An Experiment in Misery

An Experiment in Misery 

Stephen CraneIt 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 trousers pockets, toward the downtown 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 two 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 welldressed Brooklyn people who swarmed toward 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. It 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 sidewalks, 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 doorpost announced “Free hot soup tonight!” 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 mall allowed himself to be

swallowed. A bartender placed a schooner of dark and portentous beer on the

bar. Its monumental form upreared until the froth atop was above the crown

of the young man’s brown derby.

“Soup over there, gents,” said the bartender 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 sidewalk 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.”

“How much?”

“Ten cents.”

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, an’ 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 respecterble 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’ hell!”

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, looka 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 countenanace 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 speedlly 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.

A man, naked save for a little snuff-coloured undershirt, was parading

sleepily along the corridor. He rubbed his eyes and, giving vent to a

prodigious yawn, demanded to be told the time.

“Half-past one.”

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 handled 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 draughts. 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 fingernails 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 commonplace 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 fishwife fashion. It appeared that some article of his apparel had

vanished.

The young man attired himself 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 cheelily.

“Hello,” said the young man “Are yell 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 damned 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!”

“You lie!”

“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 wan ta git some breakfas’ I’ll lend yeh three cents t’ do it

with. But say, look-a here, you’ve gotta 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

respecterble 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 says, 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 til1 th’ ol’ man

fired me. ‘Git t’ hell outa here, yeh wuthless skunk, git t’ hel1 outa here,

an’ go die,’ he says. ‘You’re a hell of a father,’ I says, ‘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 lamb-like gambols. His

mouth was wreathed in a red grin.

In 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 he

valued. Social position, comfort, the pleasures of living were unconquerable

kingdoms. He felt a sudden awe.

And in the background a mulititude of buildings, of pitiless hues and

sternly high, were to him emblematic of a nation forcing its regal head into

the coulds, 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.

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