WELL, standing somewhere in the neighborhood of Eighth Street and Eighth Avenue I turned this over in my mind, considering its advisability. I was not what would be called a praying man. As to that I had not prayed in years. I had sometimes told myself that I didn’t know what prayer was, that its appeal seemed to me illogical. Illogical it seemed to me now, in the sense of imploring God to do what He wouldn’t do of His own accord.
So, although I didn’t pray, something passed through my mind that might have been prayer’s equivalent. As far as I can transcribe it into the words which I did not use at the time it ran like this:
“I know there is a God. I know that His will is the Supreme law for all of us. I know that that law is just and beneficent. It is not just and beneficent for me to be standing here in the snow and the slush, chilled, hungry, with wet feet, workless, and homeless. Consequently, this is not His will. Consequently I must give myself to discovering that will as the first principle of safety. When I have got into touch with that first principle of safety I shall find a home and work.”
Of this the immediate result was that I did not return to the Barcelona. Something like a voice—the voice of another—told me that the thread of flame led onward. Onward I drifted then, hardly noticing the way I went, hypnotized by the physical process of being on the move. It was just on and on, through the slanting snowfall, through the patches of blurred light, with feet soggy, and heart soggier, a derelict amid these hundreds of vehicles, these thousands of pedestrians, all bound from somewhere to somewhere, and knowing the road they were taking. I didn’t know the road I was taking and in a sense I didn’t care. Having taken up from sheer impotence the attempt to steer my ship I was borne along blindly.
When I lifted my head to really look about me again I was in a part of New York not only new to me but, almost refreshing to the eye. I mean that it was one of those old-fashioned downtown regions where the streets hadn’t yet learned the short and easy cut to beauty of running only at right angles. Two or three thoroughfares focussed in an irregular open space, which I saw by the signboard to bear the name of Meeting House Green. There was no meeting-house in the neighborhood now, and probably nothing green even in the spring. If it was like the rest of New York it would be dirty in winter and fetid in summer, but after the monotonous ground-plan of the uptown regions its quaintness relieved the perceptions to a degree which the thunder of the near-by Elevated couldn’t do away with. Just now all was blanketed in white, through which drays plunged heavily and pedestrians slipped like ghosts.
As I stared about me my eye was once more arrested by the magic notice Rooms, though this time with the qualifying phrase, for gentlemen. Rooms for Gentlemen! The limitation seemed to fit my needs. It implied selection and a social standard.
THE house, too, was that oasis in New York, an old-time dwelling in gray-painted brick which progress has not yet swept away. Standing where Wapping Street and Theodora Place ran together at a sharp angle it was shaped like a sad-iron or a ship’s prow. The tip of the groundfloor was given over to a provision dealer, while a barber occupied the long slit in the rear. Between the two shops a door on the level of the pavement of Theodora Place gave on a little inset flight of steps which led up to the actual entrance. The vestibule was shabby, but, moved by my experiences in the early part of the afternoon, I observed that it was clean.
The woman who answered my ring was not only clean, but neatly dressed, in what I suppose was a print stuff, and not only neatly dressed, but marked by a faded prettiness. What I chiefly noticed for the minute was a pair of those enormous doll-blue eyes on a level with the face, as the French say—a fleur de tete—which make the expression sweet and vacuous. In her case it was resignedly mournful, as if mournfulness was a part of her aim in life. A single gas-jet flickered behind her, showing part of a hallway in which the same walnut furniture must have stood for so many years that it was now groggy on its feet. To my question about a room she replied with a sweet, sad, “Won’t you step in?” which was tantamount to a welcome.
The floor of the hallway was covered with an oilcloth or linoleum which had once simulated a terra cotta tiling and was now but one remove from dust. On a mud-brown wall-paper a steel engraving of a scow, with Age at the helm and Youth peering off at the bow, sagged at an angle which produced a cubist effect in its relation to the groggy-footed hatrack. The doors on the left of the hall were closed; on the right a graceful stairway, lighted by a tall window looking out on Theodora Place, curved upward to the floor above.
At the sound of voices in the hall one of the closed doors opened, and a second woman, a replica of the first, except for being older, came out and looked enquiring. She too was fadedly pretty; she too was mournful; she too was saucer-eyed; she too was neatly dressed in a print stuff.
“This gentleman is looking for a room,” was the explanation, sadly given, of my presence.
The ladies withdrew to the foot of the stairway for a whispered conference. This finished, the elder came back to where I stood on the doormat.
“We generally ask for references,” she began, with a glance at my sodden appearance.
“If that’s essential,” I broke in, “I’m afraid it must end matters. I’ve only recently come over from France, and I’m a total stranger in New York. I rang the bell because I saw the notice, and I liked the look of the house.”
As it happened, the last was the most tactful thing I could have said, going to the heart of the hostesses. Something too in my voice and choice of words must have appealed to their sense of gentility.
“It’s a nice old house,” the elder lady smiled, with her brave air of having to overcome agony before being able to speak at all. “It's old-fashioned, of course, and horribly in the wrong part of the city nowadays; but my sister and I love it. We’ve always lived here and our dear father before us. He was Dr. Smith—quite a famous oculist in his day—you may have heard of him—.”
“I’ve heard the name,” I admitted, politely.
“We’ve two good rooms vacant at present; but if you can’t give references” —a wan smile deprecated the unladylike suggestion—“I’m afraid we should have to ask you for a week’s rent in advance. I shouldn't speak of it if it was not our rule.”
WHEN l had agreed to this she led the way over the frayed cocoanut matting of the staircase to an upper hallway also carpeted in pulverized oilcloth. With one sister ahead of me, and the other shepherding me behind I was ushered into a large prow-shaped room immediately over the provision dealer, and smelling faintly of raw meat. I could have borne the odor if the rent had not been six a week.
“We’ve another room just over this,” the spokeswoman informed me, “but it’s only half this size—”
“If it’s only half this rent—”
“It’s just half this rent.”
So, marshalled as before, I mounted another stairway in cocoanut matting to a slit of a room shaped like half a ship’s prow, with its single window placed squintwise. As the smell of raw meat was less noticeable here, the squint of the window out into Meeting House Green, and the rent so low, I made my bargain promptly,
In the days of the famous oculist the room must have been a maid’s. It was still furnished like a maid’s in a house of the second order. A rickety iron bedstead supported a sagging mattress covered with a cotton counterpane in imitated crochet-work. A table, a wash-stand, a chair, and a chest of drawers were perhaps drearier than they might have been because of the sick light of the gas-jet. On a drab wooden mantelpiece, which enshrined a board covered with a piece of cretonne where once had been a fireplace, stood the only decoration in the room, three large fungi, painted with landscapes. The fungi were of the triangular sort which grow about the trunks of trees. There was a big one in the middle of the mantelpiece, and smaller ones at each end, giving glimpses of rivers and bays with castles on headlands to one tired of the prospect of Meeting House Green. Taking the initiatory three dollars from my purse I bent to study these objects of art.
Once more the act was ingratiating to my hostesses.
“That’s my work,” said the little woman who had admitted me to the house. Her tone was one of shy pride, of a kind of fluttered boastfulness.
“My sister’s an artist,” the elder explained, taking three one-dollar bills as if number didn’t matter, but making conversation in order to count them surreptitiously. “She’s a widow too—Mrs. Leeming. I’m Miss Smith. We’ve had great sorrows. We try not to complain too much, but —”
A long drawn sigh with a quiver in it said the rest, while Mrs. Leeming’s eyes spilled tears with the readiness of a pair of fountain cups.
To escape the emotional I returned to my inspection of the landscapes at which I was destined to gaze for another two years.
“Are these studies of—of Italy?” I asked, for the sake of showing appreciation.
Mrs. Leeming recovered herself sufficiently to be faintly indignant.
“Oh, no! I never copy. I work only from imagination. Landscapes just come to me—and all different.”
Before they left me Miss Smith managed to convey a few of the principles on which they conducted their house.
“We’ve three very refined gentlemen at present—two salesmen and a Turkish bath attendant. One has to be so careful. We almost never take gentlemen who don’t bring a reference; but in your case, Mr. Soames—well, one can see.” Her wan, suffering smile flickered up for a minute and died down. “There’s a sort of freemasonry, isn’t there? We have taken gentlemen on that, and they’ve never disappointed us.”
I hoped I should not disappoint them either.
“Now some young men—well, to put it plainly, if there’s liquor we just have to ask them to look for another room. Tobacco, with gentlemen, one can’t be too severe on. We overlook it, and try not to complain too much. And, of course, only gentlemen visitors—”
With my assurance that I should do my utmost to live within their regulations they were good enough to leave me to my single chair and the fungi. Dropping into the one and staring at the other it seemed to me that I had reached the uttermost edge of the forlorn. I could bear the extreme modesty of this lodging, seeing that it gave me a shelter from the storm; I could bear being hungry, cold, and wet; I could beat the wall of darkness and blankness that hemmed in not only my future but my past; what I found intolerable was the sense of being useless. The blows of fate I could take with some equanimity; hut not to be able to “make good” or to earn a living cut me to the quick in my self-esteem.
And yet it was not that which in the end beat me to my knees beside the bed, to bury my head against the counterpane of imitation crochet-work. That was a more primal craving, a need as primal as thirst or the desire for sleep. It was the longing for some sort of human companionship—for the gay toleration of Lydia Blair, or Drinkwater’s cheerfulness, or Mildred Averill’s....
BUT in the end I found work, so why tell of the paroxysm of loneliness which shook me that night with a madness? Never before had I known anything like it, and nothing like it has seized me since. I must have remained on my knees for an hour or more, largely for the reason that there was nothing to get up for. Though I had had no dinner I didn’t want to eat, and what else was there to do? To eat and sleep, to sleep and eat, that apparently would be my fate till my seventeen dollars gave out. If the miracle didn’t happen before then—but the miracle happened not long after that, and this is how it came to pass.
I got up and crept supperless to bed. There I slept with the merciful soundness of fatigue, wakened by the crashing past my window of an Elevated train to a keen sunny morning, with snow on the ground, and the zest of new life.
As I washed I could hear my neighbor washing on the other side of the partition. The partition was in fact so thin that I had heard all his movements since he got out of bed. The making of one man’s toilet taking about the same amount of time as that of another man in similar conditions we met at the doors of our respective rooms as we emerged to go downstairs.
I looked at him; he looked at me. With what he saw I am not concerned; I saw a stocky, broad-shouldered individual, with smooth black hair, solemn black eyes, bushy black eyebrows, a clean-shaven skin so dark that shaving could not obliterate the trace of hair, and a general air of friendliness. Putting on the good-mixer voice, which was not natural to me, but which I could assume for a brief spurt, I said:
“Say, I wonder if you could advise a fellow where to get a breakfast? Only breezed in last night—”
Between working people there is always that camaraderie I had already noticed in Drinkwater and Lydia Blair, and which springs from the knowledge that where there is nothing to lose there is nothing to be afraid of. While I cannot say that my companion viewed me with the spontaneous recognition he would have accorded to a man of his own class he saw enough to warrant him in giving me his sympathy. The man of superior station down on his luck is not granted the full rights of the stratum to which he has descended; but even when an object of suspicion he is not one of hostility. Between moral bad luck and sheer fortuitous calamity the line is not strictly drawn; and wherever there is need there is a free inclination to meet it.
“I’m on my way to my breakfast now,” my neighbor said, after sizing me up with a second glance. “Why don’t you come along? It’s not much of a place to look at,” he continued, as I followed him downstairs, “but the grub isn’t bad. Most of the places around here are punk.”
Within ten minutes’ time I found myself in a little eating-place that must once have been the cellar-kitchen of a dwelling house, sitting at a bare deal table, opposite this man whom I had never seen before that morning.
“Don’t take bacon,” he advised, when I had ordered bacon and eggs, “it’ll be punk. Take ham. Coffee’l be punk too. Better stick to tea."
Having given me these counsels he proceeded with those short and simple annals of his history, which I had already found to be the usual form of self-introduction. An Englishman, a Cornishman, he had been twenty years in America. He was married and had a family, but preferred to live in New York while he maintained his household in Chicago.
“Married life is punk,” was his summing up. “Got the best little wife in the State of Illinois, and three fine kids, a boy and two girls—but I couldn’t come it.”
“Couldn’t come what?”
“Oh, the whole blooming business—toein’ the line like—bein’ home at night—and the least little smell of anything on your breath—”
A wave of his fork sketched a world of domestic embarrassment from which he had freed himself only by a sombre insouciance. A sombre insouciance might be called his keynote. Outwardly serious, ponderous, hard-working and responsible, he was actually light-hearted and inconsequent. During the progress of the meal he recited the escapades of a Don Juan with the gravity of a Bunyan.
Still with my good-mixer air I asked:
“How does a guy like me get a job in New York?”
“Ever work in a Turkish bath?” He answered this question before I could do it myself. “Sure you didn’t—not a chap of your cut. It isn’t a bad sort of thing for a—” he hesitated, but decided to use the epithet—“for a—gentleman. Only a good class of people take Turkish baths. Hardly ever get in with a rough lot. A few drunks—but what of that? Could have got you a place at the Gramercy if you’d ha’ turned up last week; but a Swede has it now, and it’s too late.”
By the end of breakfast, however, he had made a suggestion.
“Why don’t you try the Intelligence? They’ll often get you a berth when everything else has stumped you.”
I SAID I was willing to try the Intelligence if I knew what it was, discovering it to be the Bureau of Domestic and Business Intelligence conducted by Miss Bryne. You presented yourself, gave your name and address, indicated your choice of work, told your qualifications for the job, and Miss Bryne did the rest, taking as her commission a percentage of your first week’s pay.
“But I don t know any qualifications,” I declared, with some confusion.
“Oh, that’s nothing. Say clerical work. That covers a lot. Something’ll turn up.”
“But if they ask me if I can do certain things—?”
“Say you can do ’em. That’s the way to pull it off. Look at me. Never was in a Turkish bath in my life till I went to an employment office in Chicago. When the old girl in charge asked me if I had been I said I’d been born in one. Got the job right off, and watched what the other guys did till I’d learned the trick. There’s always some nice chap that’ll show you the ropes. Gee! The worst they can do is to bounce you. All employers is punk. Treat ’em like punk and you’ll get on.”
With a view to this procedure I was at the Bureau of Domestic and Business Intelligence by half past nine, entering unfortunately with the downcast air of the employer who is punk instead of the perky self-assertion which I soon began to notice as the proper attitude of those in search of work. Miss Bryne’s establishment occupied a floor in one of the older office buildings a little to the south of Washington Square. Having ascended in the lift you found yourself, just outside the narrow doorway, face to face with a young lady seated at a desk, whose duty it was to ask the first questions and take the first notes. She was a pretty young lady, bright-eyed, blonde, with a habit of cocking her head in a birdlike way as she composed her lips to a receptive smile.
She so composed them, and so cocked her head, as I appeared on the threshold awkward and terrified,
I knew what she meant by the questioning look and the encouraging smile of the bright eyes.
“I’m—I’m hoping to find a job,” I stammered to her obvious astonishment.
“Oh!”—it was a surprised little crow—“to find one!”
“Yes, miss; to find one.”
“Of—of what sort?”
“Clerical work,” I said boldly.
She bent her head over her notebook. “Your name?”
“I’ve told you. Any kind of clerical work. I suppose that that means writing—and—and copying—and that sort of thing—doesn’t it?
She glanced up from her writing. “Is that what you’ve done?”
“Where? Have you any references?”
I confessed my lack of references, stating that I had just come over from France, where I had worked with a firm whose name would not carry weight in America.
“What did they do—the firm?”
I answered wildly. “Carpets.”
Another young lady was passing, tall, graceful, distinguished, air de duchesse, carrying a notebook and pencil.
“Miss Gladfoot,” my interlocutrice murmured, “won’t you ask Miss Bryne to step here?”
Miss Bryne having stepped there I found myself face to face with a competent woman of fifty or so, short, square, square-faced, and astute. She also had a pencil and notebook in her hand, and seeing me looked receptive too, though remaining practical and businesslike.
While the young lady at the desk explained me as far as she had been able to understand my object, delicacy urged me out of earshot. I had therefore not heard what passed when Miss Bryne came forward to take charge of the situation.
“What you are is a kind of an educated handy-man. Wouldn’t that be it?”
Delighted at this discriminating view of my capacities I faltered that it would be.
“Well, we don’t often have a call for your kind of specialty, and yet we do have them sometimes. There might be one today; and then again there mightn’t be another for six months. Now you can either go in and wait on the chance; or you can leave your address and we’ll phone you if I anything should turn up that we think would suit.”
Encouraged by this kindly treatment and the possibility of a call that day I opted for going in to wait.
“Then come this way.”
Following the Napoleonic figure down the narrow passageway I was shown into a little room where five other men sat with the dismayed, melancholy faces of dogs at a dog-show at minutes when they are not barking. Dismayed and melancholy on my side I took a seat nearest the door, feeling like a prisoner in the dock or the cell, and wondering what would happen next.
NOTHING happened next as far as I was concerned, but I had a gratifying leisure in which to look about me.
I was obliged to note at once that the Bureau of Domestic and Business Intelligence was chiefly for Domestic. Women crowded the hall, the two large rooms across the way, and the three small ones on our side, except the coop in which we six men were segregated from the gay and chatty throng. Gay and chatty were the words. The tone was that of what French people call a feeve o’clock. Girls, for the most part pretty and stylishly dressed, sat in the chairs, perched on the arms of them, grouped themselves in corners, in seeming disregard of the purpose that had brought them there. Unable at first to differentiate between mistresses and maids I soon learnt to detect the former by their careworn faces, shabbier clothes, apologetic arrival, and crestfallen departure. Now and then I caught a few broken phrases of which the context and significance eluded me.
“I told her that before I’d be after washing all thim dishes I’d—”
“Ah, thin, ye’ll not shtay long in that pla-ace—”
“Says I, you’ve got a crust, Mrs. Johnson, to ask me to shtay in when it’s me night—”
“With that I ups and walks away—”
All this animation and repartee contrasted oddly with the low, cowed remarks of my companions in the coop, who ventured to exchange remarks only at intervals.
Where was your last? What did you get? How did you like your boss? Did you leave or was you fired? Are you a single fella or a married fella? Did you have long hours? Wouldn’t he give you your raise? Did he kick against the booze? These were mere starters of talk that invariably died like seedlings in a wrong climate. Getting used to my mates I made them out to be a gardener, a chauffeur, a teamster, a decayed English butler, and a negro boy who called himself a waiter. Talking about their bosses their tone on the whole was hostile without personal malevolence. That is to say, there was little or no enmity to individuals though the tendency to curse the systems of civilized life was general. I think they would have agreed with my Cornish friend that “all employers is punk,” and considered their feelings sufficiently expressed at that.
BUT as I sat among them day after day I began, oddly enough, to orientate my vision to their point of view. They were of course not always the same men. The original five melted away into jobs within three or four days; but five or six or seven was about the daily average in our little pen. They came, they cowed, were selected, and went away. Twice during the first week I was called out in response to applicants for unusual grades of help; but my manner and speech seemed to overawe the ladies who wanted to hire and I was recommended to my cell. “She said she didn’t want that kind of a man”; “He wouldn’t want to eat in the kitchen”; were the explanations given me by Miss Bryne. In vain I protested that I would eat anywhere so long as I ate. The other servants wouldn’t get used to me, and so no more was to be said.
But I was getting used to the other servants. That is my point. Insensibly I was changing my whole social attitude. It was like the difference in looking at the Grand Canyon of Arizona—downward from El Tovar, or upward from the brink of the Colorado. Little by little I found myself staring upward from the bottom, through all sorts of ranks above me. I didn’t notice the change at once. For a time I thought I still retained my sense of obscured superiority. I arrived in the morning; heard from the lips of the birdlike young lady at the desk the familiar, “Nothing yet”; passed on to the pen; nodded to those who were assembled, some of whom I would have seen on the day before; listened to their timid scraps of talk which hardly ever varied from a few worn notes.
At first I felt, apart from them, above them, disdainful of their limitations. My impulse was to get away from them as it had been to cut loose from Lydia Blair and Drinkwater. It was only on seeing them one by one called out of the pen not to come back again that. I began to envy them. Sooner or later everyone went but me. I became a kind of friendly joke with them. “Some little sticker,” was the phrase commonly applied to me. It was used in a double sense, one of which was not without commendation. “Ye carn’t stick like wot you’re doin’, old son,” a former footman said to me one day, “without somethin’ turnin’ up, wot?” and from this I took a grim sort of encouragement.
But all I mean is that by imperceptible degrees I began to feel myself one of them. After the first lady had turned me down I began to adapt myself to their views of the employer. After the second lady had repeated the action of the first I began to experience that feeling of dull hostility toward the class in which I had been born that marked all my companions in the coop. It was what I have already called it, hostility without personal malevolence-hostility to a system rather than to individuals. For a pittance barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, leaving no margin for the higher or more beautiful things in life, we were expected to drudge like Roman slaves, and not only feel no resentment, but be contented with the lot to which we were ordained. The clearest thing in the world to all of us was that between us and those who would have us work for them some great humanizing element was lacking—an element which would have made life acceptable—and that so long as it was not there each one of us would, as a revolutionary book-keeper put it, “go to bed with a grouch.” To me as to them the grouch was growing intimate—and so was hunger.
BY the end of a fortnight I was down to one meal a day, the breakfast I continued to take with Pelly, my Cornish friend, over which he told me his most intimate experiences with that absence of reserve to which conversation in the pen had accustomed me. Looking for some such return on my part he was not only disappointed but a little mystified. I got his mental drift, however, when he asked me on one occasion if I had ever “hit the pipe,” and on another if I had ever been “sent away.” Had these misfortunes happened to himself he would have told me frankly, and it would have made no difference in his sympathy for me had I confessed to them or to any other delinquency. What puzzled him was that I should confess to nothing, a form of reserve which to him was not only novel but abnormal.
Nevertheless when through the thin partition I announced one morning that I wasn’t going to breakfast, giving lack of appetite as a plea, he came solemnly into my room.
“See here, Soames; if a fiver’d be of any use to you—or ten—or anything—”
When I declined he did not insist further, but on my return that evening I found a five-dollar bill thrust under my door in an envelope.
I didn’t thank him when I heard him come in; I pretended to be asleep. As a matter of fact, I thought it hardly worth while to say anything. It was highly possible that the next day would say all, for I had reached the point where it seemed to me the Gordian knot must be cut. One, quick stroke of some sort—and Pelly would get his five dollars back untouched.
A cup of chocolate had been all my food that day. Though I had still a few pennies—less than a dollar—it would probably be all my food on the next day. On the day after that my rent would be due, and I couldn’t ask the two good women who had been kind to me for credit. What would be the use? A new week would bring me no more than the past weeks, so why not end it once for all?
Next morning, therefore, I gave Pelly back his bill, bluffing him by going out to our usual breakfast, on which I spent all I had in the world but a nickel and a dime. I must get something to do that day or else....
Left alone I tossed one of the two coins to decide whether or not I should go back to “the Intelligence.” Going back had not been easy for the last few days, for I had noticed cold looks on the part of Miss Bryne and Miss Gladfoot, with a tendency to take me for a hoodoo. Even the young lady at the desk had ceased to say “Nothing yet,” as I passed by, or so much as to glance at me. But as this was to be the last time I obeyed the falling of the coin and went.
I went—to receive a little shock. Miss Bryne was waiting for me near the door, with a bit of paper in her hand.
“You must remember, Soames,” she said, in her businesslike way, “that this is not the only employment office in New York. Here’s a list of addresses at any of which you may find what we haven’t been able to secure for you.”
I took the paper, thanked her, and went on into the coop before the significance of this act came to me. It was dismissal. It was not merely dismissal from a place, it was dismissal from the possibility of dismissal. To have a place, even if only, as Pelly put it, to be bounced from it, was something; but to be denied the chance of being bounced....
I OUGHT to have got up there and then and walked out; but I think I was too stunned. The chatty groups were forming all over the place, and early matrons looking for maids were being refused first by one spirited damsel and then by another. In the coop there was the usual low, intermittent murmur, accentuated now and then by ugly words and now and then by oaths. To me it was no more than the hum of activity in the streets in the ears of a man who is dying.
Recovering from this state which was almost that of coma I began feeling for my hat. I had to go out. I had to find a way to do the only thing left for me to do. I had no idea of the means, and so must think them over.
And just then I heard a young fellow speaking, with low gurgles of fun. He was at the end of the pen and was narrating an experience of the afternoon before.
“It was a whale of a rolled up rug that must have weighed five hundred pounds. ‘Carry that upstairs,’ says the Floater. ‘Like hell I will,’ says I. He says, ‘You’ll carry that up or you’ll get out of here.’ I says, ‘Well, Creed and Creed aint the only house to work for in New York.’ ‘You was damn glad to get here,’ he says, madder’n blazes. I says ‘Not half so damn glad as I’ll be to get somewhere else,’ says I. ‘You’ve had five men on this job in less than four weeks,’ says I, ‘and now you’ll have to get a sixth,’ says I, ‘if there’s anyone in the city fool enough to take it. Carryin’ rugs that break a man’s back,’ I says, ‘is bad enough; but before I’d go on working under a blitherin’ old son of a gun like you—’ ”
I didn’t wait to hear more. I knew the establishment of Creed and Creed, not far away, in the lower part of Fifth Avenue. Many a time I had stopped to admire the great rugs hung in its windows as a bait to people furnishing palaces. Not twenty-four hours earlier a place had been vacated there, a hard place, a humble place, and it was possible, barely possible.
Up the street that led to Washington Square I ran; I ran through Washington Square itself; for the two or three blocks of Fifth Avenue I slackened my pace only in order not to arrive breathless.
There it was on the corner, the huge grey pile, with its huge bright windows—and my heart almost stopped beating. Breathless now from another cause than speed, I paused, nominally to gaze at an immense Chinese rug, but really to compose my mind to what might easily prove the last effort of my life. This rug too, I hung with a graceful curve in which yellow deepened to orange and orange to glints of acorn-brown, might easily prove the last beautiful thing my eyes would ever rest upon. I remembered saying to myself that beauty was the thread of flame that would lead me home; but the thread of flame had been treacherous. I could have given an expert’s opinion on a work of art like this; and yet I was begging for the privilege of handling it in the most laborious manner possible, just that I might eat.
And as I stared at the thing, forming the words in which I should frame my request for work, a soft voice, close beside me, said:
“Surely it must be possible for me to be of use to you!”
AS I recall the minute now my first thought was of my appearance. I had noticed for some time past that it was running down, and had regarded the change almost with satisfaction. The more out at elbow I became the less would be the difference between me and any other fellow looking for employment. It hadn’t escaped me that I grew shabby less with the honorable rough-and-tumble of a working-man than with the threadbare, poignant poverty of broken-down gentility; but I hoped that no one but myself would perceive that. I had thus grown careless of appearances, and during the past forty-eight hours more careless than I had been hitherto. Feeling myself a lamentable object I had more or less dressed to suit ]the part.
I knew instantly that it was this that had inspired the words I had just listened too. I knew too that I must bluff. Wretched as I looked I must carry the situation off, with however pitiful a bit of comedy.
Turning, I lifted my hat, with what I could command of the old dignity of bearing.
“How early you are!” I smiled, bravely.“ I didn’t know young ladies were ever down town by a little after ten—”
She nodded toward the neighboring bookshop. “I’ve been in there buying something for Lulu to read. She’s bored.” She threw these explanations as irrelevant to anything we had to say, now that we had met. “Where have you been all these weeks? Why didn’t you let me know—?”
“How could I let you know? I called at your old house, and you were gone.”
“You could easily have found out. If you’d merely called up Central she would have told you the new address of our number. It wasn’t kind of you.”
“Sometimes we have things to do more pressing than just being kind—”
“There’s never anything more pressing than that.”
“Not for people like you.”
“Not for people like anyone. Listen!” she hurried on, as if there was not a minute to spare. “One of my trustees came to see me yesterday. He said I had nearly thirty thousand dollars of accumulated income there’s nothing to do but invest.”
“Well? Don’t you like to see your money invested?”
“I like it well enough when there’s nothing else to do with it.”
“Which you say that in this case there isn't."
“Oh, but there is—if you look at it in the right way.”
“I don’t have to look at it in any way.”
“Yes, you do, when it’s—when it’s only common sense.”
“What’s only common sense?”
“My being—being useful to you.”
“Oh, but you’re useful to me through—through your very kindness.”
“That’s not enough. Surely you—you see!"
I could say quite truthfully that I didn’t see. “But suppose,” I continued, “that we don’t talk of it.”
“Yes,” she answered fiercely, “and leave everything where we left it the last time. You see what’s come of that.”
“I see what’s come—of course—but I don’t see that it’s come of that.”
THERE were so few people in the neighborhood, and we were so plainly examining the Chinese rug, that we could talk together without attracting attention.
“Oh, what kind of people are we?” she exclaimed, tapping with one hand the book she held in the other. “Here I am with more money than I know what to do with; and here are you—”
“With all the money I want.”
Her brown eyes swept me from head to foot. “That’s not true,” she insisted. “When I first knew you I thought—I thought you were just experimenting—”
“And how do you know I’m not?”
“I know it from what you said yourself—that last time—”
“What did I say?”
“That if it wasn’t trouble it was misfortune—”
“Yes, that. Isn’t it enough? And then I know it—Well, can’t I see?”
I tried to laugh this off. “Oh, I know I’m rather seedy-looking, but then—”
“You’re worse than seedy-looking—you’re—you’re—tragic—to me. Oh,I know I haven’t any right to say so; but that’s what I complain of—that’s what I rebel against—that we’ve got our conventions so stupidly organized that just because you’re a man and I’m a woman I shouldn’t be allowed to help you when I can.”
“You do help me—with your great sympathy.”
She brushed this aside. “That’s no help.It doesn't feed and clothe you.”
I endeavored to smile. “That’s very plain talk, isn’t it?”
“Of course it’s plain talk, because it’s a perfectly plain situation. It isn’t a new thing to me to see people who’ve been going without food. At the Settlement—”
I still kept up the effort to smile. “If I’d been going without food there are a dozen places—”
“Where they’d give you a meal, after they’d satisfied themselves that you hadn’t been drinking. I know all about that. But would you go? Wouldn’t you rather drop dead from starvation first? And what good would it do you in the end—just one meal—or two meals—when everything else was lacking. It’s the whole thing—”
“But how would you tackle that—the whole thing? It seems to me that if I can’t do it myself no one else—”
“I’ll tell you as straightforwardly as you ask the question. I should give you—lend you—as much money as you wanted, so that you should have time to reorganize your life—”
“And suppose I couldn’t—that I spent your money—and was just where I was before?”
“Then my conscience would be clear.”
“But your conscience must be clear in any case.”
“It isn’t. When all you ask for is to help—”
“But you can help other people—who need it more.”
“Oh, don’t keep that up. I know what you need. I’ve told you already I’ve seen starvation before—don’t be offended—and when it’s you—someone we’ve all known—and liked—Boyd liked you from the first—”
“But not from the last.”
“He thinks you’re—you’re strange—naturally—we all think so—I think so—but that doesn’t make any difference when you don’t get enough to eat.”
“And suppose I turned out to be only an adventurer?”
SHE shrugged her shoulders, after a habit she had. “That would be your responsibility. Don’t you see? I’m not thinking so much about you as I am about myself. It’s nothing to me what you are—not any more than what Lydia is, or a dozen others I could name to you. I think it highly probable that Lydia Blair will take the road we call going to the bad—”
“Oh, surely not!”
This invitation to digression she also swept aside. “She won’t do it with her eyes shut, never fear! She’ll know all about it, and take her own way because it’s hers. Don’t pity her. If I were half so free—”
“Well, for one thing, you’d have another chance. If you didn’t use it that would be your own affair.”
“Why do you speak of another chance? Do you think?”
“Oh, don’t ask me what I think. I take it for granted that—”
“Yes? Please tell me. What is it that you take for granted?”
“What good would it do for me to tell you?”
“It would do me the good that I should know.”
“Well, then, I take it for granted—since you insist—that you’ve done something— somewhere—”
“And still you’d lend me as much money as I asked for?”
“What difference does it make to me? I want you to have another chance. I shouldn’t want it if you didn’t need it; and you wouldn’t need it unless there was something wrong with you. There! Is that plain enough? But because there is something wrong with you I want to come in and help you to put it right. I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done, so long as those are the facts.”
“But I’m obliged to care, don’t you see? If I were to take adyantage of your generosity—”
“Tell me truthfully now. Would you do it if I were a man—a friend—who insisted on helping you to start again?”
I tried to gain time. “It would depend on the motive—”
“We’ll assume the motive to be nothing but pure friendship—just the desire that you should have every opportunity to make good again—and nothing else. Absolutely nothing else! Do you understand? Would you take it from him then? Please tell me as frankly as if—”
“And because I’m not a man but a woman you can’t.”
“It isn’t the same thing.”
“Which is just what we women complain of—just what we fight against—the stupid conventions that force us into being useless in a world—”
“Oh, but there are other ways of being useful—”
“No other way of being useful compensates for the one which seems to you paramount—above all others—and from which you are debarred.”
“But why should it? You and I never met till—”
“You can’t argue that way. You can’t reason about the thing at all. I’m not reasoning, further than to say that—that I believe in you—in your power of—of coming back—that’s the phrase, isn’t it?—and as apparently I’m the only one in a position to go to your aid—”
She threw out her hands with a gesture she sometimes used which implied that all had been said.
And in the end we compromised. That is, I told her I had one more possibility. If that failed I would let her know. This she informed me I could do by telephone, as Boyd’s name was in the book. If it didn’t fail—but as to that she forgot to exact a promise, just as she forgot to tell me her new address. Like most shy people who dash out of their shyness for some adventure too bold for the audacious she retreated as suddenly. Springing into her motor as soon as we had arrived at a temporary decision she drove away, leaving me still at a loss as to whether or not I was Malvolio.
Dumfounded and distressed by this unexpected meeting, and the still more unexpected offer made in it, my thoughts began to run wild. It was in my power to live—to eat—to pay my way for a little longer. Of the money at her disposal I need accept no more than a few hundred dollars—a trifle to her, but to me everything in the world. Even if it did me no more than a passing good, it would do me that. If I had in the end to “get out,” as I phrased it, I would rather get out in a month’s time than do it that very day. In the meanwhile there might be—the miracle.
It was the mad prospect of all this that sent me out of Fifth Avenue to crawl along the side of Creed and Creed’s establishment which flanked the cross-street without noticing the way I took. For the minute I had forgotten the errand that brought me to this particular spot in New York.
To be continued