It was late at night, a raw, rough-shouldering night, that shoved men in corners as having no business in the street, and the few people in the northbound car drew themselves into themselves, radiating hedgehog quills of feeling at their neighbors. Presently there came in a curious figure, clothed in the drapery of its country’s honor, the blue flannel flapping very much about its legs. I looked at its feet first, because they were so very small and girlish, and because the owner of them adjusted the flapping pants with the coquetry of a maiden switching her skirts. Then I glanced at the hands: they also were small and womanish, and constantly in motion. At last, the face, expecting a fresh young boy’s, not long away from some country village. It was the sunk, seamed face of a man of forty-five, seared, and with iron-gray eyebrows, but lit by twinkling young eyes, that gleamed at everything good-humoredly. The sailor’s pancake with its official lettering was pushed rakishly down and forward, and looking at hat and wearer, one instinctively turned milliner and decorated the “shape” with aigrette and bows,—they would nod so accordant with the flirting head. Presently the restless hands went up and gave the hat another tilt, went down and straightened the “divided skirt,” folded themselves an instant while the little feet began tattooing the car floor, and the scintillant eyes looked general invitation all round the car. No perceptible shrinkage of quills, however, so the eyes wandered over to their image in the plate glass, and directly the hat got another coquettish dip, and the skirts another flirt and settle.
The conductor came in: some one to talk to at last! “Will you let me off at Ninth and Race?”
The dim chill of a smile shivered over the other faces in the car. Ninth and Race! Who ever heard a defender of his country’s glory ask a conductor on a street car in Philadelphia for any other point than Ninth and Race!
The conductor nodded appreciatively. “Just come to the city, I suppose,” he said interlocutively.
The sailor plucked off his hat, exhibiting his label with child-like vanity: “S. S. Alabama. Here for three days just. Been over in New York.”
“Like it?” remarked the conductor, prolonging his stay inside the car.
The hat went on again, proudly. “Sixteen years in the service. Yes, sir. Six-teen years. The service is all right. The service is good enough for me. Live there. Expect to die there. Sixteen years. You won’t forget to let me off at Ninth and Race.”
“No. Going to see Chinatown?”
“Sure. Chinatown’s all right. Seen it in Hong Kong. Want to see it in Philadelphia.”
O cradle of my country’s freedom! These are your defenders,—these to whom your chief delight is your stews and your brothels, your fantans and your opium dens, your sinks of filth and your cesspools of slime! Let them only be as they were “at Hong Kong”—or worse—and “the service” asks no more. He will live in it and die in it, and it’s good enough for him. Oh, not your old-time patriotic legends, nor the halls of the great Rebel Birth, nor the solemn, silent Bell that once proclaimed liberty throughout the land, nor the piteous relics of your dead wise men, nor any dream of your bright, pure young days when yet you were “a fair greene country towne,” swims up in the vision of “the service” when he sets his foot within your borders, filling him with devotion to Our Lady Liberty, and drawing him to New World pilgrim shrines. Not these, oh no, not these. But your leper spot, your Old World plague-house, your breeding-ground of pest-begotten human vermin! So there is Chinatown, and electric glare enough upon it, and rat-holes enough within it, “the service” is good enough for him,—he will shoot to order in your defense till he dies!
Rat-tat-tat went the little feet upon the floor, and the pancake got another rakish pull. Presently the active figure squared sharply about and faced the door. The car had stopped, and a drunken man was staggering in. The sailor caught him good-humoredly in his arms, swung him about, and seated him beside himself with a comforting “Now you’re all right, sir; sit right here, my friend.”
The drunkard had a sodden, stupid face and bleary eyes from which the alcohol was oozing. In his shaking hand he held a bunch of delicate half-opened roses, hothouse roses, cream and pink; the odor of them drifted faintly through the car like a whiff of summer. Something like a sigh of relaxation exhaled from the hedge-hogs, and a dozen commiserating eyes were fastened on the ill-fated flowers,—so fragile, so sweet, so inoffensive, so wantonly sacrificed. The hot, unsteady, clutching hand had already burned the stems, and the pale, helpless faces of the roses drooped heavily.
The drunkard, full of beery effervescence, cast a bubbling look over the car, and spying a young lady opposite, suddenly stood up and offered the bouquet to her. She stared resolutely through him, seeing and hearing nothing, not even the piteous child-blossoms, with their pleading, downbent heads, and with a confused muttering of “No offense, no offense, you know,” the man sank back again. As he did so the uncertain fingers released one stem, and a cream-white bloom went fluttering down, like a butterfly with broken wings. There it lay, jolting back and forth on the dirty floor, and no one dared to pick it up.
Presently the drunkard sopped over comfortably on the sailor’s shoulder, who, with a generally directed wink of bonhomie, settled him easily, bestowing a sympathetic pat upon the bloated cheek. The conductor disturbed the situation by asking for his fare. The drunkard stupidly rubbed his eyes and offered his flowers in place of the nickel. Again they were refused; and after a fluctuant search in his pockets between intervals of nodding, the dirty, over-fingered bit of metal was produced, accepted—and still the dying blossoms shivered in the torturer’s hands.
He was drowsing off again, when, by some sudden turn of the obstructed machinery in his skull, his lids opened and he struggled up; the image of myself must have swum suddenly across the momentarily acting eye-nerve, and with gurgling deference, at the immanent risk of losing his equilibrium once more, he proffered the bouquet to me, grabbing the heads and presenting them stem-end towards. A smothered snuffle went round the car.
I wanted them, Oh, how I wanted them! My heart beat suffocatingly with the sense of baffled pity and rage and cowardice. Who was he, that drunken sot, with his smirching, wabbling hand, that I should fear to take the roses from him? Why must I grind my teeth and sit there helpless, while those beautiful things were crushed and blasted and torn in living fragments? I could take them home, I could give them drink, they would lift up their heads, they would open wide, for days they would make the room sweet, and the pale, soft glory of their inimitable petals would shine like a luminous promise across the winter. Nobody wanted them, nobody cared; this sodden beast in the flare-up of his consciousness wished to be quit of them. Why might I not take them? Something sharp bit and burned my eyelids as I glanced at the one on the floor. The conductor had stepped on it and crushed it open; and there lay the marvelous creamy leaves, curled at their edges like kiss-seeking lips, each with its glory greater than Solomon’s, all fouled and ruined in the human reek.
And I dared not save the others! Miserable coward!
I forced my hands tighter in my pockets and turned my head away towards the outside night and the backward slipping street. Between me and it, a dim reflection wavered, the image of the thing that stood there before me; and somewhere, like a far-off, dulled bell, I heard the words, “And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him.” The sailor, no doubt with the kindly intention of relieving me from annoyance, and not averse to play with anything, made pretense of seizing the roses. Then the drunkard, in an abandon of generosity, began tearing off the blossoms by the heads, scrutinizing, and casting each away as unfit for the exalted service of his “friend,” till the latter reaching out managed to get hold of a white one with a stem. He trimmed its sheltering green carefully, brought out a long black pin, stuck it through the stalk, and fastened the pale shining head against his dark blue blouse. All hedgehoggery smiled. We had thrust the roses through with our forbidding quills,—what matter that a barbarian nail crucified this last one? The drunkard slept again, limply holding his scattering bunch of headless stems and torn foliage. Pink and cream the petals strewed the floor. Where was the loving hand that had nursed them to bloom in this hard, unwonted weather; loved and nursed and—sold them?
“Ninth and Race,” sang out the conductor. The sailor sprang up with a merry grin, bowed gaily to everyone, twinkled his fingers in the air with a blithe “Ta ta; I’m off for Chinatown,” as he slid through the door, and was away in a trice, tripping down to the pestiferous sink that was awaiting him somewhere. And on his breast he wore the pallid flower that had offered its stainless beauty to me, that I had loved,—and had not loved enough to save. The rest were dead; but that one—somewhere down there in a den where even the gas-choked lights were leering like prostitutes’ eyes, down there in that trough of swill and swine, that pure, still thing had yet to die.