Story type: Literature
AFTER being dead twenty years, he walked out into the sunshine.
It was as if the bones of a bleached skeleton should join themselves on some forgotten plain, and look about them for the vanished flesh.
To be dead it is not necessary to be in the grave. There are places where the worms creep about the heart instead of the body.
The penitentiary is one of these. David Culross had been in the penitentiary twenty years. Now, with that worm-eaten heart, he came out into liberty and looked about him for the habiliments with which he had formerly clothed himself,–for hope, self-respect, courage, pugnacity, and industry.
But they had vanished and left no trace, like the flesh of the dead men on the plains, and so, morally unapparelled, in the hideous skeleton of his manhood, he walked on down the street under the mid-June sunshine.
You can understand, can you not, how a skeleton might wish to get back into its comfortable grave? David Culross had not walked two blocks before he was seized with an almost uncontrollable desire to beg to be shielded once more in that safe and shameful retreat from which he had just been released. A horrible perception of the largeness of the world swept over him. Space and eternity could seem no larger to the usual man than earth–that snug and insignificant planet–looked to David Culross.
“If I go back,” he cried, despairingly, looking up to the great building that arose above the stony hills, “they will not take me in.” He was absolutely without a refuge, utterly without a destination; he did not have a hope. There was nothing he desired except the surrounding of those four narrow walls between which he had lain at night and dreamed those ever-recurring dreams,–dreams which were never prophecies or promises, but always the hackneyed history of what he had sacrificed by his crime, and relinquished by his pride.
The men who passed him looked at him with mingled amusement and pity. They knew the “prison look,” and they knew the prison clothes. For though the State gives to its discharged convicts clothes which are like those of other men, it makes a hundred suits from the same sort of cloth. The police know the fabric, and even the citizens recognize it. But, then, were each man dressed in different garb he could not be disguised. Every one knows in what dull school that sidelong glance is learned, that aimless drooping of the shoulders, that rhythmic lifting of the heavy foot.
David Culross wondered if his will were dead. He put it to the test. He lifted up his head to a position which it had not held for many miserable years. He put his hands in his pockets in a pitiful attempt at nonchalance, and walked down the street with a step which was meant to be brisk, but which was in fact only uncertain. In his pocket were ten dollars. This much the State equips a man with when it sends him out of its penal halls. It gives him also transportation to any point within reasonable distance that he may desire to reach. Culross had requested a ticket to Chicago. He naturally said Chicago. In the long colorless days it had been in Chicago that all those endlessly repeated scenes had been laid. Walking up the street now with that wavering ineffectual gait, these scenes came back to surge in his brain like waters ceaselessly tossed in a wind-swept basin.
There was the office, bare and clean, where the young stoop-shouldered clerks sat writing. In their faces was a strange resemblance, just as there was in the backs of the ledgers, and in the endless bills on the spindles. If one of them laughed, it was not with gayety, but with gratification at the discomfiture of another. None of them ate well. None of them were rested after sleep. All of them rode on the stuffy one-horse cars to and from their work. Sundays they lay in bed very late, and ate more dinner than they could digest. There was a certain fellowship among them,–such fellowship as a band of captives among cannibals might feel, each of them waiting with vital curiosity to see who was the next to be eaten. But of that fellowship that plans in unison, suffers in sympathy, enjoys vicariously, strengthens into friendship and communion of soul they knew nothing. Indeed, such camaraderie would have been disapproved of by the Head Clerk. He would have looked on an emotion with exactly the same displeasure that he would on an error in the footing of the year’s accounts. It was tacitly understood that one reached the proud position of Head Clerk by having no emotions whatever.
Culross did not remember having been born with a pen in his hand, or even with one behind his ear; but certainly from the day he had been let out of knickerbockers his constant companion had been that greatly over-estimated article. His father dying at a time that cut short David’s school-days, he went out armed with his new knowledge of double-entry, determined to make a fortune and a commercial name. Meantime, he lived in a suite of three rooms on West Madison Street with his mother, who was a good woman, and lived where she did that she might be near her favorite meeting-house. She prayed, and cooked bad dinners, principally composed of dispiriting pastry. Her idea of house-keeping was to keep the shades down, whatever happened; and when David left home in the evening for any purpose of pleasure, she wept. David persuaded himself that he despised amusement, and went to bed each night at half-past nine in a folding bedstead in the front room, and, by becoming absolutely stolid from mere vegetation, imagined that he was almost fit to be a Head Clerk.
Walking down the street now after the twenty years, thinking of these dead but innocent days, this was the picture he saw; and as he reflected upon it, even the despoiled and desolate years just passed seemed richer by contrast.
He reached the station thus dreaming, and found, as he had been told when the warden bade him good-by, that a train was to be at hand directly bound to the city. A few moments later he was on that train. Well back in the shadow, and out of sight of the other passengers, he gave himself up to the enjoyment of the comfortable cushion. He would willingly have looked from the window,–green fields were new and wonderful; drifting clouds a marvel; men, houses, horses, farms, all a revelation,–but those haunting visions were at him again, and would not leave brain or eye free for other things.
But the next scene had warmer tints. It was the interior of a rich room,–crimson and amber fabrics, flowers, the gleam of a statue beyond the drapings; the sound of a tender piano unflinging a familiar melody, and a woman. She was just a part of all the luxury.
He himself, very timid and conscious of his awkwardness, sat near, trying barrenly to get some of his thoughts out of his brain on to his tongue.
“Strange, isn’t it,” the woman broke in on her own music, “that we have seen each other so very often and never spoken? I’ve often thought introductions were ridiculous. Fancy seeing a person year in and year out, and really knowing all about him, and being perfectly acquainted with his name–at least his or her name, you know–and then never speaking! Some one comes along, and says, ‘Miss Le Baron, this is Mr. Culross,’ just as if one didn’t know that all the time! And there you are! You cease to be dumb folks, and fall to talking, and say a lot of things neither of you care about, and after five or six weeks of time and sundry meetings, get down to honestly saying what you mean. I’m so glad we’ve got through with that first stage, and can say what we think and tell what we really like.”
Then the playing began again,–a harp-like intermingling of soft sounds. Zoe Le Baron’s hands were very girlish. Everything about her was unformed. Even her mind was so. But all promised a full completion. The voice, the shoulders, the smile, the words, the lips, the arms, the whole mind and body, were rounding to maturity.
“Why do you never come to church in the morning?” asks Miss Le Baron, wheeling around on her piano-stool suddenly. “You are only there at night, with your mother.”
“I go only on her account,” replies David, truthfully. “In the morning I am so tired with the week’s work that I rest at home. I ought to go, I know.”
“Yes, you ought,” returns the young woman, gravely. “It doesn’t really rest one to lie in bed like that. I’ve tried it at boarding-school. It was no good whatever.”
“Should you advise me,” asks David, in a confiding tone, “to arise early on Sunday?”
The girl blushes a little. “By all means!” she cries, her eyes twinkling, “and–and come to church. Our morning sermons are really very much better than those in the evening.” And she plays a waltz, and what with the music and the warmth of the room and the perfume of the roses, a something nameless and mystical steals over the poor clerk, and swathes him about like the fumes of opium. They are alone. The silence is made deeper by that rhythmic unswelling of sound. As the painter flushes the bare wall into splendor, these emotions illuminated his soul, and gave to it that high courage that comes when men or women suddenly realize that each life has its significance,–their own lives no less than the lives of others.
The man sitting there in the shadow in that noisy train saw in his vision how the lad arose and moved, like one under a spell, toward the piano. He felt again the enchantment of the music-ridden quiet, of the perfume, and the presence of the woman.
“Knowing you and speaking with you have not made much difference with me,” he whispers, drunk on the new wine of passion, “for I have loved you since I saw you first. And though it is so sweet to hear you speak, your voice is no more beautiful than I thought it would be. I have loved you a long time, and I want to know –“
The broken man in the shadow remembered how the lad stopped, astonished at his boldness and his fluency, overcome suddenly at the thought of what he was saying. The music stopped with a discord. The girl arose, trembling and scarlet.
“I would not have believed it of you,” she cries, “to take advantage of me like this, when I am alone–and–everything. You know very well that nothing but trouble could come to either of us from your telling me a thing like that.”
He puts his hands up to his face to keep off her anger. He is trembling with confusion.
Then she broke in penitently, trying to pull his hands away from his hot face: “Never mind! I know you didn’t mean anything. Be good, do, and don’t spoil the lovely times we have together. You know very well father and mother wouldn’t let us see each other at all if they–if they thought you were saying anything such as you said just now.”
“Oh, but I can’t help it!” cries the boy, despairingly. “I have never loved anybody at all till now. I don’t mean not another girl, you know. But you are the first being I ever cared for. I sometimes think mother cares for me because I pay the rent. And the office–you can’t imagine what that is like. The men in it are moving corpses. They’re proud to be that way, and so was I till I knew you and learned what life was like. All the happy moments I have had have been here. Now, if you tell me that we are not to care for each other –“
There was some one coming down the hall. The curtain lifted. A middle-aged man stood there looking at him.
“Culross,” said he, “I’m disappointed in you. I didn’t mean to listen, but I couldn’t help hearing what you said just now. I don’t blame you particularly. Young men will be fools. And I do not in any way mean to insult you when I tell you to stop your coming here. I don’t want to see you inside this door again, and after a while you will thank me for it. You have taken a very unfair advantage of my invitation. I make allowances for your youth.”
He held back the curtain for the lad to pass out. David threw a miserable glance at the girl. She was standing looking at her father with an expression that David could not fathom. He went into the hall, picked up his hat, and walked out in silence.
David wondered that night, walking the chilly streets after he quitted the house, and often, often afterward, if that comfortable and prosperous gentleman, safe beyond the perturbations of youth, had any idea of what he had done. How COULD he know anything of the black monotony of the life of the man he turned from his door? The “desk’s dead wood” and all its hateful slavery, the dull darkened rooms where his mother prosed through endless evenings, the bookless, joyless, hopeless existence that had cramped him all his days rose up before him, as a stretch of unbroken plain may rise before a lost man till it maddens him.
The bowed man in the car-seat remembered with a flush of reminiscent misery how the lad turned suddenly in his walk and entered the door of a drinking-room that stood open. It was very comfortable within. The screens kept out the chill of the autumn night, the sawdust-sprinkled floor was clean, the tables placed near together, the bar glittering, the attendants white-aproned and brisk.
David liked the place, and he liked better still the laughter that came from a room within. It had a note in it a little different from anything he had ever heard before in his life, and one that echoed his mood. He ventured to ask if he might go into the farther room.
It does not mean much when most young men go to a place like this. They take their bit of unwholesome dissipation quietly enough, and are a little coarser and more careless each time they indulge in it, perhaps. But certainly their acts, whatever gradual deterioration they may indicate, bespeak no sudden moral revolution. With this young clerk it was different. He was a worse man from the moment he entered the door, for he did violence to his principles; he killed his self-respect.
He had been paid at the office that night, and he had the money–a week’s miserable pittance–in his pocket. His every action revealed the fact that he was a novice in recklessness. His innocent face piqued the men within. They gave him a welcome that amazed him. Of course the rest of the evening was a chaos to him. The throat down which he poured the liquor was as tender as a child’s. The men turned his head with their ironical compliments. Their boisterous good-fellowship was as intoxicating to this poor young recluse as the liquor.
It was the revulsion from this feeling, when he came to a consciousness that the men were laughing at him and not with him, that wrecked his life. He had gone from beer to whiskey, and from whiskey to brandy, by this time, at the suggestion of the men, and was making awkward lunges with a billiard cue, spurred on by the mocking applause of the others. One young fellow was particularly hilarious at his expense. His jokes became insults, or so they seemed to David.
A quarrel followed, half a jest on the part of the other, all serious as far as David was concerned. And then–Well, who could tell how it happened? The billiard cue was in David’s hand, and the skull of the jester was split, a horrible gaping thing, revoltingly animal.
David never saw his home again. His mother gave it out in church that her heart was broken, and she wrote a letter to David begging him to reform. She said she would never cease to pray for him, that he might return to grace. He had an attorney, an impecunious and very aged gentleman, whose life was a venerable failure, and who talked so much about his personal inconveniences from indigestion that he forgot to take a very keen interest in the concerns of his client. David’s trial made no sensation. He did not even have the cheap sympathy of the morbid. The court-room was almost empty the dull spring day when the east wind beat against the window, jangling the loose panes all through the reading of the verdict.
Twenty years in the penitentiary!
David looked up at the judge and smiled. Men have been known to smile that way when the car-wheel crashes over their legs, or a bullet lets the air through their lungs.
All that followed would have seemed more terrible if it had not appeared to be so remote. David had to assure himself over and over that it was really he who was put in that disgraceful dress, and locked in that shameful walk from corridor to workroom, from work-room to chapel. The work was not much more monotonous than that to which he had been accustomed in the office. Here, as there, one was reproved for not doing the required amount, but never praised for extraordinary efforts. Here, as there, the workers regarded each other with dislike and suspicion. Here, as there, work was a penalty and not a pleasure.
It is the nights that are to be dreaded in a penitentiary. Speech eases the brain of free men; but the man condemned to eternal silence is bound to endure torments. Thought, which might be a diversion, becomes a curse; it is a painful disease which becomes chronic. It does not take long to forget the days of the week and the months of the year when time brings no variance. David drugged himself on dreams. He knew it was weakness, but it was the wine of forgetfulness, and he indulged in it. He went over and over, in endless repetition, every scene in which Zoe Le Baron had figured.
He learned by a paper that she had gone to Europe. He was glad of that. For there were hours in which he imagined that his fate might have caused her distress–not much, of course, but perhaps an occasional hour of sympathetic regret. But it was pleasanter not to think of that. He preferred to remember the hours they had spent together while she was teaching him the joy of life.
How lovely her gray eyes were! Deep, yet bright, and full of silent little speeches. The rooms in which he imagined her as moving were always splendid; the gowns she wore were of rustling silk. He never in any dream, waking or sleeping, associated her with poverty or sorrow or pain. Gay and beautiful, she moved from city to city, in these visions of David’s, looking always at wonderful things, and finding laughter in every happening.
It was six months after his entrance into his silent abode that a letter came for him.
“By rights, Culross,” said the warden, “I should not give this letter to you. It isn’t the sort we approve of. But you’re in for a good spell, and if there is anything that can make life seem more tolerable, I don’t know but you’re entitled to it. At least, I’m not the man to deny it to you.”
This was the letter: —
“MY DEAR FRIEND,–I hope you do not think that all these months, when you have been suffering so terribly, I have been thinking of other things! But I am sure you know the truth. You know that I could not send you word or come to see you, or I would have done it. When I first heard of what you had done, I saw it all as it happened,–that dreadful scene, I mean, in the saloon. I am sure I have imagined everything just as it was. I begged papa to help you, but he was very angry. You see, papa was so peculiar. He thought more of the appearances of things, perhaps, than of facts. It infuriated him to think of me as being concerned about you or with you. I did not know he could be so angry, and his anger did not die, but for days it cast such a shadow over me that I used to wish I was dead. Only I would not disobey him, and now I am glad of that. We were in France three months, and then, coming home, papa died. It was on the voyage. I wish he had asked me to forgive him, for then I think I could have remembered him with more tenderness. But he did nothing of the kind. He did not seem to think he had done wrong in any way, though I feel that some way we might have saved you. I am back here in Chicago in the old home. But I shall not stay in this house. It is so large and lonesome, and I always see you and father facing each other angrily there in the parlor when I enter it. So I am going to get me some cosey rooms in another part of the city, and take my aunt, who is a sweet old lady, to live with me; and I am going to devote my time–all of it–and all of my brains to getting you out of that terrible place. What is the use of telling me that you are a murderer? Do I not know you could not be brought to hurt anything? I suppose you must have killed that poor man, but then it was not you, it was that dreadful drink–it was Me! That is what continually haunts me. If I had been a braver girl, and spoken the words that were in my heart, you would not have gone into that place. You would be innocent to-day. It was I who was responsible for it all. I let father kill your heart right there before me, and never said a word. Yet I knew how it was with you, and–this is what I ought to have said then, and what I must say now–and all the time I felt just as you did. I thought I should die when I saw you go away, and knew you would never come back again. Only I was so selfish, I was so wicked, I would say nothing.
“I have no right to be comfortable and hopeful, and to have friends, with you shut up from liberty and happiness. I will not have those comfortable rooms, after all. I will live as you do. I will live alone in a bare room. For it is I who am guilty! And then I will feel that I also am being punished.
“Do you hate me? Perhaps my telling you now all these things, and that I felt toward you just as you did toward me, will not make you happy. For it may be that you despise me.
“Anyway, I have told you the truth now. I will go as soon as I hear from you to a lawyer, and try to find out how you may be liberated. I am sure it can be done when the facts are known.
“Poor boy! How I do hope you have known in your heart that I was not forgetting you. Indeed, day or night, I have thought of nothing else. Now I am free to help you. And be sure, whatever happens, that I am working for you.
“ZOE LE BARON.”
That was all. Just a girlish, constrained letter, hardly hinting at the hot tears that had been shed for many weary nights, coyly telling of the impatient young love and all the maidenly shame.
David permitted himself to read it only once. Then a sudden resolution was born–a heroic one. Before he got the letter he was a crushed and unsophisticated boy; when he had read it, and absorbed its full significance, he became suddenly a man, capable of a great sacrifice.
“I return your letter,” he wrote, without superscription, “and thank you for your anxiety about me. But the truth is, I had forgotten all about you in my trouble. You were not in the least to blame for what happened. I might have known I would come to such an end. You thought I was good, of course; but it is not easy to find out the life of a young man. It is rather mortifying to have a private letter sent here, because the warden reads them all. I hope you will enjoy yourself this winter, and hasten to forget one who had certainly forgotten you till reminded by your letter, which I return.
That night some deep lines came into his face which never left it, and which made him look like a man of middle age.
He never doubted that his plan would succeed; that, piqued and indignant at his ingratitude, she would hate him, and in a little time forget he ever lived, or remember him only to blush with shame at her past association with him. He saw her happy, loved, living the usual life of women, with all those things that make life rich.
For there in the solitude an understanding of deep things came to him. He who thought never to have a wife grew to know what the joy of it must be. He perceived all the subtle rapture of wedded souls. He learned what the love of children was, the pride of home, the unselfish ambition for success that spurs men on. All the emotions passed in procession at night before him, tricked out in palpable forms.
A burst of girlish tears would dissipate whatever lingering pity Zoe felt for him. How often he said that! With her sensitiveness she would be sure to hate a man who had mortified her.
So he fell to dreaming of her again as moving among happy and luxurious scenes, exquisitely clothed, with flowers on her bosom and jewels on her neck; and he saw men loving her, and was glad, and saw her at last loving the best of them, and told himself in the silence of the night that it was as he wished.
Yet always, always, from weary week to weary week, he rehearsed the scenes. They were his theatre, his opera, his library, his lecture hall.
He rehearsed them again there on the cars. He never wearied of them. To be sure, other thoughts had come to him at night. Much that to most men seems complex and puzzling had grown to appear simple to him. In a way his brain had quickened and deepened through the years of solitude. He had thought out a great many things. He had read a few good books and digested them, and the visions in his heart had kept him from being bitter.
Yet, suddenly confronted with liberty, turned loose like a pastured colt, without master or rein, he felt only confusion and dismay. He might be expected to feel exultation. He experienced only fright. It is precisely the same with the liberated colt.
The train pulled into a bustling station, in which the multitudinous noises were thrown back again from the arched iron roof. The relentless haste of all the people was inexpressibly cruel to the man who looked from the window wondering whither he would go, and if, among all the thousands that made up that vast and throbbing city, he would ever find a friend.
For a moment David longed even for that unmaternal mother who had forgotten him in the hour of his distress; but she had been dead for many years.
The train stopped. Every one got out. David forced himself to his feet and followed. He had been driven back into the world. It would have seemed less terrible to have been driven into a desert. He walked toward the great iron gates, seeing the people and hearing the noises confusedly.
As he entered the space beyond the grating some one caught him by the arm. It was a little middle-aged woman in plain clothes, and with sad gray eyes.
“Is this David?” said she.
He did not speak, but his face answered her.
“I knew you were coming to-day. I’ve waited all these years, David. You didn’t think I believed what you said in that letter did you? This way, David,–this is the way home.”