Van Bibber's Burglar
by Richard Harding Davis
There had been a dance up town, but as Van Bibber could not find Her
there, he accepted young Travers's suggestion to go over to Jersey City
and see a "go" between "Dutchy" Mack and a colored person professionally
known as the Black Diamond. They covered up all signs of their evening
dress with their great-coats, and filled their pockets with cigars, for
the smoke which surrounds a "go" is trying to sensitive nostrils, and they
also fastened their watches to both key-chains. Alf Alpin, who was acting
as master of ceremonies, was greatly pleased and flattered at their
coming, and boisterously insisted on their sitting on the platform. The
fact was generally circulated among the spectators that the "two gents in
high hats" had come in a carriage, and this and their patent-leather boots
made them objects of keen interest. It was even whispered that they were
the "parties" who were putting up the money to back the Black Diamond
against the "Hester Street Jackson." This in itself entitled them to
respect. Van Bibber was asked to hold the watch, but he wisely declined
the honor, which was given to Andy Spielman, the sporting reporter of the
Track and Ring, whose watch-case was covered with diamonds, and was
just the sort of a watch a timekeeper should hold.
It was two o'clock before "Dutchy" Mack's backer threw the sponge into the
air, and three before they reached the city. They had another reporter in
the cab with them besides the gentleman who had bravely held the watch in
the face of several offers to "do for" him; and as Van Bibber was
ravenously hungry, and as he doubted that he could get anything at that
hour at the club, they accepted Spielman's invitation and went for a
porterhouse steak and onions at the Owl's Nest, Gus McGowan's all-night
restaurant on Third Avenue.
It was a very dingy, dirty place, but it was as warm as the engine-room of
a steamboat, and the steak was perfectly done and tender. It was too late
to go to bed, so they sat around the table, with their chairs tipped back
and their knees against its edge. The two club men had thrown off their
great-coats, and their wide shirt fronts and silk facings shone grandly in
the smoky light of the oil lamps and the red glow from the grill in the
corner. They talked about the life the reporters led, and the Philistines
asked foolish questions, which the gentleman of the press answered without
showing them how foolish they were.
"And I suppose you have all sorts of curious adventures," said Van Bibber,
"Well, no, not what I would call adventures," said one of the reporters.
"I have never seen anything that could not be explained or attributed
directly to some known cause, such as crime or poverty or drink. You may
think at first that you have stumbled on something strange and romantic,
but it comes to nothing. You would suppose that in a great city like this
one would come across something that could not be explained away something
mysterious or out of the common, like Stevenson's Suicide Club. But I have
not found it so. Dickens once told James Payn that the most curious thing
he ever saw In his rambles around London was a ragged man who stood
crouching under the window of a great house where the owner was giving a
ball. While the man hid beneath a window on the ground floor, a woman
wonderfully dressed and very beautiful raised the sash from the inside and
dropped her bouquet down into the man's hand, and he nodded and stuck it
under his coat and ran off with it.
"I call that, now, a really curious thing to see. But I have never come
across anything like it, and I have been in every part of this big city,
and at every hour of the night and morning, and I am not lacking in
imagination either, but no captured maidens have ever beckoned to me from
barred windows nor 'white hands waved from a passing hansom.' Balzac and
De Musset and Stevenson suggest that they have had such adventures, but
they never come to me. It is all commonplace and vulgar, and always ends
in a police court or with a 'found drowned' in the North River."
McGowan, who had fallen into a doze behind the bar, woke suddenly and
shivered and rubbed his shirt-sleeves briskly. A woman knocked at the side
door and begged for a drink "for the love of heaven," and the man who
tended the grill told her to be off. They could hear her feeling her way
against the wall and cursing as she staggered out of the alley. Three men
came in with a hack driver and wanted everybody to drink with them, and
became insolent when the gentlemen declined, and were in consequence
hustled out one at a time by McGowan, who went to sleep again immediately,
with his head resting among the cigar boxes and pyramids of glasses at the
back of the bar, and snored.
"You see," said the reporter, "it is all like this. Night in a great city
is not picturesque and it is not theatrical. It is sodden, sometimes
brutal, exciting enough until you get used to it, but it runs in a groove.
It is dramatic, but the plot is old and the motives and characters always
The rumble of heavy market wagons and the rattle of milk carts told them
that it was morning, and as they opened the door the cold fresh air swept
into the place and made them wrap their collars around their throats and
stamp their feet. The morning wind swept down the cross-street from the
East River and the lights of the street lamps and of the saloon looked old
and tawdry. Travers and the reporter went off to a Turkish bath, and the
gentleman who held the watch, and who had been asleep for the last hour,
dropped into a nighthawk and told the man to drive home. It was almost
clear now and very cold, and Van Bibber determined to walk. He had the
strange feeling one gets when one stays up until the sun rises, of having
lost a day somewhere, and the dance he had attended a few hours before
seemed to have come off long ago, and the fight in Jersey City was far
back in the past.
The houses along the cross-street through which he walked were as dead as
so many blank walls, and only here and there a lace curtain waved out of
the open window where some honest citizen was sleeping. The street was
quite deserted; not even a cat or a policeman moved on it and Van Bibber's
footsteps sounded brisk on the sidewalk. There was a great house at the
corner of the avenue and the cross-street on which he was walking. The
house faced the avenue and a stone wall ran back to the brown stone stable
which opened on the side street. There was a door in this wall, and as Van
Bibber approached it on his solitary walk it opened cautiously, and a
man's head appeared in it for an instant and was withdrawn again like a
flash, and the door snapped to. Van Bibber stopped and looked at the door
and at the house and up and down the street. The house was tightly closed,
as though some one was lying inside dead, and the streets were still
Van Bibber could think of nothing in his appearance so dreadful as to
frighten an honest man, so he decided the face he had had a glimpse of
must belong to a dishonest one. It was none of his business, he assured
himself, but it was curious, and he liked adventure, and he would have
liked to prove his friend the reporter, who did not believe in adventure,
in the wrong. So he approached the door silently, and jumped and caught at
the top of the wall and stuck one foot on the handle of the door, and,
with the other on the knocker, drew himself up and looked cautiously down
on the other side. He had done this so lightly that the only noise he made
was the rattle of the door-knob on which his foot had rested, and the man
inside thought that the one outside was trying to open the door, and
placed his shoulder to it and pressed against it heavily. Van Bibber, from
his perch on the top of the wall, looked down directly on the other's head
and shoulders. He could see the top of the man's head only two feet below,
and he also saw that in one hand he held a revolver and that two bags
filled with projecting articles of different sizes lay at his feet.
It did not need explanatory notes to tell Van Bibber that the man below
had robbed the big house on the corner, and that if it had not been for
his having passed when he did the burglar would have escaped with his
treasure. His first thought was that he was not a policeman, and that a
fight with a burglar was not in his line of life; and this was followed by
the thought that though the gentleman who owned the property in the two
bags was of no interest to him, he was, as a respectable member of
society, more entitled to consideration than the man with the revolver.
The fact that he was now, whether he liked it or not, perched on the top
of the wall like Humpty Dumpty, and that the burglar might see him and
shoot him the next minute, had also an immediate influence on his
movements. So he balanced himself cautiously and noiselessly and dropped
upon the man's head and shoulders, bringing him down to the flagged walk
with him and under him. The revolver went off once in the struggle, but
before the burglar could know how or from where his assailant had come,
Van Bibber was standing up over him and had driven his heel down on his
hand and kicked the pistol out of his fingers. Then he stepped quickly to
where it lay and picked it up and said, "Now, if you try to get up I'll
shoot at you." He felt an unwarranted and ill-timedly humorous inclination
to add, "and I'll probably miss you," but subdued it. The burglar, much to
Van Bibber's astonishment, did not attempt to rise, but sat up with his
hands locked across his knees and said: "Shoot ahead. I'd a damned sight
rather you would."
His teeth were set and his face desperate and bitter, and hopeless to a
degree of utter hopelessness that Van Bibber had never imagined.
"Go ahead," reiterated the man, doggedly, "I won't move. Shoot me."
It was a most unpleasant situation. Van Bibber felt the pistol loosening
in his hand, and he was conscious of a strong inclination to lay it down
and ask the burglar to tell him all about it.
"You haven't got much heart," said Van Bibber, finally. "You're a pretty
poor sort of a burglar, I should say."
"What's the use?" said the man, fiercely. "I won't go back—I won't
go back there alive. I've served my time forever in that hole. If I have
to go back again—s'help me if I don't do for a keeper and die for
it. But I won't serve there no more."
"Go back where?" asked Van Bibber, gently, and greatly interested; "to
"To prison, yes!" cried the man, hoarsely: "to a grave. That's where. Look
at my face," he said, "and look at my hair. That ought to tell you where
I've been. With all the color gone out of my skin, and all the life out of
my legs. You needn't be afraid of me. I couldn't hurt you if I wanted to.
I'm a skeleton and a baby, I am. I couldn't kill a cat. And now you're
going to send me back again for another lifetime. For twenty years, this
time, into that cold, forsaken hole, and after I done my time so well and
worked so hard." Van Bibber shifted the pistol from one hand to the other
and eyed his prisoner doubtfully.
"How long have you been out?" he asked, seating himself on the steps of
the kitchen and holding the revolver between his knees. The sun was
driving the morning mist away, and he had forgotten the cold.
"I got out yesterday," said the man.
Van Bibber glanced at the bags and lifted the revolver. "You didn't waste
much time," he said.
"No," answered the man, sullenly, "no, I didn't. I knew this place and I
wanted money to get West to my folks, and the Society said I'd have to
wait until I earned it, and I couldn't wait. I haven't seen my wife for
seven years, nor my daughter. Seven years, young man; think of that—seven
years. Do you know how long that is? Seven years without seeing your wife
or your child! And they're straight people, they are," he added, hastily.
"My wife moved West after I was put away and took another name, and my
girl never knew nothing about me. She thinks I'm away at sea. I was to
join 'em. That was the plan. I was to join 'em, and I thought I could lift
enough here to get the fare, and now," he added, dropping his face in his
hands, "I've got to go back. And I had meant to live straight after I got
West,—God help me, but I did! Not that it makes much difference now.
An' I don't care whether you believe it or not neither," he added,
"I didn't say whether I believed it or not," answered Van Bibber, with
He eyed the man for a brief space without speaking, and the burglar looked
back at him, doggedly and defiantly, and with not the faintest suggestion
of hope in his eyes, or of appeal for mercy. Perhaps it was because of
this fact, or perhaps it was the wife and child that moved Van Bibber, but
whatever his motives were, he acted on them promptly. "I suppose, though,"
he said, as though speaking to himself, "that I ought to give you up."
"I'll never go back alive," said the burglar, quietly.
"Well, that's bad, too," said Van Bibber. "Of course I don't know whether
you're lying or not, and as to your meaning to live honestly, I very much
doubt it; but I'll give you a ticket to wherever your wife is, and I'll
see you on the train. And you can get off at the next station and rob my
house to-morrow night, if you feel that way about it. Throw those bags
inside that door where the servant will see them before the milkman does,
and walk on out ahead of me, and keep your hands in your pockets, and
don't try to run. I have your pistol, you know."
The man placed the bags inside the kitchen door; and, with a doubtful look
at his custodian, stepped out into the street, and walked, as he was
directed to do, toward the Grand Central station. Van Bibber kept just
behind him, and kept turning the question over in his mind as to what he
ought to do. He felt very guilty as he passed each policeman, but he
recovered himself when he thought of the wife and child who lived in the
West, and who were "straight."
"Where to?" asked Van Bibber, as he stood at the ticket-office window.
"Helena, Montana," answered the man with, for the first time, a look of
relief. Van Bibber bought the ticket and handed it to the burglar. "I
suppose you know," he said, "that you can sell that at a place down town
for half the money." "Yes, I know that," said the burglar. There was a
half-hour before the train left, and Van Bibber took his charge into the
restaurant and watched him eat everything placed before him, with his eyes
glancing all the while to the right or left. Then Van Bibber gave him some
money and told him to write to him, and shook hands with him. The man
nodded eagerly and pulled off his hat as the car drew out of the station;
and Van Bibber came down town again with the shop girls and clerks going
to work, still wondering if he had done the right thing.
He went to his rooms and changed his clothes, took a cold bath, and
crossed over to Delmonico's for his breakfast, and, while the waiter laid
the cloth in the cafe, glanced at the headings in one of the papers. He
scanned first with polite interest the account of the dance on the night
previous and noticed his name among those present. With greater interest
he read of the fight between "Dutchy" Mack and the "Black Diamond," and
then he read carefully how "Abe" Hubbard, alias "Jimmie the Gent," a
burglar, had broken jail in New Jersey, and had been traced to New York.
There was a description of the man, and Van Bibber breathed quickly as he
read it. "The detectives have a clew of his whereabouts," the account
said; "if he is still in the city they are confident of recapturing him.
But they fear that the same friends who helped him to break jail will
probably assist him from the country or to get out West."
"They may do that," murmured Van Bibber to himself, with a smile of grim
contentment; "they probably will."
Then he said to the waiter, "Oh, I don't know. Some bacon and eggs and
green things and coffee."