The Kid In Yellow
By Jeff Baker
I pulled my car next to Basil’s ancient roadster hoping he wasn’t dressed in his aviator’s goggles and one of those long dusters like in that Terry-Thomas movie.
“Sidney!” I heard the familiar voice and saw Basil waving at me from the doorway of the bank building. Yes, in a duster with the goggles on his head. “Over here, old chap!”
Basil wasn’t British, he was just affected. Since he was rich, people accepted him as a harmless eccentric. As long as he paid me to manage some of his business interests I went along with him. But I didn’t let him drive.
“I’m glad you got my message,” Basil said. “This is really astounding. Of course, nobody else can know about it!”
Except the tax people, I thought.
Basil and I walked up the stone stairs into the bank, under the carved words CITY LIBRARY still etched into the stone. Inside the high ceiling and the cathedral-like windows were reminders of the building’s origins as a 1915 library.
“Back here,” Basil said, almost bounding ahead. If he was trying to be nonchalant he was failing miserably. Still, I was interested. One of his previous finds had been the vintage roadster which had spent most of the previous years in a garage.
The roadster and the goggles had given Basil his nickname: Mr. Toad.
“This is pretty rare,” Basil said as we walked into a well-lit back room with a large, wooden table running the length of the room. On the table were two large folders, the kind that I’d seen art students carrying. At the far end of the table stood a grim-faced bank official eyeing the folders warily.
“Mr. Forman,” the official began. “I really must advise against any of this…” The Basil cut him off.
“Don’t be preposterous! I’m paying a good deal of money to keep this stuff secure here. Besides, it is all mine!” Basil rubbed his hands gleefully. “Here, Alec, put on these gloves.”
As Basil and I put on the clear plastic gloves (like you’d swear to make sandwiches at a mall food court, I thought) he kept on talking. Explaining, rather.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of Richard F. Outcault, the popular American cartoonist of the late 19th Century. “
I hadn’t, but I didn’t say.
“He’s most famous for The Yellow Kid, a street urchin in a yellow nightshirt, at least in the color pages. Original artwork is deucedly hard to find, but I purchased these at an auction in Germany.” Basil opened the nearest of the folders, revealing two cartoon panels, side-by side. One showed a group of kids on a city street teasing a boy wearing a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, a small dog running and barking with a happy look on its face. The other was a full-length drawing of one of the kids from the other cartoon; bald-headed and barefoot, waving at the viewer, grinning and wearing a yellow nightshirt.
“Look, that’s where the dialogue would be.”
Basil pointed to the nightshirt. There was scrawled Outcault’s signature along with the words “For Mr. Hearst, with greatest appreciation.”
“William Randolph Hearst?” I asked.
“Citizen Kane, himself,” Basil said. “I’m gathering the German estate did not realize what they had.” He closed the first folder. “The Yellow Kid is important in the history of copyright. There were numerous rip-offs of the feature, leading to the term ‘yellow journalism.’ Now this particular example appeared in a somewhat darker periodical aimed at a, uh, somewhat more select audience.”
The bank official shifted uncomfortably on his feet.
“’Das Unaussprechliche Kultur’ was circulated by a small religious sect that did not hold services on Sundays. Or even during daylight,” Basil said with a smile that I did not like. “I’m not sure of the artist, but I’m sure you will appreciate the sentiment.”
He carefully opened the second folder. What lay inside was a large, one panel cartoon; street scene, night. Similar urchins to those in the Outcault but with fixed ghastly grins. They had surrounded the Little Lord Fauntleroy kid, his own face a mask of terror. The little black dog was parading through the scene with something that had once been alive clutched in his jaws. Presiding over this abomination was a grotesque version of the Kid; the words on his nightshirt being in some alien tongue.
I quickly looked away.
“You have heard, of course, of Robert W. Chambers’ stories about ‘The King In Yellow,’ a dark play which drives its readers mad? This inspired Lovecraft and other imitators to create their own forbidden fictional literature and insert it in their stories, but this was the original inspiration and it is real!”
Basil grinned even broader. I noticed the bank official was averting his eyes.
“The cult that put out this copy in 1902 vanished around 1906,” Basil said. “The document I read said they had been on the verge of summoning something. Nonetheless, this is the only relic they left. The photocopies don’t seem to have the same, well, the same something.”
I glanced down at the paper. I thought the dog had somehow moved, that it had dropped its tasty morsel and was eyeing Little Lord Fauntleroy who had covered his face with his hands. At least, I thought so. I quickly glanced away.
Because I felt something in that momentary glance; something ancient that smelled of swamps and old crypts, something that made me feel like I had been staring at a spinning light until my eyes were blurry. I told myself that I didn’t believe any of that about a book driving people mad and that Basil Forman was just a harmless nut and that the cartoon panel hadn’t been moving, but I was telling myself these things as I mumbled my goodbyes and headed out the door.
I didn’t know about my job, I didn’t know if I heard Basil laughing maniacally and as I walked out to the parking lot I wasn’t sure if the headlights of Basil’s roadster were watching me somehow.
I drove away. And I did not look back.