The Harbor


On Friday evening Sue sent word that she would be late and that she would meet us at Joe's room. So we went down without her.

His room had changed since I'd seen it last, I took in at once his pathetic attempts to fix it up for our coming. Gone were the dirty curtains, the dirty collars and shirts, and the bed was concealed by an old green screen borrowed from his landlady, the German saloon-keeper's wife below. The same woman had scrubbed the floor and put down a faded rag carpet in front of the old fireplace, in which now a coal fire was burning. Poor Joe had turned up all the lights to make things bright and cheerful, but it only showed things up as they were. The room was glaringly forlorn.

And now that Eleanore had come, her presence made him feel at once what a wretchedly dreary place it was. Eleanore knew what she wanted to do and she had dressed herself for the part. And as Joe took in the effect of her smart little suit, and waited for Sue and Mrs. Marsh, he became so anxious and gloomy that he could only speak with an effort. He kept glancing uneasily at the door.

"I don't like the idea," said Eleanore, "of Sue's coming down here alone at night through this part of town." Joe looked around at her quickly. "But I suppose," she added thoughtfully, "that she'd have to get used to queer parts of towns if she ever took up the life you spoke of."

"I don't think that would bother her," Joe answered gruffly.

Presently there was a step on the stairs. He jumped up and went to the door, and a moment later Sue entered the room.[Pg 282]

Immediately its whole atmosphere changed. Sue was plainly excited. She, too, had dressed herself with care—or rather with a careful neglect. She wore the oldest suit she had and a simple blouse with a gay red tie. With one sharp glance at Eleanore, she took in the strained situation and set about to ease it.

"What a nice old fireplace," she exclaimed. "Let's turn down the lights and draw 'round the fire. You need more chairs, Joe; go down and get some."

And soon with the lights turned low and the coals stirred into a ruddy glow, we were sitting in quite a dramatic place, the scene was set for "revolution." The curtainless windows were no longer bleak, for through them from the now darkened room we looked out on the lights of the harbor. Sue thought the view thrilling, and equally thrilling she found the last issue of Joe's weekly paper, War Sure, which lay on the table. It was called "Our Special Sabotage Number," and in it various stokers and dockers, in response to an appeal from Joe, had crudely written their ideas upon just how the engines of a ship or the hoisting winches on a dock could be most effectively put out of order in time of strike. "So that the scabs," wrote one contributor, "can see how they like it."

"Why not have blue-penciled some of this?" I asked, with a faint premonition of trouble ahead.

"Because Joe believes in free speech, I suppose," Sue answered for him quickly.

"I'm not much of a lawyer, Joe," I said. "But this stuff looks to me a good deal like incitement to violence."

"Possibly," J. K replied.

"You don't look horribly frightened," laughed Sue. And she wanted to hear all the latest strike news. The time was rapidly drawing near. It was now close to the end of March and the strike was expected in April.

When Marsh arrived about nine o'clock, there was an awkward moment. For behind him came his wife and their small daughter, both of whom were stiffly dressed,[Pg 283] and with one glance at Eleanore they felt immediately out of place. Mrs. Marsh was even more hostile and curt than when I had seen her last. She was angry at having been dragged into this and took little pains to hide it.

"My husband would have me come," she said. "And I couldn't leave my little girl, so I had to bring her along." And she stopped abruptly with a look that asked us plainly, "Now that I'm here, what do you want?"

"How old is your little girl?" Eleanore inquired.

"Six last month."

"Are you going to put her in school in New York?"

And in spite of short suspicious replies she soon had Mrs. Marsh and her child talking of kindergartens and parks and other parts of the town they must see. Sue was now eagerly talking to Marsh, Joe was beside her helping her out, and both seemed wholly to have forgotten the disturbing woman behind them. But by the quick looks that Eleanore gave them now and then, I could see she was only holding back until she should have Mrs. Marsh in a mood where she could be brought into the talk and made to tell about her life.

"Don't you ever want to settle down?" she asked when there had come a pause. Marsh turned abruptly to Eleanore.

"Of course she does," he answered. "Did you ever know a woman who didn't, the minute that she got a kid? But my wife can't, if she sticks to me. She has had to make up her mind to live in any old place that comes along, from a dollar room in a cheap hotel to a shanty in a mining camp." And his look at Eleanore seemed to add, "That's the kind she is, you little doll."

Eleanore quickly made herself look as much like a doll as possible. She placidly folded her dainty gloved hands.

"I should think," she murmured in ladylike tones, "Mrs. Marsh would find that rather difficult."

"She does," said Marsh aggressively. "But my wife has nerve enough to stand up to the rough side of life[Pg 284]—as the wives of most workingmen have to—in this rich and glorious land."

"Won't you tell us about it?" asked Eleanore sweetly. "I should be so interested to hear. It's so different, you see, from all I've been accustomed to."

"Yes," Marsh answered grimly, "I've no doubt it is. Go ahead, Sally, and tell them about it."

And Sally did. Gladly taking her husband's aggressive tone, she started out almost with a sneer. Her remarks at first were disjointed and brief, but I told her I was writing the story of her husband's life, that I wanted her side of it from the start. I promised to show her what I wrote and let her cut anything she had told me if she did not want it in print. And so in scattered incidents, with bits thrown in now and then by Marsh, the lives of these two began to come out. And we understood her bitterness.

"Mr. Marsh was born," she said, "in one of the poorest little towns in Southern Iowa. It was nothing but a hole of a place about six miles from the county seat where my father was a lawyer. But even in that little hole his family was the poorest there. I've been all over the States since then, and I've seen poor people, the Lord knows—but I want to say I've never seen people anywhere that were any worse off than my husband was when he was a boy. And yet he got out of it all by himself. He didn't need any strikes to help him."

"But of course," Sue put in smoothly, "your husband was an exceptional man." Mrs. Marsh threw her a bitter glance.

"He might have been," she answered.

"What was he like as a boy?" I asked.

"A fighter," she said. For a moment her sharp voice grew proud. "His father took diabetes and died, and they went into debt to bury him. Jim helped his mother run the farm and missed half his schooling. But his teacher loaned him text-books—and at home they had no candles,[Pg 285] so he used to work with his back to the fire—half the night. My father used to call him a regular little Honest Abe. That's a surprise to you, isn't it," she added with a hard little laugh.

"But then the town had a sudden boom. A new branch of the railroad came through that way and houses and stores went up over night. Jim was only sixteen then, but he grabbed the chance to get into the building. In less than a year he had earned enough money so he could quit and go to school. He came over to high school in our town, walking his six miles twice a day. And that's where I met him.

"My father took a shine to him right off and promised to make him a lawyer. He loaned him law books the first year, and the second Jim worked in his office." She looked for a moment at the wall. "I expect it's not a love story you're after—so I'll leave that part of it out. Papa was mad when I broke the news—and I can't say I blame him. He was the richest man in town, the railroad lawyer of the place—and he had meant that I should go to a polishing school in St. Louis.

"Well, I did go to St. Louis, but I was eloping at the time and I became Jim's wife. We had a hard fight for a year or two, but we made up our minds we'd make it go. Jim got a job on a skyscraper which was going up at that time. I got him his breakfast at six every morning and he got home about seven at night, and right after supper he went at his Blackstone and dug into it all evening. As a rule he got to bed at one, and five hours' sleep was all he had—with a few hours extra Sundays.

"I knew a girl from home in St. Louis whose husband was making money fast. But Jim was too proud to make use of my friends or go to her home when we were invited. We missed three card parties on that account. But she helped me get some pupils and I gave piano lessons. When my baby was born I had to quit—but I thought we were out of the woods by then, for Jim was made foreman of[Pg 286] his gang and was raised to a hundred dollars a month. We moved from our boarding house into a flat. I hired a young Swedish girl and began to feel that I knew where I was.

"But then the building workers struck. Jim had always been popular with his men, and now he wanted his boss to give them half of what they asked for. But his boss didn't see it that way at all, and he and Jim had trouble. The next week Jim decided he wouldn't manage what he called 'scabs.' So he left his employment, went in with the men and made the strike a great success. That left him leader of their union. The salary they paid him was eighty dollars instead of a hundred—so I let our Swedish girl go.

"He said his new position would give him more time to study law. But it didn't turn out quite that way. He got so wrapped up in his union affairs that he had no time for his law books. One day I put them up on a shelf and found he didn't notice it."

Eleanore suddenly tightened at this, a quick sympathy came into her eyes. Sue gave a restless little sigh.

"He'd be out at meetings most every night," Mrs. Marsh continued. "At the end of the year he was one of three leaders in a strike of all the building trades in town. All work of that kind in the city was stopped and things got very ugly. One night a man came to our flat and informed me that my husband was in jail. I went to the jail the next morning and saw him. We had quite a talk. And that afternoon I gave up our flat."

"Why?" asked Eleanore softly.

"I presumed the landlord wished it," said Mrs. Marsh without looking around. "I took a room in a cheap hotel. Mr. Marsh came out of jail with ideas that were all new to me. He had left his old trade union and gone in with a new crowd of men who stood for out-and-out revolution—which I couldn't understand. But we made the best of it. We went to the theater that night and then he took the[Pg 287] midnight train on one of his first labor trips. At first these trips were only for a week or so, but as time went on they grew longer. As a rule I never wrote him because I never knew his address. On one trip he was away five weeks—and before he got back there was time enough for my second baby, a little boy, to be born and die of pneumonia."

Eleanore flinched as though that had hurt. I saw her turn and look at Sue, who seemed even more restless than before.

"You decided to travel with him then—didn't you?" Eleanore murmured.

"Yes," said the other gruffly. "We used to try to figure out what city he would likely be in, or at least not far away from—and then my little girl and I would find a place to board there. It has been like that for the past four years. In that time we've lived in fourteen places all the way between here and the Coast."

"Have you lived all the time at hotels?" Eleanore inquired.

"We have," said the woman curtly, "but hardly the kind you're accustomed to. As a rule, as soon as we reach a town my husband's name appears in the papers, and on that account the more refined houses wouldn't care to keep us long."

Eleanore leaned forward, her eyes troubled and intent. She seemed to have forgotten Sue.

"How do you know they wouldn't?" she asked.

"I found out by trying—twice."

I heard a sudden angry creak in the battered old chair in which Sue was sitting.

"So my little girl Lucy and I," the embittered voice went on, "go to hotels that don't ask many questions. We pass the time going to parks or museums—or now and then to a concert—where I try to give her a taste for good music."

"Do you find time to keep up your music?" I asked.[Pg 288]

"There's time enough," came the quick reply. "You see as a rule I'm just waiting around. One night in Pittsburgh it was my birthday, and as the Grand Opera was there for a week and I had never been to one, I got Mr. Marsh to take me. We made it a regular celebration, with dinner in a first-class restaurant just for once. But my husband is generally watched, and the papers all took it up the next day. 'Marsh and wife dine and see opera after his speech to starving strikers,' or similar words to that effect."

"Do you see anything of the strikers?" I asked.

"Not much," she replied. "We used to be invited to go to parties at their homes. But most of them, even the leaders, were Irish, Germans, Italians or Jews whose wives could barely speak English. I found them not very pleasant affairs. Some of the wives drank a good deal of beer and most of them had very little to say. Strike dances were no better. The wives as a rule sat with their children around the walls—while a lot of young factory girls, Jewesses for the most part, danced turkey trots around the hall."

"There were speeches, I suppose?" Sue put in impatiently.

"Yes—Mr. Marsh and others made speeches between dances. They weren't the kind of affairs I'd been used to in our home town," said Mrs. Marsh. "I've lost track of the folks at home. I never write and they don't write me. Only once when my mother knew where I was she sent me a box at Christmas. Lucy and I got quite excited over that box, it was all the presents we'd had from outside in quite a line of Christmases. So we thought we'd celebrate."

"How did you celebrate Christmas?" Eleanore asked softly.

"We went out and bought a tree and candles, some gold balls and popcorn and all the other fixings. And we popped the corn over the gas that night. The next day we[Pg 289] bought things for each other's stockings. Lucy was then only four years old, but I'd leave her at a counter and tell the clerk to let her have all she wanted to buy for me up to a dollar. That was how we worked it. The next night we had the tree in our room. I got Mr. Marsh to help me trim it. At last we lit the candles and let Lucy in from the hotel hall, where she'd nearly caught her death of cold. Then we opened the box from home. There was a doll for Lucy and a framed photograph of my mother for me—and for Mr. Marsh a Bible. He got laughing over that and so did I. And that ended Christmas.

"We had another Christmas last year," she said in a slow, intense sort of way as though seeing the place as she spoke, "in a mining town in Montana, where Jim had been in jail five days and the whole place was under martial law. A major of the militia came to me on Christmas Eve. He claimed that Jim had been seen by detectives traveling with another woman and that I was not his wife. They locked me up for two hours that night as an immoral woman."

Sue was sitting rigid now, her lips pressed tight. And Joe with a strained unnatural face was staring into the fire.

"But of course," Mrs. Marsh concluded, "most of the time it isn't like that. As a rule when we come to a city nothing especial happens at all. We just take a room like the one we have now and wait till the strike is over. I've got so I have a queer view of towns. I'm always there at the time of a strike, when crowds of Italians and Poles and Jews fill the streets on parade or jam into halls and talk about running the world by themselves. And I guess they're going to do it some day—but I presume not by to-morrow."

For some time while she was speaking her eyes had been fixed steadily upon Joe's only picture. It stood on the mantel, a big charcoal sketch of a crowd of immigrants just leaving Ellis Island. They were of all races. Un[Pg 290]couth, heavy, stolid, with that hungry hope in all their eyes for more of the good things of the earth, they seemed like some barbaric horde about to pour in over the land. With her eyes upon their faces in deep, quiet hatred this woman from the Middle West had told the story of her life.

"Well, Sally," said her husband, who had grown restive toward the end, "I guess that'll do. Let's go on home."

"I'm sure I'm ready," she quickly replied. Now that she had come out of herself she seemed angry at having told so much.

When they had left there was a silence, which Sue broke with a breath of impatience.

"What a frightful thing it must be for a man in this work," she exclaimed, "to have a wife like that! A woman so hard and narrow, so wrapped up in her own little life, with not a spark of sympathy for any of his big ideals!"

"I suppose it's the life that has done it," said Eleanore quietly, looking at Sue.

"I'd like to see some women," Sue retorted angrily, "who have been in that life for years and years, and have sympathy, have everything, don't care for anything else in the world!" She turned suddenly to Joe. "You said there were hundreds, didn't you?"

Joe looked back at her a moment. There was a startled, groping, searching expression in his eyes.

"Yes," he said. "There are hundreds."

"Are many of them married?" Eleanore inquired.

"Some of them are," he answered.

"When a woman who, as Sue has just said, throws herself into this heart and soul, marries a man who is in it, too, how much of their time can they spend together?"

"That depends on the kind of work," he said. Eleanore held his eyes with hers.

"In some cases, I suppose," she went on, "like yours, for example, where the man's work keeps him moving[Pg 291]—if the woman's work wouldn't let her go with him they would have to be half their time apart."


"As Mrs. Marsh and her husband were at the time when her second baby was born."

"Yes," said Joe, still watching her.

"Aren't there a good many, too, who don't exactly marry—but marry just a little—one woman here, another there, and so on?"

"Yes," said Joe, "there are some who do that."

"I should think," said Eleanore thoughtfully, "that in a movement of this kind a man ought not to marry at all—or else marry a little a good many times—so as always to be free for the Cause."

"Unless," said Joe, quite steadily, "he finds a woman like some I've known, whose feeling for a man, one man, seems to be planted in her for life—who can easily stand not being with him because she herself is deep in her own job, and her job is about the same as his—and because the two of them have decided to see the whole job through to the end."

His eyes went up to the charcoal sketch.

"It's a job worth seeing through," he said.

Sue was leaning forward now.

"Where did you get that picture, Joe?" she asked.

"It was an illustration," he said, "for a thing I once had in a magazine." And then as though almost forgetting us all, his eyes still upon those immigrant faces, he said with a slow, rough intensity:

"I know every figure in it. I know just where they're strong and where each one of 'em is weak. I've never made gods out of 'em. But I know they do all the real work in the world. They're the ones who get all the rotten deals, the ones who get shot down in wars and worked like dogs in time of peace. They're the ones who are ready to go out on strike and risk their lives to change all this. They're the people worth spending your life with. But[Pg 292] it's a job for your whole life—and before a man or a woman jumps in they want to be sure they're ready."

He did not look at Sue as he spoke. He seemed barely able to hold himself in. His relief was plain when we took her away.

Sue took a car to Brooklyn and we started homeward. Eleanore wanted to walk for a while. She walked quickly, her face set.

"What do you think of it?" I asked.

"I wasn't thinking of Sue," she said. "I was thinking of Mrs. Marsh. I've never tormented a woman like that and I never will again in my life—not for Sue or anyone else—she can marry anybody she likes!"

"Well, she won't marry Joe," I said. "Did you see his face—poor devil? You've certainly settled that affair."

"Have I?" she asked sharply. And then her curious feminine mind took a long leap. "And what are you going to be," she asked, "in a year from now?" I smiled at her.

"Not a second Marsh," I said. "But even if I were the man in the moon, you'd make a success of being my wife."

"I think I would," said Eleanore. "It must be so quiet up there in the moon."[Pg 293]

Last | Next | Contents