BY JAMES OPPENHEIM 1911
TO THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER
PART I—THE DREAM
I. THE PRINTERY
II. THE EAST EIGHTY-FIRST STREET FIRE
III. THE GOOD PEOPLE
IV. GOLDEN OCTOBER
V. MYRA AND JOE
VI. MARTY BRIGGS
VII. LAST OF JOE BLAINE AND HIS MEN
VIII. THE WIND IN THE OAKS
PART II—THE TEST
II. THE NINE-TENTHS
III. OTHERS: AND SALLY HEFFER
IV. OTHERS: AND THEODORE MARRIN
V. FORTY-FIVE TREACHEROUS MEN
VI. A FIGHT IN GOOD EARNEST
VII. OF THE THIRTY THOUSAND
VIII. THE ARREST
X. THE TRIAL
XI. THE WORKHOUSE
XII. CONFIDENT MORNING
XIII. THE CITY
PART I—THE DREAM
That windy autumn noon the young girls of the hat factory darted out of the loft building and came running back with cans of coffee, and bags of candy, and packages of sandwiches and cakes. They frisked hilariously before the wind, with flying hair and sparkling eyes, and crowded into the narrow entrance with the grimy pressmen of the eighth floor. Over and over again the one frail elevator was jammed with the laughing crowd and shot up to the hat factory on the ninth floor and back.
The men smoked cigarettes as the girls chattered and flirted with them, and the talk was fast and free.
At the eighth floor the pressmen got off, still smoking, for "Mr. Joe" was still out. Even after the presses started up they went on surreptitiously, though near one group of them in a dark corner of the printery lay a careless heap of cotton waste, thoroughly soaked with machine-oil. This heap had been passed by the factory inspector unnoticed, the pressmen took it for granted, and Joe, in his slipshod manner, gave it no thought. Later that very afternoon as the opening of the hall door rang a bell sharply and Joe came in, the men swiftly and guiltily flung their lighted cigarettes to the floor and stepped them out or crumpled them with stinging fingers in their pockets. But Joe did not even notice the clinging cigarette smell that infected the strange printery atmosphere, that mingled with its delightful odor of the freshly printed page, damp, bitter-sweet, new. Once Marty Briggs, the fat foreman, had spoken to Joe of the breaking of the "No Smoking" rule, but Joe had said, with his luminous, soft smile:
"Marty, the boys are only human—they see me smoking in the private office!"
Up and down the long, narrow, eighth-floor loft the great intricate presses stood in shadowy bulk, and the intense gray air was spotted here and there with a dangling naked electric bulb, under whose radiance the greasy, grimy men came and went, pulling out heaps of paper, sliding in sheets, tinkering at the machinery. Overhead whirled and traveled a complex system of wheels and belting, whirring, thumping, and turning, and the floor, the walls, the very door trembled with the shaking of the presses and made the body of every man there pleasantly quiver.
The stir of the hat factory on the floor above mingled with the stir of the presses, and Joe loved it all, even as he loved the presence of the young girls about him. Some of these girls were Bohemians, others Jewish, a few American. They gave to the gaunt, smoky building a touch as of a wild rose on a gray rock-heap—a touch of color and of melody. Joe, at noon, would purposely linger near the open doorway to get a glimpse of their bright faces and a snatch of their careless laughter. Some of the girls knew him and would nod to him on the street—their hearts went out to the tall, homely, sorrowful fellow.
But his printery was his chief passion. It absorbed him by its masterful stress, overwhelming every sense, trembling, thundering, clanking, flashing, catching his eye with turning wheels and chewing press-mouths, and enveloping him in something tremulously homelike and elemental. Even that afternoon as Joe stood at the high wall-desk near the door, under a golden bulb of light, figuring on contracts with Marty Briggs, he felt his singular happiness of belonging. Here he had spent the work hours of the last ten years; he was a living part of this living press-room; this was as native to him as the sea to a fish. And glancing about the crowded gray room, everything seemed so safe, secure, unending, as if it would last forever.
Up to that very evening Joe had been merely an average American—clean of mind and body, cheerful, hard-working, democratic, willing to live and let live, and striving with all his heart and soul for success. His father had served in the Civil War and came back to New York with his right sleeve pinned up, an emaciated and sick man. Then Joe's mother had overridden the less imperious will of the soldier and married him, and they had settled down in the city. Henry Blaine learned to write with his left hand and became a clerk. It was the only work he could do. Then, as his health became worse and worse, he was ordered to live in the country (that was in 1868), and as the young couple had scarcely any money they were glad to get a little shanty on the stony hill which is now the corner of Eighty-first Street and Lexington Avenue and is the site of a modern apartment-house. But Joe's mother was glad even of a shanty; she made an adventure of it; she called herself the wife of a pioneer, and said that they were making a clearing in the Western wilderness.
Here in 1872 Joe was born, and he was hardly old enough to crawl about when his father became too sick to work, and his mother had to leave "her two men" home together and go out and do such work as she could. This consisted largely in reading to old ladies in the neighborhood, though sometimes she had to do fancy needlework and sometimes take in washing. Of these last achievements she was justly proud, though it made Henry Blaine wince with shame.
Joe was only six years old when his father died, and from then on he and his mother fought it out together. The boy entered the public school on Seventy-ninth Street, and grew amazingly, his mind keeping pace. He was a splendid absorber of good books; and his mother taught him her poets and they went through English literature together.
Yorkville sprang up, a rubber-stamped neighborhood, of which each street was a brownstone duplicate of the next. The rocky hill became valuable and went for twenty thousand dollars, of which three thousand had to be deducted for the mortgage. Then Joe graduated from high school, and, lusting for life, took a clerk's job with one of the big express companies. He held this for two years, and learned an interesting fact—namely, that a clerk's life began at 5 P.M. and ended at 8.30 A.M. In between the clerk was a dead but skilled machine that did the work of a child. He learned, besides, that advancement was slow and only for a few, and he saw these few, men past middle life, still underlings. A man of forty-five with a salary of three thousand was doing remarkably well, and, as a rule, he was a dried-up, negative, timid creature.
Out of all this he went like a stick of dynamite, took the seventeen thousand dollars and went into his father's business of printing. Joe was shrewd, despite his open nature; he never liked to be "done"; and so he made money and made it fast. Besides his printing he did some speculating in real estate, and so at thirty-eight he was a successful business man and could count himself worth nearly a hundred thousand dollars. He made little use of this money; his was a simple, serious, fun-loving nature, and all his early training had made for plain living and economy. And so for years he and his mother had boarded in a brownstone boarding-house in the quiet block west of Lexington Avenue up the street. They spent very little on themselves. In fact, Joe was too busy. He was all absorbed in the printery—he worked early and late—and of recent years in the stress of business his fine relationship with his mother had rather thinned out. They began leading separated lives; they began shutting themselves away from each other.
And so here he was, thirty-eight years of his life gone, and what had it all been? Merely the narrow, steady, city man's life—work, rest, a little recreation, sleep. Outside his mother, his employees, his customers, and the newspapers he knew little of the million-crowded life of the city about him. He used but one set of streets daily; he did not penetrate the vast areas of existence that cluttered the acres of stone in every direction. There stood the city, a great fact, and even that afternoon as the wild autumn wind blew from the west and rapid, ragged cloud masses passed huge shadows over the ship-swept Hudson, darkened briefly the hurrying streets, extinguished for a moment the glitter of a skyscraper and went gray-footed over the flats of Long Island, even at that moment terrific forces, fierce aggregations of man-power, gigantic blasts of tamed electricity, gravitation, fire, and steam and steel, made the hidden life of the city cyclonic. And in that mesh of nature and man the human comedy went on—there was love and disaster, frolic and the fall of a child, the boy buying candy in a shop, the woman on the operating-table in the hospital. Who could measure that swirl of life and whither it was leading? But who could live in the heart of it all and be unaware of it?
Yet Joe's eyes were unseeing. Children played on the street, people walked and talked, the toilers were busy at their tasks, and that was all he knew or saw. And yet of late he had a new, unexpected vista of life. Like many men, Joe had missed women. There was his mother, but no one else. He was rather shy, and he was too busy. But during the last few months a teacher—Myra Craig—had been coming to the printery to have some work done for the school. She had strangely affected Joe—sprung an electricity on him that troubled him profoundly. He could not forget her, nor wipe her image from his brain, nor rid his ears of the echoes of her voice. He went about feeling that possibly he had underrated poetry and music. Romance, led by Myra's hand, had entered the dusty printery and Joe began to feel like a youngster who had been blind to life.
Outside the world was blowing away on the gray wings of the twilight, blowing away with eddies of dust that swept the sparkling street-lamps, and the air was sharp with a tang of homesickness and autumn. The afternoon was quietly waning, up—stairs the hat-makers, and here the printers, were toiling in a crowded, satisfying present, and Joe stood there musing, a tall, gaunt man, the upstart tufts of his tousled hair glistening in the light overhead. His face was the homeliest that ever happened. The mouth was big and big-lipped, the eyes large, dark, melancholy and slightly sunken, and the mask was a network of wrinkles. His hands were large, mobile, and homely. But about him was an air of character and thought, of kindliness and camaraderie, of very human nature. He stood there wishing that Myra would come. The day seemed to demand it; the wild autumn cried out for men to seek the warmth and forgetful glory of love.
He could get some nice house and make a home for her; he could take her out of the grind and deadliness of school-work and make her happy; there would be little children in that house. He thought she loved him; yes, he was quite sure. Then what hindrance? There, at quarter to five that strange afternoon, Joe felt that he had reached the heights of success, and he saw no obstacle to long years of solid advance. He had before his eyes the evidence of his wealth—the great, flapping presses, the bending, moving men. If anything was sure and solid in this world, these things were.
He felt sure Myra would come. She had not been around for a week, and, anticipating a new meeting with her, he felt very young, like a very young man for the first time aware of the strange loveliness of night, its haunting and hidden beauties, its women calling from afar. It all seemed wild and impossible romance. It smote his heart-strings and set them trembling with music. He wondered why he had been so stupid all these years and evaded life, evaded joys that should have been his twenty years earlier. Now it seemed to him that his youth had passed from him defeated of its splendor.
If Myra came to-day he would tell her. The very thought gave his heart a lovely quake of fear, a trembling that communicated itself to his hands and down his legs, a throbbing joy dashed with a strange tremor. And then as he wanted, as he wished for, the door beside him opened and the bell sharply sounded.
She stood there, very small, very slight, but quite charming in her neat, lace-touched clothes. A fringe at the wrist, a bunch at the neck, struck her off as some one delicate and sensitive, and the face strengthened this impression. It was long and oval, with a narrow woman-forehead cut off by a curve of dark hair; the mouth was small and sweet; the nose narrow; the eyes large, clear gray, penetrating. Under the gracefully modeled felt hat she stood quite complete, quite a personality. One instantly guessed that she was an aristocrat by birth and breeding. But her age was doubtful, seeming either more or less than the total, which was thirty-two.
There she stood, glancing at Joe with a breathless eagerness. He turned pale, and yet at the same time there was a whirl of fire in his heart. She had come to him; he wanted to gather her close and bear her off through the wild autumn weather, off to the wilderness. He reached out a hand and inclosed a very cold and very little one.
"Why, you're frozen!" he said, with a queer laugh.
"Oh—not much!" she gasped. She held her leather bag under her arm and took off her gloves. Then she loosened her coat, and gave a sigh.
He gazed at her warm-tinted cheek, almost losing himself, and then murmured, suddenly:
"More school stuff?"
She made a grimace and tried to speak lightly, but her voice almost failed her.
"Class 6-B, let me tell you, is giving the 'Landing of the Pilgrims,' and every blessed little pilgrim is Bohemian. Here's the programme!"
With trembling fingers she opened her bag and handed him some loose sheets. He bent over them at once.
"Now make it cheap, Mr. Blaine," she said, severely. "Rock bottom! Or I'll give the job to some one else."
Joe laughed strangely.
"How many copies?"
He spoke as if in fear.
"Fifty cents too much?"
"I don't want the school to ruin you!"
He said nothing further, and in the awkward silence she began pitifully to button her coat. There was no reason for staying.
Then suddenly he spoke, huskily:
"Don't go, Miss Craig...."
"You want ..." she began.
He leaned very close.
"I want to take a walk with you. May I?"
She became dead white, and the terror of nature's resistless purpose with men and women, that awful gravitation, that passion of creation that links worlds and uses men and women, went through them both.
"I may?" he was whispering.
Her "Yes" was almost inaudible.
So Joe put on his coat, and slapped over his head a queer gray slouch hat, and called over Marty.
"I won't be back to-night, Marty!" he said.
Then at the door he gave one last glance at his life-work, the orderly presses, the harnessed men, and left it all as if it must surely be there when he returned. He was proud at that moment to be Joe Blaine, with his name in red letters on the glass door, and under his name "Power Printer." His wife would be able to hold her head high.
The frail elevator took them clanking, bumping, slipping, down, down past eight floors, to the street level. The elevator boy, puffing at his cigarette, remarked, amiably:
"Gee! it's a windy day. It's gittin' on to winter, all right.... Good-night, Mr. Blaine!"
"Good-night, Tom," said Joe.
THE EAST EIGHTY-FIRST STREET FIRE
They emerged in all the magic wildness of an autumn night and walked east on Eighty-first Street. The loft building was near the corner of Second Avenue. They passed under the elevated structure, cutting through a hurrying throng of people.
"Take my arm," cried Joe.
She took it, trembling. They made an odd couple passing along between the squalid red-brick tenements, now in shadow, now in the glow of some little shop window, now under a sparkling lamp. At Avenue A they went south to Seventy-ninth Street, and again turned east, passing a row of bright model tenements, emerging at last at the strange riverside.
Down to the very edge of the unpaved waste they walked, or rather floated, so strange and uplifted and glorious they felt, blown and carried bodily with the exultant west wind, and they only stopped when they reached the wooden margin, where an old scow, half laden with brick, was moored fast with ropes. This scow heaved up and down with the motion of the rolling waters; the tight ropes grated; the water swashed melodiously.
The man and woman seemed alone there, a black little lump in the vast spaces, for behind them the city receded beyond empty little hill-sides and there was nothing some distance north and south.
"Look," said Joe, "look at the tide!"
It was running north, a wide expanse of rolling waters from their feet to Blackwells Island in the east, all hurling swiftly like a billowing floor of gray. Here and there whitecaps spouted. On Blackwells Island loomed the gray hospitals and workhouses, and at intervals on the shore sparkled a friendly light.
"But see the bridge," exclaimed Myra.
She pointed far south, where across the last of the day ran a slightly arched string of lights, binding shore with shore. On the New York side, and nearer, rose the high chimneys of mills, and from these a purplish smoke swirled thickly, melting into the gray weather.
And it seemed to Joe at that wild moment that nothing was as beautiful as smoking chimneys. They meant so much—labor, human beings, fire, warmth.
And over all—river, bridge, chimneys, Blackwells Island, and the throbbing city behind them—rose the immense gray-clouded heavens. A keen smell of the far ocean came to their nostrils and the air was clear and exhilarant. Then, as they watched, suddenly a tug lashed between enormous flat boats on which were red freight-cars, swept north with the tide. A thin glaze of heat breathed up from the tug's pipe; it was moving without its engines, and the sight was unbelievable. The whole huge mass simply shot the river, racing by them.
And then the very magic of life was theirs. The world fell from them, the dusty scales of facts, the complex intricacies of existence melted away. They were very close, and the keen, yelling wind was wrapping them closer. Vision filled the gray air, trembled up from the river to the heavens. They rose from all the chaos like two white flames blown by the wind together—they were two gigantic powers of the earth preparing like gods for new creation. In that throbbing moment each became the world to the other, and love, death-strong, shot their hearts.
He turned, gazing strangely at her pale, eager, breathless face.
"I want ..." he began.
"Yes," she breathed.
He opened his lips, and the sound that escaped seemed like a sob.
And then at the sound of her name she was all woman, all love. She cried out:
And they flung their arms round each other. She sobbed there, overcome with the yearning, the glory, the beatitude of that moment.
"Oh," he cried, "how I love you!... Myra ..."
"Joe, Joe—I couldn't have stood it longer!"
All of life, all of the past, all of the million years of earth melted into that moment, that moment when a man and a woman, mingled into one, stood in the heart of the wonder, the love, the purpose of nature—a mad, wild, incoherent half-hour, a secret ecstasy in the passing of the twilight, in the swing of the wind and the breath of the sea.
"Come home to my mother," cried Joe. "Come home with me!"
They turned ... and Myra was a strange new woman, tender, grave, and wrought of all lovely power, her face, in the last of the light, mellow and softly glowing with a heightened woman-power.
"Yes," she said, "I want to see Joe's mother."
It was Joe's last step to success. Now he had all—his work, his love. He felt powerfully masculine, triumphant, glorious.
Night had fallen, and on the darkness broke and sparkled a thousand lights in tenement windows and up the shadowy streets—everywhere homes, families; men, women, and children busily living together; everywhere love. Joe glanced, his eyes filling. Then he paused.
"Look at that," he said in a changed voice.
Over against the west, a little to the north, the gray heavens were visible—a lightning seemed to run over them—a ghastly red lightning—sharply silhouetting the chimneyed housetops.
"What is it?" said Myra.
He gazed at it, transfixed.
"That's a fire ... a big fire." Then suddenly his face, in the pale light of a street-lamp, became chalky white and knotted. He could barely speak. "It must be on Eighty-first or Eighty-second Street."
She spoke shrilly, clutching his arm.
"Not ... the loft?"
"Oh, it can't be!" he cried, in an agony. "But come ... hurry ..."
They started toward Eighty-first Street up Avenue A. They walked fast; and it seemed suddenly to Joe that he had been dancing on a thin crust, and that the crust had broken and he was falling through. He turned and spoke harshly:
"You must run!"
Fear made their feet heavy as they sped, and their hearts seemed to be exploding in their breasts. They felt as if that fire were consuming them; as if its tongues of flame licked them up. And so they came to the corner of Eighty-first Street and turned it, and looked, and stopped.
Joe spoke hoarsely.
"It's burning;... it's the loft.... The printery's on fire...."
Beyond the elevated structure at Second Avenue the loft building rose like a grotesque gigantic torch in the night. Swirls of flame rolled from the upper three stories upward in a mane of red, tossing volumes of smoke, and the wild wind, combing the fire from the west, rained down cinders and burned papers on Joe and Myra as they rushed up the street. Every window was blankly visible in the extreme light, streams of water played on the walls, and the night throbbed with the palpitating, pounding fire-engines.
And it seemed to Joe as if life were torn to bits, as if the world's end had come. It was unbelievable, impossible—his eyes belied his brain. That all those years of labor and dream and effort were going up in flame and smoke seemed preposterous. And only a few moments before he and Myra had stood on the heights of the world; had their mad moment; and even then his life was being burned away from him. He felt the hoarse sobs lifting up through his throat.
They reached Second Avenue, and were stopped by the vast swaying crowd of people, a density that could not be cloven. They went around about it frantically; they bore along the edge of the crowd, beside the houses; they wedged past one stoop; they were about to get past the next, when, in the light of the lamp, Joe saw a strange sight. Crouched on that stoop, with clothes torn, with hair loosed down her back, her face white, her lips gasping, sat one of the hat factory girls. It was Fannie Lemick. Joe knew her. And no one seemed to notice her. The crowd was absorbed in other things.
And even at that moment Joe heard the dire clanging of ambulances, and an awful horror dizzied his brain. No, no, not that! He clutched the stoop-post, leaned, cried weirdly:
She gazed up at him. Then she recognized him and gave a terrible sob.
"Mr. Joe! Oh, how did you get out?"
"I wasn't there," he breathed. "Fannie! what's happened?... None of the girls ..."
"You didn't know?" she gasped.
He felt the life leaving his body; it seemed impossible.
"No ..." he heard himself saying. "Tell me...."
She looked at him with dreadful eyes and spoke in a low, deadly, monotonous voice:
"The fire-escape was no good; it broke under some of the girls;... they fell;... we jammed the hall;... some of the girls jumped down the elevator shaft;... they couldn't get out ... and Miss Marks, the forelady, was trying to keep us in order.... She stayed there ... and I ran down the stairs, and dropped in the smoke, and crawled ... but when I got to the street ... I looked back ... Mr. Joe ... the girls were jumping from the windows...."
Joe seized the stoop-post. His body seemed torn in two; he began to reel.
"From the ninth floor," he muttered, "and couldn't get out.... And I wasn't there! Oh, God, why wasn't I killed there!"
THE GOOD PEOPLE
Joe broke through the fire line. He stepped like a calcium-lit figure over the wet, gleaming pavement, over the snaky hose, and among the rubber-sheathed, glistening firemen, gave one look at the ghastly heap on the sidewalk, and then became, like the host of raving relatives and friends and lovers, a man insane. It was as if the common surfaces of life—the busy days, the labor, the tools, the houses—had been drawn aside like a curtain and revealed the terrific powers that engulf humanity.
In his ears sounded the hoarse cries of the firemen, the shout of the sprayed water, the crash of axes, the shatter of glass. It was too magnificent a spectacle, nature, like a Nero, using humanity to make a sublime torch in the night. And through his head pulsed and pulsed the defiant throb of the engines. Cinders fell, sticks, papers, and Joe saw fitfully the wide ring of hypnotized faces. It was as if the world had fallen into a pit, and human beings looked on each other aghast.
"Get back there!" cried a burly policeman.
Joe resisted his shouldering.
"I'm Mr. Blaine;... it's my loft burning. I'm looking for my men...."
"Go to the morgue then," snapped the policeman. "A fire line's a fire line."
Joe was pushed back, and as the crowd closed about him, a soft pressure of clothing, men and women, he became aware of the fact that he had lost his head. He pulled himself together; he told himself that he, a human being, was greater than anything that could happen; that he must set his jaw and fight and brave his way through the facts. He must get to work.
Myra clutched his sleeve. He turned to her a face of death, but she brought her wide eyes close to him.
"Myra," he said, in a whisper, suddenly in that moment getting a sharp revelation of his changed life. "I may never see you again. I belong to those dead girls." He paused. "Go home ... do that for me, anyway."
He had passed beyond her; there was no opposing him.
"I'll go," she murmured.
Then, dizzily, she reeled back, and was lost in the crowd.
And then he set to work. He was strangely calm now, numb, unfeeling. There was nothing more to experience, and the overwrought brain refused any new emotions. So stupendous was the catastrophe that it left him finally calm, ready, and eagerly awake. He stepped gently through the crowd, searching, and found John Rann, the pressman. John wept like a little boy when they met.
"Marty got out ... yes ... most of us did ... but Eddie Baker, Morty, and Sam Bender.... It was the cotton waste, Mr. Joe, and the cigarettes...."
Joe put his arm about the rough man.
"Never mind, Johnny ... Go home to the kiddies...."
There was so little he could do. He went to a few homes he knew, he went to the hospital to ask after the injured, he went to the morgue. At midnight the fire, like an evil thing, drew him back, and he encountered only a steamy blackness lit by the search-light of the engine. There was still the insistent throbbing. And then he thought of his mother and her fears, and sped swiftly up the street, over deserted Lexington Avenue, and up the lamp-lit block. Already newsboys were hoarsely shouting in the night, as they waved their papers—a cry of the underworld palpitating through the hushed city: "Wuxtra! Wuxtra! Great—fire—horror! Sixty—killed! Wuxtra!"
The house was still open, lighted, awake. People came into the hall as he entered, but he shunned them and started up the stairs. One called after him.
"Your mother's out, Mr. Joe."
"Out? How long?"
"Since the fire started ... She's been back and forth several times ..."
He went on up, entered the neat, still front room, lit the gas beside the bureau mirror, and began to pace up and down. His mother was searching for him; he might have known it; he should have remembered it.
And then he heard the uncanny shouting of the newsboys—as if those dead girls had risen from their ashes and were running like flaming furies through the city streets, flinging handfuls of their fire into a million homes, shaking New York into a realization of its careless, guilty heart, crying for vengeance, stirring horror and anger and pity. Who was the guilty one, if not he, the boss?
And then the inquisition began, the repeated sting of lashing thoughts and cruel questions. He asked himself what right he had to be an employer, to take the responsibility of thirty lives in his hands. He was careless, easy-going, he was in business for profits. Had such a man any right to be placed over others, to be given the power over other lives? The guilt was his; the blame fell on him. He should have kept clean house; he should have stamped out the smoking; he should not have smoked himself. There fell upon his shoulders a burden not to be borne, the burden of his blame, and he felt as if nothing now in the world could assuage that sense of guilt.
Life, he found, was a fury, a cyclone, not the simple, easy affair he had thought it. It was his living for himself, his living alone, his ignorance of the fact that his life was tangled in with the lives of all human beings, so that he was socially responsible, responsible for the misery and poverty and pain all about him.
That he should be the one! Had he not lived just the average life—blameless, cheerful, hard-working, fun-loving—the life of the average American? Just by every-day standards his was the useful and good life. But no, that was not enough. In his rush for success he had made property his treasure instead of human beings. That was the crime. And so these dead lay all about him as if he had murdered them with his hands. It was his being an average man that had killed sixty-three girls and men. And what had he been after? Money? He did not use his money, did not need so much. Just a little shared with his employees would have saved them. No, the average man must cease to exist, and the social man take his place, the brother careful of his fellow-men, not careless of all but his own gain.
A boy passed, hoarsely shouting that terrible extra. Would nothing in the world silence that sound? The cold sweat came out on his face. He was the guilty one. That was the one fact that he knew.
And then he paused; the door opened creakingly and his mother entered. She was a magnificent young-old woman, her body sixty-three years old, her mind singularly fresh and young. She was tall, straight, spirited, and under the neat glossy-white hair was a noble face, somewhat long, somewhat slim, a little pallid, but with firm chin and large forehead and living large black eyes set among sharp lines of lids. The whole woman was focussed in the eyes, sparkled there, lived there, deep, limpid, quick, piercing. Her pallor changed to pure whiteness.
"Joe ..." her voice broke. "I've been looking for you...."
He paused, walled away from her by years of isolation. She advanced slowly; her face became terrible in its hungry love, its mother passion. She met his eyes, and then he fled to her, and his body shook with rough, tearless sobs. Her relief came in great tears.
"And all those girls," she was murmuring, "and those men. How did it happen?"
He drew back; his eyes became strange.
"Mother," he said, harshly, "I'm the guilty one. There was a heap of cotton waste in the corner, shouldn't have been there. And I let the men smoke cigarettes."
She was horrified.
"But why did you do that?" she whispered, moving a little away from him.
"My thoughtlessness ... my business." The word was charged with bitterness. "Business! business! I'm a business man! I wasn't in business"—he gave a weird laugh—"for the health of my employees! I was making money!"
She looked at him as if he had ceased being her son and had turned into a monster. Then she swayed, grasped the bedpost and sank on the bed.
Her voice was low and harsh.
"Your fault ... and all those young girls...."
His mother had judged him; he looked at her with haggard eyes, and spoke in a hollow voice.
"Nothing will ever wipe this guilt from my mind.... I'm branded for life ... this thing will go on and on and on every day that I live...."
She glanced at him then, and saw only her son, the child she had carried in her arms, the boy who had romped with her, and she only knew now that he was suffering, that no one on earth could be in greater pain.
"Oh, my poor Joe!" she murmured.
"Yes," he went on, beside himself, "I'm blasted with guilt...."
She cried out:
"If you go on like this, we'll both go out of our minds, Joe! Fight! It's done ... it's over.... From now on, make amends.... Joe!"—She rose magnificently then—"Your father lost his arm in the war.... Now give your life to setting things right!"
And she drew him close again. Her words, her love, her belief in him roused him at last.
"You know the fault isn't all yours," she said. "The factory inspector's to blame, too—and the men—and the people up-stairs—and the law because it didn't demand better protection and fire-drills—all are to blame. You take too much on yourself...."
And gradually, striving with him through the early morning hours, she calmed him, she soothed him, and got him to bed. He was at last too weary to think or feel and he slept deep into the day. And thinking a little of herself, she realized that the tragedy had brought them closer together than they had been for years.
* * * * *
Out of those ashes on East Eighty-first Street rose a certain splendor over the city. All of New York drew together with indignation and wondrous pity. It did not bring the dead girls to life again—it was too late for that—but it brought many other dead people to life.
Fifty thousand dollars flowed to the newspapers for relief; an inquest probed causes and guilt and prevention; mass—meetings were held; the rich and the powerful forgot position and remembered their common humanity; and the philanthropic societies set to work with money, with doctors and nurses and visitors. The head of one huge association said to the relief committee in a low, trembling voice: "Of course, our whole staff is at your service." Just for a time, a little time, the five-million-manned city flavored its confused, selfish struggle with simple brotherhood.
How had it happened? Whose was the fault? How came it that sixty girls were imprisoned in the skies, as it were, and could only fling themselves down to the stone pavement in an insanity of terror? What war was more horrible than this Peace of Industry? Such things must be prevented in future, said New York, rising like a wrathful god—and for a while the busy wheels of progress turned.
Joe had to attend the inquest as a witness. He gave his testimony in a simple, sincere, and candid way that gained him sympathy. His men testified in his behalf, trying to wholly exonerate him and inculpate themselves, and the lawyers cleverly scattered blame from one power to another—the city, the State, the fire department, the building department, etc. It became clear that Joe could not be officially punished; it was evident that he had done as much as the run of employers to protect life, and that his intentions had been blameless.
However, that did not ease Joe's real punishment. He was a changed man that week, calm, ready with his smile, but haggard and bowed, nervous and overwrought, bearing a burden too heavy for his heart. He made over the twenty thousand dollars of insurance money to the Relief and Prevention Work; he visited the injured and the bereaved; he forgot Myra and tried to forget himself; he attended committee meetings.
Myra wrote him a little note:
DEAR JOE,—Don't forget that whatever happens I believe in you utterly and I love you and shall always love you, and that you have me when all else is lost.
To which he merely replied:
DEAR MYRA,—I shall remember what you say, and I shall see you when I can.
It was on Sunday afternoon that Joe met Fannie Lemick on the street. Her eyes filled with tears and he noticed she was trembling.
"Mr. Joe!" she cried.
"Are you going, too?"
"Don't you know? The mass-meeting at Carnegie Hall!"
He looked at her, smiling.
"I'll go with you, if I may!"
So they went down together. A jam of poor people was crowding the doors, and a string of automobiles drew up and passed at the curb. Joe and Fannie got in the throng. There was no room left in the orchestra and they were swept with the flood up and up, flight after flight, to the high gallery. Here they found seats and looked down, down as if on the side of the planet, on the far-away stage filled with the speakers and the committees, and on that sea of humanity that swept back and up through the boxes to themselves. All in the subdued light, the golden light that crowd sat, silent, remorseful, stirred by a sense of having risen to a great occasion; thousands of human beings, the middle class, the rich, the poor; Americans, Germans, Italians, Jews. But all about him Joe felt a silent hatred, a still cry for vengeance, a class bitterness. Many of these were relatives of the dead.
It was a demonstration of the human power that refuses to submit to environment and circumstance and fate; that rises and rebukes facts, reshapes destiny. And then the speaking began: the bishop, the rabbi, the financier, the philanthropist, the social worker. They spoke eloquently, they showed pity, they were constructive, they were prepared to act; they represented the "better classes" and promised the "poor," the toilers, that they would see that relief and protection were given; but somehow their eloquence did not carry; somehow that mass of commonest men and women refused to be stirred and thrilled. There was even a little hissing when it was announced that a committee of big men would see to the matter.
Joe had a dull sense of some monstrous social cleavage; the world divided into the rulers and the ruled, the drivers and the driven. He felt uncomfortable, and so did the throng. There was a feeling as if the crowd ought to have a throat to give vent to some strange, fierce fact that festered in its heart.
And then toward the end the chairman announced that one of the hat-trimmers, one of the girls who worked—in another hat factory, would address the meeting—Miss Sally Heffer.
A girl arose, a young woman with thin, sparse, gold-glinting hair, with face pallid and rounded, with broad forehead and gray eyes of remarkable clarity. She was slim, dressed in a little brown coat and a short brown skirt. She came forward, trembling, as if overcome by the audience. She paused, raised her head and tried to speak. There was not a sound, and suddenly the audience became strangely still, leaning forward, waiting.
Then again she tried to speak; it was hardly above a whisper; and yet so clear was the hush that Joe heard every word. And he knew, and all knew, that this young woman was overcome, not by the audience, but by the passion of the tragedy, the passion of an oppressed class. She was the voice of the toilers at last dimly audible; she was the voice of a million years of sore labor and bitter poverty and thwarted life. And the audience was thrilled, and the powerful were shaken with remorse.
Trembling, terrible came the words out of that little body on the far stage:
"I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good-fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are to-day: the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the fire-trap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
"This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in this city. Every week I learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred! There are so many of us for one job, it matters little if sixty of us are burned to death.
"We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers and brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press heavily down on us.
"Public officials have only words of warning to us—warning that we must be intensely orderly and intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings.
"I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement."
Joe heard nothing further. There were several other speakers, but no words penetrated to his brain. He felt as if he must stifle. He felt the globe of earth cracking, breaking in two under his feet, and for the first time in his life he was acutely aware of the division of humanity. All through his career he had taken his middle-class position for granted; he tacitly agreed that there were employees and employers; but in his own case his camaraderie had hidden the cleavage. Now he saw a double world—on the one side the moneyed owners, on the other the crowded, scrambling, disorganized hordes of the toilers—each one of them helpless, a victim, worked for all that was in him, and then flung aside in the scrap heap. And behold, this horde was becoming self-conscious, was beginning to organize, was finding a voice. And he, who was one of the "good people," was rejected by this voice. He had been "tried" and found wanting. He was on the other side of the fence. And it was the fault of his class that fire horrors and all the chaos and cruelty of industry arose. So that now the working people had found that they must "save themselves."
In an agony of guilt again he felt what he had said to Myra: "From now on I belong to those dead girls"—yes, and to their fellow-workers. Suddenly it seemed to him that he must see Sally Heffer—that to her he must carry the burden of his guilt—to her he must personally make answer to the terrible accusations she had voiced. It was all at once, as if only in this way could he go on living, that otherwise he would end in the insanity of the mad-house or the insanity of suicide.
He was walking down the stairs with Fannie, and he was trembling.
"Do you know this Sally Heffer?"
"Know her? We all do!" she cried, with all a young girl's enthusiasm.
"I want to see her, Fannie. Where does she live?"
"Oh, somewhere in Greenwich Village. But she'll be up at the Woman's League after the meeting."
He went up to the Woman's League and found the office crowded with women and men. He asked for Miss Heffer.
"I'll take your name," said the young woman, and then came back with the answer that "he'd have to wait."
So he took a seat and waited. He felt feverish and sick, as if he could no longer carry this burden with him. It seemed impossible to sit still. And yet he waited over an hour, waited until it was eight at night, all the gas-jets lit.
The young woman came up to him.
"You want to see Miss Heffer? Come this way."
He was led up a flight of stairs to a little narrow hall-room. Sally Heffer was there at a roll-top desk, still in her little brown coat—quiet, pale, her clear eyes remarkably penetrating. She turned.
He shook pitifully,... then he sat down, holding his hat in his hands.
"I'm Joe Blaine...."
"Joe Blaine ... of what?"
"Of the printery ... that burned...."
She looked at him sharply.
"So, you're the employer."
"Yes, I am."
"Well," she said, brusquely, "what do you want?"
"I heard you speak this afternoon." His face flickered with a smile.
"And so you ...?"
He could say nothing; and she looked closer. She saw his gray face, his unsteady eyes, the tragedy of the broken man. Then she spoke with a lovely gentleness.
"You want to do something?"
"Yes," he murmured, "I want to give—all."
She lowered her voice, and it thrilled him.
"It won't help to give your money—you must give yourself. We don't want charity."
He said nothing for a moment; and then strength rose in him.
"I'll tell you why I came.... I felt I had to.... I felt that you were accusing me. I know I am guilty. I have come here to be"—he smiled strangely—"sentenced."
She drew closer.
"You came here for that?"
She rose and took a step either way. She gazed on him, and suddenly she broke down and cried, her hands to her face.
"O God," she sobbed, "when will all this be over? When will we get rid of this tragedy? I can't stand it longer."
He rose, too, confused.
"Listen," he whispered. "I swear to you, I swear, that from this day on my life belongs to those"—his voice broke—"dead girls ... to the toilers...."
She impulsively reached out a hand, and he seized it. Then, when she became more quiet, she murmured:
"I can see you mean it. Oh, this is wonderful! It is a miracle springing out of the fire!"
There was a strange throbbing silence that brought them close together. And Sally, glancing at him again, whispered:
"I can see how you have suffered! Let me help you ... all that I can!"
He spoke in great pain.
"What can I do? I know so little."
"Do? You must learn that for yourself. You must fit in where you belong. Do you know anything of the working-class movement?"
"No," he said.
"Then I will make a list of books and magazines for you."
She sat down and wrote a list on a slip, and arose and handed it to him.
She was gazing at him again, gazing at the tragic face. Then she whispered:
"I believe in you.... Is there anything else?"
And again she reached out her hand and he clasped it. Her fine faith smote something hard in him, shriveled it like fire, and all at once, miraculously, divinely, a little liquid gush of lovely joy, of wonderful beatitude began to rise from his heart, to rise and overflow and fill him. He was being cleansed, he had expiated his guilt by confessing it to his accuser and receiving her strange and gentle forgiveness; tears came to his eyes, came and paused on the lashes and trickled down. He gulped a sob.
"I can go on now," he said.
She looked at him, wondering.
"You can!" she whispered.
And he went out, a free man again, at the beginning of a new life.
Life has an upspringing quality that defies pain. Something buoyant throbs in the heart of the world—something untamed and wild—exultant in the flying beauty of romping children, glinting in the dawn-whitened sea, risen, indeed, through man into triumphant cities and works, and running like a pulse through his spirit. San Francisco is shattered, and there is death and sorrow and destruction: a whole population is homeless—whereupon the little human creatures come down from the hills like laughing gods and create but a more splendid city. Earth itself forges through its winters with an April power that flushes a continent with delicate blossoms and tints.
Joe had come home from Sally Heffer a man renewed. From some clear well in his nature sprang a limpid stream of soft, new joy; a new exhilarating sense of life; a new creative power that made him eager for action. His heart was cleansed, and with the exquisite happiness of a forgiven child he "took up the task eternal." Hereafter he was a man dedicated, a man consecrated to a great work.
His mother noticed the change in him, a new wisdom, a sweet jocularity, and, withal, the return of much of his old nature—its rough camaraderie, its boyish liveliness and homely simplicity. For her this was a marvelous relief, and she could only watch him and wonder at the change. He seemed very busy again, and she did not disturb him in these sensitive days of growth; she waited the inevitable time when he would come to her and tell her what he was going to do, whether he would re-establish his business or whether he had some new plan. And then one day, tidying up his room, she stumbled on a heap of books. Her heart thrilled and she began to surreptitiously borrow these books herself.
Already the great city had forgotten its fire horror—save the tiny, growing stir of an agitating committee—and even to those most nearly concerned it began to fade, a nightmare scattered by the radiance of new morning. One could only trust that from those fair and unpolluted bodies had sprung a new wave of human brotherliness never to be quite lost. And Joe's mother had had too much training in the terrible to be long overborne. She believed in her son and stood by him.
Luckily for Joe, he had much work to do. He and Marty Briggs had to settle up the business, close with customers, dig from the burned rubbish proofs and contracts, attend the jury, and help provide for his men. One sunny morning he and Marty were working industriously in the loft, when Marty, with a cry of exultation, lifted up a little slot box.
"Holy Moses, Joe!" he exclaimed, "if here ain't the old kick-box!"
They looked in it together, very tenderly, for it was the very symbol of Joe's ten years of business. On its side there was still pasted a slip of paper, covered with typewriting:
This business is human—not perfect. It needs good thinking, new ideas (no matter how unusual), and honest criticism.
There are many things you think wrong about the printery and the printery's head—things you would not talk of face to face, as business time is precious and spoken words are sometimes hard to bear.
Now this is what I want: Sit down and write what you think in plain English. It will do me good.
Suddenly Marty looked at his boss.
"What is it, Marty?" The big fellow hesitated.
"Say—when that jury finishes—you're going to set things up again, and go on. Ain't you?"
Joe smiled sadly.
"I don't know, Marty."
Tears came to Marty's eyes.
"Say—what will the fellers say? Ah, now, you'll go ahead, Joe."
"Just give me a week or two, Marty—then I'll tell you."
But the big fellow's simple grief worked on him and made him waver, and there were other meetings with old employees that sharply drew him back to the printery. One evening, after a big day of activity, he found it too late to reach the boarding-house for supper and he remembered that John Rann's baby was sick. So he turned and hurried across the golden glamor of Third Avenue, on Eightieth Street, and just beyond climbed up three flights of stairs in a stuffy tenement and knocked on the rear door. Smells of supper—smells chiefly of cabbage, cauliflower, fried onions, and fried sausages—pervaded the hall like an invisible personality, but Joe was smell-proof.
A husky voice bade him come in and he pushed open the door into a neat kitchen. At a table in the center under a nicely globed light sat John Rann in his woolen undershirt. John was smoking a pipe and reading the evening paper, and opposite John two young girls, one about ten, the other seven, were studying their lessons.
"Hello, John!" said Joe.
John nodded amiably, and muttered:
He was a strong, athletic, stocky fellow, with sunken little blue eyes, heavy jaws, and almost bald head. Before he had time to rise the two young girls leaped up with shrieks of joy and rushed to Joe. Joe at once tucked one under each arm and hugged them forward to a big chair, into which they all sank together.
"Well! Well!" cried Joe.
"Who do you love most?" asked the seven-year-old.
"The one who loves me most!" said Joe.
"I do!" they both shrieked.
"Now leave Mr. Joe be," warned the father. "Such tomboys they're getting to be, there's no holdin' 'em in!"
At once in the half-curtained doorway to the next room appeared a stocky little woman, whose pale face was made emphatic by large steel-rimmed glasses that shrank each eye-pupil to the size of a tack-head. Her worried forehead smoothed; she smiled.
"I knew it was Mr. Joe," she said, "by the way those gals yelled."
Joe spoke eagerly:
"I just had to run in, Mrs. Rann, to ask how the baby was."
"He's a sight better. Mrs. Smith, who lives third floor front, had one just like him sick a year ago come Thanksgiving, and he died like that. But the doctor you sent over is that kind and cute he's got the little fellow a-fightin' for his life. He's a big sight better. Want to see him?"
Joe gave a kiss each way, set down two reluctant women-to-be, and followed Mrs. Rann to the inner room. In a little crib a youngster, just recovered from colic, was kicking up his heels. Joe leaned over and tickled the sole of one foot.
"Well, Johnny boy!"
"Unc! Unc!" cried the infant.
The mother purred with delight.
"He's trying to say Uncle Joe. Did you ever hear the likes?"
Joe beamed with pride.
"Well, your uncle hasn't forgotten you, old man!"
And he produced from his pocket a little rubber doll that whistled whenever its belly was squeezed.
John Rann appeared behind them.
"Say, Mr. Joe, you haven't had your supper yet."
"Not hungry!" muttered Joe.
"G'wan! Molly, put him up a couple of fried eggs, browned on both, and a cup of coffee. I won't take no, either."
"Well, perhaps I'd better. I'm ashamed to ask for anything home this hour—in fact, I'm scared to."
So he got his fried eggs and coffee, and the family hung around him, and Joe, circled with such warm friendliness, was glad to be alive. He was especially pleased with Mrs. Rann's regard. But Joe was always a favorite with mothers. Possibly because he was so fond of their babies. Possibly because mothers love a good son, wherever they find one. Possibly because his heart was large enough to contain as something precious their obscure lives. Just before he left John asked him:
"Will the printery soon be running, Mr. Joe?"
"Tell you later," murmured Joe, and went out. But he was sorely troubled.
However, to Joe there had been revealed—almost in a day and after thirty-eight years of insulated life—two of the supreme human facts. There was humanity, on the one side, building the future, the new state, organizing its scattered millions into a rich, healthy, joyous life and calling to every man to enlist in the ranks of the creators; and then there was woman, the undying splendor of the world, the beauty that drenches life with meaning and magic, that stirs the elemental in a man, that wakens the race instinct, that demands the creation of new generations to inhabit that new state of the future. Intertwined, these wondrous things drew the heart now this way, now that, and to Joe they arose separately in intermittent pulsations that threatened to absorb his existence.
He did not dare go to Myra until he was sure of himself. It seemed that he would have to choose between woman and work. It seemed as if his work would lead into peril, dirt, disaster, and that he could not ask a delicate, high-strung woman to go with him. The woman could not follow her warrior to the battle, for marriage meant children to Joe, and the little ones must stay back at home with the mother.
In that moment of clear terror he had said to Myra:
"I may never see you again.... I belong to those dead girls."
And this phrase came and went like a refrain. He must choose between her and those "dead girls." There stood Myra with gray luminous eyes and soft echoing voice magically hinting of a life of ever-renewed romance. She had a breast for his aching head, she had in her hands a thousand darling household things, she had in her the possibilities of his own children ... who should bring a wind of laughter into his days and a strange domestic tenderness. The depths of the man were stirred by these appeals—that was the happy human way to take, the common road fringed with wild flowers and brier-lost berries, and glorious with the stride of health and the fresh open air.
And Myra herself, that charming presence to infold his life—He would go walking through the golden October park, by little leaf-strewn paths under the wild and sun-soaked foliage, with many vistas every way of luring mystery, and over all the earth the rich opulent mother-bliss of harvest, and his heart would ache, ache within him, ache for his own harvests, ache like the sun for the earth, the man for the woman.
A mad frenzy would seize him and he would plunge into his books and read and think and lash himself to a fury of speculation till the early hours of the morning. Exhaustion alone brought him peace.
But something had to be done. He sat down and wrote to her with a trembling hand:
DEAR MYRA,—Though I am impatient to see you, I must yet wait a little while. Bear with me. You will understand later.
And then she replied:
DEAR JOE,—Can't I help you? MYRA.
He had to fight a whole afternoon before he replied:
Not yet—later. JOE.
And back he went into the whirlwind of the world-vision, a stupendous force upsetting, up-rooting, overturning, demolishing, almost erasing and contradicting everything that Joe had taken for granted, and in the wake of the destruction, rising and ever rising, a new creation, the vision of a new world.
He had taken so much for granted. He had taken for granted that he lived in a democracy—that the Civil War had once for all made America a free nation—a nation of opportunity, riches, and happiness for all. Not so. Literally millions were living in abject poverty, slaves to their pay-envelopes; to lose a job meant to lose everything, there being more laborers than jobs, or if not, at least recurrent "panics" and "hard times" when the mills and the mines shut down. And these wage slaves had practically no voice in one of the chief things of their life—their work. So millions were penned in places of danger and disease and dirt, lived and toiled in squalor, and were cut off from growth, from health, from leisure and culture and recreation; and worse, millions of women had to add the burden of earning a living to the already overwhelming burden of child-bearing and home-making; and, still worse, millions of children had been drafted into the service of industrialism.
He proved the case for himself. He began making tours of the city, discovering New York, laying bare the confusion and ugliness and grime and crime and poverty of a great industrial center. He poked into the Ghetto, into Chinatown, Greenwich Village, and Little Italy; he peered into jails, asylums, and workhouses; he sneaked through factories and hung about saloons. Everywhere a terrific struggle, many sinking down into the city's underworld of crime, men becoming vagrants or thieves, women walking the streets as prostitutes.
And over this broad foundation of the "people" rose the structure of business and politics, equally corrupted—or so it seemed to Joe, as it does to every one who is fresh to the facts. Men at the top gathering into their hands the necessities of life: oil, meat, coal, water-power, wool; seizing on the railroads, those only modern means of social exchange; snatching strings of banks wherein the people's money was being saved; and using their mighty money-power to corrupt legislation, to thwart the will of the voters, to secure new powers, to crush opposition. So had arisen a "Money Power" that was annuling democracy.
And Joe's books argued that all this change had been wrought by the invention of machinery, that only through steam, steel, and electricity could world-wide organization take place, that only through these arose the industrial city, the modern mill. The very things that should have set man free, the enormous powers he snatched from nature and harnessed to do his work, powers with the strength of a nation of men—these very things had been seized by a few for their own profit, and had enslaved the majority. Over and over again could the race be fed, clothed, housed, and enriched by these powers, and that with lessened hours of toil and more variety of work.
But Joe's books argued further and most dogmatically that this organization by the selfish few was a necessary step in progress, that when their work was finished the toilers, the millions, would arise and seize the organization and use it thereafter for the good of all. Indeed, this was what Sally's labor movement meant: the enlightenment of the toilers as to the meaning of industrialism, and their training for the supreme revolution.
And out of all this arose the world-vision. At such moments Joe walked in a rarer air, he stepped on a fairer earth than ordinarily obtains. It was the beauty and loveliness of simple human camaraderie, of warm human touch. And at such times Joe had no doubt of his life-work. It lay in exquisite places, in chambers of jolly grandeur, in the invisible halls and palaces of the human spirit. He was one with the toilers of earth, one with the crowded underworld. It was that these lives might grow richer in knowledge, richer in art, richer in health, richer in festival, richer in opportunity, that Joe had dedicated his life. And so arose that wonderful and inexpressible vision—a picture as it were of the far future—a glimpse of an earth singing with uplifted crowds of humanity, on one half of the globe going out to meet the sunrise, on the other, the stars. He heard the music of that Hymn of Human Victory, which from millions of throats lifts on that day when all the race is woven into a harmony of labor and joy and home and great unselfish deeds. That day, possibly, might never arrive, forever fading farther and farther into the sunlit distances—but it is the day which leads the race forward. To Joe, however, came that vision, and when it came it seemed as if the last drop of his blood would be little to offer, even in anguish, to help, even by ever so little, the coming and the consummation of that Victory.
He would awake in the night, and cry out in a fever:
"By God, I'm going to help change things."
The vision shook him—tugged at his heart, downward, like the clutch of a convulsive child; seized him now and again like a madness. Even unto such things had the "dead girls" brought him.
So, crammed with theories—theories as yet untested by experience—Joe became an iconoclast lusting for change. He was bursting with good news, he wanted to cry the intimations from the housetops, he wanted to proselytize, convert. He was filled with Shelley's passion for reforming the world, and like young Shelley, he felt that all he had to do was to show the people the truth and the truth would make them free.
All this was in his great moments,... there were reactions when his human humorous self—backed by ten years of the printery—told him that the world is a complex mix-up, and that there are many visions; moments that made him wonder what he was about, and why so untrained a man expected to achieve such marvels.
But these reactions were swallowed up by the recurrent pulsations, the spasms of his vision. He felt from day to day a growth of purpose, an accumulation of energy that would resistlessly spill into action, that would bear him along, whether or no. But what should he do, and how? He was unfitted, and did not think he cared, for settlement work. He knew nothing and cared less for charity work. Politics were an undiscovered world to him. What he wanted passionately was to go and live among the toilers, get to know them, and be the means of arousing and training them.
But then there was the problem of his mother—a woman of sixty-three. Could he leave her alone? It was preposterous to think of taking her with him. Myra could a thousand times better go. He must talk with his mother, he must thresh the matter out with her, he must not delay longer to clear the issue. And yet he hesitated. Would she be able to understand? How could he communicate what was bursting in his breast? She belonged to a past generation; how could she hear the far-off drums of the advance?
Up and down the Park he went early one evening in a chaos of excitement, and he had a sudden conviction that he could not put off the moment any longer. He must go to his mother at once, he must tell all. As he walked down the lamp-lit street, under all the starriness of a tranquil autumn night, he became alternately pale and flushed, his heart thumped hard against his ribs, he felt like a little boy going to his mother to confess a wrong.
He looked up; the shades of the second floor were illumined: she was up there. Doing what? Sharply then he realized what a partial life she led, the decayed middle-class associates of the boarding-house, tired, brainless, and full of small talk, the lonesome evenings, the long days. He became more agitated, and climbed the stoop, unlocked his way into the house, went up the dim, soft, red-cushioned stairs, past the milky gas-globe in the narrow hall, and knocked at her door.
"Come in!" she cried.
He swung the door wide and entered. She was, as usual, sitting in the little rocker under the light and beside the bureau, between the bed and the window. The neat, fragrant room seemed to be sleeping, but the clear-eyed, upright woman was very much awake. She glanced up from her sewing and realized intuitively that at last the crisis had come. His big, homely face was a bald advertisement of his boyish excitement.
She nodded, and murmured, "Well!"
He drew up a chair awkwardly, and sat opposite her, tilting back to accommodate his sprawling length. Then he was at a loss.
"Well," he muttered, trying to be careless, "how are you?"
"All right," she said drily.
She could not help him, though her heart was beginning to pain in her side.
"I've been walking about the Park," he began again, with an indifference that was full of leaks, "and thinking...." He leaned forward and spoke suddenly: "Say, mother, don't you get tired of living in this place?"
She felt strangely excited, but answered guardedly.
"It isn't so bad, Joe.... There are a few decent people ... there's Miss Gardiner, the librarian ... and I have books and sewing."
"Oh, I know," he went on, clumsily, "but you're alone a lot."
"Yes, I am," she said, and all at once she felt that she could speak no further with him. She began sewing diligently.
His voice sounded unnatural.
"Since the ... fire ... I've been doing some thinking, some reading...."
"I've been going about ... studying the city...."
"Now I want you to understand, mother.... I want to tell you of ... It's—well, I want to do something with my money, my life...." And his voice broke, in spite of himself.
His mother felt as if she were smothering. But she waited, and he went on:
"For those dead girls, mother...." and sharply came a dry sob. "And for all the toilers. Oh, but can you understand?"
There was a silence. Then she looked at him from her youthful, brilliant eyes, and saw only an overgrown, rather ignorant boy. This gave her strength, and, though it was painful, she began speaking:
"Understand? Do you mean the books you are reading?"
"Yes," he murmured.
"Well," she smiled weakly, "I've been reading them, too."
"You!" He was shocked. He looked at her as if she had revealed a new woman to him.
"Yes," she said, quickly. "I found them in your room."
He was amazedly silent. He felt then that he had never really known his mother.
"Joe," she said, tremulously, "I want to tell you a little about the war.... There are things I haven't told you."
And while he sat, stupefied and dumfounded, she told him—not all, but many things. She was back in the Boston of the sixties, when she was a young girl, when that town was the literary center of America, when high literature was in the air, when the poets had great fame and every one, even the business man, was a poet. She had seen or met some of the great men. Once Whittier was pointed out to her, at a time when his lines on slavery were burning in her brain. She had seen the clear-eyed Lowell walking under the elms of Cambridge, and she justly felt that she was one of those
"Who dare to be In the right with two or three."
Once, even, a relative of hers, a writer then well known and now forgotten, had taken her out to see "the white Mr. Longfellow." It was one of the dream-days of her life—the large, spacious, square Colonial house where once Washington had lived; the poet's square room with its round table and its high standing desk in which he sometimes wrote; the sloping lawn; the great trees; and, better than anything, the simple, white-haired, white-bearded poet who took her hand so warmly and spoke so winningly and simply. He even gave her a scrap of paper on which were written some of his anti-slavery lines.
Those were great days—days when America, the world's experiment in democracy, was thrown into those fires that consume or purify. The great test was on, whether such a nation could live, and Boston was athrob with love of country and eagerness to sacrifice. The young, beautiful, clear-eyed girl did not hesitate a moment to urge Henry Blaine to give up all and go to the front. It was like tearing her own heart in two, and, possibly at a word, Blaine would have remained in Boston and helped in some other way. But she fought it out with him one night on Boston Commons, and she wished then that she was a man and could go herself. On that clear, mild night, the blue luminous tinge of whose moon she remembered so vividly, they walked up and down, they passionately embraced, they felt the end of life and the mystery of death, and then at last when the young man said: "I'll go! It's little enough to do in this crisis!" she clung to him with pride and sacred joy and knew that life was very great and that it had endless possibilities.
And so Henry Blaine went with his regiment, and the black and terrible years set in—years in which so often she saw what Walt Whitman had seen:
"I saw askant the armies, I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags, Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierced with missiles I saw them, And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody, And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs (and all in silence), And the staffs all splinter'd and broken. I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them. I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought. They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not, The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd, And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd, And the armies that remain'd suffer'd."
Terrible years, years of bulletins, years of want, hard times, years when all the future was at stake, until finally that day in New York when she saw the remnant returning, marching up Broadway between the black crowds and the bunting, the drums beating, the fifes playing,
"Returning, with thinned ranks, young, yet very old, worn, marching, noticing nothing."
Henry Blaine was one of these and he came to her a cripple, an emaciated and sick man. Then had followed, as Joe knew, the marriage, the hard pioneer life in the shanty on the stony hill, the death, and the long widowhood....
Had she not a right to speak to him?
"Understand?" she ended. "I think, Joe, I ought to understand.... I sent your father into the war...."
Depth beneath depth he was discovering her. He was amazed and awed. He asked himself where he had been all these years, and how he had been so blind. He felt very young then. It was she who actually knew what the word social and the word patriotism meant.
He looked down on the floor, and spoke in a whisper:
"And ... would you send me off, too? The new war?"
She could scarcely speak.
"I ... oh, I'll have to go down in a tenement somewhere—the slums...."
"Well, then," she said, quietly, "I'll go with you."
"But you—" he exclaimed, almost adding, "an old woman"—"it's impossible, mother."
She answered him with the same quietness.
"You forget the shanty."
And then it was clear to him. Like an electric bolt it shot him, thrilling, stirring his heart and soul. She would go with him; more than that, she should. It was her right, won by years of actual want and struggle and service. More, it was her escape from a flat, stale, meaningless boarding-house existence. Suddenly he felt that she was really his mother, knit to him by ties unbreakable, a terrible thing in its miraculousness.
But he only said, in a strained voice,
"All right, mother!"
And she laughed, and mused, and murmured:
"How does the world manage to keep so new and young?"
MYRA AND JOE
Myra Craig used to dream at night that the fifty-seven members of her class arose from their desks with wild shrieks and danced a war-dance about her. This paralyzed her throat, her hands, and her feet, and she could only stand, flooded with horror, awaiting the arrival of the school principal and disgrace. Out of this teacher's dream she always awoke disgusted with school-work.
Myra came from Fall River—her parents still lived there—came when she was ten years younger, to seek her fortune in the great city. New York had drawn her as it draws all the youth of the land, for youth lusts for life and rushes eagerly to the spot where life is most intense and most exciting. The romance of crowds, of wealth, of art, of concentrated pleasure and concentrated vice, of immense money-power, the very architecture of the world-city, the maelstrom of people, drew the young Fall River woman irresistibly. She did not want the even and smooth future of a little town; she wanted to plunge into the hazardous interweaving of the destinies of millions of people. She wanted to grasp at some of the magic opportunities of the city. She wanted a career.
And so she came. Early that June morning she left her cabin on the Sound steamboat and went out on deck, and then she had unfolded to her the most thrilling scene of the earth. Gazing, almost panting with excitement, it seemed to her that the nature she had known—the hills and fields of New England—shrank to littleness. First there was all about her the sway of the East River, golden—flecked with the morning sun, which glowed through a thin haze. From either shore a city climbed, topped with steeples and mill chimneys—floods of tenements and homes. Then the boat swept under the enormous steel bridges which seemed upheld by some invisible power and throbbed with life above them. And then, finally, came the Vision of the City. The wide expanse of rolling, slapping water was busy with innumerable harbor craft, crowded ferries, puffing tugs, each wafting its plume of smoke and white steam; but from those waters rose tier after tier of square-set skyscrapers climbing in an irregular hill to the thin peak of the highest tower. In the golden haze, shot with sun, the whole block of towers loomed distant, gigantic, shadowy, unreal—a magic city floating on the waters of the morning. Windows flashed, spirals of white smoke spun thin from the far roofs. Myra thought of those skyscrapers as the big brothers of the island gazing out over the Atlantic.
The boat rounded the tip of the island, furrowing the broad surface of the bay, which seemed as the floor of a stage before that lifting huge sky-lost amphitheater. Every advance changed the many-faceted beauty of New York, and Myra, gazing, had one glimpse across little green Battery Park up the deep twilit canon of Broadway, the city's spine. The young woman was moved to tears. She seemed to slough off at that moment the church of her youth, averring that New York was too big for a creed. It was the great human outworking; the organism of the mighty many. It seemed a miracle that all this splendor and wonder had been wrought by human hands. Surely human nature was great—greater than she had dreamed. If creatures like herself had wrought this, then she was more than she had dared to imagine, "deeper than ever plummet had sounded." She felt new courage, new faith. She wanted to leave the boat and merge with those buildings and those swarming streets. She was proud of the great captains who had engineered this masswork, proud of the powers that ruled this immensity.
But beyond all she felt the city's livingness. The air seemed charged with human activity, with toil-pulsations. She was all crowded about with human beings, and felt the mystery of what might be termed crowd-touch. Here, surely, was life—life thick, happy, busy, daring, ideal. Here was pioneering—a reaching forth to a throbbing future. So, as the boat landed, she mentally identified herself with this city, labeled herself New-Yorker, and became one of its millions.
Her rapture lasted throughout her first stay. She tasted romance glancing in shop windows or moving in a crowd or riding in an elevated train. A letter of introduction to a friend of her mother's secured her a companion, who "showed her the sights" and helped her choose her boarding-house in East Eightieth Street. And then came the examinations for public-school teaching; and after these she went home for the summer, returning to New York in the fall.
Then her new life began, the rapture ceased, and Myra Craig, like so many others, found that her existence in the city was just as narrow as it had been in the town. In some ways, more narrow. She was quite without friends, quite without neighborhood. Her day consisted in teaching from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M., correcting papers and planning lessons and making reports until well into the evening, sometimes until late in the night, and meeting at meals unfriendly people that she disliked. Her class was composed of rather stupid, rather dirty children. They smelled—a thing she never forgave them. And what could one woman do with fifty or sixty children? The class was at least three times too big for real teaching, and so almost inevitably a large part of the work became routine—a grind that spoiled her temper and embittered her heart. Her fellow-teachers were an ignorant lot; the principal himself she thought the biggest lump of stupidity she had ever met—a man demanding letter-perfection and caring not one rap for the growth of children. Her week-ends were her only relief, and she used these partly for resting and partly in going to theater and concert.
Such for ten years—with summers spent at home—was Myra's life. It was bounded by a few familiar streets; it was largely routine; it was hard and bitter; and it had no future. It was anything but what she had dreamed. New York was anything but what she had dreamed. She never saw again that Vision of the City; never felt again that throb of life, that sense of pioneering and of human power. And yet in those years Myra had developed. She was thrown back on books for friendship, and through these and through hard work and through very routine she developed personality—grew sensitive, mentally quick, metropolitan. She had, as it were, her own personal flavor—one felt in her presence a difference, a uniqueness quite precious and exquisite.
And then one day she had gone to the printery and met a man, who was homely, rough, simple, and, in spite of her revulsion from these qualities, was immensely drawn to him. Something deeper than the veneer of her culture overpowered her. She had almost forgotten sex in the aridity of those ten years; she had almost become a dried old maid; but now by the new color in her cheeks, the sparkle in her eyes, the fresh rapidity of her blood, and through the wonder of the world having become more light, as if there were two suns in the sky instead of one—yes, through the fact that she lived now at ten human-power instead of one—her heart told her exultingly, "You are a woman."
Girlhood had come again, but girlhood made all woman by immense tenderness, by the up-rush of a wild love, and by the awakening of all her instincts of home and mating and child-bearing. And then had come that mad, wind-blown twilight at the riverside when the spirit of life had drenched her and she had become grave, tender, and wrought of all lovely power. Joe was just a boy then to her, and her great woman-heart drew him in and sheltered him in the sacred warmth of her being. In that moment she had reached the highest point of her womanhood, a new unfolding, a new release. And then had come horror, and he had been swept away from her—one glimpse of his numb, ghastly face, and he was gone.
It was Fannie Lemick that took her home. She only knew that she was being led away, while crashing through her mind went flames, smoke, the throbbing of the engines, and the words: "I may never see you again ... dead girls...." All that night she tossed about in a horror, and in the morning she feverishly read the terrible news until she thought she must swoon away. She became sick; the landlady had to come up and help her; the doctor had to be sent for, and he had told her that this nervous breakdown had been long overdue; she had been working under too great a strain; it only needed some shock to break her.
But while she lay in a sick fever her heart went out to Joe. If she only could be at his side, nerve him to the fight, protect him and soothe him. She knew that his whole old life had been consumed in that fire, and lay in ruins, and she felt subtly that he had been taken from her. By one blow, at the very moment of the miracle of their love, they had been torn from each other. She did not want to live; she hoped that she had some serious disease that would kill her.
But she did live; she became better, and then in a mood of passionate tenderness she wrote her first little love-letter to Joe. She went about, doing her school-work and bearing the weight of intolerable lonely days, and he had written twice, just a word to her, a word of delay. What kept him? What was he doing? She read of his testimony at the inquest and became indignant because he blamed himself. Who was to blame for such an accident? It was not his cigarette that had started the blaze. In her overwrought condition she passed from a terrible love to a sharp hate, and back and forth. Was he a fool or was he more noble than she could fathom? He should have seen her sooner, he should not have left her a prey to her morbid thoughts. Time and again she became convinced that he had ceased to love her, that he was more concerned over his burnt printery. She twisted his letters against him. She would sit in her room trying to work at her school papers, and suddenly she would clench her fists, turn pale, and stare despairingly at the blank wall.
Day after day she waited, starting up every time she heard the postman's whistle and the ringing of the bell. And then at last one night, as she paced up and down the narrow white little room, she heard the landlady climbing the stairs, advancing along the hall, and there was a sharp rap. She felt faint and dizzy, flung open the door, took the letter, and sank down on the bed, hardly daring to open it.
It was brief and cold:
Dear Myra,—I know you are up early, so I am coming around at seven to-morrow morning—I'll be out in the street and wait for you. We can go to the Park. I have some serious problems to lay before you.
"Serious problems!" She understood. He was paving the way for renouncing her. Perhaps it was a money matter—he thought he ought not marry on a reduced income. Or perhaps he found he didn't love her. For hours she sat there with the letter crumpled in her hand, frozen, inert, until she was incapable of feeling or thinking. So he was coming at seven. He took it for granted that she would be ready to see him—would be eager to walk in the Park with him. Well, what if she didn't go? A fine letter that, after that half-hour at the riverside. A love-letter! She laughed bitterly. And then her heart seemed to break within her. Life was too hard. Why had she ever left the peace and quiet of Fall River? Why had she come down to the cruel, careless, vicious city to be ground up in a wholesale school system and then to break her heart for an uncouth, half-educated printer? It was all too hard, too cruel. Why had she been born to suffer so? Why must she tingle now with pain, when in a few years she would be unfeeling dust again? Among all the millions of the people of the earth, among all the life of earth and the circling million scattered worlds, she felt utterly isolated, defrauded, betrayed. Life was a terrible gift, and she did not want it. This whirl of emotion rose and rose in her, went insanely through her brain, and, becoming intolerable, suddenly ceased and left her careless, numb, and hard.
She arose mechanically and looked in the glass at herself. Her face was haggard.
"I'm getting homely," she thought, and quietly went to bed.
But in the night she awoke to a swift frenzy of joy. He was coming. After all, he was coming. She would see him. She would be near him again. Yes, how she loved him! loved with all her nature. It was the intensity of her love that made her hate. And she lay throbbing with joy, her whole being quivering with desire for him. He was hers, after all. It was the woman's part to forgive and forget.
But when the morning broke, and she arose in her nightgown and sat on the chair at the window, smoothing out and rereading the letter, her doubts returned. He was coming to renounce her. He would make all sorts of plausible excuses, he would be remorseful and penitent, but it all came to the same end. Why should she go and meet him to be humiliated in this way? She would not go.
Yet she rose and dressed with unusual care and tried to smile back the radiance of her face, and fixed her hair this way and that in a pitiful attempt to take away the sharpness of her expression, and when her little clock showed seven she put on hat and coat with trembling hands and went swiftly down and out at the front door. She was shaking with terrible emotions, fire filled and raged in her breast, and she had to bite her lip to keep it still.
The city flashed before her in all the sparkle of October, the air tingled, and in the early morning light the houses, the street, looked as bright and fresh as young school-children washed, combed, bright-eyed, new with sleep, and up from roofs went magic veilings of flimsy smoke. Down the avenues clanged cars black with mechanics, clerks, and shop-girls on the way to work; people streamed hurrying to their day's toil. The city was awake, shaking in every part of her with glad breakfast and the rush to activity. What colossal forces swinging in, swinging out of the metropolis in long pulsations of freight and ship and electricity! Wall Street would roar, the skyscrapers swarm, the schools drone and murmur and sing, the mills grind and rattle, and the six continents and the seven seas would pulse their blood into the city and be flushed by her radiating tides. Into this hidden activity Myra stepped, deaf and blind to all but the clamor of her heart and a single man walking like a black pawn aureoled in the low early sunlight.
She came down slowly, as he came up. She glanced at his face. She was shocked by its suffering, its gray age. He looked quite shabby in his long frayed coat, his unpolished shoes, his gray slouch hat—shabby and homely, and ill-proportioned, stooping a little, his rough shock of hair framing the furrowed face and sunken melancholy eyes. And it was for this man that she had been breaking her heart! Yet, at the moment there swept over her an awful surge of passion, so strong that she could have seized him in her arms and died in his embrace.
He, in turn, saw how white and set her face was, how condemnatory. He had come to her almost ready to throw his plans overboard and cleave to her—for a day and a night that side of his nature had dominated, expunging all else, driving him to her, demanding that he grasp her magic presence, her womanly splendor. This alone was real, and all the rest fantastic. And he had walked up and down the street with all the October morning singing in his blood; the world was glorious again and he was young; he would take her, he would forget all else, and they would go off somewhere in the wilderness and really live. He had never lived yet. He thirsted for life, he thirsted for all this woman could give him. And now the condemnation in her face choked him off, made her a stranger, separated them, made it hard to speak to her.
He cried in a low voice:
The word was charged with genuine passion, and she became more pale, and stood unable to find her tongue, her lips quivering painfully.
Then suddenly there was a nervous overflow.
"You wanted to walk in the Park," she blurted in a cold, uneven voice. "We'd better be going then. I won't have much time. I've got to be at school early."
She started off, and he strode beside her. They walked in a strange slow silence, each charged with inexpressible, conflicting emotions, and each waiting for the other. This strain was impossible, and finally Joe began speaking in low tones.
"I know it seems queer that I haven't been to see you ... but you'll understand, I couldn't. There was so much to do...."
He stopped, and then again came the cold, uneven voice:
"You could have found a moment."
They went on in silence, and entered the Park, following the walk where it swept its curve alongside the tree-arched roadway, past low green hills to the right and the sinking lawns to the left, crossed the roadway, and climbed the steep path that gave on to the Ramble—that twisty little wilderness in the heart of the city, that remote, wild, magic tangle.
A little pond lay in the very center of it, all deep with the blue sky, and golden October gloried all about it—swaying in wild-tinted treetops, blowing in dry leaves, sparkling on every spot of wet, and all suffused and splashed and strangely fresh with the low, red, radiant sunlight. There was splendor in the place, and the air dripped with glorious life, and through it all went the lovers, silent, estranged, pitiable.