Friday, 26 October 2012
The Poppy Girl's Husband
The Poppy Girl’s Husband by Jack Boyle. A short extract from a very rare piece of American crime writing that influenced writers, and movie directors from Raymond Chandler, to Francis Ford Coppola.
Boston Blackie let the afternoon paper slip to his knees.
“Harry Dutton is coming back,” he said, with a startled accent of one announcing a catastrophe. “The Pardon Board has granted him an immediate parole.”
“Harry Dutton?” repeated Mary, interrogatively. Then as remembrance came to her: “Not Hairpin Harry? Not the Poppy Girl’s Husband?”
“Yes, Hairpin Harry,” said Blackie. “He’s done eight, nine – yes, almost ten years’ hard time; and now his coming back – to what?”
Blackie paused, his brow criss-crossed with the furrows of pained friendship and sympathy.
“Think of it, Mary,” he added, slowly. “He’s coming back after ten long years, and he doesn’t know what has happened while he has been doing time.”
“Doesn’t know?” cried Mary. “Do you mean that even in prison no one has told him? Why, it’s years and years since she….. “
“No one has told him,” interrupted Blackie. “One man tried it, I heard, but Harry choked him half to death with the words still in his throat. And since then Harry has done most of his time in the dungeon. No, he doesn’t know.”
Mary looked up at her husband with a helpless, awed gesture.
“If that is so, and he cares for her, Blackie,” she said, gently, “it would have been kinder if he had died inside – still in ignorance. Does he care?”
With the paper that had resurrected old and all but forgotten memories lying discarded in his lap, Boston Blackie stared in silence into the open fire. He saw the banquet-room of a once famous restaurant that had vanished beneath the ashes of San Francisco’s great fire. He saw a long table with great banks of golden Californian poppies lying against its snowy linen. The chatter of the gay company of the crook world gathered about it was hushed as a man rose from beside a young girl as luxuriously beautiful as the brilliant wild flower for which they had named her.
“Friends,” he had said, “it’s easier for me to open a lock with a hairpin than to tell about, but when a man feels anything hard enough, he can say it. That’s me to-night. I’ve taken a pal for life. I’ve married Polly, the Poppy-Girl; and she’s the best, the truest, the sweetest little pal any man ever had. So we’re going to play the old game together, folks – play it to the end without fear or favour, me for her always, and she for me. And I’m going to be as right and square with her as I have been with you who have worked with me, so help me God! Friends, meet my wife and …..” His voice had trembled as he finished: “I’m the happiest and luckiest guy who ever walked the streets of dear old Frisco.”
Boston Blackie stirred uneasily in his chair. The vision of the banquet-room faded. In its place he saw a court-room. A judge was on the bench pronouncing sentence against a man who faced him from the prisoner’s bar with troubled but defiant eyes.
“Fourteen years,” said the judge.
The sound of a woman’s hysterical sobbing came from the rear of the court-room as he vanished into his chambers. The curious crowd filed out, and Blackie saw himself alone with Hairpin Harry Dutton and a woman who held a tiny boy in her arms and cried heartbrokenly against her husband’s breast.
“It’s tough luck, Blackie,” said the sentenced man, kissing the girl with the tenderness of great love. “It’s hard to leave her like this, but – fate is fate. Anyway, I’ve enough banked to take care of her while I’m doing time, even if I do it all. On the first of every month, all she has to do is step down to the bank and draw a hundred-dollar note. That’ll keep her and the boy. I’d put it all in her name now, but she’s only a kid and can’t manage money any better than a baby. So I’m playing safe for her, and I’ll go up, taking along the comfort of knowing she is drawing that little old century note every month while she and the boy are waiting for me to come home. Fourteen years! It’s a long, long time, Blackie, when a man’s waiting to get back to a wife like Polly and a boy like ours.”
He stooped and kissed the baby in the woman’s arms, then held his wife against his breast, soothing her grief until the sheriff’s deputies beckoned him to them. A door clanged behind him, and Hairpin Harry Dutton vanished from the world of living men.
“Did he care for her, Blackie?” repeated Mary. Blackie roused himself from his reverie and brushed a hand across his eyes as if to sweep away the visions of the past.
“He care for her so much.” He said, slowly, “that someone must tell him before he comes back. No one but I will think of it. If I catch the midnight mail, I can be at Folsom in the morning to meet him. Pack my grip, Mary.”
From the crossroads at the foot of the grade, Boston Blackie saw a figure turn the crest of the ridge that encircles Folsom Penitentiary. Even at a distance a glance identified him as a convict in his first hour of restored freedom.
The man came on hurrying eagerly. Blackie, watching from the roadside, saw that he walked with a painfully awkward limping gait in which the right leg lagged and was dragged forward at each step with seeming effort.
As the man approached, Blackie stared more curiously.
“Is this Harry?” he thought. “Can it be? He should be young even after ten lost years, and this man is old, bent, grey, hopelessly broken. What a wreck!”
The freed convict was quite close now. He walked with the unsteady feebleness of atrophied muscles. His face was a ghastly, corpselike hue. As he lifted his hat to mop a brow dripping with the effort of unfamiliar exercise, Blackie saw that his once black hair was shot with patches – not streaks – of white. His hands, and the wrists which showed below the too short sleeves of his coat, were fleshless and curiously withered, like plants that had slowly died for lack of sunlight.
Hairpin Harry Dutton had taken youth with him when he had entered Folsom. He was returning now to a world that had all but forgotten him.
Boston Blackie stepped into the roadway and extended both hands.
“Welcome back, Harry,” he said. The oppressing knowledge of what he had to tell kept Blackie from saying, “Welcome home.”
Hairpin Harry stopped and stared: and then, as recognition came to him, he flung himself into his friend’s arms in almost womanly abandonment to joy.
“Blackie,” he cried. “My old pal. Blackie, here to welcome me back! Where is Polly and the boy? Waiting at the railway station, eh, Blackie – waiting there for me now to wipe out with a kiss and a hug all memory of the nine years ten months and twenty-one days I have been away? Come, Blackie, come! I can’t wait; I can’t speak; I can’t even think until I have seen them.....”
This incredibly rare Novelette wriiten by the man that pioneered great American gangster fiction is now available on Amazon Kindle. BOSTON BLACKIE