The Owl Taxi
THE OWL TAXI
BY HULBERT FOOTNER
"The Deaves Affair," "The Substitute Millionaire,"
"The Fur Bringers," "Thieves' Wit,"
"The Woman from Outside," etc.
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with George H. Doran Company
BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
G. M. F.
WHO FILLED THE TANK THREE
TIMES A DAY AND KEPT THE
CHILDREN MODERATELY QUIET.
I The Transfer
II Greg's First Fare
III Greg's Second Fare
IV In the House on Ninth Street
V The Taxi Yard
VI Greg's Rival
VII The Undertaker
VIII The Hold-up
IX The Flivver as a Post-Office
X Amy's Story
XI The Ride Home
XII What the Little Black Book Contained
XIII De Socotra Hires T7011 Again
XIV Through the Streets
XVI The "Psychopathic Sanitarium"
XVII The Young Man with the Little Black Moustache
XVIII Blossom's Report
XIX The Abduction
XX Exit Senor Saunders
XXI Up-stairs and Down
THE OWL TAXI
At eleven o'clock of a moist night in December,Gregory Parr was making his way far westwardon Twenty-third Street. At his right hand stretchedthat famous old row of dignified dwellings withpilasters and little front yards, and ahead of him wasTenth Avenue, the stronghold of the Irish. The wetpavements glistened under the street lamps, and thesmell of influenza was in the air. The street wasdeserted 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 atthe foot of the street to take passage on the greatSavoia, premier steamship of her day and on thisparticular trip the "Christmas ship." The Savoia ran astrue to the hour as a railway train, and was scheduledto leave at one A.M. in order to make the best railconnections. There was no reason why Greg shouldhave walked to the pier except that at the last momenthis heart was loath to leave little old New York, andeven the least interesting of her streets called to him.As he walked he communed with himself somewhatafter this fashion: "Lord! I didn't know the old burgmeant so much to me till I made up my mind to leaveit! 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 afish in the grass." But his baggage was on the pierand he had paid a deposit on his ticket. It neveroccurred to him that he could still change his mind. Onsuch trifles do the weightiest human decisions turn!
He crossed Tenth Avenue and passed through thelong block beyond with its escarpments of darkfactories on either hand. At Eleventh Avenue the streetopened into a plaza with the ferry houses facing himfrom the other side, and a long line of steamship piersstretching south, of which the Brevard pier was thenearest. Over the pier sheds Greg saw the mastheadlight of the Savoia gleaming brightly and heard thesoft murmur of escaping steam. On the corner was alittle waterfront hotel, the Brevard House, withinviting brilliantly lighted bar. Greg was irresistiblydrawn to enter. "One last drink to my own town," hesaid to himself.
Within, the bar was absolutely typical, and thereforedear to Greg. There was the very red and well-wipedmahogany counter, finished with a round corniceto lean the elbows on, and with a brass rail below forfeet. Behind the counter the usual elaborate structureof mahogany and plate glass reared itself to the ceiling,a super-mantel-piece as it were, while between counterand mirrors moved a pink-cheeked young man, incommand, one might say, of the battalion of bottles behindhim. Bar-tenders used to be mustachioed, but now theyare smooth and pink-cheeked.
To Greg's disappointment he found the place almostempty; he desired company; he longed to hear theracy speech of the Manhattan pavements before hefinally shook their dust from his feet. There were twotravelers, but they, having downed their drinks, werepreparing to leave; across the room sitting at a tablewas a human derelict, without which no picture of abar-room would be complete—but he was sleepingunder his hat like a candle under its extinguisher. Theonly other customer present was a taxi-driver who wasmaking friendly overtures to the bar-tender. For somereason the pink-cheeked one scorned him. Theseinstinctive antipathies are impossible to explain; thebar-tender was perfectly willing to hob-nob with the twotravelers—invited to drink with them he took a swigout of his private stock of cold tea with gusto andcharged them fifteen cents for the privilege; but as forthe poor taxi-driver, well, they did not belong to thesame herd, that was all.
Rebuffed in this direction the driver turned eagerlyto the latest comer, Greg. There was somethingalmost pathetic in his anxiety to make friends. Everysoul has those moments of desperate lonesomeness.Greg was not at all backward in responding. Thedriver was a spare little man in an overcoat sizes toobig for him and almost reaching the ground. Greg wasreminded 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, impudentand deprecating. Taxi-drivers, that is to say"owl-drivers" like this one, wear no uniform, but they areunmistakable. It may be their overcoats which arefull of character. This one was incredibly worn andshapeless. With it went a round cloth cap with a flaplet 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 meafter."
"What are you drinking?"
"Well I don't gen'ally dilute my liquor but just tobe high-toned—say Jack! Two rye high-balls."
The refreshment was duly served. Greg noticed thatas the taxi-driver lifted his glass his hand trembled,yet he was a young and healthy-looking man. Gregwondered momentarily if he had a secret agitation,and then forgot about it.
They exchanged opinions upon the quality of thewhiskey and the rottenness of the weather outside.These and other pleasant conventionalities, not tospeak of two high-balls apiece, opened the way formore personal communications. They decided theyliked each other.
"I'm Hickey Meech," said the driver. "ChristenedRobert at birth, but Hickey because I come from thecountry, though that's fifteen years ago, and I'm like todie before I see it again."
"I shan't tell you my name," said Greg. "Meaningno offense, you understand; but it's been in the paperslately, and I want it to be forgotten."
"Sure that's all right," said Hickey. "What's in aman's label anyhow; 'taint guaranteed by no poor feudlaw." 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 suddendesire to talk about himself; to put his case before adisinterested party who did not know him, and whom hewould never see again; it would help him to grasp hisown situation, he felt. During the last difficult weekshe had not talked to any one.
"I don't know as anybody would call me lucky," hesaid. "I've lately had a good crack over the head.Maybe it was good for my character, but it hurt justthe 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 wasall in the hands of his partner as trustee. Well, sincethen I've been accustomed to sucking my silver spoon,as you might say; went to the most expensive schoolsand college, and didn't learn much except how to drivea racing car. I can drive a car, but that's not going tolay up any bonds in a safe deposit vault.
"Well, it's an old story, but, believe me, when ithappens to yourself it has all the effect, if not thecharm, of novelty! A month ago our trustee died andleft his affairs in a snarl. Our property has justvamosed; he didn't steal it, you understand; it justnaturally melted in his hot hands.
"I managed to save enough out of the wreck—it wasmy first experience of business and I don't like it—tokeep the girls from actual want, but there wasn't apenny left for me. Of course I was well known incertain circles and there were plenty of men who wouldhave given me a job out of charity; but I wasn'tgoing to be a poor relation in the crowd where I had oncekept my end up with the best. I was pried loose frommy old foundations and I wanted an entirely freshstart. So I decided to try my luck in London. Nosmall town stuff for me. It seemed like a good ideawhen 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. Ididn'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 hadthe chance! And you'll make good. Even thoughyou've lost your coin you've got the habit of class.Nobody can't take that from you. And people justnaturally give up to a classy guy."
"I don't quite get you," said Greg.
"You've got style," said the taxi-driver. "Anybodycould see you were accustomed to traveling with top-notchers."
"Nothing in it," said Greg. "My 'style' as you callit only gets in my way now that I've nothing to keepit up on. I'd do better if I could begin life over ona 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 makesomething of myself!' It reads well in a book. Buttake it from me, kid, the ditch-digger is the scratchman 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 winone. Look at me now. I may as well say I ain't noNapoleon and here I am. I was born to sweat, andI'm still sweating. Of course I got my vices. I shootcraps; that helps keep me poor. But it's the habit ofbeing poor that's so hard to break. If I could onlyonce get ahead far enough to buy me a real swelloutfit nothing could stop me."
"You're dead wrong," said Greg. "There's not somuch in appearances as people like to think. Why, therichest man I know goes around looking like arag-picker. And there's many a fancy vest covers an emptystomach. A workman with a good trade is a kingalongside one of those poor devils that clings to theedge of what is called Society."
"Well, I'd like to try a little