Avast and belay there! Take in the topgallants, wind up the mizzenmast and reef the cleets! This is Tobias Wooden-Leg plowing his way through a high sea in Grand Avenue.
Aye, what a night, what a night! The devil astride the jib boom, his tail lashing in the wind. "Pokker!" says Tobias, 'fa'n TA mig. Hold tight and here we go!"
The boys in the Elite poolroom stand grinning in the doorway. Old Norske Tobias is on a tear again, his red face shining with the memory of Stavanger storms, his beard bristling like a north cat's back. An Odin in caricature.
They watch him pass. Drunker than a fiddler's wench. Drunker than a bootlegger's pal. Drunk as the devil himself and roaring at the top of his voice: "Belay, there! Hold tight and here we go!" Poor Tobias Wooden-Leg, the years keep plucking out his hairs and twisting his fingers into talons. Seventy years have squeezed him. And they have brought him piety and wisdom. They have taught him virtue and holiness.
But the wind suddenly rises and comes blowing out of Stavanger again. The great sea suddenly lifts under his one good leg. And Tobias with his Bibles and his prayer books struggles in the dark of his Grand Avenue bedroom. The devil comes and sits on his window sill, a devil with long locks and bronze wings beside his ears and a three-pronged pitchfork in his hand.
"Ho, ho!" cries this one on the window sill. "What are you doing here, Tobias? With the north wind blowing and the gray seas standing on their heads? Grown old, Tobias, eh? Sitting in a corner and mumbling over litanies."
And it has always been like that since he came to Grand Avenue ten years ago. It has always turned out that Tobias takes off his white shirt and puts on his sailor's black sweater and fastens on his old wooden leg and follows the one on the window sill.
Avast and belay! The night is still young and a sailor man's abroad. The sergeant going off duty at the Chicago Avenue station passes and winks and calls: "Hello, Tobias. Pretty rough tonight."
Fa'n ta mig!" roars Tobias. "Hold tight." And he steers for Clark Street. And now the one on the window sill is gone and the storm grows quiet. And poor Tobias Wooden-Leg, the venerable and pious, who has won the grace of God through a terrific fight, finds himself again lost and strayed.
Of what good were the prayers and the night after night readings in the old sea captain's Bible stolen forty years ago? Of what good the promises and tears of repentance, when this thing that seemed to rise out of forgotten seas could come and jump up on his window sill and bewitch him as if he were a heedless boy? When it could sit laughing at him until in its laugh he heard the sounds of old winds roaring and old seas standing on their heads, and he put on his black sweater—the moth-eaten badge of his sinfulness—and he put on his wooden leg and lifted out the handful of money from under the corner of the carpet?
What good were the prayers if they couldn't keep him pious? Yes, that was it. And here the habitués along North Clark Street grin. For Tobias Wooden-Leg is coming dawn the pavement, his head hanging low, his beard no longer bristling and his soul on a hunt for a new God. A strong God. A powerful and commanding God, stronger than the long-locked, bronze-winged one of the window sill.
They grin because this is an old story. Tobias is an old character. Once every two or three months for ten years Tobias has come like this with his head lowered searching for a new and powerful God that would keep him pious and that would kill the devil that seemed never to die inside his old Norske soul.
So he had taken them all—a jumble of gods, a patchwork of religions. Every soapbox apostle in the district had at one time converted him. Holy Roller, Methodist, Jumper, Yogi, Swami, Zionite—he had bowed his head before their and a dozen other varied gods. And the missions in the district had come to know him as "the convert." He had been faithful to each of the creeds as long as he remained sober and as long as he sat in his room of nights reading in his Bible.
But come a storm out of Stavanger, come a whistling under the eaves and a thumping of wind on the window pane and Tobias was off again. "He is not a good God!" Tobias would cry in his new "repentance." "His religion is too weak. The devil is stronger than Him. I want a stronger religion. Pagh, I want somebody big enough to kill this fanden inside me."
The crowd around the soapbox evangelist is rather slight. The night is cold. The wind bites and the Street has a dismal air. The evangelist stands around the corner from the old book store in whose windows thousands of musty volumes are piled like the bones of hermits. The man who owns this curious book store is a sun-worshipper. And the evangelist on the soapbox is a friend of his.
The slight crowd listens. Peace comes from the sun. The sun is the Source of light and of health. It is the eye of God. Terrible by day and watching by night. It is the fire of life. The slight crowd grins and the evangelist, his mind bubbling with a cabalistic jargon remembered out of musty books, tries to explain something that seems vivid in his heart but vague to his tongue.
They will drop away soon because the night is cold and the evangelist a bit too nutty for serious attention. But here comes Tobias Wooden-Leg and some of the listeners grin and nudge one another. Tobias, with his voice hoarse and his blue eyes shining with wrath—wrath at himself and wrath at the God who had abandoned him, unable to cope with the one on the window sill.
Tobias listens. Terrible by day and ever watchful by night. The King of Kings, the Great Majesty and secret symbol of the absolute. Tobias drinks in the jargon of the soapbox man and then shouts: "I'll join, I'll join! I want a strong God!"
So now Tobias Wooden-Leg is a sun-worshipper. The boys in the Elite poolroom will tell you all about it. How he walks the street at dawn with his head raised and bows every seven steps. And how in the evening he is to be seen standing at his window bowing to the sun going down. And how he has been around saying: "Well, I have found the big God at last. No more monkey business for me. Listen to what it says in the book about him." And how he will quote from the sea captain's Bible stolen forty years ago.
But the boys also say: "Just wait."
And they wink, meaning that another storm will blow up out of Stavanger in Norway and old Tobias will come plowing down the street again howling that fa'n TA mig the devil has him and that old Thor leaped on his window sill and tossed the all-powerful sun out of the sky with his hammer.