An Experiment in Misery by Stephen Crane
(From the Press, New York.)
It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing
the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the
rays of the innumerable lights. A youth was trudging slowly, without
enthusiasm, with his hands buried deep in his trouser's pockets,
towards the down-town places where beds can be hired for coppers. He
was clothed in an aged and tattered suit, and his derby was a marvel
of dust-covered crown and torn rim. He was going forth to eat as the
wanderer may eat, and sleep as the homeless sleep. By the time he had
reached City Hall Park he was so completely plastered with yells of
"bum" and "hobo," and with various unholy epithets that small boys
had applied to him at intervals, that he was in a state of the most
profound dejection. The sifting rain saturated the old velvet collar of
his overcoat, and as the wet cloth pressed against his neck, he felt
that there no longer could be pleasure in life. He looked about him
searching for an outcast of highest degree that they too might share
miseries, but the lights threw a quivering glare over rows and circles
of deserted benches that glistened damply, showing patches of wet sod
behind them. It seemed that their usual freights had fled on this night
to better things. There were only squads of well-dressed Brooklyn
people who swarmed towards the bridge.
The young man loitered about for a time and then went shuffling off
down Park Row. In the sudden descent in style of the dress of the crowd
he felt relief, and as if he were at last in his own country. He began
to see tatters that matched his tatters. In Chatham Square there were
aimless men strewn in front of saloons and lodging-houses, standing
sadly, patiently, reminding one vaguely of the attitudes of chickens in
a storm. He aligned himself with these men, and turned slowly to occupy
himself with the flowing life of the great street.
Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went
in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving
with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy,
breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of
people swarmed along the side walks, spattered with black mud, which
made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead elevated trains
with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon
its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab
squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could
be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black,
on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers.
A saloon stood with a voracious air on a corner. A sign leaning against
the front of the door-post announced "Free hot soup to-night!" The
swing doors, snapping to and fro like ravenous lips, made gratified
smacks as the saloon gorged itself with plump men, eating with
astounding and endless appetite, smiling in some indescribable manner
as the men came from all directions like sacrifices to a heathenish
Caught by the delectable sign the young man allowed himself to be
swallowed. A bar-tender placed a schooner of dark and portentous beer
on the bar. Its monumental form up-reared until the froth a-top was
above the crown of the young man's brown derby.
"Soup over there, gents," said the bar-tender affably. A little yellow
man in rags and the youth grasped their schooners and went with speed
toward a lunch counter, where a man with oily but imposing whiskers
ladled genially from a kettle until he had furnished his two mendicants
with a soup that was steaming hot, and in which there were little
floating suggestions of chicken. The young man, sipping his broth, felt
the cordiality expressed by the warmth of the mixture, and he beamed
at the man with oily but imposing whiskers, who was presiding like a
priest behind an altar. "Have some more, gents?" he inquired of the two
sorry figures before him. The little yellow man accepted with a swift
gesture, but the youth shook his head and went out, following a man
whose wondrous seediness promised that he would have a knowledge of
On the side-walk he accosted the seedy man. "Say, do you know a cheap
place to sleep?"
The other hesitated for a time gazing sideways. Finally he nodded in
the direction of the street, "I sleep up there," he said, "when I've
got the price."
The young man shook his head dolefully. "That's too rich for me."
At that moment there approached the two a reeling man in strange
garments. His head was a fuddle of bushy hair and whiskers, from
which his eyes peered with a guilty slant. In a close scrutiny it was
possible to distinguish the cruel lines of a mouth which looked as if
its lips had just closed with satisfaction over some tender and piteous
morsel. He appeared like an assassin steeped in crimes performed
But at this time his voice was tuned to the coaxing key of an
affectionate puppy. He looked at the men with wheedling eyes, and began
to sing a little melody for charity.
"Say, gents, can't yeh give a poor feller a couple of cents t' git a
bed. I got five, and I gits anudder two I gits me a bed. Now, on th'
square, gents, can't yeh jest gimme two cents t' git a bed? Now, yeh
know how a respecter'ble gentlem'n feels when he's down on his luck,
The seedy man, staring with imperturbable countenance at a train which
clattered overhead, interrupted in an expressionless voice—"Ah, go t'
But the youth spoke to the prayerful assassin in tones of astonishment
and inquiry. "Say, you must be crazy! Why don't yeh strike somebody
that looks as if they had money?"
The assassin, tottering about on his uncertain legs, and at intervals
brushing imaginary obstacles from before his nose, entered into a long
explanation of the psychology of the situation. It was so profound that
it was unintelligible.
When he had exhausted the subject, the young man said to him—
"Let's see th' five cents."
The assassin wore an expression of drunken woe at this sentence, filled
with suspicion of him. With a deeply pained air he began to fumble in
his clothing, his red hands trembling. Presently he announced in a
voice of bitter grief, as if he had been betrayed—"There's on'y four."
"Four," said the young man thoughtfully. "Well, look-a-here, I'm a
stranger here, an' if ye'll steer me to your cheap joint I'll find the
The assassin's countenance became instantly radiant with joy. His
whiskers quivered with the wealth of his alleged emotions. He seized
the young man's hand in a transport of delight and friendliness.
"B' Gawd," he cried, "if ye'll do that, b' Gawd, I'd say yeh was a
damned good fellow, I would, an' I'd remember yeh all m' life, I would,
b' Gawd, an' if I ever got a chance I'd return the compliment"—he
spoke with drunken dignity,—"b' Gawd, I'd treat yeh white, I would,
an' I'd allus remember yeh."
The young man drew back, looking at the assassin coldly. "Oh, that's
all right," he said. "You show me th' joint—that's all you've got t'
The assassin, gesticulating gratitude, led the young man along a dark
street. Finally he stopped before a little dusty door. He raised his
hand impressively. "Look-a-here," he said, and there was a thrill of
deep and ancient wisdom upon his face, "I've brought yeh here, an'
that's my part, ain't it? If th' place don't suit yeh, yeh needn't git
mad at me, need yeh? There won't be no bad feelin', will there?"
"No," said the young man.
The assassin waved his arm tragically, and led the march up the
steep stairway. On the way the young man furnished the assassin with
three pennies. At the top a man with benevolent spectacles looked at
them through a hole in a board. He collected their money, wrote some
names on a register, and speedily was leading the two men along a
Shortly after the beginning of this journey the young man felt his
liver turn white, for from the dark and secret places of the building
there suddenly came to his nostrils strange and unspeakable odours,
that assailed him like malignant diseases with wings. They seemed to
be from human bodies closely packed in dens; the exhalations from
a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone
debauches; the expression of a thousand present miseries.
A man, naked save for a little snuff-coloured undershirt, was parading
sleepily along the corridor. He rubbed his eyes, and, giving vent to a
prodigious yawn, demanded to be told the time.
The man yawned again. He opened a door, and for a moment his form was
outlined against a black, opaque interior. To this door came the three
men, and as it was again opened the unholy odours rushed out like
fiends, so that the young man was obliged to struggle as against an
It was some time before the youth's eyes were good in the intense gloom
within, but the man with benevolent spectacles led him skilfully,
pausing but a moment to deposit the limp assassin upon a cot. He took
the youth to a cot that lay tranquilly by the window, and showing him a
tall locker for clothes that stood near the head with the ominous air
of a tombstone, left him.
The youth sat on his cot and peered about him. There was a gas-jet in
a distant part of the room, that burned a small flickering orange-hued
flame. It caused vast masses of tumbled shadows in all parts of the
place, save where, immediately about it, there was a little grey haze.
As the young man's eyes became used to the darkness, he could see upon
the cots that thickly littered the floor the forms of men sprawled out,
lying in death-like silence, or heaving and snoring with tremendous
effort, like stabbed fish.
The youth locked his derby and his shoes in the mummy case near him,
and then lay down with an old and familiar coat around his shoulders.
A blanket he handed gingerly, drawing it over part of the coat. The
cot was covered with leather, and as cold as melting snow. The youth
was obliged to shiver for some time on this affair, which was like a
slab. Presently, however, his chill gave him peace, and during this
period of leisure from it he turned his head to stare at his friend the
assassin, whom he could dimly discern where he lay sprawled on a cot in
the abandon of a man filled with drink. He was snoring with incredible
vigour. His wet hair and beard dimly glistened, and his inflamed nose
shone with subdued lustre like a red light in a fog.
Within reach of the youth's hand was one who lay with yellow breast and
shoulders bare to the cold drafts. One arm hung over the side of the
cot, and the fingers lay full length upon the wet cement floor of the
room. Beneath the inky brows could be seen the eyes of the man exposed
by the partly opened lids. To the youth it seemed that he and this
corpse-like being were exchanging a prolonged stare, and that the other
threatened with his eyes. He drew back watching his neighbour from the
shadows of his blanket edge. The man did not move once through the
night, but lay in this stillness as of death like a body stretched out
expectant of the surgeon's knife.
And all through the room could be seen the tawny hues of naked flesh,
limbs thrust into the darkness, projecting beyond the cots; upreared
knees, arms hanging long and thin over the cot edges. For the most part
they were statuesque, carven, dead. With the curious lockers standing
all about like tombstones, there was a strange effect of a graveyard
where bodies were merely flung.
Yet occasionally could be seen limbs wildly tossing in fantastic
nightmare gestures, accompanied by guttural cries, grunts, oaths. And
there was one fellow off in a gloomy corner, who in his dreams was
oppressed by some frightful calamity, for of a sudden he began to utter
long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing wailfully
and weird through this chill place of tombstones where men lay like the
The sound in its high piercing beginnings, that dwindled to final
melancholy moans, expressed a red and grim tragedy of the unfathomable
possibilities of the man's dreams. But to the youth these were not
merely the shrieks of a vision-pierced man: they were an utterance of
the meaning of the room and its occupants. It was to him the protest
of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels,
and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not
from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a
people. This, weaving into the young man's brain, and mingling with his
views of the vast and sombre shadows that, like mighty black fingers,
curled around the naked bodies, made the young man so that he did not
sleep, but lay carving the biographies for these men from his meagre
experience. At times the fellow in the corner howled in a writhing
agony of his imaginations.
Finally a long lance-point of grey light shot through the dusty panes
of the window. Without, the young man could see roofs drearily white
in the dawning. The point of light yellowed and grew brighter, until
the golden rays of the morning sun came in bravely and strong. They
radiant colour the form of a small fat man, who snored
in stuttering fashion. His round and shiny bald head glowed suddenly
with the valour of a decoration. He sat up, blinked at the sun, swore
fretfully, and pulled his blanket over the ornamental splendours of his
The youth contentedly watched this rout of the shadows before the
bright spears of the sun, and presently he slumbered. When he awoke
he heard the voice of the assassin raised in valiant curses. Putting
up his head, he perceived his comrade seated on the side of the cot
engaged in scratching his neck with long finger-nails that rasped like
"Hully Jee, dis is a new breed. They've got can-openers on their feet."
He continued in a violent tirade.
The young man hastily unlocked his closet and took out his shoes
and hat. As he sat on the side of the cot lacing his shoes, he
glanced about and saw that daylight had made the room comparatively
common-place and uninteresting. The men, whose faces seemed stolid,
serene or absent, were engaged in dressing, while a great crackle of
bantering conversation arose.
A few were parading in unconcerned nakedness. Here and there were men
of brawn, whose skins shone clear and ruddy. They took splendid poses,
standing massively like chiefs. When they had dressed in their ungainly
garments there was an extraordinary change. They then showed bumps and
deficiencies of all kinds.
There were others who exhibited many deformities. Shoulders were
slanting, humped, pulled this way and pulled that way. And notable
among these latter men was the little fat man, who had refused to allow
his head to be glorified. His pudgy form, builded like a pear, bustled
to and fro, while he swore in fish-wife fashion. It appeared that some
article of his apparel had vanished.
The young man attired speedily, and went to his friend the assassin.
At first the latter looked dazed at the sight of the youth. This face
seemed to be appealing to him through the cloud wastes of his memory.
He scratched his neck and reflected. At last he grinned, a broad smile
gradually spreading until his countenance was a round illumination.
"Hello, Willie," he cried cheerily.
"Hello," said the young man. "Are yeh ready t' fly?"
"Sure." The assassin tied his shoe carefully with some twine and came
When he reached the street the young man experienced no sudden relief
from unholy atmospheres. He had forgotten all about them, and had been
breathing naturally, and with no sensation of discomfort or distress.
He was thinking of these things as he walked along the street, when he
was suddenly startled by feeling the assassin's hand, trembling with
excitement, clutching his arm, and when the assassin spoke, his voice
went into quavers from a supreme agitation.
"I'll be hully, bloomin' blowed if there wasn't a feller with a
nightshirt on up there in that joint."
The youth was bewildered for a moment, but presently he turned to smile
indulgently at the assassin's humour.
"Oh, you're a d——d liar," he merely said.
Whereupon the assassin began to gesture extravagantly, and take oath by
strange gods. He frantically placed himself at the mercy of remarkable
fates if his tale were not true.
"Yes, he did! I cross m'heart thousan' times!" he protested, and at
the moment his eyes were large with amazement, his mouth wrinkled in
"Yessir! A nightshirt! A hully white nightshirt!"
"No, sir! I hope ter die b'fore I kin git anudder ball if there wasn't
a jay wid a hully, bloomin' white nightshirt!"
His face was filled with the infinite wonder of it. "A hully white
nightshirt," he continually repeated.
The young man saw the dark entrance to a basement restaurant. There was
a sign which read "No mystery about our hash!" and there were other
age-stained and world-battered legends which told him that the place
was within his means. He stopped before it and spoke to the assassin.
"I guess I'll git somethin' t' eat."
At this the assassin, for some reason, appeared to be quite
embarrassed. He gazed at the seductive front of the eating place for a
moment. Then he started slowly up the street. "Well, good-bye, Willie,"
he said bravely.
For an instant the youth studied the departing figure. Then he called
out, "Hol' on a minnet." As they came together he spoke in a certain
fierce way, as if he feared that the other would think him to be
charitable. "Look-a-here, if yeh wanta git some breakfas' I'll lend
yeh three cents t' do it with. But say, look-a-here, you've gota git
out an' hustle. I ain't goin' t' support yeh, or I'll go broke b'fore
night. I ain't no millionaire."
"I take me oath, Willie," said the assassin earnestly, "th' on'y thing
I really needs is a ball. Me t'roat feels like a fryin'-pan. But as I
can't get a ball, why, th' next bes' thing is breakfast, an' if yeh do
that for me, b' Gawd, I say yeh was th' whitest lad I ever see."
They spent a few moments in dexterous exchanges of phrases, in which
they each protested that the other was, as the assassin had originally
said, "a respecter'ble gentlem'n." And they concluded with mutual
assurances that they were the souls of intelligence and virtue. Then
they went into the restaurant.
There was a long counter, dimly lighted from hidden sources. Two or
three men in soiled white aprons rushed here and there.
The youth bought a bowl of coffee for two cents and a roll for one
cent. The assassin purchased the same. The bowls were webbed with brown
seams, and the tin spoons wore an air of having emerged from the first
pyramid. Upon them were black moss-like encrustations of age, and they
were bent and scarred from the attacks of long-forgotten teeth. But
over their repast the wanderers waxed warm and mellow. The assassin
grew affable as the hot mixture went soothingly down his parched
throat, and the young man felt courage flow in his veins.
Memories began to throng in on the assassin, and he brought forth long
tales, intricate, incoherent, delivered with a chattering swiftness as
from an old woman. "—— great job out'n Orange. Boss keep yeh hustlin'
though all time. I was there three days, and then I went an' ask 'im t'
lend me a dollar. 'G-g-go ter the devil,' he ses, an' I lose me job."
"South no good. Damn niggers work for twenty-five an' thirty cents a
day. Run white man out. Good grub though. Easy livin'."
"Yas; useter work little in Toledo, raftin' logs. Make two or three
dollars er day in the spring. Lived high. Cold as ice though in the
"I was raised in northern N'York. O-o-oh, yeh jest oughto live there.
No beer ner whisky though, way off in the woods. But all th' good hot
grub yeh can eat. B' Gawd, I hung around there long as I could till
th' ol' man fired me. 'Git t' hell outa here, yeh wuthless skunk, git
t' hell outa here, an' go die,' he ses. 'You're a hell of a father,' I
ses, 'you are,' an' I quit 'im."
As they were passing from the dim eating place, they encountered an old
man who was trying to steal forth with a tiny package of food, but a
tall man with an indomitable moustache stood dragon fashion, barring
the way of escape. They heard the old man raise a plaintive protest.
"Ah, you always want to know what I take out, and you never see that I
usually bring a package in here from my place of business."
As the wanderers trudged slowly along Park Row, the assassin began to
expand and grow blithe. "B' Gawd, we've been livin' like kings," he
said, smacking appreciative lips.
"Look out, or we'll have t' pay fer it t'night," said the youth with
But the assassin refused to turn his gaze toward the future. He went
with a limping step, into which he injected a suggestion of lamblike
gambols. His mouth was wreathed in a red grin.
In the City Hall Park the two wanderers sat down in the little circle
of benches sanctified by traditions of their class. They huddled in
their old garments, slumbrously conscious of the march of the hours
which for them had no meaning.
The people of the street hurrying hither and thither made a blend of
black figures changing yet frieze-like. They walked in their good
clothes as upon important missions, giving no gaze to the two wanderers
seated upon the benches. They expressed to the young man his infinite
distance from all that he valued. Social position, comfort, the
pleasures of living, were unconquerable kingdoms. He felt a sudden awe.
And in the background a multitude of buildings, of pitiless hues and
sternly high, were to him emblematic of a nation forcing its regal
head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances; in the sublimity
of its aspirations ignoring the wretches who may flounder at its feet.
The roar of the city in his ear was to him the confusion of strange
tongues, babbling heedlessly;it was the clink of coin, the voice of
the city's hopes which were to him no hopes.
He confessed himself an outcast, and his eyes from under the lowered
rim of his hat began to glance guiltily, wearing the criminal
expression that comes with certain convictions.