The Besetment of Kurt Lieders by Octave Thanet
A SILVER rime glistened all down the street.
There was a drabble of dead leaves on the sidewalk which was of wood, and
on the roadway which was of macadam and stiff mud. The wind blew sharply,
for it was a December day and only six in the morning. Nor were the houses
high enough to furnish any independent bulwark; they were low, wooden
dwellings, the tallest a bare two stories in height, the majority only one
story. But they were in good painting and repair, and most of them had a
homely gayety of geraniums or bouvardias in the windows. The house on the
corner was the tall house. It occupied a larger yard than its neighbors;
and there were lace curtains tied with blue ribbons for the windows in the
right hand front room. The door of this house swung back with a crash, and
a woman darted out. She ran at the top of her speed to the little yellow
house farther down the street. Her blue calico gown clung about her stout
figure and fluttered behind her, revealing her blue woollen stockings and
felt slippers. Her gray head was bare. As she ran tears rolled down her
cheeks and she wrung her hands.
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh, lieber Herr Je!" One near would have heard her sob, in
too distracted agitation to heed the motorneer of the passing street-car
who stared after her at the risk of his car, or the tousled heads behind a
few curtains. She did not stop until she almost fell against the door of
the yellow house. Her frantic knocking was answered by a young woman in a
light and artless costume of a quilted petticoat and a red flannel sack.
"Oh, gracious goodness! Mrs. Lieders!" cried she.
Thekla Lieders rather staggered than walked into the room and fell back on
the black haircloth sofa.
"There, there, there," said the young woman while she patted the broad
shoulders heaving between sobs and short breath, "what is it? The house
"Oh, no, oh, Mrs. Olsen, he has done it again!" She wailed in sobs, like a
"Done it? Done what?" exclaimed Mrs. Olsen, then her face paled. "Oh, my
gracious, you DON'T mean he's killed himself———"
"Yes, he's killed himself, again."
"And he's dead?" asked the other in an awed tone.
Mrs. Lieders gulped down her tears. "Oh, not so bad as that, I cut him
down, he was up in the garret and I sus—suspected him and I run up
and—oh, he was there, a choking, and he was so mad! He swore at me
and—he kicked me when I—I says: 'Kurt, what are you doing of?
Hold on till I git a knife,' I says—for his hands was just dangling
at his side; and he says nottings cause he couldn't, he was most gone, and
I knowed I wouldn't have time to git no knife but I saw it was a rope was
pretty bad worn and so—so I just run and jumped and ketched it in my
hands, and being I'm so fleshy it couldn't stand no more and it broke!
And, oh! he—he kicked me when I was try to come near to git the rope
off his neck; and so soon like he could git his breath he swore at me——"
"And you a helping of him! Just listen to that!" cried the hearer
"So I come here for to git you and Mr. Olsen to help me git him down
stairs, 'cause he is too heavy for me to lift, and he is so mad he won't
walk down himself."
"Yes, yes, of course. I'll call Carl. Carl! dost thou hear? come! But did
you dare to leave him Mrs. Lieders?" Part of the time she spoke in
English, part of the time in her own tongue, gliding from one to another,
and neither party observing the transition.
Mrs. Lieders wiped her eyes, saying: "Oh, yes, Danke schon, I aint afraid
'cause I tied him with the rope, righd good, so he don't got no chance to
move. He was make faces at me all the time I tied him." At the
remembrance, the tears welled anew.
Mrs. Olsen, a little bright tinted woman with a nose too small for her big
blue eyes and chubby cheeks, quivered with indignant sympathy.
"Well, I did nefer hear of sooch a mean acting man!" seemed to her the
most natural expression; but the wife fired, at once.
"No, he is not a mean man," she cried, "no, Freda Olsen, he is not a mean
man at all! There aint nowhere a better man than my man; and Carl Olsen,
he knows that. Kurt, he always buys a whole ham and a whole barrel of
flour, and never less than a dollar of sugar at a time! And he never gits
drunk nor he never gives me any bad talk. It was only he got this wanting
to kill himself on him, sometimes."
"Well, I guess I'll go put on my things," said Mrs. Olsen, wisely
declining to defend her position. "You set right still and warm yourself,
and we'll be back in a minute."
Indeed, it was hardly more than that time before both Carl Olsen, who
worked in the same furniture factory as Kurt Lieders, and was a comely and
after-witted giant, appeared with Mrs. Olsen ready for the street.
He nodded at Mrs. Lieders and made a gurgling noise in his throat,
expected to convey sympathy. Then, he coughed and said that he was ready,
and they started.
Feeling further expression demanded, Mrs. Olsen asked: "How many times has
he done it, Mrs. Lieders?"
Mrs. Lieders was trotting along, her anxious eyes on the house in the
distance, especially on the garret windows. "Three times," she answered,
not removing her eyes; "onct he tooked Rough on Rats and I found it out
and I put some apple butter in the place of it, and he kept wondering and
wondering how he didn't feel notings, and after awhile I got him off the
notion, that time. He wasn't mad at me; he just said: 'Well, I do it some
other time. You see!' but he promised to wait till I got the spring house
cleaning over, so he could shake the carpets for me; and by and by he got
feeling better. He was mad at the boss and that made him feel bad. The
next time it was the same, that time he jumped into the cistern——"
"Yes, I know," said Olsen, with a half grin, "I pulled him out."
"It was the razor he wanted," the wife continued, "and when he come home
and says he was going to leave the shop and he aint never going back
there, and gets out his razor and sharps it, I knowed what that meant and
I told him I got to have some bluing and wouldn't he go and get it? and he
says, 'You won't git another husband run so free on your errands, Thekla,'
and I says I don't want none; and when he was gone I hid the razor and he
couldn't find it, but that didn't mad him, he didn't say notings; and when
I went to git the supper he walked out in the yard and jumped into the
cistern, and I heard the splash and looked in and there he was trying to
git his head under, and I called, 'For the Lord's sake, papa! For the
Lord's sake!' just like that. And I fished for him with the pole that
stood there and he was sorry and caught hold of it and give in, and I
rested the pole agin the side cause I wasn't strong enough to h'ist him
out; and he held on whilest I run for help——"
"And I got the ladder and he clum out," said the giant with another grin
of recollection, "he was awful wet!"
"That was a month ago," said the wife, solemnly.
"He sharped the razor onct," said Mrs. Lieders, "but he said it was for to
shave him, and I got him to promise to let the barber shave him sometime,
instead. Here, Mrs. Olsen, you go righd in, the door aint locked."
By this time they were at the house door. They passed in and ascended the
stairs to the second story, then climbed a narrow, ladder-like flight to
the garret. Involuntarily they had paused to listen at the foot of the
stairs, but it was very quiet, not a sound of movement, not so much as the
sigh of a man breathing. The wife turned pale and put both her shaking
hands on her heart.
"Guess he's trying to scare us by keeping quiet!" said Olsen, cheerfully,
and he stumbled up the stairs, in advance. "Thunder!" he exclaimed, on the
last stair, "well, we aint any too quick."
In fact Carl had nearly fallen over the master of the house, that
enterprising self-destroyer having contrived, pinioned as he was, to roll
over to the very brink of the stair well, with the plain intent to break
his neck by plunging headlong.
In the dim light all that they could see was a small, old man whose white
hair was strung in wisps over his purple face, whose deep set eyes glared
like the eyes of a rat in a trap, and whose very elbows and knees
expressed in their cramps the fury of an outraged soul. When he saw the
new-comers he shut his eyes and his jaws.
"Well, Mr. Lieders," said Olsen, mildly, "I guess you better git
down-stairs. Kin I help you up?"
"No," said Lieders.
"Will I give you an arm to lean on?"
"Won't you go at all, Mr. Lieders?"
Olsen shook his head. "I hate to trouble you, Mr. Lieders," said he in his
slow, undecided tones, "please excuse me," with which he gathered up the
little man into his strong arms and slung him over his shoulders, as
easily as he would sling a sack of meal. It was a vent for Mrs. Olsen's
bubbling indignation to make a dive for Lieders's heels and hold them,
while Carl backed down-stairs. But Lieders did not make the least
resistance. He allowed them to carry him into the room indicated by his
wife, and to lay him bound on the plump feather bed. It was not his
bedroom but the sacred "spare room," and the bed was part of its luxury.
Thekla ran in, first, to remove the embroidered pillow shams and the
dazzling, silken "crazy quilt" that was her choicest possession.
Safely in the bed, Lieders opened his eyes and looked from one face to the
other, his lip curling. "You can't keep me this way all the time. I can do
it in spite of you," said he.
"Well, I think you had ought to be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Lieders!" Mrs.
Olsen burst out, in a tremble between wrath and exertion, shaking her
little, plump fist at him.
But the placid Carl only nodded, as in sympathy, saying, "Well, I am sorry
you feel so bad, Mr. Lieders. I guess we got to go now."
Mrs. Olsen looked as if she would have liked to exhort Lieders further;
but she shrugged her shoulders and followed her husband in silence.
"I wished you'd stay to breakfast, now you're here," Thekla urged out of
her imperious hospitality; had Kurt been lying there dead, the next meal
must have been offered, just the same. "I know, you aint got time to git
Mr. Olsen his breakfast, Freda, before he has got to go to the shops, and
my tea-kettle is boiling now, and the coffee'll be ready—I GUESS you
had better stay."
But Mrs. Olsen seconded her husband's denial, and there was nothing left
Thekla but to see them to the door. No sooner did she return than Lieders
spoke. "Aint you going to take off them ropes?" said he.
"Not till you promise you won't do it."
Silence. Thekla, brushing a few tears from her eyes, scrutinized the ropes
again, before she walked heavily out of the room. She turned the key in
Directly a savory steam floated through the hall and pierced the cracks
about the door; then Thekla's footsteps returned; they echoed over the
She had brought his breakfast, cooked with the best of her homely skill.
The pork chops that he liked had been fried, there was a napkin on the
tray, and the coffee was in the best gilt cup and saucer.
"Here's your breakfast, papa," said she, trying to smile.
"I don't want no breakfast," said he.
She waited, holding the tray, and wistfully eying him.
"Take it 'way," said he, "I won't touch it if you stand till doomsday,
lessen you untie me!"
"I'll untie your arm, papa, one arm; you kin eat that way."
"Not lessen you untie all of me, I won't touch a bite."
"You know why I won't untie you, papa."
"Starving will kill as dead as hanging," was Lieders's orphic response to
Thekla sighed and went away, leaving the tray on the table. It may be that
she hoped the sight of food might stir his stomach to rebel against his
dogged will; if so she was disappointed; half an hour went by during which
the statue under the bedclothes remained without so much as a quiver.
Then the old woman returned. "Aint you awful cramped and stiff, papa?"
"Yes," said the statue.
"Will you promise not to do yourself a mischief, if I untie you?"
Thekla groaned, while the tears started to her red eyelids. "But you'll
git awful tired and it will hurt you if you don't get the ropes off, soon,
"I know that!"
He closed his eyes again, to be the less hindered from dropping back into
his distempered musings. Thekla took a seat by his side and sat silent as
he. Slowly the natural pallor returned to the high forehead and sharp
features. They were delicate features and there was an air of refinement,
of thought, about Lieders's whole person, as different as possible from
the robust comeliness of his wife. With its keen sensitive-ness and its
undefined melancholy it was a dreamer's face. One meets such faces,
sometimes, in incongruous places and wonders what they mean. In fact, Kurt
Lieders, head cabinet maker in the furniture factory of Lossing & Co.,
was an artist. He was, also, an incomparable artisan and the most exacting
foreman in the shops. Thirty years ago he had first taken wages from the
senior Lossing. He had watched a modest industry climb up to a great
business, nor was he all at sea in his own estimate of his share in the
firm's success. Lieders's workmanship had an honesty, an infinite patience
of detail, a daring skill of design that came to be sought and commanded
its own price. The Lossing "art furniture" did not slander the name. No
sculptor ever wrought his soul into marble with a more unflinching
conscience or a purer joy in his work than this wood-carver dreaming over
sideboards and bedsteads. Unluckily, Lieders had the wrong side of the
gift as well as the right; was full of whims and crotchets, and as
unpractical as the Christian martyrs. He openly defied expense, and he
would have no trifling with the laws of art. To make after orders was an
insult to Kurt. He made what was best for the customer; if the latter had
not the sense to see it he was a fool and a pig, and some one else should
work for him, not Kurt Lieders, BEGEHR!
Young Lossing had learned the business practically. He was taught the
details by his father's best workman; and a mighty hard and strict master
the best workman proved! Lossing did not dream that the crabbed old tyrant
who rarely praised him, who made him go over, for the twentieth time, any
imperfect piece of work, who exacted all the artisan virtues to the last
inch, was secretly proud of him. Yet, in fact, the thread of romance in
Lieders's prosaic life was his idolatry of the Lossing Manufacturing Co.
It is hard to tell whether it was the Lossings or that intangible
quantity, the firm, the business, that he worshipped. Worship he did,
however, the one or the other, perhaps the both of them, though in the
peevish and erratic manner of the savage who sometimes grovels to his
idols and sometimes kicks them.
Nobody guessed what a blow it was to Kurt when, a year ago, the elder
Lossing had died. Even his wife did not connect his sullen melancholy and
his gibes at the younger generation, with the crape on Harry Lossing's
hat. He would not go to the funeral, but worked savagely, all alone by
himself, in the shop, the whole afternoon—breaking down at last at
the sight of a carved panel over which Lossing and he had once disputed.
The desolate loneliness of the old came to him when his old master was
gone. He loved the young man, but the old man was of his own generation;
he had "known how things ought to be and he could understand without
talking." Lieders began to be on the lookout for signs of waning
consideration, to watch his own eyes and hands, drearily wondering when
they would begin to play him false; at the same time because he was
unhappy he was ten times as exacting and peremptory and critical with the
younger workmen, and ten times as insolently independent with the young
master. Often enough, Lossing was exasperated to the point of taking the
old man at his word and telling him to go if he would, but every time the
chain of long habit, a real respect for such faithful service, and a keen
admiration for Kurt's matchless skill in his craft, had held him back. He
prided himself on keeping his word; for that reason he was warier of using
it. So he would compromise by giving the domineering old fellow a "good,
stiff rowing." Once, he coupled this with a threat, if they could not get
along decently they would better part! Lieders had answered not a word; he
had given Lossing a queer glance and turned on his heel. He went home and
bought some poison on the way. "The old man is gone and the young feller
don't want the old crank round, no more," he said to himself. "Thekla, I
guess I make her troubles, too; I'll git out!"
That was the beginning of his tampering with suicide. Thekla, who did not
have the same opinion of the "trouble," had interfered. He had married
Thekla to have someone to keep a warm fireside for him, but she was an
ignorant creature who never could be made to understand about carving. He
felt sorry for her when the baby died, the only child they ever had; he
was sorrier than he expected to be on his own account, too, for it was an
ugly little creature, only four days old, and very red and wrinkled; but
he never thought of confiding his own griefs or trials to her. Now, it
made him angry to have that stupid Thekla keep him in a world where he did
not wish to stay. If the next day Lossing had not remembered how his
father valued Lieders, and made an excuse to half apologize to him, I fear
Thekla's stratagems would have done little good.
The next experience was cut out of the same piece of cloth. He had
relented, he had allowed his wife to save him; but he was angry in secret.
Then came the day when open disobedience to Lossing's orders had snapped
the last thread of Harry's patience. To Lieders's aggrieved "If you ain't
satisfied with my work, Mr. Lossing, I kin quit," the answer had come
instantly, "Very well, Lieders, I'm sorry to lose you, but we can't have
two bosses here: you can go to the desk." And when Lieders in a blind stab
of temper had growled a prophecy that Lossing would regret it, Lossing had
stabbed in turn: "Maybe, but it will be a cold day when I ask you to come
back." And he had gone off without so much as a word of regret. The old
workman had packed up his tools, the pet tools that no one was ever
permitted to touch, and crammed his arms into his coat and walked out of
the place where he had worked so long, not a man saying a word. Lieders
didn't reflect that they knew nothing of the quarrel. He glowered at them
and went away sore at heart. We make a great mistake when we suppose that
it is only the affectionate that desire affection; sulky and
ill-conditioned souls often have a passionate longing for the very
feelings that they repel. Lieders was a womanish, sensitive creature under
the surly mask, and he was cut to the quick by his comrades' apathy.
"There ain't no place for old men in this world," he thought, "there's
them boys I done my best to make do a good job, and some of 'em I've
worked overtime to help; and not one of 'em has got as much as a good-by
in him for me!"
But he did not think of going to poor Thekla for comfort, he went to his
grim dreams. "I git my property all straight for Thekla, and then I quit,"
said he. Perhaps he gave himself a reprieve unconsciously, thinking that
something might happen to save him from himself. Nothing happened. None of
the "boys" came to see him, except Carl Olsen, the very stupidest man in
the shop, who put Lieders beside himself fifty times a day. The other men
were sorry that Lieders had gone, having a genuine workman's admiration
for his skill, and a sort of underground liking for the unreasonable old
man because he was so absolutely honest and "a fellow could always tell
where to find him." But they were shy, they were afraid he would take
their pity in bad part, they "waited a while."
Carl, honest soul, stood about in Lieders's workshop, kicking the shavings
with his heels for half an hour, and grinned sheepishly, and was told what
a worthless, scamping, bragging lot the "boys" at Lossing's were, and said
he guessed he had got to go home now; and so departed, unwitting that his
presence had been a consolation. Mrs. Olsen asked Carl what Lieders said;
Carl answered simply, "Say, Freda, that man feels terrible bad."
Meanwhile Thekla seemed easily satisfied. She made no outcry as Lieders
had dreaded, over his leaving the shop.
"Well, then, papa, you don't need git up so early in the morning no more,
if you aint going to the shop," was her only comment; and Lieders despised
the mind of woman more than ever.
But that evening, while Lieders was down town (occupied, had she known it,
with a codicil to his will), she went over to the Olsens and found out all
Carl could tell her about the trouble in the shop. And it was she that
made the excuse of marketing to go out the next day, that she might see
the rich widow on the hill who was talking about a china closet, and Judge
Trevor, who had asked the price of a mantel, and Mr. Martin, who had
looked at sideboards (all this information came from honest Carl); and who
proposed to them that they order such furniture of the best cabinet-maker
in the country, now setting up on his own account. He, simple as a baby
for all his doggedness, thought that they came because of his fame as a
workman, and felt a glow of pride, particularly as (having been prepared
by the wife, who said, "You see it don't make so much difference with my
Kurt 'bout de prize, if so he can get the furniture like he wants it, and
he always know of the best in the old country") they all were duly humble.
He accepted a few orders and went to work with a will; he would show them
what the old man could do. But it was only a temporary gleam; in a little
while he grew homesick for the shop, for the sawdust floor and the
familiar smell of oil, and the picture of Lossing flitting in and out. He
missed the careless young workmen at whom he had grumbled, he missed the
whir of machinery, and the consciousness of rush and hurry accented by the
cars on the track outside. In short, he missed the feeling of being part
of a great whole. At home, in his cosey little improvised shop, there was
none to dispute him, but there was none to obey him either. He grew
deathly tired of it all. He got into the habit of walking around the shops
at night, prowling about his old haunts like a cat. Once the night
watchman saw him. The next day there was a second watchman engaged. And
Olsen told him very kindly, meaning only to warn him, that he was
suspected to be there for no good purpose. Lieders confirmed a lurking
suspicion of the good Carl's own, by the clouding of his face. Yet he
would have chopped his hand off rather than have lifted it against the
That was Tuesday night, this was Wednesday morning.
The memory of it all, the cruel sense of injustice, returned with such
poignant force that Lieders groaned aloud.
Instantly, Thekla was bending over him. He did not know whether to laugh
at her or to swear, for she began fumbling at the ropes, half sobbing.
"Yes, I knowed they was hurting you, papa; I'm going to loose one arm.
Then I put it back again and loose the other. Please don't be bad!"
He made no resistance and she was as good as her word. She unbound and
bound him in sections, as it were; he watching her with a morose smile.
Then she left the room, but only to return with some hot coffee. Lieders
twisted his head away. "No," said he, "I don't eat none of that breakfast,
not if you make fresh coffee all the morning; I feel like I don't eat
never no more on earth."
Thekla knew that the obstinate nature that she tempted was proof against
temptation; if Kurt chose to starve, starve he would with food at his
"Oh, papa," she cried, helplessly, "what IS the matter with you?"
"Just dying is the matter with me, Thekla. If I can't die one way I kin
another. Now Thekla, I want you to quit crying and listen. After I'm gone
you go to the boss, young Mr. Lossing—but I always called him Harry
because he learned his trade of me, Thekla, but he don't think of that now—and
you tell him old Lieders that worked for him thirty years is dead, but he
didn't hold no hard feelings, he knowed he done wrong 'bout that mantel.
Mind you tell him."
"Yes, papa," said Thekla, which was a surprise to Kurt; he had dreaded a
weak flood of tears and protestations. But there were no tears, no
protestations, only a long look at him and a contraction of the eyebrows
as if Thekla were trying to think of something that eluded her. She placed
the coffee on the tray beside the other breakfast. For a while the room
was very still. Lieders could not see the look of resolve that finally
smoothed the perplexed lines out of his wife's kind, simple old face. She
rose. "Kurt," she said, "I don't guess you remember this is our
wedding-day; it was this day, eighteen year we was married."
"So!" said Lieders, "well, I was a bad bargain to you, Thekla; after you
nursed your father that was a cripple for twenty years, I thought it would
be easy with me; but I was a bad bargain."
"The Lord knows best about that," said Thekla, simply, "be it how it be,
you are the only man I ever had or will have, and I don't like you starve
yourself. Papa, say you don't kill yourself, to-day, and dat you will eat
"Yes," Lieders repeated in German, "a bad bargain for thee, that is sure.
But thou hast been a good bargain for me. Here! I promise. Not this day.
Give me the coffee."
He had seasons, all the morning, of wondering over his meekness, and his
agreement to be tied up again, at night. But still, what did a day matter?
a man humors women's notions; and starving was so tedious. Between whiles
he elaborated a scheme to attain his end. How easy to outwit the silly
Thekla! His eyes shone, as he hid the little, sharp knife up his cuff.
"Let her tie me!" says Lieders, "I keep my word. To-morrow I be out of
this. He won't git a man like me, pretty soon!"
Thekla went about her daily tasks, with her every-day air; but, now and
again, that same pucker of thought returned to her forehead; and, more
than once, Lieders saw her stand over some dish, poising her spoon in air,
too abstracted to notice his cynical observation.
The dinner was more elaborate than common, and Thekla had broached a
bottle of her currant wine. She gravely drank Lieders's health. "And many
good days, papa," she said.
Lieders felt a queer movement of pity. After the table was cleared, he
helped his wife to wash and wipe the dishes as his custom was of a Sunday
or holiday. He wiped dishes as he did everything, neatly, slowly, with a
careful deliberation. Not until the dishes were put away and the couple
were seated, did Thekla speak.
"Kurt," she said, "I got to talk to you."
An inarticulate groan and a glance at the door from Lieders. "I just got
to, papa. It aint righd for you to do the way you been doing for so long
time; efery little whiles you try to kill yourself; no, papa, that aint
Kurt, who had gotten out his pencils and compasses and other drawing
tools, grunted: "I got to look at my work, Thekla, now; I am too busy to
"No, Kurt, no, papa"—the hands holding the blue apron that she was
embroidering with white linen began to tremble; Lieders had not the least
idea what a strain it was on this reticent, slow of speech woman who had
stood in awe of him for eighteen years, to discuss the horror of her life;
but he could not help marking her agitation. She went on, desperately:
"Yes, papa, I got to talk it oud with you. You had ought to listen, 'cause
I always been a good wife to you and nefer refused you notings. No."
"Well, I aint saying I done it 'cause you been bad to me; everybody knows
we aint had no trouble."
"But everybody what don't know us, when they read how you tried to kill
yourself in the papers, they think it was me. That always is so. And now I
never can any more sleep nights, for you is always maybe git up and do
something to yourself. So now, I got to talk to you, papa. Papa, how could
you done so?"
Lieders twisted his feet under the rungs of his chair; he opened his
mouth, but only to shut it again with a click of his teeth.
"I got my mind made up, papa. I tought and I tought. I know WHY you done
it; you done it 'cause you and the boss was mad at each other. The boss
hadn't no righd to let you go———"
"Yes, he had, I madded him first; I was a fool. Of course I knowed more
than him 'bout the work, but I hadn't no right to go against him. The boss
is all right."
"Yes, papa, I got my mind made up"—like most sluggish spirits there
was an immense momentum about Thekla's mind, once get it fairly started it
was not to be diverted—"you never killed yourself before you used to
git mad at the boss. You was afraid he would send you away; and now you
have sent yourself away you don't want to live, 'cause you do not know how
you can git along without the shop. But you want to get back, you want to
get back more as you want to kill yourself. Yes, papa, I know, I know
where you did used to go, nights. Now"—she changed her speech
unconsciously to the tongue of her youth—"it is not fair, it is not
fair to me that thou shouldst treat me like that, thou dost belong to me,
also; so I say, my Kurt, wilt thou make a bargain with me? If I shall get
thee back thy place wilt thou promise me never to kill thyself any more?"
Lieders had not once looked up at her during the slow, difficult sentences
with their half choked articulation; but he was experiencing some strange
emotions, and one of them was a novel respect for his wife. All he said
was: "'Taint no use talking. I won't never ask him to take me back, once."
"Well, you aint asking of him. I ask him. I try to git you back,
"I tell you, it aint no use; I know the boss, he aint going to be letting
womans talk him over; no, he's a good man, he knows how to work his
"But would you promise me, Kurt?"
Lieders's eyes blurred with a mild and dreamy mist; he sighed softly.
"Thekla, you can't see how it is. It is like you are tied up, if I don't
can do that; if I can then it is always that I am free, free to go, free
to stay. And for you, Thekla, it is the same."
Thekla's mild eyes flashed. "I don't believe you would like it so you wake
up in the morning and find ME hanging up in the kitchen by the
Lieders had the air of one considering deeply. Then he gave Thekla one of
the surprises of her life; he rose from his chair, he walked in his
shuffling, unheeled slippers across the room to where the old woman sat;
he put one arm on the back of the chair and stiffly bent over her and
"Lieber Herr Je!" gasped Thekla.
"Then I shall go, too, pretty quick, that is all, mamma," said he.
Thekla wiped her eyes. A little pause fell between them, and in it they
may have both remembered vanished, half-forgotten days when life had
looked differently to them, when they had never thought to sit by their
own fireside and discuss suicide. The husband spoke first; with a
reluctant, half-shamed smile, "Thekla, I tell you what, I make the bargain
with you; you git me back that place, I don't do it again, 'less you let
me; you don't git me back that place, you don't say notings to me."
The apron dropped from the withered, brown hands to the floor. Again there
was silence; but not for long; ghastly as was the alternative, the
proposal offered a chance to escape from the terror that was sapping her
"How long will you give me, papa?" said she.
"I give you a week," said he.
Thekla rose and went to the door; as she opened it a fierce gust of wind
slashed her like a knife, and Lieders exclaimed, fretfully, "what you
opening that door for, Thekla, letting in the wind? I'm so cold, now,
right by the fire, I most can't draw. We got to keep a fire in the
base-burner good, all night, or the plants will freeze."
Thekla said confusedly that something sounded like a cat crying. "And you
talking like that it frightened me; maybe I was wrong to make such
"Then don't make it," said Lieders, curtly, "I aint asking you."
But Thekla drew a long breath and straightened herself, saying, "Yes, I
make it, papa, I make it."
"Well, put another stick of wood in the stove, will you, now you are up?"
said Lieders, shrugging his shoulders, "or I'll freeze in spite of you! It
seems to me it grows colder every minute."
But all that day he was unusually gentle with Thekla. He talked of his
youth and the struggles of the early days of the firm; he related a dozen
tales of young Lossing, all illustrating some admirable trait that he
certainly had not praised at the time. Never had he so opened his heart in
regard to his own ideals of art, his own ambitions. And Thekla listened,
not always comprehending but always sympathizing; she was almost like a
comrade, Kurt thought afterward.
The next morning, he was surprised to have her appear equipped for the
street, although it was bitterly cold. She wore her garb of ceremony, a
black alpaca gown, with a white crocheted collar neatly turned over the
long black, broadcloth cloak in which she had taken pride for the last
five years; and her quilted black silk bonnet was on her gray head. When
she put up her foot to don her warm overshoes Kurt saw that the stout
ankles were encased in white stockings. This was the last touch.
"Gracious, Thekla," cried Kurt, "are you going to market this day? It is
the coldest day this winter!"
"Oh, I don't mind," replied Thekla, nervously. Then she had wrapped a
scarf about her and gone out while he was getting into his own coat, and
conning a proffer to go in her stead.
"Oh, well, Thekla she aint such a fool like she looks!" he observed to the
cat, "say, pussy, WAS it you out yestiddy?"
The cat only blinked her yellow eyes and purred. She knew that she had not
been out, last night. Not any better than her mistress, however, who at
this moment was hailing a street-car.
The street-car did not land her anywhere near a market; it whirled her
past the lines of low wooden houses into the big brick shops with their
arched windows and terra-cotta ornaments that showed the ambitious
architecture of a growing Western town, past these into mills and
factories and smoke-stained chimneys. Here, she stopped. An acquaintance
would hardly have recognized her, her ruddy cheeks had grown so pale. But
she trotted on to the great building on the corner from whence came a low,
incessant buzz. She went into the first door and ran against Carl Olsen.
"Carl, I got to see Mr. Lossing," said she breathlessly.
"There ain't noding——"
"No, Gott sei dank', but I got to see him."
It was not Carl's way to ask questions; he promptly showed her the office
and she entered. She had not seen young Harry Lossing half a dozen times;
and, now, her anxious eyes wandered from one dapper figure at the high
desks, to another, until Lossing advanced to her.
He was a handsome young man, she thought, and he had kind eyes, but they
hardened at her first timid sentence: "I am Mrs. Lieders, I come about my
"Will you walk in here, Mrs. Lieders?" said Lossing. His voice was like
the ice on the window-panes.
She followed him into a little room. He shut the door.
Declining the chair that he pushed toward her she stood in the centre of
the room, looking at him with the pleading eyes of a child.
"Mr. Lossing, will you please save my Kurt from killing himself?"
"What do you mean?" Lossing's voice had not thawed.
"It is for you that he will kill himself, Mr. Lossing. This is the dird
time he has done it. It is because he is so lonesome now, your father is
died and he thinks that you forget, and he has worked so hard for you, but
he thinks that you forget. He was never tell me till yesterday; and then—it
was—it was because I would not let him hang himself——"
"Hang himself?" stammered Lossing, "you don't mean——"
"Yes, he was hang himself, but I cut him, no I broke him down," said
Thekla, accurate in all the disorder of her spirits; and forthwith, with
many tremors, but clearly, she told the story of Kurt's despair. She told,
as Lieders never would have known how to tell, even had his pride let him,
all the man's devotion for the business, all his personal attachment to
the firm; she told of his gloom after the elder Lossing died, "for he was
think there was no one in this town such good man and so smart like your
fader, Mr. Lossing, no, and he would set all the evening and try to draw
and make the lines all wrong, and, then, he would drow the papers in the
fire and go and walk outside and he say, 'I can't do nothing righd no more
now the old man's died; they don't have no use for me at the shop, pretty
quick!' and that make him feel awful bad!" She told of his homesick
wanderings about the shops by night; "but he was better as a watchman, he
wouldn't hurt it for the world! He telled me how you was hide his
dinner-pail onct for a joke, and put in a piece of your pie, and how you
climbed on the roof with the hose when it was afire. And he telled me if
he shall die I shall tell you that he ain't got no hard feelings, but you
didn't know how that mantel had ought to be, so he done it right the other
way, but he hadn't no righd to talk to you like he done, nohow, and you
was all righd to send him away, but you might a shaked hands, and none of
the boys never said nothing nor none of them never come to see him, 'cept
Carl Olsen, and that make him feel awful bad, too! And when he feels so
bad he don't no more want to live, so I make him promise if I git him back
he never try to kill himself again. Oh, Mr. Lossing, please don't let my
Bewildered and more touched than he cared to feel, himself, Lossing still
made a feeble stand for discipline. "I don't see how Lieders can expect me
to take him back again," he began.
"He aint expecting you, Mr. Lossing, it's ME!"
"But didn't Lieders tell you I told him I would never take him back?"
"No, sir, no, Mr. Lossing, it was not that, it was you said it would be a
cold day that you would take him back; and it was git so cold yesterday,
so I think, 'Now it would be a cold day to-morrow and Mr. Lossing he can
take Kurt back.' And it IS the most coldest day this year!"
Lossing burst into a laugh, perhaps he was glad to have the Western sense
of humor come to the rescue of his compassion. "Well, it was a cold day
for you to come all this way for nothing," said he. "You go home and tell
Lieders to report to-morrow."
Kurt's manner of receiving the news was characteristic. He snorted in
disgust: "Well, I did think he had more sand than to give in to a woman!"
But after he heard the whole story he chuckled: "Yes, it was that way he
said, and he must do like he said; but that was a funny way you done,
Thekla. Say, mamma, yesterday, was you look out for the cat or to find how
cold it been?"
"Never you mind, papa," said Thekla, "you remember what you promised if I
git you back?"
Lieders's eyes grew dull; he flung his arms out, with a long sigh. "No, I
don't forget, I will keep my promise, but—it is like the handcuffs,
Thekla, it is like the handcuffs!" In a second, however, he added, in a
changed tone, "But thou art a kind jailer, mamma, more like a comrade. And
no, it was not fair to thee—I know that now, Thekla."