From The Jungle
Promptly at seven the next morning Jurgis reported for work. He came to
the door that had been pointed out to him, and there he waited for nearly
two hours. The boss had meant for him to enter, but had not said this,
and so it was only when on his way out to hire another man that he came
upon Jurgis. He gave him a good cursing, but as Jurgis did not understand
a word of it he did not object. He followed the boss, who showed him
where to put his street clothes, and waited while he donned the working
clothes he had bought in a secondhand shop and brought with him in a
bundle; then he led him to the "killing beds." The work which Jurgis was
to do here was very simple, and it took him but a few minutes to learn it.
He was provided with a stiff besom, such as is used by street sweepers,
and it was his place to follow down the line the man who drew out the
smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer; this mass was to be swept
into a trap, which was then closed, so that no one might slip into it.
As Jurgis came in, the first cattle of the morning were just making their
appearance; and so, with scarcely time to look about him, and none to
speak to any one, he fell to work. It was a sweltering day in July,
and the place ran with steaming hot blood--one waded in it on the floor.
The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing. His
whole soul was dancing with joy--he was at work at last! He was at work
and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself. He was paid
the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour; and as it proved
a rush day and he worked until nearly seven o'clock in the evening, he went
home to the family with the tidings that he had earned more than a dollar
and a half in a single day!
At home, also, there was more good news; so much of it at once that there
was quite a celebration in Aniele's hall bedroom. Jonas had been to have
an interview with the special policeman to whom Szedvilas had introduced
him, and had been taken to see several of the bosses, with the result that
one had promised him a job the beginning of the next week. And then there
was Marija Berczynskas, who, fired with jealousy by the success of Jurgis,
had set out upon her own responsibility to get a place. Marija had nothing
to take with her save her two brawny arms and the word "job," laboriously
learned; but with these she had marched about Packingtown all day, entering
every door where there were signs of activity. Out of some she had been
ordered with curses; but Marija was not afraid of man or devil, and asked
every one she saw--visitors and strangers, or workpeople like herself,
and once or twice even high and lofty office personages, who stared at
her as if they thought she was crazy. In the end, however, she had reaped
her reward. In one of the smaller plants she had stumbled upon a room
where scores of women and girls were sitting at long tables preparing
smoked beef in cans; and wandering through room after room, Marija came
at last to the place where the sealed cans were being painted and labeled,
and here she had the good fortune to encounter the "forelady." Marija did
not understand then, as she was destined to understand later, what there
was attractive to a "forelady" about the combination of a face full of
boundless good nature and the muscles of a dray horse; but the woman had
told her to come the next day and she would perhaps give her a chance to
learn the trade of painting cans. The painting of cans being skilled
piecework, and paying as much as two dollars a day, Marija burst in upon
the family with the yell of a Comanche Indian, and fell to capering about
the room so as to frighten the baby almost into convulsions.
Better luck than all this could hardly have been hoped for; there was only
one of them left to seek a place. Jurgis was determined that Teta Elzbieta
should stay at home to keep house, and that Ona should help her. He would
not have Ona working--he was not that sort of a man, he said, and she was
not that sort of a woman. It would be a strange thing if a man like him
could not support the family, with the help of the board of Jonas and
Marija. He would not even hear of letting the children go to work--there
were schools here in America for children, Jurgis had heard, to which
they could go for nothing. That the priest would object to these schools
was something of which he had as yet no idea, and for the present his mind
was made up that the children of Teta Elzbieta should have as fair a chance
as any other children. The oldest of them, little Stanislovas, was but
thirteen, and small for his age at that; and while the oldest son of
Szedvilas was only twelve, and had worked for over a year at Jones's, Jurgis
would have it that Stanislovas should learn to speak English, and grow up
to be a skilled man.
So there was only old Dede Antanas; Jurgis would have had him rest too,
but he was forced to acknowledge that this was not possible, and, besides,
the old man would not hear it spoken of--it was his whim to insist that
he was as lively as any boy. He had come to America as full of hope as
the best of them; and now he was the chief problem that worried his son.
For every one that Jurgis spoke to assured him that it was a waste of time
to seek employment for the old man in Packingtown. Szedvilas told him
that the packers did not even keep the men who had grown old in their
own service--to say nothing of taking on new ones. And not only was it
the rule here, it was the rule everywhere in America, so far as he knew.
To satisfy Jurgis he had asked the policeman, and brought back the message
that the thing was not to be thought of. They had not told this to old
Anthony, who had consequently spent the two days wandering about from
one part of the yards to another, and had now come home to hear about
the triumph of the others, smiling bravely and saying that it would be
his turn another day.
Their good luck, they felt, had given them the right to think about
a home; and sitting out on the doorstep that summer evening, they held
consultation about it, and Jurgis took occasion to broach a weighty
subject. Passing down the avenue to work that morning he had seen two
boys leaving an advertisement from house to house; and seeing that there
were pictures upon it, Jurgis had asked for one, and had rolled it up and
tucked it into his shirt. At noontime a man with whom he had been talking
had read it to him and told him a little about it, with the result that
Jurgis had conceived a wild idea.
He brought out the placard, which was quite a work of art. It was nearly
two feet long, printed on calendered paper, with a selection of colors so
bright that they shone even in the moonlight. The center of the placard
was occupied by a house, brilliantly painted, new, and dazzling. The roof
of it was of a purple hue, and trimmed with gold; the house itself was
silvery, and the doors and windows red. It was a two-story building, with
a porch in front, and a very fancy scrollwork around the edges; it was
complete in every tiniest detail, even the doorknob, and there was a
hammock on the porch and white lace curtains in the windows. Underneath
this, in one corner, was a picture of a husband and wife in loving embrace;
in the opposite corner was a cradle, with fluffy curtains drawn over it,
and a smiling cherub hovering upon silver-colored wings. For fear that
the significance of all this should be lost, there was a label, in Polish,
Lithuanian, and German--"Dom. Namai. Heim." "Why pay rent?" the
linguistic circular went on to demand. "Why not own your own home?
Do you know that you can buy one for less than your rent? We have built
thousands of homes which are now occupied by happy families."--So it became
eloquent, picturing the blissfulness of married life in a house with
nothing to pay. It even quoted "Home, Sweet Home," and made bold to
translate it into Polish--though for some reason it omitted the Lithuanian
of this. Perhaps the translator found it a difficult matter to be
sentimental in a language in which a sob is known as a gukcziojimas and
a smile as a nusiszypsojimas.
Over this document the family pored long, while Ona spelled out its contents.
It appeared that this house contained four rooms, besides a basement, and
that it might be bought for fifteen hundred dollars, the lot and all.
Of this, only three hundred dollars had to be paid down, the balance being
paid at the rate of twelve dollars a month. These were frightful sums,
but then they were in America, where people talked about such without fear.
They had learned that they would have to pay a rent of nine dollars a month
for a flat, and there was no way of doing better, unless the family of
twelve was to exist in one or two rooms, as at present. If they paid rent,
of course, they might pay forever, and be no better off; whereas, if they
could only meet the extra expense in the beginning, there would at last
come a time when they would not have any rent to pay for the rest of
They figured it up. There was a little left of the money belonging to
Teta Elzbieta, and there was a little left to Jurgis. Marija had about
fifty dollars pinned up somewhere in her stockings, and Grandfather Anthony
had part of the money he had gotten for his farm. If they all combined,
they would have enough to make the first payment; and if they had
employment, so that they could be sure of the future, it might really
prove the best plan. It was, of course, not a thing even to be talked
of lightly; it was a thing they would have to sift to the bottom. And yet,
on the other hand, if they were going to make the venture, the sooner they
did it the better, for were they not paying rent all the time, and living
in a most horrible way besides? Jurgis was used to dirt--there was nothing
could scare a man who had been with a railroad gang, where one could gather
up the fleas off the floor of the sleeping room by the handful. But that
sort of thing would not do for Ona. They must have a better place of some
sort soon--Jurgis said it with all the assurance of a man who had just
made a dollar and fifty-seven cents in a single day. Jurgis was at a loss
to understand why, with wages as they were, so many of the people of this
district should live the way they did.
The next day Marija went to see her "forelady," and was told to report
the first of the week, and learn the business of can-painter. Marija went
home, singing out loud all the way, and was just in time to join Ona and
her stepmother as they were setting out to go and make inquiry concerning
the house. That evening the three made their report to the men--the thing
was altogether as represented in the circular, or at any rate so the agent
had said. The houses lay to the south, about a mile and a half from the
yards; they were wonderful bargains, the gentleman had assured them--
personally, and for their own good. He could do this, so he explained
to them, for the reason that he had himself no interest in their sale--
he was merely the agent for a company that had built them. These were
the last, and the company was going out of business, so if any one wished
to take advantage of this wonderful no-rent plan, he would have to be
very quick. As a matter of fact there was just a little uncertainty as
to whether there was a single house left; for the agent had taken so many
people to see them, and for all he knew the company might have parted with
the last. Seeing Teta Elzbieta's evident grief at this news, he added,
after some hesitation, that if they really intended to make a purchase,
he would send a telephone message at his own expense, and have one of the
houses kept. So it had finally been arranged--and they were to go and
make an inspection the following Sunday morning.
That was Thursday; and all the rest of the week the killing gang at
Brown's worked at full pressure, and Jurgis cleared a dollar seventy-
five every day. That was at the rate of ten and one-half dollars a week,
or forty-five a month. Jurgis was not able to figure, except it was a
very simple sum, but Ona was like lightning at such things, and she worked
out the problem for the family. Marija and Jonas were each to pay sixteen
dollars a month board, and the old man insisted that he could do the same
as soon as he got a place--which might be any day now. That would make
ninety-three dollars. Then Marija and Jonas were between them to take a
third share in the house, which would leave only eight dollars a month
for Jurgis to contribute to the payment. So they would have eighty-five
dollars a month--or, supposing that Dede Antanas did not get work at once,
seventy dollars a month--which ought surely to be sufficient for the
support of a family of twelve.
An hour before the time on Sunday morning the entire party set out.
They had the address written on a piece of paper, which they showed to
some one now and then. It proved to be a long mile and a half, but they
walked it, and half an hour or so later the agent put in an appearance.
He was a smooth and florid personage, elegantly dressed, and he spoke
their language freely, which gave him a great advantage in dealing with
them. He escorted them to the house, which was one of a long row of the
typical frame dwellings of the neighborhood, where architecture is a
luxury that is dispensed with. Ona's heart sank, for the house was not
as it was shown in the picture; the color scheme was different, for one
thing, and then it did not seem quite so big. Still, it was freshly
painted, and made a considerable show. It was all brand-new, so the
agent told them, but he talked so incessantly that they were quite
confused, and did not have time to ask many questions. There were all
sorts of things they had made up their minds to inquire about, but when
the time came, they either forgot them or lacked the courage. The other
houses in the row did not seem to be new, and few of them seemed to be
occupied. When they ventured to hint at this, the agent's reply was that
the purchasers would be moving in shortly. To press the matter would have
seemed to be doubting his word, and never in their lives had any one of
them ever spoken to a person of the class called "gentleman" except with
deference and humility.
The house had a basement, about two feet below the street line, and a
single story, about six feet above it, reached by a flight of steps.
In addition there was an attic, made by the peak of the roof, and having
one small window in each end. The street in front of the house was
unpaved and unlighted, and the view from it consisted of a few exactly
similar houses, scattered here and there upon lots grown up with dingy
brown weeds. The house inside contained four rooms, plastered white;
the basement was but a frame, the walls being unplastered and the floor
not laid. The agent explained that the houses were built that way, as the
purchasers generally preferred to finish the basements to suit their own
taste. The attic was also unfinished--the family had been figuring that
in case of an emergency they could rent this attic, but they found that
there was not even a floor, nothing but joists, and beneath them the lath
and plaster of the ceiling below. All of this, however, did not chill
their ardor as much as might have been expected, because of the volubility
of the agent. There was no end to the advantages of the house, as he
set them forth, and he was not silent for an instant; he showed them
everything, down to the locks on the doors and the catches on the windows,
and how to work them. He showed them the sink in the kitchen, with
running water and a faucet, something which Teta Elzbieta had never in
her wildest dreams hoped to possess. After a discovery such as that it
would have seemed ungrateful to find any fault, and so they tried to shut
their eyes to other defects.
Still, they were peasant people, and they hung on to their money by
instinct; it was quite in vain that the agent hinted at promptness--
they would see, they would see, they told him, they could not decide until
they had had more time. And so they went home again, and all day and
evening there was figuring and debating. It was an agony to them to have
to make up their minds in a matter such as this. They never could agree
all together; there were so many arguments upon each side, and one would
be obstinate, and no sooner would the rest have convinced him than it
would transpire that his arguments had caused another to waver. Once,
in the evening, when they were all in harmony, and the house was as good
as bought, Szedvilas came in and upset them again. Szedvilas had no use
for property owning. He told them cruel stories of people who had been
done to death in this "buying a home" swindle. They would be almost sure
to get into a tight place and lose all their money; and there was no end
of expense that one could never foresee; and the house might be good-for-
nothing from top to bottom--how was a poor man to know? Then, too, they
would swindle you with the contract--and how was a poor man to understand
anything about a contract? It was all nothing but robbery, and there was
no safety but in keeping out of it. And pay rent? asked Jurgis. Ah, yes,
to be sure, the other answered, that too was robbery. It was all robbery,
for a poor man. After half an hour of such depressing conversation, they
had their minds quite made up that they had been saved at the brink of a
precipice; but then Szedvilas went away, and Jonas, who was a sharp little
man, reminded them that the delicatessen business was a failure, according
to its proprietor, and that this might account for his pessimistic views.
Which, of course, reopened the subject!
The controlling factor was that they could not stay where they were--they
had to go somewhere. And when they gave up the house plan and decided
to rent, the prospect of paying out nine dollars a month forever they
found just as hard to face. All day and all night for nearly a whole
week they wrestled with the problem, and then in the end Jurgis took the
responsibility. Brother Jonas had gotten his job, and was pushing a truck
in Durham's; and the killing gang at Brown's continued to work early and
late, so that Jurgis grew more confident every hour, more certain of his
mastership. It was the kind of thing the man of the family had to decide
and carry through, he told himself. Others might have failed at it, but he
was not the failing kind--he would show them how to do it. He would work
all day, and all night, too, if need be; he would never rest until the
house was paid for and his people had a home. So he told them, and so in
the end the decision was made.
They had talked about looking at more houses before they made the purchase;
but then they did not know where any more were, and they did not know any
way of finding out. The one they had seen held the sway in their thoughts;
whenever they thought of themselves in a house, it was this house that
they thought of. And so they went and told the agent that they were ready
to make the agreement. They knew, as an abstract proposition, that in
matters of business all men are to be accounted liars; but they could not
but have been influenced by all they had heard from the eloquent agent,
and were quite persuaded that the house was something they had run a risk
of losing by their delay. They drew a deep breath when he told them that
they were still in time.
They were to come on the morrow, and he would have the papers all
drawn up. This matter of papers was one in which Jurgis understood
to the full the need of caution; yet he could not go himself--every one
told him that he could not get a holiday, and that he might lose his job
by asking. So there was nothing to be done but to trust it to the women,
with Szedvilas, who promised to go with them. Jurgis spent a whole
evening impressing upon them the seriousness of the occasion--and then
finally, out of innumerable hiding places about their persons and in their
baggage, came forth the precious wads of money, to be done up tightly in a
little bag and sewed fast in the lining of Teta Elzbieta's dress.
Early in the morning they sallied forth. Jurgis had given them so many
instructions and warned them against so many perils, that the women were
quite pale with fright, and even the imperturbable delicatessen vender,
who prided himself upon being a businessman, was ill at ease. The agent
had the deed all ready, and invited them to sit down and read it; this
Szedvilas proceeded to do--a painful and laborious process, during which
the agent drummed upon the desk. Teta Elzbieta was so embarrassed that
the perspiration came out upon her forehead in beads; for was not this
reading as much as to say plainly to the gentleman's face that they
doubted his honesty? Yet Jokubas Szedvilas read on and on; and presently
there developed that he had good reason for doing so. For a horrible
suspicion had begun dawning in his mind; he knitted his brows more and
more as he read. This was not a deed of sale at all, so far as he could
see--it provided only for the renting of the property! It was hard to
tell, with all this strange legal jargon, words he had never heard before;
but was not this plain--"the party of the first part hereby covenants and
agrees to rent to the said party of the second part!" And then again--
"a monthly rental of twelve dollars, for a period of eight years and four
months!" Then Szedvilas took off his spectacles, and looked at the agent,
and stammered a question.
The agent was most polite, and explained that that was the usual formula;
that it was always arranged that the property should be merely rented.
He kept trying to show them something in the next paragraph; but Szedvilas
could not get by the word "rental"--and when he translated it to Teta
Elzbieta, she too was thrown into a fright. They would not own the home
at all, then, for nearly nine years! The agent, with infinite patience,
began to explain again; but no explanation would do now. Elzbieta had
firmly fixed in her mind the last solemn warning of Jurgis: "If there is
anything wrong, do not give him the money, but go out and get a lawyer."
It was an agonizing moment, but she sat in the chair, her hands clenched
like death, and made a fearful effort, summoning all her powers, and gasped
out her purpose.
Jokubas translated her words. She expected the agent to fly into a
passion, but he was, to her bewilderment, as ever imperturbable; he even
offered to go and get a lawyer for her, but she declined this. They went
a long way, on purpose to find a man who would not be a confederate.
Then let any one imagine their dismay, when, after half an hour, they
came in with a lawyer, and heard him greet the agent by his first name!
They felt that all was lost; they sat like prisoners summoned to hear
the reading of their death warrant. There was nothing more that they
could do--they were trapped! The lawyer read over the deed, and when
he had read it he informed Szedvilas that it was all perfectly regular,
that the deed was a blank deed such as was often used in these sales.
And was the price as agreed? the old man asked--three hundred dollars
down, and the balance at twelve dollars a month, till the total of
fifteen hundred dollars had been paid? Yes, that was correct. And it
was for the sale of such and such a house--the house and lot and everything?
Yes,--and the lawyer showed him where that was all written. And it was
all perfectly regular--there were no tricks about it of any sort? They
were poor people, and this was all they had in the world, and if there
was anything wrong they would be ruined. And so Szedvilas went on,
asking one trembling question after another, while the eyes of the women
folks were fixed upon him in mute agony. They could not understand what
he was saying, but they knew that upon it their fate depended. And when
at last he had questioned until there was no more questioning to be done,
and the time came for them to make up their minds, and either close the
bargain or reject it, it was all that poor Teta Elzbieta could do to keep
from bursting into tears. Jokubas had asked her if she wished to sign;
he had asked her twice--and what could she say? How did she know if this
lawyer were telling the truth--that he was not in the conspiracy? And yet,
how could she say so--what excuse could she give? The eyes of every one
in the room were upon her, awaiting her decision; and at last, half blind
with her tears, she began fumbling in her jacket, where she had pinned the
precious money. And she brought it out and unwrapped it before the men.
All of this Ona sat watching, from a corner of the room, twisting her
hands together, meantime, in a fever of fright. Ona longed to cry out
and tell her stepmother to stop, that it was all a trap; but there seemed
to be something clutching her by the throat, and she could not make a sound.
And so Teta Elzbieta laid the money on the table, and the agent picked it
up and counted it, and then wrote them a receipt for it and passed them
the deed. Then he gave a sigh of satisfaction, and rose and shook hands
with them all, still as smooth and polite as at the beginning. Ona had
a dim recollection of the lawyer telling Szedvilas that his charge was a
dollar, which occasioned some debate, and more agony; and then, after they
had paid that, too, they went out into the street, her stepmother clutching
the deed in her hand. They were so weak from fright that they could not
walk, but had to sit down on the way.
So they went home, with a deadly terror gnawing at their souls; and that
evening Jurgis came home and heard their story, and that was the end.
Jurgis was sure that they had been swindled, and were ruined; and he
tore his hair and cursed like a madman, swearing that he would kill
the agent that very night. In the end he seized the paper and rushed
out of the house, and all the way across the yards to Halsted Street.
He dragged Szedvilas out from his supper, and together they rushed to
consult another lawyer. When they entered his office the lawyer sprang up,
for Jurgis looked like a crazy person, with flying hair and bloodshot eyes.
His companion explained the situation, and the lawyer took the paper and
began to read it, while Jurgis stood clutching the desk with knotted hands,
trembling in every nerve.
Once or twice the lawyer looked up and asked a question of Szedvilas;
the other did not know a word that he was saying, but his eyes were
fixed upon the lawyer's face, striving in an agony of dread to read
his mind. He saw the lawyer look up and laugh, and he gave a gasp;
the man said something to Szedvilas, and Jurgis turned upon his friend,
his heart almost stopping.
"Well?" he panted.
"He says it is all right," said Szedvilas.
"Yes, he says it is just as it should be." And Jurgis, in his relief,
sank down into a chair.
"Are you sure of it?" he gasped, and made Szedvilas translate question
after question. He could not hear it often enough; he could not ask
with enough variations. Yes, they had bought the house, they had really
bought it. It belonged to them, they had only to pay the money and it
would be all right. Then Jurgis covered his face with his hands, for
there were tears in his eyes, and he felt like a fool. But he had had
such a horrible fright; strong man as he was, it left him almost too weak
to stand up.
The lawyer explained that the rental was a form--the property was said
to be merely rented until the last payment had been made, the purpose
being to make it easier to turn the party out if he did not make the
payments. So long as they paid, however, they had nothing to fear, the
house was all theirs.
Jurgis was so grateful that he paid the half dollar the lawyer asked
without winking an eyelash, and then rushed home to tell the news to
the family. He found Ona in a faint and the babies screaming, and the
whole house in an uproar--for it had been believed by all that he had
gone to murder the agent. It was hours before the excitement could be
calmed; and all through that cruel night Jurgis would wake up now and
then and hear Ona and her stepmother in the next room, sobbing softly
The Jungle Chapter 5