When the rain was over, the sky became yellow in the west and the air was cool. Close to the street, which was of red dirt and lined with cheap bungalows dating from 1910, a little boy was riding a big bicycle along the sidewalk. His plan afforded a monotonous fascination. He rode each time for about a hundred yards, dismounted, turned the bicycle around so that it adjoined a stone step and getting on again, not without toil or heat, retraced his course. At one end this was bounded by a colored girl of fourteen holding an anemic baby, and at the other by a scarred, ill-nourished kitten, squatting dismally on the curb. These four were the only souls in sight.
The little boy had accomplished an indefinite number of trips oblivious alike to the melancholy advances of the kitten at one end and to the admiring vacuousness of the colored girl at the other when he swerved dangerously to avoid a man who had turned the corner into the street and recovered his balance only after a moment of exaggerated panic.
But if the incident was a matter of gravity to the boy, it attracted scarcely an instant’s notice from the newcomer, who turned suddenly from the sidewalk and stared with obvious and peculiar interest at the house before which he was standing. It was the oldest house in the street, built with clapboards and a shingled roof. It was a house—in the barest sense of the word: the sort of house that a child would draw on a blackboard. It was of a period, but of no design, and its exterior had obviously been made only as a decent cloak for what was within. It antedated the stucco bungalows by about thirty years and except for the bungalows, which were reproducing their species with prodigious avidity as though by some monstrous affiliation with the guinea-pig, it was the most common type of house in the country. For thirty years such dwellings had satisfied the canons of the middle class; they had satisfied its financial canons by being cheap, they had satisfied its aesthetic canons by being hideous. It was a house built by a race whose more energetic complement hoped either to move up or move on, and it was the more remarkable that its instability had survived so many summers and retained its pristine hideousness and discomfort so obviously unimpaired.
The man was about as old as the house, that is to say, about forty-five. But unlike the house, he was neither hideous nor cheap. His clothes were too good to have been made outside of a metropolis—moreover, they were so good that it was impossible to tell in which metropolis they were made. His name was Abercrombie and the most important event of his life had taken place in the house before which he was standing. He had been born there.
It was one of the last places in the world where he should have been born. He had thought so within a very few years after the event and he thought so now—an ugly home in a third-rate Southern town where his father had owned a partnership in a grocery store. Since then Abercrombie had played golf with the President of the United States and sat between two duchesses at dinner. He had been bored with the President, he had been bored and not a little embarrassed with the duchesses—nevertheless, the two incidents had pleased him and still sat softly upon his naive vanity. It delighted him that he had gone far.
He had looked fixedly at the house for several minutes before he perceived that no one lived there. Where the shutters were not closed it was because there were no shutters to be closed and in these vacancies, blind vacuous expanses of gray window looked unseeingly down at him. The grass had grown wantonly long in the yard and faint green mustaches were sprouting facetiously in the wide cracks of the walk. But it was evident that the property had been recently occupied for upon the porch lay half a dozen newspapers rolled into cylinders for quick delivery and as yet turned only to a faint resentful yellow.
They were not nearly so yellow as the sky when Abercrombie walked up on the porch and sat down upon an immemorial bench, for the sky was every shade of yellow, the color of tan, the color of gold, the color of peaches. Across the street and beyond a vacant lot rose a rampart of vivid red brick houses and it seemed to Abercrombie that the picture they rounded out was beautiful—the warm earthy brick and the sky fresh after the rain, changing and gray as a dream. All his life when he had wanted to rest his mind he had called up into it the image those two things had made for him when the air was clear just at this hour. So Abercrombie sat there thinking about his young days.
Ten minutes later another man turned the corner of the street, a different sort of man, both in the texture of his clothes and the texture of his soul. He was forty-six years old and he was a shabby drudge, married to a woman, who, as a girl, had known better days. This latter fact, in the republic, may be set down in the red italics of misery.
His name was Hemmick—Henry W. or George D. or John F.—the stock that produced him had had little imagination left to waste either upon his name or his design. He was a clerk in a factory which made ice for the long Southern Summer. He was responsible to the man who owned the patent for canning ice, who, in his turn was responsible only to God. Never in his life had Henry W. Hemmick discovered a new way to advertise canned ice nor had it transpired that by taking a diligent correspondence course in ice canning he had secretly been preparing himself for a partnership. Never had he rushed home to his wife, crying: “You can have that servant now, Nell, 1 have been made General Superintendent.” You will have to take him as you take Abercrombie, for what he is and will always be. This is a story of the dead years.
When the second man reached the house he turned in and began to mount the tipsy steps, noticed Abercrombie, the stranger, with a tired surprise, and nodded to him.
“Good evening,” he said.
Abercrombie voiced his agreement with the sentiment.
“Cool”—The newcomer covered his forefinger with his handkerchief and sent the swatched digit on a complete circuit of his collar band. “Have you rented this?” he asked.
“No, indeed, I’m just—resting. Sorry if I’ve intruded—I saw the house was vacant——”
“Oh, you’re not intruding!” said Hemmick hastily. “I don’t reckon anybody could intrude in this old barn. I got out two months ago. They’re not ever goin’ to rent it any more. I got a little girl about this high—” he held his hand parallel to the ground and at an indeterminate distance“—and she’s mighty fond of an old doll that got left here when we moved. Began hollerin’ for me to come over and look it up.”
“You used to live here?” inquired Abercrombie with interest.
“Lived here eighteen years. Came here’n I was married, raised four children in this house. Yes, sir. I know this old fellow.” He struck the door-post with the flat of his hand. “I know every leak in her roof and every loose board in her old floor.”
Abercrombie had been good to look at for so many years that he knew if he kept a certain attentive expression on his face his companion would continue to talk—indefinitely.
“You from up North?” inquired Hemmick politely, choosing with habituated precision the one spot where the anemic wooden railing would support his weight. “I thought so,” he resumed at Abercrombie’s nod. “Don’t take long to tell a Yankee.”
“I’m from New York.”
“So?” The man shook his head with inappropriate gravity. “Never have got up there, myself. Started to go a couple of times, before I was married, but never did get to go.”
He made a second excursion with his finger and handkerchief and then, as though having come suddenly to a cordial decision, he replaced the handkerchief in one of his bumpy pockets and extended the hand toward his companion.
“My name’s Hemmick.”
“Glad to know you.” Abercrombie took the hand without rising. “Abercrombie’s mine.”
“I’m mighty glad to know you, Mr. Abercrombie.”
Then for a moment they both hesitated, their two faces assumed oddly similar expressions, their eyebrows drew together, their eyes looked far away. Each was straining to force into activity some minute cell long sealed and forgotten in his brain. Each made a little noise in his throat, looked away, looked back, laughed. Abercrombie spoke first.
“I know,” agreed Hemmick, “but whereabouts? That’s what’s got me. You from New York you say?”
“Yes, but I was born and raised in this town. Lived in this house till I left here when I was about seventeen. As a matter of fact, I remember you—you were a couple of years older.”
Again Hemmick considered.
“Well,” he said vaguely, “I sort of remember, too. I begin to remember— I got your name all right and I guess maybe it was your daddy had this house before I rented it. But all I can recollect about you is, that there was a boy named Abercrombie and he went away.”
In a few moments they were talking easily. It amused them both to have come from the same house—amused Abercrombie especially, for he was a vain man, rather absorbed, that evening, in his own early poverty. Though he was not given to immature impulses, he found it necessary somehow to make it clear in a few sentences that five years after he had gone away from the house and the town he had been able to send for his father and mother to join him in New York.
Hemmick listened with that exaggerated attention which men who have not prospered generally render to men who have. He would have continued to listen had Abercrombie become more expansive, for he was beginning faintly to associate him with an Abercrombie who had figured in the newspapers for several years at the head of shipping boards and financial committees. But Abercrombie, after a moment, made the conversation less personal.
“I didn’t realize you had so much heat here. I guess I’ve forgotten a lot in twenty-five years.”
“Why, this is a cool day,” boasted Hemmick, “this is cool. I was just sort of overheated from walking when I came up.”
“It’s too hot,” insisted Abercrombie with a restless movement; then he added abruptly, “I don’t like it here. It means nothing to me—nothing—I’ve wondered if it did, you know; that’s why I came down. And I’ve decided.
“You see,” he continued hesitantly, “up to recently the North was still full of professional Southerners, some real, some by sentiment, but all given to flowery monologues on the beauty of their old family plantations and all jumping up and howling when the band played ‘Dixie.’ You know what I mean”—he turned to Hemmick—“it got to be a sort of a national joke. Oh, I was in the game, too, I suppose. I used to stand up and perspire and cheer, and I’ve given young men positions for no particular reason except that they claimed to come from South Carolina or Virginia—” again he broke off and became suddenly abrupt—“but I’m through, I’ve been here six hours and I’m through!”
“Too hot for you?” inquired Hemmick, with mild surprise.
“Yes! I’ve felt the heat and I’ve seen the men—those two or three dozen loafers standing in front of the stores on Jackson Street—in thatched straw hats”—then he added, with a touch of humor, “they’re what my son calls ‘slash-pocket, belted-back boys.’ Do you know the ones I mean?”
“Jelly-beans,” Hemmick nodded gravely, “we call ’em Jelly-beans. No-account lot of boys all right. They got signs up in front of most of the stores asking ’em not to stand there.”
“They ought to!” asserted Abercrombie, with a touch of irascibility. “That’s my picture of the South now, you know—a skinny, dark-haired young man with a gun on his hip and a stomach full of corn liquor or Dope Dola, leaning up against a drug store waiting for the next lynching.”
Hemmick objected, though with apology in his voice.
“You got to remember, Mr. Abercrombie, that we haven’t had the money down here since the war——”
Abercrombie waved this impatiently aside.
“Oh, I’ve heard all that,” he said, “and I’m tired of it. And I’ve heard the South lambasted till I’m tired of that, too. It’s not taking France and Germany fifty years to get on their feet, and their war made your war look like a little fracas up an alley. And it’s not your fault and it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just that this is too damn hot to be a white man’s country and it always will be. I’d like to see ’em pack two or three of these states full of darkies and drop ’em out of the Union.”
Hemmick nodded, thoughtfully, though without thought. He had never thought; for over twenty years he had seldom ever held opinions, save the opinions of the local press or of some majority made articulate through passion. There was a certain luxury in thinking that he had never been able to afford. When cases were set before him he either accepted them outright if they were comprehensible to him or rejected them if they required a modicum of concentration. Yet he was not a stupid man. He was poor and busy and tired and there were no ideas at large in his community, even had he been capable of grasping them. The idea that he did not think would have been equally incomprehensible to him. He was a closed book, half full of badly printed, uncorrelated trash.
Just now, his reaction to Abercrombie’s assertion was exceedingly simple. Since the remarks proceeded from a man who was a Southerner by birth, who was successful—moreover, who was confident and decisive and persuasive and suave—he was inclined to accept them without suspicion or resentment. He took one of Abercrombie’s cigars and pulling on it, still with a stern imitation of profundity upon his tired face, watched the color glide out of the sky and the gray veils come down. The little boy and his bicycle, the baby, the nursemaid, the forlorn kitten, all had departed. In the stucco bungalows pianos gave out hot weary notes that inspired the crickets to competitive sound, and squeaky Graphophones filled in the intervals with patches of whining ragtime until the impression was created that each living room in the street opened directly out into the darkness.
“What I want to find out,” Abercrombie was saying with a frown, “is why I didn’t have sense enough to know that this was a worthless town. It was entirely an accident that I left here, an utterly blind chance, and as it happened, the very train that took me away was full of luck for me. The man I sat beside gave me my start in life.” His tone became resentful. “But I thought this was all right. I’d have stayed except that I’d gotten into a scrape down at the high school—I got expelled and my daddy told me he didn’t want me at home any more. Why didn’t I know the place wasn’t any good? Why didn’t I see?”
“Well, you’d probably never known anything better?” suggested Hemmick mildly.
“That wasn’t any excuse,” insisted Abercrombie. “If I’d been any good I’d have known. As a matter of fact—as—a—matter—of—fact,” he repeated slowly, “I think that at heart I was the sort of boy who’d have lived and died here happily and never known there was anything better.” He turned to Hemmick with a look almost of distress. “It worries me to think that my— that what’s happened to me can be ascribed to chance. But that’s the sort of boy I think I was. I didn’t start off with the Dick Whittington idea—I started off by accident.”
After this confession, he stared out into the twilight with a dejected expression that Hemmick could not understand. It was impossible for the latter to share any sense of the importance of such a distinction—in fact from a man of Abercrombie’s position it struck him as unnecessarily trivial. Still, he felt that some manifestation of acquiescence was only polite.
“Well,” he offered, “it’s just that some boys get the bee to get up and go North and some boys don’t. I happened to have the bee to go North. But I didn’t. That’s the difference between you and me.”
Abercrombie turned to him intently.
“You did?” he asked, with unexpected interest. “You wanted to get out?”
“At one time.” At Abercrombie’s eagerness Hemmick began to attach a new importance to the subject. “At one time,” he repeated, as though the singleness of the occasion was a thing he had often mused upon.
“How old were you?”
“What put it into your head?”
“Well, let me see—” Hemmick considered. “—I don’t know whether I remember sure enough but it seems to me that when I was down to the University—I was there two years—one of the professors told me that a smart boy ought to go North. He said business wasn’t going to amount to much down here for the next fifty years. And I guessed he was right. My father died about then, so I got a job as runner in the bank here, and I didn’t have much interest in anything except saving up enough money to go North. I was bound I’d go.”
“Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you?” insisted Abercrombie in an aggrieved tone.
“Well,” Hemmick hesitated. “Well, I right near did but—things didn’t work out and I didn’t get to go. It was a funny sort of business. It all started about the smallest thing you can think of. It all started about a penny.”
“That’s what did it—one little penny. That’s why I didn’t go ’way from here and all, like I intended.”
“Tell me about it, man!” exclaimed his companion. He looked at his watch impatiently. “I’d like to hear the story.”
Hemmick sat for a moment, distorting his mouth around the cigar.
“Well, to begin with,” he said, at length, “I’m going to ask you if you remember a thing that happened here about twenty-five years ago. A fellow named Hoyt, the cashier of the Cotton National Bank, disappeared one night with about thirty thousand dollars in cash. Say, man, they didn’t talk about anything else down here at the time. The whole town was shaken up about it, and I reckin you can imagine the disturbance it caused down at all the banks and especially at the Cotton National.”
“Well, they caught him, and they got most of the money back, and by and by the excitement died down, except in the bank where the thing had happened. Down there it seemed as if they’d never get used to it. Mr. Deems, the First Vice-President, who’d always been pretty kind and decent, got to be a changed man. He was suspicious of the clerks, the tellers, the janitor, the watchman, most of the officers, and yes, by Golly, I guess he got so he kept an eye on the President himself.
“I don’t mean he was just watchful—he was downright hipped on the subject. He’d come up and ask you funny questions when you were going about your business. He’d walk into the teller’s cage on tip-toe and watch him without saying anything. If there was any mistake of any kind in the bookkeeping, he’d not only fire a clerk or so, but he’d raise such a riot that he made you want to push him into a vault and slam the door on him.
“He was just about running the bank then, and he’d affected the other officers, and—oh, you can imagine the havoc a thing like that could work on any sort of an organization. Everybody was so nervous that they made mistakes whether they were careful or not. Clerks were staying downtown until eleven at night trying to account for a lost nickel. It was a thin year, anyhow, and everything financial was pretty rickety, so one thing worked on another until the crowd of us were as near craziness as anybody can be and carry on the banking business at all.
“I was a runner—and all through the heat of one God-forsaken Summer I ran. I ran and I got mighty little money for it, and that was the time I hated that bank and this town, and all I wanted was to get out and go North. I was getting ten dollars a week, and I’d decided that when I’d saved fifty out of it I was going down to the depot and buy me a ticket to Cincinnati. I had an uncle in the banking business there, and he said he’d give me an opportunity with him. But he never offered to pay my way, and I guess he thought if I was worth having I’d manage to get up there by myself. Well, maybe I wasn’t worth having because, anyhow, I never did.
“One morning on the hottest day of the hottest July I ever knew—and you know what that means down here—I left the bank to call on a man named Harlan and collect some money that’d come due on a note. Harlan had the cash waiting for me all right, and when I counted it I found it amounted to three hundred dollars and eighty-six cents, the change being in brand-new coin that Harlan had drawn from another bank that morning. I put the three one-hundred-dollar bills in my wallet and the change in my watch pocket, signed a receipt and left. I was going straight back to the bank.
“Outside the heat was terrible. It was enough to make you dizzy, and I hadn’t been feeling right for a couple of days, so, while I waited in the shade for a street car, I was congratulating myself that in a month or so I’d be out of this and up where it was some cooler. And then as I stood there it occurred to me all of a sudden that outside of the money which I’d just collected, which, of course, I couldn’t touch, I didn’t have a cent in my pocket. I’d have to walk back to the bank, and it was about fifteen blocks away. You see, on the night before, I’d found that my change came to just a dollar, and I’d traded it for a bill at the corner store and added it to the roll in the bottom of my trunk. So there was no help for it—I took off my coat and I stuck my handkerchief into my collar and struck off through the suffocating heat for the bank.
“Fifteen blocks—you can imagine what that was like, and I was sick when I started. From away up by Juniper Street—you remember where that is; the new Mieger Hospital’s there now—all the way down to Jackson. After about six blocks I began to stop and rest whenever I found a patch of shade wide enough to hold me, and as I got pretty near I could just keep going by thinking of the big glass of iced tea my mother’d have waiting beside my plate at lunch. But after that I began getting too sick to even want the iced tea— I wanted to get rid of that money and then lie down and die.
“When I was still about two blocks away from the bank I put my hand into my watch pocket and pulled out that change; was sort of jingling it in my hand; making myself believe that I was so close that it was convenient to have it ready. I happened to glance into my hand, and all of a sudden I stopped up short and reached down quick into my watch pocket. The pocket was empty. There was a little hole in the bottom, and my hand held only a half dollar, a quarter, and a dime. I had lost one cent.
“Well, sir, I can’t tell you, I can’t express to you the feeling of discouragement that this gave me. One penny, mind you—but think: just the week before a runner had lost his job because he was a little bit shy twice. It was only carelessness; but there you were! They were all in a panic that they might get fired themselves, and the best thing to do was to fire some one else—first.
“So you can see that it was up to me to appear with that penny.
“Where I got the energy to care as much about it as I did is more than I can understand. I was sick and hot and weak as a kitten, but it never occurred to me that I could do anything except find or replace that penny, and immediately I began casting about for a way to do it. I looked into a couple of stores, hoping I’d see some one I knew, but while there were a few fellows loafing in front, just as you saw them today, there wasn’t one that I felt like going up to and saying: ‘Here! You got a penny?’ I thought of a couple of offices where I could have gotten it without much trouble, but they were some distance off, and besides being pretty dizzy, I hated to go out of my route when I was carrying bank money, because it looked kind of strange.
“So what should I do but commence walking back along the street toward the Union Depot where I last remembered having the penny. It was a brand-new penny, and I thought maybe I’d see it shining where it dropped. So I kept walking, looking pretty carefully at the sidewalk and thinking what I’d better do. I laughed a little, because I felt sort of silly for worrying about a penny, but I didn’t enjoy laughing, and it really didn’t seem silly to me at all.
“Well, by and by I got back to the Union Depot without having either seen the old penny or having thought what was the best way to get another. I hated to go all the way home, ’cause we lived a long distance out; but what else was I to do? So I found a piece of shade close to the depot, and stood there considering, thinking first one thing and then another, and not getting anywhere at all. One little penny, just one—something almost any man in sight would have given me; something even the nigger baggage-smashers were jingling around in their pockets… I must have stood there about five minutes. I remember there was a line of about a dozen men in front of an army recruiting station they’d just opened, and a couple of them began to yell: ‘Join the Army!’ at me. That woke me up, and I moved on back toward the bank, getting worried now, getting mixed up and sicker and sicker and knowing a million ways to find a penny and not one that seemed convenient or right. I was exaggerating the importance of losing it, and I was exaggerating the difficulty of finding another, but you just have to believe that it seemed about as important to me just then as though it were a hundred dollars.
“Then I saw a couple of men talking in front of Moody’s soda place, and recognized one of them—Mr. Burling—who’d been a friend of my father’s. That was relief, I can tell you. Before I knew it I was chattering to him so quick that he couldn’t follow what I was getting at.
“‘Now,’ he said, ‘you know I’m a little deaf and can’t understand when you talk that fast! What is it you want, Henry? Tell me from the beginning.’
“‘Have you got any change with you?’ I asked him just as loud as I dared. ‘I just want—’ Then I stopped short; a man a few feet away had turned around and was looking at us. It was Mr. Deems, the First Vice-President of the Cotton National Bank.”
Hemmick paused, and it was still light enough for Abercrombie to see that he was shaking his head to and fro in a puzzled way. When he spoke his voice held a quality of pained surprise, a quality that it might have carried over twenty years.
“I never could understand what it was that came over me then. I must have been sort of crazy with the heat—that’s all I can decide. Instead of just saying, ‘Howdy’ to Mr. Deems, in a natural way, and telling Mr. Burling I wanted to borrow a nickel for tobacco, because I’d left my purse at home, I turned away quick as a flash and began walking up the street at a great rate, feeling like a criminal who had come near being caught.
“Before I’d gone a block I was sorry. I could almost hear the conversation that must’ve been taking place between those two men:
“‘What do you reckon’s the matter with that young man?’ Mr. Burling would say without meaning any harm. ‘Came up to me all excited and wanted to know if I had any money, and then he saw you and rushed away like he was crazy.’
“And I could almost see Mr. Deems’ big eyes get narrow with suspicion and watch him twist up his trousers and come strolling along after me. I was in a real panic now, and no mistake. Suddenly I saw a one-horse surrey going by, and recognized Bill Kennedy, a friend of mine, driving it. I yelled at him, but he didn’t hear me. Then I yelled again, but he didn’t pay any attention, so I started after him at a run, swaying from side to side, I guess, like I was drunk, and calling his name every few minutes. He looked around once, but he didn’t see me; he kept right on going and turned out of sight at the next comer. I stopped then because I was too weak to go any farther. I was just about to sit down on the curb and rest when I looked around, and the first thing I saw was Mr. Deems walking after me as fast as he could come. There wasn’t any of my imagination about it this time—the look in his eyes showed he wanted to know what was the matter with me!
“Well, that’s about all I remember clearly until about twenty minutes later, when I was at home trying to unlock my trunk with fingers that were trembling like a tuning fork. Before I could get it open, Mr. Deems and a policeman came in. I began talking all at once about not being a thief and trying to tell them what had happened, but I guess I was sort of hysterical, and the more I said the worse matters were. When I managed to get the story out it seemed sort of crazy, even to me—and it was true—it was true, true as I’ve told you—every word!—that one penny that I lost somewhere down by the station—” Hemmick broke off and began laughing grotesquely—as though the excitement that had come over him as he finished his tale was a weakness of which he was ashamed. When he resumed it was with an affectation of nonchalance.
“I’m not going into the details of what happened because nothing much did—at least not on the scale you judge events by up North. It cost me my job, and I changed a good name for a bad one. Somebody tattled and somebody lied, and the impression got around that I’d lost a lot of the bank’s money and had been tryin’ to cover it up.
“I had an awful time getting a job after that. Finally I got a statement out of the bank that contradicted the wildest of the stories that had started, but the people who were still interested said it was just because the bank didn’t want any fuss or scandal—and the rest had forgotten: that is they’d forgotten what had happened, but they remembered that somehow I just wasn’t a young fellow to be trusted——”
Hemmick paused and laughed again, still without enjoyment, but bitterly, uncomprehendingly, and with a profound helplessness.
“So, you see, that’s why I didn’t go to Cincinnati,” he said slowly; “my mother was alive then, and this was a pretty bad blow to her. She had an idea—one of those old-fashioned Southern ideas that stick in people’s heads down here—that somehow I ought to stay here in town and prove myself honest. She had it on her mind, and she wouldn’t hear of my going. She said that the day I went’d be the day she’d die. So I sort of had to stay till I’d got back my—my reputation.”
“How long did that take?” asked Abercrombie quietly.
“Ten years,” repeated Hemmick, staring out into the gathering darkness. “This is a little town, you see: I say ten years because it was about ten years when the last reference to it came to my ears. But I was married long before that; had a kid. Cincinnati was out of my mind by that time.”
“Of course,” agreed Abercrombie.
They were both silent for a moment—then Hemmick added apologetically:
“That was sort of a long story, and I don’t know if it could have interested you much. But you asked me——”
“It did interest me,” answered Abercrombie politely. “It interested me tremendously. It interested me much more than I thought it would.”
It occurred to Hemmick that he himself had never realized what a curious, rounded tale it was. He saw dimly now that what had seemed to him only a fragment, a grotesque interlude, was really significant, complete. It was an interesting story; it was the story upon which turned the failure of his life. Abercrombie’s voice broke in upon his thoughts.
“You see, it’s so different from my story,” Abercrombie was saying. “It was an accident that you stayed—and it was an accident that I went away. You deserve more actual—actual credit, if there is such a thing in the world, for your intention of getting out and getting on. You see, I’d more or less gone wrong at seventeen. I was—well, what you call a Jelly-bean. All I wanted was to take it easy through life—and one day I just happened to see a sign up above my head that had on it: ‘Special rate to Atlanta, three dollars and forty-two cents.’ So I took out my change and counted it——”
Hemmick nodded. Still absorbed in his own story, he had forgotten the importance, the comparative magnificence of Abercrombie. Then suddenly he found himself listening sharply:
“I had just three dollars and forty-one cents in my pocket. But, you see, I was standing in line with a lot of other young fellows down by the Union Depot about to enlist in the army for three years. And I saw that extra penny on the walk not three feet away. I saw it because it was brand new and shining in the sun like gold.”
The Alabama night had settled over the street, and as the blue drew down upon the dust the outlines of the two men had become less distinct, so that it was not easy for any one who passed along the walk to tell that one of these men was of the few and the other of no importance. All the detail was gone—Abercrombie’s fine gold wrist watch, his collar, that he ordered by the dozen from London, the dignity that sat upon him in his chair—all faded and were engulfed with Hemmick’s awkward suit and preposterous humped shoes into that pervasive depth of night that, like death, made nothing matter, nothing differentiate, nothing remain. And a little later on a passerby saw only the two glowing disks about the size of a penny that marked the rise and fall of their cigars.
Notes: This story was not included in Tales of Jazz Age by Scott Fitzgerald himself. From November 1921 letter to Harold Ober: “I am not very fond of Two for a Penny. It is a fair story with an O. Henry twist but it is niether 1st class nor popular because it has no love interest. My heart wasn't in it so I know it lacks vitality.” It is the earliest of several Fitzgerald stories in which men make pilgrimages to their hometowns.
Published in Metropolitan Magazine (April 1922).
Illustrations by Pere E. Cowen.
The story was syndicated and re-published: for example, in Buffalo Morning Express (NY) newspaper (August 26, 1923, as Buffalo Sunday Express - All Fiction Magazine).