Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Madeleine had forced herself to eat a light dinner, and a few minutes before eleven she drank a cup of strong coffee; but when she entered upon the sights and sounds and stenches of Worth Street she nearly fainted.
The night was hot. The narrow crooked streets of the Five Points were lit with gas that shone dimly through the grimy panes of the lamp posts or through the open doors of groggeries and fetid shops. The gutter was a sewer. Probably not one of those dehumanized creatures ever bathed. Some of the children were naked and all looked as if they had been dipped in the gutters and tossed out to dry. The streets swarmed with them; and with men and women between the ages of sixteen and forty. One rarely lived longer than that in the Five Points. Some were shrieking and fighting, others were horribly quiet. Men and women lay drunk in the streets or hunched against the dripping walls, their mouths with black teeth or no teeth hanging loosely, their faces purple or pallid. Screams came from one of the tenements, but neither of the two detectives escorting the party turned his head.
Madeleine had imagined nothing like this. Her only acquaintance with vice had been in the dens and dives of San Francisco, and she had pictured something of the same sort intensified. But there was hardly a point of resemblance. San Francisco has always had a genius for making vice picturesque. The outcasts of the rest of the world do their worst and let it go at that. Moreover, in San Francisco she had never seen poverty. There was work for all, there were no beggars, no hungry tattered children, no congested districts. Vice might be an agreeable resource but it was forced on no one; and always the atmosphere of its indulgence was gay. She had witnessed scenes of riotous drunkenness, but there was something debonair about even those bent upon extermination, either of an antagonist or the chandeliers and glass-ware, and she had never seen men sodden save on the water front. Even then they were often grinning.
But this looked like plain Hell to Madeleine, or worse. The Hell of the Bible and Dante had a lively accompaniment of writhing flames and was presumably clean. This might be an underground race condemned to a sordid filthy and living death for unimaginable crimes of a previous existence. Even the children looked as if they had come back to Earth with the sins of threescore and ten stamped upon their weary wicked faces. Madeleine's strong soul faltered, and she grasped Holt's arm.
"Well, you see for yourself," he said unsympathetically. "Better go back and let me bring him to you. One of our men can easily knock him out--"
"I'm here and I shall go on. I'll stay all night if necessary."
Lacey looked at her with open adoration; he had fallen truculently in love with her. If Masters no longer loved her he felt quite equal to killing him, although with no dreams for himself. He hoped that if Masters were too far gone for redemption she would recognize the fact at once, forget him, and find happiness somewhere. He was glad on the whole that she had come to Five Points.
"What's the program?" asked one of the detectives, kicking a sprawling form out of the way. "Do you know where he hangs out?"
"No," said Lacey. "He seems to go where fancy leads. We'll have to go from one groggery to another, and then try the dance houses, unless they pass the word in time. The police are supposed to have closed them, you know."
"Yes, they have!" The man's hearty Irish laugh startled these wretched creatures, unused to laughter, and they forsook their apathy or belligerence for a moment to stare. "They simply moved to the back, or to the cellar. They know we believe in lettin' 'em go to the devil their own way. Might as well turn in here."
They entered one of the groggeries. It was a large room. The ceiling was low. The walls were foul with the accumulations of many years, it was long since the tables had been washed. The bar, dripping and slimy, looked as if about to fall to pieces, and the drinks were served in cracked mugs. The bar-tender was evidently an ex-prize- fighter, but the loose skin, empty of muscle, hung from his bare arms in folds. The air was dense with vile tobacco smoke, adding to the choice assortment of stenches imported from without and conferred by Time within. Men and women, boys and girls, sat at the tables drinking, or lay on the floor. There they would remain until their drunken stupor wore off, when they would stagger home to begin a new day. A cracked fiddle was playing. The younger people and some of the older were singing in various keys. Many were drinking solemnly as if drinking were a ritual. Others were grinning with evident enjoyment and a few were hilarious.
The party attracted little general attention. Investigating travellers, escorted by detectives, had visited the Five Points more than once, curious to see in what way it justified its reputation for supremacy over the East End of London and the Montmartre of Paris; and although pockets usually were picked, no violence was offered if the detectives maintained a bland air of detachment. They did not even resent the cologne-drenched handkerchiefs the visitors invariably held to their noses. As evil odors meant nothing to them, they probably mistook the gesture for modesty.
Madeleine preferred her smelling salts, and at Holt's suggestion had wrapped her handkerchief about the gold and crystal bottle. But she forgot the horrible atmosphere as she peered into the face of every man who might be Masters. She wore a plain black dress and a small black hat, but her beauty was difficult to obscure. Her cheeks were white and her brown eyes had lost their sparkle long since, but men not too drunk to notice a lovely woman or her manifest close scrutiny, not only leered up into her face but would have jerked her down beside them had it not been for their jealous partners and the presence of the detectives. There was a rumor abroad that the new City Administration intended to seek approval if not fame by cleaning out the Five Points, tearing down the wretched tenements and groggeries, and scattering its denizens; and none was too reckless not to be on his guard against a calamity which would deprive him not only of all he knew of pleasure but of an almost impregnable refuge after crime.
The women, bloated, emaciated with disease, few with any pretension to looks or finery, made insulting remarks as Madeleine examined their partners, or stared at her in a sort of terrible wonder. She had no eyes for them. When she reached the end of the room, looking down into the faces of the men she was forced to step over, she turned and methodically continued her pilgrimage up another lane between the tables.
"Good God!" exclaimed Holt to Lacey. "There he is! I hoped we should have to visit at least twenty of these hells, and that she'd faint or give up."
"How on earth can you distinguish any one in this infernal smoke?"
"Got the eyes of a cat. There he is--in that corner by the door. God! What a female thing he's got with him."
"Hope it'll cure her--and that we can get out of this pretty soon. Strange things are happening within me."
There was an uproar on the other side of the room. One man had made up his mind to follow this fair visitor, and his woman was beating him in the face, shrieking her curses.
A party of drunken sailors staggered in, singing uproariously, and almost fell over the bar.
But not a sound had penetrated Madeleine's unheeding ears. She had seen Masters.
His drab had not taken his invitation to bedeck herself too literally, nor had she ventured into Broadway. But after returning with the rum she had gone as far as Fell Street and bought herself all the tawdry finery her funds would command. She wore it with tipsy pride: a pink frock of slazy silk with as full a flowing skirt as any on Fifth Avenue during the hour of promenade, a green silk mantle, and a hat as flat as a plate trimmed with faded roses, soiled streamers hanging down over her impudent chignon. She was attracting far more attention than the simply dressed lady from the upper world. The eyes of the women in her vicinity were redder with envy than with liquor and they cursed her shrilly. One of the younger women, carried away by a sudden dictation of femininity, made a dart for the fringed mantle with obvious intent to appropriate it by force. She received a blow in the face from the dauntless owner that sent her sprawling, while the others mingled jeers with their curses.
Masters was leaning on the table, supporting his head with his hands and laughing. He had passed the stage where he wanted to talk, but it would be morning before his brain would be completely befuddled.
Madeleine's body became so stiff that her heels left the floor and she stood on her toes. Holt and Lacey grasped her arms, but she did not sway; she stood staring at the man she had come for. There was little semblance of the polished, groomed, haughty man who had won her. His face was not swollen but it was a dark uniform red and the lines cut it to the bone. The slight frown he had always worn had deepened to an ugly scowl. His eyes were injected and dull, his hair was turning gray. His mouth that he had held in such firm curves was loose and his teeth stained. She remembered how his teeth had flashed when he smiled, the extraordinary brilliancy of his gray eyes.... The groggery vanished ... they were sitting before the fire in the Occidental Hotel....
The daze and the vision lasted only a moment. She disengaged herself from her escorts and walked rapidly toward the table.