Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Number Fifty-Six

What I narrate was told me one winter's evening by my
friend Ah-Yen in the little room behind his laundry.
Ah-Yen is a quiet little celestial with a grave and
thoughtful face, and that melancholy contemplative
disposition so often noticed in his countrymen. Between
myself and Ah-Yen there exists a friendship of some years'
standing, and we spend many a long evening in the dimly
lighted room behind his shop, smoking a dreamy pipe
together and plunged in silent meditation. I am chiefly
attracted to my friend by the highly imaginative cast of
his mind, which is, I believe, a trait of the Eastern
character and which enables him to forget to a great
extent the sordid cares of his calling in an inner life
of his own creation. Of the keen, analytical side of his
mind, I was in entire ignorance until the evening of
which I write.

The room where we sat was small and dingy, with but little
furniture except our chairs and the little table at which
we filled and arranged our pipes, and was lighted only
by a tallow candle. There were a few pictures on the
walls, for the most part rude prints cut from the columns
of the daily press and pasted up to hide the bareness of
the room. Only one picture was in any way noticeable, a
portrait admirably executed in pen and ink. The face was
that of a young man, a very beautiful face, but one of
infinite sadness. I had long been aware, although I know
not how, that Ah-Yen had met with a great sorrow, and
had in some way connected the fact with this portrait.
I had always refrained, however, from asking him about
it, and it was not until the evening in question that I
knew its history.

We had been smoking in silence for some time when Ah-Yen
spoke. My friend is a man of culture and wide reading,
and his English is consequently perfect in its construction;
his speech is, of course, marked by the lingering liquid
accent of his country which I will not attempt to
reproduce.

"I see," he said, "that you have been examining the
portrait of my unhappy friend, Fifty-Six. I have never
yet told you of my bereavement, but as to-night is the
anniversary of his death, I would fain speak of him for
a while."

Ah-Yen paused; I lighted my pipe afresh, and nodded to
him to show that I was listening.

"I do not know," he went on, "at what precise time
Fifty-Six came into my life. I could indeed find it out
by examining my books, but I have never troubled to do
so. Naturally I took no more interest in him at first
than in any other of my customers--less, perhaps, since
he never in the course of our connection brought his
clothes to me himself but always sent them by a boy. When
I presently perceived that he was becoming one of my
regular customers, I allotted to him his number, Fifty-Six,
and began to speculate as to who and what he was. Before
long I had reached several conclusions in regard to my
unknown client. The quality of his linen showed me that,
if not rich, he was at any rate fairly well off. I could
see that he was a young man of regular Christian life,
who went out into society to a certain extent; this I
could tell from his sending the same number of articles
to the laundry, from his washing always coming on Saturday
night, and from the fact that he wore a dress shirt about
once a week. In disposition he was a modest, unassuming
fellow, for his collars were only two inches high."

I stared at Ah-Yen in some amazement, the recent
publications of a favourite novelist had rendered me
familiar with this process of analytical reasoning, but
I was prepared for no such revelations from my Eastern
friend.

"When I first knew him," Ah-Yen went on, "Fifty-Six was
a student at the university. This, of course, I did not
know for some time. I inferred it, however, in the course
of time, from his absence from town during the four summer
months, and from the fact that during the time of the
university examinations the cuffs of his shirts came to
me covered with dates, formulas, and propositions in
geometry. I followed him with no little interest through
his university career. During the four years which it
lasted, I washed for him every week; my regular connection
with him and the insight which my observation gave me
into the lovable character of the man, deepened my first
esteem into a profound affection and I became most anxious
for his success. I helped him at each succeeding
examination, as far as lay in my power, by starching his
shirts half-way to the elbow, so as to leave him as much
room as possible for annotations. My anxiety during the
strain of his final examination I will not attempt to
describe. That Fifty-Six was undergoing the great crisis
of his academic career, I could infer from the state of
his handkerchiefs which, in apparent unconsciousness, he
used as pen-wipers during the final test. His conduct
throughout the examination bore witness to the moral
development which had taken place in his character during
his career as an undergraduate; for the notes upon his
cuffs which had been so copious at his earlier examinations
were limited now to a few hints, and these upon topics
so intricate as to defy an ordinary memory. It was with
a thrill of joy that I at last received in his laundry
bundle one Saturday early in June, a ruffled dress shirt,
the bosom of which was thickly spattered with the spillings
of the wine-cup, and realized that Fifty-Six had banqueted
as a Bachelor of Arts.

"In the following winter the habit of wiping his pen upon
his handkerchief, which I had remarked during his final
examination, became chronic with him, and I knew that he
had entered upon the study of law. He worked hard during
that year, and dress shirts almost disappeared from his
weekly bundle. It was in the following winter, the second
year of his legal studies, that the tragedy of his life
began. I became aware that a change had come over his
laundry; from one, or at most two a week, his dress shirts
rose to four, and silk handkerchiefs began to replace
his linen ones. It dawned upon me that Fifty-Six was
abandoning the rigorous tenor of his student life and
was going into society. I presently perceived something
more; Fifty-Six was in love. It was soon impossible to
doubt it. He was wearing seven shirts a week; linen
handkerchiefs disappeared from his laundry; his collars
rose from two inches to two and a quarter, and finally
to two and a half. I have in my possession one of his
laundry lists of that period; a glance at it will show
the scrupulous care which he bestowed upon his person.
Well do I remember the dawning hopes of those days,
alternating with the gloomiest despair. Each Saturday I
opened his bundle with a trembling eagerness to catch
the first signs of a return of his love. I helped my
friend in every way that I could. His shirts and collars
were masterpieces of my art, though my hand often shook
with agitation as I applied the starch. She was a brave
noble girl, that I knew; her influence was elevating the
whole nature of Fifty-Six; until now he had had in his
possession a certain number of detached cuffs and false
shirt-fronts. These he discarded now,--at first the false
shirt-fronts, scorning the very idea of fraud, and after
a time, in his enthusiasm, abandoning even the cuffs. I
cannot look back upon those bright happy days of courtship
without a sigh.

"The happiness of Fifty-Six seemed to enter into and fill
my whole life. I lived but from Saturday to Saturday.
The appearance of false shirt-fronts would cast me to
the lowest depths of despair; their absence raised me to
a pinnacle of hope. It was not till winter softened into
spring that Fifty-Six nerved himself to learn his fate.
One Saturday he sent me a new white waistcoat, a garment
which had hitherto been shunned by his modest nature, to
prepare for his use. I bestowed upon it all the resources
of my art; I read his purpose in it. On the Saturday
following it was returned to me and, with tears of joy,
I marked where a warm little hand had rested fondly on
the right shoulder, and knew that Fifty-Six was the
accepted lover of his sweetheart."

Ah-Yen paused and sat for some time silent; his pipe had
sputtered out and lay cold in the hollow of his hand;
his eye was fixed upon the wall where the light and
shadows shifted in the dull flickering of the candle. At
last he spoke again:

"I will not dwell upon the happy days that ensued--days
of gaudy summer neckties and white waistcoats, of spotless
shirts and lofty collars worn but a single day by the
fastidious lover. Our happiness seemed complete and I
asked no more from fate. Alas! it was not destined to
continue! When the bright days of summer were fading into
autumn, I was grieved to notice an occasional quarrel--only
four shirts instead of seven, or the reappearance of the
abandoned cuffs and shirt-fronts. Reconciliations followed,
with tears of penitence upon the shoulder of the white
waistcoat, and the seven shirts came back. But the quarrels
grew more frequent and there came at times stormy scenes
of passionate emotion that left a track of broken buttons
down the waistcoat. The shirts went slowly down to three,
then fell to two, and the collars of my unhappy friend
subsided to an inch and three-quarters. In vain I lavished
my utmost care upon Fifty-Six. It seemed to my tortured
mind that the gloss upon his shirts and collars would
have melted a heart of stone. Alas! my every effort at
reconciliation seemed to fail. An awful month passed;
the false fronts and detached cuffs were all back again;
the unhappy lover seemed to glory in their perfidy. At
last, one gloomy evening, I found on opening his bundle
that he had bought a stock of celluloids, and my heart
told me that she had abandoned him for ever. Of what my
poor friend suffered at this time, I can give you no
idea; suffice it to say that he passed from celluloid to
a blue flannel shirt and from blue to grey. The sight of
a red cotton handkerchief in his wash at length warned
me that his disappointed love had unhinged his mind, and
I feared the worst. Then came an agonizing interval of
three weeks during which he sent me nothing, and after
that came the last parcel that I ever received from him
an enormous bundle that seemed to contain all his effects.
In this, to my horror, I discovered one shirt the breast
of which was stained a deep crimson with his blood, and
pierced by a ragged hole that showed where a bullet had
singed through into his heart.

"A fortnight before, I remembered having heard the street
boys crying the news of an appalling suicide, and I know
now that it must have been he. After the first shock of
my grief had passed, I sought to keep him in my memory
by drawing the portrait which hangs beside you. I have
some skill in the art, and I feel assured that I have
caught the expression of his face. The picture is, of
course, an ideal one, for, as you know, I never saw
Fifty-Six."

The bell on the door of the outer shop tinkled at the
entrance of a customer. Ah-Yen rose with that air of
quiet resignation that habitually marked his demeanour,
and remained for some time in the shop. When he returned
he seemed in no mood to continue speaking of his lost
friend. I left him soon after and walked sorrowfully home
to my lodgings. On my way I mused much upon my little
Eastern friend and the sympathetic grasp of his imagination.
But a burden lay heavy on my heart--something I would
fain have told him but which I could not bear to mention.
I could not find it in my heart to shatter the airy castle
of his fancy. For my life has been secluded and lonely
and I have known no love like that of my ideal friend.
Yet I have a haunting recollection of a certain huge
bundle of washing that I sent to him about a year ago.
I had been absent from town for three weeks and my laundry
was much larger than usual in consequence. And if I
mistake not there was in the bundle a tattered shirt that
had been grievously stained by the breaking of a bottle
of red ink in my portmanteau, and burnt in one place
where an ash fell from my cigar as I made up the bundle.
Of all this I cannot feel absolutely certain, yet I know
at least that until a year ago, when I transferred my
custom to a more modern establishment, my laundry number
with Ah-Yen was Fifty-Six.

Stephen Leacock