The Jungle | #4

Most persons would admit that it might prove a difficult matter to be sentimental in a language in which sob is known as a “gukcziojimas,” and a smile as a “nusiszypsojimas.”

 Promptly at seven the next day Jurgis reported for work. He came to the door that had been pointed out to him, and there he waited, for nearly two hours. The boss had meant for him to enter, but he had not said this, and so it was only when on his way out to hire another man that he came upon Jurgis. He gave him a good cursing, but as Jurgis did not understand a word of this it did him no harm. He followed the boss, who showed him where to put his street-clothes, and waited while he donned the working-clothes which he had brought with him in a bundle; then he led him to the “killing floor.” The work which Jurgis was to perform here was simple, and it took him but a few minutes to learn it. He was provided with a stiff besom, such as is used by street-sweepers, and it was his place to follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer; this mess was meant to be swept into a trap, which was then closed, so that no one might slip into it. As Jurgis came in the first cattle of the morning were then just making their appearance; and, so with scarcely time to look about him, and none to speak to anyone, he fell to work. It was a sweltering day in July, and, the place ran with steaming hot blood—one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing. His whole soul was dancing with joy—he was at work at last! He was at work and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself—he was paid the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour, and as it proved a rush day and he worked until nearly seven o'clock in the evening, he went home to the family with the tidings that he had earned more than a dollar and a half in a single day!

 At home, also, there was more good news; so much of it at once that there was quite a celebration in panei Aniele’s hall bedroom. Jonas had been to have an interview with the special policeman to whom Scadwilas had introduced him, and had been taken to see several of the bosses, with the result that one of them had promised him a job the beginning of the next week. And then there was Marija Biarezynakas, who, fired with jealousy, by the success of Jurgis, had set out upon her own responsibility to get a place. Marija had nothing to take with her save her two brawny arms and the word “job,” laboriously learned; but with these she had marched about Packingtown all day, entering every door where were signs of activity. Out of some she had been ordered with curses; but Marija was not afraid of man or devil, and asked everyone she saw–visitors and strangers, or work-people like herself, once or twice even high and lofty office personages, who stared at her as if they thought she was crazy. In the end she had reaped her reward. In the smaller plants she had stumbled upon a room where scores of women and girls were sitting at long tables preparing smoked beef in cans; and wandering through room after room. Marija came at last to the place where the sealed cams were being painted and labeled, and here she had the good fortune to encounter the “forelady.” Marija did not understand then, as she was destined to understand later, what there was attractive to a “forelady” about the combination of a face full of boundless good-nature and the muscles of a dray horse; but the women had told her to come the next and she would perhaps give her a chance to learn the trade of painting cans being skilled piecework, and paying as much as two dollars a day, Marija burst in upon the family with a yell of a Comanche Indian, and fell to capering about the room so as to frighten the baby almost into convulsions.

 Better luck than all this could hardly have been hoped for; there was only one of them left to see a place. Jurgis was determined that Teta Elzbieta should stay home to keep the house, and that Ona should help her. He would not have Ona working—he was not that sort of a man, he said, and she was not that sort of woman. It would be a strange thing if a man like him could not support the family, with the help of the board of Jonas and Marija. He would not even hear of letting the children go to work—there were schools here in America for children, Jurgis had heard, to which they could go for nothing, and he made up his mind that the children of Teta Elzbieta should have as fair a chance as any other children. The oldest of them, little Stanislovas, was but thirteen, and small for his age at that; and while the oldest son of Szadwilas was only twelve, and had worked for over a year at Morton’s, Jurgis would have it that Stanislovas should learn English, and grow up to be a skilled man.

 So there was only Diedas Antanas; Jurgis would have had him rest too, but he was forced to acknowledge that this was not possible, and besides, the old man would not hear it spoken of—it was his whim to insist that he was as lively as any boy. He had come to America as full of hope as the best of them; and now he was the chief problem that worried his son. For everyone that Jurgis spoke to assured him that it was a waste of time to seek employment for the old man in Packingtown. Szadwilas told him that the packers did not even keep the men who had grown old in their own service—to say nothing of taking on new ones. And not only was it a rule here, it was the rule everywhere, so far as he knew; an old man might just as well get off the earth at the start, for nobody would have anything to do with him. To satisfy Jurgis he had asked the policeman, and brought back the message that the thing was not to be thought of. They had not told this to old Anthony, who had consequently spent the two days wandering about from one part of the wards to another, and had now come home to hear about the triumph of the others, smiling bravely and saying that it would be his turn another day.  

 Their good luck, they felt, had given them the right to think about a home; and sitting out on the doorstep that summer evening they held consultation about it, and Jurgis took occasion to broach a weighty subject. Passing down the avenue to work that morning he had seen two boys leaving an advertisement from house to house; seeing that there were pictures upon it, Jurgis had asked for one, and had rolled it up and tucked it into his shirt. At noon-time a man with whom he had been talking had read it to him, and told him a little about it, with the result that Jurgis had conceived a wild idea.

 He brought out the placard, which was quite a work of art. It was nearly two feet long, printed on calendered paper, with a selection of colors so bright that they shone even in the moonlight. The center of the placard was occupied by a house, brilliantly painted, new and dazzling. The roof of it was of a purple hue, and trimmed with gold; the house itself was silvery, and the doors and windows red. It was a two-story building, with a porch in front, and a very fancy scroll-work around the edges; it was complete in every tiniest detail, even the door-knob, and there was a hammock on the porch, and white lace curtains in the windows. Underneath this, in one corner, was a picture of a husband and wife in loving embrace; in the opposite corner was a cradle, with fluffy curtains drawn over it, and a smiling cherub hovering upon silver-colored wings. For the fear that the significance of all this should be lost, there was a label in Polish, Bohemian, Lithuanian and English– “Namal. Home.” “Why pay rent?” The linguistic circular went on to demand: “Why not own your own home? Did you know that you can buy one for less than your rent? We have built thousands of homes which are now occupied by happy families” — and then the poster became eloquent, picturing the blissfulness of married life in a house with nothing to pay. It even quoted “Home, Sweet Home,”  and made bold to translate it into Polish–though for some reason it omitted the Lithuanian of this, perhaps, because Lithuanian is not hospitable to poets. Most persons would admit that it might prove a difficult matter to be sentimental in a language in which sob is known as a “gukcziojimas,” and a smile as a “nusiszypsojimas.”

The original publication's header image, depicting Jurgis pitching his abode ambitions on the stairs.

 Over this document the family pored long, while Ona spelled out its contents. It appeared that this house contained four rooms, besides a basement, and that it might be bought for fifteen hundred dollars, the lot and all. Of this only three hundred dollars had to be paid down, the balance being paid at the rate of twelve dollars a month. These were frightful sums, but then they were in America, where people talked about such sums without fear. They had learned that they would have to pay a rent of nine dollars a month for a flat, and there was no way of doing better, unless the family of twelve was to exist in one or two rooms, as at present. If they paid rent, of course they might pay forever, and be no better off; whereas, if they could only meet the extra expense in the beginning, there would at least come a time when they would not have any rent to pay for the rest of their lives.

 They figured it up. There was a little left of the money belonging to Teta Elzbieta, and there was a little left to Jurgis. Marija had about fifty dollars pinned up somewhere in her stockings, and Grandfather Anthony had part of the money he had gotten for his farm. If they all combined they would have enough to make the first payment; and if they had employment, so that they could be sure of the future, it might really proved the best plan. It was, of course, not a thing even to be talked of lightly; it was a thing they would have to sift to the bottom. And yet, on the other hand, if they were going to make the venture, the sooner they did it the better; for were they not paying rent all the time, and living in a most horrible way besides? Jurgis was used to dirt–there was nothing could scare a man who had been with a railroad gang, where one could gather up the fleas off the floor of the sleeping-room by the handful; but that sort of thing would not do for Ona. They must have a better place of some sort very soon–Jurgis said it with all the assurance and of a man who had just made a dollar and fifty-seven cents in a single day. Jurgis was at a loss to understand why, with wages as they were, so many of the people in this district should live the way they did.

 The next day Marjia went to see her “forelady,” and was told to report the first of the week, and learn the business of can-painter. Marija went home singing out loud all the way; and was just in time to join Ona and her stepmother as they were setting out to go and make inquiry concerning the house. That evening the three made their report to the men– the thing was altogether as represented in the circular, or at any rate so the agent they had seen had told them. The houses lay to the south, about a half a mile from the yards; the gentleman would go at any time to show them. The houses were wonderful bargains, he ahd assured them personally—and for their own good. He could do this, so he explained to them, for the reason that he had himself no interest in their sale—he was merely the agent for a company that had built them. These were the last, and the company was going out of business, so if anyone wished to take advantage of this wonderful no-rent plan he would have to be very quick. As a matter of fact there was just a little uncertainty as to whether there was a single house left; for the agent had taken so many people to see them, and for all he knew the company might have parted with the last. Seeing Teta Elzbieeta’s evident grief at this very news, he had added, after some hesitation, that if they really intended to make a purchase he would send a telephone message at his own expense, and have one of the houses kept. So it had finally been arranged—and they were to go and make an inspection the following Sunday morning.

 That was Thursday; and all the rest of the week the killing-gang at Smith’s worked at full pressure, and Jurgis cleared a dollar seventy-five every day. That was at the rate of $10.50 a week, and forty-five a month; Jurgis was not able to figure, except it was a very simple sum, but Ona was like lightning at such things, and she worked out the problem for the family. Marija and Jonas were each to pay sixteen dollars a month board, and the old man insisted that he could do the same as soon as he got a place—which might be any day now. That would make ninety-three dollars. Then Marija and Jonas were between them to take a third share in the house, which would leave only eight dollars a month for Jurgis to contribute to the payment. So they would have eighty-five dollars a month–or, supposing that Diedas Antanas did not get work at once, seventy dollars a month–which ought surely to be sufficient for the support of a family of twelve.

 An hour before the time on Sunday morning the entire party set out. They had the address written on a piece of paper, which they showed to someone now and then. It proved to be a long mile and a half, but they walked it, and half an hour or so later the agent put an appearance. He was a smooth and florid personage, elegantly dressed, and he spoke their language freely, which gave him a great advantage in dealing with them. He escorted them to the house, which was one of a long row of the typical frame dwellings of the neighborhood, where architecture is a luxury that is dispensed with. Ona’s heart sank, for the house was not as it was shown in the picture; the color scheme was different, for one thing, and then the house did not seem quite so big. Still, it was freshly painted, and made a considerable show. It was all brand new, so the agent told them, but he talked so incessantly that they were quite confused, and did not have time to ask many questions. There were all sorts of things they had made up their minds to inquire about, but when the time came, they either forgot them or lacked the courage. The other houses in the row did not seem to be new, and few of them seemed to be occupied. When they ventured to hint at this the agent’s reply was that the purchasers would be moving in shortly. To press the matter would have seemed to be doubting his word, and never in their lives had any one of them ever spoken to a person of the class called “gentlemen” except with deference and humility.

 The house had a basement, about two feet below the street line, and a single story, about six feet above it, reached by a flight of steps. In addition there was an attic, made by the peak of the roof, and having one small window in each end. The street in front of the house was unpaved and unlighted, and the view from it consisted of a few exactly similar houses, scattered here and there upon lots grown up with dingy brown weeds. (Of other verdure there is none in all the stockyards district, for nothing will grow in the smoke.) The house inside contained four rooms, plastered white; the basement was but a frame, the walls being unplastered and the floor not laid. The agent explained that the houses were built that way, as the purchasers generally preferred to finish the basements to suit their own taste. The attic was also unfinished–the family had been figuring that in case of an emergency they could rent this attic, but they found that there was not even a floor, nothing but joints, and beneath them the lath and plaster of the ceiling below. All of this, however, did not chill their ardor as much as might have been expected, because of the volubility of the agent. There was no end to the advantages of the house, as he set them forth, and he was not silent for an instant; he showed them everything, down to the locks on the doors and the catches on the windows, and how to work them. He showed them the sink in the kitchen, with running water and a faucet, something which Teta Elzbieta had never in her wildest dreams hoped to possess. After a discovery such as that it would have seemed ungrateful to find any fault, and so they tried to shut their eyes to the defects.

 Still they were peasant people, and they hung onto their money by instinct; it was quite in vain that the agent hinted at promptness—they would see, they would see, they told him, they could not decide until they had had more time. And so they went home again, and all day and evening there was figuring and debating. It was an agony to them to have to make up their minds in a matter such as this. They never could agree all together; there were so many arguments upon each side, and one would be obstinate, and no sooner would the rest have convinced him, than it would transpire that his arguments had caused another to waver. Once, in the evening, when they were all in harmony, and the house was as good as bought, Szadwilas came in and upset them again. Szadwillas had no use for property-owning. He told them cruel stories of people who had been done to death in this “buying a home” swindle. They would be almost sure to get into a tight place and lose all their money; and there was no end of expense that one could never foresee; and the house might be good for nothing from top to bottom—how was a poor man to know? Then too, they would swindle you with the contract—and how was a poor man to understand anything about a contract? It was all nothing but robbery, and there was no safety but in keeping out of it. And pay rent? asked Jurgis. Ah yes, to be sure, the other answered, that too was robbery. It was all robbery, for a poor man. The rich people not only had all the money, they had all the chance to get more; they had all the knowledge and the power, and so the poor man was down, and he had to stay down. After half an hour of this depressing conversation, they had their minds quite made up that they had been saved at the brink of a precipice; but then Szadwilas went away, and Jonas, who was a sharp little man, reminded them that the delicatessen business was a failure, according to its proprietor, and that this might account for his pessimistic views. Which, of course, reopened the subject!

 The controlling factor was that they could not stay where they were–they had to go somewhere. And when they gave up the house plan and decided to rent, the prospect of paying out nine dollars a month forever they found just as hard to face. The world is divided into those who have and those who have not, and all the stars in their course fight against the latter; the little family had been stung by the thought that by one great effort they might spring into the winning class. All day and all night for nearly a whole week they wrestled with the problem.

 In the end it was Jurgis who took the responsibility. Brother Jonas had gotten his job; and was pushing a truck in Anderson’s; and the killing-gang at Smith’s continued to work early and late, so that Jurgis grew more confident every hour, more certain of his power. It was the kind of thing the man of the family had to decide and carry through, he told himself. Others might have failed at it, but he was not the failing kind—he would show them how to do it. He would work all day, and all night, too, if need be; he would never rest until the house was paid for and his people had a home. So he told them, and so in the end the decision was made.

 They had talked about looking at more houses before they made the purchase; but then they did not know where any more were, and they did not know any way of finding out. The one they had seen held sway in their thoughts; and, whenever they thought of themselves in a house, it was this house that they thought of. And so they went and told the agent that they were ready to make the agreement. They knew, as an abstract proposition, that in matters of business all men are to be accounted liars; but they could not have been influenced by all they had heard from the eloquent agent, and they were quite persuaded that the house was something they had run a risk of losing by their delay. They drew a deep breath when he told them that they were still in time.

 They were to come on the morrow, and he would have the papers all drawn up. This matter of papers was one in which Jurgis understood to the full the need of caution; yet he could not go himself—everyone told him that he could not get a holiday, and that he might lose his job by asking. So there was nothing to be done but to trust it to the women, with Szadwilas, who promised to go with them. Jurgis spent a whole evening with them pressing upon the seriousness of the occasion–and then finally, out of innumerable hiding places about their persons and in their baggage, came forth the precious wads of money, to be done up tightly in a little bag and sewed fast in the lining of Teta Elzbieta’s dress.

 Early in the morning they sailed forth. Jurgis had given them so many instructions, and warned them against so many perils, that the women were quite pale with fright, and even the imperturbable delicatessen-vender, who prided himself upon being a businessman, was ill at ease. The agent had the deed all ready, and invited them to sit down and read it; this Szadwilas proceeded to do—a painful and laborious process, during which the agent drummed upon the desk. Teta Elzbieta was so embarrassed that the perspiration came out upon her forehead in beads; for was not this reading as much as to say plainly to the gentleman’s face that they doubted his honesty? Yet Jokubas Szadwilas read on and on; and presently there developed that he had good reason for doing so. For a horrible suspicion had begun dawning in his mind; he knitted his brows more and more as he read. This was not a deed of sale at all, so far as he could see–it provided only for the renting of the property! It was hard to tell, with all the strange legal jargon, words he had never heard before; but was not this plain– “the party of the first part hereby covenants and agrees to ‘rental’ of twelve dollars, for a period of eight years and four months!” Then Szadwilas took off his spectacles, and looked at the agent, and stammered a question.

 The agent was most polite, and explained that there was the usual formula; that it was always arranged that the property should merely be rented. He kept trying to show them something in the next paragraph; but Szadwilas could not get by the word “rental” –and when he translated it to Teta Elzbieta, she too was thrown into a fright. They would not own the home at all, then, for nearly nine years! The agent, with infinite patience, began to explain again; but no explanation would do now. Teta had firmly fixed in her mind the last solemn warning of Jurigs: “If there is anything wrong, do not give him the money, but go out and get a lawyer.” It was an agonizing moment, but she sat in the chair, her hands clenched like death, and made a fearful effort, summoning all her powers, and gasped out her purpose.

 Jokubas translated her words. She expected the agent to fly into a passion, but he was, to her bewilderment, as ever imperturbable; he even offered to go and get a lawyer for her, but she declined this. They went a long way, on purpose to find a man who would not be a confederate. Then let anyone imagine their dismay, when, after half an hour, they came in with a lawyer, and heard him greet the agent by his first name!

 They felt that all was lost; they sat like prisoners summoned to hear the reading of their death warrant. There was nothing more that they could do–they were trapped! The lawyer read over the deed, and when he had read it he informed Szadwilas that it was all perfectly regular, that the deed was a blank deed such as was often used in these sales. And was the price as agreed? the old man asked—three hundred dollars a month, till the total of fifteen hundred dollars had been paid? Yes, that was correct. And it was for the sale of such and such a house–the house and lot and everything? Yes,—and the lawyer showed him where that was all written. And it was all perfectly regular—were no tricks about it of any sort? They were poor people, and this was all they had in the world, and if there was anything wrong they would be ruined. And so Szadwilas went on, asking one trembling question after another, while the eyes of the women folks were fixed upon him in mute agony. They could not understand what he was saying, but they knew that upon it their fate depended. And when at last he had questioned until there was no more questioning to be done, and the time came for them to make up their minds, and either close the bargain or reject it—it was all that poor Teta Elzbieta could do to keep from bursting into tears. Jokubas had asked her if she wished to sign; he had asked her twice—and what could she say? How did she know if this lawyer was telling the truth—that he was not in the conspiracy? And yet, how could she say no—what excuse could she give? The eyes of everyone in the room were upon her, awaiting her decision; and at last, half blind with her tears, she began fumbling in her jacket, where she had pinned the precious money. And she brought it out and unwrapped it before the men. All of this Ona sat watching, from her corner of the room, twisting her hands together, meantime, in a fever of fright. Ona longed to cry out and tell her step-mother to stop, that it was all a trap; but there seemed to be something clutching her by the throat, and she could not make a sound. And so Teta Elzbieta laid the money on the table, and the agent picked it up and counted it, and then wrote them a receipt for it and passed them the deed. Then he gave a sigh of satisfaction, and rose and shook hands with them all, still as smooth and polite as at the beginning. Ona had a dim recollection  of the lawyer telling Szadwilas that his charge was a dollar, which occasioned some debate, and more agony; and then, after they had paid that, too, they went out into the street, her step-mother clutching the deed in her hand. They were so weak from fright that they could not walk, but had to sit down on the way.

 So they went home, with a deadly terror gnawing at their souls; and that evening Jurgis came home and heard their story, and that was the end. Jurgis was sure that they had been swindled, and were ruined; and he tore his hair and cursed like a madman, swearing that he would kill the agent that very night. In the end he seized the paper and rushed out of the house, and all the way across the yards to Halsted street. He dragged Szadwilas out from his supper, and together they rushed to consult another lawyer. When they entered his office the lawyer sprang up, for Jurgis looked like a crazy person, with flying hair and bloodshot eyes. His companion explained the situation, and the lawyer took the paper and began to read it, while Jurgis stood clutching the desk with knotted hands, trembling in every nerve.

 Once or twice the lawyer looked up and asked a question of Szadwilas; the other did not know a word that he was saying, but his eyes were fixed upon the lawyer’s face, striving in an agony of dread to read his mind. He saw the man look up and laugh, and he gave a gasp; the man said something to Szadwilas, and Jurgis turned upon him, his heart almost stopping.

“Well?” he panted.

“He says it is all right,” said Szadwilas.

“All right!”

“Yes, he says it is just as it should be.” And Jurgis, in his relief, sank down into a chair.

 “Are you sure of it?” he gasped, and made Szadwilas translate question after question. He could not hear it often enough; he could not ask with enough variations. Yes, they had bought the house, they had really bought it. It belonged to them, they had only to pay the money and it would be all right. Then Jurgis covered his face with his hands, for there were tears in his eyes, and he felt like a fool. But he had had such a horrible fright; strong man as he was, it left him almost too weak to stand up.

 The lawyer explained that the rental was a form—property was said to be merely rented until the last payment had been made, the purpose being to make it easier to turn the party out if he did not make the payments. So long as they paid, however, they had nothing to fear, the house was all theirs.

 Jurgis was so grateful that he paid the half dollar the lawyer asked without winking an eyelash, and then rushed home to tell the news to the family. He found Ona in a faint and the babies screaming, and the whole house in an uproar—for it had been believed by all that he had gone to murder the agent. It was hours before the excitement could be calmed; and all through that cruel night Jurigs would wake up now and then and hear Ona and her stepmother in the next room, sobbing softly to themselves.

(To be continued.)