I had been dining with my ever-interesting friend, Mark Jenkins, at a little Italian restaurant near South Street. It was a chance meeting. Jenkins is too busy, usually, to make dinner engagements. Over our highly seasoned food and sour, thin, red wine, he spoke of little odd incidents and adventures of his profession. Nothing very vital or important, of course. Jenkins is not the sort of detective who first detects and then pours the egotistical and revealing details of achievement in the ears of every acquaintance, however appreciative.
But when I spoke of something I had seen in the morning papers, he laughed. “Poor old ‘Doc’ Holt! Fascinating old codger, to anyone who really knows him. I’ve had his friendship for years — since I was first on the city force and saved a young assistant of his from jail on a false charge. And they had to drag him into the poisoning of this young sport, Ralph Peeler!”
“Why are you so sure he couldn’t have been implicated?” I asked.
But Jenkins only shook his head, with a quiet smile. “I have reasons for believing otherwise,” was all I could get out of him on that score, “But,” he added, “the only reason he was suspected at all is the superstitious dread of these ignorant people around him. Can’t see why he lives in such a place. I know for a fact he doesn’t have to. Doc’s got money of his own. He’s an amateur chemist and dabbler in different sorts of research work, and I suspect he’s been guilty of ‘showing off.’ Result, they all swear he has the evil eye and holds forbidden communion with invisible powers. Smoke?”
Jenkins offered me one of his invariably good cigars, which I accepted, saying thoughtfully: “A man has no right to trifle with the superstitions of ignorant people. Sooner or later, it spells trouble.”
“Did in his case. They swore up and down that he sold love charms openly and poisons secretly, and that, together with his living so near to — somebody else — got him temporarily suspected. But my tongue’s running away with me, as usual!”
“As usual,” I retorted impatiently, “you open up with all the frankness of a Chinese diplomat.”
He beamed upon me engagingly and rose from the table, with a glance at his watch. “Sorry to leave you, Blaisdell, but I have to meet Jimmy Brennan in ten minutes.”
He so clearly did not invite my further company that I remained seated for a little while after his departure; then took my own way homeward. Those streets always held for me a certain fascination, particularly at night. They are so unlike the rest of the city, so foreign in appearance, with their little shabby stores, always open until late evening, their unbelievably cheap goods, displayed as much outside the shops as in them, hung on the fronts and laid out on tables by the curb and in the street itself. Tonight, however, neither people nor stores in any sense appealed to me. The mixture of Italians, Jews and a few Negroes, mostly bareheaded, unkempt and generally unhygienic in appearance, struck me as merely revolting. They were all humans, and I, too, was human. Some way I did not like the idea.
Puzzled a trifle, for I am more inclined to sympathize with poverty than accuse it, I watched the faces that I passed. Never before had I observed how bestial, how brutal were the countenances of the dwellers in this region. I actually shuddered when an old-clothes man, a gray-bearded Hebrew, brushed me as he toiled past with his barrow.
There was a sense of evil in the air, a warning of things which it is wise for a clean man to shun and keep clear of. The impression became so strong that before I had walked two squares I began to feel physically ill. Then it occurred to me that the one glass of cheap Chianti I had drunk might have something to do with the feeling. Who knew how that stuff had been manufactured, or whether the juice of the grape entered at all into its ill-flavored composition? Yet I doubted if that were the real cause of my discomfort.
By nature I am rather a sensitive, impressionable sort of chap. In some way tonight this neighborhood, with its sordid sights and smells, had struck me wrong.
My sense of impending evil was merging into actual fear. This would never do. There is only one way to deal with an imaginative temperament like mine — conquer its vagaries. If I left South Street with this nameless dread upon me, I could never pass down it again without a recurrence of the feeling. I should simply have to stay here until I got the better of it — that was all.
I paused on a corner before a shabby but brightly lighted little drug store. Its gleaming windows and the luminous green of its conventional glass show jars made the brightest spot on the block. I realized that I was tired, but hardly wanted to go in there and rest. I knew what the company would be like at its shabby, sticky soda fountain. As I stood there, my eyes fell on a long white canvas sign across from me, and its black-and-red lettering caught my attention.
SEE THE GREAT UNSEEN!
Come in! This Means You!
FREE TO ALL!
A museum of fakes, I thought, but also reflected that if it were a show of some kind I could sit down for a while, rest, and fight off this increasing obsession of nonexistent evil. That side of the street was almost deserted, and the place itself might well be nearly empty.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13