The Pit by Frank Norris
The evening had closed in wet and misty. All day long a chill wind had blown across the city from off the lake, and by eight o'clock, when Laura and Jadwin came down to the dismantled library, a heavy rain was falling.
Laura gave Jadwin her arm as they made their way across the room--their footsteps echoing strangely from the uncarpeted boards.
"There, dear," she said. "Give me the valise. Now sit down on the packing box there. Are you tired? You had better put your hat on. It is full of draughts here, now that all the furniture and curtains are out."
"No, no. I'm all right, old girl. Is the hack there yet?"
"Not yet. You're sure you're not tired?" she insisted. "You had a pretty bad siege of it, you know, and this is only the first week you've been up. You remember how the doctor--"
"I've had too good a nurse," he answered, stroking her hand, "not to be fine as a fiddle by now. You must be tired yourself, Laura. Why, for whole days there--and nights, too, they tell me--you never left the room."
She shook her head, as though dismissing the subject.
"I wonder," she said, sitting down upon a smaller packing-box and clasping a knee in her hands, "I wonder what the West will be like. Do you know I think I am going to like it, Curtis?"
"It will be starting in all over again, old girl," he said, with a warning shake of his head. "Pretty hard at first, I'm afraid."
She laughed an almost contemptuous note.
"Hard! Now?" She took his hand and laid it to her cheek.
"By all the rules you ought to hate me," he began. "What have I done for you but hurt you and, at last, bring you to--"
But she shut her gloved hand over his mouth.
"Stop!" she cried. "Hush, dear. You have brought me the greatest happiness of my life."
Then under her breath, her eyes wide and thoughtful, she murmured:
"A capitulation and not a triumph, and I have won a victory by surrendering."
"Hey--what?" demanded Jadwin. "I didn't hear."
"Never mind," she answered. "It was nothing. 'The world is all before us where to choose,' now, isn't it? And this big house and all the life we have led in it was just an incident in our lives--an incident that is closed."
"Looks like it, to look around this room," he said, grimly. "Nothing left but the wall paper. What do you suppose are in these boxes?"
"They're labelled 'books and portieres.'"
"Who bought 'em I wonder? I'd have thought the party who bought the house would have taken them. Well, it was a wrench to see the place and all go so dirt cheap, and the 'Thetis'," too, by George! But I'm glad now. It's as though we had lightened ship." He looked at his watch. "That hack ought to be here pretty soon. I'm glad we checked the trunks from the house; gives us more time."
"Oh, by the way," exclaimed Laura, all at once opening her satchel. "I had a long letter from Page this morning, from New York. Do you want to hear what she has to say? I've only had time to read part of it myself. It's the first one I've had from her since their marriage."
He lit a cigar.
"Go ahead," he said, settling himself on the box. "What does Mrs. Court have to say?"
"'My dearest sister,'" began Laura. "'Here we are, Landry and I, in New York at last. Very tired and mussed after the ride on the cars, but in a darling little hotel where the proprietor is head cook and everybody speaks French. I know my accent is improving, and Landry has learned any quantity of phrases already. We are reading George Sand out loud, and are making up the longest vocabulary. To-night we are going to a concert, and I've found out that there's a really fine course of lectures to be given soon on "Literary Tendencies," or something like that. Quel chance. Landry is intensely interested. You've no idea what a deep mind he has, Laura--a real thinker.
"'But here's really a big piece of news. We may not have to give up our old home where we lived when we first came to Chicago. Aunt Wess' wrote the other day to say that, if you were willing, she would rent it, and then sublet all the lower floor to Landry and me, so we could have a real house over our heads and not the under side of the floor of the flat overhead. And she is such an old dear, I know we could all get along beautifully. Write me about this as soon as you can. I know you'll be willing, and Aunt Wess, said she'd agree to whatever rent you suggested.
"'We went to call on Mrs. Cressler day before yesterday. She's been here nearly a fortnight by now, and is living with a maiden sister of hers in a very beautiful house fronting Central Park (not so beautiful as our palace on North Avenue. Never, never will I forget that house). She will probably stay here now always. She says the very sight of the old neighbourhoods in Chicago would be more than she could bear. Poor Mrs. Cressler! How fortunate for her that her sister'--and so on, and so on," broke in Laura, hastily.
"Read it, read it," said Jadwin, turning sharply away. "Don't skip a line. I want to hear every word."
"That's all there is to it," Laura returned. "'We'll be back,'" she went on, turning a page of the letter, "'in about three weeks, and Landry will take up his work in that railroad office. No more speculating for him, he says. He talks of Mr. Jadwin continually. You never saw or heard of such devotion. He says that Mr. Jadwin is a genius, the greatest financier in the country, and that he knows he could have won if they all hadn't turned against him that day. He never gets tired telling me that Mr. Jadwin has been a father to him--the kindest, biggest-hearted man he ever knew--'"
Jadwin pulled his mustache rapidly.
"Pshaw, pish, nonsense--little fool!" he blustered.
"He simply worshipped you from the first, Curtis," commented Laura. "Even after he knew I was to marry you. He never once was jealous, never once would listen to a word against you from any one."
"Well--well, what else does Mrs. Court say?"
"'I am glad to hear,'" read Laura, "'that Mr. Gretry did not fail, though Landry tells me he must have lost a great deal of money. Landry tells me that eighteen brokers' houses failed in Chicago the day after Mr. Gretry suspended. Isabel sent us a wedding present--a lovely medicine chest full of homoeopathic medicines, little pills and things, you know. But, as Landry and I are never sick and both laugh at homoeopathy, I declare I don't know just what we will do with it. Landry is as careful of me as though I were a wax doll. But I do wish he would think more of his own health. He never will wear his mackintosh in rainy weather. I've been studying his tastes so carefully. He likes French light opera better than English, and bright colours in his cravats, and he simply adores stuffed tomatoes.
"'We both send our love, and Landry especially wants to be remembered to Mr. Jadwin. I hope this letter will come in time for us to wish you both bon voyage and bon succes. How splendid of Mr. Jadwin to have started his new business even while he was convalescent! Landry says he knows he will make two or three more fortunes in the next few years.
"'Good-by, Laura, dear. Ever your loving sister,
"'P.S.--I open this letter again to tell you that we met Mr. Corthell on the street yesterday. He sails for Europe to-day.'"
"Oh," said Jadwin, as Laura put the letter quickly down, "Corthell--that artist chap. By the way, whatever became of him?"
Laura settled a comb in the back of her hair.
"He went away," she said. "You remember--I told you--told you all about it."
She would have turned away her head, but he laid a hand upon her shoulder.
"I remember," he answered, looking squarely into her eyes, "I remember nothing--only that I have been to blame for everything. I told you once--long ago--that I understood. And I understand now, old girl, understand as I never did before. I fancy we both have been living according to a wrong notion of things. We started right when we were first married, but I worked away from it somehow and pulled you along with me. But we've both been through a great big change, honey, a great big change, and we're starting all over again.... Well, there's the carriage, I guess."
They rose, gathering up their valises.
"Hoh!" said Jadwin. "No servants now, Laura, to carry our things down for us and open the door, and it's a hack, old girl, instead of the victoria or coupe."
"What if it is?" she cried. "What do 'things,' servants, money, and all amount to now?"
As Jadwin laid his hand upon the knob of the front door, he all at once put down his valise and put his arm about his wife. She caught him about the neck and looked deep into his eyes a long moment. And then, without speaking, they kissed each other.
In the outer vestibule, he raised the umbrella and held it over her head.
"Hold it a minute, will you, Laura?" he said.
He gave it into her hand and swung the door of the house shut behind him. The noise woke a hollow echo throughout all the series of empty, denuded rooms. Jadwin slipped the key in his pocket.
"Come," he said.
They stepped out from the vestibule. It was already dark. The rain was falling in gentle slants through the odorous, cool air. Across the street in the park the first leaves were beginning to fall; the lake lapped and washed quietly against the stone embankments and a belated bicyclist stole past across the asphalt, with the silent flitting of a bat, his lamp throwing a fan of orange-coloured haze into the mist of rain.
In the street in front of the house the driver, descending from the box, held open the door of the hack. Jadwin handed Laura in, gave an address to the driver, and got in himself, slamming the door after. They heard the driver mount to his seat and speak to his horses.
"Well," said Jadwin, rubbing the fog from the window pane of the door, "look your last at the old place, Laura. You'll never see it again."
But she would not look.
"No, no," she said. "I'll look at you, dearest, at you, and our future, which is to be happier than any years we have ever known."
Jadwin did not answer other than by taking her hand in his, and in silence they drove through the city towards the train that was to carry them to the new life. A phase of the existences of each was closed definitely. The great corner was a thing of the past; the great corner with the long train of disasters its collapse had started. The great failure had precipitated smaller failures, and the aggregate of smaller failures had pulled down one business house after another. For weeks afterward, the successive crashes were like the shock and reverberation of undermined buildings toppling to their ruin. An important bank had suspended payment, and hundreds of depositors had found their little fortunes swept away. The ramifications of the catastrophe were unbelievable. The whole tone of financial affairs seemed changed. Money was "tight" again, credit was withdrawn. The business world began to speak of hard times, once more.
But Laura would not admit her husband was in any way to blame. He had suffered, too. She repeated to herself his words, again and again:
"The wheat cornered itself. I simply stood between two sets of circumstances. The wheat cornered me, not I the wheat."
And all those millions and millions of bushels of Wheat were gone now. The Wheat that had killed Cressler, that had ingulfed Jadwin's fortune and all but unseated reason itself; the Wheat that had intervened like a great torrent to drag her husband from her side and drown him in the roaring vortices of the Pit, had passed on, resistless, along its ordered and predetermined courses from West to East? like a vast Titanic flood, had passed, leaving Death and Ruin in its wake, but bearing Life and Prosperity to the crowded cities and centres of Europe.
For a moment, vague, dark perplexities assailed her, questionings as to the elemental forces, the forces of demand and supply that ruled the world. This huge resistless Nourisher of the Nations--why was it that it could not reach the People, could not fulfil its destiny, unmarred by all this suffering, unattended by all this misery?
She did not know. But as she searched, troubled and disturbed for an answer, she was aware of a certain familiarity in the neighbourhood the carriage was traversing. The strange sense of having lived through this scene, these circumstances, once before, took hold upon her.
She looked out quickly, on either hand, through the blurred glasses of the carriage doors. Surely, surely, this locality had once before impressed itself upon her imagination. She turned to her husband, an exclamation upon her lips; but Jadwin, by the dim light of the carriage lanterns, was studying a railroad folder.
All at once, intuitively, Laura turned in her place, and raising the flap that covered the little window at the back of the carriage, looked behind. On either side of the vista in converging lines stretched the tall office buildings, lights burning in a few of their windows, even yet. Over the end of the street the lead-coloured sky was broken by a pale faint haze of light, and silhouetted against this rose a sombre mass, unbroken by any glimmer, rearing a black and formidable facade against the blur of the sky behind it.
And this was the last impression of the part of her life that that day brought to a close; the tall gray office buildings, the murk of rain, the haze of light in the heavens, and raised against it, the pile of the Board of Trade building, black, monolithic, crouching on its foundations like a monstrous sphinx with blind eyes, silent, grave--crouching there without a sound, without sign of life, under the night and the drifting veil of rain.