By Benjamin De Casseres
IT was an abominably hot afternoon in August, and why I always chose Third Avenue below Fourteenth Street to walk on on abominably hot late afternoons and evenings in summer I could never tell. Probably because it had the smell of New York, probably because it was “old,” or probably because the beer tasted different to me down there than anywhere else.
This afternoon in particular had brought me to about Ninth Street when a child, apparently just able to run, suddenly started out from the other side of the street and made directly for the tracks. A car was coming down the avenue at full speed, and by one of those instantaneous and infallible calculations that the mind makes when in the presence of life and death I saw that nothing could save the child.
Screams arose from the women on both sides of the street and those who were not paralyzed with fear and expectation darted after the child. The motorman of the car, whose fear-distorted face I caught as in a flash, was making herculean efforts to apply the brakes. I made a flying, unreasoned leap in the direction of the child, but there was a man ahead of me, who reached out what seemed to me an inordinately long arm, grasped the arm of the child and, holding it high in the air, sidestepped the car grinding along on the rails with the most graceful and deftest motion that it would be possible to conceive.
He deposited the child near the curb and slipped away in the tremendous crowd. Slipped away from all but me. The horror of the vision of the child’s death which the scene had conjured up in my mind had conquered by the feat of the man, who by his manner seemed to have beaten death by sheer audacity and self-confidence rather than to have escaped it accidentally.
He slipped away down Third Avenue. I followed him, and sized him up from a distance. For a torrid day he was dressed rather extraordinarily. He wore a long faded, shiny black coat, baggy trousers which were frayed at the bottom, heavy longshoreman’s shoes and a black slouch hat with the brim pulled down all around. He looked from the back like a mechanic who had seen better days and, who being long out of work, was wearing gift garments, relics of the past winter. With his hands deep in his trouser pockets he tramped along.
Well, he can’t escape me, I thought with a chuckle. Here’s a little story for the paper all of my own making. I’ll find out who the unknown hero is.
Down near Chatham Square my man sauntered into a bar-room, and as I looked in I saw him with a “schooner” in one hand and in the other a forkful of that unnamable stuff that they call a “free lunch” down there.
I went in, ordered a short beer, and took a better look at the modest fellow. He seemed to be a man of about forty-five. He wore whiskers and what I could see of his features through them impressed me. They were strong and at the same time refined. But the most astounding thing to me about the man’s whole get-up was that he wore gloves. Gloves in August—on such a day! He must be just in from the Pole, I thought. The gloves were old but thick.
I was itching to “get next” to him and find out something about him. But somehow or other I could not just screw up the courage. I had courage enough as a newspaper writer and as an old hack Sunday special interviewer, but somehow I could not find an opening—not even by mentioning the incident farther up the avenue.
The man consumed his beer and free lobscouse and took his course toward the Bridge. His hands, rammed deep in his pocket, he passed through the crowds without looking this way or that. He seemed deep in meditation.
“Where the devil is he going to lead me?” I asked myself, but, my curiosity whetted beyond all measure, and chuckling at the thought that he did not know he was being followed by one who had seen his brave and wonderful action in front of the car, I resolved to follow him if he took me to Far Rockaway.
He went down towards the East River through Franfort Street. It was now sunset and the string-pieces were crowded with children and mothers holding up their infants to catch a breath of fresh air.
My hero took a seat on some boards and with his hat down over his eyes and his hands still rammed in his pocket he spread his legs out comfortably as though stretching. He roused himself every little while and threw his eye around on the children playing around him, some of them dangerously near the water.
One group of boys in particular seemed to attract his attention. They walked along the edge of the string-piece as though challenging a good ducking.
I was growing tired of my detective work and made up my mind at least to try to get his name and address, and let the whole story go at a couple of sticks.
I sat down near him and remarked on the warmth of the evening (the city editor had always told me that I had a queer way of getting commonplace stories).
 The man looked up at me and remarked, “Yes, pretty hot, but heat doesn’t bother me. I dress the same all the year around.” But I noticed while he spoke instead of looking at me he kept looking at the boys as though ready for the unexpected. There was a certain alert, ready manner about him, too, that did not escape me.
I laughed to myself. Did this man, I thought, go through life looking for trouble?
I resolved to take the plunge.
“I saw what you did on Third Avenue several hours ago,” I said. “I was there. You are indeed very modest, and it was the most extraordinary rescue that I will perhaps ever see. The chances were one hundred to one against you and the child—yes, a thousand to one.”
“Nonsense. It was a sure thing,” he said, “besides I wish you wouldn’t mention it. I have been nearer to death than that many times.” And he smiled as though thinking over his hair-breadth escapes.
But before I could question him further—having a good Sunday special in view now—the man made a flying leap toward the end of the pier. In the motion I noticed the same extraordinary agility and lightness of motion that I had noticed before.
One of the boys had fallen into the water. A thousand women’s voices raked the air. Shrieks, sobs, yells were all intermingled. I followed the stranger. He seemed winged again—that is the only way I can express it. I followed him to the end of the string-piece, nearly pushing a dozen women into the water.
The man went into the water, hat, gloves, shoes and all—a queer figure which even in that tense moment struck my funny bone.
He grasped the boy and threw him into a rowboat that was moored to the wharf. The boy was half-drowned, but had probably got nothing more than a good ducking.
The rescuer was in the water bareheaded; his hat was floating away with the tide. He looked up at me smiling and shouted, “The boy is all right; don’t mind me. I’ve been in tight places many times you know I told you.”
His words came to me above the uproar on the wharf with a sharp, almost preternatural intonation. I could see his eyes plainly now. They were blue—bluer than the sky above Naples; and against his pallid forehead and light-colored beard they looked like two stars—blue stars.
But whether he was seized with a cramp or what happened to him I shall never know, for he suddenly sank like a shot.
Some of the expert river divers went down after him and in about a half an hour they brought him to the surface.
They took him to the morgue. I followed the corpse with mixed feelings. They searched his pockets over there. Nothing—not a scrap of paper or even a key. He was totally anonymous.
Then they took off his gloves, and they found holes in both palms that went clean through like knot-holes in a fence.
And the same through his feet.
Source: The International, Nov. 1914, Vol. VIII No. 9, pp. 345 – 346.