— Between Washington Square and Broadway (needless to name the metropolis) it comes to pass that scarcely is one stone allowed to remain above another, in these days of rebuilding Babel, and of the ingress of trade into streets hitherto devoted to residences. In this access of Gothic and Hunnish energy in pulling down the structures of the past, gangs of swarthy men work incessantly, prying with sharp picks or tugging with ropes at masses of mortar and brick to level them. In thus doing they lay bare opposite and inner walls, with their decorations, fireplaces, and mantels. Little niches of the Lares and Penates come startlingly and unpitiedly into view, — if indeed any one stops to regard them at all. Commonly, the passer-by or the neighboring householder does not bless his eyes, smarting and half blinded as they are, with the pulverulent and alkaline atmosphere constantly resulting from the Great American Desert of demolition.
Of late my window overlooked such a scene of senseless destruction. May I not be indulged in my choice of adjective, and also in the admission that the grimy and bustling picture beneath my eyes possessed for me no least human or transcendental interest so far as it related itself to the promotion of trade, possible architectural betterment, or urban progress in general ? Cui bona ? The good which I saw done would have been decidedly incidental in the great world’s view, had it even met the great world’s cognition. The special providence enacted in the human creature’s behalf was, I must confess, comparable to the advantage a flock of sparrows might derive, suddenly alighting and helping themselves from the waste of an unswept threshing floor. The figure of a flock of sparrows, however, hardly serves to suggest the strenuous, almost fierce activity of certain participants in the street scene below. These were a bevy of Italian peasant women gathering wood out of the rubbish resulting from the pulling down of the block opposite. Never ravens worked more patiently or wolves more hungrily at the stripping of a carcass than did these lean, dark women at the breaking up and tearing apart awkward lengths of nailed board and plank, in lieu of hammer or hatchet using bricks from the rubbish heap. So keenly I felt how the dust irritated even their coarse hands, already chapped with the cold, and now bruised, if not bleeding, however stoically disregarded in the breathless industry of the moment. When each of these women had made up a bundle of boards and ragged splinters, lashed together with ropes brought for the purpose, the stronger and more dexterous helped the less experienced or weaker to lift the load and settle it upon her head. This done, and balancing masses whose horizontal length may have been nearly twice their own stature, they gallantly marched away. No, they did not march; rather they assumed a half-running, half-gliding pace which entirely preserved the poise of the load, and which was necessitated by it, and somehow suggested the gentle gait of a horse broken for the feminine saddle, I longed to throw up my window and cry approval. Such good nature, such coöperation, such pathetic content in the harvesting of ruin’s poor bounty in the great city ! And yet, as I stood watching them, there came upon me a certain sentimentally flavored dissatisfaction both on their account and my own. This grew out of my suspecting that they might be the selfsame women whom, earringed and bright-kerchiefed, I had seen in the early summer dusk wandering through the walks of Washington Square, their dark-eyed babies in their arms, — the very same I had seen gazing with grave, dreamy contemplation at the squat statue of Garibaldi, a few springs ago erected in the midst of the square. But this was the ground of my romantic discontent : that these daughters of Italy should be dark and hungry hoverers in an alien and a sordid city ; that I too should be here instead of lying sub tegmine fagi in the land of Virgil, and perhaps watching these same silent sibylline creatures, not far away, gathering fagots of the fallen branches of the beech,