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Mere Chance

by Bill Prindle

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3 4

part 1

“Give me your money!”

“I beg your pardon?”

Chance stepped into the cone of yellow lamplight and again said, “Give me your money!” He brandished what appeared to be a pistol at the finely dressed gentleman. “You heard me!”

“No, I didn’t hear you. You mumbled the first time. This time I heard you perfectly. My answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.” The top-hatted, mustachioed gentleman calmly regarded the ragged man trying to rob him. A dense, chilling fog off the East River swirled through the deserted streets of Lower Manhattan, the nearby Tweed Courthouse a grey indistinct mass.

Chance aimed the pistol between the man’s eyes. “Hurry up!” A wracking cough convulsed Chance. With his left hand, he clutched his threadbare lapels to his chest.

The gentleman took a step toward Chance. “Sir, I can see that your pistol is but a poor likeness. The bootblack you used to color it is coming off on your hands. Come now, hand it over.”

Slumping in defeat, Chance gave the crudely carved pistol to the gentleman, who wrapped it in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket.

“There’s a good fellow. No more robbing?”

“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. No more robbing.”

“I suspect it was a desperation borne of illness and hunger that drove you to crime,” said the gentleman, his voice softening. “Were I in your shoes, I might have done the same thing.” From his jacket he withdrew a pen and a small notepad.

Chance stood unmoving, like a prisoner in the docket.

“Take this,” he said, handing a note to Chance. “I’ve instructed the maître d’hôtel at Delmonico’s to allow you to order whatever you want for dinner and to put it on my account. And here is ten dollars. Buy a good overcoat. And check into a hotel and get some rest.”

Chance was again stricken by a bout of coughing that bent him double. He gasped, “You’re more than kind, sir. I don’t deserve your generosity,” his voice breaking with shame. He turned to limp away.

“You are exactly the kind of man who does deserve my generosity.” He gently took Chance by the arm. “Delmonico’s is too far on such a night.” Together, they walked the half block to the corner of Broadway, where a carriage awaited.

“Now, then,” said the gentleman as they settled onto the leather seats, “we’ve a long ride to 26th, so tell me how you came to be in such dire circumstances.”

Chance related his tale. He’d grown up healthy and strong on an Indiana farm, the only child of indifferently religious parents. When he was twelve, he snuck into the tent of a revival meeting and was so transfixed by the ecstatic testifying, praising, and speaking in tongues of the attendees that he too was filled by the Holy Spirit.

From that day forward, Chance read his parents’ lightly-used Bible every morning and evening, regularly attended the local Baptist church for its sterner vision of Christianity, and extemporized sermons to the chickens he fed and the cows he milked.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Chance read an Abolitionist tract and became convinced it was God’s will to free the slaves. He lied to the Union Army recruiter, saying he was eighteen when he was only sixteen, and joined the 14th Indiana Infantry Regiment. To his aged parents’ dismay and his sweetheart’s weeping, he marched away from his Indiana home, never to return.

During his first year of service, Chance earned a reputation as a prig. He abstained from the typical soldiers’ pleasures: tobacco, spirits, cards, and the women in good-time houses. He forgave the jokes about his piety and included his fellow soldiers in his nightly prayers.

But the joking ended when his comrades witnessed his courage in their first battle, the ferocity with which he fought, and the Christian compassion he showed the wounded and dying, whether Union or Rebel. He earned the nickname of “The Holy Terror.”

When asked why he prayed over the enemy, all Chance said was that once they were lying stricken on the field of battle, they were no longer his enemy but men in need of what comfort he might provide. His answer silenced any further questions.

But as the war ground on, it exacted a heavy toll on Chance’s spirit.

“What I saw and did in those four years changed me, and not for the better,” said Chance softly, the dim lantern light of the swaying cab revealing his bearded and weatherworn face. “I saw Antietam Creek run red with blood. At Gettysburg we fired upon the Rebels until their bodies piled up three deep a few feet from our lines. When I ran out of shot, those I didn’t kill with my bayonet I clubbed to death with my rifle.”

Chance paused and swallowed a few times. “With so much death and dying, my faith was replaced by despair. How could I provide solace to others if I no longer cared if I lived or died?

“General Meade himself pinned the Medal of Honor on me for leading a charge against Longstreet’s men, but it meant little to me. At the siege of Petersburg, a mortar shell landed amongst me and my comrades. When I awoke, my leg was in splints, and I did not know who I was.”

The doctors barely saved Chance’s leg, and he was left with a permanent limp. In time, his memory returned, but not before he’d been erroneously reported as having died in action. Chance’s sweetheart married another, and his mother died of a broken heart, having already been impoverished by her husband’s death and the bank foreclosing on their farm.

With no farm or family and sick at heart from the horrors he’d witnessed, he had accompanied his friend Bartley to New York where they got stevedore jobs. Over time his damaged leg worsened and made it difficult to do the rigorous work.

“But Bart and me worked hard and saved our money and was all set to purchase a newsstand and tobacco shop when the Panic of 1873 wiped us out, all our money gone like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Bart shipped out, and I was left to do what odd jobs I could manage. I soon learned that there are few willing to help a broken man. Right or wrong, my heart hardened, and I felt abandoned by God and man alike.”

Over the years, Chance became increasingly debilitated and eventually joined the ranks of forgotten, destitute men wandering the streets of lower Manhattan.

The gentleman was moved as much by the sad details of Chance’s story as he was by the tone of Chance’s voice, emptied of either hope or bitterness. It was the voice of a man who had nothing left to look forward to and had accepted his wretched condition.

“Your story has saddened me, sir. There are too many men like you, who are neither lazy nor immoral and who sacrificed for our country but who have come to such misfortune,” he said. “You are but shadows of your former selves.” He clasped Chance’s hand and looked into his eyes. “A meal and a few dollars are all I can offer you, my friend, but I will not forget your story or our encounter.”

The carriage arrived at the restaurant’s glittering entrance on Fifth Avenue and 26th.

“Good luck to you,” said the gentleman. He opened the door for Chance.

As the carriage rumbled off into the fog, the man stuck his head out the window and called, “What is your name?” Chance called out his name and then shouted, “And what’s yours?” but the clattter of passing hackneys drowned out the gentleman’s response. Chance raised a hand in farewell and the carriage disappeared from sight.

After pleading with the doorman at Delmonico’s who initially refused to let him in, Chance handed the note to the maître d’, who hustled him into a private room, appointed with red leather banquettes along the walls, and at its center, under a crystal chandelier, a table for six, quickly set for one.

Chance dined on creamy shrimp bisque Veragua, tart gherkins and parchment-thin slices of Westphalian ham, rare beef filet Laguipierre, tender new potatoes bathed in butter, fresh succotash, cream meringue, and a flaming brandied pear, all of it washed down with beer, champagne, and port.

I try to rob a man and wind up in Delmonico’s, he reflected woozily. Maybe my luck is changing.

Three hours later he was back on the street. His legs were wobbly, his vision double, but his soul felt at ease for the first time in years. Sadly, his contentment lasted only five blocks, whereupon his stomach rebelled against the rich and foreign delicacies shoveled into it. Chance was volcanically ill all over Fifth Avenue from 21st to 20th Street. Only his determination born from years of bare survival enabled him to shamble the remaining blocks to his Bowery flophouse.

* * *

Encouraged by the gentleman’s kindness, during the next few weeks Chance tried to rekindle a sense of hope. He used a portion of his ten dollars to purchase a pair of sturdy used shoes and a heavy overcoat that smelled of mothballs and grandfathers and for a while, had plenty left over for one good meal a day and a cramped but clean room.

Feeling warmer and renewed, he walked the streets of Manhattan looking for a job that might furnish him the dignity of his own room or at least enough for an occasional bath, shave, and clean shirt. But no one wanted to hire a graying, hobbled, forty-five year old who could no longer lift the crates of produce or shift the sides of beef at the markets. His still shabby appearance put off shop owners who feared he might steal from them.

When he was down to the last few quarters of his benefactor’s largesse, Chance once again turned to panhandling and the occasional thieving of fruits and vegetables displayed in front of shops. The uptown cops and doormen shooed him away or threatened him with a beating. His fledgling hope withered. A leaden cloud of despair once again enshrouded him.

One rainy day, while walking along 7th Avenue in the Tenderloin District, Chance passed the blind beggar known to him as Jackie Blinkers. Chance feigned putting a coin into Jackie’s cup but instead stole two quarters. When he ate the meals purchased with the blind man’s money, he thought, If I have to thieve to stay alive, so be it.

But a flicker of shame stung his conscience and robbed him of what little enjoyment the meal provided.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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