From The Jungle
It was four o'clock when the ceremony was over and the carriages began
to arrive. There had been a crowd following all the way, owing to the
exuberance of Marija Berczynskas. The occasion rested heavily upon
Marija's broad shoulders--it was her task to see that all things went
in due form, and after the best home traditions; and, flying wildly
hither and thither, bowling every one out of the way, and scolding and
exhorting all day with her tremendous voice, Marija was too eager to
see that others conformed to the proprieties to consider them herself.
She had left the church last of all, and, desiring to arrive first at
the hall, had issued orders to the coachman to drive faster. When that
personage had developed a will of his own in the matter, Marija had
flung up the window of the carriage, and, leaning out, proceeded to tell
him her opinion of him, first in Lithuanian, which he did not understand,
and then in Polish, which he did. Having the advantage of her in altitude,
the driver had stood his ground and even ventured to attempt to speak;
and the result had been a furious altercation, which, continuing all the
way down Ashland Avenue, had added a new swarm of urchins to the cortege
at each side street for half a mile.
This was unfortunate, for already there was a throng before the door.
The music had started up, and half a block away you could hear the dull
"broom, broom" of a cello, with the squeaking of two fiddles which vied
with each other in intricate and altitudinous gymnastics. Seeing the
throng, Marija abandoned precipitately the debate concerning the ancestors
of her coachman, and, springing from the moving carriage, plunged in and
proceeded to clear a way to the hall. Once within, she turned and began
to push the other way, roaring, meantime, "Eik! Eik! Uzdaryk-duris!"
in tones which made the orchestral uproar sound like fairy music.
"Z. Graiczunas, Pasilinksminimams darzas. Vynas. Sznapsas. Wines and
Liquors. Union Headquarters"--that was the way the signs ran. The reader,
who perhaps has never held much converse in the language of far-off
Lithuania, will be glad of the explanation that the place was the rear
room of a saloon in that part of Chicago known as "back of the yards."
This information is definite and suited to the matter of fact; but how
pitifully inadequate it would have seemed to one who understood that it
was also the supreme hour of ecstasy in the life of one of God's gentlest
creatures, the scene of the wedding feast and the joy-transfiguration
of little Ona Lukoszaite!
She stood in the doorway, shepherded by Cousin Marija, breathless from
pushing through the crowd, and in her happiness painful to look upon.
There was a light of wonder in her eyes and her lids trembled, and her
otherwise wan little face was flushed. She wore a muslin dress,
conspicuously white, and a stiff little veil coming to her shoulders.
There were five pink paper roses twisted in the veil, and eleven bright
green rose leaves. There were new white cotton gloves upon her hands,
and as she stood staring about her she twisted them together feverishly.
It was almost too much for her--you could see the pain of too great emotion
in her face, and all the tremor of her form. She was so young--not quite
sixteen--and small for her age, a mere child; and she had just been
married--and married to Jurgis,* (*Pronounced Yoorghis) of all men,
to Jurgis Rudkus, he with the white flower in the buttonhole of his new
black suit, he with the mighty shoulders and the giant hands.
Ona was blue-eyed and fair, while Jurgis had great black eyes with beetling
brows, and thick black hair that curled in waves about his ears--in short,
they were one of those incongruous and impossible married couples with which
Mother Nature so often wills to confound all prophets, before and after.
Jurgis could take up a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound quarter of beef and
carry it into a car without a stagger, or even a thought; and now he stood
in a far corner, frightened as a hunted animal, and obliged to moisten his
lips with his tongue each time before he could answer the congratulations
of his friends.
Gradually there was effected a separation between the spectators and the
guests--a separation at least sufficiently complete for working purposes.
There was no time during the festivities which ensued when there were not
groups of onlookers in the doorways and the corners; and if any one of
these onlookers came sufficiently close, or looked sufficiently hungry,
a chair was offered him, and he was invited to the feast. It was one of
the laws of the veselija that no one goes hungry; and, while a rule made
in the forests of Lithuania is hard to apply in the stockyards district of
Chicago, with its quarter of a million inhabitants, still they did their
best, and the children who ran in from the street, and even the dogs, went
out again happier. A charming informality was one of the characteristics
of this celebration. The men wore their hats, or, if they wished, they
took them off, and their coats with them; they ate when and where they
pleased, and moved as often as they pleased. There were to be speeches
and singing, but no one had to listen who did not care to; if he wished,
meantime, to speak or sing himself, he was perfectly free. The resulting
medley of sound distracted no one, save possibly alone the babies, of which
there were present a number equal to the total possessed by all the guests
invited. There was no other place for the babies to be, and so part of
the preparations for the evening consisted of a collection of cribs and
carriages in one corner. In these the babies slept, three or four together,
or wakened together, as the case might be. Those who were still older,
and could reach the tables, marched about munching contentedly at meat bones
and bologna sausages.
The room is about thirty feet square, with whitewashed walls, bare save for
a calendar. a picture of a race horse, and a family tree in a gilded frame.
To the right there is a door from the saloon, with a few loafers in the
doorway, and in the corner beyond it a bar, with a presiding genius clad
in soiled white, with waxed black mustaches and a carefully oiled curl
plastered against one side of his forehead. In the opposite corner are
two tables, filling a third of the room and laden with dishes and cold
viands, which a few of the hungrier guests are already munching. At the
head, where sits the bride, is a snow-white cake, with an Eiffel tower of
constructed decoration, with sugar roses and two angels upon it, and a
generous sprinkling of pink and green and yellow candies. Beyond opens
a door into the kitchen, where there is a glimpse to be had of a range with
much steam ascending from it, and many women, old and young, rushing hither
and thither. In the corner to the left are the three musicians, upon a
little platform, toiling heroically to make some impression upon the hubbub;
also the babies, similarly occupied, and an open window whence the populace
imbibes the sights and sounds and odors.
Suddenly some of the steam begins to advance, and, peering through it,
you discern Aunt Elizabeth, Ona's stepmother--Teta Elzbieta, as they call
her--bearing aloft a great platter of stewed duck. Behind her is Kotrina,
making her way cautiously, staggering beneath a similar burden; and half a
minute later there appears old Grandmother Majauszkiene, with a big yellow
bowl of smoking potatoes, nearly as big as herself. So, bit by bit, the
feast takes form--there is a ham and a dish of sauerkraut, boiled rice,
macaroni, bologna sausages, great piles of penny buns, bowls of milk, and
foaming pitchers of beer. There is also, not six feet from your back,
the bar, where you may order all you please and do not have to pay for it.
"Eiksz! Graicziau!" screams Marija Berczynskas, and falls to work herself--
for there is more upon the stove inside that will be spoiled if it be
So, with laughter and shouts and endless badinage and merriment, the guests
take their places. The young men, who for the most part have been huddled
near the door, summon their resolution and advance; and the shrinking
Jurgis is poked and scolded by the old folks until he consents to seat
himself at the right hand of the bride. The two bridesmaids, whose
insignia of office are paper wreaths, come next, and after them the rest
of the guests, old and young, boys and girls. The spirit of the occasion
takes hold of the stately bartender, who condescends to a plate of stewed
duck; even the fat policeman--whose duty it will be, later in the evening,
to break up the fights--draws up a chair to the foot of the table. And the
children shout and the babies yell, and every one laughs and sings and
chatters--while above all the deafening clamor Cousin Marija shouts orders
to the musicians.
The musicians--how shall one begin to describe them? All this time they
have been there, playing in a mad frenzy--all of this scene must be read,
or said, or sung, to music. It is the music which makes it what it is;
it is the music which changes the place from the rear room of a saloon
in back of the yards to a fairy place, a wonderland, a little comer of
the high mansions of the sky.
The little person who leads this trio is an inspired man. His fiddle is
out of tune, and there is no rosin on his bow, but still he is an inspired
man--the hands of the muses have been laid upon him. He plays like one
possessed by a demon, by a whole horde of demons. You can feel them in
the air round about him, capering frenetically; with their invisible feet
they set the pace, and the hair of the leader of the orchestra rises on end,
and his eyeballs start from their sockets, as he toils to keep up with them.
Tamoszius Kuszleika is his name, and he has taught himself to play the
violin by practicing all night, after working all day on the "killing beds."
He is in his shirt sleeves, with a vest figured with faded gold horseshoes,
and a pink-striped shirt, suggestive of peppermint candy. A pair of
military trousers, light blue with a yellow stripe, serve to give that
suggestion of authority proper to the leader of a band. He is only about
five feet high, but even so these trousers are about eight inches short
of the ground. You wonder where he can have gotten them or rather you
would wonder, if the excitement of being in his presence left you time to
think of such things.
For he is an inspired man. Every inch of him is inspired--you might
almost say inspired separately. He stamps with his feet, he tosses his
head, he sways and swings to and fro; he has a wizened-up little face,
irresistibly comical; and, when he executes a turn or a flourish, his brows
knit and his lips work and his eyelids wink--the very ends of his necktie
bristle out. And every now and then he turns upon his companions, nodding,
signaling, beckoning frantically--with every inch of him appealing,
imploring, in behalf of the muses and their call.
For they are hardly worthy of Tamoszius, the other two members of the
orchestra. The second violin is a Slovak, a tall, gaunt man with black-
rimmed spectacles and the mute and patient look of an overdriven mule;
he responds to the whip but feebly, and then always falls back into his
old rut. The third man is very fat, with a round, red, sentimental nose,
and he plays with his eyes turned up to the sky and a look of infinite
yearning. He is playing a bass part upon his cello, and so the excitement
is nothing to him; no matter what happens in the treble, it is his task to
saw out one long-drawn and lugubrious note after another, from four o'clock
in the afternoon until nearly the same hour next morning, for his third of
the total income of one dollar per hour.
Before the feast has been five minutes under way, Tamoszius Kuszleika
has risen in his excitement; a minute or two more and you see that he is
beginning to edge over toward the tables. His nostrils are dilated and
his breath comes fast--his demons are driving him. He nods and shakes
his head at his companions, jerking at them with his violin, until at last
the long form of the second violinist also rises up. In the end all three
of them begin advancing, step by step, upon the banqueters, Valentinavyczia,
he cellist, bumping along with his instrument between notes. Finally all
three are gathered at the foot of the tables, and there Tamoszius mounts
upon a stool.
Now he is in his glory, dominating the scene. Some of the people are
eating, some are laughing and talking--but you will make a great mistake
if you think there is one of them who does not hear him. His notes are
never true, and his fiddle buzzes on the low ones and squeaks and
scratches on the high; but these things they heed no more than they heed
the dirt and noise and squalor about them--it is out of this material that
they have to build their lives, with it that they have to utter their souls.
And this is their utterance; merry and boisterous, or mournful and wailing,
or passionate and rebellious, this music is their music, music of home.
It stretches out its arms to them, they have only to give themselves up.
Chicago and its saloons and its slums fade away--there are green meadows
and sunlit rivers, mighty forests and snowclad hills. They behold home
landscapes and childhood scenes returning; old loves and friendships begin
to waken, old joys and griefs to laugh and weep. Some fall back and close
their eyes, some beat upon the table. Now and then one leaps up with a cry
and calls for this song or that; and then the fire leaps brighter in
Tamoszius' eyes, and he flings up his fiddle and shouts to his companions,
and away they go in mad career. The company takes up the choruses, and men
and women cry out like all possessed; some leap to their feet and stamp upon
the floor, lifting their glasses and pledging each other. Before long it
occurs to some one to demand an old wedding song, which celebrates the
beauty of the bride and the joys of love. In the excitement of this
masterpiece Tamoszius Kuszleika begins to edge in between the tables,
making his way toward the head, where sits the bride. There is not a foot
of space between the chairs of the guests, and Tamoszius is so short that
he pokes them with his bow whenever he reaches over for the low notes;
but still he presses in, and insists relentlessly that his companions
must follow. During their progress, needless to say, the sounds of the
cello are pretty well extinguished; but at last the three are at the head,
and Tamoszius takes his station at the right hand of the bride and begins
to pour out his soul in melting strains.
Little Ona is too excited to eat. Once in a while she tastes a little
something, when Cousin Marija pinches her elbow and reminds her; but, for
the most part, she sits gazing with the same fearful eyes of wonder.
Teta Elzbieta is all in a flutter, like a hummingbird; her sisters, too,
keep running up behind her, whispering, breathless. But Ona seems
scarcely to hear them--the music keeps calling, and the far-off look
comes back, and she sits with her hands pressed together over her heart.
Then the tears begin to come into her eyes; and as she is ashamed to wipe
them away, and ashamed to let them run down her cheeks, she turns and
shakes her head a little, and then flushes red when she sees that Jurgis
is watching her. When in the end Tamoszius Kuszleika has reached her side,
and is waving his magic wand above her, Ona's cheeks are scarlet, and she
looks as if she would have to get up and run away.
In this crisis, however, she is saved by Marija Berczynskas, whom the
muses suddenly visit. Marija is fond of a song, a song of lovers' parting;
she wishes to hear it, and, as the musicians do not know it, she has risen,
and is proceeding to teach them. Marija is short, but powerful in build.
She works in a canning factory, and all day long she handles cans of beef
that weigh fourteen pounds. She has a broad Slavic face, with prominent
red cheeks. When she opens her mouth, it is tragical, but you cannot help
thinking of a horse. She wears a blue flannel shirt-waist, which is now
rolled up at the sleeves, disclosing her brawny arms; she has a carving
fork in her hand, with which she pounds on the table to mark the time.
As she roars her song, in a voice of which it is enough to say that it
leaves no portion of the room vacant, the three musicians follow her,
laboriously and note by note, but averaging one note behind; thus they
toil through stanza after stanza of a lovesick swain's lamentation: --
"Sudiev' kvietkeli, tu brangiausis;
Sudiev' ir laime, man biednam,
Matau--paskyre teip Aukszcziausis,
Jog vargt ant svieto reik vienam!"
When the song is over, it is time for the speech, and old Dede Antanas
rises to his feet. Grandfather Anthony, Jurgis' father, is not more than
sixty years of age, but you would think that he was eighty. He has been
only six months in America, and the change has not done him good. In his
manhood he worked in a cotton mill, but then a coughing fell upon him,
and he had to leave; out in the country the trouble disappeared, but he
has been working in the pickle rooms at Durham's, and the breathing of
the cold, damp air all day has brought it back. Now as he rises he is
seized with a coughing fit, and holds himself by his chair and turns away
his wan and battered face until it passes.
Generally it is the custom for the speech at a veselija to be taken out
of one of the books and learned by heart; but in his youthful days Dede
Antanas used to be a scholar, and really make up all the love letters
of his friends. Now it is understood that he has composed an original
speech of congratulation and benediction, and this is one of the events
of the day. Even the boys, who are romping about the room, draw near and
listen, and some of the women sob and wipe their aprons in their eyes.
It is very solemn, for Antanas Rudkus has become possessed of the idea
that he has not much longer to stay with his children. His speech leaves
them all so tearful that one of the guests, Jokubas Szedvilas, who keeps
a delicatessen store on Halsted Street, and is fat and hearty, is moved
to rise and say that things may not be as bad as that, and then to go on
and make a little speech of his own, in which he showers congratulations
and prophecies of happiness upon the bride and groom, proceeding to
particulars which greatly delight the young men, but which cause Ona
to blush more furiously than ever. Jokubas possesses what his wife
complacently describes as "poetiszka vaidintuve"--a poetical imagination.
Now a good many of the guests have finished, and, since there is no
pretense of ceremony, the banquet begins to break up. Some of the men
gather about the bar; some wander about, laughing and singing; here and
there will be a little group, chanting merrily, and in sublime indifference
to the others and to the orchestra as well. Everybody is more or less
restless--one would guess that something is on their minds. And so it
proves. The last tardy diners are scarcely given time to finish, before
the tables and the debris are shoved into the corner, and the chairs and
the babies piled out of the way, and the real celebration of the evening
begins. Then Tamoszius Kuszleika, after replenishing himself with a pot
of beer, returns to his platform, and, standing up, reviews the scene;
he taps authoritatively upon the side of his violin, then tucks it
carefully under his chin, then waves his bow in an elaborate flourish,
and finally smites the sounding strings and closes his eyes, and floats
away in spirit upon the wings of a dreamy waltz. His companion follows,
but with his eyes open, watching where he treads, so to speak; and finally
Valentinavyczia, after waiting for a little and beating with his foot to
get the time, casts up his eyes to the ceiling and begins to saw--"Broom!
The company pairs off quickly, and the whole room is soon in motion.
Apparently nobody knows how to waltz, but that is nothing of any
consequence--there is music, and they dance, each as he pleases, just
as before they sang. Most of them prefer the "two-step," especially
the young, with whom it is the fashion. The older people have dances
from home, strange and complicated steps which they execute with grave
solemnity. Some do not dance anything at all, but simply hold each other's
hands and allow the undisciplined joy of motion to express itself with
their feet. Among these are Jokubas Szedvilas and his wife, Lucija, who
together keep the delicatessen store, and consume nearly as much as they
sell; they are too fat to dance, but they stand in the middle of the floor,
holding each other fast in their arms, rocking slowly from side to side and
grinning seraphically, a picture of toothless and perspiring ecstasy.
Of these older people many wear clothing reminiscent in some detail
of home--an embroidered waistcoat or stomacher, or a gaily colored
handkerchief, or a coat with large cuffs and fancy buttons. All these
things are carefully avoided by the young, most of whom have learned to
speak English and to affect the latest style of clothing. The girls wear
ready-made dresses or shirt waists, and some of them look quite pretty.
Some of the young men you would take to be Americans, of the type of
clerks, but for the fact that they wear their hats in the room. Each of
these younger couples affects a style of its own in dancing. Some hold
each other tightly, some at a cautious distance. Some hold their hands
out stiffly, some drop them loosely at their sides. Some dance springily,
some glide softly, some move with grave dignity. There are boisterous
couples, who tear wildly about the room, knocking every one out of
their way. There are nervous couples, whom these frighten, and who cry,
"Nusfok! Kas yra?" at them as they pass. Each couple is paired for the
evening--you will never see them change about. There is Alena Jasaityte,
for instance, who has danced unending hours with Juozas Raczius, to whom
she is engaged. Alena is the beauty of the evening, and she would be really
beautiful if she were not so proud. She wears a white shirtwaist, which
represents, perhaps, half a week's labor painting cans. She holds her skirt
with her hand as she dances, with stately precision, after the manner of the
grandes dames. Juozas is driving one of Durham's wagons, and is making big
wages. He affects a "tough" aspect, wearing his hat on one side and keeping
a cigarette in his mouth all the evening. Then there is Jadvyga Marcinkus,
who is also beautiful, but humble. Jadvyga likewise paints cans, but then
she has an invalid mother and three little sisters to support by it, and
so she does not spend her wages for shirtwaists. Jadvyga is small and
delicate, with jet-black eyes and hair, the latter twisted into a little
knot and tied on the top of her head. She wears an old white dress which
she has made herself and worn to parties for the past five years; it is
high-waisted--almost under her arms, and not very becoming,--but that
does not trouble Jadvyga, who is dancing with her Mikolas. She is small,
while he is big and powerful; she nestles in his arms as if she would hide
herself from view, and leans her head upon his shoulder. He in turn has
clasped his arms tightly around her, as if he would carry her away; and so
she dances, and will dance the entire evening, and would dance forever,
in ecstasy of bliss. You would smile, perhaps, to see them--but you would
not smile if you knew all the story. This is the fifth year, now, that
Jadvyga has been engaged to Mikolas, and her heart is sick. They would
have been married in the beginning, only Mikolas has a father who is drunk
all day, and he is the only other man in a large family. Even so they might
have managed it (for Mikolas is a skilled man) but for cruel accidents which
have almost taken the heart out of them. He is a beef-boner, and that is
a dangerous trade, especially when you are on piecework and trying to earn
a bride. Your hands are slippery, and your knife is slippery, and you are
toiling like mad, when somebody happens to speak to you, or you strike a
bone. Then your hand slips up on the blade, and there is a fearful gash.
And that would not be so bad, only for the deadly contagion. The cut may
heal, but you never can tell. Twice now; within the last three years,
Mikolas has been lying at home with blood poisoning--once for three months
and once for nearly seven. The last time, too, he lost his job, and that
meant six weeks more of standing at the doors of the packing houses, at six
o'clock on bitter winter mornings, with a foot of snow on the ground and
more in the air. There are learned people who can tell you out of the
statistics that beef-boners make forty cents an hour, but, perhaps, these
people have never looked into a beef-boner's hands.
When Tamoszius and his companions stop for a rest, as perforce they
must, now and then, the dancers halt where they are and wait patiently.
They never seem to tire; and there is no place for them to sit down if
they did. It is only for a minute, anyway, for the leader starts up
again, in spite of all the protests of the other two. This time it
is another sort of a dance, a Lithuanian dance. Those who prefer to,
go on with the two-step, but the majority go through an intricate series
of motions, resembling more fancy skating than a dance. The climax of
it is a furious prestissimo, at which the couples seize hands and begin
a mad whirling. This is quite irresistible, and every one in the room
joins in, until the place becomes a maze of flying skirts and bodies
quite dazzling to look upon. But the sight of sights at this moment
is Tamoszius Kuszleika. The old fiddle squeaks and shrieks in protest,
but Tamoszius has no mercy. The sweat starts out on his forehead, and he
bends over like a cyclist on the last lap of a race. His body shakes and
throbs like a runaway steam engine, and the ear cannot follow the flying
showers of notes--there is a pale blue mist where you look to see his
bowing arm. With a most wonderful rush he comes to the end of the tune,
and flings up his hands and staggers back exhausted; and with a final
shout of delight the dancers fly apart, reeling here and there, bringing
up against the walls of the room.
After this there is beer for every one, the musicians included, and the
revelers take a long breath and prepare for the great event of the
evening, which is the acziavimas. The acziavimas is a ceremony which,
once begun, will continue for three or four hours, and it involves one
uninterrupted dance. The guests form a great ring, locking hands, and,
when the music starts up, begin to move around in a circle. In the center
stands the bride, and, one by one, the men step into the enclosure and
dance with her. Each dances for several minutes--as long as he pleases;
it is a very merry proceeding, with laughter and singing, and when the
guest has finished, he finds himself face to face with Teta Elzbieta,
who holds the hat. Into it he drops a sum of money--a dollar, or perhaps
five dollars, according to his power, and his estimate of the value of
the privilege. The guests are expected to pay for this entertainment;
if they be proper guests, they will see that there is a neat sum left over
for the bride and bridegroom to start life upon.
Most fearful they are to contemplate, the expenses of this entertainment.
They will certainly be over two hundred dollars and maybe three hundred;
and three hundred dollars is more than the year's income of many a person
in this room. There are able-bodied men here who work from early morning
until late at night, in ice-cold cellars with a quarter of an inch of
water on the floor--men who for six or seven months in the year never
see the sunlight from Sunday afternoon till the next Sunday morning--
and who cannot earn three hundred dollars in a year. There are little
children here, scarce in their teens, who can hardly see the top of the
work benches--whose parents have lied to get them their places--and who
do not make the half of three hundred dollars a year, and perhaps not
even the third of it. And then to spend such a sum, all in a single day
of your life, at a wedding feast! (For obviously it is the same thing,
whether you spend it at once for your own wedding, or in a long time,
at the weddings of all your friends.)
The Jungle Chapter 1 - part 2