“An Experiment in Misery”
It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. A youth was trudging slowly, without enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in his trouser’s pockets, towards the down-town places where beds can be hired for coppers. He was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to eat as the wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of “bum” and “hobo,” and with various unholy epithets that small boys had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the old velvet collar of his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against his neck, he felt that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He looked about him searching for an outcast of highest degree that they too might share miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over rows and circles of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing patches of wet sod behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had fled on this night to better things. There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn people who swarmed towards the bridge.
The young man loitered about for a time and then went shuffling off down Park Row. In the sudden descent in style of the dress of the crowd he felt relief, and as if he were at last in his own country. He began to see tatters that matched his tatters. In Chatham Square there were aimless men strewn in front of saloons and lodging-houses, standing sadly, patiently, reminding one vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in a storm. He aligned himself with these men, and turned slowly to occupy himself with the flowing life of the great street.
Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the side walks, spattered with black mud, which made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead elevated trains with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black, on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers.
A saloon stood with a voracious air on a corner. A sign leaning against the front of the door-post announced “Free hot soup to-night!” The swing doors, snapping to and fro like ravenous lips, made gratified smacks as the saloon gorged itself with plump men, eating with astounding and endless appetite, smiling in some indescribable manner as the men came from all directions like sacrifices to a heathenish superstition.
Caught by the delectable sign the young man allowed himself to be swallowed. A bar-tender placed a schooner of dark and portentous beer on the bar. Its monumental form up-reared until the froth a-top was above the crown of the young man’s brown derby.
“Soup over there, gents,” said the bar-tender affably. A little yellow man in rags and the youth grasped their schooners and went with speed toward a lunch counter, where a man with oily but imposing whiskers ladled genially from a kettle until he had furnished his two mendicants with a soup that was steaming hot, and in which there were little floating suggestions of chicken. The young man, sipping his broth, felt the cordiality expressed by the warmth of the mixture, and he beamed at the man with oily but imposing whiskers, who was presiding like a priest behind an altar. “Have some more, gents?” he inquired of the two sorry figures before him. The little yellow man accepted with a swift gesture, but the youth shook his head and went out, following a man whose wondrous seediness promised that he would have a knowledge of cheap lodging-houses.
On the side-walk he accosted the seedy man. “Say, do you know a cheap place to sleep?”
The other hesitated for a time gazing sideways. Finally he nodded in the direction of the street, “I sleep up there,” he said, “when I’ve got the price.”
The young man shook his head dolefully. “That’s too rich for me.”
At that moment there approached the two a reeling man in strange garments. His head was a fuddle of bushy hair and whiskers, from which his eyes peered with a guilty slant. In a close scrutiny it was possible to distinguish the cruel lines of a mouth which looked as if its lips had just closed with satisfaction over some tender and piteous morsel. He appeared like an assassin steeped in crimes performed awkwardly.
But at this time his voice was tuned to the coaxing key of an affectionate puppy. He looked at the men with wheedling eyes, and began to sing a little melody for charity.
“Say, gents, can’t yeh give a poor feller a couple of cents t’ git a bed. I got five, and I gits anudder two I gits me a bed. Now, on th’ square, gents, can’t yeh jest gimme two cents t’ git a bed? Now, yeh know how a respecter’ble gentlem’n feels when he’s down on his luck, an’ I——”
The seedy man, staring with imperturbable countenance at a train which clattered overhead, interrupted in an expressionless voice—”Ah, go t’ h—!”
But the youth spoke to the prayerful assassin in tones of astonishment and inquiry. “Say, you must be crazy! Why don’t yeh strike somebody that looks as if they had money?”
The assassin, tottering about on his uncertain legs, and at intervals brushing imaginary obstacles from before his nose, entered into a long explanation of the psychology of the situation. It was so profound that it was unintelligible.
When he had exhausted the subject, the young man said to him—
“Let’s see th’ five cents.”
The assassin wore an expression of drunken woe at this sentence, filled with suspicion of him. With a deeply pained air he began to fumble in his clothing, his red hands trembling. Presently he announced in a voice of bitter grief, as if he had been betrayed—”There’s on’y four.”
“Four,” said the young man thoughtfully. “Well, look-a-here, I’m a stranger here, an’ if ye’ll steer me to your cheap joint I’ll find the other three.”
The assassin’s countenance became instantly radiant with joy. His whiskers quivered with the wealth of his alleged emotions. He seized the young man’s hand in a transport of delight and friendliness.
“B’ Gawd,” he cried, “if ye’ll do that, b’ Gawd, I’d say yeh was a damned good fellow, I would, an’ I’d remember yeh all m’ life, I would, b’ Gawd, an’ if I ever got a chance I’d return the compliment”—he spoke with drunken dignity,—”b’ Gawd, I’d treat yeh white, I would, an’ I’d allus remember yeh.”
The young man drew back, looking at the assassin coldly. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “You show me th’ joint—that’s all you’ve got t’ do.”
The assassin, gesticulating gratitude, led the young man along a dark street. Finally he stopped before a little dusty door. He raised his hand impressively. “Look-a-here,” he said, and there was a thrill of deep and ancient wisdom upon his face, “I’ve brought yeh here, an’ that’s my part, ain’t it? If th’ place don’t suit yeh, yeh needn’t git mad at me, need yeh? There won’t be no bad feelin’, will there?”
“No,” said the young man.
The assassin waved his arm tragically, and led the march up the steep stairway. On the way the young man furnished the assassin with three pennies. At the top a man with benevolent spectacles looked at them through a hole in a board. He collected their money, wrote some names on a register, and speedily was leading the two men along a gloom-shrouded corridor.
Shortly after the beginning of this journey the young man felt his liver turn white, for from the dark and secret places of the building there suddenly came to his nostrils strange and unspeakable odours, that assailed him like malignant diseases with wings. They seemed to be from human bodies closely packed in dens; the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand present miseries.
The man yawned again. He opened a door, and for a moment his form was outlined against a black, opaque interior. To this door came the three men, and as it was again opened the unholy odours rushed out like fiends, so that the young man was obliged to struggle as against an overpowering wind.
It was some time before the youth’s eyes were good in the intense gloom within, but the man with benevolent spectacles led him skilfully, pausing but a moment to deposit the limp assassin upon a cot. He took the youth to a cot that lay tranquilly by the window, and showing him a tall locker for clothes that stood near the head with the ominous air of a tombstone, left him.
The youth sat on his cot and peered about him. There was a gas-jet in a distant part of the room, that burned a small flickering orange-hued flame. It caused vast masses of tumbled shadows in all parts of the place, save where, immediately about it, there was a little grey haze. As the young man’s eyes became used to the darkness, he could see upon the cots that thickly littered the floor the forms of men sprawled out, lying in death-like silence, or heaving and snoring with tremendous effort, like stabbed fish.
The youth locked his derby and his shoes in the mummy case near him, and then lay down with an old and familiar coat around his shoulders. A blanket he handed gingerly, drawing it over part of the coat. The cot was covered with leather, and as cold as melting snow. The youth was obliged to shiver for some time on this affair, which was like a slab. Presently, however, his chill gave him peace, and during this period of leisure from it he turned his head to stare at his friend the assassin, whom he could dimly discern where he lay sprawled on a cot in the abandon of a man filled with drink. He was snoring with incredible vigour. His wet hair and beard dimly glistened, and his inflamed nose shone with subdued lustre like a red light in a fog.
Within reach of the youth’s hand was one who lay with yellow breast and shoulders bare to the cold drafts. One arm hung over the side of the cot, and the fingers lay full length upon the wet cement floor of the room. Beneath the inky brows could be seen the eyes of the man exposed by the partly opened lids. To the youth it seemed that he and this corpse-like being were exchanging a prolonged stare, and that the other threatened with his eyes. He drew back watching his neighbour from the shadows of his blanket edge. The man did not move once through the night, but lay in this stillness as of death like a body stretched out expectant of the surgeon’s knife.
And all through the room could be seen the tawny hues of naked flesh, limbs thrust into the darkness, projecting beyond the cots; upreared knees, arms hanging long and thin over the cot edges. For the most part they were statuesque, carven, dead. With the curious lockers standing all about like tombstones, there was a strange effect of a graveyard where bodies were merely flung.
Yet occasionally could be seen limbs wildly tossing in fantastic nightmare gestures, accompanied by guttural cries, grunts, oaths. And there was one fellow off in a gloomy corner, who in his dreams was oppressed by some frightful calamity, for of a sudden he began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing wailfully and weird through this chill place of tombstones where men lay like the dead.
The sound in its high piercing beginnings, that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red and grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man’s dreams. But to the youth these were not merely the shrieks of a vision-pierced man: they were an utterance of the meaning of the room and its occupants. It was to him the protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels, and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a people. This, weaving into the young man’s brain, and mingling with his views of the vast and sombre shadows that, like mighty black fingers, curled around the naked bodies, made the young man so that he did not sleep, but lay carving the biographies for these men from his meagre experience. At times the fellow in the corner howled in a writhing agony of his imaginations.
Finally a long lance-point of grey light shot through the dusty panes of the window. Without, the young man could see roofs drearily white in the dawning. The point of light yellowed and grew brighter, until the golden rays of the morning sun came in bravely and strong. They touched with radiant colour the form of a small fat man, who snored in stuttering fashion. His round and shiny bald head glowed suddenly with the valour of a decoration. He sat up, blinked at the sun, swore fretfully, and pulled his blanket over the ornamental splendours of his head.
The youth contentedly watched this rout of the shadows before the bright spears of the sun, and presently he slumbered. When he awoke he heard the voice of the assassin raised in valiant curses. Putting up his head, he perceived his comrade seated on the side of the cot engaged in scratching his neck with long finger-nails that rasped like files.
“Hully Jee, dis is a new breed. They’ve got can-openers on their feet.” He continued in a violent tirade.
The young man hastily unlocked his closet and took out his shoes and hat. As he sat on the side of the cot lacing his shoes, he glanced about and saw that daylight had made the room comparatively common-place and uninteresting. The men, whose faces seemed stolid, serene or absent, were engaged in dressing, while a great crackle of bantering conversation arose.
A few were parading in unconcerned nakedness. Here and there were men of brawn, whose skins shone clear and ruddy. They took splendid poses, standing massively like chiefs. When they had dressed in their ungainly garments there was an extraordinary change. They then showed bumps and deficiencies of all kinds.
There were others who exhibited many deformities. Shoulders were slanting, humped, pulled this way and pulled that way. And notable among these latter men was the little fat man, who had refused to allow his head to be glorified. His pudgy form, builded like a pear, bustled to and fro, while he swore in fish-wife fashion. It appeared that some article of his apparel had vanished.
The young man attired speedily, and went to his friend the assassin. At first the latter looked dazed at the sight of the youth. This face seemed to be appealing to him through the cloud wastes of his memory. He scratched his neck and reflected. At last he grinned, a broad smile gradually spreading until his countenance was a round illumination. “Hello, Willie,” he cried cheerily.
“Hello,” said the young man. “Are yeh ready t’ fly?”
“Sure.” The assassin tied his shoe carefully with some twine and came ambling.
When he reached the street the young man experienced no sudden relief from unholy atmospheres. He had forgotten all about them, and had been breathing naturally, and with no sensation of discomfort or distress.
He was thinking of these things as he walked along the street, when he was suddenly startled by feeling the assassin’s hand, trembling with excitement, clutching his arm, and when the assassin spoke, his voice went into quavers from a supreme agitation.
“I’ll be hully, bloomin’ blowed if there wasn’t a feller with a nightshirt on up there in that joint.”
The youth was bewildered for a moment, but presently he turned to smile indulgently at the assassin’s humour.
“Oh, you’re a d——d liar,” he merely said.
Whereupon the assassin began to gesture extravagantly, and take oath by strange gods. He frantically placed himself at the mercy of remarkable fates if his tale were not true.
“Yes, he did! I cross m’heart thousan’ times!” he protested, and at the moment his eyes were large with amazement, his mouth wrinkled in unnatural glee.
“Yessir! A nightshirt! A hully white nightshirt!”
“No, sir! I hope ter die b’fore I kin git anudder ball if there wasn’t a jay wid a hully, bloomin’ white nightshirt!”
His face was filled with the infinite wonder of it. “A hully white nightshirt,” he continually repeated.
The young man saw the dark entrance to a basement restaurant. There was a sign which read “No mystery about our hash!” and there were other age-stained and world-battered legends which told him that the place was within his means. He stopped before it and spoke to the assassin. “I guess I’ll git somethin’ t’ eat.”
At this the assassin, for some reason, appeared to be quite embarrassed. He gazed at the seductive front of the eating place for a moment. Then he started slowly up the street. “Well, good-bye, Willie,” he said bravely.
For an instant the youth studied the departing figure. Then he called out, “Hol’ on a minnet.” As they came together he spoke in a certain fierce way, as if he feared that the other would think him to be charitable. “Look-a-here, if yeh wanta git some breakfas’ I’ll lend yeh three cents t’ do it with. But say, look-a-here, you’ve gota git out an’ hustle. I ain’t goin’ t’ support yeh, or I’ll go broke b’fore night. I ain’t no millionaire.”
“I take me oath, Willie,” said the assassin earnestly, “th’ on’y thing I really needs is a ball. Me t’roat feels like a fryin’-pan. But as I can’t get a ball, why, th’ next bes’ thing is breakfast, an’ if yeh do that for me, b’ Gawd, I say yeh was th’ whitest lad I ever see.”
They spent a few moments in dexterous exchanges of phrases, in which they each protested that the other was, as the assassin had originally said, “a respecter’ble gentlem’n.” And they concluded with mutual assurances that they were the souls of intelligence and virtue. Then they went into the restaurant.
There was a long counter, dimly lighted from hidden sources. Two or three men in soiled white aprons rushed here and there.
The youth bought a bowl of coffee for two cents and a roll for one cent. The assassin purchased the same. The bowls were webbed with brown seams, and the tin spoons wore an air of having emerged from the first pyramid. Upon them were black moss-like encrustations of age, and they were bent and scarred from the attacks of long-forgotten teeth. But over their repast the wanderers waxed warm and mellow. The assassin grew affable as the hot mixture went soothingly down his parched throat, and the young man felt courage flow in his veins.
Memories began to throng in on the assassin, and he brought forth long tales, intricate, incoherent, delivered with a chattering swiftness as from an old woman. “—— great job out’n Orange. Boss keep yeh hustlin’ though all time. I was there three days, and then I went an’ ask ‘im t’ lend me a dollar. ‘G-g-go ter the devil,’ he ses, an’ I lose me job.”
“South no good. Damn niggers work for twenty-five an’ thirty cents a day. Run white man out. Good grub though. Easy livin’.”
“Yas; useter work little in Toledo, raftin’ logs. Make two or three dollars er day in the spring. Lived high. Cold as ice though in the winter.”
“I was raised in northern N’York. O-o-oh, yeh jest oughto live there. No beer ner whisky though, way off in the woods. But all th’ good hot grub yeh can eat. B’ Gawd, I hung around there long as I could till th’ ol’ man fired me. ‘Git t’ hell outa here, yeh wuthless skunk, git t’ hell outa here, an’ go die,’ he ses. ‘You’re a hell of a father,’ I ses, ‘you are,’ an’ I quit ‘im.”
As they were passing from the dim eating place, they encountered an old man who was trying to steal forth with a tiny package of food, but a tall man with an indomitable moustache stood dragon fashion, barring the way of escape. They heard the old man raise a plaintive protest. “Ah, you always want to know what I take out, and you never see that I usually bring a package in here from my place of business.”
As the wanderers trudged slowly along Park Row, the assassin began to expand and grow blithe. “B’ Gawd, we’ve been livin’ like kings,” he said, smacking appreciative lips.
“Look out, or we’ll have t’ pay fer it t’night,” said the youth with gloomy warning.
But the assassin refused to turn his gaze toward the future. He went with a limping step, into which he injected a suggestion of lamblike gambols. His mouth was wreathed in a red grin.
In the City Hall Park the two wanderers sat down in the little circle of benches sanctified by traditions of their class. They huddled in their old garments, slumbrously conscious of the march of the hours which for them had no meaning.
The people of the street hurrying hither and thither made a blend of black figures changing yet frieze-like. They walked in their good clothes as upon important missions, giving no gaze to the two wanderers seated upon the benches. They expressed to the young man his infinite distance from all that he valued. Social position, comfort, the pleasures of living, were unconquerable kingdoms. He felt a sudden awe.
And in the background a multitude of buildings, of pitiless hues and sternly high, were to him emblematic of a nation forcing its regal head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances; in the sublimity of its aspirations ignoring the wretches who may flounder at its feet. The roar of the city in his ear was to him the confusion of strange tongues, babbling heedlessly; it was the clink of coin, the voice of the city’s hopes which were to him no hopes.
He confessed himself an outcast, and his eyes from under the lowered rim of his hat began to glance guiltily, wearing the criminal expression that comes with certain convictions.