Cast Adrift by T.S. Arthur
A cold wet drizzling rain was beginning to fall when Pinky Swett emerged from the house. Twilight was gathering drearily. She drew her thin shawl closely, and shivered as the east wind struck her with a chill.
At hurried walk of five or ten minutes brought her to a part of the town as little known to its citizens generally as if it were in the centre of Africa--a part of the town where vice, crime, drunkenness and beggary herd together in the closest and most shameless contact; where men and women, living in all foulness, and more like wild beasts than human beings, prey greedily upon each other, hurting, depraving and marring God's image in all over whom they can get power or influenced--a very hell upon the earth!--at part of the town where theft and robbery and murder are plotted, and from which prisons and almshouses draw their chief population.
That such a herding together, almost in the centre of a great Christian city, of the utterly vicious and degraded, should be permitted, when every day's police and criminal records give warning of its cost and danger, is a marvel and a reproach. Almost every other house, in portions of this locality, is a dram-shop, where the vilest liquors are sold. Policy-offices, doing business in direct violation of law, are in every street and block, their work of plunder and demoralization going on with open doors and under the very eyes of the police. Every one of them is known to these officers. But arrest is useless. A hidden and malign influence, more potent than justice, has power to protect the traffic and hold the guilty offenders harmless. Conviction is rarely, if ever, reached.
The poor wretches, depraved and plundered through drink and policy-gambling, are driven into crime. They rob and steal and debase themselves for money with which to buy rum and policies, and sooner or later the prison or death removes the greater number of them from their vile companions. But drifting toward this fatal locality under the attraction of affinity, or lured thither by harpies in search of new supplies of human victims to repair the frightful waste perpetually made, the region keeps up its dense population, and the work of destroying human souls goes on. It is an awful thing to contemplate. Thousands of men and women, boys and girls, once innocent as the babes upon whom Christ laid his hand in blessing, are drawn into this whirlpool of evil every year, and few come out except by the way of prison or death.
It was toward this locality that Pinky Swett directed her feet, after parting with Mrs. Bray. Darkness was beginning to settle down as she turned off from one of the most populous streets, crowded at the time by citizens on their way to quiet and comfortable homes, few if any of whom had ever turned aside to look upon and get knowledge of the world or crime and wretchedness so near at hand, but girdled in and concealed from common observation.
Down a narrow street she turned from the great thoroughfare, walking with quick steps, and shivering a little as the penetrating east wind sent a chill of dampness through the thin shawl she drew closer and closer about her shoulders. Nothing could be in stronger contrast than the rows of handsome dwellings and stores that lined the streets through which she had just passed, and the forlorn, rickety, unsightly and tumble-down houses amid which she now found herself.
Pinky had gone only a little way when the sharp cries of a child cut the air suddenly, the shrill, angry voice of a woman and the rapid fall of lashes mingled with the cries. The child begged for mercy in tones of agony, but the loud voice, uttering curses and imprecations, and the cruel blows, ceased not. Pinky stopped and shivered. She felt the pain of these blows, in her quickly-aroused sympathy, almost as much as if they had been falling on her own person. Opposite to where she had paused was a one-story frame house, or enclosed shed, as unsightly without as a pig-pen, and almost as filthy within. It contained two small rooms with very low ceilings. The only things in these rooms that could be called furniture were an old bench, two chairs from which the backs had been broken, a tin cup black with smoke and dirt, two or three tin pans in the same condition, some broken crockery and an iron skillet. Pinky stood still for a moment, shivering, as we have said. She knew what the blows and the curses and the cries of pain meant; she had heard them before. A depraved and drunken woman and a child ten years old, who might or might not be her daughter, lived there. The child was sent out every day to beg or steal, and if she failed to bring home a certain sum of money, was cruelly beaten by the woman. Almost every day the poor child was cut with lashes, often on the bare flesh; almost every day her shrieks rang out from the miserable hovel. But there was no one to interfere, no one to save her from the smarting blows, no one to care what she suffered.
Pinky Swett could stand it no longer. She had often noticed the ragged child, with her pale, starved face and large, wistful eyes, passing in and out of this miserable woman's den, sometimes going to the liquor-shops and sometimes to the nearest policy-office to spend for her mother, if such the woman really was, the money she had gained by begging.
With a sudden impulse, as a deep wail and a more piteous cry for mercy smote upon her ears, Pinky sprang across the street and into the hovel. The sight that met her eyes left no hesitation in her mind. Holding up with one strong arm the naked body of the poor child--she had drawn the clothes over her head--the infuriated woman was raining down blows from a short piece of rattan upon the quivering flesh, already covered with welts and bruises.
"Devil!" cried Pinky as she rushed upon this fiend in human shape and snatched the little girl from her arm. "Do you want to kill the child?"
She might almost as well have assaulted a tigress.
The woman was larger, stronger, more desperate and more thoroughly given over to evil passions than she. To thwart her in anything was to rouse her into a fury. A moment she stood in surprise and bewilderment; in the next, and ere Pinky had time to put herself on guard, she had sprung upon her with a passionate cry that sounded more like that of a wild beast than anything human. Clutching her by the throat with one hand, and with the other tearing the child from her grasp, she threw the frightened little thing across the room.
"Devil, ha!" screamed the woman; "devil!" and she tightened her grasp on Pinky's throat, at the same time striking her in the face with her clenched fist.
Like a war-horse that snuffs the battle afar off and rushes to the conflict, so rushed the inhabitants of that foul neighborhood to the spot from whence had come to their ears the familiar and not unwelcome sound of strife. Even before Pinky had time to shake off her assailant, the door of the hovel was darkened by a screen of eager faces. And such faces! How little of God's image remained in them to tell of their divine origination!--bloated and scarred, ashen pale and wasted, hollow-eyed and red-eyed, disease looking out from all, yet all lighted up with the keenest interest and expectancy.
Outside, the crowd swelled with a marvelous rapidity. Every cellar and room and garret, every little alley and hidden rookery, "hawk's nest" and "wren's nest," poured out its unseemly denizens, white and black, old and young, male and female, the child of three years old, keen, alert and self-protective, running to see the "row" side by side with the toothless crone of seventy; or most likely passing her on the way. Thieves, beggars, pick-pockets, vile women, rag-pickers and the like, with the harpies who prey upon them, all were there to enjoy the show.
Within, a desperate fight was going on between Pinky Swett and the woman from whose hands she had attempted to rescue the child--a fight in which Pinky was getting the worst of it. One garment after another was torn from her person, until little more than a single one remained.
"Here's the police! look out!" was cried at this juncture.
"Who cares for the police? Let 'em come," boldly retorted the woman. "I haven't done nothing; it's her that's come in drunk and got up a row."
Pushing the crowd aside, a policeman entered the hovel.
"Here she is!" cried the woman, pointing toward Pinky, from whom she had sprung back the moment she heard the word police. "She came in here drunk and got up a row. I'm a decent woman, as don't meddle with nobody. But she's awful when she gets drunk. Just look at her--been tearing her clothes off!"
At this there was a shout of merriment from the crowd who had witnessed the fight.
"Good for old Sal! she's one of 'em! Can't get ahead of old Sal, drunk or sober!" and like expressions were shouted by one and another.
Poor Pinky, nearly stripped of her clothing, and with a great bruise swelling under one of her eyes, bewildered and frightened at the aspect of things around her, could make no acceptable defence.
"She ran over and pitched into Sal, so she did! I saw her! She made the fight, she did!" testified one of the crowd; and acting on this testimony and his own judgment of the case, the policeman said roughly, as he laid his hand on Pinky.
"Pick up your duds and come along."
Pinky lifted her torn garments from the dirty floor and gathered them about her person as best she could, the crowd jeering all the time. A pin here and there, furnished by some of the women, enabled her to get them into a sort of shape and adjustment. Then she tried to explain the affair to the policeman, but he would not listen.
"Come!" he said, sternly.
"What are you going to do with me?" she asked, not moving from where she stood.
"Lock you up," replied the policeman. "So come along."
"What's the matter here?" demanded a tall, strongly-built woman, pressing forward. She spoke with a foreign accent, and in a tone of command. The motley crowd, above whom she towered, gave way for her as she approached. Everything about the woman showed her to be superior in mind and moral force to the unsightly wretches about her. She had the fair skin, blue eyes and light hair of her nation. Her features were strong, but not masculine. You saw in them no trace of coarse sensuality or vicious indulgence.
"Here's Norah! here's the queen!" shouted a voice from the crowd.
"What's the matter here?" asked the woman as she gained an entrance to the hovel.
"Going to lock up Pinky Swett," said a ragged little girl who had forced her way in.
"What for?" demanded the woman, speaking with the air of one in authority.
"'Cause she wouldn't let old Sal beat Kit half to death," answered the child.
"Ho! Sal's a devil and Pinky's a fool to meddle with her." Then turning to the policeman, who still had his hand on the girl, she said,
"What're you goin' to do, John?"
"Goin' to lock her up. She's drunk an' bin a-fightin'."
"You're not goin' to do any such thing."
"I'm not drunk, and it's a lie if anybody says so," broke in Pinky. "I tried to keep this devil from beating the life out of poor little Kit, and she pitched into me and tore my clothes off. That's what's the matter."
The policeman quietly removed his hand from Pinky's shoulder, and glanced toward the woman named Sal, and stood as if waiting orders.
"Better lock her up," said the "queen," as she had been called. Sal snarled like a fretted wild beast.
"It's awful, the way she beats poor Kit," chimed in the little girl who had before spoken against her. "If I was Kit, I'd run away, so I would."
"I'll wring your neck off," growled Sal, in a fierce undertone, making a dash toward the girl, and swearing frightfully. But the child shrank to the side of the policeman.
"If you lay a finger on Kit to-night," said the queen, "I'll have her taken away, and you locked up into the the bargain."
Sal responded with another snarl.
"Come." The queen moved toward the door. Pinky followed, the policeman offering no resistance. A few minutes later, and the miserable crowd of depraved human beings had been absorbed again into cellar and garret, hovel and rookery, to take up the thread of their evil and sensual lives, and to plot wickedness, and to prey upon and deprave each other--to dwell as to their inner and real lives among infernals, to be in hell as to their spirits, while their bodies yet remained upon the earth.
Pinky and her rescuer passed down the street for a short distance until they came to another that was still narrower. On each side dim lights shone from the houses, and made some revelation of what was going on within. Here liquor was sold, and there policies. Here was a junk-shop, and there an eating-saloon where for six cents you could make a meal out of the cullings from beggars' baskets. Not very tempting to an ordinary appetite was the display inside, nor agreeable to the nostrils the odors that filled the atmosphere. But hunger like the swines', that was not over-nice, satisfied itself amid these disgusting conglomerations, and kept off starvation.
Along this wretched street, with scarcely an apology for a sidewalk, moved Pinky and the queen, until they reached a small two-story frame house that presented a different aspect from the wretched tenements amid which it stood. It was clean upon the outside, and had, as contrasted with its neighbors, an air of superiority. This was the queen's residence. Inside, all was plain and homely, but clean and in order.
The excitement into which Pinky had been thrown was nearly over by this time.
"You've done me a good turn, Norah," she said as the door closed upon them, "and I'll not soon forget you."
"Ugh!" ejaculated Norah as she looked into Pinky's bruised face; "Sal's hit you square in the eye; it'll be black as y'r boot by morning. I'll get some cold water."
A basin of cold water was brought, and Pinky held a wet cloth to the swollen spot for a long time, hoping thereby not only to reduce the swelling, but to prevent discoloration.
"Y'r a fool to meddle with Sal," said Norah as she set the basin of water before Pinky.
"Why don't you meddle with her? Why do you let her beat poor little Kit the way she does?" demanded Pinky.
Norah shrugged her shoulders, and answered with no more feeling in her voice than if she had been speaking of inanimate things:
"She's got to keep Kit up to her work."
"Up to her work!"
"Yes; that's just it. Kit's lazy and cheats--buys cakes and candies; and Sal has to come down on her; it's the way, you know. If Sal didn't come down sharp on her all the while, Kit wouldn't bring her ten cents a day. They all have to do it--so much a day or a lickin'; and a little lickin' isn't any use--got to 'most kill some of 'em. We're used to it in here. Hark!"
The screams of a child in pain rang out wildly, the sounds coming from across the narrow street. Quick, hard strokes of a lash were heard at the same time. Pinky turned a little pale.
"Only Mother Quig," said Norah, with an indifferent air; "she has to do it 'most every night--no getting along any other way with Tom. It beats all how much he can stand."
"Oh, Norah, won't she never stop?" cried Pinky, starting up. "I can't bear it a minute longer."
"Shut y'r ears. You've got to," answered the woman, with some impatience in her voice. "Tom has to be kept to his work as well as the rest of 'em. Half the fuss he's making is put on, anyhow; he doesn't mind a beating any more than a horse. I know his hollers. There's Flanagan's Nell getting it now," added Norah as the cries and entreaties of another child were heard. She drew herself up and listened, a slight shade of concern drifting across her face.
A long, agonizing wail shivered through the air.
"Nell's Sick, and can't do her work." The woman rose as she spoke. "I saw her goin' off to-day, and told Flanagan she'd better keep her at home."
Saying this, Norah went out quickly, Pinky following. With head erect and mouth set firmly, the queen strode across the street and a little way down the pavement, to the entrance of a cellar, from which the cries and sounds of whipping came. Down the five or six rotten and broken steps she plunged, Pinky close after her.
"Stop!" shouted Norah, in a tone of command.
Instantly the blows ceased, and the cries were hushed.
"You'll be hanged for murder if you don't take care," said Norah. "What's Nell been doin'?"
"Doin', the slut!" ejaculated the woman, a short, bloated, revolting creature, with scarcely anything human in her face. "Doin', did ye say? It's nothin' she's been doin', the lazy, trapsing huzzy! Who's that intrudin' herself in here?" she added fiercely, as she saw Pinky, making at the same time a movement toward the girl. "Get out o' here, or I'll spile y'r pictur'!"
"Keep quiet, will you?" said Norah, putting her hand on the woman and pushing her back as easily as if she had been a child. "Now come here, Nell, and let me look at you."
Out of the far corner of the cellar into which Flanagan had thrown her when she heard Norah's voice, and into the small circle of light made by a single tallow candle, there crept slowly the figure of a child literally clothed in rags. Norah reached out her hand to her as she came up--there was a scared look on her pinched face--and drew her close to the light.
"Gracious! your hand's like an ice-ball!" exclaimed Norah.
Pinky looked at the child, and grew faint at heart. She had large hazel eyes, that gleamed with a singular lustre out of the suffering, grimed and wasted little face, so pale and sad and pitiful that the sight of it was enough to draw tears from any but the brutal and hardened.
"Are you sick?" asked Norah.
"No, she's not sick; she's only shamming," growled Flanagan.
"You shut up!" retorted Norah. "I wasn't speaking to you." Then she repeated her question:
"Are you sick, Nell?"
"I don't know."
Norah laid her hand on the child's head:
"Does it hurt here?"
"Oh yes! It hurts so I can't see good," answered Nell.
"It's all a lie! I know her; she's shamming."
"Oh no, Norah!" cried the child, a sudden hope blending with the fear in her voice. "I ain't shamming at all. I fell down ever so many times in the street, and 'most got run over. Oh dear! oh dear!" and she clung to the woman with a gesture of despair piteous to see.
"I don't believe you are, Nell," said Norah, kindly. Then, to the woman, "Now mind, Flanagan, Nell's sick; d'ye hear?"
The woman only uttered a defiant growl.
"She's not to be licked again to-night." Norah spoke as one having authority.
"I wish ye'd be mindin' y'r own business, and not come interfarin' wid me. She's my gal, and I've a right to lick her if I plaze."
"Maybe she is and maybe she isn't," retorted Norah.
"Who says she isn't my gal?" screamed the woman, firing up at this and reaching out for Nell, who shrunk closer to Norah.
"Maybe she is and maybe she isn't," said the queen, quietly repeating her last sentence; "and I think maybe she isn't. So take care and mind what I say. Nell isn't to be licked any more to-night."
"Oh, Norah," sobbed the child, in a husky, choking voice, "take me, won't you? She'll pinch me, and she'll hit my head on the wall, and she'll choke me and knock me. Oh, Norah, Norah!"
Pinky could stand this no longer. Catching up the bundle of rags in her arms, she sprang out of the cellar and ran across the street to the queen's house, Norah and Flanagan coming quickly after her. At the door, through which Pinky had passed, Norah paused, and turning to the infuriated Irish woman, said, sternly,
"Go back! I won't have you in here; and if you make a row, I'll tell John to lock you up."
"I want my Nell," said the woman, her manner changing. There was a shade of alarm in her voice.
"You can't have her to-night; so that's settled. And if there's any row, you'll be locked up." Saying which, Norah went in and shut the door, leaving Flanagan on the outside.
The bundle of dirty rags with the wasted body of a child inside, the body scarcely heavier than the rags, was laid by Pinky in the corner of a settee, and the unsightly mass shrunk together like something inanimate.
"I thought you'd had enough with old Sal," said Norah, in a tone of reproof, as she came in.
"Couldn't help it," replied Pinky. "I'm bad enough, but I can't stand to see a child abused like that--no, not if I die for it."
Norah crossed to the settee and spoke to Nell. But there was no answer, nor did the bundle of rags stir.
"Nell! Nell!" She called to deaf ears. Then she put her hand on the child and raised one of the arms. It dropped away limp as a withered stalk, showing the ashen white face across which it had lain.
The two women manifested no excitement. The child had fainted or was dead--which, they did not know. Norah straightened out the wasted little form and turned up the face. The eyes were shut, the mouth closed, the pinched features rigid, as if still giving expression to pain, but there was no mistaking the sign that life had gone out of them. It might be for a brief season, it might be for ever.
A little water was thrown into the child's face. Its only effect was to streak the grimy skin.
"Poor little thing!" said Pinky. "I hope she's dead."
"They're tough. They don't die easy," returned Norah.
"She isn't one of the tough kind."
"Maybe not. They say Flanagan stole her when she was a little thing, just toddling."
"Don't let's do anything to try to bring her to," said Pinky.
Norah stood for some moment's with an irresolute air, then bent over the child and examined her more carefully. She could feel no pulse beat, nor any motion of the heart,
"I don't want the coroner here," she said, in a tone of annoyance. "Take her back to Flanagan; it's her work, and she must stand by it."
"Is she really dead?" asked Pinky.
"Looks like it, and serves Flanagan right. I've told her over and over that Nell wouldn't stand it long if she didn't ease up a little. Flesh isn't iron."
Again she examined the child carefully, but without the slightest sign of feeling.
"It's all the same now who has her," she said, turning off from the settee. "Take her back to Flanagan."
But Pinky would not touch the child, nor could threat or persuasion lead her to do so. While they were contending, Flanagan, who had fired herself up with half a pint of whisky, came storming through the door in a blind rage and screaming out,
"Where's my Nell? I want my Nell!"
Catching sight of the child's inanimate form lying on the settee, she pounced down upon it like some foul bird and bore it off, cursing and striking the senseless clay in her insane fury.
Pinky, horrified at the dreadful sight, and not sure that the child was really dead, and so insensible to pain, made a movement to follow, but Norah caught her arm with a tight grip and held her back.
"Are you a fool?" said the queen, sternly. "Let Flanagan alone. Nell's out of her reach, and I'm glad of it."
"If I was only sure!" exclaimed Pinky.
"You may be. I know death--I've seen it often enough. They'll have the coroner over there in the morning. It's Flanagan's concern, not yours or mine, so keep out of it if you know when you're well off."
"I'll appear against her at the inquest," said Pinky.
"You'll do no such thing. Keep your tongue behind your teeth. It's time enough to show it when it's pulled out. Take my advice, and mind your own business. You'll have enough to do caring for your own head, without looking after other people's."
"I'm not one of that kind," answered Pinky, a little tartly; "and if there's any way to keep Flanagan from murdering another child, I'm going to find it out."
"You'll find out something else first," said Norah, with a slight curl of her lip.
"The way to prison."
"Pshaw! I'm not afraid."
"You'd better be. If you appear against Flanagan, she'll have you caged before to-morrow night."
"How can she do it?"
"Swear against you before an alderman, and he'll send you down if it's only to get his fee. She knows her man."
"Suppose murder is proved against her?"
"Suppose!" Norah gave a little derisive laugh.
"They don't look after things in here as they do outside. Everybody's got the screws on, and things must break sometimes, but it isn't called murder. The coroner understands it all. He's used to seeing things break."