The Man Higher Up
A Cross our two dishes of spaghetti, in a corner of Provenzanos restaurant, Jeff Peters was explaining to me the three kinds of graft.
Every winter Jeff comes to New York to eat spaghetti, to watch the shipping in East River from the depths of his chinchilla overcoat, and to lay in a supply of Chicago-made clothing at one of the Fulton Street stores. During the other three seasons he may be found further westhis range is from Spokane to Tampa. In his profession he takes a pride which he supports and defends with a serious and unique philosophy of ethics. His profession is no new one. He is an incorporated, uncapitalized, unlimited asylum for the reception of the restless and unwise dollars of his fellow-men.
In the wilderness of stone in which Jeff seeks his annual lonely holiday he is glad to palaver of his many adventures, as a boy will whistle after sundown in a wood. Wherefore, I mark on my calendar the time of his coming, and open a question of privilege at Provenzanos concerning the little wine-stained table in the corner between the rakish rubber plant and the framed palazzio della something on the wall.
There are two kinds of grafts, said Jeff, that ought to be wiped out by law. I mean Wall Street speculation, and burglary.
Nearly everybody will agree with you as to one of them, said I, with a laugh.
Well, burglary ought to be wiped out too, said Jeff; and I wondered whether the laugh had been redundant.
About three months ago, said Jeff, it was my privilege to become familiar with a sample of each of the aforesaid branches of illegitimate art. I was sine qua grata with a member of the housebreakers union and one of the John D. Napoleons of finance at the same time.
Interesting combination, said I, with a yawn. Did I tell you I bagged a duck and a ground-squirrel at one shot last week over in the Ramapos? I knew well how to draw Jeffs stories.
Let me tell you first about these barnacles that clog the wheels of society by poisoning the springs of rectitude with their upas-like eye, said Jeff, with the pure gleam of the muck-raker in his own.
As I said, three months ago I got into bad company. There are two times in a mans life when he does thiswhen hes dead broke, and when hes rich.
Now and then the most legitimate business runs out of luck. It was out in Arkansas I made the wrong turn at a cross-road, and drives into this town of Peavine by mistake. It seems I had already assaulted and disfigured Peavine the spring of the year before. I had sold $600 worth of young fruit trees thereplums, cherries, peaches and pears. The Peaviners were keeping an eye on the country road and hoping I might pass that way again. I drove down Main Street as far as the Crystal Palace drug-store before I realized I had committed ambush upon myself and my white horse Bill.
The Peaviners took me by surprise and Bill by the bridle and began a conversation that wasnt entirely dissociated with the subject of fruit trees. A committee of em ran some trace-chains through the armholes of my vest, and escorted me through their gardens and orchards.
Their fruit trees hadnt lived up to their labels. Most of em had turned out to be persimmons and dogwoods, with a grove or two of blackjacks and poplars. The only one that showed any signs of bearing anything was a fine young cottonwood that had put forth a hornets nest and half of an old corset-cover.
The Peaviners protracted our fruitless stroll to the edge of town. They took my watch and money on account; and they kept Bill and the wagon as hostages. They said the first time one of them dogwood trees put forth an Amsdens June peach I might come back and get my things. Then they took off the trace-chains and jerked their thumbs in the direction of the Rocky Mountains; and I struck a Lewis and Clark lope for the swollen rivers and impenetrable forests.
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