That Smuggled Silk

by the Old Lobbyist

Should your curiosity invite it, and the more since I promised you the story, we will now, my children, go about the telling of that one operation in underground silk. It is not calculated to foster the pride of an old man to plunge into a relation of dubious doings of his youth. And yet, as I look backward on that one bit of smuggling of which I was guilty, so far as motive was involved, I exonerate myself. I looked on the government, because of the South's conquest by the North, and that later ruin of myself through the machinations of the Revenue office, as both a political and a personal foe. And I felt, not alone morally free, but was impelled besides in what I deemed a spirit of justice to myself, to wage war against it as best I might. It was on such argument, where the chance proffered, that I sought wealth as a smuggler. I would deplete the government—forage, as it were, on the enemy—thereby to fatten my purse. Of course, as my hair has whitened with the sifting frosts of years, I confess that my sophistries of smuggling seem less and less plausible, while smuggling itself loses whatever of romantic glamour it may have been invested with or what little color of respect to which it might seem able to lay claim.

This tale shall be told in simplest periods. That is as should be; for expression should ever be meek and subjugated when one's story is the mere story of a cheat. There is scant room in such recital for heroic phrase. Smuggling, and paint it with what genius one may, can be nothing save a skulking, hiding, fear-eaten trade. There is nothing about it of bravery or dash. How therefore, and avoid laughter, may one wax stately in any telling of its ignoble details?

When, following my unfortunate crash in tobacco, I had cleared away the last fragment of the confusion that reigned in my affairs, I was driven to give my nerves a respite and seek a rest. For three months I had been under severest stress. When the funeral was done—for funeral it seemed to me—and my tobacco enterprise and those hopes it had so flattered were forever laid at rest, my nerves sank exhausted and my brain was in a whirl. I could neither think with clearness nor plan with accuracy. Moreover, I was prey to that depression and lack of confidence in myself, which come inevitably as the corollary of utter weariness.

Aware of this personal condition, I put aside thought of any present formulation of a future. I would rest, recover poise, and win back that optimism that belongs with health and youth. This was wisdom; I was jaded beyond belief; and fatigue means dejection, and dejection spells pessimism, and pessimism is never sagacious nor excellent in any of its programmes.

For that rawness of the nerves I speak of, many apply themselves to drink; some rush to drugs; for myself, I take to music. It was midwinter, and grand opera was here. This was fortunate. I buried myself in a box, and opened my very pores to those nerve-healthful harmonies. In a week thereafter I might call myself recovered. My soul was cool, my eye bright, my mind clear and sensibly elate. Life and its promises seemed mightily refreshed.

No one has ever called me superstitious, and yet to begin my course-charting for a new career, I harked back to the old Astor House. It was there that brilliant thought of tobacco overtook me two years before. Perhaps an inspiration was to dwell in an environment. Again I registered, and finding it tenantless, took over again my old room.

Still I cannot say, and it is to that hostelry's credit, that my domicile at the Astor aided me to my smuggling resolves. Those last had growth somewhat in this fashion: I had dawdled for two hours over coffee in the cafe—the room and the employment which had one-time brought me fortune—but was incapable of any thought of value. I could decide on nothing good. Indeed, I did naught save mentally curse those Washington revenue miscreants who, failing of blackmail, had destroyed me for revenge.

Whatever comfort may lurk in curses, at least they carry no money profit; so after a fruitless session over coffee and maledictions, I arose, and as a calmative, walked down Broadway. At Trinity churchyard, the gates being open, I turned in and began ramblingly to twine and twist among the graves. There I encountered a garrulous old man who, for his own pleasure, evidently, devoted himself to my information. He pointed out the grave of Fulton, he of the steamboats; then I was shown the tomb of that Lawrence who would "never give up the ship"; from there I was carried to the last low bed of the love-wrecked beautiful Charlotte Temple.

My eye at last, by the alluring voice and finger of the old guide, was drawn to a spot under the tower where sleeps the Lady Cornbury, dead now as I tell this, hardly two hundred years. Also I was told of that Lord Cornbury, her husband, once governor of the colony for his relative, Queen Anne; and how he became so much more efficient as a smuggler and a customs cheat, than ever he was as an executive, that he lost in 1708 his high employment.

Because I had nothing more worthy to occupy my leisure, I listened—somewhat listlessly, I promise you, for after all I was thinking of the future not the past, and considering of the living rather than those old dead folk, obscure, forgotten in their slim graves—I listened, I say, wordlessly to my gray historian; and somehow, after I was free of him, the one thing that remained alive in my memory was the smuggling story of our Viscount Cornbury.

Among those few acquaintances I had formed during my brief prosperity, was one with a gentleman named Harris, who had owned apartments under mine on Twenty-second Street. Harris was elegant, educated, traveled, and apparently well-to-do in riches. Busy with my own mounting fortunes, the questions of who Harris was? and what he did? and how he lived? never rapped at the door of my curiosity for reply. One night, however, as we sat over a late and by no means a first bottle of wine, Harris himself informed me that he was employed in smuggling; had a partner-accomplice in the Customs House, and perfect arrangements aboard a certain ship. By these last double advantages, he came aboard with twenty trunks, if he so pleased, without risking anything from the inquisitiveness or loquacity of the officers of the ship; and later debarked at New York with the certainty of going scatheless through the customs as rapidly as his Inspector partner could chalk scrawlingly "O.K." upon his sundry pieces of baggage.

Coming from Old Trinity, still mooting Cornbury and his smugglings, my thoughts turned to Harris. Also, for the earliest time, I began to consider within myself whether smuggling was not a field of business wherein a pushing man might grow and reap a harvest. The idea came to me to turn "free-trader." The government had destroyed me; I would make reprisal. I would give my hand to smuggling and spoil the Egyptian.

At once I sought Harris and over a glass of Burgundy—ever a favorite wine with me—we struck agreement. As a finale, we each put in fifteen thousand dollars and with the whole sum of thirty thousand dollars Harris pushed forth for Europe while I remained behind. Harris visited Lyons; and our complete investment was in a choicest sort of Lyons silk. The rich fabrics were packed in a dozen trunks—not all alike, these trunks, but differing, one from another, so as to prevent the notion as they stood about the wharf that there was aught of relationship between them or that one man stood owner of them all.

It is not needed to tell of my partner's voyage of return. It was without event and one may safely abandon it, leaving its relation to Harris himself, if he be yet alive and should the spirit him so move. It is enough for the present purpose that in due time the trunks holding our precious silk-bolts, with Harris as their convoy, arrived safe in New York. I had been looking for the boat's coming and was waiting eagerly on the wharf as her lines and her stagings were run ashore. Our partner, the Inspector, and who was to enjoy a per cent of the profits of the speculation, was named Lorns. He rapidly chalked "O.K." with his name affixed to the end of each several trunk, and it thereupon with the balance of inspected baggage was promptly piled upon the wharf.

There had been a demand for drays, I remember, and on this day when our silks came in, I was able to procure but one. The ship did not dock until late in the afternoon, and at eight o'clock of a dark, foggy April evening, there still remained one of our trunks—the largest of all, it was—on the wharf. The dray had departed with the second load for that concealing loft on Reade Street which, in Harris' absence, I had taken to be used as the depot of those smuggling operations wherein we might become engaged. I had made every move with caution; I had never employed our real names, not even with the drayman.

As I was telling, the dray was engaged about the second trip. This last large silk-trunk was left behind perforce; pile it how one might, there had been no safe room for it on the already overloaded dray. The drayman had promised to return and have it safely in our loft that night.

For myself, I was from first to last lounging about the wharf, overseeing the going away of our goods. Harris, so soon as I gave him key and street-number had posted to Reade Street to attend the silk's reception. Waiting for the coming back of the conveying dray was but a slow, dull business, and I was impatiently, at the hour I've named, walking up and down, casting an occasional glance at the big last trunk where it stood on end, a bit drawn out and separated from that common mountain of baggage wherewith the wharf was piled. One of the general inspectors, a man I had never seen but whom I knew, by virtue of his rank, to be superior to our chalk-wielding coparcener, Lorns, also paced the wharf and appeared to bear me company in a distant, non-communicative way. This customs captain and myself, save for an under inspector named Quin, had the dock to ourselves. The boat was long in and most land folk had gotten through their concern with her and wended homeward long before. There were, however, many passengers of emigrant sort still held aboard the ship.

As I marched up and down, Lorns came ashore and pretended some business with his superior officer. As he returned to the ship and what duties he had still to perform there, he made a slight signal to both myself and his fellow inspector, Quin, to follow him. I was well known to Lorns, having had several talks with him, while Harris was abroad. Quin I had never met; but it quickly appeared that he was a confidant of Lorns, and while without a money interest in our affairs was ready to bear a helping hand should a situation commence to pinch.

Quin and I went severally and withal carelessly aboard ship, and not at all as though we were seeking Lorns. This was to darken the chief, who was not in our secrets and whom we both surmised to be the cause of Lorns' signal.

Once aboard, and gathered in a dark corner, Lorns began at once:

"Let me do the talking," said Lorns with a nervous rapidity that at once enlisted the ears of Quin and myself. "Don't interrupt, but listen. The chief suspects that last trunk. I can tell it by the way he acts. A bit later, when I come ashore, he'll ask to have it opened. Should he do so, we're gone; you and I." This last was to me. Then to Quin: "Do you see that tall lean Swiss, with the long boots and porcelain pipe? He's in an ugly mood, doesn't speak English, and within one minute after you return to the wharf, he and I will be entangled in a rough and tumble riot. I'll attend to that. The row will be prodigious. The chief will be sent for to settle the war, and when he leaves the wharf, Quin, don't wait; seize on that silk trunk and throw it into the river. There's iron enough clamped about the corners to sink it; besides, it's packed so tightly it's as heavy as lead, and will go to the bottom like an anvil. Then from the pile pull down some trunk similar to it in looks and stand it in its place. Give the new trunk my mark, as the chief has already read the name on the trunk. Go, Quin; I rely on you."

"You can trust me, my boy," retorted Quin cheerfully, and turning on his heel, he was back on the wharf in a moment, and apparently busy about the pile of baggage.

Suddenly there came a mighty uproar aboard ship. Lorns and the Swiss, the latter already irate over some trouble he had experienced, were rolling about the deck in a most violent scrimmage, the Swiss having decidedly the worst of the trouble. The chief rushed up the plank; Lorns and the descendant of Tell and Winkelried, were torn apart; and then a double din of explanation ensued. After ten minutes, the chief was able to straighten out the difficulty—whatever its pretended cause might be I know not; for I held myself warily aloof, not a little alarmed by what Lorns had communicated—and repaired again to his station upon the wharf. As he came down the plank, Quin, who had not been a moment behind him in going aboard to discover the reasons of the riot, followed. Brief as was that moment, however, during which Quin had lingered behind, he had made the shift suggested by Lorns; the silk trunk was under the river, a strange trunk stood in its stead. As the chief returned, he walked straight to this suspected trunk and tipped it down with his foot. Then to Quin:

"Ask Lorns to step here."

Quin went questing after Lorns; shortly Lorns and Quin came back together. The chief turned in a brisk, sharp, official way to Lorns:

"Did you inspect this trunk?"

"I did," said Lorns, looking at the chalk marks as if to make sure.

"Open it!"

No keys were procurable; the owners, Lorns said, had long since left the docks. But Lorns suggested that he get hammer and cold chisel from the ship.

The trunk was opened and found free and innocent of aught contraband. The chief wore a puzzled, dark look; he felt that he'd been cheated, but he couldn't say how. Therefore being wise, the chief gulped, said nothing, and as life is short and he had many things to do, soon after left the docks and went his way.

"That was a squeak!" said Lorns when we were at last free of the dangerous chief. "Quin, I thank you."

"That's all right," retorted Quin, with a grin; "do as much for me some time."

That night, with the aid of a river rat, our trunk, jettisoned by the excellent Quin, was fished up; and being tight as a drum, its contents had come to little harm with their sudden baptism. At last, our dozen silk trunks—holding a treasure of thirty thousand dollars and whereon we looked to clear a heavy profit—were safe in the Reade Street loft; and my hasty heart, which had been beating at double speed since that almost fatal interference, slowed to normal count.

One might now suppose that our woes were at an end, all danger over, and nothing to do but dispose of our shimmering cargo to best advantage. Harris and I were of that spirit-lifting view; we began on the very next day to feel about for customers.

Harris, whose former smuggling exploits had dealt solely with gems, knew as little of silk as did I. Had either been expert we might have foreseen a coming peril into whose arms we in our blindness all but walked. No, my children, our troubles were not yet done. We had escaped the engulfing suck of Charybdis, only to be darted upon by those six grim mouths of her sister monster, Scylla, over the way.

Well do I recall that morning. I had seen but two possible purchasers of silks when Harris overtook me. His eye shone with alarm. Lorns had run him down with the news—however he himself discovered it, I never knew—that another peril was yawning. Harris hurried me to our Reade Street lair and gave particulars.

"It seems," said Harris, quite out of breath with the speed we'd made in hunting cover, "that A.T. Stewart is for America the sole agent of these particular brands of silk which we've brought in. Some one to whom we've offered them has notified the Stewart company. At this moment and as we sit here, the detectives belonging to Stewart, and for all I may guess, the whole Central Office as well, are on our track. They want to discover who has these silks; and how they came in, since the customs records show no such importations. And there's a dark characteristic to these silks. Each bolt has its peculiar, individual selvage. Each, with a sample of its selvage, is registered at the home looms. Could anyone get a snip of a selvage he could return with it to Lyons, learn from the manufacturers' book just when it was woven, when sold, and to whom. I can tell you one thing," observed Harris, as he concluded his story, "we're in a bad corner."

How the cold drops spangled my brows! I began to wish with much heart that I'd never met Harris; nor heard, that Trinity churchyard day, of Cornbury and his devious smuggling methods of gathering wealth.

There was one ray of hope; neither Harris nor I had disclosed our names, nor the whereabouts or quantity of the silks; and as each had been dealing with folk with whom he'd never before met, we were both as yet mysteries unsolved. Nor were we ever solved. Harris and I kept off the streets during daylight hours for a full month. We were not utterly idle; we unpleasantly employed ourselves in trimming away that tell-tale selvage. Preferring safety to profit, we put forth no efforts to realize on our speculations for almost a year. By that time the one day's wonder of "Who's got A.T. Stewart's silks?" had ceased to disturb the mercantile world and the grand procession of dry goods interest had passed on and over it. At last we crept forth like felons—as of good sooth! we were—and disposed of our mutilated silks to certain good folk whose forefathers once ruled Palestine. These beaky gentry liked bargains, and were in nowise curious; they bought our wares without lifting an eyebrow of inquiry, and from them constructed—though with that I had no concern—those long "circulars," so called, which were the feminine joy a third of a century gone. As to Harris and myself; what with delays, what with expenses, what with figures reduced to dispose of our plunder, we got evenly out. We got back our money; but for those fear-shaken hours of two separate perils, we were never paid.

For myself, I smuggled no more. Still, I did not relinquish my pious purpose to despoil that public treasury Egyptian quoted heretofore. Neither did I give up the Customs as a rich theater of illicit endeavor. Only my methods changed. I now decided that I, myself, would become an Inspector, like unto the useful Lorns, and make my fortune from the opulent inside. I procured the coveted appointment, for I could bring power to bear, and some future day I'll tell you of "The Emperor's Cigars."