Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
The Octopus

By Frank Norris

(The young American novelist, 1870–1902, planned this as the first of a trilogy of novels, the “Epic of the Wheat.” The second volume, “The Pit,” was written, but his death interrupted the third. The present story narrates the long struggle between the farmers of the San Joaquin valley and the railroad “octopus.” The farmers have been beaten, and several of them killed while resisting eviction from their homes. The hero is at a dinner party in San Francisco, at the same time that the widow and child of one of the victims are wandering the streets outside)
ALL around the table conversations were going forward gayly. The good wines had broken up the slight restraint of the early part of the evening and a spirit of good humor and good fellowship prevailed. Young Lambery and Mr. Gerard were deep in reminiscences of certain mutual duck-shooting expeditions. Mrs. Gerard and Mrs. Cedarquist discussed a novel—a strange mingling of psychology, degeneracy, and analysis of erotic conditions—which had just been translated from the Italian. Stephen Lambert and Beatrice disputed over the merits of a Scotch collie just given to the young lady. The scene was gay, the electric bulbs sparkled, the wine flashing back the light. The entire table was a vague glow of white napery, delicate china, and glass as brilliant as crystal. Behind the guests the serving-men came and went, filling the glasses continually, changing the covers, serving the entrées, managing the dinner without interruption, confusion, or the slightest unnecessary noise.  1
  But Presley could find no enjoyment in the occasion. From that picture of feasting, that scene of luxury, that atmosphere of decorous, well-bred refinement, his thoughts went back to Los Muertos and Quien Sabe and the irrigating ditch at Hooven’s. He saw them fall, one by one, Harran, Annixter, Osterman, Broderson, Hooven. The clink of the wine glasses was drowned in the explosion of revolvers. The Railroad might indeed be a force only, which no man could control and for which no man was responsible, but his friends had been killed, but years of extortion and oppression had wrung money from all the San Joaquin, money that had made possible this very scene in which he found himself. Because Magnus had been beggared, Gerard had become Railroad King; because the farmers of the valley were poor, these men were rich.  2
  The fancy grew big in his mind, distorted, caricatured, terrible. Because the farmers had been killed at the irrigating ditch, these others, Gerard and his family, fed full. They fattened on the blood of the People, on the blood of the men who had been killed at the ditch. It was a half-ludicrous, half-horrible “dog eat dog,” an unspeakable cannibalism. Harran, Annixter, and Hooven were being devoured there under his eyes. These dainty women, his cousin Beatrice and little Miss Gerard, frail, delicate; all these fine ladies with their small fingers and slender necks, suddenly were transfigured in his tortured mind into harpies tearing human flesh. His head swam with the horror of it, the terror of it. Yes, the People would turn some day, and, turning, rend those who now preyed upon them. It would be “dog eat dog” again, with positions reversed, and he saw for an instant of time that splendid house sacked to its foundations, the tables overturned, the pictures torn, the hangings blazing, and Liberty, the red-handed Man in the Street, grimed with powder smoke, foul with the gutter, rush yelling, torch in hand, through every door.  3
  At ten o’clock Mrs. Hooven fell.  4
  Luckily she was leading Hilda by the hand at the time and the little girl was not hurt. In vain had Mrs. Hooven, hour after hour, walked the streets. After a while she no longer made any attempt to beg; nobody was stirring, nor did she even try to hunt for food with the stray dogs and cats. She had made up her mind to return to the park in order to sit upon the benches there, but she had mistaken the direction, and, following up Sacramento Street, had come out at length, not upon the park, but upon a great vacant lot at the very top of the Clay Street hill. The ground was unfenced and rose above her to form the cap of the hill, all overgrown with bushes and a few stunted live-oaks. It was in trying to cross this piece of ground that she fell.…  5
  “You going to sleep, mammy?” inquired Hilda, touching her face.  6
  Mrs. Hooven roused herself a little.  7
  “Hey? Vat you say? Asleep? Yais, I guess I wass asleep.”  8
  Her voice trailed unintelligibly to silence again. She was not, however, asleep. Her eyes were open. A grateful numbness had begun to creep over her, a pleasing semi-insensibility. She no longer felt the pain and cramps of her stomach, even the hunger was ceasing to bite.  9
  “These stuffed artichokes are delicious, Mrs. Gerard, murmured young Lambert, wiping his lips with a corner of his napkin. “Pardon me for mentioning it, but your dinner must be my excuse.”  10
  “And this asparagus—since Mr. Lambert has set the bad example,” observed Mrs. Cedarquist, “so delicate, such an exquisite flavor. How do you manage?”  11
  “We get all our asparagus from the southern part of the State, from one particular ranch,” explained Mrs. Gerard. “We order it by wire and get it only twenty hours after cutting. My husband sees to it that it is put on a special train. It stops at this ranch just to take on our asparagus. Extravagant, isn’t it, but I simply can not eat asparagus that has been cut more than a day.”  12
  “Nor I,” exclaimed Julian Lambert, who posed as an epicure. “I can tell to an hour just how long asparagus has been picked.”  13
  “Fancy eating ordinary market asparagus,” said Mrs. Gerard, “that has been fingered by Heaven knows how many hands.”  14
  “Mammy, mammy, wake up,” cried Hilda, trying to push open Mrs. Hooven’s eyelids, at last closed. “Mammy, don’t. You’re just trying to frighten me.”  15
  Feebly Hilda shook her by the shoulder. At last Mrs. Hooven’s lips stirred. Putting her head down, Hilda distinguished the whispered words:  16
  “I’m sick. Go to schleep.… Sick.… Noddings to eat.”  17
  The dessert was a wonderful preparation of alternate layers of biscuit, glacés, ice cream, and candied chestnuts.  18
  “Delicious, is it not?” observed Julian Lambert, partly to himself, partly to Miss Cedarquist. “This Moscovite fouetté—upon my word, I have never tasted its equal.”  19
  “And you should know, shouldn’t you?” returned the young lady.  20
  “Mammy, mammy, wake up,” cried Hilda. “Don’t sleep so. I’m frightened.”  21
  Repeatedly she shook her; repeatedly she tried to raise the inert eyelids with the point of her finger. But her mother no longer stirred. The gaunt, lean body, with its bony face and sunken eye-sockets, lay back, prone upon the ground, the feet upturned and showing the ragged, worn soles of the shoes, the forehead and gray hair beaded with fog, the poor, faded bonnet awry, the poor, faded dress soiled and torn.  22
  Hilda drew close to her mother, kissing her face, twining her arms around her neck. For a long time she lay that way, alternately sobbing and sleeping. Then, after a long time, there was a stir. She woke from a doze to find a police officer and two or three other men bending over her. Some one carried a lantern. Terrified, smitten dumb, she was unable to answer the questions put to her. Then a woman, evidently the mistress of the house on the top of the hill, arrived and took Hilda in her arms and cried over her.  23
  “I’ll take the little girl,” she said to the police officer. “But the mother, can you save her? Is she too far gone?”  24
  “I’ve sent for a doctor,” replied the other.  25
  Just before the ladies left the table, young Lambert raised his glass of Madeira. Turning towards the wife of the Railroad King, he said:  26
  “My best compliments for a delightful dinner.”  27
  The doctor, who had been bending over Mrs. Hooven, rose.  28
  “It’s no use,” he said; “she has been dead some time—exhaustion from starvation.”  29

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