FICTION

Mere Chance

A Short Short Story

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD August 1 1935
FICTION

Mere Chance

A Short Short Story

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD August 1 1935

Mere Chance

A Short Short Story

LESLIE GORDON BARNARD

MCDONOUGH, coming up from the basement of the building in which he was employed, was halted by Jerrold, the superintendent.

“Busy?” enquired Jerrold.

“Not at the moment, sir.”

“Well, I want you to go up and clean out 1988. The old guy there sure left a mess of papers and stuff behind him.” “Righto,” said McDonough.

He stepped into the elevator and a girl in trim olive-green shut the door. “Nineteenth, sweetheart,” he grinned. On the nineteenth floor he walked along to 1988, unlocked it with his master key, slipped the catch off the door, then stood for a moment looking at the name on the pebbled glass—“Frederick A. Harrison”—remembering vaguely what the name connoted: a man with a vigorous chin, firm but kindly eyes, white hair, and the general appearance of an elder statesman.

In a building like this, one could not remember many personalities, but this was an exception. McDonough, called in to help rearrange furniture one day, had not forgotten either the tenant’s courtly manners, the generous tip or the atmosphere of the place. What Harrison’s business was he still did not know', but he remembered shelves of books, and that air of —what? Of a generation gone? Insensitive as ordinarily he was, it had at least impressed McDonough. And now Harrison was dead. Distant relatives of a casual and youthful order had ‘come and taken awray what they felt was worth taking; and this mess . . .

He glanced about inside. A few books were scattered about the floor, along with cascades of papers, yellow'ed news sheets, periodicals so ancient they looked like quaint caricatures of a bygone day, a few photographs much faded.

McDonough, feeling the place to be stuffy and unalive, w'ent over and threw up both windows. They opened on a well ; and leaning out he could see, eighteen stories dowrn, the roof of the goods entrance filling in the square of this bricked, windowed enclosure.

“Hot day,” McDonough communed with himself. “Terribly hot. Well, I suppose I better go dowm and get a container or tw'o and shovel up this junk.”

He went out, whistling, leaving the door unlatched, almost bumping into a man who stood in the corridor and who seemed to be having difficulty in lighting a cigarette. McDonough apologized and went on down. His watch told him there was just time to get that stuff swept out before lunch. On the ground floor a man hailed him.

“Hullo, Mac. Listen, I’ve got a hot tip on the races for tomorrow'.”

“Busy,” said McDonough. “See me this afternoon. Anyway I’m off that stuff.”

“Aw, be your age. Look, here’s the dope on it.” McDonough hesitated, then motioned the fellow to join him. They went down on to the stairs. It quite surprised McDonough to find how' time w'ent by . . .

THE MAN in the.corridor on the nineteenth floor had lit his cigarette before the elevator door clicked behind McDonough. He stood holding the lighted match until the flame bit his fingers, then tossed it away. In other days he must have been a personable young fellow, but now neither his clothes, his manners, nor his eyes w'ere quite right. Sometimes the eyes blinked rapidly as if the nerves of the eyelids were out of control.

Presently, glancing up and down the corridor furtively, he stepped quickly to the door and turned the handle.

“Unlocked,” he told himself softly, and entered. “That’s one bit of luck.”

He smiled a hard little smile. It had been luck his choosing this floor; the girl in olive-green in the elevator had looked at him so directly that he was thrown off his aplomb.

“Floor, please?” she had enquired.

“Nineteenth.”

Just chance—the chance word being the first his wits could summon. There had been no other passengers, except one who got off at the third. The operator had looked at

him again. Wanstill w'as sure that something about himself had made her speak, as if, without knowing why, she felt she must do so; as if she w'ere dimly aw'are her voice might be the last link . . .

“Hot?” she smiled.

“Horribly.” he felt her interest merited more. “You’re sort of shut up in here.”

“Oh, w'e get cooled air. It’s not too bad. Nineteenth, you said?”

“Yes.”

The car stopped; the lighted number of his floor showing. He got out. She did not for a moment close the door. He stood uncertainly.

“Could I help you? I mean—anybody specially you were looking for?”

“No, thanks. I’ll find it all right.”

When the door closed between them he had a queer feeling that he had known her a long time for that one quick trip up nineteen floors. Perhaps, in a crisis like this, time did not conform . . .

LUCK, of course, to find this empty office ready for him, 1 as if prepared. He had cherished some vague idea of a fire escape for the take-off. But this was better. Here he could, as it were, finally commune with his soul. He shivered, looking around the place. Some broken shelving crowded one comer. And on the floor was a litter of stuffpapers, letters, what not. He stepped over them and, going to a window, leaned out, peered down. The roof covering the goods entrance looked a long way down. He felt a sick, growing ache in him; fascinated he continued to stare, as if the depths drew him, then he stepped back. He could see people on the near-by streets; they looked like flies.

He began to w'alk about, to pace up and down, keeping aw'ay from the windows lest his restless movements be noticed from across the w'ell. He smoked another cigarette, his fingers tense and nervous. His eyes caught headlines in a newspaper yellowed with age, and the inky scream of a gone day seemed less garish and sensational, as if now it didn’t matter. Tonight there would be headlines for himself. The paper lying there grew white before his eyes and the ink fresh. They would give him one column—two? “Once Prominent Broker Commits Suicide; Flings Self from Nineteenth Story of Downtown Office Building.”

They would dig up his past history perhaps, or would he be dismissed with a brief paragraph or two? The Street that once knew him knew him no more. He was through. Though he had played the game fairly himself, he had been involved with others in successive crashes, and the abyss had opened. He could only be glad there was no family, no near relatives even, to see his swift descent. For nearly five years he had been on the skids. Now, with the upward trend of things, others were finding rehabilitation, but the iron had entered into his soul, and he had no ambition, no morale left.

He walked again to the window, looking down, hesitating, his pulses beating faster. His wrist watch told him it was almost noon. He promised himself he would wait for the whistles. They should be his signal. He could not meanwhile

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Continued, from page 25

He turned the pages, his breath coming a little faster, the sickening thing within him altering to another and not less uneasy emotion. Why, there was old Pepper Thomas ! To see the name was to conjure up a short gown flying in the winds, its ends invariably ragged as if a breathless pursuit of classical lore kept them so; was to hear again Pepper’s dry wit, his even voice, his scathing or rarely praising tongue. The memorial tablet in the chapel had been unveiled that year. One after another had spoken, but Pepper’s speech was quite the best. It held about three sentences, and one of these now survived ■— “The laurels of

the dead should be the deeds of the living.”

Old Pepper’s eyes under that mortar board, above that twisted gown, stared at him; Pepper who had died in ’29, Pepper who in this room could banish everything but his own presence, and his own words:

"The laurels of the dead should be the deeds of the living.”

A queer, choking sound moved for a moment in the abandoned office. A moment later the place was empty again; a tallish man with a magazine under his arm was ringing the elevator bell. It was the same

operator who opened to him, trim and competent in her uniform of olive-green. She shot him a quick, appraising glance, and smiled.

“You found it all right?”

“Yes,” he told her. “I found what I wanted.”

■\/f CDONOUGH, coming up from the -‘A'l stairway with a bet placed on what he hoped might be a winner, heard the noon whistles blowing and called off for lunch.

It was two minutes past one when the building superintendent headed him off in the lobby.

“Just been up to the nineteenth again,” he said. “I thought I told you to get 1988 cleared out.”

“Yes, sir,” said McDonough. “Just going up there, sir. Right on my way now.”

The superintendent looked at McDonough.

“Next time I tell you to do a thing, do it at once,” he said tartly; and passed on.

McDonough sighed, looking after him.

“Holy cats!” he said. “What earthly difference could it make to anyone whether I swept that junk out before or after lunch?”