Two and a half years later, approximately. Charles Dickens is dead in England. Moving the scene to New York, we find the progress of Simon Pennock, tax agent, who has suffered since attempting to extract taxes from Charles Dickens during the novelist's famed visit.

With all that injustice, all that shabbiness by so-called “respectable” persons, he could not have been blamed for giving up every fiber of ambition and yielding to beastly indolence. First, there had been the trickery of those thieving foreigners, that Dickens clique, that had defrauded him out of collecting money he had planned to use to bolster his position in the department. Then, not long afterwards, he had been given walking papers by the chief of the department in Washington. Moreover, his own esteemed brother had been defeated in his reelection for city alderman of Boston, so there was no easy work to be handed there.

What had happened to knock the world into a cocked hat like this for Mr. Simon Pennock?

The former tax collector brooded over the question as he drank a whiskey in an oyster house in a grimy district in the lower entrails of New York City. He had done the same—drink and brood—yesterday and the day before yesterday and would do the same tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. He'd spend immense amounts of concentration kicking oyster shells under his hard bench with the heel of his boot and then across the floor with the toe. What felt especially good was cracking the abandoned peanut shells on the table between his thumb and forefinger.

When he would catch sight of his face in the looking glass on the tavern's wall, Pennock would shiver. His face was longer and drawn than he'd believed; his jaw swollen from a set-to with some tavern brawler two nights before for a reason he couldn't remember anymore; and his front tooth was chipped, likely from the same cause. His beard was overlong and uncombed, too. The bushy hair on his face had blossomed in an odd, ugly patchwork that made him repulsive.

Ugliness seemed perfectly acceptable to Pennock, who in the last two years felt he had aged a decade. His days appeared and disappeared like a man under a spell. Not a day went by that he did not see in his mind's eye an image of a jaunty Charles Dickens holding up his cane like a king's scepter with his hat on top of it and waving it for the crowds bidding him farewell the Liverpool Wharf. The humiliation and agony Pennock felt at seeing this cheat triumph while his own burning failure crept into his throat had not left the former tax agent since that hour.

Yet, even Dickens's death was no measure of justice. Everyone still loved him and his super-mediocre sentimental books.

Meanwhile, either because he was impressively persistent or very forgetful in his drunken stupor, every couple of days Pennock wrote a letter to the chief of the department of revenue asking (by now, demanding) for his place back. It was a new chief appointed by President Grant and Pennock felt if only he could explain his position and the injustices done to him in just the right language, if only he could do that, he could have his life back, he could do his work again, he could stop wasting his days kicking sawdust-covered oyster shells.

One night, maybe at midnight, maybe much later, when stumbling through the puddles along Broadway on his way home, Pennock felt sick and stopped in a back alley, coughing up blood. He looked up, the instinct of embarrassment, and saw the dainty prostitutes, too skinny and pallid for manly tastes, and the assortment of shady people. When he reached his home and his bed, Pennock realized that one of the men he had noticed on the street corner was not altogether unfamiliar.

He thought about it, then forgot, thought about it, then forgot, as he was sweating through periods of sleep and misery in the hot room. In the conscious portion of one of these intervals, Pennock had a vivid memory of the face he had seen from years earlier. It had been one of the opium pushers who operated both here in New York and Boston. Unlike the druggists who dealt in narcotics for their rich customers, the drug pusher operated in the districts and streets on the margins of the civilized classes. Pennock, who had spent time investigating the trade happenings along the wharves in his official capacity as tax collector, had several times interviewed this man and other pushers like him in hotel barrooms or brothels. Pennock would always warn this class of scoundrel about any attempts to defy taxation; he would always walk out of the hotel with fattened pockets and a closed mouth.

That was it! That was what he had to do!

Pennock rose the next morning. He knew finally how it was he would reclaim his departed life.

That morning, Pennock walked down the avenue feeling twenty feet tall, planning a plan, crossing Broadway, the busy New York artery teeming with every sort of vehicle and horse and—only New Yorkers!—squadrons of pedestrians even more insistent than the vehicles on going their own way. He went on his way to the monumental structure of Lord & Taylor's dry shop to buy a new suit.