Landscapes With Figures
A MIDDLE-AGED woman, fair-haired and stout, sat peeling potatoes in the top story of a tall tenement house. Between her and the sunset several jagged lines of vari - colored clothes, comprising a neighbor’s wash, fluttered slightly in the faint-stirring air. The sound of children’s voices, raised at intervals to a shrill pandemonium at some crisis in their game, mounted from the yard and entered at the open window. It was summer, and the woman awaited the return of her husband and son from their work.
Her husband, she knew, would come slowly, painfully climbing the steep stairway, after a day’s perspiring toil in the oven-like basement where he worked. He was ten years older than she was, and he suffered from rheumatism. The boy would come in advance of his father. He was a lad of fifteen, mature for his years, serious, almost stolid, in disposition. He attended the public school during the winter, and worked in the summer vacation to add to the family income.
The family income ! It had dwindled of late, despite the additional pair of hands at work to secure it. An illness of nearly three months had dissipated the man’s savings, and hopes for the future had had to be renounced. The boy would not return to school in the autumn : his parents did not face it yet; they would not recognize the necessity for his labor, although both knew in their hearts that the man was no longer to be depended upon. Their son’s education had been a superstition to these good people ; it would be the last of their aspirations to be relinquished. The woman who sat peeling potatoes laid down the knife, and reflected sadly on what was already included in these renunciations. She was a sentimental German woman, and the tears came easily to her mild blue eyes.
Once — in their early married life, when fortune smiled upon them — they had planned to visit the Fatherland together : he to show her the little farm in Holstein, where his aged parents were then living with the family of an elder brother ; she to show him her home in the Pfalz, in the old city of Speyer, on the dear Rhine. It came back now to the eye of her imagination, — the peaceful old town, the smiling country round intersected by pleasant roads with their borders of fruit-trees, the broad acres of garden and pasture, and the simple, friendly people jogging slowly in their vehicles, or strolling by whole families iii the Sunday sunshine. . . . Ah, she would have seen it all again so gern ! But it was not to be. The advance in wages came too slowly ; she had been ailing in those years ; and then there was the boy’s future to be looked to.
Again, they had looked forward to a country retreat in which to end their days. There were pleasant places on the outskirts of Brooklyn or in East New York ; space enough for an arbor in which a man might light his pipe in the sultry summer evenings, with ground beside for a few beds of geranium and a rose-bush or two. So they had fondly imagined, and had pictured the peace of existence, and the passing away from existence, in so sure a haven of tranquillity. But they never spoke of it now. Silently they abandoned the hope of ever quitting the stuffy little apartment in the top of the tall tenement. And the future of their boy was left them to meditate upon.
They plotted and schemed for his welfare, and watched him grow big and healthy and strong. They kept in a drawer of the kitchen table all his old copy - books and school exercises, and marveled at the knowledge he was absorbing. Already he did all their writing for them ; for the mother wrote only in the crabbed German Schrift, and the father unwillingly took a pen into his great rough hand. Sleeping and waking, their thoughts centred about the boy, and the goal of their lives became his education. This was not, in their sight, merely a tool to his advancement in life; it was desirable in and for itself, an unseen but ever present blessing, which bestowed upon its possessor an inestimable superiority.
Now this last and greatest of their ambitions was about to be abandoned. Slowly they would accustom themselves to the idea of its relinquishment. They would toil on for the rest of their days : the woman at her domestic work, together with what washing she could obtain to do ; the man at his employment, so long as his failing health might permit him to retain his position ; and the boy would be a toiler like themselves. Her soft mother’s heart could not render this credible all at once to the woman’s intelligence, but the shadow of it lay darkening across her soul. She thought of her other renunciations, and none seemed so great as the one likely to be demanded of her. What she forgot was the calm their acceptance had brought her, and it would do the same again. . . .
The boy and his father came home to their supper ; the children ceased screaming in the yard ; there was a lull in the activity of the whole vast human beehive. The woman placed two bowls of steaming soup on the white-laid kitchen table, and poured some tea into a saucer for herself. Her eyes dwelt alternately on her tired husband and the hungry lad, resting longest on her son. The man’s brow relaxed under the influence of the cheering fare, and in his glance was legible the satisfaction of a day’s work done. After supper, while she washed the dishes, he read aloud from the evening newspaper.
When the woman came back to the window, the last sunset colors languished in the western sky. The man had fallen asleep, extended at length on the horsehair sofa ; the boy’s fair head was bent over a book, his expressionless profile softened by the shadow of the lamp. The woman turned from them to the gathering night. On her face was written contentment and the repose of a nature at peace with itself.
A glorious autumn morning : the long grass bends before the wind from the sea and shimmers in the sunshine ; the broad, level country, divided into fields, with here and there a garden - patch, stretches out on either hand as far as the eye can reach ; lines of telegraph-poles mark where the roads intersect it. There is a “cheeping” of birds in the air,— the hurried notes of preparation for departure. The sea is not visible, but its presence is felt in a hundred ways.
One field is different from the rest, having lately been acquired for the purposes of a cemetery. Its scattered tombstones, from whose vicinity the long grass has been removed, without other attempt at beautifying the surroundings, gleam a dazzling white in the brilliant morning sunshine. These are the marble slabs, but most of its graves are marked by upright wooden boards painted white with black characters. At the entrance there is a pretentious wooden arch. painted in several colors with various symbolic emblems and long inscriptions in an unfamiliar script. In the whole cemetery there is not a single cross. . . . This is the last resting-place of a colony of poor Jews.
A neglected road leads from the entrance-arch through the middle of the cemetery . On either hand lie the buriallots, inclosed for the most part by a single rail of solid metal fastened at equal intervals to stone posts. Most of the lots are the property of friendly societies or lodges, composed very largely of young men ; in many of them there is not yet a single grave. Arches and gateways of wood, each elaborately decorated and inscribed with the name of the society, and frequently with those of its members, designate the approach to these plots. The tawdry magnificence of the arches contrasts oddly with the neglected condition of the bare lots. In some of the more pretentious of the monuments one divines the supreme revolt of poverty in the presence of the grave, — the cry of the individual, suppressed during life, insisting in the face of a hostile universe upon the integrity of its own identity. . . .
In a far corner of the field two men are at work digging a grave. The sweat, despite the coolness of the day, pours from their brows; from time to time they exchange good-humored remarks in an unknown language. By the side of the trench they have made is heaped the rich brown earth ; the mound increases with each spadeful of freshly upturned soil, from which the larger stones are carefully removed by one of the laborers, while the other digs deeper into the ground.
Beyond the grave a woman is standing, supporting herself against a high marble tombstone. She is bareheaded, and the keen wind lifts from her shoulders the shawl in which she is wrapped. Incessantly she wrings her hands and mourns aloud, after the manner of Jewish women. This is one long, monotonous lament, in which the voice rises and falls in regular inflections conveying the utmost poignancy of despair. In it are mingled invocations to the dead and imprecations upon destiny, while the note of self - commiseration supplies its ground-tone. Much of it is mere sound and sobbing without articulation, adapting itself to the chantlike measure of the lament. But again it is filled with articulate phrase, the eloquence of a soul newly awakened by sorrow to expression. Some English words are distinguishable in the impassioned tide of this woman’s utterance, heightening by the element of a strange, incongruous weirdness the mournful effect of her speech. Among such bits of broken phrase one catches here and there a sentence : “ It is no good for me now ! ” These two words, “ no good,” so poor in themselves as an expression of despondency, acquire in the woman’s poignant accents a tragic potency of their own. The wind seems to listen for them, and one fancies them whispered to the responsive wires of the neighboring telegraph-line, whence they come back in a low, melancholy refrain : “ No good ! No good !
The woman is still young; her black hair is uncombed, her cheeks are flushed with the fever of watching, her brown eyes running with moisture. She mourns for her first-born, a youth of nineteen, whose slow decease she has watched from day to day, through the lengthening abysses of consumption, for the past six months. She is a widow, and her son has been taken from her in the prime of his vigor, — at the age when he was about to be of most service to her. She has not been able to keep from thinking of this (the poor have to consider such things), and it has added a deep sense of injury to her grief. To-day, however, it is forgotten ; every other feeling is swallowed up in the bitterness of her loss ; no matter how she is to live without him, life itself has turned to bitterness for her, the world is “ no good ” any more. . . .
Across the road, among the meaner graves, some black figures wander, sombre shadows in the palpitating sunlight. Two old men, rabbis, in long black coats coming to their knees and polished high silk hats, talk together as they saunter, shrugging their shoulders and waving their arms in exuberant gesture. In the stoop of their shoulders, the expression of their black-bearded faces, and their attitude in walking, there lurks something furtive,— the suspicion engendered by the system of persecution beneath which their lives have been passed. A little boy wanders lonely among the graves, his unbuttoned overcoat flapping in the wind ; he seems to have been forgotten by his party. Bending over a child’s grave is a woman ; she has come with the funeral party to be of assistance to her neighbor in the city tenement, whose son is to be consigned to the earth. Once in the cemetery, however, she has bethought herself of the grave of a child buried a year previously, as yet unvisited by her, and she has hurried frantically from lot to lot in her search, forgetful of the solitary woman at the freshly opened grave. . . .
They take long in digging it, this grave ; and when it has been completed, the trench proves too narrow for the plain pine coffin, and the laborers must fall to work anew, while the mournful little party, assembled now beside the open grave, shiver in the bleak wind and mocking sunshine. From the gatehouse come the sounds of a stupid quarrel in progress between the keeper and his wife ; their voices are raised loud in dispute, and there is harsh, grating laughter when a point has been made by one or the other.
When the grave has been made ready a second time, the coffin is opened, and a small bag containing earth from Palestine is slipped under the head of the departed : in this simple fashion is maintained the fiction dear to every pious Jew, that he rests in the consecrated soil of the ancient home of his race. All who are present draw near to look for the last time upon the features, already unfamiliar, half unrecognizable, in death. Then the coffin is closed, and slowly, with the aid of ropes, it is lowered into the grave. The two rabbis read from an open book in a strange, rapid tongue, in which each seems striving to outstrip the other. Above the noisy confusion of their voices the woman’s wailing continues, — uninterrupted by this as by all lesser sounds ; the sobbing of her little remaining son and that of her neighbor from the city tenement; the soft thud of the earth shoveled in great spadefuls into the closing grave ; the rush of a train on the near-by railway; and all the vague country notes and whisperings caught and upborne on its journey by the fresh autumn breeze.
Before the grave has been quite filled in the rabbis make a rent in the boy’s coat, in a place where it can easily be sewed together again. This they do in sign of mourning, and mindful of the words, “ Then Job arose, and rent his mantle.'’
The last spadefuls of crumbling earth are added to the overflowing grave, and the woman stands at its border, crying aloud in her monotonous misery. When the earth has been flattened and made smooth on the sides of the mound, one of the rabbis approaches her, and half by persuasion, half by force, draws her away from the grave to the path in the centre of the plot. Here a line is formed, of which she is made the head, and slowly the procession moves towards the gate. Struggling at first, she submits herself to the will of the men ; the boy follows her, looking small and forlorn in the procession of his elders beneath the wide sky ; behind come the rabbis (one a relation of the dead), and the woman who has come to attend the forsaken mother. Once before the gate of the plot has been reached, the woman at the head of the procession throws up her hands in a last despairing outburst and makes to return to the grave; the rabbis, however, intercept her, and compel her to resume her place at the head of the line. She seems indifferent to the ceremonies they are observing, but yields at last to their authority. Before passing out of the plot into the cemetery road each member of the little procession stoops and gathers a handful of grass and loose earth which he casts backward over his shoulder ; signifying by this action that as the grass, plucked by its roots, will spring up again, so shall the soul have one day its resurrection. . . .
Outside, in the cemetery road, the procession is disbanded, and the party hasten to the gate-house, where a carriage is in waiting to convey them back to the city. The driver, who has grown impatient at the long delay, summons them to take their places in the vehicle, and the journey homeward is begun. At the touch of the soft cushions the woman sinks back, and, covering her face with her roughened hands, falls to weeping bitter, passionate tears. A vision of the narrow apartment, empty of her son, arises before her mind, and she thinks of the silent days of mourning, prescribed by the Law, in store for her. “ So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him : for they saw that his grief was very great.” . . .
Behind her, in the sun-flooded graveyard, the two laborers, at rest against a broad tombstone, sit down to their noonday meal. A loaf of black bread rests on the bare ground between them, and from the gate-house kitchen a child is bringing them a pitcher of coffee. Their honest, good-humored faces express the satisfaction of labor accomplished. About them the grass waves and the noontide flashes. Solitary in the far-flashing landscape, the new grave betokens a change since the morning ; to the chorus of mute testimony borne by the bare little cemetery in the face of the unresponding sky it joins its silent voice.
A YOUNG FATHER.
The sun sent a fierce noontide glare down upon the crowded East Side and its dusty thoroughfares. The passers-by, most of whom had disembarrassed themselves of shirt - collars, wore a listless, fagged expression, and scarcely took the trouble to avoid the children at play on the parched sidewalks. At each corner an open saloon or two offered refreshment to the faint and the discouraged, and beneath the shutter-doors one could distinguish the legs of the men in line before the bar.
The only shade at this hour was within the line of doorways, and these were comparatively empty, the women who occupy them later in the afternoon being busy getting their husbands’ dinners. An occasional group of young fellows, in chronic and semi-professional condition of unemployment, related bits of experience or passed idle comments in a sheltered nook, whither the glances of the apple-vender on the corner followed them with anxiety.
In one doorway a young man stood, holding in his arms a fair-haired child. He was short, undersized ; his costume of the simplest, consisting above the waist of a single garment, a gray flannel undershirt. His face was pale, betokening some indoor, confining occupation ; his look serene, in spite of lines on the brow that could have been furrowed there only by suffering and care ; and the whole countenance brightened by that indescribable something in the expression which bespeaks a faith — the continuance of a cherished ideal — in its possessor.
The child’s face was smutched with some grimy substance, which the young father had not sought to remove. It waved its chubby hands after the fashion of young children, experimenting, philosophers tell us, with the universe. It crowed, and turned its open laughing mouth and blue eyes, already half mischievous, to its father’s face. The young man bent and kissed the parted lips; his eyes rested upon his offspring with a look of tender adoration. . . .
He had been married two years before to a thoughtless girl, anxious only to make a match before any of her friends. A dance or two at one of the local assemblies, a Sunday excursion in summer to Coney Island, an evening at one of the East Side theatres, — these had been the extent of the experiences that had preceded the ceremony. He had been steadily employed, and, having no one dependent upon him, had succeeded in laying by some of his earnings, — enough, he fondly supposed, to marry on. The girl brought him nothing but her somewhat arrogant good looks, requiring to be set off with what finery she could command. She had no knowledge of housekeeping, and soon squandered the little store that stood to his credit in the savings-bank. For a while it amused her to keep the home in order, and to show it off to the friends who came to inspect it. But she neglected it more and more, and spent her time, in her husband’s absence at his work, visiting the neighbors, in whose affairs she quickly acquired an engrossing interest. Even the birth of their child failed to bring back her errant affections to the right centre. She was absent, sometimes, for days together, from the untidy little apartment, alleging duties at her parents’ home which were given precedence over those owing to her husband and child. The baby, on these occasions, was turned over to a friendly neighbor until the young father should return in the evening to reclaim it. This he did with trembling eagerness, and grew to desire his wife’s absence, that he might have the child to himself, and be spared the ridicule with which she chastised the overweening love he bore the tiny being. Gradually, all the care of the rooms was relinquished to him, and the wife became only an occasional visitor in her husband’s home. The child was now the centre about which all his thoughts, his whole life revolved, and the two were inseparable except for the daylight hours in which he toiled with unremitting labor for the home he sought to maintain.
He came home now in the middle of the day for dinner, which had to be prepared before he went out in the morning to his work, and availed himself of the few moments remaining after his meal to take the child from the close apartment under the roof down to the cool hallway, where a breath of air was usually stirring. The sights and sounds of the sordid street passed before them unnoticed. The child’s eyes reflected the innocence of the clear skies, and the man’s soul, into which skepticism had not entered. was lifted in its mood of rapt contemplation to an innocence as absolute.
Standing thus in the low doorway as in a frame, these two figures complete an image of Humanity as it still exists in the world to-day. Wonder and trust are written on its brow, and it beckons smilingly to the unknown future. If there be some to deny its mission, these are blinded by the sunlight of prosperity or benumbed by the dull chill of adversity. And they have never looked into the face of a little child.
J. K. Paulding.