a cold, windy january morning. snow was falling and blowing outside the venerable hotel st crispian.
mortimer the elevator operator and jake the bellhop had just come off their shifts and were watching the snow from comfortable chairs in the lobby.
jake was beat from spending most of his shift shoveling the snow and wanted to rest up before heading home to his lonely room.
mortimer was in no hurry to get home and was waiting to see if the snow would stop. as usual he was ready to talk to anybody who would talk to him.
the only other occupants of the lobby were james, the day desk clerk who had just started his shift and already looked sleepy, mr nolan the house detective who was seated in his usual chair in the corner, asleep - or was he? - and pierre, one of the “continental” gentlemen from the curious menage on the eighth floor.
jake had heard it all before and didn’t feel like arguing. he nodded from time to time to let mortimer think he was listening.
pierre, however, had never heard mortimer’s ideas before and seemed quite amused by them.
“no doubt,” he politely enquired of mortimer. “you have found some skepticism from those you have professed these speculations to?”
“i sure have,” mortimer agreed, happy to have someone pay any attention to his theories. “i get them from ordinary folks like you and me, maybe i should say like me, because i don’t know if you think you are ordinary - “
“that is quite all right,” pierre assured him, “i don’t consider myself at all extraordinary.”
“like i was saying, from ordinary people and from college professors and scientists and even from an archbishop who stayed here one night.”
“an archbishop! you do not say so,” pierre replied. “perhaps someday you will have the opportunity to discuss your theories with the holiness the pope. or perhaps with the eminent professor einstein.”
“i would like to,” said mortimer, “if either of those gentlemen ever stay a night here at the st crispian. but you know what i have found out, no matter who i talk to and no matter what they say?”
“what might that be?”
“sometimes what they say seems to make sense and stumps me a little. but after they’ve gone, if i think about it and think real hard, i can always come up with an answer to show i am right.”
“ah. a procedure i am sure that wise men throughout the ages have employed with satisfaction.” pierre paused, took a little flat box from his pocket, extracted a small cigar from it and lit it.
“but do you know,” he commenced after taking a puff. “i have had similar thoughts myself sometimes. not exactly the same as yours, but something along the same lines.”
mortimer had never received such a response before, and was almost too surprised to answer. “oh, yeah?” he finally managed to say.
“indeed. if you don’t mind hearing it, let me tell you a story. about something that happened to me six or seven years ago, back on the continent.”
“six or seven years ago. so you were in the war, huh?” mortimer replied.
pierre smiled. “i notice that when americans say ‘in the war’, they usually mean someone was a uniformed member of some armed force or other. i was never a member of any organized armed force.”
“you didn’t get drafted?” mortimer asked.
“drafted by whom or what? i was what you could call a stateless person. from my first memories, which took place on small fishing vessels in the meditteranean, i had absolutely no knowledge of my antecedents. as you see, i am rather dark-complexioned. i was not a chinaman or an african negro, and probably not a dane or a scotchman, but i could have been french, spanish, a gypsy, a jew, maltese, greek, arab, lebanese, a turk, any combination of those and more.” pierre waved his little cigar. “perhaps i had no ancestry. a circumstance agreeing with your thought that there is no history, eh?”
mortimer just nodded. “yeah. maybe.”
“but to get on with my story. in the early days of the hostilities, i had found myself a snug little berth in a small fishing town on the southern french coast between marseilles and toulon.
i was a waiter and man of all work in a little cafe on a back street behind the waterfront. i slept in a back room, had my meals and the owner gave me a few sous from time to time. i augmented my income in small ways as best i could.
here in america people have a very lackadaisical attitude toward what in europe is often more important than money or food - papers. i had managed to get papers - all sorts of papers, although my faith in their efficacy had yet to be tested.”
“papers - you mean like newspapers?” mortimer asked. “like the daily news or the federal-democrat?”
“you illustrate my point,” pierre smiled. “not newspapers - identification papers, to prove to police and other authorities that you exist and are who you are.”
“i don’t have any papers,” mort replied. “here in new york people just are who they are.”
“you must have a birth certificate, mort,” jake, who had been listening with one ear, put in. “and you had a draft card, right? that is all he means.”
“i had a birth certificate but my mom spilled pancake mix all over it,” said mort. “it’s a long story.”
“let the gentleman tell his story,” jake replied, with his eyes still half shut.
pierre resumed. “i fell in with a little fellow named albert, a creature from nowhere like myself, who was a passable adept at making papers. papers good enough for the authorities in our little backwater, though perhaps not for those in paris or berlin or moscow. at the time i considered albert quite a wizard. i felt though, that he needed a partner, someone to help look after his interests, especially regarding those who might have been tempted to take advantage of his frail person.”
“you were his muscle,” jake observed.
pierre smiled. “exactly.”
“there was money in it?” jake asked.
“some. albert and i traded in other things too. nothing very glamorous or involving large shipments - selling a little of this, buying a little of this. the old story, going back to the first monkey who traded two bananas for a pomegranate. it was mostly done out of the cafe. we had a bit of a regular clientele, and a few people around the town who would direct strangers our way.
so. one dark night a few months before vichy went kaput and the italians moved in, a young woman appeared at the cafe. a very ordinary looking young woman, very shabbily dressed, which was the sort of customer we liked, as not about to attract much attention. she told us she had been recommended by the concierge of the local hotel, an old and reliable ally of ours.
her story was a sad one, no less sad for the fact that we heard it every day. she had fallen in love with a handsome rascal and had followed her love to the end of the earth - probably supporting him in one way or another, though albert and i were always too polite to ask - and either the earth or some army or navy or prison had swallowed the handsome devil. and now she wished to go far away - far, far way to america or at least to morocco.
or failing that, to be provided with the papers that would allow her to seek employment in the town - any kind of employment.
after i expressed the amenities of sympathy - which cost nothing except a few minutes of time - i came to the point. the point of how she wished to pay for albert’s handiwork. often, especially with women, an offer was made to pay in future installments, after the papers were obtained and wages started coming in. would it surprise you gentlemen to learn i was not always averse to accepting such arrangements? within reason, of course. but at that time the political situation was such - with possible invasions and catastrophes of all sort on the horizon, that albert and i very much preferred something more solid - preferably really solid, not some form of paper money.
the young lady had a medium sized purse with her - one that i had noticed seemed to weigh with curious heaviness on her arm. after a slight hesitation, she reached into the purse and took out a curious object - not curious in itself so much as curious under the circumstances.”
pierre paused, and look out his box of small cigars. he offered the box to mortimer and jake, and jake took one.
after lighting jake’s cigar and his own, pierre resumed.
“the object was one of those quaint objects found in almost all bourgeois european homes - a snow globe.
a rather large snow globe, with a heavier amount of snow than usually seen in such objects, so that the most intense attention had to be concentrated on it to discern the intricate scene displayed by the figures within it.”