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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER V THE TAXI YARD
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Greg came to to find himself in a sort of deep narrow well with rough stone walls on either hand and flag-stones beneath him. He was sensible that he was not alone, but his companion was no more than a hazy shape between him and the strip of pale sky far overhead. A strong odor mixed of stable manure and stale whiskey nauseated him. He was sore all over and there was a splitting pain inside his skull. He had no sooner opened his eyes than he was glad to close them.

As from a distance he heard a voice, husky but kind, say: "Don't think you ain't got no bones broke, Jack. Can you get up?"

Opening his eyes again Greg saw a deplorably dirty, unshaven face bending over him, but the blear eyes were compassionate. If one could overlook the dirt and forget the spirituous emanation, there was something taking about the face, a quality of childlike innocence of soul. The voice went on:

"Say, can't you get up? We want to get out of here before they open up the stable. These stable fellas are fierce and fresh. Ain't got no guts."

Greg with an effort contrived to sit up. Pain made his head swim, but he would not give in to it. In a few moments he was able to stand, leaning for support against the rough stones. He saw that he was at the bottom of a deep area-way between sidewalk and foundation wall. The building was a great stable. From the open barred windows below the street level came the quiet sound of munching and an occasional stamp on old planks.

He got a better look at his unknown friend. On the stage such a make-up would have been hailed as a triumph: his hat had the jaunty air of utter abandonment; his overcoat made Greg's own look as if new come from the tailor's, the holes in it with the various layers of interlining protruding their frayed edges were like strange blossoms applique; through his broken shoes his bent old toes winked shamelessly.

He was fussing around Greg like a hen with one chick. "How do you feel now, Jack? The steps is just behind you. Take it real slow. I'll come behind to keep you from falling backwards. I'd carry you on'y I ain't got me stren'th back since I had the shakes."

Little by little they got up the long steep steps. At the top Greg rested himself against the iron fence that topped the well. "I was flung over there," he thought wonderingly. "Lord! I must be tougher than I thought!" He saw that he was in MacDougall Street between Clinton Place and the Square, not more than two hundred yards or so from where the gang had issued from the passage.

"I was leaning against this wery fence thinking, when I look over and see you down there," said the ragged one. "Your white face was looking straight up at me. First-off I thought I had 'em again! But you never see no men when you have 'em—on'y squeezy things. So I goes down to have a look. It was only by accident I happened to be here. I was on my way down to Washington Street, but it was early and I stopped to think. If you get down to Washington Street when the commission houses open you get lots of things; an old salt fish maybe, or a grape fruit that's half good, or a cabbage with a good place in it. The salt fish is the best. It gives you a peach of a thirst. Then I follow the brewery wagon on its rounds, and get the drips when they bring the empty kegs up from the cellar. But it's too late now. All the boys will be there before me."

Greg felt of his pocket. "I've got money," he said. "I'll blow you to a regular square meal."

The other with a nod accepted this as no more than his due. "Of course I could have rolled you before you come to," he reminded Greg, "but I'm on the level, I am. Anybody will tell you Danbury Joe is on the level. Danbury Joe, that's me."

He went on to recite his personal history in a lyrical tone that suggested the oft-repeated tale. "I used to be a hat manufacturer in a hat town, a millionaire. Yes, sir, I sported a dicer and opened wine with the best of them. I had a house with ten rooms and a pair of iron deer on the front lawn, and my lovely daughter was educated in Yewrup, yes sir, it's the truth. But she run away and married a grocer salesman and it broke the old man's heart. He ain't never been the same—Say, Jack," this in a more natural tone, "if I had a whole dollar I could buy me a bottle of cough medicine." He coughed affectingly.

"We hadn't ought to stand here," Joe went on nervously, "the sun's up. A cop might get nosey. If there's anythin' I hate it's a nosey cop. If you're able to walk I'll take you to my hangout. It's an old vacant house on the south side the Square. We go in through the area door when there's no one looking. It's a great crowd there ev'y night. You hear wonderful stories of travel around the fire."

Greg thanked him but declined the invitation for the present. He was beginning to feel stronger. "If I could get a cup of coffee and a bite I'd be all right," he said.

"Follow me," said Joe. "I know a place round in Sixth."

Half an hour later Greg, still stiff and sore but otherwise himself again, started to make his way from Sixth Avenue through Ninth Street. In the broad light of day he felt not a little conspicuous in his shabby taxi-driver's make-up, but nobody appeared to look at him. His heart beat fast as he approached the little house with the big doors. As soon as he turned the corner he saw a policeman on guard in front and a little knot of the curious gathered near.

Arrived in front of the house he saw that the big doors had been smashed in. The policeman stood swinging his club, bored and nonchalant, in sharp contrast to the gaping by-standers. Thirsty as he was for news, Greg dared not call attention to himself by applying to Authority. Instead, he loitered among the on-lookers, keeping his ears open. He heard a stout woman with a shopping-bag say to her friend:

"My dear, I always said there was something funny about that house. No Christian people would live in such an outlandish contraption. Why, those front windows down-stairs are the kitchen windows. I looked through it once when it was for rent. Think of having your kitchen windows right on the sidewalk! Any one who walked by could see you in your boodgewar cap! They say a crazy foreigner built it years ago, and I don't doubt it.

"Well, last night I heard a crash of breaking glass—there it lies still on the sidewalk, see? It's from the parlor window above. And a man's voice roared out twice: 'Beat her! Beat her!' just like that. My, but I was scared. I just pulled the blankets over my head. No use lookin' to my Albert for comfort in the night. He sleeps like the dead!"

Greg got more exact information from an Irishman in a gingham jumper, the engineer of an apartment house perhaps, who was describing the affair to another man.

"I know the cop on the beat. He told me the rights of the case. Seems about four this morning a taxi druv up to the station house, and a young fellow, a mere lad they say, run in and told the Sergeant that a guy was being murdered at Five thirty West Ninth. So the Sarge called half a dozen of the reserves and they rode back with the kid in his flivver. They beat in the door but the gang got out through a secret way at the back into Clinton Place and scattered. They made a clean getaway. There wasn't a thing in the house to show what they'd been up to. Nothin' but some kitchen chairs and tables. Now they're trying to trace who hired the house from the old lady what owns it, but she don't know. She got her rent in advance and that's all she asked."

"What about the boy who gave the alarm?"

"There's a mystery about him too. In the excitement he disappeared with his cab, and nobody had thought to take down his number. A real good-lookin' boy, they said; not over sixteen year old."

Greg hung around a bit, but no further information was forthcoming, and he finally went on. His heart was heavy with anxiety for his plucky little companion of the night before. So she had been the means of saving him. But what had become of her when daylight overtook her? what had she done with the cab? The only thing he had to go on was the fact that he had given her the address of the yard where he had meant to keep the cab. Perhaps she had taken it there. He started to find out.

Gibbon Street proved to be a little thoroughfare on the extreme ragged edge of Manhattan Island, a little backwater of the town passed by by the main currents. It was three blocks long with a bend in the middle. Down one side stretched a row of dilapidated little brick tenements occupied by freer spirits than the dense rookeries farther west; on the other side were lumber yards, coal yards and small manufactories. Greg had no difficulty in finding what he sought. Just at the bend in the street between two yards a little store bore the sign "Bickle's Grocery."

It was a little aged two-story house with the mortar coming out from between the bricks. The store was surely one of the smallest in New York. Peeping through the window Greg saw a bewildering variety of objects displayed for sale. Besides the storekeeper there could hardly have been room for more than three customers at a time. Beside the store was a gateway and Greg went through here. The bend in the street made an irregularly shaped lot and it opened up unexpectedly behind. Around two sides of this yard was built an open shed providing stabling for half a dozen taxi-cabs or so.

There were four cabs there at the moment, among which he instantly picked out his own. He knew her by her rakish list to starboard. His license number, by the way, which he had scarcely taken note of before, was T7011. The cab seemed to be all right, but this was the lesser half of his anxieties; where was its late driver? He looked inside half hoping to see a little figure curled up on the seat, but it was empty.

A baritone voice hailed him from the back door of the little house, a voice with a "no-nonsense-now" ring: "Hey, fella, what do you want?"

Greg beheld a fat woman with arms akimbo regarding him fiercely, a woman more than fat, mountainous. It was the kind of fat that goes with the highest degree of activity and energy; that massive forearm might have felled a prize-fighter. Moreover the honest, choleric blue eye proclaimed the tartar; it was the proprietress, no doubt, and a person to be propitiated.

Greg approached her, cap in hand. She did not relent at all; on the contrary she seemed to find in his politeness an added cause for suspicion.

"I'm the new Elmer Fishback," he announced. "I bought old T7011 from Hickey Meech last night. Here is the bill of sale he gave me."

She looked over his papers with a sharp eye. "Do you want to stay on here?" she demanded.

"If you please, ma'am."

"My terms is the same to all. Dollar and a half a week in advance, with free water from the tap for washing. I serve meals to them that wants them at seven, twelve and six only. Regular fifteen cents; second helping a quarter. Beds twenty cents a sleep night or day."

"That's reasonable," murmured Greg.

"You're right it's reasonable, times like these." She fixed him with a terrible eye. "There's one thing's got to be understood at the start. I says the same to every man that comes here. I'm a respectable woman and I won't stand for no crooked work, see? Your car is registered from this address, and if you get into trouble the police will come here for you. I won't stall them off. So it's up to you, see?"

"I understand, ma'am," said Greg humbly.

In spite of herself a twinkle lightened her grim glance. A long and no doubt disillusioning experience had made her suspicious of strangers, and there was much about Greg that remained to be explained; at the same time his clean youthfulness must have appealed to her after the tag ends of humanity she was accustomed to dealing with. She liked him and tried not to show it.

Greg taking courage from the twinkle said: "I got into a bit of trouble last night—nothing crooked on my part, ma'am, but a gang in Ninth Street set on me and beat me up. A friend brought my cab in for me, a young boy; you didn't happen to see him, did you?"

Bessie Bickle shook her head. "I sleep nights like a Christian," she said grimly. "That reminds me of something else. I don't hold myself responsible for anything left in the yard. All day I'm in and out my kitchen and I keep an eye out, but at night it's up to you. Most of the boys is out all night anyway, and when they're in they're gen'ally sleeping in their cabs. There's Blossom waked up. Ast him if he seen your friend."

As Greg turned away from the door she called to him, still with the grim air that he soon learned she had adopted out of self-protection: "Say you, breakfast is over now, but come in to dinner on me. There's spare-ribs and cabbage."

"Much obliged, ma'am," said Greg. He thanked the stars that had directed him to such a friendly soul in a selfish world.

A man had shoved his car out of the shed and was preparing to wash it at the hydrant. Since the water was allowed to find its own sweet way out of the yard there was always a muddy hole in the middle—which did not lessen the labor of washing. Even now the man was cursing the mud. Greg had been struck by his name Blossom; but when he raised his head Greg saw that he who bore so poetic an appellation was no beauty. The "Blossom" was a brandy blossom perhaps, referring to his nose. He was a lean, exhausted-looking, morose individual.

"H'are you?" said Greg affably.

A grunt was the only reply.

"How's business?"


"Bad weather for taxis."


"What's the matter? You seem a bit down on your luck."

"Rotten!" declared Blossom, like a bird with one note. "I got a pain in me back and two flat tires; a fellow done me out of my fare last night. Everything is rotten!"

"I'll help with the tires," said Greg.

The morose one stared. "You're new," he said grimly.

Greg nodded towards T7011. "My car," he said.

"Oh, the machine gun," said Blossom. "God help you! Rotten old boat! Where's Hickey?"

"I'd be glad to know that myself."

"Owes me half a dollar," said Blossom.

"Have you seen my friend that brought her in?" asked Greg anxiously, "young boy?"

Blossom shook his head. "He woke me up backin' and fillin', tryin' to snake her in. I knew it was a green hand bringin' in the machine gun. I cursed him, but I didn't get up. Us fellows gets little enough sleep. He was a determined cuss all right; stuck at it till he got her in."

Watching Greg's handy way with the tires Blossom said: "You're not so new."

"First time I've been on my own," said Greg, wishing to convey that he had long been a chauffeur for others.

"You made a mistake," said Blossom dejectedly. "Rotten life! Look at me. You're tormented night and day not knowing how you're going to come out. As soon as you get square something breaks on you and there's another repair bill. Give me another man's car under me and my pay Saturday night."

"Oh well, there's the independence of it," said Greg.

"To Hell with Independence! Independence don't pay no repair bills!"

When the tires were fixed Blossom desired to borrow a pump. As he got it from under his front seat Greg saw what had escaped his notice before, a little label pasted on his wind-shield on a line level with the eyes of any one who should sit at the wheel. On it was written in bold characters:

"Seek and ye shall find."

Greg grinned to himself in high satisfaction. She had her wits about her! Handing over the pump to Blossom, he returned to his car and proceeded to make a thorough search.

Tucked behind the back seat he found a small hard object wrapped in a bit of paper. The paper opened in his hand, and his astonished eyes beheld a beautiful platinum corsage pin set with a dozen gleaming diamonds. Workmanship and stones were of the finest; a glance told him it was worth hundreds of dollars. There was more writing on the inside of this paper.

"This is for necessary expenses. Pawn it.
I'm going back to the hotel."

An exclamation from Blossom caused Greg to look up. He dropped the pin in his pocket. Another man had entered the taxi yard. Greg's attention was first caught by the suit he wore. It had a strangely familiar look. It was one of his own! The wearer was no other than Hickey Meech.

"Well, I'm damned!" said Greg involuntarily.


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