GEO. H. FLATER
A Strong Story that Throws New Light on the Immigration Problem
A TIRED little, street dragged its aimless way through the village, stopping only when it reached the Solenski cottage. This structure consisting of but one storey and one room, in common with the hundred others like it, turned shyly away from the road as though to discourage the prying eyes of any curious neighbors who might pass. Visitors were few, very few; the priest and the tax collector. One came seldom, realizing that his visits were apt to be fruitless as far as material reimbursement was concerned, and the other came frequently, hoping to circumvent the visits of the first and render unto Caesar the things which were Caesar’s, so to speak.
And except that she was unable to provide each with that which he sought for her spiritual aggrandizement and material indebtedness; except that Dimitri had had little or no schooling and toiled so hard; except that pretty little Anna would have no dowry and that stoopshouldered, book-loving Feodor could not be supplied with books—aye, and except that the cabbage pot seldom saw the piece of meat which gives to the national dish such appetizing flavor, and that the tea, perforce, must be very weak, Katrine Solenski was happy. The law of compensation provides a strain of indomitable happiness in the nature of the Russian-Polish peasant, when there is absolutely nothing under the sun to make them happy.
Pretty little Anna and her mother bustled about getting supper. They always bustled over any task, no matter how simple. It seemed to lend more importance to their work. They moved constantly between the stove, the table and the window; Anna peering into the early dusk for a sign of Dimitri, Katrine giv-
♦Very poor Itnsslan peasants sleep on the ranee—as many as can crowd upon It. The monier and younger children are priven this luxurious berth by the older children. The warmth of the stove, after the fire has died. Is very acceptable In the cold portions of the country.
ing another turn to the soup, changing the position of the loaf of coarse, black bread, or passing her hand over Feodor’s dark head, where it rested in the hollow of his arm. The boy was looking far beyond the confines of the little hut and dreaming his youthful visions. Many people called him ‘queer.’ It is a very common definition of genius.
“Saints! But the wicked boy does try my patience!” scolded the mother, totally unconscious that she told an enormous lie, for which she would never know enough to ask absolution. Dimitri try her patience? Why, the bare idea was preposterous!
“Perhaps the master has kept him,” defended gentle Anna, also unaware that championing her elder brother was wholly unnecessary. “See, mother, the snow is falling—it is not really dark. Indeed, I am sure it is quite early.”
The three shaggy dogs which shared the room with their masters, rose suddenly and cocked their ears.
“He is coming,” said Feodor, dreamily. “I can hear him run.”
Dimitri passed the two small windows which overlooked the road and without waiting to kick the snow from his boots, entered by the door which opened at the side of the cottage.
Although trembling with eagerness to take his family into his confidence, he remembered the Ikon, cheap and gaudy— but benevolent, nevertheless—and murmured a hastily perfunctory prayer. Then, “You can't guess!” he cried, radiantly. “You can’t guess who has sent me a letter !”
“A letter!” they all echoed, and the dogs barked sharply.
“Aye—a letter,” and he waved a soiled sheet beneath their very noses. “Andre Herlebuc! He writes me this all the way from Canada, telling me to come out there without delay. Why, mother,” dropping his voice to a whisper of awe,
“Andre says that I cannot earn less than ‘two dollars a day.’ Tell us, Professor Feodor, what magnificent sum that equals in the good
They stared at one another openmouthed, never having thought to sit down. It was too stupendous a thing to be grasped quickly; great joy and great sorrow leave the mind in the same stupid state of bewilderment, and Katrine was not accustomed to large events.
“But that is not all.” The boy’s voice shook with excitement.
“No?” queried the mother, doubtfully.
“He has sent me money for my passage, so that I can leave at once! Oh, mother—Anna—Feodor—think how our father would have been proud! Think what I can now do for you all!”
His eye traveled quickly over the bare room.
“We can have chairs instead of benches!” He looked with royal scorn at the stationary settles he had helped his father fashion many years before. “And, of course, we will have beds like the nobility—no more sleeping on the range for thee and Anna, mother!* And we can lay by a splendid dowry for our little sister, here, that she may have fine white linen—and—and—our Professor shall go away to school with gentlemen's sons. Saints and martyrs! How mother will dress and what meats we will have!”
“And thou—my Dimitri, what wilt thou have?” asked the mother, smiling crookedly through her tears.
The boy threw back his head and laughed.
“Oh, there is time to think about me!
I think I will have a gold watch, and a fine horse, and—and—maybe a wife who will bring children to sit on thy knee!” For an instant his exultation gave way to something deeper, holier, and he bent over to kiss his mother’s brow. “But what of supper?” he asked, at once, a little ashamed of his emotion. “Bless us; how you keep a man waiting!”
The two women darted about setting the humble meal before him. All was bustle and confusion—with the exception of Feodor, whose dreamy calm was like a patch of heaven’s blue in a storm-tossed sky.
“What’s this?” demanded Dimitri in a tone which made his sister jump. “This the tea for a family like the Solenskis? Throw it out little sister, and make some more! To-morrow I will buy a pound!”
Ah, what a meal! What noisy drinking of cabbage soup and greedy drinking of strong tea! What tears splashed into the tin cups, to be turned into choking laughter as the black bread got down the wrong throat! Andre’s letter was passed from hand to hand, was held this way and that, better to catch the light from a feeble lamp smoking on a shelf in the corner of the room. Finally, it was spread out on the table and pored over by four eager pairs of eyes, with sometimes an interruption from one of the dogs, as he lept up and pawed his master’s back. Surely, the wonderful lamp held no whit less magic to Aladdin than did this greasy paper from a foreign land.
Already Dimitri felt himself a king; he boasted and swaggered and promised such riches as would make the nobility jealous. The past, the present was forgotten and he sailed away on the wings of the future until they were all dazzled by his buoyant enthusiasm and confidence. Katrine’s heart was like to break as she listened to him; with a sigh she looked into a past from which the roses had faded twenty years or more, leaving only the faintest odor upon which to fasten memory. She saw herself a bride, blushing under the hot whispered promises of Ivan Solenski; she, too, had sailed away to the Land of the Future where roses bloomed and were to be had for the taking. Most of them had died before she reach the spot, but perhaps their hearts were yet alive and they would bloom again for Dimitri. In a New World.
With strength which many a man might envy, she strangled her agony at the thought of losing him and hid it from view. She must give her boy cheerfully to that land in which gold was plentiful, in which he could have a fine horse, a gold watch, and a wife who would bring
him many children. He should not be discouraged by the ache which was nearly suffocating her, or by the flowing tears of gentle Anna.
“Peace!” she cried sharply — very sharply for her. “What a noisy lot! Should the reverend father happen upon us to-night, he would think that the devil had bewitched us all ! Hast thou consulted him, Dimitri, or said aught to the doctor or the master?”
“How could I? I came running home as fast as my legs would carry me to tell you the great news, first. To-morrow will do for the others.”
The news quickly spread. Dimitri was a personage in the village. He was approached from several quarters in the matter of securing like good fortune for others of the townsfolk. Mothers with grown daughters noticed him particularly at mass when they might have been otherwise employed ; even the village shop-keeper passed the time of day and made a
laborious joke with him. But a few old crones shook their heads and mumbled. It was a long way across the ocean and boats had been lost. There was the case of Wasil Wonsock, who started out to join his son in America—yes, yes, they all remembered Wasil, who was never found by his son, and who never returned to Poland. And Anna Herminac ■—no one had forgotten Anna, who set out with the babies to join her husband in
the land of New York. Did she join him? No—no—no! God, indeed was cruel! But how could anyone find a wife with babies in the great land of New York?
Surely, Dimitri was a fool and Katrine was ten thousand fools to let him go. That Andre Herlebuc was always a fine lad to boast. No good would come of it, they would see. Still, if he would be so headstrong, if Katrine would be ten thousand fools, why, then, let him take these knitted wristlets. And see, here was a silk handkerchief fit for holiday wear. And behold, if here was not a muffler made years ago—when eyes were brighter and hands steadier, for—for— well, never mind, for whom! Alas, he would never need it now, at any rate, and God bless the fine young man!
Twice a day or more, Katrine could be seen in her bright red skirt, racing to priest, or doctor, or the master for a word of advice and comfort. Her hands, cracked and swollen with cold, felt no pain, only a desire to perform further service for her eldest born. Her eyes smarting and aching from holding back the tears, sought out holes to be mended and buttonless places. IJer brain working under high pressure and at unexpected tasks, seemed to lie in her head like a stone, and her heart—ah, me, the less said of it, the better!
B etween the priest, the doctor and the villagers, Andre’s letter was soon worn to shreds, and it was stoopshouldered Feodor who saved the situ ation by making a laborious copy of its instructions. Dimitri knew it almost by heart, but kept it in his bosom because it represented something of his brother’s devotion.
The day of parting came. Only when he realized that he was turning his back upon country, friends and loved ones, did Dimitri’s joy in going ebb, leaving a swollen throat, a throbbing heart, twisting lips and blinded eyes. He never could remember how things happened at the last; there was a confused mass of townsfolk waiting to wish him godspeed, the drone of the father’s voice as he blessed him, jests and advice from his friends, a timid caress from Anna, and a whispered word from Feodor—“I wish you were not going brother!” There was a raucous grinding of wheels and a sudden straining in somebody’s arms. He was pushed somewhere, and he heard a babel
of noises, knew that he waved his hand to them and that his face was wet.
Dimitri had started upon his journey.
Then came terrors to beset him day and night. Suppose he should miss some important part of Andre’s instructions! Suppose the boat at Hamburg was full and there was no room for him! Suppose a thousand torturing things which had been known to happen. The great seaport nearly made a coward of him. The hurry, confusion, lack of interest in him and his affairs maddened him. No one had time to explain minute things to Dimitri Solenski; he was only an immigrant going to Canada. Hustle him on the liner, down in the steerage with some five hundred human beings who for the time must herd together like so many animals.
He was on his way to Montreal. But relief quickly gave way before a dread of his strange quarters followed by the most horrible of human ills—seasickness. For days, he lay limply in his bunk fearing death would snatch him from his purpose, and later as his illness increased with the fury of the seas, he prayed that release might come quickly, in no matter what form. Dimitri had never been ill in his life, except once years before when he had a bad throat. He remembered, lying in the dimness of the dungeon into which he and his fellows had been battened down, the tender ministrations of his mother and even little Anna, their solicitations for his comfort, their anxiety for his recovery, their joy in his wolfish appetite when the pain grew less. He realized that the satisfying of his appetite must have caused a noticeable stringency in the larder, although the thought had never occurred to him until the moment of separation from his loved ones. Fancy mother and Anna denying themselves food for him !
He rolled over upon his face and lay in an agony of home-sickness for he knew not how long.
Then, after what seemed years of horror, someone told him that land was sighted; simultaneously, his courage rose, and the waves heaved less. The vessel steadied herself and nosed her way into port.
Dimitri’s abortive struggles with English had been crushed during the voyage and he faced the New World with but one intelligible word to his credit— Montreal.
Andre Herlebuc was miles away, in Northern Ontario, so his letter said, and could not, naturally, meet the boat. Neither could he afford to send money for Dimitri to make the trip to his quarters. But he explained with a fair amount of lucidity that after passing quarantine, Customs and immigration officials, Dimitri would be sent to some post to work, at not less than “two dollars a day.”
It all came true. The ship creaked and strained at her moorings as though impatient to be off again, as though she said:
“Get the first-class passengers off as quickly and as politely as possible; push the second and third as much as you dare; but the swarm in the steerage? Ach, Gott! Sweep them out, blow them out, drive them out at the end of a lash —anything to be rid of them!”
The young Polack was not handled with especial gentleness as he was herded on a train with several fellow-passengers, but he was too glad to be free from the sea to mind, much. Still dizzy and weak he found the badgering of the officials trying and confusing. They all seemed to have very red faces and very loud voices. He was docile, however, blaming himself almost as much as he blamed
them, for he realized that ignorance o:’ English was to be a serious handicap. “Toronto” was an acquisition, though, gathered from one of the travelers, and it turned out to be another swarming mass of humanity like Hamburg and Montreal. It also proved to be a place of bad luck for it was there that Feodor’s letter disappeared. A link between home and himself seemed to have snapped when Dimitri discovered his loss. He was thankful, however, that the instructions had been carried out thus far without a hitch, and according to the sanguine Andre, he had now but to put himself in the hands of an agent, who would surely find him work at not less than “two dollars a day.”
It was true, also. The representative of an employment bureau met the train and explained that he must have two dollars from the men before he could put them at work. This was a blow, for Andre had not mentioned this necessity. Crestfallen, the boy held out his money in a hand which was not quite steady and allowed the stranger to take all but a few small coins. They looked as pitiful and lonely as he felt, for there is nothing like being ignorant of money values to stamp the feeling of isolation strong upon an alien. Dimitri’s money had been changed in Montreal, and when the representative had taken two dollars, he had about thirty-five cents left. His companions refused to make the payment, and called him a fool, as he obediently followed “the master” away. Thus another link between him and his country was severed. He could not have imagined a place holding so many people and not one of them Polish!
He was taken to the spot which according to a crooked sign was the office of Antonio Salvatori, and with much ges-
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ticulating he was made to understand that in the afternoon, a job would be waiting for him. With a radiant face Dimitri sought out an eating establishment and filled his healthy young body with the nauseous mess given him, for three of the remaining coins Antonio had left. He ate with almost as much relish as though the hash set before him had been cabbage soup with meat in it! All his sufferings were forgotten, for thus do the gods smile upon youth and shed the radiance of hope to lighten the dimmest corners of despair. In the afternoon he would start work at not less than “two dollars a day.”
He went immediately back to the office and tried to wait patiently. No one paid the least attention to him for a long, long time. Then the tension snapped and he approached the man who had brought him there with a halting question on his lips.
Salvatori glanced carelessly at the clock, rose and yawned. How could he know what depended on Dimitri’s job?
Speaking a few words in every known language and using large sweeping gestures, the Italian thought he was explaining that another journey by train had to be undertaken before work could
begin; the boss in Weldon—Weldon—he repeated it and Dimitri added that name to his slowly increasing stock, wanted men to work on construction—a good job, yes, but if he didn’t like it, for two dollars more Salvatori would get him another—oh, yes! He must go to the station now, and get on the train for Weldon—Weldon—and pretty soon he would be there.
“Dees here, teeket,” continued Salvatori, thrusting a slip of paper into the boy’s hand. “Das bettel—billet—Fahrkarte—geeve to conductor. Goo’bye.”
He pushed Dimitri impatiently out of the door.
Guided more by instinct than by any real information, he found his way to the station and was put on a train. The ride was short, but not wholly pleasant. Now that the end was in sight, misgivings began to assail the lad; suppose he should be given some sort of work he could not do? Suppose he were told to work with figures—horrible ! Then they would not give him “two dollars a day.” Andre had not said what sort of work would be given. The letter—he felt through his clothes again, in the hope of finding it, but it was gone. He looked around the car wondering if any of the men were
bound for Weldon. With a thumping heart, he decided to ask.
The man nearest him looked up sharply and shook his head at Dimitri’s conversational effort. Some of the others laughed. Obviously there was not a Pole among them.
“Weldon?” asked the boy, inquiringly, and looked from one to the other. Again they laughed and nodded their heads. There was one, in particular, who was always laughing. He had very red hair and freckles, and after the manner of deaf mutes, he conveyed to Dimitri the fact that he was getting off at Weldon.
And presently about seven of them were standing on a platform watching the disappearance of the train which curved like a long black pigtail on a mottled cloth.
A bluff giant met them—the timekeeper. He presented each with a blue ticket and turned them over to the foreman. After a short trip on a queer conveyance which the men propelled themselves, Dimitri was ushered into his future home, an old box car, fitted with sixteen bunks and a stove. Thanks to the kindness of freckled Dinny Flanagan, he learned that he must buy and cook his own food. The other fifteen did. At the company’s store, he was given bread and salt pork, along with a book in which the clerk wrote something, under the number which tallied with that on his ticket.
He was the only alien in the car, the only man who had not some one with whom to converse in his native tongue. The majority were Italians, with a sprinkling of Irish and Scotch.
Although every bone in his strong, young body ached, he could not sleep. The bunk smelled of all sorts of evil things, and the air in the car was rank with smoke. He began to weave pictures of his home, imagining his mother sitting opposite the sacred Ikon thinking of and praying for him. He fancied gentle little Anna and the thoughtful Feodor, who had timidly regretted his leaving Poland. “I wish you were not going, brother,” the lad had said, with one of his far-away looks. He saw them all waiting there, breathless for the first letter. Into this he would put five days’ wages, the rest would be ample for his needs. Had not Mother and Anna denied themselves food when his throat was bad, that he might have the more?
A great wave of home-sickness swept over him and he strangled a sob by catching the flesh of his arm in his teeth.
Perhaps by saving, he could bring them out to Canada, to Weldon, in six or eight months. The thought made him almost faint. How long ago he parted from them! Visions of the old woman who had been so kind brought tears to his eyes; he must not forget them in sending presents home. He would ask Mother to buy-
A rough, but not unkind, hand shook him. It was day and the men were up and stirring, the atmosphere a composite suggestion of tobacco, frying bacon and humanity. Dimitri, fearing to be late, ate dry bread and washed it down with gulps of bitter coffee, which the Irishman gave him. He saw the men gathering food to-
gether and putting it in tin pails. He had no pail and thrust a crust of bread in his pocket, but Dinny, catching him in the act, signified by much bellowing and many slaps upon various parts of his anatomy below the belt, that he would share his pail with the foreigner, for the day, at least. So mumbling awkward thanks, the boy put some bread and meat with Dinny’s dinner, and made himself responsible for the joint commissariat.
They set out in the crisp morning to a hand-car where the foreman armed them each with picks and shovels. They were on their way to work !
A shriek broke upon the still air, and interrupted Dimitri’s dream pictures. Not quite understanding what was happening, he jumped from the car with the others. Then following their gaze, he saw a locomotive, a special, hurling its enormous black bulk upon them. The men leaving the car to its fate, ran still further from the scene of certain destruction, but Dimitri with a gasp made for the track and Dinny’s bright new dinner pail which in his excitement he had left on the truck. The men shouted, the engineer cursed, but it was too late. There was a crash of splintering timbers, a shearing of rivets; there was a rattle of steel upon steel, and a peppered rattle as the wreckage struck the earth, some eighty feet distant.
The locomotive slowed down, and two men jumped from the cab. The construction crew ran back from their posts of safety, Dinny reaching the spot first.
“Who is it?” asked the engineer, turning his head away from the confused mass of wreckage.
“Only a Polack,” answered Ryan, the foreman.
The d-fool,” cursed the man, again.
“It wasn’t my fault! We’ll send on the coroner. Got to catch the Minister, at Midland. The fool!”
Black smoke marked the course of the engine long after it had disappeared from the view of a crowd of silent men, who disposed themselves along the track to wait.
The coroner’s verdict was brief. “Accidental death,” he said, writing in his book. “What was the man’s name?”
No one knew. The foreman didn’t know, and, of course, the timekeeper didn’t know. He had done all that was expected of him—he had tagged the stranger with a number—723.
And 723 was buried in a nameless grave, not far from the spot upon which he met accidental death. Dinny never used that bright new pail—he gave it away to the man who replaced the young foreigner.
And in far-away Poland the townsfolk shake their heads and mumble. A cloud hangs over the little cottage at the end of an aimlessly winding street. Katrine’s eyes are dim with watching; little Anna is not married and stoopshouldered Feodor has not gone to school with gentlemen’s sons. He coughs a great deal as he looks away beyond the confines of the cottage and dreams his saddened dreams. And the priest andl the tax collector come as before. Yeft nothing will shake the faith of the litttoi family waiting there, waiting so patient-j ly for that promised letter!