En Route with a Conscience

Written by Benjamin De Casseres

Illustrated by Nelson Greene

“Bah!” said Jennings at the club one evening after one of those charming little suppers of his which he gave every little while to a few bores. “Bah! There is no such thing as honesty. What Adam calls honesty is nothing but fear. Fear, I may say, in the molecule of honesty. Even my corn is dishonest; and conscience is a corn on the soul.”

Everybody looked gloomy. Jennings was going to tell as story.

“A little thing happened to me this very day,” continued Jennings, “which will prove to you how the fretful poor and the nervous rich are kept from blowing one another off the planet, and incidentally how a bad foot can ruin a conscience.

“I got on a Sixth Avenue ‘L’ train at the down-town Thirty-third Street station at two o’clock this afternoon. Hot as blazes, as you know, and I thought a trip on the boat to Coney and back would cool me off. I went into the front car to get all the air I could, and sat down beside a man who took up nearly the whole cross seat. He sat next to the window on the left hand side of the car, and under his legs there was a great walrus hand satchel. At Twenty-third Street he rose to get out, taking his satchel with him.

“As he moved out the two people on the opposite seat—both men—and I, crumpled ourselves up, but, as I did not push my legs far enough under me, the man trod on my foot. With the exquisite reserve and politeness which you all know were ever mine, I clamped my ‘Oh!’ back into my larynx. The man with the walrus satchel jumped for the door, and I slid up next to the window.

“But in the act of sliding, while he of the walrus bag was hardly yet off my foot, my eye dropped on a glittering object against the side of the car. It was the gold head of a beautiful cane-umbrella—something worth stealing.

“My first impulse was to call the owner back or pick it up and hand it to him through the window. But this impulse was flayed alive by the terrible pain from the corn. My resentment was murderous for a second, and the soul of the corn had its way. The man with the walrus bag had gone, the train had started again, and there I was alongside of the cane-umbrella, my heart rising with joy at the thought of possessing it as the pain from the foot subsided.

“But the man sitting opposite to me had also dropped his eye on that same cane-umbrella at the same time I had. The man alongside of him had apparently seen nothing; besides, as he got out at the next station—Eighteenth Street—he was eliminated.

“Then a battle royal began for the booty, between the man opposite me and myself.

“Who was going to get out first? Should I pick up the umbrella at the next station and walk out boldly with it? How far was he going?

“Anyhow the umbrella is mine, I thought; it being next to me I am in reality in possession of it.

“Of course we both pretended we had not seen the umbrella; and, of course, we both knew the other had seen it. Both of us kept looking out of the window in an unconcerned sort of way. Once I glanced at my neighbor out of the corner of my eye, and found that he was doing the same thing in my direction.

“I was getting hot and uncomfortable. I tried to get interested in the signs and the buildings that the train passed. They were all a blur. The wooden case of that umbrella was pressing against my trousers like a rod of iron, and no doubt, I thought, that blackguard opposite has got the tip of his shoe on the ferrule, for the umbrella lay almost lengthwise across the aisle.

“A deadly rage was growing in me against the man opposite. Why did he not get out? Was he going to the end of the route to have it out with me? His fidgeting about told me as plainly as if I had had an X-ray on his thoughts that he was thinking the same about me.

“‘Cortlandt Street!’ sang out the guard.

“Only two more stops, and then South Ferry, the end of the route! I thought. This man has probably gone far past his station in his greed for the umbrella.

“To get the boat for Coney Island I must get off at Battery Place, the station next to the last, but, as it was evidently the intention of my rival to go to the end of the route, I made up my mind to go too.

“‘Battery Place!’”

“Here was his last chance. If he got off here the umbrella was mine. My heart almost stood still as I heard the guard’s voice bawl out those two words. It dropped like a piece of lead. The man opposite sat motionless, and from under my eyelid I caught what I thought was almost a grin.

“From Battery Place station to South Ferry is one minute’s work for an ‘L’ train. In that minute I went through every phase of fear and hope. The artificial atavistic sense of uprightness offered royal combat in my brain to all the native, natural, newer sense of the right to take what you want. No doubt, in another form, the same war was going on in the brain of the man opposite.

“We sat there fidgetting in our seats.

“‘South Ferry! Last stop!’

“We both rose totally exhausted from that battle of fifteen minutes. We walked out together almost abreast with the other passengers.

“The umbrella still remained against the side of the car.

“At the bottom of the steps at the ferry the tension in me broke, and the humor of the whole thing swept over me like a cold bath. I was nearly convulsed with laughter.

“My man ambled on just ahead of me. He was walking toward the park. I rushed up to him, wrinkled and torn with spasms of inward mirth.

“I put my hand on his shoulder and said to him: ‘Let us go back and toss for the thing, and then turn it in.’

“The man backed away from me, eyeing me suspiciously, and said: ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He walked off, looking at me pityingly.

“The truth flashed over me like a streak of lightning. He had not seen the umbrella at all! He was my conscience, the corn on my soul.”

“Boob!” chorused the Bores.


Source: Puck, Sept. 19, 1914, p. 18