The fatalities have been three thousand, two hundred and
ninety-one, to date, with more reported in every cable from San
Coloquin, but it is not yet decided whether the ultimate blame is
due to the conductor of Car 22, to Mrs. Simmy Dolson’s bland
selfishness, or to the fact that Willis Stodeport patted a
sarsaparilla-colored kitten with milky eyes.
It was a hypocritical patting. Willis had been playing
pumpum-pullaway all afternoon, hence was hungry, and desirous of
winning favor with his mother by his nice attitude toward our dumb
friends. Willis didn’t actually care for being nice to the
dumb friend. What he wanted was cookies. So slight was his esteem
for the kitten—whose name was Adolphus Josephus
Mudface—that afterward he took it out to the kitchen and
tried to see if it would drown under the tap of the sink.
Yet such is the strange and delicate balance of nature, with the
lightest tremor in the dream of a terrestrial baby affecting the
course of suns ten million light-years away, that the patting of
Adolphus Josephus Mudface has started a vicious series of events
that will be felt forever in star beyond mounting star. The death
of exiled Napoleon made a few old men stop to scratch their heads
and dream. The fall of Carthage gave cheap bricks to builders of
dumpy huts. But the false deed of Willis Stodeport has changed
Mrs. Simmy Dolson was making an afternoon call upon the mother
of this portentous but tow-headed Willis, who resides upon
Scrimmins Street, in the Middle–Western city of Vernon. The
two matrons had discussed the price of butter, the iniquities of
the fluffy-headed new teacher in Public School 17, and the idiocy
of these new theories about bringing up young ones. Mrs. Dolson was
keeping an ear on the car line, for the Oakdale cars run only once
in eighteen minutes, and if she missed the next one she would be
too late to prepare supper. Just as she heard it coming, and seized
her hat, she saw young Willis edge into the room and stoop to pat
the somnolent Adolphus Josephus Mudface.
With a hatpin half inserted Mrs. Dolson crooned, “My, what
a dear boy! Now isn’t that sweet!”
Willis’s mother forgot that she had intended to have words
with her offspring in the matter of the missing knob of the flour
bin. She beamed, and to Willis she gurgled, “Do you like the
“Yes, I love our kittie; can I have a cookie?” young
Machiavelli hastened to get in; and Aldebaran, the crimson star,
throbbed with premonition.
“Now isn’t that sweet!” Mrs. Dolson
repeated—then remembered her car and galloped away.
She had been so delayed by the admiration of daily deeds of
kindness that when she reached the corner the Oakdale car was just
passing. It was crowded with tired business men in a fret to get
home to the outskirts of Vernon, but Mrs. Simmy Dolson was one of
those plump, amiably selfish souls who would keep a whole city
waiting while she bought canary seed. She waved at the car and made
deceptive motions of frantic running.
The conductor of the car, which was Number 22, was a
kind-hearted family man, and he rang for a stop halfway down the
block. Despite the growling of the seventy passengers he held the
car till Mrs. Dolson had wheezed aboard, which made them two
minutes late. That was just enough to cause them to miss the switch
at Seven Corners; and they had to wait while three other cars took
the switch before them.
By that time Car 22 was three and three-quarters minutes
Mr. Andrew Discopolos, the popular proprietor of the Dandy
Barber Shop, was the next step in the tragedy. Mr. Discopolos was
waiting for this same Oakdale car. He had promised his wife to go
home to supper, but in his bacchanalian soul he desired to sneak
down to Barney’s for an evening of poker. He waited one
minute, and was tremendously moral and determined to eschew
gambling. He waited for two minutes, and began to see what a martyr
he was. There would never be another Oakdale car. He would have to
walk home. His wife expected too darn much of him, anyway! He
waited for three minutes, and in rose tints and soft gold he
remembered the joys of playing poker at Barney’s.
Seven seconds before the delayed Oakdale car turned the corner
Mr. Discopolos gave up the struggle, and with outer decorum and
inner excitement he rushed up an alley, headed for Barney’s.
He stopped at the Southern Café for a Denver sandwich and
cuppacoffee. He shook for the cigars at the Smoke House, and won
three-for’s, which indicated to him how right he had been in
not going home. He reached Barney’s at seven-thirty. He did
not leave Barney’s till one-thirty in the morning, and when
he did leave he was uncertain of direction, but very vigorous of
motion, due to his having celebrated the winning of four dollars by
buying a quart of rye.
Under a dusty and discouraged autumn moon Mr. Discopolos weaved
home. Willis Stodeport and Mrs. Simmy Dolson and the conductor of
Car 22 were asleep now; even the disreputable Adolphus Josephus
Mudface had, after a charming fight behind the Smiths’
garbage can, retired to innocent slumbers on the soft folds of the
floor mop in the corner of the back porch where he was least likely
to be disturbed by mice. Only Mr. Discopolos was awake, but he was
bearing on the torch of evil destiny; and on one of the planets of
the sun that is called Procyon there were floods and
When Mr. Discopolos awoke in the morning his eyes were filmy and
stinging. Before he went to his shop he had three fingers of
pick-me-up, which so exhilarated him that he stood on the corner,
swaying and beaming. Normally he had pride in his technic as a
barber, but now all his more delicate artistry was gone in a roving
desire for adventure. With a professional eye he noted the haircut
of a tough young man loafing in front of the drug store. It was a
high haircut, leaving the neck and the back of the head bald clear
up to the crown. “Be a joke on some fellow to cut his hair
that way!” giggled Mr. Discopolos.
It was the first time in a year that he had needed, or taken, a
drink before afternoon. Chuckling Fate sent to him the next
torchbearer, Mr. Palmer McGee.
Palmer McGee was one of Vernon’s most promising young men.
He lived at the University Club; he had two suits of evening
clothes; and he was assistant to the president of the M. & D.
R. R. He was a technical-school graduate and a Spanish scholar as
well as a business-system expert; and his club-grill manners were
as accurate as his knowledge of traffic routing. Today was his hour
of greatness. He had, as the result of long correspondence, this
morning received a telegram inviting him to come to New York to see
the president and directors of the Citrus and Southern Steamship
Company about the position of Buenos Aires manager for the company.
He had packed in ten minutes. But he had an hour before his train,
with the station only twenty minutes away by trolley. Instead of
taking a taxi he exuberantly walked from the club to Selden Street
to catch a car.
One door from the corner he beheld the barber shop of Mr.
Discopolos, which reminded him that he needed a haircut. He might
not have time to get one in New York before he saw the steamship
directors. The shop was bright, and Mr. Discopolos, by the window
in a white jacket, was clean and jolly.
Palmer McGee popped into the shop and caroled “Haircut;
medium.” Magnetized by Mr. Discopolos’ long light
fingers he closed his eyes and dreamed of his future.
About the middle of the haircut the morning’s morning of
Mr. Discopolos rose up and jostled him and dimmed his eyes, with
the result that he cut too deep a swath of hair across the back of
Mr. McGee’s sleek head. Mr. Discopolos sighed, and peeped at
the victim to see if he was aware of the damage. But Mr. McGee was
sitting with eyes tight, lips apart, already a lord of ocean
traffic, giving orders to Singhalese planters and to traders in the
silent northern pines.
Mr. Discopolos remembered the high-shaved neck of the corner
loafer, and imitated that model. He ruthlessly concealed the
too-deep slash by almost denuding the back of Mr. McGee’s
head. That erstwhile polite neck stood out as bare as an
Being an artist, Mr. Discopolos had to keep the
symmetry—the rhythm—correct, so he balanced the back by
also removing too much hair from in front—from above Mr.
McGee’s Yalensian ears.
When the experiment was complete, Mr. McGee looked like a bald
young man with a small wig riding atop his head. He looked like a
wren’s nest on top of a clothes pole. He looked painstakingly
and scientifically skinned. At least it was thus that he saw
himself in the barber’s mirror when he opened his eyes.
He called on a number of deities; he said he wanted to
assassinate Mr. Discopolos. But he hadn’t time for this work
of mercy. He had to catch his train. He took his maltreated head
into a taxi, feeling shamefully that the taxi driver was snickering
at his haircut.
Left behind, untipped and much berated, Mr. Discopolos grumbled,
“I did take off a little too much; but rats, he’ll be
all right in couple of weeks. What’s couple of weeks? Believe
I’ll go get a drink.”
Thus, as ignorant as they of taking any part in a progressive
tragedy, Mr. Discopolos joined Willis Stodeport, Adolphus Josephus,
Mrs. Dolson and the too-generous conductor of Car 22, in the
darkness of unimportance, while Palmer McGee was on the
Pullman— and extremely wretched.
He fancied that everyone from the porter to the silken girl
across the aisle was snickering at his eccentric coiffure. To Mr.
McGee, queerness of collar or hair or slang was more wicked than
murder. He had rigidly trained himself to standards in everything.
There were, for example, only three brands of whisky on which a
gentleman could decently get edged. He was the most dependable
young man in the general offices of the M. & D. R. R., and
before that he had been so correctly pleasant to the right fellows
and so correctly aloof with the wrong fellows, so agreeably
pipe-smoking and laudatory of athletics, that he had made both
junior and senior societies at Yale. He had had no experience to
teach him to bear up under this utter disgrace of a variation from
the standard of haircutting.
As the train relentlessly bore him on toward New York he now and
then accumulated courage to believe that his haircut couldn’t
be so bad as he knew it was. He would stroll with noble casualness
into the smoking compartment, and the instant it was free of other
passengers he would dart at the mirror. Each time he made the same
quaking discovery that he was even more ridiculous than he
By day, trying to read or scan the scenery or impress fellow
smokers, by night, folded in his swaying berth—he could think
of nothing else. He read only one paragraph of the weighty book
which all persons carry on all Pullmans in the hope that they will
be forced to finish it because they have nothing else to read. He
grew more and more sensitive. Every time he heard a laugh he was
sure that it was directed at him; and because he so uncomfortably
looked away from the absent-minded gaze of fellow passengers he
made them gaze the harder.
The beautiful self-confidence which had always concealed Mr.
McGee’s slight defects from himself and had helped him to
rise to the position of assistant to the railroad president was
torn away, and he began to doubt himself, began to feel that others
must doubt him. When he finally crept up the cement incline in the
New York station, after a writhing glance at the redcaps, to see if
New Yorkers would notice his ludicrousness as much as people had on
the way through, he wondered if he could not return to Vernon and
wire the steamship directors that he was ill.
He was not exaggerating about the importance of this trip to New
York. The directors of the Citrus and Southern Line really were
waiting for him. They needed him.
It is a curious fact of psychological economics that there are
almost as many large employers waiting and praying for the chance
to pay tens of thousands a year to dependable young men as there
are dependable young men waiting and praying for the chance to earn
a thousand a year. The president of the Citrus and Southern, the
pouchy blob-nosed dean of South American and West Indian shipping,
had been in the hospital for six months, after peritonitis. From
his bed he had vaguely directed the policies of the company. Things
had run well enough, with the old clerks working mechanically. But
a crisis had come. The company had either to expand or break.
The Green Feather Line, weary of litigation, wanted to sell all
its ships to the Citrus and Southern, which if it bought them might
double its business. If some other company bought them and
vigorously increased competition, the Citrus and Southern might be
The Citrus and Southern held a five months’ option. By the
end of that period they hoped to have found the man who could
connect the sick president’s brain with the general
office’s body—and they believed that in Palmer McGee
they had found that man.
McGee did not know how carefully he had been watched. He had
never met one of the directors or officers of the Citrus and
Southern, had never seen one of them, and their correspondence had
been polite but not exciting. But the two suave gentlemen who had
been poking about Vernon lately had been commercial secret agents
of the Titanic Rating and Credit Company; and they knew all about
McGee, from the number of drinks he had at the club to the amount
of his bank account and his manner of listening to the stories of
the chief shippers of the M. & D. R. R.
The Citrus and Southern chiefs were certain that they had found
their man. McGee was to be sent to Buenos Aires, but only on test.
If he was as good as they thought, he would in three months be
brought back as vice president at a salary nearly four times as
large as the one he had received in Vernon. In this crisis they had
the generosity of despair.
They were to meet McGee in the president’s suite at the
hospital at four-thirty; and the train got in at three-fifteen.
McGee went to a hotel, and sat still, scared, looking at himself
in a dressing-table mirror. He became momently more rustic, more
tough, more skinned and awkward in his own eyes.
He called up the hospital, got the president. “Th-this is
McGee. I—I’m coming right over,” he quavered.
“Huh! That fellow sounds kind of lightwaisted. Not much
self-confidence,” complained the president to his old friend,
the chairman of the board of directors. “Here, prop me up,
Billy. We must give him a thorough look-over. Can’t take any
The note of doubt was a germ which instantly infected the
chairman. “That’s too bad. The Rating and Credit people
reported he was a find. But still—of course—”
When Palmer McGee faced the president, the first vice president
and a committee of four directors, three of the six had already
turned from welcoming eagerness to stilly doubt. He felt that
doubt. But he interpreted it thus:
“They think I’m a complete boob to have a haircut
like this. Think I don’t know any better. And I can’t
explain. Mustn’t admit that I know there’s anything
wrong—mustn’t admit I was an easy mark and let a
drunken barber carve me up.”
He was so busy with these corroding reflections that he did not
quite catch the sharp question which the president fired at
“McGee, what’s your opinion of the future of the
competition between Australian wheat and the Argentine
“I—I—I didn’t quite understand you,
sir,” lamented poor McGee, victim of the cat of the trembling
The president thought to himself: “If he can’t get
as dead simple a question as that—Wonder if the first vice
president wouldn’t do, after all? No. Too
While he meditated he was repeating the query without much
interest; and without interest he heard McGee’s thorough but
And McGee forgot to put in his usual information about the
future of New Zealand grain.
Two hours later the president and directors decided that McGee
“wouldn’t quite do”; which meant that he
wouldn’t do at all; and they wearily began to talk of other
candidates for the position. None of the others were
Four months later they decided that they would have to go slow;
wait for the president to recover. They could find no one adaptable
enough to coordinate the president and the working management. So
they gave up their option on the steamers of the Green Feather
The best of the jest was that Palmer McGee had looked rather
well in his flippant haircut. Because the Chapel Street barber had
started cutting his hair a certain length when he had been a
Freshman in Yale he had kept up that mode, which was respectable
but dull. But the semi-shave had brought out his energetic neck
muscles. Never had he looked so taut and trim. Though dozens of
people between the Vernon barber shop and the New York hospital had
noticed his uneasiness none of them had considered his coiffure
queer—they had merely wondered whether he was an embezzler or
McGee returned to Vernon broken, and General Coreos y Dulce,
ex-president of the Central American republic of San Coloquin,
entered the train of victims of Willis Stodeport, of Scrimmins
The general had colonized Ynez Island, lying off the coast of
San Coloquin. Fields of cane and coffee he had created, and he was
happily expropriating ten thousand melodious natives. The general
was a merry and easy ruler. When he had accepted the presidency of
San Coloquin, after certain military misunderstandings, he
hadn’t even executed anybody—except a cousin or two,
merely for politeness’ sake.
His colony on Ynez Island was served by the steamers of the
Green Feather Line. The business was not yet sufficient to warrant
a regular stop, but General Dulce had a private agreement with the
manager of the Green Feather, as well as one with the sick
president of the Citrus and Southern, which later agreement was to
take effect if the company took over the Green Feather boats.
But when the Citrus and Southern gave up their option the Green
Feather fleet was bought, not by another Atlantic line but by a
Seattle firm, for their Alaskan and Siberian trade. Consequently
the general had to depend for service on a tin-can line which ran
out of San Coloquin.
The owner of that line hated the general; had hated him when the
general had been president, and had added to that hate with every
meditative gin rickey he had sipped in the long years since. The
general’s fruit spoiled aboard the creaky old steamers; it
was always too late to catch the boat north. His coffee was
drenched, and his sugar short weight. When the general desperately
bought a freighter of his own it was mysteriously burned.
Poverty and failure closed in on Ynez Island. The colonists
hadn’t enough to eat. When the influenza reached the island
the weakened natives died in hordes. Some of them fled to the
mainland, carrying the disease. The number of fatalities that would
probably have been prevented by comfort and proper food and a
supply of drugs has been estimated by Dr. Prof. Sir Henry Henson
Sturgis at three thousand two hundred and ninety. One of the last
to die was the broken-hearted general.
Before he died the wheel of Fate had turned past him and stopped
at a certain European monarch. The general had in all his
colonizing and his financial schemes been merely the secret agent
of that monarch. The king was uncomfortable on his throne. It
rocked and squeaked and threatened to give way at the seat. It was
kept together only by many fees for repairs—jolly gifts to
the duke who hypocritically led the opposition party, to a foreign
agent, to certain clerics and editors and professors, even to the
ostensible leader of the left wing of the radical party.
Five years before Willis Stodeport had patted Adolphus Josephus
Mudface, the king had realized that he was in danger of using up
all his private estate. He had speculated. He had called General
Coreos y Dulce from Central America; and it was royalty’s own
money that had developed the colonization of Ynez Island.
It had been impossible for the king to keep in touch with the
details of the colonization. Had he learned of the loss of the
Green Feather service he might have raised funds for the purchase
of the whole fleet when the Citrus and Southern gave up the option.
But the proud, dogged general, with his sky-climbing mustachios and
his belief that one Castilian was cleverer than four Andalusians or
eight gringos, had been certain that he could pull through without
help from the royal master.
It was not till the approach of death that he sent the coded
cablegram which informed the king that he could expect no income
from Ynez Island. Then the monarch knew that he could not keep his
promises to certain peers and ministers; that his wordiest
supporters would join the republican movement; that the
gold-crusted but shaky-legged throne would at any moment be kicked
out from beneath him by rude persons in mechanics’ boots.
So it came to pass that at a certain hour the farthest stars
quivered with mystic forces from the far-off fleck of dust called
Earth, forces which would, just for a sketchy beginning, change all
the boundaries and customs of Southern Europe. The king had at that
hour desperately called in the two ministers and the one foreign
emissary whom he trusted, and with that famous weak smile had
murmured: “Gentlemen, it is the end. Shall I flee
or—or—You remember they didn’t give my cousin the
funeral even of a private gentleman.”
At that hour, in a hovel in the Jamaica negro quarter of the
capital of San Coloquin, General Coreos y Dulce, friend of
composers and masters of science, was dying of nothing at all but
sick hope and coldly creeping fear, and a belief that he had
A thousand and more miles away the president of the Citrus and
Southern Steamship Company was writing his resignation. His old
friend, the chairman of the board of directors, again begged:
“But this means the ruin of the company, Ben. We can’t
go on without you.”
“I know, Billy,” the president sighed, “but
I’m all in. If we could have found someone to carry out my
ideas I could have pulled through—and the company could have.
Shame we were fooled about that McGee fellow. If we hadn’t
wasted so much time looking him over we might have had time to find
the right man, and he’d have taken enough worry off my
shoulders so that—Well, I’ll about pass out in three
months, I reckon, old man. Let’s have one more go at
pinochle. I have a hunch I’m going to get double
About half an hour after that, and half a continent away, Palmer
McGee left the home of the president of the M. & D. R. R. He
walked as one dreaming. The railroad president had said: “I
don’t know what the trouble is, my boy, but you haven’t
been worth a hang for quite a while now. And you’re drinking
too much. Better go off some place and get hold of
McGee crawled to the nearest telegraph office that was open, and
sent a wire to the Buffalo & Bangor, accepting their offer in
the purchasing department. The salary was not less than the one he
had been receiving, but there was little future. Afterward he had a
cocktail, the fourth that evening.
It cannot be authoritatively determined whether it was that
evening or the one before that a barber named Discopolos first
actually struck his wife, and she observed, “All right,
I’ll leave you.” The neighbors say that though this was
the first time he had mauled her, things had been going badly with
them for many months. One of them asserts that the trouble started
on an evening when Discopolos had promised to come home to supper
but had not shown up till one-thirty in the morning. It seems that,
though he had forgotten it, this had been her birthday, and she,
poor mouse, had prepared a feast for them.
But it is certainly known that at the same hour on the same
evening there was much peace and much study of the newspaper comics
in the house of the Stodeports on Scrimmins Street.
Willis stooped to pull the tail of Adolphus Josephus Mudface,
now a half-grown cat. Mrs. Stodeport complained: “Now,
Willie, do let that cat alone! He might scratch you, and
you’ll get fleas and things. No telling what-all might happen
if you go patting and fooling with—”
Mr. Stodeport yawningly interrupted: “Oh, let the child
alone! Way you go on, might think something dreadful would happen,
just because he strokes a cat. I suppose probably he might get one
of these germs, and spread it, and before he got through with it,
maybe be the cause of two-three people taking sick! Ha, ha, ha! Or
maybe he might make somebody rob a bank or something just awful!
Ha, ha, ha! You better hold in your imagination, Mamma!
Mr. Stodeport yawned, and put the cat out, and yawned, and wound
the clock, and yawned, and went up to bed, still chuckling over his
fancy about Willis having a mysterious effect on persons five or
six blocks away.
At exactly that moment in a medieval castle about five thousand
miles from Willis Stodeport, the king of an ancient nation sighed
to the Right Honorable the Earl of Arden, K. C. B., special and
secret emissary of the British throne: “Yes, it is the
twilight of the gods. I take some little pride in saying that even
in my downfall I can see clearly the mysteries of Fate. I know
definitely that my misfortune is a link in a chain of events that
impressively started with—”
“—with the loss of thousands of lives and millions
of pounds, in San Coloquin,” mused Lord Arden.
“No! No! No! Nothing so earthy and petty. I have long been
a student of astrology. My astrologer and I have determined that
this evil chance of myself and my poor people is but the last act
in a cosmic tragedy that started with an esoteric change in the
magnetism of Azimech, the cold and virgin star. At least it is
comforting to know that my sorrows originated in nothing trivial,
but have been willed by the brooding stars in the farthest abysses
of eternal night, and that—”
“Um. Oh, yes. Yes, I see,” said the Earl of