Horse-Car Psychics


FOR many seasons — nay, many years — it had been my habit to regard, first with dismay, and later on with complacent scorn, such persons as would knowingly avoid payment of a small debt ; especially if such avoidance premised no very active measure of dishonesty or actual jeopardy in the performance. Of course we all look with severe moral disapprobation upon him who defrauds his fellow-man, while we maintain stoutly that it is not so much the amount of the swindle that concerns us, — it is the principle of the thing, you know ! As a matter of fact, our disapproval is greatly modified hv the extent of the damage thus inflicted. The promoter who by means of a scheme brings ruin on our unsuspecting neighbor comes in for a share of virtuous indignation both loud and deep ; at the same time, the malefactor whose frauds extend no farther than a postage stamp or a car fare we regard with but little indignation, although with a good deal of scorn, — scorn which seems to imply a conviction on our part that, if a man must be a thief, it were better to be so on a scale which commands the respect of his fellow-purloiners, real or would-be !

But alas ! that deceptive equation which has been the undoing of many worthy souls, the law of compensation and equivalents, had to step in and make havoc with a conscience as sensitive by inheritance as it was alert through cultivation ; and this was the manner of the “decline and fall-off,”

On one occasion, having given a horse-car conductor a quarter of a dollar, I watched him proceed to pocket the same and pass on with the indifference of one who has closed a transaction. To my demand for change he turned a deaf ear. On the demand being reiterated more loudly, he produced from his pocket a five-cent nickel, declaring that was all I had given him. Redress was out of the question. A policeman who happened to he riding on the platform evidently regarded me as a troublesome person, and refused to entertain my complaint. For a brief moment there were thoughts of revolution, of clamorous denunciation, of assuming the martyr’s rôle of one forcibly ejected for principle’s sake ; but wiser counsels prevailed, for here again the baneful law of equivalents told me that all this trouble would be dear at twenty cents, and besides, I couldn’t recover the money, anyhow ; so I resigned myself to the sulky pose of a man with a grievance, and thereafter my comments on the inefficiency of the road were uttered with the justifiable acerbity of one who knows by bitter experience whereof he complains. Thus far reprisal had not been thought of except in the form of that liberty of speech so dear to the heart of every American citizen. But a day came when the wily conductor gave me in change a pewter half-dollar at a time when the late twilight rendered detection improbable. After this I found my mild revolutionary tendencies began to take practical shape.

Sitting lost in thought one afternoon, I abstractedly ignored the conductor as he was collecting his fares, and was somewhat surprised to find, on alighting from the car, that my fare rested tranquilly between thumb and finger. Here was a revelation. I did not hurry to give him the nickel, for I had once been told that a conductor had rather pay a neglected fare out of his own pocket than plead guilty to a degree of remissness which might cost him his place ; and then, without any definite purpose, I fell to speculating as to why some people are asked for their fares, and why others are not. I pretty soon established the fact that the solution which has satisfied scientific investigators of tlie phenomena of mesmerism, namely, the theory of “ expectation,” would suffice for this problem. As an impressible woman under the hand of the hypnotizer is led to believe whatever that worthy suggests, so the horse-car conductor, I learned, promptly collects fares from all who have the look of “expectation ” in their faces. This look, I further observed, is usually supplemented by appropriate gestures ; and this train of thought caused me to remember that the famous line,

“ I tore up Fortune by her golden hair,”

was said to have been produced whilst the poet was occupied with fishing for a sixpence in the bottom of his trousers pocket.

Pursuing this line of investigation, I noticed that persons looking into space, or reading, or otherwise mentally absent were frequently ignored by the man of pence. It was not long before I ascertained the exact degree of wooden inexpressiveness on my part which would procure me a like immunity. Chuckling over my new-found treasure in economics, I even went so far as, in my thoughts, to pervert the text of Scripture which bears allusion to some who robbed, and others who passed him by. Parenthetically, I recalled to mind that, in the present ease, the robbing had amounted to seventy cents, and the passing by scarcely to a dime.

There are many things beside edged tools which are unsafe in all hands, and a natural gift at sleight of hand, a deft faculty of unlocking desks with a hairpin, with other accomplishments meant to be used only in fun, has turned out in the long run as disastrous as that unloaded gun which every week, almost every day, is pointed sportively at some unintended victim.

And now, with averted face, I confess that, moved by a strong sense of profitable reprisal, I did practice that wooden look and that vacant stare, to mine own emolument. and the company’s loss, while hugging myself in the gleeful delusion that it was all done only as a mental exercise. For a while I salved my reddened conscience by giving such reservation of nickels to the poor, dropping the coin through the eleemosynary slot as a scarcely admitted conscience fund or blood money. Some of it even went in donations to the deserving poor who desired something to drink ; and I have no doubt that in time I should have become, from mere force of habit, acclimatized to this new atmosphere of petty peculations. I found that, in strict justice, I was beginning to differ only in degree from a financier of that day whose assets were usually alluded to as “ ill-gotten gains.”

Also, the fact that I had companions in turpitude, and those far from prepossessing, gave me pause. Yes, there were other passengers of the street-car line who were adepts in a practice in which I was but an amateur. And yet my attention was first called to their existence by the non-success of the stratagem, and by hearing the muttered ejaculation of the conductor, “Got on to that wooden face ! ” Of such as were thus detected that official collected fare twice, proving that the stratagem, unfortunately, worked both ways.