The Phonograph and the Graft
by O Henry
I LOOKED in at the engine-room of the Bloomfield-Cater Mfg. Co.
(Ltd.), for the engineer was Kirksy, and there was a golden half-hour
between the time he shut down steam and washed up that I coveted. For
Kirksy was an improvisatore, and he told stories from the inside
outward, finely leaving his spoken words and his theme to adjust
themselves as best they might.
I found Kirksy resting, with his pipe lighted, smutfaced and blue
"'Tis a fair afternoon," I said, "but bids to be colder."
"Did I ever tell you," began Kirksy honorably, "about the time
Henry Horsecollar and me took a phonograph to South America?" and I
felt ashamed of my subterfuge, and dropped into the wooden chair he
kicked toward me.
"Henry was a quarter-breed, quarter-back Cherokee, educated East in
the idioms of football and West in contraband whiskey, and a
gentleman, same as you or me. He was easy and romping in his ways; a
man about six foot, with a kind of rubber-tire movement. Yes, he was a
little man about five foot five, or five foot eleven. He was what you
would call a medium tall man of average smallness. Henry had quit
college once, and the Muscogee jail three times— once for
introducing, and twice for selling, whiskey in the Territories. Henry
Horsecollar never let any cigar stores come up and stand behind him.
He didn't belong to that tribe of Indians.
"Henry and me met at Texarkana, and figured out this phonograph
scheme. He had $360 which came to him out of a land allotment in the
reservation. I had run down from Little Rock on account of a
distressful scene I had witnessed on the street there. A man stood on
a box and passed around some gold watches, screw case, stem-winders,
Elgin movement, very elegant. Twenty bucks they cost you over the
counter. At three dollars the crowd fought for the tickers. The man
happened to find a valise full of them handy, and he passed them out
like putting hot biscuits on a plate. The backs were hard to unscrew,
but the crowd put its ear to the case, and they ticked mollifying and
agreeable. Three of those watches were genuine tickers; but the rest,
they were only kickers. Hey? Why, empty cases with one of them horny
black bugs that fly around electric lights in 'em. Them bugs kick off
minutes and seconds industrious and beautiful. The man I was speaking
of cleaned up $288, and went away, because he knew that when it came
time to wind watches in Little Rock an entomologist would be needed,
and he wasn't one.
"So, as I say, Henry had $360 and I had $288. The phonograph idea
was Henry's, but I took to it freely, being fond of machinery of all
"'The Latin races,' says Henry, explaining easy in his idioms he
learned at college, 'are peculiarly adapted to be victims of the
phonograph. They possess the artistic temperament. They yearn for
music and color and gayety. They give up wampum to the hand-organ man
or the four-legged chicken when they're months behind with the grocery
and the breadfruit tree.'
"'Then,' says I, 'we'll export canned music to the Latins; but I'm
mindful of Mr. Julius Caesar's account of 'em where he says, "Omnia
Ganglia in tres partes divisa est," which is the same as to say,
"We will need all of your gall in devising means to tree them
parties."' I hated to make a show of education, but I was disinclined
to be overdone in syntax by a mere Indian, to whom we owe nothing
except the land on which the United States is situated.
"We bought a fine phonograph in Texarkana— one of the best make—
and half a trunkful of records. We packed up, and took the T. and P.
for New Orleans. From that celebrated centre of molasses and
disfranchised coon songs we took a steamer for— yes, I think it was
South America or Mexico— I am full of inability to divulge the
location of it— 'tis on the rural delivery route, 'tis colored yellow
on the map, and branded with the literature of cigar boxes.
"We landed on a smiling coast at a town they denounced by the name,
as near as I can recollect, of Sore-toe-kangaroo. 'Twas a palatable
enough place to look at. The houses were clean and white, sticking
about among the scenery like hard-boiled eggs served with lettuce.
There was a block of skyscraper mountains in the suburbs, and they
kept pretty quiet, like they were laying one finger on their lips and
watching the town. And the sea was remarking 'Sh-sh-sh!' on the beach;
and now and then a ripe cocoanut would fall kerblip in the sand, and
that was all there was doing. Yes, I judge that town was considerably
on the quiet. I judge that after Gabriel quits blowing his horn, and
the car starts, with Philadelphia swinging to the last strap, and Pine
Gulley, Arkansas, hanging on to the hind rail, Sore-toe-kangaroo will
wake up and ask if anybody spoke.
"The captain went ashore with us, and offered to conduct what he
seemed to like to call the obsequies. He introduced Henry and me to
the United States Consul, and a roan man, the head of the Department
of Mercenary and Licentious Dispositions, the way it read upon his
"'I touch here again a week from to-day,' says the captain.
"'By that time,' we told him, 'we'll be amassing wealth in the
interior towns with our galvanized prima donna and correct imitations
of Sousa's band excavating a march from a tin mine.'
"'Ye'll not,' says the captain. 'Ye'll be hypnotized. Any gentleman
in the audience who kindly steps upon the stage and looks this country
in the eye will be converted to the hypothesis that he's but a fly in
the Elgin creamery. Ye'll be standing knee deep in the surf waiting
for me, and your machine for making Hamburger steak out of the
hitherto respected art of music will be playing "There's no place like
"Henry skinned a twenty off his roll, and received from the Bureau
of Mercenary Dispositions a paper bearing a red seal and a dialect
story, and no change.
"Then we got the consul full of red wine, and struck him for a
horoscope. He was a thin, youngish kind of man, I should say past
fifty, sort of French-Irish in his affections, and puffed up with
disconsolation. Yes, he was a flattened kind of a man, in whom drink
lay stagnant, inclined to corpulence and misery. Yes, I think he was a
kind of Dutchman, being very sad and genial in his ways.
"'The marvelous invention,' he says, 'entitled the phonograph, has
never before invaded these shores. The people have never heard it.
They would not believe it if they should. Simple-hearted children of
nature, progress has never condemned them to accept the work of a
can-opener as an overture, and rag-time might incite them to a bloody
revolution. But you can try the experiment. The best chance you have
is that the populace may not wake up when you play. There's two ways,'
says the consul, 'they may take it. They may become inebriated with
attention, like an Atlanta colonel listening to "Marching through
Georgia," or they will get excited and transpose the key of the music
with an axe and yourselves into a dungeon. In the latter case,' says
the consul, 'I'll do my duty by cabling to the State Department, and
I'll wrap the Stars and Stripes around you when you come to be shot,
and threaten them with the vengeance of the greatest gold export and
financial reserve nation on earth. The flag is full of bullet holes
now,' says the consul, 'made in that way. Twice before,' says the
consul, 'I have cabled our Government for a couple of gunboats to
protect American citizens. The first time the Department sent me a
pair of gum boots. The other time was when a man named Pease was going
to be executed here. They referred that appeal to the Secretary of
Agriculture. Let us now disturb the señor behind the bar for a
subsequence of the red wine.'
"Thus soliloquized the consul of Sore-toe-kangaroo to me and Henry
"But, notwithstanding, we hired a room that afternoon in the Calle
de los Angeles, the main street that runs along the shore, and put our
trunks there. 'Twas a good-sized room, dark and cheerful, but small.
'Twas on a various street, diversified by houses and conservatory
plants. The peasantry of the city passed to and fro on the fine
pasturage between the sidewalks. 'Twas, for the world, like an opera
chorus when the Royal Kafoozlum is about to enter.
"We were rubbing the dust off the machine and getting fixed to
start business the next day when a big, fine-looking white man in
white clothes stopped at the door and looked in. We extended the
invitations, and he walked inside and sized us up. He was chewing a
long cigar, and wrinkling his eyes, meditative, like a girl trying to
decide which dress to wear to the party.
"'New York?' he says to me finally.
"'Originally, and from time to time,' I says, 'Hasn't it rubbed off
"'It's simple,' says he, 'when you know how. It's the fit of the
vest. They don't cut vests right anywhere else. Coats, maybe, but not
"The white man looks at Henry Horsecollar and hesitates.
"'Injun,' says Henry; 'tame Injun.'
"'Mellinger,' says the man— 'Homer P. Mellinger. Boys, you're
confiscated. You're babes in the wood without a chaperon or referee,
and it's my duty to start you going. I'll knock out the props and
launch you proper in the pellucid waters of Sore-toe-kangaroo. You'll
have to be christened, and if you'll come with me I'll break a bottle
of wine across your bows, according to Hoyle.'
"Well, for two days Homer P. Mellinger did the honors. That man cut
ice in Sore-toe-kangaroo. He was It. He was the Royal Kafoozlum. If me
and Henry was babes in the wood, he was a Robin Redbreast from the
topmost bough. Him and me and Henry Horsecollar locked arms and toted
that phonograph around and had wassail and diversions. Everywhere we
found doors open we went in and set the machine going, and Mellinger
called upon the people to observe the artful music and his lifelong
friends, the two Señors Americanos. The opera chorus was agitated with
esteem, and followed us from house to house. There was vina toto
and vino blanco to drink with every tune. The aborigines had
acquirements of a pleasant thing in the way of drinks that gums itself
to the recollection. They chop off the end of a green cocoanut, and
pour in on the liquor of it French brandy and gin. We had them and
"Mine and Henry's money was counterfeit. Everything was on Homer P.
Mellinger. That man could find rolls of bills in his clothes where
Hermann the Wizard couldn't have conjured out an omelette. He could
have founded universities and had enough left to buy the colored vote
of his country. Henry and me wondered what his graft was. One evening
he told us.
"'Boys,' says he, 'I've deceived you. Instead of a painted
butterfly, I'm the hardest worked man in this country. Ten years ago I
landed on its shores, and two years ago on the point of its jaw. Yes,
I reckon I can get the decision over this ginger-cake commonwealth at
the end of any round I choose. I'll confide in you because you are my
countrymen and guests, even if you have committed an assault upon my
adopted shores with the worst system of noises ever set to music.
"'My job is private secretary to the President of this Republic,
and my duties are running it. I'm not headlined in the bills, but I'm
the mustard in the salad dressing. There isn't a law goes before
Congress, there isn't a concession granted, there isn't an import duty
levied, but what H. P. Mellinger he cooks and seasons it. In the front
office I fill the President's inkstand and search visiting statesmen
for dynamite; in the back room I dictate the policy of the government.
You'd never guess how I got the pull. It's the only graft of its kind
in the world. I'll put you wise. You remember the topliner in the old
copy-books— "Honesty is the best policy." That's it. I'm the only
honest man in this republic. The government knows it; the people know
it; the boodlers know it; the foreign investors know it. I make the
government keep its faith. If a man is promised a job he gets it. If
outside capital buys a concession they get the goods. I run a monopoly
of square dealing here. There's no competition. If Colonel Diogenes
were to flash his lantern in this precinct he'd have my address inside
of two minutes. There isn't big money in it, but it's a sure thing,
and lets a man sleep of nights.'
"Thus Homer P. Mellinger made oration to me and Henry Horsecollar
in Sore-toe-kangaroo. And, later, he divested himself of this remark:
"'Boys, I'm to hold a soiree this evening with a gang of
leading citizens, and I want your assistance. You bring the musical
corn sheller and give the affair the outside appearance of a function.
There's important business on hand, but it mustn't show. I can talk to
you people. I've been pained for years on account of not having
anybody to blow off and brag to. I get homesick sometimes, and I'd
swap the entire perquisites of office for just one hour to have a
stein and a caviare sandwich somewhere on Thirty-fourth Street, and
stand and watch the street cars go by, and smell the peanut roaster at
old Giuseppe's fruit stand.'
"'Yes,' said I, 'there's fine caviare at Billy Renfrow's cafe,
corner of Thirty-fourth and—"
"'God knows it,' interrupts Mellinger, 'and if you'd told me you
knew Billy Renfrow I'd have invented tons of ways of making you happy.
Billy was my side kicker in New York. That is a man who never knew
what crooked was. Here I am working Honesty for a graft, but that man
loses money on it. Carrambos! I get sick at times of this
country. Everything's rotten. From the Executive down to the coffee
pickers, they're plotting to down each other and skin their friends.
If a mule driver takes off his hat to an official, that man figures it
out that he's a popular idol, and sets his pegs to stir up a
revolution and upset the administration. It's one of my little chores
as private secretary to smell out these revolutions and affix the
kibosh before they break out and scratch the paint off the government
property. That's why I'm down here now in this mildewed coast town.
The Governor of the district and his crew are plotting to uprise. I've
got every one of their names, and they're invited to listen to the
phonograph to-night, compliments of H. P. M. That's the way I'll get
them in a bunch, and things are on the programme to happen to them.'
"We three were sitting at table in the cantina of the Purified
Saints. Mellinger poured out wine, and was looking some worried; I was
"'They're a sharp crowd,' he says, kind of fretful. 'They're
capitalized by a foreign syndicate after rubber, and they're loaded to
the muzzle for bribing. I'm sick,' goes on Mellinger, 'of comic opera.
I want to smell East River and wear suspenders again. At times I feel
like throwing up my job, but I'm d—n fool enough to be sort of proud
of it. "There's Mellinger," they say here, "Por Dios! you can't
touch him with a million." I'd like to take that record back and show
it to Billy Renfrow some day; and that tightens my grip whenever I see
a fat thing that I could corral just by winking one eye— and losing
my graft. By ——! they can't monkey with me. They know it. What money
I get I make honest and spend it. Some day I'll make a pile and go
back and eat caviare with Billy. To-night I'll show you how to handle
a bunch of corruptionists. I'll show them what Mellinger, private
secretary, means when you spell it with the cotton and tissue paper
"Mellinger appears shaky, and breaks his glass against the neck of
"I says to myself, 'White man, if I'm not mistaken there's been a
bait laid out where the tail of your eye could see it.'
"That night, according to arrangements, me and Henry took the
phonograph to a room in a 'dobe house in a dirty side street, where
the grass was knee high. 'Twas a long room, lighted with smoky oil
lamps. There was plenty of chairs and a table at the back end. We set
the phonograph on the table. Mellinger was there, walking up and down,
disturbed in his predicaments. He chewed cigars and spat 'em out, and
he bit the thumb nail of his left hand.
"By and by the invitations to the musicale came sliding in by pairs
and threes and spade flushes. Their color was of a diversity, running
from a three-days' smoked meerschaum to a patent-leather polish. They
were as polite as wax, being devastated with enjoyments to give Señor
Mellinger the good evenings. I understood their Spanish talk— I ran a
pumping engine two years in a Mexican silver mine, and had it pat—
but I never let on.
"Maybe fifty of 'em had come, and was seated, when in slid the king
bee, the Governor of the district. Mellinger met him at the door and
escorted him to the grand stand. When I saw that Latin man I knew that
Mellinger, private secretary, had all the dances on his card taken.
That was a big, squashy man, the color of a rubber overshoe, and he
had an eye like a head waiter's.
"Mellinger explained, fluent, in the Castilian idioms, that his
soul was disconcerted with joy at introducing to his respected friends
America's greatest invention, the wonder of the age. Henry got the cue
and run on an elegant brass-band record and the festivities became
initiated. The Governor man had a bit of English under his hat, and
when the music was choked off he says:
"'Ver-r-ree fine. Gr-r-r-r-racias, the American gentleemen, the so
esplendeed moosic as to playee.'
"The table was a long one, and Henry and me sat at the end of it
next the wall. The Governor sat at the other end. Homer P. Mellinger
stood at the side of it. I was just wondering how Mellinger was going
to handle his crowd, when the home talent suddenly opened the
"That Governor man was suitable for uprisings and policies. I judge
he was a ready kind of man, who took his own time. Yes, he was full of
attentions and immediateness. He leaned his hands on the table and
imposed his face toward the secretary man.
"'Do the American Señors understand Spanish?' he asks in his native
"'They do not,' says Mellinger.
"'Then, listen,' goes on the Latin man, prompt. 'The musics are of
sufficient prettiness, but not of necessity. Let us speak of business.
I well know why we are here, since I observe my compatriots. You had a
whisper yesterday, Señor Mellinger, of our proposals. To-night we will
speak out. We know that you stand in the President's favor, and we
know your influence. The government will be changed. We know the worth
of your services. We esteem your friendship and aid so much that'—
Mellinger raises his hand, but the Governor man bottles him up. 'Do
not speak until I have done.'
"The Governor man then draws a package wrapped in paper from his
pocket, and lays it on the table by Mellinger's hand.
"'In that you will find one hundred thousand dollars in money of
your country. You can do nothing against us, but you can be worth that
for us. Go back to the capital and obey our instructions. Take that
money now. We trust you. You will find with it a paper giving in
detail the work you will be expected to do for us. Do not have the
unwiseness to refuse.'
"The Governor man paused, with his eyes fixed on Mellinger, full of
expressions and observances. I looked at Mellinger, and was glad Billy
Renfrow couldn't see him then. The sweat was popping out on his
forehead, and he stood dumb, tapping the little package with the ends
of his fingers. The Colorado maduro gang was after his graft. He had
only to change his politics, and stuff six figures in his inside
"Henry whispers to me and wants the pause in the programme
interpreted. I whisper back: 'H. P. is up against a bribe, senator's
size, and the coons have got him going.' I saw Mellinger's hand moving
closer to the package. 'He's weakening,' I whispered to Henry. 'We'll
remind him,' says Henry, 'of the peanut roaster on Thirty-fourth
Street, New York.'
"Henry stooped and got a record from the basketful we'd brought,
slid it in the phonograph, and started her off. It was a cornet solo,
very neat and beautiful, and the name of it was 'Home, Sweet Home.'
Not one of them fifty odd men in the room moved while it was playing,
and the Governor man kept his eyes steady on Mellinger. I saw
Mellinger's head go up little by little, and his hand came creeping
away from the package. Not until the last note sounded did anybody
stir. And then Homer P. Mellinger takes up the bundle of boodle and
slams it in the Governor man's face.
"'That's my answer,' says Mellinger, private secretary, 'and
there'll be another in the morning. I have proofs of conspiracy
against every man of you. The show is over, gentlemen.'
"'There's one more act,' puts in the Governor man. 'You are a
servant, I believe, employed by the President to copy letters and
answer raps at the door. I am Governor here. Señors, I call upon you
in the name of the cause to seize this man.'
"That brindled gang of conspirators shoved back their chairs and
advanced in force. I could see where Mellinger had made a mistake in
massing his enemy so as to make a grand-stand play. I think he made
another one, too; but we can pass that, Mellinger's idea of a graft
and mine being different, according to estimations and points of view.
"There was only one window and door in that room, and they were in
the front end. Here was fifty odd Latin men coming in a bunch to
obstruct the legislation of Mellinger. You may say there were three of
us, for me and Henry, simultaneous, declared New York City and the
Cherokee Nation in sympathy with the weaker party.
"Then it was that Henry Horsecollar rose to a point of disorder and
intervened, showing, admirable, the advantages of education as applied
to the American Indian's natural intellect and native refinement. He
stood up and smoothed back his hair on each side with his hands as you
have seen little girls do when they play.
"'Get behind me, both of you,' says Henry.
"'What is it to be?' I asked.
"'I'm going to buck centre,' says Henry, in his football idioms.
'There isn't a tackle in the lot of them. Keep close behind me and
rush the game.'
"That cultured Red Man exhaled an arrangement of sound's with his
mouth that caused the Latin aggregation to pause, with thoughtfulness
and hesitations. The matter of his proclamation seemed to be a
co-operation of the Cherokee college yell with the Carlisle war-whoop.
He went at the chocolate team like the flip of a little boy's nigger
shooter. His right elbow laid out the Governor man on the gridiron,
and he made a lane the length of the crowd that a woman could have
carried a step-ladder through without striking anything. All me and
Mellinger had to do was to follow.
"In five minutes we were out of that street and at the military
headquarters, where Mellinger had things his own way.
"The next day Mellinger takes me and Henry to one side and begins
to shed tens and twenties.
"'I want to buy that phonograph,' he says. 'I liked that last tune
it played. Now, you boys better go back home, for they'll give you
trouble here before I get the screws put on 'em. If you happen to ever
see Billy Renfrow again, tell him I'm coming back to New York as soon
as I can make a stake— honest.'
"'This is more money,' says I, 'than the machine is worth.'
"''Tis government expense money,' says Mellinger, 'and the
government's getting the tune grinder cheap.'
"Henry and I knew that pretty well, but we never let Homer P.
Mellinger know that we had seen how near he came to losing his graft.
"We laid low until the day the steamer came back. When we saw the
captain's boat on the beach me and Henry went down and stood in the
edge of the water. The captain grinned when he saw us.
"'I told you you'd be waiting,' he says. 'Where's the Hamburger
"'It stays behind,' I says, 'to play "Home, Sweet Home." '
"'I told you so,' says the captain again. 'Climb in the boat.'
"And that," said Kirksy, "is the way me and Henry Horsecollar
introduced the phonograph in that Latin country along about the
vicinity of South America."