Grit was dead. There was no mistake about that. And on the very day of his burial temptation came to his widow.
Grit's widow was "Great" Taylor, whose inadequate first name was Nell—a young, immaculate creature whose body was splendid even if her vision and spirit were small. She never had understood Grit.
Returning from the long, wearisome ride, she climbed the circular iron staircase—up through parallels of garlic-scented tenement gloom—to her three-room flat, neat as a pin; but not even then did she give way to tears. Tears! No man could make Great Taylor weep!
However, drawing the pins from her straw hat, dyed black for the occasion, she admitted, "It ain't right." Grit had left her nothing, absolutely nothing, but an unpleasant memory of himself—his grimy face and hands, his crooked nose and baggy breeches…. And Great Taylor was willing that every thought of him should leave her forever. "Grit's gone," she told herself. "I ain't going to think of him any more."
Determinedly Great Taylor put some things to soak and, closing down the top of the stationary washtubs, went to the window. The view was not intriguing, and yet she hung there: roofs and more roofs, a countless number reached out toward infinity, with pebbles and pieces of broken glass glittering in the sunlight; chimneys sharply outlined by shadow; and on every roof, except one, clothes-lines, from which white cotton and linen flapped in the wind at the side of faded overalls and red woollen shirts. They formed a kind of flag—these red, white, and blue garments flying in the breeze high above a nation of toilers. But Great Taylor's only thought was, "It's Monday."
One roof, unlike the rest, displayed no such flag—a somewhat notorious "garden" and dance hall just around the corner.
And adjacent to this house was a vacant lot on which Great Taylor could see a junk-cart waiting, and perhaps wondering what had become of its master.
She turned her eyes away. "I ain't going to think of him." Steadying her chin in the palms of her hands, elbows on the window-sill, Nell peered down upon a triangular segment of chaotic street. Massed humanity overflowed the sidewalks and seemed to bend beneath the weight of sunlight upon their heads and shoulders. A truck ploughed a furrow through push-carts that rolled back to the curb like a wave crested with crude yellow, red, green, and orange merchandise. She caught the hum of voices, many tongues mingling, while the odours of vegetables and fruit and human beings came faintly to her nostrils. She was looking down upon one of the busiest streets of the city that people sometimes call the Devil's Own.
Grit had wrested an existence from the débris of this city. Others have waded ankle-deep in the crowd; but he, a grimy, infinitesimal molecule, had been at the bottom wholly submerged, where the light of idealism is not supposed to penetrate. Grit had been a junkman; his business address—a vacant lot; his only asset—a junk-cart across the top of which he had strung a belt of jingling, jangling bells that had called through the cavernous streets more plainly than Grit himself: "Rags, old iron, bottles, and ra-ags."
This had been Grit's song; perhaps the only one he had known, for he had shoved that blest cart of his since a boy of thirteen; he had worn himself as threadbare as the clothes on his back, and at last the threads had snapped. He had died of old age—in his thirties. And his junk-cart, with its bells, stood, silent and unmanned, upon the vacant lot just around the corner.
Great Taylor had seen Grit pass along this narrow segment of street, visible from her window; but his flight had always been swift—pushing steadily with head bent, never looking up. And so it was not during his hours of toil that she had known him….
Nell closed the window. She was not going to think of him any more. "Ain't worth a thought." But everything in the room reminded her of the man. He had furnished it from his junk-pile. The drawer was missing from the centre table, the door of the kitchen stove was wired at the hinges; even the black marble clock, with its headless gilt figure, and the brown tin boxes marked "Coffee," "Bread," and "Sugar"—all were junk. And these were the things that Grit, not without a show of pride, had brought home to her!
Nell sank into a large armchair (with one rung gone) and glowered at an earthen jug on the shelf. Grit had loved molasses. Every night he had spilt amber drops of it on the table, and his plate had always been hard to wash. "Won't have that to do any more," sighed Nell. Back of the molasses jug, just visible, were the tattered pages of a coverless book. This had come to Grit together with fifty pounds of waste paper in gunny-sacks; and though Nell had never undergone the mental torture of informing herself as to its contents, she had dubbed the book "Grit's Bible," for he had pawed over it, spelling out the words, every night for years. It was one thing from which she could not wash Grit's grimy fingermarks, and so she disliked it even more than the sticky molasses jug. "Him and his book and his brown molasses jug!" One was gone forever, and soon she would get rid of the other two.
And yet, even as she thought this, her eyes moved slowly to the door, and she could not help visualizing Grit as he had appeared every evening at dusk. His baggy breeches had seemed always to precede him into the room. The rest of him would follow—his thin shoulders, from which there hung a greenish coat, frayed at the sleeves; above this, his long, collarless neck, his pointed chin and broken nose, that leaned toward the hollow and smudges of his cheek.
He would lock the door quickly and stand there, looking at Nell.
"Why did he always lock the door?" mused Great Taylor. "Nothing here to steal! Why'd he stand there like that?" Every night she had expected him to say something, but he never did. Instead, he would take a long breath, almost like a sigh, and, after closing his eyes for a moment, he would move into the room and light the screeching gas-jet. "Never thought of turning down the gas." This, particularly, was a sore point with Great Taylor. "Never thought of anything. Just dropped into the best chair."
"It's a good chair, Nell," he would say, "only one rung missing." And he would remain silent, drooping there, wrists crossed in his lap, palms turned upward, fingers curled, until supper had been placed before him on the table. "Fingers bent like claws," muttered Great Taylor, "and doing nothing while I set the table."
Sometimes he would eat enormously, which irritated Nell; sometimes he would eat nothing except bread and molasses, which irritated Nell even more. "A good molasses jug," he would say; "got it for a dime. Once I set a price I'm a stone wall; never give in." This was his one boast, his stock phrase. After using it he would look up at his wife for a word of approval; and as the word of approval was never forthcoming, he would repeat: "Nell, I'm a stone wall; never give in."
After supper he would ask what she had been doing all day. A weary, almost voiceless, man, he had told her nothing. But Great Taylor while washing the dishes would rattle off everything that had happened since that morning. She seldom omitted any important detail, for she knew by experience that Grit would sit there, silent, wrists crossed and palms turned up, waiting. He had always seemed to know when she had left anything out, and she always ended by telling him. Then he would take a long breath, eyes closed, and, after fumbling back of the molasses jug, would soon be seated again beneath the streaming gas-jet spelling to himself the words of his coverless book.
So vivid was the picture, the personality and routine of Grit, that Great Taylor felt the awe with which he, at times, had inspired her. She had been afraid of Grit—afraid to do anything she could not tell him about; afraid not to tell him about everything she had done. But now she determined: "I'll do what I please." And the first thing it pleased Great Taylor to do was to get rid of the odious molasses jug.
She plucked it from the shelf, holding the sticky handle between two fingers, and dropped it into the peach crate that served as a waste-basket. The noise when the jug struck the bottom of the crate startled her. Great Taylor stood there—listening. Someone was slowly ascending the circular staircase. The woman could hear a footfall on the iron steps.
"Grit's gone," she reassured herself. "I'll do what I please."
She reached for the grimy book, "Grit's Bible," the most offensive article in the room, and with sudden determination tore the book in two, and was about to throw the defaced volume into the basket along with the earthen jug when fear arrested the motion of her hands. Her lips parted. She was afraid to turn her head. The door back of her had opened.
Great Taylor was only ordinarily superstitious. She had buried Grit that morning. It was still broad daylight—early afternoon. And yet when she turned, clutching the torn book, she fully expected to see a pair of baggy breeches preceding a collarless, long-necked man with a broken nose, and smudges in the hollows of his cheeks.
Instead, she wheeled to see a pair of fastidiously pressed blue serge trousers, an immaculate white collar, a straight nose and ruddy complexion. In fact, the man seemed the exact opposite of Grit. Nell glanced at the open door, back at the man, exhaled tremulously with relief, and breathed: "Why didn't you knock?"
"Sorry if I startled you," puffed the man, entirely winded by the six flights. "Must have pushed the wrong button in the vestibule. No great harm done."
"Who are you? What you want?"
"Junk. That's one of the things I came to see about—the junk in back of my place. I suppose it's for sale." He thrust his white hands into the side pockets of his coat, pulling the coat snugly around his waist and hips, and smiled amiably at Great Taylor's patent surprise.
"You!…. Buy Grit's junk business!" What did he want with junk? He was clean! From head to foot he was clean! His hair was parted. It was not only parted, it was brushed into a wave, with ends pointing stiffly up over his temples (a coiffure affected by bartenders of that day); and Nell even detected the pleasant fragrance of pomade. "You ain't a junkman."
The man laughed. "I don't know about that."
He studied her a moment in silence. Nell was leaning back against the washtubs, her sleeves rolled up, her head tilted quizzically, lips parted, while tints of colour ebbed and flowed in her throat and cheeks. She had attained the ripeness of womanhood and very nearly animal perfection. The man's attitude might have told her this. One of his eyes, beneath a permanently cocked eyebrow, blinked like the shutter of a camera and seemed to take intimate photographs of all parts of her person. The other eye looked at her steadily from under a drooping lid. "No," he said, after the pause of a moment, "I'm not going into the junk business." But he wanted to get the rubbish away from the back of his place. "I'll buy it and have it carted away. It's too near the 'Garden.'" He rocked up on his toes and clicked his heels gently. "I own the house just around the corner."
"I knew it," Nell murmured fatuously. The man was vaguely familiar, even though she could not remember having seen him before.
"Set your price." He turned away, and Nell imagined that his camera-like eye was taking instantaneous photographs of all the broken and mended things in the immaculate room. A wave of hot blood made her back prickle and dyed her throat crimson.
"I don't like rubbish," said the man. "I don't like junk."
"Who does?" stammered Great Taylor.
"You dislike junk, and yet there was your husband, a junkman." He watched her narrowly from beneath his drooping eyelid.
Great Taylor was not of the noblesse, nor did she know the meaning of noblesse oblige; and had she been a man, perhaps she would have denied her former lord and master—once, twice, or even thrice—it has been done; but being a woman, she said: "Leave Grit out of it."
This seemed to please the man from around the corner. "I think we are going to get on," he said significantly. "But you must remember that Grit can't take care of you any longer."
"Grit's gone," assented Nell; "gone for good."
"Uhm." The man allowed his singular eyes to move over her. "I think we can arrange something. I've seen you pass my place, looking in; and I had something in mind when I started up here—something aside from junk. I could make a place over there—matron or cashier. How would you like that—cashier at the Garden?" He rocked up on his toes and clicked his heels quite audibly.
"I don't know anything about it."
"You'll soon learn," he was confident. He mentioned the salary, and that a former cashier was now half owner of an uptown place. And for half an hour Great Taylor's saturnine mind followed in the wake of his smoothly flowing words.
Why couldn't Grit have talked like that? she kept asking herself. Grit never said anything. Why couldn't he been clean like that, with hair brushed into a curl that sat up like that? … The man's words gradually slipped far beyond her, and only his pleasant voice accompanied her own thoughts. No reason why she shouldn't be cashier at the Garden. Only one reason, anyway, and that wasn't any reason at all….
On an afternoon more than a year ago she had gone to the place around the corner. She had told Grit all about it, and Grit had said in his weary voice, "Don't never go again, Nell." She had argued with Grit. The Garden wasn't wicked; nothing the matter with it; other people went there of an afternoon; she liked the music…. And Grit had listened, drooping in his chair, wrists crossed and palms turned upward. Finally, when Nell had finished, he had repeated, "Don't go again." He had not argued, for Grit never argued; he was always too weary. But this had been one of his longest speeches. He had ended: "The Devil himself owns that place. I ought to know, my junkyard's right back of it." And he had closed his eyes and taken a long, deep breath. "When I say a thing, Nell, I'm a stone wall. You can't go there again—now or never." And that had settled it, for Great Taylor had been afraid of Grit. But now Grit was dead; gone for good. She would do as she pleased….
When she looked up the man had stopped talking. He glanced at the clock.
"What time?" murmured Great Taylor.
"Five," said the man from just around the corner.
Nell nodded her head and watched as the man's fastidiously pressed trousers and polished shoes cleared the closing door. Nell immediately went to the looking-glass—a cracked little mirror that hung by the mantelpiece—and studied the reflection of herself with newly awakened interest. She had never seemed so radiant—her smooth hair, her lineless face, her large gray eyes and perfect throat. "I ain't so bad looking," she admitted. Grit had never made her feel this way. And again she asked herself why he could not have been clean like the man from around the corner.
She rehearsed all that had been said. She thought of the salary the man had mentioned, and made calculations. It was more than Grit had averaged for the two of them to live on. With prodigal fancy she spent the money and with new-born thrift she placed it in bank. Limited only by her small knowledge of such things, she revelled in a dream of affluence and luxury which was only dissipated when gradually she became conscious that throughout the past hour she had been clinging to a grimy, coverless book.
Damp finger-prints were upon the outer leaves, and the pages adhered to her moistened hand. She loosened her grip, and the book opened to a particularly soiled page on which a line had been underscored with a thick red mark. Dully, Great Taylor read the line, spelling out the words; but it conveyed nothing to her intellect. It was the fighting phrase of a famous soldier: "I have drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard."
"What does that mean?" she mumbled. Her eyes wandered to the top of the page, where in larger type was the title: "Life of 'STONEWALL' JACKSON." "Stonewall," repeated Nell. "Stonewall!" The word had the potency to bring vividly before her Grit's drooping, grimy form. Her ears rang with his ridiculous boast. His voice seemed no longer low and weary. "When I say a thing … stone wall. Can't go there again—now or never." Great Taylor mumbled disparagingly, "He got it from a book!" And again she read the fighting phrase of Grit's hero: "I have drawn the sword and thrown away the scabbard." "Can't mean Grit," she mused. "He never threw away anything…." And she tossed his desecrated Bible toward the peach crate; but missing its aim, the book slid along the floor with a slight rustle, almost like a sigh, and struck the chair-board behind the washtubs, where it lay limp and forgotten.
Back of Nell the clock struck the half hour, and she turned quickly, her heart thumping with the fear of being late. But the hour was only three thirty. "Plenty time." She gazed at the broken clock. "A good clock," Grit used to say; "keeps time and only cost a quarter." "Stone wall!… Humph!…"
Nell transformed the washtubs into a bath by the removal of the centre partition, and within an hour was bathed and dressed. Sticking the pins through her straw hat, dyed black, she took from the bottom drawer of the cupboard a patent-leather hand-bag with colourful worsted fruit embroidered upon its shining sides. She thought of the night Grit had brought it home to her, his pride—he had bought it at a store. But a glance around the room obliterated this memory, and she mumbled, "Wish I warn't never, never going to see this place again! Wait till I get money…." She glared at the broken furniture, each piece of which brought back some memory of the man. She could see him drooping in the armchair, with his wrists crossed, fingers curled. She glared at the shelf and imagined him fumbling for something that was not there. She started for the door, then, turning back, reached into the peach crate. "There! Keep your old molasses jug!" she said, in a dry voice, and, replacing the jug on the shelf, she went out into the hall.
Winding down through the tenement-house gloom, Great Taylor was not without fear. Her footfall on the uncarpeted landings and iron treads sounded hollow and strangely loud. The odours that in the past had greeted her familiarly, making known absorbing domestic details of her neighbours, caused her neither to pause nor to sniff. She reached the narrow entrance hall, dark and deserted, and, hurrying down its length, fumbled with the knob and pulled open the street door. Dazzling sunlight, a blast of warm air and the confused clatter of the sidewalk engulfed her. She stood vacillating in the doorway, thinly panoplied for the struggle of existence. Her body was splendid, it is true, but her spirit was small. Despite the sunlight and warmth she was trembling. And yet, for years she had gone down into this street confident of herself, mingling on equal terms with its wayfarers, her ear catching and translating the sounds that, converging, caused this babel. Now, suddenly, all of it was meaningless, the peddlers with whom she had bickered and bargained in a loud voice with gestures, breast to breast, were strangers and the street an alien land. Many things seemed to have passed backward out of her life. She was no longer Grit's wife, no longer the Great Taylor of yesterday. She was something new-born, free of will; all the old ties had been clipped. She could do as she pleased. No one could stop her. And she pleased to become a denizen of a world which, though just around the corner, was unrelated to the sphere in which she had moved.
"What's the matter with me?" she asked herself. "Nothing to be afraid of. He's gone. I'll do as I please." With such assertions she bolstered her courage, but nevertheless she was trembling….
Glossy-haired women jostled her with their baskets. Taller by a head, Nell pushed her way oblivious of the crowd. At the corner she paused. "I ain't going to be early." A clock across the avenue, visible beneath the reverberating ironwork of the elevated, seemed to have stopped at the half hour. It was four thirty. She watched the long hand until it moved jerkily. A policeman, half dragging a shrieking woman and followed by a jostling, silent crowd, swept Great Taylor aside and put in a call for the wagon.
She hurriedly rounded the corner and passed a window that displayed a pyramid of varnished kegs backed by a mirror with a ram's head painted on it in colours. Beyond was the side entrance. Over the door hung a glass sign, one word in large red letters: "DANCING." She caught the odour of cheap wine and stale beer. Again she said, "I ain't going to be early," and moved away aimlessly.
Beyond the end of this building was a vacant lot and Great Taylor moved more swiftly with head averted. She had passed nearly to the next building before she stopped and wheeled around defiantly. "I ain't afraid to look," she said to herself and gazed across at Grit's junk-cart, with its string of bells, partly concealed back against the fence. It was standing in the shadow, silent, unmanned. She walked on for a few steps and turned again. The cart was standing as before, silent, unmanned. She stood there, hands on her hips, trying to visualize Grit drooping over the handle—his collarless neck, his grimy face and baggy breeches; but her imagination would not paint the picture. "Grit's gone for good," she said. "Why couldn't he been clean like other people, like the man that owns the Garden? No excuse for being dirty and always tired like that. Anybody could push it and keep clean, too—half clean, anyway." She slipped a glance at the clock. It stood at twenty minutes before the hour of her appointment. "A baby could push it…."
She picked her way across the vacant lot to the junk-cart and laid her hand upon the grimy handle. The thing moved. The strings of bells set up a familiar jingle. "Easy as a baby carriage!" And Great Taylor laughed. The cart reached the sidewalk, bumped down over the curb and pulling Great Taylor with it went beyond the centre of the street. She tried to turn back but a clanging trolley car cut in between her and the curb, a wheel of the junk-cart caught in the smooth steel track and skidded as if it were alive with a stupid will of its own. "It ain't so easy," she admitted. With a wrench she extracted the wheel, narrowly avoided an elevated post and crashed head on into a push-cart, laden with green bananas resting on straw. An Italian swore in two languages and separated the locked wheels.
Hurriedly Great Taylor shoved away from the fruit man and became pocketed in the traffic. Two heavy-hoofed horses straining against wet leather collars crowded her toward the curb and shortly the traffic became blocked. She looked for a means of escape and had succeeded in getting one wheel over the curb when a man touched her on the arm. "Someone is calling from the window up there," he said in a low weary voice like Grit's. Nell swung around, gasping, but the man had moved away down the sidewalk and a woman was calling to her from a second-story window.
"How much?" called the woman, waving a tin object that glinted in the sunlight. Great Taylor stared stupidly. "Clothes boiler," yelled the woman. "Fifty cents…. Just needs soldering." "What?" stammered Nell. "Fifty cents," shouted the woman in the window. And something prompted Great Taylor to reply, "Give you a dime."
"Quarter," insisted the woman. "Dime … Ten cents," repeated Great Taylor, somewhat red in the face. "Once I set a price I'm a …" But the woman's head had disappeared and her whole angular person soon slid out through the doorway. Entirely befogged, Great Taylor fumbled in her patent-leather bag with its worsted fruit, discovered two nickels, and placed the leaky boiler beside the rusty scales on the junk-cart.
"Ain't I got enough junk without that?" she grumbled. But the traffic of the Devil's Own city was moving again and Great Taylor was moving with it. She passed a corner where a clock in a drug store told her the time—ten minutes of the hour. "I got to get back," she told herself, and heading her cart determinedly for an opening succeeded in crossing to the opposite side of the congested avenue. There, a child, attracted by the jingling of the bells, ran out of a house with a bundle of rags tied in a torn blue apron. The child placed the bundle on the scales and watched with solemn wide eyes. Great Taylor again fumbled in the bag and extracted a coin which transformed the little girl into an India-rubber thing that bounced up and down on one foot at the side of the junk-cart. "Grit never gave me only a penny a pound," she cried.
"Grit is dead," said Great Taylor.
"Dead!" echoed the child, clinging motionless to the wheel. "Grit is dead?" She turned suddenly and ran toward the house, calling: "Mamma, poor old Grit is dead."
Great Taylor put her weight against the handle of the cart. She pushed on desperately. Something had taken hold of her throat. "What's the matter with me?" she choked. "Didn't I know he was dead before this? Didn't I know it all along? I ain't going to cry over no man … not in the street, anyway." She hurriedly shoved her cart around a corner into a less-congested thoroughfare and there a mammoth gilded clock at the edge of the sidewalk confronted her. The long hand moved with a sardonic jerk and indicated the hour—the hour of her appointment. But Great Taylor turned her eyes away. "Pushing a junk-cart ain't so easy," she said, and for a moment she stood there huddled over the handle; then, taking a long, deep breath, like Grit used to do, she straightened herself and sang out, clear and loud, above the noises of the cavernous street: "Rags … old iron … bottles and ra-ags."
The city that people call the Devil's Own lost its sharp outline and melted into neutral tints, gray and blue and lavender, that blended like an old, old tapestry. It was dusk. Great Taylor strode slowly with laborious long strides, her breast rising and falling, her body lengthening against the load, her hands gripping the handle of the cart, freighted with rusty, twisted, and broken things. At crossings she paused until the murmuring river of human beings divided to let her pass. Night settled upon the high roofs and dropped its shadow into the streets and alleys, and the windows began to glow. Light leaped out and streaked the sidewalks while at each corner it ran silently down from high globes like full moons and spattered over the curb into the gutter and out as far as the glistening car tracks. She passed blocks solid with human beings and blocks without a human soul. Cataracts of sound crashed down into the street now and again from passing elevated trains, and the noise, soon dissipated, left trembling silence like pools of sinister black water. She passed through stagnant odours and little eddies of perfume. She lifted her drooping head and saw a door open—the darkness was cut by a rectangle of soft yellow light, two figures were silhouetted, then the door closed. A gasolene torch flared above a fruit stand hard against the towering black windowless wall of a warehouse and a woman squatted in the shadow turning a handle. Nell pushed on past a cross street that glittered and flared from sidewalk to cornice, and at the next corner a single flickering gas-jet revealed a dingy vestibule with rows of tarnished speaking tubes….
The air became thick with noise and odours and the sidewalks swayed with people. Great Taylor slowly rounded a familiar corner, slackened the momentum of the junk-cart, and brought up squarely against the curb. Dragging the wheels, she gained the sidewalk and, beyond, the rims of the cart cut into soft earth. She crossed the vacant lot. A city's supercilious moon alone gave its half-light to the junkyard of Grit and here the woman unloaded the cart, carrying heavy unyielding things against her breast. She did not linger. She was trembling from fatigue and from emotions even more novel to her. She closed the gate without looking back at the weird crêpe-like shadows that draped themselves among the moonlit piles of twisted things. Nearing the corner, she glanced with dull eyes at a glaring red sign: "Dancing." Voices, laughter, and music after a kind came from the doorway, A man was singing. Great Taylor recognized the voice but did not pause. She was not to see the man from just around the corner again for many years.
Hurrying, without knowing why she hurried, Nell climbed the circular iron staircase up through parallels of odorous gloom and, entering her flat, closed the door and quickly locked it against the world outside—the toil, the bickering, the sneers, the insults and curses flung from alley gates and down upon her in the traffic of the Devil's Own city. She closed her eyes and took a long deep breath almost like a sigh. She was home. It was good to be home, but she lacked the words and was far too weary to express her emotions.
Lighting the gas she sank into a chair. What did it matter if the gas was screeching? She drooped there, hands in her lap, wrists crossed, palms turned upward and fingers curled stiffly like claws—from holding to the jarring handle of the junk-cart.
Presently she raised her eyes and glanced across at the shelf with its row of tin boxes marked "Bread," "Coffee," "Sugar." On the next shelf was Grit's molasses jug. She arose and fumbled behind this, but nothing was there—Grit's Bible was gone. Then she remembered, and striking a match placed her cheek to the floor and found the grimy book beneath the stationary washtubs. "Stone wall," she murmured, "Grit was a stone wall." At the mantelpiece she caught a glimpse of herself in the cracked little mirror, but she was too weary to care what she looked like, too weary to notice that her hair was matted, that grime and smudges made hollows in her cheeks, and that even her nose seemed crooked.
She sank again into the chair beneath the screeching gas-jet. "Grit," she repeated dully, "was a stone wall." And between very honest, tired, and lonely tears she began slowly to spell out the words of the coverless book, having gained within the past few hours some understanding of what it means in the battle of life to draw the sword and throw away the scabbard.
There came another afternoon, another evening, another year, and still another; but this narrative covers merely a part of two days—Great Taylor's first and last as a junk-woman. The latter came nearly ten years after the burial of Grit. For almost a decade Nell followed in his grimy footprints and the polyglot people of the lower East Side, looking down from their windows as she passed through the congested streets pushing steadily with head bent, thought of her either as an infinitesimal molecule at the bottom of the mass where the light of idealism seldom penetrates or else as a female Colossus striding from end to end of the Devil's Own city only ankle-deep in the débris from which she wrested an existence. But to Great Taylor it seemed not to matter what people thought. She sang her song through the cavernous streets, the only song she knew: "Rags, old iron, bottles, and ra-ags." She pounded with a huge, determined fist on alley gates, she learned expertly to thread the traffic and to laugh at the teamsters, their oaths, their curses. "They ain't so bad." And, finally, bickering and bargaining with men of all classes, she came to wonder why people called this the Devil's Own city. In all those years of toil she did not once see him in the eyes of men. But there came the day when she said, "I'm done."
On this day Great Taylor lifted the end of a huge kitchen range against two struggling members of the other sex. A pain shot through her breast, but she carried her part of the dead weight, saying nothing, and, at high noon, pushed her jingling, jangling cart through streets sharply outlined with sunlight and shadow to a dilapidated brick warehouse that, long since, had taken the place of Grit's junk-yard.
There, in the interior gloom of the shabby old building, could be seen piles of broken, twisted, and rusty things—twisted iron rods, broken cam-shafts, cog wheels with missing teeth, springs that had lost their elasticity—a miniature mountain of scrap iron each piece of which at some time had been a part of some smoothly working machine. In another pile were discarded household utensils—old pots and pans and burnt-out kettles, old stoves through the linings of which the flames had eaten and the rust had gnawed. There were other hillocks and mountains with shadowy valleys between—a mountain of waste paper, partly baled, partly stuffed into bursting bags of burlap, partly loose and scattered over the grimy floor; a hill of rags, all colours fading into sombre shadows…. And in the midst of these mountains and valleys of junk sat Great Taylor upon her dilapidated throne.
She drooped there over an old coverless book, spelling out the words and trying to forget the pain that was no longer confined to her breast. From shoulder to hip molten slag pulsed slowly through her veins and great drops of sweat moved from her temples and made white-bottomed rivulets among the smudges of her cheeks. "I'm done," she mumbled, closing Grit's book. "I got a right to quit. I got a right to be idle like other people…."
Raising her head she appraised the piles that surrounded her. "All this stuff!" It had to be disposed of. She lifted herself from the creaking chair and, finding a pot of black paint and a board, laboured over this latter for a time. "I could get rid of it in a week," she mused. But she was done—done for good. "I ain't going to lay a hand on the cart again!" She studied the sign she had painted, and spelled out the crooked letters: "M A n WAnTeD." It would take a man a month, maybe more, she reckoned, adding: "Grit could done it in no time." She moved to the arched door of the warehouse and hung the sign outside in the sunlight against an iron shutter and for a moment stood there blinking. Despite the sunlight and warmth she was trembling, the familiar noises were a babel to her ears; the peddlers with their carts piled high with fruits and vegetables and colourful merchandise seemed like strangers; the glossy-haired women with baskets seemed to be passing backward out of her life, and the street was suddenly an alien land. "What's the matter with me?" she asked herself.
Returning to the interior gloom of the warehouse, she looked down upon the old junk-cart. The string of bells was the only part of it that had not been renewed twice, thrice, a number of times since Grit had left it standing on the vacant lot. "Guess I'll save the bells," she decided.
The rest she would destroy. Nobody else was going to use it—nobody. She cast about for an adequate instrument of destruction, an axe or sledge, and remembering a piece of furnace grate upon the farther pile of junk, made her way slowly into the deepening shadows.
There, at the foot of the rusty mountain of scrap iron, Great Taylor stood irresolute, straining her eyes to pierce the gloom. She had not seen any one enter; and yet, standing beyond the pile with white hands stabbing the bottom of his pockets, was a man. She could not remember having seen him before, and yet he was vaguely familiar. One eye looked at her steadily from beneath a drooping lid, the other blinked like the shutter of a camera and seemed to take intimate photographs of all parts of her grimy person. His sleek hair was curled over his temples with ends pointing up, and she caught, or imagined, the fragrance of pomade.
"What do you want?" she breathed, allowing the heavy piece of iron to sink slowly to her side.
"Sit down," said the man. "Let's talk things over."
Great Taylor sank into a broken armchair, her huge calloused hands rested in her lap, wrists crossed, palms turned upward, fingers stiffly curled. "I know who you are," she mumbled, leaning forward and peering through the half-light. "What do you want?"
"You hung out a sign…."
"You ain't the man I expected."
"No?" He rocked up on his toes and made a gesture that indicated the piles of junk. "You're done."
"I'm done," assented Great Taylor. "I ain't going to lay a hand on the cart again. Ten years…."
"Uhm. You have a right to the things that other women have. But…." He glanced around the dingy warehouse. "Is this all you have for your ten years?"
Great Taylor made no reply.
"It isn't much," said the man.
"It's something," said Great Taylor.
"Not enough to live on."
"Not enough to live on," she echoed. "But I can't go on working. I can't go on alone. The cart's too heavy to push alone. I'm done." She drooped there.
"I think we can arrange something." For a moment the man was silent, his queer eyes moving over her body. "I had something in mind when I entered—something aside from junk. I could make a place for you. I'll do better than that. With this rubbish you buy a half share in one of my places and sit all day with your hands folded. You can make more in a week than you ever made in a year…." His voice flowed smoothly on until Great Taylor raised her head.
"I didn't come ten years ago."
The man laughed. "Who cares how you make your money? Do you know what people say when they hear you calling through the streets? They say, 'It's nothing, it's only Great Taylor.' And do you know what they think when they look down upon you and your junk-cart? They think of you just as you used to think of Grit…."
She staggered to her feet. "You leave Grit out of it!" For ten years a sentence had been pulsing through her mind. "Get out!" she cried, "Grit warn't dirty underneath!" The pain in her breast choked her and stopped her short as she moved threateningly toward him. The piece of iron fell heavily to the floor.
"Who sees underneath?" came the voice of the man.
"Grit," she moaned, "Grit sees underneath." And she hurled her tortured body forward, striking at him with her fists. She fell upon the pile of scrap iron. Each heave of her breast was a sob. She struggled to her feet and glared around her. But the man was not there.
Moaning, she sank into the armchair. "What's the matter with me? There warn't nobody here! He warn't here. No man could stay the same for ten years." The piles of junk seemed slowly to revolve around her. "What's the matter with me?" she asked again. "Ain't I got a right?…"
"Of course you have a right to the things you want." From the top of the hill of rags came his voice. It brought Great Taylor to her feet, sobbing. But the pain in her side, more fearful than ever, held her motionless.
"Wash away the ugly grime of toil," said the voice. "You're less than forty. You're a woman. You can have the things that other women have."
"I got more than some women," she cried. "I'm clean—I'm clean underneath." She stumbled toward him but again sank to the floor. She tried to spring up. Her will sprang up, for her spirit at last was splendid even if her body was weak. It dragged her up from the floor. And now she could see him all around her—on top the hill of rags, on top the mountain of iron, amid the bursting bags of waste paper—blinking down as he sat enthroned upon the débris—the twisted, broken, discarded things of the city that people call the Devil's Own. "These are mine!" he called. "And you belong to the débris. You are one of the broken, useless things." From all points he moved toward her. She could no longer fight him off. There was no escape. "Grit," she cried, "Grit, you can stop him. You … you was a stone wall…."
Stumbling back, her hand struck a familiar object. There was a tinkle of bells. She wheeled around, and there in the shadows of the dilapidated old warehouse someone was drooping over the handle of the junk-cart—a collarless man with baggy breeches and a nose that leaned toward the smudges and hollows of his cheek. He was striving to move the cart. "Not alone," cried Great Taylor. "You can't do it alone! But we can do it together!" She took hold of the handle. The thing moved. "Easy as a baby carriage," she laughed. "We should always done it together…."
Out of the gloom, through the arched doorway into the sunlight moved the cart with its jingling, jangling bells. Glossy-haired women with their baskets made way for it and the cart bumped down over the curb. Teamsters drew aside their heavy-hoofed horses. Peddlers rolled their push-carts back to the curb.
"The street opens when we work together," laughed Great Taylor.
"Who is she talking to?" asked the people.
"Talking to herself," the ignorant replied.
"And why is she looking up like that?"
"Looking for junk."
"And why does she laugh?" they asked.
"Who knows? Who knows? Perhaps she's happy."
A song burst from her throat: "Rags," she sang, "old iron … bottles, and ra-ags…."
People inside their houses heard her song and the bells of her cart. "It's nothing," they laughed, "it's only Great Taylor." A woman came to a window and waved an object that glinted in the sunlight. "How much?" she called down. But Great Taylor seemed not to hear. A child ran out with a bundle in her arms. "Rags," called the child, then stepped back out of the way, wondering. Great Taylor was passing on. An elevated train sent down a cataract of noise, but her song rose above it: "Rags … old iron…." And when she reached the avenue a policeman with a yellow emblematic wheel embroidered on his sleeve held up his hand and stopped the traffic of the Devil's Own city to let Great Taylor pass.
And so, like a female Colossus, she strode slowly across the city, her head tilted, her eyes looking up from the cavernous streets—up beyond the lofty roofs of houses, her voice becoming fainter and fainter: "Rags … old iron … bottles and ra-ags …" until the God of those who fall fighting in the battle of life reached down and, drawing the sword, threw away the scabbard.
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