Mr. William B. Aikins, _alias_ "Softy" Hubbard, _alias_ Billy The Hopper,
paused for breath behind a hedge that bordered a quiet lane and peered ou_nto the highway at a roadster whose tail light advertised its presence to hi_elonious gaze. It was Christmas Eve, and after a day of unseasonable warmth _low, drizzling rain was whimsically changing to snow.
The Hopper was blowing from two hours' hard travel over rough country. He ha_tumbled through woodlands, flattened himself in fence corners to avoid th_yes of curious motorists speeding homeward or flying about distributin_hristmas gifts, and he was now bent upon committing himself to an inter-urba_rolley line that would afford comfortable transportation for the remainder o_is journey. Twenty miles, he estimated, still lay between him and hi_omicile.
The rain had penetrated his clothing and vigorous exercise had not greatl_iminished the chill in his blood. His heart knocked violently against hi_ibs and he was dismayed by his shortness of wind. The Hopper was not so youn_s in the days when his agility and genius for effecting a quick "get-away"
had earned for him his sobriquet. The last time his Bertillon measurement_ere checked (he was subjected to this humiliating experience in Omaha durin_he Ak-Sar-Ben carnival three years earlier) official note was taken of th_act that The Hopper's hair, long carried in the records as black, was rapidl_hitening.
At forty-eight a crook—even so resourceful and versatile a member of th_raternity as The Hopper—begins to mistrust himself. For the greater part o_is life, when not in durance vile, The Hopper had been in hiding, and th_tate or condition of being a fugitive, hunted by keen-eyed agents of justice,
is not, from all accounts, an enviable one. His latest experience o_nvoluntary servitude had been under the auspices of the State of Oregon, fo_ trifling indiscretion in the way of safe-blowing. Having served hi_entence, he skillfully effaced himself by a year's siesta on a pine-appl_lantation in Hawaii. The island climate was not wholly pleasing to Th_opper, and when pine-apples palled he took passage from Honolulu as a stoker,
reached San Francisco (not greatly chastened in spirit), and by a series o_haracteristic hops, skips, and jumps across the continent landed in Maine b_ay of the Canadian provinces. The Hopper needed money. He was not without _ertain crude philosophy, and it had been his dream to acquire by som_rilliant _coup_ a sufficient fortune upon which to retire and live as _ecent, law-abiding citizen for the remainder of his days. This ambition, o_t least the means to its fulfillment, can hardly be defended as praiseworthy,
but The Hopper was a singular character and we must take him as we find him.
Many prison chaplains and jail visitors bearing tracts had striven with littl_uccess to implant moral ideals in the mind and soul of The Hopper, but he wa_till to be catalogued among the impenitent; and as he moved southward throug_he Commonwealth of Maine he was so oppressed by his poverty, as contraste_ith the world's abundance, that he lifted forty thousand dollars in a nea_undle from an express car which Providence had sidetracked, apparently fo_is personal enrichment, on the upper waters of the Penobscot. Whereupon h_egan perforce playing his old game of artful dodging, exercising his bes_owers as a hopper and skipper. Forty thousand dollars is no inconsiderabl_um of money, and the success of this master stroke of his career was not t_e jeopardized by careless moves. By craftily hiding in the big woods an_aking himself agreeable to isolated lumberjacks who rarely saw newspapers, h_rrived in due course on Manhattan Island, where with shrewd judgment h_voided the haunts of his kind while planning a future commensurate with hi_ew dignity as a capitalist.
He spent a year as a diligent and faithful employee of a garage which served _ashionable quarter of the metropolis; then, animated by a worthy desire t_ontinue to lead an honest life, he purchased a chicken farm fifteen miles a_he crow flies from Center Church, New Haven, and boldly opened a bank accoun_n that academic center in his newly adopted name of Charles S. Stevens, o_appy Hill Farm. Feeling the need of companionship, he married a lady somewha_is junior, a shoplifter of the second class, whom he had known before th_igilance of the metropolitan police necessitated his removal to the Far West.
Mrs. Stevens's inferior talents as a petty larcenist had led her into man_ifficulties, and she gratefully availed herself of The Hopper's offer of hi_eart and hand.
They had added to their establishment a retired yegg who had lost an eye b_he premature popping of the "soup" (i.e., nitro-glycerin) poured into th_revices of a country post-office in Missouri. In offering shelter to Mr.
James Whitesides, _alias_ "Humpy" Thompson, The Hopper's motives had not bee_holly unselfish, as Humpy had been entrusted with the herding of poultry i_everal penitentiaries and was familiar with the most advanced scientifi_hought on chicken culture.
The roadster was headed toward his home and The Hopper contemplated it in th_eepening dusk with greedy eyes. His labors in the New York garage ha_amiliarized him with automobiles, and while he was not ignorant of the pain_nd penalties inflicted upon lawless persons who appropriate motors illegally,
he was the victim of an irresistible temptation to jump into the machine thu_eft in the highway, drive as near home as he dared, and then abandon it. Th_wner of the roadster was presumably eating his evening meal in peace in th_nug little cottage behind the shrubbery, and The Hopper was aware of no soun_eason why he should not seize the vehicle and further widen the distanc_etween himself and a suspicious-looking gentleman he had observed on the Ne_aven local.
The Hopper's conscience was not altogether at ease, as he had, that afternoon,
possessed himself of a bill-book that was protruding from the breast-pocket o_ dignified citizen whose strap he had shared in a crowded subway train.
Having foresworn crime as a means of livelihood, The Hopper was chagrined tha_e had suffered himself to be beguiled into stealing by the mere propinquit_f a piece of red leather. He was angry at the world as well as himself.
People should not go about with bill-books sticking out of their pockets; i_as unfair and unjust to those weak members of the human race who yiel_eadily to temptation.
He had agreed with Mary when she married him and the chicken farm that the_ould respect the Ten Commandments and all statutory laws, State and Federal,
and he was painfully conscious that when he confessed his sin she would dea_everely with him. Even Humpy, now enjoying a peace that he had rarely know_utside the walls of prison, even Humpy would be bitter. The thought that h_as again among the hunted would depress Mary and Humpy, and he knew tha_heir harshness would be intensified because of his violation of the unwritte_aw of the underworld in resorting to purse-lifting, an infringement upon _ranch of felony despicable and greatly inferior in dignity to safe-blowing.
These reflections spurred The Hopper to action, for the sooner he reached hom_he more quickly he could explain his protracted stay in New York (to whic_etropolis he had repaired in the hope of making a better price for eggs wit_he commission merchants who handled his products), submit himself to Mary'_hastisement, and promise to sin no more. By returning on Christmas Eve, o_ll times, again a fugitive, he knew that he would merit the unsparin_ondemnation that Mary and Humpy would visit upon him. It was possible, it wa_ven quite likely, that the short, stocky gentleman he had seen on the Ne_aven local was not a "bull"—not really a detective who had observed th_ittle transaction in the subway; but the very uncertainty annoyed The Hopper.
In his happy and profitable year at Happy Hill Farm he had learned to priz_is personal comfort, and he was humiliated to find that he had bee_rightened into leaving the train at Bansford to continue his journey afoot,
and merely because a man had looked at him a little queerly.
Any Christmas spirit that had taken root in The Hopper's soul had bee_isturbed, not to say seriously threatened with extinction, by the untowar_ccurrences of the afternoon.