By Greg Clark, May 9, 1936
“After lunch,” said Jimmie Frise, “we’ll drop in at that auction sale place. There’s a sale of unclaimed packages.”
“Surprise packages, eh?” I consented.
“It’s good fun,” said Jim. “I’ve been to lots of them but I never bought anything.”
“If we go, we’ve got to buy something,” I stated, “because you really haven’t been to an auction sale unless you buy something. It’s like going to the races and not betting on a horse.”
“O.K.,” agreed Jim. “It won’t cost us much. Lots of the packages and bundles go for a few cents. Twenty cents, thirty cents.”
“You never can tell what you’ll get,” I pointed out. “I once heard of a man who bought a common little paper package at one of those unclaimed baggage sales, and when he opened it up, he found wrapped inside of five or six coverings of newspaper, a small box containing a diamond and ruby brooch. He sold it for $1,800.”
“I heard of another case,” said Jim darkly, “where a man bought a small trunk for two dollars and in it was a human leg.”
“You have no imagination, Jim,” I protested. “You don’t seem to understand the secret of happiness, and that is always to expect. Always expect something nice, something valuable, something exciting. And even though it never comes, you feel good.”
“I go by the reverse system,” said Jim. “I expect the worst. I look forward to nothing. I fear no good can come of anything, and when some good does come of it, look how surprised and delighted I am.”
“I suppose,” I agreed, “one way of looking at life is as good as another. What is to be is to be, and no amount of guessing one way or the other can change it.”
“You said it,” confirmed Jim. “I was at one of these auctions one time and a terrible thing happened to me. A terrible thing. A funny-looking canvas valise came up. It was pretty greasy-looking and battered and rubbed. It looked like a prospector’s packsack. When I looked at it, I had a hunch I ought to bid for it. The auctioneer begged for bids but nobody rose to it. The auctioneer said it might contain nuggets of solid gold. But the way he was lifting it around, we could see there were no nuggets in it. It was light. Finally a man bid a quarter for it. And it went bang.”
“What was in it?” I begged.
“I followed the buyer,” said Jim, “out to the door of the auction room, where most of the buyers take a peek at their purchase. Before my eyes, that man drew forth a forty dollar pistol, a prismatic compass worth about $20, a fly rod in aluminum case, fly books, English reels, compact cooking kit nesting into a single large pail, in fact everything I have wanted all my life but never could afford.”
“Why didn’t you make him an offer?” I asked.
“Make him an offer?” cried Jim. “I followed him half way across the city, but all he would say was that he was something of a sportsman himself.”
“I hope we get a couple of hunches today,” I breathed.
“You never can tell,” said Jim. “The worst looking packages often contain the valuables, and vice versa.”
Hostage to Fortune
Jim and I hurried through a sandwich and walked briskly across downtown to the auction rooms where the unclaimed goods sale was in full fling. The customers were mostly pretty seedy-looking individuals, mostly men who looked as if all other hope in life was pretty well spent, and that this auction sale was their last despairing effort. Automobile tires were being offered when we arrived, new-looking, but, as Jimmie pointed out, if you could see what was really the matter with them you would know why they were unclaimed.
In a few moments, the tires were exhausted, and then began a series of surprising items. A large coil of galvanized wire, which went, after a brief bid, for thirty cents; a paper package tied with a dirty rope which went for twenty cents and turned out to be a beautiful set of lace curtains; a cardboard box mysteriously sealed with sticky paper, forty cents, and it contained, when the man opened it, a tin contraption that looked like part of something which even if completed, wouldn’t mean anything.
Then came a suitcase, cheap, aged and sagging, its handle repaired with string. A pair of men went ten cents at a time to sixty cents for it, in low, doubtful voices. And the one who won opened it to reveal a heap of soiled shirts, socks, red bandana handkerchiefs all the worse for use. He put it under his arm and went off with it. His last sixty cents shot. Hostage to fortune.
“Hm,” said Jim, as we stood on the outer fringe of the crowd, “not much doing to-day. I thought there would be packing cases and everything.”
“In times like these,” I explained, “if anything has any value whatsoever, it will be claimed.”
“Now here,” cried the auctioneer, “item one-sixty, is something out of the ordinary.”
A box about a foot square was lifted heavily shoulder-high by two strong men serving on the auction platform. It was bound with metal tape. It was fastened with screw nails. A flurry of interest stirred the crowd.
“Who can say what is in this?” demanded the auctioneer. “Would it be valuable instruments of some sort, or something in valuable metals? What am I offered for this unusual item, ladies and gentlemen?”
“Twenty-five cents,” said a determined voice. And instantly it snapped up by quarters and dimes, to a dollar, then to two dollars and then to three.
“Should we get in on this?” I asked Jim.
“No,” advised Jim. “What we want to bid on is something useless looking. It’s the surprise we are after.”
*Right,” said I, and listened while the bids went higher and higher, to four dollars and seventy cents before they slackened and came to a solid stop.
“Come, gentlemen,” the auctioneer cried. “this box is obviously a valuable article, you can see it is fastened with metal bands and secured with screw nails instead of common nails. In this box is something unusual, strange, valuable. I cannot understand why it is left unclaimed, unless its owner mysteriously passed away, before he had a chance to call for it at the express office. Who knows but what some great enterprise is held up all for the want of whatever is in this box?”
“Aha,” said I.
But the bidding stopped flat at four-eighty. And a well dressed but hard-faced middle-aged man took the box and carried it to the doorway to have a look at it.
“You’ve got something there, mister,” I said agreeably.
“Stand back and mind your own affairs,” said the gentleman with accustomed rudeness. He borrowed a screw driver from one of the luckier members of the audience and pried the box open. Jim and I stood discreetly and watched. When the lid was removed from the heavy little box, it appeared filled with silver. The gentleman pinched some of it with his fingers. He removed a note that lay on the top of the contents of the box. Read it. And suddenly flinging the note down on the floor, he rose and stamped angrily from the auction room.
Battle of Bidders
Jim stepped over and picked up the note. It was on the letterhead of a sand and gravel corporation in Montreal and it said:
“We are sending you herewith a working sample of our water-washed granite sand, No. 412X.”
“Let that be a lesson to you,” said Jim.
“Guys that look and act like that man,” I said, referring to the departed customer, “occasionally get their deserts.”
“But only occasionally,” agreed Jim.
And we returned to watching the sale.
More cardboard boxes with obvious things sticking out of them; a string of assorted old boots, a carpet, a case containing an oil burner that went for $16 after a bright tussle between two obvious dealers in such things, ladies’ hats, men’s hats, a crate of stove pipe.
Then came another string of seedy suitcases.
“Let’s bid in one of these,” suggested Jim.
“Let’s pick the worst looking one of all,” I submitted.
And when the auctioneer called item 189, the platform attendant held up as shabby a cheap and battered suitcase as ever it has been my lot to see. Its sides did not bulge; they sagged consumptively. It was torn and crudely sewn. Its handle was newer than the suitcase itself, a cheap handle fastened on by an amateur.
“Ten cents,” sang out Jimmie.
“Fifteen,” promptly shouted a hoarse voice from the far side of the crowd.
“Twenty,” said Jim.
“Twenty-five,” snarled the same voice.
And in no time at all, Jim and the unseen but foreign-voiced gentleman across the throng had run that old tramp of a suitcase up to two dollars!
“Don’t quit, Jim,” I hissed, “There is something odd about this.”
“Two-forty,” cried Jim, while the crowd stood rigid with excitement at the battle over the wreck.
At three dollars, the other bidder suddenly quit, with a despairing bellow of that amount Jim handed his three dollars over the heads of the throng and the suitcase was promptly passed from hand to hand over the crowd to Jimmie.
“It has nothing much in it,” said Jim, hefting it.
“Nix,” I said. “Is this the guy that was bidding?”
Two sinister-looking eastern Europeans were hastily coming around the edge of the crowd, keeping their eyes fastened on the suitcase, as if not to let it out of their view for one instant.
“Jim,” I said, “let’s get out of this. I don’t like the looks of these two customers.”
We walked out the auction room door into the street. And right on our heels, breathing down our necks, came the two foreigners.
We turned west. They followed, and walking quickly alongside of us, the larger of them leaned close and said, with an unpleasant and ingratiating smile:
“Please, boss, please!”
He had an old scar, such as a knife would make, across one cheek and it drew the corner of his mouth up viciously.
“What do you want?” said Jim, halting.
“Beat it,” I commanded.
“Please, boss,” repeated the larger one, and the shorter one squared around to block our passing.
“What do you want?” shouted Jim.
“Please,” wheedled the big one, reaching for the suitcase.
Jim leaped back, holding the suitcase behind him.
“What do you want? Speak up!” Jim glowered.
“No spik,” said the foreigner, shaking his head. “No spik. No money. No more. No spik. Pleeeeeeeaaaaaasssseee.”
And again he made a lurch for the suitcase, casting at the same instant a meaningful and sinister glance at his partner.
With a strong and adroit movement, the smaller man thrust me aside, and snatched the suitcase from Jim’s hand behind him.
“Haaaallp,” we roared, as the two thieves dashed down one of the streets past the market towards the waterfront. And we gave furious chase. Half a dozen people stopped and stared. But nobody helped. Nobody ever does. No policemen were in sight. Traffic didn’t even slow down to help us. Everything went right on as usual in the street while, headed on swift legs for the waterfront, we saw our thieves vanishing, and Jim and I puffing badly, brought up a vain rear.
“Jim.” I gasped, as we slowed up to a fast walk. “I bet you the crown jewels of Roumania or something were in that suitcase.”
“Too light,” said Jim. “No weight. But it’s funny.”
“Those were sinister-looking men,” I said. “I don’t feel like tackling them anywhere down here on the waterfront.”
“Like to know what was in there,” said Jim. “Why they were so desperately anxious.”
“High graders,” I suggested. “Full of gold.”
“No weight,” said Jim. “Perhaps papers or plans. Incriminating. Perhaps jewels. Very mysterious.”
We walked rapidly down to the Esplanade and halted at the railway tracks, looking down the lines of standing freight cars. We caught our breath.
“Jim, that was like out of a crime story,” I said. “Perhaps it is just as well we didn’t keep the suitcase. Maybe those birds would have followed us to our homes and committed murder. Maybe they were part of a gang.”
“Nix,” said Jim, “here they come.”
And astonishingly, from behind some freight cars, appeared our two villains, advancing straight for us.
“How about ducking,” I said. “Back up to good old King street, huh?”
“Wait,” said Jim.
The two advanced straight for us smiling fiercely yet apologetically. The large one was carrying a letter in his hand. Holding it out to show us.
“Please,” he said. “No spik. Please.”
“Come, come,” said Jim, “what is all this my man?”
“No spik,” repeated the big fellow. “You come?” He carried the suitcase without any fear. Up the street he led us back east past the auction rooms, and beyond.
“Here, where are you taking us?” I demanded.
“Please,” repeated the big fellow in a coaxing voice. “No spik. Some spik. Some spik come.”
With elaborate foreign gestures, he bade us wait while he and his friend stepped up to the door of an old house. In a moment a third foreigner appeared, and they engaged in furious conversation in a language that sounded as if its gears were clashing.
“Jim,” I said, “it’s bread daylight. But just the same…”
The foreigner who lived in the house came out and advanced to us.
“My friends,” he said slowly, “wish to apologize. They have lose their suitcase. It go for sale. In the suitcase is letter with address of their brother in west. In town with name they cannot remember.”
He held out the letter. We read the town. Tzouhalem, B.C.
“Mm, mm,” agreed Jim.
“He no find brother,” explained the interpreter, “he go die, he go starve, he no find his brother without that letter. He find at last suitcase. You buy.”
“Aaaaaah,” we said.
“He no steal, he just borrow,” said the interpreter. “He give you suitcase now.”
The big one held forth the suitcase.
“Aw, you keep it,” said Jim. “We only bought it for fun.”
“Please,” said the big foreigner, gratefully.
And we shook hands all around.
“Which shows,” said Jim, as we went back to the office and work, “that what is one man’s fun is another man’s tragedy.”
Editor’s Notes: $1 in 1936 would be about $18.50 in 2020.