The Story of an Unequal Triangle
By SAMUEL HOPKINS ADAMS
THIS story is not a true story. If it were, I should shrink from the telling. It would harrow the sensibilities of too many eminently respectable people. Since it is merely a figment of the imagination—
The three were Jencks-Esq., Jencks-Jr., and B. Slufek. They all lived in and by virtue of Steelopolis. And they all worked in the Mammoth Mills. Jencks-Esq. and Jencks-Jr. toiled unremittingly in the offices. They considered that it was their duty to do so, which doubtless it was. For one of them owned the Mammoth Mills and the other expected to.
B. Slufek sweated profusely in the blooming-mill where the ten-ton ingots of steel weave to and fro like giants in the torture of a white heat and where, when you become torpid from over-exhaustion and have an arm burned off, a generous paternal management pays you $100 compensation—if you're lucky. B. Slufek worked there, not because he considered it his duty, but because he had to make a living. He didn't make it. Not in any real sense, that is.
Jencks-Esq. was a Highly Esteemed Citizen. All the newspapers said so. By this they meant that he was worth several million dollars. He employed five thousand men to make this sum for him, and deemed himself a benefactor of the human race.
"What would become of all these poor fellows if it were not for me?" he frequently said. His tone, when he said this, was the tone of a challenge.
Incidentally, he never thought to inquire what did become of the poor fellows. They worked. Dividends accrued. That was enough for Jencks-Esq.
Occasionally Jencks-Esq. made an after-dinner speech, expatiating upon the Proud Industrial Achievements of Steelopolis. Jencks-Jr. listened to these speeches with glowing affection. He believed of Jencks-Esq. all that Jencks-Esq. believed of himself. He was very young and warm hearted and unsuspecting.
B. Slufek never heard any of the Jencks-Esq. oratory. The Proud Industrial Achievements of Steelopolis wouldn't have interested him anyway. He was singly intent upon the Proud Industrial Achievement of getting three meals per day for self and family. Add to this, $11 a month for rent, and the problem looms large. Even at his princely wage of $1.65 for a twelve-hour day, with a periodic working shift of twenty-four hours on end, B. Slufek sometimes ran into debt. This, I suppose, was due to innate depravity somewhere. Obviously the innate depravity must have been B. Slufek's. It could hardly have been Jencks-Esq.'s. For Jencks-Esq. was a good Hun.
Everybody recognized the goodness of Jencks-Esq, He regularly went to church and worshiped God. At least, he worshiped his own idea of God. It was a somewhat peculiar idea. Nowhere in the records of religion could you find anything resembling the God of Jencks-Esq., not even if you went back to Greek Paganism. For, after all, the gods of the Greeks were a public sort of gods. They looked after everybody impartially. The Jencks-Esq. god (I shall no longer dignify it with a capital) was exclusively devoted to the interests of Jencks-Esq. As a matter of fact it was a pasteboard god, invented by Jencks-Esq.'s pastor in return for a new church. Every morning Jencks-Esq. piously thanked his god, who was not as other gods are, that he himself was not as other men were.
Jencks-Jr. also had a God, dimly visioned. His was the true God, whose altar is raised wherever a clean heart looks upward. Jencks-Jr. looked upward rather timidly; a little shamedfacedly, indeed, if the truth be known. He hadn't much of an opinion of himself in that respect, being at heart humble. He had a very great opinion of his father, being a loyal and unquestioning sort of son. When he consciously prayed, Jencks-Jr. thanked God for giving him such a father as Jencks-Esq.
B. Slufek had no God at all. He hadn't time for one. It sometimes happens that way when men work twelve hours every day in the week, with a periodic shift of twenty-four hours on end. Jencks-Esq.'s laborers were sunk in bestial slumber what time Jencks-Esq. was in his pew at church. Alas for the baseness of the human soul!
But had B. Slufek a soul? Something was there, inside, of course. But I am speaking now of a soul as we understand it; you and I, comfortable reader. A well-groomed, carefully considered, self-heedful sort of a soul; Jencks-Esq.'s sort of a soul, in point of fact. Jencks-Esq. presumably didn't believe that B. Slufek possessed anything of the kind. He never would have dared to work a man with a soul as he worked B. Slufek. He would have been afraid of meeting that soul—later.
Not that Jencks-Esq. was unconcerned as to the inner welfare of his fellow beings. You mustn't think that. Many a foreign mission blessed his conspicuous lavishness. It gave him a sense of almost superhuman power to consider, when he had leisure, that he was making life happier in Darkest Africa, through the earnings of his particular Proud Industrial man. Whereas B. Slufek was a Regrettable Achievement. Happier than in Darkest Steelopolis, indeed. But Jencks-Esq. knew noth ing about Darkest Steelopolis, though he owned part of it. It was too near.
With Jencks-Jr. it was not so near but what it occasionally troubled him through hearsay. His mind asked rebellious questions. Once he referred some of these questions to his father. The damnatory word "Paternalism" humbled him to silence. He learned at the same time that only "irresponsible idealists" given over, body and soul to the propagation of "socialistic rot," concerned themselves with light, air, germs and death rates. Jencks-Esq. said so. With emphasis. B. Slufek could have confirmed the statement. He didn't bother about these matters. He was no rresponsible idealist. Besides, he didn't know enough.
Coming out of the mill, B. Slufek frequently met the two Jenckses emerging from the office. He always touched his hat humbly. Esq. never saw him. Jencks-Jr. gave him a friendly nod in return. This caused B. Slufek a dull sort of pleasure. He would bob at his hat again and go on. Of course it was un-American for him to touch his hat at all. He had heard a labor agitator say as much at a meeting. It hadn't impressed him particularly. B. Slufek had failed to become Americanized as swiftly as his well-wishers—had there been any—might have hoped. It is bound to be thus, occasionally, with men who work twelve hours every day in the week with a periodic shift of twenty-four hours on end. B. Slufek remained a Regrettable Hun, saluting power and wealth humbly in the persons of Jencks-Esq. and Jencks-Jr.
One evening B. Slufek came out late. Jencks-Jr. was also late. The two men met. B. Slufek saluted humbly. Jencks-Jr. smiled and nodded. B. Slufek threw his arms around Jencks-Jr. and hung up)on his neck. He did this, not out of affection, but from the impelling necessity of clinging to something solid. Jencks-Jr. looked solid. All else reeled before B. Slufek. A dagger of icy air had pierced his lungs. This is a logical, though doubtless lamentable result twelve hours' labor at a temperature of anything you please above 120, into an outside frost of ten below freezing. B. Slufek became very limp and saggy.
Jencks-Jr. heaved B. Slufek up and held him.
"Here," said he. "What's this? Drunk?"
"Excoose me; no," murmured B. Slufek. Then his cough took him and tore him.
Jencks, Jr.'s, gloved hand, which had tightened on the Regrettable Hun's wrist felt the heat burn through.
"You're ill," he said.
"Excoose me; yes," whispered B. Slufek.
Jencks-Jr.'s motorcar was purring near by. Jencks-Jr.'s muscles were mighty. He lifted two hundred-odd pounds of inert labor in his arms and deposited it on the seat. He made a bundle of it, with furs. The bundle quivered and gasped.
"Where do you live?" asked Jencks-Jr.
"Mollberra Al'. By Carman's saloon," said B. Slufek. "Down River Bottom way."
During the swift run B. Slufek spoke only once. That was when Jencks-Jr. asked him if he felt any better.
"I think I goin' die," said B. Slufek humbly. "Excoose me."
"Nonsense!" said Jencks-Jr.
Jencks-Jr. had never seen Mulberry Alley before. It did not edify him. As for the chauffeur, he snorted. He opined that it was no place for a gentleman, which was true. It was equally true that it was no place for any human being.
Nevertheless, a great many human beings lived in Mulberry Alley. They lived several in a room. In the case of the B. Slufeks, two tiny compartments housed seven. Jencks-Jr. had never seen a room like those of the B. Slufeks' before. It edified him still less than Mulberry Alley had. But it gave him some first-hand notions as to housing reform and irresponsible idealists. These notions, however, did not crystalize until later. Too late, in fact.
Jencks-Jr. having carried B. Slufek into his home, sent the disgusted chauffeur for a doctor. Then he returned to soothe the alarms of Mrs. Slufek. He needn't have troubled. Mrs. Slufek wasn't alarmed. She was drunk. This was very culpable of her. But she didn't care. She didn't drink to acquire merit, but to achieve forgetfulness. It is sometimes desirable to forget that one is the wife of a husband who works twelve hours every day in the week, with a periodic shift of twenty-four hours on end, and brings home $1.65 a day to keep a family on.
B. Slufek spoke thickly to his children. The children stared, wide-eyed and awe-stricken at the wonderful stranger. All but the youngest girl. She giggled and jibbered over a lump of rags. She was a rickety imbecile. Children sometimes turn out that way when they're brought up, in a foul alley, on the kind of nutriment which wages of $1.65 per day in a city of high rentals are able to provide. B. Slufek kicked at her and she howled with surprise. Then they all howled because B. Slufek and the wonderful stranger had clinched and were fighting all around the room. B. Slufek was extremely insane. His delirium had come upon him and he desired to kill his wife and family, which would, perhaps, have, been the best thing for all concerned, but couldn't be allowed.
In the midst of the fracas, the doctor arrived. Being a neighborhood practitioner he was of an abrupt and time-saving nature. He precipitated himself into the fight, armed with a small squirt. Two punctures with this settled the Regrettable Hun. He collapsed and was put to bed.
"Get out," said the doctor to B. Slufek's wife.
She went, trailing her progeny after her.
"Let me look at that ear," said the doctor to Jencks-Jr.
He sponged it off carefully and took a few stitches in the lobe. Jencks-Jr. sat tight, panting.
"That's all right, then," said the doctor, having finished his work. "Can't be too careful about infection in a place like this."
"What's the matter with him?" Jencks-Jr. indicated the heavy-breathing lump on the foul bed.
"Pneumonia, of course."
"Why 'of course'?"
"It 'most always is with the mill lot."
"You mean they nearly all die of pneumonia?"
"Well—plenty get killed in accidents."
"But, outside of that," persisted Jencks, Jr.
"Yes; they die like flies. But then, they breed like flies, too."
"What's the cause of it?" said Jencks-Jr.
"Twenty-five per cent, dividends, mainly," said the doctor.
"Will he die?"
"If money will do anything—" began Jencks-Jr.
The man of medicine smiled grimly. Poor as was his district, he had so often been the agent of that pitiful attempt to bribe incorruptible Death!
"You can get him out of this, if you like," said he. "That'll be some help."
"The best hospital, please," said Jencks-Jr. He gave his name as guaranty.
The doctor nodded. "By the way," he said, "did he happen to cough in your face? While you were fighting, you know."
Jencks-Jr. turned a little green with nausea. The doctor waited for no further answer. He went to a pump in the rear yard, surrounded by out-houses. Drawing a basin of water he sniffed at it with a wrinkling nose.
"Never mind," he said as he returned, "this 'll fix it." He dropped a tablet into the basin. The water fizzed. "Wash your face thoroughly in that," he said. "Snuff some of it up. As soon as you get home, take a good hot bath, and gargle. Some fools say pneumonia isn't infectious. They ought to have my practice. Better go now. No good your waiting here."
Jencks-Jr. raised a dripping face and looked about him.
"Do many people live like this?" he asked.
"Sleep in such rooms? Drink such water?"
"Who owns this hell-hole?"
Jencks-Jr. sped home pondering. Frequent inquiries went to the hospital where B. Slufek lay, and frequent reports came back to Jencks-Jr. Jencks-Jr. was doing some painful thinking. At times his thoughts were akin to the socialistic rot of irresponsible idealists. At times they were full of contrition and remorse. This was when they dwelt with insistent inquiry upon Jencks-Esq.'s relation to certain ugly facts. Presently the thoughts became very confused. Jencks-Jr. took them to bed with him, where they thrust sharp knives into his lugs and interfered seriously with his breathing. Jencks-Jr. was extremely ill.
Profound specialists arrived by extra-schedule trains. This meant that Jencks-Esq. was trying his masterful hand at bribing incorruptible Death. There was every apparent reason why Jencks-Jr. should live. But he died. The clergyman who had made a god to order for Jencks-Esq., opined in eloquent words that it was a mysterious dispensation of an inscrutable providence. What he really meant was that he didn't understand the why and wherefore. No more do I.
No more did Jencks-Esq. Jencks-Esq. cursed his god, which would have been blasphemy in anyone else. But you can't blaspheme a private, pasteboard god. And the living and forgiving God, the God of Jencks-Jr., and perhaps even of B. Slufek, looked down, one may suppose, in pity of the futile spectacle.
B. Slufek lay three weeks in hospital. There was no particular reason why he should recover. He was fully insured. But recover he did. He went back to the mill, tottering with weakness. His job was gone. It generally happens that way when you can buy all the strong men you need for fourteen cents an hour.
B. Slufek looked for other jobs. They weren't to be had. B. Slufek took to drink. One day, being half-fuddled, he tried to get to Jencks-Esq. He wanted to explain to Jencks-Esq., that Jencks-Jr. would have given him his job back. Also that he was sorry on other accounts about Jencks-Jr.'s death. B. Slufek was duly arrested and sent to jail. When he came out his family were deep in debt. He had a bad name. Nobody would give work to a man like him. He sank to the gutter and his family became public charges. This proves satisfactorily my first hypothesis, that the innate depravity in such cases always pertains to the B. Slufeks and never to the Jencks-Esqs. Also it ends my story.
As I said at the outset, the story isn't a true story, anyway. Not wholly, that is. The names are all altered. Even B. Slufek's.