Up to the beginning of the war, if any one had asked where Czechoslovakia was in Europe, even the best student of geography would have looked at his questioner doubting his sanity. Today Czechoslovakia is an independent country, though it originally was only an American invention. Masaryk met President Wilson, and the invention received the finishing touches before going upon the market. There are Czechs and there are Slovaks. But the Czechs and the Slovaks have never lived in close friendship. Only for a brief space while Masaryk and Wilson were planning the liberation of Bohemia from the yoke of Austria did the Slovaks and the Czechs make believe they got on very well, and then merely to carry on their propaganda of liberation in common. It was only the feeling against the common enemy that bound them. Once that enemy was vanquished, the old natural enmity between them again rose to the surface, and the Slovaks are bringing against their friends the Czechs accusations of similar nature to those they used to bring against the Austrians and the Germans. The Czechs, they cry and thunder, are op-pressing them, interfering with their religious liberty, and so on.
The Czechs are natural politicians. Of a higher culture, individually and in mass, than either the Poles or the Slovaks, their perpetual enemies and occasional friends, they have always outwitted them in the long run. There are fewer illiterates among the Czechs than in any other nation in Europe, the French not excepted. What is equally important is that there are fewer illiterates among the women. Because of their national misfortunes all Czechs have a natural inclination toward the study of history and politics. The average Czech knows more of these two subjects than the average university professor of those branches, either here or abroad. It is this knowledge of history which has won them their independence. It is this knowledge of history which has given them a superiority over the Poles and the Slovaks. It is this knowledge of history, coupled with great organizing talent, that will eventually make the Czechs one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Progressive and cautious, hardy, and daring without being adventurous, they have their most powerful weapons within them. They can think of the future in terms of the past and study the past with an eye to the future. It is a rare educational treat to hear an every-day Czech working-man discourse on European political history.
The first Czech arrivals in this country were in 1847, when a group of deserters from Mainz in Germany found their way to New York and settled on the lower part of the East Side, near the East River, below Fifth Street, which was then populated mostly by Poles and Ruthenians, who had preceded them in great numbers only a few years be-fore. There is no doubt that the Czechs were received with open arms by the Poles and their brother Ruthenians, for a greater number of them, political refugees, followed the first group, in 1848 and 1850, on the heels of the ’48 revolution, which had shaken the whole of Europe. Krikava, Juranek, Korbel, the younger Hubaceks and Mracek, the leaders of the refugees, were received as hospitably by the Poles as by their own people. They fraternized, the Czechs and the Poles, to a great degree. Austria and Russia were the hereditary enemies of both nations. They met in the same halls, had banquets and weddings in the same places, and theatricals and concerts in the Narodni Budova, the National Hall on East Fifth Street.
With their aptitude for organization the Czechs formed a society in 1850, to give advice and succor to fellow-countrymen, which did not exclude any of the Slavic peoples under the yoke of the Austrians, Germans, or Russians. Even the Jan Hus Church was frequented as much by the other nations as by the Czechs themselves. In 1861 they formed the Slovenska Lipa, a social and educational club which also included a language school and a circulating library. A short time afterward their first paper, the “New Yorkske Listy,” appeared from the same group, with different organizations springing from it, like the Czech Slavic Sokol Benevolent Society, and the Union of Czech Women, and the Union of Catholic Women. There was hardly a Czech in the city who did not belong to several organizations which did their utmost to keep the national aspirations alive. Yet in spite of their fraternization with the other nations the Czechs never forgot that their interests, their national interests in Europe, were not wholly the same as those of their friends. The Czech is an extremely practical and methodical individual.
Like every other nation, the Czecho-Slovaks have special trades in which they excel and which they have more or less monopolized. For more than sixty years, since the Czechs first came to this country, cigar-making has been their special occupation. The Cigar Makers’ Union was one of the first organized industries in this city. But although Czechs have been making cigars more than sixty years, very few if any have risen to the rank of great manufacturers among the workers. The Greeks and Armenians are now at the head of the industry. The Czechs have at different times opened cooperative shops, which they organized, especially during strikes against their employers, in order to compete with them. But the Czech is naturally not a business man. Cautious and quiet, without dreams of wealth, he prefers to better his condition as a working-man, bringing his sons up to be working-men like himself, rather than to live in a haphazard way in an unorganized industry and hope for his sons that they might be able to earn their living otherwise than by the sweat of their brows.
Another occupation virtually in the hands of the Czechs is pearl button making, which has always been a Czech industry even in Europe. The Prague pearl button makers are the most renowned in the industry. Piano making, especially the carpenter’s work in piano making, is another industry in which the Czechs excel and in which a great number of them are occupied and have been occupied for generations. Czech trades remain in the family and are transmitted from father to son. Even ,today, among the new generations, one is quite certain to find that the young cigar maker is the grandson of a cigar maker, the young piano maker is the great-great-grandson of a piano maker, and so with the butcher, the dressmaker, the furrier, and the saloon-keeper. With all the friendship the Czechs have for Poles and Ruthenians, there are no Poles and no Ruthenians in the trades more or less exclusively Czech.
But fraternizing with the Poles ceased at once when the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia came to America in 1871. The Czechs of New York and Chicago sent delegations “to greet our brother Slay.” This “act of perfidy” on the part of the Czechs so angered the Poles that they immediately seceded from them and left every organization which the Czechs had had a hand in organizing. For the Poles have always considered the Russian a greater enemy than the Austrian, not because they have suffered more under the Russians than under the Austrians, but because they always have considered themselves superior to the Russians and consequently chafed more under their yoke As a matter of fact the Pole considers himself superior to everybody. And so unpleasant did the Poles, who were in greater numbers, make it for the Czechs that the Czechs left the lower East Side and settled along the East River near Fiftieth Street, spreading northward until they have now reached Eightieth Street, always hugging the river.
Of all the surprises New York offers to the New Yorker, none is as great as the suddenness with which one passes from the center to the rim of the city. There is no gradual change from lofty buildings to hovels, from riches to poverty. There being only one generation from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves, the city is also under the same influence. Twenty-four wonders may rise to-morrow on the place of a tumble-down shack, and a prosperous quarter may suddenly stub its toe and go the way all things of flesh and brick go.
Ivan Opffer and myself had just left Fifth Avenue and were descending Fiftieth Street. In a few minutes we were at the East River, where a steamer from the tropics and a hundred other craft were plying.
That portion of the river is the most God-forsaken section of our city. The population is a mixed one. It was exclusively Irish until a few years ago. Then the Italians came, and before either of the two nationalities was dislodged the Polacks attempted a stampede and only scattered a few Jewish families westward and southward of the city. It is now Czecho-Slovak.
And over that section of the city rules Big Pat, who knows where to look and what not to see. And the authority of his club is so much greater than that of the other policemen because it is seldom used. Some grown-ups skirt Big Pat when they have to pass him by, but the children of the neighborhood are not in the least afraid of him. The lighted cigarette of the barefoot urchin disappears mysteriously into his mouth by a trick the whole neighborhood possesses until the policeman is out of sight (Big Pat is a sworn enemy of the cigarette), but otherwise the youngsters look upon Big Pat as their representative and not their enemy.
While Opffer was sketching roof-tops and distant domes I looked around to find Big Pat, who is an old friend of mine.
I approached one of a group of children with pails and shovels in their hands and asked, “Where is Pat?”
There being only one Pat, the answer was, “Around there, by the candy factory.”
“How ‘s Pat ?”
“He is mad because of a Polack,” was the answer. “What is the matter ?”
The youngsters looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders with the movement which in that section means, “I know, but I won’t tell.”
I found Pat standing in a sort of niche in a brick wall watching, without being seen, a great stretch of the street opposite him. He motioned to me not to approach him but to keep on walking to the next corner.
I waited and waited. Something was sure to happen if Pat waved me away so anxiously. His thick mustache bristled with anger, and he had brought his cap well over his ears in preparation for quick action. I decided that the watched place was down near the river, against the wind, and that Pat was afraid to lose his cap on the run.
The group of children with pails and shovels, having circled the block, passed by me and returned to the foot of the street, where they soon became active at a heap of burned-out coals and picked whatever was not completely worthless for the stock at home.
While the children were busy picking the coals a huge, blond-mustached, overalled brute emerged from behind a wooden fence and began to steal up nearer to the coal-pile. Big Pat flattened himself completely against the wall. But when the overalled brute was halfway to the children the policeman crossed sidewalk and street in two noiseless jumps, was himself soon hidden by the bulging irregularities of the broken-down fence, and was gaining on the man who was coming upon the children.
Suddenly there was a loud cry, and the little urchins started to run. But it was too late. The man had his big hands on two of them, the bigger ones, and was holding them both with his left hand to have the right one free for punishment. He lifted his arm high, and the little shoulders of the boys curved in for protection.
But before that hand had been lowered another arm behind it had gone up and shot down, and there was a horrible yell in an unearthly tongue, a scuffle, and Pat and the man in overalls disappeared behind the fence, whence I soon heard short yelps and long whines and the thud of a fist against flesh and bone.
The whole thing lasted less than a minute. Big Pat was first to come to view again. He put his cap at the proper angle, pulled his coat, wiped his hands on a handkerchief, and walked slowly away as if nothing had happened.
A little later the other man came out; holding one hand to a bleeding nose and the other to a rumpled ear and howling like a beaten dog, he limped painfully to the open gate of the old factory, while the children pelted him with pieces of coal and stones.
“Don’t talk to me now,” said Pat, passing me by ; “I am busy.”
The following day Pat was talking in a friendly fashion to a badly mussed-up man.
“Rub in some liniment to-night, man, after washing the sore carefully,” he advised.
“Thanks,” the man said as he walked slowly away. “Don’t forget, Slitzky. Wash before you rub in the liniment,” Pat called after him.
“Who is that fellow, and why have you beaten him up?” I asked.
“That ‘s the new watchman. I learned him yesterday a lesson. We had a talk, we did. No beating of kids in my district. I got children of me own. And, God knows, coal is high enough this year.” It was Slitzky’s first lesson in fair play and sportsmanship. He and Pat are great friends to-day.
Given freedom within a limited space for any national group to search for its habitat, it will always look for a spot which resembles as nearly as possible the place it came from. It is why so many rivers and mountains in Europe have names similar to rivers and mountains and hamlets in India. During the great Indo-Slavic migrations the invaders settled near such places as recalled to them their natural habitat. And, in doing so, they called the river, or the mountain, or the valley, by the same name as the river, the mountain, or the valley from whence they came. It is one of the reasons why the group-formation of nations in this city repeats the group-formation of nations in Europe. The fact that their neighbors have always been their enemies counts for little in such settlements. No other factors are taken into consideration.
No part of the city could as much resemble old Prague as Fiftieth Street and thereabouts up to Seventieth Street. There are tunnels, and streets to which one must ascend through stone stairs two stories high, crisscrossing one another, cobblestone pavements, old shanties heavy with time upon them. Trellised balconies, vaulted alleys, and vine-covered facades of old brick, with sudden elevations and vistas upon the river ; old outlying New York which has remained behind in the upbuilding of the city, and still resembles Old-World cities.
Given a Czech national holiday, with the sun shining over the people marching in their national costumes with their curiously embroidered flag at the head, with the yellow and black of the women’s embroidered white dresses waving amply and freely in the wind, while the band marches before and behind them, such a procession is a never-to-be-forgotten sight on the upper East Side of New York. It is Prague on a national holiday. The national costumes are the dearest possessions of every Czech house-hold. A Czech home in New York with the walls covered with bits of rugs, and with the celebrated Bohemian colored glassware on the mantelpiece, is as clearly distinguished from any other home as if it were on the shores of the Moldau River.
The numerous saloons in the Czecho-Slovak quarter have never given rise to any intemperance among the Czechs. The saloons were merely means for keeping up the numerous meeting-halls in their rears, the saloon-keeper being more often than not an enthusiastic follower, if not the leader, of this, that, or the other social or political organization. The Narodni Budova on Fifth Street was such a place. In 1882 a number of organizations which held their meetings there, for which the place had now become too small, bought it out and rebuilt it. The ground floor still remained the saloon, but in the rear the organizations erected a stage, on which they had almost weekly performances of plays produced and played by amateurs. On the second floor they had a library, and on the floor above that they had their meeting-halls. When the Czechs moved up town they took along with them all these organizations; even their club-houses and churches followed them north-ward.
But no Czech is a real Czech unless he belongs to a sokol, which is a gymnastic organization similar to the old German Turnvereine. The care of the body is as highly developed among the Czechs as it was among the old Greeks. No church organization, no socialistic organization, no political organization, is complete without its
own sokol. And every sokol has also its singing and dramatic clubs. It should be mentioned that when in 1917 eighty-four members of the Blue Sokol marched to Fort Slocum to volunteer, not one was rejected on physical grounds, although there were many beyond military age.
I shall never forget one evening at the Seventy-first Street Sokol. I came in during the latter part of the evening while gymnastic exercises were in progress. To see the hundreds of perfectly formed bodies go through the callisthenics and more difficult exercises with the utmost mechanical precision was one of the most beautiful sights my eye had ever beheld. The bodies glistening, the muscles rippling smoothly under the perspiring skin of arms and legs, moving with the lightness of sprites to the rhythm of the music and the commands of the leader, they carried out the most intricate and difficult figures. And then came the women, who went through similar exercises while dressed in abbreviated national costumes. They did the movements even more beautifully than the men. What a surprise to me when the exercises were over and I mingled with the people! There were men and women of all ages ranging from twenty to sixty. Yet the muscles and joints of the older men and the women were fully as supple as those of the younger men. There was no desire to wrestle or to box, this not being considered by the Czechs as a physical advantage.
It is largely through these sokols that the independence of the country has been won. The sokols have been more than “gym” organizations. There soldiers were prepared, ready for all eventualities. The bodies and the spirits were kept healthy and strong. “Be ready,” was the watchword of the Czechs for centuries. And they were ready when the hour struck.
The singing of these gymnasts was as beautiful and precise and as rhythmic as their physical exercises. I have seldom heard more beautiful group singing than that of the Czechs. Indeed, to hear them sing their folk-songs, one would never realize, because of the accent of joy and happiness in them, that they were the folk-songs of an op-pressed people. Through all his tribulation, the Czech has not suffered from an inferiority complex, neither has he acquired the arrogance or the whining propensities of other people. The Czech waits. A good Czech knows how to wait. The independence of a country was fought for and won on the upper East Side of New York.
There is a beautiful free and unrestrained relation between men and women in the sokols of the Czechs, a charming gallantry which is beautiful without being patronizing. A Czech never raises woman on a high pedestal in order easier to enslave her later on. And in all the Czech organizations the women have always had as much say as the men. And this without any Lucy Stonish show or affectation. Being as strong as the men, they assumed the same duties and had the same privileges.
The Czech American Working-men’s Sokol on Seventy-second Street between Avenue A and the East River fully rivals the Hungarian Working-men’s Association near-by with its manifold cultural activities. It is a beautiful building, said to have cost over a quarter of a million dollars, and houses a sokol, a dramatic club, a language club, and a lecture-hall in which the ablest lecturers have delivered courses on many topics. The picnics and balls of the Czech American Working-men’s Sokol are probably the most worth-while amusements of any of our foreign populations here.
But their great pride is the National Hall on East Seventy-third Street, which is the central body of all the Czech organizations, not only in this city but in the entire country. It is from this hall that volunteers against the Germans and Austrians were equipped and trained until by the time they reached the battle-field they were the most perfectly drilled soldiers in Europe. I remember meetings in the sokols during the war. Those who could not go gave everything they possessed to alleviate the sufferings of those who were left behind by those who did go. It was pointed out to me that poor working-men who had barely saved anything, fathers of three or four small children, were not only not detained by their wives but were urged by them to go, regardless of the hardships in store for the family when its only earning member had left, with very little chance that he would return.
I remember my friend Riggle, who had very pronounced anarchistic tendencies. I remember him at the beginning of the war thundering against all the Governments in the little Czech paper he published weekly ; writing it and setting it up himself, although he was by trade a carpenter and worked at his trade daily. Ruddy-cheeked, deep-eyed Riggle, who had thundered against every capitalistic Government, began to soften more and more as he came to see a chance for his own country to become an independent state. I remember him suddenly explaining to me that one cannot be an internationalist unless one belongs to a nation, and that there could be no nation unless it had a government. “And after you have a government,” he told me, “you fight against it.”
Little by little Riggle’s paper changed from an anarchistic one into one of the most rabid national sheets published during the war. And greatly to my surprise Riggle began to frequent the sokol, neglecting everything, even his family, so as to put his body into condition. I have seen him crying when he was at first refused a soldier’s uniform. He returned to gymnastics and training and succeeded better at his second attempt. How proud he was of his body, when I visited him one evening ! His wife and his two daughters stood aside and admired him as he went through all the exercises.
“Touch here,” he asked them ; “touch here”; offering his limbs. They had indeed become vigorous and supple.
There was not a tear in Jankzia’s eyes six months later when the news came of Riggle’s death on the battle-field. Indeed she called out to me, “You know Riggle ‘s died on the battle-field.” It was such a joyful cry that I myself answered it with almost a jubilant greeting. But the two American daughters, born here. were not as enthusiastic as their mother.
“Poor dad !” they said. “Poor dad !”
But Mrs. Riggle exclaimed: “Poor! Why, he was the happiest man on earth !”
As an example of the Czechs’ political activity in favor of their country could be cited the advent of their first newspaper, the “Lucerna” (“Lantern”). The Czechs all over the country called mass-meetings in 187o to protest against Germany’s attack on France. A New York meeting was held at Cooper Union on November 19. All the Czechs of the city crowded into the hall, with several overflow meetings outside it. As a result of that meeting, one of the speakers, Lev J. Palda, from Chicago, remained in New York to edit that paper, entirely written by hand, several copies of which were made by William Jandus of Cleve-land and distributed and read at subsequent meetings. It was the only issue of its kind. Copies of that paper sell now for hundreds of dollars and are very rare.
“New Yorkske Listy” was edited by Jan Reindl, a music teacher of distinction, who was also a fine tenor enjoying great popularity. A short time afterward, under the management of John Capek, of the same family as the present Capek brothers of “R. U. R.” fame, the “New Yorkske Listy” became a daily in 1877. It was later on absorbed by the “Delnicke Listy,” the “Workmen’s News,” a radical paper from Chicago, with Palda as its editor.
Indeed, from their very first arrival, the Czechs have had one paper after another; the working-men, especially, have always had their own publications, which fought very effectively their cause and at the same time carried valuable articles of information and instruction. The files of these papers are almost encyclopedic in the variety of subjects treated.
One of the things the Poles and frequently the Slovaks have charged against the Czechs is that more than half of the Czechs who have come here have abandoned their inherited faith. It seems to me this is very far from counting against them. It only shows an inquiring and progressive mind. The Czech is never satisfied with any belief at all. Intensely emotional without being hysterical, he is for-ever inquiring and delving into his own soul. In this he is infinitely superior to his brother Slav, the Russian, who tortures his soul by moving in a narrow groove. The Czech mixes easily with other people, without ever losing his national ego. An experimentalist. A modernist. Czech art has always been the vanguard of new adventures in color, form, and sound.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. John the Martyr’s, the first on Sixty-first Street and the second on Eighty-second Street, both Catholic churches, are as well attended by the Irish as by the Czechs. The Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on Seventy-fourth Street is another Czech church attended by other nationalities as well. Half of the children of the Sunday-school of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on Seventy-third Street are Czech. And although there are only twenty-five thousand Czechs in New York, and five or six times as many Poles, the cultural influence exerted by them is far intenser and greater than that of their erstwhile friends.
The Webster Branch of the Public Library on Avenue A, which opened in 1906 with fifteen hundred Czech books, has now fifteen thousand in that language. It is the largest Czech library in the country. Additions to it are being made daily. For every Czech donates his books after he is through reading them. It is a pleasure to examine any of the Czech books. Apart from the fact that they are beautifully printed and beautifully bound, one is pleasantly surprised to see with what respect the readers have handled them. I have frequently looked at books that have been read by forty or fifty people during the first year of their appearance. The pages were still neat and clean. There was no evidence of disrespect toward them. No signs left by moistened thumbs. No dog’s-eared pages. The books of a library are the best indication of the character of a nation.
The Webster Branch is not the only Czech library. Every sokol, every benevolent society, every lodge, has its own circulating library. Even the library of the “New Yorkske Listy,” although used and used again by the staff and the readers who come in, is in the most beautifully preserved condition.
None of the younger generations born here are untaught in the Czech language. Continuing as they do mostly in the trades of their parents, they move in the same circles and are therefore continually in contact with the older members, who among themselves never speak any other language but Czech. One can see members of the younger generations at the sokols and the dancing-halls. I have heard American-born Czechs who have never seen their fatherland go up on the platform and speak as fluently as if they had never heard any other language spoken but
Czech. And yet they speak English quite as fluently. In all the investigations of child-labor in the city there was never found a single Czech factory in which Czech children below the legal age were at work. Most Czech children went through high school even before the law was made as strict as it now is. The Czechs have tremendous facility for learning languages. Indeed it is said of them that they have etymological minds. Any Czech can give you the derivation of ‘ almost any word you ask. It is this etymological mind which facilitates his learning foreign languages.
Among the Czechs who have become nationally known in this city are the painters, Fabry and Harrison Fisher, who is Czech on his father’s side; Joseph Mazek; and Emanuel V. Nadheny, who has for years been on the staff of the “Herald.” Rudolf Rujicka is one of the finest etchers in this country. Among sculptors they have men like J. Mario Korbel and Joseph M. Kratina, as well as Rose Krachikova.
But it is in music that they most excel. Rudolf Friml, the pianist and composer ; Anica Fabry, the soprano; Anna Faka-Pangrac, the organist and composer ; Alois Reiser, the violoncellist and orchestra director ; and Josef Stransky, the director of the Philharmonic Orchestra, are but a few of the more celebrated ones. And the “New World Symphony,” which is perhaps, more than any other musical composition of American essence, haunting and powerful, one of the symphonies that will live together with the great ones of Beethoven and Mozart and Tschaikovsky, was composed by Anton Dvorak, the Czech, during the eight years that he lived here. No one before him had seen the great musical values of the negro rhythm and negro spirituals for symphonic purposes.
Among the better-known Czech actresses are Blanche Yurka, Phyllis Phova, and Galena Kopernak.
A friend of mine was complaining to me of the lack of romance in New York.
“You see too much steel and cement in this great city of ours,” he said. “Too heavy, oppressive, unromantic. Too much hustle and bustle.”
I was just going to answer something or other when a short man of about forty came out of the back door of a saloon and, walking unsteadily through the crowd, seized the friend by the lapel and asked him:
“Say, were you ever a boy? Were you ever a boy, I ask?”
“Sure enough,” answered the friend, trying to free his coat from the not over-clean hands of the drunken man.
“Do you remember Monte, the bareback rider of the Sells-Floto Circus? Do you? Have you ever seen him? And if you have ever been a boy and seen him in his prime give me a dollar.”
“My God,” said my friend, finally freeing his coat, “the price of everything has gone up frightfully ! There was a time when a man asked you for a dime. Now it ‘s a dollar.”
“That was before prohibition. Drinks have gone up since then,” the man answered gingerly.
“Here is romance,” I whispered, but my friend would not hear it and disappeared in the subway station, leaving me alone with the little man.
“Were you ever a boy?” the man asked me.
“I was,” I answered promptly. “Let ‘s have a glass of beer. Come.”
We entered a saloon in the sixties near the East River. “Atta boyhiphipatta boy !”
At the third almost-beer he began to sob violently. “Wieder!” called out the bartender. “Again! Ain’t you ever going to stop that? I’ll put you out if you ain’t going to be reasonable. As sure as you live, I will.”
“Have a heart !” begged my companion. Then he turned to me.
“Ridgi Monte! A finer bareback rider never lived; no, sir! What Ridgi could do with a horse no man ever done. And the kids and grown-ups that jest natcherly come to the circus all waited until Ridgi Monte’s turn came. And the manager just kept on doubling the price every year. He was jest natcherly a good fellow. No, sir, not as much as touched a drink. A glass of beer once in a great while. A man has to keep sober. The stunts can’t be done unless a man is sober. To jump through a circle of fire in the air and fall sitting on the bare back of a galloping horse. That ‘s no small matter. Oh, oh, oh! I have been known as the best rider in Bohemia !”
“Again?” yelled the bartender.
The porter, who when times were different had served as bouncer, approached our table ready to do the job. But some man in the place, with one foot on the brass rail, said: “Leave him alone, Tony. He ain’t going to do it any more.”
“Let ‘s have another one ; what do you say?” And my companion continued his tale as he sipped from the newly brought tall glass.
“Then came the woman. A trapeze woman she was, a she-devil. And whom should she pick out of the whole circus but Ridgi Monte, the best-paid man of the whole outfit. And with a wife and a kid, too. Jewels, say, jewels ! That she-devil was never satisfied with anything that cost less than five hundred. And when what there was in the bank was gone, she jest natcherly went out with other fellows.
“There was wife and kid, and the wife ain’t knowing a thing of what was going on. She sees her husband, of course. Ain’t bringin’ her presents as he used to. No, sir! Givin’ it all to the she-devil of a trapeze girl; a heathen Spanish devil without a heart and soulbut with burning black eyes and something about the swing of her shoulders as she walked and the way she had with her of smoking a cigarette and looking at a man through the smoke she blew in his face. . . .
“Oh, why did I not remain in Prague !
“What does a man do but take a drink to forget? A drink calls another. He comes home late, early in the morningwife gets angry. He says something; she says something back. Then he can’t sleep properly.
“Well, comes the following day, and when you have to make the salto mortal you ain’t got the gumption to do it. Your stomach sinks. You ain’t in condition. Then the she-devil laughs in your face and says something nasty in her own lingo. Between the wife’s nagging and tears and that she-devil’s deviltry, the best bareback rider of the world went to pieces.
“Then soaked, penniless, he goes up to see the woman. The circus was in Chicago then. She sits in a cafe with a few swells, and they jest natcherly drink and make love to her. She is wearing all the jewels he has given her.
“She won’t even look at him when he talks to her. Then he gets mad, sees red, and hits some one with a bottle.
They sends him up for two years, and when he comes back he ain’t got the equilibrium any more. He ain’t no more capable of ridin’ a horse bareback than if he ain’t never done it.
“So, well, oh, oh, oh !” the man sobbed again, this time louder than before. The bartender and the bouncer lifted him from the chair and threw him into the street as one throws a bundle of rags.
I spoke to the bartender. “You must not be so severe with a man who has suffered so much. It ‘s no little thing to have been the greatest bareback rider of the world and to end up a beggar at forty.”
“Bareback riderwhowhat ?” the bartender asked. “Ridgi Monte, the man you just put out.”
“He? Are you crazy? He is the barber’s helper across the street. It ‘s a story of a bareback rider he heard a few days ago, and it has broken him up so he ‘s gone on a spree because of it and tells it to everybody. He ‘s told it a hundred times in the last few days. Every once in a while he gets that way over a story or a play he sees in the theater or in the movies. But he ‘s a good barber when he ‘s sober ; I ’11 say that much for him.”
My companion of a while ago was standing on the street corner. His nose was bleeding, and there was an ugly gash over his eyebrow where his head had struck the hard pavement, but he had already stopped a passer-by, and I heard him repeat his question to the victim:
“Say! Were you ever a boy?”