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Title: Life in the Iron-Mills; Or, The Korl Woman
Author: Davis, Rebecca Harding
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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LIFE IN THE IRON-MILLS

by Rebecca Harding Davis


               “Is this the end?
               O Life, as futile, then, as frail!
               What hope of answer or redress?”


A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky
sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy
with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the
window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer’s
shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg
tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul
smells ranging loose in the air.

The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds
from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and settles down in
black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on
the dingy boats, on the yellow river,--clinging in a coating of greasy
soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the
passers-by. The long train of mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through
the narrow street, have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides.
Here, inside, is a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from
the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted
and black. Smoke everywhere! A dirty canary chirps desolately in a
cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is a very old
dream,--almost worn out, I think.

From the back-window I can see a narrow brick-yard sloping down to
the river-side, strewed with rain-butts and tubs. The river, dull and
tawny-colored, (la belle riviere!) drags itself sluggishly along, tired
of the heavy weight of boats and coal-barges. What wonder? When I was a
child, I used to fancy a look of weary, dumb appeal upon the face of the
negro-like river slavishly bearing its burden day after day. Something
of the same idle notion comes to me to-day, when from the street-window
I look on the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and
morning, to the great mills. Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces
bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin
and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night
over boiling caldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and
infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and
grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. What do you make of a case
like that, amateur psychologist? You call it an altogether serious thing
to be alive: to these men it is a drunken jest, a joke,--horrible to
angels perhaps, to them commonplace enough. My fancy about the river was
an idle one: it is no type of such a life. What if it be stagnant and
slimy here? It knows that beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight,
quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and
flushing crimson with roses,--air, and fields, and mountains. The future
of the Welsh puddler passing just now is not so pleasant. To be stowed
away, after his grimy work is done, in a hole in the muddy graveyard,
and after that, not air, nor green fields, nor curious roses.

Can you see how foggy the day is? As I stand here, idly tapping the
windowpane, and looking out through the rain at the dirty back-yard and
the coalboats below, fragments of an old story float up before me,--a
story of this house into which I happened to come to-day. You may think
it a tiresome story enough, as foggy as the day, sharpened by no sudden
flashes of pain or pleasure.--I know: only the outline of a dull life,
that long since, with thousands of dull lives like its own, was vainly
lived and lost: thousands of them, massed, vile, slimy lives, like those
of the torpid lizards in yonder stagnant water-butt.--Lost? There is a
curious point for you to settle, my friend, who study psychology in a
lazy, dilettante way. Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is
what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed
to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,--here, into the
thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this
story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain
dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you. You, Egoist,
or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making straight paths for your feet
on the hills, do not see it clearly,--this terrible question which men
here have gone mad and died trying to answer. I dare not put this secret
into words. I told you it was dumb. These men, going by with drunken
faces and brains full of unawakened power, do not ask it of Society or
of God. Their lives ask it; their deaths ask it. There is no reply. I
will tell you plainly that I have a great hope; and I bring it to you
to be tested. It is this: that this terrible dumb question is its own
reply; that it is not the sentence of death we think it, but, from the
very extremity of its darkness, the most solemn prophecy which the world
has known of the Hope to come. I dare make my meaning no clearer, but
will only tell my story. It will, perhaps, seem to you as foul and dark
as this thick vapor about us, and as pregnant with death; but if your
eyes are free as mine are to look deeper, no perfume-tinted dawn will be
so fair with promise of the day that shall surely come.

My story is very simple,--Only what I remember of the life of one
of these men,--a furnace-tender in one of Kirby & John’s
rolling-mills,--Hugh Wolfe. You know the mills? They took the great
order for the lower Virginia railroads there last winter; run usually
with about a thousand men. I cannot tell why I choose the half-forgotten
story of this Wolfe more than that of myriads of these furnace-hands.
Perhaps because there is a secret, underlying sympathy between that
story and this day with its impure fog and thwarted sunshine,--or
perhaps simply for the reason that this house is the one where the
Wolfes lived. There were the father and son,--both hands, as I said,
in one of Kirby & John’s mills for making railroad-iron,--and Deborah,
their cousin, a picker in some of the cotton-mills. The house was rented
then to half a dozen families. The Wolfes had two of the cellar-rooms.
The old man, like many of the puddlers and feeders of the mills, was
Welsh,--had spent half of his life in the Cornish tin-mines. You may
pick the Welsh emigrants, Cornish miners, out of the throng passing the
windows, any day. They are a trifle more filthy; their muscles are not
so brawny; they stoop more. When they are drunk, they neither yell, nor
shout, nor stagger, but skulk along like beaten hounds. A pure,
unmixed blood, I fancy: shows itself in the slight angular bodies and
sharply-cut facial lines. It is nearly thirty years since the Wolfes
lived here. Their lives were like those of their class: incessant
labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses,
drinking--God and the distillers only know what; with an occasional
night in jail, to atone for some drunken excess. Is that all of their
lives?--of the portion given to them and these their duplicates swarming
the streets to-day?--nothing beneath?--all? So many a political reformer
will tell you,--and many a private reformer, too, who has gone among
them with a heart tender with Christ’s charity, and come out outraged,
hardened.

One rainy night, about eleven o’clock, a crowd of half-clothed women
stopped outside of the cellar-door. They were going home from the
cotton-mill.

“Good-night, Deb,” said one, a mulatto, steadying herself against the
gas-post. She needed the post to steady her. So did more than one of
them.

“Dah’s a ball to Miss Potts’ to-night. Ye’d best come.”

“Inteet, Deb, if hur’ll come, hur’ll hef fun,” said a shrill Welsh voice
in the crowd.

Two or three dirty hands were thrust out to catch the gown of the woman,
who was groping for the latch of the door.

“No.”

“No? Where’s Kit Small, then?”

“Begorra! on the spools. Alleys behint, though we helped her, we dud.
An wid ye! Let Deb alone! It’s ondacent frettin’ a quite body. Be the
powers, an we’ll have a night of it! there’ll be lashin’s o’ drink,--the
Vargent be blessed and praised for’t!”

They went on, the mulatto inclining for a moment to show fight, and drag
the woman Wolfe off with them; but, being pacified, she staggered away.

Deborah groped her way into the cellar, and, after considerable
stumbling, kindled a match, and lighted a tallow dip, that sent a yellow
glimmer over the room. It was low, damp,--the earthen floor covered with
a green, slimy moss,--a fetid air smothering the breath. Old Wolfe lay
asleep on a heap of straw, wrapped in a torn horse-blanket. He was a
pale, meek little man, with a white face and red rabbit-eyes. The woman
Deborah was like him; only her face was even more ghastly, her lips
bluer, her eyes more watery. She wore a faded cotton gown and a
slouching bonnet. When she walked, one could see that she was deformed,
almost a hunchback. She trod softly, so as not to waken him, and went
through into the room beyond. There she found by the half-extinguished
fire an iron saucepan filled with cold boiled potatoes, which she put
upon a broken chair with a pint-cup of ale. Placing the old candlestick
beside this dainty repast, she untied her bonnet, which hung limp and
wet over her face, and prepared to eat her supper. It was the first
food that had touched her lips since morning. There was enough of it,
however: there is not always. She was hungry,--one could see that easily
enough,--and not drunk, as most of her companions would have been
found at this hour. She did not drink, this woman,--her face told that,
too,--nothing stronger than ale. Perhaps the weak, flaccid wretch had
some stimulant in her pale life to keep her up,--some love or hope, it
might be, or urgent need. When that stimulant was gone, she would take
to whiskey. Man cannot live by work alone. While she was skinning the
potatoes, and munching them, a noise behind her made her stop.

“Janey!” she called, lifting the candle and peering into the darkness.
“Janey, are you there?”

A heap of ragged coats was heaved up, and the face of a young girl
emerged, staring sleepily at the woman.

“Deborah,” she said, at last, “I’m here the night.”

“Yes, child. Hur’s welcome,” she said, quietly eating on.

The girl’s face was haggard and sickly; her eyes were heavy with sleep
and hunger: real Milesian eyes they were, dark, delicate blue, glooming
out from black shadows with a pitiful fright.

“I was alone,” she said, timidly.

“Where’s the father?” asked Deborah, holding out a potato, which the
girl greedily seized.

“He’s beyant,--wid Haley,--in the stone house.” (Did you ever hear the
word tail from an Irish mouth?) “I came here. Hugh told me never to stay
me-lone.”

“Hugh?”

“Yes.”

A vexed frown crossed her face. The girl saw it, and added quickly,--

“I have not seen Hugh the day, Deb. The old man says his watch lasts
till the mornin’.”

The woman sprang up, and hastily began to arrange some bread and flitch
in a tin pail, and to pour her own measure of ale into a bottle. Tying
on her bonnet, she blew out the candle.

“Lay ye down, Janey dear,” she said, gently, covering her with the old
rags. “Hur can eat the potatoes, if hur’s hungry.

“Where are ye goin’, Deb? The rain’s sharp.”

“To the mill, with Hugh’s supper.”

“Let him bide till th’ morn. Sit ye down.”

“No, no,”--sharply pushing her off. “The boy’ll starve.”

She hurried from the cellar, while the child wearily coiled herself up
for sleep. The rain was falling heavily, as the woman, pail in hand,
emerged from the mouth of the alley, and turned down the narrow street,
that stretched out, long and black, miles before her. Here and there a
flicker of gas lighted an uncertain space of muddy footwalk and gutter;
the long rows of houses, except an occasional lager-bier shop, were
closed; now and then she met a band of millhands skulking to or from
their work.

Not many even of the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know the vast
machinery of system by which the bodies of workmen are governed, that
goes on unceasingly from year to year. The hands of each mill are
divided into watches that relieve each other as regularly as the
sentinels of an army. By night and day the work goes on, the unsleeping
engines groan and shriek, the fiery pools of metal boil and surge. Only
for a day in the week, in half-courtesy to public censure, the fires are
partially veiled; but as soon as the clock strikes midnight, the great
furnaces break forth with renewed fury, the clamor begins with fresh,
breathless vigor, the engines sob and shriek like “gods in pain.”

As Deborah hurried down through the heavy rain, the noise of these
thousand engines sounded through the sleep and shadow of the city like
far-off thunder. The mill to which she was going lay on the river, a
mile below the city-limits. It was far, and she was weak, aching from
standing twelve hours at the spools. Yet it was her almost nightly walk
to take this man his supper, though at every square she sat down to
rest, and she knew she should receive small word of thanks.

Perhaps, if she had possessed an artist’s eye, the picturesque oddity
of the scene might have made her step stagger less, and the path seem
shorter; but to her the mills were only “summat deilish to look at by
night.”

The road leading to the mills had been quarried from the solid rock,
which rose abrupt and bare on one side of the cinder-covered road, while
the river, sluggish and black, crept past on the other. The mills for
rolling iron are simply immense tent-like roofs, covering acres of
ground, open on every side. Beneath these roofs Deborah looked in on a
city of fires, that burned hot and fiercely in the night. Fire in every
horrible form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames
writhing in tortuous streams through the sand; wide caldrons filled
with boiling fire, over which bent ghastly wretches stirring the
strange brewing; and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking
like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of
glittering fire. It was like a street in Hell. Even Deborah muttered, as
she crept through, “looks like t’ Devil’s place!” It did,--in more ways
than one.

She found the man she was looking for, at last, heaping coal on a
furnace. He had not time to eat his supper; so she went behind the
furnace, and waited. Only a few men were with him, and they noticed her
only by a “Hyur comes t’hunchback, Wolfe.”

Deborah was stupid with sleep; her back pained her sharply; and her
teeth chattered with cold, with the rain that soaked her clothes and
dripped from her at every step. She stood, however, patiently holding
the pail, and waiting.

“Hout, woman! ye look like a drowned cat. Come near to the fire,”--said
one of the men, approaching to scrape away the ashes.

She shook her head. Wolfe had forgotten her. He turned, hearing the man,
and came closer.

“I did no’ think; gi’ me my supper, woman.”

She watched him eat with a painful eagerness. With a woman’s quick
instinct, she saw that he was not hungry,--was eating to please her. Her
pale, watery eyes began to gather a strange light.

“Is’t good, Hugh? T’ ale was a bit sour, I feared.”

“No, good enough.” He hesitated a moment. “Ye’re tired, poor lass! Bide
here till I go. Lay down there on that heap of ash, and go to sleep.”

He threw her an old coat for a pillow, and turned to his work. The
heap was the refuse of the burnt iron, and was not a hard bed; the
half-smothered warmth, too, penetrated her limbs, dulling their pain and
cold shiver.

Miserable enough she looked, lying there on the ashes like a limp,
dirty rag,--yet not an unfitting figure to crown the scene of hopeless
discomfort and veiled crime: more fitting, if one looked deeper into the
heart of things, at her thwarted woman’s form, her colorless life, her
waking stupor that smothered pain and hunger,--even more fit to be a
type of her class. Deeper yet if one could look, was there nothing worth
reading in this wet, faded thing, halfcovered with ashes? no story of a
soul filled with groping passionate love, heroic unselfishness, fierce
jealousy? of years of weary trying to please the one human being whom
she loved, to gain one look of real heart-kindness from him? If
anything like this were hidden beneath the pale, bleared eyes, and dull,
washed-out-looking face, no one had ever taken the trouble to read its
faint signs: not the half-clothed furnace-tender, Wolfe, certainly. Yet
he was kind to her: it was his nature to be kind, even to the very rats
that swarmed in the cellar: kind to her in just the same way. She knew
that. And it might be that very knowledge had given to her face its
apathy and vacancy more than her low, torpid life. One sees that
dead, vacant look steal sometimes over the rarest, finest of women’s
faces,--in the very midst, it may be, of their warmest summer’s day; and
then one can guess at the secret of intolerable solitude that lies hid
beneath the delicate laces and brilliant smile. There was no warmth, no
brilliancy, no summer for this woman; so the stupor and vacancy had time
to gnaw into her face perpetually. She was young, too, though no one
guessed it; so the gnawing was the fiercer.

She lay quiet in the dark corner, listening, through the monotonous din
and uncertain glare of the works, to the dull plash of the rain in the
far distance, shrinking back whenever the man Wolfe happened to look
towards her. She knew, in spite of all his kindness, that there was that
in her face and form which made him loathe the sight of her. She felt by
instinct, although she could not comprehend it, the finer nature of
the man, which made him among his fellow-workmen something unique, set
apart. She knew, that, down under all the vileness and coarseness of his
life, there was a groping passion for whatever was beautiful and pure,
that his soul sickened with disgust at her deformity, even when his
words were kindest. Through this dull consciousness, which never left
her, came, like a sting, the recollection of the dark blue eyes and
lithe figure of the little Irish girl she had left in the cellar. The
recollection struck through even her stupid intellect with a vivid glow
of beauty and of grace. Little Janey, timid, helpless, clinging to Hugh
as her only friend: that was the sharp thought, the bitter thought, that
drove into the glazed eyes a fierce light of pain. You laugh at it? Are
pain and jealousy less savage realities down here in this place I am
taking you to than in your own house or your own heart,--your heart,
which they clutch at sometimes? The note is the same, I fancy, be the
octave high or low.

If you could go into this mill where Deborah lay, and drag out from the
hearts of these men the terrible tragedy of their lives, taking it as a
symptom of the disease of their class, no ghost Horror would terrify
you more. A reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you
every day under the besotted faces on the street,--I can paint nothing
of this, only give you the outside outlines of a night, a crisis in the
life of one man: whatever muddy depth of soul-history lies beneath you
can read according to the eyes God has given you.

Wolfe, while Deborah watched him as a spaniel its master, bent over the
furnace with his iron pole, unconscious of her scrutiny, only stopping
to receive orders. Physically, Nature had promised the man but little.
He had already lost the strength and instinct vigor of a man, his
muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face ( a meek, woman’s face)
haggard, yellow with consumption. In the mill he was known as one of
the girl-men: “Molly Wolfe” was his sobriquet. He was never seen in
the cockpit, did not own a terrier, drank but seldom; when he did,
desperately. He fought sometimes, but was always thrashed, pommelled to
a jelly. The man was game enough, when his blood was up: but he was no
favorite in the mill; he had the taint of school-learning on him,--not
to a dangerous extent, only a quarter or so in the free-school in fact,
but enough to ruin him as a good hand in a fight.

For other reasons, too, he was not popular. Not one of themselves, they
felt that, though outwardly as filthy and ash-covered; silent, with
foreign thoughts and longings breaking out through his quietness in
innumerable curious ways: this one, for instance. In the neighboring
furnace-buildings lay great heaps of the refuse from the ore after the
pig-metal is run. Korl we call it here: a light, porous substance, of
a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge. Out of the blocks of this korl,
Wolfe, in his off-hours from the furnace, had a habit of chipping and
moulding figures,--hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely
beautiful: even the mill-men saw that, while they jeered at him. It was
a curious fancy in the man, almost a passion. The few hours for rest he
spent hewing and hacking with his blunt knife, never speaking, until his
watch came again,--working at one figure for months, and, when it was
finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment. A
morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to feed his soul in grossness
and crime, and hard, grinding labor.

I want you to come down and look at this Wolfe, standing there among the
lowest of his kind, and see him just as he is, that you may judge him
justly when you hear the story of this night. I want you to look back,
as he does every day, at his birth in vice, his starved infancy; to
remember the heavy years he has groped through as boy and man,--the
slow, heavy years of constant, hot work. So long ago he began, that he
thinks sometimes he has worked there for ages. There is no hope that it
will ever end. Think that God put into this man’s soul a fierce thirst
for beauty,--to know it, to create it; to be--something, he knows not
what,--other than he is. There are moments when a passing cloud, the sun
glinting on the purple thistles, a kindly smile, a child’s face, will
rouse him to a passion of pain,--when his nature starts up with a mad
cry of rage against God, man, whoever it is that has forced this vile,
slimy life upon him. With all this groping, this mad desire, a great
blind intellect stumbling through wrong, a loving poet’s heart, the man
was by habit only a coarse, vulgar laborer, familiar with sights and
words you would blush to name. Be just: when I tell you about this
night, see him as he is. Be just,--not like man’s law, which seizes on
one isolated fact, but like God’s judging angel, whose clear, sad
eye saw all the countless cankering days of this man’s life, all the
countless nights, when, sick with starving, his soul fainted in him,
before it judged him for this night, the saddest of all.

I called this night the crisis of his life. If it was, it stole on him
unawares. These great turning-days of life cast no shadow before, slip
by unconsciously. Only a trifle, a little turn of the rudder, and the
ship goes to heaven or hell.

Wolfe, while Deborah watched him, dug into the furnace of melting iron
with his pole, dully thinking only how many rails the lump would yield.
It was late,--nearly Sunday morning; another hour, and the heavy work
would be done, only the furnaces to replenish and cover for the next
day. The workmen were growing more noisy, shouting, as they had to do,
to be heard over the deep clamor of the mills. Suddenly they grew less
boisterous,--at the far end, entirely silent. Something unusual had
happened. After a moment, the silence came nearer; the men stopped their
jeers and drunken choruses. Deborah, stupidly lifting up her head,
saw the cause of the quiet. A group of five or six men were slowly
approaching, stopping to examine each furnace as they came. Visitors
often came to see the mills after night: except by growing less noisy,
the men took no notice of them. The furnace where Wolfe worked was near
the bounds of the works; they halted there hot and tired: a walk over
one of these great foundries is no trifling task. The woman, drawing out
of sight, turned over to sleep. Wolfe, seeing them stop, suddenly roused
from his indifferent stupor, and watched them keenly. He knew some
of them: the overseer, Clarke,--a son of Kirby, one of the
mill-owners,--and a Doctor May, one of the town-physicians. The other
two were strangers. Wolfe came closer. He seized eagerly every chance
that brought him into contact with this mysterious class that shone down
on him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being. What made
the difference between them? That was the mystery of his life. He had
a vague notion that perhaps to-night he could find it out. One of the
strangers sat down on a pile of bricks, and beckoned young Kirby to his
side.

“This is hot, with a vengeance. A match, please?”--lighting his cigar.
“But the walk is worth the trouble. If it were not that you must have
heard it so often, Kirby, I would tell you that your works look like
Dante’s Inferno.”

Kirby laughed.

“Yes. Yonder is Farinata himself in the burning tomb,”--pointing to some
figure in the shimmering shadows.

“Judging from some of the faces of your men,” said the other, “they bid
fair to try the reality of Dante’s vision, some day.”

Young Kirby looked curiously around, as if seeing the faces of his hands
for the first time.

“They’re bad enough, that’s true. A desperate set, I fancy. Eh, Clarke?”

The overseer did not hear him. He was talking of net profits just
then,--giving, in fact, a schedule of the annual business of the firm to
a sharp peering little Yankee, who jotted down notes on a paper laid on
the crown of his hat: a reporter for one of the city-papers, getting up
a series of reviews of the leading manufactories. The other gentlemen
had accompanied them merely for amusement. They were silent until the
notes were finished, drying their feet at the furnaces, and sheltering
their faces from the intolerable heat. At last the overseer concluded
with--

“I believe that is a pretty fair estimate, Captain.”

“Here, some of you men!” said Kirby, “bring up those boards. We may as
well sit down, gentlemen, until the rain is over. It cannot last much
longer at this rate.”

“Pig-metal,”--mumbled the reporter,--“um! coal facilities,--um! hands
employed, twelve hundred,--bitumen,--um!--all right, I believe, Mr.
Clarke;--sinking-fund,--what did you say was your sinking-fund?”

“Twelve hundred hands?” said the stranger, the young man who had first
spoken. “Do you control their votes, Kirby?”

“Control? No.” The young man smiled complacently. “But my father brought
seven hundred votes to the polls for his candidate last November.
No force-work, you understand,--only a speech or two, a hint to form
themselves into a society, and a bit of red and blue bunting to make
them a flag. The Invincible Roughs,--I believe that is their name. I
forget the motto: ‘Our country’s hope,’ I think.”

There was a laugh. The young man talking to Kirby sat with an amused
light in his cool gray eye, surveying critically the half-clothed
figures of the puddlers, and the slow swing of their brawny muscles. He
was a stranger in the city,--spending a couple of months in the
borders of a Slave State, to study the institutions of the South,--a
brother-in-law of Kirby’s,--Mitchell. He was an amateur gymnast,--hence
his anatomical eye; a patron, in a blase’ way, of the prize-ring; a man
who sucked the essence out of a science or philosophy in an indifferent,
gentlemanly way; who took Kant, Novalis, Humboldt, for what they were
worth in his own scales; accepting all, despising nothing, in heaven,
earth, or hell, but one-idead men; with a temper yielding and brilliant
as summer water, until his Self was touched, when it was ice, though
brilliant still. Such men are not rare in the States.

As he knocked the ashes from his cigar, Wolfe caught with a quick
pleasure the contour of the white hand, the blood-glow of a red ring he
wore. His voice, too, and that of Kirby’s, touched him like music,--low,
even, with chording cadences. About this man Mitchell hung the
impalpable atmosphere belonging to the thoroughbred gentleman, Wolfe,
scraping away the ashes beside him, was conscious of it, did obeisance
to it with his artist sense, unconscious that he did so.

The rain did not cease. Clarke and the reporter left the mills; the
others, comfortably seated near the furnace, lingered, smoking
and talking in a desultory way. Greek would not have been more
unintelligible to the furnace-tenders, whose presence they soon forgot
entirely. Kirby drew out a newspaper from his pocket and read aloud some
article, which they discussed eagerly. At every sentence, Wolfe listened
more and more like a dumb, hopeless animal, with a duller, more stolid
look creeping over his face, glancing now and then at Mitchell, marking
acutely every smallest sign of refinement, then back to himself, seeing
as in a mirror his filthy body, his more stained soul.

Never! He had no words for such a thought, but he knew now, in all the
sharpness of the bitter certainty, that between them there was a great
gulf never to be passed. Never!

The bell of the mills rang for midnight. Sunday morning had dawned.
Whatever hidden message lay in the tolling bells floated past these men
unknown. Yet it was there. Veiled in the solemn music ushering the risen
Saviour was a key-note to solve the darkest secrets of a world gone
wrong,--even this social riddle which the brain of the grimy puddler
grappled with madly to-night.

The men began to withdraw the metal from the caldrons. The mills were
deserted on Sundays, except by the hands who fed the fires, and those
who had no lodgings and slept usually on the ash-heaps. The three
strangers sat still during the next hour, watching the men cover the
furnaces, laughing now and then at some jest of Kirby’s.

“Do you know,” said Mitchell, “I like this view of the works better than
when the glare was fiercest? These heavy shadows and the amphitheatre
of smothered fires are ghostly, unreal. One could fancy these red
smouldering lights to be the half-shut eyes of wild beasts, and the
spectral figures their victims in the den.”

Kirby laughed. “You are fanciful. Come, let us get out of the den. The
spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too real for me to
fancy a close proximity in the darkness,--unarmed, too.”

The others rose, buttoning their overcoats, and lighting cigars.

“Raining, still,” said Doctor May, “and hard. Where did we leave the
coach, Mitchell?”

“At the other side of the works.--Kirby, what’s that?”

Mitchell started back, half-frightened, as, suddenly turning a corner,
the white figure of a woman faced him in the darkness,--a woman, white,
of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in
some wild gesture of warning.

“Stop! Make that fire burn there!” cried Kirby, stopping short.

The flame burst out, flashing the gaunt figure into bold relief.

Mitchell drew a long breath.

“I thought it was alive,” he said, going up curiously.

The others followed.

“Not marble, eh?” asked Kirby, touching it.

One of the lower overseers stopped.

“Korl, Sir.”

“Who did it?”

“Can’t say. Some of the hands; chipped it out in off-hours.”

“Chipped to some purpose, I should say. What a flesh-tint the stuff has!
Do you see, Mitchell?”

“I see.”

He had stepped aside where the light fell boldest on the figure, looking
at it in silence. There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a
nude woman’s form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs
instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the
tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like
that of a starving wolf’s. Kirby and Doctor May walked around it,
critical, curious. Mitchell stood aloof, silent. The figure touched him
strangely.

“Not badly done,” said Doctor May, “Where did the fellow learn that
sweep of the muscles in the arm and hand? Look at them! They are
groping, do you see?--clutching: the peculiar action of a man dying of
thirst.”

“They have ample facilities for studying anatomy,” sneered Kirby,
glancing at the half-naked figures.

“Look,” continued the Doctor, “at this bony wrist, and the strained
sinews of the instep! A working-woman,--the very type of her class.”

“God forbid!” muttered Mitchell.

“Why?” demanded May, “What does the fellow intend by the figure? I
cannot catch the meaning.”

“Ask him,” said the other, dryly, “There he stands,”--pointing to Wolfe,
who stood with a group of men, leaning on his ash-rake.

The Doctor beckoned him with the affable smile which kind-hearted men
put on, when talking to these people.

“Mr. Mitchell has picked you out as the man who did this,--I’m sure I
don’t know why. But what did you mean by it?”

“She be hungry.”

Wolfe’s eyes answered Mitchell, not the Doctor.

“Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow! You have given
no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,--terribly strong. It
has the mad, half-despairing gesture of drowning.”

Wolfe stammered, glanced appealingly at Mitchell, who saw the soul of
the thing, he knew. But the cool, probing eyes were turned on himself
now,--mocking, cruel, relentless.

“Not hungry for meat,” the furnace-tender said at last.

“What then? Whiskey?” jeered Kirby, with a coarse laugh.

Wolfe was silent a moment, thinking.

“I dunno,” he said, with a bewildered look. “It mebbe. Summat to make
her live, I think,--like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way.”

The young man laughed again. Mitchell flashed a look of disgust
somewhere,--not at Wolfe.

“May,” he broke out impatiently, “are you blind? Look at that woman’s
face! It asks questions of God, and says, ‘I have a right to know,’ Good
God, how hungry it is!”

They looked a moment; then May turned to the mill-owner:--

“Have you many such hands as this? What are you going to do with them?
Keep them at puddling iron?”

Kirby shrugged his shoulders. Mitchell’s look had irritated him.

“Ce n’est pas mon affaire. I have no fancy for nursing infant geniuses.
I suppose there are some stray gleams of mind and soul among these
wretches. The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out
their own salvation. I have heard you call our American system a ladder
which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish
all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land,--eh, May?”

The Doctor looked vexed, puzzled. Some terrible problem lay hid in this
woman’s face, and troubled these men. Kirby waited for an answer, and,
receiving none, went on, warming with his subject.

“I tell you, there’s something wrong that no talk of ‘Liberte’ or
‘Egalite’ will do away. If I had the making of men, these men who do
the lowest part of the world’s work should be machines,--nothing
more,--hands. It would be kindness. God help them! What are taste,
reason, to creatures who must live such lives as that?” He pointed to
Deborah, sleeping on the ash-heap. “So many nerves to sting them to
pain. What if God had put your brain, with all its agony of touch, into
your fingers, and bid you work and strike with that?”

“You think you could govern the world better?” laughed the Doctor.

“I do not think at all.”

“That is true philosophy. Drift with the stream, because you cannot dive
deep enough to find bottom, eh?”

“Exactly,” rejoined Kirby. “I do not think. I wash my hands of all
social problems,--slavery, caste, white or black. My duty to my
operatives has a narrow limit,--the pay-hour on Saturday night. Outside
of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other’s throats, (the more
popular amusement of the two,) I am not responsible.”

The Doctor sighed,--a good honest sigh, from the depths of his stomach.

“God help us! Who is responsible?”

“Not I, I tell you,” said Kirby, testily. “What has the man who pays
them money to do with their souls’ concerns, more than the grocer or
butcher who takes it?”

“And yet,” said Mitchell’s cynical voice, “look at her! How hungry she
is!”

Kirby tapped his boot with his cane. No one spoke. Only the dumb face of
the rough image looking into their faces with the awful question, “What
shall we do to be saved?” Only Wolfe’s face, with its heavy weight
of brain, its weak, uncertain mouth, its desperate eyes, out of which
looked the soul of his class,--only Wolfe’s face turned towards Kirby’s.
Mitchell laughed,--a cool, musical laugh.

“Money has spoken!” he said, seating himself lightly on a stone with the
air of an amused spectator at a play. “Are you answered?”--turning to
Wolfe his clear, magnetic face.

Bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay tranquil
beneath. He looked at the furnace-tender as he had looked at a rare
mosaic in the morning; only the man was the more amusing study of the
two.

“Are you answered? Why, May, look at him! ‘De profundis clamavi.’ Or, to
quote in English, ‘Hungry and thirsty, his soul faints in him.’ And so
Money sends back its answer into the depths through you, Kirby! Very
clear the answer, too!--I think I remember reading the same words
somewhere: washing your hands in Eau de Cologne, and saying, ‘I am
innocent of the blood of this man. See ye to it!’”

Kirby flushed angrily.

“You quote Scripture freely.”

“Do I not quote correctly? I think I remember another line, which may
amend my meaning? ‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these,
ye did it unto me.’ Deist? Bless you, man, I was raised on the milk of
the Word. Now, Doctor, the pocket of the world having uttered its
voice, what has the heart to say? You are a philanthropist, in a small
Way,--n’est ce pas? Here, boy, this gentleman can show you how to cut
korl better,--or your destiny. Go on, May!”

“I think a mocking devil possesses you to-night,” rejoined the Doctor,
seriously.

He went to Wolfe and put his hand kindly on his arm. Something of a
vague idea possessed the Doctor’s brain that much good was to be done
here by a friendly word or two: a latent genius to be warmed into life
by a waited-for sunbeam. Here it was: he had brought it. So he went on
complacently:

“Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great
man? do you understand?” (talking down to the capacity of his hearer:
it is a way people have with children, and men like Wolfe,)--“to live a
better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself
anything he chooses. God has given you stronger powers than many
men,--me, for instance.”

May stopped, heated, glowing with his own magnanimity. And it was
magnanimous. The puddler had drunk in every word, looking through the
Doctor’s flurry, and generous heat, and self-approval, into his will,
with those slow, absorbing eyes of his.

“Make yourself what you will. It is your right.

“I know,” quietly. “Will you help me?”

Mitchell laughed again. The Doctor turned now, in a passion,--

“You know, Mitchell, I have not the means. You know, if I had, it is in
my heart to take this boy and educate him for”--

“The glory of God, and the glory of John May.”

May did not speak for a moment; then, controlled, he said,--

“Why should one be raised, when myriads are left?--I have not the money,
boy,” to Wolfe, shortly.

“Money?” He said it over slowly, as one repeats the guessed answer to a
riddle, doubtfully. “That is it? Money?”

“Yes, money,--that is it,” said Mitchell, rising, and drawing his
furred coat about him. “You’ve found the cure for all the world’s
diseases.--Come, May, find your good-humor, and come home. This
damp wind chills my very bones. Come and preach your Saint-Simonian
doctrines’ to-morrow to Kirby’s hands. Let them have a clear idea of the
rights of the soul, and I’ll venture next week they’ll strike for higher
wages. That will be the end of it.”

“Will you send the coach-driver to this side of the mills?” asked Kirby,
turning to Wolfe.

He spoke kindly: it was his habit to do so. Deborah, seeing the puddler
go, crept after him. The three men waited outside. Doctor May walked up
and down, chafed. Suddenly he stopped.

“Go back, Mitchell! You say the pocket and the heart of the world
speak without meaning to these people. What has its head to say? Taste,
culture, refinement? Go!”

Mitchell was leaning against a brick wall. He turned his head
indolently, and looked into the mills. There hung about the place a
thick, unclean odor. The slightest motion of his hand marked that he
perceived it, and his insufferable disgust. That was all. May said
nothing, only quickened his angry tramp.

“Besides,” added Mitchell, giving a corollary to his answer, “it would
be of no use. I am not one of them.”

“You do not mean”--said May, facing him.

“Yes, I mean just that. Reform is born of need, not pity. No vital
movement of the people’s has worked down, for good or evil; fermented,
instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass. Think back through
history, and you will know it. What will this lowest deep--thieves,
Magdalens, negroes--do with the light filtered through ponderous Church
creeds, Baconian theories, Goethe schemes? Some day, out of their bitter
need will be thrown up their own light-bringer,--their Jean Paul, their
Cromwell, their Messiah.”

“Bah!” was the Doctor’s inward criticism. However, in practice, he
adopted the theory; for, when, night and morning, afterwards, he prayed
that power might be given these degraded souls to rise, he glowed at
heart, recognizing an accomplished duty.

Wolfe and the woman had stood in the shadow of the works as the coach
drove off. The Doctor had held out his hand in a frank, generous way,
telling him to “take care of himself, and to remember it was his right
to rise.” Mitchell had simply touched his hat, as to an equal, with a
quiet look of thorough recognition. Kirby had thrown Deborah some money,
which she found, and clutched eagerly enough. They were gone now, all
of them. The man sat down on the cinder-road, looking up into the murky
sky.

“‘T be late, Hugh. Wunnot hur come?”

He shook his head doggedly, and the woman crouched out of his sight
against the wall. Do you remember rare moments when a sudden
light flashed over yourself, your world, God? when you stood on a
mountain-peak, seeing your life as it might have been, as it is? one
quick instant, when custom lost its force and every-day usage? when your
friend, wife, brother, stood in a new light? your soul was bared, and
the grave,--a foretaste of the nakedness of the Judgment-Day? So it came
before him, his life, that night. The slow tides of pain he had borne
gathered themselves up and surged against his soul. His squalid daily
life, the brutal coarseness eating into his brain, as the ashes into
his skin: before, these things had been a dull aching into his
consciousness; to-night, they were reality. He griped the filthy red
shirt that clung, stiff with soot, about him, and tore it savagely from
his arm. The flesh beneath was muddy with grease and ashes,--and the
heart beneath that! And the soul? God knows.

Then flashed before his vivid poetic sense the man who had left
him,--the pure face, the delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with all he
knew of beauty or truth. In his cloudy fancy he had pictured a Something
like this. He had found it in this Mitchell, even when he idly
scoffed at his pain: a Man all-knowing, all-seeing, crowned by Nature,
reigning,--the keen glance of his eye falling like a sceptre on other
men. And yet his instinct taught him that he too--He! He looked at
himself with sudden loathing, sick, wrung his hands With a cry, and then
was silent. With all the phantoms of his heated, ignorant fancy, Wolfe
had not been vague in his ambitions. They were practical, slowly built
up before him out of his knowledge of what he could do. Through years
he had day by day made this hope a real thing to himself,--a clear,
projected figure of himself, as he might become.

Able to speak, to know what was best, to raise these men and women
working at his side up with him: sometimes he forgot this defined hope
in the frantic anguish to escape, only to escape,--out of the wet, the
pain, the ashes, somewhere, anywhere,--only for one moment of free air
on a hill-side, to lie down and let his sick soul throb itself out in
the sunshine. But to-night he panted for life. The savage strength of
his nature was roused; his cry was fierce to God for justice.

“Look at me!” he said to Deborah, with a low, bitter laugh, striking his
puny chest savagely. “What am I worth, Deb? Is it my fault that I am no
better? My fault? My fault?”

He stopped, stung with a sudden remorse, seeing her hunchback shape
writhing with sobs. For Deborah was crying thankless tears, according to
the fashion of women.

“God forgi’ me, woman! Things go harder Wi’ you nor me. It’s a worse
share.”

He got up and helped her to rise; and they went doggedly down the muddy
street, side by side.

“It’s all wrong,” he muttered, slowly,--“all wrong! I dunnot understan’.
But it’ll end some day.”

“Come home, Hugh!” she said, coaxingly; for he had stopped, looking
around bewildered.

“Home,--and back to the mill!” He went on saying this over to himself,
as if he would mutter down every pain in this dull despair.

She followed him through the fog, her blue lips chattering with cold.
They reached the cellar at last. Old Wolfe had been drinking since she
went out, and had crept nearer the door. The girl Janey slept heavily in
the corner. He went up to her, touching softly the worn white arm with
his fingers. Some bitterer thought stung him, as he stood there. He
wiped the drops from his forehead, and went into the room beyond, livid,
trembling. A hope, trifling, perhaps, but very dear, had died just then
out of the poor puddler’s life, as he looked at the sleeping, innocent
girl,--some plan for the future, in which she had borne a part. He gave
it up that moment, then and forever. Only a trifle, perhaps, to us: his
face grew a shade paler,--that was all. But, somehow, the man’s soul, as
God and the angels looked down on it, never was the same afterwards.

Deborah followed him into the inner room. She carried a candle, which
she placed on the floor, closing the door after her. She had seen the
look on his face, as he turned away: her own grew deadly. Yet, as she
came up to him, her eyes glowed. He was seated on an old chest, quiet,
holding his face in his hands.

“Hugh!” she said, softly.

He did not speak.

“Hugh, did hur hear what the man said,--him with the clear voice? Did
hur hear? Money, money,--that it wud do all?”

He pushed her away,--gently, but he was worn out; her rasping tone
fretted him.

“Hugh!”

The candle flared a pale yellow light over the cobwebbed brick walls,
and the woman standing there. He looked at her. She was young, in
deadly earnest; her faded eyes, and wet, ragged figure caught from their
frantic eagerness a power akin to beauty.

“Hugh, it is true! Money ull do it! Oh, Hugh, boy, listen till me! He
said it true! It is money!”

“I know. Go back! I do not want you here.”

“Hugh, it is t’ last time. I’ll never worrit hur again.”

There were tears in her voice now, but she choked them back:

“Hear till me only to-night! If one of t’ witch people wud come, them we
heard oft’ home, and gif hur all hur wants, what then? Say, Hugh!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean money.”

Her whisper shrilled through his brain.

“If one oft’ witch dwarfs wud come from t’ lane moors to-night, and gif
hur money, to go out,--OUT, I say,--out, lad, where t’ sun shines, and
t’ heath grows, and t’ ladies walk in silken gownds, and God stays
all t’ time,--where t’man lives that talked to us to-night, Hugh
knows,--Hugh could walk there like a king!”

He thought the woman mad, tried to check her, but she went on, fierce in
her eager haste.

“If I were t’ witch dwarf, if I had t’ money, wud hur thank me? Wud hur
take me out o’ this place wid hur and Janey? I wud not come into the
gran’ house hur wud build, to vex hur wid t’ hunch,--only at night, when
t’ shadows were dark, stand far off to see hur.”

Mad? Yes! Are many of us mad in this way?

“Poor Deb! poor Deb!” he said, soothingly.

“It is here,” she said, suddenly, jerking into his hand a small roll. “I
took it! I did it! Me, me!--not hur! I shall be hanged, I shall be burnt
in hell, if anybody knows I took it! Out of his pocket, as he leaned
against t’ bricks. Hur knows?”

She thrust it into his hand, and then, her errand done, began to gather
chips together to make a fire, choking down hysteric sobs.

“Has it come to this?”

That was all he said. The Welsh Wolfe blood was honest. The roll was a
small green pocket-book containing one or two gold pieces, and a check
for an incredible amount, as it seemed to the poor puddler. He laid it
down, hiding his face again in his hands.

“Hugh, don’t be angry wud me! It’s only poor Deb,--hur knows?”

He took the long skinny fingers kindly in his.

“Angry? God help me, no! Let me sleep. I am tired.”

He threw himself heavily down on the wooden bench, stunned with pain and
weariness. She brought some old rags to cover him.

It was late on Sunday evening before he awoke. I tell God’s truth, when
I say he had then no thought of keeping this money. Deborah had hid it
in his pocket. He found it there. She watched him eagerly, as he took it
out.

“I must gif it to him,” he said, reading her face.

“Hur knows,” she said with a bitter sigh of disappointment. “But it is
hur right to keep it.”

His right! The word struck him. Doctor May had used the same. He washed
himself, and went out to find this man Mitchell. His right! Why did this
chance word cling to him so obstinately? Do you hear the fierce devils
whisper in his ear, as he went slowly down the darkening street?

The evening came on, slow and calm. He seated himself at the end of
an alley leading into one of the larger streets. His brain was clear
to-night, keen, intent, mastering. It would not start back, cowardly,
from any hellish temptation, but meet it face to face. Therefore the
great temptation of his life came to him veiled by no sophistry, but
bold, defiant, owning its own vile name, trusting to one bold blow for
victory.

He did not deceive himself. Theft! That was it. At first the word
sickened him; then he grappled with it. Sitting there on a broken
cart-wheel, the fading day, the noisy groups, the church-bells’ tolling
passed before him like a panorama, while the sharp struggle went on
within. This money! He took it out, and looked at it. If he gave it
back, what then? He was going to be cool about it.

People going by to church saw only a sickly mill-boy watching them
quietly at the alley’s mouth. They did not know that he was mad, or they
would not have gone by so quietly: mad with hunger; stretching out his
hands to the world, that had given so much to them, for leave to live
the life God meant him to live. His soul within him was smothering to
death; he wanted so much, thought so much, and knew--nothing. There was
nothing of which he was certain, except the mill and things there.
Of God and heaven he had heard so little, that they were to him what
fairy-land is to a child: something real, but not here; very far off.
His brain, greedy, dwarfed, full of thwarted energy and unused powers,
questioned these men and women going by, coldly, bitterly, that night.
Was it not his right to live as they,--a pure life, a good, true-hearted
life, full of beauty and kind words? He only wanted to know how to
use the strength within him. His heart warmed, as he thought of it. He
suffered himself to think of it longer. If he took the money?

Then he saw himself as he might be, strong, helpful, kindly. The night
crept on, as this one image slowly evolved itself from the crowd of
other thoughts and stood triumphant. He looked at it. As he might be!
What wonder, if it blinded him to delirium,--the madness that underlies
all revolution, all progress, and all fall?

You laugh at the shallow temptation? You see the error underlying
its argument so clearly,--that to him a true life was one of full
development rather than self-restraint? that he was deaf to the higher
tone in a cry of voluntary suffering for truth’s sake than in the
fullest flow of spontaneous harmony? I do not plead his cause. I only
want to show you the mote in my brother’s eye: then you can see clearly
to take it out.

The money,--there it lay on his knee, a little blotted slip of paper,
nothing in itself; used to raise him out of the pit, something straight
from God’s hand. A thief! Well, what was it to be a thief? He met the
question at last, face to face, wiping the clammy drops of sweat
from his forehead. God made this money--the fresh air, too--for his
children’s use. He never made the difference between poor and rich. The
Something who looked down on him that moment through the cool gray sky
had a kindly face, he knew,--loved his children alike. Oh, he knew that!

There were times when the soft floods of color in the crimson and purple
flames, or the clear depth of amber in the water below the bridge, had
somehow given him a glimpse of another world than this,--of an infinite
depth of beauty and of quiet somewhere,--somewhere, a depth of quiet
and rest and love. Looking up now, it became strangely real. The sun had
sunk quite below the hills, but his last rays struck upward, touching
the zenith. The fog had risen, and the town and river were steeped in
its thick, gray damp; but overhead, the sun-touched smoke-clouds opened
like a cleft ocean,--shifting, rolling seas of crimson mist, waves of
billowy silver veined with blood-scarlet, inner depths unfathomable of
glancing light. Wolfe’s artist-eye grew drunk with color. The gates of
that other world! Fading, flashing before him now! What, in that world
of Beauty, Content, and Right, were the petty laws, the mine and thine,
of mill-owners and mill hands?

A consciousness of power stirred within him. He stood up. A man,--he
thought, stretching out his hands,--free to work, to live, to love!
Free! His right! He folded the scrap of paper in his hand. As his
nervous fingers took it in, limp and blotted, so his soul took in the
mean temptation, lapped it in fancied rights, in dreams of improved
existences, drifting and endless as the cloud-seas of color. Clutching
it, as if the tightness of his hold would strengthen his sense of
possession, he went aimlessly down the street. It was his watch at the
mill. He need not go, need never go again, thank God!--shaking off the
thought with unspeakable loathing.

Shall I go over the history of the hours of that night? how the
man wandered from one to another of his old haunts, with a
half-consciousness of bidding them farewell,--lanes and alleys and
back-yards where the mill-hands lodged,--noting, with a new eagerness,
the filth and drunkenness, the pig-pens, the ash-heaps covered with
potato-skins, the bloated, pimpled women at the doors, with a new
disgust, a new sense of sudden triumph, and, under all, a new, vague
dread, unknown before, smothered down, kept under, but still there? It
left him but once during the night, when, for the second time in his
life, he entered a church. It was a sombre Gothic pile, where the
stained light lost itself in far-retreating arches; built to meet the
requirements and sympathies of a far other class than Wolfe’s. Yet
it touched, moved him uncontrollably. The distances, the shadows, the
still, marble figures, the mass of silent kneeling worshippers, the
mysterious music, thrilled, lifted his soul with a wonderful pain.
Wolfe forgot himself, forgot the new life he was going to live, the mean
terror gnawing underneath. The voice of the speaker strengthened the
charm; it was clear, feeling, full, strong. An old man, who had lived
much, suffered much; whose brain was keenly alive, dominant; whose heart
was summer-warm with charity. He taught it to-night. He held up Humanity
in its grand total; showed the great world-cancer to his people. Who
could show it better? He was a Christian reformer; he had studied the
age thoroughly; his outlook at man had been free, world-wide, over all
time. His faith stood sublime upon the Rock of Ages; his fiery zeal
guided vast schemes by which the Gospel was to be preached to all
nations. How did he preach it to-night? In burning, light-laden words he
painted Jesus, the incarnate Life, Love, the universal Man: words
that became reality in the lives of these people,--that lived again in
beautiful words and actions, trifling, but heroic. Sin, as he defined
it, was a real foe to them; their trials, temptations, were his. His
words passed far over the furnace-tender’s grasp, toned to suit another
class of culture; they sounded in his ears a very pleasant song in an
unknown tongue. He meant to cure this world-cancer with a steady eye
that had never glared with hunger, and a hand that neither poverty nor
strychnine-whiskey had taught to shake. In this morbid, distorted heart
of the Welsh puddler he had failed.

Eighteen centuries ago, the Master of this man tried reform in the
streets of a city as crowded and vile as this, and did not fail.
His disciple, showing Him to-night to cultured hearers, showing the
clearness of the God-power acting through Him, shrank back from one
coarse fact; that in birth and habit the man Christ was thrown up from
the lowest of the people: his flesh, their flesh; their blood, his
blood; tempted like them, to brutalize day by day; to lie, to steal: the
actual slime and want of their hourly life, and the wine-press he trod
alone.

Yet, is there no meaning in this perpetually covered truth? If the son
of the carpenter had stood in the church that night, as he stood with
the fishermen and harlots by the sea of Galilee, before His Father and
their Father, despised and rejected of men, without a place to lay His
head, wounded for their iniquities, bruised for their transgressions,
would not that hungry mill-boy at least, in the back seat, have “known
the man”? That Jesus did not stand there.

Wolfe rose at last, and turned from the church down the street. He
looked up; the night had come on foggy, damp; the golden mists had
vanished, and the sky lay dull and ash-colored. He wandered again
aimlessly down the street, idly wondering what had become of the
cloud-sea of crimson and scarlet. The trial-day of this man’s life
was over, and he had lost the victory. What followed was mere drifting
circumstance,--a quicker walking over the path,--that was all. Do you
want to hear the end of it? You wish me to make a tragic story out of
it? Why, in the police-reports of the morning paper you can find a dozen
such tragedies: hints of shipwrecks unlike any that ever befell on the
high seas; hints that here a power was lost to heaven,--that there a
soul went down where no tide can ebb or flow. Commonplace enough the
hints are,--jocose sometimes, done up in rhyme.

Doctor May a month after the night I have told you of, was reading to
his wife at breakfast from this fourth column of the morning-paper:
an unusual thing,--these police-reports not being, in general, choice
reading for ladies; but it was only one item he read.

“Oh, my dear! You remember that man I told you of, that we saw at
Kirby’s mill?--that was arrested for robbing Mitchell? Here he is; just
listen:--‘Circuit Court. Judge Day. Hugh Wolfe, operative in Kirby &
John’s Loudon Mills. Charge, grand larceny. Sentence, nineteen years
hard labor in penitentiary. Scoundrel! Serves him right! After all our
kindness that night! Picking Mitchell’s pocket at the very time!”

His wife said something about the ingratitude of that kind of people,
and then they began to talk of something else.

Nineteen years! How easy that was to read! What a simple word for Judge
Day to utter! Nineteen years! Half a lifetime!

Hugh Wolfe sat on the window-ledge of his cell, looking out. His ankles
Were ironed. Not usual in such cases; but he had made two desperate
efforts to escape. “Well,” as Haley, the jailer, said, “small blame
to him! Nineteen years’ imprisonment was not a pleasant thing to look
forward to.” Haley was very good-natured about it, though Wolfe had
fought him savagely.

“When he was first caught,” the jailer said afterwards, in telling the
story, “before the trial, the fellow was cut down at once,--laid there
on that pallet like a dead man, with his hands over his eyes. Never saw
a man so cut down in my life. Time of the trial, too, came the queerest
dodge of any customer I ever had. Would choose no lawyer. Judge gave him
one, of course. Gibson it Was. He tried to prove the fellow crazy; but
it wouldn’t go. Thing was plain as daylight: money found on him. ‘T was
a hard sentence,--all the law allows; but it was for ‘xample’s sake.
These mill-hands are gettin’ onbearable. When the sentence was read, he
just looked up, and said the money was his by rights, and that all the
world had gone wrong. That night, after the trial, a gentleman came to
see him here, name of Mitchell,--him as he stole from. Talked to him for
an hour. Thought he came for curiosity, like. After he was gone, thought
Wolfe was remarkable quiet, and went into his cell. Found him very low;
bed all bloody. Doctor said he had been bleeding at the lungs. He was
as weak as a cat; yet if ye’ll b’lieve me, he tried to get a-past me and
get out. I just carried him like a baby, and threw him on the pallet.
Three days after, he tried it again: that time reached the wall. Lord
help you! he fought like a tiger,--giv’ some terrible blows. Fightin’
for life, you see; for he can’t live long, shut up in the stone crib
down yonder. Got a death-cough now. ‘T took two of us to bring him down
that day; so I just put the irons on his feet. There he sits, in there.
Goin’ to-morrow, with a batch more of ‘em. That woman, hunchback, tried
with him,--you remember?--she’s only got three years. ‘Complice. But
she’s a woman, you know. He’s been quiet ever since I put on irons:
giv’ up, I suppose. Looks white, sick-lookin’. It acts different on ‘em,
bein’ sentenced. Most of ‘em gets reckless, devilish-like. Some prays
awful, and sings them vile songs of the mills, all in a breath. That
woman, now, she’s desper’t’. Been beggin’ to see Hugh, as she calls him,
for three days. I’m a-goin’ to let her in. She don’t go with him. Here
she is in this next cell. I’m a-goin’ now to let her in.”

He let her in. Wolfe did not see her. She crept into a corner of the
cell, and stood watching him. He was scratching the iron bars of
the window with a piece of tin which he had picked up, with an idle,
uncertain, vacant stare, just as a child or idiot would do.

“Tryin’ to get out, old boy?” laughed Haley. “Them irons will need a
crow-bar beside your tin, before you can open ‘em.”

Wolfe laughed, too, in a senseless way.

“I think I’ll get out,” he said.

“I believe his brain’s touched,” said Haley, when he came out.

The puddler scraped away with the tin for half an hour. Still Deborah
did not speak. At last she ventured nearer, and touched his arm.

“Blood?” she said, looking at some spots on his coat with a shudder.

He looked up at her, “Why, Deb!” he said, smiling,--such a bright,
boyish smile, that it Went to poor Deborah’s heart directly, and she
sobbed and cried out loud.

“Oh, Hugh, lad! Hugh! dunnot look at me, when it wur my fault! To think
I brought hur to it! And I loved hur so! Oh lad, I dud!”

The confession, even In this wretch, came with the woman’s blush through
the sharp cry.

He did not seem to hear her,--scraping away diligently at the bars with
the bit of tin.

Was he going mad? She peered closely into his face. Something she saw
there made her draw suddenly back,--something which Haley had not seen,
that lay beneath the pinched, vacant look it had caught since the trial,
or the curious gray shadow that rested on it. That gray shadow,--yes,
she knew what that meant. She had often seen it creeping over women’s
faces for months, who died at last of slow hunger or consumption. That
meant death, distant, lingering: but this--Whatever it was the woman
saw, or thought she saw, used as she was to crime and misery, seemed to
make her sick with a new horror. Forgetting her fear of him, she caught
his shoulders, and looked keenly, steadily, into his eyes.

“Hugh!” she cried, in a desperate whisper,--“oh, boy, not that! for
God’s sake, not that!”

The vacant laugh went off his face, and he answered her in a muttered
word or two that drove her away. Yet the words were kindly enough.
Sitting there on his pallet, she cried silently a hopeless sort of
tears, but did not speak again. The man looked up furtively at her now
and then. Whatever his own trouble was, her distress vexed him with a
momentary sting.

It was market-day. The narrow window of the jail looked down directly on
the carts and wagons drawn up in a long line, where they had unloaded.
He could see, too, and hear distinctly the clink of money as it changed
hands, the busy crowd of whites and blacks shoving, pushing one another,
and the chaffering and swearing at the stalls. Somehow, the sound, more
than anything else had done, wakened him up,--made the whole real to
him. He was done with the world and the business of it. He let the tin
fall, and looked out, pressing his face close to the rusty bars. How
they crowded and pushed! And he,--he should never walk that pavement
again! There came Neff Sanders, one of the feeders at the mill, with
a basket on his arm. Sure enough, Nyeff was married the other week. He
whistled, hoping he would look up; but he did not. He wondered if Neff
remembered he was there,--if any of the boys thought of him up there,
and thought that he never was to go down that old cinder-road again.
Never again! He had not quite understood it before; but now he did. Not
for days or years, but never!--that was it.

How clear the light fell on that stall in front of the market! and how
like a picture it was, the dark-green heaps of corn, and the crimson
beets, and golden melons! There was another with game: how the light
flickered on that pheasant’s breast, with the purplish blood dripping
over the brown feathers! He could see the red shining of the drops, it
was so near. In one minute he could be down there. It was just a step.
So easy, as it seemed, so natural to go! Yet it could never be--not in
all the thousands of years to come--that he should put his foot on that
street again! He thought of himself with a sorrowful pity, as of some
one else. There was a dog down in the market, walking after his master
with such a stately, grave look!--only a dog, yet he could go backwards
and forwards just as he pleased: he had good luck! Why, the very vilest
cur, yelping there in the gutter, had not lived his life, had been free
to act out whatever thought God had put into his brain; while he--No, he
would not think of that! He tried to put the thought away, and to listen
to a dispute between a countryman and a woman about some meat; but it
would come back. He, what had he done to bear this?

Then came the sudden picture of what might have been, and now. He knew
what it was to be in the penitentiary, how it went with men there. He
knew how in these long years he should slowly die, but not until soul
and body had become corrupt and rotten,--how, when he came out, if he
lived to come, even the lowest of the mill-hands would jeer him,--how
his hands would be weak, and his brain senseless and stupid. He believed
he was almost that now. He put his hand to his head, with a puzzled,
weary look. It ached, his head, with thinking. He tried to quiet
himself. It was only right, perhaps; he had done wrong. But was there
right or wrong for such as he? What was right? And who had ever taught
him? He thrust the whole matter away. A dark, cold quiet crept through
his brain. It was all wrong; but let it be! It was nothing to him more
than the others. Let it be!

The door grated, as Haley opened it.

“Come, my woman! Must lock up for t’ night. Come, stir yerself!”

She went up and took Hugh’s hand.

“Good-night, Deb,” he said, carelessly.

She had not hoped he would say more; but the tired pain on her mouth
just then was bitterer than death. She took his passive hand and kissed
it.

“Hur’ll never see Deb again!” she ventured, her lips growing colder and
more bloodless.

What did she say that for? Did he not know it? Yet he would not be
impatient with poor old Deb. She had trouble of her own, as well as he.

“No, never again,” he said, trying to be cheerful.

She stood just a moment, looking at him. Do you laugh at her, standing
there, with her hunchback, her rags, her bleared, withered face, and the
great despised love tugging at her heart?

“Come, you!” called Haley, impatiently.

She did not move.

“Hugh!” she whispered.

It was to be her last word. What was it?

“Hugh, boy, not THAT!”

He did not answer. She wrung her hands, trying to be silent, looking in
his face in an agony of entreaty. He smiled again, kindly.

“It is best, Deb. I cannot bear to be hurted any more.

“Hur knows,” she said, humbly.

“Tell my father good-bye; and--and kiss little Janey.”

She nodded, saying nothing, looked in his face again, and went out of
the door. As she went, she staggered.

“Drinkin’ to-day?” broke out Haley, pushing her before him. “Where the
Devil did you get it? Here, in with ye!” and he shoved her into her
cell, next to Wolfe’s, and shut the door.

Along the wall of her cell there was a crack low down by the floor,
through which she could see the light from Wolfe’s. She had discovered
it days before. She hurried in now, and, kneeling down by it, listened,
hoping to hear some sound. Nothing but the rasping of the tin on the
bars. He was at his old amusement again. Something in the noise jarred
on her ear, for she shivered as she heard it. Hugh rasped away at the
bars. A dull old bit of tin, not fit to cut korl with.

He looked out of the window again. People were leaving the market now.
A tall mulatto girl, following her mistress, her basket on her head,
crossed the street just below, and looked up. She was laughing; but,
when she caught sight of the haggard face peering out through the bars,
suddenly grew grave, and hurried by. A free, firm step, a clear-cut
olive face, with a scarlet turban tied on one side, dark, shining eyes,
and on the head the basket poised, filled with fruit and flowers, under
which the scarlet turban and bright eyes looked out half-shadowed. The
picture caught his eye. It was good to see a face like that. He would
try to-morrow, and cut one like it. To-morrow! He threw down the tin,
trembling, and covered his face with his hands. When he looked up again,
the daylight was gone.

Deborah, crouching near by on the other side of the wall, heard no
noise. He sat on the side of the low pallet, thinking. Whatever was the
mystery which the woman had seen on his face, it came out now slowly,
in the dark there, and became fixed,--a something never seen on his face
before. The evening was darkening fast. The market had been over for an
hour; the rumbling of the carts over the pavement grew more infrequent:
he listened to each, as it passed, because he thought it was to be for
the last time. For the same reason, it was, I suppose, that he strained
his eyes to catch a glimpse of each passer-by, wondering who they were,
what kind of homes they were going to, if they had children,--listening
eagerly to every chance word in the street, as if--(God be merciful to
the man! what strange fancy was this?)--as if he never should hear human
voices again.

It was quite dark at last. The street was a lonely one. The last
passenger, he thought, was gone. No,--there was a quick step: Joe Hill,
lighting the lamps. Joe was a good old chap; never passed a fellow
without some joke or other. He remembered once seeing the place where
he lived with his wife. “Granny Hill” the boys called her. Bedridden she
Was; but so kind as Joe was to her! kept the room so clean!--and the old
woman, when he was there, was laughing at some of “t’ lad’s foolishness.”
 The step was far down the street; but he could see him place the ladder,
run up, and light the gas. A longing seized him to be spoken to once
more.

“Joe!” he called, out of the grating. “Good-bye, Joe!”

The old man stopped a moment, listening uncertainly; then hurried
on. The prisoner thrust his hand out of the window, and called again,
louder; but Joe was too far down the street. It was a little thing; but
it hurt him,--this disappointment.

“Good-bye, Joe!” he called, sorrowfully enough.

“Be quiet!” said one of the jailers, passing the door, striking on it
with his club.

Oh, that was the last, was it?

There was an inexpressible bitterness on his face, as he lay down on the
bed, taking the bit of tin, which he had rasped to a tolerable degree
of sharpness, in his hand,--to play with, it may be. He bared his arms,
looking intently at their corded veins and sinews. Deborah, listening in
the next cell, heard a slight clicking sound, often repeated. She shut
her lips tightly, that she might not scream; the cold drops of sweat
broke over her, in her dumb agony.

“Hur knows best,” she muttered at last, fiercely clutching the boards
where she lay.

If she could have seen Wolfe, there was nothing about him to frighten
her. He lay quite still, his arms outstretched, looking at the pearly
stream of moonlight coming into the window. I think in that one hour
that came then he lived back over all the years that had gone before.
I think that all the low, vile life, all his wrongs, all his starved
hopes, came then, and stung him with a farewell poison that made him
sick unto death. He made neither moan nor cry, only turned his worn
face now and then to the pure light, that seemed so far off, as one that
said, “How long, O Lord? how long?”

The hour was over at last. The moon, passing over her nightly path,
slowly came nearer, and threw the light across his bed on his feet. He
watched it steadily, as it crept up, inch by inch, slowly. It seemed to
him to carry with it a great silence. He had been so hot and tired there
always in the mills! The years had been so fierce and cruel! There was
coming now quiet and coolness and sleep. His tense limbs relaxed, and
settled in a calm languor. The blood ran fainter and slow from his
heart. He did not think now with a savage anger of what might be and was
not; he was conscious only of deep stillness creeping over him. At first
he saw a sea of faces: the mill-men,--women he had known, drunken and
bloated,--Janey’s timid and pitiful-poor old Debs: then they floated
together like a mist, and faded away, leaving only the clear, pearly
moonlight.

Whether, as the pure light crept up the stretched-out figure, it brought
with It calm and peace, who shall say? His dumb soul was alone with
God in judgment. A Voice may have spoken for it from far-off Calvary,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Who dare say?
Fainter and fainter the heart rose and fell, slower and slower the moon
floated from behind a cloud, until, when at last its full tide of white
splendor swept over the cell, it seemed to wrap and fold into a deeper
stillness the dead figure that never should move again. Silence deeper
than the Night! Nothing that moved, save the black, nauseous stream of
blood dripping slowly from the pallet to the floor!

There was outcry and crowd enough in the cell the next day. The coroner
and his jury, the local editors, Kirby himself, and boys with their
hands thrust knowingly into their pockets and heads on one side, jammed
into the corners. Coming and going all day. Only one woman. She
came late, and outstayed them all. A Quaker, or Friend, as they call
themselves. I think this woman Was known by that name in heaven. A
homely body, coarsely dressed in gray and white. Deborah (for Haley had
let her in) took notice of her. She watched them all--sitting on the
end of the pallet, holding his head in her arms with the ferocity of a
watch-dog, if any of them touched the body. There was no meekness, no
sorrow, in her face; the stuff out of which murderers are made, instead.
All the time Haley and the woman were laying straight the limbs and
cleaning the cell, Deborah sat still, keenly watching the Quaker’s face.
Of all the crowd there that day, this woman alone had not spoken to
her,--only once or twice had put some cordial to her lips. After they
all were gone, the woman, in the same still, gentle way, brought a vase
of wood-leaves and berries, and placed it by the pallet, then opened the
narrow window. The fresh air blew in, and swept the woody fragrance over
the dead face, Deborah looked up with a quick wonder.

“Did hur know my boy wud like it? Did hur know Hugh?”

“I know Hugh now.”

The white fingers passed in a slow, pitiful way over the dead, worn
face. There was a heavy shadow in the quiet eyes.

“Did hur know where they’ll bury Hugh?” said Deborah in a shrill tone,
catching her arm.

This had been the question hanging on her lips all day.

“In t’ town-yard? Under t’ mud and ash? T’ lad’ll smother, woman! He wur
born in t’ lane moor, where t’ air is frick and strong. Take hur out,
for God’s sake, take hur out where t’ air blows!”

The Quaker hesitated, but only for a moment. She put her strong arm
around Deborah and led her to the window.

“Thee sees the hills, friend, over the river? Thee sees how the
light lies warm there, and the winds of God blow all the day? I live
there,--where the blue smoke is, by the trees. Look at me,” She turned
Deborah’s face to her own, clear and earnest, “Thee will believe me? I
will take Hugh and bury him there to-morrow.”

Deborah did not doubt her. As the evening wore on, she leaned against
the iron bars, looking at the hills that rose far off, through the thick
sodden clouds, like a bright, unattainable calm. As she looked, a shadow
of their solemn repose fell on her face; its fierce discontent faded
into a pitiful, humble quiet. Slow, solemn tears gathered in her eyes:
the poor weak eyes turned so hopelessly to the place where Hugh was to
rest, the grave heights looking higher and brighter and more solemn than
ever before. The Quaker watched her keenly. She came to her at last, and
touched her arm.

“When thee comes back,” she said, in a low, sorrowful tone, like one
who speaks from a strong heart deeply moved with remorse or pity, “thee
shall begin thy life again,--there on the hills. I came too late; but
not for thee,--by God’s help, it may be.”

Not too late. Three years after, the Quaker began her work. I end my
story here. At evening-time it was light. There is no need to tire
you with the long years of sunshine, and fresh air, and slow, patient
Christ-love, needed to make healthy and hopeful this impure body and
soul. There is a homely pine house, on one of these hills, whose windows
overlook broad, wooded slopes and clover-crimsoned meadows,--niched into
the very place where the light is warmest, the air freest. It is the
Friends’ meeting-house. Once a week they sit there, in their grave,
earnest way, waiting for the Spirit of Love to speak, opening their
simple hearts to receive His words. There is a woman, old, deformed, who
takes a humble place among them: waiting like them: in her gray dress,
her worn face, pure and meek, turned now and then to the sky. A woman
much loved by these silent, restful people; more silent than they, more
humble, more loving. Waiting: with her eyes turned to hills higher
and purer than these on which she lives, dim and far off now, but to be
reached some day. There may be in her heart some latent hope to meet
there the love denied her here,--that she shall find him whom she lost,
and that then she will not be all-unworthy. Who blames her? Something
is lost in the passage of every soul from one eternity to the
other,--something pure and beautiful, which might have been and was not:
a hope, a talent, a love, over which the soul mourns, like Esau deprived
of his birthright. What blame to the meek Quaker, if she took her lost
hope to make the hills of heaven more fair?

Nothing remains to tell that the poor Welsh puddler once lived, but this
figure of the mill-woman cut in korl. I have it here in a corner of my
library. I keep it hid behind a curtain,--it is such a rough, ungainly
thing. Yet there are about it touches, grand sweeps of outline, that
show a master’s hand. Sometimes,--to-night, for instance,--the
curtain is accidentally drawn back, and I see a bare arm stretched out
imploringly in the darkness, and an eager, wolfish face watching mine: a
wan, woful face, through which the spirit of the dead korl-cutter looks
out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, its unfinished work. Its
pale, vague lips seem to tremble with a terrible question. “Is this the
End?” they say,--“nothing beyond? no more?” Why, you tell me you have
seen that look in the eyes of dumb brutes,--horses dying under the lash.
I know.

The deep of the night is passing while I write. The gas-light wakens
from the shadows here and there the objects which lie scattered through
the room: only faintly, though; for they belong to the open sunlight. As
I glance at them, they each recall some task or pleasure of the coming
day. A half-moulded child’s head; Aphrodite; a bough of forest-leaves;
music; work; homely fragments, in which lie the secrets of all eternal
truth and beauty. Prophetic all! Only this dumb, woful face seems to
belong to and end with the night. I turn to look at it. Has the power
of its desperate need commanded the darkness away? While the room is yet
steeped in heavy shadow, a cool, gray light suddenly touches its head
like a blessing hand, and its groping arm points through the broken
cloud to the far East, where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God
has set the promise of the Dawn.





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