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"Next to Reading Matter"
by [?]

He compelled my interest as he stepped from the ferry at Desbrosses Street. He had the air of being familiar with hemispheres and worlds, and of entering New York as the lord of a demesne who revisited it in after years of absence. But I thought that, with all his air, he had never before set foot on the slippery cobblestones of the City of Too Many Caliphs.

He wore loose clothes of a strange bluish drab colour, and a conservative, round Panama hat without the cock-a-loop indentations and cants with which Northern fanciers disfigure the tropic head-gear. Moreover, he was the homeliest man I have ever seen. His ugliness was less repellent than startling–arising from a sort of Lincolnian ruggedness and irregularity of feature that spellbound you with wonder and dismay. So may have looked afrites or the shapes metamorphosed from the vapour of the fisherman’s vase. As he afterward told me, his name was Judson Tate; and he may as well be called so at once. He wore his green silk tie through a topaz ring; and he carried a cane made of the vertebrae of a shark.

Judson Tate accosted me with some large and casual inquiries about the city’s streets and hotels, in the manner of one who had but for the moment forgotten the trifling details. I could think of no reason for disparaging my own quiet hotel in the downtown district; so the mid- morning of the night found us already victualed and drinked (at my expense), and ready to be chaired and tobaccoed in a quiet corner of the lobby.

There was something on Judson Tate’s mind, and, such as it was, he tried to convey it to me. Already he had accepted me as his friend; and when I looked at his great, snuff-brown first-mate’s hand, with which he brought emphasis to his periods, within six inches of my nose, I wondered if, by any chance, he was as sudden in conceiving enmity against strangers.

When this man began to talk I perceived in him a certain power. His voice was a persuasive instrument, upon which he played with a somewhat specious but effective art. He did not try to make you forget his ugliness; he flaunted it in your face and made it part of the charm of his speech. Shutting your eyes, you would have trailed after this rat-catcher’s pipes at least to the walls of Hamelin. Beyond that you would have had to be more childish to follow. But let him play his own tune to the words set down, so that if all is too dull, the art of music may bear the blame.

“Women,” said Judson Tate, “are mysterious creatures.”

My spirits sank. I was not there to listen to such a world-old hypothesis–to such a time-worn, long-ago-refuted, bald, feeble, illogical, vicious, patent sophistry–to an ancient, baseless, wearisome, ragged, unfounded, insidious, falsehood originated by women themselves, and by them insinuated, foisted, thrust, spread, and ingeniously promulgated into the ears of mankind by underhanded, secret and deceptive methods, for the purpose of augmenting, furthering, and reinforcing their own charms and designs.

“Oh, I don’t know!” said I, vernacularly.

“Have you ever heard of Oratama?” he asked.

“Possibly,” I answered. “I seem to recall a toe dancer–or a suburban addition–or was it a perfume?–of some such name.”

“It is a town,” said Judson Tate, “on the coast of a foreign country of which you know nothing and could understand less. It is a country governed by a dictator and controlled by revolutions and insubordination. It was there that a great life-drama was played, with Judson Tate, the homeliest man in America, and Fergus McMahan, the handsomest adventurer in history or fiction, and Senorita Anabela Zamora, the beautiful daughter of the alcalde of Oratama, as chief actors. And, another thing–nowhere else on the globe except in the department of Trienta y tres in Uruguay does the /chuchula/ plant grow. The products of the country I speak of are valuable woods, dyestuffs, gold, rubber, ivory, and cocoa.”