McTeague

by Frank Norris


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Chapter 16


A week passed, then a fortnight, then a month. It was a month of the greatest anxiety and unquietude for Trina. McTeague was out of a job, could find nothing to do; and Trina, who saw the impossibility of saving as much money as usual out of her earnings under the present conditions, was on the lookout for cheaper quarters. In spite of his outcries and sulky resistance Trina had induced her husband to consent to such a move, bewildering him with a torrent of phrases and marvellous columns of figures by which she proved conclusively that they were in a condition but one remove from downright destitution.

The dentist continued idle. Since his ill success with the manufacturers of surgical instruments he had made but two attempts to secure a job. Trina had gone to see Uncle Oelbermann and had obtained for McTeague a position in the shipping department of the wholesale toy store. However, it was a position that involved a certain amount of ciphering, and McTeague had been obliged to throw it up in two days.

Then for a time they had entertained a wild idea that a place on the police force could be secured for McTeague. He could pass the physical examination with flying colors, and Ryer, who had become the secretary of the Polk Street Improvement Club, promised the requisite political "pull." If McTeague had shown a certain energy in the matter the attempt might have been successful; but he was too stupid, or of late had become too listless to exert himself greatly, and the affair resulted only in a violent quarrel with Ryer.

McTeague had lost his ambition. He did not care to better his situation. All he wanted was a warm place to sleep and three good meals a day. At the first--at the very first--he had chafed at his idleness and had spent the days with his wife in their one narrow room, walking back and forth with the restlessness of a caged brute, or sitting motionless for hours, watching Trina at her work, feeling a dull glow of shame at the idea that she was supporting him. This feeling had worn off quickly, however. Trina's work was only hard when she chose to make it so, and as a rule she supported their misfortunes with a silent fortitude.

Then, wearied at his inaction and feeling the need of movement and exercise, McTeague would light his pipe and take a turn upon the great avenue one block above Polk Street. A gang of laborers were digging the foundations for a large brownstone house, and McTeague found interest and amusement in leaning over the barrier that surrounded the excavations and watching the progress of the work. He came to see it every afternoon; by and by he even got to know the foreman who superintended the job, and the two had long talks together. Then McTeague would return to Polk Street and find Heise in the back room of the harness shop, and occasionally the day ended with some half dozen drinks of whiskey at Joe Frenna's saloon.

It was curious to note the effect of the alcohol upon the dentist. It did not make him drunk, it made him vicious. So far from being stupefied, he became, after the fourth glass, active, alert, quick-witted, even talkative; a certain wickedness stirred in him then; he was intractable, mean; and when he had drunk a little more heavily than usual, he found a certain pleasure in annoying and exasperating Trina, even in abusing and hurting her.

It had begun on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, when Heise had taken McTeague out to dinner with him. The dentist on this occasion had drunk very freely. He and Heise had returned to Polk Street towards ten o'clock, and Heise at once suggested a couple of drinks at Frenna's.

"All right, all right," said McTeague. "Drinks, that's the word. I'll go home and get some money and meet you at Joe's."

Trina was awakened by her husband pinching her arm.

"Oh, Mac," she cried, jumping up in bed with a little scream, "how you hurt! Oh, that hurt me dreadfully."

"Give me a little money," answered the dentist, grinning, and pinching her again.

"I haven't a cent. There's not a--oh, Mac, will you stop? I won't have you pinch me that way."

"Hurry up," answered her husband, calmly, nipping the flesh of her shoulder between his thumb and finger. "Heise's waiting for me." Trina wrenched from him with a sharp intake of breath, frowning with pain, and caressing her shoulder.

"Mac, you've no idea how that hurts. Mac, stop!"

"Give me some money, then."

In the end Trina had to comply. She gave him half a dollar from her dress pocket, protesting that it was the only piece of money she had.

"One more, just for luck," said McTeague, pinching her again; "and another."

"How can you--how can you hurt a woman so!" exclaimed Trina, beginning to cry with the pain.

"Ah, now, cry," retorted the dentist. "That's right, cry. I never saw such a little fool." He went out, slamming the door in disgust.

But McTeague never became a drunkard in the generally received sense of the term. He did not drink to excess more than two or three times in a month, and never upon any occasion did he become maudlin or staggering. Perhaps his nerves were naturally too dull to admit of any excitation; perhaps he did not really care for the whiskey, and only drank because Heise and the other men at Frenna's did. Trina could often reproach him with drinking too much; she never could say that he was drunk. The alcohol had its effect for all that. It roused the man, or rather the brute in the man, and now not only roused it, but goaded it to evil. McTeague's nature changed. It was not only the alcohol, it was idleness and a general throwing off of the good influence his wife had had over him in the days of their prosperity. McTeague disliked Trina. She was a perpetual irritation to him. She annoyed him because she was so small, so prettily made, so invariably correct and precise. Her avarice incessantly harassed him. Her industry was a constant reproach to him. She seemed to flaunt her work defiantly in his face. It was the red flag in the eyes of the bull. One time when he had just come back from Frenna's and had been sitting in the chair near her, silently watching her at her work, he exclaimed all of a sudden:

"Stop working. Stop it, I tell you. Put 'em away. Put 'em all away, or I'll pinch you."

"But why--why?" Trina protested.

The dentist cuffed her ears. "I won't have you work." He took her knife and her paint-pots away, and made her sit idly in the window the rest of the afternoon.

It was, however, only when his wits had been stirred with alcohol that the dentist was brutal to his wife. At other times, say three weeks of every month, she was merely an incumbrance to him. They often quarrelled about Trina's money, her savings. The dentist was bent upon having at least a part of them. What he would do with the money once he had it, he did not precisely know. He would spend it in royal fashion, no doubt, feasting continually, buying himself wonderful clothes. The miner's idea of money quickly gained and lavishly squandered, persisted in his mind. As for Trina, the more her husband stormed, the tighter she drew the strings of the little chamois-skin bag that she hid at the bottom of her trunk underneath her bridal dress. Her five thousand dollars invested in Uncle Oelbermann's business was a glittering, splendid dream which came to her almost every hour of the day as a solace and a compensation for all her unhappiness.

At times, when she knew that McTeague was far from home, she would lock her door, open her trunk, and pile all her little hoard on her table. By now it was four hundred and seven dollars and fifty cents. Trina would play with this money by the hour, piling it, and repiling it, or gathering it all into one heap, and drawing back to the farthest corner of the room to note the effect, her head on one side. She polished the gold pieces with a mixture of soap and ashes until they shone, wiping them carefully on her apron. Or, again, she would draw the heap lovingly toward her and bury her face in it, delighted at the smell of it and the feel of the smooth, cool metal on her cheeks. She even put the smaller gold pieces in her mouth, and jingled them there. She loved her money with an intensity that she could hardly express. She would plunge her small fingers into the pile with little murmurs of affection, her long, narrow eyes half closed and shining, her breath coming in long sighs.

"Ah, the dear money, the dear money," she would whisper. "I love you so! All mine, every penny of it. No one shall ever, ever get you. How I've worked for you! How I've slaved and saved for you! And I'm going to get more; I'm going to get more, more, more; a little every day."

She was still looking for cheaper quarters. Whenever she could spare a moment from her work, she would put on her hat and range up and down the entire neighborhood from Sutter to Sacramento Streets, going into all the alleys and bystreets, her head in the air, looking for the "Rooms-to-let" sign. But she was in despair. All the cheaper tenements were occupied. She could find no room more reasonable than the one she and the dentist now occupied.

As time went on, McTeague's idleness became habitual. He drank no more whiskey than at first, but his dislike for Trina increased with every day of their poverty, with every day of Trina's persistent stinginess. At times--fortunately rare he was more than ever brutal to her. He would box her ears or hit her a great blow with the back of a hair-brush, or even with his closed fist. His old-time affection for his "little woman," unable to stand the test of privation, had lapsed by degrees, and what little of it was left was changed, distorted, and made monstrous by the alcohol.

The people about the house and the clerks at the provision stores often remarked that Trina's fingertips were swollen and the nails purple as though they had been shut in a door. Indeed, this was the explanation she gave. The fact of the matter was that McTeague, when he had been drinking, used to bite them, crunching and grinding them with his immense teeth, always ingenious enough to remember which were the sorest. Sometimes he extorted money from her by this means, but as often as not he did it for his own satisfaction.

And in some strange, inexplicable way this brutality made Trina all the more affectionate; aroused in her a morbid, unwholesome love of submission, a strange, unnatural pleasure in yielding, in surrendering herself to the will of an irresistible, virile power.

Trina's emotions had narrowed with the narrowing of her daily life. They reduced themselves at last to but two, her passion for her money and her perverted love for her husband when he was brutal. She was a strange woman during these days.

Trina had come to be on very intimate terms with Maria Macapa, and in the end the dentist's wife and the maid of all work became great friends. Maria was constantly in and out of Trina's room, and, whenever she could, Trina threw a shawl over her head and returned Maria's calls. Trina could reach Zerkow's dirty house without going into the street. The back yard of the flat had a gate that opened into a little inclosure where Zerkow kept his decrepit horse and ramshackle wagon, and from thence Trina could enter directly into Maria's kitchen. Trina made long visits to Maria during the morning in her dressing-gown and curl papers, and the two talked at great length over a cup of tea served on the edge of the sink or a corner of the laundry table. The talk was all of their husbands and of what to do when they came home in aggressive moods.

"You never ought to fight um," advised Maria. "It only makes um worse. Just hump your back, and it's soonest over."

They told each other of their husbands' brutalities, taking a strange sort of pride in recounting some particularly savage blow, each trying to make out that her own husband was the most cruel. They critically compared each other's bruises, each one glad when she could exhibit the worst. They exaggerated, they invented details, and, as if proud of their beatings, as if glorying in their husbands' mishandling, lied to each other, magnifying their own maltreatment. They had long and excited arguments as to which were the most effective means of punishment, the rope's ends and cart whips such as Zerkow used, or the fists and backs of hair-brushes affected by McTeague. Maria contended that the lash of the whip hurt the most; Trina, that the butt did the most injury.

Maria showed Trina the holes in the walls and the loosened boards in the flooring where Zerkow had been searching for the gold plate. Of late he had been digging in the back yard and had ransacked the hay in his horse-shed for the concealed leather chest he imagined he would find. But he was becoming impatient, evidently.

"The way he goes on," Maria told Trina, "is somethun dreadful. He's gettun regularly sick with it--got a fever every night--don't sleep, and when he does, talks to himself. Says 'More'n a hundred pieces, an' every one of 'em gold. More'n a hundred pieces, an' every one of 'em gold.' Then he'll whale me with his whip, and shout, 'You know where it is. Tell me, tell me, you swine, or I'll do for you.' An' then he'll get down on his knees and whimper, and beg me to tell um where I've hid it. He's just gone plum crazy. Sometimes he has regular fits, he gets so mad, and rolls on the floor and scratches himself."

One morning in November, about ten o'clock, Trina pasted a "Made in France" label on the bottom of a Noah's ark, and leaned back in her chair with a long sigh of relief. She had just finished a large Christmas order for Uncle Oelbermann, and there was nothing else she could do that morning. The bed had not yet been made, nor had the breakfast things been washed. Trina hesitated for a moment, then put her chin in the air indifferently.

"Bah!" she said, "let them go till this afternoon. I don't care when the room is put to rights, and I know Mac don't." She determined that instead of making the bed or washing the dishes she would go and call on Miss Baker on the floor below. The little dressmaker might ask her to stay to lunch, and that would be something saved, as the dentist had announced his intention that morning of taking a long walk out to the Presidio to be gone all day.

But Trina rapped on Miss Baker's door in vain that morning. She was out. Perhaps she was gone to the florist's to buy some geranium seeds. However, Old Grannis's door stood a little ajar, and on hearing Trina at Miss Baker's room, the old Englishman came out into the hall.

"She's gone out," he said, uncertainly, and in a half whisper, "went out about half an hour ago. I--I think she went to the drug store to get some wafers for the goldfish."

"Don't you go to your dog hospital any more, Mister Grannis?" said Trina, leaning against the balustrade in the hall, willing to talk a moment.

Old Grannis stood in the doorway of his room, in his carpet slippers and faded corduroy jacket that he wore when at home.

"Why--why," he said, hesitating, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "You see I'm thinking of giving up the little hospital."

"Giving it up?"

"You see, the people at the book store where I buy my pamphlets have found out--I told them of my contrivance for binding books, and one of the members of the firm came up to look at it. He offered me quite a sum if I would sell him the right of it--the--patent of it--quite a sum. In fact-- in fact--yes, quite a sum, quite." He rubbed his chin tremulously and looked about him on the floor.

"Why, isn't that fine?" said Trina, good-naturedly. "I'm very glad, Mister Grannis. Is it a good price?"

"Quite a sum--quite. In fact, I never dreamed of having so much money."

"Now, see here, Mister Grannis," said Trina, decisively, "I want to give you a good piece of advice. Here are you and Miss Baker----" The old Englishman started nervously--"You and Miss Baker, that have been in love with each other for----"

"Oh, Mrs. McTeague, that subject--if you would please--Miss Baker is such an estimable lady."

"Fiddlesticks!" said Trina. "You're in love with each other, and the whole flat knows it; and you two have been living here side by side year in and year out, and you've never said a word to each other. It's all nonsense. Now, I want you should go right in and speak to her just as soon as she comes home, and say you've come into money and you want her to marry you."

"Impossible--impossible!" exclaimed the old Englishman, alarmed and perturbed. "It's quite out of the question. I wouldn't presume."

"Well, do you love her, or not?"

"Really, Mrs. McTeague, I--I--you must excuse me. It's a matter so personal--so--I--Oh, yes, I love her. Oh, yes, indeed," he exclaimed, suddenly.

"Well, then, she loves you. She told me so."

"Oh!"

"She did. She said those very words."

Miss Baker had said nothing of the kind--would have died sooner than have made such a confession; but Trina had drawn her own conclusions, like every other lodger of the flat, and thought the time was come for decided action.

"Now you do just as I tell you, and when she comes home, go right in and see her, and have it over with. Now, don't say another word. I'm going; but you do just as I tell you."

Trina turned about and went down-stairs. She had decided, since Miss Baker was not at home, that she would run over and see Maria; possibly she could have lunch there. At any rate, Maria would offer her a cup of tea.

Old Grannis stood for a long time just as Trina had left him, his hands trembling, the blood coming and going in his withered cheeks.

"She said, she--she--she told her--she said that--that----" he could get no farther.

Then he faced about and entered his room, closing the door behind him. For a long time he sat in his armchair, drawn close to the wall in front of the table on which stood his piles of pamphlets and his little binding apparatus.

"I wonder," said Trina, as she crossed the yard back of Zerkow's house, "I wonder what rent Zerkow and Maria pay for this place. I'll bet it's cheaper than where Mac and I are."

Trina found Maria sitting in front of the kitchen stove, her chin upon her breast. Trina went up to her. She was dead. And as Trina touched her shoulder, her head rolled sideways and showed a fearful gash in her throat under her ear. All the front of her dress was soaked through and through.

Trina backed sharply away from the body, drawing her hands up to her very shoulders, her eyes staring and wide, an expression of unutterable horror twisting her face.

"Oh-h-h!" she exclaimed in a long breath, her voice hardly rising above a whisper. "Oh-h, isn't that horrible!" Suddenly she turned and fled through the front part of the house to the street door, that opened upon the little alley. She looked wildly about her. Directly across the way a butcher's boy was getting into his two-wheeled cart drawn up in front of the opposite house, while near by a peddler of wild game was coming down the street, a brace of ducks in his hand.

"Oh, say--say," gasped Trina, trying to get her voice, "say, come over here quick."

The butcher's boy paused, one foot on the wheel, and stared. Trina beckoned frantically.

"Come over here, come over here quick."

The young fellow swung himself into his seat.

"What's the matter with that woman?" he said, half aloud.

"There's a murder been done," cried Trina, swaying in the doorway.

The young fellow drove away, his head over his shoulder, staring at Trina with eyes that were fixed and absolutely devoid of expression.

"What's the matter with that woman?" he said again to himself as he turned the corner.

Trina wondered why she didn't scream, how she could keep from it--how, at such a moment as this, she could remember that it was improper to make a disturbance and create a scene in the street. The peddler of wild game was looking at her suspiciously. It would not do to tell him. He would go away like the butcher's boy.

"Now, wait a minute," Trina said to herself, speaking aloud. She put her hands to her head. "Now, wait a minute. It won't do for me to lose my wits now. What must I do?" She looked about her. There was the same familiar aspect of Polk Street. She could see it at the end of the alley. The big market opposite the flat, the delivery carts rattling up and down, the great ladies from the avenue at their morning shopping, the cable cars trundling past, loaded with passengers. She saw a little boy in a flat leather cap whistling and calling for an unseen dog, slapping his small knee from time to time. Two men came out of Frenna's saloon, laughing heartily. Heise the harness-maker stood in the vestibule of his shop, a bundle of whittlings in his apron of greasy ticking. And all this was going on, people were laughing and living, buying and selling, walking about out there on the sunny sidewalks, while behind her in there --in there--in there----

Heise started back from the sudden apparition of a white- lipped woman in a blue dressing-gown that seemed to rise up before him from his very doorstep.

"Well, Mrs. McTeague, you did scare me, for----"

"Oh, come over here quick." Trina put her hand to her neck; swallowing something that seemed to be choking her. "Maria's killed--Zerkow's wife--I found her."

"Get out!" exclaimed Heise, "you're joking."

"Come over here--over into the house--I found her--she's dead."

Heise dashed across the street on the run, with Trina at his heels, a trail of spilled whittlings marking his course. The two ran down the alley. The wild-game peddler, a woman who had been washing down the steps in a neighboring house, and a man in a broad-brimmed hat stood at Zerkow's doorway, looking in from time to time, and talking together. They seemed puzzled.

"Anything wrong in here?" asked the wild-game peddler as Heise and Trina came up. Two more men stopped on the corner of the alley and Polk Street and looked at the group. A woman with a towel round her head raised a window opposite Zerkow's house and called to the woman who had been washing the steps, "What is it, Mrs. Flint?"

Heise was already inside the house. He turned to Trina, panting from his run.

"Where did you say--where was it--where?"

"In there," said Trina, "farther in--the next room." They burst into the kitchen.

"Lord!" ejaculated Heise, stopping a yard or so from the body, and bending down to peer into the gray face with its brown lips.

"By God! he's killed her."

"Who?"

"Zerkow, by God! he's killed her. Cut her throat. He always said he would."

"Zerkow?"

"He's killed her. Her throat's cut. Good Lord, how she did bleed! By God! he's done for her in good shape this time."

"Oh, I told her--I told her," cried Trina.

"He's done for her sure this time."

"She said she could always manage--Oh-h! It's horrible."

"He's done for her sure this trip. Cut her throat. Lord, how she has bled! Did you ever see so much-- that's murder--that's cold-blooded murder. He's killed her. Say, we must get a policeman. Come on."

They turned back through the house. Half a dozen people-- the wild-game peddler, the man with the broad-brimmed hat, the washwoman, and three other men--were in the front room of the junk shop, a bank of excited faces surged at the door. Beyond this, outside, the crowd was packed solid from one end of the alley to the other. Out in Polk Street the cable cars were nearly blocked and were bunting a way slowly through the throng with clanging bells. Every window had its group. And as Trina and the harness-maker tried to force the way from the door of the junk shop the throng suddenly parted right and left before the passage of two blue-coated policemen who clove a passage through the press, working their elbows energetically. They were accompanied by a third man in citizen's clothes.

Heise and Trina went back into the kitchen with the two policemen, the third man in citizen's clothes cleared the intruders from the front room of the junk shop and kept the crowd back, his arm across the open door.

"Whew!" whistled one of the officers as they came out into the kitchen, "cutting scrape? By George! Somebody's been using his knife all right." He turned to the other officer. "Better get the wagon. There's a box on the second corner south. Now, then," he continued, turning to Trina and the harness-maker and taking out his note-book and pencil, "I want your names and addresses."

It was a day of tremendous excitement for the entire street. Long after the patrol wagon had driven away, the crowd remained. In fact, until seven o'clock that evening groups collected about the door of the junk shop, where a policeman stood guard, asking all manner of questions, advancing all manner of opinions.

"Do you think they'll get him?" asked Ryer of the policeman. A dozen necks craned forward eagerly.

"Hoh, we'll get him all right, easy enough," answered the other, with a grand air.

"What? What's that? What did he say?" asked the people on the outskirts of the group. Those in front passed the answer back.

"He says they'll get him all right, easy enough."

The group looked at the policeman admiringly.

"He's skipped to San Jose."

Where the rumor started, and how, no one knew. But every one seemed persuaded that Zerkow had gone to San Jose.

"But what did he kill her for? Was he drunk?"

"No, he was crazy, I tell you--crazy in the head. Thought she was hiding some money from him."

Frenna did a big business all day long. The murder was the one subject of conversation. Little parties were made up in his saloon--parties of twos and threes--to go over and have a look at the outside of the junk shop. Heise was the most important man the length and breadth of Polk Street; almost invariably he accompanied these parties, telling again and again of the part he had played in the affair.

"It was about eleven o'clock. I was standing in front of the shop, when Mrs. McTeague--you know, the dentist's wife-- came running across the street," and so on and so on.

The next day came a fresh sensation. Polk Street read of it in the morning papers. Towards midnight on the day of the murder Zerkow's body had been found floating in the bay near Black Point. No one knew whether he had drowned himself or fallen from one of the wharves. Clutched in both his hands was a sack full of old and rusty pans, tin dishes--fully a hundred of them--tin cans, and iron knives and forks, collected from some dump heap.

"And all this," exclaimed Trina, "on account of a set of gold dishes that never existed."

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