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
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
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
"Did you inspect this trunk?"
"I did," said Lorns, looking at the chalk
marks as if to make sure.
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
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."