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Chapter 8

VIII.

Lemuel entered a lighted doorway from a bricked courtyard, and found himself with twenty or thirty houseless comrades in a large, square room, with benching against the wall for them to sit on. They were all silent and quelled-looking, except a young fellow whom Lemuel sat down beside, and who, ascertaining that he was a new-comer, seemed disposed to do the honours of the place. He was not daunted by the reserve native to Lemuel, or by that distrust of strangers which experience had so soon taught him. He addressed him promptly as mate, and told him that the high, narrow, three-sided tabling in the middle of the room was where they would get their breakfast, if they lived.

"And I guess I shall live," he said. "I notice I 'most always live till breakfast-time, whatever else I do, or I don't do; but sometimes it don't seem as if I could saw my way through that quarter of a cord of wood." At a glance of inquiry which Lemuel could not forbear, he continued: "What I mean by a quarter of a cord of wood is that they let you exercise that much free in the morning, before they give you your breakfast: it's the doctor's orders. This used to be a school-house, but it's in better business now. They got a kitchen under here, that beats the Parker House; you'll smell it pretty soon. No whacking on the knuckles here any more. All serene, I tell you. You'll see. I don't know how I should got along without this institution, and I tell the manager so, every time I see him. That's him, hollering 'Next,' out of that room there. It's a name he gives all of us; he knows it's a name we'll answer to. Don't you forget it when it comes your turn."

He was younger than Lemuel, apparently, but his swarthy, large- mouthed, droll eyed face affirmed the experience of a sage. He wore a blue flannel shirt, with loose trousers belted round his waist, and he crushed a soft felt hat between his hands; his hair was clipped close to his skull, and as he rubbed it now and then it gave out a pleasant rasping sound.

The tramps disappeared in the order of their vicinity to the manager's door, and it came in time to this boy and Lemuel.

"You come along with me," he said, "and do as I do." When they entered the presence of the manager, who sat at a desk, Lemuel's guide nodded to him, and handed over his order for a bed.

"Ever been here before?" asked the manager, as if going through the form for a joke.

"Never." He took a numbered card which the manager gave him, and stood aside to wait for Lemuel, who made the same answer to the same question, and received his numbered card.

"Now," said the young fellow, as they passed out of another door, "we ain't either of us 'Next,' any more. I'm Thirty-nine, and you're Forty, and don't you forget it. All right, boss," he called back to the manager; "I'll take care of him! This way," he said to Lemuel. "The reason why I said I'd never been here before," he explained on the way down, "was because you got to say something, when he asks you. Most of 'em says last fall or last year, but I say never, because it's just as true, and he seems to like it better. We're going down to the dressing-room now, and then we're going to take a bath. Do you know why?"

"No," said Lemuel.

"Because we can't help it. It's the doctor's orders. He thinks it's the best thing you can do, just before you go to bed."

The basement was brightly lighted with gas everywhere, and a savoury odour of onion-flavoured broth diffused itself through the whole place.

"Smell it? You might think that was supper, but it ain't. It's breakfast. You got a bath and a night's rest as well as the quarter of a cord of wood between you and that stew. Hungry?"

"Not very," said Lemuel faintly.

"Because if you say you are they'll give you all the bread and water you can hold, now. But I ruther wait."

"I guess I don't want anything to-night," said Lemuel, shrinking from the act of beggary.

"Well, I guess you won't lose anything in the long run," said the other. "You'll make it up at breakfast."

They turned into a room where eight or ten tramps were undressing; some of them were old men, quite sodden and stupefied with a life of vagrancy and privation; others were of a dull or cunning middle-age, two or three were as young as Lemuel and his partner, and looked as if they might be poor fellows who had found themselves in a strange city without money or work. But it was against them that they had known where to come for a night's shelter, Lemuel felt.

There were large iron hooks hanging from the walls and ceiling, and his friend found the numbers on two of them corresponding to those given Lemuel and himself, and brass checks which they hung around their necks.

"You got to hang your things on that hook, all but your shoes and stockings, and you got to hang on to them, yourself. Forty's your number, and forty's your hook, and they give you the clothes off'n it in the morning."

He led the way through the corridor into a large room where a row of bath-tubs flanked the wall, half of them filled with bathers, who chatted in tones of subdued cheerfulness under the pleasant excitement of unlimited hot and cold water. As each new-comer appeared, a black boy, perched on a windowsill, jumped down and dashed his head from a large bottle which he carried.

"Free shampoo," explained Lemuel's mate. "Doctor's orders. Only you have to do the rubbing yourself. I don't suppose you need it, but some the pardners here couldn't sleep without it," he continued, as Lemuel shrank a little from the bottle, and then submitted. "It's a regular night-cap."

The tramps recognised the humour of the explanation by a laugh, intended to be respectful to the establishment in its control, which spread along their line, and the black boy grinned.

"There ain't anything mean about the Wayfarer's Hotel," said the mate, and they all laughed again, a little louder.

Each man, having dried himself from his bath, was given a coarse linen night-gown; sometimes it was not quite whole, but it was always clean; and then he gathered up his shoes and stockings and went out.

"Hold on a minute," said the mate to Lemuel, when they left the bath-room. "You ought to see the kitchen," and in his night-gown, with his shoes in his hand, he led Lemuel to the open door which that delicious smell of broth came from. A vast copper-topped boiler was bubbling within, and trying to get its lid off. The odour made Lemuel sick with hunger.

"Refrigerator in the next room," the mate lectured on. "Best beef- chucks in the market; fish for Fridays—we don't make any man go against his religion, in this house; pots of butter as big as a cheese,—none of your oleomargarine,—the real thing, every time; potatoes and onions and carrots laying around on the floor; barrels of hard-tack; and bread, like sponge,—bounce you up if you was to jump on it,—baked by the women at the Chardon Street Home—oh, I tell you we do things in style here."

A man who sat reading a newspaper in the corner looked up sharply.
"Hello, there! what's wanted?"

"Just dropped in to wish you good night, Jimmy," said Lemuel's mate.

"You clear out!" said the man good-humouredly, as if to an old acquaintance, who must not be allowed to presume upon his familiarity.

"All right, Jimmy," said the boy. He set his left hand horizontally on its wrist at his left shoulder and cut the air with it in playful menace as the man dropped his eyes again to his paper. "They're all just so, in this house," he explained to Lemuel. "No nonsense, but good-natured. They're all right. They know me."

He mounted two flights of stairs in front of Lemuel to a corridor, where an attendant stood examining the numbers on the brass checks hung around tramps' necks as they came up with their shoes in their hands. He instructed them that the numbers corresponded to the cots they were to occupy, as well as the hooks where their clothes hung. Some of them seemed hardly able to master the facts. They looked wistfully, like cowed animals, into his face as he made the case clear.

Two vast rooms, exquisitely clean, like the whole house, opened on the right and left of the corridor, and presented long phalanxes of cots, each furnished with two coarse blankets, a quilt, and a thin pillow.

"Used to be school-rooms," said Lemuel's mate, in a low tone.

"Cots thirty-nine and forty," said the attendant, looking at their checks. "Right over there, in the corner."

"Come along," said the mate, leading the way, with the satisfaction of an habitué. "Best berth in the room, and about the last they reach in the morning. You see, they got to take us as we come, when they call us, and the last feller in at night's the first feller out in the morning, because his bed's the nearest the door."

He did not pull down the blankets of his cot at once, but stretched himself out in the quilt that covered them. "Cool off a little, first," he explained. "Well, this is what I call comfort, mate, heigh?"

Lemuel did not answer. He was watching the attendant with a group of tramps who could not find their cots.

"Can't read, I suppose," said the mate, a little disdainfully. "Well, look at that old chap, will you!" A poor fellow was fumbling with his blankets, as if he did not know quite how to manage them. The attendant had to come to his help, and tuck him in. "Well, there!" exclaimed the mate, lifting himself on his elbow to admire the scene. "I don't suppose he's ever been in a decent bed before. Hayloft's his style, or a board-pile." He sank down again, and went on: "Well, you do see all kinds of folks here, that's a fact. Sorry there ain't more in to-night, so 's to give you a specimen. You ought to be here in the winter. Well, it ain't so lonesome now, in summer, as it used to be. Sometimes I used to have nearly the whole place to myself, summer nights, before they got to passin' these laws against tramps in the country, and lockin' 'em up when they ketched 'em. That drives 'em into the city summers, now; because they're always sure of a night's rest and a day's board here if they ask for it. But winter's the time. You'll see all these cots full, then. They let on the steam-heat, and it's comfortable; and it's always airy and healthy." The vast room was, in fact, perfectly ventilated, and the poor who housed themselves that night, and many well-to-do sojourners in hotels, had reason to envy the vagrants their free lodging.

The mate now got under his quilt, and turned his face toward Lemuel, with one hand under his cheek. "They don't let _every_body into this room, 's I was tellin' ye. This room is for the big-bugs, you know. Sometimes a drunk will get in, though, in spite of everything. Why, I've seen a drunk at the station-house, when I've been gettin' my order for a bed, stiffen up so 't the captain himself thought he was sober; and then I've followed him round here, wobblin' and corkscrewin' all over the sidewalk; and then I've seen him stiffen up in the office again, and go through his bath like a little man, and get into bed as drunk as a fish; and may be wake up in the night with the man with the poker after him, and make things hum. Well, sir, one night there was a drunk in here that thought the man with the poker was after him, and he just up and jumped out of this window behind you—three stories from the ground."

Lemuel could not help lifting himself in bed to look at it. "Did it kill him?" he asked. "Kill him? No! You can't kill a drunk. One night there was a drunk got loose, here, and he run downstairs into the wood-yard, and he got hold of an axe down there, and it took five men to get that axe away from that drunk. He was goin' for the snakes."

"The snakes," repeated Lemuel. "Are there snakes in the wood-yard?"

The other gave a laugh so loud that the attendant called out, "Less noise over there!"

"I'll tell you about the snakes in the morning," said the mate; and he turned his face away from Lemuel.

The stories of the drunks had made Lemuel a little anxious; but he thought that attendant would keep a sharp lookout, so that there would not really be much danger. He was very drowsy from his bath, in spite of the hunger that tormented him, but he tried to keep awake and think what he should do after breakfast.

William Dean Howells