Friday, September 18, 2015

the black purse: a winter's tale

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by roy dismas and konrad kraus

editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo

it had been snowing for most of the day outside the venerable hotel st crispian and the weather forecast on the radio predicted that it would continue through the night.

when jake arrived for his hitch as night bellhop, he was told to forget bellhopping and just keep the sidewalks, front and back, shoveled. he was not too happy about it, but what could he do? there went his tips for the night. on the other hand, if the snow did not fall too fast he should have plenty of time to just hang out and relax in the lobby between trips outside to keep the sidewalks clear.

jake knew the drill. a shovel and a pair of heavy galoshes were kept inside the garage on the seventh avenue side of the hotel. he would pick them up and start by shoveling the steps that led up to the hotel’s “front” entrance where old olaf or one of the other doormen presided and which led directly to the corridor beside the prince hal room. he would shovel the seventh avenue sidewalk in front of the hotel. then he would take the shovel and cut through one of the two alleys that led to bedford street and shovel the sidewalk outside the street entrance which led to the front desk and the lobby.

then he would retrace his steps, leave the shovel, the galoshes, and his coat and hat in the garage, and take the elevator upstairs, where, if he was lucky and the snow not falling too fast, he might have a much as half an hour to just shoot the breeze with mortimer the elevator operator or roland the night clerk or anybody else who might be around, before he would have to go back outside again.

jake’s idea of “the snow not falling too fast” might not be the same as roland’s or mr bernstein the night manager’s. but jake for various reasons especially wanted to remain in mr bernstein’s good graces, so he was not going to push it.

old olaf was on duty. that was good, as he could be counted on to keep the front steps clear unless it was an absolute blizzard. just a little less for jake to do - although he would have to make the offer to olaf to do the steps, just for form.

so - night has fallen, the snow is coming down pretty good, and jake is shoveling the snow on the bedford street sidewalk. not too many pedestrians pass him by, and even fewer cars.

he picks up the shovel and feels and sees something on it - something besides the snow.

a purse - a small black lady’s purse. it was very light - when he picked it up it felt like it was empty.

jake looked up and down the street. he was an old hand at these things.

was it some kind of scam? in a snowstorm?

the way he figured it, even if the purse hadn’t felt empty, either there was nothing worth taking in it, or whoever dropped it would be back looking for it. he decided to just give it to roland and let him or mr bernstein worry about it.

he had finished clearing the sidewalk so he retraced his steps back to the garage, and then took his find up to the lobby.

the lobby was pretty empty. there were only three people in the chairs.

"farmer" brown, looking a little forlorn without his usual two cronies “lord” wolverington and miss charlton. all three of them cheapskates that jake had little use for.

pierre, one of the foreign gentlemen from the upstairs suite. another lousy tipper - or no tipper - like most europeans. give jake a south american any day!

and little miss gwendolyn, also from the upstairs suite. much more generous, a real nice american girl! she was seated part from the others, reading “under the greenwood tree” by thomas hardy.

mr nolan, the house detective, was not in his usual chair, but leaning on the front desk, chatting with roland.

neither nolan nor roland seemed too interested in jake’s find.

nolan looked the black purse over, then opened it.

“empty.” he looked at jake. he didn’t have to say anything.

“i never opened it,” jake said. “the way i figured it , either there was nothing in it, or whoever dropped it would be back looking for it. not,” he added quickly under nolan’s gaze, “that i would have taken nothing out of it anyway.”

nolan nodded. “of course not.”

farmer brown had come up to the desk. “you know,” he told nolan, “sherlock holmes or dr thorndyke could have told if it had been opened recently, just by the amount of moisture on the clasp.”

“i am sure they could have,” nolan agreed. he dropped the purse on the desk. “just hold on to it,” he told roland. “if no one comes by looking for it by the time you go off, put it in the lost and found.”

now pierre had joined the little group. he stared down at the little purse. “singular, “ he remarked, “most singular.”

“what is singular about it?” farmer brown asked.

“it reminds me of something that happened to me, in paris, just after the hostilities.”

“and what might that have been?” the farmer raised his eyebrows.

thus encouraged, pierre began to tell his tale.


it was a dark and windy night. i was crossing the pont de n——— on my way to the boulevard de s———— when i spied a woman’s small black purse beside the railing. one, if memory serves, identical to the one we see before us.

you may ask, why would i spot something so insignificant in the darkness? there was nothing extraordinary about it, my friends.

for as i was crossing the bridge i was not looking at the brooding sky, or the dark river, but at my feet, in hopes of finding a sou, a coin of any kind, or the most trivial object i might redeem at a pawn shop.

i was cold and hungry and in desperate straits, as desperate as any man’s who has ever lived. but that is neither here nor there.

i snatched up the little object, as quickly as if i had been fighting with a dog for it, though there was in fact, neither man nor beast on the bridge with me.

as i suspected, the purse was empty. but might i not get a sou or two for the purse itself from a pawnbroker? i in fact knew one member of the brotherhood of the three balls who might, out of pity, and because i was a regular habitué of his establishment, give me enough for a half glass of wine.

as the shop in question was just over the bridge, i hastened to it, and found my old friend pere gustave just about to close for the night.

he inspected my find with his professional disdain, and i was ready to begin the requisite bargaining, when he extracted from it something i had not noticed.

a tiny scrap of paper, which had been stuck in the lining, and which he briefly inspected.

with a grunt, he handed to me.

“whoever finds this purse,” i read, “and returns it to me, will find themselves most generously rewarded. “ it was signed “madame de t——————, 1108 rue de b——————.”

the rue de b——————, i should add, was on the other side of paris.

pere gustave shrugged. “what do you think?” he asked me.

“but there is nothing in it!” i cried. “surely whatever was worth the reward has been extracted. “

“so it would seem,” he agreed.

“the purse itself might be carried by any grisette, “ i continued. “it is hard to imagine anything of value being in it.”

pere gustave looked me in the eye. “it is up to you,” he said. “i would not want you to think i am taking advantage of you. you may take it to the rue de b———— in the morning, and take your chances.”

“or - “ i said.

“i will give you two sous for it right now.”

“the two sous!” i cried a bit too eagerly.

“as you wish.” he closed the purse and placed it beneath his counter.

“but, “ i added, “do you mind if i keep the note? it will make for a good story.”

“as you please.”

and so i departed, and happily made my way to the nearest wine shop.

the next day was bright and sunny, and as i had nothing better to do, i decided to make my way across the city to 1108 rue de b————.

although i had nothing but the paper, perhaps my curiosity might be satisfied as to the nature of the reward, if there really had been any. and for what had the reward been offered ?

1108 rue de b———— proved to be a formidable private residence of the old school, but as i had nothing to lose, i made my way to the front door.

the door was opened by a redfaced old maidservant, a relic of the old paris, an ogress who might have served in the court or camp of king clovis.

i showed her the scrap of paper from the black purse. but before i begin my explanation, she handed it back to me with a loud laugh .

“this matter has been settled,” she told me. “another fellow was here before you - with the actual purse in question.”

pere gustave, to be sure. i was mildly surprised. “and what was the result of his visit?”

“i an afraid that is no business of yours, my good fellow. off with you!”

i stiffened. “is madame de t—— at home?” i asked in my most refined manner.

“no, it happens that she is not,” the beldame laughed in my face. “now, be on your way!”

intrigued as you may imagine by all this, i found my way back to pere gustave’s shop.

and found it closed! i had never before found it closed during the hours of daylight.

i went back the next day, and the next, but again found the shop closed.

i never heard from, or heard about, pere gustave again.

nor could i ever obtain any information about the mysterious madame de t——.


“and that’s it?” jake asked pierre.

“yes, my friends, i am afraid that was it.” pierre sighed. “ i have often wondered what the moral, if any, of the story was.”

“why,” exclaimed farmer brown, “the moral is obvious! a bird in the hand—“

“to be sure,” pierre replied. “but what was the bird, and did i have it?”

“you know,” said nolan, who had not seemed to listen to pierre’s tale with much interest, “ a funny thing happened to me once involving a lady’s purse - back in the old 12th precinct - “

“let’s hear it!” insisted farmer brown. roland and jake nodded.

but before nolan could begin, roland glanced meaningfully at jake, and jake had to go back outside to clear the sidewalks of the snow, which had begun to fall more heavily.


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