The Princess Pity
THE man looked any age between twenty and thirty. He wore a rusty alpaca coat, and a coarse shirt without a collar. As he sat on the pile of boards against the wall of the cooper shop, it was hard to say whether he was a hunchback. Certainly, his body was very short and crooked, his legs and arms uncouthly long and thin. The dead brownish skin was drawn tight over the big bones of his wide face.
Perhaps Miss Stein’s assumption of seniority rested upon nothing more tangible than her pleasure and his bodily weakness. Standing before him, tall, graceful, finely made, she could easily have stooped and picked him up. But many other things were involved in her attitude. For example, the enormous chimney that towered into the sky behind the shop bore the sign down its gigantic sides “Stein Brewing Company,” and the dozen buildings of the immense brewery plant dominated the neighborhood like a hill set on a plain. It was a poor sort of neighborhood. The little dirty streets were made up of rotten wooden pavement, warped plank walks, and dilapidated little houses. There were sheds piled with rusty iron ; others where old bottles were collected in dismal heaps. In some small rooms, open to the street, patient women sewed all day. Ragged children played over mounds of junk in a vacant lot, as though it were their park. Narrow runways between the houses led down to forbidding back yards, populous as rabbit warrens. Nowhere a sprig of living green. Everywhere the stupid iteration of squalor and ugliness. But the great brewery was like a feudal city in itself. Little streets, narrow and clean, brick-paved, led between the huge blank walls of its buildings. Processions of wide wagons, heavy enough for artillery, drawn by splendid horses in brass trappings, entered its arched, fortress-like gateways.
The man had ceased speaking a moment before. Now he looked aside at the barelegged, bareheaded child that, with grave industry, carried little wooden blocks and handfuls of shavings from the littered floor of the shop, and added them to the pile on the brick pavement in front of the door. Miss Stein watched the child, too. She looked serene enough, but in fact she was gaining time. She did not quite trust herself to speak. This abrupt encounter had found her unprepared, although she had half hoped for it. She felt that it was offered her as a last chance, and she wished so much to succeed. It seemed to her that a certain large justification of herself depended upon succeeding, and this fluttering at the heart was not a good condition to begin with.
“ Careful, there, Fritz ! ” she called, as the toddler stumbled, collided with the door, and dropped some blocks.
The child looked around at her with infantile seriousness. It lifted an ineffectual hand, the chubby fingers of which still grasped the precious blocks, to its curly head where it had come in collision with the door. Its helplessness against the bump was at once comical and indescribably pathetic, so that the young woman felt a powerful impulse to swoop down upon the mite, to gather it in her vigorous arms, to kiss it. Ah, she meant so well! The generosity welled up so strong and warm in her breast! She wished so mightily to stretch out her arms to these people, to these very streets themselves, and cry, “ Dear, ugly little streets, be less ugly ! ” She restrained her impulse in respect of the child. It was the man who must be won, and one had to be careful. She knew well enough his strong, rude fence that did not hesitate to meet her advances with rough blows.
It was her wish to succeed, her sense of a secure background, perhaps also an amiability of temper, which modulated her voice to the perfection of cheery friendliness. “ But you are too bitter,” she said. “You keep on the defensive when there is no need. You try to make it too dreadfully personal. You bring in a lot of things that don’t belong in it at all. Just say to yourself that I had the will to friendship. I had said that you and I were friends. One does n’t quit one’s friends at the first hint. I will tell you. When I came out here the first time, — that is, last spring, and that was as good as a first time, for I had n’t seen the place since I was a child, — it was really, in a way, more than wishing to see the brewery. I suppose I had seen a good deal of a certain sort of life abroad. At least, most things were open to me. Maybe I had thought of myself as being a success, in a way, according to the plan of things there. Then ” —
She hesitated an instant over the details. She did not wish to say that she had been on the point of committing herself to the European plan by marrying it, when her count had been summoned as a co-respondent.
“ Then something very disagreeable, very painful, happened, and I saw that I had not been a success at all, but a very dismal failure. All at once I decided to come back here. And I decided that I really belonged here. Perhaps my name on the brewery chimney gave me the idea. Well, I started in, finally, to be friends with you, and I did n’t wish to give it up. There ought to be something genuine about one somewhere. And after all, it’s just the simplest matter of human good will. That ought to cover everything between human beings, — only you will not believe in me.” She smiled and shook her head at him.
“ Oh yes, I believe in you,” he replied quickly. “ I understand what you mean, too, — maybe better than you do. Still, it’s no good. It won’t do. You don’t understand me. I believe in you more than anything else in the world — and that’s just why ” — He sought the word a moment amid evident emotions. He got up, standing beside the shop door, at the case of which the bony fingers of one hand picked nervously. His eyes were downcast. He hurried on : “ To see you is to believe in you, because you are beautiful. That day last March when it rained, and you came into the shop, after I had peeked at you awhile I got up courage to say a word. I did that because I wanted to hear you speak. I wanted to see you move, so I would know you were really alive there near me. We both ought to understand this now. Too much has happened.”
“ Yes, go on ; tell me about it,” said Miss Stein quickly. She had an excited perception that at last she might understand him. His mood was more like a confession than any other had been. Merely for the relief of motion she took a few steps up the long, empty shop. But he limped away from the door, and fell in beside her. They walked on slowly, she with a curious underconsciousness of the ungainliness of his figure, of his shuffling, awkward gait.
“ I wanted to come close to you, you understand, to make sure of you. For it was an old dream with me. And pretty soon you mentioned your name, you remember ? ‘ Miss Stein.’ And I said, — I remembered it all afterward,— ‘ Not Miss Ilse Stein ? Not the Prinzessin Ilse ? ’ Because you were a sort of legend to me, and it seemed still more impossible that it could be you, really alive there. I was astonished out of my wits. You said, ' You know about the prinzessin ? ’ I guessed afterward that you were kind of joking. I was still confused. I said,
just to show you that I knew about her, you see. I could n’t get the two unmixed for a minute. You were surprised. You said, ' You read Heine, then ? ’ And I saw it come up in your eyes, the big, deep surprise and compassion. But I did n’t understand how it was to be then, and you haven’t understood at all. Someway it’s like this brewery. These great big walls like castles, and the big arched doorways, — everything still and strong, — why, I’ve had all sorts of pageants and fights here, when I was a boy ; not lately, for of late I’ve hated this place. But after I got through having courts and armies here, there was something else, bigger than all the rest and more real than all the rest, because, in a way, it might happen, while the armies and courts could n’t. That was the Princess llse. I don’t know how I got hold of it, — things in the newspapers, I guess. But I knew there was an Ilse Stein, and somebody had called her Prinzessin Ilse; and of course she was a princess tome, schön und blühend. You can understand. A man can’t be a king or great general or a court poet, — that gets to be a boy’s fancy, after a while. But a princess, — to any man, you see, that’s possible enough. If she comes along, he can talk with her and look at her sure enough.”
They had reached the upper end of the long cooper shop. Through an open door they saw three horses standing abreast, filling the width of the little street, still harnessed to a great wagon from which two workmen, brawny in undershirt and trousers, were rolling beer kegs. An idler stood against the stable wall, near the horses’ heads, smoking his pipe. They passed on and stopped by the window, leaning against the sill.
“ Well, you do talk with her sure enough,” the woman suggested, smiling.
“ But you don’t understand,” the man insisted. “ A man don’t talk to his princess as a beggar. He don’t want her to give him tickets to a soup kitchen.”
The woman made a protesting exclamation.
“ Oh, I know,” he cut in. “ You’ve never done that, although”— He was going to say she had done it for his sister, but he forbore. Instead he made a swift, positive gesture. “ I understand now that you ’re really more impossible than anything else, — more impossible than my kings. You ’re further off. It’s just pity on your part. You like to feel pitiful. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel as though you were doing something serious and good, after you’d been so long amusing yourself. But this is just amusing yourself in another way. It can’t be serious to you. You can’t belong here. You say I ’m too bitter, but I think I’m not bitter enough. It’s like the brewery. I hate it, you see, just because I’ve led armies to capture it, and been a king and ruled in it; and then after all it’s been just the same huge, stupid old thing, having nothing to do with me. Its walls shame me with the dreams I’ve dreamed over them. If I had money enough, I guess I’d blow it up.” His voice had gathered passion, and he plunged on doggedly: “ The same way, I can’t have anything to do with you. I’m getting old. I won’t have anything more to be ashamed of in my old clothes and my humpback. I’ve got to be bitter to keep some selfrespect.”
He turned away quickly, and stepped half a dozen feet toward the open door. The woman looked after him, agitated, profoundly pitying, wishing to pour out her generosity to him, to make him feel that she liked him.
At that moment, staring after the man with pitying eyes, in act to speak, she was aware of a faint coloration in the light. In the momentary confusion, before she could quite direct her mind, the glow deepened ; there was the quick stroke of shod hoofs on the pavement outside, the rattle of harness, the long snort of a frightened horse, a loud warning shout. The next instant Miss Stein turned to the window. From the little heap of shavings at the horses’ heads, where the lounger had emptied his pipe, a broad feather of smoke and a little tongue of flame curled up. The horses had crowded aside, and now stood, held for an instant in the habit of obedience, straining, quivering, with terrified eyes. A workman was edging rapidly along between the wagon and the wall to reach the bits. But the flame flared up. The horses sprang forward, dragging the heavy wagon, headed down the narrow street between the cooper shop and the great blank wall of the next building, and in Miss Stein’s mind, as a part of this swift picture, was a consciousness of the child playing with its blocks full in the path. She screamed, “ Fritz ! ” The man rushed from the door. In a flash she saw him running with all his might, in a fast, uncouth hobble ; and the horses tore by her window, mad with fear, their hoofs ringing furiously against the pavement, the wagon bounding and crashing behind them.
She fell back from the window in a weak, sick way. Without knowing it she began to sob. She put her finger over her lips, like a child that would keep from crying, and ran down the shop toward the lower door. At once crashing and grinding sounds came thence from a wreck of horses and wagon, and these sounds crazed her, as though amid them she could hear the helpless wails of the child and the moans of the man.
But like a vision the man appeared in the doorway just before her, carrying the child. As he limped swiftly toward her, as she rushed to meet him, she felt the glowing of his triumph which melted into her receptivity, fusing and blending in one high, dramatic moment of complete contact.
Without hesitation, without pause, as she met him, he raised the child and laid it in her arms, as though he gave her all he had.
Holding the child to her breast, bending slightly toward him, her eyes full upon him, she said, “ I really love you.”
For an instant their eyes were together. She heard him give a little quick catching of the breath, and saw him standing before her, looking down. Then, in their dramatic height, a frightened workman thrust his head through the door and peered in. Evidently he saw that no one was hurt, and he at once withdrew. Some other men ran by. They were subduing the thrown, tangled horses. Neither the man nor the woman could have said afterwards just how long a time elapsed ; but it was long enough for a certain rough consciousness of the relationship of things to reassert itself. Outside an excited hostler was swearing ludicrously in broken English. Miss Stein grew sensible of a certain weakness and lassitude, now that the crisis was passed. These things happened in five minutes or five seconds ; but they had not yet got back to speech. She stepped to a corner of the shop where a rough workbench stood, and let the heavy child slide down to the bench.
The man came with her. As she stood in that nook of the shop, one arm still over the child’s shoulder, he gave a quick look at her face ; looked down again ; then, in a mighty desperation, in an irresistible impatience to know, he took a step nearer and threw his arm around her. He felt her start from his embrace ; but for an instant of passionate stubbornness he held her close. Her hand touched his shoulder — rested upon it; she stood passive, perfectly still, and the intoxication of an incredible triumph spread through the man’s blood ; a suffusion from the touch of her body smothered his heart.
In a moment he lifted his head from her breast and looked up, aglow, beatified — and at the first glance he understood everything.
The lids had fluttered down over her eyes. The corner of her lip was drawn between her teeth. Her face was perfectly white. She seemed ready to faint. He saw in the instant that her passiveness had been a sheer physical inability; that the touch of her hand on his shoulder had been the beginning of a movement to throw him off; that every fibre of her body rebelled against his touch.
He flung furiously away from her.
“ It’s a lie ! ” he cried loudly. He shook with hot resentment. “It’s a lie ! You hate me ! It makes you sick when I touch you ! ”
“You didn’t understand me,” she murmured faintly. “ I did n’t mean — in that way.” The lids still fluttered down over her eyes. It could be seen that she was quite sick.
“ No, I did n’t understand! ” he repeated harshly. “ I thought I was a human being. Don’t you know I feel everything that you do ? You did n’t mean loving me as a human being. You meant loving your own pity. You meant you’d love me to be your nice prize beggar. I ’m ugly. I ’m deformed. You can’t love ugliness. You can only pity ! Well, go away. What did you come here for ? Get a dog to pity, and be satisfied. Don’t insist on dog that can read Heine and talk. We were all right without you. Go away !舡 It came to Miss Stein in a large, helpless way, amid a whirl of shame and remorse, that nothing could really make it any better; that nothing could make it right; that anything else would probably make it worse, — especially the fit of weeping that was so near. She could not even repeat that she had meant so well. She turned and walked out, her eyes downcast.
The man watched her go. He still burned with a raging resentment. He saw her tall figure disappear. He thought: “ Let her go ! She could only degrade me ! ”
In a moment he turned back to pick up the child, which still sat, grave and undisturbed as a midget Fate, on the workbench. The shop seemed very large and empty, and the man had a sense of that large emptiness extending indefinitely, illimitably, all around. His affection moved subtly toward the child. “ Fritzie,” he whispered, and touched his cheek against the curly head. The child put up its arms to be taken, and at their touch, as though by some mechanical process, the man felt again that ineffable suffusion from the touch of the princess’s body smothering his heart. For an indescribable moment his consciousness nestled down in that memory, and he thought that nothing could take that away.