Ernest Poole.

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little girls. A tense young Jew, dark faced and thin, was shouting from a
wagon that all men and women must be free and own the factories and mills.
A mob of small boys, clustered 'round a "camp fire" they had made on the
street, were leaping wildly through the flames. It was a mammoth cauldron
here, seething, bubbling over with a million foreign lives. Deborah's big

She turned into a doorway, went down a long dark passage and came into a
court-yard enclosed by greasy tenement walls that reared to a spot of dark
blue sky where a few quiet stars were twinkling down. With a feeling of
repugnance Roger followed his daughter into a tall rear building and up a
rickety flight of stairs. On the fourth landing she knocked at a door, and
presently it was opened by a stout young Irish woman with flushed haggard
features and disheveled hair.

"Oh. Good evening, Mrs. Berry."

"Good evening. Come in," was the curt reply. They entered a small stifling
room where were a stove, two kitchen chairs and three frowzled beds in
corners. On one of the beds lay a baby asleep, on another two small
restless boys sat up and watched the visitors. A sick man lay upon the
third. And a cripple boy, a boarder here, stood on his crutches watching
them. Roger was struck at once by his face. Over the broad cheek bones the
sallow skin was tightly drawn, but there was a determined set to the jaws
that matched the boy's shrewd grayish eyes, and his face lit up in a
wonderful smile.

"Hello, Miss Deborah," he said. His voice had a cheery quality.

"Hello, Johnny. How are you?"

"Fine, thank you."

"That's good. I've brought my father with me."

"Howdado, sir, glad to meet you."

"It's some time since you've been to see me, John," Deborah continued.

"I know it is," he answered. And then with a quick jerk of his head, "He's
been pretty bad," he said. Roger looked at the man on the bed. With his
thin waxen features drawn, the man was gasping for each breath.

"What's the matter?" Roger whispered.

"Lungs," said the young woman harshly. "You needn't bother to speak so low.
He can't hear you anyhow. He's dying. He's been dying weeks."

"Why didn't you let me know of this?" Deborah asked gently.

"Because I knew what you'd want to do - take him off to a hospital! And I
ain't going to have it! I promised him he could die at home!"

"I'm sorry," Deborah answered. There was a moment's silence, and the baby
whimpered in its sleep. One child had gone to his father's bed and was
frowning at his agony as though it were a tiresome sight.

"Are any of them coughing?" Deborah inquired.

"No," said the woman sharply.

"Yes, they are, two of 'em," John cheerfully corrected her.

"You shut up!" she said to him, and she turned back to Deborah. "It's my
home, I guess, and my family, too. So what do you think that _you_ can do?"
Deborah looked at her steadily.

"Yes, it's your family," she agreed. "And it's none of my business, I
know - except that John is one of my boys - and if things are to go on like
this I can't let him board here any more. If he had let me know before I'd
have taken him from you sooner. You'll miss the four dollars a week he

The woman swallowed fiercely. The flush on her face had deepened. She
scowled to keep back the tears.

"We can all die for all I care! I've about got to the end of my rope!"

"I see you have." Deborah's voice was low. "You've made a hard plucky
fight, Mrs. Berry. Are there any empty rooms left in this building?"

"Yes, two upstairs. What do you want to know for?"

"I'm going to rent them for you. I'll arrange it to-night with the janitor,
on condition that you promise to move your children to-morrow upstairs and
keep them there until this is over. Will you?"


"That's sensible. And I'll have one of the visiting nurses here within an


"And later on we'll have a talk."

"All right - "

"Good-night, Mrs. Berry."

"Good-night, Miss Gale, I'm much obliged.... Say, wait a minute! Will you?"
The wife had followed them out on the landing and she was clutching
Deborah's arm. "Why can't the nurse give him something," she whispered, "to
put him to sleep for good and all? It ain't right to let a man suffer like
that! I can't stand it! I'm - I'm - " she broke off with a sob. Deborah put
one arm around her and held her steadily for a moment.

"The nurse will see that he sleeps," she said. "Now, John," she added,
presently, when the woman had gone into the room, "I want you to get your
things together. I'll have the janitor move them upstairs. You sleep there
to-night, and to-morrow morning come to see me at the school."

"All right, Miss Deborah, much obliged. I'll be all right. Good-night,
sir - "

"Good-night, my boy," said Roger, and suddenly he cleared his throat. He
followed his daughter down the stairs. A few minutes she talked with the
janitor, then joined her father in the court.

"I'm sorry I took you up there," she said. "I didn't know the man was

"Who are they?" he asked.

"Poor people," she said. And Roger flinched.

"Who is this boy?"

"A neighbor of theirs. His mother, who was a widow, died about two years
ago. He was left alone and scared to death lest he should be 'put away' in
some big institution. He got Mrs. Berry to take him in, and to earn his
board he began selling papers instead of coming to our school. So our
school visitor looked him up. Since then I have been paying his board from
a fund I have from friends uptown, and so he has finished his schooling.
He's to graduate next week. He means to be a stenographer."

"How old is he?"

"Seventeen," she replied.

"How was he crippled? Born that way?"

"No. When he was a baby his mother dropped him one Saturday night when she
was drunk. He has never been able to sit down. He can lie down or he can
stand. He's always in pain, it never stops. I learned that from the doctor
I took him to see. But whenever you ask him how he feels you get the same
answer always: 'Fine, thank you.' He's a fighter, is John."

"He looks it. I'd like to help that boy - "

"All right - you can help him," Deborah said. "You'll find him quite a

"A what?"

"A tonic," she repeated. And with a sudden tightening of her wide and
sensitive mouth, Deborah added slowly, "Because, though I've known many
hungry boys, Johnny Geer is the hungriest of them all - hungry to get on in
life, to grow and learn and get good things, get friends, love, happiness,
everything!" As she spoke of this child in her family, over her strong
quiet face there swept a fierce, intent expression which struck Roger
rather cold. What a fight she was making, this daughter of his, against
what overwhelming odds. But all he said to her was this:

"Now let's look at something more cheerful, my dear."

"Very well," she answered with a smile. "We'll go and see Isadore Freedom."

"Who's he?"

"Isadore Freedom," said Deborah, "is the beginning of something tremendous.
He came from Russian Poland - and the first American word he learned over
there was 'freedom.' So in New York he changed his name to that - very
solemnly, by due process of law. It cost him seven dollars. He had nine
dollars at the time. Isadore is a flame, a kind of a torch in the

"How does the flame earn his living?"

"At first in a sweatshop," she replied. "But he came to my school five
nights a week, and at ten o'clock when school was out he went to a little
basement café, where he sat at a corner table, drank one glass of Russian
tea and studied till they closed at one. Then he went to his room, he told
me, and used to read himself to sleep. He slept as a rule four hours. He
said he felt he needed it. Now he's a librarian earning fifteen dollars a
week, and having all the money he needs he has put the thought of it out of
his life and is living for education - education in freedom. For Isadore has
studied his name until he thinks he knows what it means."

They found him in a small public library on an ill-smelling ghetto street.
The place had been packed with people, but the clock had just struck ten
and the readers were leaving reluctantly, many with books under their arms.
At sight of Deborah and her father, Isadore leaped up from his desk and
came quickly to meet them with outstretched hands.

"Oh, this is splendid! Good evening!" he cried. Hardly more than a boy,
perhaps twenty-one, he was short of frame but large of limb. He had wide
stooping shoulders and reddish hollows in his dark cheeks. Yet there was a
springiness in his step, vigor and warmth in the grip of his hand, in the
very curl of his thick black hair, in his voice, in his enormous smile.

"Come," he said to Roger, when the greetings were over. "You shall see my
library, sir. But I want that you shall not see it alone. While you look
you must close for me your eyes and see other libraries, many, many, all
over the world. You must see them in big cities and in very little towns
to-night. You must see people, millions there, hungry, hungry people. Now I
shall show you their food and their drink." As he spoke he was leading them
proudly around. In the stacks along the walls he pointed out fiction,
poetry, history, books of all the sciences.

"They read all, all!" cried Isadore. "Look at this Darwin on my desk. In a
year so many have read this book it is a case for the board of health. And
look at this shelf of economics. I place it next to astronomy. And I say to
these people, 'Yes, read about jobs and your hours and wages. Yes, you must
strike, you must have better lives. But you must read also about the
stars - and about the big spaces - silent - not one single little sound for
many, many million years. To be free you must grow as big as that - inside
of your head, inside of your soul. It is not enough to be free of a czar, a
kaiser or a sweatshop boss. What will you do when they are gone? My fine
people, how will you run the world? You are deaf and blind, you must be
free to open your own ears and eyes, to look into the books and see what is
there - great thoughts and feelings, great ideas! And when you have seen,
then you must think - you must think it all out every time! That is
freedom!'" He stopped abruptly. Again on his dark features came a huge and
winning smile, and with an apologetic shrug, "But I talk too much of my
books," he said. "Come. Shall we go to my café?"

On a neighboring street, a few minutes later, down a flight of steep wooden
stairs they descended into a little café, shaped like a tunnel, the ceiling
low, the bare walls soiled by rubbing elbows, dirty hands, the air blue and
hot with smoke. Young men and girls packed in at small tables bent over
tall glasses of Russian tea, and gesturing with their cigarettes declaimed
and argued excitedly. Quick joyous cries of greeting met Isadore from every

"You see?" he said gaily. "This is my club. Here we are like a family." He
ordered tea of a waiter who seemed more like a bosom friend. And leaning
eagerly forward, he began to speak in glowing terms of the men and girls
from sweatshops who spent their nights in these feasts of the soul,
talking, listening, grappling, "for the power to think with minds as clear
as the sun when it rises," he ardently cried. "There is not a night in this
city, not one, when hundreds do not talk like this until the breaking of
the day! And then they sleep! A little joke! For at six o'clock they must
rise to their work! And that is a force," he added, "not only for those
people but a force for you and me. Do you see? When you feel tired, when
all your hopes are sinking low, you think of those people and you say, 'I
will go to their places.' And you go. You listen and you watch their faces,
and such fire makes you burn! You go home, you are happy, you have a new

"And perhaps at last you will have a religion," he continued, in fervent
tones. "You see, with us Jews - and with Christians, too - the old religion,
it is gone. And in its place there is nothing strong. And so the young
people go all to pieces. They dance and they drink. If you go to those
dance halls you say, 'They are crazy!' For dancing alone is not enough. And
you say, 'These people must have a religion.' You ask, 'Where can I find a
new God?' And you reply, 'There is no God.' And then you must be very sad.
You know how it is? You feel too free. And you feel scared and lonely. You
look up at the stars. There are millions. You are only a speck of dust - on

"But then you come to my library. And you see those hungry people - more
hungry than men have ever been. And you see those books upon the shelves.
And you know when they come together at last, when that power to think as
clear as the sun comes into the souls of those people so hungry, then we
shall have a new god for the world. For there is no end to what they shall
do," Isadore ended huskily.

Roger felt a lump in his throat. He glanced into his daughter's eyes and
saw a suspicious brightness there. Isadore looked at her happily.

"You see?" he said to Roger. "When she came here to-night she was tired,
half sick. But now she is all filled with life!"

* * * * *

Later, on the street outside when Isadore had left them, Deborah turned to
her father:

"Before we go home, there's one place more."

And they went to a building not far away, a new structure twelve floors
high which rose out of the neighboring tenements. It had been built, she
told him, by a socialist daily paper. A dull night watchman half asleep
took them in the elevator up to the top floor of the building, where in a
bustling, clanking loft the paper was just going to press. Deborah seemed
to know one of the foremen. He smiled and nodded and led the way through
the noise and bustle to a large glass door at one end. This she opened and
stepped out upon a fire escape so broad it was more like a balcony. And
with the noise of the presses subdued, from their high perch they looked
silently down.

All around them for miles, it seemed, stretched dark uneven fields of
roofs, with the narrow East River winding its way through the midst of them
to the harbor below, silvery, dim and cool and serene, opening to the
distant sea. From the bridges rearing high over the river, lights by
thousands sparkled down. But directly below the spot where they stood was
only a dull hazy glow, rising out of dark tenement streets where dimly they
could just make out numberless moving shadowy forms, restless crowds too
hot to sleep. The roofs were covered everywhere with men and women and
children - families, families, families, all merged together in the dark.
And from them rose into the night a ceaseless murmur of voices, laughing
and joking, quarreling, loving and hating, demanding, complaining, and
fighting and slaving and scheming for bread and the means of stark
existence. But among these struggling multitudes confusedly did Roger feel
the brighter presence here and there of more aspiring figures, small groups
in glaring, stilling rooms down there beneath the murky dark, young people
fiercely arguing, groping blindly for new gods. And all these voices, to
his ears, merged into one deep thrilling hum, these lights into one
quivering glow, that went up toward the silent stars.

And there came to him a feeling which he had often had before in many
different places - that he himself was a part of all this, the great, blind,
wistful soul of mankind, which had been here before he was born and would
be here when he was dead - still groping, yearning, struggling upward, on
and on - to something distant as the sun. And still would he be a part of it
all, through the eager lives of his children. He turned and looked at
Deborah and caught the light that was in her eyes.


Roger awoke the next morning feeling sore and weary, and later in his
office it was hard to keep his mind on his work. He thought of young
Isadore Freedom. He was glad he had met that boy, and so he felt toward
Deborah's whole terrific family. Confused and deafening as it was, there
was something inspiring in it all. But God save him from many such
evenings! For half his life Roger had been a collector, not only of rings
but of people, too, of curious personalities. These human bits, these
memories, he had picked up as he lived along and had taken them with him
and made them his own, had trimmed and polished every one until its rough
unpleasant edges were all nicely smoothed away and it glittered and shone
like the gem that it was. For Roger was an idealist. And so he would have
liked to do here. What a gem could be made of Isadore with a little careful

But Deborah's way was different. She stayed in life, lived in it close,
with its sharp edges bristling. In this there was something splendid, but
there was something tragic, too. It was all very well for that young Jew to
burn himself up with his talk about freedom, his feverish searching for new
gods. "In five years," Roger told himself, "Mr. Isadore Freedom will either
tone down or go stark mad."

But quite probably he would tone down, for he was only a youngster, these
were Isadore's wild oats. But this was no longer Deborah's youth, she had
been at this job ten years. And she hadn't gone mad, she had kept herself
sane, she had many sides her father knew. He knew her in the mountains, or
bustling about at home getting ready for Laura's wedding, or packing
Edith's children off for their summer up at the farm. But did that make it
any easier? No. To let yourself go was easy, but to keep hold of yourself
was hard. It meant wear and tear on a woman, this constant straining effort
to keep her balance and see life whole.

"Well, it will break her down, that's all, and I don't propose to allow
it," he thought. "She's got to rest this summer and go easier next fall."

But how could he accomplish it? As he thought about her school, with its
long and generous arms reaching upon every side out into the tenements, the
prospect was bewildering. He searched for something definite. What could he
do to prove to his daughter his real interest in her work? Presently he
remembered Johnny Geer, the cripple boy whom he had liked, and at once he
began to feel himself back again upon known ground. Instead of millions
here was one, one plucky lad who needed help. All right, by George, he
should have it! And Roger told his daughter he would be glad to pay the
expense of sending John away for the summer, and that in the autumn perhaps
he would take the lad into his office.

"That's good of you, dearie," Deborah said. It was her only comment, but
from the look she gave him Roger felt he was getting on.

* * * * *

One evening not long afterwards, as they sat together at dinner, she rose
unsteadily to her feet and said in a breathless voice,

"It's rather close in here, isn't it? I think I'll go outside for a while."
Roger jumped up.

"Look here, my child, you're faint!" he cried.

"No, no, it's nothing! Just the heat!" She swayed and reeled, pitched
suddenly forward. "Father! Quick!" And Roger caught her in his arms. He
called to the maid, and with her help he carried Deborah up to her bed.
There she shuddered violently and beads of sweat broke out on her brow.
Her breath came hard through chattering teeth.

"It's so silly!" she said fiercely.

But as moments passed the chill grew worse. Her whole body seemed to be
shaking, and as Roger was rubbing one of her arms she said something to him
sharply, in a voice so thick he could not understand.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I can't feel anything."

"What do you mean?"

"In my arm where you're rubbing - I can't feel your hand."

"You'd better have a doctor!"

"Telephone Allan - Allan Baird. He knows about this," she muttered. And
Roger ran down to the telephone. He was thoroughly frightened.

"All right, Mr. Gale," came Baird's gruff bass, steady and slow, "I think I
know what the trouble is - and I wouldn't worry if I were you. I'll be there
in about ten minutes." And it was hardly more than that when he came into
Deborah's room. A moment he looked down at her.

"Again?" he said. She glanced up at him and nodded, and smiled quickly
through set teeth. Baird carefully examined her and then turned to Roger:
"Now I guess you'd better go out. You stay," he added to Sarah, the maid.
"I may need you here awhile."

About an hour later he came down to Roger's study.

"She's safe enough now, I guess," he said. "I've telephoned for a nurse for
her, and she'll have to stay in bed a few days."

"What's the trouble?"

"Acute indigestion."

"You don't say!" exclaimed Roger brightly, with a rush of deep relief.
Baird gave him a dry quizzical smile.

"People have died of that," he remarked, "in less than an hour. We caught
your daughter just in time. May I stay a few moments?"

"Glad to have you! Smoke a cigar!"

"Thanks - I will." As Baird reached out for the proffered cigar, Roger
suddenly noticed his hand. Long and muscular, finely shaped, it seemed to
speak of strength and skill and an immense vitality. Baird settled himself
in his chair. "I want to talk about her," he said. "This little attack is
only a symptom - it comes from nerves. She's just about ready for a smash.
She's had slighter attacks of this kind before."

"I never knew it," Roger said.

"No - I don't suppose you did. Your daughter has a habit of keeping things
like this to herself. She came to me and I warned her, but she wanted to
finish out her year. Do you know anything about her school work?"

"Yes, I was with her there this week."

"What did she show you?" Baird inquired. Roger tried to tell him. "No,
that's not what I'm after," he said. "That's just one of her usual
evenings." For a moment he smoked in silence. "I'm hunting now for
something else, for some unusual nervous shock which she appears to me to
have had."

"She has!" And Roger told him of her visit up to Sing Sing. Baird's lean
muscular right hand slowly tightened on his chair.

"That's a tough family of hers," he remarked.

"Yes," said Roger determinedly, "and she's got to give it up."

"You mean she ought to. But she won't."

"She's got to be made to," Roger growled. "This summer at least." Baird
shook his head.

"You forget her fresh air work," he replied. "She has three thousand
children on her mind. The city will be like a furnace, of course, and the
children must be sent to camps. If you don't see the necessity, go and talk
to her, and then you will."

"But you can forbid it, can't you?"

"No. Can you?"

"I can try," snapped Roger.

"Let's try what's possible," said Baird. "Let's try to keep her in bed
three days."

"Sounds modest," Roger grunted. And a glimmer of amusement came into
Baird's impassive eyes.

"Try it," he drawled. "By to-morrow night she'll ask for her stenographer.
She'll make you think she is out of the woods. But she won't be, please
remember that. A few years more," he added, "and she'll have used up her
vitality. She'll be an old woman at thirty-five."

"It's got to be stopped!" cried Roger.

"But how?" came the low sharp retort. "You've got to know her trouble
first. And her trouble is deep, it's motherhood - on a scale which has never
been tried before - for thousands of children, all of whom are living in a
kind of hell. I know your daughter pretty well. Don't make the mistake of
mixing her up with the old-fashioned teacher. It isn't what those children
learn, it's how they live that interests her, and how they are all growing
up. I say she's a mother - in spirit - but her body has never borne a child.
And that makes it worse - because it makes her more intense. It isn't
natural, you see."

A little later he rose to go.

"By the way," he said, at the door, "there's something I meant to tell her
upstairs - about a poor devil she has on her mind. A chap named
Berry - dying - lungs. She asked me to go and see him."


"I found it was only a matter of days." The tragic pity in Baird's quiet
voice was so deep as barely to be heard.

"So I shot him full of morphine. He won't wake up. Please tell her that."

Tall, ungainly, motionless, he loomed there in the doorway. With a little
shrug and a smile he turned and went slowly out of the house.


Deborah's recovery was rapid and determined. The next night she was sitting
up and making light of her illness. On the third day she dismissed her
nurse, and when her father came home from his office he found gathered
about her bed not only her stenographer but both her assistant principals.

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Online LibraryErnest PooleHis Family → online text (page 7 of 22)