Running footsteps—light, soft-soled shoes made of curious leathery cloth brought from Ceylon setting the pace; thick flowing boots, two pairs, dark blue and gilt, reflecting the moonlight in blunt gleams and splotches, following a stone's throw behind.
Soft Shoes flashes through a patch of moonlight, then darts into a blind labyrinth of alleys and becomes only an Intermittent scuffle ahead somewhere in the enfolding darkness. In go Flowing Boots, with short swords lurching and long plumes awry, finding a breath to curse God and the black lanes of London.
Soft Shoes leaps a shadowy gate and crackles through a hedgerow. Flowing Boots leap the gate and crackle through the hedgerow—and there, startlingly, is the watch ahead—two murderous pikemen of ferocious cast of mouth acquired in Holland and the Spanish marches.
But there is no cry for help. The pursued does not fall panting at the feet of the watch, clutching a purse; neither do the pursuers raise a hue and cry. Soft Shoes goes by in a rush of swift air. The watch curse and hesitate, glance after the fugitive, and then spread their pikes grimly across the road and wait for Flowing Boots. Darkness, like a great hand, cuts off the even flow of the moon.
The hand moves off the moon whose pale caress finds again the eaves and lintels, and the watch, wounded and tumbled in the dust. Up the street one of Flowing Boots leaves a black trail of spots until he binds himself, clumsily as he runs, with fine lace caught from his throat.
It was no affair for the watch: Satan was at large tonight and Satan seemed to be he who appeared dimly in front, heel over gate, knee over fence. Moreover, the adversary was obviously travelling near home or at least in that section of London consecrated to his coarser whims, for the street narrowed like a road in a picture and the houses bent over further and further, cooping in natural ambushes suitable for murder and its histrionic sister, sudden death.
Down long and sinuous lanes twisted the hunted and the harriers, always in and out of the moon in a perpetual queen's move over a checker-board of glints and patches. Ahead, the quarry, minus his leather jerkin now and half blinded by drips of sweat, had taken to scanning his ground desperately on both sides. As a result he suddenly slowed short, and retracing his steps a bit scooted up an alley so dark that it seemed that here sun and moon had been in eclipse since the last glacier slipped roaring over the earth. Two hundred yards down he stopped and crammed himself into a niche in the wall where he huddled and panted silently, a grotesque god without bulk or outline in the gloom.
Flowing Boots, two pairs, drew near, came up, went by, halted twenty yards beyond him, and spoke in deep-lunged, scanty whispers:
“I was attune to that scuffle; it stopped.”
“Within twenty paces.”
“Stay together now and we'll cut him up.”
The voice faded into a low crunch of a boot, nor did Soft Shoes wait to hear more—he sprang in three leaps across the alley, where he bounded up, flapped for a moment on the top of the wall like a huge bird, and disappeared, gulped down by the hungry night at a mouthful.
He read at wine, he read in bed,
He read aloud, had he the breath,
His every thought was with the dead,
And so he read himself to death.
Any visitor to the old James the First graveyard near Peat's Hill may spell out this bit of doggerel, undoubtedly one of the worst recorded of an Elizabethan, on the tomb of Weasel Caster.
This death of his, says the antiquary, occurred when he was thirty-seven, but as this story is concerned with the night of a certain chase through darkness, we find him still alive, still reading. His eyes were somewhat dim, his stomach somewhat obvious—he was a misbuilt man and indolent—oh, Heavens! But an era is an era, and in the reign of Elizabeth, by the grace of Luther, Queen of England, no man could help but catch the spirit of enthusiasm. Every loft in Cheapside published its Magnum Folium (or magazine) of the new blank verse; the Cheapside Players would produce anything on sight as long as it “got away from those reactionary miracle plays,” and the English Bible had run through seven “very large” printings in as many months.
So Wessel Caxter (who in his youth had gone to sea) was now a reader of all on which he could lay his hands—he read manuscripts in holy friendship; he dined rotten poets; he loitered about the shops where the Magna Folia were printed, and he listened tolerantly while the young playwrights wrangled and bickered among themselves, and behind each other's backs made bitter and malicious charges of plagiarism or anything else they could think of.
To-night he had a book, a piece of work which, though inordinately versed, contained, he thought, some rather excellent political satire. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser lay before him under the tremulous candle-light. He had ploughed through a canto; he was beginning another:
It fails me here to write of Chastity.
The fayrest vertue, far above the rest …
A sudden rush of feet on the stairs, a rusty swing-open of the thin door, and a man thrust himself into the room, a man without a jerkin, panting, sobbing, on the verge of collapse.
“Wessel,” words choked him, “stick me away somewhere, love of Our Lady!”
Caxter rose, carefully closing his book, and bolted the door in some concern.
“I'm pursued,” cried out Soft Shoes. “I vow there's two short-witted blades trying to make me into mincemeat and near succeeding. They saw me hop the back wall!”
“It would need,” said Wessel, looking at him curiously, “several battalions armed with blunderbusses, and two or three Armadas, to keep you reasonably secure from the revenges of the world.”
Soft Shoes smiled with satisfaction. His sobbing gasps were giving way to quick, precise breathing; his hunted air had faded to a faintly perturbed irony.
“I feel little surprise,” continued Wessel.
“They were two such dreary apes.”
“Making a total of three.”
“Only two unless you stick me away. Man, man, come Alive; they'll be on the stairs in a spark's age.”
Wessel took a dismantled pike-staff from the corner, and raising it to the high ceiling, dislodged a rough trapdoor opening into a garret above.
“There's no ladder.”
He moved a bench under the trap, upon which Soft Shoes mounted, crouched, hesitated, crouched again, and then leaped amazingly upward. He caught at the edge of the aperture and swung back and forth for a moment, shifting his hold; finally doubled up and disappeared into the darkness above. There was a scurry, a migration of rats, as the trap-door was replaced;…silence.
Wessel returned to his reading-table, opened to the Legend of Britomartis or of Chastity—and waited.
Almost a minute later there was a scramble on the stairs and an intolerable hammering at the door. Weasel sighed and, picking up his candle, rose.
“Open the door!”
An aching blow frightened the frail wood, splintered it around the edge. Weasel opened it a scarce three inches, and held the candle high. His was to play the timorous, the super-respectable citizen, disgracefully disturbed.
“One small hour of the night for rest. Is that too much to ask from every brawler and——”
“Quiet, gossip! Have you seen a perspiring fellow?”
The shadows of two gallants fell in immense wavering outlines over the narrow stairs; by the light Weasel scrutinized them closely. Gentlemen, they were, hastily but richly dressed—one of them wounded severely in the hand, both radiating a sort of furious horror. Waving aside Wessel's ready miscomprehension, they pushed by him into the room and with their swords went through the business of poking carefully into all suspected dark spots in the room, further extending their search to Wessel's bedchamber.
“Is he hid here?” demanded the wounded man fiercely.
“Is who here?”
“Any man but you.”
“Only two others that I know of.”
For a second Wessel feared that he had been too damned funny, for the gallants made as though to prick him through.
“I heard a man on the stairs,” he said hastily, “full five minutes ago, it was. He most certainly failed to come up.”
He went on to explain his absorption in The Faerie Queene but, for the moment at least, his visitors, like the great saints, were anaesthetic to culture.
“What's been done?” inquired Wessel.
“Violence!” said the man with the wounded hand. Wessel noticed that his eyes were quite wild. “My own sister. Oh, Christ in heaven, give us this man!”
“Who is the man?”
“God's word! We know not even that. What's that trap up there?” he added suddenly.
“It's nailed down. It's not been used for years.” He thought of the pole in the corner and quailed in his belly, but the utter despair of the two men dulled their astuteness.
“It would take a ladder for any one not a tumbler,” said the wounded man listlessly.
His companion broke into hysterical laughter.
“A tumbler. Oh, a tumbler. Oh——“
Wessel stared at them in wonder.
“That appeals to my most tragic humor,” cried the man, “that no one—oh, no one—could get up there but a tumbler.”
The gallant with the wounded hand snapped his good fingers impatiently.
“We must go next door—and then on——“
Helplessly they went as two walking under a dark and storm-swept sky.
Wessel closed and bolted the door and stood a moment by it, frowning in pity.
A low-breathed “Ha!” made him look up. Soft Shoes had already raised the trap and was looking down into the room, his rather elfish face squeezed into a grimace, half of distaste, half of sardonic amusement.
“They take off their heads with their helmets,” he remarked in a whisper, “but as for you and me, Wessel, we are two cunning men.”
“Now you be cursed,” cried Wessel vehemently. “I knew you for a dog, but when I hear even the half of a tale like this, I know you for such a dirty cur that I am minded to club your skull.”
Soft Shoes stared at him, blinking.
“At all events,” he replied finally, “I find dignity impossible in this position.”
With this he let his body through the trap, hung for an instant, and dropped the seven feet to the floor.
“There was a rat considered my ear with the air of a gourmet,” he continued, dusting his hands on his breeches. “I told him in the rat's peculiar idiom that I was deadly poison, so he took himself off.”
“Let's hear of this night's lechery!” insisted Wessel angrily.
Soft Shoes touched his thumb to his nose and wiggled the fingers derisively at Wessel.
“Street gamin!” muttered Wessel.
“Have you any paper?” demanded Soft Shoes irrelevantly, and then rudely added, “or can yon write?”
“Why should I give you paper?”
“You wanted to hear of the night's entertainment. So you shall, an you give me pen, ink, a sheaf of paper, and a room to myself.”
“Get out!” he said finally.
“As you will. Yet you have missed a most intriguing story.”
Wessel wavered—he was soft as taffy, that man—gave in. Soft Shoes went into the adjoining room with the begrudged writing materials and precisely dosed the door. Wessel grunted and returned to The Faerie Queene; so silence came once more upon the house.
Three o'clock went into four. The room paled, the dark outside was shot through with damp and chill, and Wessel, cupping his brain in his hands, bent low over his table, tracing through the pattern of knights and fairies and the harrowing distresses of many girls. There were dragons chortling along the narrow street outside; when the sleepy armorer's boy began his work at half-past five the heavy clink and chank of plate and linked mail swelled to the echo of a marching cavalcade.
A fog shut down at the first flare of dawn, and the room was grayish yellow at six when Wessel tiptoed to his cupboard bedchamber and pulled open the door. His guest turned on him a face pale as parchment m which two distraught eyes burned like great red letters. He had drawn a chair close to Wessel's prie-dieu winch he was using as a desk; and on it was an amazing stack of closely written pages. With a long sigh Wessel withdrew and returned to his siren, calling himself fool for not claiming his bed here at dawn.
The clump of boots outside, the croaking of old beldames from attic to attic, the dull murmur of morning, unnerved him, and, dozing, he slumped in his chair, his brain, overladen with sound and color, working intolerably over the imagery that stacked it. In this restless dream of his he was one of a thousand groaning bodies crashed near the sun, a helpless bridge for the strong-eyed Apollo. The dream tore at him, scraped along his mind like a ragged knife. When a hot hand touched his shoulder, he awoke with what was nearly a scream to find the fog thick in the room and his guest, a gray ghost of misty stuff, beside him with a pile of paper in his hand.
“It should be a most intriguing tale, I believe, though it requires some going over. May I ask you to lock it away, and in God's name let me sleep ?”
He waited for no answer, but thrust the pile at Wessel, and literally poured himself like stuff from a suddenly inverted bottle upon a couch in the corner; slept, with his breathing regular, but his brow wrinkled in a curious and somewhat uncanny manner.
Wessel yawned sleepily and, glancing at the scrawled, uncertain first page, he began reading aloud very softly:
From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host——
This is the revised version published in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Compare the early version of this text from the April 1917 issue of the Nassau Literary Magazine.
Published in The Smart Set magazine (February 1921).