THE SOUL OF LAPLOSHKA

Laploshka was one of the meanest men I have ever met, and

quite one of the most entertaining. He said horrid things

about other people in such a charming way that one forgave

him for the equally horrid things he said about oneself

behind one’s back. Hating anything in the way of

ill-natured gossip ourselves, we are always grateful to

those who do it for us and do it well. And Laploshka did it

really well.

Naturally Laploshka had a large circle of acquaintances,

and as he exercised some care in their selection it followed

that an appreciable proportion were men whose bank balances

enabled them to acquiesce indulgently in his rather

one-sided views on hospitality. Thus, although possessed of

only moderate means, he was able to live comfortably within

his income, and still more comfortably within those of

various tolerantly disposed associates.

But towards the poor or to those of the same limited

resources as himself his attitude was one of watchful

anxiety; he seemed to be haunted by a besetting fear lest

some fraction of a shilling or franc, or whatever the

prevailing coinage might be, should be diverted from his

pocket or service into that of a hard-up companion. A

two-franc cigar would be cheerfully offered to a wealthy

patron, on the principle of doing evil that good may come,

but I have known him indulge in agonies of perjury rather

than admit the incriminating possession of a copper coin

when change was needed to tip a waiter. The coin would have

been duly returned at the earliest opportunity—he would

have taken means to ensure against forgetfulness on the part

of the borrower—but accidents might happen, and even the

temporary estrangement from his penny or sou was a calamity

to be avoided.

The knowledge of this amiable weakness offered a perpetual

temptation to play upon Laploshka’s fears of involuntary

generosity. To offer him a lift in a cab and pretend not to

have enough money to pay the fare, to fluster him with a

request for a sixpence when his hand was full of silver just

received in change, these were a few of the petty torments

that ingenuity prompted as occasion afforded. To do justice

to Laploshka’s resourcefulness it must be admitted that he

always emerged somehow or other from the most embarrassing

dilemma without in any way compromising his reputation for

saying “No.” But the gods send opportunities at some time

to most men, and mine came one evening when Laploshka and I

were supping together in a cheap boulevard restaurant.

(Except when he was the bidden guest of some one with an

irreproachable income, Laploshka was wont to curb his

appetite for high living; on such fortunate occasions he let

it go on an easy snaffle.) At the conclusion of the meal a

somewhat urgent message called me away, and without heeding

my companion’s agitated protest, I called back cruelly,

“Pay my share; I’ll settle with you tomorrow.” Early on

the morrow Laploshka hunted me down by instinct as I walked

along a side street that I hardly ever frequented. He had

the air of a man who had not slept.

“You owe me two francs from last night,” was his

breathless greeting.

I spoke evasively of the situation in Portugal, where more

trouble seemed brewing. But Laploshka listened with the

abstraction of the deaf adder, and quickly returned to the

subject of the two francs.

“I’m afraid I must owe it to you,” I said lightly and

brutally. “I haven’t a sou in the world,” and I added

mendaciously, “I’m going away for six months or perhaps

longer.”

Laploshka said nothing, but his eyes bulged a little and

his cheeks took on the mottled hues of an ethnographical map

of the Balkan Peninsula. That same day, at sundown, he

died. “Failure of the heart’s action” was the doctor’s

verdict; but I, who knew better, knew that be had died of

grief.

There arose the problem of what to do with his two francs.

To have killed Laploshka was one thing; to have kept his

beloved money would have argued a callousness of feeling of

which I am not capable. The ordinary solution, of giving it

to the poor, would by no means fit the present situation,

for nothing would have distressed the dead man more than

such a misuse of his property. On the other hand, the

bestowal of two francs on the rich was an operation which

called for some tact. An easy way out of the difficulty

seemed, however, to present itself the following Sunday, as

I was wedged into the cosmopolitan crowd which fined the

side-aisle of one of the most popular Paris churches. A

collecting-bag, for “the poor of Monsieur le Cure,” was

buffeting its tortuous way across the seemingly impenetrable

human sea, and a German in front of me, who evidently did

not wish his appreciation of the magnificent music to be

marred by a suggestion of payment, made audible criticisms

to his companion on the claims of the said charity.

“They do not want money,” he said; “they have too much

money. They have no poor. They are all pampered.”

If that were really the case my way seemed clear. I

dropped Laploshka’s two francs into the bag with a murmured

blessing on the rich of Monsieur le Cure.

Some three weeks later chance had taken me to Vienna, and

I sat one evening regaling myself in a humble but excellent

little Gasthaus up in the Wahringer quarter. The

appointments were primitive, but the Schnitzel, the beer,

and the cheese could not have been improved on. Good cheer

brought good custom, and with the exception of one small

table near the door every place was occupied. Half-way

through my meal I happened to glance in the direction of

that empty seat, and saw that it was no longer empty.

Poring over the bill of fare with the absorbed scrutiny of

one who seeks the cheapest among the cheap was Laploshka.

Once he looked across at me, with a comprehensive glance at

my repast, as though to say, “It is my two francs you are

eating,” and then looked swiftly away. Evidently the poor

of Monsieur le Cure had been genuine poor. The Schnitzel

turned to leather in my mouth, the beer seemed tepid; I left

the Ementhaler untasted. My one idea was to get away from

the room, away from the table where that was seated; and as

I fled I felt Laploshka’s reproachful eyes watching the

amount that I gave to the piccolo–out of his two francs. I

lunched next day at an expensive restaurant which I felt

sure that the living Laploshka would never have entered on

his own account, and I hoped that the dead Laploshka would

observe the same barriers. I was not mistaken but as I came

out I found him miserably studying the bill of fare stuck up

on the portals. Then he slowly made his way over to a

milk-hall. For the first time in my experience I missed the

charm and gaiety of Vienna life.

After that, in Paris or London or wherever I happened to

be, I continued to see a good deal of Laploshka. If I had a

seat in a box at a theatre I was always conscious of his

eyes furtively watching me from the dim recesses of the

gallery. As I turned into my club on a rainy afternoon I

would see him taking inadequate shelter in a doorway

opposite. Even if I indulged in the modest luxury of a

penny chair in the Park he generally confronted me from one

of the free benches, never staring at me, but always

elaborately conscious of my presence. My friends began to

comment on my changed looks, and advised me to leave off

heaps of things. I should have liked to have left off

Laploshka.

On a certain Sunday—it was probably Easter, for the

crush was worse than ever—I was again wedged into the

crowd listening to the music in the fashionable Paris

church, and again the collection-bag was buffeting its way

across the human sea. An English lady behind me was making

ineffectual efforts to convey a coin into the still distant

bag, so I took the money at her request and helped it

forward to its destination. It was a two-franc piece. A

swift inspiration came to me, and I merely dropped my own

sou into the bag and slid the silver coin into my pocket. I

had withdrawn Laploshka’s two francs from the poor, who

should never have had that legacy. As I backed away from

the crowd I heard a woman’s voice say, “I don’t believe he

put my money in the bag. There are swarms of people in

Paris like that!” But my mind was lighter than it had been

for a long time.

The delicate mission of bestowing the retrieved sum on the

deserving rich still confronted me. Again I trusted to the

inspiration of accident, and again fortune favoured me. A

shower drove me, two days later, into one of the historic

churches on the left bank of the Seine, and there I found,

peering at the old wood-carvings, the Baron R., one of the

wealthiest and most shabbily dressed men in Paris. It was

now or never. Putting a strong American inflection into the

French which I usually talked with an unmistakable British

accent, I catechized the Baron as to the date of the

church’s building, its dimensions, and other details which

an American tourist would be certain to want to know.

Having acquired such information as the Baron was able to

impart on short notice, I solemnly placed the two-franc

piece in his hand, with the hearty assurance that it was

“pour vous,” and turned to go. The Baron was slightly

taken aback, but accepted the situation with a good grace.

Walking over to a small box fixed in the wall, he dropped

Laploshka’s two francs into the slot over the box was the

inscription, “Pour les pauvres de M. le Cure.”

That evening, at the crowded corner by the Cafe de la

Paix, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Laploshka. He smiled,

slightly raised his hat, and vanished. I never saw him

again. After all, the money had been given to the deserving

rich, and the soul of Laploshka was at peace.