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- The Gates of Chance - 1/35 -
The Gates of Chance
by Van Tassel Sutphen
I THE GENTLEMAN'S VISITING-CARD II THE RED DUCHESS III HOUSE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BLOCK IV THE PRIVATE LETTER-BOX V THE NlNETY-AND-NINE KlSSES VI THE QUEEN OF SPADES VII THE OPAL BUTTON VIII THE TIP-TOP TIP IX THE BRASS BAGGAGE-CHECK X THE UPSET APPLE-CART XI THE PHILADELPHIA QUIZZING-GLASS XII THE ADJUSTER OF AVERAGES
The Gentleman's Visiting-Card
The card that had been thrust into my hand had pencilled upon it, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at a quarter before eight this evening." Below, in copper-plate, was engraved the name, Mr. Esper Indiman.
It was one of those abnormally springlike days that New York sometimes experiences at the latter end of March, days when negligee shirts and last summer's straw hats make a sporadic appearance, and bucolic weather prophets write letters to the afternoon papers abusing the sun-spots. Really, it was hot, and I was anxious to get out of the dust and glare; it would be cool at the club, and I intended dining there. The time was half-past six, the height of the homeward rush hours, and, as usual, there was a jam of vehicles and pedestrians at the Fourth Avenue and Twenty- third Street crossing. The subway contractors were still at work here, and the available street space was choked with their stagings and temporary footwalks. The inevitable consequent was congestion; here were two of the principal thoroughfares of the city crossing each other at right angles, and with hardly enough room, at the point of intersection, for the traffic of one. The confusion grew worse as the policemen and signalmen stationed at the crossing occasionally lost their heads; every now and then a new block would form, and several minutes would elapse before it could be broken. In all directions long lines of yellow electric cars stood stalled, the impatient passengers looking ahead to discover the cause of the trouble. A familiar enough experience to the modern New-Yorker, yet it never fails to exasperate him afresh.
The impasse looked hopeless when I reached the scene. A truck loaded with bales of burlap was on the point of breaking down at the crossing, and it was a question of how to get it out of the way in the shortest possible time consistent with the avoidance of the threatened catastrophe. Meanwhile, the jam of cars and trucks kept piling up until there was hardly space for a newsboy to worm his way from one curb to another, and the crowd on the street corners began to grow restive. They do these things so much better in London.
Now, I detest being in the mob, and I was about to back my way out of the crowd and seek another route, even if a roundabout one. But just then the blockade was partially raised, an opening presented itself immediately in front of me, and I was forced forward willy- nilly. Arrived at the other side of the street, I drew out of the press as quickly as possible, and it was then that I discovered Mr. Indiman's carte de visite tightly clutched in my left hand. Impossible to conjecture how it had come there, and my own part in the transaction had been purely involuntary; the muscles of the palm had closed unconsciously upon the object presented to it, just as does a baby's. "Mr. Esper Indiman--and who the deuce may he be?"
The club dining-room was full, but Jeckley hailed me and offered me a seat at his table. I loathe Jeckley, and so I explained politely that I was waiting for a friend, and should not dine until later.
"Well, then, have a cocktail while I am finishing my coffee," persisted the beast, and I was obliged to comply.
"I had to feed rather earlier than usual," explained Jeckley.
"Yes," I said, not caring in the least about Mr. Jeckley's hours for meals.
"You see I'm doing the opening at the Globe to-night, and I must get my Wall Street copy to the office before the theatre. And what do you think of that by way of an extra assignment?" He took a card from his pocket-book and tossed it over. It was another one of Mr. Esper Indiman's calling-cards, and scrawled in pencil, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at eight o'clock this evening."
Jeckley was lighting his cigar, and so did not observe my start of surprise. Have I said that Jeckley was a newspaper man? One of the new school of journalism, a creature who would stick at nothing in the manufacture of a sensation. The Scare-Head is his god, and he holds nothing else sacred in heaven and earth. He would sacrifice-- but perhaps I'm unjust to Jeckley; maybe it's only his bounce and flourish that I detest. Furthermore, I'm a little afraid of him; I don't want to be written up.
"Esper Indiman," I read aloud. "Don't know him."
"Ever heard the name?" asked Jeckley.
I temporized. "It's unfamiliar, certainly."
Jeckley looked gloomy. "Nobody seems to know him," he said. "And the name isn't to be found in the directory, telephone-book, or social register."
Wonderful fellows, these newspaper men; I never should have thought of going for Mr. Indiman like that.
"But why and wherefore?" I asked, cautiously.
"A mystery, my son. The card was shoved into my hand not half an hour ago."
"At Twenty-third and Fourth. There were a lot of people around, and I haven't the most distant notion of the guilty party."
"What does it mean?"
Jeckley shook his head. "What will you do about it?"
"I will make the call, of course."
"There maybe a story there--who knows. Besides, it's directly on my way to the Globe, and the curtain is not until eight-thirty. Tell you what, old man; come along with me and see the thing to a finish. Fate leads a card--Mr. Esper Indiman's--and we'll play the second hand; what do you say?"
I declined firmly. God forbid that I should be featured, along with the other exhibits in the case, on the first page of to-morrow's Planet.
"So," he assented, indifferently, and pushed his chair back. "Well, I must push along--Lord! there's that copy--the old man will have it in for me good and plenty if I don't get it down in time. Adios!" He disappeared, and I let him depart willingly enough. Later on I went up to the library for a smoke--no fear of encountering any Jeckleys there, and, in fact, the room was entirely deserted. I looked at my watch; it was ten minutes after seven, and that gave me a quarter of an hour in which to think it over. Should I accept Mr. Indiman's invitation to call?
I looked around for an ash-tray, and, seeing one on the big writing-table in the centre of the room, I walked over to it.
There were some bits of white lying in the otherwise empty tray-- the fragments of a torn-up visiting-card. A portion of the engraved script caught my eye, "Indi--"
It was not difficult to piece together the bits of pasteboard, for I knew pretty well what I should find. Completed, the puzzle read, "Mr. Esper Indiman," and in pencil, "Call at 4020 Madison Avenue at half-past seven this evening."
So there were three of us--if not more. Rather absurd this assignment of a separate quarter of an hour to each interview-- quite as though Mr. Indiman desired to engage a valet and we were candidates for the position. Evidently, an eccentric person, but it's a queer world anyhow, as most of us know. There's my own case, for example. I'm supposed to be a gentleman of leisure and means. Leisure, certainly, but the means are slender enough, and proceeding in a diminishing ratio. That's the penalty of having been born a rich man's son and educated chiefly in the arts of riding off at polo and thrashing a single-sticker to windward in a Cape Cod squall. But I sha'n't say a word against the governor, God bless him! He gave me what I thought I wanted, and it wasn't his fault that an insignificant blood-clot should beat him out on that day of days--the corner in "R. P." It was never the Chicago crowd that could have downed him--I'm glad to remember that.
Well, there being only the two of us, it didn't matter so much; it wasn't as though there were a lot of helpless womenfolk to consider. After the funeral and the settlement with the creditors there was left--I'm ashamed to say how little, and, anyway, it's no one's business; the debts were paid. What is a man to do, at thirty-odd, who has never turned his hand to anything of use? The governor's friends? Well, they didn't know how bad things were, and I couldn't go to them with the truth and make them a present of my helpless, incompetent self.
And so for the last two years I've been sticking it out in a hall bedroom, just west of the dead-line. I have a life membership in the club--what a Christmas present that has turned out to be!--and twice in the week I dine there. As for the rest of it, never mind-- there are things which a man can do but of which he doesn't care to speak.
The future? Ah, you can answer that question quite as well as I. Now I had calculated that, at my present rate of expenditure, I could hold out until Easter, but there have been contingencies. To
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