THE SLIPPER-MAKER’S FAST.
ISAAC JOSEPHS, slipper-maker, sat up on the fifth floor of his Allen Street tenement, in the gray of the morning, to finish the task he had set himself before Yom Kippur. Three days and three nights he had worked without sleep, almost without taking time to eat, to make ready the two dozen slippers that were to enable him to fast the fourth day and night for conscience’ sake, and now they were nearly done. As he saw the end of his task near, he worked faster and faster, while the tenement slept.
Three years he had slaved for the sweater, stinted and starved himself, before he had saved enough to send for his wife and children awaiting his summons in the city by the Black Sea. Since they came they had slaved and starved together, for wages had become steadily less, work more grinding, and hours longer and later. Still, of that he thought little. They had known little else, there or here, and they were together now. The past was dead ; the future was their own, even in the Allen Street tenement, toiling night and day at starvation wages. To-morrow was the feast, their first Yom Kippur since they had come together again, — Esther, his wife, and Ruth and little Ben, — the feast when, priest and patriarch of his own house, he might forget his bondage and be free. Poor little Ben ! The hand that smoothed the soft leather on the last took a tenderer, lingering touch as he glanced toward the stool where the child had sat watching him work till his eyes grew small. Brave little Ben, almost a baby yet, but so patient, so wise, and so strong !
The deep breathing of the sleeping children reached him from their crib. He smiled and listened, with the halffinished slipper in his hand. As he sat thus, a great drowsiness came upon him. He nodded once, twice ; his hands sank into his lap, his head fell forward upon his chest. In the silence of the morning he slept, worn out with utter weariness.
He awoke with a guilty start to find the first rays of the dawn struggling through his window, and his task yet undone. With desperate energy he seized the unfinished slipper to resume his work. His unsteady hand upset the little lamp by his side, upon which his burnishingiron was heating. The oil blazed up on the floor and ran toward the nearly finished pile of work. The cloth on the table caught fire. In a fever of terror and excitement, the slipper-maker caught it in his hands, wrung it and tore at it to smother the flames. His hands were burned, but what of that ? The slippers, the slippers ! If they were burned, it was ruin. There would be no Yom Kippur, no feast of Atonement, no fast, — rather, no end of it; starvation for him and his.
He beat the fire with his hands and trampled it with his feet as it burned and spread on the floor. It only flared up more brightly. His hair and his beard caught fire. With a despairing shriek he gave it up and fell before the precious slippers, barring the way of the flames to them with his body.
The shriek woke his wife. She sprang out of bed, snatched up a blanket and threw it upon the fire. It went out. was smothered under the blanket. The slipper-maker sat up, panting and grateful. His Yom Kippur was saved.
Some one passing in the street had seen the glare in the window, and sent an alarm for the firemen. They came, and climbed the many stairs to no purpose. There was nothing for them to do. The slipper-maker was back at his bench, working as if his life depended upon it, as indeed it nearly did. Few of the tenants in the big building even knew that there had been a fire. They awoke to hear of it when all Jewtown was Stirring with preparations for the feast.
The fire was reported on the police returns. When the reporters came to see about it, the slipper - maker was asleep, his task ended at last. His wife, a little woman with a patient voice, was setting the things on the table for the family dinner that was to usher in the long fast. Two half-naked children played about her knee, asking eager questions about it. The precious slippers were there, finished and ready, two dozen, all safe. I heard their story from the woman herself. Asked if her husband had often to work so hard, and what he made by it, she shrugged her shoulder and said, “ The rent and a crust.”
And yet all this labor and effort to enable him to fast one day according to the old dispensation, when all the rest of the days he fasted according to the new!
I am not thinking now of theological dogmas or moral distinctions. I am considering the matter from the plain everyday standpoint of the police office. It is not my fault that the one thing that is lost more persistently than any other in a large city is the very thing you would imagine to be safest of all in the keeping of its owner. Nor do I pretend to explain it. It is simply one of the contradictions of metropolitan life. In twenty years’ acquaintance with the police office, I have seen money, diamonds, coffins, horses, and tubs of butter brought there and passed into the keeping of the property clerk as lost or strayed. I remember a whole front stoop, brown stone, with steps and iron railing all complete, being put up at auction, unclaimed. But these were mere representatives of a class which as a whole kept its place and the peace. The children did neither. One might have been tempted to apply the old inquiry about the pins to them but for another contradictory circumstance : rather more of them are found than lost.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children keeps the account of the surplus. It has now on its books half a score Jane Does and twice as many Richard Roes, of whom nothing more will ever be known than that they were found, which is on the whole, perhaps, best, — for them, certainly. The others, the lost, drift from the tenements and back, a host of thousands year by year. The two I am thinking of were of these, typical of the maelstrom.
Yette Lubinsky was three years old when she was lost from her Essex Street home, in that neighborhood where, recently, the police commissioners thought seriously of having the children tagged with name and street number, to save trotting them back and forth between police station and headquarters. She had gone from the tenement to the corner where her father kept a stand, to beg a penny, and nothing more was known of her. Weeks after, a neighbor identified one of her little frocks as the match of one worn by a child she had seen dragged off by a rough-looking man. But though Max Lubinsky, the peddler, and Yette’s mother camped on the steps of police headquarters early and late, anxiously questioning every one who went in and out about their lost child, no other word was heard of her. By and by it came to be an old story, and the two were looked upon as among the fixtures of the place. Mulberry Street has other such.
They were poor and friendless in a strange land, the very language of which was jargon to them as theirs was to us, timid in the crush, and they were shouldered out. It was not inhumanity ; at least it was not meant to be. It was the way of the city, with every one for himself ; and they accepted it, uncomplaining. So they kept their vigil on the stone steps, in storm and fair weather, every night, taking turns to watch all who passed. When it was a policeman with a little child, as it was many times between sunset and sunrise, the one on the watch would start up the minute they turned the corner, and run to meet them, eagerly scanning the little face, only to return, disappointed but not cast down, to the step upon which the other slept, head upon knees, waiting the summons to wake and watch.
Their mute sorrow appealed to me, then doing night duty in the newspaper office across the way, and I tried to help them in their search for the lost Yette. They accepted my help gratefully, trustfully, but without loud demonstration. Together we searched the police records, the hospitals, the morgue, and the long register of the river’s dead. She was not there. Having made sure of this, we turned to the children’s asylums. We had a description of Yette sent to each and every one, with the minutest particulars concerning her and her disappearance, but no word came back in response. A year passed, and we were compelled at last to give over the search. It seemed as if every means of finding out what had become of the child had been exhausted, and all alike had failed.
During the long search, I had occasion to go more than once to the Lubinskys’ home. They lived up three flights, in one of the big barracks that give to the lower end of Essex Street the appearance of a deep black canon with cliff-dwellers living in tiers all the way up, their watch-fires showing like so many dull red eyes through the night. The hall was pitch-dark, and the whole building redolent of the slum, but in the stuffy little room where the peddler lived there was, in spite of it all, an atmosphere of home that set it sharply apart from the rest. One of these visits I remember as if it were yesterday, though much more than a dozen years have passed. I had stumbled in, unthinking, upon their Sabbath eve meal. The candles were lighted, and the children gathered about the table ; at its head, the father, every trace of the timid, shrinking peddler of Mulberry Street laid aside with the week’s toil, was invoking the Sabbath blessing upon his house and all it harbored. I could not make out the words, but I saw him turn, with a quiver of the lip, to a vacant seat between him and the mother; and it was only then that I noticed the baby’s high chair, empty, but kept ever waiting for the little wanderer. I understood; and in the strength of domestic affection that burned with unquenched faith in the dark tenement after the many months of weary failure I read the history of this strange people that in every land and in every day has conquered even the slum with the hope of home.
It was uot to be put to shame here, either. Yette returned, after all, and the way of it came near being stranger than all the rest. Two long years had passed, and the memory of her and hers had long since faded out of Mulberry Street, when, in the overhauling of one of the children’s homes we thought we had canvassed thoroughly, the child turned up, as unaccountably as she had been lost. All that I ever learned about it was that she had been brought there, picked up by some one in the street, likely, and, after more or less inquiry that had failed to connect with the search at our end of the line, had been included in their flock on some formal commitment, and had stayed there. Not knowing her name, — she could not tell it herself, to be understood. — they had given her one of their own choosing ; and thus disguised, she might have stayed there forever but for the fortunate chance that cast her up to the surface once more, and gave the clue to her identity at last. Even then her father had nearly as much trouble in proving his title to his child as he had had in looking for her, but in the end he made it good. The frock she had worn when she was lost proved the missing link. The mate of it was still carefully laid away in the tenement. So Yette returned to fill the empty chair at the Sabbath hoard, and the peddler’s faith was justified.
My other chip from the maelstrom was a lad half grown. He dropped into my office as if out of the clouds, one long and busy day, when, tired and out of sorts, I sat wishing my papers and the world in general in Halifax. I had not heard the knock, and when I looked up there stood my boy, a stout, squareshouldered lad, with heavy cowhide boots and dull honest eyes, — eyes that looked into mine for a moment as if with a question they were about to put, and then gave it up, gazing straight ahead, stolid, impassive. It struck me that I had seen that face before, and I found out immediately where. The officer of the Children’s Aid Society who had brought him explained that Frands — that was his name — had been in the society’s care five months and over. They had found him drifting in the streets, and, knowing whither that drift set, had taken him in charge and sent him to one of their lodging-houses, where he had been since, doing chores and plodding about in his dull way. That was where I had met him. Now they had decided that he should go to Florida, if he would, but first they would like to find out something about him. They had never been able to, beyond the fact that he was from Denmark. He had put his finger on the map in the readingroom, one day, and shown them where he came from: that was the extent of their information on that point. So they had sent him to me to talk to him in his own tongue and see what I could make of him.
I addressed him in the politest Danish I was master of, and for an instant I saw the listening, questioning look return ; hut it vanished almost at once, and he answered in monosyllables, if at all, looking straight ahead, patient, passive, indifferent. Much of what I said passed him entirely by. He did not seem to understand. Gradually I got out of him that his father was a farm laborer; that he had come over to look for Ids cousin, who worked in Passaic, New Jersey, and had found him, — Heaven knows how I — hut had lost him again. Then lie had drifted to New York, where the society’s officers had come upon him. He nodded when told that he was to he sent far away to the country, much as if I had spoken of some one he had never heard of. We had arrived at this point when 1 asked him the name of his native town.
The word he spoke came upon me with all the force of a sudden blow. I had played in the old village as a boy ; all my childhood was bound up in its memories. For many years now I had not heard its name, — not since boyhood days spoken as he spoke it. Perhaps it was because I was tired: the office faded away, desk, headquarters across the street, boy, officer, business, and all. In their place were the brown heath I loved, the distant hills, the winding wagon-track, the peat-stacks, and the solitary sheep browsing on the barrows. Forgotten the thirty years, the seas that rolled between, the teeming city. I was at home again, a child. And there he stood, the boy, with it all in his dull, absent look. I read it now as plain as the day.
“ Hua er et no ? Ka do ett fostó hua a sejer ? ”
It plumped out of me in the broad Jutland dialect I had neither heard nor spoken in half a lifetime, and so astonished me that I nearly fell off my chair. Sheep, peat-stacks, cairn, and hills all vanished together, and in place of the sweet heather there was the table with the tiresome papers. I reached out yearningly after the heath; I had not seen it for such a long time, —how long it did seem!—and — but in the same breath it was all there again in the smile that lighted up Frands’ broad face like a glimpse of sunlight from a leaden sky.
“ Joesses, jou,” he laughed, “ no ka a da saa grou godt.” 1
It was the first honest Danish word he had heard since he came to this bewildering land. I read it in his face, no longer heavy or dull; saw it in the way he followed my speech, — spelling the words, as it were, with his own lips, to lose no syllable; caught it in his glad smile as he went on telling me about his journey, his home, and his homesickness for the heath, with a breathless kind of haste, as if, now that at last he had a chance, he were afraid it was all a dream, and that he would presently wake up and find it gone. Then the officer pulled my sleeve.
He had coughed once or twice, hut neither of us had heard him. Now he held out a paper he had brought, with an apologetic gesture. It was an agreement Frands was to sign, if he was going to Florida. I glanced at it. Florida ? Yes, to be sure ; oh yes, Florida. I spoke to the officer, and it was in the Jutland dialect. I tried again, with no better luck. I saw him looking at me queerly, as if he thought it was not quite right with me, either, and then I recovered myself, and got back to the office and to America, but it was an effort. One does not skip across thirty years and two oceans, at my age, so easily as that.
And then the dull look came back into Frands’ eyes, and he nodded stolidly. Yes, he would go to Florida. The papers were made out, and off he went, after giving me a hearty hand-shake that warranted he would come out right when he became accustomed to the new country; but he took something with him which it hurt me to part with.
Frauds is long since in Florida, growing up with the country, and little Yette is a young woman. So long ago was it that the current which sucked her under cast her up again that there lives not in the whole street any one who can recall her loss. I tried to find one only yesterday, but all the old people were dead or had moved away, and of the young who were very anxious to help me scarcely one was born at that time. But still the maelstrom drags down its victims; and far away lies my Danish heath under the gray October sky, hidden behind the seas.
Paolo sat cross-legged on his bench, stitching away for dear life. He pursed his lips and screwed up his mouth into all sorts of odd shapes with the effort, for it was an effort. He was only eight, and you would scarcely have imagined him over six, as he sat there sewing like a real little tailor; only Paolo knew but one seam, and that a hard one. Yet he held the needle and felt the edge with it in quite a grown-up way, and pulled the thread just as far as his short arm would reach. His mother sat on a stool by the window, where she could help him when he got into a snarl, — as he did once in a while, in spite of all he could do, — or when the needle had to be threaded. Then she dropped her own sewing, and, patting him on the head, said he was a good boy.
Paolo felt very proud and big then, that he was able to help his mother, and he worked even more carefully and faithfully than before, so that the boss should find no fault. The shouts of the boys in the block, playing duck-on-a-rock down in the street, came up through the open window, and he laughed as he heard them. He did not envy them, though he liked well enough to romp with the others. His was a sunny temper, content with what came ; besides, his supper was at stake, and Paolo had a good appetite. They were in sober earnest working for dear life, — Paolo and his mother.
“ Pants ” for the sweater in Stanton Street was what they were making ; little knickerbockers for boys of Paolo’s own age. “Twelve pants for ten cents,” he said, counting on his fingers. The mother brought them once a week, a big bundle which she carried home on her head, to have the buttons put on, fourteen on each pair, the bottoms turned up, and a ribbon sewn fast to the back seam inside. That was called finishing. When work was brisk, — and it was not always so since there had been such frequent strikes in Stanton Street, — they could together make the rent-money, and even more, as Paolo was learning and getting a stronger grip on the needle week by week. The rent was six dollars a month for a dingy basement room in which it was twilight even on the brightest days, and a dark little cubby-hole where it was always midnight, and where there was just room for a bed of old boards, no more. In there slept Paolo with his uncle; his mother made her bed on the floor of the “ kitchen,” as they called it.
The three made the family. There used to be four; but one stormy night in the winter that was just past Paolo’s father had not come home. The uncle came alone, and the story he told made the poor home in the basement darker and drearier for many a day than it had yet been. The two men worked together for a padrone on the scows at the ashdump. They were in the crew that went out that day to the dumping-ground, far outside the harbor. It was a dangerous journey in a rough sea. The half-frozen Italians clung to the great heaps like so many frightened flies, when the waves rose and tossed the unwieldy scows about, bumping one against the other, though they were strung out in a long row behind the tug, quite a distance apart. That day the sea had washed entirely over the last scow and nearly upset it. When it floated even again two of the crew were missing, one of them Paolo’s father. They had been washed away and lost, miles from shore. No one ever saw them again.
The widow’s tears flowed for her dead husband, whom she could not even see laid in a grave the priest had blessed. The good father spoke to her of the sea as a vast God’s-Acre, over which the storms are forever chanting anthems in His praise to whom the secrets of its depths are revealed ; but she thought of it only as the cruel destroyer that had robbed her of her husband, and her tears fell faster. Paolo cried, too : partly because his mother cried; partly, if the truth must be told, because he was not to have a ride to the cemetery in the splendid coach. Giuseppe Salvatore, in the corner house, had never ceased talking of the ride he had when his father died, the year before. Pietro and Jim went along, too, and rode all the way behind the hearse with black plumes, It was a sore subject with Paolo, for he was in school that day.
And then he and his mother dried their tears and went to work. Henceforth there was to be little else for them. The luxury of grief is not among the few luxuries which Mott Street tenements afford. Paolo’s life, after that, was lived mainly with the “pants” on his hard bench in the rear tenement. His routine of work was varied by the household duties which he shared with his mother. There were the meals to get, few and plain as they were. Paolo was the cook, and not infrequently, when a building was being torn down in the neighborhood, he furnished the fuel as well. Those were his off days, when he put the needle away and foraged with the other children, dragging old beams and carrying burdens far beyond his years.
The truant officer never found his way to Paolo ’s tenement to discover that he could neither read nor write, and what was more, would probably never learn. It would have been of little use, for the public schools thereabouts were crowded, and Paolo could not have got into one of them if he had tried. The teacher from the Industrial School, which he had attended for one brief season while his father was alive, called at long intervals, and brought him once a plant, which he set out in his mother’s window-garden and nursed carefully ever after. The “ garden ” was contained within an old starch-box which had its place on the window-sill, since the policeman had ordered the fire - escape to be cleared. It was a kitchen garden with vegetables, and was almost all the green there was in the landscape. From one or two other windows in the yard there peeped tufts of green ; but of trees there was none in sight, — nothing but the bare clothespoles with their scores of pulley-lines from every window. Beyond the cemetery plot in the next block there was not an open spot or breathing - place, certainly not a playground, within reach of that great teeming slum that harbored more than a hundred thousand persons, young and old. Even the graveyard was shut in by a high brick wall, so that a glimpse of the greensward over the old mounds was to be caught only through the spiked iron gates, the key to which was lost, or by standing on tiptoe and craning one’s neck. The dead there were of more account, though they had been forgotten these many years, than the living children who gazed so wistfully upon the little paradise through the barred gate, and were chased by the policeman when he came that way. Something like this thought was in Paolo’s mind when lie stood at sunset and peered in at the golden rays falling athwart the green, but he did not know it. Paolo was not a philosopher, but he loved beauty and beautiful things, and was conscious of a great hunger which there was nothing in his narrow world to satisfy.
Certainly not in the tenement. It was old and rickety and wretched, in keeping with the slum of which it formed a part. The whitewash was peeling off the walls, the stairs were patched, and the doorstep long since worn entirely away. It was hard to be decent in such a place, but the widow did the best she could. Her rooms were as neat as the general dilapidation would permit. On the shelf where the old clock stood, flanked by the best crockery, most of it cracked and yellow with age, there was red and green paper cut in scallops very nicely. Garlic and onions hung in strings over the stove, and the red peppers that grew in the starch-box at the window gave quite a cheerful appearance to the room. In the corner, under a cheap print of the Virgin Mary with the Child, a small night-light in a blue glass was always kept burning. It was a kind of illumination in honor of the Mother of God, through which the widow’s devout nature found expression. Paolo always looked upon it as a very solemn show. When he said his prayers, the sweet, patient eyes in the picture seemed to watch him with a mild look that made him turn over and go to sleep with a sigh of contentment. He felt then that he had not been altogether bad, and that he was quite safe in their keeping.
Yet Paolo’s life was not wholly without its bright spots. Far from it. There were the occasional trips to the dump with uncle Pasquale’s dinner, where there was always sport to be had in chasing the rats that overran the place, fighting for the scraps and bones the trimmers had rescued from the scows. There were so many of them, and so bold were they, that an old Italian who could no longer dig was employed to sit on a bale of rags and throw things at them, lest they carry off the whole establishment. When he hit one, the rest squealed and scampered away ; but they were back again in a minute, and the old man had his hands full pretty nearly all the time. Paolo thought that his was a glorious job, as any boy might, and hoped that he would soon be old, too, and as important. And then the men at the cage, — a great wire crate into which the rags from the ash-barrels were stuffed, to be plunged into the river where the tide ran through them and carried some of the loose dirt away. That was called washing the rags. To Paolo it was the most exciting thing in the world. What if some day the crate should bring up a fish, a real fish, from the river ? When he thought of it, he wished that he might be sitting forever on that string-piece, fishing with the ragcage, particularly when he was tired of stitching and turning over, a whole long day.
Besides, there were the real holidays, when there was a marriage, a christening, or a funeral in the tenement, particularly when a baby died whose father belonged to one of the many benefit societies. A brass band was a proper thing then, and the whole block took a vacation to follow the music and the white hearse out of their ward into the next. But the chief of all the holidays came once a year, when the feast of St. Rocco — the patron saint of the village where Paolo’s parents had lived — was celebrated. Then a really beautiful altar was erected at one end of the yard, with lights and pictures on it. The rear fire-escapes in the whole row were decked with sheets and made into handsome balconies, — reserved seats, as it were, — on which the tenants sat and enjoyed it. A band in gorgeous uniforms played three whole days in the yard, and the men in their holiday clothes stepped up, bowed and crossed themselves, and laid their gifts on the plate which St. Rocco s namesake, the saloon-keeper in the block who had got up the celebration, had put there for them. In the evening they set off great strings of fire-crackers in the street, in the saint’s honor, until the police interfered once and forbade that. Those were great days for Paolo, always.
But the fun Paolo loved best of all was when he could get in a corner by himself, with no one to disturb him, and build castles and things out of some abandoned clay or mortar or wet sand, if there were nothing better. The plastic material took strange shapes of beauty under his hands. It was as if life had been somehow breathed into it by his touch, and it ordered itself as none of the other boys could make it. His fingers were tipped with genius, but he did not know it, for his work was only for the hour. He destroyed it as soon as it was made, to try for something better. What he had made never satisfied him, one of the surest proofs that he was capable of great things, had he only known it. But, as I said, he did not.
The teacher from the Industrial School came upon him one day, sitting in the corner by himself and breathing life into the mud. She stood and watched him awhile, unseen, getting interested, almost excited, as he worked on. As for Paolo, he was solving the problem that had eluded him so long, and had eyes or thought for nothing else. As his fingers ran over the soft clay, the needle, the hard bench, the “ pants,” even the sweater himself, vanished out of his sight, out of his life, and he thought only of the beautiful things he was fashioning to express the longing in his soul, which nothing mortal could shape. Then, suddenly, seeing and despairing, he dashed it to pieces, and came back to earth and to the tenement.
But not to the “ pants ” and the sweater. What the teacher had seen that day had set her to thinking, and her visit resulted in a great change for Paolo. She called at night and had a long talk with his mother and uncle through the medium of the priest, who interpreted when they got to a hard place. Uncle Pasqnale took but little part in the conversation. He sat by and nodded most of the time, assured by the presence of the priest that it was all right. The widow cried a good deal, and went more than once to take a look at Paolo, lying snugly tucked in his bed in the inner room, quite unconscious of the weighty matters that were being decided concerning him. She came back the last time drying her eyes, and laid both her hands in the hand of the teacher. She nodded twice and smiled through her tears, and the bargain was made. Paolo’s slavery was at an end.
His friend came the next day and took him away, dressed up in his best clothes, to a large school where there were many children, not of his own people, and where he was received kindly. There dawned that day a new life for Paolo, for in the afternoon trays of modeling clay were brought in, and the children were told to mould in it objects that were set before them. Paolo’s teacher stood by and nodded approvingly as his little fingers played so deftly with the clay, his face all lighted up with joy at this strange kind of a schoollesson.
After that Paolo had a new and faithful friend, and as he worked away, putting his whole young soul into the tasks that filled it with radiant hope, other friends, rich and powerful, found him out in his slum. They brought better paying work for his mother than sewing “ pants ” for the sweater, and uncle Pasquale abandoned the scows to become a porter in a big shipping house on the west side. The little family moved out of the old home into a better tenement, though not far away. Paolo’s loyal heart clung to the neighborhood where he had played and dreamed as a child, and he wanted it to share in his good fortune, now that it had come. As the days passed, the neighbors who had known him as little Paolo came to speak of him as one who some day would be a great artist and make them all proud. Paolo laughed at that, and said that the first bust he would hew in marble should be that of his patient, faithful mother ; and with that he gave her a little hug and danced out of the room, leaving her to look after him with glistening eyes, brimming over with happiness.
But Paolo’s dream was to have another awakening. The years passed and brought their changes. In the manly youth who came forward as his name was called in the academy, and stood modestly at the desk to receive his diploma, few would have recognized the little ragamuffin who had dragged bundles of firewood to the rookery in the alley, and carried uncle Pasquale’s dinner-pail to the dump. But the audience gathered to witness the Commencement exercises knew it all, and greeted him with a hearty welcome that recalled his early struggles and his hardwon success. It was Paolo’s day of triumph. The class honors and the medal were his. The bust that had won both stood in the hall crowned with laurel, — an Italian peasant woman with sweet, gentle face, in which there lingered the memories of the patient eyes that had lulled the child to sleep in the old days in the alley. His teacher spoke to him, spoke of him, with pride in voice and glance ; spoke tenderly of his old mother of the tenement, of his faithful work, of the loyal manhood that ever is the soul and badge of true genius. As he bade him welcome to the fellowship of artists who, in him, honored the best and noblest in their own aspirations, the emotion of the audience found voice once more. Paolo, flushed, his eyes filled with happy tears, stumbled out, he knew not how, with the coveted parchment in his hand.
Home to his mother! It was the one thought in his mind as he walked toward the big bridge to cross to the city of his home,—to tell her of his joy, of his success. Soon she would no longer be poor. The day of hardship was over. He could work now and earn money, much money, and the world would know and honor Paolo’s mother as it had honored him. As he walked through the foggy winter day toward the river, where delayed throngs jostled each other at the bridge entrance, he thought with grateful heart of the friends who had smoothed the way for him. Ah, not for long the fog and slush ! The medal carried with it a traveling stipend, and soon the sunlight of his native land for him and her. He should hear the surf wash on the shingly beach and in the deep grottoes of which she had sung to him when a child. Had he not promised her this ? And had they not many a time laughed for very joy at the prospect, the two together ?
He picked his way up the crowded stairs, carefully guarding the precious roll. The crush was even greater than usual. There had been delay, something wrong with the cable. But a train was just waiting, and he hurried on board with the rest, little heeding what became of him so long as the diploma was safe. The train rolled out on the bridge, with Paolo wedged in the crowd on the platform of the last car, holding the paper high over his head, where it was sheltered safe from the fog and the rain and the crush.
Another train backed up, received its load of cross humanity, and vanished in the mist. The damp gray curtain had barely closed behind it, and the impatient throng was fretting at another delay, when consternation spread in the bridge-house. Word had come up from the track that something had happened. Trains were stalled all along the route. While the dread and uncertainty grew, a messenger ran up out of breath. There had been a collision. The last train had run into the one preceding it, in the fog. One was killed, others were injured. Doctors and ambulances were wanted.
They came with the police, and by and by the partly wrecked train was hauled up to the platform. When the wounded had been taken to the hospital, they bore from the train the body of a youth, clutching yet in his hand a torn, blood-stained paper tied about with a purple ribbon. It was Paolo. The awakening had come. Brighter skies than those of sunny Italy had dawned upon him in the gloom and terror of the great crash. Paolo was at home, waiting for his mother.
Jacob A. Riis.
- My exclamation on finding myself so suddenly translated back to Denmark was an impatient ” Why, don’t you understand me ? His answer was, “ Lord, yes, now I do, indeed.”↩