Axidava

The Answer

The dim lights of the old pawnbroker’s shop flickered violently as the street door opened, letting in a gust of icy wind. The man who came with the wind closed the door with difficulty, approached the low desk, took off his thin coat, shook the sleet from it and laid it on the counter.

“As much as ye can,” he said crisply. “’Tis me last!”

The broker measured the garment with a careless glance and tossed fifty cents on the counter.

“Come wanst more, me friend! ’Tis not enough for the illegant coat.”

Pathos did not appeal often to the old dealer, but this time it did. A vibration in the voice exactly fitted the mystery of something buried deep in the subconsciousness. He questioned the other with a swift glance, hesitated, and by the coin laid another like it. The man nodded.

“’Tis little enough, but ’twill do.”

He took a pencil from the desk and with much effort wrote a few lines on a bit of wrapping paper. Straightening, he fixed a steady gaze on the old face turned, not unkindly, to his.

“We have known aiche ither more’n a bit. Ye know I’m not th’ drunkard nor th’ loafer. I know ye aire a har-r-d man—ye have to be in this trade, har-r-d but square. I am off for good and all; ’tis for the sake of the gyrul and the little man. She’ll not go home till I lave her. Sind th’ money and the line to the place it spells; ’twill pay her way home—they’ll take her, without me; they have said it. Will ye do it?”

The old man looked away from him and was silent.

“Yes!” he said, at length.

They waited and then shook hands, for no reason, after the fashion of men.

“What have you been doing of late?” a voice broke in that was clear-cut, sharp, and almost offensively authoritative. It came from a third man standing near, unnoticed. The coatless stranger regarded him steadily, his face hardening. He saw a short, rotund figure, almost swallowed up in a fur coat now thrown open, a heavy chain across the prominent paunch, an enormous diamond above, a prominent curved nose and sweeping black moustache. An elbow on the counter supported a jewelled hand that poised a fat black cigar with an ash half an inch long.

The eyes of the two men met, Celt and Hebrew. A moment of strained silence and something passed. What? Eternity’s messages travel many channels. The Irishman’s resentment faded; his lips framed a slow, sardonic grin.

“Me? Sure, I been searchin’ for the Christ! Do ye mind that ye saw Him along the way ye came?”

“No,” said the other simply. “He does not live in New York! You spoke of going for good. Where—without a coat—by the bridge route?”

“An’ is’t your business?” The Irish blood flared.

“Perhaps,” replied the Hebrew, coolly flicking the ash. And then:

“Wouldn’t you rather put it off and take a job?”

The red faded from the face in front of him, the pale lips parted in silence, and one hand caught the counter.

“If you would, come to my place, The Star Pool and Billiard Palace, four blocks above the Bridge, and I’ll start you at twelve and a half a week. One of my men skipped with forty dollars’ worth of billiard balls yesterday—I am looking for them now. You can have his job. A man who will pawn his coat a night like this for his wife and baby and don’t get drunk won’t steal billiard balls. It’s a business proposition.”

He drew from his pocket a fat roll of bills and peeled off a five.

“Take this on account,” he concluded, studiously avoiding the other’s gaze. “It will loosen up things at home until to-morrow. Here, take your coat along.”

From the door the Irishman rushed back, seized the garment, extended his hand, but suddenly withdrew it.

“Not now, sor,” he stammered brokenly. “Sure, I can’t say it! I’ll say it ivery day I work for ye.”

“Good! You’re all right! Now hustle, my boy!”

*

The woman in the room sat prone on the floor, her thin shawl sheltering herself and wailing infant. Not an article of furniture remained, not even her little charcoal burner—it had been the last to go. The firm, quick footsteps in the hallway carried a message that brought her face up and drew her eager gaze to the door. The man who stepped within carried an armful of packages. With her eyes riveted on these, her own arms tightened around the emaciated form she held.

“Maery!” said the newcomer gently. “Ye have been telling me I’d be finding the Christ Child if I tried hard—I do remember ye said He always came to the pooer an’ sick first; to the honest an’ thrue! Ye knew, Maery, me girl! Sure, it’s in the holy name of ye—the faith. Well, I found Him to-night!”

He stood silent, his lips twitching and his face drawn against an emotion that shamed him.

A wordless cry came from the woman. She struggled to her knees and leaned toward him, her eyes shining with the light that ever is on land and sea where angels pass.

“Mike! Where?”

The packages slipped from Mike’s arms to the floor, and his lifted face blanched with the wonder of some far-away scene, and a revelation undreamed of in his hard, narrow life. And then with a twinkle in his Irish eyes:

“In the heart of a Jew,” he whispered.

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