Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She left the taxicab at the corner of Grand Street and the Bowery, and plunged into her former haunts afoot. Once again she had it forced upon her how meaningless in the life history are the words "time" and "space." She was now hardly any distance, as measurements go, from her present world, and she had lived here only a yesterday or so ago. Yet what an infinity yawned between! At the Delancey Street apartment house there was already a new janitress, and the kinds of shops on the ground floor had changed. Only after two hours of going up and down stairs, of knocking at doors, of questioning and cross-questioning, did she discover that Clara had moved to Allen Street, to the tenement in which Susan herself had for a few weeks lived--those vague, besotted weeks of despair.
When we go out into the streets with bereavement in mind, we see nothing but people dressed in mourning. And a similar thing occurs, whatever the emotion that oppresses us. It would not have been strange if Susan, on the way to Allen Street afoot, had seen only women of the streets, for they swarm in every great thoroughfare of our industrial cities. They used to come out only at night. But with the passing of the feeling against them that existed when they were a rare, unfamiliar, mysteriously terrible minor feature of life, they issue forth boldly by day, like all the other classes, making a living as best they can. But on that day Susan felt as if she were seeing only the broken down and cast-out creatures of the class--the old women, old in body rather than in years, picking in the gutters, fumbling in the garbage barrels, poking and peering everywhere for odds and ends that might pile up into the price of a glass of the poison sold in the barrel houses. The old women--the hideous, lonely old women--and the diseased, crippled children, worse off than the cats and the dogs, for cat and dog were not compelled to wear filth-soaked rags. Prosperous, civilized New York!
A group of these children were playing some rough game, in imitation of their elders, that was causing several to howl with pain. She heard a woman, being shown about by a settlement worker or some such person, say:
"Really, not at all badly dressed--for street games. I must confess I don't see signs of the misery they talk so much about."
A wave of fury passed through Susan. She felt like striking the woman full in her vain, supercilious, patronizing face--striking her and saying: "You smug liar! What if you had to wear such clothes on that fat, overfed body of yours! You'd realize then how filthy they are!"
She gazed in horror at the Allen Street house. Was it possible that she had lived there? In the filthy doorway sat a child eating a dill pickle--a scrawny, ragged little girl with much of her hair eaten out by the mange. She recalled this little girl as the formerly pretty and lively youngster, the daughter of the janitress. She went past the child without disturbing her, knocked at the janitress' door. It presently opened, disclosing in a small and foul room four prematurely old women, all in the family way, two with babies in arms. One of these was the janitress. Though she was not a Jewess, she was wearing one of the wigs assumed by orthodox Jewish women when they marry. She stared at Susan with not a sign of recognition.
"I am looking for Miss Clara," said Susan.
The janitress debated, shifted her baby from one arm to the other, glanced inquiringly at the other women. They shook their heads; she looked at Susan and shook her head. "There ain't a Clara," said she. "Perhaps she's took another name?"
"Perhaps," conceded Susan. And she described Clara and the various dresses she had had. At the account of one with flounces on the skirts and lace puffs in the sleeves, the youngest of the women showed a gleam of intelligence. "You mean the girl with the cancer of the breast," said she.
Susan remembered. She could not articulate; she nodded.
"Oh, yes," said the janitress. "She had the third floor back, and was always kicking because Mrs. Pfister kept a guinea pig for her rheumatism and the smell came through."
"Has she gone?" asked Susan.
"Couple of weeks."
The janitress shrugged her shoulders. The other women shrugged their shoulders. Said the janitress:
"Her feller stopped coming. The cancer got awful bad. I've saw a good many--they're quite plentiful down this way. I never see a worse'n hers. She didn't have no money. Up to the hospital they tried a new cure on her that made her gallopin' worse. The day before I was going to have to go to work and put her out--she left."
"Can't you give me any idea?" urged Susan.
"She didn't take her things," said the janitress meaningly. "Not a stitch."
The janitress shrugged her shoulders. "She always said she would, and I guess----"
Again the fat, stooped shoulders lifted and lowered. "She was most crazy with pain."
There was a moment's silence, then Susan murmured, "Thank you," and went back to the hall. The house was exhaling a frightful stench--the odor of cheap kerosene, of things that passed there for food, of animals human and lower, of death and decay. On her way out she dropped a dollar into the lap of the little girl with the mange. A parrot was shrieking from an upper window. On the topmost fire escape was a row of geraniums blooming sturdily. Her taxicab had moved up the street, pushed out of place by a hearse--a white hearse, with polished mountings, the horses caparisoned in white netting, and tossing white plumes. A baby's funeral--this mockery of a ride in state after a brief life of squalor. It was summer, and the babies were dying like lambs in the shambles. In winter the grown people were slaughtered; in summer the children. Across the street, a few doors up, the city dead wagon was taking away another body--in a plain pine box--to the Potter's Field where find their way for the final rest one in every ten of the people of the rich and splendid city of New York.
Susan hurried into her cab. "Drive fast," she said.
When she came back to sense of her surroundings she was flying up wide and airy Fifth Avenue with gorgeous sunshine bathing its palaces, with wealth and fashion and ease all about her. Her dear City of the Sun! But it hurt her now, was hateful to look upon. She closed her eyes; her life in the slums, her life when she was sharing the lot that is really the lot of the human race as a race, passed before her--its sights and sounds and odors, its hideous heat, its still more hideous cold, its contacts and associations, its dirt and disease and degradation. And through the roar of the city there came to her a sound, faint yet intense--like the still, small voice the prophet heard--but not the voice of God, rather the voice of the multitude of aching hearts, aching in hopeless poverty--hearts of men, of women, of children----
The children! The multitudes of children with hearts that no sooner begin to beat than they begin to ache. She opened her eyes to shut out these sights and that sound of heartache.
She gazed round, drew a long breath of relief. She had almost been afraid to look round lest she should find that her escape had been only a dream. And now the road she had chosen--or, rather, the only road she could take--the road with Freddie Palmer--seemed attractive, even dazzling. What she could not like, she would ignore--and how easily she, after her experience, could do that! What she could not ignore she would tolerate would compel herself to like.
Poor Clara!--Happy Clara!--better off in the dregs of the river than she had ever been in the dregs of New York. She shuddered. Then, as so often, the sense of the grotesque thrust in, as out of place as jester in cap and bells at a bier--and she smiled sardonically. "Why," thought she, "in being squeamish about Freddie I'm showing that I'm more respectable than the respectable women. There's hardly one of them that doesn't swallow worse doses with less excuse or no excuse at all--and without so much as a wry face."