CHAPTER IV

BY ADDING TWO AND TWO TOGETHER, MR. PONZI DEVELOPS AN ANALYTIC MIND AND ARRIVES AT THE INEVITABLE HOUR

The St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary was no kindergarten. It was a prison where a man did time every minute of the day. It was a gaol. A replica of the Old Bailey. Of the Bastille. Of the Chateau d'If of Count of Monte Cristo fame.

From the sack of corn leaves and cobs which served as a mattress to the basement dungeons, that prison was indeed a place of penance and punishment. But, with all of that, I cannot say that I have ever witnessed an act of brutality or cruelty. The rules were strict. The utmost severity prevailed. But the prisoners were not abused unnecessarily nor exposed to inhumane treatment.

Favoritism was not practiced there. Each man stood on his own merits, be he a banker or a laborer, a native or a foreigner. Each had to start from the bottom of the ladder and work his way up with good behavior and industry. Outside influence did not get beyond the gate. But there were opportunities for advancement. There were jobs better than others. Privileges to be earned, and a man had to earn what he got.

My first assignment was to be a shed where they "made little ones Out of big ones". Just that. I was supposed to pound lumps of rock into gravel with a mallet for seven or eight hours a day, and I did it.

In the two or three months I was in that shed, I figure I crushed enough rock to gravel the Yellowstone National Park. I got to be so proficient at it, that they must have blasted a couple of mountain ranges out in the Rockies to keep me going. After I started on that job, British Columbia never looked the same. Had they kept me at it a little longer, I would have flattened that province down smoother than a pancake!

Eventually, my prowess received recognition and I was promoted to a clerkship in the blacksmith shop. From there I graduated into the Chief Engineer's office. Then, out front with the Chief Clerk and in the Warden's office. I couldn't go any further up without stepping out of the gate.

As the Warden's clerk, I had the freedom of the prison. I could go anywhere within the walls, at any time, without being escorted by a guard. I was permitted to talk to other prisoners on official business. But, of course, a guard forty feet away could not tell whether my conversations with other prisoners were official or private. So, I conversed frequently. Especially with an ex-banker, because what I wanted to know in the worst way was how in the world I could have been arrested on a Monday morning for a forged check cashed only the preceding Saturday night.

In the first place, it did not seem likely that the forgery could have been discovered in that short a period of time. Secondly, since my name did not appear on the check and I was unknown at the bank and at police headquarters, it looked like a physical impossibility that I could be connected with that check within less than forty-eight hours.

A Monsieur Lecoq or a Sherlock Holmes could not have traced that check to me in forty-eight hours. Even a sorcerer or fortune teller could not have done that. For the very good reason that any person gifted with superhuman vision would, in any event, have gone to Pizzoccolo first. Then, perhaps, he would have come to me. But it was absolutely inconceivable that two detectives, who could not see further than their nose, should, although in error, outclass a Lecoq, a Sherlock Holmes, and even a seer!

When I explained the circumstances to the ex-banker, he said it was clear as daylight that somebody had tipped off both the bank and the police.

"You see," he told me, "that check was drawn upon the main office and cashed at a branch on Saturday night. It could not have gone from the branch to the main office much before 10 o'clock Monday morning.

Checks are usually held in banks longer than that, two or three days, sometimes. At the main office they had no way of telling it was forged, since they had not detected the forgery at the time of certification. The man whose name had been forged did not know and could not know. He would have known of it only at the end of the month when he got his statement from the bank. Or, he might have learned of it before if the forged check should have caused him to overdraw his account."

"Then it is your opinion that somebody tipped the bank off?" I asked him.

"Of course," he said.

"But I don't believe anybody knew about the check, except my old schoolmate and myself," I hazarded.

"Then it's clear that he tipped off the bank," he affirmed.

"Impossible!" I declared, as if appalled at the enormity of the thing, "I could not believe that of him. Beside, he could not put me in trouble and keep out himself."

"Is that so?" the banker said a bit cynically. "Figure it out for yourself then. You are in trouble and he is not."

" Yes, but that is so because I did not mention his name," I explained in his justification.

"That's it! He was probably figuring you wouldn't," he retorted.

"Why wouldn't I?" I asked.

"Because, even if it dawned upon you that he was at the bottom of the whole thing, you could not have cleared yourself by blaming him," replied the ex-banker. "The evidence is just as strong against you as it may have been against him. The both of you would've been convicted. By the way," he asked, "where is he now?"

"I don't know," I answered.

"Have you seen him since? Has he written to you? Has he helped you in any way?" continued the ex-banker in his cross-examination of me.

"No," I admitted, gradually Impressed by his logic.

"Then, for the love of Mike, wake up and begin to realize that you have been done for to a crisp!" the ex-banker exploded. "Get even with him! Write a letter to the bank and tell on him! They may help you to get out!"

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," I said, rejecting the suggestion. "If I have any bones to pick with him I will look him up. I'll catch up with him some day!"

Little did I realize then how difficult it is to track down a man who does not want to be found. In fact, all my inquiries about him never got further than the West Coast. I heard he bought some moving picture shows. That he was at it for a couple of years. Then, I lost track of him entirely.

The main reason probably was that he was not the only one in that territory at that time opening up moving picture shows. There were others doing the very same thing. Adolph Zukor too, I believe, was there. Some did well, some went under. Zukor, for instance, did exceedingly well. He organized or acquired the Paramount. But my old schoolmate dropped out of sight as if the earth had swallowed him. He is either dead or he has been so successful in altering his identity as to defy recognition. It's true that we have never met face to face since. One such meeting might make all the difference in the world.

What started me on his trail was a visit from my Montreal landlady. She called at the prison shortly after my conversation with the ex-banker. I was hungry for news. News of my girl. Of Zarossi. Of everybody I knew.

"Zarossi is somewhere in the United States," she told me. "I don't know where. I never heard from any of them."

"Not even from Angelina?" I asked. She was my girl.

"No. And you? Have you heard from her?" she inquired.

"No," I had to admit with a certain reluctance. I hated to think she had dropped me so abruptly. "Did she believe me guilty?" I asked.

"I could not say. She never said much," my landlady replied. "Only once she remarked that my old schoolmate, perhaps, knew more about it than we thought."

"She did? What could have made her say that?" I said wondering.

"I don't know," she answered. "I guess she did not like him much because he had been bothering her."

"He had been bothering her?" I asked considerably surprised. "When was that? After I was arrested?"

"No, no. Before," said my landlady somewhat disappointed at my lack of perception. "What's the matter with you? Were you blind? Hadn't you noticed that he too was stuck on Angelina?"

"Of course not," I said. "It's all news to me."

"Oh, you men are all alike!" she declared almost chagrined at her discovery that I was as dumb as the rest. "When you are wrapped up in a girl, you men never see what's going on around her!"

"Maybe you are right," I admitted without the least abashment. "But tell me some more. What's become of him?"

"I don't know," she replied. "I never saw him after you were arrested. I heard he went West."

"Has he ever written?" I asked her.

"No," she said. "But I have talked with a man who had met him out there."

"What was he doing?" I kept asking.

"It seems that he liquidated the branches and then started in business for himself," she replied.

"What business? Where?" I inquired further.

"I don't know where. In several places. All over, I guess," she informed me. "I heard he was buying or putting up small moving picture houses all over the West Coast."

"Then he must be doing well," I said.

"They say he was," she agreed.

That visit gave me all of the information I needed to figure out what had happened to me. There could be no longer any doubt that he had framed me. With jealousy as the motive, he had planned and executed the crime. Then he had fastened it on to me and led the police to my door. And he was doing well while I was doing … time!

Fortunately, there is an end to everything. Even to a prison term. And the end of mine was approaching. Not very fast, it's true. But approaching nevertheless. In fact, approaching faster than I thought because I was not counting the unexpected. On a … Never mind. I was going to let the cat out of the bag beforehand.

Here is what happened. One day, the 13th of July, 1910, I was sitting at the typewriter in the Chief Clerk's office. The Warden came in with a paper in his hand.

"Charlie," he said handing it to me. "I want you to make me a copy of this right away."

"All right, Warden," I said taking the paper from him. I put a sheet in the typewriter, I laid the one to be copied in front of me, and I started to write. It was a printed communication from the Governor General's office. I had typed scores of similar communications before. They all began the same way. This one looked like a pardon.

I kept on typing mechanically until I got to the inmate's name. The Warden was standing in the back of my chair watching me. When I got to the name, I paused petrified. My eyes felt blurred. I rubbed them with the back of my hands and looked again at that name. It was there. Just as plain as day. There could not be any doubt about it. It was a name I had not heard in twenty or more months. It was my name!

The Warden chuckled and patted me on the shoulder.

"You have deserved it, Charlie," he said with a fatherly inflection in his voice. "It is not for me to judge whether or not you should have been sent here in the first place. But, for your sake, I am glad it's over. Run along now and get dressed so that you can make the afternoon train for Montreal."

He did not have to urge me twice. I flew inside and up to the tailor-shop. I took the first suit they gave me. Who cared whether it fitted or not? Who cared for appearances? All that mattered was freedom. And two hours later I was on the street, dressed somewhat grotesquely, with only five dollars in my pocket but happy. I was a free man once more!