Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.–Walter Winchell
WHEN THIS WORLD CATCHES FIRE
BOOK THREE: SAVAGE NOXTOWN
CHAPTER TEN: PART SIXTY-FIVE: KINGDOM COME
“Life,” said Count Victor Justin, raising his glass as if to toast the assembled barflies and loochers who hung around Tipsy Smith’s saloon, The Seven Stars. “It pulls the old Gypsy Switcheroo on all of us, dunnit? When you’re between hay and grass and wearing your best bib and tucker you grow up thinking you must be someone pretty special because your Mammy says so, and you come to manhood only to learn that you’re on the high road to getting your snot nose pushed in, because you’re in your Sunday go to meetin’ clothes and anybody can see that you’re a greenie and a milksop, a situation that you must rectify none too soon, or else. Most people learn this hard lesson they first time they get into a school-yard fight and the other Yellof doesn’t egg-zactly follow the Marquis of Queensberry rules and regulations. That’s when you find out that you’re not the only duck in the pond. And you get taken down a notch or two. I’m telling you straight from the horses’s mouth. Once you’ve been through the mill, you learn a thing or three. Once you’ve seen the elephant and heard the hooty owl, you maybe finally start to get it. Some yellofs, you know, they never get it. The reason is very simple. Of all the fifty impossible things a man can do before breakfast, the hardest one of them all–is simply to think.
“Anyway, the first thing any boy should learn is that when it comes right down to it, nobody with any sense cares about the rules–especially when there’s nobody else watching. The policeman walks the beat only to ensure that the poor don’t steal–while malefactors of great wealth, to quote our esteemed President, do just as they damn well please.
”I will say this: The rich have an iron sense of duty–to rob the poor. I’ll also admit that they have a will to do the right –which nearly always means means lining their own pockets. So why should I be a common drudge, and coast along for thirty-odd years, toiling my heart out, only to be rewarded in the end by a gold watch, a swift kick in the arse, and a cheap monkey-suit to be buried in? Nay, Sir, better to be a Grifter, and go hungry betimes, then to live in constant fear that the big Boss might hover near and tell you that he doesn’t like your shirking. Better to be a vagabond prince than to owe fealty to a pinch-penny Patroon.
“There’s always one thing you can depend on, no matter who you are, no matter where you go, and no matter what you do. It’s simple. It’s that people will talk. Why do you suppose the farmer’s wife spends her husband’s chewing tobacco money on a new feed sack for to make her a dress? Because if she doesn’t, then the neighbors might get to talking about what a poor ole woman she really is.
“You may say you detest a gossip, but gossip is just our way of letting loose with a warning cry that somebody or something isn’t on the up-and-up. If you grow up on a farm you know perfectly well that hens will peck a sick birdie to death. Here, we just kill an odd duck with solicitude. Gossip is a warning to stay far away from that Yob. He’s bad news. He’s yesterday’s papers. He’s a used-up man. He’s not one of God’s children. He’s a rotten apple. A bad egg. I have a bone to pick with him. An axe to grind. He’s pert-near to bein’ a scalawag. Enough of that sort of palaver, and, before you even know it, your reputation is ruined.
“When them womens let their claws come out they sure can be deadly. But it’s a dainty, powder-puff kind of dreadfulness, to be sure.
“Notice that I speak especially of the women-folk. Sensitive critters, the lot of ’em. If you’re aiming to get bit by a gossip, cherchez la femme, as the Frenchies say. Women are great ones for keeping up appearances. It seems that they, and they alone, are the only creatures who understand how important it is. To be sure, there’s the old saying that clothes make the man. What turns a quack into a bonafide sawbones? A white smock. What distinguishes the copper from the grifter? The uniform of blue. How do you distinguish a sky pilot from any garden-variety Bible-clutching kook? The clerical collar.
“Of course, in the grifting profession, you will do well to keep your head down. It will not do to parade around the town in gaudy finery like a gigolo foreigner. No–you want to be a swell dresser, sure, but not too swell–lest you excite suspicion. Lord knows that people in those backwoods metropolises have little enough to talk about than a goofy-looking stranger. They’re in love with old folks, old dogs, old roads and old ways. Most of them won’t even use a telephone except to call the croaker when they’re staring at the hinges of hell. Out in the big stick country they’re all a bunch of saps and yahoos as far as I’m concerned, and if you were to run across their like in your own wide travels I’m sure you would agree, but the aim is not to impress them, so much as to lull them into a sense of complacency–give them the idea that you’re just like everybody else, y’see, and they’ll fall right into your lap and you can use them for a cat’s paw or for anything else.
“That’s why, most of the time, you never practice the grift on a woman. Their intuition is too keen; they can always sense when something is out of the ordinary, and, worse, will gab about it to their girlfriends and assorted relatives. That’s the kind of publicity you don’t need. Remember the old saying: the three means of communication are telephone, telegraph, and tell a girl. No woman is harmless, and the sooner you remember that, the better. What did the poet say? ‘The female of the species is more deadly than the male.’ Are you familiar with Kipling? No, I never Kippled. Haw! ‘East is East and West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet.’ Hell, I can write better stuff than that!
One and one is two,
There’s nothing you can do.
Two and two is four,
It’s time to close the door.”
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