An Outcast/Chapter XXVIII
Pale and hesitating, Brother Spyke says: "I have no passion for delving into such places; and having seen enough for one night, am content to leave the search for this vile old man to you." The valiant missionary addresses Mr. Fitzgerald, who stands with one foot upon the rickety old steps that lead to the second story of the House of the Nine Nations.
This morning, Brother Spyke was ready to do battle with the whole heathen world, to drag it up into light, to evangelize it. Now he quails before this heathen world, so terribly dark, at his own door.
"You have, sir," says the detective, "seen nuthin' as yet. The sights are in these 'ere upper dens; but, I may say it, a body wants nerve. Some of our Aldermen say ye can't see such sights nowhere else."
The missionary replies, holding tenaciously to his umbrella, "That may be true; but I fear they will be waiting me at home." Again he scans inquiringly into the drenched area of the Points; then bidding the officer good-night, is soon out of sight, on his way into Centre Street. Reaching the old stoop, the detective touches a spring, and the shattered door opens into a narrow, gloomy passage, along which he gropes his way, over a floor cobbled with filth, and against an atmosphere thick of disease. Now a faint light flashes through a crevice in the left wall, plays fantastically upon the black surface of the opposite, then dies away. The detective lights his lantern, stands a moment with his ear turned, as if listening to the revelry in the bottomless pit. A door opens to his touch, he enters a cave-like room—it is the one from out which the light stole so curiously, and in which all is misery and sadness. A few embers still burn in a great brick fireplace, shedding a lurid glow over the damp, filthy walls, the discolored ceiling, and the grotesque group upon the floor. "You needn't come at this time of night—we are all honest people;" speaks a massive negro, of savage visage, who (he is clothed in rags) sits at the left side of the fireplace. He coaxes the remnant of his fire to cook some coarse food he has placed in a small, black stew-pan, he watches with steady gaze. Three white females (we blush to say it), their bare, brawny arms resting on their knees, and their disfigured faces drooped into their hands, form an half circle on the opposite side.
"The world don't think nothin' of us down here—we haven't had a bite to eat to-night," gruffly resumes the negro.
"May them that have riches enjoy them, for to be supperless is no uncommon thing wid us," interrupts one of the women, gathering about her the shreds of her tattered garment, parting the matted hair over her face, and revealing her ghastly features. The detective turns his light full upon her. "If we live we live, if we die we die—nobody cares! Look you yonder, Mr. Fitzgerald," continues the negro, with a sarcastic leer. Turning his light to where the negro points, the detective casts a glance into the shadow, and there discovers the rags move. A dozen pair of glassy eyes are seen peering from out the filthy coverings, over which lean arms and blanched hands keep up an incessant motion. Here an emaciated and heart-sick Welsh girl, of thirteen (enciente) lays shivering on the broken floor; there an half-famished Scotch woman, two moaning children nestling at her heart, suffers uncovered upon a pallet of straw. The busy world without would seem not to have a care for her; the clergy have got the heathen world upon their shoulders. Hunger, like a grim tyrant, has driven her to seek shelter in this wretched abode. Despair has made her but too anxious that the grave or prison walls should close the record of her sorrows. How tightly she with her right hand presses her babe to her bosom; how appealingly with her left she asks a pittance of the detective! Will he not save from death her starving child? He has nothing to give her, turns his head, answers only with a look of pity, and moves slowly towards the door.
"You have not been long off the Island, Washington?" inquires the detective, with an air of familiarity.
"I wish," replies the negro, sullenly, "I was back. An honest man as I is, can't get on in this world. Necessity makes rascals of better men than me, Mr. Fitzgerald. Mr. Krone (he's a white man, though) makes all the politicians for the district, and charges me eight dollars a month for this hole. Just measure them two things together, Mr. Fitzgerald; then see if takin' in sixpenny, lodgers pays." Mr. Fitzgerald commences counting them. "You needn't count," pursues the negro, uncovering his stew-pan, "there's only eighteen in to-night. Have twenty, sometimes! Don't get nothin' for that poor Scotch woman an' her children. Can't get it when they hain't got it—you know that, Mr. Fitzgerald."
The detective inquires if any of them have seen Mr. Toddleworth to-day. Washington has not seen him, and makes no scruple of saying he thinks very little of him.
"Faith an' it's hard times with poor Tom," speaks up one of the women, in a deep brogue. "It was only last night—the same I'm tellin' is true, God knows—Mrs. McCarty took him to the Rookery—the divil a mouthful he'd ate durin' the day—and says, bein' a ginerous sort of body, come, take a drop, an' a bite to ate. Mister Toddleworth did that same, and thin lay the night on the floor. To-night—it's the truth, God knows—Tom Downey took him above. An' it's Tom who woundn't be the frind of the man who hadn't a shillin' in his pocket."
The detective shrugs his shoulders, and having thanked the woman, withdraws into the passage, to the end of which he cautiously picks his way, and knocks at a distained door that fronts him. A voice deep and husky bids him enter, which he does, as the lurid glare of his lantern reveals a room some twelve by sixteen feet, the plaster hanging in festoons from the black walls, and so low of ceiling that he scarce can stand upright. Four bunk-beds, a little bureau, a broken chair or two, and a few cheap pictures, hung here and there on the sombre walls, give it an air of comfort in grateful contrast with the room just left. "Who lives here?" inquires the detective, turning his light full upon each object that attracts his attention. "Shure it's only me—Mrs. Terence Murphy—and my three sisters (the youngest is scarce fourteen), and the two English sisters: all honest people, God knows," replies Mrs. Murphy, with a rapid tongue.
"It's not right of you to live this way," returns the detective, continuing to survey the prostrate forms of Mrs. Murphy, her three sisters, and the two fair-haired English girls, and the besotted beings they claim as husbands. Alarm is pictured in every countenance. A browned face withdraws under a dingy coverlid, an anxious face peers from out a pallet on the floor, a prostrate figure in the corner inquires the object of Mr. Detective Fitzgerald's visit—and Mrs. Murphy, holding it more becoming of respectable society, leaves the bed in which she had accommodated five others, and gets into one she calls her own. A second thought, and she makes up her mind not to get into bed, but to ask Mr. Fitzgerald if he will be good enough, when next he meets his Onher, the Mayor, just to say to him how Mr. Krone is bringing disgrace upon the house and every one in it, by letting rooms to negroes. Here she commences pouring out her pent-up wrath upon the head of Mr. Krone, and the colored gentleman, whom she declares has a dozen white females in his room every night. The detective encourages her by saying it is not right of Mr. Krone, who looks more at the color of his money than the skin of his tenants. "To come of a dacint family—and be brought to this!" says Mrs. Murphy, allowing her passion to rise, and swearing to have revenge of the negro in the next room.
"You drink this gin, yet—I have warned you against it," interposes the detective, pointing to some bottles on the bureau. "Faith, an' it's the gin gets a many of us," returns the woman, curtly, as she gathers about her the skirts of her garments. "Onyhow, yerself wouldn't deprive us of a drop now and then, jist to keep up the spirits." The detective shakes his head, then discloses to them the object of his search, adding, in parenthesis, that he does not think Mr. Toddleworth is the thief. A dozen tongues are ready to confirm the detective's belief. "Not a shillin' of it did the poor crature take—indeed he didn't, now, Mr. Fitzgerald. 'Onor's 'onor, all over the wurld!" says Mrs. Murphy, grasping the detective by the hand. "Stay till I tell ye all about it. Mary Maguire—indeed an' ye knows her, Mr. Fitzgerald—this same afternoon looked in to say—'how do ye do, Mrs. Murphy. See this! Mrs. Murphy,' says she, 'an' the divil a sich a pocket of money I'd see before, as she held in her right hand, jist. 'Long life to ye, Mary,' says I. 'We'll have a pint, Mrs. Murphy,' says she. 'May ye niver want the worth of it,' says I. And the pint was not long in, when Mary got a little the worse of it, and let all out about the money. 'You won't whisper it, Mrs. Murphy,' says she, 'if I'd tell ye in confidence by what manes I got the lift?'"
"'Not in the wide world, Mary,' says I; 'ye may trust me for that same.' 'Shure didn't I raise it from the pocket of an auld woman in spectacles, that watched the fool beyant dig up the corporation.' 'An' it'll not do yerself much good,' says I, liftin' the same, and cuttin' away to the house. 'You won't whisper it?' says she."
"I can confirm the truth of that same," rejoins a brusque-figured man, rising from his pallet, and speaking with regained confidence. "Mary looked in at the Blazers, and being the worse of liquor, showed a dale of ready money, and trated everybody, and gave the money to everybody, and was wilcome wid everybody. Then Mrs. McCarty got aboard of her ginerosity, and got her into the Rookery, where the Miss McCartys thought it would not be amiss to have a quart. The same was brought in, and Mary hersel' was soon like a dead woman on the floor, jist—"
"And they got the money all away?" interrupts the detective.
"Faith, an' she'll not have a blessed dollar come daylight," continues the man, resuming his pallet.
The detective bids Mrs. Murphy good night, and is soon groping his way over a rickety old floor, along a dark, narrow passage, scarce high enough to admit him, and running at right angles with the first. A door on the left opens into a grotto-like place, the sickly atmosphere of which seems hurling its poison into the very blood. "Who's here?" inquires the detective, and a voice, feeble and hollow, responds: "Lodgers!"
The damp, greasy walls; the broken ceilings; the sooty fireplace, with its shattered bricks; the decayed wainscoating—its dark, forlorn aspect, all bespeak it the fit abode of rats. And yet Mr. Krone thinks it comfortable enough (the authorities think Mr. Krone the best judge) for the accommodation of thirteen remnants of human misery, all of whom are here huddled together on the wet, broken floor, borrowing warmth of one another. The detective's light falls curiously upon the dread picture, which he stands contemplating. A pale, sickly girl, of some eleven summers, her hair falling wildly over her wan features, lays upon some rags near the fireplace, clinging to an inebriated mother. Here a father, heart-sick and prostrate with disease, seeks to keep warm his three ragged children, nestling about him. An homeless outcast, necessity forces him to send them out to prey upon the community by day, and to seek in this wretched hovel a shelter at night. Yonder the rags are thrown back, a moving mass is disclosed, and there protrudes a disfigured face, made ghostly by the shadow of the detective's lantern. At the detective's feet a prostrate girl, insensible of gin, is seized with convulsions, clutches with wasted hands at the few rags about her poor, flabby body, then with fingers grasping, and teeth firmly set, her whole frame writhes in agony. Your missionary never whispered a kind, encouraging word in her ear; his hand never pressed that blanched bone with which she now saddens your heart! Different might it have been with her had some gentle-tongued Brother Spyke sought her out, bore patiently with her waywardness, snatched her from this life of shame, and placed her high in an atmosphere of light and love.
It is here, gentle shepherds, the benighted stand most in need of your labors. Seek not to evangelize the Mahomedan world until you have worked a reform here; and when you have done it, a monument in heaven will be your reward.
"Mr. Toddleworth is not here," says the detective, withdrawing into the passage, then ascending a broken and steep stairs that lead into the third story. Nine shivering forms crouched in one dismal room; four squabbish women, and three besotted men in another; and in a third, nine ragged boys and two small girls—such are the scenes of squalid misery presented here. In a little front room, Mr. Tom Downey, his wife, and eight children, lay together upon the floor, half covered with rags. Mr. Downey startles at the appearance of the detective, rises nervously from his pallet, and after the pause of a moment, says: "Indeed, yer welcome, Mr. Fitzgerald. Indeed, I have not—an' God knows it's the truth I tell—seen Mr. Toddleworth the week;" he replies, in answer to a question from the detective.
"You took a drop with him this afternoon?" continues the detective, observing his nervousness.
"God knows it's a mistake, Mr. Fitzgerald." Mr. Downey changes the subject, by saying the foreigners in the garret are a great nuisance, and disturb him of his rest at night.
A small, crooked stair leads into "Organ-grinders' Roost," in the garret. To "Organ-grinders' Roost" the detective ascends. If, reader, you have ever pictured in your mind the cave of despair, peopled by beings human only in shape, you may form a faint idea of the wretchedness presented in "Organ-grinders' Roost," at the top of the house of the Nine Nations. Seven stalworth men shoot out from among a mass of rags on the floor, and with dark, wandering eyes, and massive, uncombed beards, commence in their native Italian a series of interrogatories, not one of which the detective can understand. They would inquire for whom he seeks at this strange hour. He (the detective) stands unmoved, as with savage gesture—he has discovered his star—they tell him they are famishing of hunger. A pretty black-eyed girl, to whose pale, but beautifully oval face an expression of sorrow lends a touching softness, lays on the bare floor, beside a mother of patriarchal aspect. Now she is seized with a sharp cough that brings blood at every paroxysm. As if forgetting herself, she lays her hand gently upon the cheek of her mother, anxious to comfort her. Ah! the hard hand of poverty has been upon her through life, and stubbornly refuses to relax its grip, even in her old age. An organ forms here and there a division between the sleepers; two grave-visaged monkeys sit chattering in the fireplace, then crouch down on the few charred sticks. A picture of the crucifix is seen conspicuous over the dingy fireplace, while from the slanting roof hang several leathern girdles. Oh, what a struggle for life is their's! Mothers, fathers, daughters, and little children, thus promiscuously grouped, and coming up in neglect and shame. There an old man, whom remorseless death is just calling into eternity, with dull, glassy eyes, white, flowing beard, bald head, sunken mouth, begrimed and deeply-wrinkled face, rises, spectre-like, from his pallet. Now he draws from his breast a small crucifix, and commences muttering to it in a guttural voice. "Peace, peace, good old man—the holy father will come soon—the holy virgin will come soon: he will receive the good spirit to his bosom," says a black-eyed daughter, patting him gently upon the head, then looking in his face solicitously, as he turns his eyes upward, and for a few moments seems invoking the mercy of the Allwise. "Yes, father," she resumes, lightening up the mat of straw upon which he lays, "the world has been unkind to you, but you are passing from it to a better—you will be at peace soon."
"Soon, soon, soon," mumbles the old man, in a whisper; and having carefully returned the crucifix to his bosom, grasps fervently the hand of the girl and kisses it, as her eyes swim in tears.
Such, to the shame of those who live in princely palaces, and revel in luxury, are but faintly-drawn pictures of what may be seen in the house of the Nine Nations.
The detective is about to give up the search, and turns to descend the stairs, when suddenly he discerns a passage leading to the north end of the garret. Here, in a little closet-like room, on the right, the rats his only companions, lies the prostrate form of poor Toddleworth.
"Well, I persevered till I found you," says the detective, turning his light full upon the body. Another minute, and his features become as marble; he stands aghast, and his whole frame seems struggling under the effect of some violent shock. "What, what, what!" he shouts, in nervous accents, "Murder! murder! murder! some one has murdered him." Motionless the form lies, the shadow of the light revealing the ghastly spectacle. The head lies in a pool of blood, the bedimmed eyes, having taken their last look, remain fixedly set on the black roof. "He has died of a blow—of a broken skull!" says the frightened official, feeling, and feeling, and pressing the arms and hands that are fast becoming rigid. Life is gone out; a pauper's grave will soon close over what remains of this wretched outcast. The detective hastens down stairs, spreads the alarm over the neighborhood, and soon the House of the Nine Nations is the scene of great excitement.