By Greg Clark, November 20, 1937
“Since when,” inquired Jimmie Frise, “have you been a stamp collector?”
“I’m not a stamp collector,” I denied indignantly. “This old stamp album I found in a trunk left with our family about forty years ago by an uncle.”
“It might be very valuable,” said Jim.
“You’re telling ‘me?” I snorted, thumbing through the yellowish pages thickly scabbed with aged stamps. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with my cousins for years to take the old trunk off our hands. I just heard the last of them had died up in Saskatchewan, so I decided to chuck the old trunk out. This was in it.”
“Maybe there’s a good fifty bucks in it,” said Jim, “to pay you for …”
“Fifty bucks,” I scoffed. “Jim, there are old stamps that sell as high as $14,000.”
“What?” said Jim
“Listen, my boy,” I said, as I studied eagerly the rows and rows of faded stamps all so neatly stuck in the album, “kings and queens collect stamps. Millionaires collect stamps the way other millionaires collect Rembrandts or Ming china. A thousand dollars is nothing for a rare old stamp dating back a hundred years, or, better, a stamp of a very small issue that was discontinued for some reason.”
“Your uncle,” said Jim, “wouldn’t have left that album lying for years in an old trunk, if there was any value like that in them.”
“He left it with us forty years ago,” said I, “and I bet he collected them when he was a young man. Look at the writing. That’s a young man’s writing. Maybe this album is sixty or seventy years old.”
“By golly,” breathed Jim.
“Everybody, Jim,” I declared, “is entitled to a little luck, once in his life. Some people get their luck by stumbling on a gold mine. Or some old relative leaves them a windfall, ten times bigger than they ever thought the relative was capable of. This old stamp album may be my luck, at last.”
“A reward, kind of,” said Jimmie, “for all the years you have patiently kept that trunk up in your attic.”
“Exactly,” I said piously, though there were plenty of times the old trunk got kicked around pretty badly, and old Uncle Seth had been called some fancy names.
“How are you going to get the album appraised?” asked Jim.
“That’s what I want to talk over with you,” I stated. There are catalogues that list all the stamps in the world, giving their value. I telephoned two or three stamp dealers and asked about those catalogues, and they all say the same thing. They say that the value of stamps has altered a great deal during recent years, owing to the depression and so forth, and if I will just bring the old album in, they can give me some idea of its value.”
“Oh, yeah?” scorned Jim. “Don’t let anybody pull that stuff on you. If you’ve got something valuable there, don’t let any dealer get his mitts on it.”
“Trust me,” I gloated. “I just laughed at them when they suggested the idea. No, sir, we’ve got to hunt around and get hold of one of those big catalogues and price lists. Or maybe if we make a list of the stamps in here and send it around to a dozen or so dealers.”
“Telling each one,” warned Jim, “that we have sent the same list to other dealers.”
“That’s it,” I cried. “And then we’ll start them bidding.”
“Look here,” said Jim, “I know a dear old fellow; he used to be a postman. He’s one of the greatest stamp collectors in Canada. “If I can locate him, we could go and see him.”
“How could we trust him,” I demanded, “when it comes to a matter of thousands of dollars? Maybe $20,000.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “this old chap is as honest as the day. He hasn’t a cent in the world anyway. This is what we’ll do. We’ll offer to pay him a commission of five per cent for the proper valuation of this album if it is sold for what he appraises it at.”
“Not a bad idea,” I said, closing the album and taking a good tight hold on it. “But I have the queer sort of feeling about stamp collectors, as if it were a secret society.”
“How do you mean?” asked Jim.
“I don’t know,” I said, “On the face of it, it seems so silly, collecting old postage stamps. What’s there in it? It looks to me like one of those mysterious businesses that appear so silly on the outside, yet is full of secrets and mystery inside. Maybe this old postman of yours belongs to some kind of international organization and would value the album at a mere $500 and then split ten thousand with somebody else in the ring who buys it.”
“Aw,” said Jim, “you’re getting suspicious like everybody else that gets his hands on a good thing.”
“Jim,” I said, “when you get your hands on something worth maybe $25,000, you’ve got to be suspicious. You’ve got to have eyes in the back of your head.”
So Jim did some telephoning and found that his old postman friend would probably be home around 8 p.m. He lived in a room on the third floor over one of those downtown blocks of stores on Queen street.
“I’ll pick you up after supper,” I said.
After supper, we drove downtown and parked the car near the Queen street number and located the place. It was one of those old blocks of stores, with intermediate doors leading up flights of stairs to apartments on the second and third floors.
Third floor we climbed, up dark, steep stairs, passing halls and doors where there were sounds of domestic activity and radios. At the top were two doors, one marked Beautician, and the other blank.
It was a massive door. They built doors in the eighties.
“This will be it,” said Jim, rapping.
Instead of the door opening, one panel in the upper half slid along sideways and a dim face appeared.
“Hello,” said Jim, a little startled.
“What do you want?” asked the face, just a faint blur in the open panel
“We’ve come to do a little business,” said Jim, pleasantly.
“Who sent you?” demanded the low voice.
“It was our own idea,” laughed Jim, as if this, were a game.
The panel slid shut. We waited. In a moment, it slid open again and we could make out two dim blurs in the darkness.
“Well?” said Jim.
“They look,” said a thinner voice than the first one we had heard, “like the type of guys we’ve been trying to get. Let ’em in.”
Something clunked. The door swung open, and we entered a dimly lit hallway, in which there was now only one man, a particularly heavy built individual who looked like a retired policeman.
“Hang your coats and hats here,” said this gentleman, gruffly. I felt his hand slide quickly down my back and up my left side, as he pretended to take my coat off. I clutched my parcelled stamp album tightly.
“What’s that?” demanded the stranger, brusquely.
“A stamp album,” I stated. “An old stamp album. That’s what we’ve come to see about.”
“To see about!” said the big fellow. “Oh, I see. Luck, huh?”
“It sure is luck,” I began, intending to start business without delay.
“Trot along in, then,” said the big fellow, “if the boss says you’re in, you’re in, cockeyed or not.”
He waved us along the hallway.
We opened the door. Instead of one man, there were thirty in the big room. Some were sitting at small side tables. Some were sitting on high benches around the side, like shoeshine parlor benches. And in the middle of the room was a big pool table, sort of, only it was not pool they were playing.
At one end of the table, a man in shirt sleeves was standing with a long hooked stick in his hand. Behind and above him, on a chair six feet high, like a chair on a ladder, was another man, sitting watching the table the way a cat watches a goldfish in its bowl.
A man at the side of the table was rolling big dice.
It was all quiet, smoky, muttery and hushed. As we entered, hardly anybody looked up. One man, who turned out to be the boss walked over and said quietly:
“Make yourselves at home. Buy your chips from the croupier. He cashes.”
“Chips?” said I, but Jim gave my sleeve a little jerk. We strolled over and looked between shoulders at the big table. It was not a billiard table at all. At one end, down by the man with the stick, there was a thick line painted across the green baize. Out in the middle were all kinds of squares, numbered. On the line and behind it were colored chips. In the squares were a lot of other chips.
A regular babble of talk was going on, and they were talking about the “hard eight and the “hard six.” At the far end, the man with the stick was repeating monotonously, “when you crap you double, when you crap you double,” and in return for cash money, he shoved out small piles of chips to the men standing around the table, yet never ceased his monotone, “crap you double.”
At the sides, where the men were putting their chips in the little squares, the battle ceased, and the man with the crooked stick put the dice in a leather tube, about the size of a condensed soup can. He handed it to one of the men on the side. He held it up, turned it around three times, shifted it to his other hand and rolled the dice out on the green baize.
There was an outburst, like “they’re off” when the horses start at the races. Chips went all directions and money was waved, and the man with the crooked stick raked in the dice and shoved chips this way and that. The man on the high chair never even blinked. He just sat up there, staring expressionlessly at the table.
“Jim,” I muttered, “how about my stamps?”
“All right, all right,” hissed Jim. “Wait a minute.”
“Well, what is this?” I insisted.
“Talk about luck,” said Jim, backing me out a little from the crowd. “that old stamp album of yours has led us right into a swell big crap game. One we couldn’t get into, maybe, except by accident, in a thousand years.”
“What of it?” I started.
“Luck,” whispered Jim fiercely. “Luck. Don’t you believe in hunches?”
“No gambling,” I declared firmly. “Not me.”
“How much have you got on you?” demanded Jim, feeling in his own pocket. I had $2.12. Between us, we had $7.40. Jim took my two and went around the end to the man with the stick. He returned with seven white chips.
“A dollar apiece?” I protested.
“Listen,” said Jim. “we’re in luck. The air is full of hunches. Watch me.”
He found an open spot at the table and I wedged in alongside. Jim put two of our white chips on the square marked 8 and two behind the long white line. We waited while the babble subsided, a tall elderly man threw the dice, and out came a nine. There was the outburst, and the swift moving of chips in all directions. Ours were lost in the scramble.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Just a minute,” said Jim, tossing three chips down in the squares, in various numbers.
The tall, thin man rolled again. Another nine.
There was wild, smothered hubbub and our three chips were swept away by strange hands that, as far as I could see, had nothing to do with it. But Jim just looked and said nothing.
“Now what?” I demanded.
Jim backed me out again.
“Let’s see that stamp album,” said he.
“What for?” I cried so sharply that the boss walked quickly over.
“What is it, gents?” he asked.
“Is there anybody around here,” said Jim. “knows the value of old postage stamps? Any stamp collector?”
“Ham up there,” said the boss, “he’s a regular fiend after stamps.”
“Jim.” I said, “be careful.”
We walked around and spoke up to the man on the high stool. As if waking from a trance, Ham looked down and listened while Jim explained about the stamp album. Ham reached down for it and looked through it casually
“Ten bucks?” he said.
“What?” I cried. “It’s worth hundreds.”
“Says you,” said Ham, handing it negligently down to me.
“Maybe thousands,” I repeated heatedly.
Ham’s eyes were fixed glassily on the table again.
“Look,” Jim said, “gamblers are the most honest men in the world. You’ve heard that all your life, haven’t you?”
“Ten bucks,” I said contemptuously, tying the string back on it.
“Look,” pleaded Jim, holding my lapel, “everything is luck. isn’t it? How do we know this dizzy old album …”
“Jimmie,” I warned, clutching the book.
“A bad beginning,” said Jim, “means a good end. If I get ten bucks, I’ll probably be able to clean up $500 here in half an hour. I’ll split.”
“Split!” I snorted.
“Two-fifty in the hand is worth ten thousand in a bushy old album,” begged Jim. “Listen, this is a straight hunch. Why should we stumble in here, with that old book, unless …?”
I handed Jim the album, slowly, painfully. He handed it up to Ham and Ham, never shifting his eyes from the table, handed down a ten.
Jim went and waited at the table until the dice came to him. He put ten white chips on the line, with a regular slap.
He rolled. It was a six.
After the hubbub, they gave the dice back to Jim. He held the tube up and passed it slowly from his right hand to his left.
In the hubbub, our troubles seemed to be as nothing. We withdrew to a corner, and the boss came hurrying over.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he cried, “not so loud. No fighting in here, if you please.”
“We’re ruined,” I informed him loudly.
“Ham will always advance you taxi fare home,” said the boss, gently.
“We’ve got our own car, thanks,” I declared.
Which was all.
While Greg was away as a war correspondent in World War Two, it was not uncommon for the Star Weekly to reprint an earlier story, with a new title and new drawing by Jim. The text would be edited (usually shortened), and perhaps a reference to the war would be added. This story appeared under the title “Talk About Luck” in 1943 (illustration here).
Editor’s Notes: Jim was always portrayed as the one more comfortable gambling, where Greg would be seen as more prudish.
Baize is the material used for billiards tables and casino games.