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Mere Chance

by Bill Prindle

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


The next afternoon, Chance assuaged the mortifying sting of Lil’s rebuke and his thudding hangover at the baroque Finn & Pennington’s Saloon adjacent to Central Park. After lunch and a few beers, he was discovered by some of his freeloading friends. He bought them a round and escaped through the back door. He needed to think about his situation.

Chance limped disconsolately down West 77th Street and turned into Central Park, the late afternoon light giving way to the magenta and indigo hues of sunset. It reminded him of how the lowering sun illuminated the golden wheat fields of his family’s farm. He remembered when he’d once delivered a sermon on the evils of drink to a flock of geese, but his smile faded when he thought of how innocent and eager he’d been back then.

“Poor Chance,” he said, addressing his younger self, “I’ve traded your soul for a mess of pottage. You don’t deserve what I’ve done to you.”

While he tarried along the edges of the Park’s undulant meadows, he put aside his regrets for the moment and forced himself to contemplate his predicament. He realized that accompanying his elation at his endless money supply was the guilt of not having worked for it, which in turn engendered a compulsion to waste the money as though it had no value at all. Now he was in the hole for a year’s worth of cash plus interest and five good deeds. His shame and disappointment compelled him to take a soothing nip from the flask. He felt better for the moment.

But something else troubled him. A mutual friend of Chance and Con’s had recently arrived from San Francisco with the chilling news that two weeks prior, a falling cornice had crushed Con. Chance knew where Con’s soul now resided and realized that, should he not redeem his pawn ticket before his three years were up, he was headed for the same fiery destination.

He paused and drank a toast to the memory of his departed friend.

Perhaps I could start anew, he thought, but I doubt I could muster the courage to do so. I’m a vain and foolish man. Who would mourn me if I died? No one, nor do I deserve it.

When Chance reached the Eaglevale Arch that spanned twin bridle trails, he rested against its stone rampart. The shadows deepened across the Park, and so did Chance’s melancholy. As in similar dark moments, he took a prolonged sip from the flask, which quickly inspired the rose-tinted vision of a sober, purposeful future and at the same time, should that not happen, the feckless acceptance of his damnation.

The clopping hooves and jangling harnesses of an approaching carriage drew his attention. He leaned over the bridge and watched a landau emerge from under the arch. Suddenly two men dashed up to the matched white horses and grabbed their bridles, halting their progress. At the same time, a third man jumped into the coach, knocked the driver onto the ground, turned on the three cowering lady passengers, and demanded their valuables.

To get a better view of the crime unfolding directly beneath him, Chance hiked well out onto the rampart. In the excitement of the moment, his flask slipped from his hand, he lunged for it, lost his balance, and over the rampart he went. The flask fell squarely onto the head of a thief holding one of the horses and knocked him senseless to the ground. Chance tumbled through the air and landed more or less upright next to the startled thief in the coach.

“Where in hell did you come from?!” the man roared.

Chance answered with a punch aimed at the man’s jaw, but he missed. He lurched into the thief, who was knocked backward, cracked his head on the carriage door, and slumped unconscious to floor.

Undeterred, the third robber advanced toward the carriage. Chance dispatched him with a blow from the weighted handle of the driver’s whip. The whole drama unfolded in less than twenty seconds. The three ladies were speechless, first from terror, then surprise at Chance’s aerial arrival, and finally awe at his heroism.

Chance blew the coachman’s whistle, which brought two policemen running to the scene. While the befuddled bandits were handcuffed, the revived coachman and ladies babbled to the police about Chance’s exploits.

“This wonderful man deliberately hurled himself off the bridge and subdued these three villains!” exclaimed one of the women, wrapped in a lustrous ermine coat.

“I looked into the eyes of that vicious criminal and feared for our lives. That gentleman risked his life to save us!” said her bejeweled companion pointing toward Chance.

The third lady asked if Chance was unhurt.

Stunned and still woozy from his tumble, Chance nodded he was all right, his reticence mistaken for a hero’s humility.

“How may we reward you?” the ladies asked. Chance said that a ride back to his rooming house would be thanks enough. The ermine-coated woman marveled aloud at Chance’s modesty, took a fifty dollar gold piece from her reticule, and insisted he take it.

* * *

The next morning Chance awakened to a pounding on his door. Moving slowly from the bruises to his bad leg, he opened the door to a flock of reporters desperate to interview the white knight who had rescued the mayor’s wife and her wealthy friends, Mrs. Astor and Mrs. Harriman, from an attack by members of the notorious McGurk gang.

They pushed into Chance’s room, forcing him backward onto his bed. There he sat in his pyjamas, with the reporters clustered around him like pigeons, gobbling up every crumb and morsel of his story. Not wanting to lie but not wanting to disappoint them by saying it was all an accident, Chance told a slightly amended version. He dropped his flask on one thug’s head, which was true. He landed next to the attacker in the carriage and knocked him out, which was true enough, and polished off the third thief with a well-aimed blow, which was completely true.

Under their relentless questioning, Chance also revealed details of his decorated service in the Grand Army of the Republic and his subsequent descent into poverty. He omitted any mention of Mr. Wolfe.

“I’m just glad I was able to help,” Chance said. He was so exhausted when they left that he went back to sleep.

The reporters wasted no time in discarding Chance’s bland recitation and concocted a far more elaborate and entertaining version of his bold and valorous feats, based on the accounts given by the coachman and three ladies. The rest they made up out of whole cloth.

The front-page story in the Times was enhanced by a series of lurid engravings that depicted Chance, a hero of the late war, leaping from the arch and fighting off and subduing the three murderous assailants, variously wrestling a knife, pistol, and blackjack from each highwayman. This noble but unassuming citizen, who had risked his life to defend three of the most eminent matrons of New York society, became the talk of the town.

The following day a gentleman approached Chance in the foyer of his rooming house. Would Chance accept an invitation to meet with the mayor? Afraid that he might have been discovered as more clumsy than heroic, Chance nevertheless agreed to go.

At City Hall, his guide led him to the anteroom of the mayor’s office. A male secretary opened the doors of polished mahogany and gleaming brass fittings and gestured for Chance to enter.

The mayor bounded up from his chair and rushed around his broad walnut desk, littered with newspaper accounts of the episode. He greeted Chance with a hearty handshake and a slap on the shoulder. If the mayor had not captured his hand in such a powerful grip, Chance would have bolted from the office as though it were on fire. It was not his first encounter with this man.

“My good fellow, you are the man of the hour! I want to thank you and...” The mayor fell silent and stared into Chance’s face. Still holding Chance’s hand, the mayor led him toward two chairs, set on either side of an elegantly inlaid guéridon. He asked his secretary to bring them coffee and to leave them undisturbed.

“We’ve met before, haven’t we, Chance?”

“Yes, sir,” said Chance, his downcast eyes fixed on intricate patterns of the Oriental rug.

“You need not look so dejected,” said the mayor as he poured Chance a cup of coffee. “In fact, I flatter myself to think our earlier meeting may have contributed to your reformation. See, I still have your pistol on my desk! I keep it to remind me of those who need a second chance, so to speak.”

Chance told the mayor the unvarnished truth — that he’d inadvertently dropped the flask, and if he hadn’t fallen because of his own clumsiness, he wouldn’t be the hero people were making him out to be.

The mayor thanked him for his honesty, but with Chance’s permission, he saw the improbable tale fraught with benevolent possibilities.

“We need heroes to inspire us. God knows, this city does. What matters the intent if the outcome be a good one? This much is true: though once broken and desperate yourself, you still rescued three defenseless women. You merit a reward and rewarded you shall be. I have plans for you.”

The mayor began pacing, his excitement animating his voice and gestures. “Dear fellow, your story has the power to inspire others to a more virtuous life, and I’m not just referring to our poor and fallen citizens.

“Would you be willing to allow me use your story to demonstrate that with a modicum of assistance, such as I supplied to you that night, those who may have stumbled can also redeem themselves, to the greater benefit of all?

“More than that, I want to enjoin our wealthier citizens to lend a helping hand and create a society known not just for its industry and wealth, but for its compassion and charity. Their philanthropy may well accrue a much-needed measure of redemption for themselves. Will you join me in this crusade?”

Chance saw how taken the mayor was with the romance of his own words and didn’t want to correct the mayor’s benign assumptions or describe the role Mr. Wolfe had played in the drama. He said he’d be happy to help any way he could. He figured he owed this man, who had been so generous and kind to him, that much and more.

* * *

Three months later, Chance stood in front of Wolfe’s Pawn Shop, basking in the glorious warmth of the spring sun. In his right hand was a briefcase that he carried into the shop and set onto the counter. Wolfe was reading the Herald Tribune obituaries and smoking a cigar.

“Hail the conquering hero!” said Wolfe. He tossed the paper into a nearby trashcan.

One by one Chance placed contents of the briefcase onto the counter. Among them: a solid silver Key to the City usually given to visiting heads of state; an acclamation from the police commissioner testifying to Chance’s exemplary display of heroism and citizenship; a proclamation announcing the groundbreaking for two new Bowery missions for indigent veterans, funded by the Astors and Harrimans and named in Chance’s honor; an article from the New York Times describing Chance’s appointment to Welfare Inspector Extraordinary, empowered by the mayor to intervene directly into the lives of the unfortunate and provide the municipal and private services needed to restore them to productive lives; and another article relating the uplifting stories of the wretched families Chance had already rescued.

From the cash gifts he’d received from well-wishers and his new benefactors, he counted out a stack of one hundred dollar bills equal to all the cash supplied by the wallet plus interest.

Chance was unfurling a declaration by the Bishop of New York, who was so moved by the religious overtones of Chance’s ascent from beggar to savior that he established a vocational school for impoverished children and a home for wayward women, a few of them Lil’s wards from The Golden Slipper, but Wolfe had already taken out the contract.

“That’ll do,” said Wolfe. “Your soul is officially redeemed with principal and interest paid in full on this day, so on and so forth. Sign here and initial here, here, and here.”

Chance signed and initialed. Wolfe pushed the contract across the counter. Chance handed Wolfe the wallet, the pawn ticket, and the flask.

Wolfe shook his head and regarded the flask. “It’s never failed me before, but there’s always a first time. You know, a little bird told me your heroics might have been more accidental than intentional,” Wolfe mused. “Had I known that such unlikely events would come to pass... Well, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

“It’s funny how things work out,” Chance said. “Might not have happened if you hadn’t given me that flask.”

Wolfe considered that for a moment and said, “Funny wouldn’t be the word I’d choose. I assure you, that wasn’t my plan. Far from it. Once again, I’ve learned the old lesson that whatever life a man chooses to live, whether governed by God’s Providence or Fortune’s Foolishness, there is another force at play in this universe, and it has the final say over both Providence and Fortune. And that force is Chance. You, sir, are aptly named.”

Wolfe set two glasses on the counter. “Let’s have a drink,” said Wolfe. Unscrewing the flask, he poured two shots, the last few drops emptying into his glass. “Here’s to Chance.”

They clinked glasses, downed their drinks, and Chance departed Wolfe’s shop.

Chance had another account to settle that day. Walking along 7th Avenue toward the Tenderloin District, he mused at how sheer happenstance, with an unlikely assist from Mr. Wolfe, had transformed him from a bum, to a wastrel, to a Good Samaritan. Was it simply fate like Wolfe said — or something else?

He didn’t know.

Whether he was lucky or blessed, it had come to the same thing. The flame of his youthful godliness had been extinguished by war and hardship, but he’d retained a spark of Christian kindness and sympathy, which now glowed once again and fueled his efforts to help others.

My fall allowed me to rise, he thought, aware of the Biblical irony. He knew he wasn’t as good as people thought him to be, but he also knew his soul had more value than he’d placed on it. He meant to make the most of his redeemed life.

The blind beggar Jackie Blinkers was at his usual post on the corner of 52nd and Seventh. Chance dropped the fifty-dollar gold piece he’d received from Mrs. Astor into Jackie’s cup. The weight of the coin so astonished Jackie that he immediately picked it out and bit it to assure himself of its authenticity.

“Bless you, sir,” Jackie called out to his unknown benefactor.

“Just returning a loan with interest,” said Chance.

The workings of the universe are curious indeed, Chance thought. He could hardly wait to see what happened next.

Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle

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