Bitter Sweet, by Fannie Hurst
Much of the tragical lore of the infant mortality, the malnutrition, and
the five-in-a-room morality of the city's poor is written in statistics,
and the statistical path to the heart is more figurative than literal.
It is difficult to write stylistically a per-annum report of 1,327
curvatures of the spine, whereas the poor specific little vertebra of Mamie
O'Grady, daughter to Lou, your laundress, whose alcoholic husband once
invaded your very own basement and attempted to strangle her in the
coal-bin, can instantly create an apron bazaar in the church vestry-rooms.
That is why it is possible to drink your morning coffee without nausea for
it, over the head-lines of forty thousand casualties at Ypres, but to
push back abruptly at a three-line notice of little Tony's, your corner
bootblack's, fatal dive before a street-car.
Gertie Slayback was statistically down as a woman wage-earner; a typhoid
case among the thousands of the Borough of Manhattan for 1901; and her
twice-a-day share in the Subway fares collected in the present year of our
She was a very atomic one of the city's four millions. But after all, what
are the kings and peasants, poets and draymen, but great, greater, or
greatest, less, lesser, or least atoms of us? If not of the least, Gertie
Slayback was of the very lesser. When she unlocked the front door to her
rooming-house of evenings, there was no one to expect her, except on
Tuesdays, which evening it so happened her week was up. And when she left
of mornings with her breakfast crumblessly cleared up and the box of
biscuit and condensed-milk can tucked unsuspectedly behind her camisole in
the top drawer there was no one to regret her.
There are some of us who call this freedom. Again there are those for whom
one spark of home fire burning would light the world.
Gertie Slayback was one of these. Half a life-time of opening her door upon
this or that desert-aisle of hall bedroom had not taught her heart how not
to sink or the feel of daily rising in one such room to seem less like a
damp bathing-suit, donned at dawn.
The only picture—or call it atavism if you will—which adorned Miss
Slayback's dun-colored walls was a passe-partout snowscape, night closing
in, and pink cottage windows peering out from under eaves. She could
visualize that interior as if she had only to turn the frame for the smell
of wood fire and the snap of pine logs and for the scene of two high-back
chairs and the wooden crib between.
What a fragile, gracile thing is the mind that can leap thus from nine
bargain basement hours of hairpins and darning-balls to the downy business
of lining a crib in Never-Never Land and warming No Man's slippers before
the fire of imagination.
There was that picture so acidly etched into Miss Slayback's brain that she
had only to close her eyes in the slit-like sanctity of her room and in the
brief moment of courting sleep feel the pink penumbra of her vision begin
Of late years, or, more specifically, for two years and eight months,
another picture had invaded, even superseded the old. A stamp-photograph
likeness of Mr. James P. Batch in the corner of Miss Slayback's mirror,
and thereafter No Man's slippers became number eight-and-a-half C, and the
hearth a gilded radiator in a dining-living-room somewhere between the
Fourteenth Street Subway and the land of the Bronx.
How Miss Slayback, by habit not gregarious, met Mr. Batch is of no
consequence, except to those snug ones of us to whom an introduction is the
only means to such an end.
At a six o'clock that invaded even Union Square with heliotrope dusk, Mr.
James Batch mistook, who shall say otherwise, Miss Gertie Slayback, as
she stepped down into the wintry shade of a Subway kiosk, for Miss
Whodoesitmatter. At seven o'clock, over a dish of lamb stew à la White
Kitchen, he confessed, and if Miss Slayback affected too great surprise and
too little indignation, try to conceive six nine-hour week-in-and-week-out
days of hair-pins and darning-balls, and then, at a heliotrope dusk, James
P. Batch, in invitational mood, stepping in between it and the papered
walls of a dun-colored evening. To further enlist your tolerance, Gertie
Slayback's eyes were as blue as the noon of June, and James P. Batch, in a
belted-in coat and five kid finger-points protruding ever so slightly and
rightly from a breast pocket, was hewn and honed in the image of youth. His
the smile of one for whom life's cup holds a heady wine, a wrinkle or two
at the eye only serving to enhance that smile; a one-inch feather stuck
upright in his derby hatband.
It was a forelock once stamped a Corsican with the look of emperor. It was
this hat feather, a cock's feather at that and worn without sense of humor,
to which Miss Slayback was fond of attributing the consequences of that
"It was the feather in your cap did it, Jimmie. I can see you yet, stepping
up with that innocent grin of yours. You think I didn't know you were
flirting? Cousin from Long Island City! 'Say,' I says to myself, I says, 'I
look as much like his cousin from Long Island City, if he's got one, as my
cousin from Hoboken (and I haven't got any) would look like my sister if I
had one.' It was that sassy little feather in your hat!"
They would laugh over this ever-green reminiscence on Sunday Park benches
and at intermission at moving pictures when they remained through it to see
the show twice. Be the landlady's front parlor ever so permanently rented
out, the motion-picture theater has brought to thousands of young city
starvelings, if not the quietude of the home, then at least the warmth and
a juxtaposition and a deep darkness that can lave the sub-basement throb of
temples and is filled with music with a hum in it.
For two years and eight months of Saturday nights, each one of them a
semaphore dropping out across the gray road of the week, Gertie Slayback
and Jimmie Batch dined for one hour and sixty cents at the White Kitchen.
Then arm and arm up the million-candle-power flare of Broadway, content,
these two who had never seen a lake reflect a moon, or a slim fir pointing
to a star, that life could be so manifold. And always, too, on Saturday,
the tenth from the last row of the De Luxe Cinematograph, Broadway's Best,
Orchestra Chairs, fifty cents; Last Ten Rows, thirty-five. The give of
velvet-upholstered chairs, perfumed darkness, and any old love story moving
across it to the ecstatic ache of Gertie Slayback's high young heart.
On a Saturday evening that was already pointed with stars at the
six-o'clock closing of Hoffheimer's Fourteenth Street Emporium, Miss
Slayback, whose blondness under fatigue could become ashy, emerged from the
Bargain-Basement almost the first of its frantic exodus, taking the place
of her weekly appointment in the entrance of the Popular Drug Store
adjoining, her gaze, something even frantic in it, sifting the passing
At six o'clock Fourteenth Street pours up from its basements, down from its
lofts, and out from its five-and-ten-cent stores, shows, and arcades, in
a great homeward torrent—a sweeping torrent that flows full flush to the
Subway, the Elevated, and the surface car, and then spreads thinly into the
least pretentious of the city's homes—the five flights up, the two rooms
rear, and the third floor back.
Standing there, this eager tide of the Fourteenth Street Emporium, thus
released by the six-o'clock flood-gates, flowed past Miss Slayback.
White-nosed, low-chested girls in short-vamp shoes and no-carat gold
vanity-cases. Older men resigned that ambition could be flayed by a
yard-stick; young men still impatient of their clerkship.
It was into the trickle of these last that Miss Slayback bored her glance,
the darting, eager glance of hot eyeballs and inner trembling. She was
not so pathetically young as she was pathetically blond, a treacherous,
ready-to-fade kind of blondness that one day, now that she had found that
very morning her first gray hair, would leave her ashy.
Suddenly, with a small catch of breath that was audible in her throat, Miss
Slayback stepped out of that doorway, squirming her way across the tight
congestion of the sidewalk to its curb, then in and out, brushing this
elbow and that shoulder, worming her way in an absolutely supreme anxiety
to keep in view a brown derby hat bobbing right briskly along with the
crowd, a greenish-black bit of feather upright in its band.
At Broadway, Fourteenth Street cuts quite a caper, deploying out into Union
Square, an island of park, beginning to be succulent at the first false
feint of spring, rising as it were from a sea of asphalt. Across this park
Miss Slayback worked her rather frenzied way, breaking into a run when
the derby threatened to sink into the confusion of a hundred others, and
finally learning to keep its course by the faint but distinguishing fact of
a slight dent in the crown. At Broadway, some blocks before that highway
bursts into its famous flare, Mr. Batch, than whom it was no other, turned
off suddenly at right angles down into a dim pocket of side-street and into
the illuminated entrance of Ceiner's Café Hungarian. Meals at all hours.
Lunch, thirty cents. Dinner, fifty cents. Our Goulash is Famous.
New York, which expresses itself in more languages to the square block
than any other area in the world, Babylon included, loves thus to dine
linguistically, so to speak. To the Crescent Turkish Restaurant for its
Business Men's Lunch comes Fourth Avenue, whose antique-shop patois reads
across the page from right to left. Sight-seeing automobiles on mission and
commission bent allow Altoona, Iowa City, and Quincy, Illinois, fifteen
minutes' stop-in at Ching Ling-Foo's Chinatown Delmonico's. Spaghetti and
red wine have set New York racing to reserve its table d'hôtes. All except
the Latin race.
Jimmie Batch, who had first seen light, and that gaslight, in a block in
lower Manhattan which has since been given over to a milk-station for
a highly congested district, had the palate, if not the purse, of the
cosmopolite. His digestive range included borsch and chow maigne;
risotta and ham and.
To-night, as he turned into Café Hungarian, Miss Slayback slowed and drew
back into the overshadowing protection of an adjoining office-building. She
was breathing hard, and her little face, somehow smaller from chill, was
nevertheless a high pink at the cheek-bones.
The wind swept around the corner, jerking her hat, and her hand flew up to
it. There was a fair stream of passers-by even here, and occasionally
one turned for a backward glance at her standing there so frankly
Suddenly Miss Slayback adjusted her tam-o'-shanter to its flop over her
right ear, and, drawing off a pair of dark-blue silk gloves from over
immaculately new white ones, entered Ceiner's Café Hungarian. In its light
she was not so obviously blonder than young, the pink spots in her
cheeks had a deepening value to the blue of her eyes, and a black velvet
tam-o'-shanter revealing just the right fringe of yellow curls is no mean
First of all, Ceiner's is an eating-place. There is no music except at five
cents in the slot, and its tables for four are perpetually set each with a
dish of sliced radishes, a bouquet of celery, and a mound of bread, half
the stack rye. Its menus are well thumbed and badly mimeographed. Who
enters Ceiner's is prepared to dine from barley soup to apple strudel. At
something after six begins the rising sound of cutlery, and already the
new-comer fears to find no table.
Off at the side, Mr. Jimmie Batch had already disposed of his hat and gray
overcoat, and tilting the chair opposite him to indicate its reservation,
shook open his evening paper, the waiter withholding the menu at this sign
Straight toward that table Miss Slayback worked quick, swift way, through
this and that aisle, jerking back and seating herself on the chair opposite
almost before Mr. Batch could raise his eyes from off the sporting page.
There was an instant of silence between them—the kind of silence that
can shape itself into a commentary upon the inefficacy of mere speech—a
widening silence which, as they sat there facing, deepened until, when she
finally spoke, it was as if her words were pebbles dropping down into a
"Don't look so surprised, Jimmie," she said, propping her face calmly, even
boldly, into the white-kid palms. "You might fall off the Christmas tree."
Above the snug, four-inch collar and bow tie Mr. Batch's face was taking on
a dull ox-blood tinge that spread back, even reddening his ears. Mr. Batch
had the frontal bone of a clerk, the horn-rimmed glasses of the literarily
astigmatic, and the sartorial perfection that only the rich can afford not
He was staring now quite frankly, and his mouth had fallen open. "Gert!" he
"Yes," said Miss Slayback, her insouciance gaining with his discomposure,
her eyes widening and then a dolly kind of glassiness seeming to set in.
"You wasn't expecting me, Jimmie?"
He jerked up his head, not meeting her glance. "What's the idea of the
"You don't look glad to see me, Jimmie."
"If you—think you're funny."
She was working out of and then back into the freshly white gloves in a
betraying kind of nervousness that belied the toss of her voice. "Well, of
all things! Mad-cat! Mad, just because you didn't seem to be expecting me."
"I—There's some things that are just the limit, that's what they are.
Some things that are just the limit, that no fellow would stand from any
girl, and this—this is one of them."
Her lips were trembling now. "You—you bet your life there's some things
that are just the limit."
He slid out his watch, pushing back. "Well, I guess this place is too small
for a fellow and a girl that can follow him around town like a—like—"
She sat forward, grasping the table-sides, her chair tilting with her.
"Don't you dare to get up and leave me sitting here! Jimmie Batch, don't
The waiter intervened, card extended.
"We—we're waiting for another party," said Miss Slayback, her hands still
rigidly over the table-sides and her glance like a steady drill into Mr.
There was a second of this silence while the waiter withdrew, and then Mr.
Batch whipped out his watch again, a gun-metal one with an open face.
"Now look here. I got a date here in ten minutes, and one or the other of
us has got to clear. You—you're one too many, if you got to know it."
"Oh, I do know it, Jimmie! I been one too many for the last four Saturday
nights. I been one too many ever since May Scully came into five hundred
dollars' inheritance and quit the Ladies' Neckwear. I been one too many
ever since May Scully became a lady."
"If I was a girl and didn't have more shame!"
"Shame! Now you're shouting, Jimmie Batch. I haven't got shame, and I don't
care who knows it. A girl don't stop to have shame when she's fighting for
He was leaning on his elbow, profile to her. "That movie talk can't scare
me. You can't tell me what to do and what not to do. I've given you a
square deal all right. There's not a word ever passed between us that ties
me to your apron-strings. I don't say I'm not without my obligations to
you, but that's not one of them. No, sirree—no apron-strings."
"I know it isn't, Jimmie. You're the kind of a fellow wouldn't even talk to
himself for fear of committing hisself."
"I got a date here now any minute, Gert, and the sooner you—"
"You're the guy who passed up the Sixty-first for the Safety First
"I'll show you my regiment some day."
"I—I know you're not tied to my apron-strings, Jimmie. I—I wouldn't have
you there for anything. Don't you think I know you too well for that?
That's just it. Nobody on God's earth knows you the way I do. I know you
better than you know yourself."
"You better beat it, Gertie. I tell you I'm getting sore."
Her face flashed from him to the door and back again, her anxiety almost
edged with hysteria. "Come on, Jimmie—out the side entrance before she
gets here. May Scully ain't the company for you. You think if she was,
honey, I'd—I'd see myself come butting in between you this way, like—like
a—common girl? She's not the girl to keep you straight. Honest to God
she's not, honey."
"My business is my business, let me tell you that."
"She's speedy, Jimmie. She was the speediest girl on the main floor, and
now that she's come into those five hundred, instead of planting it for a
rainy day, she's quit work and gone plumb crazy with it."
"When I want advice about my friends I ask for it."
"It's not her good name that worries me, Jimmie, because she 'ain't got
any. It's you. She's got you crazy with that five hundred, too—that's
what's got me scared."
"Gee! you ought to let the Salvation Army tie a bonnet under your chin."
"She's always had her eyes on you, Jimmie. 'Ain't you men got no sense for
seein' things? Since the day they moved the Gents' Furnishings across from
the Ladies' Neckwear she's had you spotted. Her goings-on used to leak down
to the basement, alrighty. She's not a good girl, May ain't, Jimmie. She
ain't, and you know it. Is she? Is she?"
"Aw!" said Jimmie Batch.
"You see! See! 'Ain't got the nerve to answer, have you?"
"Aw—maybe I know, too, that she's not the kind of a girl that would turn
up where she's not—"
"If you wasn't a classy-looking kind of boy, Jimmie, that a fly girl like
May likes to be seen out with, she couldn't find you with magnifying
glasses, not if you was born with the golden rule in your mouth and had
swallowed it. She's not the kind of girl, Jimmie, a fellow like you needs
behind him. If—if you was ever to marry her and get your hands on them
five hundred dollars—"
"It would be my business."
"It'll be your ruination. You're not strong enough to stand up under
nothing like that. With a few hundred unearned dollars in your pocket
you—you'd go up in spontaneous combustion, you would."
"It would be my own spontaneous combustion."
"You got to be drove, Jimmie, like a kid. With them few dollars you
wouldn't start up a little cigar-store like you think you would. You and
her would blow yourselves to the dogs in two months. Cigar-stores ain't the
place for you, Jimmie. You seen how only clerking in them was nearly your
ruination—the little gambling-room-in-the-back kind that you pick out.
They ain't cigar-stores; they're only false faces for gambling."
"You know it all, don't you?"
"Oh, I'm dealing it to you straight! There's too many sporty crowds loafing
around those joints for a fellow like you to stand up under. I found you in
one, and as yellow-fingered and as loafing as they come, a new job a week,
"Yeh, and there was some pep to variety, too."
"Don't throw over, Jimmie, what my getting you out of it to a decent job in
a department store has begun to do for you. And you're making good, too.
Higgins told me to-day, if you don't let your head swell, there won't be a
fellow in the department can stack up his sales-book any higher."
"Don't throw it all over, Jimmie—and me—for a crop of dyed red hair and a
few dollars to ruin yourself with."
He shot her a look of constantly growing nervousness, his mouth pulled to
an oblique, his glance constantly toward the door.
"Don't keep no date with her to-night, Jimmie. You haven't got the
constitution to stand her pace. It's telling on you. Look at those fingers
"They're my fingers, ain't they?"
"You see, Jimmie, I—I'm the only person in the world that likes you just
for what—you ain't—and hasn't got any pipe dreams about you. That's what
counts, Jimmie, the folks that like you in spite, and not because of."
"We will now sing psalm number two hundred and twenty-three."
"I know there's not a better fellow in the world if he's kept nailed to the
right job, and I know, too, there's not another fellow can go to the dogs
"To hear you talk, you'd think I was about six."
"I'm the only girl that'll ever be willing to make a whip out of herself
that'll keep you going and won't sting, honey. I know you're soft and lazy
and selfish and—"
"Don't forget any."
"And I know you're my good-looking good-for-nothing, and I know, too, that
you—you don't care as much—as much for me from head to toe as I do for
your little finger. But I—I like you just the same, Jimmie. That—that's
what I mean about having no shame. I—do like you so—so terribly, Jimmie."
"I know it, Jimmie—that I ought to be ashamed. Don't think I haven't cried
myself to sleep with it whole nights in succession."
"Don't think I don't know it, that I'm laying myself before you pretty
common. I know it's common for a girl to—to come to a fellow like this,
but—but I haven't got any shame about it—I haven't got anything, Jimmie,
except fight for—for what's eating me. And the way things are between us
now is eating me."
"I—Why, I got a mighty high regard for you, Gert."
"There's a time in a girl's life, Jimmie, when she's been starved like I
have for something of her own all her days; there's times, no matter how
she's held in, that all of a sudden comes a minute when she busts out."
"I understand, Gert, but—"
"For two years and eight months, Jimmie, life has got to be worth while
living to me because I could see the day, even if we—you—never talked
about it, when you would be made over from a flip kid to—to the kind of a
fellow would want to settle down to making a little—two-by-four home for
us. A—little two-by-four all our own, with you steady on the job and
advanced maybe to forty or fifty a week and—"
"For God's sake, Gertie, this ain't the time or the place to—"
"Oh yes, it is! It's got to be, because it's the first time in four weeks
that you didn't see me coming first."
"But not now, Gert. I—"
"I'm not ashamed to tell you, Jimmie Batch, that I've been the making of
you since that night you threw the wink at me. And—and it hurts, this
does. God! how it hurts!"
He was pleating the table-cloth, swallowing as if his throat had
constricted, and still rearing his head this way and that in the tight
"I—never claimed not to be a bad egg. This ain't the time and the place
for rehashing, that's all. Sure you been a friend to me. I don't say
you haven't. Only I can't be bossed by a girl like you. I don't say May
Scully's any better than she ought to be. Only that's my business. You
hear? my business. I got to have life and see a darn sight more future for
myself than selling shirts in a Fourteenth Street department store."
"May Scully can't give it to you—her and her fast crowd."
"Maybe she can and maybe she can't."
"Them few dollars won't make you; they'll break you."
"That's for her to decide, not you."
"I'll tell her myself. I'll face her right here and—"
"Now, look here, if you think I'm going to be let in for a holy show
between you two girls, you got another think coming. One of us has got to
clear out of here, and quick, too. You been talking about the side door;
there it is. In five minutes I got a date in this place that I thought I
could keep like any law-abiding citizen. One of us has got to clear, and
quick, too. God! you wimmin make me sick, the whole lot of you!"
"If anything makes you sick, I know what it is. It's dodging me to fly
around all hours of the night with May Scully, the girl who put the tang in
tango. It's eating around in swell sixty-cent restaurants like this and—"
"Gad! your middle name ought to be Nagalene."
"Aw, now, Jimmie, maybe it does sound like nagging, but it ain't, honey.
It—it's only my—my fear that I'm losing you, and—and my hate for the
every-day grind of things, and—"
"I can't help that, can I?"
"Why, there—there's nothing on God's earth I hate, Jimmie, like I hate
that Bargain-Basement. When I think it's down there in that manhole I've
spent the best years of my life, I—I wanna die. The day I get out of it,
the day I don't have to punch that old time-clock down there next to the
Complaints and Adjustment Desk, I—I'll never put my foot below sidewalk
level again to the hour I die. Not even if it was to take a walk in my own
"It ain't exactly a garden of roses down there."
"Why, I hate it so terrible, Jimmie, that sometimes I wake up nights
gritting my teeth with the smell of steam-pipes and the tramp of feet on
the glass sidewalk up over me. Oh. God! you dunno—you dunno!"
"When it comes to that the main floor ain't exactly a maiden's dream, or a
fellow's, for that matter."
"With a man it's different, It's his job in life, earning, and—and the
woman making the two ends of it meet. That's why, Jimmie, these last
two years and eight months, if not for what I was hoping for us,
why—why—I—why, on your twenty a week, Jimmie, there's nobody could run
a flat like I could. Why, the days wouldn't be long enough to putter in.
I—Don't throw away what I been building up for us, Jimmie, step by step!
"Good Lord, girl! You deserve better 'n me."
"I know I got a big job, Jimmie, but I want to make a man out of you,
temper, laziness, gambling, and all. You got it in you to be something more
than a tango lizard or a cigar-store bum, honey. It's only you 'ain't
got the stuff in you to stand up under a five-hundred-dollar windfall
and—a—and a sporty girl. If—if two glasses of beer make you as silly as
they do, Jimmie, why, five hundred dollars would land you under the table
"Aw-there you go again!"
"I can't help it, Jimmie. It's because I never knew a fellow had what's
he's cut out for written all over him so. You're a born clerk, Jimmie.
"Sure, I'm a slick clerk, but—"
"You're born to be a clerk, a good clerk, even a two-hundred-a-month clerk,
the way you can win the trade, but never your own boss. I know what I'm
talking about. I know your measure better than any human on earth can
ever know your measure. I know things about you that you don't even know
"I never set myself up to nobody for anything I wasn't."
"Maybe not, Jimmie, but I know about you and—and that Central Street gang
that time, and—"
"Yes, honey, and there's not another human living but me knows how little
it was your fault. Just bad company, that was all. That's how much I—I
love you, Jimmie, enough to understand that. Why, if I thought May Scully
and a set-up in business was the thing for you, Jimmie, I'd say to her, I'd
say, if it was like taking my own heart out in my hand and squashing it,
I'd say to her, I'd say, 'Take him, May.' That's how I—I love you, Jimmie.
Oh, ain't it nothing, honey, a girl can come here and lay herself this low
"Well, haven't I just said you—you deserve better."
"I don't want better, Jimmie. I want you. I want to take hold of your life
and finish the job of making it the kind we can both be proud of. Us two,
Jimmie, in—in our own decent two-by-four. Shopping on Saturday nights.
Frying in our own frying-pan in our own kitchen. Listening to our own
phonograph in our own parlor. Geraniums and—and kids—and—and things.
Gas-logs. Stationary washtubs. Jimmie! Jimmie!"
Mr. James P. Batch reached up for his hat and overcoat, cramming the
newspaper into a rear pocket.
"Come on," he said, stalking toward the side door and not waiting to see
her to her feet.
Outside, a banner of stars was over the narrow street. For a chain of five
blocks he walked, with a silence and speed that Miss Slayback could only
match with a running quickstep. But she was not out of breath. Her head was
up, and her hand, where it hooked into Mr. Batch's elbow, was in a vise
that tightened with each block.
You who will mete out no other approval than that vouched for by the stamp
of time and whose contempt for the contemporary is from behind the easy
refuge of the classics, suffer you the shuddering analogy that between
Aspasia who inspired Pericles, Theodora who suggested the Justinian code,
and Gertie Slayback who commandeered Jimmie Batch, is a sistership which
rounds them, like a lasso thrown back into time, into one and the same
petticoat dynasty behind the throne.
True, Gertie Slayback's mise en scène was a two-room kitchenette
apartment situated in the Bronx at a surveyor's farthest point between two
Subway stations, and her present state one of frequent red-faced forays
down into a packing-case. But there was that in her eyes which witchingly
bespoke the conquered, but not the conqueror. Hers was actually the
titillating wonder of a bird which, captured, closes its wings, that
surrender can be so sweet.
Once she sat on the edge of the packing-case, dallying a hammer, then laid
it aside suddenly, to cross the littered room and place the side of her
head to the immaculate waistcoat of Mr. Jimmie Batch, red-faced, too, over
wrenching up with hatchet-edge a barrel-top.
"Jimmie darling, I—I just never will get over your finding this place for
Mr. Batch wiped his forearm across his brow, his voice jerking between the
squeak of nails extracted from wood.
"It was you, honey. You give me the to-let ad, and I came to look, that's
"Just the samey, it was my boy found it. If you hadn't come to look we
might have been forced into taking that old dark coop over on Simpson
"What's all this junk in this barrel?"
"Them's kitchen utensils, honey."
"Kitchen things that you don't know nothing about except to eat good things
"Don't bend it! That's a celery-brush. Ain't it cute?"
"A celery-brush! Why didn't you get it a comb, too?"
"Aw, now, honey-bee, don't go trying to be funny and picking through these
things you don't know nothing about! They're just cute things I'm going to
cook something grand suppers in, for my something awful bad boy."
He leaned down to kiss her at that. "Gee!"
She was standing, her shoulder to him and head thrown back against his
chest. She looked up to stroke his cheek, her face foreshortened.
"I'm all black and blue pinching myself, Jimmie."
"Every night when I get home from working here in the flat I say to
myself in the looking-glass, I say, 'Gertie Slayback, what if you're only
"I say to myself, 'Are you sure that darling flat up there, with the new
pink-and-white wall-paper and the furniture arriving every day, is going to
be yours in a few days when you're Mrs. Jimmie Batch?'"
"Mrs. Jimmie Batch—say, that's immense."
"I keep saying it to myself every night, 'One day less.' Last night it was
two days. To-night it'll be—one day, Jimmie, till I'm—her."
She closed her eyes and let her hand linger up at his cheek, head still
back against him, so that, inclining his head, he could rest his lips in
the ash-blond fluff of her hair.
"Talk about can't wait! If to-morrow was any farther off they'd have to
sweep out a padded cell for me."
She turned to rumple the smooth light thatch of his hair. "Bad boy! Can't
wait! And here we are getting married all of a sudden, just like that. Up
to the time of this draft business, Jimmie Batch, 'pretty soon' was the
only date I could ever get out of you, and now here you are crying over one
day's wait. Bad honey boy!"
He reached back for the pink newspaper so habitually protruding from
his hip pocket. "You ought to see the way they're neck-breaking for the
marriage-license bureaus since the draft. First thing we know, tine whole
shebang of the boys will be claiming the exemption of sole support of
"It's a good thing we made up our minds quick, Jimmie. They'll be getting
wise. If too many get exemption from the army by marrying right away, it'll
be a give-away."
"I'd like to know who can lay his hands on the exemption of a little wife
"Oh, Jimmie, it—it sounds so funny. Being supported! Me that always did
the supporting, not only to me, but to my mother and great-grand-mother up
to the day they died."
"I'm the greatest little supporter you ever seen."
"Me getting up mornings to stay at home in my own darling little flat, and
no basement or time-clock. Nothing but a busy little hubby to eat him nice,
smelly, bacon breakfast and grab him nice morning newspaper, kiss him
wifie, and run downtown to support her. Jimmie, every morning for your
breakfast I'm going to fry—"
"You bet your life he's going to support her, and he's going to pay back
that forty dollars of his girl's that went into his wedding duds, that
hundred and ninety of his girl's savings that went into furniture—"
"We got to meet our instalments every month first, Jimmie. That's what we
want—no debts and every little darling piece of furniture paid up."
"We—I'm going to pay it, too."
"And my Jimmie is going to work to get himself promoted and quit being a
sorehead at his steady hours and all."
"I know more about selling, honey, than the whole bunch of dubs in that
store put together if they'd give me a chance to prove it."
She laid her palm to his lips.
"'Shh-h-h! You don't nothing of the kind. It's not conceit, it's work is
going to get my boy his raise."
"If they'd listen to me, that department would—"
"'Shh-h! J. G. Hoffheimer don't have to get pointers from Jimmie Batch how
to run his department store."
"There you go again. What's J. G. Hoffheimer got that I 'ain't? Luck and a
few dollars in his pocket that, if I had in mine, would—
"It was his own grit put those dollars there, Jimmie. Just put it out of
your head that it's luck makes a self-made man."
"Self-made! You mean things just broke right for him. That's two-thirds of
this self-made business."
"You mean he buckled right down to brass tacks, and that's what my boy is
going to do."
"The trouble with this world is it takes money to make money. Get your
first few dollars, I always say, no matter how, and then when you're on
your feet scratch your conscience if it itches. That's why I said in the
beginning, if we had took that hundred and ninety furniture money and
staked it on—"
"Jimmie, please—please! You wouldn't want to take a girl's savings of
years and years to gamble on a sporty cigar proposition with a card-room in
the rear. You wouldn't, Jimmie. You ain't that kind of fellow. Tell me you
He turned away to dive down into the barrel. "Naw," he said, "I wouldn't."
The sun had receded, leaving a sudden sullen gray, the little square room,
littered with an upheaval of excelsior, sheet-shrouded furniture, and the
paperhanger's paraphernalia and inimitable smells, darkening and seeming to
"We got to quit now, Jimmie. It's getting dark and the gas ain't turned on
in the meter yet."
He rose up out of the barrel, holding out at arm's-length what might have
been a tinsmith's version of a porcupine.
"What in—What's this thing that scratched me?"
She danced to take it. "It's a grater, a darling grater for horseradish and
nutmeg and cocoanut. I'm going to fix you a cocoanut cake for our
honeymoon supper to-morrow night, honey-bee. Essie Wohlgemuth over in the
cake-demonstrating department is going to bring me the recipe. Cocoanut
cake! And I'm going to fry us a little steak in this darling little
skillet. Ain't it the cutest!"
"Cute she calls a tin skillet."
"Look what's pasted on it. 'Little Housewife's Skillet. The Kitchen Fairy.'
That's what I'm going to be, Jimmie, the kitchen fairy. Give me that. It's
a rolling-pin. All my life I've wanted a rolling-pin. Look, honey, a little
string to hang it up by. I'm going to hang everything up in rows. It's
going to look like Tiffany's kitchen, all shiny. Give me, honey; that's an
egg-beater. Look at it whiz. And this—this is a pan for war bread. I'm
going to make us war bread to help the soldiers."
"You're a little soldier yourself," he said.
"That's what I would be if I was a man, a soldier all in brass buttons."
"There's a bunch of the fellows going," said Mr. Batch, standing at the
window, looking out over roofs, dilly-dallying up and down on his heels
and breaking into a low, contemplative whistle. She was at his shoulder,
peering over it. "You wouldn't be afraid, would you, Jimmie?"
"You bet your life I wouldn't."
She was tiptoes now, her arms creeping up to him. "Only my boy's got a
wife—a brand-new wifie to support, 'ain't he?"
"That's what he has," said Mr. Batch, stroking her forearm, but still
gazing through and beyond whatever roofs he was seeing.
"Look! We got a view of the Hudson River from our flat, just like we lived
on Riverside Drive."
"All the Hudson River I can see is fifteen smoke-stacks and somebody's
"It ain't so. We got a grand view. Look! Stand on tiptoe, Jimmie, like me.
There, between that water-tank on that black roof over there and them two
chimneys. See? Watch my finger. A little stream of something over there
"No, I don't see."
"Look, honey-bee, close! See that little streak?"
"All right, then, if you see it I see it."
"To think we got a river view from our flat! It's like living in the
country. I'll peek out at it all day long. God! honey, I just never will be
over the happiness of being done with basements."
"It was swell of old Higgins to give us this half-Saturday. It shows where
you stood with the management, Gert—this and a five-dollar gold piece.
Lord knows they wouldn't pony up that way if it was me getting married by
"It's because my boy 'ain't shown them down there yet the best that's in
him. You just watch his little safety-first wife see to it that from now on
he keeps up her record of never in seven years punching the time-clock even
one minute late, and that he keeps his stock shelves O. K. and shows his
department he's a comer-on."
"With that bunch of boobs a fellow's got a swell chance to get anywheres."
"It's getting late, Jimmie. It don't look nice for us to stay here so late
alone, not till—to-morrow. Ruby and Essie and Charley are going to meet us
in the minister's back parlor at ten sharp in the morning. We can be
back here by noon and get the place cleared enough to give 'em a little
lunch—just a fun lunch without fixings."
"I hope the old guy don't waste no time splicing us. It's one of the things
a fellow likes to have over with."
"Jimmie! Why, it's the most beautiful thing in the world, like a garden of
lilies or—or something, a marriage ceremony is! You got the ring safe,
honey-bee, and the license?"
"Pinned in my pocket where you put 'em, Flirty Gertie."
"Flirty Gertie! Now you'll begin teasing me with that all our life—the
way I didn't slap your face that night when I should have. I just couldn't
have, honey. Goes to show we were just cut and dried for each other, don't
it? Me, a girl that never in her life let a fellow even bat his eyes at her
without an introduction. But that night when you winked, honey—something
inside of me just winked back."
"You mean it, boy? You ain't sorry about nothing, Jimmie?"
"Sorry? Well, I guess not!"
"You saw the way—she—May—you saw for yourself what she was, when we saw
her walking, that next night after Ceiner's, nearly staggering, up Sixth
Avenue with Budge Evans."
"I never took any stock in her, honey. I was just letting her like me."
She sat back on the box edge, regarding him, her face so soft and wont to
smile that she could not keep her composure.
"Get me my hat and coat, honey. We'll walk down. Got the key?"
They skirmished in the gloom, moving through slit-like aisles of furniture
"Oh, the running water is hot, Jimmie, just like the ad said! We got
red-hot running water in our flat. Close the front windows, honey. We don't
want it to rain in on our new green sofa. Not 'til it's paid for, anyways."
They met at the door, kissing on the inside and the outside of it; at the
head of the fourth, third, and the second balustrade down.
"We'll always make 'em little love landings, Jimmie, so we can't ever get
tired climbing them."
Outside there was still a pink glow in a clean sky. The first flush of
spring in the air had died, leaving chill. They walked briskly, arm in arm,
down the asphalt incline of sidewalk leading from their apartment house, a
new street of canned homes built on a hillside—the sepulchral abode of the
city's trapped whose only escape is down the fire-escape, and then only
when the alternative is death. At the base of the hill there flows, in
constant hubbub, a great up-and-down artery of street, repeating
itself, mile after mile, in terms of the butcher, the baker, and the
"every-other-corner drug-store of a million dollar corporation". Housewives
with perambulators and oil-cloth shopping bags. Children on rollerskates.
The din of small tradesmen and the humdrum of every city block where the
homes remain unbearded all summer and every wife is on haggling terms with
the purveyor of her evening roundsteak and mess of rutabaga.
Then there is the soap-box provender, too, sure of a crowd, offering creed,
propaganda, patent medicine, and politics. It is the pulpit of the reformer
and the housetop of the fanatic, this soapbox. From it the voice to the
city is often a pious one, an impious one, and almost always a raucous one.
Luther and Sophocles, and even a Citizen of Nazareth made of the four winds
of the street corner the walls of a temple of wisdom. What more fitting
acropolis for freedom of speech than the great out-of-doors!
Turning from the incline of cross-street into this petty Baghdad of
the petty wise, the voice of the street corner lifted itself above
the inarticulate din of the thoroughfare. A youth, thewed like an ox,
surmounted on a stack of three self provided canned-goods boxes, his
in-at-the-waist silhouette thrown out against a sky that was almost ready
to break out in stars; a crowd tightening about him.
"It's a soldier boy talkin', Gert."
"If it ain't!" They tiptoed at the fringe of the circle, heads back.
"Look, Gert, he's a lieutenant; he's got a shoulder-bar. And those four
down there holding the flags are just privates. You can always tell a
lieutenant by the bar."
"Say, them boys do stack up some for Uncle Sam."
"I'm here to tell you that them boys stack up some."
A banner stiffened out in the breeze, Mr. Batch reading: "Enlist before you
are drafted. Last chance to beat the draft. Prove your patriotism. Enlist
now! Your country calls!"
"Come on," said Mr. Batch.
"Wait. I want to hear what he's saying."
"… there's not a man here before me can afford to shirk his duty to his
country. The slacker can't get along without his country, but his country
can very easily get along without him."
"The poor exemption boobs are already running for doctors' certificates and
marriage licenses, but even if they get by with it—and it is ninety-nine
to one they won't—they can't run away from their own degradation and
"Come on, Jimmie."
"Men of America, for every one of you who tries to dodge his duty to his
country there is a yellow streak somewhere underneath the hide of you.
Women of America, every one of you that helps to foster the spirit of
cowardice in your particular man or men is helping to make a coward. It's
the cowards and the quitters and the slackers and dodgers that need this
war more than the patriotic ones who are willing to buckle on and go!
"Don't be a buttonhole patriot! A government that is good enough to live
under is good enough to fight under!"
"If there is any reason on earth has manifested itself for this devastating
and terrible war it is that it has been a maker of men.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I am back from four months in the trenches with the
French army, and I've come home, now that my own country is at war, to give
her every ounce of energy I've got to offer. As soon as a hole in my side
is healed up. I'm going back to those trenches, and I want to say to you
that them four months of mine face to face with life and with death have
done more for me than all my twenty-four civilian years put together."
"I'll be a different man, if I live to come back home after this war
and take up my work again as a draftsman. Why, I've seen weaklings and
self-confessed failures and even ninnies go into them trenches and come
out—oh yes, plenty of them do come out—men. Men that have got close
enough down to the facts of things to feel new realizations of what life
means come over them. Men that have gotten back their pep, their ambitions,
their unselfishness. That's what war can do for your men, you women who
are helping them to foster the spirit of holding back, of cheating their
government. That's what war can do for your men. Make of them the kind
of men who some day can face their children without having to hang their
heads. Men who can answer for their part in making the world a safe place
An hour they stood there, the air quieting but chilling, and lavishly sown
stars cropping out. Street lights had come out, too, throwing up in ever
darker relief the figure above the heads of the crowd. His voice had
coarsened and taken on a raw edge, but every gesture was flung from the
socket, and from where they had forced themselves into the tight circle
Gertie Slayback, her mouth fallen open and her head still back, could see
the sinews of him ripple under khaki and the diaphragm lift for voice.
There was a shift of speakers then, this time a private, still too rangy,
but his looseness of frame seeming already to conform to the exigency of
"Come on, Jimmie. I—I'm cold."
They worked out into the freedom of the sidewalk, and for ten minutes, down
blocks of petty shops already lighted, walked in a silence that grew apace.
He was suddenly conscious that she was crying, quietly, her handkerchief
wadded against her mouth. He strode on with a scowl and his head bent.
"Let's sit down in this little park, Jimmie. I'm tired."
They rested on a bench on one of those small triangles of breathing space
which the city ekes out now and then; mill ends of land parcels.
He took immediately to roving the toe of his shoe in and out among the
gravel. She stole out her hand to his arm.
"Well, Jimmie?" Her voice was in the gauze of a whisper that hardly left
"Well, what?" he said, still toeing.
"There—there's a lot of things we never thought about, Jimmie."
"You mean you never thought about it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know what I mean alrighty."
"I—I was the one that suggested it, Jimmie, but—but you fell in. I—I
just couldn't bear to think of it, Jimmie—your going and all. I suggested
it, but—but you fell in."
"Say, when a fellow's shoved he falls. I never gave a thought to sneaking
an exemption until it was put in my head. I'd smash the fellow in the face
that calls me coward, I will."
"You could have knocked me down with a feather, Jimmie, looking at it his
way all of a sudden."
"You couldn't knock me down. Don't think I was ever strong enough for the
whole business. I mean the exemption part. I wasn't going to say anything.
What's the use, seeing the way you had your heart set on—on things? But
the whole business, if you want to know it, went against my grain. I'll
smash the fellow in the face that calls me coward."
"I know, Jimmie; you—you're right. It was me suggested hurrying things
like this. Sneakin'! Oh, God! ain't I the messer-up!"
"Lay easy, girl. I'm going to see it through. I guess there's been fellows
before me and will be after me who have done worse. I'm going to see it
through. All I got to say is I'll smash up the fellow calls me coward. Come
on, forget it. Let's go."
She was close to him, her cheek crinkled against his with the frank kind of
social unconsciousness the park bench seems to engender.
"Come on, Gert. I got a hunger on."
'"Shh-h-h, Jimmie! Let me think. I'm thinking."
"Too much thinking killed a cat. Come on."
"Jimmie—would you—had you ever thought about being a soldier?"
"Sure. I came in an ace of going into the army that time after—after that
little Central Street trouble of mine. I've got a book in my trunk this
minute on military tactics. Wouldn't surprise me a bit to see me land in
the army some day."
"It's a fine thing, Jimmie, for a fellow—the army."
"Yeh, good for what ails him."
She drew him back, pulling at his shoulder so that finally he faced her.
"I got an idea."
"You remember once, honey-bee, how I put it to you that night at Ceiner's
how, if it was for your good, no sacrifice was too much to make."
"You didn't believe it."
"Aw, say now, what's the use digging up ancient history?"
"You'd be right, Jimmie, not to believe it. I haven't lived up to what I
"Oh Lord, honey! What's eating you now? Come to the point."
She would not meet his eyes, turning her head from him to hide lips
that would quiver. "Honey, it—it ain't coming off—that's all. Not
"You know what I mean, Jimmie. It's like everything the soldier boy on the
corner just said. I—I saw you getting red clear behind your ears over it.
I—I was, too, Jimmie. It's like that soldier boy was put there on that
corner just to show me, before it was too late, how wrong I been in every
one of my ways. Us women who are helping to foster slackers. That's what
we're making of them—slackers for life. And here I been thinking it was
your good I had in mind, when all along it's been mine. That's what it's
"Aw, now, Gert—"
"You got to go, Jimmie. You got to go, because you want to go and—because
I want you to go."
He took hold of her two arms because they were trembling. "Aw, now, Gert, I
didn't say anything complaining. I—"
"You did, Jimmie, you did, and—and I never was so glad over you that you
did complain. I just never was so glad. I want you to go, Jimmie. I want
you to go and get a man made out of you. They'll make a better job out of
you than ever I can. I want you to get the yellow streak washed out. I want
you to get to be all the things he said you would. For every line he was
talking up there, I could see my boy coming home to me some day better than
anything I could make out of him, babying him the way I can't help doing. I
could see you, honey-bee, coming back to me with the kind of lift to your
head a fellow has when he's been fighting to make the world a safe place
for dem—for whatever it was he said. I want you to go, Jimmie. I want you
to beat the draft, too. Nothing on earth can make me not want you to go."
"Why, Gert—you're kiddin'!"
"Honey, you want to go, don't you? You want to square up those shoulders
and put on khaki, don't you? Tell me you want to go!"
"Why—why, yes, Gert, if—"
"Oh, you're going, Jimmie! You're going!"
"Why, girl—you're crazy! Our flat! Our furniture—our—"
"What's a flat? What's furniture? What's anything? There's not a firm in
business wouldn't take back a boy's furniture—a boy's everything—that's
going out to fight for—for dem-o-cracy! What's a flat? What's anything?"
He let drop his head to hide his eyes.
Do you know it is said that on the Desert of Sahara, the slope of Sorrento,
and the marble of Fifth Avenue the sun can shine whitest? There is an
iridescence to its glittering on bleached sand, blue bay, and Carrara
façade that is sheer light distilled to its utmost.
On one such day when, standing on the high slope of Fifth Avenue where it
rises toward the Park, and looking down on it, surging to and fro, it was
as if, so manifest the brilliancy, every head wore a tin helmet, parrying
sunlight at a thousand angles of refraction.
Parade-days, all this glittering midstream is swept to the clean sheen of
a strip of moire, this splendid desolation blocked on each side by crowds
half the density of the sidewalk.
On one of these sun-drenched Saturdays dedicated by a growing tradition to
this or that national expression, the Ninety-ninth Regiment, to a flare of
music that made the heart leap out against its walls, turned into a scene
thus swept clean for it, a wave of olive drab, impeccable row after
impeccable row of scissors-like legs advancing. Recruits, raw if you will,
but already caparisoned, sniffing and scenting, as it were, for the great
primordial mire of war.
There is no state of being so finely sensitized as national consciousness.
A gauntlet down and it surges up. One ripple of a flag defended can
goose-flesh a nation. How bitter and how sweet it is to give a soldier!
To the seething kinetic chemistry of such mingling emotions there were
women who stood in the frontal crowds of the sidewalks stifling hysteria,
or ran after in terror at sight of one so personally hers, receding in that
great impersonal wave of olive drab.
And yet the air was martial with banner and with shout. And the ecstasy of
such moments is like a dam against reality, pressing it back. It is in the
pompless watches of the night or of too long days that such dams break,
For the thirty blocks of its course Gertie Slayback followed that wave of
men, half run and half walk. Down from the curb, and at the beck and call
of this or that policeman up again, only to find opportunity for still
another dive out from the invisible roping off of the sidewalk crowds.
From the middle of his line, she could see, sometimes, the tail of Jimmie
Batch's glance roving for her, but to all purports his eye was solely for
his own replica in front of him, and at such times, when he marched, his
back had a little additional straightness that was almost swayback.
Nor was Gertie Slayback crying. On the contrary, she was inclined to
laughter. A little too inclined to a high and brittle sort of dissonance
over which she seemed to have no control.
"'By, Jimmie! So long! Jimmie! You-hoo!"
Tramp. Tramp. Tramp-tramp-tramp.
"You-hoo! Jimmie! So long, Jimmie!"
At Fourteenth Street, and to the solemn stroke of one from a tower, she
broke off suddenly without even a second look back, dodging under the very
arms of the crowd as she ran out from it.
She was one and three-quarter minutes late when she punched the time-clock
beside the Complaints and Adjustment Desk in the Bargain-Basement.