I

AT least when Marya was a little child she had some of the riches of childhood. For one thing, she had the blessed, care-free enjoyment of the affairs of her little peasant world. Then, too, there was a brief time when she had the enveloping, protecting love of the dear mother who died all too soon. After that she was no longer reckoned as a child, but as an industrial integer. She was a square-built little thing, made for grubbing; and she got it. The older sister married and took Marya to live with her. The care of a baby was in due time added to barnyard chores. And another baby and more babies. The little drudge suppressed her longing to join the other children in the village school, and worked with the cheerful faithfulness of one whose religion is work. One day the sister died in a frustrated attempt to yield still another baby to her country. But under her prompt successor Marya became more than ever a slavey, while every pitiful perquisite of other days was cut off.

A cousin in a distant city learned of the injustice and arranged to have Marya come to her. The plan was very fair, but this was German Poland; one day an officer came with an order that Marya must go to school—any school. The absent-minded old priest who conducted the heterogeneous class saw nothing of the appeal in his new pupil’s face. She was left to glean what she could from his methodless proceedings. The compulsory education limit was soon passed and Marya was put to work in the family of a civil official; but fortunately the mistress was quite human and the little maid learned a great deal about decent living.

Just at this time there came a great exodus toward America; Marya was caught in the wave. Saying good-bye without sorrow to such relatives and friends as she could claim, she became an impersonal fraction of the body which migrated to the land of dreams as one unit. In Chicago the group disintegrated, and Marya’s identity was restored to her, together with all the attendant responsibilities of an identity.

Just here another thread may be added to this loosely woven narrative. It is a mere supposition, but a pleasing and reasonable one, that Marya’s father, of whom she could tell nothing from hearsay or recollection, was of a superior class. Through the many sordid years of her life, persisting traits witnessed to this gentle heritage. She was singularly tactful and fearlessly honorable. Because of her nobility she was constantly being victimized by some of those among whom her lot was cast. She could endure and forgive, but she could not inflict a wrong.

Just a transplanted peasant. Illiterate, yes; but with a true peasant’s store of soil-born wisdom, and, it must be confessed, with a true peasant’s superstitions. The radiance of her vivid, dramatic religion suffused her days.

Now you have her, sketchily. As for looks, at the time of which you will hear, she had a weather-beaten Slavic face, a solid, stocky, toil-worn figure. There were no loose ends, no sloppy lines. There really was no color worth mentioning; her hair was a smoothly brushed drab, not too thick, and grief had washed all but the faintest vestige of blue from her eyes. They must have been dark and sparkling once, if Vara’s eyes at all resembled her mother’s, as I have been told. But that is not chronological, at all. All the time that intervenes between Marya’s first job and her present condition must be reviewed if you would bestow your full sympathy upon the Marya I would have you know.

II

Of all the people whom the ‘want ads’ and the employment-office agent proffered, Marya’s sure instinct decided upon the German woman who had a small hotel in a decent section. Here she worked for two years, a valued servant with fair privileges. She learned rare kitchen secrets and had a good all-round training in household economy. After a time, her employer was obliged to give up the business, but at the first hint of a change, the woman’s cousin, a factory foreman’s wife, laid claim to the treasured Marya. It was while at this place that Cupid entered Marya’s life. No, not the pudgy, rosy god of glancing darts, but a calculating Cupid with an eye to the main chance. The victim, — to use a conventionalism, — in reality the perpetrator of the sordid cherub’s machinations, was one Ignatz Kcinjski.

Ignatz was a comical little pop-eyed kobold of a male, who had this gift — he could persuade the staidest, heaviest, grouchiest of onlookers into the dance, with the music of his concertina. To account for his repugnance for steady toil, let us say he had the artistic temperament. Like many of the men of his class and of his race, he was an irresponsible vagabond who should never have entered the tedious bonds of wedlock. However, he did as they all do, in some joyous flush of recklessness, and he wisely persisted in having Marya for his wife. He had a couple of hundred dollars in the bank and Marya had a still larger sum in the Polish Trust Fund. They went to housekeeping in two small rooms back of a little grocery store which they managed to buy and quite pay for. They had a meagre supply of furniture, and the store was moderately stocked with wisely selected goods. Ignatz kept at his job in the factory; his earnings were velvet from which the indebtedness was to be paid.

Marya was no fool. She made the little shop pay for itself and for their living. It was a pleasant little shop, cleaner than most of its competitors, and it attracted an increasing trade. Somehow it developed a social side: customers lingered and visited, making the place a clearing-house for all items of interest in the Polish quarter. Marya’s genuinely sympathetic concern in the troubles and the pleasures of any one and every one made her one of those large-hearted, capable women whose homes are inevitably social centres to which all roads lead.

As the years passed a family grew up, with always a roly-poly recruit as an unfailing assurance of continuity. Ignatz viewed the increasing ranks with a droll alarm. He worked as steadily as his temperamental proclivities permitted, but it became clear that the family schedule must be readjusted. The housing of the brood was a serious problem, and when there came a report of a factory suburb of fair advantages and good prospects, the tent was folded and the tribe migrated. It was here that Marya saw that she must again enter the lists as a wage-earner, for Igi’s erratic labors did not supply food for the robust appetites of the children.

Then Igi began to require whiskey in addition to beer, and then whiskey without beer, until he had cultivated a taste for straight alcohol. Fortunately there came a time when there were no more roly-poly recruits to reinforce the procession.

When the three older children, Anyela and Vara and Sigi, reached adolescence, the living quarters were again too cramped and there seemed no way to give the children the social life they craved unless they were allowed to visit their friends or the dance-halls or cheap show-houses. Marya kept her eyes and ears open as she went about her work in homes and shops. She learned about house-equipment, modern improvements, loans, mortgages, and interest. A driving ambition took possession of her to have ‘tings nize like dem ’Mericans.’ She craved beauty with all her soul. Her only conception of beauty was that found in house-furnishings. She hemstitched sugar-bags and flour-bags for sash-curtains; she made lace for the table-covers; and her house plants, which were raised from fragments of discarded bouquets, were her pride.

‘By you it is so still,’ she told the ‘lady from the society.’ ‘You got w’ite table-clot’, lots o’ dishes, napkins. I can’t have it so by me. De boarders hollers, and de kits hollers. De mans eats like animals. A w’ite clot’ would be all spots in once. Dishes I can’t get it. I got now plenty plates but not yet cups. I like — oh, I like it clean and purty.’

One day Sigi quit school and got a job in the works. Then three of the other children found steady vacation work on a truck farm a few miles out. Frequently, they carried home bulky sacks filled with the farm’s unmarketable surplus. Marya’s peasant recollections revived. Not a stalk or a leaf was wasted. She canned, pickled, dried, and preserved these welcome gifts, and when winter came there were jars and crocks ready to yield their wholesome variety to the necessarily limited winter fare.

No matter what happened in mushroom time, Marya would let nothing interfere with her early morning excursions into the woods, where she seemed endowed with some sort of divination that led her to the choicest specimens. Rank, strange beauties shunned by other collectors were authoritatively placed by her in her basket, in calm defiance of the protests of her companions. The proper sort of willow wands were stripped and then strung with the trophies of the search. Placed on a rack in the kitchen, they were left to dry for winter use, or they would be salted in a crock.

Then there were the big waddling geese, and the young pig, and some chickens, all for winter meat.

Things went better for a few years, although Ignatz had, with the industrial advance of his children, grown less and less dependable; he was now considered a negligible factor.

‘Next fall,’Marya dreamed, ‘Next fall I fix the house.’ And in the fall she would recognize the hopelessness of her longings and would think, ‘Next spring I fix the house.’

III

Three years passed, and then, one spring, a way seemed to open.

The ‘lady in the society’ went with Marya to a loan and trust company. There followed almost endless details about the mortgage and payments. It was Marya’s first venture in big business, but she grasped the essentials and trusted to her friend for the ultimate correctness of the transaction.

The house was raised, and a cellar was made. Walks were laid; city waterand gas-pipes were connected for service in the house. A covered stairway and other comfortable improvements were added. Having taken the important step, Marya bent every energy to meeting the new demands. There was always the sustaining thought that the house was fixed at last.

‘I got it decent fer once,’ she jubilated. She found an inexhaustible tonic in the reflection that she was on the road to better things. She was a perceptible bit nearer ‘ dem ’Mexicans wit’ der nize tings.’

She painted and varnished and calcimined. One of the women who employed her mentioned the contemplated purchase of a new dining-room rug. Her ‘ladies’ got into the way of talking things over with Marya.

‘W’at you do wit’ dis rug?’ she asked.

‘Oh, I’ll roll it up and put it in the attic for the moths, I suppose,’ answered the woman, whose husband’s salary was commensurate with her caprices.

‘Aw, dat’s too bad de mots get it. Why missus don’t sell it? Missus trow money round too easy.’

‘That’s what my husband says, Marya,’ laughed the woman, indulgently accepting the Polack’s reproof. ‘But I might sell it if it was n’t too much bother.’

Here came a sore temptation. All who have built or remodeled a home will understand the mental conflict that began to harass Marya. How to get the rug? It was beyond any conceivable limit of expenditure, but it would be a bargain. Still, a clean floor with a home-made mat was plenty good enough until other things justified the splendor of a real store rug. But what an air of elegance the house would have on Sundays when the front room was opened! Desire and Thrift held the stage with tense rivalry.

Igi was growing worse. He had changed from a merely rollicking, irresponsible idler into a quarrelsome, indolent malcontent. He accused his children of every sort of sinfulness. He shamed his wife with ugly names in the presence of the family. He stormed and fumed — his broken voice cackling from morning until night. Once he jumped up from the kitchen table and screamed that Marya was trying to poison him. He threatened her and was about to strike her, when Sigi interposed and parried the blow.

‘I’ll show you, you little devil!’ growled Sigi, and as he spoke, raised a capable fist.

‘No, Sigi! Stop! You must never hit your pa. He is your pa, and no matter w’at he do you can’t do hurts to him. I be shame till I die if we do wrongs on him. He’s crazy, but we must not hurt him.’

Marya cried out in so solemn a voice that the children had a vague revelation of a spiritual law.

‘Well, all right, then,’ Sigi acquiesced. ‘But I’ll tell you right now, if it was n’t for ma, you bet I would n’t stay another hour under this roof.’

One evening, Anyela, in a white resentment against the blight over her youth, and furious with her mother’s endurance, ran to the little neighborhood grocery and telephoned to the police for intervention. The policemen had learned from the neighbors of little Kcinjski’s mad temper and also of the thrift and industry of the wife. In a very short time two of the force were knocking at the kitchen door, and a few minutes later the suddenly humorous little prisoner was being taken to the lock-up.

It was not until a long time afterwards that Marya guessed the truth about the arrest.

Upon his release Kcinjski reappeared in his home with so glowing a description of the police station that Marya could not help laughing at the comedy of it.

‘They treat me fine. Just not enough meat, but plenty eating anyhow. No beer or w’isky, but plenty black coffee. The bed was warm and soft. If the police had o’ had time to bring out a deck and play me a game I would never o’ wanted nothing better.'

For a brief spell the chastened man appeared to control himself, but then of a sudden he broke out into a more wearing violence than ever. There was one dreadful night when he flew in upon Marya while she was kneeling with the little ones, saying the rosary.

‘Quit your bluffing!' he shouted, tearing the rosary from her hand. ‘ You ain’t got a right to pray, you — ’

Marya had been working harder than ever, these last months, in a breathless sort of fear that work might not be plentiful another season. Today she had pounded rugs and moved furniture till late afternoon, only to find upon coming home that the geese had been allowed to wander off, that there was no wood for the supper fire, and that the neighbors’ children were cluttering up the house.

But it was not work or discouraging mishaps alone that had wearied her to the point of exhaustion. The mortgage and the interest reared a tower in her restless dreams. The tower would totter and wobble until she awoke in a sweat of anxiety. She was worn to the edge of collapse to-night. It was a terrible thing that her husband had done. Little moonfaced Kaja crawled on her knees to her mother. Kaiser had leaped to the bed, clutching the covering. Both were in a pitiful state of terror. The rosary broke in the desecrating hand, and the beads fell to the floor with a rattle.

His wife’s white face, her pale eyes, dark with fury, the huddling children, brought home to Igi the enormity of his offense. He stood stupidly, his fingers extended in the gesture with which he had scattered the beads.

With a scream which startled even herself, Marya leaped at the mean culprit, her fingers at his throat. But Kaiser hid his head in the bedding with a whimpering moan that was Marya’s salvation. She relaxed her grip and sent the man out of the room with a violent push. Her fine mother-sense prevailed before the wondering eyes of the little ones. She calmed them with happier impressions, and when they were rosily asleep she crawled about hunting for the beads. Her heart was sore with something she had never felt before. She did not weep. It seemed as if the last tear had been drained long ago. But this new hurt had something wild in it; something strangely disquieting. The old habit of meek resignation now seemed like a garment that bound and repressed.

To the average persons with whom Marya came in contact, no change in her was apparent, but to the discerning she seemed to burn with a torchlike fever. She would flare up over an ordinary mishap, and subside again into a flickering glow of inner resentment.

IV

One day, Leza Kminski decided to marry off her sixteen-year-old daughter to a boarder whose bank account she coveted, and nothing would do but Igi must furnish the music for the celebration.

The Kminski rooms were cleared of such furniture as could be crowded into the one room unavailable for the festivities. In the front room there remained a mountainous bed resplendent in a white embroidered cover and intricately crocheted lace. A deal table stood at the door for the serving of preliminary refreshments. There was a large wedding cake grotesquely ornamented with a sugar pagoda, beneath which stood a tiny bride and groom gazing vacuously at each other. The punch was served from a large, coarse white pitcher. There were eighteen glasses. Leza knew how to do things with style. The punch — made of tea, sugar, whiskey, and lard — was approved by successive newcomers. Igi was an important guest and made liberal demands upon the refreshments. The fairly capacious middle room was reserved for dancing. Igi and Stanley Crkoski, who fiddled, were stationed on a table in a corner. Later, a fluteplayer joined them, and the confining walls of blue calcimine beat back the oddly accented clashes until it seemed as if the roof must crack to release the warring sounds.

‘For what Leza bid de Guinea woman?’ inquired several.

The ‘Guinea woman’ was a striking type in this dun assembly. She was large but finely proportioned in her exuberant Balkan way. She suggested abounding health and was decidedly magnetic. Her thick black hair curled crisply. Her even white teeth flashed between the carmine lips of her wholesome, kissable mouth. She wore a dress of yellow, sprinkled with sprays of red flowers.

The ‘Guineas’ had only recently moved into the neighborhood, but already gossip had it that Katie, the Guinea woman, was ‘fooling’ her husband. Be that as it may, she was assuredly fooling other men. Her handsome, Amazon physique and the swashbuckling, corsair abandon of her were truly captivating. Not only that, but she was sharp, and the witticisms uttered with her deep-voiced brusqueness were convulsing. The women of Polack-town, after one inspection, concluded that it was well to combine against her.

This evening, Katie saw Marya for the first time. She had been hearing, everywhere, about Marya this and Marya that, as the history of the neighborhood was reviewed. Marya had cured Boly’s sore eye; Marya had washed the new Czerwinski baby; Marya got to the childbed before the doctor could arrive; she had washed the sick-clothes of one who died. It was a case of too much Marya. Particularly so, when the women — influenced, so Katie thought, by Marya’s sanctimonious influence — gradually turned a cold shoulder upon the newcomer.

The movement to squelch Katie had a surprising outcome. To-night, if one wished to exclude the charmer, one would first have to unfasten the clinging spouses.

Igi was not free until supper-time, but his eye had noted the enticing Bacchante. The din and the fumes of whiskey clouded his brain. Katie, angered by the sense of Marya’s spiritual superiority, formed a sudden desire to revenge all snubs upon the submissive head of her fancied opponent. Igi grew aware that the significant glances from the quick gray eyes met his dreamy stare with increasing frequency. When half the company sat down to the feast of blood soup, underdone duck, wieners, dark bread, and beer, Leza insisted that Igi sit at the ‘first table.’

‘Sure, you come by de first setting. You pull de concertina like hell an’ we got to have yet more fun to-night wit’ de dancing.’

Igi did not loiter when he saw the opulent form of the dark charmer at the table. She was reserving an extra chair with considerable adroitness, and sent him a look of invitation. They hit it off as congenial guests; she filled his glass with beer, and leaned warmly against him in reaching for the platter of duck. In her funny masculine way she joked with him, but the large hand that rested on his knee was not at all masculine in its thrill.

Igi felt himself sinking into a ravishing sweetness; it was inevitable that he should respond to the subtle caress of her vital nearness.

‘God, Marya, de Guinea’s eatin’ your man,’ Sofya muttered in the kitchen, where several women were supervising the supplies.

‘It suits me, Sofya, if she swallows him.'

Sofya was Marya’s sister-in-law and had inside knowledge of the family situation.

‘She’s got de mout’ an’ de guts to swallow a sardine like him,’ Sofya commented, robustly.

Before the party dispersed at daybreak, every one had seen the little musician’s infatuation and the Guinea woman’s game. Marya had left at midnight, calmly aware of her mate’s defection; but his folly could no longer concern her. The Guinea woman would have been chagrined could she have known how pointless was her vengeance.

For days after, when Marya returned from work, she would be hailed by one or another of her neighbors who seemed to be at their gates by the merest chance as she passed. Invariably they let fall a word or two about Igi’s visits to the Guinea’s home.

’Let be, — all right. Don’t tell de kits,’ Marya would reply with a smile of genuine unconcern.

In a can on the topmost pantry shelf, in a dim corner, a heap of coins was growing. How she managed it was a miracle, but Marya had discovered some economies which had no apparent effect upon the family welfare. Slowly the amount grew. She had long ago eliminated Igi from her calculations: he had no part in the dream house. The longing for the good-looking rug had become an obsession. She had learned the price for which it could be bought. Ten dollars was a discouraging sum to consider, but after the first small coin had clinked into the can the probability of the achievement gained momentum.

‘Ma, can I have sugar-rolls just once for my lunch-box?' Sigi would beg.

‘You eat bread. Sugar-rolls is for dem w’at got der houses paid,’ Marya would answer sternly.

Little Merka longed for a sash for her confirmation dress.

‘You don’t get no sash. A belt of de goods is all you get it,’Marya forced herself to say harshly.

And so to all the othor reasonable childish requests of her children she turned a deaf ear. She did not even attempt self-justification in her thoughts. She realized she was committed to endless subterfuge. Little by little the contents of the can grew in volume. It was exasperating, at times, to reflect that good money was regularly carried to Pete’s saloon. However, that fact was relegated to the class of circumstances which must be borne as visitations of Fate. That Katie was consuming a considerable share of the whiskey and beer made not the slightest difference to Marya. On the contrary, so long as Igi’s debt at the saloon did not increase, she could even feel that sharing the drinks with Katie was worth the price, in that it curtailed Igi’s potions.

‘Say, Marya, for why you go like a blind fool?’ said vehement Leza. ‘Where does de Guinea get de earrings all once?'

Anyela and Vara had heard things, too. They slept in one room, and when they locked themselves into it, fearing their father’s freakish temper, they would whisper about the gossip that is always afloat in factories. A large ‘shop’ in a small town is a hot-bed of gossip and slander.

‘That he should buy her earrings yet, too! ’ exclaimed Anyela. ‘And our ma wondering how she can save on buttons! It’s a fright. But ma’s too easy. She oughta fixed pa when he begun his funny business. She makes me tired, putting up with it all. She would n’t leave me even take ten cents out of my envelope, and I am all out of hairpins.’

Anyela’s commonplace hair was worn in one of the involved fashions in vogue with factory girls: quantities of hairpins were necessary for the right effect. To tie the hair in a braid was out of the question. It was to be expected that each day should see a certain loss in the stock of pins, and Anyela was indeed nearly bankrupt. To one unacquainted with factory social codes it would be incredible that the way of doing up one’s hair was of considerable importance.

But Marya was stonily impervious to her gentle daughter’s wail.

When summer waned and the disciplined thoughts of the family manager flew ahead to winter planning, there came the exhilarating reflection that on snowy Sunday afternoons the front room would be magnificently cosy with the coveted rug in place. It was the only self-indulgence of Marya’s life. It was a stupendous experience. In anticipation of the blissful realization she looked into the matter of curtains to match the rug. She had heard Mrs. Frawley say, ‘Lace curtains are out of style.’

Marya’s hunger for beauty in housefurnishings looked to the oracular Mrs. Frawley’s comprehensive knowledge for succor. In a favorable moment Mrs. Frawley dropped the golden hint that artistic curtains could be made from good cheesecloth; a deep cream was refined; it could be secured by dipping the cheesecloth in cold coffee; blue or green stenciling made effective decoration. There was one large window in the front room. By dint of unbelievable pinching, the budget yielded the price of the material.

V

Igi’s affair with the Guinea woman was now quite bold and open. It was a relief to have him away so much. There were quiet hours of sweet enjoyment with the children and their various urgencies. Sigi harped upon the merits of an Eagle motor-bike over those of the Flyer, with tentative explanations why it would be most desirable to own an Eagle — even a second-hander one like what Mat Dennison’s got for sale. Anyela knew a girl who knew a store where the new kinds of coats could be bought cheaper than anywhere else. Kaiser, the little clown, sent them into shouts of laughter with his caricatures of people he encountered in his business of peddling papers.

When Anyela, in maidenly shame at the disgrace of her father, came to her mother one night alone and protested, with all the burning recollections of shop innuendoes to urge her on, Marya said, ’I know. Let be, Anyela. See how de kits makes funs w’en der pa is away. We arrest pa, but it’s no good. We dassent have de shame to get him locked up some place from de court. Yes, he buys de black woman earrings and w’isky. Let be. She keeps him off us an’ she gotta have some pay, not?’

Anyela could not answer, and went to bed perplexed by the sophistry, and Marya decided that she could safely fetch the hoard for an accounting. With all her brood asleep there was a delicious sense of peace in the house. Marya removed her shoes, drew down the shades, tested the doors, made another thorough survey of the apartment. Then swiftly, greedily, she went to the pantry, and climbing to the broad counter-board, reached for the precious can.

The breath left her body in choking gasps.

She barely saved herself from a dangerous fall as she slid weakly to the chair below.

The can was empty. It had fallen from her shaking hand to the counter with a thin clank. She looked at it with the wild intensity of one deranged. All the mean repulses of young desires, all the visions, the sacrifices of months smote her heart. She shook the can as if doubting her senses. An instant of superstition descended upon her like a gray cloud; she had lied, and hands not mortal had punished her.

But no— no. Some thieving soul had discovered her secret. In a sudden indiscriminating fury she wanted that thief.

Despite a clutching premonition, she darted to Sigi’s bed.

‘Sigi!’ she hissed, shaking the sleeping young giant. ‘Sigi!’

A sudden sense of calamity penetrated Sigi’s slumber. ‘Why — why — ma!’ he gasped, seeing his mother in the dim shadows. ‘Is pa—?’

His blood froze with apprehension.

‘Sigi, w’ere’s my money? Did you steal my money?’ Marya demanded in cutting tones.

‘Your money, ma? You’re dreaming, mamushka. You did n’t have no money. You been tellin’ me so all year. Oh, ma, wake up! Shut up, ma, you ain’t, awake.’

He held his mother’s rigid body in his warm, strong grasp, trying to quiet her with awkward caresses.

‘My can is empty — empty! Who took my money?’ Marya’s voice was unfamiliar.

The boy was terrified. He knocked on the wall excitedly. ‘Anyela! Vara!’ he called. ‘Wake up! Oh, wake up, you damn stupids!’

There was a rustle, and then an excited rush, as his cries continued.

‘Oh, Sigi, what’s the matter? Did pa — ?’ called his sisters.

‘You come here,’ commanded their mother in husky, tremulous tones. ‘Did you know anything I got money hiding? ’

She turned a searching look on them as they came in holding up a lamp, in horror of what they might encounter.

‘Money, ma?’ they asked stupidly.

They read Sigi’s horrible suspicion and the tears came to their eyes.

’Ma,’ besought Anyela, ‘don’t act like that. Ma, you never had no money! ’

‘O God! O Mary!’ groaned Marya, as she fell upon the bed.

Vara began to sob. Anyela set the lamp on a chair. With a resolute air worthy of her mother’s daughter she went to the bed and stroked the poor bowed head.

‘Shut up, Vara,’ she commanded. ‘The boys’ll wake. Sigi, get ma a drink and then shut the door.’

It needed this business-like tone to call Marya to her senses. ‘Anyela, Anyela,’ she moaned. ‘I got money in a can. I hide it in de pantry on top. For de rug. Dimes. Quarters. Pennies. Next week I got ten dollar. Who steal my money? To-night I look. De can is empty. My money is gone.’

‘Ma, it’s nobody in this house is the thief,’ Sigi said.

His mother, returning to sanity, wondered how she could have doubted it.

‘Somebody see me climb in de pantry. Somebody know I got money in de can. I poorty near die to save de money. Now my rug I have not.’

The automatic deduction shocked her into a recognition of the heartbreaking fact. Marya’s body began to shudder with increasing agitation until she was shaken painfully with the new experience of succumbing to emotion. The dry, racking sobs were terrible.

‘Should I get a doctor?’ Sigi asked, in a whisper.

‘ Sh! ’ Anyela shook her head decidedly. Then in a moment she said in a matter-of-fact way, ‘It’s cold. Shake up the fire in the kitchen, Sigi. We’ll go in there and talk about this money. Come on, ma. Hold on to me. You’re freezing. Vara, get the gray shawl. Take the lamp and shut up.’

The worn little group entered the kitchen.

‘Should I heat, up some coffee, ma?’ asked Anyela calmly.

‘No, no. Help me find my money.’

Marya related, in the manner of a confession, the history of the hoard. She ended with bitter self-reproach that she should have denied her children their rightful little privileges throughout the period of her secret ambition.

‘Well, ma,’ said Anyela, relieved, ‘we did n’t die from the hard times. And you got a right to want a rug, I guess. You never had much. If you wanted the house nice it was for us, too, was n’t it?’

‘Say, ma!’ Vara suddenly hushed her sobs. There was a startled conviction in her expression that made the others turn to her expectantly. At times, Vara displayed uncanny intuition. ‘Ma,’ she said, ‘Lena Dudek told me in the shop to-day that the Guinea woman’s just got a talkin’ machine. Her man’s been gone for weeks, too, out o’ work. The girls laughed like they always do.’

‘ When did you put money in the can the last time, ma?’ Sigi put the query with lawyer-like intent.

‘ O, Moder o’ God! ’ cried Marya. The torch of her wrath flared. ‘A tock machine!’

‘Well, when, ma? When?’ Sigi persisted.

Marya’s eyes had grown peculiarly bright. ‘Dis is a Friday. I put in fifteen cents a Tuesday. I worked a hour overtime by de fat lady. An’ little Merka did n’t get a penny for tendin’ de geeses. Yes, a Tuesday w’en you was in bed.’

‘Tuesday, eh? Where was pa after supper, Tuesday?’

‘ By Pete’s saloon, he says,’ answered Marya, wrung by shame of incriminating one whom it was her moral duty to shield, but still obsessed with desire for the rug.

‘Yes, and it was a Tuesday Kucjakuski had one of his fits and Mamie come after you,’ Sigi recollected.

‘Sure,’ Marya assented, regarding her son with nervous dread.

Sigi remembered having heard his father’s silly whistling in the side yard. The whistling had stopped abruptly. ‘You had light in the kitchen? The pantry window was open? The window curtain is tore?’

Marya nodded slowly as the shameful truth of his deductions grew clear.

‘About nine and a half was in the can?’

Again Marya nodded.

‘Well, I heard Patchy McGuire tell how his father sold their twenty-five dollar talking machine for ten dollars, Wednesday night, ’cause their Maggie had to go to the eye doctor and he could n’t pay for the glasses so’s she could go back to school. McGuire don’t know pa.’

The chain was complete. Marya sat in an agony of outraged feelings. The torch of revolt flickered and flared as if fanned by a breath of Destiny. Her glittering eyes stared at the red slits of the stove.

Anyela had no words for the heavy situation. This final insult to the family was crushing.

There was a long silence. The clock ticked with that weird gallop of clocks in strained, oppressive moments. Vara yawned extravagantly; her healthy young body protested against the interruption of her sleep. Her spirit was less sensitive than Anyela’s. She stretched her round arms and said, ‘Ten-thirty.’

‘Yes, yes. Go to bed all. Youse gotta go to work just de same.’ Marya roused herself sufficiently to send them off, perturbed, reluctant.

At last the house was quiet again, but the brooding peace had gone. Instead, an electrical unrest seemed to emanate from the tense little figure by the kitchen stove. The cold hands were joined in a tight grip. The leathery face had taken on a grayish tone, except where a significant red had made little patches on the big cheekbones.

‘Stealing my money, de dog, for dat cat. No rug here. Tock machine dere. — Fader o’ my kits. — No presents I get. I never ask for notting. Notting! O, God, it’s hard. I gif de twelf kits. I feed ’em. Den I pay for efryting. I work an’ gif w’at I got. I save an’ he steals; de dog!’

Marya was talking to herself in a husky murmur, as she sat bowed in her chair, her eyes on the red of the fire.

The heroic acquiescence of years fell away and the woman reverted to some long-ago state of barbarian individualism, when her native land had bred creatures of flame, when the code was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

The body has been known to respond to such reversionswith grotesque readiness. Marya drew her shawl about her and rose — a primitive figure, stealthy revenge its motive. As she stole to the bedroom doors to hearken, her stockinged feet padded on the bare floor as if they knew of furtive work ahead. Turning out the light she drew from a difficult drawer a long carving-knife worn to slenderness.

VI

There was a light in the Guinea’s house, but the shade was drawn. At the back of the house Marya padded up the cheap, narrow stairway. There were voices — Igi’s and the woman’s. Even now some spiritual flash might have shown her the enormity of her venture, had not Katie spoken with a possessive authority while Igi snickered foolishly.

Fearing the door might be locked, Marya knocked twice, very gently. There was a definite effect of surprise from within.

‘Who’s dere?’ called Katie, sharply.

‘Come; open!’

Marya’s voice was not natural. She knocked again.

Katie strode heavily to the door and opened it with a jerk.

Marya was blinded by the sudden light. ‘Igi,’ she called, in a barely recognizable voice. ‘ I want for ask one t’ing from you.’

Igi remained invisible and silent.

‘Come on! See what she wants,’ Katie sang out.

There was the smile of a conquering fiend in her eyes.

‘Well, what’s your trouble?’ rasped the little man.

‘You listen. Did you buy her a tock machine ? ’

‘None o’ your business,’ answered Igi, after one look at the mischievous gray eyes.

‘W’at?’ shrieked Marya, slipping her shawl from her shoulder.

‘Aw, go wan,’ commanded the Guinea woman, ‘tell her. Be a liddle man. She can’t hurt yuh. Come on, here.’ She was enjoying the situation keenly.

‘He bought you de tock machine. You make fools wit’ him, you big devil pig. You drink wit’ him. Earrings you get from him. His kits’ eatings you steal; you make him steal. He steals my savings for your humbugs.’

The coldly furious woman darted past the large figure at the door, toward the frightened little man.

‘Here, you!’ Katie growled, following. ‘Don’t youse make no roughhouse here.’ She pulled the wife back.

Marya tried to loosen her arm from the iron grip, and the long-bladed knife fell to the floor.

‘Ah-ya!’ exclaimed Katie. ‘You means business, you old saint, eh? Pick up de knife, fool!’ she ordered Igi.

Marya snarled like an infuriated animal at bay. Her eyes blazed. A light foam came to her lips. Igi was afraid to approach her. He stood cackling foolishly until the veins in his forehead stood out like cords. Katie tried to get the knife by a quick lurch, but her prisoner took advantage of the move, kicked it out of reach, and rushed toward her unnerved husband.

The Slavonian had guessed by now that she had to do with a crazy woman, and superstitious horror turned her boldness to uneasy fear. She managed to secure the knife and was backing toward the rear door, signaling to Igi to follow her, when Marya turned upon her and overtook her in the small hallway. The Guinea, terrified, raised the knife with a curse, but Marya forestalled the lunge with a surprisingly powerful shove. The large, heavy body was sent sliding and bumping down the steep, dark stairway. There was no outcry after the last bump.

Up in the entry Marya stood peering down, a look of pleased fascination in her strange eyes.

‘You killed her!’ Igi whispered.

‘Ya-ah,’ assented his wife. ‘Don’t you want to roll down wit’ your devil pardner?’

VII

It was a raw night. The stars were blurred. Marya lurched in her walk as she made for the woods across the tracks. The cinders cut her feet. Deep in the woods was a pool that was nearly always dark. Clean, brown leaves lay upon its surface. It mirrored thesylvan enchantments of old oaks, slim birches, gnarly wild-cherry and wild-plum trees, and elusive dapples of light. Subconsciously Marya was drawn to this isolated spot. Her body was very tired. The classic perfection of the little dell, suggesting the caprices and the ardors of dryads and fauns, became the setting for a spiritual conflict of one of the uncouth of the earth.

The sky had cleared and there promised to be a light frost. Marya trod back and forth, lost in the overpowering tumult that robbed her of the ability to reflect. She seemed strangely detached from the vague, distant little world that had revolved about her — the house, the mortgage, the children, the geese, the garden, the ailing neighbors. Left in a vast universe, unclaimed, without the precious fetters of duty and ministration, she contended with unknown emotions that estranged her from herself.

A long time passed and at last physical exhaustion overcame her. She fell into a deep, heavy slumber in a burrow of dead leaves.

Duty, her inexorable master all her days, knocking at the door of her unconsciousness every morning at dawn, echoed sharply upon her senses as the night, with merciless swiftness, made way for still another day.

Marya awoke to a clear realization of her life’s wretched snarl. She rose, cramped in every muscle, from the cold, hard bed of her woe. She leaned over the brink of the faintly glinting pool and washed her face.

Sigi would oversleep if she delayed.

A leaf fluttered to the pool. It recalled the horrible possibility of the night. ‘T’ank God!’ she groaned, the warm tears falling upon her tough, pallid cheeks. Shaken by the ravages of the night’s spiritual storm, she sank heavily into the stolid, deep submissiveness that is the salvation of her kind. Work called. Burdens awaited her, no matter what else was in store for her. ‘Let be. I take w’at God send,’ she breathed.

It was Mrs. Goddard’s wash-day. Merka must go to the cobbler’s before school for her shoes. Anyela would never remember to stop the baker wagon. ’De policemans will come. I will have to sit. Dey makes you sit twenty, tirty years or all lifetime for killing. She would o’ cut me. Let ’em get me. I done my share work already. W’at comes I take. De kits gets eatings by de county; I pay plenty taxes already. It be’s a good day for dry de close. She want her windows washed maybe. He stole my rugs money. De devil cat make him steal. Let be.’ So her confused thoughts ran on.

Sigi, awakened by a premonition of trouble, had jumped from his bed. He dressed hurriedly. The alarm-clock had sounded, but there was no sign of his mother’s usual activities. He knocked at her door. ‘Ma!’ he whispered. He rattled the knob. Then in a nervous fear he looked in. The bed had not been occupied. Something terrible must have happened while he had lain stupidly asleep. The rear door was unlocked; the big dog whimpered. Sigi flew to the street. At the gate he met his mother’s ghostly wreck.

‘Ma? Ma?’ he choked.

‘Sigi, it is finish wit’ me. I kill de Guinea woman. Let be. I fix your lunch now.’

‘Ma. You kill her! Oh, they’ll get you. Where did you? How, ma? Ma, where’s pa?’

The boy shook violently.

‘Go see. By de woman’s house I leave him. She can’t drink no more wit’ him. Bring de tock machine.’

Sigi whipped round and vanished.

Marya, an automaton of habit, built the fire and called Anyela. Blessed homely tasks offset the deadening weight of catastrophe until her son returned.

‘Ma,’ he whispered, drawing his mother into the pantry. ‘ Pa ’s skipped. De Guinea woman’s in bed. She’s crippled. She says pa’s a w’ite-livered rat, an’ he says he was going to skip. She says you should keep your mouth shut. She ain’t got nothing to tell nobody, she says.’

’I did n’t kill her?’ Marya reeled. Her tears fell heavily. ‘But I done a black, bad sin just de same. I take a knife, wit’ my craziness. I want kill her and I got de sin on my soul,’ she moaned.

For some strange reason the crime seemed more crushing, now that she was released from the actual guilt. She found her mind growing unsteady in its command of the daily routine. Her physical exhaustion was complete, and before long a burning fever consumed her.

For many weeks she lay in the wonderful bed, each small part of which attested to her thrift and industry — the patched ticking, the goose-feather stuffing, the coarse lace, the gay quilt. But at last, one Sunday, she was able to be taken into the front room. There was a mysterious air of ceremony about the children as they drew about her before the closed door.

‘Now,’ said Sigi, and a scratching, buzzing sound was heard within the room; then the muffled wail of a banshee, which broke into a stirring rhythm.

The door opened and a scene of splendor met the convalescent’s eyes. The red rug lay on the floor — the red rug of her heart’s desire. The curtains hung correctly at the window. A table and four chairs of a matching shininess and rigidity furnished the room.

Marya leaned on her son in breathless bewilderment. ‘Who pay?’ she asked.

‘Well, it’s all paid for, all right,’ Sigi replied, ‘and you’ll find out about it soon enough.’

Marya’s impatience blighted her children’s expectation of her anticipated delight.

‘Here, then,’ said Anyela, showing her a much folded letter. ‘I’ll read it to you.’

It was a Polish letter from Marya’s brother in St. Paul. Igi had arrived there, unable to account for himself or for his unannounced visit. He would answer no questions. He ate very little and coughed a great deal. And then he died, attended by a priest. The brother asked for advice.

‘We wrote to him,’ said Anyela, ‘that you was sick. We told him to send the body here. We made a plain funeral in the church. Then come the insurings man and says he got pa’s insurings money ready. The lady was so sorry you got sick and she cried w’en Vara told her about the rug money. She sent the rug. She says you stood by her w’en her whole family was sick.’

‘Yes —and de tock machine?’

‘Well, ma, I know you’ll be mad. The talking machine the Guinea woman give us. And earrings. She’s a cripple. Her man got a job away and she went too. Her man heard the stories about her and pa.’

‘Shut off de music!’ Marya ordered. ‘ I go to bed. My back ain’t strong like I t’ink.’

‘Anyela,’ she asked quietly that evening, ‘Anyela, w’en I got de fever I don’d know nottings. But I t’ink me a bended woman comes by my bed an’ tends me. For w’at I got dem tinkings?’

‘Well,’Anyela began, ‘you was awful sick. The doctor said you must have a nurse. We send the kids by Leza’s. Sigi and Vara and me worked steady. We was a-scared about getting behind with the payments. There was n’t any way to get a nurse right away. The Guinea woman asked the doctor could she be the nurse. He says she’s all right. She was awful good to us, ma. She was bad crippled from the fall. She was so still and so w’ite, ma, and acted so shamed-like.’

‘Let be,’ said Marya with a deep sigh.