It is a long narrow pocket opening on a little street which runs like a tortuous seam up and down the city, over there. It was at the end of the summer; and in summer, in the evening, the mouth of the pocket is hard to find, because of the people, in it and about, who sit across the passage, gasping at the dirty winds that come loafing down the street like crafty beggars seeking a hole to sleep in—like mean beggars, bereft of the spirit of free windhood. Down in the pocket itself the air is quite dead; one feels oneself enveloped in a scum-covered pool of it, and at every breath long filaments of invisible roots, swamp-roots, tear and tangle in your floundering lungs.
I had to go to the very end, to the bottom of the pocket. There, in the deepest of these alley-holes, lives the woman to whom I am indebted for the whiteness of this waist I wear. How she does it, I don’t know; poverty works miracles like that, just as the black marsh mud gives out lilies.
At the very last door I knocked, and presently a man’s voice, weak and suffocated, called from a window above. I explained.—“There’s a chair there; sit down. She’ll be home soon.” And the voice was caught in a cough.
This, then, was the consumptive husband she had told me of! I looked up at the square hole dimly outlined in the darkness, whence the cough issued, and suddenly felt a horrible pressure at my heart and a curious sense of entanglement, as if all the invisible webs of disease had momentarily acquired a conscious sense of prey within their clutch, and tightened on it like an octopus. The haunting terror of the unknown, the dim horror of an inimic Presence, recoil before the merciless creeping and floating of an enemy one cannot grasp or fight, repulsive turning from a Thing that has reached behind while you have been seeking to face it, that is there awaiting you with the frightful ironic laughter of the Silence—all this swept round and through me as I stared up through the night.
Up there on the bed he was lying, he who had been meshed in the fatal web for three long years—and was struggling still! In the darkness I felt his breath draw.
The sharp barking of a dog came as a relief. I turned to the broken chair, and sat down to wait. The alley was hemmed in by a high wall, and from the farther side of it there towered up four magnificent old trees, whose great crowns sent down a whispering legend of vanished forests and the limitless sweep of clean air that had washed through them, long ago, and that would never come again. How long, how long since those far days of purity, before the plague spot of Man had crept upon them! How strong those proud old giants were that had not yet been strangled! How beautiful they were! How mean and ugly were the misshapen things that sat in the doorways of the foul dens that they had made, chattering, chattering, as ages ago the apes had chattered in the forest! What curious beasts they were, with their paws and heads sticking out of the coverings they had twisted round their bodies—chattering, chattering always, and always moving about, unable to understand the still strong growths of silence.
So a half hour passed.
At last I saw a parting in the group of bodies across the entrance of the pocket, and a familiar weary figure carrying a basket, coming down the brickway. She stopped half way where a widening of the alley furnished the common drying place, and a number of clothes lines crossed and recrossed each other, casting a net of shadows on the pavement; after a glance at the sky, which had clouded over, she sighed heavily and again advanced. In the sickly light of the alley lamp the rounded shoulders seemed to droop like an old crone’s. Yet the woman was still young. That she might not be startled, I called “Good evening.”
The answer was spoken in that tone of forced cheerfulness which the wretched always give to their employers; but she sank upon the step with the habitual “My, but I’m glad to sit down,” of one who seldom sits.
“Tired out, I suppose. The day has been so hot.”
“Yes, and I’ve got to go to work and iron again till eleven o’clock, and it’s awful hot in that kitchen. I don’t mind the washing so much in summer; I wash out here. But it’s hot ironing. Are you in a hurry?”
I said no, and sat on. “How much rent do you pay?” I asked.
“One over the other?”
“Yes. It’s an awful rent, and he won’t fix anything. The door is half off its hinges, and the paper is a sight.”
“Have you lived here long?”
“Over three years. We moved here before he got sick.
I don’t keep nothing right now, but it used to be nice. It’s so quiet back here away from the street; you don’t hear no noise. That fence ought to be whitewashed. I used to keep it white, and everything clean. And it was so nice to sit out here in summer under them trees. You could just think you were in the park.”
A curious wonder went through me. Somewhere back in me a voice was saying, “To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not, it shall be taken away even that which he hath.” This horrible pool had been “nice” to her! Again I felt the abyss seizing me with its tentacles, and high overhead in the tree-crowns I seemed to hear a spectral mockery of laughter.
“Yes,” I forced myself to say, “they are splendid trees. I wonder they have lived so long.”
“‘Tis funny, aint it? That’s a great big yard in there; the man that used to own it was a gardener, and there’s a lot of the curiousest flowers there yet. But he’s dead now, and the folks that’s got it don’t keep up nothing. They’re waiting to sell it, I suppose.”
Above, over our heads, the racking cough sounded again. “Aint it terrible?” she murmured. “Day and night, day and night; he don’t get no rest, and neither do I. It’s no wonder some people commits suicide.”
“Does he ever speak of it?” I asked. Her voice dropped to a semi-whisper. “Not now so much, since the church people’s got hold of him. He used to; I think he’d a done it if it hadn’t been for them. But they’ve been kind o’ talkin’ to him lately, and tellin’ him it wouldn’t be right,—on account of the insurance, you know.”
My heart gave a wild bound of revolt, and I shut my teeth fast. O man, man, what have you made of yourself! More stupid than all the beasts of the earth, for a dole of the things you make to be robbed of, living,—to be robbed of and poisoned with—you consent to the death that eats with a million mouths, eats inexorably. You submit to unnamable torture in the holy name of—Insurance! And in the name of Insurance this miserable woman keeps alive the bones of a man!
I took my bundle and went. And all the way I felt myself tearing through the tendrils of death that hung and swayed from the noisome wall, and caught at things as they passed. And all the way there pressed upon me pictures of the skeleton and the woman, clothed in firm flesh, young and joyous, and thrilling with the love of the well and strong. Ah, if some one had said to her then, “Some day you will slave to keep him alive through fruitless agonies, that for your last reward you may take the price of his pain”!
I was wrong. I thought she wanted the insurance money, but I misunderstood her. I found it out one wild October day more than a year later, when for the second time I sought the end of the alley.
The sufferer had “suffered out”; the gaunt and wasted shell of the man lay no more by the window in the upper story. The woman was free. “Rest at last,” I thought, “for both of them.”
But it was not as I thought.
I expected ease to come into the woman’s drawn face, and relaxation to her stooping figure. But something else came upon both, something quite unwonted and inexplicable; a wandering look in the eyes, a stupid drop to the mouth, an uncertainty in her walk, as of one who is half minded to go back and look for something. There was, too, an irritating irregularity in the performance of her work, which began to be annoying.
At last, on that October day, this new unreliability reached the limit of provocation. I was leaving the city; I needed my laundry, needed it at once; and here it was four o’clock in the afternoon, the train due at night, and packing impossible till the wash came. It was five days overdue.
The wind was howling furiously, the rain driving in sheets, but there was no alternative; I must get to the “End of the Alley” and back, somehow.
The gray, rain-drenched atmosphere was still grayer in the alley,—still, still grayer at the end. And what with the gray of it and the rain of it, I could scarcely see the thing that sat facing me when I opened the door,—a sort of human blur, hunched in a rocking-chair, its head sunken on its breast.
In response to my startled exclamation, the face was lifted vacantly for a second, and then dropped again. But I had seen: drunk, dead drunk!
And this woman had never drunk.
I looked around the wretched room. By the window, where the gray light trailed in, stood a table covered with unwashed dishes; some late flies were crawling in the gutters of slop, besotted derelicts of insects, stupidly staggering up and down the cracked china. On the stove stood a number of flat-irons, but there was no fire. A mass of unironed clothes lay on an old couch and over the backs of two unoccupied chairs. On the wall above the couch, hung the portrait of the dead man.
I walked to the slumping figure in the rocker, and with ill-contained brutality demanded: “So this is why you did not bring my clothes! Where are they?”
I heard my own voice cutting like the edge of a knife, and felt half-ashamed when that weak, shaking thing lifted up its foolish face, and stared at me with watery, uncomprehending eyes.
“My clothes,” I reiterated; “are they here or upstairs?”
“Guess-s-so,” stammered the uncertain voice, “g-guess so.”
“Nothing for it but to find them myself,” I muttered, beginning the search through the pile on the couch. Nothing of mine there, so I needs must climb to the Golgotha on the second floor, from which the Cross had disappeared, but which still bore traces of its victim’s long crucifixion,—a pair of old bed-slippers still by the window, a sleeping-cap on the wall. Some cannot but leave so the things that have touched their dead.
One by one I found the “rough-dry” garments, here, there, in the hallway, in the garret, hanging or crumpled up among dozens of others. And all the while I hunted, the rain beat and the wind blew, and a low third sound kept mingling with them, rising from the lower floor. My heart smote me when I heard it, for I knew it was the woman sobbing. The self-righteous Pharisee within me gave an impatient sneer: “Alcohol tears!” But something else clutched at my throat, and I found myself glancing at the dead man’s shoes.
When I went downstairs, I avoided the rocking-chair, tied up my bundle, counted out the money, laid it on the table, and then turning round said, deliberately and harshly: “There is your money; don’t buy whiskey with it, Mrs. Bossert.”
Crying had a little sobered her. She looked up, still with less light in her face than in an intelligent dog’s, but with some dim self-consciousness. It was as a face that had appeared behind deforming bubbles of water. She half lifted her hand, let it fall, and stammered, “No, I won’t, I won’t. It don’t do nobody no good.”
The senseless desire to preach seized hold of me. “Mrs. Bossert,” I cried out, “aren’t you ashamed of yourself? A woman like you, who went through so much, and so long, and so bravely! And now, when you could get along all right, to act like this!”
The soggy mouth dropped open, the glazy eyes stared at me, fixedly and foolishly, then shifted to the portrait on the wall; and with a mawkish simper, as of some old drab playing sixteen, she slobbered out, nodding to the portrait: “All—for the love—o’ him.”
It was so utterly ludicrous that I laughed. Then a cold rage took me: “Look here,” I said (and again I heard my own voice, grim and quiet, cutting the air like a whip), “if you believe, as I have heard you say, that your husband can look down on you from anywhere, remember you couldn’t do a thing to hurt him worse than you’re doing now. ‘Love’ indeed!”
The lash went home. The stricken figure huddled closer; the voice came out like a dumb thing’s moan: “Oh—I’m all alone.”
Then suddenly I understood. I had taken it for mockery, and profanation, that leering look at the shadow on the wall, that driveling stammer, “All—for the love—o’ him.” And it had been a solemn thing! No lover’s word spoken in the morning of youth with the untried day before it, under the seductive witchery of answering breath and kisses, rushing blood and throbbing bodies; but the word of a woman bent with service, seamed with labor, haggard with watching; the word of a woman who, at the washtub, had kept her sufferer by the work of her hands, and watched him between the snatches of her sleep. The immemorial passion of a common heart, that is not much, that had not much, and has lost all. Years were in it. For years she had had her burden to carry; and she had carried it to the edge of the grave. There it had fallen from her, and her arms were empty. Nothing to do any more. Alone.
She sat up suddenly with a momentary flare of light in her face.—“As long as I had him,” she said, “I could do. I thought I’d be glad when he was gone, a many and many a time. But I’d rather he was up there yet.... I did everything. I didn’t put him away mean. There was a hundred and twenty-five dollars insurance. I spent it all on him. He was covered with flowers.”
The flare died down, and she fell together like a collapsing bag. I saw the gray vacancy moving inward toward the last spark of intelligence in her eyes, as an ashing coal whitens inward toward the last dull red point of fire. Then this heap of rags shuddered with an inhuman whine, “A-l-o-n-e.”
In the crowding shadows I felt the desolation pressing me like a vise. Behind that sunken heap in the chair gathered a midnight specter; for a moment I caught a flash from its royal, malignant eyes, the Monarch of human ruins, the murderous Bridegroom of widowed souls, King Alcohol.
“After all, as well that way as another,” I muttered; and aloud (but the whip-cord had gone out of my voice), “The money is on the table.”
She did not hear me; the Bridegroom “had given His Beloved Sleep.”
I went out softly into the wild rain, and overhead, among the lashing arms of the leafless trees, and around the alley pocket, the wind was whining: “A-l-o-n-e.”