The Social Triangle by O. Henry
At the stroke of six Ikey Snigglefritz laid down his goose. Ikey was
a tailor's apprentice. Are there tailor's apprentices nowadays?
At any rate, Ikey toiled and snipped and basted and pressed and
patched and sponged all day in the steamy fetor of a tailor-shop.
But when work was done Ikey hitched his wagon to such stars as his
firmament let shine.
It was Saturday night, and the boss laid twelve begrimed and
begrudged dollars in his hand. Ikey dabbled discreetly in water,
donned coat, hat and collar with its frazzled tie and chalcedony
pin, and set forth in pursuit of his ideals.
For each of us, when our day's work is done, must seek our ideal,
whether it be love or pinochle or lobster à la Newburg, or
the sweet silence of the musty bookshelves.
Behold Ikey as he ambles up the street beneath the roaring "El"
between the rows of reeking sweat-shops. Pallid, stooping,
insignificant, squalid, doomed to exist forever in penury of body
and mind, yet, as he swings his cheap cane and projects the noisome
inhalations from his cigarette you perceive that he nurtures in his
narrow bosom the bacillus of society.
Ikey's legs carried him to and into that famous place of
entertainment known as the Café Maginnis—famous because it was the
rendezvous of Billy McMahan, the greatest man, the most wonderful
man, Ikey thought, that the world had ever produced.
Billy McMahan was the district leader. Upon him the Tiger purred,
and his hand held manna to scatter. Now, as Ikey entered, McMahan
stood, flushed and triumphant and mighty, the centre of a huzzaing
concourse of his lieutenants and constituents. It seems there had
been an election; a signal victory had been won; the city had been
swept back into line by a resistless besom of ballots.
Ikey slunk along the bar and gazed, breath-quickened, at his idol.
How magnificent was Billy McMahan, with his great, smooth, laughing
face; his gray eye, shrewd as a chicken hawk's; his diamond ring,
his voice like a bugle call, his prince's air, his plump and active
roll of money, his clarion call to friend and comrade—oh, what a
king of men he was! How he obscured his lieutenants, though they
themselves loomed large and serious, blue of chin and important of
mien, with hands buried deep in the pockets of their short
overcoats! But Billy—oh, what small avail are words to paint for you
his glory as seen by Ikey Snigglefritz!
The Café Maginnis rang to the note of victory. The white-coated
bartenders threw themselves featfully upon bottle, cork and glass.
From a score of clear Havanas the air received its paradox of
clouds. The leal and the hopeful shook Billy McMahan's hand. And
there was born suddenly in the worshipful soul of Ikey Snigglefritz
an audacious, thrilling impulse.
He stepped forward into the little cleared space in which majesty
moved, and held out his hand.
Billy McMahan grasped it unhesitatingly, shook it and smiled.
Made mad now by the gods who were about to destroy him, Ikey threw
away his scabbard and charged upon Olympus.
"Have a drink with me, Billy," he said familiarly, "you and your
"Don't mind if I do, old man," said the great leader, "just to keep
the ball rolling."
The last spark of Ikey's reason fled.
"Wine," he called to the bartender, waving a trembling hand.
The corks of three bottles were drawn; the champagne bubbled in the
long row of glasses set upon the bar. Billy McMahan took his and
nodded, with his beaming smile, at Ikey. The lieutenants and
satellites took theirs and growled "Here's to you." Ikey took his
nectar in delirium. All drank.
Ikey threw his week's wages in a crumpled roll upon the bar.
"C'rect," said the bartender, smoothing the twelve one-dollar notes.
The crowd surged around Billy McMahan again. Some one was telling
how Brannigan fixed 'em over in the Eleventh. Ikey leaned against
the bar a while, and then went out.
He went down Hester street and up Chrystie, and down Delancey to
where he lived. And there his women folk, a bibulous mother and
three dingy sisters, pounced upon him for his wages. And at his
confession they shrieked and objurgated him in the pithy rhetoric of
But even as they plucked at him and struck him Ikey remained in his
ecstatic trance of joy. His head was in the clouds; the star was
drawing his wagon. Compared with what he had achieved the loss of
wages and the bray of women's tongues were slight affairs.
He had shaken the hand of Billy McMahan.
Billy McMahan had a wife, and upon her visiting cards was engraved
the name "Mrs. William Darragh McMahan." And there was a certain
vexation attendant upon these cards; for, small as they were, there
were houses in which they could not be inserted. Billy McMahan was a
dictator in politics, a four-walled tower in business, a mogul,
dreaded, loved and obeyed among his own people. He was growing rich;
the daily papers had a dozen men on his trail to chronicle his every
word of wisdom; he had been honored in caricature holding the Tiger
cringing in leash.
But the heart of Billy was sometimes sore within him. There was a
race of men from which he stood apart but that he viewed with the
eye of Moses looking over into the promised land. He, too, had
ideals, even as had Ikey Snigglefritz; and sometimes, hopeless of
attaining them, his own solid success was as dust and ashes in his
mouth. And Mrs. William Darragh McMahan wore a look of discontent
upon her plump but pretty face, and the very rustle of her silks
seemed a sigh.
There was a brave and conspicuous assemblage in the dining saloon of
a noted hostelry where Fashion loves to display her charms. At one
table sat Billy McMahan and his wife. Mostly silent they were, but
the accessories they enjoyed little needed the indorsement of
speech. Mrs. McMahan's diamonds were outshone by few in the room.
The waiter bore the costliest brands of wine to their table. In
evening dress, with an expression of gloom upon his smooth and
massive countenance, you would look in vain for a more striking
figure than Billy's.
Four tables away sat alone a tall, slender man, about thirty, with
thoughtful, melancholy eyes, a Van Dyke beard and peculiarly white,
thin hands. He was dining on filet mignon, dry toast and
apollinaris. That man was Cortlandt Van Duyckink, a man worth eighty
millions, who inherited and held a sacred seat in the exclusive
inner circle of society.
Billy McMahan spoke to no one around him, because he knew no one.
Van Duyckink kept his eyes on his plate because he knew that every
one present was hungry to catch his. He could bestow knighthood and
prestige by a nod, and he was chary of creating a too extensive
And then Billy McMahan conceived and accomplished the most startling
and audacious act of his life. He rose deliberately and walked over
to Cortlandt Van Duyckink's table and held out his hand.
"Say, Mr. Van Duyckink," he said, "I've heard you was talking about
starting some reforms among the poor people down in my district. I'm
McMahan, you know. Say, now, if that's straight I'll do all I can to
help you. And what I says goes in that neck of the woods, don't it?
Oh, say, I rather guess it does."
Van Duyckink's rather sombre eyes lighted up. He rose to his lank
height and grasped Billy McMahan's hand.
"Thank you, Mr. McMahan," he said, in his deep, serious tones. "I
have been thinking of doing some work of that sort. I shall be glad
of your assistance. It pleases me to have become acquainted with
Billy walked back to his seat. His shoulder was tingling from the
accolade bestowed by royalty. A hundred eyes were now turned upon
him in envy and new admiration. Mrs. William Darragh McMahan
trembled with ecstasy, so that her diamonds smote the eye almost
with pain. And now it was apparent that at many tables there were
those who suddenly remembered that they enjoyed Mr. McMahan's
acquaintance. He saw smiles and bows about him. He became enveloped
in the aura of dizzy greatness. His campaign coolness deserted him.
"Wine for that gang!" he commanded the waiter, pointing with his
finger. "Wine over there. Wine to those three gents by that green
bush. Tell 'em it's on me. D––––n it! Wine
The waiter ventured to whisper that it was perhaps inexpedient to
carry out the order, in consideration of the dignity of the house
and its custom.
"All right," said Billy, "if it's against the rules. I wonder if
'twould do to send my friend Van Duyckink a bottle? No? Well, it'll
flow all right at the caffy to-night, just the same. It'll be rubber
boots for anybody who comes in there any time up to 2 A. M."
Billy McMahan was happy.
He had shaken the hand of Cortlandt Van Duyckink.
The big pale-gray auto with its shining metal work looked out of
place moving slowly among the push carts and trash-heaps on the
lower east side. So did Cortlandt Van Duyckink, with his
aristocratic face and white, thin hands, as he steered carefully
between the groups of ragged, scurrying youngsters in the streets.
And so did Miss Constance Schuyler, with her dim, ascetic beauty,
seated at his side.
"Oh, Cortlandt," she breathed, "isn't it sad that human beings have
to live in such wretchedness and poverty? And you—how noble it is of
you to think of them, to give your time and money to improve their
Van Duyckink turned his solemn eyes upon her.
"It is little," he said, sadly, "that I can do. The question is a
large one, and belongs to society. But even individual effort is not
thrown away. Look, Constance! On this street I have arranged to
build soup kitchens, where no one who is hungry will be turned away.
And down this other street are the old buildings that I shall cause
to be torn down and there erect others in place of those death-traps
of fire and disease."
Down Delancey slowly crept the pale-gray auto. Away from it toddled
coveys of wondering, tangle-haired, barefooted, unwashed children.
It stopped before a crazy brick structure, foul and awry.
Van Duyckink alighted to examine at a better perspective one of the
leaning walls. Down the steps of the building came a young man who
seemed to epitomize its degradation, squalor and infelicity—a
narrow-chested, pale, unsavory young man, puffing at a cigarette.
Obeying a sudden impulse, Van Duyckink stepped out and warmly
grasped the hand of what seemed to him a living rebuke.
"I want to know you people," he said, sincerely. "I am going to help
you as much as I can. We shall be friends."
As the auto crept carefully away Cortlandt Van Duyckink felt an
unaccustomed glow about his heart. He was near to being a happy man.
He had shaken the hand of Ikey Snigglefritz.