Cast Adrift by T.S. Arthur
"Who's that, I wonder?" asked Nell Peter as the dark, close-veiled figure glided past them on the stairs.
"Oh, she's a policy-drunkard," answered Pinky, loud enough to be heard by the woman, who, as if surprised or alarmed, stopped and turned her head, her veil falling partly away, and disclosing features so pale and wasted that she looked more like a ghost than living flesh and blood. There was a strange gleam in her eyes. She paused only for an instant, but her steps were slower as she went on climbing the steep and narrow stairs that led to the policy-office.
"Good Gracious, Pinky! did you ever see such a face?" exclaimed Nell Peter. "It's a walking ghost, I should say, and no woman at all."
"Oh, I've seen lots of 'em," answered Pinky. "She's a policy-drunkard. Bad as drinking when it once gets hold of 'em. They tipple all the time, sell anything, beg, borrow, steal or starve themselves to get money to buy policies. She's one of 'em that's starving."
By this time they had reached the policy-office. It was in a small room on the third floor of the back building, yet as well known to the police of the district as if it had been on the front street. One of these public guardians soon after his appointment through political influence, and while some wholesome sense of duty and moral responsibility yet remained, caused the "writer" in this particular office to be arrested. He thought that he had done a good thing, and looked for approval and encouragement. But to his surprise and chagrin he found that he had blundered. The case got no farther than the alderman's. Just how it was managed he did not know, but it was managed, and the business of the office went on as before.
A little light came to him soon after, on meeting a prominent politician to whom he was chiefly indebted for his appointment. Said this individual, with a look of warning and a threat in his voice,
"See here, my good fellow; I'm told that you've been going out of your way and meddling with the policy-dealers. Take my advice, and mind your own business. If you don't. it will be all day with you. There isn't a man in town strong enough to fight this thing, so you'd better let it alone."
And he did let it alone. He had a wife and three little children, and couldn't afford to lose his place. So he minded his own business, and let it alone.
Pinky and her friend entered this small third-story back room. Behind a narrow, unpainted counter, having a desk at one end, stood a middle-aged man, with dark, restless eyes that rarely looked you in the face. He wore a thick but rather closely-cut beard and moustache. The police knew him very well; so did the criminal lawyers, when he happened to come in their way; so did the officials of two or three State prisons in which he had served out partial sentences. He was too valuable to political "rings" and associations antagonistic to moral and social well-being to be left idle in the cell of a penitentiary for the whole term of a commitment. Politicians have great influence, and governors are human.
On the walls of the room were pasted a few pictures cut from the illustrated papers, some of them portraits of leading politicians, and some of them portraits of noted pugilists and sporting-men. The picture of a certain judge, who had made himself obnoxious to the fraternity of criminals by his severe sentences, was turned upside down. There was neither table nor chair in the room.
The woman in black had passed in just before the girls, and was waiting her turn to examine the drawn numbers. She had not tasted food since the day before, having ventured her only dime on a policy, and was feeling strangely faint and bewildered. She did not have to wait long. It was the old story. Her combination had not come out, and she was starving. As she moved back toward the door she staggered a little. Pinky, who had become curious about her, noticed this, and watched her as she went out.
"It's about up with the old lady, I guess," she said to her companion, with an unfeeling laugh.
And she was right. On the next morning the poor old woman was found dead in her room, and those who prepared her for burial said that she was wasted to a skeleton. She had, in fact, starved herself in her infatuation, spending day after day in policies what she should have spent for food. Pinky's strange remark was but too true. She had become a policy-drunkard--a vice almost as disastrous in its effects as its kindred, vice, intemperance, though less brutalizing and less openly indulged.
"Where now?" was the question of Pinky's friend as they came down, after spending in policies all the money they had received from the sale of Flora Bond's clothing. "Any other game?"
"Come along to my room, and I'll tell you."
"Round in Ewing street?"
"Yes. Great game up, if I can only get on the track."
"What is it?"
"There's a cast-off baby in Dirty Alley, and Fan Bray knows its mother, and she's rich."
"Fan's getting lots of hush-money."
"Goody! but that is game!"
"Isn't it? The baby's owned by two beggar-women who board it in Dirty Alley. It's 'most starved and frozen to death, and Fan's awful 'fraid it may die. She wants me to steal it for her, so that she may have it better taken care of, and I was going to do it last night, when I got into a muss."
"Who's the woman that boards it?"
"She lives in a cellar, and is drunk every night. Can steal the brat easily enough; but if I can't find out who it belongs to, you see it will be trouble for nothing."
"No, I don't see any such thing," answered Nell Peter. "If you can't get hush-money out of its mother, you can bleed Fanny Bray."
"That's so, and I'm going to bleed her. The mother, you see, thinks the baby's dead. The proud old grandmother gave it away, as soon as was born, to a woman that Fan Bray found for her. Its mother was out of her head, and didn't know nothing. That woman sold the baby to the women who keep it to beg with. She's gone up the spout now, and nobody knows who the mother and grandmother are but Fan, and nobody knows where the baby is but me and Fan. She's bleeding the old lady, and promises to share with me if I keep track of the baby and see that it isn't killed or starved to death. But I don't trust her. She puts me off with fives and tens, when I'm sure she gets hundreds. Now, if we have the baby all to ourselves, and find out the mother and grandmother, won't we have a splendid chance? I'll bet you on that."
"Won't we? Why, Pinky, this is a gold-mine!"
"Didn't I tell you there was great game up? I was just wanting some one to help me. Met you in the nick of time."
The two girls had now reached Pinky's room in Ewing street, where they continued in conference for a long time before settling their plans.
"Does Fan know where you live?" queried Nell Peter.
"Then you will have to change your quarters."
"Easily done. Doesn't take half a dozen furniture-cars to move me."
"I know a room."
"It's a little too much out of the way, you'll think, maybe, but it's just the dandy for hiding in. You cart keep the brat there, and nobody--"
"Me keep the brat?" interrupted Pinky, with a derisive laugh. "That's a good one! I see myself turned baby-tender! Ha! ha! that's funny!"
"What do you expect to do with the child after you steal it?" asked Pinky's friend.
"I don't intend to nurse it or have it about me."
"Board if with some one who doesn't get drunk or buy policies."
"You'll hunt for a long time."
"Maybe, but I'll try. Anyhow, it can't be worse off than it is now. What I'm afraid of is that it will be out of its misery before we can get hold of it. The woman who is paid for keeping it at night doesn't give it any milk--just feeds it on bread soaked in water, and that is slow starvation. It's the way them that don't want to keep their babies get rid of them about here."
"The game's up if the baby dies," said Nell Peter, growing excited under this view of the case. "If it only gets bread soaked in water, it can't live. I've seen that done over and over again. They're starving a baby on bread and water now just over from my room, and it cries and frets and moans all the time it's awake, poor little wretch! I've been in hopes for a week that they'd give it an overdose of paregoric or something else."
"We must fix it to-night in some way," answered Pinky. "Where's the room you spoke of?"
"In Grubb's court. You know Grubb's court?--a kind of elbow going off from Rider's court. There's a room up there that you can get where even the police would hardly find you out."
"Thieves live there," said Pinky.
"No matter. They'll not trouble you or the baby."
"Is the room furnished?"
"Yes. There's a bed and a table and two chairs."
After farther consultation it was decided that Pinky should move at once from her present lodgings to the room in Grubb's court, and get, if possible, possession of the baby that very night. The moving was easily accomplished after the room was secured. Two small bundles of clothing constituted Pinky's entire effects; and taking these, the two girls went quietly out, leaving a week's rent unpaid.
The night that closed this early winter day was raw and cold, the easterly wind still prevailing, with occasional dashes of rain. In a cellar without fire, except a few bits of smouldering wood in an old clay furnace, that gave no warmth to the damp atmosphere, and with scarcely an article of furniture, a woman half stupid from drink sat on a heap of straw, her bed, with her hands clasped about her knees. She was rocking her body backward and forward, and crooning to herself in a maudlin way. A lighted tallow candle stood on the floor of the cellar, and near it a cup of water, in which was a spoon and some bread soaking.
"Mother Hewitt!" called a voice from the cellar door that opened on the street. "Here, take the baby!"
Mother Hewitt, as she was called, started up and made her way with an unsteady gait to the front part of the cellar, where a woman in not much better condition than herself stood holding out a bundle of rags in which a fretting baby was wrapped.
"Quick, quick!" called the woman. "And see here," she continued as Mother Hewitt reached her arms for the baby; "I don't believe you're doing the right thing. Did he have plenty of milk last night and this morning?"
"Just as much as he would take."
"I don't believe it. He's been frettin' and chawin' at the strings of his hood all the afternoon, when he ought to have been asleep, and he's looking punier every day. I believe you're giving him only bread and water."
But Mother Hewitt protested that she gave him the best of new milk, and as much as he would take.
"Well, here's a quarter," said the woman, handing Mother Hewitt some money; "and see that he is well fed to-night and to-morrow morning. He's getting 'most too deathly in his face. The people won't stand it if they think a baby's going to die--the women 'specially, and most of all the young things that have lost babies. One of these--I know 'em by the way they look out of their eyes--came twice to-day and stood over him sad and sorrowful like; she didn't give me anything. I've seen her before. Maybe she's his mother. As like as nor, for nobody knows where he came from. Wasn't Sally Long's baby; always thought she'd stole him from somebody. Now, mind, he's to have good milk every day, or I'll change his boarding-house. D'ye hear!"
And laughing at this sally, the woman turned away to spend in a night's debauch the money she had gained in half a day's begging.
Left to herself, Mother Hewitt went staggering back with the baby in her arms, and seated herself on the ground beside the cup of bread and water, which was mixed to the consistence of cream. As she did so the light of her poor candle fell on the baby's face. It was pinched and hungry and ashen pale, the thin lips wrought by want and suffering into such sad expressions of pain that none but the most stupid and hardened could look at them and keep back a gush of tears.
But Mother Hewitt saw nothing of this--felt nothing of this. Pity and tenderness had long since died out of her heart. As she laid the baby back on one arm she took a spoonful of the mixture prepared for its supper, and pushed it roughly into its mouth. The baby swallowed it with a kind of starving eagerness, but with no sign of satisfaction on its sorrowful little face. But Mother Hewitt was too impatient to get through with her work of feeding the child, and thrust in spoonful after spoonful until it choked, when she shook it angrily, calling it vile names.
The baby cried feebly at this. when she shook it again and slapped it with her heavy hand. Then it grew still. She put the spoon again to its lips, but it shut them tightly and turned its head away.
"Very well," said Mother Hewitt. "If you won't, you won't;" and she tossed the helpless thing as she would have tossed a senseless bundle over upon the heap of straw that served as a bed, adding, as she did so, "I never coaxed my own brats."
The baby did not cry. Mother Hewitt then blew out the candle, and groping her way to the door of the cellar that opened on the street, went out, shutting down the heavy door behind her, and leaving the child alone in that dark and noisome den--alone in its foul and wet garments, but, thanks to kindly drugs, only partially conscious of its misery.
Mother Hewitt's first visit was to the nearest dram-shop. Here she spent for liquor five cents of the money she had received. From the dram-shop she went to Sam McFaddon's policy-office. This was not hidden away, like most of the offices, in an upper room or a back building or in some remote cellar, concealed from public observation, but stood with open door on the very street, its customers going in and out as freely and unquestioned as the customers of its next-door neighbor, the dram-shop. Policemen passed Sam's door a hundred times in every twenty-four hours, saw his customers going in and out, knew their errand, talked with Sam about his business, some of them trying their luck occasionally after there had been an exciting "hit," but none reporting him or in any way interfering with his unlicensed plunder of the miserable and besotted wretches that crowded his neighborhood.
From the whisky-shop to the policy-shop went Mother Hewitt. Here she put down five cents more; she never bet higher than this on a "row." From the policy-shop she went back to the whisky-shop, and took another drink. By this time she was beginning to grow noisy. It so happened that the woman who had left the baby with her a little while before came in just then, and being herself much the worse for drink, picked a quarrel with Mother Hewitt, accusing her of getting drunk on the money she received for keeping the baby, and starving it to death. A fight was the consequence, in which they were permitted to tear and scratch and bruise each other in a shocking way, to the great enjoyment of the little crowd of debased and brutal men and women who filled the dram-shop. But fearing a visit from the police, the owner of the den, a strong, coarse Irishman, interfered, and dragging the women apart, pushed Mother Hewitt out, giving her so violent an impetus that she fell forward into the middle of the narrow street, where she lay unable to rise, not from any hurt, but from sheer intoxication.
"What's up now?" cried one and another as this little ripple of disturbance broke upon that vile and troubled sea of humanity.
"Only Mother Hewitt drunk again!" lightly spoke a young girl not out of her teens, but with a countenance that seemed marred by centuries of debasing evil. Her laugh would have made an angel shiver.
A policeman came along, and stood for a little while looking at the prostrate woman.
"It's Mother Hewitt," said one of the bystanders.
"Here, Dick," and the policeman spoke to a man near him. "Take hold of her feet."
The man did as told, and the policeman lifting the woman's head and shoulders, they carried her a short distance, to where a gate opened into a large yard used for putting in carts and wagons at night, and deposited her on the ground just inside.
"She can sleep it off there," said the policeman as he dropped his unseemly load. "She'll have a-plenty to keep her company before morning."
And so they left her without covering or shelter in the wet and chilly air of a late November night, drunk and asleep.
As the little crowd gathered by this ripple of excitement melted away, a single figure remained lurking in a corner of the yard and out of sight in its dark shadow. It was that of a man. The moment he was alone with the unconscious woman he glided toward her with the alert movements of an animal, and with a quickness that made his work seem instant, rifled her pockets. His gains were ten cents and the policy-slip she had just received at Sam McFaddon's. He next examined her shoes, but they were of no value, lifted her dirty dress and felt its texture for a moment, then dropped it with a motion of disgust and a growl of disappointment.
As he came out from the yard with his poor booty, the light from a street-lamp fell on as miserable a looking wretch as ever hid himself from the eyes of day--dirty, ragged, bloated, forlorn, with scarcely a trace of manhood in his swollen and disfigured face. His steps, quick from excitement a few moments before, were now shambling and made with difficulty. He had not far to walk for what he was seeking. The ministers to his appetite were all about him, a dozen in every block of that terrible district that seemed as if forsaken by God and man. Into the first that came in his way he went with nervous haste, for he had not tasted of the fiery stimulant he was craving with a fierce and unrelenting thirst for many hours. He did not leave the bar until he had drank as much of the burning poison its keeper dispensed as his booty would purchase. In less than half an hour he was thrown dead drunk into the street and then carried by policemen to the old wagon-yard, to take his night's unconscious rest on the ground in company with Mother Hewitt and a score besides of drunken wretches who were pitilessly turned out from the various dram-shops after their money was spent, and who were not considered by the police worth the trouble of taking to the station-house.
When Mother Hewitt crept back into her cellar at daylight, the baby was gone.