Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Langdon Masters awoke from a sleep that had lasted all day and glowered out upon the room he occupied in Baxter Street. It was as wretched as all tenements in the Five Points, but it had the distinguishing mark of neatness. Drunk as he might be, the drab who lived with him knew that he would detect dirt and disorder, and that her slender hold on his tolerance would be forfeited at once. There were too many of her sort in the Five Points eager for the position of mistress to this man who treated them as a sultan might treat the meanest of his concubines, rarely throwing them a word, and alternately indulgent and brutal. They regarded him with awe, even forgetting to drink when, in certain stages of his cups, he entertained by the hour in one or other of the groggeries a circle of the most abandoned characters in New York--thieves, cracksmen, murderers actual or potential, "shoulder-hitters," sailors who came ashore to drink the fieriest rum they could find, prostitutes, dead-beats, degenerates, derelicts--with a flow of talk that was like the flashing of jewels in the gutter. He related the most stupendous adventures that had ever befallen a mortal. If any one of his audience had heard of Munchausen he would have dismissed him as a poor imitation of this man who would seem to have dropped down into their filthy and lawless quarter from a sphere where things happened unknown to men on this planet. They dimly recognized that he was a fallen gentleman, for at long intervals good churchmen from the foreign territory of Broadway or Fifth Avenue came to remonstrate and plead. They never came a second time and they usually spent the following week in bed.
But Masters was democratic enough in manner; it was evident that he regarded himself as no better than the worst, and nothing appeared to be further from his mind than reform of them or himself. He had now been with them for six months and came and went as he pleased. In the beginning his indestructible air of superiority had subtly irritated them in spite of his immediate acceptance of their standards, and there had been two attempts to trounce him. But he was apparently made of steel rope, he knew every trick of their none too subtle "game," and he had knocked out his assailants and won the final respect of Five Points.
And if he was finical about his room he took care to be no neater in his dress than his associates. Although he had his hair cut and his face shaved he wore old and rough clothes and a gray flannel shirt.
Masters, after his drab had given him a cup of strong coffee and a rasher, followed by a glass of rum, lost the horrid sensations incident upon the waking moment and looked forward to the night with a sardonic but not discontented grin. He knew that he had reached the lowest depths, and if his tough frame refused to succumb to the vilest liquor he could pour into it, he would probably be killed in some general shooting fray, or by one of the women he infatuated and cast aside when another took his drunken but ever ironic fancy. Only a week since the cyprian at present engaged in washing his dishes had been nearly demolished by the damsel she had superseded. She still wore a livid mark on her cheek and a plaster on her head whence a handful of hair had been removed by the roots. He had stood aloof during the fracas in the dirty garish dance house under the sidewalk, laughing consumedly; and had awakened the next night to find the victor mending her tattered finery. She made him an excellent cup of coffee, and he had told her curtly that she could stay.
If, in his comparatively sober moments, the memory of Madeleine intruded, he cast it out with a curse. Not because he blamed her for his downfall; he blamed no one but himself; but because any recollection of the past, all it had been and promised, was unendurable. Whether he had been strong or weak in electing to go straight to perdition when Life had scourged him, he neither knew nor cared. He began to drink on the steamer, determined to forget for the present, at least; but the mental condition induced was far more agreeable than those moments of sobriety when he felt as if he were in hell with fire in his vitals and cold terror of the future in his brain. In New York, driven by his pride, he had made one or two attempts to recover himself, but the writing of unsigned editorials on subjects that interested him not at all was like wandering in a thirsty desert without an oasis in sight--after the champagne of his life in San Francisco with a future as glittering as its skies at night and the daily companionship of a woman whom he had believed the fates must give him wholly in time.
He finally renounced self-respect as a game not worth the candle. Moreover, the clarity of mind necessary to sustained work embraced ever the image of Madeleine; what he had lost and what he had never possessed. And, again, he tormented himself with imaginings of her own suffering and despair; alternated with visions of Madeleine enthroned, secure, impeccable, admired, envied--and with other men in love with her! Some depth of insight convinced him that she loved him immortally, but he knew her need for mental companionship, and the thought that she might find it, however briefly and barrenly, with another man, sent him plunging once more.
His friends and admirers on the newspaper staffs had been loyal, but not only was he irritated by their manifest attempts to reclaim him, but he grew to hate them as so many accusing reminders of the great gifts he was striving to blast out by the roots; and, finding it difficult to avoid them, he had, as soon as he was put in possession of his small income, deliberately transferred himself to the Five Points, where they would hardly be likely to trace him, certainly not to seek his society.
And, on the whole, this experience in a degraded and perilous quarter, famous the world over as a degree or two worse than any pest-hole of its kind, was the most enjoyable of his prolonged debauch. It was only a few yards from Broadway, but he had never set foot in that magnificent thoroughfare of brown stone and white marble, aristocratic business partner of Fifth Avenue, since he entered a precinct so different from New York, as his former world knew it, that he might have been on a convict island in the South Seas.
The past never obtruded itself here. He was surrounded by danger and degradation, ugliness unmitigated, and a complete indifference to anything in the world but vice, crime, liquor and the primitive appetites. Even the children in the swarming squalid streets looked like little old men and women; they fought in the gutters for scraps of refuse, or stood staring sullenly before them, the cry in their emaciated bodies dulled with the poisons of malnutrition; or making quick passes at the pocket of a thief. The girls had never been young, never worn anything but rags or mean finery, the boys were in training for a career of crime, the sodden women seemed to have no natural affection for the young they bore as lust prompted. Men beat their wives or strumpets with no interference from the police. The Sixth Ward was the worst on Manhattan, and the police had enough to do without wasting their time in this congested mass of the city's putrid dregs; who would be conferring a favor on the great and splendid and envied City of New York if they exterminated one another in a grand final orgy of blood and hate.
The irony in Masters' mind might sleep when that proud and contemptuous organ was sodden, but it was deathless. When he thought at all it was to congratulate himself with a laugh that he had found the proper setting for the final exit of a man whom Life had equipped to conquer, and Fate, in her most ironic mood, had challenged to battle; with the sting of death in victory if he won. He had beaten her at her own game. He had always aimed at consummation, the masterpiece; and here, in his final degradation, he had accomplished it.
This morning he laughed aloud, and the woman--or girl?--her body was young but her scarred face was almost aged--wondered if he were going mad at last. There was little time lost in the Five Points upon discussion of personal peculiarities, but all took for granted that this man was half mad and would be wholly so before long.
"Is anything the matter?" she asked timidly, her eye on the door but not daring to bolt.
"Oh, no, nothing! Nothing in all this broad and perfect world. Life is a sweet-scented garden where all the good are happy and all the bad receive their just and immediate deserts. You are the complete epitome of life, yourself, and I gaze upon you with a satisfaction as complete. I wouldn't change you for the most silken and secluded beauty in Bleecker Street, and you may stay here for ever. The more hideous you become the more pleased I shall be. And you needn't be afraid I have gone mad. I am damnably sane. And still more damnably sober. Go out and buy me a bottle of Lethe, and be quick about it. This is nearly finished."
"Do you mean rum?" She was reassured, somewhat, but he had a fashion of making what passed for her brain feel as if it had been churned.
"Yes, I mean rum, damn you. Clear out."
He opened an old wallet and threw a handful of bills on the floor. "Go round into Broadway and buy yourself a gown of white satin and a wreath of lilies for your hair. You would be a picture to make the angels weep, while I myself wept from pure joy. Get out."