Life in the Iron-Mills
Rebecca Harding Davis
Life in the Iron-Mills
by Rebecca Harding Davis
"Is this the end?
O Life, as futile, then, as frail!
What hope of answer or redress?"
A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?
The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air
is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It
stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely
see through the rain the grocer's shop opposite, where a crowd
of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their
pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells
ranging loose in the air.
The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in
slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and
settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke
on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river,--
clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two
faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. The long train of
mules, dragging masses of pig-iron through the narrow street,
have a foul vapor hanging to their reeking sides. Here, inside,
is a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the
mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted
and black. Smoke everywhere! A dirty canary chirps desolately
in a cage beside me. Its dream of green fields and sunshine is
a very old dream,--almost worn out, I think.
From the back-window I can see a narrow brick-yard sloping down
to the river-side, strewed with rain-butts and tubs. The river,
dull and tawny-colored, (la belle riviere!) drags itself
sluggishly along, tired of the heavy weight of boats and coal-
barges. What wonder? When I was a child, I used to fancy a
look of weary, dumb appeal upon the face of the negro-like river
slavishly bearing its burden day after day. Something of the
same idle notion comes to me to-day, when from the street-window
I look on the slow stream of human life creeping past, night and
morning, to the great mills. Masses of men, with dull, besotted
faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or
cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and
ashes; stooping all night over boiling caldrons of metal, laired
by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy
to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness
for soul and body. What do you make of a case like that,
amateur psychologist? You call it an altogether serious thing
to be alive: to these men it is a drunken jest, a joke,--
horrible to angels perhaps, to them commonplace enough. My
fancy about the river was an idle one: it is no type of such a
life. What if it be stagnant and slimy here? It knows that
beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight, quaint old gardens,
dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing
crimson with roses,--air, and fields, and mountains. The future
of the Welsh puddler passing just now is not so pleasant. To be
stowed away, after his grimy work is done, in a hole in the
muddy graveyard, and after that, not air, nor green fields, nor
Can you see how foggy the day is? As I stand here, idly tapping
the windowpane, and looking out through the rain at the dirty
back-yard and the coalboats below, fragments of an old story
float up before me,--a story of this house into which I happened
to come to-day. You may think it a tiresome story enough, as
foggy as the day, sharpened by no sudden flashes of pain or
pleasure.--I know: only the outline of a dull life, that long
since, with thousands of dull lives like its own, was vainly
lived and lost: thousands of them, massed, vile, slimy lives,
like those of the torpid lizards in yonder stagnant water-
butt.--Lost? There is a curious point for you to settle, my
friend, who study psychology in a lazy, dilettante way. Stop a
moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to
do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean
clothes, and come right down with me,--here, into the thickest
of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this
story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that
has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to
you. You, Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian, busy in making
straight paths for your feet on the hills, do not see it
clearly,--this terrible question which men here have gone mad
and died trying to answer. I dare not put this secret into
words. I told you it was dumb. These men, going by with
drunken faces and brains full of unawakened power, do not ask it
of Society or of God. Their lives ask it; their deaths ask it.
There is no reply. I will tell you plainly that I have a great
hope; and I bring it to you to be tested. It is this: that
this terrible dumb question is its own reply; that it is not the
sentence of death we think it, but, from the very extremity of
its darkness, the most solemn prophecy which the world has known
of the Hope to come. I dare make my meaning no clearer, but
will only tell my story. It will, perhaps, seem to you as foul
and dark as this thick vapor about us, and as pregnant with
death; but if your eyes are free as mine are to look deeper, no
perfume-tinted dawn will be so fair with promise of the day that
shall surely come.
My story is very simple,--Only what I remember of the life of
one of these men,--a furnace-tender in one of Kirby & John's
rolling-mills,--Hugh Wolfe. You know the mills? They took the
great order for the lower Virginia railroads there last winter;
run usually with about a thousand men. I cannot tell why I
choose the half-forgotten story of this Wolfe more than that of
myriads of these furnace-hands. Perhaps because there is a
secret, underlying sympathy between that story and this day with
its impure fog and thwarted sunshine,--or perhaps simply for the
reason that this house is the one where the Wolfes lived. There
were the father and son,--both hands, as I said, in one of Kirby
& John's mills for making railroad-iron,--and Deborah, their
cousin, a picker in some of the cotton-mills. The house was
rented then to half a dozen families. The Wolfes had two of the
cellar-rooms. The old man, like many of the puddlers and
feeders of the mills, was Welsh,--had spent half of his life in
the Cornish tin-mines. You may pick the Welsh emigrants,
Cornish miners, out of the throng passing the windows, any day.
They are a trifle more filthy; their muscles are not so brawny;
they stoop more. When they are drunk, they neither yell, nor
shout, nor stagger, but skulk along like beaten hounds. A pure,
unmixed blood, I fancy: shows itself in the slight angular
bodies and sharply-cut facial lines. It is nearly thirty years
since the Wolfes lived here. Their lives were like those of
their class: incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms,
eating rank pork and molasses, drinking--God and the distillers
only know what; with an occasional night in jail, to atone for
some drunken excess. Is that all of their lives?--of the
portion given to them and these their duplicates swarming the
streets to-day?--nothing beneath?--all? So many a political
reformer will tell you,--and many a private reformer, too, who
has gone among them with a heart tender with Christ's charity,
and come out outraged, hardened.
One rainy night, about eleven o'clock, a crowd of half-clothed
women stopped outside of the cellar-door. They were going home
from the cotton-mill.
"Good-night, Deb," said one, a mulatto, steadying herself
against the gas-post. She needed the post to steady her. So
did more than one of them.
"Dah's a ball to Miss Potts' to-night. Ye'd best come."
"Inteet, Deb, if hur'll come, hur'll hef fun," said a shrill
Welsh voice in the crowd.
Two or three dirty hands were thrust out to catch the gown of
the woman, who was groping for the latch of the door.
"No? Where's Kit Small, then?"
"Begorra! on the spools. Alleys behint, though we helped her,
we dud. An wid ye! Let Deb alone! It's ondacent frettin' a
quite body. Be the powers, an we'll have a night of it!
there'll be lashin's o' drink,--the Vargent be blessed and
They went on, the mulatto inclining for a moment to show fight,
and drag the woman Wolfe off with them; but, being pacified, she
Deborah groped her way into the cellar, and, after considerable
stumbling, kindled a match, and lighted a tallow dip, that sent
a yellow glimmer over the room. It was low, damp,--the earthen
floor covered with a green, slimy moss,--a fetid air smothering
the breath. Old Wolfe lay asleep on a heap of straw, wrapped in
a torn horse-blanket. He was a pale, meek little man, with a
white face and red rabbit-eyes. The woman Deborah was like him;
only her face was even more ghastly, her lips bluer, her eyes
more watery. She wore a faded cotton gown and a slouching
bonnet. When she walked, one could see that she was deformed,
almost a hunchback. She trod softly, so as not to waken him,
and went through into the room beyond. There she found by the
half-extinguished fire an iron saucepan filled with cold boiled
potatoes, which she put upon a broken chair with a pint-cup of
ale. Placing the old candlestick beside this dainty repast, she
untied her bonnet, which hung limp and wet over her face, and
prepared to eat her supper. It was the first food that had
touched her lips since morning. There was enough of it,
however: there is not always. She was hungry,--one could see
that easily enough,--and not drunk, as most of her companions
would have been found at this hour. She did not drink, this
woman,--her face told that, too,--nothing stronger than ale.
Perhaps the weak, flaccid wretch had some stimulant in her pale
life to keep her up,--some love or hope, it might be, or urgent
need. When that stimulant was gone, she would take to whiskey.
Man cannot live by work alone. While she was skinning the
potatoes, and munching them, a noise behind her made her stop.
"Janey!" she called, lifting the candle and peering into the
darkness. "Janey, are you there?"
A heap of ragged coats was heaved up, and the face of a
young,girl emerged, staring sleepily at the woman.
"Deborah," she said, at last, "I'm here the night."
"Yes, child. Hur's welcome," she said, quietly eating on.
The girl's face was haggard and sickly; her eyes were heavy with
sleep and hunger: real Milesian eyes they were, dark, delicate
blue, glooming out from black shadows with a pitiful fright.
"I was alone," she said, timidly.
"Where's the father?" asked Deborah, holding out a potato,
which the girl greedily seized.
"He's beyant,--wid Haley,--in the stone house." (Did you ever
hear the word tail from an Irish mouth?) "I came here. Hugh
told me never to stay me-lone."
A vexed frown crossed her face. The girl saw it, and added
"I have not seen Hugh the day, Deb. The old man says his watch
lasts till the mornin'."
The woman sprang up, and hastily began to arrange some bread and
flitch in a tin pail, and to pour her own measure of ale into a
bottle. Tying on her bonnet, she blew out the candle.
"Lay ye down, Janey dear," she said, gently, covering her with
the old rags. "Hur can eat the potatoes, if hur's hungry.
"Where are ye goin', Deb? The rain's sharp."
"To the mill, with Hugh's supper."
"Let him bide till th' morn. Sit ye down."
"No, no,"--sharply pushing her off. "The boy'll starve."
She hurried from the cellar, while the child wearily coiled
herself up for sleep. The rain was falling heavily, as the
woman, pail in hand, emerged from the mouth of the alley, and
turned down the narrow street, that stretched out, long and
black, miles before her. Here and there a flicker of gas
lighted an uncertain space of muddy footwalk and gutter; the
long rows of houses, except an occasional lager-bier shop, were
closed; now and then she met a band of millhands skulking to or
from their work.
Not many even of the inhabitants of a manufacturing town know
the vast machinery of system by which the bodies of workmen are
governed, that goes on unceasingly from year to year. The hands
of each mill are divided into watches that relieve each other as
regularly as the sentinels of an army. By night and day the
work goes on, the unsleeping engines groan and shriek, the fiery
pools of metal boil and surge. Only for a day in the week, in
half-courtesy to public censure, the fires are partially veiled;
but as soon as the clock strikes midnight, the great furnaces
break forth with renewed fury, the clamor begins with fresh,
breathless vigor, the engines sob and shriek like "gods in
As Deborah hurried down through the heavy rain, the noise of
these thousand engines sounded through the sleep and shadow of
the city like far-off thunder. The mill to which she was going
lay on the river, a mile below the city-limits. It was far, and
she was weak, aching from standing twelve hours at the spools.
Yet it was her almost nightly walk to take this man his supper,
though at every square she sat down to rest, and she knew she
should receive small word of thanks.
Perhaps, if she had possessed an artist's eye, the picturesque
oddity of the scene might have made her step stagger less, and
the path seem shorter; but to her the mills were only "summat
deilish to look at by night."
The road leading to the mills had been quarried from the solid
rock, which rose abrupt and bare on one side of the cinder-
covered road, while the river, sluggish and black, crept past on
the other. The mills for rolling iron are simply immense tent-
like roofs, covering acres of ground, open on every side.
Beneath these roofs Deborah looked in on a city of fires, that
burned hot and fiercely in the night. Fire in every horrible
form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames
writhing in tortuous streams through the sand; wide caldrons
filled with boiling fire, over which bent ghastly wretches
stirring the strange brewing; and through all, crowds of half-
clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light,
hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire. It was like a
street in Hell. Even Deborah muttered, as she crept through,
"looks like t' Devil's place!" It did,--in more ways than one.
She found the man she was looking for, at last, heaping coal on
a furnace. He had not time to eat his supper; so she went
behind the furnace, and waited. Only a few men were with him,
and they noticed her only by a "Hyur comes t'hunchback, Wolfe."
Deborah was stupid with sleep; her back pained her sharply; and
her teeth chattered with cold, with the rain that soaked her
clothes and dripped from her at every step. She stood, however,
patiently holding the pail, and waiting.
"Hout, woman! ye look like a drowned cat. Come near to the
fire,"--said one of the men, approaching to scrape away the
She shook her head. Wolfe had forgotten her. He turned,
hearing the man, and came closer.
"I did no' think; gi' me my supper, woman.
She watched him eat with a painful eagerness. With a woman's
quick instinct, she saw that he was not hungry,--was eating to
please her. Her pale, watery eyes began to gather a strange
"Is't good, Hugh? T' ale was a bit sour, I feared."
"No, good enough." He hesitated a moment. "Ye're tired, poor
lass! Bide here till I go. Lay down there on that heap of ash,
and go to sleep."
He threw her an old coat for a pillow, and turned to his work.
The heap was the refuse of the burnt iron, and was not a hard
bed; the half-smothered warmth, too, penetrated her limbs,
dulling their pain and cold shiver.
Miserable enough she looked, lying there on the ashes like a
limp, dirty rag,--yet not an unfitting figure to crown the scene
of hopeless discomfort and veiled crime: more fitting, if one
looked deeper into the heart of things, at her thwarted woman's
form, her colorless life, her waking stupor that smothered pain
and hunger,--even more fit to be a type of her class. Deeper
yet if one could look, was there nothing worth reading in this
wet, faded thing, halfcovered with ashes? no story of a soul
filled with groping passionate love, heroic unselfishness,
fierce jealousy? of years of weary trying to please the one
human being whom she loved, to gain one look of real heart-
kindness from him? If anything like this were hidden beneath
the pale, bleared eyes, and dull, washed-out-looking face, no
one had ever taken the trouble to read its faint signs: not the
half-clothed furnace-tender, Wolfe, certainly. Yet he was kind
to her: it was his nature to be kind, even to the very rats
that swarmed in the cellar: kind to her in just the same way.
She knew that. And it might be that very knowledge had given to
her face its apathy and vacancy more than her low, torpid life.
One sees that dead, vacant look steal sometimes over the rarest,
finest of women's faces,--in the very midst, it may be, of their
warmest summer's day; and then one can guess at the secret of
intolerable solitude that lies hid beneath the delicate laces
and brilliant smile. There was no warmth, no brilliancy, no
summer for this woman; so the stupor and vacancy had time to
gnaw into her face perpetually. She was young, too, though no
one guessed it; so the gnawing was the fiercer.
She lay quiet in the dark corner, listening, through the
monotonous din and uncertain glare of the works, to the dull
plash of the rain in the far distance, shrinking back whenever
the man Wolfe happened to look towards her. She knew, in spite
of all his kindness, that there was that in her face and form
which made him loathe the sight of her. She felt by instinct,
although she could not comprehend it, the finer nature of the
man, which made him among his fellow-workmen something unique,
set apart. She knew, that, down under all the vileness and
coarseness of his life, there was a groping passion for whatever
was beautiful and pure, that his soul sickened with disgust at
her deformity, even when his words were kindest. Through this
dull consciousness, which never left her, came, like a sting,
the recollection of the dark blue eyes and lithe figure of the
little Irish girl she had left in the cellar. The recollection
struck through even her stupid intellect with a vivid glow of
beauty and of grace. Little Janey, timid, helpless, clinging to
Hugh as her only friend: that was the sharp thought, the bitter
thought, that drove into the glazed eyes a fierce light of pain.
You laugh at it? Are pain and jealousy less savage realities
down here in this place I am taking you to than in your own
house or your own heart,--your heart, which they clutch at
sometimes? The note is the same, I fancy, be the octave high or
If you could go into this mill where Deborah lay, and drag out
from the hearts of these men the terrible tragedy of their
lives, taking it as a symptom of the disease of their class, no
ghost Horror would terrify you more. A reality of soul-
starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under the
besotted faces on the street,--I can paint nothing of this, only
give you the outside outlines of a night, a crisis in the life
of one man: whatever muddy depth of soul-history lies beneath
you can read according to the eyes God has given you.
Wolfe, while Deborah watched him as a spaniel its master, bent
over the furnace with his iron pole, unconscious of her
scrutiny, only stopping to receive orders. Physically, Nature
had promised the man but little. He had already lost the
strength and instinct vigor of a man, his muscles were thin, his
nerves weak, his face ( a meek, woman's face) haggard, yellow
with consumption. In the mill he was known as one of the girl-
men: "Molly Wolfe" was his sobriquet. He was never seen in the
cockpit, did not own a terrier, drank but seldom; when he did,
desperately. He fought sometimes, but was always thrashed,
pommelled to a jelly. The man was game enough, when his blood
was up: but he was no favorite in the mill; he had the taint of
school-learning on him,--not to a dangerous extent, only a
quarter or so in the free-school in fact, but enough to ruin him
as a good hand in a fight.
For other reasons, too, he was not popular. Not one of
themselves, they felt that, though outwardly as filthy and ash-
covered; silent, with foreign thoughts and longings breaking out
through his quietness in innumerable curious ways: this one,
for instance. In the neighboring furnace-buildings lay great
heaps of the refuse from the ore after the pig-metal is run.
Korl we call it here: a light, porous substance, of a delicate,
waxen, flesh-colored tinge. Out of the blocks of this korl,
Wolfe, in his off-hours from the furnace, had a habit of
chipping and moulding figures,--hideous, fantastic enough, but
sometimes strangely beautiful: even the mill-men saw that,
while they jeered at him. It was a curious fancy in the man,
almost a passion. The few hours for rest he spent hewing and
hacking with his blunt knife, never speaking, until his watch
came again,--working at one figure for months, and, when it was
finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of
disappointment. A morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to
feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labor.
I want you to come down and look at this Wolfe, standing there
among the lowest of his kind, and see him just as he is, that
you may judge him justly when you hear the story of this night.
I want you to look back, as he does every day, at his birth in
vice, his starved infancy; to remember the heavy years he has
groped through as boy and man,--the slow, heavy years of
constant, hot work. So long ago he began, that he thinks
sometimes he has worked there for ages. There is no hope that
it will ever end. Think that God put into this man's soul a
fierce thirst for beauty,--to know it, to create it; to
be--something, he knows not what,--other than he is. There are
moments when a passing cloud, the sun glinting on the purple
thistles, a kindly smile, a child's face, will rouse him to a
passion of pain,--when his nature starts up with a mad cry of
rage against God, man, whoever it is that has forced this vile,
slimy life upon him. With all this groping, this mad desire, a
great blind intellect stumbling through wrong, a loving poet's
heart, the man was by habit only a coarse, vulgar laborer,
familiar with sights and words you would blush to name. Be
just: when I tell you about this night, see him as he is. Be
just,--not like man's law, which seizes on one isolated fact,
but like God's judging angel, whose clear, sad eye saw all the
countless cankering days of this man's life, all the countless
nights, when, sick with starving, his soul fainted in him,
before it judged him for this night, the saddest of all.
I called this night the crisis of his life. If it was, it stole
on him unawares. These great turning-days of life cast no
shadow before, slip by unconsciously. Only a trifle, a little
turn of the rudder, and the ship goes to heaven or hell.
Wolfe, while Deborah watched him, dug into the furnace of
melting iron with his pole, dully thinking only how many rails
the lump would yield. It was late,--nearly Sunday morning;
another hour, and the heavy work would be done, only the
furnaces to replenish and cover for the next day. The workmen
were growing more noisy, shouting, as they had to do, to be
heard over the deep clamor of the mills. Suddenly they grew
less boisterous,--at the far end, entirely silent. Something
unusual had happened. After a moment, the silence came nearer;
the men stopped their jeers and drunken choruses. Deborah,
stupidly lifting up her head, saw the cause of the quiet. A
group of five or six men were slowly approaching, stopping to
examine each furnace as they came. Visitors often came to see
the mills after night: except by growing less noisy, the men
took no notice of them. The furnace where Wolfe worked was near
the bounds of the works; they halted there hot and tired: a
walk over one of these great foundries is no trifling task. The
woman, drawing out of sight, turned over to sleep. Wolfe,
seeing them stop, suddenly roused from his indifferent stupor,
and watched them keenly. He knew some of them: the overseer,
Clarke,--a son of Kirby, one of the mill-owners,--and a Doctor
May, one of the town-physicians. The other two were strangers.
Wolfe came closer. He seized eagerly every chance that brought
him into contact with this mysterious class that shone down on
him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being.
What made the difference between them? That was the mystery of
his life. He had a vague notion that perhaps to-night he could
find it out. One of the strangers sat down on a pile of bricks,
and beckoned young Kirby to his side.
"This is hot, with a vengeance. A match, please?"--lighting his
cigar. "But the walk is worth the trouble. If it were not that
you must have heard it so often, Kirby, I would tell you that
your works look like Dante's Inferno."
"Yes. Yonder is Farinata himself in the burning tomb,"--
pointing to some figure in the shimmering shadows.
"Judging from some of the faces of your men," said the other,
"they bid fair to try the reality of Dante's vision, some day."
Young Kirby looked curiously around, as if seeing the faces of
his hands for the first time.
"They're bad enough, that's true. A desperate set, I fancy.
The overseer did not hear him. He was talking of net profits
just then,--giving, in fact, a schedule of the annual business
of the firm to a sharp peering little Yankee, who jotted down
notes on a paper laid on the crown of his hat: a reporter for
one of the city-papers, getting up a series of reviews of the
leading manufactories. The other gentlemen had accompanied them
merely for amusement. They were silent until the notes were
finished, drying their feet at the furnaces, and sheltering
their faces from the intolerable heat. At last the overseer
"I believe that is a pretty fair estimate, Captain."
"Here, some of you men!" said Kirby, "bring up those boards. We
may as well sit down, gentlemen, until the rain is over. It
cannot last much longer at this rate."
"Pig-metal,"--mumbled the reporter,--"um! coal facilities,--um!
hands employed, twelve hundred,--bitumen,--um!--all right, I
believe, Mr. Clarke;--sinking-fund,--what did you say was your
"Twelve hundred hands?" said the stranger, the young man who
had first spoken. "Do you control their votes, Kirby?"
"Control? No." The young man smiled complacently. "But my
father brought seven hundred votes to the polls for his
candidate last November. No force-work, you understand,--only
a speech or two, a hint to form themselves into a society, and
a bit of red and blue bunting to make them a flag. The
Invincible Roughs,--I believe that is their name. I forget the
motto: 'Our country's hope,' I think."
There was a laugh. The young man talking to Kirby sat with an
amused light in his cool gray eye, surveying critically the
half-clothed figures of the puddlers, and the slow swing of
their brawny muscles. He was a stranger in the city,--spending
a couple of months in the borders of a Slave State, to study the
institutions of the South,--a brother-in-law of Kirby's,--
Mitchell. He was an amateur gymnast,--hence his anatomical eye;
a patron, in a blase' way, of the prize-ring; a man who sucked
the essence out of a science or philosophy in an indifferent,
gentlemanly way; who took Kant, Novalis, Humboldt, for what they
were worth in his own scales; accepting all, despising nothing,
in heaven, earth, or hell, but one-idead men; with a temper
yielding and brilliant as summer water, until his Self was
touched, when it was ice, though brilliant still. Such men are
not rare in the States.
As he knocked the ashes from his cigar, Wolfe caught with a
quick pleasure the contour of the white hand, the blood-glow of
a red ring he wore. His voice, too, and that of Kirby's,
touched him like music,--low, even, with chording cadences.
About this man Mitchell hung the impalpable atmosphere belonging
to the thoroughbred gentleman, Wolfe, scraping away the ashes
beside him, was conscious of it, did obeisance to it with his
artist sense, unconscious that he did so.
The rain did not cease. Clarke and the reporter left the mills;
the others, comfortably seated near the furnace, lingered,
smoking and talking in a desultory way. Greek would not have
been more unintelligible to the furnace-tenders, whose presence
they soon forgot entirely. Kirby drew out a newspaper from his
pocket and read aloud some article, which they discussed
eagerly. At every sentence, Wolfe listened more and more like
a dumb, hopeless animal, with a duller, more stolid look
creeping over his face, glancing now and then at Mitchell,
marking acutely every smallest sign of refinement, then back to
himself, seeing as in a mirror his filthy body, his more stained
Never! He had no words for such a thought, but he knew now, in
all the sharpness of the bitter certainty, that between them
there was a great gulf never to be passed. Never!
The bell of the mills rang for midnight. Sunday morning had
dawned. Whatever hidden message lay in the tolling bells
floated past these men unknown. Yet it was there. Veiled in
the solemn music ushering the risen Saviour was a key-note to
solve the darkest secrets of a world gone wrong,--even this
social riddle which the brain of the grimy puddler grappled with
The men began to withdraw the metal from the caldrons. The
mills were deserted on Sundays, except by the hands who fed the
fires, and those who had no lodgings and slept usually on the
ash-heaps. The three strangers sat still during the next hour,
watching the men cover the furnaces, laughing now and then at
some jest of Kirby's.
"Do you know," said Mitchell, "I like this view of the works
better than when the glare was fiercest? These heavy shadows
and the amphitheatre of smothered fires are ghostly, unreal.
One could fancy these red smouldering lights to be the half-shut
eyes of wild beasts, and the spectral figures their victims in
Kirby laughed. "You are fanciful. Come, let us get out of the
den. The spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too
real for me to fancy a close proximity in the darkness,--
The others rose, buttoning their overcoats, and lighting cigars.
"Raining, still," said Doctor May, "and hard. Where did we
leave the coach, Mitchell?"
"At the other side of the works.--Kirby, what's that?"
Mitchell started back, half-frightened, as, suddenly turning a
corner, the white figure of a woman faced him in the darkness,--
a woman, white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground,
her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning.
"Stop! Make that fire burn there!" cried Kirby, stopping short.
The flame burst out, flashing the gaunt figure into bold relief.
Mitchell drew a long breath.
"I thought it was alive," he said, going up curiously.
The others followed.
"Not marble, eh?" asked Kirby, touching it.
One of the lower overseers stopped.
"Who did it?"
"Can't say. Some of the hands; chipped it out in off-hours."
"Chipped to some purpose, I should say. What a flesh-tint the
stuff has! Do you see, Mitchell?"
He had stepped aside where the light fell boldest on the figure,
looking at it in silence. There was not one line of beauty or
grace in it: a nude woman's form, muscular, grown coarse with
labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant
longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles,
the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a
starving wolf's. Kirby and Doctor May walked around it,
critical, curious. Mitchell stood aloof, silent. The figure
touched him strangely.
"Not badly done," said Doctor May, "Where did the fellow learn
that sweep of the muscles in the arm and hand? Look at them!
They are groping,do you see?--clutching: the peculiar action of
a man dying of thirst."
"They have ample facilities for studying anatomy," sneered
Kirby, glancing at the half-naked figures.
"Look," continued the Doctor, "at this bony wrist, and the
strained sinews of the instep! A working-woman,--the very type
of her class."
"God forbid!" muttered Mitchell.
"Why?" demanded May, "What does the fellow intend by the
figure? I cannot catch the meaning."
"Ask him," said the other, dryly, "There he stands,"--pointing
to Wolfe, who stood with a group of men, leaning on his ash-
The Doctor beckoned him with the affable smile which kind-
hearted men put on, when talking to these people.
"Mr. Mitchell has picked you out as the man who did this,--I'm
sure I don't know why. But what did you mean by it?"
"She be hungry."
Wolfe's eyes answered Mitchell, not the Doctor.
"Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made, my fine fellow! You
have given no sign of starvation to the body. It is strong,--
terribly strong. It has the mad, half-despairing gesture of
Wolfe stammered, glanced appealingly at Mitchell, who saw the
soul of the thing, he knew. But the cool, probing eyes were
turned on himself now,--mocking, cruel, relentless.
"Not hungry for meat," the furnace-tender said at last.
"What then? Whiskey?" jeered Kirby, with a coarse laugh.
Wolfe was silent a moment, thinking.
"I dunno," he said, with a bewildered look. "It mebbe. Summat
to make her live, I think,--like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a
The young man laughed again. Mitchell flashed a look of disgust
somewhere,--not at Wolfe.
"May," he broke out impatiently, "are you blind? Look at that
woman's face! It asks questions of God, and says, 'I have a
right to know,' Good God, how hungry it is!"
They looked a moment; then May turned to the mill-owner:--
"Have you many such hands as this? What are you going to do
with them? Keep them at puddling iron?"
Kirby shrugged his shoulders. Mitchell's look had irritated
"Ce n'est pas mon affaire. I have no fancy for nursing infant
geniuses. I suppose there are some stray gleams of mind and
soul among these wretches. The Lord will take care of his own;
or else they can work out their own salvation. I have heard you
call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do
you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders,
and put us all on a flat table-land,--eh, May?"
The Doctor looked vexed, puzzled. Some terrible problem lay hid
in this woman's face, and troubled these men. Kirby waited for
an answer, and, receiving none, went on, warming with his
"I tell you, there's something wrong that no talk of 'Liberte'
or 'Egalite' will do away. If I had the making of men, these
men who do the lowest part of the world's work should be
machines,--nothing more,--hands. It would be kindness. God
help them! What are taste, reason, to creatures who must live
such lives as that?" He pointed to Deborah, sleeping on the
ash-heap. "So many nerves to sting them to pain. What if God
had put your brain, with all its agony of touch, into your
fingers, and bid you work and strike with that?"
"You think you could govern the world better?" laughed the
"I do not think at all."
"That is true philosophy. Drift with the stream, because you
cannot dive deep enough to find bottom, eh?"
"Exactly," rejoined Kirby. "I do not think. I wash my hands of
all social problems,--slavery, caste, white or black. My duty
to my operatives has a narrow limit,--the pay-hour on Saturday
night. Outside of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other's
throats, (the more popular amusement of the two,) I am not
The Doctor sighed,--a good honest sigh, from the depths of his
"God help us! Who is responsible?"
"Not I, I tell you," said Kirby, testily. "What has the man who
pays them money to do with their souls' concerns, more than the
grocer or butcher who takes it?"
"And yet," said Mitchell's cynical voice, "look at her! How
hungry she is!"
Kirby tapped his boot with his cane. No one spoke. Only the
dumb face of the rough image looking into their faces with the
awful question, "What shall we do to be saved?" Only Wolfe's
face, with its heavy weight of brain, its weak, uncertain mouth,
its desperate eyes, out of which looked the soul of his class,--
only Wolfe's face turned towards Kirby's. Mitchell laughed,--a
cool, musical laugh.
"Money has spoken!" he said, seating himself lightly on a stone
with the air of an amused spectator at a play. "Are you
answered?"--turning to Wolfe his clear, magnetic face.
Bright and deep and cold as Arctic air, the soul of the man lay
tranquil beneath. He looked at the furnace-tender as he had
looked at a rare mosaic in the morning; only the man was the
more amusing study of the two.
"Are you answered? Why, May, look at him! 'De profundis
clamavi.' Or, to quote in English, 'Hungry and thirsty, his
soul faints in him.' And so Money sends back its answer into
the depths through you, Kirby! Very clear the answer, too!--I
think I remember reading the same words somewhere: washing your
hands in Eau de Cologne, and saying, 'I am innocent of the blood
of this man. See ye to it!'"
Kirby flushed angrily.
"You quote Scripture freely."
"Do I not quote correctly? I think I remember another line,
which may amend my meaning? 'Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of
the least of these, ye did it unto me.' Deist? Bless you, man,
I was raised on the milk of the Word. Now, Doctor, the pocket
of the world having uttered its voice, what has the heart to
say? You are a philanthropist, in a small Way,--n'est ce pas?
Here, boy, this gentleman can show you how to cut korl better,--
or your destiny. Go on, May!"
"I think a mocking devil possesses you to-night," rejoined the
He went to Wolfe and put his hand kindly on his arm. Something
of a vague idea possessed the Doctor's brain that much good was
to be done here by a friendly word or two: a latent genius to
be warmed into life by a waited-for sunbeam. Here it was: he
had brought it. So he went on complacently:
"Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a
great man?do you understand?" (talking down to the capacity of
his hearer: it is a way people have with children, and men like
Wolfe,)--"to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby
here? A man may make himself anything he chooses. God has
given you stronger powers than many men,--me, for instance."
May stopped, heated, glowing with his own magnanimity. And it
was magnanimous. The puddler had drunk in every word, looking
through the Doctor's flurry, and generous heat, and self-
approval, into his will, with those slow, absorbing eyes of his.
"Make yourself what you will. It is your right.
"I know," quietly. "Will you help me?"
Mitchell laughed again. The Doctor turned now, in a passion,--
"You know, Mitchell, I have not the means. You know, if I had,
it is in my heart to take this boy and educate him for"--
"The glory of God, and the glory of John May."
May did not speak for a moment; then, controlled, he said,--
"Why should one be raised, when myriads are left?--I have not
the money, boy," to Wolfe, shortly.
"Money?" He said it over slowly, as one repeats the guessed
answer to a riddle, doubtfully. "That is it? Money?"
"Yes, money,--that is it," said Mitchell, rising, and drawing
his furred coat about him. "You've found the cure for all the
world's diseases.--Come, May, find your good-humor, and come
home. This damp wind chills my very bones. Come and preach
your Saint-Simonian doctrines' to-morrow to Kirby's hands. Let
them have a clear idea of the rights of the soul, and I'll
venture next week they'll strike for higher wages. That will be
the end of it."
"Will you send the coach-driver to this side of the mills?"
asked Kirby, turning to Wolfe.
He spoke kindly: it was his habit to do so. Deborah, seeing
the puddler go, crept after him. The three men waited outside.
Doctor May walked up and down, chafed. Suddenly he stopped.
"Go back, Mitchell! You say the pocket and the heart of the
world speak without meaning to these people. What has its head
to say? Taste, culture, refinement? Go!"
Mitchell was leaning against a brick wall. He turned his head
indolently, and looked into the mills. There hung about the
place a thick, unclean odor. The slightest motion of his hand
marked that he perceived it, and his insufferable disgust. That
was all. May said nothing, only quickened his angry tramp.
"Besides," added Mitchell, giving a corollary to his answer, "it
would be of no use. I am not one of them."
"You do not mean"--said May, facing him.
"Yes, I mean just that. Reform is born of need, not pity. No
vital movement of the people's has worked down, for good or
evil; fermented, instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass.
Think back through history, and you will know it. What will
this lowest deep--thieves, Magdalens, negroes--do with the light
filtered through ponderous Church creeds, Baconian theories,
Goethe schemes? Some day, out of their bitter need will be
thrown up their own light-bringer,--their Jean Paul, their
Cromwell, their Messiah."
"Bah!" was the Doctor's inward criticism. However, in practice,
he adopted the theory; for, when, night and morning, afterwards,
he prayed that power might be given these degraded souls to
rise, he glowed at heart, recognizing an accomplished duty.
Wolfe and the woman had stood in the shadow of the works as the
coach drove off. The Doctor had held out his hand in a frank,
generous way, telling him to "take care of himself, and to
remember it was his right to rise." Mitchell had simply touched
his hat, as to an equal, with a quiet look of thorough
recognition. Kirby had thrown Deborah some money, which she
found, and clutched eagerly enough. They were gone now, all of
them. The man sat down on the cinder-road, looking up into the
"'T be late, Hugh. Wunnot hur come?"
He shook his head doggedly, and the woman crouched out of his
sight against the wall. Do you remember rare moments when a
sudden light flashed over yourself, your world, God? when you
stood on a mountain-peak, seeing your life as it might have
been, as it is? one quick instant, when custom lost its force
and every-day usage? when your friend, wife, brother, stood in
a new light? your soul was bared, and the grave,--a foretaste
of the nakedness of the Judgment-Day? So it came before him,
his life, that night. The slow tides of pain he had borne
gathered themselves up and surged against his soul. His squalid
daily life, the brutal coarseness eating into his brain, as the
ashes into his skin: before, these things had been a dull
aching into his consciousness; to-night, they were reality. He
griped the filthy red shirt that clung, stiff with soot, about
him, and tore it savagely from his arm. The flesh beneath was
muddy with grease and ashes,--and the heart beneath that! And
the soul? God knows.
Then flashed before his vivid poetic sense the man who had left
him,--the pure face, the delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with
all he knew of beauty or truth. In his cloudy fancy he had
pictured a Something like this. He had found it in this
Mitchell, even when he idly scoffed at his pain: a Man all-
knowing, all-seeing, crowned by Nature, reigning,--the keen
glance of his eye falling like a sceptre on other men. And yet
his instinct taught him that he too--He! He looked at himself
with sudden loathing, sick, wrung his hands With a cry, and then
was silent. With all the phantoms of his heated, ignorant
fancy, Wolfe had not been vague in his ambitions. They were
practical, slowly built up before him out of his knowledge of
what he could do. Through years he had day by day made this
hope a real thing to himself,--a clear, projected figure of
himself, as he might become.
Able to speak, to know what was best, to raise these men and
women working at his side up with him: sometimes he forgot this
defined hope in the frantic anguish to escape, only to escape,--
out of the wet, the pain, the ashes, somewhere, anywhere,--only
for one moment of free air on a hill-side, to lie down and let
his sick soul throb itself out in the sunshine. But to-night he
panted for life. The savage strength of his nature was roused;
his cry was fierce to God for justice.
"Look at me!" he said to Deborah, with a low, bitter laugh,
striking his puny chest savagely. "What am I worth, Deb? Is it
my fault that I am no better? My fault? My fault?"
He stopped, stung with a sudden remorse, seeing her hunchback
shape writhing with sobs. For Deborah was crying thankless
tears, according to the fashion of women.
"God forgi' me, woman! Things go harder Wi' you nor me. It's
a worse share."
He got up and helped her to rise; and they went doggedly down
the muddy street, side by side.
"It's all wrong," he muttered, slowly,--"all wrong! I dunnot
understan'. But it'll end some day."
"Come home, Hugh!" she said, coaxingly; for he had stopped,
looking around bewildered.
"Home,--and back to the mill!" He went on saying this over to
himself, as if he would mutter down every pain in this dull
She followed him through the fog, her blue lips chattering with
cold. They reached the cellar at last. Old Wolfe had been
drinking since she went out, and had crept nearer the door. The
girl Janey slept heavily in the corner. He went up to her,
touching softly the worn white arm with his fingers. Some
bitterer thought stung him, as he stood there. He wiped the
drops from his forehead, and went into the room beyond, livid,
trembling. A hope, trifling, perhaps, but very dear, had died
just then out of the poor puddler's life, as he looked at the
sleeping, innocent girl,--some plan for the future, in which she
had borne a part. He gave it up that moment, then and forever.
Only a trifle, perhaps, to us: his face grew a shade paler,--
that was all. But, somehow, the man's soul, as God and the
angels looked down on it, never was the same afterwards.
Deborah followed him into the inner room. She carried a candle,
which she placed on the floor, closing the door after her. She
had seen the look on his face, as he turned away: her own grew
deadly. Yet, as she came up to him, her eyes glowed. He was
seated on an old chest, quiet, holding his face in his hands.
"Hugh!" she said, softly.
He did not speak.
"Hugh, did hur hear what the man said,--him with the clear
voice? Did hur hear? Money, money,--that it wud do all?"
He pushed her away,--gently, but he was worn out; her rasping
tone fretted him.
The candle flared a pale yellow light over the cobwebbed brick
walls, and the woman standing there. He looked at her. She was
young, in deadly earnest; her faded eyes, and wet, ragged figure
caught from their frantic eagerness a power akin to beauty.
"Hugh, it is true! Money ull do it! Oh, Hugh, boy, listen till
me! He said it true! It is money!"
"I know. Go back! I do not want you here."
"Hugh, it is t' last time. I'll never worrit hur again."
There were tears in her voice now, but she choked them back:
"Hear till me only to-night! If one of t' witch people wud
come, them we heard oft' home, and gif hur all hur wants, what
then? Say, Hugh!"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean money.
Her whisper shrilled through his brain.
"If one oft' witch dwarfs wud come from t' lane moors to-night,
and gif hur money, to go out,--OUT, I say,--out, lad, where t'
sun shines, and t' heath grows, and t' ladies walk in silken
gownds, and God stays all t' time,--where t'man lives that
talked to us to-night, Hugh knows,--Hugh could walk there like
He thought the woman mad, tried to check her, but she went on,
fierce in her eager haste.
"If I were t' witch dwarf, if I had t' money, wud hur thank me?
Wud hur take me out o' this place wid hur and Janey? I wud not
come into the gran' house hur wud build, to vex hur wid t'
hunch,--only at night, when t' shadows were dark, stand far off
to see hur."
Mad? Yes! Are many of us mad in this way?
"Poor Deb! poor Deb!" he said, soothingly.
"It is here," she said, suddenly, jerking into his hand a small
roll. "I took it! I did it! Me, me!--not hur! I shall be
hanged, I shall be burnt in hell, if anybody knows I took it!
Out of his pocket, as he leaned against t' bricks. Hur knows?"
She thrust it into his hand, and then, her errand done, began to
gather chips together to make a fire, choking down hysteric
"Has it come to this?"
That was all he said. The Welsh Wolfe blood was honest. The
roll was a small green pocket-book containing one or two gold
pieces, and a check for an incredible amount, as it seemed to
the poor puddler. He laid it down, hiding his face again in his
"Hugh, don't be angry wud me! It's only poor Deb,--hur knows?"
He took the long skinny fingers kindly in his.
"Angry? God help me, no! Let me sleep. I am tired."
He threw himself heavily down on the wooden bench, stunned with
pain and weariness. She brought some old rags to cover him.
It was late on Sunday evening before he awoke. I tell God's
truth, when I say he had then no thought of keeping this money.
Deborah had hid it in his pocket. He found it there. She
watched him eagerly, as he took it out.
"I must gif it to him," he said, reading her face.
"Hur knows," she said with a bitter sigh of disappointment.
"But it is hur right to keep it."
His right! The word struck him. Doctor May had used the same.
He washed himself, and went out to find this man Mitchell. His
right! Why did this chance word cling to him so obstinately?
Do you hear the fierce devils whisper in his ear, as he went
slowly down the darkening street?
The evening came on, slow and calm. He seated himself at the
end of an alley leading into one of the larger streets. His
brain was clear to-night, keen, intent, mastering. It would not
start back, cowardly, from any hellish temptation, but meet it
face to face. Therefore the great temptation of his life came
to him veiled by no sophistry, but bold, defiant, owning its own
vile name, trusting to one bold blow for victory.
He did not deceive himself. Theft! That was it. At first the
word sickened him; then he grappled with it. Sitting there on
a broken cart-wheel, the fading day, the noisy groups, the
church-bells' tolling passed before him like a panorama, while
the sharp struggle went on within. This money! He took it out,
and looked at it. If he gave it back, what then? He was going
to be cool about it.
People going by to church saw only a sickly mill-boy watching
them quietly at the alley's mouth. They did not know that he
was mad, or they would not have gone by so quietly: mad with
hunger; stretching out his hands to the world, that had given so
much to them, for leave to live the life God meant him to live.
His soul within him was smothering to death; he wanted so much,
thought so much, and knew--nothing. There was nothing of which
he was certain, except the mill and things there. Of God and
heaven he had heard so little, that they were to him what fairy-
land is to a child: something real, but not here; very far off.
His brain, greedy, dwarfed, full of thwarted energy and unused
powers, questioned these men and women going by, coldly,
bitterly, that night. Was it not his right to live as they,--a
pure life, a good, true-hearted life, full of beauty and kind
words? He only wanted to know how to use the strength within
him. His heart warmed, as he thought of it. He suffered
himself to think of it longer. If he took the money?
Then he saw himself as he might be, strong, helpful, kindly.
The night crept on, as this one image slowly evolved itself from
the crowd of other thoughts and stood triumphant. He looked at
it. As he might be! What wonder, if it blinded him to
delirium,--the madness that underlies all revolution, all
progress, and all fall?
You laugh at the shallow temptation? You see the error
underlying its argument so clearly,--that to him a true life was
one of full development rather than self-restraint? that he was
deaf to the higher tone in a cry of voluntary suffering for
truth's sake than in the fullest flow of spontaneous harmony?
I do not plead his cause. I only want to show you the mote in
my brother's eye: then you can see clearly to take it out.
The money,--there it lay on his knee, a little blotted slip of
paper, nothing in itself; used to raise him out of the pit,
something straight from God's hand. A thief! Well, what was it
to be a thief? He met the question at last, face to face,
wiping the clammy drops of sweat from his forehead. God made
this money--the fresh air, too--for his children's use. He
never made the difference between poor and rich. The Something
who looked down on him that moment through the cool gray sky had
a kindly face, he knew,--loved his children alike. Oh, he knew
There were times when the soft floods of color in the crimson
and purple flames, or the clear depth of amber in the water
below the bridge, had somehow given him a glimpse of another
world than this,--of an infinite depth of beauty and of quiet
somewhere,--somewhere, a depth of quiet and rest and love.
Looking up now, it became strangely real. The sun had sunk
quite below the hills, but his last rays struck upward, touching
the zenith. The fog had risen, and the town and river were
steeped in its thick, gray damp; but overhead, the sun-touched
smoke-clouds opened like a cleft ocean,--shifting, rolling seas
of crimson mist, waves of billowy silver veined with blood-
scarlet, inner depths unfathomable of glancing light. Wolfe's
artist-eye grew drunk with color. The gates of that other
world! Fading, flashing before him now! What, in that world of
Beauty, Content, and Right, were the petty laws, the mine and
thine, of mill-owners and mill hands?
A consciousness of power stirred within him. He stood up. A
man,--he thought, stretching out his hands,--free to work, to
live, to love! Free! His right! He folded the scrap of paper
in his hand. As his nervous fingers took it in, limp and
blotted, so his soul took in the mean temptation, lapped it in
fancied rights, in dreams of improved existences, drifting and
endless as the cloud-seas of color. Clutching it, as if the
tightness of his hold would strengthen his sense of possession,
he went aimlessly down the street. It was his watch at the
mill. He need not go, need never go again, thank God!--shaking
off the thought with unspeakable loathing.
Shall I go over the history of the hours of that night? how the
man wandered from one to another of his old haunts, with a half-
consciousness of bidding them farewell,--lanes and alleys and
back-yards where the mill-hands lodged,--noting, with a new
eagerness, the filth and drunkenness, the pig-pens, the ash-
heaps covered with potato-skins, the bloated, pimpled women at
the doors, with a new disgust, a new sense of sudden triumph,
and, under all, a new, vague dread, unknown before, smothered
down, kept under, but still there? It left him but once during
the night, when, for the second time in his life, he entered a
church. It was a sombre Gothic pile, where the stained light
lost itself in far-retreating arches; built to meet the
requirements and sympathies of a far other class than Wolfe's.
Yet it touched, moved him uncontrollably. The distances, the
shadows, the still, marble figures, the mass of silent kneeling
worshippers, the mysterious music, thrilled, lifted his soul
with a wonderful pain. Wolfe forgot himself, forgot the new
life he was going to live, the mean terror gnawing underneath.
The voice of the speaker strengthened the charm; it was clear,
feeling, full, strong. An old man, who had lived much, suffered
much; whose brain was keenly alive, dominant; whose heart was
summer-warm with charity. He taught it to-night. He held up
Humanity in its grand total; showed the great world-cancer to
his people. Who could show it better? He was a Christian
reformer; he had studied the age thoroughly; his outlook at man
had been free, world-wide, over all time. His faith stood
sublime upon the Rock of Ages; his fiery zeal guided vast
schemes by which the Gospel was to be preached to all nations.
How did he preach it to-night? In burning, light-laden words he
painted Jesus, the incarnate Life, Love, the universal Man:
words that became reality in the lives of these people,--that
lived again in beautiful words and actions, trifling, but
heroic. Sin, as he defined it, was a real foe to them; their
trials, temptations, were his. His words passed far over the
furnace-tender's grasp, toned to suit another class of culture;
they sounded in his ears a very pleasant song in an unknown
tongue. He meant to cure this world-cancer with a steady eye
that had never glared with hunger, and a hand that neither
poverty nor strychnine-whiskey had taught to shake. In this
morbid, distorted heart of the Welsh puddler he had failed.
Eighteen centuries ago, the Master of this man tried reform in
the streets of a city as crowded and vile as this, and did not
fail. His disciple, showing Him to-night to cultured hearers,
showing the clearness of the God-power acting through Him,
shrank back from one coarse fact; that in birth and habit the
man Christ was thrown up from the lowest of the people: his
flesh, their flesh; their blood, his blood; tempted like them,
to brutalize day by day; to lie, to steal: the actual slime and
want of their hourly life, and the wine-press he trod alone.
Yet, is there no meaning in this perpetually covered truth? If
the son of the carpenter had stood in the church that night, as
he stood with the fishermen and harlots by the sea of Galilee,
before His Father and their Father, despised and rejected of
men, without a place to lay His head, wounded for their
iniquities, bruised for their transgressions, would not that
hungry mill-boy at least, in the back seat, have "known the
man"? That Jesus did not stand there.
Wolfe rose at last, and turned from the church down the street.
He looked up; the night had come on foggy, damp; the golden
mists had vanished, and the sky lay dull and ash-colored. He
wandered again aimlessly down the street, idly wondering what
had become of the cloud-sea of crimson and scarlet. The trial-
day of this man's life was over, and he had lost the victory.
What followed was mere drifting circumstance,--a quicker walking
over the path,--that was all. Do you want to hear the end of
it? You wish me to make a tragic story out of it? Why, in the
police-reports of the morning paper you can find a dozen such
tragedies: hints of shipwrecks unlike any that ever befell on
the high seas; hints that here a power was lost to heaven,--that
there a soul went down where no tide can ebb or flow.
Commonplace enough the hints are,--jocose sometimes, done up in
Doctor May a month after the night I have told you of, was
reading to his wife at breakfast from this fourth column of the
morning-paper: an unusual thing,--these police-reports not
being, in general, choice reading for ladies; but it was only
one item he read.
"Oh, my dear! You remember that man I told you of, that we saw
at Kirby's mill?--that was arrested for robbing Mitchell? Here
he is; just listen:--'Circuit Court. Judge Day. Hugh Wolfe,
operative in Kirby & John's Loudon Mills. Charge, grand
larceny. Sentence, nineteen years hard labor in penitentiary.
Scoundrel! Serves him right! After all our kindness that
night! Picking Mitchell's pocket at the very time!"
His wife said something about the ingratitude of that kind of
people, and then they began to talk of something else.
Nineteen years! How easy that was to read! What a simple word
for Judge Day to utter! Nineteen years! Half a lifetime!
Hugh Wolfe sat on the window-ledge of his cell, looking out.
His ankles Were ironed. Not usual in such cases; but he had
made two desperate efforts to escape. "Well," as Haley, the
jailer, said, "small blame to him! Nineteen years' inprisonment
was not a pleasant thing to look forward to." Haley was very
good-natured about it, though Wolfe had fought him savagely.
"When he was first caught," the jailer said afterwards, in
telling the story, "before the trial, the fellow was cut down at
once,--laid there on that pallet like a dead man, with his hands
over his eyes. Never saw a man so cut down in my life. Time of
the trial, too, came the queerest dodge of any customer I ever
had. Would choose no lawyer. Judge gave him one, of course.
Gibson it Was. He tried to prove the fellow crazy; but it
wouldn't go. Thing was plain as daylight: money found on him.
'T was a hard sentence,--all the law allows; but it was for
'xample's sake. These mill-hands are gettin' onbearable. When
the sentence was read, he just looked up, and said the money was
his by rights, and that all the world had gone wrong. That
night, after the trial, a gentleman came to see him here, name
of Mitchell,--him as he stole from. Talked to him for an hour.
Thought he came for curiosity, like. After he was gone, thought
Wolfe was remarkable quiet, and went into his cell. Found him
very low; bed all bloody. Doctor said he had been bleeding at
the lungs. He was as weak as a cat; yet if ye'll b'lieve me, he
tried to get a-past me and get out. I just carried him like a
baby, and threw him on the pallet. Three days after, he tried
it again: that time reached the wall. Lord help you! he fought
like a tiger,--giv' some terrible blows. Fightin' for life, you
see; for he can't live long, shut up in the stone crib down
yonder. Got a death-cough now. 'T took two of us to bring him
down that day; so I just put the irons on his feet. There he
sits, in there. Goin' to-morrow, with a batch more of 'em.
That woman, hunchback, tried with him,--you remember?--she's
only got three years. 'Complice. But she's a woman, you know.
He's been quiet ever since I put on irons: giv' up, I suppose.
Looks white, sick-lookin'. It acts different on 'em, bein'
sentenced. Most of 'em gets reckless, devilish-like. Some
prays awful, and sings them vile songs of the mills, all in a
breath. That woman, now, she's desper't'. Been beggin' to see
Hugh, as she calls him, for three days. I'm a-goin' to let her
in. She don't go with him. Here she is in this next cell. I'm
a-goin' now to let her in."
He let her in. Wolfe did not see her. She crept into a corner
of the cell, and stood watching him. He was scratching the iron
bars of the window with a piece of tin which he had picked up,
with an idle, uncertain, vacant stare, just as a child or idiot
"Tryin' to get out, old boy?" laughed Haley. "Them irons will
need a crow-bar beside your tin, before you can open 'em."
Wolfe laughed, too, in a senseless way.
"I think I'll get out," he said.
"I believe his brain's touched," said Haley, when he came out.
The puddler scraped away with the tin for half an hour. Still
Deborah did not speak. At last she ventured nearer, and touched
"Blood?" she said, looking at some spots on his coat with a
He looked up at her, "Why, Deb!" he said, smiling,--such a
bright, boyish smile, that it Went to poor Deborah's heart
directly, and she sobbed and cried out loud.
"Oh, Hugh, lad! Hugh! dunnot look at me, when it wur my fault!
To think I brought hur to it! And I loved hur so! Oh lad, I
The confession, even In this wretch, came with the woman's blush
through the sharp cry.
He did not seem to hear her,--scraping away diligently at the
bars with the bit of tin.
Was he going mad? She peered closely into his face. Something
she saw there made her draw suddenly back,--something which
Haley had not seen, that lay beneath the pinched, vacant look it
had caught since the trial, or the curious gray shadow that
rested on it. That gray shadow,--yes, she knew what that meant.
She had often seen it creeping over women's faces for months,
who died at last of slow hunger or consumption. That meant
death, distant, lingering: but this--Whatever it was the woman
saw, or thought she saw, used as she was to crime and misery,
seemed to make her sick with a new horror. Forgetting her fear
of him, she caught his shoulders, and looked keenly, steadily,
into his eyes.
"Hugh!" she cried, in a desperate whisper,--"oh, boy, not that!
for God's sake, not that!"
The vacant laugh went off his face, and he answered her in a
muttered word or two that drove her away. Yet the words were
kindly enough. Sitting there on his pallet, she cried silently
a hopeless sort of tears, but did not speak again. The man
looked up furtively at her now and then. Whatever his own
trouble was, her distress vexed him with a momentary sting.
It was market-day. The narrow window of the jail looked down
directly on the carts and wagons drawn up in a long line, where
they had unloaded. He could see, too, and hear distinctly the
clink of money as it changed hands, the busy crowd of whites and
blacks shoving, pushing one another, and the chaffering and
swearing at the stalls. Somehow, the sound, more than anything
else had done, wakened him up,--made the whole real to him. He
was done with the world and the business of it. He let the tin
fall, and looked out, pressing his face close to the rusty bars.
How they crowded and pushed! And he,--he should never walk that
pavement again! There came Neff Sanders, one of the feeders at
the mill, with a basket on his arm. Sure enough, Nyeff was
married the other week. He whistled, hoping he would look up;
but he did not. He wondered if Neff remembered he was there,--
if any of the boys thought of him up there, and thought that he
never was to go down that old cinder-road again. Never again!
He had not quite understood it before; but now he did. Not for
days or years, but never!--that was it.
How clear the light fell on that stall in front of the market!
and how like a picture it was, the dark-green heaps of corn, and
the crimson beets, and golden melons! There was another with
game: how the light flickered on that pheasant's breast, with
the purplish blood dripping over the brown feathers! He could
see the red shining of the drops, it was so near. In one minute
he could be down there. It was just a step. So easy, as it
seemed, so natural to go! Yet it could never be--not in all the
thousands of years to come--that he should put his foot on that
street again! He thought of himself with a sorrowful pity, as
of some one else. There was a dog down in the market, walking
after his master with such a stately, grave look!--only a dog,
yet he could go backwards and forwards just as he pleased: he
had good luck! Why, the very vilest cur, yelping there in the
gutter, had not lived his life, had been free to act out
whatever thought God had put into his brain; while he--No, he
would not think of that! He tried to put the thought away, and
to listen to a dispute between a countryman and a woman about
some meat; but it would come back. He, what had he done to bear
Then came the sudden picture of what might have been, and now.
He knew what it was to be in the penitentiary, how it went with
men there. He knew how in these long years he should slowly
die, but not until soul and body had become corrupt and
rotten,--how, when he came out, if he lived to come, even the
lowest of the mill-hands would jeer him,--how his hands would be
weak, and his brain senseless and stupid. He believed he was
almost that now. He put his hand to his head, with a puzzled,
weary look. It ached, his head, with thinking. He tried to
quiet himself. It was only right, perhaps; he had done wrong.
But was there right or wrong for such as he? What was right?
And who had ever taught him? He thrust the whole matter away.
A dark, cold quiet crept through his brain. It was all wrong;
but let it be! It was nothing to him more than the others. Let
The door grated, as Haley opened it.
"Come, my woman! Must lock up for t' night. Come, stir
She went up and took Hugh's hand.
"Good-night, Deb," he said, carelessly.
She had not hoped he would say more; but the tired pain on her
mouth just then was bitterer than death. She took his passive
hand and kissed it.
"Hur'll never see Deb again!" she ventured, her lips growing
colder and more bloodless.
What did she say that for? Did he not know it? Yet he would
not be impatient with poor old Deb. She had trouble of her own,
as well as he.
"No, never again," he said, trying to be cheerful.
She stood just a moment, looking at him. Do you laugh at her,
standing there, with her hunchback, her rags, her bleared,
withered face, and the great despised love tugging at her heart?
"Come, you!" called Haley, impatiently.
She did not move.
"Hugh!" she whispered.
It was to be her last word. What was it?
"Hugh, boy, not THAT!"
He did not answer. She wrung her hands, trying to be silent,
looking in his face in an agony of entreaty. He smiled again,
"It is best, Deb. I cannot bear to be hurted any more.
"Hur knows," she said, humbly.
"Tell my father good-bye; and--and kiss little Janey."
She nodded, saying nothing, looked in his face again, and went
out of the door. As she went, she staggered.
"Drinkin' to-day?" broke out Haley, pushing her before him.
"Where the Devil did you get it? Here, in with ye!" and he
shoved her into her cell, next to Wolfe's, and shut the door.
Along the wall of her cell there was a crack low down by the
floor, through which she could see the light from Wolfe's. She
had discovered it days before. She hurried in now, and,
kneeling down by it, listened, hoping to hear some sound.
Nothing but the rasping of the tin on the bars. He was at his
old amusement again. Something in the noise jarred on her ear,
for she shivered as she heard it. Hugh rasped away at the bars.
A dull old bit of tin, not fit to cut korl with.
He looked out of the window again. People were leaving the
market now. A tall mulatto girl, following her mistress, her
basket on her head, crossed the street just below, and looked
up. She was laughing; but, when she caught sight of the haggard
face peering out through the bars, suddenly grew grave, and
hurried by. A free, firm step, a clear-cut olive face, with a
scarlet turban tied on one side, dark, shining eyes, and on the
head the basket poised, filled with fruit and flowers, under
which the scarlet turban and bright eyes looked out half-
shadowed. The picture caught his eye. It was good to see a
face like that. He would try to-morrow, and cut one like it.
To-morrow! He threw down the tin, trembling, and covered his
face with his hands. When he looked up again, the daylight was
Deborah, crouching near by on the other side of the wall, heard
no noise. He sat on the side of the low pallet, thinking.
Whatever was the mystery which the woman had seen on his face,
it came out now slowly, in the dark there, and became fixed,--a
something never seen on his face before. The evening was
darkening fast. The market had been over for an hour; the
rumbling of the carts over the pavement grew more infrequent:
he listened to each, as it passed, because he thought it was to
be for the last time. For the same reason, it was, I suppose,
that he strained his eyes to catch a glimpse of each passer-by,
wondering who they were, what kind of homes they were going to,
if they had children,--listening eagerly to every chance word in
the street, as if--(God be merciful to the man! what strange
fancy was this?)--as if he never should hear human voices again.
It was quite dark at last. The street was a lonely one. The
last passenger, he thought, was gone. No,--there was a quick
step: Joe Hill, lighting the lamps. Joe was a good old chap;
never passed a fellow without some joke or other. He remembered
once seeing the place where he lived with his wife. "Granny
Hill" the boys called her. Bedridden she Was; but so kind as
Joe was to her! kept the room so clean!--and the old woman, when
he was there, was laughing at some of t' lad's foolishness."
The step was far down the street; but he could see him place the
ladder, run up, and light the gas. A longing seized him to be
spoken to once more.
"Joe!" he called, out of the grating. "Good-bye, Joe!"
The old man stopped a moment, listening uncertainly; then
hurried on. The prisoner thrust his hand out of the window, and
called again, louder; but Joe was too far down the street. It
was a little thing; but it hurt him,--this disappointment.
"Good-bye, Joe!" he called, sorrowfully enough.
"Be quiet!" said one of the jailers, passing the door, striking
on it with his club.
Oh, that was the last, was it?
There was an inexpressible bitterness on his face, as he lay
down on the bed, taking the bit of tin, which he had rasped to
a tolerable degree of sharpness, in his hand,--to play with, it
may be. He bared his arms, looking intently at their corded
veins and sinews. Deborah, listening in the next cell, heard a
slight clicking sound, often repeated. She shut her lips
tightly, that she might not scream; the cold drops of sweat
broke over her, in her dumb agony.
"Hur knows best," she muttered at last, fiercely clutching the
boards where she lay.
If she could have seen Wolfe, there was nothing about him to
frighten her. He lay quite still, his arms outstretched,
looking at the pearly stream of moonlight coming into the
window. I think in that one hour that came then he lived back
over all the years that had gone before. I think that all the
low, vile life, all his wrongs, all his starved hopes, came
then, and stung him with a farewell poison that made him sick
unto death. He made neither moan nor cry, only turned his worn
face now and then to the pure light, that seemed so far off, as
one that said, "How long, O Lord? how long?"
The hour was over at last. The moon, passing over her nightly
path, slowly came nearer, and threw the light across his bed on
his feet. He watched it steadily, as it crept up, inch by inch,
slowly. It seemed to him to carry with it a great silence. He
had been so hot and tired there always in the mills! The years
had been so fierce and cruel! There was coming now quiet and
coolness and sleep. His tense limbs relaxed, and settled in a
calm languor. The blood ran fainter and slow from his heart.
He did not think now with a savage anger of what might be and
was not; he was conscious only of deep stillness creeping over
him. At first he saw a sea of faces: the mill-men,--women he
had known, drunken and bloated,--Janey's timid and pitiful-poor
old Debs: then they floated together like a mist, and faded
away, leaving only the clear, pearly moonlight.
Whether, as the pure light crept up the stretched-out figure, it
brought with It calm and peace, who shall say? His dumb soul
was alone with God in judgment. A Voice may have spoken for it
from far-off Calvary, "Father, forgive them, for they know not
what they do!" Who dare say? Fainter and fainter the heart
rose and fell, slower and slower the moon floated from behind a
cloud, until, when at last its full tide of white splendor swept
over the cell, it seemed to wrap and fold into a deeper
stillness the dead figure that never should move again. Silence
deeper than the Night! Nothing that moved, save the black,
nauseous stream of blood dripping slowly from the pallet to the
There was outcry and crowd enough in the cell the next day. The
coroner and his jury, the local editors, Kirby himself, and boys
with their hands thrust knowingly into their pockets and heads
on one side, jammed into the corners. Coming and going all day.
Only one woman. She came late, and outstayed them all. A
Quaker, or Friend, as they call themselves. I think this woman
Was known by that name in heaven. A homely body, coarsely
dressed in gray and white. Deborah (for Haley had let her in)
took notice of her. She watched them all--sitting on the end of
the pallet, holding his head in her arms with the ferocity of a
watch-dog, if any of them touched the body. There was no
meekness, no sorrow, in her face; the stuff out of which
murderers are made, instead. All the time Haley and the woman
were laying straight the limbs and cleaning the cell, Deborah
sat still, keenly watching the Quaker's face. Of all the crowd
there that day, this woman alone had not spoken to her,--only
once or twice had put some cordial to her lips. After they all
were gone, the woman, in the same still, gentle way, brought a
vase of wood-leaves and berries, and placed it by the pallet,
then opened the narrow window. The fresh air blew in, and swept
the woody fragrance over the dead face, Deborah looked up with
a quick wonder.
"Did hur know my boy wud like it? Did hur know Hugh?"
"I know Hugh now."
The white fingers passed in a slow, pitiful way over the dead,
worn face. There was a heavy shadow in the quiet eyes.
"Did hur know where they'll bury Hugh?" said Deborah in a
shrill tone, catching her arm.
This had been the question hanging on her lips all day.
"In t' town-yard? Under t' mud and ash? T' lad'll smother,
woman! He wur born in t' lane moor, where t' air is frick and
strong. Take hur out, for God's sake, take hur out where t' air
The Quaker hesitated, but only for a moment. She put her strong
arm around Deborah and led her to the window.
"Thee sees the hills, friend, over the river? Thee sees how the
light lies warm there, and the winds of God blow all the day?
I live there,--where the blue smoke is, by the trees. Look at
me," She turned Deborah's face to her own, clear and earnest,
"Thee will believe me? I will take Hugh and bury him there to-
Deborah did not doubt her. As the evening wore on, she leaned
against the iron bars, looking at the hills that rose far off,
through the thick sodden clouds, like a bright, unattainable
calm. As she looked, a shadow of their solemn repose fell on
her face; its fierce discontent faded into a pitiful, humble
quiet. Slow, solemn tears gathered in her eyes: the poor weak
eyes turned so hopelessly to the place where Hugh was to rest,
the grave heights looking higher and brighter and more solemn
than ever before. The Quaker watched her keenly. She came to
her at last, and touched her arm.
"When thee comes back," she said, in a low, sorrowful tone, like
one who speaks from a strong heart deeply moved with remorse or
pity, "thee shall begin thy life again,--there on the hills. I
came too late; but not for thee,--by God's help, it may be."
Not too late. Three years after, the Quaker began her work. I
end my story here. At evening-time it was light. There is no
need to tire you with the long years of sunshine, and fresh air,
and slow, patient Christ-love, needed to make healthy and
hopeful this impure body and soul. There is a homely pine
house, on one of these hills, whose windows overlook broad,
wooded slopes and clover-crimsoned meadows,--niched into the
very place where the light is warmest, the air freest. It is
the Friends' meeting-house. Once a week they sit there, in
their grave, earnest way, waiting for the Spirit of Love to
speak, opening their simple hearts to receive His words. There
is a woman, old, deformed, who takes a humble place among them:
waiting like them: in her gray dress, her worn face, pure and
meek, turned now and then to the sky. A woman much loved by
these silent, resfful people; more silent than they, more
humble, more loving. Waiting: with her eyes turned to hills
higher and purer than these on which she lives,dim and far off
now, but to be reached some day. There may be in her heart some
latent hope to meet there the love denied her here,--that she
shall find him whom she lost, and that then she will not be all-
unworthy. Who blames her? Something is lost in the passage of
every soul from one eternity to the other,--something pure and
beautiful, which might have been and was not: a hope, a talent,
a love, over which the soul mourns, like Esau deprived of his
birthright. What blame to the meek Quaker, if she took her lost
hope to make the hills of heaven more fair?
Nothing remains to tell that the poor Welsh puddler once lived,
but this figure of the mill-woman cut in korl. I have it here
in a corner of my library. I keep it hid behind a curtain,--it
is such a rough, ungainly thing. Yet there are about it
touches, grand sweeps of outline, that show a master's hand.
Sometimes,--to-night, for instance,--the curtain is accidentally
drawn back, and I see a bare arm stretched out imploringly in
the darkness, and an eager, wolfish face watching mine: a wan,
woful face, through which the spirit of the dead korl-cutter
looks out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, its
unfinished work. Its pale, vague lips seem to tremble with a
terrible question. "Is this the End?" they say,--"nothing
beyond? no more?" Why, you tell me you have seen that look in
the eyes of dumb brutes,--horses dying under the lash. I know.
The deep of the night is passing while I write. The gas-light
wakens from the shadows here and there the objects which lie
scattered through the room: only faintly, though; for they
belong to the open sunlight. As I glance at them, they each
recall some task or pleasure of the coming day. A half-moulded
child's head; Aphrodite; a bough of forest-leaves; music; work;
homely fragments, in which lie the secrets of all eternal truth
and beauty. Prophetic all! Only this dumb, woful face seems to
belong to and end with the night. I turn to look at it. Has
the power of its desperate need commanded the darkness away?
While the room is yet steeped in heavy shadow, a cool, gray
light suddenly touches its head like a blessing hand, and its
groping arm points through the broken cloud to the far East,
where, in the flickering, nebulous crimson, God has set the
promise of the Dawn.
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