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An Experiment in Misery

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 trousers' pockets, toward
the downtown 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

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 sidewalks, spattered with black mud, which made each
shoe leave a scarlike impression. Overhead elevated trains with a shrill
grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leglike
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 somber 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 superstition.

Caught by the delectable sign the young man allowed himself to be
swallowed. A bartender placed a schooner of dark and portentous beer on
the bar. Its monumental form upreared until the froth a-top was above
the crown of the young man's brown derby.

"Soup over there, gents," said the bartender 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 cheap

On the sidewalk 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."

"How much?"

"Ten cents."
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 awkwardly.

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, an'

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 here, I'm a
stranger here, an' if ye'll steer me to your cheap joint I'll find the
other three."

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' do."

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 gloom-shrouded

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 odors, 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-colored undershirt, was parading
sleepily along the corridor. He rubbed his eyes, and, giving vent to a
prodigious yawn, demanded to be told the time.

"Half-past one."

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 odors rushed out like fiends,
so that the young man was obliged to struggle as against an overpowering

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 deathlike 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
vigor. 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 neighbor 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 touched with
radiant color the form of a small fat man, who snored in stuttering

fashion. His round and shiny bald head glowed suddenly with the valor of
a decoration. He sat up, blinked at the sun, swore fretfully, and pulled
his blanket over the ornamental splendors of his head.

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 files.

"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 commonplace 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 fishwife 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 humor.

"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
unnatural glee.

"Yessir! A nightshirt! A hully white nightshirt!"

"You lie!"

"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

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 mosslike 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-a-ah, 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
gloomy warning.

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 if 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.

Stephen Crane