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The story is told in medias res as a series of flashbacks.

Max Tooney, a musician, enters a secondhand music shop just before closing time, broke and badly in need of money. He has only a Conn trumpet, which he sells for less than he had hoped. Clearly torn at parting from his prized possession, he asks to play it one last time. The shopkeeper agrees, and as the musician plays, the shopkeeper immediately recognizes the song from a broken record matrix he found inside a recently acquired secondhand piano. He asks who the piece is by, and Max tells him the story of 1900. 1900 was found abandoned on the four stacker SS Virginian, a baby in a box, and likely the son of poor immigrants from steerage. Danny, a coal-man from the boiler room, is determined to raise the boy as his own. He names the boy Danny Boodman T. D. Lemon 1900 (a combination of his own name, the year he was born and an advertisement found on the box) and hides him from the ship's officers. During the early years of his life, 1900 comes across an advertisement for a man with the initials of T.D; however, on seeing the advertisement and possibly 1900's biological father, Danny decides not to tell 1900 the truth. Sadly, a few years later, Danny is killed in a workplace accident, and 1900 is forced to survive aboard theVirginian as an orphan. For many years, he travels back and forth across the Atlantic, keeping a low profile and apparently learning the languages spoken by the immigrants in Third Class. The boy shows a particular gift for music and eventually grows up and joins the ship's orchestra. He befriends Max in 1927, but never leaves the vessel. Apparently, the outside world is too "big" for his imagination at this point. But he stays current with outside musical trends as passengers explain to him a new music trend or style, and he immediately picks it up and starts playing it for them. His reputation as a pianist is so renowned that Jelly Roll Morton, of New Orleans jazz fame, on hearing of 1900's skill comes aboard to challenge him to a piano duel. After hearing Jelly Roll Morton's first tune 1900 plays a piece so simple and well known ("Silent Night") that the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz feels mocked. As Morton becomes more determined to display his talent, he plays an impressive improvised tune ("The Crave") that brings tears to 1900's eyes. 1900 calmly sits down at the piano and plays from memory the entire tune that Morton had just improvised. 1900's playing fails to impress the crowd until he plays an original piece ("Enduring Movement") of such virtuosity that the metal piano strings become hot enough for 1900 to light a cigarette. He hands it to Morton, who has lost the duel. A record producer, having heard of 1900's prowess, brings a primitive recording apparatus aboard and cuts a demo record of a 1900 original composition. The recorded music is created by 1900 as he gazes at a woman (The Girl) who has just boarded and whom he finds attractive. When 1900 hears the recording, he takes the master, offended at the prospect of anyone hearing the music without his having performed it live. He then tries to give the master to The Girl who inspired it, but is unable to and breaks the matrix into pieces. The story flashes back to the mid-1940s periodically, as we see Max (who leaves the ship's orchestra in 1933) trying to lure 1900 out of the now-deserted hull of the ship. Having served as a hospital ship and transport in World War II, she is scheduled to be scuttled and sunk far offshore. Max manages to get aboard the ship with the recording 1900 made long ago and plays it, hoping to attract 1900's attention. When it does, Max attempts to convince 1900 to leave the ship. But he is too daunted by the size of the world. And feeling that his fate is tied to the ship, 1900 cannot bring himself to leave the only home he has known. In the end, the Virginian blows up and sinks, with 1900 still aboard. Max feels useless that he couldn't save his friend.

The shopkeeper asks Max how the record got into the secondhand piano. Max indicates that he put it there, and the shopkeeper tells him that he wasn't so useless after all. Then, as Max is leaving the store, the shopkeeper gives him the trumpet and says, "A good story is worth more than an old trumpet," and Max walks out as another customer walks in.

THE SAINTLY ORPHAN GIRL. THERE was a young girl who lived far from the world, alone, in sanctity. Every day a dove brought her her food. One day she saw a young girl whom two gens-d'armes were taking to prison or to execution. The orphan said to herself: "If she had lived like me, they would not have taken her to prison." And thereupon she had a thought of pride, and from that day the dove no longer brought her anything to eat. She goes to seek a priest, and tells him what has happened, and since when she does not receive any more food. This priest tells her that she has been punished on account of that thought, and that she must be present at the birth of three children, and see what their gifts would be. The first was the son of a king. She asks the queen permission to remain in the bed-chamber, no matter in what corner; all would be the same to her if she would only give her leave. She consents to it. When this queen gives birth to a boy, the infant has round its neck a white cord,
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and this orphan understood that he would be guillotined 1 when he was eighteen years old. She sees the birth of another child; a girl with a red cord round her neck, and she sees that she will turn out badly, and that she would go to ruin. She sees a third; this was a boy, and he had blue cord on, which meant that he would be very good. After having seen that this orphan goes back to the house of the queen. There she lived happily, busying herself especially about this child. As she caressed it she often used to say in a sad tone: "Poor child!" The mother remarked that, and one day she said: "One would say that this child was very unfortunate. Do you always act thus when you caress a child, as if it were very wretched, or as if something were going to happen to it?"

She said that to her more than once. And when the (fated) age was drawing near, this orphan told the queen what must happen at the age of eighteen. I leave you to judge of the distress of this queen. She told it to her husband, and the father and mother told it to their son; and he said that he must leave the house immediately. He goes then a long way off to another town. And as he was a pretty good scholar, he got a place in a house where there was a large shop. They sold everything there; and as this lad was very good everybody loved him. They heard him go out of the house every night, but they did not know where. The master was curious (to learn this), and he made a hole above the shop, for he went there too in the night. He sees him take a wax candle, and put the price of this candle into the cash-box by the hole, counting the money aloud. Taking the candle with him he falls on his knees, and went a considerable distance to a chapel, walking still on his knees.
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The master follows him during a whole week, and the boy did always the same thing; and on the eighth day the master looks through the key-hole of the chapel, and sees an angel descend and throw a chain to our lad, and the angel lifted him up in the air. A moment after he comes down again, and goes back to his master's house.
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The master tells him that he has seen all, and the boy says that his penance is also finished, and that he must go home. The master does not wish it. "You shall go afterwards, if you wish it; but first you must marry my daughter." He tells him that he has a father and mother, and that he cannot do it without telling them; but if they wish it, he will do so willingly. He starts home then at once. You may imagine what joy for the king and the queen. They were constantly trembling lest they should hear that their dearly loved son had been hanged. They did not know what to do for joy. He told them how he had done penance, and that without doubt the good God had pardoned him; and how his old master wished him to marry his daughter. He does so, and all live happily and die well. LOUISE LANUSSE.