man, in command, one might say, of the battalion of bottles behind him. Bar-tenders used to be mustachioed, but now they are smooth and pink-cheeked.

To Greg's disappointment he found the place almost empty; he desired company; he longed to hear the racy speech of the Manhattan pavements before he finally shook their dust from his feet. There were two travelers, but they, having downed their drinks, were preparing to leave; across the room sitting at a table was a human derelict, without which no picture of a bar-room would be complete—but he was sleeping under his hat like a candle under its extinguisher. The only other customer present was a taxi-driver who was making friendly overtures to the bar-tender. For some reason the pink-cheeked one scorned him. These instinctive antipathies are impossible to explain; the bartender was perfectly willing to hob-nob with the two travelers—invited to drink with them he took a swig out of his private stock of cold tea with gusto and charged them fifteen cents for the privilege; but as for the poor taxi-driver, well, they did not belong to the same herd, that was all.

Rebuffed in this direction the driver turned eagerly to the latest comer, Greg. There was something almost pathetic in his anxiety to make friends. Every soul has those moments of desperate lonesomeness. Greg was not at all backward in responding. The driver was a spare little man in an overcoat sizes too big for him and almost reaching the ground. Greg was reminded of an old illustration of the Artful Dodger. He had a sharp, humorous, apelike face, much seamed, and in his eyes was a light at once childlike, impudent and deprecating. Taxi-drivers, that is to say "owl-drivers" like this one, wear no uniform, but they are unmistakable. It may be their overcoats which are full of character. This one was incredibly worn and shapeless. With it went a round cloth cap with a flap let down behind to protect the wearer's ears and neck.

"Say fella," said this individual with engaging impudence; "drink with me, will yeh, if it's not a liberty?"

"Sure," said Greg, "if you'll have another with me after."

"What are you drinking?"

"Rye high-ball."

"Well I don't gen'ally dilute my liquor but just to be high-toned—say Jack! Two rye high-balls."

The refreshment was duly served. Greg noticed that as the taxi-driver lifted his glass his hand trembled, yet he was a young and healthy-looking man. Greg wondered momentarily if he had a secret agitation, and then forgot about it.

They exchanged opinions upon the quality of the whiskey and the rottenness of the weather outside. These and other pleasant conventionalities, not to speak of two high-balls apiece, opened the way for more personal communications. They decided they liked each other.

"I'm Hickey Meech," said the driver. "Christened Robert at birth, but Hickey because I come from the country, though that's fifteen years ago, and I'm like to die before I see it again."

"I shan't tell you my name," said Greg. "Meaning no offense, you understand; but it's been in the papers lately, and I want it to be forgotten."

"Sure that's all right," said Hickey. "What's in a man's label anyhow; 'taint guaranteed by no poor feud law." He glanced sideways at Greg's good clothes. "You're a bit off your regular beat to-night, ain't you?"

"I'm sailing on the Savoia."

"The Hell you say! Well some guys has all the luck!"

Greg laughed shortly. He experienced a sudden desire to talk about himself; to put his case before a disinterested party who did not know him, and whom he would never see again; it would help him to grasp his own situation, he felt. During the last difficult weeks he had not talked to any one.

"I don't know as anybody would call me lucky," he said. "I've lately had a good crack over the head. Maybe it was good for my character, but it hurt just the same."

"Oh, we all get those," the other replied sententiously.

"My Dad died when I was a kid," Greg went on. "He left us well-fixed as things go. The property was all in the hands of his partner as trustee. Well, since then I've been accustomed to sucking my silver spoon, as you might say; went to the most expensive schools and college, and didn't learn much except how to drive a racing car. I can drive a car, but that's not going to lay up any bonds in a safe deposit vault.

"Well, it's an old story, but, believe me, when it happens to yourself it has all the effect, if not the charm, of novelty! A month ago our trustee died and left his affairs in a snarl. Our property has just vamosed; he didn't steal it, you understand; it just naturally melted in his hot hands.

"I managed to save enough out of the wreck—it was my first experience of business and I don't like it—to keep the girls from actual want, but there wasn't a penny left for me. Of course I was well known in certain circles and there were plenty of men who would have given me a job out of charity; but I wasn't going to be a poor relation in the crowd where I had once kept my end up with the best. I was pried loose from my old foundations and I wanted an entirely fresh start. So I decided to try my luck in London. No small town stuff for me. It seemed like a good idea when it came to me but now—I don't know——"

The driver was all sympathy. "What's the matter? Leaving somebody behind you?"

"No," said Greg smiling; "only the old town. I didn't know it had such a hold on me!"

"Every dog loves its own lamp-posts," said Hickey. "It'll do you good to see the world. Wish to God I had the chance! And you'll make good. Even though you've lost your coin you've got the habit of class. Nobody can't take that from you. And people just naturally give up to a classy guy."

"I don't quite get you," said Greg.

"You've got style," said the taxi-driver. "Anybody could see you were accustomed to traveling with top-notchers."

"Nothing in it," said Greg. "My 'style' as you call it only gets in my way now that I've nothing to keep it up on. I'd do better if I could begin life over on a section gang."

"Don't you fool yourself," retorted the taxi-driver. "That's the way a swell always talks. 'Gee!' says he, 'if I was on'y a horny handed ton of soil I could make something of myself!' It reads well in a book. But take it from me, kid, the ditch-digger is the scratch man in the race of life; he's got twict as far to run. Why any ordinary fella born in a soft bed can keep it, but it takes one o' these here now Napoleons to win one. Look at me now. I may as well say I ain't no Napoleon and here I am. I was born to sweat, and I'm still sweating. Of course I got my vices. I shoot craps; that helps keep me poor. But it's the habit of being poor that's so hard to break. If I could only once get ahead far enough to buy me a real swell outfit nothing could stop me."

"You're dead wrong," said Greg. "There's not so much in appearances as people like to think. Why, the richest man I know goes around looking like a rag-picker. And there's many a fancy vest covers an empty stomach. A workman with a good trade is a king alongside one of those poor devils that clings to the edge of what is called Society."

"Well, I'd like to try a little clinging."

"There's nothing like honest work."

"For others. Anybody can have my share. I wisht I had your chances, that's all."

"I'd give my 'chances' as you call them quick enough for a trade."

Hickey favored Greg with a queer look. "Do you mean that?"

"Sure I mean it."

There was a silence of a moment or two while Hickey dipped his forefinger in a wet spot and drew designs on the mahogany. At last he asked very off-hand:

"Would you call driving a taxi a trade?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"Well, why don't you try that? You said you could drive."

"Well, in London I don't suppose I could compete with the native article."

"I mean here."

"I'm going to London, I told you."

"But you don't have to go. According to yourself it's just a notion that you're sorry you took already."

"What are you getting at?"

"I'm just trying you out to see if you meant anything by your ideas. Are you willing to take a sporting chance?"

"Try me."

Once more Hickey hesitated, and then the proposal came with a rush. "Swap with me. I'll give you my flivver outside for three hundred and those clothes you're wearing. She's mine free and clear. Paid the final installment last week. She's not new, you may say, but all the better. She's well suppled up. And a bargain at the price. Got an elegant meter on her. Runs fast for fares and slow for the inspector. I'll let you try her out of course before you pay the money."

Greg drew a long breath and stared at the other with widening eyes. His life had come to the parting of the ways, and he was free to choose any direction. This offer presented fascinating possibilities. Like most young men Greg fancied—it would be hard to say why—that the life of a cab-driver must be full of romance.

"You wouldn't have to leave the old town then," Hickey went on craftily. "Believe me, you'd begin to see it for the first time. Inside and out!"

Greg needed little persuasion. His own imagination pictured the adventure in more glowing colors than the taxi-driver had at command. It was something else made him hesitate.

"Sorry," he said regretfully. "I haven't but two hundred in the world." An idea occurred to him, and his face cleared. "But I've plenty more clothes like these. They're in trunks and bags on the pier yonder. The outfit must be worth more than a hundred even at second-hand clothes prices. I'll give you the claim checks. I'll throw in the deposit receipt too, if you want to travel."

"I'll take you," said Hickey with suspicious promptitude; but Greg on his part was too eager to be warned by it. "I'll take a flyer among the English swells. If I make any breaks over there, they'll think it's just because I'm a Yank."

"Well, let's take a look at the flivver," said Greg. "I suppose she'll run."

"Run!" cried Hickey. "She can run like Duffy in the quarter mile! Before we go out let me show you my papers is all right." He exhibited cards for his car license and operator's license.

"You said your name was Meech," objected Greg. "These are made out to Elmer Fishback."

"Oh, a coupla fellas owned the boat since Fishback," said Hickey. "The cards always goes with the car. You'll have to be Fishback when the inspector comes round. Here's my receipts for the payments."

These were signed by one Bessie Bickle.

"She financed the deal," explained Hickey. "She keeps a little yard over on the East side, and I rent space from her. You might do worse than keep on with her. Bessie's on the level. It's Gibbon Street south of Houston. Jumping-off place on the East side. Better put it down."

"Gibbon Street; I'll remember it by the Decline and Fall," said Greg.

Paying their shot they went out by the front door. The taxi rested easily by the curb, like an old horse asleep. She had a slight list to starboard—"From the bloated rich climbing aboard that side," explained Hickey. Her absurd little engine hood was like a nose without character, and the smoky lamps at either side like bleary eyes. To complete the likeness to a head, the top projected over the windshield like the visor of a cap. Greg was strongly reminded of the human derelict inside the bar and his face fell. Romance receded into the background.

Hickey watching him close made haste to remove the bad impression. "Hell! Nobody expects looks in a flivver. Wait till you feel her move under you! She's a landaulet, see? The top lets down in fine weather. Take the wheel! Take the wheel! I'll crank her."

Greg remembered afterward that during this preliminary inspection, Hickey stood squarely in front of the door of the cab, thus blocking any view of the interior. But it never occurred to him to look inside. He took the driver's seat, and Hickey cranked her. They started.

They had not gone a hundred feet before Greg discovered, though Hickey kept up a running fire of praise to drown the myriad voices of the flivver, that her piston rings were worn and her transmission loose. She was indeed well suppled, a little too supple in fact. There were other rattles, squeaks and knocks that he could not at the moment locate. Nevertheless she ran; she ran indeed with the noisy enthusiasm characteristic of her kind. There is no false delicacy about a flivver. Greg never hesitated. He was a natural born mechanic, and the engine of a flivver held no terrors for him.

When, having completed the circuit of the long block, they drew up before the Brevard House again, Hickey said anxiously: "Well?"

"It's a go," said Greg curtly.

A little sigh escaped the other. "Where'll we change?"

"In the car," said Greg.

"Ain't room enough," hastily objected Hickey. "If we're going to change we can't dress one at a time or the other would have to stop outside naked."

"Well, I suppose we could get a room in this hotel."

"And let Nosey the bar-tender in on our business? No, sir! I tell you. Let's go down behind the hogsheads."

Below, along the deserted waterfront, were great piles of heavy freight which had overflowed from the pier-sheds. Here there were many secluded nooks suitable for their purpose. Letting the taxi stand in the roadway outside, the change of their outer clothing was soon effected. Greg handed over money, baggage checks and receipt for the deposit money; receiving in return the license cards and bill of sale.

"Don't forget you're Elmer Fishback to the inspectors," said Hickey.

In the light of an electric lamp overhead he strutted up and down the aisle between the rows of hogsheads, swinging Greg's stick and "getting the feel of his clothes" he said. They were several sizes too big for him by the way, but he seemed not to be aware of that.

"Well, come on," said Greg. "Hop in, and I'll drive you up to the Savoia in style."

His hand instinctively went to the door handle as he spoke. Hickey hastily pushed it aside. "Oh Hell, I'll ride on the front seat with you," he said. "I ain't proud."

Greg ran her back to the Brevard Line pier. Many cabs were arriving now bringing luxurious parties direct from the theaters and restaurants. Greg took his place in the slow-moving line and in due course reached the first cabin gangway. Hickey hopped off, and hooking the stick over his arm, squared his meager shoulders with a swagger.

"Well ta-ta, old chap," he said in a throaty voice; "I'll write you from dear old Lunnon."

"By-by," said Greg, biting his lip. He was sorry he had to miss the comedy that would be played out on the Savoia's promenade deck during the next five days.

The cabs pressing behind forced Greg to move on. Turning on the pier, he hastened away back to the town. As he went he endeavored to take stock of his sensations, but without much success; they were rather confused. Here he was a taxi-driver on his own cab, looking for a fare, he told himself, but without quite believing it. The change had been too sudden. He couldn't quite rid himself of the feeling that he would wake up presently. He didn't feel like a taxi-driver inside. The whole thing seemed a bit unreal. He had an absurd feeling that the dark-windowed houses were racing past waving their stoops at him, while he sat still in the middle of the road.

Little by little he began to believe in what had happened. For one thing the flivver made a most convincing racket. Yes, there could be no doubt of it! Here he was starting on the bottom rung of the ladder just as he had always told himself he wished to do. Well, time would show how far he could climb. Meanwhile there ought to be fun in it, rich fun! Many a dollar had Greg spent in his day on the prowling cabs of night! Here's where he would get some of it back. He knew the very air, the confidential, everything-goes-between-good-fellows air with which he must touch his cap and say: "Cab, sir?"

The old flivver rattled and bumped companionably across town. Greg was making for the White Light district, of course, where fares were to be picked up after midnight. At Madison Square he turned north on the Avenue. With its disappearing perspective of twin lights in a double row reflected from the wet pavement it was like a Venetian canal at carnival time, but the old taxi was a noisy gondola.

Greg had gone no farther than Twenty-sixth Street when he was hailed from the sidewalk by two men in evening dress, who had come perhaps from the club down the street. Greg pulled up beside the curb and leaned out to open the door as he had always seen the chauffeurs do.

"Where to, sir?"

"The Chronos Club."

One of the men made to get in and staggered back with a queer throaty gasp: "Good God, what's this!"

Greg hastily slipped out of his seat. "What's the matter?"

"A dead body!" the man gasped, and instinctively looked around for a policeman.

On the floor of the cab before them lay a bulky body queerly huddled on top of an old valise. When the door had been opened the feet pushed out uncompromisingly. The light of a street lamp fell full on the upturned, yellow, dreadfully quiet face.

Greg's mind after an instant's stand of horror worked like lightning. He shut the door pushing the feet in with it.

"Oh, he's only soused," he said carelessly. "I didn't know his friend had left him behind. I'll have to take him to the station house now."

Springing back into the driver's seat he opened her up wide. The two men looked after him with an uncertain air. The taxi leaped ahead. He turned the next corner on two wheels, and the next and the next after that. His blood was pounding in his ears. Finally in the middle of a quiet block he ventured to draw up and listen. No sound of a raised alarm reached him.


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